Sunday, November 23, 2008

Recent recommended reads:

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Turnaround by George Pelecanos
Senseless by Stona Fitch
Dog Eats Dog by Iain Levison
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

Thursday, October 23, 2008

North Soho 999 by Paul Willetts
The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

Both these books- one a true crime investigation, the other a novel- take place in London, and can be considered partners in crime. Though the latter is set just prior to WW3, and the former just after, both convey an anxiety about the abrupt changes that are about to take place in the world. I n North Soho 999, subtitled “A true story of teenage gun-crime in 1940s London,” Willetts- who also wrote the excellent Julian MacLaren Ross biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia- digs into the archives to investigate a jewellery store robbery carried by a seventeen year old and two accomplices which results in a murder and, eventually, an execution. Assiduously searching through police and newspaper files, Willetts manages to investigate the crime and a society only just adjusting to modern methods deployed by the police to stem the rising tide of post-war gun crime. The crime would capture the public’s imagination and have an impact on popular culture, influencing the making of Basil Dearden’s highly 1949 film, The Blue Lamp, which, in turn, would influence UK cop films, TV programs and even police procedural fiction, whether Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, Marker, Rebus or Resnick. At times, Willetts book reads like a novel, though the author makes it clear from the outset that he’s making nothing up, that everything comes straight from the records and reports of the period. If anything, there’s too much detail. Yet the information about Scotland Yard procedure, post-war spiv culture, executions, Soho drinking spots, as well as the confluence of personalities (Fabian of the Yard, Pierpoint the executioner, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh, Hugh Gaitskill, Tom Driberg, Robert Capa, Ingrid Bergman, Francis Bacon, all drinking side by side at the Fitzroy) is never less than fascinating. Anyone who thinks London gun crime in London is something new will be in for a surprise.

Willets contributes an introduction to The Gilt Kid, and, at the end of the book, an interview with Curtis’s daughter. Until now, James Curtis had been just another lost London lowlife novelist from the 1930s and 1940s, albeit one with a slight. Consequently, the reprinting of this novel, first published in 1936, is not only welcome but also overdue. Born into a comfortable middle class family, Curtis (1907-1977) wrote six novels that manage to combine the proletariat eye of James T. Farrell’s proletariat fiction with Patrick Hamilton’s fascination London low-life. Successful as a novelist prior to the war, Curtis soon faded into obscurity, ending up in a North London bed-sit (not far from where North Soho 999 takes place) and working as a night porter in West End hotels. Anyone who has seen the adaptations of Curtis’s novels, They Drive By Night, directed by Arthur Woods (1938) and There Ain’t No Justice, directed by Penrose Tennyson (1939), will not be disappointed by The Gilt Kid. About an ex-con and a robbery that can’t go wrong, it opens with the Kid reading Karl Marx in a bed-sit. Like most low-life protagonists, he hates work and sees himself as a hard-bitten, cynical revolutionary who knows the angles and, when not hanging-out in pubs, caffs and bus stops, spends his time picking up women, thieving, brawling and taking nocturnal strolls through the West End. A fascinating product of the pre-war era, The Gilt Kid, despite the author’s overuse of cockney rhyming slang, holds up well. Kudos to London Books for bringing this one out. Let’s hope they’ve got their eyes on other London low-life classics, such as Mark Benney’s Low Company or even Gerald Butler’s Kiss the Blood From My Hands.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Do we dream movies or do movies dream us? That’s the foundation on which Erickson, the author of several surreal-noir narratives set in a bleak future-present Southern California, constructs his latest and most fluid novel. As the title suggests, everything begins at zero-level, with the arrival in L.A. of Vikor, a cine-autistic who sports a shaved head, one side of which is tattooed with an image of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor from Stevens’ A Place In the Sun. A refugee from a religious father who equates innocence with depravity, and a seminary unable to countenance his doorless architectural project, Vikor is marginal enough to have descended from another planet. It’s the day after the Manson murders, and Vikor is odd enough to be a potential suspect for those grisly murders. However, the police interrogation troubles him less than the fact that, in celluloid city, the couple tattooed on his head is too often mistaken for James Dean and Natalie Wood. Seeking refuge in a downtown cinema, Vikor, who loves movies because he’s certain God hates them, watches Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Kubrick’s 2001, films that confirm his belief that movies are mostly about repression and sacrifice.

Zeroville recalls an era when a new generation of film-schooled directors was making its presence felt. Like Kaspar Hauser in a land of vipers, Vikor wanders through a world in which few can afford to take him at face value. Eventually he becomes a film editor, yet one who eschews continuity. Due to exigencies of the industry and his growing reputation, Vikor is finally given free reign in the editing room. Producers hope his agenda will see him through, though they’re never sure where that agenda comes from or what it’s going to produce. Is he, they wonder, a genius, an idiot or merely insane? Not realizing Vikor’s world derives entirely from lines and attitudes others give him, which means he functions as a fogged-up mirror to all that’s redundant. No wonder he hasn’t heard of Vietnam or Europe, and when Patty Hearst is kidnapped, doesn’t know if it’s because her kidnappers hate Citizen Kane or because they love it. Though he does find a few others equally obsessed and marginal, including a petty thief, a female escort, and, most importantly, the daughter of a mysterious woman rumoured to be Bunuel’s illegitimate offspring. Inevitably a cult hero, Vikor prefers scouring his film collection in search of single frames that, when spliced together, comprise a film that will show the true reality of movies. After all, Vikor knows we are defined by the films we see. Filled with surprises, Zeroville is about what movies are and why they matter. Moreover, it reads like a dream. Or should one say a movie.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

First published by Harcourt in 1966, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter would briefly make it onto the fringes of the best-seller list. Unfortunately, after a handful of reprintings- the last a Ballantine paperback edition in 1987- the book was to pretty much vanish from sight. I remember briefly meeting Carpenter- it was Richard Brautigan who introduced us- at a San Francisco coffee house in the late 1960s. At the time I had no idea Carpenter was a novelist, much less one with a truly great novel under his belt. But then it was unlikely that such a hardboiled, street-wise rendering like Hard Rain Falling was going to qualify as a livre du jour in that particular time and place. After his initial success, Carpenter would continue to publish, only, like so many others, to fall victim to the lure of Hollywood, caught between embracing its promise of fame and fortune and rejecting its advances and the inevitable compromises accompanying them. So It’s hardly surprising that many remember Carpenter simply as the screenwriter of the 1973 cult movie Payday, in which Rip Torn plays a third-rate Hank Williams. It’s a film Carpenter co-produced with the late jazz writer and San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph J. Gleason. Carpenter followed Payday with a screenplay based on Charles Bukowski’s novel Post Office, which, however interesting, would become yet another aborted Hollywood project.

It might have been published forty years ago, but Hard Rain Falling reads like it could have been written yesterday. Built around the life of Jack Levitt, an orphan who grows up to be a drifter and constantly in trouble with the law, the book’s honesty, insight and lack of sentimentality make both the narrative and its protagonist heart-renderingly real: “He was buried inside his skin, bones, and nerves, and he would have to get out of there if he was to understand his pain. If it was pain. He knew people suffered agony, and he wondered if what he felt was agony. It did not seem like the descriptions of agony. He wondered if it wasn’t just self-pity again.” Moving from Portland pool halls to San Quentin, where Levitt falls in love with his cell-mate, to the mean streets of San Francisco, the novel, which takes place between 1929 and 1963, carries an intensity that perhaps only a young writer willing to pour out his soul can instill in their work.

In effect, Hard Rain Falling revises both the juvenile delinquent novel, so popular during the late 1940s, and the prison novel. In doing so Carpenter creates something unique, a coming of age street novel that unflinchingly examines race, class, male sexuality and the injustices perpetrated by the criminal justice system. In this way it can be classed alongside books by authors like Robert Tasker, Jack London, Clarence Cooper Jr, Chester Himes and Edward Bunker. Coming out of the Dreiser school of social realism, Hard Rain Falling is not only brutally honest, but also beautifully rendered. What’s more, no one, Walter Tevis and Richard Jessup included, writes more convincingly about the complex world of poker and pool-hustling. Though he would go on to publish some ten books, including at least three Hollywood novels, Carpenter was never able to recapture the magic of Hard Rain Falling. Sadly, in 1995, plagued by medical problems, and haunted by Brautigan’s suicide, Carpenter, at age 64, ended up shooting himself at his home in Mill Valley, California. As a reminder of how cruel and beautiful this world can sometimes be, Hard Rain Falling deserves greater recognition and a publisher willing to reprint what must surely constitute one of the best American novels to appear, however briefly, during the last fifty years.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Fante: Between Two Worlds
Part 2

One reason Fante continued to work in the studios was that, even though he published in magazines and obtained a handful of modest book contracts, he was never able to make much money from his fiction, nor find a substantial audience for his work. On the other hand, he was not doing badly for a fledgling writer. In 1932, Mencken paid him $125- worth at least ten times that amount at today’s prices- for his story “Home Sweet Home.” Within the year there were four more stories paid at a similar rate (though Story magazine paid Fante only $15 for “My Mother’s Goofy Song”). Even if it didn’t compare with what he could make working for the studios, writing for magazines could be a lucrative occupation. Moreover, in 1933 Knopf was willing to pay Fante $50 a month- a total of $600 in all- for the manuscript of The Road to Los Angeles.

Though he was represented for a time by the famous Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson, Fante, after Dago Red, had to wait another twelve years before his next book, the 1952 Full of Life. Ironically, considering its subject matter, and its status as the least gritty of his novels, Full of Life would mark Fante’s greatest success as a novelist and screenwriter. Made into a film starring Judy Holliday and Anthony Quinn, and directed by Richard Quine (1956), it concerns a couple’s first child and their attempt to become upstanding assimilated middle-class citizens. Following the book and film, and despite their success, Fante was on the verge of becoming one of literature’s disappeared. It would be another twenty-five years before the publication of Brotherhood of the Grape, a novel in which Bandini returns to Colorado for his father’s funeral. Par for the course, it is another investigation of guilt, lapsed Catholicism, drinking, and sex, set against a backdrop of poverty, racism, and Bandini’s need to prove himself.

