An Epiphany of Noir

Today marks Epiphany, the day after Twelfth Night, and in the words of the immortal Bard, “If Twitter be the food of writing, tweet on!”

January dawns in 2011, and it truly is a brave new world of social networking. Just four years ago all this checking in and updating and status reporting was strange and new, as much a figment as Hamlet’s ghost (bear with me—I’m trying to keep up the Shakespeare references here). And now … well, the first app that I added to my new HTC Hero smart phone (and yes, I love it) was Tweetdeck. I sometimes wonder at the familiarity—nay, indispensability!—of the technology that was the stuff that dreams are made on such a short time ago (see—I told you I’d bring up Shakespeare again).

So—luckily for me, since I’m more comfortable in the past when teens actually sulked and talked to each other, rather than sulked and texted—every January brings a little bit of old to mix with the new … and the best kind of old, at that.

Noir! Noir City. At the Castro Theater, in glorious black and white (with an occasional technicolor thrown in). The line up this year is particularly grand, and deals with a theme near and dear to most writers … insanity. After all, if we don’t write about it, we often live it … hearing voices in our heads, getting up at odd hours to scribble notes about ice pick wounds (that’s coming up in CITY OF SECRETS) … trying to juggle all the tweets and updates while working on multiple storylines, mumbling to ourselves when we walk down the street … er, maybe I should stop now.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to seeing The Two Mrs. Carrolls (fabulous Bogart/Stanwyck film) and Beware, My Lovely on the big screen—along with the sublime performance by the late Jean Simmons in Angel Face. I’m buying a passport—I’ve got my citizenship papers—and will cram as many late night noir fests into my schedule as possible.

It’ll be tough because THE CURSE-MAKER launches February 1st, and then it’s book tour time … but at least I’ll get my annual Noir inoculation first. Forget the flu shot—get a noir shot!

Meanwhile, I’m ringing in the New Year in San Diego tomorrow, signing ARCS of THE CURSE-MAKER and copies of CITY OF DRAGONS for the wonderful librarians at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference! I’ll also be part of a mystery writer contingent with some good friends at Mysterious Galaxy tomorrow night—come by if you’re in the area! Saturday morning I sign in the great cavern of the San Diego convention center, then 2 PM will be moderating a panel of very cool “Tough Guys”: T. Jefferson Parker, Ken Kuhlken, Timothy Hallinan, and Gary Philips. So much to look forward to!

In the meantime, I just want to thank you all for reading—my blog, my books, and the books of so many outstanding writers throughout the year of 2010. I’ve been very lucky with the response to CITY OF DRAGONS, and I’m blessed to be able to publish two novels this year. [That’s a sneak peek at CITY OF SECRETS, releasing in September]

May 2011 shower you with good fortune, a gentle spirit, kind thoughts—and crime fiction! 🙂

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Noir City Wrap Up

Those who know me know I take film noir very seriously. I was honored to find our friends at The Rap Sheet give a nod to WID and my Noir City reporting in late January. And then … and then …

What happened? Did I drop off a log? Did my fedora fall over my eyes? Did I (gasp) not go to the festival?

None of the above. What happened was … well … there’s no other way to explain it. GOOD NEWS. And–as any noirhead knows–good news–particularly the kind of toe-squirming, technicolor, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and Busby Berkeley musical dream-come-true good news–is not conducive to the dark and usually wet streets of Noirville.

Here’s what happened. Right before the last weekend of the festival, I accepted a two-book deal with Thomas Dunne/St Martin’s Minotaur for my 1940 San Francisco PI noir, RICE BOWL. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve been feeling a little, well, musical-ish ever since. More like Maria in The Sound of Music than Mildred in Mildred Pierce. More like the first book’s Harry Potter than the fifth’s. I am thrilled beyond belief, and wake up telling myself that it’s real and it’s fabulous, and that it’s not all a flashback from an unreliable narrator.

So naturally, I had to let some time pass before I could stop seeing rainbows and properly tackle my normal habitat. I write noir, after all. And RICE BOWL is both of the noir world and upends it. But more on it–lots more on it–later. We’ve got time, and this post is for the smash-bang closeout of the greatest film festival in the world.

Now keep in mind that I’m still a working girl, and I unfortunately can’t see everything. I squeezed in Thursday to see The Big Clock (1948) on the big screen, and a treat it was. Based on the terrific novel by Kenneth Fearing (I bought a tattered first edition last year)–the movie was shot beautifully by the underrated John Farrow (Mia’s dad–he married Maureen O’Sullivan, a co-star in the film, during the shooting).

Ray Milland was charming, debonair and reassuringly confident in the midst of tension (the script sported several light-hearted touches), Charles Laughton was delightfully controlling and villanous, femme fatale Rita Johnson (They Won’t Believe Me) more appealing than the rather pallid Maureen, George Macready (the creepy Nazi Ballin in Gilda) appropriately smarmy, and Elsa Lanchester stole every scene she was in with a comic role as an artiste. Rounding out the cast was Henry Morgan as a murderous masseur/thug (and if you’ve only thought of him as Sherman Potter, prepare yourself) and Louis van Rooten as a radio actor (which he was in real life).

For me, the real star of the movie was the set design by Hans Dreier, which was truly a marvel to behold. Sort of prefigures the Bond sets in terms of size equalling threat, yet with a Deco panache that was quite beautiful. All in all, a classic, and not to be missed.

