Friday, November 03, 2017

Behind the Writing Days of Smoke

Days of Smoke, my latest novel from Concord ePress, takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in that  notorious year 1968.  Though it's a half-century in the past, 1968 remains a year in which, for a brief moment, political change seemed almost possible. But it was also a year in which the media and other commercial and corporate concerns, sensing that cultural drift and the market it could create, began in earnest to co-opt the so-called counter culture, to profit from it and so neutralise any radical edge it might have once possessed.

While young people were protesting against the Vietnam war,  living communally and experimenting with drugs, their ersatz lookalikes were suddenly popping  up on billboards and TV, advertising products ranging form Levi jeans to Volkswagens. It wasn't uncommon for record company executives, now sporting sideburns and hair below their collars,  to throw relatively large sums of money at any rock band with a catchy name. Even politicians, to pursue votes by appearing  in step with the era, were deploying words and phrases previously the exclusive province of  students, dope smokers, acid heads and civil rights activists.  As for the opposition, it was a year in which post-Goldwater Republicans, fearing their ability to regain power might be slipping away in this  apparent cultural shift, realised the empire needed to strike back, so began to put together a long-term strategy, perhaps best articulated in the Powell Memo of 1973, a strategy that would bear fruit a decade later.        

No doubt about it, 1968 witnessed some earth-shaking events. Not only was the war  intensifying, but, at home, assassinations were becoming all too common. In April,  Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, leading to disturbances in a number of American cities. In June,  Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Both deaths would affect the political landscape at the time and for years to come. Add to that the rise of the Black Panthers and student uprisings not only in America but around the world, not to mention the police riots that summer  at the Democratic convention in Chicago, which set helped the stage for the election of Richard Nixon that November. 

Even though the Summer of Love had come and gone, young people still flocked to Haight Street in San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, seeking that previously forbidden elixir of drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. Yet the pollyannaish optimism of the previous year  was already draining away, replaced by hardened, street-level attitudes and confrontations. There was, to quote Dylan, music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, but with the Panthers, Yippies and Diggers pushing for political change, slogans like Make love, not war, and Turn on, Tune in and Drop out, were discarded in favour of in-your-face declarations like Off the Pig, Free Huey, Bring the War Home and Eldridge For President. As for those polymorphously perverse streets, they were now populated by drug casualties, dealers, homeless teenagers, disgruntled black youths, vets bearing the mental scars of the war,  sexual predators, charlatans, bikers and lumpen weekenders.

It’s this side of 1968 that Days of Smoke attempts to recapture. In a sense, the year itself  could even be said to be the protagonist of the novel. At least in so far as how the forces at work in that year impinge on the novel’s two main characters, Mike Howard and Connie Myles as they make their way through the wreckage, moving from Pasadena to San Francisco, on the run from the law while, at the same time, negotiating what has become an increasingly paranoid existence. 

Anyone familiar with my previous novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, might remember a ten year old Mike Howard. In Days of Smoke, he’s nineteen and a reticent but accomplished musician who washes dishes and sometimes plays music at The Copper Kettle, a Los Angeles coffee house and music venue, based on L.A.’s one-time home of traditional music and political meeting place, the Ash Grove. To avoid the draft and ending up in Vietnam, Mike has declared himself a conscientious objector. As the novel opens, he is hoping to convince his draft board that he's  a pacifist, even though he's not sure the  term is really applicable in his case. It’s at the draft board office that he comes across Connie, employed there as a secretary despite hating the war, not to mention her co-workers. Mike has no way of knowing that on the evening of his appearance at the draft board, Connie will take his file home and burn it. Meanwhile Mike, seeking to forget what went on earlier in the day, spends the evening consuming a cocktail of vodka and marijuana, before passing out, waking up to find his beloved Kettle has been set alight.

Though Days of Smoke seems to revolve around Mike, it’s Connie’s novel. And it’s the real Connie to whom the book is dedicated. If for no other reason than the Connie-of-the-novel is how I imagined the young secretary I happened to encounter at the Pasadena draft board where I appeared in that same year to argue my case to become a conscientious objector. Some months later, awaiting the draft board’s decision- one I would never receive- I came across a news item in the local paper to the effect that a young woman working at the draft board had been arrested for destroying draft files. 

It happened so long ago I sometimes wonder if I just imagined it all.Which wouldn't have been surprising considering that particular time and place. After all, back then a very thin line separated the imaginary from the real.  Which was the case on a personal as well as political- "all power to the imagination"- level. Of course, that meant, on the one hand, anything might be possible, while, on the other hand, it led to a certain naivete regarding society's ability to subsume anything that might threaten its stability.  

Days of Smoke attempts to depict some of that year's events, not least of which  the assassination of Robert Kennedy, as well as issues that were discussed at the time, such as what kind of change might be possible, how best to achieve it in a consumer-driven culture. Fortunately, the novel’s misguided militant group Hard Rain is entirely fictitious, though at the time there was no shortage of similar political groups and communes, invariably led by some charismatic charlatan, Charles Manson being just one of many, prepared to take their acolytes to the brink. All, of course, to a soundtrack of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Otis and Sly, their words parsed within a haze of marijuana smoke resulting in an array of political possibilities, some good, some bad, and some extremely ugly.  

As the title implies, there seemed to be  smoke everywhere, in the form of a pre-revolutionary joint, post-coital cigarette, the fog and smog, as well as that which accompanied arson, incendiary devices and police tear gas. Not to mention all the smoke America created in Vietnam by bombs, napalm or defoliants. To see through all that  smoke could partly be what Days of Smoke is about. And it could even be said the book itself exists in its own kind of haze: part fin d’epoch novel, part noir coming-of-age novel. Though Days of Smoke depicts the dark side and paranoia of 1968, it hopefully  also recalls the passion, idealism, politics and naivete of that particular time.  The cliché is if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Although it was fifty years ago, I was there, and remember what went on all too well. Which is not to say that it doesn't at times seem like a dream. But a dream that, despite its nightmarish side, and for the sake of the courageous few, who, like the real Connie, put themselves on the line, should not be forgotten.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Adapting Elmore Leonard

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Jazz and Film Noir

With its lowlife settings, femmes fatales, tough guys, shadows, urban landscapes, and fatalistic narratives, film noir  has long been associated with jazz. After all, both are considered predominantly indigenous forms and both can't help but celebrate marginality.  But prior to the late 1950s, that association, on-screen at any rate, had yet to be established. In fact, jazz would be, for the most part, notable by its absence.  Though some composers, such as Geroge Hermann, George Antheil, Henry Mancini, Max Steiner, Adolph Deutsch, Miklos Rozsa, David Raksin, Elmer Bernstein and Alex North, contributed soundtracks to films that had elements of jazz buried within them. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s with the popularity of the predominantly west coast cool-school, that jazz tended to become a mainstay of film noir.  Even so,  it still wasn’t all that commonplace given the degree to which the two art forms have become associated with one another. In fact, it was only in the 1960s that jazz and film noir begin to solidify what would become a long-term relationship. 

