Monday, June 05, 2017

Alfred Hayes: From Communist Poet to Noir Screenwriter and Novelist

There’s no end to the stories. Talented writers- whether Chandler, Hammett, Fitzgerald, Faulkner or Fante- churning out mediocre screenplays in Hollywood, burnt out before, during or after their tenure. It’s become something of a cliché: the celebrated noirist who fades into literary obscurity, their posthumous careers resurrected by the New York Review of Books or some small press fascinated by such figures. Of course, there are exceptions, writers who were moderately successful, even feted in their time who became part of the studio mincing machine, who, however embittered, survived and had post-studio careers, producing work every bit as good as that which they’d produced before arriving in Tinseltown. 

Alfred Hayes was one such writer. Screenwriter, novelist, playwright and poet, Hayes was the author of two extraordinary noir novels- In Love (1953) and My Face For the World to See (1958), which NYRB have republished. Both were written while he was still working in Hollywood, not long after producing screenplays for two classic examples of film noir, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). If that were not enough, Hayes contributed to two Italian renown neorealist films- Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan, where he collaborated with Frederico Fellini, and Victoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. And when his Hollywood career ended, Hayes went to write more novels, stories, plays and poetry, all of it of a fairly high quality. One of the few writers whose literary career was not adversely affected by his experience in the studios, Hayes seems to have benefited from the terseness and conversational style that screenwriting demands, as demonstrated in the condensed, hardboiled style of Hayes’s post Hollywood work. 

Born into a Jewish Whitechapel family in 1911, Alfred Hayes, aged three, emigrated to New York with his family. Earning a BA at the City College of New York, Hayes’s ambition was to be a newspaperman. And for a shot time he did pounded the crime beat  at the New York Daily News and the New York American.  Before that he found work as a delivery boy, waiter, process server, bootlegger and book thief. Joining the Communist Party and the John Reed Club during the Depression, he gained a reputation as a poet, contributing to periodicals like New Masses and the Partisan Review, albeit one with a penchant for gambling, pin ball machines and pool halls. Regardless of what job he was holding down at any particular time, or hustling his poetry, Hayes,   having cultivated an intense, poetic stare, preferred the company of pool hall bums and cab drivers rather than New York leftist intellectuals. Likewise, historian Alan Wald, in his book Exiles From the Future, calls Hayes the Byron of the Pool Halls. Someone working for New Masses describes, in Archie Green’s 1993 Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes, Hayes as “[Dark], Dantean, witty, conscious to imperiousness that he personified a new sort of ‘young generation,’ the lyric poet of the New York working class, the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into memory.” Many years later, Fritz Lang thought Hayes was “a very interesting man- very intense- determined to do something good.” Hayes’s early years as a newspaperman were cut short when, during World War II, he was drafted, serving in the entertainment division of the Army Special Services where he worked mainly as a museum guide. It was in that capacity that he met Roberto Rossellini with whom he would later collaborate.

Lauded by the likes of Julian Maclaren Ross, Angus Wilson, Elizabeth Bowen, Stevie Smith and Antonia White, Hayes would end up publishing seven novels, a book of short stories, and three volumes of poetry, as well as having a hand in at least a dozen films. Not only Clash By Night and Human Desire for Fritz Lang- the latter being an adaptation of Zola’s La Bete Humaine, and the former a version of Clifford Odet’s play- but Bicycle Thieves and Paisan, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Not to mention Nick Ray’s classic modern western The Lusty Men (1952), which he wrote along side fellow noirist Horace McCoy. If that wasn’t enough, Hayes also penned the lyrics for I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, which Earl Robinson put to music, and, in later years, would be sung by the likes of Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It wouldn’t be the first time Hayes worked with Robinson, having previously written a poem Into the Streets May First which Aaron Copland would orchestrate.  

Influenced in the early days by fellow screenwriter, newspaperman and story writer Ben Hecht and New York neighbour and friend Kenneth Fearing, as well as poets like Hart Crane, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Hayes, by working in Hollywood was able to eventually harden his prose, and move beyond the literary awkwardness of his early work. Though not without its vernacularisms, Hayes’s poetry would remain more classically oriented and self-conscious than Fearing’s.   

According to Wald, Hayes though a committed communist, was not much of an activist. His most radical act it seems was moving furniture back into the homes of evicted Depression-hit families. As with many, the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow trials led to Hayes’s disillusionment with the party. Even so, he  begged Fearing to accompany him to the Soviet Union so he could assess what was going on in person. Despite the political turmoil of the era, Hayes, unlike some, did not turn to the right, but apparently remained for the remainder of his career on the humanitarian left.


After serving in the army, and with two neo-realist films and a book of poems- The Big Time (1944) under his belt, Hayes arrived in Hollywood, his communist past behind him, and, if his second novel Shadow of Heaven (1947) is anything to go by, something of a mea culpa already in place, which would no doubt work to his benefit during  Hollywood witch-hunts of the early 1950s. In Shadow of Heaven, Hayes paints a portrait of Harry Oberon, a decent forty-year old union organizer in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region, who believes in the cause of labor and fervently works to put those beliefs into practice, only to realize the class struggle hasn’t achieved all that much. Disillusioned, he puts his youthful Marxism behind him, saying, “The placards fell, the captains scattered, the speeches ended…leaving only the photographers…as though it were done for the photographers.”  Meanwhile, Harry has grown tired of his girlfriend, Margaret, a woman not easily scorned, and nearly becomes involved with another woman, Janet, a war widow imprisoned by her father-in-law. Janet grows increasingly unstable. Eventually Harry is involved in a road accident which kills Margaret and places Harry at death’s door. Written in a stream of consciousness style, Shadow of Heaven combines Faulkner’s multiple viewpoints with the class politics of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle. Hayes rejection of his past political affiliation is ironical given that he had recently worked with leftist Italian neorealist directors Rossellini and De Sica. Or maybe Hayes’s change of direction was the result of a dialectic played out before him in Italy, resulting in his own brand of  bleak humanism. In any case, this path would lead to his later noir fiction, hard-bitten perspective but always perceptive when it comes to insights into human behaviour.

There was a second book of poems, Welcome to the Castle (1950), as well as  three novels- All Thy Conquests (1946), Shadow of Heaven (1947), The Girl on Via Flaminia (1949)- under his belt by the time he arrived in Hollywood.  Hayes originally intended to spend twenty weeks in Hollywood, earn some money, then return to New York. At first he was able to do so, but he wound up staying in and around Tinseltown for the rest of his life, working, from the late 1940s to 1960, for such studios as Warner Brothers, RKO,Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, United Artists and Columbia. When studio work dried up, Hayes turned to TV, writing for Alfred Hitchcock, Mannix, Logan’s Run and Nero Wolfe. What makes Hayes unique was that during his stay in Hollywood, he would go on to produce more novels, including some of his best work, In Love and My Face For the World to See. And when his studio work dried up, he would go on churning out novels like  The End of Me (1968) and The Stockerbroker, the Bitter Young Man, and the Beautiful Girl (1973). In all those books, as well as his best screenplays, Hayes had an eye out for  the underdog and those on the margins, his  class analysis now replaced with a more existential perspective regarding character development. At the same time, he would grow increasingly hardboiled, cynical and embittered, befitting the mood and protagonists in his later novels. Picture Dix Steele in Dorothy B. Hughes In a Lonely Place, or Nick Ray’s adaptation, and you get the idea. Come to think of it, My Face For the World to See bears certain resemblances to In a Lonely Place which appeared some ten years before Hayes’s novel. 

