NEW RELEASE – ‘PENCIL NECK’

Well, hell, what can I say? It’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently. My only excuse is that I’ve been putting the finishing touches to the release of my new novel, ‘Pencil Neck’, the ebook of which is available now at Amazon.

Paperback to follow in a while, I promise. Been letting myself get snowed under with real life dramas, unfortunately…

Meanwhile, dig in and enjoy! Available for only $2.99 / £1.99 / €2.99

He ran and ran down a road to damnation!

With each mile marker, handsome, muscle-bound drifter Gray Boakes escapes further from the pathetic Pencil Neck he once was. Thrown off the train in a deadbeat town, it doesn’t take long for him to be surrounded by willing women.

But new squeeze Barbara wants to tame him and trap him in a world of loveless sex and cheap booze, just as his devoted parents wanted to trap him in the 9-to-5 world of money and power.

Now his time on the road is quickly reaching its inevitable dead end, and an increasingly desperate Gray commits one final act of rebellion — a perversion from which there might be no salvation.

Pencil Neck is a work of noir fiction in the classic paperback mould, with lean, terse prose and a black and cynical heart. Part pulp fiction thriller and part dark psychological character study, anti-hero Gray Boakes’ doom-laden descent into hell is unflinching, twisted and gloriously, unapologetically amoral.

AMAZON US

AMAZON UK

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FREE NOIR EBOOK – ‘DARK IS THE NIGHT’

To pick up what I believe to be the best short story I have written — FOR FREE — just follow the below links to your retailer of choice:

AMAZON U.S.

AMAZON U.K.

ITUNES

BARNES AND NOBLE

SMASHWORDS

KOBO

If you do download it, be sure to stop by and tell me what you think. I’ve got thick skin and my chin can take a pretty solid punch…

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DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD

I don’t know how many times I will say this on this site, but: noir should never be about hard guys. The term ‘noir’ is often used as an adjective synonymous with ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ and ‘tough’. I think it more helpful to consider the term a noun, a small word that carries with it implicit meaning, conveying in its four letters the challenges of modernity, and the inherent failures and weaknesses that result from tussling with it — creating an inescapable mood of desperation and bitterness.

A movie or a book should not be noir in its stylistic approach, but convey a world that is noir, through to its core, revealing a ruthless, ungilded truth at the heart of man.

Because the truth is that tough guys are a rare commodity in this world, and yet, disproportionately, they fill our most popular movies and books.

But is there a very simple psychological explanation for this? Advertisers employ very deliberate tactics to get us to buy their crap. They convey a world that we are desperate to be a part of. They show us sexy, vivacious people enjoying full and happy lives. Buying their products is likened in the mark’s mind to being a spontaneous, outgoing and fun act.

But the mark knows in his heart that, in reality, he is none of these things. He gets up in the morning and goes to his job. He comes home and he eats quick TV dinners, then goes on the internet and reads gossip columns and watches pornography.

Buying things ultimately serves no purpose, and we know it — no matter how momentarily good it makes us feel. Similarly, our cowardly consumption of heroes doesn’t help us, either — not least of which in the wee smalls, when we are forced finally, inescapably, to stare into our souls — and recoil in horror at the truths we find within.

In Drive a Crooked Road (1954) Mickey Rooney plays one of film noir’s greatest weaklings, and does so with one of film noir’s great performances.

Eddie Shannon is a mechanic and amateur racing car driver, who opens the movie finishing second in a race. And that isn’t even an apt symbolic position for him to finish in — he is the lonely, quiet guy who remains in his seat while his lunching mechanic buddies whoop and howl at the girls who pass by their garage; the loser who picks sorry-looking flowers from the front yard of his boarding house to brighten up his evenings spent lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling and dreaming he was somebody else.

There are two guys spectating his second place triumph; two guys who are looking for a driver. In fact, they’ve been staking Shannon out for a while. Their opinion? “No family, few friends, lives alone and hates it. He’s the right type.”

Yes, in the world of noir, he’s the right type. Yet in Shannon’s head, he’s very much the wrong type, unable to participate in the world the way others do. But for these two guys? He’s the right type. Just begging to be chewed up and spat out.

Besides, there’s some money to steal. And money’s more important than feelings.

Pretty soon, Shannon finds himself being wooed by a shapely gal who turns up at his garage, making goo-goo eyes at him and teasing him to follow her to the beach, where she lies back all tanned and curvy and wanton, and pudgy little Shannon’s stripped torso makes her goo-goo eyes briefly recoil in pity and disgust.

Conversation with Shannon is a gloomy affair, his voice low and his eyes unable to stay in one place for very long. His inability to participate in the world has left him wounded, suspicious and backward.

“You don’t think much of yourself, do you?” his new gal pal asks.

He doesn’t. And the one group of people who should have some sympathy for the putz — the audience — well, we don’t think all that much of him either. We’ve already seen him steal a handkerchief from her car, and then pull it out of his pocket to sniff in his darkened room, as the camera mercifully fades to black before we can see what sordid use he finds for it next.

