Obituary: Richard Murphy

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Richard Murphy, writer and director: born Boston, Massachusetts 8 May 1912; died Los Angeles 19 May 1993.

DISCUSSING his screenplay for Panic in the Streets, Richard Murphy revealed, 'Not a single line of dialogue was left unaltered, nor was a single scene played exactly as I wrote it before shooting started.'

This wasn't, for once, a disgruntled writer's bellyaching - Murphy was pinpointing the reason for the film's striking sense of actuality. Shot entirely on location in New Orleans and employing local amateurs, Panic in the Streets (1950) was a rare instance of the screenwriter's presence on the set being demanded rather than forbidden. The movie's director, Elia Kazan, had worked with Murphy three years earlier on Boomerang, and knew the writer's talent for changing his script as circumstances dictated. A true story about the unsolved murder of a priest, that film too had been made on location - in Stamford, Connecticut, using many non-actors. Murphy's Boomerang screenplay, which won him an Academy Award nomination, was his very first 'A' feature.

Soon after arriving in Hollywood in 1937 Murphy had been signed by MGM's Short Subjects unit. By 1941 he was writing 'B' pictures, shuttling between Paramount and Republic to script such quickies as Back in the Saddle, Flying Blind, The Apache Kid, I Live On Danger, The Cyclone Kid, Wrecking Crew, Wildcat and Jesse James Jr - action films all.

Real-life action followed in 1942 when he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and was posted to the Pacific. Boomerang was his first film after the war, and its success led to a long-term contract with 20th Century-Fox. The studio's production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, took to Murphy immediately, and kept his typewriter busy for the next 12 years.

Here was a writer after a mogul's heart - he could write a Gary Cooper service comedy like You're in the Navy Now (1951), then follow it with an adaptation of Les Miserables (1952). He could fashion a wide-screen version of the Leopold and Loeb-inspired Compulsion (1959) - why, he could even turn House of Strangers, Joseph P. Mankiewicz's 1949 drama about a ruthless New York moneylender (Edward G. Robinson), into Broken Lance, a 1954 western about a ruthless Arizona cattle baron (Spencer Tracy). Or he could knock out an original screenplay like The Desert Rats (1953) and win himself another Oscar


In 1955 Murphy moved to Columbia Pictures, where he co-scripted The Last Angry Man (Paul Muni's first film for 13 years), and made his directing debut with Three Stripes in the Sun (1955), the true and touching story of a US Army sergeant who visits Japan soon after the war and loses his hatred of the Japanese after seeing tne wretched conditions in a village orphanage. He also wrote and directed The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), in which Jack Lemmon commanded an obsolete sailing ship used as a decoy in the Second World War. The Daily Herald's film critic Paul Dehn wrote: 'What distinguishes this predominantly hilarious piece from most war comedies is that the war itself is taken seriously.'

Murphy turned to television in the 1960s, creating the series Felony Squad, and writing-directing Our Man Higgins (1962), a sitcom starring Stanley Holloway as an English butler who regularly sorts out the problems of a chaotic American family.

Richard Murphy's last film (screenplay only) was The Kidnapping of the President (1980), which starred Ava Gardner, William Shatner and Van Johnson. This Canadian-made thriller was virtually ignored in the US, but attracted infinitely more attention in Britain; it was shown to the London press on the same day as John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan.

(Photograph omitted)