Having said that, jazz in most examples of film noir, functions primarily as mood music, to create a particular atmosphere or add  tension or feel of a given film. Nothing unusual in that; it’s, for the most part, how music functions in film. Nor should one be surprised that jazz is seldom allowed to speak on its own, much less form its own narrative. Which is why there are, to my knowledge, no film noir soundtracks by the likes of Ornette Coleman (though he did provide the soundtrack for Conrad Rooks’ 1966 Chappaqua), Coltrane or Monk (his unused soundtrack to Les Liaisons Dangereuses would no doubt have been an exception that proved the rule).  Perhaps the closest jazz came to assuming a dominant presence in a narrative were in films like  Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (see my review on the previous entry in this blog),  or the Euro-noir Elevator to the Scaffold.  Which illustrates that such music was more than capable of driving any given narrative, if not make a statement in its own right. This is not to say that there isn’t some excellent, provocative and interesting music to be  heard on film noir soundtracks. Only  that any such music is the exception rather than the rule. Which is why it might be worthwhile to compile an annotated list of my own favorite jazz soundtracks.  Not that all are the the greatest examples of film noir; in fact, some barely qualify as film noir, but such films are included because they contain elements of film noir and  showcase the music,  whether to create a mood or drive the narrative. Interestingly, musicians, when they appear on screen, function very much like domestic servants, as  silent witnesses to what is occuring in front of them. Comments or statements mainly exist in the sub-text of the music, surfracing only through the lyrics of songs that may or may not be jazz-based. Finally, one might ask why these films mostly relied on west coast musicians associaated with the cool school of jazz.  This might have been because west coast and cool jazz displayed, as a genre, a certain conciseness and self-containment; it was inoffensive, easier to understand than more complex jazz forms; it had no overt political connotations; and, finally, it was mostly Los Angeles based, which meant the musicians were at hand, and more likely to be familiar with the studio set up and recording process.

- Phantom Lady, 1944. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Remembered for Elisha Cook’s frenzied- some would say masturbatory- drum solo, intercut with Ella Raines’s sexual innuendos, until they reach fever pitch simultaneously. It was Lester Horton who staged the music and Hans J. Salter the film’s overall musical director.  The other musicians performing alongside Cook- his drumming dubbed by Dave Coleman- in the nightclub are Barney Bigard on clarinet, Howard Rumsey on bass, Robert Bain on guitar and Freddie Slack on piano. Those scenes occupy only a fraction of the film, but it’s what many viewers remember when it comes to Siodmak’s excellent adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel.  

- Man With a Golden Arm, 1955, Otto Premminger. Considered by many one of the best jazz scores to come out of the 1950s. Though Nelson Algren, who penned the novel, hated the adaptation.  Nevertheless, the angularity of Elmer Bernstein’s score nicely reflects the narrative structure. And he doesn’t shy away from making use of  post-bop passagzes, which he mixes with non-jazz elements. A rare example of a soundtrack album that stands up on its own, which utilizes the likes of trumpeter and fluglehornist Shorty Rogers and His Giants, which included Bob Cooper on tenor saxophone, Pete Condoli on trumpet, Shelly Manne on drums, Ralph Pena on bass, Bud Shank on alto saxophone, and Pete Turner on piano. Not Chicago musicians that would more accurately reflect the locale of the film, but effective all the same. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Sweet Smell of Success, 1957. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, music by the Chico Hamilton Quartet.  Martin Milner plays Steve Dallas, a guitarist in Chico Hamilton’s band and Hunsecker’s sister’s boyfriend.  Steve’s guitar licks are in fact played by John Pisano. The on-screen band consists of Hamilton on drums, Paul Horn on flute and sax, Fred Katz on cello and Carson Smith on bass. Other L.A. based musicians play on the studio soundtrack, including Pete and Conte Condoli on tumpet, Herb Geller on saxophone, Bob Cooper on saxophone and oboe, Shelly Manne on drums, Bill Holman on saxophone, Milt Holland on bass, etc.. All overseen by Elmer Bernstein.  Here the musicians contribute to the narrative, their music pushing the narrative forward. Set in and around Times Square, Hamilton also contributes some dark alley/backstage dialogue, altering Mackendrick’s script when necessary, changing  ‘Throw a rope around her and keep her here while I go get him.’  to ‘Cool this chick here while I go get him.’  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sounds (Spain).

-  I Want to Live, 1958, directed by Robert Wise. Susan Hayward performance as Barbara Graham, as the infamous prostitute sentenced to death for an alleged murder, is almost equalled by Johnny Mandel’s impressive score. It features Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone and Art Farmer on trumpet, assisted by Shelly Manne on drums, Red Mitchell on bass, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Pete Jolly on piano, Bud Shank on reeds. Like Man With a Golden Arm, Mandel’s soundtrack works on its own, either as mood music or as mainstream 1950s jazz. For me a more evocative soundtrack than the more renown Duke Ellington score for Premminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a year later. Mandel’s soundtrack is available on Ryko.

- Elevator to the Gallows/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958, directed by Louis Malle, in his full directorial debut. Two lovers’ perfectly planned murder is ruined when one of them is trapped in an elevator.  As much Nouvelle Vague as it is a slice of Euro-noir, with a dark, brooding and profound score.  Arguably the most famous and recognisable of jazz soundtracks, with Miles improvising directly off the screen, recorded at Le Poste Parisien Studio in Paris on December 4 and 5, 1957. With nineteen year old French tenor whiz Barney Wilen on tenor, Kenny Clarke on drums, Pierre Michelot on bass and Rene Urtreger on piano. Soundtrack available on Verve.

