Gorman is a writer of tough crime fiction that evokes in its relentless
narrative drive and brooding atmospherics the classic crime and noir films of Hollywood’s golden era.
Gorman’s outsider characters bear numerous affinities with the doomed
protagonists of noir, and he frequently leads them on nerve-shredding journeys
to the end of the savage night. Since the publication of his first novel in 1985, Gorman has written dozens of compulsively readable suspense, horror
and science fiction books characterized by fascination (and empathy) with the
dark side of human nature, with fear and loneliness, with transgression and
surprise then that the man described as “the poet of dark suspense” turns out
to be a lifelong devotee of dark cinema. What is surprising is that it took Hollywood
so long to recognize this literary heavyweight’s knockout appeal. The Poker Club, the first Gorman book to
be adapted for the screen, is currently in post-production. His latest novel,
Fools Rush In (Pegasus Publishing),
continues his obsession with characters who live and die on the wrong side of
the tracks. In this exclusive Cinema Retro interview, Gorman talks about the
seminal crime films that have long fascinated and inspired him.
How long have you been a crime
many men who came back from the big war, my father was a fan of hardboiled
films and westerns. I saw many of the noirs that interest us today when they
were first released, but I was too young to understand them.”
Do you recall the first such film
you saw, and its initial impact on you?
“I saw Kiss Me Deadly at the drive-in with my
folks. I was 10 or 11. That jolted me in a way no movie ever had. Not only the
violence, but the whole aura of decay and despair. I had no idea what was
really going on, but it scared and depressed me.”
KISS ME DEADLY
What appeals to you about the
things in different movies. My two favorite noir actors are Robert Ryan and
Dana Andrews. I feel a kinship with them in a way I never have with Bogart as a
noir icon (though I like him very much in movies such as The Harder They Fall). To me, they’re two sides of the same coin —
the outsider. Ryan is rage and Andrews is grief. As for types of noir films,
too many to mention here. I suppose the sense of desperation is what appeals to
me. I’ve always felt that to some degree.”
THE HARDER THEY FALL
Have these films influenced your
development as a novelist?
sure. My worldview is very much like theirs.”
Do you try and evoke a kind of
cinematic atmosphere and narrative drive in your work?
say I do, but I’m not conscious of it.”
What do you think accounts for
our attraction to the violent characters and dark environments of these films?
it’s simple. Thugs and street violence have been with us since the beginning of
our country. And robber barons in one form or another have also always been
with us. Look at Wall Street. Look at the Bush administration. And then we have
the Mafia. Crooks are a vital part of noir. Greed, power, the exploitation of
the weak and poor — these are the themes of the great noirs. As is (as novelist
Alan Guthrie pointed out) abnormal psychology. Half the characters in The Maltese Falcon belong on the violent
ward. Gun Crazy is a salute to
insanity. Psycho, which to me is
noir, is certainly not a portrait of a young man pursuing any American Dream I
know of, except maybe that of Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Which crime film decade do you
most identify with?
Can you list some of your
favorite crime films through the decades?
“1930s, Little Caesar; 1940s, High Sierra; 1950s, Gun Crazy; 1960s, Point Blank;
These aren’t necessarily my favorite films, but they had, I think, enormous
influence on what came after.”
What did the performers in these
films bring to the genre that’s lacking today?
seemed more adult somehow. It may be my age (and my perception of callowness
isn’t limited to movies), but celebrities don’t seem to have the same adult
presence some of the older actors did. High
Sierra is a good example. I don’t think anybody could lend it the power
Bogie did. He was a grownup whose dreams had been dashed. That’s different from
a thirty-something’s dreams being dashed. Maybe only because [Bogart’s
character] was closer to the end. The same with The Harder They Fall. Or if you want to look at a
thirty-some-year-old, look at Dana Andrews in Laura and Where The Sidewalk
Any favorite noir directors?
watched Kiss Me Deadly again, so I’d
say Robert Aldrich. I think he gave us noir as the holocaust.”
Have you encountered any worthy
neo-noirs in the last decade or so?
One False Move up against any of the
classic noirs. I think it’s a masterpiece.”
