Anti-heroes of the dark
From film noir to Tarantino pastiche, Hollywood has pilfered a mass of pulp plots. But many of the creators of this black fiction ended their days bitter and broken. By Nick Hasted
Nick Hasted has been a film journalist since 1986. He writes about film, music, books and comics for The Independent, Sight & Sound, Uncut and Little White Lies. He has published two books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), and You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), both from Omnibus Press.
Monday 16 September 1996
It's a thread that begins in 1930, when Dashiell Hammett, star writer of the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask and author of The Maltese Falcon, arrived in Hollywood. In town for the money, he quickly discovered that the hard-boiled, amoral characters on which he had made his name were not what the industry required. So he moved to a mansion and hacked, whored and drank the decade away. His influence on Hollywood, when it came, did so by accident. John Huston, pitching an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon to Jack Warner in 1941, got his secretary to block out the shots his movie would use. She used Hammett's novel as a guide, not bothering to change words. Warner loved it. Huston found himself shooting Hammett's tough prose and ending (Sam Spade sending a woman to the chair) with its commas in place. More than a decade late, the brutal, witty style that had electrified Black Mask had made it to the movies. Hammett didn't care. At 48, an exhausted drunk, he left to join the army, hoping to fight fascists. He never wrote again.
Hollywood didn't miss him. It already had Hammett's Black Mask successor: Raymond Chandler. In 1944, Chandler, too, made his mark, working with Billy Wilder on the screenplay to James M Cain's Double Indemnity. Private and nervous, Chandler hated sharing a room with the young, cocky Wilder, threatening to resign within an hour over control of the Venetian blinds. They still turned out a film which combined Cain's sordid content with clipped dialogue and dark direction. That same year, Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely was filmed in flashback with a voice-over to keep the novel's sardonic tone, innovations so brilliant that they would soon become cliches. Between them these films, building on Hammett's example, defined the Forties' most resonant genre: film noir.
Chandler, like Hammett, did not enjoy his success. He told one shocked producer that he could only complete a screenplay by deadline if he was contractually obliged to be drunk round the clock, with a studio car on stand-by at all times in case he died. In 1947, "exhausted by Hollywood rubbish", he gratefully quit. Film noir spun on without him, looking to other writers instead: Daniel Mainwaring (Build My Gallows High), Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window), Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly), an almost endless list. Until, in 1958, it stopped. Technicolor and rock 'n' roll made noir shrivel in its shadowy lair, just as Hollywood, shrinking from TV, ceased to buy up writers by the dozen. Film noir was finished. Chandler was past caring. That same year, producer Harold Hecht, hoping to persuade the novelist back to Hollywood, was reduced to tears when he found him so drunk he could hardly speak. A year later, Chandler was dead.
The relationship between Hollywood and the pulps that Chandler had helped to consummate seemed just as extinct. A few stray connections lingered. Robert Bloch's Psycho provided Hitchcock with his greatest movie, an adaptation as faithful as Huston's Hammett. Donald Westlake wrote the novel that became Point Blank (1967), a shattering noir footnote set in psychedelic San Francisco. But these were isolated gems. Most of the few pulp writers who remained scraped a living without Hollywood's help. As the Seventies drew in, the party seemed to be over.
The man who would turn things around, to the extent that an unassuming crime writer like Elmore Leonard would become the hottest writer in Hollywood in 1996, was himself dead by the end of the Seventies. Jim Thompson had been one of the greatest pulp talents of all, the writer of bloody, sexual, downbeat novels so unsettling that Fifties Hollywood would not touch them. His link to the movies would still prove profound. As his biographer Robert Polito notes, Thompson, coming after Chandler and Hammett, learnt his craft from the films they had inspired, as much as their original stories. And in 1955, under the wing of Stanley Kubrick, he went to Hollywood himself. Their first collaboration, The Killing, was as great as any of the noirs that inspired it. Its structure, taken from a pulp novel source, followed the participants in a race-track robbery from planning to aftermath, circling back and forth in time as it switched from crook to crook. Into this structure, Thompson poured his own fatalistic obsessions. The Killing was Thompson's screenwriting peak, but Kubrick denied him full credit.
And yet, unlike Chandler and Hammett, Thompson would not leave Hollywood. Abandoned by Kubrick, he hung on for 20 more years. Young Sixties film- makers found the writer holding forth in a Hollywood Boulevard bar once frequented by Hammett, a pulp Canute. His last sniff of success, a screenplay of his novel The Getaway for Sam Peckinpah, was gutted. Thompson died, all but forgotten, in 1977. "Hollywood killed him,'' his sister said.
Hollywood resurrected him, too. In 1990, as the escapist haze that had hung over the industry since Star Wars in the year of Jim Thompson's death began to clear, three of Thompson's novels were unexpectedly filmed. The most successful, The Grifters, held together by a screenplay by Point Blank writer Donald Westlake, brought Thompson's claustrophobic world into the present. Reservoir Dogs (1992) kept it there. Tarantino's structure, circling round a gang of criminals before and after a robbery, was a knowing steal from Thompson's The Killing. Harvey Keitel's Mr White, doomed by a chink of weak love in his crook's code of honour, is a nod to the emotions in Thompson's novels. Pulp Fiction followed, its style a homage to the lurid covers of Thompson paperback originals (as well as the decade, the Fifties, in which those covers were etched). Saturated in pulp history, it drenched its audiences, too.
Films like The Usual Suspects have been one result, rooting through the words and situations of writers like Thompson and Hammett for clues to what a thriller can be. If, as is rumoured, Tarantino turns his hand to a Leonard novel next, it would put a fitting stamp on pulp's resilient appeal. It might even let the ancestors of Leonard, Hiaasen and co, "murdered" at the movies one by one, rest in peace.
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