Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review of THE DEEPENING SHADE

Over at Professor Mondo, Warren Moore has written a really smart and pointed review of my forthcoming story collection THE DEEPENING SHADE. Moore says:


"[T]he sensibility here holds elements of the Evangelical and Calvinistic. Hinkson’s stories show us a world of the Elect and the Reprobate, with an eye toward the particular agonies of those honest enough to acknowledge that they can’t quite be sure in which camp they belong."

Here's a link to the rest of the review Jake Hinkson Waves at Flannery O'Connor.

THE DEEPENING SHADE will be available Jan. 5th.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Twas The Dark Knight Before Christmas: BATMAN RETURNS

I have a new piece over at Tor.com that is inspired by my recent realization that BATMAN RETURNS is both a) my favorite Batman movie and b) my favorite Christmas movie.

Check out 'Twas The Dark Knight Before Christmas.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Roy Huggins: Too Late For Tears

I have a piece in the new issue of MYSTERY SCENE on the life and career of Roy Huggins. He created blockbuster TV shows like THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES, and gave us a bona fide film noir masterpiece with 1949's TOO LATE FOR TEARS, but he was despised by many for naming names during the HUAC witch hunts and was often derided for being a credit hog. I explore the controversies around the television pioneer in the Winter Issue, now on the stands.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cowboy Rides Away: RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962)

I have a new piece up at Criminal Element that takes a look at RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, the excellent 1962 send-off that Sam Peckinpah gave to two western greats, Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott. Check it out here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Coming In January 2015

I'm thrilled to announce that the good people at All Due Respect are releasing my first story collection, THE DEEPENING SHADE, in January 2015. More details to come.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Noir's Hard Luck Ladies: Mary Astor

In masterpieces like THE MALTESE FALCON and ACT OF VIOLENCE she helped to form the image of women in film noir, but off screen her life was a struggle. Over at Criminal Element, check out my new post on the great Mary Astor

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Stand Alones: Laura Lippman and I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE

I kinda worship Laura Lippman. Laura Lippman is the shit. The odd thing, however, is that I'm a far bigger fan of her stand alone novels and stories than I am of her Tess Monaghan series. The reason for this, I think, is that the Monaghan books are PI mysteries while her stand alone stuff tends to be noir. And I'm just more of a noir guy.

This preference prompted me to start a new series over at Criminal Element called The Stand Alones where I will look at the one-off novels of writers who are better known for their series characters. First up is Lippman's brilliant 2010 novel I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. You can check out my piece here.

While you're there you might leave a suggestion for future pieces you'd like to see.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Noir's Goon Squad: Percy Helton

From my new piece on Percy Helton over at Criminal Element: 

For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.

Read the rest at Criminal Element.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bad Preacher

About ten years ago, I became fascinated by the frightening figure of J. Frank Norris. He was America's first mega-church preacher--with thousands of followers, two separate churches (one in Houston and one in Detroit), a radio show, and a newspaper. In the 1920s, Norris was a pioneer in the Fundamentalist movement that would eventually take over much of American Protestantism. In short, J. Frank Norris was one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century.

He was also ruthless, fanatical, and more than a little shady. He spent almost as much time on the witness stand as he did in the pulpit. He was tried for perjury. He was tried for burning down his own church and for setting fire to his own house. He killed an unarmed man in his church--shot him dead--and was put on trial for murder.

There's more to this story. At one time, I thought I might write a book about Norris. It never came together, but I have new essay about him over at Criminal Element. It's called Fire, Brimstone, and a Loaded .38. Comment on it and you can enter a sweepstakes to win a copy of my new book THE BIG UGLY. That book, by the way, features a preacher who would have made J. Frank Norris very proud...  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

LA JETEE (1963)

From my new piece on LA JETEE: 

Few short films have had as long a life as the 1963 French sci-fi classic La Jetée. Simply surviving and accruing a cult following over the years is a large accomplishment for a 28-minute film, but what makes this accomplishment all the more impressive is that the film itself would seem—at least on paper—to be a challenge to most viewers. It is a film told almost entirely in still photographs. It has no stars. It has no dialog. It has no action, of course, because it has no movement. Oh, and it has a bleak, hopeless ending.
And yet, La Jetée is one of those movies that pulls in viewers from the start...

To read the rest, check out my essay over at Tor.com

Friday, October 31, 2014

CRIMES BY WOMEN: The Comic Book

From my new piece on CRIMES BY WOMEN: 
Crimes By Women was a ten cent comic book published by the Fox Features Syndicate from June of 1948 to August of 1951. It was an anthology series that showcased a series of femme fatales, gun molls and full-tilt psychopaths engaged in all manner of sexual seduction and wanton violence. It was, in a word, trash.
Trash has its appeal, though, and—more importantly—it can tell us something about the shifting currents of a culture...
To read the rest of the piece, head on over to Criminal Element.

