PRINT February 1981

American Abstract Sensationalism

The noiseless din that we have long known in dreams, booms at us in waking hours from newspaper headlines.
—T.W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951.

THERE ARE SENSIBILITIES SO keyed to the routine textures of urban life that they hardly seem to be sensibilities at all. But, if they are invisible, it is only in the sense of sewer mains coursing beneath the Park Avenue of bourgeois critical awareness. I’m thinking of those (largely) self-taught, (mainly) proletarian expressionists—“primitives” who personalized yellow journalism and made abstract sensation into something as complicated as art.

The term “primitive” has, according to John Berger, three art-historical uses, all dating from the late 19th century “when the confidence of the European ruling class was at its height.” The first “primitive” designates painting produced before Raphael, on the cusp of the Medieval and Renaissance traditions. The second labels the ‘trophies and curiosities’ carried home to Europe from the colonies. The last, says Berger, is meant “to put in its place the art of men and women from the working classes—proletarian, peasant, petit-bourgeois—who did not leave their class by becoming professional artists.”

Begging the question as to whether professional artists like Jan Steen or William Blake or Eugene Atget can really be considered to have left their class, it is clear that the industrial folk-culture of the 20th century has amended Berger’s formulation: The “primitive” is also that professional artist who (usually) originates from the working class and addresses a mass audience. The vehicles for such a professional have included vaudeville, movies, TV sitcoms, rhythm and blues, comic books, pulp novels, and—most polemically—the tabloid newspaper. For, ever since its inception in the years following World War I, the American tabloid has aggressively identified itself with the concerns, worldview, and vernacular—if not necessarily the interests—of the “common people.”

During the period between the wars, the tabloid constituted a major arena of working class culture (and was part of the process that transformed the 19th century newspaper from a journal of record into a form of democratic literature). The sociologist Robert E. Park once observed that the newspaper for the reporter was analogous to art for the artist, “less a career than a form of excitement and a way of life,” and it would not be too much to say that in the American popular imagination, the yellow journalist took on the aura of a proletarian artist who used the metropolis itself as raw material. Throughout the movies of the 1930s (particularly in those of the urban prole-oriented Warner Brothers and Columbia studios), the newshound appears as a brash, even bohemian, picaro. Slangy, cynical, knowing—with a consummate capacity to function on and unmask all levels of urban society—this figure strongly suggests the fantasy projection of the city’s lower orders (rural migrants, recent immigrants and their street-bred children). The mere existence of such a creature was a slap in the face of polite society. “I’ll tell you briefly what I think of newspapermen,” says the irate millionaire in William Wellman’s 1937 Nothing Sacred. “The hand of God reaching down into the mire couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of degradation—not by a million miles.”

The tabloid—named (after the trademark of a 19th century medicinal tablet) for its compact form, appropriate to rush-hour reading—developed an esthetic of shock, raw sensation and immediate impact, a prole expressionism of violent contrasts and blunt, “vulgar” stylization. At once cynical and sentimental, this mode fed on incongruity, mordant humor and the iconography of the street. The work of the tabloid school is brutal in both form and content, as assaulting as the cities which gave it sustenance and the subways where it was digested. Literary fellow travelers might have once included pulp writers like Dashiell Hammett or Horace McCoy. But the tabloid has always been half devoted to images, and the purist exponents of Abstract Sensationalism worked in visual media: B-movie director Samuel Fuller, Dick Tracy’s cartoonist Chester Gould, the press photographer Weegee.

Weegee and Gould were exemplary newsmen; Fuller apprenticed with the tabloids, before going on to make Hollywood films. The son of an immigrant factory worker, Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911. His father died when he was 11, and his mother then moved the family to New York. Fuller went to work as a newsboy and within six years rose to crime reporter on the notorious New York Daily Graphic. “I’m still basically a journalist,” he told an interviewer after 14 years as a director. Writing elsewhere, “Every newsman is a potential filmmaker.” Park Row—a feature Fuller made with his own money in 1952—is dedicated to American journalism; under the credits is a rolling title listing 2000 American daily newspapers. His other films which he called “scoops,” “great copy,” or “front-page material,” told topical stories of war and corruption with a hyped-up, tabloid-like structure that invented filmic equivalents for shock headlines and sensational leads.

