Tuesday, August 15, 2017
I was pleased to be a recent guest on the podcast NOIR TALK. Host Haggai Elitzur and I discussed my profiles of Tom Neal and Peggie Castle, my adventures on book tours in France, what it's like to attended Noir City Chicago, and much more. Check it out here.
Friday, August 4, 2017
The website Book Scrolling has placed my novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET on its list of the Best Noir Novels of all time. While I'm dubious of lists of the all time greatest anything, I am absolutely gratified to be be included on any list that includes the likes of Cain, Hughes, Simenon, and Thompson. So a big thanks to the folks at Book Scrolling.
It's a funny thing to have HOCS included on this list when the book is currently out of print. As some people may know, the last publisher of HOCS, 280 Steps, went out of business not long ago. I could have immediately placed the book elsewhere, but I want to shop it around. I'm slow about these things, and I'm going to finish the current novel I'm working on so I can sell them as a pair, making the process even slower. I'm satisfied in my own mind that this is the smart way to go about the process of placing HOCS in its next home.
So I said all of that to say that I'm especially grateful to Book Scrolling for reminding people of my little book. HELL ON CHURCH STREET changed my life. It gave me a career in writing, it took me to France, and it has introduced me to many wonderful people. So I want to right by it. I'm glad it's still out there in the world making a little noise.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR is an amazing piece of art made all the more amazing by the fact that it doesn't really work. Of all of Chaplin's major films, it is the most disjointed, the one that least holds together as a unified production. Tellingly, after this film, he would struggle to find his footing in a world and an industry that kept changing.
And yet, paradoxically, few people would argue against the supposition that THE GREAT DICTATOR is one of Chaplin's most important works.
The film, of course, was Chaplin's courageous stand against Hitler and Nazism. Context is everything in appreciating the film today, so it is important to begin any discussion of THE GREAT DICTATOR by pointing out that when Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and financed the film, Hitler was at his zenith. America was officially neutral in the matter of the "war in Europe" and many Americans (more than we like to remember) supported Hitler's racist vision of the world, or, at the very least, thought that the Nazis should be of minimal concern to the US. When Chaplin released his film, then, he wasn't satirizing the biggest ghoul in our history books, the monster who has come to personify evil in the modern world. He was satirizing the Chancellor of Germany, a seemingly ridiculous little man, albeit a man whose ambitions were growing by the day and whose murderous rampage against the people of Europe had only just begun.
All of this makes THE GREAT DICTATOR a source of immense fascination today. Even more than most films, it is an historical document. It was never, ever, just a movie. This was the most famous movie star alive making a desperate plea to stop a rapidly unfolding tragedy.
Yet it is also, of course, just a movie. And as a movie, it is flawed. By this point, Chaplin had been directing movies for three decades and had done the bulk of his work in the teens and '20s. In the '30s, he had directed only two films: CITY LIGHTS (1931) and MODERN TIMES (1936). Now, those films are arguably his best works as a director, but by 1940 he was a long way from the time when he had dominated American film (or, really, world film). At his peak, he might well have been the biggest star that the movies ever produced, and he was as respected a director as any filmmaker alive, but he was also, in 1940, a middle-aged man who had become a star when movies themselves were just being formed, a director from a different era.
THE GREAT DICTATOR shows signs of his age. It is a curious mix of tones and styles, a fractured artistic statement. The comedy that we remember the film for is the broad satire of Hitler, with Chaplin playing "Adenoid Hynkel" as a preening buffoon spewing hate while he pours water down his pants. Much of the humor is big and simple, with the little dictator doing pratfalls or bumping his head. This tepid take on Hitler is, if you will forgive the comparison, somewhat akin to making fun of Donald Trump's hair. It has no bite, and it's not satirizing anything of consequence. At other times, however, the film's humor is darkly pointed, as in the scene where Nazi-like stormtroopers attempt to lynch a Jewish barber also played by Chaplin. Doing a lynching scene as slapstick is, to put it mildly, a tricky business. Yes, it's making fun of the hateful idiots with the rope, but the underlying reality of the scene is disturbing. Atrocities like this, as Chaplin well knew, were actually happening in countries across Europe and they had their analogue in the rampant racial violence in America.
