(originally published in Rosebud #56)
Shadows on a Screen
A god in a recliner, I watch Alex and Mavis walking in the brilliant sunshine toward their savage end. They are a good-looking young couple, confident, quietly triumphant, sure they have escaped the terrible dangers threatening them. I’m not much of a god. I know they are doomed but I can do nothing to change their destiny.
I’m up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep and watching television, an old movie I know well. It’s Cold Fire (1948),film noir (though no one used the term back then) about a small time gangster, the jealousy between two women in his life and how their rivalry forces him into a doomed attempt to knock over an armored car.
This old movie is very special to me because even in the moments when the awkward contrivances of its lurching plot are most apparent, I know that it is a reflection of reality, a reality my brother and I lived through a lifetime ago.
I was thirteen years old when my father was writing Cold Fire and I was just beginning to understand what he did, what movie writing was. Cold Fire was based on a novel the studio had bought. “Does this situation make any sense?” my father would ask me about some relationship or other in the book. “Will the audience understand these people or just hate them?” Once he read me descriptive passages from it and pointed out that if you filmed the elements described --- a baking asphalt street in summer or, and I do remember this phrase exactly, “the quiet shadows where deals are made” ---you’d have nothing but a dull stretch of film. “Does it add to the story? Does it make you see the characters?” he’d ask me.
My brother Leo, only nine years old, was still too young for these conversations -- Leo, “Lion”, as he was often called for his light brown hair, often longish, and his appetite for meat. Leo liked the name, basked in it, really. When I accused him of being like a dog who comes running when his name is called, he made a huge mock grin and told me I was just jealous that I had no nickname. Of course, he was right. Mom and Dad tried to accommodate me with a name, but nothing stuck, except the routine “Bobby” for Robert.
Most of the time, it was my mother who served as the sounding board for Dad’s musings and struggles, with me only pressed into service occasionally, but a call had come from New York. Grandma, Mom’s mother, had died. Odd as it may seem, Grandma’s death meant little to me and the Lion. In those days before commercial jets, people didn’t travel as easily and often as they do today. She was a somewhat dim and quite literally distant figure whom I had seen only a few times in my life. Death remained as it had always been for me, remote, unreal, something that happened in books and movies. Its only impact on my life in this instance was to create a temporary absence by calling Mom away from us. She went to Brooklyn for the funeral, and to help her sister settle Grandma’s affairs.
We had a maid, Lilly, who doubled as a cook, and Dad was good at scrambling eggs and making milk shakes. And of course, there was Nate ‘n Al’s, and Armstrong-Schroeder; the first, a deli; the latter, for chicken pot pie and the sweet pickles the deli didn’t carry.
It was at Nate ‘n Al’s that we found ourselves included in the planning for the armored car hold-up. Dad was sketching a diagram on a paper place mat for what turned out to be the get-away route, and when the Lion asked Dad what he was doing, he was thrilled to be told he could carry the Tommy gun. I was assigned the gas grenades. Lion believed we were playing a game, but I knew Dad wasn’t kidding. I knew Cold Fire was about a heist and that Dad, as usual, was working.
A few days after this, we were in the Packard, me in the back seat with a couple of car magazines, Leo next to Dad with a pad and pencil. We were parked on a side road off that stretch of La Cienega that cuts through the oil field between the Al Jolson Memorial and the airport, waiting for the armored car which carried the weekly payroll out to the crews. Sure enough, in a little while, the heavy truck rumbled by.
“Ten thirty-five,” said Dad. “Write that down, Lion.” He pulled out and followed the truck. Then, “Ten thirty-eight. Write that down. That’s where we’ll force it into the cul de sac.”
That afternoon, two men wearing hats came to our door.
“Anyone home besides you, son?” asked one of them when I looked out the peephole. I yelled for Dad. They showed him their badges, those gleaming hunks of metal, and he invited them into the living room.
The armored car had reported our license. The cops wanted to know what my father (and two children) had been up to. Dad laughed and explained. The cops said this was no laughing matter, so he went and got a copy of Cold Fire, the book and the script, and showed them what he was doing. He seemed patient with them, but I knew that patience pretty well. He was getting pissed off. When the cops started asking questions about the movie business, Dad said, “Well, we’re finished now, I think. You know, I wasn’t really planning to take on the armored car.” And the cops said, well we’re just doing our jobs and Dad said he had a job which he’d like to get back to and started walking them to the door.
“No need to get sore,” said one of the cops and then something about how he had a lot of good stories that would make good movies and how do you sell them to a studio. I wish I could remember exactly what Dad said then. It was something like, “but what do your stories mean, detective? What do they reveal about the inner mysteries, why things happen to us and what we should believe in?”
