Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book: Private Midnight, by Kris Saknussemm (2009)

Now here’s an odd one.

I’m not sure how to describe Private Midnight. The dust jacket insists that it’s “a psychoerotic noir fairytale” and “crime noir for a new generation,” whatever that is. My natural contrarian instinct therefore is to say that noir is the one thing I know it’s not.

As for the crime part ... the main character is a detective. Birch Ritter is looking into the bizarre death of a real estate tycoon, but that investigation gets quickly sidetracked when an old cop buddy sends Ritter to meet a mysterious woman named Genevieve. She knows a great deal about Ritter. Maybe too much. And that’s when things turn all, well, psychoerotic.

Saknussemm made a splash a few years ago with his science fiction novel Zanesville, which I haven’t read. Here he blends several genres, not altogether successfully. Midnight’s first third is a wobbly hardboiled pastiche, with a dubious grasp of police work and an ill-defined protagonist.

But the book gets better as it gets weirder. Or maybe that’s weirder as it gets better. As it moves into horror and dark fantasy it addresses a whole host of issues: gender relations, dominant and submissive roles, the transformative power of sex.

That reminds me. There’s sex in this book. A lot of it. In every variety you can think of, and probably a few that you haven’t. (OK, maybe not all of you, but I was raised Catholic.) All the slap and tickle isn’t necessary to the plot. It is the plot.

I’m still not certain if I liked Private Midnight. But I’m glad I read it, and that counts for something.

Miscellaneous: Links

Keeping the theme going: Pakistan! For all your fetish needs.

John August explains the phrase that haunts my dreams.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Movies: DVR Clearing Report

Danger Signal (1945). It’s an age-old story. Homicidal sharpie woos bookish spinster. Sharpie learns spinster’s hot younger sister stands to inherit a fortune and shifts his focus. Sharpie gets what’s coming to him. Faye Emerson, with her enormous, weirdly sexy forehead and huge glasses, is a C-list Joan Crawford, while Zachary Scott is the destitute man’s Joseph Cotten. As such, they’re perfectly matched. They even sound similar. Rosemary DeCamp makes an impression as a psychiatrist who engages in early profiling. Another nice touch in this minor noir is pathological liar Scott keeping himself afloat by selling stories to the pulps.

Down Three Dark Streets (1954). When an FBI agent is murdered, fellow G-man Broderick Crawford takes over his active unrelated cases to track down his killer. A solid, semi-documentary crime drama with three strong female performances (Ruth Roman, Martha Hyer, and Marisa Pavan) and a taut climax filmed at the Hollywood sign. Personally, I wouldn’t have a character in an L.A.-set movie named Angelino. I also wouldn’t call that character wife’s Julie, especially when everyone pronounces it Jolie. Stranger still is having the film’s narrator turn up on camera late as an expert in vocal pattern analysis – and then dropping the voiceover altogether.

The Destructors (1974). The title makes it sound like a Matt Helm movie – it’s also known as The Marseille Contract – but it’s actually a trashy ‘70s Euro action thriller, the kind of film where beautiful people declare their sexual interest in one another by racing around hairpin turns in their sports cars together. Paris DEA chief Anthony Quinn is fed up with losing his agents to politically connected kingpin James Mason, so he dips into his black budget to hire a professional assassin. His first surprise is discovering that the hit man is old friend Michael Caine. Former White House press secretary-turned-reporter Pierre Salinger turns up as an embassy official. Caine reportedly took the movie without reading a script because it shot on the Riviera during the summer. I’m pretty sure he actually did it for the red-on-black racing jacket he wears. He’s still the best thing in the film after the kick-ass score by Roy Budd (Get Carter).

Miscellaneous: Links

Joe Queenan meets William Goldman. And behind the scenes of my new favorite franchise, OSS 117. Both courtesy of Movie City News.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book: Bad Cop, by Paul Bacon (2009)

Sometimes a blurb gets it right. Neal Pollack described this book by Paul Bacon as “a season of The Wire written by David Sedaris.” That about nails it.

Bacon was working a data entry job near the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attack, he was moved to do something for the city he loved. Too old for New York’s Bravest, he turned to the Finest. He expects to be on the front lines. Instead he becomes a master of traffic tickets, crushed by paperwork and crushing on a woman in blue. It’s a clear-eyed look at the day-to-day of police work (“You get into one kind of trouble to avoid another. This is the job.”) that’s also very funny. As you might expect from a cop named Bacon.

Miscellaneous: Links

The latest AV Club Random Roles features Joe Mantegna. You should know that I will do his Harry Flugelman dialogue from Three Amigos at the drop of a hat.

