The writers of the literary and film genre that came to be known as “noir” were a decidedly quirky group — heavy emphasis on alcoholism, troubled relationships, and general bad luck. It went with the territory, but even in that nutty company David Goodis (1917-1967) stands out as a case for special treatment.
After graduating from pulp magazines to a stop-and-go career crafting screenplays for Warner Bros. in the 1940s, Goodis left Hollywood under a cloud and decamped to his native Philadelphia, where he moved in with his parents and began the serious business of trolling the dives for fresh material for paperback crime novels. By all accounts he was a loner and a drunk. But he kept turning out the titles, among them such undisputed pillars of noir as Dark Passage, Nightfall, Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player), Black Friday (aka And Hope to Die), and The Moon in the Gutter — all of which are featured in the Pacific Film Archive’s canny mini-retrospective, “Streets of No Return: The Dark Cinema of David Goodis.”
Goodis’ writing hurts. Even in a genre so well stocked with losers, his characters seem to inhabit their own special sphere of misery, the land of insomniacs and day-late-and-a-dollar-short hustlers. The fact that the writer identifies so closely with his unhappy protagonists only intensifies the experience. As fellow crime author Ed Gorman observed, “David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes.” Film programmer Elliot Lavine, interviewed on the phone, amplifies that opinion. “That alcoholic obscurity was the hallmark of his whole life. Goodis was full of self-doubt. He’s a tough read for the casual observer, not for everybody’s taste.” Compared to the ultra-prolific Jim Thompson, who likewise did paperback originals as well as screenplays, Goodis occupies the familiar also-ran’s role. Notes Lavine: “Thompson is a better writer. Both of them share a dark depravity and both enjoyed a late-’80s vogue, but Goodis’ characters are more pathetic. In that respect it’s clear why the French loved him. He’s not an easy read. He’s drunk most of the time. You can tell. He goes on for page after page and doesn’t really say anything.”
The bleak situations translated vividly onto the big screen — the late author’s work has been adapted by, among others, François Truffaut, Samuel Fuller, René Clément, and Steven Soderbergh, all of whom recognized rich, emotive, actors’-picnic material when they saw it. Goodis’ oeuvre is also a feast for admirers. That’s why PFA video curator Steve Seid invited five writers and filmmakers to introduce and discuss their favorite Goodis films for Seid’s three-week series, beginning with the Friday, August 1 screening of the 1947 Goodis-Delmer Daves-Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall classic Dark Passage. The film is hosted by Berkeley author and screenwriter Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, City of Ghosts), who has a close, albeit posthumous, relationship with Goodis — as founding editor of the Black Lizard imprint, Gifford was responsible for the rediscovery of Goodis’ work, alongside such noir luminaries as Thompson, Charles Willeford, Charles Williams, and Fredric Brown. Dark Passage (7:00) shares a bill with Vincent Sherman’s The Unfaithful (9:15), Goodis’ first screen credit, a violent marital drama starring Ann Sheridan and Lew Ayres.
The East Bay’s Eddie Muller, novelist and director of the Noir City film festival, introduces a pair of Goodises on August 7 — Jacques Tourneur’s no-nonsense 1957 Nightfall, starring tough hombre Aldo Ray as a guy on a hunting trip who ends up being hunted; and the tale of a gang that couldn’t think straight, 1957’s The Burglar, with Dan Duryea and the very young Jayne Mansfield. This Saturday, August 2, Mike White, editor of the zany blog/’zine Cashiers du Cinemart, introduces a new print of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, probably the best-known Goodis film (6:30). Then on August 21, two separate made-for-cable adaptations of Goodis’ story The Professional Man — one starring Christian Slater and directed by Nicholas Kazan, who appears in person; the other by Soderbergh, who recasts the story in a gay-male milieu, with Brendan Fraser and Peter Coyote.
One of the series’ most entertaining surprises is Henri Verneuil’s slapsticky renamed 1971 version of The Burglar, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as a swinging thief on the run in Greece, with cop Omar Sharif and playgirl Dyan Cannon in pursuit. It contains one the best all-time car chases, a daytime dash through Piraeus with driving stunts that rival the original Gone in 60 Seconds or Walter Hill’s The Driver. Plus an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The Burglars, in French with English subtitles, plays August 14 at 6:30 p.m. But the real sleeper is Francis Girod’s Descent into Hell (1986), with self-destructive sot Claude Brasseur and contemptuous wife Sophie Marceau rotting in the Haitian sun. It’s adapted from Goodis’ The Wounded and the Slain, and screens August 10.
What might seem the riskiest choice in the lineup, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Moon in the Gutter, makes perfect sense when Lavine explains it. The stage-y 1983 adaptation, a murky romance between a longshoreman (the young and surprisingly svelte Gérard Depardieu) and a mystery woman (Nastassia Kinski), plays itself out in one of Beineix’s (Diva) stylized waterfront settings, where the pauvre mec, appropriately named Gérard, is haunted by the brutal killing of his sister years before — there’s still blood in the gutter. Lots of extravagant nighttime visuals and camera pans across faces while orchestral music gushes heroically. Only one scene achieves anything resembling poetry: bad girl Bella (Victoria Abril) on a swing in the back yard, lazily swinging while the camera peeks under her skirt and Gabriel Yared’s Arabic music soundtrack pumps up the sexiness. Otherwise, not one of Depardieu’s career highlights.
But for Lavine, programmer of the Roxie Cinema’s notorious film noir series, filmmaker Beineix is anything but the odd man out. “He’s the perfect guy to do this book,” enthuses Lavine, who’s teaching a course on “Films of the ’50s” at Stanford this fall. “Moon in the Gutter is perfectly in keeping with Goodis’ ethos. If it were something everyone wanted to see, that would be wrong. It may not be my favorite Goodis adaptation, but it’s perfectly apt.” Even the corny, literal blood shining in the gutter? “That’s how you feel reading Goodis. I read Goodis a lot when I was younger, and I’d never encountered that kind of obsession in a writer, with failure and doom. He’s the personification of doom.” Moon in the Gutter climaxes the retrospective on August 23. For a full schedule, go to: BAMPFA.berkeley.edu