Last month, spirits writer Eric Felten raised an intriguing question – with all the inventiveness of the modern cocktail renaissance, how come there are no new classics? – ruffling a few feathers in the process. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I offer a kinda-sorta rebuttal, taking issue with elements of Mr. Felten’s argument and suggesting what I think are a trio of worthy nominees for the pantheon. Check it out, and while you’re there read the rest of this week’s issue, brimming over with Valentine’s Day goodness.
Rosemarie and I are already hard at work on the second book in the classic Hollywood mystery series featuring Edith Head we’re writing under the name Renee Patrick. (Design for Dying, book number one, comes out from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. People are camping out already! Not for our book. They’re just, you know, camping out.) The time had come, we’d decided, for some field research. Say a trip to Los Angeles, followed by a jaunt up the coast for the opening weekend of the thirteenth Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco.
It’s a time-honored Hollywood tradition: if your journey begins with the sighting of a star, then fortune will smile upon you. We sit down for our first breakfast and who should be at the next table but Commander Adama himself, Academy Award nominee Edward James Olmos. (Who am I kidding? He’ll always be Lieutenant Castillo to me.) Already we were in clover.
Hollywood Costume runs through March 2, which roughly coincides with the closing date of Light & Noir: Exiles and Émigrés in Hollywood, 1933-1950 at the Skirball Cultural Center. This exhibition focuses on the role of filmmakers who fled Nazi Germany in the production of the glittering comedies and dark dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood. More costumes are included in this show, which also merits a visit.
|Paramount's Bronson Gate|
Some time at Noir City San Francisco was mandatory, given the Seattle iteration of the festival is on hiatus pending a move to the Cinerama. This year’s theme is marriage, with your humble correspondent penning the companion article in the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine. Rosemarie and I christened the opening weekend at Trick Dog, recently named one of the fifty best bars in the world – love that Chinese menu; try the #2 – then strolled to the Castro for the premiere of a new 35mm restoration of an old favorite. In 1950’s Woman on the Run, Ann Sheridan’s estranged husband witnesses a mob killing and goes on the lam. When slick newspaperman Dennis O’Keefe encourages her to track her wayward spouse down, Ann discovers new facets to her old man and falls for him all over again. Shot in San Francisco, the movie played like gangbusters to a capacity crowd, with master of ceremonies Eddie Muller cagily adding a then-and-now featurette spotlighting the locations.
|This is the the jacket we saw. Up close.|
The experience left me wanting Fontaine at her best, and one of my rules is never pass up Hitchcock on the big screen, so that meant a Saturday matinee of her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion (1941). We skipped Joan in the sturdy 1953 issue film The Bigamist – a boy’s gotta eat – and returned to the Castro for a signing of the Noir City 2014 Annual, featuring work by yours truly, FNF honcho Muller, our Los Angeles sightseeing companion Christa Faust, Duane Swierczynski, Wallace Stroby, Jake Hinkson and plenty more. Look for it at Amazon soon. Joanie was back and at her bitchy best in the find of the festival: 1947’s Ivy, an Edwardian chiller with Fontaine as a fortune hunter with a husband, a lover, and her eyes on an even bigger prize. She’s in her element here, Ivy’s discreet villainy perfectly tailored to her sensibilities. More Edwardian noir followed with Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect (1944), an elegant and heartbreaking gloss on the infamous Dr. Crippen case boasting a magnificent Charles Laughton performance.
|Christa Faust, ace designer Michael Kronenberg, yours truly, and Edwardian gent Eddie Muller at the Castro book signing|
Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.
The winter 2015 issue of Noir City, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, is out now. Let me warn you in advance: I am all over this bad boy.
