This week's edition is from our regular, Wheeler Winston Dixon
D. Ross Lederman and Escape from Crime
Wheeler Winston Dixon
One of the most overlooked and yet astonishingly prolific auteurs in the noir universe is the largely unheralded D. (David) Ross Lederman. Working at Warner Brothers in the 1940s, he specialized in noir genre films, and created his films swiftly, compactly, and with authority. His films stand out because they all display Lederman’s uniquely Dystopian view of life, combined with a relentless, inexorable narrative drive; rapid, nearly Eisensteinian editing; and a willingness to alter or change the course of his character’s destiny at a moment’s notice. In his best films, Lederman not only bent the rules of genre cinema, he all but abolished them. The sheer intensity of Lederman’s imagistic and editorial pacing, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of genre filmmaking, allowed him to transcend the conventions of the typical program film, no matter what the genre, and make it a personal statement, while still staying firmly within the proscribed schedule and budget.
Lederman was born on December 12, 1894 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His parents, Luke Lederman and Laura Pauline Ross, were an oddly matched pair. Young David Ross Lederman was a sickly child, with such severe asthma that his parents were advised to move to then smog-free Venice, California for their son’s health in 1904. But David’s relationship with his parents was curiously distant. His father worked at Hamburger’s Department Store in Los Angeles in a variety of managerial positions, and died in 1918. His mother, Laura, was a somewhat eccentric figure who was known as “Mother Lederman” for her habit of “adopting” soldiers going off to fight World War I, giving them lavish gifts, cheery letters, and kisses at the train station as they departed for the front.
Lederman broke into the motion picture business in 1915 as an extra in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops series, specializing in strenuous stunt gags. At the same time, he was also working for D. W. Griffith as a 2nd 2nd Assistant Director, although the term was unknown at the time, on Intolerance (released in 1916). This grueling pace would continue for the rest of his life. From 1915 to 1927, Lederman racked up an impressive series of credits, rising to the post of Assistant Director, often assisting Roy Del Ruth, who became a lifelong friend.
As he moved up the director’s chair, Lederman created Speed Demon (1933), a racing boat film, also foreshadows Lederman’s later work for Warners, with a succession of fights and chase sequences that follow one another in a furious pace. State Trooper (1933) stars Regis Toomey in a surprisingly brutal crime drama, while The Whirlwind (1933) finds Lederman directing Western icon Tim McCoy. In 1934 he helmed The Crime of Helen Stanley, a murder mystery in Columbia’s “Inspector Trent” series, starring the utilitarian Ralph Bellamy as the intrepid detective. The Crime of Helen Stanley is set in a film studio, eliminating the use of costly sets and props (the film, like other programmers of the 1930s and 40s, was shot on “left-over” sets from more ambitious productions), and features Lederman’s now familiar breathless pacing with narrative compressed to an absolute minimum.
All through the late 1930s, Lederman kept cranking out genre films at a furious pace, from the gunfights of Moonlight on the Prairie (1936), to the courtroom drama The Final Hour (1936), the suspense film Panic on the Air (1936), set in the world of commercial radio broadcasting, the loan shark drama I Promise to Pay (1937), and the fast and furious racing/crime film The Frame Up (1937). Interestingly, many of Lederman’s films of this period are genre “hot wire” projects, melding equal parts of romance, action, suspense and violence to create an atmosphere of perpetual unease, in which the protagonists are constantly imperiled, and situations are introduced only to be radically revised by the twist of the narrative moments later. In Lederman’s world, no one is to be trusted, as demonstrated in the surprisingly downbeat A Dangerous Adventure (1937), in which young Linda Gale (Rosalina Keith) inherits a steel mill, and joins forces with Tim Sawyer (Don Terry) to keep it operating smoothly. But predictably, a group of thugs engage in a campaign of sabotage that almost forces the plant to close, until Linda and Tim gain the penultimate upper hand in the film’s final moments.
Lederman’s first film for Warner’s, The Body Disappears (1941), was a conventional murder mystery (although it boasted the considerable talents of Jane Wyman, Edward Everett Horton and Lederman regular Wade Boteler), but with Strange Alibi (1941), Arthur Kennedy’s first starring feature film, Lederman accelerated his already frenzied narrative style to fever pitch, creating a series of dazzling films that celebrate speed, motion, and the mechanics of random narrative causality. In Strange Alibi, Kennedy plays the role of Joe Geary, an honest cop who goes undercover to smash a police corruption ring that is crippling the city. Staging a “fight” with his superior, Chief Sprague (Jonathan Hale), Geary is ostensibly kicked off the force in disgrace, and soon hooks up with the hoodlum element in the city, as a formerly good cop who has “gotten wise” to himself. In short order, he discovers that Captain Reddick (Cliff Clark) and Lt. Pagle (Stanley Andrews) are behind the crime wave that plagues the city, and 63 minutes later, brings the miscreants to justice.
