Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Good Stuff: 2013, Recapp’d

First, the year in me. Rosemarie and I moved to a deluxe apartment in the sky. We won an award. And I published a book. All in all, not a bad twelve months.

2013 was the least active year in the history of ye olde website, and most of the posts were about cocktails. But blogs are dead anyway, as Jason Kottke was the most recent to remind us. Still, I feel bad that I didn’t manage to rattle on about everything I watched, read, listened to or otherwise ingested. Hence, this rambling roster of recommendations, in the order consumed. It is by no means complete; there are highly touted titles I have yet to catch up with, others I’ve seen and am still chewing over. But such lists are always written in the sand, aren’t they? Consider this a snapshot of how I feel on New Year’s Eve. Come New Year’s Day I’ll be another person entirely. And so will you.

Drinking with Men, by Rosie Schaap. A heartfelt memoir about the pleasures and occasional perils of being a regular in a bar near you. My favorite book of the year.

Side Effects. New age noir, slyly updated for the era of prescription drugs. In the words of my friend Ray Banks, “classically sleazy.” And with that, Steven Soderbergh retires.

Noir City. A high point every year. Saw it in both Seattle and Portland this annum!

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, by Sara Gran. Miss Gran continues to toy with the conventions of the mystery novel even as she probes the deepest mystery. This entry in the best series going is, sadly, the only novel on this year’s list. It was a strange reading year for me.

Behind the Candelabra (HBO). And with that, Steven Soderbergh returns! (I never bought that retirement story for a minute.) Featuring a bravura performance by Michael Douglas as Liberace, it doesn’t stint on the dirt or the garish period details while proving to be a riveting portrait of a long-term relationship falling apart.

Pacific Rim. The movie I always wanted to see when I was eight years old made me feel eight years old again.

The Hitchcock 9. Seeing the Master of Suspense’s first directorial efforts, completely restored and with live musical accompaniment, was an event of the first order. Kudos to the British Film Institute – and to Seattle’s SIFF Cinema, for innovative musical choices and following the series with several days of Hitchcock’s early U.K. sound films.

Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty. Engaging social history looking back at how the studios and the predominately Jewish moguls who ran them did and did not respond to the rise of Nazism in the years before World War II. Doherty has a thorough understanding of movies and of Hollywood as a business and a community. (Would that the same could be said for Ben Urwand. His shoddy and sensationalistic The Collaboration, which covers much of the same ground, is the worst book I read in 2013.)

Drug War. You can have your superheroes. Give me bad-ass cops. Johnnie To goes to mainland China and makes an epic thriller.

This Town, by Mark Leibovich. The one book that almost makes me say “The one book you have to read.” It serves up in clinical detail why American politics is broken – because once elected, the people who run this country essentially move to a separate realm, one without connection or consequence. Told with the gleeful abandon that only comes when an insider (Leibovich is a longtime political correspondent for the New York Times) decides to set the palace walls ablaze himself.

Blancanieves. A bewitching black-and-white silent film that retells the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1920s Spain. With bullfighting. I can’t believe it wasn’t more popular.

The Bling Ring. In a year of movies about the hollowing out of the American Dream, Sofia Coppola’s up-to-the-minute look at fame-obsessed teenagers turned bandits takes the prize. Also deserving of consideration in this category: Michael Bay’s underappreciated Pain & Gain.

Rush. Ron Howard returns to his Grand Theft Auto roots and makes the film of his career and my favorite of 2013. Peter Morgan’s script transforms the battle for the 1976 Formula One championship into the essential existential question: how do you live your life? Magnificently photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, with Daniel Brühl giving the performance of the year as Niki Lauda.

Captain Phillips. Harrowing all the way through, never more so than when the damage has been done; the closing scenes depicting shock are impossible to shake. Tom Hanks at his finest.

Frances Ha. The great dilemma of your twenties – finding your own music to dance to – put on screen in a truly unique way. Greta Gerwig beguiles even while she maddens. Thinking of the final shot puts a smile on my face even now.

A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, by Victoria Wilson. At times frustratingly thorough, the first of this two-volume biography gives our greatest movie actress the treatment she deserves.

Collision Low Crossers, by Nicholas Dawidoff. A confession: I didn’t watch a single snap of the 2013 NFL season after skipping January’s Super Bowl for the first time in years. One unpleasant story after another – too many deaths of former players with signs of serious brain trauma, the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, a rash of player suicides culminating in Jovan Belcher’s death by his own hand at the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice facility after he murdered his girlfriend – had drained all pleasure from football for me. Dawidoff’s book chronicling his 2011 season embedded with the New York Jets coaching staff thus came along at an interesting time. Beautifully written and packed with inside info, it perfectly captures football’s grind both on the field and off; George Will was not wrong when he said the sport combines the two worst aspects of American life, namely violence and committee meetings. Coaches and players alike acknowledge the risks inherent in the game and undertake them willingly, but don’t care to discuss them in depth. I feel better about football knowing that. I’m still not planning to watch the Super Bowl, even if the Seahawks are in it.

Six by Sondheim (HBO). A biography in the form of half a dozen songs, and one of the best treatments you’ll ever see of a writer writing.

Nebraska. Alexander Payne’s film (written by Seattle’s own Bob Nelson) is an elegy for a life and an entire way of life – as well as a reminder that time passes for the young as it does for the old. Will Forte should be getting more love for his performance here.

Inside Llewyn Davis. In many respects the evil twin of Frances Ha. Structured like a folk song, which is why it’s going around and round in my head. What happens when you’re good enough to make it – and you don’t make it? It’s also a meta, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-we self-portrait by Joel and Ethan Coen, two artists dogged by questions of likability who may only be able to create with a partner.

Here’s wishing all of you the best in 2014. Thanks for stopping by on occasion. I’ll leave the light on. Odds are I’ll still mostly be talking about cocktails, though.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: That Bubbly Burden

Of all the first world problems, a glut of champagne may be the first worldiest. But there’s no denying the stuff flows like a river come the holidays. As a change of pace, may I suggest a champagne cocktail? In fact, may I suggest three?

Speaking of the season, my favorite gift was the inclusion of Down the Hatch in Seattle Magazine’s gift list for spirit and cocktail lovers. Here’s the redoubtable A. J. Rathbun:

Written by Seattleite Vince Keenan, this tipsy and jolly book features more than 50 helpful cocktail recipes. But it’s much, much more than a recipe book; it’s really a memoir to the joys of drink and of creating delicious drinks. In it, Keenan tells of a year of learning to make and love cocktails, with many stories, histories and more. You’ll find lots of Seattle-ness, as well.

Did you get a Kindle or a bunch of booze for Christmas? Are you planning a New Year’s Eve bash? Then pick up your copy of Down the Hatch at Amazon. Make both our seasons bright.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Miscellaneous: Noir, Poetry, Noir Poetry

A tasty trio of stocking stuffers for your holiday week …

First, an update on the unveilings at last week’s Noir City Xmas in San Francisco. The poster for Noir City 12 was released, and this year the crown of Miss Noir City rests on the lovely head of burlesque artiste extraordinaire and friend of the festival Evie Lovelle. Feast your eyes on this stunner inspired by Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

Also announced: the full program for the next festival, running from January 24 to February 2, 2014 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. I’m happy this particular feline has escaped its conveyance; I’ve known about the roster for a while, and couldn’t wait for the wildly ambitious line-up assembled by Film Noir Foundation honcho Eddie Muller to become public knowledge. The centerpiece is the world premiere of the restored 35mm print of Too Late For Tears, one of the truly unsung examples of the form getting the treatment it richly deserves.