But, Jeez, the guy’s lonely, all right? That’s what lonely guys do, don’t you know?

If this had been a more standard Mickey Rooney picture, do you think he’d be lying in bed in his boarding house, thinking up the Devil’s work for his idle hands? No, he’d be downstairs with the other boarders, having a little sing-song around the piano. At the very least he’d be helping his kindly old landlady with the washing up.

But this ain’t no usual Hollywood picture. His landlady here is just a disembodied voice.

The guy’s so pathetic that his new gal pal starts to have second thoughts. She very kindly, understandingly realizes that breezing into a guy’s life and reaching into his chest and plucking out the withered, beating thing that resides within is unkind. She begins to understand that he’s very much the wrong type.

“He’s like a lonesome little animal,” she says, “… filled with a devotion … a kind of terrible worship.”

(‘Terrible worship’ might be my new favourite phrase.)

And we know things are going to end badly; no spoiler alert needed here. (Nor in noir, in general, of course.) But when the ending comes along, it’s not necessarily rage and revenge that’s in Shannon’s heart; but love, with cooed words into his love’s ear.

“Please don’t cry. …”

Christ, the camera itself is too sickened and disgusted to watch. It pans back, drifting slowly away, the pathetic sight too much to catch in any detail, too heart-breaking for any normal person to think about. Fade to black.

And the audience walks away, thinking, Jesus, this world’s a sad and lonely place…

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BLUE RUIN

The great success of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013) is that it exists with feet in two camps, and manages to satisfy on both fronts. It is a gripping, wince-inducing, bladder-holding suspense thriller, as well as a meditative slow-burner of a character study.

It’s a neat trick. And it places this lean 90 minute film firmly in the tradition of film noir, exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘what happens next’ of a sudden, unexpected act of violence, then following the inevitable chain of events ruthlessly through to the end without once flinching away.

Also true to its roots in film noir, Macon Blair plays the central character of Dwight Evans with the meek desperation of a terrified everyman, who instead of rising to the plot’s ever-worsening challenges, fails miserably, creating the unholy ‘Blue Ruin’ of the title.

Did you ever imagine yourself challenged by the ruthless violence of the world’s evildoers? Reckon you’ll step up to the plate and discover previously unknown qualities within yourself? Turn yourself into a roaring rampage of revenge?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but you won’t. ‘Cause you’re a coward. And you watch too many of the wrong types of movies, and your head’s full of macho nonsense. Deep down in your soul you know that you would fail. You would make things worse before they ever got better. And that, my friend, is the way the world is — ain’t nothing you or I can do about it.

Or, as Dwight’s sister tells him, “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”

When we meet Dwight, he is a shabby, bearded drifter bathing in other people’s bathtubs, scavenging from garbage cans and living in his dilapidated, battery-less car (another blue ruin) on the beach. We don’t know how he got there, but we know that he is settled in his life. He has a ‘job’ collecting bottles from the beach for their deposits, and has decked his car out with everything he clearly feels he needs. (One of his needs is obviously to stay away from people.)

Like the man, the opening of the movie is wordless, with a wealth of expositional information conveyed solely visually, even as further questions are being raised by what we see. It is the first clue as to how Saulnier has managed to pull off his neat trick of combining a thrilling fast-paced revenge plot with slow and meditative character development. It is lean and muscular storytelling at its finest.

When a kindly cop takes Dwight into the station, she makes it clear he’s not in trouble. She says she wants him to be in a safe place when he hears something. We are told only that ‘he’ is being released from prison. The rest of the background story is left for later, to be drip-fed to the audience as the plot requires. Dwight stares over the cop’s shoulder and her dialogue fades off into a distorted, abstract sound. This subtle, simple film technique both conveys Dwight’s sudden fear and anger and confusion, as well as cleverly leaving the audience in the lurch as to what exactly is happening.

The scene is quiet and gentle, but there is definitely one foot depressing the accelerator, and the viewer is given no choice but to follow on. Our sympathy for Dwight is created by direct access to his emotional experience. We, like Dwight, are now uncertain and anxious. From now on — without knowing the whys and the wherefores of his situation, or even whether Dwight himself is to blame for something awful — the audience is firmly on his side. We are complicit in a potentially muddied moral maze.

(Like I said before, baby, welcome to the grubby world of noir …)

Hell, I could go on. I could cite other scenes and explain to you how subtle, clever, exciting, blackly-funny and heart-stopping they all are. But it would be silly of me to over-express the movie’s ingenuity. The fact is that its genius is not that it’s a complex film. It is simple, like any other profound and beautiful thing, and it can be enjoyed for its simplicity as much as for the hard work that has obviously gone into its creation.

It is a revenge thriller with violence as its theme. But it is sensitive as well as tough, with enough common sense not to allow its characters to hide behind absolute moral certainty. Whether consciously or not, this lesson is one that has been carried over from the heyday of film noir. And that lesson is that violence is a mess.

