Research Notes · 11/09/2012

Shadow Man

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gabriel Blackwell is on the trail of Lewis Archer for his new book Shadow Man (Civil Coping Mechanisms).


Shadow Man is an imitation of a biography of an imitation (of an imitation (of an imitation — I’ll stop)), and so, early on, I’d thought that some idea of the (other) imitations of the books most central to its events — The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, & The Moving Target — might be helpful in understanding what angle I should take on it, how I should jimmy my way in to that series of parentheses. Turns out, as usual, I was wrong. Do you know how many “adaptations” there are of those three books? Me neither. And I’m not going to waste my time counting them, so we’ll move on. But, first, you may as well benefit from my mistake — here’s as far as I got:

Just in terms of the movies (never faithful really, always at best imitations), there’s John Huston’s famous 1941 The Maltese Falcon, as well as the much-less famous 1931 The Maltese Falcon, by a guy named Roy del Ruth (which name sounds made up to me but isn’t). And there’s 1936’s Satan Met a Lady, which is intended to be an adaptation of The Maltese Falcon but comes across as a little like if someone who hadn’t read the book tried to make a movie out of it (which sounds a lot like most movie versions of books to me).There’s The Big Sleep: 1946, Hawks, Bogie, Bacall, the one most people know. Also: 1978, Michael Winner, Robert Mitchum, a transposition of Chandler’s novel to England (he wouldn’t have minded, he was nuts about England) in the 1970s (that, he would have minded), with Jimmy Stewart playing General Sternwood(?). (Bizarrely, the English version is more faithful to the book plot- and character-wise. That’s Hollywood for you.) Guy named Jack Smight directed Harper, based on The Moving Target and starring Paul Newman as “Harper.” Apparently, Newman had Archer’s name changed because Hud and The Hustler been big hits. Don’t follow? Well, an H-name title couldn’t lose, Newman figured, so Archer became Harper. The movie did well, but somehow I don’t think the name had much to do with it — a rose by any other name. (On the other hand, Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose, so what do I know? Harper.)

I saw them all, as well as a few other ~related screen adaptations, like the other Mitchum Marlowe, Farewell, My Lovely (which, though not much as a film, is nonetheless great as a period piece: the set designers and wardrobe people went nuts over details, and some of the Los Angeles locations in the film are, like, historic (by which I mean: they’re history, not around anymore)), Altman’s The Long Goodbye (starring my favorite Marlowe, Elliott Gould), Lady in the Lake (a sort of forerunner of The Blair-Witch Project in that it’s got a first person camera throughout and is also not very good, which is why that technique didn’t really catch on (except that now it has, sort of, sixty years later, so, you know, everything has its day)), The Drowning Pool (about which I can now remember precisely nothing, other than that I saw it and didn’t care much for it), and The Thin Man (not my favorite Hammett, and the film does not improve on the book), among many others.Along the way, I’d decided that, though the whole adaptation/imitation angle was obtuse rather than acute, I could still salvage something from all of that work and maybe use it as a kind of material fact-check for the book. Unlike directors, writers don’t need interior decorators, production designers, or storyboard artists to realize their creations (that’s good; it keeps the budgets down so we can pass the savings along to you). Of course it also means that, while we might think we know everything there is to know about a character and his/her milieu, we’ll be more or less in the dark as to the other details of the world he or she inhabited. As Alfred Hitchcock once said,

All that matters, all that exists for the audience, is what is on the screen. It doesn’t matter if the set extends no more than six inches beyond what the camera records — it could as well be six miles for all the effect it would have on the audience. The whole art is knowing what matters in each shot, what the point you are selling is.

And that goes double for the page, where all the audience sees are words. Here I was, deep in the historical weeds, working off the page and on a soundstage no one had bothered to dress; I felt I needed to go those extra six miles just to be sure I wasn’t telling stories.That meant looking through photo archives and newspapers and books the tediousness of which search boggled the mind. I mean that I sat in front of their pictures, trying them at different angles, holding them up to my face as though I could look past their surfaces out into a third dimension. I didn’t want to see what the photographers had seen through their viewfinders; I wanted to see what the photographers’ assistants had seen, what the subjects of the photographs had seen. I wanted to look around at where the picture had been taken, to see all of the photographs that might have been, to be there, then, via some imaginary and infinite archive, a “making of” of the “making of” of a thing. What was next to the Owl Drug in Hollywood in December 1929? And what was next to that? And what was on the sidewalk outside? (Was there a streetcar stop? A mail box? A newspaper kiosk? A shoeshine stand?) If there’d been an collection of pictures documenting these pictures documenting people and buildings, I’d have been its most frequent visitor. And if I’d found such a thing, I’m sure I’d still be there, researching this book.

What I thought I wanted — what I thought I needed for a long time — was a perfect adaptation of one of the books I was myself adapting, an incredibly boring and very, very long movie, one that completely ignored Hitchcock’s words. But what I really wanted was an adaptation of my own adaptation, the movie version of Shadow Man, so that I could reverse-engineer the book. If that sounds lazy, well, what can I say?

I can say I didn’t get it, and I did the work anyway.


Shadow Man elsewhere:

Gabriel Blackwell interviewed at HTMLGiant

A review at Diagram


Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer and Critique of Pure Reason. He lives in Portland, OR with his wife, Jessica.