The Phineas Poe Trilogy.

Don’t let a noir protagonist’s quirky name fool you. Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe is not Auguste Dupin or Hercule Poirot. Hell, he’s not even Mike Hammer or Jessica Jones. The mean streets of Manhattan or L.A. have nothing on Phineas Poe’s darkest nightmares. If you want to read something uplifting – or at least reassuring – move on. The closest familiar comparison I can offer you to Baer’s three Phineas Poe novels would be Peter Medak’s unrelentingly dark (and almost surreal) 1993 neo-noir thriller Romeo Is Bleeding, scripted by Hilary Henkin.   

Baer’s Phineas Poe is a former cop and drug addict fresh from the psych ward and promptly mixed up with Jude, a classic noir femme fatale who abandons him (and I won’t tell you precisely what he discovers has occurred when he awakes to find her gone), and his tortuous, violence filled quest to find her – to reunite, to rescue her or to seek revenge – takes Poe on a dark journey through drug induced dreams and violent episodes populated by two-bit crooks, Goths, hackers, sociopaths and killers. It all plays out in a nightmare landscape that may be Denver, Colorado and desert-noir Texas, but is more like Dante’s nine circles of hell. Sound like fun?

It is. Oh, it really, really is. 

There are three Phineas Poe novels: Kiss me, Judas (1998), Hell’s Half Acre (2000) and Penny Dreadful (2004), each readily available individually both new and used and also conveniently offered in three-novel omnibus editions. The reader may take a while to adjust to Baer’s writing style, its rapid-paced yet surreal language and almost bratty taunting with ‘normal’ structure, punctuation and grammar. But a few pages in, Baer’s dark poetry will have you hooked, and structural norms largely forgotten. 

I was shocked to discover Baer’s Phineas Poe books (individual editions and one omnibus…I’m not a collector but always acquisitive) missing from the writing lair’s too-many and overstuffed bookcases, presumably squeezed out by new additions at some point in recent years. Shame on me. But that’s a mistake that’s easily rectified. I have Greg Levin’s Criminal Element article “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” (see the preceding post) to thank for prompting me to look for my Baer books and to order new ones right away. There’ll be other new books ahead of Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy, but now I can’t wait to get really weirded out all over again.

Dark, Dangerous And Crazy-Good.

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable looked ready to topple over by late August, mystery/crime fiction titles strangely absent in the imposing stack. Though I expected late Summer to be short on reading time (due to day job and daily life stuff rudely intruding) I’ve managed to work through most of the heap, from a depressing list of current events/politics titles to Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste – The Origins Of Our Discontents, and winding up with a real change of pace for me, Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger’s new anthology Weird Women – Classic Supernatural Fiction By Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852 – 1923. But even while I whittled the pile down, I’d phoned in over a dozen new books to the local indie for curbside pickups, ordered a few more direct from their specialty press publishers, and still more – ‘pre-owned’ books and POD-only editions – from the Seattle behemoth. Some of these are showing up quicker than expected, the to-be-read pile re-growing quickly. 

‘Course, that doesn’t mean I can’t always make room for more…

Linked via Crime Reads, Greg Levin’s 9.9.20 “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” at Criminal Element (link below) was just what I needed to help with the replenishing. Levin looks at a dozen edgy contemporary noir writers, like Sara Gran, one of my faves, though as much as I love her Claire DeWitt series, her third novel Dope (2006) eclipses even those for me and remains one of my all-time beloved books. Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, Holly Goddard Jones and others have spent time on that same to-be-read pile in the past, and Levin’s article prompted me to add a couple of them to my current book ordering frenzy (have to get ready for Autumn, don’t I?) even if they’ll be re-reads. But in particular, Levin prompted me to look at Will Christopher Baer, maybe the darkest on his neo-noir list, and for me, way overdue for a re-read. More about Baer’s magnificent Phineas Poe novels in the next post…

O’Neill’s Neo-Noir Style.

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Self-taught painter Peter O’Neill grabbed a Greyhound bus at New York City’s Port Authority in 1996 and never looked back, bound for Florida, where I believe he’s made his home since. In fact, many of his paintings seem to evoke that same South Florida sultriness lifted from a steamy neo-noir like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 Body Heat.  More of O’Neill’s work follows in the next post…

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Three Out Of Five Ain’t Bad: Lansdale’s More Better Deals.

More Better Deals

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable was five books-high when my first two choices turned out to be real stinkers, one a painfully indulgent bit of rambling and plotless literary fiction, the other presumably mis-shelved in a bookstore’s mystery section, revealing itself as a pretty distasteful bit of crime-free erotica (I swear, the cover art made it look like a neo-noir thriller).

