Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Good Stuff: Movies of 2010

Look for your Oscar bait elsewhere. I give you ten essential thrillers in order seen, with links to the original posts when applicable.

The Red Riding Trilogy. Shattering.

The Ghost Writer. Ending of the year.

A Prophet. I’d complain that it didn’t win the ’09 Best Foreign Film Oscar, only it lost to ...

The Secret in Their Eyes. The best movie of 2010. Also the best movie of the last several years. Also inspired my favorite post of the year.

Winter’s Bone. The first American movie on this list, but it’s from an America you seldom see onscreen.

Mother. Bong Joon-ho with the hat trick!

The Square. Blue-collar Aussie noir.

Animal Kingdom. Jacki Weaver is understandably getting all the love. But it’s Ben Mendelsohn’s Uncle Pope that haunts me all these months later.

Cell 211. The one title on this list not yet on DVD. Don’t worry. It’s being remade.

The American. See? A studio film with a huge star. I’m easy to please. Just give me an existential noir with a European attitude toward pacing, atmosphere and nudity.

What? You want my favorite non-thrillers of 2010? Lord, but you people are pushy. Fine. Toy Story 3 and Exit Through the Gift Shop. Both of which move like thrillers.

Underrated: 44 Inch Chest and Please Give.

Scene of the year: Michael Caine’s breakfast alone in Harry Brown.

Cinematic highlight of the year ... you have to ask? Noir City. Although seeing a restored print of The Red Shoes introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker is right up there.

And favorite movies that were new to me ... Violent Saturday (1955), a heist movie that plays like a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The beguiling Three Strangers (1946). And the DVD discovery of the year, The Underworld Story (1950).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Good Stuff: Books of 2010

No top ten this year. Instead here’s a pick six, the half-dozen crime novels I commend to you unreservedly, listed in the order read. Click through to the original posts for more.

Print the Legend, by Craig McDonald. Yes, technically I read it in 2009. But I remembered it.

Do They Know I’m Running?, by David Corbett. Yes, Corbett is a friend. But leaving his brilliant heartbreaker off the list wouldn’t have been fair to you. And aren’t we friends, too?

Memory, by Donald E. Westlake. Yes, it was written almost 5 decades ago. But it wasn’t published until this year. And it gave me nightmares, so it makes the cut.

Infamous, by Ace Atkins. The best of the three Atkins novels I read this year.

The Big Bang, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Started by the first, finished by the second and the most fun you’ll have between two covers.

Savages, by Don Winslow. A game-changer for the author and my favorite of the year.

The non-crime fiction jury prize goes to Rut by Scott Phillips. For ingenuity in content and in distribution.

2010 was also the year I finally caved and bought an e-reader, and I haven’t looked back. That purchase is directly responsible for my favorite novels that were new to me: Solomon’s Vineyard, Jonathan Latimer (1941), Fast One, Paul Cain (1932) and especially I Should Have Stayed Home, Horace McCoy (1938).

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book: The War for Late Night, by Bill Carter (2010)

The true wisdom in New York Times reporter Carter’s chronicle of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle comes from someone who isn’t on TV anymore. Jerry Seinfeld recalls telling Johnny Carson not long after his retirement that for twenty years, comedians speculated on who would take over The Tonight Show. “And the one thing we never realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.” The creation of a viable late night alternative on CBS ended an era in television; as Seinfeld points out, comics say Jay or Dave or Conan now, not The Tonight Show. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall when Garry Shandling chose to do a behind-the-scenes comedy about a talk show as opposed to the real thing on NBC.

The slow-burn succession plan put in place in 2004 by NBC’s Jeff Zucker – Leno agreeing to step down as Tonight Show host in 2009 to make way for Conan – is usually characterized as the root of the problem. But by the end of Carter’s book I was convinced that the network unintentionally made the best of a bad situation. There was no way NBC could hope to hold on to both stars in the long run; one was always going to end up the competition. The current landscape, with Leno leading in the ratings and Conan on basic cable, no doubt suits the suits just fine.

Conan comes off as funny, decent and somewhat naïve. Leno, meanwhile, reads as hard-working and deeply uninteresting. When he does reveal something of himself, you wish he hadn’t; his explanation for why he refuses to take vacations (“I understand how people spend money to buy things they need or like. But spending money on an experience? That seems like an extravagance to me.”) seems utterly alien, especially when as Carter points out it’s people on vacation who pay for Leno’s fabled collection of vintage cars. It’s a sign of Leno’s lack of presence in spite of his success that his valid take on the situation – fiftysomething guy is forced out of his job, but returns triumphant – never caught on. Letterman, as always, remains inscrutable, while Carter gets plenty of good material from a savvy and scrappy Jimmy Kimmel.

The book is compulsively readable but evenhanded to a fault. Carter’s Gray Lady insistence on reporting everyone’s side as if he’s covering arms negotiations weakens the fascinating opening at the May 2009 upfronts, when Leno flopped with a long set of dated material. And he shies away from any assessment of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, including the commonly held one that it was never vital television until it was on the verge of extinction.

Overall, there’s a sense that Carter is missing the boat. 11:30 on the broadcast networks may be where the money is, but not the excitement. Jay Leno couldn’t get millions of people to turn up for a rally on the Washington mall or shame Congress into passing a bill. The boldest late night personality is Chelsea Handler on E! The only late night clips I’m sent these days are from Jimmy Fallon’s show, and the one show I try to regularly watch is Craig Ferguson’s, where actual conversations occur. Carter’s book is filled with the crack of buggy whips. It’s diligent reportage on the final mastodon’s struggles in the tar pit.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Books: Comfort Reading

Checking in with two favorite series in the waning days of 2010 ...

Hollywood Hills is Joseph Wambaugh’s fourth book about life in Tinseltown’s cop shop. A few new officers are thrown into the mix as well as dual sets of bad guys destined to collide. We have two only-in-L.A. victims of the Great Recession, a caterer turned gentleman’s gentleman and a gallery owner on his uppers. And we have victims of Hollywood itself in a pair of drug-addled teenagers obsessed with ripping off celebrities like their heroes. Wambaugh weaves in the usual tales of humor and heartbreak on the beat, but this time around he puts some of his recurring characters through the wringer. It’s another strong outing. Extra credit for referring to Paris Hilton by her correct job title, “famous person.”

The fifth of Robert J. Randisi’s Rat Pack mysteries, I’m a Fool to Kill You unfolds in 1962. Sands pit boss/fixer Eddie Gianelli gets the call when Ava Gardner appears in the hotel looking for her ex-husband Frank Sinatra only to vanish. Eddie G, aided as always by gastronomical gunsel Jerry Epstein, tracks Ava down to learn that the she went on a bender and lost several days only to find blood literally on her hands when she woke up. Randisi’s portrait of Ava – earthy, seductive, foul-mouthed and fearful of aging – is the best feature of this breezy caper.

