Saturday, December 30, 2006

Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming is partly a narrative regarding the cynical creation of Hollywood personalities- a gossip writer and a former actor make a bet about whether an attractive working-class woman can be turned into a star- and partly a crime story regarding the pursuit of the narrator by an obsessive investigating officer who believes the narrator has killed the very star he has created. Written like an insider’s view of the movie business, Fisher’s story, by the time it was first filmed, had already been serialised in the movie periodical Photoplay-Movie Mirror, utilises the author’s knowledge and experience as a Tinseltown screenwriter. When he wrote the novel, Fisher was already a studio veteran with a number of novels under his belt, and well-positioned to critique Hollywood’s ability to create and destroy. It would also be the novel on which Fisher’s reputation as a writer would be based.
So evocative was the novel that it would be filmed twice. Published as a tie-in with the initial movie version, it was previewed for the press in October, 1941. Daryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, who had paid Fisher $7,500 for the film rights, had specifically vetoed all film exposés of Hollywood. To avoid the hot end of Zanuck’s cigar, the film’s setting was switched from Hollywood to New York, which, in turn, necessitated changing certain elements of the story. Out went the sunny climes, palm trees and restaurants like the Brown Derby and Ciro’s; replaced by bleak jazz clubs, police stations and apartments, and theatres. The script, which alternates between table-talk and cop-speak, was not Fisher’s work, but that of writer Dwight Taylor who went on to pen Curtis Bernhardt’s Conflict (1945) starring Humphrey Bogart, as well as Samuel Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street. Produced by Milton Sperling and directed by ex-King Vidor assistant H. Bruce Humberstone, I Wake Up Screaming stars Victor Mature as the man trapped by circumstances. Mature had just made One Million B.C. and Shanghai Gesture, and was something of a departure for this actor of limited ability. With its pseudo-naturalistic camerawork and use of shadows, I Wake Up Screaming mixes a sense of danger with a hint of sexual perversity.
The second version of Fisher’s novel was filmed was in 1953. Entitled Vicky, it stars Jean Peters, Jeanne Crain and Elliott Reid. Directed by Harry Horner, it, like the previous adaptation, was produced by Twentieth Century Fox, and written by Dwight Taylor. Other than money, the motive behind the remake must have been simply to relocate the narrative to its proper Hollywood context. An emigre from Czechoslovakia, Horner was a former assistant to Max Reinhardt, and had come to America with Reinhardt to become an art director and production designer, eventually winning an Academy Award for The Hustler (1961). Using flashbacks, this version is more complicated than its predecessor, and filled with an even greater degree of alienation and cynicism.
On the back of I Wake Up Screaming, Fisher was able to finally leave the world of pulp magazines to which he had been indentured. A long-time Black Mask contributor, he now began to write for up-market periodicals like Colliers and Metropolitan. More importantly, he was able to sign a contract with MGM, and replace Raymond Chandler on The Lady in the Lake. This would be followed by John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning at Columbia, starring Humphrey Bogart, and Joseph Lewis’s A Lady Without a Passport (1950, uncredited). In the 1960s Fisher picked up the pieces of his career by writing for TV, contributing over two hundred scripts for programmes like Starsky and Hutch, Barnaby Jones and Fantasy Island. It was a long way from I Wake Up Screaming, but, by the 1970s, television had, more or less, become the equivalent of the pulps, and Fisher, with his film work at a dead end, sought to employ his skills as best he could.

Born in 1912 in Marine City, Illinois, Fisher was thirteen when he sold his first story to a magazine. At sixteen he joined the Marines. He was still in the service when he began to publish stories and articles in US Navy and Our Navy. Discharged from the Marines in Los Angeles in 1932, Fisher stayed in L.A., where he continued to write for US Navy, for which he was paid one cent a word. He was also, by this time, writing for a number of sex magazines. In 1934 he moved to New York where, despite near destitution, he continued to pursue a career as a writer, and met, for the first time, his friend Frank Gruber.
Prior to his arrival in New York, Fisher had corresponded with Gruber, but the two had never met. It was in the Manhattan office of Ed Bodin, an agent who represented both authors, that the writers finally crossed paths. They, of course, hit it off immediately, and left Bodin’s office on Fifth Avenue just below 23rd Street, on their way to Greenwich Village where, in Washington Square Park, they talked for three hours about their hopes, ambitions and their writing.
Over the years, the two men would remain close. Gruber, some fifteen years older than Fisher, was from a small farming town in Iowa. Already a prolific pulp writer, he counted amongst his friends the future father of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard (the latter once told Gruber that his shift from science fiction to religious fiction occurred when he was shot in the neck with a poison dart while travelling up the Amazon). In 1941, the same year Fisher published I Wake Up Screaming, Gruber, under the name Charles K. Boston, published an all-but-forgotten Hollywood satire entitled The Silver Jackass. Much lighter, yet no less bitter than I Wake Up Screaming, Gruber’s whodunit was, in many ways, the other side of the coin from Fisher’s novel. At Warners, Gruber would go on to write the screenplay for Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1946) and Bulldog Drummond. A.I. Bezzerides remembers Jack Warner walking into the writers’ building and finding Gruber, Fisher and himself not at their desks, but on the floor shooting craps. He looked at his three writers, turned and walked away, knowing there was little he could do about such recalcitrance.
Gruber and Fisher constituted something of a two-person mutual admiration society. At a party for the release of The Blue Dahlia, Gruber nearly came to blows with his hero Raymond Chandler when the latter said some unfavourable things about Fisher. The reason for the altercation was that Fisher and Chandler were in dispute over screen credits for The Lady in the Lake. Chandler was convinced that his name should have appeared on the screen as well. Though he defended his friend, Gruber would remain a life-long admirer of Chandler’s writing. Foreshadowing Gruber’s run-in with Chandler, Fisher, hearing someone unfairly criticise one of Gruber’s stories in the Black Mask office, launched such an attack on the unfortunate writer that the editor had to throw the Gruber-critic out of the office and declare him persona non grata at Black Mask.
Recounting his early days as a writer in The Pulp Jungle, Gruber attests to Fisher’s burning ambition to succeed as a writer, a quality which, at times, assumed humorous dimensions. Such as when Fisher wrote to the New York electricity company, which, because of an outstanding bill, was about to switch off his power, asking them how they would feel if they had turned off the electricity on Jack London. He told them that he too would become a famous writer and they would be ashamed of themselves for cutting off his electricity. But cut him off they did, after which Fisher was forced to write by candlelight. In that same book, Gruber goes on to say that Fisher was most adept at writing romance.
Fisher published some thirteen novels, from Spend the Night and Satan’s Angel in 1935, to his last novel, The Big Dream in 1970. After publishing his first novel, Spend the Night, under the pseudonym, Grant Lane- he would subsequently sell the film rights to the novel for a mere $125- there followed six other titles, four of which were under his own name, while two- Murder of the Admiral (1936) and Homicide Johnny (1940)- were under the name Stephen Gould (Gould was Fisher’s middle name). But it was Steven Fisher’s name that appeared on the cover of his 1946 Winter Kill, which was published by Dodd, a novel that, according to Gruber, had originally been his idea. In 1944, Gruber had begun to write a play entitled Desk Space, based on what went on in Ed Bodin’s dingy office, which the latter shared with five others: a private detective, a button broker, a dressmaker, a collection agency, a magazine publisher, and Fisher. The occupants all shared a single telephone. Though Gruber and Fisher were both employed at RKO, they happened to be off-duty. Fisher was thinking about writing a novel, and managed to talk Gruber into letting him use the plot of his play on the agreement that Gruber would receive ten percent of any money paid by a studio should it ever buy the novel. It took Fisher only four weeks to write Winter Kill. Warner Brothers bought it for twenty-five thousand dollars. Presumably, Fisher gave Gruber the $2,500 he had coming.
In 1958 Fisher published No House Limit, a novel set in the universe of Las Vegas casinos and Be Still My Heart, whose protagonist, Ben Wyman, like Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, writes a problem page for a local newspaper. When his wife leaves him to go to Las Vegas, Wyman becomes involved with one of his readers who has written to solicit his help, and finds himself face to face with a psychopath.
Before his death in 1980, Fisher had collected fifty-three film credits. His first screen credit was for the story to Nurse From Brooklyn (1938). Besides The Lady in the Lake and Dead Reckoning, he would write such films as Johnny Angel (1945), The Hunted (1948), Roadblock (1951), The Lost Hours (1952), City That Never Sleeps (1953), Hell’s Half Acre (1954). With fellow writer Nat Perrin- screenwriter for countless comedians, from the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Abbott and Costello, to George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor and Red Skelton- Fisher worked on Song of the Thin Man (MGM, 1947), starring a bored William Powell and an equally fed-up Myrna Loy. The previous year their precocious dog, Asta, had died, only to be replaced by Asta Jr.. There was now a Nick Jr., played by Dean Stockwell, who, as a child actor, had not yet made his name in 1948 with Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair. Though Powell and Loy were America’s favourite couple, they barely spoke, and refused to appear in front of the camera together. Their parts had to be shot separately. Any shared scenes were put together in the editing room. Not surprisingly, it would be the final Thin Man film. Fisher would also write the screenplay for I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) based on a thriller by Cornell Woolrich. In Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming, Woolrich had been the model for the psychotic cop, called Cornell, whose sexual obsessions lead him to frame the protagonist. Unable to come up with an appropriate ending for I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, Fisher phoned Woolrich who suggested he use the cop from I Wake Up Screaming, and turn him into the culprit, motivated by his lust for the framed man’s wife.
Fisher’s fiction and film work would never stray far from the pulp tradition. When it came to film scripts, his particular speciality was film noir, followed by war films and westerns. Even in his later career as a TV writer, Fisher, like Brackett and Latimer, was never anything less than professional. For Fisher, writing was a career, not a literary obsession. Like Brackett and Latimer, he simply sought success. In this way, Fisher was more like W.R. Burnett than Raymond Chandler. Though he had neither the latter’s brilliance nor the former’s compulsiveness, he was still a prolific and perceptive writer. From 1945 to 1970, Fisher was one of the hardest working scriptwriters in Hollywood, with over fifty film credits to his name. Within the ten year period between 1945 and 1955, Fisher was to receive credit for writing scripts for no less than twenty-five films. But, on the basis of one novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and films like Dead Reckoning and The Lady in the Lake, Fisher deserves a place on a short list of influential noirists.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

