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Strangers and Outcasts

Extracts from Lee Horsley, The Noir Thriller (Palgrave, 2001) - introduction to 'strangers and outcasts' theme and section on David Goodis


The lonely protagonist of mid-century noir is often left running blindly or wandering aimlessly, as isolated at the end of his narrative as he was at the beginning:  'He ran on...plunging into the wastes of endless land and sky, stretching forever...Blindly he stumbled on.' (Dorothy Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse, 1946);  'And later, turning the street corners, he didn't bother to look at the street signs.  He had no idea where he was  going and he didn't care.'  (David Goodis, Black Friday, 1954);  'I left the shelter of the awning and walked up the hill in the rain.  Just a tall, lonely Negro.  Walking in the rain.' (Charles Willeford, Pick-up, 1967). [i]
Transients, drifters, escapees from a past of fear and guilt - these are protagonists living at the margins, outside of respectable society or unable to return to a home  that is as they left it.  The places in which these characters find refuge are themselves marginal , unstable and threatening.   In the film noir  of the period, this pervasive feeling of rootlessness is often linked to the post-World War Two  problems faced by returning soldiers, who struggled to achieve readjustment and reintegration into family  and society. [ii]   This specifically postwar  sense of alienation  merges with a wider sense, strengthened in the McCarthyite  fifties, of a society that punishes failures to conform and suspects those who do not 'belong'.  In the novels discussed in this chapter, most of the protagonists are not veterans.  Even Hughes ' 'Sailor' is a man who, through political  influence, avoided the war . [iii]   But they are all, for one reason or another, 'displaced  persons', fugitives, casualties of a past that has left them scarred and has cut them off from a stable domestic existence and from a society they seem unable to rejoin.  Like Nelson Algren 's Frankie Machine in The Man with the Golden Arm  (1949), they suffer from the 'American disease of isolation '. [iv]  
            In contrast to the marginalisation  represented in interwar victim  narratives, their plight is less to do with a desperate search for some way out of an economic  impasse than with an irremediable sense of exclusion.  The movement of their narratives is almost always away from something.  If positive goals glimmer, they soon disappear.  The 'wrong man  ' pursued in so many plots of the time is frequently a victim of misperception and prejudice , unable to get along in a society that regards him with suspicion and hostility.  He is a scapegoat figure who functions to expose corruptions either because he is made to carry communal guilt or because he is driven by wrongful persecution to investigate the secrets of the antagonistic community .  He is also often driven to explore his own guilt, given that even the 'wrong man' tends to be guilty at some level.  Within a European context, the best-known 'stranger  and outcast ' narratives of this period are those which express the existentialist  consciousness of life's absurdity  experienced by the man who stands alone in an inhospitable world, without any of the props of habit, routine or social convention .  Mersault in Camus ' L'Etranger  (1957) moves through his involvement in the violent death of an Arab to his confrontation with the reality of his own death.  This 'fall into consciousness' is an essential feature of man's experience of the absurd .  Film critics often see this kind of existential  awareness, loneliness and dread - Camus' assertion that 'at any corner the absurd may strike a man in the face' - as one of the defining features of film noir . [v]  
Displaced Persons in the Novels of David Goodis
             'Wronged man' plots, which are often also 'wrong man ' plots, are a staple of film noir .  One of the earliest examples is   I Wake Up Screaming  (H. Bruce Humberstone , 1942), adapting the 1941 Steve Fisher  novel in which a psychotic policeman frames and pursues an unnamed narrator (Frankie Christopher in the film, played by Victor Mature ).  There are many other classic films  noirs [vi] in which the protagonist is wrongly accused, hounded or victimised  by a society that misjudges and despises him.  He is unlikely to be entirely innocent.  Several of the protagonists of the literary noir discussed here, for example in Brother Death  and Nightmare Alley , are guilty even though they must also be seen as having been wronged.  Others will have committed a murder by the end of the narrative (Wary Transgressor , Ride the Pink Horse , Dreadful Summit ).  An 'innocent eye' perspective is less usual in post-World War Two  fiction and film than it is in the literary noir of the thirties and early forties, and the effect of the narrative is less likely to be a sense of shocked disillusionment than of weary recognition.  The narrative tends to be structured around an opposition between 'home  ' and 'wandering'.  Home may well be completely inaccessible to 'the man with no place' [vii] (Ride the Pink Horse, Nightmare Alley).  In less darkly noir versions of the pattern, a small possibility may remain of a redemptive  repositioning of the protagonist with respect to home, though probably not a return to home as it once was (Blue City , Detour  to Death).  The damaged, displaced  protagonist sees society from an unfamiliar angle, without any of the conventional  props for preserving peace of mind, and, unlike the outsider  hero of adventure  stories, he is unlikely to accomplish a restoration of order. 
            No crime writer of the period created more hopelessly marginalised  men than David Goodis .  He represented with obsessive intensity isolated, displaced  protagonists, in hiding from others or from themselves, travellers unable to go home .  For French readers and critics, Goodis seemed to share something of the 'existential  melancholy' of McCoy  and James M. Cain . [viii]   Amongst his most characteristic protagonists is the frightened, friendless man who has felt compelled to abandon a secure, often successful life and who finds himself spiralling downwards.  As we have seen, in some of the novels discussed in this section (Detour  to Death, Blue City ), the lonely man who manages to master certain investigative  skills can move the plot towards more positive closure; in others (most notably Dreadful Summit , but also The Big Clock ) the protagonist who discovers within himself a kind of toughness and integrity can add a redemptive  element to an otherwise bleak story.  Goodis readers, however, learn not to expect such respite.  He is one of the most reliably pessimistic of noir writers.  At the end of The Moon in the Gutter  (1953), for example, Kerrigan gives up his search for the man responsible for his sister's death and returns to live with the woman who paid for his murder:  'He moved along with a deliberate stride that told each stone it was there to be stepped on, and he damn well knew how to walk this street, how to handle every bump and rut and hole in the gutter' (513).  Kerrigan and other Goodis protagonists endlessly walk the streets, but this repetitive motion is combined with inherent immobility or paralysis.  There are sometimes visions of a place 'elsewhere' (South Africa, South America, Florida), holding open the romanticised  possibility of escape for the hunted man.  At the end of Dark Passage  (1946), for example, there is the dream of a reunion in Peru, though hedged about with 'all these ifs' (399) and a much more remote fantasy  in the novel than in the film.  For the man engaged in a quest, there are occasional opportunities for retribution (for example, in Nightfall  [1947] and Cassidy's Girl  [1951]). But the closing of a trap is more likely than the qualified optimism  of the 'general idea' of Peru (MG 399).