This year’s festival is global in scope. The usual complement of classic noir films will be joined by movies from the same era made around the world. Japan, France, Mexico, and other countries will be represented; noir may be an American innovation, but its message travels well. Also on hand will be suitably multicultural music acts and libations; yours truly made a small contribution on that latter front. I’ll be in San Francisco for opening weekend, and at the roadshow version of the fest that hits Seattle a few weeks later.

Second, my lovely wife and writing partner Rosemarie has been keeping herself busy. She’s not averse to verse, having penned this week’s offering at The 5-2, your home for crime poetry. Her tale of Noël nefariousness is called “Holiday Hours.” Read it here.

Third, the missus makes her debut in print this month as well. Silver Birch Press published the Noir Erasure Poetry Anthology, a collection of poems based on the work of hardboiled masters including Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Rosemarie’s contribution, “My Lovely,” is taken from Raymond Chandler. Buy the book here.

Let’s see, I promoted the work of my favorite non-profit and my better half. Have I done anything lately? Well, I wrote a book. You could always buy that.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Jack Rabbit

For the last Cocktail of the Week before the holidays – and the final original CotW post of 2013 – I want to break new ground. David Embury observed that “the overwhelming majority of our cocktails are of the Sour type.” Endless invention springs from an elemental formula of spirit, citrus, and sweetener. That third ingredient might seem the most prosaic, but even in the drinks featured here it has come in several forms. Sugar, either as bitters-soaked cube or simple syrup. Grenadine. Honey. Certain liqueurs, like Cointreau.

With the Jack Rabbit, we’re going all Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys on the sour. That’s right. Time to bust out the maple syrup.

The Jack Rabbit, originally known as the Applejack Rabbit, turns up in 1927’s Here’s How! by the pseudonymous “Judge Jr.” Much of that guide was cannibalized by Harry Craddock for his Savoy Cocktail Book three years later. Early recipes called for equal parts maple syrup and apple brandy, astonishingly “one hooker” or approximately two and a half ounces of each. Tastes and syrups were obviously different then, but this is a ratio right out of Super Troopers. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (1948), offered a spirit-forward version. He deemed it “not half bad” and also noted that the drink is sometimes known as the Applejack Dynamite “for no reason at all.” Perhaps because it’s better than not half bad.

Jim Meehan helped restore the Rabbit’s glory (as well as its longer name) by including it in The PDT Cocktail Book. He specifically recommends Grade B maple syrup, the darker, thicker variety with a more intense flavor that makes it superior in cooking and baking. I don’t do much cooking and baking. I do eat a lot of pancakes, though, so what I had on hand was Grade A dark amber syrup – think of it as the highest level of the maple minor leagues – and that served me in good stead.

The recipe below comes courtesy of Erik Hakkinen of the Zig Zag Café. The Jack Rabbit practically demands to be served at brunch; maple and apple pair as wonderfully in the glass as they do on the breakfast plate, with the zing of lemon an added bonus. Not that you should limit this cocktail to sprawling midday repasts. Enjoy one anytime this season, while chestnuts roast on an open fire, or you draft the litany of half-truths that constitutes your holiday newsletter, or you search feverishly for the Allen wrench that’s supposed to be in the box. It’s too good a drink to pass up.

PS. My holiday newsletter will be a little late this year. But it’ll be worth waiting for.

The Jack Rabbit

1 ½ oz. Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
½ oz. maple syrup
½ oz. orange juice
½ oz. lemon juice

Shake vigorously. Strain. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

Your old favorite, from December 2009. Note that BLAST OF SILENCE will be showing at Noir City Xmas this very night in San Francisco, with writer/director/star Allen Baron in attendance.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

Coming along just in time to chill your Christmas cheer is the latest issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation. And what better face to slap on the cover than that of Dan Duryea?

Noir’s most likable heel gets his due with a host of writers considering his contribution to the genre. Plus a look at Peter Lorre’s sole film as director; an interview with Lion Books editor Arnold Hano, responsible for bringing key books from authors like Jim Thompson and David Goodis into print; and fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a consideration of the paranoid style in movies.

Closing out the issue: “Keenan’s Korner,” my crime fiction & cocktails column. I review Marisha Pessl’s mammoth, highly touted Night Film, Elissa Wald’s domestic noir The Secret Lives of Married Women, and the latest Crissa Stone caper from Wallace Stroby, Shoot the Woman First. Plus a salute to the real national drink of Mexico, first choice of lamsters everywhere.

All this can be yours for a donation to the Film Noir Foundation, with every penny going to the restoration of America’s noir heritage. C’mon, pony up. It’s Christmas, fer Chrissakes.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Diplomat

Following the Journalist with the Diplomat means I’ve accidentally stumbled into a theme: Cocktails Named After Professions My Mother Wishes I’d Gone Into.

There’s another logic to this week’s selection. We’re in the thick of the holidays. During this season of celebration, there may rise occasions when you want to keep the party going without paying the price the next day.

In a bar, never settle for club soda and lime unless that’s what you crave. Experience has taught me that bartenders relish the opportunity to prepare non-alcoholic drinks using the juices, spices and mixers at their disposal. Many cocktail establishments even highlight such selections on their menus, and they’re often among the tastier offerings.

Or perhaps you simply prefer to dial down your consumption without sacrificing complexity. I found myself in such a situation on a recent evening at Seattle’s superb Rob Roy. I’d had a cocktail, didn’t care for another of similar strength, yet was in no hurry to leave. I explained my dilemma to Greg, working behind the bar.

He understood. “You want to pump the brakes,” he said. “I have just the thing.” He fixed me a Diplomat, a drink I’d always meant to try in part because I always have the ingredients.

The Diplomat first appears in the 1922 book Cocktails: How to Mix Them. The author is Robert Vermiere, credited as “‘Robert’ of the American Bar, Casino Municipal, Nice and late of the Embassy Club, London.” His bona fides state that he is “well known as an expert, first at the Royal Automobile Club.” Along with the recipe, ‘Robert’ presents without comment the tidbit that “this drink is very well known in the French Diplomatic Service.” So well known, in fact, that he lists it as the Diplomate. Maybe no comment is required: you don’t want to serve too much of the hard stuff to someone in possession of state secrets.

Robert’s formula calls for twice as much dry vermouth as sweet as well as both cherry and lemon peel garnishes. The modern variation opts for equal parts, omits the lemon peel, and adds bitters (ideally Angostura, but orange works as well). I put my own spin on the drink by using Punt e Mes, the additional bitterness of that sweet vermouth necessitating an extra dash or two of maraschino to compensate.

When David Embury enumerated the functions of a cocktail in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks he led off the list with, “It must whet the appetite, not dull it.” The Diplomat’s long, dry finish makes it the embodiment of Embury’s ideal and a classic aperitif. At the very least, it’s a wonderful way to slow the tempo of a pleasant evening during the most wonderful time of the year.

