March 13, 2013

Mark Stevens: Patience is Poison!




IT’S EASY TO FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH THE LIVES OF THE A-LISTERS. They have biographers and publicists. They’re the subject of countless scholarly books and magazine articles. Cagney, Bogart, Lancaster, Mitchum? No problem. It’s more difficult with a guy like Mark Stevens, who never really cracked the big time, but whose films and life story are of much interest to those passionate about film noir. Stevens never considered himself a great actor, but he had a gift that made his noir characters vividly real: the guts to lend them all of the worries, frustrations, and nervous energy he felt in his everyday life. He was a moody, irritable, and impatient person, who often let his anger get the best of him when things didn’t go his way. But he wasn’t without talent either — a driven individualist whose sole ambition was to make it in Hollywood, and who was willing to gamble everything on himself to do so. And although his efforts to become a powerbroker ultimately fell short, his talent and versatility, his professional conduct, and more importantly, the way he eventually turned his back on the Hollywood life, make him an unusual and fascinating figure.

Stevens is usually remembered for his work immediately following the war, when between 1946 and 1949 he appeared in a number of films for Twentieth Century Fox, before transitioning to starring roles on television. Like fellow Fox actors John Payne and Victor Mature, he was quite versatile, seguing easily from Technicolor musical comedies to tough-as-nails crime thrillers. His lasting success came early, in 1946’s The Dark Corner, where he looks at Lucille Ball and utters one of the most anguished and oft-cited lines in all of film noir: “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.” For that moment alone he merits a lasting place in movie history, but Stevens went on to appear in other noir films that aren’t as easily recalled, but are very bit as intriguing as his prestige pictures at Fox — including a pair of crackerjack low budget thrillers he not only starred in, but directed as well. 

Richard William Stevens (Daryl Zanuck suggested the name Mark, after Dana Andrews’ character in Laura) was born in 1916 to a well-to-do Cleveland family. He lived there only briefly before his parents divorced and his mother whisked him off to her family home in England, where they remained until she remarried and settled in Montreal. Like Alan Ladd, Stevens had been small and frail as a boy, and consequently grew up with a shaky self-image and a deep-rooted desire to prove himself. And like Ladd, he began to develop his body through competitive swimming and diving. Olympic glory wasn’t in the cards though — as a teenager Stevens severely injured his back on the springboard and was immobilized for months. The injury would plague him for the rest of his life, and it was during his initial convalescence that he began to frequent movie houses and fell in love with acting. Surgeries eventually returned him to normal mobility, but the injury kept him out of the service. He was twice rejected (in 1938 and 1939) when he tried to enlist.

Stevens’s mother wanted him to pursue medicine, and his stepfather, who manufactured locomotives, hoped he would join his business as an executive. Although his family was wealthy, he possessed a strong desire to make his own way, taking what work he could find to support his nighttime acting gigs. He plowed through an incredible assortment of odd jobs: soda jerk, truck driver, salesman, gas station attendant, haberdasher, window dresser, bill collector, sign painter, commercial artist, racecar driver, nightclub singer, radio announcer, and, if the stories are true, many more. How Stevens burned through so many jobs is a mystery, though he told Hedda Hopper that “I’ve always quit jobs I didn’t relish; and if I didn’t like the movie business I’d get out of it.” It’s also likely that his lack of patience, combined with an overwhelming desire to be his own boss, led to some firings. Fan magazines would later play up his work history, believing the menial jobs gave him credibility with working class ticket buyers.  

His first acting parts were in community theater productions, but he soon graduated to a Montreal stock company. Like other aspiring young actors at the time, Stevens took the first train to New York to give Broadway a try. He could sing (quite well) and dance, and (again like Alan Ladd) had honed his voice and diction as a radio announcer. It didn’t work out. Parts were rare in 1938, and in no time Stevens couldn’t make the rent. Instead of packing it in, he slept on Central Park benches, but soon returned home. Over the next few years he split time between Quebec and Ohio, working himself to the bone: hustling at a department store during the day, singing in clubs at night, and filling his remaining hours doing whatever he could on the radio — writing, producing, announcing, singing — even the technical stuff.

When his savings account surpassed a thousand dollars, he bought a one-way ticket to California and set himself up like a big shot in a Beverly Hills suite while looking for an “in” at the studios — an absurd living arrangement he was only able to maintain for a few weeks. Before long he was starving, and once again eying park benches. Then he finally caught a break — Warner Bros. agreed to give him a screen test. When the big day arrived, Stevens was so broke that he had to hitchhike the twelve miles from his flop in Long Beach to the studio in Burbank. He arrived late and flustered, but managed to hold it together well enough to earn a contract, under the newly minted name Stephen Richards.