Perhaps even more enjoyable (and like The Big Clock, this was not my first viewing of the film) was the Claude Rains’ vehicle The Unsuspected (1947), which aired the next evening.

Why Michael Curtiz has never been accorded auteur status is due to the fact that he was brilliant in every genre. Here, his Expressionist background in light and dark gradually draw us into a gothically forbidding world of dread and suspense. Rains has never been better or more charming. The plot concerns a radio show host (think of “Suspense” or “Escape” or “The Whistler” if you know classic radio) whose secretary is found hanging above his desk. But we know it’s not suicide from a brilliant opening sequence that makes full use of the audio and visual to create a panoply of noir beauty and thrills.

Audrey Totter steals every scene she’s in … sashaying around and calling everyone “lover” but her husband. Constance Bennett proves wonderful and an equal scene-stealer in an Eve Arden like role. The movie is so well-directed and acted by these three–and the always enjoyable noir heavy Jack Lambert–that you overlook the woodenness of Michael North, who apparently retired from acting after making it. Hurd Hatfield (title role in The Picture of Dorian Gray) chews the bar in half as the debauched painter husband of Audrey. And Joan Caulfield is charming, if not particularly memorable, as Rain’s niece. But it really works … and it’s not on DVD but occasionally is shown on TCM, so watch for it!

Second billing that night was Desperate (1947), which I’ve also seen (this is what comes of watching noir all the time), albeit not on a big screen. An early Anthony Mann effort, the cinematography and shot set ups prefigure his greatest work, and the film is worth seeing if only for one spectacular “interrogation” scene by gangster Raymond Burr. Steve Brodie plays a truck driver gulled into participating in a heist. After a threat to his wife (the appealing Audrey Long), he’s determined to get her somewhere safe before going to the cops (even if it means stealing cars along the way). His character makes the words “trust me” a bit comical, but the film is great entertainment, with a lot of interesting touches (a Czech wedding!).

Finally, my last foray into Noir City was the Fritz Lang thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Again, this was the second time I’d watched the film, and on the big screen–and with a second viewing–my appreciation and admiration for it grew enormously … just as Foster Hirsh, who introduced the film along with Noir Czar Eddie Muller, said it would. Joan Fontaine is the independent love interest of a writer (and I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed the lines about deadlines and writing and publishing) played by the always noirish Dana Andrews. Her father–his soon-to-be father-in-law–is a newspaper man vehemently opposed to capital punishment (Sidney Blackmer). Dad’s got a great idea–how about if someone innocent frames himself for murder, gets convicted, is sentenced to death, and then produces evidence of innocence … wouldn’t that prove the folly of relying on circumstantial evidence and make people hesitate before sending convicts to the chair? Sure it would, Dad-in-law … sure it would.

The film has been remade for release later this year, with Michael Douglas and the young Amber Tamblyn, who has the excellent taste to name The Asphalt Jungle as one of her favorite movies. Director/writer Peter Hyams also helmed the Gene Hackman/Anne Archer remake of The Narrow Margin. So see the original before you see the remake.

And watch it more than once … it’s really terrific, though filmed on an incredibly cheap budget. As a bonus, the delightful Barbara Nichols–real life former model and burlesque queen, always memorable and a scene-stealer in The Sweet Smell of Success–plays the role of (you guessed it) a stripper. She steals these scenes, too.

The festival closed with The latter film–maybe Burt Lancaster’s greatest performance–and a new print of The Killers … but alas, it was a Sunday, and I was wrapped up in work and good news.

I’ll be back with more films noir–and more of everything–later. In the meatime, keep your cigarettes dry and your bourbon wet, and if someone asks you to frame yourself … think twice!

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Noir City, Night Two: What a Dahl!

The loyal denizens of Noir City were treated to a visit by Hollywood Royalty last night. The Film Noir Foundation and a sold-out theater of 1,407 lucky film-goers paid tribute to the legendary Arlene Dahl, va-va-va voom girl and wonderful actress. What a night … and what a Dahl!

The evening began with an ode to nostalgia: this year, as part of the Newspaper Noir theme, newspaper boys–and girls–dressed in the archetypal hat and knickers of legend, roam the waiting lines of the festival, hawking free Noir City programs to eager ticket holders. Last night they yelled “Extra, Extra–Arlene Dahl in person between shows!” It’s a great gimmick, and the kids were wonderful … and I’m betting it helped sell a few more Chronicles and New York Times, too.

Ms. Dahl arrived to applause from the hundreds of people waiting in line, accompanied by her husband, Marc Rosen, and actor son, the gallant and handsome Lorenzo Lamas. A bit later, passport holders were allowed into the theater for a fabulous reception, complete with cocktails made with the official Noir City spirits Rain Vodka and Eagle Rare Bourbon (my poison was bourbon and soda, natch), and a sumptuous feast of hors d’oeuvres. Ms. Dahl, as gorgeous as ever, graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures, while her family watched proudly.

Then … the movie. WICKED AS THEY COME (1956) was a star vehicle for Ms. Dahl, showcasing not just her amazing beauty, but her formidable talent. She portrays an impoverished, working-class girl who scrambles over a chain of men into a rich marriage … only to have her past catch up to her with disastrous results. What do you expect? This is Noir City, baby!

