Toth, André de (1912–2002)

2022.10.16.

A director with an adventurous backstory, a favourite of Tavernier, Scorsese and Tarantino, who revelled in all genres from the western to melodrama.

Endre Antal Miksa Tóth (birth name), Endre Tóth, André De Toth, Andre De Toth, Andre DeToth, Andre de Toth
director
15 May 1913, Makó, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
27 October 2002, Burbank, California, USA

André de Toth was one of the most original and adventurous figures in film history. He was the one-eyed director who also made films in 3D, who considered no topic taboo and who was a master in all genres from the western to film noir. Astonishing stories about him circulated even when he was alive and his works were praised by colleagues including Bertrand Tavernier, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. According to Scorsese, he was the “directors’ director” who had a major impact on other artists, but – as frequently happens in the case of genre filmmakers – the public remembers him not primarily for his name but instead his movies.1 He launched his career in Hungary as Endre Tóth. This is where he directed his first five films, it was here that he registered his first successes and these experiences largely determined his later professional and moral approach.

Entry of the 'film Jesuit'

Endre Tóth was born in Makó, in the south-eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, on 15 May 1913. He came from a middle class family with roots in Transcarpathia. The name Endre Antal Miksa Tóth appears in the birth certificate2, his father Miklós Tóth was the town assistant engineer, his mother Vilma Vermes was a teacher at a state school. The family was very close and enjoyed a harmonic existence; it fully respected the values of the Monarchy long after its collapse. The head of the family, who had himself served as a soldier, believed in the ideals of the hussars.

Birth record of Endre Tóth (source: FamilySearch)

Endre Tóth was a cocky, headstrong youth who did everything to get into the centre of attention. This problematic behaviour was the reason for him changing schools several times. He was attracted to the visual arts, he was happiest sculpting and painting but following an accident in childhood he lost sight in one eye. His father intended him to attend military college but it was soon evident that this was not the right career path for the exuberant boy, so he began studying law in Budapest. He graduated but showed no interest in finding a job in this profession. He was gripped by the buzzing cultural life and world of coffeehouses he came across in the capital, and as a budding playwright he found himself in the same dining club as author Ferenc Molnár, poet Mihály Babits and lawyer, writer and patron Lóránt Basch. He soon became friendly with several screenwriters and thanks to Imre Farkas, he found work at Hunnia film studio.

(source: Magyar Film 1939/35)

On attending his first-ever film shoot he immediately knew that motion pictures were to be his destiny, but before this was possible he wanted to acquire experience abroad. He was far from being the first who returned from a study trip abroad to find meaningful opportunities in the Hungarian film industry; Mihály Kertész had followed exactly the same path two decades earlier. Whereas Kertész went to Denmark in the 1910s, Tóth looked around Vienna, Berlin and London, and in the first half of the 1930s he also travelled through the United States. “I think that if a person wants to make a film, they should not sit in one place. Many people were wasted because they did not move. If somebody sits by the side of the road, then everyone goes past him. I don’t want to sit next to the road, I want to travel on the road,” he said in an interview later.3 He worked with famous Hungarian emigres of the period, with Géza Bolváry and Géza Cziffra, and he found his way into the London studio of the Korda brothers thanks to a glowing reference from Ferenc Molnár. Reportedly, Molnár hated Sándor Korda, which is why he sent him the loud-mouthed and ambitious greenhorn to stir up trouble for Korda. However, this is how Toth remembered their first meeting:

“In London, I stayed at a decent hotel, the Chamberlain. I had enough money to cover two weeks there. The next day I went out to Denham. I handed over the reference letter. Korda had already heard about me. He was very elegant. ‘Good, OK then,’ he said, ‘what can you do?’ I replied: ‘Nothing’. ‘What do you want?’ he asked. ‘I’d like to...’ I stammered. ‘Then we’ll see,’ he replied. ‘Come out tomorrow. Where are you staying?’ ‘The Chamberlain,’ I innocently replied. Scandalized, he spluttered: ‘The Chamberlain? Day after tomorrow! Good bye!’ I had no idea what I had done by staying at the Chamberlain, but the same evening I moved to Claridge’s, where he lived. I had just enough to manage there for three days. Once again, I was lucky. The following morning I got into the lift and who do you think was there? Korda. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked irritably. ‘We don’t have any meeting scheduled today!’ ‘I know,’ I replied, ‘but I live here.’ Then we both went out to Denham by Rolls-Royce, and I stayed there.”4

Shortly thereafter, trips abroad followed one after the other, Endre Tóth was soon arranging Korda business in Europe and in the meantime he was climbing ever higher on the domestic ladder. He regarded primarily István Eiben, the brilliant cinematographer of the period, as his master in Hungary, with whom he developed a close professional and personal relationship. Eiben became his mentor and later on did camera work on three of Tóth’s films, Toprini nász (Wedding in Toprin), 5 óra 40 (Five-Forty) and Semmelweis. He first worked as assistant to István György on Az iglói diákok (The Students of Igló, 1934), A nagymama (Grandmother, 1935) and A királyné huszárja (Empress and Hussar, 1935), while later he was assistant director to István Székely on A 111-es (Number 111, 1937) and A Noszty-fiú esete Tóth Marival (The Case of the Noszty Boy with Mari Tóth, 1937).

