After the swaggering gangster Mickey Cohen and two henchmen called on Ben Hecht in the late ’40s, he remarked, ”They acted like people I made up.” In a sense, he did make them up. The movies he wrote, populated by fast-talking, wisecracking cops, crooks, reporters, actresses, etc., had a lot to do with the image Americans formed of themselves in the ’30s and ’40s and with the triumph of a hard-boiled urban national style over the florid and genteel sentimentalities that prevailed when Hecht was born (1893).
Better writers than Hecht — Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Chandler, and O’Hara — dolefully served time as Hollywood screenwriters, but at Hollywood screenwriting nobody did better — or got richer — than Hecht, who enjoyed it nearly as much as he despised it. He begot the gangster movie (Scarface) and the screwball comedy (Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, Design for Living, etc.), wrote Hitchcock’s most subtle and disquieting film (Notorious), and had a hand in over a hundred other movies, including Gone With the Wind, John Ford’s Stagecoach, and Orson Welles’ Journey Into Fear. As the Hollywood director-as-auteur is slowly lowered from his French-imported pedestal and screenwriters emerge cautiously from the shadows, it is good to have this solid, discerning, anecdote-cluttered biography of the most brazen screenwriter of them all, who himself acted pretty much like someone he had made up.
What made him so good at writing movies? For one thing, he never went to film school. Son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he graduated directly from a book-devouring, adventurous adolescence (at one point he and his brother toured as a circus trapeze act) into the brash, boozy pandemonium of Chicago journalism that he and Charles MacArthur later enshrined in their classic hard-boiled farce The Front Page (made and remade into several movies, notably His Girl Friday). The Chicago years, which made up the main part of Hecht’s memoir, A Child of the Century, make up the most entertaining third of William MacAdams’ biography. His first newspaper job as a picture-chaser (spiriting away photographs — oil portraits if necessary — from the homes of murderers, victims, jilted brides) required the combined skills of an actor, cat burglar, and track star. While working his way up to ace reporter of the Chicago Daily News, he churned out slightly scandalous poems, novels, and general late-night conversational iconoclasm, which made him if not the brightest at least the noisiest star of the Chicago literary renaissance, companion of Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner; contributor to The Little Review and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set.
MacAdams is probably right to suggest that if Hecht hadn’t rented his soul to Hollywood in the ’20s he would have wound up a footnote to the literary history of the period. His novels suffer from acute plot deficiency and a reliance on shock effects — borrowed from Nietzsche and the French Decadents — that seem melodramatic today. But his literary ambitions left him with a healthy irreverence about screenwriting. His epigram-laden novels have sunk from sight, but people see his breezy, wisecracking movies for the sixth time, quote them, talk like them. Sometimes selling out leads one astray, into the lower echelons of immortality.