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‘House of Wax’ helmer Toth dies

Sophisticated, diverse filmmaker

Andre de Toth, director of such hard-hitting crime films as “Pitfall” and “Crime Wave,” numerous memorable Westerns and the 3-D classic “House of Wax,” died Oct. 27 of an aneurysm at his home in Burbank. He was 89.

The native Hungarian was one of the last of the generation of European-trained filmmakers who came to Hollywood during the WWII period and went on to display remarkable aptitude and versatility with American subjects and genres.

A highly sophisticated man who spoke many languages, studied law at the University of Budapest and was an accomplished painter and sculptor, he was also at home at the controls of an airplane or race car, or on horseback re-creating scenes from the Old West of his imagination.

Born Sasvrai Farkasfalvi Tothfalusi Toth Endre Antal Mihaly in Mako, Hungary, on May 15, 1913, de Toth was the son of a well-to-do-civil engineer and former Hussar. Artistic by temperament, he had his first exhibition of paintings and sculptures at 14.

As the result of a play, “Discreet Bond,” he wrote three years later, he was taken under wing by Hungary’s most celebrated playwright, Ferenc Molnar, who became his mentor and helped him gain entree to Budapest film studios, where de Toth gained experience in a variety of jobs while pursuing his law degree.

Even during this period, he was attracted to the United States and Hollywood, and made four trips there during the mid-’30s, the first time for the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1932.

After contributing to many screenplays and learning his craft by working closely with ace cinematographer Istvan Eiben, de Toth became a director in 1938-39 and within a 10-month period made five Hungarian films, “Wedding in Toprin,” “At 5:40,” “Two Girls of the Street,” “Six Weeks of Happiness” and “Semmelweiss.”

Due to his camera expertise, De Toth was engaged to film the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, but he was so revolted by what he saw that he slipped away to England, where he found work with the Hungarian Korda brothers.

Arriving in the U.S. in 1940, de Toth worked on eight Korda productions over the next several years, including “The Thief of Bagdad,” “That Hamilton Woman,” “Lydia,” “Jungle Book” and “Sahara.”

De Toth got a foothold as a director on B movies at Columbia. After making the “Lone Wolf” spy meller “Passport to Suez” in 1943, he next directed the prescient “None Shall Escape.” The story of a Nazi official in a small Polish town was the first American picture to propose the notion of trials for Nazi war criminals, under the auspices of an organization much in the mold of the future United Nations and with an American black man on the jury, something never previously seen from Hollywood.

After making the darkly effective melodrama “Dark Waters” starring Merle Oberon, and doing uncredited work for David O. Selznick on “Since You Went Away,” de Toth joined David Loew and Charles Einfeld’s Enterprise Prods. and made his first Western, “Ramrod,” starring Joel McCrea and de Toth’s wife Veronica Lake. The director and the glamorous blond star were married from 1944-52 and had three children.

After guiding Barbara Stanwyck and David Niven through the forgettable “The Other Love,” de Toth made one of his best films, the daring film noir “Pitfall.” Starring William Powell, Jane Wyatt, Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr and co-written by de Toth and William Bowers, this startling portrait of human frailty was striking for its extensive use of Los Angeles locations and bold challenges to prevailing Production Code strictures.

After directing Veronica Lake opposite Richard Widmark in the Navy flying picture “Slattery’s Hurricane,” and receiving his only Oscar nomination for writing (with Bowers) the original story for the 1950 classic “The Gunfighter,” starring Gregory Peck, de Toth began concentrating on Westerns.

Partnering with star Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown, he directed Scott in six fine oaters during the early ’50s: “Man in the Saddle,” “Carson City,” “The Stranger Wore a Gun,” “Thunder Over the Plains,” “Riding Shotgun” and “The Bounty Hunter.”

He also made several Westerns without Scott, including “Springfield Rifle” starring Gary Cooper; “Last of the Commanches,” a sort of Western remake of “Sahara”; “The Indian Fighter” with Kirk Douglas; and the unusually stark black-and-white “Day of the Outlaw” with Robert Ryan and Burl Ives.

Even when the director was working with relatively routine material, de Toth’s work was marked by an economical, pared-down style, a lack of sentimentality and an acute awareness of the potential for treachery and cruelty in human relationships.

