Daniel Fuchs: From Proletariat Williamsburg to Criss-Crossing Noir




AT FIRST GLANCE, Daniel Fuchs’s screenplays bear little if any relationship to his fiction. While his best and most evocative scripts — The Gangster and Criss Cross — are, to differing degrees, prime examples of hardcore film noir, the novels Fuchs produced prior to those films, based on his formative years during the 1920s amidst Brooklyn’s Jewish community, stand firmly in the tradition of first-generation, street-corner proletariat fiction.

Fuchs arrived in Hollywood in 1937 as much on a wing as a prayer, and stuck around for some four decades. Unlike many of his cohorts, he was able, upon permanently shutting the lid on his studio typewriter, to return not only to writing novels, but also nonfiction books covering a range of subjects, from Jewish culture to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. As critic Irving Howe once said, “In the writing of fiction, talent came almost as easily to Daniel Fuchs as to Willie Mays in the hitting of baseballs.” Easy it might have been, but, for Fuchs, writing in those early years was a necessity, allowing him to escape a claustrophobic ghetto in much the same way Robert Tasker and Ernest Booth used their writing skills to extricate themselves from prison and a life of crime. But just as Tasker and Booth would come to realize that working in Hollywood constituted just another kind of prison, Fuchs would conclude that, for better or worse, Hollywood was itself in fact just another kind of ghetto.

Never part of any literary elite, Fuchs’s greatest achievement as a novelist was his Williamsburg trilogy, written while still in his twenties. The first book, Summer in Williamsburg, was published in 1934, when Fuchs was only 24. In the novel, he records events with an introspective intensity that would mark him for the remainder of his life. And his depiction of those events and that world is both evocative and humorous:

To find out properly [why Meyer Sussman killed himself] you must first understand […] Sussman, and this, of course is the most difficult thing to do […] But even when you know Sussman you are only at the beginning of the problem, for then you must make a laboratory out of Williamsburg to find out what touched him here, why these details affected him and in what manner. This is a tremendous task, but you insist […] [You] must pick Williamsburg to pieces until you have them all spread out on your table before you, a dictionary of Williamsburg. And then select. Pick and discard. Take, with intelligence you have not and with a patience that would consume a number of lifetimes, the different aspects that are pertinent. Collect and then analyze to understand the quality of each detail. Perhaps then you might know why Sussman died, but granting everything I do not guarantee the process.

The second book, Homage to Blenholt, published in 1936, covers similar ground, but is even lighter in tone, while Low Company, published in 1937, though not as humorous nor as picaresque as his previous two, possesses an edgy determinism familiar to anyone with a knowledge of film noir. Brimming with petty deceits, meanness, desperation, and defeat, it too centers on various citizens of Williamsburg — among Fuchs’s Brooklyn contemporaries were the likes of Bugsy Siegel, George Raft, and Henry Miller — trapped by circumstances, struggling to survive with their dignity intact. Low Company begins with a passage from a Yom Kippur prayer: “We have trespassed, we have been faithless, we have robbed […] we have committed iniquity, we have wrought unrighteousness.” And those transgressions are explored in detail, from a two-bit madam who defends the humanity of small-scale prostitution by citing the brotherhood of man, to an aged intellectual who pours a bucket of water from his tenement window onto a street fight below, followed by a lecture on humanism. He manages to stop the fight, only for those fighting, as well as those gathered to watch the fight, to turn their anger on the old-world intellectual. Impressed by the imagery and ambiance of Low Company, and sensing its potential as a film, Warner Brothers quickly purchased the rights to the novel.

Taken together, the Williamsburg trilogy could be compared to Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, or the work of Jerome Charyn. Yet, despite the quality of the writing, the three books taken together had sold, prior to Fuchs’s arrival in Hollywood, only some 2,000 copies. Howe was right: Fuchs was a natural writer. But he wanted to capitalize on his talent, taking it beyond the fevered pitch of his early fiction. “I once wrote a novel in three weeks,” said Fuchs, “but that was in my younger days when I went at things headlong and was shameless.” True, those novels were the work of a young man, in which the author, as Fuchs goes on to say, “wanted to examine everything with an absolutely clear view […] unencumbered and unaffected […] I was struggling with form. I was struggling with mystery. I was young and intent and met my problems head-on.”