While working on these shoots he met Béla Lévay, production manager with producer ambitions, from whom he received his very first directorial assignment. To start with, Lévay was not particularly enthusiastic about Endre Tóth, finding his manner boorish and harsh, his methods overly aggressive. In his memoirs he called him the "enormously strong-willed ambitious person" and a "film Jesuit", who "considered any means acceptable to achieve an end".5 However, his observant eye soon spotted the immense talent just waiting to burst out and it was obvious to him that if he wanted originality, he had to offer him the direction of Wedding in Toprin. This opened the door to Endre Tóth, who immediately grabbed the opportunity. His Wedding in Toprin rocketed him into the profession and in no time at all he was a leading figure in the film industry. Soon thereafter, he was introduced in the Portrait column of Magyar Film thus: "It comes as no surprise to those who know him because such a fresh, young, healthy talent as his has never appeared before in Hungarian film studios. His personality can be compared to that of a tempestuous colt. He doesn’t take to the saddle and reins. This explains why he directs without a book. His ideas are snatched out of the air in seconds. His entirety is one huge ideas factory. It doesn’t matter whether he’s driving a car, riding a horse, playing golf, or even diving into the swimming pool, he’s always thinking about movies."6

1939: The year of change

Endre Tóth returned from his last American trip in late 1938.7 By that time he had developed close contacts in Hollywood, he knew Géza Herczeg, Pál Lukács and he was considered a regular at Miklós Dóra’s restaurant called Little Hungary, which was a meeting point for Central European immigrants. Even so, he was still unable to break into the American film profession so he planned first to win directorial honours in Hungary and then have another go in the New World. So it was that he returned to Europe at a time when most were seeking a means to escape the continent. In 1939, in a single year he directed five films on the trot in Budapest. In order to understand the background to this, it is worth reviewing what was happening in the Hungarian film industry around this time.

The First Jewish Law was proclaimed on 29 May 1938, which was based on religious affiliation and limited to a maximum 20% the proportion of Jews permitted in the press, law, engineering and medical chambers, and among business and commercial employees. Soon thereafter, a decree was issued on the formation of the Chamber of Theatre and Film, which ensured implementation of the 20% ratio in the film profession as well since from its formation, only members of the chamber were permitted to work in this area. The chamber had advisory authority and monitored compliance with Christian-national values, actor Ferenc Kiss was appointed its president, and he featured in three of Endre Tóth’s films, while he is also credited as artistic advisor in two.

Then came 1939, the first year of the 'change of guard', when attempts were made to place the film industry on new foundations with the complete exclusion of Jews. From this moment the state – formally as well – managed the sector and imposed increasingly rigorous criteria on its operation. In February, the Hungarian National Film Commission was established, which monitored the screenplays, the list of artistic and technical personnel, and the budgets of films planned for production. On 5 May 1939, the Second Jewish Law was adopted, which differentiated not on the basis of religion but ethnicity. Anybody with at least one parent or two grandparents of Jewish origin was classified as being Jewish. Jews could not be employed in state and public institutions, and they were only permitted to be members of the theatre and film chamber to the extent of 6%. They were completely excluded from all more important functions, they were not permitted to run cinemas, film production and distribution companies, and they could not be directors, dramatists or actors in movies. These draconian regulations caused significant problems, there was a sudden massive lack of working capital and professionals, and many Jews continued as so-called 'negroes' (négerek), in secret and working under others’ names.

At the same time, the war also exercised an impact on the industry. In 1939, a total of 27 feature films were made, and this number gradually increased over the years. There was huge demand for new productions thus the new, Christian film production studios established in 1938–1939 quickly became dominant. Photophon film was set up in 1938. It produced Wedding in Toprin and Two Girls on the Street, Mester Film, which made Semmelweis, dated from the same year, and in 1939 Antal Takács and Ferenc Kiss founded Takács Film, associated with Five-Forty and Six Weeks of Happiness (Hat hét boldogság). So it comes as no surprise that Endre Tóth, who had no Jewish background but did have international experience, quickly found himself much sought-after and his career took off in parallel with that of several other directors at this time.

