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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

The primordial ooze that the genre we now know as film noir emerged from was the pulp magazine fiction of the 1920s and 30s and the subsequent novels by writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich. In fact, the creation of the film noir genre was an accidental result of then-screenwriter John Huston’s decision to do a meticulously faithful adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which had already been filmed twice before (both badly), as his directorial debut. Because it retained Hammett’s uncompromising vision of the criminal world and the people who inhabited it on both sides of the law (a reflection of Hammett’s first-hand experiences as a Pinkerton detective), Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon seemed breathtakingly new and the film’s success at the box office inspired other studios to try their hand at adapting pulp novels.

The works of the aforementioned writers were particularly popular with filmmakers because their relatively linear narratives made them easily adaptable to the film medium. The works of a later generation of pulp writers from the 40s and 50s were far more difficult to adapt to a visual medium because their first-person narratives took place mainly in the heads of their protagonists and, more often than not, these narrators were psychotics and madmen. The writers that fall into this second category include Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford. As Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) proves, in the hands of a genuinely inspired filmmaker, it is possible to translate material like this into visual terms. Another filmmaker who managed to pull off this challenge was independent director Robinson Devor in his criminally little-known 1999 adaptation of Willeford’s 1960 novel The Woman Chaser.

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After premiering at the 1999 New York Film Festival, and subsequently screening at other showcase festivals such as Sundance and South by Southwest, The Woman Chaser opened to mixed reviews, had a limited distribution, and also turned up on cable via The Sundance Channel and Showtime and on VHS. Then The Woman Chaser pretty much vanished off the face of the earth, not even receiving a DVD release. Just recently, however, thanks to that new-fangled thingamabob known as on-line streaming, Sundance Institute’s Artist Services has been able to make The Woman Chaser available for viewing on iTunes (as of May 20), and also on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime (starting on June 15), giving this underrated little gem a well-deserved second chance.

Willeford was a World War II veteran-turned-writer whose work had been filmed twice before, Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter (1974) and George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990, based on the first of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels). Both of these films have much to recommend them, but neither came as close to capturing Willeford’s style as Devor’s The Woman Chaser. As quoted in an on-line article by Jesse Sublett, Willeford’s widow Betsy concisely articulated what makes Devor’s film stand out from the other film versions of her husband’s work: “I like it best of the three adaptations. It’s uncommercial, the way the book was, and has the courage of its outrageousness.” As Huston did with Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Devor wrote the screenplay himself, observing scrupulous fidelity to his source, faithfully duplicated the novel’s story structure scene-for-scene, and taking all of the dialogue almost verbatim from the book. Devor also retained the novel’s original setting and period, Los Angeles circa 1960.

Devor had only one previous film, Angelyne (1995), a documentary about actress and model Angyline Angelyne, under his belt when he decided to make his “real” filmmaking debut with an adaptation of The Woman Chaser. In an interview with Dan Lybarger for Nitrate On-Line, Devor recounted how he obtained a second-hand copy of Willeford’s novel from a couple who sold old mystery and crime books out of their home in Redondo Beach and later filmed his adaptation on weekends while retaining his day job as a vice president of a Los Angeles PR firm. Devor’s first choice for the leading role, Richard Hudson, was Jason Patric, but when Patric wasn’t available, he gladly went with Patrick Warburton because, as he put it, “I knew that we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy.”

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Richard Hudson, the main character and first-person narrator of The Woman Chaser, is, like the protagonist of Willeford’s first novel High Priest of California, a sociopathic used car dealer. A representative of a San Francisco repo tycoon known professionally as “Honest Hal,” Richard has returned to his home town of Los Angeles in order to start an Honest Hal franchise there. He selects a rundown used car lot near the Capitol Building, which towers over the background, and quickly scams the lot’s owner (Eugene Roche) into forking the business over to him. Richard then hires an ex-Army sergeant named Bill Harris (Ron Morgan) to be his manager and adds three burnouts to the staff as salesmen. One sweltering August day without any sales happening, Richard has an inspiration and takes it to Bill in the air-conditioned trailer that serves as the lot’s office.

Richard: “Lift the phone, Cool One, and call a costume company.”

Bill: “Any company in particular?”

Richard: “One that sells Santa Claus suits, complete with beards.”

Bill: “What sizes?”

Richard: The sizes worn by Evans, Cartwell, and Jody-boy, our three star salesmen.”

Bill: “You shouldn’t do it, Chief. It’s the middle of August. Those guys will melt out there.”

Richard: (angrily) “It’s the first day of August and they’ll wear the suits every damned day until I tell them to take them off!” (lowering his voice) “What is more unusual than Santa Claus selling used cars in August?”

Bill: “You’ve got me for the moment.”

Richard: “Nothing! Honest Hal is now Santa Claus in the middle of summer, bringing the good people of the City of Angels goodies in the form of repos. Your repos. Now, get the suits and get our buddy boys into them. Take a half-page in The Times and write some decent copy for a change. I don’t want those repos on the lot by Saturday!” (pause) “Oh, by the way, Cool One, you will inform our white-bearded salesmen that the Santy Claus suits are your idea.”

