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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: A Preliminary Report

It hardly seems possible that I'm about to write these words, but here I go. I just saw THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Like most Orson Welles fanatics of a certain age I've been waiting many years to see this movie. I first read about it in the early '90s, when it was more or less considered a long lost film. Gradually the narrative around it changed. Whispers were heard of heroic financiers who were going to swoop in and finally sort out all the tangled strings attached to the movie (i.e. someone with deep enough pockets was going to pay off all the people who had--or claimed to have--a piece of it). Then things would fall through. Finally, after decades--yes, decades--of effort by people like Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, and (most nobly) the film's late cinematographer Gary Graver something did happen. Netflix reached down into its big pockets and paid everyone off and bankrolled the post-production on the film. Now the film exists and will come to theaters and Netflix in early November.

I saw the film this afternoon at the Chicago International Film Festival. I'm still staggered by it.

Everyone will want to know if it's good or bad. That's how the average person appraises a movie, which is fair. The funny thing, of course, is that Welles rarely made movies that fit into easy categories. So to talk about, or really just to begin to talk about it, I should say a couple of things. One, Orson Welles died before he could finish editing this film. (Since he died almost ten years after wrapping principal photography, that should tell you something about the pace of his editing and the tortured circumstances of his film-making process in the 70s and 80s.) So, beware anyone who talks about this movie without first acknowledging that it is not simply a recovered Orson Welles film. It is a film written and directed by Orson Welles but completed by other people. That's important. Welles did not have, as if were, final cut of this movie. This in no way denigrates the admirable efforts of the people who finished the film, it's simply to acknowledge the reality. The other thing to say is that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is a 70s art film. I wonder what the Netflix audiences will think of it. I frankly doubt that most people who start it on Netflix will finish watching it.

The film tells the story of the last day in the life of a film director named Jake Hannaford (John Huston). He's surrounded by sycophants, cinephiles, disciples, yes-men, skeptical reporters, would-be starlets and pissed off producers. 

The action swirls. I use that word advisedly because THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is the culmination of the whirlpooling mise en scene that Welles honed in films like THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL (you see it, in fact, in practically all his films). Characters are always in motion, constantly circling each other as they fire off dialog. This whirlpool movement is married with the rapid-cut editing Welles planned (but, again, never fully achieved) for the film. The result is a propulsive experience.

I want time to process the film, and I'll certainly see it again when it's released in theaters next month. So here's just a few preliminary notes:

1. The film marks the largely unexplored intersection of Orson Welles and 1970s pornography. There's softcore porn vibe to the opening scenes of the film and to the scenes of the film-within-the- film (Hannaford has directed an out of control "arty film" that's mostly notable for being full of sex and nudity). Welles's cinematographer and right-hand man for the last 15 years or so of his career was Gary Graver, a part-time porn director, and we know that in the 70s Welles helped Graver edit at least one hardcore porno (1975's 3A.M.). THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND'S interest in sex is part of Welles's expanding sexual interest--at least onscreen--in the 70s. I think we owe this to his partner in life and art, Oja Kodar. The film was cowritten by Kodar, and she's clearly the muse at the center of it. Welles's camera never worshiped a woman like it worships Oja Kodar.

2. Yet the film is largely a dissection of the male ego in all its misogyny, bigotry, and repressed homosexuality-turned-homophobia. It's almost shocking how acidic Welles's take on the main character is, given that he knew Huston's character would be seen as a stand in for himself. He would have fought back against that interpretation, I imagine, but there's too much of Orson in the character to ignore, from his relationship to a Peter Bogdanovich-type character played by, of course, Peter Bogdanovich, to little phrases (like "Always remember that your heart is God's little garden") that Welles himself was fond of.

3. Neither of the actors in the film within the film, Oja Kodar and Robert Ransom, speak a single word. They remain objects--unattainable, sexualized objects--for the director. It is implied that Hannaford kills himself because he cannot have the Ransom character. I suspect that this would have been edgier stuff in 1970 when Welles began working on the picture. I want to see THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND again in part because I'm interested to know if Welles is saying anything beyond that. In terms of sex, I'm not sure that he is.

4. But what a film "is saying" is always a pretty nebulous thing, and often a wholly unimportant thing. No one knew that better than Orson Welles. It was Welles, after all, who would tell anyone who asked that "Rosebud" was a cheap trick, a way to tie up the end of CITIZEN KANE. Welles knew better than most that what mattered was the film itself, not the filmmaker, and certainly not the filmmaker's "message."

5. Which brings me to the point that, yes, I'm happy to report that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND  is a good movie. It's stylistically fascinating and often quite funny, with some good performances from Huston and Bogdanovich, and a stand out performance from the underrated director Norman Foster as Hannaford's flunky, Billy. The fact that Foster was often unfairly maligned because of his association with Welles is just one of many, many ways the film overlaps with real life, commenting on it, satirizing it (often perversely), and lamenting it.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

NO TOMORROW wins the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere

I'm thrilled and honored to share the good news that I won the big one, France's top award for mystery writing, the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, for my novel NO TOMORROW.

