A convergence of world phenomena hit director Costa-Gavras  when he harnessed their energies to create his political masterpiece Z in 1969. In Paris and France, students and workers went on general strike and caused civil disorder in 1968. In the U.S. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. The Vietnam war caused national protests. But the model for the film was the assassination in Costa-Gavras’ (Constantinos Gavras)  native Greece of the social democrat, pacifist legislator, and left-wing activist Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. And because of the WW II anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, resistance work and Communist membership of his father, Gavras junior was also branded as second class in the new right-wing Greece. So Gavras went to law school and then attended the national film school in Paris, where he was exposed to the New-Wave of French cinema.  He began working as an assistant to several directors and made his own first movie, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartement Tuers) , in 1965.  The cast included  Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, and Montand’s wife, Simone Signoret.

(This Post is part of the Vive la France Blogathon hosted by the Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silverscreenmodes. See other entries here.)



What Gavras noticed in the film-making of the day, whether traditional or New Wave, was a lack of movies with any political plotting. A new book became his inspiration, Z by Vasilis Vasilikos, a fictional account of the murder of Grigoris Lambrakis. His brother, still living in Greece, had sent it to him. The Z in the title came from the ancient Greek verb zei, meaning “he lives.” Gavras teamed with screenwriter Jorge Semprun for the story, along with his producers including Jacques Perrin. Perrin would play the persistent photo-journalist in the film. There was very little financing for the film, and they would certainly not be able to film in Greece. Shooting in France could provide similar geography but was too expensive. Algeria was approached for funding, but could only provide facilities and location. The politically charged The Battle of Algiers had already been filmed there.  Costa-Gavras then employed Greece’s best musical composer, Mikis Theodorakis, composer of Zorba the Greek, to write Z‘s driving score.  This was just before he was imprisoned by the right-wing junta as a communist. Gavras also got the Greek actress Irene Papas to play Montand’s wife in Z .

Lessons in exterminating pests in vines as well as in politics.

starts off running, its music pulsating as scenes change with the beat. The backdrop could be in any country, although the film is in spoken French.  A group of military officers and civilians are explaining the need to eliminate a  disease of grape vines in a veiled analogy to the elimination of certain unwanted people.  In the next scene a  politician and member of the opposition played by Yves Montand  arrives in the city to give a speech. Almost immediately he receives a death threat. His inner circle, his apostles,  are divided and begin arguing whether to continue or abandon in the face of visible hostility.  The police, under the control of the military, are there to “protect” the politician from harm.  A rally and speech that were supposed to be in a large venue have now been forced into a 200 seat hall – all over “bureaucratic” reasons. The politician’s (Z) anti-government supporters are in the streets as are the anti-protesters and the hired thugs.  Filmed in cinéma vérité style by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the fights that break-out have your heart racing from the first scene. The Algerian extras that were hired, either as police or protesters, already knew their sympathies from years of national strife, and got into their roles with vigor.  Montand’s character “Z” arrives and decides to press on, walking through crowds as he’s harassed and struck. He enters his hotel. The police did nothing.

The main characters are quickly delineated. The colonels who  control the police, the thugs planning chaos and worse, Z’s   increasingly powerless  inner circle.  And there is a photojournalist who is documenting every action, on who’s side we are unsure. Within minutes of the movie’s start Z makes the decision to carry out his plan –  his rendez-vous with fate. He and his group walk from their hotel to the hall, but before they get there he is struck on the head.  Woozy but determined, he continues and gives a speech in the hall. After this he will speak to his followers outside that couldn’t fit in the Hall.  But agitators are filling the square. His group enters the breech of chaos. The police are passive.

Complaining members of Z’s inner circles are attacked themselves.


