By Stuart Mitchner
Town Topics, November 26, 2014
A nondescript sign hanging above an uninviting door on a street in Philadelphia says ART, BOOKS. The door opens easily and what you see on the other side makes it feel like you’ve walked into a movie.
There are all kinds of interiors, some dull, some posh, and then there are vistas like the one extending into the far distance. Books and art are here, as promised. Piled on top of floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with volumes from the era before ISBN numbers are paintings, jumbled, tumbled, balanced, constructively haphazard, as if arranged by a Hollywood set designer on a roll, canvases framed and unframed, original artworks, some of it shrill and chaotic, like hieroglyphics gone wild, graffiti that couldn’t find the right wall. As you venture farther back, past immense, picturesquely faded 19th-century French posters advertisinglivraisons partout gratis by Paul de Kock, you find boxes of old records, sheet music, postcards, vintage magazines and newspapers, auction catalogues, and, filling the last long stretch of the vista, antiques with enough charisma to suggest that a Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon might be found on the premises.
So if this is a movie, what’s it about, where’s it coming from, and where’s it going? The genre that makes the most sense for such a murky, intriguingly disordered setting is film noir. Except that doesn’t fit with my idea of Philadelphia, even though literary historians say Poe invented the detective story here, writing “Murders in the Rue Morgue” a few years before George Lippard produced The Quaker City … A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1845), one of the wildest, weirdest Gothic mind-benders ever written. It’s also true that the City of Brotherly Love is where two bop piano geniuses suffered brain-damaging beatings in the 1940s, Bud Powell at the hands of the police, Dodo Marmarosa attacked by a gang of sailors who dumped him headfirst on the dockside railroad tracks. You could fashion a tragic noir around either man, both of whom never fully recovered.
The idea of a movie about an embattled pianist brings to mind François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which was based on a novel by what’s-his-name, the writer of the book behind one of my favorite noirs, Dark Passage. I’m thinking of the scene where Bogart goes out in the middle of the San Francisco night to find a plastic surgeon because he needs a new face. The doctor who does the job is philosophical, telling Bogart “There’s no such thing as courage, only the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying.” For some reason that line gives me the name I was looking for, David Goodis. Because Dark Passage was set in San Francisco, I always thought Goodis lived out there. In fact, he’s right here, right where he belongs, with these thoughts of beatings and piano players in this vast curiosity shop in the City of Brotherly Love.
Finding David Goodis
Looking him up online that night, I learn that David Goodis was born and grew up in Philadelphia, studied for a year at my alma mater Indiana University before transferring to Temple, where he graduated in 1938 with a journalism degree, moved to New York City, worked in advertising, wrote for pulps like Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, published Dark Passage in the Saturday Evening Post, sold it to Hollywood, knew the stars (there are photos of him with Bogart and Bacall). Then back to his hometown for good to become the poet laureate of Philadelphia noir, turning out Gold Medal paperbacks like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, Of Tender Sin, Street of the Lost, and Down There, the book that went to Paris and became Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste.
The only thing by Goodis I could find locally is a paperback of Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the first paragraph:
There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.
That’s an irresistible opening, word-music and articulated atmosphere as mood-making as Charles Asnavour’s beyond worldweary face glooming above the piano in Truffaut’s film, which brings the melody of feeling to life much as Goodis describes it: “a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.” As for the piano player, he’s “slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.”
Where fiction most impressively surpasses film and makes you understand why Henry Miller said the novel was “even better” than the movie is in the love story between the piano player and the waitress. In the film Lena is played by Marie Dubois, whose charming wholesome beauty and lovely smile make it a foregone conclusion that Aznavour’s Eddie would be instantly infatuated. Gaddis’s depiction of the awkward evolution of a deeply felt relationship is so tensely and determinedly understated that it takes on a force greater than all the violence in a violent book. Dubois’s youthful charm is no match for the presence and power of Gaddis’s waitress. This is why the end of Down There has an emotional impact beyond anything in the film. After seeing the woman he was afraid to fall in love with shot dead in the snow, the piano player goes back to the refuge he found after his fall from concert hall glory, a dockside dive called Harriet’s Hut, where Lena worked. One way he tries to resist loving her is to think of her not by name but as “the waitress” right up to the moment of her death — “down there” in South Jersey.
