Reading for the Movies
Revisions 1: Reading for the movies: A. I. Bezzerides
by Ray Olson
It’s my habit, ever since reviewing movies in the Sixties for the Minnesota Daily, campus paper of the University of Minnesota, to read the book a movie’s based on before I see the movie. Not always, but whenever the book’s or its author’s reputation piques my interest, I give it a try.
A. I. Bezzerides is well-known as the writer of a handful of very good films noir. The screenplay of Kiss Me Deadly is his, based on one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer mysteries and, says James O. Tate in the January 2014 Chronicles, “quite possibly the greatest of all films noir.” (I dunno. Haven’t seen it—yet.) Bezzerides’s entrée to the movies—and a 30-year career—was a novel, Long Haul (1938). Warner Brothers offered him a seven-year contract, “out of guilt or conscience,” the author speculated, since the script for the movie based on it, They Drive by Night (1940), was already written.
Long Haul is about two brothers, independent truckers in pre-Teamsters California, hauling produce as fast as possible to big-city markets, where any ruse wholesalers—who found them the loads to haul as well as paid them on delivery—used to gyp them was winked at by paid-off police. In the course of a couple of hectic, safety-flouting runs between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the younger brother takes up with a pretty hitchhiker, and an accident seriously injures the older, married brother and wrecks their truck. The younger brother struggles to get back on the road. When the story ends, it ends.
Neither a mystery nor even a crime novel, Long Haul has to be the hardest-boiled novel I’ve ever read, so clipped in diction and tight-lipped in dialogue that it makes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler seem garrulous sob sisters in comparison and shows up, before their time, the roman-noir likes of Jim Thompson and David Goodis as hysterics. Bezzerides is intent on not allowing his characters to speak or think more literately or reflectively than their working-class backgrounds and associations warrant; so doing, he gives his prose a kind of meager, through-a-glass-darkly poetry.
Unfortunately, Bezzerides’s verbal economy encouraged Warner Brothers to think there wasn’t enough in it to make a movie. So they sutured the plot of an overwrought Bette Davis vehicle, Bordertown (1935), to Bezzerides’s story, injecting a psychotic floozy into the younger brother’s life and concluding with a murder trial. Melodrama comes little cheesier than this, but what in the film is traceable to Long Haul is gripping and superbly realized by that consummate old pro, director Raoul Walsh, then on the brink of his personal annus mirabilis, 1941, when he’d put out three genuine Hollywood classics: High Sierra, Strawberry Blonde, and They Died with Their Boots On.
A decade later, almost the same thing happened to Bezzerides all over again. At least, he got to write the screenplay, though he disowned the ending of the film as released. His novel this time was Thieves’ Market (1949), in major aspects—independent trucking, crooked produce wholesalers, the SF-to-LA run—a reprise of Long Haul. Gone are the married brother and the hitchhiker love interest, the younger trucker is now lower-middle-class and a veteran, and the wholesaler villain earlier drove the hero’s father out of business. Though as well directed, by Jules Dassin, as They Drive by Night and better acted, Thieves’ Highway (1949), as the movie’s called, betrays Bezzerides’s ending by giving the bad guy his comeuppance.
Truth be told, Thieves’ Market isn’t as good as Long Haul. Its prose is more that of standard magazine fiction of its time, with plenty of clarifying description and, given a more educated protagonist, more articulate speech. It’s okay but hardly as absorbing and stark as Long Haul. Yet it still shares a virtue that an Internet commenter noticed in Bezzerides’s only other novel, There Is a Happy Land (1942), which is about migrant workers: “It seems that the author must be making a political point, but it is not clear what the point is.” Though unquestionably leftist, Bezzerides steered clear of propaganda and socialist realism, even more than his celebrated California confrere, John Steinbeck.
Bezzerides’s novels haven’t been reprinted in a long time and are ferociously overpriced by online sellers. Try to find Long Haul in a big, old public or university library. Read Thieves’ Highway if Long Haul piques your interest, and let me know if you find There Is a Happy Land to lend.
