Friday, May 8, 2009
Street Of No Return (made 1987, released 1989)
The idea of a David Goodis adaptation directed by Sam Fuller is enough to make a hardcore noir geek foam at the mouth. It’s a meeting of two giants of the genre: the tragic Goodis, author of booze-drenched nightmares like The Moon In The Gutter and Of Tender Sin; and the irascible Fuller, director of subversive masterworks like Pickup On South Street and The Naked Kiss. The only problem with this marriage of giants is that the resulting movie stinks.
Maybe the root of the problem is that it all happened too late. The film—which stars Keith Carradine as a washed-up rock star drawn into a scheme to instigate a race riot, a scheme that also ties back to a violent event in his own past—was filmed by Fuller in 1987 and, sadly, it looks every bit as dated as an Air Supply video. It doesn’t help that Fuller took the opportunity to actually film a soft rock video starring Carradine and a naked girl on a horse. But more on that later.
The script, by Jacques Bral and Fuller, hews rather closely to Goodis’ original novel. A bum is looking for a drink one night when he stumbles into a race riot under way. In the midst of the confusion, he sees a woman from his past. He follows her to a house where he finds other people from his past, including a beautiful woman he used to be in love with. He discovers that she’s still with a group of thugs, the same group of thugs who, years before, had given him a savage beating for trying to steal her away from them. The beating ended his singing career and sent him into a life of boozing. When he discovers that this crew is in cahoots with a local gang leader to start a race war in the city to drive down property rates, the bum rallies his wits and fortitude and brings their criminal enterprise crashing down. At the end of the book, however, his triumph is short-lived and he ends up back on the bottle. In a Goodis novel, triumph is something you pass on your way back to the gutter.
In some ways, Sam Fuller is the exact wrong director for this kind of material. He was a great director, of course, but his style was all about impact. His images leap off the screen, and in his best work (Pickup On South Street, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor) they’re ferocious. Subtly wasn’t Fuller’s thing. Neither was reality. “Reality,” he liked to say, “is a bunch of damn bullshit. There’s no such thing as reality.” Since reality could never be less than everything and everyone all at once, the representation of reality in art was impossible. Thus, the artist was better off embracing a heightened sense of things. That theory of art, and Fuller’s wild-ass practice of it, is out of synch with the quiet desperation at the heart of Goodis’ work.
Goodis liked to say that he didn’t write thrillers, he wrote melodramas with action. The funny thing is, the best part of his work was not the action, it was the melodrama. His plots never made a lot of sense, and that’s especially true of Street Of No Return. You don’t read the book for the outlandish race riot plot; you read it for the quality of the prose, for the overpowering sense of real disappointment at its core. Fuller seems to have missed this quality, and, indeed, he even rethinks Goodis' beautiful heartbreaker of an ending. That's his prerogative as a filmmaker, of course, but his new ending makes no sense on any level. He hustles past the brutal irony of the main character's doom in favor of a tacked-on bit of uplift.
Tellingly, the director said that what drew him to the script (he claimed not to have read the book, though he was friendly with Goodis) was, of all things, the chance to film a race riot.
While the riot scenes have a fierce energy, however, Fuller doesn’t see any further into the problems of race than Goodis did in his novel. The people of color here are all pawns of an unconvincing plot to make money by a few white crooks. There’s no sense of what actual racial problems might be at the root of the violence on the street.
The entire movie has a fierce energy, but much of that energy is expressed through overacting. Carradine avoids overacting by going the other way and giving a boring performance (even in his big concert scene, he seems slightly lethargic), but everyone else chews the scenery like ravenous dogs. Bill Duke has a good introductory scene as the embattled police chief, but Fuller has him spend the rest of the movie screaming curses and delivering preposterous speeches. It's sad to see an actor of Duke's quality wasted so thoroughly in a role he might have turned into something interesting.
The over-the-top quality of the film isn’t just expressed though the acting though. Fuller overdoes just about everything. The scene where Carradine turns a fire hose on a room full of cops and rioters isn’t just absurd and sloppily choreographed, it’s embarrassing. Likewise, Fuller’s rock video, with Carradine made up like some low rent Bowie while poor Valentia Vargas rides naked on a horse, is possibly the worst thing the director ever committed to celluloid. It pains me to say it, but the sequence has the mark of an old man trying to be hip. Not just hip, but1987 hip.
Here’s great idea: read the novel Street Of No Return, and watch The Naked Kiss. Let this little seen movie rest in relative obscurity.
I've written before on the difficulty Goodis poses for adaptation.
And here's a link to an interesting interview with Steve Seid, curator of the Pacific Film Archives, about a Goodis film retrospective.
Finally, the cult of Goodis maybe small but is serious and continues to grow. 2007 saw the first GoodisCon, a gathering of fans and scholars of the author's work. The conference--which I sadly could not attend--was a big success and has turned into NoirCon.