British Film Noir

Why has there been so little written on Briitish crime movies of the 1940s through the 1950s? Hundreds of such films were made, many of them of a very high quality. Not just well known films like Brighton Rock, the American made Night and the City, Get Carter and Performance, but those films that were the equivalent of US film noir, and made during the period that is often referred to as the golden age of film noir. Many of the films made in Britain were even darker and more bleak in outlook than their American counterparts. Such films, influenced by expressionism as well as social realism, deserved to be remembered and revived. With some great actors, like Stanley Baker, Bonar Colleano (cited by Ian Dury in Reasons to Be Cheerful), Diana Dors, Googie Withers, and a number of very excellent writers, like Graham Greene, Gerald Butler, Robert Hamer, Joan Henry, Julian Maclaren-Ross, John Gilling, Penrose Tennyson, Alan Falconer, Val Guest, etc.. They can be roughly divided into underworld films (They Drive By Night), post-war spiv films (They Made Me a Fugitive), which lasted until the end of rationing and economic recovery during the early 1950s, then the films that used crime movies to raise issues of class and moral deviation (Pool of London, Hell Drivers, Yield to the Night). The demise of such films had as much to do with the political climate as to the integration of a criminal element back into society, the drop in the crime rate, changes in the law regarding gambling and prostitution, the end of double features and b-movies, and, of course, a general disdain by middle class film critics. Even future prime minister, back in the days when he was head of the Board of Trade, condemned "crime, sadistic and psychological" films. I suspect there was also pressure from Hollywood, as there was in France, to show more of their films. But clearly many excellent movies have been wiped from public memory. What's more, other than Chibnall and Murphy's excellent collection of essays and isolated chapters in various books, there has been virtually nothing written on the subject.

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Even for those, myself included, who maintain there is no better writer of writer of contemporary crime fiction than Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone exceeds expectations. From the very first sentence- “Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat.”- you know you’re in for something special. With a poetic and hard-edged prose style, Woodrell’s stories are the stuff from which nightmares are made. Perhaps the quality of the writing derives from the fact Woodrell has only published seven novels over the last twenty years, resulting in writing that remains fresh and interesting, both for reader as well as writer. Even better than the excellent Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister, and just as unrelenting as Woe to Live On, Winter’s Bone follows Ree, who, at sixteen, must look after her two younger brothers and a demented mother in the Ozark hills. During a snowbound winter, Ree’s father, a local crank manufacturer, puts up the family home for bail. Because failure to appear in court will result in making the family homeless, Ree has no choice but to find her father. This sets off a local feud in a region where practically everyone is related; violence, paranoia and secrecy are rife; and everybody exists outside the law. But Ree is made from pretty tough stuff. With its narrative moving, like a winter storm, from dark to darker, Winter’s Bone is the best crime novel I’ve read for ages.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The election

I’ve avoided commenting on the election simply because it seems all too obvious. Only to say that one hopes Democrats won’t be lulled into thinking the nation has finally turned to them because of their coherent policies or principled politics. Any idiot knows they won because of Bush’s handling of Iraq and the general corruption and sleaze on the part of the Republicans. Let’s see what the likes of Pelosi and co do with their little bit of power. Waxman aside, I’m not terribly optimistic. What’s more, it’s a long way from here to 2008.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Gustav Hasford
Part 2

During his time in London, Hasford resided in a Mayfair flat which Kubrick’s entourage had found for him. Whenever the writer and director got together to “collaborate”, Hasford could not stop himself from winding-up the director, talking at length about The Killer’s Kiss and Spartacus, two Kubrick films the director hated with a passion. With Kubrick still threatening to abandon the project, Hasford removed himself to Paris. By September, he was back in London, where filming had finally begun a month earlier. It was only when filming finished in March, 1986 that ,Hasford was able to get a look at the final shooting script, and realised that it was 99% his own work, and 1% Kubrick’s. Fortunately, Hasford had kept records, copies and had witnesses, so could prove that it was his script, and that not only was he not receiving full credit, but, according to Hasford, had never signed a contract that would have given Kubrick the legal right to adapt the film. The director probably believed Hasford would be so concerned about getting paid, or receiving a modicum amount of credit, that he would finally agree to the final result. But Hasford knew that, until he got his way, he virtually controlled the film’s future.

Eventually Kubrick relented and Hasford was given a full screen credit, making him, in all likelihood, the first writer to take on Kubrick and come out on top. It also meant he had got the better of Warner Brothers with all their lawyers and money. This Hasford accomplished without an agent, much less a lawyer. Though it could have been that Kubrick decided that Hasford wasn't the Alabama hillbilly he thought him to be. Or perhaps Kubrick realised that he was dealing with someone as obsessive as he was, and, with the writer willing to go to any lengths to get his way, it was not going to be worth the trouble of trying to outmanoeuvre him. Hasford would only say that he got his way because he threatened to to go to the media, and say, “I”m a Vietnam veteran and Kubrick’s ripping me off.” Thus discrediting Kubrick’s movie and turning it into a box office disaster.

Back in LA for the release of Full Metal Jacket, Hasford spent two weeks promoting the film. Warner Brothers gave him the full treatment, putting him up at the Westwood Marquis where the arrivée gave interviews and, having always lived on a diet of junk food, ordered $25 hamburgers from room service. But events were to take their toll. For one thing, unused to his situation, an over-sensitive Hasford was becoming increasingly paranoid. Moreover, the LA literary crowd tended to regard him as nothing more than an amusing, if manic, freak. For his part, Hasford, unable to ingratiate himself, could scent condescension. Preferring to hang-out with local artists and outsiders, Hasford was eventually able to regain some of his easy going composure, and for a while it looked like he was beginning to enjoy his new celebrity status. With Full Metal Jacket playing to full houses, and Bantam's new paperback edition of The Short-Timers selling in large numbers, Kubrick’s attorney, Louis Blau, took Hasford on as a client. Hearing that Bantam had accepted The Phantom Blooper for publication in 1990, Hasford moved into a spacious house in San Clemente. Free of stress and money worries for the first time in his life, he bought a big-screen TV, a VCR, a jeep and a new flak jacket, spent time on the beach and lavished gifts on his friends. Unfortunately, he was also gaining a great deal of weight, and, though contemplating new projects, couldn’t resist continuing his feud with Kubrick, this time over Lee Ermey, the film's drill instructor, whom Hasford called "a fucking pogue lifer" and a propagandist for the official Marine Corps pro-war line on Vietnam.

Though he dated a number of attractive women during this period, Hasford was convinced most of them were after his money. And he might have been right. He missed his old “girlfriend,” and looked her up with the hope of renewing his courtship. She, of course, wanted to have nothing to do with him. After all, Hasford had practically stalked her. Hasford’s response was to bombard her with angry letters. After a friend intervened, the letters stopped, but he wouldn't or couldn't give up the idea of winning her heart. His persistence paid off with Kubrick. Why not with this woman?

Then disaster struck. On March 21st, the LA Times reported that Hasford was being sought by California Polytechnic State University authorities, who discovered some 10,000 books from libraries around the world in a storage locker rented in the author’s name. The article went on to say that campus police had located overdue books from Cal Poly, delinquent to the sum of $3000 in fines, as well as rare books from libraries in England and Australia. There was no arrest warrant because investigators, according to the report, had to first inventory the books, contained in 396 cardboard boxes that comprise a pile 27 feet long, five feet wide, and five feet tall. The same story appeared on the AP wire, in the L.A. Herald Examiner, and on CNN and KNBC-TV. True or not, a charge of library theft was going to be a tough one for Hasford to live down, for it is something that the literate as well as illiterate can feel superior about. Any chance of an Oscar vanished with the news. This even though the reported 10,000 books was later found by Miles Corwin, an L.A. Times reporter, to be only 800. More paranoid than ever, Hasford was convinced his con-man friend, Sam, had conspired with a security cop to set him up. Though he might also have wondered if it might not have been Kubrick out to exact revenge. In any case, Hasford seemed, at this point, relatively unconcerned; he envisioned simply paying the fine and putting the whole thing behind him.

An AP story followed in the L.A. Times on March 31 -- "Author Nominated for an Oscar Charged in Library Book Thefts." The story reported that Hasford had been charged with grand theft on a Sacramento warrant dating to mid-1985, alleging that he had stolen 50 to 100 books worth more than $1,000. This was in addition to the Cal Poly allegations. Bail was set at $50,000. The AP's theft count had dropped from 10,000 to "9,816 books from libraries as far away as Australia and Great Britain." Though Miles Corwin in the Times corrected the stolen-book count to "hundreds," he failed to stress the exaggeration of the original reports. Ray Berrett, the Cal Poly campus police investigator who broke the case, was quoted: "'All the librarians [we called] said [Hasford] had checked out books, didn't return them and then disappeared'. The San Luis Obispo County district attorney could issue a warrant... Berrett [went on]... 'If [Hasford] gets an Oscar... an officer could hand him the warrant [at the ceremony] and say... put your hands behind your back and away we go."' Corwin's story mentioned, without naming, Hasford's former girlfriend -- "a librarian at Cal Poly" -- and another man who “Hasford was a house guest... and left 'unexpectedly with a number of books'... found in Hasford's collection."
To no one’s surprise, The Short-Timers did not win the Academy Award for best screenplay, which went to The Last Emperor. Meanwhile, the legal machinery, once in motion, ground on, and, as it did so, Hasford's life began to spin further out of control. At first, he thought he would be shielded by Louise Blau's reputation as a lawyer, but, for some reason, he ended up retaining a San Luis Obispo attorney named Orlan Donley, who eventually billed him for some $20,000. On June 23, at an arraignment in the San Luis Obispo County Municipal Court, Hasford pleaded innocent to two counts of grand theft and 10 counts of possession of stolen property. He was booked at the county jail and freed on $7,500 bail. "Books from 77 different libraries were found in Hasford's collection," Miles Corwin reported in the Times, while the AP finally reduced the number to "hundreds of stolen books." Later, Bruce Miller, the San Luis Obispo bookseller, was appalled to discover that the campus police investigating Hasford's collection had even confused university-press books with university property.

