Jay Dratler was one of the key screenwriters in the field of film noir -- a successful novelist from New York with an international education, he had a special touch when it came to devising and telling crime-related stories. Jay J. Dratler was born in New York City in 1911 and attended the University of North Carolina during the late '20s and early '30s. His mother was from Austria, and Dratler went to Europe in the early '30s to study at the Sorbonne in France and also in Vienna, where he learned fluent German. His skills with the language were sufficient for him to serve as translator of a German-language scholarly book late in his career. He took up residence in Vienna in the '30s and was very much a part of the café society that existed there before the German invasion of Austria. According to his son, Jay Dratler Jr., when the elder Dratler left Austria, he smuggled out a large amount of currency for a good friend by hiding the money inside a rubber bag suspended in a toilet tank on a moving train. He began writing fiction in 1927, at age 16 -- long before his own life came to entail such variety and exploits -- and saw success in 1936 with the publication of his first novel, Manhattan Side Street.
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In 1940, Dratler published a second novel, Ducks in Thunder (later re-titled All for a Woman), and also moved to Hollywood, where he started writing for the screen with the scripts for the zany Hugh Herbert comedy La Conga Nights at Universal and the cautionary crime and delinquency tale Girls Under 21 at Columbia. He wrote the screenplay for Meet Boston Blackie, the first film in Columbia's "Boston Blackie" series, dealing with a criminal-turned-detective (Chester Morris). Although he occasionally worked on musical and comedic subjects, such as Higher and Higher (1943) -- the first feature film in which Frank Sinatra appeared -- and It's in the Bag (1945), and even co-authored a mythologically-inspired script entitled Knights Without Armor (based on Serbian legends, and bought by Columbia) with Gina Kaus, Dratler's real talent was in the writing of thrillers. Beyond programmers such as the early Boston Blackie movies, he was also responsible (with Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, and Ring Lardner Jr.) for the screenplay of Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. He was the screenwriter on The Dark Corner (1946), another piece of classic film noir, and the 1948 thriller Call Northside 777 (both directed by Henry Hathaway). All three of those scripts were done for 20th Century-Fox, where Dratler did his best work. In 1947, he published his third novel,The Pitfall, which was made into a spellbinding film noir by director André de Toth, starring Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott, the following year. He was also responsible for writing the original story of Impact (1949), another classic crime thriller. Dratler's later Hollywood career was less interesting -- at least from the standpoint of crime movie enthusiasts -- as he was assigned to such projects as writing additional dialogue for Dancing in the Dark, and also wrote the original scenario for the RKO production of The Las Vegas Story (1952).
During the mid-'50s, Dratler concentrated more on writing for publication, including the novel The Judas Kiss (1955). His last theatrical film credit was the screenplay for the Werner Von Braun biographical film I Aim at the Stars (1959). He also wrote for television, including a pair of 1961 episodes of Naked City: "The Well-Dressed Termite," a story about murderous business partners starring Jack Klugman, and "The Deadly Guinea Pig," a tale of ex-Nazis starring Viveca Lindfors. His later theatrical works included The Women of Troy, which was successfully produced on the stage, and A Grape for Seeing, the latter about a South American revolutionary who is castrated by right-wing troops. Late in his life, Dratler began studying Spanish and became fluent in the language; as a ham radio enthusiast, he developed many contacts with people south of the border and in the mid-'60s moved to Mexico City. He died of a heart attack at age 57 in Puebla. In the decades since, there has been a revival of interest in Dratler's work, helped along by the restoration of Laura and a new generation's coming to appreciate the movie, and also the theatrical and cable availability of Pitfall, which evidently is a prime candidate for a remake as of 2004. His son, Jay Dratler Jr., is a professor at the University of Akron Law School who is almost as much a polymath as his father with degrees in physics as well as law. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi