Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jack Kerouac & Film Noir

Jack Kerouac & Film Noir

A man named Raven wakes up blearily to his alarm clock
ringing 2:15 in the afternoon. Jazz piano and sunlight fill his
rented room shambles. He picks up some typewritten words
to read…Bridge Street…San Francisco…he dresses and feeds
the black and white cat on the windowsill.
Watching the opening of This Gun For Hire aware of Jack
Kerouac watching up there, “seated in the first row of the balcony
in shirtsleeves” (1) reveals more and more about his own life
visions. From the first frame, it is filled with the poetry Kerouac
would surely pick up on. Stars surrounding the Hozomeen-like
signature cold mountain logo of Paramount Pictures will recall
his lookout window in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels:
“Mist before the peak/—the dream/Goes on” (2)
This image is followed by a book with titles superimposed,
names of actors and everyone involved, as though everything
to be seen is part of a legend contained in pages. “The final scope
of the Legend will be simply a completely written lifetime with all
its hundreds of characters and events and levels interswirling
and reappearing and becoming complete…a continuous tale.” (3)
Then, when Raven drifts from the room, when the beat looking
maid enters and attacks the cat, Raven explodes back at her.
“Beat it, I said!” he sends her gone. She has committed the same
crime described in Kerouac’s “film of the angel child” (4)
Visions of Gerard, mirrored in the holy rage of his saintly brother,
“Bad girl! Don’t you understand what you’ve done? When will
you understand? We don’t disturb little animals and little things!
We leave them alone!...wake up, foolish girl!—realize what
you’ve done!...There won’t always be time!—Bad girl!
Go on!” (5) From childhood on to his last days in Florida,
Kerouac’s remembering books took this commandment to heart,
paging his works—cats walk all through the Book of Haikus—it
was also the message Jack took down from the mountain in
Desolation Angels.
In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac recalls his friendship with
William S. Burroughs “Will Hubbard” (“Burroughs is Poe,” (6)
Kerouac revealed) and sets up his entanglement with
“Franz Mueller,” a role made for Laird Cregar, the heavy of
This Gun For Hire. Kerouac nearly becomes the Poe-named
Raven when, “Mueller took my little cat, wrapped Hubbard’s tie
around its neck, and tried to hang it from the lamp: a little kitty.
Will Hubbard immediately took it down, undamaged and just
slightly hurt I guess in the neck, I don’t know, I wasn’t there,
I would have thrown that man out the window.” (7)
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
*‘The Raven’ Edgar Allan Poe
Even though Kerouac admired Raven, “I wore great big felt hats
all level to imitate Alan Ladd This Gun For Hire,” (8) he admits,
“it wasn’t so much the killing in those stories that we used to feed
upon, it was rather the dark and mysterious labyrinthal movement of
our heroes, the sibilant hiss of their secret sanctumed laugh, the fall
of rain on Fifth Avenue mansion at night, the slow creeping menace
of masked justice along Manhattan depths, and above all, our hero
unmasked and posing before the dull eye of the world…” (9)
In fact, Kerouac rejected the violence, equating it with a
nightmare, “it must be an educational movie from another
Buddhaland showing Bodhisattvas why to reject violence
and how horrible ignorance which not only projects an
outside world but grasps at it, fights in it…” (10)
Nevertheless, Jack Kerouac’s life became a film noir in 1944.
In the early morning a friend “like Alan Ladd” (11) came through
his apartment window to confess Mueller’s murder. “I’ve still got
the knife and his glasses covered with blood.” (12) Kerouac
suggests their escape, “Let’s take a subway downtown go see
a movie” (13) which they do (as if they could walk into the
screen, disappear into a dream). It all occurs in Book Eleven
and Book Twelve, Vanity of Duluoz, shadows, murder, police,
prison, all the elements. At the D.A.’s office, his wife visited
him, “like in Jimmy Cagney movies when time’s up they tell us
it’s time, she cries, hugs me, holds me, she waits to be dragged
away like in the movies?” (14) and “Ma came to see me…in
the jail, sat at the long table and talked to me in front of a guard
just like in the John Garfield movies.” (15)
“This was our dream, gleaned from going to
the Rialto Theater and seeing movies”
*Vanity of Duluoz (16)
The next five minutes of film become a murder-dream framed
by going up the stairs past the crippled girl then back down
past her again and out to day. Each new place Raven goes
becomes another dream sequence: the window framing
the Golden Gate Bridge where Laird Cregar sets the doublecross
in motion, the code for phony money, all these dreams building,
forming the bigger sleep of the movie itself.