In the same way that even a modern viewer can watch a classic film noir without reading the countless essays that have been penned by the world’s scholars and film historians, Blue Ruin has enough to excite the popcorn crowd as well as all the art bores.

It’s a real classic of modern neo-noir.

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I AM NOT ASHAMED

At the very end of her memoir, ‘I Am Not Ashamed,’ Barbara Payton begs the reader, “Don’t judge me harshly just for living.” Coming after countless bold and startling confessions, all (ghost)written in a brassy, unrepentant voice, this comes as an unexpected moment of weakness.

It’s a hard line to read.

Like hearing a catch in the voice or a barely-suppressed sob at the end of a brave and proud speech, the reader’s instinctive reaction is to look away in embarrassed uncertainty, clap politely then go home and gossip.

Did you know she used to command $10,000 a week as a movie siren but ended up turning tricks for $5 a pop? She was a lush who took her payment for these memoirs in wine. (Yes: literally, wine!) I hear she married more men than some women have slept with. Well, I heard she slept with more men than some women have met. And that once-beautiful face turned puffy with liquor … that incredible body bruised and scarred by over-eager johns … well, hell, it serves her right, the two-bit, chiselling con artist, thinking she could screw and swindle her way to the top …

(Or, as Barbara Stanwyck is supposed to have said after reading ‘I Am Not Ashamed’: “She jolly well should be!”)

But, but … that final line, that moment of weakness and insecurity … doesn’t it demand a little more from the reader? Is it Barbara speaking with her true voice, after all?

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

For living, you hear? For sinking her teeth into life. For craving adulation, good times, fast cars, handsome men. For the glamour, the money, the applause. The unending fun!

For wanting all the same goddamn things that millions of people around her wanted, too — still want — will always want until the day the final cinema burns down and the last tabloid newspaper folds.

“I don’t remember what age I was when I was aware I was alive, but I remember a dream. That was my first recollection.”

(Hold your hand up, if you too know that dream. Do it rigidly and proudly just as young Barbara would have done … stand on tiptoes, reach for the sky with that raised hand … how else do you expect to be noticed in this cruel world?)

Ah, but doesn’t that initial dream seem all right when we’re the ones who are having it? Because we know damn well that it’ll never come true anyway. And what’s more we know with absolute certainty that even if it did come true, we could handle it. We could ride that Hollywood rocket ship of fame straight to the stars, and strangers would come and weep openly at our grave.

So go away, Barbara Payton, with your bitter experience. Just because you were jettisoned and sent crashing down to earth, don’t come back here with your gutter tramp wisdom, your memory clouded by too much sweet rosé wine … you and your degrading, masochistic anecdotes that are no doubt all lies.

Aged 35, bruised after an encounter with a trick. (Image: UCLA library)

Aged 35, bruised after an encounter with a trick. (Image: UCLA library)

“These days I’m careful what I wish for. A wish might come true — then trouble.”

Which is exactly what all those men in her life must have thought. One look at those lithe limbs, that delicate, pale flesh, those swollen breasts, that heavenly female dream so teasingly wrapped in mink.

Oh, boy, for just a little of that! Baby, I’ll give you anything you want …

And in the morning — trouble.

But at least she got some movie parts out of it. And maybe it was something about her unconventional beauty, that hint of danger in her hard brow that added something to the usual blonde glamour; because she found herself in what would later be called films noirs. Tough pictures, gritty pictures, unafraid of showing real life with all the glitz of Hollywood scrubbed away.

“I got news for you, baby — nobody’s civilized. You peel off a little skin and you got raw flesh.”

You’re damn right, Barbara. Peeled facades, peeled dreams and peeled clothes. You had your fair share.

But the pictures: Trapped (1949), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Murder is My Beat (1955) — even the UK film industry could tell what kind of woman Barbara was: a Bad Blonde (1953) — these pictures, at least in film noir fans’ hearts, will always be remembered. (Even when her Bride of the Gorilla (1951) is forgotten.)

Because Barbara was a special kind of femme fatale. In the end (oh, irony!) it was she alone for whom her actions proved fatale.

At 39. Bloated liver and pained, unsatisfied heart both failing at the same time, lifeless on her parents’ bathroom floor.

Poor Barbara Payton. Movie star, long since washed up.

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

But, Barbara, how can you say that? How can you end this fuck-and-tell with a moment of weakness?

I was rooting for you, Barbara. You were a trailblazer, a martyr. You went through all that fire, all that pain, with just enough breath left in you to feed us the final, chilling truth before you croaked.

“I don’t want any more of that picture jazz. It’s a bad scene, I just want to be myself. If I’m a disreputable hoyden then tough, that’s what I am. I don’t want to be characters on film. I just want to be me.”

But hadn’t that become confused along the way? Lost in the dream. And, Barbara, you were damn right when you called your memoir, ‘I Am Not Ashamed.’ Because, hell, others would have done the same damn thing, too, and don’t you let them tell you otherwise. And even if they wouldn’t have done the same things, suffered the same indignities, they all used to read eagerly about you in the tabloids, and swallowed their jealousy when they saw you draped across the arms of all those handsome, gallant Hollywood men, those stokers of the dream in millions of girlhood hearts.