The film is reminiscent of the pre-code Stanwyck masterpiece Baby Face, but offers an interesting twist (and one that indicates how obsessive filmmakers were with psychology and juvenile delinquency in the mid-’50s): Ms. Dahl’s character, Kathy Allen, harbors an emotional block against intimacy and a pathological hatred of men not because she is as “wicked as they come”, but because she was the victim of a horrendous crime in her early adolescence. Heady stuff–and Ms. Dahl’s performance was perfect.

Philip Carey and Herbert Marshall ably rounded out the star list, and the film was sumptously filmed–on location in Britain–by Basil Emmott. Director Ken Hughes may be more famous for his British Double Indemnity noir, The House Across the Lake (1954) — and for directing the only Ian Fleming musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) — but WICKED AS THEY COME is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and a shining example of Ms. Dahl’s tremendous talent.

After the credits, the screen segued to a delightful series of film clips from Ms. Dahl’s films, everything from song and dance numbers (Three Little Words) to melodrama (Woman’s World) to historical noir (Reign of Terror–shown at last year’s Noir City) to fantasy adventure (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Audience favorite was probably the steamy clip from Sangaree (1953), in which she co-starred with husband Fernando Lamas. What made it even more memorable is the fact that Lorenzo had never seen his mother on the big screen before last night.

Noir Czar Eddie Muller then brought Ms. Dahl to the stage for a champagne toast and a tremendous standing ovation. Gracious, delightful, and a mesmerizing conversationalist, Ms. Dahl discussed her origins in show business, her work, her equally legendary co-stars, and paid tribute to both the Castro’s own beauty as a movie palace and to the adoring audience. The time passed too quickly … and after another standing ovation, Ms. Dahl and her family made their way out of the theater, accompanied by the sound of applause and the hearts of 1,407 habitues of Noir City.

The second film then aired: a technicolar and Super Scope 1956 feast called SLIGHTLY SCARLET, starring Ms. Dahl and friend and fellow redhead Rhonda Fleming. If you don’t think noir can be shot in color, think again. John Alton–probably the foremost master of shadow and light to grace Hollywood–made the oranges and greens and blues and purples as lurid as a black and white Bowery gutter.

The story was ostensibly based on James M. Cain’s Love’s Lovely Counterfeit, but the script rambled, sometimes into incoherency. The plot involved the ostensible clean-up of a crooked Bay City by “publicity man” John Payne, who is actually an underling of the mob boss his clean-up machinations overthrows. He uses his knowledge of Rhonda’s relationship with the newly-elected goody-two shoes Mayor (she’s his secretary–and what a secretary!) and her younger sister’s klepto- and nymphomania (played to the delicious and perfect hilt by Ms. Dahl) to manipulate them into helping him with his coup.

The problem is that despite Payne’s charisma and able performance, his motivation is unclear and underwhelming, and the movie doesn’t flesh out Cain’s plot well enough to make you sympathize with him. Ted de Corsia turns in his usual spectacular character performance as the overthrown Little Caesar, but Ms. Dahl, as Dorothy Lyons, steals the show … and not just in her leopard print swim suit, but in a captivating, convincing performance of mental illnesss that made me wish she’d been able to play Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

Veteran director Allan Dwan wisely kept the camera on the eye-popping scenery–Rhonda and Ms. Dahl against a symphonic technicolor backdrop. SLIGHTLY SCARLET may have suffered from a weak script, but with star power like that, you can quote Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past … “Baby, I don’t care.”

I’m a working girl, so I’ve got to leave the mean streets for a few days, hopefully to return on Thursday. In the meantime, keep your powder dry and watch out for redheads … they spell terrific trouble in Noir City!

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That’s the Press, Baby! – Noir City Opening Night

Last night it rained in San Francisco. It always rains in San Francisco for two weeks in January–when she opens the Golden Gate to murder, lust, corruption and cheap cigarettes.

Yes, it was Noir City night at the Castro Theater, and Bay Area residents let the rain drops drip from their fedoras, and sauntered over to a sold-out movie palace to pay tribute to urban poetry. Noir Czar and Czarina Eddie Muller and Anita Monga have programmed a punchy, timely and provocative theme this year–Newspaper Noir, from the days when the press didn’t mean smarmy, politicized gossip from ill-educated and attention-seeking hacks.

… or did it?

One thing a steady dose of noir will teach you–and I’ve been dipping into it for a long, long time–is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So last night we were treated to two films that dealt with the distintegration of news to sensationalism and the tawdry manipulation of fear and wish-fulfilment ala “reality tv” … only the year was 1952.

Just as the internet threatens — and some would say, has sealed the fate — of the printed “wuxtry!” that was the most popular and affordable media of its time, back in the early ’50s the threat was TV. And then–as now–the owners of said news outlets wrestled with what to do.

The first film, Richard Brook’s DEADLINE–USA, is an obit for the ethical newspaper man … the current editor and now-deceased owner who believed in the power of the press and in the dignity of the human being. In newspapers that function as social outlets, the voice in the wilderness crying for reform, the byline that isn’t afraid to speak the truth to the masses, not just cater to their taste for sensationalism.

And what a movie … no film about the press captures its allure and its power and the Sophie’s Choice of its purpose–to report or to exploit?–better than DEADLINE. Only the sardonic comedy of The Front Page and its remake, His Girl Friday, comes close at all.

Richard Brooks (Brute Force) wrote a snap-crackle screenplay, sharp with wit and observation, and matched it with flawless direction. Humphrey Bogart is perfect casting as the epitome-of-decency editor, Ethel Barrymore also perfect as the owner’s widow who regains her self-respect and fighting spirit in battling to save the paper her husband founded. No one–and I mean no one–ever played those parts as well as Ethel, my favorite of the Barrymores.

