Black Mask Library

Steve Fisher, Black Mask, and the Noir Revolution


By Keith Alan Deutsch


Black Mask Screaming


I Wake Up Screaming, the limited edition collection of Steve Fisher's influential crime fiction writing (Centipede Press 2009; revised Mysterious Press edition due 2014), includes seven stories from Black Mask Magazine, three representative tales from minor pulps of the same period, the first publication in almost twenty years of his most famous novel, I Wake Up Screaming. It also features the first mass market publication of two important but forgotten  essays by Fisher on how  the noir fiction genre was developed under editor Fanny Ellsworth in Black Mask, and how the Hollywood community of the late 1930s and early 1940s developed the noir plot and style traditions , mostly through the screen plays and fiction of Black Mask writers.

          Fisher is important because his work in fiction and in film helped bring a new noir sensibility and esthetic to crime thrillers. In a seminal essay from the 1970s, Pulp Literature: Subculture Revolution in the Late 1930s, which is included near the end of this collection, Fisher suggests a paradigm shift in Black Mask Magazine crime fiction away from the objective, unemotional, hard-boiled writing style Hammett and the first wave of Black Mask boys famously introduced to the magazine and to American popular culture, and for which Black Mask Magazine is primarily remembered.

          What Fisher describes as a “subculture revolution” in the “pulp literature” of late 1930s is the development of a much moresubjective, emotional, psychologically driven style of crime story thriller primarily developed by himself and Cornell Woolrich in Black Mask under the direction of the magazine’s influential, new editor, Fanny Ellsworth.

          It is difficult to remember more than seventy years after the revolution, but Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, and a few other of the second wave Black Mask boys of the late 1930s, ushered in a dramatic change in crime fiction narration from the objective, hard-boiled writing promoted by Joseph Shaw and the earlier editors of Black Mask Magazine to the subjective, psychologically and emotionally heightened writing favored by Fanny Ellsworth who replaced Shaw in 1936.

          This shift in style and focus led to the creation of the film genre we now know as noir through the writings of Steve Fisher, particularly in film scripts, and through the novels and short fiction of Cornell Woolrich, whose writings we now also call noir, although the term was originally applied only to film.

          This dark new style and psychology of crime narration jumped from magazine and book publications into screenplays, and ledin the 1940s to the emergence in Hollywood of the classic age of the noir film thriller. The obsessive, dreamlike narration favored by Fisher and Woolrich in their tense crime tales was a perfect match for the dark shadows, and frightening, expressive camera angles developed primarily in German and Hollywood horror cinema. Narrative fiction style, and camera photography styles played against and enriched each other in the development of this new film genre. No writer was more influential in both fiction and in film scripts than Steve Fisher in ushering in the classic age of Hollywood film noir.

          Fisher speaks about his experiences in early 1940s Hollywood writing and doctoring film scripts, particularly for noir productions starring Humphrey Bogart, in the final essay of this collection, a rare memoir.

          Fisher’s two brief essays, collected for the first time in this 10volume, point to changes in the style of the crime thriller in the late 1930s through the 1940s not often noticed by commentators on Black Mask’s influence on film, and on popular American culture.

          Certainly, Curt Siodmak’s fantasy horror masterpiece, Donovan’s Brain, the darkest of obsessive, subjective, first personnarratives, serialized in Black Mask in 1942, years after Fanny Ellsworth had led the magazine, would not have made it into Black Mask, despite a long tradition of short horror stories, if the darker, more psychological, obsessive, emotional talents of Fisher (nine stories from August 1937 to April 1939) and of Woolrich (twenty-two original stories from January of 1937 to June of 1944) had not first been let loose on its pages.

          Black Mask writers and genres influenced Hollywood in more ways than hard-boiled dialogue and tough-guy detection. The late Curt Siodmak’s work on horror films, especially at Universal scripting and creating The Wolf Man (1941), and withVal Lewton, at RKO scripting I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is also of interest, particularly with regard to the emergence of a noir crime thriller film esthetic from the shadows of the “horror” films of the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood (see my interview with Siodmak about his film experiences, particularly with Val Lewton.

          In visual terms, Val Lewton is a genius of suggestion, and his influence on the production values, and the photographed style, of the film noir genre cannot be overstated.

          Once the noir film emerged at the beginning of the 1940s with the production of Steve Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming (1941), Fisher’s and Woolrich’s noir work flooded Hollywood:

          In 1943 the great run of more than two dozen noir films based on works by Cornell Woolrich, the genius of the dark thriller, began when Val Lewton produced The Leopard Man (1943): Robert Siodmak (Curt’s brother) directed Phantom Lady (1944); The Mark of the Whistler (1944) followed; Clifford Odets scripted Deadline at Dawn (1946); then came Black Angel (1946)and The Chase (1946), followed by The Guilty (1947) and Fear in the Night (1947).

