David Goodis retains a reputation as being a soulful and tough “poet of the losers” partly because this is who his audience wants him to be. For many years that audience was largely French, so it makes sense that his biographer is Philippe Garnier, a film and literary critic who ventured to America in the 1980s on assignment to look up Goodis’s friends and family. Just recently David Goodis: A Life in Black and White was finally translated into English with Garnier’s update on Goodis reception since the first edition.
A Life in Black and White is a riveting read, absolutely essential for crime fiction buffs interested in the history of the form, perhaps especially for Garnier’s expansive and humorous history of how American pulp fiction was translated into French literature. The material specific to Goodis is similarly revelatory, although there are also moments that reveal Garnier’s spectacular lack of tact. (Garnier can be sardonic or catty about his subjects after interviewing them, a choice hard to imagine coming from an American biographer.)
I’ve explored the most famous Goodis titles more out of a sense of duty rather than out of love. The atmosphere is compelling but the details are haphazard. Perhaps because great directors and screenwriters could ignore those details, Goodis’s basic plot ideas have proven to be good fodder for movies: Indeed, I’d argue that the minor cinema classics Dark Passage, Nightfall, and Shoot the Piano Player are all better than the books.
However, it may also simply be that I just don’t hear Goodis’s music correctly. Amusingly, I chose The Blonde on the Street Corner for my “Crimes of the Century” list, which (I now discover according to Garnier) is one of the least-respected novels by serious Goodis fans. Blonde on the Street Corner is a novelization of a semi-autobiographical Goodis screenplay first embraced and then rejected by a studio boss at Warner Brothers. The book is overblown and sentimental, but it has a naturalness (probably because it comes from Goodis’s life experience) that I found more compelling than the fantastical conceits that dominate his crime novels. (In Shoot the Piano Player, the absurd idea that a pair of hoods would be smoking matching pipes isn’t from the source book Down There but nonetheless makes sense for Goodis.)
Garnier’s observations about the adaptations are some of the high points in A Life in Black and White:
Comparing Nightfall to Tourneur’s seminal noir Out of the Past is inescapable, and it’s led aficionados (of noir, of Goodis, and of Tourneur) to dismiss Nightfall as a minor title in their respective filmographies. You read a lot of “Burnett Guffey is no Nicholas Musuraca,” etc. Of course he isn’t. This is the 1950’s, and television had made its mark on cinema aesthetics. By 1956, the studios were fully aware that feature films would have a second life on TV, and they had had started to instruct their directors to shoot films, especially those in black and white, flatter and less contrasty, just as they also pushed for a style favoring close-ups, which looked better on the small screen.
A Life in Black and White is published by Black Pool, the boutique imprint established by Eddie Muller, aka the Czar of Noir.
Muller himself has produced Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema, a look at a movie beloved by not just film noir fans but by cinephiles in general. In a valuable introduction, Muller explains his love of this movie and why he was compelled to write a book, including the following key bit:
Around the time I first encountered Gun Crazy, I also became seduced by the auteur theory, largely through the influence that critic Andrew Sarris’ regurgitation of the concept, borrowed from journals such as Cahiers du cinéma and Sight & Sound, had on a new generation of film writers. I gullibly bought in, believing that movies were the product of directors in the same way novels were the product to writers. In the intervening 40 years I’ve overcome this intellectual blindness. I now argue regularly against the absurdity of auteurism, even if it’s merely to insist, when creating program notes for a film festival, that screenwriters and producers receive equal credit….Readers of this volume will, I sincerely hope, never again refer to Gun Crazy as “a film by Joseph H. Lewis,” or “Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy.”
Muller makes good on his manifesto by showing where each and every idea in the finished film come from, whether the original story, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, or someplace else. It was a golden era for Hollywood, and Gun Crazy’s complex history gives Muller the perfect opportunity to take the lid off and show us how it all really worked. Muller’s prose is smooth and engaging and the photos are spectacular.
Both David Goodis: A Life in Black and White and Gun Crazy: The Origin of American Outlaw Cinema are only available online directly from Black Pool Productions.
It’s not just David Goodis: A fairly common convention among noir authors (and their fans) is to suggest a troubled past even though not all those scribes have actually ever been that down and out.
San Francisco author Peter Plate has walked the walk as well as talked the talk. Plate has been a squatter in the Mission district and at times verged on being utterly homeless. His books are not always classified as crime fiction, but stories that come from that close to the bone inevitably interact with the seamiest side of humanity.
Plate’s brilliant and searing One Foot Off the Gutter (1995) uses the charred remains of a buddy-cop police procedural as a framing device for a serious novel about American fantasy and reality. A must-read for fans of noir: Not your average glamorous, heroic, or sentimental noir à la Goodis, but the really truthful and existential kind of noir.
Those commonplace italicized “thoughts of a deranged killer” chapters in commercial thrillers have become a banal cliché. Still, one can understand why a serious author would want to attempt to understand why strange people do the crazy stuff they do. One Foot Off the Gutter has perhaps the most convincing unreliable narrator that I’ve ever read.
I sat in the kitchen contemplating my vocabulary. I wanted to enrich my understanding of language. As a policeman, I needed to sharpen my oral skills. Starting alphabetically, I summoned the first noun that came into my head. Anxiety: now there was a nice word. I rolled it around on my tongue, relishing what it meant and how it sounded. Anxiety had a clean ring to it; a word that never stood in one place, but always had the energy to travel. I admired that quality, the power to go places and do things.
Charles Willeford’s deconstructed masterpiece New Hope for the Dead is a possible ancestor, as the cop protagonists of both books are looking for a place to live (although Willeford is comparatively comic). Ex-con Edward Bunker is another logical reference, although Plate is a much better writer. Certain passages of One Foot Off the Gutter are strikingly reminiscent of James Ellroy, to the point of suggesting that Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is a direct influence on Plate. (One Foot Off the Gutter is also part of Plate’s Mission Quartet.)
However, Ellroy writes his fantasies, whereas Plate writes his reality. I will be reading more of Peter Plate.