IN THE FRAME, by Vince Keenan
In a long and storied career, Donald E. Westlake has won numerous awards, been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and received an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. In the most recent tribute to his skill and output, Westlake had six books a combination of reissues, collections, and new material released in the span of eighteen months. Not bad for a writer who’s been at this racket for 45 years. (His early days penning *ahem* adult reading matter are briefly chronicled in Feral House’s Sin-a-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties, also published during the same year and a half.)
God Save the Mark, Westlake’s 1967 Edgar award winner, is subtitled “A Novel of Crime and Confusion.” About what you’d expect from a man whose website greets visitors with the sentiment, “I believe my subject is bewilderment. But I could be wrong.” The new edition of this comic thriller (January 2004, hardcover, Forge Books) shows the author’s early mastery of a difficult form. Fred Fitch is a con man’s dream, a pigeon guaranteed to fall for any hustle. He already owns “miles of tickets to nonexistent raffles and ball games and dances and clambakes and shivarees.” Fred’s fortunes change in a hurry when he learns the following:
1. His late uncle Matthew Grierson has left him three hundred thousand dollars.
2. Dear Uncle Matthew was actually the legendary grifter Matt ‘Short Sheet’ Gray.
3. ‘Short Sheet’ was murdered.
Fred is soon the target of every swindler on the East Coast, with the possible inclusion of his uncle’s ‘old friend,’ Gertie Divine, The Body Secular. The book features a typical Westlake assortment of daft characters, anchored by one of his most appealing heroes and plenty of the author’s trademark dry wit. (“‘I had some trouble,’ I said for the millionth time, thereby managing the difficult feat of overstating an understatement.”)
Westlake also works the darker side of the street. Consider his 1962 novel 361, reprinted in paperback by pulp specialists Hard Case Crime in May 2005. Ray Kelly musters out of the army and meets his father, a small-town lawyer, in New York City. Gunmen ambush them on the way home, killing Ray’s father. Ray is determined to learn who attacked them and why, even if it means unearthing unpleasant truths about his family. 361 is lean and mean, seasoned with language both sly (an office is described as “one of those set-ups where a number of unsuccessful professional men get together to share the rent and the receptionist and the futility”) and hardboiled (“You got the feeling the bar wasn’t dark at all really, you were just slowly going blind.”)
As Richard Stark, Westlake has written a long-running series about the icy professional thief known primarily as Parker. In Nobody Runs Forever (November 2004, hardcover, Mysterious Press), Parker targets a bank made vulnerable by a merger. What should be a simple job naturally proves far more complicated, involving Parker with a tangled thicket of characters harboring their own motives. One criticism leveled at this installment is that the Parker of old would have walked away from a caper this compromised. But as the title implies, Westlake’s thief is feeling intimations of his own mortality. He knows he only has so many more years to feel “that sense that, just for a little while, you were living your life in italics.”
Parker’s polar opposite is perhaps Westlake’s most enduring creation. Sad sack John Dortmunder has the cunning of a criminal mastermind and the fatalism of a man who knows that the universe will always find a way to gum up the works. In The Road to Ruin (April 2004, hardcover, Mysterious Press), Dortmunder and his merry band decide to perform the public service of relieving the head of an Enron-style company of his antique car collection. The plan: to go undercover as domestics, with Dortmunder preparing to be the man’s butler by watching RUGGLES OF RED GAP and THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. What he can’t foresee is that his new boss has a host of enemies ranging from disgruntled union members to fleeced venture capitalists, and that if he wants to get a cut of the man’s remaining wealth he’ll have to wait in line.
There are laughs throughout, but ultimately Road runs out of gas. The notion of this motley crew overseeing an upper-crust household is a potent comic idea that isn’t fully exploited.
Watch Your Back! (April 2005, hardcover, Mysterious Press) followed, in spite of Westlake’s “mighty vow ... (to) never write two Dortmunder novels in a row.” He called this “the only story he could think about,” and it’s easy to see why; it gives him the opportunity to address his character’s growing fussiness head-on. An easy score falls into Dortmunder’s lap courtesy of socially-challenged fence Arnie Albright. All he has to do is knock over the empty apartment of businessman Preston Fareweather, currently hiding from his ex-wives in the Caribbean. But Dortmunder can’t concentrate because the O.J. Bar & Grill, where he does his best scheming, has been taken over by low-level New Jersey mobsters. While Dortmunder is busy freeing his hangout from the grip of these farm team wiseguys, Fareweather’s life grows increasingly complicated, putting the two men on a collision course. Dortmunder brings his woes on himself this time out, which isn’t as funny as watching fate deal him a bum hand. But the rich supporting cast delivers.
Thieves’ Dozen (April 2004, paperback, Mysterious Press) collects eleven Dortmunder short stories, so the jokes start with the title. And there’s not a dud in the bunch. The best of the lot is “Too Many Crooks,” which won the Edgar in 1990. The last entry, “Fugue for Felons,” is a fascinating exercise. Several years ago, Westlake feared he would lose the rights to Dortmunder’s name to unscrupulous Hollywood types, who can even rob a professional thief blind. The author’s solution was to give him an alias. But changing the name also changed the character, and the result both is and isn’t a Dortmunder story. It’s also hilarious.
The idea of a 20th Century Fox film noir collection is something of a misnomer. The studio’s house style for crime dramas of the 1940s and ’50s was the semi-documentary look employed by director Henry Hathaway on the wartime espionage film THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET. The approach has more in common with newsreels and Italian neo-realist films of the era than traditional noir. And many Fox titles are procedurals in which the forces of good triumph, putting them at odds with the genre’s typical story.
