Vince Vega in Vita-Vision

A story told in the form of an article about the old Humphrey Bogart movie that PULP FICTION was based on...

 
VINCE VEGA IN VITA-VISION
 
by Laika Pupkino
 
 
It was an event that American Cineaste magazine compared to the discovery of Tutenkhamen’s tomb. While this might be a bit of an exaggeration, that Autumn day in 2006 was undoubtedly a momentous one for film historians and movie buffs around the globe...
 
Remodelling a house in Culver City, a young man named Mike Grabnowski found a film cannister labelled Dime Novel inside a wall. Any other construction laborer might have simply tossed it out, but Grabnowski---a self described movie fanatic---realized what he had possibly found, and took it straightaway to his old film studies professor, praying that this celluloid treasure was not too badly degraded. His prayers were answered. The print proved to be in excellent shape, having been entombed under nearly perfect climactic conditions for all those years. And so a classic motion picture thought lost forever has been returned to us.
 
The 1940 Paramount title (b+w, 109 minutes, directed by Max Silverman) was the original basis for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Or rather the screenplay was. Tarantino---like everyone else born after WWII---had never seen the film until he helped supervise its restoration- a project undertaken at UCLA’s Digital Archives Lab with the help of a grant from Sony Film Classics. Dime Novel will soon be available on DVD, and as part of the seven disc Jubilee Edition of Tarantino’s remake.
 
The similarities between the two films are striking, most notable being Dime Novel’s sardonic tone and macabre sense of humor, which delights us today but did not go over too well with the audiences of 1940. In what we now recognize as a subtle parody of the gangster film---but was seen then as reckless sneering amorality---Dime Novel took the conventions of the lurid pulps and this new film genre called “noir” as far as anyone could have dared and still gotten this picture past the blue-noses at the Hayes Office...        
 
A crime drama without identifiable heroes was not unheard of at the time, but viewers at least expected the low characters that populated its back alleys, tenaments and seedy bars to come to unambiguously bad ends ...... the price we extracted not just from them but perhaps from ourselves, for our vicarious participation in their sordid scofflaw lives. 
 
In his weekly radio sermon, Father Caughlin voiced the opinion of many of his contemporaries when he referred to the thunderous sound of the gigantic swaying U.C. Berkeley carillon bells---which lends such ominous portent to the film’s hypnotic opening credits sequence---as
“the death-knell of civilization”...
 
The differences between Dime Novel and Pulp Fiction are much what you would expect considering when each picture was made. Dime Novel’s plot is more straightforward---beginning, middle, ending---without the chronology of events having to be pieced together by the audience, as with Pulp Fiction, when they were confronted with Travolta’s dying then appearing unharmed in later scenes (a twist that bedevilled many a theater manager when dry running Fiction in 1992- making them fear they had somehow screwed up the sequence of the reels!). We forget that Pulp Fiction did as much as any film in history to familiarize cinemagoers with nonlinear plotlines, so that any child of today can follow a story that would have confounded the audiences of prior eras...
 
Not that Dime Novel is itself a simple film, pedestrian in concept or execution. The many plotlines and the odd ways they intersect still demand your attention, and Vince Vega’s (Humfrey Bogart) three opium hallucination sequences provide plenty of art-house and “stoner” appeal; from the creepy slapstic of his revolver sprouting legs and running away---a weird, murky stop-action sequence reminiscent of Tim Burton’s work---to the lavish Busby Berkely-Goes-To-Hell dance number, and finally the encounter in an eerily overlit desert, the ruins of some futuristic city off on the horizon, with the “Christ Figure” (voice of Orson Wells, seen only as a shadow on the sand) ...... which proves in fact to not be not divine in origin but something extremely demonic, laughing, its outline becoming ugly, twisted and spikey as it mocks the repentant hoodlum: NO REDEMPTION FOR THE LIKES OF YOU!! Which is especially haunting as it comes just minutes before Vega’s death. The inclusion of these sequences must have been a real headache for the studio executives, who were notoriously intolerant of “all that artsy crap”.
 
Another notable difference---but again one that’s to be expected---is the lack of major Negro characters in the earlier film. Edward J. Robinson plays “Mr. Marcellus”, a rather fastidious crime boss, whose ruthlessness gleams like a knife blade beneath the dapper facade; and whose gutter origins can’t be masked by the smoking jacket or his knowledge of wines...   
 
Samuel L. Jackson’s character is now an Englishman---played with droll aplomb by Morris Reedy---who clearly has great affection for the brooding lout Bogart plays, although his sly smirks and minimally raised eyebrow speak volumes about his opinion of this upstart nation’s abysmal lack of class. Their increasingly sarcastic argument about the differences between our cultures, which opens the film, is as hilarious as it is timeless- managing to skewer the conventions, pretentions
and prejudices on both sides of the Atlantic.
 
Reedy’s performance as “Julian” is so good that you might wonder why you haven’t seen him in other movies from this era. He does appear in a few---British ones mostly---but prior to this astonishing performance he had done most of his acting on stages across the U.K. Sadly, he had just landed a lucrative five picture contract with Warner Brothers when he was killed in the Blitz during what was to be a brief trip home.
 
Everywhere in Dime Novel concerns of class and social standing take the place of Pulp Fiction’s racial undercurrents. When on the order of his boss, Vincent Vega takes the sophisticated Mia Marcellus (Lauren Bacall) out for “a good time” he takes her to claustrophobically snooty restaurant, thinking it’s what she prefers. As he looks at the array of silverware before him in confusion she proceeds to unobtrusively coach him- this one, now this one. 
 