But, as the post’s title says, three out of five ain’t bad, particularly when those three were welcome treats after back-to-back (but un-named here) disappointments. First up:

Think of a James M. Cain novel seething with adultery and deceit, but filtered through someone like Orrie Hitt. Then think of that being fully reimagined by expert storyteller and wordsmith Joe R. Lansdale, and that’s what his More Better Deals (2020 Mulholland/Hatchette) is. Oh sure, you’ve been down this road before. But, always remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

In a vaguely early 1960’s nameless East Texas locale, Ed Edwards unloads overpriced junkers at Smiling Dave’s used car lot, his boss, customers – everyone in town, actually – unaware he’s the light-skinned son of a long-gone African-American father and a white trailer-trash alcoholic mother. Half-heartedly trying to help his similarly light-skinned younger sister while pointlessly daydreaming about something better than his own humdrum life, Ed meets trouble in a short black dress and heels — aiming a twelve gauge his way — when he attempts to repossess her boorish and abusive husband’s Cadillac.

Mrs. Nancy Craig’s a classic femme fatale fashioned from the long literary and cinematic history of desirable but deadly women who’ve manipulated foolish men with sex and the promise of money to share, so it’s no surprise when Ed Edwards is soon in deep: Plotting murder ala Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, reluctantly turned into a kidnapper when murder fails to pay off, and even stirring up trouble that puts years of ‘passing’ at risk.

Taking advantage of a slow Summer workday, I left the day job early this past Friday, started More Better Deals ‘round mid-afternoon and continued to devour this novel straight through dinner and deep into the wee hours, unable to put it down.  ‘It’s a real page-turner’ and all that…oh, that it is. With frustrating memories of that plotless bit of literary fiction still fresh in my head, it was pure joy to dive into a novel that took me by the hand right from page one and introduced engaging (if downright awful) characters descending deeper and deeper into a cesspool of lust laced with suspicion, double-dealing that leads to death. That Lansdale accomplishes this with an economy of words (yet never failing to paint a fully rendered picture of each locale) merely testifies to his skill. I challenge a reader to point out any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that could be dispensed with. It’s the kind of writing I might aspire to but simply lack the talent to match (but I can keep on hoping…right?).

Call it “desert noir” or “rural noir” if you like, but More Better Deals is “Noir” at its purest, gifting readers with sizzle and violence, but ultimately grappling with much sadder, darker and woefully inevitable doom.

So, if I haven’t made my point yet, go get the damn book and read it.

(BTW: I’ve scanned my hardcover twice now, but it keeps showing up in red. The book’s really a two-color hot orange and brown design, in case you’re looking for it.) 

Love Is A Weapon.

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It’s said that director Phil Karlson joked, “we took The Maltese Falcon and we did The Maltese Falcon…in our own way”.

That might be stretching it a bit, but if you get a chance to see Paramount’s Hell’s Island (originally titled Love Is A Weapon, a much better and more accurate title, I think), you’ll see what Karlson meant. Shot in Technicolor and Vista-Vision, Hell’s Island is one of several mid-1950’s crime and romantic suspense films that seem to point the way – visually, at least – to what would become neo-noir years later…specifically, how to capture film noir’s ominous and foreboding darkness in richly saturated hues. It’d be nice to watch a crisp and clean version of this movie, but aside from an incompatible format European DVD, all I’ve come up with are the online versions. Even so, it’s well worth viewing.

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The opening credits roll over a violent shootout and cut to late-era noir stalwart John Payne on the operating table about to get a bullet dug out of his shoulder. A police detective squeezes in between the surgeon and nurses to light a cigarette for Payne (who’s apparently not under anesthesia…and allowed to smoke in the operating room). In classic film noir fashion, Payne launches into a voice-over narration about how he wound up there.

He’s Mike Cormack, who lost it all just a year earlier when his lifelong love Janie Erskine concluded that marriage to a dashing Caribbean pilot had more appeal than life with a struggling Los Angeles assistant D.A. Seven months spent drowning his sorrows in a bottle of booze didn’t help Cormack get over being jilted, but it did cost him his career, and now he’s a glorified Las Vegas casino bouncer. There he meets a Sydney Greenstreet/Kaspar Gutman clone played by Francis L. Sullivan in one of his last roles, an unsavory wheelchair bound manipulator with a borderline illegal proposition: A grand upfront and four more to follow if Cormack will go to Puerto Rosario to look for a precious carved Madonna ruby, stolen from the local museum and presumed lost when the smugglers’ plane crashed on takeoff. Why Cormack for this peculiar mission? Because the pilot was none other than the glamorous flyboy who stole Cormack’s girl.