All of this points to an uneasy balance of concerns for the filmmaker to juggle throughout THE GREAT DICTATOR. Chaplin, in his heart, was a vaudeville performer hustling for laughs (and, in a larger sense, for love). There's a scene where the little barber, in the midst of an anti-Semitic attack, gets bopped on the head and does a little wobbly shuffle up and down the sidewalk. This is the kind of gag that we've seen in Chaplin shorts, the enjoyment of which is based on our delight in the performer's fleet-footed dexterity. But that delight is impossible to reconcile with the actual setting of the action. It's as if Chaplin is stopping his dark satire of Nazism to say, "Aren't I still the cutest thing you ever saw?"
The most famous comic bit in the film is dictator's ballet with a bouncing inflated globe of the world. If some of the movie's slapstick is flatfooted (the sluggish opening scenes set in WWI seem to drag on), this scene showed that the old master was still able to create indelible images. There's something sweetly ridiculous in the mad little monster playing with the world, only to have it pop in his face when he gets too excited.
By the end, however, "sweetly ridiculous" isn't a tone Chaplin could bring himself to conclude with. Of course, the filmmaker didn't know the extent of Hitler's madness, nor could he have even conceived of the horrifying complicity of Hitler's people. But enough had transpired already that Chaplin chose to end his film by abandoning comedy altogether and giving the Jewish barber a lengthy speech of striking prescience and power.
He tells the Nuremberg-like rally:
"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed."
This passionate speech, deadly serious and delivered with blistering intensity by the actor, has no organic reason to be in the same movie with goofy pratfalls and old "he doesn't realize he's hanging upside down" gags, but it is, of course, the most important part of the film. This isn't Chaplin making fun of Hitler's mustache or overblown rhetorical style. This is Chaplin calling out Hilter for being a violent hatemonger. This is Chaplin begging the world not to tear itself apart.
THE GREAT DICTATOR, then, is the kind of movie that never really coheres into a unified whole. It's a collection of disparate elements: sight gags, social comedy, drama, and political commentary. It's also a statement by an aging star-director who still had some spring in his step and saw that he had a responsibility to speak out against the rapidly growing influence of an ideology that was marching the world toward disaster. It's not a perfect movie, but it is, in all the ways that really matter, a great film.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Noir City Chicago returns to the Music Box Theatre August 25th to August 31st. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode will be on hand to introduce an eclectic group of films that will center around this year's theme of "The Big Knockover." I love caper films so I'm especially excited by this year's selections which include classics like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, as well as lesser known (but equally excellent) heist flicks like PLUNDER ROAD and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD. The latter film, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated noirs. Maybe I'll run a piece on it before it shows.
Here's a link to the Noir City Chicago 2017 schedule.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Hey New York City,
I'll be at the Bryant Park Reading Room on Monday July 17th at 12:30 to discuss my book THE BLIND ALLEY. Author Scott Adlerberg, the host of the Reel Talks program , and I are going to talk all things noir, so if you can make it, I hope you'll come by and say hello.
Friday, June 30, 2017
This month The Gene Siskel Film Center, an adjunct of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It's been a thrilling line up of classics from the greatest director of French film noir: BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE SAMOURAI, LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC, and more. (My only regret is that they didn't show the Simenon adaptation MAGNET OF DOOM.) I've been to most showings, and the highlight for me has been a film that was new to me, LEON MORIN, PRETRE (sometimes called LEON THE PRIEST). I will write about this movie soon, because it was something of a revelation to me. I love Melville's gangster films, but this intense and deeply human look at the relationship between a communist and a priest during World War II instantly became my favorite of his films. I want to see LEON again before I write about it, though. It demands my extended contemplation.
Last night at the retrospective, I had a strikingly unique experience because the Siskel showed a Melville rarity, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Before the show, the programmer came out to tell us that there is no existing print of the film with English subtitles. Instead, they showed the film in French while an interpreter used a computer program to seamlessly project subtitles onscreen. I have to say that this gave the showing an interesting twist. The interpreter got a well-deserved round of applause at the end.
Given the relative obscurity of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER in English, I thought that I should make some notes on it for Melville fans who have not yet seen it.