            In spite of an ending in which doubt is supplanted by 'the knowledge' that promises to dispel Vanning's fears (137), Nightfall , filmed by Jacques Tourneur  in 1957, is a novel dominated (as is the film) by the terror and paranoia  of a man on the run.  This is a specifically postwar  narrative, with Vanning's difficulties explained as a common effect of the war .  Men have returned with 'the wrong outlook' and get themselves in trouble, which, given Vanning's actual innocence, becomes an edged comment on the readiness of American society to read 'the past' of the war into every veteran's life.  The surreal  atmosphere of Nightfall is established on the first page, with Vanning 'afraid to go out', haunted by a premonition which is itself a phantom created by the past, both paranoid and pursued.  He is suffering from 'regressive amnesia  ' (136-7) and it is only by struggling to recover the past that he can defy what strikes him as an ill fate so arbitrary and accidental that it is 'almost comical' (69).
            Vanning is a man tortured by his homelessness , his 'hollow', 'grotesque' feeling juxtaposed with his longing for family  life and children.   In Cassidy's Girl  (1951), the first of his Gold Medal  'skid row' novels, Goodis  emphasises even more strongly this despairing exclusion from normal domestic life.  Like many other Goodis characters, Cassidy has been a solidly successful middle-class  type who is now on the skids because of accidents of fate that seem not to be his fault but which actually raise the question of whether he simply lacks the ability to take charge of his own life - a weakness perhaps 'corrected' when he leaps through the window at the end to defend Mildred.  The issue of whether a character who fails to assert himself deserves 'getting kicked around' (161) is one of Goodis' most persistent preoccupations.  He almost invariably establishes a powerfully realised sense of economic  deprivation, dispiriting city  streets and characters whose daily round is confined to 'a narrow, dust-covered twisting path bordered with the leaning, decayed walls of tenements' (CG 56).  In comparison to the proletarian  tough guy  novelists of the thirties, however, his stress falls more heavily on the possibility of choice, allowing (like Ellin ) some degree of dignity to be reclaimed by the recognition of one's own burden of individual responsibility.
            The novel in which the pressure of economic  circumstance weighs most heavily, and in which characters' capacity for choosing a different life seems most circumscribed, is The Blonde on the Street Corner .  Though written in the fifties (1954), it is a powerful representation of Depression  America, adapting the conventions of the noir thriller to capture a mood of crippling despair.  In Cassidy's Girl , violent action achieves at least some kind of partial resolution (the defeat of Haney Kenrick), even though Cassidy still feels a great 'heaviness' of spirit (173).  The Blonde on the Street Corner, by its violation of convention , juxtaposes the possibility of sudden, violent, transgressive  events (the stuff of the thriller) with the hopelessly mundane, intolerably drab ordinary lives of men and women during the Depression.  These are lives of such quiet desperation and such passivity  that even sex and violence  exist in only routine and diminished forms.  The novel is a lament for wasted years - 'just standing on the corner and waiting, waiting --' (5), extended to a generalised image of the Depression, which has left 'Millions of guys on the corners in the big cities.  Standing around...' (36-7).  The jobs intermittently  available are 'slow death' (31), and the effect of Goodis ' novel is to persuade its readers that this process of attrition is in its way worse than the eruption of random violence.  There are only two violent episodes in the novel, both characterised by the pointlessness of the whole Depression world.  In the first, the protagonist comes to the aid of a man goaded by one of the 'bastards from upstairs' (115-123); in the second, he is cornered by the blonde, who realises with satisfaction that she has finally found 'someone who gave it like a beast' (139-40).  Neither incident changes in any way the conditions of life for those who spend their days having to 'walk up and down' in the cold, grey streets of Philadelphia, which is impossibly far from the idyll of Florida, where 'everybody's happy...It's warm, it's nice' (75-6; 15).
            Goodis  recurrently uses the freezing city  streets of his home  town  as a setting that contributes to the immobilisation of his protagonists, whose narratives tell of their failed attempts to escape from the past by withdrawing from society.  Black Friday , published in the same year as Blonde on the Street Corner   (1954), begins with the desperately cold Hart walking alone in Philadelphia, cheering himself up by contemplating suicide.  The winter weather of a northern American city not only emphasises Hart's sense of being locked in wretchedness but images his essential isolation  (when you're alone, as Charley muses, '"it's a cold world"' [60]).  Goodis' most widely known novel, Down There  (1956), filmed by Truffaut  as Shoot the Piano Player  (1962),  is similarly dominated by cold and snow and wind - which, in the opening paragraph, 'stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street' (3).  The hostility of the elements is only one of the destructive forces assailing a protagonist, Eddie, whose aim is to stay safely in hiding and to remain detached, to look 'as if he can't feel anything' (48).  Pursued, however, he is forced to repeat the process of loss that made him withdraw in the first place, forcing on him the traditionally noir recognition that the past won't stay in 'another city, another world' (104) and that  'the sum of everything was a circle, and the circle was labelled Zero' (82).