Monday, October 27, 2014

THE SHOOTIST (1976)

The latest entry in The Cowboy Rides Away, my series on the final Western roles of the great cowboy actors, is up at Criminal Element. 

This time around I look at the John Wayne and THE SHOOTIST.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some Initial Thoughts On GUN STREET (1961)

I'm in the middle of working on the next entry in my Poverty Row Professionals series for Noir City magazine. I'm going to be profiling the director Edward L. Cahn. As such, I've been watching a lot of his work, and not just the noir stuff either.

I just watched his 1961 western GUN STREET. This is a modest little film with a small cast, limited sets, and little in the way of a budget.

The film isn't claimed by anyone (least of all me) as some kind of hidden masterpiece, but within the context of when and how it was made, it's quite an interesting movie.

It's something of a knockoff of HIGH NOON, though like RIO BRAVO, it is critical of that film's subversive message. HIGH NOON is essentially an extended meditation on the fickleness of society and the fragility of the institutions that are meant to keep it together. GUN STREET, like RIO BRAVO before it, is not.

GUN STREET has a heroic lawman (played in an effective turn by Cahn's frequent leading man, James Brown) waiting for the imminent arrival of a deadly outlaw. The town panics as the outlaw nears. The lawman stands strong.

That's the basic plot, but in more ways than one GUN STREET fails to deliver what the usual oater would promise from this scenario. We never see the outlaw. Never. Some critics of the film have argued that this dissipates the tension, but I would argue otherwise. Most normal westerns would hop back and forth between the hero and the villain, would give us someone to hate. Instead, here, the approaching trouble feels more like a storm than a man. The townspeople bicker over why the outlaw wasn't executed to begin with. (The movie could be read as a 67 minute argument in favor of the death penalty.) But at the end the outlaw is found dead, having bled to death from a gunshot wound he suffered while escaping. Thus, the villain we never see is killed by some guard we never even hear about. Everything in the film has led up to a climactic gun fight that we never get. It's as if Frank Miller had missed the train in HIGH NOON.

Again, many critics of the film see this as a simple oversight, but I somehow doubt that. Edward Cahn made roughly a million westerns. He knew all too well that the audience was expecting to see the hero kill the villain at the end, and I find it hard to believe that either he or his writer Sam Freedle (who had been a script clerk on HIGH NOON) simply forgot the gunfight at the end. I doubt they ran out of time or money either. The final scenes of the film, involving the discovery of the body of the outlaw and the retirement of the lawman (he rides away through a posse scattered over the side of a mountain) would have been as complicated as a simple two-man gun fight. 

I think Cahn just wanted to do something different.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poverty Row Professionals: William Castle

I'm doing a series on the professionals of classic Hollywood's Poverty Row for the e-mag Noir City. My first installment was on the career of the underrated John Reinhardt (THE GUILTY, OPEN SECRET). 

My latest piece is on William Castle. He's best known today for the flamboyant gimmicks he used to sell his schlock horror movies in the fifties and sixties, but in the forties he'd down a lot of work on Poverty Row and in the B-units of some larger studios. He gave us one of the first film noirs in the class of 1944 (WHEN STRANGERS MARRY), apprenticed under Orson Welles on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and produced several other good examples of noir before moving on to fame and fortune as a self-crown master of the macabre.

You can check out my article on Castle by getting Noir City.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

God And The Gangster: The Ballad of Billy Graham and Mickey Cohen

Given my love for preachers and crime lords--and given my love for any overlap between the two--it was only a matter of time before I wrote something about the brief but remarkable relationship between the Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham and the Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen in the 1950s. 

Here are two outsized figures. 

Graham was arguably the most successful Christian preacher of all time (growing up Southern Baptist, I kind of thought of him as our Pope). To put that in perspective, Billy Graham proselytized to more people than anyone else in history, and perhaps more than any other single individual, he shaped the public perception of Protestantism in the later part of the 20th century and moved fundamentalism into the American mainstream.

Mickey Cohen, on the other hand, was the most feared crime boss on the West Coast in the 1950s. In the years since his death, his infamy has only grown. The subject of books and documentaries and feature films, Cohen is an almost mythical figure today.

I have a new piece that looks the strange moment in time when Graham and Cohen were on such friendly terms that Graham was telling the press than Mickey should be a preacher and Cohen was telling the press that he and Billy were going to vacation together at a dude ranch.

Go to Criminal Element to check out God And The Gangster

Sunday, October 12, 2014

THE BIG UGLY

I'm thrilled to announce the release of my new novel, THE BIG UGLY.

Ellie Bennett is an ex-corrections officer who has just served a year inside Eastgate Penitentiary for assaulting a prisoner. She’s only been out for a day when she accepts a strange job offer from the head of a Christian political advocacy group. He wants her to track down a missing ex-con named Alexis. Although no one knows where Alexis has gone, it seems like everyone in Arkansas is looking for her—from a rich televangelist running for Congress to the governor’s dirty tricks man. When Bennett finds the troubled young woman, she has to decide whether to hand her over to the highest bidder or help her escape from the most powerful men in the state.

