Centennial Tribute to Helen Levitt: The Most Important Documentary Filmmaker You Haven’t Heard Of


Meet Helen Levitt, a crucially important documentary filmmaker who never directed a movie and who is primarily known for another art form. Born 100 years ago last Saturday, she spent most of her career photographing the streets of New York City in the tradition of Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. With a particular talent for capturing the energy of children and the dignity of the elderly, her still images are among the most significant in the history of American photography.

She also served as cinematographer on three documentaries, each of which not only extend the brilliance of her work to the moving image but also enrich and complicate the way we perceive authorship in nonfiction filmmaking. Yet they have been somewhat forgotten, falling into what Jan-Christopher Horak has called the “crack in documentary film history between Why We Fight and Cinema Vérité.” Now, between YouTube and Amazon Instant, you can watch all of her work and bridge that gap yourself.

In the Street (1948)

Levitt made In the Street, her first film, with the help of producer Janice Loeb and writer James Agee. The three took cameras to East Harlem in 1945–1946 and simply filmed the community. Levitt then cut the footage together into a 16-minute film in 1948. It’s a hybrid of candid images of children playing and adults conversing on stoops, and shots in which the subjects are very clearly conscious of the camera. The kids perform for Levitt, Agee and Loeb, particularly in a sequence that appears to have been shot on Halloween. Stylistically loose and open, In the Street is a collaboration between three non-professional filmmakers, led by a photographer, that remains a masterpiece hanging somewhere on the edges of Auteur Theory.

The Quiet One (1948)

After the filming of In the Street, Levitt was asked by Loeb to participate in a new project, focusing on the Wiltwyck School for Boys. Wiltwyck (which closed in 1961) was a boarding school for juvenile delinquents in Ulster County, up the Hudson from New York City. The resulting film, The Quiet One, tells the story of a young boy named Donald Peters, who grew up in a broken home in the city but finally begins to find love and a future in the nurturing environment upstate. It’s a blend of nonfiction footage taken by Levitt and Loeb and fiction sequences directed by Sidney Meyers and shot by Richard Bagley, who would later work on On the Bowery (1956).

This strange position between documentary and narrative film is made even more evident by its two Academy Award nominations: first for Best Documentary Feature in 1949 and then for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay in 1950. Agee’s narration (voiced by Gary Merrill), Meyers’ fictional scenes and Levitt and Loeb’s nonfiction photography blend together to create something almost undefinable, a collaboration not just between artists but also between modes of filmmaking.

The Savage Eye (1959)

If The Quiet One sits somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, The Savage Eye loudly, vociferously allows the two to coexist within a single film. Half of it is footage Levitt shot around Los Angeles, along with Haskell Wexler, Sy Wexler, Jack Couffer and Joel Coleman. These images are folded into the narrative of Judith McGuire, a divorcee played by Barbara Baxley. The soundtrack consists of a scripted voice-over conversation between Judith and the narrator, again voiced by Merrill.

Each layer sticks out. The nonfiction footage is more daring and interesting than anything in The Quiet One, including everything from a Christian revival meeting to a professional boxing match. The dialogue between Baxley and Merrill is thick, heavy and jazzy in the spirit of film noir, including such gems as “Out of a handful of fire and dust, garbage and alcohol God created man.” The narrator also asks Judith to comment on the nonfiction footage, making up stories about the various men and women candidly caught shopping or playing poker. Some sequences are pure nonfiction, some are pure fiction, and many others staunchly insist on simultaneously occupying both spaces. The result is an extraordinary work that, while very similar to The Quiet One in concept, also reverses its style.

The Savage Eye is available for a 7-day rental on Amazon Instant. It is the best $3 you will spend this week.

For more on these films, and a solid bibliography on Levitt’s work, check out Senses of Cinema. To see some of Levitt’s still photography, visit her page at Laurence Miller Gallery.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.