Fuchs was realistic when it came to the economics of writing. With few reviews coming in, he had to admit his books were never going to be best-sellers, and, with money in short supply, concluded that readers were less likely to buy a novel than The Saturday Evening Post. So he decided to send a story to that magazine. To his surprise, it was accepted. Fuchs was paid $600, a substantial amount of money for a Brighton Beach substitute teacher. He began to entertain the notion that writing for magazines might make him rich. With this in mind, he decided to break down the novel he had been working on into four stories and send those off as well. It was summer and Fuchs and his wife were living in Saratoga Springs — a town famous for its hot springs, where FDR used to vacation, and its race track, immortalized by Edna Ferber and, later, by crime writer Stephen Dobyns. Fuchs was making daily journeys to the track, where he was winning enough money to make him consider spending the rest of his life doing this. At the end of the summer, his agent contacted him to say that the four stories had all been sold. With money from the magazines and his winnings from the track, Fuchs was more convinced than ever that he was on the verge of great wealth, even if his bohemian friends, on hearing the news, were annoyed that Fuchs might be forsaking his literary principles.

His friends aside, not many in that closely-knit Brooklyn neighborhood were aware that their young substitute teacher was a writer, much less one who was published. It was on the basis of those stories, as well as the final novel in the trilogy, that Fuchs was offered a 14-week contract at Warner Brothers. According to Fuchs in The Golden West: Hollywood Stories, the following day he walked into his classroom, told his students he was off to Hollywood, and left the school. Not even the principle believed him. As for the parents of his students, they were certain the teacher had either been fired or had gone crazy. On his way home, he was stopped by the local cop, who asked why he wasn’t in school. Fuchs explained he was on his way to Hollywood. The cop thought the young man had to be joking. “No, it’s true,” said Fuchs. Then, perhaps thinking he might be able to touch the stuff that might touch the stuff where dreams are made, the officer suspended his disbelief long enough to say, “Well, bring me back a remembrance from Carole Lombard.”

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Writing fiction about low-life schlemiels was most likely an ideal preparation for Fuchs’s career as a film noir screenwriter. After all, his fiction contains the same social tension and psychological angst found in film noir. It can be seen in Fuchs’s screenplay for Gordon Wiles’s The Gangster (1947), in which the protagonist, played by Barry Sullivan, has the appearance, however deranged, of someone with the weight of the slums on his shoulders. While in Steve Sekely’s Hollow Triumph (1948), the main character, played by Paul Henreid, is literally marked by his past in the form of a scar running the length of his face. Likewise, in Charles Vidor’s semi-true Love Me or Leave Me (1955), which earned Fuchs an Academy Award, singer Ruth Etting, played by, of all people, Doris Day, is oppressed by low-life mobster Marty Snyder, played by James Cagney. And it can be seen in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949), in which a working-class stiff, haunted by his ex-wife, suffers from an advance case of doomed love.

But all that would be in the future. First Fuchs would have to slave away at Warners for two years before he managed to achieve his first film credit. Fortunately, in that interim he was still publishing stories in The New Yorker, Collier’s, and Harper’s Bazaar. His big break came when RKO bought the story that would become Leslie Goodwins’s 1939 film The Day the Bookies Wept, loosely based on Fuchs’s “The Apathetic Bookie Joint,” which had appeared in The New Yorker in 1938. It would be another three years before he received another screenwriting credit, this time at his home studio, Warner Brothers, for Lewis Seiler’s The Big Shot (1942), a gangster-noir starring Humphrey Bogart in his first movie after The Maltese Falcon. The following year, Fuchs penned the screenplay for The Hard Way, directed by Vincent Sherman, starring Ida Lupino. Then came Raoul Walsh’s Background to Danger (1943), adapted from an Eric Ambler novel with Fuchs’s homeboy as George Raft; then Edward Blatt’s Between Two Worlds (1944), itself a remake of Outward Bound, about two lovers, John Garfield and Eleanor Parker, as suicide victims onboard a ship bound for the next world.

