Adapting the dissolute, interior noir of David Goodis
By Max Goldberg posted August 11, 2008
Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis,
Pacific Film Archive, August 1-23, 2008
Cirrhosis of the liver. (The death certificate shows that Goodis died from a stroke). That’s how David Goodis died, though the phrase doesn’t really convey the slow turn of his self-destruction. For that we must turn to the paperbacks: seventeen hair-of-the-dog novels filed under mystery despite their evaporating plots. With Goodis, the underworld is only a point of entry to the inner one. As one character in his bookStreet of No Return remarks, “In the final analysis, we’re all ashamed of something.” Time and time again, Goodis located this near-cosmic dissolution in the story of a fallen man wandering a purgatory called Philadelphia, contending with some combination of drink, a woman, the past, and a crime he hasn’t committed. And if, to use one of the author’s favorite metaphors, the numbers always seem to add up the same way, one senses a broader design in the way these inexorable story arcs feed back to the same vicious circle.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Goodis’s success as a genre writer was measured in Hollywood gold. Born in Philadelphia in 1917, he harbored serious literary aspirations before his man-on-the-run story Dark Passage was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. Humphrey Bogart liked the novel, and Goodis was put on contract by Warner Bros. to write a film treatment. After he penned the script for The Unfaithful(1947), a forgettable knockoff of The Letter (1940), Goodis’s relationship with the studio soured. The author wrote the bulk of his prime pulp after retreating to his native Philly—an unusual career trajectory that fed his portraits of former artists hiding out in menial jobs and drunkenness. Even before Goodis locates the particulars of a protagonist’s downward spiral, we understand that the character lives in the shadows of his former self, a void reflected by crestfallen titles like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Of Missing Persons, The Wounded and the Slain, Down There, andStreet of No Return.
Bogart’s affinity for Goodis makes sense, as the author’s leading men are frozen in the kind of extreme reluctance that was the actor’s specialty. A Goodis hero isn’t described so much as summoned. The author introduces Eddie, the hero ofDown There (later republished as Shoot the Piano Player), without any distinguishing marks: “He was medium-sized, on the lean side, and in his early thirties. He sat there with no particular expression on his face.” More damning is the way this opacity inscribes consciousness. Goodis wields privileged third-person narrations to disquieting, sometimes surreal effect. From Nightfall: “And the man looked at the revolver and then Vanning looked down at it and realized that it was actually a revolver and that he had it in his hand.” To say that a character like Vanning is detached doesn’t do justice to Goodis’s sensitive reconstructions of the drowning soul.
The psychological stakes of the novels are clear enough from Goodis’s hurried appliqués of noir standards. In Nightfall the author reduces the femme fatale plot to the current of a single sentence: “But the truth was there, inside him, and the truth was that a female in a few startling, swift moments, had gotten a hold on him and he had no inclination to free himself.” This economy of expression frees Goodis up to spend long, unencumbered passages detailing his characters’ internal fissures. There is a paradoxical logic to the novels, that the past is both that which can’t be escaped and a street of no return. Flashback scenes provide the infrastructure for this split, though the latticework of the engorged third-person is equally important in creating a pervasive slippage between past and present, real and imagined. A passage like this one seems to burrow into the character’s head:
There it was, right there in front of him. The black satchel that John had taken out of the station wagon. A new satchel of finely grained leather. Whatever was in it was filling it, making it strain with bulging. He knew what was in it. He told himself he didn’t know what was in it. He told himself to leave the satchel alone, put the gun back on the bed, get out of here and get out of Denver. And do it fast and get it started now. Hurry on to Chicago, go to work at the drawing board, meet a nice girl and start a home. Leave the satchel alone. Leave it alone.
These rhetorical flights, fragrant with rumination, sway our attention away from plot mechanics, away even from a precise explanation of a given character’s descent. A suicidal woman in Down Therespeaks for all of Goodis’s broken vessels when she says, “But you know, it is a curious thing—what you do yesterday is always a part of what you are today. From others you try to hide it. For yourself it is no use trying, it is a kind of mirror, always there.” The fact that this line of dialogue is delivered within the context of a different character’s flashback speaks to the inextricability of memory and misfortune in Goodis’s stories.
It also helps place Goodis’s work in the context of time-bent noir characterized by a film like Out of the Past (1947). In the simple take, film noir got its plots from ’30s hardboiled fiction and its looks from German Expressionism. But this equation doesn’t account for the fact that noir continued to have a literary pedigree into the ’50s and ’60s. When film historians say that film noir ended with Touch of Evil (1958), they are in large part speaking of the demise of a certain kind of studio assemblage (David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger end their survey The Classical Hollywood Cinema in 1960, two years after Welles’s Tijuana noir). Goodis wrote much of his best work in this twilight era, and in tracing the many film adaptations of his work one comes away with a fascinating zigzag of noir’s acclimatization to the new ghettos of art cinema, erotic thrillers, Euro-trash, and cable television.
Dark Passage was the first such adaptation and is still one of the best-known for its Bogart-Bacall connection. Today the picture is most interesting for its quirks: a subjective POV aided by an early handheld camera, long-razed San Francisco locations, and the fact that we don’t see Bogart’s face for the first hour of running time. The Burglar (1957) doesn’t have comparable star power, though Dan Duryea’s sheepish countenance is a good match for the Goodis nowhere man. Goodis himself wrote the script from his own novel, though credit is also due to Paul Wendkos’s energetic direction. The man who went on to make the Gidget films here crams a straightforward genre picture with punchy editing and psychological framing.
