Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Do You Like Capsule Reviews? Well Then Brother Guess What!

Here are a few "capsuled" reviews of films I have recently watched. I hope you enjoy reading them more than I enjoyed writing them.

The Sender (d. Roger Christian) - First up is this 1982 horror film, just out from Olive Films and part of the, I don't know what you'd call it, telepathy-horror subgenre? Anyway, pretty clearly the idea was to follow the path carved out by David Cronenberg's Scanners and Brian DePalma's Carrie and The Fury. It's about a young man who winds up in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt, and the caring doctor who comes to believe that he really can make others feel, and experience, his hallucinations and dreams, which is to say, his nightmares.

The Sender is packed with familiar faces, whose wide variety of credits you simply don't really see coming together in one film anymore. Starring as the doctor you have Kathryn Harrold, who I consider sort of an icon due to her role as Albert Brooks' other half in his masterpiece Modern Romance. Plus besides which, there's just something about her, you know? (Interestingly, given her role in The Sender, Harrold hasn't acted since 2011, and is now a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles.) There's also Paul Freeman, best known as Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark as Harrold's boss, and Shirley Knight, who not long ago I saw in the very good, and very early, Francis Ford Coppola film The Rain People. Here, Knight plays a mysterious woman who visits the disturbed young man in the hospital. That disturbed young man, by the way, is played by Zeljko Ivanek, who is one of those character actors who has spent nearly the last forty years being always good in everything. More often than not playing a villain, in 1982 Ivanek hadn't yet been typecast, and it's nice to see him in The Sender playing someone we don't want to punch.

He's good, too, as is everyone else. And despite my implication that The Sender was merely riding the coattails of Cronenberg and DePalma, it's quite a solid picture. Setting the film almost entirely within the hospital was a good move on the part of director Roger Christian and writer Thomas Baum, and the sketching out of the employee and patient population is accomplished with a lighter touch than you tend to see from this era. While the nature of this story does mean that certain crazy, special effects-heavy sequences don't actually occur in the reality of the story (although, well, never mind), which I at least find a bit frustrating in a general sort of way, those sequences are handled really well, and at times are pretty spooky. And anyway, the film's not a cop out, and it doesn't cheat. Give it a look.

God's Pocket (d. John Slattery) - Of the handful of films that Philip Seymour Hoffman had finished but which had not yet been released at the time of his death in early 2014, the one I was most looking forward to was God's Pocket, the directing debut of actor John Slattery. In addition to Hoffman's starring role, which itself was more than enough for me, the film also featured John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, and Eddie Marsan, all favorites, and was based on a violent and weirdly funny novel of blue collar crime and neighborhood provincialism by Pete Dexter that I'd read years ago, and liked a fair amount. Then it came out, and people didn't like it very much, and anyway it only sort of came out in the first place. So it more or less drifted off my radar. Maybe it was a swing and a miss, which would be too bad, and which might make me sad to actually watch.

But I finally did watch it, and damn it, it's pretty good! I think some people may have been thrown by the fact that Slattery and his cast, which also includes strong performances by Christina Hendricks, Jack O'Connell, and others, do a very good job of translating Dexter's oddball tone to the screen. There aren't a lot of real jokes in the films, and it's often pretty brutal, emotionally and in terms of actual physical violence, but Dexter, and Slattery, recognize that the kind of behavior exhibited by some of these people, and the choices they sometimes make, none of which are unheard of among human beings, are so absurd that it's sort of grotesquely funny, just on the face of it. It's a hard tone to strike, and Slattery strikes it, but I suppose it's also a hard tone to like. But I liked it.

King Kong (d. Peter Jackson) - I was recently moved by illness to revisit this, Peter Jackson's three-hour remake of a 1933 Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack motion picture which perhaps you've heard of. It occurs to me that Jackson's film came out almost exactly ten years ago (give or take a few months), and it's been about that long since I watched it all the way through. I've gone back to the opening Great Depression and Vaudeville montage, cut to Al Jolson's "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World," because I'm quite fond of that bit, as I once was fond of the the rest of it. After my recent viewing of the whole film, I'm still fond of that opening montage.