Though he is elegantly dressed the waiter can tell he is out of his element, and begins to not-so-subtly insult him. When he threatens the young pansy with “a knuckle sandwich” Vega is sure that he has horrified his companion.      
 
Which is when Mia drops the aristocrat act, revealling that while she can play this tony game---it being expected of the wife of a fake culturato like Marcellus---she’s just a midwestern girl, a failed actress, certainly no higher born than he is. She even hints, with a coy euphemism about having done “things I’m not proud of”, of a stint as a prostitute...    She finds the hoodlum’s unpretentious company refreshing. They leave, making a scene as they do (“Well I never!” crows a rich old bag), and go chow down at a hot dog cart, then drink cheap whiskey in a park. A dangerous romance is blooming. 
 
In Silverman’s film Bacall does not o.d. on heroin, but DOES deliver one of the most endearingly comic drunk-scenes ever, taking spectacular pratfalls in the mud........then has to be cleaned up lest she be returned to her dictatorial husband in this state. To do this they have to burgle a women’s shop, narrowly escaping the police, still drunk and laughing despite the peril and tension of the scene, the flashlight beams playing closer and closer before moving off.
 
Buddy Ebsen (later of Beverly Hillbillies fame) gives a finely nuanced performance as Butch, the mediocre boxer who double-crosses the crime boss Marcellus by not throwing a fight as he had been commanded. He and Gundren (Marlene Dietrich) have plotted to collect from the bookie and leave the country on a steamer, except she has left the tickets back at his place.........Which doesn’t surprise us. We never actually see her using, but with her languid weltschmerz air she seems more like a hophead than Bogart’s Vega.
 
“Don’t go back there,” she warns Butch. “We can just buy new ones!”                        
 
But he needs every dime for their new life down in Rio- his winnings won’t exactly make them rich. So back they go, in his motorcycle with a teardrop sidecar. Butch gets the drop on Vega, kills him, and they retrieve the tickets. 
 
Meanwhile Edward G. Robinson susses out where she lives, hurries there, and finds her absent-minded telephone doodle lying crumpled in the waste basket, which provides enough clues---a drawing of a boat under a crescent moon, GATE 29 written repeatedly in a playful variety of styles---to give away their plans. He heads them off at the harbor. It is here that he and the boxer get into a huge knock-down fight, and they go rolling blindly into...    
 
Well it’s not an army surplus store run by vicious perverts. It’s a ship full of German spies. A small freighter. You wouldn’t think they would wear their Nazi uniforms on a spy mission to New York but here they are: Decked out in S.S. regalia so black and crisp and snugly-tailored, so bedizined with shiny doodads that it---along with having cast a bevy of gorgeous young blonde men right out of a Leni Reifenstahl film as the ship’s crew---seems to suggest the sinister homoeroticism that Tarantino would make explicit. In addition to the espionage mission they’ve been flooding the East Coast financial centers with counterfeit money, trying to destabilize the U.S. economy. [Allied Intelligence only learned of a plot like this in 1943. Did scriptwriter “Sam Simeon” perhaps know more than he let on?]
 
Their mission completed, the Nazis prepare to set sail, and plan to dump the meddling Americans overboard 100 miles out. Here at last is Peter Lorre, playing the cruelly fanatical Aryan with a relish that Jewish-refugee actors in particular seemed to bring to these roles: Squinting around his monocle, cigarette held strangely in one clawlike hand, describing with sadistic glee what it will be like for them as they tire and drown! [Even this close to our entering the war, there were those at Paramount who thought the idea of having these villains be German was needlessly “political”.]
 
Butch manages to escape, and is about to slip over the gunwale---he’d better hurry, they’re casting off!---when he evidently has second thoughts about abandoning the crime boss to the murderous Krauts. (A conversation between Butch and Mia about Marcellus’s rough treatment of her revealled that the two men had once been friends.......before the gangster’s consuming arrogance reduced everyone in his life to the status of vassals and stooges). 
 
He evades them clear back to where Marcellus is held, unties him, and together they fight the twenty Nazis as the ship chugs toward the mouth of the harbor. Barrels of fuel on the open deck. Fire breaks out from the gun battle. They dive overboard just as the ship (an obvious model) explodes!
 
Butch pulls Marcellus, who looks like a drowned rat in his sodden suit, up onto the dock. It is obvious that he’s not much of a swimmer. The harbor is in pandemonium over the blazing ship, people running, the harsh screech of policeman’s whistles! The gangster decides he had best make himself scarce.
 
Byegones are byegones now about the pugilist’s failure to throw the match; and as Marcellus slips away there is even a hint of the fondness and sense of equality they had shared in their youth.   
 
Ebsen and Deitrich meet up at the boarding ramp. He is wet, torn and bloody. She eyes him with concern. My God! What has happened to you?! Whose monocle is that?
 
He replies that it belongs to Kapitan Zed. 
 
She pouts gravely. And who is Kapitan Zed?
 
“I’ll tell you aaaaall about it,” he laughs as they ascend the gangway. 
.
 
<=O=O=O=O=O=>
 
This bit of fictional journalism was based on a dream I had,
of seeing this old movie while someone explained that it was
the basis for PULP FICTION, and being amazed that I'd never heard 
of such a film before. This was originally posted as a blog at STARDUST...
,

 

Surreal

Maybe with CGI, someone will make this movie exactly as you describe it. See my story, Marilyn In Blue. :)

- Joyce

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