Monday, December 21, 2015

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

From December 2009, the first Renee Patrick collaboration. As timely as ever: that’s clearly a Christmas tree behind Russell Crowe in the final scene of the hilarious red band trailer for Shane Black’s upcoming THE NICE GUYS.

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.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Star Power

After a hiatus, my Down the Hatch column returns to Eat Drink Films. Served up in this installment: the Star, a cocktail with a long history, and a beguiling newcomer named for a siren of the silent screen, the Clara Bow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Miscellaneous: November Roundup

Facing multiple deadlines, I look up at the ol’ calendar on the wall to notice November is in its dotage and I haven’t posted yet. I don’t update the blog as much as I used to, but I haven’t missed a month since I started it in April 2004 and I aim to keep the streak going. I swore a sacred oath years ago: The show goes on. The Stardust is never dark. It never has been. It never will be. Not while I’m alive.

Herewith, some recommendations.

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives, by Karin Wieland. Wieland’s wide-ranging, meticulously researched dual biography stems from a remarkable happenstance. Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl barely knew each other in Weimar Berlin despite living close enough for Riefenstahl to see into the windows of Dietrich’s apartment. Yet they would end up as icons of the opposing sides of the conflict that defined the twentieth century: Dietrich the imperious seductress who sacrificed herself for the boys during World War Two, Riefenstahl the filmmaker willing to glorify the Nazi regime in exchange for a budget as unchecked as her ambitions. Wieland’s book, featuring a supple translation from the German by Shelley Frisch, cuts back and forth between lives, the juxtaposition revealing surprising commonalities. It also benefits from judicious use of archival resources previously unavailable, specifically Dietrich’s letters and telegrams as well as Joseph Goebbels’ diaries, which illuminate Riefenstahl’s relationship with Hitler and the mechanics of the production of Triumph of the Will and Olympia. The closing chapters are particularly strong; decades after the war Dietrich, imprisoned by a glamorous image age will no longer permit her to live up to, retreats from the world while Riefenstahl, her films now viewed in a broader context, inhabits it more fully as she seeks the validation as an artist she believes history has denied her. A compelling look at two extraordinary women, both of whom appear in the just-completed second Lillian Frost & Edith Head mystery by Renee Patrick (aka me and the missus).

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff. Anyone with a passing interest in show business will devour this book by standup comic-turned-scholar Nesteroff. Starting with vaudeville and ending with the death of Robin Williams, it chronicles decades of entertainment in a style simultaneously breezy and nuanced. Nesteroff is acutely aware of influences, tracking different strains of technique through generations of performers. Along the way, he offers deft thumbnail sketches of neglected names like pioneering female standup Jean Carroll, she of the evening gloves, and acerbic radio comic Henry Morgan. Even as the book moves into the modern era, Nesteroff still finds offbeat angles on familiar names. Bonus points for mention of the long-forgotten scandal that factors into Lillian & Edith #2.

Blandings. Our new favorite show here at Chez K. We blew through both seasons in no time flat. Available on Acorn TV, this P.G. Wodehouse adaptation boasts a peerless cast. Timothy Spall is Lord Emsworth, the daft nobleman preoccupied with the health and well-being of his prize pig. Feckless Freddy is his son, played by the pitch-perfect Jack Farthing. Jennifer Saunders pointlessly tries to impose order as Emsworth’s sister. Familiar faces aplenty turn up as various relatives, bounders and braggarts. The biggest surprise was discovering that the location for Blandings Castle is in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, home to the Keenan family for millennia, in a tiny town I’ve visited several times.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The cover of the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine says it all.

The women of film noir, particularly the ones behind the scenes, step into the spotlight in this edition. The result is, in the words of FNF founder and host of Turner Classic Movies’ Summer of Noir Eddie Muller, our “best issue ever.” It certainly boasts a stellar line-up of contributors.