- Touch of Evil, 1958, directed by Orson Welles. Mancini’s score fits perfectly into  Welles film, and was apparently a callaboration between the two men. Mostly it’s a Stan Kenton-influenced soundtrack that contains elements of rhythm & blues, border and latin music, with a dash of Martin Denny’s exotica music so popular during that era. With that opening music as impressive a score as Welles’s famous tracking shot. This and Mancini’s music for the noir TV show Peter Gunn would influence the music for TV shows like  77 Sunset Strip, Johnny Stacatto, Naked City, M Squad, and Mike Hammer. Among the musicians Mancini used on Touch of Evil were Pete Candoli on trumpet; John Stanley, trombone; John Graas, french horn; Plas Johnson tenor saxophone; Dave Pell, bass; Red Norvo, vibraphone; Barney Kessel, guitar;  Ray Sherman, piano;  Jack Costanzo from Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban orchestra, on bongos; Mike Pacheco, percussion; Shelly Manne, drums.  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sound.

- Anatomy of a Murder, 1959, directed by Otto Premminger. For me a little too glossy to be an authentic film noir.  Though one of first films to openly address the subject of rape. But there’s no denying the power of Duke Ellington’s soundtrack even if the great man was slightly past the peak of his career.  Nevertheless, it was arguably the first major film that showcased a jazz score, by an African-American at that. And, if it was at times the music is slightly intrusive, and the compositions, compared to his best tunes, a little thin, it does feature many of Ellington’s main musicians at the time, including Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on saxophones, Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, and Cat Anderson on trumpet, with a handful of compositions by Billy Strayhorn. Released on Columbia Records.

- Odds Against Tomorrow,  1959, directed by Robert Wise, with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky from William McGivern’s novel.  Another film about racial tensions, this time amongst armed robbers, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. With a soundtrack- heavily influenced by Shuller and his Third Stream music-  written by John Lewis, already a seven year veteran of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis deploys fellow MJQ members Connie Kay on drums, Percy Heath on bass and Milt Jackson on vibes, as well as  Bill Evans on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, Joe Wilder on trumpet and Gunther Shuller on french horn, Joe Wilder, etc.. Particularly lovely are Jim Hall’s sparse notes at the close of Odds… There are two albums related to this film: one is the soundtrack album on CBS, the other is an album by John Lewis and MJQ playing music from the film on United Artists/Blue Note.

-  Shadows, 1959, directed by John Cassavetes. The film and the accompanying music were a breath of fresh air when the movie first appeared. A film exploring inter-racial relationships in 1950s New York, with improvisational acting, reflected by  improvisational music supplied by the great bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Shafi Hadi. Mingus, always willing to demonstrate the influence of European composers on his music, is perfectly comfortable creating a soundtrack for one of the great independent film-makers.  Music from Shadows as well as The Connection can be found on Shadows (Beat, Square & Cool) Vol 5.

-  The Connection, 1962, directed by Shirley Clarke from Jack Gelber’s Living Theater play. Noir?  Perhaps not, but what could darker than junkies sitting around a cold water flat, shooting up, playing jazz, talking in hipster argot. Jackie McLean on tenor saxophone, Freddie Redd on piano, Larry Richie on drums, Michael Mattos on bass. A score by the great, but underrated, Mal Waldron. On the few films to have an edgy and uncompromising hard-bop soundtrack, played by musicians who also act in the film, so play an integral part. Music available from Blue Note.

- Mickey One 1965, directed by Arthur Penn. Music by Eddie Sauter with Stan Getz improvising on saxophone. A reprise of the Sauter and Getz collaboration on the 1961 album, Focus, in which Getz improvised against a modernist string accompaniment. Getz drives the narrative, which grows increasingly paranoid. Not only, in my opinion, Beatty’s finest film, but firmly in the noir existential tradition with elements of French new wave movies that Penn was so fond of at the time, refected in the soundtrack that works perfectly on its own. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Once a Thief, 1965, directed by Ralph Nelson, from John Trinian/Zekial Marko’s novel Scratch a Thief, and a remake of  (two of his novels have recently been republished by Stark House Press). Nelson deploys music as an integral part of the narrative, with a nice scene in a nightclub that feature various musicians put together by Lalo Schrifrin, amongst them Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Conte Candoli, Paul Horn, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Howard Roberts.

-  Sweet Love, Bitter, 1967, directed by Herbert Danska. A rarely seen film, with Mal Waldron’s score, with Waldron on piano and Charles McPherson featured on saxophone, as well as such musicians as saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Richard Davis.  About the problems facing a black jazz musician based loosely on the life of Charlie Parker.  A more immediate and darker film than Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Bird in which McPherson also takes Bird’s solos in a score supervised by Lennie Niehaus.  But Waldron’s soundtrack is more discrete, and Danska’s film a more low budget affair, yet just as, if not more, effective. 

- Round Midnight. 1986, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. A well-intentioned, up-market, slightly glossy, music bio- part Bird, part Bud Powell- with film noir elements hanging on its coat-tails. Starring the great tenor player Dexter Gordon, whose music is featured in the film, back by an array of great musicians, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins, Tony Williiams, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, etc. Soundtrack available on Sony Music.

-  The Hot Spot, 1990, directed by Dennis Hopper from Charles Williams’ novel Hell Hath No Fury.  Despite an impressive cast, featuring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and a screenplay at least partly written by Williams, this isn’t, for me, an all that  successful film noir. No matter, because it has an excellent and evocative soundtrack put together by long-term L.A. rock vet Jack Nitzsche, with significant contributions from  Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Taj  Mahal.  Watch the film but buy the soundtrack, available on Verve.

- Devil In a Blue Dress, 1995, directed by Carl Franklin. A glossy, yet workman-like film noir, which doesn’t quite come off, certainly not when compared with  Walter Mosley’s novel from which it derives. Nevertheless, not as bad as some have claimed. Moreover, it has a killer soundtrack brought together by Elmer Bernstein which combines the best of Central Avenue music from the late 1940s and early 1950s, or its approximation thereof, featuring Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton, Duke Ellington, Wynonie Harris, Pee Wee Crayton, Thelonious Monk, Bull Moose Jackson, Amos Milburn, Lloyd Glenn, Memphis Slim. The soundtrack is available on Sony/Epic.

