In The Driver (1978), Ryan O’Neal, known for playing romantic roles, convinces us he has some ice water in his veins, playing a driver who hires out to help thieves make their getaways.
As the cop determined to arrest the driver, Bruce Dern proves once again he has the perfect touch for playing playing losers who haven’t yet noticed they’re losers. The script gives him plenty of invitations to overplay his part with lines like, “I’m very good at what I do,” but he keeps it light.
Dern is really the protagonist of this noir film, doomed by his vanity to fail. O’Neal makes a fine antagonist---sinister, inscrutable, evil for no particular reason.
The film is at its best when it focuses on their rivalry. There are sequences with other characters that get unnecessarily talky, but all is forgiven as the clockwork plot winds down and nobody gets what they signed up for.
It will come as no surprise this movie has car chases. When it hit theatres in 1978, audiences had already been wowed by the iconic car chases in Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). The Driver keeps it exciting by including techniques from demolition derbies.
Under Walter Hill’s direction, the storytelling couldn’t be any tighter.
It’s not the darkest of noir, but it’s entertaining.
Not to be confused with Driver (2011) or Baby Driver (2017) . . . but perhaps to be compared with them.
Recently I mentioned reading a book of short stories by Cornell Woolrich, enjoying them, and learning some lessons from them about writing suspense. Somewhere in my subsequent reading, I saw reference to a "Cornell Woolrich Omnibus" published by Penguin in the 1990s. Amazon lead me to Discover Books, and they sold me a copy.
With most other writers, finding another collection of stories and novels would be ho-hum . . . so what? With Woolrich it is cause for celebration because he published hundreds of stories under several pseudonyms, the quality varies widely, and some of them are "rewrites" (rip-offs?) of earlier stories. Someone has to search through all those titles to find the good stuff, and it's not going to be me.
Francis M. Nevins did most of the heavy lifting in his biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. His bibliographical notes are the closest we'll ever come to knowing what Woolrich wrote.
But there's only so much one man can do, so I was thrilled to get this collection of five stories, a novella and a novel---especially so since it contains the story on which Hitchcock's film, Rear Window, was based. Published here as "Rear Window" to link it with the movie, I seem to recall Nevins saying the original title was "It Must Be Murder." I enjoy seeing what gets changed when fiction becomes film.
As with so many of my favorites, I saw the movie before I read the book. I came away wondering, "Why is it called The Postman Always Rings Twice?" There is no postman in the story (book or movie). We don't hear anyone ring twice, and no one mentions a postman ringing twice.
Wikipedia has an interesting article on this title. In the preface to another of his classics, Double Indemnity, James M. Cain said this title came from a conversation with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, who grew so anxious about his manuscripts being returned he would leave the house when the postman was due, causing the postman to ring twice.
That may explain the origin of the title, but it doesn't explain why Cain adopted it as the title of the book.
The article suggests three other possible explanations for the title. I don't find any of them persuasive because each would assume the reader (or viewer) had some specialized knowledge of events or ideas not contained in the story. That's a lot to ask.
For me, the title works because it is senseless. Like naturalistic classics by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, and others, noir stories suggest our actions are determined by our circumstances. If so, what we do has no more meaning than the wind blowing or a river running.
Why should a title make sense?
This is as fine a piece of noir as you are likely to see. Four people check in at a motel in the mountains near Reno, Nevada. They and the desk clerk are the only people around, and none of them seems to have a good reason to be there.
From the start one asks, "What is going on here?" and throughout the movie the answer comes back, "Not what you think." I won't say anything else about what happens because I hope you will enjoy every revelation, large and small.
This movie fits Otto Penzler's definition of noir as well as anything I know: "The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
I've written several times in the "Reading" and "Writing" categories of this blog about Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson, giants of the noir tradition. Recently, I wrote about a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who, along with James M. Cain, invented American noir.
If you're not familiar with these earlier writers, you might know Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl exemplifies the tradition. As many have remarked, there's not a single likeable character in the book (or the movie version) .
It all sounds very grim, but for some reason I find this stuff entertaining, possibly because it is suspenseful and at its best includes humor. The Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries certainly are NOT noir. They have more in common with Agatha Christie. But I am working on a suspense novel that is noir. I hope to publish it sometime next year.