“What?” said the cop, and then Dad said something which I think I do remember exactly, “Do we deserve our fate or does it just come upon us?”
Of course, the cop was baffled. Respectful, I think, but baffled. He said they were the kind of stories Jack Webb has on his radio show. This was before Dragnet was on television. “Well,” said my father, “sell them to Jack Webb”.
After the cops were gone, I asked Dad if we were in trouble.
“No, Bobby, I don’t think so.”
“What about those stories he has? Maybe you could get some good ideas from them.”
“There are lots of ideas, Bobby. People have them all the time. The newspapers are full of stories. It’s what you make of them that matters, and I’ve got my hands full right now with the story we’ve got. And why are you hanging around the house, anyway? Why don’t you go to the park or something?”
My father was working at home the day the cops came because he was home most days, even when Mom was there to keep an eye on us and tend to our needs. He hated driving to the studios. Twenty Century Fox is just west of Beverly Hills, where we lived, and MGM not much further away, and Dad would consent to an office when working at these two but going to Warner Brothers, Universal, almost all the others meant a longer drive, which he resisted. It was only years later that I realized he shunned the studios because his night vision was failing. Daytime was no problem, but driving after nightfall was an effort, particularly if it meant navigating any of the canyons connecting our side of the Hollywood Hills with the Valley.
Lion and I didn’t like it when he worked at home because that meant we had to keep the normal kid noise level way, way down. I got in serious trouble one day in the second grade, I think it was, when our teacher told us to be quiet and I added what I really thought was the second part of the word. She said, “Children, be quiet and I reflexively said, “Goddamnit.” Her jaw actually dropped.
“What? What did you say?”
“Goddamnit. Be quiet, goddamnit.”
The aftermath is a blur although I do remember the school principal looking at me with grave concern. So far as I know, this incident ended here, but although there were unpleasant aspects to my father’s working at home, there was a definite upside as well. All kinds of interesting people came around, including Cold Fire’s producer, Max Arnow.
A friend of my father’s from New York, it was he who had optioned the novel and sold it to the studio. Until then, his career had been in the theater. This was to be his first movie and so he often turned to Dad for advice, but what I liked about him was that he never treated me as a kid. I suppose this was because he had no children of his own. He asked me once if I was a Truman man or a Dewey supporter. When I said “Truman”, he nodded as though I’d said something wise. Another time, waiting for Dad to finish something and sit down with him, he paid me the profound compliment of asking my opinion of his appearance. He was wearing tennis clothes.
“What do you think, Bobby? Does a man like me look silly in these shorts?”
“No, Mr. Arnow.” In fact, he was short and portly and he looked ridiculous.
“I’m learning the game,” he said. “It has great social value and they say the exercise is good for you. Do you play?”
Just then, Dad walked into the room and said, “Are you in this conference?”
My cue to go, which was fine, since he was being nice about it, but then, as I left the room, I heard Arnow say, “She won’t budge. She says she’ll go to Zelinger if we don’t let her do it her way.” Even at my age, I knew Zelinger was head of the studio, everyone’s boss, and that this was serious. I stayed in the hallway, just outside the room.
“There’s got to be a way, Max,” said Dad. “There’s got to be a way you can sell it to her.”
I soon had it pieced together. Zelinger had some deal with another studio which gave him one picture with Lila White and for reasons having do with scheduling, Cold Fire was it. The problem was that the part called for a woman who looked tough and worn. White wasn’t going for it. She wasn’t giving up her throne as a queen of glamour. Max, Dad and Gabe Young, the director, were convinced that letting her play it this way would be a disaster. And there were other problems. Dad wasn’t satisfied with his script.
“It’ll be fine,” said Max. “Great robbery, great crime stuff.”
“Yes, but what’s driving them all?”
“They want the money,” said Max. “Don’t complicate it.”
“Something’s missing.” said Dad. “The fury that drives them. The longing. The plot needs another spring, one more twist.”
Who could have imagined that the Lion and I would have a hand in solving the problem?
The key would turn out to be Irene Dupont, all of 19 then but even so, she had managed to accumulate a couple of small parts to her credit, one of them in a picture directed by Gabe, who was going to direct Cold Fire. Gabe and his wife Sheila were friends of Mom and Dad and from some cryptic remarks passing between my parents, I’d gathered that something was going on between Gabe and Irene besides picture making. “Fooling around” was the expression the adults in our circle used then, even if they didn’t think kids might be within earshot. And Irene wasn’t Gabe’s first and only extra-marital adventure. At some point, it did occur to me that if I knew what was going on, why didn’t Sheila?
