Wednesday, March 11, 2009

David Goodis And The Elusiveness of Adaptation: The Burglar, Nightfall, and Dark Passage


1957 could have been a good year for David Goodis. Things had not been going great for him up until that time. Once a promising novelist, with a bestselling book (Dark Passage) and a fat Hollywood contract as a screenwriter, he'd spent the last few years of his life living in his parents’ house with a schizophrenic brother in Philadelphia, typing out darkly brilliant pulp elegies of wasted lives, and watching his own dreams disintegrate (some people say he watched his dreams drift away in an endless river of booze, but as with most things to do with the mysterious writer, we don't really know for sure). He would die a largely forgotten man at the age of 49 in 1967.

He had spent most of his brief time in Hollywood crawling through the seedy underworld of East L.A. in a drunken haze, but in 1957 Hollywood came to him when Paul Wendkos—an old Goodis friend—made his feature film directing debut by adapting The Burglar and shot the film in Goodis’ hometown of Philadelphia. Wendkos even managed to get someone to pay Goodis to write the screenplay. In the film, Dan Duryea stars as the leader of a gang of thieves (including a young Jayne Mansfield) who rip off a necklace from a sham spiritualist and then go on the run from the cops.

The film has its virtues. Duryea, of course, was one of the most dependably entertaining actors in movies. In 1957, he was a little long in the tooth for this role (there’s an unintentionally funny moment when Duryea—fifty at the time and looking every day of it—is asked his age and replies, without irony, “35”), and this becomes something of a problem when we realize he’s supposed to be roughly the same age as Mansfield (who was 24 at the time). Despite this, however, Duryea carries the movie. He’s aided by Wendkos’ energetic direction and slam bang editing, both of which owe a lot to Orson Welles, right up to a funhouse sequence that looks like lost footage from The Lady From Shanghai. Wendkos would go on to have a short, undistinguished career in features before turning to a long career making television movies. Here, in his initial outing, he’s admirably never content to film a boring shot.

Having said that, the film doesn’t quite work. Mansfield can’t carry the dramatic scenes she’s required to, and the perpetually underutilized Martha Vickers, after a promising introductory scene, is once again left with little to do. Wendkos lets scenes go over the top, and he’s not helped by Sol Kaplan’s intrusive score, which seems to beat every emotional moment into the ground. And, in the end, Goodis’ script is only okay. The sadness and mystery that sprang out of his novels is only hinted at here.

As a crime writer, Goodis is often likened to Jim Thompson because they were contemporaries who both wrote dark plunges into the human psyche rather than proper mysteries. One reason Goodis hasn’t had the same delayed success as Thompson, however, can be found in the nature of their writing. Thompson wrote dark stories about psychos and hustlers. Goodis, on the other hand, largely wrote dark stories about losers and drunks. Psychos and hustlers are, frankly, more proactive (and fun) than losers and drunks. While Thompson’s books are grotesque and often wickedly funny stories of men keeping terrible secrets, Goodis’s books are oppressive stories of men who encounter bad luck and then crumble in the face of it.

Now understand, I don’t want to imply that Goodis isn’t a fine writer. He’s one of the best postwar crime writers you can find, and his books can be adapted well, but as often as not his narratives simply lack the zip and drive of Thompson’s. Take something like Nightfall, considered by many to be Goodis’ finest book. Now, I should admit up front that it is not my favorite of his books, but it is perhaps the most energetic narrative he wrote after Dark Passage, his one popular success. It was adapted a couple of times for television, but in 1957 Goodis got one of his best chances at adaptation when director Jacques Tourneur and writer Stirling Silliphant adapted the book into a feature.

Sadly, the resulting film isn’t much to brag about. Aldo Ray plays Jim Vanning, a commercial artist living in New York who also happens to a man running from his past. One night he meets a pretty girl named Marie (Anne Bancroft) in a bar. She talks him into buying her dinner, but when they leave the bar two men from Vanning’s past appear from the shadows. Turns out these two hoods (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) have reason to think Vanning has a missing $300,000 from a bank heist. The past is revealed, the girl goes along with Vanning without good reason, and the film hikes out to Montana to track down the missing money.

This plot has been liberally altered from the book, especially the final act, which seems to have been moved out to Montana because somebody at the studio thought we needed a fight on a snow plow. Despite the attempts to pump things up, however, the film remains stubbornly uninvolving. Aldo Ray is a blank slate as Vanning. There’s nothing haunted about this guy, nothing for us to wonder about, certainly nothing for Marie to be instantly infatuated by. Bancroft does what she can with her role, but it’s an underwritten part. Marie is there to prompt Vanning to talk, and talk he does but to little effect for the audience. Brian Keith looks bored as John, the main thug, but Rudy Bond gives the film’s one energetic performance as Red, the crazy thug.

