Before embarking on a career as an author, Chicago-born novelist and screenwriter William P. McGivern (1918-1982) served in the US Army in World War II, with this experience subsequently providing a basis for the acclaimed Soldiers of ’44, a novel he wrote and published in 1979, thirty-three years after having finished his service. McGivern’s time in the military was followed by him studying at the University of Birmingham in England before returning to the States where he got a job as a police reporter for The Philadelphia Bulletin (from 1947 to 1949) and as a reporter for The Evening Bulletin in Philadelphia. After publishing his first hardboiled novel in 1948, the thriller and mystery writer penned more than a hundred SF stories, as well as twenty-two more novels, fourteen of which were turned into motion pictures (and some of which were written under the pseudonym Bill Peters). The author’s experiences as a soldier and a reporter ultimately enabled him to imbue his writing with realism that included authentic characterizations of both lawmen and members of the criminal underworld. Apart from writing novels that would eventually be adapted to the big screen, McGivern also wrote specifically for television and films after moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s.
In December 1952, a serial written by McGivern came out in The Saturday Evening Post and was published in the form of a novel the following year. Its title—The Big Heat. The 1953 film adaptation was directed by Fritz Lang, with a script penned by screenwriter, producer and former crime reporter Sydney Boehm. Starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando and Lee Marvin, the acclaimed film noir revolves around a police officer (played by Ford) who comes head-to-head with the criminal organization running his city. The story of an everyman going against the mafia and emerging victorious became a popular one in gangster movies of the 1950s, but Lang’s take on the genre remains the best of the bunch. The Big Heat, which was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011, was praised by critics for its outstanding performances, exceptional writing and top-notch direction. The novelist and the film’s screenwriter were also awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the category of Best Motion Picture.
Only a year after Lang’s noir came put, McGivern’s novel Shield for Murder served as the basis for Edmond O'Brien and Howard W. Koch’s movie of the same name, starring O’Brien himself in the lead role. As far as crime films focusing on ‘bad cops’ go, Shield for Murder may very well be considered the cream of the crop. In line with the ever-prevalent theme of corrupt police officers, that same year saw the release of Rogue Cop, directed by Roy Rowland and written by Sydney Boehm. This adaptation of McGivern’s eponymous novel follows a crooked cop (Robert Taylor) on a mission to avenge the death of his younger brother. Rowland’s film not only received favorable reviews thanks to its cast and direction, but also earned John F. Seitz an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
Frank Tuttle’s 1956 adaptation of the novel The Darkest Hour was entitled Hell on Frisco Bay and follows yet another cop, but this time an innocent one who gets framed for murder and ends up serving time. With Alan Ladd in the lead role and Edward G. Robinson as the antagonist, Tuttle’s action-packed film noir centers on revenge. And even though the script written by Martin Rackin and the aforementioned Sydney Boehm has been said to lack in originality, Hell on Frisco Bay is fairly gritty considering the time period it came out in. As such, it remains well worth a watch.
But there is an adaptation of a McGivern novel that has always deserved all the praise it could possibly get and has managed to receive it to a certain extent in the years following its initial release, and that is the 1959 noir Odds Against Tomorrow. Directed by Robert Wise, Odds Against Tomorrow was the first film noir where the protagonist was a black man, fantastically played by Harry Belafonte whose company HarBel Productions produced the film. The leading man chose Abraham Polonsky to pen the screenplay (along with co-writer Nelson Gidding), but seeing as how the screenwriter was blacklisted at the time, black novelist John O. Killens was used as a front and credited in his stead. Polonsky was given his rightful credit in 1996 by the Writers Guild of America. Revolving around an unlikely partnership between an ex-cop, a racist ex-con and a black nightclub entertainer who plan to rob a band together, Odds Against Tomorrow got a Golden Globe nomination in the category of Motion Picture Promoting International Understanding. It is also one of director Jean-Pierre Melville’s favorite movies, and a noir that, according to Martin Scorsese, “feels unlike any other picture of its time”.
The last McGivern novel that was adapted into a feature film was the bestseller Night of the Juggler (written in 1975), with 20th Century Fox buying the film rights to the author’s source material before it was even published. William W. Norton and Rick Natkin wrote the screenplay for Robert Butler’s 1980 crime drama that stars James Brolin as a former cop who decides to take matters into his own hands after his daughter gets kidnapped. The other star of Night of the Juggler, apart from Brolin, is New York itself, i.e., the city’s sleazy and violent streets that provide the perfect backdrop to Butler’s action-packed movie.
McGivern’s time in Los Angeles after his move there in the 1960s saw the novelist write several episodes for TV series such as the medical drama Ben Casey and the political series Slattery’s People in the 1960s, the police procedural Adam-12 and the action crime drama Kojak in the 1970s, as well as the award-winning religious-themed anthology series Insight that ran from 1960 to 1984. He also penned the screenplay for William Castle’s 1965 thriller I Saw What You Did, based on Ursula Curtiss’ novel Out of the Dark (1964) about two teenage girls whose lives hang in the balance after an evening spent making prank calls. Even though actress Joan Crawford had only nine minutes of screen time, she was given top billing, along with co-star John Ireland, with I Saw What You Did being their second and last film collaboration.
Three years later, McGivern wrote the screenplay for the 1968 film The Wrecking Crew, director Phil Karlson’s spy comedy starring Dean Martin, based on Donald Hamilton’s novel of the same name, the second of a total of twenty-seven novels about fictional assassin Matt Helm. Karlson’s adaptation was the fourth and final Matt Helm film, the last movie to star Sharon Tate released before her untimely death in 1969, as well as the Hollywood debut of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, with the latter working on The Wrecking Crew as an action director.
McGivern’s last film credit as a screenwriter was the 1975 movie Brannigan that he co-wrote with Christopher Trumbo, Michael Butler and William W. Norton. Douglas Hickox’s action thriller stars John Wayne as a Chicago Police Lieutenant tasked with going to London and extraditing an American gangster. Brannigan turned out to be one of Wayne’s films that did not do all to well at the box office, and one that he allegedly made after witnessing the success of Dirty Harry, a film he later regretted turning down.
William P. McGivern succumbed to cancer in 1982 at the age of sixty-three, leaving behind his two children and his wife Maureen Daly, also an author, together with whom he wrote the 1958 novel Mention My Name in Mombasa: the Unscheduled Adventures of an American Family Abroad about their time spent living in other countries. It could be said that the beloved novelist lived a full and exciting life, contributing not only to the world of literature with many a hard-boiled detective novel, but also to the world of film and television, both as the author of quite a few source materials, as well as a screenwriter in his own right.