Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why I Gave Up (For A While) In 2015

above: Meeting fans in France

Hi there, reader of this blog. I hope you had a good year. Me? Well, thanks for asking. I've been keeping it between the lines. Had some pretty high highs and some pretty low lows. I went to France for my first real book tour. I have a great publisher there and I got to travel all over the country meeting fans and having fun. The trip was, without question, the highlight of my life as a writer. I also published a book of essays, a book of short stories, and a new novel here at home. And, not for nothing, but I think those are the three best books I've ever written. If I die tonight in a tragic New Year's Eve mishap, I guess I'd want those three books to represent me. I also started teaching at Loyola University and the School of the Art Institute, a couple of great places to teach. I published numerous magazine articles. I got a big write up in the Arkansas Times (my hometown paper) that made me feel really nice.

So, shit, all in all, I had an amazing year.

But, if I'm going to be honest, after my triumph in France, nothing seemed to go as planned. Without going into details, back here in the States on the business side of writing, things were a real pain.

I'm hesitating to write this because I'm not really a share and share alike kind of guy. My impulse is toward evasion and polite silence.

I'll just say this: I'm no businessman. I inherited that from my father. He's great at building houses but bad at making money from building houses. He's never quite internalized the principle that you buy low and sell high. I think that, in some ways, it's always shocked him that other people have internalized that principle. And like I said, I am my father's son in this respect.

At this point, I've published several books with several publishers. Most of the people I've dealt have been pretty great. To the extent that a few business arrangements haven't worked out, I mostly have myself to blame for not being savvy enough. I really have no damn business reading contracts.

I've been unrepresented my whole writing career. Since that career's helped me pay the rent and took me all the way to France on a 7 city tour, I guess I've done okay. But I don't have an agent. Haven't had one because I couldn't get one and gave up. You're not supposed to say that out loud (or write it on the internet), but it's true. I gave up looking for an agent because I got demoralized by being rejected (at best) and ignored (at worst). 

An aside: I'm reading Patrick McGilligan's new bio YOUNG ORSON about you know who, and there's a great part where Welles is in New York trying to sell his first play and is getting doors slammed in his face, and he writes a friend that the literary agents were "the worst" because they give one "a sense of defeat, just by their manner." Some shit never changes.

Back to me for a moment, though, I'm not complaining about shabby treatment by literary agents. It's their job to find shit they love, and none of them ever loved my shit. It's really just as simple as that. The only thing a writer can do is keep looking for an agent who will love their shit.

And that's it, that's the great secret, as near as I can tell, of getting an agent.

But I gave up looking this year because a) I did okay without an agent, and b) I'm not good at doing things I hate, such as going back again and again to drink from the well of rejection and indifference.

But not having an agent has also bitten me in the ass this year. It's not a bad bite, understand. Thus far, it's hurt my pride more than my pocketbook--though to tell the truth, I value my pride more than my pocketbook (especially when it comes to my writing). And that's what got me down. It got me down quite low, in fact.

Generally speaking, I'm not a low kind of person. Despite the bleak nature of much my work, I also inherited my father's basic optimism. Or, as a roommate once told me about myself, I usually wake up in a better mood than I go to bed in.

And writing has always been a place of an especially precious isolation for me. I'm one of those people who needs to write. I'm not a hobby guy. I don't play or follow sports, I don't take classes to learn to do new things. I don't collect shit or make shit or go to conventions or hang out with people all the time. On my own, I mostly read and go to the movies, which are activities of consumption. My one real activity, the one thing that I really do, is write. I'm a writer.

An aside: It occurs to the me that the preceding paragraph neglects to mention that I'm very happily married to my best friend. That paragraph kinda makes me sound like a loner. But one reason I am very happily married is that I am married to a woman who is a supremely autonomous individual who is always content to be with me, and equally content to leave me to my books and movies and writing while she heads out for an evening to do her thing. I married far above my pay grade, people.

But the point I wanted to make about writing is that it's the one thing I actively do. It's my method of understanding the world, of empathizing with others and explaining myself.

And this year it kinda crapped out on me. Sure I published three books this year, but I didn't write much in the second half of the year. I slowed down to a trickle. Round about September, even the trickle dried up. For a few months there it was as dry as a creek bed.

I got low, man. I got down low. Indifferent agents and incompetent publishers took their toll.

I didn't have writer's block. I had nothing. Just...nothing. Just didn't even want to write. I just gave up. But if I give up, what's left of me? Like I said, I'm a writer. Without writing, I'm a blank sheet of paper.

That awesome wife I mentioned a few paragraphs back? She carried me through like a champ, despite having to see me in a state she'd never seen me in before. It's one thing to deal with your partner's everyday bullshit, but it's another to deal with a problem that is out of character for them. For me to get so low I can't write for weeks and then months was a weird kind of problem to deal with, but she dealt with it by more or less trusting me to be myself.

Which worked. I read, I watched movies. I taught my classes. I looked at art and listened to music.

Gradually I've started to write again the past few weeks. The thing about my whole process is that I've always got a lot of projects going. A couple of novels, a story, an essay, an article, whatever. So I've got a lot waiting on me to get back to it, and there's something reassuring about that.

