Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best TV Show You’re Not Watching!

Titles like the above irk the hell out of me. That’s the peril of PeakTV®: no matter how many hours you clock in front of your various screens, you know you’re missing something.

Unless you’re me, in which case you’re missing everything. I used to joke that watching TV was a skill set I didn’t possess. At some point in the last few years, it stopped being a gag. Television viewing became serious business—maybe the real business of America nowadays—and I lacked the chops for it. I also used to joke that when I could watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I’d wallow like a pig in a trough. Came that very day and I couldn’t be bothered to waddle over from the sty.

Game of Thrones? Haven’t seen it. The Walking Dead? Not one episode. My televisual diet consists of baseball and old movies. I have the occasional spasm of sensibility—I flew through Stranger Things this summer, the show scratching an itch I didn’t know I had—but for the most part I bluff my way through conversations about TV. It’s actually not that hard to do.

That said, allow me to tell you about the best TV show you’re not watching.

I’d never heard of Count Arthur Strong when I queued up the first episode. I simply read a description of the show on Acorn TV, a streaming service that offers British television fare, saw that it was a comedy about an aging entertainer, and figured it was worth a look. (Savvy readers may be wondering why I, as someone who professes not to watch much TV, subscribes to such a service. My accountant has raised the very same question.)

What followed was the exact opposite of a binge. What followed was me doling the episodes out incrementally, not wanting them to end. Because Count Arthur Strong is without question one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Discovering Count Arthur Strong was a rare high point in a dire year. If you have access to Acorn TV, which you might via Amazon Prime, you still have time before the bells toll the deserved demise of this annus horribilus to make the acquaintance of Count Arthur Strong yourself.

Count Arthur, honorific never explained, is the brainchild of writer/actor Steve Delaney. The Count is a bit player in his dotage now known for his “raconteuring,” a legend in his own mind whose greatest claim to fame is a brief partnership with a man who broke up the act to become a titan of English entertainment. The ex-partner dies and his hapless writer son (played by Rory Kinnear, best known to U.S. audiences as the prime minister in that episode of Black Mirror) is pressed to pen about a book about the old man, which sends him careering into the orbit of Count Arthur and his friends.

That’s it. That’s the show in its entirety, now at thirteen episodes and counting, every one of them packed with laughs. Delaney created Count Arthur in the 1980s and revived him for the Edinburgh Festival in the 1990s, where his popularity led to a radio series. He then teamed up with Graham Linehan (Father Tim) for the TV version, which combines their strong suits: Delaney’s genius at inhabiting a fully three-dimensional character, and Linehan’s flair for lampooning sitcoms while honoring their traditions. Kinnear sends the show deliriously over the top, the putative straight man every bit as mad as his partner. The six episodes of Season One form a nearly perfect whole, unified by the storyline of Kinnear’s dogged efforts to write the biography of the father he never knew and studded with moments of surprising emotional impact. Season Two is looser but frequently more hilarious, as in the episode that is a meticulously detailed send-up of Misery. I told my compadre Ray Banks about my love for Count Arthur. He welcomed me to the brotherhood and steered me toward the trove of Delaney’s radio broadcasts, which I am now again doling out gradually until Season Three crests on these shores.

It’s a few days late, but for a taste here’s Count Arthur Strong’s Christmas message.

While I’m at it, a few other lesser publicized shows I’ve enjoyed this year—

Occupied (Netflix). Created by crime novelist Jo Nesbø and brought to the screen by filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjǣrg (Insomnia), this political thriller details the slow-motion takeover of Norway by Russia in order to commandeer its energy resources. Over the summer I recommended it to people as preparation for the Trump administration, because I’m such a cut-up. Now I’d call it mandatory. Its daring structure, with each episode set in a subsequent month, means key plot business sometimes occurs offscreen and we only witness the fallout. It also makes it a potent exploration of normalization.

Difficult People (Hulu). We pay for Hulu solely to watch Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner say what we’re all thinking. The show that makes me miss living in New York City.

Red Oaks (Amazon). Of course I’m in the tank for a series set in the 1980s about a high school kid who dreams of being a filmmaker. Season One was so flawless I almost resented its return, but the sophomore year brought an abundance of pleasures beginning with a Paris-set premiere directed by Hal Hartley (who helmed the bulk of the episodes) that plays like an independent film. And every single music cue this season broke my fucking heart.

People of Earth (TBS). A comedy from Conan O’Brien and some of the Parks & Recreation team about a recovery group for alien abductees—though they prefer to be called “experiencers” because it gives them more agency—that’s funny, deeply human and astonishingly soulful.