“Less is more” is the line Gaddis follows from the cold wind of the opening paragraph to the deliverance of the conclusion, with Goodis, like a pianist himself, at his own keyboard. People in the bar are urging him to play, they all but lift him onto the stool, but he’s “got nothing to give them,” until a whisper comes “from somewhere” telling him he can try. When, with eyes closed, he hears the sound, “warm and sweet,” coming from a piano, he thinks, “That’s a fine piano …. Who’s playing that?” And as the story ends: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”
Earlier, when he heard jazz coming over a car radio, the piano player said something similar to himself, “That’s very fine piano … I think that’s Bud Powell.” It’s said that during his year and a half confinement at Creedmore after the Philadelphia attack, Bud Powell drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell, so he could open his eyes and see it there and imagine his fingers moving on the keys.
The Writer as the Player
The cover of La vie en noir et blanc, the biography of David Goodis by Philippe Garnier (Editions de Seuil 1984), has a photograph of Goodis at the piano, a cigarette in his mouth. After reading his way through Goodis’s dark world, Garnier commented, “I find it very difficult to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.”
Julian Rackow, Goodis’s lawyer in the suit he brought against the hit TV series The Fugitive for allegedly stealing ideas from Dark Passage, found it no less difficult to put his impression of Goodis into words, at least until he sawShoot the Piano Player: “Upon leaving the theater, my wife said that I looked as pale as a ghost. I was shaken because it was as if I had seen David Goodis.” Besides observing that the Aznavour character had “many of the personality and physical traits of David Goodis,” Rackow felt that both men were versions of “the quintessential loner.” The piano player was the writer, “all wrapped up tightly within himself … far more comfortable within his own shell.”
Streets Given Meaning
On the same day that began at the emporium behind the ART/BOOKS sign, my son and I drove to a used record store called Sit & Spin on South Ninth in the Italian market, a part of the city I’m not very familiar with and at the time had no desire to know better. On our way, we covered a lot of ground, crossing innumerable four-way-stop intersections of streets that had no particular significance for me.
At home, after discovering a fantastically informative web site called “Shooting Pool with David Goodis,” I learned just how wide a swath of urban territory his novels encompass. Those insignificant street names I’d passed earlier that day were now charged with meaning, fiction and real-life merging in an area the web site calls Goodisville: “The majority of the novels were set in Skid Row, the Delaware River docks, Kensington, Southwark, and Port Richmond. Three of these areas are truly lost to contemporary Philadelphians. Working class Southwark is now Queens Village, most of which is increasingly upscale. Dock Street, overlooking the waterfront and once the center of a sprawling and cacophonous produce market, is now the location of independent film theaters, and of the Society Hill Towers apartments. Skid Row fell to redevelopment plans over 30 years ago; the derelicts, the fleabag hotels, and the Sunday Breakfast Association have long been unlamented.”
The circumstances of David Goodis’s death at 49 in March 1967 have a noirish aspect. While the official cause is given as a “cerebral vascular accident,” the consensus seems to be that it resulted from the beating Goodis suffered while resisting a hold-up attempt.
Down There can be found in the Library of America’s anthology American Noir of the 1950s. Gaddis has a volume all to himself in Five Noir Novels. The 2nd Street emporium is Jules Goldman Books and Antiques.
By Ken Price
“Beyond the pain, beyond the spinning and all the gleaming red, and beyond the falling rocks that crashed and clanged, and beyond the black flood shot with more red, with some livid purple in there, beyond all that, there was a stillness and it was the stillness of memory, and he groped his way toward it.” - Nightfall (1947) by David Goodis
“But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had thought to let it in some of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.” - Porter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Some are chased by the hounds of hell. Some are magnetized to an evil centre and pulled along by some dark fate.
David Goodis characters seem alien to their own bodies. They look out and see the world closing in on them.
You could blindfold a Goodis character and they would barely notice. Because their lives are lived on the inside.
When a Goodis character stops to talk to someone, they speak superficially. Perhaps they mention what brand of cigarettes they are smoking. Or they say they have to keep moving. Or they admit they have no idea at all. They are barely there. Because on the inside, their true self has already started moving - spiralling down a sink drain to hell.
I’m at that stage in Goodis fandom where you watch the film Dark Passage immediately after reading the book.
What stands out is that the first third of the film is shot in the first person perspective. Sure, it might be for practical reasons. They had to work around Vincent Parry’s plastic surgery where the finished product is Humphrey Bogart’s world weary mug. So pre-plastic surgery, it was probably impractical or imprudent to have a different actor or expensive makeup.
