Full moon: Bay Area programmer Elliot Lavine introduces 'Moon in the Gutter' during the PFA's David Goodis series. (Photo courtesy Pacific Film Archive)

'The Dark Cinema of David Goodis' at the PFA

Dennis Harvey August 7, 2008

The now-beloved film noir genre of Hollywood’s 1940s and 1950s didn’t have a name until the French gave it one—they were just ordinary "crime mellers" or "gangster movies" to American audiences and critics who didn’t think twice about any artistic merit they might have until much later. Likewise, the "hardboiled" novels and short stories of the era (going back to the 1930s) was mostly considered disposable pulp fiction. A few authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were (and are) more highly regarded, but the majority—even relatively successful ones—hardly attracted much attention at the time. If lucky, they found some degree of real appreciation later on, most often posthumously. People like Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford are considered legends now, but that would scarcely have seemed a logical outcome to them while alive.

David Goodis was one of the fairly-successful-then-forgotten ones. (As one internet "noir" bookseller’s biography succinctly puts it, "The lives of Goodis’ protagonists tend to mirror his own: Early promise, squandered.") His early books were popular—"Cassidy’s Girl" (1951) sold over a million copies—several stories were made into movies, and he wrote a couple screenplays himself. But a professional and alcoholic slide ended when he died at age 50 in 1967, two decades before many of his works began to be reissued.

No doubt he’d be shocked by the notion of an institutional retrospective of "his" films, let alone by the fact that many of them have been produced in the decades since his barely-noticed demise. But the "Pacific Film Archive’s "Street of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis" is just that, a survey of Goodis-related works from both the big and small screen, spanning nearly five decades and the globe—well, actually that last part is a fib. Perhaps unsurprisingly, films based on this author’s writing started out being American. But as years went on and he became an obscure figure here, they were much more frequently made by (you guessed it) the French.

After a flop first novel and a lot of grunt work churning out pulp tales for cheap magazines, Goodis struck gold on the brink of age 30 with Dark Passage, which was serialized in the hugely popular Saturday Evening Post. The next year (1947) it became a film starring no less than reigning thriller duo Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Duly kicking off the PFA series, this tale of an escaped con hiding his identity via plastic surgery isn’t considered in the league of prior Bogie-Bacall To Have and Have Not (from Hemingway) or The Big Sleep (Chandler), but it’s still very good. That same year, Goodis shared writing credit with James Gunn on The Unfaithful. Inspired by Maugham’s The Letter (a famous Bette Davis film just a few years prior), it stars Ann Sheridan as a Woman with a Past that comes back to haunt her—and she stabs its blackmailing gut to prevent her husband finding out. It’s purportedly a first-rate melodrama.

Despite this auspicious start, Hollywood didn’t take to Goodis.

And vice versa. Thereafter the few U.S. adaptations of his stories were either "B" flicks or TV suspense-omnibus episodes (including on "Studio One" and "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour"). In 1957 a couple of those "B’s" came out, pretty well ignored at the time but looking pretty good today. Jacques Tourneur, director of all-time noir classic Out of the Past, lent his typical stylishness to Nightfall, a typical Goodis tale of a kinda-innocent guy doomed to take a bitterly hard fall. Later a hugely prolific television director, Paul Wendkos made his feature debut with scrappy low-budget The Burglar, an uneven, alternately wordy and stark yet absorbing thriller about a band of thieves whose big haul is relentlessly pursued by a corrupt cop who wants the loot for himself. Shot on location in Philly two years earlier, it was purportedly only released at last to cash in on the sudden popularity of its leading lady—none other than Miss Jayne Mansfield—who’s just made a big-studio splash in The Girl Can’t Help It.

That was the last time a Goodis feature was made on this side of the Atlantic for decades. But the French picked up the slack, and then some: Francois Truffault’s first film after his triumphant debut The 400 Blows was 1960’s Shoot the Piano Player, adapted from the novel Down There. Singer Charles Anzavour played the the title figure, a onetime concert pianist reduced to saloon gigs, with worse yet to come. At once one of Truffault’s least characteristic and most enjoyable films (not to slag the rest), Shoot is a nouvelle vague masterpiece the PFA will show on two nights.

Later French Goodis adaptations were equally notable for taking tonal (and often narrative) liberties with the source material, arriving at results that were frequently far from classic "noir" yet fascinating on their own terms. Hugely contrasting with the 1957 version is Henri Verneuil’s 1971 The Burglars, here a splashy, big-budget, wide-screen vehicle for Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif as thief and cop, respectively. When not trying to kill each other, they thoroughly enjoy trading witty bon mots. With some spectacular chase scenes, a high-kitsch erotic nightclub "production number," up-to-the-moment technology (female lead Dyan Cannon’s swanky apartment lights can be controlled by clapper!) and more, this is dated but still delightful escapism. The next year, Rene Clair’s And Hope to Die (from Goodis’ novel Black Friday) put another international cast (Jean-Louis Trintingiant, Robert Ryan, etc.) through twisty caper mechanizations, to reportedly more uneven results.

Goodis films got weirder in the 1980s. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first feature after worldwide smash Diva, The Moon in the Gutter proved an almost indigestible stew of directorial pretension, garishly overwrought visuals and hapless stars (Depardieu, Nastassja Kinski, Victoria Abril) that retained none of the novel’s suspense. Widely despised at the time, it’s not the worst movie in the world, but it would take a more dedicated contrarian than me to defend it. Renegade Hollywood legend Sam Fuller’s 1989 indie film Street of No Return (his last non-TV project) was another eccentric and erratic effort. Much better was Lumiere and Company director Francis Girod’s 1986 Descent into Hell, with Claude Brasseur as a famous alcoholic writer who accidentally kills a man, then with sexy younger wife Sophie Marceau (who spends a lot of time naked) is blackmailed by an eyewitness. The Haitian-vacation setting is rendered erotic, corrupt, and violent, the complex narrative dealing out surprise turns of fate at every juncture.

The two rarest items on this PFA schedule are two half-hour episodes from short-lived cable series. Both adapt the same story, and are strikingly different in their interpretations (not to mention their degree of success). Christian Slater stars as a chilly hitman in 1989’s "The Professional Gun," written and directed by Nicholas Kazan for forgotten HBO omnibus The Edge. When his loutish boss demands he give up stripper girlfriend Bridget Fonda, he complies, but another subsequent demand provokes vengeful response. Flat and unconvincing, it’s only interesting as contrast to Steven Soderbergh’s same-titled 1995 version for Showtime’s "Fallen Angels." This beautifully crafted take has Brendan Fraser as the unflappable hitman/employee, Peter Coyote as his creepy, greasy boss—but this time the love object tugged like a wishbone between them is a younger man (Bruce Ramsay). Far from milking that twist for lurid gimmickry, Soderbergh creates a double-edged "underworld" that’s as macho-noir as they come.

All the PFA shows will be introduced by local aficionados, including authors Barry Gifford and Eddie Muller.