The Diplomat

1 ½ oz. dry vermouth
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth (try Punt e Mes)
2 dashes maraschino liqueur
1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940, by Victoria Wilson (2013)

To get my prejudice out of the way up front: I believe Barbara Stanwyck is the greatest actress ever to step before a movie camera. Many of her performances remain startlingly fresh, her presence almost contemporary. It’s at once resilient and sad, marrying the confidence of a thoroughgoing professional with an uneasy watchfulness. Being abandoned by your widowed father at the age of four and having to make your own way in the world as an adolescent can do that to a girl.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to devour Victoria Wilson’s new biography. But I’d have to pace myself. Wilson’s epic is no ordinary repast but a smorgasbord, tipping the scales at over one thousand pages. And as the subtitle indicates, that’s only volume one.

Stanwyck in 1924
Stanwyck’s history – a Dickensian childhood as Ruby Stevens giving way to a career that spanned the breadth of twentieth century show business – and her status as a performer have long demanded a definitive survey. Wilson dedicated over fifteen years to the task. Her book is exhaustive and on occasion exhausting. She regularly attributes to Stanwyck quotes from studio press books or back issues of Photoplay that were clearly written by some sharpie in the publicity department. The lines not only don’t sound like the actress but scarcely read as human. Here’s Barbara, allegedly, on her character in the 1932 Edna Ferber adaptation So Big: “Selina became a farmer’s wife, and her hands became soil worn. She lost her girlish prettiness, but she became a beauty instead. And there is beauty in fine, strong hands that have not been ashamed to work in the earth.”

Wilson also insists on including every tidbit about Stanwyck reported by Hedda or Louella, no matter how irrelevant or meager the context. It’s a strange choice given Wilson’s genuine talent for concision. She regularly steps away from the framework provided by Stanwyck’s life to offer brief, vivid sketches of her collaborators like Frank Capra (who helped establish the actress’s early persona and fell in love with her), William Wellman and Stella Dallas author Olive Higgins Prouty.

The most vexing figure in Stanwyck’s life is her first husband, vaudeville titan Frank Fay. Their troubled, abusive marriage is thought to have inspired A Star is Born. Wilson skillfully dissects one of Fay’s signature routines on the page, explaining his popularity and demonstrating how his now-forgotten talent influenced (and was copied by) Jack Benny and Bob Hope, and thus every comic who borrowed from them. She even gets mileage out of Stanwyck’s second spouse Robert Taylor, the handsome if one-note actor who was briefly bigger than Gable. (Taylor’s diminished luster is perfectly summed up for me by the blank enthusiasm with which Sarah Jessica Parker says his name when guessing which celebrity her boyfriend met in Ed Wood.)

Taylor and Stanwyck
Wilson chooses to focus more on Stanwyck’s work than her relationships, which is no doubt as the lady would have wanted it. In the time covered here Stanwyck evolves quickly, moving from pre-Code shockers like Baby Face to the tortured mother love of Stella Dallas in less than five years. The book’s greatest asset is Wilson’s understanding of and appreciation for Stanwyck’s abilities as an actress. Wilson also doesn’t stint on how Stanwyck’s regular radio appearances aided her development as a performer. (Another plus: a bounty of photographs, many never before published.)

When Stanwyck provides great copy, Wilson proves more than up for the challenge. The book is particularly strong when dealing with Preston Sturges, who as a writer is responsible for Stanwyck’s first truly great performance in the Christmas dramedy Remember the Night and would direct her in the classic The Lady Eve. Wilson picks up on Night’s Gothic undercurrents, on Sturges’ nuanced dialogue and barbed warmth. She points out the marked contrast with Stanwyck’s previous film, the adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, in which the actress is stilted. Odets doggedly conjures up the real world through details – the cry of the fishmongers satirized in Barton Fink – and as such his “official art” is “artificial and stylized,” while the faded-upper-crust Sturges grounds his realism in “emotionalism, character, people and humor.” He is “high elegance and high sophistication while being banana peel low, and Barbara as an actress is freed up by it.”

The Stanwyck legend was forged in one of the great show business stories, and Wilson tells it in its full glory. Initially the movies didn’t know what to do with Stanwyck, and she in turn was suspicious of them. She was cajoled into making yet another screen test she was sure would prove fruitless. On an evening in 1931 she presented herself at Warner Brothers and found no director, no make-up man, no script. Finally, Alexander Korda arrived. He, too, was adrift in Hollywood, destined to find success back in Europe. He invited Barbara to do what she pleased while the camera rolled. She said to hell with it and performed her key scene from The Noose, the melodrama in which she made her name on Broadway. Korda, briefly struck speechless by her intensity, told her “it’s been a privilege to make this test with a real actress.” It’s a haunting moment, two gifted outcasts briefly commiserating then going their separate ways, expecting nothing. And they’re right; the studio’s assessment is that neither director nor actress has anything to offer. That melancholy punch line gives way to a more astonishing payoff when Frank Fay barges in on Frank Capra and forces him to watch the footage, setting his wife on a path that will quickly eclipse his own.

That tale and the life it produced deserve to be celebrated, and Wilson has done right by them. Steel-True is like a marathon, a long haul requiring time and commitment. When it’s finished, you feel spent and exhilarated – and immediately start planning the next run. The book ends with the world plunging into war and Stanwyck poised to play her greatest parts: Eve, Ball of Fire, and Double Indemnity, not to mention one of my favorites Sorry, Wrong Number. Volume two cannot come soon enough.

If you’re in New York, be sure to attend the Film Forum’s month-long Stanwyck series, at which Victoria Wilson will be a guest.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Journalist


Holds Forth on Subject at Slightest Provocation

SEATTLE, WA – Vince Keenan had never tried the cocktail known as the Journalist before, but he had a perfectly valid reason to make one at his home bar.

“I already had the ingredients,” Mr. Keenan said. “Every one of them. Even the lemon. Kind of a lucky break, really.”

Over recent years, Mr. Keenan has developed a taste for mixed drinks, amassing a considerable collection of books dedicated to alcoholic libations and regularly preparing them for himself and his wife, who asked not to be identified by name.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a cocktail expert. More a cocktail enthusiast,” Mr. Keenan said with what he hoped was a twinkle in his eye but was in fact more likely mild astigmatism. “I’m always happy to experiment, especially with what I already have on hand.”

Pictured: A journalist
In this most recent instance, that would include curaçao. “I’ve been raving about Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao for a while now. Ever since I bought a bottle, really,” Mr. Keenan said, turning to his sparsely-trafficked website for proof. He added that he had become quite a fan of the orange liqueur, based on a nineteenth-century formulation, because of the presence of brandy, which he described as “stout.” “As in strong, not as in the beer,” Mr. Keenan clarified with a wholly unnecessary chuckle. “I was looking for other drinks I could make with it and came across the Journalist.”

The adult beverage in question first appeared in the storied Savoy Cocktail Book, a compendium of mixed drinks first published in 1930 and assembled by Harry Craddock, an American bartender who emigrated to the United Kingdom during Prohibition to pursue his craft. Unlike many of the other cocktails featured in Mr. Craddock’s book, the Journalist was largely forgotten, seldom appearing in subsequent titles on the subject. “Somehow it survived into my copy of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual,” Mr. Keenan said, scrambling to retrieve his edition of the book even though no one had asked him to. “It’s where I first found it.”

