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Submitted by Nick Dando
Original at The Guardian
André de Toth
October 31, 2002
Hard-working film director whose life was as eventful as his movies
by: Ronald Bergan
Thursday October 31, 2002
If we are to believe even a fraction of what has been written by and about the film director André de Toth, who has died aged 89, then his life was even more exciting and varied than the plots of his movies. Having met him a few times in his 80s, I can only vouch for his extraordinary energy, passion and earthy humour, and the conviction with which he delivered his anecdotes.
These included stories of when he was taken for dead during a student riot in Vienna and woke up in the morgue; and how, when his girlfriend fell pregnant and her father whisked her away for an enforced abortion, de Toth saved her when he discovered her father visited male prostitutes and threatened blackmail. There was also the story of how during the war he fell in love with an anti-Nazi jewellery courier who had a passport made under the name of Mrs de Toth before embarking on a dangerous mission, and how the passport was returned to him covered in blood. Another told of how, while scouting for locations in 1973 in Egypt, he was kidnapped and interrogated by a group of young men who, because of his eye patch, thought he was Israeli minister of defence Moshe Dayan, until he revealed, literally, that he wasn't Jewish.
Curiously, the one-eyed de Toth was married for eight years to Veronica Lake, whose "peekaboo" hairstyle gave the impression that she had only one eye, and he directed House Of Wax (1953), the first horror film in 3D, the effects of which he couldn't have seen.
The last time I saw him was at the cinema centenary celebrations at Lyons in 1995. With his black eye patch, his shaven head and his neck in a brace (he broke it four times, first in a skiing accident), he made a striking, somewhat scary, impression. However, after proclaiming, "Lyons is to film-makers what Bethlehem is to Christians," he presented the other famous guests with a statuette he had sculpted himself. He then announced that his favourite director was Satyajit Ray - a surprise because most of the films de Toth directed were incisive, small-scale Westerns, including six with Randolph Scott.
De Toth, who described himself as a "Hungarian-born, one-eyed American cowboy from Texas," was born in Mako. After studying law in Budapest, he tried his hand at playwriting (becoming friendly with playwright Ferenc Molnar) and sculpture. He entered Hungarian films in 1931 as screenwriter, editor, second-unit director and sometime actor, billed variously as Endré Toth, Andreas Toth and, finally, André de Toth.
He directed five Hungarian films just before the outbreak of the war, and one of them, Wedding In Toprin (1939), won the Most Artistic Film Award from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture. Another was The Life Of Dr Semmelweiss (1940), based on the story of a doctor who found a cure for childbirth fever.
De Toth then went to England, where he worked for Alexander Korda as second-unit director on The Thief Of Bagdad (1940), and on to Hollywood for Jungle Book (1942). The following year he made his American debut as director with a quickie from the Lone Wolf detective series. This was followed by a number of unconvincing, but economically directed, melodramas - Dark Waters, a psychological thriller with Merle Oberon; None Shall Escape, a vigorous anti-Nazi tract (both 1944); and The Other Love (1947), a soppy soap opera starring Barbara Stanwyck as a concert pianist dying of TB. They were all indistinguishable from much other studio fare of the decade. Luckily John Ford, who was set to make Ramrod (1947), was busy shooting My Darling Clementine, thus giving de Toth the chance to demonstrate that he had an eye for powerful action stuff. Ramrod, his first Western, was as straight and solid as its hero, Joel McCrea, who helps tough ranch-owner Veronica Lake avenge herself on a baddie. Most of the Westerns which followed, no matter the budget, were tense and moody allegories of good and evil, especially those with Randolph Scott. Springfield Rifle (1952), starring the ageing Gary Cooper, and Day Of The Outlaw (1959), a bleak and powerful Western set against a wintry Wyoming landscape, were also notable. He turned his hand to films noirs such as Pitfall (1948), which exploited Dick Powell's glum, craggy 40s persona in a tale of a happily married man caught in the tentacles of a fashion model (Lizabeth Scott); and Crime Wave (1954), a realistic story of an ex-con's problems that influenced the policiers of French director Jean Pierre Melville.
Monkey On My Back (1957) was a stark drug-addiction movie, based on the story of boxing champ Barney Ross's addiction to morphine after being wounded in the war. This was shown in lurid detail, although a brief scene showing Ross injecting himself was cut to obtain a Code Seal. The subject was close to de Toth's heart because of Veronica Lake's drug problems. De Toth sustained the action well throughout The Indian Fighter (1955), featuring a dynamic buckskinned Kirk Douglas, and filmed in CinemaScope and Technicolor on location in the magnificent mountain country of Oregon. But with the changes in the cinema in the 60s, during which Westerns became rarer, de Toth was offered fewer pictures. However, he was credited as supervising director on a number of Italian epics (the law required an Italian director on the films). He was uncredited on David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), though he directed the train crash for the second unit. Play Dirty (1968), with Michael Caine and Nigel Davenport as antagonistic officers in command of a unit made up entirely of ex-cons, had a screenplay, co-written by Melvyn Bragg, that stated rather crudely that only the insane or criminals make good soldiers. It was the last film de Toth directed. After this he had more time for his hobbies - flying, driving racing cars, playing polo, skiing, painting, sculpting and his large family. He was married seven times and had 19 children; his seventh wife, Ann Green, survives him.
In 1994, he published his lively memoirs, Fragments: Portraits From The Inside, and was honoured with a retrospective at the Edinburgh Film Festival, although he insisted: "I don't want to be judged by yesterday's junk." Of most of the younger directors, he commented: "I wouldn't let them direct the goddamn traffic." André de Toth certainly lived up to his motto: "Don't be careful. Have fun. I did."
André de Toth (Sasvrai Farkasfawi Tothfalusi Toth Endre Antai Mihaly), film director, born May 15 1913; died October 27 2002
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