Review: Nelson Algren Documentary Pays Delayed Tribute to the “Dostoyevsky of Division Street”

Michael Caplan’s documentary about Nelson Algren is a love letter to the gritty Chicago of the past as well as an homage to Algren, perhaps America’s most under-appreciated author.

Caplan does an effective job of storytelling in painting a picture of the Chicago where Algren lived (on Wabansia Avenue and later on Evergreen Street in the down-at-the-heels Polish neighborhood known as Polonia, now hipster-sleek Wicker Park) with an extensive assortment of archival images of Algren and his people; most of the photos are by Algren’s friend Art Shay, Chicago photographer who shot for Life Magazine. The imagery is accompanied by briskly edited interview clips of locals such as Studs Terkel, Shay, Rick Kogan, Bill Savage and Billy Corgan and a roster of filmmakers including William Friedkin, John Sayles, Philip Kaufman and Kat Tatlock, and friends, male and female. Algren himself appears in some late-in-life interviews; he died in 1981 at 72. Chicago actor David Pasquesi narrates and voices Algren’s words.

Image courtesy Montrose Pictures..

Music by Wayne Kramer, founder of the Detroit proto-punk and metal band MC5, adds a nervous, edgy aural mood to the story of a writer who was often described as the voice of drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts and hoodlums. (Bookseller Stuart Brent called him the Dostoyevsky of Division Street.) Caplan got to know Kramer as a potential collaborator partly because of his 2002 song, “Nelson Algren Dropped By.”

Caplan’s story is punctuated by Algren’s three rules of life:

  • Never play cards with a man called Doc.
  • Never eat at a place called Mom’s.
  • Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.

The film is more or less chronological, covering Algren’s books and their reception or lack thereof. Algren’s famous 1949 novel about drugs and addicts, The Man With the Golden Arm, was awarded the first National Book Award and brought Algren some fame and fortune. The novel was adapted for a 1955 film by director Otto Preminger and starred Frank Sinatra; the film was a box-office and critical success but was controversial because of its explicit treatment of drug addiction. But Algren was always bitter and unhappy about how the story was handled and how he was treated by the filmmaker.

His short story collection, The Neon Wilderness, and novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, are also discussed.

Division Street poker game. Image courtesy Montrose Pictures.

Algren’s marvelously poetic prose essay on his hometown, Chicago: City on the Make, with commentary and readings by Studs Terkel, gets prominent treatment. (That book is the source of Algren’s most famous quote: “Yet once you’ve become part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”)

I wish Caplan had spent more time on my favorite Algren book, Never Come Morning (1942), an in-depth treatment of the people of Polonia, personified by the dead-end life of a wannabe boxer, Bruno Bicek, his buddies, managers and handlers, as well as his off-and-on girlfriend, Steffi, who can only support herself as a hooker. The book was fiercely criticized by the Polish community and was removed from the shelves of Chicago Public Libraries and Kroch’s & Brentano’s, Chicago’s pre-eminent  bookstore.

Another important segment is the stormy tale of Algren’s romance with French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who spent time with him in his Chicago flat and enjoyed visiting Algren’s haunts and hangouts; he also introduced her to the police lineup. When she left him for the last time to return to Paris, she said her heart belonged to Algren, but her head belonged to Sartre (Jean-Paul Sartre, existentialist writer and philosopher and her life partner).

Caplan also addresses the striking absence of recognition for Algren’s work in Chicago, which led him to leave for the east coast late in his life.

A second Algren documentary was produced in 2014 and never received wide distribution. Chicago native Denis Mueller, who now lives in Vermont, produced and directed Nelson Algren: The End Is Nothing, the Road Is All. In addition, if you want to take a deep dive into Algren’s life and work, we recommend Mary Wisniewski’s 2016 Algren biography.

Algren, originally screened at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival, premieres on video on demand on January 11 and will stream on AppleTV, iTunes and Vimeo. The film runs 85 minutes.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.