You can get it in paperback.

You can get it as an e-book.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

I have a new piece up at Tor.com looking at the classic sci-fi/monster flick (and Howard Hawks production) THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. You can read that here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MOROCCO (1930)

If you want to understand the mystery of the movies, then you should take a long look at Josef von Sternberg's MOROCCO.

I use the term "take a long look" deliberately here because looking is, after all, the primary act of moviegoing. MOROCCO tells the story of a romance between a saloon singer played by Marlene Dietrich and a Legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. You don't really need to know more about the plot because the film isn't about the plot. It's about looking at these two people, particularly Dietrich.

There was a period there in the twenties and thirties where American moviegoers had a collective crush on exotic foreign beauties like Garbo and Dietrich. I hesitate to call it a fad--because Garbo and Dietrich were great stars--but it's fair to say that American audiences soon moved on to more wholesome American girls. (Ingrid Bergman was a great foreign beauty, of course, but she wasn't exotic. She was the girl next door by way of Stockholm. That explains why Americans turned on her after her sex scandal in the fifties. No one would have been scandalized to find out that Dietrich had gotten pregnant from an affair.) Dietrich fell out of fashion around about the time Americans as a whole became exhausted by events in Europe, especially from her native Germany.

But look at MOROCCO and you can see the cultural moment that made Dietrich a sensation. The movie itself watches her, lingers on her. 1930 was early into the era of talkies, and it's important to keep that in mind as you watch the film. Von Sternberg paces things slowly, deliberately. He expects you to look at pictures he gives you, almost as if you were staring at a photograph or a painting. There are many moments where the primary thing happening onscreen is the play of light and shadow, or a wisp of smoke, or a face.

The most famous scene in the movie is the musical number that Marlene sings while dressed in a tux and top hat. This is pure 1930 sexual androgyny, before the Production Code came in and sanitized everything. Marlene struts around and takes a flower from a pretty girl and gives her a kiss. And not a peck on the lips either. A kiss. The crowd roars its approval. Steamy stuff.

What's interesting, though, is that the strutting confident performer of the musical number is a contrast to the touchingly vulnerable woman Dietrich gives us in the rest of the movie. In her best roles, Dietrich always combined that hard, sexy exterior with a sense of the wounded soul underneath.

Gary Cooper gets less attention from his director than his costar does, but the camera loves him, nevertheless. Not yet thirty when he made this film, Cooper was in the glory of his youth and beauty. The older he got, he would take on outsized importance as an American symbol--and, of course, his best remembered role would come in HIGH NOON when he was 51--but as a young man Cooper cut a dashing, transcontinental figure. Always distinctly American, he was nevertheless a man of the world. His lithe body and fine-boned face were a perfect fit for the delicate mood play that is MOROCCO. He's already got that jittery aversion to words which would only deepen as he got older, but he's beautiful enough and inaccessible enough to be a perfect fit for Dietrich.

The mystery of the movies is the looking. Looking at human beings who don't look back, who let themselves be observed, who are projected tall and wide on a wall in the dark in shimmering silver light. The more I see MOROCCO the more I see this mystery at play.   


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Film Noir and THE BIG LEBOWSKI

The Coen brothers love to stake out little slices of American culture to explore. They've made a musical about Depression-era Mississippi, a dark comedy about Hollywood screenwriters, and an interpretation of Job set in Jewish suburbia in 1960s Minnesota. Their (collective) ear for regional inflection is flawless, and their appreciation for absurdity is equal parts funny and ruthless. What's also true of them is that, perhaps more than any other filmmaker alive, they love film noir. From BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, they have created many of the greatest neo-noirs of the last thirty years.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI is, in some way, their send-up of the genre. The cult sensation is a film that has transcended its status as a Coen Brothers movie. It's its own thing, but it is very much a piece of the larger Coen canvas. The brothers built A LOT of film noir subtext into the movie.

I complied as many classic noir references as I could in a new piece at Criminal Element called The Noir Geek's Guide to The Big Lebowski.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: KEY LARGO (1948)

The final installment in my series on the films of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is up over at Criminal Element. Their final film was, I think, in some ways their weakest, but it was still a lot of fun. It was, of course, John Huston's KEY LARGO

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: DARK PASSAGE (1947)

The newest installment of my series on the films of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is up at Criminal Element. This time around we look at DARK PASSAGE, an underrated noir by the great Delmer Daves. Check it out here.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: THE BIG SLEEP (1945/6)

Criminal Element has the newest installment in my series on the movies of Bogart and Bacall. This time around is one of the 800 lb. gorillas of crime flicks, the Howard Hawks adaptation of Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP

Monday, September 8, 2014

Noir At The Bar: Ozarks Edition

People of Arkansas (and surrounding environs): I'm going to be reading at a Noir At The Bar event for the True Lit Festival in Fayetteville on Oct. 2nd at 8pm, alongside hardhitters Scott Phillips, Jed Ayres, and John Honor Jacobs. 

