What is it, then, that connects them? Is it the game she plays when she knows that he is watching? Or is it the darkness that resides in her as well?
‘Dark is the Night’ is a short story of 4000 words.
If you’re not a reader of pulp fiction, I think it’s very easy to have a pre-formulated idea of what you’re going to get between the covers. Even as someone who has read his share of paperback originals, I still pick a new title up half-expecting it to be the usual hard boiled swagger.
I guess that’s how the genre came to be — it was good at giving the audience exactly what it wanted. And, sure, sometimes as a reader all you want is shabby-suited stubble-chins giving wrongdoers bellyfuls of hot lead. But while, of course, there’s nothing wrong with cheering on granite-jawed bulldozers, I have to admit that, for me, that particular type of writing got old pretty quick.
I’m not saying I outgrew it; I’m not even claiming that it’s too formulaic or knuckleheaded to be fun; all I’m saying is that it stopped exciting me. The nonstop action bored me, and what most people claimed as fuzzy morality for me seemed very cut and dried. The good guys — though hair-triggered and unapologetic — were very much always on the side of good.
But noir fiction at its best is never so predictable. And I realized that most of the time the hard boiled writing, stripped of its square shoulders and one-liners, is — well — conservative and lame.
Like the tough kid at school who grows up and ends up working in insurance — his hard-edged persona seems so toothless and contrived.
How excited I was, then, to find Vin Packer, whose The Twisted Ones I at first assumed to be a salacious tale of juvenile delinquency. I was shocked and delighted, then, to find it so measured and sensitively-handled. What’s more, there was a twist to come after I had finished it.
Y’see, I assumed that tough guy paperback writer Vin Packer was a man. But Vin Packer isn’t Vin Packer at all, but actually the pseudonym of Marijane Meaker.
Now, with hindsight, that name Vin Packer was a little too good to be true, wasn’t it …?
The Twisted Ones are three young men: neat, polite, law-abiding Brock Brown; nervous, molly-coddled, good boy Reginald Whittier; and child prodigy, bookworm, genius Chuck ‘Chuckles’ Berrey. All three are from caring, loving homes; but all three are becoming very twisted indeed. Their inner lives are getting darker every day, and all three are heading towards some kind of release.
And when they vent, there is no telling what they’ll do.
Meaker, as Packer, cuts between the three young men, whose lives build towards their climaxes over one Memorial Day weekend. Meaker keeps all three connected subtly. The three boys read about each other in the papers; and Chuck is appearing on a national television quiz show that the other characters all watch.
Aside from this being an elegant authorial touch, what this approach also does is throw the novel’s final chapter — a press clipping from a Labor Day report on the weekend’s violence — into absurd relief. We, the reader, have just been shown that the problem of juvenile violence can not merely be explained in sweeping, catch-all statements of “youth gone cuckoo.” The problem is more complicated than that.
A lesser writer might have employed the exploitationeer’s classic get-out clause of showing — nay, revelling in — salacious content, only to wax all tut-tutty and moralistic at the end.
Meaker allows her anonymous journalist to do this in her stead, and makes a mockery of such simplistic thinking in the process.
What we are given instead throughout the course of the novel is understanding, sympathetic insights into three individual young men whose lives are growing increasingly out of their control. They are kids filled with self-loathing and/or sexual confusion, and with no means to find their own identities; whose parents warp their minds with well-intentioned love, overbearing dominance and lifetimes of their own shortcomings, prejudices and failures.
When I finished The Twisted Ones, I knew that I was in the presence of no hack writer. And when I discovered Packer’s real identity, the fact that ‘he’ was female — well, it made sense.
Listen to this quote from Meaker that I found on her Wikipedia entry:
“I remember being depressed by all the neatly tied-up, happy-ending stories, the abundance of winners, the themes of winning, solving, finding — when around me it didn’t seem that easy.”
It also delighted me (and made sense) that she was an admirer of Carson McCullers (a personal favourite of mine). On McCullers, Meaker said:
“She was an underdog-lover as I am. She was also this sensitive, intelligent writer whose words were lovely. I felt she was a champion of everyone who felt out-of-step with the world.”
And this is precisely what I feel about The Twisted Ones.
It is precisely what I feel about great noir writing in general.
As a reader, it is the kind of writing that I want to read. As a writer, it is what I aspire to.
In a way, it is my very view on life.
For me, Meaker’s writing in this novel — her characters themselves — are the very antithesis of those schoolyard toughs now working 9 to 5 in their offices. This is rebellious, dark, troubled writing in a very real sense, reflecting a chaotic, fragile existence in a difficult, indifferent world.
