Of Books and Broads

Old books and old movies. Two passions of my life, and I got a little of both this weekend.

The San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print and Paper Fair was held at the Concourse down on 7th and Brannan this weekend … and in case you think it’s all giant tomes of Vasari or esoteric German philosophers, think again.

These are book collectors, and like book readers, they come in all varieties. Some like cookbooks, some like children’s books, some like art and prints, and some like it noir.

I got to drool over an ARC (advanced reading copy) of Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. Price? $6,500. Still cheap by comparison to a first edition Harry Potter (one pricey version was something like $40,000 … yeah, those were four zeros).

You can drift down the aisles, peeking at booths offering a first of The Maltese Falcon (complete with gorgeous dust jacket), British editions, paperback editions, obscure editions of books that sound familiar because you know the movie better.

There will be authors you know that are still active and writing, like Robert B. Parker, and authors who invented a world that turned into a multi-billion dollar empire, like Ian Fleming. Thriller writers, traditional mystery writers, noir and hard-boiled pulp writers … to quote Hamlet, words, words words … and all of them choice.

It’s a fantasy for me on a lot of levels. First, as a collector and fan –“Wow, look at that pristine copy of Chandler’s Smart Aleck Kill!” — and secondly, as a writer myself. Because some of the books were written by people I know or have met, and you’re thinking … maybe it’s within my grasp. Maybe, one day, someone will have a first edition of my first book at a book fair, complete with mylar cover.

Y’see, the reason the books are valuable is because these are writers who have achieved major success (and for some, a demi-god status). But when they began, they were like every other debut author with dreams of a career … they had high hopes and low print runs. Consequently, as they wrote more and more books, each one building on the success of the next, those early editions became scarce … because the demand outstripped the supply.

And that’s the author’s dream … to sell as many books as possible, and enough to keep getting published and sustain a career … but to always have more demand. Because that’s what sells the next book … and gets you behind a glass case at an Antiquarian Book Fair.

By the way, I picked up a somewhat tattered first edition copy of The Big Clock by the legendary New Yorker scribe, poet and founder of The Partisan Review, Kenneth Fearing. Noir, of course, published in 1946, “the year Hollywood went dark” (the theme of Noir City 4). Filmed in 1948 with Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan and Rita Johnson, and as No Way Out in 1987.

Chandler said this about the book:
I’m still a bit puzzled as to why no one has come forward to make me look like thirty cents. But except for an occasional tour-de-force like The Big Clock, no one has.

I can’t wait to read it … look for the review here. Oh, and the price? I got lucky. I found a booth with a sale, and paid … ten dollars. Yet another reason to go to book fairs!

So where do the broads of my title come in? With the noir I watched this weekend, after my inspirational purchase. Jeopardy (1953) , starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and a Ralph Meeker as an escaped convict with Stanley Kowalski overtones.

I’ve always figured “broad” to be a rather complimentary term, implying a mutual (and sometimes begrudging) respect … almost a buddy, if she weren’t a dame.

At least that’s how it always sounds to me when Sinatra sings it, and when you hear it applied to Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck — two of the archetypal broads of Hollywood. And in this taut, suspenseful 68 minute film by John Sturges, Stanwyck doesn’t disappoint.

It’s an odd little number. Shown by Noir City this year, I missed it (fell on a weekday), so watched it on the small screen. Barry is a typically bigoted, patronizing and sexist husband of early ’50s film. But that’s only on the surface.

After establishing the attitude early on that Barbara is hopeless, helpless, and that the only family member he really can depend upon to get things right is his seven year old son — because he is, after all, a male (and even a child male is more capable than an adult female) — he gets his foot trapped underneath a fallen pier post, and is in imminent danger of drowning unless his “hysterical” wife can drive for help.

Now, Barbara Stanwyck could play almost anything … except helpless. So the casting belied his attitude, even for the ’50s. Next, up steps Ralph Meeker, murderer and escaped convict, who–unlike her husband–treats her physically rough, but with an appreciation for her strength and toughness. Things happen from there, and the ending is atypical and a little unexpected.

Throw in Mexico, thought of as America’s exotic and mysterious neighbor at the time, and location of many a great noir (Out of the Past, Touch of Evil), and you have a fascinating little film. The tagline was “She did it … because her fear was greater than her shame!”

Watch it … and see if you think that’s what really happened.

Next up: always more noir. I’ll be in Seattle for Valentine’s Day, and will try to blog from the home of the best coffee (and, incidentally, my home state).