By the end of the summer, Hasford had become worn down by the process. It was not only the strain of commuting between San Clemente and San Luis Obispo, but it was the question mark that remained over his future. Still, he was planning his next book, which he decided would be an exposé of those bringing charges against him. He planned to hire private detectives to get information on his persecutors, and everyone who had conspired to turn his fame against him. He was certain it would sell millions. On December 2, Hasford pleaded no contest to possessing stolen property, with two counts of grand theft dismissed in the terms of the plea bargain. The prosecutor, Deputy D.A. Terry Estrada-Mullaney, recommended Hasford serve hard time. At this point, Hasford was hoping he’d get off with a fine, restitution costs and maybe a community service order.

On January 4, 1989, Superior Court Judge Warren Conklin ordered the defendant to serve six months in jail and five years' probation for the theft of 748 books from nine libraries and "one individual." The court also fined him $1,100 and directed him to pay shipping costs for the return of the books. After the verdict, a gloating Deputy D.A. said Hasford's punishment would "serve as a lesson that stealing library books is a serious offence." Half expecting to walk free, a stunned Hasford was handcuffed and taken to a rural annex of the San Luis Obispo County Jail, where he was issued an orange jumpsuit and assigned to manual labour on a road crew. It wasn’t going to be an easy six months for a sedentary writer.

In prison, Hasford contracted intestinal flu and lost 40 pounds. Humiliated by the ordeal, he would never regain his health or spirits. After his release, and was able to get his belongings from the police, he found that a number of items were missing, including a collection of gold pieces. He now wanted to go to go to Greece for an indefinite period. In the interim he took up residence in an El Cajon motel so he could be close to what books he had left, which now needed to reorganise. Moreover, Hasford was now drinking for the first time- beer and wine in the evening, so he could sleep- and talked about applying for political asylum in France.
While visiting his mother and brother in Tacoma, a friend took Hasford to the local Veteran’s Administration hospital where they ran tests, diagnosed him as diabetic and given an insulin shot on the spot. A doctor friend in Seattle tried to convince Hasford to regulate his diet, and lose some weight. He also urged him not to travel to Greece as he was still intending to do. Despite his friend’s advice, Gus left in April, and by the autumn had moved into a pension in Aegina, some 45 miles by boat from the coast. By that time, this naive manic but talented writer was no longer communicating with his friends. The woman who owned the pension entered Hasford’s room one day and found his body. He was alone when he died, aged 45, from complications of untreated diabetes. His 1993 death coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Tet offensive, which he wrote about in The Short-Timers.

(With acknowledgements to the late Grover Lewis’s 1993 article in the LA Weekly.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Gustav Hasford: crime novelist, war chronicler and book thief

Part 1

I have a weakness for writers who, having overcome odds of one kind or another, produce something worthwhile, even if just a single novel. The end result might even be flawed, but, then, these days I’ve become increasingly less interested in perfection, while, on the other hand, having developed a wild-eyed aversion to anyone touted as the latest “great writer.” I’ve got a particular fondness for writers who can’t help but bite the hand that feeds them, or who impulsively criticise the spectacle of everyday life. It hardly matters how effective they are, so long as they go at it with a certain flair. The infamous Gustav Hasford fits this bill perfectly. Not only did he take on, and get the better of, one of the great megalomaniac directors in modern cinema history, but he even managed to write two excellent novels, at least one of which was a crime novel, and the other a Vietnam War novel.

Hasford is, of course, best known for the latter book, entitled The Short-Timers, which Stanley Kubrick would turn into the film Full Metal Jacket. When it was published in 1979, Newsweek called the novel "The best work of fiction about the Vietnam War." Though Hasford, Kubrick and fellow-Vietnam war writer Michael Herr would share screenwriting credits, it was basically Hasford’s script. As well as The Short-Timers, Hasford also wrote A Gypsy Good Time (1992), a Southern California crime novel which is thankfully a far cry from Raymond Chandler. The product of a disturbed but engaging intelligence, it remains, for me, an unforgettable book, which, despite its flaws, I instantly took to. In fact, it was that book, which I read some ten to twelve years ago, that prompted me to look into Hasford’s life. What I found was not only a writer of considerable talent- and a crime writer at that (even Short-Timers, since it’s about one of the great state crimes of the twentieth century, qualifies, as far as I’m concerned, as a crime novel)- but a harmless, small-time criminal persecuted far beyond the call of duty.

A Gypsy Good Time centres on Dowdy Lewis, a man who deals in rare books, consumes large amounts of alcohol and is haunted by memories of a war which, for some ten years, divided America. Books, alcohol, Vietnam: these are subjects that obsessed Hasford, a man who could not help but wear his heart on his sleeve. Have a look at the following quotes with their world-weary romantic dissection of the modern condition:

“In California people toss the word love around like a frissbee. You lose your faith in love, I guess. You meet somebody, you think- she’s so nice. But you’ve been there before. You know that in the end she’ll turn out to be just another neurotic man hater, gold digger, or emotional black hole. Loving somebody who can’t love you back is like pouring yourself into a hole. So after a while, you figure, why get your hopes up? Why not cut yourself some slack? You owe it to yourself. Why not save yourself the wear and tear?”

“All of the regulars are in the bar tonight, the walking wounded, moaners, bleeders, and nonstop talkers, the consumptives, syphilitics, and nickel-and-dime underworld slime, the drifters and weepers and hawker of church-bell scrapings and pieces of the one true cross (imported from Taiwan), the chain smokers and chronic masturbators, the tweakers, the bikers, the loan sharks and costumed extras from The Night of the Living Dead, the hookers and the hitters, the hungry, the hurting, the dying and the lying and the dry-eyed crying. Half of these people look like they just came back from the moon, and all of them are sworn witnesses for the prosecution on the charge that Earth serves as Hell for some other planet.”

Has anyone, save Nathaniel West or Myron Brinig (Flicker of an Eyelid), penned a more venomous analysis of Hollywood

“Hollywood is still the cannibal’s kiss. Hollywood is the town where your chips get cashed, and your parking stub is validated for every single day remaining in your life, or your exit visa gets stamped real hard and in black....In Hollywood, life is hard, then it turns into television and you die for thirteen weeks. My father used to deal with these movie people. Movie people lie when they talk in their sleep. Movie people swim around Catalina Island with a knife and a fork, hoping to meet a shark. In Hollywood, people walk up and steal the food right off your plate. Movie people will suck the marrow out of your bones for a penny, then they give you a bad check for the penny. Then they dig up your dead grandmother and sell her for a souvenir.”

But The Short-Timers is the book for which Hasford will be best remembered. As far as I’m concerned, it ranks up there with Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage and Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War stories when it comes to portraying the horrors and insanity of war. It was also, as I think I said in my book Neon Noir, the short of book that would influence crime fiction during the 1980s, and writers such as James Crumley, Kent Anderson, and George Pelecanos. For The Short-Timers is, with the possible exception of Dog Soldiers and Cutter’s Way, the darkest Vietnam tale of them all. It begins in 1968:

“Sooner or later the squad will surrender to the black design of the jungle. We live by the law of the jungle, which is that more Marines go in than come out. There it is. Nobody asks why we’re smiling because nobody wants to know. The ugly that civilians choose to see in war focuses on spilled guts. To see human beings clearly, that is ugly. To carry death in your smile, that is ugly. War is ugly because the truth can be ugly and war is very sincere. Ugly is the face of Victor Charlie, the shapeless black face of death touching each of your brothers with the clean stroke of justice.”

After Full Metal Jacket’s release in 1987, Hasford, Kubrick and Herr were, not surprisingly, nominated for the best screenplay adaptation of 1987 by the Writers Guild of America and a week later they were nominated for the Academy. Despite the film’s notoriety, and the director’s reputation, it would be Full Metal Jacket’s only Academy Award nomination. Though Hasford suddenly became a celebrity, he would within a matter of months be arrested and sent to prison for harbouring anything from 800 to ten thousand library books in a rental locker in San Luis Obispo, California.

Hasford had never hid the fact that he had over 10,000 volumes in the rental locker. He called it his “research library.” For this was a man who not only loved books, but had various projects in mind, including a biography of Ambrose Bierce. He loved Bierce, particularly his story “Chickamauga.” He also planned a mutli-volumed saga on the Civil War, and books on Twain, Van Gogh, Lincoln, and the Alamo. He was also planning a sequel to his novel The Phantom Blooper, a series of crime novels, and a novel about an American woman president, and which, when it appeared, really did live up to its name, blooping in the hands of any reader unfortunate enough to read it.

Hasford had grown up in the South where he began writing at an early age. While still a high-school student in backwoods Alabama, he published a nationally distributed magazine for writers called Freelance. At 18, to escape the South and his mother, who, even at his funeral, maintained that she had never really understood her son, he joined the Marines where he gained the experience that would go into “Shorty”, as he called his Vietnam novel. As anyone who has read the book knows, Hasford manages to convey in that book a burning antipathy for the military hierarchy and power as such. When he finally returned from Vietnam, he moved up and down the West Coast taking one dead-end job after another, all the while writing and rewriting the book that would change his life. With his anarchist leanings, Gustav felt out of place in America, claiming to like only its used book stores and Sizzlers, a chain of formica infested coffee shops. His long term plan was to move permanently to Australia.

