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Inside the enigmatic filmography of Hugo Fregonese

Hugo Fregonese

We look back at the Argentine director’s body of work, just in time for a similar retrospective running at MoMA.

From September 1st through the 14th, The Museum of Modern Art in New York will be holding a retrospective dedicated to the work of Argentine director Hugo Fregonese. If you’ve never heard that name before, it’s because he wasn’t the sort of director to whom Hollywood gave enough oxygen. He made dependable, complex, elegant pictures, and that’s not the sort of thing that tends to stand out in the rearview mirror over the more straightforward and demonstrative.

A case could be made that he did his best work in his home country or Europe later in his career. Still, when viewed as a collection, they form such an enigmatic, rewarding whole and caused such a stir in their time that it seems wrong to use one period of his work as a metric against the others. Critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt has said that he’s been waiting 50 years, give or take, for a Hugo Fregonese retrospective to hit New York; the time is now to see what you’ve been missing. Directors like Fregonese are why the auteur theory was coined in the first place.

Fregonese was born in bustling Mendoza. He went to Buenos Aires College and later Buenos Aires University but dropped out before completing his degree in economics. He wanted something more exciting for himself. He and his brother went into business together, building resorts for a short time, and he was the editor of a magazine called All Sports, which lead him to a brief stint as a publicist.

Still, none of this was enough for the young entrepreneur. He boarded a ship for New York before learning a word of English. Santiago & Andrés Rubín de Celis describe him as looking like Clark Gable when he stepped off the boat to study at Columbia. This, too, didn’t take, and in a year or two, he skipped class to take in the sights and sounds of the city.

His publicity contacts most likely led him to get in touch with Columbia pictures, who shipped him out west. They were making a movie set in Argentina and needed a technical advisor. The film never happened, but Fregonese’s brief dalliance in Hollywood was intoxicating enough that he never returned to New York.

With dreams of one day returning to Hollywood, he decided he could much more easily become a big wheel in a smaller film industry. Hence, he returned to Argentina and started getting jobs in documentary productions and working as an assistant to local director Lucas Demare. It was on a Demare film that Fregonese finally got to direct. Demare left the set of Pámpa bárbara for a little while on business and left Fregonese in charge. He did such a good job that he was offered co-director credit on the film and was soon making his own movies, including 1949’s Apenas un Delincuente or Hardly a Criminal, the most famous of the Argentine films noir.

Hugo Fregonese
Edward G. Roginson in Hugo Fregonese’s Black Tuesday.

His direction is practically athletic, filled with car chases and musical numbers, and double exposures to get us into the mind of its protagonist. It also introduces a throughline that would appear again and again in his movies; fear of incarceration. This theme appears most literally in Black Tuesday (1954) as Edward G. Robinson leads a daring escape from Death Row, and in the exciting Seven Thunders (1957), as freshly sprung POWs try to elude the Germans as they flee Marseille.

Apenas un Delincuente was a film he made after a brief jag back up to Hollywood. There, he pissed off Louis B. Mayer by not accepting any of the projects he offered him to direct. He returned with a new wife, RKO starlet Faith Domergue (who has an uncredited role in Delincuente). They both knew they couldn’t stay in Argentina (she needed to think about her career) and returned to Hollywood even though he bristled at the cocktail parties, big personalities, and gossip that so defined life in the studio system.

Fregonese was offered a seven-year contract at Universal, but he flirted with just about every other studio in town. His first film for Universal was One Way Street, and its departures from traditional film noir are as crucial to understanding Fregonese’s style as its adherence to cliche. James Mason plays a doctor who pulls bullets out of gangsters for boss Dan Duryea until one day he’s had enough. He holds up Duryea for all he’s worth, steals his girlfriend (Märta Torén), and flees to Mexico. There he takes up medicine again for the denizens of a small village and comes to resent himself for the way he fled from Duryea. If he’s going to live the life he wants to, as a free man, he has to go back and square accounts with Duryea’s crew.

Fregonese didn’t have a lot of say over the projects with which he got involved (if he was lucky, he had his pick of quick B scripts planned for the bottom half of double bills). But he always seemed to choose films about people trapped by their neuroses. In Saddle Tramp (1950), Joel McCrea has to become a father when his friend dies, leaving his four children orphans. Though the open road keeps calling to him, he has to rise to the occasion, and the longer he stays, the more embroiled in a land dispute he becomes.

In Apache Drums (1951), the most shocking and beautifully photographed of his Hollywood pictures and the last film produced by the genius Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie), a card sharp and crook goes legit when he discovers that a war party is coming to raze a town to cinders. The trouble is that no one believes him, and everything he does to try and show his humanity isn’t a put-on, which gets him further into trouble. The ending is aflame with wild color and thrilling action. Lewton never got another chance to work in color, but he understood it better than anyone. The climax appears to have strongly influenced John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, though the director always puts Howard Hawks higher on his list of influences.

Because Fregonese was picking up B movies where he could, he usually directed Westerns, noir, or not-quite exotic fantasy films like Decameron Nights (1954) or Mark of the Renegade (1951). His Westerns would continue in the vein of Saddle Tramp and Apache Drums — men who swear to be one thing and serve one master discover that allegiances are theories. When you’re in the real world, things change quicker than you imagine.

Joseph Cotten leads Untamed Frontier (1952) as the most responsible of a family of land owners trying to keep free graziers off their property. When Cotten finds out Scott Brady killed a man and married the only witness to the crime to silence her, he has to choose between family and what’s right. In The Raid (1954), Van Heflin breaks out of a POW camp and heads to a Union town to blend in and case it for an impending revenge ride. He gets to know the people in the town and even falls for a young Anne Bancroft, whose husband died wearing union blue.

