Although David Goodis (1917-67) led a fascinating life (fascinating to some of us, anyway), I’m not going to spend a lot of time here discussing his personal story. Instead, I’ll focus on his writing and some of the movies that were made from his novels. But a few notes on the man behind the books:
The Philadelphia native was a master of noir fiction who lived what he wrote. One constant in his bleak, edgy crime (and sometimes straight literary) novels is bad couples. Sometimes the discordant lovers are married; other times they’re just dating. But often times, they're fighting. And it’s usually the women who instigate the relationship troubles in Goodis’s fiction. His novels contain a string of hard-talking, ill-tempered, viciously cunning vixens who taunt the men in their lives sexually, demoralize them psychologically, and sometimes abuse them physically.
And here’s what’s interesting: while it was thought throughout Goodis’s life—and for decades after—that he’d never been wedded, it was ultimately discovered that he had a secret marriage that lasted from 1943-46. And even more illuminating is the notion that his mysterious spouse, Elaine Astor, seems to have been a lot like the rough-natured, domineering women in his books. The 2010 documentary David Goodis … to a Pulp, which was put together by Larry Withers (Elaine’s son from a later marriage), makes the strong case that several of Goodis’s bad-girl characters were based on the author’s partner in his covert marriage.
Another way in which Goodis’s fiction mirrors his life is in the characters and scenery of his best novels. His finest books are set around the hardened streets of Philly. It’s known that when the author returned to his home city in 1950 after an ultimately unsuccessful stint as a paid Hollywood film writer, he haunted the seediest corners of the City of Brotherly Love. The barflies, hookers, druggies, thieves, and down-on-their-luck street denizens who populate his best books are the kinds of people with whom Goodis was rubbing shoulders over the last years of his life.
Below, I list my five favorite Goodis novels. But before that, a few notes on his first handful of books—none of which are included in the honor roll. Each of those titles is perfectly readable, with interesting plots and some memorable characters. And two of his first five published novels were made into notable films noir. But this first group of his books is flawed. His debut, Retreat From Oblivion (1939), as well as Behold This Woman (1947) are split-personality reads that confusingly combine world-weary edginess with embarrassing melodrama. Dark Passage (1946) and Nightfall (1947) are crime stories with plenty of tension and the kind of rawness noir fiction fans like to see, yet both lack the distinctiveness that would come via the author’s later books.
These efforts are interesting to the Goodis enthusiast despite their shortcomings, though, for a couple reasons. One, you can see his talent and his voice developing as you read them. And two, they contain some of the themes that would remain present in his later work: bad marriages, rotten women, innocent men getting taken down rough paths through their relations with ball-busting dames, and just plain bad luck. If this makes it seem like we’re talking about the oeuvre of a misogynist, in fairness, it should be noted that there are some decidedly likable female characters in these books (along with all the shrews).
A last note about Goodis’s first run of novels is that all of the books suffer from one of the most basic mistakes made by writers of fiction: far too many instances of the author telling readers about his characters’ motivations instead of simply showing us through their words and deeds. He got better about that later as he found his own unique literary voice.
Top 5 David Goodis Novels
Cassidy’s Girl (1951)
Goodis’s best novels are set in Philadelphia, where he was born and where he lived out the last third of his relatively short life. Cassidy’s Girl, a flawless work of noir fiction, is set around the rougher parts of Philly—the waterfront area and its dive bars, tenement complexes, etc.
Lead character Jim Cassidy is a former airline pilot who lost that job through no fault of his own. And now, he’s trying to hold himself together while leading a more modest kind of life as a commercial bus driver. Cassidy’s got a couple problems, though, the biggest of which is his wife, Mildred. Mrs. Cassidy is one of Goodis’s typical she-devils, with her wicked tongue, vicious temper, and voluptuous body that she knows how to use to ensnare and torment men.
Mildred is hardly a devoted wife to Cassidy, yet when he resolves to walk out on her and try to make a go of it with a more pure-natured (although hopelessly alcoholic) neighborhood woman, Mildred sharpens her talons. To complicate things further, there’s a treacherous local fella who has it bad for Mildred and makes it a personal goal to foul up Cassidy’s life and leave him a wreck. This unsentimental novel is both grittily tough and filled with aching despair, and it just might be Goodis’s finest work of full-length fiction.
