Friday, June 29, 2018

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Big Kiss-Off of 1944,” by Andrew Bergman

(Editor’s note: This is the 156th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Just when you thought it was safe to venture back into the voting booth for America’s mid-term elections, along comes this ardent exhortation to first re-read private eye Jack LeVine’s debut in The Big Kiss-Off of 1944. That 1974 novel is a tightly constructed noir, which at its core is a political thriller. Author and Hollywood veteran Andrew Bergman has the chops and good sense to keep the ideology simple and his P.I. far from the halls of power; instead, LeVine pounds the pavement in search of the schmucks who do dirty for the groysmakht—as that Jewish boy from New York might say.

LeVine lives in Queens, New York, and works amongst the hoi polloi. His office is in a sooty Midtown Manhattan building “supported by the sheer density of cigar smoke and cheap perfume.” Mel, that structure’s obese elevator boy, is a pain in the neck, and the house dick, Toots Fellman, lives up to his job title. The sensible Kitty Seymour is an affable “friend with benefits,” who shares the same interests as LeVine and helps keep his morale up and his feet on the ground. Just when business can’t get any slower, in walks trouble with a bagful of money.

Good girl Kerry Lane’s acting career is currently experiencing an uptick, but she took a flyer from propriety a while back to star in a stag film. Full of regret and career jitters, she hires LeVine at the start of this yarn to retrieve the movie before her Broadway producer boss—Warren Butler, “a straight-laced old fairy” (LeVine is the product of his times)—gets wind of her moral slip and fires her. But of course, it’s not that simple. LeVine’s natural skepticism has him believing that Lane is not being forthright about her motivation for hiring him, and he’s correct: Lane is being blackmailed, and it has nothing to do with her job security. Like the great femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Lane is good, very good; and LeVine, who ought to know better, has difficulty discerning if she’s “telling the truth or reading from a script.” To get a better grasp on the circumstances, he takes the words of his client at face value and begins the odious task of turning over rocks to investigate on his own.

The first stop in his pursuit of Lane’s skin flick is a deserted and slovenly house out on Long Island. There, LeVine gets a break which at first confuses more than informs, but he’s streetwise enough to see that this investigation may have a political angle. The house is littered with newspapers from around the nation, with articles about the upcoming presidential election (Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Thomas E. Dewey) neatly clipped from their pages. LeVine’s curiosity is piqued as his understanding of the case becomes heightened and muddled; but he’s also put on high alert. The murders of two greedy errand boys working for Lane’s blackmailer confirm that more is at stake than his client’s job hoofing in a chorus line. By the time LeVine discovers that the trail he’s picked up leads to the White House, it’s too late for anyone to turn back—especially a guy with LeVine’s integrity.

At this point Kerry Lane takes a powder, leaving LeVine with no clear path forward. But a hunch bordering on clairvoyance takes him to the Quaker National Bank in Philadelphia, and to Eli Savage, its president, whose front-page photograph LeVine spotted in the dingy house on Long Island. Savage is a figurehead of WASP money and rectitude (“If the Mayflower slept with Mount Rushmore, Savage would have been the result”), and during LeVine’s unwelcome yet fateful meeting with the banker, he saves Savage from a sniper’s bullet meant for himself. The dust settles, and who should stand in the shadows of Savage’s office but Kerry Lane, who turns out to be Anne Savage, Eli’s daughter. The karma scale is now tipped in LeVine’s favor, and Savage and Anne have some explaining to do.

Their story goes like this: Savage is a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Dewey, a former racket-busting prosecutor and now the governor of New York, who seeks to replace FDR just as World War II is coming to an end. Roosevelt supporters are appalled at the thought of a Dewey presidency, being convinced that he doesn’t possess the ability to safely steer the free world through the postwar rubble and the rising communist threat. The blackmailers hope to use Anne’s bad judgment in making that stag film as leverage to force Eli Savage to drop his deep-pocketed backing of Dewey, thus simplifying FDR’s path to victory. But it won’t be that easy. A sit-down at Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel between LeVine and members of the Allied Forces military brass, who attempt to dissuade our hero from doing his job, only adds fuel to the fire of his search. “My politics are strictly for LeVine,” he insists.

LeVine realizes he may be in the position of determining the outcome of America’s 1944 presidential race, so he devises a plan to prevent Democrats from weaponizing the porno flick. At the same time, he keeps Savage and Dewey in the dark as to the identity of the blackmailers, lest they use that knowledge to headline underhandedness by the Democratic Party and perhaps throw the country into chaos. LeVine tells Dewey he thinks mobsters are behind the extortion, but Dewey’s not buying it. A New York City cop who’s no friend of LeVine raises additional doubts, suggesting to Dewey and Savage that the election is being tampered with. His proof is that the investigation of the blackmailer’s pair of errand boys has been sidelined by higher-ups. That, Dewey believes; but with no hard evidence (except for what LeVine won’t tell him), he focuses on getting the film and getting elected.

LeVine’s ultimate plan to preserve truth, justice, and the American way, as well as his own scruples, requires a magnificent bluff. He schedules a sham national radio address, during which Eli Savage will reportedly discuss politics … and ethics. If the stag reel isn’t returned to Savage, the blackmail plot will be revealed across the airwaves. It’s a swift plot turn on author Bergman’s part, and it works.

Andrew Bergman has successfully hopped back and forth over the years between screenwriting (Blazing Saddles, The In-Laws, The Freshman) and novel writing (which includes two sequels to Big Kiss-Off: 1975’s Hollywood and LeVine and 2001’s Tender Is LeVine). His career harks back to a time when some of the finest novelists, such as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, toiled for the Hollywood establishment. Unfortunately, those two literary geniuses were accused by the literati of copping out for big paydays; the now 73-year-old Bergman hasn’t had to endure such caviling.

The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 concludes with Anne and Eli Savage, plus LeVine and Kitty Seymour, all sipping highballs around the swimming pool at Eli’s estate. Thinking of the future, the banker sounds out LeVine for a position with the Dewey campaign, reasoning that the shamus has a “common touch,” which could be useful in the election run-up. LeVine, true to character, takes umbrage and shoots from the hip. “Be the house prole, you mean. Translate what the dumbbell on the street means when he moves his mouth,” says the rankled P.I. Jack LeVine is no martini-swilling thin man. He’s a self-described “balding Jewish bullfrog,” who knows his place in the world and is quite comfortable there, thank you. LeVine isn’t the Cadillac of gumshoes, but he’s a hardworking and honorable stiff, as dependable as a beat-up Checker cab. Pay the fare and he’ll take you where you need to go.

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