Red Carnival in a Lonely Place: Clancy Sigal’s “Black Sunset”

“When people are in trouble, they need to talk.”

– Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly; Robert Aldrich, 1956

From the shaky evidence in Black Sunset, Clancy Sigal refuses to take his enemies seriously. The Sigal recipe for dealing with the most repulsive of men is to render them à la Max Fleischer or seal them in a ripple of chins stuck with one rheumy eye in the old Amazing Stories style. Character is fate. Fate is a crunched, ever-leering orb. Exhibit A: Herman Goering catches Sergeant Sigal’s eye at the Nuremberg trials, unaware that Clancy got busted earlier with live ammo to be turned Naziwise in court. The Reichsminister manages to rub in this failure with one primitive, louche gesture that we’ll call the Goering Wink. The Wink is a mirthless flying saucer revolving around the inner works of shame – not-doing, undoing, doing the undone – a cancerous jinx shot from the fat man to the kid. Result: Goering and I; eye of Goering; I and thou; equivalence (a joke); conspiracy of glances; guilt; failure (to kill Goering); black sunset (the eye closes and opens like a sinister aperture); a set-up which is beyond absurd because it indicts you (Sgt. Sigal).

After his first brush with the cartoon nature of Death in Germany, Sigal stumbles into Hollywood. Drunk since childhood on kinolust, he lands the most reviled job in the biz – talent agent – and this milieu is where most of Black Sunset takes place, haunted by the Wink and by a conspiracy of accidents. It also adds another all-seeing eye just as closely related to the currency of power: The Blacklist, a somewhat glitzy sequel to the War Crimes Tribunal.

At Sam Jaffe’s agency, young Clancy is batted around in a sheol of worthies, wonks, hacks and megalomaniacs. A sort of flipped Pirandellism holds sway among the stars who are unable to escape the repetitive motions of an immortal role or even an unshakable line. Their most statuesque turns are more immovable than mountains, remembered forever by that narcotic public sea which is the broken vessel of all American mysteries.

Take the Old West for example. Goldwyn, Warner, Laemmle created dybbuks by the daily rushes, images far more truly Western than the vapid books of historians or the daguerreotypes which merely mimic Tom Mix. These lightning-figures recalled from the brink of a fade-out compose the real facts in the case of America and they are the masterpieces of recent émigrés. In Hollywood, only the Jews have a real sense of themselves; Puritans are talentless outsiders. Yiddish is the
clancysigalblacklingua franca of the Hollywood skin trade. Even the anti-Semitism of the Blacklist, the more stupid and cruel it is the more conspicuous is the impotency and envy of the uncut ghosts. Black sunset, black magic lanterns, refugees from the Black Sea or Black Order in black and white on both sides of the witch-hunt and all equally suspected. A glorious, final revenge of a people cast out by the dominant confession: All your icons will be made by our hands until we are more you than you.

Hollywood remains the cursed reflection of the Most High met out in a series of alluring punishments for its first transgression, the foremost being fame. If the promise of the modern world was the Russian Revolution and the forces set free (and then imprisoned) by the Soviet Union, the theogony of the modern world was American Hollywood. How can you escape it? How can you not love it? Who is immune from its power?  Exhibit B: Agent Sigal tries to ensnare Boris Karloff for the Jaffe concern on the set of a late period Abbott & Costello vehicle, but old Im-ho-tep shakes his head irritably and walks back toward the grave of Dr Jekyll. Who could survive this supreme offense, of offering a mere job to an immortal? Clancy Sigal’s book is as ancient as the Mahabharata, another classic composed in the mathematic of stars, and the rage of Jack Palance is more terrible than that of wrathful Dhritarashtra.

These walk-ons in Black Sunset are deceptive, however. Hints are dropped about still-buried revelations; some hide behind pseudonyms for reasons exotic or mundane. Remember, this is more than part a detective tale: aside from the Wink and the Blacklist, Moose Malloy and the Sternwoods stalk our main man.

The icons are treated reverently throughout. Bogart, Nelson Algren (looking for a job), Barbara Stanwyck (prone to red-baiting but larger than life and red-baiting), the great Peter Lorre (forever in the clutches of Kaspar Gutman, Brecht and Fritz Lang), Nicholas Ray, Rod Steiger, Gloria Graham, Barbara Payton and among many others… Sigal even manages to reject both Elvis and James Dean as unmarketable properties for the agency. Warner and Selznick howl through the leaves, bristling with resentment and froth, as the Los Alamos nuclear tests light up LA to compete with their studios. Es su barrio.