Spies and murderers

Wedding in Toprin was adapted from the novella by Gyula Csermely, which originally appeared as a series in Pesti Hírlap in 1915. The first silent film adaptation of the popular spy story was made in 1917, directed by Béla Balogh, but sadly this has since been lost. The story is set on the estate of the Count of Toprin on the Russian-Austrian border, before the First World War. The hero, Lieutenant Mányay (Pál Jávor), is tasked with uncovering a Russian spy ring, to which end he takes a job as gardener, under an assumed name, on the estate of the count (Ferenc Kiss). The countess (Klári Tolnay) endures an unhappy marriage and is willing to help the lieutenant. The Russians arrest the man but he manages to escape. In the end, Hungarian counterintelligence winds up the spy network, the count commits suicide, and Mányay wins the hand of the colonel’s daughter. The plot playing out in a Russian setting is not unique in Hungarian film history. As Mária Kovács establishes in her analysis, at the time this environment was primarily the epitome of romantic exoticism for Hungarian viewers. Similar works are also to be found among silent films, while a few examples from the 1930s and 1940 include the Casablanca forerunner Café Moszkva (Only One Night, d: István Székely, 1935), Gorodi fogoly (The Captive of Gorod, d: Arzén Cserépy, 1940), Dankó Pista (Pista Dankó, d: László Kalmár, 1940) and Sarajevo (d: Ákos Ráthonyi, 1940).8

Wedding in Toprin

Endre Tóth worked on the screenplay of Wedding in Toprin with an experienced film writer, István Mihály. Producer Béla Lévay recalled the process of writing the screenplay:

Endre Tóth "must have been about 25, with an imagination appropriate for his age and the sort of instincts I needed, but it was necessary to be constantly alongside him to ensure he didn’t cause trouble with his unrestrained nature. I had him sit down with István Mihály so they could do the screenplay together. On average, they had to be reconciled every other day, or Tóth had to be persuaded to apologize to the much older Mihály for the insults he made in the course of writing the book. Everything went like clockwork. The screenplay was completed. It was as though István Mihály, working next to Tóth, had been invigorated. Their dialogues became shorter and snappier. The visual links were virtually unfamiliar, so marked was the impression of Tóth’s young, progressive spirit on them and the striking cuts indispensable to a spy story."9

The change of guard signalled that this was one of the last official commissions of the Jew István Mihály; after this, he could only work as a 'negro'. Ultimately, he was deported to Austria in 1944, where he perished.

Wedding in Toprin was an important debut work for both the director and the producer, which is why they went all out on the project. The budget, relatively generous for the time, was largely spent on technical equipment and stage sets. In the interests of authenticity, an expert from the Szív Street Orthodox community in Budapest was consulted for the wedding scene, the church was constructed on the basis of instructions from a Russian painter and the popular balalaika orchestra of Eugen Stepat plays in the film. Signature flourishes of Endre Tóth are already evident in this early film as he mixes classic genres, crime film and melodrama in his own inimitable way and places great emphasis on character building. In addition to the suspense elements of the thriller, fate and passion are also utilized as dramaturgical channels. Tóth’s favourite scene, the breathless, meticulously crafted visit of the countess to the gardener in the glass-roofed wintergarden, was only just passed by the censor.

Wedding in Toprin (d: Endre Tóth, 1939, excerpt)

Endre Tóth’s next film, Five-Forty, continues on the thriller line, so much so that it was advertised at the time as the first talkie detective movie. In fact, this genre was only introduced in Hungary at the end of the decade. "Although there were experiments to create this, all attempts failed, filmmakers refrained from using the murder motive – raising the stakes of the investigation – representing the core element of detective films. The film history environment did not favour the thriller genres: a good detective film progresses towards the extreme intensification of tensions, whereas Hungarian film of the 1930s preferred to stay well away from this", Zsolt Pápai writes in his analysis of the film.10 Five-Forty is set in the modern day, in Paris, and although it imitates French thrillers it was in truth an adaptation of a crime novel by Clifford Merrivale. Its heroine is Marion (Mária Tasnády-Fekete), who is separated from her husband but would now like to make the separation official in order to be able to live with her long-time lover, examining judge Henry Tessier (Ferenc Kiss). However, her scoundrel husband, Bijou (Tivadar Uray), is not going to give in easily. When he becomes a suspect in the death of an opera singer, the case is passed to the examining judge who finds himself seriously conflicted in attempting to separate his private life and his professional duty. The intricate investigation is given particular emphasis in the film but the supporting actors make the whole thing come alive thanks to their comical interventions. Piroska Vaszary, the greedy dresser, Lenke Egyed, the thriller-obsessed housewife and Miklós Hajmássy, the bumbling detective, excel in their roles. Critics at the time primarily lauded the direction even though the film theme was not considered particularly original. Several articles mention the "French style"11, which later Tóth himself emphasized. "French films had more impact than German works on Hungarian movies of the 1930s. Several of us tried to follow French examples and instead of mannequins dressed up in hussar uniforms, we portrayed real people as they actually lived", he declared.12 The shooting of Five-Forty was also interesting from the aspect that it gave opportunities to artists, several of whom went on to build independent careers shortly thereafter: Frigyes Bán participated in the work as assistant to the director and István Szőts as an intern.

