Saturday, June 25, 2016

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

The Spring 2016 issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s house rag hit the streets earlier this week, bringing its usual bounty of top-notch scribblings.


Front and center this time out is a remarkable piece from new contributor John Wranovics, detailing the amazing true story of the U.S intelligence community’s role in the birth of Italian neo-realism. Our stalwarts are well-represented: Jake Hinkson looks at Rudolph Maté and his singular directorial achievement D.O.A.; Imogen Sara Smith considers Douglas Sirk’s dark side; Steve Kronenberg salutes the silken menace of George Macready; Brian Light revisits Peeping Tom, still disturbing after all these years; and Kelly Vance sizes up the latest from Arturo Ripstein, the lucha noir Bleak Street.

I’m not sitting this one out. In addition to my Cocktails & Crime column, I take on the duty of our Prime Cuts feature and confess my long-standing love for Robert Towne’s other L.A.-set noir, Tequila Sunrise.

Want in on the action? Donate to the Film Noir Foundation for a copy and an opportunity to win the new Flicker Alley DVDs of two FNF restorations, Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run. None other than Leonard Maltin raved about them. Get thee to thy wallet post haste.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Books: Three for the Road

Thanks to a Design for Dying book tour that lasted much of May, I almost broke my Showgirls oath to post at least once a month. Here I am under the wire to recommend a troika of titles that kept me company while I was on the road.

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters. Late last year I devoured the entirety of Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy, genre-bending marvels that claimed both Edgar and Philip K. Dick awards. Even those books didn’t prepare me for Winters’ latest, due out on July 5 and destined to be a hot button topic for the rest of the summer. Airlines takes place in an alternate America where the Civil War never occurred, a twenty-first century where slavery remains legal in four states. Victor is a young black man who has made a devil’s bargain with a shadowy government agency to act as bounty hunter, tracking down fugitives from the South. Winters’ world-building is astonishing, creating a wholly believable society mere degrees from our own. But it’s Victor’s raw and potent story that carries us through this distorted and disturbing mirror image.

West of Eden: An American Place, by Jean Stein. Given the Lillian Frost/Edith Head series any book on Old Hollywood is going to command my attention, but this one-of-a-kind oral history is told from the inside. Stein recounts the sagas of five different Los Angeles families, including the Dohenys, who inspired There Will Be Blood and haunted Raymond Chandler; the Warners; and Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. The section on Jane Garland, the troubled daughter of a fortune-hunting mother who paid assorted California dreamers to keep her company, is like a real-life Ross Macdonald tale. Stein then turns her gaze toward her own clan; her father Jules founded MCA and played a pivotal role in building modern show business. A compulsively readable book about the price of privilege under the sun.

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. It’s a dream come true for a pair of hardcore baseball statheads: the chance to operate an actual team, albeit one in the independent leagues several rickety rungs below the minors. But in order to apply sabermetrics to the Sonoma Stompers, Lindbergh and Miller will have to win over rookies and lifers alike, plus learn some things about themselves and their beliefs. I heartily recommend this book to any baseball fan – it goes down much easier if you already know what wRC+ means – but don’t go in expecting a dry treatise heavy on objective analytics. This is powerful, moving stuff about theory and practice, dreams and reality, and the struggle to make tomorrow different from today.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Me Elsewhere: On The Road

Once again, my alter ego Renee Patrick has all the scoop while I’m left with scraps. She can tell you my schedule at Malice Domestic plus the first round of stops on the Design for Dying book tour, as well as the ingredients in a Renee Patrick cocktail, an original created at the Zig Zag Café. If you’re interested, that is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Lasting Legacy of Roy Huggins

NOTE: This post is my contribution to the Detectives and Dames blogathon hosted by Flicker Alley in advance of the May 10 release of Too Late for Tears (1949) and Woman on the Run (1950) on Blu-ray/DVD. Other posts hosted by Flicker Alley are here, and this piece will be linked there later in the week.

You can preorder Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears now. The Film Noir Foundation spearheaded the restoration of both films, and the bountiful extras included commentary tracks by my FNF colleagues Eddie Muller (Woman on the Run) and Alan K. Rode (Too Late for Tears).

