Mar 262014
 

You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman (2014). You know you’re getting a true inside Hollywood perspective when your guide ends an appreciation of the home owned by longtime friend Harold Lloyd by remarking “I shot episodes of Switch and Hart to Hart there.”

Robert Wagner has lived in Los Angeles for 75 years. His new book (co-written with Eyman, whose biography of John Wayne is out next week) represents an attempt “to document a way of life that has vanished as surely as birch bark canoes. And I want to do this before the colors fade.” The colors aren’t fading for Wagner yet; he can still recall what he paid for his cocktails at a host of now-shuttered Tinseltown night spots, including an exorbitant dollar fifty for a French 75 at the Trocadero, and conjures up his first meeting with Judy Garland, singing at a party at Clifton Webb’s house, with immediacy.

Wagner keeps the book light but also laments the press’s current adversarial relationship with their celebrity subjects and how, with the emphasis on the bottom line, “the movie business has been converted from a long game to a short game.” But there’s little room for grousing when there are parties to attend and polo matches to play. The names from a bygone era he casually reels off – Chasen’s, Ciro’s, the Brown Derby – are still, for some of us, an incantation charged with magic, and Wagner knows how to cast the spell. He has a gentleman’s eye for refinement and strikes an effortlessly rueful tone, a pleasing combination. The book is like uncorking a bottle of wine and having one of TV’s most debonair presences regale you with stories.

Sorcerer (1977). Director William Friedkin’s adaptation of the novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had the misfortune to open a few weeks after Star Wars and never recouped its budget. It fared no better critically at first, but its reputation improved over the decades; I know plenty of people who prefer it to the Clouzot film. This change of fortune came about in spite of the fact that for years Sorcerer was essentially out of circulation, with no decent print available.

Thanks largely to legal action by Friedkin against the studios involved, the situation has improved. A 4K digital restoration of Sorcerer is in limited release prior to its Blu-Ray debut. Seeing the film on the big screen confirms that Friedkin’s take on the tale of four outcasts forced to ferry volatile explosives overland is one of the most intense films ever made, with the justly-celebrated rope bridge sequence easily a masterpiece of action. It’s almost unfair to compare Sorcerer to Wages as the two are so different, but if pressed I’d give the nod to Wages – with the proviso that Sorcerer has a much, much better ending.

Stranger by the Lake (U.S. 2014). Henceforth, whenever I’m asked to provide an example of Aristotle’s unity of time, place and action – it happens more than you think – I’m pointing to this film, which won the Un Certain Regard directing prize for Alain Guiraudie at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Unless my interlocutor objects to repeated shots of the male orgasm, in which case we’re going to have a problem. Every scene unfolds along an isolated stretch of beach where gay men come to cruise. Franck (César award winner Pierre Deladonchamps) is drawn to the spoken-for Michel, lingering to watch him – and witnessing him murdering his lover. But knowing Michel’s secret only heightens the attraction. Guiraudie turns the limited locations into an advantage, using the arrangement of parked cars not only to convey exposition but heighten suspense. Highsmith meets Camus with copious male nudity in a thriller that mesmerizes down to the calculatedly oblique ending. Here’s the trailer.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Jan 062014
 

It’s a side effect of being obsessed with show business. Every time I meet someone who shares the same last name as somebody famous, I think, “Maybe they’re related!” Just a way to make my humdrum life more exciting. It never turns out to be true.

Until my first day in the video game business. I was introduced to the project’s lead designer Jim Youngman and thought, “Maybe he’s the grandson of Henny Youngman, the legendary comedian! The King of the One Liners! The featured attraction at the end of that spectacular tracking shot through the Copacabana in Goodfellas!” Not that I asked him about it. I knew how ridiculous the idea was.

But over the next few weeks, Jim would say things that kept me wondering. The clincher was when he mentioned that his father had edited The Horror of Party Beach, which had turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I did some research and came to our next meeting flabbergasted. “You are Henny Youngman’s grandson!”

Jim happily acknowledged the connection. “Not a lot of people my age know Henny,” he said. But Jim and his father Gary, an accomplished editor and documentarian, are trying to change that.

They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish a documentary about one of the all-time great comics. Take My Life ... Please! features classic Henny Youngman performances, new interviews with contemporaries like Milton Berle, Jan Murray and Stiller & Meara, and exclusive footage of Henny shot late in the comedian’s life. I’m backing it. So is Mark Evanier, your one-stop shop for all things showbiz. And so should you.
 Posted by at 8:24 pm
Dec 232013
 

A tasty trio of stocking stuffers for your holiday week …

First, an update on the unveilings at last week’s Noir City Xmas in San Francisco. The poster for Noir City 12 was released, and this year the crown of Miss Noir City rests on the lovely head of burlesque artiste extraordinaire and friend of the festival Evie Lovelle. Feast your eyes on this stunner inspired by Will Eisner’s The Spirit.



