It Should Happen to You
A Dumb Alias, Poverty Row, and the Making of Guilty Bystander
By Philippe Garnier
Reading time 29 Minutes
"PACKED WITH EYEWITNESS REALISM!"
Guilty Bystander (1950)
"PACKED WITH EYEWITNESS REALISM!" Anyone who ever squinted at the charcoal black and jumpy 16mm print of Guilty Bystanderoccasionally found uploaded online would be forgiven to chuckle at this Laurel Films claim, used on publicity banners at the time of its release. But in 1949-1950, Joseph Lerner and his wife Geraldine were making movies on gritty New York City streets before Kubrick and Cassavetes came along. And now that their film noir Guilty Bystander has been fixed up, courtesy of byNWR and the Restorationists, we can judge in what measure that publicity claim was valid, and what manner of pioneers the Lerners were in New York.
Contrary to what one might think, the Lerners weren't making cheapies in the fifties; not exactly. True, in 1948 they made a six-day wonder for $18,000, The Fight Never Ends – a juvenile delinquent story with boxing champ Joe Louis and the Mills Brothers, who each came to them available for two days' work. That flick really set the Lerners in business on the coast, along with William Alexander as the primo African-American producer of post-war race pictures. It did well on the marginal circuit (released by Toddy Pictures, no less!) before disappearing completely; it is now considered a lost film. On the strength of The Fight Never Ends, the Lerners soon hooked up with Joe Bernhardt's Film Classics, an indie distributor looking for product. The Consent Degree Law had just been passed by Congress, and the major studios had to divest themselves of their theatre chains. Distributors had to show they were open to indie films, which suddenly (but not for long) became in demand. In a 1987 interview with film historian Richard Koszarski, Lerner recounted how he pitched his next movie, C-Man, as a $110,000 knock-off of producer Eddie Small's T-Men, which was playing at the Criterion Theatre right across the street from Film Classics' office, pulling in large crowds. According to him, Bernhardt convinced the banks and started selling theatre dates on this title alone before Lerner had even time to assemble a crew. But C-Man did well, and his next picture for the same outfit would have a half-million dollar budget, no questions asked. Which almost took Lerner out of the cheapie corner. But first, he had to scour bookstores, and find a story.
At least Guilty Bystander had a catchy title, the second effort by a San Diego writing team toiling under the name of Wade Miller. The two men had been school chums, gone to college together, edited the paper at San Diego State, then enlisted in the Air Force at the same time in 1942. Robert Wade and Bill Miller started writing commercially right after the war, still obviously influenced at this late date by the writings of Dashiell Hammett. Their plots, especially, borrowed heavily from the Thin Man, were always complicated, full of red herrings and, at times, cluttered with arcane, unnecessary details – but usually they were somehow redeemed by sudden bursts of shocking violence. After a first effort, Deadly Weapon, featuring a rather generic Atlanta PI named Walter James, they came up with a more beguiling character named Max Thursday, a down-and-out private dick who, having lost his agency, wife, and kid through booze and violence, lives off the kindness of an unlikely stranger, a well-connected old crone named Smitty who shelters him and employs him as the house dick at the Bridgway Hotel, a dive that caters to a demi-monde of blonde hookers, gimpy desk clerks, and hoods on the lam. It is interesting to note that Thursday struck a chord with the reading public (and Lerner) mostly because he was a lost soul and a barely-functioning alcoholic. Even though corpses turn up wherever he goes, we often find him at the receiving end of a gun: he is pistol-whipped, cold-cocked, even once knocked out by the glass ball of a lady's umbrella handle! When he does borrow a gun, his shakes more often than not render him useless.
