Tuesday, January 19, 2016
James M. Cain began his seminal 1934 debut novel The Postman Always Lives Twice, a book that defines and practically created an entire genre, this way:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon.
I could almost stop there, but no. Cain goes on:
I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.
One gets the sense that this narrator is not employed, and probably hasn't been for a while. He just drifts into whatever situation is next for him, and the next temptation which, when indulged, will either satisfy or destroy him. But he's barely thinking like that. His thoughts run to the primal: he needs food now, so he will look for it. As it happens, he will get a job, which will also bring him next to temptation, and death, and, well, you know. That's what having a job gets you, I suppose
I don't believe it's reaching to claim to hear an echo of Cain in the opening paragraph of Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel, published exactly twenty years later, in 1954:
I'd been roughnecking on a drilling rig in the Atchafayala River for better than sixteen weeks, racking the big silver stems of pipe, lugging the sacks of drilling mud from barge to shore, working with my back and guts and letting my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting. Down around six thousand feet we twisted the pipe off in the hold and they abandoned the well, paid us off, and said to come back in two months, maybe three months.
Tonally, this is sort of the "gainfully employed" version of Cain -- it's a reverse, in other words, as we will learn that Chaze's narrator (who, eventually, after quite a while actually, we discover goes by the name "Tim Sunblade," which...) is not drifting towards a job, but happily away from one. Cain's guy, Frank Chambers, will very soon cadge a meal from the guy who subsequently hires him, and who he will subsequently murder, but we're not immediately privy to the darkness just under his surface. As far as his personality goes, the first impression is one of a guy just trying to get along. Chaze's Tim is a bit different, in that when, still on page one, he talks about being complimented by the driller who hired him for the job that just ended, strongly implying that if Tim comes back and keeps up the hard work he'll be promoted, Tim let's us know that "It was all I could do to keep from laughing in his face."
If Chambers is stumbling into a job and then into the arms of Cora, the dangerously ravenous wife of his boss, and thereon into Hell, Tim is moving with great deliberateness into the arms of the frighteningly cash-mad Virginia (she's a prostitute, and he hired her), but he also doesn't need her to entice him into a life of crime. He's already a criminal, in fact a prison escapee who since escaping has been building towards carrying out the armored car robbery planned by Jeepie, a fellow escapee from Parchman who was killed by prison guards before he could get on the other side of the wall. And that plan has always involved the murder of one of the armored car attendants. "You can see it for yourself," he tells us. "Alive he was nothing but trouble." He's prepared to willingly dive into Hell.
Black Wings Has My Angel has been largely unavailable for about forty years (though not quite so unavailable as many think; in 2012 Stark House reissued the novel, pairing it in one volume with Bruce Elliott's One is a Lonely Number). It's just been reprinted by NYRB Classics, and in his introduction to that edition Barry Gifford talks about his plan to publish it, during his stint as editor of Black Lizard Books during their great 80s heyday, was thwarted by a new batch of editors with final say who didn't believe Chaze's novel was up to snuff. Having read it now myself, I can't view that decision as anything short of ludicrous. In just about 200 pages, Chaze is able to tell his story, which includes a tormented, highly sexual, violent and romantic relationship with Virginia, a complicated drunk who seems alternately joyous and disturbingly avaricious, as well as the carefully planned armored car heist and its aftermath, as well as any number of digressions. About, for example, Tim's time spent working at a factory that made sugar-beet trucks, which he takes for a variety of reasons while working on the heist. There's a whole little short story in here about two of Tim's co-workers, and Chaze fits it into the greater whole with a lot of grace and dark humor.
It's Chaze's prose, though, that is the real show here. Gifford claims that of the Chaze novels that he read after being knocked out by this one, none came close to the power of Black Wings Has My Angel. I can't imagine that the man who wrote this never wrote anything else worthwhile, however. Check out this passage, for example. Tim comes home to find Virginia gone, which happens more than once, and since her timing is especially bad in this instance he goes searching for her in the bars of downtown Denver. At one point, Chaze writes:
From time to time I had a drink and that helped. I remember in one bar down the street from the Denver Post there were six or eight newspapermen at the bar, loading up between editions. You can spot them anywhere. They talk in headlines and they drink gravely and their faces are clean and their fingernails full of carbon. They have many private jokes. They are about the only people I know who are the same out of college as in college, in small towns and big ones. These fellows listened politely when I asked the bartender my stock question. Tall blonde, good shape, very good lips and legs. Drinks whisky neat at times -- water chaser. You seen her? Then one of them volunteered the statement that there was no such woman and all the others nodded. 'Pretty women do not drink whisky neat,' he said. 'They defile it. They perfume it. They dump fruit salad in it.' They all nodded again. It was enough to make you sick. My uncle's a newspaperman. All by himself he's enough to make you sick. Here we had five of them.
