Over the years Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel has taken on a near-legendary status, and become one of the most sought-after of Gold Medal novels. It's title alone- poetic and darkly evocative- is enticing enough. True to form, Gold Medal's teaser for this 1953 paperback pitched it somewhere between the sublime and ridiculous: "She had the face of a madonna and a heart made of dollar bills." However, since then Black Wings... has also gained a reputation as the most literary of pulp novels. And, happily, Chaze's novel, as this wonderful Stark House reissue attests, easily lives up to its reputation. A year after it was published in the US, it appeared on the Serie Noire imprint in France, albeit in the usual, for that publishing house, truncated form, with the title Il gele en enfer (roughly "Hell Freezes Over"). Back then Chaze was publishing stories in the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan and Colliers, and putting together a string of novels, though none would be as visceral or pulp-oriented as Black Wings... Black Wings... is narrated in the first person by "Tim Sunblade," a recent escapee from Parchman Farm, who meets Virginia, a call-girl he's hired to satisfy his post-prison hunger. His ambition is to pull off a robbery that will set him up for life. Virginia is beautiful but highly unpredictable. She too has a past and is an escapee of sorts. At first Tim simply wants to get rid of her, but soon realizes she might be useful. Eventually he falls in love with her. Together they pull off the robbery, but that, of course, is just the beginning of their problems. "I was sick of Virginia, too, and of what the money had done to the both of us, changing a tough, elegant adventuress with plenty of guts and imagination into a candy-tonguing country club Cleopatra who nested in bed the whole day long and thought her feet were too damned good to walk on."
Spending most of his time in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Chaze also worked as an Associated Press reporter in Colorado and Louisiana. Not surprisingly, these three locales- Mississippi, Colorado and Louisiana- form the backdrop to Black Wings.... By the time Chaze died in Mamou, Louisiana in 1990, he only had a hint that his book had developed a cult following. The likes of Max Collins, Bill Prozini and Edward Gorman had proclaimed Black Wings... the quintessential Gold Medal novel, and Barry Gifford paid him a visit in Hattiesburg to talk about Black Lizard publishing his novel, writing about the experience and the book in an issue of Oxford American. Unfortunately, Gifford's plans had to be ditched when new owners took over his company. Presently, Black Wings... is about to hit the screen, starring Anna Paquin and Elija Wood, with a screenplay by Gifford. I hope it turns out to be at least half as good as the book, though, of course, I'm not betting on it.
"I couldn't stand not to look either. I think I'm going crazy. I've got to look at it and I can't, like a woman who's known for months she had a cancer and the doctor finally tells her it's there and he tells her where to look to see it. And she must look at it but she can't.”
Chaze's novel is preceded by another downbeat narrative, this one by Bruce Elliott entitled One is a Lonely Number. I hadn't had much intention of reading this one, but two pages into the book I was hooked and finished it off in two sittings. How could I not with paragraphs like this: "The night was dark but alive. It was too hot to sleep in stinking box-like rooms, rooms just enough bigger than a coffin so that bodies had to be moved when they died, but not big enough so a human could endure living in them. Radios blared from the open windows all around him. Middle-aged blowsy women hung out windows, looking, searching, as if they could see something that would be different enough from what they had seen the night before so that later they could say, oh that musta been the night that Charley got cut up, or Betty got punched around, or whatever it was they were looking for, waiting for." Not as literary as Black Wings..., but the writing is still very good, feeding into a rapid-fire narrative, which, by the end, will leave you gasping. And it's as perverse a tale as you're going to read, one that fits squarely in the Jim Thompson-Gil Brewer school of warped hard-boiled prose. The novel opens with Larry, an ex-musician, and yet another escapee from prison- in this case Joliet- in bed with a prostitute. All he needs to do is get some money together and get to Mexico. Needless to say, with everyone trying to get him to do their dirty work, his plans do not according to plan.
Not that much is known about Bruce Elliott. His real name was Walter Gardner Lively Syacy, was born in 1915, hit by a car in 1972 and ended up in a coma, before dying in 1973. One Is a Lonely Number was published in the US by Lion Books in 1952 and in France under the title Un tout seul in 1954. As well as mysteries, Elliott wrote sci-fi, including a comic fantasy about Satan entitled The Devil Was Sick, TV scripts and a number of stories for Shadow magazine. He was also a stage magician who wrote various books on the subject, including Professional Magic Made Easy and The Professional Magician. One Is a Lonely Number represents yet another lost novel unearthed by Stark House, which, as far as I'm concerned, has become one of the preeminent publishers of hardboiled fiction.
Concise- some 130 pages, including notes- and surprisingly accessible, Fatalism in American Film Noir (University of Virginia Press) by the Hegelian University of Chicago professor Robert B. Pippin constitutes, perhaps for the first time, a philosopher's take on the genre. It centers in particular on agency, i.e., the extent to which film noir protagonists are agents of their own actions. It's true, noir protagonists exhibit a certain helplessness, as though their actions, or the motivation to act, derive from outside themselves, whether the result of fate, obsession or socioeconomic factors. Pippin cites Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross and The Killers as demonstrating this passive tendency, immobilized by his belief that he's been dealt a hand over which he has little, if any, control. Clearly, it's no coincidence that the question of agency, and film noir, came at particular moment in history. According to Pippin, these films show us "what it literally looks like, what it feels like, to live in a world where the experience of our own agency has begun to shift."
