Friday, March 30, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Blinker

Me: I’m in the mood for grenadine.

Rosemarie: Don’t forget there’s a grapefruit in there.

Thus is inspiration born in Chez K.

Note that we never seriously considered the notion of grapefruit qua grapefruit. For the longest time I wasn’t a fan of them. Too many grim childhood memories; we only had them on hand when someone in the family was dieting, so I associate their tangy flavor with heartache and cartons of spoiled cottage cheese. When forced to eat one I would enjoy it Homer Simpson style. (Clip not available.) In recent years I’ve mellowed toward them, thinking of their taste not so much as sour but piquant.

Still, we bought this grapefruit primarily to work it into a cocktail. Trouble is, there aren’t that many drinks to choose from. The first that comes to mind is the Greyhound, which wouldn’t work because a) it’s made with vodka, and b) the mere mention of the name makes me think of Artie (Rip Torn) from The Larry Sanders Show, who prepared them with so much salt that the olive floated on the top. I do like the Brown Derby, with bourbon and honey, only I didn’t have any honey syrup. And, as mentioned, I had a hankering for grenadine.

I paged through The PDT Cocktail Book by Jim Meehan, which in only a few short months has become indispensable, and struck pay dirt with the Blinker, first cited in Patrick Gavin Duffy’s 1934 bartending manual. The cocktail requires rye, grapefruit juice, simple syrup and “1 barspoon of Bonne Maman Raspberry Preserves.” Which I didn’t have, either. And I had the feeling that my Trader Joe’s raspberry preserves – now with more seeds! – wouldn’t make a suitable substitution. (I have seen alternate recipes suggesting raspberry syrup.) Grenadine it would be.

The resulting cocktail was a treat, the sprightly note of pomegranate balancing the grapefruit’s tartness. Keenan, I thought, you’ve done it again, putting your own unique spin on a vintage favorite. I started thinking up names. The Slow Left Turn, maybe.

Then I opened David A. Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. I yield to no one in my admiration for Mr. Embury’s wisdom. He also included the Blinker in his seminal 1948 book. His recipe called not for raspberry preserves, but grenadine. Far from concocting anything new, I’d reinvented the wheel. Herewith, the extent of Embury’s comments:

One of the few cocktails using grapefruit juice. Not particularly good but not too bad.

Notably missing from Embury’s take, though, is simple syrup or any sweetener, which seems essential. Something’s got to play peacemaker, standing up to the sharpness of the grapefruit and getting all sides talking. I intend to try this drink with the raspberry preserves. But this version, threading the needle between Meehan and Embury, works just fine for me.

The Blinker (modified original)

2 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. grapefruit juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 barspoon grenadine

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Movies: Blinked and Missed ‘Em Edition

Catching up with a pair of films that slipped stealthily in and out of theaters ...

Don’t expect historical accuracy from Burke & Hare (2010), which features Edinburgh at its brownest. John Landis puts a comic spin on the famous story of the Irish immigrants who see a shortage of medical cadavers as a chance to make a killing. The movie is never scary, and more amiable than funny. But it boasts a terrific cast. Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis make an inspired double act, with Pegg particularly appealing as he struggles with guilt while spending his ill-gotten gain on an all-female production of Macbeth staged by woman of his dreams Isla Fisher. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry play squabbling surgeons, and the forces of justice are embodied by Ronnie Corbett. Even Christopher Lee turns up, for crying out loud. At its best the movie approaches the tone of Landis’ An American Werewolf in London; some key actors from that film cameo here. Mention must be made of Joby Talbot’s Scottish-inflected score, particularly the closing credit song “Burke’s Swing,” making excellent use of bagpipes.

It’s no surprise that The Big Year (2011) didn’t score at the box office. The shock is that a dramedy about competitive bird-watching was made in the first place. Three men spend a calendar year racing around North America to spot the most species: Owen Wilson, jeopardizing his new marriage to preserve his old record; Steve Martin as an executive who has waited until retirement to commit to his obsession; and Jack Black as a wage slave trying to pull off the impossible on a shoestring. Nothing groundbreaking here, just a fine group of supporting players as the odd ducks looking for odd ducks (honors go to Brian Dennehy as Black’s irascible dad), lovely scenery, and some nice moments about the benefits of a passion that enriches the other aspects of your life. Plus you learn a few things about birds.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book: Blood on the Mink, by Robert Silverberg (1962/2012)

First-rate counterfeit money is flooding the East Coast. The source has been traced to Philadelphia. Somebody’s got to track down the engraver. A prospective Los Angeles partner is pinched off a plane and an undercover agent – nameless until the closing pages – steps into his shoes to cut a swath through the City of Brotherly Love. Who better to stem the tide of fake paper than a fake gangster?