Hathaway was again behind the camera on 1948’s engrossing CALL NORTHSIDE 777, another fictionalization of real events like 92ND STREET. Chicago newspaperman James Stewart is assigned to write about a mother certain that her son (Richard Conte) did not gun down a police officer in a speakeasy 11 years before. What Stewart initially dismisses as a human interest story balloons into a quest for justice.
The hallmarks of the style Hathaway pioneered are in evidence here: striking use of the actual locations and individuals involved, the obsession with technology. The director combines the two during an extended sequence in which Conte’s polygraph test is administered by the inventor of the machine. Stewart registers strongly as the cynical reporter who starts out explaining angles instead of asking questions, only to become an unlikely crusader. It’s a pivotal role for the actor, beginning the transformation of his aw-shucks persona of the ’40s into the haunted figure of VERTIGO and Anthony Mann westerns. Kazia Orzazewski also shines as Conte’s mother.
In spite of the film’s documentary trappings, certain liberties were taken with the truth. The commentary track by Film Noir Reader editors James Ursini and Alain Silver ably fills in the gaps. The two men point out information that the filmmakers omitted (the fate of the Conte character’s alleged accomplice), changed (the editor played by Lee J. Cobb was actually a woman), or fabricated (the entire ending sequence involving the transmission of a photograph via wire service). It’s also worth noting that these experts seem unsure of NORTHSIDE’s place in the genre, calling it a “noirish thing.”
Elia Kazan deploys Fox’s quasi-realistic style with greater artistry in PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950). The Oscar-winning original story by Edward and Edna Anhalt tracks Navy doctor/public health specialist Richard Widmark as he cuts a swath through the New Orleans underworld hunting for two thugs (Zero Mostel and Jack Palance, then billed as Walter) who don’t know they’ve been exposed to pneumonic plague.
From the opening railyard ambush, which is a string of great nightmarish images, to the taut climax in a waterfront coffee warehouse, Kazan maximizes the effectiveness of the Louisiana locations. He grounds every aspect of the story in reality, showing coroners making lunch plans before they slice into a body, devoting a good deal of screen time to an ongoing domestic squabble between Widmark and wife Barbara Bel Geddes. Putting such sharply observed characters at the center of the story ratchets up the tension considerably. It makes for a marked contrast with OUTBREAK, 1995’s big-budget take on similar material.
Ursini and Silver are pressed into commentary service on this disc as well, and again tackle the question of how the film fits into the noir genre. They cite it as a key title in the transition from the 1940s variant, which was about personal greed, to the ‘50s school, with its emphasis on larger social issues. Any Kazan film will be viewed through the prism of politics because of his history with the blacklist; Ursini and Silver deftly explore the subject, discussing how noir’s recurring theme of the individual crushed by the system is inherently leftist. They also underscore how critical the film was to Kazan’s career, showing his growth from director of actors to director of movies. Personally, I don’t buy Silver’s contention that Mostel and Palance give “uncontrolled performances” in THE PRODUCERS and CITY SLICKERS, respectively, but to each his own.
There are no documentary flourishes to be found in 1944’s LAURA, the best-known film in the Fox collection. Otto Preminger’s lush, dreamlike style created one of the most mesmerizing motion pictures ever made.
The idea at the heart of Vera Caspary’s novel a detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he’s investigating may be the ultimate expression of noir’s tortured romanticism, complete with plot twist that still shocks those of us who have seen the film many times. The adaptation bristles with memorable dialogue and characters: Dana Andrews’ Lieutenant McPherson, exploiting class differences and playing up his supposed thickheadedness like a prototype of Detective Columbo. Vincent Price as a suave Southern lothario. Clifton Webb in the role that would define him, columnist and bon vivant Waldo Lydecker, who writes “with a goose quill dipped in venom.” And, of course, Gene Tierney as the title character bewitching them all.
Preminger’s feel for high society gives LAURA much of its power. (Contrast his work here with another noir collaboration with actor Andrews, the following year’s FALLEN ANGEL. That film veers close to James M. Cain territory with its tale of drifters and desperate waitresses. Preminger is at sea when it comes to depicting their reckless passion. Refinement allows him to plumb the depths of his characters.) The director is aided enormously by Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography and David Raksin’s legendary score. The cumulative effect is so intoxicating that you’re willing to overlook McPherson’s shoddy police work.
Fox lavished most of the collection’s extras on this disc. Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides a definitive commentary that even quotes from Daryl Zanuck’s private notes. Behlmer describes the process of adapting Caspary’s novel for both stage and screen and recounts the battles between Preminger and the film’s original director Rouben Mamoulian. He also lists the other productions of the story, including a 1968 ABC TV special scripted by Truman Capote and starring George Sanders as Waldo. Would that it were available here.
A second track features historian Jeanine Basinger and composer David Raksin, each recorded separately. Raksin’s comments focus on the music and offer the possibility of a LAURA scored not to his famous theme but to Duke Ellington’s ‘Sophisticated Lady.’
Episodes of the A&E series Biography on Price and Tierney are also included. The final extra is a deleted scene that shows Waldo’s Pygmalion-like efforts to remake Laura in greater detail. It was cut from the movie for its display of decadence on the home front during wartime. It’s also somewhat obvious, so I don’t regard its absence as a great loss. The DVD offers the option of watching the film with the scene properly integrated, but the version that has haunted audiences for more than sixty years works beautifully as it is.
YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. stevelewis62 (at) cox.net
Copyright © 2005 by Steve Lewis. All rights reserved to contributors. Return to the Main Page.