Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Charles Willeford's Library

Though Cockfighter, arguably his finest novel, was based on The Odyssey, Charles Willeford was primarily a reader of modern literature, whether pulp schlock or high art. At least that is the conclusion one arrives at after going through his reviews and essays. When, in an interview, Ed Gorman commented that Jim Thompson would rather read Jonathan Swift rather than mysteries, Willeford replied, “I read Swift in graduate school, so I don’t have to read him again, but I don’t confine my reading to mysteries. That would be too limiting... If you only read mysteries, you could easily become like the people who only watch “Donahue” on the tube and think that all the people in the U.S. are sexual deviates.”

As his Master’s Thesis, “New Forms of Ugly,” illustrates, Willeford not knew his modernism, but was aware of its philosophical implications. Amongst those he cites in his thesis are Dostoevsky, Bellow, Beckett, Kafka, Nathaniel West, Hesse, Joyce, Walker Percy, Robbe-Grillet, Himes, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, John Barth, Salinger, Thomas Wolfe, Waugh, Capote, Joseph Heller, Carson McCullers, Dalton Trumbo, Jim Tully, Camus, Michel Butor, Malcolm Lowry, Sherwood Anderson, Hamlin Garland, Erskine Caldwell, Pound, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Tom Kromer and Horace McCoy.

Willeford calls on these writers to illustrate what he terms “the immobilized hero.” Though others have pinpointed such a condition, Willeford at least coined an original term, while throwing a few names, either unfamiliar or under-appreciated into the cauldron of modernist practitioners. That Camus’s Sysiphus must forever push the rock up the hill, is one thing, but, for Willeford, the immobilized hero is content to do so. Beckett’s famous words, “I can’t go on, I won’t go on, I can’t go on, I will go on,” is not only a celebration of the human condition, but a statement regarding the writer in contemporary society, about which Willeford has few illusions: “[As] the electronic impact of immediate information forces literature of all kinds into microfilms where it can be stored and forgotten, the immobilised hero novel will gradually disappear.” Later he adds, “Instead of man reading about man writing about man writing, immobilized hero novel readers will be reduced to small groups of semi-literate men reading the immobilized hero novel as small groups of graduate students meet today to read Beowulf.”

No wonder Willeford opted for popular literature over literary experimentation and regular punters over high-brow readers. Nevertheless, writing, for Willeford, was not just a profession, but something akin to a subversive activity, what he called the Burnt Orange Heresy, a phrase that would later form the title of his excellent novel about art forgery. Back in the late 1960s, a couple years before completing his existential western, The Difference, Willeford, sounding like Marshall McLuhan trapped in a story by Jorge Luis Borges, wrote, “The only real difference between the rock-and-roll of The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and the rock-rolling of the Burnt Orange Heresy is the serial consistency and orderly arrangement of movable type rearranged by an unmoving writer for an immobilized and highly literate reader.” It can only occur in the hiatus that exists between experience and observation, which Willeford likened to the false calm created by playing a record containing three minutes of silence on a jukebox in a noisy bar.

Though those mentioned in “New Forms of Ugly” were important to Willeford, he relied on others when it came to the genre in which he made his living. For instance, in courses on the Mystery and Suspense Novel he taught in 1974, Willeford had students read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s Little Sister, Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dorothy Uhnak’s Policewoman, Mailer’s An American Dream, and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Lawrence Sanders’ The First Deadly Sin. While in a study guide for students, he also suggested students read Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and Dell Shannon’s novels about the LA Homicide Squad.

When asked what writers had influenced him, Willeford replied, “I have no idea. I read a lot of people- Jim Tully, Nathaniel West, Robert Tasker, Jack Black, Dreiser, John Sanford, Malcolm Braly. But I don’t write like them.” Nor did he write like those he’d read as a young man: Wolfe, Joyce, Kafka, Henry Miller (”responsible for the honesty of my writing”), Kafka and Hemingway. For Willeford was, in a sense, trying to create his own path between modernism and pulp fiction. Yet it would take him, by his own admission, some ten years before he could find a voice that would allow him to do so.

A particular favourite of Willeford’s was Chester Himes. Singling out The Primitive for praise, Willeford maintains that its author was too hard-boiled and uncompromising to be widely appreciated. It’s no coincidence that a volume of Willeford’s autobiography is entitled I Was Looking For a Street, the same title as the novel that Jesse Robinson in Chester Himes’s novel The Primitive is writing, and Jethro Adams in Himes The Lonely Crusade.

As for Hammett, Willeford wrote, “Every year, when I remember to do so, I reread...The Maltese Falcon. It reconfirms a lot of important things about American life: The business of America is business; romance is a worthwhile delusion; it’s hazardous to sleep with your partner’s wife; women who engage in serial relationships will lie to you when the truth would do them more good; existentialism is a practical philosophy for urban males to follow; and if a man develops a professional attitude towards his work, he will probably succeed where others fail.” Amongst other crimes writers mentioned by Willeford are Joseph Hansen, William McGivern (Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder: “masterpieces of the bent cop genre of tough detective fiction”), Frederic Brown (Night of the Jabberwock: “bizarre and classic mystery”), and Ross MacDonald (“a major American novelist”) adding that the latter “was not a stylist...but he wrote with a great depth of feeling, and his characterizations ring true.”

But it was Ross’s namesake, the prolific pulpist John D. MacDonald that Willeford named as “a spokesman for our times.” Not only a superb story-teller, but, according to Willeford, a social historian and moralist, who “speaks as well for and of the Sixties as Scott Fitzgerald did for the Twenties, Nathaniel West for the thirties, Raymond Chandler for the Forties, and Jack Kerouac for the Fifties.” MacDonald’s Travis McGee isn’t “trying to save America, he is trying to save himself.” Though acknowledging MacDonald’s deficiencies when it comes portraying female characters and the dynamics of sexual relationships, Willeford believes a novel like Cape Fear illustrates that “the veneer of our modern American civilization is as thin as the gold on a rented wedding ring.”

One senses that it was a particular perspective, defined during the Depression, as much as a hardboiled style, that attracted Willeford’s attention. While many today have assumed that style- perhaps under false pretences- its accompanying perspective, derived from proletariat fiction- has become diluted in the libertarian cynicism of past decades. Not surprisingly, some of the writers Willeford recalls have, by now, gone out of fashion or have been simply forgotten. As an insight into his literary world- one that is in danger of vanishing from public consciousness- it would be fitting to end this investigation by briefly mentioning some of the more obscure writers cited by Willeford.

-Jim Tully. Willeford discovered Tully in 1935, age 14, while searching through the L.A. public library stacks. He had planned to write a book on Tully, whom he considered one of the outstanding writers of the century, but other commitments prevented him from doing so. “Together with Dashiell Hammett,” wrote Willeford, “Tully was the founder of the hard-boiled school of writers in the U.S.” In Willeford’s estimation, Tully possessed “a finer intelligence than he was ever given credit for during his lifetime.” An ex-prize fighter, chain cutter and occasional jailbird, Tully wrote a number of books- Beggars of Life, The Circus Parade, Shanty Irish, Shadows of Men, Blood on the Moon (all out of print)- about hoboes, prize fighters, circus performers, and other outcasts. Later he would go to Hollywood where he became Chaplin’s press agent. While in Hollywood, Tully contributed “additional dialogue” to a handful of films, and ended up writing about Hollywood movie stars for mass circulation magazines. So widely read was Tully that he could make or break most Tinseltown careers. Championed by the likes of Mencken and Damon Runyon, Tully was, at least in his early work, a true proletariat writer. It was Tully’s perspective as well as his writing style that impressed Willeford, who maintained that, since Tully’s day, little had changed in America: rich men get parole, the poor go to prison and the military industrial complex is as powerful as ever.

-Robert Tasker. Knopf published his novel, Grimhaven, in 1927, which Willeford undoubtedly read (Grimhaven was also the name of one of Willeford’s unpublished novels). Tasker’s book concerns life in San Quentin where, in 1924, he was sentenced from five to life for robbing a dance hall in Oakland, California. After relieving patrons of their money- but telling the band, “Not you coloured folks. You’ve suffered enough”- the police found him on the stairs, smoking a cigarette, an unloaded gun at his side. In San Quentin, Tasker, who came from a wealthy family, encouraged fellow-prisoners to write (the warden would complain that so many inmates were submitting manuscripts to publishers that Quentin was in danger of turning into a literary agency), corresponded with Mencken, and wrote his novel. Upon his release, he travelled to Hollywood where he worked as a screenwriter and occasional actor. A condition of his parole was that he was not to write about prison life; consequently Frances Marion, with whom he was having an affair, received an Academy Award for The Big House, which was essentially Tasker’s script. Unable to publish his second novel, and having no desire to take part in WW2, he went to Mexico where he died under mysterious circumstances.

-Jack Black. Another immobilized heroes. You Can’t Win was published in 1926, and later lauded by not only Willeford but William Burroughs. Another gentleman of the road, Black wrote about America’s underbelly: small-time criminals, inhabitants of seedy rooming houses, pool halls, brothels, mining camps, opium dens, burglars and hobo jungles. A small-time criminal, burglar, safe-cracker and ex-con, Black writes about a time when there was apparently honour amongst thieves. Before settling down to a secure life in San Francisco, Black, like Tasker, served time as a Hollywood screenwriter. Unlike Grimhaven and Tully’s classic tales, Black’s novel remains easily available (Amok Press).

-John Sanford- Willeford doesn’t specify which Sanford books he read, but they would have included The Old Man’s Place (1935), Seventy Times Seven (1939), The People From Heaven (1943) and That Land That Touches Mine (1953). Born Julian Shapiro in Harlem in 1904, Sanford, a committed Marxist, was a lawyer by trade, and a friend of Nathaniel West’s. It was West who urged him to turn to fiction and to change his name. After the publication of The Old Man’s Place- written in the style of James M. Cain and W.R. Burnett- Sanford went to Hollywood where he wrote the occasional film script at Paramount and married screenwriter Marguerite Roberts (True Grit). He would be blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Rediscovered by Black Sparrow Press two decades later, his anti-racist People From Heaven- judged too leftwing by the Communist Party- would be reprinted in 1995 (University of Illinois).

-Malcolm Braly- His novels Shake Him Till He Rattles, It’s Cold Out There, The Protector, On the Yard and Felony Tank, were honest and evocative depictions of prison life. A burglar, armed robber and four-time loser who, between the ages of 18 and forty, spent most of his time in prison, Braly began writing fiction during his third stretch in San Quentin, and would write his first three novels while behind bars. Had they not been published by Gold Medal, Braly (1925-1980) might have been more widely acclaimed. Hailed by such diverse writers as Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald, On the Yard offended the California Adult Authority so that Braly had to wait until he was off parole in 1967 before it could be published.

-Hamlin Garland. An early American Realist. It’s Garland’s ground-breaking collection of short-stories, Main-Travelled Roads, published in 1891, to which Willeford refers. But Garland (1860-1940) wrote some 40 other books, including four volumes of autobiography, Middle Borders (1917). During his day, he was involved with various literary, social, and artistic movements, as well as a recipient of the Pulitzer prize. He campaigned for Native Americans,and was a proponent of impressionism in art, an unabashed advocate of literary and cultural elitism, and a dabbler in research on psychic phenomena. Thanks to University of Nebraska, Main-Travelled Roads, which explores the brutal reality of farm and rural life in the Midwest, remains in print.

