Jan 232015
 

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.


Our initial post-Olmos stop was a key reason for making the trip now: we wanted to see the mammoth Hollywood Costume exhibit before it closes. Presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, it’s a stunning show, with dramatic staging of over 150 movie costumes; Marlene Dietrich in Morocco lights a cigarette for Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct) as L.A. Confidential’s Lynn Bracken looks on. Our heroine Edith Head is well represented, with her iconic green suit worn by Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on display. The immersive section on costume design as collaboration features a dazzling “conversation” among Edie, Hitch and Tippi Hedren about the clothes in The Birds. The craft of the costume designer is explored in detail in this decades-spanning exhibit. (Later we were fortunate to spend time with its curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the acclaimed costume designer of Raiders of the Lost Ark – and even more impressively, the person responsible for the wardrobe in longtime Chez K favorite ¡Three Amigos! Given those credentials I’m amazed I was able to ask any questions, but somehow I managed.)

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.

The primary purpose for our expedition was to set foot on Edith’s old domain: Paramount Pictures, the studio where she spent the majority of her career. To our delight, Paramount’s archivists welcomed us with open arms – “Edith would have loved being in a mystery novel,” we were told – and gave us a full tour. The high point was undoubtedly the costume archive, 80% of which consisted of Edith Head originals. To be in the same room as, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s beaded bolero jacket from The Lady Eve and inspect it in detail was enough to induce lightheadedness.

Paramount's Bronson Gate
Edith willed her estate to the Academy, so our final destination was the Margaret Herrick Library to look at her papers. It’s impossible to convey the thrill of holding a letter on Alfred Hitchcock’s personal stationery – signed ‘Hitch,’ naturally – in your hands. I’d heard that furniture from Edith’s house had been placed in the Herrick’s Special Collections reading room, so before leaving I asked which pieces were hers. “That table you’ve been sitting at all day, for one,” the librarian said. Truly the power of Olmos was strong.

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.
Up next, the first in a mini-tribute to actress Joan Fontaine. Born to be Bad (1950) casts several actors against type. Usual cad Zachary Scott is a decent if obscenely wealthy man, Robert Ryan shines as a cocky writer (“Seen the view? It’s better with me in it”), and Mel Ferrer does his best George Sanders as a cynical social climbing painter. They all flutter around Christabel Caine, and alas our Joan was a bit long in the tooth to play a scheming ingénue, leaving a void at the film’s center. Still, director Nicholas Ray keeps the melodrama at a steady boil and it was fun to see the original ending deemed too scandalous for release.

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
Sunday’s double-bill spotlighted suspense from that maker of sudsers supreme, Douglas Sirk. The script for Shockproof (1949) was watered down considerably from writer Samuel Fuller’s original version; no doubt two-fisted Sam’s take on the story of parole officer Cornel Wilde falling for one of his charges (Patricia Knight) and into a heap of trouble would have been considerably meaner. A minor film, but on this viewing I was able to appreciate how Sirk’s supple direction preserved the remaining Fuller touches. Sleep, My Love (1948) is gossamer in the Gaslight mode, with Claudette Colbert being manipulated by husband Don Ameche into thinking she’s down to her last few marbles so he can run off with Hazel Brooks, as gorgeous as she is surly. Claudette’s only hope is the relentless charm offensive mounted by Robert Cummings. Oh for the days when a movie’s main characters could be an imperiled socialite and a globe-trotting adventurer. Sleep is Sirk at his best, a film that’s all surface pleasures and no less an achievement because of them. It was the perfect ending to our California swing.

Noir City runs through this Sunday at the Castro. May the blessings of Edward James Olmos be with you all.
 Posted by at 6:39 pm

The Wrap Up

 Movies, Personal, reading, Writing  Comments Off
Dec 312014
 
Not to start this on too much of a downer, but it's no secret that on a personal level, 2014 sucked. I don't want to even think about how many friends and loved ones we lost, and far too many people we know went through the same thing. Add in Livia's broken arm and some lingering health issues affecting several people in the family, and you've got a pretty lousy year. But we're still here,
Dec 152014
 

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.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

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.
 Posted by at 7:05 pm
Dec 082014
 
WARNING: This post is loaded with SPOILERS. Stop now if you know nothing about Laura, the book or the movie, and don't want its most unusual surprises given away.

Not such a forgotten book, I guess. The movie is definitely not forgotten. But can you believe that although I've seen the movie about seven times by now, and know it inside and out, I have never read the book until just this past week? It's true.