Life as a dream-movie is an awareness Kerouac fully explores
in Book of Dreams. “Fact, I like to sleep so I can tune in see
what’s happening in that big show…My dreams (like yours) are
fantastically real movies of what’s actually going on.” (17)
His preface explains, “When I woke up from my sleep I just
lay there looking at the pictures that were fading slowly like
in a movie fadeout into the recesses of my subconscious
mind.” (18) In a dream right out of James Cagney’s
White Heat comes, “I’M LIVING WITH MA AGAIN—
there are gangsters downstairs, I’m watching one all the
time…” (19) It’s easy to make a film noir from his
dreambook, “There’s a big murder case going on and
cops, detectives keep coming to Ma’s house to check on
evidence, I’m in my room when the cop comes with my
book…” (20) which winds to its thrilling ending escape:
down a dry sand road…I HAD A WHITE BANDAGE on
my head from a wound, the police are after me around the
dark stairs of wood near the Victory Theater in Lowell,
I sneak away—come to the boulevard where a parade of
children chanting my name hide me from the searching
police as I duck along their endless ranks, keeping
low…” (21)
Dreams that become books become movies. Graham Greene
wrote the inspiration, This Gun For Hire. Politicians and
industrialists are ever eager to start another war, with some
paid-off murder and marked bills. Raven, in a dark England
setting resembling Richard Widmark in Night and the City,
appears in a room, “His eyes, like little concealed cameras,
photographed the room instantaneously…” (22) “Memories
had never troubled him. He didn’t mind death; it was foolish
to be scared of death in this bare wintry world.” (23) Raven
finds the girl stuffed in a fireplace like Poe’s Murders in
the Rue Morgue, but alive, rescues her from the doublecrossers
and police, down night streets to the train tracks. “The lights
went on in the city beyond the railway bridge, but where they
were it was just a grey dusk and the sound of an engine
shunting in the yard.” (24) Hidden from the force in a
tool shed he tells her his dreams, “I’ve been dreaming bad
dreams lately” (25) and, “It seems your dreams mean things.
I don’t mean like tea-leaves or cards.” (26) In the morning,
a thick fog coming up from the river offers escape and
the masked Raven vanishes to his doom. “It almost seemed
as if Raven’s act had had no consequences: as if to kill was
just as much an illusion as to dream.” (27) The book ends,
war averted, looking out a train window as, “A mob of
children went screaming down a street…” (28)
In 1941, just a year before This Gun For Hire hit screens,
an equally influential Paramount movie begins with a book
and opens turning pages. The star of Sullivan’s Travels,
Joel McCrea, vows, “I’m going out on the road,” only to
end up in a Hollywood diner with Veronica Lake. Free,
talking, taking time, she becomes his traveling partner,
hopping a train from a freight yard like On the Road later on.
Kerouac was to invoke their meeting for ‘The Mexican Girl’
section of On the Road when he met Terry on a Hollywood
morning, “In the gray, dirty dawn, like the dawn when Joel
McCrea met Veronica Lake in a diner, in the picture
Sullivan’s Travels.” (29) He needed to meet her, it had
to happen, like Dean Moriarty.
“What do you think? You think all this is a dream?...
How do we know we’re not dreaming?”
*Good Blonde (30)
Another time Kerouac conjures Veronica Lake is for
The Dharma Bums. Stuck in Santa Barbara, finding no luck
hitchhiking, he was turning sinister, “blackly handsome in
like Alan Ladd this gun for hire with murder anger” (31) when
out of the blue “a brand new cinnamon colored Lincoln driven
by a beautiful young blonde in a [white] bathingsuit flashed by
and suddenly swerved to the right and put to a stop in the side
of the road for me.” (32) It was such a fantasy, he retold the
story for Playboy as ‘Good Blonde.’ Kerouac questioned his
temptations, her intentions and struggled with his response,
“because since life is nothing but a short vague dream
encompassed round by flesh and tears, and the ways of men
are the ways of death…the ways of beautiful women such
as those pictured in this magazine are eventually the ways
of old age,” (33) realizing, “Ah hell it’s all a dream
including beauty.” (34)
But it’s her wearied beauty attitude, her beatitude, her cool
knowing like an angel who’s watched Earth for a long, long
time that attracts him to her. And Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake
paired share the essence of beatitude that Kerouac was forever
asked to define.