The always believable Kim Hunter rounds out the stars of the cast as Bogie’s ex-wife, but the film really sang with stellar performances by some terrific character actors. Fleshing out the roles of reporters were Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane, The Window, Kiss Me Deadly) perfect as the tough sports writer, Jim Backus in an understated and convincing performance as the gossip man, Warren Stevens as a cub reporter determined to get the story, Broadway actress Audrey Christie as the hardboiled press dame, and Ed Begley as Bogie’s right-hand man. Martin Gable owned the part of Rienzi, the untouchable city crime boss, and never overplayed a moment (it’s the kind of role Rod Steiger would have chewed to bits).

Uncredited and virtually unknown actress Kasia Orzazewski portrayed the immigrant mother of a crime victim and dominated a moving scene late in the film. This was a character actress made for noir. Though her filmography is unfortunately tiny, she played small but memorable bits in three other top-notch noirs: Call Northside 777, Thieves’ Highway (one of the very best) and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Watch DEADLINE-USA if you can catch it on TCM, and advocate for its release on DVD. It’s a truly great film, and a loving ode to the power of the press … baby.

SCANDAL SHEET rounded out the opening night double-feature, and Broderick Crawford–always a superb actor–makes a dynamic and convincing editor, one who can recognize the merit of a story to emotionally manipulate the “slobs” that increase his tabloid’s circulation. Yes, ladies and gentlemen–this was tabloid “journalism”, and the year was 1952.

“Yellow” journalism is something you might remember hearing about in your high school history class, often linked with the name “Hearst”. While Bogart and his paper recognized the power of the press and lived up to the moral responsibilities that came with it, Crawford and his Board of Directors — despite hypocritical complaints about “immorality”–recognized the power and exploited the hell out of it.

Give the public what it wants … a sucker is born every minute … you get the idea. The more lurid the content, the more cheap and tawdry and trashy the stories, the more exploitative of people’s victimization or misfortune, the more the circulation numbers shoot up–up–and up. It’s Noir City, baby … and it’s also tomorrow’s headline.

Ironically, Crawford’s downfall begins with his reality-show-type creation of a Lonelyhearts Club, purely a publicity stunt designed to prey on the saps. It all seems so (unfortunately) modern–but Queen for a Day had been around for years (radio and then television), and no other show before–and possibly, since–so shamelessly milked false sentiment from dried up mammary ducts.

SCANDAL SHEET’S twists are many, and they all start to tighten around Crawford’s thick neck. Y’see, he kills his ex-wife, covers it up, and then his star cub reporter–the dreadful John Derek–decides to solve the crime … all in the name of circulation.

Donna Reed is terrific as the moral yet sexy good girl, Rosemary de Camp gives the performance of her life as Crawford’s ex-wife, Harry Morgan is acid and biting as the cynical photographer, and character actors Henry O’Neill and Griff Barnett give excellent performances as two men who pull Crawford’s noose ever tighter. And there are some amazing shots of amazing character faces playing rummies in the Bowery. As Morgan acerbically observes, “That does it–I’m not taking another drink.”

SCANDAL SHEET, ably directed by Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) and based on a Sam Fuller novel, only fell short with its second lead John Derek. Though he offered a brash sort of energy reminiscent of Tom Cruise, Derek was completely unconvincing in every role I’ve ever seen, and this, sadly, was no exception. Possibly cast to capitalize on his earlier portrayal of Crawford’s son in All the King’s Men, an actual actor would have been a much better choice. Still, the film’s treasures outweigh Derek’s feather-light performance.

Noir City continues tonight with a tribute to leading lady Arlene Dahl, and yours truly will be back with more … for now, pay honor to the power of the press … quit reading this blog and buy a newspaper, baby!

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The Random 16

A couple of weeks ago, I was tagged for another meme-thing on Facebook … Linda Richards, top-notch idea woman that she is, inspired me to reuse it here. I like the idea of reuse, make do or mend … why limit a perfectly good meme to the Facebook environment?

Like everyone else apparently, I’m excited about the Inauguration. I’ll be recording it for viewing after work. And I’m hoping that the number of newspaper special editions it sells will help keep our remaining dailies in business …

Speaking of which, Noir City is this Friday, January 23rd … Noir City, a font of inspiration and sweaty, heady obsession … Noir City, the premiere film festival in the world, the dreamchild of the desperate, the deranged and the dangerous. Noir City. The name says it all, baby. And of course I’ll be there, holding my Noir City passport. No shots this year–I’ve been inoculated before.

This year’s theme ties in with the sad decline of journalism and the inky magic of tangible print–yes, it’s Newspaper Noir, and the lead film is the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Deadline, USA. Noir Czar Eddie Muller‘s father was a byline sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and believe you me, these films will all pack a nostalgic wallop of the long-gone world of real journalism … you know, before news became merely opinion.

Somehow, Eddie always pulls rabbits and magic out of his many hats … this year’s festival will be really special (and Arlene Dahl is the guest!), so forget economic news or post-holiday blues–find a million dollar baby at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, because Noir Days Are Here Again.

