This long-awaited sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS is a deeply felt, personal book, and it deals with themes that have haunted me for a long time. Themes of man’s inhumanity to man, themes that unfortunately still exist and are as relevant today as they were more than seventy years ago.
Miranda Corbie—my hardboiled, broken idealist of a protagonist—is hired by a surprise client to investigate the murder of Pandora Blake, a girl she barely knew but who, like all the girls who worked Treasure Island’s Gayway in flesh shows, was a soul she’d sworn to protect.
Pandora was a girl with stars in her eyes, dreaming of her name on a Hollywood Marquee. Like many pretty girls—in 1940 and 2011—those dreams crashed against reality. She found herself working as a nude model at the World’s Fair, object of desire for the daily stream of men who paid 25 cents a piece to snap her photo.
On May 25th, opening day of the 1940 World’s Fair, she’s found nude on the stage she worked on, stabbed to death … a filthy, anti-Semitic epithet scrawled in blood on her white skin.
CITY OF SECRETS exposes American anti-Semitism on many levels, from a domestic terror group that plotted to kill Jews in New York to the clubs and housing developments that denied them entry in San Francisco. It, and all other forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and intolerance, are the supreme tragedy of human existence.
I hope you find the story fast-paced and thrilling, of course, that you keep turning the pages and step side-by-side with Miranda on her harrowing journey through a familiar yet unfamiliar City by the Bay. But I also hopeCITY OF SECRETS helps you renew your commitment to a future where anti-Semitism and bigotry are truly relics of the distant past.
I know San Francisco is supposed to be perennially shrouded in fog–and we do get quite a bit of the atmospheric pea soup variety–but sometimes it’s just plain mild and sunny, even in December. Those are the days when you remember you’re in California. 🙂
During the holidays, there’s an ice rink in Union Square, smack dab in the middle of the downtown shopping district … right next to lit palm trees. And cable cars and the vintage streetcars that travel down Market are decked out in wreathes and garland … and the rotating star at the top of the Sir Francis Drake is just a little extra bright. I had occasion to go downtown on Saturday–a visit to Melissa at Secret Agent Salon, the most fabulous stylist and team in the Bay Area–and thought I’d share some photos of what San Francisco is like during the holiday season. Chinatown, as you can see, was thronged with shoppers, bargain-hunting in the small stores that line Grant and California. Gold garlands added a festive touch to the always festive lantern street lights, while banners and lanterns make every day a holiday when you shop in Chinatown. Still … atmosphere reins. The Li Po bar, like most of its brethren, opens early and closes late. And Sam Wo–one of my favorite places to eat, with its no-frills set-up, huge and delicious portions, cheap prices and dumbwaiter to deliver the food upstairs–is always quintessential Chinatown, as downscale as the Empress of China is upscale. (BTW, the Empress had a delicious drink of the same name, with Midori liqueur. Tell ’em I sent you. 😉 ). Not too many blocks away is Union Square, Christmas Tree and the Menorah keeping company with the Dewey Monument (the column), and the famous heart painted by Tony Bennett for our Hearts of San Francisco city-wide fund-raising exhibit a few years ago. I was in Union Square for the ceremony when this particular heart was dedicated … and had a chance to both hear Mr. Bennett croon a few notes of you-know-what song, and actually got to thank him for the years of artistry and enjoyment he’s given me and millions of other fans around the globe. Tony may have been born in New York, but he’s a San Franciscan, through and through. 🙂 Later in the evening–the sun sets early this time of year, particularly in the downtown canyons–I had a chance to eat at John’s Grill, another favorite restaurant, and celebrated home of The Maltese Falcon. I indulged in a Bloody Brigid–their signature drink, named after Hammett’s femme fatale, of course–and a Jack LaLanne Salad. I grew up with “The Godfather of Fitness”, and he’s still in good shape–and recently celebrated his 95th birthday at John’s. John’s–which is next to one of my favorite buildings in the city, the stately Flood Building, where Hammett worked as a Pinkerton (I worked in it during one summer, decidedly not as a Pinkerton)–has a cameo in CITY OF DRAGONS. A more prominent role in the book is played by the Pickwick Hotel, which dominates the corner of Mission and 5th, directly across the street from the Old Mint. The Pickwick is mentioned in The Maltese Falcon, and my own history with it goes back to a fondly-remembered 8th grade trip. 🙂
Market Street is busy this time of year … it boasts lighted snow flakes on every corner, and street musicians share the street with the homeless. San Francisco’s not a perfect city, and it can be a mean and dangerous place … even more so than in 1940. But there is something about the place we call The City that is timeless, that transcends its politics, its Mayors, its debauchery and its decadence.
She’s a grand old dame … and a profound inspiration. I’m lucky to be able to spend the holidays with her! 🙂 May you and yours have a joyous and festive season … and thanks for reading Writing in the Dark! Noir City is just around the corner …
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!
Last night would’ve made Jeannette MacDonald (and Clark Gable) proud. It would even have made pious priest Spencer Tracy (Father Mullin to you) unloosen his collar a bit.
