Songs of sadness, loneliness, and forgetting.
Above is a poster for the French crime drama Tirez sur le pianiste, known in English as Shoot the Piano Player, and based upon the David Goodis novel Down There. We raved about the book. The movie? Well, you're supposed to love it. Make no mistake there. Though it received mixed reviews when released, most critics rhapsodize it now. This isn't unusual. Opinion will shift over time. Since director François Truffaut said he intended to make a film mainly for cinephiles, it makes sense that it eventually won critics over. The question is will it win you over?
Truffaut took a quintessentially American novel and converted it into something quintessentially French. This wasn't his initial intention. He wanted to pay tribute to American films. There are certainly American references, but he couldn't help but let his French nature come through. For example, where the book conjures torch songs and jazz, Truffaut cast singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour in the lead, and the music he plays is mostly folk songs and ditties. It's a major shift in mood. Truffaut also elected to leaven the terminal darkness of the novel with humor.
But you have to judge the product on its own merits, so if you pretend you never opened the book, Tirez sur le pianiste is certainly interesting. Truffaut either wasn't aiming for or didn't have the budget to seek technical perfection. The shadow of his camera pops up. The physical action is disjointed and unconvincing. But the film is also kinetic and beautifully shot. There's a kind of guerrilla style to it, a feel of a director doing anything that comes to mind and the story following along. We were aware of watching something uniquely artful, but not uniquely successful. So again, the question is, will it win you over? We can't say. Try it and see for yourself. Tirez sur le pianiste premiered in France today in 1960.
Nightfall is the time when desperate men commit desperate acts.
David Goodis was one of the mid-century era's most successful crafters of crime fiction. Movies based on his books include Dark Passage, the visually dazzling 1983 French film La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter), and the brilliant thriller The Burglar. His drama Nightfall, aka The Dark Chase, tells the story of a man who stumbles upon bank robbers, comes into possession of their loot, but loses it in a wild panic while fleeing a shooting. Months later and many states away, he's trying to make a new life but soon learns cops are trailing him trying to solve the robbery, and the surviving bank robbers have surfaced to demand the cash. He'd better find it or he's mega-screwed, but he literally can't remember what happened to it. He's blacked it out. Like other Goodis novels Nightfall became a movie, though it's hard to see cinema in it when you read it. But Jacques Tourneur had no issues, crafting a 1956 film noir starring Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. For us the novel, with its hallucinatory nature and quasi-amnesiac protagonist, wasn't a top thriller, but it was satisfying enough. This Lion Books edition came in 1956 with uncredited cover art.
When the sun's away the crooks will slay.
And speaking of the film noir starring Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft, we watched it right after finishing the book, and though the novel was pretty dark, the filmmakers decided a little upbeat mood music was on order, so they got the immortal jazz crooner Al Hibbler to sing a theme song. Everybody knows this one. Join right in: Nightfaaaaaaall... and youuuuuuuuuuu... lovely you... underneath the wreath of heaven's pale blue... you are poetry (possibly haiku)... you are melody (maybe in d minor, the saddest of keys)... You get the idea. Don't let us turn you off this film. The theme song is nothing the mute button won't fix.
As we mentioned in the post above, Nightfall was directed by Jacques Tourneur, the heavyweight talent behind the film noir monument Out of the Past, and he has the kind of skills that make an early shot of co-star James Gregory getting on a bus an artistic achievement. Gregory plays an insurance investigator on the trail of $350,000 of missing heist loot, and, as in the novel, the innocent schmuck who accidentally got stuck with it lost it and doesn't remember how or where. That person is played by Ray, who's great in this, as he relates his dilemma in flashbacks and desperately tries to deal with the two murderous robbers who originally stole the cash.
Nightfall is no Out of the Past, but it's a solid film noir entry, well worth watching. Besides Ray and Gregory, the two robbers Brian Keith and Rudy Bond are good, and honey-voiced Bancroft as the femme fatale handles her pivotal role nicely. Credit here also goes to Burnett Guffey, who photographed the movie, and added to his long list of beautiful film noir achievements—Johnny O'Clock, Night Editor, In a Lonely Place, The Sniper, Private Hell 36, Screaming Mimi, and a portfolio of other films. Put Nightfall in your queue. It'll be worth it—once the theme song is over. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1956
Goodis gets down and dirty while Hooks takes it up a notch.