National Film Week in Lillafüred

Endré Tóth enjoyed professional recognition during his time working in Hungary. His first two films were awarded prizes at the inaugural National Film Week, which was organized in Lillafüred not far from Miskolc between 3-11 June 1939. The festival of the film profession was a significant event that sparked a tradition. The year’s best works were given prizes, there were film screenings, important issues were debated and there was even time for informal entertainment. Endre Tóth proved to be one of the most successful filmmakers of the first Film Week. Wedding in Toprin won the grand prix, which the minister of culture presented for the 'most artistic film', while Five-Forty won the UFA silver cup, and Endre Tóth’s achievements 'striving for artistic innovations' were personally recognized by the director committee.13


National Film Week in Lillafüred – Magyar Világhíradó 799. (June 1939)

Faces of Budapest

Whereas Wedding in Toprin and Five-Forty were primarily filmed in the studios of Hunnia, an important moment for his next two films was that the director stepped out into the world and built Budapest still lifes into the story. This is the time he made his most mature work during his career in Hungary, Two Girls on the Street, which was innovative both in terms of form and subject. The film is an adaptation of a work by Tamás Emőd and Rezső Török, with screenplay written by Endre Tóth. The plot revolves around strong female characters. Gyöngyi, the pregnant child of a provincial landowner, is rejected by her family so is forced to move to Budapest. Here she meets the young peasant girl Vica who moved to the capital from the same village. Vica is working on a building site but her life is made extremely tough due to the heavy physical labour and constant jibes of her male workers. Worldly-wise Gyöngyi, who plays in a women’s orchestra and makes a living from shady deals, takes in the girl whose situation is hopeless and raises her as her own child. From this moment, the two women strive to make a living by helping and clinging to one another, in the end so successfully that they save enough for their own flat in the very same block that Vica helped build earlier. Here, Vica meets the chief engineer of construction again, who does not recognize her but immediately falls in love. Fearful for her naive protégé, Gyöngyi tries to derail the romance but Vica attempts suicide because of this interference. When it becomes evident that the intentions of the young couple are serious, Gyöngyi gives her blessing to their love match.

Two Girls on the Street (d: Endre Tóth, 1939, excerpt)

The film is a portrayal of Budapest on the threshold of the Second World War, metropolitan nightlife and downtrodden, peripheral elements, all depicted with a critical honesty not typical in the 1930s. Although superficially it is a romance, it has much to say about serious social problems, abortion, harassment and the difficulties of social mobility. In terms of style, it is a forerunner of Hungarian film noir that peaked in the 1940s, and not only is its topic highly original, but its visuality, too. The movie’s powerful images have the power to shock; the troubled, oppressive atmosphere is created by sharp contrasts, unusual angles and dynamic compositions. The cinematographer Károly Vass (Karl Vash) worked in Berlin in the 1930s and the inspiration he acquired there had a clear influence on this film. Vass was assistant cameraman on M (d: Fritz Lang, 1931) and one of the cinematographers for the Fritz Lang work The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933). He was also involved with the cinematographic team that, together with Leni Riefenstahl, shot Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) and the film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Originally, the role of Gyöngyi was destined for the then unknown, but later number one Hungarian diva Katalin Karády, but in the end it went to former beauty queen Mária Tasnády-Fekete who had returned from Berlin. Andor Ajtay playing the chief engineer and Bella Bordy as Vica were rookies in the film industry. The latter was chosen for the part not only for her acting talent but also her swimming prowess because one of the scenes called for her to leap into the Danube from a bridge.

Two Girls in the Street (source: NFI)

One unexpected episode during shooting was the arrival at Hunnia studio of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who was then on an official visit to Budapest. He arrived on set as an admirer of Mária Tasnády-Fekete. Although there is no trace of political bias in the film, which topples social taboos and has a modern approach, it is certainly due to the visit by Goebbels that a somewhat heated debate broke out in the press after the premiere. On the one hand, there were those who praised the film as a masterpiece of the "new set-up", that "recognizes the importance of artistic responsibility associated with Hungarian film", "is colourful, interesting, full of artistic refinements and superbly developing the effect. If we had seen these ideas in a French film, the residents of Pest so crazy about French cinema would have long ago been bowled over by it".15 On the other hand, others attacked the film saying that the shadows appearing in the pictures, primarily in one of the unusually lit rainy scenes, disguised purposefully composed swastika symbols.16 The accusations were examined by a special committee, which found no evidence of intentionally placed symbols but even so the embittered producer was forced to give a lengthy explanation.