I've had some promising business news, too, which could turn into something really cool. That's nice, but I don't think I'm being melodramatic in saying that if I ever had the capacity to be unreservedly excited about anything involving business I have long since lost it.

So, like I said, 2015 has been amazing year, both in the sense of being transcendentally happy and perplexingly bad. It was the best year of my writing career and the worst year of my writing life. The best of times and the worst of times as Chuck D once wrote.

I'm looking forward to 2016. As always, I'm optimistic. Movies to see. Books to read. Words to write.



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Dark Christmas: Seven Holiday Noirs


above: Blast of Silence

Tired of the 24-hour THE CHRISTMAS STORY marathon? Don't have it in you to spend another Christmas with the Cranks, or Fred Claus, or Will Ferrell? Join the club. Maybe this year, try on some film noir for the holiday season. Over at Criminal Element I have an overview of some films that are either holiday themed noir or are holiday movies with a strong touch of the dark side. Either way, just about everyone on this list has been bad.

Check Dark Christmas: Seven Holiday Noirs.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Eric Beetner on NO TOMORROW


NO TOMORROW gets a nice review this week over at Crime Syndicate courtesy of Eric Beetner. Since I'm a big fan of Beetner's quick moving novels, its especially nice to have him praise the pace of my book. He also says it's the best thing I've done since HELL ON CHURCH STREET. I'm inclined to agree. 


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leopold And Loeb


Tonight, I got to catch John Logan's play NEVER THE SINNER on its closing night at Victory Gardens Theater (aka The Biograph Theater). The show was enjoyable, with a talented cast and energetic staging by Gary Griffin, and it sent me once more down the rabbit hole that is the Leopold and Loeb case.

I thought I'd post a link to my Criminal Element piece on the case from back in 2012, Leopold and Loeb Still Fascinate After 90 Years. I feel like a viewing of Richard Fleischer's 1959noir COMPULSION is right around the corner for me...

Monday, November 30, 2015

THE BIG NIGHT (1951)


In 1951, the director Joseph Losey knew that his days in America—to say nothing of Hollywood—were coming to an end. The blacklist was right around the corner, and Losey was already strapped for cash. His final film before fleeing to Europe was THE BIG NIGHT. The film capped a dynamic run of noirs that had begun the previous year with The Lawless, and was followed by the masterpieces M and THE PROWLER. This sequence of films ranks up there with the work of any director in the classic period in terms of style, impact, and acting.

THE BIG NIGHT fits securely into the larger body of noir films that deal with fractured, tormented adolescence (films like They Live By Night and Edge Of Doom). It tells the story of a teenager named George La Main, the bashful son of a bartender named Andy. George is in the bar on his birthday when a man with a cane suddenly walks in and orders his father to disrobe and get down on his hands and knees. With the shocked patrons of the bar looking on, Andy does as he’s told and the man proceeds to beat him with the cane. After Andy is moved to a bed to recuperate, a baffled George, incensed by what has happened, rushes out to find and kill the man who beat his father. This begins a long dark night of the soul that will, needless to say, not go exactly as George anticipates.

The film was based on the novel DREADFUL SUMMIT by Stanley Ellin. Though Ellin would eventually become the Edgar-winning president of the Mystery Writers Guild of America, in 1951 Losey thought his novel stunk. Still, he would concede later, there was enough material in the story to work with. The film he crafted from the book was no masterpiece, but it too has an undeniable quality. Indeed, while THE BIG NIGHT is a step down from M or THE PROWLER, it’s still an involving piece of work.

The film contains one scene of striking power and unquestionable historical interest. George talks his way into a nightclub with a drunken professor he’s met at a boxing match. Consuming too much alcohol, he stares in fascination as the African American jazz band plays a number with a blistering drum solo. Watching the drummer unleash an incredible volley of beats, George flashes back to the image of the man with the cane beating his father. He’s rescued from the horror of this recollection only when a beautiful singer (played by Mauri Lynn) croons the song “Am I Too Young.” The shot of George staring longingly at the lovely black singer is one of the first moments of interracial longing in American cinema. Later, George bumps into the singer on the street and tells her how much he enjoyed her singing. “That isn’t all,” he says. “It’s also that you’re so beautiful. Even if you are a…”

The filmmaking and acting here is fascinating. This was pretty much Mauri Lynn’s only moment in motion pictures. She made three brief, uncredited appearances over the next couple of years and then left movies to return to singing full time in 1954. This one brief scene, however, is an indication that we lost something special when Lynn quit Hollywood. She’s luminous singing the song that rescues George from his despair (and Losey cuts closer and closer to her as the song progresses). When George approaches her on the street, her reaction shots are pure gold. Look at her measured smile when he tells her she’s beautiful. She’s flattered, but not too flattered. When he suddenly—to his horror as well as hers—stumbles over his own racism, her reaction is pained but muted. Losey ends the scene with a shot of her wounded countenance, a composition which the writer Tony D’Ambra once pointed out “renders her pain as important as (George’s) bewilderment and regret.”