Also announced: the full program for the next festival, running from January 24 to February 2, 2014 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. I’m happy this particular feline has escaped its conveyance; I’ve known about the roster for a while, and couldn’t wait for the wildly ambitious line-up assembled by Film Noir Foundation honcho Eddie Muller to become public knowledge. The centerpiece is the world premiere of the restored 35mm print of Too Late For Tears, one of the truly unsung examples of the form getting the treatment it richly deserves.

This year’s festival is global in scope. The usual complement of classic noir films will be joined by movies from the same era made around the world. Japan, France, Mexico, and other countries will be represented; noir may be an American innovation, but its message travels well. Also on hand will be suitably multicultural music acts and libations; yours truly made a small contribution on that latter front. I’ll be in San Francisco for opening weekend, and at the roadshow version of the fest that hits Seattle a few weeks later.

Second, my lovely wife and writing partner Rosemarie has been keeping herself busy. She’s not averse to verse, having penned this week’s offering at The 5-2, your home for crime poetry. Her tale of Noël nefariousness is called “Holiday Hours.” Read it here.

Third, the missus makes her debut in print this month as well. Silver Birch Press published the Noir Erasure Poetry Anthology, a collection of poems based on the work of hardboiled masters including Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Rosemarie’s contribution, “My Lovely,” is taken from Raymond Chandler. Buy the book here.

Let’s see, I promoted the work of my favorite non-profit and my better half. Have I done anything lately? Well, I wrote a book. You could always buy that.
 Posted by at 7:48 pm
Oct 282013
 

Nothing beats Google stealing your thunder. If you’ve seen today’s doodle –


– then you already know that Edith Head was born 116 years ago. And if you’re a regular reader, you already know why Hollywood’s best-known costume designer is so significant here at Chez K. Rosemarie and I have assembled quite the bounty of material on Edie’s life and work, including her original design notes for the character played by actress Pat Crowley in the Martin & Lewis film Hollywood or Bust. Faded fabric swatches are still attached to the pages.

The gorgeous doodle by Sophie Diao spotlighting half a dozen Edith costumes (among them Kim Novak’s iconic suit from Vertigo) is generating plenty of interest in Edith’s work. Turner Classic Movies is running a day-long salute that focuses on her late-career films at Universal. Already this morning I’ve been at a Google hangout featuring Ms. Diao and Susan Claassen, who performs a one-woman show about Edith.

Edith’s greatest costume was the one she created for herself, the public persona of “Edith Head” that afforded her visibility and career longevity. What better way to celebrate her trailblazing legacy than by seeing her in action? Here she is with Groucho Marx on an episode of You Bet Your Life.

So raise a glass to Edith Head, a one of a kind personality who in no way was off the rack. Maybe something with Fernet Branca; as Edith herself said, it’s “guaranteed to save your life on the day you want to kill yourself.” Happy birthday, Edith!

 Posted by at 6:22 pm
Oct 142013
 

Right. Thank you all for coming. Does everyone have his or her agenda? A short one today, so let’s get to it ...

1. I have been remiss in not pointing out that applications are now being accepted for the 2014 William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grant for Unpublished Writers. The prize is given by the organizers of the Malice Domestic conference to aspiring authors of the traditional mystery novel. Rosemarie and I were honored to be 2013 recipients for our book Design for Dying: An Edith Head Mystery. Winning the grant, which includes a $1,500 cash award for conferences or workshops and complimentary registration and board at Malice, has opened countless doors for us. We can’t speak highly enough of this program. You have until November 15 to throw your deerstalker into the ring.

2. After careful consideration, or at least a weekend’s thought, I have decided to turn off comments on the blog.

Why? Because they’re getting in the way of the science, obviously; no legitimate funding agencies will bankroll my research. But I’ll show them! I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!

Also, the ratio of spam comments to real ones has swollen out of proportion. Even moderating them has become several steps too many.

I may revisit the decision. At present my only option for disabling comments regrettably means hiding all previously published ones. I’m trying to find a workaround. In the meantime, if you have any questions or complaints there’s always email or you can yell at me on Twitter.

3. My book is still for sale at Amazon. Two weeks in and Down the Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore is holding its own on the Kindle bestseller list. Buy yourself a copy before you have to start planning those holiday parties.
 Posted by at 5:42 pm
Oct 222012
 

If you drink cocktails in Seattle, you know Murray Stenson. Murray has tended this city’s bars for thirty-plus years, spending over a decade behind the stick at Il Bistro, another ten years at the landmark Zig Zag Café, and lately working at Canon. He’s almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the classic cocktail movement to this part of the world, and countless Pacific Northwest bartenders have learned from and been inspired by him. Even if you’ve never set foot here, you may have felt Murray’s influence. He rediscovered the Last Word, which now appears on menus around the globe and was dubbed “the Official Drink of the Classic Cocktail Renaissance” by the Washington Post’s Jason Wilson.

Murray is not just a crafter of perfect cocktails. More importantly, he is a master of hospitality. Wherever he’s working, you can count on finding a convivial atmosphere in addition to splendid drinks. His peers paid him the highest compliment at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, where he was named “Best Bartender in America.” Look him up and you’ll find the same two words used to describe him: beloved and legendary.