In another Paramount California film noir called The Blue Dahlia
Veronica Lake foreshadows Kerouac’s story. Like the unnamed
blonde of Sullivan’s Travels, she is the nameless good blonde
traveler again, driving in white to pick up Alan Ladd on a
rainy road night. Alan Ladd (like a wondering Kerouac) tells
her, “You get around don’t you? And your timing’s good.
It was good last night when you picked me up in the rain.
Or was it? I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I don’t even
know your name.” Even so, she’s someone his unfolding story
depends upon, telling her, “Every guy’s seen you before—
somewhere—the trick is to find you.”
When Veronica Lake appears in This Gun For Hire, she is
a dancing magician (her act includes little animals, canaries
and gold fish) singing, “Now you see it, now you don’t, because
hocus pocus lo and behold, you get blinded by that moon of
bright gold above,” easily enchanting Laird Cregar “Will Gates”
who hires her for his Neptune Club in Los Angeles. Like Ladd,
Lake is for hire. Before her journey there, Miss Graham meets
a senator in a black government car. “There’s a handful of
those heels in this country today. And they’re powerful enough
to sabotage our defense. We’re trying to expose them.”
Monster Street Parade. Raven hides in a wooden phone booth
while the police search his room. “They’re after Mr. Raven
because he passed a stolen bill in a dress shop.”
It’s on the night train to Los Angeles when they finally meet,
while the rest of the car sleeps, she speaks, “Are you that broke?
C’mon I know you’re not asleep.” “You talkin’ to me? What
d’you want?” But she can keep it calm, the five bucks is gone
and back again, she sleeps beside him anyway.
In the morning, “They’re looking for me for a job I didn’t do
and they’re not gonna get me. You’re gonna help.” Off the train
with a bundle like a baby they escape to a tire swing edge of
the yard.
“Everything is prepared for the gas mask rehearsal, sir.”
“At eight o’clock tomorrow morning everyone will be wearing
a gas mask.” “This man Raven should be shot on sight.”
Meeting a knife sharpener to find Hollywood directions,
“You can hitch a ride if you’re broke.” Gates’ black mansion,
tall lighted candles, thunder and rain; it’s a set that resembles
Count Condu’s castle in Doctor Sax. “In a couple of hours
the bridge over the reservoir will be deserted.”
“Look I’m not gonna hurt you. You treated me okay.”
“There’s a dragnet out for you, Raven.” Pulled along on
wet city cement, Veronica Lake leaves a trail of playing card
clues. “It’s the gasworks. We’ll hide out inside until morning.
Stay up on top until I get there. And don’t try to run.”
“Raven. I want to talk to you. You’re bottled up, you can’t
get out. We’re moving in when it’s daylight. We don’t want
to shoot unless you make us…you hear me Raven?”
As Raven’s pursuit closes in around him at the gasworks,
as he ducks pipes, catwalks, tunnels and searchlights, it brings
to mind other similar settings in film, like Lon Chaney’s
Indestructible Man and James Cagney’s White Heat.
“The day after receiving Cassady’s letter, Kerouac was
so inspired that he sat down ‘to write a full confession.’
The result, written in white heat between December 28, 1950,
and January 10, 1951, was nearly a hundred typed
pages…” (35)
The source of this white heat which became Kerouac’s
On the Road, is Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty, also known as
Cody Pomeroy, star of Visions of Cody.
White Heat is a gangster vision of Cody, Cody Jarrett played by
James Cagney, a role he plays with a fury. The film begins like
Sullivan’s Travels, with a train. First sight of Cody, he’s looking
at his watch, checking the time, the same as Raven with his
clock beginning. This is fitting for time is the driving beat of
On the Road—over and over again Dean Moriarty draws
attention to it—“now is the time and we all know time!” (36),
“Everything is fine, God exists, we know time” (37), “I want
to be like him…he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock
back and forth…You see, if you go like him all the time
you’ll finally get it.” (38)
The train roars across the California state line. Cagney’s Cody
doesn’t just jump the train to get on, he leaps to it from the
overpass. The film exaggerates Kerouac, especially after
the heist, at the gang’s mountain hide-out, when his Ma is
there to calm his terror, as he rocks back and forth. “It’s these
mountains, Cody. It’s not good for you. Cold all the time,” she
comforts, bringing him back with a glass, “Top of the world,
Cagney’s night confession in the garden makes their similarity
clear, “All I ever had was Ma…My old lady never had anything,
always on the run, always on the move…some life…” Cody
and Ma, Kerouac and Memere, there is something there they
share, but in film-noir it becomes a dark portrait, like the
photograph Jack had taken in On the Road, “I took a straight
picture that made me look like a thirty-year-old Italian who’d
kill anybody who said anything against his mother.” (39)
White Heat’s Cody really does kill for his mother, becomes
the fuel in a gas tank, wounded and burning up on the top of
the world.
