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01.14.09

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Phaedra

The Magnificent Sturges

Reviewed by Richard von Busack


IN 2009, John Sturges is the director most likely to be confused with Preston Sturges, a distant relation. By contrast, in 1967, Sturges was the producer/director earning the most money in Hollywood. The creator of tough, well-crafted Westerns and adventures, Sturges directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and his masterpiece, Bad Day at Black Rock—films in which the price of conflict was always reckoned, and the lives of men without women were charted with Hemingway's own attention. Sturges was a Bay Area man, who went to school in Berkeley and Marin. After a time at RKO, Sturges assisted William Wyler, documenting World War II in Thunderbolt, a film hampered by bad narration and a release to a war-weary world by Monogram in 1947. During the 20 years after the end of the war, Sturges rose as an artist, until the Vietnam war lessened the public interest in dramas of men with a code.

In Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, Glenn Lovell, the much-missed former Mercury News film critic, gives us solid, humorous and intelligent information on this shadowy director, discovering for instance that he worked on a version of Das Boot. Escape Artist favors the movies over director's unflamboyant personal life. In a profession characterized by divorce and drink, Sturges sustained some damage, but he was never a neurotic or a self-mythologizer. After retirement, Sturges stayed retired, cutting out for the life aquatic in Baja and the Central Coast. He never used much time to promote and polish his old films in the home-video age. Whetting the appetite for Sturges' many forgotten movies, Lovell recalls the favorites ones, with influences on everyone from Walter Hill to the directors of Chicken Run. This is the first big book on Sturges; likely it will be the best, but it certainly won't be the last. (By Glenn Lovell; University of Wisconsin Press; 344 pages; $26.95 hardback)


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