Unsung Auteurs: Jack Smight

April 20, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: hard-working “journeyman” Jack Smight, who helmed The Illustrated Man, Airport 1975 and many more.

Having the status of a “journeyman” director – namely, one who moves from genre to genre, taking jobs that seem to indicate no singular authorial voice or thematic concerns – would instantly seem to preclude a filmmaker from being celebrated in a column called Unsung Auteurs. But many “journeyman” (and “journeywoman”) directors are clearly deserving of praise when their resumes are investigated a little further. In amongst the reams of television films, instalments of episodic TV, and seemingly run-of-the-mill features, there are often fascinating films that showcase the director’s real skills and gifts.

Like several other filmmakers featured in Unsung Auteurs, American director Jack Smight is a perfect example of the “journeyman” director whose achievements have never received the credit that they truly deserve. A hard working director of television and features, the late Jack Smight was born in Minneapolis in 1925 and flew combat missions in The Pacific Theatre in WW2. Studying theatre acting, Smight eventually moved to Hollywood with the dream of becoming an actor. That, however, never panned out, and Smight instead moved behind the scenes, first working successfully as a stage manager before eventually making an even more successful shift into directing. “His acting background helped him understand actors, and he was also a very intelligent, literate man,” said Smight’s good friend, actor Peter Graves. “He also knew how to communicate with the writers.”

Jack Smight with Paul Newman on the set of Harper.

Smight also ingeniously put himself in the right place at the right time, beginning his career in the 1950s boom era for television. He directed TV plays, series episodes, documentaries and everything in between all through the 1950s and into the early 1960s before making his big screen debut in 1964 with I’d Rather Be Rich, a charming enough romantic vehicle for squeaky clean superstar Sandra Dee.

This paved the way for a strong run from the director in the back half of the decade, with Smight calling the shots on some truly intriguing titles. After directing 1965’s impressive The Third Day (a taut paranoid thriller starring George Peppard), Smight teamed with Paul Newman on 1966’s Harper. The film saw the superstar take on the role of crime master Ross McDonald’s famous private eye Lew Archer (renamed Lew Harper for the film), and Harper is a wonderful slice of sixties cool. Smight keeps it tight, working the labyrinthine plot beautifully, and giving Newman plenty of room to work his magic. Smight didn’t return for the 1975 sequel The Drowning Pool, but was a key component in the creation of one of Paul Newman’s essential on-screen characters.

Warren Beatty in Kaleidoscope.

Smight reteamed with Paul Newman for the snappy 1968 military satire The Secret War Of Harry Frigg, which cheekily poked fun at the military elite in a typically Vietnam-era way. Smight’s other films of the 1960s were equally strong. Warren Beatty and Susannah York pre-empted Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway’s groovy smash The Thomas Crown Affair with Smight’s slinky, highly stylised gambling comic crime caper Kaleidoscope. Though now largely forgotten, it’s a fine example of a film expertly tapered perfectly to the talents of its stars, a knack that Smight would exhibit again and again.

He did it with true flair on another strong but now forgotten work in 1968’s No Way To Treat A Lady. A humour-inflected thriller, the film brilliantly pits Rod Steiger’s cruel, taunting, disguise-wearing serial killer strangler against George Segal’s harried New York detective, who is seemingly more distressed by the rantings of his overbearing, disappointed Jewish mother. Co-scripted by the great William Goldman, the film also features the delightful Lee Remick in support as a hip tour guide caught up in the case. Very much of its era, No Way To Treat A Lady is a crackling, well-performed curio well deserving of re-evaluation today.

Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man.

After this striking thriller, Smight delivered a bizarro one-two with 1969’s The Illustrated Man and 1970’s The Travelling Executioner. Based on Ray Bradbury’s book of short stories, The Illustrated Man follows a drifter (Rod Steiger), whose body-covering tattoos allow those that peer at them to see into the future. Trippy, sinister and weird, the film is unforgettable for its strange visuals, unusual plot and towering central turn from Rod Steiger. Just as wilfully and wonderfully bizarre is 1970’s The Travelling Executioner, in which Stacy Keach travels the land in the early 20th century, offering the services of his electric chair to those prisoners who want to end their life sentences. When he meets his first female “client” (Marianna Hill), however, the game changes significantly. As profoundly weird as its plot suggests, this garish, grotesque black comedy showcases Jack Smight’s ability to expertly handle tonally difficult material.

Smight next drew a strong performance out of James Caan in a fairly solid 1970 adaptation of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, and then toiled in the TV world until returning to the big screen with Airport 1975. The sequel to the 1970 smash hit disaster epic Airport, Smight was put in charge of a huge cast (Charlton Heston, Karen Black, Helen Reddy, Linda Blair and many more) and delivered a highly enjoyable mid-air fright flick. He teamed with Heston again for 1976’s equally star-laden Midway (Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Toshiro Mifune and many more also star), a big budget telling of the eponymous WW2 sea and air battle. Though classic “journeyman” jobs, these two films are ample proof that Smight could corral a big cast and tell a bulky, expansive story with style and precision.

Paul Winfield, Jan Michael-Vincent and George Peppard in Damnation Alley.

The last truly fascinating film from Jack Smight came in 1977 with the excellent post-apocalyptic action thriller Damnation Alley, which stars Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda and others as a group of post-WW3 survivors who head across a devastated America in hulking all-terrain vehicles. Along the way, they encounter, amongst other horrors, mutant human survivors and man-eating cockroaches. Beset by all manner of production problems, Damnation Alley remains a strong but barely remembered entry in the crowded disaster/post-apocalyptic sci-fi sub-genre, and clicks in with The Illustrated Man and The Travelling Executioner as examples of Smight at his peculiar, boundary-pushing best.

Through the late 1970s and 1980s, Smight continued to work solidly in television, while delivering a series of slightly underwhelming features: 1979’s Fast Break (a genial enough basketball comedy starring Welcome Back Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan); 1980’s Loving Couples (a lame infidelity-themed romantic comedy starring James Coburn, Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon and Stephen Collins); 1987’s Number One With A Bullet (a slice of truly eighties buddy cop mayhem with the unlikely pairing of Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams); and 1989’s The Favorite (a turgid historical drama with F. Murray Abraham and Maud Adams), which would end up being Smight’s final film.

Passing away in 2003 at the age of 78, Jack Smight may be rarely if ever discussed today, but this hard working director is the best kind of “journeyman” filmmaker there is, bringing his own ideas and spirit to a wide variety of films over a host of different genres, all with a vivid sense of style and imagination.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Marielle Heller, James GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara 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.


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