“I feel like Jimmy Cagney, I can feel the air with my fingers.”
*Visions of Cody (40)
It did become harder and harder for Kerouac to function in
the outside world, by 1963 it was “all a mad mixed up mess
whenever I leave the house so I stay home.” (41) Though he
had proved perfectly capable on the road alone, in the woods,
desert and mountain top, as time passed he seemed to do better
with a companion and guide, as was Cassady, Ginsberg,
Burroughs in Mexico, and Gary Snyder provided for
The Dharma Bums. Alone could lead to the circling of
Satori in Paris or awash on Big Sur. Memere provided that
calm for him, offered him a place to go after journeys to
reflect and build his legend. “I’ve always been ‘settled with
my mother’ who supported me by working in shoe factories
while I wrote most of my books years ago. She’s my friend
as well as my mother. When I go on the road I always have
a quiet, clean home to come back to, and to work in, which
probably accounts for the fact that I’ve published twelve
books in the last six years.” (42) Her influence can be felt
throughout his books, he even took her on his travels,
moving homes and hide-outs, Kerouac remained writing
in her house until the end.
When Cody Jarrett uses the veil of teargas to escape from
the chemical plant office, it mirrors Raven eluding the police
into the shroud of the foggy rail yard morning. He leads his
pursuers on a chase across a bridge that Kerouac recalled
for Visions of Cody: “Last night at home I talked with Ma…
woke up at four restlessly, hurried to Jersey City in a long
foolish ride…got off at Erie Station, followed signs through
the waiting room halls to the footbridge that’s just like the one
in This Gun For Hire with Alan Ladd (a pix incidentally that
I saw the afternoon I signed on for Arctic Greenland in 1942,
when I lay in the grass of Boston Common thinking of
death…” (43)
Raven is lucky to escape the police bullets shot after him
but—like the scene of doom in Doctor Sax Book Four,
The Night the Man With the Watermelon Died: “I saw he was
really dead and taken—his eyes had turned glassy on the milky
waters of the night…that part which yet I see in dreams of
Lowell and the bridge. I shuddered and saw white flowers
and grew cold” (44)—Raven also knows death is only a matter
of time. He has committed his own worst crime—only hours
before, he killed a cat.
“One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose about its neck
and hung it to the limb of a tree;—hung it with tears streaming
from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;—
hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt
it had given me no reason of offence;—hung it because I knew
that in so doing I was committing a sin.”
* ‘The Black Cat’ Edgar Allan Poe
Trains, rail yard sounds of engines pulling screeching wheels,
spotlights over tracks, hiding out the night before in the ruined
train car, a gray cat visited them, coming in through the open
window. Raven smiles, “Cats bring you luck,” he admits.
But when the animal is heard by two men outside, Raven is
forced to smother it. “I killed my luck,” he tells her and the
camera shows it in his eyes. “I’d like to crawl down there
with you and sleep,” he tells the cat, but, “It’s no good,
I’d only dream.” Kerouac could sympathize, “It occurred to
me, remembering last night’s dream of me in a movie holding
a kitty high over my head as a ravening hound leaped to eat it,
that I was that hound, I wanted to eat and dissect the kitty
of knowledge with my ravening mind.” (45)
As the fog lifts morning, Raven promises her he’s done with
gun violence, he heads for the bridge Kerouac recalled in
Visions of Cody. Up a dirt hill, he gets caught, gets out with
a shot and runs again. Onto that wooden bridge, Raven passes
a woman carrying a baby swaddled like a watermelon in her
arms. He runs. Halfway across he stops and crawls through
the slats and jumps down to the train passing below,
just like Cody in White Heat.
James Cagney isn’t done yet. His biography, Cagney By
Cagney, reveals the story behind his only time directing,
“when my old friend A.C. Lyles came to me in 1957 and
asked me if I would direct his Paramount production of
Short Cut to Hell, I was moved to do so out of friendship only.
I said I would do it if he wanted me to, and he asked me how
much I’d charge. ‘How about nothing? Is that too much?’
I asked him. We shot this updated version of Graham Greene’s
This Gun for Hire in just twenty days, and that was long enough
for me.” (46) A movie shot with the speed of Kerouac typing
the holy roll of On the Road.
