Hugo Fregonese: Escape Artist

New retrospectives spotlight the Argentine director best known for volatile Hollywood films that explore the primal need to escape.
Imogen Sara Smith

Black Tuesday (1954).

Hugo Fregonese’s best films are fueled by desperation, a clean and potent but highly flammable form of energy. Just as fight-or-flight adrenaline sharpens our senses and reflexes, his filmmaking reaches heights of rigor and intensity when his characters are in the tightest spots—locked up, on the run, or under siege. Often facing death, they are also sentenced for life to be themselves: fate in his films is not a capricious external force but an expression of character. As a pensive Jack the Ripper says in Man in the Attic (1953), “There are no criminals. There are only people doing what they must do because they are who they are.”

But who was Hugo Fregonese? Watching his films, it is hard not to speculate on the link between their compulsive themes of escape and restless wandering and his own refusal or inability to settle down. Born in Argentina in 1908, a child of Italian immigrants, he directed his first and last films in his homeland, but is best known for his work in Hollywood between 1950 and 1954. After that, he spent fifteen years like a cinematic Flying Dutchman, making films in England, Spain, Italy, and Germany, with location trips as far as India. By his own account, what kept him moving was a perennial hope for better opportunities and more autonomy, and a tendency to chafe under the restrictions of a studio contract. This itinerant and uneven career may explain why Fregonese remains under the radar despite periodic retrospectives and tributes. Eleven of his films were shown in fine archival prints or new restorations at Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2022, in a series programmed by Dave Kehr and Ehsan Khoshbakht, and a version of the retrospective plays at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this September.

The director’s lean, propulsive style is fully formed in his third film, Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal, 1949), which begins in medias car chase, with an instant jolt of speed and violence. Flashing back from a burning wreck to tell the story of its occupant, the film never loses the rapid, edgy pace and telegraphic economy of the opening. A documentary montage of street life portrays Buenos Aires as a nervous, seething, impatient city, a fitting backdrop to the story, based on a notorious real case in Argentina. José Morán (Jorge Salcedo) is a bank clerk bitterly disgruntled with his modest life, whose hunger for quick cash only mires him in gambling debts. He has what seems like a good idea at the time: learning that the maximum sentence for fraud is only six years, he decides to embezzle a fortune and enjoy it after serving his time. For cheating the system, he becomes a working-class hero. But the sulky, smirkingly insolent Morán is never as smart as he thinks he is, and becomes easy prey for his ruthless fellow inmates. “There is a force that drives him through all this,” Morán’s fiancée says: he is helplessly compelled by greed and blinkered by selfishness. Throughout the film, hard daylight proves more unforgiving than noir shadows. Morán’s cell is whitewashed, monastic, with one barred window near the ceiling. When they appear at all in Fregonese’s films, windows are usually too high and narrow to do more than taunt the person trapped inside.

There are echoes of Hardly a Criminal in Black Tuesday (1954), the last, and perhaps best, film Fregonese made in Hollywood. This was the first of his movies I saw, in a murky dupe I got from a friend. Even then it knocked me out: stripped down and packed tight as a grenade, ferocious in its energy and jaw-dropping in its casual cruelty, it recalls the rawest pre-Code movies. Seeing it in Bologna in a sharp, high-contrast print was a revelation. From the hypnotic opening, with death-row prisoners silently pacing behind bars like hungry caged lions, to the climactic siege in a warehouse chaotic with smoke and flying bullets, the film has a hard-edged, almost abstract beauty. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez fills the screen with slashing diagonals, a stark geometry of jet-black shadows and stingy light.

Edward G. Robinson turns Vincent “King” Cannelli into the sneering, snarling apotheosis of every arrogant, venomous thug he ever played. But he shows unaffected tenderness and warmth towards Hattie (Jean Parker), the faithful, careworn girlfriend who engineers a spectacular escape for him as he’s being led to the electric chair. Sydney Boehm’s airtight script, one of three he wrote for Fregonese, has dialogue that bites like acid, but it also weaves in subtler details. Cannelli kills time tinkering with electric toy cars, taking them apart but never able to put them back together, while cerebral bank robber Pete Manning (Peter Graves) occupies himself in his cell by building an exquisite model bridge out of toothpicks; these toys deftly peg their characters, and present a bitter, vestigial glimpse of lost innocence.