A product of the frontier, Gould was born in 1900 in Pawnee, Oklahoma, where his father was a printer and later the owner of a weekly newspaper. Gould demonstrated an aptitude for editorial cartooning as a child, and after studying commercial art moved to Chicago where he freelanced cartoons. After a decade he attracted the attention of Joseph Patterson, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, with an Ur-version of Dick Tracy. The strip made its debut in October, 1931, and every day thereafter for the next 46 years several hundred American newspapers printed Gould’s daily update of his police detective making his rounds. (Although Dick Tracy still survives, Gould retired in 1977).

The first reproduction of a photograph to appear in an American newspaper was an image of a New York City slum: Weegee, perhaps the prototypical tabloidist, might well have been playing in the gutter. He was born Asher Fellig in the Hapsburg town of Zloczew in 1899 and immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side in 1910. Dropping out of school to help support his family, he worked (like Fuller) as a newsboy, sold candy in burlesque houses, cleared tables at the automat, bought a camera and roamed the streets posing children on a horse. From working as a passport photographer he landed a job developing pictures for Acme Newsphoto and, in 1935, after a dozen years contemplating what a front-page photo was, lit out on his own as a freelance practitioner. Renting a room across the street from Police Headquarters, Weegee slept during the day and patrolled the city at night: “Around five in the morning was the best time for the action. That’s when people kill themselves or somebody else.”

With his crushed fedora, slept-in suit, and omnipresent stogie, Weegee played reporter to the hilt, boasting of photographing 5000 corpses, maintaining that “no racketeer on the FBI’s list of the top ten public enemies made the grade until he had been photographed by Weegee.” He flaunted his callousness: “That ax murder saved my life. I guess that some must die that others may live.” In the same spirit, as a teen-age newshound, Fuller accumulated a collection of suicide notes the way other kids his age might’ve saved stamps. Included in Weegee’s celebrated 1945 collection, Naked City, is a photographed receipt from Time, Inc., marked “Two murders $35” (“That’s five dollars a bullet,” he liked to say.) A posed photo of the artist having his shoes shined is captioned “Covering murders gets messy.”

This hard-boiled attitude is the inevitable hallmark of abstract sensationalism. The tabloid sensibility not only needs to insulate itself from the horrors of the night, but requires an active appreciation of the mayhem to be formally orchestrated. It was “a beaut,” wrote Weegee of one prospective photograph. “A shiny new car in a head-on collision, banged up like an accordion, with the driver’s head sticking out of the windshield.” Compare this to Fuller’s remarks on the subway fight scene between Richard Widmark and Richard Kiley in his 1953 Pickup on South Street: “I liked the idea of Widmark pulling Kiley down by the ankles, and that the heavy’s chin hits every step. Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat: It’s musical.” In Dick Tracy, Gould also took an evident pleasure in violence, devising baroque ends for his villains, and infused the entire strip with a grim gallows humor. From December, 1973, through the following March, the recovered skull of a long-dead bookie became a running gag. Covered with a wig, tossed from a speeding car, this memento mori was successively employed as a paperweight, a Christmas tree decoration, a hot-rod accessory, a basketball and a bookend.

Gould imagined violence far more than he ever experienced it, but for ten years, Weegee actually practiced a form of urban combat photography. Always ready, he was even permitted to keep a police radio in his car, the only journalist save Walter Winchell then accorded such a privilege. The startling immediacy of Weegee’s flash froze his subjects like animals blinded in the glare of oncoming brights. But, rather than deer, Weegee’s most celebrated photographs captured a raunchy menagerie of killers, crazies and victims.

In his essay on Weegee’s newsphotos, John Coplans suggests that for Weegee photojournalism legitimized an innate voyeuristic will-to-power: “Sleep, self-absorption, and unawareness were his prime stimuli, and people convulsed with pain, shocked, in terror, or blown out of their minds were his special target. . . . There is a recognizable level at which Weegee is not a detached reportorial professional.”