What made Thursday original in this first effort led to a six book series, not especially popular at the time, but prized by hard-boiled aficionados over the years. Ironically, from the second novel on, Thursday became a regular Joe and no more than a social drinker. What made him endearing in the first book – his coming up from the dead to save his kidnapped son caught as a pawn in a complicated gang war, and his bitter-sweet relation with his ex-wife Georgia – is all gone in the subsequent novels. Guilty Bystander ended, shockingly, in a blast of bullets in room 38 of the Bridgway, with no explanations or last words whatsoever, in one of the most thrilling finales of the genre. The terseness and brutality of this ending almost equals Paul Cain's extreme hard-boiled prose, in a novel that is rarely up to this exalted level. But as early as the second novel, Fatal Step, Thursday is back in business, with his own agency and bachelor pad, giving the usual headaches to his stern buddy-cop Lieutenant Detective Clapp, and fending off the attentions of a crime reporter for Dago's primo yellow sheet the San Diego Sentinel, Merle Osborn, a tough cookie who has a hard-on for him in more ways than one. In Uneasy Street, Max gets tangled up with an international gang of crooks all looking for an antique music box full of loot, in what may be the most obvious knock-off of Hammett's The Maltese Falconever – featuring April Ames, a femme fatale and congenital liar bent on making Bridget O'Shaughnessy look like a Salvation Army sister. In the last one of the series, Shoot to Kill, published by Farrar in 1951, Max loses his girlfriend to another man. When the latter becomes a prime suspect in a murder case, Merle Osborn asks Max's help to save her new lover's neck. In this one, Thursday is at least as twisted and ambivalent as the rejuvenated ghost he was in Bystander, and not as clean by half.
But for filmmaker Joe Lerner, Max Thursday would do fine
But for filmmaker Joe Lerner, Max Thursday would do fine, thank you very much. Never mind that for budgetary reasons he'd have to transplant the story from San Diego to Manhattan; never mind that since the Lindbergh baby case, kidnappings couldn't be shown onscreen, at any stage of the proceedings. Never mind that he'd have to decimate the novel's cast of characters by half and reduce the body count by almost as much. Lerner had a terrific title going for him, and a wonderful setup in Smitty's fleabag hotel for crooks, the Bridgway. Having changed Max's profession from private eye to policeman, he had an original take on the discredited ex-cop: Max's alcoholism fuels the story and saves it from being the usual hackneyed police yarn. He also developed the drinking angle more than the Miller-Wade team did. Strangely enough, in a genre where everybody drinks hard almost routinely, film noir seems to have used the alcoholic blackout as a plot trick much less than, say, WW2-induced amnesia. There is Dan Duryea in the entertaining Black Angel (Roy William Neill, 1946), the composer he plays trying to forget Constance Dowling at the bottom of many bottles. After a great woozy montage, and the obligatory bar brawl, Dapper Dan ends up in a straitjacket and pompously diagnosed with "Korsakoff's psychosis,” but he pulls through of course, thanks to June Vincent; the bitter-sweet ending is almost a happy one, to the tune of "Time Will Tell.” Similarly, Glenn Ford ties one on in Framed, which almost sends him to the bottom of a cliff like the Greek husband in The Postman Always Rings Twice. There’s also The Big Clock, of course, and Tight Spot, and Nightmare Alley. But few films have shown the struggle of the boozer as well as Guilty Bystander."You've had your hand around a glass before, I can tell," quips Angel (a blowsy Kay Medford), after Thursday declines to sip his drink in Dalio's Bar.
The lead actor Lerner ended up with, Zachary Scott, even somehow fits the authors' description of their anti-hero. In their novel Wade and Miller describe Thursday as tall and lanky, with a good physique gone to hell, and repeatedly refer to him as “the thin man,” as if the Hammett borrowings weren't enough. Zach Scott fits the bill easily, with his Texan shit-eating grin, bitter mouth and slovenly mustache. According to Joe Lerner (quoted by Koszarski), no less than Lee J. Cobb campaigned hard for the part. He hadn't sung yet in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but already saw himself as virtually blacklisted. Lerner, who had many commie or ex-commie friends and acquaintances, from Kazan on down to the Adler brothers, wasn't above helping out. But Cobb, in Lerner's opinion, had been a cop in pictures too many times to play even a fallen one. And, in spite of his immense talent, he could not very well pass for a tall thin man. Zach Scott was the ticket, even if Lerner had to make him spit his gum into his hand before each take. "I'd give it back to him, the same one," he said. He saw the actor as a mix of professionalism and disinterest – a sort of urban, wartime Randolph Scott.
