Betrayed On Sundays

20 Oct

If I was ever to be asked what my best example of a roman a clef is, one novel would automatically come to mind. WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART by Peter Viertel. Clint Eastwood made a gallant if not particularly successful attempt at filming it. The book is a thinly disguised account of how Viertel, hired as a coscreenwriter, accompanied John Huston, the film director and world class outsize character, on a  scouting journey into the heart of the Dark Continent to find locations for THE AFRICAN QUEEN. That was the official mission. In fact, Huston was using it as an excuse to go bag himself an elephant.

Somewhere along the way, the Huston character (called John Wilson in the book) is railing about Hollywood and the film industry and his ambivalent feelings about that world. He starts to tell the narrator of the kind of film he would really rather make. What follows is a rough synopsis.

– It’s about a teenage boy and his mother in the early 1900’s living in a small MidWestern town. They live in a cheap boardinghouse and husband their money, sometimes having to skip a meal, in order to enjoy one hour of happiness each Sunday when they hire a couple of horses from a livery stable and go riding out in the country. That one hour a week is what they live for.

A man comes into their life. He’s in town for a couple of months. He makes a play for the widow. She has to work all week to support her son and herself. But she’s lonely. And the only free time she has is on a Sunday. After a time she gives in and makes a date with the salesman. The boy has to go riding out on his own. And it happens the next week. And the week after that. The boy is too proud and too hurt to complain. He rides out into the country where nobody can see him and he sits and cries while the horse waits. And one Sunday while riding, he sees the salesman and his mother riding out in a hired trap. And that seems the final betrayal to him.

He wrestles with wild thoughts of killing the salesman. But in the end he decides to run away. He does so and makes his way in the world, makes money, gets married – in a word, grows up. And finally he comes back. Now that he’s an adult he recognizes that what his mother did was normal. She only betrayed him on Sundays. But when he gets back to the small town, he can’t find her. He follows her trail. Since he ran away she became a lost soul. The guilt she felt about him has made her a drunk and a prostitute.

He searches for her from town to town. But when he catches up, it’s too late. She died the month before. She had gotten drunk, hired a livery hack and the horse had thrown her in the street. She had died in the charity hospital.

There’s nothing he can do. So he returns to his ranch out West and at dusk walks out among the horses. And you know he’s marked for life and nothing will ever make it right again. And it’s too deep for tears. –

Now when all is said and done, the book is a novel, a fictionalization of real events. Was this a scenario that Viertel made up to put in Wilson’s mouth? I always wanted to know. A while back a friend of mine Tom Kallene in Spain was heading down to the coast to interview Peter Viertel over his memories of Orson Welles for a documentary. I told Tom the story and begged that he would ask Viertel whether the tale was an invention or not. Viertel died shortly after. But not before I got my answer. The tale was actually word for word from Huston.

So there you have it – John Huston’s unmade original movie.

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