Of course, she did. One Sunday afternoon during this time, me, Lion and Dad were at Gabe and Sheila’s house, with the adults drinking and laughing and soaking up the sun, and we kids staying in the pool until the skin on our fingers shriveled. Everything was as it always was, until Irene arrived. When Gabe caught sight of her walking across the patio, he blushed, brick red. Sheila greeted her with a warmth that seemed almost genuine.
Irene had been brought by Evan somebody or other, a friend of Sheila’s, who was so gay even a thirteen year old understood he didn’t go with women. I also understood that something brutal was under way. What it was exactly, I now realize, was that Sheila suspected – knew, really -- that Gabe was fucking Irene. She had gotten Evan to tell Irene that she would be out of town that weekend. It would be safe for Irene – with Evan as her beard -- to drop by and enjoy a day of socializing with Gabe and his circle. It would be a harmless bit of mischief.
This was Sheila hitting back. Rather than accusations, threats, pleas, she meant to say to Gabe and everyone else in town that she was no fool, she knew what was going on, she just didn’t care enough about him anymore to give a damn about his affairs.
Irene kept her nerve, kept quiet and managed to look demure. At some point, though, seeking relief from this pressure cooker, she escaped to the pool, and soon she was playing with us-- races and some crazy splashing game involving a couple of inner tubes and the garden hose. Lion and a few others his age were shrieking with delight. I was having a somewhat different experience. Irene was giving me a hard on.
Shortly afterwards, wrapped in towels and gorging on smoked salmon and almond cookies as we sat with the adults, Lion, who in his own prepubescent way was as infatuated as I with Irene, gushed out, “You should be in Dad’s movie!”
Instant embarrassment all around. Dad was embarrassed because writers never claimed – except to other writers – that the picture was theirs. The irritation that Gabe, as director, would usually have felt and probably expressed at this gaffe was subsumed by his discomfort over anything that drew attention to Irene, who he was trying to pretend didn’t exist. Certainly, Irene was embarrassed. And everyone else was embarrassed because the others were embarrassed. Except, of course, for Sheila, who seemed grimly amused.
For several seconds, no one said anything.
Then, Gabe said, “Irene’s a great little actress, Leo but we’ve got someone. We’ve got Lila White.”
“Unfortunately,” said Arnow, and someone else asked what the problem was with White, and it was only a matter of minutes before the problem was rehashed, that she wanted to play it glamorous, etc. Lion was bored and wandered off, warned by several adults not to go swimming right after eating lest he get cramps and die. I was inclined to stay anywhere Irene was but Dad suggested rather strongly that I go exploring in the remains of an old orchard beyond the pool to see if I could find any lemons, needed, I was told, for the drinks the adults were working on. OK. But no need to mope. Because not long after, Irene came along and somehow – well. no great trick for a girl like her dealing with a horny little jerk like me – got me to tell her where we lived. Our address and our phone number.
The next day, the phone rang and a thrill shot through me when I happened to be the one who picked up and heard Irene’s voice. She said hello to me, seemed genuinely interested at the moment when she asked me how I was but cut me off pretty quickly as I launched into a description of some recent adventure by asking to speak to my father. I yelled upstairs that there was a call for him, and stayed on the line waiting for him to pick up. I didn’t stay on for much longer than that, but even that was long enough to notice that Irene’s tone changed when she spoke to Dad. From big-sisterish to… well, really, more like the voice she used in Cold Fire. “Full of promise and full of threat” as Bosley Crowther described it in his review. She had dropped into character for Dad, or rather, come to think of it, maybe she was acting when she talked to me and Lion, and was most completely her real self as the woman of menace.
Be that as it may, a little while later, Dad came downstairs, with a nick on his chin and smelling of after-shave. Not long after that, Irene appeared at the door and as soon as he let her in, she was saying things like, “I had to see you. They’re planning something, something you won’t like.”
It was strange, disturbing, to hear what was clearly movie dialogue spoken in a real life situation. It was in fact dialogue from the Cold Fire script. Dad was taken aback for a moment, and then, flattered?, smiled broadly and saw Irene into the living room. She shifted back into her sweet young thing voice, thanked Dad, apologized for the intrusion, explained that Gabe had let her see the script. Finally, she got to the point. She proposed solving the problem they were having with Lila White by taking over White’s role. She wanted to enlist Dad in her cause before springing her plan on Gabe. Gabe was the Director, and writers usually had little or no influence on casting, but she knew that Gabe and Dad were friends, and she evidently believed in lining up all forces to her advantage.