(A version of this article first appeared in Noir City, 2015)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Mickey One: Stand-Up Paranoia

Where and when did I first see Arthur Penn's 1965 black and white Mickey One? Was it on TV or maybe Telegraph Avenue, or perhaps at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road? Maybe all three. Because it's one of those films that seems more like a dream than an ordinary movie. And like a dream, the film is a bit skewered, in parts incomprehensible and not without its flaws and idiosyncrasies. In spite of that, or because of that, it remains, along with Night Moves, my favourite Arthur Penn movie. And along with the Parallax View,  my favourite Warren Beatty movie. Because it was so seldom screened, Mickey One seemed to be one of those films you longed to see again, just to find out if it's really as good as you thought when you last saw it. At least that's how the affected me. Now with this nicely packaged DVD from Indicator (with excellent essays by Nick Pinkerton and Richard Williams, along with extras including an National Film Theatre interview with Penn, and interviews with actor Alexandra Stewart and Matthew Penn on the making of the film) you can finally view Penn's film as many times as you like and come to a decision for yourself as to its worth.

In fact, for me, Mickey One holds up quite well. I'd forgotten the film includes not only Franchot Tone, in perhaps his penultimate  performance, but, significantly, former blacklisted actor Jeff Corey. Significantly because Penn intended Mickey One to be about McCarthyism, or, at any rate, overcoming McCarthyism, with the protagonist deciding, as  Penn says  in one of the interviews,  "Fuck it, I've had it. I'm going to stand up and take it and deal with it." And it would certainly fit right into Beatty's particular liking for portraying paranoid protagonists. As he would  demonstrate throughout his career, from The Parallax View to Bulworth. But as a celebration of paranoia, Mickey One is also a very funny film. As it should be since Beatty plays a standup comedian who can't figure out why "they" are after him.  The humour, which Beatty carries off in his off-cantered dead-pan manner,  is mostly  due to Alan Surgal's punchy Kafkaesque script based on his short play about a third-rate comic. Surprisingly, it would be Surgal's only film credit, though he previously had written a pair of screenplays for  TV's Robert Montgomery Presents. And that was after serving an apprenticeship writing comedy sketches for middle of the road comedians like Red Skelton, Danny Thomas and Bob Hope.

Cloquet (in cap), Penn, Beatty
For all its anti-Hollywood, new wave feel, Mickey One was made only two years before Bonnie and Clyde and a year after The Train, a considerably slicker affair. It's hard to even think that those two films were made by the same person who made Mickey One. As Penn puts in an interview, "I was influenced by the New Wave, but I was also trying to do something essentially American in Mickey One..." In fact, Penn would never make another movie quite like this one, which seems to have as much in common with French film noir as European new-wave. You can blame that on the great Belgian cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, a veteran of French cinema responsible for shooting Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette, Demy's Young Girls of Rochefort, Renais's Night and Fog, Bunuel's Expulsion of the Devil, Louis Malle's Le Feu Follet, as well as French noir classics like Jean Becker's A Man Named Rocca and  Claude Sautet's incredible Classe Tous Risques. Filmed mostly at night on the streets of Chicago, Mickey One's ability to move from deep paranoia to dark humour can be attributed not only to Surgal's screenplay, but to the Cloquet can catch light as well as shadow, the surreal as well as the ordinary, the street as well as claustrophobic interiors. Interesting that Cloquet would work with Penn again on the latter's 1981 reunion film Four Friends, but the result would look nothing like Mickey One.

Then, of course, there's  the music, which Richard Williams covers so well in his splendid essay that accompanies  the  DVD. Suffice it to say that, along with the likes of Miles's score for Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Jackie Mclean and Freddie Redd's collaboration on Shirley Clarke's The Connection, Mingus's score for Shadows, and perhaps Johnny Mandel's music on I Want to Live, Mickey One's  Getz and Sauter collaboration is one of cinema's most evocative of jazz scores. So memorable is it that I thought the film included more of it,  though what is there comes from the famous Getz/Sauter Focus recording, a legendary session for which Sauter composed a comparatively modernist score around which Getz would so flawlessly improvise.

Finally, this is a film that bridges two eras: McCarthyism, of course, but also the post JFK assassination era that has fascinated Beatty for so long. Nevertheless, it doesn't wallow in darkness.  Penn sums things up nicely when he says in the original liner notes to the soundtrack lp, "The story of Mickey One is the expression of fear in a human being- terror wrought in the mind of a man which grows out of all proportion to the situation that induced it. A mind given over to panic, reading doom and despair into every waking moment: living with an unseen enemy who at any moment might destroy him- he becomes the fox among the silent hounds of his imagination." In the end, as Penn goes on to say, "The film was about saying 'yes' instead of saying 'no.'"

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

If It's Written, It Must Be True: Remember Kay Boyle

“For I can recall now only your faces: Woody Haut, Shawn Wong, Rebhun, Turks, Alvarado
And how many more. Or I catch now and then the sound of a voice
From a long way away, saying something like: ‘Poetry is for the people.
And it should represent the people.’(You can say that again, Woody,)”
— Kay Boyle, Testament for My Students

Did I really say that? I guess I must have, though I’ve no memory of having done so. But, then, what is written always carries a degree of certitude, if not finality, particularly if the person doing the writing is someone whose words bear witness to the highs and lows of much of the twentieth century. at is certainly the case with Kay Boyle, a writer as well as an activist—traits apparently inherited from her mother, who read Joyce’s Ulysses and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as a Farmer- Labor candidate in Ohio—who brie y entered my life, before politely retreating to a dimly lit corner of my memory, where she remains part of that enticing rubric labeled San Francisco, late 1960s. 

