Serpent’s Tail 2002 , 318 pages , £12.00 , PB
What would happen if, as a writer of hardboiled fiction (for the uninitiated this is like tough detective stuff or other machismo and slang drenched literature), you ditched the novels and short stories and turned to Hollywood as an outlet for your talents? That’s the question that Woody Haut addresses as he traces the careers of a number of writers who have dallied with the big studio machines, from the 1930s to the present day.
It’s a good concept. The writer, after all, provides the bones of the cinema experience and is often overlooked in auteur or star based criticism. Similarly, in the literary field, the screenwriter is often looked down upon as somehow inferior to their published novelist counterparts so that criticism of, say, Raymond Chandler tends to focus on his novels rather than the extensive work he did in Tinseltown. In some senses this is fair enough – the screenwriter’s work is often compromised, re-written and diluted before production begins, and often well into shooting too. But screenwriting is an important part of an author’s work (in many cases) and Haut digs up the experiences of a number of key players. So how do they fare? Well if the earlier chapters are a key indication then not very well! Tales of (normally) alcoholism, despair and unacceptable behaviour rub shoulders with unusual sexual proclivities and anger at the way their work is ripped apart by their employers. There are tales of production lines, the ones who escaped, the writers’ hierarchies and wage settlements, of the creation of the Screen Writer’s Guild and the McCarthy witch hunts. Fortunately for the sane (but not always so interesting to read) by the time you reach contemporary writers (such as Eddie Bunker) the tone shifts from writers despairing at the desecration of their work, to a much more “c’est la vie” attitude. This is not to say that their lives are any less interesting on a personal level, they just know it’s a game.
Haut generally treats his subject by conveying facts in a fairly detached manner. This means the book rarely sensationalises its subjects – a laudable aim, but those after more lurid descriptions of descents into madness and sordid behaviour should look elsewhere. A lot of ground is covered in a relatively small space leaving the reader curious for more detail; perhaps covering a shorter list of writers would have allowed a greater empathy between the reader and the book’s subjects.
Any Cop?: A fascinating read, if occasionally staid, that will hopefully result in more books on the subject.