Hasford had already written a film script for The Short-Timers when Kubrick decided to buy into the project. But it wasn’t Kubrick who would approach the writer. Hasford was living in his car when a businessman from Munich appeared out of nowhere, and with seemingly no connection to the movie world, optioned the screen rights to the book. Of course, the businessman was secretly working for Kubrick. Realising he stood to make a substantial amount of money on the royalties to world-wide literary rights alone, not to mention the prestige from being involved with Kubrick, Hasford signed on. He celebrated the occasion by buying a one-way ticket to Australia.

Hasford eventually met Kubrick in London, and, having done so, returned to California in May, 1983, moving into a run down motel in San Louis Obispo so he could be near his books. It was at this time that Hasford fell in love. Like every other venture in his life, it would prove to be a messy experience. For the woman in question did not quite share Hasford’s feelings. This did not stop him from writing long letters to her and showering her with gifts. Around this time he befriended Sam, a small-time con-man who was so enamoured with Hasford’s prowess as a writer that he offered to go to England to sort out a recalcitrant Kubrick once and for all. Hasford and Sam traded books and, as it would turn out, competed for the same woman. In the meantime, fame had hit Hasford with a vengeance; he now had to decide whether he should purchase a Rolls Royce or go on welfare. He sensed that fame might ruin him as a writer.

Hasford’s relationship with Kubrick turning prickly. At first, Hasford was over awed by the director, and taken in by his notoriety. He compared Kubrick to Moses and spoke of himself as the burning bush. As for Kubrick, he was already renown for the cavalier manner in which he treated writers, whether Jim Thompson, Calder Willingham or Terry Southern. He would court them, dangle substantial amounts of money before them, squeeze them for what he could get, before throwing them away. If the writer was lucky, they received an “additional dialogue” credit, but, more often than not, they failed to get any credit at all. This is no doubt how he envisioned treating Hasford, who, as no one’s idiot, quickly realised what was happening. Fortunately, Hasford was obsessive enough to fight Kubrick every inch of the way. This dynamic first surfaced when Hasford saw that Kubrick had a different conception of the book’s narrative. While the director wanted a satisfactory ending, i.e., something that wouldn’t be too upsetting for audiences, Hasford was forced to point out that the war did not end all that satisfactorily, so anything else would be a lie. While Kubrick threatened to abandon the project, Hasford countered by refusing to sign his contract. He was adamant that, if this was his screenplay, he was going to receive credit for it. And, as long as he was on the project, the film would have to remain faithful to his book.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Thin Line Between Poetry and Pulp: David Goodis’s Short Stories

I've been reading Goodis for over forty years but have only come across a handful of his short stories. This even though a few years ago I did manage to get through a French collection, only to conclude that it was a poor substitute for the original. Now, thanks to Serpent’s Tail, a volume of Goodis’s short fiction, Black Friday and Selected Stories, is finally available. Whether it’s a representative collection, only someone familiar with a good deal of Goodis’s short fiction would be able to say. After all, using various noms des plumes, Goodis wrote hundreds of stories, ranging from the ridiculous- his aviation adventure stories- to the sublime.
This collection concentrates on a sixteen year period, beginning in 1942, the year Goodis arrived in Hollywood, and ending with those published in 1958, when Goodis’s most important work had seen the light of day. However, Goodis had been publishing short fiction as far back as 1935, some four years before his first novel, Retreat to Oblivion, would see the light of day. Moreover, all the stories in this collection fall under the category, quite intentionally, of crime fiction, which leaves aside all those adventure stories written by Goodis over the years. Understandably, the stories collected here vary; but, saying that, one need consider the periodicals in which they appeared- Ten Story Mystery Magazine, New Detective, Manhunt, with only “The Road to Tarim,” published in Colliers, aimed at a more up-market readership. Likewise, the majority of these stories appeared while, or after, Goodis was a Hollywood screenwriter or back in Philadelphia carving out a career as a writer of paperback originals.
One suspects that it wasn’t simply for monetary gain that prompted Goodis to continue contributing to the pulps through the 1950s, but because he was also interested in maintaining his persona as a writer of pulp fiction, and the romantic image he held regarding that role. Embracing that guise, rather than aspiring to a more high-brow literary tradition, is, in part, what makes Goodis’s writing interesting and allows his writing to cut so close to the bone, create a grand gesture genre that skirts the boundaries of cliché, and openly celebrates marginality, obsession and human frailty. It’s what makes him unique and, ultimately, a model for the likes of Charyn, Pelecanos (who once told me one of his ambitions was to remake The Burglar) and Sallis. But, of course, these modernists are unable to write from the same perspective as Goodis, much less recapture the urban anxieties of the era. Not only have the night clubs, boxing arenas, strip joints and city spaces where those on the margins once congregated, disappeared, replaced by car parks, office buildings and strip malls, but so has a particular way of writing about the those places and people.
Of the the twelve stories here, five are extremely good, while the others are never less than interesting. One, “The Professional Man” (which Steven Soderbergh adapted in the Fallen Angels TV series), might be as good as anything Goodis ever wrote, while “Never Too Old to Burn” (1949), “Blue Sweetheart” (1953), “Black Pudding” (1953), “The Plunge” (1958), concerning desperation and revenge, are not far behind. All five stories were published, if not written, while Goodis was living in Philadelphia, long after his divorce from Elaine Astor, and his disillusionment with Hollywood. In fact, in “Blue Sweetheart,” published in 1953, the period the protagonist has spent in San Quentin corresponds to the time Goodis spent in Hollywood. Moreover, it’s only after his divorce and escape from Hollywood that Goodis’s writing was to reach its fruition, attaining the level of cynicism, obsessiveness and fatalism that we associate with the writer.
These later stories are also the most poetic in the collection. In fact, Goodis is often described as a poet of the gutter or the poet of noir. But do such terms carry any meaning or are they usually deployed for effect? Is poet, in this case, simply a synonym for Goodis’s underlying romanticism? Certainly if poetry is language at its most intense, condensed, rhythmic and meaningful, and the short story is the most condensed form of fiction, then it should follow that the best of Goodis’s short stories should be his most poetic.
Sure enough, “The Professional Man” reads like a prose poem:
“Freddy pressed the button. The blade flicked out. It
glimmered blue-white. He pushed the blade into the
handle and tried the button again. He went on trying
the button and watching the flash of the blade. It was
quiet in the room as the blade went in and out, in and
out. Then from the street there was the sound of a
horn. Herman said, ‘That’s the taxi.’ ...As he moved
towards the girls who stood at the cocktail bar, he could
feel the weight of the knife in the inner pocket of his
jacket. He was looking at Pearl and saying, ‘Come on, let’s
go,’ and as he said it, the blade seemed to come out of
the knife and slice into his own flesh.”
Appearing in Manhunt in 1953, the year in which Moon in the Gutter and The Burglar were published, “The Professional Man” is told in an exacting, hallucinatory style, moving as if time was about to stand still. It concerns Freddy, a seemingly mild-mannered elevator operator who moonlights as a tough as nails hitman for a local club owner. The story takes the same line as Richard Stark’s Point Plank. Namely, if organised crime functions as any legitimate business, then its workers will be similarly alienated. But whereas Stark’s Parker wreaks havoc on the world, Freddy destroys himself and those close to him.
What Goodis’s work, as well as that of other pulp noirists, such as Paul Cain, McCoy and Thompson, illustrates is the connection between noir pulp fiction and poetry, for both begin at writing degree zero, creating tension and intensity by condensing the language. While “The Professional Man” has reminds one of Fearing’s narrative poetry (translating into The Big Clock), even the earliest story here, the 1942 “The Dead Last Laugh” contains echoes of the short Kenneth Patchen poem, “State of the Nation.” Whether a poet or someone who merely writes poetically, Goodis was an unrepentant romantic, who was able to convey the poetics of marginality. With only a thin line separating poetry and pulp fiction, Goodis, at his best, was able to move from one to the other with ease. Clearly, this is a subject that merits further investigation.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Loretta Napoleoni’s Terror Inc- Tracing the Money Behind Global Terrorism was every bit as good as I thought it would be. My only problem with it is her rather freewheeling use of sources that derive from newspaper articles. Call me cynical, but I find it difficult to totally trust articles without knowing more about the background of the journalists who wrote them. Particularly when you think that some might have been written in the heat of the post 9-11 moment. So there were instances when I wondered about the accuracy of her information, or the bias of those supplying the information. Though I was also willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. As one would expect, Terror Inc paints a depressing picture of the world as it exists today, just how endemic terror is, and how intertwined it is with free market capitalism. It also makes clear the extent of the legal- honey, property, acacia gum, the stock market, etc- illegal- drugs, arms, smuggling, money laundering, etc.- and semi-legal sources of Bin Laden’s money and financing of al Qaeda. Of course, Bin Laden is not the only player here. After all, as Napoleoni points out, terror is a $5 trillion a year industry. Reading her book makes one think that Marxists might well be right about capitalism carrying the seed of its own demise. With its creation of shell-states and using the deregulation of capital to their advantage, the terror network, which, like corporate capitalism, overlaps with organised crime, is comprised of some very smart people who seem capable of using and running rings around the moronic ideologues (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) who, for the most part, run America. Talk about noir. There are scores of plots to novels in this book.

By the way, what Petit’s The Passenger is not about is the official version of the Lockerbie disaster. His view is more or less corroborated in Napoleoni’s book. So why was Libya willing to take the fall? To come out of the international cold, helped not only by the compensation they supplied but by the post 9-11 information they gave to the West. I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for anyone but, in answer to a couple enquiries, what’s most important in understanding The Passenger is realise that it takes place within the forty-five seconds it took for the plane fall the sky and hit the ground.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Reading James Sallis's recent novel Drive, prompted me to post the following review of his previous novel Cypress Grove which, for some reason, never appeared in the magazine for which it was intended.