The reporter’s working assumption is fundamentally apocalyptic: every public figure—which is to say, potentially every citizen—is subject to the Judgment Day glare of remorseless publicity. (“We have shifted the responsibility for making the world interesting from God to the newspaperman,” grumbles Daniel Boorstin in The Image). Thus, it would be more accurate to see Weegee as a consummate professional who brought to his acknowledged social function as voyeur a heightened degree of personal expression and artistic self-awareness. The 1940 photograph After the Season, Coney Island makes Weegee’s situation absolutely explicit. Three sleeping people huddle together on the beach oblivious to the shadow of the photographer that covers their sprawl like a tatty blanket. Occasionally, his camera’s Heisenberg effect was bluntly acknowledged: the female companion to the eponymous victim of Drowned Man, Coney Island (ca. 1940) forces a smile and arches her back, lifted out of anonymity as Weegee clicks his shutter.

Weegee specialized in urban crucifixions, attributing his success to a universal Schadenfreude, but the most sensational aspect of an oeuvre can divert attention from its essential dialectic. Just as Diane Arbus has been glibly typed as a photographer of freaks (nearly two-thirds of the subjects in her 1972 Aperture monograph are more or less “normal” men, women and children). Weegee can be too quickly pigeonholed as the stormy petrel of urban catastrophe. He was, rather, a connoisseur of the vicarious. Along with numerous pictures of ordinary people having a “good time” in bars or on the beach, he did an extensive photographic series of audience reactions at concerts, nightclubs and movies, often using hidden cameras and infrared film.

The images that Weegee made in shabby midtown bars or at Sammy’s Bowery Follies—pictures perhaps of slow disasters—are marked by an easy, ironic familiarity (and possibly a degree of épater le petit-bourgeois). Their insider’s celebration of this sleazy milieu is similar to the more picturesque skid-row lyricism of Fuller. Pickup on South Street, a 1953 film whose major characters are all unregenerate lowlifes—a pickpocket, a professional stool pigeon, and a prostitute—confines itself completely to moody reconstructions of the crime reporter’s beat. (Half the movie takes place in the subway or under the Brooklyn Bridge, the rest in police stations, Bowery flophouses, and greasy chop-suey joints. That none of it was actually shot in New York gives the film an additional hallucinated poignance.)

Weegee’s favorite photographer was Lewis Hine (a sentimental choice, for Weegee’s work is surely closer to that of Jacob Riis, another immigrant newshound who prowled the sleeping city) and his oeuvre is well-salted with portraits of his fellow night-workers—peddlers, delivery men and meat-packers, as well as cops and smoke-eaters. The subjects of these photographs are often grinning, as though caught by Weegee a split second past surprise, photographed with a head-on directness that precludes Hine-style idealization. The tone is one of friendly solidarity. Illuminated by the intensity of Weegee’ flash, these subjects are like featured players in the ongoing metropolitan drama that then constituted the photographer’s life.

While Fuller re-created lower Manhattan out of bits and pieces of Los Angeles and a Hollywood soundstage, Weegee’s 20-minute 16mm movie, Weegee’s New York, 1948, uses trick lenses and prisms to turn midtown Manhattan into a tacky Emerald City of Oz. The film, subtitled “The Documentary with a Heart,” is a half-maudlin, half-mocking expression of Weegee’s identification with New York, that only comes to life in the Coney Island sequences where he juxtaposes crowd vignettes with a pop score ranging from Jerome Kern to “Bingo, Bango, Bongo (I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo).” Generally speaking, Weegee’s work exhibits a fascination with the urban crowd which was, after all, his audience. In pictures like the 1944 Murder Victim or the undated arrest photo included in John Szarkowski’s From the Picture Press, the spectators who gather around corpses and car crashes are an integral part of the composition. It is this inscription of the spectator into the spectacle that lends a profoundly reflexive irony to Weegee’s enterprise, while authenticating his assertion—the oft-proclaimed credo of tabloid journalism—that “I always considered myself the Boswell of the people.”

