Showing posts with label Barry Gifford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barry Gifford. Show all posts

04 October 2019

Beatniks and Bad Guys: Barry Gifford and David Lynch



David Lynch's Wild at Heart, based on
the novel by Barry Gifford.
Beatniks and Bad Guys was nearly the sole title of this piece, but I felt it just wasn't cool to leave Barry Gifford off the headline. Gifford is, after all, the Kerouac of crime fiction.  David Lynch's connection to Gifford's Sailor and Lula crime-novel series, beginning with Wild at Heart, also warrants room on the marquee. Though I like the way Gifford's writing blows Beatnik riffs in a film noir world, it was Gifford's non-fiction that grabbed me first.

Before cable, film noir (and crime film in general) was all over TV. If you we're a kid planted in front of the small screen,  you we're bound to come across films like The Big Sleep or The Big Heat or The Big Knife. If you weren't put off by black and white, and you liked the dirty dealings, the thrilling bad-assery of it all, likely you were hooked. Those movies kick-started my interest in film, and like most film buffs, I read what I could about how these flicks came to be. When I came across Barry Gifford's love letter to crime cinema, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, I knew I'd come across a kindred spirit.

It wasn't just the subject matter of Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride that intrigued me; it was the soulfulness of his writing, the off-kilter way he came at crime films. When I discovered that Gifford's first non-fiction book was Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, it started to make sense. Gifford had one foot in Birdland and one in Chinatown. He was a Beatnik who dove deep into crime fiction. Technically, he was a little late on the scene to be a real Beat, but he had the heart of one. I wasn't the first kid to read On The Road and have it stick with me for life. Finding an author who mashed up two of my great interests into one unique vision was a big deal.

Author Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford was born in 1946, just a couple years prior to Jack Kerouac's actual road trip that would be the basis of On the Road. Gifford's father was associated with the Chicago mob, and Gifford spent his early years living out of hotel rooms. Regular schooling wasn't in the game plan. "He learned from late-night noir movies and the strange characters that passed through the hotel lobbies," The Paris Review wrote. A stint in the merchant marine (Kerouac did time in the merchant marine, too) sent Gifford to swinging London in the mid-sixties, where he partied with the likes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton.

In 1967 Gifford moved to San Francisco and befriended the Beats who were still living there, including Allen Ginsburg. It was a momentous relocation. He was soon writing for Rolling Stone, and he met his future wife there. Many of the Beats he met provided their stories for Jack's Book. Novels, poetry collections, and more non-fiction followed. He even started Black Lizard Press, through which he published many of his favorite-though-forgotten pulp authors. I'll bet the first Jim Thompson book I ever read was a Black Lizard edition. Black Lizard was a big part of the neo noir boom of the 1980s. This noir comeback included films like the Coen Brothers Blood Simple and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

When David Lynch asked Gifford to write the screenplay for Wild at Heart in 1990, based on the first of Gifford's Sailor and Lula neo-noir novels, Gifford initially refused. Gifford was busy writing the sequel to Wild at Heart (titled Sailor's Holiday) when Lynch called.  Lynch was fascinated by Sailor and Lula, who keep their love light alive in a dirty rotten world. "It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad," Lynch later wrote.

David Lynch at Cannes in 1990
with Wild at Heart
Gifford told Lynch to write the Wild at Heart screenplay himself, and then send it back to him for notes. They eventually shared credit for the screenplay. Wild at Heart was a success, winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes and planting its freak flag into the head of the '90s. It made Gifford's book a best seller. The Sailor and Lula series ended up running eight novels long.

The next time Lynch came calling, he wanted Gifford to adapt  one of the stories from Gifford's book Night People. Southern gothic meets the Lynchian edge of darkness in Night People. It might be for the wild at heart, but not for the feint of heart. It's also smartly hilarious. 