          Steve Fisher scripted Cornell Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) with a telephone call assist from his pal Woolrich. When Fisher couldn’t come up with an appropriate ending for I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes, Woolrich suggested that Fisher resurrect the sexually obsessive, psychotic cop from I Wake Up Screaming, and turn him into the culprit, motivated by his lust for the framed man’s wife. Ironically, Fisher originally had based that haunting and haunted police detective, Ed Cornell, on his friend Cornell Woolrich.

          More than two dozen films based on Woolrich’s work have been produced. The most famous Woolrich inspired film, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window. François Truffaut’s two films based on Woolrich tales are also well known, The Bride Wore Black (1968), and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). So powerful is his talent for noir invention, Cornell Woolrich, who died in 1968, leaves behind a body of written work that continues to attract noir filmmakers into the twenty first century. Although he never wrote a screenplay, Woolrich’s novels and short stories inspired so many film thrillers, and have become so associated with the genre, that Cornell Woolrich is spoken of as the “master of noir fiction” by no less an expert than the dean of detective and crime fiction critics, Otto Penzler.

          In his Armchair Detective essay, Fisher defines the shift in sensibility in Black Mask Magazine fiction that led to the noir revolution. He speaks of his own“subjective style, mood and approach to a story.” Which was very different from Hammett“who wrote objectively, with crisp, cold precision, no emotion was described. You saw what happened from the outside but were never permitted inside a fictional character.” Despite Fisher’s apt observations about Hammett’s writing style, many critics would hold John Huston’s 1941 film version of Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart, to be a prime example of film noir.

          The point is not to debate cinema and fiction styles, but to note a sea change in the esthetic of the crime thriller that startedto take place in pulp fiction (and some would argue in American cinema) in the late 1930s, and which came of age in Hollywood films in the 1940s; and to note Steve Fisher’s role in short stories, novels, and in his many screenplays that promote this change in style, and in sensibility.

          The memorable title of Steve Fisher’s breakout novel, I Wake Up Screaming is the apotheosis of that new, subjective, emotional style.

          I Wake Up Screaming is such a good title for a novel, communicates so directly and powerfully its intention to pull the reader into a maelstrom of emotion and tortured psychology, that Hollywood almost didn’t use it for the famous film based on its story because the new crime thriller paradigm was still so unfamiliar.

          Daryl Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox, who paid Fisher $7,500 for the film rights, and his studio executives felt that the title was too jarring and ominous for the audience of the day. But after a short-circuited release as Hot Spot, the studio re-issued the film under the original, and great title to a hugely popular success at the box office, and with critics.

          According to most commentators on film, including The New York Times, All Movie Guide, and Woody Haut’s Blog: A Weblog Devoted to Noir Fiction and Film , I Wake Up Screaming is one of Hollywood’s first noir films, if not the first.

          As Bruce Eder noted in All Movie Guide: I Wake Up Screaming “opened up a whole new genre of psychologically centered crime thrillers, and also became one of the most heavily studied movies of its era.”

          Although Steve Fisher was a key writer in the developmentof film noir as a Hollywood genre, and one of the most influential screenwriters of the 1940s, he did not write the screenplay for the movie; but the novel is such an indelible blue print for the doom and sexual perversity of the film that Fisher’s influence on noir film must be given credit even before he wrote his first script.

          The New York Times opened its book review of the novel in March, 1941 with this succinct summation of the emotionaland psychological elements which power Fisher’s narrative: “Essentially this is the story of the unrelenting pursuit of aninnocent man by a detective who is determined to prove him guilty of murder. The scene is Hollywood, and the man whois wanted for murder is a scriptwriter. He has no idea who committed the murder; neither does he have any way of proving his innocence.” What is le􏰀 out of this review is the sexual obsession of the characters, particularly those of Ed Cornell, the corrupt and perverse police detective.

          By 1941, the year the film and the novel were released as tie- ins, I Wake Up Screaming had been serialized in Photoplay-MovieMirror, and Fisher had graduated from writing for Black Mask Magazine, and the less literary pulps like The Shadow (where Fisher’s shoeshine boy detective, Danny Garrett, was founding editor John Nanovic’s favorite series character); and certainly Fisher no longer needed to write for the almost forgotten publications like G-Men, and The Whisperer (of which we include one story each in this collection as exemplars of Fisher’s penny ante writing).

          But Fisher did not give up magazine writing when he became a screenwriter, not even pulp magazine writing, and he never gave up novel writing, and in later life in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s he devoted himself to TV series scripting, an occupation not unlike writing series character stories for the pulps.

