By John Grant
Prepared for 2014 CAR-a-van from Hell
The Moon in the Gutter by David Goodis is a wonderful pulpy noir about class in a poor river ward of Philadelphia in the mid-1950's. The plot revolves around working class people struggling with life at the bottom. It's also about "slummers," well-off, uptown people who like to drown their sorrows or walk on the wild side down on Vernon Street in places like Dugan's Den, "the kind of room where every time-piece seemed to run slower" and the double shot of rotgut rye cost twenty cents.
This kind of pulpy American noir appealed to French film directors. There's Francois Truffaut and Shoot the Piano Player, made from Goodis' novel Down there. And there's Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1983 film of The moon in the gutter stwarring Gerard Depardiue and Nastassja Kinski.
In Truffaut's case, the Goodis story became an art house classic. In Beineiz's care, the story is messy and arguably a case of directorial "slumming" gone awry. The history of The Moon in the Gutter is, in fact, an interesting plot in itself; a what-if? That becomes interesting because it can never be answered.
Beineix made the film Diva in 1981, a film centered on a young bicycle messenger obsessed with a black opera singer played by real opera singer Wilhelmina Fernandez, who was born and raised in Philadelphia. The film is done in bright an shiny primary colors with opera music galore with a melodramatic pot of cartoonish thugs, a mysterious, young Vietnamese woman, a vintage 1940s Citroen automobile and a man who fills the role of ringmaster. The film was a bomb in France and a huge hit in the U.S.
Thank to U.S box-office numbers, Beineix turned the Goodis novel and raised enough money to pay for top flight actors. He helped write the script. He took Goodis' story and re-set it in the dock district of Marseilles. According to great French noir novelist, jean-Claude Izzo (The Marseilles Trilogy, Total Chaos, Chourno and Solea) Marseilles is a down-and-dirty working class city peopled with rough immigrants from all around the Mediterranean. In essays, he writes about the "Mediterranean Creoleness" in Marseilles. He rebels against Marseilles, France, as a "borer" between the West and the rest of the Mediterranean world. For Izzo, Marseilles is a hotbed of political turmoil.
The Moon in the Gutter's tawdry plot of sexual romance mixed with violence i the kind of thing the French love. So, again, Beineix uses his signature garish colors and a deliberate melodramatic style. He apparently shot miles of 35 mm film in and around the Marseilles docks to add flavor to the story of lovers crossing class ines. Given Beineix's clear love of opera, as shown in Diava, it's easy to image Beineix envisioning the Goodis story in operatic terms with the abstract mise-en-scene sets of the film---all ensconced in the milieu of the working class dock district of Marseilles.
(For the look of the film to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCWFhFUAb0k)
As he edited the Moon in the Gutter, Beineix made a four-hour and a three-hour version. The producers in the French mainstream film industry, however, had a different vision and were unhappy. They insisted he cut the film down to a two-hour running time, the norm for middle-brow cinema. The film ran in theaters at two hours and 17 minutes.
Roger Ebert summed it up this way, "The Moon in the Gutter is a sumptuous, dazzingly photographed melodrama that becomes, alas, relentlessly boring. It is all style and no heart, and the giveaway is that we never really care about the characters even though each one has a suitable tragic story.
In other words, everything is there, but somehow it does not work. Viewers like Ebert are admiring but just not sucked into the drama. It's like imagining Bertolucci's epic five-hour masterpiece 1900---about the left vs. right struggle in Italy---trimmed down to two hours. Viewers would scratgch their heads and ask, "What's going on here?" All the working class, documentary imagery was cut from the released version of The Moon in the Gutter, leaving only the melodramatic interplay between the characters and some highly theatric sets. The longer versions, according to Beineix, added depth to the characters and more fully explained the narrative. Narrative oomph was cut, leaving only "style."
Like any director with a bomb, Beineix gets back on his bicycle and directs Betty Blue, a well-received film that re-established his good name. Betty Blue was also copped up a bit, and after the film's release, Beineix found funding to re-cut a "director's cut" for DVD release. It was quite successful, which motivated him to find funding to do the same with The Moon in the Gutter.
Also, it was not to be. He went ot Gaumont, the studio that produced the film, and asked for the stored film to get to work on the re-edit. But because the film had done so poorly at the box office, Gaumont had destroyed all the unused footage---without informing him. The stated reason was cost-cutting, though film storage costs are apparently not that steep and such trashing of unused film is unusual. Beineix was, reportedly, extremely troubled and angered. Since then, he has worked on smaller films win which is is able to secure final editing rights. None of this films since Betty Blue has made it to U.S. Screens.
What kind of film a longer version of the The Moon in the Gutter might have been is an intriguing question. For me, it's a case of philistine capitalists, for one reason or another, gutting or castrating a film that's essentially a working class, socialist version of strife at the bottom of the economic pile. Maybe the longer version would have been twice as "boring." But, then, maybe not. Maybe once the characters made sense all the operatic weight would have also made sense and Goodis' "suitably tragic story" would have soared on screen.
We will never know.