Unauthorized Biography

Nicholas Ray, Johnny Guitar, 1954, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.

IN A BUSINESS that exerts an irresistible pull to hustlers, fabulists, and frauds, the screenwriter Philip Yordan (1914–2003) was in a class by himself. He was famous for his last-minute punch-ups, the so-called “Yordan touch,” as well as his extraordinary prolificacy, turning out more material in short order than any one man could possibly be capable of producing—more, in point of fact, than one man was capable of producing.

The scare quotes on the title of Anthology Film Archives’s “ ‘Written’ By Philip Yordan” series refer to the fact that, more even than was usual of scripts created in the workshops of Golden Age Hollywood, the process of attribution in the case of anything signed by Yordan is a very dicey prospect. Yordan was purported to work using something like the Renaissance atelier model, sketching outlines and adding accents, while leaving the nuts-and-bolts work to a workshop of underlings. AFA’s Yordan retro, loosely connected to its ongoing “Screenwriters and the Blacklist” series, concentrates on a particular period of Yordan’s career—the years of the Red Scare, during which he functioned as a front for blackballed screenwriters, putting his name on their work in exchange for a paycheck. This would appear to have been less a matter of political conviction than exigency, however, for all evidence suggests that Yordan never so much as read a newspaper, and his use of authorial surrogates preceded and continued after the House Committee of Un-American Activities had had their West Coast hunt—one story even has it that, back home in Chicago, Yordan paid a substitute “Philip Yordan” to go through law school under his name while he tended to his own business enterprises.

Yordan’s most famous “collaboration” was with Ben Maddow, the in-demand screenwriter of Clarence Brown’s Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust (1949) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) who was deemed untouchable through the 1950s for his leftist affiliations, until an eleventh-hour recantation and naming of names. Maddow has a claim on at least part of Yordan’s contribution to the filmography of Anthony Mann, for whom Yordan is credited as having written seven films. Of these, Maddow is generally confirmed as the actual author of two, God’s Little Acre (1958) and Men in War (1957), both starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray. In the Korean War–set Men in War, Ray and Ryan lead a lost patrol across a booby-trapped landscape toward rendezvous on “Hill 465.” Ryan is the conscience of the group; Ray, a gruff, unshaven, overgrown toddler; “They're dead pigeons,” he gloats over fresh kills. “Any money you can find, you can keep—any cigarettes or candy’s mine. Can I drive the Jeep now?” Men in War will play AFA along with the same year’s No Down Payment, directed by Martin Ritt, a work whose genesis muddies the waters of authorship attribution even further. The film, concerning goings-on among a quartet of young couples in the spanking-new California subdivision of Sunrise Hills during one exceptionally eventful week, is officially based on a novel by one John McPartland, a LIFE magazine contributor who Yordan claimed to have hired to write the book from which the screenplay was derived.

Maddow has also claimed credit for Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), in which a great many viewers have descried a blacklist parable, though the writer Patrick McGilligan, after having spoken with both men on the subject, saw sufficient reason to question Maddow’s proprietorship. (It should be added that Ray was himself a great tinkerer with scripts.) Yordan, for his part, credited Maddow (and others) with “filling in” dialogue on script outlines which he himself had provided, but bridled at ceding credit: “I’m not saying that they didn’t deliver, but they couldn’t write with my speed and they couldn’t write in my style. If you’ve ever seen anything Ben’s written, Ben hates the establishment, hates everything, it’s all negative. Ben could not write a hero. He could never have written the hero of Man of the West. He could write the heavy, but not the hero. Because he didn't believe in a Gary Cooper.”

Actually, Yordan didn’t have his name on the screenplay for Anthony Mann’s Cooper-starring Man of the West (1958) either—I’m sure it was hard to keep the credits straight after a while—only the novel it was based on, which he conceded was written by Maddow, who stated that Yordan had “never written more than a sentence in his life.” It’s all rather complicated! Anyways, you can catch Cooper at AFA, starring opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Anthony Quinn in Blowing Wild (1953), a tale of tangled love, fractured friendships, and brutal banditos set against the backdrop of Mexico’s oilfields, handled with aplomb by the Argentine-born Hugo Fregonese, who Hollywood turned to when they needed south-of-the-border atmospherics.

Even if we discount the extenuating circumstances, trying to define a Yordan “style” without a research-heavy deep-dig is a fool’s errand. Yordan’s IMDB entry lists sixty-nine credits as writer; the earliest is Syncopation (1942), the latest, Too Bad About Jack (1994). (Always the businessman-artist, he also has twenty producer credits, including Studs Lonigan [1960].) What we can see, looking at this ten-film series, are a number of works that, while produced in the midst of postwar prosperity and contentment, offer a skeptical view of life in the triumphal Republic. Edge of Doom (1950), directed by Mark Robson, formerly of Val Lewton’s horror-movie unit at RKO, is steeped in another sort of quotidian horror—the almost-entirely nocturnal film is populated with the beat-down denizens of an exhausted urban landscape. Farley Granger, in his brief heyday as a noir protagonist, is an all-American Raskolnikov whose only friend is Dana Andrews’s tough downtown priest, in a film that evokes a time when the parish was still the primary social safety net. In No Down Payment, the Eisenhower-era cure-all of clean air and suburban living is shown to come with its own ailments. Fairly overstuffed with topicality, among its hot-button subjects is the disenfranchisement of the skilled blue-collar worker and the emergence of the salaried company man, while Tony Randall’s sloshed used-car salesman essentially predicts the subprime mortgage crisis: “What this country needs is easy credit. No man should have to pay cash for anything. No money down is the secret to prosperity....From now on the customer I concentrate on is the man who is flat broke, because to him money don’t mean nothing”

Yordan’s authorial personality was also, of course, beholden to the demands of the market. He had his first big break with Monogram Pictures’s Dillinger (1945), which earned him an Academy Award nomination, and continued working in the gangster/noir idioms with films like Edge of Doom and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). When the western was the thing—every TV set in No Down Payment can be seen piping an interchangeable horse opera into the living room—he wrote westerns. (Or had them written for him, at least.) In addition to Yordan & Co.’s idiosyncratic oaters for Ray and Mann, there was Henry King’s The Bravados (1958) and Day of the Outlaw (1959), André de Toth’s last feature shot wholly in America, a bleak, snow-bound showdown between Robert Ryan’s rage-drunk cattleman and a gang of cutthroats led by Burl Ives, set in the valley settlement of Bitters, Wyoming. (De Toth’s signature camera move here is the circling pan, which serves to reinforce the feeling of nowhere-to-run enclosure.) We may never be able to confirm or deny the existence of Philip Yordan the writer, but it’s a plain fact that his name is attached to some of the finest films from De Toth, Ray, Mann, Ritt, Robson, and Lewis. In his shadowy presence and intangible contribution, he epitomizes the particular pseudoauthorship of the screenwriter under the studio system.

“ ‘Written’ by Philip Yordan” runs May 15–24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.