Much of what little I know about cocktails I’ve learned from Murray. I’m also proud to say that over those years he’s become a friend. Murray’s a serious film buff and a crime fiction fan; I still remember my amazement when he asked me one day, “Ever hear of a writer named Jim Crumley?,” then revealed that the author of The Last Good Kiss would regularly drive in from Montana and do his drinking at Il Bistro.

And now, Murray needs our help.

He was recently diagnosed with a heart ailment that may require surgery. Worse, he is currently unable to work, meaning he can’t do what he was put here to do, make outstanding drinks and strangers feel welcome. Like many an accomplished tradesman, he doesn’t have health insurance.

One of Murray’s longtime friends has set up MurrayAid, where you can make donations to help defray his medical expenses. The Zig Zag Café will be hosting a benefit for Murray on Sunday, November 4 from 5pm to close, where you can literally drink to Murray’s health. Other events will be announced in the coming weeks. I’ll be at as many as possible.

Over at the Cocktail Chronicles, Paul Clarke writes a lovely tribute to Murray. If Murray has ever poured you a cocktail, give a few dollars. If you’ve ever found a home away from home at a cocktail bar, chip in as well. Help out a good man in need.

 Posted by at 12:13 am
Oct 092012
 

Buy this album. This one right here, Made Possible by The Bad Plus. Listen to it regularly. It’s one brilliant song after another. Then see them live at your earliest opportunity. You can thank me later.

Here’s a plot: hard-working family man Wade Benson falls asleep at the wheel one night and accidentally kills a young woman. He’s sentenced to several years’ probation, but must serve two days of each of those years in jail. A friend of the victim’s family feels Wade hasn’t suffered enough for his crime and picks one of those days to kidnap Wade’s college-age daughter.

Odds are you’re picturing a white-knuckle ride about a decent individual desperate to atone for a horrible mistake, pitted against a hardened criminal. Perfect airplane reading. That’s not Lake Country. Sean Doolittle, a cagey writer who sidles up on his narratives, has something more interesting in mind. After a brief introduction putative villain Darryl Potter, back from Iraq and battling a host of post-war demons, disappears until the halfway point. We never even meet Wade Benson, an authorial decision that practically renders the book experimental. Instead Doolittle adopts an outside-in approach, letting characters on the periphery work their way to the center of the drama. A TV reporter having second thoughts about her career. A bounty hunter who has mastered his own form of destructive Zen. And Darryl’s only friend Mike, a fellow veteran who “came home from the Marine Corps with a plastic knee, 63 percent hearing loss in his left ear, and a bunch of grisly sludge where his nighttime dreams used to be.” The result is a portrait of a Minnesota community and a subtle, moving thriller about the unexpected repercussions of tragedy.

Leo Waterman is back after a too-lengthy hiatus in G. M. Ford’s Thicker Than Water. The irascible shamus has finally cashed in the trust fund his deeply crooked politico old man left him. He’s still got the boys – the motley assortment of indigent misfits who work as his “operatives” – to spend his newfound gain on, but he’s lost Rebecca, the woman he loves, to another man. When Rebecca vanishes without a trace, Leo slips out of semi-retirement and back onto the mean streets of the Pacific Northwest. Thicker Than Water is a solid old-school detective novel shot through with Leo’s trademark grumpy humor and rich Seattle atmosphere. I may be biased because Rosemarie’s workplace and several watering holes I frequent are name-checked, but nobody captures the spirit of my adopted hometown like Ford.
 Posted by at 6:56 pm
Aug 222012
 

What Things Would You Pick?

1. You are neither as cool as you seemed in sixth or eleventh grade nor the klutzy nerd you seemed in eighth or tenth. So don't get a big head, but don't hang it either.

2. Boys "things" don't fall off if you don't have sex with them. They are not in mortal pain either.

3. Girls can be good at math--if they pay attention. Don't listen to those male math teachers. You will be the star in your math class in college at age 48. Sadly, it was the math you should have learned at age 14.

4. Spend more time with your parents. The kids you are with at 16 will disappear from your life forever.

5. Don't smoke. It is not as easy as you might think to quit.
Aug 162012
 

Listen to me. In your life you’re going to have a lot of successes and you’re going to have some failures. You’re going to have wonderful things happen to you and a couple of disasters. It’s gonna go up and down. But you know what? First, you’ve got to be a gent.

Producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli in MY LIFE AS A MANKIEWICZ, by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane

 Posted by at 6:03 pm
Jul 102012
 

Chose cinema over potatoes. I found myself watching the women’s clothes, drinking in their texture, appreciating every bite the actors put in their mouths. When one of the characters (because of some imbecility of plot) wore old clothes and pretended to be poor, I was furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal. Now I really understand why the Italian poor detest De Sica and neorealist films, and why shopgirls like heiresses and read every line in gossip columns. I mean, I understand it, and not just intellectually.

- March 1952 diary entry by author Mavis Gallant, Madrid, Spain. From the July 9 & 16, 2012 issue of the New Yorker.

 Posted by at 6:55 pm

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