Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Summer Reading

Summer is upon us. Now is the time for seeking a respite from the heat inside the darkened confines of a movie theater. It's also a good time to take some solace in a good book or two. Here are some suggestions on how to pass the summer in style.

1. The American Underworld trilogy. Make this the summer of paranoid conspiracies and check out James Ellroy's bloody and brutal take on America in the sixties. The first volume is the masterpiece American Tabloid, a sprawling epic following the exploits of three behind the scenes operators (an ex-cop working for Howard Hughes, an FBI man with a drinking problem and a Christ complex, and a charming political fixer infatuated with Camelot) as they make their way through the intrigues surrounding Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and Dallas. A huge book that shoots along like a bullet, American Tabloid has a stellar central cast of characters augmented by believable appearances from J. Edgar Hoover, Jack and Bobby K, and psycho financier Hughes. It all ends about one minute before the shots ring out in Dallas on Nov. 22 1963. The second book in the trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand, picks up the story about five minutes after the shots are fired and follows the story to June of 1968. You can knock down these two volumes in time for the publication of the third volume, Blood's A Rover in September. The books--particularly TCST--have a clipped style of writing that is difficult for some people to get into (Ellroy, at least in these books, makes Hemingway look expansive), but if you catch the rhythm and ride it, these books will not let go of you.

2. The Best And The Brightest. Speaking of Kennedy, this might be a good time to revisit the era with David Halberstam's examination of the President's trusted circle of advisers--that storied group of idealists and eggheads who nevertheless led us into Vietnam. This is an indispensable book. I hope the current President and his cadre have read it.

3. Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave And The Birth Of The FBI 1933-34. The movie adaption focuses mostly on John Dillinger, but Bryan Burrough's book is a look at a brief window of time (about 18 months) in which a slew of big name robbers and gangsters--people like Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, The Barker Gang, Bonnie and Clyde--rampaged across America knocking over banks and drug stores, kidnapping millionaires, and killing cops--and how all this led to the rise of an obscure paper-pusher named J. Edgar Hoover and his tiny department, the FBI. See the movie for Dillinger, but read the book for a detailed look at the entire fascinating era.

4. As you doubtless know already, Bernie Madoff was sentenced yesterday to 150 years in prison for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and defrauding his investors out of somewhere between 13-50 billion dollars. Vanity Fair has been covering this story for months in a brilliant series of articles called The Madoff Chronicles. This is compulsive reading, believe me. I care less about money than anyone I know, but this is an epic story of the worst white collar criminal in history. Madoff the criminal, the conman, the husband, father, employer--Madoff the monster and the man. Stellar reading. Check it out.

5. And of course, the Internet is hopping with daily slices of noirish nightmare. Some good stuff includes Eric Beetner's two-part Get Gone (Part One and Part Two) over at A Twist Of Noir, and a trio of fun stuff on Beat To A Pulp: David Cranmer's bloody little jewel Vengeance On The 18th, Paul D Brazill's psycho The Tut, and John Weagley's ode to quality dental care, Oral Eruptions. I could go on, but there's a lot of stuff out there.

Lastly: Have I missed anything good? Let me know, recent or old-as-dirt, what's a good read for the summer.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gale Storm

Gale Storm died yesterday at the age of 87. Storm had a successful career on television in the fifties and sixties, but she also appeared in a few noirs during her time in films. She was a minor figure in noir, the result perhaps of the same lightness that made her such a huge success in television comedy (and at her peak she was almost as famous as Lucille Ball) but her noir work isn't bad. One particularly good film is Cy Endfield's The Underworld Story starring Dan Duryea, a solid newspaper noir about race and public manipulation. My favorite of Storm's noirs, however, is the underrated Abandonded with Dennis O'Keefe and Raymond Burr. A taut thriller about baby abductions, it gives Storm the leading part and builds the story around her search to find her dead sister's baby. This movie is a real find, a rare noir that deals with subjects like suicide, infanticide, and the black market for newborns. It's also nicely shot and thrillingly directed, all in all a lot of fun.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mug Shots #4: Raymond Burr aka The Mastermind

In our time we all play different parts, and just about every noir player has played the hero and the villain, the good girl and the femme fatale, the lead and the support. Yet over a career there are certain personalities that take hold. This is another addition to the roundup of faces that appear over and over in noir, like thugs pulled into a police lineup:

Raymond Burr-The Mastermind.

