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|William P(eter) McGivern (1922-1982) - also wrote as P.F. Costello, Bill Peters, Gerald Vance|
American novelist, screenplay writer, who published over 20 novels covering the wide genre of thrillers – homicide detection, espionage, political corruption, the world of psychopath, the crooked cop. McGivern also wrote a number of television films and major feature films, among them the John Wayne vehicle Brannigan (1975), co-scripted with Christopher Trumbo, Michael Butler, and William Norton. McGivern's noir tale of three losers, Odds against Tomorrow (1957), was filmed in 1959, starring Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan.
Novak leaned back on the bed and the overhead light touched the speculative glimmer in his little eyes. "It's a kind of a decisive age though. At thirty-five a guy should know whether or not he's going to make it." He grinned at Earl's puzzled frown, and then his eyes wandered casually over Earl's suit and shoes. "How do you figure you're doing? Got it made yet?" (from Odds Against Tomorrow)
William Peter McGivern was born in Chicago, but grew in Mobile, Alabama. His father was the son of a farmer, and mother, Julia Costello, a dress-maker, who had a shop, Madame Julia's, in Chicago. After quitting high school, McGivern started to write. He worked at the Pullman Company and read on his spare time such authors as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Hawthorne. In 1940 his works began to appear in Amazing Stories, Short Stories, etc. Some of the stories, such as 'Convoy to Atlantis' (1941), published in Amazing, and 'The Ghost That Haunted Hitler' (1942, Fantastic Adventures) were set in the Wold War era.
With David Wright O’Brien, who died in 1944 while flying a bombing raid over Berlin, McGivern wrote 'John Brown's Body,' 'Mr. Muddle Does as He Pleases,' 'Daughter of the Snake God,' 'The Giant from Jupiter,' and 'Victory from the Void.' O'Brien and McGivern shared an office in Chicago and were the most prolific contributors to Amazing. When McGivern was offered an opportunity to write hard-boiled detective stories for pulp magazines edited by Howard Browne, he turned his back on science fiction.
From 1943 to 1946 McGivern served in the U.S. Army as a line sergeant and won the Soldier's Medal – he jumped on a bombed tanker and opened the valves to release the gas inside, thereby saving its trapped crew. Before returning to the United States, McGivern studied at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. He left the service in January 1946, and worked then for two years as a police reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin. Between the years 1949 and 1951, McGivern was a reporter and reviewer in Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. His first novel, But Death Runs Faster, came out in 1948. It was was followed by several other hard-boiled novels. McGivern received in 1952 an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and served as president of that organization in 1980. He also taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina.
For a period, McGivern lived with his family in Europe, traveling around France, Italy, Ireland, England and Spain. Eventually they returned to a farm in Pennsylvania, and then moved to Palm Desert, California. In the 1960s, McGivern began to write for TV, among others for such series as Banyon and Kojak. His novel Odds Against Tomorrow was filmed two years later. In the story a former cop David Burke (Ed Begley, Sr.), a war veteran and Southern racist prototype Earl Slater (Robert Ryan), and a black gambler and jazzman Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) team up for a bank robbery. The enterprise fails because of their own racist hatred and a small town sheriff, who turns out to be a vigilant. Johnny and Earl form a contrast to each other. They die shooting each other on the top of an oil tank, which bursts into flame.
The screen adaptation of the book was directed by Robert Wise for Harry Belafonte's company. A black-listed screenwriter, Abraham Polonsky, was hired to co-adapt the novel for the movie. As a front, Polonsky used the author and educator John O. Killens (1916–1987). Most of the film was shot in New York. Belafonte performed the vocals on one of the songs. John Lewis' score was performed by an orchestra, that included Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, Connie Kay, Bill Evans, and Jim Hall. At the end, when officials are viewing the charred bodies of Johnny and Earl, a hospital attendand asks, "Which is which?" The police chief replies, "Take your pick." Belafonte laster said, that Odds was designed "to change the way America was doing business . . . and in that climate Abe and I then saw the opportunity to put a point of view on the screen."
McGivern was married to Maureen Daly (1921-2006), an editor and author of teen fiction. They first met in 1942 in Chicago, where she signed his copy of her award winning novel Seventeenth Summer. At that time, McGivern was still an aspiring writer. Separated by the war, they kept in touch through correspondence and married in 1946. Together with his wife, McGovern published a travel book, Mention My Name in Mombasa (1958). McGivern died on November 18, 1982. His daughter, Megan, died of cancer the following year.
Several of McGivern's stories dealt with crooked and rogue cops, anticipating the emergence of vigilante cops and right-wing critiques of liberal laws. In The Big Heat (1953), which was first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, Sergeant Bannion is suspicious of the death of a police clerk named Deery, but ignores warnings. After a bomb planted in his car kills his wife he resignes from the police force and starts his own investigation, discovering a nest of corruption which includes a number of high police officials.
The screenplay for the movie adaptation of the novel, written by Sydney Boehm and directed by Fritz Lang, won a 1954 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. The film's violence was much debated at the time, especially the gangster's moll Debby (Gloria Grahame) was treated badly. Lee Marvin as the sadistic gunman Vince throws a pot of coffee at her, and one side of her face is burnt and scarred, while the other remains clear and attractive. "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better," she tells Bannion (Glenn Ford). Debby helps Bannion and comes forward to identify his wife's killer. The moral focus of the film is on the victims and on the obligation of witnesses to speak out. "Terrific Fritz Lang film links hard-hitting exposé films of the fifties with forties film noir. While it coolly surveys the all-inclusive political/police corruption, it is equally concerned with the corruption of a decent man's soul; among other noir elements are pervading pessimism, ferocious violence, a hero who makes one vital mistake from which there is little chance to recovery – he underestimates his opposition as much as they do him – and the intertwining traits of fatalism and paranoia." (Danny Perry in Guide For the Film Fanatic, 1986) The Big Heath stands as Lang's finest American film of the 1950s.
"We're all sisters under the mink." (Gloria Grahame, a gangster moll, to Jeannette Nolan, a blackmailer in The Big Heat, 1953)
The theme of "tempting indulgence" was further examined in the disillusioned crime story, Rogue Cop (1954). The cop of the title is an Irish-American police officer Mike Carmody, renamed Chris Kelvaney in Roy Rowland's film adaptation, starring Robert Taylor, George Raft, and Janet Leight. Both the novel and film end on a note of moral triumph. Robert Taylor plays a crooked police detective, who tracks down his brother's killer by turning against the Syndicate that pays him. Detective Edmond O'Brien murders a bookmaker in Shield for Murder (1954) and in Hell on Frisco Bay (1956) ex-waterfront cop Alan Ladd, out of prison, goes after the man who framed him for manslaughter. The theme fascinated the author, because "the frustration of our society forms a powerful thrust for people to take the law into their own hands and, while this is a tempting indulgence, I have tried to make it plain in my books that it never really works."
Brannigan was made in London and had thematic connection's to Clint Eastwood's films Coogan's Bluff and Dirty Harry. John Wayne plays a Chicago cop, who is sent to London to pick up a gangster, only to find out that he has apparently been kidnapped by rival mobsters. McGivern's later books had foreign locales, usually Spain or Morocco. Rome provided the background for the counterespionage activities of a young American engineer in Margin of Terror (1953). Night of the Juggler (1975, filmed in 1980) was a chase thriller, where a New Yorker pursues the kidnapper of his daughter.
For further reading: After the Flood: Irish America 1945-1960, eds. James Rodgers, Matthew O'Brien (2009); Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); World Authors 1950-1970, ed. by John Wakeman (1975); Philadelphia Suday Bulletin, July 10, 1960.