Friday, March 22, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Crux

Among my favorite moments in cocktail bars are those exchanges that make your drink choice a collaborative process. You provide direction while yielding to your bartender’s expertise, indicating what taste you’re in the mood for while leaving room for interpretation. With a few questions, an accomplished professional can divine exactly what you didn’t know you wanted.

You do not expect one of those questions to be, “How do you feel about Hawaiian Punch?”

That’s the question that Ben Perri of the Zig Zag Café put to Rosemarie when she said she was in a Cognac state of mind. Ben parried with the Crux, an overlooked offering that he described as a sophisticated version of the battery-inducing childhood favorite (watch the ad), having the flavor with none of the cloying sweetness.

Rosemarie was intrigued. The cocktail was exactly what Ben promised. I wrote the recipe on a coaster and started making them at home.

There’s not much history on the Crux. Its first appearance is apparently in Jones’ Complete Bar Guide (1977), now out of print. Stan Jones was a lifelong bartender who worked the stick in Southern California. During the dark ages of cocktails, a grim and best forgotten time of pre-packaged mixes and liquor on the gun, Jones collected some 4,000 recipes, several of which like the Crux might otherwise have been forgotten. Given the diligence Jones showed in talking to his fellow veterans in compiling his opus, it’s unclear where the Crux came from or whether it was a Jones original.

Hawaiian Punch famously featured seven kinds of fruit (again, watch the ad). In the equal parts Crux you get lemon juice, plus the bitter orange notes of Cointreau and both Cognac and the fortified wine Dubonnet providing a touch of the grape. That’s, what, three, maybe four fruits? Clearly there’s some kind of wizardry involved, because the result is wonderfully balanced and not remotely saccharine. Or, to put it another way, damned if doesn’t taste like Hawaiian Punch all grown up, holding down some tech sector job and living in a swank bachelor pad.

The Crux

¾ oz. Cognac
¾ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. Dubonnet
¾ oz. lemon juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Me Elsewhere: Fashioning A Mystery

This news went out via Twitter and Facebook over the weekend. Time to sing it from the rooftops here.

I am pleased to report that Rosemarie and I have been named the 2013 winners of the William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. The award, given annually by the organizers of the Malice Domestic conference to new novelists, is for our book Design for Dying: An Edith Head Mystery.

The whole thing was Rosemarie’s idea. A comic mystery – ideally, the first in a series – with the legendary costume designer (who would eventually receive thirty-five Academy Award nominations and win eight times, more than any other woman) forced to turn detective and solve a murder in 1937 Hollywood. It was an opportunity for the two of us to work together, on a project that combines some of our favorite things: intrigue, glamour, and show business. If you follow Rosemarie’s Twitter feed, you now know where all those #30sbeautytips and #30sfashiontips come from.

Needless to say, we are thrilled to be this year’s recipients. This is a tremendous validation of our efforts, and we will eternally be in debt to the judges. (Although not literally – it’s a cash prize!) Some fine writers have won this award in the past, and we hope to do it justice. We cannot wait to attend the Malice Domestic convention in May to accept the honor. With luck, the new draft will be finished by then.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Borden Chase

The circumstances under which a cocktail was christened in honor of writer Borden Chase are unknown. What is beyond doubt is that the man deserved to have a drink named after him. Even though his name wasn’t actually Borden Chase.

He was born Frank Fowler in New York. An ex-sailor and boxer, he landed a job as driver for Frankie Yale (nee Ioele), the Brooklyn bootlegging kingpin eventually rubbed out by his one-time protégé Al Capone. (Capone acquired the facial scars that spawned his sobriquet while working at Yale’s club, after he complimented the posterior of another hoodlum’s sister.) Fowler conceivably could have caught lead on that fateful day himself. Yale, alarmed following a mysterious phone call telling him something had happened to his wife, insisted on taking the wheel of his own car. He was then ambushed and shot to death.

Chastened by the experience, Fowler caught on as a sandhog then a taxi driver, piloting a hack through the Holland Tunnel that he’d helped to dig. He’d become a different kind of hack himself, churning out fiction for rags like Argosy. His novel about his sandhog days would become the 1935 Raoul Walsh film Under Pressure. Hollywood purchased other of his stories; one served as the basis for the Mike Shayne film Blue, White and Perfect. Fowler would then head west himself, but first a new handle was in order. He dubbed himself Borden Chase after the milk company and the bank, cashing in on their name recognition. Chase made his reputation with westerns, earning an Academy Award nomination for his work on Red River and writing several Anthony Mann/James Stewart films including the magnificent Winchester ‘73, before finishing his career in TV.

