We’ve asked authors of books reviewed in the upcoming edition of the Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read them. In our latest installment of the series, Brian Neve discusses The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu.
Holly Werner-Thomas’s review of The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu is currently available online.
What’s it about and why does it matter?
The book provides the first career study of a neglected film director whose life intersected with some key phenomena of twentieth-century cultural history. A number of writers on film had drawn attention to Cy Endfield’s work, but the details of his life were shadowy and sometimes confused. As a writer particularly interested in the social contexts of film (particularly American film), I concentrated, in my 1989 and 1991 interviews with him, on the arc of his career, his immigrant origins, his politicization in the 1930s, and the implications for him of the Hollywood blacklist. Endfield received recognition at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992, before his death in 1995. The book explores the struggles of a thoughtful, would-be Hollywood director during a particularly politicized span of time; it contributes to understanding of the Hollywood Left, aspects of what the French later called film noir, and the creative diaspora to Europe prompted by the blacklist.
How does oral history contribute to your book?
In significant ways the first (three-hour) interview that I conducted in London in 1989, at a time when the director’s work prior to Zulu (1964) was relatively little known, led to the structure of the book. I was able to expand on his comments about his immigrant father, his time at Yale, and his late thirties experiences with the left-wing New Theatre League in New York. I also gathered other interviews, in particular those kindly sent to me by Johnathan Rosenbaum, and tracked down people who had known the filmmaker. One particularly useful interviewee was the French critic and publicist Pierre Rissent, who talked to me in Paris about knowing Endfield (and Joseph Losey) in the sixties and instituting showings of the director’s work at the Cinematheque. My interviews in 1989-91 included rich material on cultural politics and on the events that led to him leaving America in 1951, just after he had finally established himself as a ‘bankable’ Hollywood director. Oral history can also capture particular moments of time with great clarity and power. I remember Endfield, for example, talking about the day in 1956 that a letter from the American Embassy invited him to collect his passport, after five years of being denied one by the State Department. He told me that he drove his then company car, a Morris Minor, ‘around Grosvenor Square five or six times in a state of exultation, of sustained joy.’ The first and most substantial interview that I did with Cy Endfield was a memorable experience for me. My feeling was that he was happy to confront issues that he cared deeply about, but had not previously addressed for many years. I found his memories to be sharp, nuanced, and revealing. Later I visited archives to look for evidence of the production processes relating to his film work, while also using his papers (curtesy of his widow, Mo), and further interviews with his family, friends, and associates. Endfield talked to me at some length about a short film made in the war years, and about The Sound of Fury/Try and Get Me (1950), a relatively ‘lost’ film that was restored and ‘rediscovered’, thanks to archivists and critics including Eddie Muller and James Naremore. Looking back, I wished I’d been able to talk at greater length to Endfield, particularly about his work in Britain.
What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?
I’m interested in exploring the relationship between individuals, groups, and wider political, economic, and cultural structures, especially in relation to film-making and film production. Individual testimony always has to be tested by reference to other sources, but in exploring film production and the blacklist (and the ‘naming names’ debate), I’ve felt it important to conduct interviews when possible. So oral history became significant as part of an effort to establish, cross-check, and sometimes revise historical accounts. Witnesses forget, of course, and sometimes misremember, but they contribute a nuanced understanding of events and era. Interviews have the ability to capture the mood or emotion of a particular time.
Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?
I hope that they will be interested in the relationship between twentieth-century history and the arc of Endfield’s career, as established in part by interviews. The survival of so many of his letters from the 1930s to and from a close friend, the screenwriter Paul Jarrico, enabled me to provide strong biographical elements as well as a contextual and critical study of his work. Interviews also shed light on creative intentions, to set against the collaborative and corporate nature of movie production. Looking back I think Endfield in part set the agenda for my later writing: for all the achievements, at the core was an element of sadness due to lost opportunities, given that he gained some success as a Hollywood director just as the blacklist (and his previous association with the Communist Party) forced him—as someone reluctant to ‘name names’ before the House Committee on Un-American Activities—to leave the United States and re-establish his career in London.
What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?
My questions to Endfield provoked both calm reflection and a more heated ‘stream of consciousness’. The interview was an inspiration, although the book, when written years later, drew on a wider range of sources and approaches. Directors, even the great ‘auteurs’ (a problematic notion), interact with a complex array of corporate processes and cultural forces. The ‘thirties’ generation faced a particular set of cards in an invigorated post-war Hollywood, and responded to the phenomena of ‘Un-Americanism’ and political reaction in nuanced ways. I hope my book does some justice to both the striving individual and the broader arcs of history.