Friday, December 09, 2016

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

A blast from the past. December 2009, to be exact.

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. Editor’s note, 2016: And THE NICE GUYS. The Christmas trees are there if you look.)

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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Queen of Crime

Several weeks early, I offer my New Year’s resolution for 2017: whenever I hear someone is making an enemies list, I’m gonna do what I can to be on it.


There’s still time to go, but it’s entirely possible the best movie I saw in a theater in 2016 will be ... the best movie I saw in a theater in 2015. Seattle’s Cinerama recently wrapped a 10-day run of Mad Max: Fury Road – The Black and Chrome Edition. What better time to revisit the apocalypse! George Miller called this black and white print “the best version” of his action extravaganza, a “more authentic and elemental” experience. I loved the film when I saw it last summer, but this viewing was indeed more intense and emotional. Monochrome is Tom Hardy’s friend, revealing new layers to his performance. Both versions will be available on Blu-ray next month, but I may put Fury Road in the rarified category of movie I only watch on a big screen.


One of the titles I picked up in the self-serve book room at Bouchercon in New Orleans was Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, edited by Joseph Goodrich. As one-half of Renee Patrick, I’m always interested in the working methods of other writing teams.

Rosemarie and I intend to remain married, so we’re not about to follow the lead of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Ellery Queen they wrote numerous novels and short stories about a detective also named Ellery Queen, with Dannay responsible for plotting duties and Lee handling the prose. It was a fraught system, each man resenting their interdependence and feeling unappreciated by the other. Their exchanges are charged with recriminations but also hugely instructive. One letter will offer a devastating critique of the work in progress, followed by an equally avid and airtight response. It’s bracing to read correspondence between partners who both have their reasons and are more than capable of defending them.

Here’s where I confess my ignorance of the Queen oeuvre. My experience was largely limited to the TV series from Columbo creators Richard Link and William Levinson, which incidentally is streaming on Hulu. Goodrich culls the letters in Blood Relations from what scholar Francis M. Nevins calls the “Third Period” of Queen, from 1942-58, when Ellery Queen the character was transformed from effete dandy to flesh-and-blood individual. I set out to read the books from Queen’s golden era even though the Dannay/Lee letters made me familiar with their twists and turns. I was curious; having peaked behind the curtain, could I still enjoy the show?

Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) is something of a chamber piece, one of the novels where Ellery retreats to the bucolic hamlet of Wrightsville. As such, it has a small cast of characters and for that reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that even coming to it fresh I would have sussed out the killer. The core idea still strikes me as a shade too intellectual. But the writing is soulful, seeking and finding a deepening of the character, and the mechanics of the final revelation are impressive. The next year’s Cat of Many Tails, in contrast, seemed even more thrilling knowing what tricks the boys had up their sleeves. The gripping tale of a serial killer terrorizing New York, it’s thick with mid-century atmosphere; when handing over his detailed outline, Dannay suggests Lee use the then-in-the-theaters The Naked City as a guide. The Cat’s method of selecting his victims is as diabolical now as it was nearly seventy years ago, the motive behind it every bit as chilling. The psychological explanations tend to be long-winded, understandable given when the book was written. But that gentility also makes the shock easier to take.

It was fascinating to approach a book when its gaff has been blown and look for the seams. Time to read some Ellery Queen where I don’t possess any of their secrets.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Social Media Habits, and How the Coen Brothers Saved Election Night

For some reason I feel compelled to explain why this post exists. I’ll keep it brief. A week before the election, I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter. I realized that, like the rest of the country, I was going insane, and social media was only accelerating the process. I was checking Twitter constantly for updates and new polling numbers, mainlining everyone else’s fears and hopes at the same time. Conversely, I’d stop by Facebook for a break from the news – Post some photos of your damn cats! – only to get sucked back into the maelstrom.

It finally dawned on me that this was part of the problem.

Time for a sabbatical. I still read the news, but in concentrated doses. (Do the republic and yourself a favor: subscribe to a newspaper. Journalism is important enough to pay for.) By election night I felt calmer, I was sleeping better, and once out of the echo chamber I’d unintentionally built I was even somewhat prepared for the eventual outcome. I also discovered I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to my old habits.

I’ve made some resolutions for the coming years. If anything I’m going to spend more time in bars, because what we all need to do now is talk directly to friends and strangers alike in a congenial atmosphere. Engagement must be the order of the day. (Here’s a segment from WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about the role of the bar as community meeting place on Election Night, featuring the terrific New York Times Magazine writer/bartender Rosie Schaap.)

