by Ben Sachs
Count me among the intrigued. Critic and filmmaker Mark Rappaport (From the Journals of Jean Seberg) has made a compelling case for Leisen as a major director, comparing him to George Cukor in his sensitive handling of actors and to Vincente Minnelli in his exquisite production design. (Writing about Leisen on the occasion of a 2008 retrospective, Rappaport noted that he began his Hollywood career as a set dresser for no less than Cecil B. DeMille.) For Rappaport, Leisen's films are most distinguished by their nuanced interpersonal relationships, which tend to have a marked sexual element. "The interactions between his stars," he writes, "have an easy and very palpable sexual chemistry which radiates from the screen, suggesting that the physical attraction the characters have for each other is more than merely a given in the script."
As Andrew Sarris would say, Leisen is clearly a subject for further research. Hold Back the Dawn should make for a helpful introduction, as Leisen's particular style may stand out more prominently against the familiar backdrop of Wilder and Brackett's writing. Rappaport argues that this "unlikely tale of redemption, of gigolos and gold diggers conniving their way across the American border from Mexico, would have been unpalatably depressing under Wilder's direction" but that Leisen softens the blow considerably with his warm feeling for the leads.