To some extent Mr. Keenan was not surprised by the Journalist’s neglected status, because of its similarity to a far-better known concoction. “It’s basically a perfect martini with a sharp citrus kick,” Mr. Keenan said, explaining that by “perfect” he meant the cocktail contained equal portions of both sweet and dry vermouth. The citrus kick comes courtesy of lemon juice and Mr. Keenan’s favored new ingredient curaçao, which are used sparingly but to great effect. Mr. Keenan again credits the brandy present in the curaçao. “I think it tethers the hints of lemon and bitter orange, lets them shine through the gin. The drink retains the crispness and clarity of a martini, but with a burst of citrus that makes it sort of sprightly. I can say that, right? Sprightly? I always feel self-conscious using words like that when talking about drinks. Or any subject, really.” He went on to provide several examples, ending in a protracted crying jag.

Pictured: A different Journalist
Mr. Keenan also appreciated the Journalist’s judicious use of bitters, which he viewed as a nod to tradition. “It’s a variation on a martini, after all, and originally that meant bitters. The recipe calls for Angostura, but any aromatic variety will do. I wouldn’t make this drink without them.”

This experiment proving a success, Mr. Keenan was asked what he planned to do next. “I don’t really know,” he said. “Typically I don’t put much forethought into this. More often than not it’s based on whatever I have lying around. Like the Bénédictine I picked up the other day. Where did I put that?” He went in search of the recently acquired bottle. When he did not return after several hours, the interview drew to a close.

- 30 -

The Journalist

2 oz. gin
½ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes curaçao
2 dashes lemon juice
1 dash Angostura or aromatic bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Down The Hatch: Repeal Day Blowout!

Eighty years ago tomorrow, on December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified and Prohibition ended. To commemorate that moment when the United States came to its senses and once again bellied up to the bar, I’m teaming with Amazon for a special Kindle Countdown Deal.

My book Down the Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore is only 99 cents through Friday. Go to the Amazon page; there’s a little countdown clock and everything! Celebrate your right to imbibe as an American in style. Read about Repeal Day here, then buy the book Joy of Mixology author gaz regan called a “great compilation of fine drinks” for less than a buck! Remember, with the free Kindle app you can read Down the Hatch on any computer, tablet or smartphone.

In other DTH news ... my favorite book of the year is Drinking With Men, the brilliant memoir by New York Times Magazine columnist Rosie Schaap. Consequently, I was thrilled when Rosie sent along some kind words about Down the Hatch. To wit:

“Vince Keenan is just the sort of man with whom I like to drink: Funny, sharp, opinionated, a Mets fan - and a truly engaging storyteller. DOWN THE HATCH is a terrific guide through the classic cocktail repertoire.”

The clock is (literally) ticking. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Movie: The Impostors (1998)

I’m reluctant to file this post under the Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies rubric. After all, I remember The Impostors with so much affection that it was our Thanksgiving night entertainment, cinematic comfort food. The trailer’s not on YouTube – but a fan version is, which tells you something about the film’s reception.

Actor Stanley Tucci scored a succès d’estime with his maiden (co-)directorial effort, 1996’s delicate art vs. commerce fable Big Night. His follow-up left critics and audiences somewhat flummoxed. It’s an honest-to-God farce, a loving tribute to 1930s cinema featuring the best actors 1990s independent film had to offer.

Tucci and Oliver Platt play Arthur and Maurice, a pair of literally starving actors cut from Laurel and Hardy cloth. Fittingly the movie’s opening scenes play like one-reelers as the boys struggle to ply their trade. Thanks to their efforts, they run afoul of vainglorious thespian Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina, gleefully picking scenery from between his teeth) and accidentally end up stowing away on a transatlantic cruise ship, where their troubles really start.

The characters onboard the vessel are broad types drawn from the era (Campbell Scott restores luster to a neglected favorite, the comedy German), each a faker in his or her own way. They’re played by an astonishing cast. The assemblage of talent is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to the movie: Steve Buscemi (singing!), Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and many more. It was only on viewing the film last Thursday that I realized Burtom’s nameless dresser is played by Lost/Person of Interest star Michael Emerson. (Tucci is destined to be remembered by an entire generation as the preening M.C. of the Hunger Games Caesar Flickerman, but for me his legacy aside from his sterling work as a character actor is the trio of films he directed that show an affinity for a bygone New York: this, Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret. I wish he’d make more of them.)

What I love about The Impostors, in addition to the players and the affection for the period, is the silliness. It celebrates a style of comedy seldom seen nowadays, wrapping up the mayhem with an end titles sequence that is one of the most joyous on film. Occasionally I’ll pop in the DVD just to watch the last shot. It never fails to make me feel like a million bucks.

On The Web: Crimes of the Century

Ethan Iverson is the hugely talented pianist in The Bad Plus, a connoisseur of crime fiction, and a man who does not shy away from monumental tasks. His latest dark undertaking is an exhaustive, highly idiosyncratic list of the genre’s must-read books. I was honored that he asked me to give feedback, along with the estimable Sarah Weinman. Clear the decks and go read his choices.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book: Under the Table, A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (2013)

You hear that subtitle – A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide – and immediately wonder how this slender volume didn’t exist until this month. A loving look at literary lushes, Mrs. Parker and her fellow acid-tongued wags of the Vicious Circle considered through the many glasses of bathtub gin they surely downed as they meted out bon mots. It’s a natural.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is the founder and president of the Dorothy Parker Society. In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby admit that I am a member of this august body and have had the pleasure of taking one of Fitzpatrick’s walking tours of Mrs. Parker’s Manhattan.

Fitzpatrick is a true scholar, which means he’s upfront about the essential deception of this undertaking. For all of Mrs. Parker’s association with alcohol – the lady has a gin named after her, the maker of said spirit providing the book’s introduction – she was faithful to the highball and the martini, rarely if ever indulging in other mixed drinks of the time. Her loyalty to the hotel aside, it’s a fair bet she never had an Algonquin, a truly mediocre concoction. Strictly speaking, Fitzpatrick’s book is more a salute to cocktails of the Dorothy Parker (read: Prohibition) era. He even acknowledges that the quatrain attributed to Mrs. Parker that gave rise to the title –

I love a martini –
But two at the most
Three, I’m under the table;
Four, I’m under the host.

– never appeared in print under her name.

Many of the cocktails can be tied in some way to Mrs. Parker or a member of her cohort. The Bronx, for instance, was often served by Jane Grant and Harold Ross, co-founders of The New Yorker, at their townhouse, while Mrs. Parker panned the revue that gave the Floradora its name. Some of the more tenuous connections allow Fitzpatrick’s research to shine; featuring the Boston-born Ward Eight permits him to note Mrs. Parker’s only arrest came in that city when she protested the Sacco and Vanzetti executions. Other cocktails like the Monkey Gland make the grade on the thinnest of pretexts. Fitzgerald also includes several new Dorothy Parker-inspired concoctions from contemporary craft cocktail bars like New York’s Death & Company and The Violet Hour in Chicago.

Amidst the bartending tips there are occasional lapses, as when the recipe for the equal parts Last Word leads to a gargantuan four ounce serving. As a survey of Mrs. Parker’s demimonde Under the Table is a treat, filled with informative sidebars, well-selected quotes and photographs.