This cover for David Goodis's 1956 novel Down There was painted by Mitchell Hooks, one of the unique talents of the paperback art era. Hooks worked in different modes. Often he utilized the type of line art you'd find in a high quality comic book or graphic novel, such as here and here. Other times he used color blocking for his backgrounds, such as on the above cover and the one you see at this link. He also used a lot of color bleeds, an example of which you see on his brilliant front for Madball, the second one at this link. And he worked in a more realistic mode too, when the mood struck. For Down There he mixed techniques, using a bleed in black to impart a film noir feel, and pairing his two figures with his trademark color-blocking. The effect is magnificent. Hooks was simply a highly versatile artist who always managed to surprise, and that makes his work a constant pleasure to seek out.
His cover for Down There fits Goodis like a glove. The novel is the unrelentingly grim story of a man whose piano playing genius saves him from a life of crime and transforms him into a classical music star, but who is inexorably dragged back into the depths of violence and revenge when his criminal brother needs protection. We soon learn that there are two brothers, both crooks, both neck deep in organized crime trouble. The reader catches no breaks—Goodis is matter-of-factly dark, spinning the tale from the point-of-view of an emotionally crippled main character, and crushing hope in heartwrenching ways that make the turning of pages a real effort at times.
Why put yourself through something like this? Well, it's very stylish, so much so that French director François Truffaut fell in love with it and adapted it to film in the form of Tirez sur le pianiste, known in English as Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut was world famous after winning best director at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for Les Quatre Cents Coups, aka The 400 Blows, so choosing Down There for his next project says plenty about the book. Goodis was well received by French directors in general. Other adaptations of his work were made by Pierre Chenal, Jacques Tourneur, Henri Verneuil, Francis Girod, René Clément, Gilles Behat, and Jean-Jacques Beineix. That's just remarkable. We'll probably watch some of those films, and you can be sure we'll revisit both David Goodis and Mitchell Hooks imminently.
These thieves will probably steal the entire film festival.
This poster for the 1957 film noir The Burglar looks pretty low rent, doesn't it? The movie is modestly budgeted too, but money isn't everything when it comes to making art. The film, which plays at Noir City tonight, opens with a nocturnal suburban heist that leaves a trio of break-in artists headed by Dan Duryea with a gaudy piece of $150,000 jewelry they can't hope to fence until the heat goes down. That means they have to wait, and with this mismatched group that means the pressure goes up. There's a fourth person in the mix. Jayne Mansfield, star of the promo poster, is the crew's eyes and ears, casing places they want to rob.
The Burglar is an early role for Mansfield, coming three years into her career, but it also arrived in cinemas a year after the big Twentieth Century Fox musical comedy The Girl Can't Help It, which featured her in full sex kitten mode, with the corset-crunched hourglass figure and helium voice. The irony is The Burglar was actually filmed before The Girl Can't Help It, but Mansfield's milieu had been set in stone by Fox's expensive hit. The Burglar challengingly asks her to be by turns innocent, tough, frustrated, terrified, and vulnerable. Basically, it asks too much this early in her career. But she gets by far the best line, when asked by Duryea at one point why she's being so fickle and difficult:
“You don't know? You really don't know? Well look at me! I'm a woman! I'm flesh and blood and I've got feelings!”
That one might bring the house down. A better actress might have nailed this dialogue, which was written by David Goodis working from his own novel, but as delivered by Mansfield the bit is funny, and actually goes on to hit other comedic notes. Though The Burglar demanded too much of the inexperienced Mansfield, she hurts the final product little, because the movie comes across like a sneaky parody anyway. With one partner in Mickey Shaughnessy who's creepy and rapey, and another in Peter Capell who's as highly strung as a banjo, head crook Duryea has assembled by far the worst gang in film noir history. There's no thought—not even for a second—that these three are going to achieve their goals.