Kicking things off is the cover story by Eddie himself on Alfred Hitchcock’s secret weapon, producer Joan Harrison. We’ve got Kim Morgan offering her defense of the femme fatale, Christa Faust weighing in on every movie based on the infamous “Honeymoon Killers” case, plus actress/hellraising advocate Rose McGowan on her top five noir films. Not to mention surveys of the film adaptations of Dorothy B. Hughes and Patricia Highsmith; tributes to Ella Raines, June Havoc and Jean Gillie; and so much more.

Getting her first-ever byline is Renee Patrick, the mystery writing alter ego I share with my wife Rosemarie. Together we look at Edith Head’s singular fashion contributions to film noir, in a piece gorgeously assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

It was my distinct pleasure to organize the women noir writers’ roundtable, posing questions to a quintet of top-flight talents: Megan Abbott, Steph Cha, Christa Faust, Vicki Hendricks and Denise Mina. I also interview Sarah Weinman about the acclaimed new collection she edited, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ‘50s.

My Cocktails & Crime column is in the front of the book, while in the back is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while: an appreciation of the Joel and Ethan Coen film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Its debut on Blu-Ray finally allows me to make the case for it as the Coens’ best film, a truly chilling film noir, and one of the few masterpieces of this still-young century.

I’ll be blunt. You need this issue. So make a donation to the FNF’s preservation efforts and receive the magazine as your reward. The ladies of film noir and I thank you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Belly Up To The Classroom

It’s back to school season, even for yours truly. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I recount my adventures in bartending class. Chief lesson learned: I finally crack the code of the gimlet, the cocktail Raymond Chandler made famous.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Happy Birthday, Preston Sturges!

In honor of the 1898 birthday of the American master of film comedy – and supporting character in our debut Lillian Frost/Edith Head mystery Design for Dying, available from Tor/Forge in April 2016 – here are his Eleven Rules for Box Office Appeal.

1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Me Elsewhere: On The Rocks

A lazy lightweight, Deborah Kerr, Mad Men, and Hawaiian Punch. They all feature in my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, focusing on a trio of cocktails made with the same ingredient. That magical elixir? It’s the one advertised here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

In Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart one of his compositions, while ingenious, includes “too many notes.” At Noir City, we tell Emperor Joe to stuff it.

The house rag of the Film Noir Foundation shines its spotlight on music, and we filled this issue to overflowing. Honestly, it’s an embarrassment of riches of which we are inordinately proud, and you owe it to yourselves to secure a copy post haste.

My favorite piece, for obvious reasons, is my lovely wife and writing partner Rosemarie’s debut in the magazine. When we finally saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Deux Hommes dans Manhattan, Rosemarie became obsessed with “Street in Manhattan,” a haunting ballad performed onscreen by a singer billed as Glenda Leigh. Rosemarie wondered whatever became of her and doggedly tracked her down. Now Glenda Grainger, still singing at age 80, she tells the story of her jet-set career in an interview.

But that’s only one verse, kids. Open your ears and eyes to the following:

- Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus on the soundtracks of Philip Marlowe

- Ray Banks’ self-described “5000 word labour of love” on the noir ethos of Tom Waits

- Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra names his Five Favorite noir films

- Woody Haut’s survey of the 15 best film noir jazz soundtracks

- Jake Hinkson considers the country noir of Johnny Cash

- Brian Light revisits the scoring of Touch of Evil, by Henry Mancini and a cast of West Coast jazz heavyweights

- Maestro Eddie Muller not once but twice, recalling his friendship with jazz legend Charlie Haden and interviewing noir chanteuse Jill Tracy

Plus even more music, as well as our usual coverage of all things noir like my friend David Corbett’s razor sharp appraisal of the best film noir of the 21st century, El Aura, and Duane Swierczynski’s review of the new Blu-ray of Prime Cut. I yammer on about nonsense as well, sizing up a trio of titles that screened at the recent Seattle International Film Festival and serving up my usual Cocktails & Crime column.