If the rest of the film doesn’t match this sequence in power (it hastily tosses George a white girlfriend in the next scene), it’s still an impressive piece of work. George is played by John Barrymore Jr. (soon to change his name to John Drew Barrymore). Barrymore never got much respect because a) he was the son of a far more famous father, b) he would eventually be the father of a far more famous daughter, and c) he was a difficult-to-handle drug addict with serious daddy issues. None of this can obscure the fact that Barrymore’s compulsively watchable here. Looking like a young Sean Penn, he’s put through many of the same paces as James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. That he manages to survive this sweaty intensity at all is some kind of testament.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

NOIR CITY is here


The new issue of NOIR CITY is a real piece of work. It spotlights a few of the under appreciated women who made noir happen. Eddie Muller spotlights producer Joan Harrison, and there are pieces on Ella Raines, June Havok, and the great Dorothy B. Hughes. My own contribution to this issue is a piece on Jean Gillie and Jack Bernhard, the wife and husband team who made the most deranged of all classic noirs, 1946's DECOY.

There is much, much more by a stellar lineup of guest voices like Megan Abbott and Vicki Hendricks. Check out the issue here. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Dark Vision of Ida Lupino


I have an article on Ida Lupino in the new issue of Mystery Scene magazine. My admiration for Lupino has deepened into a real affection. She was a great actor, a great filmmaker, a real lady, and a hell of a broad. Ida was everything, and her contribution to noir is second to none. 

The issue is on stands now. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

LONG HAUL is here!


The new edition of LONG HAUL by the late great AI Bezzerides is now available from 280 Steps. The book features my introduction to Buzz and his work. 

Here's a preview:


Buzz just wanted to tell the truth. He didn’t consider himself a crime writer, didn’t really consider himself a genre guy at all. He just wanted to write the brutal truth about struggling for survival in America. Proletarian realism, they used to call it. The truth, Buzz called it. He’d come up hard, had seen the world beat down his old man, and he wanted to put that experience into works of fiction as clearly and candidly as possible. Of course, the fascinating thing is the way that his ambition to be honest just naturally led him to produce books that read like crime novels. Maybe that’s because, to Buzz, life looked a lot like a crime in progress.


He was born Albert Issok Bezzerides in 1908 in Samsun, Turkey—which, at the time, was still part of the Ottoman Empire—the son of a Greek father and an Armenian mother. “I can swear and pray in Armenian and Turkish,” he later told an interviewer, but when he was still just a boy, his parents packed up their son and headed to America in search of a new life. The fruit fields of California might have been advertised as a sun-dappled paradise, but A.I.—or “Buzz” as he was called—grew up working for his father in the fresh produce industry in the San Joaquin Valley, a hardscrabble experience that would mark him for the rest of his life. The young boy’s worldview was forged in the fire of hard manual labor—picking fruit, repairing shabby old trucks, driving all night, and fighting the shysters at the produce markets. “Etched into my soul,” he once wrote, “was the poverty that surrounded me as a child.” 

Monday, September 28, 2015

NO TOMORROW


Now Available: my new novel NO TOMORROW.


It’s 1947, and Billie Dixon has just talked herself into a new job. As the distribution agent for Hollywood’s shoddiest movie studio, she travels to rural Arkansas peddling B-grade Westerns to poor theaters. When she meets Amberly Henshaw, the unhappy wife of a preacher on a crusade against the evils of motion pictures, she senses an immediate attraction. Billie knows it’s crazy to get involved with Amberly, but she tells herself it will just be a quick fling. Once Amberly’s fanatical husband finds out about their affair, however, Billie Dixon finds herself in a spiral of betrayal and murder…

Get it here.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Chicago: A City of Cinephiles


Chicago stopped being a center of film production almost as quickly as it began, but it was a happening place in the early days of cinema. Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Pictures, first began building his empire on Milwaukee Avenue. Essanay Pictures--original home of Charlie Chaplin and Broncho Billy Anderson--was headquartered here. And Chicago was the home of the two most important Black-owned film companies of the early era: George Johnson's Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Oscar Micheaux's Micheaux Film and Book Company. I could go on, but the point here is that the city played a vital role in the development of the movie industry.

Alas, its days as a movie center were numbered. There were many reasons the movie industry drifted west--to escape the Edison Trust, to take advantage of a relatively undeveloped social system that allowed for the advancement of non-WASPs--but, really, the main reason is that California had nice weather. Chicago, magnificent city that it is, has never been able to make that argument. Its winters proved too long and too brutal, so the movie industry left for a warmer climate that allowed for year-round production schedules.

Of course, a lot of movies still get made in Chicago--stuff like THE DARK KNIGHT and TRANSFORMERS on the blockbuster side, as well as indies like Joe Swanberg's HAPPY CHRISTMAS--so its appeal as a movie location clearly remains evergreen. Yet, neither Chicago's history nor its current status as a film location really explains its place in film culture.

Its vital position in world film culture is derived from its obsession with the movies themselves. It's no accident that Chicago happened to produce the most famous of all movie critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. This town is movie crazy. As a place for deranged cinephiles, it can compete with any city anywhere. (I say this, of course, as a deranged cinephile.) 