[i] The extracts are taken from the last page of each novel.

[ii] For example, The Blue Dahlia  (George Marshall , 1946), for example,  confronts the veteran Johnny (Alan Ladd ) with loss of home  due to his wife's unfaithfulness and with suspicion and pursuit.  In Edward Dmytryk 's Crossfire  (1947) four soldiers on furlough are dangerously adrift in a world 'too used to fightin''  (Sam Levene in Crossfire, quoted in James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], 114.  See also Michael Walker , 'Film Noir: Introduction', in Ian Cameron  (ed), The Movie Book of Film Noir (London: Studio Vista, 1992), 35-6.  

[iii] In contrast, the protagonist in the film version, Gagin, is an ex-G.I.

[iv] Nelson Algren , in David Ray, 'Walk on the Wild Side: A Bowl of Coffee with Nelson Algren', The Reporter, 20 (11 June 1959), 31-3, quoted in James A. Lewin, 'Algren's Outcasts: Shakespearean Fools and the Prophet in a Neon Wilderness ', The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, 18 (1991), 107.

[v] Albert Camus , quoted by Robert G. Porfirio, 'No Way Out: Existential Motifs in The Film Noir', in R. Barton Palmer (ed), Perspectives on Film Noir (New York: G. K. Hall  & Co., 1996), 126.  The presence of existential  motifs can be seen to unify films  noirs  as diverse as Maltese Falcon , Detour , Brute Force and Woman in the Window.   See Porfirio, in Palmer, Perspectives, 117.   

[vi] Other examples are Phantom Lady  (Robert Siodmak , 1944) and Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman , 1946), both based on Cornell Woolrich  novels, Nightfall  (Jacques Tourneur , 1957, adapted from the Goodis  novel), The Big Clock  (John Farrow , 1948, adapted from Kenneth Fearing 's novel), Detour  (Edgar G. Ulmer , 1945) and D.O.A . (Rudolph Maté , 1950).  See Walker , 'Film Noir', in Cameron , 14-16.

[vii] Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward  (eds), Film Noir (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 241-3.

[viii] Philippe Garnier's biography of Goodis , Goodis: La Vie en Noir et Blanc (Editions du Sauil, 1984), quoted in James Sallis , Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson , David Goodis, Chester Himes  (New York: Gryphon Books, 1993), 54-5 - discussing the response of the French to Goodis' existentialist  qualities.  See also Reilly, 385: 'Goodis is recognised in France as a master of the roman noir Americain second only to Woolrich , and young directors from Truffaut  in the early 1960s to Jean-Jacques Beineix  in the early 1980s have made films  based closely on Goodis novels'.  An adaptation of The Moon in the Gutter , La Lune Dans le Caniveau , was made by the latter in 1983, but more successfully and famously, Truffaut adapted Goodis' Down There  for his 1962 film, Shoot the Piano Player .