Talk like a gangster!

I’ve been watching an old gangster film, the 1939 Warner Bros. picture “King of the Underworld”, with Humphrey Bogart and Kay Francis. What always catches my notice in these films (aside from the occasionally TSTL gangsters) is the language they use.

“All right, doc, don’t get sore.”
“Hey, fella, don’t tell ’em that a dame tripped me up.”
“Maybe he’s got a gat!”
“Nice gams!”
“Say… whaddya mean?”
“You’d better scram!”

From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AlCaponemugshotCPD.jpg)

Of course, the movie gangsters (or rather, their writers, mostly) stole from the real gangsters. In his article on Huffington Post, Jeffrey Gusfield notes that the actor Edward G. Robinson sat at the back of the courtroom during part of Al Capone’s tax evasion trial and took notes.

Some of the phrases they used are still heard today, but most have gone by the wayside. Or, if they are used, it’s purposefully, to seem old. Phrases like “it’s the bee’s knees” or “the cat’s¬†pajamas”¬† originated in the 1920s (though I’m pretty sure a gangster wouldn’t be caught dead saying such silly things!) When’s the last time you heard someone called a “Mrs. Grundy”? Probably never, except maybe in an Archie comic book. (Mrs. Grundy = a priggish, prudish, person.) Of course, don’t call a gangster that–he’s liable to take you for a ride if you do.

It’s pretty tempting to write my gangsters this way, and to use lots of the 1920s and 1930s slang, but a few choice phrases can go a long way. However, I know I’m going to have to work in a “You ain’t sore, are ya?” into the dialogue somewhere. It’s just too classic not to use!

Check out some more 1920s slang here, and below is a clip from the film ‘The Roaring Twenties’, starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Movie: In a Lonely Place

I’m a writer, and noir is my chosen genre. Hence, most of my favourite films have some relation to the genre, and In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is one that left a mark.

I hadn’t read the book before I saw the film, which is perhaps a good thing, as the book differs in some essential ways (of which I won’t get into here, as to not ruin it for the reader).

Bogart is Dixon Steele (and what a name it is), a screenwriter who is cynical and abrupt. He hasn’t had much success since the war, and his latest project is to adapt a book for the screen. Gloria Grahame is his neighbour, Laurel Grey, a sometime actress who takes an interest in Dix. When Dix takes a coat check girl home with him, as she’s read the book he’s to adapt and he doesn’t want to read it himself, Laurel notices him. After he sends the girl home, she is murdered, and Dix is a suspect. Laurel is brought into the police station and confirms that the girl left Dix’s place alone, and thus begins a rather intense yet dark relationship between the two.

One of my favourite quotes comes from this film, said by Dix to Laurel:

‘I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’

The line so aptly mirrors the tempestuous relationship between Dix and Laurel, and the tone with which Bogart says the line enhances the bleakness of the film.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nNrIzx6bM4]

Dix is a strong, complex character, and the realism of Dixon Steele is one of the main reasons why I love the film so much. He’s not a typical alpha hero, as the main characters in so many films are. He’s a quick-tempered man, prone to violence, and to drink, but he’s loyal to his friends, even defending a washed-out actor from harassment.

As the murder investigation progresses, Laurel’s belief in his innocence is challenged, and his actions (side-swiping a car that cuts them off, beating up the driver) add to her worries, until she can’t continue their relationship. Her fear of Dix overwhelms her affection for him. It’s the gradual collapse of the relationship that is the strongest thread of the story in the film, in my opinion. At first, murder investigation aside, they are doing so well, but as events and doubts add up, it’s a slow-motion car crash.

Noir never ends with a happily ever after (nor usually with any sort of ‘happily for now’ ending), and In a Lonely Place is no exception. It isn’t the most pleasant and uplifting of films, but it’s incredibly compelling, and one I have re-watched multiple times in fascination. It’s one of Bogart’s best works.

Black, White, or Grey?

I was watching an old Humphrey Bogart film the other day – HIGH SIERRA, from 1941 – and it got me thinking about the portrayals of good and bad in stories. Not only that, I started thinking about some of my favourite stories, and why I like them.

One of the things they had in common? Morally ambiguous characters.

Roy Earle, Bogart’s character in the film, is a hardened criminal. He’s released from prison and hired to help pull off a high stakes robbery of a resort in California. Should be easy, right? As was standard in films, he even looked the part: dark clothes, a scowl, and his lines delivered with the right amount of toughness. Except… it’s just not that easy. Roy Earle is humanized for the viewer with his desire for Velma, the charming young woman with a club foot. He even dreams of marrying her. He adopts a dog, Pard, while waiting around for the heist to go off. And most tellingly, he hooks up with a street-smart taxi dancer named Marie, telling her time and again that she doesn’t mean anything to him, and that if the going got tough, he’d have to park her. However, his actions belie his words and he takes care of her and tries, albeit awkwardly, to make her happy.

It would be hard for a film-goer to have any sympathy for the gangsters portrayed in the 1930s by Cagney, Robinson, and Paul Muni, but Bogart’s Roy Earle was a game-changer in the world of film. Audiences were rooting for the man that, not even five years earlier, would have been portrayed solely as a heartless killer.

If a villain has been written as soulless and unquestionably evil, my interest in the story will quickly wane. Even Lasher, in Anne Rice’s novel THE WITCHING HOUR, wasn’t all bad. His goal was destructive to others, but his desire for that goal was entirely human and understandable. Rowan, the lauded neurosurgeon with her life-saving powers, is not the knight on the white charger. The decisions she makes are just as flawed, just as human, as anyone else’s would be.

Humanizing the villain, giving them an opportunity to be in conflict with themselves instead of just with your hero, goes a long way towards making a story linger after the last page has been turned.