But the first-person perspective wonderfully accentuates what it feels like to follow a Goodis character through their story. It’s in the ‘right here and now’ where Goodis characters operate. You join them behind their eyes, looking out, and scramble along with only terrible choices to choose from.
Wouldn’t a David Goodis video game look very much the same? It would have to resemble Grand Theft Auto, but in black and white, and with those gorgeous Pontiacs and Lincoln Continentals driving around.
It’s this existential flavour that makes Goodis captivating. It’s not really Jean Paul Sarte’s high minded brand of existentialism. It’s a bit more like Albert Camus’ existentialism in The Stranger, wherein Meursault is a kind of victim of his own life as he wanders detached, viewing the world from beyond a foggy veneer. However Goodis is just so much more gosh darned fun.
His existentialism is part Camus, but also part Quantum Leap - remember the NBC series that ran from 1989 to 1993? I hadn’t thought about Quantum Leap for a long time, until I started diving into Goodis. In each episode, the hero Dr. Sam Beckett (hey oh!) wakes up inside someone else’s body - in some place in time - in the middle of a dire predicament and he navigates them out of peril. Then at the end of each episode he’s transported to someone else’s body in the middle of another critical circumstance to set up the next episode.
He is occasionally joined by a heavy drinking, cigar smoking, womanizing colleague named Admiral Al Calavicci, who appears to him as a holographic projection transmitted into his brainwaves. Calavicci’s job is to try to bring him home but does his best to coach him along the way. But it’s the advice you’d get from a streetwise reprobate.
If we are Dr. Beckett, then David Goodis is kind of our Al Calavicci. When we find ourselves looking out from behind the eyes of someone on the run from the law, or sinking into the quicksand of doomed and violent people, we ask, “Where the hell am I? How did I end up here?”
And with a cigar in his mouth and a woman on his hip he responds, “I don’t know. I’m working on it.”
By Stuart Mitchner
Picture a poet who makes a living writing thrillers. He’s on the run in San Francisco, having been falsely convicted of murder, and his face is all over the papers. Escaped Killer On the Loose. A rich, beautiful, sympathetic woman who followed the trial and has good reason to believe he’s innocent gives him shelter in her deluxe apartment overlooking the bay.
That night he flags down a taxi driven by a friendly, worldly, wise-cracking cabbie who immediately recognizes him. The cabbie knows of a genius plastic surgeon who can give the poet a new face that very night for $200. “Not only that,” says the cabbie, “this guy is a bit of a dark poet himself, he can mend your mind while he’s fixing your face.”
The first thing the doctor asks the poet is “What sorta face do you want?” He has a gallery of possibilities. “I could give you middle period T.S. Eliot. Or I could do early Robert Frost.”
“Nah,” says the poet, “How about Humphrey Bogart? Can you do a good Bogie?”
“Sure, all the time. Everybody wants to be Bogart, but I thought you were a poet.”
“I make a living writing thrillers,” says the poet. “I thought the cabbie told you. Anyway, Bogart is a poet.”
“Funny, now that I think of it, you talk just like him,” says the doctor. “You’ve got his voice.”
“So do you, doc. Everyone should sound like Bogart at three in the morning. That’s what I want to hear as the drug kicks in. I want a film noir mood. Voices speaking soft and low. The sound of coffee and cigarettes, sheltering in place while the world goes mad.”
“Right, but when you’re going under, you want poetry. I usually say a few words. To see folks through. Something mildly hypnotic. Sounds like you don’t want clarity. You want to mask the meaning. Give it a touch of mystery. Just the thing to be hearing as you flow down into darkness. Wallace Stevens always works. Like ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ — by the fifth blackbird, you’re on your way. Now… just close your eyes.”
But the poet has a line in mind. It’s the line that began the whole adventure, it’s been obsessing him, like an itch he can’t scratch. “You know ‘Mending Wall’ — ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall —’”
“There’s a masked line if ever I heard one. What’s the something? And why the double talk? Is it does or doesn’t? It’s a strange poem.” The hypodermic needle flashes in the light. “That line, what is it, ‘Before I wear a mask I’d like to know what it was keeping in or keeping out.’ Well, here goes —.”
The poet’s plotting out a new thriller based on that line of Frost’s about the neighbor “with a stone in either hand … moving in darkness….” Too late, he’s submerged in the doctor’s black coffee Bogart voice, swirling down the dark spiral, “something there is that doesn’t love a mystery … a dark movie on a lockdown afternoon that sends the pandemic groundswell under it…” Yes. that’s it, that’s where it all began.
