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Deadly (1955), here Whittington depicts his hardboiled cop as the real luckless chump — an out of touch bully dinosaur superseded by the specimen dishes and test tubes of the laboratory.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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ONLY GOD FORGIVES

For some reason, I missed the hype when Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) came out. I vaguely remember hearing from a couple of sources how great it was, but I think I figured it was just another empty lightweight star vehicle for Hollywood’s latest pretty boy.

A kind of Fast and the Furious (2001) knock-off, or something equally vacuous.

In truth, I didn’t even know that Winding Refn had been behind it. I had started to watch his debut, Pusher (1996), many years ago, but it was in the old days of videotaping from TV, and I buggered up the timing when I set it up, meaning that I never got to see the end of it. I’d been enjoying it, but, hey, whattaya gonna do?

My only other experience of Winding Refn had been to watch his Bronson (2008), which I have to confess I found directionless and experimentally theatrical, rather than cinematic.

Consequently, Winding Refn had fallen off my radar.

When I finally got around to watching Drive, however, I was rewarded with one of those rare experiences that every movie fan knows and loves — an eye-opening, jaw-dropping 100 minutes that literally had me grinning with excitement from start to finish.

Without going into too much detail about that movie here, suffice it to say that I thought it was one of the most perfect neo-noir movies I’d seen in many years. The most perfect movie, period, I’d seen in a long time. It pains me to hear other film noir fans disparage it, it really does. It manages to embody the tone of classic film noir with its own unique and eye-catching style, and unlike most neo-noir pretenders it does it without being subservient to clichés.

In other words, it makes you work a bit, it forces you to understand it on its own terms — it does not allow you to settle back and merely recognize familiar genre tropes.

… Which is an apt and neat segue into talking about Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) …

American ex-pat brothers Julian and Billy manage a Thai boxing club in Bangkok, which is really just a front for the family’s drug peddling racket. At the start of the film, older brother Billy ventures out onto the streets (“Time to meet the Devil,” he says with chilling understatement) in hopes of finding himself an underage girl to have sex with. Soon, the police are being called to the upstairs room of a backstreet brothel, where the battered corpse of a sixteen-year-old girl lies on the floor, and the blood-spattered Billy sits dazed and unemotional on the mussed-up bed.

A mysterious, seemingly mystical, retired cop, Chang, allows the father of the girl to do whatever he wants to Billy, be it retaliation or forgiveness. And when the father gives in to his base emotions and pummels Billy’s brains into a pile of mush, he sets in motion a chain of revenge that takes on a religious intensity — a surreal, enigmatic, brutal, redemptive path for Julian (Drive‘s Ryan Gosling) that includes torture, incest, karaoke and a figurative fight with God Himself (who just happens to be our retired cop, Chang….)

Only God Forgives is unquestionably a polarizing experience. The film was famously booed at Cannes, most probably for its provocative violence. But we do not live in the classic period of Hayes Code Hollywood any more, and we should be old enough and ugly enough now not to be ‘entertained’ by bombastic, gung-ho flippancy. Winding Refn’s violence is sudden, brutal and jarring. I was reminded while watching Only God Forgives of the films of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano, whose poetic ‘Eastern’ approach to violence results in long periods of enigmatic calm punctuated by moments of wince-inducing, realistic carnage.

Other points of reference for me were David Lynch (for the stilted dreamlike surreality of some of the movie’s scenes) and Suspiria (1977)-period Dario Argento (for the otherworldly use of elaborate Day-Glo cinematography that lifts the film out of the ordinary into the realm of the fantastic and mythical — Only God Forgives’ lighting makes it more a neon-noir than neo-noir.)

It was interesting to note, too, that the film is dedicated to Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose movies I absolutely love, and about whom I once said, “He’s massively pretentious, but for some reason he completely gets away with it.”

The same, I think, can be said for Winding Refn with this movie. He has delicately and deliberately crafted a challenging, mysterious film that tells his story in his own way, and on his own terms. There are acres of space between the traditional narrative points, and it is in these spaces that the polarization will almost certainly occur. The viewer either rises to the challenge in these spaces, or feels betrayed by the storyteller and backs away, citing boredom.

Where you sit on this scale is entirely up to you. Personally, I haven’t stopped thinking about the film since I saw it, and I know that it is one — like Drive — that I will revisit again and again.