You know the work of Roy Huggins, even if you’ve never heard his name. Huggins, who wrote both the screenplay for the newly-restored Too Late for Tears (1949) and the serial on which it was based, is one of the stealth giants of twentieth century pop culture, leaving his fingerprints everywhere. He’s the Stan Lee of network television.

He began as a novelist, debuting with a 1946 novel called The Double Take that aped Raymond Chandler so shamelessly Chandler himself admired it. The book was filmed two years later as I Love Trouble, with Franchot Tone as wisecracking shamus Stuart Bailey. It boasts gorgeous dames a’plenty, noir favorites like Raymond Burr and Steven Geray, and a corkscrew plot that, as in many a Chandler yarn, ultimately proves irrelevant. Huggins adapted the book himself, quickly realizing Hollywood was where a writer could take down the big money. He’d script several other underrated noir titles. 1954’s taut Pushover gives the lie to the belief that Fred MacMurray never strayed to the dark side of the street again after Double Indemnity. Ida Lupino is menaced by her new husband who’s only interested in the family mill in Woman in Hiding (1950), which dutifully follows Chekhov’s dictum that if a hydroelectric turbine is mentioned in Act One, it must be turned on in Act Two.

It was in television, though, that Huggins would truly leave his mark. Among the series he created are several with outsized footprints. Maverick and The Fugitive were both rebooted for the small and big screens, while a feature film based on his jazzy Los Angeles private eye show 77 Sunset Strip has been in development for years. Sunset’s lead detective? None other than The Double Take’s Stuart Bailey, given new life. Crime novelist Max Allan Collins, long a Huggins admirer, observed that The Double Take is “undoubtedly the most filmed private eye novel ever.” Huggins recycled its plot on many of the series he worked on, even transposing the action to the Old West for Maverick. When you’re as prolific as Huggins was, you’re not going to get too precious about reusing a story that works.

Huggins’ name came to mean something else inside Hollywood’s corridors of power. He’d gotten shafted on a number of shows he created, the most legendary example a story that sounds like something out of Hail, Caesar! Studio chief Jack Warner arranged for the pilot episode of 77 Sunset Strip to be released theatrically in the Caribbean, a dodge enabling the studio to claim the series was based on a movie and not Huggins’ original Stuart Bailey stories. Fed up, Huggins had ownership of all the concepts he created written into his contracts, a practice other producers soon followed.

What cements Roy Huggins’ Hall of Fame status is his work as a mentor, with one writer in particular. TV titan Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street) called Huggins “my Godfather in this business,” saying “during the two-and-a-half years I sat in his office, or in screening rooms, or at lunch discussing script problems with him, I learned more about the process of writing and producing television than I have in the entire twenty years since ... He was the one who showed me how to do it. He was the one who taught me how to fix a bad piece of film or plot a script so each scene is more interesting than the one that came before it.” Together, Cannell and Huggins co-created the perennial The Rockford Files, re-teaming Huggins with Maverick star James Garner. Many of today’s top television auteurs came through Cannell’s system, filtering Huggins’s storytelling lessons through to an entirely new generation.

Too Late for Tears is easily Huggins’ greatest achievement in his relatively brief movie career. His casually diabolical script prefigures A Simple Plan as young L.A. marrieds Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy accidentally come into possession of a hefty extortion payoff. As Scott’s avaricious tendencies get the better of her, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) comes calling. It’s unquestionably Liz Scott’s finest hour, but good luck taking your eyes off Duryea, who saunters onto the screen all rancid insouciance and ends up timid and broken before La Scott.

The surprise, then, is that Huggins didn’t care for the finished film. He even assumed some of the blame himself. “I hated the movie (producer Hunt Stromberg) made from my script,” he said. “It was intended to be a suspense movie ... It was a bad movie because it was badly directed – and possibly badly written, but in view of the lethargic direction, how could you tell?”

Rapturous reactions to the Film Noir Foundation’s restored version indicates that on this score, Huggins was wrong. But he can be forgiven, considering he got so much else right.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Go for Launch: Design for Dying

Today’s the day, kids. Design for Dying, the mystery novel I co-wrote with Rosemarie under the pen name Renee Patrick, is finally available wherever, as the man says, fine books are sold.