Semmelweis (source: NFI)

Two Girls on the Street was followed by Six Weeks of Happiness, Endre Tóth’s fourth film, which debuted on 23 November 1939. In the film, Ferenc Kiss, who played the examining judge in Five-Forty, got a chance to show his other side, this time acting as a burglar. The ageing safecracker, whose daughter (Klári Tolnay) is being educated in a leading finishing school, decides to do one final job before retiring and settling into respectable civilian life together with his unsuspecting child. However, this paternal idyll lasts just six weeks because his past, and justice, catch up with him. Classical crime elements are found scattered throughout the screenplay jointly written by Jenő Szatmári and Zoltán Várkonyi, it also includes moments of romanticism and comedy, yet a kind of moral lesson emerges from this entire mix. During filming, a great deal of attention went into the details. For example, the lockpicking tools are original, being evidence loaned by the Budapest police command. A particularly interesting feature of the film is that the camera of cinematographer Árpád Makay captures Budapest, the area around Oktogon square, the cafés, traffic with almost documentary-like precision, and it provides a glimpse into tricky-to-light spaces such as the popular Gellért Baths.

New directions

Following this, the director’s last movie made in Hungary, Semmelweis, stars Tivadar Uray in the title role.17 Semmelweis was made in Hunnia in the style of medical biopics popular at the time, forerunners being the Warner studio movie about Pasteur (The Story of Louis Pasteur, d: William Dieterle, 1936) and the German motion picture on the life of doctor Koch (Robert Koch, der Bekämpfer des Todes, d: Hans Steinhoff, 1939). However, in the story of the Hungarian doctor practising in Vienna and Budapest, called 'the saviour of mothers', the focus of attention is not primarily on his huge scientific discovery that led to a reduction in fatal puerperal fever cases (childbed fever), but instead on insight into the psychology of the doctor. Uray portrays the various stages of obsession and madness with enormous drama, thus the film is above all else a picture of a misunderstood prophet. Cinematographic solutions – the expressive use of light and shade – developed by cinematographer István Eiben effectively illustrate shifting emotions. It is interesting that the tragic death of Semmelweis is not covered in the plot, with the only reference being a caption in the closing credits. This was expanded with a later insert, a newsreel shown in August 1940 in which a wreath is laid at the statue of Semmelweis on the 75th anniversary of his death.18 Semmelweis, similarly to other films by Endre Tóth, also works up experiences taken from the life of the director. It is not common knowledge that while still a youth, Tóth lived in Vienna for short time, where his first son was born. This child died in an accident. The film is strongly imbued with the figure of his Viennese friend and paediatrician Pál Erdős, and the remorse the director suffered due to his loss, which is intertwined with images of the city.19

Semmelweis premiered on 12 January 1940 without the presence of the director. On 21 December 1939, he rapidly quit the country. Later on, he himself embellished stories surrounding this unexpected departure and he enjoyed relating an anecdote in connection with this move. According to the story, his life reached a dramatic turning point when a young colleague of his opened his eyes to what was going on around him:

"There was a director who I met when he worked with Pál Fejős on Tavaszi zápor (Spring Shower) and Ítél a Balaton (The Verdict of Lake Balaton), Marci Keleti. He was a very kind person, but very sad, he could cry when he laughed with his big brown eyes. One day, I go to Hunnia, I get out of my car and go into the building. He comes up to me and says: 'You are not talented.' 'I know,' I reply. 'You’re just lucky!' he says. 'Thank God!' I reply. 'If you were Jewish, like me, you couldn’t work!' he goes on bitterly, and turns on his heel. After this I completed Semmelweis, delivered the print, I left my car at Keleti railway station. I boarded a train and left. I didn’t want success at this price."20

 (source: Színházi Élet 1940/1)

Although this encounter that transformed his attitude really could have happened, it is a fact that Tóth by no means left the country in secret and on the spur of the moment. Press reports at the time write about him receiving a contract to work in America and Színházi Élet ran a photograph showing him bidding farewell to his colleagues at the railway station. At the time he was a famous and well-paid director in Hungary who had a glittering career ahead and was working with a team of the best the country could provide. His next film would probably have been  Transylvanian Mansion (Erdélyi kastély), or at least this is suggested by the cover of the screenplay preserved in the library of the Film Archive.21 On this, we see his name originally featured as director, but this is crossed out in pencil and Félix Podmaniczky written in its place. In fact, Podmaniczky did indeed make the film later.

