[M/tv Logo] The Films of Alan Smithee



A Remarkable

Smithee and
Dolores Fangot

I Was Noriega's
Love Slave

The Seme-y
Seams of Seem

On the Set
with Smithee
(a diary fragment)


About the

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Smithee at
the University
of Pennsylvania

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Movies and TV



Death in the Cheap Seats

x. trapnel

in some senses, one might describe smithee as bridging the generational gap between disney — of whom alfred hitchcock once enviously said, "if he doesn't like an actor's performance, he just tears him up!" — and lucas and speilberg, who, presumably when in the same position, simply hit the "delete" key. alas, as usual, smithee's technical innovations go unnoticed.

for Smithee has always been an innovator. case in point — one of Smithee's earliest and rarest films, Death in the Cheap Seats (1958), which i was fortunate enough to see a few months ago. although ostensibly based on the radio series Biff Larson, Broadway Detective, which played on the mutual network from 1955-56, and which featured the vocal talents of william conrad as biff larson — hard-boiled theatre critic/detective — and agnes moorehead as his faithful secretary, zelda (played in the movie version by clu gulager and mamie van doren, respectively), this film shows that even at this point in his career, smithee was determined to challenge the very limits of his medium.

taking a cue from such films as Kiss of Death, The Sweet Smell of Success, and stanley kubrick's Killer's Kiss — films which took advantage of new lightweight cameras and faster film stocks so they could shoot on actual locations — smithee decreed early on in the production that the entire film would be shot using a hand-held camera "so that I might capture the energy and confusion that is new york." unfortunately, he was unable to secure one of those lightweight cameras for the shoot and had to rely on an old studio mitchell weighing in excess of 250 pounds, which required at least three men to move around. nevertheless, smithee remained true to his vision and after the first series of rushes, which the producers declared "incomprehensible," managed to fast-talk them into letting him continue in the same fashion by pointing out how the unsteady camerawork perfectly mirrored the equally unstable personality of the hard-drinking, flashback-prone larson (a survivor of the bataan death march, a detail smithee made up on the spot), who was thereafter seldom shown without a glass of bourbon in one hand and a .38 in the other.

the film itself, revolving around the murder of a theatre impresario (joseph cotton) who is knifed to death during a performance at hubert's flea circus in times square (again, this was actually shot on location, with the result that the production was sued because several of that august institution's star performers died as a result of "clumsiness" on the part of the film crew), is also distinguished by the appearance of erstwhile pin-up queen betty page in the small but pivotal role of sister felicity, the nun who is the sole witness to cotton's murder. it is interesting that today, page, who has since become a born-again christian and who has steadfastly refused to talk about her former career, when asked about this film had this to say:

"alan smithee? christ, what an asshole! and you can quote me on that..."


Copyright © 1996-2003 by Ian Toll