Monday, February 28, 2011

Book: Cold Shot to the Heart, by Wallace Stroby (2011)

Crime novels don’t come terser than this one. Wallace Stroby doesn’t waste words.

Crissa Stone is a first-rate thief. Something of a mess in her personal life – she drinks too much wine since her lover/mentor went down for a bid in a Texas prison, and she can’t completely walk away from the young daughter she’s given up – but on the job she’s peerless. Even when circumstances force her to go after a score she’s not sure about, she keeps her eyes wide open.

It doesn’t help. The heist goes south and soon she’s being stalked by Eddie “The Saint” Santiago, a stone killer recently released from prison himself. He’s every bit as coolly competent as Crissa, but nowhere near as human. A lot of bodies will fall to bring these two professionals together, and when they collide it isn’t going to be pretty.

The action is lean, but there’s still room for layers of complexity; even the heist that’s not what it appears to be is not what it appears to be. Stroby finds new wrinkles in the familiar milieu of New Jersey organized crime, and he explains how here. The book moves fast and without mercy, like a chill wind through a bullet hole.

Rant: A Brief Comment About the Academy Awards

As is so often the case, Mark Evanier has said what I wanted to say better than I possibly could. To everyone who hated last night’s show – which is apparently everyone – I ask: when have the Academy Awards ever been genuinely entertaining?

Here is what the Oscar show is. Two people come onstage and read a list of names. They say one of those names again and that person comes onstage and reads another list of names. This happens more than twenty times. No amount of chemistry or stagecraft can ever make what is essentially an industry function anything more than endurable.

I liked last night’s show. It was occasionally sloppy and frequently weird. That’s as close to entertaining as the Oscars can get, and I’ll take it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book: One True Sentence, by Craig McDonald (2011)

Paris, February 1924. The arrondissements are overrun with expat American writers and artists. Among them is a young Hector Lassiter, beginning to make a name for himself in the pulps but not touting this success to his more highbrow compatriots. One of the only people who knows Hec’s secret is his close friend Ernest Hemingway. Another is the self-appointed queen of this beau monde Gertrude Stein, who calls on Hec’s criminal expertise when several of the city’s literary lights are brutally snuffed out. At the heart of the murders lies a shadowy movement calling itself Nada, made up of those who feel Dada has too many unicorns and rainbows.

The great triumph of Craig McDonald’s Lassiter books is that each has a completely different feel while being part of a seamless whole. One True Sentence, the fourth in the series, manages to succeed as both Lassiter novel and traditional mystery. We’re seeing Hector at his earliest here, tough, loyal, brash and still evolving. McDonald does his usual skillful weaving of historical figures into the mix, but the strongest character is the bewitching Brinke Devlin, a muse and an artist in her own right. She makes Hec the man he later becomes and whom we already know. The third member of Stein’s team of crime writers turned detectives is clearly inspired by Agatha Christie, setting up a fascinating meta-story about genre conventions and high versus low culture. One True Sentence is a fleet trip through a densely imagined City of Lights, and a vivid recreation of a time when it was truly possible to subsist on art and pastis alone. If you’re not reading these books, you’re missing out on the best crime fiction has to offer.

Here’s my Q&A with Craig.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Q&A: Craig McDonald

Craig McDonald’s series about crime novelist, crime solver, and man of the world Hector Lassiter has been lauded by critics, readers, awards committees and, not least, by yours truly. The latest installment, One True Sentence, was published last week. Craig was both kind and foolish enough to participate in a VKDC Q&A.

Q. What can you tell us about ONE TRUE SENTENCE?

It’s 1920s Paris. It stands as the first Lassiter novel, chronologically. It’s crime novelist/screenwriter Hector Lassiter at ground zero. It’s the book in which he finds his writer’s voice, his path as a genre author, and in which he meets the woman who more or less “invents” the man/character of Hector Lassiter as we’ve come to know him in the three previous novels.

Q. How do you feel the Lost Generation of expatriate American artists in 1920s France are viewed today? What fictional works depict that era best?

I think “The Lost Generation” has become almost a kind of brand that typifies a way of careless and carnal living as much as the (mostly perishable) writing produced by that generation.

As to works that catch that world, in terms of literature, I’d go with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which poses as a memoir, but which Hemingway invites readers to regard as fiction. I personally take the book as a mixture of fact and fiction — as much novel as reminiscence.

My favorite film on that era, and one that has inspired to a degree One True Sentence and the earlier Toros & Torsos, is the Alan Rudolph film The Moderns. It’s set in mid-1920s Paris, as Hemingway is between wives and The Sun Also Rises is just making its mark. It’s a mix of fictional and real characters including Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and a scathing look at art and the tension between life and the page (or canvas). It’s dark comedy punctuated with hot sex, a dreamy flavor of camera work and blurring of times, all set to a terrific, seductive score by Mark Isham.

Q. You’ve said this book wraps up a loose trilogy within the Hector Lassiter series about Hec’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway. What effect does the popular conception of Hemingway have on your treatment of him as a character? Does his larger-than-life image make it easier or more difficult to write about him? Conversely, what challenges are posed by writing about real-life figures who are lesser known to contemporary readers, like Ford Madox Ford?

