Friday, December 21, 2012

The Posthumous Man

I'm happy to announce the release of my new novella THE POSTHUMOUS MAN.

The book is being published in both print and ebook by BEAT to a PULP, the fine press run by David Cranmer.

Here's the scoop on the book:



When Elliot Stilling killed himself, he thought his troubles were over. Then the ER doctors revived him. It’s infatuation at first sight when he meets his nurse, Felicia Vogan, a strange young woman with a weakness for sad sacks and losers. After she helps Elliot escape from the hospital, she takes him back to her place. He’s happy to go with her, even when she leads him straight to a gang planning a million dollar heist. Does Felicia just want Elliott to protect her from the outfit’s psychotic leader, Stan the Man? Or is Elliot being set up to take the hard fall? One thing’s for sure: if he’s going to survive this long night of deceit and murder, Elliot will have to finally face himself and his own dark past.

Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation and Shamus-award winning author of THE DISTANCE:
In THE POSTHUMOUS MAN the existential and theological themes buried inside the best noir are pulled to the surface, hungry for air and clutching a last chance at redemption. Jake Hinkson crafts this bullet-fast novella with qualities emblematic of my favorite best crime fiction: empathy, gravity and brevity. Much appreciated and highly recommended.

Scott Phillips, award winning author of THE ICE HARVEST and THE ADJUSTMENT:
THE POSTHUMOUS MAN is every bit as crazily entertaining as Hinkson's hard-rocking debut, HELL ON CHURCH STREET, and it reads like a streamliner rocketing across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
 
 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Native Son (1951)

In 1948, the novelist Richard Wright teamed up with Argentinian director Pierre Chenal to film an adaptation of Wright's controversial bestseller NATIVE SON. The resulting film is one of the rare examples of classic-era "black noir". Upon its release, NATIVE SON was cut up by censors who were afraid of the racial and political message. For many years the original uncut version of the film was assumed to be lost. 

In recent years, however, a surviving print has been found and NATIVE SON is coming back to life. I got a chance to talk to one of the architects of this resurrection, scholar Edgardo Krebs. 

Check out our interview here.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dangerous Dan Duryea

In the 1940s, he was The Ladykiller. One of the great bastards in film noir, he specialized in terrorizing women. The source of his charisma is a transparent sleaziness topped off with a razor-thin veneer of charm (like Eddie Haskell grown up and turned abusive). He oozed his slimey charm arcoss a variety of films, but he set the standard in masterpieces like SCARLET STREET, CRISS CROSS, and TOO LATE FOR TEARS.

Read more about the king of heels in my new piece on Duryea over at Criminal Element.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Sound Of Fury (1950)




