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Tough as Nails. The Life and Films of Richard Brooks

BOOK REVIEW: Tough as Nails. The Life and Films of Richard Brooks (Douglass K. Daniel, 2011) – JANA BÉBAROVÁ (translated by ELIŠKA ŽIDOVÁ) –

Česká verze recenze je dostupná zde / Czech version of the review is available here

Like Samuel Fuller, to whom we dedicated the whole thematic issue in September, the American screenwriter and director Richard Brooks would celebrate his hundredth birthday this year as well, who together with Fuller was one of the last Hollywood movie makers trained by the studio system. However, the old friends did not have only that in common: being descendants of poor Jewish immigrants from Europe, who settled on the East Coast of the United States, since childhood they both dreamed of a journalistic career, which they attained by their own diligence, without the need of an academic degree (although Brooks studied journalism at Temple University for a short time). At the beginning of their movie careers they paid tribute to journalism by making strictly personal films valued for their authenticity in displaying the given profession, Deadline – USA and Park Row (both 1952). When they were young, in the era of a deep economic crisis, they both travelled across the United States and wrote about the dismal situation and poverty they witnessed. Approximately at the same time (late 1930s and early 1940s) they both headed to Los Angeles for work; at first in Hollywood they specialized in screenplays and then finally in late 1940s and early 1950s they debuted in the field of film directing. Both Fuller’s and Brooks’s successful novels were published during their military service in World War II1 and almost immediately attracted the attention of Hollywood and later were filmed in the noir style.2 As ardent individualists they both refused to be fettered by genre conventions and were not afraid of controversial topics, they were also closely connected by their desire to direct their own screenplays and have creative control over their implemented projects. This, however, often had to go aside at the expense of working within the studio system, and thus they both preferred the way of faster and cheaper independent productions.

While film historians and critics were interested in Fuller’s life and work in a complex way already in the seventies, there was not a single compact publication about Brooks until the last year, when the American journalist Douglass K. Daniel decided to change this. In the biography of two hundred and sixty pages, Tough as Nails, which was released last April by The University of Wisconsin Press with the subtitle The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, he decided to present the life of Richard Brooks on the background of his films. Daniel lets the readers look inside Brooks’s complicated personality and tries to describe his creative approach to screenwriting and directing. He describes Brooks as an irascible workaholic who always preferred work to personal life (thanks to which several of his marriages failed, including seventeen-year-long marriage with the actress Jean Simmons) and who always enforced his vision and did not respect opinions of other crew members. In their eyes he remained an obstinate individualist and rough critic who did not mince his words. It is mainly the statements of Brooks’s colleagues and co-workers that Douglass K. Daniel uses as a support in the publication. Besides actors Karl Malden, Russ Tamblyn, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Shirley Jones, Burt Lancaster or Lee Marvin, he quotes for example the interviews with the screenwriter Millard Kaufman or cinematographer Conrad Hall, who became visible through his work on Brooks’s western The Professionals (1966) and adaptation of Capote’s bestseller In Cold Blood (1967). However, he quotes Brooks himself as well, apart from other things, at the beginning of each of the eleven chapters. The author begins his narration with Brooks’s directorial debut in the MGM studio in 1950 (Crisis), then returns to his roots in Philadelphia and chronologically follows the progress of his career from a sports reporter and radio broadcaster to a member of the Hollywood elite.

Daniel’s publication points out the determining influence on Brooks’s career from the side of production personalities, such as Mark Hellinger, for whom he wrote screenplays of The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947) during his early work at Universal, Arthur Freed at the time of his long-time work at MGM, or the head of the Columbia studio, Mike Frankovich, and the independent producer Freddie Fields, with whom he worked later in his career. The author does not leave out Brooks’s important mentors Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, with whom he worked on Key Largo (1948) as a screenwriter and who was also the first director to allow him to participate in a production, by which he profoundly influenced the future direction of Brooks’s directorial career. He also describes Brooks as a careful filmmaker, who for fear of plagiarism vigilantly protected his screenplays and who preferred to work for a smaller fee just to fulfil his vision. He reflects the director’s approach towards adaptation of literary works that he often chooses for his films (e.g. Blackboard Jungle /1955/, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof /1958/, Elmer Gantry /1960/, The Professionals, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar /1977/), observes the changes that occurred in the film versions, and points out the disputes regarding the portrayal of controversial topics of sexuality and violence, which was not fully compatible with the requirements of the Production Code Administration. Besides these aspects, Daniel also deals with the process of casting individual roles in each film and the director’s work with actors and other crew members on the background of various stories from the production. He mentions the reception of individual films by audience and critics, and in the process selects quotes from reviews of crucial journals of that time and evaluates their financial success (according to Variety‘s list of the most profitable films of the year) and any appreciation or undervaluation on the part of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Due to the absence of more comprehensive reflection of the director’s work up till now, the significance of Douglass K. Daniel’s publication cannot be questioned. His successful attempt to look into the life and work of the leading Hollywood filmmaker of the second half of the fifties and the sixties is far from being exhaustive, and leaves room for other film professionals for deeper and more complex analytic reflection. For the controversial topics and re-examination of screenplays by the Production Code Administration alone Brooks’s movies would deserve a detailed revision, as for example the work of his colleague Samuel Fuller received from the American film historian Lisa Dombrowski.

Tough as Nails. The Life and Films of Richard Brooks

Douglass K. Daniel
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2011
260 pp.
The book is available on the website of the publisher

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  1. Brooks, who worked in the navy, did not participate in fighting unlike his colleague and military experience was not so decisive for him as was for Fuller, who kept returning to it in his movies. []
  2. Brooks’s novel The Brick Foxhole was directed by Edward Dmytryk under the title Crossfire (1947), Fuller’s novel The Dark Page was filmed by Phil Karlson under the title Scandal Sheet (1952). []


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