Gifford didn't want to adapt one of the Night People stories, though. He wanted to create something new, featuring a character who wakes one day as a totally different person.  Lost Highway's non-linear structure makes it a more difficult film than Wild at Heart, and one viewing isn't enough. It's bizarre and unique, a perfect pairing of two one-of-a-kind storytellers. I don't think Lynch ever had a more perfectly attuned collaborator than Barry Gifford.

I recently finished Barry Gifford's Writers (2015), a collection of short one act plays that feature famous authors in vulnerable situations. I felt he really got to the heart of these scribes in a deceptively quick and fun read. You have to be good to say so much in a such a thin tome, and Gifford succeeds.  "The Last Words of Arthur Rimbaud," featuring the dying moments of the French poet, is haunting and sad. The same can be said about "The Nobody," about Emily Dickinson's relationship with her sister.

"Spring Training at the Finca Vigia" is a masterful portrayal of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn. Along for the ride are Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe, real-life pitchers for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's 1941, and the setting is the Hemingway household outside Havana, Cuba. Hemingway comes off as a moody knucklehead, having drunken sparring sessions with the jocks while the cool-headed Gellhorn delivers Martini-dry insults.

At night a hammered Hemingway shoots at imaginary Cuban rebels who he believes are trying to rob him. Gellhorn pleads with him to stop, but Hemingway goes so far as to booby trap his yard with explosives. It's both funny and scary, a combo Gifford specializes in. For me, this mirrored Hemingway's belief that the US government was spying on him. This paranoia is one of the things that's suspected to have driven Hemingway to suicide.  The kicker is that is was revealed that the FBI really was spying on Hemingway, even going so far as to read his mail. Hemingway was right all along. Gellhorn took her own life years after Hemingway did. The same with pitcher Hugh Casey.

Jack Kerouac meets infamous New York mobster Joey Gallo in "One Night in Umberto's Clam House." It's as literal a representation of the Beat-meeting-the-noir that Gifford could have written. Gifford's whole unique vision is kind of summed up in thirteen pages. It also feels like a moment in a Lynch film when there's a snatch of dialogue that's casual and dangerous, past and future, with darkness and murder tiptoeing all around a diminishing edge of light.

For more Barry Gifford, take a trip down that lost internet highway to BarryGifford.Net.

The following articles, excellent all, helped me prepare for this piece: Michael Bible's "Still Weird on Top"; Jim Ruland's "Barry Gifford's Lifetime of Outsiders"; J.W. McCormack's "Barry Gifford is America's Offbeat Dostoevsky"; and Ron Wells' "Interview: Lost Highway Screenwriter Barry Gifford."

I discuss Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride in my earlier two-part Sleuthsayers blog "My Dinner with Lawrence Tierney," from February 8 & 29. Tierney threw punches. Check it out.

I'm Lawrence Maddox, author of Fast Bang Booze, available at Down&Out Books. You can reach me at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Tweets welcome at Lawrence Maddox@MadXBooks. 

29 March 2019

My Dinner With Lawrence Tierney — Part 2


Born to Kill...me?
by Lawrence Maddox

I'd been warned.

In my defense, when Lawrence Tierney threw his first punch at me, many of his current lunacies weren't yet public knowledge. Reservoir Dogs had just wrapped production the previous month and Tarantino was still piecing it together in the cutting room.

Tierney's fight with Tarantino and his subsequent firing wouldn't become part of the Tierney mythos until Reservoir Dogs made its big splash the following year, 1992. Sure, Tierney nabbed some TV roles in the '80s, but until Reservoir Dogs brought him back, he was known (mostly to film buffs) as that actor who scared off stardom with booze-fueled mayhem.

Lawrence Tierney, dead center,
making his comeback in Reservoir Dogs (1992)



Still, when filmmaker Steve Barkett invited me to have dinner with the star of not only Dillinger (1945), but of my film noir fav The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1946), I knew things could get interesting.  I'd read about Tierney's exploits in Barry Gifford's love letter to American crime flicks, The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films (1988).  "Tierney, famous for his role as Dillinger," writes Gifford, "and for his barroom brawls (he was stabbed in one as recently as 1973), and drunk driving arrests, is the wickedest looking big lug in B-movie history."