1946, the year before Shadow of Heaven, the same year Rossellini’s Paisan hit the screens, saw the publication of Hayes’s first novel, All Thy Conquests. Set in Italy, it deploys a Dos Passos-like newspaper montage and, like Shadow of Heaven, multiple viewpoints. It’s probably Hayes’s most ambitious and self-consciously literary novel. Taking place at the end of WW2, revolving around an actual event- a trial in Rome that that unfolded in the aftermath of the Nazi massacre of 335 Italian civilians in the Ardeatine Caves on March 24, 1944- the novel focuses on the occupying Allies, and evokes the chaos of Italian life at the time. Told from the perspective of both Italians and occupying Americans, All Thy Conquests, though light years away from his future tendency towards minimalism, highlights the desires of both the occupying forces and the local population, and questions whether the Allies were liberators or conquerors. With the war affecting everyone, Hayes tells his tale with no small amount of compassion. The book was relatively well-received, with John Hersey saying that Hayes “has written a kind of impression of failure—a many-toned failure: Failure to purge the Fascists or their ideas; failure to live up in personal terms to the demands of democracy.” 

Girl on Via Flaminia (republished by Europa Press) appeared in 1949. Italy was clearly a formative experience for the not quite forty-year old Hayes, for this novel also takes place in that country, and, though told in a simpler and less literary manner, offsets the desires of the occupying forces against those of the local population. The novel centres on a Roman family  reduced to poverty by the war, surviving by renting rooms upstairs while turning their downstairs into a cafe for American soldiers. Adele procures girls for the soldiers while her husband reads his newspaper and her son looks on in disgust. An American private arranges with Adele to meet a young woman at the house. The young woman regards the soldier with contempt, and is disgusted by his sense of entitlement. But she agrees to the arrangement because she wants to go to America. As for the soldier, he merely wants companionship- “She was hungry, I was lonely.” Needless to say, things do not end well. Already, Hayes is writing about vulnerable young women and hard-bitten characters. Hayes received plaudits for the novel, and it might have even the case that, at the time of their appearance, he received more recognition for his first two novels than for his later work. So straightforward is the novel that it reads like a play. Which is what it would soon become,  followed, in 1953, by a film adaptation, Act of Love, directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Kirk Douglas. Though someone at United Artists decided to switch the locale to Paris, presumably thought to be a sexier setting than Rome. Probably best known as Brigitte Bardot’s first appearance in an English-speaking film, Act of Love doesn’t have the toughness, much less the politics of the novel,

With Hollywood  taking up much of his time, it would be four years before Hayes published his next novel, In Love (1952). It would be the first of the author’s noir classics, appeared. Set in late 1940s New York, and reading as though imagined by Edward Hopper- “I assume that in any mirror, or in the eyes I happen to encounter, say on an afternoon like this, in such a hotel, in such a bar, across a table like this, I appear to be someone who apparently knows where he’s going, confident of himself, and aware of what, reasonable to expect when he arrives, although I could hardly, if now you insisted on pressing me, describe for you that secret destination”- it centres on a middle-age man in a bar who relates the story to a woman he doesn’t know about his relationship with a young woman, divorced with a child:
“I’ve often wondered why I impress people as being altogether sad, and yet I insist I am not  sad, and that they are quite wrong about me, and yet when I look in the mirror it turns out to be something really true, my face is sad, my face is actually sad, I became convinced (and he smiled at her, because it was four o’clock and the day was ending and she was a very pretty girl, it was astonishing how gradually she had become prettier) that they are right after all, and I am sad, sadder than I know.”

Lives are thrown into disarray by the intervention of a millionaire who offers the narrator’s girlfriend a thousand dollars to spend the night with him. At first the woman treats the offer as a joke, but it turns serious. His Italian novels might have been influenced by Pavese or Moravia, but In Love occupies the same literary space as Patrick Hamilton or David Goodis. In Love has often been compared to the film Indecent Proposal, and there is a similarity, though Hayes’s novel, unlike Adrian Lyne’s 1993 film is no celebration of consumerist ethics in a gotta-get-the-money era, but more about the personal and destructive toll that money brings.  It’s also an interesting, if somewhat ambivalent, depiction of a vulnerable woman: 
She was very hesitant about ending the little fiction now. She did not really feel that she was ending it. Rather she was extending the definition a bit. It was only that she wanted everything: the proper marriage and the improper love; the orderly living room and the disorderly bedroom; the sprinkler on the lawn and an appointment somewhere between two and four.” 

And as for the narrator and his laissez faire attitude:
“She thought I was so right for the role she wanted me to play… I was after all an artist, that odd creature among men. I was not predictable like Howard was. I would not really harm her as he would she he ever suspect her or doubt her. I had a fatal but very accommodating tendency to forgive. I hardly ever meant anything too seriously. I did not condemn her for some natural desire she might show nor look at her horror stricken when she admitted to some unorthodox sexual yearning. I was soft. My pride was of a thinner nature than his. I was perfect for that sort of afternoon when one was bored and had done all the possible shopping that could be done. I was a nice repository for her sense of sin...She would quickly establish me as an exciting stopover on her way home. I was what she could use to reconcile herself to what she thought of intermittently as dull...”

In Love would be the first of Hayes’s masterpieces. As evocative and affecting as it is, his next novel, published five years later, My Face For the World to See is even better.  As mentioned, Hayes’s 1958 novel bears a certain resemblance to Dorothy B. Hughes’s  In a Lonely Place, with a protagonist who is a screenwriter easy to anger who, by chance, meets an aspiring actress. Both books- Hughes’s and Hayes’s- are amongst the best Hollywood noir novels one is likely to find, evocative of a certain time, place and culture. In Hayes’s novel, the married screenwriter- his wife is living in New York- attends a Hollywood party, where he rescues the young actress from suicide by drowning. It’s a slow-burning novel that, with some finely wrought prose:
“At this very moment the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous if they weren’t already famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy, or weather if they were.”
Above all, Hayes's novel is about power. Power that men hold over women, power that the young hold over the old, the power of Hollywood and the movie industry, the power to conform to what is acceptable.  Only gradually does the reader discover who the young is and what she wants out of life:
“I thought: she shouldn’t sleep with anybody if she doesn’t wish them to know her secrets. It was something more than her nakedness… She slept like someone who could not go any further, and had already come too far. I stretched myself out beside her, a stranger, a spy, sharing the warmth of her bed. Morning seemed immeasurably far.”
In the end the title says it all. Everyone in this book has a multiplicity of faces, public as well as private. The face that the woman wants the world to see no matter that it conflicts with the horror of her private face. Though the male protagonist might be the most deluded of all, thinking his public face is the same as private face, the implication being that he’s about to take a fall.

While writing and  publishing his two classic noir novels, Hayes was also busy working for the studios. It would be Fritz Lang who would best exploit Hayes’s screenwriting talents in the Jerry Wald-produced Clash By Night (1952) and Human Desire (1954). Both are set in the Pacific Northwest, though Lang and Hayes transport Zola's novel to America’s railway yards. But the change in setting by no means lessens the natural melodrama and romanticism of Zola’s novel, while Gloria Grahame, always willing to mix sensuality with vulnerability, might be the perfect Hayes heroine. Watching Grahame relate her sexual adventures to her husband, played by Paul Douglas, one can hear echoes of Hayes’s women in My Face For the World to See and In Love. Set amongst fisherman, with, as Lang described the opening documentary-like sequence, “three-hundred feet of introduction,” Clash by Night features Barbara Stanwyck as another typical Hayes female- free-living, on a collision course with respectable society. While Robert Ryan, as the typical alienated man of the post-war era, his cynicism bordering on psychosis, often declaring, on the one hand that “somebody’s throat has to be cut,” while, on the other hand, saying to Stanwyck, “Help me, I’m dying of loneliness,”  might be the doppleganger of the narrator in My Face. 