Barbara, you were supposed to end this thing with balls of brass and tense, defiant middle digits.

“Don’t judge me harshly just for living.”

But that ain’t living.

Barbara, I know you knew it, so why not say it? Why not be honest? Could it be that the dream still burned so hot and bright within your scarred and brittle heart? You were real and you tried to mix in with the phonies. It could never work.

The phonies were always going to win that one. They always have done. Always will.

But always that dream. That goddamned dream. That phony’s dream.

A young girl with a dream. A young girl with a weakness. One and the same thing. The booze and sex were nothing next to the power of that dream. Your hooking rate fell steadily — $300 down to $5 — but that was the dream dwindling within you, Barbara, not just your looks.

And Barbara, the book you left behind is no doubt part fantasy, and is certainly muddled, but its story is one of the most damning indictments of this world’s blackheartedness that I’ve ever read. And I felt a lot of things for you, Barbara, as I read, but I didn’t judge you harshly just for living.

You got the last word of your book wrong though, Barbara. Living. You should have changed that. What you should have said is, “Don’t judge me harshly just for dreaming.”

And we don’t, Barbara. Nobody could.

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CALL ME KILLER

Click to go to the Prologue Books page!

Click to go to the Prologue Books page!

When Sam Gowan wakes up from a bout of amnesia, he is standing over a corpse, an empty automatic in his hand. Despite the number of bullets in the corpse’s face, he recognizes the man as Ross Lambart, and the last thing Sam can remember doing is meeting up with Lambart in a bar.

Being “one of those average fellows you wouldn’t look at twice on a crowded street” (or as his wife refers to him, “the most spineless man I ever met … a weak fool, a real life Caspar Milquetoast, cringing from trouble like some cur dog”), Sam is horrified at the possibility of being a murderer, and promptly takes off running, trying to cover his tracks and dispose of evidence along the way.

Adding to the mystery, a strange woman calls out to him on the street as he bundles into a cab. The strange thing, though, is that this woman calls him David …

Being something of a prominent citizen, Lambart’s corpse presents the city with a problem. The police are under pressure to crack the case, and two very different policemen with very different methods are called in to find the murderer.

The first cop is Detective Sergeant Barney Manton, the kind of man who celebrates his birthday “with a stupid blonde and a fifth of cheap whiskey.” The other is his superior, Lieutenant Milligan, who has seen “a lot of innocent people hurt by careless police procedure. He didn’t like to hurt people: that was what had first turned him from the little back room and strong lights to the laboratory.”

And it is here, in the relationship between these two very different cops, that we find the real meat of Whittington’s solid paperback quickie, ‘Call Me Killer.’ Because, though he delivers on the thrill-ride aspects of a hardboiled noir mystery, it is actually in its deliberate, thoughtful subversion of the usual genre tropes that Whittington’s novel really comes into its own.

I’ve read other reviews and synopses online that describe this book as a cat and mouse saga between a hardboiled cop and a luckless chump circling down towards oblivion. It is a description that does the book a real disservice.

Because just as Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides did with their subverted Mike Hammer adaptation, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), here Whittington depicts his hardboiled cop as the real luckless chump — an out of touch bully dinosaur superseded by the specimen dishes and test tubes of the laboratory.

Indeed, if anything, it is Manton’s pitiful figure, and not Sam’s amnesiac fighting to clear his name, that fits the ‘noir’ model of a doomed loser:

“The honest fact was that Manton, living alone in a rented room with a radio he seldom snapped on, magazines he almost never read, hated nights: the lonely, small, dark hours.”

He is a man who lives for nothing but his job — but the methods of his job have changed, and he has not.

It is a narrative very different from the rather clichéd conservative fable of namby-pamby police methods allowing criminals to get away with murder, but it is of course a narrative much closer to the truth of decades of improved criminal detection techniques and plummeting violent crime figures.

For doubters, here’s psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker talking on the subject:

It is a reason-based view with which Lieutenant Milligan — and I daresay Harry Whittington — would agree.

But what of fiction’s much-loved hardboiled cop? Could it be that he no longer has a place in the modern world? What is it, then, about the figure that enables him to continue lumbering through the pages of our bestsellers, and stalking across the flickering silver screen?

Perhaps it is the very blandness of the relative safety we now live in that explains it. There is drama in violence but very little in science. Our continued desire for darkness in our fiction, and the subsequent familiarity with the concept that it resides in all of us — the self-exploration that we can carry out in the comfort of our armchairs — goes some way towards telling us why we are no longer so violent.

To paraphrase Pinker, in many instances we have simply reasoned the need for violence out of existence.

And as long as we don’t confuse the drama of our fiction with the real world we live in, then perhaps we can continue this potentially inevitable journey towards peace.

But seeing as this is a noir blog, and ‘Call Me Killer’ a work of noir fiction, we definitely shouldn’t end things in such a positive way.