These men are reduced to the most basic of human desires: to go on living as long as possible. While no message movie, Black Tuesday constantly underlines a moral equivalence between the criminals’ brutality and the callousness of the state, and society at large, in condemning them to death. (A witness arriving for the execution remarks jovially, “Double-header tonight, huh? I haven’t missed a burning here in eight years!”) The urge to live courses through the story like electricity—a saintly priest who declares himself unafraid to die is the one dramatically inert character—but it is paired with a near-universal willingness to sacrifice others’ lives. A police chief refuses to bargain with the fugitives in order to save their hostages. A doctor pragmatically volunteers his critically injured patient for the next bullet. The dream of escape, a plane to South America, dwindles to a pitiless, dog-eat-dog fight to keep breathing a few minutes longer.

One-Way Street (1950).

Fregonese loved trapping his characters in enclosed spaces: the bunker-like warehouse in Black Tuesday, like the adobe church in Apache Drums (1951), promises safety but under siege becomes a death trap. He also liked extreme contrasts in settings, as in One-Way Street (1950), which moves between dark, rainy urban labyrinths and a radiant Mexican village open to the sky and the sea air. Apache Drums, gorgeously restored by Universal Pictures in collaboration with the Film Foundation, opens in a pitch-dark room, with the camera peering through a doorway at a sun-baked landscape. Here, vast open spaces are just the flip side of claustrophobic interiors; arid, lunar plains leave people dangerously exposed and vulnerable to attack.

Unlike the idealized (and stereotyped) traditional Mexican community in One-Way Street, the small mining town in Apache Drums is a narrow-minded, vindictive place that expels its dance-hall girls in the name of propriety, and banishes the gambler Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) after a self-defense killing. He is a typical Fregonese anti-hero, a cynical outsider at home in flight and exile, and he repeats the I-am-who-I-am refrain, saying bluntly, “Some people are makers. I’m a taker. I’ve got to be.” But he is easier to like than the sanctimonious sheriff—also his romantic rival—who arrests him for “selling liquor to an Indian,” because he once bought a beer for the U.S. Army scout Pedro-Peter (Armando Silvestre) after the well-water was poisoned. Is this town even worth saving?

But once the townspeople, including frightened and thirsty children, are holed up in a cavernous church hall with dwindling hopes of survival, the film shifts into another key. Throughout the whole sequence, the camera never leaves the building; all we see of the besieging Mescalero warriors are close-up shots of hands drumming. This was the final film produced by Val Lewton, and it obeys his credo that the most frightening thing is what we can’t see. The violence is dazzlingly stylized, with one attack occurring in total darkness, and another with crimson firelight flooding the ceiling and luridly-painted warriors leaping through high windows. Movies that cast Native Americans as the enemy are hard to watch now, though Apache Drums makes some efforts at nuance: a prologue explains that the Apache have risen up because they are starving, and the town priest’s bigoted comments about “heathen devils” are countered by a thoughtful cavalry lieutenant who has some respect and understanding for his adversaries.

Even more upsetting and morally unsettling is The Raid (1954), which follows a group of Confederate prisoners of war who break out of a Union stockade and plot an attack on a placid Vermont town. The ranking officer, Major Benton (Van Heflin), infiltrates the community posing as a Canadian businessman, in order to case the scene. He takes up residence with the young widow Katy Bishop (Anne Bancroft), whose husband died in battle, and quickly forms a warm bond with her and her hero-worshiping young son. Will he still carry out a plan to torch the town and rob its banks after experiencing the community’s kindness and hospitality? He will. Heflin—always a subtle, intelligent actor with a gift for ambivalence—conveys a suppressed nausea and self-loathing, but the major is coldly ruthless as he leads his men in a well-planned terrorist attack, visiting horrifying chaos and destruction which they justify by arguing that Sherman is doing the same to the cities of Georgia. The script (again by Sydney Boehm) aims at a challenging moral ambiguity, but the erasure of the actual roots of the Civil War—there is not a whisper about slavery or secession—makes the proposed equivalence, and the triumph of the Confederates, appalling to modern eyes. As a piece of filmmaking, however, The Raid is flawless: rich in character detail, cunningly paced, and almost unbearably suspenseful.