Hey, did you know there’s an Ava Gardner museum?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie: The Underworld Story (1950)

Over the weekend I read critic David Thomson’s New Republic article on “feel-good noir.” Thanks to Megan Abbott for bringing it to my attention. (Checked out the blog Megan’s running with Sara Gran, the Abbott Gran Medicine Show, yet? It’s well worth your time.) I’m an admirer of Thomson’s but his latest is a windy, broad brush piece. “There are many things corroding America,” Thomson fulminates, “and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.” If you say so, but it had better be pretty fucking far down that list. It doesn’t help that Thomson is guilty of the very crime he protests against. Only by the broadest definition can Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and Ben Affleck’s film The Town, both of which I enjoyed, be considered noir.

Thomson’s sentiments chafed because over the weekend I also encountered genuine noir. Long forgotten, The Underworld Story has been brought back into circulation courtesy of the Warner Archive. It’s based on a story by Craig Rice, whose antic crime novels landed her on the cover of Time magazine. But the only laughs here come from the gallows. The movie whips up a paranoid atmosphere so intense it’s no surprise its director (Cy Endfield), screenwriter (Henry Blankfort) and one of its stars (Howard Da Silva) would soon be blacklisted.

When a story by reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) about a witness against a crime boss gets that witness killed, he becomes the fall guy for the paper’s higher-ups. Non grata in his chosen profession, Reese waltzes into the office of the crime boss (the blazing Da Silva) to ask for payment for the service he unintentionally rendered. Reese uses the money to buy a stake in a suburban rag for people who like to see their names in print. Then he strikes pay dirt with a juicy society murder. The victim: the daughter-in-law of one of the press moguls (Herbert Marshall) who refused to give him a job. It’s immediately revealed that the killer is Marshall’s own son (Gar Moore), and that both men are perfectly willing to allow the family’s poor African-American maid to take the blame for the crime.

The Underworld Story captures several dynamics at play in the wake of World War II: the rise of the suburbs, the shift to either the trivial or the sensational in news. It also manages to shake one’s faith in every major American institution. The Fourth Estate? Reese’s initial plan for his new paper is to shake down his own advertisers. He brokers the maid’s surrender to the authorities only to claim the reward money. When that fails, he sets up a defense fund in her behalf so he continue to control the story and rake in chips. He ends up on the side of the angels simply because he’s got nowhere else to go. The lawyer who takes the maid’s case does so only for the publicity and the fee he’s splitting with Reese. The crusading D.A. puts his grudge against the reporter ahead of his responsibilities. And don’t expect any help from the top of the food chain. Marshall marshals the town’s elite and has them boycott the paper, using his influence to stifle debate. In a bone-chilling scene, respected citizens stand outside Duryea’s office glaring at him after the place has been vandalized, making it clear that they’ll escalate their tactics if necessary. The movie’s vision of a world dictated by bureaucracy and self-interest make it play like a proto version of The Wire.

It’s not a perfect film. Gale Storm doesn’t do much with the bland role of Reese’s new partner, Gar Moore is a vague presence as the killer, and the casting of a white actress as the maid (along with some strange dubbing in the scenes in which her character’s race is discussed) is jarring. But it’s a potent work that asks a lot of unsettling questions about where America was heading. When it’s over, nobody feels good.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On The Web: Blatant Self Promotion

A regular feature of the Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, is “Noir or Not?,” in which a film’s status in that darkest of pantheons is considered. For the Sentinel’s true crime edition, the task fell to me. The title in question? On the Waterfront. It was a tough piece to write, because before I could settle the noir matter I had to address my complicated feelings toward the movie.

True confession time: WATERFRONT is one of those classics that I respect more than like. I blame the Actors Studio. The Method school of performance it touted as the apex of emotional realism now reads as stylization of a different kind. Aside from some ferocious muckraking moments, the film crowned Best Picture of 1954 doesn’t speak to me. Three years earlier, Columbia Pictures released another film about harborside corruption. THE MOB (ironically made with the working title WATERFRONT) is a sharp-elbowed racketeering exposé with a crackling script by William Bowers. If you’ll permit a little blasphemy, your correspondent prefers it to WATERFRONT. It’s faster, funnier, more suspenseful, less ... psychological. In it a young Charles Bronson slams the degrading and tainted shape-up system of hiring longshoremen, but does so amidst corkscrew plot twists and wise-guy dialogue. True noir has no agenda other than to whisper in our ears that not only are we all doomed but destined to die unfulfilled, that at best we’ll go out with swag within arm’s reach and the lover for whom we stole it pulling the trigger. Not so ON THE WATERFRONT. It has points to make. It’s an issue drama in noir threads, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Nothing like walking up to a revered movie and kicking it in the shins.

My Waterfront essay is one of several from the latest Sentinel currently available for free on the the FNF website. You can read it here. While you’re there, why not kick in a few bucks to the Foundation and get regular access to my genius?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Noir City: The Countdown Begins

Last night, during a seasonal double-bill of Remember the Night and Mr. Soft Touch, the schedule for Noir City 9 was released.

The festival, run through the auspices of the Film Noir Foundation and programmed by my friend Eddie Muller, will be at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from January 21-30, 2011. The theme this go-round is “Who’s Crazy Now?” and features 24 features that witness madness ... or do they? Dig that lineup.

The fest then goes into roadshow mode, playing Los Angeles and, more importantly to your correspondent, Seattle’s SIFF Cinema. I’m disappointed that the Northwest won’t be getting the Barbara Stanwyck pairing of The Lady Gambles and Sorry, Wrong Number, and regret that I won’t be seeing Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door on the big screen. (Eddie calls Secret “incomprehensible.” Far be it for me to disagree with the Czar of Noir, but to me the movie is perfectly comprehensible ... just completely preposterous.) But there’s so much to look forward to: The Hunted, which I have on reasonable authority is everything you could want in a loopy B film, and the closing night screenings of Loophole and Crashout.

The year’s Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren, will benefit the FNF. As it happens, it also coincides with Noir City Northwest. My contribution to the blogathon will be the Noir City coverage you’ve come to expect.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Music: The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus has been together for ten years. Their show at Jazz Alley last night drew entirely from Never Stop, their new album celebrating that anniversary. As always, it was a sensational performance. The trio played one of my favorites, “Bill Hickman at Home,” a salute to the stunt driver of Bullitt and The French Connection, and Reid Anderson’s heartbreaking “People Like You.” Drummer Dave King truly got to shine, using his box of toys to full effect. They’re at Jazz Alley again tonight, with upcoming dates in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York. Go, go, go.