And I’m going to reduce my social media presence for my own peace of mind. Not eliminate it; the pull’s too strong, and I know how essential it is for promotion. (Did I mention that Rosie Schaap blurbed my book Down The Hatch?) While I am going to scale back, I do still have an overwhelming urge to shoot my mouth off. So I plan on posting here again – I’m aiming for once a week, maybe Thursdays – with recommendations and updates. Why not start with how I spent election night?

No way was I watching returns on television. I gave up TV news, especially the cable variety, a while ago. Instead I tracked the results online and entered the brave new world in the company of Joel and Ethan Coen, who never let me down. I rewatched a trio of their titles that seemed unusually apt, given the circumstances.

Burn After Reading (2008). I have irrational affection for what’s often viewed as a “lesser” Coen film. When it came out, I glibly told people it was about how the United States ended up going to war in Iraq. I never developed the theory in detail; it just felt true to me. This was the Coen movie I thought of the most during the election cycle. Pretty much every character is a self-absorbed idiot, by turns entitled and aggrieved. Empathy ends at their fingertips. They obsess over their own problems and assume the worst about everyone else. The only decent person to be found lacks all conviction, and naturally ends up meeting the cruelest fate.

Plus you have Frances McDormand, looking a little like Hillary Clinton, sobbing about having to build a firewall. So yeah, 2016 in a nutshell.

Miller’s Crossing (1990). The angry man behind the desk is a Coen motif. Sooner or later, their protagonists always have to square off against one. Crossing doubles down on the theme. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan stands before two such desks – Albert Finney’s and Jon Polito’s – as both advisor and adversary. There are valuable lessons here for the next few years. In a harsh and unpredictable world, the only way to win is to play the long game, even if it means keeping your true motives hidden.

Hail, Caesar! (2016). Fourth viewing of their latest movie. I don’t think it’s a minor work. I think it’s a dense, unconventionally structured masterpiece. (My pal Ethan Iverson likes it, too.) The “man behind the desk” evolves in the Coens’ films – when the figure appears in Burn After Reading in the form of J.K. Simmons’ CIA chief, he’s as befuddled as everyone else – and it’s strangely moving that in Caesar, they’ve finally made him their hero. All you can hope for is that, like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, he has a soul and is trying in his own way to do the right thing. Slapping some sense into wayward movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he says, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.” Finding something larger than you and serving it. Good advice for the week.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Me Elsewhere: Noir at the Bar Seattle

Coming up tomorrow night. A swanky venue! A sterling line-up! And booze!

Warning: photo not to scale.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

Over the weekend, the Summer 2016 issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s house rag hit in-boxes. And I’ll tell you right now, I’ve never been prouder of any edition of this magazine. The reason is the cover story, my interview with Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears.

I gave the assignment to myself, not even running it past FNF founder and Noir City honcho Eddie Muller at first for fear the interview wouldn’t come together. My bailiwick as managing editor at the magazine is contemporary noir. It occurred to me that there are plenty of current filmmakers who have contributed mightily to noir – and that we need to talk to them about that work while we have the opportunity. We’re not going to get to sit down with, say, Robert Siodmak or Robert Wise, but we could corral their successors and discuss noir’s evolution. And, at the risk of sounding morbid, we were obligated to do so now, as last week’s untimely passing of writer/director Curtis Hanson at the age of 71 reminds us. (What I wouldn’t have given to talk to Hanson, not only about his masterwork L.A. Confidential but so many other dark gems on his resume like The Silent Partner, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence.)

Why start with Stephen Frears? Three reasons. He has unassailable credentials, with The Hit (1984) and The Grifters (1990) enshrined in the neo-noir pantheon. He had a new film in release, which in purely practical terms meant he’d be more likely to be accessible. Incidentally, that new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, is delightful. Meryl Streep is understandably the focus of all the attention, but it also boasts the best performance of Hugh Grant’s career.

But my main motive was personal. Frears is one of my favorite filmmakers, his name on a movie a guaranteed incentive for me to watch it. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen The Snapper (1993), while High Fidelity (2000) is a kind of touchstone for me. If I were drafting one of those best-films-of-the-21st-century-so-far lists for the BBC, 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things would most definitely be on it.

Somehow, the stars aligned and I found myself on the phone with the man himself. Frears seemed amused at the prospect of being viewed as a noir filmmaker and agreed to stroll down Memory Lane with me, reminiscing about his debut feature Gumshoe (1971) and chiding me about not thinking of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) as film noir. He answered my questions with the low-key, self-effacing humor that seems the exclusive province of the English.

