Historicist: Sidney Furie and A Dangerous Age

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Historicist: Sidney Furie and A Dangerous Age

A young Canadian filmmaker's doomed ambition to make a movie in Toronto.

Toronto Star (November 7, 1959)

Toronto Star (November 7, 1959).

“I wanted to start a Canadian film industry,” Sidney Furie told the Canadian Press in January 1962 from his self-imposed exile in England. “But nobody cared. There’s no pattern of distribution and nobody had any money to put up.” As an ambitious young man in 1957, Furie had written a screenplay and scrapped together a shoestring budget to film a movie in Toronto—years before Don Owen’s Nobody Waved Good-bye, the 1964 film now usually considered the birth of English-language Canadian filmmaking. Furie’s finished product, A Dangerous Age, about young lovers thwarted in their attempt to elope, was praised overseas—it screened at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, and led to Furie’s successful stint making pictures in England on his path to Hollywood. But neither A Dangerous Age nor Furie’s 1959 follow-up, A Cool Sound From Hell, have ever been shown commercially in Toronto.

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Furie had wanted to make movies since the age of 12, but, as he told a reporter years later, “never thought I’d get around to doing it.” There was no English-Canadian feature film industry to speak of after World War II. While there had been a small boom of French-language pictures made in Quebec, such as Tit-Coq (1953), the National Film Board had been hesitant to compete with Hollywood or Britain. Instead the government-funded body concentrated on shorts, documentaries, and animation. There were scant resources available for filmmakers eager to break free of producing educational shorts to write and produce their own stories.

(Left: Toronto Star [November 26, 1957].)

Some quit their jobs to form an independent production company—Julian Roffman and Ralph Foster, for example, were friends who’d both worked overseas for the NFB during the war, and created Meridian Films in 1954. “We have high hopes of filming some Canadian dramas—both for television and theatre showings,” Foster told a journalist in the mid-1950s. The pair bought the Community Theatre on Woodbine Avenue, south of Mortimer Avenue, and renovated the old cinema into a fair-sized film studio, stocked it with cameras, props, and rigging for lights, and invested in the country’s first video production centre. But with scarce financing for their entertainment features, Roffman and Foster too had to rely on documentaries, commercials, and industrial training films to make ends meet.

When Furie returned to his native Toronto in 1954 after studying drama and communications at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, he found work in television. In addition to writing scripts for the public affairs department at the CBC, his responsibilities, at least for a time, included selecting films to air on television, a happy duty that involved pre-screening—and studying—hundreds of movies.

Furie started a script about doomed teenage romance, intending it as a CBC Television play. But when his childhood ambitions returned, he decided develop it as a feature film he would direct himself. In the winter of 1957, with his finished script for A Dangerous Age in hand, Furie quit his job.

The film is about a teenage couple who run away to get married, and the resulting conflict with parents, run-ins with the law, and eventual disillusionment—Paul Corupe has a full synopsis at Canuxploitation. A Dangerous Age has been characterized as a “downbeat take on Romeo and Juliet.”

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Though Furie likened his picture to Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night—not yet considered the classic it is now—he was careful to distinguish A Dangerous Age from then-popular movies exploiting the threat of juvenile delinquent crime. He pitched it as a coming-of-age story. “I honestly don’t think it’s a cheap sex story,” he shyly explained to a reporter. “I think it’s a sincere film about two kids who really love each other.”

(Right: Globe and Mail [November 26, 1957].)

Again and again, members of the local film industry told him that producing a feature in Toronto was impossible—as Roffman and Foster’s experience seemed to demonstrate. But Furie persisted with single-minded ambition, and raised a production budget of $50,000 from family and friends in mostly small contributions—the largest from a single source being $3,000.

Casting the film, Furie couldn’t find what he was looking for in the leads among actors in Toronto. So he cast two New York-based actors: Ben Piazza, trained at the famed Actor’s Studio and hyped in some quarters as “another Marlon Brando,” and Anne Pearson, fresh off a turn in A Clearing in the Woods on Broadway. He rounded out the players with local Toronto veterans of stage and television including Austin Willis and Kate Reid. For the soundtrack, Furie recruited Kamloops-born and Julliard-educated jazz musician Phil Nimmons.

