“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Flick Lit # 109: Dark Passage

It has been said that David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes, and the titles of his novels give some idea of the mental and emotional state of this virtual recluse: Dark Passage (1946), Nightfall (aka The Dark Chase, 1947), Street of the Lost (1952), The Moon in the Gutter (1953), Street of No Return (1954), The Wounded and the Slain (1955), Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player, 1956), and Somebody’s Done For (1967). In the post-war years, and in the hands of David Goodis, crime was no longer something ‘out there’, a concept to be taken on by hard heads and smart mouths. Crime, according to Goodis, was ‘down there’ – a sickness of the soul. His characters were paranoid and tortured, keenly aware of their lowly social status and the squalid desires that drove them further down into the mire. Those who believe in the innate goodness of man, and the possibility of redemption, would do well to steer clear of David Goodis. The opening lines of Dark Passage are as good an example as any of the way in which Goodis blended deceptively lucid prose, Kafkaesque hopelessness and simple human yearnings:
“It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty.”
Parry breaks out of prison, becomes a fugitive, and embarks on a nightmarish hunt for the person who framed him for the murder of his wife. The desperate gamble he takes to gain time – submitting to a quack surgeon’s knife for plastic surgery – allowed the director of Dark Passage (1947), Delmer Daves, to follow on from a technique pioneered in 1946’s The Lady in the Lake, in which the camera’s point-of-view plays the part of the detective. When the bandages finally come off, the comely features of Parry, aka Humphrey Bogart, are revealed. The film’s producers made much of the fact that Bogart and Lauren Bacall were back in harness again, for the first time since The Big Sleep (1946). And, as usual, their timing, screen presence and ability to play off one another is impeccable. But anyone expecting the rapid-fire dialogue and crackling sexual chemistry of Howard Hawks’ classic was to be sorely disappointed. Goodis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daves, had other fish to torture. Parry distrusts everyone and everything, wallowing in his misery until it seems he must surely drown. That the film doesn’t sink under the weight of its own pessimism is down to Daves’ crisp pacing, a brooding, atmospheric depiction of San Francisco, and a wonderfully eccentric supporting cast of noir misfits, including Bruce Bennett, Clifton Young, Douglas Kennedy and Hollywood’s best-ever on-screen WASP, Agnes Moorehead. Noir purists decry Dark Passage’s implausibly upbeat denouement, but to be fooled by the happy ending is to ignore all of the preceding ninety minutes. The success of Dark Passage, first as a serialised tale in the Saturday Evening Post, then as a film, led to work as a Hollywood screenwriter. However, Goodis fell out with Hollywood and retreated to his home town of Philadelphia. There he moved in with his mother and began a long and lonely slide into alcoholism. Successful as a novelist during the ’50s – Cassidy’s Girl, one of nineteen novels, sold over a million copies – his star dimmed as the ’60s wore on. By the time he died in 1967, Goodis was broke and – with the notable exception of French film directors – languishing in squalor and obscurity. The pity is that he never turned to autobiography: his life would have become his finest novel.- Michael McGowan

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