Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Passings: Ingmar Bergman, Tom Snyder

One was a signature cinematic artist of the twentieth century. The other hosted some TV. Guess which one I’m going to talk about.

Far more intelligent people than me have eulogized Bergman’s passing. A thorough overview can be found at GreenCine Daily. More importantly, Bergman’s legacy will last as long as humanity does. You could sit down with any number of his films this evening in the comfort of your own home.

But Tom Snyder’s legacy is already fading. Here’s how I know: I’m completely unfamiliar with what Tom Snyder is most famous for. I never saw a minute of The Tomorrow Show. It was before my time. When I finally caught up with Dan Aykroyd’s send-ups of Snyder years later, I had no idea who he was mocking.

I got to know Snyder from his mid-‘90s CNBC show, which I became weirdly obsessed with. Specifically the opening segment, when Tom would talk about his day. Spending the afternoon with his mother, griping about some ad he’d seen on TV. It was a fleeting moment of humanity on television, the equivalent of chatting with your neighbor over the fence. At times he could be self-involved or overbearing, but so can we all. What came through was Snyder’s desire to use the medium to connect.

He was saddled with a lot of second- and third-tier guests on that show, but evinced a genuine curiosity about them that made the interviews more interesting than whatever was on the late night line-up. He maintained the same standard when he took over the slot after David Letterman.

That show is now ably hosted by Craig Ferguson. After author Ken Bruen’s recent appearance on the program, Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders bemoaned that there was no venue on television for serious conversation with writers. I came to Ferguson’s defense, but Peter’s point is well-taken. A Tom Snyder interview with Ken Bruen would have been something to see.

I did encounter Tom Snyder once before his CNBC stint. He wrote the foreword to An Edge in My Voice, a collection of essays by frequent Tomorrow Show guest Harlan Ellison. It’s a book I read repeatedly in high school and college. Snyder writes:

“For years, I have written for television news programs. I think much of it has been pretty good, but if I set it down right here in front of you, few would remember a word of it. That’s because television news writing disappears rapidly. It comes on, it goes off, and it disappears. It doesn’t lie around gathering shelf dust for years and then one rainy night beckon your curiosity from the booktable ... The good pieces I wrote for television would always be a private satisfaction to me. The dumb ones – the really horrid crap I had dashed out with no thought and less preparation – those were gone and forgotten and nobody would ever know of them and thank God for that.”

There you go. A bit of Tom Snyder’s writing that wasn’t forgotten, at least not by me.

Edward Champion wrote a post about Snyder last week that features several Tomorrow Show clips. Other tributes come from Mark Evanier, Ken Levine, and Ed Gorman. And watch a Bergman film at your convenience.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Book: I Love You, Beth Cooper, by Larry Doyle (2007)

Doyle is the veteran Simpsons scribe who also has the sorely underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action to his credit. (You can read that script and several others at his website.) His first comic novel triggered high school flashbacks so intense that my voice changed.

Denis Cooverman, star debater and valedictorian, blurts out the title line in his graduation speech. What he doesn’t expect is that Beth Cooper, head cheerleader and secret hellion, will find his professions of love cute. What he doesn’t know is that Beth has a new boyfriend, Kevin, who is massive, on leave from the Army, and lacking a sense of humor. As Denis, Beth and their friends spend a long graduation night shuttling from parties to make-out spots trying to avoid Kevin, Denis finds out the adolescent social whirl he’s long fantasized about isn’t quite as he imagined it.

It’s a funny book, with bright turns of phrase throughout. It’s also a rich one, with Denis and particularly Beth bursting out of the Breakfast Club pigeonholes into which high school has forced them in some surprising ways. By the end the book achieves a grace, even a wisdom, that caught me off-guard.

Seldom have I identified with a character as strongly as I did with Rich Munsch, Denis’s best (and only) bud. Rich is completely obsessed with movies and views every mortifying event as grist for the film someone must be making of his life. Rich, in other words, is the adolescent me, only with more flair. By which I mean any flair.

Reading the book has me thinking about high school and my graduation night in particular, when I had my own Denis Cooverman moment. For the full four years I attended Dunedin High School in Dunedin, Florida – go, Falcons! – I harbored an intense crush on a girl named Ellen.* I don’t know why. I knew nothing about her. I doubt we said more than fifty words to each other, mainly because I was tongue-tied in her presence. She sat next to me in several classes, and occasionally when the teacher made a joke that fell flat she’d turn to me and roll her eyes. At such moments I would come perilously close to passing out.

After the graduation ceremony we all filed back into the high school one final time. Emotions were running high; people were already exchanging goodbyes. And a single thought took possession of me: I have to mark this moment. I stalked the halls until I found Ellen, standing with a group of her friends. She smiled at me. I seized my chance.

“Congratulations,” I said, and kissed her. And I mean a full Adrien-Brody-on-Halle-Berry special, with a dip and everything. I may have banged her head into a locker. The whole thing’s kind of a blur. I am not usually given to acts of unprovoked affection.

When the kiss ended, I said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve wanted to do that for four years.”