And writing like that does not need to be hardboiled. Writing like that means every word it says.
Meaker apparently wrote 20 novels as Vin Packer. The excellent Prologue Books has released most of these as affordable ebooks, as well as novels from some of Meaker’s other pseudonyms.
I, meanwhile, have found myself a new heroine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off to buy the rest of them.
Like oh-so-many murder stories before or since, The Dark Mirror (1946) begins with a camera prowling around a night-time apartment, only to stumble across a body with a knife sticking out of its back. The victim is a doctor, who we never get to meet (no flashbacks here…). Witnesses in his apartment building saw him only last night with a woman, and his secretary is quick to provide a name and place of business for the doctor’s girlfriend. The investigator, Lt. Stevenson, is confident that this can all be wrapped up quickly.
But things are about to take an unexpected turn …
Y’see, that girl is Terry Collins, played by Olivia de Havilland. She runs a concession stand in the lobby of the building where the doctor’s offices were. The problem is, however … there are two of her.
It transpires that Terry has a twin, Ruth — also played by de Havilland — and the two of them have been sharing duties at the job. Nobody at the building has a clue that there are two of them. More importantly, nobody can say with any certainty which one of the women is the one that they’ve been interacting with at any one time. And of course, no witness can swear on a bible which one they saw at the scene of the crime.
The police are sure that one of the women is a murderer, and the other — albeit naively — is covering up for her. But without a shred of evidence, both of the women are free to go.
Lt. Stevenson, however, refuses to believe in the existence of the perfect murder. And luckily for him, one of the other offices in the building belongs to Dr. Scott Elliott, a psychologist who just happens to specialize in the study of twins …
Now, of course, if there’s one thing twins are good for, aside from studies into behavioural genetics, it’s a darn good twisty murder plot.
Though both women are played by de Havilland, and always in matching outfits, they are both given widely different characters (as well as unnecessarily helpful nametag necklaces and monogram brooches). Evil, conniving murderer twin smokes cigarettes in the shadows; good, pure innocent twin frets and giggles and falls in love with Elliott.
There’s really never any doubt who the guilty party is. If you’re looking for a murder mystery, then this ain’t it. What we’re dealing with here is a psychological study.
Psychology in noir, for me, is perhaps the genre’s defining characteristic. These are not simply sex and murder stories for the sake of it. Collected together as a movement, during a specific period of time, and within a single country, these movies seem to work as a critical dissection of American post-war mores.
Complicated, bewildering subjects such as confused gender roles, the corrupting influence of power and money, and the need to settle back into normality after WWII’s insane, bloody nightmare, were too vast to be tackled head-on by the average Joes contained within the noir canon.
What better figurehead for these hapless chumps to turn to than the psychologist?
In film noirs such as Whirlpool (1949), Fear in the Night (1947), The Seventh Veil (1945), Spellbound (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947), the psychologist’s methods are depicted as either miracle-working cures, or as the means of destroying already-fractured psyches — a view perhaps reaching its climax with paranoid cold war noir The Manchurian Candidate (1962) — methods that are dangerous in the wrong hands, dangerous precisely because they seem to be working on a plane so far above the average Joe’s understanding; a kind of Pandora’s Box that we perhaps in our ignorance never should have opened.
(Both views, you might note, still stand in awe of the methods depicted. Off the top of my head — and feel free to correct this in the comments — I can’t think of a classic period noir that openly and aggressively criticizes psychiatry. Perhaps for this we had to wait until the early seventies, when Harry Callahan would merely reach for his .44 Magnum to outwit evildoers seemingly protected by the law’s loopholes. No blind faith in hypnosis, Rorschach ink blots or dream analysis for Dirty Harry (1971) in the aftermath of the flatulent, mumbo-jumbo sixties.)
All of which, really, is discussion for another time and place.
Ultimately, The Dark Mirror is a satisfying experience, breezing by in 85 minutes and never quite outstaying its welcome, despite its talky scenes. De Havilland is great in both roles and the special effects convincing enough not to make the film a dated curiosity.
The early scenes adopt a light, comedic tone that damages the eventual darkness of the story, but I did at least appreciate the film’s ruthless devotion to realism. Though one twin could easily be seen as the ‘evil’ twin, and the other as the ‘good’, this is explained away by nothing more exotic than old-fashioned sibling rivalry. It is a tale of bitterness, frustration and jealousy — a tale as old as the bible’s Cain and Abel — primeval emotions explained and ultimately cured by the miracle and wonder of analysing ink patterns splattered on a piece of card.
The kind of movie that Harry Callahan definitely wouldn’t go to see.
