. . . Hawks

. . .

Hawks's "catlike" is the exact adjective for John Wayne: lazy, single-minded, self-satisfied, graceful, violent, antisexual, and usually silent, except for a weird high yowl of protest that's almost always emitted as part of a mating ritual.

. . .

Alice Waters's daughter -- what was her name? The one with the wart on her?: More than any other director, Howard Hawks recognized that the art of the talking moving picture doesn't depend on still-photography's visuals or on theater's words, but on the inherent musical structure of moving talking pictures: the patterns of pacing and tone, of rhythm....

At least, that's what I always say. I always just say it, 'cause talk is cheap and research is expensive.

So let's all be grateful to Lea Jacobs, who went ahead and did the research. Since Hawks's films are voice-driven, she realized that she could use words-per-second as a fairly decent measurement of tempo. And by focusing on His Girl Friday, she obtained a perfect compare-and-contrast stooge in Lewis Milestone's original film version of The Front Page. With semi-solid numbers and a control case to back her up, Jacobs is able to go to town without making a pompous ass of herself, bringing in such non-verbal rhythmical elements as gestural density and character movement, and making occasional references to other Hawks masterpieces (e.g., To Have and Have Not's big lust dialog saunters at 1.6 wps; the immediately following scene breaks the mood at 3.8 wps).

As expected, His Girl Friday is faster than its predecessor: in a sample sequence of twelve scenes, Hawks conducts nine of them at 4-or-more wps, Milestone only two of them. But of more interest is Jacobs's structural analysis: Hawks not only uses more fast tempos, he modulates between tempos more organically, over greater length, and to greater dramatic point. Molly Malone's suicide attempt is devastating in Hawks's film, stagey in The Front Page, but, as Jacobs points out, it's more clearly motivated by the latter's script. Hawks motivates it structurally instead, by steadily ratcheting tempo and dynamics up to "intolerable" levels; he then punches the shock home by only allowing the briefest of pauses before bringing those levels back again (an old Beethoven trick...) and plunging us into the out-of-control world of the movie's final stretch.

(If you're a computer professional, you can probably afford Northern Light's fee for viewing the article. If you're in a university, you might already have access to the periodical Style for Fall, 1998 -- I know it sounds like some kind of Vogue rip-off, but it's not. Otherwise, if you know Lea Jacobs, maybe she'll let you see her copy.)

Update, Feb. 2015: Now there's a book!

. . .

My fellow movie loons should do their utmost to preserve Turner Classic Movies' upcoming broadcasts of Howard Hawks's The Big Sky. Which is to say, Howard Hawks's The Big Sky. Here's how Hawks told the story:

It opened in Chicago at a very good theater and was doing fabulous business. They asked me to fly back there and we looked out the hotel window to the theater and there were lines that went clear around the corner and down the street. They said, "We wanted you to see this because if you'll take twenty minutes out of it, we can get another show in." And I said, "You take twenty minutes out and I don't think you'll have a show. You can't do it and have the same picture." But they had the right to cut it and they did. Within a week, those lines dropped to nothing. The picture did, too.... The scenes that made the relationships good were gone, so all of a sudden you were hit with this strange relationship and you didn't know where it came from.
As befitted his producer-director position, Hawks tended to be a bit of a blame-passer, so I had my private doubts about just how much he could have overcome the central miscasting of Kirk Douglas, always more convincing as slinking creep than as virile life-force. But that was before, without any fanfare whatsoever, TCM's wonderful researchers found a copy of Hawks's original cut and used it to add 17 minutes to the film.

Non-fellow-movie-loons should be aware that this isn't so much a restoration as it is a series of insertions: the footage from the rare print is in noticeably unpristine shape, and it repeats some voice-over narration that was re-recorded for the trimmed version. But Hawks was a master of rhythm, and with the original rhythm of the storytelling back in place, the movie is transformed. What was a muddled collection of wannabe-big scenes is now an organically structured oral history shading into folktale. What was an artificially inserted romance turns real and necessary. And the laughably tough heroes gain vulnerable Hawksian flesh: now it seems to take months for these guys to heal.

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

Kyra Schon Bosco We're doing everything possible. Movie Comment: Night of the Living Dead

"But if in either period brain tentacles had come out of Ludwig's ears and started waving about, it would have been even better." -- UFO Breakfast
Even more than most mad scientist movies, David Cronenberg's dedicate themselves to a Nietszchean critique of ego: The will never swaggers more than when in the grip of compulsion, and consciousness feels feeblest precisely when it has most freedom of choice. Thus an admirably honest way to make a plot seem driven by "character development" is to let physical metamorphosis take over the actual steering.