But Lederman’s most astonishing film from this period is Escape from Crime (1942), which is simultaneously surreal, violent, and hard to classify. In the film’s first scene, Red O’Hara (Richard Travis) is stuck in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but despairs of ever getting out. In the next scene, one of his prison buddies rushes to tell Red that he’s been paroled, effective immediately, for no apparent reason. Thirty seconds later, Red is driving away from the prison with his erstwhile criminal associate, Slim Dugan (Rex Williams), exulting in his newfound freedom. Not thirty seconds after that, Red is demanding that Slim “hand over his rod,” so that Red can murder his wife, Molly O’Hara (Julie Bishop), for being unfaithful. “I hope you know what you’re doing” Slim laconically intones, but of course, Red has no idea what he’s doing; he’s simply a pawn in the film’s bizarre and often contradictory narrative, pursuing one objective in one shot, only to change his mind in the next.
Abruptly convinced of Molly’s fidelity by the presence of a redheaded young boy whom Molly claims is his child, Red abandons his plans to murder her (“Gee, that’s swell!” Slim comments, upon hearing of Red’s change of heart), and decides to pursue a job as a newspaper cameraman. At this point, the film becomes a compressed remake of Lloyd Bacon’s James Cagney vehicle, Picture Snatcher (1933), as Red claws his way to the top of the tabloid news photographer’s trade.
Wherever Red goes, things happen. His first big break occurs when his
former associates, including Slim, stick up a bank while Red is passing by, his Speed Graphic camera at the ready. Convincing Cornell (Frank Wilcox), the editor of a sleazy daily, to hire him despite his prison record on the strength of his exclusive photos of the hold up, Red plunges into a maelstrom of pictorial violence. Planes crash at air shows, cars are wrecked in automobile races, fires consume entire tenement blocks, and Red is always on the scene, dutifully recording it all for posterity.
At length, however, the senior editor of the newspaper, Reardon (Charles Wilson) presents Red with an assignment that is too tough for even Red to consider; photographing the execution of Slim in the electric chair, for his part in the robbery that got Red his first break with the paper. Red is understandably reluctant to accept the assignment, which is in direct violation of prison rules, and will result in the revocation of his parole. But, as always, in D. Ross Lederman’s world, money is the ultimate arbiter of all social intercourse, and Red agrees to clandestinely photograph the execution for a fee of $1,000. (The incident itself is based on the true-life story of the execution of Ruth Snyder, who was put to death in the electric chair for murder on January 12, 1928; The New York Daily News sent a photographer to cover the execution, and then ran the photo as a full-page spread on the front page of the morning editions, selling an extra 750,000 copies of the issue because of the grisly photograph.) Red arrives at the prison at the appointed hour, and cheerfully gives Slim a “thumbs up” as he trudges to the chair, then snaps a picture of Slim’s death, unobserved by the other reporters.
As in The Picture Snatcher, Red accidentally drops the camera on his way out of the prison, and is thus unmasked by his rival news hounds as a “rogue photographer.” Though the other reporters give chase, Red eludes them, and successfully collects his bonus. However, as Red had predicted, his parole officer, Lt. Biff Malone (Wade Boteler again; Boteler was a fixture in numerous Lederman films) takes a dim view of Red’s perfidy, and arranges to have him returned to prison as a parole violator.
Yet, as Ledermanian chance would have it, on the way back to prison, Red and Biff stumble upon the hideout of Dude Merrill (Paul Fix), mastermind of the gang that pulled the fateful bank job. Convincing Biff to let him capture Dude and his associates, Red in a matter of seconds infiltrates Dude’s gang, and in a remarkably violent machine gun battle in which half the city’s police participate, brings Dude to justice, assures Biff’s promotion to captaincy, captures another photographic “exclusive” for his newspaper, and by the order of the governor, is issued a full pardon for any and all past criminal offenses.
One is astonished at the audacity of the film’s mise-en-scene, which is simultaneously frenzied and improbable. Aside from the fact that Lederman’s films for Warner Bros. in the 1940s were all constructed from recycled scripts, existing sets, contract players, and preexisting music scores, the stark economy of Lederman’s production methods placed him firmly under the radar of studio interference. If Lederman was directing a film, Warners could be assured that it would come in on time and probably under budget; why bother him, since he clearly knew exactly what he was doing? Thus, Lederman functioned virtually without studio interference at Warners during the early 1940s, even though Jack Warner had declared that the studio would no longer produce “B” films after October 4, 1941.
