The Serious Moonlight: The Cinematic World of David Goodis
By Mike White
Living in a David Goodis world isn’t easy.A David Goodis world consists of losers, drop-outs, and has-beens. Everyone is a sad victim of circumstance. They are victims of urban angst, paranoia, and alienation. Often without a friend in the world, the only semi-stable family relationships are found amongst criminals, where there’s always the danger of an Oedipal explosion or incestuous liaison.
His Sisyphean protagonists either start off poor or they take a hard fall from grace. Regardless, they always end up on the wrong side of the tracks, face down in the gutter. Those who fall may have it worse than those who live perpetually in poverty. They have a taste of the good life before it was wrenched away. More often than not, these sad souls find themselves in Philadelphia.
The life of David Goodis (1917-1967) followed the same trajectory as his main characters in Down There and Street of No Return. In these novels, a pianist and singer have a meteoric rise to fame and spectacular swan dive into obscurity. After a rocky start with the widely panned Retreat From Oblivion, Goodis stuck to the pulps for a while, churning out countless stories for magazines such as Flying Aces, Man Hunt, Dime Sports, and Sinister Stories. He caught his big break in 1946 with the publishing of Dark Passage as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. This garnered him an invitation to Hollywood where he penned several treatments, helped with an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter, and adapted Dark Passage for the silver screen.
David Goodis wasn’t made for the glamorous Hollywood life. After working on several more screenplays that never saw the light of day (and seem to have disappeared from the face of the Earth), Warner Brothers ended their relationship with the author. He packed his bags and returned to Philadelphia and to the pulps, churning out novels for publishers like Appleton-Century, Lion, Gold Medal, et cetera. Between 1947 and 1957, Goodis had an incredible fifteen books published!
A biography of David Goodis guarantees more questions than answers. There are major milestones, but the grout between is rife with allegations, assumptions, and ribald rumors. He was a mystery to all those around him. Did he run away from Hollywood to escape the clutches of his overbearing first wife, or did he feel obligated to his brother, Herbert (said to be retarded in some accounts and schizophrenic in others)? Did he prowl the ghetto bars and nightclubs in Los Angeles and Philadelphia looking for large African-American women to abuse him verbally and physically? Did the bizarre family relationships of his characters reflect the dynamic of his home life?
When families weren’t criminals (Down There), criminals often resembled families (The Burglar, Black Friday, Somebody’s Done For, Street of No Return), with an older criminal mastermind (“father”), a blowzy, brassy gal whose shoes overflow with the fat from her calves and whose bosom threatens to burst out of her low-cut blouse (“mother”), and a ham-fisted lummox (“brother”). The most intriguing “family” member was the mousy gal who invariably captures our protagonist’s heart (if not, at least, his attention). She should be considered the “sister.” And, from there, our hero acts out a quasi-Oedipal scenario. He often sleeps with the mother figure while really wanting the sister. To get her affection, it may be necessary to eliminate the father.
Was the time spent living back with his parents just too much? Was it this closeness that caused Goodis to crack up and pass away a mere six months after his mother died? Again, we have many more questions here.
During the last decade of his life, the spark seemed to disappear from Goodis. There was a dearth of books being published, with only Night Squad in 1961 and Somebody’s Done For published posthumously after Goodis’s demise on January 7, 1967. The opening of this book (also known as Raving Beauty) finds the main character lost at sea and in danger of drowning. This is one of Goodis’s common themes, with protagonists drowning (or nearly doing so) in The Burglar and The Wounded & The Slain. Meanwhile, many of his characters could be seen as drowning themselves in alcohol (Street of No Return, Fire in the Flesh, The Wounded & The Slain) and all of them are adrift, hoping for purchase.
RETREAT INTO OBSCURITY
While Goodis toiled in his little room at 6305 N. 11th Street in Philadelphia, filmmakers mined his ever-increasing wealth of material. OF MISSING PERSONS was made in Argentina and NIGHTFALL in Hollywood. Warner Brothers’ television division used one of his stories for an episode of their “Bourbon Street Beat” series and Goodis adapted a Henry Kane story for “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” The closest Goodis came to reigniting his Hollywood flame came in 1957, with the film adaptation of THE BURGLAR. Shot in the streets of Philadelphia by his friend Paul Wendkos, Goodis helped write the screenplay based on his own work for this inventive film noir. Delayed after completion and overlooked upon release, THE BURGLAR didn’t fulfill the promise of a Wendkos/Goodis creative partnership.