The flashbulb had been on the market for only five years when Weegee turned freelancer, and it defined the essence of the tabloid image—scooping a searing, shallow foreground out of the night, giving bits of sidewalk or stairwells the unreal quality of stage sets against a black backdrop. Weegee accentuated this startling effect in his prints, using the enlarger to simplify his images further by cropping extraneous details or burning them out of the background. This woodcut-like starkness, meant to arrest the eye of a rushing pedestrian at a dozen paces, finds its graphic correlative in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. Like Weegee’s, Gould’s style was perfectly adapted to the vicissitudes of newsprint. He played massive forms off against details, eschewed modeling and tonal gradations. Each high-contrast panel was bluntly diagrammatic. (Indeed, he showed a fondness for working blueprints and inserts into his narratives.) Gould’s figures are stiff, angular and boldly outlined. Spotting fields of black throughout his panels, he employed a crude, dramatically malleable perspective, unleavened by shadows or benday dot patterns. His backgrounds were minimal and, in later years, virtually blank.

If Gould’s panels look as though they were drawn in the lurid glare of the flash, the influence of the news photo can also be seen in Fuller’s films. Shot mainly in high-contrast black and white, they favor tight, dramatic compositions, and harsh lighting. Fuller’s frames, as well as Weegee’s images and Gould’s panels, are characterized by an iconic baldness and the deliberate suppression of detail. “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” writes Susan Sontag. The filmmaker, of course, does both, and in a sense, Fuller’s films effect a synthesis of Gould and Weegee. There is an unmistakable cartoon quality to his movies—in his use of slogans for dialogue, in his bluntly designed, two-dimensional characters (many of whom take their names—Lucky Legs, Short Round, Baldy—from exaggerated physical attributes). Fuller has a propensity (anticipated by Gould) for posting signs or otherwise inserting messages into the frame. In fact, Fuller’s Victor was an editorial cartoonist, and one of his drawings was splashed across the front pages of a newspaper in Park Row. In the context of the film, this innovation is treated like a manifesto.

Dealing as they do with stylized violent action, Fuller and Gould share a number of formal traits. Fuller’s movies mix lengthy choreographed takes with jolting montage. (Of his 1960 Underworld U.S.A., V.F. Perkins wrote, “Every shot is a smack in the eye. Every cut is a shock cut.”) Fuller is notoriously fond of close-ups. It has been estimated that they constitute over half the shots in his first film, I Shot Jesse James (note the Sunday-supplement title), made in 1949; in Pickup on South Street, he frequently starts a shot in close-up and then dollies in even tighter on his subject. Gould’s narrative techniques are highly cinematic—Dick Tracy employed cross-cutting far more (and written sound effects far less) than other strips—and resemble Fuller’s in their hyperbolic frenzy. Gould had a marked predilection for the comic-strip equivalent of the long take, being perfectly willing to devote several consecutive four-panel daily strips (or half a Sunday page) to a single gunfight. His use of extreme close-ups (cited by Alain Resnais as an influence on his own work) is even more percussive than Fuller’s, and like him, Gould organized his panels with an eye to the disjunction caused by jarring shifts in angle or perspective.

Although Harold Grey’s Little Orphan Annie (which began in the New York Daily News in 1924) is considered the original non-comic comic strip, Dick Tracy was the first to mirror the mayhem and death purveyed on the front page, and is probably the most violent non-war “funny” in the history of American newspapers. Gould’s taste for raging fires and smashed automobiles rivals that of Weegee, but unlike the latter, he would never have admitted that murders and fires were his “bread and butter” and crime his “oyster.” Almost as a cover, Gould subscribed to various journals of criminology and police science, and studied detection at Northwestern University. He spent a considerable amount of time fraternizing with the Chicago police (who registered one of his cars as an official sheriff’s vehicle) and kept a retired policeman on his payroll as a consultant. His admiration for, and public friendship with, J. Edgar Hoover led to popular speculation that he was in some way connected with the FBI.