Steve gave me plenty to think about during the drive to Hamburger Hamlet to meet Lawrence Tierney. "I don't want to scare you. Lawrence can be a little weird," Steve said. "Sometimes he likes to mess with people." Steve told me that when he'd first met Tierney in 1990 at CineCon, Tierney was living in a halfway house.

Jason Alexander

Steve also told me that Tierney had vaguely mentioned an incident on the Seinfeld set that happened earlier in the year.  It involved a butcher knife from the set of Jerry's apartment, and Tierney told Steve that he'd only been playing around but the cast took it way too seriously. Tierney was originally considered for a recurring role, but was never asked back.

It ended up being perhaps the most well known story about Lawrence Tierney ("it scared the living crap out of us," Jason Alexander recalled), but it wouldn't become famous until Tierney made his comeback.

There were funny Tierney stories too. Steve said they'd once gone to a cafeteria together. "We got in line and Lawrence loaded up my tray with all kinds of food. All he put on his own tray was a small salad. When we sat down, Lawrence started eating most of the food he'd supposedly picked out for me," Steve said. "When Lawrence was done eating, he excused himself to go the restroom. Lawrence didn't know I saw this, but he went to the cashier and paid for only the small salad, stiffing me for all the food he ate." Steve said Tierney already owed him $50. Steve had driven Lawrence to the cafeteria, and when it was time to leave, he wouldn't let Lawrence get in his car unless he forked over the fifty bucks right there on the spot.

Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook
in Born to Kill (1947)

At first things were going great at the Hamlet. Tierney saw that I'd brought Barry Gifford's book, in which Tierney figures prominently. Tierney said he'd read it and didn't care for it. He took humorous exception to Gifford's essay on Born to Kill (1947), in which he writes "there's no decency at all in Lawrence Tierney's face." Tierney, whose face seemed to be naturally fixed in a scowl under his wide, bald dome, mugged menacingly for Steve and I. "Look at me! Is this a face without decency?" He asked. We all cracked up.

Steve and I were relieved that Tierney didn't order any alcohol, and we didn't either. "I'm buying tonight, fellas! Order anything you want," Tierney proclaimed in his gravelly voice. Steve looked at me dubiously.

Not so promising was Tierney's treatment of our waitress. He peppered her with personal questions, many in French. Nothing he said was lewd or profane, but he took it right up to the line.  I figured he was showing off for Steve and I, but it got uncomfortable. We told him that it was time to let her leave and do her job. She hurried away, clearly annoyed.

Steve got up from the table. When I phoned Steve a few weeks ago, he told me he'd left the table to  apologize to the manager for Tierney's behavior, and to warn him that it would likely continue.

I was across the table from Tierney, and if I had to guess, I'd say it was a left jab. It was quick and sharp and I could feel the air hit me on my nose. It had come short of my face by two inches at the very most. In less than what screenwriters call a "beat," he threw another. I was paying attention now and I blocked it hard with my forearm. It felt like a real punch.




I did some quick calculus.

What just happened?

If I pop him I could get arrested. 

I'm broke and I'm going to have to call my parents to make my bail.

I don't wan't to clock an old guy. Even one that has been getting arrested for hurting people since Truman was in the Whitehouse.

That first punch was close, but I bet he missed it on purpose. He's messing with me. Right?

Getting up and leaving would've solved everything. I didn't want to do that, though. Maybe it was the burgeoning writer in me, but I wanted to see how it was going to play out.

If he'd actually tagged me square in the face, I guess I would've countered. I'm not kidding when I say I had this thought: I'm not going down like all those other clowns. I also remembered thinking one thing for sure;  He's messing with me. He purposely didn't hit me. He's trying to push me. He wants to see me get mad. 

"Looks like you've still got it," I said, doing my level best to look unfazed. Tierney did a double take. For some reason this really pissed him off. "Damn right I still got it!" Tierney said loudly. "Make any quick moves like that again and you'll see. I'm just trained that way. I can't help it." I remember that I actually laughed at him. I hadn't made any quick moves, not that that mattered. "Try it and you'll see too," I said. It felt like low budget dialogue from one of his early noirs. My whole demeanor threw him off.