In case you missed it, here’s the premise –

Los Angeles, 1937. Lillian Frost has traded dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl ... until she discovers she’s a suspect in the murder of her former roommate Ruby Carroll. Party girl Ruby died wearing a gown she stole from the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures, domain of Edith Head.

Edith has yet to win the first of her eight Academy Awards; right now she’s barely hanging on to her job, and a scandal is the last thing she needs. To clear Lillian’s name and save Edith’s career, the two women join forces. Unraveling the mystery pits them against a Hungarian princess on the lam, a hotshot director on the make, and a private investigator who’s not on the level.

All they have going for them are dogged determination, assists from the likes of Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck, and a killer sense of style. In show business, that just may be enough …


Glamorous clothes, celebrity cameos galore. What more could you want?

Renee is the one with all the information. Go to her website for the latest, like this blog post with everything that went live today as a result of the launch and a hint of what’s to come. And why not follow the links to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy while you’re there? A boy’s gotta eat (and drink), you know.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s that time again, gang. Another issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine submitted for your delectation. I wasn’t planning on penning anything other than my Cocktails & Crime column for this installment, which riffs on the “noir in the arts” theme of this year’s Noir City film festival. But an opportunity presented itself that I simply couldn’t pass up.

One of the most astonishing documentaries of recent years is Marwencol (2010). It’s about Mark Hogancamp, whose story fuses art and noir in an intensely personal way: after a beating left him with amnesia, he found a way to help heal himself by recreating his ordeal in a richly imagined fictional world, a 1/6-scale World War II town in Belgium. A new book dives deeper into Hogancamp’s life and art, and I talked to co-author and Marwencol producer Chris Shellen about it. Also included is a bounty of Hogancamp’s remarkable, hypnotic photographs. I’m thrilled Noir City is able to bring Hogancamp’s work to you.

I recruited a few other contributors to this outing. Like my better half and other half of Renee Patrick, Rosemarie Keenan. A longtime admirer of the master of the American musical Stephen Sondheim, she sizes up his only original feature film script The Last of Sheila (1973) and suggests, in her “Noir or Not?” essay, that within this mordant inside-showbiz bauble beats the black heart you’d expect from the man responsible for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In our “Prime Cuts: My Favorite Neo-Noir” section, crime novelist and country-western shirt connoisseur Martyn Waites appraises “one of the saddest, bleakest noirs ever made”: 1964’s chilling Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

I discovered two of Richard Shepard’s early films while channel surfing, and each time made a note of the filmmaker’s name. Both Mercy (1995) and Oxygen (1999) boasted a white-knuckle energy in spite of low budgets, and featured accomplished performances from then-little known actors (Sam Rockwell and Adrien Brody, respectively). Shepard went on to become the poet of wrecked middle-aged machismo, writing and directing two crime dramas boasting career-best work from Pierce Brosnan (The Matador) and Jude Law (Dom Hemingway). In addition, he won an Emmy for his direction of the Ugly Betty pilot, is a principal helmer of HBO’s Girls, and makes a hell of a Twitter follow. In “5 Favorites,” Shepard offers the quintet of films in his personal pantheon.

All that plus the estimable Imogen Sara Smith on ballet in noir, Steve Kronenberg on the classic pulp cover artists, a filled-to-bursting Noir @ Home section, and more. Donate to the Film Noir Foundation to receive your issue – and a chance to win the new Blu-ray of 1948’s Pitfall, with commentary by FNF honcho Eddie Muller.

While I have you here, remember that Noir City Annual #8, collecting the best pieces from 2015’s run of the magazine including a few by yours truly, is now on sale at Amazon. That’s a veritable bonanza of noir goodies, so what are you waiting for?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Miscellaneous: By The Time We Get To Phoenix

This year’s Left Coast Crime will be in Phoenix, Arizona from February 25-28. Rosemarie and I will be there – ask to see our Edith Head cigarette cases! – and on a panel.

Teamwork: Writing with a Partner
Sunday, February 28, 11:00 am – 12 noon

Moderator: Charles Todd (Caroline). Other panelists: Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl.


For all the scoop on what’s going on with our upcoming debut novel Design for Dying, including a Goodreads giveaway, head over to our alter ego’s latest blog post.

Speaking of my partner, over at The Five-Two you’ll find Rosemarie’s latest poem ‘Grandiflora,’ which is in no way based on a real incident.