A few years back I went on a binge reading Cornell Woolrich. I can't remember exactly what got me started. Maybe it was noticing Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window (1954), was based on a story by him.
I focused on reading his novels and was disappointed. For instance The Bride Wore Black is written in four parts, each part a complete story. The stories are linked (the bride goes from one adventure to the next), but I wasn't learning much about the structure of a novel.
Recently at the library I ran across a nice old collection of short stories entitled Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen (1965), and decided to give them a try. I've really enjoyed them and have learned a lot about what Woolrich is most famous for, suspense.
More than any writing I can think of, these stories make me want to know what happens next. They do it by saying, in effect, "He set out to do this. Then this happened." So now what will he do? And as soon as he works around the problem, something else happens or someone else shows up.
In some instances, a story almost becomes a technical exercise in multiplying twists and turns while remaining credible. "Steps Going Up" is one such, in my opinion. But mostly the stories also make us care about the protagonist, by making him an underdog, or by making her a righteous avenger. "The Man Upstairs," I think, is especially good in this regard.
Woolrich is also famous for inventing and adopting motifs that made him "the Poe of the twentieth century" according to his biographer, Francis M. Nevins: "the noir cop story, the clock race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong through the night story, the annihilation story, the last hours story,"
So I have to conclude that, like Flannery O'Connor, his genius was for the short story. He was lucky to live through a time when that's where the money was.
I've been reading a lot of Jim Thompson lately. Perhaps I should be worried. Most people I know say his books are too dark.
Which brings us to the subject of noir. In the 1930s the French word for black was used to describe black-and-white films in which there's more black on the screen than white. Since then noir has come to describe a type of story, as Otto Penzler explains in his Foreword to Best American Noir of the Century:
"Noir works, whether films, novels, or short stories are existential, pessimistic tales about people . . . who are seriously flawed and morally questionable. The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry."
Noir comes out of the early twentieth century, which also saw the rise of the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology, political science, etc. These sciences said, "If you want to understand human beings, study their circumstances."
The early twentieth century also saw the rise of the naturalistic novel in which characters struggle with their circumstances as well as with each other. Jack London's stories aren't so much man against nature as man subject to nature. In The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about working conditions in the meat-packing industry. In Native Son, Richard Wright shows how crime grows out social conditions.
The naturalistic novel asks the reader, "How well would you fare in these circumstances?" I see noir as a sub-species in which the answer is, "Not very well." This prompts compassion.
A lot of people don't like the idea that we are a product of our circumstances, but to some degree we are. To think otherwise is false pride, the kind that goeth before a fall.
Thompson's books are noir but reading them does not depress me. I feel compassion for his characters.
Gold Medal was one of the publishers offering paperback originals in the 1950s. A Trio of Gold Medals from Stark House Press contains three short novels of that era. Reading them has been an eye-opener.
It's easy to see these authors were writing for the same market as Jim Thompson. The world in which their stories are set is dark. Law enforcement is corrupt. The hero is a criminal. Women are just as likely to be greedy and cruel as men. There's a lot of drinking.
And yet, these books were not as satisfying as Thompson's. I know from Robert Polito's biography of Thompson, Savage Art, that the first 30 years of his life were dark, violent, full of cruel desperate people, and there was a lot of drinking. When Thompson wrote a novel with those elements, he was writing about his life.
I don't know the backgrounds of these authors, but their books read as if they are writing about things they have only read about in other books. They write very well, but they seem to be telling someone else's story.
However, this is my first glimpse of the other paperback original authors, Stark House press has more than sixty of them on their list of crime writers, and some of them may be well worth reading alongside Thompson. The quest continues.
Reading Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson reminded me of just how revolutionary paperback originals were in the 1950s. At first scorned as an outlet for inferior writing, and later accused of de-stabilizing the publishing industry, paperback originals actually created a market that hadn't existed and connected readers and writers in new ways, just as ebooks have done in the last ten years.
I became aware of paperback originals last April, thanks to an article by Bill Crider. He points out that some well-known crime writers such as Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, got their start in paperback originals, and he appends "A Reader's Checklist" of less-known authors who compare favorably to them.
Since he was writing in 1971, Crider recommended searching used-book stores for original copies of these mystery novels. Today those copies would be available only from specialty dealers such as Kayo Books.