Perhaps Gould’s frontier childhood left him with a deep-rooted sense of the newspaper as the enforcer of community standards. There is an absolute moral quality to Tracy’s five-decade war against crime. Although Gould rarely, if ever, resorted to using specific minorities—Italians, blacks, hippies—as scapegoats, during the late ’60s and early ’70s he made abundantly clear his contempt for liberal attempts to “handcuff” the police. Like Weegee, Gould occasionally parodied the idle rich (mainly during the 1940s), but he was basically a propagandist for the status quo. If Weegee and Fuller were ostentatiously hard-boiled, a more accurate description of Gould would be hard-assed.

Despite Gould’s apparent concern with factual crime detection, what’s immediately apparent about Dick Tracy is how utterly fanciful it is. Almost from its inception, the strip complemented its sensational violence with a measure of farce, continually approaching—without ever succumbing to—self-parody. Among Tracy’s more reflexive elements were the fantastically reductivist strips-within-the-strip that began to appear in the mid-60s. One of these, “Sawdust” is no more than panels, dots and corny gags; another, “The Invisible Tribe,” dispenses even with the dots. Gould’s fascination with police hardware, epitomized by Tracy’s famous two-way wrist radio (later TV) turned speculative during the 1960s, when the strip took on a number of science-fiction elements, including one-passenger “magnetic” space coupes and a race of moon people. Even after this tendency subsided with the actual 1969 lunar landing, Tracy remained off-handedly sprinkled with such futuristic gadgets as a television set built into a stove.

Of course, the most obvious fantasy element in Dick Tracy—and the strip’s trademark—was the parade of freakish villains who began to populate the strip during the early ’40s with their grotesque physical characteristics apparent from their names—Pruneface, Ugly Christine, the Mole, et al. One suspects that Tracy’s insistence on the primacy of law and order was a psychological necessity, to keep the most disturbing elements of Gould’s imagination in check. Given Weegee’s education in chaos, or an environment analogous to that of post-World War I Berlin (a city that in some respects was the Chicago of Europe), Gould might well have produced work as unremittingly savage as that of George Grosz or Otto Dix.

This taste for the grotesque is another hallmark of the tabloid style. Whereas Fuller uses deformity mainly for its shock value (the most celebrated instance being the pre-credit sequence of his 1964 The Naked Kiss, where a pimp is beaten by a prostitute who’s been shaven bald), Weegee’s late career offers a freak show comparable to Gould’s—portraits of politicians and celebrities that employ various tricks lenses to effect brutal Minimata-like distortions upon their subjects.

Throughout Gould’s tenure, Dick Tracy came under intermittent attack for its excessive carnage. Gould bolstered the strip’s respectability with occasional exercises in pathos (generally occurring in time for Christmas), but his major diversionary strategem was Tracy’s consistent “educational” facade. Each Sunday page featured a helpful hint in the form of the Crimestoppers Textbook, subsidiary panels (suitable for clipping) which urged readers to install alarm systems in their campers or fingerprint their domestics, sometimes directing tips specifically at rookie policeman. Far more eccentric were the polemical asides—“The nation that controls magnetism will control the universe” was a favorite—that Gould incorporated into the strip itself. This sort of didacticism, deriving from the newspaper’s implicit function to instruct as well as entertain, received far more complex play within the films of Samuel Fuller.

Superficially, Fuller would seem to share Gould’s conservative attitude towards law and order. Early in his career he was pegged as a rightwing ideologue but, whereas the universe of Dick Tracy is static and Manichaean, the 17 low-budget, high-velocity films that Fuller wrote, directed and in many cases produced between 1949 and 1964 thrive on social contradictions, using neurotic loners or loud mouthed members of the lumpen proletariat to test society’s official pieties.

In his admirable 1972 essay on Dick Tracy (published in Prose No. 4), Donald Phelps speaks of “the Jacobean fierceness of [Gould’s] imagination.” It is a quality that Fuller shares, albeit with a far more anarchic backbeat. Fuller’s heroes are frequently abrasive sociopaths; America (his constant preoccupation) is invariably protected by its outcasts, who act from some emotional necessity that is pointedly apatriotic. “Are you waving the flag at me?” snarls pickpocket Richard Widmark in response to an FBI agent’s platitudinous speech in Pickup on South Street. This film, which appeared at the end of Hollywood’s six-year-long “red menace” cycle, pushes McCarthy-style anti-Communism to the far side of self-parody. The U.S. is saved when Fuller’s scum-of-Baghdad principals inadvertently connect with and thwart a Communist atomic spy ring. Thelma Ritter, the film’s lovable professional informer (sic), articulates the essence of knee-jerk anti-Communism when she exclaims, “Commies! Wadda I know about commies? Nuthin’, I only know that I don’t like ’em!”

