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posterSpecter of the Rose

(American, 1946, 90 minutes, b&w, video)
Directed by Ben Hecht

Judith Anderson . . . . . . . . . . La Sylph
Michael Chekhov . . . . . . . . . . Max Polikoff
Ivan Kirov . . . . . . . . . .Andre Sanine
Viola Essen . . . . . . . . . . Haidi
Lionel Stander . . . . . . . . . . Lionel Gans

"It's as difficult to make a toilet seat as it is a castle window. The view is a little different, that's all." Ben Hecht, perhaps the most prolific of screenwriters during Hollywood's Golden Age, said that, in defense of screenwriters laboring on uncelebrated "B" pictures. In his 35 years in film, Hecht turned a lot of toilet seats into castle windows. Hecht wrote so fast, either alone or with Charles MacArthur or, later, with Charles Lederer, that he helpfully advised younger writers to finish writing their screenplays in a few days, but hold off delivery to anxious producers for weeks, in order to drive up demand for their writing services. His advice proved useless, because no one other than Hecht could bat out an entire script in a week...

Hecht was credited with over 70 screenplays, including Scarface, Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, Spellbound, Notorious, Kiss of Death, and dozens more -- and he was uncredited (at his request) with many others, including Back Street, Queen Christina, Foreign Correspondent, The Shop Around the Corner, Gilda, and Roman Holiday. The most incredible of his out-in-the-open secret writing jobs was on Gone With the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick, desperate to get his expensive project before the cameras, got Hecht to rewrite the script that had defeated everyone in the business, including a depressed F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hecht's conditions were simple: $10,000 a week for two weeks and his name not to appear in the credits.

Hecht was a novelist and playwright of note and a legendary Chicago journalist when he came to Hollywood in the late 1920's; the worldly Hecht never got over the philistinism he found in the movie capital. He remained a marvelous combination of enthusiast and cynic who loved writing movies almost as much as he loved mocking producers' artistic pretenses and directors' disrespect for the written word. Said Hecht, in his role as Hollywood's noisiest sage, "A movie is never better than the stupidest man connected with it. There are times when this distinction may be given to the writer or director. More often it belongs to the producer."

Hecht yearned for more control than he had as the town's highest-paid hired hand, and beginning in 1934, he and co-writer and friend Charles Lederer wrote, directed, and produced several of their own films together, including the shaggy-dog mystery Angels Over Broadway in 1940. But he continued to seek autonomy. In 1946, at the very peak of his skill and influence, he found a willing bankroll.

Herbert Yates, head of Republic Studios, wanted his minor studio, chuckled at in Hollywood for its torrent of "B" Westerns and minuscule budgets, to become a prestige operation. He created around Hecht a unit to produce what we would call today "art films." Hecht was given total control, and took no salary, in favor of a percentage of the profits. Republic still threw nickels around like manhole covers -- the budget was an almost nonexistent $200,000 -- but Hecht had the run of the studio, its facilities and its talented technicians, including the special effects whizzes, the Lydecker brothers, Howard and Ted. In three weeks, Hecht had his film.

What resulted was an expressionistic, experimental mystery set in the world of dance, the world's first, and still one of only two, ballet-noirs. (The other is the more widely-known The Red Shoes.) A ballet company is under the sway of a tyrannical, aging grande dame, known (mostly to herself) as Le Belle Sylph. As played by the brilliant, scenery-devouring Judith Anderson, she is anything but beautiful or sylphic. Indeed, the entire company is off-balanced, given to the combination of philosophical musings and bitter wit that were always Hecht trademarks. But Ivan Kirov (played by dancer Andre Sanine), is deranged. He has brought to the company a new ballet, Spectre de la Rose, whose story haunts him. As its allegorical story runs through his tortured mind, his homicidal passions boil over, threatening even those most loyal to him.

Specter of the Rose was done with Hecht's longtime friend and collaborator, the exceptional cinematographer Lee Garmes, who functioned as a director on many of the Hecht-produced films. Hecht's films with Garmes often had stunning visuals, evidence of Hecht's ability to work in the realms of both word and image. Hecht never made another film for Yates, and Specter of the Rose would be his last time in the director's chair. Hecht had once grumped that Hollywood was "the most boss-ridden town in the whole world." Having made himself boss, he smiled, and went back to being Hollywood's most brilliant scourge of bosses.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

The following is taken from a review that appears in the Cinebooks Database of TV Guide Online:

Over-the-hill ballerina Anderson is the doyenne of a dance troupe in this backstage suspense film filled with famed cinema scribe Hecht’s acerbic barbs and ripostes. Chekhov is the company’s somewhat effeminate impresario whose tendency to petulance is fostered by the strange doings on and off the stage. Kirov—a talented dancer making his screen debut—is somewhat deranged; the ballet "Spectre de la Rose" invokes strange images in his mind: "The rose has a thorn," he whispers to himself, wielding a wicked-looking knife.

Kirov has already "thorned" a former wife prior to the picture’s opening. Young dancer Essen, believing Kirov to be cured of his affliction, falls in love with the dancer and marries him. Stander, a balletomanic hanger-on, is a rough-hewn, would-be poet whose quips and aphorisms reflect the screenwriter’s reflections. During a performance, Kirov’s hallucinations recur and he is only barely prevented from killing his ballet partner/bride. Loyal to the last, she takes him to a hotel room, hoping to nurse him free of his strange affliction….

One of high-paid scripter Hecht’s several ventures into Orson Welles-like total control over product, THE SPECTER OF THE ROSE, like the others, was the result of Hecht’s disaffection with his treatment by major studios. In his autobiography, A Child of the Century, the writer vented his spleen against producers: "A movie is never any better than the stupidest man connected with it. There are times when this distinction may be given to the writer or director. Most often it belongs to the producer."