Richard takes advantage of relocating to LA to reconnect with his mother (Lynette Bennett), a retired ballerina who lives in a decaying mansion straight out of Sunset Boulevard with Richard’s stepfather Leo (Paul Malevich), an ex-film director, and Leo’s teenage daughter Laura (Emily Newman). At his mother’s invitation, Richard moves into the former servants’ quarters above the garage. Like most sociopaths, Richard has a heightened opinion of himself and regards his customers and just about every other member of society as “feebs” who live boringly ordinary lives. One night, Richard has a horrifying epiphany: his life is just as pointless as those of all the people he looks down upon. Sitting alone in his car and weeping to himself, he decides that he must “create something. Anything.”

An avid moviegoer, Richard believes that the one form of art that he’s capable of is filmmaking; he’ll write and direct his very own movie. Richard dreams up a story he titles The Man Who Got Away and writes a one-paragraph synopsis of it: “A truck-driver driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles runs over and kills a child. He tries to get away. He doesn’t.” Richard then takes his idea to Leo, who works out the minimum budget required to make the film. Richard is convinced that he and Leo can raise half of the amount needed. (Richard will embezzle his share from Honest Hal and Leo will hock the valuable painting that is his sole leftover from his glory days.) He begs Leo to contact “The Man” (Ernie Vincent), the head of Leo’s former studio Mammoth Pictures, and see if he’ll put up the other half. After reading Richard’s screenplay, The Man greenlights the project and offers the studio’s resources in lieu of cash to make the picture.

Working on a limited budget and schedule that doesn’t allow for any retakes, Richard completes his movie. But after watching the first cut, he becomes dissatisfied with his creation and decides to edit it down to a length he believes necessary to maintain the film’s tension. By the time Richard and Ruggerio (Max Kerstein), the editor assigned to him by the studio, finish pruning the film to the point Richard wants, they have a movie that runs only 63 minutes. That’s when Ruggerio breaks the bad news to Richard.

Ruggerio: “With the sound effects and the music dubbed in, it will be a little masterpiece and I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Unfortunately, we have to put twenty-seven more minutes of film. Three minutes can be taken in titling, but the other twenty-four will have to be plain old padding.”

Richard: “Can we pad twenty-four minutes and still maintain the pace I’ve set, the mood and so on?”

Ruggerio: “Nope. But there’s no choice.”

Richard: “Why is that?”

Ruggerio: “You know that as well as I do, Mr. Hudson. A movie is ninety minutes long. Six full reels. That’s the business.”

Richard: “But unnecessary padding will ruin my movie.”

Ruggerio: “Not really. We can stretch the hell out of that chase down the highway. I’ve got stock stuff I haven’t even looked at yet, reel after reel. Scenic views, wild flowers, traffic jams, all kinds of stuff, and we can fit it in fine. I remember a western once where I stretched a desert chase out twenty-five minutes with long shots of different guys riding on horseback. Nobody knew the difference. People like chases.”

Richard: “The Man Who Got Away isn’t a western.”

Ruggerio: “Yeah, but he doesn’t really get away, either. It’s the same thing as a big chase—“

Richard: (shouting angrily) “Damn it, no! As far as I’m concerned, my movie will run as it is, twenty-seven minutes short! Period. I’m not going to ruin my movie because of some stupid ruling that it has to be ninety minutes long!” 1

Richard digs in his heels, insisting that adding unnecessary footage to his movie would be “like adding three more plates to the Last Supper or an extra wing on the Pentagon.” Unexpectedly, The Man doesn’t reject the movie outright as being too short. In fact, he and Leo have come up with an idea to salvage the film. When Richard learns what will be done with his “masterpiece” against his will, he explodes in rage, taking a perverse, self-destructive revenge on all those he believes have double-crossed him. (Re: the title, while Richard does his share of exploiting and abusing many of the female characters who are unfortunate enough to cross his path, it’s hardly the main focus of the story. Willeford’s original title for his book was The Director, but Newstand Library, the original publisher, thought that The Woman Chaser would be a more appropriately lurid title for a paperback pulp novel.)

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Devor not only got the 1960 period details (costumes, cars, props, locations) down perfectly, but, aided by Kramer Morgenthau’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography, he also was successful in recreating the look of such low-budget independent films of the period as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Also contributing to the period authenticity was Daniele Luppi’s music score, utilizing recordings by jazz artists of the time like Les Baxter, Chico O’Farrell, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Tito Puente, and Jimmy Smith.