Frank Lovejoy was so underrated in the fifties. He was just another character actor with a pleasant face and an authoritarian voice. Today he’s probably best known to noir fans as Humphrey Bogart’s long suffering cop buddy in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place and as one of the unsuspecting motorists taken hostage in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. His best role, however, was as Howard Tyler, the doomed getaway driver in Cy Endfield’s still largely unknown The Sound of Fury.
Tyler is an ex-serviceman who has recently relocated his wife and young son to California following the war. Things are supposed to be good in the sun-kissed promised land, but they aren’t. Tyler can’t get a job, and his wife’s getting fed up. He takes off one afternoon, stops by a bowling alley for a beer, and meets a guy named Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges). Slocum’s a slick, fast-talking hoodlum with a business proposition for a man who’s steady behind the steering wheel. At first, Tyler has some reservations about being a getaway driver, but Jerry spells it out: take your dignity and go home broke, or stop being a sucker and go home with some cash in your wallet. Tyler thinks about it and calls his wife to tell her he’s going to be late. By midnight, he’s waiting outside a gas station while Jerry’s inside pistol-whipping the attendant.
The money flows. Tyler buys groceries. His wife is happy, and his kid wants a television set so they can watch westerns. All Tyler has to do is keep working the night shift with Jerry, but before long Jerry decides they need to upgrade from armed robbery to kidnapping. He picks the scion of a well-to-do family, and one night they nab the guy as he leaves his house.
I won’t say more about the plot except to note that in film noir there are a million guys like Jerry Slocum. He’s got meanness and a lot of ideas for getting rich. Surveying the world around him, he just sees a bunch of suckers, so he spends his days drinking beer and bowling, and spends his nights drinking whiskey and chasing dames. He thinks he’s smart, but he’s not. In noir, when you climb into a car with a Jerry Slocum you are hitching a ride to nowhere.
As Slocum, Lloyd Bridges is all vanity and violence. His preening is the perfect counterpoint to Frank Lovejoy’s sympathetic, believable portrayal as Tyler. Lovejoy has the ease of a natural onscreen everyman, but the last third of the film takes him places that are dark, frantic and surprising. It is a wonderful performance but a bittersweet reminder of how seldom Lovejoy was given challenging roles. (He seemed to have settled into television—with shows like his private eye series “Meet McGraw”—when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1962.) Here, forming a duet with Bridges, he does the best work of his career.
The rest of the cast is hit or miss. The acclaimed Broadway actress Katherine Locke plays a disturbed spinster named Hazel, and she and Lovejoy share some nice scenes together near the end of the film. But Kathleen Ryan is shrill and whiney as Tyler’s put-upon wife. She has one good scene late in the film reading a letter from her husband, but a stronger actress in this role could have given us more insight into the nature of Tyler’s tortured decision to be a criminal. Likewise, every time little Donald Smelick opens his mouth as Tyler’s cowboy-obsessed son, I wanted him to shut up—though, in his defense, with a few exceptions most kids in noirs are generally insufferable.
The film was directed by Cy Endfield, a director who got his start as an apprentice in Orson Welles’ Mercury Productions at RKO. After Welles was driven out of RKO, Endfield wound up directing shorts for MGM, and finally got his shot at directing features at the Z-list studio Monogram. Heads started to turn for Endfield in 1950 when he made the independently produced The Underworld Story and The Sound of Fury —back to back films that were intelligent, uncompromising, and dealt with the themes of the press, mob violence, and human weakness. Unfortunately, soon after the release of The Sound of Fury, Endfield was named as a Communist sympathizer in the House on Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings on Communist subversives in Hollywood. He fled to England (where he eventually worked with fellow blacklistee Bridges), and he never retuned to work in Hollywood.
It’s damn disgrace that someone of Endfield’s talent was driven out of his profession, of course, but he left behind two impressive American films. His work in The Underworld Story is strong, but his work in The Sound of Fury is superlative. It helps that he’s working from an intelligent script by novelist Jo Pagano, whose source novel The Condemned is a sharp and underrated piece of work in its own right. Pagano intended his book, and the film that followed it, as an indictment of lynch mobs and journalistic cravenness. In both the book and the film he reaches too far in this respect (in fact he and Endfield butted heads over sections of the script Endfield felt were too didactic), but the power of its narrative comes from the way it weaves these themes in with Howard’s choice and its terrible consequences. Together, Endfield and Pagano crafted a quintessential film noir.

Read my review of Jo Pagano's over at Friday's Forgotten Books.

And read my essay on Lovejoy at Criminal Element.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Frank Lovejoy aka The Face of the Fifties


Frank Lovejoy was the great unheralded Everyman of film noir. He had a gift that most actors would kill for--he was wholly believable as an ordinary man. At the same time, however, there is something boiling beneath the surface of this actor's best work.

Read my new essay on Lovejoy over at Criminal Element.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Tom Neal: The Broken Man

I have an essay on Tom Neal in the new issue of NOIRCITY. Neal, of course, is best known as the star of of the essential 1945 noir DETOUR. While the film has long been acknowledged as gritty masterpiece, Neal has never been given his due. I aim to fix that oversight. My essay looks at his early life, his career, his contribution to DETOUR, and the events surrounding his imprisonment in 1965 for lethally shooting his third wife. Neal's life was as dark as any noir, and no fan of the genre will want to miss it.

This issue also contains my interview with scholar Edgardo Krebs about the making and rediscovery of the 1950 film version of Richard Wright's NATIVE SON. Steve Kronenberg writes about director Edgar G. Ulmer's plans to remake DETOUR in the 1960s, Eddie Muller writes about the silent film THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK, John McElwee writes about the long overlooked director Hugo Haas. And, as they say, there is much much more. Go check it out at the Film Noir Foundation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Condemned: An Interview with Oren Shai



Oren Shai is an Israeli-born filmmaker living in Los Angeles. His short film CONDEMNED was recently screened at NOIRCON 2012 in Philadelphia. USA Today called the movie a “fun, haunting 14-minute flick” and that’s a pretty apt description. It stars Margaret Anne Florence as #1031, an inmate who fears she’s about to be killed inside an unnamed women’s prison. A stylish mood piece, the movie has the feel of a classic Women-In-Prison noir funneled through a postmodern sensibility. Although it’s a dark film (a bleak film, even), it’s got a nice gallows sense of humor.

I talked to Shai recently about his film. We discussed the evolution of the project and we geeked out on a shared love of Eleanor Parker and Jan Sterling. Read our discussion below, then be sure to click on the link and check out the movie for yourself.