Exit Lew Griffin, and the cross-cultural transgressions, dark rainy New Orleans nights and trickster-like narratives one associates with that particular protagonist. Enter Turner, a Vietnam vet and ex-Memphis cop, who, while in prison for killing his partner, obtains a degree in psychology, and, on the outside, does a short stretch as a practising therapist. Having seen the worst in people, this jack-of-all hardboiled trades finds himself at the end of the road, metaphorically as well as geographically. It’s only when the sheriff of a nearby small southern town seeks his assistance regarding a murder, that Turner begins to rejoin the world and, in doing so, finds a Capra-like redemption. In other words, as we’ve come to expect from Sallis, it’s a case of investigator, investigate thyself.

Cypress Grove is only slightly less dark and brooding than the Lew Griffin novels, and no less engrossing. As with the Griffin books, it’s the setting, as much as the main character, that creates the tone and pushes the narrative. And it’s the town, rather than Turner’s bucolic refuge, that is the more idealised. Though the sign on its outskirts says “Pop. 1280,” Turner hasn’t wandered into Jim Thompson territory, nor is the sheriff a conniving sociopath, but a compassionate soul all-too-willing to admit that he’s inexperienced when it comes to homicide. Not only are murders a rarity here, but perpetrators are considered neither evil, nor contorted by social conditions, but simply unfortunate victims of circumstance who’ve unknowingly stepped over the edge.

So idealised and engrained in popular culture is this town that it might be a parallel universe, the kind one finds in a Jonathan Carroll novel, in which something is slightly out of kilter. Maybe it’s because this town seems untouched by the Bush’s, Cheney’s and Enron’s of the world. Neither is there a corrupt official is sight, much less any sign of the Klan. Other than the murder, and a bad tempered waitress who comes out of countless films, from Five Easy Pieces to Reservoir Dogs, the most serious crime occurs when a woman half-heartedly wounds her wayward husband. As for Turner, he’s something of an alien invader, arriving to find this world not only recognisable, but more agreeable than he could have imagined. That being the case, the narrative, gliding between past and present, has a dream-like quality, like those B movies about invasions from outer space, prison breakouts and small town paranoia that threaten to subvert one’s expectations, if not the culture, and which Turner stumbles across as he progresses in his investigation. At the same time, who would not want to believe that redemption is possible or that there exists outside mainstream America a town that a stranger can wander into and immediately be accepted? Or is this town just a product of the narrator’s imagination, and the narrative one of those utopian novels written in a time of strife?

Though this seems to be Sallis preparing to move into new territory, one finds the author’s usual array of discrepancies and diversions. In fact, I was, at times, so engrossed in Turner’s observations- “Coffee burps and burbles in the maker, aroma spreading insidiously through the room like an oil spill. I’m fascinated by the fact that the door to the sheriff’s office is locked. One of those weird things in life that seems to be the setup for a punch line you never quite get to.”- and music references that I occasionally lost the thread of a not very complicated plot. But then, when it comes to a Sallis novel, that comes with the territory. Yet the plot gains momentum, taking several turns as Turner is himself turned by it. “[We] want to believe...” says Turner, “that our actions come from elevated motives. From principles. When in truth they only derive from what our characters, what our personal and collective histories, dictate. We’re ridden by those histories, the same way voodoo spirits inhabit living bodies, which they call horses.” Turner might as well have been talking about the writing process. That we are the product of our history is as true for Turner as it is for Sallis or his readers.

Friday, July 21, 2006

From The Passenger to Terror Inc.
Recently finished Chris Petit’s excellent novel about the Lockerbie air crash, entitled The Passenger. I’ve long meant to read Petit’s fiction. I’ve long enjoyed his reviews in the Guardian, and his films, including the footage he shot of Ed Dorn which I’ve been wanting to get a look at for some time now. But if you want any answers about Lockerbie from The Passenger, you jdon’t exactly get them. But, then, why should you? After all, it’s the New World Order, which means that official versions are, by definition, wrong. But Petit raises some interesting questions, while creating a labyrinth of possibilities, none of them, I’m glad to say, linked to the official version. Like the event and its unending aftermath- 9-11, the war on terror, etc.- the novel is a dream from which only Petit’s protagonist has awakened. What bothers me is that, while Bush always reminds me of the evil antagonist from one of Madeline L’Engle’s early children’s novels, to over metaphorise him or the situation is to evade the issues. Interestingly, at the end of the book, Petit cites, in the Acknowledgements, Loretta Napoleoni’s book about the economics of terrorism, “Terror Inc.” (Penguin, UK). For some reason, it was a title that had escaped my noticed, so I decided to track it down, and, in doing so, discovered an interview by Andrew Lawless from 2004. According to Napoleoni, the concentration on Al-Qaeda as strictly a fundamentalist organisation is missing the point. They have proven very sophisticated in the way they have been able to manipulate US markets, making a nice sum of money on futures in the wake of 9-11, and, so inextricably linked to US markets are such organisations, that if Bushocrats ever did succeed in their war on terrorism- which they clearly won’t, nor have much intention of doing- the US economy would face collapse. Expecting the book any day now. More on the subject at some point in the near future.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

If You Can’t Beat Them, Cheat Them

“There’s something rotten in Mexico. And it smells like Florida.” So begins Greg Palast’s article, "Mexico and Florida Have More In Common Than Heat" in today’s Guardian. He reports that that the same company, ChoicePoint, responsible for removing African-American voters names in Florida 2000, which of course led to Bush's capture of the White House, created a similar list in Mexico, quite likely at the behest of the Bush administration. Palast reports that he has been able to get hold of a memo from the FBI regarding a contract for “intelligence collection of foreign counter-terrorism investigations” which relates to obtaining voter files in Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico. As Obrador has claimed, there was something suspect about the Mexican elections, where, in poorer neighbourhoods, names disappeared from voter rolls, blank ballots mysteriously appeared, and there was an excessive amount of “negative drop-off,” meaning that, in a number of districts, more votes for lower offices than for president. Enough at any rate to merit a vote by vote recount. One wonders if this is the new style of American interventionism at home and abroad? If you can’t beat them, cheat them.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Invade and Divide
Has anyone pointed out that Israel’s invasion of Gaza could have less to do with the kidnapping of an Isreali soldier than with the agreement reached by Hamas and Fatah regarding the new administration, their statement shared aims and their tentative steps towards recognising Israel? In other words, the invasion could be seen as another example of invade and divide.

Friday, June 16, 2006

On Poetry, Poets and Politics: an interview (conducted by actor-poet Bradley Porter)

BP: You published a book of poems, The Cartographers, back in the 1970s, but haven’t published any other poetry since. Why is that?
WH: The Cartographers was the culmination, rather than the beginning, of a particular project. I think I must have just decided that the world wasn’t in any great need of yet another poet. There were too many out there, and the form had hit an inflationary period. Then there was the fact that I was no longer interested in poetry as a public presentation. But I was still writing poetry in the 1980s and part of the 1990s, though I wasn’t not trying to publish any of it. Of course, I still continue to read poetry and I still have an interest in it. I recently heard an interview with the late great Gilbert Sorrentino, in which he said fiction writing is the last of the great vocations. But I would think that would go even more so for poetry. It’s really about obsession, as is all writing. Or, for that matter, all vocations. And I guess I just lost that obsessiveness. Or, to put it more exactly, my writing obsessions were to move elsewhere.

BP: To where?
WH: To writing about writing, specifically that intersection between reading and writing. Then in the late 1970s I began to get into hardboiled fiction from the 1940s and 1950s, and into politics and, of course, music.

BP: Where does your interest in hardboiled fiction come from?
WH: I’ve often wondered about that. Living in San Francisco, I became fascinated with the life and work of Dashiell Hammett. Then, of course, there was my father, who was a news photographer in Chicago, during and after the Capone era, who told me stories about various gangsters that he knew and photographed. Anyway, I became interested in the form and the narrative process of hardboiled fiction. And also the idea of the writer as a literary worker, who churns out books, some of which don’t quite make, but some of which are even better than the restrictions should allow.

BP: What poets do you read this days?
WH: I’m not as widely read as I once was, or as I would like to be. There certainly aren’t all that many poets I read with the diligence they deserve. So I guess I read the same poets I’ve always read. That’s a bit sad, I guess, or an indictment of how behind the times I am, but it’s nevertheless a fact. On the other hand, what newer poetry I do come across is so much the same that I lose interest in it quite quickly. A lot of it is interestingly stated, but, in the end, sounds as though it comes out of some creative writing department. Not that there is anything wrong with creative writing departments, it’s just that it makes everyone different in the same kind of way. There are, of course, exceptions. But if you go back to the 1950s and 1960s poetry was anything but institutionalised.

BP: And the poets...?
WH: Well, I’ve always been an avid reader of anything by Ed Dorn. Of course, that’s been the case for the last few decades. I’ll also read anything by Raworth or Prynne. Above all, what I appreciate about Dorn is his intelligence, his perception and his wit. And, of course, that iconoclast perspective. He can be hard as nails at one moment, yet lyrical at another. Moreover, he is also very funny. I like Prynne for his linguistic density and I guess I’d call it his scientific lyricism. Raworth for his sheet of nuanced sound that only he is able to produce. I still read the likes of Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer. I read O’Hara for his wit and conversational approach to the poem, and Spicer for his total immersion in the poem and the way he is able to create a poetic language based on units of speech. Or, as someone once said, language as image. And of course Olson’s human universe continues to intrigue me. Especially, the way he intertwines poetry and politics, from the local to the global. When I met him in the late 1960s, he was still talking about Henry Wallace and the 1948 Democratic Convention. To me, Olson is the foundation on which so much post-Pound poetry rests. Then there any number of others: Pavese, Celan, Cendrars, Kavanagh, Whalen, Berrigan, Blackburn, Oppenheim, Stuart Perkoff, even Richard Hugo, if only because he, like Spicer, once wrote a detective novel. Which brings to another crime writer and my favourite old school poet, Kenneth Fearing. I love the way he deals with narrative and his ability to use his noir perspective in the poem.