Eddie then took things to the next level by announcing Frears as the recipient of the Film Noir Foundation’s first annual Modern Master Award, “given to an artist whose work has displayed an appreciation for the thematic and artistic traditions of classic noir, as well as an eagerness to extend those traditions in fresh and unexpected directions.” Our plan is to present the award to Frears in person at the Noir City film festival in either San Francisco or Los Angeles – provided he can tear himself away from his latest project. And we’re already discussing who the next recipient might be.

But that’s only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue. There’s Eddie’s spellbinding article on the making of The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), the first of the “rubble films” shot amidst the ruins of post-war Europe. Imogen Sara Smith offers a pair of related articles on British World War II noir and an appreciation of Carol Reed’s neglected The Man Between (1953). Jake Hinkson considers the career of Detour author Martin Goldsmith. Steve Kronenberg salutes the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Nigel Collins, longtime editor of boxing magazine The Ring, serves up a surprising list of his 5 favorite noir titles. And the inimitable Johnny Shaw takes us on a tour of South Korean crime cinema, specifically The Yellow Sea.

Plus there’s the usual bounty of news, reviews and features, including my Cocktails & Crime column and my take on four films that screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. All of it beautifully laid out by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

To get your copy, donate to the Film Noir Foundation. You’ll also be entered into a contest to win the brand new Kino-Lorber Blu-rays of Deadline U.S.A. and 99 River Street, with commentary tracks by Eddie Muller, and the Warner Archive DVD of James Ellroy favorite Stakeout on Dope Street.

If you want a taste of what’s in the magazine, my piece from last issue on Tequila Sunrise, a movie that had way too much influence on me, is now on the FNF website.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Movies: Noir City Seattle Returns

So I’m not as good as my word. So you’re getting a post-mortem. What could be better suited to a noir film festival?

After a hiatus of almost two and a half years, Noir City blew back into Seattle – and a new and better home at SIFF’s Egyptian Theater. Happily, the return engagement on Capitol Hill was a success, with solid crowds every night for a week. The theme this go-round was Film Noir from A to B: double-bills that moved chronologically through the 1940s, pairing prestige pictures with shorter, grittier productions to recreate the moviegoing experience of the era. (There was one exception to the structure and it mattered a great deal to me, but we’ll get to that.) Rosemarie and I made it to fifteen of the eighteen films screened, with time out for work and conspiring global domination with the festival’s master of ceremonies Eddie Muller. A recap follows.

New to Me

I saw three of the films for the first time, and as you’d expect, they were the B’s:

Dr. Broadway (1942). What was intended as the launching pad for a new franchise ended up as a series of one film. Still, it did provide noir legend Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, T-Men) with his first directorial assignment. This Runyonesque romp gained an unexpected topicality – the titular Times Square sawbones is named Tim Kane – and had potential, given the doc’s client base of gangsters and glamour gals. J. Carrol Naish makes his usual fine villain as a tailor cutting more than cloth in his bid to claim a crime boss’ fortune. Too bad the film stars the charisma-challenged Macdonald Carey, and his leading lady Jean Phillips triggered brain freeze every time she appeared onscreen; she was better known as Ginger Rogers’ stand-in, and is such a dead ringer for the dancer I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t actually her.

The Guilty (1947). This Film Noir Foundation restoration is based on the Cornell Woolrich story “Two Men in a Furnished Room.” As Eddie said, that also accurately describes the budget. But those bargain basement appointments allow director John Reinhardt to hew closely to Woolrich’s singularly bleak, doom-laden vision. Former Nancy Drew and future Lassie producer Bonita Granville plays identical twins – one helpmeet, one harlot – who take up with a pair of shiftless roomies. When the good girl is murdered, suspicion abounds. The movie is no lost masterpiece but it’s undeniably haunting, the Poverty Row production values giving it the hermetic feel of a nightmare. At least one relationship is genuinely unseemly, and a detective’s description of Granville #1’s demise while star Don Castle, who could be out-acted by a cigar store Indian, gazes down at her off-screen corpse remains authentically disturbing.

Southside 1-1000 (1950). Doubts were raised during the opening of the closing film, a semi-documentary crimebusters saga from Gun Crazy producers the King Brothers. (Summary of John Ireland’s interminable voiceover: counterfeiting is bad.) But once treasury agent Don DeFore – a Noir City favorite thanks to his turn in Too Late for Tears, now available on DVD! – arrives in Los Angeles and starts throwing cash around in a bid to build his bona fides as a Boston hoodlum, all is well. Great location photography in this movie directed by Boris Ingster, who also helmed the opening night B title Stranger on the Third Floor, bringing us all full circle.