INTERVIEW WITH OREN SHAI  

Jake Hinkson: How did CONDEMNED come about?

Oren Shai: The idea of making a Women-in-Prison film came to me a few years before working on CONDEMNED, after I watched Jess Franco's 99 WOMEN. That got me on a genre kick that tracked all the way back to Cecil B. DeMille. For about a year I worked on developing a script for a feature WIP film with Roy Frumkes (STREET TRASH, THE SUBSTITUTE), but that ended up too expensive to realistically get off the ground.

Later on, I started working on a Master's in Individualized Studies (as in, choose your own adventure), and during my first summer, frustrated at how much time had past since my last short, I wrote CONDEMNED. Before the summer was over, and thanks to a really amazing crew, the film was in the can. I ended up taking advantage of the momentum and wrote my whole thesis about the history of the genre.

JH: How long did it actually take to write CONDEMNED? Did you always conceive of it as a one-set film?

OS: It couldn’t have taken over a week to complete a first draft, being so short, and it had been simmering in me for quite a while. I did conceive it as a one-set piece, so that I could keep the visual integrity of what I aspired to achieve and still be doable on a production-level. One of the determining factors in setting-out to make it was discussing the prospect of building a jail-cell with my production designers – who confirmed they could do it and ended up exceeding my already high expectations.

JH: One thing I really like about this film is that while it seems to be both totally aware of the Women-In-Prison genre, it actually doesn't contain a single clichéd moment. It's as if you're using the characteristics of the WIP flick, but you're avoiding a simple rehash of the genre. Was that a conscious choice?

OS: Absolutely. The last thing I wanted to do was make a throwback film. Clichés are overused conventions, and since this genre is effectively a dead one, if the film corresponded with narrative conventions that don't exist anymore it wouldn't appeal to anyone but its avid fans. I strive to work within a genre rather than look at its form - which means you need to reinterpret it in order to create a new experience for modern viewers.

If you distill all other elements, at the heart of this genre is a sense of desperation unique to the female experience. Male-prison films primarily deal with escape and individuality. The women had no hope for either. The early movies presented conforming to domesticity - another form of oppression - as the only solution for the criminal woman. In 1950, CAGED changed that to a tone of complete desperation - a system that punishes the criminal and corrupts the innocent. This theme was the main thing I worked around, for which I thought the visual language of Noir was befitting.

JH: Margaret Anne Florence is terrific as #1031. What kind of discussions did you have about the character?

OS: Margaret Anne was a godsend. We were about a week before the shoot without anyone cast as #1031. I was very close to calling the whole thing off. A good friend referred me to her in the nick of time.

I'm not sure I recall the specifics of our pre-filming discussions, but I tend to talk at length with actors about who the character is and make sense of anything that might not. Margaret Anne was dead-on. She has an innocent flair in her eyes that cries out from within the darkness. I found myself so mesmerized by her performance that many times I wouldn't yell cut, just to roll more film on it.

I also showed her CAGED, because Eleanor Parker was a big inspiration for her character. Hell, I showed it to everyone, it's the best Women-in-Prison film ever made.

JH: I totally agree. CAGED is a masterpiece, and it should be on any short list of the best noirs ever made. Part of what makes it so great is the way Parker transforms over the course of the film from timid victim to hardass convict—it’s as good a performance, frankly, as I’ve ever seen in a movie. In CONDEMNED, #1031’s transformation seems to be a similar kind of embracing of destiny and doom, though hers feels more like a disintegration. Her last line—“If you see the devil, tell him I’m comin’”—seems like a kind of surrender. Did you think of it that way? Did Margaret Anne approach it that way?

OS: Have you ever seen SO YOUNG SO BAD? It’s basically CAGED in a reformatory school. Considering they were made the same year, it’s amazing to see how similar they are. It’s a little more forgiving than CAGED (unconvincingly so), but pretty powerful, with one of the most brutal “hosing” scenes I’ve seen in those films. It shouldn’t be as obscure as it is.

As for #1031, you’re exactly on spot. It’s a mental and emotional disintegration that results in giving up. In accepting, maybe even welcoming, a destiny she’s too tired to fight. Whether this is caused by the actual events or her own twisted psyche, I left for Margaret Anne to choose for herself. The truth is vague, I’d like for the viewers to make up their own mind.

JH: I love how artificial the film feels. I'm thinking in particular about the prisoners' uniforms, which look like something Jan Sterling would have worn in the fifties in something like WOMEN’S PRISON (1955). Why did you go for that aesthetic?

OS: Jan Sterling is so good, between her and Ida Lupino I really wish WOMEN'S PRISON was a better movie.