Frank Fenton, a transplanted Englishman, scriptwriter, author of the Hollywood novel A Place in the Sun and Fante’s drinking and poker partner, outlined the trials and tribulations of a Hollywood screenwriter in a late 1940’s article entitled “The Hollywood Literary Life.” Humorously criticising the notion of Hollywood as a “hack’s utopia,” Fenton maintains that writing scripts is “a bastard type of fiction, with no discernible rules for its composition.” Ulcers, ingratitude, bankruptcy, frustration- these all await a B movie writer who would “gladly throw the Crucifixion out of the New Testament for a laugh.” Likewise, around that time, Fante would write the following: “The movie people are not making movies the way they did before the war. There used to be 30,000 people working every day in the studios. Now there are less than half of that number. There are supposed to be about 2,000 writers in Hollywood. No more than 150 are working. The whole lies in the uncertain future. The coming of television has greatly changed the situation. Everybody is afraid to spend money. There are even some who believe the movie industry is finished for good, just like the old silent pictures ended when talking pictures were introduced.” While Fenton was correct, Fante’s remarks would prove prophetic. However, for the latter, the situation was soon to worsen.

Two decades after the success of Full of Life, Bukowski, in an introduction to a new edition of Ask the Dust, wrote: “[Fante] is a story of terrible luck and terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.” This might be the case, but Fante’s lack of literary recognition was, in many ways, his own doing. Having been raised in poverty and seeking financial security, Fante, rather than become a struggling novelist, made a conscious decision to pursue an alternative career. Though he may not have set Hollywood alight, Fante rarely lacked work. Edward Dmytryk who directed Fante scripts of Walk on the Wild Side and The Reluctant Saint, and one of those indicted during the McCarthy era, only to end up giving names to the HUAC, said, “[Fante] was a great movie writer who wasn’t understood by producers...He had a wonderful sense of contrast. To develop character. Not every writer has that...And Fante...always had. Right from the very beginning.”

Though he worked on a number of scripts- most of them would not reach the screen- Fante always felt he had, to some degree, prostituted himself. With tongue only half in-cheek, he signed a 1944 copy of Dago Red, from “that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist, that sublime literary pervert, that aborted lyricist.” According to friend and fellow scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides, “[Fante] knew he was a good writer. Even though he wasn’t a successful writer... I think he was disappointed, because he wrote those things with all these feelings and nobody responded to him. And that they’re responding to him today, like he wouldn’t believe, is fantastic. But why so fucking late?”

Another reason Fante remained in the studios was that he had grown accustomed to a particular life-style. He had acquired a large house in Malibu, a family, and a mild gambling habit. Not to mention a taste for flashy convertibles, card playing and running-up sizable debts. Fortunately, Fante, known for his eccentricity- at Metro, he shocked the secretaries by writing at his desk clad only in his underpants (a story about Fante writing naked, the result of a publicity piece by Joyce Smart Fante, in which she jokingly remarked that her husband always begins writing fully clothed and ends up naked, was picked up on by the rightwing syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler)- quick temper and fondness for pinball machines- Saroyan modelled the pinball fanatic in The Time of Your Life on him- was, at the height of his career, collecting a weekly salary in excess of four figures.

Having to contend with the political climate of the 1940s and 1950s, Fante believed his independent politics and status as a first generation Italian-American stopped him from becoming a more successful writer. Hardly rightwing- amongst his best friends were leftwing social critics McWilliams (he would accompany McWilliams on the latter’s speaking engagements) and Louis Adamic (a former worker in a San Pedro pilot house who was found in his home dead from a gunshot wound at the height of the McCarthy era)- Fante, despite his lack of politics, voted in favour of the 1945 Writers’ Guild strike which concerned the issue of hiring and firing screenwriters. With the studios trying to play one set of workers against another, leftwing writer Lester Cole would call Fante a fascist for voting in favour of the strike. Ironical that a communist such as Cole would criticise Fante for voting in favour of industrial action. But, at the time, the party, still observing their popular front policy, viewed industrial action as counter- productive. Often questioned by the FBI regarding his knowledge of Hollywood communists- standard procedure if one wanted a screenwriting job during the war- Fante must have supplied them with information enough to keep him employed during that era.

1945 was also the year Fante would abandon his long-term project, a novel centred on L.A. Filipino culture. Fante had been interested in the subject ever since first arriving in California. With author Carlos Buscolan- another L.A. communist, and the subject of a series of encounters between Fante and the FBI- as his guide, Fante had been making the rounds of Filipino nightclubs, restaurants and poolhalls. The novel was to be entitled Little Brown Brothers, and was mentioned by the author as early as 1933. Unfortunately, it was, by all accounts, an embarrassing affair and received a less than favourable reception at Viking. Intended to rival The Grapes of Wrath- Fante thought of it as the literary equivalent of Carey McWilliams’s influential non-fiction, and a cross between James M. Cain and Harriet Beecher Stowe- it was not written in Fante’s usual intuitive style, but elaborately plotted and written in a highly stilted manner.

After Full of Life, Fante went on to pen scripts for Orson Welles (It’s All True, for which Fante contributed “Love Story,” a short narrative about how his parents had fallen in love), Harry Cohn, and Dino Dilaurentis, none of which would see the light of day. By the beginning of the 1960s, with the contract system fast becoming an anachronism, Fante was freelancing and expressing concern about his future: “The complexities of film writing today, with the decline of production in Hollywood and the resulting bulge in Europe, are almost too much to think about.” By the 1960s and the demise of the studio system, Fante, in poor health, was scrambling for work, a situation documented in his 1971 novella, and only work of fiction from that period, My Dog Stupid: “It was January, cold and dark and raining, and I was tired and wretched, and my windshield wipers weren’t working, and I was hung over from a long evening of drinking and talking with a millionaire director who wanted me to
write a film about the Tate Murders ‘in the manner of Bonnie and Clyde, with wit and style.’ ...‘We’ll be partners, fifty-fifty.’ It was the third offer of that kind I’d had in six months, a very discouraging sign of the times.”

But Fante’s career was given a boost in the early 1970s, when Robert Towne, while doing research for Polanski’s Chinatown, came across Ask the Dust, and optioned the book, paying Fante $4,500, twice the amount the author had received upon the book’s initial publication. In a letter to McWilliams, Fante, in good humour, reflects on his fate: “The combined revenue I have had from Wait Until Spring Bandini, Ask the Dust and Dago Red...wouldn’t purchase a lawnmower on today’s market, and man, what I really need today is a good mower.”

In the same letter, Fante mentions that he had begun Brotherhood of the Grape, “the story of four Italian wine drunks from Roseville, a tale revolving around my father and his friends.” When, in 1975, Towne heard about the manuscript, he purchased an option on it even though it had yet to be published. Not only was Towne instrumental in trying to find a publisher for the novel, but he brought the book to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola who serialised it in his San Francisco magazine City. Invited to Coppola’s home for dinner, Fante and his wife, after a screening of Full of Life, were told by Coppola that he intended to film Brotherhood of the Grape. With a script by Towne- “I don’t think he is a very good screen writer despite his reputation,” said Fante in a letter to McWilliams- shooting was to commence after the completion of Apocalypse Now. Coppola also said he wanted Fante to write a script for him. But his studio, Zoetrope, would go bankrupt after Apocalypse Now, and Brotherhood of the Grape would never go into production. Neither would Fante ever write a script for Coppola, though it is interesting to speculate on the result of such a collaboration, as well as the riches and reputation that might have come Fante’s way. Equally, had Fante not been indentured to Hollywood, there is no telling what he might have produced as a novelist. Though Larry McMurtry, in reviewing Brotherhood of the Grape, insisted that Fante disproves the idea that screenwriting is inevitably destructive for novelists.

While Fante’s work remains more satisfying and realistic than any number of contemporary interpretations of Los Angeles, his son, Dan, carries on the family tradition, having written the excellent Chump Change, which contains material about his father. Suffice it to say that John Fante wrote some classic novels, as hardbitten, if not hardboiled, as they come. Certainly Bukowski was right when he said of Fante, “The way of his words and the way of his way are the same: strong and good and warm.”

Novels Ask the Dust (1939, 1980), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, Canongate, Edinburgh; The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977, 1988), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Dago Red (short stories, 1940, 1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Full of Life (1952, 1988), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; 1933 Was a Bad Year (1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; The Road to Los Angeles (1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938, 1983), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, Canongate, Edinburgh; West of Rome (novellas, 1986), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; The Wine of Youth (stories, 1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa.
Films Dinky, Warners, 1935. Story by Fante, Frank Fenton and Samuel Gibson Brown. East of the River, Warners, 1940, Story by Fante and Ross B. Wills. The Golden Fleecing, MGM, 1940. Story by Fante, Fenton and Lynn Root. Youth Runs Wild, RKO Radio, 1940. Screenplay by Fante. My Man and I, MGM, 1952, Screenplay by Fante and Jack Leonard. Full of Life, Columbia, 1956, Adapted by Fante from his novel.Jeanne Eagels. Columbia, 1962. Screenplay by Fante, Daniel Fuchs and Sonya Levien. Walk on the Wild Side, Columbia, 1962. Adapted from Nelson Algren’s novel by Fante and Edmund Morris. The Reluctant Saint. Davis-Royal Films International, 1962. Screenplay by Fante and Joseph Petracca. My Six Loves, Paramount, 1963, Screenplay by Fante, Joseph Calvelli and William Wood. Maya, MGM, 1966, screenplay by Fante. Something by a Lonely Man, Universal Television, 1968. Screenplay by Fante and Frank Fenton.
Sources A Correspondence: Fante/Mencken, ed., Michael Moreau, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa. Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper, North Point Press/Canongate, Edinburgh, 2000. John Fante, Selected Letters, 1932-1981, ed. Seamus Cooney, 1991, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Fante: Between Two Worlds

Part 1

Whatever success John Fante was to achieve as a Hollywood screenwriter would come at the expense of his career as an even more successful novelist. Neither a hardboiled writer, nor a film noir screenwriter, Fante was part of a regional proletariat tradition which would influence hardboiled fiction and film noir. The author of seven novels, two novellas, eleven screenplays and numerous short stories, John Fante’s appeal belies his status as a cult writer. Born in 1909, he would become an early chronicler of low-life Los Angeles, and a forerunner to a reality-based writing associated with the likes of Charles Willeford, Edward Bunker and Jim Thompson. In effect, his fiction bridges the gulf separating hardboilers and low-lifers, such as Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby.

