Sunday, August 03, 2008

STREETS OF NO RETURN: DARK PASSAGE—Introductory Remarks By Curator Steve Seid and Author Barry Gifford

Kicking off the "Streets of No Return" series with a screening of Delmer Daves's Dark Passage (1947), PFA curator Steve Seid outlined in his introductory remarks that hopefully—along with the series' objective of spotlighting the work of a lesser-known pulp writer like David Goodis—would be an attempt to gain a sense (over the length of the series) of the concept of filmic adaptation of literary works; to finesse what's left behind when novels are adapted, or what is included to make them screenworthy; and to determine if justice has been done to the writings of David Goodis.

Succinctly profiling that Goodis began writing in the late '30s, with a brief irreconcilable stint in Hollywood in the late '40s, Goodis parted ways with Hollywood to return to "a decrepit life" in his hometown Philadelphia until his death in the '60s. Even while he was alive, however, non-Hollywood film directors began adapting his books and Seid boasted that all but three of those adaptations would be included in the series.

Detailing the "fate" of the omitted three in passing mention, Seid admitted that Rue Barbare (1984)—aka Barbarous Street or Street of the Damned, adapted from the Goodis novel Street of the Lost (1952)—was admittedly not included because Seid didn't particularly like the film and it was too much bother to secure. But he had wanted to get the two other films: Sam Fuller's last project Street of No Return(1989) and Pierre Chenal's Section des disparus (1956).

As Seid mentioned earlier in his preview for The Evening Class, Street of No Return was in the hands of some "questionable" people in France and research into the making of that film revealed Fuller's troublesome interaction with the film's "producers/crooks." As for the third film, Section des disparus based on the Goodis novel Of Missing Persons (1950), it's nearly impossible to locate due to its rarity. Filmed in Argentina by Pierre Chenal in 1954-1955, Section des disparus survives possibly only in 16mm prints, none of which Seid was able to track down. He has seen the film and found it to be a "quite nice" economical noir, representing a historical trend in the mid-50s when French filmmakers filmed cheaply in Argentina.

What is included in the series are nine feature films beginning with Dark Passage and continuing through to Moon in the Gutter (1983), which in some ways Seid opined is the "kindest and smarmiest" adaptation of any of the Goodis novels. "But smarmy in just the right way" he qualified, explaining that after a good read of a Goodis novel, "you feel a little dirty." Some of the films—notably Moon in the Gutter—successfully capture that feeling.

At the same time that Goodis's novels were being adapted into film, his short stories were being worked up for television on such programs as Sure As Fate (1950), the Lux Video Theatre (1956), Bourbon Street Beat (1960) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963). In the 1990s, two cable networks launched mystery series and, coincidentally, adapted the same Goodis short story "The Professional Man", which PFA will screen together with one of the writer-directors, Nicholas Kazan, in person to introduce the pair, affording a glimpse into how Goodis held up on television.

Seid then introduced novelist Barry Gifford. "There's a lot you can say about Barry Gifford," he stated, "you can talk about the many many novels he's written, including the great Sailor and Lula series. We could talk about the books of film noir criticism [such as Out of the Past]. We could talk about his screenplays, Wild at Heart (1990) and Perdita Durango (1997). But really what places him here in a really important fashion is that he created Black Lizard in the early '80s where he revived noirish and pulpish writers—the most famous one being Jim Thompson—but also Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, and the great Harry Whittington. Black Lizard not only launched a new interest in Jim Thompson but really brought David Goodis back. David Goodis had been forgotten. In many ways, because David Goodis wrote so much paperback stuff, it doesn't even exist in the libraries for the most part. They would either buy them and then toss them or simply not buy them because a lot of the libraries had a prejudice about paperbacks. So, there's no one who could launch the series with more right and esteem than Barry Gifford."

Gifford then took the microphone and expressed his thanks to Susan Oxtoby and Steve Seid to be invited back to PFA since it had been a while. Listening to Steve's introduction, he realized that one thing that Jack Kerouac and David Goodis had in common was that they were both victims of "momism"; they both lived with their mothers. They were always going back to their mothers, had strong attachments, and never had successful relationships with other women. "Even their relationships with their mothers weren't successful." Though it's been some time since he's reviewed Goodis's work, Gifford recalled the frequent presence of an overriding mother or a wife who's like a mother figure, always making life miserable for Goodis's male protagonists. "He wants to kill her, but he can't really kill her, so he kills other people or he kills himself."