His first screen appearance came in the 1943 Cary Grant film Destination Tokyo. Over the next two years, other bits followed: Passage to Marseilles with Humphrey Bogart, The Doughgirls with Ann Sheridan, Hollywood Canteen with everyone else on the studio lot, and finally a decent speaking role in an Errol Flynn war picture, Objective, Burma!. Yet Stevens was, as ever, impatient with the speed at which his career was developing. He was treading water between meager parts, twiddling his thumbs on the lot for days and weeks on end. Eventually he screwed up the courage to confront Jack Warner directly about his lack of progress. When the tempestuous studio boss rebuffed him, Stevens refused to show up for work, and Warner Bros. promptly dropped him.

The lone positive that came out of Stevens’s time at Warner’s was his marriage. He met aspiring actress Annelle Hayes when he helped with her screen test, and the pair were married in March of 1945. Within a year they had a son, Mark Richard; daughter Arrelle came shortly thereafter. The marriage was still young in 1947 when Stevens’s restlessness got the best of him once again, and he left Annelle for a highly publicized tryst with, of all people, Hedy Lamarr — Photoplay trumpeted his impending divorce. To Stevens’ credit he realized his mistake and publicly repented in Louella Parsons’s column. Annelle took him back and stayed with him throughout his Hollywood days, but when he relocated to Europe in the late fifties she didn’t go with him. They divorced in 1960. 

Ironically, his separation from Warner Bros. made possible Stevens’s much more successful stint at Twentieth Century Fox, where potential leading men were placed in ensembles or matched with established female stars in order to test audience response and gauge their potential to carry a picture on their own. Gregory Peck, who rapidly ascended through a series of now classic films, is a fine example of the sort of “grooming” that was a Fox specialty. Even though The Valley of Decision (1945), Spellbound (1945), and Duel in the Sun(1946) are now considered Peck films, at the time he wasn’t the primary draw. That honor belonged to Greer Garson, Ingrid Bergman, and Jennifer Jones, respectively. Although Peck and Stevens broke into films at roughly the same time, by 1950 Peck had already top-billed a Best Picture winner and was a star of the first order.

It quickly became apparent that a similar trajectory wasn’t in the cards for Mark Stevens. He could act and he was good-looking, although he had neither the dramatic range of a Peck, nor the looks of a Tyrone Power, Fox’s biggest star. His height didn’t help either — although the studio fact sheets listed him at six feet, he was clearly shorter. Essentially, what Stevens proved during his first five years in the business was that he didn’t have what it takes to carry a movie — he had just enough presence to fulfill leading man duties without overshadowing whoever he was paired with. Although he was a technically a “movie star,” he was rarely the star of his own movies. 

By signing Stevens just two weeks after Warner Bros. dropped him, Fox chief Darryl Zanuck gave the actor his great opportunity. His first picture for the studio was the sort of plum part he’d been pining for during his days at Warner Bros., opposite Joan Fontaine in the marriage drama From This Day Forward (1946). He scored in the part and it led to The Dark Corner, but the role didn’t serve as the springboard he was hoping for. Instead it established the supporting-lead precedent that would define his tenure at the big studios: alongside Lucille Ball (but billed fourth) in The Dark Corner (1946), married to Olivia De Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948), against Richard Widmark in The Street with No Name (1948), framing June Haver in I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (1947) and Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949), and playing second fiddle to William Powell in Dancing in the Dark (1949). On loan to MGM, Stevens stood third behind Deborah Kerr and Robert Walker in Please Believe Me (1950). His only true starring vehicle from the period was Sand (1949), an all but forgotten western in which it could fairly be argued that he took a backseat to the film’s grandiose Technicolor cinematography.

What makes The Dark Corner so memorable as a film noir is how it places its protagonists against powerful and anonymous forces, which are possessed of an almost supernatural ability to manipulate events. It’s one of the earliest films to put forward a hero whose fortunes seem to rise and fall solely at the whims of fate — Sam Spade he isn’t. Stevens plays Bradford Galt, just out of Sing Sing after being wrongly imprisoned. With the help of his secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball, on punishment for grousing at her MGM bosses), Galt is trying to put his life back together as a private detective, but has a long way to go. One night he notices a mysterious white-suited figure (Bill Bendix) on his tail and assumes that Jardine, the ex-partner who framed him, is having him followed. In reality, Galt is being framed as a patsy by Hardy Cathcart, an art dealer involved with Jardine. Galt becomes a murder suspect early on, with the rest of the story follows the would-be couple as they try to unravel the scheme and stay one step ahead of the cops. 