From the aspect of this decision by Endre Tóth, not only was the increasingly oppressive atmosphere important but also the fact that right up until the outbreak of hostilities, film exports from Hungary to the United States continued smoothly, thus his films were being seen by American audiences, among whom Wedding in Toprin was particularly popular. However, in late 1939 this commercial contract was broken and the director, who envisaged his future in an international environment, could no longer count on his name being in circulation abroad through his Hungarian films.

Semmelweis (d: Endre Tóth, 1939, excerpt)

Around this time there was another incident that may have greatly contributed to the decision.22 István Eiben was filming The Ball is On (Áll a bál) with Viktor Bánky in Warsaw, and he had got into a position where he was forced to call on the help of Endre Tóth. Pressure had been put on Eiben to take footage of railway stations, roads and strategically important buildings totally unconnected to the film. He soon realized the purpose behind this material, which is why he deliberately ruined all these takes, thus the impression arose that the greatest Hungarian cameraman was totally useless. When Tóth arrived in Poland, he was met at the railway station by a German officer who thrust a camera into his hands and forced him to start filming. He was present when Poland was overrun and he never forgot the horrors he witnessed there. Later on, he partly integrated these experiences into his American film None Shall Escape (1944), which became a milestone among motion pictures on the Holocaust. It is a courtroom drama in which the career and atrocities committed by a Nazi officer in Poland are reconstructed from the recollections of witnesses. Although the film was made during the war, it foreshadowed the Nuremburg trials.

So Endre Tóth chose the path of emigration at the end of 1939 in order to once again climb to the summit of the profession in a different land, without compromises and with a clean conscience.

Hollywood’s maverick

During the second phase of his career, he chose to use the French-sounding name André de Toth. He returned to the United States but soon started working once again with the Korda brothers who had interests in the country. He took part in tasks connected with the Jungle Book (1942) and Sahara (1943) alongside Zoltán Korda. Of the three Korda brothers, he most esteemed the talent of Zoltán and the human-artistic qualities of Vince Korda and he remained eternally grateful for the experiences he gained working for the family, although with characteristic wry humour he also asserted that to work with the permanently squabbling brothers "was the safest and easiest way to commit suicide".22 Over the next few years de Toth managed to make a name for himself and thanks to his expertise and sense of style he quickly became a sought-after director in the Hollywood film industry, eventually being credited with around 30 movies. Sahara was made at Columbia and André de Toth contracted with the studio as well. He arrived in his chosen homeland bearing the culture of Central Europe, yet eventually he became the innovator of great American genres. Although many expressed scepticism when it was announced that he had been picked to direct the western Ramrod (1947), John Ford defended him by saying that in this genre it was not an understanding of the Wild West that was required, but rather of the nature of man. Ramrod was followed by ten further excellent westerns in the 1950s, a few examples being Carson City (1952), The Indian Fighter (1955) and Day of the Outlaw (1959). If possible, his films were shot in authentic locations and he accepted the difficulties that went with this. He always looked on the wild natural landscape as an integral part of the story, whether it was the forests of Oregon, the snow-capped mountain ranges or Californian canyons. The fate of his heroes was determined by the immutable laws of the western, but all were memorable characters. Never perfect, not necessarily lovable, but maybe they were worthy of one’s empathy.


Day of the Outlaw (1959) (Masters of Cinema)

De Toth is also associated with several important noir films in which typically he followed the same approach. The 1944 work Dark Waters is a suffocating Gothic noir in which the heroine falls into a dangerous trap as guest of plantation-owning relatives in Louisiana. The hero of Pitfall (1948) is an honest employee of a Los Angeles insurance company who pays a huge price for a simple wrong move. Besides the physical struggle, the oppressive story once again shows how a person’s conscience is tormented by the unforeseeable and irreparable consequences of a crime. Crime Wave (1953), which similarly plumbs the psychological depths of crime’s vicious circle, is often cited as one of the finest works of the genre. De Toth’s melodramas and spy movies also take noir elements a step further. They can be found, for example, in The Other Love (1947), a sanatorium drama adapted from a short story by Erich Maria Remarque, Man on a String (1960) built on the life of double agent Boris Morros and with anti-communist overtones, and the especially dramatic but now long-forgotten gem The Two-Headed Spy (1958). This latter film, the story of a British spy infiltrated into Nazi high command, is a true masterclass in how to ratchet up tension in filmmaking.

