“You see these lines on my face? They’re anniversary presents.”
As a fan of crime author Duane Swierczynski, I read one of his blog posts arranging a bus trip on Saturday January 7th 2012 to the Philadelphia gravesite of David Goodis (1917-1967). I won’t be joining, but reading about the trip inspired me towards my own David Goodis Tribute (and there will be more later this year). I’m a fan of the noir film Dark Passage which is based on a Goodis novel. It’s an extremely clever film in which we don’t see the protagonist’s face until deep into the story. This “point of view shot” or “subjective camera” shows the action as if the camera is literally the protagonist’s eyes. There’s a good reason for the use of this camera technique, of course, as at one point in Dark Passage the main character has plastic surgery after escaping from San Quentin.
The face in question belongs to Humphrey Bogart; there’s no mistaking that signature voice, and the role of the weary, hunted Vincent Parry is perfect for Bogart. It’s a magnificent film–not only for its teaming of Bogart and Bacall but also for its vivid San Francisco setting. At the time of its release, New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther called Dark Passage an “over-stretched fable,” but then again he also called Night and the City ( a film that makes my top noir list) a “turgid, pictorial grotesque.” It’s a fair bet to say that Crowther didn’t care for noir… But back to the book. And here it begins:
It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.
That brilliantly simple passage establishes several things: Vincent Parry, just “a little guy who wasn’t important” repeatedly gets the shaft in life. Note the passive voice in the last line: “he was taken to San Quentin.” That passive voice reinforces the idea that there are bigger forces at work pulling the strings in Vincent’s life. And as we learn more about Vincent, we see that he’s never got a break: orphaned at 15, he stole food and ended up in a reformatory. After being brutalised by a reformatory guard, Vincent’s self-defense ended with more punishment, and that’s how life is for Vincent. He struggles against the injustice meted out by society and ends up being flattened even further. As a result, there’s a more than a streak of defeated fatalism to Vincent’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why he initially meekly accepts a life sentence at San Quentin.
Back to Vincent and San Quentin. What crime is former clerk Vincent convicted for? Well, it’s an ugly one–Vincent’s wife, the trashy Gert is murdered–her skull bashed in with an ashtray. The Parrys’ marriage was noticeably volatile and adulterous, and with a witness who caught Gert’s dying words that Vincent swung the ashtray, Vincent, with no alibi, gets life at San Quentin. At first life there doesn’t seem too bad, and that’s because Vincent doesn’t want much, but then as his existence becomes unbearable, he plans a bold escape….
From this point, fate seems to continue its plan for Vincent, and by the end of the novel, seemingly good luck eventually turns into horrible coincidence. But wait a minute… is there such a thing as coincidence in noir? Or is coincidence just a dark disguise for the tricks of fate? After escaping from San Quentin, Vincent is picked up by a young attractive, wealthy girl named Irene–a girl who’s taken a special interest in Vincent’s case. Taking considerable personal risks, she whisks him off to her luxury apartment and urges him to hide there until things cool down and she can facilitate his escape from the country. Vincent is suspicious of his good luck:
He said, “If I had a lot of money I could understand it. The way it is now I don’t get it at all. There’s nothing in this for you. Nothing but aggravation and hardship.”
Fate, however, has some cruel games in store, but enough of the plot. What of Goodis’s style?
Goodis has a remarkable way of snaking paragraphs and sentences together. Here’s an example:
Parry was thinking about that as he entered the gates of San Quentin. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any brutal guards. He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.
He didn’t look as though he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment security house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.
In San Quentin he managed to get three packs a day.
See how he snakes those paragraphs together? Note the use of repetition and pacing in another section. Goodis would be a great subject for linguistic study. Just think of the fun to be had with T-sentence analysis:
He sat there looking at the floor and smoking cigarettes. He smoked nine cigarettes in succession. He looked at the stubs in the ash tray. He counted them, saw them dead there in the heaped ashes. Then he wondered how long it would take until the police arrived. He wondered how long it would be until he was dead, because this time he wouldn’t be going back to a cell. This time they had him on a charge that would mean the death sentence. He looked at the window and saw the thick rain coming out of the thick grey sky, the broken sky. He decided to take a run at the window and then stopped and turned his back to the window and looked at the wall. He stood there without moving for almost a full hour. He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces. The faces of statisticians who made forty-five a week, and customers’ men who sometimes made a hundred and a half and sometimes made nothing. And the executives who made fifteen and twenty and thirty thousand a year, and the customers who sat there or stood there and watched the board. The customers, and some of them could walk out of that place and get on their yachts and go out across thousands of miles of water, getting up in the morning when they felt like getting up, fishing or swimming around their grand white yachts, alone out there on the water. And in the evening they would be wearing emerald studs in their shirt-fronts with white formal jackets and black tropical worsted trousers with satin black and gleaming down the sides, down to their gleaming black patent-leather shoes as they danced in the small ballrooms of their yachts with tall thin women with bared shoulders, dripping organdie from their tall thin bodies as they danced or held delicate glasses of champagne in their thin, delicate fingers.
The Library of America is releasing a 5-volume set of Goodis novels in 3/12: Dark Passage (made into film), The Moon and the Gutter (made into film), Nightfall (made into film), The Burglar (made into film), Street of No Return (yes! made into a film). I have a review copy of this volume so I’ll be getting to the other novels soon. This review came as the result of reading my own copy of Dark Passage. I read a Goodis novel some time ago that I wasn’t crazy about and it’s always hard to persuade yourself to take a second spin with an author you weren’t that enthusiastic about for the first round. In this case I’ve no regrets I returned to Goodis. Dark Passage is a masterpiece of noir.