If those cast members don’t ring your bells, you’ve missed a sentimental favorite of San Franciscans everywhere: the 1936 MGM melodrama San Francisco, which features a very scary (and surprisingly authentic-feeling) earthquake scene. It’s the movie that gave us our rousing anthem of a city song, “San Francisco” (the one that signals the show is about to start, when played by one of the Castro Theater’s incredible pipe organists). It’s all about the good ol’ bad ol’ days of the really swingin’ Barbary Coast, which made the Condor Room and the strip joints of later years seem like Pollyanna’s tame uncle Milton. It’s not noir, but baby–it’s San Francisco.
So why would they be proud, you ask? Because on another rainy, miserable, dark and stormy night (the only kind of weather that reflects the emotions on the screen), San Franciscans packed the Castro Theater for another night of Noir City: San Francisco Noir.
Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir with the heart of gold, and uber-talented writer/director of The Grand Inquisitor, introduced the films of the evening, which led off with one of the most deliriously delicious B-noirs of the late ’40s, D.O.A. He also announced some fabulous news for noirheads and film lovers everywhere: Noir City and the San Francisco International Film Festival will be teaming up to host a holiday of international noir. Can you say merci?
Graham Leggat, the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, was on stage with Eddie to discuss the deal. While details are yet to be determined, think about what great noirs may be in the offering … Rififi. Ossessione. Harikomi. Makes you want to learn how to say, “Build my gallows high, baby” in multiple languages, doesn’t it? (that last line is from Out of the Past, not only a SF noir, but also one of the best).
This terrific news was accompanied by a grim reminder of why the Film Noir Foundation exists.D.O.A. had to be shown on (suck in your gut, this hurts) DVD. Why? Because the only good 35 mm copy exists in the hands of some schmuck collector who would rather hoard it and see it rot than loan or rent it (for market prices) to a non-profit that could SAVE it. The only 16 mm print is in tatters. Such is the price of having classics in the “public domain.”
When it comes to film preservation, there is no “public domain”, really–there are only good collectors and bad collectors, and unfortunately, we were dealing with the latter.
But hey–The Prowler has bee restored, so maybe something can be done for D.O.A eventually. The case of these two films alone should prove why you need to contribute to the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit behind Noir City. Ticket money directly funds film preservation. It saved a Josephy Losey classic and the best film made by Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes from destruction … and believe me, DVD is nice, but it isn’t the same as film, especially when the film is too fragile to even digitalize.
And what about D.O.A.? It’s a terrific noir premise … man in bebop bar (San Franciscans loved their jazz, even in ’49 B movies) gets poisoned with a radioactive substance (which for some reason the film shrinks from naming, other than “luminous toxin”), wakes up with one hell of a hangover, finds out he’s going to die in one day or two weeks at the most, and spends the rest of the movie in LA tracking down the killer.
Incredible shots of the Bradbury building in LA (and a drugstore, complete with soda fountain–would that those were still around) … evocative scenes in San Francisco, especially with sweaty suburban everyguy Edmond O’Brien hoofing it down Market Street (and in one clip, you can see the old Key System train crossing the bottom level of the Bay Bridge) . There’s also Neville Brand’s over-the -top-of-Mt. Everest imitation of a Richard Widmark psycho-thug, and Luther Adler as Majak, who sounds like he should be related to Spock, but is really a suave but sinister Middle Eastern “businessman.”
Some very odd musical sound effects of comic wolf-whistles … a music score by Dimitri Tiomkin that makes Max Steiner sound like Philip Glass … and unintentionally funny dialog (when he sees his girlfriend for what he knows will be the final time, he asks “Is that a new outfit”?–must have been straight out of the manual on How to Talk to a Woman, copyright by Father Knows Best). All in all, a fun-filled B movie with more laughs than chills, but hey–laughter is chicken soup for the noir soul. I’ve seen it before (on a small screen), and it was most definitely worth seeing again.
If you want me to put on the film critic hat, I’ll say this: B movies are more revelatory of the times than their more respectable brethren. D.O.A. dates from ’49, released in 1950, the height of the witchhunts and hysteria that sent people to jail for believing in the Constitution. The film not only contains patronizingly sexist dialog (part of the post-war effort to retrain women out of the job market), but it also encapsulates the sense of hysteria, paranoia, xenophobia, and the “unknown danger within” mentality more obviously seen in such films as I Married a Communist (also known as The Woman on Pier 13.)
There are more reasons to see noir than the obvious ones … so don’t overlook D.O.A. Last night’s viewing was particularly enjoyable because the daughter of leading lady Pamela Britton, a fine actress of great appeal, was in the audience.
Alas, this intrepid noir writer could not stay for the second feature, despite the great temptation of a woman’s prison movie starring Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister (yup, Baby Rose!). I’ll have to find The Story of Molly X outside Noir City limits.
I left my heart in San Francisco, but I left my no-doze at home …
Next time: Bogie and Charles Laughton, on the final Friday of Noir City 6!