Firstly, I’m responsible for the cover story, a long-overdue reappraisal of the films of Alan Rudolph. That striking image is drawn from Rudolph’s Remember My Name, a reimagining of the classic “women’s films” of the 1940s that is one of the most neglected movies of the 1970s. It’s now in the nascent stages of a renaissance thanks to a recent screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Geraldine Chaplin’s performance receiving the accolades it deserves. Rudolph’s signature contribution to noir is the one-of-a-kind riff on the form Trouble in Mind, filmed in Seattle and celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015. But noir is a thread that runs through much of Rudolph’s filmography:
Rudolph relentlessly toys with the form, combining its component parts to tell idiosyncratically fanciful, open-hearted stories. “Fanciful” and “open-hearted” aren’t words customarily associated with noir, and therein lies Rudolph’s singular talent. The French, as they so often do, have a word for it: gleaning, the practice of picking over a field that has been harvested and finding enough viable material to survive. Alan Rudolph is an unparalleled gleaner of film noir, digging into terrain often dismissed as played out and discovering fertile pockets, appropriating images, techniques and moods for his own purposes.
Accompanying the survey of Alan Rudolph’s films is a wide-ranging interview with the man himself. Rumors abound that this interview was arranged when a Noir City correspondent gatecrashed an academic conference while wearing a lanyard from an unrelated event so he could brace Mr. Rudolph; I will not dignify those scurrilous tales with a response. The interview was conducted via email, Rudolph using my questions as a jumping-off point to construct something off-kilter, insightful and uniquely his own –
When people say a certain movie is real they mean it’s told as if real. It’s still a representation, a dream. I see no singular defined reality in the entire film experience. On either side of the screen. Film is its own reality, a living thing. Whether you’re the director or in the audience of a dark palace, your personal experience is the reality of that film. A film doesn’t exist if no one is there to see it. Ask the tree in the forest about that.
I’m enormously happy with how this piece came out.
Also in this issue: ‘Til Death Do Us Part, my overview of marriage in film noir. It’s intended as something of a companion piece to the 13th Noir City Film Festival, which focuses on the darker side of the matrimonial bond. Several of the movies unspooling at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from January 16-25 are referenced, but the subject is so broad I could have gone on forever. NOTE: On Saturday, January 17, I’ll be at the Castro along with ace designer Michael Kronenberg, the one and only Christa Faust, and a host of other contributors to sign copies of the Noir City Annual.
But wait! There’s more! Like my usual cocktails-and-crime column, as well as a review of the new book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History, an illustrated tour of Tinseltown tippling.
I assure you, though, it’s not just me in this issue. Behold this stellar line-up:
- Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block (A Walk Among the Tombstones) lists his five favorite noir films
- Crime novelist Terrill Lee Lankford on the neo-noir classic Cutter’s Way
- Usual Noir City suspect Jake Hinkson on Wicked Woman and the off-screen union of star Beverly Michaels and director/co-writer Russell Rouse
- Imogen Sara Smith considers Gone Girl in the context of bad marriage noir
- FNF honcho Eddie Muller on the rescue of 1950’s Woman on the Run, the restoration of the film premiering at this year’s Noir City
And still there’s more! I’m telling you, people, it’s a bonanza.
How do you lay claim to this bounty? Go to the Film Noir Foundation, make your contribution to preserving America’s noir heritage, and the boodle gets dumped in your in-box no questions asked. What are you waiting for?
My latest Down the Hatch column is up now at Eat Drink Films. This month the focus is on that all-American “cyder spirit” applejack. I write about three cocktails suitable for the winter months, admitting that the standard-bearer for applejack drinks is not among my favorites and nominating two overlooked ones for this season’s imbibing. Be sure to read the entire issue, packed as usual with goodness. As a bonus, here’s the first time I heard about applejack, from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
You know the old Hollywood joke, the one about the actress so dumb she slept with the writer. Here’s how famous the team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were: when the two of them were just writers, producing some of the wittiest scripts of the Studio Era (Midnight, Ninotchka) before Wilder transitioned to the director’s chair and amassed one of the great résumés in film history, sleeping with one of them likely would have done an actress’ career some good.