Hard Case Crime strikes again, bringing back into print an early crime novel by SF legend Robert Silverberg. Blood on the Mink is a tight, relentless piece of writing. Silverberg times his plot twists with machine-tooled precision, adding complications in the forms of shapely dames and steely competitors. His protagonist is an authentically tough customer so inured to the hazards of his trade that he possesses only flickers of his own identity, and shows no sympathy for the other players caught in his game no matter how innocent they might be.

Silverberg provides a new afterword detailing Blood’s unusual history, and two of his short stories from the same period round out the package. Nasty fun that’s also a glimpse into the waning days of the pulps.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movie: Suspense (1946)

Film noir? I’m in. Film noir with ice skating? I am a sucker for novelty. Film noir with ice skating set primarily at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, also a key location in Xanadu (1980), a movie for which I have some small degree of affection? Hell, baby, I’m yours.

Suspense was intended as a showcase for Belita, the English ice skater who was Monogram Pictures’ answer to Sonja Henie. The bargain-basement studio spared no expense, the King Brothers ponying up the princely sum – for them – of one million dollars. Barry Sullivan plays Joe Morgan (no, not that one, thank God), an itinerant operator with a shady past. He rolls into Los Angeles and lands a job slinging peanuts at an ice palace (the Pan-Pacific!) owned by Albert Dekker and headlined by Dekker’s wife (guess who). Sullivan smarms his way into the head office in short order, and falls for the featured attraction’s attractive features.

The action is regularly interrupted by elaborate ice skating sequences that function like musical numbers. (One, set to hot Caribbean rhythms, is called ... “Ice Cuba.”) They’re so long that after a while even the movie forgets its own thread; what starts out as a Postman Always Rings Twice knockoff takes a left turn into near-Gothic territory.

The title quality is in short supply, but Suspense makes for fascinating viewing thanks to Belita. Her ice skating routines – credited to choreographer Nick Castle but largely conceived by Belita herself – are mesmerizing, taking place on some impressive sets. And her training as an athlete gives her an intensity and a physical presence unlike any actress of the period. No matter the scene, she moves like she’s on the ice – in complete control at all times. Bonita Granville, the original Nancy Drew, also registers strongly as a chippy still carrying a torch for Sullivan.

My pal Eddie Muller wrote the definitive article on Belita’s cinematic career, focusing on the three noir films that she made. I’m two-for-three on those titles. The Hunted is the most obscure of the trio, but somehow I’ve managed to see it twice – in different countries.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Book: Wild Thing, by Josh Bazell (2012)

Dr. Peter Brown, formerly button man for the mob Pietro Brnwa, is currently Dr. Lionel Azimuth and working on a cruise ship thanks to the good people at the Witness Protection Program1. His handlers steer another potentially lucrative gig his way: tagging along with sexy paleontologist Dr. Violet Hurst on a mission underwritten by a reclusive billionaire (known as Rec Bill) to determine whether a lake in Northern Minnesota is actually home to a beast that’s a holdover from prehistoric times.

Lionel, or Peter, or Pietro2 was introduced in Josh Bazell’s Beat The Reaper, one of the most blazing debut novels of recent vintage3. Reaper was a dazzling high wire act, its stylized action always rendered on a human scale. Wild Thing is more of a wild thing, loose, shambolic and occasionally hard to swallow. The preposterous storyline is made even more of a reach by shoehorning an already compromised protagonist into it. Some of Bazell’s narrative digressions feel like cul de sacs. The material based on the real world – insider tales about medical mishaps on cruise ships and the consequences of meth on the American heartland – is stronger than the fanciful stuff, while a key role given to an Actual Political Figure4 throws off the balance of the book’s second half.

But Bazell writes with such comic verve and has an ideas-per-page count5 so abnormally high that you go along for the ride. He readily acknowledges the goofiness of his premise6. The frequent footnotes are back7, as is the sharp writing. (“Outside in the black-and-white TV moonlight there’s a low-lying fog on the ground of the kind I thought only happened in discos and vampire movies.”) The wrap-up is highly satisfying, and is followed by an appendix and a note section written with a fiery flair that give full voice to the anti-anti-rationalist sentiment that drives both the author and his hero. This screwball of a book may not live up to its predecessor, but I still enjoyed it.

1 Which is actually the Witness Security Program, or WITSEC, as Bazell rightly refers to it.

2 Whatever.

3 I liked it.

4 Henceforth referred to as Ac Pol Fig. If I refer to this figure again. Which I won’t.

5 Statistic trademarked by Vince Keenan, 2012.

6 His frequent invocations of Scooby Doo as an inspiration pay dividends, and include a fascinating sexually-charged exegesis of the show that ranks with Eddie Izzard’s comparison of Shaggy and Scooby to Falstaff.

7 Obviously.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book: Interface, by Joe Gores (1974)

Multiple deadlines have me neglecting the blog of late. One thing I haven’t forgotten is Joe Gores’ Interface, which I read several weeks ago and have been meaning to write about ever since. I’m tempted to call this a “Friday’s Forgotten Books” post, only Interface never really faded into obscurity; among the cognoscenti, it’s regarded as one of the key crime novels of the 1970s and the most hardboiled of P.I. yarns.

