Saturday, February 19, 2011

Charles Willeford and the return of THE WOMAN CHASER

Here at Moe's Books, up on the 4th floor, we specialize in hard-to-find antiquarian books, mainly in the fine arts, but virtually in every imaginable subject area. Twentieth Century American fiction is a strong area of interest (we just this week sold a first edition hardcover of Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY for $3,000 – without a dust jacket!) Many of the most sought after writers of American fiction belong to the hard-boiled school of literature. Chandler, Hammett, and Cain, along with more esoteric names like Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy generate high prices when they turn up in first (or early) printings, especially with dust jackets.

But it's the nefarious outer circle of fellows who wrote specifically for the paperback market in the 40s, 50s and 60s who are now commanding the keenest interest and biggest values from the most ardent collectors: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, and Day Keene are just some of the names that keep popping up in conversations about the hardcore Who's Who of American crime writers. Most genteel readers of mysteries are but barely familiar with this rogues' gallery of wordsmiths who would regularly grind out hundred and fifty page pot-boilers at an alarming rate of speed. Those seemingly non-discriminating readers fortunate enough to explore the seedy drugstores and truckstops of rural America in search of a couple hours' worth of quick and disposable entertainment, were often rewarded with unexpectedly grim treatises on the darkness of human nature and abnormal psychology.

One of the most interesting of these writers was Charles Willeford (1919 – 1988).  Perhaps now best known for his four Hoke Mosley detective novels (MIAMI BLUES, NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD, SIDESWIPE, and THE WAY WE DIE NOW) which came at the very end of his career and life. These excellent books offer only a glimpse of the desperate urgency of his earliest works. Willeford began his literary career in the 1950s with a string of daring paperback originals like THE HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA (1953), PICK UP (1955), WILD WIVES (1956) and HONEY GAL (1958). These books, written in a cold, impassive style, were never designed to reach a broad, literary-minded audience. Usually dealing with tough subject matter (miscegenation, misogyny, murder), Willeford would often mask his thematic intentions with an off-handed, dark humor, sometimes so subtle as to go completely unnoticed. In HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA he allows himself the opportunity to gleefully lacerate the entire infrastructure of male-female relationships, while in WILD WIVES he gives us an uninhibited and raunchy send-up of the hard-boiled detective genre, and in HONEY GAL he serves up a brilliantly frank mash-up of interracial romance and the dangers of disorganized religion.

The early sixties introduced two of his most startlingly original novels (both paperback originals): THE WOMAN CHASER (1960) and COCKFIGHTER (1962). Both works exuded a tremendous sense of explosive energy and literary integrity relatively uncommon to the “paperback original” market. It is the first of these two incendiary books that this blog will now focus on.

THE WOMAN CHASER was turned into an independently produced film in 1999. Starring Patrick Warburton as the distressingly amoral used car salesman Richard Hudson, the film was remarkably faithful to Willeford's novel. It had its initial premiere at the New York Film Festival in late 1999 and subsequently at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000, which is where I was fortunate enough to see it. Most everyone in the audience was enthralled by this wholly unconventional, black and white exercise in perversity, yet some were deeply disturbed by the film's outrageously unexpected violence. THE WOMAN CHASER was, without a doubt, one of the most talked about films at Sundance that year. My attendance there was a result of being attached to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. As a programmer there, it was (and is) my job to help find as many interesting films as possible to bring to our screen. THE WOMAN CHASER was right up our dark alley given the Roxie's ongoing commitment to film noir and other edgy styles of filmmaking. But this proved to be a most difficult task, as the filmmakers were deluged with offers that seemed to outweigh anything that we were capable of offering. In the end, the film's producers opted to make a deal that would (allegedly) guarantee them bookings in every theater in the Landmark chain. But there was one caveat: the producers had to excise the single piece of film that seemed to generate hostility in many audience members, that of Warburton's character viciously punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach. This concession was made, much to the chagrin of those who had been impressed by the filmmkaer's decision to include it in the first place. Nevertheless, the cut was made and THE WOMAN CHASER opened that spring in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle to relatively enthusiastic press but very little box-office. After these less than stellar engagements, the film was pulled from distribution and consigned to the annals of cinema obscurity. A 2001 video (cassette) release in its cut version surfaced, but it seemed to do little to enhance its steadily dwindling reputation.

In 2010, in preparation for a film series called NOT NECESSARILY NOIR for the Roxie, I became determined to track down THE WOMAN CHASER and give it another opportunity to prove itself in front of an audience. I eventually connected with the film's producer in Texas who was only too happy to make the film available to me. To make matters even better, I was told that I could have access to the uncut print originally screened at Sundance! The film finally hit the Roxie screen on September 1, 2010, a full decade after its intial release and was met with thunderous approval by a packed house. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that it inspired me to bring the film back for a one-week revival engagement at the Roxie, which begins this coming Friday, February 25, again in the uncut director's version. Fans of Willeford's uncompromising fiction as well as those with a hankering for stylistically bold and unnerving filmmaking will not be disappointed! See you at the Roxie.

And for those interested in pursuing Willeford's literary output, Moe's Books generally has a number of his titles on hand in our used mystery section located on the basement level of the store.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. Great essay.
    One of Harry Whittington's nome de plumes was J. X. Williams. I wonder if that was the impetus for Noel Lawrence's creation of his J. X. Williams legend.