Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the premiere of the first work from one of the most notorious men in the history of Hollywood. He is prolific, having had a hand in the making of over one hundred film and television projects. That hand though has been the heavy hand of disassociation through loss of creative control. This man’s name is now synonymous with bad films and bad decisions. His name is Alan Smithee.
Death of a Gunfighter was released on April 25, 1969 in West Germany. The United States premiere was a few weeks later on May 9th. The New York Times gave a positive review for film, stating it was "sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail". Variety said “Smithee's direction keeps the action taut and he draws convincing portrayals from the supporting cast". Even Roger Ebert, though not familiar with the name, commented possitively on Smithee’s direction.
The absurdity of all this was that Allen Smithee did not exist.
Robert Totten was the original director of Death of a Gunfighter. He left well into production due to disagreements with the lead actor, Richard Widmark. Totten was replaced with Don Siegel but when the film was finished neither wanted to take credit because the final product did not represent either director’s creative vision. The Director’s Guild of America decided to use a pseudonym. Al Smith was the first choice but it was too common and there were already individuals in the film industry with that name. Allen Smithee was chosen because it was uncommon enough but not too strange to stand out. Though his name was later retroactively applied to some earlier works, Death of a Gunfighter was the first film attributed to Smithee. The standard spelling later became Alan Smithee.
A perfect example of Smithee’s work is the extended televised version of Dune. The original feature film was directed by David Lynch. It was later edited with additional footage without Lynch’s involvement. Lynch had his name removed from this version and also replaced his screenwriting credits with the name Judas Booth, an inside joke and his way of saying the studio betrayed him and killed his film.
In the publishing world these name games are more common and done for entirely different reasons. A press release in the mid 1980’s informed the world of the death Richard Bachman from cancer of the pseudonym. Before I Wake, by Eric Bowman was really written by Mark Frost. And of course there is Lemony Snicket. Usually these pseudonymous writers have fans in the know waiting for more material, but no one is waiting for Alan Smithee films. His few fans are more of the cult classic variety, his films reserved for bad movie nights, his career a trivial footnote in Hollywood history.