David Goodis and the Representation of Women: Shoot the Piano Player

Sinead Boyd, Lancaster University


The third was the blond...She had a full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve on. The dress was rather plain except for a clasp of diamonds at the throat. Her hands were not small, but they had shape, and the nails were the usual jarring note - almost magenta. She was giving me one of her smiles...and her mouth was sensual.

This image of Velma Grayle in Chandler's novel Farewell My Lovely is that of the archetypal femme fatale. Made into an iconographical figure by 1940's film noir the femme fatale is easy to spot in both novels and films alike.  In her article, Women in Film Noir Janey Place lists a number of symbols that feature in the design of this character:

The iconography is explicitly sexual, and often explicitly violent as well: long hair (blond or dark), make-up, and jewellery. Cigarettes with their wispy trails of smoke can become cues of dark and immoral sensuality, and the iconography of violence (primarily guns) is a specific symbol...of her 'unnatural' phallic power. (Place, 54)

A character often found playing opposite the femme fatale is the 'good woman' or as Place describes her, 'the nurturing woman'(60).   In The Maltese Falcon Sam Spade is 'nurtured' by Effie Perine who is not only 'on call' to Sam's every need twenty four hours of the day, but also appears to accept being treated like a puppy.

He put a finger on the tip of Effie Perine's nose and flattened it. He put his hands under her elbows, lifted her straight up, and kissed her chin. He set her down on the floor again and asked: Anything doing while I was gone? (140)

But what of those writers who included women in their texts that do not fit either of the above types?  Within this genre there are female characters that do not fit into the frame, who are perhaps marginalized, not by their creators but by their lack of stereotypical features. This paper will examine the representation of women in one of the most powerful and best-known David Goodis novels,  Shoot the Piano Player (1956, originally published as Down There), asking whether Goodis uses his female characters in ways that run counter to the accepted image of the femme fatale and her opposite, the 'good' woman.  It will concentrate on three questions. First, how effective are the 'noir' elements of the novel without the inclusion of the stereotypical femme fatale?  Second, what particular emphasis is placed upon the themes that Goodis explores in this novel by using a different expression of the female? Third, how does the Francois Truffaut film of Goodis's novel deal with the female characters in terms of visual effect, and contribution to the plot? In order to answer these questions the novel will be considered in terms of a close textual analysis, in conjunction with critics' ideas of the representation of women in the novel. Finally, the film will be discussed in relation to the novel, with a view to establishing whether or not there is a difference in the way in which women are represented in film noir.

Geoffrey O'Brien in his book Hardboiled America (1997) suggests that many of David Goodis's novels have two types of women:  'One of them a frail ghostly alcoholic haunted by unrealisable dreams (let us call her Type A), the other (Type B) a fat, rough-tongued, hard-drinking (and hard-fighting) woman'(92).  From the examples of paperback covers shown in O'Brien's book (88-9) one could reach a similar conclusion. Goodis is a writer who has used the accepted noir formula of the male protagonist torn between the woman he desires and the woman who stands in the way of that desire to good effect in a great many popular novels.  Goodis might be said to start with conceptions of female characters who at first appear to be typical representations of certain types.  He then takes these types and expands them beyond the rather limited boundaries that surround them - in Shoot the Piano Player, for example,  broadening and developing the character of Lena beyond that of a quiet waitress, in order to provide an image that stands in apparent contrast to that of the protagonist, Eddie.

Contrary to O'Brien's argument, it is difficult to find Type A and Type B women in Shoot the Piano Player. At first, Harriet, the feisty bar owner appears to be Type B:

She was a very fat woman in her middle forties. She had peroxide blonde hair, a huge jutting bosom and tremendous hips...the eyes gray -blue with a certain level look that said, You deal with me, you deal straight...Get cut or cagey and you'll wind up buying new teeth. (10)

However,  contrary to the paradigm suggested by O'Brien, Harriet does not pose a threat to the hero Eddie:  certainly she does not appear to be, for Eddie, an object of desire. Similarly, Lena's initial description would seem to bear little relation to Type A. Goodis approaches the description of Lena in a seductive manner, letting out small pieces of information as if to tantalise his audience. The first images we glean is that she is a brunette,  'wants no part of any man' and uses a hat pin to defend herself against unwanted advances from the customers (13).  Next, we learn that Plyne the bouncer has a soft spot for her (14).  Finally, Eddie gets a good look at her after she asks him for a small amount of money so that she can buy some food. Through Eddie's eyes, the reader is given a rather biased account of her height (tall), weight (slim), face (not pretty enough for modelling) and skin (clear) (30).  Despite these details, the questions that Eddie asks himself are concerned with her personality, which is hardly enigmatic; yet in some way Eddie feels drawn to her, to find the answers to his questions:

            But why is it she never has much to say? And hardly ever smiles?
Come to think of it, she's strictly on the solemn side. Not dreary,  really. It's just that she's serious-solemn, and yet you've seen her laugh, she'll laugh at something that's comical. (31)

There is little of the 'frail ghostly alcoholic' in this description and therefore I think it is fair to say that in the representations of women in this novel Goodis does not follow any particular formula.  Instead, I would like to suggest that one way of reading the character of Lena is as another part of Eddie's character; not so much the female side but rather the complex, emotional part of the male character. There are several facts that have led me to this conclusion.  To begin with, both Harriet and Eddie tell the reader that Lena is not interested in men, and will physically defend herself from having anything to do with them. We already know that she is described as being tall and slim, not fragile (30). These physical descriptions could be read as an attempt by Goodis to masculinise Lena. Eddie spends a lot of time pondering Lena's motivations. It might be suggested that, rather than Lena being used mainly for the 'love interest' in the novel, Goodis uses her character in order to examine Eddie's emotions and feelings. Lena is the person that gives the reader the opportunity to hear Eddie's past; without her in this story, Eddie would have no past existence. She encourages him to relive the sad tale that leads him to the present. Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is Lena that is successful in the novel in everything that she does for Eddie. She has a sense of power and capability that is generally reserved for the male characters in fiction.