Beginning on August 9, Furie shot A Dangerous Age over 12 days, with interiors done on a soundstage at Roffman and Foster’s Meridian Films studios, and exteriors filmed in Brampton, Bolton, and—one Saturday at midnight—at the intersection of Yonge and St. Clair. Completing his film in near-secrecy, Furie didn’t publicly discuss A Dangerous Age until later that autumn, possibly out of apprehension over whether he could actually pull it off.

“I said nothing about the movie while it was in production simply because I wanted to get it finished and not have it blow up in my face,” the 24-year-old director told entertainment columnist Jack Karr in late November during the final stages of editing. Furie was preparing to show A Dangerous Age for distributors, and no doubt began realizing the difficulties of getting his feature into cinemas. He likely hoped that newspaper publicity would help him secure a distribution deal, though he had no illusions about his finished product. “It’s not an epic but I think it’s a good entertainment feature for the double bills,” he told Karr.

Within days, newspapers were reporting that Furie—who’d expressed hope that he’d make one film a year—was eyeing John Gray’s Bright Sun at Midnight, a play then being staged at the Crest Theatre, for his next movie.

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(Right: Toronto Star [May 9, 1958].)

But North American distributors weren’t interested in A Dangerous Age, eventually prompting Furie to take the finished film print to England. (He didn’t have the money to make a second.) By late January 1958, Furie informed Toronto reporters that he’d signed a deal with Films de France to distribute A Dangerous Age in Britain, Ireland, and Europe. “No nibbles yet,” an ever-hopeful Furie added of his progress on securing North American distribution, “but maybe the English release will spark some interest.”

Furie wasn’t in attendance at the London premiere of A Dangerous Age in early May 1958, but within hours of the screening he was on the phone with a friend on the scene to get a run-down of the reviews, which were generally positive. Writing in the Monthly Film Bulletin, Penelope Houston regarded A Dangerous Age as “probably the first Canadian feature to rate serious criticism.” Philip Oakes of the Evening-Standard acclaimed the film’s effective treatment of multiple viewpoints: “Its juveniles are not delinquent; its adults are not obtuse. It is far from perfect but its flaws are wholly outweighed by its freshness and enthusiasm.” The main criticism was Furie’s inexperience behind the camera, but British critics, on the whole, felt Dangerous heralded an era of great promise of feature film production in Canada.

Not long after the premiere, news reached Toronto that Furie was on his way to the French Riviera to screen A Dangerous Age out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, followed shortly afterward by a showing at the Venice Film Festival. Despite A Dangerous Age‘s overseas success, it would not be seen at the film festival in Stratford, held as an extension of the drama festival from 1957 to 1961—despite homegrown entertainment writers’ complaints. Though the festival director protested that Stratford was keen to show Furie’s film, A Dangerous Age was not among the 20 films from as many countries exhibited that summer. It’s likely that the sole print of A Dangerous Age was still circulating British cinemas. The only Canadian films included at Stratford were shorts.

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Though Furie eventually sold distribution rights through a New York firm for $85,000, A Dangerous Age was never given a proper theatrical release in North America. The only time A Dangerous Age was publicly shown in the city where it was filmed, as far as newspaper evidence suggests, was in the spring of 1959 when the Toronto Film Society included it in its programming at the Odeon Hyland. Through the late 1960s and 1970s, it occasionally appeared on local television, usually late at night.

“I should have made the kid rob a service station,” Furie later concluded of his failure to find a North American audience for A Dangerous Age. For his follow-up, Furie decided to fulfill the thirst of theatre owners and audiences for juvenile delinquent crime. With a budget of over $60,000, in February 1959 Furie began filming A Cool Sound from Hell, the tale of a middle-class young man who, infatuated with a beautiful girl from the beatnik scene, gets mixed up with drug-dealing hoods.