I try to write Hemingway as I think he must have been — warts and all, struggling with what was probably a fatal bi-polar condition and self-medicating as best he could with writing and alcohol. I’m frankly astounded he survived into his sixties. I’m not sure how widely Hem is read these days by those under, say, age 40, and if he is, I suspect his image as a man is probably shaped by comments by partisan professors and a few lines of biography at the back of his books.

In the 1980s, particularly after his last wife died, there were scores of Hemingway biographies published; a mini-series of his life in which Stacy Keach appeared. That all kind of tapered off in the late 1990s. I don’t think a major biography of Hemingway has appeared in the past decade or so. So I think his actual personality and biography are receding in the collective unconscious again. A piece of trivia: this summer will in fact mark the 50th anniversary of Hem’s death.

In terms of writing Ford and Gertrude Stein and the like, I essentially tried to portray them in a manner consistent with Hemingway’s portraits in A Moveable Feast, and, really, as simply other characters. In that sense, One True Sentence was essentially conceived to be a crime novel recasting of Hemingway’s Feast.

Q. A recurring theme in the book is the distinction between literary and genre writing, and between types within genre (crime fiction versus mystery fiction). How seriously were such distinctions taken in the salons of 1920s Paris? What about today?

One of the first books Gertrude Stein gave an unknown Hemingway to read was the crime novel The Lodger, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Jack the Ripper novel. Stein regarded it as a mystery but of a higher level than most. Hem shared her take. Stein really was an unabashed mystery fan and called her favorite mystery writers “mystifiers.” Hemingway biographies and letters to his publisher requesting novels to be shipped to him include books by Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler and Georges Simenon, among many others. Hem dug crime fiction, in his way.

The great tension of the time — then and I guess even now — was the conflict between literary and genre fiction. Hemingway was a critical darling when he was unpaid and writing for little magazines and publishing with obscure presses that printed books in runs of under 200. As soon as he signed with Scribner’s and entered the mainstream, Hem was vilified by the Left Bank literati. Going from an indie to a major house can be a real risk for an author who doesn’t quite keep a foot comfortably in either pond, and Hem took it from several nasty directions for making that change to a mainstream outlet. Paraphrasing, Hem said he aimed to be read by the low- and the high-brows. And you know, in the end, he pulled it off.

Q. What authors inspired Hector Lassiter? Are there real-world antecedents for Hec’s paramour and fellow writer Brinke Devlin?

Hector is a an amalgam of various writers including James Crumley, Jonathan Latimer (a short-lived Hemingway friend in Key West) and a couple of others I’m not quite prepared to identify yet.

And Brinke? Brinke Devlin is modeled on a real woman, but recast to resemble Louise Brooks and to write a bit like Craig Rice. Brinke is, in a sense, the female version of Hector and, as it proves out, a kind of template for Hector’s own writer’s persona. Not to say she’s his one true love, but she is the pivotal woman in his life, that simple.

Q. You wrote all eight books in the Lassiter series, of which ONE TRUE SENTENCE is the fourth, before the second was published. At what point did you realize the scale of this project? Has that scale affected the publishing process?

I wrote the first, Head Games, and figured I was done with Hector. So I wrote a standalone novel that’s scheduled to appear later this fall. After I finished that, I got the idea for Toros & Torsos and realized it required Hector as “hero.” From there, I just kept writing them until I knew I had completed Hector’s arc. The last book will bring us something like full circle, finally revealing what ever happened to Hector Lassiter. A lot of old faces will appear in that one from the first book. It really is a circle-closer.

The tricky thing is, because all the books exist, there’s a second-guessing and a re-sequencing that has happened as a result of editors coming, going and changing their minds. The first two novels followed my chosen sequence. Print the Legend, the third-published novel, was originally intended to be the next-to last book. OTS was always meant to be number three. I think we’re firmly back to my original sequence, now. The novel that should appear after One True Sentence comes right off the end of OTS. It’s also the last book written in third-person point of view. Hector narrates the last three books in the series, just as he did the very first.

Q. What Hector book will we be seeing next?

In terms of another novel, Lassiter number five is set across several holidays in 1925 Key West. It’s a love story, centrally; very character-driven. It’s also a bit of a change from the other books in that no historical figures will appear in the novel. What we get instead is the deepest, hardest look into Hector Lassiter, the man, we’ve seen. It’s also the only thing akin to a true sequel across the eight novels.

Having said all that, the next Lassiter book firmly in the pipeline is Head Games, but in graphic novel format. The artist is hard at work and putting it all down to a script of my writing. That one is coming from First Second, a division of Macmillan that also published Print the Legend and One True Sentence.

Movie Q. What’s the best cinematic adaptation of Hemingway’s work?

That may be impossible to answer in the sense they all pretty much blow. Nearly every one I’ve seen has been baaad. For Whom the Bell Tolls has some good moments and a stirring score. But Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman are too old for their roles. On the other hand, that one had the courage to use a Hemingway downbeat ending which doesn’t happen very often. Islands in the Stream is kind of interesting in that George C. Scott is essentially portraying Hemingway more than Hem’s character of Thomas Hudson. The first version of The Old Man and the Sea is mostly notable only because Hem and fourth wife Mary appear in a background scene at one point. The Killers is iconic as a film noir and the only movie based on his own work Hemingway ever really liked, but it also had to shovel on acres of material to pad out the short story upon which it is based. I know there’s a version of Garden of Eden looming, but that’s not exactly regarded as a true Hemingway novel since it was edited to a fraction of its original length by Tom Jenks.