It has always been flattering, if not slightly embarrassing, that she would cite me in her poetry book Testament for My Students, though these days it causes me to wonder who that person might be whom she quotes. Or, for that matter, if I really was her student? Because I can’t remember her having actually taught me anything. Nor could it be said that she in influenced my writing. But, then, perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, even though she taught creative writing at San Francisco State from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, she always harboured a realistic attitude regarding her job, publishing, during that time, an essay in which she argued, tongue perhaps only partly in cheek, that “all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” And even though she was my graduate supervisor, it wasn’t like we had the usual teacher- student relationship. We would simply meet, first in her office on campus, and then, once the 1968–69 student strike was under way, at her home on Frederick Street in the Haight. I remember our first conversation concerned a short essay I had written about discovering the work of writer Jorge Luis Borges. It wasn’t about Borges’s writing so much as about the pleasures of discovery, and how that particular discovery came about. In fact, the essay, in retrospect, was not dissimilar from the type of retrospective prose Kay would produce in a book like Being Geniuses Together, which she had co-authored with Robert McAlmon. at discussion aside, our conversations mostly focused on more immediate matters, namely the strike and the politics surrounding it.

Since I have no memory of having said the words she attributed to me, it not only makes me wonder who that person was who said or wrote such things, but the the fact that she had grown up in the heady atmosphere of mid-western populism, the politics of which had long been of interest to me. Although Kay would prove an advocate for young writers like Sonia Sanchez, she appeared slightly hesitant when confronted with unfamiliar strands of contemporary writing, clinging, as she would do, to the fractious rise of Modernism, what she would describe as the revolution of the word, which had played such an important role in her life. I remember, not long after our first meeting, she asked me to have a look at the galleys of a book of poems by Joe Ceravolo, Spring in is World of Poor Mutts, which had just won the first Frank O’Hara award. She’d been asked to blurb the book, and wanted me to offer her an opinion as to whether the poems were worth commenting upon. I don’t know why she would have felt insecure about passing judgment on such an excellent poet, particularly when one considers the influence of Kay’s old friend and mentor William Carlos Williams on Ceravolo’s work. So, on the one hand, Kay, who was already in her mid-sixties when I met her, was willing to accept what was on offer, but, on the other hand, she was sometimes baffled by it. I suppose there was a similar contradiction when it came to her politics and her writing style. Or, for that matter, in her somewhat dated sartorial style—dark grey suits, perhaps the very same tailleurs grises, which her in-laws deemed the correct attire for a young married woman on their first sighting of her in France in the early 1920s—and liberal amounts of make-up, as though paying tribute to the past while living in the present. 

Reading Kay’s stories and essays these days, I’m impressed by their elegance, politics, humour, their ability to conjure up a particular time and place, as well as her exactitude when placing herself in the situations she describes. However, it was only in the late 1980s that I began to reassess her work, prompted by a remark made by my late friend, the poet and cultural critic Edward Dorn who mentioned that, in his estimation, Kay was a better writer than Hemingway. At the time I thought it was an unusual, if disparate, comparison—stylistically they seem so different albeit sharing a particular era. But I was reminded that the critic Edmund Wilson, whether complimentary or otherwise, once called Kay a “feminized Hemingway,” while Gertrude Stein compared the two writers as well, but only in terms of social class, offering the opinion that Kay Boyle was every bit as middle class as Hemingway. Or it could be that Dorn meant that Kay was a more interesting chronicler of those earlier decades than Hemingway, which, judging by essays in her Some Things that Need to be Spoken, might well have been the case. 

Did Kay Boyle exert an influence on my future interest in noir ction and film? I seriously doubt it. is even though I had already begun what would be a life-long obsession with Dashiell Hammett. Too bad that it never occurred to me to ask her about Hammett and Lillian Hellman, both of whom she surely must have known. After all, were there any writers of that era Kay hadn’t met or corresponded with? And in a sense I guess there was something noir-like when it came to the subject matter of our discussions, at least as far as Borges’s literary mysteries or Rimbaud’s disappearance were concerned. And maybe, if I had only been able, during those meetings with Kay, to cast my mind forward, into the future, I might even have been able to catch a glimpse of the person I would become. A decidedly trickier feat to accomplish than looking back on that younger version of myself, the one who knew Kay Boyle in an era when everything was, for a brief moment, up for discussion and ideas seemed capable of threatening the social order. Not unlike those earlier decades that Kay liked to write about. Though partial to the past, Kay made more than the best of the present. Writing about those years when I knew her, Kay, in a Long Walk at San Francisco State, would put it like this: “I had lived on mountaintops, carried my babies in a rucksack on my back when I skied, believed in poets more than any other men, honoured French Resistance fights and Italian partisans, crossed into Spain with letters from the exiled to the brave and the defiant and the imprisoned there, and brought illicit messages out. And now, through force of circumstance, I was, of all unlikely and unsuitable things, a college professor. I was a college professor, who spoke of her institution as if it were a possession of the heart.” 

(If It's Written... first appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of The Scofield)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Depression Blues: Edward Anderson

Though few would write so movingly about the Depression, Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, received neither the recognition nor the financial reward he deserved. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in 1905 in Weatherford, Texas. Leaving school at an early age, he became a printer’s apprentice- his father’s trade- then a cub reporter for an Ardmore, Oklahoma newspaper. Within a few years Anderson  worked on more than ten newspapers- “Legalized prostitution,” he would call it- within the Oklahoma-Texas area. When he tired of journalism, Anderson found occasional employment as a trombone player. 

Trim and muscular Anderson had high Indian cheekbones and dark hair. Like that other hobo-writer, Jim Tully, Anderson was, for a short time, a boxer with at least one professional bout under his belt. At twenty-five, he quit his job as a Houston copy editor to fulfil his dream of joining expatriate American writers in Europe. Shipping out on a freighter from New Orleans, he arrived to find the Lost Generation were mostly on their way back to America. 

He returned to the States to find the Depression in full swing. Unable to find employment, Anderson began a two year odyssey, riding freights, sleeping in parks, asking for handouts and working as an itinerant odd-jobber. Back in Abilene, he wrote  a story entitled “The Guy in a Blue Overcoat” about a 23 year-old hobo, and met John H. Knox, the son of a preacher who wrote poetry and sold stories to the pulps at a rate of two cents a word. Knox, whose family residence housed Abilene’s largest personal library, introduced Anderson to the world of books. Prior to acquainting himself with Knox’s library, Anderson’s reading had been confined to Tully and Jack London; now he was reading Knut Hamsun, Gorky and Marx. It was Anderson’s desire to write about the lives of hoboes, but the pulps were after stories about detectives, cowboys and athletes. Either the pulps thought it wrong to give hoboes a status beyond their worth, or they thought readers wanted to escape from a society that produced hoboes. Consequently, Anderson’s first published effort for a pulp magazine would be a boxing story.