Ellen laughed. “I’m glad you did it, then.”

I never saw her again. I’m sure she doesn’t even remember the incident. But that night alone almost made high school bearable. It was a lesson I’d learned from all the movies I’d been watching. If you get the ending right, all the disappointment that came before doesn’t matter.

* - Name changed to protect the innocent

Friday, July 27, 2007

Movies: Run Swinger Run/Sex Club International (1967)

Oh, like you wouldn’t rent movies with those titles. I didn’t come here to be judged.

Actually, I don’t know why I rented them. Sexploitation movies bore me to tears. I prefer thrillers with a generous dollop of sleaze, not titillation with a half-assed plot grafted on. That’s what we get a double dose of here, courtesy of director Barry Mahon.

Sex Club International is the marginally better of the two. The club president can’t complete the simplest task without disrobing and looks just enough like Ann Coulter to give the enterprise some contemporary resonance. The movie is narrated by a regional man of mystery named, I kid you not, Lucky Bang Bang, who reads his lines off cue cards scattered on the floor.

But the good people at Something Weird Video know how to load up a disc with extras. There are several Mahon shorts as well as a collection of trailers for other classics of his oeuvre like Crazy, Wild and Crazy and Good Time With a Bad Girl. Sadly, there is no coming attraction for 1968’s immortal The Diary of Knockers McCalla.

Mahon eventually made the natural transition into children’s films. The disc includes the preview for his micro-budgeted production The Wonderful Land of Oz. Since watching it, I have not been able to sleep. It is that horrifying. I can’t find it online, but these photos will give you a taste of the horror that awaits you.

The best extra is a slideshow of adult film magazine covers accompanied by radio spots from the era. One ad trumpets a movie featuring footage of the birth of a baby. That’s soon trumped by one showing the birth of twins. All for educational purposes only, of course. It makes for quite a time capsule.

Amazing fact: Barry Mahon was the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape. Ed Wood gets a biopic and Barry doesn’t? Act I: War Hero! Act two is buck naked and bucking conventions. And in act three Barry gains redemption by reaching out to America’s youth. I’m telling you, this thing writes itself.

Miscellaneous: Links

Yesterday I mentioned The President’s Analyst. Today’s Variety Army Archerd flashback is all about it.

Via Kung Fu Monkey, it’s A World Without Us.

Maybe Bill O’Reilly is right about San Francisco values, because the demon cab is still rolling.

Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the New York Mets. Watch the video, it’s better that way.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Movie: Waterhole Number Three (1967)

Here’s actor Bruce Dern on Waterhole Number Three, from his memoir Things I’ve Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have. A book which, you may remember, I enjoyed.

I do a movie with as funny a script as I’ve ever read, called WATERHOLE NUMBER THREE. The writer and director, Joe Steck, a funny wunderkind, had written a movie called THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, which Jim Coburn was also in. WATERHOLE NUMBER THREE, a western, starts out with Coburn in a card game where he loses everything he’s got ... He walks outside, pulls his gun out, and kills his horse. Now he’s got nothing. He looks into the lens and says, “So blame me. So what? I want to start from scratch, okay? Is that okay with you? Can we go on now?” He’s saying this to the audience. I thought, shit, this works. It’s funny. He goes into another saloon, and an old miner’s there having a drink. The old miner has an attack. As he dies, he gives Coburn a napkin containing a map to waterhole number three, where there sits a fortune. He spends the rest of the movie trying to find it. Unbeknownst to him, there’s a bunch of people also looking for waterhole number three: Timothy Carey; Strother Martin, Maggie Blye ... Jack Elam, and the guy who James Arness kills at the beginning of GUNSMOKE every week, Bob Welke. Tim Carey, the guy in Kubrick’s movie THE KILLING who kills the horse, is in it. Carroll O’Connor is the sheriff, and I’m the sheriff’s deputy. We’re looking for the guys who are looking for waterhole number three. L. Q. Jones is another one. Warren Oates. They all found waterhole number three one after the other, except for Coburn, who has the real map. It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD with horses instead of cars. And it works.

Sounds like a hoot, no? I rented it for the horse gag alone, even though I knew that Joe Steck isn’t credited as the writer of The President’s Analyst – a funny movie – and my Leonard Maltin guide lists William Graham as Waterhole Number Three’s director.

Guess what? The horse gag isn’t there. Neither is Coburn addressing the camera. Or the miner. The map is in the possession of another gambler Coburn guns down in the street.

Also not in the movie: Strother Martin, Jack Elam, Bob Welke (actually Wilke), L. Q. Jones, and Warren Oates. Roger Miller narrates the whole thing in song, but Dern doesn’t mention him.

In the interests of completion, I should point out another error. The movie doesn’t work. At all. I gave up on it after half an hour. (So yes, technically, all those actors could turn up in the portion I skipped. Maybe in disguise, a la The List of Adrian Messenger. If that’s the case, no one in recorded history has spilled the secret.)

Certainly there’s some poor copy editing here. Someone should have caught the misspelling of Wilke’s name. And cut one of the Timothy Carey references. And maybe even, you know, watched the movie. Or at least verified the cast list.

