I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: 2020 update (originally posted 2012)
Around 2008-2011, Ray Banks wrote three pieces on Charles Willeford: “An Appreciation of The Women Chaser” (appeared in Noir City), “Willeford at the Movies” (appeared in Grift) and “The Transgression of Brother Willeford” (posted at The Crime Factory).
At the time of my 2020 re-edit, all three essays had vanished from the internet, but Banks’s original insights are well worth preserving. Thanks to Ray for letting me to re-edit and repost them on DTM. “An Appreciation of The Women Chaser” and “Willeford at the Movies” is combined into one overview; I also have excised outdated information and a few references to now-forgotten events.
Ray’s fresh comment about re-reading Charles Willeford during the 2020 pandemic: “Willeford remains a mood lifter in strange times. Much like horror fictions, it’s like the frame around a Bosch painting – it keeps us safe somehow.”
Willeford at the Movies: Cockfighter, Miami Blues, and The Woman Chaser
Like many true American originals, Willeford spent a majority of his 35-year career firmly marginalized; he only finally veered into mainstream view when he happened to write about a cop. This marginalization was partly his own doing, as Willeford refused to write a series (even when he did, he tried to sabotage it) and his protagonists were invariably amoral, if not totally psychotic: phony preachers, alcoholic painters turned fry-cooks, car salesmen turned Hollywood auteurs, willfully mute cockfighters, psychopathic art critics, and venal, middle-aged singletons.
Unsurprisingly, these characters have proven difficult to translate to the screen. The first of the adaptations is, in some ways, the least likely. 1974’s Cockfighter, based on both the 1962 and 1972 versions of the novel, is itself based (very loosely) on Homer’s Odyssey and as such is a meandering, picturesque story of one man’s mute quest to win Cockfighter of the Year. As a book in the Southern Gothic tradition, it sits happily with Crews and O’Connor (Crews blurbed the book), but with its silent bloodsport-obsessed protagonist and extensive discussion of the minutiae of cock breeding and fighting, it’s nobody’s idea of blockbuster material.
Nobody, that is, except Roger Corman. He’d just learned that cockfighting was the most popular sport in the world, so naturally it followed that a movie about it, based on a book that clearly had insider knowledge, would be a landslide of cash just waiting to happen. Willeford was the obvious (and no doubt cheap) choice for the screenplay, and the Cockfighter movie proved to be the only time Willeford took an active interest in adapting his own work for the screen. As it turned out, he did an excellent job of streamlining the novel, jettisoning the stranger detours in favor of a straight(ish) quest narrative. (Gone is Dr. Onyx Riordan, pharmaceutical entrepreneur, who owes Frank Mansfield money. Also gone is the moment when Frank takes his thirty-dollar, second-hand Gibson and his three “songs” — which of course he doesn’t sing — around the club and party circuit in order to raise some scratch to buy some game chickens. While the guitar detour does feed into the idea of Frank as an artist, regardless of his medium, it is pretty ridiculous and the film is better off without it.)
The rapid-fire 23-day shoot precluded a lot of directorial amendments to the script, but Monte Hellman did manage to slip in a couple of scenes with Frank’s old flame Mary Elizabeth, which not only seek to humanize a difficult protagonist, but also up the nudity quota. The penultimate line – “She loves me, Omar” – might even convince those unlucky few who arrive five minutes before the end that there was something like a love story between a man and woman in the previous eighty. Nonsense. There is a love story, but it’s between a man and his vocation. Women in Cockfighter are temporary, irritating possessions, as easily and happily lost as your car and trailer. Money too, despite the constant gambling, is only useful as a means to an end. In Cockfighter, the sport is all, and Willeford’s screenplay nails its colors to the mast in the opening voiceover:
“I learned to fly a plane. Lost interest in it.Water-skiing. Lost interest in it. But this is something you don’t conquer. Anything that can fight to the death and not utter a sound, well … The person that puts the most and works the hardest is supposed to win. And that’s the way it usually works out.”