On page one, Docker, Vietnam vet turned bagman, has already committed one murder as part of his plan to boost a kilo of heroin and the cash meant to pay for it. His betrayal sets into motion a manhunt in the San Francisco underworld. Among the first people called: Neil Fargo – always the two names, Neil Fargo – ex-football player turned private investigator turned part-time drug dealer and the man who brought his army buddy Docker in on the deal. Neil Fargo has to run down his old friend before his new partners lose their patience.

It took me a few pages to find my footing in Interface. Gores kicks you into the middle of the action, introducing a host of truly despicable characters in short order. And that’s before the double crosses start and the hidden agendas come to light. What hooked me was the book’s dense, almost fetid atmosphere, a vivid snapshot of Zodiac-era San Francisco, “the muggers’ and pushers’ and prosties’ and hypes’ San Francisco ... the city of cheap hustlers.”

Interface is a throwback. Its relentless narrative energy recreates the pace and feel of a Black Mask story from the 1930s. Gores dispenses with psychology entirely, never bothering with his characters’ thoughts and keeping the focus on their actions in the style of Dashiell Hammett. In many respects Interface is a funhouse mirror version of The Maltese Falcon, so it’s no surprise Gores was chosen to write the Falcon prequel Spade & Archer. All of this tumult is in service of setting up a sucker punch of an ending – and even that is saying too much. Interface is essential reading for any crime fiction fan, and I’m glad I finally got to it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Cocktails: Words of Wisdom

With apologies to Ethan Iverson and his recently christened cocktail the Ross Thomas.

Plain water, on the other hand, merely dilutes. It takes away and gives nothing in return. You wouldn’t think of pouring water in your milk or your ginger ale or your Coca-Cola, would you? Then, in heaven’s name, why think of pouring it in your bourbon or your Scotch? A watered drink is always necessarily a flat drink, a lifeless drink, an insipid drink. If you don’t like carbonated beverages (though it is hard to imagine anyone not liking them), don’t drink them; but don’t pour water in your whisky and call it a Highball. Drink the whisky straight and use the water as a chaser. Or take a claret or some other still wine, or a lemonade, or a glass of milk, or a cup of coffee – or even a glass of plain water. And, if you simply must use still water in your whisky or other liquor, use hot water, add a dash of soap flakes, and throw it down the drain, where dishwater belongs. Then dry your glass and pray for forgiveness for the sin of wasting good liquor.

David A. Embury, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948)

Elsewhere: The Wrong Marlowe

The Name of the Game is Death is one hell of a book. But author Dan J. Marlowe’s story is even more amazing.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Noir City Northwest: Your Belated Wrap-Up

It was a strange Noir City film festival for yours truly this year, evidenced by the fact that this post comes almost a week after the last screening. For the first time in five years I skipped movies in order to partake in the week’s more social aspects. Someone had to show Eddie Muller and local filmmakers and crime writers like the fabulous Skye Moody around Seattle’s best cocktail bars. (Did someone say Seattle’s best cocktail bars? See below.) Herewith, some parting thoughts as I try to resume my regular schedule.

Last Tuesday was Comedy Noir night. An oxymoron? Not with Unfaithfully Yours (1948) on the bill. Preston Sturges’s gleeful send-up of the form is my favorite of his films. As Muller said, it’s only fitting that the most vicious, mean-spirited movie in the lineup is played for laughs. Rex Harrison is the orchestra conductor who doesn’t want to believe the worst about wife Linda Darnell, but word of her indiscretions keeps reaching him anyway. By the time he takes up his baton his imagination is running riot, and he constructs elaborate revenge fantasies set to and informed by the music of Rossini, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. For some reason the second of these sequences, with Harrison at his fatuous, self-sacrificing best, reduced me to tears this go-round. Seeing the movie on the big screen was a revelation, highlighting Sturges’s glorious long takes as Harrison disastrously tries to implement his plan in the real world. The packed house was howling for the entire second half.

Another advertisement for seeing films in the theater: the audible gasp that greeted the opening frames of Samuel Fuller’s Deluxe Color and Cinemascope House of Bamboo (1955) during Wednesday’s Fuller tribute.

Even though I saw the two titles on the closing night’s Bad Girls bill in San Francisco only a month before, I stuck around to watch Pickup again. Because you can never have enough Beverly Michaels.

I got my marching orders for the next several issues of Noir City, the magazine. Some interesting articles in the pipeline. Stay tuned. In the meantime, swing by the Film Noir Foundation page and make a donation to keep the Noir City caravan rolling along.

Cocktails: The Seattle Circuit

The latest issue of Class Magazine highlights a dozen Seattle cocktail bars, with my home away from home The Zig Zag Café and Canon, the new digs of bartender supreme Murray Stenson, taking top grades. I vouch for many of the others on this list, too.