I should say here that I'm not bothered by the 187-minute run-time. In fact, I'd say most of my favorite stuff is in the set-up. There's something about a remake of a movie like King Kong that, unless you're fucking it up left, right, and sideways, adds a unique sort of tension, for me anyway. I felt it here, and I liked seeing what led Naomi Watts' Ann Darrow (a highlight) to meet Jack Black's Carl Denham (not necessarily a highlight but I appreciate the effort), and then to the boat, and all the people on the boat, or most of the people on the boat. It's like the build-up of a disaster movie, in a lot of ways, and that's often my favorite part of disaster movies.

The problem is that following his triumph with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson apparently lost all control. The absurd cartoonishness of his pre-Heavenly Creatures films (an era I'm not that fond of to begin with) does not marry well with the kind of huge-budget emotional spectacle that he's aiming for with King Kong. And it is emotional. Kong's death is quite moving, and Andy Serkis's performance as Kong is very good (I mean, I guess it is). But when it's just spectacle, or even when it's just people, this thing is a goddamn mess. I've rarely found the one-damn-thing-after-another nature of modern special effects blockbusters to be as enervating as this film was the second time around. The brontosaurus stampede on Skull Island is a complete wash -- at no point did I believe any of the humans were on the same plane of existence as the dinosaurs, and the sequence was just fucking endless. For how many minutes straight must we watch Adrien Brody frantically look left and then right? At a green screen, incidentally, which I swear I could practically see, covered though it was by brontosauri. Plus, I used to think the fight between Kong and the tyrannosaurus rexes was really cool and fun and such, but somehow I'd forgotten that through it all Kong is tossing Ann all over the place. She almost falls to her death but he catches her and throws her to another hand so he can punch a t-rex, and then he has to catch her with his foot while flipping through a whatever-the-fuck kind of tree...it's just too much. Too much by an absurd amount. Never mind that Ann would be dead as hell by the end of it all.

And unlike in The Lord of the Rings, never mind Heavenly Creatures, with the people here Jackson is basically hopeless. All the actors in the 1933 film had a better sense of when to pull back than pretty much anybody here. Clearly, Jackson wanted to honor that era of filmmaking stylistically, but he shouldn't have. Trying to act like that when you're not that kind of actor is death, and I actually think Jack Black (not exactly the subtlest of actors to begin with) knew that right up to the point he delivers the line "It was beauty that killed the beast." And he knew it while delivering it, too. You can almost see him thinking "Oh no, this is going to be too much, this is going to be too much, I should pull back, Peter's wrong about this I need to do someth - 'IT WAS BEAUTY THAT KILLED THE BEAST' - shit goddamnit damn it god shit." Something like that happened, I bet.

Also, that bit where Adrien Brody types "Skull Island" in slow motion while saying each letter out loud, making everybody look at him in terror, is an idea so bad, and a bad idea executed so terribly, that I almost can't believe it, or even speak about it rationally.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Kind of Face You Slash: The Struggle Was Brief and Weird

The dedication to a bizarre 1946 horror novel written by Paul Bailey provides, maybe, a clue, or clues, to, well a variety of things. The dedication is:

and the life that
is slowly loosening
my skull plates...

There's humor there, certainly, but humor of a particularly grim, even despairing, sort. How much weight should be given to the humor, and how much to the grimness? Or the despair? While recently reading the novel to which that dedication is attached, called Deliver Me from Eva (another joke, obviously), it never really occurred to me that, as crazy as much of the book is, I was not supposed to regard it as serious. Yet when I consulted Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's indispensable reference book Horror: 100 Best Books, from which I first learned of the existence of Deliver Me from Eva way back in 1988, in the introduction to Forrest J. Ackerman's short essay about Bailey's novel written by Newman and/or Jones, I find the it described as "blatantly silly" before reading this:

...Deliver Me from Eva has just enough jokes...to suggest that the author wasn't absolutely serious.