It’s not the fault of the actors that the film is so flat, though. Jacques Tourneur was a fine director, but this film has none of the style or intensity he brought to Out of the Past or I Walked With a Zombie. Even the big showdown at the end is a dud (Brian Keith is so low-key in the final shootout he looks like he’s on tranquilizers). Tourneur and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey create a good looking film, but something vital is missing. Here’s what I think the problem is: the novel Nightfall isn’t that great to begin with. Vanning’s mysterious past, when it’s revealed, isn’t a big dark secret, it’s just bad luck. And somehow, I’ve just never been convinced by his subsequent decision to take off and live a life on the lam. Vanning seems stupid, basically, and his back story seems farfetched. He suffers from a problem you sometimes find with Goodis’ characters: they are passive clogs caught in the wheels of a plot. Now, understand, that’s not always a bad thing. When Goodis is on his game, his passive characters take on a kind of internal intensity; this is because his great theme, when you get down to it, is depression. In his best work (Street of No Return, The Moon in the Gutter, Of Tender Sin), you see his characters dragged out of their drunken and/or depressive stupors just long enough to rise to the occasion of a plot and then find themselves winding up, in a Sisyphean irony, back where they started. The reason Goodis was never a great plotter is that his main theme was inner failure, not external circumstance. It made him a great writer, but it also made him tough to adapt.

One time Hollywood did get Goodis right was ten years earlier, 1947, with Dark Passage. Interestingly-- and this is just Goodis' luck--Dark Passage doesn’t get any respect. It has two things working against its reputation: 1) a hokey stylistic device, and 2) the fact that it is the least of the Bogart/Bacall vehicles.

I’ll deal with each of these criticisms in a moment. First however, the plot: Bogart plays Vincent Parry, a convict who has just busted out of prison when the film starts. He’s picked up by a talkative motorist named Baker (Clifton Young). It doesn’t take Baker long to figure out that Parry’s a fugitive, so Parry slugs him, takes off on foot and is picked up by another motorist. She’s Irene Jansen (Bacall), and surprisingly she already knows who Parry is and wants to help him. It turns out that Parry was convicted of killing his wife, and Irene followed his trial in the papers, convinced of his innocence. Before long, Parry undergoes a facelift and sets out to track down his wife’s killer.

Because the story involves plastic surgery, the makers had to come up with a way to handle Parry’s transition from one face to another. Their solution was to have the pre-facelift sections of the movie told from Parry’s point of view through a subjective use of the camera (i.e. the camera functions as his eyes, so we never see his face). The subjective camera was a hot concept in 1947. Orson Welles had planned to use it in his proposed adaptation of Heart of Darkness before abandoning the idea as unworkable. Robert Montgomery picked up the idea and in 1947 shot his entire adaption of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake with a subjective camera. The results there were disastrous. Here, the technique is a bit distracting, but Daves is able to blend it a little more seamlessly into the story. It helps that once the facelift occurs we cut to Bogart’s lovely visage. While the subjective camera stuff is gimmicky, it has the virtue (unlike in Montgomery’s film) of serving a purpose and solving a problem presented by the story.

The other obstacle standing in the way of Dark Passage’s reputation is that it has the unfortunate distinction of being lumped together with the other Bogart/Bacall films (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo). Those movies are masterpieces (at least the first two are), and I will grant that Dark Passage does not rise to their level.

However, this is quite a fine piece of work. For one thing, Bacall is excellent. She has to carry the first half of the movie by herself because Bogart isn’t onscreen, and she also has to make Irene’s rather odd character believable. She carries off both of these tasks with great skill, and her work here is far more interesting than in Key Largo, where her job mostly consisted of staring at Bogart with longing for two hours. When Bogart does appear onscreen, he’s as good as she is. His Vincent Parry is an underacknowledged swerve for the actor. Parry isn’t a superhero like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He’s a normal guy who’s in over his head. Goodis, after all, was an author incapable of writing about heroes. His characters are sad, lonely, broken people. This movie glosses things up a bit, of course, but the last few scenes between Bogart and Bacall have a fragile emotionalism unlike anything else in their work together. The last shot of the film is probably the sweetest one they ever shared.

I’ve always thought Delmer Daves was an underrated director. For one thing, his movies unfailingly have a great physicality. This made him a strong hand at westerns (3:10 to Yuma, The Hanging Tree), but it also served him well in his noir work (The Red House). His films usually have atmospheres achieved through their excellent utilization of black & white photography and even more through a mastery of art design, set decoration and camera work. Daves wasn’t a realist, but he had a realist’s eye. In Dark Passage you can almost smell the cheap apartments, the cigarette smoke and the alcohol. At least some of the film was shot on location in San Francisco, and he utilizes the city as well as anyone ever did. The same might be said for the way he utilizes Goodis' work.

***

Other Goodis adaptations include:

Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player (based on Down There)

Sam Fuller's Street Of No Return

Rene Clement's La Course Du Lievre A Travers Les Champs (based on the short novel Black Friday)

For more on Goodis check out the excellent website Shooting Pool With David Goodis


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