Provided you can read French, you can read more about it here. They give out two awards, one for best French novel (which was won by Marion Brunet) and one for best foreign novel. I won for best foreign novel. You're welcome, America.

It's a remarkable honor, and one that I'm going to bask in for a while. If you need me, I'll be chugging a cheap Bordeaux and singing La Marseillaise. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


From 1989 to somewhere around 1993, I was obsessed with Mel Gibson. There are a lot of people who know me now who don't know this fact about me. But there is probably no one who knew me during those years who doesn't know this fact about me. I turned 14 in 1989, and I was 18 in 1993. The years in between were spent in intense study of all things Mel Gibson.

The obsession was due primarily to the Richard Donner-directed and Shane Black-scripted trash action classic LETHAL WEAPON. The movie was released in 1987 when I was far too young to see it. I had an older cousin who saw it, though, and he said it kicked ass. When I finally saw it, I suspected it was the greatest movie ever made. At the very least, I knew for certain that it was the greatest movie I'd ever seen.

Now I'm a 43-year-old cinephile. I've spent most of the last 25 years or so obsessed with different kinds of films and filmmakers. Film noir. Westerns. Musicals. Bogart. Welles. Bergman (both of them). Judy fucking Garland. I've probably seen, at least once, a majority of the movies that would be considered serious classics of the cinema. Many of those, I've seen more than once. A few I've seen over and over and over again.

But if I had to wager on the movie I've seen the most times, I would have to sheepishly admit it's probably LETHAL WEAPON. And, keep in mind, I've only seen it maybe once or twice in the last ten years. That means that by the mid-nineties I'd watched it, what? 50 times? 60? I watched it with the passion of youth. I watched it the way some kids in the 90s listened to Pearl Jam or Nirvana albums.

These reflections were triggered by seeing the movie for the first time in a very long time at a midnight showing at Chicago's Music Box Theater.  It was like running into a friend you haven't seen since high school.

LETHAL WEAPON is an 80s action movie. In some ways, it's the ultimate 80s action movie. DIE HARD is an infinitely better film, but it was pointing the way out of the 80s. DIE HARD had a high tech sheen to it that seemed to herald the breakthrough of something like T2: JUDGEMENT DAY. LETHAL WEAPON, on the other hand, was all about guns, tits, and mullets. LETHAL WEAPON was 80s trash and proud of it. 

This post isn't about how I watched this dated 80s action movie and realized it's trash. I think I always knew it was trash--albeit, highly efficient trash. And it's been years now since I caught up to the fact that film is casually homophobic, racist, and sexist. None of this is still surprising to me.

What is surprising is how bad Mel Gibson is in most of it. Because Mel's a good actor. His performance in BRAVEHEART is appropriately epic, while he's tightly restrained in THE ROAD WARRIOR. His HAMLET wasn't an embarrassment. His best performances are as the imperiled fathers in RANSOM, SIGNS, and THE BEAVER (a truly weird film, sure, but there's no denying that Mel taps into a deep well of self-loathing and depression in it). Mel can, when he puts his mind to it, act. Just not here. More on that in a second. 

In LETHAL WEAPON Mel plays LA cop Martin Riggs. He's suicidal because his wife has recently died, so--for reasons that make no sense whatsoever--he's transferred from narcotics to homicide. Which is sort of like getting a promotion, but never mind. He gets paired up with family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and they set out to solve a murder that almost immediately leads them to a gang of Vietnam-era mercenaries turned drug smugglers. Together Riggs and Murtaugh kill all these assholes and Riggs learns to live again.   

Mel doesn't so much give a performance here as much as he does a kind of macho-vogue. He's beautiful in this movie. This is prime Mel Gibson as a sex symbol, with a flared mullet sculpted by a stylist simply credited as "Ramsey". In his first shot in the movie, we find Mel naked in bed, waking up with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a loaded 9mm on the pillow beside him. He gets up and drags a beer out of the fridge. Despite being a depressive who guzzles booze for breakfast he's got about 8% body fat and a perfect ass. The camera regards him like a rock star. His hair is sculpted and so's that ass. Mel's not here to act. Mel's here to project beauty and danger. He's here to kill assholes, to run down the street barechested with a machine gun, to jump, to fight, and to kill even more assholes.

[A long digression: We'll find out in LW2 that Victoria Lynn Riggs was actually murdered by drug dealers who covered it up by making it look like a car wreck. Of course. This will allow Riggs to kill some more to purge his pain. 80s action films always argue that the surest way through personal turmoil is the wholesale slaughter of assholes. Here's the thing, though, LETHAL WEAPON itself doesn't feel like it's supposed to be a franchise starter. It feels like Shane Black set out to make a movie, rather than part one of a series. This might explain the grittiness of the original film, like its subplot about a dead porn actress, or the weird sexual tension between Riggs and Murtaugh's 16 year old daughter. None of this would fly in a film today, especially a film that could potentially kick off a billion dollar franchise.] 

