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 J├Ągermeister, 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.