But, of course, the two Fuchs screenplays that stand out and are still thought of as film noir classics are the aforementioned The Gangster and Criss Cross. Made in 1947 for the King Brothers at Allied Artists, and loosely adapted from Fuchs’s Low Company, The Gangster focuses on Shubunka — clearly a foreign name, but without referring to the possibility that he might be Jewish — who ignores the threat to his criminal activities and, instead, opts to spend his time hanging out at the ice cream parlor, expressing his jealousy regarding his mistress. With its air of resignation and operatic sensibility, The Gangster stands as an important link connecting proletariat fiction to film noir. Making the maximum use of lighting, editing, sets, acting, and the creation of a specific ambiance, The Gangster is also oddly political. Philip Kemp, in his “From the Nightmare Factory: HUAC and the Politics of Noir,” cites noir’s fascination with “a society largely devoid of any communal sense, where the cult of individualism and the deification of free enterprise have eroded belief in loyalty to the general good. Anyone who underestimates the ferocity of the prevailing self-interest is liable to suffer for it.” Kemp goes on to quote Shubunka, played in Wiles’s film by Barry Sullivan: “I wasn’t low or dirty enough. I should have smashed the others first. That’s the way the world is.” The Gangster’s theatricality and self-consciousness makes it something of an outlier in the genre, its possible failings attributable to its stylization, Fuchs’s poetic nature, and some heavy-handed dialogue, but these are some of the features that make The Gangster, however imperfect, a personal favorite.

Made at Universal-International in 1949, Criss Cross, about doomed love and an armored car heist, is arguably Fuchs’s best and most acclaimed, screenplay. A noir classic that appears in most lists of noir favorites, its portrayal of Los Angeles — from Bunker Hill and Angel’s Flight to Union Station — is both nuanced and gritty. Adapted from Don Tracy’s simply-stated but gut-wrenching novel about a low-life, love-struck boxer, the story is so timeless that in 1995, when Steven Soderbergh’s remake, The Underneath, hit the screens, he barely altered a word of Fuchs’s screenplay.

Published in 1934, Criss-Cross was Don Tracy’s second novel and a near-perfect example of hardboiled noir fiction. Cyril Connolly, in the New Statesman, made the book sound irresistible:

A fascinating crime story — aesthetically worse than The Postman Always Rings Twice, if that were possible — but begin it at any page, nevertheless, and you can’t stop till you’ve read all the others. It is a mass of fake simplicity, fake intensity, fake slang. Only the sentimentality and bad grammar are genuine. But one has to read it.

Born in Connecticut in 1905, with a background in journalism, Tracy, over the years, would churn out scores of novels. Regarding tone, atmosphere, and portrayal of an exploited and all-but-defeated protagonist, Criss-Cross recalls the fiction of David Goodis, though the latter would not publish his first novel for another four years. Narrated in the first person, Criss-Cross grapples with themes that Tracy would recycle in later fiction: obtaining a foothold on the economic ladder, racism, the pain of relationships, identity, and alcoholism, a condition which Tracy would fight against for a good part of his life.

What Fuchs brought to the film adaptation of Criss-Cross was the same bleakness and fatalism he’d explored in Low Company and, to a lesser extent, in The Gangster. With a snappy script, as bold as it is intricate, Fuchs intensifies the sexual chemistry between Steve and Anna, played by Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo, taking it beyond the mechanics of your ordinary heist movie. With flashbacks foreshadowing Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing, Criss Cross deploys, as other films in the era would do, a subjective camera — though to a more moderate degree than Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage and Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, made two years earlier. Siodmak, who had already directed such classics as Cry of the City, The Dark Mirror, Phantom Lady, and The Killers, saves his best subjective shots for those moments when, as in the nightclub scene, Steve has Anna within his doom-laden sights.