That's when Steve came back. "We we're just messing around. I like your friend here," Tierney said. Steve could sense something was up.  Along with Steve came a new waitress. This one seemed like a tough Hamlet veteran.  She didn't take any of Tierney's guff and shut him down when he wanted to chit chat. "Bring back the other waitress, you're no fun," Tierney said. "And remember fellas, I'm buying."

Just like that Tierney was holding court again. I kept a close eye on him as he reminisced about his Hollywood heyday. He gave his earlier directors bad reviews, except for Robert Wise. "Wise knew what he was doing." I was kind of bummed to hear he didn't have a good time on my favorite, The Devil Thumbs a Ride. "They shot it too damn quickly," he said.

A pattern to our conversation developed, which involved Steve or myself saying something, and Tierney disagreeing. Even if we agreed with something Tierney said, he'd still disagree with us.  Without warning, he would recite stretches of poetry, or break out in French. I wish I could recall what the poems we're. For all Tierney's bluster and volatility, it was clear he was a well-read guy who valued intelligence in others.

Also without warning were Tierney's continued jabs. He threw two or three more, but these were just for show and didn't come as close to hitting Steve or I as that first one had. I scooted my chair an extra inch away from the table. I also kept one hand free, and I rarely let my eyes off Tierney.  I've never had a harder time cutting a steak.

When Tierney finished eating he said he had a phone call to make. "I'll be right back," he said. The check came, but no Tierney. Steve ended up picking up the tab. "I knew he wasn't going to pay," Steve said. After a long wait, Tierney reappeared. "I'm buying next time, fellas!" He picked up my book. "Got a pen?" He asked. I'd given up hope of getting him to sign my book after that first jab. He stood next to me, patting my back like an old pal. I handed him my pen.

Larry - May your fondest dreams become realities. Your friend, Lawrence Tierney.

Almost thirty years later, I'm still proud that I stuck around and finished having dinner with Lawrence Tierney. In hindsight, considering that very same year he'd pulled a knife on Seinfeld and got into a fistfight with Tarantino, I came out great. I got a free meal, a signed book, and an experience I'll never forget. I felt that I'd passed a test that others, both in real life and on the big screen, hadn't. It happened when I didn't have much else besides dreams and ambitions. When I see the inscription that he wrote for me, the nearly elegant handwriting, I'm touched.


Epilogue

One of the best parts about writing this was catching up with filmmaker Steve Barkett. He has a contagious love of cinema and remains an encyclopedia of film knowledge. He's retired now, though he's working on a new release of Empire of the Dark (1990).  Alamo Drafthouse Cinema plans on releasing it later this year. If he ever stops by LA, I'm taking him to lunch at the Hamlet.

I reached out to author Barry Gifford, whose engrossing The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Movies made such a big impression on me, and inspired Lawrence Tierney to mimic his own mean mug over dinner. "My mother told me that when she was in Hollywood in the 1940s Lawrence Tierney made a pass at her but didn't throw any punches," Barry Gifford wrote back. "She declined his advances."  The Devil Thumbs a Ride has been expanded by the University of Mississippi Press as Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir. 



Lawrence had two brothers, Ed Tierney and Scott Brady, who were also actors. Scott Brady didn't have the self-destructive bug that his brother Lawrence did, and was an instantly recognizable face on '60s and '70s TV. I know him best from The Rockford Files and his last film, Gremlins (1984). I asked Scott's son Tim Tierney if he had any thoughts on my dinner. "Larry, congratulations on surviving your encounter with my uncle unscathed when many others have fared much worse," Tim said. "Congrats also on spotting that he was much more than a brawler. Most people don't."


