Friday, January 26, 2018

The Book You Have to Read:
“Hollywood and LeVine,” by Andrew Bergman

(Editor’s note: This is the 154th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Private investigator Jack LeVine possesses the “wise and forgiving heart of a Talmudic sage,” but he’s no antiquated milquetoast. Screenwriter/director Andrew Bergman’s trench coat-clad retro-noir novel Hollywood and LeVine (1975), the second book in a trilogy, avoids caricature and cliché, giving its story the power to intrigue the most demanding readers of noir; yet its locale, its place in history, along with its plot circumstances and stage dressing, will satisfy anyone who craves the invigorating company of a slap-some-sense-into-you, old-school shamus.

For a while at least, the end of World War II seemed like a great time to be in the P.I. business. New York City’s LeVine has been making bank checking up on how the wives of GIs returning from the battlefields amused themselves while their husbands were off protecting democratic values. However, as quickly as the soldiers came home and the party started, those vets “combed the confetti from their hair … and commenced to brood.” Peacetime inflation set in, and with the champagne ceasing to flow, a deep sense of paranoia descended slowly upon the land.

By early 1947, Jack LeVine is finally down to his last dollar. It’s then that he is approached in his Manhattan office by an old friend, Walter Adrian. The pair had been fellow travelers two decades before at the City College of New York, a hotbed of leftist thinking ever since the days of Sacco and Vanzetti. The practical LeVine had eventually cooled toward “Uncle Joe” Stalin and his brutality, got his gumshoe license, and chosen to save civilization one worried or confused client at a time. Meanwhile, Adrian has become a successful (if never Oscar-winning) screenwriter, spreading hope for a better world through popular culture. Shortly after they reunite, Adrian invites LeVine out to Los Angeles for a visit—and a paycheck.

Yet when LeVine arrives in Southern California, he discovers Adrian and his Hollywood clique running scared.

Remember, the United States’ early postwar years brought not only a turn away from political isolationism and the kickoff of the nation’s “baby boom,” but also the birth of the Cold War and the concurrent fear campaign remembered as McCarthyism. Led by a self-promoting U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, that last effort made the federal government complicit in a witch hunt for homegrown communists and “red” spies—real and imaginary—wherever they might exist. McCarthy’s dubious investigation focused principally on government employees, college educators, and labor union activists, as well as members of the entertainment industry, especially those living and working in Tinseltown. McCarthy and his nationalist-crusader cohorts sought to “blacklist” anyone at the major film studios who they’d convinced themselves were “communist sympathizers,” thus undermining those people’s careers.

It’s against this backdrop that Walter Adrian draws Levine west. Adrian suspects that Warner Bros., the studio for which he’s worked since 1938, is giving him the cold shoulder. His contract is up for renegotiation and he is being offered considerably less money than was included in his previous agreement. What’s more, a theatrical play he’s written is attracting exactly zero interest from producers, and he is concerned that he’s being followed. Adrian declines to offer an explanation for his perceived fall from grace, but the balding, divorced, and Blatz-drinking LeVine is no chump. He figures Adrian is concealing crucial information, and he’s seasoned enough to realize that such secrecy may bring unfavorable results. “I didn’t think he was holding out on me for any malicious reason,” explains Levine. “That’s what bothered me: it’s the ones with good intentions who get pushed off the tops of buildings.”

When Adrian in fact ends up swinging from a rope on a deserted movie set, his death is labeled a suicide. LeVine doesn’t buy that explanation for a minute. More likely, Adrian was among the first to have felt the wrath of the anti-communist blacklist, and fell on his sword—or he might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. This being an era marked by secrets and betrayals, perhaps Adrian knew too much about something he wished he knew nothing about. To get to the truth, LeVine dives headfirst into Hollywood culture, and the discrepancies he finds can be ludicrous.

