Updated: Mar 25, 2020
You get reviews. And you get Reviews. Some of the advance reception for Shamus Dust has been rather overwhelming. (For example? Modesty forbids. Oh well then, if you insist, go to my website.) However, there was a review just recently that was a real delight. So I’m going to tell you about it. It ended: …you feel like you’re in an old Humphrey Bogart movie from the first page.
Now, an old Humphrey Bogart movie covers an awful lot of ground, from an early talkie (Up the River, 1930, with Spencer Tracy) right through 1956 and The Harder They Fall – released just months before big tobacco caught up with him, far too soon. Nevertheless, I think (and certainly hope) that the reviewer and I had the same Bogart movies in mind. They’re from a very special period that’s very dear to me. But we’ll come back to that.
First, some background to Shamus Dust. It’s a story spun out of genuine headline events. A Pandora’s Box, as the cover blurb has it, that opened among the blitz sites of the City of London, early in the Cold War. The City was then, and is now, financial heart of the capital. Think of it as London’s Wall Street. When Shamus Dust is set, it’s headed for a postwar reconstruction boom and nothing is going to be allowed to get in the way. Or, as another reviewer put it: Imagine Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown played out against the bomb sites and grimy alleys of a freezing 1947 London.
While I really hadn’t thought about the parallels before, I think that reviewer nails it. Like Chinatown – a story spun out of the California Water Wars of the 1910s – Shamus Dust unfolds as a dark tale, driven by the greed and invulnerability of the powerful. Like Chinatown, it involves criminal sexuality, deviant wealth, civic corruption and high-end racketeers. And like Chinatown it descends into routine murder for the cover-up, as seen through the eyes of the gumshoe who’s on the case. The events Shamus Dust is based on – that Pandora’s Box among the ruins – had fascinated me since I first came across them. The question was how to write them.
What makes a film noir a film noir? When does their classic noir period begin and end? Which movies are included, and which aren’t? It depends who you ask. What’s never in dispute though, is that Humphrey DeForest Bogart stars in some of the very best (after The Harder They Fall, try In A Lonely Place, 1950 with Gloria Grahame, directed by Nicholas Ray). No question either that, from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, films noirs played to the dark, seen-it-all intuitions of a generation that was braced for A-bombs, Korea and the Cold War. For almost a decade and a half, audiences bought their tickets for a cinema that reflected the world as they knew it. Sugar coated was the taste of yesteryear, without an unalloyed happy ending in sight.
Their storylines were corrosive. Their dialogue bitter. Their rooms were dimmed, photographed at odd angles, filled with menace. This is how Shamus Dust should be, I thought. Its story ought to feel like a film noir: hardboiled, set in black and white in a meager postwar, and told in the narrative form that wowed audiences – men and women both – at the time. So that’s what I set out to do. And it’s why I savored the compliment about the Bogart movie that began on page one. I wanted the language, the manners and mannerisms, the casual prejudices, the dress. I also wanted the silvery bright-lights, the dark interiors, the oblique angles, the all-pervasive sense of threat.
Fine. But film noir was a Hollywood offspring, at home with the uneasiness of the dry Santa Ana winds. Shamus Dust, even though narrated by that American gumshoe, is set in deep, snowy winter with an otherwise English cast, in the high-rolling City of London. Can the one possibly translate into the other? Well, the plain fact is, it not only can, it did at the time.
Though film noir had originated in a perfect storm of home-grown and immigrant talent, technique, and limited resources, it was very soon neither a uniquely Hollywood studio product nor a uniquely American taste. Cold War cinema audiences everywhere related to its bleak, ungilded motives, its dark, inconvenient truths. Why wouldn’t they? They’d lived through the same grinding decades of wars and worldwide Depression, graft and disillusion and mistrust. Before you could say Double Indemnity (for the record, it’s often credited as the first film noir) movie makers were exploring the vocabulary of a new cinematic movement, from Argentina to Japan and stops in between.
London, England included. Despite its American co-producer (David O. Selznick) and American leads (Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles) The Third Man is a British movie, nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Editor) and taking one home (Robert Krasker for Best Cinematography). Meaning that already by 1949, a British-made movie could be fluent and even majestic in the elements of noir. It was famously set in Vienna. But there are many other British films noirs set at home, (some even in the City of London and likewise with American stars – Carole Landis, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles again, and others. Come the Cold War, Americans were so familiar in the capital, in or out of uniform, that our shamus would hardly have stood out in a crowd.
So if I can answer my own question, there never was a problem in translation, even from the very beginning. Film noir has pedigree. It exported – with tremendous success – to pretty well everywhere there was an audience for dark, uneasy, hardboiled cinema. In effect, to pretty well every town that had a picture show. How it translates into Shamus Dust, out October 28 2019, is for you to tell me. But that reviewer has given me hopes.
This article was first published in October 2019 by Adrian Murphy on The Library Door