Baseball Q. You live in Central Ohio. Reds or Indians?

Like Hector, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. It was the Reds growing up, and I went to a game or two (Cincy is 100 miles due south of my hometown). As a kid, I sat in the stands and watched Hank Aaron phone it in at Riverfront Stadium so he could break the home run record in his next game in his native state — that further soured my attitude for the game, a bit. The only televised sport I really ever watched consistently was billiards when they’d put the old hustlers like Utley Puckett and Luther — ahem — Lassiter up against one another in the 1980s. And that, in fact, is the man who gave Hector his surname.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Back in the day, I went through a Glenmorangie craze; some other single malts. I got married in Scotland and sort of sampled the local fare across the Highlands for a couple of weeks. Now it would probably just be a potent and well-made margarita on the rocks, with salt. I’m no beer drinker, and I detest gin. Like Hector, I have an inexplicable but deep-seated distrust of gin drinkers.

Please note that the comments made by Mr. McDonald regarding gin and gin drinkers do not reflect the views of this website or its management. Thanks, Craig!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Noir City Northwest: Loophole (1954)/Crashout (1955)

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The curtain came down on the Seattle roadshow edition of Noir City with two crackerjack movies that can only be screened theatrically due to the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation. (Reminder #1: Donate here.)

In Loophole, regular Joe bank teller Barry Sullivan is the victim of a 50K robbery so shocking that he initially doesn’t report the loss. Once he does, he becomes the prime suspect in the heist, with a relentless insurance investigator (Charles McGraw) dogging his every move. The movie doesn’t get off to a promising start with a voiceover that’s like an endless Dragnet intro written by Ed Wood. But as soon as the money goes missing, the screws tighten. Loophole features something you seldom see in ‘50s crime dramas: a healthy marriage, with Sullivan and Dorothy Malone in it together and bucking each other up. Mary Beth Hughes is the brassy broad in pedal pushers calling the shots. But the movie works as well as it does because of McGraw’s cop-turned-company-man Gus Slavin. He’s so implacable and destructive it’s like being pursued by a Mack track and an earthquake at the same time.

Crashout had been sold to me in a major way, both by host Eddie Muller and my friend Christa Faust. And justifiably so. Crashout is a deranged delight, a banquet of brutality, and the most entertaining film of the festival. (Here’s Christa’s valentine to film noir, her contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Preservation blogathon. Which reminds me: donate here.)

You know you’re in for something special when a movie begins with thirty men beating feet out of a prison. Screw the planning and the tunnel digging! Only a half-dozen of them make it out alive, and what a rogues’ gallery they are. William Bendix as the wounded mad dog leader, noir favorites William Talman, Luther Adler and Gene Evans after a share of his hidden bankroll, a ferocious Arthur Kennedy as the outsider along on a pass. It’s an uncommonly harsh film for its era, both physically and psychologically; not only is each escapee undone by his own weakness, but the people they meet on the outside are bitterly disillusioned. This includes Gloria Talbott, heartbreaking in a bravura sequence as a girl who is made to understand in more ways than one that the world is a cruel place, and, be still my heart, Beverly (Wicked Woman) Michaels. Crashout is a repository of hardboiled philosophy, with lines like “It takes all kinds to make a world. Especially suckers” and “Every day you live is the day before you die.” It was a hell of a way to end a fantastic week.

It’s been my pleasure to attend these movies and to work with my lovely wife Rosemarie at the Film Noir Foundation booth in the SIFF Cinema lobby. I can personally attest that we were kept jumping before every show, and sold out of more than a few items. My thanks to Eddie, SIFF, and the festival’s sponsors.

It was a pleasant coincidence that this year’s Noir City Northwest overlapped with the For the Love of Film (Noir) Preservation blogathon. I’ve been thrilled to participate and awed by both the caliber of the contributions and the organizational savvy of our hostesses, Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren.

And now my last pitch. If you’ve enjoyed these posts or are a regular reader of the noir-heavy content of this blog, please donate to the FNF. They are doing extraordinary work not only preserving America’s cinematic history, but making it available to entirely new audiences. All week Reverend Muller was out at Seattle area schools, preaching the noir gospel. Noir City fests are now in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C., with new venues coming. Make a contribution so that you’ll have a chance to go out to a theater and see pristine prints of movies that deserve to be remembered. Maybe you’ll get to hear an audience member, completely caught up in a 57-year-old film, gasp “Oh, shit!” at a plot twist long thought forgotten. There’s nothing else like it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Noir City Northwest: The Woman on the Beach (1947)/Beware, My Lovely (1952)

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Robert Ryan is one of the actors most closely associated with noir. His uncanny ability to play rage and sorrow simultaneously, each feeding the other to create an electric mood of danger, made him a natural in movies about the dark side of life. Night six of the festival showcased two of his lesser-known performances in a pair of rare titles.

The same year that Ryan played the murderous bigot in Crossfire – the movie that netted him his only Oscar nomination and led to his being typecast as a brute – he appeared in The Woman on the Beach, one of the few American films directed by French master Jean Renoir. A test screening proved so disastrous that Renoir mercilessly hacked almost 30 minutes out of it. What remains is both haunting and haunted, often nonsensical but frequently fascinating.