But self-loathing remains a form of self-obsession, and more often than not remains a form of self-aggrandizement; Cronenberg's heroes seem awfully close to the wannabe-macho breast-beaters of mainstream indie film, even if they're more likely to crack ribs and break skin doing it. Nietzsche never successfully became Beaumarchais.

And so I often find myself instead turning for relief to less egocentric misanthropy, whether it be the lowbrow slapstick of Herschell Gordon Lewis or the political savvy of George Romero's more sophisticated social comedy.

As much as I like Dawn and Day of the Dead, their nostalgia for a Howard-Hawks-style camaraderie of competence sweetens the medicine a bit -- although, true, opposing camaraderies always seem ready to spring up in the interest of mutual annihilation. As much as I respect The Crazies, its ambition and budget clash a bit too noticeably -- although, true, now is probably a very good time to revisit its weave of biochemical weaponry, governmental incompetence, and mass panic. OK, never mind; the "although"s win.

But the point I was going after is that Night of the Living Dead is still about as bracing a pleasure as the terminal ironist can find. In a genuinely novel emergency, all human connections and reactions seem tailor-made for maximal entanglement. Love (familial, romantic, or purely neighborly) betrays, hate betrays, rigidity betrays, compromise betrays, and even Hawksian competence reduces to newsprint images of lynching parties and genocides. No one can think things out without immediately becoming slaves to their own analysis ("It's important to be right, isn't it?"); no plans can begin without a power struggle and no plans can be carried through without disastrous improvisation.

Despite the lapses in acting and pacing, Romero's decision to leave the script unchanged after Duane Jones's casting makes the movie far more time-resistent than, say, Shadows. And the next-to-final irony -- that the brave leader is wrong and the snivelling villain is right -- not that it really makes a difference, given the final one -- is not only satisfying in itself but a continuing source of new satisfactions in the form of viewers who miss the point and thus help prove it all over again.

. . .

Whether theoretically justified or not, when she purveys a back-o'-the-thick-hornrimmed-specs view of 80 Flowers, Leggott follows the author's lead. The nearest Zukofsky came to a public statement about the book was in a 1975 recorded discussion with Hugh Kenner. After reading "#22 Bayberry," the first words out his mouth are:

The source of this is...
And it doesn't take long for the author's own source-digging to strike apparent absurdity.
"Durant," and that's where Dante comes in.... The name Dante: do you know what that means? ... It's still used today: it's deer-skin. And it's enduring. It presumably holds. So it's "durant leaf."
Let's imagine -- or even embody -- a close or expert reader facing the following lines:

Candleberry bayberry spice resinwax green
durant leaf moor in key
dour attested deer-wit winds survive

Even if we intuited a proper name in "durant leaf," wouldn't we hit Jimmy before Alighieri?

Given Zukofsky's lack of interest in biography, the focus on process is surprising. Maybe his assumption is that there's no reason to point out the details of the craft, it resting right there on the surface free for Kenner's taking? We are talking about someone whose most manifestive critical work was an anthology. Maybe he's not really talking professionally, even if he's not talking all that personally either. (Another quote from the tape: "My original source, that's a private matter.") Maybe he's just providing a professional friend with professional gossip.

So! All right, this is how Zukofsky amuses himself. They say, they ask me, do I amuse myself? God, no, I...! But when it's done, well, then, it's -- at least it's out of the way, damn it.
It's always a shock to find a bone-familiar sensation described by someone you admire, isn't it? "Out of the way" -- yeah. The only good reason I know for writing is to get the annoying jingle-jangle-jingle of the spurs down and out of my head so I can stop being bugged by them. I guess there aren't many other reasons for writing if you're not writing for an audience. (And I guess it's appropriate if one then ends up with not much of an audience....) But in these circumstances, it makes me feel like a piker: I haven't written about Zukofsky's poetry myself; I haven't written about most of my favorite things. When I read Zukofsky's poetry, or Karen Joy Fowler's stories, or watch Howard Hawks's movies, nothing bugs me; I'm kind of with Zukofsky in thinking that the pleasure's blatantly there.

Instead, here I write about a book about Zukofsky. Because that's where something bugged me.