Long before he was Perry Mason, he put that blank stare and understated delivery to work as a supreme villain. He had a palpable intelligence that sent one message: It is your great misfortune that I am smarter than you. He appeared in many noirs but is especially notable as Lizabeth Scott’s stalker in De Toth’s brilliant Pitfall and as the brutal pyromaniac gangster in Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal. His best role might have been in another Mann picture, Desperate, in which he plays a vengeful gangster stalking poor Steve Brodie and Audrey Long in an attempt to save his brother from the gas chamber.


Here's an interesting piece on Burr's private life. He was so deeply in the closet most people today still don't realize he was gay.


Gale Storm died yesterday, and I wanted tip a hat to Abandoned the noir she made opposite Burr in 1949. Saying that Burr was good in this redundant since he was good in everything, but he gets to play a real scumbag in this movie. An added bonus: a three way fight between Burr, big lug king Mike Mazurki and goofball David Clarke.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Manhandled (1949)

After watching a good Dan Duryea performance, I’m always reminded of Dashiell Hammett’s description of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon: “He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” Duryea’s charisma was a giddy superficiality masking an inner demon. This guy would slap around his own mother if it’d make him a buck. Like Kirk Douglas, he excelled at playing sons of bitches. He never became a leading man the way Douglas did, but he redeemed a lot of movies in the course of his career.

Case in proof is Lewis Foster’s 1949 Manhandled. The film begins with a writer played by Alan Napier who has been having recurring dreams about murdering his wife and making off with her jewelry. He goes to see a sham psychiatrist whose morally ambiguous secretary Merl (Dorothy Lamour) tells her downstairs neighbor about the dreams and the jewelry. Unfortunately, her neighbor happens to be a sleazy con man named Karl Benson (Duryea). Soon, the wife is found murdered, her jewelry missing. A smart cop (Art Smith) and a smartass insurance investigator (Sterling Hayden) look into the case, and before long their investigation starts pointing them to the secretary.

Manhandled is fun, but the plot is all over the place. Our sympathy is supposed to lie with Merl, but after setting up her character with a shady past, the film never really resolves that shadiness. Lamour was well known for her comedies with Hope and Crosby, but here she’s out of her element and turns in a bland performance. Sterling Hayden, on the other hand, looks like he’s having a good time as the insurance investigator, though for some reason his first two scenes inexplicably have him getting dressed in public, even while questioning suspects. Art Smith is as likable as always as the smart cop, but while the script gives these investigators a lot of banter, it doesn’t give them much to do.

Director Lewis Foster had the kind of journeyman career that was only possible in the old days of Hollywood, back when a person could be a jack of all trades. He started out as a comedy specialist in the twenties and thirties, directing shorts with Laurel and Hardy. Throughout the forties he worked primarily as a screenwriter, contributing to a variety of projects, including musicals. Then from the fifties to the end of his career, he switched back to directing, mostly Westerns. His few excursions into noir territory aren’t bad, but they don’t exactly demonstrate an instinctive feel for the material. He’s not helped by Manhandled’s goofy script (the psychiatrist has a secretary sit in on sessions? the cops have a car without working brakes?), though he is aided considerably by Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography.

At the end the day, however, the movie is saved by Duryea. His presence here is a blessing for a couple of reasons. First, since Duryea is the only one who knows what’s going on through most of the movie he becomes the de facto main character. Our identification with him makes the film more fun and also makes it more of a noir. It’s a hoot to watch this two-bit shyster working three or four different angles at once. And secondly, Duryea simply gives the best performance in the movie. He’s playing the same charming sleazeball he usually does—lying his face off, terrorizing women, talking fast and hatching schemes. He did this kind of thing better than anyone else, and the effect of it is only enhanced the more you’ve seen it before. Manhandled would be a fine introduction to the actor, but it will play even better if you’ve already seen Scarlett Street and Too Late for Tears.

