She, humming: “Got a man, crazy for me, he’s funny that way.” He, blustering: “If I have to live, I’ll [kill to] do it.”
Sam Ross’ He Ran All the Way (Farrar Straus, 1947; Lion books, 1950) is one of the best noir crime novels of the classic period and one which offers the deepest insights about a young man with no apparent prospects to escape poverty, loneliness, and paranoia. The impetuous striking out against such a fate, undertaken to conquer “a sense of doom,” results in a botched robbery. Dalton Trumbo (using Guy Endore as a “front”) wrote the 1951 screenplay.
Publishers of novels of juvenile delinquency defended their product by saying that the criminal was always punished. As critic Robert Warshow said, “the function of mass culture [is] to provide public morale,” especially when “anxiety” is pervasive. Congressional committees and social commentators had a more authoritarian perspective: they blamed media “glorification” of criminals, parental neglect, communist influence, and gangs supported by organized crime. One can imagine how that increased anxiety among citizens in downscale communities (now stigmatized as “blighted”) while providing secure middle-class people and religious and political authorities with exoneration from responsibility.
Warshow also said that popular crime fiction can hardly exist without conventions that dramatize the “tragedy” of post-war urban life, both of the lower middle class (here, the Dobbs family) and the tenement underclass (the Robeys). These narratives could hardly avoid spotlighting problems of poverty, divorce, and unemployment, once blurbs like “She took him home . . . and there the young killer turned on her!” got the reader under cover. There, Sam Ross tempts the reader think and feel—authentically—for him/her self. Pulp entertainment worked just fine for that. His book (and the fine film) are about compassion, and what happens to it when the desperation enveloping both victim and criminal takes control.
The “killer” on the lam is Nick Robey, a young man whose mother had to become a prostitute to feed him, once her husband, deathly ill from his industrial job, left the family. Nick grew up alone, thinking the man in his mother’s room might be his father coming back home to help with homework. Always alone, especially when his mother was doing what she could not escape doing, Nick had no one to teach him self-respect. Clueless about the future, he got dragged into the robbery by a foolhardy friend whose boldness he admired. A cop was shot, not by him but by his accomplice. He panicked, shot the accomplice, hoping he would die (he didn’t) so he would not name Nick as the killer—which he did.
The tragedy of the common man—in this case a juvenile delinquent—is what He Ran All the Way creates. Its working-class readers were especially aware of what a mom had to do to feed her kids, and how close a street kid was to being a hunted outcast whose only chance seemed to be ever-deeper criminality. The following episodes reveal Ross’ skill at melding crime thriller and romance conventions to replace disdain for a tyro thief and murderer with something like fear for the innocent and pity for the outcast with a gun.
–Nick runs to a beach, and jumps fully clothed into the water to revive himself and alleviate panic. He meets Peg, a red head who falls for him: his tough and muscled body, and his haunted eyes, arouse her. “She wanted to do something to comfort him. She saw his wrinkled forehead crush tears out of his deep-set eyes.” (In the film, John Garfield—tender tough guy and first-rate actor with a strong social conscience—plays Nick.) Her interest includes sensual desire but is also rooted in empathy and all else that the word “togetherness” includes in human connection. Shelly Winters is not glamorous as Peg. She’s a bit chubby, wide-eyed, nonplussed, frightened—but also tough and resourceful underneath what looks like shyness. She’s all that a good girl can fully be, much like Goodis’ Edna in The Blonde on the Street Corner; Shelly in Peter Rabe’s first Daniel Port novel, Dig My Grave Deep; or Jill Lynn (“Mommy”) in Steve Fisher’s I Wake up Screaming.
–Peg takes Nick home to her tight-knit Catholic family, where he is at first impressively genial, but then panics—how can he hide in a busy row-house neighborhood?—and takes them all hostage. “She shared three days with a killer!” is the prurient back cover blurb. The one on the front turns out to be deeply ironic, because partly true: “A killer and a redhead share 72 intimate hours.” They are instinctively and powerfully attracted to each other. And they both have a desperate tension that in other circumstances—despite the contrasting family dynamics—might have opened them up to intimacy. As it is, it is impossible for Peg to determine how much of her feeling is pity, admiration, or desire.
–Nick plays the delinquent menace (he calls everybody “punk,” and, waving his gun, says he will never be taken alive), trying to get the family to fear him. But Peg’s mother, very shaky of course, feels it her humane duty to get Nick resume his humanity. Distracted, she runs a knitting needle through her hand. “’Show me, missus, show me what to do.’” For a second, Nick’s contempt for his own mother did not harden, and may have softened him. “He swallowed hard, braced himself, and instead became locked in the pattern of his life.” Again, the tragedy of the common man, running (in place) all the way. Ross shows us the first scene in that tragedy. When Nick was a boy, one of his mother’s Johns became unnerved by the presence of an innocent kid. Against his mother’s orders, he ran into the street. When a cop asked him where he was going, he ran home, but knew he could not be with his mother. “He felt himself ducking from something he never saw but was always behind him.”
–Mr. Dobbs is a newsstand owner who has become a much-loved member of the community. He has escaped the anxieties of being an insecure breadwinner by building model boats, imagining taking his kids on them to exotic ends of the earth. The fear of what Nick might do prevent him from telling the neighborhood patrolman or a minor-league tough guy where the “cop-killer” is. Finally, he does tell a friend in law enforcement, who gives him a gun. In the novel, Nick disintegrates under the tension and attacks Peg. His death is not the result of being gutshot. That does not change Peg’s emotional state as Shelley Winters depicts it.
Nick had been having nightmares, like the one at the beginning where he is killed by a pursuer—himself. Since boyhood, he’s been running all the way. Peg embraces him, saying they will run off together. “It’s just you and me.” Partly, she means to protect her family. But she is enmeshed in Nick’s tremulous need. The iconic image from the film is Nick, shot, grasping his stomach wound and about to collapse in the gutter, while Peg leans toward him, feeling everything. The shock, pain, and grief, but not Nick, will be hers forever.
Jay Gertzman has spent half a lifetime thinking about the distinctions between “art’ or “literature” and popular entertainment, particularly what happens when erotica or thrillers are published by Penguin or Vintage or produced by Paramount as opposed to independent or marginal publishers/producers. Gertzman has published books on the distribution and censorship of erotica in the 1920s and ’30s, and on the poet and pornographer Samuel Roth. His Pulp According to David Goodis is scheduled for publication late this year.