Oct 012014

From Joseph Cotten's 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere:

The following day Orson and I had a date for lunch with two gentlemen (not from Verona, I fear). They were two tough and exceedingly wealthy businessmen. The reason for our meeting was simple; Orson needed money for his next film and he intended to acquire some of theirs.

Walking into the restaurant I saw Winston Churchill seated quite close to our table. As we passed the great man, Orson said to my horror, “Winston, how nice to see you again.” Churchill made no response at all. Our lunch was a fiasco. Orson made some lame excuse about, “Winston’s not feeling well.” He mentioned other big names, big money, which almost caused me to say, “Big deal.” Actually it was no deal, for our money men asked if we could postpone our discussion until dinnertime, as they were expecting several overseas telephone calls.

Late that afternoon, we spotted Churchill swimming in the Lido. In a flash, Orson had his swimming trunks on and was in the water beside him. He was talking, but thank heavens I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Apparently neither could Churchill, for he just turned and swam in the other direction.

Later I asked Orson, “What did you dare say to him this time?”

“I apologized for being fresh,” he said, “but I told him I just wanted to impress two gentlemen whose money I needed for a film.”

Rather unnecessarily I asked, “Did he reply?”

“No,” said Orson.

That evening, we walked into the dining room, our two prospective backers following gloomily. As we reached Churchill’s table, he stood up, looked directly at Orson, and bowed slowly and deeply.

We got the money.
 Posted by at 6:53 pm
Sep 262014

Exactly one year ago Sunday my book Down The Hatch: One Man’s One Year Odyssey Through Classic Cocktail Recipes and Lore came kicking and screaming into the world. Such an occasion must be marked, and in that most American of fashions: savings!

Amazon is running a Kindle Countdown Sale on Down The Hatch from noon PST today to noon PST on Monday. For 72 glorious hours, pick up the book for a mere 99 cents! More than fifty cocktail recipes for less than a buck! Endorsed by experts like New York Times Magazine columnist Rosie Schaap, who called it “a terrific guide through the classic cocktail repertoire.” The Joy of Mixology author gaz regan dubbed it “a great compilation of fine drinks.”

What are you waiting for? Operators are standing by. Metaphorically, of course.
 Posted by at 7:17 pm
Sep 162014

I’ve had my reasons for not updating the blog lately. (On the bright side, they’re good reasons. Very good.) Time to surface and recommend several recent books that span the decades. Two decades, anyway.

Joseph Koenig’s Really The Blues plays out in Paris, 1941. The Nazis have claimed the city, not that ex-pat jazzman Eddie Piron cares. His combo Eddie et Ses Anges performs every night at La Caverne Negre, and “as long as he had a steady gig, the world could keep going straight to hell.” He doesn’t even mind that the SS officers who are supposed to be stamping out the devil music he plays are now his steadiest customers. But when Eddie’s regular drummer turns up dead, the crime draws the attention of a particularly cunning Nazi officer new to the City of Light, one willing to squeeze Eddie to ferret out the truth. It’s Eddie’s bad luck that a fellow American abroad who knows the reason why the musician is in no hurry to return Stateside puts the screws to him at the same time. Eddie’s either going to have to stick his neck out for somebody, or stick it in a noose. The third act may lean on Inglourious Basterds-style heroics too much, but the book crackles with mood and energy throughout. Eddie Piron is a compelling protagonist, an aptly fractured guide to a fractured place.

Blacklist by Jerry Ludwig unspools in 1959 on the other side of the world, where shadows from the war still fall. David Weaver returns to Los Angeles after growing up in exile to bury his father, a screenwriter destroyed by the Communist witch hunt. David doesn’t expect a hero’s welcome, but he would appreciate work in the only business he knows. Opportunity comes courtesy of an unlikely source – Leo Vardian, his late father’s partner, who named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and is now a successful director. A suspicious David takes the job mainly to return to the good graces of Leo’s daughter Jana, the only woman he’s ever loved. Hounding David’s chance at happiness is Brian McKenna, an FBI agent chafing at his Tinseltown tenure now that the Reds have been rounded up and agitating to serve at the right hand of J. Edgar Hoover. His potential ticket out comes in the form of a series of murders, every victim somehow tied to the blacklist – with David Weaver as likely avenging angel. Veteran TV writer Ludwig paints a vivid portrait of Los Angeles as a company town and smartly conveys the costs of the Red scare on an intimate level. He also creates some fascinating false history, like a choice cameo by Sterling Hayden and a description of “the only full-scale comedy John Garfield ever did” that sounds completely believable.