With uniformly excellent performances, beautiful cinematography and boldness and bravery to spare, Only God Forgives is a work of deep psychological complexity and unashamedly overwrought metaphor. It is also uncompromising and intense. But there’s a pretty good chance that you will absolutely hate it.

(And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out, then really there’s no hope for you…)

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HANGOVER SQUARE

Laird Cregar provided scene-stealing support in two very early film noir entries, I Wake Up Screaming (1941) and This Gun For Hire (1942), in which he played memorable, hulking bad guys. In this, a very (very) loose adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s seedy, booze-soaked novel, he proved that he could take top billing as a versatile leading man.

It was a career trajectory and an individual performance that Cregar obviously took very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he paid for it with his life.

Filled with frustration about his size, and the typecasting that he felt was hampering his career, he took drastic measures to prove to Hollywood that he could cut it with the big hitters. So he went on a crash diet, including the use of prescription amphetamines, the complications from which resulted in a fatal heart attack at the age of 31.

It is a background story that’s very much worth knowing going in to Hangover Square (1945), a film that turned out to be a case of art imitating life.

George Harvey Bone is a driven, hardworking composer, struggling with his masterwork, a concerto that is causing him to put in long hours before his piano in his dingy basement flat in South London. The stresses of composition are causing blackouts for poor George, during which he is unable to account for his actions.

George might not know what happens when he blacks out but we, the audience, do within the opening seconds. An antiques dealer is fatally stabbed and his place of business burned down. The camera pulls back to reveal George as the murderer. He stumbles away from the scene of the crime, bumping into Londoners and staring blankly at them through a haze of swirling distortions of light.

George is terrified when he hears about the murder. He fears the worst immediately and takes steps to find out if the blood on his overcoat could have belonged to the antiques dealer.

When his fears are assuaged by a doctor, he is nevertheless cautioned not to work with such intensity. He is encouraged to go out more often and to enjoy the simple pleasures of a more normal existence. Listening to the doctor, he finds himself in a low-key music hall, listening to the bawdy singing of one Netta Longdon, the femme fatale who is about to help send George straight to hell.

The first question the greedy Netta asks a mutual acquaintance about George is, “Is he important?” When she finds that he can write popular songs with the best of them, she leads him on, encouraging him both sexually and professionally.

George is smitten from the start, dropping his more suitable, cultured, piano-playing love interest for the wanton sexual allure of trashy Netta, writing schmaltzy songs for her instead of concentrating on his concerto.

Finding Netta to be the deceptive bitch she is, he is sent into a dark pit of despair — and all it takes to cause one of his terrible, violent blackouts is a perfect storm of great emotional strain and any sudden discordant sound. And somebody left some violins in a precarious position …

Hangover Square is about artistic and emotional frustration. Aspiring to achieve something truly memorable, George bravely battles with the pressures of his chosen art form, but at a very great personal cost.

What more apt role for an actor who is quite literally starving himself to death during its making? What Cregar does so brilliantly in the movie is portray the dark side of the creative process, the destructive obsessions and painful isolations that must be endured to see a life’s work through to its end.

It is an experience, I fear, that he knew only too well.

It is in the movie’s wonderful final scene that the theme of frustrated art is fully realized. His performance of the concerto — a sombre, bombastic composition from the always excellent Bernard Herrmann — is so intensely cathartic to George that he starts to remember all that has happened to him during his blackouts. Unable to continue, he hands over piano duties and is escorted from the hall.

Owning up to what he’s done, he is assured that he won’t be hanged, he is a sick man. All he wants to do suddenly, though, is hear his concerto through to the end. It is as if he senses all too well that the end is coming soon. In his frustration, he throws a lit oil lamp at those who seek to apprehend him, then escapes to a balcony to watch the orchestra, his face a mask of tortured awe and wonder. When the audience begins to flee the burning building, George is distraught and screams at them that they must listen to the concerto to the end.

The final shots of George — the film’s dramatic and thematic climax — are incredibly moving, heart breaking indeed, especially considering that they were the final shots of Laird Cregar in his Hollywood career.

As well as being an excellent, doom-laden period film noir, Hangover Square will always stand as a fitting swansong for a talented, versatile and sensitive actor, whose dedication to his craft was every bit as serious — and doomed — as that of his final character, George Harvey Bone’s.