Goodis may have labored in the penumbra of obscurity in the United States, but his existential and essentially bleak portrayal of the empty American dream caught the attention of European intellectuals in general and the French Nouvelle Vague in particular. In 1960, Cahiers du Cinema writer-turned-director Francois Truffaut brought Goodis’s Down There to the cinema in SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. This highly lauded film was the first entry in the European appreciation of Goodis, but it was definitely not the last. Even as Goodis’s novels quickly went out of print in his native country, they would remain available in French and British editions throughout the years.
Of Goodis’s nineteen novels, ten of them have thus far been adapted for the silver screen—one of them, The Burglar, has been twice. His story “The Professional Man” was adapted for television for both HBO (“The Edge”) and Showtime (“Fallen Angels”). Also, the ABC series “The Fugitive” was based on one of the author’s early novels, Dark Passage (a heated court case upheld this claim after Goodis’s demise).
Too often, the films based on Goodis’s work fail because they’re too concerned with crime. Even in a book like The Burglar, crime is secondary. Sometimes there are some larcenous activities but few crimes to be found in a Goodis book. Likewise, without the constant paranoid narrative voice that slides from third person to second to first and back again, it’s difficult to identify with the tortured Goodis protagonist. Utilizing voiceover narration, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER and STREET OF NO RETURN come closest to capturing the Goodis voice. By not showing Vincent Parry’s face for the first act of DARK PASSAGE, and reading aloud the writing of Alan Kolber in DESCENT INTO HELL, the audience is given insight through other means.
GOODIS ON FILMDARK PASSAGE (Delmer Daves, 1947) / Dark Passage (1946)
Wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, when Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) escapes from San Quentin, he acquires a new face and new hope for the future. The use of a semi-subjective camera in the opening act was utilized far more effectively here than it had been months earlier in Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE. In DARK PASSAGE, the first-person Parry point-of-view is inter-cut with shots of the protagonist in shadows, keeping his face a secret until his bandages come off.
Unfortunately, in a David Goodis world, there is little to no redemption. Even with help from the lovely Irene Jansen (Lauren Bacall), Parry remains plagued by the pesky Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead). Moreover, Parry is set upon by new foes, all the while living in paranoia.
The most faithful to both plot and tone, Delmer Daves’s adaptation of Goodis’s second novel is a classic in the film noir pantheon. Not as popular as other Bogart/Bacall vehicles such as KEY LARGO, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, or THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE is a terrific star vehicle for the classic Hollywood couple.
OF MISSING PERSONS / SECTION DES DISPARUS / SECCION DESPARECIDOS (Pierre Chenal, France/Argenina, 1956) / Of Missing Persons (1950)
Despite being a rather cornball Argentine flick, SECCION DESPARECIDOS is still close to my heart after the struggle I went through to locate it. I sought long and hard to find a print of the film and paid through the nose to a South American dealer to have it transferred from 16mm film. It took a few years after that until I found someone to translate the fast-paced Spanish dialogue into English so I could fully appreciate this tiny, tawdry tale of deceit.
Originally an unproduced screenplay, Goodis turned his work into one of his oddest novels. Of Missing Persons takes place primarily in the Los Angeles Missing Persons Bureau, led by Captain Paul Ballard. Taking his job far too seriously, Ballard fights to save his department and his reputation, after becoming the target of smear journalists who question all of the unsolved missing persons cases, especially that of Myra Nichols. Convinced that her husband—reported dead by Ballard—is alive and well, Myra goes to the media to complain, setting off a series of events that include vicious office politics and the framing of Jean Landis, Myra’s one-time nurse and the object of John Nichols’s affection.
The majority of this book takes place in Ballard’s office, which would make for a fairly dull film. Luckily, screenwriters Agustín Cuzzani, Domingo Di Núbila, and Pierre Chenal (who also directed) took the action out of the office and concentrated on the Nichols case.