It is a particular challenge to explain to the uninitiated just how Duryea’s charm works. Historian Eddie Muller has reported that in the forties the more Duryea slapped around women onscreen, the more fan mail he received. There’s nothing charming about misogyny, so why was Duryea a sex symbol? Part of it, I think, is that Duryea’s nastiness had a distinct shallowness to it. When Kirk Douglas was a son of a bitch onscreen, you believed it. You felt the disturbing pull of real anger there, and there usually comes a moment in a Douglas performance where he drops the charm and explodes with rage. Duryea is different. He never drops the charm for very long because charm is the chief weapon in his arsenal. He’s a coldblooded son of a bitch, but he’s always on the make.

Like a blond Satan.


Here's a fun piece on Duryea.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Missing Person (2009)

Here's a modern day film noir fresh from the Sundance Film Festival. The Missing Person stars Michael Shannon as an alcoholic private detective hired to trail a man on a train from Chicago to LA. He slowly figures out the man's real identity as a missing person, one of the people presumed dead in the World Trade Center Attacks on September 11th. The film costars Amy Ryan and Frank Wood and was written and directed by Noah Buschel. The Missing Person is still making its way through the festival circuit and has yet to make it to DC, but I'm hoping to check it out sooner rather than later. The preview looks interesting, and I've been a fan of Shannon since I saw him in Before The Devil Knows Your Dead and a fan of Ryan since Gone Baby Gone. Getting these two together in a neo noir is a damn fine piece of thinking on someone's part.

Here's the film's trailer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Can You Find 10 Contenders For Best Picture These Days?

When I read the news that the Academy Awards would increase the number of Oscar contenders from 5 to 10 starting next, my first thought was: does Hollywood make ten great movies a year? I suspect they don't, but I guess that's beside the point.

Everyone knows the only reason to raise the count from 5 to 10 is to pad out the list with more blockbusters. The Oscars are a once a year primetime television event, like the Super Bowl. Millions are made on it--magazines cover the films, fashions, and the horse race; billions tune in to watch the show so advertisers spend lots of loot to peddle their wares in between shitty production numbers; ect ect. Recently the audience for this whorefest has been shrinking. You nominate blockbusters for best picture in order to attract a wider audience. No one saw The Reader or Benjamin Button. No one tuned in to see if they'd win. Even Slumdog--which was a breakout hit--only made 141 mil. in North America. The academy wants to be able to nominate blockbusters to attract a bigger audience.

The Oscars already have to pad the list every year to get it to five films. I know that I'm a confirmed old school moviegoer, but c'mon...they really don't make 'em like they used to. The Reader? Benjamin Button? If you want to free up the list for blatant marketing schemes how about cutting out the fat from the list of five.

The criticism that the Oscar telecast is one giant beauty pageant is as old as the Oscars themselves. There is a reason for this. It's true. What does Best Picture even mean? Doubt was a good movie, so was Frozen River, so was the Dark Knight. But these movies are separate creations. They're not wrestlers on a WWF reunion tour. Why rig up a flashy, expensive televised event in which marketing teams compete to sell their product as the "Best Picture" of a certain 12 month span? It demeans the whole concept of artistic achievement. Think about it: after Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture did it become the best film released in 2008? Did The Departed become a better movie than Taxi Driver or Raging Bull because it won Scorsese his little gold man while those films did not?