JH: Yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff in that film, despite some pretty big flaws. I do love that in your film you give the Night Guard one of Sterling’s best quips, “You won’t like it here at first, but once you get used to it you’ll really hate it.” A fun homage for the noir geeks.

OS: Oh yeah, it seemed appropriate to have that line said to Laura, since she is somewhat inspired by the Jan Sterling-type. Even though it’s imperative not to let film references overshadow the story, there’s something satisfying talking to people who recognize them.

But yes, the aesthetic was very much influenced by the 1950s cycle of films, and also by the cover art of the era's paperbacks. In particular Robert Maguire's artwork for Vincent G. Burns' FEMALE CONVICT. I wanted CONDEMNED to feel like a cinematic companion to the experience of holding an old paperback. On one hand, highly-stylized, on the other, kind of gritty, with pages disintegrating in your hands.

I don't know that I'd define artificial as my intention, but I do tend to avoid realism. As a filmmaker, realism doesn't particularly interest me (although it could as a viewer). Almost every classic Hollywood genre dabbles in heightening realism, whether in lighting, acting style, art direction, etc. They all have a certain artificialness that is a part of their DNA. As a director whose passion lies in genre filmmaking, I suppose I like to create a world and use its aesthetic as language to assist its emotional impact.

JH: I saw some interview with Sam Fuller one time where he said “Reality is a bunch of bullshit.” His point being, I think, that “reality” in film (or art or literature) is as much a constructed thing, as much an aesthetic manipulation, as anything else. CONDEMNED has the feel you mention—stylized yet gritty, which is a pretty good way to encapsulate “film noir” into a single phrase. What kind of conversations did you have with your production team about this?

OS: Fuller said it better than me, then.

The conversations are generally about the aesthetic, the atmosphere, its meaning for the character, and how to implement it visually. We looked at references ranging from the era’s genre films, to still photography, to the paperbacks and artwork from Men’s Adventure magazines. It’s important to me that everybody’s on the same page, forgetting about contemporary notions of realism – for example, if a light scheme fits the emotional motivation, its practical motivation (where it is coming from) isn’t all that crucial. Ryan, my cinematographer, shot my previous film as well (HEAVY SOUL), and we have a pretty good rapport when it comes to that. We also shot on Super 16mm. The film grain adds to the “grit” naturally in a way that no post-effect could emulate.

****
THE FILM

Watch CONDEMNED now.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

COCKFIGHTER (1974)

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Monte Hellman's COCKFIGHTER is a laid-back, drawling piece of outsider cinema that stays in the mind long after it's over. In its tone of southern-fried eccentricity and implicit violence, it has a spiritual connection to John Huston's vastly underrated adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD. (Perhaps not incidentally, Hellman's film climaxes in Milledgeville, GA, the hometown of O'Connor and thus the Mecca of Southern Grotesque.) It tells the story of Frank Mansfield, a down on his luck cockfighter who has sworn a vow of silence until he wins the title of Cockfighter of the Year. It's impossible to describe the plot beyond this point without imposing more of a structure on the film than it really seems to want. As Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote, "Hellman manages to suggest the point that watching a movie called COCKFIGHTER is as ridiculous as watching a cockfight." True, but Frank Mansfield takes cockfighting as seriously as a religious calling, and the film doesn't seem to question his belief.

The film was produced as a Roger Corman cheapie and stars the great wild shaman of 70s grindhouse/art cinema, Warren Oates. It's not an action film--though it was sold as such (even re-titled BORN TO KILL and given a wholly misleading poster that presented Oates as an ax-wielding psychopath). One could be tempted to call it in a film noir, though I'm not sure that, ultimately, the designation will fit. There's too much good ol' boy humor, too much of a movement, however sputtering, toward redemption. Again, I go back to WISE BLOOD. Like that film, COCKFIGHTER takes place in a sealed world. Betting on cockfights seems to be the only economy that exists in this barren, burned out vision of the American south (the sun peels back the edges of certain shots). It also seems to be the only mode of social interaction. As Frank Mansfield pursues his goal with dogged purpose (like one of O'Connor's Jesus-obsessed hillbillies--but for, you know, fightin' roosters) we never peek outside of his world of trailers and trucks and chicken coops.

Though the screenwriter and novelist Charles Willeford (who also appears in the film) claimed he based the script on The Odyssey, it essentially plays as a kind of gritty redneck sports flick. The existential kicker here, of course, is that the damn birds do all the fighting. Frank and his main nemesis Jack (the reliably superb Harry Dean Stanton) are just a couple of broken men who throw down money in the hopes that luck will fall their way. Maybe it is a little noirish after all.

Read my essay on Wise Blood here.