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The One and Only Saul Turell

More than thirty years have flown by since the death of Saul Turell, and already two since the passing of his partner at Janus Films, William Becker. Together, these very distinctive and imaginative men turned Janus into a standard-bearer in the distribution of classic films, an inspired enterprise that is still going strong after more that six decades. Saul would have been ninety-seven this week.

If Bill Becker was the intellectual backbone of Janus, then Saul was its beating heart. While Bill would dictate eloquent letters to his secretary, Diane Ellis, Saul would bustle around his own office, the unpretentious desk replete with numerous notes on all manner of subjects. Saul would scrawl his thoughts with a pencil, the lead of which often snapped under the urgent intensity of the gesture. Evelyn Walker, his assistant, would remind him of each and every appointment, calling out a final instruction as Saul, always in haste, donned his overcoat and made ready to leave for lunch at the Sherry-Netherland, or perhaps just to devour a good old pastrami sandwich on the go. His burly silhouette and rugged good looks could have brought him stardom in Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Saul’s trading savvy had been honed in his early twenties at Sterling Films, the company he founded in 1946. Sterling merged with the Walter Reade Organization in the early sixties, and so by 1965, when Saul joined Bill Becker in acquiring Janus Films, he was an expert in producing and marketing films. Unlike Bill, he relished the challenge of filmmaking itself, and at Janus he was always surrounded by youthful editors, writers, and even directors, who regarded him as their mentor. Early in 1965, he had directed, produced, and cowritten (with Graeme Ferguson) The Love Goddesses, a history of changing perceptions toward sex in Hollywood’s heyday. Saul adored the silent era, and had scripted two studies of Rudolph Valentino.

During the late sixties, he and Bill built Janus into a successful distributor, with theatrical releases of a host of European and Japanese titles, including Truffaut’s Two English Girls, Olivier’s Richard III , Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket, and Ozu’s Floating Weeds . By 1976, despite also still working with Bill to run Janus, Saul found time to cowrite, coproduce, and coedit a twelve-part series entitled The Art of Film. This program drew on the rich resources of the Janus library, with segments dealing with distinctive aspects of filmmaking—cinematography, editing, music, sound, screenwriting—or an individual filmmaking genius, such as Hitchcock and Chaplin. This was the heyday of 16 mm, with Janus both selling and renting prints to colleges and institutions across the land. The Art of Film series, accompanied by an attractive brochure, promoted this business. And in 1984, I helped to compile “The Programmers Guide to The Classic Collection” for Janus and its distribution partner, Films Inc. Both Bill and Saul oversaw the production with passionate commitment and inscribed my copy of the book with kind words.

In the early spring of 1980 Saul enjoyed his finest hour, when Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, on which he had lavished such careful research and preparation, won the Academy Award for best short documentary. Saul admired Robeson’s social courage and commitment. On his return to New York, he left the Oscar in the back of a taxi, only to be saved by the honesty and efficiency of the cab driver, who handed the precious statuette in to the police.

Saul’s vision empowered Janus at two crucial stages in its development. He early saw the potential for selling foreign classic films to television (this at a time—the late sixties and early seventies—when black-and-white movies were anathema to TV stations, let alone subtitled ones!), and he and Bill later made lucrative deals with cable channels like Bravo and CBS cable. Then, as video entered the scene, also in the early 1980s, he recognized a rich new market for the catalogue that he and Bill had built up. Saul’s son Jonathan proved a conscientious and successful salesman, learning to travel across the United States to negotiate with dozens of TV stations.

For all his bulldog bluster, Saul was a generous and affectionate man. He was always ready to embrace new projects, especially from young people. “It’s a great idea—let’s go with it,” he would say, almost before you had finished your opening sentence, because his quicksilver mind raced at such a high rev rate that he was always ahead of the pack. This trait led him often to truncate his speech, leaping from one partly complete phrase to another, so eager was he to communicate his enthusiasm. Saul of all people could heed Kipling’s dictum, to “fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” He was driven by an impulsive energy throughout the day. In the early 1980s, I flew into New York on the red-eye from L.A., and there was Saul awaiting me at the gate. He drove me to the family home in New Rochelle, and within an hour I was on the tennis court, struggling to track down Saul’s powerful backhands. His wife, Renée, an aficionado of pre-Columbian art, made us lunch while Saul told stories about his mentor Walter Reade, who had been killed in a freak skiing accident in the Alps.

Just months before he was struck down by cancer at the early age of sixty-five, Saul sent me a handwritten card: “I just wanted to take a moment to wish you a wonderful and healthy New Year, from Jon, Renée, and Saul.” He saw the advent of laserdiscs but not DVD, Blu-ray, or streaming. A true romantic, Saul has endured in spirit across these past three decades, and is surely one of the “faces” on the Janus coin. He would chuckle and say, “Both.”

This is one in a series of pieces devoted to film figures Cowie has gotten to know in the course of his career. Read his introduction to the series here.

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