As Raven rushes off to the end, the air raid sirens sound
in the street. Raven, in a mask and uniform, gains entrance
to Nitro Chemical. Caught, Gates blubbers to him, “I’m not
to blame. You wouldn’t—You wouldn’t kill an innocent man,
would you? It’s all his fault. I was acting as his agent.” Raven
forces Gates to take him up the elevator, through four pairs
of double doors to the president’s office. In there he rounds up
all the doublecrossers before his gun. There’s a last doublecross
as the old man’s longtime nurse rips the alarm button from him,
“For fifteen years dressing you, nursing you, cleaning you,
listening to your dirty deals. Go ahead!” he shrieks at Raven,
“Wipe him out!” Even Gates turns on the president, informing
Raven, “I’ll tell you. That new gas formula—he sold it to the
highest bidder.” The nurse agrees, “To the Japanese.”
The doublecross is a film noir fixture. James Cagney’s Cody
was also betrayed by a close friend in White Heat,
as Jack Kerouac suffered in The Subterraneans and Big Sur.
Cagney and Kerouac were even doublecrossed by Florida
doubles. Director Peter Bogdanovich wrote in Pieces of Time,
“I finally met James Cagney the other day—the real one.
There’s a bearded fellow going around lately passing
himself off as the actor. I was in Miami when this guy was
there—they made him honorary mayor of Hollywood,
Florida—and a paper printed pictures of him. Didn’t look
like Cagney to me. When Barbra Streisand was singing in
Las Vegas around Christmas, they told her Cagney was
in the audience so she introduced him from the stage and
when this same bearded chap stood up, she thought,
‘Doesn’t look like Cagney to me.’ Cagney himself seemed
rather amused at this; he told several similar incidents
that have occurred over the years…” (47) Likewise, when
Kerouac lived in St. Petersburg, “He stoutly maintained that
there were several imposters passing themselves off as
Jack Kerouac and they were responsible for his receiving
that kind of harassment.” (48)
Police on the roof find a painter’s scaffold, scale down on
pulleyed boards. There’s a birds-eye view of a 1940s parking
lot in motion, a vision of Cody from On the Road:
“He worked in a parking lot…rushed around in his ragged
shoes and T-shirt and belly-hanging pants all by himself,
straightening out immense noontime rushes of cars” (49)
where there are hoods in sparkling rows, the little ticket shack,
tall brick walls painted with the words of then, making
canyons above the tar. Forced to sign a confession, the old man
aims and shoots his pen at Raven but his heart gives out.
“One final doublecross.” Suddenly the windows and doors
are blasted open. As if ready for sleep, laying down, covered
by a black blanket, and full of bullets, Raven’s last words
ask her, “Did I do alright for you?” Veronica Lake, looking
down on him maternally, nods silently with a smile. Now
he can close his eyes, the same way he began the movie,
on a different day.
That’s the big epiphany for Raven. He has gone from
believing “I’m my own police” and only showing heart
to cats because, “They’re on their own. They don’t need
anybody,” to listening to Veronica Lake at night. By traveling
through with him from the beginning, all along she sought
to sway him into knowing, she impressed on him the meaning
of the code he killed for, to see beyond the phony money and
vengeance routine. That night of hiding in the train, she told
him, “You know I’ve been figuring something. That chemical
formula. I bet I know what it is. Gas—poison gas. They’re
selling it to our enemy…So tomorrow they’ll ship it back
in bombs…Do you hear what I said? It’s important. This war
is everybody’s business. Yours too…Why don’t you stop
thinking about yourself for a minute.”
If there’s going to be a moment for redemption in film noir,
this is it. It’s a transformation repeated in so many scenes,
seen in Humphrey Bogart films like Casablanca (“I’m not
fighting for anything anymore, except myself. I’m the only
cause I’m interested in”) and Key Largo (“What do I care
about Johnny Rocco, whether he lives or dies? I only care
about me. Me and mine. Rocco wants to come back to
America, let him. Let him be president. I fight nobody’s
battles but my own”). Casablanca and Key Largo endings
come with the realization of involvement, dedicating one’s
life to a larger cause of freedom.
Veronica Lake took this lesson to her last movie, filmed in
Florida, the year after Jack Kerouac died there. Filmed
under the title Time is Terror, she allowed it three pages
of her autobiography, hoping of it, “Some day soon,
perhaps on your local television station during their daily
horror film show, you’ll be able to see” (50). At that time of
writing though, “It sits in the can, some of the footage
very good and imaginative, and will continue to sit there
until the production company comes up with more money
with which to go back and re-shoot master shots.” (51)
The film was released with a new title, Flesh Feast and does
include some relevance to time and dreams and America:
“I’ve got a tremendous story and very little time”, “I must have
enough time for experimentation”, “It is as if God turned back
the clock,” “These Americans…They’re all dreamers.