Here, then, are ten things this city has to offer the committed movie geek:

1. The Music Box Theater- A great old theater on Southport Avenue near Wrigley Field, the Music Box is the crown jewel of Chicago's movie world. It plays retrospectives of classic films and showcases new independents and foreign films. It has weekend midnight showings of cult classics. It hosts festivals like Noir City, The 70mm Film Festival, and The French Film Festival. It has a 24-hour horror movie marathon on Halloween. It shows silent movies the second Saturday of every month, complete with live organ music. It has big-time filmmakers come in to do events. It has a full bar. It is connected to Music Box Films which distributes foreign films in America (it brought us IDA for god's sake). It is magnificent. All on its own, the Music Box would make Chicago a damn good place to be a movie lover.

2. The Gene Siskel Film Center- Connected with the School of the Art Institute (where, full disclosure, I teach), the Siskel is the great downtown hub for movie geeks. Located on State Street, it's a truly state-of-the-art facility. It hosts festivals like the Black Harvest Film Festival, shows new independents and foreign films, and runs retrospectives year-round. All on its own, the Siskel would make Chicago a damn good place to be a movie lover.

3. Doc Films- The University of Chicago is home to the longest running student film society in the U.S. Remember how, back in the 1960s, college campuses were obsessed with movies? Well, Doc Films, which traces its roots back to the 1930s never got over its obsession. It shows everything--classics, new stuff, foreign stuff, high brow, low brow. And it's five bucks to get in. And parking is free. Sometimes filmmakers show up to present films. Back in the day, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford showed up to present films here. This year, I saw most of Orson Welles's movies there. It's that kind of place.

4. Facets Cinematheque- An intimate theater and esoteric DVD rental shop located on Fullerton, Facets showcases small off-beat films that you can't usually find anywhere else (not even at any of the the three heavy-hitters listed above). The Cinematheque is only part of Facets Multimedia, which, among other cool things, puts on a Film Camp for kids and, for over thirty years, has hosted the Chicago International Children's Film Festival.

5. Chicago Filmmakers- Located on North Clark in the Andersonville neighborhood, Chicago Filmmakers is a not-for-profit media arts organization that "fosters the creation, appreciation, and understanding of film and video. It provides classes and workshops, sponsors screenings of avant garde or outsider films at places like Columbia College Chicago's Film Row Cinema, and puts on Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival.

6. Northwest Chicago Film Society- I love this group, which is passionately committed to celluloid. (They bill their events, pointedly, as being "programmed and projected.") They used to show films at the beautiful old Patio Theater. Recently they've set up shop at Northeastern Illinois University. Their film series is always an electric mix of (often unsung) classics.

7. The Pickwick Theater- A gorgeous art deco theater built in 1928, the Pickwick is located in the suburb of Park Ridge. It runs new releases most of the time, but it also plays host to the Silent Summer Film Festival, powered by "our Mighty Wurlitzer Organ."

8. Century Centre Cinema- A Landmark theater specializing in independent film, the Century is spread across a couple of levels of of the Century Shopping Center on North Clark Street. It's super posh, with reclining seats and a full bar and gourmet snacks.

9. Regal City North Stadium 14 IMAX and RPX- Of course, man does not live on classics and independent films alone. Chicago has multiplexes all over the place. My favorite is the Regal on Western Ave. It's a huge place, with stadium seating, IMAX screens, and RPX (or "Regal Premium Experience") screens that have all kinds of extras and next-level sound and picture quality. They also have an amazing assortment of movie-based video games out front for the kids, including the coolest Star Wars game I've ever seen.

10. Cine-File- Check out this website devoted to providing serious criticism about whatever happens to be coming up in Chicago theaters. It's an amazing resource for local movie geeks, and it provides a nice glimpse at the depth of cinema love here.

I could really keep going. Please leave a comment if you think I've left off anything important. And I would love to be exposed to something great that I don't know about yet. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Nice review of THE POSTHUMOUS MAN


One of the greatest pleasures that comes from writing a book is watching it travel through the world. I put out THE POSTHUMOUS MAN back in 2012, and people are still discovering it. Sometimes those people are cool enough to take time out and tell the world they liked my work. Doesn't get much better than that.

Check out this great, new, review of the book by Richard Vialet. It made my day.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Interview


The writer Alex Segura was nice enough to ask me to stop by his newsletter Stuff & Nonsense to talk about noir fiction and film. It was a nice conversation, and you can check it out here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926) and The Making of Gary Cooper


Gary Cooper was 25 years old when he made Henry King's THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH. He's the third name down in the credits, behind stars Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman. The story is a romantic triangle and (spoiler alert) Coop doesn't get the girl. What he got instead, was a career as a movie star. After this movie, he was on the fast track to becoming an American icon. Before long, his name moved above the title and Cooper started a decades-long career of making movies where he always got the girl. 

THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH was one of the first great westerns--it's a film of magnificent vistas, compelling performances, and great spirit--yet it's not a genre piece in the way that we normally regard westerns. It actually takes as its subject the settlement of California's Salton Sink in the early 1900s and the dirty politics behind the bringing of water to the parched valley. It's suspicious of "soulless corporations" and fat cat financiers. In some respects, it plays like a precursor to CHINATOWN.

While I love so much about the movie (including the wonderful performances of Velma Banky and Ronald Coleman), I really want to talk about Gary Cooper.

