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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*NEW RELEASE* CANDID PHOTOS

Candid Photos - Phil Redhead

With clear new eyes … he saw the same rotten world.

At 24, Nick Haygarth is already embittered by his stultifying life — he is hopelessly in love with his work colleague, Anna, alienated from his friends and family, and trapped within the confines of his daily rut. A disaffected anger is slowly rising up within him.

However, the unexpected Christmas gift of a camera opens up a brand new world for Nick, and soon he begins a passionate affair with older woman, Mel. But Mel is disillusioned, too — bitter, jealous and damaged by her many perceived failures — and the couple fall into a downward spiral of lust and self-hatred, forever doomed to poison everyone and everything they touch.

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EIGHT O’ CLOCK WALK

It is the morning of April Fool’s Day, and a gang of rambunctious kiddies run through the streets of Camden, London, playing tricks on every adult they encounter. Meanwhile, radio cab driver, Tom Manning (Richard Attenborough), is running late for work.

When one of the little girls in the gang stops Tom and tells him that she’s lost her doll in a nearby bomb site, he happily takes her by the hand and leads her off to find it. It’s a beautiful day and the jaunty soundtrack tells us that all is well in the world. Even when the crying little girl cracks a smile and shouts out, “April Fool!” Tom merely shakes his fist at her and chases her around for a brief moment while she giggles. Then he lets her be and goes to work.

But hours later, the little girl is found dead. Strangled. Covered in mud. A discarded heap amid the wreckage of a bomb site.

Sure enough, Tom is implicated in the crime by several witnesses, and he is later arrested for the murder. Now it’s up to young Peter Tanner (Derek Farr), inexperienced but sympathetic counsel for the defence, to do what he can to oppose the damning but circumstantial evidence against Tom.

And meanwhile the real killer keeps a close watch on proceedings …

The ‘wrong man’ narrative places this one squarely in film noir territory. The film’s opening twenty minutes do their utmost to depict a happy-go-lucky young man and wife embarking on a new life together. Tom is hard-working and wife, Jill (Cathy O’Donnell), is devoted to her husband, and together they are dead set on a life of aspirational respectability.

But fickle fate has other things in store for them.

It has to be noted, though, that the black path is not followed through ruthlessly to the end, and any noir fan wanting a merciless denouement may well be disappointed.

The film’s strongest scenes concern the hoopla around the trial, which takes up a good half of the picture. It is important to note that this is a film set during a period of capital punishment in England, a full ten years before the final hanging took place in 1965. And the film has something to say about an innocent man’s life being in jeopardy due to the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

The movie, it’s true, is not entirely explicit in its social outrage. It is not a haranguing, passionate plea for change. It is more a question of tone than anything — one that is implied by several strong, though subtle, scenes. The public follows Manning’s trial with a mixture of self-righteous horror, gleeful fascination and matter-of-fact boredom:

Outside the court, members of the public queue for spaces in the gallery, sitting on chairs on the pavement outside, knitting, obviously having been there for hours to secure themselves a spot. One clucking hen proudly tells those around her that she hasn’t missed a murder trial since 1947. Inside the courtroom, the foreman of the jury is happy. “We’re in luck,” he says. “We get our lunches free with a murder.” An important witness disappears to go shopping. And in a story strand that strangely goes nowhere (almost as if it were rewritten to make way for a happy ending), the presiding judge, though fair and professional during the trial, is preoccupied by the ill health, and subsequent death, of his wife.

These scenes reminded me of Fritz Lang’s superior Fury (1936), in which an innocent man (Spencer Tracy) is seemingly burned alive by a baying mob of vigilantes, while townspeople gather to cheer on his death, eating hotdogs, cackling with laughter and gossiping with their neighbours.

It is almost as if nobody but Tom and Jill Manning truly cares about the truth.

All, that is, except Tanner, who is presented as a modern, empathetic man of law, who to the horror of his stuffy colleagues actually visits Tom in jail, rather than merely handling the evidence for his defence objectively.

