Sinister Cinema: Gaudy Wilmerian Patter

Pulps in the Movies! On Sale Every Wednesday!

In his exciting series renowned pulp expert John Locke has hit them short and sweet, the slam-bam thanks for holding a pulp, m’am posts. He’s gone back into the silent era. He’s found an Oscar winner reading a pulp. He’s featured Cagney. Perry Mason. The Mummy. The guy has even introduced audio sightings, where you don’t see a pulp, you hear about a pulp.

Until now, however, he hasn’t plunged in deep-deep, like someone knocking out an essay — someone who’d like to thank Norm Davis, Don Herron, Rob Preston, and John and Janis Wooley for their kind assistance. Additionally, John acknowledges, David Wilt’s Hardboiled in Hollywood: Five Black Mask Writers and the Movies (1991) provided valuable production details for Grand Central Murder.

Yeah, today he’s opening up Grand Central Murder and taking a look — let’s see how deep-deep he goes:

Time again to connect dots across the multiverse. This week we trace the evolution of a snatch of Dashiell Hammett dialogue through film and literature all the way to its shocking destination.

In the 1929 Black Mask serialization of The Maltese Falcon, Wilmer Cook, now the world’s most beloved gunsel, has finally had enough of Spade’s pinpricks to his grandiose pride. Facing off in the entrance to Spade’s office building, he slow-burns the detective with:

“You louse! Keep on riding me and you’re going to be picking iron out of your navel.”

To which, Spade chuckles and coolly responds, “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.”

Knopf’s 1930 hardbound made numerous changes to the magazine’s text. For the above, “You louse!” dropped out. A fair edit. Wilmer’s line didn’t require two disparate expressions of hostility.

It’s still a memorable exchange that says something about both characters. It shows that the crude Wilmer sees Spade in purely animal terms. He threatens Spade with a belly shot, guaranteeing that he would suffer through a lingering death, like he might have tortured toads as a child. Spade’s unruffled response reveals his calibrated knowledge of the denizens of the underworld and their distorted sense of reality.

The book was successful and so, of course, Hollywood came calling. In 1931, Warner Brothers, the leading studio of tough-guy movies, brought out the first film version. However, in its tidy 78-minute running time, Wilmer’s role is diminished and the office-front repartee gets omitted.

WB tapped the novel again in 1936 for Satan Met a Lady. At 74 minutes, it’s even shorter. Starting with the title, virtually every detail of the story is changed up, presumably to conceal the quick double-dip into the pockets of the suckers lined up at the ticket booth.

Instead of the Falcon, the prize is the Horn of Roland. Spade & Archer become Shane & Ames. Gutman becomes Madame Barabbas, with Wilmer turned into her demented nephew Kenneth. With 50 lbs. extra on Wilmer, he’s no longer the “undersized youth” of Hammett’s tale. In this lighthearted rendition, he smiles too much to strike any real fear, his dialogue watered down to a continual bleating about killing Shane. As in 1931, the office-front exchange is left out.

For 1941’s classic Maltese Falcon, Warner — and director/screenwriter John Huston — finally got it right by sticking as close to the book as possible (and benefiting from inspired casting). Note how close the Wilmer-Spade friction is to Knopf’s text.

“Navel” is changed to “liver,” and “you’re going be picking” to the postmortem “they’re gonna” — both upgrades heighten Wilmer’s bestiality. Spade’s line is perfect in Hammett’s original and only changes by being twisted at the end into a casual question, but that may only be Bogie’s line-reading in the take that was used.

Which finally brings us to this week’s pulpspotting!

One might expect 1942’s Grand Central Murder (adapted from the 1939 novel by Elizabeth Custer Nearing — writing as narrator Sue MacVeigh), with numerous scenes inside Grand Central Station, to be filled with pulp sightings as the action runs back and forth in front of well-stocked newsstands. But this 73-minute mystery was on the cheap side, with a B-level cast and running time, and most scenes shot on the backlot. The station scenes feature a passenger car on the platform, but little sense of scale to the set.

All that turned up for pulps was an audio sighting. Fortunately, it’s a quadruple backflip off the high dive.

In the centerpiece scene, police detectives gather all the suspects in a room to see what issues forth. Sparks fly when gangster Frankie Ciro has had enough of private dick “Rocky” Custer’s insinuations.

The concerned woman in the background is Rocky’s wife Sue (narrator of the novel), who gasps when her husband refuses to back down to the notorious criminal.

Frankie, played by George Sanders’s brother Tom Conway, with nearly identical looks and voice, is far too suave for Wilmer’s gutter birthright, but that gives his threat a slightly different punch, because we don’t expect such uncouth language to exist that close to a bowtie.

Rocky, though angrier than the coolheaded Spade would have been, still betrays Spade’s understanding of the criminal class — and their essential shallowness. But instead of deftly characterizing Frankie’s language, as Spade did for Wilmer, Rocky refers to its “detective story magazine” origins.

Now, our first instinct is to cry “plagiarism!” at this obvious swipe from Falcon. But upon further examination, the exchange turns out to be a four-layered gag cake.

The first layer is the obvious meaning of the putdown to Frankie, that life as it’s presented in the pages of pulp magazines is not reality, and that anyone who speaks like a pulp character is a cheap fraud. We know Rocky is referring to the pulps, because the detective-story mags were famous for their use of language, whereas the true-crime mags, while lurid, generally provided straight reportage; the only creative use of language were on the rare occasions when real-life criminals, their victims, or lawmen, said something memorable.

Of course, Grand Central Murder takes place in the same non-reality the pulps inhabit, but we’ll let that slide.

