Book ’em, Noir-o!: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key

On February 9, I traipsed down to my local movie theater, The New Beverly Cinema, notebook in hand, excitement in heart. There was a double feature of two films that I had never seen in my favorite genre: film noir. At first, I thought I had seen This Gun for Hire, but as the film opened, I realized that I hadn’t. The opening sequence is so very memorable that there is no way I could have forgotten that!

Double your pleasure, double your fun at the New Beverly!

The beginning, in a San Francisco flophouse, made me think it was going to be a San Francisco noir (always fun! Who doesn’t enjoy seeing shots of Fisherman’s Wharf in the ’40’s?). But I was dead wrong. After Alan Ladd has an entertaining and violent run-in with a maid, tender moments with a kitten and a handicapped child, and commits the crime that the narrative of the film is based, the plot, like Ladd’s fate, heads south to Los Angeles.

These geographic locations, while endemic and indeed fundamental to the film noir genre, were my first clues that there might have been some “work done” on the original material. The opening credits are superimposed upon a leather-bound edition of the book with the author’s name prominently featured: Graham Greene. My familiarity with Mr. Greene first came as it did with many other people who I know through the film The Third Man. Although the stars of that film were as American as apple pie, the film is as British as tea and crumpets. Knowing this, having Veronica Lake utter massive pieces of dialogue at Alan Ladd about being an American patriot struck me as more than a little bit odd.

So I did what I normally do in this case: a bit o’ research. What I found was that, indeed, it was just as I thought: the source material had been tampered with, but for quite fascinating reasons. I am someone who loves to look into adaptations. I have written and spoken about them, and think that finding out the “story behind the story” is always fun- it’s the olive in my martini. This film was greenlit, essentially, after two things occurred. Most importantly, crime fiction had become an excellent area for the studios to develop scripts from. They were striking gold left and right in that arena. In addition, Graham Greene’s position within the literary community had achieved some notoriety.  This Gun for Hire, purchased by Paramount in 1936, was only developed as a script in 1942, after Warner’s remake of The Maltese Falcon did quite well. It was clear that This Gun could be risked at this point. And it was a good risk.

The original title of Greene’s work was A Gun for Sale, but published in the US as This Gun for Hire. But the title was not the only thing that they changed. Alan Ladd’s villainous character, Raven, is supposed to be hare-lipped and quite disfigured according to the literature. Up on the big screen, however, it became a bad wrist due to some nasty child abuse, thus bringing up both Freudian issues and incurring more sympathy for Ladd’s anti-hero/villain.

However, none of this is quite as intriguing as the political alterations that were made. The writers of the film, as keenly noted by Rose Capp, “embellished Greene’s left-leaning political thriller with some definitively American elements, not the least of which was the incorporation of prevailing American propagandist sentiments…Tellingly, the American script also transforms Greene’s wealthy industrialist Sir Marcus into a monstrous figure of capitalist corruption.” Not that big of a deal, right? That happened fairly often. It was 1942. It was wartime. Pumping a bit more propaganda in there was no big deal.  What I noticed that was a big deal was the person who put all of this together: Albert Maltz. Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten.

12 Dec 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Cited for Contempt. Los Angeles: Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered. They are (left to right), Robert Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Lawson, and Ring Lardner, Jr. Dalton Trumbo is scheduled to appear shortly. These are the men who refused to state whether or not they are Communists when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington recently. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

This Gun for Hire is the first thing on his list of credits, but…there is something unusual about the way that the material was translated. The “gung-ho spirit” was strange and forced. It seemed misplaced, even for a genre and a time that centered upon a certain amount of patriotic “umph.” When Veronica Lake makes her plea to Alan Ladd’s character to “do it for the cause” of America, it still seems that “the lady doth protest too much.” There is also something very significant in the main villain, Brewster. He is, as Capp points out, a figure of Capitalist corruption. Was Maltz still able to keep his (and Greene’s) voice within the material? As many of us know, the Hollywood Ten were not un-Patriotic. But they were critical of certain elements of the system that made it unlivable for the everyday man, much as Greene was. We may never know the answers to these questions, but watching the film, I did find this element fascinating.