Towards the end of the novel, Whittington has idealist Milligan provide his optimistic message: “No honest citizen has anything to fear from the law, not any more. It is his servant. And he need not be afraid if he leads an upright life.”

The hounded, beaten, victimized Sam, however, doesn’t see things so rosily. “If he leads an upright life, is lucky, has a Senator for an uncle, a defense attorney for a father, and owes the judge some money, then I agree with you.”

Ah, that feels much better, doesn’t it?

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DOUBLE JEOPARDY

It is tempting to dismiss the crime novels of Martin M. Goldsmith as hack work. For a start, there is the Cain-inspired title of his debut, ‘Double Jeopardy.’ Then there is the fact that Goldsmith only used his novels as a gateway. He wanted to write for the potentially more lucrative Hollywood, and after getting the chance to adapt his second novel, ‘Detour’, for poverty row ‘legends’ PRC, he abandoned his literary plans and spent the next couple of decades writing western movies, war pictures and crime films.

But Goldsmith’s importance to the noir canon is not to be sniffed at. His role in the creation of Detour (1945) is enough to grant him Hall of Fame status. This incredible cheapie is one of the key moments in film noir. In terms of mood and subject matter, it is, indeed, one of the pictures that provided the blueprint for the genre.

That Detour was made quickly and cheaply shows just how much Goldsmith’s input aided director Edgar G. Ulmer. In a schedule that could not have allowed for lengthy rewrites, I think it fair to say that the movie’s textual blackness was already there in place in Goldsmith’s script. Couple this with Ulmer’s visual ingenuity, and the cast’s B-part, careworn, workhorse shabbiness, and you get a near-perfect noir picture, one whose very imperfections only help to enhance its power.

* * *

In ‘Double Jeopardy’, anti-hero Peter Thatcher is a quiet small town druggist, who is writing down his story from his jail cell. He is facing the chair, he tells us, because he killed his wife, Anita. There seems to be remorse and pity in the weak, pleading tone of his narration, but it soon becomes clear that it is not for his dearly departed wife. The pity that he feels for his current situation is all directed at himself.

He tells us that his wife “killed herself and I was merely the instrument that brought about her end.”

But, this being a work of noir fiction, there is some room for us to sympathize with him. Anita, it turns out, was a classic femme fatale, beautiful on the outside but with a blackened, shrivelled heart. The audience is not exactly left in floods of tears for the deceased. As Thatcher says, “Man usually kills the thing he loves, and cherishes that which ultimately destroys him.”

But Thatcher rather over-eggs the pudding in his tale. “Desire is an insidious parasite gnawing at one’s body,” he admits. “I did not know then that passion plays strange tricks on people. I did not know that the ones who hate hard, love hard.” Through the gnashed teeth of his own bitter narration, it becomes quite clear that Thatcher is capable of both hatred and love.

Later in the novel, he goes for broke to get us on his side, and in doing so produces something of the opposite effect.

“I am reasonably certain,” he says, “that even the great Russian masters of tragedy — Tolstoi, Maxim Gorki, Dostoievski — would be quick to perceive the emptiness of their words in the telling of my story and would probably throw down their pens in despair.”

With statements like this, Thatcher enters the realm of the unreliable narrator. It is very difficult now to take him credibly. He tells us several times that this is his confession. But he also goes to great lengths to distance himself from any blame — the character of Anita in his version of the story is reduced to either a vision of loveliness or a heartless bitch; and a wartime experience of state-sanctioned murder is blamed for sometimes convenient bouts of shell shock-induced amnesia.

Of course, fiction with anything other than an unreliable narrator is not the kind of fiction you should be devoting too much time to. The world of noir is murky and hard to pin down, and reflects the turbulent confusion of all-out lust and desperate violence. When love and hate combine so combustibly, is it any wonder that there is very little left afterwards but a smoking crater, with no two versions of previous events likely to be the same?

Goldsmith, though, is no James M. Cain, it must be said. The voice of Thatcher is rather stiff and formal, even quite dull. And (perhaps more unforgivably) the story relies too heavily on a plot twist that will come as no surprise to anyone who’s actually bothered to read the title on the cover.

All in all, though, Goldsmith keeps his star in the Noir Hall of Fame, and if he’d have written more crime novels I would certainly be looking out for them.

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PAY OR DIE

At first, I was a little hesitant to write here about this film. Like any passionate bunch, fans of film noir can be aggressively protective of the definitions that they have created for the genre they love, with no two definitions ever quite being the same.

In this regard, I’m no different.

The choices that I make on this blog, and the words I use to back my choices up, are my way of asserting my own personal definition. The fact that it’s my blog means that I can do this without feeling compelled to pander to certain long-held and much-cherished beliefs.

(My essay destroying the meme that Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op. have a place in the noir canon is surely only a matter of weeks away.)

But Pay or Die (1960) is not a film noir, let’s be clear. It is a cop film, it is a crime film; its most accurate description is probably ‘historical biography.’ But film noir? Nuh-uh. No sirree.

