VB Grey pays homage to the post-war American movies that inspired her novel, Tell Me How It Ends.
Tell Me How It Ends is set in London in that moment in 1963 when the 1950s finally gave way to the Swinging Sixties. The young men and women who swept to fame in music, film, photography and fashion had been children during the Second World War and had little reason to look backwards, but I also wanted to write about those from a slightly older generation who were still overshadowed by their wartime experiences, and how they struggled to escape the past as the future rushed towards them.
Some of the most potent images of those long shadows come from film noir – those black & white post-war American movies that encompassed crime thrillers, melodrama and ‘women’s pictures’. They’re also the movies that, as a screenwriter, I adore for how powerfully the direction, cinematography and editing contributes to the tension and mood of the stories and performances.
“Write the book you want to read” is the advice often given by literary agents. I set out to write the book of the film I want to see. But, while I wanted to evoke the cinematic qualities of film noir, I also wanted to bring a contemporary understanding of the anxieties they reflected, anxieties rooted in the war.
The moral ambiguity of the noir hero was already present in the hard-boiled moral outlaws of pre-war fiction by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but in 1945 men were returning home not only with battle fatigue – the name then given to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – but also, after Nazi atrocities and Hiroshima, a sense of victory, as James Naremore has written in More Than Night, that was bound up with a vision of horror.
The hopelessness of seeing clear a division between good and evil was perhaps implied by the sharply contrasted slatted lighting of so many noir films, used in Casablanca, Double Indemnity, Sudden Fear and many others – lines that became especially blurred when it came to women.
Early noir heroes are lured towards murder, and their own deaths, by femmes fatale who make no pretence of being good. When Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity (1944), adapted from a novella that James M. Cain had based on a true story, tells her partner in crime that “We’re both rotten, Walter”, she’s almost flattered by his reply: “Only you’re a just little more rotten. You’re rotten clear through.”
This fatalistic willingness to embrace the reality of female evil is echoed by Robert Mitchum’s character in Build My Gallows High (1947) when he reflects that the woman for whom he is nevertheless willing to die “can’t be all bad – no one is. But she comes the closest.”
Such beguilingly ‘rotten’ temptresses created complex new roles for actors. Although Barbara Stanwyck was initially reluctant to play the murderous wife in Double Indemnity, she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance.
The following year Joan Crawford won the award for Mildred Pierce, another James M. Cain adaptation. In 1951 co-stars Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both nominated for All About Eve, and the film won six other Oscars including Best Picture.
The enhanced ‘star quality’ of such dangerous glamour gave a few women in Hollywood real power. But Stanwyck had been right to worry that portraying such ruthless female ambition might adversely affected her career.
In wartime America where, apart from rationing, civilian life had continued without peril, women had stepped up to take on jobs, manage finances and run their families without men of military age. Once the men returned, often to uncertain futures, both sexes experienced real anxiety about women giving up control and men regaining it.
As contemporary novelist Megan Abbott said when speaking of Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe: “Masculinity doesn’t feel secure, and it doesn’t feel like the solution to anything.”
These were the undercurrents I set out to explore in Tell Me How It Ends. Does ambition compromise a woman’s femininity? What about if she’s a mother? What psychological scars might a man still carry from the war? And how does he admit vulnerability without compromising his manhood?
As my starting point, I took two movies that have always captivated me: All About Eve (1950), written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, and Laura (1944) based on a novel by Vera Caspary, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.
Like Margo Channing in All About Eve, my central character, Delia Maxwell, is an established star threatened by a younger and more ruthless rival, but is more than prepared to fight her corner. When Delia goes missing, Frank Landry, the former fighter pilot turned private investigator who is tasked with finding her, is inspired by the police detective in Laura, who falls in love with a dead woman.
I borrowed story beats as well as visual features, from the glamour of the stars themselves to cinematography (shadows and distorted camera angles), costume and set design (the sweeping staircase in Margo Channing’s apartment), and sound and production design (heavy rain features in both movies).
Delia is a singer, so readers are also invited to imagine their own sweepingly romantic soundtrack.
When one of my characters stars in a film, I set some of the locations in the Eternal City of Roman Holiday (1953), and had them shoot a re-make of the 1954 Judy Garland and James Mason version of A Star is Born. Both these films have interesting – indeed, tragic – things to say about women, love, duty and success that resonated with my story.
I hope that readers will recognise parts of all these films in my novel, although it won’t matter if they don’t. After twenty years of writing for television, and often being able to hear and see the actor who will play a part in my head, it was exhilarating to hear echoes of Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn or Judy Garland, and to visualise – in dramatic black and white – the streets and rooms they inhabit.
But also to be able to step back enough to ask what made the characters they played, these survivors of the war, still so troubled.
VB Grey is the pseudonym of screenwriter and crime novelist Isabelle Grey. Follow her on Twitter @IsabelleGrey.
Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura (1944): cropped screenshot by John Irving via Flickr
Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942): via Wikimedia
Bette Davis and Gary Merrill in All About Eve: via Wikimedia
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday: via Wikimedia