Typical of Willeford’s work, much of his novel The Woman Chaser is set inside Richard Hudson’s psyche, with long, rambling soliloquies from Richard detailing how he observes the rest of the world, his patronizing contempt for everyone he comes in contact with, and his philosophy based on his belief that movies mirror real life. Devor retained many of these soliloquies and filmed them in ways that provide visual metaphors for Richard’s life-as-film outlook. Some of the monologues are done as voice-overs accompanying either the action or close-ups of Richard looking straight at the camera with the glare of a movie projector backlighting him from behind and bathing him in a halo-like glow. Other monologues consist of Richard in a dark room breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly with Richard’s head in the far background of the extreme left of the screen while the turning reels of a 16mm projector and its projected light frame Richard in the foreground.

Since the story is told entirely from Richard Hudson’s POV, Patrick Warburton appears in every single scene and he rises to the occasion by giving the performance of his career. (People who know Warburton mainly for his work in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement will be in for a big surprise when they see The Woman Chaser.) The power in Warburton’s performance lies in his underplaying the role rather than going for the over-the-top approach that most actors take when playing maniacs. Warburton plays Richard as a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off, a passive-aggressive type just barely suppressing his inner rage and frustration while hiding behind a facade of macho hipness. In an interview with Jeffrey M. Anderson for the website Combustible Celluloid, Warburton gave his personal take on the character: “He’s just a brutish, self-serving ass. There’s something very boyish about Hudson. He’s dangerous and he scares you, but then there are times when he’s just like a pathetic little boy. Maybe that’s why you can empathize with him a little bit, ’cause you just see what a pathetic creature he is and how lost he is.”

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For the rest of his cast, Devor went with non-experienced actors, deliberately avoiding professionals. As he explained to Lybarger: “To me, the ultimate failure in a lot of movies—and a lot of people will agree with me—is that a lot of the actors look like they’re in the 90s or 2000. They’re just too good-looking; they’re just too coifed. Their bodies are just too cut, and there are no flaws. That’s not the kind of look people had in the past, and it’s not appropriate for this project. My formula for this when I was casting—God love the actors; they’re wonderful, attractive people as contemporary human beings—but I wanted Hudson to be this kind of normal-looking guy surrounded by these grotesques. I wanted to stack the deck and to make his bullying almost more of a mismatch. I wanted to make Leo so unaggressive and so unthreatening that, when he ultimately betrays Richard, it’s very absurd. It’s difficult to find somebody. A lot of people would come in, and they’d be character actors playing [Leo] like a wacky intellectual. This non-actor [Paul Malevich] was a very down-to-earth sweet guy. He was a real person. He allowed us to film him in unflattering ways. There were very few self-conscious actors on the set, which was great.” Ironically, this paralleled the way Richard Hudson decides to cast his movie when Leo states that their marginal budget provides a pitifully low amount for the actors’ salaries. As Richard tells Leo in Willeford’s novel, “To do my movie, it has to be done with nobodies… If I can get actors nobody knows, they’ll believe in the characters as they see them on the screen.”

Although it played in a few key cities (New York, LA, Austin, San Francisco) in mid-2000, The Woman Chaser never received a general nationwide release. It didn’t help that many reviewers (including the New York Times’ Stephen Holder) dismissed it as “a film noir spoof,” which only shows how little most mainstream critics know about film noir. 2 (Despite an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout The Woman Chaser, it’s no “spoof,” it’s the real deal.) In the years since, The Woman Chaser has earned more respect and developed a cult following. In a Film Noir of the Week review, Kim Morgan (Sunset Gun) praised The Woman Chaser for being “faithful to its beautifully seedy genre while feeling like an entirely unique experience” and characterized it as “an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated.”

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The jury’s still out on the merits of streaming vs. discs. (I personally share my World Cinema Paradise colleagues Stuart Galbraith IV and Stephen Bowie’s preference for the physical medium. If you own a movie on DVD or Blu-Ray, you don’t have to worry about the “streaming rights” expiring.) But steaming can atone for a multitude of sins if it brings a little-seen wonder like The Woman Chaser to a new audience. Think of it as The Film That Almost Got Away. But didn’t. (Now when the hell is this movie gonna get its long-overdue DVD and Blu-Ray release?)

 

[1] Actually, Willeford betrayed some unfamiliarity with the film industry here. Although they were becoming increasingly rare by the 1960s, there were still second-features being released with running times well below 90 minutes. For example, Harvey Hart’s Dark Intruder, a 59-minute long unsold pilot for a television horror series produced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, was released by Universal Pictures as the bottom half of a double-bill with William Castle’s I Saw What You Did in July 1965. Also, a reel of 35mm film contained 10-minutes worth of footage, not 15-minutes, so a 90-minute film would be nine reels, not six. Nevertheless, Willeford’s fictional “90-minutes rule” was necessary for plot purposes and Devor made the right call to retain it as is. Nice in-joke: The Woman Chaser runs exactly 90-minutes.

[2] One of the reasons that it’s almost impossible to do an acceptable parody of film noir is that most great film noirs (such as The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil) contain a great deal of intentional humor and most attempts at spoofing the genre fail to be nearly as funny.

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