SECCION DESPARECIDOS opens with Juan Milford in the arms of Diane “Dante” Lander. The only problem is that Juan is married to Mendy Milford, a controlling shrew who holds proof of Juan’s past misdeeds. In order to escape, Juan seizes the opportune death of a drunk to fake his demise. Unfortunately for him, Diane isn’t quite so keen to have her lover back. She’s horrified to find that Juan plans to murder his wife, and Diane is determined to stop it. Here Chenal’s film intersects with Goodis’s book. Mrs. Milford is murdered and Lander is set up to take a fall. To the rescue comes the shrewd Commissioner Uribe to set the record straight.
Juan Milford proves to be a troublesome character. While he neither murders his wife nor the drunk for whom he’s mistaken, it wouldn’t be out of character. Yet he’s somehow redeemed at the end, getting his name cleared and resting in a hospital bed while Diane Lander dotes on him (much like the end of DESCENT AUX ENFERS). Improbable finale aside, Chenal’s little movie is a tight, albeit trite, thriller.
NIGHTFALL (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) / Nightfall (Messner, 1947)
Aldo Ray displays his infamously narrow acting range as James Vanning, a commercial artist on the run from the police for a crime he didn’t commit and from the guys who actually did the crime. They think that Vanning has the three hundred grand that they liberated from a financial institution. Also on Vanning’s case is insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory). He’s made something of a career of following Vanning’s every move and watching him from the apartment across the way. At the end of his days he goes home to his wife (Jocelyn Brando) where he tries to make sense of Vanning’s “innocent act.” Little does anyone know that Vanning isn’t kidding around when he says he dropped the money and can’t remember where it is.
In Goodis’s book, Vanning’s relationship with Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) is more fleshed out and slightly more nebulous, as Vanning is lead to believe on two occasions that Marie is actually an agent of the nefarious John (Brian Keith), rather than a truly virtuous girl who falls for Vanning almost at first sight. On the night that Vanning and Marie meet, they’re happened upon by John and his partner, Red (Rudy Bond). They end the date by taking Vanning away and working him over. In Tourneur’s film, they take Vanning to some incongruous oil fields and threaten to tear his head off with one of the giant pumps. This is just one of the odd locations of the film. Known more for his other noir work, OUT OF THE PAST, this Jacques Tourneur film stands as one of the most sun-drenched and airy noirs around with its great swaths of Western winter snowfields.
Adapted by Stirling Silliphant, NIGHTFALL suffers from the miscasting of Ray and Keith (they would have been better off switching roles), the addition of Vanning’s hunting buddy Doc (Frank Albertson), and the expansion of Marie’s background to include her life as a fashion model. Too often this take on David Goodis’s second book feels like a lukewarm television drama rather than a taut film noir. If anything, NIGHTFALL is most notable for being one of the few Goodis books to have a happy ending.
THE BURGLAR (Paul Wendkos, 1957) / The Burglar (Lion, 1953)
This ninth Goodis novel is similar to Black Friday, if only to show the stress of close quarters on career criminals. Most of The Burglar takes place in the Philadelphia hideout of Nat Harbin (Dan Duryea), the leader of a quartet of criminals. Two of these characters, Baylock (Peter Capell) and Dohmer (Mickey Shaughnessy), are direct progenitors of Mattone and Rizzio of Black Friday. Meanwhile, Nat acts as the younger version of Charley, schooled in the art of burglary by Gerald Gladden. The final member of the group is Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), the daughter of Gerald. Nat is torn between this love of and protectiveness for Gladden. On the one hand, he wants her to leave the life of crime from whence they came; on the other, he feels wrong loving this girl who he sees as something of a sister and daughter.
THE BURGLAR is highly faithful to the original. Nat suffers from an almost maniacal pledge to his lost father figure while his compatriots stew in their hideout, waiting for the heat to cool off from a jewelry heist. Hot and bothered, Nat sends Gladden to Atlantic City so he can think straight. He doesn’t have much time to get his thoughts together before he’s got Della (Martha Vickers) picking him up in a bar. Meanwhile, Gladden is getting some attention of her own from a bloke named Charlie (Stewart Bradley). When Nat happens upon Della chatting with Charlie, he recognizes Gladden’s new boyfriend as a cop who saw him the night of the jewelry robbery. The fix is in and now it’s a race against the clock to save Gladden and, if possible, keep the jewels out of the hands of the corrupt cop and his treacherous moll.