And perhaps Dern isn’t wrong. The opening he describes could easily have been in an early draft of the script, while the missing actors’ scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. It seems more likely, though, that this is a concrete example of the treachery of memory. What’s in your head isn’t necessarily what actually happened.

I just wish I could see the movie Bruce Dern remembers. It has to be better than the one that exists.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Book: Blackmailer, by George Axelrod (1952)

Ed Gorman has the brief on George Axelrod – “hip but accessible.” For me, he’ll always be the man who wrote one of the greatest screenplays in the history of motion pictures, the original adaptation of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. A cult following has sprung up around his directorial debut, the savage black comedy Lord Love A Duck. I’m not in that number; the movie’s too bilious and scattershot for my taste. But it’s the rare comedy that left me feeling uneasy at the end, which is a point in its favor.

Axelrod’s interview in Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 3 is a freewheeling marvel. He dishes on working with Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra, analyzes why the movie version of his play The Seven Year Itch failed (thanks to changes dictated by the Breen Office, “the goddamn premise didn’t make any sense”), and tells how he briefly convinced Truman Capote that the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was going to be called Follow That Blond.

Somewhere in that illustrious career, Axelrod found time to pen a Gold Medal paperback, which Hard Case Crime has brought back into his print. Blackmailer is kind of a Gold Medal Lite, about a Manhattan editor caught up in a daft plot involving a Hollywood bombshell, a tough-guy talent agent, and a manuscript that might be the last book from a Hemingwayesque author. It’s lighter and more urbane than standard Gold Medal fare, and it works surprisingly well. Only someone truly on the inside of show business could have concocted that ending.

Blackmailer includes a passage that perfectly captures the joys to be found in B-movies, especially when compared to big-budget films that are “completely sterile from the very beginning.” Sure, B’s may be “slapped together by someone who thought if he could make a movie fast enough and cheap enough he could probably make a few dollars.” But they’re not sterile. If you’re lucky, they’ll include talented performers “acting for their own enjoyment – for personal kicks,” who might convince you that they’re actually fighting for their lives. It’s a great scene for movie buffs.

TV: Entourage

I’ve complained about the show’s greatest implausibility before – that a group of four guys from Queens doesn’t include a single Mets fan. Then, in Sunday night’s episode, Johnny Drama (Emmy nominee Kevin Dillon) turned up wearing a 1986 Lenny Dykstra throwback jersey. I have chosen to interpret this as proof that the show’s writers have acknowledged their error, and that they read this blog.

Miscellaneous: Links

Hell hath no fury like a comic whose material has been stolen.

Today’s bounty at The Obscure Store includes demonic taxicabs and prison riots over Woody Allen.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Movie: The Money Trap (1966)

Funny how these things work. When the question of forgotten pop culture personalities was raised at Hollywood Elsewhere earlier this month, Glenn Ford was one of the first names mentioned. And not without reason. Then the other day, author George Pelecanos wrote a heartfelt tribute to him, saying that “Ford, more than any other screen actor, is the paternal stand-in for a generation of boys whose fathers served in World War II” and praising the “quiet, confident masculinity that could only have come from someone who had nothing to prove.”

He’s ripe for reappraisal, with Russell Crowe taking over for Ford in his prime in the upcoming remake of 3:10 To Yuma. At Noir City I saw the young Ford in Framed. Time for a film from later in his career.

The Money Trap is an unheralded noir with an offbeat pedigree. Director Burt Kennedy is better known for comic westerns. Walter Bernstein adapts a novel by Lionel White (The Killing). Ford plays a weary detective married to a wealthy younger woman (Elke Sommer). The missus begins having cash flow problems just as Ford is handed the case of a thief gunned down in front of an empty safe by connected physician Joseph Cotten. The thief’s dying words have Ford convinced that the safe wasn’t originally empty, and that if Ford can somehow steal the contents Cotten won’t be able to go to the police.

I’m not claiming that The Money Trap is a neglected masterpiece. The plot’s a bit lumpy, and the only thing missing from the opening sequence – Ford and partner Ricardo Montalban rocketing through the rain to a murder scene at a brothel, complete with brassy jazz soundtrack – is a narrator intoning, “A Quinn Martin Production.” But it’s a good movie. More to the point, it’s a bracingly adult one, about sex and money and the need to make a name for oneself.

It has a healthy appreciation for sleaze, always a plus in a thriller. The magnificently fleshy Sommer undressing just at the edge of the frame, loads of shots of curvy women in garter belts.

That sleaze is tied to what drives the movie: Ford’s repressed paranoia that living off his wife’s money has diminished him as a man. At one point Ford looks up the thief’s widow, a woman from the neighborhood he has a history with, played by Rita Hayworth. Ford and Hayworth appeared together several times, most memorably in Gilda. They put that history to work for them in an extraordinary scene in which they compare how their lives haven’t matched the dreams of their youth and end up sleeping together one last time. Neither actor indulges in vanity, the weathered hunk and the ravaged beauty giving each other some small bit of comfort in the long night.

