Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Review of Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood by Woody Haut (280 Steps, 2013, original 2002)

In Heartbreak and Vine Woody Haut charts the screenwriting careers of a number of noir crime novelists from the 1930s through to the end of the twentieth century, including a number interview transcripts.  Collectively, what the individual stories reveals is the precarious nature of working in Hollywood, the lowly status of screenwriters in the pecking order of making movies, and the marked differences in the writing process and experience between screen and novel writing.  Whilst each writer had a different experience, with some thriving in the competitive, money-driven, collaborative environment, others were chewed up and spat out by a system that cares little for the integrity or art of the story or the fate of the writer. 

The book is structured by telling the tale of each of 29 writers, concentrating for the most part on those writing in the early golden age of both novel and film noir from the 1930s to 1950s -- Dashiell Hammnet, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, WR Burnett, Paul Cain, James Cain, Cornell Woodrich, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson, A.I. Bezzerides, Daniel Mainwaring, Jonathan Lattimer, and Leigh Brackett -- before fast-forwarding to the 1980s and 90s to chart more briefly the experiences and careers of Edward Bunker, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Gerald Petievich, James Crumley, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Tony Hillerman, James Hall, Joseph Wambaugh, Donald Westlake, Barry Gifford, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. 

The strength of the book is its range, in terms of authors and time period and the shift from a tightly controlled studio system to many more independent production companies, and that Haut manages to impart a wealth of biographical information succinctly and in an engaging way.  The tales are quite fascinating.  Where the book is let down a little is with the wider analysis of Hollywood movie industry and exploring cross-cutting themes.  This is difficult to achieve with the structure organised around individual writers, even when they have been grouped, but a little more could have been done to explore and explain structures, trends and experiences, and the book could have certainly benefitted from a final chapter that pulled insights together and drew some conclusions.  Nevertheless, the book is an engaging and absorbing read about a set of some well and lesser known writers who also sought to translate their skill to big screen.  It’s a must read for any novelist who fancies a crack at screenwriting and wants to know what to expect.

1 comment:

Ray Kolb said...

Rob, this sounds really interesting. Think I'll have to grab this for myself.