Contribute to the Film Noir Foundation and this veritable feast will be winging its way to you. Don’t wait.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Elementary, My Dear Bartender

Yours truly is all over this week’s issue of Eat Drink Films. First up is my Down the Hatch column, which reviews a new book destined to become a modern mixology staple: The Cocktail Chronicles by Paul Clarke. Included are some comments from Paul and a sterling trio of drink recipes from the book’s pages.

But wait! There’s more! Eat Drink Films also features excerpts from The Cocktail Chronicles, among them a take on the gimlet that could teach Raymond Chandler a thing or two.

Then I slide over to the film portion of the magazine for A Century of Cinematic Sherlocks, about seeing a pair of Sherlock Holmes films made one hundred years apart within days of each other. Swing by and give them – and the rest of the issue – a look, why don’t you?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Oh! Canada!

My latest Down the Hatch column is now up at Eat Drink Films. In it, I serve up a pair of north-of-the-border cocktails just in time for Canada Day. Featuring cameos by Michael Caine and Errol Flynn. Check out the rest of magazine while you’re there. Plenty of good stuff.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Noir City Newsstand Now Open

More big doings at the Film Noir Foundation, kids. And what better time to launch a project long in the works than when FNF honcho Eddie Muller is serving as host of TCM’s Summer of Darkness?

The FNF’s quarterly magazine is called Noir City. Eddie is publisher and editor-in-chief. I’m co-managing editor along with the estimable Steve Kronenberg. Gorgeous visuals come courtesy of ace designer Michael Kronenberg. Each issue is packed with some of the finest writing on noir past and present, in every medium. And each issue is available by subscription only.

Until now.

At our new website, you can purchase individual back issues for the bargain price of $5.99 each! Peruse the table of contents before you buy, knowing whatever particular noir kicks you’re seeking, Noir City has you covered.

We’ve got theme issues on icons like Robert Ryan and Dan Duryea. We go way back for regular features on silent movie noir. We’ve got invaluable work from regular contributors like Imogen Sara Smith (on Jan Sterling, Jean Gabin, noir westerns) and Jake Hinkson (on Tom Neal, Peggie Castle, and those unsung directors known as Poverty Row Professionals). Not to mention Eddie, the man himself, weighing in each and every issue.

Noir City’s also your destination for crime writers on noir. Like Christa Faust on noir vixens of recent vintage. And an overview of heist movies featuring the likes of Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman and Scott Phillips. And Five Favorites, with masters like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Lawrence Block giving you their quintets of quality. And Prime Cuts, spotlighting neo-noirs like Cisco Pike (Duane Swierczynski), Thief (Wallace Stroby), and The Offence (Ray Banks).

Plus there’s the stuff I’ve written over the years, on subjects like noir chanteuses, remakes, marriages, True Detective, dollhouse murders, and the films of Alan Rudolph.

Six bucks an issue, with all proceeds bankrolling the FNF’s restoration efforts. Throw in twenty bucks a year and each new installment will come right to your in-box. Do it now, because we just laid out the latest magazine – and it’s a killer.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Reminder: TCM’s Summer of Darkness

Another heads up, gang, about the coolest event of the summer of ’15, which kicks off today.

Turner Classic Movies has turned over Fridays in June and July to film noir. That’s all Friday, every Friday, for twenty-four hours each day. TCM is calling this bonanza the Summer of Darkness, and made the very wise decision of naming your friend and mine Eddie Muller, honcho of the Film Noir Foundation, as your prime time host.

Regular readers know the FNF is an outfit near and dear to my heart. I’m the co-managing editor of the Foundation’s magazine Noir City, as well as a columnist and contributor. So naturally I’m thrilled to see our charismatic kingpin taking to the air.

TCM has pulled out all the stops, setting up a gorgeous website for the entire festival and starting a free online course on film noir in conjunction with Ball State University. As for programming tips, Eddie kicks things off at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST tonight with Nora Prentiss, a movie yours truly considered in detail for Noir City. The must-see is the world television premiere of the FNF’s restoration of Woman on the Run (1950) tonight at 10:15 PM EST/7:15 PM PST. A second FNF restoration, of 1949’s Too Late for Tears, debuts on July 17.