As for the drink, it’s part of the small but exceedingly close-knit family of Scotch cocktails. The Borden Chase is a savory variation on the best known of the clan, the Rob Roy, which itself is a Scotch Manhattan. The primary difference is the addition of pastis, in place of the original absinthe. Pernod pairs quite nicely with blended Scotch whisky. Feel free to use a more robust vermouth like Carpano Antica. This drink, like the work of its namesake, roughhouses, so don’t shy away from the strongest ingredients.

The Borden Chase

2 oz. Scotch
½ oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Pernod
dash of orange bitters

Stir. Strain. No garnish.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Cloister

One sip of the Cloister, its sophisticated taste combining the long, mellow finish of yellow chartreuse with competing notes of citrus as a generous but not overwhelming pour of gin gazes down benevolently from above, and you will think: such elegance has a storied history. This cocktail has been with us for some time, was consumed illicitly in speakeasies. Surely, Myrna Loy herself enjoyed many of these.

The 1970s. That’s how long the Cloister has been around. It’s a product of the leisure suit era, a fairly modern drink that somehow seems like a classic.

The first known reference appears to be in Thomas Mario’s 1971 Playboy Bartender’s Guide, an essential book in that it features tiny risqué illustrations by LeRoy Neiman. The Cloister starts out like a standard sour, a combination of base spirit, sweetener and citrus. You might expect it to be truly sour given that you’re doubling down with not only lemon juice but grapefruit, the latter an underused element in the cocktail palette as the Blinker demonstrates. But a small amount of simple syrup keeps the citrus elements in harmony – Mario’s recipe omits this ingredient, which strikes me as a critical error – while the ingenious addition of chartreuse elevates the Cloister beyond the everyday. The Playboy book describes it as “a contemplative kind of drink, perfect for an autumn sundown.” But there’s no sense in tying a flavor as refreshing as this to any particular season or time of day. Whenever fresh grapefruit juice is available, the Cloister merits consideration.

The Cloister

1 ½ oz. gin
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
½ oz. grapefruit juice
¼ oz. lemon juice
¼ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Noir City Northwest: Lucky Seven, Part Two

Did you miss part one?

Night Four

An evening of African-American noir brought the undisputed coup of this year’s festival, a restored version of what Eddie Muller calls “an incredibly significant ‘missing’ piece of cinema history”: the 1950 adaptation of Richard Wright’s landmark book Native Son – with Wright himself portraying his own creation, Bigger Thomas. The film’s fascinating history is detailed by Jake Hinkson in the latest issue of Noir City magazine. (Donate to the Film Noir Foundation and the magazine will be delivered to your inbox.) In sum, it’s an English language production made in Argentina by an expatriate French director, influenced heavily by the film noir cycle and the 1941 stage version of Wright’s book co-produced by Orson Welles.

Native Son’s importance as a cultural artifact cannot be overstated, but as a film it has to be regarded as an ambitious failure. Wright, who stepped into the lead role when first choice Canada Lee balked, was not a professional actor, yet he’s onscreen virtually every second. Worse, he’s a good twenty years older than Bigger in the book, an age difference that irrevocably alters the character’s impetuousness and panic. Still, there’s tremendous resourcefulness on display particularly in terms of set design and unauthorized shooting in Chicago locations, and it is never less than astonishing to see a film from the 1950s dealing so explicitly with race relations – and from an African-American perspective.

The bottom half of the double bill underscored the subtext of the evening: if you want to make a work of literature accessible, give it a crime story core. The unsung 1948 William Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust was, for me, the discovery of the festival. Veteran noir hand Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) streamlines Faulkner’s tale of a black farmer’s odd friendship with a white teenager, and how the younger man comes to his aid when he is accused of murder. David Brian is on hand for some moralizing, but a rich supporting cast plus Oxford, Mississippi locations and primal, atmospheric scenes that owe as much to Twain as Faulkner give Intruder a timeless power.

Night Five

Suspense night paired, for the only time this Noir City, two movies we’d already seen. We skipped Blake Edwards’ dark 1962 procedural Experiment in Terror, presented in a brand new 4K digital restoration courtesy of Sony, and Cornell Woolrich’s boy-who-cried-wolf sleeper hit The Window (1949), shown in a 35mm print paid for by the FNF, to have dinner with Eddie and mutual friends. I peeked into the theater after selling noir swag in the lobby, though, and can report both films looked sensational.

Night Six

aka The Night We Were All Waiting For. 3D Noir!