The glue that binds The Dark Corner together is Ball’s experience — and Stevens’s lack of it. He comes across as nervous, fidgety, and uncertain. His character is fresh from prison, a broken man one misstep away from heading back to the joint. When we hear that famous line: “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me” the sentiment rings true, reminding us that the young actor may have felt a deep connection with his character — his life and future were on the line. Yet it’s Ball who gets them through it, the character and the actor. Lucy’s strength and presence plays well against Stevens’s insecurity. At times she seems more motherly than amorous, which diminishes the film’s romantic angle, but makes its damaged and neurotic protagonist much more compelling. 

The Dark Corner was a hit — Zanuck liked it so much he gave Stevens a $10,000 bonus and a make or break opportunity: top billing in The Street with No Name. The beautifully dark semi-documentary tribute to America’s G-men was a critical assignment for Stevens, as well as costar Richard Widmark. Jim Ridley cut to the chase in The Village Voice: “Pity Mark Stevens … he’s wiped off the screen the instant second-billed Widmark shows up as his quarry.” Stevens is as reliable as ever, equally competent and professional — he even does his own stunts — but Widmark steals the picture and makes it abundantly clear that while Stevens was good enough to have his name above the title, it should never be listed first. 

Stevens next found himself in The Snake Pit, a prestige production that earned six Academy Award nominations. At first glance it seemed a fantastic part, but Stevens was by no means the star. Although he was ostensibly the leading man, his job was merely to provide support for acting powerhouse Olivia De Havilland. Stevens had proven that he couldn’t wrest the spotlight from anyone, which is why he was a no-brainer casting choice in a film with such a dynamic woman’s role. His chance at being a big time leading man was gone. His next project was Sand, followed by another musical outing with Haver and finally the Powell picture. Then the loan-outs began, and his contract at Fox finally lapsed. Over the next few years he made numerous films, all low budget freelance projects, first at the Little Three Majors, and then Poverty Row. The most significant of these, at least for noir enthusiasts, was Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), an entertaining B from Columbia that placed him in a prowl car alongside Edmond O’Brien — who gets to drive. It’s a buddy cop movie, and you know what happens to the cop in the passenger seat. That’s where Stevens’s career was at in 1950. 

The actor got his second wind in 1953, when he took over the role of Martin Kane on the live-broadcast NBC television series. At first it didn’t seem a choice assignment — after all, Lloyd Nolan and William Gargan had already worn the role out. But Stevens was as restless as ever, and this offered something new, as well as a steady paycheck. He discovered that the whirlwind pace of production suited him, and that the transition to television may have been a blessing in disguise. 

After a year on Kane, he took a huge risk and bought a half-stake in the popular and long running series Big Town. He replaced Patrick McVey as the star and breathed new life into the show. It earned high ratings, even with a late airtime of Tuesday night at 10:30. Stevens played crusading reporter Steve Wilson, who uncovered big city corruption, righted social wrongs, and brought crooks to justice. The ability to multitask (earned during his radio days) paid off as he found a home in the new and rapidly evolving medium. Brought in merely as a performer, it didn’t take long for him to increase his stake tenfold, transitioning from actor to writer, then director, and then producer. By his second season on Big Town, TV Guide referred to him as “the undisputed boss,” and Stevens embraced being an executive.

Throughout Stevens’ television period, he continued to make at least one film per year. His resurgence had even garnered him enough clout to get a director’s gig at Allied Artists (formerly Monogram, the home of The Bowery Boys and Bomba the Jungle Boy). He decided to make a crime film, Cry Vengeance, a revenge thriller along the lines of The Big Heat, but set in Alaska, and with a grim energy all its own. Stevens also starred as Vic Barron, a cop who got too close to some mobsters, and ends up framed for the same bomb blast that kills his family. He gets out of prison hell bent on revenge, and his search takes him to Ketchikan, Alaska. Some have deemed the movie too derivative to be taken seriously, though anyone who dismisses the film for this reason might benefit from a closer look. 

It’s certainly a low budget effort, but Stevens demonstrates talent for direction: the movie is fast paced, well constructed and acted, and never feels cheap. It’s awash in a relentlessly dark undercurrent that proves he understood not only the deep-seated bitterness of his character, but also the cynicism and moral ambiguity of the time. The film plays with good-guy bad-guy conventions, and constantly challenges viewers to reconsider accepted character types — and the on-location cinematography is exceptional. 