One more thing before the meme: I was saddened to learn that Ricardo Montalban passed away. A charming, ever-urbane man of wonderful talent, charisma and personal appeal, he enriched a bleak television landscape with fun and fantasy, and graced a number of good films with his presence. One of them was a hard-hitting noir, helmed by Anthony Mann and lensed by John Alton: Border Incident. Coincidentally, it’s airing on TCM on the opening date of Noir City (Friday, January 23rd), so if you can’t come to San Francisco, you can pay tribute to both noir and Montalban by watching this fine film. I’ll post a review of it soon … in the meantime, see the trailer here.

Now … the sixteen bits of personal trivia. I was originally tagged by legal eagle and thriller writer Ken Isaacson, and the MWA Maven herself, Margery Flax.

1. Ken now owes me at least two drinks at the next conference for getting “The Pina Colada Song” stuck in my head.

2. Confession: I’m a sap for any song that features classic Hollywood … “Bette Davis Eyes” … “Vogue” … and, yes, even “Key Largo” (We had it all … just like Bogie and Bacall!)

3. I was the only girl in my kindergarten play. I played the little billy goat in The Three Billy Goats Gruff–and not knowing that billy meant male, I wore a pastel dress and a hair ribbon.

4. When I was six I wanted to be a paleontologist.

5. My mother tells me I used to love the Beatles when I was a baby.

6. My first pony’s name was Sugarfoot. My second pony’s name–when we moved to Florida–was Rascal. My first horse’s name was Mahalia. And my mom knew Mahalia Jackson.

7. I am very proud of whistling well.

8. I collect comic books and paper ephemera from the ’30s and ’40s for research and pleasure.

9. My Mae West impression won the role of the courtesan in The Comedy of Errors for me.

10. I’m an incurable Romantic. That’s why I write noir.

11. I almost attended UC San Diego and was accepted there as a Chemistry major … I thought about becoming a cosmochemist.

12. I attended the University of Dallas on a scholarship as a Drama major instead.

13. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college.

14. I’m a coal miner’s granddaughter.

15. My background is half Polish and half English, Irish, and Scottish with some Choctaw thrown in.

16. I refuse to eat viscera, but I love escargot.

Got a trivium or two? Share some of your own!

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The Meming of it All

I’m not sure that “meming” is a word — but it’s January, so new words are allowed. How else do little dictionaries grow?

This is the month of Noir City and post-holiday cookie sales … a month of anticipation, back-to-the-gym promises, of hope and resolve and potential. Of dark, rainy streets projected in glorious 35mm on the Castro Theater screen, of sunshine in San Francisco backyards, and a new inauguration for a New Deal and a New Day in Washington.

You can probably tell I like January.

This week, I’m meming … it’s a receding economy, and in the spirit of “make do and mend”, and “reduce, reuse, recycle”, later this week I’ll post a meme originally created on Facebook. Today, though, I’ve got a new one for which I was tagged by that talented dame of hardboiled fiction, Linda L. Richards.

You may possibly be wondering exactly what a “meme” is. In the context of Bloggerville, it’s one of those response-oriented lists that float from tagger to tagger, wherein you list five foods you won’t eat, seventeen most embarrassing moments, seven times you’ve broken the law or three impossible things before breakfast.

You know the kind of thing. Here’s a link to more specific definitions, but their real purpose is to save a busy blogging world a lot of time and let you discover trivia about other people.

So–drum roll, please … What book, movie and television show makes you cry the most?

(And keep in mind that I give good weep. From the “Old Yeller cry” (the horrible cry of loss) to “La Marseillaise cry” (the choked up cry of sentiment, in this case over the singing of the Marseillaise in Casablanca), I cry at, over and for a lot of things.)

Book: I might cry over my own if I get a particularly nasty review. I first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, and Jude the Obscure (all by Thomas Hardy) as a young woman (and re-read them subsequently), and I cried buckets. The sound of my tears used to wake my mother up in the middle of the night. They’re among the most powerful novels in English, and Jude the Obscure, hands-down, is the most gut-wrenchingly devasting book I’ve ever read. Only Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath comes close.

Two more get honorable mentions: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Ayn Rand’s We, the Living. The latter was one of my favorite books, and I used to harbor dreams of making it into a movie (I’m far from being a political disciple of Rand’s, but she was one hell of a writer.)

A special section might be devoted to children’s literature: I cried over the Harry Potter saga as an adult, and as a kid used to wail over Charlotte’s Web.

Movie: The aforementioned Casablanca scene always makes me cry. But It’s A Wonderful Life makes me cry from the opening scene, just in anticipation (voiceovers of various cast members are praying for George Bailey). I avoid sad animal movies entirely. Crying is a catharsis, and if you’ve experienced the loss of a beloved pet, you realize crying doesn’t help. I don’t need an entertainment vehicle to remind me of it.

Television Shows: TV mostly makes me cry in horror–especially the “Queen for a Day” reality programming. Most television–which, when I was growing up, was all network–is presented in bite-size chunks, making it much more difficult to sustain the emotional connection necessary. So I don’t think I’ve cried at TV since the last, farewell episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And for some reason, probably related to why I’m a noir writer, Carol Burnett used to make me teary whenever she dragged out that damn old bucket to play the scrub-woman. I’m sure I would’ve cried at the last episode of MASH, too, but I was rehearsing for a play in college–and the little (#$^@ student director thought that directing meant being a dictator, and forced us to miss the episode. This in the days of no TiVO. I’m still holding a grudge.