After the show, Rosemarie and I spent some time chatting with pianist and crime fiction connoisseur Ethan Iverson. Talk turned to ‘70s era detective shows and we mentioned Columbo, season one of Mannix, and the short-lived Ellery Queen. (We’ve been making our way through the recent DVD release; expect a post when we’re done.) At his blog Do The Math, Ethan details his recent reading.

Of course, this post is simply an excuse to link to Ethan’s astonishing overview of Donald E. Westlake’s career, now back on the web and somehow expanded. As it happens, Ethan’s classic rendering of the opening of The Da Vinci Code in the style of one of Westlake’s Richard Stark novels is today’s guest post at The Violent World of Parker.

All the TV shows mentioned above were created by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson. In another nice bit of serendipity, today is William Link’s 77th birthday. Mr. Link is still going strong; we recently had the pleasure of hearing him speak at Bouchercon. Extend your birthday greetings at The Rap Sheet.

And one final link to a piece on a subject that is also near and dear to my heart: Ethan’s wife Sarah Deming on cocktails bars that go too far. Who doesn’t serve Amaretto sours?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keenan’s Klassics: It’s a Shane Black Christmas

From December 2009. We know this year’s cost of the 12 days. I shudder to think what my version would run you, even in this economy. Remember the Night will be playing at Noir City Xmas on December 15.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

UPDATE: Head over to Duane Swierczynski's blog for more suggestions on dark-hearted holiday fare.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Book: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane (2010)

If you’re going to take time off, you might as well be productive. In the eleven years since the last Kenzie/Gennaro book Dennis Lehane has had an astonishing run, writing Mystic River, Shutter Island and The Given Day. Now he returns to the characters that made his name.

Lehane is too good and too serious a writer to phone it in. Changes have happened in the intervening decade. Some familiar faces are long gone. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are now married and raising a daughter in Boston – because honestly, where else could they live? Angie’s no longer a private investigator while Patrick does dispiriting freelance work in the hope of getting hired on at a big security firm. A sly reversal in the opening chapter nicely establishes Patrick’s diminished expectations.

Then Amanda McCready goes missing again, and once more Patrick is asked to find her. Their paths crossed in Gone, Baby, Gone, the consequences from that case nearly driving Patrick and Angie apart and haunting Kenzie still.

Revisiting the series’ strongest book is a risky gambit that calls to mind another Boston crime writer, Robert B. Parker, whose P.I. Spenser came to the aid of troubled young April Kyle more than once. Moonlight Mile’s plot, involving identity theft, Russian gangsters and a stolen artifact, is busy and none too tightly packed; Kenzie is more witness than protagonist by the end. Lehane’s real focus is on aging, the compromises we make as we grow older, and learning to “love the things that chafe.” There’s some similarity with the later films of Clint Eastwood, who directed the Oscar-winning adaptation of Mystic River, in terms of how a man of violence deals with the fallout from his actions.

Anyone unfamiliar with Patrick and Angie won’t understand the big deal here; anyone who has read the earlier books will relish a chance to hang out with them again. Because that’s essentially what you’re doing, hanging out. Moonlight Mile is like catching up with an old high school friend you encounter by chance. The conversation is rushed and covers a lot of ground. But when it’s over you hope you run into each other again, and more regularly.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

It’s that time again, kids. The Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hits the streets today. You probably heard it, because this issue is a gargantuan 71 pages, packed as always with news that’s red hot and ice cold.

Things lead off with updates on the calendar for Noir City 9 and the Foundation’s future restoration projects. The theme of the issue is the intersection of true crime and film noir, so there are pieces on crime photographers in general and the great Weegee in particular, Jake Hinkson on the spate of fact-based syndicate movies in the 1950s, and yours truly giving the “Noir or Not?” treatment to – and admitting I don’t actually like – an acknowledged cinema classic. Plus reviews, profiles, and fine writing galore. Kick a few bucks into the kitty and deny yourself no longer.

On a related note: Noir City Sentinel Annuals #1 and #2 are now on sale at Amazon, in time for the holiday gift-giving season. Several of my essays are in #2. Go. Buy. Read.

Now a bonus for sitting through all that shilling. The hugely talented Serena Bramble, who made The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir for last year’s Noir City, also assembled this tribute to San Francisco cinema for last month’s Bouchercon. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Movie: To the Ends of the Earth (1948)

This L.A. Times poll asking who made the best Philip Marlowe blew through my Twitter feed like the Santa Ana winds over the weekend. Why it popped now after six months is one of those internet mysteries.

I voted for Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. He’s running fifth, well behind Humphrey Bogart. I love The Big Sleep, but Bogie makes a better Sam Spade while Powell’s song-and-dance-man jauntiness suits Chandler’s shamus. (Not on the list is Danny Glover, who played Marlowe in a 1995 TV adaptation of “Red Wind,” anticipating author Carol Wolper’s idea of a non-Caucasian in the role.)

Casting my ballot made me want to watch Powell, so off to the DVR I went. To the Ends of the Earth initially seems like Columbia’s answer to the documentary-style crime dramas popularized by Fox; the first person we meet, after all, is head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger. But Robert Stevenson, who’d go on to become the primary director of Walt Disney’s live action films of the 1960s, has something more expansive in mind.

Powell’s narcotics agent is pursuing a freighter suspected of smuggling drugs when the other ship’s captain literally drops anchor – with 100 Chinese slave laborers lashed to its chain and sent to watery graves. Revulsed by this act, Powell vows to smash the ring. Its global reach will send him to Shanghai, Cairo, Beirut, and Havana before Powell races to New York in the hopes of stopping a massive shipment of opium from slipping into the United States. Along the way he matches wits with a mysterious woman tied to the ring, played by Signe Hasso.

The movie is a slick, fast-moving affair. During Powell’s daring nighttime assault on a cliff in search of a hidden poppy field, I finally figured out why it seemed so familiar. A wisecracking hero engaged in globetrotting derring-do while squaring off against powerful, ruthless villains, pausing only to thaw an ice queen who could have designs on his life? To the Ends of the Earth is the proto-James Bond movie, made fifteen years before Sean Connery took on Dr. No. Some templates simply work.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rant: Three Strangers, Indeterminate Stars

Only in the doldrums of a holiday weekend will you find an article like David Freed’s Saturday piece in the Los Angeles Times about the ratings system for old movies. Freed starts by grousing about the three stars his on-screen cable guide gives to Neptune’s Daughter, a 1949 romp starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban. As if that cast list doesn’t tell you all you need to know.

