When an eager young interviewer tape-recorded James Wong Howe in 1970 and asked him whom he considered to be the best director he'd ever worked with, he was startled beyond measure to hear Howe reply, without the lightest hesitation, "William K. Howard." My eager young friend had expected the cinematographer to name Martin Ritt or John Frankenheimer or even Daniel Mann. But he'd never even heard of William K. Howard! Yet Howe went on to explain that in his opinion, Howard was by far the most imaginative and talented director he'd ever come across. A director who had visual style, flair and know-how!
Howe was in China when talkies arrived, shooting backgrounds that were later used in Shanghai Express. "When I came back, I had no experience with sound pictures and I couldn't land a job. After a year out of work, I met William K. Howard. I made some tests for him and he hired me to work on Transatlantic. That was something remarkable. I used wide angles and deep focus throughout, long before Citizen Kane. When they saw Transatlantic, critics pointed out that the camera had finally started to move in the talkies."
After films for Howard Hawks, William Cameron Menzies and Raoul Walsh, Howe was re-united with Howard on Surrender and we can see exactly what Howe meant by imaginative direction. Visually, the picture is a feast for the eyes, as the camera swoops, glides and dollies through the enormous Reichendorf sets. The film editing is often equally swift, innovative and effective.
Unfortunately, the script is somewhat dated. But worse, the acting is not so hot. A director can do little with his script, but his players are entirely his responsibility. Leila Hyams is a most lovely girl, but her acting seems neither confident nor convincing, although she improves as the plot progresses. Sir C. Aubrey Smith, on the other hand, makes the opposite error. He plays his part at full volume, shouting and ranting as if he were on a theatre stage not a movie set. Warner Baxter mouths his dialogue with clarity, but with little or no expression. Only Ralph Bellamy and Alexander Kirkland impress.
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