. . .

Cast a cold eye

A reader writes:

Now let's talk about Gregg Toland

OK, let's. You go first.

Me, I got nothin', except a couple of topics to research. Maybe you can help?

  1. At the height of his career as a cinematographer, having just finished Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, Toland vanished into wartime work for four years. Then he returned to Hollywood and dropped dead, age 44.

    One artifact of his Navy tour is readily available: a peculiar attempt at propaganda with real good explosions. But I'm curious as to what else went on. Toland was a fast worker, an experimenter, and a control freak. What does a guy like that end up doing in the military?

  2. I wonder whether composition-in-depth can be funny.

    Toland had iffy results himself. He worked, uncredited, on Frank Borzage's sublime History Is Made at Night, but that's not exactly a laff riot. While I have a soft spot for both Come and Get It and Ball of Fire, neither click gracefully into place. It's possible that Edward Arnold was getting tired of his broken-hearty shtick; in Ball of Fire, Hawks bears some blame for flubbing the slapstick finale. But there's something more persistently off, some interference with the Hawksian rhythm.

    Even though claustrophobic clutter seems thematically appropriate to the later movie's sequestered scholars, Toland's style just might not meld with Hawks's gift for portraying social engagement. In a Hawks movie, the world's well sacrificed to the pleasure of two or three human beings noticing each other. In Toland's camera, the world stays with us.

    Maybe for a different type of comedy, though? Robert Altman and Jacques Tati are more detached, and use wider canvases. In the right hands (of a madman!) maybe deep-focus could attain Will Elder levels of disorientation?


The Little Foxes is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Gibson Girls

Between his Naval discharge and his heart attack, Toland shot two films of interest to Renfrew Q. Hobblewort:

(1) Here's a man who came back from the wars, even if he fought them in Hollywood, to work with Walt Disney on "Song of the South", itself a cult film yet oft-neglected by filmistas, I think largely because of the whole Uncle Remus thing, arguments over which will permanently color (ahem, maybe a poor choice of words) the expeerience of watching it. But check out some of these frames.

(Toland visible or not in this production shot?)

It's been a while since I've seen the film (with good reason -- see below about distorted reality nightmares), but my recollection is this is the film where live action and animation had to be combined in greatest detail to date. Toland fans ought not neglect this one.

What my memory finds odd about the look of this movie isn't just the juxtaposition between the animated and live action, the black and white and color, but the sense of being in this otherworldly little box of parallel reality -- the sharp focus but limited horizon of the Uncle Remus soundstage. No wonder this movie gave me nightmares as a kid.

Parenthetically, and I don't want to open a digressive can of worms here, has anybody done a good study of Hollywood's process of learning how to photograph people of differing skin tones?

(2) "Best Years of Our Lives" is one of my favorite movies, and I don't think it's just because it's William Wyler. (Wyler, as I recall, lost his hearing while filming 'Memphis Belle', only partially recovered it, and made the sadsack unemployable bombardier the focus of the war-nightmares part of the movie. But I digress.) For all the rep "Best Years" has as an alternatingly sentimental and realistic (for the time) movie, there's a good part of the storytelling done visually.

"Kane" fans ought to all own a copy of this and take a look at it shot by shot. So hard to say how much of the editing and pacing and so forth came from where, but the framing and shots will be recognizable. Check out the ceilings in the scenes at Butch's; the lingering depth of focus on Hoagy Carmichael's fingers, just lingering in the foreground, while everything else goes on in the rear; the anti-Norman Rockwell composition of the scene with the Dana Andrews character coming home to his hell-hole home on the wrong side of (underneath) the tracks. Check out that pan over the drug store when he finds the best job he can get in the modernized place is as a soda-jerk. The from the floor shot of Fred in his hangover bed, where he wakes up not knowing where he is or who the pretty dame who put him to bed is, and compare it to Susan Alexander's suicide bed. Etcetera.

. . .

Warlock by Edward Dmytryk, 1959

I probably won't collect much hate mail by claiming that the spaghetti Western culminated in Once Upon a Time in the West, with My Name Is Nobody a yodel-lay-ee-hoo echo in the Spanish hills, and Henry Fonda (of all people) central to both. Along with Ennio Morricone's score, Fonda's Frank is what straps Sergio Leone's wobbling tower of set pieces together, even while he contributes to its imbalance: the Good, the Ugly, and the Italian Girl can't possibly hold the screen against Bad Fonda's intensity or shock value.