Locked down, self-quarantined, sheltering in place behind drawn shades, my wife and I have been watching films touched with the poetry of mystery, of crime, of femmes fatales and private eyes, shadows and light, dark corners and dark passages. New or old, made in the 1940s or 1950s or the 1990s and 2000s, these films and series add mystique to our daily lives in a time of masks and menace.
For the older movies, we look for a mixture of feedback and information in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. The contrast between the detached language of the various contributors and the mayhem and murder running through the subject can be downright comical, or when the language diverges from the spirit of the action, merely frustrating. The entry on a family favorite likeDark Passage (1947) reduces it to “an interesting film that carries its basic premise too far. The exclusive use of the first person point-of-view camera for the first half of the film is somewhat unsuccessful in invoking the physical existence of a protagonist.” Summing up, the writer declares that Dark Passage “ultimately lacks much of the internal structure of human weakness and fatalism central to the complete film noir.”
The “complete noir!” — as if that were some kind of standard when the nature of the thing is that’s it’s never complete, never really solved or clarified, always trailing clouds of uncertainty — like the time we’re living and dying through in the spring of 2020. Hoping for a response closer to the spirit of the film, I turn to Pauline Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, and find her arrogant dismissal of a “Bogart-Bacall bummer … an almost total drag,” because “with his head bandaged, Bogart can’t do much except nod appreciatively while Bacall feeds him through a glass straw. In moments of stress, she dilates her nostrils; he’s so trussed up he can’t even do that.”
It was Kael’s “trussed up” travesty of Dark Passage that inspired this column’s opening fantasia on the film noir classic Delmer Daves made from the novel by David Goodis.
The studio heads at Warners were understandably peeved at the notion of investing a small fortune in the highest paid male star in Hollywood (Bogart averaged $450,000 a year), for a picture in which his face is not seen for the first hour; and even then all you can get for your money is 20 minutes of the white-masked victim of the plastic surgeon’s handiwork (“The artist in me wishes he could see what a nice job I’ve done,” says Dr. Coley, “but I never will.”). Again, I have to quote from the same entry in the Film Noir volume: “Audience identification is weakened” by the fact that the character’s “voice and narration is so easily recognizable as Bogart’s.” Therefore we know what he really looks like all along. “A less well-known actor or less identifiable voice might have been better suited to this visual premise.” But what matters is knowing it’s Bogart all along, that’s the whole point, the beauty of vicariously seeing through his eyes and speaking with his voice brings us closer to film noir oneness with the actor right up to the moment Dr. Coley’s white towel descends on his/our face seconds before the drug is injected; it’s the essence of intimate cinematic submersion
The Goodis Version
The plastic surgery sequence alone deserves a place in the Film Noir Hall of Fame, with almost every word of dialogue taken directly from the novel. What makes the scene so powerful, however, is the cinematography of Sid Hickok, the direction of Daves, and Houseley Stevenson’s portrayal of a doctor who had perfected his own “special technique” — before he was kicked out of the Medical Association. When Bogart’s character admits some apprehension about the operation, Dr. Coley tells him “We’re all cowards. There’s no such thing as courage. There’s only fear, the fear of getting hurt. And the fear of dying. That’s why human beings live so long.”
Goodis puts the apprehension into words, with the stress on face: “He kept his eyes closed. Then things were happening to his face. Some kind of oil was getting rubbed into his face, rubbed in thoroughly all over his face and then wiped off thoroughly. He smelled alcohol, felt the alcohol being dabbed onto his face. Then water running again. More clinking of steel, more cabinet drawers in action…. He decided it was impossible for Coley to change the face so that people wouldn’t recognize it …. He decided there wasn’t any sense to this, and the only thing he would get out of it was something horrible happening to his face and he would be a freak for the rest of his life. He wondered how many faces Coley had ruined…. He felt a needle going into his face. Then it went into his face again in another place. It kept jabbing deep into his face. His face began to feel odd. Metal was coming up against the flesh, pressing into the flesh, cutting into the flesh. There was no pain, there was no sensation except the metal going into his flesh…. With every minute that passed something new was happening to his face.”
Given the star-power-for-the-ages of the actual Bogart-Bacall off-screen romance, it’s worth noting a key change in the music the couple bonds to. In the novel, Bogart looks through her record collection, noticing “a lot of Basie. The best Basie. The same Basie he liked.” After looking approvingly through titles like “Swinging the Blues” and “Lester Leaps In,” Bogart puts “Texas Shuffle” on the turntable. The music “clicked with the fact that he had a cigarette in his mouth, watching the smoke go up, and the police didn’t know he was here.” The record was still playing when Bacall came back into the room. “She smiled at him. She said, “You like Basie?” “I collect him.” But that was before San Quentin.