Quid pro quo time: I’m tagging Laura Benedict, Jennie Bentley, Rebecca Cantrell, Bill Cameron, and Alex Sokoloff. And Linda, right back atcha. Memes away, guys! 🙂

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A New Noel and the Grand Guignol!

What do Noel Coward, the quintessentially English satirist of upper crust British foibles (and author of theater classics like Private Lives) and a quintessentially French, gruesome, farcical 19th century theater of shocks and horror (as revived by the San Francisco Thrillpeddlers) have in common?

Eddie Muller. Yup, the Czar of Noir is back, out of the Castro Theater and in the Hypnodrome in San Francisco, demonstrating why he is not only an amazing cultural archaeologist, but a contemporary Renaissance Man.

A few weeks ago, Eddie gave me the preamble: The Better Half, a lost one act Noel Coward play had been recently discovered by University of Glamorgan scholar and historian Dr. Richard Hand, along with his colleague, Michael Wilson. Lurking in the files of Britain’s Lord Chamberlain (the official censor of British theater), the 1921 comedy had actually been written as the comedy portion of a Grand Guignol production in London. Eddie was directing the AMERICAN PREMIERE. Yup, folks, not Broadway, not Stratford, not even Off-Off, or Off-Off-Off, but the Hypnodrome in Noir City won the right to re-premiere this lost Noel nugget. The Better Half would be the first half of a night of Grand Guignol, followed by Christopher Holland’s The Old Women; or, A Crime in a Madhouse.

Give the Coward estate kudos: the chance to have the play performed within its original context won the Thrillpeddlers the bragging rights. And Eddie, who has specialized in premieres this year (as those who were lucky enough to see The Grand Inquisitor or The Prowler at a Noir City film festival can testify), took on the challenge.

And–of course–like everything Eddie touches, it came out gold. I was there last night, on the second preview of the show. The set design was nothing short of a miracle–this is a warehouse venue, after all, a tiny DIY theater. And yet the creative use of carved out flats suggested both a 1920s dadaist/deco impression of a well-bred London flat AND (in the second half) a decayed and forbidding (and ecclesiastical) French insane asylum. Programs weren’t printed yet, so I unfortunately can’t credit the phenomenal designer by name … but the design was nothing short of genius.

So, too, was Eddie’s use of it. He moved his cast of three actors around the tight, almost claustrophobic space and made it feel like one of those grand English drawing rooms in a 1930s screwball comedy. Cinematic flourishes and suggestive, flirtatious touches that underlined and perfectly punctuated the dry wit and fast-paced one-liners completely captured the Coward ambiance. The dialog coach Eddie brought in had done a remarkable job with the actors — and even Mr. Muller sounded like a young Ronald Colman.

Eddie’s terrific direction was enhanced by an amazing performance from an actress I hope we hear more from: Alice Louise. The Better Half is a three character comedy, with the figure of Alice, a frustrated wife, functioning as the centerpiece. Much of it flowed like a monologue, and without a truly gifted actress in this part, the play would’ve fallen flat. Alice Louise more than lived up to the tremendous challenges of the tiny venue and constricted stage: she seemed to channel Gertrude Lawrence in the sheer charm and virtuosity of her performance. I saw Judi Dench in Hayfever on the West End a couple of years ago; Alice Louise easily bested most of the actors in that production. She’s an actress to watch.

Some of you may be wondering what Grand Guignol is … the short version is that it was an actual theater in Paris’ Montmartre that specialized in the sensational, emphasis on senses. Lots of horror, and all of it front of you, not off-stage. Eye-gouging, torture scenes, all the stuff you’re now familiar with from Tales of the Crypt. It has exerted tremendous influence on entertainment of every stripe–from comic books to television to film and plays. Think Sweeney Todd or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and you’ll get the idea.

The original plays, however, often contained a large dose of social commentary, and the second half of last night’s double bill was no exception. Directed by Thrillpeddler’s charming and demonically genial host, Russell Blackwood, the production was an extremely well-executed and well-acted (the young actress who portrayed the victim was a real stand-out) tale mixing grotesque, explicit violence with farce and a sharp critique of the Catholic church. While my personal tastes run toward a slightly more restrained approach in both film and live production, the Grand Guignol is something to experience, and everyone should be grateful to the Thrillpeddlers for keeping it alive with such style and verve.

Grand Guignol, after all, can be traced back to classical Greece, where plays featured women who dismembered their sons and men who blinded themselves after incest with their mothers. And the addition of the comedy element can be considered a satyr play, that brief foray into sex and comedy that Athenian playwrights wrote for the end of a long day of tragic fare.

So even if you’re not particularly a fan of the Vault of Horror, troop down to the Hypnodrome on 10th street in San Francisco — for a twenty dollar seat, you’ll get a night of rich entertainment: a scintillating and brilliantly-directed new Noel Coward confection, and a stomach-churning, over-the-top George Romero-style French classic. How can you miss? By the way, a radio interview with Eddie and Dr. Hand will be broadcast on Tuesday on KALW, for those who want to hear more back story.

Next week: Return to noir, with Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives … or, as I call it, Never Date a Suicide

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Of Books and Broads

Old books and old movies. Two passions of my life, and I got a little of both this weekend.

The San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print and Paper Fair was held at the Concourse down on 7th and Brannan this weekend … and in case you think it’s all giant tomes of Vasari or esoteric German philosophers, think again.

These are book collectors, and like book readers, they come in all varieties. Some like cookbooks, some like children’s books, some like art and prints, and some like it noir.