Fonda had played clean, and Fonda had played brittle. But how had Leone intuited that Fonda could use Lee Van Cleef as a toothpick? For decades, it seemed the most brilliantly foolhardy piece of casting-against-type I knew.

Until the first time I saw Warlock.

Clay Blaisedell thinks it over
"That was his favorite. He had it printed in his head."
- Luciano Vicenzoni on Warlock and Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in Italy

The mannered acting, message-burdened scripts, aging stars, and ever stiffer rhythms of post-WWII Hollywood (reaching sclerotic apotheosis in Peckinpah's crying jags) could be made shapely only by the most forceful directors: Ray's Johnny Guitar, Lang's Rancho Notorious, Mann's Jimmy Stewart series, Hawks's plot-defying Rio Bravo.... Only Budd Boetticher approximated the balanced terseness of Western fiction's prose.

Warlock's an engaging curiosity in the less successful crowd. Its story riffles through the social studies textbook before pseudo-resolving in big grins and choked-back tears. ("Stay away, Shane! Stay far far away!") The great Joe MacDonald's Cinemascope is rewarding but not quite redemptive. Richard Widmark's prematurely wizened deputy pays penance mostly by looking out of place, and his neurosis and Dorothy Malone's ultra-archness clash like fuschia and salmon.

Am I my brother's gun's keeper?

Anthony Quinn plays the "Is he sublimated or do they just remember to close the door?" Sal Mineo / Mr. Smithers role, except more robust, what with being Anthony Quinn. To make sure we know homosexuality's a disease regardless, on top of being a murderer and a misogynist, he's "a cripple" (i.e., he limps). Despite those liabilities, his adored reacts a lot more strongly to his loss than James Dean did....

The Black Rattlesnake of Ft. James

In the Black Rattlesnake's defense, Henry Fonda's Clay Blaisedell is pretty worthy of adoration, since he's what makes the movie more than a case study in compromised ambition. Unlike most reviewers, I even like his love scenes with proper lady Dolores Michaels. It's refreshing to see someone attracted to a transgressor not because he's confused or reformable but just because he's a shortcut to transgression.

Blaisedell defines the exact midpoint on the line I'd been unable to draw from My Darling Clementine to Once Upon a Time in the West. He's closer to the historical Wyatt Earp than John Ford's, but he's still Wyatt Earp: flesh disturbingly relaxed around a ramrod sense of right; the defender of order, if no longer quite law.

That vector shifts him from taking part in a community to taking part in a process. The change benefits his income and wardrobe. It could even be viewed as beneficial to the community. In particularly tangled circumstances, an outsider can define and resolve problems more effectively than those who are part of the tangle. Anyone who's ever worked with a good consultant will recognize Blaisedell's rhetorical use of "of course" and his matter of fact detachment:

"People generally begin to resent me. I don't mind it when it happens. It's part of the job. But it will happen. When that happens, we shall have had full satisfaction from one another."

But even if he provides satisfaction to the town, he doesn't belong to it, and he has only one human contact outside it. With his technocratic pride, his carrion crow hunch, and his near sneers at the weak and noisy, he's not far from Frank: the defender of mere orders and, finally, the sociopathic carrier of an untouchably solipsistic rectitude.

And when Blaisedell kicks the crutch out from under an old man, we've crossed the Leone line.

I won


Rob Carver writes:

Nice tip of the hat to "Warlock", one of my favorite Fonda films, if a bit wordy for a western and all the better for it. Quinn was eerily goofy in that one, and Widmark was so neutered - all the more to make Blaisedell a more troubling figure to me when I first saw it on TV. Even though the straight-jacketing of the Hollywood Western of the time was close to breaking open, Fonda's quiet, assured menace made one hell of an impression on me, well beyond the conventional heroes or villains other HW westerns were presenting. You could almost compare Blaisedell to Ryunosuke in “Sword of Doom”, in the way he has a code and sticks to it, until the sadly soft ending. I always prefer the ambiguous, such as “Yellow Sky”, “Blood on the Moon”, or “One-Eyed Jacks”, to the white hat/black hat setup, as it allows for interpretation rather than the bland pablum with horses and gunfire. This was also one of the first Hollywood westerns I feel that portrayed hetero sexual attraction well, or as well as they felt they could; you’re right about Dolores Michaels looking to transgress – elegantly repressed lust was never done better in a western from that time.