They want to rule the world.” It’s a Florida nightmare of,
“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the
streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a
nearby funeral…sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow
photographed scenes that have never been seen before on
film.” (52) But it moves with the pace of a sleepwalker,
unrolling like flypaper, long slow stretches under palms and
magnolias dazed by the steady twang of birds. But when
Veronica Lake’s mad doctor prepares to operate upon
Adolph Hitler in a suburban basement laboratory adorned
with an overseeing framed, painted portrait of her mother,
she delivers her alarming anti-fascist speech. Placing maggots
on his face, “This one is for democracy!” she dishes them out,
“It’s you! Only you!” laughing maniacally, tossing handfuls
of maggots like a karmic sentence on him, “Now you’re going
to get what you gave!”
One of Jack Kerouac’s last written pieces ‘After Me the Deluge’
shares her fury. In it, he denounces ‘the politicians, the radicals,
the cops and hoods, tax collectors and vandals,’ warning them,
“It’s much like what do you think a parasite is thinking when
he’s sucking on the belly of a whale or the back of a shark?—
‘Where did this big, stupid brute get all that blood…How come
he’s so strong and free, not knowing how to live like I do?’
So with human parasites feeding on their juicy national, personal,
political, or racial host.” (53) While his country self destructs
in wars, Kerouac sizes up the times in Vanity of Duluoz at
the end of his life, “in 1967 as I’m writing this what possible
feeling can be left in me for an ‘America’ that has become
such a potboiler of broken convictions, messes of rioting and
fighting in streets, hoodlumism, cynical administration of cities
and states, suits and neckties the only feasible subject, grandeur
all gone into the mosaic mesh of Television where people
screw their eyes at all those dots and pick out hallucinated
images of their own contortion and are fed ACHTUNG!” (54)
“He identified himself with America,” Allen Ginsberg told an
interviewer, “He realized if he were put down that meant
America was going to move through an immense amount of
suffering and would inflict a lot of suffering on the world.
He realized that his personal tragedy of being rejected by
the official arbiters of culture meant that America was in for
a bad, bad scene. The vision of America that he and Whitman
had was going to be a flop and there was going to be great
destruction.” (55)
That vision was paved by a lifelong experience. Like the stars
of film noirs, Kerouac knew the forces of destruction and
suffering. “Society is organized cruelty and nothing else.” (56)
Washing dishes in World War 2, on a freighter full of TNT,
made him question, “Who are these smiling Satans making all
the money out of this? Whether they’re Russian, American,
Japanese, British, French or Chinese?” (57) knowing,
“There oughta be a better way to die in this world than in
the service of Ammunitioneers.” (58) Taking that realization,
after the war, the city, the murder and jail, he began to wander.
This Gun For Hire follows the circular trail from Raven’s start,
winding back up the tower to the source. Corruption began with
the president of Nitro Chemical who employed a pushover,
who paid off a killer to do the murder, steal and take the fall.
Both Raven and Cody in White Heat were killed up there
by police. Cody remained unrepentant, defiant to the end,
Raven too, dying, asking Veronica Lake, “You didn’t tell
the cops, did you?” knowing full well her allegiance to them.
He may have done the right thing taking out the president,
but he didn’t do it for the police society.
Jack Kerouac had enough experience with police and
their mentality not to bow to them. The closest he came to
their side was when he was a barracks guard, described in
On the Road. “It was a horrible crew of men, men with
cop-souls…I gulped at the prospect of making an arrest.” (59)
“They were always sitting around on their asses; they were
proud of their jobs. They handled their guns and talked
about them. They were itching to shoot somebody.” (60)
“I never had a gun in my life. It scared me even to load one.
He desperately wanted to make arrests…This is the story
of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re
supposed to do.” (61) As Allen Ginsberg reminds,
“If you read his essays like Lonesome Traveller,
they were really attacks on the police state. Always.
The whole thrust of his work was toward individualism
and freedom.” (62) In The Dharma Bums when Kerouac
traveled the roads and rails free as an enlightened wanderer,
“The only alternative to sleeping out, hopping freights,
and doing what I wanted, I saw in a vision would be to
just sit in front of a nice television set in a madhouse…
I saw so many cop cruising cars and they were looking at me
suspiciously: sleek, well-paid cops in brand new cars with
all that expensive radio equipment to see that no bhikku
slept in his grove tonight.” (63)All the more illuminating
at the end of On the Road when they get to Mexico and
Kerouac observes, “Such lovely policemen God hath never
wrought in America. No suspicions, no fuss, no bother:
he was the guardian of the sleeping town, period.” (64)
Beyond political corruption, betrayed by their laws and wars
enforced by hired guns, Kerouac believes in the vision
of a dream America, period.