Lawrence Tierney with his nephew Tim Tierney.
Photo courtesy of Tim Tierney




Hey Fellow Anthony Voters! There's still plenty of time to get your ballots in. Gabrielswharf.wordpress.com lists the 2019 Anthony Awards Eligible titles. I found it very helpful. Shameless Plug Alert-My debut novel Fast Bang Booze is listed in the, well, Debut Novel Category.
Any Lawrence Tierney stories of your own? 
Tweet'em at me-Lawrence Maddox @MadXBooks 

08 March 2019

My Dinner With Lawrence Tierney - Part 1


by Lawrence Maddox
Lawrence Tierney's break-out role

There's an irresistible draw to crime fiction authors whose lives resemble the dark, edgy characters they've created. The extra thrill of reading the likes of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim and Edward Bunker is that some of the blood spilled in their books may have coursed through real veins.

I met Edward Bunker at a 2000 signing of his autobiography Education of a Felon. It's a harrowing, exciting read that covers his criminal career, his 18 years of incarceration, and his redemptive plunge into writing. Like his fiction, it's not for the squeamish.

Edward Bunker
I grew up in the same part of Northeast Los Angeles that Bunker had decades earlier, walked the same off-limits train trestle, and we talked about the neighborhood. At one point I asked him an innocent question that he took exception to. Bunker looked at me in a way that made me understand why he'd once been declared criminally insane. Spooky.

With Bunker's literary fame came the occasional acting gig, and he landed the role of ill-fated Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs (1992)Bunker wasn't the only ex-con in front of the camera in that film. Playing crime family patriarch Joe Cabot was Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose legendary–and violent– collisions with law enforcement mirrored the bad guys he played on the big screen.  Quentin Tarantino gave Lawrence Tierney a fitting bookend to his career with Reservoir. It seems even more fitting that Tierney punched Tarantino for his efforts and got himself fired off the film.

Probably the most famous example of Lawrence Tierney's bad boy shenanigans is the Seinfeld knife incident. In the season two episode "The Jacket," Tierney plays Elaine's dad, a tough, imposing vet who is also a successful novelist that Jerry and George admire. It's hilarious. Tierney delivers, intimidating the daylights out of Jerry and George yet believable as an intelligent writer. It's a rare comedic turn for Tierney, and he pulls it off.
Elaine-benes-3707.jpg
Not a Lawrence Tierney fan

Sometime during shooting, Tierney apparently stole a butcher knife from the set of Jerry's apartment. "Hey Lawrence, what do you got there in your jacket?" Seinfeld asked him. Seeing he was busted, Tierney tried to play it off as a joke and started waving the knife around.  What was supposed to be a recurring character for Tierney on one of TV's all-time sitcoms turned into a one-off right there on the spot. "I'll tell you something about Lawrence Tierney," Julia Louis-Dreyfus said. "He was a total nut job."  It was typical Tierney, snatching defeat from the jaws of success. Crazy as the knife incident sounds, it wasn't close to the violence that marred Tierney's early career.

Lawrence Tierney was just another RKO contract player when the studio loaned him out to Monogram to play the eponymous bank-job king in Dillinger (1945). It didn't matter that Dillinger played fast and loose with the facts. What mattered was how Tierney embodied low-budget noir bad-assery. Dillinger was a hit. Crime flicks followed, including Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947), and the cult-classic The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). I don't remember the first time I saw The Devil Thumbs a Ride or why it made such a big impression on me, but it did.

The Devil Thumbs a ride DVD cover.jpgDogging Tierney's legit shot at stardom was a growing rap sheet for booze fueled fights and assaults. Here are some headlines he generated: "Actor Taken Away in Straight Jacket." "Actor Tierney Must Sleep on Jail Floor." "Tierney Goes to Jail Again." Tierney brawled up and down the Sunset Strip, dusting it up at the legendary Mocambo, and at the home of original Hollywood Hellfire Club member John Decker. When in Hollywood, or New York, or Paris, or anywhere he went, Tierney got drunk, violent and incarcerated.

It's tough to call Tierney a bully, because he got into too many fights with those who stood a reasonable chance of kicking his ass. In 1953 he duked it out with a professional welterweight on the corner of Broadway and 53rd Street. Back in New York in 1958, Tierney was arrested for brawling with cops outside a Manhattan bar.