Then there’s Nicholas Ray’s modern day western The Lusty Men (1952), with Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy.  Of course, it’s been said, by me for one, that westerns are often be called film noir on horseback. So the noir threesome- Ray, McCoy and Hayes- makes sense. And since Hayes had little experience of rodeo life, it also makes sense that McCoy, from Texas, should be relied upon for some cowboy-reality. But who wrote which lines? My bet is that McCoy had a major input in the early scenes that take place in Mitchum’s former home with the old man who’s looking to see his property if only he can find a buyer, and perhaps the kitchen scene with Michum and Hayward, in which Mitchum says, “Some things you don’t do for the cash… Some things you do for the buzz.”  As well as some of the dialogue which deploys rodeo parlance. While the final scenes between Kennedy, Hayworth and Mitchum sound like the of thing Hayes would have written. Likewise, Hayward declaring her independence: “I’m no fun. Blondie with her dress cut down to her knee-caps, she’s fun… Men, I’d like to fry them all in deep fat.”  And in typical Hayes fashion, and against the Hollywood grain, Mitchum for once doesn’t end up getting the girl. According to  Eisenchitz’s Ray biography Hayes definitely wrote four scenes: the early scene in which when Hayward comes  to ask Jeff to discourage her husband from continuing in to participate in rodeos; the after dinner outdoor meeting between Mitchum and Kennedy in which the two characters discuss the best horse Mitchum ever rode in a rodeo; the scene in which Kennedy comes home and shows Haworth the check from riding in the rodeo and to inform her that they would be leaving to go on the rodeo circuit with Mitchum; and the tete-a-tete between Mitchum and Haworth in the barn.

Hayes made  other contributions to Hollywood films, supplying the story for Fred Zinnemann’s 1951 Teresa, for which he received an Academy Award nomination,  his second nomination after Paisan in  1946, a film that consisted of six vignettes about  the allied invasion of Italy from 1943 to of 1944. Then, in 1957, probably at a time when he had just finished writing My Face...,  there was Hatful of Rain, also directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Don Muarry and Eva Marie Saint about returning Korean War vet addicted to morphine and its effect on his family; and Island in the Sun, directed by Robert Rossen, starring Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, James Mason and Joan Fontaine. A controversial film at the time of its release because of  its subject matter, interracial marriage on a Caribbean island, and its depiction of the ex-pat community.  

Hayes also worked on Daniel Mann’s Mountain Road, released in 1960- a year that also saw the publication of collection of stories, The Temptations of Don Volpi. Starring James Stewart, Mountain Road is about an army major stationed in East China ordered to blow up various installations to halt the progress of the Japanese army. This was followed by four more screenplays: Joy in the Morning (1965) starring Richard Chamberlain and Yvette Mimeux, directed by Alex Segal about two lovers whose families knew each other in Ireland but want better for their children;  The Double Man (1967), a spy drama directed by Franklin J. Schaffner starring Yul Brynner and Britt Ekland; and Lost in the Stars (1974) directed by Daniel Mann from Maxwell Anderson’s play, with music by Kurt Weil, from Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, with Brock Peters and Melba Moore, about a black South African minister searching for his son in the back streets of Johannesburg. He also worked uncredited a number of films, including The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne. 

Around this time the studio jobs were beginning to dry up.  Mel Brooks tells the story about a time when he and Hayes were both working at Columbia, going for  lunch and returning to find Hayes’s name was no longer on his cubby-hole wall. According to Brooks, that was how they fired you at Columbia; they simply disappeared your name while you were out eating lunch. So Hayes turned to television, writing, between 1962 and 1965,  episodes for Alfred HItchcock,  Mannix, Logan’s Run, and Nero Wolfe, which, in 1981, would be his last TV work. Between 1965 and 1981,   Hayes churned out another  two novels which one might categorize as something between noir and grise, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. The End of Me (1968), probably  his most bitter book, centres on Asher, a Hollywood screenwriter. In his late 50s, Asher  discovers his second wife, an inveterate social climbing is having an affair with her tennis partner. Fed up with his marriage, Asher returns to his native New York where he visits his aunt who asks him to help Michael, her grandson and an aspiring poet. Though he reacts rudely to him, Asher agrees to read Michael's poetry, which turns out to be concerned exclusively with sex, inspired, Asher realizes, by Michael's Italian girlfriend and law student Aurora. Asher meets her and is teased and tormented by her, aided and abetted by Michael, who orchestrates a series of bizarre events to humiliate his uncle. Asher becomes increasingly obsessed with Aurora. Stripped of any sense of dignity by Aurora and Michael, Asher realizes that, even though his time is up, the future does not bode well for Michael's generation. It's also  another Hayes riff on obsession, but now some distance from the romantic love of his earlier novels, perhaps in the hip-lit of the 1960s, out of fashion. Yet Hayes’s novel does well to mix light and dark, along with a new twist on an old Tinseltown blague, as much as comment as a wisecrack, one which reflects Hayes’s Hollywood career, summed up by the joke that Asher tells Aurora:  a man goes into a butcher’s shop and sees two signs. One says writer’s brains: nineteen cents a pound. The other sing says producer’s brains: seventy-nine cents a pound.
      “I waited. She sipped her drink.
      ‘Now you are supposed to say to to me,’ I said patiently, ‘why producer’s brains cost seventy-nine cents a pound and writer’s brains cost nineteen cents a pound.’
     ‘Well,’ the butcher said, do you know how many producers to kill to get a pound of brains.?’”

With his studio career behind him, The End of Me reads like a novel written by a screenwriter, or, at any rate, someone who knows the value of economic writing, apparent from the opening lines:
“I crawled out of the bus away from the window and I began to run. My only safety lay in flight. If I stopped I’d howl. I knew I must not stop. The thing was in my gut. In my parched...constructed throat. Humped raw cringing wounded to death I’d howl into the night. Affrighting these houses. These well-kept lawns. These softly polished pianos. The dens would shiver. Rugs cringe. If I stopped.”
The sentence describing his situation and his past life, including his failed marriage, come in short, sharp bursts, with a first person narrative and dialogue- in fact, the novel is mostly dialogue- snappy and roundabout, as though Pinter had been schooled on the streets of New York:
“So this man went into a barber shop.”
“What man?”
“This man.”
“What did he go in for?”
“Will you listen for pete’s sake.”
“I am listening. I am definitely listening.”
“This man went into the butcher shop.”
“Where?”
“Where what?”
“Is the butcher shop?”
“Oh boy, tell you a joke.”
“Is it a joke, Asher?”
“It started out as a joke. Now I don’t know. It may never make it.”

Hayes was no hardcore noirist, though he did have a tendency to portray vulnerable, but resilient women, unstable but doing their best to survive. Not quite classical femme fatales, but not far off. At least that's the case in Hayes’s final novel, The Stockbroker, the Bitter Young Man, and The Beautiful Girl (1973). A novel of sexual suspense, The Stockbroker… revolves around a young man, Arthur Lewis, who meets the beautiful girl, Phyllis, who, reminiscent of  In Love, is accompanied by a savage protector, who makes sure Arthur’s advances are nullified. Ten years later the young man meets her again. The woman is still accompanied by her protector, surely her husband, but this time Arthur manages to seduce her, realizing, in yet another In Love riff, he has seduced the woman to get at her over-protective paramour. However, like Michael in The End of Me, the older man knows all about the arrangement. 

As usual, Hayes's crisp sentences and perceptions, particularly when it comes to the vagaries of personality and power, make the novel worth reading: 
    “To be poor; to be shy; to yearn and to suffocate; to be excluded; to feel that in the mysterious allotments of luck and charm and easy fortune one has been deliberately neglected; to know that there is somewhere a point from which all things start, and to be unable to find that point, and to, finally, despair of finding it: so Arthur Lewis had been when he was young.