Ryan plays a Coast Guard officer still recovering from wartime trauma. The opening nightmare sequence is astonishing: Ryan falls through the water, surrounded by the silhouettes of battleships, then walks across the ocean floor over the bodies of dead men toward a bewitching siren. What follows may seem prosaic in comparison but is every bit as bizarre, as Ryan is drawn into the dynamic between a once-famous painter, now blind (Charles Bickford) and his wife, muse and prisoner (Joan Bennett). Bickford is wonderful, playing notes of Zen hostility. And Renoir makes excellent use of a shipwreck as both location and metaphor. His elliptical approach to character and Ryan’s readily accessible pain could have worked in perfect concert, but in the wake of the editing the film never establishes a rhythm. It’s the celluloid equivalent of the phantom limb theory. Watching it, you’re constantly aware of what’s missing.

By contrast Beware, My Lovely is crude but undeniably effective. It’s a straight suspense piece, a two-hander that allows Ryan to go head-to-head with fellow noir stalwart Ida Lupino. She’s the war widow who hires itinerant handyman Ryan for the day, unaware of why he’s constantly on the move. Soon she’ll be trapped in her home just as he’s trapped by his erratic impulses. You’ve seen the story before – Rosemarie referred to it as “claptrap,” and she liked it more than me – but this rendition works thanks to the leads. Lupino fleshes out frustrated decency, while Ryan does extraordinary things with his eyes as slights register and thoughts fade. You’re on the edge of your seat wondering what he’ll remember and what he’ll forget.

One more night, Seattle. Come on down to SIFF Cinema. As usual, Eddie Muller has saved the best for last.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Noir City Northwest: The Dark Mirror (1946)/Crack-Up (1946)

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The For the Love of Film Preservation blogathon is not only rolling along, it’s getting attention. Specifically from Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott and, on this morning’s editorial page no less, the New York Times. Head over to Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren for all the contributors. And, as always, click on the link at the top of this post to make a donation.

As for Tuesday night’s fare at the Seattle run of Noir City we return to the evil twin well, a trip from which no one ever comes back thirsty.

The Dark Mirror opens with what ought to be an open-and-shut case: a dead doctor, with multiple witnesses swearing his fiancée fled the scene. The problem is that said fiancée (Olivia de Havilland) has an identical twin, and neither is talking. The detective in charge (Thomas Mitchell, finding gold in what could be a rote characterization) can’t abide a perfect crime, so he sics besotted psychologist Lew Ayres on the twosome. And as he works his magic with inkblot tests, jealousy rears its ugly head.

The movie is a field day for de Havilland, aided by monogrammed accessories, chokers that are hard to swallow, and the epic rivalry with her own sister Joan Fontaine. Robert Siodmak, who pound for pound has to be the best director in noir, pulls out all the technical stops in allowing his leading ladies to work opposite each other. But for all their efforts the film never rises above the level of exercise. The script by producer Nunnally Johnson is a few twists short and, like Ayres’ character, a bit too pleased with itself. An entertaining but essentially hollow film.

When I saw Crack-Up several years ago I couldn’t get past the notion of hale two-fisted Irishman Pat O’Brien as an internationally recognized authority on fine art, casting that rivals Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. But as Eddie Muller pointed out the filmmakers have fun with the idea, making O’Brien’s George Steele an ex-military man who tracked down Nazi swag turned populist arbiter of taste. Steele smashes his way into a museum, jabbering about how he has survived a colossal train wreck that, naturally, never happened. As friends and colleagues alike begin doubting his sanity, Steele scrambles to find the truth. Irving Reis directs the train sequences phenomenally well, and there’s a memorable scene at a penny arcade that captures the post-war era in amber. Herbert Marshall’s quicksilver charms are ably deployed, and Claire Trevor is at her clotheshorse best. Crack-Up is based on a short story by the great Fredric Brown, so you know you’re in for a ride even if George Steele may not be.

Two nights left. Come on down to SIFF Cinema and watch me return to my retail roots, selling Film Noir Foundation goodies in the lobby. Even better, buy some of it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Noir City Northwest: A Double Life (1947)/Among the Living (1941)

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Monday night’s Noir City twin bill managed to demonstrate how flexible the term noir is, while dishing out the strongest dose of crazy yet.

George Cukor isn’t commonly associated with film noir. Neither are urbane husband and wife screenwriters and frequent Cukor collaborators Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon (Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike). Yet the mood and form of the genre were so prevalent in late 1940s Hollywood that they used the genre’s trappings to tell a gripping story of the theater in A Double Life. Successful stage actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is given the opportunity to direct and star in his cherished production of Othello on Broadway. But over the course of the show’s run, with his ex-wife Signe Hasso as his Desdemona, the line between actor and role becomes dangerously blurred. It’s about a performer driven deep within himself to realize his greatest artistic challenge at the risk of his psyche. Or as Rosemarie put it, “It’s the original Black Swan.”