But it, like many other black and white crime pictures, is easily squeezed into the genre by over-eager commentators. The rather lazy definition that most people use is time period, and Pay or Die falls just a couple of years after Orson Welles’ much-touted end point of noir, Touch of Evil (1958).

But the argument of a film’s ‘noirness’ is about more than dates. Nor is it about geography (though discussions within the genre about individual countries and their noir output are still interesting.) No, it’s about tone and content, it’s about morality, it’s about mood.

Josef von Sternberg’s pre-war European The Blue Angel (1930) is a film noir through and through (and a damned good one, too.) Warners’ U.S. gangster pictures of the early thirties, though, are not.

I sometimes get incredibly frustrated with noir fans’ arguments back and forth about what does and what does not constitute a noir. But I cannot deny that I do the same myself. I suppose we’re stuck with it.

Pedantry aside, I still think it’s relevant to talk about the marginal pictures, if for no other reason than to highlight areas where the differences are obvious. But there’s also the simple fact that fans of film noir will inevitably be drawn to these fringe movies. And then, of course, there’s the fact that film noir as a genre does not have the monopoly on great movies. There are pleasures to be gained from taking a few steps off the road.

Pay or Die is the story of the real Lt. Joseph Petrosino (played with likeable panache by the ever-wonderful Ernest Borgnine), an Italian immigrant cop working in Little Italy in turn-of-the-century New York. It is a community blighted by the presence of the Black Hand, a fairly rag tag extortion racket that would eventually coalesce and organize into an American wing of the Sicilian Mafia.

Petrosino, as an immigrant and a well-respected member of the community, is disgusted with the actions of the few who are dragging down the reputation of his countrymen. He is also frustrated with his fellow Italians who allow La Mano Nera to thrive by continually paying up. The film details his struggles both to blow apart the organization before it gets too big, and also to convince the community that, contrary to the reality of the old country, the police force in America can be a trusted force for good.

One of the reasons why I wanted to write about this film is that I watched it during full-blown election fever here in the UK. It is an election that is being fought with immigration at its heart. Our politicians and our media, and the people you talk to in the streets, all have something to say on the subject. Consequently there are a lot of immigrant narratives currently floating about, many of which are ill-founded, ignorant, hurtful and clichéd, ignoring those that, as Pay or Die points out, are timeless.

For the first half of the picture, Petrosino struggles to convince the Italian community that La Mano Nera is not a real organization in America. It is just hoodlums chasing easy money by writing extortion notes with pictures of black hands drawn on them. The hoodlums are the immigrants who are not doing so well in this new land. Their targets are the members of the community who are hardworking, the small business owners beginning to make something of themselves.

Aspiration, I contend, is the most authentic immigrant narrative there is, and Pay or Die does more than commemorate the man who gave his life to free his people from terror. It also paints an honourable portrait of a displaced people making good against the odds. It depicts bravery, camaraderie and stoicism amid hardship.

To hear modern politicians allude to clichés of the lazy foreigner is not just insulting but also illogical to the point of absurdity. One does not uproot one’s life to rely on social security. The overwhelming majority of immigrants transplant themselves and their families in search of a better and more prosperous life. It is a truism that is sometimes wilfully overlooked.

And this is the reason why Pay or Die — a fine picture though it is — is not a film noir. In noir, the American dream does not exist. It lies shattered in pieces on the floor. To find the streets paved with gold, to overcome the spectres of a past life in a new place — in film noir, such notions are nothing but the dreams of naïve fools.

The reality of life? I like to think it’s somewhere in between.

Watching Pay or Die, amid hyperbolic and sometimes downright hostile election messages, was an all-too-welcome break from the bleak pessimism that political discourse has become. As much as I love noir, I don’t like to see it in the real world. I much prefer to explore it in the safety of entertainment. Knowing that there have been men like Lt. Petrosino working for good in this world is infinitely preferable to fearmongers like the hoodlums of La Mano Nera.

And, for that matter, greedy chancers telling lies to get your vote.

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THE BURGLAR

There’s a moment in David Goodis’s novel ‘Dark Passage’ in which the difference between the protagonists of noir fiction and the protagonists of straight-up crime fiction is laid bare. It comes in the form of an imagined conversation with a corpse, revealing not only the reality of the victim’s troubled life, but also the fears and weaknesses of the novel’s ‘hero’ who is imagining the conversation:

“You know me. Guys like me come a dime a dozen. No fire. No backbone. Dead weight waiting to be pulled around and taken to places where we want to go but can’t go alone. Because we’re afraid to go alone. Because we’re afraid to be alone. Because we can’t face people and we can’t talk to people. Because we don’t know how. Because we can’t handle life and don’t know the first thing about taking a bite out of life. Because we’re afraid and we don’t know what we’re afraid of and still we’re afraid. Guys like me.”

It is a brutally candid confession of failed masculinity; as well, perhaps, as a partial explanation of why the film noir version of Dark Passage (1947) is something of a misfire.

