Film Noir, Doctor X, and Women in Bondage

When I was a kid, back in the mid-50s, my favorite time to watch television was right after I came home from school. Big decision: do my homework, or watch the “Afternoon Movie.” There was one channel in New Orleans, WDSU, Channel 4. Unlike now, the only movies that had been released to be shown on television were the old black and white films made in the 30s and 40s, and they were all what you’d call “B” pictures. Every day after school I watched one of those old movies while eating a PB&J, or a tuna sandwich, sitting in front of the little tv in the basement of our house. To this day, whenever I watch an old 30s or 40s black and white “B” movie on TV, I’m brought back to that time, home alone with a PB&J watching old horror movies like The Invisible Ray with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, or some cheesy western like Pals of the Saddle with John Wayne and Ray Corrigan, or a grainy black & white murder mystery like Fear in the Night, or some tawdry stuff my parents probably would just as soon I didn’t see, like Women in Bondage or Isle of Forgotten Sins or Wife Wanted or Ladies Grave Excitement. Years later I discovered the director of that film also directed Gun Crazy, one of my favorite film noir “B” movies with Barbara Cummins and John Dall as the gun-toting husband careening down dirt roads on a crime spree of epic proportions. I can’t explain now why those cheaply made old noir movies held such fascination for me, even today, in ways that the better made, slicker, big budget films don’t. Maybe it’s the equivalence of writing. Spare prose cut down to the bone, one-take low-budget shots on cheap sets with actors snarling their way, not just through hold-ups and getaways, but in those required love scenes in shadowed hotel rooms, snarling for validation. Scenes of those movies are still embedded in my brain. John Garfield and Claude Rains in They Made Me a Criminal, where Garfield is a boxer who flees the big city thinking that he’d committed murder when he was drunk. It popped up on television just a week ago, and for 75 minutes, I was 13 years old again, in my basement, eating a PB&J. About a month ago I saw Doctor X, with Lionell Atwill, Fay Wray, Preston Foster, and Lee Tracy. You don’t know who Lee Tracy is, but I feel like I could write a book about this guy he fascinated me so much. Not because he was good, but because he was so amazingly bad. Rangy with the quick moves of an ex-vaudeville dancer, he possessed distinctively adenoidal vocal tones that sounded like someone had put a kazoo in his larynx. He fit in perfectly during that racy and race-paced style of pre-Code Hollywood, with his peerless lighting rod delivery and the timing of a juggler. He also had a voracious appetite for high living. He was the biggest, phoniest, ham actor I’d ever seen in movies, but he over-acted so stylistically, so over the top, putting such passion and commitment into every stage gesture and mugged facial expression that I found myself relishing it the way you relish cars crashing into the stands at the Indie 500. But his hair-trigger temper and a notoriously reckless off-camera life marked by heavy drinking and unrestrained carousing got the best of him. He finally went too far during the filming of Viva Villa in Mexico City. He punched out two local policemen and was subsequently arrested on morals charges. For the next 30 years, he labored in low-budget, badly written films, and mostly did stage work. Then, when he was 66, he was picked to play the crusty, terminally ill U.S. President in Gore Vidal’s blistering political drama, The Best Man, starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. I didn’t see it when it came out, but years later, there it was on TV, on one of those late, late-night movies. At first, I didn’t recognize him, then a slow realization that this was the guy I loved to cringe at when I watched those old 30s “B” pictures in the basement when I was a kid. Turns out he got his only Oscar nod for that role. He was superb. His personality had hardened, and his face grown slack, weary, and resigned. Three years after making the film, Lee Tracy died of cancer in a Santa Monica hospital. Postscript: A few years after the Viva Villa incident derailed his career, he met and married Helen Thoms Wyse, and defying all odds, they made the marriage work. She survived him by 30 years.

How many of those “B” pics did I see in my teens? Four or five a week. Lots of Humphrey Bogart’s “B” Pictures before he became a star with The Maltese Falcon, movies like You Can’t Get Away with Murder and Crime School, which also starred the “Dead End Kids,” Satch, Slip, Whitey, and Louie’s Malt Shop. After dinner, there was no avoiding homework any longer. Some nights, I stayed up late so I could watch “The Midnight Movie,” and some of these movies were classics, movies I’ve since seen dozens of times: The Best Years of Our Lives, Hitchocks’s The 39 Steps, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Lost Horizon, etc. But the one movie that made the greatest impact on me I saw on Christmas Eve when I was about 14. Down in the basement. Late at night. They kept cutting to commercials hosted by a Santa Claus in a shadowy minimalistic studio with bare walls sitting in a big easy chair. And each time they cut back to him, he was hawking some kind of Christmas gift anywhere from a wristwatch to a refrigerator. Each time they cut to him, he slurred his words a little bit more. One time I noticed how he reached down to retrieve something just as the camera was cutting away. It was a bottle of whiskey. I could tell that he was getting drunker and drunker between commercial breaks. I know this because my father was a drinker, and I had become an expert on the physical and vocal changes that occur after one sip, two swallows, three gulps, and then a good long guzzle of Jim Beam. Toward the end of the movie, Santa was totally blotto. I imagine it was just him and the camera-man in a dingy studio back at WDSU on Royal Street in the French Quarter on a cold Christmas Eve. I’m sure the camera-man was having his sips and gulps too, because the drunker Santa became, the drunker the camera became. But the movie? Unlike any late-night “B” picture I’d ever seen. Off-kilter camera angles, unusual cuts, crystal-clear focus, long tracking shots, smash-mouth close-ups. Like nothing, I had ever seen before. Nothing like anything I’d seen after school or at midnight trying to write some essay on American history while watching the Midnight Movie. Those old “B” pictures were usually shot in cheap hotel rooms and standard back-lot city streets. This film seemed epic. The difference in visual style between a portrait sketch at Disneyland and David’s painting of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps. To go from Santa slurring a plug for an Amana Freezer to this epic film the likes of which I’d never seen before verged on the surreal, a visual and intellectual experience at 2 o’clock in the morning that still raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Then with Santa practically falling out of his chair, we go to that closing shot at the end of the movie, all those pieces of furniture being thrown in the bonfire, then the sled that the boy in the movie had loved when he was just a child, and the fire causing the paint to peel, and the name “Rosebud” becoming visible for a few seconds before it too was consumed by flames. Movies you see late at night, all by yourself, are remembered as dreams. I’ve seen Citizen Kane maybe 50 times, but that first time, that was the dream I had of a movie, the apparition that appears out of the darkness and settles in your mind to live forever. Just the way you saw it that first time. What I felt was like nothing I’d ever felt before, how a movie, a story, images, people talking, camera shots — how all of that could remain embedded not only in your mind, but in your heart as well, and sometimes, deep into your soul. This is what we do, as artists, as writers, as poets. We scrape the words out of our psyche and make something out of them that hadn’t existed before. And someone, someone you don’t know, someone you’ll never meet, someone far away, will remember your words and the images you made in their minds, and it will impact their lives, maybe forever. I was a fourteen-year-old boy in New Orleans, down in the dark basement of my house, eating a PB&J, watching a movie, and now I’m old, trying to make a movie with words on paper.