Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie: Nobody Else But You (U.S. 2012)

Nobody Else But You, known as Poupoupidou in France for reasons that will become evident, slipped into a handful of American theaters last year with zero fanfare. Hard to believe a twisted comic thriller about a crime novelist solving the murder of the putative reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe didn’t gain any box office traction against The Avengers.

David Rousseau is stalled on his next book; everyone compares him unfavorably to James Ellroy and he’s toying with using a Scandinavian pseudonym. But when he travels to a remote region of France known as “Little Siberia” for the reading of a relative’s will – he doesn’t inherit much – he stumbles onto the perfect yarn: the apparent suicide of model turned bottle blonde bombshell turned regional celebrity Candice Lecoeur (the luminous Sophie Quinton). Rousseau badly wants foul play to be involved, and his unorthodox unauthorized investigation plus the curious reaction of the locals convinces him he’s onto something.

Rousseau’s misadventures in the small town have a mordant sensibility reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. But the film’s strongest scenes trace Candice’s evolution from not-so-ugly duckling born on the wrong side of the tracks to the woman everyone in this corner of the world wants a piece of. Marilyn Monroe becomes Candice’s role model and the key Rousseau uses to unlock the mystery.

Writer/director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu plays a bit fast and loose with story logic in the late going, but the emotional logic cannot be faulted. The ultimate explanation for Candice’s fate is both wholly plausible and heartbreakingly sad. And the final beat, about the significance of stories not only for the audience but for the teller, is quite moving. Nobody Else But You is a silly, sardonic film with a power that sneaks up on you.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Champs-Élysées

Picking up where we left off, with the Sidecar

Versatility is the hallmark of a good cocktail. A small change can result in a vastly different experience. The Sidecar serves as a perfect example. Replace the Cointreau with, say, the complex French liqueur chartreuse and you might as well give the drink a new name. Maybe something that connotes Gallic elegance like, say, the Champs-Élysées.

But which chartreuse? That’s the question.

When the Champs-Élysées appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Book (1930), Harry Craddock did not specify a particular shade of chartreuse. Over time green has become the default choice; thanks to its higher proof and bolder taste, it’s the go-to color for bartenders and cocktail aficionados everywhere. As this recipe indicates, it’s how the drink is made at the Zig Zag Café, where I first sampled it.

Yellow chartreuse, on the other hand, has a more sedate flavor that would seem a better match for cognac. Flipping through my 1956 edition of Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixer’s Manual, I wasn’t surprised to see him call out the lighter brand of chartreuse.

There’s room for still more invention. Washington Post cocktail authority Jason Wilson offered a variation forsaking sugar in any form and incorporating sparks of orange that add a higher register to the drink. Contrast his version with the Zig Zag’s for a sense of the subtle range that’s possible within the spectrum of a single cocktail.

The Champs-Élysées

Jason Wilson

1 ½ oz. Cognac
¾ oz. yellow chartreuse
½ oz. lemon juice
dash of orange bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist (not pictured).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Books: The Jack LeVine Trilogy

If Andrew Bergman had only written The In-Laws, one of the funniest movies ever made (“Serpentine!”), he’d be enshrined in my personal pantheon. His original screenplay Tex X spawned Blazing Saddles, he adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch, and as writer/director he’s responsible for the crackpot genius that is The Freshman.

Before going Hollywood, Bergman – a fellow proud son of Queens – studied Hollywood, penning a study of Depression era films. He also wrote a series of period detective novels that Mysterious Press has reissued as ebooks. I’d heard about them. I had no idea I was missing them.

The Jack LeVine books quickly shed the label of Raymond Chandler pastiche because the protagonist takes on a quirky life of his own. Note that capital V, for starters. No tarnished knight is our LeVine. He doesn’t have the time for such airs. LeVine is a big, bald Jew living in Sunnyside (Queens again!) whose idea of a good time is a can of Blatz and a ball game on the radio while he soaks in the tub. He regularly lapses into the third person to mock his latest failing, his lowly status or his love of simple pleasures.

The books are funny but not comic; Bergman has too much respect for the detective novel to lampoon the form. LeVine falls for a woman in each, but he has uncommonly good taste to match Bergman’s flair for creating smart, believable female foils. The budding romance and the frequently earthy sex scenes are among the highlights in each outing, to the extent that I wish Bergman had tried sustaining a relationship past a single entry.