Profanity will be used. Feelings will be bruised. But we'll all learn something about ourselves.

Here are the details.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bogie and Bacall: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)

I have a new series starting over at Criminal Element on the films of Bogie and Bacall: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, DARK PASSAGE, and KEY LARGO.

You know, I have no idea how many times I've seen these four movies. Dozens, probably. Bogart was my entry point into movie geekdom. After discovering THE MALTESE FALCON and CASABLANCA, I became hooked not just on Bogart but on movies themselves.

A huge part of this obsession is rooted in the movies Bogie made with Lauren Bacall. Against all odds (not the least of which was a yawning age gap), they were a perfect screen duo. She was a kid having a palpably amazing time pretending to be an adult, and she rejuvenated him just as he was entering middle age. 

Here's my first piece, on the glorious TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Noir City Chicago 6: CAGED and TENSION

Last night was another fantastic line up at Noir City Chicago 6. The Music Box Theater, in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation, showcased two indispensable noirs: CAGED (1950) and TENSION (1949). God, what a line up. I don't know how many times I've watched these two classics, but last night was my first time to see them on the big screen and they did not disappoint. CAGED is simply a masterpiece--an all-time, top ten, noir hall of fame masterpiece. Crime films really don't get any better. And while TENSION has less unity and formal perfection (at least at the screenplay level), it is a shimmering jewel--and an enduring testament to the glorious Audrey Totter.

I've written about both movies before. Here's more on CAGED. And here's something on TENSION.

The festival is going great. It kicked off with a magnificent restoration of TOO LATE FOR TEARS (for my money, the best thing the Film Noir Foundation has done is to restore this movie), with the wonderful ROADBLOCK as a second feature. I had to miss a couple of days, unfortunately, but Sunday night I caught Jean-Pierre Melville's rarely seen 1959 TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN. 

Alan Rode has been doing a crackerjack job introducing the films all week, and tonight the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, takes over. The remaining films all look terrific--including a double feature of Losey's 1951 M, followed by The BLACK VAMPIRE, an Argentinian feminist reworking of the M story. Here's the full schedule.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Noir City Chicago 6 and The Altars of Forgotten Women


This weekend Noir City Chicago kicks off at the Music Box Theater with two of my favorite films: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949) starring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, and ROADBLOCK (1950) starring Joan Dixon and Charles McGraw.

I've written about both of these films on this blog (here and here), and I'd like to reprint an essay I posted here a few years ago that celebrates Lizabeth Scott and Joan Dixon.

Here's "The Altars of Forgotten Women":

One of the ironies of film noir is that many of its lasting icons were never stars in their lifetime. More than any other genre, stardom in noir is retroactive. Someone like Ann Savage had only the most fleeting taste of fame in her youth before Hollywood showed her the door. Yet, Savage was one the lucky people who lived to see her fame catch up to her. A cheap little sixty-five minute crime picture called DETOUR—a picture Savage appears in for all of thirty minutes—somehow endured and prospered over the years. Savage was in her sixties and working as a secretary when she discovered that she was at the center of a cult.

Savage’s cult is just a faction of something larger called film noir, which is, among other things, largely a cult of forgotten women. Savage was not alone in finding herself as an object of worship. Within this convocation there are many different sects, sects with passionately devoted followers. Actors like Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, and Janis Carter all have legions of admirers. None of them were really stars in their day, but their movies have a life all their own. Long after their careers fizzled out, sometimes after their own deaths, some actors finally became stars. That just about defines the word bittersweet.

Of course, major stars like Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland experience a similar life after death effect, and a select few even seem to reach beyond mere stardom and become a part of the larger shared consciousness of society. You could argue, at this point in Western culture, that Marilyn Monroe is nearly as iconic as the Virgin Mary.

Yet film noir is a genre born out of B-movie obscurity. Lizabeth Scott will never be as famous as Marilyn Monroe, but she is the ruler of her own dark little corner of Dreamtown because is the woman who most deserves the title of Queen of Noir. She starred in more film noirs than nearly anyone else, and she was also unique in that her filmography consists mostly of noirs. She only made a handful of movies that didn’t involve people betraying each other and ending up gutshot at the end. She played the entire range of characters available to women in the genre, from doe-eyed innocents (THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS) to world-weary lounge singers (DARK CITY, I WALK ALONE) to cold-blooded femme fatales (STOLEN FACE). She starred in one of the genre’s real lowlights, the misogynistic DEAD RECKONING. She starred in what maybe the campiest noir ever made, the hilarious DESERT FURY. Most importantly, she starred in two of the finest noirs we have, Andre De Toth’s 1948 PITFALL and Byron Haskin’s 1949 TOO LATE FOR TEARS.