Katy Bishop is typical of women in Fregonese’s films who offer gentleness, understanding, and an alternative path of peaceful domesticity to men—who are often unwilling or unable to take it. In Man in the Attic, Slade (Jack Palance), the soft-spoken lodger who is also a misogynistic serial killer, cannot be healed by the kindness and trust of the beautiful Lily (Constance Smith). The river Thames, which he compares to “liquid night,” evokes the weirdly serene yet unstoppable current of his sickness. There is almost no violence on screen, but Fregonese summons an atmosphere of morbid dread: when the camera leaves the windowless rooms of a stuffy Victorian home, the dank streets of London are shrouded in fog, shadows, and a miasma of fear. Decameron Nights, released the same year, is a rare Fregonese film that allows a woman to take the narrative reins. Storytelling provides both the structure and the theme of this omnibus film, in which Giovanni Boccaccio (Louis Jourdan) and the chaste widow Fiametta (Joan Fontaine) engage in a verbal duel of seduction and resistance, casting themselves in three different scenarios. The flamboyant tales are played with tongue in cheek, sacrificing any emotional weight, but the film’s sensual delights, including sumptuous, jewel-toned costumes and sun-drenched Spanish castles, are its argument.

Blowing Wild, Fregonese’s third film released in 1953, has a very different kind of woman at the center, unabashed in her appetites and desperate to flee her home and marriage. The film’s love triangle contrasts two men: an itinerant, down-on-his-luck wildcatter only interested in finding oil, and his former partner who has settled down and gotten rich pumping black gold. It is no surprise that the drifter proves the better man, while the other, ensconced in a lavish home, is diminished and unmanned. Paco (Anthony Quinn) has named all of his wells for his wife, Marina (Barbara Stanwyck), who disdains him and openly pursues her old flame Jeff (Gary Cooper): the rigs are thus relentlessly pounding symbols of both greed and lust, and in the end they are also sites of death. Philip Yordan’s script is hackneyed—recycling plot tropes from a host of movies about tough men doing dangerous jobs in exotic settings while tangling with hot-blooded women—but Fregonese makes the most of handsome Mexican locations, explosive action, and charismatic stars, searing the clichés with volcanic heat. The characters are once again driven by uncontrollable inner forces: Paco tells his wife, “I can’t stop you from loving him. And you can’t stop me from loving you.”

Saddle Tramp (1950).

Against the general current of fatalism, Fregonese also made films that quietly observe men’s ability to change their minds and habits. In the light-hearted, gently lyrical, achingly wholesome Saddle Tramp (1950), the protagonist (Joel McCrea) ultimately renounces his footloose freedom to assume the responsibilities of a family man, after a series of comic misadventures with a troupe of four tow-headed orphan boys. My Six Convicts (1952) was shot on the same soundstage prison as Black Tuesday, but could not be more different. A characteristically earnest Stanley Kramer production, it offers a humane, mundane, and redemptive vision of incarceration through the eyes of a psychiatrist recalling his inmate assistants. The script is all anecdote and character study, and though Fregonese apparently spoke fondly of the film and his partnership with Kramer, it lacks the concentrated drive and tension of his best work.

Fregonese successfully blends humanism with suspense in the British film Seven Thunders (1957), which evokes a pervasive climate of desperation among people scrabbling to survive during the Nazi occupation of France, and contrasts extremes of behavior to create a moral chiaroscuro. Some exteriors were shot in Marseilles, and these locations—the sweeping harbor and the narrow alleys, steep stairways, and leprous tenements of the Old Port—give grit and pungency to a drama that sometimes feels contrived. Refugees, deserters, carousing Nazis, opportunistic predators, and hungry citizens all cross paths in the labyrinthine streets. The central characters are two escaped British POWs, holed up in a shabby room like so many of Fregonese’s fugitives; but their stories—especially one’s romance with an annoyingly stereotyped French gamine—are often less interesting than those around the edges: a wretchedly married refugee couple, embittered by poverty and reunited by the worst tragedy; or an Austrian Jew lured by a serial killer who promises escape and then harvests his victim’s savings. The film ends with the wholesale destruction of the Old Port by the Nazis, stunningly recreating this historical event with a mixture of archival and staged footage, the camera blurring and shaking at each explosion as the protagonists run for their lives.

Fregonese’s films often build to apocalyptic orgies of destruction: oil wells erupting into plumes of fire in Blowing Wild, the town consumed by flames in The Raid, a bonfire at dawn in Apache Drums, shell casings and corpses littering the floor in Black Tuesday. This violence is not glorified, not purifying or even cathartic, it is merely inevitable in a world of volatile forces under high pressure. For the people who escape by the skin of their teeth, there is no glory, but there is a chance to go on living, to keep seeking those things—freedom, peace of mind—that are forever just out of reach.

Hugo Fregonese: Man on the Run shows September 1 – 15, 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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