The Alias Men

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20111128

Alan Smithee never directed a film in his life.

He didn't even exist.

Yet he has more films to his name than almost anyone.

Andrew Collins looks back on the 40-year career of an extraordinary non-entity, a journey which lays bare a radical turning-point in the history of twentieth-century cinema.

'Who has 68 films to his name but never attended a premiere?'

'The Alias Men is an anagram of which director's name?'

Answer: Alan Smithee, the credit film-makers took when their projects lurched towards disaster, or the results were so stymied by producers that they refused to put their names on the roller.

Officially sanctioned by the Directors Guild of America in 1969, his filmography lists the likes of 'Dune' (in the TV remake of David Lynch's spectacular), 'City in Fear' (with its introduction of Mickey Rourke), Rocky Horror Show sequel 'Shock Treatment' and the self-explanatory 'Blood-sucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh'.

It's certainly tempting to revel in the failings of Smithee's films, the misguided rescriptings and tortuous (and torturous) TV edits which led their original directors to be so ashamed that they handed over the glory, or ignominy, to Smithee.

For film critic Andrew Collins Smithee has always been a fascinating enigma, a spectacular non-entity who has nonetheless attracted interest from the highest of high-minded film theorists and sofa-bound film buffs alike.

His journey through Smithee's output takes him back to the age of the spaghetti western, when pseudonyms were the standard modus operandi for Italian directors, actors and crew members who were happy to take on American names for the sake of marketing appeal.

But it was only when another western, Death of a Gunfighter, came to production grief in 1967 that the name Smithee was born as an official, yet covert, way of sparing a director's blushes.

Contributors include founding member of the academic 'Alan Smithee Group' Jeremy Braddock and the BFI's self-confessed credits boffin Kevin Lyons, a man endlessly intrigued by the implications of the words 'Directed by Alan Smithee' at the end of a final roller.

But what of the directors themselves, the film-makers who turned to Smithee in desperation when their projects turned to dust? The rules of Smithee forbid them to speak, but two are able to break the silence.

Alex Cox, director of 'Sid and Nancy', looks back with anguish at his film 'The Winner', whose producers saw fit to destroy his vision with a new soundtrack after he signed it off.

But even worse is to come from ever-enigmatic Tony Kaye, whose debut feature 'American History X' ended with him demanding a Smithee, having his application rejected, and resorting a backup plan of getting himself signed 'Humpty Dumpty' instead.

The end of Smithee's story is equally intriguing.

He became a victim of his own success with the release of 'Hollywood Burn - An Alan Smithee Film'.

The Directors Guild decided he had become too famous, no good as an inconspicuous entity.

But there was one final twist: the director of this very film decided he was too ashamed of the result to be associated with it.

It was one final, memorable performance for this auteur of all auteurs.

Andrew Collins tells the story of Alan Smithee, prolific film director who never existed.