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UNDERWORLD, U.S.A.

Almost all of Sam Fuller’s movies seem to exist in the noir universe. Marrying unabashed realism to pulpy melodrama plots, Fuller’s unconventional rough ‘n’ ready filmmaking style produced the kind of picture that any small-time hood would appreciate on his night off.

At first glance, Fuller himself seems to have been pulled from the pages of a potboiler. Gruff-voiced, cigar in one hand, gun in the other, and those squinting eyes like the two slits of a sharp shooter’s, Fuller embodied everything you’d want from a man who made rough-edged, muscular movies about challenged masculinity.

But Fuller was a filmmaker with a heart and a conscience, concerned with the unflinching depiction of real emotion. Famously a WWII veteran, he knew precisely what violence means, and for that matter he knew that it’s not pretty. Topics like revenge meant more to him than simple plot mechanics.

Even when making movies that, on the surface, seemed to be nothing more than pulp fiction, Fuller was always careful to populate his world with hard luck losers, professional chiselers, and two-bit hoodlums who were as far as possible from the usual clichés.

His films, therefore, became triumphs of content over style.

Underworld, USA (1961) begins on a close-up of 14-year-old Tolly Devlin’s eyes, roaming, scanning, searching for an opportunity like any other young punk street hustler. It’s New Year’s Eve, and the streets are crammed with drunks crying out to be rolled. An argument with another teen punk drunk-roller over spoils soon results in a scar that will mark Tolly as an underworld figure for the rest of his short, unhappy life.

But this joyous night will affect Tolly in a more profound way than his new scar. Four shadows on a brick wall set to work on a cowering fifth shadow in an alley. The four of them run past Tolly into the street after they’ve finished with their victim, and, on closer inspection, the slumped body is revealed to be the corpse of Tolly’s no-good hoodlum old man.

Tolly recognizes one of the men but refuses to reveal anything to the cops. “I’m no fink!” he calls out to the investigating officer as he jumps up on the morgue wagon carrying his father away. “I’ll get those punks my own way!”

And so he does – in a quest for revenge that from now on will consume him.

Tolly Devlin is a man doomed from the start. He was born in prison and raised among the milieu of Underworld, USA. After his fate is sealed on that New Year’s Eve he spends his years from fourteen to thirty-two bouncing from reformatory to state prison.

It is his world. He is comfortable in it. He even smiles when the cops pinch him in the middle of a safe crack job. Prison is just a reality of life that he has become resigned to.

Yet he can see for himself that crime pays very handsomely. The men who killed his father have since risen to the highest echelons of shady society, existing on an almost equal footing with the shady members of the highest echelons of more conventional society.

They bribe the chief of police, donate to charity and open up a swimming pool weekly for the area’s underprivileged children. In exchange, they are left alone to control the labour unions and the drug and prostitution rackets. Their organization is controlled just as if it were any other business, with employees, sales targets and promotional opportunities.

All Tolly has to do is worm his way into their world; then, like in the same year’s Yojimbo (1961), play them off against each other, and against the cops, whom Tolly – no fink – uses for his own end.

The only complication to his single-minded mission comes in the form of a street walker named Cuddles. He rescues her, saving her life, and she achieves a kind of personal epiphany. She wants out of that lifestyle, wants to spend the rest of her life as a normal, average, everyday square. She wants to climb out of the gutter. She articulates this to Tolly by telling him, “I want your babies.”

This in itself is something of a cliché for the genre – the tart with a heart who wants to wash herself clean of the life that she has been submerged in for too long.

But Fuller will not bow down to cliché even here. Tolly listens to her and immediately bursts out laughing. “Marry you?” he says, hysterical now, incredulous, insensitive. “Marry you!”

Any notion of vague nobility for Tolly’s quest for retribution is destroyed by this one heartless act of cruelty, and though he later acquiesces to marriage, claiming to want out from the underworld himself, it only comes after his mission has reached its conclusion.

And besides, it’s too late for him; his fate is already sealed. He has travelled too far down the selfish path of vengeance. The film’s final shot is an optical zoom into a close up of his clenched fist, defiant, violent, angry, bitter to the end.

One of the strongest supporting characters to note is another mid-grade hood among the organization, Gus, a strong-arm man. Despite his bloody work, Gus nevertheless expresses his joy in helping out the underprivileged kids who enjoy the organization’s swimming pool. A glint of wistful happiness comes into his eyes.