Reading the book was a revelation; so drastic are the differences. I felt like I was discovering Laura Hunt, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson, Shelby Carpenter and Susan (not Ann ) Treadwell for the first time. I was taken aback by the major changes made in the classic film adaptation of Laura (1942). Changes that seem vital to Caspary's recurring themes of ideals of masculinity and femininity, the worship of beauty both in objects and people, and exploitation of character flaws and human weakness. I learned so much about this story, how it came into being, its origin as a doomed play that never saw a Broadway production and the perhaps by now famous argument Caspary had with Otto Preminger over one key scene in the film that she felt ruined her intent in writing the book in the first place. The biggest revelation to me is that Laura, the novel, is so much more than just a detective novel. Caspary uses the investigation of a horrible murder to explore complex human emotions and unusual psychology of obsessive love and does so with grace and artistry that is at times breathtaking.

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson is captivated by
Laura Hunt's portrait in the 1944 film.

First and foremost are the differences in the character of Waldo Lydecker, the highbrow newspaper columnist and cultural mentor of Laura Hunt. Clifton Webb captured so perfectly the essence of Waldo in the movie but in terms of look and physique he's all wrong. Waldo Lydecker would have been better played by Edward Arnold with a beard and spectacles. Caspary's Waldo is tall, obese and astigmatic. Much as she disavowed using celebrity columnist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott as a model for Waldo the similarities are hard to ignore. Apart from the amazing coincidence of their looks Lydecker and Woollcott are both interested in writing about true crime. The only contrast between the two is that Waldo Lydecker confesses in the very first chapter a complete distaste for detective novels and Woollcott was known to devour them. He even acted as mystery selections editor for the cheap reprint publisher White House during the 1940s.

Secondly, Shelby Carpenter is supposed to be blend of Nietzschean Superman and mythological Adonis. Vincent Price was a handsome and dapper fellow in the movie but not the kind of rugged and athletic Shelby that Caspary created. The words "gentleman" and "gallantry" are liberally used to describe Shelby, Laura's unfaithful fiancé, but as the story progresses we learn that he is as corrupt and exploitive as Waldo and in more insidious way. Unlike Waldo who uses artifice and banter as a mask for charm Shelby's charm is authentic yet he uses it deviously and dishonestly. He also wavers between self-delusion and cognizant disingenuousness as he tries to convince Laura that he really has her best interests at heart, that he is trying to protect her from a malicious cop out to convict her of a violent crime.

That should be a much bigger gun
and aimed a lot closer.
The novel's underlying strength, one that allows Caspary to delve deeply into each of her absorbingly complex characters, is the use of the multiple first person narratives. When Caspary was planning to turn her failed playscript into a novel she was given a bit of remarkable advice by one of her screenwriter friends in Hollywood who suggested she look to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as her framework. All those insightful analogies to Collin's pioneer detective novel are 100% accurate. She really did model her book on Collins'.

Caspary's language and the notable stylistic differences in the various points of view are the highlight of reading the book. Movie dialogue alone cannot begin to convey the richness we get when we hear the characters speak their thoughts in their individual manuscripts. We have the caustic wit, surface urbanity, and self-indulgent prose of Lydecker who lets us know that the only person he loves more than Laura is himself; McPherson's ordinary Joe section is peppered with American idioms and slang but absent of the high society vulgarity he disdains ("It takes a college education to teach a man that he can put on paper what he used to write on a fence."); and Laura Hunt's near neurotic ravings in diary format in which she confesses her love/hate relationship with all the men in her life, a tortured intelligent woman trying to reinvent herself as a career girl in a high paced advertising firm who is in conflict with her private self. A driven and focussed woman in the workplace she gets her job done with little distraction. But when left to her own thoughts she confesses "...my mind whirls like a merry-go-round" as she finds herself at the mercy of master manipulators who have designs on her soul, her body and her money.

At its core Laura is a study of the mystery of love in all its forms. Coming into play throughout all these narratives are varying viewpoints of idealized beauty (both male and female), authenticity of character, questioning gender stereotypes and ideals of manhood and femininity, and a incisive portrait of how weakness and character flaws can be the ruling emotions in the world of love. While there are examples of too obvious symbolism (Waldo's smashing of a glass vase in an antique store and the secret hiding place of the murder weapon -- completely different than the absurd object used in the movie -- being the most heavy-handed) Caspary still manages to tell her story with a wisdom and compassion and depth that can be movingly profound. To have seen the movie is not to know this story of Laura. I urge you to experience the mystery of Laura Hunt and her world by reading the novel. Laura is a rare instance of a book and a movie achieving classic status each in their own right.