After all the stunning events of the night. A magistrate of the Department of Justice must determine what happened and if anyone is guilty. Jean Louis Trintignant plays the magistrate. His disposition presents a mystery. He wears tinted glasses, giving him an elusive air reinforced by his poker-faced demeanor.  As thugs and colonels go about their self-satisfied ways, he soon begins his investigation. He is methodical and his questions have one of the thugs admitting to belonging to CROC, the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism. And Yago the thug admits that the cops use the organization to “keep order” during events such as  Z’s  visit.   Soon the accidents begin to look predetermined. Here Costa-Gavras’ film’s editing moves in rapid fire. The magistrate interviews various witnesses. No time elapses between these scenes, as we are shocked seeing a case build against the guilty. The wall of defense of the thugs, colonels and elites crumbles. The hooded schemes of the powerful seemingly undone by the straight-forward questioning of the magistrate: your name and profession? Then the charges brought against them., with a deconstruction of their defense. All of this proceeded by the indignity of being photographed by the press as they enter the magistrate’s office, with some  colonels chasing the photographers around the hall.

The magistrate played by Jean-Louis Trintignant

Yet absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the real end of the story needs a long view of progress. When released in the U.S., Z was like a shock for its viewers. Political thrillers were virtually unknown here in 1969. Critic Roger Ebert called it the best film of 1969. At a time  when assassinations had taken place in the U.S. – with no satisfactory answers for many – here was a film with a plot that seemed shockingly real. I remember attending Z’s opening with  a couple of friends. One of them didn’t attend college and rarely had any political thoughts. He left the theater shaken and for long after became distrustful of government and authority. Movie audiences were struck by its audacious film-making techniques coupled with the film’s political message.  It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and for Best Film Editing. Costa-Gavras  was also  nominated for Best Director.

Fifty years after its creation, Z  still stuns the viewer. It has influenced political thrillers ever since, from Parallax View (1974) to Enemy of the State (1998)  to State of Play (2008). Riots and large protests have grown around the world and in the U.S. – with increasing size offering some measure of protection to its participants. For filmmakers this has enhanced the need for even more realistic filming techniques. The riots in Greece in 2008 begun over the police killing of a young student and the state of the economy provided realistic film footage for the movie Jason Bourne (2016). The rise of protests themselves over the fight for liberties continue in the face of harsh crack-downs, as we have seen in Hong-Kong. The outline provided here for Z give’s only a hint of its power. Even in translation it is a remarkable and one-of-kind film. It is both a film of the 1960s – and a film for today.








Universal Studios has the longest history of the Hollywood studios. It was founded in 1912 in New York by Carl Laemmle and other partners. Like many other film companies, it moved west. By the end of 1912 Universal was in Hollywood and by 1915 it opened its 230  acre Universal City Studio, the  largest film production studio in the world.  It was actually  a movie “theme park” in 1915 through the silent era when it had public seating for viewing of films being made. Since the movies were silent, any cheering for favorite stars (or booing for villains) did not matter since none of this interfered with the filming (or apparently the actors).

Universal City 1915, courtesy Universal Studios Archive


Universal men’s wardrobe courtesy Universal Studios Archive

Vera West is recorded as one of the first Universal costume designers in 1926. At that time the old 1915 studio buildings made way for some new buildings including a new Wardrobe building in 1926. in these early years Universal made  its biggest hits with  off-beat characters. In 1923 came The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney, Then it was Phantom of the Opera in 1925, again with Lon Chaney starring. The box-office success of these two films led to even bigger hits with Universal’s famed monster classics: Dracula, with Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein  with Boris Karloff, both 1931.  Johanna Mathiesen was the first credited Universal costume designer. although she did not last long. Her notable films were Broadway in 1929 and the silent Showboat of 1929.  Costume designer Vera West designed the costumes for Dracula, The Mummy, and then for The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, She also designed for some “normal” films such as Back Street  in 1932 starring Irene Dunne, Great Expectations 1934starring Jane Wyatt and Florence Reed, Irene Dunne’s costumes in Showboat, 1936, Destry Rides Again 1939, starring Marlene Dietrich.  and The Killers starring Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster, 1946. Vera West also designed for several of Deanna Durbin’s popular films at Universal, including It Started with Eve,  1941. After a waning  popularity of the monster movies  what with real monsters in WW II in Europe, Deanna Durbin’s movies single-handedly saved Universal. But Vera West had had enough when the cycle came back around, and she decided to launch her own fashion line in 1947. A few months later in June 1947 she took her own life by drinking alcohol and drowning in her pool. She left a mysterious note stating that she was tired of the blackmail and this was the only way. Her husband was away at the time. A police investigation never resolved if this was a suicide or a murder.