There are worse crimes against art than an Esther Williams film receiving an unnecessary star. Especially from an aggregator like an on-screen cable guide. (Freed, to his credit, explains how those particular ratings are determined.) The answer, as it so often does, boils down to: consider the source.

As someone who consults Leonard Maltin’s guides on a daily basis, I agree with Freed’s thesis in principle. Plenty of older films are overrated. But that’s not so much because of changing tastes as Sturgeon’s Law; when asked about science fiction, author Theodore Sturgeon replied that 90% of it was lousy, but then 90% of everything is lousy. And Freed is right that some genres, specifically film noir, were regularly underserved by critics.

But overall his article speaks to the contemporary sense of entitlement and instant gratification. “I don’t care about historical perspective. This movie bored me and I want answers!” Besides, who takes the four star system seriously?

Plus I take issue with Freed’s notion of today’s audiences being “jaded, world-weary” (as they’re called in the article) and “sophisticated” (as they’re branded in the headline). A point that’s been on my mind since watching Three Strangers (1946) on Thanksgiving night.

The film was co-written by John Huston and directed by master of melodrama Jean Negulesco. It starts in somewhat shocking fashion – yes, even now – with Geraldine Fitzgerald sauntering down a busy city street, clearly trolling for men. Barrister Sydney Greenstreet picks up on her signals and follows her home, only to find that she’s already got Peter Lorre waiting. Fitzgerald then explains that according to legend the Chinese goddess of luck will, on this night, bless three people – but only if they don’t know each other. Lorre and Greenstreet go along with the deal, with Lorre even donating a sweepstakes ticket to the cause.

They then go their separate ways. The film follows them as they remain strangers to each other but not to us, revealing their every neurosis and psychosis. The tripartite structure is initially distancing, but slowly draws you in. Once Fitzgerald’s true nature is revealed Three Strangers becomes spellbinding, building to an extraordinary climax.

Current audiences would probably hate it. The premise is so clearly a contrivance, and no attempt is made to make its flawed characters likeable. Today’s jaded, world-weary and sophisticated filmgoers would wonder why they should care about people who are desperate, venal and selfish. In other words, human. Three Strangers asks more of its viewers than most movies. It’s hard to convey that in a four star rating system.

Leonard Maltin, for the record, gives it three-and-a-half and calls it “fascinating viewing.” He’s right.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book: Boozehound, by Jason Wilson (2010)

In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, the protagonist drafts a list of dream jobs that are, shall we say, specific. Journalist for New Music Express from 1976-79 is number one with a bullet, with producer at Atlantic Records in the late ‘60s hard on its heels. I now have such an entry myself. I want to be Jason Wilson, spirits columnist for the Washington Post. Touring Italy to put various amari through their paces, nipping up to Oslo for a nip of aquavit, stopping in the French Alps to pick elderflower liqueur.

Wilson’s book is an intoxicating blend of travel writing, memoir and cocktail guide. It helps that we share many of the same tastes – we’re both partial to the Red Hook and the Boulevardier, and have a healthy disdain for vodka (especially the flavored variety), the cult of exclusivity that surrounds many contemporary speakeasy-style bars, and the gargantuan size of current glassware. Wilson won me over by saying the signs of a serious cocktail establishment are bottles of maraschino and green chartreuse, both of which I have at home. Above all his work is about encouraging a broader palette, tasting “something – anything – that makes you stop for a moment and pay attention and experience.”

He offers an interesting theory about “why so many Americans end up drinking what they enjoyed in high school or college.” Those hard-won initial quaffs are like the popular songs of youth, and with age and disappointment “people fall back on the visceral experience of memory.” This accounts for Wilson’s lingering soft spot for Jägermeister, an affection I can’t abide. It also might explain why I became a cocktail enthusiast: I have no such memory. I’m the child of Irish immigrants who took the Pioneer pledge. We never had liquor in the house and hiding a buzz from swiped vodka seemed like too much trouble. The behavior stuck through college; no keg parties for me. I was well into my twenties and married for several years when I had my first drink, a free watered-down gin and tonic at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. I’m grateful for that upbringing now. It makes everything I drink these days gloriously new to me.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Movies: Noir On Demand

Netflix has been bulking up its Instant Viewing service for some time now. But a recent post on the Film Noir Foundation forum brought home just how many once obscure, still unavailable on video titles are now a mouse click away.

Among the movies currently streaming on Netflix: the personal favorite Cry Danger, Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the haunting Moonrise, John Payne in Phil Karlson’s 99 River Street, the Gold Medal adaptation Johnny Cool, Down Three Dark Streets and The Killer is Loose.

My first dip into this treasure trove was 1956’s Crime Against Joe, a film I’d never heard of before. Joe is a battle-fatigued veteran struggling to make it as a painter while being “subsidized by (his) hardworking mother.” He chooses a bad night to get hammered while seeking out a nice girl to bring home to meet Mom; a nightclub singer he flirted with is murdered, and Joe doesn’t have an alibi. At a trim 69 minutes the film is more like an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but a good one. John Bromfield’s beefy bafflement works well in the title role, and Julie London is a fetching carhop named Slacks. There’s a strong feel for small town life in the supporting characters like the local businessman with an outsized sense of propriety and Frances Morris as Joe’s mother, who dotes on her boy but still thinks him capable of dark deeds.

Next up, a chance to revisit Private Hell 36 (1954). Like most of director Don Siegel’s films, it offers extreme pressure in close quarters. Cal and Jack (Steve Cochran, the slightly-better-off man’s John Bromfield, and Howard Duff) are L.A. cops chasing down three hundred grand in cash. Their only lead is faded chanteuse Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino, who co-wrote the script). Cal gets the hots for Lilli and pockets some of the stolen loot, assuming no questions will be asked. Except, of course, by the partner he drags into his crime. The result is a tense, sweaty affair with recriminations galore. For added frisson seek out James Ellroy’s 1997 novella “Hollywood Shakedown,” which reimagines the film’s production in sin-sational style.

And there’s more crime coming. Next year VCI Entertainment will bring The Prowler, restored in part by the FNF, to DVD. And as of yesterday the remastered Richard Stark adaptation The Outfit, starring Robert Duvall as Parker (renamed Macklin), is available from the DVD-on-demand Warner Archive. Special thanks to John Hall for giving me the tip-off before the Archive did.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book: Rut, by Scott Phillips (2010)

Concord Free Press is giving away copies of Rut – even the shipping is gratis – to anyone who asks. All they request in return is that you pass along the book to someone else and make a donation to the charity of your choice. This Irish Times article by Declan Burke offers more detail on Concord’s philosophy.