Which, okay. That's certainly not the same thing as claiming the novel was intended as parody. But in Ackerman's essay, the legendary editor/publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, noted goofball, and lover of puns (he points out, not incorrectly, that if Bailey hadn't used the title Deliver Me from Eva, Robert Bloch certainly would have) comes perilously close to dismissing the novel as deliberately tossed-off hackwork at the same time that he's ostensibly praising it as his favorite, or at least among his favorite, horror novels. Deliver Me from Eva is a pretty healthy distance from being a masterpiece, but I nevertheless find the opinions expressed by Newman/Jones and Ackerman to be pretty curious (as I find many of the opinions expressed in Horror: 100 Best Books, however indispensable it remains). Deliver Me from Eva struck me as, yes, ridiculous in the way that pulp often is, but also genuinely horrified, if not quite horrifying (though you might find it to be that as well). An interesting distinction, if I do say so myself, and one that, if I'm write about this, strongly implies that Bailey wasn't in the business of winking at the audience. At least, not the whole time.

If Deliver Me from Eva's entry in Horror: 100 Best Books did nothing else, it did give me a lead on Paul Bailey, clues about whom I was otherwise finding to be non-existent. I was finding him to be rather pleasantly mysterious -- no biographical information that could be linked with that dedication about loosening skull plates was actually turning out to be an eerie detail. Still, the truth isn't necessarily less interesting. Newman/Jones toss out titles for a couple of Bailey's other novels, and subsequent rudimentary investigation turns up that Bailey was primarily a historical novelist whose focus was the American West, and occasionally more specifically Mormons, and Mormonism, as they and it existed within that Western expansion. Trust me, if you found this out directly after finishing Deliver Me from Eva, your reaction, like mine, would be something along the lines of "...Wuh?" It can be a little bit tough to put all this together, and indeed my 2011 Bruin Crimeworks reprint of Deliver Me from Eva offers no contextual addenda, which is odd for this sort of thing these days. Anyway, it turns out that Bailey was better known in his day as Paul Dayton Bailey, a crucial difference -- Paul Dayton Bailey's Wikipedia page mentions Deliver Me from Eva not at all (Paul NMI Bailey's Wikipedia page doesn't exist). At any rate, in addition to writing books like The Gay Saint, For Time and All Eternity, and Jacob Hamblin, Buckskin Apostle, Bailey also wrote essays and articles with titles like "Polygamy Was Better Than Monotony." So, you know. (Bailey's maternal grandfather was Joseph Barlow Forbes, a major figure in Utah history, and I though Bailey might have had connections to others Forbes, those of Steve and Magazine fame, but so far I don't think he does. Just FYI). I have no interest, by the way, in trying to link through smug armchair psychoanalytic means Bailey's Mormonism with what goes on in Deliver Me from Eva. That novel's apparent disconnect from the rest of Bailey's work is part of what's so fascinating here. And it's not like he wrote Eva before find his way to the church. His Mormon writing both precedes and follows after this weird piece of horror fiction.

So then what is this fucking book about, you might well ask. Okay then. That dedication about loosening skull plates isn't incidental, by the way, because listen, here's this guy, Mark Allard, he's around forty years old, and he's seeing a young woman named Edith Brinkley, the daughter of his law partner. Except when we first meet Mark, who is our narrator in Deliver Me from Eva, he's already thrown Edith over for someone else. For whom? For Eva Craner. To be brief, Mark was drawn away from Edith to Eva for reasons we're not entirely clear on (there's nothing wrong with Edith, we're assured), but basically Eva is hopelessly gorgeous and Mark is swept up. And she tells him that her father, Dr. Craner, is a great man, a genius whose ability to manipulate the craniums of human beings -- because the human skull is divided into hinged segments, which must serve a purpose, yes? -- allow them to achieve feats of great genius. See not just Eva's breathtaking knowledge, but also her brother Osman's accomplishments as a concert pianist. Another step along which path he's about to take when Mark is brought into the family estate, or compound maybe, which Dr. Craner, a man born without legs or ears, has dubbed The Cradle of Light.