Paul Wendkos’s THE BURGLAR was shot in Philadelphia in 1955 but went unreleased until 1957. The film may not have ever seen the light of day if not for the newfound popularity of starlet Jayne Mansfield (THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?). Still unofficially released on home video, THE BURGLAR can be counted among the highly stylized later entries in the film noir canon, including HOUSE OF BAMBOO, TOUCH OF EVIL, and BLAST OF SILENCE.
The action climaxes in Atlantic City with an ending akin to LADY FROM SHANGHAI and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. Though less nihilistic than the book, THE BURGLAR stays true to Goodis’s work throughout. This is in stark contrast to Vahé Katcha and Henri Verneuil’s version of the same story in LE CASSE.
SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER / TIREZ SUR LE PIANISTE (Francois Truffaut, France, 1960) / Down There (Gold Medal, 1956)
One of the most popular and well-respected films based on Goodis’s work, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER is wedged nicely between Nouvelle Vague director Francois Truffaut’s most noted works, THE 400 BLOWS and JULES AND JIM. Demonstrating an immense love for Goodis’s prose, Truffaut and co-writer Marcel Moussy perfectly capture the tone and plot of Down There, the sixteenth Goodis novel. There’s even a bit of dialogue cleverly lifted from Nightfall.
Charles Aznavour stars as Charlie Kohler, a slight man with a sardonic smile who ekes out his meek living banging the ivories at a beer hall. His low-brow routine is disturbed with the unexpected appearance of Chico (Albert Rémy), his brother. Charlie used to be known as Edouard Saroyan ,when he lived another life. Back then he tinkled the keys in concert halls as a famous pianist. Chico and Charlie’s other sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian) are bad seeds. As wild as Eduoard was refined, the reappearance of Chico brings with it bad memories as well as two thugs, Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) and Momo (Claude Mansard).
Cut from the same cloth that would later be used to fashion Jules and Vincent from PULP FICTION, Ernest and Momo bicker like a married couple when not discussing the finer points of women’s undergarments. They add a wonderfully absurdist touch to the otherwise nihilistic proceedings. Charlie enters into a relationship with a waitress, Lena (Marie Dubois). Like the women from Nightfall and Dark Passage, Lena turns out to be a fan of Charlie’s and even has an old Eduoard Saroyan advertisement in her apartment. She knew him before his fall from grace and loves him even as the man he is now.
We don’t learn of Charlie’s life as Edouard until a half hour into the film, when the audience is given a fifteen-minute flashback of his life with his wife Therese (Nicole Berger) and his rise to fame. Rather than betraying Edouard, Therese ultimately betrays herself by sleeping with his manager in order to get her husband the access to concert halls he desperately deserves. After her defenestration, Edouard gave up his fame and became a shell of a man as Charlie. Just when it seems that Lena may be able to give him back his humanity, he accidentally murders a fellow employee and takes to the hills, back to his family’s farm in the wilds of New Jersey (or the French equivalent thereof).
Typical of French New Wave films, Truffaut employs a variety of filmic techniques meant to call attention to themselves, such as irising out of scenes, superimposed images, and even a bit of karaoke subtitling during a performance of “Framboise” by Boby Lapointe. The only bit that rings false in the film is the addition of another Saroyan, a younger sibling (apparently) named Fido (Richard Kanayan). This superfluous character adds nothing of value to the story line and merely gets in the way. Luckily, his small amount of screen time doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of Truffaut’s film.
THE BURGLARS / LE CASSE (Henri Verneuil, France, 1971) / The Burglar (Lion, 1953)
Directed by Henri Verneuil, this film pales in comparison to his previous work, THE SICILIAN CLAN. Starting off promisingly with a long opening robbery that’s nearly free of dialogue (similar to the robbery scene of Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI (1955)), the movie quickly turns into a cat-and-mouse game between protagonist Azad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and dirty cop Abel (Omar Sharif). Azad’s crew is barely a blip on this film’s radar and the same can be said of Azad’s femme fatale, Lena (Dyan Cannon). The rest of the film consists of a few spectacular set pieces (including a car chase that makes those in BULLITT and RONIN look rather tame) and countless set-ups by Abel to get millions of dollars worth of emeralds away from Azad.