Checking my libraries (The Mechanics Institute and The San Francisco Public) I discovered new copies of these novels from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Stark House Press has been publishing re-issues of paperback originals for several years now. They offer books by every author on Crider's list and many more.
Reading that brief online biography of Jim Thompson by Patrick Deese prompted me to seek out the book-length biography by Robert Polito, Savage Art, published in 1995. It is 500 pages of detailed research, served up in easy-to-read prose.
Among its revelations is the idea that Thompson never set out to be a writer of crime fiction. In 1931, he majored in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Nebraska. While there he wrote and published nonfiction except for one detective story in Nebraska Farmer.
During the 1940s, he published Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder, novels based on his years working on the farms of Nebraska and Oklahoma and in the oil fields of West Texas. He seemed on the way to a career comparable to that of his contemporary, John Steinbeck.
Thompson turned to crime---crime-writing that is---out of necessity. His mainstream novels would not pay the bills. In 1949, at the age of 42, he published his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder.
Thanks to the introduction of paperback originals in the 1950s, a lucrative market for genre fiction opened up, and publishers called out for writers to supply it. Thompson went on to produce what some call the greatest American crime novels.
In the biography by Patrick Deese I quoted in my last post, I found not only a good illustration of how Jim Thompson learned to write crime stories but also an indication of how different things are today for writers starting out.
Deese says, "Thompson made ends meet for a few years by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . ." Today, I doubt anyone is making ends meet by writing for any kind of magazine. I haven't tried it, but from what I hear the best one can do is pick up a little side money.
To prove his point, Deese says, "At the height of their popularity, in the 1930's, these magazines (with titles like True Detective, Master Detective, and Intimate Detective) paid very, very well, $250 for a 6000 word article, the exact rate they now offer in the 1990's."
Without doing the arithmetic, I think it's obvious that $250 was a good week's income in the 1930's, and was still worth something in the 1990s. Yet I doubt there are many magazines paying $250 for any kind of short story in 2018.
It seems as if this entry-level income is no longer available to writers getting their start. These days, the writer's apprenticeship, like so many others, is unpaid.
Reading through the references on Jim Thompson's Wikipedia page, I enjoyed this biography by Patrick Deese. In particular, Deese offers this insight into how Thompson learned to write crime stories:
"Thompson made ends meet for a few years [in the early 1930s] by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . His wife and sister would comb the newspaper archives, looking for murders, which Thompson would then rewrite into a popular set of first-person view point articles. It was here that Thompson cut his teeth and honed his sinister style. "
When Deese says "first person view point" he refers to the way these magazines presented crimes stories "as told to" a writer by the detective who solved them. If Thompson and other writers worked from news stories, the detective may have done no more than endorse the story as written.
Re-writing news stories from the point of view of someone involved sounds like a great writing exercise. Thompson would have developed an ability to make a story sound like it was being told by a big-city homicide detective, a small-town chief of police, or other law officer.
This facility for writing in the first person served Thompson well. Many critics think his best novels are those written in the first person---The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night, and others. Arguably no one has done first person better than Thompson.
Many think Jim Thompson was at his best writing novels about bad-guy heroes, as he did in The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, and others. I would agree he is among the best at that kind of suspense novel, along with James M. Cain, Patricia Highsmith, and some more recent writers. But he wrote other kinds of books, and some of them are amazingly good.
The Kill-Off is a murder mystery such as Agatha Christie wrote. We meet a character who is so unlikable we wish someone would murder her. We meet a small community of characters each of whom has a good reason to do the deed. When someone does, we try to figure out who did it, or, as fans say, whodunit. Obviously this is in the tradition of Murder at the Vicarage, Murder on the Orient Express and other Christie classics.
At first, it's hard to see the similarity because Thompson's setting has little in common with Christie's English country houses. There is no elegance, no sophistication. His fictional resort town is down on it's luck and populated by people just trying to get by. He wrote about the world he knew.
Though working in a familiar form, Thompson did something extraordinary in The Kill-Off: there is no sleuth. No equivalent of Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, or, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe. No genius to solve the mystery. Christie did this as well, though I am aware of only one example, And Then There Were None.