. . .

Reference Work, 2

You read a story and suddenly there's a part that becomes just words because you know nobody ever did it like that, or said it that way but you have to pretend just to find out what happened. What I am describing is like that, too. Everything flattens out and isn't real.
- The Captain, Equinox
My challenge was to not point out how our friendship, or Ian's encouragement of my artistic ambitions, or, for that matter, the laughter we shared watching Godard's Alphaville at the Bleecker Street Cinema, expressed possibilities of connection that our daily orgy of nihilism denied.
- Jonathan Lethem, "The Beards"

I agree with Leonard that there's a thinness in much highly-praised contemporary fiction. But the thinning agent's not foreign blood.

In serious mainstream prose it's easier to incorporate John Wayne as a villain than to reproduce his attraction as a lead. An ambitious story or novel must make Ignatz genuinely destructive and Krazy purely female. The sensitive protagonist has no siblings; the jolly uncle is a child molester; superhuman privileges bring no joy and improve nothing.... These are generic conventions. They're integral to the story being told, but when I strike them my stride falters. I don't slip, but I slide a bit.

What disappoints Leonard are Chabon's, Franzen's, Moody's, and Lethem's references. What disappoints me is the familiarity of their disappointments. It isn't specific to these novelists, or to subjects like soul music or comic books. The same story's been told of painters and boxers, poets and actresses, gypsy fiddlers and twelve-tone composers: the transmutation of exhilarating matter into glum defeat.

Artists like Herriman, Hawks, and Gaye delight through the thrownaway (even if well rehearsed) gesture that transfixes. By nature, they're anti-plot or at least anti-character-development. When narrative attempts to depict such lyric effects, they can only be given too little or too much attention. If it's made the point of the story, the point of the story must be loss. It only takes a few minutes to hear a song by Schumann or Mimms and then where's the hero? Even as articulate an artist as Smokey Robinson can only tell us that rich guys love cocaine.

Alternatively, the writer may try to suggest some aspect of the experience in passing, using the critical equivalent of free indirect discourse, or may, like Stephen King and James Joyce, flatly cite brandnames.

In any case, narrative is saved: life is only interrupted. The choice has nothing to do with the referent itself, nothing to do with "high" or "low". Wagnerian opera was as bad for John Jones as hip-hop was for Arthur Lomb.

It may, however, say something about the referrer. Across media, a downward turn indicates depth. Chris Ware, like Lethem, started in high-art institutions, became revulsed by academic pretensions, was attracted by genre practitioners, established himself as a star in the most conceptually daring end of low-art publishing, and then (with a success that stunned his new peer group) was welcomed into the market covered by the NYRB&TBR. For both Ware and Lethem, disappointment was a vehicle.

On the other hand, prose fiction can embody its own sort of lyric effect. Lethem's "Sleepy People" is an example whose lack of critical regard shows how low beauty places in most readers' and reviewers' criteria. Although in some ways the career of Karen Joy Fowler anticipated Lethem's, her preference for comic structures puts her in constant danger of being reshelved from high-middlebrow to chick-lit or YA. And the most enthusiastically referential of storytellers Howard Waldrop, Guy Davenport unable to sacrifice the gaiety of their scholarship, remain coterie property.

... to be continued ...

. . .


Close Traduction

A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?

The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.

But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.

They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.

The Story of an Inadequate Man : I suddenly felt very tired and hopeless. It's odd that you think I don't try.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.

For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.

Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.

You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.

The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.

So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)

And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.

And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:

I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.

I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."

"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.


"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."

"Where did we get it?"

"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."

"Think we might write it off?"

Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."

I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."

Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."

"What is?"

"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."

"Oh come!" said Joe.

"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.

"Not as funny as all that," I said.

That's weird... I thought it would work

In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.

And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:

The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.

It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.

(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)

So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.

. . .

The Nuisance (1933)

I once asked whether Gregg Toland's deep dark cinematography was inherently anti-comic.

Although comparatively early, cheap, and shallow, I believe The Nuisance refutes the charge: Toland shreds the conversational weave of Hawks but he boosts the alert cynical ugliness of a Lee Tracy vehicle. His camera makes the legally acceptable most of Herman Bing's nude scene, gives Frank Morgan's stereotype the pathos of pickled meat, and wisely lets Charles Butterworth drift offscreen to deliver a laugh line.

The ending drags, but whose doesn't?


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.