Thursday, January 8, 2009


Two O'clock Courage by Gelett Burgess (1934)

Gelett Burgess is perhaps the most unlikely writer on this list. Not only is he patently not noir, he isn't even a mystery guy. He first made a splash in 1890s San Francisco as one of the founders of The Lark, a magazine with an unusual format that was widely celebrated in literary circles. In other words, he was the Dave Eggers of fin de siecle San Francisco. His biggest hits were the Goops and that damn Purple Cow verse.

Nonetheless, he did turn out a few mysteries in his later years, not without commercial success. Two O'clock Courage was filmed twice, first in 1936 as Two In the Dark and then again in 1945 under the original book title in the version to be screened at Noir City 7.

It's not that the set-up is lacking in noir potential. A man finds himself on a dark city street in the grips of amnesia. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. All he knows is his brown suit is covered with blood and his pockets are empty save for several $100 bills and a gun. He quickly figures out he's the mysterious "Man in the Brown Suit" sought by police in connection with the shooting of wealthy theater owner John Saxon. But all that ensues is manifestly not noir. Burgess's style is baroque and flowery and the story is devoid of any real tension or desperation.

It's a mild little mystery of the sort I imagine was immensely popular in its day but is now intensely dull. There is no shortage of suspects who were all but stumbling over one another at the murder scene, an ostensibly lonely mansion. There's the plagiarist playwright Saxon was blackmailing, a young actress he was manipulating, an eccentric violinist he'd cheated, the chauffeur he fired, and of course, the protagonist, who was heard shouting, "I'll kill you, you dirty cur!" in Saxon's study shortly before the shooting. In an out of left field development the real shooter turns out to be the mother of an actress he'd in the parlance of the day, "wronged." So much for fair play.

The path to this revelation is pretty tortuous. Action is minimal and cheap coincidences are rife. Much of the exposition is via witness statements and transcripts obligingly printed verbatim in the paper to be read by the characters. Mr. X ultimately figures out that he was in fact a playwright who was selling a play to Saxon. The "You dirty cur!" was a line in his play and his "pistol" was a water-shooting model (groan!) he'd used as a prop for this dramatic reading.

In fact, Two O'clock Courage brings to mind one of my favorite non-noir mystery writers, Harry Stephen Keeler. Often characterized (unfairly, IMHO) as the wost mystery writer ever, Keeler wrote sprawling mysteries with style, plots, and narrative structures ostensibly similar to Two O'clock Courage. But Keeler took things to such extremes that these flaws become utterly surreal and totally fascinating. Were Keeler to have authored Two O'clock Courage, he would have larded the plot with dozens of interlocking coincidences, each more outrageous than the last, interpolated a few of his old short stories (relevant or not), tossed in a circus freak or two, and resolved the mystery with an acrobatic midget lowered from an autogyro or perhaps a rare genetic disorder that only made it look like Saxon had been shot. Whether Keeler was an eccentric genius mocking this sort of mystery, or a deranged hack trying to write one and failing in a most interesting way, the results would have been sublime. It's no coincidence that my copy of Two O'clock Courage was printed by Surinam Turtle Press, a subsidiary of Keeler-publishers extraordinaire Ramble House.

We'll find out what kind of noir they can make out of this pig's ear when the 1945 version of Two O'Clock Courage screens on Saturday afternoon, January 31 at the Castro.

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