-Erskine Caldwell. Once a best-selling author- those lurid Signet covers obviously contributed to his success- with novels like God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road Trouble in July, Caldwell (1903-1987) explored the brutality and tensions- racial, sexual and economic- of life in the American South. It’s a world of poor whites from the hills and backwoods of southern Georgia, where Caldwell was born. Willeford’s Cockfighter and The Black Mass of Brother Springer bear the Caldwell mark. After 1940 Caldwell was content to live on his laurels and spent his time touring rather than writing anything of importance. These days inhabitants of the New South might find Caldwell’s world- with elemental forces, buffoonery, desperation and hopelessness- somewhat offensive.

-Tom Kromer. Waiting for Nothing, published by Knopf in 1935, was Kromer’s only book. Born in 1906 in Huntington West Virginia, Kromer was another Mencken protege. Waiting For Nothing remains one of the great books to come out of the Depression. It was an era in which Kromer was an itinerant worker, scrambling for what crumbs he could find, and willing to try his hand at anything, from picking fruit to hustling homosexuals- a description of which would cause problems when it came to publishing his all-but-forgotten classic. Unlike Edward Anderson, Kromer’s hard-bitten view of the Depression was not something Hollywood could easily co-opt. Writing for a number of radical periodicals including the 1930s California socialist Pacific Weekly, Kromer contracted TB in 1935 and moved to New Mexico, where, having lost interest in writing, he taught in a school for Native Americans. When his wife died in 1960, Kromer, in poor health, suffered a nervous breakdown, and died nine years later, age sixty-two.

-Leonard Gardner. Not so much lost as missing in action, Gardner’s only novel, Fat City, is one of the great hardboiled boxing novels. Originally published in 1969, the novels takes place in and around Stockton, California, where Gardner was born and raised, and would be adapted, with a script by Gardner, for the screen by John Huston a couple years later. Other than this novel, Gardner has, to this day, published very little, though his stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire and Southwest Review. During the 1990s he contributed to a number of NYPD teleplays. Fat City, which takes place in gyms, seedy hotels and bars, prefigures the likes of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks.

-Arthur Crew Inman. Willeford called Inman’s Diary, published by Harvard University in 1985, a masterpiece. Subtitled A Public and Private Confession, it reads like H.P. Lovecraft crossed with Howard Hughes. At 1661 pages, it’s a extremely bulky but classic study of one man’s thoughts. Inman (1895-1963) was a would-be poet from a wealthy family who, after a mental breakdown in his early twenties, withdrew to his bed in a darkened room. At the time of his death, he had written some 17 million words and had filled 155 volumes. Amongst his entries were descriptions of contemporary Georgia and New England, as well as his own bigotries and fantasies. A mixture of social history and case study, Inman, who committed suicide in 1963, was a racist, inveterate lecher, and compulsive voyeur. A case of egoist-deviant as visionary chronicler of American culture.

-Don Robertson. “[Read] Dan Robertson’s Ideal Genuine Man, the best books I’ve read in years,” wrote Willeford. Reprinted by Stephen King’s Philtrum Press in 1988. Willeford must have liked Robertson’s characters- fat, troubled and ordinary. And that, in Robertson’s world, everyone, good or bad, suffers. Currently out of print, Robertson’s book is as vulgar as it is poignant. Having written two best-sellers- Praise the Human Season and Paradise Falls- Robertson is now all but forgotten. Said King, “[In] an age when New York publishers have become more and savagely focused on best-selling genre novels and highly praised ‘prestige’ novelists…guys like Robertson have become expendable.”

-Waldo Frank. Born in New Jersey, Frank (1889-1967) was very popular during the 1920s-30s when he personified the writer as rebel, hitting out at bourgeois puritanism and American capitalism. Educated at Yale, his radical socialist views appeared in such journals as The Liberator and New Masses. His novels, which advocated social and political reform were poetic, psychological, symbolic and, above all, critical of society. They included City Block (1922) Holiday (1923), Chalk Face (1924) and The Death and Birth of David Markand (1934). He also wrote about politics, like Our America (1919), Salvos (1924), The Rediscovery of America (1929), America Hispania (1931), In the American Jungle (1937), Birth of the World (1951) and The Prophetic Island: A Portrait of Cuba (1961). Once again, Willeford would have been attracted by Frank’s perspective and his analysis of society during the Depression.

-Dorothy Uhnak. Willeford was nothing if not democratic in his tastes. So long as a book was tough in perspective and written from experience. He would have been impressed that Uhnak, a retired NYC Transit Police Detective, sought in Policewoman to tell like it is, or, at any rate, like it was. In doing so, she preceded writers like Wambaugh and Petievitch. Moreover, she was probably the first female police officer to depict the travails of her profession, and would later win an Edgar for her NYPD novel The Bait which combines the police procedural with a multi-generational family saga. As her book illustrates, she experienced more types of harassment than even she was aware. Having grown tired of the discrimination, she quite in 1964 after 14 years on the job. Observant and angry, this is an interesting, if routinely written, portrayal of law enforcement during an era of repression and permissiveness.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Anthony Boucher

The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Vol. 1, Reviews and Commentary, 1942-1947, As Crime Goes By; Vol. 2, Reviews and Commentary, 1942-1947, The Week in Murder; Vol. 3 Reviews and Commentary, 1942-1948, A Bookman’s Buffet. Ed., Francis M. Nevins. 001086-001088. $19 each.

No wonder the Bouchercon is named after him. Anthony Boucher (1911-1968) was a prolific writer of classical detective novels and an early advocate of the genre whose reviews appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Herald Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. With catholoic tastes, he championed Jim Thompson and David Goodis, and found relevance in Gold Medal paperbacks as well as in traditional mysteries. These three volumes, edited by Francis Nevins, cover Boucher’s early Chronicle columns, and provide proof that Boucher’s pithy critiques invariably hit the nail on the head.

Despite his appreciation of hardboilers, Boucher despised Spillane- “so vicious a glorification of force, cruelty and extra-legal measures that the novel might be made required reading in a Gestapo training school.” This was someone who could be eloquent (“Hughes’s novels, like olives and the Marx Brothers, are never simply tolerated.”), poetic (“Even if Woolrich has never written a tenser, more jolting, novel; if you’re heart goes no further than your throat, you’re lucky.”) and all-encompassing (“[Goodis] has an originality of naturalism, as precise feeling for petty lives, a creatively compelling vividness of detail that you might perhaps match if you could combine top Woolrich with early Odets.”), Hopefully Ramble House (www.ramblehouse.bigstep.com) will treat us to Boucher’s subsequent criticism.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Summer Reading

Twilight by William Gay
Provinces of Night by William Gay
Fay by Larry Brown
Paris, a Secret History by Andrew Hussey
The Paperboy by Pete Dexter
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Cripple Creek by James Sallis
Lonely Avenue by Halberstadt

William Gay has been my latest discovery. What an excellent writer he is, in terms of language and evocation of place. Fay, the UK edition of which must have the worst cover ever, is another fine novel from the late Larry Brown. Having spent 12 weeks in France, I had to read Paris, a noir history in itself. While The Paperboy completes my reading of Dexter’s work. Up to his usual standard, with his journalistic ear and eye never far off. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is entertaining and imaginative, and might have been better had I not been acquainted with the work of Jerome Charyn. Haruf's Plainsong is one of those engaging novels that’s impossible to put down. I’m surprised no one has adapted it for the screen. As with Gay, Haruf creates a world in which, for all its faults, one would gladly live. Cripple Creek may not be the best Sallis novel ever, but it sneaks up on you and delivers a knock out punch. As usual, it’s about redemption, survival, and recovery. Lonely Avenue, Alex Halberstadt’s biography of the great Doc Pomus is also well worth checking out. A larger than life character in a larger than life world.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Between Hells Highway and The Big House

Part 3

Together, Tasker and Bright, in 1933, worked on a precursor to Ship of Fools, entitled Luxury Liner, followed by Here Comes Trouble for Sol Wurtzel. In 1936, Ben Schulberg (Bud’s father) hired Tasker and Bright in a deal brokered by Marx brother Zeppo. Recently bankrolled by Adolph Zukor, Schulberg was a compulsive gambler- he had once lost $500,000 at single gambling house- and notorious womaniser. But at least he had the sense to hire writers like William Saroyan and Edward Anderson- never mind that both turned out to be screenwriting failures. Though he talked about signing-up left-wingers Lillian Hellman and Clifford Odets, he settled Tasker and Bright. While Tasker thought this might ensure a lucrative future, Bright hoped the deal would lead to the fulfilment of his long-held dream of adapting B. Traven’s The Death Ship. Unfortunately, both would be disappointed.

A right-winger who considered FDR a communist, Schulberg surrounded himself with leftists because he thought that through them he could cash-in on the vogue for films with a social conscience. His first assignment for Tasker and Bright was an adaptation of a book, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives for actor Edward Arnold. It turned out to be a biography of Allan Pinkerton, a man whom Tasker and Bright hated, the same Pinkerton whose job it had been to break up some of America’s most heated strikes. Ironically, neither Tasker nor Bright was aware that Pinkerton, the son of a Glasgow blacksmith, grew up as a Chartist agitator. It was only during an 1839 strike, when he himself was informed upon, that the now disillusioned Pinkerton shipped out to the New World, where he would become the boss of an entire army of informers. It might have made an interesting film. But the two screenwriters wanted nothing to do with it. Fortunately, Schulberg received a letter from a woman who had heard the studio was planning to make a film on Pinkerton’s life. She wrote that Pinkerton had been responsible for her husband’s murder, and if the studio were to make such a film, they would have his blood on their hands. Schulberg relented, saying, “Do you think I would knowingly contribute to the death of this poor woman’s husband? Or glorify his murderer? Cancel the picture as of now.” Schulberg was never to know that it was Bright who had written the letter, and had given it to his mother to send to the studio.

Following the aborted Pinkerton project, Tasker and Bright put their hand to a message movie- tycoon marries farm girl- for Schulberg entitled John Meade’s Woman. Directed by Richard Wallace, with a script by future Citizen Kane writer Herman Mankiewicz, and also starring Edward Arnold, it became a small box office success and was well received by critics. The writing team then moved to Universal, where they worked on The Notorious Gentleman and, in 1937, The Accusing Finger for Paul Hogan.
In 1939, Tasker and Bright were credited with writing San Quentin- a subject with which Tasker was obviously familiar- for Warner’s. By this time Tasker and Bright were making $900 a week, with an added clause stipulating they were to receive an extra $2000 should their scripts meet with studio approval. Yet their salaries did not quite match their division of labour, for Tasker was getting only $300, while Bright was pulling-in $600 a week.