 Black Mask Cityscape

Steve Fisher: A Brief Writer’s Biography

Black Mask

The Early Years

According to Steve Fisher’s granddaughter, Monica Fisher, in revisionist correspondence with Woody Haut’s Blog: A Weblog Devoted to Noir Fiction and Film (December 30, 2006) Steve Gould Fisher was born August 29, 1912 in Marine City, Michigan. Fisher died on March 27, 1980 in Canoga Park, California; his last scripts had been written for television only a few years before he died: Fantasy Island (1978); Starsky and Hutch (1976); and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975). Once Fisher started writing for money, he never stopped. He successfully sold stories, novels, and scripts for fi􏰀y years, from the 1930s through the 1970s, an impressive record few twentieth century writers can also claim.

          Fisher grew up around Los Angeles where his mother, an actress, enrolled him in Oneonta Military Academy. He was a teen when he sold his first tale to a magazine. At sixteen he ran away from school, and joined the Navy, and served for four years (apparently on a submarine).

          Fisher was in the service when he began to publish stories and articles in US Navy and Our Navy. Fisher was stationed for a time in Honolulu, and Hawaii would be a favorite locale for a number of his stories, including No Gentleman Strangles His Wife, Black Mask (January 1938) included in this collection. After he was discharged from service in Los Angeles in 1932, Fisher stayed in LA and continued to write for US Navy at a penny a word. His earliest pulp writing was for a number of erotic pulps, of which the earliest example I can find is Panama Passion, Zippy (September 1933), and Shanghai Sue for the first issue of Spicy Mystery (July 1934), which despite the venue was actually a romance tale, a genre Fisher would perfect in just three or four years for the highest paying slick markets like Cosmopolitan, Liberty, and Esquire.

          According to Walter Gibson, author of many of The Shadow novels for Street & Smith, Steve Fisher was so good at presenting love, and other more complex emotional, human relations in pulp formula plots like spy, detective, and romance tales that his pulp producing peers called him “Somerset Maugham at a penny a word.”

 

Black Mask

New York

In 1934 Fisher moved to New York City (Greenwich Village for most of the 1930s) and lived in apartments never too far from the Street & Smith editorial offices in the Chelsea district. Early in his career, Street & Smith promoted Fisher as “The Navy’s Foremost Writer.”

          As Frank Gruber reminds us in The Pulp Jungle (1967), Street & Smith was at 14th Street and Seventh Avenue, and the house that started pulp fiction publishing, Munsey’s, was just a bit further downtown. Together with the other publishers they put out about 150 pulps in 1934 when Gruber and Fisher came to town.

          According an early reminiscence called The Starving Writer, published in The Writer (July 1948), Gruber arrived in New York in 1934 one month after Fisher. They had been corresponding and met up in Ed Bodin’s office; Bodin was literary agent for both friends at the time. Gruber, like Fisher, arrived alone with a typewriter, a suitcase, and a few dollars. As Gruber noted in many reminiscences, “I had one thing else...the will to succeed.” Both Gruber and Fisher shared this powerful desire to succeed.

          Gruber had been reading Horatio Alger books since he was a youngster, and they impressed him: not only with the power that will and determination might have over circumstance, but also with a desire to become an author and write books that would sell as well the Horatio Alger series.

 

Black Mask

Before Black Mask :The Pulps and Street & Smith

After a few dry months, Fisher and Gruber began to sell the occasional story. The earliest pulp story I could find by Fisher that was not written for a “spicy” or a “Navy” publication isAuthorized Mutiny, in the February 1934 issue of Top-Notch. Fisher’s sales increased steadily, and he wrote for every kindof pulp fiction market. During his career Fisher published about 500 stories in pulps like Clues, Detective Fiction, Thrilling Detective, True Gang Life, The Shadow, Phantom Detective, Saucy Romantic Adventures, Ace Detective, Doc Savage, Black Mask, Crime Busters, Detective Romances, The Whisperer, Thrilling Adventures, Dare Devil Aces (note that Fisher’s complete Captain Babyface stories from this pulp have been collected in a 2008 paperback from Age of Aces Books), Dime Sports Magazine, and Detective Story Magazine. These are just representative examples.

          Most of Fisher’s work appeared under the name Steve Fisher, but he used the pen names Stephen Gould, and Grant Lane, particularly for early novels, and when more than one of his stories appeared in the same issue of a magazine.