The scenes between Belmondo and Sharif work terificly well—especially when they have a showdown over Greek food—but they’re too few and far between to redeem the movie as a whole. Even when set to a score by Ennio Morricone, THE BURGLARS doesn’t succeed as either an effective Goodis adaptation or heist film.
AND HOPE TO DIE / LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS (Rene Clement, France, 1972) / Black Friday (Lion, 1954)
A loose adaptation, AND HOPE TO DIE merely follows a few touch points of Goodis’s twelfth book, Black Friday. The original French title of Rene Clement’s LA COURSE DU LIÈVRE à TRAVERS LES CHAMPS roughly translates as “Chasing a rabbit through the fields,” recalling the pursuit of the White Rabbit by Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Clement begins the film with a quote from Carroll, “We are but older children dear, who fret to find our bedtime near,” and often draws parallels between the film’s gangsters and children.
Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Tony (referred to by the group as “Froggy,” due to his French heritage). Tony runs from one band of thieves to another. He lies to the second group, telling them that he was running from the cops after shooting a police officer. After seeing one of the group killed and helping to off another one of them, he still manages to ingratiate himself enough to earn the trust of their leader (and obvious father figure), Charley Ellis (Robert Ryan). Accompanied by the faithful Rizzio (Jean Gaven) and Mattone (Aldo Ray in his second Goodis film), the group executes an elaborate kidnapping caper whose only flaw is the apparent suicide of its planned victim, the oddly named Toboggan.
In Black Friday, the caper is a botched robbery. Most of the book takes place at the gang’s hideout and explores the relationships between the gangsters. Despite killing her brother, there’s chemistry to be found between our main character (here named Hart) and the Pepper character. There’s also a strange and strained triangle between Charley, Hart, and Sugar. Here Sugar is more than a handful—both in size and in sexual appetite. Charley is unable to provide what Sugar needs, and has always encouraged her to seek satisfaction outside of their relationship. It isn’t until she meets Hart that she finally does.
Sugar is the only person who figures Hart for what he really is. He’s not a murderer. He’s on the lam because he killed his brother. Not for money, like the police think, but because his brother was suffering from multiple sclerosis. This exemplifies the complexity of the characters in Black Friday. Again, rather than flesh out these characters, screenwriter Sébastien Japrisot treats them as children. Meanwhile, Rene Clement directs them like a low-grade Sergio Leone (complete with pan flute on the soundtrack). This results in an unremarkable heist film.
MOON IN THE GUTTER / LUNE DANS LE CANIVEAU, LA (Jean-Jacques Beineix, France, 1983) / The Moon in the Gutter (Gold Medal, 1953)
Every night, Gerard Delmas (Gerard Depardieu) stands transfixed at the mouth of an alleyway. There, illuminated only by the moonlight, he can make out the accusing bloodstains left by his sister Catherine (Katya Berger), who took her own life with a rusty razor after being violated. Catherine was too good for the world into which she was born: a slum where the only means of escape seem to be via booze or death.
Gerard obsesses about his sister while keeping an eye on his drunken brother, Frank (Dominique Pinon), and fending off the advances of insanely jealous Bella (Victoria Abril). A billboard outside his hovel declares “TRY ANOTHER WORLD.” The other world to which Gerard aspires is the elusive “uptown.” His keys to the kingdom come in the form of Loretta Channing (Nastassja Kinski). Driving down to the slums in her MG, Loretta acts as guardian to her drunken brother, Newton (Vittorio Mezzogiorno).
Is Loretta just slumming, or does she love Gerard? Will Gerard ever fit in uptown? Is Newton responsible for Catherine’s death, or is it her brother, Frank? MOON IN THE GUTTER is filled with these questions and brims with overwrought music and sensual images. Beineix and screenwriter Olivier Mergault succeed in capturing the tone of Goodis’s tenth novel. However, The Moon in the Gutter doesn’t have much plot. Rather than being a murder mystery about Catherine’s rape, the film and book are more of a moody piece wherein the slum in which Delmas lives is only second to Delmas himself.