Edith Head Night!

All the way from Japan!
Eddie deviated from the A/B set-up for our benefit, scheduling two top-tier titles last Tuesday boasting costumes by Edith Head. (Not to mention also having producer Hal Wallis and stars Burt Lancaster and Wendell Corey in common.) Rosemarie and I were lucky enough to co-host the evening with him, and signed copies of Design for Dying provided by Phinney Books. I can tell you that having Eddie Muller tells a packed house, “Don’t be a chump! Buy the book!” moves a lot of units. Our lovely friend Etsuko Tamazawa, who travels all the way from Japan to attend Noir City fests up and down the West Coast, brought us an astonishing gift: a Design for Dying sake barrel complete with inscribed cups, which were on the table as we signed books.

As for the movies, Desert Fury (1947) remains a delirious Technicolor fantasy, an overheated melodrama with only the vaguest ties to noir. And who cares, when it features a gay subtext that soon becomes text and a Lizabeth Scott sulking montage demanding multiple wardrobe changes that shows Edith Head at the height of her powers? I’m thrilled we introduced many people to Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), a dizzying piece of construction from writer Lucille Fletcher and director Anatole Litvak that is a truly underrated masterpiece of suspense.

The Professor and Mary Ann (aka And The Rest)

I always forget how effective Victor Mature is playing a big city sharpie in 1941’s I Wake Up Screaming – and still wish his co-star Laird Cregar had lived long enough to play Nero Wolfe ... Woman on the Run (1950), also now on DVD, gets better every time I see it ... Edith Head’s costumes for Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942) didn’t disappoint, but I tip my hat to the milliners responsible for the essential-to-the-plot hats in Phantom Lady (1944), starring local gal Ella Raines ... Dead Reckoning (1947) always seemed like middling Bogart to me, but it played great this time, while the big screen did no favors for the synthetic The Dark Corner (1946) ... The way Max Ophuls uses the wind in The Reckless Moment (1949) ... Night Editor (1946) is essentially the first Joe Eszterhas movie. And I already can’t wait for next year.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Me Elsewhere: Noir City Seattle

The last time Noir City was in Seattle, Rosemarie and I ended up filling in for the irreplaceable Eddie Muller on the final night, hosting a quartet of French noir films.

Then the festival pulled up stumps and abandoned the Emerald City for over a year. Are these events connected? The jury remains out.

But I’m pleased to report Noir City makes its triumphant return this weekend, at a brand new venue in the Egyptian Theater. Eighteen movies in seven days and not a dud in the bunch. Rosemarie and I reviewed the entire fight card with esteemed journalist and fellow game show combatant Tony Kay for City Arts magazine.

The big night for us is obviously Tuesday, July 26, when a pair of Edith Head films take to the silver screen. The deeply deranged Desert Fury and the sinfully suspenseful Sorry, Wrong Number. With Eddie providing context, and color commentary from yours truly and the missus. We’ll also be signing copies of Design for Dying, thanks to an assist from Phinney Books.

I can’t promise diligent recapping of every feature – there’s a lot going on around Chez K these days – but I’ll try to surface with a report or two.

In the meantime, swing by Dru’s Book Musings to read our ‘Day in the Life’ post and have a chance to win a signed copy of Design for Dying.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

The Spring 2016 issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s house rag hit the streets earlier this week, bringing its usual bounty of top-notch scribblings.

Front and center this time out is a remarkable piece from new contributor John Wranovics, detailing the amazing true story of the U.S intelligence community’s role in the birth of Italian neo-realism. Our stalwarts are well-represented: Jake Hinkson looks at Rudolph Maté and his singular directorial achievement D.O.A.; Imogen Sara Smith considers Douglas Sirk’s dark side; Steve Kronenberg salutes the silken menace of George Macready; Brian Light revisits Peeping Tom, still disturbing after all these years; and Kelly Vance sizes up the latest from Arturo Ripstein, the lucha noir Bleak Street.

I’m not sitting this one out. In addition to my Cocktails & Crime column, I take on the duty of our Prime Cuts feature and confess my long-standing love for Robert Towne’s other L.A.-set noir, Tequila Sunrise.

Want in on the action? Donate to the Film Noir Foundation for a copy and an opportunity to win the new Flicker Alley DVDs of two FNF restorations, Too Late for Tears and Woman on the Run. None other than Leonard Maltin raved about them. Get thee to thy wallet post haste.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Books: Three for the Road

Thanks to a Design for Dying book tour that lasted much of May, I almost broke my Showgirls oath to post at least once a month. Here I am under the wire to recommend a troika of titles that kept me company while I was on the road.

Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters. Late last year I devoured the entirety of Winters’ Last Policeman trilogy, genre-bending marvels that claimed both Edgar and Philip K. Dick awards. Even those books didn’t prepare me for Winters’ latest, due out on July 5 and destined to be a hot button topic for the rest of the summer. Airlines takes place in an alternate America where the Civil War never occurred, a twenty-first century where slavery remains legal in four states. Victor is a young black man who has made a devil’s bargain with a shadowy government agency to act as bounty hunter, tracking down fugitives from the South. Winters’ world-building is astonishing, creating a wholly believable society mere degrees from our own. But it’s Victor’s raw and potent story that carries us through this distorted and disturbing mirror image.

West of Eden: An American Place, by Jean Stein. Given the Lillian Frost/Edith Head series any book on Old Hollywood is going to command my attention, but this one-of-a-kind oral history is told from the inside. Stein recounts the sagas of five different Los Angeles families, including the Dohenys, who inspired There Will Be Blood and haunted Raymond Chandler; the Warners; and Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. The section on Jane Garland, the troubled daughter of a fortune-hunting mother who paid assorted California dreamers to keep her company, is like a real-life Ross Macdonald tale. Stein then turns her gaze toward her own clan; her father Jules founded MCA and played a pivotal role in building modern show business. A compulsively readable book about the price of privilege under the sun.

The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller. It’s a dream come true for a pair of hardcore baseball statheads: the chance to operate an actual team, albeit one in the independent leagues several rickety rungs below the minors. But in order to apply sabermetrics to the Sonoma Stompers, Lindbergh and Miller will have to win over rookies and lifers alike, plus learn some things about themselves and their beliefs. I heartily recommend this book to any baseball fan – it goes down much easier if you already know what wRC+ means – but don’t go in expecting a dry treatise heavy on objective analytics. This is powerful, moving stuff about theory and practice, dreams and reality, and the struggle to make tomorrow different from today.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Me Elsewhere: On The Road

Once again, my alter ego Renee Patrick has all the scoop while I’m left with scraps. She can tell you my schedule at Malice Domestic plus the first round of stops on the Design for Dying book tour, as well as the ingredients in a Renee Patrick cocktail, an original created at the Zig Zag Café. If you’re interested, that is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Lasting Legacy of Roy Huggins

NOTE: This post is my contribution to the Detectives and Dames blogathon hosted by Flicker Alley in advance of the May 10 release of Too Late for Tears (1949) and Woman on the Run (1950) on Blu-ray/DVD. Other posts hosted by Flicker Alley are here, and this piece will be linked there later in the week.

You can preorder Woman on the Run and Too Late for Tears now. The Film Noir Foundation spearheaded the restoration of both films, and the bountiful extras included commentary tracks by my FNF colleagues Eddie Muller (Woman on the Run) and Alan K. Rode (Too Late for Tears).

You know the work of Roy Huggins, even if you’ve never heard his name. Huggins, who wrote both the screenplay for the newly-restored Too Late for Tears (1949) and the serial on which it was based, is one of the stealth giants of twentieth century pop culture, leaving his fingerprints everywhere. He’s the Stan Lee of network television.

He began as a novelist, debuting with a 1946 novel called The Double Take that aped Raymond Chandler so shamelessly Chandler himself admired it. The book was filmed two years later as I Love Trouble, with Franchot Tone as wisecracking shamus Stuart Bailey. It boasts gorgeous dames a’plenty, noir favorites like Raymond Burr and Steven Geray, and a corkscrew plot that, as in many a Chandler yarn, ultimately proves irrelevant. Huggins adapted the book himself, quickly realizing Hollywood was where a writer could take down the big money. He’d script several other underrated noir titles. 1954’s taut Pushover gives the lie to the belief that Fred MacMurray never strayed to the dark side of the street again after Double Indemnity. Ida Lupino is menaced by her new husband who’s only interested in the family mill in Woman in Hiding (1950), which dutifully follows Chekhov’s dictum that if a hydroelectric turbine is mentioned in Act One, it must be turned on in Act Two.

It was in television, though, that Huggins would truly leave his mark. Among the series he created are several with outsized footprints. Maverick and The Fugitive were both rebooted for the small and big screens, while a feature film based on his jazzy Los Angeles private eye show 77 Sunset Strip has been in development for years. Sunset’s lead detective? None other than The Double Take’s Stuart Bailey, given new life. Crime novelist Max Allan Collins, long a Huggins admirer, observed that The Double Take is “undoubtedly the most filmed private eye novel ever.” Huggins recycled its plot on many of the series he worked on, even transposing the action to the Old West for Maverick. When you’re as prolific as Huggins was, you’re not going to get too precious about reusing a story that works.

