Filmmakers Who Set Own Courses

TELEVISION: PREVIEW

PRESTON STURGES: THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN DREAMER PBS, 9-10, p.m. (check local listings). First of three documentaries on filmmakers Sturges, John Cassavetes, and Martin Scorsese, opening new season of ``American Masters.'' IT'S easy to agree that Preston Sturges, John Cassavetes, and Martin Scorsese are three of the most exciting talents ever to work in the American film industry. They flourished at different times: Mr. Sturges in the 1940s, Mr. Cassavetes from the early '60s to the mid-'80s, Mr. Scorsese from the early '70s through the present. But their works share an unusual brilliance of images and performances, and the directors themselves share a rare quality - a streak of stubborn independence that led each to work on his own terms as much as possible.

That may be why PBS decided to feature these particular cineastes on back-to-back installments of the ``American Masters'' series, beginning tonight with the Sturges segment. Whatever the reason, hour-long visits with the three directors are a reminder that individuality can always flourish when it's determined to, even in a place like Hollywood, where top-down management and enforced collaboration have long and sturdy roots.

Sturges began his career as a Hollywood success, writing a string of movies so successful that Paramount Pictures allowed him - against every sacred tradition - to start directing his own screenplays. A parade of great comedies followed: ``The Lady Eve,'' with Barbara Stanwyck card-sharping Henry Fonda into marriage, and ``Sullivan's Travels,'' with Joel McCrea as a moviemaker who wants to ``suffer'' for the sake of art, are two that stand up especially well today. But studio executives threatened Sturges's creative control, and he marched off to an independent company founded by billionaire Howard Hughes, not the most stable partner he might have chosen. Accidents of timing and miscalculations of public taste further dampened his career, which faded almost as dramatically as it began. ``American Masters'' chronicles his rise and fall swiftly and economically, with a generous portion of hilarious film clips.

The three ``American Masters'' programs take different approaches. The segment on Sturges is strongly biographical. The hour on Cassavetes focuses entirely on his work, and its second half is a self-contained documentary on the making of ``Husbands,'' one of his best-known pictures. Mingled film clips and interviews (with his parents, among others) fill the Scorsese episode, including a sneak preview of his forthcoming ``Good Fellas'' and - be warned - some of the more brutal moments from such overwhelmingly physical movies as ``Taxi Driver'' and ``Raging Bull.''

Though I have some quibbles with the programs, I'm sure both film buffs and casual moviegoers will find much to enjoy.

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