Monday, March 11, 2019

DRY COUNTY Comes to France

The French edition of DRY COUNTY, titled AU NOM DU BIEN (or "In the Name of Good") will be released May 2nd. The French get it before the Americans (vive la France!). I'll be heading back to France this summer to do some festivals and signings. More to come...

Saturday, March 2, 2019


I am thrilled to announce that this October, Pegasus Books will release my novel DRY COUNTY. I've been working on this book for years now, and I could not be more excited to finally get to share with you.

To read more about the DRY COUNTY, click here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

CAUGHT (1949)

I guess Max Ophüls was just too big for film noir. He was the premier artist of lushly romantic period pieces (LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, MADAME DE…, LOLA MONTES), and those are the films for which he is remembered today. Many people don’t even realize that in 1949 he made two film noirs back to back, nor do they realize that these two films represent exactly half of his American output. Wedged between LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN in 1948 and LA RONDE in 1950, these two B-movies have been largely overlooked by critics in favor of Ophüls’ more celebrated work.

The irony of this neglect is that THE RECKLESS MOMENT and CAUGHT are both brilliant film noirs. Each feature his celebrated mise-en-scène and camera work, and each feature strong female protagonists. Of the two films, THE RECKLESS MOMENT is tighter and more controlled, but CAUGHT darker and deeper.

It tells the story of a poor young woman named Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes). Her big dream is to meet Mr. Right, preferably a rich Mr. Right. She takes modeling and charm school lessons, and then one day she lucks out when the slimy personal assistant to a millionaire sees her modeling fur coats at a department store and invites her to a yacht party. Leonora is so turned off by the creepy little assistant’s insinuating manner—he essentially treats her like a self-deluded prostitute—she almost doesn’t go to the party. At her roommate’s prodding she changes her mind, but it’s unclear exactly why she changes her mind. Leonora is funny that way. She doesn’t want to be treated like a prostitute, but she does want to get on that boat and maybe catch herself a millionaire.

She never makes it to the boat, though, because she runs into the millionaire on the docks, and he invites her along for a ride in his convertible. His name is Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and he is a hulking mass of money and nerves. He doesn’t so much sweep Leonora off her feet as much as he makes a snap decision to buy her. In no time at all, they’re married and completely miserable. Smith seems to detest Leonora for merely existing, convinced that she only married him for his money. Leonora professes her love for him, but the fact is, she did marry him for his money. However, when Smith humiliates her in front of his drinking buddies one night, Leonora leaves him and gets a job as a receptionist for a pediatrician named Larry Quinada (James Mason). She and the good doctor soon fall in love, but Smith starts poking around, threatening to make trouble for both of them. Then Leonora discovers she’s pregnant with Smith’s child.

I have to tread carefully over plot details here because part of the power of the last act of CAUGHT is its surprising attitude toward this pregnancy. The audience isn’t happy that Leonora is pregnant with Smith’s child, and neither is she. Smith is happy because it gives him a way to “break” Lenora. He tells her that if she doesn’t come back to him, he’ll take the child away from her in court. Smith (who was reportedly modeled after Howard Hughes) is one sick bastard of a man. Why does he want Leonora back? Because she doesn’t want to come back. He just wants to break her. CAUGHT finds a way to resolve this showdown, but the last few minutes of the movie are shocking. In today’s Hollywood, a movie studio would never allow a film to have such an ending. I can’t image what people must have thought in 1949.      

The film was based on a novel by Libbie Block, with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents. There was much tinkering on the film—especially the ending—by the studio and the censors, but the film that emerged is a fascinating piece of work. Ophüls was known as a “woman’s director,” but a better way to phrase, really, would be that he was one of the first feminist directors. Leonora’s quest to find a husband is a set up for her brutal awakening. What does she want? Why does she want it? She will have to confront her own underlying assumptions about marriage and motherhood before the movie is over.

Ophüls’s direction is superb. Here was a director. His camera glides back and forth throughout the film but never simply for the sake of being flashy. Look at the scene of Leonora and Quinada out on their date, jostled on the dance floor, deciding that maybe they’re in love, and notice how the camera finds them at all the right times. Or look at the scene of Quinada and his partner at the doctor’s office after Leonora has run off, the camera swooping back and forth from each man as they talk, Leonora’s empty desk between them highlighting the power of her absence.

