Barry Forshaw’s Crime Desk – November II

Our resident crime expert, Barry Forshaw, continues his look at crime-writing great Walter Mosley and crime cinema.

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The best Easy Rawlins

Walter Mosely’s iconoclastic willingness to confront received wisdom even extends to such revered writers as his crime fiction forebears Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

‘They have a place in literary history now,’ he said, ‘but who’s to say if they’ll be read in a hundred years’ time? Superman, now, will be – he is a genuinely iconic figure.’

(This was a reminder that Walter’s prodigious knowledge of popular culture extends to being able to provide the non-superhero names of all the members of The Fantastic Four). But this ruthless pulling-down of idols – did it extend to Walter’s own reputation?

He is very highly thought of now, and unassailably one of the grand masters of US crime fiction – didn’t he want to be remembered as such in a hundred years’ time?

‘It really doesn’t matter to me,’ he replied. ‘Honestly! I’ve done the best I can with my books, and thankfully people read me now, in 2013 – what more can I ask for? A century hence, nobody may talk about me. Unless I’m still physically around a century hence, when I probably would be talked about if that was the case.’

Walter also had firm views about black actors: although he was pleased with the film of his Devil in a Blue Dress – and the casting of Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins – he had another casting choice.

‘Denzel is a very good actor, and I was happy with the job he did. But he’s not really my concept of Easy Rawlins – for a start, Denzel is just too handsome. I would personally have liked Danny Glover, who would have been closer to the part – but then one has to be realistic. Denzel can, as they say, ‘open a film’ and guarantee success – I suppose there’s no arguing with that.’

We talked about other black actors who could make a film a success, such as, in his heyday, the breakthrough black male star Sidney Poitier. I pointed out how Poitier had to convey a kind of nobility, with more nuanced roles coming later in his career, and that in the Otto Preminger film of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Poitier had insisted that references to Porgy being a beggar were removed.

Walter laughed. ‘Well, of course he would! Can you see Sidney Poitier begging? Not his thing!’

 

Morons of a violent inclination

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Throughout its long and colourful history, British crime cinema has encountered a series of problems peculiar to the genre. While the subject of the heist or ambitious robbery (in films such as Quentin Lawrence’s Cash on Demand from 1961) and Peter Yates’ Robbery from 1967) has been relatively unproblematic, there are certain areas that proved to be incendiary when the films were examined by the British Board of Film Censors. (The name of that organisation was changed in a piece of Orwellian rewriting to the British Board of Film Classification – appropriately, in 1984.) And it’s not hard to discern the reasons for the fuss.

In the 1960s, the BBFC made little secret of the fact that it regarded its role as maintaining the rigid status quo of society as much as protecting the vulnerable public from sights that would cause offence or, worse still, inspire imitative behaviour.

The 1961 Joseph Losey film The Damned featured scenes of gang violence in the original screenplay submitted to the Board, and inspired a nannyish response. Registering unhappiness with the brutal young thugs, the Board was not persuaded by the film-makers’ stated aim of targeting an adult audience, pointing out that the offending sections would appeal to ‘morons of a violent inclination’ – revealingly talking about the sort of X-certificate film patrons the Board wanted to protect.

Interestingly, this protection extended into the political dimension, perhaps influenced by director Losey’s recent pillorying by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as part of its anti-communist initiatives – which had driven Losey to this country and thereby facilitated the making of several classic British crime films, such as The Criminal (1960) and Blind Date (1967). The Board took particular exception to the perceived left-leaning attitudes of the film-makers involved in The Damned (not just Losey), identifying them as (most probably) ‘ardent fellow travellers or fully paid-up members of the Communist Party’ (BBFC internal report, 24 April, 1961).

We now live in more liberal age . . . or do we?

Barry Forshaw’s books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, along with books on Italian cinema, film noir and the first UK biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon. He also edits the crime fiction website Crime Time.

Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books are available in all formats from Orion.