There's your set up. And a couple of things, or three things, about that: the title, Deliver Me from Eva, is misleading, because Mark is pulled into this world not because Eva, who he loves so much that he's fled his apparently quite lovely girlfriend, as well as his lucrative job as an attorney, is such a femme fatale. She is in fact not that. Mark is drawn in because of the weird and freakish Dr. Craner. It's this detail that begins to slide Deliver Me from Eva from crime fiction into horror. Because it does always seem to be on the cusp of becoming a crime novel, though it's not that easy to say why. I'd suppose it's because religious cults in California are a rich and thriving -- I won't even say cliche' -- pool into which crime writers have and will always dive. Cults, or even just New Age scams, have been covered by Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and pretty much every other crime writer who has staked their ground in L.A. Bailey shifts that to Pasadena. That's where Dr. Craner's estate The Cradle of Light is located, and within that is found the house where Mark and Eva are expected to live. That house is called Thalamus.

The thalamus, of course, being a gland, which, I just now read, might be called the human body's "hub of information." Plus remember those skull hinges, the manipulation of which, etc. Bailey's dedication suddenly seems less random, possibly less personal (does it?), and more of a nod to his novel. Mark winds up having his skull manipulated by the legless and earless Dr. Craner, and he turns from a skeptic to a true believer. Because of course Dr. Craner is both evil and sort of on to something. But anyway, the point is, Eva isn't the villain. She, like her doomed brother Osman, who when we meet him is in a small way revolting against his father's treatments, is an acolyte, rightly or wrongly. And is she wrong? Her maid Margot, who will turn out to be far more than just a maid, supplies information along the way that both condemns Dr. Craner morally, but perhaps absolves him on scientific grounds.

So that's one of the three things. And it connects to the second thing, which is that Deliver Me from Eva feels, for at least about the first third, like a crime novel. Which it isn't, at all, but you do have a professional guy in Los Angeles throwing away his business and his girl for a mysterious and sexy woman. It's just that Eva isn't asking or driving in any way Mark to murder anybody. For profit, or any other motive. Yet the James M. Cain-ian pulse continues to throb. Deliver Me from Eva is a genre hybrid (comedy/horror, adventure/comedy, horror/crime, etc.), but unlike most such stitched-together creatures it's not trying to be. It's a horror novel of the Mad Scientist variety that perhaps due simply to the year of its publication, and our own contemporary view of pulp fiction from that era, and the fact that it doesn't begin in a dungeon but rather the Honeymoon suite of a San Francisco hotel (a good place for crime to begin) fools us into reading it as hardboiled crime. But out hero Mark isn't just a decent man who fends off the hypnotic cult-ish powers of Dr. Craner so that he is finally aware of the body horror, the rampant decapitation, of The Cradle of Light -- he continues to be a decent man throughout it all, who fights the push into Hell.

The third thing is, what did Bailey mean by any of this? Newman/Jones and Ackerman seem to suggest that he meant nothing, but I'm (obviously) not convinced of that. For one thing, none of them offer any evidence, apart from the pun of the title. I would even add to their meager case the novel's last line, which I won't quote because I guess it's a spoiler, though plot-wise it reveals very little, but in any case it's a joke, one I don't like that much, but anyway, it's a joke, is the point. So they have that. They're not wrong. But what I have is the dedication, which is grim, and its connection to the plot, which becomes a frenzy of mortality, and then, finally, I have the end, which isn't a matter of ten pages or so. No, the climax of Deliver Me from Eva hits, but you're aware, as a reader, that there's a good clutch of pages to go. Without giving away too much, or giving away the bare minimum I can give away while still going forward, Mark, our hero, has to contend with the possibility that Dr. Craner, the madman, the murderer, might, when you boil it all down, have been on to something. That humans, in essence, are fucked, are dumb, blank-eyed zombies, without his skull-plate manipulation (which, also, the reader gets the sense is only the tip of the iceberg). It's insisted to Mark that Dr. Craner's evil aside, humanity stands to benefit enormously by the continuation of his work. Yet Mark is us, he's just a goddamn person, who can't see past evil, or past love. I'll finally quote Bailey, by way of Mark:

