1950s

Vagabond Noirs and Tramp Westerns: The Films of Hugo Fregonese at Il Cinema Ritrovato

Hugo Fregonese Movie Essay - Black Tuesday Film

Hollywood’s studio era remains a continual goldmine for film historians and cinephiles looking for hidden gems, and Il Cinema Ritrovato has made a habit of yearly rediscoveries of long-forgotten directors whose turn it is be elevated to auteur status. Blunt and direct as the tactic may be — bound to raise even Andrew Sarris’ eyebrows when it comes to framing films exclusively through auteurism — there’s no denying that it’s been successful in the past. This year, the title of the great rediscovered auteur goes to Hugo Fregonese, an Argentina-born director who only made films in Hollywood for a few years amidst a 30-year career.

The Il Cinema Ritrovato strand — evocatively titled “The Drifter’s Escape” and co-curated by Dave Kehr and festival director Ehsan Khoshbakht — surveys a number of Hugo Fregonese’s Hollywood films and others from that run. What emerges is a director drawn to stories of nostalgia, of roaming, of drift and of an inability to find a place to call one’s own. Fregonese’s protagonists are often men on the run, constantly looking over their shoulder, but also fools who don’t realize when they’ve struck gold; the sort of men convinced they ought to look a gift horse in the mouth.

That fatalism is a key recurrent theme in Hugo Fregonese’s first Hollywood film in 1950, One Way Street. Starring James Mason as a mob doctor, Frank Matson, who steals the money of John Wheeler (Dan Duryea) and his girl, Laura Thorsen (portrayed by Märta Torén, a young Swedish actress who tragically died at the age of just 30), the film sets itself up as a man-on-the-run noir, with the leads sticking it out against a vengeful villain. But One Way Street entirely changes tack midway into a swooning romantic idyll. Escaping by plane to Mexico City, John and Laura make an emergency landing on a beautiful seaside Mexican village. Flush with cash, and with not a single mobster any the wiser as to their location, lifelong freedom is within the protagonists’ grasp.

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Yet, in classic noir style, a perpetual guilt tugs at Mason in One Way Street. Hugo Fregonese situates Mason in this beachside paradise with the love of his life as the two integrate themselves into a new community. But the impulse to return, or perhaps the inability to believe that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, tears away at him, like a moth to a flame. There’s a simple duality to the character — his association with organized crime (and references to losing his medical license) puts him clearly on the wrong side of the law. But as a doctor in a rural community, Mason becomes an indispensable force for good to the locals (who are, admittedly, also seen in rather simplistic, dualistic terms). 

But within that black-and-white moral vision, Hugo Fregonese finds greyness and murkiness. As attempts to domesticate Mason in his beachside idyll fail, One Way Street returns to one of those central thematic concerns of noir — that fate comes for us all — and the great actor’s sonorous, agitated voice and furrowed brow go a long way to creating this multi-faceted, poetically tragic character.

A counterpart to One Way Street can be found in Hugo Fregonese’s immediate follow-up, Saddle Tramp (also 1950), starring Joel McCrea as Chuck Conner. Again, the basic structure is there of a wanderer finding a romanticized idyll that requires domestication, this time filtered through the prism of a comedy Western. As One Way Street plays with the central building blocks of the noir, so Saddle Tramp does with the Western, interrogating that contradictory myth at the heart of the genre and its American mythos: McCrea’s protagonist is, to begin with, a wandering gunslinger roaming the Wild West and picking up work wherever it can be found — he’s the archetypal hero of the genre. But, finding himself suddenly having to take care of four boys after a friend dies in a tragic accident, Chuck necessarily has to domesticate himself and becomes the opposite of the wandering gunslinger; the genial family man who co-operates with the local community. The fact that the young boys idolize Chuck’s all-action lifestyle and dream of emulating him adds further irony and depth to the script; the only way they can emulate him, of course, is by first going through the ritual of settlement.

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Hugo Fregonese Movie Essay - Saddle Tramp Film

Saddle Tramp is somewhat of an outlier thanks to its happier ending; Hugo Fregonese’s best work is often claustrophobic and fatalistic, even when filmed under wide-open skies, such as in Apache Drums (1951, also the final film of legendary producer Val Lewton before his passing) or The Raid (1954). Both are action-fueled movies, and Fregonese’s visual clarity ensures that viewers always know the spatial geography of the film world. When the walls close in — as they do at the end of Apache Drums — the sense of claustrophobia is heightened and exacerbated, angles seemingly becoming deeper and stronger.