The film seems to be making some sort of statement about a need for change in British law — a more progressive approach, a more human face. But it doesn’t come right out and say what it seems to be hinting at.

But then again social outrage might not be exactly what you wanted anyway. The question is, with an innocent man about to have a noose placed round his neck, and a sickening child murderer still stalking the streets, is the film thrilling?

Well, to put it bluntly, no, not really. Perhaps it’s personal taste, but the courtroom scenes — as such scenes often do — slow the picture down and drain it of its energy. Energy, that is, that it starts with, with abundance.

My favourite scene — if this isn’t in poor taste — is the child’s early murder scene. She sits on the bank of a canal and sings the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Oranges and Lemons.’ A shadow of a man in a hat appears on the water beside her. The girl goes on singing as the shadow edges nearer. Suddenly the little girl turns around and squints confusedly up at the man, with the sun now behind him. The shadow falls over her face and a nearby train screams as it passes. Fade to black.

As child murders go, it’s pure black poetry. What a shame, then, that the rest of the picture can’t live up to it.

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THE DEPRAVED

Here we go with a by-the-numbers low budget film noir from the dear old land I call home. Brit noirs are a strange and inconsistent beast. When they’re good, they’re very, very good; but when they’re bad they’re awful.

And I do mean awful. Flat, ugly cinematography (whose only saving grace is priceless post-war period location shooting), weak, contrived plots whose conclusions you can see coming a mile away, and risible tough guy dialogue delivered in the plummiest Queen’s English.

The Depraved (1957) is nowhere near the dregs, it has to be said, but it’s never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Brighton Rock (1947), They Made Me A Fugitive (1947), Hunted (1952), Obsession (1949) or Odd Man Out (1947).

What the film does, it actually does quite well. It’s just that plenty of other films did it better years beforehand. (And it damn well knows it.)

We open on a back road in the English countryside. An American army jeep (from the base in town) runs out of fuel and Captain Dillon (Robert Arden) treks up the quarter-mile driveway of Laura and Tom Wilton for assistance. Laura (Anne Heywood) is upstairs ignoring the drunken bellyaching of her husband (Basil Dignam), who is causing a mess downstairs as he tries to move his record player.

Tom is in his bathrobe, carrying his bottle around with him and drinking glasses at a gulp. He forces Laura to clean up after him then knocks the dustpan out of her hand as the whim takes him.

Dillon appears and asks to use the telephone. Tom is still in the lounge fiddling with the wires at the back of his record player. Before Dillon can make the call, the lights go out, and Laura finds her husband passed out on the floor, stunned by the electrical current still coursing through him. And that is the moment Laura gets a wild idea.

And meanwhile Dillon has had some ideas about Mrs. Wilton of his own …

That’s right, we’re squarely in James M. Cain-land (a great or scary place to be, depending on which side of the silver screen you’re on). And even if you’ve only ever seen one film noir in your life, you probably know exactly where all this is headed.

The movie’s opening scenes are certainly its highlight. There are some skewed camera shots to reflect the dysfunction of the Wilton household; the dialogue is snappy and interesting, creating strong characters and an understandable predicament with a minimum of fuss; and the movie has pacing out of the gate that hammers home the fact that this is going to be a thrill ride.

Basically, it breaks down like this: in the first scene, we understand that Laura wants her husband dead (and we agree with her); and in the second major scene, we see that Captain Dillon agrees with her, too. We, the audience, now understand that the lust, the murder and the mayhem will surely follow.

However, this second scene with the three primary characters actually serves to highlight something else — something a little more problematic for the rest of the picture. Basil Dignam’s drunken Tom is the movie’s most memorable and entertaining character. As I worked out that the cantankerous old sod’s days were numbered, I realized that I didn’t want to see him leave. In other words, I began to side with him, against Capt. Dillon and Laura.