They also worked on a script for Back Door to Heaven, directed by William K. Howard, about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to go straight but is arrested on a murder charge, exonerated, then killed by gangsters. Howard had been at Fox, then at Paramount where, as a director, he was once considered the equal of F.W. Murnau. A misjudgement perhaps, but Howard had at least known the great director and was a pallbearer at his funeral. A one-time anarchist, Howard had known Jim Tully at school. While the latter took to the road, to become a petty criminal, circus worker and boxer, Howard went a step further, and took up with John Dillinger’s gang, opting for a more profitable, if criminal, existence. Another indication of just how close the criminal world was to the world of making movies. Back Door to Heaven was inspired by Howard’s early years in Ohio.

A copious drinker, Howard would eventually be fired by Louis B. Mayer from MGM’s The Power and the Glory after he was caught imbibing on the set. At the time Howard had been one of Mayer’s highest paid directors, making $3,000 to $4,000 per week, and one of the few to have his own personal cinematographer. But the producer had put a clause in the director’s contract forbidding alcohol on the set. It was Tasker who suggested to Howard that he put his whiskey in a bottle of Coca Cola.

No doubt Tasker had the best of intentions when he suggested this small deception, for this was someone who simply liked to lend a helping hand, regardless of the consequences. Alfred Lewis Levitt, who wrote The Boy With Green Hair, and who would also be blacklisted in the 1950s, maintained that, when he first came to Hollywood, Tasker and Bright were the only writers willing to give him pointers. He also recounts their fondness for Mexican culture, particularly when it came to women: “John was then married to Josefina Fierro and Bob was also married to, or living with, a woman who was Mexican.” There is no indication as to the identity of Tasker’s girlfriend, but Fierro, at the time, had been a mainstay in the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, a leading Popular Front organisation representing the rights of Mexican-Americans. During the McCarthy era, and following her divorce to Bright, she would be deported to Mexico. Interestingly, Levitt claims that Tasker’s “social conscience developed as a result of the response that the novel [Grimhaven] elicited from the public,” and that his “background fit in with John’s experiences in Chicago.”

According to Levitt, Tasker and Bright got into trouble at Paramount not because they refused to do the Pinkerton film, but because they wrote a story about an older man in love with a younger woman. Without realising it, the story called to mind the adulterous relationship between Schulberg and Sylvia Sidney. When they gave the script to Schulberg, he was convinced they were portraying him and promptly fired them. Levitt said, after that “They found it difficult to get a job… and this was long before the blacklist.”

Having divorced “the Shit Pill Heiress,” Tasker, with no work coming his way, moved to Mexico in 1942, thanks to John D. Rockefeller, who had begun to send those in the arts to foreign countries as part of his Good Neighbor Policy. Tasker saw his trip as a means of escaping the draft, which, despite his politics, he considered just another prison sentence. Once in Mexico, he said he wanted to work on a script about the torpedoing of the petroleum tanker Porfidio Laredo by the Nazi’s in the Gulf of Mexico. Writing the script was, for Tasker, a way of remaining in Mexico for much of the war. There he worked on domestic films like Dama de las Camelias and Los Miserables, and married Gladys Florez, the granddaughter of the former Costa Rican president. Together they lived in a large house in Mexico City’s ritzy Chapultepec district. When Tasker discovered that Gladys was having an affair with the son of the chief of police, he became paranoid that, if he objected, it might lead to some trumped up charge and a prison sentence. Whether this had anything to do with his decision, in December 1944, to kill himself by mixing seconals and tequila, is not known.

According to newspaper reports, Tasker, age forty-one, had been heard quarrelling with his wife two days before his death, and had threatened to kill himself. Because of his politics and the war, there would be various rumours surrounding his death, and the possibility that it was not a suicide at all. Sam Brown, brother of Rowland, was the last American to see the writer alive. Brown spoke of shady circumstances. Not only had Tasker been found with a pillow over his face, but, adding to the mystery, a Mexican actor, who was also known to be a homosexual, had been present when the body was discovered. Though Bright thought it was a matter of Tasker preferring suicide to the possibility of returning to prison. After all, he had always had a depressive streak. “I should have killed myself in San Quentin,” Tasker had said to Bright before leaving the country. Whichever, it was a sad end to someone who skirted the edges of Hollywood, where he reaped some success while succumbing to the industry’s excesses. To this day, mystery still surrounds his life. Tasker may not have been a great writer, but he did produce one interesting book, and, in Hell’s Highway, an important and memorable screenplay. What’s more, he was one of those Hollywood characters who, however peripheral, lived the life of a protagonist in a film noir of their own making.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.

Part 2

Though Tasker was hardly a threat to society, the same could not be said of his fellow-inmate Ernest Booth, aka Ernest G. Granville and Roy W. Reeves. In a letter to John Fante, Mencken concluded that Booth was “probably an incurably dangerous man.” Born in 1899, Booth began his criminal career in 1912, quickly moving from house burglary to bank robberies. He would be imprisoned on five separate occasions. In his book, also published by Knopf, Stealing Through Life, he makes no attempt to apologise for his life, yet remains eloquent in his defence, saying, “We are the odd ones. The criminals, the geniuses, the builders of Utopias.”

A prison doctor, and an acquaintance of John Fante’s, sent Booth’s fiction to Mencken (though, in Grimhaven, Tasker claims he was responsible for convincing Booth to send his work to Mencken). While Fante had little regard for Booth as a writer or as a criminal, he was of the opinion that he had been badly treated. Particularly since Booth, having spent time in the prison infirmary feigning TB, actually ended up contracting the disease. Unlike Fante, Mencken had been impressed by Booth’s writing, as well as by the circumstances surrounding his life. Even so, Mencken, ever the reformer, thought it would be a good idea for the unreconstructed Booth to remain in prison.

While in Folsom, Booth was interviewed by Tully for American Mercury. Like Mencken, Tully also left with the belief that Booth should remain inside. But, according to Fante, who was not known to be unnecessarily magnanimous towards fellow writers, Tasker and Booth were both “phonies,” while Tully’s article was “so unfair and inaccurate that from the date of its appearance the prison writers to a man have hated Jim Tully’s guts.” Fante even maintained that, after reading Tully’s article, Warden Court Smith stopped all such interviews and barred prisoners from publishing in periodicals outside the prison walls.

Mencken not only helped Tasker, but provided Booth with the necessary contacts that allowed him, between convictions, to make a substantial amount of money in Hollywood. In 1930 he sold his story, “Ladies of the Mob,” to Paramount for $15,000. It would be turned into Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets, a film best remembered as being Dashiell Hammett’s first screenwriting credit. He was also able to peddle his autobiographical novel Stealing Through Life to MGM for $11,000. On conditional release- a proviso to his parole was that he could not write about prison life- Booth, in 1937, moved to Placerville where he wrote treatments for Warner Brothers, and the occasional screenplays about gangsters. Though he did contribute to Ladies of the Big House (1931), starring Sylvia Simms, and was an adviser at $100 per week, on Men of San Quentin. Meanwhile, Horace McCoy penned a script based on Booth’s Women Without Names, which Robert Florey directed at Paramount (1940).

Booth was destined to become one of L.A.’s most sought after suspects, to the degree that whenever a major crime was committed in the area, the police would automatically seek him out. In 1941 he was interrogated for a murder, but eventually released. However, in 1947, while leaving everyone’s favourite Hollywood watering hole, Musso & Frank’s, he was arrested and charged with committing a hold-up in another part of Los Angeles. He was subsequently found guilty of a string of robberies stretching from Seattle to Pasadena, and was dispatched to San Quentin where he died of tuberculosis in 1954.

Stealing Through Life’s dedication reads “To Robert Joyce Tasker, who said, ‘Jim Tully isn’t the only Bum who can write- why don’t you have it a try?’” The dedication indicates Tasker’s willingness to encourage other writers. It was a trait that Tasker would demonstrate throughout his life. It was this sense of generosity combined with his self-destructiveness and a touch of megalomania that made him such an interesting personality. With the presence and physique of a movie star, the charismatic Tasker had, according to Bright, an uncanny resemblance to the debonair actor of the 1920s, Lew Cody, and, at the same time, said Bright, “the air of a man determined to commit suicide.”

Paroled in 1929, Tasker, most likely with Mencken’s help, landed a job writing for Photoplay, the same periodical that had employed Tully. Like Booth’s restrictions, one of the conditions of Tasker’s parole was that he was supposed about prison life. Working for Photoplay meant Tasker was able to peruse the margins of Hollywood film culture, where he met screenwriter Frances Marion. At the time married to director George Hill, Marion took Tasker under her wing and taught him the finer points of scriptwriting, while paying $300 him a week for the privilege. It wasn’t long before Marion was Tasker’s mistress. Notorious for having a way with women, particularly if they had money, Tasker’s relationship with Marion gave him with an entrée into the movie industry. But Marion also benefited from their arrangement. According to John Bright, she was able to get Tasker to ghost write The Big House, a movie for which, in 1930, she, rather than Tasker, would receive an Academy Award for best screenplay. Though she had been writing films since 1915, The Big House, directed by her husband, and starring Wallace Beery, established Marion’s career. The following year she would win another Academy Award for The Champ, which, like The Big House, was a vehicle for the pugnacious Beery.

But Marion’s relationship with Tasker did mean that criminals would suddenly be depicted in a compassionate manner. Though, with Tasker’s assistance, she was able to add a glimmer of reality to gangster and prison movies. As Carlos Clarens, in Crime Movies, has noted: “Marion...wasted no sympathy on hoods,” and, further on, “Marion’s underworld was an assortment of misfits, mental defectives, stoolies, the vermin of society; and she let them have it.” Either she learned about such creatures from Tasker, or was making an ungainly attempt to parody Tasker’s world.

When Knopf rejected his second novel, Tasker decided to give up writing fiction and, in 1931, landed a small part playing a hit-man opposite George Raft and Spencer Tracy in Rowland Brown’s first film, Quick Millions. At the time, he was also giving advice to men recently released from prison. Come December of the same year, after parting company with Marion, he married Lucille Morrison, a sometime actress and heiress to the Fletcher’s Castoria fortune. Accordingly, Tasker, to his friends, called her “the Shit Pill Heiress.” As far as Bright was concerned, Morrison was not only vulgar but emotionally disturbed, while, in a letter to Mencken, Fante reports refers to her as “a handsome blond animal in her middle thirties. Her eyes ooze sex.” In that same letter, Fante said of Tasker, “with plenty of dough his brain has gone soft on him,” “His literary output...is done orally at night clubs,” and “when he says he and Ernest Booth were members of the same gang of crooks, and were sent up on the same charge, it’s a patent lie to anyone who knows the facts.”

