It happens on Page 4 of Quentin Tarantino’s recently published novelisation of his instant classic Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. “So, Paul Wendkos is your favourite director, huh?” Hollywood talent agent Marvin Schwarz (played by Al Pacino in the film) asks of close-to-washed-up western TV star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film). “Yeah, I started out with him in my early days,” Rick replies. “I’m in his Cliff Robertson picture, Battle Of The Coral Sea. You can see me and Tommy Laughlin hangin’ out in the back of the submarine the whole picture.” Marvin Schwarz later proclaims: “Paul-fuckin’-Wendkos. Underrated action specialist.”
As with many other cinematic figures, Paul Wendkos is wound so tight into the novelisation of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood that you could be forgiven for thinking that he is a fictional creation. He is, however, very much a real life figure, and an unsung one at that. In the book, Rick Dalton talks of featuring in a handful of the director’s actual films, and also credits him with directing several episodes of his western TV series Bounty Law. Adding even further to the little known director’s (fictional) cache, Paul Wendkos is also named as the director of the fictional scene-stealing film-within-a-film, Nazis-die-by-flamethrower WW2 actioner The Fourteen Fists Of McCluskey. “He’s my favourite of all my directors,” Rick Dalton says, and also chats with Wendkos on the phone in the novelisation. Quentin Tarantino also told The Wrap that Rick Dalton “does a couple of Paul Wendkos’ TV movies” later in his career, post his torching of a murderous Manson girl in his swimming pool.
So, just as he has previously done with actors like John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Bo Svenson and Rod Taylor, the attentions of Quentin Tarantino may very well help in stoking a little interest around Paul Wendkos, a truly underrated filmmaker. The lack of acclaim and discussion around the late director (who passed away in 2009 at the age of 84) is likely largely due to his “journeyman” status, and also because of the fact that he was so unstoppably prolific in the major US TV network telemovie field at the back-end of his career.
The modest (and now largely lost) art-form of the telemovie is oft derided and rarely – if ever – held up as a field in which directors can excel. “Few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie,” wrote TV critic John J. O’Connor in The New York Times in 1991. The direction of telemovies is seen as artless, by-the-numbers hack work, which isn’t always fair, with obvious examples like Duel, The Day After and Threads proving how strong the medium can be. And while Wendkos called the shots on some truly base-level examples of the genre (Danielle Steel and Harold Robbins adaptations; “issues of the week” message movies; cheap and unoriginal thrillers; scandal-inspired potboilers), he also directed some of the strongest telemovies ever made.
Some of Wendkos’ finest: 1970’s The Brotherhood Of The Bell with Glenn Ford is an ingeniously bizarro John Frankenheimer-esque paranoid thriller; 1971’s Footsteps with Richard Crenna is a grim tale of sports, crime and gambling; 1979’s Act Of Violence with Elizabeth Montgomery is a shocking piece of urban paranoia; 1984’s Scorned And Swindled with Tuesday Weld is one of the great woman-wronged melodramas; 1987’s Six Against The Rock with David Carradine is a fine prison escape thriller; 1985’s The Execution is a wacked out post-Holocaust shocker with the extraordinary female cast of Loretta Swit, Sandy Dennis, Jessica Walter, Barbara Barrie and Valerie Harper; and 1988’s The Taking Of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story with Lindsay Wagner is a rock-solid true life hijack thriller. Strongly performed and told with pace and economy, all are testaments to Wendkos’ professional and inspired behind-the-camera abilities.
But though Wendkos’ resume is dominated by made-for-TV movies, the director also made a host of big screen, mainly genre flicks from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Wendkos served in WW2 in the US Navy, and after studying at Columbia University, made his debut with the 1953 documentary Dark Interlude, which detailed life at a school for the blind. Wendkos made his feature debut with 1957’s The Burglar, a sex-and-violence potboiler starring Jayne Mansfield and Dan Duryea, which he quickly followed up with 1958’s The Case Against Brooklyn (a punchy drama about police corruption) and Tarawa Beachhead (an unusual war film focusing on officer corruption and incompetence).
Despite his obvious leaning toward tough subject matter, Wendkos was tapped to helm what would eventually become his most famous film with 1959’s Gidget, the epochal youth beach comedy which starred Sandra Dee as a young girl who loves to surf. The film was a smash (Wendkos also directed two Dee-less sequels with 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian and 1963’s Gidget Goes To Rome), and showed that Wendkos – who delivered three bright, effervescent pictures – could do just about anything. Sitting in amongst the Gidget flicks was 1960’s Because They’re Young, a high school drama starring Dick Clark and Wendkos’s future telemovie star Tuesday Weld.
Outside of the sunny and largely out-of-character Gidget flicks (which, ironically, would be mentioned the most in the few obituaries that popped up upon Wendkos’ passing), Paul Wendkos’ films were either much tougher or far more emotionally intense. While directing much episodic TV throughout the 1960s (on shows including The Big Valley, The Wild Wild West, The FBI, I Spy, and Hawaii Five-0), Wendkos also made two topical, hothouse dramas – 1961’s evangelist-themed Southern curio Angel Baby, which featured the big screen debut of Burt Reynolds; and 1966’s racially driven Johnny Tiger – but largely stuck to genre films, proving equally adept at war flicks and westerns.
1959’s aforementioned Battle Of The Coral Sea plays a big part in the novelisation of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (in Tarantino’s alternate movie universe, the film is based on the WW2 exploits of Brad Pitt’s war-hero-turned-stuntman character, Cliff Booth), and is also a tight wartime action adventure flick. Wendkos would play in similar territory with 1968’s Attack On The Iron Coast (a guys-on-a-mission war flick with Lloyd Bridges) and 1970’s Hell Boats (a man-on-a-mission war flick with James Franciscus). Western-wise, Wendkos did nicely hard-nosed work on 1969’s Guns Of The Magnificent Seven (which saw George Kennedy stepping in for Yul Brynner, the star of the previous two Magnificent Seven films) and 1970’s spaghetti western-style Cannon For Cordoba (starring George Peppard).
Wendkos also made an unlikely detour into the horror genre with 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (a Satanist-themed chiller starring the unlikely trio of Alan Alda, Jacqueline Bisset and Barbara Perkins) before finally closing out his big screen career with 1976’s Special Delivery, a sexy action comedy in the Burt Reynolds mould starring Bo Svenson and Cybill Shepherd. Wendkos worked non-stop in the television field until 1999, directing episodes of TV series like Police Story, Medical Story and Harry O, and quality mini-series such as 1978’s A Woman Called Moses (starring Cicely Tyson as African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman) and 1984’s Celebrity.
While receiving little to no credit or praise for the excellent work that he did in the telemovie field, and only fleeting attention for his strong command of genre filmmaking on his big screen movies, the wholly unsung Paul Wendkos is at least a hero in the pages of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Hopefully a little more celebration and consideration comes his way soon…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.