Considering that Rut is written by the relentlessly inventive Scott Phillips, it comes as no surprise that the book is more fascinating than the story behind its publication. It’s a darkly comic dystopian vision set 40 years or so hence in Gower, Colorado, a town that once harbored Aspen aspirations but is now struggling to survive. America is no longer the world’s top dog, but the circumstances behind its decline are never explained. That’s ancient history to Gower’s townspeople, who have more pressing concerns like drinking, reminiscing, and screwing. Rut, as Phillips has pointed out, is both a noun and a verb.

The characters Phillips introduces – the government biologist who begrudgingly comes to Gower on assignment only to stumble onto the amphibian find of the century, the fundamentalist veterinarian turned school principal, the corrupt and randy mayor – are a truly memorable lot whose interactions move the plot in unexpected and unexpectedly moving directions. Rut is a bold, brash and funny book. However you score a copy, read it and marvel at how a world that’s dying can feel so alive.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Book: The Good Son, by Russel D. McLean (2009)

In Ross Macdonald’s novels, P.I. Lew Archer keeps the talk about himself to a minimum. His focus is on his clients, not himself. They provide the drama and the revelations. Archer simply observes. And in so doing becomes a full-blooded character.

J. McNee, the Dundee detective who features in the debut novel by Russel D. McLean, is a man after Archer’s heart. Or at least he’s trying to be. A low-key professional, he keeps the needs of James Robertson foremost in his thoughts. Robertson wants to know why his estranged brother returned after decades away from Scotland to hang himself on the family farm.

But as McNee digs for answers that extend deep into the London underworld, the personal life that he strives to keep under wraps insists on intruding. Jagged shards of pain slash through his detachment as he comes to closer to a truth neither he nor his client wants to learn. We never find out what the J. abbreviates, but we soon know what McNee stands for.

Visit Russel’s blog and you’ll notice that his poor sense of direction is a recurring theme. During Bouchercon, where we shared a few drinks with Russel, we encountered him on the streets of San Francisco, trying to navigate his way to the Shamus Awards dinner where he was justifiably nominated for Best First P.I. novel. We pointed our beardy traveler toward true north (or at least a Chinese restaurant) and sent him on his way. Russel may get lost in foreign lands, but not on the page. The Good Son is a bracing, emotional take on the private eye, and a sequel will be out next year.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Music: Lucy Woodward, Hooked! (2010)

I haven’t raved about an album in a while. What say I do that now?

Rhapsody has Lucy Woodward filed under “Teen Beat” because of her earlier hits. Hooked! is her debut on Verve, and while it’s certainly a jazz record she retains a sharp and lively pop sensibility. It’s evident in her treatment of standards like “Stardust.” (I’d also call “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” a classic, but some people don’t feel that way about The Jungle Book.) Not to mention her own songs like “He Got Away” and the wickedly funny “Babies.” Whatever category she’s in, she’s a fantastic singer with a supple, smoky voice. The ballad “Purple Heart” is proof of that.

Here’s the video for “Ragdoll.” Sexiest thing about it? The way she sings the word “Damn.”

And here’s Lucy tearing it up live at Joe’s Pub in NYC.

She has a concert coming up at Jazz Alley this month that I have to miss, and it’s killing me. I’ll just have to listen to the album again.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Book: Stranglehold, by Ed Gorman (2010)

Washington State now conducts its elections via mail, so my ballot is long gone. The highpoint of this year’s process was seeing that a Republican candidate for the state house preferred to be identified as a member of the Problemfixer party. Once again I wrote in the name of sex columnist Dan Savage instead of voting for Seattle’s apparently permanent Congressman. There was one issue that spoke to me personally, an initiative to privatize liquor sales and force the state out of the retail business. Big money lined up on both sides; hell, Costco wrote the prospective law. I supported it in the hope that some enterprising bartenders will open a store along the lines of San Francisco’s Cask. And if they don’t, I will.

All of the above had me in the ideal mood for Stranglehold, the latest book by Ed Gorman. It marks the return of Chicago political consultant Dev Conrad, an irascible operator whose dirtiest secret is that he still believes in the system. Dev heads downstate in response to a distress call from one of his aides; an incumbent Congresswomen locked in a tough re-election bid is losing her focus. The candidate’s stepmother, a one-time actress who craves respectability and controls the family purse strings, doesn’t appreciate Dev’s involvement. Dev’s digging unearths a web of blackmail and murder dating back decades.

There’s insider information galore here. Ed tells the tale with that deceptively simple style of his, his casual observations sneaking up on you. Dev’s disappointed idealist voice brings out the best in Ed. Consider:

In most motel rooms there are spirits of lust and loneliness in the corners. If you listen carefully late at night you can hear them. They speak to you. They’d told me many things over the years about others as well as myself.

As always in a Gorman book, there is compassion for every character and they retain the power to surprise. Each of them is, “like most of us, a person of parts.” Stranglehold is the perfect antidote to the current season, an entertaining book that will stay with you.

Here’s my Q&A with Ed about Stranglehold.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book: Collusion, by Stuart Neville (2010)

The bloody events of Stuart Neville’s sterling debut novel The Ghosts of Belfast echo in this follow-up. Gerry Fegan, the haunted IRA assassin, has fled to America and found only a temporary measure of peace. Inspector Jack (never John) Lennon of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is searching for his ex-lover and daughter, who have gone into hiding. To find them he’ll have to sort through the collusion of the title, the incestuous relationship between law enforcement, politicians, and Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups. Not to mention deal with a lethal hit man known only as The Traveler. As well as Fegan, heading home with vengeance on his mind.

Collusion doesn’t have as lean a storyline as Ghosts, which makes Neville’s accomplishment with this sequel all the more impressive. He’s written a dense yet nimble thriller that explains the intricacies of Ulster politics without slowing the tempo, and taps into the tension still underlying life in Belfast, where residents are “all smug and smiling now they’d gathered the wit to quit killing each other and start making money instead.” The Traveler is a creation both ferocious and fallible, each quality intensifying the other.

Again running through this meticulously plotted suspense is a supernatural element. Mixing early Stephen King with real-world thrills shouldn’t work but it does, and beautifully. Neville has vaulted to the front rank of crime writers with these two books. Plus I owe him a huge debt for showing me the correct spelling of “Whisht!,” the exclamation uttered by my Northern Ireland-born father whenever Notre Dame was about to score. So he hasn’t been saying it much lately.

Posting a review of a book both scary and scarily good should be enough for this All Hallows Eve but in case it’s not, here’s the end of Paul Lynde’s Halloween special. You may want to dial 91 first.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

PBR: Regeneration (1915)

Rosemarie closes out Silent Movie Mondays at the Paramount Theater.

