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.