Black-and-white films from the mid-to-late ‘60s seem to carry a sense of their own futility. You can feel history shrugging its shoulders and asking, “Why aren’t you in color?” In a film noir that feeling is only intensified, moreso one with leads in the twilight of their careers. Stumbling onto The Money Trap was like discovering ghosts struggle with their problems, certain in their belief that no one was watching.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Book: Solea, by Jean-Claude Izzo (U.S. 2007)

Total Chaos, the first book in Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, dazzled me. Chourmo made a brilliant follow-up. Solea brings the series to a close in dizzying, almost punishing style.

The love of ex-cop Fabio Montale’s life has left him. But there are still pleasures to be found on the streets of his beloved city. Glasses of pastis with his small but loyal circle of friends. The Mediterranean itself. A night in the arms of a woman with gray-blue eyes.

But when another woman in Fabio’s life is forced into hiding by Mafia killers, those killers turn up at his doorstep. They want him to track down his one-time paramour, and will butcher those close to him until he succeeds.

Solea isn’t perfect; there are some aspects of the plot that I found implausible. But the book is driven relentlessly forward by Izzo’s cold fury at “how organized crime is poisoning the world economy.” Globalization has thrown ministers, millionaires and mobsters together, all of them putting their interests ahead of the common good. Montale says he feels as if the shadow of death has fallen across his life. That apocalyptic mood infects the entire novel. Montale doesn’t have to descend into hell. Hell is coming for him, for the south of France, for all of united Europe.

Yet as is always the case, Izzo’s prose – again beautifully translated by Howard Curtis – is charged with a hunger for life. It’s an intoxicating blend of passion and fatalism, spiced with literary and musical references that carry real weight. What amazes me is how casually Izzo interrupts his reveries with nuggets of hard-won wisdom. (“Just because you’re used to life doesn’t mean you have to carry on living.”)

The Marseilles Trilogy is, simply put, the pinnacle of crime fiction in this decade. Do yourself a favor and read it now.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Trailer Trash: Wicked Woman

It’s been almost a week now, and I can’t get Wicked Woman out of my head. Beverly Michaels’ jaw-dropping performance. The haunting theme song. The overall shoddiness of the production. And oh, how the ghost of that Brylcreem clings.

I don’t know when or if I’ll get to see this movie again, so the trailer is going to have to tide me over. Luckily, it has a little of everything that makes Wicked Woman unique. Including the song.

That’s diminutive Percy Helton smooching on Beverly. Walter Satterthwait, a longtime Wicked Woman fan, says Percy was never more slimy than he is here, and I agree with him. Eddie Muller introduced the film by saying that Percy kept the one-sheet for the movie, which featured Percy cowering before a giant Beverly, in a place of honor in his home for the rest of his life – despite his wife’s instructions to take it down. Nice to know Beverly had that effect in real life, too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Book: Things I’ve Said But Probably Shouldn’t Have, by Bruce Dern (2007)

Dern subtitled his book “An Unrepentant Memoir,” and he’s as good as his word. His co-writers Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane are wise enough to organize the material and then stay out of Dern’s way as he walks through a long career “playing people that live just beyond where the buses run.”

The result reads like a long, rambling conversation with the actor while he’s waiting to be called to the set. Dern’s voice can be courtly one minute, referring to actresses he admires as Miss (Miss Bening, Miss Sally Field), and juvenile the next. Dern is refreshingly frank about sex but discusses it like the Midwestern teenager he once was, talking about “humpers” and getting into some puss. He isn’t shy about airing his grudges and his dislikes. (He calls Al Franken “a poor man’s Art Metrano,” for me the high point of the book.)

Dern also expounds at length about what excites him to this day about acting, namely capturing actual human behavior onscreen. He cites several of these living moments, called “Dernsers,” with many coming from my favorite Dern movies, Smile and Diggstown. His comparison of Matt Damon’s performance in Good Will Hunting and Ryan O’Neal’s in Love Story has me ready to watch both movies again. And he makes it plain how his devotion to long-distance running has brought discipline to his life and work. This warts-and-all book goes on the (very) short list of acting memoirs worth reading.

Newsstand: The New Yorker, July 9

I just caught up with Alex Ross’s article on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who became a popular favorite during his life but never received the respect of the critical establishment. He died without completing what was expected to be his masterwork. There’s a lot of music theory in the article that’s beyond me, but a great deal that seems applicable to the arts in general. Two quotes in particular struck me. The first, from Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s 1925 book Living Music:

“The simplest is the hardest, the universal the most lasting, the straightest the strongest, like the pillars that support the dome.”

And American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, from 1984:

“The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.”

Of course, that one ain’t just true of the arts.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Movie: You Kill Me (2007)

After a solid week of old school noir, it’s tough to get back into the cinematic swim. You’ve got to choose your next feature carefully. The wrong movie could induce toxic shock. I’d have to be revived by an usher waving a picture of Edmond O’Brien under my nose. And you don’t find that level of service at a lot of the big theater chains anymore.