In 1934, after finding  employment as a printer, he met federal employee Polly Anne Bates. Though interested in the arts, Anne came from a family of law enforcers. Her uncle was Gus T. Jones, an FBI agent who helped hunt down Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Butch Cassidy. Anne’s father, despite his hatred for J. Edgar Hoover, also worked for the FBI. Edward and Anne married in August, and moved to New Orleans where Anderson worked for yet another local newspaper where  Anderson would rifle through the paper’s files in search of material. Meanwhile, Anne looked after their new born daughter and  made occasional trips to the police station to gather information that went into stories Edward was writing in the evenings for magazines like True Detective and Murder Stories. Soon he was selling articles with titles like  “Uncovering the Vice Cesspool in New Orleans: The Shameful Facts Behind the War between T. Semmes (Turkeyhead) Walmsely and Huey (Kingfish) Long”; “Tough Guy! The Career of Dutch Gardner”; and “The Kiss of Death and New Orleans’ Diamond Queen.” An  article for True Detective about Henry Meyer, the official state hangman was returned saying it might work better as a short-story. The article became “The Hangman,” which marked the start of Anderson’s career as a fiction writer.  In an era of proletariat fiction, Anderson’s portrait of life on the road impressed White Burnett and Martha Foley at Story magazine enough to give him $1000 and a Doubleday/Literary Guild book contract.

Moving to another apartment- Anne was pregnant again- Anderson, over the following seven months, put the finishing touches to Hungry Men. Written in a calm, observational style, its energy and emotional impact overshadowed any stylistic deficiencies. Less a novel than a series of vignettes strung together through its main character, the book sold moderately well, and was praised by Raymond Chandler as well as the New Republic who cited the book’s “firm quiet realism.” Most critics ignored it, and those who did review it thought Anderson was another  writer chronicling the Depression, such as the British reviewer who said,  “[Anderson’s] style, the extreme nakedness of presentation, the slang, ‘like an animal talking,’ owes everything to Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

Derivative it might have been, but Hungry Men was less influenced by Hemingway than by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, a Nobel prize winner who, unfortunately, wound  up publicly defending Hitler and  the Nazi’s occupation of his country. Like his predecessor, Anderson would also find himself in murky political waters,  though this would not become immediately apparent.  At the time, Hungry Men, which follows protagonist Acel Stecker as he goes from freight trains to breadlines, from hobo jungles and Hoovervilles to political demonstrations, fit in perfectly with New Deal politics, while rejecting the need for social revolution.

At the time of publication, the novel’s most severe critic turned out to be hobo and author of Waiting For Nothing, Tom Kromer. He  attacked Anderson’s novel for its politics and lack of realism. Published two years before Hungry Men, Kromer’s Waiting For Nothing was considerably more revolutionary in tone and outlook.  According to Kromer, Anderson’s view of “life on the stem” was too sunny and romantic. So perturbed was Kromer that, in an October, 1936, issue of Pacific Weekly he published a piece which purposely appropriated the title of Anderson’s novel. In three pages of newsprint, Kromer rewrote Anderson’s novel. Covering the same time-span, Kromer, in his hard-bitten approach, rejects Anderson’s ending in which Acel and his small band of musicians, having refused to play the Internationale, decide to call themselves “The Three Americans” and learn to play patriotic and off-colour ditties. Instead, Kromer depicts a hundred flophouse stiffs joining locked-out motormen in the streets during the 1934 Los Angeles Yellow Car strike. Kromer was particularly annoyed by the way Anderson sought to sanitise and depoliticise the hobo. In his  review, he wrote, “You’ll see no Jesus Christ looks in the eyes of Edward Anderson’s Hungry Men, no working stiffs dying of malnutrition on lice-infested blankets of three-decker bunks in the missions, no soup-lines that stretch for blocks in the city streets and never start moving. In a word, you find no Hungry Men.”

On the other hand, Louis L’Amor, at the time another gentleman writer of the road, and not yet Ronald Reagan’s favourite author, praised Anderson’s Hungry Men, saying, “It seems highly improbable that a revolution will take place in this country at the present time..., although the subject is wonders what will become of a country where young men such as Stecker are forced to wander helplessly, driven by the police, in fear of chain gangs, and out of work through the force of economic changes over which they have no control.” While it’s impossible to ignore Hungry Men’s  sense of  social justice, it’s apparent that Anderson believed rugged individualism and a benevolent state could combine to defeat Depression poverty. Finding Anderson’s perspective politically naive, Kromer offered the opinion that the former would appeal only to those who’ve been conned by the system: “If you have read all the Horatio Alger novels and would like to get the same story with a depression slant, you will not be able to put it down.”

With the money he received from Burnett and Foley, the Andersons purchased a car and drove to Kerrville, Texas, where they rented a cabin. Situated a thousand feet above Huntsville, Kerrville was famous for sunlight and Guadaloupe water, supposedly beneficial for those recovering from tuberculosis. It was in Kerrville that Anderson would write his second novel, Thieves Like UsThis time Anderson based his characters on the exploits of real criminals: Bonnie and Clyde, recently gunned down in Athens, Louisiana, not far from Anderson’s home town; John Dillinger who had just been killed outside the Biograph in Chicago; and bank robbers Anderson had interviewed in Huntsville prison, a research expedition that allowed him to record their stories and note their speech patterns and ways of viewing the world.  Talking to prisoners had served Anderson well when it came to creating a character like T-Dub, whose manner of speaking- “it’s raining cats and nigger babies”- and perspective came from Anderson’s research. Anderson was now reading Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Zola, Dostoevsky, and James Farrell, and would spend evenings testing dialogue on Anne, asking her what the girl, Keechie, would say in a given situation. The novel’s title derives from a line delivered by T-Dub in which he refers to those in respectable professions- bankers, politicians, police officers- as “just thieves like us.” It’s this perspective, and the portrayal of those drawn by circumstances into illegal activities, that makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. According to Chandler, the novel was better than Steinbeck, and “one of the best stories of thieves ever of the forgotten novels of the 30’s.”  Having ignored Hungry Men, Saturday Review was now calling  Anderson “the most exciting new writer to appear in American letters since Hemingway and Faulkner.”

