Unsung Auteurs: Elliot Silverstein

November 24, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: TV and big screen journeyman Elliot Silverstein, who helmed Cat Ballou and A Man Called Horse.

Many Unsung Auteurs have big, important films on their resume (Stuart Rosenberg with Cool Hand Luke, Victor Fleming with Gone With The Wind, Jennifer Lee with Frozen, and so on), but for whatever reason, the credit for those films is rarely laid at their feet. Whether it’s an iconic performance, a cracking script, or a body of work not quite the equal of this singular film, there are rare occasions when the director of a film is not essentially tied to that film’s identity. Another Unsung Auteur that can be added to this list is Elliot Silverstein, whose 1965 film Cat Ballou was nominated for five Oscars with one win. But if you asked the average knowledgeable film lover who directed that comic western, most would likely draw a blank. That could be down to Silverstein’s status as a “journeyman” director, and the fact that most of his work was done for television. But either way, the wholly under-celebrated Elliot Silverstein has a small but fascinating selection of films to his credit.

Born in 1927, Elliot Silverstein worked prolifically in television in the 1950s and 1960s, helming live TV plays and episodes of iconic shows like Dr. Kildare, Route 66, The Westerner, The Defenders and The Twilight Zone. This led directly to Silverstein’s big screen debut in 1965 with Cat Ballou, a raucous, rambunctious comedy western adapted from Roy Chanslor’s novel by top-tier screenwriters Walter Newman (Ace In The Hole, The Man With The Golden Arm) and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon, Cool Hand Luke). With the charming Jane Fonda in the lead role, the film explodes various western tropes and is wholeheartedly stolen by the Oscar winning Lee Marvin, who ingeniously pulls double duty as a washed, drunken former gunfighter and his lethal, tin-nosed nemesis. It’s a great comic performance, and Silverstein (who had a few on-set battles with powerhouse producer Harold Hecht) shows much skill in creating Cat Ballou’s bawdy, shambolic tone.

Elliot Silverstein with Jane Fonda on the set of Cat Ballou.

Silverstein’s failed to successfully walk the comic tightrope with his follow-up film. 1967’s The Happening attempted to tap into the youth explosion of the era with mixed results, as Anthony Quinn’s wealthy restauranteur is kidnapped by a crew of doleful youngsters (played by the catchy team of Michael Parks, George Maharis, Robert Walker Jr., and Faye Dunaway in her debut role) chasing a big pay-day. But when nobody will cough up the dough, the kids team up with the nice guy restauranteur to get back at his various enemies. Though not without laughs and entertainingly “of its era”, The Happening ultimately feels a little under-cooked.

Like Cat Ballou, Silverstein’s next film is something of a cinematic western icon, but the director’s name is rarely brought up in tandem with it. 1970’s A Man Called Horse is part of a subset of western/genre films (which extends right through to Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai and Avatar) in which a “white man” is exposed to both the pain and wonder of an indigenous culture, and then embraces it as his adopted own. In the case of the utterly thrilling and often disturbing A Man Called Horse, it is Richard Harris’ English aristocrat who is captured by a tribe of Sioux, and after initially experiencing much humiliation and suffering, is eventually embraced by the tribe. Though there are some issues with the film due to its vintage (Australian-born Dame Judith Anderson, for instance, plays the member of the tribe to whom Harris is gifted as a slave), A Man Called Horse offers fascinating (if perhaps apocryphal) insight into the way of the Sioux, and also includes one of the most unforgettable scenes in 1970s cinema, whereby Harris is hauled upwards by two bones inserted through the skin of his chest. For any kid who witnessed that on TV in the 1970s, it likely remains something they could never un-see. A strong but now somewhat disavowed entry into the western survivalist genre, the highly successful A Man Called Horse even prompted two sequels (1976’s The Return Of A Man Called Horse, 1983’s Triumphs Of A Man Called Horse), neither of which were directed by Silverstein.

A scene from A Man Called Horse.

Silverstein flipped genres with his next film, replacing fired director Nicolas Roeg after five days on the low budget 1974 exploitation flick Nightmare Honeymoon, adapted from the novel by crime writer Lawrence Block, who penned the popular series of books featuring private eye Matt Scudder. The grim tale of two newlyweds pursued by murdering rapists, Nightmare Honeymoon is now largely forgotten. A better fate, however, awaited Silverstein’s excellent horror follow-up with 1977’s The Car. Boasting one of James Brolin’s best performances (okay, maybe not exactly a huge call), and predating Stephen King’s more well-known and similarly themed Christine (as well as owing a debt to Steven Spielberg’s 1971 classic Duel), The Car follows a town being terrorised by a mysterious car which may or may not be possessed by The Devil. Packed with solid scenes and genuinely eerie moments, The Car is highly entertaining 1970s horror with a welcome sense of ambiguity and earthiness.

The 1980s and 1990s saw Silverstein working almost exclusively in television (as well as episodic instalments, he also directed two essential telemovies in 1986’s Betrayed By Innocence and 1987’s Fight For Life with Jerry Lewis), though he did return to the big screen for 1994’s cop thriller potboiler Flashfire, starring Billy Zane and Lou Gossett Jr. It still stands as the final film for Elliot Silverstein, who is now in his nineties and long retired. As well as being a fierce campaigner for the creative rights of directors (particularly in how they work and collaborate with editors), Elliot Silverstein had a real ability for working effectively in highly diverse genres and creating unusual, idiosyncratic scenarios.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Liz Garbus, Victor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. Hancock, Sara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.