          Fisher also invented a number of series characters, including, as Stephen Gould, Sheridan Doome, a Naval intelligence officer with a grotesquely scarred face for The Shadow. And also the very popular “Kid” detective stories, starring Danny Garret, a shoeshine teen detective who appeared regularly as the second feature story in The Shadow. Sheridan Doome is of interest because he was the hero of two of Fisher’s early novels, Murder of the Admiral (The Macauley Company 1936), and Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (Hillman-Curl, Inc. 1937). Both these pure pulp novels based on The Shadow character are in print in a 2008 double paperback from Age of Aces books.

          The founding editor of The Shadow Magazine at Street & Smith, John Nanovic, championed Fisher’s career. Nanovic was an influential force in pulp publishing. He also helped invent theDoc Savage pulp which Fisher’s friend Lester Dent almost wrote single-handedly under the house name Kenneth Robeson.

          According to correspondence with Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate, and a noted authority on pulp publishing, Nanovic told him that Fisher’s series character, Danny Garrett, was the best ongoing character featured in The Shadow. Garrett is a shoeshine boy detective who operates in an often dark and grotesque adult world of hard-boiled toughs, world-weary detectives, and gruesome murders.

          Fisher’s teen detective deserves some commentary. Of course, the child hero in an apparently adult world is an American publishing phenomenon first associated with Horatio Alger Jr’s work, starting in 1900. But the Hardy Boys (starting in 1927) and Nancy Drew (starting in 1930) are probably the primary models of the child as hero detective in American popular fiction. Fisher easily adapts juvenile mystery trappings to the forbidding, hard- boiled, and dark city landscape that is the background universeof The Shadow. The Danny Garrett “Kid” character was vital enough to survive the pulp magazine format, and continue when The Shadow became a comic book.In considering the juvenile detective character tradition, Iput the Rover Boys, and Tom Swift outside the mark in the adventure category; and rank Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective a work of different literary consideration.

          In any case, teen detective protagonists were starting to appear in movies around the time of Fisher’s invention, and in time the two mediums influenced each other. By the 1940s both the hard-boiled detective film genre, and the Universal Studio horror film genre became formats for popular movie comedies, in part because of a younger audience.

          I also note that The Shadow character first appeared on radio as a host in 1930, soon to have his own radio show, and by the following year his own pulp. Because of The Shadow character’s radio prominence, especially with teens, I imagine that the magazine starring The Shadow also drew a significant teenage audience.

          Although the Danny Garret stories I read by Fisher had charm, and were entertaining, they suffer from a recurring problem Fisher has in constructing believable, formal detective puzzles. A number of his Black Mask tales could have been improved with better ratiocination plotting. Fisher is much better at suspense and thrills than at detection.

          To a modern reader, Fisher’s pulp mysteries, especially his Danny Garrett stories, present such inept forensics, and poor crime scene security, that these procedural elements of the detection seem incredible. I must evaluate Fisher’s work bothas entertainment, and as American writing. This is a different standard from that usually applied to most pulp magazine fiction. I must admit, however, that as I read Fisher’s Danny Garrett tales, I kept thinking that despite the flaws in these plots, Danny would make a good detective film character in a 1940s B mystery movie, probably featuring Jane Withers and Mickey Rooney.

          Fisher’s military experience in the Navy influenced his writing from his early pulp sea stories like Murder in the Navy,Thrilling Detective (November 1934), Flaming Freighter, Thrilling Adventure (October 1934), The Navy Spirit, True Gang Life (February 1935), and The Tattooed Skipper, The Shadow (May 1935).

Black Mask

Three of a Kind at Black Mask: Fisher,Gruber, and Woolrich

About this time, circa 1936, Fisher divorced his first wife (name unknown) and married Edythe (Edie) Syme, an editor at Popular Publications, Inc. Gruber and his wife o􏰀en went to dinner with Fisher and Edie.

          By then, Fisher and Gruber had become close friends with Cornell Woolrich with whom they occasionally had dinner on those rare occasions when they were able to sidestep Woolrich’s restrictive, overbearing mother.

          Fisher, Gruber, and Woolrich all started to sell to Black Mask a􏰀er Fanny Ellsworth took over editorial reign in 1936, and their work began to appear in 1937. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story, Brass Knuckles (1966) Gruber claims that he and Fisher managed to take the reclusive Woolrich to a party where theyall got drunk. The next day Fanny Ellsworth called Gruber and reported that Woolrich had come tearing into the Black Mask offices threatening never to write for the magazine again because Fisher and Gruber had told him that they were getting three times the word rate for their stories than Fanny was giving Woolrich. Fisher and Gruber had been too drunk to remember the hoax!