Man in the Dark (1953) was thought of as lost even though its status as a footnote in movie history is assured: it was the first major studio 3D title, rushed into production to beat Warner Brothers’ House of Wax by a matter of days. Thanks to its rediscovery, every bead of perspiration on the brow of Edmond O’Brien, noir’s sweatiest man, stands out like a billiard ball. O’Brien consents to play guinea pig in an experimental surgery that will remove his criminal tendencies – along with any memory of where he stashed $130 grand from a payroll heist. It’s a deeply ludicrous, thoroughly entertaining movie featuring an amusement park climax and Dark City Dame Audrey Totter in three glorious dimensions. A visceral charge ran through the theater at the first glimpse of black-and-white 3D, lovingly restored.

Muller put any challenge to the noir bona fides of 1953’s Inferno to bed with a single observation: it’s The Postman Always Rings Twice told from the point of view of the victim. Here the inconvenient husband is Robert Ryan, an irascible millionaire left to die in the desert by his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and her lover. Only Ryan decides not to go gentle into that scorching afternoon. Inferno succeeds on its own merits as a man-against-nature saga, with Ryan battling his stubbornness as well as the elements to the accompaniment of his stream-of-consciousness voiceover. But in director Roy Ward Baker’s hands the 3D photography is more than a gimmick, turning the landscape itself into another character. Easily the popular favorite of the whole run.

Night Seven

A double dose of Cornell Woolrich would have been enough. But Eddie had to ring down the curtain on Noir City in style and program a triple feature.

1942’s Street of Chance, out of circulation for decades, was the first-ever Woolrich adaptation. A surprisingly dashing Burgess Meredith is clouted on the head while passing a construction site and discovers that for the past year he’s been living as someone else. Another way of phrasing that plot: he gets amnesia twice. That minor coincidence – and the fact that the first bout of memory loss is explained away with a single line of dialogue – tells you all you need to know about this B-movie, redeemed by Meredith and the presence of Claire Trevor. Also, I’m a sucker for Sheldon Leonard, better known as of one of the essential producers of situation comedies, playing tough guys.

Several years ago I watched a shoddy public domain version of The Chase (1946) that was so dark and confusing I thought that scenes were missing. (The trouble with Woolrich is that you can never be sure.) Now that I’ve seen the film in a gorgeous new print partly funded by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, I can state unequivocally that the movie is just batshit crazy. Good luck following the nominal plot, in which ex-serviceman Robert Cummings lands a job as “driver” (more human airbag) for control freak hoodlum Steve Cochran, only to fall for his tres exotique wife. Muller sold The Chase as a forerunner to David Lynch, but I can’t quite go there. The movie is more disjointed than dreamlike, set in a South Florida with a population of about five people, all of whom inexplicably know each other. It does feature its share of jaw-dropping, did-that-just-happen? scenes. Concentrate on Peter Lorre and don’t take your hands off the wheel.

Noir City Northwest began with a film saved from obscurity by the efforts of the Film Noir Foundation. Why not end with one, too? High Tide (1947) has one of the more arresting openings in film noir, with two men trapped in a wrecked car with water rising around them. We then flash back to how they met their fate. Hell-raising newspaper editor Lee Tracy hires journo-turned-shamus Don Castle to watch his back after he’s stirred up gangsters, but Castle has his own sordid past to deal with. Tide is the cinematic equivalent of a Black Mask story: hardboiled, nasty and fast (74 minutes), with an untrustworthy hero. No surprise it’s based on a yarn by Raoul Whitfield (Green Ice). And it closed out this year’s proceedings in fine fashion.

Noir City rolls into Los Angeles in April, with subsequent outings in Chicago and Washington, D.C. But I have it on reasonable authority that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller will be working his dark magic somewhere much closer to home, no matter where you live. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Noir City Northwest: Lucky Seven, Part One

Amazingly, 2013 marks the seventh Seattle installment of the Noir City Film Festival. I haven’t missed one yet. Every year when Eddie Muller, maestro of the Film Noir Foundation, brings his dark carnival into town it consumes my life for a week. My involvement with Noir City now has multiple components.

1. The films. A double bill – and sometimes more – a night for seven straight nights. Eddie goes out of his way to bring curios and obscurities with him, titles unlikely to appear anywhere else.

2. Volunteering. For the last several years, Rosemarie and I have worked the FNF table in the theater lobby, selling great noir swag – including the newly released Noir City Annual #5, featuring several articles by yours truly – answering questions about the Foundation’s mission, and signing people up for membership. We want to do our bit for the organization. Also, Rosemarie likes to dress up.