Isolated and alienated, Arthur, in this novel about class and social difference which depicts life as moving between  realism to absurdity and  tragedy to comedy, likes nothing better than to comment on the world around him: 
"The chair he sat in was in the darkest corner of that world. In one hand was the bitterest of highballs; in the other, a dying cigarette. The women, with their undressed shoulders and their long white powdered necks, went by, the silk always a little too tight about their hips; and sometimes a girl’s eye, very blue and pencilled, shadowed by some indecipherable thought, would settle briefly on him as he sat sunken in that excluded chair, and she’d stare a moment, as though startled at what, glowering and now a little drunk, inhabited it. And then, perhaps, she would smile a little, uncertainly, her eye so accidentally caught: and then hastily she’d turn away.”

Beyond the novels, the stories and the screenplays, Hayes penned two Broadway plays, Journeyman, adapted from a novel by Erskine Caldwell, and Tis of Thee, a musical. But my take on Hayes is that he was a frustrated poet, whose reputation reached its apogee in the years preceding the war, but fell rapidly once he decided to concentrate on screenwriting. Over the years,  would publish three volumes of poetry: The Big Time (1944), Welcome to the Castle (1950) and Just Before the Divorce (1968). His poetry bears the influence of his friend Kenneth Fearing, but with a social conscience compromised by a certain self-consciousness and classical disposition. 

Though are moments when he overcomes his retention and speaks straight from the heart. For instance, in the section entitled The Pier, from his first book of poems, Welcome to the Castle, which takes place in Italy:  “The charitable blonde in salvation blue/Dispenses hot coffee in the lily cups./She, too, has come to say good-by/And cheer the sullen embarking troops./Bawdy whistles greet her and enthusiastic whoops.” Then, in New York, in the  section entitled The Bronx Express: “The iron door hisses as it closes./Inside, and pressed against a schoolgirl’s thighs,/I find myself among the coughs, the colds, the fetid human breath, the unwiped noses, staring again into a stranger’s eyes.”

Hayes’s most renown and repeated poem must surely be I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, about the martyred Wobbly, so revered in the labour movement, which would bring Hayes some unexpected royalties over the years, wouldn't be the first Hayes poem set to music.  Before that there was  Into the Streets May First!, published in 1934, set to music by Aaron Copland, and deemed too avant garden for the working by the CP: "Into the roaring Square!/Shake the midtown towers!/Shatter the downtown air!/Come with a storm of banners,/Come with an earthquake tread..."

Other poems in Welcome to the Castle are more Fearing-like: “At half past one/The nightboy in the empty elevator/Seduces blondes he cannot have by day/The groceryman imagines he spots burglars/And reaches in a nightmare for a gun/A gun that isn’t there/At half past one/While cleaning women scrubbing corridors/Wipe out the office cuspidors/And wheeze on chapped rheumatic knees/Down disinfected stairs..."
But its his noir novels and a handful of screenplays that, for me, are most interesting, and which alone should have made his name.  Perhaps if he had been less wary of publicity, perhaps the result of his earlier leftist politics, and less reluctant to compete in the literary world, he might have been more successful. But Hayes, who died in Sherman Oaks (some say Encino) in 1985, was known to be difficult, alienating  friends, producers and agents. No wonder his once promising career gradually fizzled out and he ended up in near-obscurity, so much so that  Halliwell, in his Film Guide, would refer to Alfred Hayes as “Arthur Hayes.” Even so, Hayes, says Wald, stayed friends with a number of  Hollywood leftists, and despised the blacklist. Yet his “friends remember a great sadness about him.“ Hollywood might have made him embittered, cynical and hard-edged, but it barely affected his  prose. Why, then, did he then turn into one of the literary missing? It could have been the result of his decision to become a screenwriter, or perhaps it also had to do with changing tastes or misinterpreting the mood and literary tastes of the era at a time when meta-fiction was in vogue and  hardboiled, hard-bitten fiction, or stories of romantic love, couldn't be bought for love or money. Such is the way of the world. Hayes no doubt would have agreed.
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Saturday, May 06, 2017

Noir Com: To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee

I can't think of many activities as diverting as reading a graphic noir novel? And Graham Chaffee's To Have and To Hold, published by Fantagraphics, is probably the best I've read since Max Cabanes and Doug Headline's 2015 Manchette's Fatale. Not that I've read all that many in between, but you get what I mean. Unlike the Cabane and Headline publication, Chaffee's bande desinee is strictly a black and white affair, right in keeping with the genre and the era. And unlike Fatale, based on the Manchette novel, both story and graphics belong to the author.

Set in 1962 in New York during the Cuban missile crisis, it ticks the usual noir tropes- a marriage gone bad, misplaced passion, infidelity, lust, murder and betrayal. Not to mention a robbery committed for an ulterior motive and  doomed to fail. Which makes To Have and To Hold something like a close cousin to, and an updating of, Kubrick's The Killing. Moreover, Chaffee's text isn't that far removed from Jim Thompson's hard-edged screenplay for Kubrick's film.

While it's the narrative that first grabbed me, as the story progressed I was increasingly impressed by those inky graphics which alternate shades and degrees of intensity, not to mention the tight editing of the material that cuts so fluidly between the various characters and settings with all the aplomb of the finest film noir editors. No doubt the ex-cop and psychotic husband and his wayward wife, whose dreams of the good life have been shattered, deserve one another,  but while reading Chaffee's b.d., I kept thinking about that Floyd Tillman song form the same era, that would be sung by the likes of Ray Price, Don Gibson, Wynn Stewart, etc.: "The sun goes down and leaves me sad and blue/The iron curtain falls on this cold war with you. You won't speak and I won't speak it's true/Two stubborn people with a cold war to go through." Though, in this case, stubborn, is an understatement of monumental and murderous proportions. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Detour the Movie, Detour the Novel

I don't know how many times I've seen Edgar Ullmer's 1945 low budget classic Detour. Certainly I'm not alone in regarding it as one of those quintessential examples of film noir. But for some reason I only recently got around to reading  the novel on which the film is based. Like the film's screenplay, the novel was written by Martin M. Goldsmith, who while writing it worked as a Hollywood scene dismantler. He would go on to write something like a dozen screenplays, obscurities like Robert Gordon's 1947 Blind Spot and Joseph Pevney's 1950 Shakedown- both Poverty Row enterprises. Though he also contributed the story for John Farrow's better known and excellent 1952 Narrow Margin.

That Goldsmith, born in New York in 1913, would adapt his own novel was somewhat unusual in Hollywood at that  time. What's interesting, however, is the degree to which the novel and screenplay differ, which they do in various, but interesting, ways. The most obvious difference is that the film is taken from the viewpoint of pianist Al Roberts who travels from the east coast to Hollywood to find and hopefully marry his girlfriend, Sue Harvey. While the novel, first published in 1939, is written from the dual perspective of violinist Alexander Roth (no doubt thought to be too Jewish sounding a name for movie audiences of the day) and Sue. Their stories are told in alternating chapters, with neither  having any idea what the other is experiencing, or, for that matter, knowing what the other is really like. In the film adaptation, Al might not understand what Vera, the woman he picks up on the road, is about, or get the full drift of Haskell's story, but in the novel no one comprehends anyone. While the novel is about the general condition of knowing anyone, the movie is more about power, at least so far as it centers on Al's relationship with Vera, and her attempts to use him to her own ends.