The next film up was The Glass Key. Someone had tweeted on the New Beverly twitter feed that those who were going should look for similarities between this film and Miller’s Crossing. Being a HUGE fan of that film, I was even more excited to see The Glass Key than I had been in the first place. As the credits went up, the first thing I noticed was that, similar to This Gun for Hire, it was ALSO a film based on a book. So I was quite intrigued to see the transition from Dashiell Hammett to Coen Brothers and everything in between! To write that I was stunned is an understatement. There is more than a passing similarity.

When discussing Miller’s Crossing in his book, More Than Night, James Naremore notes that “the Coen brothers mix together ideas from The Glass Key, Red Harvest, and The Maltese Falcon, all the while carefully avoiding direct quotation from the novels. Although their film involves a certain amount of burlesque, it is in one sense deeply true to the imaginative world created by Hammett.” (Naremore, 214) Admittedly, I have not read all the originating source material, but I cannot help but feel that Naremore’s analysis is correct. When you watch Miller’s Crossing, it has elements of Falcon as well as Key but done in such a way that it falls into a category of films that I have dubbed Cinematic Cover Songs. The basic theory behind this holds that what we love about a good cover song is that it maintains the tune (thus we have recognition) but it spins it in an entirely new way so that we can enjoy it as though it were a new piece of media entirely. Thus Miller’s Crossing from the Dashiell Hammett literature as well as, I would argue, the films made from that material.

The Glass Key is a bit complicated, material-wise. The Alan Ladd-Veronica Lake film from 1942 was not the first film adaptation. In fact, the first time this Hammett-penned story hit the silver screen was when Paramount filmed it in 1935. It was a property that had been owned since 1931, but due to the now heavily-enforced Production code, it had been going back and forth in order to deal with the more “unsavory” elements within the script; in particular, the corruption within government figures and authority figures.  This version of the film, was directed by Frank Tuttle (who also directed This Gun for Hire, by the way), starred George Raft and Edward Arnold, and didn’t seem to garner as much critical acclaim as its sibling film from 1942. James Naremore noted that it stayed closer to the Warner Gangster cycle of films, but made major alterations to the plot and characters in order to make nice with the Production Code Administration. (Naremore, 57)

The Glass Key, dir. Frank Tuttle, 1935

The Glass Key, dir. Stuart Heisler, 1942

The first Glass Key was left alone and would have probably stayed exactly how it was, a somewhat minor film, remembered only for being a Hammett adaptation and for having PCA issues. However, due to the same film/literature adaptation gold rush that gave This Gun for Hire a shot, Key was given another life. With the success of  1941’s Maltese Falcon (a piece that had two previous versions in its own right- the 1931 film of the same name and 1936’s Satan Met a Lady), Hollywood decided that perhaps Hammett’s writing had finally come of age, and they would try it again. Thus they remade Glass Key. Of course, Alan Ladd had just come off of This Gun for Hire. He had been remarkably successful in that breakout role as Raven, and his chemistry with Veronica Lake was undeniable, so they snatched him up, paired the two of them up again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All in all, it was a great night at the movies, I would say. Two brilliant films with some fascinating connections. But noir is like that. Misty, murky and secretive. Gotta walk down that alley, talk to the detective, chat up the girl, do the research. Never know what you’ll find…

And the winner is…

This morning, at the asscrack of OMG-it-is-way-too-early-o’clock-in-the-morning, the nominations for the 81st Annual Academy Awards were announced. Why they announce it at such a time, I will never know. But it is a time that a very dear friend of mine has made a habit of being up for, each year. “Why do that?” one may ask, “The information is not going to change within a few hours. Why not get that extra few hours of shut-eye?” Perhaps he does it because he wants to be the first to know. His dedication to the cinema is one of the strongest I have ever known, so this would not be unthinkable. Perhaps he does it because he wants to see if his guesses were right. Perhaps he simply wants to see if the movies/actors/film stuffs that he loved so dearly during the year get recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Frankly, it’s probably all of these things and more. However, there is one thing that prevails above and beyond all these other things-something that speaks to me in a very similar way regarding this particular social institution- and that one thing is ritual.

I’ll tell you something about ritual.  Ritual and the cinema go together like…well, popcorn and soda?