Lauded by such disparate figures as H.L. Mencken, Carey McWilliams and Bukowski, Fante appears to have courted obscurity. First as an impoverished novelist who searched, often in vain, for a publisher- this despite his stories appearing, from 1932 when Fante was just twenty-three years old, in Mencken’s American Mercury and Whit Burnett and Martha Foley’s Story magazine- then as a moderately successful screenwriter whose credits include Jeanne Eagels (with Daniel Fuchs), Walk on the Wild Side The Reluctant Saint and Full of Life (adapted from his 1952 novel).

Seeking work in the studios was, in many ways, an unfortunate career move. For Fante had only recently taken his first steps towards producing a brand of populist fiction which revels in the urban diversity and chaos of what, these days, is a barely recognisable Los Angeles. Writing about such perennials as love, sex, drunkenness, writing, rejection and survival, his fiction, Fante’s writing, even in its earliest incarnation, moves between depictions of Italian-American culture and portrayals of fallen Angelinos, whether Mexican waitresses, Filipinos dishwashers, Greek wrestlers, Black itinerants, Jewish merchants, and movie industry hacks.

After decades of literary neglect, Fante’s resuscitation began in the 1980s thanks partly to Bukowski who, as an avid Fante reader, penned an introduction to an edition of Ask the Dust. So devoted was Bukowski that, for a time, he took residence in what he believed to be Fante’s old Bunker Hill hotel, visited the ailing writer in the hospital, and, in the end, was one of the few who attended Fante’s funeral. At Bukowski’s urging, Black Sparrow Press, from the early 1980s onwards, would reprint virtually the entire Fante catalogue, including two unpublished novels, The Road to Los Angeles, from the 1930s, and 1933 Was a Bad Year, from the 1950s. Around the same time, screenwriter-director Robert Towne helped convince Houghton Miflin to buy Fante’s Brotherhood of the Grape. In Britain, Granada would reprint Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, both of which have recently gone through another print cycle courtesy of Canongate in Edinburgh, which, along with San Francisco’s North Point Press, have published Stephen Cooper’s biography of Fante, Full of Life.

Unfortunately, Fante did not live to witness the revival of his work. Diabetic since the mid-1950s, he lost his sight in 1975 and a leg in 1977. Still he managed to write, dictating his work to his wife, Joyce. Painstaking though the process of dictation must have been, Fante, during that time, produced Dreams from Bunker Hill, a classic tale concerning the ordeals of a young writer, and one of the great novels about Hollywood during the 1930s.

For a cult writer, Fante’s books have fared well, with hundreds of thousands of copies having been sold in the U.S. since 1980. In France, his sales have exceeded half a million, with much of his work having gone through a recent reprinting thanks to publishers 10/18. Over the years, articles on Fante have appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, American Film and Life. The latter would call Fante a national treasure. By the late 1980s, according to Joyce Fante, all of her husband’s work but one had been optioned to film companies.

And no wonder. Fante’s thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, from Journey to Los Angeles to Dreams from Bunker Hill, constitutes a history of the city in an era when Bunker Hill rooming houses were populated by writers, actors, winos, and prostitutes, and when, during the depression and war years, taxi-dance halls could be found along Main Street. Now that geography has faded into the past. For, in 1964, Fante’s beloved Bunker Hill was cleared to make way for the Music Center, an event that heralded the arrival of the new Los Angeles. By the time the Fante revival was under way, Los Angeles had been completely overhauled, which had the effect of making Fante’s fiction an artifact of a past era.

Not only was Fante one of the more interesting writers to come out of the Depression, ranking alongside Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West, but he was also one of a handful of regional writers who appeared on the literary scene during the 1930s. While the likes of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis were lionised, and modernists- Dos Passos, Farrell, and Fitzgerald- were the rage, Mencken in his magazine American Mercury and Burnett and Foley in their journal Story went out of their way to promote and publish writers with a more hardboiled attitude towards their subject matter and the world in general.

Though many still seek out writers from under-represented areas- whether James Lee Burke, John Carlos Blake or Sharyn McCrumb- these days, due to globalisation, mass communication and the information superhighway, the world has grown smaller and more homogeneous, resulting in regionalism having lost its cutting edge. However, the regionalists of the 1930s- A.I. Bezzerides writing about Fresno; Edward Anderson and George Milburn writing about Texas; James Ross writing about North Carolina, and John Fante writing about Los Angeles- came from the geographical and cultural margins. These writers were not so much a literary movement as a manifestation of Foley and Burnett’s literary inquisitiveness, as well as Mencken’s anti-bourgeois liberalism, and his interest in language and all things proletariat.

Surprisingly, Fante and Mencken would never meet Though Fante, like a number of other young writers during that period, was, at least early on, Mencken’s protege, and, having carried on a twenty year correspondence with the “sage of Baltimore,” would dedicate two novels to him. It was on Mencken’s advice that Fante, to subsidise his “real writing,” became a studio screenwriter. Working in Hollywood may have earned Fante a great deal of money, but scriptwriting, contrary to Mencken’s belief, would prevent him from doing all that much “real writing.”

It was through Mencken that Fante met the notorious Jim Tully. Fante phoned and mentioned Mencken’s name, and was invited to Tully’s mansion in Toluca Lake situated across the street from W.C. Fields’ house. Though he wrote back to Mencken that he found Tully likable, he, in fact, regarded Tully as humourless, overly dramatic and filled with self-importance. Of course, his reaction might have had something to do with Tully’s response to a short story that Fante had asked him to read. Having looked it over, Tully suggested the story would be better if it were not so bitter, adding that stories criticising Catholicism were difficult to place in most magazines.

Caught in the studio treadmill, Fante, as early as 1935, admitted, in a letter to his mother, that working in the film industry might have been a mistake: “In many ways I wish I had never worked for the movies. They have a tendency to spoil a good writer- particularly if he has not already published his first novel.” As one can see, Fante never abandoned his literary aspirations, nor his attempts at self-promotion. When future head of the writer’s department at MGM, Ross B. Wills, upon meeting him, said, “So you’re another of those guys who are going to write the Great American Novel, are you?”, Fante, having only recently arrived in Los Angeles, clenched his fists to the sky and mockingly proclaimed, “Ten! Twenty! Why I got forty great books in me! All I want is time, a typewriter, and a sandwich now and then.” However, once ensconced in the studios, Fante, from the 1940s to the 1960s, would produce little in the way of fiction.

After arriving in California from Boulder Colorado in 1929, Fante, influenced by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, was determined to become a writer. By 1932, thanks to fellow Italian-Americans Jo and Ernest Pagano, Fante was already on the fringe of Hollywood film and literary culture, working first at MGM, followed by stints at Warner, RKO, Columbia and Paramount. The Paganos played an important role in Fante’s life, particularly Jo, who was part of Nathaniel West’s circle and the author of, amongst other books, Golden Wedding and The Condemned, an excellent Leopold and Loeb-type thriller (adapted for the screen by Cyril Endfield in 1950 and, with a script by Pagano, retitled Try and Get Me). Fante’s first screenwriting success came in 1944, with the release of Youth Runs Wild, which critic James Agee singled out as one of the year’s best films. Yet, by the end of the war, Fante’s position at Paramount studios was that of a factory worker employed on a literary assembly line.

It was also through Mencken that Fante secured a contract at Knopf for his first novel, The Road to Los Angeles. But, after much deliberation, Knopf rejected the manuscript (as did, amongst others, Viking where a humourless reader wrote that the book “Compensates for its feeling of inferiority and self-disgust induced by the habit of parade of an undigested mass of fragments of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spengler..., together with self-advertisement as important writer in quest of material for a magnum opus.”), thus condemning an evocative and moving novel of 1930s Los Angeles to fifty years of obscurity. Four years after the latter’s rejection, Fante was finally able to publish his first novel, when Stackpole and Sons, a small press that would eventually be sued out of existence for printing an unauthorised edition of Mein Kampf, brought out Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The same company, in 1939, also published Ask the Dust. The following year, Fante broke into mainstream publishing time when Viking brought out a collection of stories, entitled Dago Red.

Ask the Dust forms part of the Bandini series: four novels concerning Arturo Bandini, a young romantic trapped within the confines of an immigrant Italian-American family and cultural tradition. Bandini’s stone mason father is forever unemployed, behind on bills and on the verge of losing his temper: “Dio cane. Dio cane. It means God is a dog and Svevo Bandini was saying it to the snow. Why did Svevo lose ten dollars in a poker game tonight at the Imperial Poolhall? He was such a poor man, and he had three children, and the macaroni was not paid , nor was the house in which the three children and the macaroni were kept. God is a dog.”
While his mother offsets her husband’s violence with an oppressive and stubborn Catholicism (significantly, Fante would eventually return to the Church), Fante’s alter ego, Arturo, dreams of becoming a writer and is not beyond using the confessional as a testing-ground for his future literary activities.