Honestly, you want my advice? Turn on TCM every Friday for the next nine weeks and leave it on. Get yourself an education.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Me Elsewhere: How Dry We Were

Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry has brought Prohibition back for the summer. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I review the new exhibit American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and provide two appropriate cocktail recipes. Tell ‘em Joe sent you.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The best news in the brand-spanking-new Spring issue of Noir City, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation: Turner Classic Movies is bringing back the Summer of Noir. Every Friday in June AND July will feature twenty-four hours of noir, with your primetime host being none other than FNF honcho Eddie Muller himself.

As for the magazine ... buckle in, kids, because it’s a doozy.

Eddie and ace graphic designer Michael Kronenberg have been cooking up the comics issue for some time. And they’ve pulled out all the stops. You’ve got –

- An interview with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the duo behind the ultra-noir comic The Fade-Out

- Muller’s salute to Will Eisner’s The Spirit

- Jake Hinkson’s look back at Batman: Year One

- Michael Kronenberg on the Dark Knight in the dark decade of the 1970s

- Jason Ney’s survey of the original comic-book movies, RKO’s Dick Tracy films

Plus Duane Swierczynski’s review of Hickey & Boggs on Blu-Ray, yer man Ray Banks on Sean Connery as you’ve never seen him in the bruising neo-noir The Offence, and yours truly with my standard cocktails-and-crime column and a review of screenwriter Charles Brackett’s diaries. And, as the man says, so much more.

Swing by the Film Noir Foundation website, make with the contribution, and the magazine is yours. Donate by April 30 and you’ll be eligible to win a copy of my pal Mark Fertig’s gorgeous book The 101 Best Film Noir Posters. Are you still here? Get cracking!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Scotch, Guarded

A justly neglected musical about a highland rogue. Rudolph Valentino. Stan Laurel. The Three Stooges. And a one-time toast of Broadway whose name proved one letter too difficult. What do these have in common? They all factor into the history of one of the trio of Scotch cocktails spotlighted in my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Brandy, You’re A Fine Drink

Another month brings another Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films. I focus on apricot brandy, a staple ingredient in vintage cocktails undergoing a resurrection thanks in part to a quality product now available at a good price. With three drink recipes so you can play along at home! (As it happens, Punch magazine takes up the same subject this week, spotlighting the same brand. Great minds again thinking alike.)

As usual the entire issue of EDF is worth reading, especially filmmaker Philip Kaufman’s reminiscence of working with the late Leonard Nimoy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Me Elsewhere: At Home And On The Road

A whole lot’s going on, and I do my bit to keep you updated …

First, the Noir City 2014 Annual is now for sale at Amazon. There’s a finite number of these beauties in circulation, so score a copy while they’re hot. This is the finest book the Film Noir Foundation has released to date, boasting a veritable all-star roster including Christa Faust, Jake Hinkson, Eddie Muller, Imogen Sara Smith, Wallace Stroby, and Duane Swierczynski. I’m in there, too, somewhere in the back. The proceeds go to the FNF, so what are you waiting for?

And in other Noir City news, the line-up for the Los Angeles festival has been announced.

Left Coast Crime is in Portland this year, and Rosemarie and I will not only be attending but making our panel debut as Renee Patrick. We’ll be appearing on the panel “That Was My Idea: Collaborating with a Co-Author,” on Friday, March 13th from 10:15 – 11:00 a.m. along with Charlotte Elkins, Sarah Lovett, and moderator Lee Goldberg. Design for Dying is still a year away from publication, but we will have business cards. Collect them all! (NOTE: Only one type of business card is currently available. No substitutions.)