One of Tierney's prime targets was often the police. I can only imagine what the police would do to you in those days, in the back of a police car or in a lonely holding cell, after they'd arrested you for trying to beat them up. Tierney's career did a slow fade in the1950s, and his comeback didn't happen until he found work on the small screen in the '80s. A turn as Ryan O'Neal's dad in Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) didn't hurt. Since were talking fighting and film, Mailer can be seen in a disturbing real-life fight with actor Rip Torn in Mailer's Maidstone (1970).

In an earlier blog (guesting for Paul D. Marks - thanks again Paul!) I wrote about my day job as a film and TV editor and how those skills helped me with my novel Fast Bang Booze. In 1991 I hadn't cut anything but a short film or two. My first screenwriting credit, a martial arts flick, was four years away. Published crime fiction was still a Hail Mary pass that wouldn't be caught for years. Times were lean. AM PM was fine dining.

That year I often assisted filmmaker Steve Barkett, an actor/writer/director who was tying-up loose ends on his self-produced horror film Empire of the Dark. Steve has a genuine love of film history (I consulted with him before writing this piece, and he remains a fount of celluloid knowledge), and we'd sometimes discuss our favorite eras of movies. Obscure poverty-row film noir was a passion of mine. I loved films like Detour (starring Tom Neal, whose own off-screen violence lead to a murder rap), and Tierney's The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Back in '91 when Steve asked me if I'd like to join him and Lawrence Tierney for dinner, I almost hit the roof.

I met Steve at his place in Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood once owned by pulp icon Edgar Rice Burroughs. "I don't want to scare you," Steve said as we drove to Hamburger Hamlet. "Lawrence can be a little weird. Sometimes he likes to mess with people." Steve said that when he first befriended Tierney at the previous years' CineCon, held at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, Tierney was on probation and was living at a halfway house. "He shot up his nephew's apartment," Steve explained.

Hamburger Hamlet was bustling. I brought one of my favorite books, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Movies by Barry Gifford, hoping Tierney would sign it. The cover depicts a prototypical 1940s dashing Tierney-esque tough guy, driving at night. Next to him sits a prototypical noir blonde, dropping a flask of booze as she looks frantically over her shoulder. And no wonder, for they're being pursued by the devil himself.

"Larry, you found us," Steve said, rising to his feet.  "Sit down. You don't have to get up for me," Lawrence Tierney said in a gravelly voice. Tierney was a big guy, his face fixed in a scowl. He was wearing a t-shirt, and I couldn't help but notice he was using a thin piece of rope for a belt.

Steve introduced me as another Lawrence, and Tierney and I shook hands. Tierney had a strong grip and I could tell he was sizing me up. I had a few inches on him and age was definitely on my side, but you never know. Tierney saw the book I'd brought and launched into a discussion about the making of Thumbs a Ride (not a great experience according to Tierney), and about the merits and shortcomings of some of the directors he'd worked with. He was charming, holding court. Out of nowhere he recited random lines of poetry. I wish I recalled what they were.

When the waitress arrived to take our drink orders, Tierney did not order alcohol, but opted for a soda. Steve looked relieved. I was tempted to get one of the Hamlet's renowned Schooners of Ale,  but Steve and I both followed Tierney's example. Tierney flirted with the waitress, asking her questions in pretty good French. I don't think she spoke French and she was getting irritated. Tierney was keeping her at the table longer than she appeared to appreciate. "Okay Larry," Steve said. "I think she needs to go do her job now."

Tierney laughed good-naturedly as the waitress walked away. I felt since booze wasn't going to be a factor, there was nothing to worry about. I'd get to hang out with a screen legend and learn about an industry I was just breaking into. Then Tierney threw a punch at me.

Stay tuned for Part 2, dropping March 29. Only here at Sleuthsayers.org. You can also visit me on twitter, Lawrence Maddox @Madxbooks.