Brackett was on his second bid for screenwriting success when, in August 1936, he was paired with “jaunty young foreigner” Wilder to work on Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife for director Ernst Lubitsch. Brackett describes their first work session: “Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating.” Three weeks into the partnership, Brackett calls Wilder “a hard, conscientious worker, without a very sensitive ear for dialogue, but a beautiful constructionist. He has the passion for the official joke of a second-rate dialogist.” By November, Wilder is laying out his psychologically opportunistic approach to seducing women during their story sessions.
Like many a great twosome they made an odd couple. Wilder was earthy, European and liberal while the urbane, East Coast Brackett was a peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table and maybe the only Alf Landon voter in Hollywood. In private Brackett comes across as a spectacularly dyspeptic figure, apparently not liking anyone (“Chaplin seems to me as repellent a human being as I’ve ever been in the same room with”) or anything (The Palm Beach Story is “the latest Preston Sturges opus and one of the weakest – disagreeable people, unappetizing situations, exaggerations”).
But reading his diaries – the entries here span the years 1932-1949 – provides a keen sense of the grind of working in the dream factory. The awareness of every perceived slight, the primacy of money as a way of gauging status, the near-hysterical faith in preview cards, and above all the constant nagging sensation that his work is subpar and anyway, he’s just wasting his time. The book contains a lot about the inner machinations of Hollywood organizations – Brackett served as president of both the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – and surprisingly little about his wife Elizabeth, who battled alcoholism and depression and spent many years in institutions.
On thinking about Billy’s attitude and that of all the Mittel Europeans I know towards their American citizenship, it seems to me this: they’ve come into a department store, been crazy about its stock, and put themselves down for a charge account. No more involvement than that.
Wilder remains the locus here, Brackett readily acknowledging he feels like a planet orbiting his partner’s star. When one of Brackett’s children runs off to get married in 1942, the story makes the newspapers. “I was surprised. Expected them to read: Billy Wilder disturbed because of elopement of daughter of collaborator.” By 1939 he’s prepared to end their relationship, fed up with Wilder’s manners. He later wrote: “I came to bed and found myself fretting at the prospect of becoming Billy’s stooge producer – a prospect I detest.” Brackett would prove no stooge as a producer, putting his stamp on films like Niagara, Titanic and The King and I after his break-up with Wilder.
The book and the Wilder/Brackett collaboration come to a close with Sunset Blvd. (1950). Even as their decade-plus-long partnership is torn asunder, Brackett can’t help marveling at Wilder’s inventiveness. The material has the pace of a thriller, frissons arising as ideas that will become part of film history bubble up half-formed, the two men setting aside their differences to express their joint frustration with their original choice of leading man, Montgomery Clift, who walked away from the film fearing it too closely mirrored aspects of his own life. “God help people who have to deal with the young Mr. C in a couple of years, maybe a shorter time than that.” Brackett was an unhappy but hugely productive man who’d already left behind a considerable body of work. This warts-and-all account of that working life may be his greatest legacy.
Time’s Richard Zoglin aims to change that. His massive, richly entertaining biography underscores what I’ve learned in recent years – Bob Hope, at his best, was brilliantly funny. Zoglin also persuasively argues that Hope was a trailblazer fully deserving of the book’s subtitle, Entertainer of the Century. By triumphing in every medium and cannily tending a brand built largely on his role as clown jester for American troops overseas, Hope essentially invented modern stardom.
Full disclosure: Bob “I-Didn’t-Sign-Up-For-This” Hope appears as a character in Design for Dying, the classic Hollywood mystery Rosemarie and I wrote as Renee Patrick coming from Macmillan’s Tor/Forge Books in April 2016. One day Rosemarie asked how revisions went and I was able to answer, “Not bad. I wrote some new jokes for Bob Hope.”