That being the case, no wonder Goldsmith- for a while Anthony Quinn's brother-in-law- and Ulmer dispose of Sue's entries, and so move her to margins of the narrative. After all, it simplifies the story, turning it into a straight-ahead narrative, which no doubt made it easier and cheaper to film. All important factors for a Poverty Row enterprise to consider. But, in the end, no matter how  cynical and hard-edged the film turned out, it pales in comparison to the novel.

Another difference between the novel and the film is that the latter leaves out an essential element of the former, namely Goldsmith's scathing critique of  Hollywood, and the way it contributes to what Guy Debord would some years later call the society of the spectacle and where women are treated like objects- and, to quote the Dude, "objects are treated like women." Because it's Sue who mostly articulates that critique. Though, in the novel, Alex also has some choice words about Hollywood, little, if any, of which never quite made it onto the screen:

"You know, it would be a great thing if our lives could be arranged like a movie plot. M.G.M. does a much better job of running humanity than God. On the screen the good people always come out all right in the end...Things are plotted in straight lines. There are never any unexpected happenings which change everything about the hero but his underwear."

Still, had Ulmer and Goldsmith included the critique of Hollywood it no doubt would have resulted in an entirely different film, one that perhaps only a major studio could handle properly. Though perhaps hard to believe, but the novel is, if anything,  even darker than the film, particularly regarding one of noir's traditional tropes, the part fate plays in a person's life. Speaking like an American Camus, Alex at one point says,
"Here I had just sniffed out a human life as easily as falling off a log and the world was going on the same as always. The sun was still shining, the birds singing, the people eating, sleeping, working, making love, spanking their children, patting their dogs. It was undeniable proof that man is unimportant in the scheme of things, that one life more or less doesn't make a hell of a difference."

At the same time,  the film does contain nuggets like, "Whichever way you turn. Fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Interestingly,  the book ends with Alex pondering what might have happened had the car not stopped for him, saying, "God or Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all," the film ends with pretty much the same lines, but without any mention of God.  After all, why confuse matters. Noir is noir. No  point in needlessly throwing God into the mix.


While writing the above I was reminded of an article on Martin Goldsmith that appeared in Noir City, entitled The Vagabond by the excellent fiction writer and critic Jake Hinkson. He begins that piece with a quote by Columbia's president and chief of production Harry Cohn who purportedly said to Goldsmith, "You are the most dangerous man I have ever met because you have nothing to lose." If true, that says a lot about Goldsmith and who he was, as well as the demands made by Hollywood on most screenwriters at the time. In fact, Hinkson goes on to not only paint a picture of Goldsmith as something of a Hollywood existentialist, not only a perpetual outsider, who would periodically decamp in Hollywood to write for the studios- invariably a Poverty Row studio- and, money in hand, hit the road, not unlike Alex in Detour,  in search of more salubrious surroundings. To back that up, Hinkson cities Goldsmith as saying, "You can live in comfort anywhere if you just revise your ideas of comfort... I think the ideal combination for making a man entirely independent would be a sleeping bag, a typewriter, a station wagon, and a telescope for stargazing."

Goldsmith wearing sun glasses fasting in
protest to school segregation, Los Angeles, 1964. 
Besides Detour, Goldsmith would publish three other novels: Double Jeopardy (1938), Shadows At Noon (1943) and The Miraculous Fish of Domingo Gonzales (1950). Noirist Bill Pronzini described Double Jeopardy as  a cross between a problem novel and a mystery novel, with a touch of the Postman Always Rings Twice thrown in for good measure. He went on to describe Shadows at Noon as  a wartime fantasy, a what-if novel about a group of ordinary citizens whose city has been bombed
by the Nazis. While The Miraculous Fish of Domingo Gonzalez is a comic novel, perhaps in the B. Traven tradition, about a sleep Mexican fishing village where only sharks are caught. Until an American buyer of shark livers moves in changing the village beyond recognition.  Goldsmith would go on to write for TV, with scripts for The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Playhouse 90, and, in 1977, had a play produced by the Labor Theater in New York. Always politically active, Goldsmith joined the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s, and protested school segregation in Los Angeles. He also actively campaigned against nuclear weapons. He died in 1994, largely unheralded. I've heard rumours of an unpublished autobiography floating around, which would no doubt make for fascinating reading. Certainly anyone who appreciates Detour the film should have a look Detour the novel. It's not all that difficult to come by, having, over the past few years, been reprinted by a various outfits. Who knows, maybe the time is right for some larger company to take punt on it. After all, if Black Wings Has My Angel can be reprinted by NYRB, then why not Detour?  In the meantime, take your pick of various editions  (my preference would be for the one with the Larry Block forward). And thumb a ride on that desert highway, whether to hell or Hollywood. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Creating Desire: The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee

Movie ads a "great lost art?" Well, why not? But one can't help but speculate on what goes into that everyday ads meant to entice the public  through times good and bad into movie theatres. Though McElwee touches on that, it's not really his main concern. Rather, his intent is considerably more panoramic, taking the reader  through some sixty years of movie making: from the early days of Hollywood, through the Depression, up to the 1960s. The ads run the gamut: whether silent films, the advent of talkies, pre-code films, technicolor, teen films, the drive-in movie craze, etc.. Since most of the images derive from press books, some are nothing more than minimalised posters while others are cartoon-like in nature or  simply photographs and text. It's a mixed bag artistically, sometimes gaudy, sometimes stunning, but always interesting, evocative and, in their own way, enticing. And, at least until the 1960s, almost exclusively in black and white. However, by the end of the 60s, newspapers, as McElwee points out, were unable to compete with TV and more up to date advertisements and media. Of course, in the digital age, those ads have pretty much been consigned to the dustbin of history, which only makes their retrieval all the more welcome.

Though other books have concentrated on film posters, I can't think of any that confine themselves to everyday newspaper images as McElwee's book does. That alone make the book as invaluable as it is fascinating. After all, for most, it wasn't the colourful posters encased in the lobby of movie theatres that attracted the public, so much as the  black and white ads that they perused over their breakfast cereal. And films weren't the only thing being sold in those ads, but local businesses seeking to capitalize on what had become, for many years, the country's favorite pastime. I only wish McElwee had gone into a bit more detail about the politics behind the ads, as well as the techniques deployed in the ads to entice potential viewers. Though there are hints, as in the disclaimer by one movie house regarding Chaplin's Limelight, the theatre making it clear they tempting providence, or patting themselves on the back for being "controversial"- judged correctly, a potentially good selling point: "We realize he has been the subject of much controversy. We do not presume to judge his moral or his politics. However, we do recognize his genius." Clearly, there are various ways to sell a film, but the bottom is creating desire. If nothing else, McElwee's book should be commended for its historical value and approach. The details of which will no doubt be the subject of someone else's analytical skills. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Saturday, March 25, 2017

UNUSUAL SUSPECTS: Character Actors in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.

Given its script, camera work, superb set-up shots and direction, Kiss Me Deadly is, in the end, an actor’s film, at least when it comes to bit and character parts. At the same time, perhaps due to the extremity of its social critique, appearing in Aldrich’s 1955 movie seemed, for some, more like a one way ticket to obscurity. Some of those appearing in the film had promising careers prior to Kiss Me Deadly, only to be type-casted in its wake. Then there were those who remained bit actors before and after making the film.  Others would go on to achieve a degree of success, though even these actors would face a career of type-casting. Having said, the importance of characters actors, not to mention their professionalism, is undeniable. Appearing in the background, they are able to embellish the plot, as well as create atmosphere. Moreover, in Aldrich’s day, such actors could appear in three or four movies per year, always in the background, more often than not portraying a particular type. Moreover, those who appeared in Kiss Me Deadly would be utilized by Aldrich in subsequent films.  


