Friday, November 30, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Stork Club

Swells of all stripes, denizens from every destination demimonde, regularly assembled at the Stork Club. Columnist Walter Winchell, who had his own table there, dubbed the East 53rd Street nightspot “New York’s New Yorkiest place.” The club was the domain of former bootlegger Sherman Billingsley, who started the joint with the not-entirely-secret backing of organized crime figures and bought them out after some minor difficulties including his being kidnapped by their rival Mad Dog Coll. In his history Gangsters & Gold Diggers, Jerome Charyn brands Billingsley “a nebbish from Enid, Oklahoma” and “a snob” who cribbed everything he knew about the nightlife business from legendary hostess Texas Guinan – except for her democratic attitude toward her guests. Billingsley could only abide the rubbing of A-list elbows, and his velvet rope mindset helped to make him a celebrity in his own right; he turns up as a character in the Betty Hutton comedy set in his club as well as the novel The Murder in the Stork Club written by Laura author Vera Caspary, and hosted a TV show in the 1950s.

1946 saw the publication of The Stork Club Bar Book, penned by society journalist, clotheshorse and gourmand Lucius Beebe, who coined the term “café society.” I don’t have a copy of Beebe’s book, but reports indicate it includes the recipe for the club’s namesake cocktail and credits it to the Stork’s service captain Eddie Whittmer. I do have Dale DeGroff’s The Craft of the Cocktail, in which he hails chief barman Nathaniel Cook as the drink’s champion.

There’s a hint of the speakeasy about this drink owing simply to the amount of orange juice; during Prohibition, many a bad batch of gin was made palatable with an abundance of citrus. Then again the Bronx cocktail, also heavy on the OJ, predates the Stork Club and Prohibition by many years. There’s also some similarity in terms of ingredients to the Pegu Club.

That big jolt of juice pushes the Stork Club into its own spotlight. It’s a show biz level of excess, the kind of flash Billingsley himself no doubt appreciated. It gives the cocktail a bouncy buoyancy that would play well at brunch. The original recipe called for the juice of half an orange, which is typically read as one ounce. The same recipe also uses gin but I substituted the sweeter and more substantial Old Tom variety, which matched up better with the citrus. Sip this cocktail and you can pretend you’re a Stork Club regular like J. Edgar Hoover, who probably never drank one of these.

The Stork Club

1 ½ oz. gin (Old Tom if it’s available)
1 oz. orange juice
½ oz. Cointreau
¼ oz. lime juice
dash of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s that time again, kids. The Winter 2012 issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, is out as of yesterday, and you could be reading it right now instead of this. Included for your delectation:

An extended section on the lingering shadows of Edgar G. Ulmer’s quintessential film noir Detour, featuring Steve Kronenberg on Ulmer’s planned but never shot psychedelic ‘60s remake; his interview with actress Lea Lavish, who made her only screen appearance in the misbegotten 1992 remake; and Jake Hinkson on the sad life of the original film’s doomed star Tom Neal.

A second section on race and ethnicity in noir, anchored by Hinkson’s article on the once-lost Argentine-shot 1951 film of Native Son starring author Richard Wright as his own creation Bigger Thomas. (The restored movie will be screening at the Noir City film festivals in 2013.)

FNF honcho Eddie Muller on Josef von Sternberg’s Docks of New York.

A long overdue profile of bargain basement auteur Hugo Haas.

And another edition of my crime fiction’n’cocktail column Keenan’s Korner, this time spotlighting Dashiell Hammett’s Return of the Thin Man, the latest from Don Winslow, and a pre-Prohibition tipple you’re sure to enjoy.

You know the drill. To receive the magazine, swing by the Film Noir Foundation and make a donation at this, the most wonderful time of the year. The warm feeling in your heart will not be from the cocktail. Well, not entirely.

Today happens to be the birthday of one of noir’s greatest performers, Gloria Grahame. As a reward for reading this sales pitch, here’s Gloria in her glory with an able assist from vocalist Jo Ann Greer in 1954’s Naked Alibi. Want to read more about noir chanteuses? Then go buy Noir City Annual #4, with my article on the subject. (OK, sales pitch over. For reals this time.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Arnaud’s Special

It’s unfortunate that Scotch cocktails are such scarce beasts, because I’ve enjoyed the few I’ve tried. The Rob Roy, essentially a Scotch Manhattan, is the best known. I’m hugely partial to the Blood and Sand, and when I finally pony up for a bottle of Cherry Heering I will attempt to write the rapturous post that drink deserves.

Recently I found myself in Macleod’s Scottish Pub, a homey Seattle drinking house kitted out in full Celtic regalia and featuring an extensive menu of fine Scotch whiskies – along with several cocktails that made use of them. I was spoiled for choice, so naturally I ordered a beer. (I had a MurrayAid event to attend later that evening and needed to pace myself.) A return trip is most definitely in order, but in the meantime the visit put me in the mood for a drink featuring the smoky spirit. As luck would have it, I’d just come across one.

The Arnaud’s Special is highlighted in Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh’s excellent work of scholarship Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. What truly sold me on the drink was its inclusion in Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up!, the same 1951 book from which Murray Stenson had unearthed the Last Word. That serendipitous fact alone demanded that I sample it.

According to Haigh, in the 1940s and ‘50s this drink was a staple at the still-in-business namesake New Orleans restaurant, opened in 1918 by a bogus nobleman. If the Rob Roy brings the Manhattan to the Highlands, the Arnaud’s Special drags it further afield. In place of sweet vermouth it uses Dubonnet, its more piquant sweetness pairing with the Scotch to salutary effect. Orange bitters and a twist unify the drink with additional sharp notes of citrus. Per Haigh’s suggestion I used Johnny Walker Red; there’s no point in hiding the Scotch in this cocktail. Embrace its bold, solid flavor instead.