          Gruber knew Ellsworth well from selling lead rangeland novels to her during the years she ran the very successful, Ranch Romances. Gruber thought Ellsworth an extremely erudite and perceptive editor who could have run The Atlantic Monthly or Harpers. In The Life and Times of The Pulp Story Gruber claims that he introduced Fisher to Ellsworth, and helped him break into BlackMask. Both Gruber and Fisher credit Ellsworth with deliberately, and perceptively changing the course of the magazine.

 

Black Mask

Romantic Emotion in the Highest Paying Magazines

Between 1938 and 1939 Steve Fisher achieved a kind of tipping point stability in his life and career: his fiction appearedin Black Mask Magazine, Liberty, Argosy, Cosmopolitan, the most prestigious pulps and the highest paying slick magazines seemingly at will.

          Following the strategy he would use for all his genre fiction, Fisher jumped to high paying mass market magazines for his Navy and romance influenced stories: Navy Girl, Cosmopolitan (September 1940), Navy Man, Argosy (June 1941), My Heart Sails Tomorrow, Liberty (June 1940). He published novels, and a number of new novels were in theworks, and he had already made important sales and connections with Hollywood that would pay off for the rest of his professional life — which for Steve Fisher meant the rest of his life.

 

Black Mask

Early Hollywood Connections

 Fisher’s first story sale made into a film was The Nurse from Brooklyn (1938), although Woody Haut says Fisher sold filmrights to his first novel, Spend the Night (1935) for $125. But no film ever issued from that work.

          With Shore Leave, Cosmopolitan (August 1938) Fisher had a compact love and spy story he helped the credited scriptwriter, Harvey Harris Gates, turn into a modest film for Monogram Pictures, Navy Secrets (1939). In later years, Fisher would script a number of films for Monogram.

          By 1938 Fisher had Harold Ober, a prestigious agent, representing him in New York on book deals, and in Hollywood for film deals Fisher had H. N. Swanson, the legendary Hollywood agent who had started by representing F. Scott Fitzgerald and his great American novel, The Great Gatsby.

          In fact, life seemed secure in 1938. Fisher and Edie boarded The Queen Elizabeth and cruised to France on a whim. The photograph of Fisher and his wife that faces his Armchair Detective essay at the end of this collection is from the Lester Dent Collection at The University of Missouri, and was probably taken in 1938 on that cruise.

          We get a clear picture of Fisher’s optimistic state of mind 20 from a letter he wrote to Dent on August 15th 1938 from this trip to France. The letter is in the Dent Collection of Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri/ State Historical Society of Missouri:

...Yes, Shore Leave sold to the screen, which proves what I said about Swanson as an agent...I’ve set so many sailing dates that I guess the people in N.Y. are going to suspect I’m like Jack London with “The Snark”...I’ve a standing Hollywood offer at Paramount for one thing, and though it is only $250., I may take it starting sometime in January. Hope by then Swanie can boost the price. It’s for a full six months deal.

...Have you read Of Mice and Men? It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in print. Objective writing, a good deal like yours...

          By the time of this letter, Fisher had already published four or five novels under various names, including Spend the Night (1935), Satan’s Angel (1935), Murder ofthe Admiral (1936), Murder of the Pigboat Skipper (1937), The Night Before Murder (1939), and a few months later, Homicide Johnny (1940).

 

Black Mask

1941 and Beyond: Steve Fisher Screenwriter

 Finally Fisher’s first major, mainstream, novel success, Destroyer (a war novel reviewed prominently in The New York Times about predicted sea battles with the Axis fleet near Guam) was serialized in Argosy in April of 1941, and published as a book the summer of the same year.

          This year, 1941, was Fisher’s breakthrough season. In one month Twentieth Century Fox purchased, for $7,500, Fisher’s I Wake Up Screaming. Dodd Mead & Co had only just published it.

          And almost at the same time, Fox also bought Fisher’s story, Red Cross Girl, for the very substantial 1941 price of $17,000. Swanie must have been cooking at his negotiating game. With the sale of I Wake Up Screaming, H.N. Swanson got Fisher the job of writing an original story for Fox, but Lamar Trotti wrote the script To the Shores of Tripoli (1942). Finally that same year Fisher wrote his first film script, Berlin Correspondent (1942) for Fox. Both Fox films were war stories, a genre thatappealed to Fisher. The best of Fisher’s wartime screenplays (written with Albert Maltz) was Destination Tokyo (1943), a submarine thriller starring Cary Grant for which Fisher received an Academy Award nomination.

          In 1945, Fisher and his pal Frank Gruber adapted a novel,Mr. Angel Comes Aboard, by fellow Black Mask writer Charles G.Booth, into the screenplay for Johnny Angel, a great hit for RKO. More importantly for students of noir, Fisher signed a contractwith MGM, and replaced Raymond Chandler on Chandler’s The Lady in The Lake (1947), an experimental classic film starring and directed by Robert Montgomery. For MGM Fisher also scriptedthe last of the Thin Man film series, Song of the Thin Man (1947) based on a novel by another Black Mask master, Dashiell Hammett. Bruce Elder in All Movie Guide considers these two film scripts the height of Fisher’s prestige in Hollywood.

