Thursday, April 9, 2009

Will the real Flashgun Casey please stand up?

There was a great loyalty in Casey… He had been a photographer a long time and for all his crabbing and profanity, his clashes with [his editor], his grumbling over the injustices he suffered, he would not change his job with the President…
… That’s how it was. Day after day. Picturing the contemporary drama of life but never thinking of it that way; thinking of it only as a job he liked and always knowing one thing: if you got a picture, no one could ever deny it. Stories could be faked but to get a picture you had to be there.

That’s from the 1942 novel Silent are the Dead, by George Harman Coxe. It’s a good, concise description of Jack “Flashgun” Casey, the tough, hard-drinking, Boston-based news photographer who was the protagonist in an excellent series of stories in Black Mask magazine during the heyday of the pulps. Casey’s tougher traits, though, are balanced out by some other qualities—his intense loyalty to his friends and his profession and his empathetic nature.

It’s these qualities in Casey that make him an effective hard-boiled hero. The best stories from that genre combine a cynical world-view with the knowledge that there actually is a difference between right and wrong. The protagonist, by upholding his code of honor, would give the stories a moral backbone that raised them to a level they would not have otherwise reached. The code was often a very personal thing, centering around keeping one’s word or an unflagging loyalty towards something worthwhile. It reminded us that, though we might be up to our hips in corruption, we were each still individually responsible to hang on to our own moral worth. Casey, who was always reluctantly being pulled into criminal investigations when all he sets out to do is get a good picture, is just such a protagonist.

The Casey stories had great plots as well. Silent are the Dead involves several murders, a a blackmail scheme and assorted convoluted motives, all twisting together into an emotional ending. The short story “Once Around the Clock” has Casey helping out a drunken and (seemingly) worthless ex-con who is falsely accused of murder. In “Two-Man Job,” Casey takes a picture that links armored car guards to a robbery and murder plot. All great stuff, written in straightforward prose that moves the stories along at a fast pace.

But when Casey came to other media, he was never quite the same guy.

A 1936 film titled Women are Trouble (based on a short story of the same name) has never shown up on DVD, so I’ve never had a chance to see it. But a 1937 Casey film, titled Here’s Flash Casey was recently released on disc.

In this film, Casey reverts from being an experience photographer to a young guy just out of college, hoping to get a job at a big newspaper. The film doesn’t try to replicate the hard-boiled feel of Coxe’s stories at all, but instead goes for the sort of fast-talking, wise-cracking style seen in better known films such as The Front Page. Its loosely structured plot follows Casey through his struggle to get a job and his pretty much unintentional involvement in breaking up a blackmail ring. Judged on its own merits, it’s not a bad film—the main characters are likable and a fair percentage of the wise-cracks are pretty good. But this particular Casey just isn’t the same guy we come to like so much in Coxe’s original stories.

Yet another Flashgun Casey had quite a long career on radio. Running from 1934 to 1950 (then again from 1954-55), Casey, Crime Photographer gave Casey a regular partner (pretty reporter Ann Williams) and cast him in the mold of a traditional amateur detective, with a talent for deductive reasoning that was often as useful to him as his skill with a camera. Once again, the tough, hard-boiled aspects of the character were left behind, though the guy we are left with was amiable enough and the individual episodes were well-plotted mysteries. It was a solid, enjoyable show, but once again, it gave us a Casey different from both those who had come before him.

There’s one more version of Casey out there I’ve never had a chance to see. He briefly appeared on television in 1951-2 in a live show starring first Richard Carlyle and then later Darren McGavin. Like the movie Women are Trouble, this show has never been released on DVD and I’m uncertain if many episodes still exist. I’d love to see how McGavin (a wonderful character actor) played Casey. Oh, well, perhaps someday.

Every time Casey appeared in a new medium, he was born anew, going from tough guy to college kid to clever amateur detective. The Casey from Coxe’s original stories is still the best of the lot, but all of them are worth getting to know. The prose stories, the movie and the radio show each in their own way present us with entertaining stories and a likeable hero.

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