In this scene, too, is another factor that hampers the rest of the movie. Tom has a wonderful, bitter speech concerning the presence of a soldier in his home.

“You ever kill a man, Mr. Dillon?” Tom asks his house guest apropos of nothing. “What did it do to you, all this killing?” He has a theory about war, he says. The camera suddenly tracks forward for a close up.

“I believe,” Tom says, “that when a man learns to kill he becomes an animal. And after that he’s never completely human, completely civilized. … You can’t even hold a loaded gun without feeling the power to kill, and with the power the wish comes easily.”

It’s an interesting theory. We know that it’s meant to be important because of that sudden camera zoom. But that’s it as far as developing the theme goes. If the rest of the movie’s action is meant to be an illustration of Tom’s theory — and I suspect it is — then it’s not really a theory at all, is it? It’s treated as unchallenged fact. Dillon is easily persuaded by Laura to kill because he is an animalistic soldier who can’t act otherwise.

The theme of returning soldiers is an important one to the noir canon — one that could fill a book, let alone this brief review. In American films like The Blue Dahlia (1946), Crossfire (1947), Dead Reckoning (1947) and Somewhere in the Night (1946) the returning veteran is humanized, sympathized with and presented within a broader socio-political framework. He is not merely reduced to a wild, animalistic killer who has had his self-control destroyed within him by being ground up in the war machine.

If the ending of The Depraved is particularly ruthless in its sadism, it is not because the film is making a bold statement. It is because it is copying the harrowing endings of better films made a decade earlier.

And really, that is all the film is — a formulaic copy. Hell, if you squint a little, Robert Arden even looks and acts a bit like Fred MacMurray.

What it is, in a way, is an early dry run for the slavishly imitative neo-noir that we are sometimes saddled with today, with well-loved plot points and character types preserved in celluloid amber.

What the film doesn’t reflect is the wider implication of what this post-war ‘noir’ mood really means. If it had continued and elaborated on its theme of what state-sanctioned violence on far-flung battlefields does to a peacetime soldier in a more genteel location — still displaced from his true home — then it might have carved a place for itself and become something much more memorable. But it doesn’t do that. It opts for plot mechanics over substance.

It doesn’t even touch on that very British idea of American soldiers being “over-paid, over-sexed and over here,” a theme that would have fitted the story, the location and the period perfectly. Oh well. Shame. It could have been a tight little belter of a Brit noir. All it is in the end is a decent but anaemic imitation of the greats.

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NO STRINGS

I actually have a lot to thank Mark Safranko for. If it hadn’t been for him, I might never have discovered the romans durs of Georges Simenon. For it was in the pages of Safranko’s ‘Hating Olivia’ that I encountered my first recommendation of the Belgian’s work. (“the non-Maigrets only,” as his narrator Max Zajack hastened to point out.)

I was very much taken with Safranko’s Zajack novels. (Note to self: why the hell haven’t you bought ‘God Bless America’ or ‘Dirty Work’ yet?) They’re often compared to Bukowski, but I think the comparison is not entirely fair to Safranko. There are similarities of texture and tone, it’s true, but Safranko has a voice all his own, and Zajack is a clearly-defined and individual character, negotiating his way through a very different world to Hank Chinaski’s.

Safranko is also an interesting and thoughtful interviewee. I found and read quite a few interviews with him after finishing ‘Hating Olivia’ and ‘Lounge Lizard’, and like Bukowski, Safranko is often just as entertaining with his opinions about literature and writing and the world as he is with his fiction. I also read some of his columns for The Guardian website, and here again I found a love letter to Georges Simenon’s romans durs.

So I bought a few to see what the fuss was about — and since then (about thirty-five books into Simenon’s vast oeuvre) I haven’t looked back.

‘No Strings’ is the first of Safranko’s psychological thrillers I’ve read, and I suppose I was expecting something of the thick, claustrophobic nightmare of a Simenon. I’m not sure I got what I was expecting, but I do know I enjoyed the read all the same.