At Slate, Pictures at a Revolution author Mark Harris raves about the Warner Archive. I bought their DVD of the neglected noir The Money Trap, about which I have strong feelings, and was blown away by the picture quality. The movie holds up, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Meaningless Milestones: I’m Five

Yesterday I realized with some amazement that this website has been up and running for five years. In that time the site has directly and indirectly led to interesting projects and lasting friendships. I may not post as frequently as I once did, but rest assured I have no intention of stopping now.

And while we’re on the subject of milestones ...

Miscellaneous: Gray Lady Down

For the first time in I can’t remember how long, I did not have the New York Times delivered to my door this morning. I finally canceled my subscription after months of deliberation. It figures that right after making the call I saw State of Play, with its closing sequence of a paper going to press guaranteed to put a lump in the throat of anyone who ever got “newsprint on their hands.” It was like going to a dog show after putting down Old Yeller. I expected the audience to “J’accuse!” me en masse.

What finally made me pull the trigger? Several things.

The paper is smaller. In every physical sense – font size, page width, page count. That takes a psychological toll.

The peculiar phenomenon of news osmosis. I’d flip through the paper over breakfast. Quick read of the op-ed pages, a glance at sports. By the time I returned to the paper in the afternoon I’d have absorbed much of its contents elsewhere. Through the Times’ Twitter feed, or its website, or on various blogs. And I didn’t need a moist towelette when I was done.

The paper is dumber. A front page article on novelty books spun off from blogs? Chunky male movie stars? And it’s still better than the local rag.

The cost. Running the numbers pushed me over the edge. For the price of a one-year daily subscription to the Times, I can buy an Amazon Kindle, the attractive leather case, and an electronic subscription to the paper. Throw in access to the Times crosswords for Rosemarie and I’d still have enough left over to load up said Kindle with a few books on how the newspaper business as we know it is dying.

Why did I hesitate? Because I look at enough screens as it is. Because there are few pleasures as civilized as strolling to the coffee shop with the paper under your arm. But mainly because I still associate reading the newspaper with the mysterious world of adulthood. I remember watching grown-ups file onto the subway, papers at the ready for the long ride in. I remember my father coming home from work at the airport having collected all the newspapers left behind by travelers, from Chicago, Los Angeles, London, the bundle under his arm thick enough to be useful in an interrogation room. I remember him paging through those newspapers for the rest of the evening.

This morning I fired up my laptop, opened the today’s paper section of the Times website, and read the articles that interested me while I watched the Mets game. It took a third of the time it usually takes to conquer the Sunday edition. No wet naps required.

It felt strange. But I’ll get used to it. And when a holdout like me can put his romanticism behind him, the industry is in serious trouble.

Miscellaneous: Link

How ‘bout one for old Times’ sake? NYC and Pelham 123, then and now.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Movie: The Twonky (1953)

I believe the critical term I’m searching for is: yeesh.

Arch Oboler’s satire is, to quote Blackadder, about as subtle as a rhinoceros horn up the backside. Oboler abandons the good qualities present in Bewitched and embraces the lousy ones. Professor Hans Conreid gets a new TV that takes over his life. (Actually, the set contains a visitor from the future, but it’s not like there’s any evidence of this. A football coach offers it as a theory, and it’s accepted as gospel truth.)

This boob tube walks, it talks, it juliennes. It counterfeits money and tries to score Conreid hookers. Sure, it doesn’t call them hookers, but the worldly among us know the score. It forces Conreid to drop his copy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and to edit a lecture on the power of the individual. Thus explaining why ads during The Twonky’s brief theatrical run featured a quote from Ayn Rand calling it “the feel-good comedy of the season!”

The only thing worse than The Twonky’s concept is its execution. The only thing worse than its execution is its score. At least Oboler knew it was a dog. I can’t remember the last movie I saw that was this awful, this strange. Oh, wait, yes I can ...

Movie: The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

It was this one. And TCM is showing it again Friday (OK, Saturday) at 2:15AM Eastern, 11:15PM Pacific. Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Movie: Bewitched (1945)

Pop culture can be a cruel mistress. Once Arch Oboler was practically a household name, mentioned in the same breath as Orson Welles. Now he’s a neglected pioneer, remembered only by devotees of old-time radio.

I know Oboler’s name for one reason: my obsessive high school rereading of Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s overview of the horror genre. Calling Oboler radio terror’s “prime auteur,” King lovingly detailed several stories from Lights Out, the program that made Oboler’s reputation.