The Kanin/Gordon script is a sophisticated marvel, making cunning use of Shakespeare while finding room to give sharp dialogue to even the most minor characters. Cukor matches their efforts, allowing the sound design to convey much of Anthony John’s descent into madness. His attention to the mechanics of stagecraft is also a joy. All of these efforts support Ronald Colman’s spectacularly nuanced, Oscar-winning performance, full of so many details of life as both a working actor and a celebrity. Where A Double Life falls in the noir pantheon is an open question, but there’s no denying that it’s a magnificent film.

From the sublime we leap past the ridiculous to land squarely in the WTF territory summed up by one of the finest phrases in the English language: evil twin.

Eddie Muller described the genuine curio Among the Living, which has never been on home video in any format, as “proto-noir.” I’d push it even further back. It represents the primordial ooze from which noir dragged itself before sizing up the talent and ordering a drink. It’s Southern Gothic horror with a few nods in noir’s direction. New York businessman Albert Dekker, who looks like Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter put together, returns home for his father’s funeral and discovers that his “dead” brother has been living in the basement of the family’s ramshackle homestead for decades.

Dekker insists on using Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion voice for the sinister sibling, but the effects of the boys together hold up. The movie starts out bad, thanks largely to Harry Carey’s performance as a lousy doctor who’s an even worse philanthropist. Then it turns good, with director Stuart Heisler bringing solid craftsmanship to Dekker’s clip joint collapse and his stalking of his next victim. Then it veers into so-bad-its-good with a climax involving the most dubious legal proceeding ever. The work of former Jean Renoir cinematographer Theodore Sparkuhl is an asset throughout, and a young Susan Hayward makes an impression as a firecracker. At the very least, Among the Living proves that the definition of noir can be stretched to the point that it snaps, and someone loses an eye.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Noir City Northwest: Angel Face (1952)/The Hunted (1948)

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Today marks the start of the For the Love of Film Preservation blogathon, with the proceeds going to the Film Noir Foundation. My thanks to Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren for organizing and hosting the event, and especially for choosing the FNF as this year’s beneficiary. Visit their sites for links to a host of bloggers writing about noir.

More to the point, click on the very first link to make a contribution to the FNF, which will go to funding a restoration of the film The Sound of Fury. I don’t ask for much, kids. But if you’re a regular reader of the blog, please kick in a few dollars to the cause. Any amount you can give, no matter how small, will help to preserve one of America’s most lasting artistic movements.

And now, on with the show ...

Angel Face was the film in this year’s lineup that I was most interested in revisiting because ... well, it always left me cold. Odd, considering it stars noir titan Robert Mitchum and is directed by Otto Preminger. The plot is certainly solid. Ambulance driver Mitchum responds to a suspicious accident at a swank L.A. manse and finds himself drawn into the web of poor little soon-to-be-rich girl Jean Simmons, who comes complete with wicked stepmother (victim of the aforementioned accident). The legal maneuvering by Leon Ames thickens the plot nicely, and if you judge a film by its ending then Angel Face should be gangbusters. Yet I’d found the proceedings curiously low-boil and never quite compelling.

But Eddie Muller was on hand with valuable background. He screened the film in Los Angeles with Jean Simmons in attendance but not in the audience, because she found watching Angel Face too painful. Over a Big Mac in the green room, she recounted why. Producer Howard Hughes, angry over Simmons’ spurning of him, put her in the film to end her contract but told Preminger to make the production a living hell. Simmons seems to have taken an actor’s revenge, offering a realistic and internalized portrayal of obsession in a film that cries out for an over-the-top approach. The resulting tension isn’t fully satisfying, but it is interesting. And there’s much to appreciate throughout. Especially those last few minutes.

The Hunted is an example of the FNF at its best. Once upon a time there was an ice skater turned actress known as Belita, who didn’t particularly enjoy ice skating or acting. She appeared in a trio of noir films, and at some point in each of them the action literally stops cold so Belita can take a turn on the ice. Eddie has written the definitive piece on Belita’s strange career. It’s also available in the Noir City Sentinel Annual #2, which additionally includes several pieces by yours truly.

In The Hunted Belita plays Laura Mead, freshly sprung from a jolt in Tehachapi after being sent there by her boyfriend, Detective Johnny Saxon (Preston Foster), for her role in a jewelry heist. Insisting on her innocence, Laura went to prison vowing to kill the men who destroyed her life. Now she’s out, and Saxon watches her closely even as he falls for her all over again. Things start slow, particularly with a mind-boggling expository scene between the two leads that seems longer than Inception. But the film builds up a head of steam thanks to a script by pulpmeister Steve Fisher that toys with every femme fatale convention. Belita has an authentic presence, abetted by a sleek athletic build that makes her look unlike any actress of the era. Only a misfire of an ending keeps this from being a true sleeper.

Because of the Film Noir Foundation, all three of Belita’s films have been preserved on 35mm so that future generations can ponder her mystery. Which reminds me to ask you again: go up top, click the link, and make a contribution. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Noir City Northwest: They Won’t Believe Me (1947)/Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)

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The storms outside were no match for the turmoil that raged during Noir City night two.