The central role of Dark Passage belongs to Humphrey Bogart. And Bogart, whatever you think about him — and personally, I love him — was never expected to depict the kind of man described above. On the contrary, I think Bogart’s persona belongs much more to the kind of capable, active hero that, say, Hemingway wrote about, rather than the impotent, paralyzed losers that Goodis revelled in.

Hemingway would not have had much time for the snivelling self-pity of a Goodis hero. If Hemingway’s men rose to life’s challenges, or stoically accepted what they couldn’t overcome, Goodis’s men wallowed in their misery and deliberately allowed themselves to sink further in the mire, with narratives less about climbing out of the gutter than about rolling over to find a more comfortable position.

Humphrey Bogart, then, is not a Goodis hero. Nor, indeed, is Aldo Ray in Jacques Tourneur’s Goodis adaptation, Nightfall (1957). (Ray comes across more hapless than tortured by doubt and grief and self-pity.)

If ever there was an actor born to play a Goodis hero, it was surely Dan Duryea. By the time he starred in Goodis’s The Burglar (1957) he had already essayed the film noir male in such snivelling, weak-willed, cowardly, callous performances as his in Scarlet Street (1945), Black Angel (1946), Criss Cross and Too Late for Tears (both 1949). His type of masculinity in these roles depicted exactly the kind of spineless loser that Goodis wrote about so obsessively — bedraggled, hard-luck chumps who wouldn’t know how to help themselves if they tried, or cowards masquerading as big shots.

In The Burglar, Duryea plays Nat Harbin, the leader of a gang of low-level crooks about to make their biggest score yet: a phony spiritualist’s gaudy emerald necklace. After they make the swipe, they find themselves followed by a mysterious figure who wants in on the action, and the bickering gang begins to fall apart.

Nat is an orphan who went on the lam as a teenager and was picked up by a career thief and his young daughter, Gladden, on the road. This older man taught Nat the ways of his profession, and made him promise that if anything was ever to happen to him, then Nat must watch over Gladden and protect her. All of this is revealed in a typical Goodis flashback (something that every Goodis anti-hero gets to explain his brooding impotence in the face of life.)

When Nat’s adopted father figure is killed on a job, Nat picks up the mantle of protecting young Gladden, who has now grown up into the shape of Jayne Mansfield. Gladden is desperately in love with older ‘brother’ Nat, who shows nothing for her but an (over)eager protectiveness.

But is it this relationship that explains Nat’s haunted thousand yard stare, and the stoop-shouldered resignation with which the laconic loser walks around?

The screenplay for The Burglar was written by Goodis himself. His relationship with Hollywood was a strained one, dating back to the adaptation of Dark Passage. There is a real feeling in this later film that Goodis is attempting to give the audience a better account of his literary world and mood.

The tone of the early scenes especially is authentic Goodis. The nervous, bickering gang sweat and brood as they wait around their hideout after the heist. They mock each other, argue, dream and make futile plans for the future.

The complex interconnection of relationships between small groups of losers is something that Goodis excelled in in his novels. In The Burglar, however, it has the effect of falling rather flat. There is a period in the middle of the picture that comes as something of a downer after the tense heist at the beginning. It is a slump period that is later redeemed by an exciting fairground-set ending, but it is downtime that most certainly is felt.

The irony is that it is also the sequence of the film that most accurately portrays the world of David Goodis. Perhaps the problem is that the quasi-incest storyline is muted by necessity. Is it simply that Goodis’s downbeat world was just too brutal for the cinema of the time? Or is it that Goodis’s excellent prose is just unfilmable, existing so obsessively as it does within the grubby confines of his characters’ troubled heads? The appeal of a Goodis novel, after all, is not to be found in criminal set pieces.

Director Paul Wendkos does a good job, though, with exciting scenes and some eye-catching stylization. He also gets some great performances from his cast, especially Jayne Mansfield, who manages to be likeably hard-boiled but troubled and sexually-frustrated. It is an early role for her that is a million miles away from the caricature that she became.

But what of Dan Duryea? He, of course, is pitch perfect. Another desperate loser to add to the collection.

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BRAIN GUY

If noir has a holy trinity, then it is of course sex, violence and money — each alone powerful enough to destroy anyone without much effort; but when you mix all three, you get what I like to think of as the whole point and appeal of the noir genre. You get an intense concentration of what it really means to be human. You get an honest street-level view of what it is that makes us tick.

These things are our desires, our motivations, and they are the rewards we seek for our endeavours while we’re alive. They are the reasons why we bother to put our shoes on in the morning.

The madness and desperation of noir, then, might be the manifestation of the neuroses that we have acquired in the pursuit of — and the failure to find real satisfaction in — these things.

But these three driving forces in our lives are very different to each other. For a start, only sex and violence exist quite naturally, and are common to other species on this planet. Money, though, is something manmade — an elaborate, planned construct that evolves more quickly than the natural world.