The sport is pure competition to Frank. In the book, he makes a point of saying it’s the only sport that can’t be fixed – it can, and more on that in a minute – and that a cock couldn’t throw a fight even if it wanted to. Willeford’s protagonists breathe obsession, and Willeford’s script puts the cockfighting front and centre, which is both the film’s biggest narrative strength and its major aesthetic weakness, because the brutality of the sport is far more palatable on the page than it is on-screen. It doesn’t help that the cockfighting in the film is a hundred percent real, made crueller by the fact that each of the fights is rigged – one cock invariably wears rubber spurs while the other sports the real steel. And what’s disturbing isn’t the gore, which is clearly fake and thrown in because real cockfights aren’t that bloody, but the juxtaposition of the slow-motion, spinning ballet of the fight itself with the documentary realism of cutaways to a bellowing crowd. There is a gritty beauty to proceedings, mostly thanks to some downright stunning photography by Néstor Almendros (who, along with Haskell Wexler, would go on to shoot parts of Days of Heaven for Terrence Malick). The hazy, lyrical look of the film works nicely with and provides a nice counterpoint to what feel like authentic performance, not least from Warren Oates as Frank Mansfield, who plays a majority of the film mute, and yet remains the most interesting thing on screen at any given moment. Also likeable is Willeford himself as the judge and retired cockfighter Ed Middleton. Other than a brief cameo in moonshine B-movie Thunder and Lightning, this was Willeford’s only acting role, and he clearly has chops.
Unfortunately, Corman’s dead cert hit failed to make much of an impact. In an effort to grab whatever box office he could, Corman released Cockfighter with at least three title changes – Born to Kill, Gamblin’ Man and Wild Drifter – and packed the Born to Kill trailer with scenes from other movies. But the film wasn’t exploitative enough to be a B-movie, and its subject matter proved too sticky for mainstream audiences. Cockfighting may have been the most popular sport in the world, but people weren’t ready to admit it. As a result, Willeford asserted that Cockfighter was the only movie to lose Corman money, and while that isn’t entirely accurate – that dubious accolade belongs to William Shatner movie The Intruder, which was released in 1962 and took 43 years to make its money back – it’s also clear that Cockfighter wasn’t one of New World Pictures’ proudest moments, even if it is one of Corman’s better movies. It would also be the only adaptation that Willeford would see on screen.
The decade that followed the release of Cockfighter was a tough one for Willeford creatively. The self-published hemorrhoid memoir Guide for the Undehemmorrhoided and a work-for-hire non-fiction book about Craig Glassman and the deputy sheriff’s apprehension of David Berkowitz called Off the Wall were his only official releases. Willeford’s unpublished work included The Shark-Infested Custard, which repelled queasy publishers with its relentless misandry; the beginning of a novel called The First Five in Line, about the day-to-day workings of a bizarre TV game show; The Battle of Maldon, a twenty-four-hour novel concerned with racial conflict on a Newfoundland Air Force base; and A Necklace of Hickeys, a novel featuring Willeford as protagonist and stuck working as a house sitter, which would be cannibalized for the second published Hoke Moseley novel New Hope for the Dead.
The first published Moseley novel Miami Blues gave Willeford his first taste of mainstream success. Sergeant Hoke Moseley is a gruff and perpetually skint homicide detective. He owes every other wage packet to his estranged wife and lives in a dingy, Marielito-stuffed Miami hotel. Actor Fred Ward optioned the rights for his own production company in 1986 and asked Jonathan Demme (a New World Pictures alum) to be involved. Demme took co-producer credit and passed the director duties to George Armitage, who’d previously written one of Corman’s last movies under AIP and directed a fun Blaxploitation remake of Get Carter called Hit Man, which showed a remarkable handling of off-kilter comedy mixed with extreme violence. This was a real Hollywood deal, and yet when Willeford was asked if he wanted to write the screenplay, he refused. Apart from an intentionally inappropriate treatment for Miami Vice in which Sonny Crockett becomes the object of affection for a gay man (amusingly, Sonny doesn’t realize the man crush is happening because, in Willeford’s words, Sonny “is just too damn dumb”), Willeford had decided at the age of 67 that he was, first and foremost, a novelist, and so script duties fell to Armitage.