LeVine rubs shoulders and butts heads with real-world figures throughout the series, Bergman deploying these personages in unexpected ways. In LeVine’s debut, The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (1974), he’s hired by a Broadway actress to deal with a blackmailer who possesses her early stag films. Soon the shamus is caught up in the Presidential election, the pragmatically apolitical LeVine aiding challenger Thomas Dewey with FDR or at least his operatives shown in an unflattering light. 1975’s Hollywood and LeVine opens with a strong chapter in which LeVine has an awkward lunch with Walter Adrian, a former City College classmate turned successful screenwriter. “There was no rift, nothing that dramatic, just the inevitable drifting apart of friends living completely different kinds of lives.” Walter’s career is in jeopardy thanks to the coming Red Scare. Before his old school chum can clear his not-yet-smeared name, Walter dies in a highly suspect suicide. LeVine’s investigation leads to a Richard Nixon almost preternaturally inept when it comes to social cues, but the show business Communists come in for almost as much scorn. Humphrey Bogart doesn’t have a cameo so much as a featured role.

Bergman took leave to become a Hollywood A-lister himself, then returned to the character some 25 years later. Tender is LeVine (2001) is both the strongest and weakest link in the trilogy, beautifully recreating a time when orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini could be one of the most famous men in America but spinning around the Maestro a convoluted plot involving Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

The books are available individually or in an omnibus edition that I picked up for a song on Black Monday. I devoured all three titles in succession, and now can’t help wishing LeVine would take another case.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie: The Nickel Ride (1974)

It’s significant that the first word that comes to mind to describe The Nickel Ride is downbeat. 1970s crime dramas are aggressively, gaudily grim. The country was going down the tubes (even in French and English films), the system was busted, no one had any answers, and wherever you looked there was polyester.

But the bleakness of The Nickel Ride cuts deeper because it’s so small time. Its characters aren’t getting enough sleep to dream big. The film was directed by Robert Mulligan, the live TV veteran best known for To Kill A Mockingbird, from an early screenplay by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich).

Jason Miller’s Frank Cooper is a middle manager in an L.A. syndicate that’s going corporate. The ex-carny is known as “the key man,” and that’s not only an indication of his supreme utility. Coop oversees every warehouse in the city that holds stolen goods. It’s a hell of a lot of responsibility, as boss John Hillerman (in fine unctuous form) tells him. “You’re like a computer and we can’t afford to have you break down.” Coop’s hatched a scheme to ease his burden: “The Block,” uttered in reverent tones, a single massive structure to facilitate the movement of swag. It appears to him in visions like a redbrick Xanadu. He’s only waiting to close a protection deal with the cops, but they’re giving him the runaround. Even worse, he’s been saddled with a cowboy sidekick out of Tulsa (Bo Hopkins) who may have ulterior motives.

The ‘70s also spawned a subgenre of Working Man at the End of His Rope movies. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for one of the most obvious, Save the Tiger. The Nickel Ride transports that rat race despair to a George V. Higgins milieu, only with none of Higgins’ blunt poetry. There’s no time for it. There’s shit to move out of the truck.

Miller’s galvanic performance is almost the entire show here. Coop is aware he’s sinking: “The business is off. New people, new faces. Things change.” But aside from pressing his contacts to make the Block happen, he doesn’t know what else to do other than what he’s been doing for too damn long. “Without the work, I’m nothing. What else is there?” It would seem impossible to show a range of impassivity, but somehow Miller pulls it off. The movie is about both Coop and the audience realizing just how wound up he is at all times, his calm an eternal vigilance eating away at him. As a result, his occasional explosions of violence startle him most of all. Mulligan shoots one in particular in hugely effective fashion. To say more would ruin it.

Odd as it may be to recommend a movie for its shabbiness, The Nickel Ride unfolds in some spectacularly drab downtown Los Angeles locations. There’s also a comically depressing birthday party hosted by Coop’s pal Victor French. There’s not much crime in the film, but a lot of drama, and a star turn that should be more celebrated.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Sidecar

Claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy. In the first place, brandy is most grateful to the palate; and then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking can do for him. There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a power rather to be wished for than attained. – Samuel Johnson

And no cocktail showcases brandy, specifically cognac, better than the Sidecar. Imagine my chagrin to discover I’d neglected it up to now. I mean, it’s one of the six basic cocktails in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It turns up on a 1936 list of the western world’s fifteen most popular cocktails. What was I thinking?

I know what I was thinking. Much as I enjoy a good Sidecar, I don’t typically make them at home for a reason that will be revealed in due time.

With a drink as durable as this one, it comes as little surprise that there are multiple origin stories. Embury claims to have been friends with its creator, a World War I-era military man ferried via motorcycle sidecar to the Paris bar (apparently Harry’s New York) where the drink was made to his specifications. I’m inclined to believe him, as the scrupulous Embury was not given to idle boasts. Kingsley Amis repeats this version, calling the sidecar “the ideal vehicle for a soak when he’s been soaking – he can forget about the driver and snore away in peace.” Several other Continental establishments purport to be where the Sidecar was first poured. Embury also called the cocktail “the most perfect example I know of a magnificent drink gone wrong” because it swelled to a half-dozen or more ingredients from the original three. (I say four, finding that a small amount of simple syrup binds the other flavors together.) Any formulae in which the essential trio are served in equal parts is to be ignored. The drink calls for brandy, but that is always read as cognac or Armagnac.