To understand the appeal of Liz Scott, one only need to look at those last two films. In the first, she plays a woman named Mona Stevens who falls into an affair with a married man played by Dick Powell. Their affair is discovered by a psychotic private detective (played by Raymond Burr) who is obsessed with Mona and proceeds to make life hell for everyone involved. The cast here is superb, and at the center , in a performance of great sympathy, is Queen Liz. She makes Mona a sexy woman (which must have been fairly easy since Scott herself was gorgeous, blonde, and had a voice that was equal parts cigarettes and silk), but she also makes Mona a sad woman. Loneliness is the undercurrent of Scott's voice, the thing that pulls you further down into her trap. Even when she’s happy, you can tell that Scott is afraid of the worst. In PITFALL, she pretty much gets the worst at the hands of thoughtless men.

In TOO LATE FOR TEARS, she gets her revenge. As housewife turned criminal Jane Palmer, Scott creates a portrait of coolheaded evil. Jane and her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy) are driving home one night when someone tosses a briefcase full of money into their car. Is the money a payment for a ransom? Perhaps a blackmail payoff? Alan doesn’t care, he just wants to turn the money over to the cops. His wife, ah, disagrees. She’s willing to do anything to keep the cash, even after slimy crook Dan Duryea shows up looking for it and slaps her around. Neither the crook nor the husband have any idea who they’re dealing with in Jane Palmer. These guys are toast. With her performance, Scott makes a pretty good grab for the most evil femme fatale on record, yet she also makes Jane Palmer curiously relatable. Again, there’s that sadness, that aching, unfulfilled need at the center of Lizabeth Scott that comes through in her performance. Jane Palmer is evil, yes, but she’s also smart, dogged, and utterly human.

It is, after all, humanity that is the great appeal of the forgotten women of film noir, our sense that we’re seeing a human being alive onscreen. Movies of the forties and fifties were made to be dreamlike, and all these years later they still seem like dreams. The dreams hook us; the humanity makes us obsessives, worshipers at the altar. “Who was this woman?” we ask. Not just Queen Liz (who, happily, is still alive as I write this), but so many others. We watch them laugh and cry and scheme and die and then we watch them do it all over again. It doesn’t take much to hook us.

Take Joan Dixon. In 1951 she starred in a vastly underrated film noir called ROADBLOCK alongside Charles McGraw. She plays Diane, a sexy conwoman who marries a straight-laced insurance investigator name Joe Peters, a marriage that will have disastrous results. Joan Dixon strolls through this movie as if she’s one of the great femme fatales. It’s not just that she’s beautiful, it’s that she projects that essential combination of intoxicating sexual allure and an untouchable, unknowable center. Is Diane bad? It’s tough to say. Dixon might be criticized for giving a performance that's too laid back, but I would argue that very ambiguity is her greatest attribute. She doesn’t set out to ruin Joe Peters, but once she meets him, he’s a goner. It’s an interesting take on the femme fatale. Many femmes are man-eating monsters. Diane is different. She’s a catalyst who opens up all the insecurity and greed buried beneath honest Joe Peters’ upright façade. It takes quite a gal to destroy Charles McGraw. Joan Dixon does it without really trying.

One thing’s for sure: she never had much of a career in Hollywood. She started out at RKO under contract to Howard Hughes (which was not somewhere a fresh-faced twenty-year old from Norfolk, Virginia wanted to find herself). Hughes promised to build her career, but he was too busy running RKO into the ground. Dixon spent most of her time in low budget westerns and ended her acting career in the late fifties doing bit parts on television. By then, she’d become a lounge singer and was mostly notable in the newspapers for a string of quick marriages and messy divorces. She died in Los Angles in 1992.


She was no one’s idea of the queen of anything, yet she lives on in this little-seen masterpiece. Her fame hasn’t happened yet, unlike Ann Savage or Lizabeth Scott. Even in the insular world of film noir, Joan Dixon isn’t an icon—yet. I have faith, however, that her cult is coming. If there’s one thing that you can learn from the history of noir, it’s that there’s always time.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Something In Red: The Sci-Fi Appeal of Scarlett Johansson

Over at Tor.com, I have a new piece looking at the place of Scarlett Johansson in the current cinematic landscape of science fiction. 

On a side note: I've been thinking about Johansson lately in conjunction with Gene Tierney. I wrote about LAURA a few weeks ago, and soon after that I saw Johansson's new movie LUCY. The only thing these films have in common is the certain strange opacity of the lead actor. This observation isn't a theory yet--in fact, I don't even mention Tierney in my Tor piece--just something I wanted to add. In something like UNDER THE SKIN, I just see a Tierney-like quality.

Anyway, here's a link to my piece, Something In Red.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sam Fuller and the Creation of Neo-Noir

When did classic noir give way to neo-noir? There's no definite answer to that question, of course, but the best candidate is probably the one-two punch of Sam Fuller's 1963 SHOCK CORRIDOR and his 1964 THE NAKED KISS. After these two landmarks, nothing would ever be the same. Check out my new essay over at Los Angeles Review of Books Neo-Noir And Anti-Realism in Sam Fuller

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Movies of 1944: WHEN STRANGERS MARRY

The final installment in my series on the landmark noirs of 1944 looks at William Castle's WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. You can read that now over at Criminal Element

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bacall in Winter


In tribute to Lauren Bacall, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, I'm re-posting this appreciation I wrote about her a few years ago:

Most people fall in love with the nineteen-year old Lauren Bacall. And why not? She's beautiful--willowy and insolent, staring down Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. My favorite moment in the film comes just before the famous "just whistle" line. She sits on Bogart's lap and kisses him.