Miami Blues wouldn’t see the big screen until two years after Willeford’s death and, while he may have enjoyed it – he has a cameo in a picture frame on Hoke’s desk – the movie is a soft adaptation in terms of character. Freddy Frenger’s “blithe psychopath” is the first minor casualty, as he goes from career criminal to child with poor impulse control – the first shot of Freddy is him gawping out of a plane window like it’s his first time flying – and so his attack on Hoke and subsequent identity theft appears to be less of a violation than a petulant prank. Furthermore, Alec Baldwin’s extremely charming turn goes some way to making Freddy the kind of pseudo-psycho that would become de rigeur in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and which fundamentally undermines the physical danger Freddy poses throughout the novel. This self-conscious charm and “quirk” extends to the rest of the performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh apparently based her performance on her dog, and it shows, making Susie Waggoner less the girl who came to Miami to have her brother’s abortion than some cutey-pie hooker with a heart of gold. This is not the same Susie who’d end up married to one Mr. Frank Mansfield of Ocala, Florida, though she still makes a mean vinegar pie. Fred Ward is a more successful Moseley, but he’s clearly not balding, overweight or toothless, which lends an element of artificiality to proceedings. Furthermore, Nora Dunn is given a thankless role in Ellita Sanchez, Hoke’s new partner and apparently the one cop in Miami capable of doing police work. Sanchez becomes a major character in the books, helping to highlight Hoke’s discomfort with both women and Cubans, but this doesn’t make it into the film and Sanchez is little more than a plot device. Other smaller roles are a game of Spot The Cameo – Russ Meyer veteran Charles Napier does his best shark impression as Hoke’s partner Henderson, The Breakfast Club’s Paul Gleason is the bent vice cop Sgt. Lackley, and then you have The Honeymoon Killers’ Shirley Stoler as a pawn shop proprietor and former Bond girl Martine Beswick as a put-upon waitress.
All this results in an adaptation that feels more superficial than authentic. As crazy as Willeford’s Moseley novels may get, there’s always the sense that his Miami is a real city. Armitage’s vision ultimately becomes as blandly wacky as the SHIT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PARTY NAKED t-shirt Susie buys for Freddy. That isn’t to say the film doesn’t work in a breezy, charming way, of course, it just lacks the bite that made the novel so successful. Audiences agreed, at least at first: After a botched release by a financially unstable Orion Pictures (they would file for bankruptcy the following year, despite the double whammy success of Dances With Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs), Miami Blues struggled to make any headway in its short theatrical run and ended up picking up a cult audience on cable and video.
1999’s The Woman Chaser was the feature debut by director Robinson Devor and remains the most faithful adaptation of Willeford’s work to date. And by faithful, I mean faithful – apart from the placement of the credit sequence (an extremely amusing seduction of a middle-aged Salvation Army captain) and a cheeky little coda, both dialogue and action are ripped pretty much straight from the pages of the 1960 novel to the extent that it’s perfectly possible to read along with the movie. And where this kind of slavish devotion to source material can kill some adaptations, Devor is smart enough to know that simply enacting scenes from the book isn’t enough, and endeavors to replicate Willeford’s tone into the bargain.
The protagonist of The Woman Chaser is Richard Hudson, a man who treats his life story as a movie pitch because that’s the only way he knows how to write. He’s a San Franciscan used car salesman turned sociopathic auteur in the wake of an innocuous Toastmaster speech about success that leaves him weeping in his car, contemplating the wreckage of his wasted, albeit financially successful, life. When Hudson decides to devote his life to the creation of art, there’s just one small problem: “As an artist I was limited to what I could do. Painting, sculpture, music, architecture, writing a novel – all of these art forms take years of apprenticeship. But I knew I could write and direct a movie. I knew it. I knew what movies were all about. I had seen thousands.”
And so, with help from his former wunderkind stepfather and a green light from The Man at Mammoth Pictures, Hudson devises his magnum opus, The Man Who Got Away. The proto-Vanishing Point story is simple. It’s about “America, Mr. Average American,” an embittered long-haul truck driver who mows down a little girl and her puppy and becomes the focus of a state-wide manhunt. He ploughs through roadblocks and kills Highway Patrolmen before he crashes into a hundred-car, four-lane roadblock, bursts into flame and is eventually gunned down by vengeful cops.
The Man Who Got Away is a harsh, low-budget affair, with a score by a fifty-bucks-a-day crunchy blues guitarist named Flaps, a cast comprising unknowns and non-actors and a budget primarily made up of embezzled money and the proceeds from a hocked Rouault clown. The three-week shoot is swift and feverish, and Hudson employs idiosyncratic methods to get the performances he needs – a bored non-actress is coerced into the required line reading with a minute or two of rough intercourse, and Hudson hires a stripper to “do her disrobement act on the piled up wrecks” in order to get the right reactions from his bloodthirsty mob at the end of the picture – “Actually, their faces would probably look the same way if they were really watching a body on fire.” What emerges after a bout of frantic editing is a bitter masterpiece. Trouble is, at sixty-three minutes, this particular masterpiece is two reels shy of a feature and too long for television, which is where The Man wants to dump it, punctuated by adverts for sanitary pads. In order to preserve his integrity, Hudson does what any artist would do – he burns down the studio.