One element not present in any of the early recipes is now the Sidecar’s signature feature: the sugared rim of the glass in which it is served. Cocktail expert Ted Haigh discovered that the drink bears a marked resemblance to the 1860s New Orleans concoction the Brandy Crusta, which features the same ingredients plus bitters and half a lemon peel – all in a glass with sugar on the rim.

Bringing us to my problem. My technique on this critical step is, shall we say, subpar. It’s easy enough in theory: you moisten the rim by rubbing the exterior with a wedge of the appropriate citrus fruit (here, lemon), then hold the glass parallel to the table and rotate it in a dish of the dry ingredient (sugar in this case, salt for the Sidecar’s spiritual descendant the Margarita). The goal is not to add anything unnecessary to the drink itself, keeping the sugar or salt on the outside of the glass. I prefer putting sugar on only half the rim because I add simple syrup to the Sidecar.

But my approach leaves something to be desired. I offer the attached photograph as evidence. I either get too much of the dry ingredient or not enough, which is why I tend to leave this trick to the professionals. Still, the Sidecar is too marvelous a drink not to have in the home repertoire, and practice makes perfect. For that reason I’ve been frequenting busy commercial strips and telling passersby that I’ll sugar their rims for them. Just remember: if you ask if they’re cops, they have to tell you.1

The Sidecar

2 oz. Cognac
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. Pour into a glass with a sugared rim. No garnish.

1Caution: not legally true.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Book: The Entertainer, by Margaret Talbot (2012)

Given the cruel pragmatism of show business, it would be all too easy to dismiss Lyle Talbot as a disappointment, an actor who had his chance as a studio contract player in the 1930s but without a breakthrough wound up in Ed Wood movies. Given the eternally optimistic nature of performers, it’s equally feasible to brand him a success, a man who supported his family through his craft alone and became a TV fixture. Only a storyteller would look at Talbot’s career and understand that it touched on virtually every development in modern popular culture, and only a daughter would chart that course with such affection.

New Yorker staffer Margaret Talbot chronicles her father’s path from traveling carnivals to barnstorming theater companies to the golden age of Hollywood and ultimately the quiet streets of the Ozzie and Harriet show. My impression of Talbot comes from the pre-Code films he made for Warner Brothers, movies like Ladies They Talk About and Havana Widows, where he always played the other man, a weak figure who caused strong women like Barbara Stanwyck or Glenda Farrell to come to grief. Talbot assesses her father’s gifts correctly: “Lyle often conveyed a bit of foppishness, a juvenile quality, with a faint trace of the feminine in it, that sometimes played as inadvertently goofy ... He did not project a large and distinctive personality that surrounded him like an aura from role to role.” She further suggests that temperament contributed to his also-ran status. “He possessed neither the soaring ambition nor the bottomless desire to be loved by the crowd that propels many stars.” Talbot himself blamed his activism; he was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild, and the first on the Warner lot.

Lyle’s career included its share of unlikely triumphs and strange footnotes (he was not only the first actor to portray Batman’s Commissioner Gordon but Superman’s Lex Luthor). Margaret recounts them all, including the depressing years as a member of Ed Wood’s stock company. She finds something to like and even respect about Glen or Glenda, but “Plan 9 (From Outer Space) and Jail Bait ... are really unwatchable for me. When I saw them once or twice with friends who were cracking up over them, I just felt sad and queasy and embarrassed for my dad. They reminded me of the cheap, off-brand Day-Glo candy you’d sometimes get in those claw-grabber machines at an arcade. Candy was so good; how could anybody make it so wretched?”

The Entertainer is occasionally digressive, veering into biographical cul-de-sacs, but understandably so because Talbot is coming to understand her much-older father as his own person. Ultimately it’s not about the entertainment business so much as the mystery of adulthood, specifically that of your parents and those shadowy, impossible-to-imagine years when their lives didn’t revolve around you, when they were out raising hell themselves. The best sections of this engaging book detail how Lyle’s itinerant lifestyle inculcated traits that he passed along to his daughter in various forms including beautifully prepared school lunches.

I think that in those years as a traveling player my father cultivated his own collection of habits, and that they stayed with him, help carry him, really, through life. He never had the steadiest of moral compasses, nor much in the way of self-knowledge, and at times he might have been completely undone by his love of a good time and the wrong woman. But he always maintained the habits of professionalism and of small attentions to himself that can hold a person together when little else does. I think there are probably many people like that, people who manage to live good and productive lives less for any deep reasons of character than for the fact that they’ve acquired, somewhere along the way, certain rituals of reliability and self-respect. Lyle always showed up at the theater; he always knew his lines. He did not leave the house unless he was well-turned out; he believed that was part of the social contract we implicitly make with our fellow human beings.