Huggins’ name came to mean something else inside Hollywood’s corridors of power. He’d gotten shafted on a number of shows he created, the most legendary example a story that sounds like something out of Hail, Caesar! Studio chief Jack Warner arranged for the pilot episode of 77 Sunset Strip to be released theatrically in the Caribbean, a dodge enabling the studio to claim the series was based on a movie and not Huggins’ original Stuart Bailey stories. Fed up, Huggins had ownership of all the concepts he created written into his contracts, a practice other producers soon followed.

What cements Roy Huggins’ Hall of Fame status is his work as a mentor, with one writer in particular. TV titan Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, Wiseguy, 21 Jump Street) called Huggins “my Godfather in this business,” saying “during the two-and-a-half years I sat in his office, or in screening rooms, or at lunch discussing script problems with him, I learned more about the process of writing and producing television than I have in the entire twenty years since ... He was the one who showed me how to do it. He was the one who taught me how to fix a bad piece of film or plot a script so each scene is more interesting than the one that came before it.” Together, Cannell and Huggins co-created the perennial The Rockford Files, re-teaming Huggins with Maverick star James Garner. Many of today’s top television auteurs came through Cannell’s system, filtering Huggins’s storytelling lessons through to an entirely new generation.

Too Late for Tears is easily Huggins’ greatest achievement in his relatively brief movie career. His casually diabolical script prefigures A Simple Plan as young L.A. marrieds Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy accidentally come into possession of a hefty extortion payoff. As Scott’s avaricious tendencies get the better of her, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) comes calling. It’s unquestionably Liz Scott’s finest hour, but good luck taking your eyes off Duryea, who saunters onto the screen all rancid insouciance and ends up timid and broken before La Scott.

The surprise, then, is that Huggins didn’t care for the finished film. He even assumed some of the blame himself. “I hated the movie (producer Hunt Stromberg) made from my script,” he said. “It was intended to be a suspense movie ... It was a bad movie because it was badly directed – and possibly badly written, but in view of the lethargic direction, how could you tell?”

Rapturous reactions to the Film Noir Foundation’s restored version indicates that on this score, Huggins was wrong. But he can be forgiven, considering he got so much else right.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Go for Launch: Design for Dying

Today’s the day, kids. Design for Dying, the mystery novel I co-wrote with Rosemarie under the pen name Renee Patrick, is finally available wherever, as the man says, fine books are sold.

In case you missed it, here’s the premise –

Los Angeles, 1937. Lillian Frost has traded dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl ... until she discovers she’s a suspect in the murder of her former roommate Ruby Carroll. Party girl Ruby died wearing a gown she stole from the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures, domain of Edith Head.

Edith has yet to win the first of her eight Academy Awards; right now she’s barely hanging on to her job, and a scandal is the last thing she needs. To clear Lillian’s name and save Edith’s career, the two women join forces. Unraveling the mystery pits them against a Hungarian princess on the lam, a hotshot director on the make, and a private investigator who’s not on the level.

All they have going for them are dogged determination, assists from the likes of Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck, and a killer sense of style. In show business, that just may be enough …

Glamorous clothes, celebrity cameos galore. What more could you want?

Renee is the one with all the information. Go to her website for the latest, like this blog post with everything that went live today as a result of the launch and a hint of what’s to come. And why not follow the links to your favorite bookstore and pick up a copy while you’re there? A boy’s gotta eat (and drink), you know.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

It’s that time again, gang. Another issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine submitted for your delectation. I wasn’t planning on penning anything other than my Cocktails & Crime column for this installment, which riffs on the “noir in the arts” theme of this year’s Noir City film festival. But an opportunity presented itself that I simply couldn’t pass up.

One of the most astonishing documentaries of recent years is Marwencol (2010). It’s about Mark Hogancamp, whose story fuses art and noir in an intensely personal way: after a beating left him with amnesia, he found a way to help heal himself by recreating his ordeal in a richly imagined fictional world, a 1/6-scale World War II town in Belgium. A new book dives deeper into Hogancamp’s life and art, and I talked to co-author and Marwencol producer Chris Shellen about it. Also included is a bounty of Hogancamp’s remarkable, hypnotic photographs. I’m thrilled Noir City is able to bring Hogancamp’s work to you.