We all have our ways of interacting with the screen, but the important thing is that we do it. In a world where Netflix is the rule and not the exception, I wish to argue for the beauty of the cinematic experience and all it entails, and not just for the visual content. It is as much part of the film as the narrative itself. I am not the first to suggest this, of course. In essays written for the seminal film journal Close Up, a quarterly published between 1927 and 1933, there was a particular concentration on the experience within the theater. In no uncertain terms, the writers in this magazine sought to underscore the consequence of the folks sitting next to you just as much as they worked to point out the influence of the actual visual stimulae.

closeup1

One writer, Dorothy Richardson, even went so far as to describe the cinematic experience in religious terms. She calls the audience an “increasing congregation,” and the employees religious figures like bishops.  More importantly, she labels the interaction between said congregation and the movie screen “prayer.”  Richardson wrote that the theatrical experience was one of “universal hospitality,” welcoming anyone and everyone to come into the pews. This depiction of cinema as both communal locale and religio-cultural spawning ground only makes the ritualistic aspects of attending an actual theater to see a film even more pronounced.

Thing is, its expensive. I know that. And right now, that’s hard. But when you have places like the New Beverly Cinema, where you can get two movies for $7 most nights, and concessions even cheaper…well, its silly not to go at least every once in a while. If you’re in LA, that is. But I refuse to believe that there isn’t at least ONE theater in most places that most people could afford to go to every once in a while. Because, see, I also believe that we can’t afford not to. The minute that we start fully staying at home, the moment we lose our sense of the “universal hospitality” of a movie theater, the VERY MINUTE we forget what it’s like to be bugged by the laugh of the guy two rows over or the slurping sound of the teenagers making out behind us, or the bawdy drunks who snuck their liquor in………then we lose ourselves and we lose a piece of history. And we are stuck with Netflix. ONLY. Do you really want that?

Pardon my language, but what a boring fucking concept! Not to mention the fact that we will then lose all ability to see the brillilance of a film like the recent Let the Right One In, with its exquisite shot structure and blackest-of-black nights against whitest-of-white snow on a big screen. The experience, while still nice on a small screen, would be just that- “nice.” In a theater, with people, larger than life…its beyond incredible.

I’m not willing to part with that. Are you?

Now what does this have to do with this morning’s announcements?  Well, if nothing else, religion has a hellova lot to do with ritual. In fact, since I’m not sure where I am on the actual Higher Being issue, I think that sometimes a good cinematic experience can be just as spiritual to me as a good night in synagogue, since I feel drawn to both in a very deep way. But to a certain extent, that could also be considered cultural. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to Oscar.

Oscar is a holiday for me. And more than that, it’s a ritual. I have preparations. I have guacamole. I spend the day getting ready, watching the red carpet, getting all prepared. Like it was some weird form of Christmas. It’s like my Superbowl. My Personal Day.  And I DO like to celebrate it

So many people I know “don’t believe in awards shows, man, they’re such a pile of crap.”

And you know what? Sometimes, um, they’re not the best. Ellen kinda sucked as a host. But remember this?

crystalYou can’t tell me that that wasn’t AWESOME.  I mean…can you? Honestly?

So while I’m aware (or have been told) that “award shows don’t really mean anything” and that the industry is JUST THAT- an industry, I still love the show and it means something to me. I grew up with my Grandmother voting on the damned things. First time I saw a lot of movies was through screeners that we got. OK, ok,  so I saw Naked when I was a little too young, but I got the Footloose and Flashdance soundtracks on vinyl, when they used to send out vinyl!

Ritual. It has to do with history and with precedence. It has to do with importance and belief. It has to do with a process.

All of the above terms would apply to my experience with film, I believe, and what place Oscar has in my life. This will be the first year that I can remember where I have seen practically every film nominated (for most categories, too) on a big screen.  That fact alone makes this year extraordinary. Clearly, this is more than slightly due to my amazing housemate Cathie, but even so…good job me!

Throughout my film education, I have had many love affairs with many different directors, writers, cinematographers, genres and time periods. As I have gotten older, I have learned that what my love affair truly consists of is a undying lust for the experience of cinema. Writing about film does that for me, reading about film does that for me, sitting near the front or IN the front row of a movie theater does that for me.

So you don’t have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to find out if Mickey Rourke got nominated for The Wrestler if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to even watch the awards. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not certain how I feel about the Hugh Jackman-host thing. But I would implore you to do one thing- think about the fact that for the last 81 years we have been celebrating what the industry has considered the Best of the Best of what the Big Time Cinematic Industry has produced.It may not all be good, it may not even be passable at times, but its an interesting reflection of where we are and where we’ve been.  And that ritual, in and of itself, is worth at least a few moments of your time.