Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We'll be talking it over amongst ourselves for a few days leading up to a live chat, which you can join, this Thursday at 5 pm ET/4pm CT.
To answer Keith’s question: Do I think The Man Who Got Away would be a good movie? Hell yes (with a caveat).
Ever since hearing a perfectly cast Patrick Warburton pitch the movie to his “Pop” Leo in the excellent 1999 film version of The Woman Chaser, I’ve been wanting to see it, though the idealized slice of pure B-movie malevolence in my mind may exceed the real thing. How can you not love this synopsis?
“A truck-driver driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles runs over and kills a child. He tries to get away. He doesn’t.”
Oftentimes in novels or films, the movie or the poem or the play within a movie turns out to be a really banal when it’s finally revealed; call it Mr. Holland’s Opus syndrome. But I think Willeford gave a lot of thought about what might constitute a first-rate drive-in movie, something so pure and shocking and nearly avant-garde in its intensity that it would horrify those it didn’t thrill. Richard Hudson’s artistic decisions throughout the process of making The Man Who Got Away strike me as uncompromising and visionary, from that magnificently spare plotline to the casting of unknowns and non-actors in major roles to a minimalist music score that goes for raw, fearsome intensity. I love how it’s 63-minutes long—no more, no less—and Hudson will not waver from that time, no matter if it’s two reels short for a feature film and at least 15-minutes too long for television. He’s a disturbing man on many levels, but he has the strong and persistent vision of a great filmmaker, and I think we can discern from Leo and THE MAN’s reaction to the final cut that they’re duly impressed and startled by what they see, even if it’s not enough to keep them from butchering it anyway.
The only thing holding me back—and as caveats go, it’s a weak one—is that Hudson doesn’t show himself to be capable of empathy or compassion, and it’s possible his film would seem alien as a result. Extreme arrogance of the kind he possesses doesn’t discount him as a great artist—in fact, it’s almost a prerequisite—but The Man Who Got Away tells a story of working-class types, which in any other context would be the “Feebs” he ropes into buying cars at a price slightly higher than they can afford. But let me offer this thesis: What makes Hudson dangerous in the real world, where he manipulates and exploits people without a second thought, might also make him lethal as a director, who also manipulates and exploits people, but needs to do so in order to get them to conform to his vision. Alfred Hitchcock denies ever saying that “actors are cattle”—he claims to have said, “Actors should be treated like cattle,” which is more clarification than rebuttal—but directing movies is a dictatorial position, and I think a pitiless temperament like Hudson’s would serve him well.
Truth be told, I found myself rooting for Hudson all the way through this vicious little masterpiece of a novel, even knowing full well the trauma and abuse he was visiting upon the people in his orbit. And consider all we know about Hudson before shooting commences on The Man Who Got Away: His outrageous Oedipal complex (part of the book’s meta-ness, which I’ll address momentarily), his crude deflowering of his underage stepdaughter (“the penetration was swiftly accomplished; the act itself hastily concluded”), his promotional scheme to dress car salesmen in Santa suits in the middle of a heat wave and have Bill, his devoted protégé at the lot, take responsibility for it. But Hudson’s vision nonetheless inspires, and beyond that, his refusal to make any compromise, minor or major, roped me into his corner. At a certain point during the production process, Hudson wonders to himself how anything decent gets made in the studio system, and he proceeds to find out first hand. Everything has to fit into a box, and the perfect 63-minutes that he ultimately delivers doesn’t fit anywhere. It’s a work of art in a commerce-driven business—and as a used-car salesman who knows plenty about how the free market works, he’s a sucker for believing otherwise.
Of course, much of The Woman Chaser is told in quotation marks, with all the lap dissolves and fades ins and the closing credits given to Hudson, who is duly acknowledged for his efforts. There are elements of the book—the mother especially—that struck me more as meta-commentary on the crime fiction genre than any particular insight into Hudson’s character. His descriptions of his mother are so over-the-top in their Oedipal suggestion that they play as a wonderfully florid kind of dark comedy, riffing on other crime figures past who treat women shabbily but revere their mothers to an almost pathological extent. (James “Top of the world, ma!” Cagney in White Heat being the first example that springs to mind.) Willeford isn’t a writer who likes to waste words, yet whenever Hudson’s mother comes into the picture, he gets swept up in his hero’s intoxication with her (“Tall for a woman, with long slim legs, she was topped with the firm proud bust of a coloratura soprano.”). By the time we get to mother and son dirty dancing together, I think we’ve squarely in the realm of parody.
Elsewhere, the meta-ness of The Woman Chaser struck me as a more serious argument for the artistic integrity of pulp fiction. Hudson has no illusions about where The Man Who Got Away would wind up playing—the drive-in, or maybe one half of a double feature—but neither he nor Willeford see that as precluding something truly singular. Hudson has a dim view of humanity, but in the end, perhaps he’s earned it: The world isn’t ready for accept his brand of artistry, any more than it’s willing to give a piece of dimestore fiction a place on the mantle beside more austere works of literature. And judging by Willeford’s own, criminal obscurity—despite three fantastic films adapted from his novels (Cockfighter, Miami Blues, and The Woman Chaser)—I think that’s undeniably true.