In Memoriam: Hubert Cornfield
by Alan Rode
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Screenwriter/director Hubert Cornfield died in Hollywood on 18 June 2006 of heart failure. The director has been in declining health since having a diabetic seizure several months earlier.
Although Cornfield’s directorial output included only twelve films and television productions, the director brought an evocative sense of style and storytelling to his pictures, several of which remain uniquely compelling.
Cornfield was born in Istanbul, Turkey on 9 February 1929. He was raised in France and completed his formal schooling at the University of Pennsylvania. His father, Albert Cornfield, was a Twentieth Century Fox executive and movie exhibitor.
While growing up in Paris, the young Cornfield demonstrated a flair for graphic art. He grew intensely interested in cinema and became close friends with French ‘New Wave’ directors, Jean Luc-Godard, Francois Traffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville.
After relocating to the United States and finishing school, Cornfield leveraged his considerable talent and his family’s friendship with Spyros Skouras, President of Twentieth Century Fox Studios into the film business.
His directorial debut, Sudden Danger was a tidy B noir police procedural that was the second of five films starring Bill Elliott as a L.A. Sheriff’s detective.
After helming some television and the lurid programmer, Lure of the Swamp (1957), Cornfield directed Plunder Road (1957) a notable caper film of the late classic noir period. The exciting tale of a gold bullion heist and its aftermath was capped by a startling finale. Plunder Road represented a freshly entertaining approach by Cornfield to a familiar formulaic theme.
Cornfield next project began with his collaborative screenplay based on Charles Wilson’s novel All The Way. The resultant film, The Third Voice (1960) starred Edmund O’Brien, Julie London and Laraine Day involved in a tangle of double-crosses, impersonation and murder while south of the border. Filmed in Cinemascope, The Third Voice must be viewed on the big screen or letter box to be properly appreciated as one of the last true film noirs.
Pressure Point (1962) remains one of Cornfield’s most distinctive films. The director again collaborated on a screenplay that was adapted from Robert Lindner’s, ‘The Fifty Minute Hour’. Sydney Poitier stars as a prison psychiatrist attempting to cope with a charismatic, sociopathic convict imprisoned for his German- American Bund activities; Bobby Darin, in a startlingly brilliant performance. Produced by Stanley Kramer, the picture succeeds powerfully as both top-notch drama and a compelling ‘message’ film.
In the mid 60’s, Cornfield’s directorial career markedly faded so he returned to France for a fresh start. He got more than he bargained for with The Night of the Following Day (1968).
Cornfield had acquired the rights to Lionel White’s book The Snatchers some time earlier. He successfully prevailed on independent producer Elliott Kastner to finance the project that he would write and direct on location in France. A gang of ruthless kidnappers grab a girl and hold her for ransom at a secluded beach house. The gang includes Marlon Brando as the head honcho with Rita Moreno his junkie flight attendant girl friend and Richard Boone playing, well, Richard Boone.
At the time, the film was universally panned by critics for its slow pace, bizarre style and amateurish visuals. Over the preceding four decades, many viewers of The Night of the Following Day believe that the film is a startlingly tense suspense tale and fascinating character study of a dysfunctional group of criminals.
The term dysfunctional is an applicable description of the relationship of Cornfield and Marlon Brando during filming of The Night of the Following Day. Cornfield later accused Brando of trying to seduce his wife and claimed that the legendary star was totally resistant to any kind of direction. After the inevitable showdown, Cornfield either quit or was removed from the picture with Richard Boone filming the closing sequence in the picture.
With the exception of a French crime film, Grands moyens, Les (1975), Cornfield’s film career essentially concluded. He returned to the U.S. and was temporarily felled by cancer that cost him his voice box and part of his jaw. The irrepressible director bounced back as strong-minded as ever. Cornfield led an active, solitary life in Hollywood, walking, skiing, writing and recently attending revival screenings of his films. With his myriad associations with the famous, opinionated discourses on film along with his insatiable womanizing, Hubert Cornfield was a fascinating character who will be greatly missed.
He is survived by two daughters and a sister.
There will be a memorial tribute for Hubert Cornfield on August 5th at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for his family, friends and admirers. The tribute is scheduled to include a free admittance screening of Pressure Point (1962).
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation.
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