BP: Anyone more recent?
WH: I guess discovering Rae Armatrout was something of a revelation. Just at a time when I didn’t think I would ever come across another poet who would as much as those I’ve just cited. Armatrout seems to have that sense of paradox and discrepancy that Dorn has, as well as a very sophisticated line and sense of humour. There are no doubt others who I’ve missed out on or dismissed out of ignorance.

BP: So you’re interested in the politics of the poetry as well as its form?
WH: You can’t really separate the two. But what I’m looking for in poetry is that sense of paradox, discrepancy, politics, and perception, all wrapped within a political take, regarding the poem, the relationship between form and content, and, of course, the world.

BP: It sounds like you should be into LANGUAGE poetry.
WH: What was that old Goldwater line, extremism in the pursuit virtue is no vice. It’s not like I have anything LANGUAGE poets as such. What they did, and still are doing, is interesting, but it can only be interesting as far as the poem itself. The trouble is, for me, some of it isn’t all that readable. Though that might be because, though it appears as form best suited on the page, it might well be better suited as a public performance. I’m fine with the the politics and theory of it. In fact, I think in the end I’m more interested in the politics and poetics of it than in the poetry itself. So I like some of their essays better than many of their poems, though of course I’m probably wrong to separate the two. But if poetry is meant to be heard rather than read, it raises some interesting questions. Such as access. And voice. However, the likes of Clark Coolidge or Tom Raworth are better appreciated when heard. It’s only after hearing them that you can understand their work on the page. On the other hand, one wants to be able to take time over a poem. I guess, ideally one wants both worlds, and each gives a different take on things. I remember the first time I heard Olson read. It was amazing, because, however the poem looked on the page, here was poetry written in natural speech. I don’t think I’d ever heard that before. But it also put me in a quandary about hearing poetry as opposed to reading it. There is something public performance that, for me, is suspect, just as there is about the poet as some kind of unauthorised authority. Maybe it’s just that I prefer, to misuse Manny Farber’s term, termite poetry to elephant poetry.

BP: Meaning what exactly?
WH: Meaning I prefer the work of someone who is diligent, gnawing away at the system or the genre, than someone who declaims his or her genius, or writes in capital letters, if you know what I mean. Zukofsky would be a termite poet as opposed to Ginsberg who, as good as he may have been, was anything but. Though Howl clearly shows termite tendencies.

BP: Have you come across any poets who deserve greater recognition?
WH: What poet does not deserve greater recognition? At the same, I’m not comfortable with this thing about poets being the antenna of their culture, or whatever it was that Pound said. Poets perform a function, but no more so than a good plumber or carpenter. That’s not to denigrate poetry, but to merely put it in some kind of perspective. One can appreciate a good table just like one can a good poem. I think the book that most moved me over the past few years was the collected poetry of Stuart Perkoff. It wasn’t that it was the greatest poetry ever written, but what impressed me was the soulfulness and the commitment. Which is why I also was taken by the work of Richard Hugo, or, for that matter, George Stanley, who has been churning out incredible stuff for the past fifty years.

BP: So is there a specific relationship between your writing on noir film and fiction, your politics and poetry?
WH: I hope so. I like narrative, especially if it’s shaped in a certain way. I think a lot of it has to with formal concerns, how ideas are made, and how one can formulate a decent critique of the culture. In fact, I’ve never really given it a lot of thought. Maybe that’s intentional. Poetry, like noir film and fiction, can be used to subvert the culture, but it can’t be done in a frivolous way. The culture puts up all sorts of caution signs- one can’t do this or that, or one must travel certain speed, write in a certain prosody, or publish two novels a year. It’s all detrimental, yet it’s from within those restrictions, as abhorrent as some might be, that interesting things emerge. To formulate a cogent critique means working within the crevices. Politics in and of itself don’t really count for much. Nor does a novel that is simply about serial killers. But it’s workmanship that counts. The termite eating into the wood. Or that obsession that I spoke of earlier.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Even for those, myself included, who believe there is no better writer of contemporary writer of crime fiction than Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone exceeds expectations. From the very first sentence- “Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat.”- you know you’re in for something special. With a poetic and hard-edged prose style, Woodrell’s narratives are the stuff from which nightmares are made. Perhaps the quality of the writing derives from the fact Woodrell has only published seven novels over the last twenty years, resulting in writing that remains fresh and interesting, both for reader as well as writer. Certainly his work has grown in stature as it becomes increasingly locked into the intricacies of Ozark culture. Even better than the excellent Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister, and just as unrelenting as Woe to Live On, Winter’s Bone follows Ree, who, at sixteen, must look after her two younger brothers and a demented mother. During a snowbound winter, Ree’s father, a local crank manufacturer, is arrested, and puts up the family home for bail. Failure to appear in court means the family will become homeless. Ree’s search for her father sets off a local feud in a place where practically everyone is related; violence, paranoia and secrecy are rife; and practically everyone exists outside the law. Ree turns out to be one of the toughest and most unrelenting sixteen year olds one is likely to come across. With its narrative moving, like a winter storm, from dark to darker, Winter’s Bone is the best crime novel I’ve read for ages, and comes at a when when I was beginning to lose faith in the genre. My only reservation is that, at the end, there is a suggestion that there will be future novels featuring Ree. Though I would have preferred Winter’s Bone as a stand alone, if they are as good as this, I’m not going to complain.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Highly recommended: Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s current Rolling Stone article, “Was the 2004 Election Stolen?”


Just as many of us have been saying for the last eighteen months, the 2004 election was stolen. Furthermore, it was orchestrated to such an extent that it makes Florida 2000 look like an amateur operation. In other words, what was probably a contingency plan in 2000 turned into an election strategy in 2004. One only hopes the Republicans lose both houses in the November mid-term elections so that the culprits can be put behind bars. Though of course that is a bit much to ask. Particularly given that most Democrat politicians are too worried about their own images and political funding to do anything about it. Nevertheless, read this, because Kennedy puts all together, with sources, charts and enough information to convince even the most sceptical.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Martin Scorsese calls Val Lewton’s noir horror films, like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, “beautifully poetic and deeply unsettling...some of the greatest treasures we have.” But Lewton also wrote novels. Published in 1932 by Vanguard Press, reprinted in 1950, and back in circulation thanks to Scottish publishers, Kingly Reprieve, No Bed of Her Own is the best of his nine novels, and served as his Hollywood calling card. According to Russian-born Lewton, “When RKO was looking for producers, someone told them I had written horrible novels. They misunderstood the word ‘horrible’ for ‘horror’ and I got the job.” Of course, Lewton’s novel is very good. A dark tale, it follows Rose Mahoney as she descends the ladder of degradation, ending up on the mean streets of Manhattan, doing whatever it takes to survive, including prostitution. This story of greed and desire might have been adapted for the screen if not for the Production Code. Snapping the rights without reading the novel, Paramount saw it as a vehicle for their star Miriam Hopkins. They quickly realised the book was unfilmable, and turned it into a gambling story, entitled No Man of Her Own, starring Gable and Carole Lombard. Like his films, Lewton’s novels were knocked off quickly, some within forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, No Bed of Her Own would suggest themes Lewton later explored in his films, such as, how life can suddenly throw a person into worlds they never expected to inhabit. This is as much a Depression classic as Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. Get it while you can.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Rian Johnson’s Brick utilises a variety of noir templates: the femme fatale and protagonist from a film like Out of the Past, the investigating cop and strongman from Farewell, My Lovely, the claustrophobia of The Big Clock, the geographical exactness of The Maltese Falcon, and the convoluted plot like that found in The Big Sleep. Aware of of its antecedents, Brick avoids descending into pastiche, preferring to update the genre unlike any recent film. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising how well the noir view of the world can be inserted into the context of a southern California high school. But high school is probably the last stronghold of the noir ethic. It’s where the various qualities of noir exist side by side: a self-enclosed world, replete with femmes fatales, paranoia, an alienated population and a healthy dose of anti-authoritarianism. At their best, high school films have always been critical of the culture, while depicting teenagers as existing on the knife edge of a consumer society. But this is less like a John Hughes film, or, for that matter, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than something like Blood Simple. Indeed, the Coen brothers might well have directed Brick. For Johnson’s narrative contains a dark humour, as well as a great hook and a straight ahead, if complicated, story line. What’s more, it puts a new spin on the language one associates with film noir. But unlike Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Brick’s dialogue refers to past film noir, deploying such words as "kaplooey', "bulls", "yegs", "burg", and "take a powder." The audience I saw it with was, on average, in their early twenties. I doubt few, if any, had seen Kiss Me Deadly or even The Big Sleep, yet they were engrossed in the story, and understood the film’s ambience and humour; for example the scene with Brendan and the vice principal, a stand-in for the ubiquitous chief of police or investigating officer of past film noir. With Lukas Haas (the kid in Witness) as a post-teenage Sidney Greenstreet, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from Third Rock From the Sun) in the role normally associated with the likes of Bogart or Mitchum, Brick is a middle class affair, with, one suspects, Columbine only a bitch slap away. In the end I’m not sure how good Brick really is, but it kept me entertained, and, just when I thought the genre might have become redundant, made me think about how film noir might be reinvigorated. For once again film noir has reinvented itself, while retaining its usual subject matter- sex, greed, loss of innocence, violence, paranoia- and suspects- femme fatale, vulnerable male victim, an investigator burdened with his own code of honour. Eschewing the shadows and lighting associated with noir, Brick concentrates on lingering shots of playing fields, the ocean, long stretches of suburban highways, used to great effect. Still, the elements of film noir remain- its cynicism, distrust of authority, and issues of race, gender and politics.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Since I'm often asked about my favourite crime movies, here is a list of my top twenty:

- Hell’s Highway. 1932. Directed by Rowland Brown, An exposé of convict camps that preempted I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Brown made only two other films, Quick Millions (1931) and Blood Money (1933). Hailed as a true original, his demise was hastened by his politics (leftwing) and stormy relationships with producers (he punched a studio executive on the set of Quick Millions). Brown was set to direct and adapt Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us. He’d bought the rights for a mere $500 for the rights, and had written the screenplay, the film, just prior to going into production, was cancelled by RKO. Brown’s career would be briefly resuscitated by tabloid director Phil Karlson who hired him to write Kansas City Confidential. Nevertheless, Hell’s Highway remains a rarely seen classic, which, along with his two other films and the likes of Wellman’s Wild Boy’s of the Road, effectively captured the era.