By the 1960s, when Gould was flirting with science fiction, Fuller’s view of America had grown markedly pessimistic. Underworld U.S.A., structurally close enough to Pickup on South Street to seem an oblique remake, presents the crime syndicate as a giant corporation, protected by dishonest elected officials and skillful public relations. (In one Gould-like touch, Fuller locates the gangster board room by the edge of a vast indoor swimming pool, a vista so bleakly disinfected that you can almost smell the chlorine.) Instead of the Communist “other,” the threat to American democracy is this hot house flower of late capitalism, wherein a junior gunsel can tell his boss, “I’d like a future with your organization, a bit of security.” Here, unlike Dick Tracy, which maintained its 1930s view of individualized crime for over 40 years, there seems to be no essential difference between the criminals and the FBI. Operating out of parallel skyscraper offices, both operations are ruthless, efficient, cold and equally anxious to exploit the rage of Fuller’s safecracking anti-hero, played by Cliff Robertson. The epitome of Fuller’s sense of low-life integrity is a virtual reversal of Gould’s schemata. The Naked Kiss—a film that effectively suspended Fuller’s Hollywood career for nearly 15 years—pivots on a reformed prostitute’s discovery that her philanthropist-fiance (the namesake of the idyllic New England town in which she has taken refuge) is actually a child-molester. Catching him in flagrante, she bludgeons him to death and then, disgusted by the corruption and hypocrisy of the straight world, returns to turning tricks.

No filmmaker has ever been more devoted to the idea of journalism, or lavished more care on his use of newspaper headlines within his films than has Fuller. However, the optimism of his early Park Row palled considerably a decade later. Both Underworld U.S.A. and The Naked Kiss use the newspaper front page with a great-deal of ambivalence. In the former, a sequence of a child being intentionally run over by a car is followed by its alienated reification in the picture press. The headline EX-CALL GIRL KILLS MILLIONAIRE FIANCE, used in The Naked Kiss, at once summarizes the film in five words and strips it of its moral complexities.

Fuller’s bleakest film, Shock Corridor (1963), deals with an ambitious journalist who feigns madness to enter a mental hospital and report on an unsolved murder that has occurred there. Shot without exteriors, the film maintains a tone of caged hysteria for most of its 101 minutes. The inmates in the hospital add up to a tabloid vision of America: an ex-GI who has been brainwashed by the North Koreans and believes himself to be Jeb Stuart, a nuclear physicist who has regressed to the age of five, and the first black student to integrate a southern university, now suffering under the delusion that he is the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The reporter solves the murder but goes mad himself as a result. Fuller’s last shot has his hero crouched in the hospital corridor, one arm outstretched like the Statue of Liberty at half-mast. “It’s tragic,” a doctor remarks, “This year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize has become a catatonic mute.”

Shock Corridor is the terminal manifestation of the tabloid school. When it was first released, Variety’s reviewer found the film “so grotesque, so grueling, so shallow and shoddily sensational that [its] message is devastated.” But that, of course, was Fuller’s point—not the message but the messenger is devastated. A news report is not final and Fuller’s method has always been to throw the ball into the audience’s lap. The Steel Helmet (1951)—a Korean War film that suggests Waiting for Godot rewritten by Mickey Spillane—ends, “There is no end to this story;” Run of the Arrow (1957)—a didactic Western on race and regional hatred—concludes with the title “The end of this story will be written by you.”