Of Tender Sin (1952)
Lead character Alvin Darby looks like an upright, normal citizen on the surface. He’s a 29-year-old guy who has a good job with an insurance company, a pretty wife, a nice house, etc. But things are coming apart for Darby, both in his outer life and inside his mind.
Darby’s wife appears to be cheating on him. He actually spends more time thinking about two complicated and haunting relationships with women from his past—one being his sister—than he does his wife. Yet, his spouse’s seeming infidelity sets him on a murderous path of revenge anyway.
This is largely an interior novel, much of which is told from inside Darby’s disordered thoughts. It also contains scenes that take place on the mean streets of Philadelphia—rough bars, a prostitute’s workroom, a homeless shelter, a back-alley drug den, and the like. Additionally, Of Tender Sin includes some beautifully written surreal passages as well as a classic Goodis bad girl.
Black Friday (1954)
All of Goodis’s novels were written in what we now think of as the noir vein, but not all were crime stories per se. Black Friday is among his best crime fiction.
Main character Al Hart is a troubled lone-wolf who’s on the run from some trouble in New Orleans. While in Philadelphia, he falls in—initially against his will—with a group of thieves who are planning a big jewel heist. A multi-layered mental chess match occurs as the gang’s crafty leader tries to size Hart up and determine if he’s worth bringing into the fold, while Hart isn’t sure if he desires to be initiated or if he’d prefer to flee the scene or make some other kind of play. Hart’s presence among the group of cons causes various interpersonal complications within their ranks to rise to the surface; at the same time, that tension is building as they prepare for the big burglary. Tense, violent, and filled with relatable human drama, Black Friday is a classic of hard-edged crime fiction.
The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954)
Goodis was in a space when his novels contained a combination of toughness, sadness, and grim humor. The Blonde on the Street Corner perfectly captures this trifecta. It’s a Depression-era tale that centers on a shiftless bachelor named Ralph Creel. Ralph and his buddies are beaten down by the economic hardships of the time, but they don’t exactly knock themselves out to find any of the scarce gainful employment. There’s a lot of scenes involving the four of them standing on a Philly street corner, killing time with idle chatter while chomping on Indian Nuts. But then, there are sudden instances of raw violence, aching romance, and bawdy sex to offset all the lazy hopelessness.
The titular character is of the same basic look and personality as several other Goodis-created vixens. But in this novel, she is balanced out by a classic “good girl” type as the two of them pull at Creel’s attention in different ways. This is life during The Great Depression as seen through David Goodis’s singular vision.
Down There (1956)
Later retiled Shoot the Piano Player after the release of the film (discussed below) it inspired, this is David Goodis writing in peak form. Goodis had a brother who was mentally ill, and it’s said that this difficult familial situation weighed heavily on the author’s mind. Sibling troubles are at the core of Down There.
Lead character Eddie Lynn is an aloof guy who once had ambitions of being a concert pianist. That didn’t work out, for reasons best discovered by reading the book. And now, Lynn provides the music at a rough Philadelphia bar populated mostly by mill workers. So he’s an underachiever, but he’s content enough in his current lifestyle.
His law-breaking, trouble-bound two brothers barge in on his life, however, and through association with them, he gets pulled into some bother that’s going on between them and a couple of dangerous thugs. This sets off a series of events that threatens everyone involved. Written in Goodis’s usual deadpan, economical, no-frills way, the story nonetheless contains dense emotional content and a lot of gripping suspense. It also includes perhaps the most likable of all Goodis’s female characters, the world-wise, true-hearted bar waitress who becomes Eddie’s love interest.
Page to Screen
Roughly a dozen feature films have been made from Goodis’s fiction. Here’s a look at a handful of them that are particularly noteworthy:
Dark Passage (1947)
When it’s 1947 and you’re an author whose novel gets made into a movie that's released by a major studio and stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that could/should be your big break. But, sadly, this is as close as Goodis ever came to breaking into the mainstream.