In spite of any similarities to other noirs, Cry Vengeance offers viewers a few spectacular moments. There’s a riveting scene where Vic Barron cases reformed gangster Tino Morelli’s house, and finds the man’s daughter playing in the yard. He lowers himself to the little girl’s level, with an alligator’s smile, and draws a .38 from his coat pocket. He removes a shell from the chamber and places it into her small, outstretched hand. “What’s that?” she asks. After a breathless pause: “It’s a present. For your daddy.” (If the scene rings a bell, Nicholas Winding Refn riffs on it in his 2011 film noir, Drive.) Watching Cry Vengeance, it’s almost impossible not to draw parallels between Stevens’s characters and the trajectory of his Hollywood career. Bradford Galt and Vic Barron are both characters fresh from prison, but the neurotic, yet ultimately hopeful youth of The Dark Corner is long gone, replaced by much older and far more jaded man.

Back at NBC Stevens was busy starring in eighty episodes of Big Town, directing half of them. He felt on top of the world, but his television days were numbered — in the early days of the medium the networks didn’t always own the shows they broadcast. NBC didn’t own Martin Kane or Big Town — the tobacco company that sponsored Big Town owned half, Stevens the rest. As time passed the networks adapted to the legal nuances of the medium and began to phase out properties they didn’t own, resulting in the death of many successful vehicles such as Big Town

Stevens explained the situation in a 1956 interview with TV Guide: “What happened to Big Town is what happens to a lot of TV shows. The time slot the network had for it didn’t justify the rising production costs, and the network wouldn’t give a better time because it didn’t own the show. So the sponsor dropped it. This happened to me once before. I was Martin Kane, Private Eye … but the network didn’t own it and we couldn’t get the right time for it. I was glad enough to drop Martin Kane, though, and move on to Big Town. Now I’m just as glad about Big Town. I’m just sick of acting.” While the statement jibes with Stevens’s perpetual need to move on, it also sounds defensive. He could have ascended through the administrative ranks at NBC, or possibly even one of the film studios (the Los Angeles Times described him as “one of Hollywood’s top executives of the future.”) but he gambled on himself one more time and started his own production company. 

Mark Stevens Productions was formed in 1955, with huge plans: there was to be a filmed version of the dark western novel Feud at Five Rivers, a new primetime series for future Mister Ed star Alan Young, and a pilot based on the radio drama The Mysterious Traveler, set for Vincent Price. Stevens also expanded into the music business, launching Mark Stevens Music (publishing), Mark Records (distribution), and Marelle Productions (retail). None of the ventures panned out — Mark Stevens Productions officially brought just one film to theaters, Time Table (though at times Stevens claimed others, including Cry Vengeance and The Bitter Ride). All four companies crashed within a year when, as described in a Twentieth Century Fox press release for the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, “outside management of his company forced him into bankruptcy.” 

The details of the failures are vague, but in all likelihood Stevens simply sunk too much money into projects that didn’t pan out. The legacy of Mark Stevens Productions isn’t completely hollow though. Time Table is a fantastic film noir in which Stevens once again directs and stars — this time as another stiff-jawed law enforcement type who makes horrible choices and pays a steep price.

Time Table (1956) is a movie with a twist: Stevens plays Charlie Norman, an insurance cop ironically assigned to investigate a train heist that he orchestrated himself. It turns out Charlie is sick of his marriage and tired of his middle class, suburban life. He’s got a pretty Mexican girlfriend and dreams of the good life south of the border. Like his famous predecessor Walter Neff, he thinks he has the angles figured and can beat the system, and recruits a crew to pull off a complicated train heist. Charlie’s master plan revolves around adherence to a strict timetable — when one thing goes wrong, a chain reaction happens that flushes all of his plans down the drain. 

It’s an exciting film that not only demonstrates Stevens’s flair for direction, but also shows improvement over his previous efforts. The opening is taut and exciting — a ten-minute sequence depicting the train robbery — and it sets the stage for a fast-paced and provocative film noir. Charlie Norman is a potent character; he inhabits a dark, obsessive world where money and status are what matters; where a man is judged by the kind of car he drives rather than the contribution he makes. Ironically, the character reminds us of the actor who brings him to life: “Patience in fine for a guy like Joe — It goes with his two pants suit, his washable necktie, and his ’49 car. For me, patience in poison!” And when the weight of Charlie’s world becomes too much to bear, he does what Stevens tended to do in his own life: he schemes for a way out.

Time Table is at once a good-looking thriller with a superb cast that rises far above its low-budget roots, while also offering a harsh criticism of the raging materialism of the fifties. But more than anything else, it offers a real insight into the mind of the man who produced, directed, and starred in the film. In its final act, Charlie’s wife confronts him, begging to know why he’s ruined their lives:
“We had so much Charlie. Why, why?”
“The house becomes a prison, the job a trap,”
“What did you want?”
“A new kind of life.”