The Arnaud’s Special

2 oz. Scotch
1 oz. Dubonnet
3 dashes orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Movie: Mike’s Murder (1984)

For years I knew three things about Mike’s Murder, all of them making the film nigh on irresistible to me.

1. It had a test screening so legendarily disastrous that any mention of it to certain key participants turns them green to this day.

2. The compromised version that was tossed into a handful of theaters in 1984 after two years of studio tinkering still gained a fervent cult following. Leonard Maltin, in his always-within-reach Movie Guide, gives the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it “One of the worst movies ever made by a filmmaker of (James) Bridges’ stature ... Escapes BOMB rating only because several critics thought highly of it.”

3. It was impossible to see. Usually movies with flawed reputations surface on cable in the wee hours of the morning, but not Mike’s Murder. It essentially vanished without a trace.

The on-demand Warner Archive made Mike’s Murder one of its early titles. I finally bought a copy and sated my curiosity.

Bridges’ original cut was longer, featuring a fractured narrative, a brutal murder sequence, and a lot more of Joe Jackson’s music. The film that was released was straitjacketed into a more conventional structure with lush John Barry accompaniment. But no amount of second-guessing was going to transform Mike’s Murder into a box office sensation. Not because it’s a dark, downbeat story, but because it tells the tale of losers in a city of winners. Mike’s Murder is not a great movie. But I’d lobby for it to be considered one of the great Los Angeles films, with a seductive, doomy vision all its own. (I’d wager that one person who has seen it is Paul Thomas Anderson; the ‘80s section of Boogie Nights has a similar feel, and Thomas Jane’s character in that film is a doppelganger for one here.)

The critics who loved the movie did so largely because of Debra Winger’s lead performance. She’s sensational as Betty Parrish, a woman who moved to L.A. for sunshine not stardom, a bank teller who still calls her parents when she lands a promotion. Part of the easy SoCal vibe means a hook-up with her tennis instructor Mike (Mark Keyloun). Mike is a looker of modest charm, a happy hustler who does what he can and who he can to get by. Sometimes that means crashing proto-Kato Kaelin-style at the guest house of a minor show biz luminary. Sometimes that means selling small quantities of drugs. Anything to keep alive the dream of flying high in the City of Angels. Mike is a telling gender reversal of a character common in L.A. lore, the young woman who uses sex to get ahead and soon finds herself lost.

Some of the digressive style Bridges intended lingers in the film’s first act. It unfolds hazily, spanning several months without making the passage of time immediately apparent. Bridges’ Los Angeles is a metropolis of low-slung ugly buildings and manicured medians, where life is lived in transit. Betty and Mike cross paths, mix signals, then drift apart for weeks at a time. Until Mike gets murdered following a drug deal.

The particulars aren’t that clear or even that interesting. What matters is that Betty suddenly feels a void where she didn’t even realize there was a presence. It’s here that Winger’s performance occasionally touches the transcendent. She’s not mourning Mike as a person but as a possibility; she’s grieving over the prospect that at some point they might have drifted together for good. She tells another of Mike’s paramours, a record executive played by Paul Winfield, that she loved Mike, but she’s only trying the sentiment on for size. Casting the little-known Keyloun pays dividends. He would leave acting a few years after this movie to work in I.T. Mike’s Murder is his sole cinematic legacy, a quirk that only intensifies the haunted feeling surrounding his character.

Betty doesn’t investigate Mike’s death. She simply wants to know more about the man who’s never going to come back into her life, and that interest puts her in harm’s way. The tense ending includes an only-in-California gambit at once completely ludicrous and wholly plausible. The movie leaves Betty and the audience in an in-between place, where the ground beneath your feet can’t be trusted and there are plenty of clear skies but no clear answers. A place an awful lot like Los Angeles.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Bartender’s Choice

One of life’s great pleasures is having a drink made by a skilled bartender who knows you and your tastes, someone who has served as a spirit guide in every sense. On these occasions I am likely to trust myself to them completely, providing minimal direction – “I’m thinking rye” – or simply asking “What do you have that’s different?” and letting them work their magic. I am never disappointed, and often encounter something unexpected that opens up whole new levels of exploration and appreciation.

Such a bartender is Murray Stenson. I wrote about Murray’s recently diagnosed health issues last week. The call has been taken up by the world cocktail community, as this AP article illustrates. Tens of thousands of dollars have already been raised – and that was before the benefits. The one held the night before Halloween at Canon, where Murray works, was a massive success.

And the biggest is about to happen. I met Murray at the Zig Zag Café, the place where he made his deserved global reputation. Sunday night, the Zig Zag is giving back, donating the evening’s proceeds to MurrayAid. There are other Seattle benefits lined up in the coming days, plus events in New York, Washington and elsewhere listed at the MurrayAid site.

If you’ve enjoyed these posts, please consider making a contribution. The cost of a single cocktail would be a lovely gesture.

If you’re one of the many people I’ve taken for cocktails at the Zig Zag or Canon, I will be blunt: you owe me. So come down to the Zig Zag on Sunday and drink to Murray’s health. Rosemarie and I will be there – although to be honest, we probably would have been there anyway. If you can’t make it, try one of the other upcoming benefits. Odds are we’ll be at Bastille for the November 7 event. If you’re in one of the other cities where a MurrayAid benefit is happening, swing by. (New York people, I don’t know if the events scheduled for Monday, November 5 are still on. Even if they’re not, you should stop in. The bars could use your money, and you could probably use a drink.) If you can’t make a benefit, please make a donation. The best cocktails begin with the best bartenders. Murray is in that company.