 Despite his two novels, Anderson was pretty much broke. After a stint with the Work Projects Association writing about Abilene tourist sites for a Texas guidebook, the Andersons moved to Denver where Edward found work with the Rocky Mountain News and wrote for a local radio show, The Light of the West, dramatising the region’s historical events. There Anderson received a telegram offering him  a screenwriting job in Hollywood. It looked as though Anderson’s fortunes were about to change. He was sure his background as a journalist- writing stories, taking photographs, doing background work, rewriting- would stand him good stead  in Hollywood, just as it had the likes of Hecht, Fowler and James M. Cain.

Taking the train west, Anderson and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. Fritz Lang’s film You Only Live Once had just been released and crime stories with a social angle were in vogue. An optimistic Anderson installed his family in The Seaforth, an apartment complex on the corner of Clinton and Norton, a few blocks from where the film adaptation of his latest book would eventually be made.

It was Ad Schulberg- the mother of Budd Schulberg- who had sent the telegram. Separated from her husband, B.P. “Ben” Schulberg, Ad had set herself up as a Hollywood agent. Meanwhile, Adolph Zukor had given her husband a budget, the promise of producing eight films a year, and an office off Melrose Avenue. With Ad representing Anderson in negotiations with Paramount, the writer must have thought it odd that, whatever  their marital status, a Schulberg sat on each side of the bargaining table. Unfortunately, the deal did not bring Anderson the riches he imagined. Anderson was to be paid $150 a week, not much compared to the $5,200 per week Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell were making, but not bad when compared to the $25 a week Anderson had been earning as a journalist.

Installed in William Saroyan’s old office, Anderson started off writing a football movie on which the former had been working, a dreamchild of Paramount story editor and pigskin-obsessive George Auerbach. The problem was, Anderson had no idea how to adapt a story for the screen. Though he embarked on a crash course in the art of writing for the movies,  no screen credits would be  forthcoming, which meant  his chances of advancing in Hollywood remained negligible. Auerbach sympathised, believing Anderson’s problem was that he had come in “through the backdoor,” by which he meant it had been Ad Schulberg who had landed him the job in the first place.  

When his contract expired, Anderson moved to Warners. At least it was a studio known for  gangster films and a solid roster of writers. On the downside,  Jack Warner expected his writers to arrive at 8:30 in the morning and stay until 5:30, work six days a week, and could  churn-out twenty to thirty pages a day.  Anderson’s first assignments were a series of B features alongside Bryan Foy.  Foy was the son of Eddie Foy, Jr., of the Seven Little Foys vaudeville team, and a former gag man for Buster Keaton. Such was Foy’s position that he was referred to as the “keeper of the B’s.” The result of their first effort was Siberia, which was probably where Anderson must have felt he’d been sent.  With his career going from bad to worse, Anderson ended up working on a series of Nancy Drew mystery films. Not quite what the writer had in mind when he contemplated a career in Tinseltown. On the other hand,  writing Nancy Drew scripts- from 1938-1939 there were four such films, directed by William Clemens and starring Bonita Granville as the teenage detective- wasn’t much different from writing for the pulps. 

He quickly grew to  detest Hollywood. Ill at ease amongst the rich and famous, he began to drink even more than usual. Despite his good looks and athletic appearance, he didn’t possess the personality necessary to get ahead in Hollywood. Nor did he care for his colleagues or employers. Instead, he gravitated towards hard-drinking ex-newspapermen like Hecht, Fowler and Charles MacArthur. He and Fowler had much in common. Both had arrived in Hollywood from Denver; both were fascinated by boxing; and both were former press agents. 

In March, Anderson received notice that the rights to Thieves Like Us had been sold to Rowland Brown for $500: Anderson was to receive $250 on signing the contract and a further $250 thirty days later. Nevertheless,  Anderson took a job at the Los Angeles Examiner,  only to be fired not long afterwards for making jokes about the so-called international Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, Anderson was becoming increasingly anti-semitic, even attending a Los Angeles American Nazi rally.  Not that anti-semitism was uncommon in Hollywood.  Myron Brinig’s early apocalyptic Hollywood 1933 roman de clef Flicker of an Eyelid, with its unflattering portrayal of the notorious L.A. poet Jake Zeitlin, was criticized as being anti-semitic. Likewise, Jim Tully’s Hollywood novel Jarnegan portrays Jewish movie moguls in a unflattering manner. Since most Hollywood producers, as well as many of its agents and actors, were Jewish, anyone with a grievance had a ready-made target.  This was, of course, helped by the fact that a handful Jewish studio executives- Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer- were themselves borderline anti-semites.

Without a job, and hoping to get out of L.A., Anderson found work on the Sacramento Bee. But Anne had problems living in a house that belonged to a Japanese couple who had been interned at the start of the war. So quickly had they been spirited away that all their belongings remained in the house.   It wasn’t long before Anderson quit his job at the Bee to  devote more time to writing. While Anne went out to work, Anderson began a novel  about the west, Mighty Men of Valor. Then he heard screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) was in the market for a western about Fort Griffin, an old outpost near Abilene where a small war with the Commanches had been fought. But neither Anderson’s novel nor his treatment would come to anything. During this period Anderson produced two other  stories, one about Sam Houston, the other about a settler who mistreats his family. Neither sold. Increasingly difficult to live with, Anderson was now drunk most of the time, leading to the couple’s separation. They eventually got back together, divorced, and remarried. When, a few years later, Anderson came down with a bad case of the DT’s, followed by a bout of pneumonia, Anne decided, when he recovered, she would leave for good. Though Anderson tried to quit drinking and joined AA, he was, for Anne, beyond redemption, so she divorced him for a second, and final, time. 

Over the years, Anne remained bitter that Edward received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she remembered all the lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer hoping to ease his way back into the frontline.  Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as representatives of  the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the underrated but influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood could be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had garnered an Academy Award  for Angels With Dirty Faces. Yet by 1939, when he purchased Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.