3. Socializing. Somebody’s got to take Muller out for a cocktail afterward so he can wind down.

On top of those commitments I was also battling multiple deadlines. Something had to give, and sadly it was my traditional daily festival recaps. But fear not. Uncle Vince hasn’t forsaken you. Herewith, a whirlwind summary of this year’s madness in (probably) two parts.

Night One

The best way to kick off a Noir City festival is by showcasing the FNF’s efforts. We began with Try and Get Me! (1951), aka The Sound of Fury, a neglected nightmare gloriously restored with help from the Foundation. Based on a Jo Pagano novel inspired by a shocking true crime, the film is essentially three stories. One recounts how a working stiff desperate to support his family is gulled into becoming a getaway driver for a slick stick-up man – who then dreams up a disastrous kidnapping scheme. Frank Lovejoy plays the regular Joe, and I would like to retroactively cast him as Richard Nixon in a film about Tricky Dick’s bitter Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Lloyd Bridges is sensational as Lovejoy’s partner in crime, and there’s a remarkable supporting performance by Katherine Locke as the creepily lovelorn Miss Weatherwax. Then there’s the depiction of mob violence, unsparing in its savagery. These two elements are linked by an indictment of yellow journalism that is undermined by the presence of one of the most irritating characters in film noir, Renzo Cesana as know-it-all Professor Simone. It’s a flawed film, but one replete with moments of great power and a fitting kick-off for the series.

Scranton-born director Cy Endfield was blacklisted after Try and Get Me! and moved to England, where he continued working. One of his follow-up efforts, 1957’s Hell Drivers, was next on the bill. Ex-con Stanley Baker hires on at a mercenary trucking company and tangles with his bosses, his co-workers and the comely Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy). Drivers should have won an award for its casting director, who rounded up early work from soon-to-be-stars David McCallum, Patrick McGoohan and Sean Connery. But these powerhouse players and Endfield’s muscular direction can’t compensate for a heavy-handed and formulaic script. Still worth watching for the pre-007 Connery and some bad-ass leather coats.

Night Two

Showbiz Noir! There’s not much I can add to the volumes already in existence about Billy Wilder’s undisputed masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950). So I’ll say only that it was a thrill to see this film on the big screen at last – the hair stood up on the back of my neck when Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond acknowledged “those wonderful people out there in the dark” – and that the magnificent 4K digital restoration provided by Paramount Pictures reveals nuances of William Holden’s turn as doomed scribe Joe Gillis that had escaped my attention in the past.

1947’s Repeat Performance is one of the most requested titles in Noir City history. It’s easy to understand why given the premise: stage star Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) guns down philandering husband Louis Hayward on New Year’s Eve and fervently wishes for the opportunity to live the past twelve months over again. Somehow, that wish is granted. Will she be able to change her fate? Fittingly, the film screened at this year’s Noir City with a new 35mm print partially funded by the FNF. Eddie calls it noir’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life. I’d say it’s Groundhog Day meets Final Destination. Performance is more “woman’s picture” than film noir, but it’s a fun ride the entire time thanks to a sophisticated cast including the always-welcome Tom Conway and a mesmerizing Richard Basehart in his debut.

Night Three

I did something I’ve never done before. I skipped the Academy Awards – OK, technically I recorded them and zipped through them later, but it’s the principle of the thing, people – to work the merch table and watch a pair of rare proto-noirs, films from the early 1930s that dealt with mature material in a manner unimpeded by the strictures of the Production Code. Both were produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., overshadowed by his studio chieftain father and in Eddie’s words ripe for a reappraisal.

The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) is about a successful Viennese criminal attorney (Frank Morgan, not in Kansas or Oz anymore) defending a friend who murdered his unfaithful wife – and who begins to suspect his own spouse of infidelity. A successful verdict may clear the way for Morgan to take the law into his hands himself. This one is a genuine oddity, a talky and unsatisfying tale that ignores its most intriguing character (Jean Dixon as Morgan’s mysterious associate) and was filmed by director James Whale on the same sets where he shot Frankenstein, leading to some unusually atmospheric Austrian jails.

It was only appropriate to watch an early effort by William Wyler on Oscar Night, considering that he directed more actors to nominations than any other filmmaker. He worked his magic again in 1931’s A House Divided. Widowed fisherman Walter Huston has a mail-order bride sent to his remote Pacific Northwest town, but when his future missus arrives she instead falls for his son (Douglass Montgomery, very modern in his appearance). It’s a fleet, rock-solid melodrama anchored by an amazing Huston performance, never more demonstrative than when his character is incapacitated. A then-24-year-old John Huston wrote his old man’s dialogue.

Here’s the thrilling conclusion of my Noir City recap! In 3D!