“If this was communism, it looked pretty good to me,” LeVine opines as he calls on the palatial homes of Adrian’s well-paid socialist pals. Nonetheless, the disdain studio managers exhibit toward writers—the bedrock of the movie business—is painful. Those wordsmiths are deemed disposable, a perception made clear to the P.I. when a talent agent “stuck a polished shoe up on his desk, careful to place the heel on a script.” Readers who’ve dug deeper into Hollywood history may recall a resounding put-down of screenwriters attributed to legendary studio chief Jack Warner, who allegedly called them “schmucks with typewriters.” Is it any wonder that Hollywood scripters of that time often felt like doormats in a B movie?

The case unfolds swiftly and engagingly. LeVine finds Adrian’s beautiful red-headed wife, Helen, to be a grieving yet very merry widow, but not somebody he considers capable of any foul play. In an obligatory confrontation, L.A. police warn LeVine to stay clear of their inquiries, which of course only intensifies his interest in them. Author Bergman, whose screenplay Tex X was the basis for Mel Brooks’ classic Western satire, Blazing Saddles (1974), possesses a sly sense of humor. He combines historical context with spot-on parody when, in this novel, he introduces a young Republican congressman from California named Richard Nixon. Eager to build a reputation, Nixon—in “a stern hand-on-the-Bible voice”—questions LeVine and Warners studio boss Johnny Parker on behalf of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an investigative body of the U.S. House of Representatives that, just like McCarthy’s Senate council, was charged with rooting out subversives. Amid all of this, LeVine learns of the theory that Adrian was murdered to prevent him from naming fellow Communist Party members in the movie biz. That solution would give the matter closure, placing any resolution behind the impregnable “Iron Curtain.” However, patience and some solid snooping lead our man LeVine in a different direction.

The shamus spots cowboy actor Dale Carpenter rushing into Johnny Parker’s house. In the process, a scrap of newspaper falls from a folder in Carpenter’s hands, and this supplies LeVine with a critical first piece of the puzzle. He follows that clue to a small-time Colorado cop who has blackmailed his way into federal law enforcement and the Hollywood craft unions, and then to a man that cop arrested years ago for rape—someone who’s now a studio executive. When LeVine closes in on Adrian’s killer, the FBI agent who has been leaning on Parker to identify commies in the motion-picture industry suddenly accuses Helen Adrian of being a Soviet agent responsible for her spouse’s slaying. And as it becomes clear that Helen is slated for extermination as well, Bergman really pulls out the stops. He teams LeVine with Humphrey Bogart at a party where Helen is abducted. Bogart, a stand-up guy no matter what fiction he might appear in, aids LeVine in a middle-of-the-night car chase to rescue her from a certain death, and to flush out the guilty parties—even though some of them are bound to escape punishment in the end.

The palpable divisiveness of our political scene in 2017 might lead readers to feel a sense of relief that, as bad as some things are nowadays, at least they’re better than in the early postwar years, when fear and intolerance bred mob rule, censorship, and tyranny. Hollywood and LeVine reminds us of just how bad those old days could be. Putting the message ahead of the fictional narrative in this fashion may seem underhanded, unfair to unsuspecting and impressionable consumers. But altruism takes many forms. Percy Bysshe Shelley advised artists of their responsibilities, saying that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Temper this with Ernest Hemingway’s admonishment, that if “you want to send a message, call Western Union,” and perhaps a coexistence between fact and fiction can be reached. As a work of fiction, Hollywood and LeVine perfectly blends entertainment with edification.

READ MORE:Hello Dahlia!” by J. Kingston Pierce (January Magazine).


Steve Johnson said...

Thank you for recommending Hollywood and LeVine. I was delighted to learn that, although our local public library system does not have any of Bergman's mysteries in a paper format, at least for a time these titles are available through the library's subscription to Oddly, the three books in the LeVine trilogy in a single volume and as individual titles. I now have most of a month to finish reading all three Jack LeVine titles.

Peter Collinson said...

The first two are wonderful. The third, written some time later, is not on the same level.
Great to see this series remembered.