That sense of claustrophobia is even greater when Hugo Fregonese’s films come with a nasty streak. The Raid stars Van Heflin as the leader of a group of on-the-run Confederate POW soldiers who plot to burn down a Northern town near Canada, using the border as a hideout. Fregonese takes viewers through the planning of the raid point-by-point, but it’s complicated by the fact that soldiers have to infiltrate and ingratiate themselves within the town first to succeed, with Heflin posing as a Canadian businessman who, almost by stealth, becomes a vital figure in the community.

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Hugo Fregonese Movie Essay - The Raid Film

Hugo Fregonese emphasizes the thirst for revenge that drives these men (with Lee Marvin as a particularly embittered lighting rod of anger), many of them deeply unpleasant even as they act polite and kind. As a viewer of The Raid, rooting for these psychopaths is basically impossible (a signpost forwards to the antiheroes of Sam Peckinpah). At the center is Heflin’s weather-beaten face, which becomes increasingly anguished as he takes every further step on his mission whilst becoming closer to the townspeople. The Raid is unusual in Hollywood for the time, in that the villains of the piece — the Confederates — get away with their crimes at the end, though there’s a final close-up of Heflin that looks anything but valiant. Instead, his character looks disgusted with himself, raging with self-hatred and poison. Once again in a Fregonese film, a wanderer drifts into town and sets in motion a chain of events that leads him to the abyss.

If one Hugo Fregonese protagonist embodies that sense of drag into the abyss, then it’s Edward G. Robinson as Vincent Canelli in Black Tuesday (1954). The character is perhaps the most nihilistic and hateful of all, the central piece of the jigsaw in the director’s masterpiece.

Powered by a raw script from Sidney Boehm (who also scripted The Raid and other noir classics, such as The Big Heat) and crisp cinematography by Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent AmbersonsThe Night of the Hunter), Black Tuesday is as hard-hitting a noir as you’re likely to find, and it’s a crime against film that it isn’t talked about in the same breath as noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. Whereas The Raid and One Way Street feature protagonists slipping towards the abyss, Robinson’s Canelli in Black Tuesday seems to be a man powered by blindly charging headfirst into it.

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Hugo Fregonese Movie Essay - Black Tuesday Film

Canelli is a mob kingpin sitting on death row, whose girlfriend springs a surprise break-out for him on the day of his execution. Into this are dragged a number of hostages — including a priest, a prison guard’s daughter and a journalist — and Peter Manning (Peter Graves), a fellow death row inmate with a bag of cash stashed away which he refuses to reveal the location of (a similar plot point is used in Hugo Fregonese’s Argentinian noir from 1949, Hardly a Criminal — a fine, if occasionally static film). On the run with the hostages, the gangsters find themselves in another siege situation. Despite the inevitability of death, Canelli insists on pushing everyone to their doom, if only so he can live a few seconds longer. Just as Max von Sydow loses his chess game with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)it’s as if Canelli has long since been checkmated, and is simply finding any excuse to delay the inevitable.

Indeed, Black Tuesday’s entire dramatic arc is driven by that one impulse: of its protagonist’s greedy desire to continue breathing an extra hour, minute or second. Robinson may have been small in stature, but he looms large over everyone onscreen, the camera often framing him upwards to emphasize his psychological dominance over the others. Bile and bullying come out of him at machine-gun speed, pushing everyone to breaking point.

It’s tempting to see Hugo Fregonese’s status as a lifelong drifter as evidence of his affinity for stories about loners unable to find happiness or solace regardless of their stature in life — something I’m not entirely convinced is such an easy correlation to draw. Much of the director’s life is still something of a mystery to researchers, but what is certainly apparent is that he had a real knack for such stories, combined with a nuanced sense of fatalism and nihilism that fits snugly in the grubby, fast-paced world of Hollywood studio B-movies of the era. Even if not all of Fregonese’s movies came with that sense of fatalism, his best work was often driven by it. Hugo Fregonese is a director ripe for rediscovery.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.