How do neo-noirs differ from
those of the “classic” period?
too many of them are too studied, too aware of being noirs. In the old days
they just told stories and let them fall into whatever genre they fit.”
Thoughts on Tarantino’s films?
Pulp Fiction a lot.”
Crime films once contained rich
veins of visual subtext. In Point Blank, for example,
the way Lee Marvin is filmed striding through the Los Angeles airport en route to dealing with
his unfaithful wife says more in its imagery and sound than reams of dialog.
Why don’t crime films do that anymore?
isn’t any reason it can’t be done as long as you have the director, script and
actor that film had. But that entire movie worked against the prevailing
clichés. The Caroll O’Connor mobster role, for instance. He was wonderful. He’s
a rich, busy guy, and who’s this dimwit son of a bitch waving a gun at him over
what is — for O’Connor — chump change. The gun doesn’t scare him, he’s just
irritated at the stupidity of Marvin. Wonderful stuff. Today the neo-noirs are
too conscious of being neo-noirs to let themselves go to that degree.”
Would you agree that crime
pictures have generally been more subversive and challenging than so-called
“socially responsible” pictures? I’m thinking for example of the implied
homosexuality between Glenn Ford and George McCready in Gilda, and the explicit linkages between organized crime and big business in
much. I grew up in the last decade of studio power. Big studio pictures were
always considered the respectable, worthwhile ones to see. I’m sure that there
were A pictures that had a lot of hidden elements, just as crime pictures did.
But certainly crime pictures thrived on bending if not breaking the rules.”
What’s your take on the 1970s
political thrillers that captured a national mood of distrust and paranoia like
The Conversation or The Parallax View?
recently saw The Parallax View, and
for me it was a terrible, clumsy movie with a ham-fisted performance by Warren
Beatty and a number of risible scenes. On the other hand, I consider The Conversation great true art.”
The current era would seem ripe
for similar kinds of films, but we’re not seeing them. Any thoughts on this?
think their absence is strange. But maybe we’re in one of those terrible
historical periods when fiction just can’t compete with reality.”
Do you think crime films are
still informed with a sense of social/political criticism?
always go to One False Move. This is
about crimes that average people are faced with — and more importantly, these
are the scumbags who commit those crimes. No romance here. Police blotter
reality. And all the sad lives caught up in the violence. I rarely see any of
these things in today’s crime movies.”
Do you have any thoughts on how
the crime film has developed in other countries —Japanese yakuza films, Italian
crime epics, French existentialist thrillers or gritty British pictures like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday?
only speak to the original Get Carter
and The Long Good Friday, both of
which I consider superior to most American crime films.”
What’s your take on how screen
violence has evolved over the decades?
screen sex and violence were liberated at about the same time, the late 1960s.
Sometimes both are useful in creating themes and revealing character — and
having singular oh, wow! moments — but there’s so damned much violence in films
and on TV that I think we’re pretty much indifferent to its effects.”
What does that say, if anything,
about the evolution of American society?
is such a thing as the pornography of violence, and I think a segment of the
viewing public is into that. Peckinpah was a genius; his violence hurt you both
physically and spiritually. His disciples understand the physicality of it, but
I’m not sure about the spirituality. Once again, One False Move, the opening six minutes. Those frames are indelibly
etched on my mind and soul. Terrifying, senseless, insane violence done as realistically
as I’ve ever seen violence done on the screen. Violence akin to 20-year-old
street punks beating up 90-year-olds for their food stamps. Again, the kind of
violence a lot of Americans face every day. This kind of screen violence is
doing what literature, minor or major, almost always does, which is to report,
however painfully, on one’s own historical era.”
Do you buy the argument that
there’s a link between reel violence and real-life violence?
there probably is, but not the way congressional committees think the two are
related. I’m sure screen violence has given blueprints to any number of
killers. But I think generally screen violence just blends in with all the
violence on the news. Though I have to say I’ve seen some video games that give
me pause. There’s a juvenile fascination with killing that seems to connect
with sexuality somehow. And juvenile also applies to the 50-year-olds who buy
Do you buy the notion that
watching screen violence can have a positive, cathartic effect?
some, yes, I suppose.”