Why shouldn’t Tasker have stretched the truth? After all, he was in Hollywood, a city renown for truth stretching. On the other hand, his collaboration with Samuel Ornitz on the screenplay for the influential Hell’s Highway would reach a level of truthfulness rarely seen in Hollywood. Working again with Rowland Brown at RKO, the film, released in 1932, concerns a convict’s attempts to escape from a forced labour gang. It was released two months before its celluloid doppleganger, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but is harder-edged and marginally superior to Leroy’s film. Though Brown would direct only three films: Quick Millions, Hell’s Highway and Blood Money. Constantly at odds with the studios, Brown was his own worst enemy. Not only did he punch his producer in the face, but, in Quick Millions, he portrayed a strike in sympathetic terms, perhaps the first Hollywood movie to do so. Highly talented, he was fond of portraying ruling class idiosyncrasies, like the nymphomaniac society woman in Blood Money or the fiddling warden in Hell’s Highway. In Quick Millions, he depicts a working-class trucker who climbs the economic ladder, moving from trucker to organising a protection racket for garage owners, the profits from which he uses to obtain a fleet of trucks that enables him to enter the construction business. With help from Tasker, Brown, in Hell’s Highway, and then in Quick Millions, provided audiences with a different perspective regarding gangsters and prison life.

Tasker teamed up with Ornitz on other occasions, writing screenplays for Edward Sutherland’s Secrets of the French Police (1932), and J. Walter Ruben’s The Great Jasper (1933). It was Ornitz who introduced Tasker to John Bright. Before teaming up with Tasker, Bright, with the more conservative Kubec Glasmon, had penned a half-dozen successful movies at Warner Brothers, most of them with James Cagney (Public Enemy, Blonde Crazy, Smart Money) and contributed to the multi-storied If I Had a Million. But Bright, a former Chicago newspaperman, had quarrelled with Zanuck, who not only fired him but attempted to run him out of Hollywood.

Both Bright and Tasker were active members of the Communist Party. According to screenwriter and blacklist victim, Allen Boretz, Tasker and Bright attended his Marxist study group along with the likes of Hammett and John Howard Lawson, but did not join the party until 1934. Besides a political perspective, Tasker and Bright shared a penchant for gambling, horse races and all things Mexican. They made a good team. Bright, who would also be blacklisted, had a substantial Hollywood track record, while Tasker knew the penal system and the criminal class. Outside the studio, they socialised and did political work together. When Tom Mooney was released from San Quentin, Tasker and Bright chauffeured him around town. Tasker had tried to tell Bright that, despite his status amongst the left, Mooney had been universally disliked by fellow convicts. This was in an era when other political prisoners in San Quentin, such as the McNamaras (convicted of blowing up the L.A. Times building), had been amongst the most popular of inmates. Bright did not want to believe that Mooney was just “’a half-educated celebrity who...picked up a few Marxist phrases and looks upon himself as a real martyr.’” But Bright realised Tasker was right: “The way he behaved...was just dreadful. He insulted everyone.”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.
Part 1

Mystery and myth surround the life and death of ex-con, essayist, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, Robert Tasker. What one knows about him derives primarily from a handful of books. The first, Grimhaven is by Tasker himself. Though based on the author’s experiences in San Quentin where he was incarcerated on a five-to-twenty-five year sentence for armed robbery, Grimhaven barely mentions the author’s pre-prison life. For those years comprise another narrative, one that Tasker, who was born in North Dakota in 1903 and raised in Canada and Portland, Oregon, preferred to compartmentalise. Following Grimhaven’s publication and the author’s release from prison in 1929, Tasker moved to Hollywood where, for some fifteen years, he pursued a career as a moderately successful scriptwriter and sometime actor. With Grimhaven helping expose prison conditions during the 1920s, Tasker’s life should have been the stuff from which Hollywood legends are made. Yet his name and brief cinema presence has all but been erased from literary and Hollywood history.

Another book that deals with Tasker’s fascinating life is John Bright’s novel It’s Cleaner on the Inside. For better part of a decade, Bright and Tasker were not only friends, but a screenwriting team. Consequently, Bright was an appropriate person to write a novel based on Tasker’s life. Published by Neville Spearman in England in 1961- sadly, it was never to find an American publisher- it’s Cleaner on the Inside begins with Tasker’s ill-fated robbery and moves back in time, to the Tasker-like Peter Jameson’s childhood in the Pacific Northwest. While the similarities between Tasker and Jameson are plentiful, the reader should be warned against relying on Bright’s novel as purely biographical.

A third book relevant to Tasker’s life is Stealing Through Life by friend and fellow San Quentin inmate- though he could also be found at neighbouring Folsom Prison- Ernest Booth. Arguably the more literary of the three books, this account of Booth’s life of crime is of interest because Tasker writes at some length in Grimhaven about their friendship while in San Quentin. Finding themselves in similar circumstances, and with similar literary interests, they struck a bargain: Tasker promised to only write about life on the inside, while Booth would devote himself to writing about life outside their prison walls.

Dissimilar though they might be, these three books challenge the orthodoxy of American cultural and political life during the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, they add to one’s understanding of Hollywood as a place of possibility, where renegades such as Tasker and Booth, or the politically subversive John Bright, could be co-opted and deemed important to the creation of Tinseltown’s extravagant dream machine.

One could add to these books the work of another jailbird writer, Jim Tully. Today Tully’s writing, like that of Tasker, Booth and Bright, has been largely forgotten, yet, in its day, it was widely read and influential. Such was his talent that, when it came to hardboiled prose, Charles Willeford always considered Tully the equal of Dashiell Hammett. Even though Tully did not do much writing for the screen, he certainly wrote a great deal about Hollywood. In fact, during the 1930s, his pen was considered something akin to a lethal weapon. Prior to that, Tully was known for autobiographical books about hoboes, circus life, and boxing. One of the few directors to adapt his work was William Wellman whose Beggars of Life, starring Wallace Beery with Louise Brooks playing a young girl who murders her sexually abusive guardian, was based on Tully’s 1924 book of the same time. Tully would receive a writing credit for the movie. His only other credits would be for Lew Landers’ Poe-inspired The Raven (1935) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and for Edward L. Cahn Laughter in Hell (1933), starring Pat O’Brien, which was also based on a Tully novel of the same name.

In Grimhaven, Tasker mentions Tully’s visit to San Quentin where, besides Tasker, he interviewed Johnny the Flying Tramp, the boxer Kid McCoy, Paul Kelly, and the renown Tom Mooney. Of these latter names, we know that ex-middleweight boxing champion Kid McCoy was, at that point, serving time for murder, while Mooney was inside for allegedly throwing a bomb into a 1916 San Francisco parade in support of America’s entry into WW1. Mooney was a cause celebre amongst the Hollywood left, who launched a well-publicised campaign to free him. However, the most recognised name at the time was Paul Kelly, who, two years earlier, had been the subject of a major Hollywood scandal. An actor whose speciality was playing cops and criminals, Kelly had been convicted for killing fellow-actor Ray Raymond in a fight over actress Dorothy MacKaye. Though MacKaye had been married to Raymond, she later testified in Kelly’s favour, and even hired a doctor to claim her husband had died of natural causes. Charged with manslaughter, Kelly would spend only two years in San Quentin, subsequently appearing in such films as The File on Thelma Jordan, Springfield Rifle, and The High and the Mighty.

Tully used these interviews in his article, “A California Holiday.” However, interviewing these characters was not his main reason for travelling up the coast to San Quentin. For Tully was there to witness an execution, which would make this one of the most moving essays ever written regarding the barbarity of capital punishment. At one time Charlie Chaplin’s press agent, Tully, who, in his youth, had spent five years behind bars, describes Tasker, at the time, as “twenty-four, tall, good-looking, a sheik type for society girls and stenographers, with black hair carefully combed, doing five to twenty-five years for holding up a crowded dance hall.”

Tasker only began writing while incarcerated, contributing and editing the prison journal, the San Quentin Bulletin. It was during this time that he began corresponding with H.L. Mencken. In one of his first letters to Mencken, Tasker wrote, “I graduated from high school in Portland in 1921. One year later I'm in California, go through a bad patch, buy a gun -- there you have it. I'm now serving a five-to-life sentence in San Quentin for armed robbery… Don't hesitate to call me whatever you want: thief, hood, knockover artist. It's all the same to me. As to where I'm from, I can't really say -- except maybe from here." Mencken, in 1927, published Tasker’s “First Day,” and “A Man is Hanged” in his American Mercury. They would ultimately appear in Grimhaven, which Tasker, in that same year, and to avoid the prison authorities censoring his work, had to smuggle out of his cell. The final paragraph of this autobiographical novel gives a further clue regarding Tasker’s state of mind: “And here in the midst of it I am. I have no certain fault, and I have no certain virtue. My ignorance is neither little nor great. I am neither fortunate nor unfortunate. I would seem to be a bit of a mechanism, responding to certain mechanical impulses, reacting in a mechanical way. I have no certain knowledge at all, except that I am, and that I am here.” On Mencken’s recommendation, Knopf published the book in 1931.

As a thief, Tasker was not so much inept as hell-bent on self-destruction. He had been convicted of robbing patrons at Sauer’s Dance Parlor in Oakland, California, a crime committed less for the money than to embarrass his father, a conservative banker with a puritanical outlook on life. If one is to believe Bright’s fictional account, Tasker’s mother, a preacher’s daughter, killed herself while Robert was still a teenager. Though this might be fanciful on Bright’s part, it has a more accurate ring to it than his claim that his Tasker-like character worked as a bellboy in a San Francisco hotel, where he ran errands for the comedian Fatty Arbuckle up to, and including, the night he allegedly raped and killed Virginia Rappe.

However fanciful Bright’s portrayal, his description of Tasker’s crime is, by all accounts, accurate. On St. Valentine’s Day, 1924, a twenty-three year old Tasker walked into Sauer’s Dance Parlor and mounted the bandstand where Les Hite’s band was playing. Good-looking enough to be mistaken for the band’s master of ceremonies or recently acquired white crooner, he commandeered the microphone, reached into his jacket pocket and produced a revolver. He waved the gun from one side of the dance hall to the other, telling everyone to put whatever paper money they had into a tablecloth that he had provided for the occasion, after which he turned to the band and, in words that, according to Bright, “became astonished gossip in Pacific Coast Harlem for years,” said, “I’m skipping you folks. Coloured people get pushed around enough. Keep your money.” The police had little trouble catching Tasker, who was found sitting on the steps of the dance hall smoking a cigarette, the bulging tablecloth at his side. When a police officer grabbed the gun, he saw that Tasker hadn’t bothered to put bullets in it.

Because it was an era when an assortment of rich young men, like the notorious Leopold and Loeb, were committing “thrill” crimes of supposedly Nietzschian proportions to spite conservative father figures, Tasker was given the stiffest of sentences. The judge did not hide the fact that he was handing out a harsh sentence as a warning to other young men. While in prison, Tasker mellowed somewhat; he even asked Mencken to send the check for an article in American Mercury to his father. “I’m rather fond of the old chap,” said Tasker. Though one could interpret Tasker’s apparent generosity in various ways: perhaps it was to tell his father that literary success was just around the corner; maybe he was trying to pay back money he had stolen from him; or it could even be that he simply meant the gesture as an insult.

Whichever, it looked like Tasker might be on the road to a limited kind of literary notoriety. At the time, thanks to the likes of the crusading Mencken, jailbird writing had become a small growth industry. During Tasker’s tenure in San Quentin at least a dozen inmates were trying to publish their work in periodicals on the outside, while a prison writing competition, organised by Tasker, attracted over 400 entrants. Writing had become so popular amongst inmates that the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, in 1930, issued an edict forbidding Tasker and fellow-inmates from sending their work to magazines and newspapers outside the prison walls. “We are not literary agents,” said Judge C.E. McLaughlin, adding that prison officials did not have time to comb through each manuscript in search of objectionable material. Eight years after it was begun, the San Quentin Bulletin was terminated, said by prison authorities to be catering more to the outside world than to inmates.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tabloid Noir: Samuel Fuller's Films and Fiction

Part 2

Fuller’s most forthright portrayals of this “organised lunacy” would be Steel Helmet and The Big Red One. Both are eloquent statements regarding the realities of war. The first was Fuller’s answer to Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun, which he considered little more than one long cliché. Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) must have particularly irritated Fuller, for this would be the second rewrite of the renown director’s work. Not only had Milestone put his stamp on prohibition gangsterism, but, worse, he had, according to Fuller, revised World War Two, glorifying and romanticising war beyond proportion. It would take Fuller more than twenty years to write and realise The Big Red One, but his perseverance would result in his most thorough investigation of the war, focusing, as it does, on the average soldier. In the novel, Fuller even resorted to a literary trick which would articulate his relationship to verisimilitude and the war novel in general. For, at the end of The Big Red One, Fuller says the following:
“A war novel’s objective, no matter how emotional, is to make the
reader feel war. But war means casualties. To take the reader into
reality, one page in the book should be booby-trapped. Since it is
against the law to kill a reader, because it makes unsound business
sense to be wounded-while-reading, it became much safer when
turning back to the combat clock to live backwards than to die

Thus Fuller pulls the rug from beneath the Hollywood-oriented illusion-machine. Realising the actual wartime sites no longer had “the feel” of reality, he substitutes Israel for North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Not only that, but he chose a rather subversive form of role reversal, having Jews should play Nazi soldiers. Regarding the latter, Fuller said the following:
“Israeli soldiers and civilians wore German helmets over
yamulkas...The concentration camp in Falkenau...was filmed
in the heart of Jerusalem...Jewish concentration camp
survivors played the People’s Army fighting for Hitler,
grimly holding up his picture with their their tattoo
numbers covered...To make a real war movie would be
to occasionally fire at the audience from behind the screen
during a battle scene... But word-of-mouth from casualties
wouldn’t help the film sell tickets. And again, such reaching
for reality is against the law...Anyone seeing the movie or
reading the book will survive.”

This is the same film Fuller had the chance to make in 1949 with John Wayne. But the director turned down the offer, because, in his opinion, Wayne was “a symbol of a kind of man I never saw in war. He would have given it a heroic touch that I hate in war movies. In real combat situations, everyone is scared, everyone is a nervous animal. You can’t determine the heroes from the cowards in advance.”

Though he made some great war films, it’s film noir with which Fuller is most often associated: House of Bamboo, Crimson Kimono, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, Pick-up on South Street, Underworld USA, White Dog, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse and Street of No Return. A subtle remake of William Keighley’s 1948 Street With No Name, House of Bamboo was directed by Fuller, who would also receive a credit for additional dialogue, in 1955 for Twentieth Century-Fox. Set in post-war Japan, Sandy Dawson heads a criminal ring of former GI’s living in Tokyo. The army sends Kenner to infiltrate the gang. Here Fuller depicts the American occupation of Japan as nothing short of criminal. This is obviously not your usual post-war film. Cultural differences are highlighted to great, and often, surreal effect, as in his images of falling cherry blossoms, the Kabuki troupe and the giant Buddha. For someone described by misguided critics as intolerant, if not rightwing, Fuller delivers a sympathetic portrayal of both interracial romance and homosexuality. It’s another typical Fuller character study. Said Fuller, “I loathe this cliche vision of the underworld... Dark alleys and wet streets... It’s easy to set a pictorial mood, to fill an alley up with shadows and ashcans and black cats. I prefer to find or focus in on something sinister at the edge of a beautiful playground or by children playing around pagodas, to use contrast.”

Crimson Kimono (1959), directed, produced and written by Fuller for Globe Enterprises once again presents a world of extremes. In what might be his most optimistic film, Fuller offsets sensitivity and gentleness with vulgarity and violence. Like House of Bamboo, Crimson Kimono concerns interracial marriage, with the heroine opting for a Japanese-American over a Caucasian. In accordance with Fuller’s vehement belief in racial tolerance, Crimson Kimono portrays both the Japanese-American and the Caucasian as equally sympathetic- “I hate those pat, anti-racist movies of the Fifties with those long-suffering Joes who let a pal have the girl without a fight.” Never one to shun the streets, particularly when budget demands it, Fuller, in this film, again uses location shots to great effect, making Little Tokyo and metropolitan Los Angeles an integral part of the movie.

Also written, produced and directed by Fuller, The Naked Kiss concerns what, at the time, were taboo subjects: prostitution, sexual perversion and physical disabilities. Made in 1964 for Leon Fromkess-Sam Firks Productions, this is arguably Fuller’s most infamous film. Like Shock Corridor, it was photographed by Stanley Cortez, who could count amongst his credits Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. With its unforgettable opening and bizarre imagery, The Naked Kiss depicts a world as ordinary as it is bizarre, while walking a thin line between social realism and surrealism. But it’s also an examination of class in America. Said Fuller, “What I wanted was the whole concept of a caste system- not the formal one like they have in India or Japan- but a real sense among the social outcasts that there is something so vile, so low, that even they must scorn it.” However corrupt the characters, Fuller refrains from passing judgment on them, suggesting that the ensuing anarchy constitutes an understandable and even healthy response to society’s strictures and puritanism.

This is also the case in Pickup in South Street (1953, Jules Schermer Productions), another film written and directed, by Fuller. Here, rather than Stanley Cortez, it’s Joe MacDonald (The Street With No Name, Viva Zapata, My Darling Clementine, Call Northfield 777, Warlock, Walk On the Wildside) who is behind the camera, and responsible for some exquisite high-contrast black-and-white photography. Filmed in twenty days, it portrays crime simply as a business. Said Fuller to Profirio and Ursini, “They aren’t criminals out of choice, because they always wanted to be, they do it because it’s the only way they can make a living.” Anti-communist it might be- Fuller, after all, distrusted all governments, be they communist, fascist or quasi-democratic- but it turns any notion of anti-communism on its head. After all, the sympathetic Americans portrayed in the movie are hardly respectable members of society, but are lumpen criminals: in turn, a pickpocket, a prostitute and an informer. As Martin Scorsese points out, America’s fate, in Pickup on South Street, “is in the hands of...outcasts.” When a federal agent asks the pickpocket, “Do you know what Communism is?”, the latter says, “Who cares?” Receiving no glory for their efforts, these demi-mondistes, once their mission has been accomplished, will undoubtedly return to the gutter from which they came.

In the original script, Skip, played by Richard Widmark, says to the FBI agent, “Don’t Wave the goddamn flag at me.” At Romanoff’s in Hollywood during the heat of the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover, dining with his friend and head of Twentieth Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, and Fuller, said he objected to the line. Zanuck turned to Fuller and said, “He’s right, we’ll leave out goddamn.” Hoover told Zanuck he knew quite well that was not what he meant. To his credit, Zanuck said, “This is his character talking and that character doesn’t give a goddamn about the flag... Any flag!... Otherwise we’re making a propaganda film and we don’t make those kinds of propaganda films.” For Zanuck was not adverse to backing writers he admired.

Underworld USA (1961, Globe Enterprises) is another film directed, produced and written by Fuller. Derived from a series of articles in Saturday Evening Post by Joseph F. Dinneen, this is a domestic war film that pits the FBI against a crime syndicate. It’s also a brutal, if not sadistic, affair, in which the protagonist, Tolly (Cliff Robertson) associates sex with gathering information. Typical of Fuller, Tolly, who simply wants revenge, stands in opposition to legal, as well as criminal, forces. In the end, violence exhausts Tolly as it does anyone touched by it. Prefiguring movies like Point Blank and The Killers, organised crime is again portrayed as an extension of America’s business ethic and at the root of corporate capitalism.

Made for West German television in 1972, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street acknowledges the influence of French director Jean-Luc Godard on Fuller, just as Godard had acknowledged Fuller’s influence in Pierrot Le Fou. It’s one of Fuller’s more bizarre films, a complex thriller about an American agent who visits Bonn to find the person who has killed his partner only to get involved in blackmail, drugs, pornography and murder. Its humour and playfulness makes it a close cousin to French New Wave cinema. Most memorable is the climax in which the protagonist throws, quite literally, everything but the kitchen sink at his adversary. His manic behaviour and willingness to use every weapon at his disposal represent a typically American response, not altogether different from the way America was, at the time, deploying its weaponry in the jungles of Vietnam. Also noteworthy is that the femme fatale is played by Fuller’s wife, Christa Lang, who could count amongst her film credits roles in Godard’s Alphaville, Nickelodeon, What’s Up Doc?, White Dog and Street of No Return. She was also a writer, working with her husband on scripts for Kleptomania (1995), Women in Prison (1994, TV) and Day of Reckoning (1990, TV). Not only does Fuller dedicate the novel, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, to her, but he calls the book’s heroine by her name as well. Unfortunately, wooden performances prevent Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street from realising its potential. In the end, it remains an uneven and odd film. But no more odd than the book, which, though highly visual- a quality that typifies Fuller’s fiction- reads as though it’s partly a film treatment and partly a hardboiled novel written by a cunning surrealist.

One of Fuller’s more mainstream productions, White Dog (1982, Paramount/Edgar J. Scherick), based on a Romain Gary novel, concerns an actress who unknowingly acquires a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Here Fuller shares scriptwriting credits with the future director and writer of L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson. If films from The Bedroom Window (1987) to L.A. Confidential, are anything to go by, Hanson must have learned something from working with Fuller, particularly when it comes to pace and emotional impact. However, due to the film’s subject matter, Paramount, worried that the movie might spark-off race riots amongst cinema audiences in the South and Midwest, decided against releasing White Dog in the U.S.. Yet Fuller was already accustomed to such censorship. His Steel Helmet and Crimson Kimono had both been banned in the South. Regarding the former film, the U.S. Army had refused the director’s request for combat footage, their reason being that the script included the shooting of an unarmed North Korean. A few years after Steel Helmet, Great Britain would ban Shock Corridor.

Except for some TV work in France, Street of No Return (1989) would be Fuller’s swan song. Adapted from David Goodis’ novel, Fuller directed the film but teamed up with Jacques Bral on the screenplay. It was Bral, working for a French and Portuguese production company, who was in charge of the film. With Francois Guerif- noir expert and head of French publishing house Rivage- acting as artistic director, Street of No Return tries to recapture the spirit of David Goodis. It’s an uneven film and opinion is divided on how successful it is as a film. While some dislike the movie intensely others, including this writer, believe it ranks as one of the better Goodis adaptations.

