Two or three things I know
about David Goodis
By Tony Williams
Professor/Area Head of Film Studies,
Department of English,
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale,
Carbondale, Il. 62901-4503
My first introduction to David Goodis came indirectly from viewing Francois Truffaut’s 1960 adaptation of Down There, Shoot the Piano Player. At the time I had never read any Goodis and tended to focus my interest on one of the exciting films of the French New Wave directed by a former Cahiers du Cinema critic who had already attracted world attention with his earlier The 400 Blows (1959). Then Charles Aznavour’s character seemed to reflect the aura of Left Bank pessimistic nihilism and it was not until much later that I began reading Goodis. It soon became clear that Truffaut was too gentle a director for Goodis as he was for Cornell Woolrich with his adaptation of Waltz into Darkness, Mississippi Mermaid (1969). What links both Goodis and Woolrich is their opposition to the masculinity inherent in the school of “hard boiled fiction” represented by James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane. Although these tough guy writers often depict situations where the hero intermittently loses control, their male characters eventually regain control. The worlds of Goodis and Woolrich are completely different. Theirs is an environment where perverse dimensions of masochism, rather than sadism, dominate their various heroes. It is almost as if both authors protest against a prevalent male “order of things” in their respective societies and depict scenarios where characters are ruled by deep psychological motivations and environmental circumstances over which they have no control. In many ways, this often represents the real state of affairs in contemporary society.
To designate both Goodis and Woolrich as representing a “soft-boiled” school of fiction opposed to its “hard-boiled” counterpoint may initially appear flippant. But if we see both authors as inheriting the tradition of French literary naturalism begun by Emile Zola in the nineteenth century and developed by his American cousins in the twentieth, then the importance of this tradition becomes apparent. In his Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen, Foster Hirsch identifies the links between naturalism and film noir. It is David Goodis who particularly identifies the psychological flaws in his various characters that often stem from a combination of family and environmental factors that Zola documents in his Rougon-Macquart series of novels. Like Woolrich, Goodis emphasizes a masochistic dimension in his fiction that is not entirely defined by personal weakness but rather represents an incoherent protest against patriarchal power structures that also involves women as well as men damning both victims and victimizers. Goodis’s characters become trapped by dominant psychological and societal universes that attempt to sap the inner core of their being. But at the end characters remain true to themselves although they may have returned full circle. Even recognizing the impossibility of the false ideology of the American Dream is enough for these damned souls.
The optimistic conclusions of Dark Passage (1946) and Night Squad (1961) may represent traps for the unwary reader. Vincent Parry may never prove his innocence in the first novel but there is no guarantee that he will not be pulled off the bus after the final chapter, arrested, and sent to the execution chamber. Corey Bradford may achieve a victory in the latter work. But another claustrophobic chain of circumstances may later confront him as it will to Paul Ballard in Of Missing Persons (1950). The fiction is often surrealistic in tone as seen by predominant references to the nightmarish colors of green and orange. To modify Josh’s closing words in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), “Read Goodis but I suggest you do not read him lightly.” .