Zoglin sets himself a tall order chronicling Hope’s career. The man was a cipher, an impersonal presence in life and in art. For all Hope’s comic prowess, Zoglin notes “his jokes never hit hard, cut deep, or betrayed any political viewpoint.” However superficial their targets, they were delivered in peerless style. Exemplifying the age-old definition of a comedian, Hope had a way of saying things funny, even when he wasn’t saying much.
A Broadway star with vaudeville training, Hope arrived in Hollywood with a pedigree uniquely suited to melding high and low. His breakthrough came in the utterly unhinged comedy The Big Broadcast of 1938, dueting with Shirley Ross on what would become his theme song “Thanks for the Memory.” (It’s astonishing how big a role music played in Hope’s career. The standards he introduced on stage or screen include “I Can’t Get Started,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Two Sleepy People” and “Silver Bells.”) If you’ve never seen the original, with Hope and Ross as a divorced couple recalling the good times in their marriage, take a moment to appreciate what Zoglin rightly calls “one of the most beautifully written and performed musical numbers in all of movies.”
Seeing the skill with which Hope puts across the song, it’s easy to agree with Zoglin’s disappointment at Hope’s callous treatment of it for the next sixty years, Leo Robin’s “delicately ironic lyrics … replaced time and again by greeting-card sentiments, syrupy tributes, and outright plugs.”
Onscreen Hope incarnated a particularly American sensibility, “brash, irreverent, upbeat,” that reached its fullest expression with his signature character: a lustful, vainglorious coward the audience could root for. Watch the films that made his name, 1939’s The Cat and the Canary and the following year’s far better The Ghost Breakers, and Hope’s breezy rhythms still have the feel of something fresh and new. His pairing with Bing Crosby in the long-running Road series not only solidified his drawing power but etched the bromance template slavishly followed in Hollywood by everyone from Martin & Lewis to Rogen & Franco: two footloose dudes more in love with each other than any of the women present. The best of the Road films are casually anarchic and self-aware, breaking the fourth wall with a brio modern movies wouldn’t attempt. (Der Bingle doesn’t come off well here. Zoglin recounts how Hope, always diligent about his fan mail, tosses letters into a hotel pillowcase while on the road so his staff can answer them. Crosby then demonstrates how he handles his fan mail: he feels envelopes until he finds a quarter included to cover return postage for a requested photograph, pockets the change, and tosses the letter into the trash unread. It’s worth catching up with the recent American Masters documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which files a similar brief on the Old Groaner’s behalf for his significance in popular culture – and not just for the few weeks around Christmastime.)
Dave Thomas’ dead-eyed SCTV parody – which Hope naturally loved. And the book is rife with tales of Hope’s womanizing during his 69-year marriage to wife Dolores.
Hope’s impact as a cultural force must be viewed through the prism of his storied USO performances for the troops during World War II and on nearly-annual tours thereafter. Zoglin describes the military’s growing resentment over the expense of Hope’s logistically complex appearances, which tapped the meager resources set aside for entertainment. Hope came to crave the rabid response of audiences desperate for diversion. But there’s no denying the sacrifices he made to travel to far-flung bases, facing not only chronic hardships but genuine danger. Ultimately, Hope’s treasured status as jokester-in-chief of the armed forces contributed to his waning influence; he was so immersed in the role by the Vietnam era that he accepted and parroted the Nixon administration’s line without question, putting him out of step with prevailing attitudes. It’s perversely fascinating to watch a man so nimble stumble over his own feet. Zoglin, at least, captures this painful period with grace.
During last month’s Bouchercon in Long Beach, Rosemarie and I spent a morning visiting the Queen Mary. The ship is currently hosting the exhibit Bob Hope: An American Treasure. Only fitting, considering Hope gave an impromptu performance onboard 75 years ago as it steamed back from Europe after war had been declared. It was thrilling to see Hope’s handwritten additions to some of his Oscar scripts (one namechecking Long Beach), and there’s a collection of his novelty golf clubs. But there are way too many alternate versions of “Thanks for the Memory” on display.
