Director Hugo Fregonese and Savage Pampas (Part Two)

*contains spoilers

Jack Palance (1919-2006 natural causes) would star as Jack the Ripper in Fregonese’s first black and white movie since My Six Convicts entitled Man in the Attic (1953). Easily accessible because it is in the public domain, it’s a remake of the well-worn tale of The Lodger which had been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1926 and director John Brahm (1893-1982) in 1944 with a memorable performance by Laird Cregar (1913-44 heart attack), who had used amphetamines to lose weight shortly before his death of a heart attack after making the movie.

Man in the Attic (1954) poster

Palance is no Cregar, but he is still capable of portraying menace which he does so well that there is no denying he is The Ripper which dilutes the tension of the whole piece. Fregonese, however, captures some of the atmosphere of what is meant to be the dark streets of Whitechapel in London in what must have been dwindling fortunes in Hollywood in terms of the productions he was helming. This one appears to have been done through his friendship with former Universal producer Leonard Goldstein who would soon perish at a relatively early age, something which may have been instrumental behind Fregonese leaving Hollywood.

Man in the Attic (1954) trailer

It’s a sturdy script and you really can’t go wrong with Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) source novel but it is hardly a classic in terms of all the Jack the Ripper movies ever made.

Fregonese’s final two Hollywood films are a couple of his best, however, and they include the historical American Civil War drama The Raid (1954) starring Van Heflin (1908-71 heart attack in coma for seven weeks), Anne Bancroft (1931-2005 uterine cancer) and Richard Boone (1917-81 throat cancer) while the last one is the Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973 bladder cancer) as a gangster in a throwback to 1930s crime movies entitled Black Tuesday (1954).

The Raid (1954) poster

The Raid is in colour, but not in widescreen, and tells of escaped Confederate prisoners led by Heflin who plan to rob and burn a Union town near the Canadian border.

It’s a small canvas, just like Apache Drums, but The Raid captures the hatred of each side for the other with some slight focus on a child played by Tommy Rettig (1941-96 heart failure) who idolises Heflin as a man who passes himself off in the town as a Northerner when really he’s “a dirty Reb”, something the boy discovers shortly before the planned attack.

Van Heflin (left) with Tommy Rettig in The Raid (1954)

There is tension to be had in the screenplay by Sydney Boehm (1908-90) who also wrote classic crime film The Big Heat (1953). Fregonese, working once more for Goldstein’s Panoramic Productions, which were distributed by 20th Century Fox, shortly before Goldstein’s sudden death, captures the small-town atmosphere. There is a High Noon countdown element, in a long-winded way, and the characters that litter the movie are men who are far from perfect on both sides of the conflict.

Writer Sydney Boehm

Heflin almost seems torn but there is no doubt he will go through with The Raid. The credits of the movie claim it is a true story and among the great cast are also Peter Graves (1926-2010 heart attack) and Lee Marvin (1924-87 heart attack in hospital).

The centrepiece of the drama and tension is an auction over the bidding of a Rebel flag from the battle of Shenandoah. It is a symbol of the hate and hidden loyalties among the bidders with the truth of Heflin’s character yet to be revealed as he outbids a Union soldier, who later admits to being a coward, played by Boone.

Heflin is a terrorist who walks around with a carpet bag and The Raid would be one of the few movies about terrorists in the community, certainly one set in the 1860s.

Lee Marvin (right) in The Raid (1954)

“We were playing war,” says a twelve-year-old Rettig when he climbs through a window and nearly gets himself and a playmate shot by Heflin who is busy studying plans of his attack in his hotel bedroom. Such is war – nothing but boys playing at being men, although seriously and for keeps.

“We’re going to burn more than their banks… let them know what the stink of war is like… rub their noses in it,” says Heflin with hate, despite his acquaintance with the town’s children. He wants revenge for Sherman’s march on Atlanta.

Van Heflin means business in The Raid (1954)

The Raid shows the tension of being an apparent hero to both sides of a war, impossible that it is, with that role being thrust on Heflin after he commits murder in the town church which is central to the community to save the congregation. It is also the place where the clock counts down the time to the actual raid.

The Raid is not a bona fide classic and perhaps Fregonese never made one, but it is indicative of the direction Fregonese was heading in Hollywood and the possible fulfilment of promise. It was just that Goldstein died and that Fregonese, who probably made no more powerful friends due to his reclusive nature, perhaps sealed his fate in Hollywood as a result.

Director Hugo Fregonese (left) with actor Spencer Tracy on the MGM lot

But he did make one more Goldstein production, this one released by United Artists after the producer’s death – Black Tuesday. It has Edward G. Robinson, perhaps rather improbably, escaping from death row as he is about to get the electric chair. He takes a fellow death row prisoner, played by Peter Graves, who has stashed a couple of hundred thousand dollars and didn’t give it up to the authorities even though they offered him another ten days of life before giving him the chair!