One of the most compelling elements of silent films is the way they predated a lot of gender stereotypes. In the silent era, androgyny was hot. Cooper was one of the few stars to make the transition from silents to talkies, and along the way his image became more stoic and explicitly masculine. Though he rarely did macho, by the time you get to the 1950s Coop was the living embodiment of the strong and silent type. But there was always something else about him, something that he carried through his Capra films and his screwball comedies--a certain halting shyness. You see this most explicitly in his silent films.

We first see him in BARBARA WORTH as a cowboy. From the very start, though he is almost unbelievably handsome. 



Paired with old codger Paul McAllister, Cooper is both authentic as a figure of the western but also unblemished and beautiful. He both fits the scene and stands apart from it, which might be a good description of "movie star charisma."



Despite some heroic derring-do later in the film (he gets to shoot some bad guys), I would argue that his real starmaking moment comes in a quiet moment when Coop spots Banky and Coleman together. His reaction shots here capture the unheroic essence that always balanced out the more heroic aspects of his later screen image.






Here you have a sequence of emotions -- longing, joy, disappointment, resignation -- in a brief space, demonstrating that the same guy who looks natural on a horse (Coop was born and raised in Montana) could play it soft and sweet. It was this tension between the various, and seemingly contradictory, parts of his own personality that made Gary Cooper pop off the screen and become a great star. 

A certain vulnerability would always be a part of his DNA as an actor. Unlike John Wayne, and even more than Stewart or Fonda, Cooper could be wounded. This quality finds its most masterful expression, of course, in his greatest western, 1952's HIGH NOON, a movie that hinges around social rejection and emotional isolation.

Of course, Cooper almost always played heroes, and he made plenty of wholly conventional entertainments where he functioned as little more than a tall tower of masculine power. His best work, however, remains a fascinating example of how innate aspects of an actor's personality inform and shade his portrayals in subtle ways.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

PUSHOVER (1954)


For much of her career, Kim Novak was considered little more than a Marilyn Monroe knockoff. Buxom, with a husky whisper of a voice, she was generally dismissed as another pretty blonde with no real talent. Then, as the years passed, something odd happened. Critics and filmmakers started talking more and more about that rather disappointing Hitchcock film she made back in 1958 with Jimmy Stewart called VERTIGO. More and more people started talking about how good it was. Its reputation grew to the point that today it is widely considered both Hitchcock’s masterpiece and one of the very best films ever made. Along with the reputation of the film, the critical consensus on Novak shifted. Maybe she wasn’t just another fifties-era hourglass figure, after all.

An excellent second stop on this road to reevaluation is Richard Quine’s excellent 1954 bad cop drama PUSHOVER starring Novak and Fred MacMurray. The film begins with a nicely choreographed bank robbery that plays without fanfare or dialog. Two men knock over a bank, and the robbery goes off smoothly until a heavy-footed security guard makes a clumsy attempt to stop them. They shoot him down and abscond with the loot.

In the next scene we see a pretty girl in a mink coat get picked up by a man outside a movie theater. She’s Lona (Novak) the girlfriend of one of the bank robbers. The man who picks her up is Paul Sheridan (MacMurray). At first he just seems like an overly confidant ladies man, but we quickly discover that he’s actually an undercover cop. His superior officer (hardnosed E.G. Marshall) wants Sheridan to get close to Lona so they can drop the net on her bank robber boyfriend.

The cops stake out Lona’s place. Sheridan is joined by his upright partner Rick (Phillip Carey) and a hard-drinking old timer named Paddy Dolan. These guys are not the best stakeout team. Paddy likes to leave his post to zip down to a nearby cocktail lounge for a snort or two, while Rick is overly interested in the pretty nurse who lives next door to Lona. He wants to ask her out, but he’ll probably have a hard time explaining to her that he developed a crush on her while peeking through her windows with binoculars.

The big problem, though, is Paul Sheridan. Unbeknownst to his partners, he’s fallen in love with Lona. And Lona, being no fool, has quickly pieced together the situation with the cops. She makes Sheridan a proposition: why don’t they kill her bank robber boyfriend when he shows up at her apartment and keep the two hundred grand from bank score for themselves? This plan will require Sheridan to juggle his lover, his superior, his partners, the bank robber, and the neighbors all at once. I hope I’m giving nothing away by saying that his attempt to keep all these balls in the air is a spectacular failure—spectacular in every sense of the word.

PUSHOVER is 100% hardcore noir. Richard Quine also directed the excellent heist film DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, and with both films he shows a flawless grasp of the bleak world of film noir. He’s good with actors, keeping performances understated even when the material is heating up, and his handling of action and suspense is superb. Notice how deftly he moves the scenes between Sheridan and his drunkard partner Paddy as they head toward a collision with each other. Or note the excellent use of crane shots, like the one that follows three characters down a darkened city street to their doom. Most of all, notice the handling of mood—at once perfectly controlled on the surface and turbulent underneath.

The script was based on two novels—RAFFERTY by Bill Ballinger and THE NIGHT WATCH by Thomas Walsh—adapted by the enormously talented writer Roy Huggins. A novelist himself who also wrote many good films including the masterpiece TOO LATE FOR TEARS, Huggins took the bulk of the bad cop story from THE NIGHT WATCH and melded it with some of the cop-and-bad-girl material from RAFFERTY. The result is an ingeniously evolving plot (perhaps I should say devolving plot since things keep going wrong). The story is not a mystery, but Huggins plants clues as to where it’s going. Early on, we get a conversation between the cops that seems inconsequential, but later seems to be at the heart of things.