With the same raw honesty and vulnerability, Ask the Dust portrays Arturo as drunk, libidinous, brash, ambitious, and swept away by the freedom that Los Angeles offers. The critical response was generally favourable, though Fante was perturbed to read that some critics were saying that Arturo seemed to come right out of the pages of a William Saroyan novel. Still, the book did not receive the attention it deserved. Perhaps this was because it was published in 1939, the same year as West’s Day of the Locust, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Nevertheless, it was lauded by the likes of McWilliams, Louis Adamic, Saroyan and Gene Fowler. There was even talk that Metro, and then Paramount, might turn the novel into a film, but, in the end, no adaptation was forthcoming, and the book would have to take a back seat to other novels of the era.

Like the protagonist in Ask the Dust, Fante would never be able to fully extricate himself from the studios. The result was long periods when he could not write any fiction at all. Yet neither his film work nor his eventual illness could keep Fante from his favourite medium, nor alter his writing style and subject matter, which, despite the ups and downs of his career, remained unchanged throughout his life.

Monday, May 19, 2008

54 by Wu Ming

This is the same Italian collective that, under the name Luther Blissett, wrote Q, the acclaimed 16th century Euro-thriller. Now called Wu Ming (Mandarin for “No Name”), they’ve produced something even better, a sprawling Cold War thriller set, as the title suggests, in 1954. Though the old post-war era is not quite dead, the new one, dictated by TV, Hollywood and assorted forms of criminality, is about to be born. In Bologna, a young man searches for his ex-partisan father, who deserted Mussolini's army to fight alongside the communists in Yugoslavia. In Naples, exiled gangster Lucky Luciano solidifies his empire, while an underling steals the profits of a drugs deal. In Palm Springs, Cary Grant is persuaded by MI6 to undertake a secret mission to Yugoslavia to talk to Marshal Tito about making a film of his life, and so entice him away from the Soviet Union. Linking these narratives is a non-functioning American television, appropriately called a McGuffin, stolen from an army base near Naples, which passes through various hands. With the novel also taking place in Trieste, a city of civil unrest, and the south of France, where Grant comes out of retirement to make To Catch a Thief, there are cameos by Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and David Niven. Reminiscent of Ellroy and Dos Passos, 54 is also a critique of Fleming-inspired spy fiction. Travelling to Yugoslavia, Grant reads Casino Royale: “paragraph after paragraph of pointless details, depicting a lifestyle that struck Cary as brash and fake.” Yet Bond will personify the era, while Luciano peddles electrical appliances as well as drugs, for “everybody wants this new miracle of progress.” Highly recommended.

Monday, April 28, 2008

San Francisco Noir by Nathaniel Rich

While film noir is more often associated with Chandler’s L.A. and Woolrich’s New York, Hammett’s San Francisco is where it all began. Not only did Dash virtually invent hardboiled fiction, but Huston’s 1941 adaptation of his The Maltese Falcon helped kick-start film noir and establish San Francisco’s special relationship with the genre. So Rich’s small volume is a welcome edition to the cottage industry of recent film noir publications. Reading like a series of dreams, this part-film book and part-travel book cites practically every San Francisco-set film noir, devoting a chapter to each comprised of a critique and a description of relevant locations. In all some forty films, including Lady From Shanghai, Vertigo, Point Blank, and The Conversation. It’s enough to make you want to stick the book in your pocket, book a ticket and traverse the city searching for sites.

Anyone who remembers Joan Crawford running down a Russian Hill street in Miller’s 1952 Sudden Fear will know that San Francisco on a foggy night is as noir as it gets. But, according to Rich, it’s the city’s claustrophobic atmosphere, its reputation as a place of misfits and double-crossers, and its topography, apparent in films as dissimilar as Daves’s 1947 Dark Passage and Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, that give San Francisco its particular appeal. Rich also provides some fascinating trivia: for instance, the grave of Vertigo’s Carlotta remained undisturbed in Mission Dolores for twenty years, while Tourneur’s 1947 Out of the Past consists of San Francisco locations that don’t actually exist. Rich might skimp when it comes to stills depicting locations, but his book is essential reading for any fan of film noir.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Adapting Elmore

Though Elmore Leonard’s fiction now carries a literary seal of approval, films adapted from his street-level crime novels have, until recently, seldom exceeded the mediocre. As his novels- produced at nearly one a year for some forty years- have become more anodyne, his screen adaptations have become, on the whole, more watchable. Not that Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown are without blemishes. In fact, they might not be any more noteworthy than 3:10 to Yuma, Valdez is Coming, The Tall T and Hombre, adapted from Leonard’s stories when the latter was primarily a writer of westerns.

Yet there have been few writers who have been so often adapted, but so badly served. In a 1997 interview, Leonard recalls seeing the The Big Bounce (1969), adapted from his first crime novel: "About fifteen minutes into it, the woman sitting in front of me turned to her husband and said, 'This is the worst picture I ever saw.' And I agreed with her and all three of us got up and left." However, that film’s 2004 remake is barely any better. Made by George Armitage, the director of one of Leonard’s favourite films, Grosse Point Blank, the remake looks like a cross between a Hawaiian tourist board travelogue and Leonard dumbed-down for the sake of a consumer-oriented audience.

Part of the problem with adapting Leonard lies with an industry that seeks an easy profit, opting for generalities over detail, ersatz style over substance. Because Leonard’s fiction reads so effortlessly and seems cinematic, some think he can be produced on the cheap. As Leonard told me when I interviewed him for my book Heartbreak and Vine, “The problem is that what’s left after the adaptation is just the dialogue, and it’s not always my dialogue...[When] you reduce one of my manuscripts to 120 realise my books are not just about dialogue. Nor are they just about plot. It has more to do with the characters. So the screenplay is just the plot. An unusual plot, but it’s still just a plot.”

One wonders why it’s taken Hollywood so long to realise that Leonard’s work is character, rather than plot, driven. Even if his last few novels haven’t been as exciting as earlier work like City Primeval, La Brava and Glitz, characters in the more recent Mr Paradise and Tishomingo Blues retain their ambiguity, particularly Leonard’s criminals, who are as, if not more, interesting than those who pursue them. Though in Leonard’s world everyone stumbles towards corruption, there are, with the exception of his drug-addicted psychotics, few who do not garner sympathy from the reader. Consequently, part of the problem with Leonard adaptations has been Hollywood’s inability to establish back-stories for his various characters, or to understand that Leonard’s characters are more complex than they seem.

Faced with a novel that reads like a film treatment, directors convince themselves the hard work has been done. Yet until Get Shorty (1995), most of the characters in the films, even where Leonard is credited as screenwriter, have lacked the depth of their fictional dopplegangers. As Scott Frank, who wrote the script for Out of Sight and Get Shorty, said in an interview, “You have to start with those characters and that may mean reinventing some of the plot." Of course, plot fundamentalists would prefer not taking that risk. Yet Leonard’s plots are usually little more than an excuse for his characters to interact, revealing their personalities through their use of language.

Leonard’s humour, sprinkled with references to race and sex, has also been a problem for Hollywood. As Leonard told me, “When I wrote screenplays, I would...plot out adaptations straight from the books. I assumed that they liked the style, and the ironical element running throughout the story, which is not exactly comedy. Sure, the characters say funny things, but, ultimately, the characters aren’t trying to be funny.” At least Frank and Tarantino have understood that Leonard’s dialogue can be funny and serious at the same time. As Leonard reported saying to Sonnenfeld, “When one of the characters says something funny, don’t cut to another character to get a reaction or a laugh. Treat them seriously and let the audience decide.” Of course, Leonard’s characters love to talk. “‘Chili Palmer's a talker,’" says Nick in the novel Be Cool. ‘That's what he does, he talks.’” But what interests Leonard is not what is said but how it’s said, not the words so much as the rhythm of the words, which is difficult to capture whether on the page or on the screen.

Then there is the way Leonard breeches the gap separating the real from the representational. As the narrator says of Chili in Get Shorty, “He could see himself in different movies Robert DeNiro had been in. He could maybe do an Al Pacino movie, play a hard-on.” Conversely, in the movie Out of Sight, George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez portray people who could be basing themselves on those two stars. It not only represents confusions between the real and the representational, but conveniently substittutes for character description, which Leonard, more Hemingway than Chandler, likes to avoid.

By the late 1980s, Leonard decided to stop writing screenplays, having notched up screenwriting credits for a number of his own novels. Not just The Big Bounce (1969), but The Moonshine War (1970), Joe Kidd (1972), Mr Majestyk (74), The Rosary Murders (1979), Stick (1985), and 52 Pick Up (1986), Cat Chaser (1988). “You’ve put all your energy and thought into the book,” said Leonard, “then you’ve got to redo it in a script...So you’ve done that first draft and it might be good, but then you’ve got to rewrite it a number of times. In the end you get sick to death of the whole thing.”

Understandable, since Leonard’s relationship with Hollywood was, even then, more than thirty years old, stretching back to 1957, when Delmar Daves’s adapted his story 3:10 to Yuma. Now considered a classic, 3:10 to Yuma was written in the post-High Noon era of psychological westerns. With a screenplay by Halsted Welles, Daves’s film stars Van Heflin as a rancher who, to collect the bounty money that will save his drought-stricken ranch, escorts outlaw Glen Ford to the state penitentiary. That same year saw the release of a more underrated, but no less successful, adaptation. Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, scripted by Burt Kennedy, stars Randolph Scott and Richard Boone. If any old-school director was to do justice to Leonard it was Boetticher. Described by historian David Thomson as perhaps the “most impressive and least handicapped B film ever made,” The Tall T begins with Scott, having lost his horse in a bet, hitching a ride with a stage coach carrying a pair of newly weds. The stage is soon overrun by Richard Boone and his team of half-wits. “Almost all of the dialogue,” said Leonard, “came right out of the novel.” Like a character from Ed Dorn’s epic poem Gunslinger, Scott endears us through parable, wordplay, and, according to Paul Shrader, “a crackerbarrel Socratic method: questioning, teasing, suggesting.”