Friday, February 13, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Lowdown on a Dustup

Last month, spirits writer Eric Felten raised an intriguing question – with all the inventiveness of the modern cocktail renaissance, how come there are no new classics? – ruffling a few feathers in the process. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I offer a kinda-sorta rebuttal, taking issue with elements of Mr. Felten’s argument and suggesting what I think are a trio of worthy nominees for the pantheon. Check it out, and while you’re there read the rest of this week’s issue, brimming over with Valentine’s Day goodness.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Miscellaneous: California? Sweet!

Rosemarie and I are already hard at work on the second book in the classic Hollywood mystery series featuring Edith Head we’re writing under the name Renee Patrick. (Design for Dying, book number one, comes out from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. People are camping out already! Not for our book. They’re just, you know, camping out.) The time had come, we’d decided, for some field research. Say a trip to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt up the coast for the opening weekend of the thirteenth Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco.

It’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition: if your journey begins with the sighting of a star, then fortune will smile upon you. We sit down for our first breakfast and who should be at the next table but Commander Adama himself, Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. (Who am I kidding? He’ll always be Lieutenant Castillo to me.) Already we were in clover.

Our initial post-Olmos stop was a key reason for making the trip now: we wanted to see the mammoth Hollywood Costume exhibit before it closes. Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it’s a stunning show, with dramatic staging of over 150 movie costumes; Marlene Dietrich in Morocco lights a cigarette for Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct) as L.A. Confidential’s Lynn Bracken looks on. Our heroine Edith Head is well represented, with her iconic green suit worn by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on display. The immersive section on costume design as collaboration features a dazzling “conversation” among Edie, Hitch and Tippi Hedren about the clothes in The Birds. The craft of the costume designer is explored in detail in this decades-spanning exhibit. (Later we were fortunate to spend time with its curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the acclaimed costume designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark – and even more impressively, the person responsible for the wardrobe in longtime Chez K favorite ¡Three Amigos! Given those credentials I’m amazed I was able to ask any questions, but somehow I managed.)

Hollywood Costume runs through March 2, which roughly coincides with the closing date of Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950 at the Skirball Cultural Center. This exhibition focuses on the role of filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany in the production of the glittering comedies and dark dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More costumes are included in this show, which also merits a visit.

The primary purpose for our expedition was to set foot on Edith’s old domain: Paramount Pictures, the studio where she spent the majority of her career. To our delight, Paramount’s archivists welcomed us with open arms – “Edith would have loved being in a mystery novel,” we were told – and gave us a full tour. The high point was undoubtedly the costume archive, 80% of which consisted of Edith Head originals. To be in the same room as, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s beaded bolero jacket from The Lady Eve and inspect it in detail was enough to induce lightheadedness.

Paramount's Bronson Gate
Edith willed her estate to the Academy, so our final destination was the Margaret Herrick Library to look at her papers. It’s impossible to convey the thrill of holding a letter on Alfred Hitchcock’s personal stationery – signed ‘Hitch,’ naturally – in your hands. I’d heard that furniture from Edith’s house had been placed in the Herrick’s Special Collections reading room, so before leaving I asked which pieces were hers. “That table you’ve been sitting at all day, for one,” the librarian said. Truly the power of Olmos was strong.

Some time at Noir City San Francisco was mandatory, given the Seattle iteration of the festival is on hiatus pending a move to the Cinerama. This year’s theme is marriage, with your humble correspondent penning the companion article in the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine. Rosemarie and I christened the opening weekend at Trick Dog, recently named one of the fifty best bars in the world – love that Chinese menu; try the #2 – then strolled to the Castro for the premiere of a new 35mm restoration of an old favorite. In 1950’s Woman on the Run, Ann Sheridan’s estranged husband witnesses a mob killing and goes on the lam. When slick newspaperman Dennis O’Keefe encourages her to track her wayward spouse down, Ann discovers new facets to her old man and falls for him all over again. Shot in San Francisco, the movie played like gangbusters to a capacity crowd, with master of ceremonies Eddie Muller cagily adding a then-and-now featurette spotlighting the locations.

