Will "Black Wings Has My Angel" Spark a Film Noir Revival?

Will "Black Wings Has My Angel" Spark a Film Noir Revival?
Detail of the cover for Elliott Chaze's "Black Wings Has My Angel"
(© Gold Medal Books)

Although film noir seems unlikely to be revived as a genre as it was in the seventies and in the early nineties, it still rears its ugly-beautiful head now and again. The last flourish was in 2001-06, when “Mulholland Drive,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “The Road to Perdition,” “Sin City,” “The History of Violence,” “Hollywoodland,” and “The Black Dahlia” emerged.

Since then the most significant entry has been the Jim Thomson adaptation “The Killer Inside Me” (2010), reviled by many for the ferocious battering meted out to Jessica Alba’s character. Little has been heard since 2009 of Universal’s proposed film of Raymond Chandler’s story “Trouble Is My Business,” which was to star Clive Owen as Philip Marlowe.

Noir fans, though, can rejoice in the news that Tom Hiddleston and Anna Paquin have been cast as the leads in a potentially steamy thriller, long in development, based on Elliott Chaze’s novel “Black Wings Has My Angel,” published by Gold Medal in 1953 (and winner of its Fawcett Gold Medal Paperback Award). An undistinguished French adaptation called “Il gèle en enfer” was released in France in 1990.

Following a 10-year quest by producer Christopher Peditto to track down and secure the rights, the film was originally announced in 2007 with “Lord of the Rings” star Elijah Wood attached as a co-producer. The adaptation was done by Peditto, Barry Gifford, who co-wrote “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway” with David Lynch, and the Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Pineda Ulloa. The movie will be Ulloa’s first English-language feature as director. There are no details yet about whether it is to be a period piece or a neo-noir. Shooting is scheduled to start in September.

Chaze’s story, influenced by James M. Cain’s 1934 “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and the 1946 noir starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, is narrated by an ex-con roughneck called Tim Sunblade, a Garfield lookalike (in the novel at least) to be played by Hiddleston, who hires the beautiful but initially icy prostitute Virginia to visit him in a backwoods Mississippi hotel. She's a femme fatale with a difference, one who dreams of luxuriating naked in greenbacks, and Paquin should have a ball playing her.

Despite Sunblade’s attempt to dump her after a protracted sexual idyll, circumstances bring them back together and they become a couple joined by lust, love, amorality, and not a little hate. They rob an armored van carrying $89,000 in Colorado, killing the guard in the process, but their dreams of an easy life are destroyed by Raskolnikov-like guilt that, to cite Chaze’s metaphor, eats into them like cancer.

A more vivid writer than Thomson but a less lyrical one than Chandler, Chaze was an electrifying hard-boiled prose stylist. There was clearly a humorous glint in his eye when he wrote, though he never allows the sleaze to get out of hand or undercut his story’s existential drift or its Cain-like fatalism. Writing in Oxford American magazine, Gifford said "Black Wings" was “an astonishingly well-written literary novel that just happened to be about (or roundabout) a crime.”

Chaze (1915-90) never attempted to became a master of hard-boiled fiction. “Black Wings” (which he submitted to Gold Medal with “Red” not “Black” in the title) was his sole foray into the genre. A respected newspaperman, who worked for the Associated Press in New Orleans and Denver, he joined the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi as a reporter in 1951, eventually becoming a city editor and an award-winning columnist. He left the paper in 1980 but completed three more novels in his last decade. Over the years he wrote articles on a diverse array of topics for such magazines as the New Yorker, Collier's, Life, Reader's Digest, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan.

Admired by Ernest Hemingway for his early fiction, Chaze  wrote nine novels beginning with “Stainless Steel Kimono” (1947), based on his experience as a paratrooper with the 11th Airborne Division in Japan during and after World War II. Most of his nine books feature reporters and have a crime element, including “Tiger in the Honeysuckle” (1965), which dealt controversially with an interracial relationship in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era.

That novel offended liberal critics at the time and has fallen out of sight, but a potent film of “Black Wings Has My Angel” could make Chaze a cult author – if not necessarily the instigator of a new noir wave.