Extremely faithful to the Goodis novel of the same title that was published the year before, the movie concerns a man (Bogart) who may have been wrongly convicted of murdering his no-good wife. He escapes from prison at San Quentin, and while on the run, he is picked up by a San Francisco woman (Bacall) who believes in his innocence and seeks to help him.
This is a fantastic movie. Bogart and Bacall are electric together on the screen, Agnes Moorehead is perfect as a loathsome meddler, and all the minor characters are well-played. Director Delmer Daves (he also wrote the screenplay) put together a feature that looks great and is a compelling watch.
See also: Bogie and Bacall: Dark Passage (1947)
Nightfall (alternately listed as having been in released in 1956 or ’57)
This is based on a Goodis book from 1946 that originally had a few other titles but ultimately got named after the film. There are nuances that distinguish the plot of the movie from that of the novel, but the story is basically the same in both versions: an innocent man has a random encounter with some bank robbers who are on the run after a heist, and this misfortune sets off a chain of events that overtakes the poor guy’s life.
Lead actor Aldo Ray is wooden and unconvincing in his portrayal of the main character, but the movie is salvaged by better acting from Brian Keith, James Gregory, and Anne “Mrs. Robinson” Bancroft, as well as the able directorial work of Frenchman Jacques Tourneur. The story is presented in an effective way, and there’s keen suspense throughout the film. This is a solid work of film noir despite Ray’s acting fail, but it’s not on the same quality level as Tourneur's masterpiece of the genre, Out of the Past (1947).
The Burglar (1957)
The 1953 Goodis novel (same title) on which this is based is a perfectly well-written crime story, yet it’s not one of the author’s signature works. But film director Paul Wendkos saw cinematic promise in the tale, and Goodis himself was enlisted to pen the screenplay. The result is an excellent hard-nosed crime movie that’s more worthwhile than its original source.
A four-person team of Philadelphia jewel thieves (barely) pulls off a big heist. After, they’ve got bigger problems than merely trying to determine how and when they can liquidate the gem they came away with into some hard cash. The cops are determined to nail the jewel thievery perps, and a mishap at the scene of the crime leaves the band especially vulnerable to suspicion.
Infighting, psychological instability, and complicated personal relationships within the gang have them on the brink of imploding as a team. And basic human needs make a few of them susceptible to exposure. Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield, and Martha Vickers lead a strong cast. The movie is intense throughout, and the final scenes (set in Atlantic City) are frenetic, surreal, and spellbinding.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960)
The French have always appreciated quality American noir. This movie, directed by the masterful French auteur Francois Truffaut, is the best film that’s been made from a David Goodis novel. Aside from changing the primary setting from Philadelphia to Paris and a few other isolated details that distinguish the cinematic version of the story from the literary one, the plot mirrors that of the novel. So no need to go over all that again.
Charles Aznavour is superb as the daydreaming, underachieving bar pianist who gets yanked out of his reveries by troubles involving his brothers and his interest in his female co-worker. Marie DuBois is ideal for the role of the main character’s girlfriend; her performance makes the woman come off as even more admirable and loveable than she seems in Goodis’s book. Altogether, Truffaut made a work of film noir that is artistically pure yet fully accessible.
Street of No Return (1989)
This one is significant simply because it was directed by filmmaking maverick Samuel Fuller. The same-named 1954 novel on which it’s based is middle-of-the-pack quality among Goodis’s books. But Fuller clearly was taken with the tale. The director did things with characters and settings to modernize all of it for the late 80s, but the plot is mostly the same in both versions.
The story shifts between past and present. In the past, the main character (played by Keith Carradine in the film) was a singing star who had his career ruined by a gangster who didn’t appreciate the vocalist getting involved with his girlfriend. In the present, the protagonist is a street person who has the bad luck of happening across a cop who is dying on the street in the aftermath of a race riot. The authorities believe the former star/current bum killed the cop, and although innocent, he becomes the focus of the rage within the heart of the city’s embattled police chief.
This movie has a glitzy, cheap, straight-to-home-video feel, but it’s something the Goodis/Fuller completist will want to at least experience.
Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.