As with other late noirs like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), The Burglar assumes our knowledge of crime picture archetypes to better stake out its daring formal gambits. After opening with a newsreel nod to Citizen Kane (1941), The Burglarproceeds to a jewel heist as smoothly executed as the ones inRififi (1955) or Le Cercle Rouge (1970). The setup is as plain as the title, but quickly gets mucked up in the smoldering tensions of the criminal gang’s hideout and in a semi-incestuous bond between ringleader Nat Harbin (Duryea) and his adoptive father’s daughter Gladden (Jayne Mansfield). A typical Goodis wormhole opens up when a detective conjectures Nat’s getaway: the dick’s voice-over track seems to direct images of Nat and his accomplice navigating the Jersey swamp toward Atlantic City. Nat’s flashback is also vintage Goodis, non-epiphanic and narrated in the second person. Wendkos finds a visual corollary for the sick tug of the Goodis past in the last shot of the sequence: a rapid camera track pulls away from the young Nat, engulfing him in shadow.
As is so often the case with American pulp, it took the French to recognize the poetry of these primal scenes. The only book-length critical study of Goodis’s work remains to be translated from French (Philippe Garnier’s Goodis, La vie en noir et blanc), and the film adaptations are many: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), The Burglar (1971), And Hope to Die (1972),The Moon in the Gutter (1983), Descent Into Hell (1986), and still others.
Truffaut took up Goodis’s novel Down There for his follow-up to The 400 Blows (1959). For a film that’s supposed to be “a pastiche of the Hollywood B film,” Shoot the Piano Player is remarkably close to its source material. Truffaut even dips into another Goodis novel, Nightfall, for two key dialogues: several lines of the opening meeting between strangers and Charley’s winking self-rehearsal of the line “I’m afraid” are lifted verbatim from the earlier book. Rather more startling is the way Goodis’s prose anticipates New Wave tropes. Here, for example, is a passage from Nightfall that reads like stage directions for Godard’s color-mad tracking shots in Weekend(1967):
There was a pale blue automobile, a convertible. That was a logical color, that pale blue, logical for the start of it, because it had started out in a pale, quiet way, the pale blue convertible cruising along peacefully, the Colorado mountainside so calm and pretty, the sky so contented, all of this scene pale blue in a nice even sort of style. And then red came into it, glaring red, the hood and fenders of the smashed station wagon, the hard gray of the boulder against which the wrecked car was resting, the hard gray turning black, the black of the revolver, the black remaining as more colors moved in. The green of the hotel room, the orange carpet, or maybe it wasn’t orange—it could have been purple, a lot of those colors could have been other colors—but the one color about which there was no mistake was black. Because black was the color of a gun, a dull black, a complete black, and through a whirl of all the colors coming together in a pool gone wild, the black gun came into his hand and he held it there for a time impossible to measure, and then he pointed the black gun and he pulled the trigger and he killed a man.
Many of the characteristic elements of Truffaut’s narration—mixed tones, ambiguous relationships, frankly sexualized women, dissociated voiceover, and mirrored sub-narratives—have roots in the Goodis novel. None of which is to take away from the inventiveness and sheer joy of Truffaut’s visual elaborations, helped a long way by Raoul Coutard’s CinemaScope cinematography. If anything, Truffaut’s faithfulness simply indicates his attention to balanced characterizations, something that his great speed can sometimes conceal. While later French directors milked Goodis’s novels for their most fantastical elements, Truffaut keeps his eye on the rather more delicate sense of regret at the heart of Down There.
Goodis’s spacious plots are pliable enough for creative interpretations, as evidenced by Steven Soderbergh’s decision to repaint the pathological crime ring of the short story “The Professional Man” as an overtly homosexual underground in his 1995 short film for Showtime. Sam Fuller also plays up the implicitly subversive nature of Goodis’s work in Street of No Return (1989), his final feature and a truly bizarre collaboration with French writer-producer Jacques Bral. Fuller’s recollection of Goodis’s trouble with studio producers is colored by sympathy for a fellow outsider: “I didn't give a damn about what those meatheads [studio producers] said about my work, but David took it hard. He was a brilliant, shy loner searching for utopias who never quite made it as a screenwriter.”
Street of No Return is one of Goodis’s strangest, best novels and does seem specially tailored for Fuller’s sensationalist approach to American brutality. The novel opens with a long comic dialogue among three drunks philosophizing over where to find their next drink—a segment critic Robert Polito rightly likens to Beckett in his introduction for the fine edition by Millipede Press. The farce is interrupted by the echoes of a nearby race riot: “The sounds were coming in waves, getting higher and higher, and at the top of it there was someone screeching. It was on the order of the noise an animal would make while getting crushed by a steam roller.” The race riots are obscure and hellish, only manifested in sounds and debris. What seems abstract turns eerily political when it turns out that a gangster has engineered the race riots to clear territory for a lock on the black market. Fuller takes the next logical step in explicitly casting the villain as a real estate developer. Curiously enough the alienated nature of Goodis’s prose is reflected, albeit through a cracked mirror, in the profound sense of dislocation (Lisbon locations for an already vague portrait of the American city) and textural incongruities (Euro-thriller streaks running through Fuller’s hard-nosed shock tactics) of the film version.
David Goodis died in 1967, only two years before Jack Kerouac. The likeness of their deaths is evident, but their bodies of work ensure different readings—Kerouac poses as an escape artist in his paperbacks, while Goodis only sees the “whirl” of fate in his. Still, if Goodis was never consecrated by pop culture, his books are wound up in the DNA of latter-day noirists like David Lynch, the Coen brothers, and even Terrence Malick. Goodis’s call to these torchbearers, from Street of No Return, is noir’s answer to Jean Renoir’s famous line in The Rules of the Game (1939) that “Everyone has their reasons.” The Goodis version goes like this: “Every man has an ax to grind.” .