(Left: Globe and Mail [May 13, 1958].)

By this time, other filmmakers had followed Furie’s lead into locally made independent movie production, seemingly fulfilling the promise identified by British critics. Norman Klenman and William Davidson set out to adapt a series of Morley Callaghan short stories, Now That April’s Here (1958). Roffman and Foster, meanwhile, secured backing from Yvonne Taylor, wife of movie theatre–chain owner Nat Taylor, for The Bloody Brood (1959), a B-movie about a violent gang of beatniks led by a young Peter Falk. Neither of the movies would be commercial successes, leaving the local feature film market in a state of uncertainty. Television production in Toronto, by contrast, was flourishing with the establishment of a major film studio in Kleinburg and an influx of American expertise and funding.

After wrapping filming on A Cool Sound from Hell, Furie took work in the television industry, directing a number of episodes of Hudson’s Bay, an expensive but troubled series being filmed in Toronto with American actors. Increasingly confident behind the camera and energetic, Furie worked quickly, averaging three days per episode. After working from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., he’d spend his evenings at the typewriter writing and rewriting episode scripts. On set, he deftly handled actors, and was eager to learn from the technical staff—making him a favourite with both cast and crew. “That kid has so much talent it’s positively frightening,” said Carey Wilber, a Los Angeles television producer involved with Hudson’s Bay. “I’ll lay any odds that within five years he’ll be one of the biggest names in the film business.” There were rumours he’d soon be heading stateside to take the reins of a floundering TV series, Troubleshooters.

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(Right: Toronto Star [March 8, 1961].)

Furie spent his free time away from Hudson’s Bay with his sleeves rolled up at a Moviola, editing A Cool Sound from Hell. By the time Clive Denton interviewed Furie, the young filmmaker expressed a degree of frustration over his difficulties in getting movies made and exhibited. Once again Furie was stonewalled by North American distributors—who were now interested in horror films, not juvenile delinquent pictures—but found interest in his finished product overseas. A Cool Sound from Hell premiered in England to generally positive reviews. Gerald Pratley bemoaned the irony of his having to travel to London in order to see scenes of the subway and Union Station on the big screen. Like A Dangerous Age before it, A Cool Sound from Hell was never shown commercially in Canada and is now considered a lost film with no prints known to exist. Both Wyndham Wise and Paul Corupe suggest that Nat Taylor, who had been vocal in desiring Canadian movies for his cinema chain, lent support to both of Furie’s projects. However, his involvement is never mentioned in newspaper accounts of the day. Rather he was singled out by critics for not being supportive enough. Writing in the Star in early 1961, Nathan Cohen noted that Taylor had “unhesitatingly turned down a chance to show A Dangerous Age.” Pratley similarly complained that Taylor and local theatre owners “inflicted” mediocre movies on audiences when Canadian-made features would bring in just as much revenue.

Faced with this “unforgivable neglect,” as Pratley dubbed it, Furie moved to England in 1959. There, he was given a free hand to make During One Night (also known as Night of Passion) (1960)—importing his friend and fellow Torontonian Don Borisenko for the lead role—and knocked out two horror thrillers, Dr. Blood’s Coffin (1961) and The Snake Woman (1961), and a comedy, Three on a Spree (1961), in the span of months. Low-budget movies destined for the bottom half of a double bill, these gave Furie steady work and an opportunity to hone his camerawork and skill at keeping to a tight budget. “The important thing is to be professional,” Furie told Pratley, who came to visit him on-set in London in March 1961. “Not slick and superficial but honest and commanding. If you can’t make a film look professional even with a small budget then you’ll never be noticed or receive attention from the people who commission you to make films.”

Toronto Star (January 14, 1961)

Toronto Star (January 14, 1961).

His growing success meant his wife Sheila and three sons could live comfortably, though not lavishly, in expensive postwar London. “The services here are inferior to ours, we miss our families deeply, but this is a wonderful place to live,” he told Pratley. He eventually upgraded to a two-storey home in a posh new development in South West London.