Bezzerides’s possibly next-best movie (to Kiss Me Deadly) is On Dangerous Ground (1951), outstandingly directed by Nicholas Ray, a god to the critics who became directors of the French New Wave (“cinema is Nicholas Ray”— Jean-Luc Godard). Relocated to California from the England of its source novel, Gerald Butler’s absorbing low-key thriller, Mad with Much Heart (1946), the movie’s about a nearly burnt-out, angry homicide detective assigned out of the city to find the killer of a young girl—a search in which he is joined, against his will, by the child’s raging father. There’s more to it, but its great distinctions are Robert Ryan as the cop, Ward Bond as the father, unimpeachable cinematography, and an excellent, close-fitting score by Bernard Herrmann.
One more thing. Bezzerides made one very noteworthy friend in Hollywood: William Faulkner.
Ray, pace Jim Tate, Kiss Me Deadly could have been called Kiss Me Stupid. I love the film and have seen it twice, but, then, I like Cheetos with my Martinis and watch Gene Autry films–to say nothing of the immortal Hopalong Cassidy. I am going to read Bezzerides. I don’t like Jim Thompson for the reason I have told you: His infatuation with gratuitous evil is as naive as Horatio Alger. Really hard-boiled writers like Hammet (not so much Chandler) and Edward Anderson take a look at the world that is cold, hard, and one that lets the events do the talking, while Thompson and even the much better Mickey Spillane idealize violence and evil. I don’t know if it was in conversation or in one of your film blogs, but we have talked about Sterling Hayden in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. We both–you more than I–have some reservations about Huston, but among this film’s many strong qualities is Hayden’s character and performance. He is a brave man and not without honor, despite being a criminal, and his end is almost tragic.
Tom–Didn’t Billy Wilder (whose films I usually despise) make a movie called Kiss Me Stupid? At any rate, I admit to liking Jim Thompson, though to laugh at more than to be thrilled by (in this he resembles, perhaps for me alone, Norman Mailer, whom I can’t take even slightly seriously). His tales are roman noir pushed to the extreme of thoroughly falsifying the world for the sake of amusement or to vent frustration. As I said, he’s a hysteric compared to Bezzerides, or Hammett, for that matter. He’s also a genuine hack.
While I’m not as enthusiastic about John Huston or, to get to the present case, The Asphalt Jungle, I grant wholeheartedly that it is a very beautiful movie. Like John Ford, Huston could always fall back on his painterly eye when he had inferior material to work with (which wasn’t as often the case for him as for Ford). Not that he did in The Asphalt Jungle, the chief defects of which are the poor casting of Sam Jaffe as Doc Reidenschneider and sets and costumes that sometimes look too upscale and Hollywoodish. Even the lighting annoys me at times; it’s too full for the ambience of a crime flick. Sterling Hayden’s Dix Handley is the center of the film, though he often seems tangential–a canny aspect the novel and screenplay share. Hayden’s terrific–a dumb, unreflective variation on Roy “Mad Dog” Earle in High Sierra–though Hayden could have played that role well, too, I think. Hayden’s best that I’ve seen is Detective Lt. Sims of the LAPD in Crime Wave, in which he equals Robert Ryan’s cop in On Dangerous Ground as a man about to “go nuclear”, as later twentieth-century slang would have it.
That’s Kiss Me, Stupid with Dean Martin. Note the comma that changes everything. I hate Billy Wilder, a genuinely malevolent and immoral director. On the other hand, he had learned to imitate masters like Lubitsch and Sturgess. Some like it Hot , while not up to its model (The Palm Beach Story) is very funny, and I still have not recovered from my first viewing, so many decades ago, of Sunset Boulevard.
I agree that Jim Thompson is head-and-shoulders above Norman Mailer, who always wanted to be a tough Mick instead of what he was. In college, apparently, he affected an Irish accent, as he does in one of his films–Beyond the Law? I once saw him on television, sucking up to Mickey Spillane. On and on he droned, praising the master, while the bullet-headed crew-cut Mick just stared in disbelief. Norman waited for some reply to his effusion, until Mick delivered his line: “Nawman, why don’t you get a hair cut?” Why not, indeed?
One of the first pieces of writing I got paid for was a review of The Executioner’s Song for the Columbia State newspaper. After ripping the book to pieces as a piece of worthless trash, I said it did hold promise that some day perhaps Mailer would learn to write narrative fiction, an art that had so far eluded him. As it happened, the editor was in New York the next week and at a party of journalists and litsy types, where several people told him how furious Mailer was with this hostile review written by a nobody.