Yet when asked to kill the little girl of a man who’s ratted the organization out, Gus accepts his orders, donning dark glasses as he enters business mode. With those dark glasses on, he is merely carrying out a job. It is the psychopathic attitude of a cold-hearted ladder-climbing business executive.

It is a moment of matter-of-fact cinematic violence that is still enough to take the viewer’s breath away.

I think it fair to say that film noir is always destined to exist between two points – the cold and sterile classroom of intellectual study and the brittle, yellowing pages of adverb-filled pulp fiction. The best films cleverly walk a tightrope between the two. Sam Fuller existed naturally in this rather special place. And Underworld, USA is absolutely one of his best.

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THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY

This is one I picked up with some reservations. For starters, there’s the fact that it’s the first in a long series. I’m not exactly anti-series characters, but I will admit to being something less than a fan. I guess it just makes me think of the sequel mentality of modern Hollywood. It seems to have the same kind of thinking behind it — chasing the buck. Pumping out any old shit to ‘please’ the fans.

Then, there are those gimmicky titles for the series — a colour in each one. It made me wary of an attitude or tone that I might find among the covers. A kind of ironic, jokey lightness that never fails to get my back up. I’m a man who prefers his fiction kinda po-faced and serious. People who enjoy lighthearted romps always strike me as oddballs.

But I kept on hearing the words John D. MacDonald and Travis McGee. I knew I’d crack sooner or later. And so I did. And, as things so often do in this life, ‘The Deep Blue Good-By’ turned out to be much better than I feared it would be.

It is a detective novel, in a loose sense, in the same way that a P.I. or a journalist is often used in lieu of a more formal police investigator. But Travis McGee is somewhat different to the usual cop surrogate. He is a kind of scavenger, a recovery man, living on a houseboat. He helps people to reclaim what they’ve lost or had taken from them. He is not in his chosen racket for the riches, but merely for his most basic sustenance. He takes on jobs so that he doesn’t have to work or participate in society in the usual manner of the daily grind.

He is put in touch with a dancer, Cathy Kerr, who has a long story of woe concerning an imprisoned daddy, some hidden riches, and a smiling ex-con called Junior Allen. Allen did time with Pops and must have learned about the existence of the riches. Pops ended up dying in jail without telling anybody exactly where he’d hidden them. Junior Allen then proceeded to worm his way into the family’s lives, and find excuses to dig up every square of their yard and the surrounding land. Then one day he dug in the right place and promptly disappeared.

Now McGee is employed by Cathy to hunt Allen down, for a 50-50 split of any of the riches he recovers. In other words, he has to steal back the stolen riches that Junior Allen has stolen.

Or something like that…

What we get along the way is not so much an elaborately-plotted cat-and-mouse escapade, as a slow-burning descent into depravity. Because Junior Allen, it turns out, is one sick bastard, with a love of sexual sadism and rape. McGee pontificates:

“Sanity is not an absolute term. Probably, in the five years of imprisonment, what had originally been merely a strong sexual drive had been perverted into a search for victims. He had indulged himself with erotic fantasies of gentle women, force, terror, corruption. Until, finally, the re-stolen fortune became merely a means to that end, to come out and live the fantasies.”

McGee pontificates a lot. Actually, it’s this aspect that endeared me to him finally (though it’s very likely others will be put off by this fact). Published in 1964, ‘The Deep Blue Good-By’ reads like it’s riding the wave of the emerging counterculture.

McGee is somewhat promiscuous, but not necessarily driven by lust. His sense of morality is skewed, perhaps, but nowhere near becoming immoral. And his chosen profession — though industrious and enterprising in the land of opportunity — is resolutely not founded on greed.

I suppose, in some way, hard-boiled and noir characters, with their sexual and financial preoccupations, represent a kind of extreme of typical societal self-interests. Their greedy and lustful acts are a dark mirror held up to the rest of us.

McGee’s subversion of these traits — his dropping out of society — shows an even deeper logical extension of these indulgences. Grown sated, the only sensible thing to do is lose one’s appetite. To become, like McGee has done, “that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly, scartissued reject from a structured society.”