In the film, their song is Jo Stafford singing “Too Marvelous,” a choice Goodis surely approved of, as have generations of filmgoers, whether in the movie houses or at home, “sheltering in place.”
By Jay Gertzman
While the difficulties of forging satisfying human connections are clear in rural noir, the possibilities of a progressive communal future can be in the offing.
The effect of crime on citizens of a community has been a theme of American noir fiction since its inception in the mid 20th century. Stories about the power of mob bosses and racketeers are about how people survive forces beyond their making, and their control. Close cooperation between the upperworld, that is, a community’s respected political structure, and the underworld, drives the way citizens not only make a living, but live and die. It has been said that communities large and small need crime. That is how the economic, political, and social organization works. As the District Attorney told Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, that is “how cities are run.”
The ability of vulnerable citizens to maintain self respect is described differently in contemporary country noir than it was in 20th century mass market crime stories.
David Goodis’ Street of the Lost (1953) is a hard-boiled pulp crime story full of suspense, sexual abuse, and vengeance, set in an urban underworld in which a vicious criminal element flourishes. The local mob boss, Matt Hagen, maintains an empire of gambling, prostitution, liquor distribution, loan-sharking, strong arm, and extortion. He threatens the protagonist, Chet Lawrence, because Chet has seen him abusing a woman he wants to “break in” as a prostitute. Eventually, Lawrence rebels from the community’s silent acquiescence to the “keep what you have” platitude that keeps Hagen in power.
The companion novel to Street of the Lost, which had a similar cover, and a similar ending. "They sat there passing the bottle around, and there was nothing that could bother them." Street of the Lost: "Her next home was just a short walk across the street," Blurb (could be for both novels): "The Street Never Lets You Go."
Hagen and his gang invade Chet’s house, and when he returns, his long-suffering, loyal wife Edna is killed when Hagen throws her down a staircase. Then the entire neighborhood turns on the mob boss with an ice pick, a bread knife, and a can of lye. With Hagen’s death, the community is not liberated, but further shamed and morally enfeebled. Chet can only resign himself to the “facts on the ground,” with a new wife, in the same house that Hagen invaded. If he grows the backbone to revolt against the future mob boss, what would be the result?
An invaluable anthology. including stories and poems by Chris Offutt, Daniel Woodrell ("Joanna Stull," see below), Vicki Hendricks, Mark Turcotte, Esther Belin, and other icontermporaries. "Indreed the other America is Our America. It is the home of fractured dreams and failed ambitions. It is a war out there." (Lou Boxer).
The narrator in Woodrell’s “Joanna Stull” (in Stray Dogs, Writing from the Other America ) has a father, Eugene, who is part of a gang of drug-dealing toughs who control the town. He has raped five women, taking their driver’s licenses so that he and his thuggish friends can terrorize them into keeping silent. The son observes Eugene’s latest victim: the blood, the swollen face, the vomit, the terror in her eyes. His “bones sweeten[ing] to the root,” he bashes Eugene’s skull open. One of Eugene’s motley crew implies there would be no retribution, that there was a fundamental rightness beyond the law, to what happened to Eugene. He goes on to say that most people’s “goody-goodness” would lead them to condemn the vengeance. “If they haven’t seen guts on the ground [the narrator is a decorated veteran], it’s just too frustrating to talk to them.”
Vigilantism is terrifying. But in the perspective of characters of some country noir protagonists, it provides some relief from helpless resignation. Where they live and work, elected legislators have not provided livable wages, accessibility of bank loans, institutional health care, or a relief from addiction to OxyContin. Eugene’s son’s vigilant attack on his father has a weird inevitability in such a social context.
This contrast between established “law and order” and a more primitive, ad hoc form of justice is further exemplified by Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. The local drug dealers, who have murdered her father, allow her access to the body so she can provide authorities the fingerprints that confirm his identity. Doing so, she can claim title to the family house and raise her kids there.
Often, the habitus or social structure of the rural crime universe is not forever shadowed by an overarching worldview that makes any fight against it futile. While the difficulties of forging satisfying human connections are clear in rural noir, the possibilities of a progressive future can be in the offing
Copyright © 2022 Jay Gertzman, All rights reserved.
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