Gifford modestly apologized for not really being a Goodis expert. He remembered trying to get David Lynch to read some of the Goodis novels by giving him a couple from the Black Lizard series when they were writing Lost Highway together and when he followed up and asked how Lynch had liked them, Lynch responded, "Those were terrible books." Gifford said, "You mean you think they were badly written?" "No," Lynch answered, "they're frightening." His introduction to Goodis came when he first saw François Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), which was loosely based on Goodis's 1956 novel Down There. When he reprinted the novel at Black Lizard, he decided to use Truffaut's title, "purely for commercial reasons." He hoped that maybe someone would recognize the film title and perhaps buy the book. Little did he know that the Black Lizard series would be so successful and—though he always intended to restore the novel's original title when the Black Lizard edition was reprinted—it never worked out that way.

In fact, the true Goodis expert, Gifford advised, is a French journalist Philippe Garnier, who writes for Libération in Paris, and who has written the only biography on Goodis that Gifford is aware of: Goodis, La Vie en Noir et Blanc (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984). Garnier visited Gifford in the mid-'80s just when he launched Black Lizard to conduct a couple of interviews for Libération, and they subsequently became friends. Garnier was on his way to visit Aldo Ray who was living nearby in Crockett, California. Ray had starred in Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall (1957), adapted from David Goodis's 1947 novel.

Gifford also credits the expertise of Geoff O'Brien who wrote the introduction that appeared in all of the Black Lizard editions of the David Goodis novels. O'Brien is now the head of the Library of America. Cribbing from that introduction, Gifford quoted: "[Goodis's 1946 novel] Dark Passage made a considerable splash. It remains one of his best-known books; the only one, in fact, that really made it into the mainstream. Today its appeal derives less from its none-too-believable plot—it was one of the early new-face-through-plastic-surgery stories—than from the author's obvious identification with the persecuted hero and from the jazz-like pulse of the prose. Hero and heroine are drawn together in part by their taste for Count Basie. With the sale of serial rights to the Saturday Evening Post, and the movie rights to Warner Brothers, Goodis had arrived. Dark Passage became a Bogart/Bacall vehicle and Goodis went on the Warners payroll as a staff writer. He was not yet 30 and his career had already peaked."

The one novel of Goodis's that Gifford would recommend wholeheartedly is Nightfall (1947); his favorite. Again from O'Brien: "During the Hollywood years, Goodis lived in the L.A. home of a lawyer friend … renting not a room but a tiny uncomfortable sofa for $4 a week. At a time when, as a movie writer, he could have lived well, Goodis apparently refused to spend money on anything. Not out of miserliness but from a sheer perversity, which also led him to drive the same dented Chrysler convertible virtually his whole adult life; a car so miserable that his friends refused to be seen in it. His clothing, as his [lawyer friend] recounts was equally grotesque: 'He wore my old suits and—when they were worn out—he had them dyed blue. Apparently, his whole wardrobe was blue. One day he invited me to eat at the Warner commissary, Dan Duryea was there, and Dave was wearing one of my white suits, which was all yellowed and stained. Duryea asked him where he had dug up the suit and David replied coldly that he had bought it at Gordon's, one of the best tailors in Philadelphia. When Duryea remarked that the suit wasn't even ironed, David gave him a pitying glance and explained that that was how it was meant to be worn. He also had an old bathrobe of mine. He went out at night in it. When he wore it, he pretended to be a white Russian, an exiled prince of the blood.' Goodis would borrow labels from his friend's finest clothes and laboriously sew them into his own wretched hand-me-downs, all for the peculiar pleasure of stopping people short when they criticized his clothing."

Gifford admitted pleasure in re-reading Geoffrey O'Brien's introduction because it clearly essayed that Goodis was nuts. There's no question that he was absolutely crazy. Continuing to crib from O'Brien's intro: "A central law of Goodis's fiction is that happiness is forbidden, all true love remains unconsummated, all petty criminals—a breed with whom the author identifies—are caught ignominiously, all proud old men are humiliated, all virgins are molested."

In contrast to Steve Seid's enthusiasm for Moon in the Gutter, Gifford countered the movie was so terrible that true cinephiles like Seid find it wonderful. Gifford worked with the film's lead actor Gérard Depardieu on City of Ghosts, which Matt Dillon directed, and asked him at the time about Moon in the Gutter. Depardieu had just undergone a quintuple bypass surgery, arrived in Cambodia to film City of Ghosts and—when Gifford asked him about Moon in the Gutter—Depardieu clutched his heart and said, "Please! Don't ask me about that; I'll have another heart attack!" Gifford refrained from saying anything further on the film because he didn't want to disabuse Seid of his opinions and didn't want to cost him his job at PFA.

Gifford finished up his intro with one final quote from O'Brien: "That such testaments of deprivation and anxiety could sustain the career of a paperback novelist is today cause for wonderment. Nothing so downbeat, so wedded to reiterations of personal and social failure could be likely to find a mass market publisher at present. The absolutely personal voice of David Goodis seems almost to have escaped by accident. It emanated from the heart of an efficient entertainment industry, startlingly, like the wailing of an outcast."

Cross-published on Twitch.