Wow. I wasn’t expecting anything when I began this short novel. I picked it up from the Munsey’s website a little while ago and then selected it on my Kindle with a random pot shot.
It took only a few pages to realize that I was reading something special.
Milton Raskob — “a remarkably ordinary looking man in his early thirties” — works as a colour separatist at a chemical company. Like many downtrodden men in nondescript jobs, Raskob one day receives a slight from his hated boss. This slight is one too many for a man who has felt bullied his whole life; and to show his boss (and everyone else) that he’s an important man, he takes his knife to the streets and butchers a little girl.
What follows is a string of child murders that shocks a city.
Lt. Tanager is the cop in charge of the investigation. A diligent but slightly world-weary man, Tanager’s daughter is currently seriously ill in hospital with suspected polio. Much to his terrified wife’s dismay, Tanager seeks solace in his work, and his sense of duty is such that he seems to be protecting every child in the city other than his own.
In His Blood is told in back-n-forth third person fashion between the cop and the killer. Raskob grows more confident and Tanager more determined through the pages; the police work that is carried out is relentless and laborious and the terrible killings become increasingly shocking.
Nothing particularly ground-breaking in the plot, then.
Where, for me, the novel really shines is in its fair and honest depiction of humanity. Daniels, whilst willing to depict the stark horror of what Raskob is doing, is also brave enough to give the sickening child killer a degree of empathy. He is not ‘merely’ a monster; his monstrousness is multiplied by his bland normality.
Raskob’s actions are not excused by his backstory of insecurity and bullying. Daniels’ empathy for the killer in no way strays into bleeding heart sentimentality or cries of social injustice breeding senseless crime. Raskob is depicted as a miserable, pant-wetting coward who can only fight back against the humanity he feels wronged by when it is barely four feet tall and wholly innocent.
You might not like him as you’re reading, but you’ll feel you understand him. Similarly, you understand how Tanager feels about leaving his wife and daughter at the hospital to chase the killer.
In the early pages, as Raskob begins his descent, coupled with the domestic horrors of Tanager’s daughter’s situation, the novel reaches a level of pathos that is far beyond the usual pulp paperback fare. The reader is left feeling that the world seems a very bleak and tragic, loveless place indeed.
If the novel then pulls back slightly from this worldview and allows a little light to shine onto the scene, then Daniels has done such a good job in the early stages of revealing his main characters that by the time the novel is drawing to a close, the reader is desperate for the standard cat’n’mouse happy ending.
From what I can gather after a quick internet search, Daniels was no more than a hobby writer; and while I’m glad there are four more of his novels to discover, I can’t help but wish he made a real go of this career. On the strength of this, his first novel, he easily earns his place among the top tier of crime paperback writers. Definitely worthy of your attention.
At the age of 22, I was living back at home after university, drinking every night and chasing after girls (and failing to catch them), and stacking shelves at a local supermarket for chump change. I wanted to be a writer, and occasionally in my free and sober hours, I would sit down and write formless, sketchy short stories that most people shrugged at and confessed they didn’t see the point of.
At 22, Ira Levin was writing A Kiss Before Dying.
Finishing any novel at that age is something to be marvelled at. Writing a publishable one, another thing entirely. Writing a crime classic such as A Kiss Before Dying? Yeesh …
It’s actually very hard to write too much about this novel without revealing its plot and thus spoiling its pleasures. I can’t even tell you the central character’s name without ruining the masterful suspense of the second act. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns a disturbingly normal sociopath who plans to ingratiate himself into a rich industrialist family, and the murderous lengths he’ll go to to achieve his goal.
I picked this up expecting a dark, probing slice of noir fiction (I had already seen 1956’s colour film noir classic movie adaptation). What I got, however, was so much more besides. Somehow, Levin manages to pull off the full show — in-depth noirish character analysis of a sick mind, coupled with strictly-plotted, surprise-filled suspense and mystery.
I couldn’t help comparing Kiss… to Pat Highsmith, in fact. She, too, strikes that balance between characterization and carefully-plotted suspense. Levin’s sociopath is not a hundred miles away from Highsmith’s Ripley. Sometimes-panicky, sometimes-boastful, Levin’s killer is, on the face of it, a charismatic, likeable chap. It’s not difficult to see how he could worm his way into so many people’s lives. He is given just enough charm to woo the reader, too. His increasingly disturbing behaviour is little more than a woefully misguided attempt to keep things on an (albeit skewed) even keel.
The dark workings of his mind are presented by Levin without direct judgement. At most, Levin allows himself and us a wry chortle at his character’s expense. After shaking his head in apparent ingenuous wonder at the intricacy of his latest scheme, he affectionately calls himself “a crazy nut.” Levin, however, tells us, “He didn’t really think that; he thought he was daring, audacious, brilliant, intrepid and bold.”
