August 27 1929-November 12 2007
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US writer best known for Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil
Thursday November 15 2007
There can be no better way to mourn the passing of the novelist and playwright Ira Levin, at the age of 78, than late in the evening to pour a glass of bourbon, start reading his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying - and wonder what that knocking in the pipes might really be. For, at his best, Levin plumbed the depths.
He wrote only seven novels, but they included one that prompted the gothic revival, Rosemary's Baby, as well as The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil and Sliver, all of which were made into films - and made their author a great deal of money. Along with these was a real stage stunner, the long-running Broadway comic thriller Deathtrap.
In writing about Levin's ending, one must not give away his endings. He was sedulous in managing his plots, something he attributed to a treat that took place when he was 15. "My parents took me to see the New York production of Ten Little Indians. As those figurines vanished one by one from the mantelpiece and the actors vanished one by one from the stage, I fell in love with theatre that grips and dazzles and surprises. I was already a would-be novelist. Now I was a would-be playwright too."
Levin's family were Russian immigrants who had arrived in the US in the 19th century, some settling in Vermont, others on the lower east side in Manhattan, where he was born. His father, Charles, was a toy importer. If Levin was given to angst, he did not let on, but maintained the coolness that is the chilling mark of his work. After attending Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa (1946-48), he returned to New York University, graduating in English and philosophy in 1950.
After this, he set about writing, boosted by work for television in what has come to be regarded as a golden age - or at any rate one in which there was a ready outlet for new, live work and adaptations. As a student, Levin had been a runner-up in a CBS screenwriting contest, and the contacts thus established helped get his Leda's Portrait shown in 1951 on the network suspense series, Lights Out.
There is a palpable sense of honour to the evil that pervades A Kiss Before Dying (1953), the novel that television drama enabled Levin to write. It does not shortchange the reader. Even to say there are surprises is to risk spoiling them. The title is every bit as brilliant as the contents, which begin with a reference to wartime service and entail plotting as callous as any battle plan, each locale touched with sufficient detail to be plausible. As the British crime fiction writer Julian Symons has said, it "showed clearly that if there are no brand new tricks to be played on the reader, the old ones can be made to look new in sufficiently cunning hands".
Levin then spent two years in the US army signal corps (1953-55), but returned to New York without any fresh ideas. As he would note in Deathtrap, "nothing recedes like success".
He was determined not to supply more of the same, thereby risking the oblivion of changing tastes. Instead, he found success on Broadway with an adaptation in 1956 of Mac Hyman's novel No Time For Sergeants, in which Andy Griffith made his name as a hillbilly drafted into the US airforce. If A Kiss Before Dying highlighted Levin's ability to put construction skills to a sinister purpose, this play showed a relish of farce. It ran for 796 performances and was followed in 1960 by Critic's Choice, a play about a reviewer who finds himself at a work written by his wife.
But the success of these two productions was not matched by those that came afterwards. In particular, there was a celebrated flop, Drat! the Cat!, which took Levin 10 years to write and lasted for only eight perfomances in 1965. A spirited take on the stock musical notion of unlikely romance, it was set in and around New York at the end of the 19th century, when a female cat burglar (Lesley Ann Warren) allures the cop set on her trail. Levin wrote the book and the lyrics for music composed by Milton Schafer. But despite the ignominy of a week's run, the play survived as a cult by means of pirated discs and, notably, because the cop was played by Elliot Gould, who was then married to Barbra Striesand. She changed the title of his song She Touched Me, and came up with He Touched Me, a rendition of shimmering eroticism - and a hit.
Levin decided to return to novels. He was in the habit of filling notebooks with ideas - one of which was spawned by the fact that in his New York apartment was a laundry room which he would never let his wife enter alone. And so was born Rosemary's Baby, Satan's child, a work Levin would not let his wife read during her third pregnancy. Indeed, their marriage collapsed a year later.
Studded with contemporary events - the "conception" took place during the Pope's visit to New York - Rosemary's Baby certainly grips, but the spirit is more mechanical than in A Kiss Before Dying. And yet it also became close to a masterpiece in the 1968 Roman Polanksi movie, with a well-cast, vulnerable Mia Farrow along with Ruth Gordon and John Cassavetes. Set in the Dakota building in New York, it builds an atmosphere of coldly reasonable manipulation that the novel does not.
Similarly, The Stepford Wives (1972), in which suburban housewives become robots, made two effective movies, while the novel itself is as lacklustre as the computer-controlled future world of This Perfect Day (1970).
The Boys From Brazil (1976) had more brio, inspired by Levin's reading of the possibility of cloning Hitler or Mozart. He chose the former, yoking it with contemporary accounts of Nazi refugees in south America and aspirations for a new Reich. Yet again, there was a more accomplished movie, with Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, released in 1978, the year of Deathtrap's Broadway success.
Deathtrap's twists and turns had been anticipated in Veronica's Room (1974). Its run of 75 performances belies its wit and horror, and merges ingenuity with something gothic as a young couple are brought home to a Victorian pile, one room of which has been kept in the state in which it was left since the death in 1935 of its young occupant, whose mother thinks that she is still alive. It all appears to be part of scam - but this being Levin, it palpably seethes. Deathtrap's protagonist (played by John Wood in the first production) has another scam going, the purloining of a younger playwright's work.
To say any more is unnecessary, other than to remark that Levin's comic sense is sometimes overlooked and that this is a work meant for the theatre. Much was lost in the 1982 movie with Michael Caine.
Break a Leg (1979) opened and closed on the same night, a sorry fate for so wittily ingenious a play, set in an early 20th-century city, perhaps Berlin or Vienna, and starring Julie Harris.
After the lacklustre play Cantorial (1984), about a haunted synagogue-turned-apartment, Levin had a fallow period, from which came his first novel in 15 years, Sliver (1991). His knack for a sense of time and place was again canny in setting a tale of murder in an adroitly depicted, slender Manhattan building in which every move is subject to surveillance. On the page, it is genuinely sinister, but the 1993 movie, starring Sharon Stone, lumbered along under the weight of Joe Eszterhas's sleazy script.
Levin wrote slowly and became skilful in exploiting the commercial possibilities in each work. But he did not exploit readers, and always attempted something fresh. He is survived by the children of his first marriage, to Gabrielle Aronsohn, which like the second, to Phyllis Finkel, ended in divorce.
· Ira Marvin Levin, novelist and playwright, born August 27 1929; died November 12 2007
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