Though Leonard’s westerns might be violent, they are mostly anti-racist. This is the case for Hombre. In a deal brokered by Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson, 20th Century Fox in 1964 paid Leonard $10,000 for the rights to the novella, enabling him to quit his Detroit advertising job, though he still supplemented his income by writing scripts for films put together by his old ad agency. Having represented Chandler, Woolrich, Cain, Burnett, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Swanson was largely responsible for Leonard switching from westerns to crime fiction, having sold his first crime novel, The Big Bounce after it had been rejected eighty-seven times. Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman, Hombre (1967) concerns a cowboy raised by Apaches who attempts to make a life for himself in white society. Notable for its realistic dialogue, Hombre depicts the heartbreaks of someone who fights intolerance while indifferent to his fate.

If the efficient and timely Valdez is Coming (1970), starring Burt Lancaster as a Mexican double-crossed by a rancher, was not the classic it seemed to be when it first appeared, it’s still one of the better examples of the genre during a time when good westerns were becoming fewer and further between. Made by neophyte director Edwin Sherin, whose reputation at the time rested on having staged The Great White Hope, the movie is another tale of intolerance and racial hostility in the southwest.

Throughout the 1970s, Leonard’s scripts would be misused by a series of lackadaisical directors and producers. The first example of which was The Moonshine War. Directed by Richard Quine at MGM, it features Patrick McGoohan, Alda and Richard Widmark. Fresh from the ground breaking TV series, The Prisoner, McGoohan reportedly approached Leonard on the set and said, “What’s it like to stand there and hear all your lines fucked up.” Still, some of the characters display Leonard-like characteristics. Such as Dual, played by singer Lee Hazlewood, who develops a lascivious liking for “that boy’s nice suit.” While Quine, having previously directed Drive a Crooked Mile and Pushover, is uninspired, Alan Alda appears too one-dimensional to be a convincing Leonard protagonist.

A couple years later, Leonard was writing the screenplay for Joe Kidd- bounty hunter tracks down Mexican bandits- for John Sturges at Universal. Starring Clint Eastwood, the film seems both violent and morally dubious. One might think the combination of Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at OK Corral and Bad Day at Black Rock), Leonard and Eastwood was a menage made in heaven, but the film doesn’t come off to anyone’s credit. Though neither The Moonshine War nor Joe Kidd is an unmitigated disaster, neither is comparable to their director’s best work, nor to Leonard’s fiction.

In 1974, Mr. Majestyk, made at United Artist, gave a passing nod to Leonard’s anti-racist westerns. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it features Charles Bronson as a melon grower who confronts the local mafia. Here Fleischer commits the cardinal sin of Leonard adaptations and fails to create a convincing back-story for the movie’s villain. "Most of my movies,” said Leonard, “make the bad guys over-the-top bad rather than bad but human underneath. In Mr Majestyk, he is so over-the-top evil that it ruined it." Like Quine and Sturges, Fleischer was a Hollywood veteran with a decent track record, including noir classics Narrow Margin and Violent Saturday. But the subtleties of Leonard’s manner and libertarian perspective were beyond him. In searching for material that would allow him to repeat past successes, Fleischer ends up simply recycling past clichés.

The next to trample on Leonard’s work was Burt Reynolds, who, as director and lead actor, turned Stick from a crime novel containing some interesting characters into another Hollywood action movie. “In the end,” says Leonard "I didn't recognise my screenplay at all.” Around the same time, Whiskers Production paid Leonard $20,000 to rewrite the first twenty pages of a script to his novel Cat Chaser. Instead, Leonard rewrote the entire script. The studio promptly fired him, and the film slouched towards incomprehensibility. Abel Ferrara would say, “Even I couldn’t understand it. And I directed it.” So contorted is Cat Chaser that any dedicated Leonard fan might be excused for taking a perverse interest in it Likewise, 52 Pick-Up. Directed by John Frankenheimer, it derives from an early street-wise Leonard novel about a businessman who takes revenge on blackmailers who attempt to film his sex life. Unfortunately, the once talented Frankenheimer turns the narrative, starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margaret, into a routine thriller, itself a remake of The Ambassador, an even less remarkable adaptation starring Robert Mitchum, made two years earlier, minus Leonard’s screenplay.

Ironically, Leonard’s emergence as a bankable Hollywood property coincided with the publication of Get Shorty, a novel that lampoons Hollywood and its relationship to organised crime. Suddenly everyone in Tinseltown was extolling Leonard’s virtues. While Sonnenfeld’s film would be surpassed by subsequent adaptations, it contains, thanks to Frank’s script, some excellent repartee, and comes-off as a tangled comedy of manners. Though it enjoys biting the hand that feeds it, Get Shorty succumbs to its self-consciousness and stylisation, perhaps inevitable given its subject matter. Unfortunately, the camerawork does not equal that seen in the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Millar’s Crossing for which Sonnenfeld was responsible. Yet, with its many fine moments, Get Shorty helped revive Leonard’s Hollywood profile.

Unfortunately, Paul Shrader’s Touch (1997) did not do the same. One would have thought a former critic, screenwriter and director of Mishima and American Gigolo, would have been up to the task. But Touch seems overly static, and, at times, tedious. Not qualities one associates with Leonard, who wrote the novel in 1977, ten years before its publication, only for it to be rejected due to its prickly subject matter. Touch centres on a young man trained in a Catholic order who looks after alcoholics, curing those by touching them, after which stigmata wounds appear on his body. Though the ex-Calvinist Shrader deploys Christopher Walken, Bridgit Fonda and Skeet Ulrich, the humour is stilted and the portrayals cartoonish. But Touch, which portrays religion as a structure comparable to organised crime, should at least be commended for mocking religious zealotry, tabloid television, America's penchant for the sensational.

As the most successful of recent Leonard films, Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) attests to an obvious affinity between author and director. “Quentin Tarantino has always been a fan of mine,” said Leonard. “Ever since, as a teenager, he stole Switch, and got caught doing it. Then he went back and stole the book again. When, thirteen years later, Rum Punch was published, and he realised that some of the same characters in that book, he wanted to buy the film rights straight away.” Jackie Brown was to became Leonard’s favourite adaptation and script. After all, Tarantino’s script pays homage to the spirit, if not letter, of the novel, adding his own touches, such as changing the locale to the west coast and portraying Jackie Brown as an African-American. While Tarantino has a refined eye for actors capable of playing Leonard’s off-beat characters, the movie’s success can be attributed to the fact that, as producer, director and writer, he was able to exert control over the entire process.

Appearing a few months later, Steven Sonderberg’s Out of Sight (1998) may not be as convincing as Jackie Brown, but it works well as an adaptation. This is helped by the fact that Leonard was in constant communication with scriptwriter Frank, and consulted on aspects of the film, including casting: “I suggested Elizabeth Shue because Leaving Las Vegas had just come out. Then Jennifer Lopez came along, and I liked her immediately.” Not that he and Frank always agreed. “He wanted a more upbeat ending,” said Leonard. “I said, ‘You’ve got to remember it’s her story.’ But Scott Frank said, “No, it’s her book, but it’s his film.” When I saw the picture, I realised he was right.”

Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, though more complex than those early westerns, work for much the same reasons. That is, they are built around interesting characters and are authentic in their depiction of a particular time and place. While only Jackie Brown approximates classic caper movies of the past, each conveys Leonard’s attitude and sense of language. Though Tarantino, Sonderberg and Sonnenfeld, have, to varying degrees, succeeded, others, beholden to disinterested economies of scale, lack the autonomy needed to confront the narrative traps presented by Leonard’s work. As for Leonard, he remains characteristically upbeat, saying, “I think in the future, film will affect writing more and more.” Surely, the opposite might also prove to be true. In either case, it takes more than money to make a smooth transition.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin

Part 3

That Maddow was blacklisted in 1952 might account for the statement on the dust jacket of Forty-Four Gravel Street which states that the author had recently adapted Fred Zinnerman’s Member of the Wedding. Not only would one be hard pressed to find evidence supporting this claim, but Maddow would maintain that, at the time of his blacklisting, he had been working on an early version of High Noon and had just finished a draft of The Wild One. Though, after seeing the finished product, Maddow insisted that his name should be removed from the latter film. That might have been the case, but it was, in all likelihood, less his dislike of the The Wild One, than McCarthyite politics that caused his employer, Stanley Kramer, to summons Maddow to his office only to inform the writer that he had no choice but to fire him.

As for the blacklist, Maddow was to insist that, since those on the Hollywood left were making considerable sums of money, the process had more to do with denying the left funds than with the notion that the left might have been influencing Hollywood films. According to Maddow, there was little to influence. What, said Maddow, was leftwing about Intruder in the Dust, other than it was about a black man, who was, in any case, not even an African-American. Moreover, Maddow maintained that, if compared to New York, there were, in fact, relatively few leftwingers in Hollywood. He would point out that most Hollywood leftists were from New York, and, once on the West Coast, found themselves in alien territory, so joined the party as “a sop to their conscience.” Typically, Maddow’s cynical analysis, though containing an element of truth, fails to consider that some principles transcend sectarianism, locale, and the blatantly obvious. True, the total number of Communist Party members in the movie business was never very large. The House Committee maintained that there were 324 employees, and their wives who were Party members. This out of an industry of more than 30,000. According to Otto Friedrich, in his excellent City of Nets, “scarcely two or three dozen Communists could be said to have any importance whatsoever.” Likewise, fund-raising. While the HUAC maintained the Hollywood Communists had raised over $900,000, social critic Murray Kempton suggests the figure could not have been more than $500,000, and this was over a fifteen year period.

