Where Are They Now?

Catch­ing up with pro­duc­tion de­signer Al­bert Bren­ner

Variety - - Contents - By JAMES C. UDEL @clas­sic­film­crew

GROW­ING UP AMONG his na­tive Brook­lyn’s brick-and-fire- es­cape fa­cades in the 1930’s, pro­duc­tion de­signer-to-be Al­bert Bren­ner of­ten dreamed of the wide open spa­ces de­picted in his fa­vorite Satur­day-mati­nee West­erns. At 16, he landed his first “art job”: dress­ing win­dows for a New York City depart­ment store.

Two years later, Bren­ner swapped man­nequins for mil­i­tary ser­vice and flew in B-24 bombers un­til World War II ended in 1945. On the G.I. Bill, he at­tended Yale Uni­ver­sity, grad­u­at­ing with skills in draft­ing, and went into sum­mer stock the­ater un­der de­signer Sa­muel Leve, toil­ing away on plays like “The Fifth Sea­son” and gain­ing a union card in the process.

He de­vel­oped his de­signer chops in New York on TV shows like “The Phil Sil­vers Show,” “Car 54, Where Are You?” “Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo” and “Play­house 90.” His first day on the Sil­vers show, where he even­tu­ally earned $250 a week, was nearly his last, when he got scolded by head writer Nat Hiken. Or­dered to ob­tain a prop har­mon­ica, Bren­ner re­turned with a ridicu­lously elab­o­rate one. “Just a reg­u­lar har­mon­ica,” Hiken seethed. “Re­mem­ber, I do the jokes around here!”

In the 1960s, work­ing on fea­tures, Bren­ner ex­pe­ri­enced New York’s new age of lo­ca­tion shoot­ing on such pic­tures as Elia Kazan’s “Splen­dor in the Grass,” Sid­ney Lumet’s “The Fugi­tive Kind” and Richard Quine’s “How to Mur­der Your Wife.”

He was hired by pro­duc­tion de­signer Harry Horner for Robert Rossen’s “The Hus­tler.” On that film he took to heart some­thing Rossen told him: “The only thing im­por­tant is what the cam­era sees.”

One night on Lumet’s “The Pawn­bro­ker,” the pic­ture’s prac­ti­cal lo­ca­tion was robbed, caus­ing a serendip­i­tous artis­tic en­hance­ment: The pro­duc­ers added se­cu­rity bars to pre­vent fu­ture oc­cur­rences, which cre­ated shad­ows that played as black stripes across ac­tor Rod Steiger’s face dur­ing Holo­caust flash­back scenes.

Mov­ing to Hol­ly­wood, Bren­ner de­signed for John Boor­man’s “Point Blank,” where he in­cor­po­rated a pal­ette of gray tonal hues that con­trasted with the sear­ing white-hot act­ing of Lee Marvin, throw­ing it into re­lief — a vi­sion that per­fectly styl­ized the crime-is- cool genre. Boor­man raved about the work to fel­low Brit di­rec­tor Peter Yates, who hired Bren­ner for “Bul­litt.” On that film he ap­plied sub­dued pri­mary col­ors, play­ing up the reds and browns of stop signs and Coke ma­chines to show­case their con­trast with ac­tor Steve Mcqueen’s pierc­ing blue eyes.

A decade of films fol­lowed, in­clud­ing “I Walk the Line,” “Monte Walsh” and “Sum­mer of ’42.” It was for di­rec­tor Her­bert Ross and writer Neil Si­mon’s “The Sun­shine Boys” that Bren­ner re­ceived his first

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