Thursday, November 17, 2016

Queen of Crime

Several weeks early, I offer my New Year’s resolution for 2017: whenever I hear someone is making an enemies list, I’m gonna do what I can to be on it.


There’s still time to go, but it’s entirely possible the best movie I saw in a theater in 2016 will be ... the best movie I saw in a theater in 2015. Seattle’s Cinerama recently wrapped a 10-day run of Mad Max: Fury Road – The Black and Chrome Edition. What better time to revisit the apocalypse! George Miller called this black and white print “the best version” of his action extravaganza, a “more authentic and elemental” experience. I loved the film when I saw it last summer, but this viewing was indeed more intense and emotional. Monochrome is Tom Hardy’s friend, revealing new layers to his performance. Both versions will be available on Blu-ray next month, but I may put Fury Road in the rarified category of movie I only watch on a big screen.


One of the titles I picked up in the self-serve book room at Bouchercon in New Orleans was Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, edited by Joseph Goodrich. As one-half of Renee Patrick, I’m always interested in the working methods of other writing teams.

Rosemarie and I intend to remain married, so we’re not about to follow the lead of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Ellery Queen they wrote numerous novels and short stories about a detective also named Ellery Queen, with Dannay responsible for plotting duties and Lee handling the prose. It was a fraught system, each man resenting their interdependence and feeling unappreciated by the other. Their exchanges are charged with recriminations but also hugely instructive. One letter will offer a devastating critique of the work in progress, followed by an equally avid and airtight response. It’s bracing to read correspondence between partners who both have their reasons and are more than capable of defending them.

Here’s where I confess my ignorance of the Queen oeuvre. My experience was largely limited to the TV series from Columbo creators Richard Link and William Levinson, which incidentally is streaming on Hulu. Goodrich culls the letters in Blood Relations from what scholar Francis M. Nevins calls the “Third Period” of Queen, from 1942-58, when Ellery Queen the character was transformed from effete dandy to flesh-and-blood individual. I set out to read the books from Queen’s golden era even though the Dannay/Lee letters made me familiar with their twists and turns. I was curious; having peaked behind the curtain, could I still enjoy the show?

Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) is something of a chamber piece, one of the novels where Ellery retreats to the bucolic hamlet of Wrightsville. As such, it has a small cast of characters and for that reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that even coming to it fresh I would have sussed out the killer. The core idea still strikes me as a shade too intellectual. But the writing is soulful, seeking and finding a deepening of the character, and the mechanics of the final revelation are impressive. The next year’s Cat of Many Tails, in contrast, seemed even more thrilling knowing what tricks the boys had up their sleeves. The gripping tale of a serial killer terrorizing New York, it’s thick with mid-century atmosphere; when handing over his detailed outline, Dannay suggests Lee use the then-in-the-theaters The Naked City as a guide. The Cat’s method of selecting his victims is as diabolical now as it was nearly seventy years ago, the motive behind it every bit as chilling. The psychological explanations tend to be long-winded, understandable given when the book was written. But that gentility also makes the shock easier to take.

It was fascinating to approach a book when its gaff has been blown and look for the seams. Time to read some Ellery Queen where I don’t possess any of their secrets.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Social Media Habits, and How the Coen Brothers Saved Election Night

For some reason I feel compelled to explain why this post exists. I’ll keep it brief. A week before the election, I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter. I realized that, like the rest of the country, I was going insane, and social media was only accelerating the process. I was checking Twitter constantly for updates and new polling numbers, mainlining everyone else’s fears and hopes at the same time. Conversely, I’d stop by Facebook for a break from the news – Post some photos of your damn cats! – only to get sucked back into the maelstrom.

It finally dawned on me that this was part of the problem.

Time for a sabbatical. I still read the news, but in concentrated doses. (Do the republic and yourself a favor: subscribe to a newspaper. Journalism is important enough to pay for.) By election night I felt calmer, I was sleeping better, and once out of the echo chamber I’d unintentionally built I was even somewhat prepared for the eventual outcome. I also discovered I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to my old habits.

I’ve made some resolutions for the coming years. If anything I’m going to spend more time in bars, because what we all need to do now is talk directly to friends and strangers alike in a congenial atmosphere. Engagement must be the order of the day. (Here’s a segment from WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about the role of the bar as community meeting place on Election Night, featuring the terrific New York Times Magazine writer/bartender Rosie Schaap.)

And I’m going to reduce my social media presence for my own peace of mind. Not eliminate it; the pull’s too strong, and I know how essential it is for promotion. (Did I mention that Rosie Schaap blurbed my book Down The Hatch?) While I am going to scale back, I do still have an overwhelming urge to shoot my mouth off. So I plan on posting here again – I’m aiming for once a week, maybe Thursdays – with recommendations and updates. Why not start with how I spent election night?

No way was I watching returns on television. I gave up TV news, especially the cable variety, a while ago. Instead I tracked the results online and entered the brave new world in the company of Joel and Ethan Coen, who never let me down. I rewatched a trio of their titles that seemed unusually apt, given the circumstances.

