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The Man Who Got Away

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

Before The Woman Chaser, based on Charles Willeford’s 1960 pulp classic, was selected for last year’s New York Film Festival, it was like every other independent film looking for the slightest patronage without even a calling card to get inside the gate. Shot in 35mm color for $800,000 and printed in sumptuous black-and-white, director Robinson Devor’s shoestring feature debut, about a used-car dealer turned independent filmmaker, won the lottery before it even premiered. And then, in true noir fashion, his one moment in the sun was plucked from his grasp when The New York Times’ Stephen Holden savaged the film as a snarky noir parody. Never mind that Willeford’s widow calls Devor’s movie the most faithful of the three adaptations of her husband’s work. (The other two are Monte Hellman’s 1974 Cockfighter and George Armitage’s Miami Blues.)

“Wednesday we woke up and we had this rave in the New York Post,” says the 36-year-old director. “So we thought, hey, this might go our way. Thursday night was my birthday, so we were all at Sardi’s — my one New York theatrical moment — and we knew that The New York Times review would be out. So Joe [McSpadden, the film’s executive producer] went out for the review. We knew the speed with which he came back up those stairs would determine our fate. So we’re waiting and waiting, and then we see one hand on the rail, another hand on the rail. It was like the father in Written on the Wind. And we just got pulverized.” If this had been a work by The Woman Chaser’s eponymous auteur, whose abortive film-within-a-film masterpiece The Man Who Got Away is an unrelenting study of a long-haul truck driver who runs over a small child and tries to outrun the consequences, then this would be the ending: an unblinking camera raking the faces of the crestfallen director and his entourage on the sidewalk outside Lincoln Center. Nonetheless, 10 months later, after a successful run at New York’s Screening Room, The Woman Chaser will open for a week at the Nuart, with a platform release by Bob Berney’s Inwood Films to follow.

Devor’s life has been no less circuitous than that of his hapless protagonist, no less fraught with the sort of pulp happenstance that routinely makes the shortest distance between two points an epic journey. A native New Yorker, he wound up following McSpadden to film school at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University on little more than a whim. After graduation the two headed west to L.A., where Devor spent a decade as an advertising copywriter with little more to show than his immaculately creepy 30-minute documentary Angelyne, about you-know-who. He was on his way to dropping everything and studying poetry with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina when the great man took ill. Devor took a job with an SMU friend’s father, introducing the “smart card” — a digital-chip cash card — in Lusaka, Zambia, where, thanks to the dramatic devaluation of the currency, he threatened to put the local wheelbarrow concession out of business.

Among the things Devor managed to accomplish on the dark continent was to grab a copy of Willeford’s The Way We Die Now at random off an airport bookshelf — a choice that would prove fortuitous when it came time to make his first feature. And so, in the random conjunctions that often constitute destiny, poetry plus smart-card economics somehow add up to independent film.

Devor is currently working on two new scripts with playwright Richard Ohanesian, expanding several one-act plays set in Palm Springs, with its geriatric stars, shrines to opulence, gay porn industry, lesbian golf classic and the like. The second, titled Golden, is the true crime story of a British fashion journalist, a woman in her 40s, who for five days in 1974 traveled to the tourist locales of the deepest South and Florida in the company of what would later turn out to be a mass murderer with 16 sexual assaults to his credit. After a final wrinkle over the rights is resolved, the film is to be financed by Hart Sharp Productions, whose last film was Boys Don’t Cry. “Imagine Emma Thompson and Vincent Gallo,” Devor says. “These two totally different worlds.”