Jack Smight

Director specialising in the macabre
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The Independent Online

Jack Smight, film director: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 9 March 1925; married Joyce Cunning (died 2002; two sons); died Los Angeles 1 September 2003.

The director Jack Smight had acquired a fine reputation from his work on television shows by the time he graduated to making movies but, with a few notable exceptions, his work for the big screen lacked the dynamism and flair required for true distinction.

He was happiest when dealing with the off-beat and macabre, such as the two films he made with Rod Steiger, No Way to Treat a Lady and The Illustrated Man, plus the weird black comedy The Travelling Executioner. "I love movies with a surprise around every corner," he once said. For television, he made a much-lauded version of the Frankenstein legend, but when dealing with genre movies such as thrillers or romantic comedies he seemed happy to coast and let the scripts and casts dictate the results. "With all the technicians and equipment at your disposal," he told The Los Angeles Times in 1968,

it's such a temptation to indulge youself. You've got to be careful not to be like a woman putting on too much jewellery.

On such large-scale productions as Airport '75 and Midway he was unable to overcome the clichéd screenplays and obvious budgetary restrictions, but many top stars liked working with him, including Steiger, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston. The actor Peter Graves, a longtime friend from college days, said,

He started out as an actor, so he understood actors. He was also a very intelligent, literate man who knew how to communicate with the writers.

Smight's reputation for adhering strictly to schedules and budgets also pleased the film companies.

Born in Minneapolis in 1925 to Irish Catholic immigrants, he graduated from Cretin High School before joining the Army Air Force during the Second World War. After the war, he majored in drama at the University of Minnesota, then moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting, at one point taking a job parking cars. In the early 1950s, he entered television as an assistant director, graduating to director in 1957.

In 1959 he won an Emmy for his direction of the hour-long play Eddie, which starred Mickey Rooney. He directed episodes for The Twilight Zone (1960-61), including "The Night of the Meek", starring Art Carney as an ersatz Santa Claus, and for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-63), notably "The Paragon", from a story by Rebecca West, in which Joan Fontaine played a meddlesome wife intent on improving the lives of those around her: when she ignores her husband's pleas that she is alienating all his friends, he poisons her.

Smight's first feature film was I'd Rather Be Rich (1964), a remake of Henry Koster's sparkling 1940 comedy It Started with Eve, one of Deanna Durbin's most delightful films. The later version, starring Sandra Dee and Maurice Chevalier, could be considered standard Smight, an amiable, pleasing enough piece but singularly lacking in élan.

After a fair thriller about an amnesiac, The Third Day (1965), which he also produced, Smight was given a major production, Harper (1965), starring Paul Newman as Lew Harper, the private-eye hero of Ross Macdonald's Chandleresque crime novel The Moving Target (the film's title in the UK). Made at a time when such fare was thin on the ground, and given a terrific supporting cast (Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin), it did very well at the box office, though it failed to catch the mood of the 1940s thrillers (particularly The Big Sleep) it tried to emulate.

Newman and Smight worked together again on The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968), a comedy about prisoners of war in the Second World War. Smight's direction of his star failed to dispel the widely held opinion that Newman was not a comedy natural.

No Way to Treat a Lady (1968), an audacious black comedy about a psychopathic serial killer (Rod Steiger) who adopts outlandish disguises in order to carry out his crimes, was far better. Smight seemed inspired by its outlandish mixture of farce, horror, romance and satire, making sure the pace never flagged, handling the mood changes smoothly and getting fine performances from Steiger and his co-stars, George Segal as a detective with a domineering mother (Eileen Heckart), and Lee Remick as a witness with whom Segal falls in love.

Smight's second film with Steiger, The Illustrated Man (1969), was a sober version of Ray Bradbury's book. Co-starring with his wife at the time, Claire Bloom, Steiger gave an intense performance as a man whose body is covered in tattooes which when stared at conjure up bizarre stories, but the episodic narrative and bleak mood of the film did not make it popular.

Smight then both produced and directed another quirky tale, The Travelling Executioner (1970), starring Stacy Keach as the owner of a portable electric chair, with which he travels around the country in 1918 offering himself for hire as an executioner at $100 per customer. Loosely based on fact, it was a very black comedy that has gained a cult reputation, though audiences in 1970 were mystified.

Airport '75 (1974) was a sequel to the enormously successful Airport (1970), which had been written and directed by George Seaton. With an inferior, cliché-ridden screenplay and poor special effects, Smight's film had to rely on its title and starry cast, which included Charlton Heston, Karen Black, Gloria Swanson, Myrna Loy, Sid Caesar and (as a singing nun) Helen Reddy.

Midway (1976) was even more star-laden, with Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Toshiro Mifune, Glenn Ford and James Coburn in the cast. It also had the added gimmick of "sensurround", which added air vibrations to the soundtrack that made cinema seats vibrate along with the on-screen depiction of the famous battle.

Throughout his Hollywood career, Smight returned periodically to television, and in 1973 had one of his greatest critical successes with a TV movie, Frankenstein: the true story (given theatrical release in the UK). For this epic re-telling of Mary Shelley's classic horror story (the film runs 200 minutes), Smight assembled a truly marvellous cast, including James Mason, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Margaret Leighton and Agnes Moorehead, and had a fine, literate screenplay by Christopher Isherwood. One of its innovations was to have the creature played by a dashing young actor (Michael Sarrazin). The film is regarded as one of the most spectacular and successful versions of the much-interpreted tale, deserving the historian Leonard Maltin's description, "the thinking man's horror movie".

Smight's last film was a US-Swiss co-production, The Favorite (1989, also known as La Nuit du sérail), a little-seen piece of Oriental hokum starring F. Murray Abraham.

Tom Vallance