This Gun For Hire is a dream Raven opening his eyes
in the start and closing his eyes in the end. This was a reality
that Jack Kerouac was well aware of by 1953 when his studies
of Buddhism inspired him to write Some of the Dharma.
“It was the bliss of knowing that our lives are but dreams,
arbitrary conceptions, from which the big dreamer wakes—
What could be more like a dream, with birth the falling-asleep,
and death the awaking from sleep?—a dream, with beginning
and ending…” (65)
“Life is a dream. My birth records, my family’s birth records
and recorded origins, my athletic records in the newspaper
clippings I have, my own notebooks and published books are
not real at all, my own dreams are not dreams at all but products
of my waking imagination.” (66) Since Lowell childhood,
experiencing the death of his child brother, “Small wonder
that the baby sees people in the world as giant put-together
phantoms slashing in a violent projection INSIDE MIND,” (67)
the vision was instilled in him—it was all a dream movie—
“I saw my father, my old girlfriends, my long Lowell night walks,
clearly, without regret, on that Bliss Screen of Movies.” (68)
Some of the Dharma, built over years, fed by scriptures of
golden eternity, is filled with his thoughts on life as a movie.
Beginning with the practice of meditation, which he envisioned:
“You let it melt away, ignoring the dream of life for an
examination of the mind itself the makes the dream appear…
like watching a movie on a screen. But because it’s like a
movie on a screen, you realize the movie itself is unreal
phantasms and the screen is the only reality. The ‘screen’
is your Mind Essence, the movie is forms that come and
go.” (69)
So when translating his visions to paper, he pictured
“bookmovies”, “movie novels”, “mindmovies” with “prose
concentration camera-eye visions of a definite movie of
the mind with fade-ins, pans, close-ups, and fade-outs.” (70)
He even hoped to turn writing into actual film. In On the Road,
he describes coming to California expectantly, “I was to stay
in a shack and write a shining original story for a Hollywood
studio.” (71) But it didn’t work, “the first week I stayed in
the shack in Mill City, writing furiously at some gloomy tale
about New York that I thought would satisfy a Hollywood
director, and the trouble with it was that it was too sad.” (72)
In fact it sounds like a description of The Subterraneans,
a work that was made into a movie by Hollywood in 1960.
A more successful dream into film was Pull My Daisy.
Like the opening of This Gun for Hire, the camera pans
around a black and white room, “early morning in the
universe…the room’s in a mess.” Kerouac narrates his
friends through the wonder, “Is it true that we’re all in
Heaven now and that we don’t know it. And that if we
knew it we would still know it but that because we don’t
know it we go around and act just the way that we do.”
And Heaven being where all his ideas were anyway—
“The Holy Ghost writes through me…I’m taking orders
from Heaven” (73), “All these books are published in
Heaven” (74)—that’s also where the movie of On the Road
glows: “I can see it now, Marlon Brando as Dean Moriarty
and Montgomery Clift as Sal Paradise.” (75) He could even
translate the legendary plot for a Buddhist movie,
“two brothers from the Himalayan Highlands floating
down the Ganges on a home-made raft, to Benares,
the sensual jealous lover and the goodhearted imbecile.” (76)
The movie realization hit him deep, like a powerful spotlight
projected beam. He was changed and haunted for life.
From On the Road, “We decided to stay up in all-night
movies on Skid Row…For thirty-five cents each we went
into the beat-up old movie and sat down in the balcony
till morning…We saw both of these things six times each
during the night. We saw them waking, we heard them
sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated
completely with the strange Gray Myth of the West and
the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came.
All my actions since then have been dictated automatically
to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.” (77)
So when he saw This Gun For Hire and lay on that Boston
grass that day in the middle of America at war, his visions
went out, he watched clouds going away, knowing he
would go too. Life was a film and a legend and a dream
and it starts every time the pages turn.