Rick: Money? It’s nice, but it doesn’t make the world go around.

Sheridan: Doesn’t it? Do you know anybody who’s happily married who hasn’t got plenty of it?

Rick: Sure, my old man…

Sheridan: Yeah? My folks hated each other. Fighting all the time…and always about money.   

The performances are all top notch. MacMurray is perfect as Sheridan, giving us an amoral cop who is nearly smart enough to pull off his master plan. Some people will disagree, perhaps, but I think this, not DOUBLE INDEMNITY, is MacMurray’s best noir performance.

And Kim Novak is stunning here. Firstly, and I don’t say this flippantly, she is staggeringly sexy. The filmmakers contrive to put her in so many sexy outfits it starts to get a little silly—one outfit is a sheer braless number that Quine goes out of his way to emphasize—but the essence of the character is, after all, her affect on men. She’s the kept woman of a bank robber, and she’s considering making the switch to being the kept woman of a crooked cop. She’s a femme fatale for sure, but Novak sells the role in the same way that Lona is selling more than just the promise of the greatest sex in the world. There’s always something a little sad about Novak. For a supposed bombshell, in fact, her sadness was always dangerously close to the surface. If Monroe made it seem like the party would never end, Novak made it seem like the end was just around the corner. You see it in VERTIGO, and you see it here. Her appeal isn’t just sex, after all, it’s need. I’m sexy, she seems to say, and I need you to take care of me. It’s very easy to see why a man might throw away his life trying to do just that.

PUSHOVER will be playing this Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

You can find "The Crooked Road of Richard Quine" my piece  on the noir career (and, in some respects, the noir life) of PUSHOVER director Quine (including his offscreen affair with Kim Novak) in my book THE BLIND ALLEY



Friday, August 7, 2015

Noir Worth Watching: GIL BREWER, HUBERT CORNFIELD, AND THE IRRESISTIBLE LURE OF THE SWAMP


If you're a noir geek or a fan of the late great Gil Brewer (a pulp writer's pulp writer if ever there was one), you'll want to go check out Gary Deane's latest post at his great blog Noir Worth Watching. He takes a look back at Brewer's mixed experiences being adapted for film by focusing on the Hubert Cornfield flick LURE OF THE SWAMP. Like Brewer, Cornfield isn't as well known as he deserves (Cornfield's heist movie masterpiece PLUNDER ROAD is essential noir), and Deane does a nice job of shining a light on these two forgotten masters of the cheap and dirty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Death of Marilyn Monroe by Sharon Olds


By Sharon Olds, from THE DEAD AND THE LIVING

"The Death of Marilyn Monroe"

 The ambulance men touched her cold
body, lifted it, heavy as iron,
onto the stretcher, tried to close the
mouth, closed the eyes, tied the
arms to the sides, moved a caught
strand of hair, as if it mattered,
saw the shape of her breasts, flattened by
gravity, under the sheet
carried her, as if it were she,
down the steps.

These men were never the same. They went out
afterwards, as they always did,
for a drink or two, but they could not meet
each other's eyes.

Their lives took
a turn--one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him--a place where she
would be waiting,

and one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary
woman

breathing.

Monday, August 3, 2015

RIP Coleen Gray 1922-2015


Coleen Gray was so beautiful, the first time I saw NIGHTMARE ALLEY, I had a difficult time focusing on anything else. Luckily, the film itself is excellent and Gray, as she always was, was excellent in it.

She was usually cast as the nice girl--an underrated role in the noir gallery of character types, but an important one nevertheless. She was an angel of light in the very dark NIGHTMARE ALLEY. In THE KILLING, she's so delicate that it makes the bleak ending of the film take on a whole other level of tragedy. She was great in other great movies like KISS OF DEATH and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (and played John Wayne's great lost love in RED RIVER). For the rare pleasure of seeing her play a femme fatale, check out THE SLEEPING CITY. The film itself is flawed, but chief among its virtues is a good performance from Gray.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The New NOIR CITY Summer Issue Is Here!


The new issue of NOIR CITY has a special focus on music. I have a piece on the country noir of Johnny Cash. It was a thrill to get to write something about the musician whose music has meant the most to me over the course of my life.

I also have a new installment in my series on Poverty Row Professionals, this time focusing on the New York filmmakers Joseph and Geraldine Lerner. They pretty much embodied the postwar East Coast Poverty Row. Among other interesting films they made one of my absolute favorite low-budget noirs, GUILTY BYSTANDER.




The issue is packed full of great articles by the likes of Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Deane, Ray Banks, Vince Keenan, Rosemarie Keenan, Woody Haut, Steve Kronenberg, and more. As usual the issue is designed by the great Michael Kronenberg.

Check it out here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Robert Ryan: A Good Man In A Bad Time


I'm over at The Life Sentence with a piece on the great Robert Ryan. It's an overview of Ryan's life and career, and a review of the terrific new book THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN by J.R. Jones.

