Wednesday, August 17, 2005


I came across a good two-part article called "Albert Zugsmith's Opium Dreams", on one of my favorite auteur producers, the exploitation king and all-around madman Albert Zugsmith. He made four "respectable" pictures, all brilliant: The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind, and Touch of Evil. Most of his career, however, was spent making exploitation movies with titles like Confessions of an Opium Eater, High School Confidential!, and my favorite title ever, Sex Kittens Go to College.

Whether producing an "A" or a "B" picture, he brought the same qualities to everything: an over-the-top imagination, love of overwrought melodrama and lurid storylines, and a constant quest to shock the audience.

It's too bad he didn't make more "A" pictures, because he gave directors the chance to make movies that were more unbuttoned and crazy than their work for other producers. Douglas Sirk spent most of his Hollywood career making "respectable" potboilers for "respectable" albeit terrible producers like Ross Hunter and sneaking bits of subversion into them; his Zugsmith pictures, The Tarnished Angels and Written on the Wind, are just full-blown madness. Zugsmith's interesting albeit self-aggrandizing comments on working with Sirk are here, along with the recollections of the writer of those two films, George Zuckerman.

And Orson Welles may be the writer and director of Touch of Evil, but exploitation/shock moments like the apparent rape scene and the bulging-eyed corpse are pure Zugsmith. One of the many reasons why the recent re-cut of Touch of Evil sucks so badly -- and it does suck; avoid the DVD, which is of the re-cut only, and wait until an earlier version gets released -- is that in trying to make it into a "pure" Welles film, true only to Welles's "vision," the re-cutters (including critic and professional scold Jonathan Rosenbaum) eliminated some typical Zugsmith touches, forgetting -- or denying -- that in classic Hollywood cinema, the producer is as much an auteur on a film as the director.

What Zugsmith's exploitation sensibility would have produced in combination with other "A" directors can only be imagined. But what we got is certainly pretty good, and his pure exploitation films can be great guilty fun.

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