Related: the saga of ‘Lolita,’ the 1955 story of an older man, his teen bride, and her mother ... written by Dorothy Parker?

Meaningless Milestone: Sesquicentennial Times Ten

I note for the record that this constitutes the 1,500th post in this website’s history. As you were.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Vieux Carré

Pity, if you will, the poor Vieux Carré. Not that the cocktail is poor, of course. Au contraire, it’s rich in all the ways that matter. Had it been born anywhere else it would surely, by popular acclamation, be declared the official cocktail of that metropole and receive all the deference due.

Instead it’s the hard luck drink of New Orleans. No matter that it was birthed in the Big Easy and christened after the French Quarter – the name means “old square” – it will never be the Crescent City’s signature libation. Not when the Sazerac got there first.

Still, this cocktail-in-waiting ably rewards the attentions of any caller. Walter Bergeron, bartender at the still-standing Hotel Monteleone, created it, the recipe first appearing in print in 1937. It’s a dandy down home spin on the Manhattan, or more precisely on a variation of that classic called the Saratoga (one of several drinks laying claim to that up-north appellation), which adds cognac to the usual combination of whiskey, rosso vermouth and Angostura bitters. The cocktail’s Southern heritage comes marching in via the additional complexity provided by New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s bitters, as well as the soupçon of luxuriant sweetness courtesy of Bénédictine.

With its subtle interplay of flavors including a hint of decadence, the Vieux Carré has long been a go-to request of mine in craft cocktail bars. Now that I’ve finally ponied up for a bottle of Bénédictine, I can make them myself. Before preparing my maiden effort, though, I had to decide how I wanted to serve it. The first few times I ordered the drink it was presented up in a cocktail glass. The standard, though, is in a tumbler over ice, and that’s what I opted for here. In either case, don’t be stingy with the lemon peel. That final burst of citrus is the coup de grâce.

The Vieux Carré

1 oz. rye
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Bénédictine
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book: The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, by Lawrence Block (2013)

There’s any number of slightly unusual things about the latest novel from Lawrence Block. Take this review, for starters, which is running well in advance of the book’s Christmas Day release. One wants to do one’s bit to beat the drum.

Then there’s the fact that Block, the prolific Mystery Writers of America grand master who nonetheless has in the past stooped to answering questions for lesser websites, is publishing the book himself, with the eBook sold exclusively through Amazon. A forward-thinking type, Block.

But the oddities continue on the book’s pages – er, screens – you know what I mean. Bernie Rhodenbarr is still a gentleman thief and connoisseur of locks (“The Poulard is the one they advertise as pickproof. Well, most of the time it probably is.”), and he remains as tight as ever with his lesbian lifemate Carolyn Kaiser. Only Bernie is now more a contented small businessman, trying to make a go of his used bookstore and only pilfering on consignment; in this case, a grab bag of historical curiosities that obsess a collector including one of the titular spoons. A murder occurs, of course, but this time Bernie is scarcely suspected by longtime nemesis Ray Kirschmann of the NYPD. Instead, Ray brings in Bernie as an unofficial consultant of sorts, seeking a burglar’s eye view of the crime. Could our man possibly be abandoning his larcenous legacy and ambling toward the straight and narrow after all these years?

The plot is Block’s typical well-oiled machine, the mechanism functioning so smoothly that it permits you to enjoy the book’s many incidental pleasures. In fact, Spoons is almost more comedy of manners than caper, with Bernie and Carolyn discoursing on assorted conundrums like how one meets prospective partners in this day and age; how one, ahem, passes the time with them once met; and the social intricacies of ordering Chinese food in Manhattan. There’s also fun to be had at the meta level, with Bernie offering sly critiques of crime fiction by Block’s contemporaries and struggling with the niceties of selling physical books in the e-reader era.

A breezy confection all in all, exactly the sort of thing you’ll want to read come the Yule in whatever format you fancy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Widow’s Kiss

The first time I heard the name Bénédictine, I assumed it was a tincture stashed in the nurse’s station at my Catholic school. “We’ll rub a little Bénédictine on that knee, then you can go to Sister Edna’s music class.”

I soon developed another impression of it. I’ll allow the brilliant novelist Ross Thomas to sum it up. In his 1989 novel The Fourth Durango, some bent city fathers – well, father and mother – are planning a dinner for the next lamsters who want to hole up in their burg. The mayor isn’t sure if she should offer dessert: “If they want sugar, I think I’ve got some B&B (Bénédictine & Brandy) left.” When the offer is made, nobody wants any.

Sweet. That’s the operative word for Bénédictine. But it’s an idiosyncratic sweetness, with a long finish redolent of honey and a feisty undercurrent of spiciness. Put it in a mixed drink and you’ll know it’s there, which is why it tends to be used in small amounts. But used it is, with regularity, and thus it was that I added its highly distinctive bottle to my home bar.

Pictured: my less successful variation
The French liqueur is just coming off its 500th anniversary, if you believe the press packet. Like chartreuse, it has in its history a monk zealously guarding a secret recipe. In 1510 Bernardo Vincelli, described in sacred texts – namely Bénédictine’s website – as “not apparently an expert in herbalism but more an alchemist,” crafted a medicinal elixir at an abbey in Fécamp. Of course, the recipe was lost during La Révolution only to be miraculously rediscovered in 1863 by wine broker Alexandre Le Grand, who proceeded to make a killing on it. Le Grand played up the religious angle; each bottle is marked D.O.M. for Deo Optimo Maximo, or “To God, Most Good, Most Great.”

To inaugurate my bottle I went with a classic. The Widow’s Kiss is one of the great fall cocktails as well as a postprandial staple. But to make it, I’d have to wrestle with a host of spiritual questions.

Calvados or apple brandy? Purists insist on France’s Calvados for this drink. This one was easy: I didn’t have any Calvados, but I did have Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy. (In this instance, however, I would not settle for applejack.)

Chartreuse? The Widow’s Kiss is a divine concoction in part because it uses both of your monk-made liqueurs. Some bartenders don’t object to using the more potent green chartreuse, but I would insist on yellow. Its flavor is less intrusive and pairs better with Bénédictine.

Shaken or stirred? Customarily this query would never be raised; a cocktail without citrus would always be stirred. But the father of the Widow’s Kiss, George Kappeler, a bartender at New York’s Holland House hotel, made a point of calling for it to be shaken in his 1895 tome Modern American Drinks. What to do?

Sweet or sweeter? The common thinking among bartenders is that the Widow’s Kiss is too sweet for contemporary palates. As a result, many mixologists dial down the liqueurs considerably; Jim Meehan, in The PDT Cocktail Book, suggests turning the traditional ratio of 2:1:1 to an astonishing 8:1:1, using 2 ounces of Laird’s apple brandy to a quarter ounce each of Bénédictine and yellow chartreuse along with two dashes of Angostura bitters. I made this version first, stirring it per Meehan’s instructions, and found it a solid if uninspired mix.

Being an American, I had my own remedy: more! I upped the liqueurs to half an ounce, certain that would liven up the joint. Instead that combination was worse, tasting like abnormally sweet if high-end apple juice.