December is winding to a close, and I’m all too conscious of how infrequently I’ve updated the blog this year. 2014 has been hectic if fantastic, what with the sale of the mystery novel Rosemarie and I wrote, and my becoming co-managing editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine Noir City, and a host of other assignments, not to mention my thriving mail-order decorative soap business. Order by today if you want your Christmas orders fulfilled!
ASIDE: The annual Noir City Xmas show was last night, at which the program for the 13th annual film festival was revealed. The theme is marriage and I have something of a proprietary interest in it, considering the idea was hatched by Eddie Muller and me at a late-night dinner in Seattle several years ago. You’ve gotta love that poster. Here’s its sordid backstory. You’ll also notice on the Noir City page a sneak peek of the cover of the next issue of the magazine. Trust me when I tell you it’s a doozy. Support the Film Noir Foundation to have it delivered to your inbox come January.
But as the days dwindle down, I realize that I miss posting. In 2015, I’m going to strive to update the blog on a semi-regular basis. No better time to get started than now, with a whip round of new crime fiction I commend to your attention.
Land of Shadows, by Rachel Howzell Hall. Rosemarie and I had the pleasure of meeting our Tor/Forge labelmate at Bouchercon in Long Beach. Rachel’s novel is a taut L.A. crime story with a tremendous sense of place. Detective Elouise ‘Lou’ Norton’s latest case lands her in all-too-familiar territory. A young woman is found dead on a condo construction site abutting the Jungle, the neighborhood where Lou grew up. More to the point, the site is being developed by the local businessman who might have murdered Lou’s sister decades earlier. As if those old wounds reopening weren’t enough for Lou to handle, her marriage is collapsing, too, and this time a “‘Sorry, baby’ Porsche” won’t cover the damage. You want a strong female character, in the authentic and not buzzword sense? Spend some time in Lou’s company.
The Big Ugly, by Jake Hinkson. Brother Hinkson is a familiar name to Noir City subscribers, one of our constant and most valued contributors. He also writes take-no-prisoners noir novels with a Deep South flavor and a taste of that old-time religion. In his latest, Ellie Bennett walks out at the end of her sentence at Eastgate Penitentiary after years of walking in as a guard. She’s still trying to get her head on straight when a job falls into her lap: find a fellow ex-con who disappeared – and who has ties to both sides in a hotly contested election. A rabbit punch of a book, doing its dirty work in short order.
The Great Pretender, by Craig McDonald. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s sprawling, wildly ambitious series about Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted novelist who trucks with twentieth century luminaries, from the outset. Pretender finds Hector in pursuit of the Spear of Destiny, last seen in Hellboy and Constantine, and tangling with Nazis, witches and, most contentious of all, Orson Welles. McDonald cagily splits up the action, with Welles in full enfant terrible mode in the first half of the book – much of the story unfolds on the night of the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 – while the second takes place in the late 1940s as the filmmaker’s star is already burning out. Another entire Lassiter novel, Roll the Credits, slots in between, and I’ll be tackling that one soon enough.
Angels of the North, by Ray Banks. The publication date says 2014, but yours truly was lucky enough to clap eyes on this book last year. Damn thing left marks that haven’t faded. Now you have the chance to partake of its majesty. A big, bruising tale of Thatcher’s England, about street-level politics and petty power. You know, the kind that matters. Ray weaves three stories together effortlessly, as always finding sympathy for the devil and humor in the darkest of corners. It’s the best thing Ray’s written, which is saying something, and one of the finest novels of the year. Even if I read it in 2013.
Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. From December 2009.
There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.
First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.
So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster.)
Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!
Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing
Five silver Glocks
Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4
God bless us, everyone. Or else.
While you’re there, why not sign up for the magazine’s mailing list? You’ll get a weekly email detailing each issue’s contents – and you’ll have a chance to win cookbooks and DVDs. Eat Drink Films publisher Gary Meyer explains all.