Monday, April 04, 2016

30 Days of The Fade Out: Glimpses of the Shadow.

We noticed a pair of two-part interviews with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, published at the conclusion of The Fade Out, and in the second part of Newsarama's interview, Brubaker commented about Shadow of the Valley, the noir movie that Victory Street Pictures was producing throughout the story.

Zack Smith asked if that film was fully plotted out, and Brubaker responded, "That one I had a loose idea of what it was, but suffice it to say, it wasn't a masterpiece."

That opinion was shared by its audience, at least going by the clipping of the movie review on the back cover of issue #12.  The review has much higher praise for its stars -- Earl Rath and his "riveting dark side;" Maya Silver and her "gravity and depth" as the character Gracie -- than for the dialogue they were given.

We're not told much about the movie itself by its (fictional) reviewer Eileen Theo, except that it was based on a short story written a "legendary" (and fictional) writer who was rediscovered in death, Jacob Thacker -- or perhaps Jacob Thakeray? -- and published by the real-world pulp magazine Black Mask.  Founded in 1920 and peaking in the early 1930's before ceasing its original publication run in 1951, the famous magazine published works by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, and other writers of hardboiled fiction.

We don't see much of the film that Charlie was writing, either in the original cut that was being produced with Valeria Sommers or the new cut with her replacement, Maya Silver.

Here's what we know, from the first five issues.
  1. The director Franz Schmitt mentions scene 74-B, apparently set in a dining car.
  2. We see part of a rough cut that studio head Victor Thursby reviews:  the two main characters argue and then embrace inside a boarded-up building, as they're "too far gone" and "may die tonight;" Earl's character has his face covered in the bandages we see on the issue's cover; after that scene we see Val's version of Gracie standing, arms folded, in an empty field.
  3. Maya and Earl dance during an apparent screen test; Earl isn't wearing the mask of bandages.
  4. We see Gil dictating dialogue to Charlie -- "Then she says, 'You don't really think you can hide like that?'" (possibly alluding to the bandages) -- and filming takes place on a studio set that resembles a rustic log cabin (again, no bandages).
  5. Location shooting takes place in Ojai, on a small-town Main Street set and in a "mountain cabin hideout;" on Main Street, an old scene is reshot with new, substandard dialogue, but the same action takes place:  Earl's character (no bandages) and Gracie enter a bank to commit armed robbery.
After issue #5, very little new information can be gleaned about the film.  In issue #9, we see fragments of a later scene in that same boarded-up building -- "Looks like they're here" -- and we learn that Earl Rath's character, now bandaged, is named Bill.  On the back cover, we see a promo photo for the film, with Gracie embracing Bill, possibly wearing a robe with his face covered in the familiar mask of bandages.

Then, in issue #12, we learn that Victor Thursby has had a personal cut of the film made, with Val's performance kept intact:  we see a single frame of the movie, Val in the foreground with bandaged Bill -- probably played by Earl's double Morty -- standing in the background, framed by the light of an open doorway.

What was this movie about?

My guess is this:
  • Bill and Gracie fall in love and into a life of crime, like the real-life love-struck bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, who were gunned down in 1934.
  • After dancing in a fancy nightclub and robbing one or more banks, they escape to the country; at one point maybe they travel by train (complete with dining car), and they end up in a rustic mountain cabin.
    • UPDATE: Schmitt wanted to work around Val's scenes by filming the dining car scene:  maybe Gracie wasn't on that train after all.
  • Eventually, trouble catches up with the pair, and Bill's face becomes horrifically scarred, forcing him to wear a mask of bandages, which Gracie knows won't hide his identity.
  • The pair are cornered in some boarded-up building; Gracie perhaps has had several opportunities to run from her life with Bill -- in the urban alley seen in issue #12 and then in the field outside the condemned building, seen in issue #2 -- but she's with him even as their pursuers arrive.
(I do wonder how much our surmises match Brubaker's working concepts.)

Like any good noir, the movie almost certainly avoids a happy ending for all involved, but is it a good movie?  That question depends less on what is being told as how the story is told, and we could never glean that from the fragments we saw in the comic.

Even before Val's death and the reshoots that it necessitated, the script was being ghostwritten by Gil Mason, and in his most honest moments even he would admit that Charlie was the better writer, at least before the war and his writer's block.  With a new actress, the new scenes were being written by a distraught and distracted Gil, who was more self-destructive than usual; if the one scene in Ojai was any indication, the new material was worse than the original script.

It makes me wonder about that private cut of Victor Thursby's.  There were still at least eleven days of shooting left in the original production schedule but was a more-or-less complete story told in the edit of the incomplete footage shot with Val Sommers, along with any non-Maya scenes filmed after her death?  With the original script and her apparently transcendent performance, perhaps this cut ended up even better than what was released to theaters.

If that cut ever escaped Thursby's private possession, perhaps it might have become a cult hit in Hollywood screening rooms and then become a critical success when it was released decades later:  it could be like the 1998 edit of Orson Welles' 1958 noir Touch of Evil, which received wide acclaim for approximating the writer and director's wishes as expressed in an early memo to the studio.

It certainly wouldn't atone for Val Staples' murder, and presumably the cover-up is never disturbed, but the existence of Thursby's film points to the possibility of a very thin silver lining for a very dark cloud.

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