1) Atop an Underwood; Jack Kerouac; Viking; New York;
1999; p.236
2) Desolation Angels; Jack Kerouac; Bantam Books;
New York; 1971; p.75
3) Conversations with Jack Kerouac; Edited by Kevin J. Hayes;
University Press of Mississippi; Jackson; 2005; p.44
4) Visions of Gerard; Jack Kerouac; McGraw Hill; New York;
1963; p. 116
5) Ibid; p.18
6) Selected Letters 1940-1956; Jack Kerouac; Viking Press;
1995; p.472
7) Vanity of Duluoz; Jack Kerouac; Coward-McCann, Inc.;
New York; 1967; p.219
8) Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three; Jack Kerouac; Grove Press;
New York; 1959; p.47
9) Atop an Underwood; p.107
10) Book of Dreams; Jack Kerouac; City Lights Books;
San Francisco; 2001; p.307
11) Vanity of Duluoz; p.209
12) Ibid; p.229
13) Ibid; p.232
14) Ibid; p.238
15) Ibid; p.256
16) Ibid; p.15
17) Book of Dreams; p.vii
18) Ibid; p.xvii
19) Ibid; p.94
20) Ibid; p.241
21) Ibid; p.303
22) This Gun For Hire; Graham Greene; The Viking Press;
New York; 1936; 1982; p.2
23) Ibid; p.56
24) Ibid; p.121
25) Ibid; p.144
26) Ibid; p.150
27) Ibid; p.215
28) Ibid; p.227
29) On the Road; Jack Keroauc; Viking; New York; 1955;
1997 edition; p.83
30) Good Blonde & Others; Jack Kerouac; Grey Fox Press;
San Francisco; 1993; p.3
31) Selected Letters 1940-1956; p.522
32) Good Blonde & Others; p.5
33) Ibid; p.152
34) Ibid; p.11
35) Selected Letters 1940-1956; p.xxii
36) On the Road; p.114
37) Ibid; p.120
38) Ibid; p.127
39) Ibid; p.6
40) Visions of Cody; Jack Kerouac; McGraw-Hill Publishing
Company; New York; 1972; p.377
41) Selected Letters 1957-1969; Jack Kerouac; Viking Press;
New York; 1999; p.367
42) Conversations with Jack Kerouac; p.45
43) Visions of Cody; p. 102
44) Doctor Sax; p.129
45) Some of the Dharma; Jack Kerouac; Viking; New York;
1997; p.222
46) Cagney By Cagney; James Cagney; Doubleday & Co.
Inc.; Garden City; New York; 1976; p.149
47) Pieces of Time; Peter Bogdanovich on the Movies;
Peter Bogdanovich; Arbor House Publishing Company;
New York; 1973; p.106
48) Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with
Jack Kerouac; Edited by Paul Maher Jr.; Thunder’s Mouth
Press; New York; 2005; p.392
49) On the Road; p.249
50) Veronica: The Autobiography of Veronica Lake;
Veronica Lake; The Citadel Press; New York; 1971; p.260
51) Ibid; p.262
52) The Americans; Robert Frank; Jack Kerouac’s
Introduction; Grove Press; New York; 1959/1997; p.5
53) Good Blonde & Others; p.186
54) Vanity of Duluoz; p.105-106
55) Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996;
Allen Ginsburg; Harper Collins; New York; 2001; p.448-9
56) Some of the Dharma; p.383
57) Vanity of Duluoz; p.134
58) Ibid; p.148
59) On the Road; p.65
60) Ibid; p.66
61) Ibid; p.68
62) Empty Phantoms; p.279
63) The Dharma Bums; Jack Kerouac; Signet Books;
New York; 1959; p.96
64) On the Road; p.294
65) Some of the Dharma; p.250
66) Safe in Heaven Dead: Interviews with Jack Kerouac;
Compiled and edited by Michael White; Hanuman Books;
Madras & New York; 1990; p.124
67) Some of the Dharma; p.82
68) Ibid; p.93
69) Ibid; p.207
70) Ibid; p.342
71) On the Road; p.63
72) Ibid; p.64
73) Empty Phantoms; p.363
74) Howl and Other Poems; Allen Ginsberg; City Lights
Books; San Francisco; 1959; Dedication to Jack Kerouac
75) Selected Letters 1940-1956; p.530
76) Some of the Dharma; p.304
77) On the Road; p.245-6
78) Visions of Keroauc; Charles E. Jarvis; Ithaca Press;
Lowell, Massachusetts; 1996; p.201


This Gun For Hire (1942)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
The Blue Dahlia (1946)
White Heat (1949)
Casablanca (1942)
Key Largo (1948)
Time Is Terror/Flesh Feast (1970)
Pull My Daisy (1959)

“…tell those Lowell politicians to take down that moldy
Alan Ladd Monument in front of the city hall and put up
a Zeusian statue of Ti Jean, Jack Kerouac,
native son of Lowell.” (78)

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