Host Eddie Muller branded They Won’t Believe Me as one of the most unfairly neglected noirs of the 1940s. It’s so neglected that I’d never heard of it before. A brilliantly cast against type Robert Young takes an homme fatale turn as a cad who has married well (to social X-ray progenitor Rita Johnson) but still fools around on the side. First with Jane Greer, then with Susan Hayward. Johnson, every bit as warped as her husband, simply moves them to a new house in a new town whenever she learns of his dalliances. Young tells his tale of woe – three women, you poor bastard? – from the witness stand during his trial for murder, but who exactly did he kill? (I’m not an attorney, but here’s some legal advice: when on trial for your life, do not wear a light-colored suit.) The script, by one of my screenwriting heroes Jonathan Latimer, does such a deft job of slipping the twisted sexual psychology past the censors that it’s disappointing when some of the second act plotting gets muddled. All is saved by a humdinger of an ending, compromised though it may be. As is typical of films produced by Hitchcock protégé Joan Harrison, you end up feeling sympathy for all of the players no matter how loony they are.

Don’t Bother to Knock opens with airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) getting the heave-ho from his hotel singer girlfriend. But Jed spots another potential conquest in a nearby room and decides not to waste any time. Little does he know that Nell Forbes (Marilyn Monroe) isn’t a wealthy hotel guest but an emotionally devastated young woman working as a babysitter, one who has little interest in tending to her charge. Monroe established herself as a dramatic actress in this film, playing the extremes of her character with skill; her vulnerability breaks your heart even as you genuinely fear for the little girl temporarily in Nell’s care. As good as this movie is I find it tough to watch, because Monroe’s fragility here is so hard to separate from what we know about the actress in real life. Anne Bancroft makes her screen debut as the chanteuse, her earthy sensuality providing a bracing contrast to Monroe’s damaged availability. Jed doesn’t deserve either woman, but together they make him a better man.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Noir City Northwest: High Wall (1947)/Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

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Noir City kicked off its fifth Seattle edition last night to a packed house. Master of ceremonies Eddie Muller began by commenting on the importance of preserving movies in their original form. “Scratch ten feet of a film and you can still show it. Scratch a DVD and you can toss it out.” Or as we learned later, in a short documentary about the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration work, “Digital lies. Film doesn’t.”

High Wall proves a perfect case study. The movie is available from the Warner Archive, but only through the efforts of the FNF is there a preservation print that can be screened publicly. The movie warrants such a print for historical reasons but also for entertainment value. It impresses me more each time I see it.

Robert Taylor, in his best performance, plays a wounded WWII veteran accused of murdering his wife during a memory blackout. He’s sent to a mental hospital, where he initially resists treatment to avoid going to trial. But the efforts of comely headshrinker Audrey Totter convince him otherwise. The movie is a shrewd blend of crime drama – the machinations of the real killer Herbert Marshall are so well thought out you almost root for him – and social issue picture, with some affecting scenes inside the asylum. Having the stolid Taylor battle for his sanity instead of one of the usual noir suspects adds to the film’s impact. Frank Jenks scores as Pinky, the drunk roped into Taylor’s desperate bid for justice. Bonus points for having one of Audrey’s fellow psychiatrists live with his mother.

If it’s historical value you want, you’ll find it in the evening’s second feature. Stranger on the Third Floor is widely regarded as the first film noir. It’s a standard B movie (usual disclaimer that “B movie” is not an indicator of quality but running time), but one with startling eruptions of German expressionism. After his testimony condemns a man – and not just any man, but Elisha Cook, Jr. – to the electric chair, reporter John McGuire works himself into a guilt-induced frenzy spurred by the appearance of the titular alien (Peter Lorre). McGuire tries and convicts himself of the murder of an obnoxious neighbor in a bizarre but compelling dream sequence, then awakes to discover the neighbor really has been killed. It’s up to McGuire’s gal, the strikingly modern Margaret Tallichet, to track Lorre down. The clash of naturalistic acting and director Boris Ingster’s baroque visuals renders the entire enterprise cheerfully nuts. Which is appropriate, considering that this year’s theme is Who’s Crazy Now?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Noir City Northwest: Setting The Table

The dark carnival that is Noir City rolls into Seattle tonight. This year’s theme is Who’s Crazy Now?, each evening’s double bill featuring a mash-up of madness. Your doctor Eddie Muller will be on hand to psychoanalyze the patients. Rosemarie and I will be manning the Film Noir Foundation booth in the lobby before each show, offering a range of merchandise for whatever ails you. And of course I’ll be offering my usual obsessive level of coverage.

Only this year, with a difference.

The annual For the Love of Film blogathon, devoted to film preservation and hosted by Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren, has made film noir the subject and the FNF the beneficiary. Dozens of posts from a host of blogs will be included, with my Noir City Northwest reports running under that rubric as well. The goal is to raise money for the FNF and specifically to fund a restoration of the 1950 film The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me.

So kick in a few bucks. And if you’re in Seattle, come down to SIFF Cinema and say hello.

Happy Birthday, Burt Reynolds

Considering I just devoted a blogathon to him, I would be remiss in not wishing a happy 75th birthday to Burt Reynolds. In honor of the occasion, here’s an anecdote from Deadwood’s W. Earl Brown on working with Burt and the power of Burt’s “silly movies.” And one of my own: a nurse’s aide who used to work with my mother drove a Trans Am identical to Burt’s in Smokey and the Bandit. So moved was she by this film that she would only answer to the name “Bandit,” even in her professional capacity. A man who has that powerful an impact on a health care worker must be celebrated.