However, Sigal’s real passion is for Level B. His love for the Creature from the Black Lagoon is boundless, as should be yours. Masters of the conveyer belt like Sam Newfield and the lunatic William Alland (the biggest snitch in the annals of the Blacklist, and the loopiest), insect Griffiths and honest craftsman who pull off vigorous potboilers with a lack of self-consciousness and minotaur energy now utterly extinct in American cinema. The remote soundstages where these tinkers worked provide Clancy with a kind of plywood refuge from hostile agents who track his signed-up stars with the fanaticism of a Cortez. For those of us who take The Man from Planet X as the measure of our sephirot and Revenge of the Creature as our ablution at Mecca, the description of old futuristic props decaying on the backlot banks of the LA River is more splendid than Solomon’s ring. When Clancy is stalked by two very silly Mormon FBI agents or feels the tendrils of Blacklist apparatchiks near his throat, it’s Val Lewton who comes to mind. On film, Clancy can be seen in sarong and shoe-polish in Curt Siodmak’s timeless Bride of the Gorilla.

When the FBI enters the frame, Clancy messes his pants but keeps up a patter worthy of Ben Hecht. He got his chops from Ma: his parents were union folks from the ghetto, streetwise, sharp-tongued, soulful (Aside: His mother seems to me to really be the main character, dancing and hash-slinging, as she is and isn’t in other women who reflect her, in the constant barb of her absence). Goering’s beady eyes lap-dissolve into J Edgar Hoover’s and follow Clancy while he drops anti-HUAC agit-prop from an airplane, minds bloody-minded press agents at cocktail parties, assembles a harem (the only body that actually puts him on trial), and forms a tight-knit group of intensely loyal freaks bent on mauling the Feds called the Omegas. The figure of the final Greek letter surrounds the whole book in a great witchy mote, a character with the color gray as its abiding shade. Elements of the cipher: the hammer and sickle, Donna Reed, I Walked with a Zombie, wire taps and stucco, the forensic mattress.

We usually think of the timing and tone of the Blacklist as purest Gothic: intricate and stone-cold, slippery, ornamented with paranoia. One of the great lessons of Dark Sunset is that the era probably felt much more ragtime. Red Scare rhythm has the giggling velocity of Scott Joplin rather than the thousand-ton sloth of pipe-organ or gargoyle. The carousel of persecution revolves on a wobbly mechanism, dispensing unintentionally comic outcomes along with betrayal, empty rooms, suicide and ruthless self-preservation.

McCarthy’s inevitable fall was a product of the fact that his spleen could not control his bowels. He left behind a trail of razorblades, burnt-out ends, and unemployed stoolies. Like all hideous acts, ratting is motored by the most mundane of reasons – mortgages, utility bills, infirmity, and nooky. Clancy drops his list of names into the drink at the end, making sure that we knew that he too kept one (if he’s lying here, it is a lie that shows the truth of why people did what they did and the sorcery of pockets). If some collaborators escaped self-reflection, they don’t escape Clancy’s refusal to accept the polystyrene concept of philosophical Evil. One of his pals, a Red forced to work as a barber, declines to slit a fink’s throat but not his right to not let the man know he won’t in order to tell him he might and should. To each his own terror; to each his own mercy, and all of it a show. Clancy even gets a date for one of Feds shadowing him. Like Nietzsche, this working-class Jewish kid has a thing for chivalry and heiterkeit in the ashes. Black Sunset moves with the express swagger of a Hawks or Wellman picture, although it feels like an Ozu once it’s all over and the characters linger in silhouette as if they were a fixture of the freeway system at night.

At the same time the stars migrate to television – a glum medium both Clancy and his bosses despise – Sen. McCarthy implodes when he goes after the army, but his final cloacal traces linger long enough to cost a job or two. Clancy’s, for one. The end of his Hollywood tenure comes softly from a temptress’ lips; it is said that even Sappho had a soft spot for soldiers.  ‘I never saw any of them again except for the cops…’, wrote Raymond Chandler. But Clancy does run into them on and off over the years. He even ends up living next door to his old boss, the explosive Sam Jaffe, when he returns to California decades later. The one exception is Clancy’s best friend and brother-from-another-mother, Ray Kovacs, who remains lost and whose present absence touches every page. He still searches for him to this day, with the devotion of a Gilgamesh or an Engels. Selah.

A man’s autobiography is the story of his mother. Mrs. Sigal is last seen in Black Sunset doing a mad can-can with her son after Clancy is cast out from Babylon, on his way to uncertain hoboing around Europe. Not since Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh and Pasolini’s Mama Roma has a mother’s diwan by gas-range been sung so beautifully.

Black Sunset does not give ghosts in the old dispensation, but rather in reels that may still hold a cruel miracle or two once the sentient concrete has finally cooled. Few things are more dreadful than nostalgia. It is exiled along with the Angel of Death from these pages, although the terrible Wink lingers like a half-close shudder over the commas. Farley Grainger turns up here too, that madman so memorable in Strangers on a Train, looking for work in an unlucky season.

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It should be remembered that we cannot see the path of the sun because we are carried along in a constantly rotating point on earth, wherever we may be. The cycles of sunrise and sunset veil the path of the sun in relation to the stars. Great visions of the stars in Black Sunset.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.