Click here to read A Good Man In A Bad Time.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What I'm Reading

I've long been fascinated by Oscar Micheaux, a film pioneer whose life is the stuff of legend, but I've just recently caught up to Patrick McGilligan's masterful biography OSCAR MICHEAUX: THE GREAT AND ONLY. I can't recommend it highly enough. Deeply researched and sharply written, it tells the story of Micheuax through his autobiographical novels and films, as well as letters and interviews, government documents and newspaper achieves. Micheaux was the son of former slaves who headed to Chicago, became a Pullman porter, traveled all over North and South America, and then became a homesteader in South Dakota. All that before he became the key African American filmmaker of the first fifty years of film. Part Booker T. Washington, part D.W. Griffith, and part P.T. Barnum--he was, in the end, all himself, an icon of independence and artistic willpower.


Monday, June 22, 2015

10 Of The Best Noir Novels of the 21st Century


The writer Eric Beetner has put together a list of his favorite noir novels since the year 2000 over at Criminal Element. I'm thrilled to see my novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET included on the list, of course, but the rest of this list ain't too shabby, either. Some great stuff on here, including works by some of my personal heroes. 

Go here to check out 10 of the Best Noir Novels of the 21st Century.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: F FOR FAKE


How do we even begin to address the uniqueness of F FOR FAKE? In the final entry in my series on Orson Welles at 100 over at Criminal Element, I give it a try.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

NOIR CITY On Sale!

I've been writing for NOIR CITY for a few years now, and I've been really happy with all the feedback I've gotten from people who love the magazine. The only problem has been that folks could only get the issues on a subscription basis.

Well, I'm happy to say that you can now buy NOIR CITY on an issue by issue basis. My contributions to these issues include an overview of Orson Welles's impact on film noir, my profiles of people like Tom Neal (DETOUR), Peggie Castle (99 RIVER STREET), Beverly Michaels (WICKED WOMAN), all the entries in my series on Poverty Row Professionals, and much more.

You can find out more, and get complete table of content listings for each issue, including great work by regular contributors like Eddie Muller, Imogen Sara Smith, Vince Keenan, Gary Deane, Steve Kronenberg, and Dan Akira Nishimura--and special features by people like Ed Brubaker, Ken Bruen, Michael Connelly, Christa Faust, Barry Gifford, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippmann, Scott Phillips, Duane Swierczynski and many more. Every issue is beautifully designed by the great Michael Kronenberg.

Go check it out at the new Noir City website.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: FALSTAFF (1965)

FALSTAFF (aka CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT) might just be Orson Welles's greatest film. I try to explain why in my latest installment of Orson Welles at 100 over at Criminal Element. Click here to read.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Coming In October

A.I. Bezzerides was a real badass, and it was a pleasure to get to the introduction to this reissue of his first novel, coming from 280 Steps in October. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: THE TRIAL (1962)


I'm over at Criminal Element with a new installment in my series on Orson Welles at 100. This time around I'm looking at one of my favorite of the director's works, 1962's THE TRIAL

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)


TOUCH OF EVIL is one of the great pieces of cinematic trash. It's a frantic film, wildly over the top, in love with its own squalor, infatuated with the feel and smell of decay. Among Orson Welles's attempts at pulp, it is his masterpiece. 

I'm over at Criminal Element writing about the film in the newest entry of my series on Welles At 100. Check it out here.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: THE THIRD MAN (1949)


The newest entry in my series on the centennial of Orson Welles takes a look at the most popular role he ever played, Harry Lime in Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN, starring Welles's old pal Joseph Cotton. Click here to check it out

Friday, May 15, 2015

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review of THE DEEPENING SHADE


There's a really nice review of my story collection THE DEEPENING SHADE up at The Life Sentence. I couldn't be happier about it. Written by Scott Adlerberg, it's one of the most perceptive pieces that's been written about my work.

Check out the review here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Report from the Welles Centennial Festival

There are two master narratives about Orson Welles. The first holds that he was a boy genius who made the Greatest Movie Of All Time and then went into a precipitous decline that lasted the rest of his life. In this view, he was a man undone by his passions and his personal failings.

The second narrative holds that Welles was a boy genius who made a great movie that so unsettled the fickle company town of Hollywood that he was driven out, forced to make his increasingly brilliant art as an independent producer. In this view, Welles isn't just the guy who made CITIZEN KANE. He's the author a body of work that includes pivotal contributions to film noir (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, TOUCH OF EVIL), European cinema (THE TRIAL, THE IMMORTAL STORY), and the documentary (F FOR FAKE). In this view Welles' greatest film wasn't the masterpiece he made in 1941, it was the one (FALSTAFF) that he made in 1965.

The second view (and, by my lights, the correct one) was well on display in Woodstock, Illinois the last few days. The town is playing host to the Orson Welles Centennial Festival because it is the place that Welles himself regarded as his hometown. Though he was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and lived much of his early life in Chicago, and lived all of his adult years as a continent-hopping nomad--Welles reserved a special love for Woodstock because it was home to Todd Seminary for Boys, where he was sent as a child after the death of his parents. The school's headmaster, Roger Hill, was Welles's oldest and dearest friend.

