Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Resurrection of GUILTY BYSTANDER (1950)

In a world of unrelenting bad news, here's a tiny piece of good news. GUILTY BYSTANDER--a small, cheap cult noir that only weird guys like me have ever cared about--is back from the dead. After decades of existing in only the shittiest form imaginable, the film has been reborn in a gorgeous new restoration. 

GUILTY BYSTANDER is the best film made by the husband and wife team of director Joseph Lerner and editor Geri Lerner, a couple of mavericks who helped pioneer postwar movie making in New York City. The film stars Zachary Scott as an alcoholic ex-cop named Max Thursday. When we meet him, he’s passed out drunk in a flophouse where he “works” as the house detective. He’s roused from his stupor by his ex-wife (Faye Emerson) who is distraught because their young son is missing. Thursday slaps himself awake and promises to track down the kid. His search leads him through a maze populated by shady doctors, hypochondriac smugglers, and surly prostitutes. In the end, Thursday’s investigation leads right to his back door.

Max Thursday was the creation of the writing team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller, who wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Miller (writing as “Whit Masterson” the pair also wrote the novel  BADGE OF EVIL on which Orson Welles based TOUCH OF EVIL). Thursday was originally conceived and written as a hero in the tradition of Spade and Marlowe, albeit with rougher edges. The curious thing about this film is that it completely neglects to make Thursday into a hero at all. He’s all rough edges. No wonder the authors of the original novel hated the film, feeling that it turned Thursday into a hopeless lush and, maybe worse, something of a wimp.

That criticism, however, only underlines the deeply noir quality of the film. Lerner’s Max Thursday is a drunken antihero with an emphasis on the anti. After his ex-wife pulls him out of his drunken slumber, he offers her “breakfast” from a whiskey bottle:
            “Please Max,” she says. “I need help.”
            “Why come to me?”
            “I’m desperate.”
            “The whole world’s desperate. And I’m tired. Now go away.”

Once she’s told him the kid is missing, he drags himself out of bed to go investigating. His search leads him to creepy Dr. Edler. When Max presses the doctor on the whereabouts of the kid, Elder offers him a drink. Max has three. In the next scene he wakes up in jail and we discover that the police found him passed out drunk in the rain. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a man looking for his missing child. Quite the hero.

The film’s real conflict is Max’s drinking, the “Will I?” or “Won’t I?” that every alcoholic has to comes to terms with. This conflict is visceral and real (more so than the kidnap plot) and it’s the reason why, even though Thursday spends much of the film being a petulant jerk, we grow to sympathize with him. He seems shaky and weak, which makes his trek through Lerner’s shadowy streets take on an aspect of dogged heroism despite the character’s own attempts to sabotage himself.

It helps this interpretation of the character that Thursday is played by the underrated Zachary Scott. The film came at a difficult time for Scott. He’d been typecast as charming heels and cads in films like MILDRED PIERCE, and it had started to cost him parts in big pictures. Around the time that his juice at the studio was starting to thin out, his wife of fifteen years left him for novelist John Steinbeck. To make matters worse, while their divorce was underway, Scott nearly drowned during a boating accident. It is this Zachary Scott — beaten and battered but not yet broken — who staggers down these mean New York streets looking for his child. Gone is the swagger and charm, Scott’s running on pure grit here. His performance, lacking any attempts to grab our sympathy, is the heart of the film.

In the film Scott’s given a remarkably bitter speech in which he explains his descent from cop to hopeless alcoholic:
[Cops] like to shove people around, they’re bad for their kids. They like violence, they like to carry guns. They’re just muscle men who like to use their muscles[...] But what does a muscle man do when he can’t use his muscles? He becomes a longshoreman, a file clerk, a cabbie. Or an insurance salesman. Maybe you don’t know about insurance salesman. Well, I’ll tell you. A little different from being a cop. You don’t tell people, you ask them. You ask them and then you smile until your face aches[…] Gets to be kind of a joke, see. Gets tougher and tougher to walk in, so one day you take a drink to help. The next time you decide maybe two would be better. And one day you decide to take three drinks and not walk in at all.
This acidic speech is all the more amazing because the film never tacks on a “correction” to it. Thursday never fully shakes off the drunkard’s self-pity to reclaim his gallant cop mantle. Though it has the structure of a detective story, Thursday is closer to one of David Goodis’s boozy losers than Chadleresque hero.

For years, GUILTY BYSTANDER was basically lost, existing only in chopped up, muddy prints that looked like they'd been stored in a sewer and chewed on by rats. In 2020, however, the director Nicolas Winding Refn restored the film, working from the last known 35mm print, which was in the care of the BFI. The result, believe me, is shocking. This is the single most impressive restoration of a film that I've ever seen. Scenes previously swamped in murky black are now pristine, and the cinematography (of Glen Hirschfield and Russell Harlan) can finally be appreciated for its low-budget beauty. Just as important, about eight minutes have been restored that were missing from the film’s last act, including scenes that clear up certain plot elements, and a fantastic chase through the subway tunnels of New York City, one of the first sequences of its kind.    

The film itself is still a rough hewn piece of work. Interiors were shot at various locations including on stages at the ancient Fox studios on W. 56th Street, in abandoned warehouses, and at “the Tombs,” the Manhattan Detention Complex. Exteriors were picked up on the streets, “guerilla style” as Geri would later explain it, including a finale under the Brooklyn Bridge. This marrying of low budget aesthetics to the odyssey of its skid row protagonist will probably never make GUILTY BYSTANDER a crowd-pleasing hit, yet it remains a movie worth seeing, and it was certainly one well worth saving.

You can watch the restored GUILTY BYSTANDER and read related articles at byNWR.