Fortunately, an intermediate step was available. You Kill Me is a comic spin on noir directed by one of the contemporary masters of the form, John Dahl.

Ben Kingsley stars as a Buffalo hit man whose alcoholism leads him to screw up a job involving rising Irish gangster Dennis Farina. Kingsley’s Polish mob boss patron (Philip Baker Hall) sends him to San Francisco to dry out. There, he’s watched over by a pit bull real estate salesman (Bill Pullman), helped by a gay AA sponsor (Luke Wilson) and smitten with the divine TeĆ” Leoni, who is not in nearly enough movies.

That’s a fine cast, and Dahl gets great work out of them. Pullman and Dahl, who go way back, bring out the best in each other. You Kill Me is blithe and light on its feet, but with some savvy things to say about the recovery process, being your own man, and the way ethnic rivalries stubbornly cling to life in the east but fade as you move west. Plus it’s funny into the bargain.

OK. I’m ready now. Bring on the giant robots.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Scarlet Street (1945)/Wicked Woman (1953)

On the last night of Noir City, bad girls ruled.

I was wowed by Scarlet Street when I first watched it on a lousy public domain DVD. Seeing a pristine print from the Library of Congress brings the full force of its fatalism to bear. Is there a better ensemble in noir? Edward G. Robinson as the middle-aged man making a final bid at living his dream. Joan Bennett as the aptly named Kitty March, the essence of lazy feline entitlement. And Dan Duryea using the insinuating instrument of his voice to great effect. (Disturbing observation: dye Duryea’s blond hair dark and he’s a ringer for Stephen Colbert.) Add an airtight script by Dudley Nichols and direction by Fritz Lang, and the result is hellish perfection.

And then – oh, then – we have Wicked Woman.

Amazon Beverly Michaels rolls into town, lands a job as a waitress, and proceeds to lay waste to the place. She’s a proto-Nomi Malone from Showgirls, drifting from city to city, getting into trouble, and flying into spontaneous rages.

Michaels is something, blonde and six feet tall. She can’t act, but she doesn’t have to. She’s a six foot blonde. Director Russell Rouse loves her even if the camera doesn’t. He’s happy to show her shaving her endless legs, slapping around in her dirty bare feet, and tying her robe on. Three times. In seventy-seven minutes.

Michaels has her fans, though. I think we were sitting behind one. An older gent, reeking of cigarettes and Brylcreem, who began singing “Theme from Wicked Woman” as soon as it started. Clearly he’s been carrying a torch for some time. I’m happy they were briefly reunited.

The movie goes beyond awful, achieving a kind of Zen purity. The bad acting suddenly becomes naturalistic, as if you’re watching a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall documentary on when good girls stray. It’s trash. Sleazy trash. Sleazy, utterly transporting trash. (Update: Behold the trailer in all its glory!)

Michaels eventually quit acting and married her director, who went on to win an Academy Award for his work on Pillow Talk. Thus providing one of noir’s rare happy endings.

And that brought down the curtain on the debut outing of Noir City Seattle. I’m fairly sure I contracted emphysema from watching so many people smoke. My thanks to Eddie Muller for programming this extraordinary festival, and to SIFF Cinema and curator Anita Monga for hosting it.

Why did so many people hie themselves to the theater in a summer swelter for seven consecutive days to see two movies a night? Perhaps because they appreciate craftsmanship. As Eddie noted after one screening, it’s unlikely that similar numbers will turn out fifty years hence for a revival of movies being made today, when everything is twenty minutes too long and the ability to tell a story efficiently seems to have been lost.

But noir owes its fascination to more than just narrative economy. Here’s a quote from Jules Buck, who worked with the pioneering producer Mark Hellinger. It’s from the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, the newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation. Do yourself a favor and join.

“We didn’t know from noir in those days. Hellinger just wanted to make tough stories, filled with the passion of life vs. death. What people call noir was simply movies that grabbed life vs. death by the throat and hung on no matter what.”

The essential question of existence, stripped to its sinew and answered with dames and wisecracks. Fifty years from now, people will still be looking for that. And these movies will still deliver the goods.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Noir City Northwest: The Spiritualist (1948)/Nightmare Alley (1947)

Is there magic in the film noir world? Sure. Rigging the lights so shadows fall just so or the camera catches cigarette smoke drifting heavenward like a lost soul takes a special kind of alchemy. Pairing up actors who can convey twisted animal longing in a single glance is no easy trick.

But actual magic? No. There’s no room for illusion on these mean streets. If someone says they’re communing with spirits and you don’t see a bottle of rye whiskey, then you, my friend, are about to be rooked. Don’t say you weren’t warned. The best Noir City double-bill so far focused on the genre’s lowest of the low: the phony psychic.

For me The Spiritualist, aka The Amazing Mr. X, is the find of the festival, the B-movie perfectly executed. Turhan Bey dazzles as the title charlatan out to convince a rich widow that he’s in contact with her late husband. But the true star is cinematographer John Alton. He establishes an otherworldly atmosphere in the opening frames that never lets up. The visual tricks he deployed sixty years ago still cast a spell.