Fuller had known Goodis when the latter was employed in Hollywood, and, for a time, the two occupied adjoining offices at Warners. They first met when Goodis walked into Fuller’s office and handed him an autographed copy of Dark Passage. He was also carrying with him a copy of Fuller’s The Dark Page. Goodis was the first writer Fuller had come across who had actually paid for a copy of his book. Apparently, Goodis had been attracted by Fuller’s title, thinking it a coincidence that it was similar to the title of his own 1946 novel, Dark Passage. Though other than dark- an adjective that could be used to describe the atmosphere of both novels- Dark Passage and The Dark Page have little in common.

Not long afterwards, Goodis brought Fuller a story he’d come across in the New York Evening Journal about a race riot in Harlem. The byline carried Fuller’s name. What intrigued Goodis was a particular quote regarding what had triggered the riot. Goodis wanted more information, but Fuller was unable to track the quote down. Nevertheless, Fuller’s article would become the basis for Goodis’ 1954 novel, The Street of No Return, which, in turn, would be filmed by Fuller thirty-five years later. Fuller admitted that he wrote the script with Goodis in mind: “Every word, every emotion, act of violence, touch was put in as if Goodis was sitting next to me when writing, or sitting next to me when shooting.” Not surprisingly, Fuller’s Street of No Return was dedicated to the author of the novel.

Three non-noir films were released in 1957, two of which, Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow, have since become classic westerns. The former can be compared to off-beat psycho-sexual westerns like Duel in the Sun and Johnny Guitar. It stars Barbara Stanwyck in the role of Jessica, a gutsy woman who owns the town and her hired forty guns. Stanwyck’s role was originally meant for Marilyn Monroe. Inviting as that might sound, it’s hard to imagine the film without Stanwyck presence. At her perverse best, she is able to make the movie hum with sexual frenzy, a quality that Monroe, despite her obvious talent and allure, might not have been able to carry off so effectively. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Run of the Arrow concerns an often-used Fuller theme, that of the individual versus society. A film of ideas, and a treatise on national allegiance, Rod Steiger plays a defeated Southerner, who fires the last shot of the Civil War, heads into Indian country, and, rather than return to the fold of the Union, joins a tribe of Sioux Indians, only to find that, for better or worse, he cannot help but be an American.

The third film released in 1957 was China Gate (Globe Enterprises, Twentieth Century-Fox). Starring Gene Barry, Nat King Cole and Angie Dickinson, it is an adventure story set in Vietnam in the days when it was under French colonial rule. It was also the first American film to mention North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Producer Daryl Zanuck- always appreciative of a good story and a man whom Fuller respected- purportedly asked the director who this guy Ho Chi Minh was. Ever ready with a hook, Fuller said, “He was the assistant pastry cook at a London hotel who wound up the head of a nation.” To which Zanuck, a one-time scriptwriter who penned the over-the-top ending for Ford’s Grapes of Wrath- responded, “You hear that? That’s the kind of guy I like! A pastry cook! Goddamn it!”

Wrongly accused by Peter Biskind (Seeing is Believing) and leftwing Cineaste critic Calvin Green of being rightwing, if not fascist (Green: “Fuller is a chauvinist whose jingoistic fervor goes beyond the irrational, amounting to a morbid hysteria.”), Fuller was, throughout his life, an outspoken libertarian, his perspective derived from seeing the world at ground level, whether through war or tabloid investigations into crime and corruption. Not only was Fuller a fervent supporter of individual rights but he was an vocal opponent of McCarthyism. In an essay which accompanies the Fowler-influenced New York in the 1930s, Fuller goes so far as to speak up for the benefits derived from the Norris-La Guardia act, which Fuller points out helped establish strong unions and gave strikers protection from being taken to court by their employers. In that article he also extols the gains which have resulted from anti-monopoly legislation; the Wagner Act, which gave unions the right to collectively bargain; the New Deal; the Writers’, Directors and Screen Actors’ Guilds; sit-down strikes; and the Communist Party’s involvement in creating a Popular Front against fascism. Though Fuller does add that the Party did so after supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact. These are obviously not the opinions of your average rightwing fascist. Surprisingly, Fuller had mixed feelings about 1930s cultural deity H.L. Mencken. According to Fuller, the great journalist’s wit and brilliance often obscured his anti-semitism and anti-New Dealism. Though Fuller tries to temper his critique by reminding readers that the 1930s was an “era of terrible honesty.”

As well as Goodis, Fuller also knew Jim Thompson- he met Thompson a few days after the latter arrived in Hollywood- and seemingly every other writer who passed through Hollywood between 1945 and the 1960s. Though familiar with an array of noirists, Fuller, in his writing and films, rarely resorted to hardboiled clichés, for he was more interested in presenting strong images and reflecting the world as he had seen it. A true original, Fuller, to find work as a director after the White Dog debacle, would leave Hollywood and settle for a considerable period of time in Paris, where he believed his reputation was more firmly established and financial backing was easier to obtain.

Fuller died in Hollywood on October 31, 1997. The Director’s Guild of America announced a Farewell Tribute on November 22nd- thirty-four years from the day JFK was assassinated. Connecting various literary and cinematic traditions- from the journalism of Gene Fowler to the pulp fiction of Goodis, from the poetry of Maxwell Bodenheim to the films of Quentin Tarantino- Fuller would have shrugged off any such irony and romanticism. But the announcement gave an indication of the range of Fuller’s influence and the democratic nature of his work: “Among those scheduled to speak are Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Angie Dickinson, Curtis Hanson, Walter Hill, Paul Mazursky, and Tim Robbins. The program will begin at 9:00 AM and is open to the public.”

Novels Burn, Baby, Burn!, Phoenix, New York, 1935; Test Tube Baby, William Godwin, New York, 1936; Make Up and Kiss, William Godwin, New York, 1938; The Dark Page, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York, 1944; The Naked Kiss, Belmont, New York, 1964; Crown of India, Award, New York, 1966; 144 Piccadilly, Baron, New York, New English Library, London, 1972; Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Pyramid, New York, 1974; The Big Red One, Bantam, New York, 1980; La Grand Melee, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1984, as Quint’s World, Worldwide, Don Mills, Ontario, 1988; Pecos Bill and the Soho Kid, Bayard, 1986.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tabloid Noir: Samuel Fuller’s Films and Fiction

Part 1

“A film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word: emotions.” Sam Fuller in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou.

Though best known for his violent, tabloid-oriented genre films- quickly-made, low-budget affairs that he often produced, directed and wrote himself- Samuel Fuller was also a proficient, if underrated, noir novelist. He penned at least six books, of which three- The Dark Page, aka Murder Makes a Deadline, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and The Naked Kiss- are firmly in the tradition of pulp noir fiction. These were, for the most part, novelisations of his films; in effect, director’s cuts or films that Fuller would have made had he the freedom and resources to do so. He apparently wrote other novels as well, but did so under pseudonyms for various lending-library publishers, which means they have proved virtually untraceable.

A compulsive story-teller, and a throwback to individualist directors like “Wild Bill” Wellman and Budd Boetticher, Fuller moved from Poverty Row to the margins of mainstream studios and, finally, European companies. Flitting between film and fiction, Fuller, during the 1950s and 1960s, directed seventeen action-packed films. Along with Phil Karlson, he virtually invented the genre of tabloid-noir, a tradition that has all but disappeared in films (though early Spike Lee might once have been thought as an inheritor of Fuller’s headline-grabbing style), but is perhaps best kept alive in fiction through writers like James Ellroy and Andrew Vacchs. In connecting the tradition of pulp fiction with that of film noir, Fuller has influenced a generation of street-wise film-makers, from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino.

Born in 1912 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Fuller grew up with ink running in his veins. Granted, in those days there was still an aura of romance surrounding the the newspaper business. So Fuller, as a boy, didn’t mind trekking to Park Row to pick up his papers and hawking them on the Brooklyn Bridge. He later celebrated that street and the early days of journalism in Park Row (1952), a film that painstakingly recreates the setting and the era, and which contains one of cinema’s most complex tracking shots, which not only changes speed and angles but integrates background and foreground, moving between history and hearsay, as the industry, at the end of the nineteenth century, prepares to be subsumed by acquisitive capitalists and their corporations.

After his father died, an eleven year old Sam landed a job as a copy boy at the New York Journal for $15 a week. By the time he was seventeen, Fuller, in the midst of the Depression, would still be working for the Journal, making $50 a week. At the time, most of young Sam’s salary went to his bohemian mother who, as well as raising seven young children, was carrying on a relationship with the notorious Greenwich Village poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who would be commemorated in Fuller’s film Shock Corridor. Not only did Fuller’s mother cavort with Bodenheim but she was known to invite visiting Bolshevik poets, whom she would meet and argue with from atop a Union Square soap-box, back to her apartment for a glass of wine or a meal.

Barely eighteen, Fuller became the police reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, which he described as “the finest newspaper I have ever known.” A veritable scandal sheet, the Graphic, during the roaring twenties, set out to imitate the New York Daily News, which is to say it specialised in sensational stories about sordid love, gangland crimes and murder. But it also attracted a number of quality journalists and future film people. Amongst those who worked alongside Fuller were Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Mark Hellinger, Jerry Wald and John Huston. The Graphic also published several of Fuller’s cartoons. It was there that Fuller met and worked with John Huston’s mother, Rhea Jaure, one of the city’s most formidable crime reporters. Huston would later tease him, saying Fuller had spent more time with his mother than he, Huston, had.

In spite of Prohibition, a teenaged Fuller had already become a hard- drinking journalist, having entered his first speakeasy at the age of fifteen with Ring Lardner, Gene Fowler (Gene Fowler Jr. would become Fuller’s film editor on Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns) and Bill Farnsworth, all older and more knowledgeable concerning the ways of the world. Fuller’s first speakeasy was owned by Lew Walters, father of the well known media-journalist Barbara Walters, and, like the setting for an early gangster movie or Black Mask story, catered for reporters, publishers, stockbrokers, bootleggers, detectives and beautiful blondes.

It was while working at the Graphic that Fuller learned the art of constructing a good headline. He would later translate that knowledge to film-making, using in-your-face close-ups to serve a similar function. Never losing his passion for headlines, Fuller, in his films and his novels, was able to deliver his own cocktail of hard facts and creative exaggeration. In Adam Simon’s film about Fuller, The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera, Fuller and actor-director Tim Robbins stroll through the Rodin Museum in Paris, stopping before Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, whereupon Fuller launches into the hook of his never-to-be-realised film biography of the French writer, declaiming, “He was a scoundrel. He was a liar. He was a bullshit artist. He was a wrrrriterr!” Cut to a photograph of a more youthful Fuller standing beneath a Paris street sign that reads rue de Balzac.

In the company of older journalists, Fuller frequented the Alquonquin Hotel, where, in the Pergola Room, he would hold forth with such Roundtable luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun and Charles MacArthur. Despite their contempt for Tinseltown philistinism, a number of those writers would eventually find themselves employed by Hollywood studios. Fuller was particularly fond of Dorothy Parker, and liked to recall the time she asked him for his name and address which she wrote on the hem of her dress. In his essay, New York in the 1930s, Fuller rues the fact that, for all her talent, Parker came to a sad end, dying in a shabby New York hotel, having sold her Picasso to pay her debtors. Yet he points out that what money she had left was bequeathed to Martin Luther King Jr.