And yet, of course, you cannot help but kinda like the twisted bastard. All the time, it’s little more than a complicated game to him. Like any psychopath, thoughts of others’ misery never once enter his head. To the very end he remains self-obsessed and rather proud of his achievements. The ending is right out of the pages of pulp fiction, with our anti-hero dangling from a wire above a vat of molten copper in a smelting plant. Still he cannot help but play delusional games — “Yes, a plan! Even now, at this moment, a plan!” he marvels to himself.
The structure of the novel is intricate without becoming convoluted. It is split into three parts — or, more accurately, three sisters — and yet it is in no way episodic. Levin deftly plants seeds that bear fruit later on in the proceedings. He employs gripping, simple tricks that had me literally popping my eyes open with delight as I read. And most importantly, I could barely put it down.
Whatever your favourite stripe or subgenre of crime fiction is, A Kiss Before Dying has enough to keep you satisfied. A real and deserved classic of its type.
Growing up, I always wanted to like olives. But every time I put one in my mouth I winced and spat it out. For some reason, though, I wouldn’t let things lie. Almost immediately I put another olive in my mouth.
A grudging, perverse acceptance soon turned to outright fanaticism. And soon I was eating them directly out of the jar.
I think it’s fair to say, too, that I’ve had to acquire a taste for Jim Thompson. Let’s face it — the man’s uncompromising view ain’t changing for you, so you’d better shift your own view till you agree.
To this day, though, I’m not sure what it is about even his classic works that leaves me with a slight taste of disappointment in my mouth.
Yet always — always — I find myself going back for more. And I can say with my hand on my heart that once I’ve finished reading all his works, I’ll go back to the start and read them all again.
Some writers just get you that way, I guess. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad Jim Thompson’s got me.
And so to The Criminal, which I have to say I assumed to be a very early work of his. It has the feeling of a writer experimenting with his voice — his world view, even. But in fact, by this time he had already written The Killer Inside Me, Nothing More Than Murder, and Savage Night — all of which you could pick out of a line-up as a Thompson novel from a mile off.
But The Criminal is another beast entirely.
Its story is of a young girl raped and murdered in a small town. The boy who lives next door is implicated in the crime, and nobody in town can quite believe that he is guilty. The girl was sexually precocious, and the intercourse she engaged in with the boy — and others — was entirely consensual. But external forces seem to want to force the hand of justice. The newspapers and the D.A.’s office seem to have their own agendas.
When I said it feels like an author discovering his voice, what I mean is that while the world depicted in The Criminal is a noir-soaked, unforigiving one, it seems a lightweight depiction all the same. It wears no knuckle dusters and it definitely pulls its punches. Its characters are largely stupid, self-serving and amoral; but the story never plumbs the depths of, say, Pop. 1280 or A Swell-Looking Babe. The reader’s head is not forced down into the gutter and held there until the final pages.
What sets The Criminal apart from Thompson’s more powerful works is its narrative style. Whereas the big hitters are exercises in suffocating madness, with the reader forced into a psychopath’s company and never given respite from their warped psyche, The Criminal flits around from character to character, chapter by chapter, with the story allowed to build around the individuals’ testimonies.
Indeed, it is a kind of ‘message novel.’ Thompson even goes so far as to spell it out:
“It’s difficult to place a rope around a man’s neck: the law, slowly evolving through the centuries, winding its way up through dungeons and torture chambers, emerging at last into the sunlight, intended it to be difficult [...] the law has changed, but people have not. They are still lingering back in the shadows; thumbs turned down on the fallen, hustling wood for the witch-burner, donning their bedsheets and boots at the first smell of blood.”
It almost seems trite of me to say that it’s a message that still resonates today. It is, at least, a message that will resonate in any noir aficionado’s dark and cynical heart.
But as a message novel, it does lack punch. Most of the characters are only given one chapter to reveal themselves. It seems hurried, just like the police investigation itself, and the characters are never given room to breathe. It could use about another hundred and fifty pages.
And I don’t say that about many books, believe me.
The only other Jim Thompson novel that I’ve been out and out let down by is The Kill-Off, another character-flitting novel that reads more like a dark-hearted soap opera.
Whether this narrative style was an attempt by Thompson to write ‘important’ novels or not is hard to say. But ironically, his greatest literary — yes, literary — achievements were within the strict confines of the pulps, with audacious experiments and tricks that any self-indulgent high-falutin’ wordsmith could only dream of. He took the pulps further than they had any right to go. His first-person descents into warped but real personal hells were unlike anything else of the kind I’ve read.