I made the trip from Chicago to Woodstock this weekend. On Friday, I attended a screening of MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE & CAREER OF ORSON WELLES, a new documentary by director Chuck Workman. Pardon the pun, but the film is best described as workmanlike. Moving lockstep through Welles's life and career, following a basic chronological style, it's unlikely to turn the heads of people who aren't already interested in its subject. Instead, it does admirable recovery work on the legacy of Welles, moving his later films like THE TRIAL and FALSTAFF and F FOR FAKE back into focus after decades of neglect. It's a partisan film, and thank god for that. Welles has been hammered enough over the years under the guise of objectivity. It's nice to see a movie that actively wants to debunk the "boy genius gone sour" myth of a supposedly objective piece of business like THE BATTLE OVER CITIZEN KANE, the American Experience documentary that is regrettably included in DVD packages with CITIZEN KANE. That film is slicker and more dramatically-focused, but MAGICIAN is far more nuanced view of Welles and his work. It is, in the best sense, a movielover's movie. No Welles fan will want to miss it.

Saturday, I got to see Jonathan Rosenbaum interview Oja Kodar. For the last twenty years of Welles' life, Kodar was his partner and artistic collaborator. Her talk with Rosenbaum was wide ranging. She explained the origin of the title of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (in short: she regarded Welles himself as an elemental force, like the wind, and the film sought to explore the other side of that kind of larger than life figure). She explained why she wasn't intimidated by him when then first met. ("Yes, he was this world famous legendary genius...but I knew he was just a man and I was a very pretty girl.")

She also dished on behind the scenes drama, including why she is no longer friends with some of Welles' old confidants, including Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom. (Her disdain for Jaglom is particularly palpable.) Rosenbaum didn't take the conversation into any uncomfortable areas such as the Kodar's feelings about Welles' wife or daughter, nor he did touch on any controversy involving THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. No mention was made of the claim in Josh Karp's new book ORSON WELLES'S LAST MOVIE, that Kodar has been the main obstacle in getting the film released.

All in all, though, it was a fascinating experience to get to hear Oja Kodar (who looms large for any Wellesian) talk about her life and career with such intelligence and good humor. And, of course, it was an honor to hear her talk about the man she loved, a man she still talks about with joy and passion.

Wellestock, as I hope someone is calling it, will continue for the next two weekends. Check here for details.





Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Orson's Birthday


Today would have been Orson Welles's 100th birthday. I'm doing a series over at Criminal Element looking back on his films, and I included my long exploration on his influence on film noir in my book THE BLIND ALLEY, but I don't know that I'll ever run out of things to say about the big guy. Some artists just connect to us too deeply--or is it that we connect to them? Either way, the connection, once made, is seemingly permanent. 

Here's all I want to say about Orson today: while he's often praised (even overpraised) as a stylist and an innovator, I'm not sure he's ever been given his due as a thinker. I don't know if there is a deeper, more profound filmmaker than Orson Welles. Ozu, Bergman, Kieslowki--they would be his equals. But no one is better, deeper, more true. I'm not saying he was always right, not saying that he didn't have his blind spots. He was a human mammal like the rest of us, and as such he was a flawed artist. But, as the man himself would have been quick to point out, all artists are flawed. Their flaws are part of what make them distinctive. Their flaws, in the end, are part of what feeds whatever wisdom they have because wisdom is only arrived at through failure. Few filmmakers were as fearless in risking failure than Orson, and fewer still put as much profound humanity on the screen.

One hundred years of Orson Welles is a beautiful thing. Here's to a hundred more.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Orson Welles at 100: THE STRANGER (1946)


Over at Criminal Element I have a new installment up in my series on the centennial of Orson Welles. This time around I'm talking about THE STRANGER, which is widely acknowledged as one of Welles's failed films. Welles himself treated the film like an unloved child because it was the one that he "did for the studios." It was the one time he tried to make a Hollywood film in a way that would impress the studios. The funny thing, of course, is that the film is entertaining from beginning to end. I never tire of watching it. So if it is a failure, then we have to say it's a failure that only Orson Welles could have made. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that it's a failed experiment which shows us exactly why Welles was never a good fit for the Hollywood system.

Click here to read my piece on THE STRANGER.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Orson Welles At 100: CITIZEN KANE (1941)




I'm over at Criminal Element with the new installment in my series on Orson Welles At 100. Time to tackle the big one: CITIZEN KANE.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

NOIR CITY: The Comix Issue


The new issue of Noir City is here, and it is a beauty. Great contributions from Steve Kronenberg, Imogen Sara Smith, and Eddie Muller--and some really standout work from art director and designer Michael Kronenberg. The focus of the issue is comix and noir, and features a big interview with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the team behind the brilliant series THE FADE-OUT.

The book also features a couple of articles by yours truly: first up,  a piece on BATMAN: YEAR ONE which might be the most noir Batman story ever. 

My other article is the newest installment in my series on Poverty Row Professionals: a career overview of director W. Lee Wilder. Wilder was the older brother of Billy Wilder, and he's been overlooked for years, but he's a really fascinating figure. He stayed an independent on Poverty Row his entire career, and while his films are bargain budget productions, they have a theme so unified that it counts as an obsession: the predatory older man who stalks an impressionable young woman.

Check out Noir City Spring Issue 2015.