After working for the San Diego Sun, Fuller hoboed through America, an experience that inspired him to write his first stories. By 1931, Fuller had quit journalism to become a writer, ghosting at least three novels: Burn Baby Burn, about a pregnant woman condemned to death (1935); the self-explanatory and prophetic Test Tube Baby (1936); and the nicely titled Make Up and Kiss (1938), about the world of beauty products. Novels under his own name would come later: The Dark Page (1944), The Naked Kiss (1964), Crown of India (1966), 144 Piccadilly (1971), Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1974), The Big Red One (1980)- the latter two would be filmed by Fuller- Battle Royal (1984) and Quint’s World (1988).

After the publication of Make Up and Kiss, Fuller launched his Hollywood career with scripts for Harry Lachman’s Hat’s Off (1937) and It Happened in Hollywood (1937). The latter concerned a silent-movie cowboy star’s problems adjusting to the talkies. He is also credited with the story for James Cruze’s Gangs of New York (1938)- some fifty years before Scorsese’s film- in which the protagonist impersonates a gangster so he can infiltrate the organisation, as well as Adventures in the Sahara (1938) and Federal Man Hunt (1938). He would go on to work on scripts for Bowery Boy (1941), Confirm or Deny (1941) and Power of the Press (1942).

During World War Two, Fuller joined the armed forces and fought with the seventh regiment of the first infantry division- experiences recounted in The Big Red One- participating in the Italy, Normandy and North African campaigns, for which he received the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. It was at this time that he observed various combat cameramen, and was even able to do some war photography himself. It was enough to whet Fuller’s appetite for documentary realism, which he would later work into his films. While serving overseas Fuller discovered his novel The Dark Page had been published in the U.S.. If one is to believe The Big Red One, Fuller realised the book- which, in the film and novel is entitled The Dark Deadline- had been published only when, between skirmishes, he found another soldier reading it. In The Big Red One, Fuller gives the reader an insight into soldiering, wartime publishing- “Actually, he was surprised that the armed forces edition had come out before he had received a copy of the hard-cover”- the culture produced by the war, and Fuller’s subsequent career: “When he finished [the novel] he couldn’t help but think of his life before the war...Looking back was not pleasant. He had no interest in reliving the past or reproducing any moment of it. He was aware that nostalgia was more than homesickness: it was a cop-out. After the war the survivors would look back at those good old days in the First Division and over beer and pretzels the horrors they had lived through would be replaced by a memory. Commandos and adventure. The whole fucking war would be reduced to a myth.”

Four years after the war, Lippert Productions offered Fuller a chance to direct a low-budget western. Fuller responded with the Wellman-influenced I Shot Jesse James (“As far as noir goes, my darkest film from that era.”). He had wanted to make a movie about Cassius and the murder of Julius Caesar, but producer Robert Lippert refused to finance a film about “men in bedsheets.” Arguably the best of many films concerning Jesse James, Fuller’s movie impressed, amongst others, a young Martin Scorsese. It’s easy to see why. The film must certainly have appealed to the director’s incipient interest in gangs and male bonding that would come to the surface in films from Mean Streets to GoodFellas and Gangs of New York. Not to mention his concern, as demonstrated in films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull, for the despised antagonist. In I Shot Jesse James, Fuller, never content with the obvious, focuses his attention on Jesse’s killer Robert Ford (leaving out what, according to Sam, was the outlaw’s most intriguing quality: his youthful transvestitism). Made in a mere ten days, this eccentric, psychological anti-western relies, for economic as much as aesthetic reasons, on close-ups. Another case of necessity being the mother of invention. For, upon seeing the film, critic Andrew Sarris wrote that Fuller’s use of such shots creates “an oppressive intensity the cinema had not experienced since Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc.”

I Shot Jesse James would be the first of twenty-nine films directed by Fuller. Exploiting his past, Fuller would devote one film and one novel to the world of newspapers; as an ex-crime reporter, at least four of his novels and four of his films would be melodramatic thrillers; and as a former soldier, he would make six war movies and write one war novel. Films as various as Pick Up on South Street, The Bamboo Curtain, Shock Corridor, Street of No Return, Park Row, Run of the Arrow, Forty Guns, Underworld USA, and White Dog all demonstrate a style, derived from the director’s nose for news, his uncompromising perspective and his long-held libertarian politics.

Fuller would also make numerous contributions to films as an actor, usually cast in the role of a seen-it-all, done-it-all, street-wise film person or underworld personality. Chomping on his famous cigar, he invariably comes across as a rough-edged John Huston, or a renaissance man imprisoned in the body of a tabloid reporter. In a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Fuller explains in his famous growl that his films are a battlefield: “Love, hate, action, death- in a word, emotion!” For Fuller’s films, populated with scramblers, hustlers, losers and secondrate power-brokers, offer a bleak view of the world. If they could be boiled down to one overriding theme it would be that crime and corruption are an integral part of American society. Fuller’s notion that America is a irrevocably damaged society is most forcefully articulated in Shock Corridor, in which the the madhouse becomes a microcosm of the culture. Once inside, escape is all but impossible.

Indeed, in Fuller’s world, people use whatever is at their disposal- blackmail, double-cross, intimidation, murder- to achieve their goals. No wonder that Fuller’s psychotic characters are hostile to organisations, bureaucracies and governments. This political unease is mirrored by the cinematography, in which the camera refuses to rest until the story is told. This, like the tabloid dialogue spoken by his characters, is another sign that Fuller’s weaknesses and strengths are often one and the same. Self-conscious, contrived and vulgar he may be, but Fuller is a true original, relying on images that look as though they might have been pulled from the photo morgue of any big city newspaper. Who can forget the prostitute’s fight with her pimp in the opening scene of The Naked Kiss? Or the opening page of his novel, The Big Red One, which begins with an epigram that could be mistaken for a headline: “WAR DISTURBS SEX.” Following the headline comes the first sentence, which could easily serve as a caption describing a photograph: “The shell-shocked horse ran toward the statue of Christ.”

From 1949 until the last years of his life, Fuller also contributed a number of scripts to projects other than his own. In 1951, he provided an original screenplay for John Cromwell’s The Racket for RKO, which, other than the script, was a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1928 film of the same name. Both films were produced by Howard Hughes, who now had a favourable opinion of Cromwell, despite the latter having turned down the chance to direct I Married a Communist (Hughes’s litmus test for suspected subversives). Fuller envisioned the project- police break up the empire of powerful mobster- not simply as a prohibition period piece, which was how Cromwell and Hughes viewed it, but as a comment on post-World War Two society. After reading Fuller’s script, Cromwell and Hughes realised a film about the underworld might have commercial potential. So they quickly hired writer William Haines to make Fuller’s script more to their liking, followed by veteran W.R. Burnett- one of Hughes’s favourites and a safe bet when it came to the subject of gangsters- for the final rewrite. Ironical, when one considers the politics of the producer, that Cromwell’s film has been judged by (Silver and Ward, The Encyclopedia of Film Noir) to be politically more sophisticated than The Asphalt Jungle, which it resembles. This, to some extent, is Fuller’s doing, for he was able to give the film a modern touch, tacitly placing it in a more sensitive, time and place.

The following year, Phil Karlson adapted Fuller’s novel Dark Page for the screen, retitling it Scandal Sheet (Columbia, 1952). Fuller later admitted that he had attempted to keep too much of the book in his script. Nevertheless, he told Porfirio and Ursini that “seeing how others directed my scripts before making my first picture was a good learning experience.” Bearing a passing resemblance to Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, which had hit the screens four years earlier, though the book had been published three years after Fuller’s novel, Dark Page concerns a managing editor who accidentally kills his mistress. The editor, partly as an act of bravado, partly as a game, and partly for reasons of professional integrity, assigns his best reporter to cover the case. As a result, the editor, to avoid discovery, must commit further murders. Naturally, circulation grows as the Lonelyheart Murders are reported with increasing cynicism in the press. The combination of Fuller and Karlson is an interesting one. For the two directors had similar, but slightly different, perspectives. While both believed the status quo was turning the American dream into a nightmare, Karlson liked to look back with nostalgia to a time when America was, as far as he was concerned, a decent country. However, Fuller, vitriolic when it came to bourgeois hypocrisy, viewed corruption as endemic and society as constantly at war with itself. And war, as Fuller would say, is just another name for “organised lunacy.”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Missing Person: Marty (Mary) Holland

I probably won’t get any responses to this because it’s a bit obscure, but does anyone out there have any information about Marty- real name, Mary- Holland, who wrote the novel on which Fallen Angel is based, and the story on which The File on Thelma Jordan is based? Both are, of course, film noir classics, but virtually nothing is known about Holland, other than the fact that she changed her first name, presumably to disguise her gender, and that was a novelist of some repute during the late 1940s. She also wrote three novels: Fallen Angel, also titled Blonde Baggage (1945), Darling of Paris (1949) and Glass Heart (aka Her Private Passions, 1948). Thanks to the research skills of Megan Abbott, who has recently become one of my favourite noirists, I discovered that Holland is often mentioned in the Los Angeles Times during the late 1940s regarding various projects, including a stage play and a movie project with Rita Hayworth. After that, she vanishes from sight and from public memory. Anyone who has seen either Fallen Angel or Thelma Jordan will know that Holland must surely be an interesting writer of noir fiction and deserves recognition. Can anyone out there help solve the Marty-Mary Holland mystery?