For all its virtues, the film does have flaws. The last two or three minutes feel awfully rushed—as evidenced by a clumsily inserted shot of Bel Geddes that looks like it’s from a completely different film stock. And I can’t help but think that an opportunity was missed in the casting. Robert Ryan played a psycho better than anyone, but it might have interesting to see Mason tackle the role of Smith Ohlrig. I mean, James Mason just looks and sounds like a guy named Smith Ohlrig. He does a serviceable job as Quinada, but Ryan could have brought more warmth to that role.   

As Leonora, however, Barbara Bel Geddes is simply wonderful. An accomplished stage actress, Bel Geddes never made the big splash in the movies that she should have. Today she’s mostly remembered for her television role as the mother on DALLAS, but for movie fans she’ll always be Jimmy Stewart’s lovelorn friend Midge in Hitchcock’s VERTIGO. She also appeared in a few noirs (PANIC IN THE STREETS, FOURTEEN HOURS), as well as Robert Wise’s terrific noirish western BLOOD ON THE MOON. With her tomboy spunk and palpable intelligence, Bel Geddes is a welcome addition to any movie, and she positively anchors CAUGHT. Leonora could be played at two different extremes, either as coy or as self-pitying. Instead, Bel Geddes makes her a woman wrestling with her own sense of self. Her choice between Smith and Quinada isn’t simply a choice between two men or even two ways of life. It’s a choice between two Leonoras.

Note: I originally posted this back in 2009, but I'm reposting it here because CAUGHT will be showing at Doc Films this Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at 1:30. The film is part of the Women's Picture Noir programmed by Kathleen Geier. For more details click here.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Some Thoughts on I, JANE DOE (1948)

The University of Chicago's Doc Films, the oldest student-run film society in America, is doing a series this semester on the "Women's Picture Noir." Programmed by Kathleen Geier, they're showing an impressive run of films. Today, I got to see the new restoration of John Auer's I, JANE DOE, and it's fantastic.

I'm pretty busy these days, so I don't have time to sit down a write a full piece on the film, but I did want to record a few thoughts.

First off, the restoration of the film is beautiful. The format I saw the movie in was DCP, and while I don't know the status of the film's negative, I can report that the restoration gleams and shimmers.

Of course, the restoration wouldn't mean much if the film itself didn't bring the goods, and I, JANE DOE is a noir buff's delight. John Auer isn't a director who has gotten a lot of love from critics, but noir geeks are well advised to seek out his work in the genre. He was a contract man at Republic studios, although he was just about the only director on the lot who didn't make westerns. Instead, the Hungarian-born director focused on musicals, war films, and crime flicks. His work in noir is notable for atmosphere and tension. He wasn't one to expend a lot of energy forcing a silly script to make sense (JANE DOE'S plot is pretty screwy), but his films--from the Hawaii-set HELL's HALF ACRE to the ode-to-Chicago THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS--are always beautifully composed and plenty of fun. 

I, JANE DOE is certainly good fun. It follows a twisty plot about a French immigrant (Vera Ralston) who is put on trial for gunning down her married American lover. She refuses to give her real name and is tried as "Jane Doe." She's convicted of murder, but then her dead lover's wife (Ruth Hussey)--who is, as luck would have it, a successful defense lawyer--decides that there is more to the murder than she first suspected and takes Jane Doe's case.

For this movie to work for you, you have to know yourself. Either you can ride out the zigs and zags of a truly ludicrous plot or you can't. If you can, though, what you'll find is a film rich with noir style. With cinematographer Reggie Lanning (who also worked with the director on 1947's THE FLAME) Auer gives the picture plenty of visual zing. From the opening shot that puts us at a odd low angle as we follow Jane Doe on her way to the murder, we know we're in good hands.

Beyond the style, you'll find an uncommonly feminist take on the 40s courtroom thriller, a film that privileges the perspective of women and develops that perspective with sensitive performances by everyone involved. Like most of the films that Doc Films is showing in its series, I, JANE DOE is a domestic thriller. In the noir melodramas of the 40s, which largely dealt with the lives of women, the sphere of action tends to be the domestic space. That's true, in part, of JANE DOE, but the film also plays with it a bit by giving us a female protagonist who is a lawyer. (Her firm seems to be exclusively run by women, in fact.) Like many "women's picture noirs" the film also flips the whole femme fatale trope on its head. It might look like Jane Doe is another dangerous woman, but the film, like Ruth Hussey's crusading lawyer, knows the truth is more complicated.   