Lerner did go out of his way to give work to many friends in trouble. In the novel, the local mobsters have a fleet of tuna fishing boats, and they are typical greasers of the genre: Rocco Spagnoletti is stout and boxy and humorless; his brother Leo is dapper and likes the ladies, the younger the better. He even gives parties for the local Catholic private schools and entertains pleated-skirted girls on his yacht, the Panda. In Wade Miller's novel, lots of shenanigans take place onboard the Panda, including an eye-popping whipping scene featuring Max Thursday, tied up and barebacked, thrashed by a lusty Angel yielding a nasty piece of hawser – an improvised cat o' nine tails.
Lerner and his co-scenarist Don Ettlinger (an old Fox hound he knew from his Hollywood days) do not go for such gaudy entertainment, but they do write a great Mister Big. Exit brother Leo (one less corpse), exit the greaser angle, this is New York after all, so they give us this wonderful hypochondriac import-export maven called Varkas, and to play him they cast the great J. Edward Bromberg, at the time a man saddled with the sort of troubles that Lee Cobb couldn't even fathom. Bromberg was so stressed by the witch hunt that Guilty Bystander would be his last film. He died of a heart attack in England a year later. Almost ghoulishly, Lerner has him take his blood pressure every two minutes in his scenes, some of the best moments of the picture. "Joe had called me," Lerner reminisced. "I knew him from when I was an actor, we always read for the same parts. ‘Whatta you got? I'll take anything,’ he told me. The wolf was really at the door. Here was this big Twentieth Century Fox contract actor, one of Zanuck's favorites, taking a five day part and being grateful for it."
Lerner also had left-leaning Sam Levene play Thursday's cop friend, Captain Tonetti (Lt. Detective Austin Clapp in all the Wade Miller novels). And as he did in C-Man, he gave a nothing part to his friend Elliott (Eli) Sullivan. "I told these guys they were five-day jobs, but that they could be extras as much as they wanted, as long as they turned their backs to the cameras." Besides having been a bit actor himself and a second unit director in Hollywood, Lerner had directed many tests for others, and this specialty had made him very good with actors, and casting. Faye Emerson, of course, had been a film noir staple at Warner Brothers during the war, from Lady Gangster to The Mask of Dimitrios (Zachary Scott's breakthrough picture) to Crime by Night to Nobody Lives Foreverwith John Garfield. By 1950, however, she was more likely to be recognized by the American public as either the gal who'd married F.D.R's son Elliott Roosevelt and sometimes shacked up at the White House, or as the New York TV hostess whose neckline generated more gossip than the show itself. Newly remarried to entertainer Skitch Henderson, with whom she often appeared on TV, she was rarely out of the newspaper columns, and it must have been a real coup for Lerner to land her, especially for such a thankless part as Georgia. (How many ways can you say "Where's Tommy?")
So Lerner had good casting instincts. But how could you guess that an actress like Mary Boland, who seems to have spent most of her career playing pixilated spouses or mothers, and most of the thirties making Charlie Ruggles miserable in things like Ruggles of Red Cap or Mama Loves Papa, would be so arresting in so monstrous a part as Mary Smith, alias Smitty, ex-Philadelphia madam, owner of a den of thieves like the Bridgway? Boland was seventy at the time and looked older still. She's a mixture of cagey and brave, tough love and abrasiveness. She's the only real friend and confidant Thursday has left, and he is too close to her to see clearly into her game. Because, of course, for all intents and purposes, he could very well never have left her fleabag hotel and yet have solved most of the mysteries plaguing him.
Guilty Bystander and Max Thursday were a vast improvement over Wade Miller's first published novel, which featured an Atlanta private eye. At least in the Thursday books the writing team was on home turf, and one of the pleasures they offer us is an exact and evocative picture of post-war San Diego. The Fleet is still in, the downtown area is full of fun zones and B-girls and tattoo parlors. Lerner and Ettlinger threw all of this racy sunny stuff overboard, opting for a barely-visible nighttime Manhattan, wet streets and dingy hotels recreated on two soundstages at the old Fox studio in Hell's Kitchen. Ironically, this city-block-sized film complex had been the last to be built in New York at the end of the silent era and had then been state of the art, with its own lab, screening rooms, gym and commissaries. Two much smaller stages were used at barely-functioning lesser studios, but the drunk-tank and the scenes with Levene were actually shot in the Tombs, the notorious House of Detention on White Street in Lower Manhattan.