          But the same year Fisher also wrote the script for John Cromwell’s classic noir film, Dead Reckoning (1947) at Columbia. This stylish, disturbing, grisly, and beautiful film starred Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. In his Hollywood memoir, PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM SPADE, included as the last piece in this collection, Fischer discusses how he came to work on this film, some of his techniques of screen writing, and his relationship with Bogart.

          Through the 1950s Fisher’s film scripts continued to explore dark action and disturbed characters in work for major and minor studios. As mentioned Fisher received an assist from Cornell Woolrich on his plotting for the film adaptation of Woolrich’s I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948) at Monogram. Fisher also did Tokyo Joe (1949) another film starring Humphrey Bogart, at Columbia, which he designed with Bogart in mind; Roadblock (1951) at RKO; The Lost Hours (1952); The City That Never Sleeps (1953); and Hell’s Half Acre (1954).

          Though Fisher’s screen plays moved on from dark thrillers to westerns, and other genres until his work, though steady, lost much of its classic, historical import, Fisher remained aconsummate professional workman.Woody Haut, the author of Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood (Serpent’s Tail 2002) sums it all up nicely:

From 1945 to 1970, Fisher was one of the hardest working script writers in Hollywood, with over fifty film credits to his name... But, on the basis of one novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and films like Dead Reckoning and The Lady in the Lake, Fisher deserves a place on the short list of influential noirists.


Black Mask Death's-Head

 

Steven Gould Fisher’s Achievement

 
Once heightened emotion, and the interior life of the characters would be explored in Black Mask after 1936 with Fanny Ellsworth’s influence, Fisher’s writing in the best of his stories improved in the complexity of human psychology he was able to reveal.

          The expression of this complexity of emotion and interior life had always been Fisher’s nascent and natural strength as a popular fiction magazine writer.

          This expression of powerful interior states is the primary narrative shift that leads to the dark, shadowed dream worlds of noir that Fisher explores in full stride in his novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and his memorable film noir scripts of the 1940s. To support his claim of the emergence of a new subjective, emotional, psychology driven school which he called “tough-tender,” in his Armchair Detective essay Fisher offers two of his 1938 stories as harbingers of the new style, Wait for Me (Black Mask May 1938), and Goodbye, Hannah (Double Detective December 1938). Both of these tales are included in this collection.Fisher writes: “One of my Black Mask stories was Wait for Me, about a white Russian whore in Shanghai trying to escape the country, a U.S. sailor tagging along after her everywhere, calling out ‘Wait for me,’ but she didn’t, and in her devious manipulations to obtain a phony passport, was murdered in anupstairs room while the sailor waited for her below. All he wanted to say was that he would marry her, and that way she could have a legitimate passport.

          “Well, that one broke all the old style and even a lot of taboos, and other stories like it followed by me Gruber, Woolrich, and others, and since Black Mask was still regarded as the beacon light of pulp fiction, other magazines began to take notice of this not so very subtle style change... The subculture revolution had started.”

          Of the enduring emotional impact of Goodbye, Hannah, which was collected in 1949 for the hardback story collection To The Queen’s Taste, Fisher quotes the book’s esteemed editor ElleryQueen (Fred Dannay) who wrote in his introduction to the tale more than a decade after its first appearance: “Steve Fisher packs more emotion, more heart into his yarns than most contemporary writers of the detective story. Your editors have yet to read a Steve Fisher story that fails to rise high above the level of cold, mechanical puzzle.”

          By the way, in an essay I wrote for the editors of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’s blog, “Black Mask Magazine, Steve Fisher, and The Noir Revolution” on SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN.

          I attribute this shift in Black Mask from the objective, hardboiled narrative to the emotional, noir narrative “The Ellsworth Shift.”  That is how important I think Fanny Ellsworth is as a Black Mask editor, and as an unheralded contributor to the revolution of noir writing in the1930s.  Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber felt the same way about Ellsworth, and wrote about her contribution to the noir shift. 

My choice for Fisher’s greatest short story of psychological depth, and emotional resonance, a pulp story so rare in quality it’s first person narrative still chills us with the impact of real psychopathology, is You’ll Always Remember Me from Black Mask (March 1938). This story, although previously anthologized, is so good, so compelling, it had to be included in this collection of Steve Fisher’s pulp magazine writing.