Monday, December 31, 2018

My 2018 At The Movies

I had an incredible year at the movies. In the last 12 months I've seen 126 films on the big screen. These experiences ranged from forgettable to sublime to surreal. 

First a word about the number itself. 126. Last year I saw 125 films on the big screen and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't aware of that number as I was racking up visits to various movie theaters in 2018. I know it doesn't matter to anyone but me, but I thought it would be fun to top my movie count from last year.

On the whole, my experiences seeing new movies this year were positive. I think the film that affected me the most was Alfonso Cuaron's ROMA, a beautifully realized story that manages to be majestic and personal at the same time. Right behind it in terms of personal impact was Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED with its powerful central performance by Ethan Hawke as a lonely priest lost in an existential spiral. Less affecting but more tightly controlled was THE FAVORITE, the wickedly funny power/love/sex triangle from director Yorgos Lanthimos.

It was a good year for superhero movies, which is good news because the box office is now dominated by these kinds of expensive blockbusters but bad news because the box office is now dominated by these kinds of expensive blockbusters. I saw most of the big stuff: BLACK PANTHER, INFINITY WAR, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, AQUAMAN. I enjoyed them all without being blown away by any of them. (I didn't see DEADPOOL 2 because I didn't want to.) I will say that the best of the 2018 superhero flicks--the smartest, funniest, and, curiously, the most comic book-ish--was undoubtedly SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE.

All in all, it was a good year for popcorn. I had a great time at A QUIET PLACE and it was fun to see Tom Cruise come pretty close to perfecting his popcorn-movie game with MI: FALLOUT.  

My most exciting movie experiences this year were retro. I got to see old favorites like SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and SILVERADO, and I got to discover or rediscover classics like DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (which I saw at a packed showing of fans at Chicago's Music Box Theater) and the magnificent 1929 silent (wholly new to me) THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS. I also got to see my beloved HIGH NOON two nights in a row at the Logan Theater. 

Most profoundly, I got to see DETOUR three times. The first time was in a 15th century abbey in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, France, where I introduced the movie at a crime festival. (This was the surreal experience I mentioned earlier.) A couple of months later I was able to see the restored print at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Seeing this film--perhaps my favorite film--restored to pristine form was the happiest I've been at the movies all year.

Having said that, the biggest event of the year was the long-awaited release of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, the final feature film to spring from the mind of Orson Welles. Welles was never able to finish his work on the film so we can't simply call it "Orson Welles's TOSOTW", but we're lucky to have this version, recently edited completed by others. It's a fascinating piece of work, a fine and fitting addition to the oeuvre of my favorite filmmaker.  

Here were my favorite experiences at the movies, both new and retro.

10. A QUIET PLACE (tie)

Retrospective and Classic
1. DETOUR (1945)
4. HIGH NOON (1952)
8. PICKUP (1951) (tie)
8. THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993) (tie)
10. DOUBLE SUICIDE (1969) (tie)
10. THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) (tie)

Big Announcement Coming Soon

I'm about to announce some big news in a few days. It concerns my next novel. It concerns the year 2019. That's all I'll say for now, not because I'm a tease, but because I'm paranoid. So I'll wait until all the Is are dotted and all the Ts are crossed, and I'll see you soon.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

New Book Tour In France

Following NO TOMORROW's Grand Prix win, I'm headed back to France for a new book tour. I'll be hitting some festivals and bookstores across the country. If you're around, come out and say salut.

On November 8-11, I’ll be at the festival du Polar de Villeneuve lez Avignon.

November 12th at the Lumière d'august bookstore in Marseille

November 13th at the Sauramps bookshop in the Cévennes in Alès

November 14th at the L'Atelier bookstore in Paris

November 15th at the Calligrammes bookstore in Sens

November 16th at the bookstore Le Failler in Rennes

November 16th to 18th at the Noir festival in Lamballe