A. I. Bezzerides

No-nonsense novelist/screenwriter


Albert Isaac Bezzerides, novelist, screenwriter, truck-driver and engineer: born Samsun, Turkey 9 August 1908; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Woodland Hills, California 1 January 2007.

A former trucking engineer who turned novelist and screenwriter, A. I. Bezzerides specialised in tough, unpretentious writing, providing pithy dialogue for several of Warners' "social conscience" films of the Forties, including the classic "road" movie They Drive By Night.

His no-nonsense style was favoured by such screen heroes as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Robert Mitchum, and he achieved particular fame with his startlingly nihilistic and gripping adaptation of Mickey Spillane's thriller Kiss Me Deadly (1955), turning the work of pulp fiction into one of the screen's finest films noirs that is considered the masterpiece of its director, Robert Aldrich, and a prime influence on the French "New Wave".

Born in 1908 in Turkey, to an American mother and Greek father, Albert Isaac Bezzerides was only a year old when his parents emigrated to the United States, where he grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, an area of Fresno, California, noted for its proliferation of fruit orchards and heavily populated with immigrants from Armenia and Europe.

"Buzz" Bezzerides first worked as a truck driver, then studied electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley before dropping out to work as an engineer while fulfilling his ambition to write. His first novel, The Long Haul (1938), based on his own trucking experiences, was bought by Warners and became the movie They Drive By Night (1940), scripted by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay.

George Raft and Humphrey Bogart starred as road haulage drivers fighting exploitation and fatigue as they work to start their own business. Ann Sheridan played the diner waitress whose repartee with the truckers flirted with the boundaries of the Hays code, and the film presented a convincing picture of the trucking milieu. With Raoul Walsh's brisk direction, the film was a big hit with both critics and public.

Bezzerides's style and his penchant for what the novelist George Pelicanos calls "proletariat literature" were in keeping with the Warner studio's reputation for hard-hitting, tough and controversial movies with a social conscience, and he was offered a contract. "I had been working as an engineer at the Department of Water and Power, writing on the side," Bezzerides recalled: "I'd written two novels, The Long Haul [1938] and Thieves' Market [1949]. They were based on things I'd seen with my father or on my own. I worked with my father, trucking, going to the market to buy produce. There was corruption and they'd try to screw you. When he was selling grapes, the packing house would screw him on the price and then sell to New York for an expensive price. When I was trucking I wouldn't allow it. A guy tried to rob me in such a blatant way I picked up a two-by-four and I was going to kill him."

His first film assignment was Juke Girl (1942), a story of itinerant Florida crop-pickers made almost entirely on location in Salinas, California. Ann Sheridan and Ronald Reagan were the stars of the under-rated movie that highlighted the plight of the farmers at the hands of ruthless land barons. Bezzerides then provided added dialogue for the Bogart morale-booster about the war at sea Action in the North Atlantic (1943), though John Howard Lawson was given sole screen credit.

Moving to Paramount, Bezzerides collaborated with Robert Rossen on the script for the richly coloured melodrama Desert Fury (1947), starring Lizabeth Scott, Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak as its protagonists, but notable mainly for its blatant hints (for the time) that gambler Hodiak's henchman (Wendell Corey) has a homosexual affection for his boss. In 1949 Bezzerides's second novel about truckers, Thieves' Market, was filmed as Thieves' Highway, with the author writing the script. Directed by Jules Dassin, it is highly regarded, though Bezzerides objected to some of the changes he had to make. He recalled,

Dassin says, "For the prostitute, I want Valentina Cortesa, so rewrite it for her." He was going with her. We were going to have Shelley Winters, who would have been perfect. This Italian, Cortesa, what would she be doing in this story? But I rewrote it.

Bezzerides was then asked by Humphrey Bogart, who had formed his own production company, to write the script of Sirocco (1951), a tale of gun-running in 1920s Syria. Not a distinguished film, Sirocco is remembered mainly for its heroine Marta Toren's comment to Bogart, "You're so ugly. How can a man so ugly be so handsome?"

For Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952), Bezzerides fashioned a convincing portrait of a brutal cop (Robert Ryan) who is "vicious to criminals because he can rationalise it. Criminals are criminals to him, they're not people." Sent upstate to a rural community to solve a girl's murder, the cop learns compassion from the killer's blind sister (Ida Lupino) and in Bezzerides's original script he returns to the city with a new perspective. Bezzerides described it as "a helluva picture".

He was less happy with Track of the Cat (1954) which he wrote for the director William Wellman:

He so fell in love with my first draft that he wouldn't touch a word of it, though I told him it needed cutting and was overwritten. Bob Mitchum, though, was fantastic. He carried scenes that needed to be polished, and his performance made some of it work. I thought he was a wonderful guy but he was cynical.

We did another picture, Robert Aldrich's The Angry Hills [1959], and I asked him, "Why are you doing this piece of shit?". We were on location. He said, "I've never been to Greece."

Aldrich was the director of Bezzerides's most famous film script, Kiss Me Deadly, which had great impact on its release, and was hailed as a masterpiece in France, where it was an acknowledged influence on such films as François Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist) and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. Given full reign by Aldrich, Bezzerides transformed the novel into an apocalyptic, ultra-paranoid film noir, filmed by a director described by Truffaut as "a young director not yet worrying about restraint".

Asked about his remarkable adaptation, and the decision to make "the great whatsit" that is the quest of the ruthless cast of characters into a nuclear Pandora's box, Bezzerides commented, "People ask me about the hidden meanings in the script, about the A-bomb, about McCarthyism, what does the poetry mean, and so on. And I can only say that I didn't think about it when I wrote it . . . I was having fun with it. I wanted to make every scene, every character, interesting. A girl comes up to Ralph Meeker, I make her a nympho. She grabs him and kisses him the first time she sees him. She says, "You don't taste like anybody I know." I'm a big car nut, so I put in all that stuff with the cars and the mechanic. I was an engineer, and I gave the detective the first phone answering machine in that picture. I was having fun."

In 1956 Bezzerides wrote a 60-minute television adaptation of Thieves' Market, entitled Overnight Haul, and he began writing regularly for television, contributing scripts to such shows as Gunsmoke, 77 Sunset Strip and Bonanza. In 1965 he co-created the hit western series The Big Valley, set in the San Joaquin Valley and starring Barbara Stanwyck as a ranching matriarch.

In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary film, Buzz, for which he was interviewed at his home in Woodland Hills, California; reviews described the nonagenarian Bezzerides as "opinionated and cantankerous". At the time of his death he was writing a new novel, "First Kill".

Tom Vallance

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