Before the last in the series of Silent Crime Spree films unspooled our host and organist Jim Riggs reminded us about the early 20th century settlement movement, which established houses in poor areas where middle class volunteers lived among recently arrived immigrants, assisting with social services and education. A settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side provided the focal point of our movie: Regeneration, directed by Raoul Walsh.

The story is taken from My Mamie Rose by Owen Frawley Kildare, which tells the story of his childhood on the mean streets of New York. In the film, three actors play the part of Owen, who loses his mother at the age of 10 and becomes an orphan taken into the neglectful care of the battling neighbors across the hall. Owen at 17 doesn’t have much going for him except a quick way with his fists that lands him where we find him at 25, leader of a gang that rules their small patch of the neighborhood.

Into that rough society comes settlement worker Mamie Rose. Her beauty and kindness appeal to Owen’s better nature. She teaches him to read and under her tutelage he gives up his gangster ways. If there’s anything we learn from crime movies, though, is that you can’t escape your past. Owen’s friend Skinny stabs a cop and needs a place to hide out. Owen obliges and things go downhill from there.

The painted sets and harshly lit interiors are reminders the film is almost 100 years old. Yet some of its images are timeless: young Owen sitting alone in a window watching a hearse carry his mother pull way, children dressed in rags playing in the dirty tenement staircase, and a Madonna-like mother cradling her infant on the steps of a church.

Too sad? I agree. I respect Regeneration for what it does, namely enlivening a hortatory memoir with some well-executed action. Like when the cornered Skinny, after having attempted to violate Mamie Rose’s honor and shooting her in the process, tries to escape by sliding down a clothesline strung high between two apartment buildings. Owen, taking to heart Mamie’s plea to leave vengeance to the Lord, hesitates in pursuing the scoundrel. No such qualms for another young man who loved Mamie Rose from afar. He pulls out a gun and blasts Speedy, sending him plummeting to a messy death. Now that’s how you end a crime spree.

Next up on Silent Movie Mondays, starting in April: films about New York. I can’t wait.

Editor’s note: Rosemarie also participated in Donna Moore’s Ramones flash fiction challenge. Her story is here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sort Of Related: Renko & Scudder, Together At Last

Three Stations, the latest Arkady Renko novel by Martin Cruz Smith, is named after Moscow’s massive railway complex, where a trio of train lines and occasionally lives come to an end. Detective Renko, sidelined by a disgruntled superior and on the verge of suspension, is saddled with the case of a prostitute who OD’d there. He ruffles feathers by determining that the woman was not a prostitute and her death no accident. At the same time Zhenya, the shy teenaged genius who has become Renko’s charge, assists a young runaway whose baby was kidnapped on a train into the city.

Typically the two storylines would intersect. That they don’t is one of the pleasures of the book. As is Smith’s clear-eyed look at contemporary Russia, from the station’s makeshift clans of urchins to a luxury fair for oligarchs now afraid of losing their dachas in the wake of economic collapse. Renko remains a magnetic protagonist, keeping his expectations low and his sense of irony high. Three Stations is a lesser entry in the series but it’s always a pleasure to spend time in Renko’s company.

Sadly, I missed Smith’s panel appearance at Bouchercon. But a strange synchronicity was at work in San Francisco nonetheless. I have only read two mystery series in their entirety, the Renko books and the Matt Scudder novels by Lawrence Block. ARCs of the newest Scudder were circulating at the convention, and I ended up with one. (Thanks again, Megan!)

A Drop of the Hard Stuff won’t be published by Mulholland Books until May 2011, so I’ll keep my comments brief. Like my favorite Scudder novel When The Sacred Ginmill Closes, it journeys back into the ex-New York cop’s life. Scudder is closing in on the one-year anniversary of his sobriety when he crosses paths with a childhood friend who once ran afoul of the law but has succeeded in recovery. He’s working AA’s difficult Eighth Step – making amends to those you have wronged – when he is murdered by someone hellbent on keeping a past sin buried. The book is a throwback in every sense, revisiting the days when Scudder’s grip on his new life was tenuous at best and Manhattan was free of cell phones, still affordable and still dangerous. To walk those streets again was a treat.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PBR: Underworld (1927) & Bouchercon, Recapped Redux

Rosemarie continues to attend the Silent Crime Spree at the Paramount Theater in my absence.

At the top of the stairs stands a beautiful young woman in a feather-trimmed coat. A few dark curls peek out from under her cloche. At the foot of the stairs a young man sweeps the barroom floor. He’s unshaven, dirty, maybe a little drunk. As the woman adjusts her coat a feather escapes, floating downward. The man catches it in his palm, regards it with wonder. Did it fall from the wings of an angel?

This romantic moment in Underworld is one of only a few director Josef von Sternberg allows between Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent), gangster Bull Weed’s moll, and Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), a down-and-outer whom Bull turns into his elegant right hand man. In no time Bull is calling him Professor and setting him up in a hideout full of books with a secret door to where the hooch is stashed.

While drawn to each other with the inevitability of fate the pair are loyal to Bull, leading to guilt and a painful decision when Bull is sentenced to hang - help him escape or let justice run its course?

Ben Hecht received his first screen credit and his first Academy Award for the original story. George Bancroft plays Bull “as broad as a highway,” to borrow the phrase used by our Silent Crime Spree host and organist, Jim Riggs. Bancroft does play it big, befitting his role as an untouchable criminal in the unnamed big city’s underworld. When he finds something funny, as he often does, Bull doesn’t just laugh, he throws back his head and roars like the king of the jungle that he is. Some audience members found this hilarious. To me it was more than a little chilling.


As Vince mentioned in his Bouchercon recap, we shared panel duty. Here are some high points from the ones I attended:

Heather Graham talking about her short-lived acting career and demonstrating the torso-twisting motion she used in her one and only TV commercial, for an exercise disc. Moderator Reed Farrel Coleman, a quick study, picking up the move and breaking it out at key points during the remainder of the session.

Megan Abbott relating how she and co-author Alison Gaylin sent the artist for their upcoming graphic novel a picture of Season Hubley’s boots from Hardcore, so he could reproduce them for their heroine.

Columbo co-creator William Link noting that the only reason he and partner Richard Levinson ever wrote anything was to “amuse, delight and mystify ourselves.”

Books: Hard Case Crime Returns

Word from Hard Case honcho Charles Ardai his own self:

We've got some big news to announce today: After a year's hiatus, Hard Case Crime will be returning to bookstores with new titles in 2011, thanks to a deal we just signed with UK-based Titan Publishing.