Tough, cynical, cocky, stupid, sadistic, with a commanding screen presence, Ralph Meeker takes on the role of Mike Hammer with his particular fractured authority. Not  a character actor as such, but someone who would be type-casted for much of his post Kiss Me Deadly career. He was particularly well-suited to play Hammer, a role which required an aggressive yet  straight face, capable of displacing irony from the character onto the narrative itself. However, few remember that Meeker, before Kiss Me Deadly, had a promising career as a promising stage actor, replacing Marlon Brando in the Broadway version of Streetcar Named Desire after the latter decided to head for Hollywood. When cast by Aldrich to play Hammer, Meeker had been  starring in the stage version of William Inge’s Picnic,  a screen role associated with William Holden, and a role for which Meeker had garnered the New York Critic’s Award (as one is told in the trailer for Kiss Me Deadly). When Meeker’s went to Hollywood to make Kiss Me Deadly, it would be none other than Paul Newman who would replace him. Yet Meeker’s Hollywood career would pale compared to Brando’s, Newman’s or Holden’s. In fact, Meeker as Stanley Kowalski is a far cry from Meeker as Mike Hammer, even though both roles exude a primitivism so extreme that audiences sometimes aren’t sure where authenticity ends and humour begins. At the same time, whatever Meeker’s limitations, one wonders if Brando would have been able to handle both parts- Kowalski and Hammer- with equal aplomb. In all probability, Meeker was more versatile than his career suggests. Even before appearing in the stage version of Picnic, he had acquired a screen reputation, having starred in Glory Alley (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and Big House USA (1955). While Newman, Holden, Brando, all went on to become highly paid stars, Meeker would remain the odd man out, never quite getting the big-time roles achieved by the other three actors


So why Meeker?  Part of the reason for casting him must surely have been financial. Here was a fresh face and, though not a big name, a capable actor, well-versed enough to have no qualms about subsuming himself in the role.  As Aldrich said, “I didn’t need a real star to get the money for the film. The name Mickey Spillane...was enough.” A rare case of the author of the novel selling the movie. Despite his performance, Meeker’s future career would consist of playing the same cynical, hard-edged, tough-talking role time and time again, type-casted as it were in such Hollywood films as Run of the Arrow (1957), Paths of Glory (1957), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). 


In fact, Meeker could even be thought of as the screen equivalent to Aldrich: underrated, technically proficient, and professional. With hindsight, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Hammer, for few would have been capable of being so dark, so sardonic, and so willing to become as sleazy. Disappearing into the role as someone with no allegiance or class loyalty, and a face that’s hard yet baby-like, unformed because it is impervious. Regardless of the effect on his career, Meeker was able, in Kiss Me Deadly, to take  the noir anti-hero to new heights. 

Cloris Leachman, as Christina, has an short but significant presence in Kiss Me Deadly. Though she dies some ten minutes into the film, she remains a dominant, if ghostly, influence on the narrative. It’s not just her death that is crucial to the film, but her feminist perspective, not to mention the ease with which she can read Hammer. Of the three main women in the film, Leachman is probably the most capable actress. Plain looking- reminding one of Stanwyck- with short blond hair, her barbed remarks cut Hammer to the core. At the same time, unlike Lily’s neurotic whine or Velda self-conscious animal sexuality, if not perversity, Christina need only rely on her wit. Hammer doesn’t like her; after all, she’s an intelligent woman, and therefore of interest to him. Having flagged down his car, Christina easily talk circles around the laconic and iconic Hammer, who can’t quite fathom her. But at least he stopped to pick her up. After all, two other cars had previously passed her by. And there is something about her, other than her looks, that attracts him. Perhaps it’s just that she represents something human, or maybe she represents the last vestige of Hammer’s humanity, some dim memory about what it is to be human. Or maybe he finds her intriguing because he can’t dominate her. That is, if Hammer can be said to have even the slightest analytical ability, whether regarding his own motives or those of others. Be that as it may, Christina, without being present-something akin to Jeanne Crane in Horner’s 1953 film Vicky- becomes the narrative’s provocateur, putting Hammer on the trail of the “great Whatsit.”  Without Christina, and Leachman playing her with such aplomb, the narrative would have stalled in the opening few minutes, and Hammer would be left to his clichés, pursuing divorce cases, entrapping women, while his secretary, Velda, entraps their husbands. 


One wouldn’t know from her performance that Kiss Me Deadly was Leachman’s first film appearance. Previously this former Miss Chicago had only appeared on TV.  But Aldrich, already with a reputation as an excellent director of actors, gets an assured performance from her. Consequently, Leachman strikes the right posture and attitude, gleaning information about Hammer, criticising him without compromising herself or alienating the detective. Her performance also has a great to do with A.I. Bezzerides’s script. What more could a novice film actor want than to  appear in the opening scene, make a strong impression, then make an early exit from the film. Yet Leachman would remain a relatively obscure, though versatile, actress right up to her Oscar winning performance in The Last Picture Show (1971), before going to appear in such films as Young Frankenstein (1974),  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dillinger (1973),  Daisy Miller (1974), Crazy Mama (1975) and High Anxiety (1977). However, in Kiss Me Deadly, Christina represents a different type of woman, a proto-feminist unwilling to toe the 1950s line regarding women and power. Intelligent, sensitive but scared, she refuses to insulate herself by constructing a near-Thatcherite personality, as does Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952), Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957) and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1953). Reason enough, perhaps, for her move from lunatic asylum to Hammer’s car to the lair of her torturer. 

While the careers of Meeker and Leachman were, to differing degrees, circumscribed by their roles, Kiss Me Deadly is a movie filled with lesser known character actors. Though, for such actors, being circumscribed by one’s role goes with the territory. Still, some would fall into the black hole that comprises the finite universe of studio movie-making.  Others would reappear in future Aldrich films. Perhaps Aldrich liked to maintain a pool of actors, if for no other reason than they knew how he worked, which, in turn, made filming easier and quicker. Unlike Meeker and Leachman, many of these actors, though they might have wished otherwise, were destined for a litany of bit parts. Taking that into consideration, Kiss Me Deadly would prove less a graveyard than some kind of cinematic limbo. 

Though that doesn’t quite describe the career of Albert Dekker who plays the menacing Dr Soberin. Quoting the classics and connected to art world, Soberin’s agenda is to profit from unbridled technology. Born in Brooklyn, 1904, Dekker appeared in such films as Dr Cyclops (1940), The Killers (1946), Destination Murder (1950), The Pretender (1947) and Suspense (1946). Then came his political career, serving  as a Los Angeles Democratic assemblyman from 1945-46. After Kiss Me Deadly, his career stalled, appearing in just six films over the next fifteen years. In the 1960s he returned to the stage, and appeared in a final film, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). Soon afterward he died in mysterious circumstances. Though the official cause of death was accidental suffocation, it appeared to be a case of robbery (money and electronic equipment were missing), but with sadomasochistic overtones. When his body was discovered, the coroner is reported to have said, "This one had everything but a vampire bite." 

Other actors in Kiss Me Deadly were fortunate enough to escape such infamy.  Amongst the film’s most capable characters was Paul Stewart as the gangster, Evello. Stewart had once been part of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater, having made  his screen debut in Citizen Kane (1941), as Kane’s valet. He went on to mostly portray gangsters, fight promoters and cops in scores of films, both on TV and on the screen, including  Johnny Eager (1942), Champion (1949), The Window (1949), Edge of Doom (1950), Deadline USA (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Loan Shark (1952),The Juggler (1953), The Joe Louis Story (1953), The Wild Party (1956), King Creole (1958), In Cold Blood (1967) and Day of the Locust (1975). With a memorable face, and tough working class demeanour, he’s one of those character actors for whom the term character seems to have been invented. Which is to say his life appears to have been written on his face.  