In the wake of the disastrous ending of his production company, Mark Stevens had finally had enough. He took a few acting and directing jobs in TV, and then bolted for Europe. He settled down in Majorca, with the intention of becoming, of all things, a novelist. The details of his life overseas are scant; it’s said that he wrote four novels, with titles like Run Fast, Run Far and The Ex-Patriots, yet it’s unclear whether or not any of them were published. He continued to try new jobs, and owned a restaurant, maybe two, as well as a few apartment buildings. He went back to California from time to time, and appeared in films and television shows — usually westerns — throughout the late fifties and sixties. His best moment came in 1964 when he returned to Fox to do Fate is the Hunter with Glenn Ford. Featuring Oscar nominee Milt Krasner’s cinematography, it’s a pretty good film that should have reinvigorated Stevens’s domestic film career. Yet by the end of the year he was back overseas, appearing in one atrociously bad European movie after another. He rounded out his acting career with guest spots on popular American TV shows like Kojak, Simon & Simon, and Magnum, P.I. His final TV appearance came in 1987, after which he retired in Spain. He died from cancer in 1994 at age 77. 

Rarely do performers break with Hollywood. More often than not they try desperately to hang onto the spotlight until it either humiliates or kills them — there are a thousand Aldo Rays for every Deanna Durbin. Yet Mark Stevens walked away when he still had ample opportunity in the business — maybe not as an above the title motion picture star, but surely as an actor, director, producer, or possibly even as an executive. When his production company folded he didn’t become grist for the Tinsel Town mill. He just left, leaving us to wonder why. Maybe he had too much pride to stay. Maybe he meant it in 1956 when he told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t like to act, I’m not a very good actor and I’m not kidding myself about it.” On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason why he burned through all those early jobs and the various iterations of his Hollywood life — Mark Stevens just might have been a turbulent man who couldn’t stand to do one thing for very long. Yet we know this for certain: while he may not have conquered Hollywood, he lived on his own terms, and in so doing came to resemble our film noir heroes. 

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I’m indebted to Mr. Ned Comstock, film librarian at the University of Southern California. Without his willingness to help a stranger on the other side of the country, this article would not have been possible. 

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I originally wrote this piece for Noir City, the quarterly magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and it is included in the recently released Noir City Annual 2012. Do your self a favor and order a copy from Amazon here. The book is crammed full of the best in noir writing, and the proceeds go to the preservation of the original prints of these great films! 




7 comments:

  1. Congratulations on fine review of Mark Stevens' career. I really only know him from DARK CORNER and TIMETABLE, two very good films.i didn't know he had a big career on Tv,both sides of the camera.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

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  2. Good post. I watch quite a few old noir films populated by good but relatively unknown actors. I always wondered what kind of lives they lived. I often see old men bagging groceries or washing cars and picture them as actors 50 years ago.

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  3. Re Mark Steven--

    I think he just didn't have it. Warmth, empathy, charisma. He was fortunate to have had opportunity. As for the comparison to Alan Ladd, that is ridiculous. Alan Ladd was a movie star. Plenty of other 5'6" - 5'8" men were as well. Bogart, Tracy (maybe marginally bigger, Cagney, George Raft, Tom Cruise in our time. In any case appearance isn't the key. Laughton, Edward G. were real movie stars. Neither tall or good looking. But, charismatic and talented, Yes! And many more.

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    1. He probbaly didn't have the stardom talent of the afore mentioned but not every one can for me his turn in the Dark Corner is a classic Film Noir and if he only ever did that it will always make him an actor that gave us a great Noir movie that can never be take away from him , also if you look at the industry today some actors can never really crack the big screen but are for some reason amazing on the small screen I think Mark Stevens was one of those actors.

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  4. An Edit of Sorts:

    ....Neither tall nor good looking. But, charismatic and talented, Yes! And there were many more. Might include John Garfield on that list.

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  5. Merci pour cette biographie de Mark Stevens, acteur que j'ai découvert adolescent dans le très noir " Jack Slade"(1953). Depuis je collectione tout ce qui le concerne, photos, lobby cards,dvd, posters. Je possède bien sûr " cry vengeance"( en France : la vengeance de Scarface) et " Timetable", deux films noirs que comme vous, j'apprécie. J'ai aussi " between midnight and dawn" (en France: De minuit à l'aube).Merci encore pour cette biographie sur cet acteur injustement méconnu.

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