Maybe that’s why I still find myself needing to psyche myself up for them somewhat, and why I can never quite work out if I actually enjoyed them. And also why I keep coming back for more. Jim Thompson was so ahead of his time, and beyond his contemporaries, that I’m still not sure I’m ready for him yet.
But one day, Jim, one day I’ll get there…
When I was a teenage film geek, the realization came to me that I was stood very near the bottom of a very tall summit indeed — the mountain of movies that had been made around the world in the past 100 years.
I needed help if I was ever to conquer it.
For a while I tried a scattergun approach — I watched everything and anything I could find. But about half the time, I walked away unsatisfied. I needed to narrow my approach. I needed to specialize.
I worked out very quickly that my tastes were chiefly two-fold: grade-z exploitation movies of all stripes, and classic film noir. To this day, these are my primary movie obsessions.
I’ve dabbled in war and westerns, arty dramas, comedies and action movies. But it’s always exploitation and noir that I fall back on. They’re the areas in which I get the most bang for my buck.
Even after specializing, I still found myself with intimidating heights to climb. I’d found my mountains, but I needed my climbing equipment. I needed maps. I needed guidance. I needed … lists. Like any self-respecting nerd, I knew that compiling lists was the only way to go.
For noir, of course, at first there were the classics. The big names. Bogie and Bacall, and Lake and Ladd. Then, as things got more serious, I happened upon something on the internet that I’m happy to see still exists. I copy ‘n’ pasted it, printed it and kept it to hand in my flickering TV-lit bedroom. I read it constantly to try to memorize the titles. And I ran to get it from its drawer whenever a likely candidate turned up in TV listings. (Anything from the ’40s/’50s with ‘dark’ or ‘night’ or ‘gun’ or ‘lovely’ in the title…)
I highlighted every one I watched over the years, and the pages eventually became stained, dog-eared and torn; until — about ten years later — I had to throw it away. But by then I’d seen two hundred movies on the list. I was well-versed, a pro, and I didn’t need it any more. It was replaced by published reference guides and the ubiquity of the internet movie database.
Almost immediately, I wished I hadn’t thrown it out. But I grieved. I never replaced it. And I moved on.
All of which preamble is to say that that list was like a bible to me. In the confusion over what exactly constituted ‘noir’, this was like a guide rope, and I followed it.
But I realized very quickly that I didn’t always agree. I slowly formed my very own definition. I learned to say, “Well, that wasn’t really noir, but…” Sometimes I enjoyed the films; sometimes I didn’t. But still I always referred to the list whenever I was in doubt. And the marginal titles, if nothing else, if only by the very nature of their cousinship to the core, definitive noirs, helped to give me a wider, more open-minded view.
And, of course, I got to watch some damn fine films as well.
Because, after all, wasn’t that the point?
And so to The Whip Hand (1951), which I would have to include in the marginal-noir category. But that is not to put the film down at all. Thematically, it is rooted in paranoia — of an historically important kind, more of which later — and it is directed by a man, William Cameron Menzies, who perhaps created the definitive cinematic paranoid experience, Invaders From Mars (1953), a film that would make an excellent double bill with The Whip Hand.
Elliot Reid stars as vacationing reporter Matt Corbin, whose riverside head injury during a rainstorm finds him drifting into the nearest town for help. Here he meets barking dogs, men with shotguns, suspicious looks, but ultimately a grudging backwoods welcome.
To ward him off, however, the local innkeeper (Raymond Burr) informs Corbin that the fish were all killed off locally after the water was poisoned; but if he’s interested he can direct him to another nearby town where the fishing’s good.
Ever the reporter, though, Corbin decides to hang around and write a story about “the town that ran out of fish.” And soon he realizes that there is more going on in the quiet town than meets the eye. It all has something to do with a local eccentric who lives on a guarded compound across the water. And something about a Nazi scientist who might now be working for the Communists.
Soon Corbin is being hounded by the hostile locals, and he doesn’t know who in town to trust. Even worse, it’s not just his own safety that’s at risk, but the whole of the USA might be at the mercy of one man’s diabolical mania — freedom itself is at risk, the very pursuit of liberty!
And if this all sounds a little melodramatic — well — it is. It’s ‘red scare’ time in Hollywood again. I’ve read elsewhere, however, that this is more to do with producer Howard Hughes than with Menzies. The eccentric across the lake was originally supposed to be an escaped Adolf Hitler(!), and the whole film had to be re-shot when Hughes decided that dirty reds were the bigger threat to freedom at that time.
Whatever your political take on what was obviously something of a farcical shoot, it is to Menzies’ credit that the film can be watched objectively nowadays as a darn good stranger-in-a-strange-place movie.