I got to drool over an ARC (advanced reading copy) of Raymond Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. Price? $6,500. Still cheap by comparison to a first edition Harry Potter (one pricey version was something like $40,000 … yeah, those were four zeros).

You can drift down the aisles, peeking at booths offering a first of The Maltese Falcon (complete with gorgeous dust jacket), British editions, paperback editions, obscure editions of books that sound familiar because you know the movie better.

There will be authors you know that are still active and writing, like Robert B. Parker, and authors who invented a world that turned into a multi-billion dollar empire, like Ian Fleming. Thriller writers, traditional mystery writers, noir and hard-boiled pulp writers … to quote Hamlet, words, words words … and all of them choice.

It’s a fantasy for me on a lot of levels. First, as a collector and fan –“Wow, look at that pristine copy of Chandler’s Smart Aleck Kill!” — and secondly, as a writer myself. Because some of the books were written by people I know or have met, and you’re thinking … maybe it’s within my grasp. Maybe, one day, someone will have a first edition of my first book at a book fair, complete with mylar cover.

Y’see, the reason the books are valuable is because these are writers who have achieved major success (and for some, a demi-god status). But when they began, they were like every other debut author with dreams of a career … they had high hopes and low print runs. Consequently, as they wrote more and more books, each one building on the success of the next, those early editions became scarce … because the demand outstripped the supply.

And that’s the author’s dream … to sell as many books as possible, and enough to keep getting published and sustain a career … but to always have more demand. Because that’s what sells the next book … and gets you behind a glass case at an Antiquarian Book Fair.

By the way, I picked up a somewhat tattered first edition copy of The Big Clock by the legendary New Yorker scribe, poet and founder of The Partisan Review, Kenneth Fearing. Noir, of course, published in 1946, “the year Hollywood went dark” (the theme of Noir City 4). Filmed in 1948 with Ray Milland, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan and Rita Johnson, and as No Way Out in 1987.

Chandler said this about the book:
I’m still a bit puzzled as to why no one has come forward to make me look like thirty cents. But except for an occasional tour-de-force like The Big Clock, no one has.

I can’t wait to read it … look for the review here. Oh, and the price? I got lucky. I found a booth with a sale, and paid … ten dollars. Yet another reason to go to book fairs!

So where do the broads of my title come in? With the noir I watched this weekend, after my inspirational purchase. Jeopardy (1953) , starring Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and a Ralph Meeker as an escaped convict with Stanley Kowalski overtones.

I’ve always figured “broad” to be a rather complimentary term, implying a mutual (and sometimes begrudging) respect … almost a buddy, if she weren’t a dame.

At least that’s how it always sounds to me when Sinatra sings it, and when you hear it applied to Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck — two of the archetypal broads of Hollywood. And in this taut, suspenseful 68 minute film by John Sturges, Stanwyck doesn’t disappoint.

It’s an odd little number. Shown by Noir City this year, I missed it (fell on a weekday), so watched it on the small screen. Barry is a typically bigoted, patronizing and sexist husband of early ’50s film. But that’s only on the surface.

After establishing the attitude early on that Barbara is hopeless, helpless, and that the only family member he really can depend upon to get things right is his seven year old son — because he is, after all, a male (and even a child male is more capable than an adult female) — he gets his foot trapped underneath a fallen pier post, and is in imminent danger of drowning unless his “hysterical” wife can drive for help.

Now, Barbara Stanwyck could play almost anything … except helpless. So the casting belied his attitude, even for the ’50s. Next, up steps Ralph Meeker, murderer and escaped convict, who–unlike her husband–treats her physically rough, but with an appreciation for her strength and toughness. Things happen from there, and the ending is atypical and a little unexpected.

Throw in Mexico, thought of as America’s exotic and mysterious neighbor at the time, and location of many a great noir (Out of the Past, Touch of Evil), and you have a fascinating little film. The tagline was “She did it … because her fear was greater than her shame!”

Watch it … and see if you think that’s what really happened.

Next up: always more noir. I’ll be in Seattle for Valentine’s Day, and will try to blog from the home of the best coffee (and, incidentally, my home state).

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One More for the Road …

Noir City 6, to contradict good ol’ T.S., who was something of a noir poet himself, ended not with a whimper, but a bang.

Kids, anytime Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino show up in 35 mm, it’s the Big Bang.

Widmark — the man who patented the giggling yet somehow charismatically cute psychopath — is still with us, at 92. We lost Ida in the ’90s. Thank God for film.

A couple of years back, I saw the creamiest print of Night and the City you can imagine, out at the warm and wonderful Balboa Theater during Noir City 3. The print had only been shown twice before, to some VIP in the Greek government. Don’t ask me to recount Eddie’s story, it was a midnight showing.

Anyway, the film made an indelible imprint on my brain cells, going down in my little noir book as a favorite. So this year … as tempting as it was … I skipped it, because, yes, I am a working girl and it was a Sunday.

No primer in why noir is the most satisfyingly entertaining, visually rich and just plain gutsiest film genre around is complete without Night and the City, so do yourself a favor, chum … rent the DVD if you can’t see it on the big screen. This is Greek tragedy, Noir City style, and Richard Widmark’s swan song for the genre. He goes out but good.

So I did make it to the Castro for Roadhouse, throwing deadlines to the wind for the sake of Ida Lupino, Widmark, and Cornel Wilde. God, were they worth it.

