Beyond the Cover: Books to Film Blogathon
In the novel The Moon in the Gutter, David Goodis [Dark Passage (1947)] paints a locale that’s probably his native Philadelphia but is never identified. It could be almost anywhere with a wharf and a skid row. It’s set at a time when there was a white majority even at society’s violent margins. William Kerrigan, a thirty-five year old dock worker, spends his evenings in a dive called Dugan’s Den. The clock on the wall stopped years ago and so did Kerrigan’s dreams of escaping from Vernon Street. Twenty cent shots of rye take the edge off. He walks away from the wharf, enduring the summer heat.
The slimy water in the gutter was lit with pink fire from the evening sun . . . the flares shooting out from the blazing sphere, merging with the orange clouds, so that the sky was like a huge opal, the colors floating and bending, and it was really something to look at . . . the Vernon Street citizens had no idea of what was up there . . . All they knew was that the sun was still high, and it would be one hell of a hot night.
The noir protagonist is typically a loner. By contrast, Kerrigan is constantly surrounded by people whether in the bars or in the two-story house he shares with Jerry, his alcoholic brother and Tom, their lazy, beer-guzzling father. Tom’s hefty and violent second wife, Lola, who sometimes works as a bouncer, is also in the house. Snarling in another room, her daughter Bella pressures Kerrigan for marriage and sex, not necessarily in that order. Kerrigan’s sister died in an alley off Vernon Street. A sexual assault pushed her over the edge to suicide so she may as well have been murdered. The pilgrimage to the site, where the blood has dried but is still visible, has become a compulsion, one he can’t break.
When Jean-Jacques Beineix premiered La lune dans le carniveau (The Moon in The Gutter) at Cannes in 1983, it was as if he too had committed a crime. No one cared whether his adaptation was faithful to the book. As he explained at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre in 2009, his sin was following up the Cesar award-winning Diva (1981) with something dark and nearly inaccessible.
Co-written and directed by Beineix, the setting was changed to the docks of Marseilles. In 1960, François Truffaut adapted the Goodis novel Down There as Tirez sur le Pianeste (Shoot the Piano Player) and it was an international success. When he was nearly forgotten in the U.S., Goodis remained popular in France through the Série noire imprint. Beineix’s adaption had obvious commercial potential. Even with stars Gérard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski in the lead roles, however, the public didn’t respond. Many had unrealistic expectations because of Diva and were anticipating another popular entertainment in the Cinéma du look style that Beineix helped create.
In the novel, Dugan’s Den is a boy’s club of heavy drinkers until the sister of Newton Channing shows up, trying to drag him home. Kerrigan and Loretta lock eyes. At least in spirit, she’s the double of his own dead sister, Catherine. With Loretta’s arrival, his seven month search for the killer becomes overshadowed by a new obsession.
She moved slowly, casually, with a certain poise that blended with her face and body. She had a very beautiful face and her figure was slender and elegant. She had long wavy hair and greenish eyes. Her height was around five-four and she appeared to be in her middle twenties.
At the time, no one on the scene better matched that description than Nastassja Kinski. Then using “Nastassia,” Kinski first drew international attention as the beguiling Tess (1979). Her performance as Irena in Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People (1982) showed her range and gave a hint of what she might bring to the part of Loretta.
For Kerrigan, called Gérard Delmas in the film, Depardieu also has the right physicality and is believable as the longshoreman with a heart.
He had blue eyes and a nose that had been broken twice but was still in line with the rest of his face. On the left side of his forehead, slanting down toward his cheek, there was a deep slanting scar from an encounter on the docks when someone had used brass knuckles . . . just a couple of badges that signified he lived on Vernon Street and worked on the docks.
Beineix puts them in a Marseilles of the imagination, created in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios (sandwiched between Sergio Leone and Fellini who were also filming) with production design by Hilton McConnico. It’s a dreamlike vision, lost in time somewhere, with a kaleidoscope of hues. There’s a link to the poetic realism of Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (1938) where studio artificiality sets the tone in a harbor village. In that film, the poetic sensibility masks an underlying tension that occasionally bursts into violence.