And Thompson did something I've never seen anywhere else. Each chapter is narrated in the first person by a different character---twelve chapters, twelve characters telling their own stories of past connections to the victim and others in town and telling where they were on the night of the murder . . . except when they're lying.
Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith were geniuses at making the bad guy the hero. They didn't invent the idea. For instance, Shakespeare gave us a heroic villain in Richard III. But Highsmith and Thompson created an American art form based on following the bad guy instead of the good guy. Their work carries on today with books like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, in which, as many have pointed out, every character is a scoundrel.
They seem to have accomplished this almost simultaneously. Thompson published his first suspense novel in 1949; Highsmith published hers in 1950. Thompson published arguably his greatest work, The Killer Inside Me, in 1952; Highsmith published hers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in 1955.
Their careers ran parallel in several ways. He published twenty-five novels; she published 22. Both of them saw many adaptations for film and television, and their stories continue to be adapted to this day, although Highsmith had notably better luck in her lifetime, beginning with her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's classic film of the same title.
Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921 and grew up there. At that time, Thompson, lived in Fort Worth, working odd jobs, selling his first stories, and gathering experiences that would turn up in his novels.
But for all that, they seem to have been unaware of each other. Andrew Wilson's biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadows, makes no mention of Thompson; Michael J. MacCauley's biography of Thompson, Sleep with the Devil, makes no mention of Highsmith.
Their careers also differ in several ways. Highsmith methodically published a novel about every other year throughout her adult life. Thompson published almost half his novels in just three years: two in 1952, five in 1953, and five in 1954. His biographer, MacCauley, notes these were essentially the only years of his life when he was sober.
The most important difference between them was the point of view they used in their novels. Highsmith wrote in the third person, thus referring to the hero-bad-guy as "he," and she had a good reason for doing so: "I have quite a bit of introspection in my heroes, and to write all this in the first person makes them sound like nasty schemers, which of course they are, but they seem less so if some all-knowing author is telling what is going on in their heads."
Apparently Thompson wasn't concerned what his bad-guys sounded like. He wrote in the first person, referring to the hero as "I." Here's a bit of introspection from Nick Corey the hero of Pop. 1280, recalling why his father beat him, "The fact was, I guess, that he just couldn't stand for me to be any good. If I was any good, then I couldn't be the low-down monster that had killed my own mother in getting born. And I had to be that. He had to have someone to blame."
A fellow writer asked what I was reading. When I said Jim Thompson, she asked what kind of novels he wrote. I told her The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, is considered his masterpiece. It's a novel about Lou Ford, whose father, a physician, explained to him that his personality fits the definition of psychopath.
"Like Dexter," said my fellow writer, referring to the popular TV series with Michael C. Hall. True, except that Lou Ford's father does not teach him a moral code. Lou freely indulges his sadistic tendencies and does whatever serves his own interests. Since he is the sheriff in his hometown, he remains above suspicion.
As if that weren't chilling enough, The Killer Inside Me is in the first person. Lou Ford tells his own story. He speaks directly to us. The Killer Inside Me is not Thompson's only first-person, bad-guy novel. Pop. 1280, A Hell of a Woman, and Savage Night are also fine examples.
Though most critics think Thompson was at his best with this type of novel, I think his others are well worth reading. The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Getaway are powerful examples of noir suspense told in the third person.
The Talented Mr. Ripley was my introduction to stories in which we root for the bad guy. I may have read the book before seeing the 1996 film version by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwynneth Paltrow, and Philip Seymour Hoffman among others. Either way it was an eye-opener.
Patricia Highsmith's hero, Tom Ripley, seems an ordinary man, just getting by in life, though he does so by running petty scams. In the course of the story he progresses to greater crimes and reaps greater rewards. I admit I was delighted to see it all work out for him. When I shared that with a friend, he said, "No, that movie was a little too dark for me."
Why would we hope he succeeds? Whenever I have encountered grifters and con artists in real life, I have loathed them.
Matt Bird, in The Secrets of Story, says an audience will empathize with any character who is making decisions, doing something difficult, and having to improvise. His prime example is the second half of Hitchcock's Psycho.
So perhaps it's not so much that we are rooting for the bad guy, but rather that we empathize. And maybe we wonder what it would be like to take whatever we want without being bothered by feelings of guilt. But, of course, we would never do that.