Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Man Without a Face

American Noir movies have long been used as metaphorical vehicles for European existentialist social, political and aesthetic theory. The hard-boiled tradition in American pulp serials and later novelistic treatments of the criminal underworld achieved enormous popular success, and many of Hollywood's adaptations of this genre have been considered classic archetypes of the medium. No matter most of them were grossly improbable as plots, and often amateurishly produced. People loved them, and their continued appeal is a testimony to our fascination.       

One of the best is Dark Passage [Warner Brothers, 1947], a Bogart-Bacall vehicle based on the idea of the transformation of a man's face through plastic surgery to elude capture following a prison break from San Quentin. The screenplay, by Delmer Daves (who was also the Director), is taken directly from the novel of the same name by David Goodis--a pulp hack who later went on to script work himself.     

Daves black and white film uses many of the familiar noir affects--dim, shadowy lighting, empty streets, long perspective shots, claustrophobic interiors with Deco decor, openly sexual innuendos among characters, torchy background music, guns and violence, and a strong undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. The film has all these elements, but it's also hugely improbable, as one unlikely or impossible event follows another, and the whole seems so far from reality as to constitute a kind of cartoon. 

Bogart plays a San Francisco man who has been unfairly convicted of his wife''s murder, and sent away to San Quentin for a long hitch. As the film begins, he has just escaped inside a garbage truck exiting the prison grounds, and has jumped off the road into a culvert somewhere near Sausalito or the Marin headlands. First he's picked up by casual driver, a man who seems altogether too curious about his clothing. Bogart [Vincent Parry] waylays him, and drags his body into the bushes, when suddenly another motorist, a woman, Irene Jansen [played by Bacall] stops and tells him to get into her car. She knows who he is and intends to spirit him through a Golden Gate Bridge road-block to her apartment in San Francisco where she will hide him. In what is the film's most ingenious trick, we never see Parry's face, as the camera is put in place of the protagonist--what he sees as he moves through space becomes the camera's projection, the viewer's vantage-point. 

Catching a taxi in the night, Parry/Bogart runs into another nosey driver, who befriends him and suggests that if he's on the run, a little plastic surgery might be the best disguise, and takes him to the office of a back-alley unlicensed surgeon he knows who can perform the work. Again, the improbability of all this is underscored by the fact that the techniques of plastic surgery were really in their relative earliest stages at this time. Crude remedial repairs could be done with grafting and bone implants to help burn victims and people with disfigured faces from war injuries or birth defects, but the finished product was never good enough to mimic an original face. The "operation" here occurs in an afternoon in a small crudely appointed office space (in a barber's chair), and it's unclear what kind of anesthesia--if any--has been employed during the procedure. After the operation, we see Parry/Bogart's face for the first time, though now almost completely covered with white bandages.      

 The Surgeon and the Cabdriver

This neat dramatic trick of having the central character's actual original face concealed from us, until it can be transformed, in order to facilitate the progress of the plot, was an ingenious turn. The concept of escaping from a previous identity by changing one's physical being is a late development in western literature. Mary Shelley had posited the Frankenstein monster as the misuse of science to create a tortured monster from body parts cobbled from discarded individuals. But the idea of eluding the science of criminal detection through altered identity, or burning off one's fingertips (or prints), reached a new level with this surgical transformation trope. 

Goodis/Daves's version of modern society is a nightmare of watchers and tattlers--a little like the paranoid world portrayed in the later version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [MGM, 1978] where no one can be trusted, and anyone might be an alien in disguise, and in the end, the aliens get everybody. The inexorable pull of the dragnet is closing in, there's no place to hide, the only exit is to capitulate or turn into something, or someone, else.        

The idea of facelessness, or a lack of personality, or of personal identity, is a familiar one in 20th Century art. In Kafka, or Camus, or Orwell, the individual is subsumed inside an alienating official non-entity status, intended to deprive him of his worth, to grind the individual down to a quotidian commonality, rendering him powerless and tractable. There is the lulling seduction of giving in, of allowing oneself to be controlled, regimented, suppressed. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest [Fantasy Films, 1975], institutionalization (like prison) is a metaphor for the power structures of society, expressed through the need to punish and prod the life and creativity out of individuals through physical punishment, torture and chemical treatments. 

In Dark Passage, Parry/Bogart's only connection to the liberation of justice, or escape, is a single woman, who believes in his innocence, against all odds. Predictably, this is complicated by Irene's growing affection for Vincent, which of course clouds her judgment; would she really care of Vincent had actually killed his wife, if what she wants to do is go to bed with him? 

Parry/Bogart manages, with Irene's money, to escape to South America, where he meets up with her at the end of movie--wearing a dinner jacket, and holding an exotic tropical cocktail on a terrace overlooking a picturesque harbor. Typical Hollywood fluff.       

David Goodis was an interesting character in his own right. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was popular and successful in public school, and at Temple University he began writing for the school newspaper. Working for an ad agency, he wrote and published his first novel at only 22, and began turning out copy for the pulps (as Hammett and Chandler and others had). Enormously prolific, he published millions of words, some of it under pseudonyms. After a stint in Hollywood, Dark Passage [Julian Messner, New York] was published in 1946 and was an immediate success. Goodis returned to Hollywood where he worked under contract for several years, before returning to Philadelphia in 1950 where he lived with his parents, spending time on the urban dark side, and cranking out a string of noir paperback originals.    

Then, in 1963, ABC television began airing a series called The Fugitive, starring David Jansen. Based loosely on the events described in Goodis's Dark Passage, it was a hit for four years. In 1965, Goodis sued United Artists and ABC for half a million dollars, claiming copyright infringement. But before the case could go to trial, Goodies died in 1967 of a stroke. The case was eventually won, oddly enough, through a technicality, i.e., that the Saturday Evening Post, which had first published the story, had protected Goodis's copyright (property), and therefore the story still belonged to him (was not in the public domain). 

Actor David Janssen as TV's The Fugitive

The Fugitive was remade as a feature film starring Harrison Ford in the lead, in 1993. I don't know if the copyright issue for that production has been resolved. Goodis had no descendants, and his brother had died by the time the court case ruled in favor of the plaintiff.   

Harrison Ford as The Fugitive

Goodis's novels and his reputation quickly faded in the decades since his death, except to fans of the noir tradition in American literature and cinema. The Library of America recently republished his Noir Novels of the 1940's and 1950's--a belated recognition of his popularity in an earlier time. Authors working in the pop pulp vein were often overlooked by serious literary critics, though they often used the same narrative techniques, and had equivalent writing skills as the "serious" writers. And in some cases, their portrayal of character was truer than the "polite" versions. The novels of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and David Goodis will certainly be read and appreciated long after those of such notable figures as James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquand, or Robert Penn Warren relegated to obscurity.        

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