The waterfront is also a place of beauty that only an outsider like Loretta, who’s from the other side of the tracks, can see. The stevedore seizes on this as evidence the uptown girl is only out for a bit of rough. For guys like him, class is as much a barrier as color would be. He can’t articulate completely what’s going on inside of him so he acts out, toward her and everyone else. On Vernon Street or its dystopian French equivalent, it doesn’t pay to “develop pretty thoughts and hopes and dreams.” A liquor ad outside Gérard’s window implores, in English, “Try Another World.” In his world, the men drink and brawl while the women turn into bitter “hags” and barflies by forty. Loretta is the serene moon who drops into his polluted gutter.
The ruffian and the lady is an old story, one that usually has a bad end. Loretta’s pursuit of her man, even after a smack in the kisser, seems far-fetched as book and film veer away from the literal toward melodrama. What Goodis achieves with lyrical, tender and sometimes cloying prose, Beineix does with the camera on the stylized backlot.
Dugan’s Den now has naked mud wrestlers and is much more phantasmagoric than the Irish American corner bar Goodis depicts. Other elements remain. The dialogue of Gérard Delmas and Newton Channing’s first meeting is taken from the book nearly verbatim. Appropriately aristocratic, Vittorio Mezzogiorno plays Channing with the right amount of bitterness and sadness. The entertainment has ended and the lights dim when Loretta makes her entrance, the soundtrack’s rhapsodic strings reaching an emotional pitch.
Loretta’s pale gray MG from the book gets an upgrade to a blood-red Ferrari. When she takes Gérard for a spin along the waterfront, the visuals open up and in springing forth from the page, outshine the source material. “Magnifique!” she gushes. He explains why they see the world differently, something she doesn’t buy. A narrator speaks his thoughts:
Soon it would be teeming with life . . . Trucks would invade the port . . . The bellies of ships would open . . . Steel muscles would flex . . . Cables would whistle . . . The heat . . . would stifle the port, and the men would sweat at work . . .
Terrified of her, he leaps out of the car. While Philippe Rousselot’s camera frames her in close up, Loretta calls after him: “I frighten you! One day you’ll open your heart. You’ll see blue skies. A highway to the sun. Ships like birds . . . Gentleness . . . You won’t be frightened . . . Things’ll be fine. No one is doomed.”
With those cryptic words, penned by Beineix, she takes on the guise of seer, a different role from the book where she’s more siren than sibyl. Of course, her Cassandra-like prediction of a journey to the sun, if he took it, would result in his burning up. Cruising to the rapturous orchestral score, they seem ready to take flight. Intuitively, Gérard knows the consequences even if he’s never heard the name Icarus. So, he prevaricates. In both book and film, Loretta causes him to stray, momentarily, from his preordained path. She’s the rare femme fatale who offers the hero a way out of hell. All she wants in return is his soul.
Back in Gérard’s tenement, Lola (Bertice Reading) is big, loud and poised to strike her husband Tom, just as she’s described in the novel. By casting the expat African American Reading (who learned the part phonetically), there’s an added layer of meaning.
The exact relationship between her and Bella (Victoria Abril), who’s conceivably of mixed race, is unclear. There’s a mutual dislike whether or not they’re mother and daughter. In the book, Bella uses her extra pounds and mean mouth to conceal her lack of fulfillment. In book and film, she one-ups the clinging desperation of Betty Compson’s Mae in the The Docks of New York (1928), Josef von Sternberg’s idealized, wharf-side drama. Abril [Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)] plays Bella with a Mediterranean earthiness that makes for an effective contrast with the ethereal Loretta, who’s shown Gérard a glimpse of paradise.
Beineix hoped to release a four-hour director’s cut, expanded from 131 minutes, that he believed would both make the plot more comprehensible and expand the already powerful statement about slum life. Unfortunately, the studio (Gaumont) had destroyed his longer version. While I sympathize, a book that’s less than two hundred pages hardly seems like the stuff of epic filmmaking. Classic noir films from similar sources usually clocked in at under ninety minutes. With questions left unanswered as to the fate of Beineix’s unholy triangle, we’re left wanting more. But, that’s not such a bad thing, after all.
Click on an image to see the complete listing.
Edited from a Book Versus Film Comparison published in Noir City