It was through Irving Lerner, whom he had known since his days making documentaries at Frontier Films, that Maddow met the infamous Philip Yordan, Maddow would end up writing between six and ten scripts for Yordan, who, himself, would go on to receive credits for “writing” The Big Combo, House of Strangers, and scores of other films. According to Maddow, Yordan was incapable of writing anything, and, even before the blacklist, had employed others, blacklisted or not- though obviously blacklisted writers were cheaper- to do his writing for him. But in Hollywood, Yordan’s approach was not unusual. Well-known writers would often have a stable of underlings working for them. For instance, Ben Hecht, who, amongst his many great films, penned such noir efforts as Edge of Dawn, Kiss of Death, Underworld and Where the Sidewalk Ends, employed a staff to write in the style of Ben Hecht, with the famed writer adding a personal touch to authenticise the scripts. It is another example of Hollywood’s lop-sided orientation, a situation that lends itself to various absurdities, from hiring a stable of writers to Milton Sperling (producer of I Wake Up Screaming, Cloak and Dagger and co-scriptwriter of Merrill’s Marauders) asking Maddow to work on a film with him, the idea of which was to look at the last five winners of Best Picture of the Year, take the best scenes out of each of them, and recombine them into a new film. Maddow wisely chose to pass on that particular project.

In Maddow’s estimation, Yordan was nothing short of a con-man, who began his writing career by going to his local library where he asked how one might go about becoming a writer. The librarian politely inquired if he had ever read anything. Yordan had to admit he hadn’t. She suggested he should read a play, study its structure, and try to write something similar. She gave him a copy of Anna Christie, which Yordan took home, read and copied word for word, changing its locale, making the language a bit more contemporary and changing the heroine from a woman who returns to New England to a woman who, as a B dancer, returns to Chicago. Retitling it Anna Lucasta, he was able to sell it to Hollywood, which launched his career as a Tinseltown writer.

According to one filmography, reproduced in Backstory 2, Yordan’s screenwriting credits can be attributed to a variety of writers. Maddow supposedly wrote Man Crazy, The Naked Jungle, Gun Glory, Men in War, God’s Little Acre, and Johnny Guitar, while Joseph Mankiewicz wrote House of Strangers, and Robert Tasker wrote Dillinger, despite the fact that Yordan received an Academy Award nomination for the latter script. Yordan would also employ Bernie Gordon (55 Days at Peking), Milton Sperling (The Bramble Bush), Ben Barman (El Cid) and Arnaud d’Usseau (Studs Lonigan).

So enigmatic is Maddow’s Hollywood profile, and such was the low regard he had for his own scriptwriting career, that it is difficult to pin down exactly what films he did or did not write. It is said that under Yordan’s name Maddow wrote Johnny Guitar, a film which many have taken to be a critique of the McCarthy era. Strangely, Maddow always maintained he had no recollection of having worked on the film, while Yordan would swear he wrote the film while on location. One Spanish periodical goes so far as to claim that Maddow not only wrote for Yordan, but also ghosted all of Huston’s films. This is hardly likely, Maddow was never able or willing to elucidate the matter, saying that, for the most part, he only saw the rushes to the films he worked on, and that six weeks’ work that happened over thirty years in the past can easily fade beyond recall.

The ambiguity surrounding Maddow’s- or, for that matter, Yordan’s- screenwriting credits leads one to briefly ruminate on the politics surrounding film credits. Any close reader of these chapters will no doubt have reached the conclusion that the world of film credits is, indeed, a murky one, abundant in falsifications, discrepancies, omissions, and inaccuracies. It is a subject about which film historian and critic David Thomson says the following:

“Anyone who spends long contemplating the product, or listening to the stories told by men and women who have worked in film, knows that credits are not to be trusted... A great script is many things, or versions, along the way. In the end, it is the transcript of the finished film that may involve structures only perceived in the editing room as well as lines lopped over resistant lips. The script is always changing,and there are people who have had busy and well-paid lives assisting the changes with hardly a credit to show for it. Some writers are doctors; and nearly all writers feel sick sooner or later.”

Regarding Yordan, Thomson concedes that he was a superb deal-maker, hustler, and entrepreneur: “He could have written nothing, or he could have written everything. The truth will never be known, and if Yordan is half the operator one suspects, then it is probably beyond remembering.”

Employing blacklisted writers might have been a lifeline for Maddow, but it would prove even more lucrative and career-enhancing for Yordan. Not that the distribution of profits would take place on a level playing field. The two men were meant to split any money derived from the scripts, but Maddow, who, for obvious reasons, had never put pen to paper regarding their arrangement, would remain in the dark regarding the exact percentage he was receiving from Yordan, and had to take the latter’s word that he was receiving his fair share. This is not something one would normally choose to do when dealing with one so slippery as Yordan, the supreme trickster of post-1930s screenwriting.

It wasn’t that Yordan was leftwing or rightwing. The fact was, he had no politics, much less scruples. Unless, in Hollywood, self-aggrandisement counts as a political position. For this was a man who, according to Maddow, would buy the rights to novels on the basis of their covers, only to stack them on his desk to illustrate to anyone entering his office the number of titles he currently controlled. Maddow even claimed to have written a novel for Yordan. It was a typical piece of chicanery that began with Yordan selling a screenplay- written by Maddow in three-and-a-half weeks- on the basis that he had already sold the novel on which the screenplay was supposedly based; and then selling the novel on the basis that he had already sold the screenplay. To secure the deal, Yordan then told a minor executive at Warners that he would pay off his large gambling debt in exchange for the executive telling Jack Warner that he had mistakenly taken home the script, began reading it and couldn’t put it down. At which point it was up to Maddow to write, in a matter of days, the non-existent novel and send it off to the publisher. Thus the script to Gun Glory (1957) and the novel Man of the West were born. Of course, Maddow’s name was missing from both the film and the novel.

Despite such exploitation, Maddow and Yordan remained on reasonably good terms. However, not being able to write under his own name depressed Maddow to such a degree that he, like so many in Hollywood, began seeing a psychoanalyst. To see his words and ideas on the screen, yet not be able to claim them as his own, would lead to a case of writer’s block even regarding stories and poetry written under his own name, a condition from which it would take him a number of years to recover.

Maddow’s recantation occurred in the late 1950s when the blacklist was all but over. Supposedly, Maddow’s agent at the William Morris agency was desperate to get him work, so much so that the agent was willing to pay someone to have Maddow’s name removed from the blacklist. Not that Maddow was an innocent bystander in the matter. After going to the office of Republican congressman and committee representative Donald Jackson, and signing a statement, Maddow was, overnight, once again able to work. According to his friend and fellow blacklist victim Walter Bernstein, Maddow willingly admitted he had become a friendly witness, that he had simply grown “tired of going into the screening room when the lights were out,” and that it was his decision to phone the William Morris Agency and demand that they get him “out of jail.” Though Maddow had told Bernstein that he had only named those who had already been named, former Frontier Films director Leo Hurwitz claimed Maddow had named him, which all but ruined his career. Once removed from the blacklist, Maddow’s depression quickly disappeared, and he immediately found employment with that friendliest of friendly witnesses Elia Kazan on Wild River (1960).

Maddow would claim he felt little allegiance to the Hollywood left, or to his earlier political principles which, interestingly, were formed, as a Sand Street investigator, through observation, rather than through theory or participation in a particular struggle. Maddow would insist he was beyond ideology. Regarding his recantation, Maddow would only say that “conscience had nothing to do with it,” he had simply felt caught between two flags, and if one does not believe in flags, then what could it have mattered to him. What’s more, Maddow claimed he had disagreed with the Party on several issues, and, though he mixed with party members, would disclaim any adherence to conventional Marxism: “Any theory, when matched up with life, doesn’t begin to deal with complexity. And I’m interested in complexity.”

A man of mystery, Maddow, who would pass away in 1992, maintained that Hollywood, in many ways, suited him. Yet, with an almost Buddhist-like resignation, he would also say, “your spiritual life is inward. It’s enclosed in your house and grounds. It’s in your books and records,” and not in what one produces for money.

Strangely, many of his former leftwing friends were willing to forgive Maddow. As director Faith Hubley put it, “I don’t believe in permanent guilt. There are some people I’ll never talk to because I don’t really like them. But I feel some people were victims- they were weak, and they became victims- and I believe they punished themselves enough, so I don’t have to punish them.” While Bernstein says, “I always felt Ben was a strange man in many ways...[Although] my friend Arnold Manoff was not surprised at all, because he had always thought there had been something dark about Ben. But I feel uncomfortable assessing this or that degree of guilt much of that subjective.” Manoff, the husband of Lee Grant, died in 1963, a year before the release of Maddow’s now all-but-forgotten Affair of the Skin. Despite his obvious talent, Maddow would leave the world of film in the 1970s, his career and perspective as enigmatic as ever.

Films China Strikes Back, 1937; Native Land, 1942 (as David Wolff); Framed, aka Paula, 1947; The Man From Colorado, 1948; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, aka Blood on My Hands, 1948; Intruder in the Dust, 1949; The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; Shadow in the Sky, 1951; The Wild One, 1954 (uncredited); The Naked Jungle, 1954 (as Philip Yordan); No Down Payment, 1957 (as Philip Yordan); Gun Glory, 1957 (also novel, as Philip Yordan); Murder by Contract, 1958 (uncredited); The Unforgiven, 1960; The Savage Eye, 1960; Two Loves, aka The Spinster, 1961; An Affair of the Skin, aka Love as a Disorder, 1963; The Balcony, 1963; The Way West, 1967; The Chairman, aka The Most Dangerous Man in the World, 1969; The Secret of Santa Vittoria, 1969; The Mephisto Waltz, 1971; Man on a String, 1972 (TV).

Novels Forty-Four Gravel Street , Little Brown, Boston, 1952.