Maybe the greatest moment in Fregonese’s work can be found at the second act break of The Raid. Heflin’s men are waiting outside town for his signal to ride in and raise hell, and all he has to do now is put on his confederate uniform and start the ruckus. The trouble is he puts it on, and Bancroft’s son walks in. Heflin’s reaction is to hide from the boy in a kind of near-sexual panic as if the boy had walked in on him naked, and in a sense he has. Whatever civility he had shown, whatever love and affection had developed between Heflin and Bancroft, it’s been ripped off of him, and there he stands in nothing but the uniform of their hated enemy; he’s responsible in the boy’s eyes for his father’s death, and Bancroft can’t forgive him.

Fregonese ties together so much at that moment, showing how torn up Heflin feels, knowing that if he’d just let his old malice go, he could have started over, is a more complex and twisted moment than you’ll find in most golden age westerns. Heflin pays for his betrayal, and the movie sends him into the unknown.

Contradictions and disguises recur in his noir, as well. In My Six Convicts (1952), a psychologist comes to give therapy to inmates at Harbor State Prison (really San Quentin; Fregonese loved shooting on location as he had in Argentina, much more than he preferred the studio). The movie is taken up with their therapy sessions (including one scene of hypnosis) and then follows them back to their prison lives to see if the therapy takes. Producer Stanley Kramer would make a name for himself with similarly socially conscious dramas. Fregonese joked that he only got fan mail from prisoners who saw My Six Convicts and loved that he was trying to show that they were human beings.

In Man in the Attic (a beautiful mood piece that Lewton would have loved), Jack Palance moves into a boarding house, falls for housemate Constance Smith, and might be Jack the Ripper. Palance’s portrayal is all exterior psychic wounds, soft-spoken until he’s not, rough and shaky, tormented by what he feels he has to do. Like the lion’s share of Fregonese heroes, he’s struggling to be something he’s not.

Hugo Fregonese
Barbra Stanwyck, Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn in Fregonese’s Blowing Wild (1954).

In Blowing Wild (1953), part noir and part Western, Gary Cooper and Anthony Quinn fight over Barbara Stanwyck. Cooper wants to rise above who he used to be and leave them in peace, but when Stanwyck decides she doesn’t like being Quinn’s trophy wife, it’s up to Cooper not to fall into her trap. Her final violent act is chillingly stark, and Fregonese relishes the moment when she becomes who she was yearning to be.

While directing Cooper, the actor let it slip that the role he’d been dying to play was Don Quixote, so they made an informal agreement to try and make that happen. Producer Samuel Bronston even started getting the money together for it, but Cooper died in 1961 before they could make it. By then, Fregonese’s life had changed. He left for Sicily to make I girovaghi in 1956 and never returned to Hollywood. He granted Domergue a divorce in 1958 and started flitting around Europe chasing projects.

There are some fantastic standouts, but it’s also true that all of his wilderness years projects are stunning to look at. As Fregonese lost his ability to control what kind of projects he could choose, he sharpened his compositional eye so that even the wonkiest movies (like the frightfully bizarre Assignment Terror (1970)) are a feast for the eyes.

This was most true in his late Westerns. Old Shatterhand (made as competition to a cycle of German Westerns based on books by Karl May) is a true achievement in landscape photography, which perhaps sounds like a backhanded compliment. Still, it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by the way Fregonese’s camera caresses the boundless plains and streams where his characters fight.

His last true passion project was more gorgeous still — Savage Pampas, a remake of his first film, Pámpa bárbara, with Robert Taylor in the lead. The story is a great one; soldiers on the Argentine Pampas (though the film was shot in Spain) desert because the rebel leader they’re here to kill is offering women to deserters. So Taylor brings women to his remaining guys. Unspeakably lush, Savage Pampas looks like it could have been dreamt up by Tony Scott, each sunset sears, and every outfit looks coated in wet paint. A singular movie in a few ways.

William A. Wellman’s Westward the Women, also starring Taylor, takes an inverse approach to the same idea.

After the conclusion of his European adventure (which also saw him make the off-brand spy whatsit The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse, a semi-sequel to Fritz Lang’s early Mabuse movies starring Peter van Eyck; a study in stern shapes in supple monochrome), Fregonese finally returned home to Argentina. He made two more movies, the underworld thriller La Mala Vida (1973, coincidentally released the same year as Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which it superficially resembles) and the biopic Más allá del sol.

He tried to get a few more projects off the ground but found no money. So he retired to the resort he built with his brother all those years ago on El Tigre Island, where he lived the last decade of his life in the warm solitude he craved (and so rarely found) when working in Hollywood.

Like his heroes, Fregonese played by other people’s rules for as long as he could stomach it. But he could only ever be himself. Hardwired into him was a restless adventurer, a man who always wanted the next big exciting thing, who couldn’t sit still and be happy with whatever was on offer. He wanted to live a full life, and he did — even though his career suffered for it. We don’t see artists like Fregonese in the film industry anymore; unless you’re willing to be ground down shooting TV or streaming filler, you just won’t work nowadays. Hugo Fregonese played the game his way and saw the whole world in the process.

Hugo Fregonese: Man on the Run runs September 1st-14th at the Museum of Modern Art.

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Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist from Doylestown, PA. He is the creator of the long running series The Unloved at RogerEbert.com, and is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence of Sound, and Nylon Magazine.

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