Linking both the 1940s and ‘50s is The 101 Best Film Noir Posters by Mark Fertig. Mark is a colleague at Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Josie at a signing and reception this past weekend at Fantagraphics Books here in Seattle. For years Mark has curated the finest examples of the noir poster form at his blog Where Danger Lives, and he and Fantagraphics have turned that work into a stunning book. The posters are reproduced in all their lurid, breathtaking glory. My personal favorite may be Force of Evil, which abandons the fool’s errand of attempting to capture Marie Windsor’s sensuality in painted form and just shoehorns a photograph of her into the corner. Mark’s shrewd assessments of every film don’t shy away from controversy; he expresses his doubts about including Leave Her To Heaven, and (correctly, I think) calls D.O.A. “more noteworthy than good.” Clear shelf space, noir fans, because this book is an essential.

 Posted by at 6:35 pm
Sep 122014

Another issue of Eat Drink Films, another of my Down The Hatch cocktail columns. In this one, I take you on a spiritual tour of Brooklyn, touching on three variations of the borough’s classic namesake drink that you can make when you don’t have one essential ingredient on hand. Whip one up – I suggest the Red Hook – then peruse the rest of this week’s magazine, which includes an overview of this year’s Telluride Film Festival and part one of a look at one of the best movies of the year, Pawel Pawlikowski’s astonishing Ida. But seriously, start with my column.
 Posted by at 12:29 am
Aug 112014

Furthermore, practically all the Hollywood film-making of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates and masturbators. If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.

- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title (1971)

 Posted by at 9:15 pm
Jul 302014

“Why shouldn’t we be able to do as well as any Hollywood hack?”

“Because what the producers want is an original but familiar, unusual but popular, moralistic but sexy, true but improbable, tender but violent, slick but highbrow masterpiece. When they have that, then they can ‘work on it’ and make it ‘commercial,’ to justify their high salaries.”

- A 1945 conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Salka Viertel, recounted in Viertel’s 1969 memoir The Kindness of Strangers

 Posted by at 5:55 pm
Jul 282014

A man in possession of many bolts of woolen cloth, quantities of lining and interlining, buttons, thread, needles, and padding is not, of necessity, a tailor. A man in possession of many characters, many situations, many startling and dramatic events, and many gags is not, of necessity, a storyteller.

The crafts of the tailor and the storyteller are not dissimilar, however, for out of a mass of unrelated material, each contrives to fashion a complete and well-balanced unit. Many stories are too heavy in the shoulders and too short in the pants, with the design of the material running upside-down …

The customer walking home in his new suit is razzed by small boys as he passes. I thought I knew how to put a story together, but it might turn out I was meant to be a tailor.

- From Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990). Sturges’ first hit play Strictly Dishonorable is back on stage in New York City, revived by the Attic Theater.
 Posted by at 7:33 pm
Jul 112014

This week’s issue of Eat Drink Films is out, featuring my latest Down The Hatch cocktail column. In it, I make the drinks named after three of the four founders of United Artists. Who’s the odd man (or woman) out? Read the column and see. While you’re there check out the rest of the issue, which includes Vincent Price’s recipe for blueberry muffins and a look at the festivities planned for the centenary year of Orson Welles’ birth.
 Posted by at 5:34 pm
Jul 022014

It’s a big day, kids. The latest issue of the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation is out – and the first issue on which I’ve served as managing editor, alongside the estimable Steve Kronenberg and under the stewardship of the man himself, El Jefe, Eddie Muller. It is with all due modesty that I say we’ve delivered quite the feast. Among the courses for your delectation:

  • FNF advisory council member Dennis Lehane names his five favorite noirs
  • An interview with Barry Gifford, novelist and impresario behind Black Lizard Books
  • An extensive survey of “rubble noir,” the rarely-seen films made in Germany after the end of World War II
  • Duane Swierczynski’s sensational, highly personal appreciation of the neglected noir Cisco Pike
  • Bob Hoskins remembered by the Saturday Boy his-own-self, Ray Banks
And so much more. I’m not kidding. I’m only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue, all of it beautifully assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg working his usual magic.

As for me, I’m all over this one. I’ve got an overview of the mixed-media stage production Helen Lawrence, recently mounted in Vancouver, B.C. and currently touring the globe; reviews of the Blu-Ray of The Counselor, the festival favorite Blue Ruin and the extraordinary slice of Hollywood history Five Came Back by Mark Harris; plus the debut of my new column Cocktails & Crime, rat-a-tatting noir news and notes.

My primary contribution is a look back at season one of True Detective, featuring spectacular illustrations inspired by the HBO show from Eisner Award-winning graphic artist Francesco Francavilla. Honestly, you’re going to want to read this article for the pictures.

So how do you get the magazine? Simple. Swing by the Film Noir Foundation website, make a donation to help preserve one of America’s greatest artistic legacies, then tuck in. You won’t believe what we’ve got cooking for the next issue.
 Posted by at 7:56 pm