A few more Lyle Talbots in this world wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Lucien Gaudin

First, the man. Then, the drink.

Gaudin was a fencer from France. He would become the most successful Olympian in his nation’s history, although he was denied the opportunity to prove himself in that competition for years. In 1904, when Gaudin was 18, France did not field a team. Four years later a foil event, Gaudin’s strong suit, was not in the official Olympic program. It would be in 1912 in Stockholm, but the French fencing team withdrew over a rules dispute. In 1916, the world had more pressing matters to attend to. Gaudin was finally able to represent his country at the 1920 Games, where despite a foot injury he won the team foil silver. He had a better showing in Paris in 1924, where the hometown boys took the team golds in both épée and foil. But his greatest triumph came at the 1928 Olympiad, when at the relatively senior age of 42 he claimed the individual gold medals in the same two events, as well as a team silver in foil.

A mere six years later Gaudin was dead, committing suicide using barbiturates. The reasons why remain murky; either he faced financial ruin or he sustained a thumb injury while sparring with a novice fencer that would prevent him from competing in the sport he loved. (Personally I prefer the second, more tragic explanation, but I’m a print-the-legend kind of guy.) At the time of his death he was referred to as “probably the greatest swordsman of all time,” and his passing was “a bit like tearing a page in the history of French sport.”1

It was at the height of his 1928 fame that a drink was created in his honor; only fitting, since Gaudin was the toast of la belle France. Thanks to Ted Haigh’s book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, his namesake lives again. The Lucien Gaudin owes a lot to the Negroni. It owes even more to the Cardinal, which is a Negroni made with dry instead of sweet vermouth. The Gaudin’s innovation is the addition of Cointreau, its crispness like a blade wielded by a master.

The Lucien Gaudin

1 oz. gin
½ oz. Cointreau
½ oz. Campari
½ oz. dry vermouth

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange twist.

1 Loose translation courtesy of Google and not my dodgy high school French. But if you want to ask where the autobus is, I’m your man.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Movie: Garden of the Moon (1938)

To begin: Happy New Year!

Then a housekeeping note. 2012 saw the fewest amount of posts in this blog’s history, and over a third of them were of the Cocktail of the Week variety, which I started this year on a whim. I’ll endeavor to update more frequently on a broader range of subjects in 2013, but I make no guarantees. A lot’s going on around here.

As a good faith gesture, here’s a New Year’s Day post on the last movie I watched in 2012. My contribution to the Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies series. I’ve mentioned Garden of the Moon before, but it deserves a post all its own. I’m tempted to call it a noir musical given the principals, but it’s too fizzy for that. It’s a veritable champagne cocktail of a movie, and thus it made ideal New Year’s Eve viewing. I sense a tradition coming on.

Pat O’Brien (Crack-Up) machine guns through his dialogue as the manager of the title nightclub, the most swellegant spot in Los Angeles. He finds himself in a bind when his latest star attraction is waylaid in a motoring accident; it’s an indication of where Garden fell in the Warner Brothers hierarchy that it didn’t rate an appearance from Rudy Vallee, but landed a cameo by his bus. O’Brien books a replacement orchestra led by unknown John Payne (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential) without telling him he’s merely a placeholder meant to serve two weeks. Payne teams up with the Garden’s publicist Margaret Lindsay in a battle of wits to extend his run.

The script by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay (They Drive By Night) brims with wisecracks, which O’Brien delivers at top volume. Vaudevillian Ray Mayer (High Wall) is one of the members of Payne’s band, along with Johnnie ‘Scat’ Davis and Bob Hope regular Jerry Colonna. Colonna may have been a one-note performer, but what a note!

Dick Powell was originally slated to take Payne’s role, and Bette Davis chose to remain on suspension rather than appear in what she dismissed as a trifle. The film is most notable for being director Busby Berkeley’s last assignment at Warner Brothers. Berkeley has no bevy of showgirls here, no breakout hits. What he does have is a clutch of sharp songs with music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer, the best of them two novelty numbers performed by a dozen or so guys on a bandstand. Faced with these constraints, Berkeley responds with some of the most inventive staging of his career.

Garden may be silly nonsense from start to finish, but I have tremendous affection for it. It’s one of my favorite movies of the 1930s, and you can buy it from the Warner Archive. To give you a taste, here’s the demented and inspired ‘The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,’ which would become a Looney Tunes staple whenever a touch of the exotic was required.