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De Rochemont Discovers Docudrama

(more) Father of the Modern Docu-Drama


It's a gripping what-if-they-didn't-catch-him thriller and still a surprisingly good film. De Rochemont's award-winning story (written by Charles Booth) was exactly what post-War Americans wanted to hear. We are the good guys and the world is now a safe place because American spies are better than everyone else's spies. By the end of the war there were 15,000 people working for the FBI. With the war over, a new enemy was needed to keep everyone gainfully employed. When Richard Nixon later uncovered Communist spies under every pumpkin patch - we were off and running again. One man's truth, is another man's propaganda.

13 Rue MaceleineLong before James Bond, Louis de Rochemont produced two more counter spy thriller docu-dramas, also named after streets. Immediately following the success of "92nd Street" he hired top box office draw James Cagney to star as an OSS agent in "13 Rue Madeleine" (1946). I just ordered that one from Using scenes shot in Boston and our Seacoast area, he released "Walk East on Beacon" (1952), also released as "Crime of the Century." That one isn't available on video, but I have the old comic book. "See the FBI crack down on spies!" the back cover announces. Real G-men solve crimes right before your eyes! Golly gee, kids!

From here de Rochemont's career spiraled off into a roman candle array of projects, linked only by his interest in real-life documentary topics. He produced a biography on "Martin Luther" (1953), a wide-screen tour of America in "Cinerama Holiday" (1955) and the first British feature-length cartoon based, of all things, on George Orwell's "Animal Farm" (1955). Unpredictable to the end, before returning to educational documentaries, he filmed a tall ship tour from Norway to South American in "Windjammer" (1958) which included a scene shot in Portsmouth, NH and was directed by his son referred to as de Rochemont III. Louis' last major motion picture starred Vivian Leigh with a newcomer named Warren Beatty as a gigolo in Tennnessee Williams' "Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" (1961). De Rochemont died here in 1978 with files brimful of rough scripts for stories he wanted to transform to film.

And what about his errant child, the docu-drama? It's all around us in reality-based re-enactments, made for TV movies and a flood of what has been dubbed "neo noir" films pouring from Hollywood and the independents. Dubious achievements like "Blair Witch" and "Pulp Fiction" are not de Rochemont's fault. His mission was always to educate, not to shock. He would have preferred loftier topics -- "Apollo 13" over "The True Story of the Three Stooges," while a Monica and Bill docu-drama would certainly have intrigued him. Although he appreciated composite characters, de Rochemont sneered at corpulent Hollywood budgets. He would have shot a film about the American Revolution on the very fields where it was fought. Usually he shot as close to his home in Newington, NH as possible. On his list of unfinished projects was a docu-drama about Portsmouth ale-tycoon Frank Jones and another about the 1873 ax murders on Smuttynose Island, an idea that eventually flopped as the film "weight of Water".

The itching question remains -- where does the truth live in a docum-drama? When American newscasters were reluctant to show the face of Adolph Hitler to nervous Americans in the 1930s, de Rochemont broke with etiquette and forced millions of theater-goers to confront the dictator onscreen in the flesh. Yet for all his insistence on reality, the producer had no moral problem inserting artificial footage into news clips when conditions demanded it. A study of "The March of Time" by author Raymond Fielding explains how de Rochemont hired impersonators to double as famous figures in scenes spliced into the weekly news footage. Residents of Newington tell tales of how their relatives and friends frequently found themselves depicted in March of Time when a missing shot was needed.

The truth that Louis de Rochemont chased around the world so many times, it seems, takes many forms. Facts, even documentary films, can lie or mislead, while sheer fantasy may convey the deepest truths. Louis, I'm guessing, would be happy to argue both points with gusto.

Copyright (c) J. Dennis Robinson / First published June 2000. Revised 2005.


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