Furie’s break came when with a musical starring pop star Cliff Richard as the leader of a group of teenagers hoping to save their local hangout from a pompous real estate developer by staging a talent show. The Young Ones (known as Wonderful to be Young in North America) (1961) was a critical and commercial smash. Despite a paint-by-numbers plot, critics praised the high-spirited movie’s peppy rock ‘n’ roll numbers, and a “wholehearted enthusiasm hitherto quite foreign to the British screen musical.”

Suddenly, Furie was a highly sought after figure in British cinema, being offered scripts to read and pressured to sign longterm contracts with studios. Though he reunited with Richard for a follow-up, Wonderful Life (a.k.a. Swingers’ Paradise) (1964), Furie admitted, “I’m not particularly interested in musicals—especially teenage musicals.”

“He has proved something to himself and, having done so, what he now is looking for, even though he perhaps does not clearly understand it to himself, is a new kind of personal challenge,” Cohen wrote of Furie’s restlessness in 1962. “What he wants really is a film that will fire his enthusiasm as well as test his craftsmanship.”

Instead he parlayed his reputation into backing for pictures he wanted to make: thoughtful observations of real life, often gritty and working class. A courtroom drama, The Boys (1962), examined the fallout of a London garage robbery and resulting murder of a night watchman. Though ostensibly about a young married couple, The Leather Boys (1963) featured one of the earliest cinematic representations of homosexual love.

Toronto Star (September 2, 1965)

Toronto Star (September 2, 1965).

With The Ipcress File (1965), Furie was hailed for elevating the spy genre into art. Screened as one of the official British entries at Cannes that year, The Ipcress File earned Furie international acclaim, comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, and contract offers from major Hollywood studios. He accepted, launching a long Hollywood career.

In doing press for The Ipcress File, Furie was regularly asked whether he would ever return to Canada. “Yes, I would travel anywhere to make a film if I believed in that film,” he told Canadian Cinematography. “I don’t care where it is being made. But, unless there is something that has to be made in Canada that cannot be made elsewhere, nobody is going to back a film in Canada.” To another reporter, however, Furie’s diplomacy was overwhelmed by a tinge of bitterness. “Despite all the work we did in Toronto, and the hopes we had for it,” he told the Star‘s Gerald Utting in 1965, “there’s really no more reason for Toronto to have a movie industry than Cleveland.”

Sources consulted: Paul Corupe, “Taking off the mask,” in Take 1 (December 2003/March 2004); Peter Morris, “English-Canadian films of the 1950s,” Take 1 (July-August 2002); Gerald Pratley, A Century of Canadian Cinema (Lynx Images, 2003); Eugene Walz, ed., Canada’s Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films; and articles from Broken Pencil (Fall 1999); Canadian Cinematography (January-February 1966); Cinema Canada (March 1976); the Globe and Mail (April 16, and November 27, 1956; June 4, July 27, October 12 & 19, and November 26, 1957; February 27, May 13, and June 16, 1958; February 13, July 25, and September 5, 12 & 16, 1959; February 10, and May 26, 1960; January 3, and November 18, 1961; January 4, October 23, and November 8, 1962; April 19, 1963; July 28, and December 18, 1964; January 28, and September 3 & 24, 1965; March 21, 2005); Sight and Sound (Summer 1958); the Toronto Star (October 5, and November 26 & 27, 1957; January 27, and May 9, 14 & 16, 1958; January 2, June 6, August 12, and November 7, 1959; October 12, 1960; January 10 & 14, March 8, and November 10, 1961; January 4 & 20, February 12 & 24, July 21, and November 7 & 10, 1962; March 16, 1963; December 21, 1964; January 28, May 22, June 14 & 19, and September 8 & 14, 1965; August 9, and October 2, 1967; September 20, 1968; January 17, 1970; December 6, 1971; June 30, 1978; November 25, 1986; and March 3, 2001.)

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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