Of course not. The Oscars mean nothing. Or they would mean nothing except that they purport to mean everything. They treat themselves with reverence, and the gaggle of fawning jackals that make up the Entertainment Media go right along with it. The Oscars are an empty exercise, a giant waste of time that exists only to make money by pretending to arbitrate art. At least this latest move makes their pointlessness all the more obvious.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mug Shots #3: Janis Carter aka The Sicko

In our time we all play different parts, and just about every noir player has played the hero and the villain, the good girl and the femme fatale, the lead and the support. Yet over a career there are certain personalities that take hold. This is another addition to the roundup of faces that appear over and over in noir, like thugs pulled into a police lineup:

Janis Carter-The Sicko

Despite being devastatingly charming and beautiful, Carter excelled at playing deeply screwed up femme fatales. In the propaganda picture I Married A Communist, she looks good while giving Communism a bad name. In the superior Framed, she’s a sexy package of demented fun opposite Barry Sullivan and Glenn Ford—bashing one guy’s brains in with a wrench and trying to feed rat poison to the other. Her most twisted role, however, is in the underrated Night Editor where she gets so turned on by witnessing a woman’s brutal murder that she tracks down the killer to begin an affair. She's one of the least known of the truly great women of film noir.


For more on Carter's life and career read here.

Here's her obit from the NY Times. Interestingly, it doesn't mention Night Editor, easily her best film. A better obit can be found in The Independent in London.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Angel Of Death (2009)

Angel Of Death is an interesting little experiment over on the website, Crackle. It was created by comics writer Ed Brubaker, author of the noirish Batman tales The Man Who Laughs and Gotham Noir. Angel Of Death stars stuntwoman Zoe Bell as an assassin named Eve. After a hit goes wrong and Eve ends up with a four inch blade stabbed into her skull, she begins to experience visions of one of her victims, a young girl who wants Eve to kill the men who call the shots in a big time crime family. As Eve works her way through her former bosses, we meet a large cast of characters including a jittery doctor (Doug Jones, in the production's best performance), a prostitute (Lucy Lawless, whom Bell used to stunt double for on Xena), and psycho brother and sister vying for control of a crime family.

The project is interesting to me for a few reasons: for one thing, I've had a crush on Zoe Bell since I saw her strapped the roof of a 1970 Dodge Challenger in Tarantino's Death Proof (followed by seeing her in the documentary Double Dare about stuntwomen). I can't make claims for Bell as a great actress, but she does throw a punch better than anyone in movies. She's fascinating in the same way Bruce Lee was fascinating.

Secondly, this type of web feature might be a wave of the future. I never (never never never) want to give up the theater as my primary source of movies, but I can see the digital/Internet wave coming, and I wonder if a production (I choose that word carefully) such as this one is part of this wave. The story unfolds in ten separate 8-10 minute webisodes, each one full of hardboiled dialogue, low rent production values, hit-or-miss acting, and a lot of fine ass-kicking. It ain't art, but it doesn't want to be art.

Which brings me to another reason this kind of thing interests me: could art unfold in a form like this? "Film noir" may have the imprimatur of French criticism, but it started out as a disparate collection of low rent genre flicks. Much of it still is. For every Detour, there were three shitty crime flicks churned out by the likes of Sam Newfield. And yet, real art--great lasting art, imperishable art--was created in the noir idiom. Could something similar take place on the web?


You can watch Angel Of Death for free at Crackle, starting here with the first episode.

You can also see Bell and Brubaker interviewed here.

Finally, I've written before about noirish experiments.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nights Of Noir In LA

From The San Fernando Valley Sun:

"Kasey Wilson is a woman enthralled with film noir and the fashions of the '40s. The Canoga Park resident has written and directed 'Nights of Noir' which is the cover title for two one-act noir style comedies, 'Marked for Love' & 'Of Dicks and Dames.' 'Nights of Noir' is currently playing at The Attic Theater and Film Center in Los Angeles." For the rest of the article read here.

This sounds fun to me, but I'm stuck on the other side of the country. I'd love to hear from anyone who's seen this production.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stranger On The Third Floor (1940)

Among noir geeks there is an eternal debate about the exact beginnings of the genre. Some people finger Huston’s The Maltese Falcon as the culprit that started the ball rolling in 1941. Others say that it all started as late as 1944 when McMurray meet Stanwyck in Wilder’s Double Indemnity. A more likely candidate, however, is a little 63-minute RKO film from 1940 called Stranger On The Third Floor. It was directed by a man named Boris Ingster, and one reason the film hasn’t been as widely embraced as noir’s starting point by some critics and historians is because Ingster wasn’t a great director.

