Larry "Doc" Sportello, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Inherent Vice, is, as Louis Menand observed in his New Yorker review of the book, something of a soft-boiled dick. Not to say that this stoner L.A. detective has any problems in the erectile department—this book is as full of free love as almost anything that Pynchon has written, and indeed the casual sex within its pages is on balance a lot more wholesome than what you get in Gravity's Rainbow—but he is kind of, well, sentimental, in spite of the mean streets he finds himself compelled to go down.
Among the many soft spots Sportello has is one for doomed tough-guy actor John Garfield, victim of a repressive era that the flower children of Sportello's world either can't remember or are directly rebelling against. Sportello's Garfield thing goes so deep that he actually owns a suit the Man Himself wore in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Pynchon lets us know that Doc cuts a better than respectable figure in it.
Near the end of Vice, as Doc and his hapless compatriot Tito return from a rather eventful trip to Vegas, Pynchon gives us a glimpse not just of early cable TV perquisites but of Garfield's final bow. Like this:
"Tito and Doc drove till they saw a motel with a sign reading WELCOME TOOBFREEX! BEST CABLE IN TOWN! and they decided to check in. Time-zone issues too complicated for either of them to understand had leveraged the amount of programming available here, network and independent, to some staggering scale, and creative-minded cable managers were not slow to exploit the strange hiccup in space-time...Everybody was here to watch something. Soap enthusiasts, old-movie buffs, nostalgia lovers had driven here hundreds, even thousands, of mies to bathe in these cathode rays, as water connoisseurs in Grandmother's day had once visited certain spas. Hour after hour, they wallowed and gazed, as the sun wheeled in the hazy sky and splashing echoed off the tiles of the indoor pool and housekeeping carts were squeaking to and fro.
"The remote control units were bolted to the ends of the beds, and cycling through all the choices seemed to take longer than whatever you wanted to see was likely to stay on, but somehow about the time Doc's thumb muscles went into spasm, he happened onto a John Garfield marathon that had been in progress for, he gathered, weeks now. And there about to begin was another John Garfield movie that James Wong Howe had also been DP on, He Ran All The Way (1951), not one of Doc's favorites, to tell the truth—it was John Garfield's last picture before the anti-subversives finally did him in, and it had the smell of blacklist all over it—Dalton Trumbo wrote the script, but there was another name on the credits. John Garfield played a criminal on the run who picks up Shelley Winters at a public pool and proceeds to make life disagreeable for her family, obliging them at gunpoint, for example, to eat a gross-looking prop turkey ("Ya gonna eat dis toikey!") and for his miserably misspent life he ends up, literally, dead in the gutter, though of course beautifully lit. Doc had been hoping to drift to sleep in the middle of it, but the last scene found him up and staring, sweat freezing in the air-conditioning. It was somehow like seeing John Garfield die for real, with the whole respectable middle class standing there in the street smugly watching him do it."
As the venerable Pynchon does not give interviews, we really don't have much of a practical window into his creative methods, which yield such fruit. The man does do his homework; indeed, Garfield was lensed by the great James Wong Howe eight times prior to He Ran, and in such classics as Air Force and Body and Soul to boot. Did T.P. write his description of He Ran from memory? It could be; my own research doesn't turn up any old VHS version, and the Region 2 UK DVD I took these screen caps from was released in early May of this year. Which means we all ought to congratulate Pynchon on his prodigious memory. He gets only one thing wrong; Garfield doesn't say "Ya gonna eat dis toikey," but, rather, "Cawve da toikey," repeatedly. Pynchon's invention may actually be funnier. He's quite right to note that it has the smell of blacklist all over it; the director, John Berry, was fingered by HUAC and didn't make things much easier on himself by making a 1950 documentary The Hollywood Ten. Everyone in the picture, from Garfield on down, seems to be working up a sweat, regardless of whether they're running or not. And every character has a patina of bathos to him or her. This is nowhere more evident than in the dinner scene, and its imminently suspect-looking turkey; Wallace Ford, Selena Royal, and Robert Hyatt, playing the family of the Shelley Winters character, all come off as puling, near-conniving snivellers. In other words, The Desperate Hours this ain't, nosirree Bob. That the picture resolves itself in a mere 77 minutes seems less a testament to the economy of the filmmakers than a result of everybody involved just wanting to get the hell out of this unpleasant movie. The resultant intensity is quite genuine, but extremely...unusual.
Not the way Garfield would have wanted to go out, and certainly not the way a fan would have wanted to see him go out. So what's that mean to Doc, that he happens upon the picture when he does? You'll have to read the Pynchon to find out.
The Optimum DVD has a decent picture and a scratchy soundtrack and is recommended to Garfield or Pynchon completists, or both. Which I guess is to say that it's...recommended.