OBITUARY : Cy Endfield

Trevor Willsmer
Thursday 20 April 1995 23:02

Of Cy Endfield's 21 films, all but Zulu (1963) and Mysterious Island (1961) are now rarely shown in Britain, where Endfield's work has never been given the critical attention it deserves, despite a revival of interest in his work in the United States.

Endfield's best films, such as Underworld Story (1950), The Sound of Fury (1951) and Child in the House (1956), are often cynical and pessimistic, with an optimism they covertly acknowledge to be ill-judged, and focusing on characters drawn together despite ideological and social differences by a common conflict. They are perfect examples of overcoming generic (primarily thriller) conventions and limitations while ostensibly working within them.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1914, Endfield established a reputation as a brilliant card magician while a teenager. In New York he formed a satirical fringe group that performed in clubs, and at weddings and bar mitzvahs, and went on to run an amateur theatre in Montreal for a year and to direct in the Catskills before moving to Los Angeles in 1940. Having fooled the accomplished amateur magician Orson Welles with some card-tricks of his own, Endfield parlayed his way into films by teaching Welles's producer Jack Moss tricks in return for sitting in on the shooting of Journey of Fear (1942) and the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) as an apprentice with the Mercury Theatre.

From the outset, Endfield displayed an acute sense of social criticism that proved ill- advised in his times: his first film, Inflation (1942), an allegorical 15-minute short made at MGM, initially impressed the Office of War Information who had commissioned it, but was repressed before it could be released by the Chamber of Commerce for being excessively anti-capitalistic.

After a handful of shorts and wartime service in the Signal Corps, Endfield worked his way through a handful of mediocre low-budget features - Gentleman Joe Palooka (1946), Stork Bites Man (1947) and Joe Palooka and The Big Fight (1949) - while also writing for radio (turning one of his suspense scripts into his first notable feature, The Argyle Secrets, in 1948) and early television, as well as a number of mostly minor films including two Bowery Boys efforts and a one-scene rewrite on Douglas Sirk's Sleep My Love (1948). He first made his mark with Underworld Story, in which Dan Duryea's cynical, disgraced reporter trying to revitalise a small- town newspaper and Howard Da Silva's unpretentious and amiable villain prove the most honest characters among a cast of small-town stereotypes who seem all too willing to turn on their own under a smiling front. Even more subversive was the lynch mob drama The Sound of Fury which, like much of his work, was seen by many audiences as actively anti-American. After Tarzan's Savage Fury (1951), starring Lex Barker, Endfield, a Young Communist League worker at Yale but never a member of the Communist Party, was identified by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.

Although no longer an activist, he was unwilling to name names and became one of many blacklisted directors who pre-empt being called to give evidence and moved to Britain. There he found work, albeit often uncredited or pseudonymously as, variously, C. Raker, C. Raker Endfield, Hugh Baker and Joseph Roach. To bypass distribution problems in the United States, where projectionists refused to run British films made by blacklisted directors, many with Leftist sympathies lent him their names: Hal Chester on the screenplay for Night of the Demon (1957), one of the most intelligent and slyly subversive British horror films ever made, and Charles De Latour on The Limping Man (1953), Impulse (1955) and the superb Child in the House, his first collaboration with the actor Stanley Baker.

Although he never revoked his US citizenship and did attempt to reverse his blacklisting,apparently going as far as to draft a letter to the FBI, he was unsuccessful and it was not until Hell Drivers (1957) that he was able to reclaim his surname on screen. It is a hard-hitting minor classic about corruption and exploitation in a haulage firm with a strong lead performance by Baker and an impressive supporting cast that includes, in minor roles, Sean Connery, David McCallum, Sid James, Gordon Jackson and Jill Ireland. An attempt to repeat the formula the following year, Sea Fury, floundered because of the relegation of Baker, with whom Endfield had formed a production company, to a supporting role in favour of Victor McLaglen's imported star.

The relative success of the fantasy Mysterious Island (1961), for which Endfield abandoned his initially expressionistic style and adopted a more deliberate pacing than in the past, combined with Baker's increasing bankability, led to Endfield's first big-budget film, Zulu. An epic account of the siege of Rorke's Drift in 1879, it managed to extol heroism on both sides without glorifying war, ending not with triumph or jubilation but sheer physical exhaustion. Triggered by the director's interest in South African history and fuelled by the star's desire to celebrate the courage of his fellow Welshmen, it proved an ideal collaboration, but though hugely successful in Britain and Europe, it fared badly in the United States - indeed, none of Endfield's films fared particularly well at the US box-office.

Endfield's interest in the survival instinct was taken to darker extremes in his subsequent and final collaboration with Baker, Sands of the Kalahari (1965). Where Zulu saw its besieged protagonists putting aside their differences of class and rank for common survival, Kalahari had Stuart Whitman's plane- crash survivor turn on his stranded companions with a homicidal pragmatism bordering on the Nietzschean. After the much-troubled De Sade (1969), which saw him incapacitated after a few weeks of shooting and replaced by the uncredited Roger Corman and Gordon Hessler, his last directorial effort was Universal Soldier (1971), an anti-war film starring George Lazenby and Germaine Greer. His final screen credit was as screenwriter and one of the numerous producers on the long-planned Zulu Dawn (1979). It was a deeply troubled production. Endfield declined to direct only to express disappointment with the results.

By then his interest had shifted elsewhere: he established a reputation as a historian of the Zulu wars, designed chess sets and by 1978 had invented a pocket-sized computer typewriter that was followed by a computerised pocket organiser a few years later.

Trevor Willsmer

Cyril Endfield, film-maker: born Scranton, Pennsylvania 10 November 1914; twice married (three daughters); died Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire 16 April 1995.

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