With a free hand, except for financial restraints—the film’s cost, reportedly, was a mere $160,000—Hecht wrote, directed, and produced an entertaining mixed bag here: part drama, part comedy, part suspense film, with an unusual background. Republic, a studio more accustomed to westerns, picked up the campily entertaining product for release….

The following is excerpted from "Call It Local / Specter of the Rose," a 1986 essay by Lynne Tillman that appears in her collection, The Broad Picture (1997). Lynne Tillman is Associate Professor and Writer-in-Residence at the University at Albany.

The film Specter of the Rose seems to have been hatched from two short stories by [Ben] Hecht: "Specter of the Rose" and "Some Slightly Crazy People." The first is a tragic tale of madness and murder, a drama about a ballet dancer called Sanine, who is compared with Nijinsky. The second, "Some Slightly Crazy People," presents the hilarious ordeals of Max Poliakoff, unsuccessful theater producer, and his sidekick/love, La Sylph, a ballet mistress, as they try to produce a play by a reluctant-to-be-performed playwright. The film is a hybrid, or, to use a different metaphor, it’s a merger. And as in mergers, when two companies selling different products come together as one, there are unintended consequences. A merger of Hecht’s many-sidedness, Specter of the Rose is full of such unintended consequences. Inconsistent and with an embrace of life that makes reckless turns from comedy to tragedy and suspense and back, it’s funny when it should be serious.

Even the hero’s name is a joke, for while it is a real Russian name, Sanine is also an anagram for insane. Sanine is crazy, mad as a loon, and he wants to kill his new bride, Heidi, whenever he hears his favorite ballet music "Specter of the Rose." The cops are on to him, but he has his defenders, Poliakoff (played by Michael Chekhov) among them, who, when he learns from the police that Sanine has been saying he murdered his first wife, proclaims: "Every great artist goes through a period like this, when he doesn’t make sense. What do you expect?" Lionel, the poet (played by Lionel Stander), who’s brought the police to the ballet studio to find Sanine, answers: "The lunacy of great artists usually produces masterpieces, not murders." It’s a great line, of course—the film is full of them—and it establishes Lionel as a hardboiled foil to the romantics Poliakoff and La Sylph, who also defends Sanine.

posterThere’s a show-must-go-on mentality infusing this film. Even though Sanine is almost certainly a murderer, he’s an artist, a great artist, who must be allowed to perform. Which makes Poliakoff’s question, "What do you expect [from artists]?" a more general one that we, in the audience, might consider while watching this film. Lionel may believe in masterpieces, but he’s not one to place artists above the law.

On the other hand, he does support poetry over politics, and figures in another one of the film’s arguments or subtexts. After the wedding party for Sanine and Heidi, with whom Lionel is in love, Lionel and the set designer Kropotkin drunkenly debate poetry, politics, and the masses:

Kropotkin: You’re only one man suffering. When the masses suffer, then the suffering counts.

Lionel: The suffering of the masses is a minor phenomenon beside one man’s tears….

Kropotkin: The masses would never get married if the poets didn’t tell them how beautiful it was….

Specter of the Rose was released in 1946, a year after the war ended, the year Nixon defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas through red-baiting, and a year before the Hollywood Ten were forced to go to Washington to testify before Congress. With McCarthy still on the horizon, the film’s playfulness about politics and the masses may mark the end of an era—at least its representation in Hollywood films. I doubt that there was any film made after 1946/47 with this kind of insouciance about ideas that might, very shortly, mark someone as a Red. For once red-baiting was in full swing, certain ideas (as well, of course, as writers, actors and directors) would disappear from the Hollywood screen.

Another piece of history that figures in this film: the Russians had been our allies during WWII. They were also dominant in ballet. In Specter of the Rose half the characters have Russian names, even when they’re Americans of non-Russian descent—Sanine is really Paul Dixon from Indiana—which demonstrates not only Americans wanting to emulate Russian dancers, but also a friendliness between the two nations. Again it’s 1946, not 1948, or 1949, and so on into the Cold War, and it’s still feasible, permissible, to represent the Russians as good guys.

While U.S. and world politics enter this picture through the back door, sexual politics enters through the front door. After all Sanine wants to kill women, not men. Or, specifically, wants to kill wives. (I can’t help but imagine Ben Hecht’s going through a bad divorce, and all those G.I.’s coming back from the war, finding their wives in jobs that once were theirs.) There’s a lot of talk about wives, love, and marriage, and Poliakoff, again defending Sanine, says: "What husband have you known who hasn’t wanted to kill his wife? That is definitely part of marriage." Johnny Carson might use a line like that in one of his monologues. But it’s no joke that some men do kill their wives, and maybe more fantasize it. Madness is associated with art and creativity, and men want to kill women. These ideas are so imbricated in our lives and culture, they’re not particularly surprising or shocking. They’re like wallpaper….

It’s forty years after Specter of the Rose was made, and it strikes me that one could say it’s dated. But why does something look and sound dated? It’s not only to do with the changing politics of representation, although that’s part of it. I can sense Ben Hecht’s ambivalent presence in this film; he’s asking questions that bother him. What’s art? Am I an artist, here in Hollywood? Do I care about the masses? And so on. But rather than call this film "personal," which would place it in an already-defined category of film I don’t think this is, I’ll call it "local." It’s located in Hecht’s backyard, addressing a community rather than a world market. Along with an address, it has a specific time and place, and exists within a particular historical moment. So it is, almost literally, dated, and in a way, fascinating to watch because of that.

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