Of course, in artistic terms, Criss Cross’s success can also be attributed to Siodmak’s directing. Known for playing fast and loose with screenplays, Siodmak’s touch is evident in the film’s composition, pacing, and performances, not only from Lancaster, De Carlo, and Dan Duryea, but also from a cast of minor character actors such as Percy Helton, Tom Pedi, and Steve McNally. Interestingly, Siodmak only stepped in to direct the film when the original director, Mark Hellinger, suddenly died of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 44. Having produced a series of excellent films — Brute Force, High Sierra, The Killers, and The Naked City — boy wonder Hellinger, at the time of his death, had, besides Criss Cross, two other projects in the pipeline: Knock On Any Door, with Humphrey Bogart and a very young Marlon Brando, a film that would subsequently be made by Nicholas Ray with John Derek instead of Brando; and Act of Violence with Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart.

Fuchs can be said to have contributed screenplays for two other examples of film noir, the previously mentioned Hollow Triumph and Panic In the Streets, though neither are on a par with The Gangster or Criss Cross. Sekely’s Hollow Triumph was made at Eagle Lion, and stars Joan Bennett and Paul Henreid. Hitting the screens in 1948, it concerns a fugitive who kills his psychoanalyst only to be arrested for the crimes his psychoanalyst had previously committed. Other than its unusual plot, it is noteworthy for noir specialist John Alton’s superb exterior camera work. At the same time, the film’s downbeat conclusion and understated sense of menace are once again reminiscent of Low Company: says Joan Bennett in the film, “You can’t go back and start again. The older you get, the worse things get.”

Directed by Elia Kazan for Twentieth Century Fox, Panic In the Streets (1950) is set in New Orleans. A doctor, played by Richard Widmark, and a policeman, played by Paul Douglas, have 48 hours to find the carrier of pneumonic plague. A noir critique of lower middle-class xenophobia, Kazan’s film evokes an era in which paranoia reigned supreme, foreigners were a source of fear, and there was an underworld of purportedly immense proportions. In substituting illness for crime, and cure for punishment, it was, according to critic Peter Biskind, one of the first films of “the therapeutic society.”

A year later, there was Stuart Heisler’s Storm Warning (1951) starring Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers. Seeking to depict the effect of racism on a community, the film reverses the blindingly obvious, focusing on a lynch mob directed against recalcitrant white folks — at a time when lynchings of African Americans in the South had yet to become a thing of the past (let alone a marketable subject in Hollywood). Other films credited to Fuchs during that decade include Gregory Ratoff’s Taxi (1953), Joseph Newman’s crime-laden The Human Jungle (1954), and George Sidney’s Jeanne Eagels (1957), starring Kim Novak. The latter was interesting if only because it teamed up Fuchs with fellow writer John Fante, though unfortunately to no great effect. It’s the story of a sideshow dancer who becomes a Broadway star, only to succumb to drugs. The final films bearing Fuchs’s name include Interlude (1957), directed by Douglas Sirk, and his last film, an MGM western directed by Robert Parrish and John Sturges, Saddle the Wind (uncredited, 1958), by which time Fuchs had become more ambivalent than ever about Hollywood.

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Enchanted by film sets and the fantasies they create, Fuchs, for better or worse, was easily seduced by Hollywood. It was a sentiment he would attempt to articulate in an essay, “The Earthquake of 1971,” which begins with Fuchs casting his mind back to 1937 when, as a rosy-eyed innocent, he first arrived in Hollywood. The beauty of the town — its bougainvillea, hibiscus blossoms, oleanders, poinsettias, Joshua trees and yuccas on the hills, the scent of orange blossoms, jasmine, and honeysuckle — was, to him, breathtaking. As he wanders around, he realizes that he’s seen it all before, albeit while watching comedy two-reelers by Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon at the Wilmington Plaza movie theater in Williamsburg. He’s exhilarated by the thought, as well as the notion that he would be part of that same Hollywood studio culture. He goes on to say that it’s all too easy to criticize the power of the studios; but they were, after all, the reason he, and others, had come to Hollywood: “It’s amazing how [people] cling to the studios here, how the studios dominate all their minds and lives. The studios exude an excitement, a sense of life, a reach and hope, to an extent hard to describe.”