Sources Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Patrick McGilligan, University of California, Berkeley, 1991. A Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson, Andre Deutsch, London, 1998. City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s by Otto Friedrich, University of California, Berkeley, 1997. “Evolution of the Thriller” by Claude Chabrol, Cahiers du Cinema, The 1950s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed, Jim Hillier. Routledge/BFI, London, 1985. The Hollywood Screenwriters, ed Richard Corliss, Avon, New York, 1972. “The Making of The Naked City by Malvin Wald, The Big Book of Noir, eds. Ed Gorman, Lee Server, Martin H. Greenberg, Carroll & Graf, 1998. More Than Night by James Naremore, University of California, Berkeley, 1998. Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, eds. Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, St. Martin’s, New York, 1997.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin

Part 2

Never thinking he was following a particular career, Maddow, at first, considered writing for the movies merely a pleasurable way of making a living. When he didn’t feel like working, he was not beyond turning down a project without a second thought. He once had the nerve to turn down a lucrative screenwriting job at Columbia because, as he told the studio, he was working on a long poem and didn’t have the time. Maddow preferred to think of himself as a would-be writer of short stories and poetry. Not that he was alone in this pursuit, but, as he would later say, “I noticed that most of the guys who were in the same position I was, writers with ambition, never got around to doing their own work. They would accept one assignment after another. Or they would spend three or four months between assignments doing nothing or getting drunk.”

Hollywood Ten scriptwriter Albert Maltz had once told Maddow there were three secrets to a successful Hollywood career: talent, luck and social contacts. Maddow doubtlessly had the talent and the luck, but he did not go out of his way to cultivate contacts. He and his wife rarely socialised with Hollywood people, and knew few fellow-scriptwriters. Fortunately, Maddow, when he wanted to, was usually able to find work, writing films like the noir melodrama Framed (1947). Directed by Richard Wallace, and starring Glen Ford and Barry Sullivan, it concerns an unemployed drunk who is used as a fall-guy by a couple of thieves. It was Maddow who thought up the opening scene in which a truck goes out of control. Though the film, like other examples of film noir, have been expurgated ad infinitum, Maddow would say that he “never thought these films were a vehicle for any kind of ideas.” They were simply meant to entertain audiences. Any serious ideas that came forth from the films were, according to Maddow, purely accidental, or came from the novels on which they were based.

Though this was not the case regarding Maddow’s script for the extraordinary The Asphalt Jungle, a film which differs considerably from Burnett’s novel. Not only does Huston’s movie do away with the police superintendant-as-narrator, but, unlike the novel, it focuses on the criminals, treating their activities as an everyday human endeavour. This is why, according to Maddow, audiences sympathise with the film’s criminals. As far as Maddow was concerned, Burnett’s crooks were always fascinating, and he was only highlighting what the author had inferred in the novel. Of course, one can also attribute the success of Huston’s film to the cast, predominantly unknown East Coast actors assembled by the director. The one established Hollywood star that Huston had managed to bring on board was Sterling Hayden. Like the director, Hayden was a former communist who had been a member of the Hollywood Committee for the First Amendment and would later reluctantly supply names to the HUAC. He also spent time on the couch of Tinseltown psychotherapist Ernest Philip Cohen, who, at the time, was urging patients to comply with the HUAC. Hayden would say to Cohen, “I don’t think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing.” Cohen, a former party member himself, was, according to writer and director Abraham Polonsky, not only turning patients into stool pigeons, but handing over names and information gathered from his sessions to the Feds.

The studio had let Huston have his way with the cast and general direction because, in Maddow’s opinion, it never considered the film to be important enough to merit the usual amount of meddling and interference. However, the film would come under heavy criticism for its liberal attitude towards the underworld. While MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, who had supplied the names of various screenwriters to the HUAC, hated the movie- calling it “full of nasty, ugly people. I won’t walk across the room to see something like that”- and wished Huston had stuck with hackneyed stereotypes.
A study of, as one character puts it, “this left-handed form of human endeavour,” the film, to everyone’s surprise, was given the go-ahead by the Production Code office. This despite the fact that it trod on dangerous ground, showing a robbery in detail, depicting a crook who escapes punishment by committing suicide, and portraying the police as corruptible. It’s possible that the Production Code office, who concluded that the movie showed that “justice triumphs through efforts of law,” might have seen an early version of Maddow’s script, which went some way to portray the police sympathetically, rather than the final script or film. In his earlier script, Maddow had included an epilogue and prologue- similar to what would turn up a few years later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers- in which the Police Commissioner is shown talking to a group of reporters. “The worst police force in the world,” he says, “is better than no police force...Take the police off the streets for forty-eight hours and nobody would be safe...We’d be back in the jungle.” Though Huston junked Maddow’s framing device, he did include that bizarre penultimate scene which takes place at the police station: the Commissioner switches on the police radios and says to waiting reporters, “Suppose we had no police force, no matter how bad?...[The] jungle wins, the predatory beasts take over.” Yet, with hindsight, the message is clear: this is a film that not only shows crime as an everyday occurrence, but mirrors the demoralisation of the left and the nation’s unease during the onset of the atomic era, McCarthyism and the souring of the American dream.

It was Clarence Brown who recommended Maddow to Huston. Maddow never felt totally comfortable when faced with Huston’s princely lifestyle, but the two got on reasonably well, working together on the script for some six months. Of course, it was Maddow who did most of the writing, while Huston talked. Maddow also found it difficult to adjust to Huston’s work habits, which consisted of getting up late, attending to various domestic matters, having lunch, working for a couple hours, followed by a cocktail, by which time he would be about ready to sit down for dinner. Finally, Maddow was urged by the film’s producers to make Huston do more work, lest the film fall hopelessly behind schedule.

Working with Huston gave Maddow some insights into the source of cinematic ideas. He told Richard Corliss in the early 1970s, that films come from three sources. They can come from an idea originating with the director or producer, though such a person is “generally quite devoid of any but the most primitive notion of actual human life. Frequently he is quite unable to write, though there are certain gifted individuals who are able to dictate.” So a screenwriter is hired, but “it is difficult to make these people come alive, because the idea, however charming, does not grow from the marvelous confusion of American Life, but springs...from the crevices of a clever, skillful and egotistical brain.” The second source is through an adaptation of a play or novel. “If the novel is bad, the film has a decent chance to be good. If the novel is fairly good, the film is generally not bad at all. But if the novel is great, the film, paralyzed with admiration, is quite hopeless.” The third, and, according to Maddow, the source of truly great films is “when the real maker of the film, the director, is also the author. This imposes the interesting burden upon him or her of being a person of enormous talent. We have, so far in this country, only a few who can do it.” However, Maddow would also say, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, that the situation is not without hope: “I have a purely personal superstition that good films are made mostly in the decade after a country has suffered defeat. Let us hope, then that the golden age of film in America is yet to be.”

Part 3 to follow.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ben Maddow: Affairs of the Skin

Part 1

Not listed amongst the over 20,000 films in Halliwell’s Film Guide, An Affair of the Skin, was, at the time of its release in 1964, a worthy, if not altogether successful, attempt at being an American art movie, a hodgepodge of influences, from Italian Realists, Antoniani and Bergman to US social conscience films and documentarists like Robert Flaherty. Written, produced and directed by former documentarist and Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Maddow, the film was, for the most part, shot on the streets of New York, and memorable for its sensuousness, its street-level camera-work and use of natural light. Strangely, the film has since disappeared from film catalogues.

Still, Maddow’s career remains an interesting one. Under the name David Wolf, he published poems and short stories, and provided commentary and narration for documentaries like Native Land (1942). Under his own name, he also wrote Forty-Four Gravel Street, which, set in Brooklyn, part-urban hardboiler, part-proletariat tract and part-literary novel. Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Maddow was able to make a living writing screenplays under another scriptwriter’s name (a number of blacklisted writers worked under pseudomyns, or worked for other writers). Later, after he’d retired from making films, Maddow would write books on photographers such as Edward Weston. Despite his numerous film credits, Maddow never considered himself merely a screenwriter. As he would say in an interview with Film Comment critic Richard Corliss, “In my experience...there is no such animal as a screenwriter. There are persons...who write screenplays, but they are admittedly monsters, because it is the grotesque fact that they have responsibility, but no power.” As far as Maddow was concerned, screenwriting was just a job, one that allowed him to finance other projects.

An Affair of the Skin featured actors Kevin McCarthy and Lee Grant. McCarthy had recently appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Misfits. His co-star, Lee Grant, had, like Maddow, also been blacklisted, though less for her politics than for refusing to testify against her husband, playwright Arnold Manoff (No Minor Vices, The Big Break and, along with Walter Bernstein and Abraham Polonsky, the author of most of the episodes of the historical TV program You Are There). Prior to that her portrayal of a shoplifter in William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) had earned her the best actress award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination. Though, once blacklisted, her Hollywood appearances would quickly grind to a halt, Grant, before appearing in Affair of the Skin, was in such marginal productions as Cornel Wilde’s Storm Fear (1956), Delbert Mann’s Middle of the Night (1959) and Genet’s The Balcony, the latter also produced, directed and adapted for the screen by Maddow. But Grant would not relaunch her Tinseltown career until 1975 when she appeared in Hal Ashby’s astute critique of the early 1970s, Shampoo.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Maddow had been a major influence on a number of film-makers and writers. Malvin Wald, who, along with Albert Maltz, wrote the cutting-edge and streetwise The Naked City, recounts meeting Maddow while both were serving in the Air Force motion pictures unit. At the time, Maddow was championing the documentary techniques of Robert Flaherty, John Grierson and Joris Ivens. The latter film-makers would influence Maddow when it came to writing the commentary for the one of the era’s more heralded documentaries, Native Land (1942). In turn, Maddow would influence the look and cinematic ethos of The Naked City. But Maddow would be less known for his influence, his films, poetry, and novel, than for his screenplays, particularly his adaption, written alongside John Huston, of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle (1950), closely followed by his once praised but now underrated adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel Intruder in the Dust (MGM, 1949).