“And that’s what I learned about storytelling at Mammoth Studios. A likeable and sympathetic hero. one who affords a good measure of viewer identification, is faced the necessity of solving a serious and urgent problem which affects his vital interests. The hero makes an effort to solve this problem and this only succeeds in making matters worse. Finally, there is an integrated series of complications which build up in intensity until a definite point of crisis is reached. It is here that the viewer cannot possibly understand how the hero can possibly succeed. But he does.”
It’s a rare actor who can pull off that level of deadpan megalomania, and Patrick Warburton’s performance is one of The Woman Chaser’s greatest assets. (Warburton was Devor’s second choice for the role. His first choice, Jason Patric, was either unavailable or incommunicado, and it’s just as well, for comedy is not Patric’s strong point, nor does he have the necessary heft of voice or body – even Warburton had to put on weight for the part. )
The performance of Richard Hudson demands a subtle touch, because he is in many ways the quintessential Willeford protagonist, deluded and deranged, driven by creative impulses that prove ultimately destructive. The work is all, a point hammered home when Hudson reads aloud from T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” with Holst’s “Mars” as background music. This is a man looking to “Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love / To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd,” a man for whom “oblivion” is total and whose disconnect and downright disdain for the personal is borderline homicidal – where Eliot sees spiritual redemption, Hudson sees artistic triumph. This is also a man who can ruin a teenage girl in the time it takes to smoke half a cigarette (for her own good, you understand, so she won’t trust boys), corrupt a Salvation Army captain with cash and liquor, steal a used car lot, dance a bare-chested ballet with his Jocasta-like mother (to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” no less), and still manage to sell his spluttering, sobbing breakdown. Warburton’s performance is surprisingly subtle, all things considered, which helps to ground Hudson for those moments when his mask of civility slips (“How would you like an upper lip full of front teeth?”). As a result, Warburton hints at a violent undercurrent that is explicit in the book, but not in the film. (A major cut to the film — though apparently shot — is the five-knuckle abortion Hudson doles out to his secretary before he leaves her to burn Mammoth Pictures to the ground. It reads as shocking, but would actively break the movie if it had been left in the cut. Similarly, though much less seriously, there are few viewers who’d want to see good old Sergeant Bill catch a wing-tip in the happy sack.)
As much as Warburton provides the main focus for the film, the supporting cast are also wonderful, for very different reasons. Devor apparently cast with an eye for the grotesque – this is Hudson’s view of the world, after all – and so the supporting players are much like the cast of The Man Who Got Away, interesting-looking non-actors and unknowns. This results in some utterly charming, if slightly wide-eyed, performances from the likes of Paul Malevich as Leo (a non-actor, but incredibly funny – “I like the title” never fails to make me laugh), Ron Morgan as Bill and, my personal favourite, Max Kerstein as Ruggerio. That some of these characters are smarter and more corruptible than they originally appeared just makes their performances more beguiling and, even at their most wooden, help to conjure up an effectively retro feel. This atmosphere is further confirmed by the exotica soundtrack (curated by Molotov Cocktail Hour’s Señor Amor), the John Alton-inspired chiaroscuro and the kind of classic Dutch angles, deep focus and low angles associated with the most stylistically engaging examples of film noir.
The very fact that The Woman Chaser maintains its consistency of style is impressive enough, given the seven (count ‘em!) cinematographers, and some of this is undoubtedly the work of Devor, though it owes a lot to the budgetary restrictions in place. Like any Poverty Row quickie, packing the frame with actor rather than set helps keep the costs down, and low-angle, high-contrast cinematography keeps it interesting, while any locations that can be stolen are used extensively to add as much texture as possible. The look of The Woman Chaser is pure pulp, but as a whole the movie remains utterly sincere.
The Transgression of Brother Willeford (on Grimhaven)
Most transgressive fiction is really nothing of the sort; the label merely gives an author the chance to buff a counterculture sheen onto a mainstream narrative. However, examples of the form do exist.