This is the the jacket we saw. Up close.
Up next, the first in a mini-tribute to actress Joan Fontaine. Born to be Bad (1950) casts several actors against type. Usual cad Zachary Scott is a decent if obscenely wealthy man, Robert Ryan shines as a cocky writer (“Seen the view? It’s better with me in it”), and Mel Ferrer does his best George Sanders as a cynical social climbing painter. They all flutter around Christabel Caine, and alas our Joan was a bit long in the tooth to play a scheming ingénue, leaving a void at the film’s center. Still, director Nicholas Ray keeps the melodrama at a steady boil and it was fun to see the original ending deemed too scandalous for release.

The experience left me wanting Fontaine at her best, and one of my rules is never pass up Hitchcock on the big screen, so that meant a Saturday matinee of her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion (1941). We skipped Joan in the sturdy 1953 issue film The Bigamist – a boy’s gotta eat – and returned to the Castro for a signing of the Noir City 2014 Annual, featuring work by yours truly, FNF honcho Muller, our Los Angeles sightseeing companion Christa Faust, Duane Swierczynski, Wallace Stroby, Jake Hinkson and plenty more. Look for it at Amazon soon. Joanie was back and at her bitchy best in the find of the festival: 1947’s Ivy, an Edwardian chiller with Fontaine as a fortune hunter with a husband, a lover, and her eyes on an even bigger prize. She’s in her element here, Ivy’s discreet villainy perfectly tailored to her sensibilities. More Edwardian noir followed with Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944), an elegant and heartbreaking gloss on the infamous Dr. Crippen case boasting a magnificent Charles Laughton performance.

Christa Faust, ace designer Michael Kronenberg, yours truly, and Edwardian gent Eddie Muller at the Castro book signing
Sunday’s double-bill spotlighted suspense from that maker of sudsers supreme, Douglas Sirk. The script for Shockproof (1949) was watered down considerably from writer Samuel Fuller’s original version; no doubt two-fisted Sam’s take on the story of parole officer Cornel Wilde falling for one of his charges (Patricia Knight) and into a heap of trouble would have been considerably meaner. A minor film, but on this viewing I was able to appreciate how Sirk’s supple direction preserved the remaining Fuller touches. Sleep, My Love (1948) is gossamer in the Gaslight mode, with Claudette Colbert being manipulated by husband Don Ameche into thinking she’s down to her last few marbles so he can run off with Hazel Brooks, as gorgeous as she is surly. Claudette’s only hope is the relentless charm offensive mounted by Robert Cummings. Oh for the days when a movie’s main characters could be an imperiled socialite and a globe-trotting adventurer. Sleep is Sirk at his best, a film that’s all surface pleasures and no less an achievement because of them. It was the perfect ending to our California swing.

Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The winter 2015 issue of Noir City, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, is out now. Let me warn you in advance: I am all over this bad boy.

Firstly, I’m responsible for the cover story, a long-overdue reappraisal of the films of Alan Rudolph. That striking image is drawn from Rudolph’s Remember My Name, a reimagining of the classic “women’s films” of the 1940s that is one of the most neglected movies of the 1970s. It’s now in the nascent stages of a renaissance thanks to a recent screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Geraldine Chaplin’s performance receiving the accolades it deserves. Rudolph’s signature contribution to noir is the one-of-a-kind riff on the form Trouble in Mind, filmed in Seattle and celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015. But noir is a thread that runs through much of Rudolph’s filmography:

Rudolph relentlessly toys with the form, combining its component parts to tell idiosyncratically fanciful, open-hearted stories. “Fanciful” and “open-hearted” aren’t words customarily associated with noir, and therein lies Rudolph’s singular talent. The French, as they so often do, have a word for it: gleaning, the practice of picking over a field that has been harvested and finding enough viable material to survive. Alan Rudolph is an unparalleled gleaner of film noir, digging into terrain often dismissed as played out and discovering fertile pockets, appropriating images, techniques and moods for his own purposes.