Friday, March 30, 2007

In Search of the Blues:
Black Voices, White Visions
by Marybeth Hamilton
One of the most interesting of recent books on the blues is Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues (Cape). What’s noteworthy here is that this is a study of blues collectors, those who went out and collected songs and, later, those who collected records and rediscovered those who made those recordings. Hamilton’s story begins with Howard Odum and ends with the eccentric James McKune. This is a book that debunks myths and describes an interesting but weird world in which obsession and issues of racism and exploitation are never far off the page. For me, it immediately becomes part of a welcome blues revisionism that includes Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta- Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, and Stephen Calt’s biography of Skip James, I’d Rather Be the Devil. All books that tell it like it was rather than like many would have liked it to have been. If anything, I wanted Hamilton’s book to be longer. More about early collectors. More about McKune. And others, like Fahey and Calt, who followed him. And what about Brits like Mike Ledbitter and Paul Oliver? But perhaps all this was outside the scope of Hamilton’s remit. Also missing was just why the music was so relevant, not just as a social phenomenon, but as a musical experience. On the other hand, what’s refreshing about Hamilton’s book is it’s amateur approach. Well-researched and well-thought out, even if somewhat incomplete.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A bit more on Pete Dexter’s Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires. In case, you haven’t come across the book or its various reviews of it- all of which have been laudatory- it’s a collection of Dexter’s columns which he wrote some years back for the Philadelphia Daily News, the Sacramento Bee, Esquire and Sports Illustrated. These days, of course, Dexter is one of the best slice-of-life novelists around, author of Train, Paris Trout, The Paperboy, God’s Pocket and Brotherly Love. In fact, I was more impressed with this collection than I thought I would be. The short vignettes- most of them coming in at around 1500 words- about loners, loser and eccentrics, including a fair dose of killers, psychos, athletes and ordinary people, including himself and his family- have not only withstood the test of time in a way that most collected journalism does not, but constitute short stories on their own. Or seeds of novels, such the column that would later form the basis of the excellent God’s Pocket. Normally, in a collection like this I’ll pick and choose, skip the stuff I don’t like. But in this case there was nothing for me to skip over. Reading it also has made me come to the conclusion that isn’t anyone who writes quite like Dexter, who can be so tough and so tender- bordering occasionally on sentimentality and a somewhat strained humor, the result no doubt of having to meet deadlines. Nor can I think of anyone able to use the genre of column writing as Dexter did, who could be, one the one hand, so economical with words, yet so expansive in his thoughts. Breslin may have reinvigorated the genre- well, not exactly, because before him there was the likes of Heywood Broun not to mention Mark Twain and Mencken- but Dexter digs deep, and invariably comes up with the goods. Sure, sometimes he falls short of that perfect final line that’s meant to neat sum everything up. And I could have done with fewer entries about his bloody cat. Nevertheless, this is a book that every writer should read. Now I’m going to go back to his novels, which I’ve only partially read.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What I’ve Been reading:

Pete Dexter- Paper Trails
Megan Abbott- To Die For, The Song Is You.
David Peace- The Damned United.
Jess Walter- Citizen Vince
John Barker- Bending the Bars
Marybeth Hamilton- In Search of the Blues

What I’ve Been listening to:

Ry Cooder- My Name is Buddy
The Five Royales- It’s Hard But It’s Fair
Elmo Hope- Plays His own Compositions
Chuck E. Weiss- 23rd & Stout
Buck Owens- Sings Harlan Howard
Eddi Reader- Peacetime

Friday, March 02, 2007

No Bed of Her Own by Val Lewton
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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Edward Anderson: From Hungry Men to Thieves Like Us

Part 2

Over the years, Anne would remain particularly bitter that her ex-husband had received only $500 for the film rights to Thieves Like Us. Particularly when she thought about those lines of Keechie’s that she had edited or, in some instances, composed. Anderson’s deal was typical at a time when Hollywood sought to buy, at a premium if possible, novels that could be adapted for the screen. Though buying the rights was a gamble for Rowland Brown, a director-writer past his peak and trying to ease his way back into the frontline of Hollywood productions, he would do well by the deal. Known for his gangster films and portrayal of underworld figures as part and parcel of the capitalist ethic, Brown had hit his peak in 1932, directing and writing the influential Hell’s Highway. As an indication of how fickle Hollywood can be, Brown, three years before securing the rights to Thieves Like Us, had been responsible for Angels With Dirty Faces, which had earned him an Academy Award. Yet by 1939, and the purchase of Anderson’s novel, he was already yesterday’s movie news.

At least Brown’s script remained true to the spirit of the book, incorporating, as it did, large chunks of its dialogue and observations. If Brown was to fail, he was going to do so without sacrificing his artistic and political integrity. Unfortunately, he would immediately have problems with the film, failing in his attempt to cast his friend Joel McCrea as Bowie. When Paramount refused to allow McCrea to work outside the studio, Brown should have realised the project was unlikely to get off the ground.

In 1941, Brown, his career almost over- he did go on to receive story credits for Edward Marin’s Nocturne (1946) and Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential- sold the film rights and script to RKO for $10,000. Not a bad return on his $500 investment. Despite Brown’s track record, RKO sought another director. Either they considered Brown past his sell-by date, or, having seen his script, and knowing his reputation, they were concerned about the film’s politics. It could also have been that Brown had ignored the changes demanded by the Breen Office, or refused to kowtow to Washington insistence that representing judges and prison guards as evil or cynical was counter-productive to the war effort.

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

Making $300 a week, Ray wanted Robert Mitchum for the part of Chicamaw. Mitchum had not only read the book and liked it, but, as a child of the Depression, had first-hand knowledge of boxcars, soup kitchens and Hoovervilles, and had even been arrested for vagrancy and served time on a Georgia chain gang. However, the studio refused to let their $3,250 per week marijuana-smoking star take the role. According to Mitchum, RKO thought of him as a male Jane Russell. With a reputation as a troublemaker, the studio wanted to keep a tight rein on their actor. Had Mitchum landed the part, the ambiance of the film might have been decidedly different. As it is, Ray’s casting- Howard Da Silva, who had appeared in Houseman’s The Cradle Will Rock, as Chicamaw, Cathy O’Donnell as Keechie and Farley Granger as Bowie- seems nearly perfect.

Though the war was over, the film was still having problems with the Breen Office, as well as Howard Hughes, who was back in charge of the studio. Hughes wasn’t very interested in Ray’s film, while, in 1946, the Breen Office was saying that “one very objectionable, inescapable flavour of this story is the general indictment of Society which justifies the title.” This might account for the film’s various title changes, the studio’s confusion over the contrasting approaches Ray and the producers sought to take, and the depoliticalisation of the film’s content. Originally Ray had wanted to call the film Little Red Wagon, as in “it’s your little red wagon,” by which was meant, “it’s your business.” Then Ray, who considered himself a leftist, changed the title to I’m a Stranger Here Myself. Thus shifting the film’s focus from a song of experience to a song of innocence. Other titles booted around by the studio included The Narrow Road, The Dark Highway, The Twisted Road, Never Let Me Go, and Hold Me Close. Finally, in a poll conducted by Houseman, preview spectators delivered the verdict: the film would be titled They Live By Night. Even depoliticised, the film still looked like it might never reach the screen. It was only when Dore Schary, another Hollywood liberal, took over as head of production in 1947 that the film would be given the green light.

Upon its release in Spring, 1949, Ray’s film, eventually written by Charles Schnee from the director’s adaptation (before Schnee, who wrote Red River, came on board, there had been talk that A.I. Bezzerides might write the screenplay), had little box office impact. Film goers were looking for more urbane material. While Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script are prefaced by a passage from Solomon- “Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry; but if he be found, he shall restore sevenfold; he shall give all the substance of his house.”- Ray prefaces his film with the following: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Thus Ray’s film lacks the urgency of Anderson’s novel and Brown’s script. Without Brown’s politics, Ray bent Anderson’s text- flexible by virtue of its lack of politics- into his own brand of intimate lyricism.

Ray’s capitulation over the sound track is another indication of how far the film strayed from his original vision and the novel’s orientation. It had been Ray’s intention for the the music to be a defining element around which the action would take place. In a sense, the soundtrack Ray envisioned was something Robert Altman- who revolutionised the concept of soundtracks in his film Nashville- created in his remake. In the latter, background and foreground were blurred through the use of fragments derived from the era’s radio dramas- Gang Busters, Romeo and Juliette- and music. Had Ray stuck to his original idea, viewers might have been treated, as was his intention, to Leadbelly singing “Midnight Special,” as well as an assortment of other folk music and radio programmes of the era. Unfortunately, all that remains is a snatch of Woody Guthrie singing “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Upon completion of the film in 1947, Bantam republished Anderson’s novel under the title Your Red Wagon in a print run of 270,000 copies. However, the author, no longer owning his own book, would receive no money from the film tie-in. Though ready for release in 1947, the film, thanks to more discussion between Ray, Houseman, Schary and Hughes over the title, to wait a further two years before it hit the screens.

Not surprisingly, Anderson believed Hollywood owed him something beyond the $500 he’d received for the film rights. Upon its release, Anderson, at the time making $30 a week as a Forth Worth journalist, wrote to Howard Hughes at RKO, asking for money should the film become the success predicted by newspaper columnist Louella Parsons. Hughes, unperturbed by ethics, couldn’t be bothered to respond to Anderson, but handed the letter to someone in his legal department who, in a terse and formal reply, turned down Anderson’s appeal.

For close to twenty years, the world forgot about both the novel and its author. By 1964 RKO had allowed the book to fall into public domain. Though the studio didn’t reregister the title, it did retain adaptation and foreign rights. Having paid 25 cents for a copy of the novel while browsing in Needham’s Bookfinder in L.A., independent producer Jerry Bick purchased the rights to Anderson’s book from RKO. It was said that John Ford was also interested in remaking the film. Ironically, the fact that the conservative Ford was able to tolerate the “social significance” of Anderson’s novel- saying it could not be avoided- is another indication of the pliability of Anderson’s novel.

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

Altman shot his version of Anderson’s novel in Mississippi, in cities like Jackson, Vicksbourg and an assortment of small towns, such as Morton and Pocahantus. The film, which Altman finished at the end of 1973, differs greatly from Ray’s. With its own historical sense and politics, Altman was able to strip away Ray’s sentimentality and romanticism, replacing it with a stony-faced and laconic stoicism. Both are excellent films. Ray’s might be the more moving, but Altman’s, with its humour, brutality and finely drawn characters, is the more believable. Where Altman seeks realism, Ray opts for romance. Though Anderson might have had less time for Ray’s psychological interpretation, he would probably have preferred Altman’s adaptation, which, other than the ending, sticks more closely to the novel.

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

Lupe could barely speak English, but Anderson’s border Spanish was sufficient for purposes of communication. A modest woman, Lupe wore no make-up or jewellery, and neither drank nor smoked. She had a child from a previous relationship, and it wasn’t long before she and Anderson had a new-born son. But Anderson wasn’t ready to settle down. While Lupe remained in Brownsville, he continued to wander. Even if the combination of Lupe and Swedenborg gave Anderson’s life a modicum of stability, he was demonstrating signs of increasing mental unbalance. Not only was it his ambition to write sermons and promotional material for young evangelists, but, in a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “It is also my discovery...that the United States is unprecedented, perhaps, since the Egyptians, in the worship of ‘graven images,’ automobiles, that is. Their adoration of the scarab (beatle) is historic and it is not accidental. I hold, that the most popular car in the world today is the Volkswagen, known also as the ‘beatle.’” Living off social security checks, Anderson claimed to be working on a book that would expose the corruption of the clergy. He moved to Cuero, a small port town near Corpus Christi, where he worked on the Record, writing articles and putting the paper together. It would be his fifty-second newspaper. Crankier than ever, he was known to rant about Zionism, believed Charles Lindberg would one day lead the nation, and expressed admiration for Robert Kennedy and Helen Keller. He was also working on a Swedenborgian text, “O Man, Know Thyself.”

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

Anderson’s literary accomplishments would remain largely ignored. If anything, his lack of recognition was as much the result of not belonging to a literary group or movement, as to his literary inactivity or increasing mental unbalance. Neither a Black Mask hardboiler, a Hollywood backslapper, nor a well-connected East Coast journalist, Anderson was always out on his own. To make matters worse, Anderson could never crank out paperback pulp fiction, much less brain-numbing film adaptations. Though his gifts were suited for the 1930s, his fiction became lost amidst the more extreme stylisations of later years, only, ironically, to be recycled in an age of tough love and trickle down economics. While one cannot help but be moved by his fiction, Anderson’s life was shaped by the same circumstances that moulded the lives of his characters. He was just another victim of hungry men and thieves like us.