- Detour. 1945. Directed by Edgar Ulmer. The king of the B’s, Ulmer shot the film in six days at the poverty row studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), and edited it in three and a half days. The film looks like a series of black and white Edward Hopper paintings. Ulmer also made films in Ukrainian and Hebrew, and was a protege of F.W. Murnau. Tom Neal is perfectly cast as a dumb East coast musician whose girlfriend leaves to become a Hollywood star. When she phones to say she’s only managed to become a waitress, he takes to the road in pursuit of her. He gets a ride with a man who tells him that a female hitch-hiker has recently attacked him. Finding that the driver has suddenly died, Neal, thinking the police will never believe his story, hides the body and takes the car. He picks up the woman, played by Ann Savage, not realising it’s the very same that the driver had spoken about. She doesn’t believe his story, but says she’ll stay silent if he does as she says. He finds that his girlfriend is a waitress. The murder by telephone cord- murder by long-distance- is inspired. Ulmer was the model for the director in Theodore Rozak’s novel Flickers.

- The Gangster. 1947. Directed by Gordon Wiles. Produced by the King Brothers, the most industrious of poverty row studios (Southside 1-1000, Suspense, When Strangers Meet, The Gangster). The Gangster is poetic, if self-conscious film noir with a script by the precocious Daniel Fuchs. Based on the latter’s novel, Low Company, about Jewish life in Brooklyn, it stars Barry Sullivan as the gangster, Shubunka. Also featuring a host of other well know actors- Akim Tamiroff to Henry Morgan, Charles McGraw, Sheldon Leonard and John Ireland- this is a rare slice of immigrant working-class life. Its poetic style- Fuchs might be likened to a 1940s Jerome Charyn- might be overly theatrical (aided perhaps by Dalton Trumbo’s uncredited contribution), but it somehow works. Unlike any other gangster movie. Turning on a single event, the fall of Shubunka is inevitable and painful to behold.

- The Killers. 1946. Directed by Robert Siodmak and produced by Mark Hellinger, who, prior to his early death, was also responsible for Brute Force, High Sierra and The Naked City. The Killers stars Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and Edmund O’Brien. It takes Siodmak a mere fifteen minutes to get rid of the Hemingway story which then turns into the back story of the film. Enter O’Brien, from which point the noir complications begin. Lancaster plays the ignorant Swede, his first and, until Atlantic City, perhaps his best role. Siodmak, along with his brother, Curt, came from Germany and his expressionistic style, aided by Woody Bredell’s cinematography (responsible for the camerawork on Lady on a Train and Phantom Lady) is a perfect illustration of how film noir was often filtered through a European sensibility. The use of separate flashbacks and overlapping time recalls Citizen Kane. Eighteen years later Don Siegel would remake the film- it would be Ronald Reagan’s last celluloid appearance- shifting the emphasis from the femme fatale to discovering why the victim faced his death with such resignation.

- The Devil Thumbs a Ride. 1947. Directed by Felix Feist at RKO. Starring Lawrence Tierney and Ted North. Based on a novel by Robert C. DuSoe. One of only two decent movies made by Feist. Lawrence Tierney (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, Dillinger, Reservoir Dogs) at his most maniacal. After robbing a theatre and murdering its manager, he cadges a lift with Ted North. At a gas station, they pick up two women- an innocent one and a typical film noir bad girl. After running into a roadblock, Tierney runs down a cop as he’s putting on his sun glasses (it’s the middle of the night, but one assumes a highway cop must always wear sun glasses). Tierney ends up dragging the happily married middle class North down into his own personal hell. When the cops come to get Tierney, he steals North’s wallet and i.d., and, with the bad girl, almost gets away. At just over an hour long, Feist’s film is scarier than Lupino’s Hitch-Hiker, and more warped but less artificial than Gun Crazy.

- Force of Evil. 1948. Directed by Abraham Polansky. Starring John Garfield and Thomas Gomez. The soon to be blacklisted Polansky adapted this classic from Ira Wolpert’s novel Tucker’s People. About brotherly love/hate, and the forces that create corruption. While most examples of film noir might sound like they were written in blank verse, this one was actually was. A socially conscious indictment of organised crime, in which Polansky’s politics fit Garfield’s visage perfectly. Semi-documentary in style (Polansky gave a book of Hopper’s Third Avenue Paintings to cinematographer George Barnes and said, “That’s what I want.”), Force of Evil views racketeering as capitalism in its purest form. Garfield plays a lawyer who insists that he’s working for organised crime because he wants to see the numbers racket turn into a legal state lottery. This, of course, would not only remove him from his job, but turn all concerned into legitimate criminals. It’s only after the death of his brother that the Garfield character becomes politicised. However, to get the film, with its radical message, past the censors, Polansky had to alter the story, making it clear that Garfield was on his way to the DA’s office, to offer his cooperation. Garfield, who had been responsible for hiring Polansky, hated the ending, but it has been interpreted by some as a sign of his own willingness to testify in front of the HUAC three years later.

-The Pitfall. 1948. Directed by Andre de Toth. Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr, Jane Wyatt. A portrait of the souring of the American Dream. Powell plays an insurance agent and perfect husband whose life hasn’t lived up to his expectations. When his firm hires investigator Raymond Burr- genuinely frightening in pre-Perry Mason mode- to investigate some stolen goods from a robbery that Powell’s company has paid out on, the items are traced back to Lizabeth Scott, a femme fatal who is about to turn Powell’s life every which way but loose. Exposing the contradictions in the ideals behind the utopian vision of middle class suburbia, The Pitfall is a precursor to films like The Big Heat, Bigger Than Life and No Down Payment. Surprisingly, deToth would only make one other film noir, Crime Wave (1954).

-They Live By Night. 1948. Directed by Nick Ray. Starring Cathy O’Connell and Farley Granger. Adapted from Edward Anderson’s evocative depression novel Thieves Like Us. Unlike the book, Ray’s film romanticises the era and the young couple, touchingly played by O’Connell and Granger. Ray sought to depoliticise the novel in order to convince studio head Howard Hughes, who had always hated the project, that the film was really a love story, and was therefore harmless. They Live By Night would never have been made had it not been for the intervention of John Houseman and then Dore Schary, who, still in his twenties, had had just been hired as head of production at RKO. Even after it was finished, the film would not be released for a number of months because the director and studio executives could not agree as to its title. In 1974 Robert Altman remade Ray’s film, reverting back to the novel in name and mood. Starring Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall, Thieves Like Us is a more realistic view of the era and the young couple. While neither film is entirely successful, Ray’s fairy-tale version, for me, remains the better of the two. Unfortunately, Anderson would make next to nothing from either version. Instead, he would grow increasingly eccentric, eking out a living working for various small-town Texas newspapers.

- Gun Crazy- 1950. Directed by Joseph A. Lewis for the King Brothers. Uncredited screenplay by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Young love, gangster style, Gun Crazy is a companion piece to They Live By Night, released a year earlier, Lang’s You Only Live Once and Bonnie and Clyde. Peggy Cummins and John Dall are perfect as the young couple who, through their love of guns, move from innocence to culpability. “We go together like gun and ammunition,” says Dall, whom Lewis chose because he was gay and so projected a certain amount of vulnerability. Unlike They Live By Night, there are no scenes of domesticity in this film. Here, as usual for Lewis, it’s about guns, sex and violence. The single-take bank robbery scene is a classic moment in film noir history. Gun Crazy was a big influence on French New Wave films, particularly Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Interesting that Gordon Wiles, who directed The Gangster three years earlier was demoted to mere production designer on Gun Crazy. The underrated 1992 remake, directed by Tamra Davis and starring Drew Barrymore and James LeGros is also well worth seeing.

- The Set Up- 1949. Directed by Robert Wise, with Robert Ryan as the washed-up boxer and existential hero, and Audrey Totter as his concerned but frustrated girlfriend. Percy Helton (from Kiss Me Deadly) plays Ryan’s ringside second. Adapted by Wise (who, eight years earlier, had edited Citizen Kane), with a script by Art Cohn from Joseph Moncure March’s epic narrative poem, The Set Up takes place in real time and entirely at night. The camera movement from hotel to boxing arena gives the film an enclosed feeling, from which there is no escape. This is a grim and gritty world, with the boxers as just so much meat. Having done some boxing in his pre-acting days, Ryan is convincing as the washed-up fighter. While Totter has always been underrated, despite some fine performances, not only here, but in Lady in the Lake, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tension and The High Wall.

- Thieves Highway. 1949. Directed by Jules Dassin. Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortesa and Lee J. Cobb. Adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from his novel, Thieves Market. About Salinas Valley truckers who drive to the Oakland/San Francisco market to sell their produce, only to be a caught in a series of bad deals and rip-offs. Bezzerides was dissatisfied with the changes made to his script (in the novel the father is dead, but Zanuck wanted to portray the father as a cripple) and casting (Bezzerides wanted Shelly Winters rather than Cortesa- apparently Dassin’s girlfriend- to play the whore). Still, it remains one of the best examples of proletariat film noir, and based on Bezzerides experiences in the trucking business.