This was the second time Beineix worked on a Goodis-based project. A decade before directing MOON IN THE GUTTER, he served as assistant director on Rene Clement’s adaptation of Black Friday.
SAVAGE STREET / RUE BARBARE (Gilles Béhat, France, 1984) / Street of the Lost (Gold Medal, 1952)
Both The Moon in the Gutter and Street of the Lost revolve around streets with a vise-like grip on their slum-bound inhabitants. While Gerard of MOON IN THE GUTTER may attempt, albeit briefly, to escape the gutter and the memories of his sister’s suicide, the main character of SAVAGE STREET, Chet (Bernard Giraudeau), simply wants to be left alone. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” is his Rick Blaine-like philosophy. He works hard to be noncommittal, promising to never get involved in the problems of others. However, one night he finally heeds the cries of an innocent girl who has just been raped.
In this crime-riddled world, Chet makes himself a target of Hagen (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the slimy underworld boss that victimized the girl. It was also Hagen and his gang of lowlifes who used to sexually abuse Edie (Corinne Dacla), Chet’s wife. To say that Edie is unbalanced is an understatement. She fits right in with Chet’s off-kilter family. His sister-in-law who appears to be bedding both her husband, Rocky (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), and Rocky’s father (Michel Auclair). Rather than love, Chet feels obligated to Edie, playing the role of her protector. The real object of his affection (though he won’t admit it), Manu (Christine Boisson), works at the factory club that doubles as Hagen’s base of operations.
Chet hopes to keep the peace. “I got no intention to butt into anyone’s business,” he says. When he doesn’t react to Hagen’s gruesome description of how he raped the young girl Chet helped, Hagen beats him to a pulp. Chet takes the beating, begging Hagen for mercy. Yes, it takes quite a lot to get Chet’s goat. It isn’t until Hagen sends his knife-wielding lackey to knock him off that Chet finally gets mad enough to take Hagen down.
Despite the glossy neon-lit sets, Chet’s blow-dried hair, terrible synthesizer score, and cheesy kickboxing finale, SAVAGE STREET is actually a fairly faithful Eighties rendition of Goodis’s eighth novel. Adapted by director Gilles Béhat and Jean Herman, the film was released to DVD in France in 2006. It’s also available as a muddily English-dubbed (and Spanish subtitled) bootleg from Video Search of Miami under the name “CRUEL AVENUE.”
DESCENT INTO HELL / DESCENT AUX ENFERS (Francis Girod, France, 1986) / The Wounded & The Slain (Gold Medal, 1955)
One of the more faithful adaptations of Goodis’ work—in spirit if not in exactness—this French film has estranged couple Alan and Lola Colbert (Claude Brasseur and Sophie Marceau) on vacation in Haiti, hoping to escape their domestic strife. Stunningly beautiful but completely untouchable, Lola has been rendered frigid by the past that haunts her. Needless to say, this has put a considerable strain on their marriage and on Alan, who tries to drink his troubles away.
Distraught at seeing his bride flirting with another man (Hippolyte Giradot), Alan goes on a bender outside of the safety of his resort walls. Heading to the rougher area of Port-au-Prince, he finds nothing but trouble. When he’s attacked for his thick wallet, Alan accidentally kills a man in self-defense. Just when it looks like he’ll get away with it, he and Lola are approached by two blackmailers who have evidence of the event in their possession.
From here, things get even more complicated with innocent patsies, corrupt police officials, and double-crosses. Eventually, our couple (the wounded) is redeemed via the murder (the slain).
The tenth adaptation of Goodis’s fourteenth novel, DESCENT INTO HELL cleverly makes the main character a writer to provide narration through his writing. Screenwriter Jean-Loup Dabadie also did well to move Lola’s sexually scarring incident from her childhood to her teens/twenties and to create a second blackmailer character. We see much more of Lola’s character in the film, nearly making her equal to Alan. We also certainly see a lot of Sophie Marceau playing Lola, as the actress spends the majority of her screen time in the nude.