Like Welles, Oboler jumped from radio to the movies. He was a trailblazer there, too. In a span of three years he directed the first movie set in the aftermath of nuclear war (1951’s Five), the first commercial 3-D film (Bwana Devil), and an anti-television satire before most people had televisions (The Twonky).

Haven’t seen any of ‘em. My introduction to Oboler’s work came with Bewitched, one of the earliest screen treatments of multiple personality disorder. It’s also one of the most wildly ambitious B movies of the 1940s.

Joan (Phyllis Thaxter) is quiet and demure. When she yields to “Karen,” the voice she hears in her head (provided without credit by one of my favorite Dark City Dames, the lovely Audrey Totter), she becomes wanton. And murderous. Because let’s face it, those two go hand in hand.

Oboler cannily uses lighting effects to convey Thaxter’s transformation. Totter’s presence is a gift, especially when Joan runs down a street with Karen’s taunts ringing in her head. (“... craaaazy ... craaaazy ...”) There are sequences – a montage depicting a courtship over several weeks, a boldly photographed scene where Joan seeks refuge in a concert hall – that show Oboler relishing the opportunities of playing with a new medium.

Then there are passages that remind you that Oboler came from radio. The dialogue is stylized. Some scenes – like one with a ship captain – are interminable. There’s occasional unexplained omniscient narration. And the third act is heavy-handed, simplistic and patently unbelievable. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure the structure makes no sense. We open with a psychiatrist (Edmund Gwenn) recounting Joan’s case to a reporter one hour before her execution, with Joan in prison. That’s not how the movie ends.

Still, the sections of Bewitched that work are striking. It’s amazing to think that Oboler was dramatizing these ideas over 65 years ago. Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Twonky tomorrow at 2PM EST/11AM PST. I’m setting the DVR.

New York’s WFMU has made Oboler’s 1962 album Drop Dead! available on line. I listened to it after watching Bewitched. The preachy final segment makes Rod Serling sound like Judd Apatow. But the rest still chills the blood. Like the two stories cited in Danse Macabre, “A Day at the Dentist’s” and Oboler’s most famous work, “Chicken Heart.” (Bill Cosby remembers it well.) And my favorite, “The Dark.”

On The Web: B Movies

AMC is now streaming B movies. I mentioned this on Twitter the other day and based on the reaction, that’s the only publicity this initiative has gotten.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Movies: The Films of The Whistler, Part Four

Last year, thanks to Ed Gorman, I got caught up in the strangely compelling films based on the old radio series The Whistler. Eight movies were made, low-budget titles memorable for the aura of doom that hangs over each one. Ed loaned me copies of the seven he had on hand. Read about ’em here. Only one remained, and I vowed to track it down.

I am a man of my word. Even when nobody cares but me.

The Thirteenth Hour (1947) is the seventh film in the series, the last to star Richard Dix, and Dix’s final screen appearance. It’s also the movie that best captures the noir sensibility that informs every Whistler entry, the idea that the universe could kick you with a size twelve at any moment, and that once you start falling you might never stop.

In the opening minutes of The Thirteenth Hour, independent trucker Dix loses his license on the day of his engagement thanks to a bizarrely plausible chain of circumstance involving a hitchhiker, a drunk driver, and the motorcycle cop he bested for his fiancé’s hand. When one of his men takes ill, Dix is forced to haul a load in secret. Naturally, this is the one that gets heisted. It therefore follows that a cop will be killed, it will be the one Dix has a grudge against, and Dix will have to go on the run. Even the supercilious Whistler voiceover seems to be mocking the poor bastard.

It’s a dark movie. Not just emotionally dark but visually, “where the hell did Richard Dix go?” dark. There are some plot hiccups in the second half, but as is often the case in the Whistler series they make sense in light of a twist ending. Dix goes out on a high note, playing a desperate regular Joe. It was good to see him in inaction again, stiff as he could be.

At some point I’ll revisit these movies. Perhaps when I need to be reminded that your path through life is strewn with banana peels, and you never know when you’re going to step on one.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Book: The Age of Dreaming, by Nina Revoyr (2008)

Jun Nakayama was once a huge star of the silent screen, and the first Japanese actor to achieve success in America. By 1964 he’s been all but forgotten, and Jun prefers it that way. Renewed interest in his films leads to the possibility of a comeback role. But the opportunity also forces Jun to revisit the scandalous events that drove him from the motion picture industry in 1922.