This isn’t a piece of noir fiction in the classic mould. I read it as something of an interesting next step. Its cynicism is more measured, more controlled. It is not drenched in despair — wild, desperate, terrified — and can not therefore be considered truly black.

Like Travis McGee, it exists within the dark and scary world, but seems to occupy a position on the sidelines, offering an alternative outlook, an alternative stance, without letting itself get caught up in the undisciplined madness.

It will be interesting to see how the character of Travis McGee develops over the series. Because I will certainly be carrying on with MacDonald’s books to find out.

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THE BRIDE WORE BLACK

When it comes to noir fiction of the golden age, it seems to be the consensus of opinion that there are four names to be spoken with hushed reverence. They are, of course: Chandler, Hammett, Cain and Woolrich.

But, for me at least, two of those names don’t really belong there. And those two names are Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Now … we could all argue it back and forth until our faces are covered in each other’s spittle, but thankfully Otto Penzler has already said everything there is to be said on the matter, HERE. So go and read what he has to say on it all, and then meet me back here in a few minutes.

Because I want to talk about the king of them all. The one, the only … Cornell Woolrich.

Actually, for me, there are two kings when it comes to American noir fiction. Woolrich and David Goodis. Both of them have something in common; and it’s something that they share, too, with Georges Simenon. It’s an overwhelmingly heavy, doom-laden mood that’s so natural and genuine to each author, and yet so intangible to the reader, that it’s difficult to put one’s finger on just what it is.

In ‘The Bride Wore Black’ we open with an epigraph from Guy de Maupassant that ends with the line, “There is nothing more beautiful and honorable than killing!” We then, in a short, mysterious scene, meet a young woman who is leaving her home. She seems to be leaving something more enormous than her physical dwelling — a life, a happiness, perhaps a lost dream. She doesn’t even care where she’s going. She thrusts a handful of money into the ticket window and asks, “How far will this take me?” Then, after waving goodbye to her companion, the train takes off and she alights at the very next stop. Then she rents a furnished room, stares for a long time at a photograph of a young man — “not so strikingly handsome; just eyes and mouth and nose as anyone has” — and then burns the photograph in the sink. Then she walks over to the window, leans on the sill and stares out at the city — “she seemed to lean toward [it] like something imminent, about to happen to it.”

What follows is a structural formula that Woolrich excelled at — an overarching story, split into seemingly unrelated chapters, each ending with the ingenious, elaborate death of someone, interspersed with short scenes of the police trying to make sense of the case.

In ‘The Bride Wore Black’, each victim is a man. The murderer in each chapter is a woman — sometimes a blonde, sometimes a brunette, sometimes a redhead — who stalks her prey, enters their lives and then destroys them, taking a cold, hard, professional satisfaction in her seemingly random acts of violence. The detective investigating the case, Lew Wanger, is convinced that there is a motive hidden somewhere in the past…

The neat, precise structuring of the novel mirrors that of his later novels, ‘Rendezvous in Black’ and ‘Black Alibi.’ One could say that these are novels written by a man more comfortable writing shorter works. A cynic might even say that they are only tied together by preposterous storylines that rely too heavily on coincidence and almost supernatural-level flights of Woolrich’s fancy.

All of which may well be partially true.

But in the mysterious, coincidental world that Woolrich has created over his body of work, it is an approach and a conceit that really works. It is part of the intangible mood that I’ve already spoken of. It is something that nobody — the characters, the reader, even the writer with his ordered sense of structure — can control and wrestle some sense out of.

Nowhere is this idea better represented than in — for me — his masterpiece, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,’ with a young woman who wants to jump from a bridge into the depths of the river below, where she can escape the relentless glare of the distant stars over her head. It is as if the universe is so malevolently hostile a place that the only sensible option is an escape into the lonely, empty blackness of death.

And when you’re dealing with such themes, the odd implausibility of plot here and there becomes something of minor importance. In such a world, these things become quite understandable. In such a universe, characters become tiny, terrified, lonely and filled with an almost insurmountable despair.

The ironic ending of ‘The Bride Wore Black’ is one that embodies this despair. It is a victory for that intangible, malevolent universe whose stars are shining down on all of us, seeing everything we do and think, and hope and dream for. It is a universe that is filled with dark, sardonic laughter at our futile actions.

It is noir fiction, pure and simple, and Cornell Woolrich will always be its undisputed master.

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