Another character actor in the film is Wesley Addy who plays the mysterious Pat, whose relationship to Hammer is nothing less than ambiguous. Is he Hammer’s friend or his nemesis? Is he a cop or federal agent? And is there some kind some homoerotic relationship between the two men? Other than Eddie the mechanic, Pat is the only man in the film that Mike seems to like. He’s even able to walk into Mike’s apartment without waiting for the door to be opened for him, whereupon he sees Mike and Velda kissing and says, “Don’t let me bother you.”  Perhaps he feels at home in their presence. Or maybe he’s a kind of voyeur, playing a role not unlike those viewing the film. And even though he’s filing a secret report on Hammer, Pat refuses to take part in the Feds questioning of Mike. Laudable, but there is something distinctly creepy about Pat. Of course, he admires Hammer, perhaps a little too much. Working for the state, this thinking man’s Mike Hammer appears to be ex-military, or a former athlete that has spent too much time in Hugh Hefner’s Penthouse. To his credit, Addy has no problem carrying off so ambiguous a role. After Kiss Me Deadly, Addy would go on to appear in numerous films, including six more films by Aldrich- The Big Knife (1955), The Garment Jungle (1957), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Grissom Gang (1971), as well as non-Aldrich films like Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), Seconds (1966), Network (1976) and The Europeans (1979). Through it all, Addy always appears to be in character, maintaining the coldness of a sci-fi alien, a judge or  state functionary. 


Perhaps it was her willingness to compulsively smooch Mike Hammer that put a damper on Maxine Cooper’s career. As someone else whose character is written on her face, Cooper’s role in Aldrich’s film touches on the perverse, so much so that she must be one of the few women in film- another example is Mercedes MacCambridge and, for that matter, Joan Crawford, in Johnny Guitar- whose sexuality is not something many would care to encounter. In fact, there is something incestuous about her relationship with Hammer. Though Cooper had a prolific career on TV, she only appeared in three other movies, two of them by Aldrich- as the bank teller in  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), as the nurse in Autumn Leaves (1956), and, swapping healer for a person needing healing, as a sick woman in Hal Bartlett’s airplane melodrama Zero Hour! (1957).  None of those roles come close to the raunchiness of Cooper’s presence as Velda. Which is a shame, because there is something genuinely disturbing about her as Velda, as if Aldrich and Bezzerides can’t decide whether she is a moron, a nymphomaniac, or a prophetess, who speaks about “the great whatsit” while supplying the brains to Hammer’s brawn. 

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Gaby Rodgers (Lily-Gabrielle) is yet another memorable character in Aldrich’s movie. Her performance as a young neurotic comes across as near-Brechtian in its alienation, giving one cause to wonder if she’s  a bad  actress or superbly capable of delivering her lines as instructed. Unfortunately, Kiss Me Deadly was a big kiss-off for  Rodgers who appeared in just one other movie, The Big Break (1953), two years before Aldrich’s film. After Kiss Me Deadly, she, like Cooper, turned to TV work. Literally radiating in the film, one assumes it was Rodgers’s ambiguity rather than her sexuality that cut her Hollywood career. 

Nor was Hollywood all that kind to Marian Carr, who played Friday, the nymphomaniac and sister to the gangster Evello. Though Carr’s career did last at least  another year. Prior to Kiss Me Deadly she had been in such films as Twin Husbands (1946), Follow That Blonde (1946), San Quentin (1946), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Northern Patrol (1953),  Ring of Fear (1954), World for Ransom (1954), and Cell 2455 Death Row (1955). After Aldrich’s film, her output was limited to Nightmare (1956), The Harder They Fall (1956), Ghost Town (1956), Indestructible Man (1956) and When Gangland Strikes (1956). Clearly, offering sex so blatantly is as unforgivable as being, consciously or otherwise,  a bad actress. If it is true, and it is all about character-  “It’s not enough to have talent, you’ve got to have character,” says George C. Scott to Paul Newman in The Hustler- it’s debatable whether Carr was born with it or had it thrust upon her.

Keith McConnell, who plays the Athletic Club clerk, appears for a matter of minutes, slapped around before turning into a nearly unrecognizable corpse. He is the  man who guards the gate behind which lies Pandora’s box. Inept he might be, but, then, that’s his nature. The man’s character is one of weakness, once again there’s a homosexual undercurrent. Born in 1923, McConnell had a lengthy career, specializing, despite his Irish background, in playing British officers, gentlemen and gentry, as well as  policemen, butlers, bartenders and even Sherlock Holmes. His first film credit was in 1950, playing a British lieutenant in When Willie Comes Marching Home, followed by such forgettable  films as Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), A Life of Her Own (1950), Kim (1950), 5 Fingers (1952), Botany Bay (1953), The Caddy (1953), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Morituri (1965), Time After Time (1979), Wrong Is Right (1982) and Young Lady Chatterley II (1985). His face exudes submissiveness and fear. As an effeminate male, he comes right out of Spillane’s homophobic and nativist novel.

Being an L.A. film, albeit in the 1950s, necessitates a smattering of ethnic types. So naturally one finds characters actors from an assortment of communities. Like Nick the mechanic, who comes across as Hammer’s one true friend, bonding through their love of fast sports cars. Displacement it might be, technological pornography it most definitely is. Jive-talking Nick is particularly fond of saying “va va voom.” Once ensconced in Mike’s car, he says to his idol, “I want to see how this little bird flies,” and “let’s get his baby on the road.”  A speed merchant, he’s  on top of things,  as up to date as any member of the lumpen proletariat can possibly be. Nick is in fact Nick Dennis, born in Thessaly, Greece in 1904. His foreign-looking face  appeared in a number of  films, or at least  whenever a Greek, Turk or Mexican was needed. His first appearance was in 1947 in A Double Life. From there he went on to appear in Sirocco (1951), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Ten Tall Men (1951), East of Eden (1955), The Big Knife (1955), Top of the World (1955), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Spartacus (1960), Too Late Blues (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), 4 for Texas (1963). Like Christina, Nick has an early death in Aldrich’s film. Mike mourning his passing with a worried look and a tumble in bed with Velda. But Nick is the only guy capable of making Mike’s engine hum.

Besides Nick and McConnell the Irishman-turned-English, there’s Juano Hernandez as Eddie Yeager. He is a boxing trainer whom Hammer consults in his gym, following a template upon which such roles would be based, including George Tobias in The Set Up, Paul Stewart in Champion, Everett Sloane in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Nicholas Colasanto in Fat City, Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, etc.. Hernandez is probably best remembered for his role in Ben Maddow’s adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949), directed by Clarence Brown, in which, he appeared as the black man who is lynched. An ex-boxer, Hernandez, previous to his movie career, had worked in circuses, carnivals,  minstrel shows and vaudeville. Born in Puerto Rican, in 1901, he appeared in TV programs like Naked city, The Defenders and Johnny Staccato. The son of a seaman, Hernandez was self-educated, having spent his youth as a street singer in Brazil and landed his first acting role in a 1927 production of Show Boat. Prior to Intruder in the Dust, Hernandez appeared in Harlem is Heaven (1932), The Girl From Chicago (1932) and Lying Lips (1939),  Young Man With a Horn (1950), Stars in My Crown  (1950) and The Breaking Point (1950). After Kiss Me Deadly he would go on to appear in some twelve films, including St Louis Blues (1958), The Pawnbroker (1964), and The Reivers (1969), playing cops, judges, preachers, musicians, sharecroppers, and native Americans. In Aldrich’s film, Hernandez has what amounts to a cameo role, underused and only peripherally relevant to the plot.

