Huston, Camus and the Film that Never Was

One of my duties, back in days when I was an intern at the Paul Kohner Talent Agency was to brave the depths of The Basement. Our fabulous art deco office on the Sunset Strip included a dark, dank basement that actually stretched past the building’s façade and reached somewhere under the sidewalk, or possibly partially under the boulevard itself. No one deigned to go down there, so they sent me, the lowest on the totem pole.

I stared at it trying to will it to speak and reveal its past. I could feel that it had a lot to say…

The first time I braved the creaking wooden stairs to descend into chiaroscuro my eyes caught on a film canister sitting atop a piled high set of shelves at the foot of the staircase. “Robin Hood: Curtiz” it announced in bold red ink on a yellowed label. I have no idea why we had an original print; as far as I know Kohner never represented Curtiz, nor Keighley, nor Flynn. It was crazy just to see it. I stared at it trying to will it to speak and reveal its past. I could feel that it had a lot to say, but apparently that was the extent of my psychic-sensitivity. It said nothing, but “Robin Hood.”

That was just the first of the “haunted” items down there.

There was a file cabinet of no-longer-used headshots including some of Charles Bronson, Debra Winger, and Lana Turner. Kohner was infamously one of the first calls Turner made when her daughter stabbed Johnny Stompanato. For all I know the knife could have been down there! That basement was inky dark with one dimn bare bulb, and there was always someone waiting for me to hurry and fetch something and return. So every time I went down, which was rarely, I tried frantically to discover just one new amazing thing.

The most amazing thing I ever discovered looked, at first glance, like a plain old box of 50 lbs bond paper, except that “Camus” was written across the lid in felt marker.

The most amazing thing I ever discovered looked, at first glance, like a plain old box of 50 lbs bond paper, except that “Camus” was written across the lid in felt marker. I thought, at first, it must be some ill-conceived bio-pic — someone in the 60s trying to recreate the success of The Life of Emile Zola or something. But upon lifting the lid I encountered about 500 pages of typewritten, onion skin paper. Single-spaced. I skimmed the first pages — it was stream-of-consciuosness and nothing I recognized.

Yes, I am kicking myself that I cannot now remember the title, nor what the first few pages said, but plain-as-day the byline read: “by Albert Camus.”

I am dumbfounded all over again, 20 years later, just thinking of it: I was gingerly riffling through the pages of an unpublished manuscript by Albert Camus! It was just sitting there, forgotten!

Should I swipe it, I wondered? I dismissed that idea right away. Not only illegal, but then one would be saddled with the responsibility for a priceless item that should rightfully belong to the world. I determined I would, however, photocopy it, 50 pages at a time.

And then somebody called down to me to hurry up, so I grabbed the script I’d come down for, which was something amazing too — it could have been Arabesque or The Viking, who knows — and rushed back up the stairs.

Script? That 500-page, single-spaced, stream-of-consciousness thing was a script?

Being terrible at secrets and lies, I took the first chance I had to ask our office Manager, Irene Heymann, who had been with Kohner from the start, about the Camus manuscript. “Oh yes,” she said. “John Huston commissioned that script.” — Script? That 500-page, single-spaced, stream-of-consciousness thing was a script?

She explained that Huston had been a fan of Camus. He was pretty literary in general, as his opus suggests. Huston had commissioned the script, but upon receiving it he found it un-filmable, and so into Kohner’s basement it went.

“But…” I stammered, “then that manuscript is priceless! It shouldn’t be hidden down in the basement — ”

Right at that moment, one of the agency co-owners, whom I’d rather not name, waltzed in. “What manuscript?” Irene explained all over again. He clearly had no idea who Camus was — I’m not even sure he knew who Huston was — but I could already see the dollar signs in his eyes.

A few days later I went down to the basement… of course, it was gone.

A few days later I went down to the basement to grab a handful of those pages and start photocopying, but, of course, it was gone. I hoped perhaps I was mis-remembering which dusty, dark shelf it had been on, so I looked for it periodically, but never saw it again.

Shortly thereafter the agency up and moved altogether. That was a sad sad time, the end of an era, and the beginning of the end of my connection to the agency. I still worked for them for about 6 months after they moved down to a high rise on Wilshire Blvd., but it wasn’t the same. The art deco office was gone, the Strip locale was gone, the office cats were gone, and Irene was gone. (The trek from her Sunset-adjacent home was too far; she was 80 or so years-old.) In short the history, ghosts, and magic were gone, so I had little reason to stay on.

Right before the move, Irene had contacted the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and donated most of the stuff in the basement. I later went to the Herrick and asked about the Camus manuscript, however it was years before they had the “Paul Kohner Agency Papers” all cataloged. When I first asked, the librarian said she thought she had seen something like that, so I lived in hope… for years more. When finally they had cataloged the Kohner collection, of course the Camus script was not among the items.

So it’s a mystery, kind of, what happened to it. That agent who walked in on my fool-hardy exclamations eventually left the Kohner Agency and became a talent manager instead. Then in 2009, he ran for City Council (unsuccessfully). I’m not saying he’s a bad guy (would-be-politician… you decide) or even that he took it, but I do wonder what’s in his basement.

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One thought on “Huston, Camus and the Film that Never Was

  1. In recent years I was lucky to meet Angela Allen, Huston’s long-time script supervisor. She was at least as interesting and colorful a character as the man himself. I mentioned this tale, and she swore the script was by Sartre not Camus. With all due respect, I could swear she is mistaken. Camus is more likely to write a rambling stream-of-conscious script than austere Sartre, non? All the more incentive to hunt that thing down before I die. Sigh.

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