Note, among other things, the way the number of newspapermen goes for "six or eight" to five, as though Tim doesn't give a shit how many there were -- one's too many, and one more might as well be a thousand more. Chaze was a newspaperman himself, by the way, which might go without saying.
Black Wings Has My Angel would seem to refer to Virginia, in the classic femme fatale tradition, and it very well may. But what's interesting is that Tim doesn't get sucked into a moral abyss by Virginia. They're both rotten people, but from page one of the novel (and before that, even) Tim had a plan to commit murder. As far as I can tell, Virginia didn't. She's possibly insane, and almost certainly has the kind of death wish that such characters in such novels and films often do, but murder is brought to her; she doesn't bring it to Tim. So the angel of the title must be, I'd say, the angel of death, whose wings, if it exists, must of course be black, and who is always the double-dealing guardian angel of men like Tim.
In the last chunk of the novel, Chaze introduces some curious and rather nutty plot machinations which are hard to swallow (one of them doesn't even end up mattering at all, which to me counts as a plus) but which fit into the usual themes of fate and karma that are the bread and butter of the classic American crime novel. In addition to those plot details, there are also a few bits of imagery that are just this side of bonkers, and may actually be on that side. One of them is so absurdly direct and appropriate, if you will, that if someone ever translated it into a painting, there would be no other title for it than "Crime Novel." It's so exactly right that it is exactly right. If you get me.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
No two filmmakers seem able to agree on how to portray Tom Ripley, the killer Patricia Highsmith invented for her 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and who she continued to write about in four more novels, the last, Ripley Under Water, coming in 1991, four years before her death. I've read two of them: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley's Game, the third in the series. These happen to be the two novels that have twice each been adapted into films. In the novels, Ripley begins as a young man driven to murder by desperation and jealousy and self-hatred, along the way discovering that taking a human life does not haunt his conscience in the way he knows it's supposed to. By the time of Ripley's Game, Highsmith had turned him into a kind of urbane white-collar criminal, happily married to a woman named Heloise (his latent homosexuality, clear in the 1955 novel, having perhaps been suppressed, or now manifesting itself into an alien sort of sexually active asexuality), who murders if he thinks he has to, though he claims to detest the act.
As I write this, I'm watching, for the second time, Liliana Cavani's 2002 film Ripley's Game, which stars, almost inevitably, John Malkovich as Ripley. I remember when I first saw this movie, which was many years ago and long before I'd read anything at all by Highsmith, I remarked to my wife, the two of us being fans of Anthony Minghella's well-regarded 1999 film of The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring the less-inevitable Matt Damon, that it was impossible to imagine Damon's Ripley growing up to be Malkovich's Ripley. I also believed at the time that Malkovich and Cavani's take on the character, who they saw as a cold-eyed monster who felt no emotions other than avarice, arrogance, and rage, must be closer to Highsmith, though I loved what Minghella and Damon had done. Which, by the way, was to turn him into a frightened boy who felt guilt but "earned our sympathy" by having been mistreated by at least two of his three (only two in the novel, which is interesting, given the portrayal) victims. However, I've grown to dislike both Cavani's and Minghella's films. This is probably unfair to Cavani, given how much attention I'm paying too it, but, for instance, the opening of the Cavani film is ludicrous -- it depicts Ripley as a man who can't wait to kill someone, who is reckless and stupid (whether or not the film shows that recklessness blowing up in his face). It's a film that sees Ripley as someone whose intellect is so dull that he, and the film, thinks it's interesting to use Icarus as a metaphor. But despite the fairly low profile of this Ripley's Game, one does get the sense that this is the version of Ripley that makes sense to most people. He's close enough to Hannibal Lecter as to make no difference.
The first Ripley film was Rene Clement's Purple Noon, an adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley from 1960. That film plays merry hell with Highsmith's plot, but by telling us so little about how Tom Ripley (played here by Alain Delon, who in retrospect seems as inevitable as Malkovich) thinks that the fundamental mystery of the character and of Highsmith's conception of him is retained. He's not "movie" mysterious, like Malkovich -- he's genuinely inexplicable. In fact, Purple Noon might have been the best Ripley film if not for Wim Wenders, who in 1977 first adapted Ripley's Game into the film The American Friend, which has just been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, and which, to me, counts as one of the two or three greatest crime films of the post-noir era.
