Obituary: Ben Maddow
Wednesday 14 October 1992
Although he wrote at least three classic Hollywood films, the career of Ben Maddow, thanks in the main to the House Un-American Activities Committee, tailed off disappointingly.
He decided to become a writer while at college; a book of verse he wrote at Columbia University won the Knopf Prize for student poetry. Soon after graduating from Columbia, Maddow became associated with the sociopolitical documentary movement, co-writing (under the pseudonym David Wolff) the 1942 film about racism Native Land. During the Second World War he made training films for the Air Force Motion Picture Unit, often, ironically, employing the future HUAC friendly witness Ronald Reagan.
In the late 1940s Maddow began writing Hollywood screenplays, starting at Columbia Pictures with Framed, an undistinguished Glenn Ford murder-for-insurance melodrama which one unimpressed critic said should have been called Single Indemnity.
He then moved over to Universal to co- script (with Walter Bernstein, another future blacklistee) Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, the Burt Lancaster / Joan Fontaine / Robert Newton thriller that Maddow later described as 'a terrible film with a most ridiculous title'. (Despite his distaste for the film, it was a financial success and has become something of a cult movie.) More to Maddow's taste was The Man from Colorado (1949), in which he and his collaborator Robert D. Andrews used the unlikely form of the western to deal with the then timely subject of post-battle trauma. The powerful story of an ex-soldier (Glenn Ford again) who developed a taste for killing because of the horrors of the Civil War, it was one of the first 'psychological' westerns.
Another ideal project appeared that same year. The producer-director Clarence Brown had bought William Faulkner's novel of racial bigotry Intruder in the Dust, but could not lick it for the screen. Maddow's first solo script was a masterly job, and the film industry made his reputation. After the success of Intruder, John Huston, who was preparing a film based on WR Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle, invited Maddow to collaborate with him on the screenplay. The result, a film that memorably demonstrated that crime was 'a left-handed form of human endeavour' deserves its high reputation.
Maddow soon became something of a legend among Hollywood's less dedicated screenwriters for his independence. Hacks spoke in wonderment about his rejection of a writing assignment at Columbia Pictures because he was 'just starting to write a long poem'. According to Maddow, he also said 'no' to the veteran producer Milton Sperling who wanted him to study the last five films to win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, steal the beat scenes from each, and blend them all into a new screenplay. Maddow said later: 'Who knows? It might have been great]'
Before long, however, turning down assignments was a luxury; Maddow's left-wing past landed him on the blacklist. He worked uncredited on such films as High Noon, The Wild One, The Naked Jungle, Johnny Guitar, Man Crazy, Gun Glory, God's Little Acre, Men in War, Wild River and the stylish thriller Murder by Contract (to be shown on Channel 4 tomorrow).
By the end of the 1950s, Maddow finally capitulated to the House Un-American Activities Committee and named a few names. Among them was Leo Hurwitz, who had edited and co-produced Native Land.
After the 1971 occult thriller The Mephisto Waltz, Meddow retired from screenwriting, a pursuit he seemed to look on as another left- handed form of human endeavour.
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