In his book Imbibe!, David Wondrich observes that “this drink is a balancing act, and if one thing is out of whack, everything is.” He calls for rigorous adherence to Kappeler’s original proportions, and for shaking them once assembled. I did so, and was rewarded with an ambrosia of unbridled complexity. The crisp and the sweet move in perfect sync, their choreography inspired. I have my doubts that Brother Vincelli was an alchemist, but Brother Kappeler may have been. It just goes to show that the old ways are often the best, whether from 1510 Normandy or 1895 Manhattan.

The Widow’s Kiss

1 oz. apple brandy
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Movies: Lights, Camera, Hitchcock

Attending this summer’s run of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films was a mighty step toward achieving my goal of seeing every one of his movies. (And it gave me a new cocktail to try.) My Sundays with Hitch project covered many of the later suspense titles I’d missed, so only some of his early efforts remain. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ recent Sundays With Hitch project – no relation, but if they wanted to send a few bucks my way I wouldn’t say no – I was able to cross a few more entries off my list.

The film business essentially started anew when talkies came in. You can see that rough transition play out over a single career with Hitchcock. Even a single movie; he made silent and sound versions of 1929’s Blackmail, the former still supple and occasionally breathtaking, the latter frequently stilted. “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Hitchcock said, adding, “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise ... Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds.” His early attempts to incorporate the new technology show flashes of the élan evinced in his most accomplished silent efforts like The Lodger and Blackmail, but for the most part he fumbled along like everyone else.

You know you’re in trouble as soon as 1931’s The Skin Game begins, the credits identifying it as “A Talking Picture by John Galsworthy.” And brother, do they talk. In this stuffy drama from Galsworthy’s play about rival families feuding over a piece of land, much of the dialogue – one character prefaces every utterance with “I say” – now reads as comic. When the plot finally generates some melodramatic momentum, it’s too late. Hitch’s sympathies clearly lie with the self-made sort played by Edmund Gwenn, or maybe it’s just that Gwenn manages to give a lively performance. So does Hitchcock favorite Phyllis Konstam as Chloe, the silly girl who pays the price for the machinations of the gentry. Whenever Hitch dispenses with dialogue, as in an auction scene or the local lord’s hellish vision of what will become of the real estate should he not acquire it, the movie briefly sparks to life.

The same is true of Rich and Strange, also from 1931. The opening sequence, showing the protagonist’s journey home on a rainy evening, unspools like an entertaining silent comedy. Then he gets there, and everything falls apart. A feckless young married couple, about whom it’s impossible to care, are given the resources to live the good life. They set out on an ocean voyage and in no time flat are eyeing other partners. The ‘strange’ portion of the title is bang on, as the movie’s tone varies wildly from limp comedy to knockoff Noel Coward to apocalyptic dread. Hitch gets to stage his finale on a sinking ship, but by then expectations have sailed over the horizon.

Tone isn’t the issue in Secret Agent (1936). It’s a Hitchcock movie through and through, following the template established in its predecessors The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. It’s the plot that’s half-baked and ultimately irrelevant in this oddball adaptation of W. Somserset Maugham’s Ashenden stories. John Gielgud’s novelist learns he’s been killed off by the British government, the better to be shanghaied into the intelligence service, and his response buries the needle on the “pip-pip, cheerio” meter. A full complement of Hitchcock set pieces is on display; when you hear Gielgud’s contact is an organist at a remote Swiss church you settle in, knowing what you’re going to get. The film doesn’t make a lot of sense and is disturbingly indifferent about collateral damage, but one must admire the verve. Best of all is Peter Lorre’s performance as an amiable psychotic who happens to be working on the side of the Union Jack. I couldn’t help thinking of the Lorre/Hitchcock relationship as a precursor to that between Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino. Cast an Austrian-born actor as a villain (the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Inglourious Basterds) and fall so hard for his performance that you have him back to give it again, this time as a good guy (Agent, Django Unchained).

I’m down to Hitch’s curios and obscurities now. I intend to press on.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The El Presidente

On a week when each citizen was called upon to exercise his or her franchise, I give to a cocktail something I am unlikely to extend to a candidate: a second chance.

The El Presidente was created in Havana. Several of the city’s bars lay claim to the drink, although its likeliest origin according to cocktail historian David Wondrich is expatriate Yanqui bartender Eddie Woelke at the Jockey Club. Given that a recipe appeared in a 1919 newspaper, odds are the cocktail was christened after Cuba’s then-jefe Mario García Menocal. It quickly became popular on the island and made the jump to another, Manhattan, by 1925. The apocryphal story goes that in 1928, Menocal’s successor Gerardo Machado offered one to Calvin Coolidge on a state visit, but owing to Prohibition America’s El Presidente declined.

Exhibit A
Many a cocktail pioneer championed the drink. Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron dubbed it Cuba’s answer to the martini. David Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, called it “the leading rum cocktail of the aromatic type.” No one did more to popularize the El Presidente than Charles H. Baker, Jr. In his Gentleman’s Companion it’s enshrined as “The Habana Presidente, now Known to Many, but Sound Enough in Its Own Right for Listing in any Spiritual Volume,” and he suggests “every visiting Americano should go to (Havana bar) La Florida and get one from headquarters. The mix is simple and satisfying.” That mix, for the record, is rum, dry vermouth, grenadine and curaçao, and that’s exactly how I first had the drink at San Francisco’s marvelous temple of all things tropical Smuggler’s Cove.

A curious thing happened as the cocktail’s popularity waned: the recipe changed. Blame, as discussed last week, the scarcity of quality curaçao. The schism is laid bare in my late 1980s Mr. Boston guide. It takes a bicameral approach, featuring two versions of the El Presidente, one with lime and pineapple juice, the other with dry vermouth and bitters, nary a drop of curaçao to be seen. Baker had noted that the Special, served at the competing Havana bar Sloppy Joe’s, was an El Presidente with lime, which may explain where the citrus originated. My first attempt at fixing the cocktail myself was based on this later iteration, specifically gaz regan’s The Joy of Mixology recipe extrapolated from a 1949 Old Mr. Boston guide. Submitted into evidence as Exhibit A is a photograph, taken at the old Chez K. This drink – featuring lime and pineapple juices as well as the telltale neon glow of bottled grenadine – tasted nothing like what I’d sipped in San Francisco, proving an underwhelming variation on a daiquiri.

The contender, not the pretender
The recount was prompted by the triumphant resurrection of curaçao. The Wondrich-developed Pierre Ferrand variety, with its orange notes on a solid foundation of cognac, sets off magnificent sparks here. I resisted the temptation to add more, because curaçao’s flavor is so textured that a little accomplishes a great deal. Some recipes call for equal parts rum and dry vermouth, but in my regime I established a clear hierarchy: rum as the strongman, then vermouth, then curaçao, and finally grenadine.

Only not grenadine. I have of late been substituting pomegranate molasses. On the plus side it provides an intensity of taste that most grenadines can’t match. The drawback is it doesn’t dissolve very well. Diluting the molasses largely alleviates that problem. I gave the resulting cocktail the strongest endorsement possible: as soon as it was finished, I made another one.

The El Presidente

1 ½ oz. rum
¾ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. orange curaçao
½ tsp. grenadine or diluted pomegranate molasses

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Movie: M (1951)

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on Halloween night. (Somebody has to stay by the door in the unlikely event a trick-or-treater shows up, probably to ask for directions.) Last week it was a passionate piece of film criticism.