STREET OF NO RETURN (Samuel Fuller, France, 1989) / Street of No Return (Gold Medal, 1954)
The pairing of Samuel Fuller and David Goodis—two American outsiders who found their appreciation in Europe—had its roots prior to Fuller’s swan song. Fuller had met Goodis years before and they discussed the race riots in New York that Fuller had covered during his days as a journalist. A similar set of riots becomes the backdrop against which Goodis’s thirteenth novel is played. An effective precursor to Down There, Street of No Return begins with three drunks arguing about getting another bottle of booze on Philadelphia’s skid row. When one of them, the quiet Whitey, goes off on his own, his pals assume he’s off to get them some grog. Rather, Whitey embarks on a wild night where he’s accused of murdering a cop, sees his lost love, and unravels a plot involving guns, Puerto Ricans, and a criminal mastermind named Sharkey. At the end of the night, Whitey comes back to Skid Row to rejoin the ranks and fade back into obscurity.
Adapted by Fuller and Jacques Bral, STREET OF NO RETURN shares the same neon-drenched aesthetic of SAVAGE STREET and MOON IN THE GUTTER. Here Keith Carradine stars as Michael (the Whitey character) in a dingy fright wig that makes him look like a more disheveled version of Fuller. Michael/Whitey is one of Goodis’s “fall from grace” characters. He gained his fame via his golden voice. When he fell hard for Celia (Valentina Vargas), he was asked politely to leave her alone by her possessive beau, Eddie/Sharkey (Marc de Jonge). When Michael didn’t back off, he was asked more persuasively by Eddie’s pals Bertha (Rebecca Potok) and Meathead (Antonio Rosario). They cut his vocal cords, ending his career. He became a shell of a man; a burnt-out, desolate man. We get several flashbacks of Michael playing guitar and singing cheesy rock ballads that contrast his current state with his strained, almost comical, voice.
The Puerto Ricans of Street of No Return have been changed to African-Americans, and Eddie’s plot seems much more tenuous here as the city politics on which he plays don’t seem as heated. While Bill Duke gives a terrific performance as the frazzled Lieutenant Borel, the competition between and possible corruption of his underlings isn’t at the fore, as it is in Goodis’s book. The other damaging change to the Goodis work is the tacked-on happy ending.
GOODIS ON TVStudio One “Nightfall” (1951)
Far more faithful in tone and plot to the Goodis book than the Jacques Tourneur film version, this hour-long drama perfectly portrays the summer heat and paranoia of Nightfall. Sponsored by escalator manufacturer Westinghouse, this “Summer Theater” presentation was penned by Max Erlich and directed by John Peyser. Our hero, Vanning, is played by John McQuade. His moody performance comes across as appropriate for a guy on the lam. His gal, Martha (Margaret Hayes), isn’t an unquestioning dope but, rather, proves to be a spitfire. These two characters really take center stage, though Herbert Rudley holds his own as police Lieutenant Fraser.
The flashback of Vanning in Colorado is forgone in order to keep the story in the present-day New York. This also eliminates the rather bizarre way in which Vanning committed his accidental murder and downplays the subsequent loss of the bank loot, which the menacing John (Norman Keats) hopes to regain. While the pace may be brusque, this three-act drama elegantly captures the essence of Goodis’s original tale.
Bourbon Street Beat “False Identity” (1960)
New Orleans shamus Cal Calhoun (Andrew Duggan) is hired by Alice Nichols (Irene Harvey) to investigate the disappearance of her husband, John (Tol Avery), a local shipping magnate. When Calhoun puts in a call to his policeman pal Sgt. Paul Ballard (Robert Colbert), he learns that the body of John Nichols was discovered just that morning. Or was it?
Adapted by W. Hermanos, this episode of the Warner Brothers-produced private eye show, “False Identity,” is based on Of Missing Persons. As with Goodis’s book, John Nichols has faked his own death. He returns from the dead to scare his wife into a heart attack and sell his portion of his business to his partner with the hopes of running away with his attractive secretary, Jane Landis (Lisa Gaye). She rejects the thickly bespectacled murderer but he doesn’t take no for an answer. When he tries to abduct her, Calhoun’s partner, Rex Randolph (Richard Long)—a regular Deus Rex Machina—comes to the rescue.