The B-movie set up the audience for the main attraction. Nightmare Alley, according to Eddie Muller, is not only one of the greatest noirs but one of the finest American films of the 1940s. I first saw it in what turned out to be its final TV airing for more than a decade owing to copyright issues, and have watched it again on the recent Fox DVD. But a 35MM print on the big screen is encountering a movie anew.

Jules Furthman adapted the singular novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Tyrone Power crosses over to the dark side like no matinee idol before or since as Stanton Carlisle, a carny who concocts a “mentalist” act that takes him from midway to mansions. But he soon learns that bogus religion has nothing on bent science, in the person of sinister headshrinker Helen Walker. Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell and noir staple Mike Mazurki round out a top-notch cast.

I heard some grumbling on the way out of the theater that the story’s outcome was apparent from the start, but far from diminishing its impact that foreshadowing gives Nightmare Alley the force of tragedy. Ignore the studio-imposed “happy” ending. It only underscores how far into hell Stanton Carlisle has fallen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Noir City Northwest: I Love Trouble (1948)/Pushover (1954)

Three, count ’em, three Mets in the starting line-up, and an inside the park home run from the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki. Do I regret missing the All-Star Game? Nope. Not when there’s noir to be seen. Especially two rare titles that have never appeared on video.

What do they have in common? Screenwriter Roy Huggins, one of the stealth giants of popular culture. Creator of Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files. The man was the Stan Lee of television. I’ve already sung the praises of his film Too Late For Tears, which the Film Noir Foundation is in the process of restoring.

Huggins’s debut feature is, in the words of Noir City programmer Eddie Muller, the “egregrious Raymond Chandler rip-off” I Love Trouble. All the elements are in place: wisecracking P.I. (played by a surprisingly effective Franchot Tone), gorgeous dames a’plenty, and a corkscrew plot that ultimately proves irrelevant. Several familiar faces turn up including a few from earlier in the week, like Raymond Burr and noir’s go-to guy for mittel European creepiness Steven Geray. Last night’s femme fatale Janis Carter is back, playing two roles when one is taxing enough for her and sporting an accent that veers between Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lupe Velez. It’s the kind of movie that only a noir fan could love. Naturally, I enjoyed it.

Pushover, on the other hand, is a taut thriller that can be appreciated by everyone. It also gives the lie to the belief that Fred MacMurray never strayed to the dark side of the street again after Double Indemnity. He plays a cop who falls for a bank robber’s moll (Kim Novak, in her, ahem, unfettered screen debut). Meanwhile, his partner in the stakeout on Novak’s place shifts his attention to the nurse who lives next door to her (Dorothy Malone). Things, as they so often do, go wrong, and Huggins is merciless in piling on the complications.

MacMurray could easily walk away from Novak and the sweet life she promises. But somehow he still finds himself on a rain-drenched rooftop, gathering her in his arms and saying, “You win.” In that moment is the essence of noir. Trouble on all sides of the path, and you just keep following it down.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Noir City Northwest: 99 River Street (1953)/Framed (1947)

I didn’t do it, y’unnerstand? It was Noir City Day 4! The whole thing’s a set-up!

Phil Karlson is a treasured name among noir aficionados because he made spare, no-nonsense films. He also knew how to get strong performances out of actors like John Payne, a song-and-dance man who might otherwise have been remembered for freezing his charms off with Sonja Henie in Sun Valley Serenade. Karlson was savvy enough to see the caged animal lurking underneath Payne’s nice guy exterior. (A new DVD of an earlier Karlson/Payne collaboration, Kansas City Confidential, streets today.)

That trapped rage comes to the fore in 99 River Street. Payne plays an ex-boxer now reduced to driving a cab and about to have a night worse than any he spent in the ring. His wife leaves him for a two-bit jewel thief planning to make Payne a pawn. Payne’s only ally is a struggling actress (Evelyn Keyes) who causes problems of her own.

Some implausible plot twists go down easy thanks to Karlson’s slick direction. The real gem here is Evelyn Keyes, getting to display several styles of acting in one role. It’s a bravura performance. Ms. Keyes is profiled in Dark City Dames by festival programmer Eddie Muller, a book I expect all of you to read.

Eddie described 99 River Street as the cinematic equivalent of a Gold Medal paperback, but I’d say Framed is a better fit for that bill. Drifter Glenn Ford arrives in town and promptly lands in stir, only to find himself bailed out by Janis Carter and her cheekbones. She’s setting him up as part of an embezzlement scheme, but a strange thing happens halfway through the movie: the patsy gets wise. The devious script by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) has Ford and Carter each trying to one-up the other as the cops draw closer. Great fun.

I’m looking forward to the next three nights in the festival more than ever now that temperatures in Seattle are expected to hit the high nineties. Dark alleys may be dangerous, but they’re also cool.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Desert Fury (1947)/Leave Her To Heaven (1946)

Day three’s theme was a cinch to figure out. Black hearts in Technicolor. Throw in Slightly Scarlet and you’d have yourself a party. Just check for your wallet and your kidneys on the way out.

