Sam Spiegel: Conquering Hollywood


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Sam Spiegel: Conquering Hollywood
"The real difficulty that de Young and Wellink face lies in getting beyond the public persona to show us the private man."

With his trademark pipe, broad smile and expensive but ill-fitting suits, Sam Spiegel was the archetypal Hollywood tycoon. He was also one of the most successful, fighting his way up from nowhere and recovering from failures to produces the likes of The African Queen, On The Waterfront, The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia. But where did it all begin? Robert de Young and Stephan Wellink's documentary looks at the man behind the self-made myth and finds another story to tell.

There's no fancy stuff here - it's all recounted in linear order, the way Spiegel would have liked it. It begins in Germany, on the brink of war, where the price of escape was very often a willingness to leave everything and everyone behind. The same combination of daring and individualism that would work so well in Los Angeles helped Spiegel to get across the ocean and build a new life in whatever way he could, which at one point included passing bad cheques. This period of his life, thogh perhaps the most intriguing, is not well substantiated, but the filmmakers do a good job of linking together disparate facts and weaving them into the larger story of what was happening at the time.

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Once his Hollywood career took off, there was no shortage of material - clips from the films themselves, of course, and interviews with the stars and with people who worked alongside him, both new and archival; news footage and material taken from the awards shows and social events where he soon established himself. In true tycoon style, he was often seen with starlets on his arms, and several interviewees reference how much he liked the company of attractive women - but, repeatedly, stress that he was ‘not like Weinstein.’ He was undoubtedly an extravagant spender, however, as good at squandering money as he was at wasting it, and although this rags to riches tale doesn't take us all the way back to the rags again, it comes close.

The real difficulty that de Young and Wellink face lies in getting beyond the public persona to show us the private man. There are few moments that provide a real sense of insight into what made him tick, and these come mainly early on or during his decline, when he was less able to exercise control or shield himself. He seems to have been liked by those who worked with him but one gets the sense that he didn't give much away even to them. This means that when the glamour and intrigue are gone, the documentary is left feeling rather flat.

Of most interest here s the background on Spiegel's films and the dogged way he saw them through even when studios lost faith. His instinct for a successful film seems to have gone beyond the simple luck that lends some Hollywood legends a false veneer of genius. He could clearly anticipate audience reactions without depending on statistical analysis. He knew what would make a film matter to people, and in that regard he may very well have been one of the last of his kind. For all its limitations, this is a worthy tribute.

Reviewed on: 06 Mar 2019
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The irresistible rags-to-riches story, profusely illustrated with clips from his finest films, of one of Hollywood's most iconic cigar-chomping tycoons.

Director: Stephan Wellink, Robert de Young

Year: 2018

Runtime: 60 minutes

Country: France, Australia


Glasgow 2019

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