Once considered a person of political principle, Maddow chose to make an eleventh hour mea culpa to the HUAC, for which he would be roundly criticised. In his book Naming Names, Victor Navasky claims a special dispensation was created purely for Maddow’s benefit. Despite his recantation, Maddow was never able to regain a foothold in Hollywood. Not that this seemed to bother him, for Maddow’s rejection allowed him to pursue his independent avant-garde film productions like An Affair of the Skin (1964), The Balcony (1963), The Savage Eye (1960 and Storm of Strangers (1970). While his final screenplay was the more mainstream The Mephisto Waltz (1971), a cult effort written for Paul Wendkos which some have interpreted as a defence of his testimony- its theme being if you can’t beat them, join them, or the devil makes use of idle hands- before the HUAC.

Born in 1909, Maddow grew up in a small town outside New York city. At Columbia University, he studied under poet Mark Van Doren, read the likes of Shelley, Keats, Whitman, Shakespere’s Sonnets, and Emily Dickinson, and began to write poetry that was, according to Maddow, “pretty dreadful, so exaggerated.” While Hollywood attracted journalists, novelists and dramatists, Maddow was one of the few active poets to work in the studios.

Out of college and unemployed for two years, Maddow was finally able to find work as an orderly in Bellevue Hospital. At this point, he did not consider himself a writer, and, in fact, did not start writing seriously until after the war. So bleak was the future during the Depression, and so unsuited was he for the job market, that Maddow saw himself as a permanent hospital employee. But when Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he was able, with his college degree, to become an “investigator” in the social services department, a job that entailed visiting prospective relief recipients. Assigned to a middle-class district, Maddow found the shame of middle-class people asking for assistance reminiscent of his own family, and so asked to be transferred to a poorer district. He was sent to Sand Street in Brooklyn where he felt more comfortable: “When you came down the street, kids would take your hand and start shouting, ‘Investigator!’ You were a famous man.” His experiences there would go into his novel Forty-four Gravel Street. It was while working as an investigator that he became politically aware. This would be reflected in his poetry, which he was beginning to publish, more often than not under the pseudonym, David Wolf, so, according to Maddow, his colleagues would not think he was getting “uppity.”

When he was unemployed, Maddow would often take refuge in the movie theatres of New York, where, for fifteen cents, he would sit through as many as three features. He saw films, not only from Hollywood, but from Russia and France, and was particularly impressed by the films of Alexander Dovzhenko, which were, he realised, constructed like poems.

It was while working on Sand Street that Maddow came across an advertisement in a New York newspaper for a poet who could write the commentary for a twenty minute film about baggage in the harbour. The quirkiness of the idea appealed to Maddow, as did the prospect of working in film. The project turned out to be Ralph Steiner’s Harbor Scenes (1935). While working on that film, Maddow met other still-photographers who were trying to make films and were searching for someone to write for them. Soon Maddow had singlehandedly invented a style of narration, one which would be used in countless other documentary films, as well as in various examples of street-level film noir, not least of which was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. Constructing the narration as though it were a poem, Maddow sought to have each word modify an image. With the film running before him, Maddow would record his commentary, “carpentering phrases so they fit into the rhythm of the film.” Though these days the style has become a cliche, at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary.

The documentary film group to which Maddow attached himself happened to be an adjunct to the Film and Photo League, which, in turn, was the cultural branch of the Workers Relief League, a leftwing insurance company set-up to encourage photographers- a forerunner of modern day film-maker co-operatives- in which each person paid minimal dues for the use of a dark room and, if necessary, lessons in how to make and process film. Not surprisingly, considering the era, it was Marxist in orientation, and affiliated to the Popular Front. Because the smallest detail had to be discussed, each film was an even longer and more involved process than usual. Moreover, all decisions were to be taken collectively. In an interview with Patrick McGilligan, Maddow recalls standing on a street corner with his fellow members vehemently arguing about something that appeared, at the time, very important, when the issue had simply been where they should go for lunch.

Influenced by the CPUSA slogan, “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism,” the patriotic Native Land was the culmination of Maddow’s documentary career at Frontier Films. So huge was the project- at least in their terms- that the company, in the making of the film, eventually went broke.

Despite working in New York, which, at the time, was a cultural hotbed, Maddow, when it came to writers, knew only fellow-poets Muriel Rukeyser, Maxwell Bodenheim and Kenneth Fearing. Rukeyser was a stalwart lesbian whose radical spirit continued through the Vietnam war era, while Bodenheim was the bete noire of the New York poetry world. Leftwing parents would tell their wayward sons to be careful or they’d end up like the Bohemian Max Bodenheim. After writing two or three interesting novels, Bodenheim flirted with a possible Hollywood career, only to become a Greenwich Village poet-clown bartering his poems for drinks. Along with his girlfriend, Bodenheim was found murdered in a Greenwich Village flophouse. On the other hand, Fearing would continue to write his hardboiled poetry- he won the Yale Prize for Younger Poets- and would pen semi-hardboilers- often deploying alternating narrative voices- such as The Big Clock and Clark Gifford’s Body.

After working on a documentary in South America with future eminence-gris of the New York avant-garde film set, Willard Van Dyke, Maddow was drafted into the armed forces and assigned to the Army’s Signal Corps. With his background in film and writing, it was decided that Maddow should be trained as a radio technician, and so was transferred to Los Angeles where he could attend radio school. Once on the West Coast, he came into contact with various movie people, including a member of the Air Force motion picture unit who mentioned that they were on the look-out for anyone with a background in documentary film-making. Maddow asked to join, and was taken on. Other members of the unit included William Wyler, John Sturges and, as previously mentioned, Malvin Wald. Maddow made a series of films about a variety of specialised subjects. The voice-overs were invariably read by Hollywood actors, such as Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, Arthur Kennedy and George Montgomery. According to Maddow, Reagan could read scripts perfectly and with absolute conviction, though he had no ideas what they were about. During the war, Maddow, as writer and producer, estimated he had made somewhere between 200-500 documentaries, all based in the Los Angeles area.

The only movie writer to influence Maddow during this period was Lester Koenig who, at that time, worked as William Wyler’s assistant. Koenig would go on to write the narration for Wyler’s Memphis Belle (1943) and the script for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949) and Carrie (1952). Maddow and Koenig had planned to make a film on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, and forerunner of the CIA). But the film was never to be realised.

When Maddow’s wife, Frieda, an ex-Martha Graham dancer, was hired for a Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, the couple moved to New York. It was there that Maddow began writing Forty-Four Gravel Street (1952), about a man who returns from a business trip to his apartment to find his wife has disappeared, his apartment has been sublet, and the money from their bank account has been withdrawn. All he finds is an address written in lipstick on the mirror: 44 Gravel Street.

Having received a call from Harold Hecht, Maddow’s sabbatical in New York proved short-lived. Hecht- “a general phony,” according to Maddow- was a former Martha Graham dancer, and had directed dance routines in films like Horse Feathers and She Done Him Wrong. After working with the Federal Theater Project, he went to Hollywood where he discovered Burt Lancaster, and produced The Sweet Smell of Success, Birdman of Alcatraz and Cat Ballou. Hecht asked Maddow if he would be interested in collaborating on a film with him. He was also offering what, to Maddow, seemed like an enormous amount of money. By this time, Frieda had been dancing in Finian’s Rainbow for some seven months, and had grown bored with the work. So the couple decided to return to Hollywood, where Maddow worked on Hecht’s film, which turned out to be Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), about a nurse- Joan Fontaine- who helps a seaman- Burt Lancaster- on the run after being accused of a murder he did not commit. Maddow, who thought it a ludicrous title- others have considered it one of the more evocative of film noir titles- worked on the script with Walter Bernstein. It would be Bernstein’s only film credit before being blacklisted, though, in future, he would contribute to such screenplays as Paris Blues, Fail Safe, The Train, The Molly Maquires, The Front, Semi-Tough, Yanks and The House on Carroll Street.

When it came to scriptwriting for film, Maddow maintained that his background in poetry was of little help, though he admitted it did teach him “to struggle with formal structure because structure in a documentary is quite different...How much time you give to certain things, how much’s very complex.” Certainly, poetry writing must also have given Maddow an appreciation of music, particularly rhythm. Maddow would go on to develop an interest in jazz, and, along with a friend whom he had met after publishing a poem in a small magazine, would go out hunting for secondhand 78’s. Coincidentally, this same friend’s wife happened to work in the script department at Metro. Aware that Maddow was a scriptwriter as well as a poet, she recommended him to Clarence Brown, known at that time for his Garbo movies and National Velvet. Brown had just bought Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust but had no idea what to do with it. Maddow, who loved Faulkner’s writing, considered Intruder in the Dust the author’s worst novel, indicative of Faulkner’s belief that he could make money from a series of books about a lawyer and a detective.

After telling Brown he was willing to do the screenplay, Maddow realised he would have to simplify the plot- four disinterments were three too many. Equally problematical were his attempts to explain the plot to the director who, confused by Faulkner’s writing, could not understand why any writer would want to tell a story backwards. The two men would meet in Brown’s huge Hollywood office, empty except for a desk and a caged parakeet. At the beginning of each story conference Brown would let the parakeet fly around the room. While Maddow explained the story and script, Brown would close his eyes and doze off. Whenever he did, the parakeet would land on the director’s head, flying away as soon as Brown awoke. Consequently, Brown had little idea what Maddow was up to, enabling the writer to work without any undue intervention.

Maddow’s script became a talking point at Metro, and marked the relaunching of Maddow’s Hollywood career. Suddenly people were talking about this writer who had been able to translate Faulkner to the screen. Despite the film’s obvious faults- such as using a Puerto Rican rather than an African-American, and stereotyping him in the process- Maddow would later say that he was pleased with the film, that it was a rare occasion in which he had seen on the screen what he had imagined in his mind. Though Maddow was to admit that his task was helped by the material, including Faulkner’s preciseness and ability to describe locations and characters. However, studio honcho Louis B. Mayer disliked the film. Of the black hero, he said, “He ought to take off his hat when he talks to a white man.”

Part 2 to follow.