Some of Burt’s work is now available via Netflix Instant, including my all-time favorite of his performances. In 1989’s Breaking In, written by John Sayles and directed by Bill Forsyth (Local Hero), Burt is an aging burglar trying to teach his trade to eager young kid Casey Siemaszko. He plays a role that strikes a bit close to home in the uneven The Hollywood Sign: a fading actor and stuntman planning a caper. At his lowest ebb, his character puts in a videotape of one of his old westerns. The camera stays on Reynolds, his face altered by multiple plastic surgeries, as he watches his impossibly handsome younger self on TV and weeps. One of Burt’s finest moments.

Or you could watch Smokey and the Bandit, and let it serve as a reminder to read people’s nametags.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Movie: The Last Play at Shea (2010)

It’s only February and I’m prepared to call this movie the DVD of the year. Just bear in mind who’s telling you that.

The Last Play at Shea is a history of the now-demolished Shea Stadium as both home of the New York Mets and a music venue. Which means it’s a franchise highlight reel, a beautifully animated short about urban planning, a concert film depicting the final blowout show at the stadium, a biography of that evening’s headliner Billy Joel, and an exploration of the dictum voiced by Noah Cross in Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Mets fans said it for years: Shea’s a dump, but it’s our dump. When magic happened within its confines, it lasted. The Mets may have only won two world championships, but the finales of 1969 and 1986 remain among the most dramatic in baseball history. Shea was no cathedral of the game, but it was hallowed ground. I made a special pilgrimage back home in 2008 to see the Mets there one last time. That ticket stub, autographed by Tom Seaver, is framed and on my desk.

Billy Joel was the perfect choice to sing the place down. He’s a lot like the Mets: working class, chip on the shoulder, full of unwarranted bravado, never respected by critics, outshined by brighter lights in the city proper, his flaws magnified and his genuine accomplishments ignored. Plus he’s from the neighborhood. Even at the height of his fame he wasn’t cool, but he has lasted. He hasn’t released an album of new material in almost twenty years, but he remains among the highest-grossing live acts in the country. And he still puts on a hell of a show. It’s something to hear “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” knowing that Shea’s facing a date with the wrecking ball. Joel’s finest songs, several of which we hear, have a bittersweet quality, an acknowledgement of disappointment and the impermanence of things. Feelings Mets fan are all too familiar with. But we keep stepping up to the plate and taking our cuts. We’re just doing so on the other side of the parking lot now. You may not grow misty-eyed like I did – who am I kidding? I was bawling – but you’ll enjoy the movie.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Book: Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach (2011)

It’s a slender volume, barely 190 pages. Certainly the cover is striking. Spare, the author’s name banished to the spine. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of this book. At first I didn’t even like it.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Berlin. (He also dares to smoke in his dust jacket photo. This is why there will always be a Europe.) He wrote this collection of short stories based on his own experiences with clients. In diffident prose that I was quick to brand as flat-footed, he recounts offenses large and small. He ventures with caution into the heads of those involved, from victims to perpetrators, detectives to prosecutors. At some point “I” appears – never a name, merely “I” – but even that seems too much an intrusion. So is this fiction or non-fiction? Are they short stories or case studies? What, exactly, am I reading?

That question clouded the first few stories for me. But as I continued, and as von Schirach again and again managed to find quiet, human moments and present them unflinchingly, I found myself spellbound. People commit foolish, reckless, dangerous acts for a variety of reasons, and in giving them their moment von Schirach grants a dignity to the worst of them. His description of a small-time capo in “Tanata’s Tea Bowl” is a devastating portrait of evil in a handful of paragraphs. “Self-Defense” is about a man’s encounter with skinheads that devolves into something far more unsettling. In “Green” the worst crime may not even have occurred, but the reasons why it might have are worse than the deed itself.

In every one of these stories there is an ache eased by the fact that someone is there to record it, to notice. Von Schirach’s voice is ultimately that of an indifferent universe that cannot help us but leans ever so slightly in our favor. The notion that such a voice might find a place anywhere in the legal system is a solace in itself.

Crime was a smash in Germany, on bestseller lists for almost a year. Repeating that success here would be another kind of justice.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Book: Rock Paper Tiger, by Lisa Brackmann (2010)

It’s a rare pleasure, picking up a book and falling hard not only for a character but a voice. It happened to me with this blazing debut by Lisa Brackmann.

Ellie Cooper is a stranger in China and in plenty of ways a stranger to herself. A wounded veteran of the Iraq war, she married a fellow soldier in haste and followed him to Beijing when he took a job with a military contractor. As they skid toward divorce Ellie drifts along in a painkiller haze, cashing disability checks and hanging out with artists. At the home of one of her friends she meets a mysterious Uighur fugitive, and abruptly finds herself caught in a tangle of conspiracies involving industrialists, art dealers, and her soon-to-be-ex’s employer.

Brackmann’s story unfolds in locations real and virtual. There’s the arresting right-this-second material set in a China both prosaically familiar and deeply foreign, equal parts suburban sprawl and William Gibson futurescape. Woven into this are smartly judged Iraq flashbacks and whole sections that take place inside an online game beyond the reach of the Chinese authorities. The nods to Ellie’s religious background are also welcome; for all the talk of how faith infuses American life, there’s surprisingly little acknowledgement of the subject in fiction. Brackmann incorporates it beautifully.