Even reading Charles Willeford’s Grimhaven is something of a transgressive act – Grimhaven was never published, never will be published and Betsy Willeford has been vocal in her disapproval of anyone who’s read the book outside of the one library in the US that has the manuscript as part of Willeford’s papers.
Grimhaven finds the popular hero Hoke Moseley (introduced in the previous bestseller Miami Blues) no longer working for the Miami-Dade police department, instead employed as a stock boy in his father’s hardware store on Singer Island. He handed in his resignation shortly after killing Freddy Frenger. Not that the killing wasn’t officially lawful – Frenger was a blithe psychopath, after all – but Hoke is haunted by that other bullet he put in Frenger’s skull to make sure the man was dead. He’s a killer, he knows it, and also know that’ll only be a matter of time before he does it again. So he retreats to a simple life – a hundred dollars a week, a rent-free apartment, no cigarettes, no liquor, two yellow poplin jumpsuits, a slow-cooked stew every night for dinner and a book of chess problems for entertainment. He’s healthier and happier than he’s ever been.
And then his two teenage daughters turn up with a letter from their mother saying that it’s Hoke’s turn to look after them. “Whatever else you were, you were always a responsible man, and I know the girls will be safe and happy with you.”
Never has a closing compliment been so chillingly inaccurate.
Hoke is incapable of relating to his daughters. He hasn’t seen them in so long, they might as well be someone else’s, and he speaks to them in the same brusque, antisocial tone he uses for everyone. Rather than pay for an orthodontist, he gets his neighbour to pop round with a pair of toenail clippers to take of his youngest daughter’s braces. When his eldest is told to get out and look for a job, she’s reminded not to wear her Walkman while she’s on her rounds: “Only blacks do that. Another thing, Sue Ellen, put on a little make-up and some lipstick and tell them you’re seventeen. With your tits, you can easily pass for seventeen.” This dislocation and lack of paternal feeling is funny at first – absolutely so – but it leads inexorably to that one key event in the novel which still has the power to shock even when you know it’s coming.
To say that Hoke kills both his daughters in order to get back to that simple life is less a spoiler than it is a warning. When it happens, around 130 pages into the 200-page manuscript, the double murder is written as coldly as Hoke’s daily routine. This is just something that needs to be done in order to preserve his lifestyle and this odious transgression is more emotional than visceral, especially considering we’ve actually grown to like these two awkward, funny teenagers who are now “irrevocably dead.” We’ve seen how hardy the two girls are when it comes to both parents – a mother who’d rather gallivant around the country with her ballplayer boyfriend than take care of her kids; a father who doesn’t even recognise his daughters when they turn up because he hasn’t seen them in a decade – and how stoic they are when it comes to their new living arrangements. The double murder is sad, shocking, strangely in character and yet utterly unforgiveable. It is, in short, the reason why Grimhaven is described as the ultimate fuck-you to a publisher wanting a series character, and is also what makes Grimhaven the ultimate transgressive novel.
When you’ve read Willeford’s other novels, you’ll see that the Hoke Moseley of Grimhaven (and indeed the other Moseley novels – the character doesn’t change that much) shares some DNA with the Richard Hudsons and Russell Haxbys and the rest of Willeford’s lead characters, the kind of “immobilized men” (the term comes from Willeford’s master’s thesis) who, while apparently normal on the outside, should always come with a warning label.
Grimhaven a dark, vicious, beautifully written book, and it’s absolutely indisputable that it would have wrecked Willeford’s career had it been published in the wake of Miami Blues. In foreshadows the breakdown Hoke suffers in Sideswipe, and it underlines the darker, less immediately likeable characteristics that make Hoke such an enduring character to readers like myself.
The legend of Grimhaven provides a finishing touch to the profile of an author who already went further than most to discomfit his readers. Imagine enjoying Miami Blues and picking up the second in the series only to see your “quirky” protagonist murder his children and almost happily resigning himself to a peaceful, minimalist life in prison. And then imagine understanding why Hoke does it, following his logic..and then still filing Grimhaven on your bookshelf next to Miami Blues and other examples of “hard boiled crime fiction.” There’s no counterculture sheen to Grimhaven. The menace is real.
— Ray Banks
(go on to the last section, Charles Willeford Radio Interview, 1987)