Undeterred by this announcement, Lederman kept churning out program films until 1944, including the comedy Passage from Hong Kong (1941); the bizarre murder mystery Shadow on the Stairs (1941, co-directed with Lumsden Hare), in which the entire narrative and its protagonists are revealed to be the figments of a playwright’s imagination in the last two minutes of the film; Across the Sierras (1941), a William “Wild Bill” Elliot western Lederman made on loan-out to Columbia; the family drama Father’s Son (1941), based on a story by Penrod author Booth Tarkington, featuring the reliable character actors John Litel and Frieda Inescourt; Busses Roar (1942), a violent action thriller involving Axis spies, and a bus rigged to explode, with passengers still inside, at a vital oil field. But Lederman was just getting started.
These films were followed the equally violent and downbeat Bullet Scars (1942), a typically vicious crime thriller with Howard Da Silva as Frank Dillon, a psychopathic gangster with a Napoleon complex; I Was Framed (1942), of which the title tells all (a reporter is framed by crooked politicians); The Gorilla Man (1942), a World War II espionage thriller with distinctly sadistic overtones, in which a group of Nazis pose as psychiatrists, tricking downed commando Captain Craig Killian (John Loder) into believing that he has become a dangerous psychopath; Find The Blackmailer (1943), an “old dark house” mystery with typically atmospheric camerawork and lighting; Adventure in Iraq (1943), perhaps Lederman’s best known film, no doubt due to its title, and one of the few available on DVD, in which a group of British nationals crash-land in the Iraqi desert, and are captured by the smooth-talking sheik Ahmid Bel Nor (Paul Cavanagh), who intends to sacrifice them to appease his bloodthirsty, “devil worshipping” constituents; and finally The Last Ride (1944), which was actually Warner’s final program picture, in which wartime rubber shortages lead to the illicit manufacture of substandard automobile tires, and predictably for Lederman, violent death.
Lederman had been like a mad alchemist in his final days at Warners, grafting together sections of screenplays from one film, and then another, incorporating stock footage with near Vertovian abandon, shifting from comedy to tragedy in a matter of seconds, borrowing stock music scores from other Warner Brothers films to underscore his violent visuals, until his final, frenzied films for that studio became almost a genre unto themselves -- the violent, chaotic, unmistakably singular works of a genre artist in overdrive.
When feature work dried up, Lederman made a living directing episodes of various television shows in the mid-to-late 1950s, such as Captain Midnight, Annie Oakley, and the ultra violent Shotgun Slade, starring Scott Brady as a hired gun in the Old West. The opening credits of the show, in which Brady, as Slade, repeatedly blasts the viewer with a sawed-off shotgun while walking rapidly towards the camera, gives one an idea of the tenor of the series. On Friday, January 28, 1960, Lederman began work on the final project of his long career, “Daughter of the Sioux,” an episode of the hour-long western series Overland Trail, starring William Bendix and Doug McClure. The shooting schedule demonstrates just how fast he had to work; on the second day of the shoot (Monday, January 24th), he was expected to complete nearly 70 set-ups in one day at Iverson’s Ranch, for a total of 13 2/8ths pages of script, or about 13 minutes of actual screen time.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Lederman brought the episode in on time, and under budget, but his long stint in the director’s chair was now over. In the last years of his life, Lederman was forced to rely on the “kindness of strangers,” at first living with Bryan Foy, the prolific producer of program films in the 1930s and 40s, and ultimately moving in to the Motion Picture County Home, where he died on August 24, 1972, at 77 years of age.
Lederman’s kinetic, violent work as a director in the 1940s mirrored his own hardscrabble life, and the furious pacing of his signature films is a reflection of his hard life as a working director in mid 20th century America. Alone among his peers, Lederman’s films have a sheen and polish that enhance, and indeed highlight, the brutality of his material. This, perhaps, is the key to an understanding of why D. Ross Lederman’s best films remain compelling in the first decade of the 21st century. Lederman was never really an entertainer. He used the depths of the studio system -- complete with recycled scripts, actors, music, sets, and generic conventions -- to tell us about the true facts of life. Bullets Scars, Strange Alibi, The Last Ride, Escape From Crime and Adventure in Iraq move swiftly and remorselessly towards their violent conclusions, with not a moment’s respite. Lederman’s own life mirrored this headlong trajectory, and he knew it.
About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program at UNL, and with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Editor-in-Chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books include A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and The Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press and Edinburgh University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film, written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (Rutgers University Press and I.B. Tauris, 2008). As a filmmaker, his complete works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art, following a career retrospective at MoMA in 2003.