Second, given the wisecracking tone of Grand Central Murder, Rocky’s line is a clear riff on the 1941 film. Dates tell the story. The Maltese Falcon premiered on October 3, 1941. A respectable hit, its box office take put it the yearly top twenty. Reviews were justly strong, and the film garnered three Oscar nominations, including one of the ten for Best Picture (How Green Was My Valley went How Gold Is My Statuette).

MGM purchased film rights to the novel of Grand Central Murder in late 1941. Shooting began in February 1942, and the film was released on May 23. The screenplay, therefore, was adapted while Falcon was still fresh in everybody’s minds. The novel was significantly reworked for the screen. Additions to the script, not to be found in the novel, include the Frankie Ciro character and the exchange in question. The gag, then, is topical humor which a sizeable percentage of the audience would have appreciated.

Third, the fact that The Maltese Falcon and Grand Central Murder were made by different studios — Warner Brothers and MGM —gives the exchange an extra sting. The major studios made pictures in a variety of genres, and at widely different budgetary levels, retaining clear aesthetic differences.

Warner was known for its gritter, racier, street-smart tone. They produced many of the famous gangster and crime pictures, making them a natural home for all three Falcon adaptations.

MGM, on the other hand, was known for high-gloss, big-budget prestige pictures featuring “more stars than there are in heaven,” like Garbo and Gable. They also went heavy on wholesome family fare like the Andy Hardy series.

Rocky’s gag, appearing in an MGM feature, is therefore a sly way of calling WB the film equivalent of the lower-class pulps while continuing to hold Leo the Lion’s nose in the air.

The bottom layer is the least obvious of the four and requires a little background on the screenwriter of Grand Central Murder, Peter Ruric, who’d been hanging around Hollywood scripting for over two decades.

His real name was George Carrol Sims (1902-66). “Ruric” separated his film work from his pulp-magazine writing. In that world, he was known as Paul Cain, where he burst onto the scene with “Fast One” in the March 1932 Black Mask. From 1932-36, he published 17 stories in Black Mask, and another two in other detective pulps. Five of his 1932 stories were combined into Fast One, his only published novel. It’s remembered as one of the key documents of the Black Mask hardboiled era. When editor Cap Shaw left Black Mask in 1936, Cain’s pulp career was one of the casualties.

The Sims angle breaks down into two parts (4a & 4b). First, observe that he didn’t make Rocky sneer about fictional characters, or characters in books. In fingering “detective story magazines,” he was really talking about himself, comparing his two writing lives, the high-aspiring Hollywood version and his past as a pulp-writing lowlife. Screenwriting wasn’t necessarily superior to pulp writing, but there was a perceived class distinction, the same as there was between MGM and WB.

To Hollywood writers, pulp writers were a dime a dozen. But pulp writers gazed dreamily upon Hollywood as the promised land of fat paydays, respect worthy of a god, and cocktail parties with the world’s most beautiful people jostling elbow-to-elbow. And just for hammering a typewriter.

The American Dream.

Tellingly, when a number of Sims’s Black Mask stories were collected for the 1946 paperback Seven Slayers, he unsuccessfully attempted to switch the byline from Cain to Ruric. He may have needed the royalties, but still wanted to obscure his link to the pulps.

Further (4b), Rocky’s gag refers to Cain’s role in Black Mask’s destiny. Hammett, in his rise to fame, had brought glory to himself, and reflected glory to the magazine that made him. But the Black Bird outgrew its roost. With bestsellerdom and Hollywoodland in hand, Hammett’s last story for the pulp appeared in the November 1930 issue. Shaw still had his holdovers from the ’20s: Nebel, Gardner, Whitfield, and so forth. But the editor must have wondered what freshly-shaven two-footed flash would fill Hammett’s gumshoes; who would be the next comet to lift Black Mask to new heights?

Indeed, Cain was one of a number of writers who debuted in the magazine in the years immediately following Hammett’s departure, and had successful runs. Norbert Davis was one of the first, debuting in the June 1932 issue, eventually placing 13 stories in the magazine. Others include Theodore A. Tinsley (10/32, 27), Roger Torrey (1/33, 51), W.T. Ballard (9/33, 43), Raymond Chandler (12/33, 11), H.H. Stinson (4/33, 27), and George Harmon Coxe (3/34, 32).

Some of those writers, Cain leading the pack, must have pondered the same questions: Will I be the next Hammett? Will I pay my dues in the pulps before graduating to Hollywood’s heights, never to look down again?

The contemporaneous critical assessment of Cain usually boils down to a few choice quotes. Doubleday, Doran advertised Fast One as “the toughest, hardest, most ruthless crime story” they’d ever published. Chandler called it “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” Ultra: the extreme. Syndicated book reviewer Bruce Catton described it as “a homicidal carnival that leaves nothing unsaid and nobody unshot.” He thought it was fun. The New York Times Book Review described it as “a ceaseless welter of bloodshed and frenzy, a sustained bedlam of killing and fiendishness, told in terse staccato style.” Written like a machine-gun shoots. It was not an endorsement.

Cain often underplayed the ultra elements. His spare, chiseled prose was almost savage in its treatment of violence and death as incidental details.

In his introduction to The Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946), which resurrected the Black Mask boys, Shaw wrote a lot about Hammett and played nice by not nominating a successor. But in an unpublished draft found in Shaw’s papers, he had written: “it has been said that, in the matter of grim hardness, while Raoul [Whitfield] and Dash paused on the threshold, Peter [Ruric] went all the way in Fast One.”

In Shaw’s view, he’d taken a next step, if not the next step.

Can we then avoid the conclusion that Cain was the Wilmer Cook of the Black Mask boys?

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