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour “An Out for Oscar” (1963)
Based on a story by Henry Kane, Goodis penned the teleplay for this “Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” Starring Larry Storch as the titular Oscar Blenny, our protagonist is a hapless banker who meets a beautiful dame, Eva Ashley (Linda Christian), at a resort casino. Oscar thinks he’s her knight in shining armor, when he’s actually a dope that becomes this treacherous dame’s next mark. After helping Eva beat a murder rap through his earnest naïveté, Oscar thinks he’s hit the jackpot when Eva requites his affection.
While Oscar makes his way up in the bank, Eva spends her days drinking. On the eve of his greatest triumph (a promotion to credit manager!), Eva’s old flame and grifting partner, Bill Grant (Henry Silva), comes to call. Rather than be cuckolded, Oscar demands a divorce. Eva will grant his request in exchange for fifty grand. Here begins a series of double crosses, a bank heist, and the eternal fall guy coming out on top.
With its shrewish female lead and eventual crime narrative, “An Out for Oscar” is closer to typical pulp noir than anything else in Goodis’s oeuvre. This undoubtedly stems from the script’s roots in Kane’s tawdry tale. This episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” is neck-deep in familiar television faces with everyone from Larry Tate of “Bewitched” (David White) to Alfred Moneypenny from “Batman” (Alan Napier) appearing beside F-Troop’s bumbling Cpl. Randolph Agarn (Storch).
The Edge “The Professional Man” (1989)
Adapted and directed by Nicholas Kazan, this episode of the HBO series “The Professional Man” stars Christian Slater as a hitman-for-hire known only as “Kid.” Bridget Fonda plays his strip joint waitress squeeze. When the big cheese, Paul (Dann Florek), tells him to lay off, he does—no questions asked. Slater’s character knows that he doesn’t deserve the love of anyone. He denies himself love and, when his gal rejects Paul, Kid’s given the choice of either turning her heart or killing her. Kid chooses a third option.
Kid kills his victims intimately; he chokes them. “The strongest part of the body human body is the thumb,” he says. He can crush a windpipe with his thumbs in less then eight seconds. Rather than rob the world of his lovely girl, he turns his powerful thumbs on himself. While many Goodis characters toy with the idea of suicide or simply choose to live in a hell they helped make, Kid redeems himself through his own death.
Slater plays his role with a quiet restraint unfamiliar to his other roles at the time (he’d be Jack Nicholsoning it up in HEATHERS and PUMP UP THE VOLUME shortly), while Florek gives one of the most balls-out performances of his career. The most awkward part of “The Edge” is Barry Sattels as “The Watcher,” a kind of overdramatic “Crypt Keeper” for the episodes of this short-lived series.
Fallen Angels “The Professional Man” (1993)
Elevator operator by day, assassin by night. Brendan Fraser plays Johnny, the titular “professional man” who never misses. Adapted by Howard A. Rodman for the “Fallen Angels” Showtime series and directed by Steven Soderbergh, “The Professional Man” is a taut half-hour drama that beautifully builds its story through well-paced revelations. The story sticks close to Goodis’s original short piece, with the interesting exception that the love interest, Pearl, has been changed to Paul (Bruce Ramsay).
This clever twist of exploring the Lavender Underworld turns a fine episode into a remarkable one. The original Goodis story line of Johnny’s boss falling for his squeeze and, when his love isn’t returned, ordering Johnny to kill his former flame takes on an entirely new level of complexity in the moon-drenched Los Angeles of the ‘50s.
Unbeknownst to each other, two major cable networks boasted adaptations of the same Goodis short story within four years. Later, Nicholas Kazan and Howard A. Rodman would learn that they had both adapted the same work for HBO and Showtime. A comparison of the two half-hour episodes provides a fascinating study of the creative process and how the same material can be adapted into such widely varying end results. The differences far outweigh the similarities, but the few intersections (white gloves, walks in the park, “CSI: Special Victims Unit” cast members) are fascinating.