Film violence in decades past was
often utilized to delineate character; now it seems that most films merely
indulge in violence for its own sake. Have we lost sight of character amidst
all the non-stop action pyrotechnics?
one of things I meant by the pornography of violence.”
Do you think that people are
still capable of being shocked by anything they see onscreen?
suppose a realistic-looking decapitation with the camera in close might shock
people. Short of that, I don’t know what’s left. And that’ll probably be on a
reality show next year — Don’t Lose Your
What’s your take on the John
Woo-inspired bullet ballet type of film?
big John Woo fan. The ballet sequences are sensational. And he has a very
civilized point of view, a conscious moral sensibility operating in his films.”
NOVEL TO SCREEN
Your novel The Poker Club has been adapted for the screen and is now
in post-production. Were you involved in the writing and/or production?
seen any of it and had nothing to do with writing or production. The first
script I saw I liked very much.”
Have you seen a cut of the film
Is this the first novel of yours
to reach the screen?
ghosted a book that became The Haunted
on Fox. They did a good job.”
What’s the most important factor
screenwriters should consider when adapting crime novels for the screen?
a screenwriter and not savvy enough to answer that.”
Are there certain noir/crime
novelists whose work is more suited for film adaptations?
sure. Shorter books rather than longer books. Books that come with high
concepts or at least merchandisable hooks. Books that break roughly into three
acts. Linear storylines. Strong characters. Humor never hurts. Things like
that. Donald Westlake, Charles Williams, David Goodis … major writers, to name
just three. Westlake’s
ingenuity makes him especially good for films.”
What qualities do the best crime
novels and films have in common?
character and a sense of era, getting down on paper or on film an entertaining
but enlightening statement about the time you’re living in — the fears, hopes,
idiocies, etc. Look at the Warner Bros films set in the time of Prohibition.”
It’s interesting to compare how
violence is expressed in two films made from Richard Stark’s novel The Hunter. In Point Blank, the use of
violence is clever and darkly comic: In one scene Marvin shoots a telephone to
intimidate mob chief Carroll O’Connor. But in Payback, which starred Mel Gibson, the violence seems protracted, gratuitous
and anything but subtle. Comment?
Point Blank is one of the best crime
films of all time. I found Payback
tedious. And you explained why.”
What’s your take on Peckinpah’s The Getaway, which jettisoned the nightmarish conclusion of Jim Thompson’s novel
in favor of a happy ending for stars Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw?
The Getaway, though it’s an imperfect
film, certainly not helped by the ending. I thought Alec Baldwin was a better
match for Thompson, though. There’s a rage and craziness and desperation there.
He isn’t worried about being the cool guy the way McQueen did. That’s the
sweaty essence of Thompson men.”
Ed Gorman on ten Crime Novel
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) Based on Mickey
Spillane’s eponymous novel:“The
ultimate horror film. The end of the world. I never get tired of watching it.”
Touch of Evil (1958) Based on Whit Masterson’s
Badge of Evil: “Gothic noir. A fine,
CapeFear (1962) Based on John D. McDonald’s The Executioners: “The ultimate Gold Medal novel brought to the
screen by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Mitchum’s performance
is unequaled in noir villainy.”
Harper (1966) Based on Ross McDonald’s The Moving Target: “Good film that for
some reason didn’t interest me much.”
In Cold Blood
(1967) Based on Truman Capote’s
eponymous book: “Solid, but I think the performances are better than the script
and the direction.”
IN COLD BLOOD
In the Heat of the Night (1967) Based on John Ball’s
eponymous novel: “See my comments on Harper.”
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
Point Blank (1967) Based on Donald
Westlake’s The Hunter: “Five stars
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) Based on Chester Himes’
eponymous novel: “Didn’t work for me. I wanted Himes’ madness.”
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM
Get Carter (1971) Based on Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home: “Six stars plus.”
The Getaway (1972) Based on Jim Thompson’s
eponymous novel: “Three stars. Probably four if they hadn’t let McQueen call so
many of the shots. That’s always been the word on that picture.”