I recruited a few other contributors to this outing. Like my better half and other half of Renee Patrick, Rosemarie Keenan. A longtime admirer of the master of the American musical Stephen Sondheim, she sizes up his only original feature film script The Last of Sheila (1973) and suggests, in her “Noir or Not?” essay, that within this mordant inside-showbiz bauble beats the black heart you’d expect from the man responsible for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In our “Prime Cuts: My Favorite Neo-Noir” section, crime novelist and country-western shirt connoisseur Martyn Waites appraises “one of the saddest, bleakest noirs ever made”: 1964’s chilling Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

I discovered two of Richard Shepard’s early films while channel surfing, and each time made a note of the filmmaker’s name. Both Mercy (1995) and Oxygen (1999) boasted a white-knuckle energy in spite of low budgets, and featured accomplished performances from then-little known actors (Sam Rockwell and Adrien Brody, respectively). Shepard went on to become the poet of wrecked middle-aged machismo, writing and directing two crime dramas boasting career-best work from Pierce Brosnan (The Matador) and Jude Law (Dom Hemingway). In addition, he won an Emmy for his direction of the Ugly Betty pilot, is a principal helmer of HBO’s Girls, and makes a hell of a Twitter follow. In “5 Favorites,” Shepard offers the quintet of films in his personal pantheon.

All that plus the estimable Imogen Sara Smith on ballet in noir, Steve Kronenberg on the classic pulp cover artists, a filled-to-bursting Noir @ Home section, and more. Donate to the Film Noir Foundation to receive your issue – and a chance to win the new Blu-ray of 1948’s Pitfall, with commentary by FNF honcho Eddie Muller.

While I have you here, remember that Noir City Annual #8, collecting the best pieces from 2015’s run of the magazine including a few by yours truly, is now on sale at Amazon. That’s a veritable bonanza of noir goodies, so what are you waiting for?

Monday, February 22, 2016

Miscellaneous: By The Time We Get To Phoenix

This year’s Left Coast Crime will be in Phoenix, Arizona from February 25-28. Rosemarie and I will be there – ask to see our Edith Head cigarette cases! – and on a panel.

Teamwork: Writing with a Partner
Sunday, February 28, 11:00 am – 12 noon

Moderator: Charles Todd (Caroline). Other panelists: Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl.

For all the scoop on what’s going on with our upcoming debut novel Design for Dying, including a Goodreads giveaway, head over to our alter ego’s latest blog post.

Speaking of my partner, over at The Five-Two you’ll find Rosemarie’s latest poem ‘Grandiflora,’ which is in no way based on a real incident.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel, by Lawrence Block (2016)

The first edition of Lawrence Block’s book was simply called Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. 1978, the year of its publication, was a different era; watch the Johnny Carson reruns now airing on Antenna TV for a taste of those bygone days. (The other night, Carson reeled off a list of do’s and don’ts for singles bars. Talk about your time capsules.)

Block’s book served as this nascent novelist’s first Bible. I read it over and over, primarily because I responded to his crisply professional approach. WNPP wasn’t full of inspirational, follow-your-bliss advice. It treated writing as a job, which made sense given’s Block background in the paperback trade of the 1950s and 1960s, and was resolutely practical. He suggested subjecting several novels in your chosen genre to detailed outlining, and I broke down more than one of Block’s own books to study the mechanics of story.

It’s no surprise Block updated his book for the modern age, given the forward-thinking approach he’s had for his entire career. He was ahead of the curve on audiobooks, embraced e-books early, and of late has self-published several titles including this one and the most recent entry in his Burglar series.

That breadth of experience is brought to bear on the new and improved WNPPP. What surprises is how little revision the first fourteen chapters required. For all the technological innovations, the nuts and bolts of writing haven’t changed. Block’s counsel has weathered well, and he smartly peppers the text with interjections updating the content. Plenty of material that has served me in good stead for decades remains intact, like Block telling the story of how novelist John D. MacDonald made use of a chance meeting with a friend’s father: “By the time the evening was done, my father didn’t know too much about John D. MacDonald, but MacDonald sure learned a lot about hotel management.” I still hope to work a reference to a “tobbo shop” in somewhere. In the chapter on outlining, Block is finally able to quote an uproarious example from Donald E. Westlake’s Adios, Scheherazade that he’d previously only left to the imagination. Thanks to an assist from Duane Swierczynski a while back, I was able to read Westlake’s original, but reprinted in this context, it’s even funnier.

As for the book’s Pixel portion, Block wisely observes that the field is changing so fast the best he can do is offer tips on where to find the most current information. But focus your energy on what precedes it. Writing a good book is always your best first step, and Block will put you on the road to accomplishing that.