The ethical concepts of my nature, as interpreted in normal human behavior, seemed dulled by the impact of forces beyond control. If it were dementia, it seems odd that my mind was still crystal clear as to every detail of past events. The interpretive functions of my intellect were the parts which seemed to have gone awry. As I see it now, the norm of my conscious thought followed a pattern of oblique distortion which seemed in that hour perfectly lucid and logical. I felt the urge not to brush away the evils and oddities of my existence, but to perversely examine them one by one. I knew they were interesting, and I knew that I would write of them, but in this moment it was Eva I wanted; the woman I had married; my wife, and loved one.

Am I supposed to regard this passage as insincere? This, to clarify, is after the violence. This isn't part of a build towards pulp madness. Pulp madness -- of a quite mad sort, I must admit -- has already occurred. What this is, and what the roughly thirty pages in which this is included is, is a dealing with the insanity section that you don't often find in novels like this, and which I can't interpret as frivolous. I don't know what Paul Dayton Bailey's deal was, and I haven't read any of his other novels. They may offer greater insight into him than Deliver Me from Eva could ever begin to. But pretty clearly, this novel is his big outlier. He wasn't in his twenties when this came out. He was forty. He said right up top that life was loosening his skull-plates. I'm sorry, but I can't see the joke.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Secret History of Movies #10

(This Sporting Life, 1963, d. Lindsay Anderson)
(The Rain People, 1969, d. Francis Ford Coppola)

(thanks to my friend Michael Rizzo for the Rain People screen grab)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Kind of Face You Shoot: It Seemed That the City Was Dying

In 1938, the British writer Gerald Kersh came up with perhaps the most quintessentially noir title before noir as we define it even began when he published his now classic novel Night and the City. If the goal is to completely illustrate the noir sensibility in as few words as possible, you're more than halfway there with those four words, yet what's generally regarded as the first true noir film, Stranger on the Third Floor, was still two years away. This is why, or one of the reasons why, the cultural supremacy of films when defining this genre bothers me so much. Oh, crime literature is certainly not ignored, but from where I stand the attitude towards them isn't too far from "You know those great noir movies? Well some people wrote books like that, too!" As if they were almost very respectable novelizations and not the originators. My argument has also been, when it comes to the cinematic noir style, that if you read the books that started it all, that style almost seems like the only logical way to faithfully adapt them. Night and the City? Got it. Roll camera.

