Frank Tuttle isn't too well remembered today, but at the height of his career, he was one of the highest paid studio-employed directors in Hollywood, an inventive and highly respected filmmaker whose movies were all profitable; he was a serious stylist in the field of film noir. Tuttle was also one in a handful of silent era directors to successfully make the transition to talkies and thrive in the new medium.
Born in New York City in 1892, he attended Yale University, acting in various student stage productions and directing others, and after graduation began a surprisingly casual search for a career. He worked as an assistant editor at Vanity Fair magazine, served as the publicity director for the Russian Ballet, and also did a stint as president of the Yale Dramatic Association in his early twenties. By sheer chance he made the acquaintance of Walter Wanger, who had only recently joined the fledgling movie industry after an apprenticeship in theater, and asked if he might have a crack at writing scenarios for one of his projects. Wanger, in turn, arranged for Tuttle to meet one of the directors at Jessie L. Lasky Productions, for which Wanger worked. Based on a single chat, Tuttle got a three-month trial employment stint with the studio. He watched a lot of activity around him and wrote a little; he was finally put on the permanent payroll in the scenario department. He became known during his brief period there as a good, quick study and a dependable writer. Following an early credit on The Kentuckians (1921), he decided to try his hand at directing with The Cradle Buster (1922). Although he had a few subsequent credits exclusively as a screenwriter on movies such as Manhandled, Manhattan, and Her Love Story (all 1924), Tuttle became known in the middle and late '20s as a writer/director (and, occasionally, a producer/director), and as the Lasky company merged and evolved into Paramount Pictures, he became an ever more important part of the studio's creative side, his skills as a filmmaker easily keeping up with developments on the technical and business ends. Tuttle became a solid generalist director, equally at home in comedy, drama, and thrillers. It was in the latter category, however, that he made his biggest mark, concurrent with the arrival of synchronized sound, most notably with The Greene Murder Case (1929), one of the better early talkie mysteries. By the early '30s, Tuttle's reputation in the business had grown, with movies such as The Benson Murder Case, another hit thriller, and he was one of 10 directors (including Ernst Lubitsch) on the studio showcase feature Paramount on Parade (1930).
Tuttle had the view, at the time, that American directors near the end of the silent era and the early talkie period had become too self-consciously intellectual. His approach, by contrast, was to get out of the way as an intellect and permit the story to carry whatever ideas were important. As a result, his movies all tended to have a good deal of kinetic energy, whether drama or comedy. He also worked very fast. Between 1930 and 1935, he directed (and sometimes also wrote the screenplays) to 22 movies, among them The Big Broadcast (1932), a highly stylized musical showcase starring Bing Crosby, the Boswell Sisters, and a dozen other performing legends of their period; Roman Scandals (1932), which is usually identified as the best of the various Eddie Cantor screen vehicles; and the delightfully breezy Bing Crosby/Kitty Carlisle musical comedy Here Is My Heart (1934). Tuttle's personal interests were broader than his output for Paramount might have led one to expect, encompassing art, literature, and theater. He counted G.W. Pabst among his favorite directors and Mädchen in Uniform among his favorite films of the early '30s. He was so much a fan of John Galsworthy that he purchased the screen rights to the latter's The Apple Tree. He also occasionally threw back the boundaries of certain screen genres, even amid the furious pace of his mid-'30s career. Sandwiched in between the lighthearted fluff of Two for Tonight and College Holiday (both 1935) was his groundbreaking mystery-thriller The Glass Key (1935), starring George Raft, Edward Arnold, Ray Milland, and Guinn Williams. The Glass Key set a new standard, at the time, for quick pacing and violence, telling its story of political corruption, criminal conspiracy, murder, blackmail, a kidnapping, and a busted romance in under 80 minutes. It held up remarkably well over the next 40 years, even in the wake of a 1942 remake by another director starring Alan Ladd.
Tuttle led something of a dual existence as director, movies like The Glass Key, alternating with breezy Bing Crosby musicals such as Waikiki Wedding (1937), and offbeat vehicles such as Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939). Tuttle was respected at Paramount, where he was one of the studio's most reliable directors. All of his movies made money, most made lots of it, and all were done on time and budget. But it wasn't until 1942 that he emerged as a recognized stylist with This Gun for Hire, a genre-defining work in the field of film noir. The movie (based on Graham Greene's novel A Gun For Sale) was a spellbinding thriller, ominous and threatening in mood and showing a psychological depth unique for the time. And it also made stars of both Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Tuttle's work was interrupted by the onset of World War II. Among the relative handful of movies that he got to do was The Hour Before Dawn (1944), a well-intentioned wartime thriller based on a book by Somerset Maugham, in which Lake embarrasses herself terribly trying to affect an Austrian accent and portray a villain. In 1945, however, Bing Crosby -- who was now starting to produce his own movies -- chose Tuttle to direct the first of them, The Great John L. Then, in 1947, his career ground to a temporary halt with the onset of the first of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on supposed Communist infiltration of the movie industry. Tuttle had joined the Communist Party in 1937 out of a sincere belief opposing Hitler's rise to power, and remained a member for a decade until he recognized that the Communists represented a threat to the United States. He suddenly was unable to get work and even found his name being removed from projects he'd done in the past. In 1949 Tuttle moved to Europe, settling in Vienna and resumed filmmaking in France with Gunman in the Streets (1950), an unusual (and mostly superb) American-French production starring Dane Clark and Simone Signoret. This movie didn't open in America for a half-century, and a year after finishing it Tuttle returned to America to testify before the House Committee where he named and denounced many fellow directors and writers (all of whom, by that late date, were already known to the committee).
Even with his name cleared, it wasn't until the mid-'50s that Tuttle was able to resume making movies in the United States on anything resembling a full-time basis. In 1956, he made A Cry in the Night, a thriller about a psychopath (Raymond Burr) who kidnaps the daughter (Natalie Wood) of a police officer (Edmond O'Brien). He closed out his career in a genre that was new to him -- science fiction -- on The Island of Lost Women (1959), which, ironically, starred fellow blacklistee Alan Napier. Both movies showed his ability to tell a story undiminished, despite the interruption to his work.