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.

1 comment:

John said...

I did see this, once upon a time, and there was also a remake that I don't think I've seen but I'm curious about, as it features (a still-respectable) De Niro and Eli Wallach, among others. It's probably no good, though, is my guess. On the whole I don't remember this one as fondly as Dassin's Rififi, but then I could say that about most movies you could name.

It feels almost ironic to see the subject of "decency" come up in talking about a noir. Maybe it's just my own cynicism talking, but I figure the genre as a whole has always tended to make a mockery of the idea. That may even be its great artistic legacy.