The fashion designer Muriel King came in to design Margaret Sullavan’s costumes for the remake of Back Street in 1941 which co-starred Charles Boyer. Ms. King stayed to design Appointment for Love for Margaret Sullavan and then returned to design Christmas Holiday for Deanna Durbin in 1944. Ms. King regularly designed for Lord & Taylor and B. Altman as well as for Katharine Hepburn’s personal wardrobe.

Costume sketch for Margaret Sullavan in Back Street.

Prior to Vera West’s death, Travis Banton had been hired by producer Walter Wanger in 1945 to design the big production of Night in Paradise with Merle Oberon. But his first designs for her came out in This Love of Ours instead. Banton designed for Universal’s top female stars from 1945 through 1947. Banton’s motto had always been, “When in doubt, trim in fur.” Even in the more frugal post-war era, he kept to his ways, cost be damned. His contract was not extended. But in 1948 Rosalind Russell said she wouldn’t wear another designer’s clothing. In his place, Orry-Kelly joined Universal.

A wardrobe assistant works on Susan Hayward’s costume in “Canyon Passage, ” 1945. Designed by Travis Banton


Orry-Kelly would also have a short stay at Universal, lasting from 1948 through 1950. He designed for some notable stars, including for Ava Gardner in One Touch of Venus in 1948; for Claudette Colbert with Fred MacMurray in Family Honeymoon, 1948; for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Gambles in 1949; and for Ida Lupino in Woman in Hiding, 1950. He also designed for two Shelley Winters movies, for whom he had taken a strong dislike. As with Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly drank heavily, only he was more temperamental.

During the time Orry-Kelly was at Universal, designer Yvonne Wood had also been hired, starting in 1946. She designed for Universal’s active slate of adventure movies, westerns, and some films noir. She designed for many of Yvonne de Carlo’s movies, which were released regularly in the late 1940s. This included the classic Criss Cross, 1949, with de Carlo and Burt Lancaster. She also designed for Ella Raines in White Tie and Tails in 1946 and for  The Web in 1947 and for Shelley Winters in the classic western Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart in 1950. She designed through 1950, her final year at Universal although one of her films was released in 1951.

Costume designer Yvonne Wood at left with star Ella Rains of “The Web,” 1947.

Costume designer Rosemary Odell (she later spelled it O’Dell) had also been hired in 1945 and worked almost all of her career at Universal until 1967. She designed mostly for the B pictures. She also designed for Yvonne de Carlo (who didn’t at Universal?). Ms. Odell did design for some significant films including: Has Anybody Seen My Gal, 1952; Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954; and To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

Bill Thomas was hired to replace Yvonne Wood after she left in 1950. Thomas had attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and then served in World War II. After the war he became a sketch artist at MGM for Irene and Walter Plunkett. At Universal he soon became very busy, designing fourteen movies a year by 1951. Thomas also became a very successful designer, both at Universal and later at the Walt Disney Company.  With the new ambitious producer Ross Hunter at Universal, Bill Thomas designed some of his best movies at Universal, starting with Magnificent Obsession with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, 1954. Thomas also designed Touch of Evil, 1958 with Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich; and Imitation of Life, 1959, with Lana Turner.

Bill Thomas costume sketch for Shirley Jones in “Never Steal Anything Small.”


Producer Ross Hunter also launched a very successful series of films starring Doris Day, starting with Pillow Talk in 1959 co-starring Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. And since Doris Day was very discriminating in her on-screen fashions, Irene (Lentz Gibbons) was called in to create the costumes for her next two movies (Jean Louis had designed Ms. Day’s gowns in Pillow Talk). Midnight Lace, 1960, was Irene’s return to designing movies. Tragically, Lover Come Back, 1962 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson and A Gathering of Eagles, 1963 with Rock Hudson and Mary Peach were Irene’s last two movies before she killed herself by jumping out of the Knickerbocker Hotel window in Los Angeles. She had a long history of depression and alcoholism that finally overcame her. These problems exacerbated by the recent death of Gary Cooper who she had long loved.