The Auteurist Theory of film—begun by the French and championed by many Americans—holds that movies are the product, above all, of the director. People like Orson Welles and Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock are some favorite examples of acknowledged auteurs. They are the men who put stamps of personality on their pictures. There’s something to this theory, of course. Welles, Hawks, and Hitchcock were great artists. So were Wilder and Huston. Noir, however, is a strong counterargument to the Auteurist theory. For every great noir directed by an acknowledged master, there is a great noir directed by someone who was more or less a gun for hire, a simple professional, a hack. As a genre, noir is a nice reminder that movies are, after all, a collaborative art form.

With Stranger On The Third Floor you can see the genre beginning to take shape. It tells a simple story of a reporter named Mike Ward (John McGuire) who stumbles upon a murder victim and identifies a nervous cabbie (played by Elisha Cook Jr) as the person he saw previously arguing with the dead man. On the strength of Mike’s testimony, the little cabbie is convicted. Mike, however, is plagued with doubt. Did he just send an innocent man to the electric chair? These doubts increase after the trial when he runs into a creepy psycho played by Peter Lorre. Is Lorre the murderer? Things take a turn for the worse when it starts to look like Lorre might have just committed another murder, a murder which will point, ironically enough, back to Mike.

This is the thinnest of plots, but an interesting aspect of the film is how little it’s concerned with the mechanisms of the story. It is far more concerned with emotions, with a building sense of unease, isolation, and dread. Mike has a long dark night of the soul. He thinks Lorre might have killed the annoying man who lives next to Mike on the third floor of an apartment building. Since Mike hated the man and had public fights with him, he knows that he will look like the most likely killer. He’s plagued by dreams.

These dreams are the centerpiece of the film and pinpoint the exact moment that German Expressionism and a buried American angst collided on our screens. The film was shot by Nicolas Musuraca (Out Of The Past, Roadblock), one of the great noir cinematographers. What he and Ingster do in this film owes a huge debt to the work of Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. Mike’s dreams are huge set pieces of slanted shadow and askew camera angles, yet they are situated in very America settings. The film begins, and ends, with images typical of American films of the time: bright, busy city streets full of people happily going about their day. Yet, by the time Mike awakes from his tormented dreams to discover that his neighbor has indeed been killed and that he is the chief suspect in the murder, his waking life has become a nightmare.

What happens next is telling. With Mike in jail, the film shifts focus to Mike’s fiancé, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) as she tries to track down the creepy little psycho played by Lorre. She finds him, and Lorre terrorizes her until a deus ex machina intervenes to save her and resolve the plot. What is so telling about this section of the story is the way the film shifts gears from one character to another just to keep the mood intact—because after all, it’s the mood (and its affect on the audience) that’s important. The characters are thin because they are functioning not so much like characters but rather like elements in a composition, like notes in a score.

Because Stranger On The Third Floor is a melodramatic piece of work, much of the acting feels like something out of a silent film. When Mike presses his ear to his wall to listen to the next room, he doesn’t just press his ear to the wall and look worried, he splays himself against it like he’s trying to get out of Caligari’s cabinet. Elisha Cook Jr. doesn’t just decry his conviction, he explodes all over the screen, those big eyes of his filling up like balloons. And Peter Lorre—everyone’s favorite creep—plays his part as if his character is a foppish demon.

So it’s not subtle, but it doesn’t want to be subtle. It doesn’t want to be naturalistic. It wants to be a highly stylized nightmare, and so it is. As the years went by, noir wormed its way into subtler pictures, merged with aspects of naturalism and hardboiled crime fiction. But it started here.


Here's a clip.

Here's a review of the film by the good folks over at Midnight Palace.