Monday, January 23, 2012

Movies: The Housebound Noir Fest

The tenth annual Noir City film festival is in full swing in San Francisco, kicking off this past weekend with a tribute to special guest Angie Dickinson. Alas, I wasn’t in attendance. A spate of lousy Seattle weather would have wrecked my plans anyway. I should be in the City by the Bay when the curtain comes down, though, and I’ll be loitering with intent during Noir City’s Seattle run next month. To prep for both engagements I held my own mini noir fest, clearing a triple-bill of dark delights off the DVR while waiting for the ice to melt.

The Steel Trap (1952) is from writer/director Andrew L. Stone, who specialized in ruthlessly efficient narrative engines like Cry Terror! Trap is so streamlined there’s not even a villain, simply one frustrated man’s avarice and the standard inconveniences of modern life. Joseph Cotten plays an assistant bank manager who realizes that under certain circumstances he could steal $1 million in cash and have 48 hours to flee the country before the crime is discovered. The thought, once contemplated, proves impossible to put aside.

Cotten keeps his missus Teresa Wright in the dark, passing off the slapdash trip to Rio de Janeiro as a promotion opportunity. (Ignore the fact that Uncle Charlie and his favorite niece from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt are man and wife in this movie. It’s surprisingly easy to do.) Once he commits to the scheme, though, Cotten is beset by everyday hassles, each one tightening the noose around his neck. A delayed babysitter means passports can’t be picked up in time. Bad weather in the Midwest leads to missed connections and the very real prospect of still being in the U.S. when the bank’s vault is opened. The script builds up considerable tension by focusing on this chain of commonplace catastrophes and Cotten’s determination to conceal his true agenda from Wright. Dmitri Tiomkin’s score is occasionally too bombastic for what amounts to an intimate, almost domestic, thriller, but that adds to the fun. Also noteworthy is some rare location shooting in New Orleans.

Dane Clark, a less-charismatic hybrid of John Garfield and Richard Conte, is one of those actors who received a kind of shadow stardom from film noir. In 1948’s Whiplash he’s front and center as painter-turned-pugilist Mike Angelo. (Get it?) Flashbacks give us his rise to contender. Michael Gordon was happy enough creating vaguely homoerotic sand sculptures of KO’d fighters for the local kids in California. But meeting rich girl art fan Alexis Smith puts him down for the emotional count. She disappears and he tracks her to New York – where he discovers that she’s married to crippled ex-boxer Rex Durant (Zachary Scott, heel supreme). Durant thinks Mike has the stuff to land the title shot he never had, and it’s here that Whiplash lurches punch-drunk into Gilda territory, giving us two characters so deeply in love that they come to hate each other and find tortured ways to stay close. Whiplash is overheated, pulpy nonsense but unapologetically so, making the entire enterprise more entertaining than it has any right to be. The boxing scenes rank among the worst in film history, but to make up for it you get Eve Arden in the Eve Arden role.

Both Dane Clark and boxing feature in the last feature, which also happens to be the least of the lot. Backfire was made solely to put some Warner Brothers contract players to work. Shot in 1948, it stayed on the shelf for two years; it’s never a good sign when the director (Vincent Sherman) calls the original script “confused and pointless.” It plays like a Mad magazine parody of film noir, unfolding in a seemingly endless series of flashbacks including one delivered in pidgin English by a dying Chinese houseboy. Putative protagonist Gordon MacRae is the least interesting figure onscreen, a veteran recovering from extensive spinal surgery whose dream of purchasing a ranch with wartime buddy Edmond O’Brien hits a bump when O’Brien vanishes. Upon his release, MacRae sets out to find him. I’d recount the plot, but half the time I couldn’t make heads or tails of it; many noir films are called hard to follow but Backfire genuinely is, mainly because you know it won’t reward your close attention. Plus the twist ending will fool absolutely no one. On the plus side, there is one genuinely shocking death and the excellent eyebrows of Viveca Lindfors.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book: The Comedy Is Finished, by Donald E. Westlake (2012)

That didn’t take long. Halfway into January and we already have the first great book of 2012. It just happened to have been moldering in a basement for nigh on thirty years. These things happen.