Burn After Reading (2008). I have irrational affection for what’s often viewed as a “lesser” Coen film. When it came out, I glibly told people it was about how the United States ended up going to war in Iraq. I never developed the theory in detail; it just felt true to me. This was the Coen movie I thought of the most during the election cycle. Pretty much every character is a self-absorbed idiot, by turns entitled and aggrieved. Empathy ends at their fingertips. They obsess over their own problems and assume the worst about everyone else. The only decent person to be found lacks all conviction, and naturally ends up meeting the cruelest fate.

Plus you have Frances McDormand, looking a little like Hillary Clinton, sobbing about having to build a firewall. So yeah, 2016 in a nutshell.

Miller’s Crossing (1990). The angry man behind the desk is a Coen motif. Sooner or later, their protagonists always have to square off against one. Crossing doubles down on the theme. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan stands before two such desks – Albert Finney’s and Jon Polito’s – as both advisor and adversary. There are valuable lessons here for the next few years. In a harsh and unpredictable world, the only way to win is to play the long game, even if it means keeping your true motives hidden.

Hail, Caesar! (2016). Fourth viewing of their latest movie. I don’t think it’s a minor work. I think it’s a dense, unconventionally structured masterpiece. (My pal Ethan Iverson likes it, too.) The “man behind the desk” evolves in the Coens’ films – when the figure appears in Burn After Reading in the form of J.K. Simmons’ CIA chief, he’s as befuddled as everyone else – and it’s strangely moving that in Caesar, they’ve finally made him their hero. All you can hope for is that, like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, he has a soul and is trying in his own way to do the right thing. Slapping some sense into wayward movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he says, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.” Finding something larger than you and serving it. Good advice for the week.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Me Elsewhere: Noir at the Bar Seattle

Coming up tomorrow night. A swanky venue! A sterling line-up! And booze!

Warning: photo not to scale.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

Over the weekend, the Summer 2016 issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s house rag hit in-boxes. And I’ll tell you right now, I’ve never been prouder of any edition of this magazine. The reason is the cover story, my interview with Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears.

I gave the assignment to myself, not even running it past FNF founder and Noir City honcho Eddie Muller at first for fear the interview wouldn’t come together. My bailiwick as managing editor at the magazine is contemporary noir. It occurred to me that there are plenty of current filmmakers who have contributed mightily to noir – and that we need to talk to them about that work while we have the opportunity. We’re not going to get to sit down with, say, Robert Siodmak or Robert Wise, but we could corral their successors and discuss noir’s evolution. And, at the risk of sounding morbid, we were obligated to do so now, as last week’s untimely passing of writer/director Curtis Hanson at the age of 71 reminds us. (What I wouldn’t have given to talk to Hanson, not only about his masterwork L.A. Confidential but so many other dark gems on his resume like The Silent Partner, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence.)

Why start with Stephen Frears? Three reasons. He has unassailable credentials, with The Hit (1984) and The Grifters (1990) enshrined in the neo-noir pantheon. He had a new film in release, which in purely practical terms meant he’d be more likely to be accessible. Incidentally, that new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, is delightful. Meryl Streep is understandably the focus of all the attention, but it also boasts the best performance of Hugh Grant’s career.

But my main motive was personal. Frears is one of my favorite filmmakers, his name on a movie a guaranteed incentive for me to watch it. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen The Snapper (1993), while High Fidelity (2000) is a kind of touchstone for me. If I were drafting one of those best-films-of-the-21st-century-so-far lists for the BBC, 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things would most definitely be on it.

Somehow, the stars aligned and I found myself on the phone with the man himself. Frears seemed amused at the prospect of being viewed as a noir filmmaker and agreed to stroll down Memory Lane with me, reminiscing about his debut feature Gumshoe (1971) and chiding me about not thinking of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) as film noir. He answered my questions with the low-key, self-effacing humor that seems the exclusive province of the English.

Eddie then took things to the next level by announcing Frears as the recipient of the Film Noir Foundation’s first annual Modern Master Award, “given to an artist whose work has displayed an appreciation for the thematic and artistic traditions of classic noir, as well as an eagerness to extend those traditions in fresh and unexpected directions.” Our plan is to present the award to Frears in person at the Noir City film festival in either San Francisco or Los Angeles – provided he can tear himself away from his latest project. And we’re already discussing who the next recipient might be.

But that’s only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue. There’s Eddie’s spellbinding article on the making of The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), the first of the “rubble films” shot amidst the ruins of post-war Europe. Imogen Sara Smith offers a pair of related articles on British World War II noir and an appreciation of Carol Reed’s neglected The Man Between (1953). Jake Hinkson considers the career of Detour author Martin Goldsmith. Steve Kronenberg salutes the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Nigel Collins, longtime editor of boxing magazine The Ring, serves up a surprising list of his 5 favorite noir titles. And the inimitable Johnny Shaw takes us on a tour of South Korean crime cinema, specifically The Yellow Sea.

Plus there’s the usual bounty of news, reviews and features, including my Cocktails & Crime column and my take on four films that screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. All of it beautifully laid out by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

To get your copy, donate to the Film Noir Foundation. You’ll also be entered into a contest to win the brand new Kino-Lorber Blu-rays of Deadline U.S.A. and 99 River Street, with commentary tracks by Eddie Muller, and the Warner Archive DVD of James Ellroy favorite Stakeout on Dope Street.

If you want a taste of what’s in the magazine, my piece from last issue on Tequila Sunrise, a movie that had way too much influence on me, is now on the FNF website.

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.