The plot of Ripley's Game (and The American Friend) should probably be briefly described, because it's a corker, and pretty vital to understanding, or failing to understand, Tom Ripley. Ripley is at a party, where he meets a picture framer named Jonathan. Jonathan treats Ripley with some small amount of rudeness, and so when later on one of Ripley's criminal associates comes to him looking for a recommendation for somebody to carry out a murder of a member of the Mafia, Ripley gives him Jonathan's name. He does this as revenge. As a means of putting Jonathan on the hook, and make the offer of money to kill a man at least somewhat enticing, Ripley, who has learned that Jonathan has leukemia, starts a rumor that Jonathan is close to death. Jonathan, upon learning that this rumor is out there, becomes understandably paranoid that it might be true. Then the offer to kill a man comes his way. "You can leave behind something for your family." Etc. All because Ripley was offended. If it helps any, Ripley will come to feel bad about this.
So, to The American Friend. The action is shifted from mostly France, with long detours into Germany, to Germany exclusively. Jonathan Trevanny, Highsmith's Englishman, becomes Jonathan Zimmerman, played here by Bruno Ganz, who has perhaps never been better in his life. And Ripley is play by Dennis Hopper, who somehow manages to be simultaneously horribly miscast and perfect for the role. It's the damnedest thing. Hopper, wearing a cowboy hat and jeans, living in a hotel, unmarried, drinking alone, smart but by no means urbane or erudite, somehow achieves peak Ripley-ness by playing Ripley as a man Highsmith's Ripley would never associate with.
There's an enormous amount going on in Wenders' film, including a long game of post-modern fiddling about with Hollywood genre films, of the kind so many European filmmakers cut their teeth on and revered, at the same time they twisted and commented on it. And it's not just noir -- it's Westerns, too. I mean, look at how Hopper dresses. Wenders' Ripley could be read, and was probably intended to be, a critique of America itself -- what he would regard as its arrogance and violence, for starters, and its brutal Western "advancement" (emphasis Wenders', in my head, though I'm making it up). Needless to say, that side of The American Friend (that's an ingenious title though) doesn't interest me at all, but it's there for anyone looking for it. When considering this swirl of war (quite obliquely, but if you've made the aforementioned connections then war's gonna be in there), crime films, and the Western, casting Sam Fuller as a mobster almost seems to hit the nail too squarely. Casting Nicholas Ray as a painter seems like the most natural thing in the world.
But The American Friend isn't some tedious exercise in the act of referencing things. It is as exquisitely and precise a piece of sincere genre filmmaking as I've ever seen. The two murder scenes, both set around trains and train stations but without remotely repeating any visual or spatial ideas, are so classically designed as to make art out of efficiency. It's that strange Hawksian, Fordian alchemy of telling a story so clearly that it becomes actual poetry.
At the same time, there's Hopper, bringing a wild 70s danger, even horror, to it all. That his Ripley (and this does come from Highsmith) actually feels guilt for what he's put this poor dying man through -- and Jonathan is dying, just not as fast as Ripley's rumor suggests -- is part of that horror. Who is he? And if Ripley is in possession of an otherworldly kind of psychology, Jonathan's is all too understandable. In fact, it's tempting to give the ultimate credit for the triumph of The American Friend not to Hopper, or even to Wenders, but to Bruno Ganz. As in Highsmith's novel, Wenders' film spends a lot of time with Jonathan, going to doctors for tests and second opinions (part of the enticement to commit murder is that these new tests will be paid for by Ripley's associate). In these scenes, Ganz isn't acting in a crime film -- he's acting in a film about a man who wants to hear the best version of terrible news as a dying man can hope for. You can know what's coming, but as long as you feel okay and your test results aren't too bad, you can keep going. But as soon as those tests start to change... Ganz, of course, rejects any kind of ostentatious, or anything even remotely "big," even when it would have been justifiable. It's only in his eyes, and in the pressure in his face that is the result of trying to not show anything.
The American Friend is a film that, for all that also, finally, succumbs to Hopper. Not just to Hopper, but also to Highsmith, because let's face it, this story is kind of insane. And not just to Hopper and Highsmith, but to Ripley. Because it's all perfectly insane. Classically, precisely, reasonably, coldly insane. It's a masterpiece.