Black Tuesday (1954) is another good Fregonese movie

Of course, Robinson is after the money and plans to fly to South America with it once Graves has revealed where it is. But Graves is severely injured during the escape and the money is in a bank safety deposit box which only Graves can access. Robinson’s plans are in jeopardy of going awry. The film leads to the prisoners and their cronies being cornered in an out of the way warehouse by the advancing authorities as you’d expect… shortly after Graves has retrieved the money and bled all over the bank in the meantime.

Fregonese is again a master of suspense and atmosphere in this cheap movie which shows Robinson at his Key Largo (1948) Johnny Rocco best or worst. it’s a shame the transfer of the film I saw was so poor that it was an effort to view it at all.

Key Largo (1948) trailer

What is interesting about Fregonese’s departure from the Hollywood scene is that it more or less coincided with the approaching fall of the government of president Juan Peron (1895-1974) in Argentina in 1955. He was a nationalist leader once popular with the working class in the mid-40s. In fact, he was so popular that he was forced to resign from the government, by his opponents within the armed forces, back in 1945. Arrested four days later, there was a groundswell of support for him thanks to the actress and politician Eva Duarte (1919-52 cervical cancer), soon to be Evita Peron and he was released.

Evita and Juan Peron at the height of their popularity

They married shortly after on 22 October 1945 and this none too successful actress became the First Lady of Argentina when Peron’s Labor Party won office. As fans of the musical and movie Evita would know, she remained the catalyst and the reason for the height of nationalism in Argentina for several years before her untimely death in 1952.

Fregonese’s original Savage Pampas movie Pampa barbara was caught up in that original groundswell and was reportedly released on 9 October 1945 which was the day that Peron resigned. Its tale of working soldiers was possibly a success as a result. Fregonese didn’t flee Argentina under Peron, oppositely, he thrived. Evita Peron died in 1952 and Juan turned increasingly to Fascism before there was a military coup d’etat and he was ejected in 1955 to go and live in exile in Portugal and Spain.

A foreign release poster for Pampa barbara (1945)

Fregonese’s Hollywood career ended around the same time. Juan Peron was probably living in either Spain or Portugal when Fregonese made the remake of Savage Pampas in Spain in the mid-60s. Was there some type of hero worship of the nationalist leader? But what is also interesting is that the last period of Fregonese’s filmmaking occurred in 1973 around the time when Juan Peron found favour with the Argentine public again and was re-elected to office in his late 70s.

Evita (1996) trailer

Fregonese made three films in between 1973 and 1975 and the last was a nationalist film about the pioneer of Argentine aviation Jorge Newbery (1875-1914 injuries from plane crash).

Juan Peron died aged 78 on 1 July 1974 and after the release of Fregonese’s last film the following year, the director, interestingly, retired from filmmaking.

But this is to remove a slab of Fregonese’s international work after his departure from Hollywood. His marriage to Domergue may have already been over as there was a separation before their final divorce in 1958. Her acting career peaked around the time Fregonese’s Hollywood career ended.

Foreign release poster for The Wanderers (1956)

The director made a film called The Wanderers (1956) which is an Italian film starring Peter Ustinov (1921-2004 heart failure). Shot in Sicily and set in the early 20th Century, it has recently been restored and enjoyed enthusiasm among Italian critics, despite in its day being promptly forgotten upon its initial release.

It is about a puppeteer in a world about to be overthrown by the wonder of cinema In the form of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977 stroke in sleep). There is also a young orphan who rejects his destiny for the priesthood and instead shows independence and a noble heart. It is said to be a tragedy and well shot by Fregonese.

Seven Thunders (1957) poster

The British film Seven Thunders aka the Beast of Marseilles (1957) followed and it is about two escaped British prisoners of war behind enemy lines. I haven’t seen this one either but the reviews aren’t bad. Interesting is the James Robertson Justice (1907-75 strokes) character, who helps the prisoners, called Dr Martut. He was based on a real-life serial killer named Dr Marcel Petiot (1897-1946 guillotined) who hid his victims in his Paris home basement. Filmed in Britain and Marseilles, it sounds like a fun one to catch up with!!

Then Fregonese filmed the underrated Harry Black and the Tiger (1958) aka Harry Black for Fox again as a part of a reported deal of three pictures. With a script by Sydney Boehm again, who wrote The Raid and Black Tuesday, it is set in India and stars Stewart Granger (1913-93 cancer or tuberculosis) in King Solomon’s Mines (1950) great white hunter mode, tracking and hoping to kill a rogue tiger which is menacing the locals. Add to this the marital woes of his former wife and the fact that Granger’s character is an alcoholic who loves his Johnny Walker and you have some interesting drama. The ex is played by dark haired actress Barbara Rush (1927-) who was an actress in the Domergue mould.