The peerless Donald E. Westlake began writing The Comedy Is Finished in the late 1970s. Publishers encouraged him to make it funnier, but then the book wasn’t meant to be a laugh riot. Westlake sent the manuscript to Max Allan Collins for input, but before any changes were made the film The King of Comedy was released. Superficial plot similarities convinced Westlake to table the book. Years later, when Hard Case Crime published Westlake’s brilliant Memory as his “final novel,” Collins got in touch and said it ain’t necessarily so. (Collins, a fellow Hard Case author, tells the story here.)

Both Comedy and Comedy – see what I did there? – revolve around the kidnapping of a TV legend. But while Scorsese’s film is a pungent, prescient look at the blurring of fame and notoriety, Westlake’s novel is a political beast, grounded in the turmoil of its time. Westlake gives us a big cast of characters, every one of them beautifully detailed. The members of the Symbionese Liberation Army-style group, falling apart collectively and individually. An FBI agent tarred by Watergate seeking a shot at redeeming his career. A talent agent who’s too close to her star client.

But Westlake’s greatest triumph comes in the present tense chapters told from the perspective of America’s comic, Koo Davis. Koo is a barely-veiled Bob “Anything for a Laugh” Hope. They share the same history – the silly ghost comedies, the safe gags (“You always knew what year it was from Koo’s material, but never what the issues were”) the tireless run of USO tours that become a liability in the wake of Vietnam. Westlake absolutely nails Hope’s rhythms and his boastful coward persona. More impressively, he plumbs the depths of the soul of a man who feels genuine affection for the many women he loves and leaves, who cracks jokes compulsively to keep the darkness at bay.

Comedy may not be a comedy as such, but the Davis chapters are frequently hilarious. Westlake’s many skills are on display throughout; a late sex scene is charged and disturbingly intimate, and expertly timed twists ratchet up the tension. In that respect the book is definitive Westlake, combining both lightness and shadow. The two “lost” Westlake novels published by Hard Case represent some of the finest work of the author’s career. And that is truly saying something.

Garry Shandling presented Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at a film festival in Los Angeles last week. Here’s a report.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Me Elsewhere: Tinker Tailor, Video Game Player

I’m hanging my hat in a few other places this week. At Crimespree, I have a brief review of the impressive new adaptation of John Le CarrĂ©’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And at the work blog, what I learned in a year of playing video games.

Bonus link #1: Mike Seely’s profile of my friend Murray Stenson, bartender extraordinaire, in Seattle Weekly. It also provides a fine look at the city’s active cocktail culture. Make sure to watch the video of Murray working his magic behind the bar at Canon.

Bonus link #2: An interview with my friend Eddie Muller – from the apartment where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, no less – as Noir City 10 approaches.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Book: Nightwork, by Irwin Shaw (1975)

For an entire generation of authors, the name Irwin Shaw is one to conjure with. In his memoir Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls him “my great writing hero, the man who changed my life.” Shaw’s short stories, among them “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” made his reputation, and his novel Rich Man, Poor Man became a television event in the 1970s.

Yet when a friend told me about the impact Shaw’s Nightwork had on him as a young man, I realized how little of Shaw’s work is now in print. I couldn’t even get a copy of the book at the library. Genre authors who never achieved a fraction of Shaw’s critical or commercial success live on in eBook form, while at present no Shaw titles are available on the Kindle.

Nightwork’s protagonist is Douglas Grimes, a onetime pilot grounded by a medical condition who toils as a desk clerk in a Manhattan flophouse. A man dies in the hotel, leaving $100,000 in cash in his room. Grimes takes the money and the opportunity to begin anew in Europe.

But Grimes is no Tom Ripley. He’s a fundamentally decent person dealt a lousy hand, making him initially unprepared for a life on the run. “If you wanted to figure out what your future was going to be, you had to have a firm grip on your past.” That means seeking help from an old college friend and his respectable older brother. Both men express jealousy at Grimes’s windfall, a willingness to chuck it all and abandon their prestigious jobs and families. It’s the beginning of Grimes’s education on how money changes one’s existence. His luck turns now that he doesn’t need it. He can’t help parlaying his ill-gotten gains into more green any more than he can stop falling into bed with “women of glamour and unexpected availability,” to quote a sterling example of the book jacket writer’s art.

On the continent, Grimes falls in with an unlikely mentor: Miles Fabian, a self-invented bon vivant. As he tutors Grimes in the art of living well, pulling him into a world of skiing in St. Moritz and shady art deals, investing in thoroughbreds and arty porn films, Fabian lays out a philosophy mercenary in its logic:

My intention has always been to try to avoid joining the ranks of the victims. As far as I could ever see, the people who avoided being victims had at least one thing in common. Money.