On the Joe Louis picture Lerner had used an 84-year-old cameraman who, according to Lerner, "was a fantastic photographer but was always on the verge of keeling over," and on C-Man he tapped an army buddy named Gerald "Gerry" Hirschfeld who – when the stage was too cramped with sets and there was no room to put the camera, let alone lighting equipment – wasn't above PAINTING shadows on the walls. But Guilty was an almost normal picture, and this time a bona-fide art director begged Lerner to do his picture. German emigre Leo Kurtz was a theater guy and had never designed sets for the movies. But he came up with sets that amazed Lerner by their inventiveness, which often made up for the Poverty Row aspect of the production. An open door and a painted perspective did marvels for Dr. Elder's office. And for Joe Lerner: "Everything had wild walls for me to do whatever I wanted with the camera. And the way he'd designed that flophouse, with rooms on both sides and the camera going down the center hallway, and we look into every room as we're going through the whole thing – everything was mobile, it was just wonderful. How could I not hire the guy, even though we fought like cats and dogs all the way through the picture. We became very good friends after that."
Another collaborator he fought like cats and dogs with was editor Geraldine Lerner, his own spouse. They had met in Hollywood before the war, where she worked at MGM as a sound editor, while Joe toiled away at Columbia or Republic. When her grandson taped an interview with her for posterity, 102 year-old Geri recalled that her work with Lerner was always fraught with dissent and a healthy dose of bickering. "That's what made us so good together," she concluded.
One fundamental change between book and film
One fundamental change between book and film was that in the movie Thursday became a fallen cop, not a private dick on the skids as in the novel. By the end of the decade, PIs had almost outlasted their welcome onscreen; one can argue that the shield, even a lost shield, suited the Thursday character better. This also enabled Lerner and Ettlinger to give Thursday a startling rebuttal to the almost amorous entreaties of his ex-friend and partner, Captain-Detective Clapp (Tonetti), when he welcomes him from the drunk tank and asks him, "So what happened to you? You liked being a cop."
"No, I didn't." says Max, "Ask Georgia how they are at home. They like to shove people around. They like violence. They carry guns. They're muscle men and they like to use their muscles." You rarely hear this in routine cop movies.
The filmmakers also pruned the story considerably, lopping off useless characters such as Georgia's annoying friend, the white-hatted used-car salesman Les Gilpin, or Judith Wilmington, Leo Spagnoletti's prize jailbait, and Smitty's biggest secret. They also axed Leo. Lerner collapsed several characters into one, making the missing man Homer Mace Georgia's brother, instead of her new husband. And it is Mace, “the boy doctor,” whom Angel stashes in her room at the Bridgway, not the cutaway “Clifford,” who disappears entirely. The novelists complicated things almost comically: old crone and ex-madam Smitty commits all those dastardly deeds to amass a fortune for her daughter Judith, who, à la Les Misérables, doesn't even know she exists. And Miller-Wade ridiculously obsess over the curious weapon used by fingerman Stitch Olivera: a .22 shotgun he blasts against his victims' midriff at close range. Hardly a professional gun, and not very handy indoors, opine the cops. None of this is in the film, which makes Smitty's old umbrella all the more problematic.
Almost every character is doubled in the original story. Even lone wolf Stitch has a partner, Edgar Jones. The two of them kidnapped Max and Georgia's toddler Tommy in a blue ’46 Dodge sedan, and they hole up with the sick kid in a house near National City. But one of them goes to friggin' Reno, Nevada, to have the Dodge painted black (!). The novel is full of dead air pages like this. You're given almost a page on the whole five-day course of the pneumococcus bug before they tell you Tommy caught pneumonia on his cot. Similarly, every twenty pages Thursday sums up his latest conclusions, doubts and hopes – the bane of bad detective books. There are more red herrings in this story than gin bottles under Max's bed. But the novel is also full of action, on which Lerner put the kibosh "for budget reasons." In the novel Max and two dispensable hoods drive off the road into the oily waters of Mission Bay. Earlier he boards the Spags' yacht Panda like a commando frogman. And there is this malarkey ending scene when Smitty sends Max to his death, telling him Stitch is in room 38 (ironically, this is Max's room in the movie; "Try room 38," says Smitty to Georgia in the opening). This scene in the novel is for the birds: Max takes off his shoes, and, staying well away from the door frame, gently puts his dogs on the corridor carpet to cut the light line under the door. Almost immediately a shell blasts a "dollar size hole" through the door, before Thursday, in his socks, kicks it open and goes OK Corral on the guy inside.