He took great pleasure in shifting his actors out of their comfort zone and they frequently found themselves playing characters out of type. He worked with Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas, Vincent Price and Charles Buchinsky, later known as Charles Bronson. His seven wives included actress Veronica Lake, but besides Lake Barbara Stanwyck, Elsa Martinelli and Merle Oberon also appeared in his films.

André de Toth’s films often touched on topics that society preferred to ignore. His tone was not provocative but certainly taboo-busting, and he had no hesitation about showing the dark side of people’s nature in his stories. For example, Two Girls on the Street examines issues of sexuality outside marriage, abuse and suicide, while None Shall Escape was Hollywood’s first film looking at the Holocaust and there was an Afro-American sitting on the jury. Monkey on My Back (1957) based on a true story is one of the first movies to deal with drug addiction. Initially, low-budget B-movies offered an excellent outlet for his bold choice of topics and word soon got around about his ‘nothing-is-impossible’ audacity. Warner and Columbia were the two studios he primarily worked for.

However, de Toth not only tested the limits through his stories but also in the physical sense. He was always ready and willing to step off the well-trodden path. It was his conviction that "It is always more exciting to be an unsuccessful pioneer than a successful teller of old tales".24 He showed interest in all innovations and during study years in London he worked with art director Vince Korda and the team developing special effects. He boldly experimented with Technicolor and Cinemascope, he worked in television and towards the end of the 1970s he oversaw the Superman flying scenes. He is associated with one of the first 3D film hits, House of Wax (1953), which was actually a remake of the 1933 film by Michael Curtiz (Mystery of the Wax Museum). Making this 3D horror is also considered a remarkable feat because he was blind in one eye so he did not have spatial perception.


House of Wax | Unmasked | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Although André de Toth was consistently a genre filmmaker throughout his career, his personality penetrated all his works. Fast-moving, entertaining adventures are accompanied by wittily written, memorable dialogues in which there are always flashes of the director’s characteristically acerbic, cynical humour. He fully understood people’s nature and how society operated, and frequently interwove devastatingly accurate insights and critiques into his movies. This may be why his narratives are often harsher and more ruthless than classic Hollywood stories. He demanded unfettered licence to tell the story, big ideas and professionalism, which ultimately resulted in the war film Play Dirty (1969) starring a young Michael Caine, which marked the finale, as well as the essence, of his independent directorial oeuvre.

For as long as he was able, André de Toth pursued an active, sporting life, with skiing being one of his favourites. In his twilight years, he returned to his earlier hobbies, he began to write again, paint and sculpt. He was particularly proud that one of his works was added to the Vatican Museum collection.

He died at the age of 89 on 27 October 2002 and was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood. His sweeping, moving and at the same time vitriolically humorous autobiography Fragments – Portraits from the Inside was published by Faber and Faber in 1996. This was followed by a volume of collected conversations he had with Anthony Slide, De Toth on De Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera.

The rediscovered director

In the long years of socialism, the American films of André de Toth were not screened in Hungary. Thus the large part of his oeuvre remained invisible to domestic audiences and slowly his works in Hungary also fell into obscurity. As Mária Kovács notes, he is introduced as an ‘American director of Hungarian origin’ in the Új Filmlexicon issued in 1971. We know little of his family in Hungary, short passages from his autobiography lead one to assume that his father died during the war, his sibling passed away around the time of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and he despatched a plane to rescue his mother at the end of the war. He himself did not come back to Hungary for decades, the first time being in 1987 when he visited the country two years before the change of regime. On this occasion, between 8-15 September, five of his Hungarian films were screened in the Film Archive cinema, in the Film Museum, plus Play Dirty at a gala, after which the audience had an opportunity to meet the director.

Lumière Festival in Lyon: flyer of the André de Tóth programme (pdf)

A start on rediscovering his extraordinarily rich oeuvre began in the 2000s. The restoration of Two Girls on the Street was made in 2010, at the suggestion of Martin Scorsese and the Lumière Institute, with the support of the Film Foundation. The restoration was carried out by the Cineteca di Bologna L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, as a result of which the Hungarian Film Archive received a new 35 mm print. The film was shown in the Cannes Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival. His other four Hungarian films were restored by the National Film Institute ungaryHungary – Film Archive and Filmlab in 2022. In the same year, these works of Endre Tóth made in Hungary are being screened in the independent section of the most important festival of restored films, the Lumière Festival in Lyon.