Photo by Lorrie G Foster

Photo by Lorrie G Foster

Our narrator is one Richard Marzten, a man “tired of endlessly fantasizing and not doing anything about it.” He has dreamed up a way to commit the perfect extramarital affair. He will arouse his older wife Monica’s suspicions, tempt her to investigate his odd behaviour, and then go out and have an affair after Monica has already been convinced of his innocence.

When he puts the plan into action, everything seems to be going just as he’d thought. He meets the stunning “Gretchen” and falls into bed with her on their first encounter. He has the best sex of his life and is not encumbered by any of the usual difficulties that such entanglements often bring. Their relationship is strictly on a “no strings” basis.

Until one day she jokes that they would both be better off if their respective spouses were no longer breathing; and then on another day admits that she has started to miss him when they’re not together.

As Marzten says, “Whoa. What the hell was this shit?”

But if from this partial synopsis you think you know where the rest of ‘No Strings’ is headed, then think again, as Safranko has some neat tricks up his sleeve. Because, y’see, he too is a fan of the genre. He has Marzten himself say it: “Visions of cheap, pulpy murder plots, stuff like what happened in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, raced like a comet through my brain.”

He’s fan enough — and smart enough — to create something of his own that nevertheless remains true to the type of book he obviously loves. So while you can sit back and enjoy the fast-paced, tightly-plotted thrill ride of the plot mechanics, what you also get is a nuanced portrait of an emasculated coward.

What he creates in Marzten is a confused and less-than-sympathetic character — one who’s every bit as fucked up as the kind of anti-hero that populates the best of Jim Thompson’s sick, sick world.

He vacillates between thinking, “I was in the jam I was in because of women. Two women. Both had ensnared me,” to admitting, “I was the most pitiful and ridiculous fool, trapped and destroyed by my desires.”

Marzten married into untold riches as a young man, and he only works now, in middle age, out of a kind of male pride. When the idea of having an affair creeps into his mind, he is self-conscious enough to understand that it is because, “[f]or a while I needed to not be an impotent suburban papa who was under his wealthy wife’s thumb.”

His thoughts of other women are of the fleshy, puerile fantasies that all men, if they’re honest, carry around in their heads all day long. His wife’s sagging, pale flesh disgusts him; he wants smooth, tanned, youthful perfection. He wants to prove to himself that such a body is still (literally) within his reach.

But at the same time — “The last thing I wanted was a high-maintenance model on my hands full-time.”

In a way, it is this confusion between being the all-conquering lothario and, in reality, a pathetic, desperate middle-aged man wanting to eat his cake and have it, too, that triggers the intricate twists and turns of the story’s (melo)drama. In a moment of honesty with himself, Marzten can admit, “What snakes we humans are.”

What the pulp plot dynamics also afford Safranko is the opportunity to push Marzten’s character development into hyperdrive. As proceedings spiral out of Marzten’s control, his behaviour becomes ever more desperate and reckless.

The book covers similar themes and follows a similar trajectory to Safranko’s own ‘Lounge Lizard,’ in which Max Zajack goes from being a down and out loser who hasn’t been laid in years, to a bed-hopping sex junkie who ends the novel crouched on a fire escape, frothing at the mouth and howling at the moon like a lust-crazed wolf. And while ‘No Strings’ can’t quite top that incredibly memorable parting image, it does at least end neatly and satisfactorily.

I said at the beginning that it wasn’t as dark as I had expected it to be, but really, that’s unfair of me to say that it didn’t match the expectations that I brought to it. It isn’t so much a chilling character study as a blackly-comic sex-and-murder farce. I can imagine an increasingly-manic Nic Cage in the Marzten role, if filmed.

What you get with ‘No Strings’ is a memorable narrator, a strong cast of supporting characters, and a wild, out-of-control pulp plot that will please every fan of lust ‘n’ violence madness.

And, Jesus wept, who ever asked for more than that?

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