Of course, it was an absurd proposition, the kind only someone too young to know better and driven by the most intense ambition would suggest.
Dad explained to her that it just wasn’t possible. They needed someone older than her to play that part, a woman whom age was making desperate. She was too young, too fresh, he stopped short of saying too innocent, for the role. But, no, no offense… he understood her coming, admired it.
“I had to try,” she said.
I wanted to help her, put in a word for her, plead her cause as Dad saw her to the door, but it was over. After she was gone, he started back up the stairs to his work room, then within a few steps, stopped and just stood there. I’d seen him do this a few times before. The Moment, we called it. Then he snapped out of it and sprinted on up. Within moments, there was the heavy clack, clack, clack of his typing, speeding up to a rapid fire chatter as he pounded out notes, dialogue, scenes. It was only later, looking at the film as an adult, that I realized what had happened, how Irene’s visit had solved the problem that had been nagging at him, how to give the script a deeper emotional resonance.
There’s a scene in Cold Fire in which the younger woman, Mavis, driven by jealousy, makes trouble with Alex the Bookie by carrying tales about him to Fat Moe, the local enforcer Mavis is barely mentioned in the book, was less than a bit part in the movie, until Irene’s visit. It was that which inspired a whole sub-plot which melds with the main line at the end of the picture, supplying that sense of death lurking, inevitable, a fate that must be fulfilled.
When Lila White heard what was afoot, that there was a new draft with Mavis’s part enlarged, she realized that meant her part might be reduced. Immediately , she became more cooperative, allowed changes in her make up and the way she would be lit and dressed, was gracious in accepting the thanks and compliments of Gabe and Max for her wisdom in moving from Glamour to daring realism.
Mavis’s role had been enlarged, but that didn’t mean Irene was certain to get the job. Gabe was all for it, quite possibly because it would be convenient for his affair with her and also because it would be a real jab in Sheila’s eye. He spent far more time than usual coaching her for the screen test, and was delighted by the result. “She’s good. She’s really good. She can do it,” he told Dad. Zelinger himself okayed her casting.
Sometime between all this and the start of production, an event far more central to my life than the making of a movie occurred – Mom came home. I’d been away to summer camp a few times by then, but had never lived without Mom in the house. I was so happy to see her. I think the Lion had never been separated from her before. When she appeared at the airplane door, he ran for her.
My parents were rarely publicly demonstrative in their affection, but as we walked back to the car, they were holding hands, like two young lovers in a movie. Dimly then, and many times since, I’ve wondered how a man so happily settled into domesticity could write so passionately about lust, betrayal and death. Even people like Gabe and Sheila were placid compared to characters in the pictures he often worked on.
Life at home returned to its normal routine. Dad went on to another project but still there was talk in the house about the progress on Cold Fire. Shooting had started. Word was that things were going very well. There was tension on the set, but this was working to the picture’s benefit. Lila White had developed an active dislike of Irene, infusing her performance with a genuine venom that helped make her lethal betrayal of the lovers in the film so very convincing.
One evening at dinner, an intriguing bit of news. Although most of Cold Fire was being shot at the studio, the usual practice in those days, it had been decided that there would be some exteriors filmed on location -- the shabby old houses lining Bunker Hill.
The Lion and I had visited sound stages and watched the shooting of scenes, but for some reason, the idea of the movie spilling out on to real streets excited the Lion enormously. He wanted our folks to take him to see this wonderful overlapping of art and reality, although he could not have put it into these terms.
“There’s nothing much to see, Leo,” said Dad. He explained that it was just going to be a couple of shots of Eric Palmer, who played Alex the Bookie, walking up and down Bunker Hill and then him and Irene Dupont going into a house.
Irene! Bless the Lion. Of course, this would be a chance to see Irene again. I joined the Lion’s cause. Please. And so it was arranged. It became a family outing.
Once there, I immediately sought out Irene. To my intense disappointment, she was very friendly, but in a big-sisterly way. Soon after, things got a lot worse. Copies of the script were lying about and Leo started to look at the pages to be shot. He was horrified by what he found -- that Alex the Bookie and Mavis would die in a hail of bullets.
“Dad, Dad...” he ran to where Dad stood talking to Gabe, grabbing at him.
“Dad, it’s not a happy ending.”
Gabe laughed but Dad took the Lion seriously. “It’s not that kind of picture,
“It’s terrible.” He was becoming shrill. “They shouldn’t die. She shouldn’t die.”
Mom appeared. “It’s only a story.”
“Dad can change it if he wants,” said Leo.