The directors’ director (dir: András Sólyom, 2003)

IMDb
Hangosfilm

Notes

[1] Toth, Andre de: Frangments. Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber, 1994. Vii.
[2] Some sources give the full name as Endre Antal Miksa Farkasfalvi Tóth from Sasvár, but this form is not found in official documents.
[3] Balogh Gyöngyi: Tóth Endre André de Tothról. Beszélgetés a hollywoodi rendezővel. Filmkultúra, 1988/1. 64.
[4] U.o. 63.
[5] Lévay Béla: Visszapillantásaim a magyar filmre 1925–1950. Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár, 1964. 89.
[6] Tóth Endre. Premier Plán. Magyar Film. 1939/35. 8.
[7] According to Anthony Slide, Tóth visited the United States in 1932, 1933, 1936 and 1937-38. In: Slide, Anthony (ed.): De Toth on De Toth. Putting the Drama in front of the Camera. London – Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996. 25. From director István Székely's (Steve Szekely) autobiography we know that Endre Tóth travelled to the United States with István Székely in 1937. István Székely did not return, but Endre Tóth came back to Hungary in 1938. In: Székely István: Hyppolittól a Lila ákácig. Budapest: Gondolat, 1978. 164–173.
[8] Kovács Mária: Tóth Endre Magyarországon 1939-ben. 1974. Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár. 5.
[9] Lévay Béla: Visszapillantásaim a magyar filmre 1925–1950. Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár, 1964.

[10] Pápai Zsolt: 5 óra 40. MMA Lexikon. (Last download: 10 October 2022)
[11] Megöltek egy híres énekesnőt – ki a gyilkos? Színházi Magazin. 1939/37. 26., The screenwriter himself stresses that the work was inspired by French films: Szatmári Jenő: „5 óra 40” Egy bűnügyi film, amely nem egészen bűnügyi. Sztár 1939/5, 10.
[12] Tóth Endre André de Tothról. Beszélgetés a hollywoodi rendezővel. Filmkultúra, 1988/1. 64.
[13] Végetért a Lillafüredi Filmhét. Esti Újság 4. évf. 132. (1939. június 13.) 6.
[14] Nemzeti Filmhét. Magyar Film. 1938/18. 6.
[15] Két lány az utcán. Hétfő, 2. évf. 42. sz. (1939. október 16.), 4.
[16] The reader letter that sparked the debate: Két lány és sok nyilaskereszt az utcán. 8 Órai Ujság, 25. évf. 212 sz. (1939. október 18.), 5. A vitáról: Lévay Béla: Visszapillantásaim a magyar filmre 1925–1950. Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár, 1964. 141
[17] Historical biographies are not usually a typical genre in Hungarian filmmaking, but Semmelweis' life has been portrayed several times. Frigyes Bán made his film Semmelweis in 1952, and Lajos Koltai is directing a film version in 2022.
[18] Semmelweis Ignác halálának 75. évfordulója. Magyar Világhíradó 862/6 (1940. augusztus) (Last download: 10 October 2022)
[19] Lásd: A Ball ’This Big’ fejezet. In: Toth, Andre de: Frangments. Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber, 1994. 85–105.
[20] Tóth Endre André de Tothról. Beszélgetés a hollywoodi rendezővel. Filmkultúra, 1988/1. 65.
[21] Erdélyi kastély [technikai forgatókönyv] Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár 971.
[22] Toth, Andre de: Frangments. Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber, 1994., 251–259.
[23] Toth, Andre de: Frangments. Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber, 1994. 286.
[24] Slide, Anthony (ed.): De Toth on De Toth. Putting the Drama in front of the Camera. London – Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996. 98.

Sources

Szatmári Jenő: „5 óra 40” Egy bűnügyi film, amely nem egészen bűnügyi. Sztár 1939/5, 9–11.
Nemzeti Filmhét. Magyar Film. 1938/18. 6.
Végetért a Lillafüredi Filmhét. Esti Újság 4. évf. 132. (1939. június 13.) 6.
Két lány az utcán. Hétfő, 2. évf. 42. sz. (1939. október 16.), 4.
Megöltek egy híres énekesnőt – ki a gyilkos? Színházi Magazin. 1939/37. 26.
Lévay Béla: Visszapillantásaim a magyar filmre 1925–1950. Nemzeti Filmintézet– Filmarchívum, Kézirattár, 1964.
Balogh Gyöngyi: Tóth Endre André de Tothról. Beszélgetés a holly¬woodi rendezővel. Filmkultúra, 1988/1, 63–69.
Czakó Ágnes: André de Toth magyar filmjei. Filmkultúra, 1988/1, 69–75.
Kovács Mária: Tóth Endre Magyarországon 1939-ben. 1974. Nemzeti Filmintézet – Filmarchívum, Kézirattár.
Toth, Andre de: Frangments. Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.
Slide, Anthony (ed.): De Toth on De Toth. Putting the Drama in front of the Camera. London – Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Pápai Zsolt: 5 óra 40. MMA Lexikon. (Last download: 10 October 2022)
Barkóczi Janka: Két lány az uccán. MMA Lexikon. (Last download: 10 October 2022)