Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DVD: New York Confidential (1955)

New York Confidential was once thought of as “the holy grail of missing noir films.” The only thing harder than finding a decent print was untangling who owned the rights. Both problems have been solved, and the movie finally debuted on DVD last month.

One of the many exposé films made in the wake of the Kefauver hearings into organized crime, NYC packs a dizzying amount of story into a fast-paced 87 minutes. I would expect no less from the team of Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse, also responsible for the sublime trash of Wicked Woman.

The movie prefigures The Godfather and Point Blank in terms of depicting the rackets as a corporate enterprise. The coiled spring that is Richard Conte plays a syndicate man from Chicago with the unimpeachably badass name of Nick Magellan. He’s sent to the Big Apple when boss Frank Lupo (Broderick Crawford) needs an outsider to handle some dirty work, and quickly makes himself indispensible.

The revelation of NYC is Anne Bancroft, whose Kathy is desperate to escape the stigma of being Lupo’s daughter. For a brief period early in her career Bancroft was groomed as the next Ava Gardner. She didn’t care for the roles but she was awfully good at them, as evidenced by her sexy and heartbreaking performance here. The DVD also features an informative commentary track by my Noir City Sentinel cohort and friend Alan K. Rode and Kim Morgan that’s well worth a listen.

On a related noir on home video note: the Red Riding trilogy comes out today, and should be in your queue already.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Miscellaneous: Kodachrome and Kon

Surfacing during an unbelievably hectic week to share two extraordinary items.

First, this gorgeous Kodachrome color film test – from 1922. I can’t stop watching it. Read more about it.

Next, this week brought the terrible news of the death of Satoshi Kon. The fact that he worked in anime may have obscured the fact that he was easily among the world’s finest filmmakers. Millennium Actress and especially Paprika are brilliant stories about storytelling, and movies in particular. (Paprika, I will say again, has one of the most perfect endings of recent years.) After Kon’s death, his family posted his final message on his website, which in turn was translated by blogger Makiko Itoh. Read it. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking document that makes me want to watch his films all over again.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Miscellaneous: Vamping

I’m juggling several deadlines amidst the mad rush at work to get ready for next week’s Penny Arcade Expo. So I have been remiss in not posting this.

That’s right. It’s Army of Lovers time. The band featuring my first wife, my half brother Nils, and the guy who handles my landscaping. And I ain’t talking about yard work. When I get swamped, you get ‘Crucified.’ Regular broadcasting to resume eventually.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book: Beast of Burden, by Ray Banks (2009, U.S. 2011)

Since walking out of prison, Manchester’s Cal Innes has accomplished a hell of a lot more than he expected. He’s set up a detective agency (of sorts), become something of a local hero, even journeyed to Californ-eye-ay.

But it’s taken a ferocious toll. At the start of Ray Banks’ fourth novel about the character, Cal is a physical and emotional wreck. And for all his accomplishments, his world is still defined by the people who knew him when: crime boss Morris Tiernan, his lunatic son Mo, and hardheaded flatfoot “Donkey” Donkin. It turns out Mo’s taken a powder, Morris only trusts Cal to find him, and Donkin ... well, Donkin just wants to wind Cal up and grind him down.

Beast of Burden, need it be said, is funny as hell. Cal’s dyspeptic but decent voice remains one of the great pleasures of recent crime fiction. But Banks, the bugger, turns half the narration duties over to Cal’s nemesis Donkin, a decision that renders the copper human and allows you to feel for the prick without diminishing his prickishness one iota. And the ending will leave you reeling. There’s daring to spare here.

The book won’t be published in the States until 2011, which gives you ample opportunity to devour the three previous novels first. As I’ve said before, it’s best to think of the Innes series as a single, darkly hilarious, and ultimately moving novel. I’ve had my copy of Beast of Burden for over a year, and the highest compliment I can pay is that I wish I’d held out on reading it a little longer. It’d be reassuring to know that it was still in its metaphorical glass case, that I had a Banks book on hand in the event of emergency. Now I have to wait for him to write another one.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book: Left Coast Libations, Ted Munat/Michael Lazar/Jenn Farrington (2010)

As a transplanted New Yorker I am loath to say this, but the West Coast doesn’t get nearly enough credit for a lot of things. For instance, its role in current cocktail culture. Left Coast Libations pays tribute to the core of dedicated bartenders, particularly in San Francisco and Seattle, who are the heroes of this renaissance.