"What'd you do that for?" he asks.

"Been wondering whether or not I'd like it."

"What's the decision?"

"I don't know yet."

After they kiss again, she says, "It's even better when you help."

Great line, but then again the whole damn movie is quotable from start to finish. The two films that Bogart and Bacall made in the mid-forties with director Howard Hawks, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP, might well represent some kind of high water mark in Hollywood entertainment. Everything is just...perfect. Bogart made "greater" films, I suppose, (Falcon, Casablanca, Lonely Place) but if I could only have two of his films to take with me to that hypothetical DVD-compatible desert island...well, I'd take the Hawks films.

Bogart was a superstar before meeting Bacall, and his star continued to rise after they married. Her career, however, never really hit a higher peak than those first two Bogart films. Their last film KEY LARGO (1948) is good but John Huston doesn't give her much to do except moon for Bogie. DARK PASSAGE (1947) was their third film and remains a real hidden gem. It employs a gimmick for the first hour, a subjective camera, so we hear Bogart but don't see him until his character (an escaped convict trying to prove his innocence) gets a face lift that makes him look like Bogart. This puts the film's emphasis on Bacall for the first hour, and she wisely underplays the role (see Audrey Totter's performance in THE LADY IN THE LAKE, released the same year, as an example of how not to play to the subjective camera).

After '48, she and Bogart never made another picture together (though they did work together on television in 1955 for a live version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST with Henry Fonda). Their legacy rests, and rests securely one should add, on the four films they made together between 1944-1948. After that, she stayed home and raised kids, took the occasional role (such as YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN opposite Kirk Douglas), and tended to Bogart as he died of cancer in 1957.

She was 33 when he died. In the 53 years since, she's had various ups and downs-- from successes on Broadway to voiceovers for cat food commercials--but always and forever her legend swings back around to Bogie.

Which has got to be annoying.

But that's the weird thing about this oddity called movie stardom, it's based entirely on clusters of minutes. Lauren Bacall has been defined for her entire adult life by the approximately 100 minutes of screen time that comprise TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Imagine if everyone you met for the next sixty years, within seconds of meeting you, brought up the same hour and a half of your life. How tiresome must that be?

And, of course, how transcendent. How transcendent to know that through the voodoo of cinema you and someone you loved achieved the rarest thing possible: your love actually became immortal. If the human race doesn't destroy itself (a possibility, I'll grant) then human beings could be watching Bacall sit on Bogie's lap 500 years from now. Why not? I mean, we still read Romeo and Juliet.

These thoughts were inspired by a new interview with Bacall by Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer. Go check it out. Bacall remains the blunt--even grumpy--lady we've come to know through interviews and her bestselling autobiography (one of the first movie bios I ever read, incidentally). Who wouldn't want to spend time listening to this grand old dame tell her stories?

Read the interview here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Movies Of 1944: THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

Check out my new piece on Fritz Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW over at Criminal Element, the latest addition to my series on the key noir films of 1944. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Movies Of 1944: PHANTOM LADY

PHANTOM LADY is probably the least well-known of the landmark noirs released in 1944, but in some ways it's the most important because it initiated the full-on noir phase of director Robert Siodmak's career. You can read about this great film in my new essay over at Criminal Element.  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Movies Of 1944: DOUBLE INDEMNITY

This year film noir turns 70. While there had been some intermittent films leading up to the birth of the classic noir, in 1944 the dahlia bloomed with six key films: DOUBLE INDEMINTY, LAURA, MURDER MY SWEET, PHANTOM LADY, WHEN STRANGERS MARRY, and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. In these films you have many of the key figures in noir making some of their first forays into the genre (directors Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak; writers Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, Vera Caspary, Phillip Yordan; actors Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett, Dana Andrews—just to name a few). This onslaught of darkness came in the wake of the bleakest days (from the American perspective, anyway) of WWII. The basis of many of these films were older properties but it is the way these films came out—physically darker, psychologically denser, and ultimately more pessimistic—that marks the real birth of film noir. Over at Criminal Element I'm kicking off a new series which will explore these six landmark films.

First up DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

WORLD OF TROUBLE: The Last Policeman Book III

Today sees the release of WORLD OF TROUBLE, the final volume in The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. I hate to see it come to an end, but I am happy to report that it ends with style and grace. I wrote a review over at Tor.com. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Raymond Burr: Noir's Face of Evil

above: Burr throws a scare into Liz Scott and Dick Powell in PITFALL


As I point out in a new Goon Squad piece over at Criminal Element, it would be interesting to know if a hundred years from now the world will remember Raymond Burr's performance as Perry Mason on television. I have a suspicion that it won't. This theory is built on my gut instinct that people won't care about a TV show from the late fifties.