Shoot the Piano Player  was written in the fifties when women had yet to begin the fight for their equality.  Goodis, however,  is not known for creating capable heroes. Geoffrey O'Brien sums Goodis's characterisation up neatly: '[He] did convey that anguish, the anguish of his characters' distance from reality. His hero is a frightened, lonely, unworldly, often alcoholic man....He walks the streets and never meets a friend'(91). Whilst Eddie is a passive character moving unobtrusively through the novel, Lena plays a more active role, rescuing him twice in reasonably dramatic circumstances. When she appears the second time to take him back to Philadelphia, Eddie pictures her, not in romantic terms, but rather 'like a company commander'(148).  At the end of the novel Lena is assigned a ghostly image as Eddie realises he did not know anything about her:

[He] didn't know her last name. They wanted to know if there was anything more. He said that was all he knew, that she'd never told him about herself... Just before he walked out, he asked if they'd found where she lived in Philadelphia... They were somewhat perplexed that he hadn't even known the address. (156)

In Truffaut's 1962 film, more emphasis is placed on Lena as the main female attraction for Charlie (Eddie in the novel). Some dialogue suggests that Lena is less feminine than her appearance would suggest. The character of Plyne, the bouncer, says, 'she's not a girl, she's not a woman.' In addition, she wears similar clothes to those of Charlie, especially her coat, which, when they walk side-by-side, gives the impression that they are two halves of a whole person. There is little further evidence to show that this Lena is the 'emotional' side of the protagonist.  Nevertheless,  she still appears to be very tough and rather enigmatic, particularly during the scene in which the couple are walking through the streets, and she disappears whilst Charlie is thinking.  In a similar approach to that of the novel, Lena leads the action in the film and as a result has an equal share of the frame to Charlie in many scenes. Whilst there is a lot of movement in the film; for example, people are filmed walking the streets whilst talking and there is much dialogue during the driving of cars;  there is also a lot of silence, especially when Lena is in the frame. This highlights the point made earlier that Lena has a ghostliness to her. She has a visually spectacular death, running through the forest and then, having been shot, tumbling through the snow. When Charlie finds her, she is already half buried. This is a dramatic scene but it is accompanied by silence and the snow gives the added effect of deadening the sound even more. This is an excellent example of a typical noir feature, which reinforces the idea in the novel that Lena had a transient role to play. 

The character of Lena, then, does not fit well into any of the critical frameworks surrounding the role of women in noir texts and films.  In James Maxfield's terms, she does not appear to dominate or confuse Eddie (Charlie) into defence or submission.  Instead she is complementary to him and represents a part of the male personality that is rarely seen in a Goodis protagonist, that of a capable, hopeful person.  She does not prove to be fatal for Eddie who returns to his (non) existence unchanged but alive.  She is neither the femme fatale nor the redemptive woman of Janey Place's article. Moreover, she does not fit well into Geoffrey O'Brien's Type A or Type B. It could be suggested that by developing the character of Lena in such a way,  Goodis makes an attempt to write outside the frame,  perhaps in order to produce a different effect to that of the traditional noir thriller. Lee Horsley suggests that,  instead of writing within the stereotype,  novelists in the 1950s were able to create women who are 'strong female figures who, though sexual, are admirable and/or indomitable' (Noir Thriller, 130).  In film, however,  there were more restrictions due to the Hays Production Code and, as Horsley points out, film makers did not have as much freedom to develop their female characters:  in other words punishment had to be seen to be meted out to those characters (especially women) who transgressed in any way.  In Truffaut's film, Lena has a visually dramatic death that would seem in keeping with the expectations of conventional film noir.

I began by establishing that within noir traditions there are female stereotypes in both novels and films. Many critics agree that the iconography of the 'femme fatale' and the 'good woman' play a large part in both noir thriller and film noir.  In its discussion of Shoot the Piano Player,  this essay has considered one example of the way in which a key mid-century noir writer created female characters that did not rely on the usual stereotypes.  Goodis's main female character can be seen to have added to the noir elements of the text and the film as well, augmenting both themes and characterisation.  Lena,  particularly in the novel, can be seen to represent the emotional side of Eddie. Although in the film Lena is presented as somewhat more feminine (and arguably is thereby marginalized), she retains that ghostly presence that is implicitly suggested in the novel and that contributes to the idea that she is the part of Eddie that he finds difficult to access. By writing against stereotype,  Goodis has, then, provided another dimension to his work,  reinforcing the noir sense of the divided identity and the male crisis of identity. 

Copyright © 2003 Sinead Boyd



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