Monday, August 01, 2016

Movies: Noir City Seattle Returns

So I’m not as good as my word. So you’re getting a post-mortem. What could be better suited to a noir film festival?

After a hiatus of almost two and a half years, Noir City blew back into Seattle – and a new and better home at SIFF’s Egyptian Theater. Happily, the return engagement on Capitol Hill was a success, with solid crowds every night for a week. The theme this go-round was Film Noir from A to B: double-bills that moved chronologically through the 1940s, pairing prestige pictures with shorter, grittier productions to recreate the moviegoing experience of the era. (There was one exception to the structure and it mattered a great deal to me, but we’ll get to that.) Rosemarie and I made it to fifteen of the eighteen films screened, with time out for work and conspiring global domination with the festival’s master of ceremonies Eddie Muller. A recap follows.

New to Me

I saw three of the films for the first time, and as you’d expect, they were the B’s:

Dr. Broadway (1942). What was intended as the launching pad for a new franchise ended up as a series of one film. Still, it did provide noir legend Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, T-Men) with his first directorial assignment. This Runyonesque romp gained an unexpected topicality – the titular Times Square sawbones is named Tim Kane – and had potential, given the doc’s client base of gangsters and glamour gals. J. Carrol Naish makes his usual fine villain as a tailor cutting more than cloth in his bid to claim a crime boss’ fortune. Too bad the film stars the charisma-challenged Macdonald Carey, and his leading lady Jean Phillips triggered brain freeze every time she appeared onscreen; she was better known as Ginger Rogers’ stand-in, and is such a dead ringer for the dancer I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t actually her.

The Guilty (1947). This Film Noir Foundation restoration is based on the Cornell Woolrich story “Two Men in a Furnished Room.” As Eddie said, that also accurately describes the budget. But those bargain basement appointments allow director John Reinhardt to hew closely to Woolrich’s singularly bleak, doom-laden vision. Former Nancy Drew and future Lassie producer Bonita Granville plays identical twins – one helpmeet, one harlot – who take up with a pair of shiftless roomies. When the good girl is murdered, suspicion abounds. The movie is no lost masterpiece but it’s undeniably haunting, the Poverty Row production values giving it the hermetic feel of a nightmare. At least one relationship is genuinely unseemly, and a detective’s description of Granville #1’s demise while star Don Castle, who could be out-acted by a cigar store Indian, gazes down at her off-screen corpse remains authentically disturbing.

Southside 1-1000 (1950). Doubts were raised during the opening of the closing film, a semi-documentary crimebusters saga from Gun Crazy producers the King Brothers. (Summary of John Ireland’s interminable voiceover: counterfeiting is bad.) But once treasury agent Don DeFore – a Noir City favorite thanks to his turn in Too Late for Tears, now available on DVD! – arrives in Los Angeles and starts throwing cash around in a bid to build his bona fides as a Boston hoodlum, all is well. Great location photography in this movie directed by Boris Ingster, who also helmed the opening night B title Stranger on the Third Floor, bringing us all full circle.

Edith Head Night!

All the way from Japan!
Eddie deviated from the A/B set-up for our benefit, scheduling two top-tier titles last Tuesday boasting costumes by Edith Head. (Not to mention also having producer Hal Wallis and stars Burt Lancaster and Wendell Corey in common.) Rosemarie and I were lucky enough to co-host the evening with him, and signed copies of Design for Dying provided by Phinney Books. I can tell you that having Eddie Muller tells a packed house, “Don’t be a chump! Buy the book!” moves a lot of units. Our lovely friend Etsuko Tamazawa, who travels all the way from Japan to attend Noir City fests up and down the West Coast, brought us an astonishing gift: a Design for Dying sake barrel complete with inscribed cups, which were on the table as we signed books.

As for the movies, Desert Fury (1947) remains a delirious Technicolor fantasy, an overheated melodrama with only the vaguest ties to noir. And who cares, when it features a gay subtext that soon becomes text and a Lizabeth Scott sulking montage demanding multiple wardrobe changes that shows Edith Head at the height of her powers? I’m thrilled we introduced many people to Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), a dizzying piece of construction from writer Lucille Fletcher and director Anatole Litvak that is a truly underrated masterpiece of suspense.

The Professor and Mary Ann (aka And The Rest)

I always forget how effective Victor Mature is playing a big city sharpie in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming – and still wish his co-star Laird Cregar had lived long enough to play Nero Wolfe ... Woman on the Run (1950), also now on DVD, gets better every time I see it ... Edith Head’s costumes for Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942) didn’t disappoint, but I tip my hat to the milliners responsible for the essential-to-the-plot hats in Phantom Lady (1944), starring local gal Ella Raines ... Dead Reckoning (1947) always seemed like middling Bogart to me, but it played great this time, while the big screen did no favors for the synthetic The Dark Corner (1946) ... The way Max Ophuls uses the wind in The Reckless Moment (1949) ... Night Editor (1946) is essentially the first Joe Eszterhas movie. And I already can’t wait for next year.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Me Elsewhere: Noir City Seattle

The last time Noir City was in Seattle, Rosemarie and I ended up filling in for the irreplaceable Eddie Muller on the final night, hosting a quartet of French noir films.

Then the festival pulled up stumps and abandoned the Emerald City for over a year. Are these events connected? The jury remains out.

But I’m pleased to report Noir City makes its triumphant return this weekend, at a brand new venue in the Egyptian Theater. Eighteen movies in seven days and not a dud in the bunch. Rosemarie and I reviewed the entire fight card with esteemed journalist and fellow game show combatant Tony Kay for City Arts magazine.

The big night for us is obviously Tuesday, July 26, when a pair of Edith Head films take to the silver screen. The deeply deranged Desert Fury and the sinfully suspenseful Sorry, Wrong Number. With Eddie providing context, and color commentary from yours truly and the missus. We’ll also be signing copies of Design for Dying, thanks to an assist from Phinney Books.

I can’t promise diligent recapping of every feature – there’s a lot going on around Chez K these days – but I’ll try to surface with a report or two.

In the meantime, swing by Dru’s Book Musings to read our ‘Day in the Life’ post and have a chance to win a signed copy of Design for Dying.

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.