Early in Two Girls on the Street (1939), the third of five films that André de Toth made in his native Hungary at the outset of his long directing career, something happens that predicts both the mood and the concerns of de Toth’s future work in Hollywood. Vica (Bella Bordy), newly arrived in Budapest and working on a construction site, has received permission to sleep in the storage room adjoining the architect’s office. Working at his desk late at night, the architect, Csiszár (Andor Ajtay), at first shows no interest in Vica. Then, through the open doorway to the storage room, he sees her shadow on the wall as she undresses. The shadow distracts him more and more—and de Toth cuts back to it insistently—until, after checking his watch twice in a businesslike manner, Csiszár walks toward the door and enters the room.
The scene evokes the world of total unreliability that we encounter in such later de Toth films as Ramrod (1947), House of Wax, Crime Wave (both 1953), Riding Shotgun (1954), The Two-Headed Spy (1958), and Man on a String (1960), a world in which situations and affections reverse themselves in a moment. With the arbitrariness of a Luis Buñuel film or one by Fritz Lang, de Toth shows desire born out of architecture, the doorway creating an unforeseen passage between Csiszár’s space of straight lines and the cluttered room in which Vica’s shadow flickers. Furthermore, in showing an attempted sexual assault by the character whom the audience will eventually be urged to accept as its male romantic lead, Two Girls on the Street also points toward the persistent undermining to which de Toth subjects the moral stature of such heroes as Dick Powell in Pitfall (1948) and Richard Widmark in Slattery’s Hurricane (1949).
De Toth later dismissed his Hungarian films—which he made under the name Endre Tóth—as “very bad,” nonetheless adding that “in each of them, I tried to experiment, to introduce something that was unusual, at least in the context of Hungarian cinema.” Wedding in Toprin, his (already very good, despite his own appraisal) 1939 directorial debut, is a romantic melodrama of espionage. He followed it with The Five-Forty (also 1939), a rare Hungarian attempt, in that period, at a murder mystery. Two Girls on the Street was based on a 1929 play of the same title by Rezsö Török and Tamás Emöd. De Toth claimed to have written or cowritten the scripts of many of the films he directed; Two Girls is one of the few for which he received a writing credit, and there is no reason to doubt that he had a high degree of personal involvement in the project. Rediscovered today, it is an invigorating film that shows de Toth’s taste for jarring visual tensions and his drive to find something fresh and real in any situation and any location.
The second of the two girls of the title is Gyöngyi (Mária Tasnádi Fekete, also known as Maria von Tasnady), a young woman who has been driven from her wealthy family by the scandal of an affair that led to a terminated pregnancy. Meeting Vica by chance, Gyöngyi takes her under her wing, and Vica soon returns the favor by shaming Gyöngyi’s father into giving her financial support. In a lovely long take, Gyöngyi and Vica inspect an empty apartment in the now-completed modern building where Vica had carried mortar. The fluidity of the camera imitates the two women’s confidence as they pass from the main room to a smaller one, which Vica explores while, in the background, Gyöngyi and the building agent go out onto the veranda, before they all regroup and leave the apartment. Later, by using a 360-degree-plus pan to follow Gyöngyi and Csiszár around a nightclub dance floor, de Toth poses himself a technical problem whose solution generates a certain exhilaration in the viewer—as will happen again in the faster, more violent dance of Day of the Outlaw (1959), one of his best films.
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