Accompanying the survey of Alan Rudolph’s films is a wide-ranging interview with the man himself. Rumors abound that this interview was arranged when a Noir City correspondent gatecrashed an academic conference while wearing a lanyard from an unrelated event so he could brace Mr. Rudolph; I will not dignify those scurrilous tales with a response. The interview was conducted via email, Rudolph using my questions as a jumping-off point to construct something off-kilter, insightful and uniquely his own –

When people say a certain movie is real they mean it’s told as if real. It’s still a representation, a dream. I see no singular defined reality in the entire film experience. On either side of the screen. Film is its own reality, a living thing. Whether you’re the director or in the audience of a dark palace, your personal experience is the reality of that film. A film doesn’t exist if no one is there to see it. Ask the tree in the forest about that.

I’m enormously happy with how this piece came out.

Also in this issue: ‘Til Death Do Us Part, my overview of marriage in film noir. It’s intended as something of a companion piece to the 13th Noir City Film Festival, which focuses on the darker side of the matrimonial bond. Several of the movies unspooling at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from January 16-25 are referenced, but the subject is so broad I could have gone on forever. NOTE: On Saturday, January 17, I’ll be at the Castro along with ace designer Michael Kronenberg, the one and only Christa Faust, and a host of other contributors to sign copies of the Noir City Annual.

But wait! There’s more! Like my usual cocktails-and-crime column, as well as a review of the new book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History, an illustrated tour of Tinseltown tippling.

I assure you, though, it’s not just me in this issue. Behold this stellar line-up:

- Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block (A Walk Among the Tombstones) lists his five favorite noir films

- Crime novelist Terrill Lee Lankford on the neo-noir classic Cutter’s Way

- Usual Noir City suspect Jake Hinkson on Wicked Woman and the off-screen union of star Beverly Michaels and director/co-writer Russell Rouse

- Imogen Sara Smith considers Gone Girl in the context of bad marriage noir

- FNF honcho Eddie Muller on the rescue of 1950’s Woman on the Run, the restoration of the film premiering at this year’s Noir City

And still there’s more! I’m telling you, people, it’s a bonanza.

How do you lay claim to this bounty? Go to the Film Noir Foundation, make your contribution to preserving America’s noir heritage, and the boodle gets dumped in your in-box no questions asked. What are you waiting for?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Me Elsewhere: A is for Apple

My latest Down the Hatch column is up now at Eat Drink Films. This month the focus is on that all-American “cyder spirit” applejack. I write about three cocktails suitable for the winter months, admitting that the standard-bearer for applejack drinks is not among my favorites and nominating two overlooked ones for this season’s imbibing. Be sure to read the entire issue, packed as usual with goodness. As a bonus, here’s the first time I heard about applejack, from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Book: Ready When You Are, C.B. (Charles Brackett)

You know the old Hollywood joke, the one about the actress so dumb she slept with the writer. Here’s how famous the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were: when the two of them were just writers, producing some of the wittiest scripts of the Studio Era (Midnight, Ninotchka) before Wilder transitioned to the director’s chair and amassed one of the great résumés in film history, sleeping with one of them likely would have done an actress’ career some good.

And it probably would have been Wilder, if Brackett’s diaries are any indication. Charles Brackett kept meticulous track of his daily minutia, chronicling one of the most storied partnerships in movies. Film historian Anthony Slide has done an extraordinary job of excerpting those journals in the new Columbia University Press book It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (2014). Slide suggests that Brackett will become known as “America’s foremost, if not only, Hollywood diarist.” I’d give Brackett the title by knockout. This view from deep inside the studio system at its height is one of the best books ever about Hollywood, as well one of the finest on writing in years.

Brackett was on his second bid for screenwriting success when, in August 1936, he was paired with “jaunty young foreigner” Wilder to work on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for director Ernst Lubitsch. Brackett describes their first work session: “Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating.” Three weeks into the partnership, Brackett calls Wilder “a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist. He has the passion for the official joke of a second-rate dialogist.” By November, Wilder is laying out his psychologically opportunistic approach to seducing women during their story sessions.