At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he immediately had problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to do outside work, Brown must  have realized his project was going to flounder.  In 1941, Brown, his career nearly over- he did go on to receive a story credit for  Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential- sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO wanted another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could be they realized that Brown had no intention of implementing the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or had refused  to kowtow to Washington’s insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.

At this point, RKO hired Dudley Nichols (Bringing Up Baby, Stagecoach) to rewrite the script. In 1944, Brown, for some reason, was rehired. But RKO balked at the director’s suggestion they shoot the film in Mexico. Just when it looked like  the studio was about to write-off the project, John Houseman appeared on the scene.  Hired as a studio producer, Houseman came out of  Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and had been involved with films like Citizen Kane and Letter From an Unknown Woman. Houseman would begin his tenure at RKO by resurrecting Thieves Like Us for a young director, Nicholas Ray, who, at the time, was a protege of Houseman’s, and known for his New Deal theatre and radio work. It would be Nicholas Ray’s first film. “I found the book,” said Houseman, “and gave it to Nick to read, and he fell madly in love with it.” To persuade the studio that the film merited resuscitation, Houseman explained to his employers that Ray, who had submitted a 196 page treatment to the studio, had worked with Alan Lomax and the Department of Agriculture and knew the milieu in which the film was set.

Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had  read the book and liked it. Moreover,  as a child of the Depression, he had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, having even  served time on a Georgia chain-gang for  vagrancy. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week star take the role. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio thought they should keep a tight rein on him. Had Mitchum landed the part, the film’s ambiance would have been decidedly different. Even so,  Ray’s casting- Howard Da Silva as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie- was nearly perfect.

Though the war was over, Ray’s film was still having problems with the Breen Office as well as with  Howard Hughes, who was again head  of the studio. Hughes had little interest  in the film,  while  the Breen Office maintained  that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This helps explains the film’s various titles, as well as the contrasting approaches taken by Ray and his producers, and, ultimately, the film’s depoliticalisation.  

Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon.  Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, so  shifting the subtext  from a song of experience to one of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, Houseman polled preview spectators: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Though depoliticised, the film still looked as though it would never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that it was finally given the green light.

Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his novel, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though the film had been ready for release in 1947,  thanks to further discussions between the director,  Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, it would be  another two years before the film would hit the screens. On its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s movie, rewritten by Red River scenarist Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation, had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. Even though Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon- “Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”- Ray prefaces his film with “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” It’s an  indication that Ray’s film will lack the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray could bend Anderson’s text- flexible because its politics had been diluted-  into his own brand of cinematic lyricism.

Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how his film strayed from the novel and Ray’s original concept; namely, to use the music as a defining  element around which the action would take place. In a sense, what Ray envisioned,  Robert Altman would accomplish in his remake, blurring background and foreground through the utilization of radio drama fragments- Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette- as well as music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music of the era. All that remains is a radio fragment, extraordinary in itself, of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Newspaper columnist Louella Parsons predicted the film would be a success. Having read her column, Anderson decided  Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d originally received for the film rights. Now making  $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, Anderson wrote to Howard Hughes, asking for more money.  Hughes simply handed the letter to his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, rejected Anderson’s request.

For some twenty years, the world forgot the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio hadn’t reregistered the title, it retained adaptation and foreign rights. Then independent producer Jerry Bick, having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was interested in remaking the film as well. The fact that the conservative Ford was amenable to the book’s “social significance”- saying it couldn’t  be avoided- is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.

Bick, who produced Altman’s The Long Goodbye, had been paying the options on Anderson’s novel since 1967. In 1972, he purchased the story for $7,500, and immediately sent the book to writer Calder Willingham. Altman, having come across the book a year earlier,  was also interested in adapting it. When he, Bick and Willingham met, Altman made it clear that he intended to use his own scriptwriter, Joan Tewkesbury. Rather than follow Ray’s film, Tewkesbury returned to the novel, extracting and cutting where necessary. Though she hadn’t read Willingham’s script, the Screen Writer’s Guild insisted the latter be credited for the work he’d done.  

Altman shot his version in Mississippi, in places like Jackson, Vicksbourg and surrounding   small towns. The film was finished  at the end of 1973, and greatly differs from Ray’s version. With his own historical sense, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent movies. Ray’s might be the more touching, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. One imagines that Anderson would have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks closer to his novel.

There’s no telling what Anderson thought of Ray’s film when it opened in Forth Worth in 1950. Certainly critics were ambivalent.  Not long after its premier, Anderson was back on the road, moving from one small-town newspaper to another. He stayed in San Antonio for a few years, then he went to El Paso, Laredo, and finally Brownsville, where, between 1960 and 1963, he covered municipal politics for the Herald. Obsessed by Fidel Castro- he believed  America was pushing Cuba into the arms of Russia- and having developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of Swedenborg, he drank- though apparently not to excess- and, in a Brownsville dancehall, met Lupe, a Mexican dancer whom he would marry.

Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish must have sufficed. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewellery, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and before long she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson was still reluctant  to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, Anderson continued to wander while showing  further signs of mental  instability. Not only did he want  to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he said, “It is also my discovery...that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Now living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he wrote articles for the Record. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he still ranted  about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller, and began work on a Swedenborgian text, entitled “O Man, Know Thyself.”

When he tired of Cuero, Anderson returned to Brownsville, where he died in September, 1969. He was sixty-four years old. Three years later Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us would be released. After Anderson’s death, his agent Alex Jackelson was said to have several unpublished Anderson manuscripts in his possession, including a novel alternatively titled Several Hundred Wives and One Hell and Many Heavens. Begun fifteen years before his death and rewritten several times, it is the story of a group of indigents along the Mexican border during the time of Pancho Villa and is imbued with a Swedenborgian optimism. Anderson also had thoughts about reigniting his Hollywood career, as indicated by a synopsis sent by Anderson or his agent during the 1960s, to Warners where it still sits in the studio’s archives.

Anderson’s literary accomplishments would continue to go largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to any literary group or movement as to his literary inactivity or mental problems. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson remained a literary outsider throughout his life. Moreover, he was never able to crank out paperback pulp fiction or brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his literary gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction would be lost amidst the more extreme stylisations that would come, then, finally, recycled in an age of tough love and trickle down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters: another  victim of hungry men and thieves like us.