And yet I also suspect that there will be a small group of cinema geeks who still love film noir (I mean, people are still reading Sophocles...). If this suspicion proves true, then at least that small group of people will know and love Raymond Burr.

At this late date, most non-noir geeks still don't know that Raymond Burr was pretty much THE face of evil in the most important film genre of the 1950s. He played masterminds, henchmen, and stone-cold psychos. The one element of all of them? That stare that contained contempt for lesser beings. Everyone around him seemed to insult his intelligence.

Check out my piece at Criminal Element to find out more about the secret life and noir career of the pre-Perry Raymond Burr.
 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Midnight In America: The Film Noir of John Reinhardt

The new issue of NOIR CITY is out and it features the first installment of a new series by Yours Truly called Poverty Row Professionals. Faithful reader know that I have a weakness for the down and dirty world of B-films. I'm talking here about the cheapest of the cheap stuff that rolled out of Gower Gulch in the forties and early fifties. I'm talking Cheapsville.

First up, I examine the career of director John Reinhardt. Though he's been largely forgotten today, Reinhardt made some of the darkest, most cynical noirs of the classic period including THE GUILTY, HIGH TIDE, OPEN SECRET, and CHICAGO CALLING. Great stuff. In my research, I found some interesting bits about Reinhardt's life: he was next door neighbors with Bogart, who used to crash on Reinhardt's couch when he was on the outs with Mayo Methot (which was often); he served under John Ford in WWII and did recon missions in Mexico; and more. But the best part of writing the article was spending all that time looking at Reinhardt's work. He was the perfect candidate to kick off a series on the professionals of Poverty Row.
This issue of NOIR CITY (Summer 2014) has a ton of great material, including pieces by Dennis Lehane, Duane Swierczynski, Vince Kennan, Steve Kronenberg, Eddie Muller, and more. It's fantastic and I'm pleased as hell to be in it.

Learn how to get a copy of NOIR CITY here.   

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dorothy B. Hughes

I just stumbled across a piece (which is a couple of years old) over at the Los Angeles Review Of Books about the great Dorothy B. Hughes. It's a wonderful introduction to one of the greatest of all postwar crime writers. Hughes is probably best known today for providing the source novel for the Bogart classic IN A LONELY PLACE, but her books represent one of the most consistent body of works you can find in crime writing. (Her novel of IN A LONELY PLACE is far different than the movie. At some point in the future, I'm going to have to do a book vs. film comparison. Although, "versus" isn't quite right when you're comparing two very distinct masterpieces.)

Check out "On The World's Finest Female Noir Writer, Dorothy B. Hughes" by Sarah Weinman. It's terrific.

Monday, June 16, 2014

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Season Two

Over at Criminal Element I'm going to be doing episode recaps of my favorite new show, Jenji Kohan's ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.

Here's something I wrote on the show's first season.

And here is the recap of the Season Two Premiere. From there, you can find the rest of my episode recaps on Criminal Element. The posts will unfurl at a clip of two a week for the next few weeks.

Finally, here's a link to the greatest of all Women In Prison movies, 1950's Caged

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sympathy For The Devil: Joan Crawford

In a sense, no actor ever climbed as high or fell as far as Joan Crawford. At one point in the early thirties, she was the queen of Hollywood, but by the end of her career she was playing ghoulish caricatures of herself. Those demeaning roles were only the beginning of the indignities that would befall her, though, because after her death her daughter published a book that portrayed her as even worse than the onscreen monsters she'd played. In a sense, Joan Crawford is still falling--as her film legend becomes ever more inextricably linked to the sordid facts and fictions of her personal life.

What all this obscures is that Joan Crawford was one of the greatest of all movie stars. The camera loved her, and Crawford bared herself to it unrelentingly. In her youth she was scrappy and beautiful, and as she headed into middle age--as the luster of her young beauty gave way to worry and anxiety--she become something new and unexpected: she became a film noir icon.

There are roughly three phases of the Crawford career: the early MGM beauty queen years, when Crawford played hardworking gals trying to get to the top; the Warner Brothers noir years, when Crawford played middle-aged women forced to live (or die) with disappointment and betrayal; and the late, freelance psycho years, which found Crawford playing ax-murderers and old hags-gone-mad.

I have a new piece over at Criminal Element that looks at that fertile middle period. This is the period where Crawford gave us MILDRED PIERCE and POSSESSED and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY. It's a hell of a run. It's mid-life crisis as film noir. It's not to be missed. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

IDA (2014)

Seldom do I walk out of a movie with a ready opinion. I usually have to let a movie sink into me. I admire people who know what they like (or dislike) when they see it--and who know how to explain, almost instantly, why they like (or dislike) what they've seen. I'm just...slow. Takes me a while to take it all in.