Irene design for Doris Day in “Lover Come Back,” with Rock Hudson.


Ross Hunter also brought in the talented designer Jean Louis, starting with his designs for Susan Hayward in another remake of Back Street in 1961. Jean Louis had previously been at Columbia where he designed Rita Hayworth’s gowns. Now he took over designing for Lana Turner and Doris Day. Jean Louis designed the costumes for several notable films, including: The Thrill of it All with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1963; Send Me No Flowers, again with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, 1964; Madame X, with Lana Turner and Constance Bennett, 1966; and Thoroughly Modern Millie,  1967 with Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Jean Louis left in 1968 to open his own fashion line, and famously, designed Marlene Dietrich’s casino and stage gowns.

Jean Louis design for Constance Bennett in “Madame X.”


When Edith Head’s contract was not renewed at Paramount in 1967, after 44 years with the studio, she was offered a job at Universal. She had worked well with Alfred Hitchcock who was now a producer at Universal. She was given her own design studio. The only problem was a shortage of movies for her to design for. Studio movie production was on the decline, and sound stages were busy shooting television shows.  In her first year at Universal (1968), she only worked on six movies, all unassuming ones at that. But Ms. Head hadn’t been a 44 year Hollywood pro for nothing. She started networking with the stars and directors she had worked with and promoted herself as the potential designer for upcoming Universal movies.

The next year 1969 got better with Edith Head designing for Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera in Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse, as well as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Redford and Newman along with Katharine Ross. And she designed for her first Universal film for Hitchcock, Topaz, although it was no North by Northwest.  As the decade of the 1970s  hit the studio, feature films requiring original costume designs ebbed to an historic low. Edith Head was now designing a handful of movies per year. Ross Hunter began producing disaster films in order to compete with television, and thus the first of the Airport movies came out in 1970, with a second in 1974, along with Earthquake, all designed by Edith Head.

Universal had opened its theme park in 1964, and Edith Head’s bungalow studio was one of the highlights of the bus tour. With more time on her hands, Ms. Head began giving fashion shows as charity events, featuring her past creations. Knowing of their popularity in the Los Angeles area, she took these on the road. She did this with the help of June Van Dyke, who produced the shows and employed the models. Both the costumes and costume sketches had to be re-created since Ms. Head did not own these.

Edith Head design for Katharine Hepburn in “Rooster Cogburn.”

Edith Head spent the rest of her life at Universal. By the late 1970s, she was also designing television movies, where she made friends with costume designer Jean-Pierre Dorléac . Mr. Dorléac  was the costume designer for Somewhere in Time, Battlestar Galactica for Universal Television and other shows and movies. Ms. Head designed again for Katharine Hepburn for Rooster Cogburn, and for Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would be King, as well as The Great Waldo Pepper starring Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon, all in 1975.  And returning to her youth in film, she designed Lombard and Gable with Jill Clayburgh and Josh Brolin, and W.C. Fields and Me with Valerie Perrine and Rod Steiger, both in 1976.  She very much disliked the depiction of both Clark Gable and Carol Lombard in Lombard and Me, however.  Ms. Head received her 35th and final Best Costume Academy Award nomination for Airport 1977, with an all-star cast. Edith Head’s final movie designs were for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1982, directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin and Rachel Ward. She died on October 24, 1981, shortly after completing her designs.

Today the Prop and Costume Building at Universal Studios is named in her honor. That’s more respect than she received in her final years at the studio. She would probably be surprised. But then again she always had her multiple Academy Award statuettes on display in her salon to impress any uppity starlets that might want to argue with her.

The Edith Head Prop and Wardrobe building at Universal Studios


Universal has an active Wardrobe Department and Archive, managed by Poppy Cannon-Reese. The department supplies Universal’s costume designers and costumers with costumes and fashions as well as renting costumes for filmmakers. Shown below is one section of the extensive inventory.