Kersh, meanwhile, has faded into near oblivion since his death in 1968 at the age of 57. Not entirely, and at least one American publisher, Valancourt Books, and one British one, Faber, have recently reprinted novels and/or story collections by Kersh. (One reason he hasn't given up the ghost entirely is because Harlan Ellison, himself a cult writer, though it's a healthy cult, has said many times that Kersh is his favorite writer; in 1969 Ellison edited a selection of what he considered Kersh's best short stories, which tended to have more of a horror or science-fiction edge than his novels, called Nightshades & Damnations, which is back in print through Valancourt.) But if that one, maybe last, grip on posthumous survival weakens and Kersh drops away for good, that would just about figure, given his struggles while alive. There were political problems, for one thing -- according to Paul Duncan's overview/essay of Kersh "Gerald Kersh: Man of Many Skins" which is included as an afterword to my 2001 iBooks reprint of Night and the City, Kersh was accused of being both a fascist and Communist, as well as an anti-Semite, though he was Jewish. More bizarrely, after Kersh's first novel, Jews Without Jehovah was pulled mere weeks following its publication after some of Kersh's relatives filed legal objections due to what they believed were thinly-disguised, and, needless to say, unflattering portrayals of themselves in the highly autobiographical story, "injury was added to insult," as Duncan pretty much unavoidably puts it, when one of those relatives, an uncle, ran over Kersh (he survived) in a car bought with money won in the Jews Without Jehovah libel lawsuit. It was an accident, I guess? Anyhow, Kersh never seemed to stop struggling, with writing, publishing, or his ill health. Even so, he published a wide variety of novels, nineteen in all, with seemingly no two alike: there's a deeply cynical, caustic comedy about the running of a shabby movie theater (Fowlers End); a fictionalized account of the Lidice massacre, carried out by the Nazis in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (The Dead Look On); a Hollywood satire (An Ape, a Dog, and a Serpent); a novel of Rome under Nero (The Implacable Hunters); an autobiographical novel about Kersh's stint in the Coldstream Guards (They Died With Their Boots Clean); even a sequel of sorts to Night and the City, called The Song of the Flea. Plus many others. It's always the truly unique ones who are forgotten. Doesn't it seem that way? I remember, years ago, during one of his rare appearances online, Harlan Ellison got on his official website, which he doesn't run or visibly participate in all that often, to ask help from his fans in tracking down a copy of the obviously quite rare Jews Without Jehovah. I hope he found one.

And of course, the main thing keeping Kersh's name even on the fringes of anyone's mind is that he wrote the novel on which one of the most famous film noirs -- that is, Jules Dassin's 1950 adaptation of Night and the City -- was based. About which more in a bit, but first, what about that novel? Though mostly focusing on the character of Harry Fabian, an amoral, greedy, lying pimp and conman, Kersh's book is more of an ensemble than the Dassin film would turn out to be (just one of a slew of differences, about which more in etc.). In addition to Harry, there's Helen, the poor jobless young woman pushed by her friend Vi into working at one of those chiseling "bottle party" nightclubs, where even having a hostess like Helen or Vi sit at your table costs money, only to discover, Helen does, that she likes it. Helen's romantic interests, which become irrevocably intertwined with her financial ones, are divided between Adam, an aspiring sculptor who's also a bartender at The Silver Fox, the club where she works, and Harry, whom she meets at The Silver Fox, and where Harry fritters away every penny he gets his fingers on. After clawing and conning his way to obtaining two hundred pounds he desperately needs to set up his business as a wrestling promoter, which he believes will make him rich, Harry celebrates at The Silver Fox, where Helen, Vi, owner Phil Nosseross, and a guilt-ridden Adam squeeze him for everything he's got. Later, after a blind drunk Harry staggers away, having already thrown up in the street, Vi notices the vomit he's left behind:

Vi screwed up her face, and said: "Somebody hasn't half been sick."

"That was Fabian," said Adam; and pointing to the pavement, added: "There's about thirty or forty pounds down there. God knows what the foold did to get that much money, but that's were it's gone to."

Which pretty neatly sums up Night and the City's attitude towards money. In some ways that passage could stand as a synecdoche for the book as a whole. Either that passage, or perhaps this one:

The bell of a near-by church sent out into the night two extraordinary slow, reverberating strokes. Their echoes beat about Fabian's head. He experienced a sickening spiritual depression, a sense of futility and wasted time, as he stood, damp with sweat in his heavy overcoat, looking down at the reflections of the lamps in the puddles. "Two o'clock," said Fabian.

Rain started to fall again.

"I give up," said Fabian.

That sense of utter doom and moral waste overwhelms the novel early, though in its very early going Night and the City seems like in tone it will closely resemble the high, angry comedy of Fowlers End. Kersh was a gifted prose stylist, of a particularly English sort, the sort that leads to one character's voice being described this way:

In order to reproduce the way Figler spoke, put your tongue between your teeth, stop up your nose, half fill your mouth with saliva, and try to say: "This is the end of the matter."