In an essay written several years ago for the Film Noir Foundation, Carl Steward declared the 1951 Hollywood remake of M “criminally undervalued” and “maybe the best” noir released that year, other graduates of the class including Ace in the Hole, He Ran All The Way, and The Prowler. It was a surprising argument, given that Columbia’s retread of Fritz Lang’s 1931 landmark is scarcely acknowledged much less appreciated. Yet Carl claimed it was “a near-classic if not a full-fledged one, and a film that complements the original’s vision and power.” His enthusiasm stayed with me. I made a note to seek out the Joseph Losey-directed version.

That chance came last Thursday as part of the Seattle Art Museum’s always popular fall film noir series. I braved streets clogged with tiny Tony Starks and women dressed in costumes that brought sexiness to a diverse range of professions from football referee to prostitute. The fact that the movie was screening on a perversely appropriate holiday might have helped me score a ticket. The verdict: Carl wasn’t kidding.

Lang’s film would go down as one of the all-time greats even if it hadn’t introduced Peter Lorre to the world. A string of child murders in Berlin unleashes a public frenzy, prompting the authorities to come down hard on known criminals. The underworld, prevented from their daily rounds, launches their own manhunt for the killer.

That plot is transposed from the Weimar Republic to HUAC-era Los Angeles with great fidelity and startling ease. (Blacklisted director Losey would move to Europe in 1953.) Losey’s films can be problematic for me, but he seizes your attention in the very first shot, as the killer clambers past newspapers calling for his head and into a car on the Angels Flight funicular railway, which then climbs Bunker Hill.

The many shots of that now-demolished working class neighborhood are one of the film’s huge assets. The 1951 M is a marvel of Los Angeles location photography, particularly the spectacular extended sequence in which the killer is trapped within the walls of the storied Bradbury Building, featured in Blade Runner and most recently The Artist.

Noir stalwarts Howard Da Silva and Steve Brodie play weary cops, but the film features an authentic rogues gallery, a veritable who’s who of hoodlums. Martin Gabel is the kingpin cut from Meyer Lansky cloth. His cohorts include Norman Lloyd, a sublimely peeved Raymond Burr, demanding to know why the cops think “baby-killers” like to play slot machines, and Luther Adler as the bibulous barrister pressed into kangaroo court service. Familiar faces abound in small bits, like Jim Backus as L.A.’s show-must-go-on mayor and character actor William Schallert offering a police psychiatrist his creepy interpretation of an inkblot.

Taking over for Peter Lorre as the tormented murderer is David Wayne. His performance is remarkable, contained and relying on body language for most of the running time only to erupt in a torrent of tortured pleas in a climactic monologue more explanation than confession. The speech, grounded in character and devoid of psychobabble, is a bravura moment.

The shadow of Lang’s original M will forever loom, but the remake deserves – no, demands to be better known. If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, your opportunity to pay your respects is coming.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: Satan’s Whiskers/Satan’s Soul Patch

Greetings, boys and ghouls. I thought it would be a scream on this Samhain-chanted evening to exorcize your tonsils with – yeah, OK, I’m putting a stop to that nonsense right there.

This week’s entry comes a day early, because there’s no point in highlighting a drink called Satan’s Whiskers after Halloween. As well as having a suitably seasonal name, it’s a natural follow up to last week’s gin-and-orange adventure.

Satan’s Whiskers first appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Book, and how many times have I written that sentence? Its claim to fame is that it can be served in two styles depending on the orange liqueur used, either straight (Grand Marnier) or curled (curaçao). My Whiskers have a kink to them for one reason: I don’t have any Grand Marnier.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the stuff. On its own it can be marvelous. But in mixed drinks Grand Marnier, like Bull Durham’s ‘Nuke’ LaLoosh, likes to announce its presence with authority. It tends to bully the other flavors around.

Straight Whiskers have long been the default choice because of the absence of a good curaçao. The secret to the liqueur is the use of Laraha orange peels. Larahas are the descendants of European Valencia oranges that didn’t take to the drier climate of the New World and became small and bitter. (For a demonstration of this process, have a relative move to Florida and then check on them in five years. Hiyo!) Larahas are largely inedible but that didn’t stop desperate sailors from forcing them down to stave off scurvy, to the extent that Amy Stewart, in her book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks, speculates that the name of the island where the fruit grows comes from the Portuguese word for “cured.” This desperation led to the discovery that Laraha peels are uncommonly, almost seductively aromatic, and soon they were the source of a liqueur.

Curaçao has been bastardized over the years; hell, most people think it’s supposed to be blue. Then in 2012 cocktail authority David Wondrich joined forced with France’s Cognac Ferrand to create Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao. Based on 19th century formulae, their variation of this classic combines Curaçao orange peels and other spices with unaged brandy and Ferrand cognac. The resulting spirit, tinted a light amber and priced to move, has a nuanced taste, the brandy assertive but not overwhelming. It occupies a point on the spectrum where it could readily be substituted for Grand Marnier on one end and Cointreau or other triple secs on the other.

And, of course, it’s right at home in traditional curaçao cocktails like the curled Satan’s Whiskers. Which, I have to say, does not taste particularly diabolical. In fact, demonic monicker aside it’s scarcely a Halloween drink. Its orange flavor is so pronounced that it’s almost sprightly. I’d go so far as to call Satan’s Whiskers too much of a good thing. The standard recipe calls for orange bitters, but I’d opt for Angostura to provide a countervailing note to the abundance of citrus.

Or you could go one step further and make a Satan’s Soul Patch (or Satan’s Mouche, if one wants to sound Continental), a more substantial offering anchored by bourbon instead of gin. Especially if you plan on fixing one this evening. What better time to commune with dark spirits than Halloween?

Satan’s Whiskers (Curled)

½ oz. gin
½ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. sweet vermouth
½ oz. fresh orange juice
¼ oz. orange curaçao
dash of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist. Make the “straight” version with Grand Marnier in place of curaçao. Make a Satan’s Soul Patch with bourbon in place of gin. Note that reading this post in its entirety means that your immortal soul is now the property of Keenan’s Kocktails, LLC.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Miscellaneous: Happy Birthday, Edith Head!

Nothing beats Google stealing your thunder. If you’ve seen today’s doodle –

– then you already know that Edith Head was born 116 years ago. And if you’re a regular reader, you already know why Hollywood’s best-known costume designer is so significant here at Chez K. Rosemarie and I have assembled quite the bounty of material on Edie’s life and work, including her original design notes for the character played by actress Pat Crowley in the Martin & Lewis film Hollywood or Bust. Faded fabric swatches are still attached to the pages.

The gorgeous doodle by Sophie Diao spotlighting half a dozen Edith costumes (among them Kim Novak’s iconic suit from Vertigo) is generating plenty of interest in Edith’s work. Turner Classic Movies is running a day-long salute that focuses on her late-career films at Universal. Already this morning I’ve been at a Google hangout featuring Ms. Diao and Susan Claassen, who performs a one-woman show about Edith.

Edith’s greatest costume was the one she created for herself, the public persona of “Edith Head” that afforded her visibility and career longevity. What better way to celebrate her trailblazing legacy than by seeing her in action? Here she is with Groucho Marx on an episode of You Bet Your Life.