Marginally less peripheral are the two thugs Hammer confronts in the swimming pool changing room at Evello’s luxurious home. The recognizable faces of the two Jacks- Jack Lambert and Jack Elam in the roles of Sugar and Charlie Max- are sleazy rather than ethnic. Slit-eyed and ugly, Jack Lambert looks like a nightclub bouncer or ex-football player who has recently fallen off the wagon. Born in 1920,  Lambert was in such illustrious films as The Killers (1946), Chicago Confidential (1957), Machine Gun Kelly (1958), Party Girl (1958), Force of Evil (1948), The Great Gatsby (1949), Day of the Outlaw (1959), and Aldrich’s Four for Texas,  Vera Cruz (1954) and Four for Texas (1963). His partner is another usual suspect when it comes to film noir, and, if anything, even more ubiquitous and menacing than Lambert. Specializing in playing gangsters and outlaws, Jack Elam was, in fact, a former accountant and hotel manager. With a leer, the result of blindness in one eye- making him the original “one-eyed Jack”- Elam appeared in such films as The Far Country (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Kansas City Confidential (1952), Rancho Notorious (1952), Gunfight at OK Corral (1957), Baby Face Nelson (1957), Four for Texas (1963), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). As a character actor he occupied a position on the weird and wild side of John Ireland and Arthur Kennedy. One could say that Elam and Lambert illustrate the extent to which Hollywood relied on such people, their ilk giving various movies that evil leer and dangerous atmosphere. In fact, film noir as a genre would have been all the poorer for their absence, so adept were they, thanks to directors like Aldrich, at giving such films a creepy everyman look without needing an  over-abundance of dialogue or screen-time.


But, then, neither did Fortunio Bonanova need much screen time to memorable. One first glimpses him in the role of Carmen Trivago, in a Bunker Hill rooming house, the kind of place fellow-Italian John Fante writes about in Dreams From Bunker and Ask the Dust. According to Velda, Trivago is “an opera singer in search of an opera,”  so he stays in his room singing along with Caruso. That is, until Hammer arrives, wants information and, when Trivago hesitates, he, like the oaf he is, begins breaking his beloved records. Unlike Elam and Lambert, Trivago, at twice their weight, was no tough-guy. In fact, he began his  career as a baritone singer with the Paris Opera, going on to write a number of operettas, plays and novels, as well as appearing in several movies.  Like Paul Stewart, Bonanova was in Citizen Kane, playing the singing coach who, at great pains, instructed Kane’s second wife to reach those dulcet tones. That Aldrich would pick up on two actors from Welles’s movie says something about his astuteness regarding character actors and how they can alter the atmosphere of  a movie, as well as  his artistic relationship to Welles- both were working at RKO in 1941- whose film Touch of Evil, released two years earlier, might be thought of as a spiritual cousin to Aldrich’s movie. 

Another Italian making a brief but important, appearance in Kiss Me Deadly is Silvio Minciotti who plays the old man moving furniture on his back in the Bunker Hill rooming house. He is important if only because he has a spare moment to philosophize, while telling Hammer, who might be one of the few people who ever stopped to talk to the old man, where he, Hammer, can find Lily. More of a trooper  than Bonavova, Minciotti was called upon whenever a picture called for a rugged, old world Italian. Consequently, he appeared in such films as Full of Life (1957), The Wrong Man (1956), Serenade (1956), Marty (1955), Clash by Night (1952), Fourteen Hours (1951), Deported (1950), House of Strangers (1949), The Undercover Man (1949).  His presence in Kiss Me Deadly, and I mean his presence, rather than the lines he speaks, gives the film, up to that point, a semblance of gravitas.

If Hammer denotes masculinity-beyond the call of duty,  there are others who denote the opposite. If not effeminate, then at least weak men; in other words, those who can be pushed around by tough-guy crooks and private investigators. Consequently, we not only have Trivago and the Athletic Club clerk, but the morgue attendant, played by the familiar face of Percy Helton, who must surely have been one of the most prolific bit-actors in Hollywood. Of course, such parts would only be plentiful so long as tough-guys continued to flex their muscles. Helton began his career as far back as 1915, playing the waif in the silent film, The Fairy and the Waif.  His professional career would last until  the 1970s, appearing  in scores of films, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Head (1968), The Songs of Katie Elder (1969), Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), 4 For Texas (1963), Ride the High Country (1962), The Music Man (1962), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Shake Rattle and Roll (1956), White Christmas (1954), A Star is Born (1954), Thieves Highway (1949), The Set Up (1949), Criss Cross (1949), Call Northside 777 (1948) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With an apparent fondness for the service sector, Helton’s speciality seemed to be funeral directors, store keepers, bank clerks, hotel clerks, news vendors, mailmen, judges, chauffeurs, station masters, train conductors, drunks, loafers, and any part that necessitated servitude, obsequiousness or marginality. 

But there were even those with more marginal roles, their primary function to reinforce Hammer’s perspective. For instance, Robert Sherman who crops up at the beginning of Kiss Me Deadly  as the leering gas station attendant. He would go on to appear in films like Aldrich’s The Big Knife, (1955), Picture Mommy Dead (1966), No Time for Sergeants (1958), Kiss Them for Me (1957), For Men Only (1952). As well as a gas station attendant, he find cinematic service as a soldier, cop, journalist and, in Aldrich’s The Big Knife, a bongo player. In Kiss Me Deadly we see him sizing-up Christina, and so informs the viewer he comes from the same mould as Hammer. On the other hand, he agrees to post Christina’s letter. With McCarthyites lurking in the background, and “the Great Whatsit” in everyone’s consciousness, this was a world where such attitudes were commonplace, and those emulating Hammer had the upper hand. Whether he would tempt a federal rap and peak inside that letter is another matter.

Some of the other character actors in Kiss Me Deadly who would appear in Aldrich’s later films include Marjorie Bennett, the manager of Silvio’s apartment. Bennett made her first film appearance in 1917, followed by scores of others in which she mainly played housekeepers and cooks, from Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) to Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968). Mort Marshall as Ray Diker, the science reporter on whom Velda compiles a file, whose bloody face one sees in close-up, would appear in Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971) as well as Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). Strother Martin as Harvey Wallace the truck driver who kills Kawolsky because of his connection to Christina, would appear in Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), as well as The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), The Wild Bunch (1969), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy (1969). James McCallion as Horace, the building superintendent where Christina lived until “she moved out…in the middle of the night,” would also have a lengthy career in TV westerns and crime stories as well as appearing in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), The Big Combo (1955) and Coogan’s Bluff.  Robert Cornthwaite, playing one of the FBI agents would be typecasted as doctors, professors and military types, while James Seay, the other FBI agents, would be given roles that required an authoritative voice. Both Seay and Cornthwaite can also be seen in Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

Screenwriters came and went- though Aldrich would use Bezzerides three times in all- but bit actors tended, in order to maintain a particular look to his films, to be re-employed by Aldrich. It would be a mistake to say other directors did not make use of these unsung professionals who, if luck and ability would have it, could appear in several movies per year, but few seemed to deploy such actors to the degree Aldrich did, using them as a quasi-company that defined and enriched his work. Keeping the budget low and the atmosphere high, these actors put in performances that were memorable yet subsidiary, foregrounded for a moment but subservient to the main actors and narrative. Kiss Me Deadly, as much as any other Aldrich film, relies on  such character actors to the degree that one could say that the film is propelled by their performances. This even applies to the main roles- Meeker, Rodgers, Cooper, and Leachman- themselves little more than character actors writ large. In fact, their performances are a testimony to the power of the film as an idea and social critique, to the degree that even its stars would become, to one degree or another, type-casted, no matter how hard they might have wanted to resist that definition.  After all, in Hollywood, ”you’ve got to have character,” even in era of the great Whatsit.

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