Ultimately, what has elevated Abstract Sensationalism to “primitive art” has had less to do with the degree to which it is successful on its own terms than the way it has been used as a source, by more “sophisticated,” artists, or seen as an analogue for their work. Thus, Fuller is frequently cited as raw material for Jean-Luc Godard (who wrote of Fuller’s 1957 Forty Guns that it was “so bursting with daring conceptions that it reminds one of the extravagances of Abel Gance and Stroheim”). Fuller’s “kino-fist” esthetic has been likened to Eisenstein’s, his “vulgar” political didacticism compared to that of Brecht.

Gould, on the other hand, has never enjoyed even a minimal amount of serious critical attention. Despite the enthusiasm of an occasional artist (Resnais, Jim Nutt) his work has been taken mainly as industrial folklore. Andy Warhol employed Tracy’s razor-jawed profile, softened with mock-gestural drips, in his 1960 series of comic-strip characters. A more complex use of Tracy as a found object were the seven “Tricky Cad” collages produced by San Francisco artist Jess Collins between 1953 and 1959, which reworked Gould panels into a pulp version of the Victorian engravings collaged by Max Ernst in the 1930s. But Gould’s impact has been mainly felt on other comic strips, including “underground cartoonists,” Art Spiegelman and Kim Deitch.

Weegee owes not a little of his current reputation to the fact that he is generally perceived as a primitive precursor of photographers Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. Just as Weegee’s candid photographs in Sammy’s Bowery Follies anticipate Friedlander’s party pictures, and his street images suggest Winogrand’s, so his use of odd, off-putting reaction shots presages Arbus’ portraits. Weegee’s photographs are filled with the jarring perspectives, arbitrary framing, and bizarrely frozen gestures that his successors have turned into formal tropes. “If people laugh in the background of a murder shot, well—that’s life,” he once said, a statement echoed after a fashion by a wall label at the 1967 Museum of Modern Art “New Documents” show, that simultaneously introduced Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand: “These three photographers would prefer that their pictures be regarded not as art, but as life.”

Ironically, Weegee’s own work of the 1960s reversed this art/life conundrum. Indeed, the story of his success and subsequent failure is a melancholy parable of the tabloidist divorced from his milieu. By 1940, Weegee was sufficiently well-known within his profession to have landed a regular berth on the liberal tabloid PM. The next year he had his first gallery show. “Murder is My Business,” at the (left-oriented) Photo League. The Museum of Modern Art purchased four of his prints, and soon after invited him to lecture. He was adopted by the art world as an outstanding photographer in the documentary-journalist mode. When Naked City was published in the summer of 1945, Weegee was written up in Time, Newsweek and The Saturday Review, hailed as a sort of dese-dems-and-dose Daumier-in-the-rough. When he began working for Vogue, he took slumming socialites along with him on assignment.

After Universal purchased the title Naked City, Weegee left for Hollywood. There, in a weird, denatured recapitulation of his youth, he made a minor career playing bit parts and walk-ons (always as a species of urban low-life) in a number of films including Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), The Yellow Cab Man (1949), Joseph Losey’s remake of M (1951), and Skid Row (1951). By the time he returned to New York, he was, in effect, a professional caricature. Having failed to make it in Hollywood’s hog heaven, he strove for a comeback in the art world with the gimmickry of trick lenses. Instead of his association with gangsters, he now bragged that he had “rubbed shoulders with Picasso, Dali, the lot.” Rather than demonstrate his callousness, he told interviewers: “I’m very primitive; in fact, I’m the Grandma Moses of photography.”

It is tempting to see much of Weegee’s late output as an ambivalent, voodoo-doll attack on the indifferent citadel of art. “I got peeved at Picasso,” he exclaims in his autobiography. “That guy was imitating me . . . some nerve of him! I straightened out his abstractions and brought them back to normal.” Weegee’s last book, Creative Photography (1964), includes “an impressionist study of a circus ring,” a picture with “all the qualities of contemporary ‘hard edge’ abstractions,” another “truly striking abstract image—one even Picasso would be proud of,” as well as grotesque distortions of the Mona Lisa and Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.

Talent, Adorno once speculated, “is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage.” In Weegee’s case, after 1945, rage was all there was.

All reproductions of Dick Tracy were reprinted with permission from the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. Inc.

J. Hoberman writes film criticism for the Village Voice.