In those early days, however, Fuchs had no clear idea what his position at Warner Brothers entailed. It was long before it all began to wear thin. At one point he reports that he found himself working for 14 weeks on a job without producing a single word. So oppressed was he at not writing that he offered to go without salary, only for the producer to tell him it wasn’t possible, because no one could possibly work for nothing. Thinking about walking away from it all, Fuchs tried to come up with “some way of committing suicide without dying.” He even began to fantasize about solving his problem by simply killing the producer. Sure, his Hollywood career would be over, but he would be alive and free, happily walking the earth in a state of grace — otherwise known as a writer without a studio. But, instead, Fuchs did as most and opted for the path of least resistance, deciding to stick it out until the project lived or died of its own accord.

The ordeal would lead him to speculate on what constitutes a good film. That it’s a question he’s unable to answer only makes him all the more alienated and disillusioned. That is, until he realizes that Beverly Hills is really just an up-market Williamsburg, which, for some reason known only to Fuchs, enables him to come to terms with Hollywood and his job. It even allows him to sit in an office with the notorious Harry Cohn without squirming, even when the producer has the chutzpah to ask Fuchs why he spends his studio paycheck on chocolates and a pale blue linen dress for his wife when he could be spending it on himself. Fuchs tries to make some excuse, only to dig the hole he’s in a little deeper, until he finds he’s denigrating himself in front of one of the most powerful men Hollywood. Perhaps Fuchs’s intimidation had something to do with Cohn putting him in mind of all those Jewish gangsters he had known back in Brooklyn. If so, he wouldn’t be the first to make the comparison. One thinks of Raymond Chandler, who, on observing a group of studio executives, said, “They looked so exactly like a bunch of […] Chicago gangsters moving in to read the death sentence on a beaten competitor.”

While the combination of Cohn’s near-criminal qualities and Hollywood’s ghetto-like atmosphere made Fuchs feel more at ease, he would remain ambivalent about his job. He quotes British expatriate Christopher Isherwood, “A screenwriter is a man who is being tortured to confess and has nothing to confess,” and yet he remained adamant about the industry’s attractions. He could agree with a fellow scriptwriter cited in “The Earthquake of 1971” that studio writers are “whores working in a brothel […] assailed, censured and pestered,” while, at the same time, when asked why he chose Hollywood over fiction writing, he willingly changes his tune, saying, “I write, in collaboration or alone, from my own original material or from other source material, in the morning and in the night, on studio time and on my own time, until I fill shelves and prize Reticence as the rarest of all jewels.” Deep down he must have sensed the reality of the situation. Knowing that the subtext to the often-asked question regarding why he works in Hollywood is really “why are you screenwriters so extravagantly paid,” he can only reply, “Nothing is given freely, payment is exacted.”

Successful though he might have been, it’s Fuchs’s conflicted feelings about Hollywood that makes his story seem, in itself, something like the plot to a film noir. Perhaps in the final scene of that imaginary film noir he might state, as he would do in his Hollywood novel, West of the Rockies, that those who triumph in Hollywood haven’t a clue regarding why, so are unable “to present it, manipulate it, embellish it, portion it out — since they didn’t know what it was or whether in fact, they had anything at all.” At least, after leaving studio culture, Fuchs would go on writing, which is more than one could say about many Hollywood screenwriters — even if his novels and stories would never recapture the urgency and enthusiasm of his Williamsburg trilogy and his earliest essays. Fuchs died of heart failure in Los Angeles in 1993, by which time Hollywood had eaten into him to the degree that he would come to admit that his labor back in Brooklyn had been given far too freely, but “what restricted me was shame […] I felt the work wasn’t good enough. To tell the truth, I had the secret suspicion that the whole idea of fiction wasn’t upstanding, that it was basically tainted, foolish and fraudulent.” Maybe he came closest to coming clean when he told neophyte screenwriter Alvah Bessie, “Everything that you are given here will be shit. And you cannot make anything out of it except shit. That is all you can do with it. But if you play your cards right, you can be on top of this heap in a year, making big money.” He added, “They won’t let you write well.” Bessie was shocked by Fuchs’s perspective, but would later admit that Criss Cross and The Gangster aside, Fuchs was in the end, simply speaking the truth.

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Woody Haut is the author, most recently, of Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.


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