The outcome dares to recognize that a single person can only see so much of the global picture and correspondingly do so little. But it’s the doing that counts. Above all there’s Ellie, fearful and tough. A terrific thriller from a talent to watch.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Burt With a Badge: Physical Evidence (1989)

Physical Evidence is a unique film in that I have been accused more than once of making it up. “No, seriously. Michael Crichton directed Burt Reynolds in a courtroom thriller. Honest.” High time, then, that I saw it.

We’re back in Boston, where this blogathon began. A sad sack stops his car in the middle of the Tobin Bridge, hangs a noose and a sign reading “Happy Now?” around his neck, and climbs down to kill himself – only to find a corpse already in the spot he’s chosen. It’s a grabber of an opening that harks back to Crichton’s early days writing paperbacks as John Lange. But as executed the scene doesn’t live up to its potential. That’s the problem with Physical Evidence as a whole. It knows the moves but can’t stick the landing.

What follows owes way too much to Jagged Edge, which as the ads trumpeted was from the same producer. The stiff was the enemy of Burt’s Joe Paris, a cop on suspension for beating up his own partner. Theresa Russell plays the rich woman public defender who angrily lobbies for the case and then butts heads with her client while trying to clear his name.

The legal maneuverings are reasonably accurate and served straight up. Crichton doesn’t give Burt’s Deliverance co-star Ned Beatty much scenery to chew as the prosecuting attorney, but the actor makes a nice box lunch of what there is. There’s no plot gigantism here, no conspiracy that goes to the all the way to the top, just human-scaled emotions. But the movie is too low-key and choppy to gain any traction. And at times it’s simply sloppy, like when a Boston police car rolls past a box selling copies of the New York Post.

Burt may be first billed but he’s playing a supporting role here. It’s Russell’s movie. Her monotone doesn’t help in the courtroom scenes, and she’s actively sabotaged by a wardrobe department that put her in a series of severe suits. I initially thought of them as mannish but decided the term was too harsh. Then Jenny’s frat boy swain (Ted McGinley in the Ted McGinley role) unleashes that very word in their final big blow-out. More baffling is Russell’s favorite aeronautical pin that makes it look like a biplane is bursting out of her chest en route to the Empire State Building to wing King Kong. Naturally, Joe and Jenny fall for each other, prompting this immortal exchange as they near their first clinch.

Jenny: No way, Jose.
Joe: I ain’t Jose.

In Mexico, Joe, you would be.

Thus do we come to the close of the Burt With a Badge blogathon. No, I’m not going to watch 1993’s Cop and a Half. I’m doing this for free, people. Would that I could end on a better note, but Burt would do OK. He’d go back to television, first on B.L. Stryker (Florida-based shamus living on a boat – you see? He could have been Travis McGee!) then taking home an Emmy for Evening Shade. A few years later he’d get his first Academy Award nomination for Boogie Nights. Because Burt, like the Dude, abides.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Burt With a Badge: Rent-A-Cop (1987)

Apologies to those who may have been expecting 1984’s City Heat next. But Burt Reynolds plays an ex-cop in that film, and I hew to a rigorous if arbitrary standard. Plus I swore I’d never sit through that turkey again. (Yes, Burt does play a sheriff in 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Musicals are exempt. Again, my rules.)

Burt surrenders his shield a mere twelve minutes into Rent-A-Cop, but it still counts. By the twenty minute mark he’s not even a rent-a-cop anymore, so who’s the idiot now?

Whole chunks of the film were shot in Rome but it’s set in Chicago, a fact we never forget because Burt’s Tony Church is always seen wearing or standing close to some item of Bears paraphernalia. Again the action opens with a botched drug bust, the mayhem courtesy of a bargain basement Boba Fett in a motorcycle helmet. For the third straight movie a call girl is part of the plot; Liza Minnelli, equipped with heart of gold, got a glimpse of the shooter and now he’s gunning for her. She casts Burt as her white knight, glomming onto him and not letting go.

You know you’re in trouble when a baby-faced Michael Rooker is given a single line – and it’s dubbed by someone else. The entire enterprise is exhausted, the screenplay consisting solely of placeholder dialogue. After the initial bloodbath one of the brass (John P. Ryan) is about to lay into Church when he’s told, “Take it easy on him. Those six guys we lost were his friends.” Ryan’s response: “Oh yeah? So what?” Things swiftly reach a point of no return when Liza harasses Burt at his new gig busting department store shoplifters while dressed as Santa. The one marginally decent joke, about Flower Drum Song, is naturally repeated. The villain, played by esteemed badass James Remar, is known as Dancer because ... he’s a dancer, although his terpsichorean efforts consist mainly of rhythmic arm flails while barefoot and shirtless in front of a mirror. The film’s high point comes when a transvestite disarms Liza at a disco by saying, “I love your muff.”

Burt and Liza were both nominated for Razzies for their performances. They don’t have much chemistry and are ten years too old for their roles. Liza is forced to toddle around in fake furs and gaudy high heels as if she were working a lounge in 1974 Atlantic City. But she’s game, God love her. Burt wisely keeps it minimalist and tries not to bump into the furniture.

Honestly? I’d have been better off watching City Heat again.