          This vivid short tale looks forward to William March’s 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, and also anticipates the pervasive 1950s theme of juvenile delinquency, particularly as raised to the level of social pathology in the short crime fiction of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and in his iconic novel of 1953, The Blackboard Jungle.

          Fisher, who is not a gifted stylist like Chandler, nor a precise narrator like Hammett, wrote swiftly without fuss. As Fisher’s great friend, Frank Gruber, also a versatile, success in pulps, novels, films, and in TV notes in his many memoirs, includingThe Pulp Jungle, he and Fisher were in the writing game to make a living. When they first arrived in Hollywood theyboth befriended Frederick Faust (Max Brand), one of the most prolific and successful fiction writers of the last century, and a hero to both of them. Faust, who was at the end of his fabulous career “fixing” dialogue for films, and recycling characters like Dr. Kildare, still wrote at least five to fourteen pages of fiction every day. He died on assignment during World War II, and Fisher wrote a memorable eulogy to him for Writer’s Digest.

          Frederick (Max Brand) Faust was the ideal career writer to both Fisher and Gruber. Faust was a grand success in every genre and every medium he attempted. For Fisher and Gruber, every avenue for income from writing was fair game, and all honest writing, whether commercial fiction or great literature was worthy of the pride of the craftsman.

          Fisher’s drive to succeed as a writer was as important as his natural talent to his great success. And he succeeded in almost every genre, and in all fields of fiction writing from the pulps to the slick magazines (an estimated 500 stories); in novels (at least 13); in film scripts (53); and television show episodes (200).

          Steve Gould Fisher was an active, successful writer during a career that spanned five decades. He never stopped writing and publishing novels. He wrote for magazines, including the pulps, long after he had to for income. He remained active in film after the height of his prestige as a screenwriter in the 1940s and 1950s. He became very active in television work from the 1950s to the end of his life.

          Early on, Fisher knew he had a special talent for expressing emotion, and he exploited that talent. For example, his love stories were enormously popular in pulp venues, and then in the most widely read, highest paying, prestige magazines of his day. That he was such an accomplished writer of mass-market love tales is unusual for an acclaimed crime thriller novelist, and versatile film scenarist. His greatest skill was evocation of emotion.

          Although he occasionally compared himself to Jack London in conversations and in letters, Fisher considered himself a writer for hire, not especially a writer for the ages. He was very proudof his professionalism. He did not have to create art, or literature, for him to appreciate what he was writing—as long as he gave every piece he created his best effort at that time.

          In a long letter to Writer’sDigest published in the December 1946 issue, Fisher wrote from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, where he was on contract creating film scripts, to “call to task” the editors for saying that many Hollywood contract writers “getting a thousand dollars a week” or more, were ashamed of what they wrote. Fisher jumped right in to defend all commercial fiction writing:

Please don’t tell me that magazine writing is ‘different’ from scenario writing because I have done a great deal of them both... and unless I can be proud of what I write, then I will not write it. I have no apologies for Lady in the Lake, the new Robert Montgomery film which will be in your town before Christmas; nor for Dead Reckoning, the new Humphrey Bogart starrer I wrote last summer, and certainly I am proud of Gallant Man... I am proud of all these things and glad I wrote them, and I want everybody in the world to know I wrote them. Is that being ashamed?

If you are a real writer, then all the things you write are written honestly, and all are one and the same thing----an expression of yourself, and whatever experience and talent that you have. I don’t believe any writer who writes should be ashamed of anything...whether it’s in Paris Nights, Christian Fiction, or one of the blood and thunder half cent a word fourth string pulps. It represents the best that he can do at the time, and you shouldn’t condemn him for it. I was never ashamed of my pulp stories...

          Fisher was a keen observer of all of his contemporary writers, both his pulp and slick magazine peers, and also the writerswho were producing what Fisher recognized as art. In his many personal letters, and his letters to the editor of magazines like Writer’s Digest, Fisher observed and commented on the writing and the writers of his time.

          Unlike some writers who had more literary cachet, Fisher was always a consummate professional wherever he worked. For example, while Fisher and William Saroyan were both at MGM in 1941/1942, Saroyan had a terrible tiff with the studio over his original script for The Human Comedy.

          Saroyan vowed never to work in Hollywood again in a scathing humorous article in Variety that was quoted in papers across the nation. In brilliant spite, Saroyan transformed the script into his most popular novel, and published it before the film was released.

          Raymond Chandler, a Black Mask narrator of genius, was deeply scarred by his Hollywood experience. Chandler criticized Hollywood in a famous magazine essay collected in his book collection of detective stories, The Simple Art of Murder.

