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.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel, by Lawrence Block (2016)

The first edition of Lawrence Block’s book was simply called Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. 1978, the year of its publication, was a different era; watch the Johnny Carson reruns now airing on Antenna TV for a taste of those bygone days. (The other night, Carson reeled off a list of do’s and don’ts for singles bars. Talk about your time capsules.)

Block’s book served as this nascent novelist’s first Bible. I read it over and over, primarily because I responded to his crisply professional approach. WNPP wasn’t full of inspirational, follow-your-bliss advice. It treated writing as a job, which made sense given’s Block background in the paperback trade of the 1950s and 1960s, and was resolutely practical. He suggested subjecting several novels in your chosen genre to detailed outlining, and I broke down more than one of Block’s own books to study the mechanics of story.

It’s no surprise Block updated his book for the modern age, given the forward-thinking approach he’s had for his entire career. He was ahead of the curve on audiobooks, embraced e-books early, and of late has self-published several titles including this one and the most recent entry in his Burglar series.

That breadth of experience is brought to bear on the new and improved WNPPP. What surprises is how little revision the first fourteen chapters required. For all the technological innovations, the nuts and bolts of writing haven’t changed. Block’s counsel has weathered well, and he smartly peppers the text with interjections updating the content. Plenty of material that has served me in good stead for decades remains intact, like Block telling the story of how novelist John D. MacDonald made use of a chance meeting with a friend’s father: “By the time the evening was done, my father didn’t know too much about John D. MacDonald, but MacDonald sure learned a lot about hotel management.” I still hope to work a reference to a “tobbo shop” in somewhere. In the chapter on outlining, Block is finally able to quote an uproarious example from Donald E. Westlake’s Adios, Scheherazade that he’d previously only left to the imagination. Thanks to an assist from Duane Swierczynski a while back, I was able to read Westlake’s original, but reprinted in this context, it’s even funnier.

As for the book’s Pixel portion, Block wisely observes that the field is changing so fast the best he can do is offer tips on where to find the most current information. But focus your energy on what precedes it. Writing a good book is always your best first step, and Block will put you on the road to accomplishing that.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Movies: 15 for ‘15

First and foremost, here’s wishing a happy new year to all my loyal readers. Great to see both of you here!

I’m hoping to post a bit more frequently in 2016 – be warned that more than a few of those posts will be about my debut novel Design for Dying, co-written with my wife Rosemarie under the pen name Renee Patrick and being published in April – and, figuring there’s no time like the present, decided to get things started right away. Herewith, a survey of my favorite films of the year just ended, in a somewhat vague order of preference.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Throughout college, I’d argue with all comers that George Miller’s post-apocalyptic films made a better trilogy than the original Star Wars. In a year when both franchises came roaring back, my heart remains true.

The Big Short. The biggest surprise of the year. Righteously angry, richly funny.

’71. Ceaseless white-knuckle suspense as a British soldier spends a harrowing night trapped in Catholic Belfast during the height of the Troubles.

Spotlight. You don’t have to be an Irish Catholic former altar boy from the Northeast who went into journalism to appreciate this film. But it helps.

Saint Laurent. Bertrand Bonello’s sprawling, hallucinogenic biopic of the designer (not to be confused with the more sedate, authorized version which preceded it by several months) casts a spell.

Office. Johnnie To directs a musical about the financial collapse of 2008. Also the strangest moviegoing experience of the year, in that Rosemarie and I were the only people in the theater.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Maybe never seeing a minute of the TV series helped. When every other movie seems to be about building or protecting the brand, it was a relief to see one hell-bent on feeling gleefully offhand. (The boat chase is a thing of wonder.) A stylish movie that is about style – Henry Cavill wears a blue 3-piece windowpane plaid suit that’s like a special effect – and Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack is one of the year’s great accomplishments. If they won’t make any more of these movies, I hereby volunteer to write a series of tie-in novels featuring the Cavill/Hammer/Vikander/Grant team.

The Gift. Classic noir in modern duds, served up by Joel Edgerton.

Trainwreck. Amy Schumer’s script is tough on her character while not skimping on jokes. Plus, Mets references aplenty!

Magic Mike XXL. The original film was my favorite of its year. The sequel is looser, more shambolic, and even funnier.

Steve Jobs. Uncut, prison-grade Aaron Sorkin and a dazzling Michael Fassbender performance.

Iris. Documentary master Albert Maysles’ final film is, fittingly, about staying curious and true to yourself – and looking good while you do so.

Love & Mercy. A daring dual turn by Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson, with Elizabeth Banks carrying the day.

Phoenix. If I’m undervaluing a title on this list, Christian Petzold’s melodrama may be it. At times too sedate for its own good, but Nina Hoss is transcendent – and the final moments are absolutely shattering.

Mr. Holmes. A meditation on memory and regret, filtered through one of the most iconic characters of all time.