I like money ... but I am rather bored by the process of accumulating it and am deeply bored by most of the people who spend the best part of their lives doing so. My feeling about the world of money is that it is like a loosely guarded city which should be raided sporadically by outsiders, noncitizens, like me, who aren’t bound by any of its law or moral pretensions.

To get the most pleasure out of money, it is best not to have to think about it most of the time. Not to have to keep on making it, with your own efforts or your own luck.

Fabian’s greatest gift to Grimes is teaching him the attitude of affluence, that knowing what to order and how to order it is enough to get by. He prescribes a course in the classics, telling his student not to worry if he doesn’t understand them at first. “You eventually cross a threshold of emotion – mostly just by looking.” Grimes, to his amazement, begins developing his own standards and sensibilities.

Nightwork was written in the shadow of Watergate. References to Nixon’s crimes abound, and there’s a pervasive mood of disillusionment, that the game has been rigged against everyone, even the riggers. Shaw sees the future in that instant, a world where the appearance of knowledge would be valued over knowledge itself.

But in our uneasy time, when most of us hardly know where we stand, cannot say with confidence whether we are rising or falling, advancing or retreating, whether we are loved or hated, despised or adored, aplomb attains, at least for people like myself, a primary importance.

Whatever Miles Fabian may have lacked, he had aplomb.

Goldman called Shaw “one of the great American stylists,” praising the “simplicity of his storytelling.” Nightwork is a deceptively breezy book, full of easy sex and easier money in fabulous locales. That apparent effortlessness only makes the cynicism at its core more chilling and, if anything, more relevant. If someone wanted to bring Shaw back to the masses – what say you, Hard Case Crime? – Nightwork would be an excellent place to start.

Here’s a terrific, contentious Paris Review interview with Shaw that kicks off with a great Hemingway story.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Good Stuff: Movies of 2011

Seinfeld established that you couldn’t “Happy New Year!” somebody in February, right? Can I get away with a year-in-movies post on January 6? I’ve been busy.

The tally for 2011: 180 movies. Kind of low for me, actually.

First movie of 2011: Tron: Legacy 3D (2010) in the theater, January 1.
Last movie of 2011: Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Netflix instant, December 31. I like something loud for New Year’s Eve.

By decade:

1920s: 1 – The Lodger (1927). Thank Sundays with Hitch, or this entire decade would be unrepresented.
1930s: 11
1940s: 36
1950s: 19
1960s: 7
1970s: 4
1980s: 4
1990s: 5
2000s: 7
2010s: 86

DVD of the year: The Last Play at Shea. I threatened to do this very thing back in February. I got the DVD for Christmas. I’m amazed I’m not watching it now.

Best movie I saw this year that was new to me: The Breaking Point (1950), an unsparing adaptation of Ernest Hemingway featuring John Garfield at his finest. I went all the way to Paris to see it and a day later it came out on DVD. I regret nothing.

Movies that I’m stunned are not on my favorites of the year list, and easily could be on a different day after a lighter lunch: Midnight in Paris, The Trip, Captain America (for “The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan” alone), Drive, The Skin I Live In

My favorite movies of the year, following an unusually heavy lunch, listed in order seen, and bearing in mind that there are several late titles I have yet to catch up with, so in a sense the exercise is largely academic. What was I saying? Oh, right –

Rango. Sly, gorgeous and quite strange for a children’s film.

Cedar Rapids. A sorely neglected comedy set in the America most Americans live in.

The Devil’s Double. Pulp journalism, with Dominic Cooper giving the overlooked performances of the year.

The Guard. Brendan Gleeson can do no wrong in a mismatched buddy comedy that satirizes mismatched buddy comedies.

Warrior. We all failed this movie. Well, I didn’t. But the rest of you did.

Moneyball. When I read this book, I realized most men fantasized about being Billy Beane. Now I know most men fantasize about being Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane.

Margin Call. Offering insight into the past (the 2008 financial crisis) and the future (VOD as a viable release mechanism).

The Descendants. I’m asking you nicely, Alexander Payne. Please work more.

The Artist. What, did you think I wouldn’t have it on here? Forget that it’s a black-and-white silent film. Director Michel Hazanavicius deserves acclaim simply for remembering that comedies can and should look beautiful.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A fantastic script that tells the story entirely in ellipses. UPDATE 1/7/12: My review of the movie is now up at the Crimespree blog.