          According to Frank Gruber, who loved Chandler’s work, but admired his friend Fisher’s professionalism more, he and Chandler got in a great argument over the fact that Steve Fisher had replaced Chandler on the script for Chandler’s Lady in theLake. Chandler believed he also deserved a credit for the script. Only Fisher received credit, and the film was both a critical and popular success.

          Fisher deeply respected writing as an art, and was a perceptive observer of talent. One can only wonder at an obscure notice in The New York Times for June 12, 1943 which I discovered while reviewing Fisher’s career in newspaper notices: “Steve Fisher and William Faulkner have been assigned to the staff of writers working on Warner’s projected Battle Cry...” That film was never produced, and I could not discover if Fisher and Faulkner ever met while working in Hollywood. Of course, it is well known that Faulkner told the studio bosses he “wanted to write at home” and one day just le􏰀 California, and returned to writing literature at his home in Mississippi.

          Through the protagonist of I Wake Up Screaming, a Hollywood scriptwriter, Fisher comments on the talents of the industry hacks, and also on the quality writers of the day like William Saroyan and, again, John Steinbeck:

          “You write don’t you?”

          “Only plays,” I said.

          “And you don’t care anyway; the only ones that care haven’t the talent to tell it on paper. The only ones that care are the ones that eat dog food and live out their miserable lives here, hoping to hell they get a break. And if they get a break, they don’t care any more. But some of us will always be extras and this is our lives.”

          “You’re going to be late, Wanda,” Jill said.

          “Some sweet day a John Steinbeck will come out and tell about it,” said Wanda. “He’ll tell about it because it’ll make him money. But he’ll tell. The way guys are beaten up because they don’t want to give their dough to racketeers. How girls have to sleep with fat slobs to get work. How girls get pregnant and climb the hills and jump off the Hollywoodlland sign.”

          I Wake Up Screaming presents a knowing insider’s view of film production, the glamour of Hollywood society of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and also the grim and gritty undersideof Los Angeles, and of California. In addition to its fame as a psychological, noir crime thriller, the novel is also important as a Los Angeles, as a Hollywood, and as a California novel.

          Fisher’s most famous book falls in a line of novels started in 1937 by James Cain’s Serenade, a work that is about an opera singer’s meteoric rise to film stardom. But Cain’s Hollywood experience scarred him, and his characters seem to speak for him when he has one say “...no picture is any good.”

          Next in line I would place Nathanial West’s 1939 Hollywood apocalypse novel, Day of the Locusts. This metaphoric work takes Hollywood over the edge to a symbolic end of days. And inthe line after Fisher’s novel, I would place Raymond Chandler’s Little Sister (1949), a classic private eye tale written by a stylistic genius from his own tarnished view from rough experience as a scriptwriter.

          West’s, Cain’s, and Chandler’s novels have been accepted into the cannon of American literature, if not universally accepted as high art. Fisher’s novels remain on a lower rung of popular fiction.

          Some critics questioned Fisher’s carelessness in his emendation of the 1941 novel in 1960 for a revised edition in which the local Hollywood culture is updated to the late 1950s.

          Some of the new references seem to jar with the original spirit of the work. But that spirit shines through so strongly that in the end the revision, although a mistake in critical judgment, doesn’t undermine the power of the novel.

          Steve Fisher, particularly in his film scripts, but also in I Wake up Screaming, is a master of dark, psychological thrills. His dreamlike fictional worlds deliver more powerful emotional experiences than more elegant stylists are able to arouse. As Otto Penzler noted about Fisher’s Black Mask companion, and fellow creator of noir crime suspense, Cornell Woolrich: “Woolrich is the greatest noir writer who ever lived, in spite of stylistic failings that include so much purple prose that in the hands of a lesser writer, would make one wince.” Both Fisher and Woolrich are money writers who get the job done of thrilling their readers.

          In Black Mask Magazine, Fisher and Woolrich shared a talent for presenting aberrant mental states, and for casting suspenseful plots with inventive incidents. You’ll Always Remember Me is one of Fisher’s greatest short fiction achievements, and as chillinga first person presentation of psychological derangement as any that ever appeared in an American magazine in the last century.

          Fisher and Woolrich’s best Black Mask fiction set the stagefor the noir revolution in popular fiction, and popular film. And Fisher’s novel, I Wake Up Screaming, created the blue print, and was the inspiration, for the noir genre that has had an enduring impact and influence on film and fiction in popular American, and in world entertainment.

Black Mask

I would like to thank Will Murray, literary agent for Lester Dent’s estate and a meticulous pulp-publishing historian, and also Woody Haut, the noted noir film and hard-boiled literature commentator and critic, for original research and insights.


Black Mask

Keith Alan Deutsch

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

March 2009