Now, you could probably argue with me here that paper money is only a physical symbol of the power struggles, bartering survival strategies and co-existence trade-offs that exist plentifully amid the animal kingdom. And of course you may well be quite right.

But I am talking here about the street-level view of these things, remember — all three are metaphors for power, if you so choose to look at them — and what I mean is the folding paper stuff that we must have in our pockets if we want to negotiate the daily grind without friction.

Money — considering its position in the holy trinity — is one of the lesser explored avenues of noir fiction and film noir, reduced sometimes in analysis to a plot device or trigger in the ‘bigger’ story of sex and violence between lovers; or at other times swollen up into ‘grander’ discussions of the quest for power and the inevitable corruption that comes with it.

Benjamin Appel‘s ‘Brain Guy,’ then, is a novel about money — about being unable to pay your diner bill; blowing a windfall in a night on sex and booze and self-aggrandizement; and the shame in not being able to ask your sweetheart’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage.

Click to go to the book's page at Prologue ...

Click to go to the book’s page at Prologue …

The ‘Brain Guy’ is Bill Trent, an educated young man who currently scratches a meagre living as a rent collector for his deceased father’s best friend, Mr. Stanger. The very first line of the novel is, “Who could he shake down for some dough?” We are in New York City during the Great Depression, where industry continues and some men are still making great fortunes.

For a crumbum on the streets, however, the world is less rosy. But for a smart man there are opportunities galore. (“He was hard-boiled. Being soft was nothing in the pocket.”)

Bill uses his initiative and visits Paddy, a lowdown pimp, whose operation out of one of Stanger’s properties is no secret. He goes to ‘tax’ Paddy for ten bucks. But he stumbles upon a murder instead — witnesses it first hand — and is introduced to the figure of McMann, who is brought in to dispose of the still-warm body. Immediately Bill is drawn to the capable McMann. “He was significant to him. He didn’t know why. It was just so.” He knows that here is a “hard, ruthless, courageous man.” And he wants to be a man of this kind, too.

These two shocks — the murder and the encounter with McMann — give Bill a new direction, and soon he is venturing out on his own path of crime, coupled with the primitive McMann, who is eager to exploit Bill’s comparative intellect as a ‘brain guy.’ What begins as a string of relatively minor league hold ups of cheese shops and pork butchers, begins to turn into a fledgling criminal gang trying to roughhouse it with the big guys.

While this might sound like a fairly by-the-numbers life o’ crime narrative, it is clear very quickly that Appel has loftier ambitions. Amid the hardboiled dialogue (“One good sock fixes ’em all alike”) there are passages of naturalistic New York atmosphere. To some, this will be received as the much-dreaded ‘purple prose.’ But I think that — despite one-too-many self-indulgent paragraphs and awkward similes — Appel manages to get away with it. The Depression-era city streets are rendered with vivid sights and sounds and smells, and Appel undoubtedly has a great ear for dialogue. The low-level world that he depicts is authentic enough to keep things interesting. And there are at least a few passages — such as the junkie hitman on the trail of McMann — that go beyond the serviceable into the realm of great literary styling.

The most potent figure in the novel is the eponymous anti-hero himself, and it is the frame that Appel places around Bill’s story that sets the novel apart from the clichéd work of a pulp hack.

This isn’t necessarily the usual rags to riches story, and though it touches on the idea of moral corruption through criminal endeavour, Bill does not end the novel staring out of dead, soulless eyes, a testament to his blackened, withered heart.

He ends it just as desperate and terrified as he was when we first met him, with only enough money to pay the first couple of months’ rent on his gang’s new club house.

Throughout his less than stellar rise, Bill is racked by self-doubt and fear. He knows that he is a pretender in this world. Undressing for Madge, the whore he loves, he talks big and insults her constantly. “He felt uneasy, his heart bursting … He hated the idea that she had lived life more strongly than himself.”

Similarly, as he waits in the getaway car outside one of the joints that he and McMann are hitting, he worries that his partner isn’t going to show. Then he sees McMann sauntering towards him down the street. “His heart rushed forward as if he were in love and McMann his approaching sweetie.”

Which is precisely the story that Appel is more interested in telling — Bill’s path to becoming something that he clearly is not. He may well become a big kingpin in the uncertain far-off future, but Appel cuts things off before we get to see him there. From what clues we have to go on, we can only speculate on Bill’s fate.

Towards the end, though, we are given part of an internal monologue. “When I get five thousand I’ll quit and become Bill again, not a hunk of life.” This comes just a few paragraphs after he has promised himself that he will quit once he reaches three thousand.

The reader is left wondering whether he’ll even get that far. As Paddy keeps saying about Bill and McMann: “If you guys live, you’ll be big shots. If you croak, what the hell.”

‘Brain Guy,’ then, is not the great noir fiction tale about money, but it is a vibrant, atmospheric journey into the gutter and a skewed portrait of one man who confuses a roll of dirty greenbacks for salvation. That he never sees the fruits of his endeavours is the point. If he lives, he might become a big shot. If he croaks, well, what the hell.

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