Featured in this collection of one hundred original cocktail recipes are some of my favorite watering holes. Bourbon & Branch and Alembic in San Francisco, Spur and Tavern Law in Seattle. And of course my home away from home, the Zig Zag Caf√©, reigned over by the man recently declared America’s best bartender by his peers, Murray Stenson.

For the most part, I can’t prepare these drinks myself. I don’t keep a variety of sherries or arrack in my personal bar, and I’m not about to make “smoked cider air” although I now know how to do so. I’d rather let a skilled professional do the hard work for me. Good bartending is an art – equal parts host, teacher and chef – and the book is an incentive to get out and enjoy it firsthand. Plus the photographs are great.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Book: Speak No Evil, by Martyn Waites (U.S. 2010)

Bad Vince. You know not to jump into a series in the middle. But sometimes these things can’t be helped. And the praise Martyn Waites has received made the leap worth the risk.

In the fourth novel about Joe Donovan, the journalist turned private eye lands an assignment that draws on his former profession. He’s asked to collaborate on a book with Anne Marie Smeaton, who decades earlier killed a child when she was but a child herself. Anne Marie has a son of her own now and is trying to make something of her life. But stirring up the past is awakening impulses that she can’t control, leading her to fear the worst when a teenager is murdered on her housing estate and she wakes up with blood on her hands and no memory of where it came from.

Speak No Evil, need it be said, is a dark book. It’s also an ambitious one, with multiple plotlines and a host of viewpoint characters. (Several of them are adolescents, whose rage, awkwardness and curiosity Waites depicts with unstinting honesty.) No doubt I’d have gotten more out of the book had I read the previous novels about Donovan and his compatriots at the Albion agency. Donovan’s young son has disappeared, his relationship with the rest of his family is strained, and there’s fallout from his previous cases to deal with. But Waites weaves the material in smartly so that newcomers can keep up. The greater measure of his skill is the compassion he engenders for Anne Marie, a woman who has been denied such mercy anywhere she goes. Speak No Evil is strong stuff that goes down smooth.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Book: The Cold Kiss, by John Rector (2010)

Noir has been described to me thus: the main character knows what he or she is about to do is wrong and does it anyway. The debut novel from John Rector certainly fits that bill. Then there’s the other stripe of noir, where it’s the universe that goes bad, using some poor fool for its sport. Think of it as the Detour variety, the lesson being that “fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” The Cold Kiss is that kind of noir, too. In spades.

Nate and Sara are young lovers heading west, away from harsh childhoods and ahead of a ferocious blizzard. They give a lift to a man clearly in need of one. When the storm forces them off the road and into a forgotten Nebraska motel with a handful of other refugees, they discover that their passenger has died – and that he had two million dollars cash in his possession. Nate and Sara decide to keep it. And the snowball begins its downhill descent.

The novel moves with the inexorable logic of a bad dream. Ask yourself at any point “What is the absolute worst thing that could happen now?” and sure enough, that’s what happens. Rector relays it all without wasting a word yet still finds rich veins of deadpan humor. Reading it I was reminded of Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, along with the corkscrew plot mechanics of Red Rock West. The Cold Kiss will put a chill into your summer reading in more ways than one.

Monday, August 02, 2010

DVD: Discs I Should Have Mentioned Last Month

Night Train to Munich (1940). It’s hard to believe that a thriller written by the team of Gilliat & Launder (The Lady Vanishes) and directed by Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man) could be forgotten. Luckily the Criterion Collection has rescued it from oblivion. A Czech munitions expert is able to flee the German invasion of his homeland, but his daughter (Margaret Lockwood) is left behind. She escapes a prison camp and makes her way to England, where her father is under the watch of singing spy Rex Harrison. (OK, he doesn’t sing, exactly. He sort of ... Rex Harrisons it.) Only her lucky break isn’t what it appears to be. Soon Harrison is in Germany, masquerading as a Nazi officer mere hours before war is declared, trying to spirit Lockwood and her father back to freedom. It’s grand entertainment in the Hitchcock mode: romantic badinage (of a sort, given that the prickly, preening Harrison only loves himself), derring-do and a slam-bang climax at an exotic locale. Charters and Caldicott, the upper-crust gents played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in several films beginning with The Lady Vanishes, lend a stiff upper lip here.

It Came From Kuchar (2009). Jennifer Kroot’s engaging documentary about the brothers George and Mike Kuchar, stars of the 1960s underground film circuit – John Waters cites their alternative take on Hollywood genres as a huge influence – who have never stopped making movies and plundering their own lives for material. (For decades George has taught a legendary hands-on course in filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute.) A low-key look at the obsessive need to create.