Fatalism... centers on three works: Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past, Orson Welles' 1948 The Lady From Shanghai and Fritz Lang's 1945 Scarlet Street. Pippin points that in Out of the Past we are both shown events and, through flashbacks and a voice-over, we are told about those events. Consequently, there's a gap between what we see is happening and what the narrator, in explaining himself to Ann, maintains is happening. Yet the flashback is less a particular perspective on what is shown than another element of what is being shown, which, in itself, necessitates interpretation. It's as though Jeff, in his narration, is saying this is the way it happened, I can't change anything now, and I couldn't change anything then, making him both a spectator as well as an active participant in the narrative, and his narrative the sole means by which his agency can be recovered.
The fact is, Jeff is unable to move out of the past, in this case his relationship with femme fatale Kathie, believing- here Pippin quotes Oedipus- "I suffered those deeds more than I acted them." Of course, the likes of Jeff aren't thinkers, but improvisers who move from one event to another, trying to create a space for themselves in which to act, only to be stymied by their past. Like Chinatown, the narrative has to be renegotiated once the ending has been revealed and the protagonist's agency can come into focus. Trapped by what he does and who he is, Jeff seeks to become the agent of his actions, only to meet his death. It's as if, for Jeff, the beginning and end have already been written, and he's marking time, waiting for his time to run out. Any room for self-generated action is limited, though the heroic-existential position is to act despite everything. "He ends up an agent," says Pippin, "however restricted and compromised, in the only way one can be. He acts like one." And then he dies.
Like Jeff, Michael, the protagonist in Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, is apparently robbed of his free will by another femme fatale, in this case Rita Hayworth. Here Pippin is interested in how the femme fatale can affect a protagonist and his ability to act, to be rational, and to reflect on and understand his actions. Pippin points out that the femme fatale is often the mirror image of her relationship to the other man, not the one for whom they are fatal. In that other relationship, the woman is controlled, manipulated, threatened and financially dependent upon, to the point that, in that relationship, they too can do nothing on their own. Pippin goes on to say that Welles is here showing another type of femme fatale from the one Hayward portrayed in Gilda, cutting her hair, keeping her relatively static, and shooting her from close-range. In this film too the narrator is not exactly the same person in the film. Something has changed. For instance, Michael claims to be political, but, in the narration, he is anything but. So in the space between the showing and the telling something has happened, but the viewer doesn't know if that change has occurred in the film, a character development, or it has taken place in the novel Michael is purportedly writing. Pippin quotes the protagonist, saying, "I never make up my mind about anything until it's over and done with." Which becomes something of a slogan for the author, citing it again in the concluding chapter. In other words, it's important that Michael lives in the moment, because it's the process that matters. According to Pippin: "It's not that he is mindless; there are just many provisional possibilities. To be 'sure of what one intended' is to be sure of what one is committed to doing, and avowals of such intentions are therefore not reports of the already resolved; they are the resolve and are often provisional."
In Scarlet Street, Pippin discusses how Chris seeks to break out of his own self-inscribed world, even relating it to the film's final music, which morphs from a Christmas tune to Melancholy Baby- heard earlier, the needle stuck, like Chris's life- to Jingle Bells. It's as though Lang is counterposing the socioeconomic facts of Chris's life with the Christian version of fate and redemption. Of course, he also makes the not-all-that-astonishing observation that everyone in the film is trapped by their class, their culture, and their understanding of themselves, which narrows their future course of action. I had no choice is the usual excuse. But these characters are neither free nor fated. They make choices, even if they are trapped by them. Says Pippin, "The danger of exaggerating our capacity for self-initiated action and so exaggerating both a burden of responsibility and a way of avoiding a good deal of blame is...as great as the danger of throwing up our hands and in a self-undermining way becoming the all-pervasive power of fate." Film noir, then, is testimony to the limited space in which one can act freely, whatever the consequences. Pippin quotes McDowell from his book on Wittgenstein, Mind, Value and Reality: "One does not need to wait and see what one does before one can know what one intends."
Fatalism... ends with a brief look at Double Indemnity, in which egoist/predator Phyllis conspires with easy-going nihilist Neff. But it's Keyes who, as arbiter, defines the boundaries separating accident, fate and intentionality. As a Socratic figure, Keyes doesn't condemn Neff, but recognizes that he's trapped, caught by fate. Since it's Keyes' job to realize such things, he, according to Pippin, must bear the burden of the narrative. Here, as in other films noirs, accident plays an important part, with the protagonist convinced he will be blamed by the police, so concludes that there's no reason why he shouldn't do what he is fated to be blamed for. In Double Indemnity. Phyllis suffers her fate because she finally acts as a free agent, not shooting Neff a second time, which leads to her death.
Interestingly, Pippin has also written a book on westerns, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth. In Fatalism... he discusses the various differences surrounding the two genres whose classic films emerged at approximately the same time. Of course, he points out that many westerns turn out to be simply film noir on horseback. But for the most part they stand in opposition to one another, particularly when it comes to the American dream, domestic life, the role of the protagonist, agency (possible in westerns), world view (Manichaean vs a more nuanced perspective), etc.. Likewise, visual style. Westerns, according to Pippin, are horizontal- broad vistas, distant horizons, a stationary camera, daylight, etc.- while noir tends to be visually vertical- stairs, bars, shadows of blinds or bars, elevators, tight shots, unreliable narrator, night, disorientating camera, etc..
There's something heartening reading someone who believes shared knowledge might ultimately lead to self-knowledge, and that ethics matter whether we are free agents or not. Despite its size, Pippin's book gives the reader a lot to think about. Few are going to agree with everything he says. For instance, he talks about urbanization as a contributing factor to film noir. For me that's a slight over-simplification. It's not just urbanization, but the anxiety of urbanization, and the flight to the suburbs, illustrated by the likes of Lang's The Big Heat or De Toth's The Pitfall. Nevertheless, Pippin's book made me think about these films in a fresh way. For me, that's saying a lot.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.