Titan is a publisher both of fiction and of gorgeous art books focusing on pop culture such as movie poster art, pin-ups, newspaper comic strips, and Golden Age comic books, and has worked with filmmakers such as J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and George Lucas. Titan has been around for 30 years, has more than 200 employees, and in addition to publishing books also has a magazine division, a retail division (Titan owns the famous Forbidden Planet bookstore in London, and until recently co-owned the Murder One mystery bookstore with Maxim Jakubowski), and a merchandise division that produces items such as t-shirts, sculptures, and accessories. We look forward to exploring ways we might develop some cool Hard Case Crime products with them!

But first things first: books.

Hard Case Crime will relaunch in September/October 2011 with four new books, including CHOKE HOLD by Christa Faust (sequel to her Edgar Award-nominated MONEY SHOT), QUARRY'S EX by Max Allan Collins (the latest in the popular series of hit man novels by the author of "Road to Perdition"), and two never-before-published novels by MWA Grand Masters (names to be announced shortly).

Additionally, Titan Publishing plans to acquire all existing stock of Hard Case Crime's backlist from Dorchester Publishing and to resume shipping these titles to booksellers immediately.

New books will be published in paperback (possibly some in hardcover as well!); ebook editions will also be released across multiple platforms. Titan is distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Random House.

We're very excited about working with Titan (indeed, we had offers from five publishers and chose Titan over several that were much larger and better-known) -- they love pulp fiction as much as we do and appreciate that in books like ours the visual dimension is just as important as the storytelling. It's hard to imagine a better home for Hard Case Crime.

Many thanks in advance for helping us to get the word out that Hard Case Crime is coming back!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Miscellaneous: Bouchercon, Recapped

The question was put to me several times over the course of the weekend, and I never came up with a satisfactory answer. No, I have no idea why I’d never been to Bouchercon, the annual gathering of crime fiction writers and readers, before. But attending this year’s shindig was a no-brainer. It was in San Francisco, a city I will use any excuse to visit. And it always helps when the toastmaster is a friend.

Primary regret: I brought not one but two cameras with me, and took neither out of my bag. I have a camera in my phone and never used that, either. I have absolutely no photographic record of my attendance. So permit me to illustrate this recap with a picture of me steering a paddleboat down the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Rosemarie and I arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday to get an early start. I began quoting High Anxiety, partially filmed in the convention hotel, in earnest and didn’t let up ‘til Sunday. We started with Neapolitan pizza in North Beach with David Corbett and Leslie “Lu” Schwerin. Next, drinks with Hilary Davidson and a revolving cast of other writers including eventual Anthony Award winner Sophie Littlefield. Then to the hotel bar where my secret sister, the divine Christa Faust, introduced us to Martyn Waites, Russel D. McLean, John Rector and Stephen Blackmoore.

Remember, this was the easy day.

Rosemarie and I divvied up the panels and events as best we could. Scattered highlights:

Toastmaster Eddie Muller, interviewed by Jacqueline Winspear, called Ben Hecht “the complete unheralded genius of twentieth century American letters” and announced good news about the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts to restore 1950’s The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me!

The Subterranean SF “Litanies of Noir” reading in a secret location, featuring performances by Eddie, Corbett, Megan Abbott, Craig Clevenger and many more, plus live music and a tableful of Maker’s Mark.

Paul Levine recounting a producer’s definition of “the process” for a novelist who’d sold the rights to his work. “You owned a car. You sold us the car. Now you want to drive the car. You can’t drive the car. I drive the car. And you get to wave as it goes by.”

Lee Goldberg interviewing William Link, co-creator of Columbo. Link’s great regret was never asking Orson Welles to be a villain on the show.

Duane Swiercyznski on adapting your own work: “You have to see your novel as a body on a slab.”

A particularly strong politics panel moderated by David Corbett inspired by this post from Barry Eisler on the embrace of thrillers by right-wing media outlets.

Domenic Stansberry on the overlap of noir and tragedy: “You can’t have hubris if you know you’re going to fuck up.”

Discovering that some giveaway book bags had ARCs of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the new Matt Scudder novel by Lawrence Block, and having Megan Abbott insist that I take hers. Which I did.

Going out of my way to shake hands with the one and only Bill Crider, the man whose blog I have been shamelessly aping for years.

Jesus, why didn’t I take pictures? To make up for it, here’s one of me lying on a cot at the Intrepid Museum.

Eavesdropping on and occasionally contributing to a conversation between Tony Broadbent and John Lawton about Beyond the Fringe.

Watching Lee Child take generosity to deranged heights by buying the entire con drinks at his Reacher Creature Party, a bash that gave me a chance to meet Eric Beetner and Parnell Hall.

The gigolo accent deployed by International Guest of Honor Denise Mina as she recounted a horrible Scandinavian book tour culminating in a live television interview in which she was asked the single question, “So ... your books are of crime?”

The staged reading of I Can’t Get Started, Declan Hughes’ play about Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. A terrific piece of work that made a lovely change from the usual panels featuring an all-star cast of crime writers including Martyn Waites as Dash, Alison Gaylin as Lilly, Brett Battles as a shamus and Mark Billingham and Christa FFFFaust in a variety of roles.

And finally, the opportunity to reconnect with writers I’d already had the pleasure of meeting like Marcus Sakey and Sue Ann Jaffarian and to introduce myself to others whose work I admire like Steve Brewer, Gar Anthony Haywood, Stuart Neville and Scott Phillips.

The Rap Sheet recaps the awards action. A thousand thanks to Rae Helmsworth and her volunteers for doing such a tremendous job. Rosemarie and I are already discussing a trip to next year’s event in St. Louis. The hook is in but deep, people. And who knows? Next time I might even take pictures.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Book: Empire of Dreams, by Scott Eyman (2010)

Scott Eyman opens his suitably epic biography of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille on the set of Sunset Blvd. Which only makes sense, because DeMille’s cameo in Billy Wilder’s film captures the essence of the man. Yes, he’s a forbidding figure in complete control of his set. But he’s also the only person who shows Norma Desmond any real compassion.

That dichotomy ran throughout DeMille’s life. His films flaunted spectacle and sensation only to come down squarely in favor of the homeliest eternal truths. He was a stern taskmaster who was loyal and generous to those in his employ. Conservative in politics and demeanor, he had a harem of women devoted to him.

Eyman captures all of DeMille’s complexity in his meticulously researched book. He’s forthright when it comes to the films themselves, highlighting the dynamism of DeMille’s silent film work, criticizing his tin ear for dialogue and reliance on simplistic storytelling. The Ten Commandments is “old theater, but great old theater, sometimes ridiculous, always impressive.” The strongest chapter recounts DeMille’s ill-fated 1950 push to impose a loyalty oath on the Directors Guild. Eyman has turned up the minutes of a landmark Guild meeting in a private archive that clear DeMille of scurrilous charges that have been leveled against him for decades, but confirm other sins. Eyman’s unparalleled scholarship has produced one of the best film books in years.