A small crowd was gathering... technicians, extras and, to my intense
“It resolves the story,” said Dad. “It’s the close. That’s the way this story
I told the Lion he was too young to understand.
“No,” said Dad, “Leo understands it pretty well. He just doesn’t like it. He’s
And then Leo looked right at Irene and said, “Why do you have to die?” Often we recall things differently from the way they were, or alter and embellish in the telling of them, but this moment is burned so deeply into me that I can see and feel it as though it were happening now. Irene Dupont took the Lion in her arms and kissed him on the cheek and said, “You are the sweetest, the sweetest kid in the world.”
How I hated you then, Leo. No wonder she didn’t take me seriously. She saw us both as children.
An Assistant called out, “Okay, folks. Places, please.” Irene and Palmer stepped into their marked positions in front of the camera, while Leo and I went where we belonged, with Mom and Dad, behind Gabe and the camera and the technicians, excluded from the intimate consummation, the filming of the scene.
We watched as Irene and Palmer walked up to the house, believing they had pulled everything off perfectly and all was well, unaware that the character played by Lila White had betrayed them to Fat Moe and they were in fact entering a fatal trap.
One problem after another plagued the shooting of this simple set up… an unwanted shadow, a distant backfire, some jam up with the camera. Over and over until the time seemed nothing but pointless tedium. In the finished film, of course, in the few seconds given to it, the moment is doom made visible, palpable.
Cold Fire made a small stir when it came out, in part because of Lila White’s shedding of her glamor image. Reviewers praised the film but they didn’t rave about it and soon it was just part of the studio’s inventory. Years later, its new life began as it appeared from time to time on late night TV, and then more recently, in video rental stores and DVD collections.
Lila White’s career entered a promising new phase because of Cold Fire but this was cut short when she developed diabetes and began to suffer an assault of incapacitating afflictions.
Irene DuPont married well, a dermatologist, and retired from movies. They live in New York. Every time I’m there, I think of calling her but really have no reason to do so. Maybe I’ve never completely forgiven her for using and dumping me.
Dear Max Arnow, Cold Fire’s Producer, was spared a prolonged decline. Not long after Cold Fire’s release, he dropped dead of a heart attack on a tennis court.
Sheila and Gabe Young remained together until Sheila’s death a few years ago. Gabe continued on, a bull of an old man, still driving himself around town in a huge old Lincoln until he died at the age of ninety. Some years before his death he wrote a memoir, published by a University press, in which he lamented his compulsive philandering. (“Why did I do it?” he asks. “I was such a fool.”)
The Lion remains generally enthusiastic about things, which may account for the fact that he has been married to the same woman for thirty years. They have three beautiful children and own a small chain of appliance stores.
Our Father’s night blindness, his reason for going to the studios as little as possible, was an early indicator of other, more serious problems with his sight. He was in fact going blind and spent his final years fumbling with materials from the Braille Institute, various kinds of magnifiers and tape recorders.
Eventually, after the Lion and I were grown, Mom and Dad sold the house and moved into an apartment. As happens inevitably, I suppose, with the passing of time, their circle of acquaintances shrank, but they delighted in visits from their grandchildren and revolved around each other like twin stars, their orbits dependent each upon the other, until Mom died and within months, Dad.
As for myself -- divorced, one lovely daughter in college. I’ve done well enough financially – real estate, commercial and residential. I’ve traveled some, had a lot of fun and I’m in no mood to pack things in. I’ve always liked Cold Fire, in part because of my peripheral involvement in it, but this night, so many decades later, the picture had new meaning for me. I was up, unable to sleep at three in the morning and watching television because my mind was turning with concern. In a few hours, I could call for the biopsy results. The doctor believed it wasn’t cancer but he (and I!) needed this confirmed. In any event, I really didn’t like being reminded that inevitably, sooner or later, something was going to get me.
Somehow, as I watched Cold Fire this time, in all its intrigues, twists and turns a dark mirror model of a world more precious to me now than when I lived in it, it seemed a gift from the past. It soothed me, even with the terrible deaths the Lion mourned that afternoon so long ago: “Why do they have to die?”
Is this one of the reasons we tell stories – to cut reality down to size, so we can confront it and give ourselves some sense of control? Maybe that’s why, after the final image of the killers closing in on the doomed lovers and the fade out which ends the picture, I found myself relaxed, resolved to face whatever was coming. I turned the set off and slept for hours.
Midmorning, I call. The Doctor’s with a patient. He’ll call me back... oh, he’s just finishing up, hold on. I wait a long minute or so, then he comes on the line, hearty and cheerful. The polyp shows only low grade dysplasia. The bleeding will probably not resume. Screw death. My story has yet to end.