Here's the thing: on one level it's weird that a 14 year old religiously indoctrinated Arkansas kid like me became obsessed with this movie. LETHAL WEAPON is an LA movie. It's very LA, in fact. (And that aspect of it really pops on the big screen as the detectives go up into the Hollywood hills.)  It's an adult movie in the sense that it has a lot of adult material: nudity, profanity, violence, suicidal despair.

But every bit of it--even the despair--is pitched at the level of an eighth grader. LETHAL WEAPON is a big rock power ballad of a movie. It's got no depth, just emotional bombast. Riggs isn't just sad, he's suicidal, and he's not just suicidal, he's SUICIDAL, with bug eyes and flared nostrils to prove it. Mel Gibson's performance in this film is about as subtle as a kick to the jaw, but that's in keeping with the tone of the movie. You can't croon a rock power ballad, you have to belt it out. The scene where Riggs almost kills himself is probably the scene that made Mel Gibson a superstar. The rest of the movie's talk of suicide rings hollow and cheap (the showdown between Riggs and Murtaugh later on-- "Don't tempt me, man!" --is overdone and unconvincing), but this almost wordless scene is just Mel and a gun and all the emotion the actor can dredge up from his soul. It's the scene that made people think "That handsome son of a bitch can emote." Riggs kills 17 assholes in this movie and everyone of them is just catharsis, the releasing of the tension of the earlier suicide scene. That's the kind of thing my 14 year old self could hold on to.

The success of this movie launched three more sequels, and while it's interesting to see how the movie shifted into a series, it's also easy to see how the filmmakers lost touch with that series. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989) immediately starts to turn everything into a comedy. Shane Black wanted to kill Riggs off. The suits wouldn't let him. So Shane Black was out. No more talk of suicide and no more grit. It was time to start printing money. Consequently, LW2 is still hyper-violent but it doesn't linger on pain, and there are no torture sequences like the first film. It's bigger and broader, like a cartoon. (Indeed, the film starts with the Looney Tunes fanfare.) The body count goes over the top with glee, and there's longer and larger set pieces. (Riggs pulls down a house on stilts with his truck.) The heroes end up in each other's arms, laughing. The film also introduced Joe Pesci as comic relief in a movie already popping with jokes, and that was the end of LETHAL WEAPON. The tepid LW3 brought back Pesci for no good reason (and to diminishing returns), and in an R-rated movie it gave Mel a PG-love interest in Rene Russo. It made both the violence and the humor broader, which is to say that the film is neither exciting nor funny. It also tried, paradoxically, to get serious and deliver a hamfisted gun control message in between all the shootouts glorifying guns and all the jokes making light of police brutality. And LW4...well, shit, I don't really even remember it. Jet Li was the bad guy and he gets double-teamed by Riggs and Murtaugh, which always struck me as kind of a punk move on the part of the cops. Chris Rock, just emerging as the greatest stand up comic of his generation, is also in the movie to try to give someone, anyone, a reason to see it. It's all just...bad. And Riggs has short hair. What the hell's the point of a LETHAL WEAPON movie without a mullet?  

Since Donner directed all four movies and the principal cast returned for all four, the last movie ends with a group photo to underscore the family atmosphere on the set. Yet the films themselves reveal that, cut loose from Shane Black's trash-vision, Donner didn't really know what to do with LETHAL WEAPON. As the series went on it got more and more intellectually mangled. Donner tried to turn it into a kind of family comedy (the tits and ass and torture were out by LW3), while also trumpeting simplistic liberal "messages" (apartheid is bad, guns are bad, Chinese slave labor is bad). But those messages are stuffed clumsily into what is essentially the old DIRTY HARRY stroke-fantasy of good guy fascist cops gunning down dozens of people with righteous impunity because, after all, criminals are just a bunch of remorseless assholes.

I lost interest in all of this long before the final credits rolled on the last movie. The WEAPON sequels, to one degree or another, all feel superfluous. 

The original LETHAL WEAPON is different, at least for me. It's a relic of the 80s, which is to say that it's a relic of my own childhood. Why did I love it? Because in its dumb Joel Silver-produced way, it had a sense of loneliness and isolation. I certainly felt that in my teen years. It presented uncomfortable emotions I understood and it offered hyper-masculine remedies: Toughness. Rough humor. Male bonding. Violence.

Of course, as I got older I came to learn that these weren't exactly the best remedies to uncomfortable emotions. But when I watch LETHAL WEAPON I'm certainly not looking for moral instruction. I'm not even looking for entertainment anymore because when I watch it now, I can no longer simply see a trashy 80s action movie. Instead, I see the kid watching it and learning to love the movies, falling in love with their raw speed and fury. I see a kid awkwardly learning how to move, and not to move, through the world. I see, of all things, me.