The movie’s opening scenes are particularly strong, and Menzies’ background as an art director shines. It’s a dark and stormy rain-soaked evening; lightning flashes and the wind howls in the trees. Corbin first approaches the gates of the compound and encounters a grim-faced guard, whose dog barks manically over the loud storm on the soundtrack. The man is brandishing a shotgun and his lines are delivered to a camera that frames his face in an unsettling close-up. When Corbin eventually arrives in town, he find the streets almost deserted, and hollow-eyed faces watch his approach from behind closed windows.
If the film has failings, it’s that it can’t maintain this tone throughout its running time. Unlike Invaders From Mars, whose nightmare grip gets tighter as the film progresses, The Whip Hand eventually runs out of steam.
Perhaps it’s because its villains are so silly. The Nazi/Commie’s lab is right out of a mad scientist picture. He even has a room full of slowly-shuffling, bandage-wearing zombies.
There is no ambiguity to the nightmare. Long, distracting conversations are needed to explain away the plot. And for a story about being trapped in a claustrophobic setting, the terrible sin of cutting away to exterior locations occurs not once, but three times — most tellingly to Washington, to inform the audience that the feds don’t take too kindly to the red menace.
The politics, then, ultimately kill the film. But there are definite pleasures to be had along the way. Is it noir? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely a cousin. In a way, Invaders From Mars has more of a claim to the noir mood than does The Whip Hand. But Invaders From Mars, I notice, isn’t on that old list of mine. The Whip Hand is, so make of that what you will …
Okay, here’s a new release for January, a (close to) 4000 word short story, ‘Ride It Out’. Here’s the blurb:
Of all the creepy, useless, sleazy men that Mia’s met in her life, this one is probably the most harmless. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to get away with what he’s done.
Goal is one short story a month this year (but hopefully more). And, between them, getting three more novels out.
I seem to have remembered how much I love the freedom of the short form. What’s that you say? No one buys them? Well I say, who the hell cares? For a writer, short stories are undiluted fun. For a reader? Ten to twenty minutes of their time. Whatever happens to either party, nobody gets hurt. The worst that happens is a shrug of indifference and instant dismissal from the mind. But a great short story can live in your mind for years.
For a lousy buck, or twenty pence off a measly quid, that ain’t bad going, my friend.
One of the things I promised myself when I started this blog on film and literary ‘noir’ was that I would not simply stick to the old favourites. You don’t need me to tell you to go watch The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or read Dave Goodis novels, right? I’ll no doubt be tackling some of them as they come up, but in the meantime, I wouldn’t mind seeing how far we can push the subject into other, less obvious, areas.
Maybe even come to some sort of definition on what ‘noir’ — as a standalone concept — really means.
Which is why I discussed Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) a few weeks back. Not a film noir by any stretch of the imagination, but it fits somehow. At least it does in my mind. As does Barbara Schroeder’s true crime documentary, Talhotblond (2009).
(By the way, doesn’t the title just scream ‘noir’ in its evocation of the irresistible femme fatale?)
The crime detailed in Schroeder’s documentary is at first glance a classic love triangle. It is, however, a love triangle with a difference, as the relationships involved were non-existent — existing solely in internet chat rooms — and were, for that matter, wholly built on lies.
47-year-old factory machinist Thomas Montgomery played online games under the username marinesniper. Work colleague, 22-year-old Brian Barrett, also played these online games, under the username beefcake.
Montgomery was in a failing marriage. Impotent, unable to communicate with his family, and pining for the adventurous, exciting life he’d never had. He began to create a fictitious online persona as an 18-year-old marine about to get shipped off to war. Brian was just a happy-go-lucky kid stuck in a dead-end job in a small town, going nowhere.
But also online was talhotblond, who, from the pictures she began to send marinesniper (along with worn panties) was a beautiful, athletic, sexually-precocious high school kid. She began to fall head over heels in love with marinesniper.
And marinesniper couldn’t give up the lie.
And talhotblond liked to play dangerous games.
And beefcake would end up paying with his life.
To be honest, it’s so difficult to describe the narrative of Talhotblond without giving the twists and turns away that I’ve tried to keep things brief in the above synopsis. The story is unravelled like the plot of a complex thriller, expertly handled by director/editor/co-writer Schroeder, who performs deft sleights of hand with the facts of the case, revealing that Barrett was murdered within the first few minutes of the film, but then witholding other vital elements to shock the viewer with later. It’s no wonder that the case was soon turned into a conventional movie thriller (using the same title as Schroeder’s film, directed by Courteney Cox, of all people.) I haven’t seen the movie for comparison.