None of that for Lerner, who, as he liked to say, more often than not had to "shoot the budget," even on this extravagant chance-of-a-lifetime half-a-mil picture. No car in the drink for him, no house upstate, no bravura shootout. Apart from the Varkas warehouse and its nifty industrial lift, and Dalio's Bar (where a very young John Marley grouses constantly while working the planks), all we have is the Bridgway. Everybody is not at Rick's but at Smitty's friggin’ flop house: even the KID is stashed somewhere at Smitty's, even though (for censorship reasons) we never see him as victim or being maltreated. He appears only on the snapshot Georgia hands Max for identification and in that daft happy ending which greatly mars the picture.
Angel, the blonde hooker, has Fred Mace stashed in her room, too. The way Miller-Wade described her, via Smitty, is that "she's gone bad like a can of bad tuna." But actress Kay Medford makes her more playful than deadly in the film, and even less slutty. She wears a clear plastic raincoat and a saucy beret when she first meets Max at Varkas', and seems to smile as constantly as Zachary Scott chewed gum between takes. A blowsy redhead with a Mae West accent, this cabaret comedian specialized in overbearing Brooklynesque characters and had not yet hit her stride on Broadway when she made this, but she later became famous and even nominated for an Oscar when she played Barbara Streisand's nagging mother in Funny Girl – a strange destiny for this authentic flower of Erin. As Thursday mulls over in the novel: "All roads lead to the blonde." Not so much in the picture, but Kay sure has her moment at Dalio's. "You make me feel like I got wrinkles in my stockings," she tells masher Jesse White (another noir regular lost on Broadway) to get rid of him.
When asked years laterwhat he thought of Lerner's picture, Robert Wade was evasive, disingenuous, and a mite ungrateful: "At the time Guilty Bystander was filmed, the motion picture code forbade depiction of the kidnapping of a minor child. Since that was at the center of the story, the producers were faced with a problem they could not solve. The result was a nearly incomprehensible and thoroughly unsatisfying movie. Even a strong actor would have had a tough time bringing Thursday to life – and, alas, Zachary Scott was not a strong actor. He probably did the best he could under the circumstances but he came across as something of a wimp – which was certainly not our conception of dear ol' Max."
Yet, the opening sequence alone exemplifies the movie's superiority to the novel, which started with Georgia already in Max's room. Lerner has her arriving in a taxi instead, and has us take in the waterfront and the Brooklyn Bridge, no less. She enters the grubby lobby and we discover Smitty through an open door behind the desk, playing cards in a smoke-filled room. This furtive look alone tells us what kind of woman she is and what kind of place she runs. The look she throws back at Georgia, taking her for a call-girl for a brief moment, says the rest and gives us a measure of her toughness. Then Lerner goes through the effort of leading us through the dump, following Georgia up the stairs, measuring the grime on the bannister, opening the shoddy door, discovering Max Thursday in an over-the-shoulder shot, sprawled on the bed, sleeping one off with his clothes on. This is visual story-telling of the first order, and throughout the picture one marvels at Lerner's inventive direction (schedule permitting). This, combined with his fine way with the actors, makes us regret Lerner did not pursue his admittedly wire-act of a career, finding instead comfort and steady work in television.
Philippe Garnier is a veteran French journalist, writer, and translator. He is the author of the preeminent work on noir novelist David Goodis, Goodis: A Life in Black and White, and seven books in France, including Honni soit qui Malibu (about writers in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s), published in the U.S. by Blackpool Productions as Scoundrels and Spitballers. His biography of actor-writer Sterling Hayden just came out in France. He lives in Los Angeles.
Special thanks to Dr. Richard Koszarski for allowing us to include tapes of his interviews with Joseph Lerner.
In Film History, Vol 7, number 4, "Auteurism Revisited", Winter 1995.
He'll soon get his wish, though, in Felix Feist's 1950 The Man Who Cheated Himself.
Interviewed by Ed Lynskey, Steve Lewis and Bill Pronzini for the online site mysteryfile.com.