But the movie is 190 proof noir—a knock-you-on-your-ass cocktail of nearly everything cool about the form. You get voiceover, flashback, nightmares, a loyal good girl led astray plus a femme fatale played by Martha Vickers, outrageous shadows, angular framing, hard-boiled dialogue, one crooked-as-fuck cop, a brassy, jazzy score, and beautiful night-for-night location work from director Paul Wendkos and cinematographer Don Malkames. And as bonuses you get a funhouse scene that's pure genius, and a high diving horse. The Burglar is sure to please all fans of old movies, but for noir lovers and lucky Noir City attendees in particular, it's nothing less than a landmark. You can learn a bit more about the film in the post below.
There's no amount of loot that can fill an empty soul.
Yes, we read the novel The Burglar right after watching the movie. We could have done it the other way around, but this seemed to make more sense. We went into the book wondering if the movie's merits were due to director Paul Wendkos or author David Goodis. Turns out it was both. Goodis wrote the screenplay, and his adaptation reshapes several crucial elements. Primarily, the movie has police procedural elements the book doesn't, and a take on the problem of sexual harassment that feels very 2019. On the other hand, an aspect of the novel we're surprised survived is the relationship between Gladden (Jayne Mansfield in the film) and Harbin (Dan Duryea). In both book and film Harbin takes over parenting Gladden when her father is killed, making them father figure and quasi daughter. In the film Mansfield even calls Duryea her foster father. That's pretty provocative, considering she wants to make the eight-limbed mattress monster™ with him.
Overall, it's no surprise the novel became a movie—it's great. The emotional desperation of Harbin, Gladden, and the other woman Della (played by Martha Vickers in the film) verges on painful to endure as a reader. They latch onto each other with a ferocity that's only matched by a fourth character's deadly lust for the stolen jewels. All this intensity comes in addition to a brilliant plot set-up for the entire exercise. We don't know if we'll ever again pair movie watching with immediately reading the source material, but it was interesting this time. Did it take the fun out of the book, knowing what would happen? Not at all. Goodis's novel is different enough that we weren't sure what would happen, actually. We owe this enjoyable read entirely to the Noirfest. We might have stumbled across the book randomly at some point, but without the movie to take us there, probably not.
Edit: Okay, we'll quit with the eight-limbed mattress monster™ bit. It was funny at first. You had to be there.
My life has gone horribly wrong, but at least I still have my digni— Oh, great. My fly was open this whole time, wasn't it?
In David Goodis' 1954 thriller Street of No Return, a down-on-his luck nobody named Whitey, who had been a great singer years ago only to lose his voice, career, and sobriety—thanks to a dame, of course—finds that even for a man at rock bottom things can get worse. And it involves something more serious than discovering his fly is open, though that would be funny. What happens is an impulsive act of compassion drags him into a pit of murder and corruption, set against the backdrop of Puerto Ricans-vs-cops race riots in Philadelphia. There are plenty of reviews of this online, so for details just look around. This one caught our eye because of the intricate and gritty cover art, yet another top effort from Barye Phillips.
What's in the box? Uh, you know, lipstick, gum, cigarettes, the souls of men I consume. The usual.
Above, really nice front and rear cover art for The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodis, which was published by Lion Books as a paperback original in 1954. Set in Philadelphia during 1936, the book examines a bunch of guys who have big dreams but no money, no motivation, and no ideas how to escape dead-end Philly. The narrative is basically plotless, like the characters' lives. Talk about a great depression. The cover art, by Robert Maguire, is beautiful but the blonde depicted is nothing like the blonde Goodis writes about. Goodis's blonde is overweight, married, and in her mid-thirties. She does have a sexual aura, though, and certainly fits the mold of a femme fatale. This is considered lesser Goodis, but it's still good enough.
I don’t know what you think you’re doing out there, but supper better be on the table in three minutes or you’re in big trouble.
For some reason when we first saw this cover it just screamed fed-up homemaker to us. Probably because we have this thing about guys in suits. We just know they’re always up to no good. But the art, which is by Ray App, actually depicts a woman who thinks a detective has failed to properly investigate the death of her husband. The moment is basically: “Re-open the case or I’ll jump.” We prefer our interpretation.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
1955—Rosa Parks Sparks Bus Boycott
In the U.S., in Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott resulted in a crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city's African-American population were the bulk of the system's ridership.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
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