It led me to watch Why Change Your Wife?, one of DeMille’s silents. I can’t call it a marital comedy as Eyman does; DeMille places too much emphasis on the melodramatic and, simply put, never had a sense of humor. It’s an interesting artifact nonetheless that survives because of DeMille’s prescient attitude toward film preservation. The fact that I streamed it directly to my TV via Netflix would have warmed old C.B.’s heart. He was always a forward-thinking man.

Here I watch DeMille’s only Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Movie: Beggars of Life (1928)

Once again, I’m unable to attend the Silent Crime Spree at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. Once again, Rosemarie files her report.

When we first see Louise Brooks in William Wellman’s Beggars of Life, she’s already dressed in boys’ clothes, her trademark bob ready to be tucked up under a cloth cap. Her character, Nancy, doesn’t realize it yet, but she's illustrating a useful piece of advice for young women taking to the road - try not to look like a woman. Another helpful tidbit is get a companion you can trust. Jim, played by Richard Arlen, finds Nancy while sneaking into a house where a savory breakfast sits fresh on the kitchen table. Unbeknownst to him, the man not answering the door has been killed by Nancy, who shot him to stop an attempted rape.

The two hit the road together, pausing only to liberate a ham steak off the dead man’s plate. Posing as brothers, their trip to reach Jim’s uncle in Canada is delayed by train dicks tossing them off freights and the police looking to arrest Nancy for murder.

Another roadblock in their path is Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery). Applause broke out in the theater with Beery’s first appearance, singing at the top of his lungs as he walks along with a barrel of moonshine hoisted on his shoulder. Now that’s a good time guy. Beery is terribly charismatic in the role. With his easy charm in a beefy frame, he reminded me of English actor Tom Hardy (Inception).

It only takes an eyeful of Nancy bending over for the tramps in a hobo jungle to realize she's nobody’s little brother. The rest of the film centers around who is going to get possession of Nancy, Red or Jim, clearly her true love. Louise Brooks is beautiful and magnetic throughout, though she looses some of her glamour when put into a dress at the end of the picture, complete with an unfortunate bonnet.

As always, this Silent Movie Monday featured a bravura performance by Jim Riggs on the Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer, impersonating the locomotives with brake squeals, steam hissing and of course the lonesome whistle announcing the passing of another freight into the dark night.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Q&A: Ed Gorman

Odds are many of you reading this already know Ed Gorman. Novelist. Editor. Raconteur. Friend of the website. The man who introduced me to The Whistler. Author of Stranglehold, in stores October 12. And the latest subject of what threatens to become a recurring feature, the VKDC Q&A. Thanks again, Ed.

Q. What can you tell us about Stranglehold?

Dev Conrad is forced to leave the campaign he’s working on and fly downstate (Illinois) to see why another campaign his political consultancy oversees is having so much trouble. Even before he gets there he knows that the dragon lady (a former movie star) hates her daughter-in-law, who just happens to be the Congresswoman running for re-election. The dragon lady is the chief financial backer of the campaign and never lets anyone forget it. Especially her daughter-in-law.

I wanted to highlight the fact that all over the country there are these small political dynasties. Seats are passed from generation to generation. If it’s not the sons and daughters of the former long-serving pol then it’s the nephews and the grandchildren. Writ large this is the Kennedys and the Bushes.

In the case of Stranglehold the candidate’s father was a brilliant and respected liberal senator for five terms. But after being widowed and marrying the dragon lady he began to forget some of his old principles and enjoy himself in the brave new world of fab his new wife introduced him to. Thus his falling out with his daughter who still believes in the principles he set aside. But the daughter had some crazy dark years after her mother died and now they’ve come back on her. Somebody is trying to destroy her career from the inside of the campaign.

Q. You’ve said that Stranglehold owes something to Ross Macdonald. Where do you see his influence on the book? Where would you place Macdonald in your personal pantheon of crime writers?

The Ross Macdonald influence is found in the relationship of the dysfunctional family at the center of the book. The members are isolated from each other and suspect each other of terrible things. Macdonald’s novels and stories are filled with this sense of distrust and betrayal.

In the case of Stranglehold I show how a family can be divided up into warring camps and the effects on all concerned. In this case all the warring has a direct effect on the campaign.

I believe that Ross Macdonald was the finest writer of private detective fiction ever. Flat out.

Q. Stranglehold is inspired in part by your own experience as a speechwriter. The quotations from Jefferson and H.L. Mencken that open the book hint at a certain disillusionment with the process. Did proximity to campaigning turn you off politics? Did you ever work for a candidate whom you considered a good writer?

I think the Jefferson quote states my belief exactly – the moment you decide to run, you begin to change as a person. Subtly at first but by the time you’ve completed a campaign or two you’ve become what you once dreaded – a standard issue pol whose first priority is getting re-elected. This applies to both sides. There are a few exceptions, Senator Bernie Sanders being the sterling example. Senator Al Franken may have the same kind of guts. But face it, by and large both sides have been selling out the middle and working classes for decades. Not to mention signing up for wars so they can wave flags at the next election.

And no, I’ve never personally met a pol who was a good writer.

Q. You also worked in advertising for many years. Are candidates actually sold in the same way as commercial products? Is there any additional satisfaction in crafting a successful campaign for a candidate?

Negative advertising works well for most candidates. Trash your opponent before he or she can trash you. It seems to me that negative advertising works less well in big time package advertising. You can get away with claiming that your pill works twice as fast and twice as well as the other guy’s pill, but that’s different from saying that your opponent slept with his female staffer or that years ago he climbed into the monkey cage at the zoo and exposed himself.

Q. Any chance we’ll see Dev Conrad again?

I’m working on the next Dev now. This is a little bit different for me. It has a fairly unique premise at its center. All the way through the first draft I kept wondering if maybe it was a little too far out there for people to believe. But then just the other day I saw pretty much the same thing in a news story in Politico. Reality is always ahead of you.

Movie Q. What’s a political thriller you think is underrated?

I don’t think it’s under-rated but I think it’s now been passed by – The Ipcress File by Len Deighton. He took an old premise – probably came from Edgar Wallace or one of those early Brits – wedded it to Carnaby Street culture and produced a cynical but very believable Cold War thriller.

Baseball Q. Did you root for a team growing up? Do you still follow them now?

I don’t follow any kind of sports now. I played baseball until I reached eleventh grade at which time I started drinking. I would’ve been much better off playing ball.