So raise a glass to Edith Head, a one of a kind personality who in no way was off the rack. Maybe something with Fernet Branca; as Edith herself said, it’s “guaranteed to save your life on the day you want to kill yourself.” Happy birthday, Edith!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Maiden’s Prayer

A few months ago, I took a mighty leap forward in my quest to see every film directed by Alfred Hitchcock when all nine of his surviving silent films, fully restored by the British Film Institute, screened in Seattle. What struck me about these early efforts, aside from his precocious talent, was the characters’ regular indulgence in cocktails. The movies were made in the late 1920s when Prohibition held sway over the Colonies, so perhaps rubbing it in is another example of Hitch’s mordant wit.

Rosemarie's favorite title card from CHAMPAGNE
Imbibing factors most prominently in 1928’s fittingly titled Champagne. The heroine of this screwball comedy, which survives only in a back-up print consisting of alternate takes, is literally a runaway heiress; the movie opens with her blowing a chunk of her father’s fortune to charter a seaplane so she can catch up to an ocean liner. As evidenced by a title card that quickly became Rosemarie’s motto, Betty is a dedicated student of mixed drinks and a devotee of the good life. She’s so profligate with her pop’s resources that he pretends he’s destitute in order to teach her a lesson. But Betty discovers heretofore unknown reserves of pluck and lands a position in a restaurant. On her first night, when nothing goes as planned, she takes a moment to watch in wonder as a bartender builds a complex cocktail. She asks what it’s called and is told a Maiden’s Prayer.

It was only a matter of time before I whipped one up myself and toasted Hitch with it.

The name came first, bestowed upon a genteel piece of piano music by Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska in 1856. The ditty turns up in Kurt Weill’s satirical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, but its most lasting impact would come courtesy of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills heard the melody on a fiddle and knew it lent itself to western swing. His new arrangement and lyrics made the song a country staple. Here’s a rendition recorded by the Baron of Bakersfield, Buck Owens.

Another title card from CHAMPAGNE
No one’s sure which wiseacre decided to christen a drink after it. The earliest Maiden’s Prayer on record, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, is one made with rum and champagne that appears in Frank Newman’s unsung 1907 book American Bar. Gin is the base spirit in the version enshrined in the Savoy Cocktail Book, with another variation adding Calvados and Kina Lillet. Adding to the giggly confusion is the similar Maiden’s Blush, made without orange juice and with grenadine. However you poured it the intent of the Maiden’s Prayer was the same, and here’s where the wiseacre part comes in. Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts (1949) suggested that the drink be “served on the edge of the couch,” intimating that the concoction was engineered for the overcoming of inhibitions. While it’s not a particularly potent libation, it’s easy to see how the combination of fruit juices and “just a little gin” could be made appealing to an unsuspecting member of the fairer sex.

Guess which one has egg white
When I prepared the drink, I followed gaz regan’s advice to add Angostura bitters. The note of spice they brought kept the drink from floating away on a cloud of citrus. A fellow Hitchcock fan and cocktail aficionado known only as El Benjamino, similarly inspired after the Champagne screening, ordered a Maiden’s Prayer at the Zig Zag Café and was asked by bartender Ricardo if he wanted it with egg white. This ingredient, which nudges the drink toward Ramos Gin Fizz territory, didn’t turn up in any recipe I’d seen. Intrigued, I made versions with and without, because my thoroughness is unparalleled.

Which did I prefer? I can say that in addition to the silken texture always brought by egg white, its presence smoothes out what is quite a tart cocktail. Which will you prefer? You’ll have to fix a novena of Maiden’s Prayers and decide for yourself. Suspense perhaps not worthy of Hitchcock, but the best I can do.

The Maiden’s Prayer

1 ½ oz. gin
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. orange juice
dash of Angostura bitters
egg white (optional)

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist. If using an egg white, combine all the ingredients and shake first without ice, then with.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Newark

It’s no surprise October is National Applejack Month. No other American spirit is so associated with autumn, each crisp sip redolent of harvest time. Applejack, the name borne of the colonial practice of concentrating cider through freeze distillation (i.e., leaving it out in the cold) or “jacking,” has been available commercially in the United States almost since the United States opened for business.

What is a surprise is my newfound ability to acquire the good stuff. In my local supermarket yet.

Laird & Company have long been America’s preeminent producer of applejack, which is apple brandy blended with neutral spirits. The country’s oldest licensed distillery also makes a 100 proof bottled in bond apple brandy. The uncut version has a brilliant flavor, not on par with Calvados – the French apple brandy that is the finest liquid known to man – but close. For years it was only available on the East Coast. Here’s how it good it is: it’s worth checking a suitcase for. I was once asked by the bartenders at New York’s Death + Company to courier several bottles as a gift to the team at the Zig Zag Café here in Seattle. I did so without keeping one for myself. Lousy Catholic school education.

I was on my ritual pass through the liquor section of my neighborhood store when I glimpsed a distinctive label. I stood rooted to the spot until Rosemarie happened past to confirm that I was not experiencing some miraculous visitation. The premier variety of Laird’s Apple Brandy is now for sale on the West Coast, without any of the fanfare such an announcement deserves.

The Jack Rose is the best-known applejack cocktail. I wanted to inaugurate this bottle with something different. The Newark is the brainchild of Jim Meehan and John Deragon of New York’s PDT. It’s another spin on the Brooklyn, this one not named after a neighborhood in that borough but the largest city in the state Laird’s calls home.

The cocktail uses applejack for a base instead of rye while keeping the Brooklyn’s maraschino. In place of Amer Picon – another bottle that led to a trip to baggage claim – is Fernet Branca. The Newark has a complex, almost rolling flavor, yielding different notes as it settles. The unmistakable presence of Fernet frequently predominates, held in place by the maraschino. The taste of apple, even with the high-octane Laird’s, is always present but forever distant, like a memory. A fitting profile for a fall cocktail non pareil.

The Newark

Jim Meehan and John Deragon, PDT, New York

2 oz. applejack, ideally Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. maraschino
¼ oz. Fernet Branca

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Miscellaneous: Housekeeping

Right. Thank you all for coming. Does everyone have his or her agenda? A short one today, so let’s get to it ...

1. I have been remiss in not pointing out that applications are now being accepted for the 2014 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. The prize is given by the organizers of the Malice Domestic conference to aspiring authors of the traditional mystery novel. Rosemarie and I were honored to be 2013 recipients for our book Design for Dying: An Edith Head Mystery. Winning the grant, which includes a $1,500 cash award for conferences or workshops and complimentary registration and board at Malice, has opened countless doors for us. We can’t speak highly enough of this program. You have until November 15 to throw your deerstalker into the ring.

2. After careful consideration, or at least a weekend’s thought, I have decided to turn off comments on the blog.

Why? Because they’re getting in the way of the science, obviously; no legitimate funding agencies will bankroll my research. But I’ll show them! I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!

Also, the ratio of spam comments to real ones has swollen out of proportion. Even moderating them has become several steps too many.

I may revisit the decision. At present my only option for disabling comments regrettably means hiding all previously published ones. I’m trying to find a workaround. In the meantime, if you have any questions or complaints there’s always email or you can yell at me on Twitter.

3. My book is still for sale at Amazon. Two weeks in and Down the Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore is holding its own on the Kindle bestseller list. Buy yourself a copy before you have to start planning those holiday parties.