Film noir fans will appreciate the voice over narration in Schroeder’s film, which, like William Holden’s in Sunset Boulevard (1950), is provided by a dead person. The femme fatale is about as manipulative and conniving as you’re ever gonna find, and Montgomery is one of the most hopeless chumps who’s ever lived.
But to be honest, it’s not these details that made me think of discussing it here. Like The Act of Killing, this sure ain’t no film noir. It’s the broader sense of ‘noir’ that the film got me thinking about. The inescapable, universal loneliness of life. The thin line between normality and acts of brutal violence. The ease with which we can take that final blind step over the edge. The ecstasy we feel as we plummet to our doom.
If you’ve ever seen the celebrated, but overrated, Catfish (2010), then you’ll already be familiar with many of the concepts that Talhotblond covers. Indeed, it’s difficult not to class the films together. Both of them carry the message that the internet is a minefield of over-compensation, self-glorification and outright lies.
The expansive internet can be a lonely place.
But it can also be a place where people come together. For a time, marinesniper, talhotblond and beefcake are acting out harmless fantasies and gaining real pleasure from their alternative internet realities. Millions around the world are doing the same thing every day.
In fact, all of this is very similar to what they do in real life.
As in real life, people on the internet are nothing but a representation of themselves. They choose to become a single facet of their character, magnified and heightened, that they then deliberately and painstakingly present to others as the one clear truth — as their identity.
Where real life and the internet differ is that the internet provides a lack of context that makes this cherry-picking all too possible.
It is loneliness, however, that makes their ‘reality’ believable.
Unlike Catfish, whose apparent chump — the filmmaker’s brother — was not naive or particularly lonely or indeed desperate, Talhotblond has a cast of characters that are very, very real, and scarily fragile in their vulnerability and readiness to be taken in by lies.
For me, the film makes the mistake of siding very definitely with beefcake. It is with his scripted voice that we are told the story. I actually think it does him something of a disservice. He wasn’t entirely innocent in this case. His story is much broader than his ‘role’ actually gives him credit for. His loneliness was as real — and as interesting — as marinesniper‘s and talhotblond‘s.
talhotblond is given the role of femme fatale too readily. Schroeder goes out of her way to make her the bad guy of the case — indeed, the last portion of the documentary is a half-hearted attempt to question the law that allows her to remain untouched by justice.
I didn’t watch Talhotblond as social commentary. The hidden dangers of the internet hold no interest for me. No more, that is, than the everyday dangers of human interaction. Why should they? And internet laws are a matter for the courts.
What Talhotblond very nearly is is a fascinating portrayal of human weakness, fatalism and loneliness. In fact, it still is if the truth be told, and it should be watched. The mistake the finished product makes is squeezing its characters into types. The best noir stories have no heroes or villains, and that’s the way it should be. It is an attitude that, for me, lifts the noir story above the humble crime drama or thriller.
Maybe, though, it’s a truth that very few people want to hear.
I first encountered the name of Dorothy B. Hughes in connection with one of my favourite ever films, In A Lonely Place (1950). Nicholas Ray’s movie adaptation of Hughes’ novel is a dark-hearted portrait of male and female loneliness, as well as being a truly suspenseful mystery picture that leaves the viewer guessing till the heartbreaking final scene. When I finally caught up with Hughes’ novel, I was left with a feeling of regretful disappointment. Too much, I guess, was different to what I already knew and loved.
I came to Ride the Pink Horse, however, without having seen the movie adaptation of 1947. From what I gather, it’s something of a classic, though difficult to track down. It’s certainly now somewhere near the top of my wishlist.
So to the novel, whose opening line is “He came in on the five o’ clock bus,” and whose closing line is “Blindly he stumbled on.” In between these two seemingly prosaic events is described the moral disentanglement of a desperate and confused man, a shattering apart of a hitherto controlled life.
It’s a classic noir plot, in other words, but Hughes goes one step further. She goes into reverse. This is not the story of an ordinary everyman caught up in the sticky web of fate and sent to hell; but the tale of a career criminal, Sailor, whose personal mission of vengeance leads to a kind of confused and ultimately tragic spiritual upheaval, albeit one that doesn’t lead to redemption. This is very much a black novel, after all.
The freedom Sailor attains at the end of the novel is messy and not wholly explained; but the man has certainly undergone a change. He only vaguely understands what’s happened to him, and although he’s ultimately doomed he knows that in the meantime his life will never be the same. He is a marked man. He lashes out messily and runs off into the night, into the mountains. The ancient earth around him is given a voice by Hughes to spell out his fate: “You can’t get away.”
