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Movie review: 'Buzz'

Tribune movie critic

3 stars (out of four)

"Buzz" is the documentary tale of a Hollywood screenwriter--not just any writer but A.I. (for Albert Isaac) "Buzz" Bezzerides, a movie writer, as it turns out, for the ages.

Many film noir devotees revere the Greek-Armenian-Turkish-American Bezzerides as the writer of classics such as "Kiss Me Deadly," "Thieves' Highway" (adapted from his novel) and "On Dangerous Ground."

The documentary, shot by Greek filmmaker Spiro Taraviras, shows that he is much more. Still alive and active at 98, this working-class scholar-athlete put himself through college driving trucks and working other tough jobs, becoming a poet, short story writer and novelist before he started writing screenplays.

Bezzerides came from an immigrant family who moved to Fresno, Calif., when he was 2. It was his novel "The Long Haul," based on his experiences as a trucker, that got him to Hollywood, when Warner Bros. bought it for director Raoul Walsh, Humphrey Bogart and George Raft and turned it into 1940's "They Drive by Night."

Bezzerides was in the hard-boiled realist literary school of Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson and Buzz's friend John Fante. He was a good friend, too, of novelist (and fellow screenwriter) William Faulkner and also of actors and eventual legends Bogart and Robert Mitchum. Indeed, Bezzerides who co-wrote "Action in the North Atlantic" for Bogie, was hired regularly by the star as his special dialogue rewrite man, performing similar tasks for Raft and Edward G. Robinson.

For everything above, and for some more sharp crime movies (some uncredited) such as "A Bullet for Joey," "Sirocco," "Desert Fury" and "Background to Danger," Bezzerides probably deserves the title, among non-directing screenwriters, of "Mr. Noir." But he was also a considerable figure in the western genre, scripting the classic "Track of the Cat" (for Mitchum and William Wellman) and the sleeper "The Jayhawkers," as well as writing for "Bonanza," "The Virginian" and young star Clint Eastwood's "Rawhide." He also created the 1965-69 show "The Big Valley" (starring Barbara Stanwyck), writing more than 100 episodes.

Nothing irritates an old Hollywood writer more than excessive attention paid by movie critics to directors--and our tendency to praise directors for what can often be traced to the writer. But many good critics I know hold Bezzerides in special esteem, even though most of us probably don't know half of what he did.

That's why it's gratifying but a little sad to see him here: an elderly, somewhat fragile man in a not-too-prosperous-looking house, telling tales of how he survived the blacklist--the gray list, in his case, since he was one of those leftist writers who could still work but not at top salaries--and of how the producers consistently exploited him.

Fascinating as "Buzz" often is, the film obviously was made with limited resources, transferred to film from DV, with grainy clips from the trailers for Bezzerides-scripted movies rather than snippets of the movies themselves. But Taraviras has the main resource, Bezzerides himself, along with a few old friends or co-workers such as Jules Dassin, Cloris Leachman, Terry Moore and Gloria Stuart. They make the movie shine.



Directed, written and produced by Spiros Taraviras; photographed by Yorgos Giannelis; edited by Giorgos Triantafyllou; music by Nikos Platyrachos; co- produced by Soulis Athanasiou. Narrated by Gregory Patrick Karr. An Outsider Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language).

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