According to the fest’s program notes, 1947’s Desert Fury is a cult classic waiting to happen, ripe with homoerotic subtext. Lizabeth Scott returns to her Nevada hometown and mother Mary Astor, who runs a two-bit casino and asks to be passed off as Liz’s sister. Arriving on the same day is hard-luck gambler John Hodiak and the sidekick with whom he’s unusually close (Wendell Corey in his screen debut). Watching them all askance is town deputy Burt Lancaster. I kept waiting for Burt to ask, “What’s eatin’ everyone in this cockamamie town?,” then pound his undershirted chest and declare that he was “all man, see?”

I think Desert Fury’s cult status may be a while in coming. For one thing, it’s never been available on video. For another, it isn’t very good. (I can’t rave about them all, can I? You’d lose respect for me.) The proceedings are too lethargic; to quote Rosemarie, “I saw the desert, but not the fury.” The good stuff, like an explanation of the true nature of the Hodiak/Corey relationship, is jammed into the closing ten minutes. The scenes that crackle are the ones between Astor and Lancaster, with him as the steadfast Boy Scout who relishes her attempts to corrupt him. As for the gay subtext, it’s there if you look, but we’re not talking The Big Combo here. I can’t swallow no more salami, indeed.

I’d already seen the classic 1946 melodrama Leave Her To Heaven, but never on the big screen. The newly restored print was absolutely gorgeous. When I turn in tonight, the colors of Gene Tierney’s outfits will be starbursting on the inside of my eyelids.

Tierney plays the comeliest psychotic in the history of motion pictures, the woman who “loves too much.” Once she falls for novelist Cornel Wilde, she vows to let nothing come between them. (There’s a TV movie remake starring Loni Anderson and Patrick Duffy. I’ve never seen it. But simply knowing of its existence diminishes me as a person.)

On this viewing, I was struck by the performance of Vincent Price as Tierney’s spurned district attorney lover. He has a brief scene early and dominates the action late. His work here is a reminder of how sly an actor he was in the days before horror movies claimed him, playing well-born men of questionable morals.

Last night Rosemarie dreamt an entire film noir, featuring her, me and Raymond Burr. These movies can be hazardous to your health. And we’ve still got four days to go.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Woman on the Run (1950)

There are no introductions at weekend Noir City matinees, so it’s up to me to guess the day’s theme. I’m going to say shaky California marriages. Either that or heavies named Smiley.

Pitfall was the movie I was most looking forward to in the festival’s line-up, because it’s based on a novel by Jay Dratler, one of the great unsung screenwriters of Hollywood. He didn’t adapt his own book, but I wanted to see the result anyway.

Dick Powell stars as an insurance executive living the American Dream – house, job, marriage, son. And it’s slowly killing him. All it takes for him to regain some of his youthful vigor is a brief dalliance with down-at-the-heels model Lizabeth Scott. But the shady P.I. who tracked her down for the insurance company (Raymond Burr) has feelings for Scott as well, and he’s willing to ruin Powell in order to have her to himself.

Powell’s disillusionment with the post-war ideal of success is a powerful motor, so I was disappointed to see his character quickly settle back into suburban contentment. But Burr’s sexually obsessed shamus makes a potent villain, and Scott plays a singular femme fatale in that she doesn’t use her powers for evil. She’s not a homewrecker; she’s looking for a white picket fence life of her own. It’s not her fault if men make fools of themselves over her.

The discovery of a print of the long-thought-lost Woman on the Run gave birth to the Film Noir Foundation. It’s a classic B-movie, fleet and not an ounce of fat. A regular guy witnesses a murder and lams it. His estranged wife (Ann Sheridan in an unflattering hairstyle) teams up with ambitious reporter Dennis O’Keefe to track him down before the killer does, only to find herself falling for her spouse all over again. Norman Foster, who directed several Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto entries, keeps the action brisk and stages a breathless climax at a San Francisco amusement park that puts many a contemporary thriller to shame.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Thieves’ Highway (1949)/Deadline At Dawn (1946)

Eddie Muller kicked off the Northwest debut of his Noir City film festival with an observation. He’d stopped in for a drink at a nearby watering hole and noted:

A. One (1) sexy bartender
B. One (1) gorgeous woman drinking alone
C. Two (2) guys in jeans and tennis shoes deep in conversation about computer peripherals.

Seattle, he decided, needs some film noir.

Rosemarie and I did our bit. We had drinks before the show, too. I even had a cocktail named after Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. But that’s not going to be enough. Not in the ugly footwear capital of the world. Arguments continue to rage about the definition of noir, but whatever your camp on this we can all agree: no sandals. Nobody ever saw Robert Mitchum’s toes.

The festival began with a dead-of-night double feature. The action in both movies basically unfolds between midnight and 5 A.M., when decent folk should be a-bed.