Roadhouse (a Fox gem from 1950) showcases why Ida Lupino was one of the most talented, hard-boiled, toughly glamorous, vulnerable, and seductive actresses around. That voice, full of cigarette smoke and too many late nights, empty Scotch bottles and second-class train tickets. That face, filled with the pain of life, but still hoping to find something worthwhile to live for. She epitomizes and idealizes the dame that’s as hard as nails and as soft as silk … for the right guy.

Widmark was great, of course, as the jealous, spoiled owner of Jefty’s Roadhouse, a juke joint with a bowling alley attached, the hot spot of a rural community somewhere near the Canadian border. But as much fun as it was watching Widmark tick and waiting for him to explode, Ida walked off with the movie.

She plays the piano. Really. And she sings, including one of my all-time favorites, “One for the Road.” And after she croaks out the last line about that “long, long road,” you will echo Celeste Holme’s amazed and admiring line: “She does the most with no voice than anyone I’ve ever seen!”

Of course, noir denizens recognize Ida for her directing talents (The Hitchhiker) in addition to her unforgettable roles. But Roadhouse shows why this lady — and Gloria Grahame — remain enshrined as the holy women of Noir City.

Cornel and Celeste were excellent, too. I can’t wait to get this baby on DVD.

So another year, another January, another Noir City. I realized this year that I mark my life by this festival … it was three years ago, during a Noir City, that I realized the direction I wanted to take for the novel I was writing. It was just last year, during Noir City, that I received word of my publication for the same novel.

We’re entwined now, like scotch and soda, or Bogart and trench coats, or dark, rainy streets flooded with neon. Next year, another passport, another festival. With Noir City, I will always take one more for the road.

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Masks and Voices at Noir City 6

Saturday at Noir City showcased what the program describes as “Noir Head Trips” … and they were right. Both movies played with your mind; one played with your heart.

Both also stretched the chronological boundaries many purists insist upon: The 3rd Voice, the first feature, dated from 1960, and the second film, Face Behind the Mask, from 1941 (same year as The Maltese Falcon).

And this reminds me … if you ever get a chance to attend Noir City (San Francisco, Castro Theater) … try next year, 7 is a lucky number … you should go to the evening shows whenever possible, because the Czar of Noir (Eddie Muller) always has a scintillating story or two up his sleeve, and often brings remarkable people to the microphone.

At 7:30, before the evening showing of The 3rd Voice, he brought Foster Hirsch. This seminal and perceptive film critic and professor was charming and enthusiastic in discussing the director of the feature, the very talented Hubert Cornfield, a contemporary of Stanley Kubrick.

The late Mr. Cornfield felt unappreciated by audiences, unappreciated by critics, unappreciated by actors, unappreciated by everyone, really, except other people’s wives … a tidbit shared by Eddie that had emerged during a Cornfield on-stage discussion at L.A.’s lite version of Noir City. Even at an advanced age, and with the ravages of throat cancer, Hubert had been, in Eddie’s words, “the horniest man I’d ever met.”

This is what you miss when you go for the matinée.

So what about The 3rd Voice? Well, it offers noir stalwart Edmond O’Brien in a brash and hammy performance, Julie London (who should have insisted on separate billing for her cleavage), and a deliciously dark and complex turn by none other than good girl Laraine Day as the femme fatale. Laraine, in my mind, stole the show. Playing a long-time mistress and business partner spurned for a younger woman, she delivers a knock-out line early on: “If you can replace me … I can replace you.”

Let that — and the fact that O’Brien’s real-life wife, Olga San Juan (called the “Puerto Rican Pepper Pot”) plays a prostitute — be your enticements (along with Julie London or O’Brien’s naked feet, depending on your preferences.)

The next film in tonight’s mix was one of the best in Noir City 6, and, to me, even out-bleaks Night and the City for the most gut-wrenchingly depressing noir of all. It was directed by Robert Florey, who also gave us The Crooked Way (1949).

Face Behind the Mask stars Peter Lorre (always a stylized actor, but never better than here) as an optimistic, innocent immigrant from Eastern Europe, a watchmaker who wants nothing more than a chance to work.

Things go down hill from there. After suffering third degree burns in a hotel fire (because some schmuck was cooking in his room), his face is disfigured. “Good” society spurns him. No matter how skilled his hands, no one will give him a job. Until, at the point of suicide, he meets Dinky, a small-time crook more opportunistic than crooked, and the only person to see the man behind the mask of melted skin.

To survive, Lorre’s watchmaker drifts into criminal activities. He meets a beautiful blind girl (the radiant and superb Evelyn Keyes) who also “sees” the real man. And yes … things go down hill from there.

I missed Eddie’s remarks for this movie (not following my own advice), but recognized the socio-cultural and political agenda. This is a film that scathingly indicts the “American Dream” in as unforgettable a fashion as The Prowler or Force of Evil, but because it lacks the formalism of the latter films — and because of Lorre’s sympathetic and poignant portrayal — it reads as a devastatingly sad and bitter movie. The screenplay was written by the blacklisted writer Paul Jarrico, the man who would later give us Salt of the Earth.

This is a real rarity, not available on DVD, but if you can ever catch it … get out a hanky and watch. I wasn’t the only one in the theater with watery eyes.

Next up: Noir City ends with a bang — that would be the inimitable Ida Lupino — in Roadhouse, and Richard Widmark’s best role … Harry Fabian in Night and the City.

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