Blindly he stumbled on …
Sailor is a petty thug who has been in and out of jail all his life. An impoverished Chicago street urchin picked out of the gutter by a wealthy crooked Senator and turned into a loyal lapdog/personal secretary/hoodlum. But the Sen has double-crossed him and run away to a Mexican border town, and now Sailor appears looking for the money that’s coming to him, the money he knows the Sen will be only too willing to pay. He wants to cut his ties and start a new and better life. He finally has the treacherous Sen in the palm of his hand. One last score and then it’s the high life all the way.
Immediately, though, he’s filled with disappointment. The small border town is just starting its three-day Fiesta. The hotels are full and the streets are swarming with drunken, happy people. What’s worse, the Chicago cop, McIntyre, who has known him all his life, is there in town as well. He’s supposedly there to talk to the Senator about the little matter of the Sen’s wife’s death; but what he really wants to do is save Sailor’s soul.
What follows is a doom-laden tale of fate; a black comedy and a personal tragedy. The novel also concerns the more universal, inescapable tragedy of being a human being; of walking this earth for a short and difficult time, only to be forgotten to the ages, the sprawling stretch of aeons.
Short, sharp pulpy actioner, this is not.
And for a lot of people, this might be a problem. For the majority of the novel, Sailor — rootless and adrift in a strange town — wanders around the limiting confines of hicksville. He walks up one street and down another. He revisits locations, circling like a stray dog, encountering the same small cast of townsfolk again and again, and driving himself half-crazy with boredom and frustration. This is a character study, first and foremost.
Hughes’ central theme is man’s choice about whether he is good or bad. McIntyre spells it out to Sailor: “You can do anything you want to with yourself. You can use the world [...] or you can break your toes on it. The world doesn’t care. It’s up to you.”
But Sailor has spent his life feeling unwanted and abused. He’s a snarling, bitter nobody who wants to be a somebody. He feels the world has abused him for too long and he’s due a break. He never stood a chance right from the start.
McIntyre, however, won’t put up with any of this. He reminds Sailor that he grew up a mere four blocks away. “I’ve wondered often why with what you went through, you didn’t grow up feeling like I did. Wanting to make things better not worse.”
In the meantime, the Fiesta rumbles on, and Sailor strolls around town, buffeted by merrymakers. He sees the historical make-up of the town’s inhabitants — indigenous Indians, their Spanish conquerors, and the more modern, brasher Gringos, the conquerors of all. He sees the town as being rooted in blood, “a memory of death and destruction.”
The Indians of the town give him a nameless fear — their inscrutable, unemotional faces seem to speak to him. There will be a time, they say, when all of this will be gone; when the current conquerors will in turn be conquered, too. There’s nothing to get excited about. The world, as McIntyre has said, doesn’t care. It just keeps rolling on.
Sailor befriends two people in the town — a little Indian girl named Pila and a gregarious Indian man he nicknames Pancho, who runs the merry-go-round.
Pila, fourteen, has a strange hold over Sailor. She possesses “terrible eyes that saw everything and saw nothing.” Then she laughs and her eyes contain much more — “the brightness, the music and dancing, the good smell of red chile, and the chill of pink pop, the twirling merry-go-round, the laughter and the happiness.” He cannot help but carry out kind acts for her.
Pancho, too, has a strange effect on Sailor. The Indian man annoys him and disgusts him at first; yet he offers the Gringo shelter, friendship, a drink, and help when he’s in trouble. And all the time he speaks his homespun philosophy: “…it is good to be good. Maybe it does not fill the belly or warm the heart but it is good. It feels good.”
By the end of the three days, Sailor doesn’t know what to think. Amid the twirling lights and endless music, his head is in a whirl. He clutches to his original plan to touch the Sen for the money and be off. Go legitimate, maybe, or at least as legitimate as the Sen has ever been. Most important, though, to finally be somebody.
Yet he can’t shake a new way of thinking from his head: “Better to forget grandeur and glory, to sing and dance and work a little, un traguito on Saturday nights, go to mass on Sunday mornings. Better to be happy in your little life than to be important.”
He’s convinced that he can go straight. But McIntyre tells him, “… it’s a long way back and the going would be tough [...] Too tough for you.”
The question of whether Sailor will make it is only half-answered with the conclusion of the novel. It is somehow sad and happy, profound and tragic and hopeful, all at the same time. But, of course, as Hughes has taken pains to point out, whatever happens to Sailor at the end of the novel is largely unimportant. The world doesn’t care. There will always be a million more tomorrows.
This is A-grade stuff, folks. Beautiful, tough and ruthless. Unforgettable. Seek it out and devour it.