Fuse this with the hardboiled menace of the genre, and you get this description of a London crime boss: "He was freezing point made articulate." There's a great deal of this in the early chunk of Night of the City, and throughout, but eventually this sort of prose steps back and the novel becomes surprisingly dialogue-heavy. Writing dialogue was another one of Kersh's great talents, so this should not necessarily be seen as a loss. Anyway, there's something quite Chandleresque about that "freezing point" line. But curiously, the humor that Chandler brought to his prose, not to mention the humor Kersh often brought to his own, is soon left behind.

And before you get the wrong idea about Harry Fabian, you should know that he's not deserving of your sympathy. He may get rained on and he may give up, and he may get taken for a drunken idiot by the staff and management of The Silver Fox, and Adam, the most virtuous of Night and the City's cast of characters, may feel pity for him, but Fabian will, over the course of a novel, pimp out his girlfriend Zoe, latter plan to sell her into white slavery, hope for the death of an elderly wrestler only for the publicity it will bring his business, and more. In Jules Dassin's film, the character, as played by Richard Widmark, seems to have at one time been a regular decent fellow who at some point went wrong. Kersh's Fabian provide no evidence that he's been anything but hateful since birth. Kersh appears to be suggesting that Fabian is the city personified -- amoral, predatory, sociopathic. And doomed, too, because Kersh's optimism, such as it is, is aimed at the creative independents like Adam, not at those who flow anonymously through the veins of London, which is almost everyone else in the book.  Fabian is the city at night.

Speaking of the Dassin film (which has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion), you shouldn't taken any of what I've said up to this point to mean that I think that Night and the City is anything less than wonderful. It's strange, though, that while it softens Fabian considerably -- he's a shit, but he may not be the devil -- the ending of the film is even more suffocatingly dark than that of the novel. Nobody could reasonably claim that Kersh's ending is a happy one, but as I've said it does reserve a certain amount hope for Adam, the sculptor. This only goes so far, as Kersh wasn't writing Adam's life story (though I guess I'll have to see if Adam and his fate are featured in that sort-of sequel The Song of the Flea), but it's there; it is, in fact, the note Kersh chooses to go out on. Dassin and screenwriter Jo Eisinger, meanwhile, choose to go out on a note of death and posthumous humiliation.

The plot of Dassin's film is quite a bit different than Kersh's: the novel's avaricious Helen is made the unhappy wife, played by Googie Withers, of The Silver Fox owner Phil Nosseross (Frances L. Sullivan). I would argue, too, that there's just a sliver of poignancy to Withers portrayal (just a sliver) that replaces the growing horror that Kersh's depiction of Helen invites. Fabian's girlfriend in the film is neither Helen nor Zoe -- there is no Zoe here -- but rather Mary (Gene Tierney), a decent woman who works at The Silver Fox, but this is not made to look like the profession of vipers that Kersh argues it is. Adam's there, too, but he's a good, dull man who's never part of the plot when he could actually do anything. Decency and creativity interest Dassin somewhat less here than they did Kersh. People who embody both do exist, but unlike in the novel, in the film there's no struggle to be or do either. Such people need to turn tail and run from people like Harry Fabian, and in any case, they needn't fear temptation.

But the gist of Dassin's film is pretty much that of Kersh's novel. Dassin's great innovation, apart from that brick-to-the-face ending, is the inclusion of a gangster character, a powerful rival wrestling promoter played by Herbert Lom. This man, Kristo, is I suppose some version of Kersh's Clarke, who finally had little impact on the novel's plot, but Kristo, in this film, becomes the menace that runs through that whole novel but can't be pegged to one man, because it's everywhere. For the sake of expediency, Dassin and Eisinger pegs it to Kristo. Yet Kristo has all the heart. The emotional centerpiece of Dassin's Night and the City belongs to him. This choice is a masterstroke. If Fabian (and Widmark is superb, as you'd expect) has all the panic, sweat, and desperation, Kristo has all the soul. He is the night to Fabian's city.