This approach makes some of his films seem unusually harsh by Hollywood standards, but it was all part of de Toth’s desire, often against the odds, “to face facts, show real life … and not give a conclusion, because few things are conclusive in life.”

Ironically, then, his most famous film was a boisterous popular entertainment. Warner Bros.’ “House of Wax,” in 1953, was the first major studio 3-D film, a remake of “Mystery of the Wax Museum” in which Vincent Price played a mad sculptor whose murder victims became figures in his wax museum. One of the prominent supporting players was Charles Buchinsky, before he changed his name to Bronson.

The joke surrounding de Toth’s involvement with the project was that, because he had just one eye, (his ever-present black eyepatch put him in an elite Hollywood club with his friend John Ford, Raoul Walsh and Fritz Lang), he lacked the depth perception to see the 3-D effects himself. Nonetheless, de Toth became deeply involved with the three-dimensional technology. and in later years tried hard to make another picture in the process.

The following year, he made one of his very best films, the terse, densely atmospheric “Crime Wave,” a first-rate film noir starring Sterling Hayden that was mostly lensed at nocturnal L.A. locations. Shot in two weeks, pic was likened by its director to “a snake sliding through the night.”

His output through the rest of the decade included the notable Production Code-pushing look at narcotics addiction “Monkey on My Back,” starring Cameron Mitchell as boxing champ Barney Ross; the fine WWII suspenser “The Two-Headed Spy” with Jack Hawkins; a look at real-life Cold War spy Boris Morros, “Man on a String,” starring Ernest Borgnine; “Tanganyika” and “Hidden Fear,” which de Toth also co-wrote.

In 1959-60, de Toth worked nonstop directing on 14 top TV shows, including “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “Bourbon Street Beat,” “Dupont Theater,” “Hawaiian Eye” and “The Westerner,” on which he wrote scripts with Sam Peckinpah.

Needing “a vacation,” he went to Italy, where he co-directed three lackluster sword-and-sandal pictures, “Morgan the Pirate,” “The Mongols” and “Gold for the Caesars.”

During this period, he was engaged by Columbia to help push along the very slow shoot on “Lawrence of Arabia.”

As with his later contributions shooting the background plates for the flying sequences on “Superman” and behind-the-scenes work on other films, De Toth refused to take any screen credit for “Lawrence” and wouldn’t even describe his status as second-unit director. But he did work for a year finding locations in Spain in advance of David Lean’s arrival and setting up action sequences, notably the celebrated attack on the train.

A broken neck sustained while skiing in the Alps sidelined de Toth during the mid-’60s, but he returned to exec produce “Billion Dollar Brain” in 1967 for producer Harry Saltzman.

The following year, de Toth directed his final film, the bitter and devastating WWII drama “Play Dirty,” with Michael Caine, who had played one of his earliest film roles in “The Two-Headed Spy.” In 1970, de Toth produced spaghetti Western “El Condor,” starring Lee Van Cleef.

Among de Toth’s curious later pursuits were directing a privately made film aboard the minehunter HMS Bronington with Prince Charles in 1976, and rewriting, with his wife Ann Green, and assisting director Moustafa Akkad, on the direc
tion of the military epic “Lion of the Desert” in Libya.

De Toth returned with his wife to Los Angeles in 1980. He had several exhibitions of paintings and sculptures, wrote scripts and novels, and was very involved with the Directors Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, serving on the latter’s foreign film committee for many years.

His outstanding volume of memoirs, “Fragments: Portraits from the Inside,” was published in 1994, and Anthony Slide’s comprehensive book-length career interview, “De Toth on de Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera,” was published two years later.

Taking up scuba diving in his 70s and continuing to travel widely, de Toth was honored at film festivals and institutes around the world. In 1987, he returned to his native Hungary for the first time since leaving in 1939 and was the subject of a major retrospective. He also received the Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

He is survived by his wife, Ann Green, who was long Robert Daly and Terry Semel’s executive assistant at Warner Bros. and now works for Daly at the Los Angeles Dodgers; several children, including Diana, his daughter by Veronica Lake, Michelle and Nicolas, a film editor; and many grandchildren.

Funeral services are pending.

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