Caine and Able

A director’s director gets his close-up.

Sidney J. Furie has directed 50 or so films over the last 60 years. He has worked in Canada, Great Britain and Hollywood, rubbing shoulders with the on-screen stars and the off-screen movers and shakers of the business. The most influential critics of his time have praised or condemned him. Most people—at least most people of a certain age—have seen his better known films: The Ipcress File, Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C. Yet until now, no one has thought to write a book about him. Daniel Kremer, a fan, has addressed that neglect in Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films, a lengthy and detailed study that spins fact, commentary and anecdotes galore into a story in itself.

The story begins in Canada, where Furie was the only child of a Toronto Jewish family. Although Canada had almost no film industry during the 1930s and ’40s, Furie decided early in life that he wanted to direct films. He followed that ambition into the nascent CBC television studios, where he soon found himself churning out episodes of a drama series. Moonlighting from that job, he produced, wrote and directed two of the first English-Canadian features of the current era. A Dangerous Age in 1957 was based on his own ill-fated attempt to elope with his girlfriend. A Cool Sound from Hell two years later offered a disapproving look at Toronto’s beat generation.

Furie worked tirelessly to sell his self-made features to distributors at home and abroad. At the same time, he sold himself as an emerging talent. His reward was a chance to work his way up through the British film industry from low budget horror to rock and roll films to dramas of his own choosing. In The Leather Boys in 1963, the kid from Canada delivered a classic of the then popular subgenre of working class tragedies.

Furie’s breakthrough film was The Ipcress File two years later, which also made an international star of the British actor Michael Caine. Caine played an anti-James Bond, the spy as bespectacled everyman, working in a grimy job with unforgiving bosses. Furie gave the film an anti-Bond style. While the Bond films were and are produced with conventional action-film shooting and editing, Furie employed an idiosyncratic approach to filling the wide screen. Characters and action took up small parts of the frame and were often filmed from jarringly oblique angles. From one end of the film to the other, we are literally spying on the plot. To this day, The Ipcress File remains a textbook demonstration of how the textbook rules can be broken.

The Ipcress File was Furie’s ticket to Hollywood. After less than happy experiences working with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, he settled into a multi-picture deal with the ailing Paramount studio. At Paramount and, later, as a freelancer, his work peaked in the 1970s and ’80s. Little Fauss and Big Halsy with Robert Redford in 1970 was a despairing road movie that caught the ambience of Nixon-era America. Furie’s choice of Diana Ross to play Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues in 1972 was lamented by Holiday fans yet celebrated by audiences and critics. The Boys in Company C was a Vietnam War story whose opening act was borrowed (to be kind) in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in 1987. A bloody and erotic horror film, The Entity pushed the limits of depicting physical and psychological assault. Iron Eagle beguiled its teenaged audiences with its fantasy of an 18-year-old flying an United States Air Force fighter jet. It was profitable enough to spawn a sequel, Iron Eagle II, which Furie also directed.

Throughout his Hollywood years and indeed for almost all of his career, Furie worked continually. As he finished each one of his 50 films he was already planning the next. Inevitably, not all of them were gems. Gable and Lombard was angrily denounced by anyone who knew either of those stars. Superman IV lost half its budget in the middle of production. The resulting film was bad enough to shut down the Superman franchise for years thereafter. Other films were victims of poor distribution and still others simply collapsed beneath the weight of conflicting egos.

Furie’s Hollywood life ended with Ladybugs in 1992, a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle that owed much to every other film made about children’s sports teams. He has, in the years since, turned out direct-to-video and direct-to-cable films, a kind of retirement hobby after his years in the Hollywood wars. He shows no sign of stopping. Drive Me to Vegas and Mars, shot in 2015, will be released some time this year.

In 2010, the Directors Guild of Canada at long last honoured Furie with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Daniel Kremer’s book is another sort of long overdue honour. Kremer, a filmmaker based in San Francisco, has had unlimited access to Furie and, it appears, Furie’s innumerable contacts. He has made thorough searches of trade journals, read 60 years of reviews and delved into the memoirs of characters infamous and obscure who crossed paths with his subject.

Kremer’s research has yielded a friendly overview just short of hagiography. Lines from negative reviews and the occasional disparaging remarks about Furie are overwhelmed by the laudatory descriptions and appreciations of him. Famous people offer testimonials. Furie’s own comments are the last word when writing about any dispute.

As Kremer takes us from film to film (with a heavy emphasis on the Hollywood years), a reasonably consistent picture emerges. Furie is a tough and resilient guy who is, above all, working for a living. He has the street smarts to stick-handle hard-nosed studio executives, number-crunching producers, unworkable scripts, temperamental actors, union crews, and the fickle tastes of the critics who make or break his productions.

Furie generally made his films his way. He demonstrated this by publicly burning the original script of The Ipcress File on the first day of shooting. On another shoot, he invited a particularly obstreperous actor to step outside with him. If he had to, he could rework scripts on set or pick up a camera and shoot an unplanned scene. No matter what the catastrophe, his films were completed, as per the Hollywood mantra, “on time and under budget.”

This work ethic is the real focus of Kremer’s book. Furie’s upbringing is dealt with quickly. There are passing references to his personal life: marriage, birth of children, divorce, remarriage, birth of more children and moves from one piece of upscale real estate to another. We are fed bits of backstage gossip. But it is obvious that what interests Kremer, a filmmaker at the beginning of his own career, is how you get the thing done.

The portrait that remains when we close this labour of love is of Furie as a director’s director. He has earned this title not because he makes technically proficient films that can only be appreciated by his peers, but because his career itself has been a director’s creation. He may or may not be a genius. Genius is nice and we can talk about it forever. Work is something we can understand.