The film tells the story of a postulate nun named Therese Voise (Juliette Greco) who is about to take her vows when she learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident. She leaves the convent to return home to care for her sister Denise (Irene Galter) and run the family bookstore and paper shop. At the same time, Denise meets a handsome boxer named Max Trivet (Philippe Lemarie). At first, Max appears to be a roguish charmer. When Denise isn't around, he hatches a scheme with a buddy, Biquet, who works as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, to angle for the attention (and money) of rich Mme. Faugeret. Then Max sneaks into Mme. Faugeret's room at night and seduces her--and I use the word "seduces" advisedly here because although Mme. Faugeret seems to retain her agency, their confrontation is disturbingly close to a sexual assault. After this, Mme. Faugeret sort of adopts Max as a pet, but his character only seems increasingly sinister.
The turning point in the film comes when Denise unexpectedly runs into Max at the hotel and he rapes her in Mme. Faugeret's room. Distraught, the young woman attempts suicide. After she has recovered enough to tell Therese what has the happened, the older sister forces Max at gunpoint to marry Denise.
Every viewer's take on the film will probably depend a lot on how they view Therese's actions following her sister's assault. Melville was a poet of moral ambiguity. The plot of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER might make it sound like a melodrama (and, indeed, in some ways it is), but the director rarely overplays things (one exception to this is a scene where Therese's dress catches on fire, a scene that clobbers us with its metaphors). For the most part, the tone set in the opening scenes in the convent predominates, even when the guns, sex, and twists of fate start coming into play. Max is the wild id of the film--violent, greedy, narcissistic. When he confesses his love for the tightly wound Therese, it seems like just another scheme. Therese, on on the other hand, is the film's ego (the film's superego is probably the Catholic church), and she is the one whose actions we're most interested in. She despises Max for what he's done, so her decision to force him to marry Denise is shocking. Does she do it out of some archaic sense of propriety? Does she do it because, despite everything, her sister claims to love Max? Melville and Jacques Deval let these questions hang in the air.
The cast is excellent. Galter is winsome as Denise without making her too doe-eyed, and as Max, Lemarie gives a demonically charismatic performance that manages to veer between brutality and a weird kind of innocence. When he confesses his love for Therese, it almost seems plausible that he could mean it, that she has a mysterious pull on him. What makes this work is that Max stays Max. It's not as if his attraction to Therese somehow redeems him or makes him a good guy. It's just another facet of his character. Is the film a noir? It wasn't billed as such, but I think that even if you didn't know that Melville was the director, the noir ethos of the thing comes through in Max's character and the amorality of Lemarie's performance.
As Therese, Juliette Greco is masterfully controlled. Greco is best known as an iconic singer in France, a former lover of Miles Davis and drinking buddy of people like Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sarte. In this film, however, she was 26 and just starting out in her career. What she carried with her into the film was the weight of WWII, during which she'd been put in jail by Nazis and lost her mother, a member of the French Resistance. Greco would become famous for her intensity, and, indeed, the defining attribute of her performance here is the feeling of passions contained. She can convey the sense of sublimated emotion without giving the impression of a lack of emotion. All the characters in this film are tortured by passions they can't really comprehend, but Greco hints at great depths and intelligence. The way she tells Max, "May God punish you for the rest of your life and forgive you at the hour of your death" perfectly captures the Catholic restraint that dominates even her rage. Later, after Max has physically attacked her with a rock, only to instantly repent of his violence, she rubs her aching shoulder with a look of fascinating ambiguity on her face. The curse of Max for her isn't some hothouse sexuality or the misplaced idea that she can redeem him. It's that, in his horrible way, he makes her feel alive.
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER demands more viewings. Since it is such an obscurity, I can only hope that someone will bring it out on DVD or BluRay sometime soon. It's a haunting film.
Monday, June 26, 2017
I'm in the new summer issue of NOIR CITY with a couple of different articles. First up is a look at Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA, an album that was both inspired by neonoir (like Terrence Malick's BADLANDS) and which would itself go on to inspire neonoir (like Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER). The album itself is about as noir as any piece of music ever made.
Next up is a look at the different film versions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant 1947 novel THE BLANK WALL. This masterpiece inspired two incredible adaptations, Max Ophuls's THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) and the 2001 THE DEEP END, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.
As always, there's a lot of great stuff in this issue, including the launch of a new regular feature called "The Dark Page" exploring contemporary crime fiction, written by a wordslinger who knows what the hell he's talking about, the great Eric Beetner.
Get your issue today by becoming a contributor to NOIR CITY.