There are exceptions. For whatever reason, I walked out of both THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001) and DRIVE (2011) enraptured by what I'd just seen. Sometimes it's just love at first sight. Such was the case with Pawel Pawlikowski's IDA. This is the best movie I've seen this year. It is likely to be the best movie I see all year. It is one of the best movies, period, that I have ever seen. Forgive me if I'm gushing. I'm in love here.

The story is very simple. A young novitate nun named Anna, living in a Polish convent in the 1960s, is preparing to take her vows when her mother superior tells her that she has an aunt living in a nearby city. Anna goes to see her aunt, a hard-living middle-aged judge named Wanda, and Anna barely has time to sit down at the woman's kitchen table before Wanda drops a bombshell on her. They are Jewish, Anna's real name is Ida Lubenstein and her family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Together, the innocent young girl and the haunted older woman  set out to find where the bodies of Ida's mother and father are buried.

There are more surprises in store in the story, but they arrive naturally, coming out of character. I leave them for you to discover. What matters here is the feel of this film, the quiet intensity that it establishes in its first frame and builds until its last.

Director Pawel Pawlikowski and his cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lucasz Zal have created a visual tour de force. IDA is shot almost exclusively in static frames, the camera perfectly positioned, setting up an unflinching gaze. (In its absolute mastery of mise-en-scene the film evokes memories of Bresson, and of Dreyer's later films.) Often shots are framed to emphasize space, with characters occupying the bottom, or even just the corners, of frames. This has an almost mystical effect, showing human beings dwarfed by human constructions like architecture, or by the sheer emptiness of the sky itself. The black and white photography here is beautiful without ever being pretty--it's both documentary-like but also has the feel of sixties European art house.

The film is largely a duet between Agata Kulesza as Wanda and Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida, and both of them are pitch perfect. Wanda is a shattered woman, and Kulesza immediately locates both the strength that has kept her alive since the war as well as the pain that seems to be consuming her. This is as much a story of Wanda as it is a story of Ida. And as the young nun herself, Trzebuchowska is almost hypnotically still and quiet. She is possessed of huge, expressive eyes but she downplays everything, as Ida takes in the other woman's pain and adds it to what we intuit is a lifetime spent bringing her own emotions under a strictly observed control.

Part of what is fascinating about this film is Ida's almost silent faith. Just observing the set up of the film in its broadest outlines (a young nun discovers that she's Jewish) one might expect there to be long talks about the meaning of religion, or perhaps condemnations of Christianity's complicity in the Holocaust. This only occurs once, in a drunken outburst from Wanda, because the film is far more concerned with how human beings attempt to live with the past. (And, by extension, how countries made up of those human beings attempt to square their actions with some kind of national identity.) For IDA, these aren't matters of theology or law, these are matters of being.

At same point in the future, I'd like to write a piece on the meaning of the film's ending. I will wait for that, though. One, because I don't feel like revealing that ending to the world right now. I'd like to wait until more people have seen it. Two, although I have seen the film twice now, I want to see it again. It has mysteries and meanings still to reveal. What I will reveal, and what haunts me, is the way the film, in its last moments, finally moves. The camera, which has stayed still throughout the film, suddenly hurries because, for the first time, it has to rush to keep up with Ida herself.

If there is a way to see IDA in the theater, I suggest you don't miss the chance. It's a masterpiece.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Theologians

I'm thrilled to be in the new issue of ALL DUE RESPECT. My new story "The Theologians" kicks off this collection, which has contributions from Patti Abbott, Jessica Adams, Alec Cizak, Angel Luis Colon, Jen Conley, Rob Hart, Chris Leek, and Mike McCrary. It also features interviews with yours truly and Beat To A Pulp's David Cranmer, plus lots of reviews of new crime titles. It's another great issue brought to you by editors Chris Rhatigan and Mike Monson. 

This is some good stuff people. You can get the electronic version here. The paperback is soon to follow.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Film Noir Books: What To Get

Noir studies are big right now. There are about a million books on the market--from vast overviews of the genre to studies of individual films and filmmakers. 

Over at Criminal Element, I've put together a list of some beginning tomes. This is far from an exhaustive list, just a nice starting place for the fledgling noir geek.

You can read Build Your Book Case here.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Amazing Leigh Brackett


Consider this--Leigh Brackett wrote or cowrote the following films:

Howard Hawks' classic private eye flick THE BIG SLEEP
Robert Altman's revisionist PI flick THE LONG GOODBYE
Hawks' John Wayne western classic RIO BRAVO
The Hawks/Wayne remake of RB, El DORADO
and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

That's a heap of different tones and textures, genres and genre-revisionism to come from the typewriter of one person.

I have a new piece up about Brackett over at Criminal Element called Adventures In Screenwriting. Check it out.

You might also like this, a pretty-damn delightful personal essay Brackett wrote at the time of her first publication in the sci-fi mag AMAZING STORIES. The first line sets the tone: "In quite undramatic fashion, I began by being born."