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Producer leaves legacy of independent films

Date: 11/15/2011

Nov. 14, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Most of you probably have never heard of Richard Gordon, the movie producer whose career ended last week when he passed away at age 85. His death was literally the end of an era in film history, but thanks to home video his work will be discovered and seen by generations to come.

Gordon was an independent producer who rose like so many others did in the 1950s. At that time, television had eaten into a large part of the regular movie-going audience and the B-movie fare — from westerns to domestic comedies to cop dramas — had essentially moved to TV.

Studios scrambled to find ways to keep or bring back their audiences and it’s little wonder there was an emphasis on color photography, gimmicks such as 3-D and innovations such as wide-screen Cinemascope during this time.

It was also during this time that there was another group coming to the forefront: independent theater owners who were looking for pictures that were affordable to rent and had something television couldn’t offer their audiences.

Many of their venues were not traditional “hardtop” theaters as Variety called them, but rather the relatively new phenomena of the drive-in.

During this time, a wide range of independent producers started making the kind of film the exhibitors needed: action films, horror and science fiction titles and films with as stronger sexual content than could be found on television.

People such as Roger Corman, Russ Meyer, Herman Cohen, Joe Solomon and David Friedman were among this group of producers who worked both outside and inside the studio system. American International Pictures was created as a releasing organization for many of these indie producers.

Gordon was one of those producers. A die-hard film fan since he was a child, Gordon was one of the very first fans who made the leap to making movies. He came to this country from his native England with his brother Alex after World War II. Both were intent in working in the film business and both became producers.

Alex went to California, while Richard stayed in New York City, setting up films that were shot in the United Kingdom.

Richard and I were friends for more than 20 years and during that time he taught me a lot about the life of an independent producer. He never aspired to have a studio or big releasing organization such as Corman, rather he seemed content to produce a film and then work on making sure it was released around the world.

Richard was very smart in that he insisted that the films he produced always came back into his ownership. When he worked with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which released his double-bill of “Fiend without a Face” and “The Haunted Strangler,” his contract said that after a certain length of time, those films became his property again.

This allowed Richard not only to secure foreign distribution of his films, but television sales as well. When home video came about, Richard found new deals for his library.

If you would like follow the career of this independent filmmaker, go to your favorite online video rental service and check out the following films:

“Fiend without a Face” is perhaps the best-known film Richard produced, especially within horror circles. Set at a nuclear facility, star Marshall Thompson fights invisible monsters that literally suck the brains out of their victims. The conclusion, when they do become visible, is well worth the build-up.

“The Cat and the Canary” is undoubtedly Richard’s best film. An adaptation of a famed 1920s stage play, the property has been made several times as a film. Richard’s version was stylishly directed by Radley Metzger and boasts a solid cast including Carol Lynley, Edward Fox, Michael Callan, Honor Blackman and Olivia Hussey. Set in 1934, the film has both humor and thrills.

“Devil Doll” is a very creepy horror film that falls into a unique sub-genre: the evil ventriloquist. Bryant Haliday stars as the Great Vorelli whose dummy holds a gruesome secret.

“Haunted Strangler” and “Corridors of Blood” gave Boris Karloff — a boyhood favorite of Richard’s — two of the best film roles he had in the latter part of his career. In the first film, Karloff played a novelist convinced the man he thought had been executed as the “Haymarket Strangler” was the wrong man. He was right!

In the second film, he played a doctor attempting to find an anesthetic and winds up as an addict himself.

The esteemed Criterion Collection has released three of his films on DVD in a great collection that also features one of the Alex’s films, the delightfully loopy “Atomic Submarine.”

At the time of his death, Richard was still going to his office and still making distribution deals for the films he produced and those he represented. He had outlived all of his contemporaries, with the exception of Corman, and had kept the movies he had loved to make available for new viewers.

For a movie fan such as Richard, that was a good life.

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