Like many a great twosome they made an odd couple. Wilder was earthy, European and liberal while the urbane, East Coast Brackett was a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and maybe the only Alf Landon voter in Hollywood. In private Brackett comes across as a spectacularly dyspeptic figure, apparently not liking anyone (“Chaplin seems to me as repellent a human being as I’ve ever been in the same room with”) or anything (The Palm Beach Story is “the latest Preston Sturges opus and one of the weakest – disagreeable people, unappetizing situations, exaggerations”).

But reading his diaries – the entries here span the years 1932-1949 – provides a keen sense of the grind of working in the dream factory. The awareness of every perceived slight, the primacy of money as a way of gauging status, the near-hysterical faith in preview cards, and above all the constant nagging sensation that his work is subpar and anyway, he’s just wasting his time. The book contains a lot about the inner machinations of Hollywood organizations – Brackett served as president of both the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and surprisingly little about his wife Elizabeth, who battled alcoholism and depression and spent many years in institutions.

Writing for himself, Brackett holds nothing back, his entries often hilariously bitchy. On a dinner at Joan Crawford’s house: “A grim evening – all four adopted children as hors d’oeuvres.” Alfred Hitchcock is a “monstrous egotist.” Brackett visits the set of Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and the Minor to find co-star Ray Milland giving “a dry, wooden performance (his usual performance to speak the truth).” A few years later, Milland would win an Oscar for his harrowing work in Brackett-and-Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. The casual anti-Semitism of the era occasionally rears its head, and some of Brackett’s judgments seem unduly harsh –

On thinking about Billy’s attitude and that of all the Mittel Europeans I know towards their American citizenship, it seems to me this: they’ve come into a department store, been crazy about its stock, and put themselves down for a charge account. No more involvement than that.

Wilder remains the locus here, Brackett readily acknowledging he feels like a planet orbiting his partner’s star. When one of Brackett’s children runs off to get married in 1942, the story makes the newspapers. “I was surprised. Expected them to read: Billy Wilder disturbed because of elopement of daughter of collaborator.” By 1939 he’s prepared to end their relationship, fed up with Wilder’s manners. He later wrote: “I came to bed and found myself fretting at the prospect of becoming Billy’s stooge producer – a prospect I detest.” Brackett would prove no stooge as a producer, putting his stamp on films like Niagara, Titanic and The King and I after his break-up with Wilder.

Insights into their process and their quarrels – with each other and with directors and producers – are manifold. Both Brackett and Wilder lobbied to have Lucille Ball star in their script Ball of Fire, a truly tantalizing proposition. But Howard Hawks deemed her a second lead at best and insisted on Barbara Stanwyck, whom Brackett pronounces “a pleasant, heavy-faced girl, very wrong for Sugarpuss.” For decades the legend has held that Brackett didn’t want to pitch in with Wilder on Double Indemnity because he found James M. Cain’s story odious. Here, Brackett makes it plain that Wilder “was having a touch of claustrophobia at being tied down working with me” and welcomed the respite. He would consult with Wilder and his grudging new confederate Raymond Chandler on their adaptation and ultimately finds the film good, not great: “The direction is uneven and some of the writing extremely poor, and my black heart sang like a bird.”

The book and the Wilder/Brackett collaboration come to a close with Sunset Blvd. (1950). Even as their decade-plus-long partnership is torn asunder, Brackett can’t help marveling at Wilder’s inventiveness. The material has the pace of a thriller, frissons arising as ideas that will become part of film history bubble up half-formed, the two men setting aside their differences to express their joint frustration with their original choice of leading man, Montgomery Clift, who walked away from the film fearing it too closely mirrored aspects of his own life. “God help people who have to deal with the young Mr. C in a couple of years, maybe a shorter time than that.” Brackett was an unhappy but hugely productive man who’d already left behind a considerable body of work. This warts-and-all account of that working life may be his greatest legacy.