**Many thanks to a couple of faithful readers who sent me text files from the cached versions of the original post. Just like the novel here is the resurrected Laura!  [Note to self: Back-up and save all posts in the future.]

And here are the original comments I managed to save from the December 5th cached version:


 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Dec 052014
 
WARNING:  This post is loaded with SPOILERS. Stop now if you know nothing about Laura, the book or the movie, and don't want its most unusual surprises given away.

Not such a forgotten book, I guess. The movie is definitely not forgotten. But can you believe that although I've seen the movie about seven times by now, and know it inside and out, I have never read the book until just this past week? It's true.

Reading the book was a revelation; so drastic are the differences. I felt like I was discovering Laura Hunt, Waldo Lydecker, Mark McPherson, Shelby Carpenter and Susan (not Ann ) Treadwell for the first time. I was taken aback by the major changes made in the classic film adaptation of Laura (1942). Changes that seem vital to Caspary's recurring themes of ideals of masculinity and femininity, the worship of beauty both in objects and people, and exploitation of character flaws and human weakness. I learned so much about this story, how it came into being, its origin as a doomed play that never saw a Broadway production and the perhaps by now famous argument Caspary had with Otto Preminger over one key scene in the film that she felt ruined her intent in writing the book in the first place. The biggest revelation to me is that Laura, the novel, is so much more than just a detective novel. Caspary uses the investigation of a horrible murder to explore complex human emotions and unusual psychology of obsessive love and does so with grace and artistry that is at times breathtaking.

Dana Andrews as Mark McPherson is captivated by
Laura Hunt's portrait in the 1944 film.

First and foremost in the differences in the character of Waldo Lydecker, the highbrow newspaper columnist and cultural mentor of Laura Hunt. Clifton Webb captured so perfectly the essence of Waldo in the movie but in terms of look and physique he's all wrong. Waldo Lydecker would have been better played by Edward Arnold with a beard and spectacles. Caspary's Waldo is tall, obese and astigmatic. Much as she disavowed using celebrity columnist and radio personality Alexander Woollcott as a model for Waldo the similarities are hard to ignore. Apart from the amazing coincidence of their looks Lydecker and Woollcott are both interested in writing about true crime. The only contrast between the two is that Waldo Lydecker confesses in the very first chapter a complete distaste for detective novels and Woollcott was known to devour them. He even acted as mystery selections editor for the cheap reprint publisher White House during the 1940s.

Secondly, Shelby Carpenter is supposed to be blend of Nietzschean Superman and mythological Adonis. Vincent Price was a handsome and dapper fellow in the movie but not the kind of rugged and athletic Shelby that Caspary created. The words "gentleman" and "gallantry" are liberally used to describe Shelby, Laura's unfaithful fiancé, but as the story progresses we learn that he is as corrupt and exploitive as Waldo and in more insidious way. Unlike Waldo who uses artifice and banter as a mask for charm Shelby's charm is authentic yet he uses it deviously and dishonestly. He also wavers between self-delusion and cognizant disingenuousness as he tries to convince Laura that he really has her best interests at heart, that he is trying to protect her from a malicious cop out to convict her of a violent crime.

That should be a much bigger gun
and aimed a lot closer.
The novel's underlying strength, one that allows Caspary to delve deeply into each of her absorbingly complex characters, is the use of the multiple first person narratives. When Caspary was planning to turn her failed playscript into a novel she was given a bit of remarkable advice by one of her screenwriter friends in Hollywood who suggested she look to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as her framework. All those insightful analogies to Collin's pioneer detective novel are 100% accurate. Caspary really did model her book on Collins'.

Caspary's language and the notable stylistic differences in the various points of view are the highlight of reading the book. Movie dialogue alone cannot begin to convey the richness we get when we hear the characters speak their thoughts in their individual manuscripts. We have the caustic wit, surface urbanity, and self-indulgent prose of Lydecker who lets us know that the only person he loves more than Laura is himself; McPherson's ordinary Joe section is peppered with American idioms and slang but absent of the high society vulgarity he disdains ("It takes a college education to teach a man that he can put on paper what he used to write on a fence."); and Laura Hunt's near neurotic ravings in diary format in which she confesses her love/hate relationship with all the men in her life, a tortured intelligent woman trying to reinvent herself as a career girl in a high paced advertising firm who is in conflict with her private self. A driven and focussed woman in the workplace she gets her job done with little distraction. But when left to her own thoughts she confesses "...my mind whirls like a merry-go-round" as she finds herself at the mercy of master manipulators who have designs on her soul, her body and her money.