Thieves’ Highway, directed by Jules Dassin with a script by A.I. Bezzerides from his novel, is more than a terrific noir film. It’s a great working class story about the human cost of getting ahead and making a buck. Richard Conte musters out of the service and sets himself up as an independent trucker mainly to seek vengeance on the middleman who crippled his father. Lee J. Cobb plays the heavy in a relaxed but forceful performance, and Valentina Cortese dazzles as the fallen woman falling for Conte. It’s tough stuff, made with a tabloid gusto that the years haven’t dimmed.

Deadline at Dawn, on the other hand, is simply unhinged. That’s to be expected when Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theater, collaborates with playwright Clifford Odets on a Cornell Woolrich adaptation. You’ve got your standard Woolrich premise: guy comes to after a blackout and thinks he may have killed someone. In this case, the guy is the dumbest sailor in the Navy. He’s so dumb he thinks he’s in the Army. He’s aided by a taxi dancer (the fetching Susan Hayward) and a cabdriver who waxes philosophic at the drop of a hat. Because in New York City at three in the morning, everybody’s happy to help a rube solve a murder he may have committed. Odets’ dialogue is nicely ripe; now I know what Barton Fink might have accomplished if he’d only licked that Wallace Beery wrestling picture. Deadline at Dawn is weird, posturing nonsense. And I loved every minute of it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Book: Dope, by Sara Gran (2006)

This novel by Sara Gran racked up plenty of accolades last year. I only just got around to reading it. I’m glad I persevered.

Josephine “Joe” Flannigan is a recovering heroin addict in 1950 New York. Just as she’s getting back on her feet, she’s asked to track down a “good girl” who’s fallen into the drug demimonde. Accepting the job means enough money to begin anew. But it also requires her to return to a life she thought she’d left behind.

The book is a smart homage to the noir novels of the era. Perhaps too smart; the structure is so seamless that at times it feels studied, and I was several steps ahead of the outcome. But a journey where you know the destination is still worth taking with the right guide, and Joe fits that bill beautifully.

Dope excels at capturing the way experience recasts the landscape. Joe’s addiction superimposes its own map over the streets of New York: this is where to score, this is where to hide, this is a place to avoid. Travel the streets with any police officer and you’ll soon realize they’re not seeing the same city you are, but a travelogue of crime and misery. Relationships generate their own cartography. First kiss, first time I said “I love you,” last fight.

Regular readers know that I once appeared on a movie game show. Six of us were flown down to Los Angeles on the same flight, and we were instructed not to talk about movies until after the show was taped. Makes sense, right? And seems easy enough.

The six of us get off the plane, and there’s the “Welcome to Los Angeles” sign from countless films. Can’t point it out. We walk past the tile mosaic featured in Point Blank and Jackie Brown. I keep shtum. On the drive to the hotel we pass the Hollywood police station used in the closing scene of Twilight with Paul Newman, and I don’t say a word. (OK, that last one is a little obscure. But it was a movie game show.) Deny me my landmarks and I’m utterly lost, even if I know exactly where I am.

Miscellaneous: Links

Netflix and other by-mail video services cause rifts in relationships. And Vanity Fair gets its geek on for The Simpsons. I take issue with their 10 best episodes list, however. That “Evita” parody doesn’t belong there.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Miscellaneous: Halfway Home

Six months down, six to go. Let’s run the highlight reel. First, 2007’s movies, listed in the order I saw them.

The Lives of Others. It won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, so technically it’s a 2006 release. But it’s good enough to mention again.

The Host. A monster movie, Korean style. Which means no character is safe.

The Lookout. Scott Frank’s chilly noir thriller deserved better. A lot better.

Black Book. The class of the year thus far. A relentless narrative engine. The kind of movie people say they don’t make any more.

Hot Fuzz. This will undoubtedly be the 2007 title I watch the most times.

Black Snake Moan. Just caught up with this one on DVD. An old-school exploitation movie packed with sex and soul.

I’ve fallen way behind in reading new books. Once again, I’ll tout Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the release of Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show on DVD leaves the rest of the demi-year’s achievements in the dust.

Miscellaneous: More Than Meets The Eye Links

Before rushing out to see Transformers, let us remember that the toys could get the job done, too. And don’t forget the original movie, with its stirring power anthem. Although if you ask me, Dirk Diggler pwns that song.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Movies: The June Stuff-I-Didn’t-Get-To Post, Part II

Comedy of Power. A working knowledge of France’s Elf Aquitaine scandal would no doubt deepen appreciation of this Claude Chabrol film. I pretended it was an Enron executive being hounded by a meticulous government investigator (Isabelle Huppert) and made out just fine. Rosemarie particularly appreciated the movie’s depiction of a woman in a position of authority. Getting a new hairstyle to go with your new office does not make you any less of a professional.

Bandidas. This comedy western from Luc Besson is a mess, but I enjoyed it anyway. There’s a scene involving Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in showgirl outfits seducing a naked Steve Zahn that gets surprisingly sexy, and a great comic bit with a banjo that belongs in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

Major League. I love movies and I love baseball. So imagine my surprise to realize I’d never seen any of the films in this series. By happenstance, I ending up watching the original and both sequels in a span of ten days. I don’t have anything to say about them, aside from I love Bob Uecker. I just want credit for my accomplishment.