Harry Black and the Tiger (1958) poster

It is one of Fregonese’s first Cinemascope pictures and he proves he can fill a big screen just as well as he did a small one going all the way back to Apache Drums at the beginning of his Hollywood career.

The film was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Actor and it wasn’t Granger but Indian actor I.S Jonar (1920-84) who received it. Fregonese wasn’t mentioned and the film has a bad reputation among critics but animal lovers comment how real the tiger’s behaviour in the movie is.

Actor I.S Jonar took to Fregonese’s direction

It would be years before Fregonese would make another film as Harry Black and the Tiger was dumped on the American market as a part of an obscure double bill. The other films Fregonese was meant to make with Fox didn’t eventuate.

He found work in Germany though doing The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse (1964) and Old Shatterhand (1964) which used various European locations such as Italy and Yugoslavia.

His use of the widescreen is masterful in the latter movie although I can’t find an English version and the script is not well regarded.

Fregonese would not work in Hollywood again.

Les Barker (right) in Old Shatterhand (1964)

I’ll end the article with the remake of Savage Pampas which was shot around 1965. For years I saw the English panned and scanned release on DVD which had about ten minutes shorn from its alleged full running time. I tracked down a widescreen release with beautiful colour but this ran for only 92 minutes – another ten minutes shorter. It looks great and what I liked originally in the faded panned and scanned prints looks incredible in its original form despite what must have been a rather low budget for this Spanish shot ‘epic’. The 112-minute version seems to be only a legend!

Producer Jaime Prades

Fregonese was now working with Uruguayan producer Jaime Prades (1902-81) who had worked in association with Samuel Bronston (1908-94 Alzheimer’s) on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). So, Savage Pampas has epic credentials, although Prades would be associated with the bad Spanish el cheapo Assignment Terror (1970) which Fregonese goes uncredited for some minor work. No wonder he returned to Argentina!

But back to Savage Pampas and with lines like: “Crush his skull in!” from Aussie actor Ron Randell (1918-2005 stroke), as a deserting soldier fights an Indian for a woman and his life – the script uses language just within the realm of taste with sentences ending just before and expletive is used.

Ron Randell with his well proportioned wife Laya Raki

Randell is a great bad guy and Robert Taylor’s (1911-69 lung cancer) performance as the hero head soldier in the movie is probably the hardest and harshest of his later macho characterizations. Taylor sports a toothbrush moustache and a small beard on his chin, his features hardened by years of smoking that would eventually kill him. Yet he is still spry enough to combat hand to hand both at the beginning of the movie and the end.

The prostitutes in Savage Pampas (1966)

Randell was married at the time to one of the actresses playing a prostitute. That actress is Laya Raki (1927-2018 peacefully) who worked as a dancer and actress in her native Germany in the 50s thanks to her figure of 38-23-36. What is also interesting about the cast is that along with Taylor there is Marc Lawrence (1910-2005) playing a fellow soldier. Lawrence once admitted to being a Communist in the 1950s and was blacklisted, while Taylor was a friendly witness for HUAC and denounced Communism. But then again Lawrence named names when he was interrogated. So, I guess they weren’t diametrically opposed after all as they played together in the movie.

Ty Hardin (left) and Robert Taylor in Savage Pampas

I don’t know how much was left of the original screenplay by Homero Manzi (1907-51) and Ulises Petit de Murat (1907-83) of the 1945 movie is left but it must have been well regarded to be remade. I wonder what Juan Peron thought of it all as the remake of Savage Pampas was made when his reputation back in Argentina was starting to re-establish itself.

A nice looking foreign release poster for Savage Pampas (1966)

Taylor snarls and orders everyone around, including a prisoner who is travelling with the prostitutes across the dangerous terrain, played by Ty Hardin (1930-2017), and while the prostitutes are standard issue in terms of character, they also don’t go around topless at all, which was yet to happen in mainstream movies. Give it a year or so!

Fregonese would write the script for the Garden of Evil (1954) remake Find a Place to Die (1968) but it is not half as good as Savage Pampas. It stars Jeffrey Hunter and I have watched it a number of times but it fails to grab me… Instead I must watch Savage Pampas again! Why? I don’t know!! The critics generally hate it.

Hugo Fregonese really did have some talent which remained unfulfilled in Hollywood

Hugo Fregonese was a man who couldn’t settle down until the end of his career and then it was with his family on his beloved Il Tigre island. Perhaps he was always unhappy outside of his homeland? But his short Hollywood career had him create some good movies even if they are more or less forgotten or overlooked. His career outside of Argentina ended along with that of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. But it is perhaps unfair to link the two except both loved their country. Fregonese loved the call of the movies more!

Fregonese was a director who had a gift for atmosphere and composition of a frame or mise en scene as the French call it. He is an unjustly forgotten b-movie master who began and finished his film with the epic tale of Savage Pampas. I hope Juan was proud!!

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