At its core Laura is a study of the mystery of love in all its forms. Coming into play throughout all these narratives are varying viewpoints of idealized beauty (both male and female), authenticity of character, questioning gender stereotypes and ideals of manhood and femininity, and a incisive portrait of how weakness and character flaws can be the ruling emotions in the world of love. While there are examples of too obvious symbolism (Waldo's smashing of a glass vase in an antique store and the secret hiding place of the murder weapon -- completely different than the absurd object used in the movie -- being the most heavy-handed) Caspary still manages to tell her story with a wisdom and compassion and depth that can be movingly profound. To have seen only the movie is not to know the story of Laura. I urge you to experience the mystery of Laura Hunt and her world by reading the novel. Laura is a rare instance of a book and a movie achieving classic status each in their own right.

*   *   *

Reading Challenge update: Counts as space L2 on the Golden Age bingo card - "Book made into a movie". Two left and the card is covered!
 Posted by at 4:55 pm
Oct 132014
 

Then there is the marvelous story about William Faulkner – which I never bothered to ask him about, because we used to talk of other things whenever I visited his office or we had dinner with my wife at Musso Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard.

The story had it that once, early in Faulkner’s Hollywood career, he sat in his office for several weeks doing nothing (sometimes he played dominos, sometimes he played chess). And there came a day when the producer, tired of waiting for “pages,” came to his office in person (which was really a breach of Hollywood protocol) and wanted to know how he was getting on.

Faulkner, who had not written a single line, reached for an old screenplay he had found in his desk and said, “Ah’m not satisfied with it.” Then he slowly tore it up, page by page, and dropped it into the wastebasket.

The producer reported back to his own boss, “That fellow Faulkner’s great! Tore up a whole screenplay because it didn’t satisfy him. Conscientious. I wish we had more writers like him. See that he’s not disturbed.”

From Alvah Bessie’s 1965 memoir Inquisition in Eden
 Posted by at 5:54 pm
Oct 022014
 

I say this every time a new issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine hits in-boxes around the globe. So I’ll quote FNF jefe Eddie Muller: this latest edition of Noir City is “the best written film journal in the world – certainly the most entertaining.”

Want proof? I thought my word was good enough for you. I thought we were friends.

Fine. Here’s proof. Inside the Fall 2014 issue:

- Imogen Sara Smith’s expansive survey of noir westerns

- Your friend and mine Christa Faust sizes up noir vixens of recent vintage

- Michael Connelly names his five favorite noir films

- Wallace Stroby on the real life origins of the neo-noir classic Thief

- Profiles of Mike Mazurki and William Castle

- Muller mulls the question of the definitive heist film: The Asphalt Jungle or Rififi?

I’m particularly proud of the sidebar to that piece which I helped assemble, in which we ask a rogues gallery of crime writers to single out their favorite cinematic caper. Faust and Stroby chime in, along with the likes of Duane Swierczynski, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen, Roger Hobbs and Ray Banks.

Plus plenty more. I contribute a few film reviews and my usual Cocktails & Crime column … and eagle-eyed readers may spot breaking news about what I’ve been up to lately.

Don’t have a copy? Never fear. Simply make a contribution to the Film Noir Foundation and ninety-four pages of majesty will be winging their way toward you. Don’t miss out.
 Posted by at 7:18 pm
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
Aug 132014
 
While I was mourning the untimely death of Robin Williams yesterday (an event that broke my heart and saddened me for much of the day) something else happened in the entertainment world that nearly passed me by. I just now discover this morning that Lauren Bacall died. Clearly, I'm an entire day behind on the rest of the world.

In tribute to this glamorous actress and all around classy dame, a gallery of stills from some of her better crime related roles and movies.




Slim Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944)


Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)


The Happy Couple circa 1947


Irene Jansen in Dark Passage (1947)


Lucy Moore Hadley in Written on the Wind (1956)


Mrs. Samson in Harper (1966)


"Harriet Hubbard" in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
(Caroline Hubbard in the book, but doesn't matter. It's an alias)



Sally Ross in The Fan (1981)
The only musical-slasher-stalker movie I know of in existence.
 Dear ol’ James Garner was her co-star. R.I.P. to you too, Rockford.


Lady Westholme in Appointment with Death (1988)
Not the most successful of the Ustinov as Poirot movies by a long shot.
Good night, Mrs. Bogart, wherever you are.


 Posted by at 5:57 pm
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