-Tension. 1950. Directed by John Berry at MGM. Starring Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter and Cyd Charisse. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin (Dead Reckoning, The Strip). Like a number of other directors and writers of film noir, Berry would, a few years later, be blacklisted. Basehart plays a drug-store attendant whose life is nearly destroyed when his wife leaves him. Because he wants to kill his wife and her sleazy boyfriend, he decides to assume a new identity. Having become a different person, he falls in love with his new neighbour and photographer Cyd Charisse. He goes to the beach house of his wife’s lover only to find he has been killed by someone else. Basehart’s wife, played by Totter, is a classic femme fatale. The husband’s obsession over his wife’s infidelity pushes him over the edge, while the image of a taut rubber band represents the tension faced by just about everyone in the film.

- On Dangerous Ground. 1952. Directed by Nick Ray film. Screenplay by Bezzerides. Also produced by Houseman, who, along with Ray, botched-up the ending. Still, it remains a great film. Essentially, a movie of two halves, the first with Robert Ryan as a tough sadistic NY cop on the edge of a breakdown, who hates the world in which he lives and works, reacts violently in every situation, and is on the verge of meltdown. “Why do you punks make me do it,” he says before he beats up some secondrate crook in a seedy hotel. In the second half Ryan, having been sent up state to investigate a murder of a girl, meets the blind woman, Ida Lupino. He has to trudge through the snow-covered countryside in pursuit of Lupino’s young brother who has apparently killed the girl. The contrast between the urban landscape and the snow covered ground is a bit obvious, but it’s all well-acted, psychologically interesting, and beautifully photographed by the noir master George Diskant (Narrow Margin, Beware My Lovely, They Live By Night, Kansas City Confidential). With music by Hitchcock’s favourite Bernard Herrmann.

- The Big Heat. 1953. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. Arguably Lang’s most successful film noir. Based on William McGivern’s novel, the plot revolves around a cop, Dave Bannion, played by Ford, and the destruction of his cozy post-war middle class existence. After gangsters kill his wife, Ford sets out to bring the big heat down on organised crime and corrupt politicians. In pursuing his personal vendetta, he continues to jeopardise the lives of those close to him, including even that of his daughter. Notable for the moment when Lee Marvin throws scalding coffee in Grahame’s face, an action which draws her to Ford. When he meets her, Grahame- probably the only sympathetic person in the film- won’t show her face to Ford, who strikes back at Marvin, throwing scalding coffee in his face. Clearly, not even suburbia can protect us from crime and corruption.

- The Big Combo. 1955. Directed by Joseph Lewis for another poverty row studio, Security-Theodora. Starring Cornell Wilde, Jean Wallace, Brian Donleavy, Richard Conte and Lee Van Cleef. Another Lewis classic made on the cheap. But the beauty of the film is in the way it was shot. Script by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan (the man who, for a substantial sum, allowed his name to be used by blacklisted writers). The Big Combo has it all: gay henchmen, nymphomania, obsessional fetishes. But the real star of this film is cinematographer John Alton (T-Men, Border Incident, Slightly Scarlet). His camera and lighting techniques are enough to make this the quintessential film noir. Says Wilde upon hearing that Conte has been arrested a dozen times and always acquitted, “It’s unnatural to be so innocent.”

- Kiss Me Deadly. 1955. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Ralph Meeker. Script by A.I. Bezzerides. Fortunately, Alrdich’s film is vastly different from Spillane’s novel, thanks to Bezzerides’ script. Meeker’s Hammer appears to be a character who has just stepped out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. An automaton who drives an MG, has an apartment filled with gadgets, yet cannot deal with the world around him. Bezzerides and Aldrich set their film in LA rather than New York, and turn the MacGuffin into the great atomic “whatsit” rather drugs. One of Truffaut’s favourite films, one of his favourite directors and one of his favourite screenwriters.

- The Killing. 1956. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Script by Jim Thompson after Lionel White’s novel, Clean Slate. Starring Sterling Hayden, Vince Edwards, Colleen Gray, Jay C. Flippen, Elisha Cook Jr and the irrepressible Timothy Carey. Great performances in a well-constructed crime caper film. Despite all their planning, the robbery of the race track eventually falls to pieces. About the greed that accompanies quick wealth and warped relationships, The Killing bears similarities to Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Kubrick uses flashbacks to great effect, building the tension of the story as well as adding substance to the plot. Filled with memorable scenes, such as the first meeting of the various individuals, Cook’s domestic life, and, of course, the robbery, and Carey’s assassination of the race horse.

- Touch of Evil. 1958. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Akim Tamiroff. Heston, as Mexican cop on a honeymoon with his American wife, has never been better. The film becomes a battle of wits between Heston and Welles. The former trying to expose the latter (Welles should have played Thompson’s Lou Ford) as a corrupt cop, who wants Heston out of the way. The opening shot is magnificent, particularly with the original soundtrack in the recently re-edited format. Choreographed to perfection, with great camera angles and lighting. The eccentric Mercedes McCambridge is hilarious as a lesbian Mexican hoodlum whose gang, in the hotel room, comes down hard on the gringa Leigh, turning her on to some “mary jane.” The scenes featuring Dietrich and Welles are particularly memorable. As Dietrich says of Welles, “He was a bad cop, but he was some kind of man.”

-The Naked Kiss. 1964. Directed by Samuel Fuller. Starring Constance Towers. About a prostitute who tries to become a respectable citizen. She meets a wealthy and seemingly intelligent man to whom she relates her past. He asks her to marry him. But, just prior to their marriage, she sees him in the act of molesting a young girl. When he tells her they belong together because of their shared perversions, she kills him. The town turns against her, unable to believe that a respectable citizen could be a pervert. But she convinces a friend to find the young girl. Fuller doesn’t hold anything back in this film. If Shock Corridor portrayed post- war America as a mad house, The Naked Kiss, concentrating on prostitution, perversions and physical disabilities, takes an even bleaker and more nightmarish view of America. Told in a series of startling images all of which are filmed superbly by cameraman Stanley Cortez. Constance Towers, in the lead role, takes on all the attributes normally associated with male film noir leads. She’s tough, cynical, violent and unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth.

- Chinatown. 1974. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. Screenplay by Robert Towne. Exquisitely shot by John A. Alonzo. Cited by many as the film that kick-started the neo-noir era, and one of the few screenplays that can still be read like a novel. Set in 1937, in the midst of a long drought, water becomes the key to the film and to the history of L.A.. Like Karlson’s Phenix City Story or Hammett’s Red Harvest, Chinatown details a legacy of corruption. With Nicholson investigating a case involving the diversion of water to make land available for redevelopment, the title becomes a state of mind as much as a spiritual landscape, synonymous with whatever is hidden. Polanski and Towne disagreed over the ending. Towne wanted the Dunaway character to kill her father, a robber baron played by John Huston, and be whisked away to Mexico by Nicholson. Polanski opted for an even bleaker ending in which a handcuffed Nicholson watches helplessly as Dunaway is shot, and Huston comforts his granddaughter who, in fact, is his daughter.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sliding on the Strings

What is it about a lap acoustic guitars, whether it's a National, a Weissenborn, or just an old acoustic with raised strings? For me, the type of music doesn't matter all that much. It can be blues, Hawaiian, jazz or country music. Now it seems, with the release of Paris, Plages d'Hawaii 1930, I guess I'd also have to include French chansons. But then I'll listen to anything that entails an acoustic guitar sound played with a steel bar. Okay, so I admit, it’s a specialised taste. But there is also something universal about acoustic lap guitar and a slide that, when put together, evokes the human voice, as well as horns, whether saxophones, trumpets or trombones. It’s also a supremely melodic instrument, as opposed to a harmonically oriented nature of a standard six-string guitar. Though I’d played the standard guitar for years, I could never really get the sound I wanted from it. But from the moment I began playing my Weissenborn (made by Marc Silber in Berkeley CA), I knew that was the sound I'd been after. Within a couple years I'd traded my Gibson 335, which had been sitting in its case for years, for a square neck National Tricone.

I think my love of acoustic lap guitar began from the moment I heard, at age seventeen, Bernie Shields play acoustic lap guitar in the great but unsung Six and Seven Eighths String Band. A parlour group from New Orleans, it featured, as well as Shields, the great Dr Souchon on standard guitar and William Kleppinger on mandolin. Never heard of Six and Seven Eighths? That's hardly surprising. Though they'd been playing since sometime around 1915. However their only record that I know about was the 1956 Folkways release. Shields was unique in that he could make his lap guitar sound like any number of instruments. It could well be that R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Seranaders based themselves on Six and Seven Eighths. If not, they should have done so. You can still get a copy of the Six and Seven Eights record from Smithsonian-Folkways. Their version of Who’s Sorry Now sounds as good now as it did all those years ago.

Some years later, my interest in lap guitar was revived when I heard my old banjo teacher David Lindley play Weissenborn guitar on one of his records. These days I listen not only to Lindley, but phenomenal old Hawaiian players like King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, the Kalama Brothers, etc.. And, unlike many people, I prefer the National guitars to dobros, though there are moments when I wish I could produce the tight sound that you can only get from a dobro. Yet dobros don’t seem to have the flexibility of Nationals, nor the organic wood-based sound of Weissenborns. On the other hand, Jerry Douglas playing a Weissenborn is a joy to behold.

If I were to make a list of recommended lap guitar artists, it would include the following players:
King Bennie Nawahi
Black Ace
Casey Bill Weldon
Kelly Joe Phelps (the first three CDs)
Sol Hoopii
David Lindley
The Henrys
Kalama’s Quartet
Chris Darrow’s Slide on In

Hawaiians in Hollywood, Andy Iona, 1934-36
Vintage Hawaiian Stell Guitar Masters, 1928-34 (Rounder, put together by Bob Brozman)
Sliding on the Frets (Yazoo, put together by Robert Armstrong)
From Honolulu to Hollywood (Old Masters)
Hotter in Hawaii (a fantastic four CD set on JSP)
Paris, Plages d’Hawaii (Guitarres Hawaiiennes 1930, Paris Jazz Corner, compiled by Dominic Cravic and Cyril LeFebvre from R. Crumb’s Les Primitifs du Furtur a la Plage. An eye-opening and wide ranging collection)