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The Life and Times of David Goodis

Dark Passages

by BEN TERRALL

Philippe Garnier’s Goodis, La Vie en Noir et Blanc, an investigation into the life and times of novelist and screenwriter David Goodis, was published in France in 1984. Oddly, no U.S. publisher saw fit to put the book out in English until writer and film noir impresario Eddie Muller created Black Pool Productions in 2013 to bring it to the United States.

Muller has produced a beautiful edition of this title with an abundance of reproductions of vintage dust jackets and ephemera, including fascinating studio memos. And unlike too much contemporary non-fiction, it is both fact-checked and proofread.

Books about popular fiction or film can be dry or pedantic in the extreme, but Goodis: A Life in Black and White belongs on the top shelf of both smart and truly entertaining entries into those fields. Garnier is a lively, opinionated wordsmith who seems incapable of writing a boring sentence. His book is heavy on information gleaned from interviews with people who knew Goodis, many done by Garnier when he was working for a French television show on cinema; it also includes original research from the Warner Bros. archives and other paper trails. It’s a tribute to shoe-leather journalism which eschews heavy theorizing in the interests of elucidation.

In his postscript, Garnier explains that in its original release the book encountered hostility from some who found it insufficiently worshipful of Goodis and his work. Garnier writes, “I had tried to explain the context in which it was created, expose the canvas he’d painted on, and the commercial conditions in which he toiled. None of this is ever welcome in France, where people prefer to fantasize and indulge in endless interpretation.” (Elsewhere Garnier refers to his homeland as “Frogland,” and he lays to waste the auteur theory beloved by French intellectuals.)

Garnier calls it the way he sees it. For instance, after citing critic Geoffrey O’Brien’s praise of the Goodis novel Nightfall, Garnier writes, “Another reading of the novel would point out the incredibly weak storyline, the interminable dialogue – nonsense about orange ice cream and barstool talk with a stranger, written by Goodis as if he were a cabby intent on keeping the meter running.”

But Garnier goes on to say, “More importantly, though, is the way he writes in that cinematic mode of his.” Garnier concludes, “There was something in his writing, an ineffable affinity to movies, which would continue to draw filmmakers to his books, again and again.”

Garnier writes perceptively about the changes to Hollywood filmmaking wrought by television. He describes how the film of Nightfall exemplifies the tendency in the 1950s to shoot black and white with less contrast and to feature more closeups for the small screen. Similarly, TV stations were provided 16mm prints of old films printed lighter than the 35mm versions, washing out the gorgeous work of ace cameramen like John Alton and Nicholas Musuraca.

He also provides fascinating overviews of mid 20th century paperback publishing in both France and the U.S. His description of the French line Seire Noire, revered by everyone from Sartre to Francoise Truffaut (who adapted Goodis’ Down There as Shoot the Piano Player) details its publisher’s practice of chopping huge chunks of the original novels before reprinting them for Gallic consumption; Garnier writes, “It is ironic that the French, who have always been so smug about their early appreciation for American genre fiction, knew the books mostly in bowdlerized and mangled versions.” The series, however, left Goodis’ work largely intact.

Goodis began his professional career writing for pulp magazines during their last hurrah in the 1930s. Pounding away on his battered portable Underwood, Goodis also produced work for radio. After a less than joyful stint at an ad agency, Goodis graduated to writing novels.

The Bogart-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage is probably the most famous of the films adapted from a Goodis work. The movie provided Goodis with a nice chunk of money, as did the story’s serialization in the Saturday Evening Post. The cash continued to flow from a screenwriting job at Warner Bros. This financial security didn’t change Goodis’s tastes much; he went out of his way to eat in the cheapest dives and avoided most of the places where established Hollywood players mingled.

In addition to shocking squares with his relatively low-rent tastes, bad hygiene, and slovenly grooming habits, Goodis liked to engage in outrageous behavior, which gets plenty of play from Garnier. Sometimes he hit the town in an old bathrobe and pretended to be white Russian prince. One Goodis buddy recalls that when the writer took him out for a drive in his Chrysler Phaeton he insisted that “we wear his stupid Army surplus gasmasks.” The Phaeton itself was such a wreck that it was banned from the Warner parking lot. To save money, Goodis replaced the top with a plastic tablecloth, then used tar to patch that. In the summer, the tar melted and dripped on intrepid passengers.

Though not a particularly political person, Goodis was forward-thinking in his approach to race relations and dated across the color line for years. A friend told Garnier, “I heard him talk seriously only once in all the time I knew him, and that was on the subject of racism, and the prevalent attitudes toward black people in this country. It was something he cared about profoundly, even more than he wanted to let on. […] One day he told me could not understand a world that tolerated racism and apartheid. He said such a world had no future. […] That one time, he was serious, and very sad.”

This is an amazing book that should be snapped up by anyone remotely interested in literary or cinematic noir. For those who don’t read French (guilty!), we can only hope that more of Garnier’s work will be translated into English.

Ben Terrall is a writer living in the Bay Area. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com