Nina Revoyr’s extraordinary novel weaves together two strands of Hollywood history – the career of Sessue Hayakawa, an unlikely sex symbol of the silent era, and the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, still one of Tinseltown’s great unsolved crimes. It’s a testament to Revoyr’s skill that the book’s mystery plot, as well worked out as it is, takes a backseat to other elements like Jun’s evocative reminiscences of the pioneering days of the movie business, and his present-day reckoning with the lies he has told himself for decades.

The voice Revoyr has created for Jun – proud and dignified, yet stodgy and repressed – allows her to show his awakening by degrees, and she also uses it to pull off an astonishing scene late in the book that reminded me of Charles Willeford’s Pick-up. All that plus a powerful conclusion. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and a must-read for fans of old Hollywood.

Miscellaneous: Links

Again repurposed from my Twitter feed.

The AV Club’s latest Gateway to Geekery focuses on classic crime fiction. I don’t know if I’d start anybody off with Red Harvest; The Maltese Falcon seems a better choice. But their read on Spillane and Thompson is interesting.

A cab ride with Orson Welles.

Slate on Howard the Duck. I’ll say this in the movie’s defense: the monster, which Clive Barker once told me he liked, kicks ass.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Book: American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (2009)

It’s been asked in the midst of this economic whatever-we’ve-calling-it-now – downturn, meltdown, apocalypse – whether novelists still possess the skills to chronicle the lives of those who fall into the cracks. Or, in some cases, began there. American Rust answers loudly in the affirmative.

Philipp Meyer’s debut is set in a dead Pennsylvania steel town and focuses on the unlikely friendship between Isaac English, local smart kid, and once-promising athlete Billy Poe. Isaac, having stolen four grand of his father’s money, has finally decided to hop a freight and light out for California. Poe agrees to accompany him as far as Pittsburgh. But before they even get that far they run afoul of some men even lower on society’s ladder. Violence breaks out, and like the real thing it’s sudden and unpredictable, with consequences for many lives.

The two leads are strong characters – Isaac, both tougher and more naïve than he thinks he is, and Poe, angry for reasons he can’t understand. But Meyer casts his nest wider, giving us other perspectives every bit as rich. The local lawman, who tried to save Poe once before. Isaac’s sister, who escaped the town but finds herself inexorably drawn back. Poe’s mother Grace, the beating heart of the book. (“I made one bad decision, but I made it every day.”)

The book’s full of sharp details that break the heart, like Grace choosing to suffer through the cold rather than install a furnace because sinking money into her trailer means that she’s given up hope of leaving it. There’s even political wisdom here for the taking. (“There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan ... The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”) And the ending is as noir as can be. American Rust is a crime novel told with Biblical force, a frontline report from the margins, and one hell of a read.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Books: A Pair of Hard Cases

What have I been doing? Working like mad and reading books from Hard Case Crime.

The Cutie (1960) was Donald E. Westlake’s debut novel, and it confirms my suspicion that Westlake sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus or the pulp equivalent thereof. It’s the story of a mob fixer – not muscle, y’unnerstand, he’s too smart for that – ordered to figure out who would put a two-bit junky with the singularly Westlakian moniker of Billy-Billy Cantell in the frame for the murder of a kept woman.

Many of the Westlake trademarks are already in place: the dry wit, the offbeat settings, the smooth prose. The main character Clay is the book’s best feature, a clever guy who fell into the criminal life and isn’t sure if he wants to remain there. The scenes with his girlfriend, a dancer who knows exactly who Clay is and what staying with him will mean, have a sneaky power.

The book was originally published as The Mercenaries. I may be alone in this, but I think that was a better title.

I bought the Hard Case edition of David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun (1949) four years ago. I finally decided to read it before I watched the movie. An American adrift in South America is approached to smuggle an artifact from Chile into Peru. One wild boat trip later, he realizes he’s holding the key to the treasure of the Incas. A terrific adventure novel, with vivid characters and locations. I’m hoping that the new Gabriel Hunt books from the people who brought you Hard Case Crime are something like this. The first title in that series, written by James Reasoner, just won a rave from Publishers Weekly.

Miscellaneous: Links

A few extras, because you kids have been so well-behaved while Daddy was gone.

Lessons in game design taught by Walt Disney.

You know why everyone’s linking to the Dallas-style opening of Star Wars? Because it’s hilarious. And as Rosemarie said, it tells you everything you need to know about the difference between movies and television.

Now that the movie is happening, it’s time to revisit this 2004 New Yorker article on the Farrelly Brothers’ plans to reboot the Three Stooges.

Slate sez: Bring back yellow journalism!

A.O. Scott revisits The Maltese Falcon in the wake of recent financial shenanigans.

The AV Club Random Roles I’ve been waiting for: Wallace Shawn.