Joyful Amorality: Films written by Ben Hecht

Talented screenwriters, like the best directors, put their own stylistic fingerprints onto the films they make. And few did it as well as former Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht. At his best, Hecht’s pre-war work showed a playful approach to ethics. Many of his protagonists, such as Paul Muni’s gang leader in the original Scarface, appear to have no sense of right and wrong. And others, such as The Front Page‘s newspaper editor, will use every dirty trick in the book to save a man’s life–even if he’s really just trying to break up a marriage and save his paper.

Screenwriters are truly the forgotten artists of the cinema. While tracking Bay Area repertory cinema since 2004, I’ve noted a great many series and festivals celebrating directors and actors. Composers, cinematographers, art directors and novelists have also been celebrated.

But screenwriters? Almost nothing. And yet, without screenwriters, the greatest actors in the world would be at a loss for words.

If I were in position to program a film series, I’d honor one of the greatest talents to ever create motion pictures on a typewriter: Ben Hecht. Here some films I’d like to include:

Scarface (original 1932 version)
Screen story by Ben Hecht, from novel by Armitage Trail

The best of the early ’30s gangster movies, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue. When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” And that’s when one is shooting at him. Directed by Howard Hawks.

The Front Page (original 1931 version)
Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from their stage play
The first of many adaptations of the popular stage comedy. Adolphe Menjou plays the newspaper editor who will do anything to keep his best reporter (Pat O’Brien). He’ll even go so far as to save the life of an innocent man. Very much a filmed stage play, but it works anyway. Directed by Lewis Milestone.

Underworld
Story by Ben Hecht

I haven’t seen Josef von Sternberg’s silent gangster film, sometimes credited with jump-starting both the genre and Sternberg’s career. But I know it by reputation.

His Girl Friday
Based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s stage play, The Front Page

Howard Hawks turned The Front Page on its head, changing the top reporter’s gender so she can be unhappily married to the hard-driving editor. Easily the best film version of The Front Page.

Wuthering Heights
Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from the novel by Emily Brontë
Romantic melodrama in the old world of class-oriented England. Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and all those fine British actors slumming in Hollywood. Directed by William Wyler.

Design for Living
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, from the play by Noel Coward

Miriam Hopkins acts as muse (and more) for struggling artists Gary Cooper and Fredric March, creating a complicated threesome. Edward Everett Horton takes the role of the disapproving bluenose. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Twentieth Century
Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from a play by Charles Bruce Millholland
John Barrymore and Carole Lombard play egotistical theater people as they argue and fight on a train. Directed by Howard Hawks.

The Black Swan
Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller; officially based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, but I’ve read the novel and it’s entirely different

Better a pirate than a politician. Tyrone Power’s pirate hero tries to go straight, but the cards that are very much stacked against him. A surprisingly fun and sexy swashbuckler where the good guys often act like bad guys. Directed by Henry King. Not be confused with the recent ballet movie.

Nothing Sacred Screenplay by Ben Hecht, from a story by James Street
Yet another screwball comedy. Small-town girl Carole Lombard tells the world, via newspaperman Fredric March, that she’s dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t dying, but the lie makes her the toast of New York. Directed by William Wellman.

Spellbound
Screenplay by Ben Hecht; suggested by the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes

Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological mystery doesn’t’ quite work as a thriller, but it has enough Hitchcock style, plus star wattage from Ingrid Bergman and newcomer Gregory Peck, to make a fine entertainment.

Crime Without Passion
Written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
The first of seven films that Hecht not only wrote but directed. None reached classic status or are currently available on the Internet (at least legally).

Notorious
Written by Ben Hecht

A scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman proves her patriotism by seducing and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. Read my Blu-ray Review.

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