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To say too much about the twists and turns that peel off one after another once Cormack makes it to Puerto Rosario would be cheating. Just know that Cormack and Janie do meet up, the silver screen could just about melt once they do, and soon enough the bodies start piling up…culminating in the climactic shootout with Cormack lighting one cigarette after another on the operating table. And Janie being led away by the law into a waiting police van.

Not everyone’s a John Payne fan, but I like him just fine in this and similar roles. Mind you, if Paramount had snagged Robert Mitchum for this role instead, I wouldn’t complain. But the real revelation here is Mary Murphy as Janie Erskine (now Jane Martin). Known more for ingenue, pioneer woman and small-town girl roles, Murphy’s Janie deploys both vulnerability and duplicity wrapped in a steamy allure in order to get what she wants, and when that fails, is ready with a loaded automatic to seal the deal. There’ve been much bigger stars, more memorable heroines and evil villainesses in film noir, but only a few who can match this character’s cold bloodedness. Hell’s Island is worth looking for just to watch Murphy at work.

“Sometimes, love is a weapon,” John Payne’s Mike Cormack is told near the end of the film as he finally begins to realize that he’s been played right from the beginning. Indeed it is, particularly when it’s wielded by someone like Mary Murphy’s memorably dangerous dame.

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The Noir Style.

The Noir Style

Alain Silver and James Ursini’s 1999 Harry N. Abrams/Overlook Press The Noir Style is a frequently seen bookstore sale rack and remainders table staple, and that’s where I got mine, the $50.00 (when published 20 years ago) oversize 244-page hardcover still in a shrink-wrap and for only $12.99. Now I can’t vouch for the trade pb edition, but this sumptuous hardcover, designed by Bernard Schleifer, is almost an objet d’art with 170+ duotone photos on matte coated stock, as nicely produced as any coffee table art monograph you’d buy in a museum store.

The book’s title and the glamorous cover photo might mislead you into thinking The Noir Style is about the costuming and wardrobe design of so many memorable film noir femmes fatales and heroines. But no, Silver and Ursini (supported by additional material from Robert Perforio and Linda Brookover) provide a glorious overview of the ‘look’, the ‘style’ and the visual motifs of both classic film noir and more contemporary neo-noir (well, ‘contemporary’ for a book published in the 1990’s). It’s packed with familiar and not-so-familiar images of memorable characters and stars, scenes and set designs, all crisply reproduced and accompanied by a generous amount of text chronicling the roots of film noir, the genre’s evolution, various noir themes (from a visual perspective) and more.

Film Noir Readers

Silver and Ursini have practically made a cottage industry out of film noir books of one sort or another, only a few of which are shown here, and it should be no surprise that I have a few. But they’ve also partnered on books about horror cinema, vampire films and other subjects. I’m usually cautious with film noir non-fiction books, having been burned by a few overly academic (make that downright snooty) ones determined to filter the genre through the author’s personal perspective, Marxist, feminist or other “ist”, which sometimes make sense and often times does not. But if you see The Noir Style at some puzzling low price on a bookstore’s sale table (particularly the hardcover!), snatch it.

Film Noir Books

The Dark Side In Color Or B&W.

Quentin SHih 1

Largely self-taught photographer and filmmaker Quentin Shih works out of both New York and Bejing, and clearly has a flair for the dark side, the images sometimes evoking the look and feel of classic film noir, and sometimes indulging in sumptuous (but still deliciously dark) saturated hues for neo-noir homages.

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Sasha’s Anna.

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Some dismiss Luc Bresson films as mindless action movies with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness. To which I’d respond with, “What’s so awful about mindless action movies with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness?”

La Femme Nikita, The Transporter, Lucy, The Professional…not a terrible resume, IMHO. I’ll blame myself for not knowing enough about the cloud of abuse allegations leveled against writer-producer-director Bresson to take a position, much less purge his films from my watch list. And that list includes his well-known projects and some that slipped in and out of theaters pretty quickly.

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.

Case in point: Anna, the stylish 2019 action thriller starring Sasha Luss as KGB assassin Anna Poliatova. Real-life fashion model Luss originally aimed to be a professional ballet dancer till she was sidelined by an injury in her tweens, soon turning to modeling (which she still does pretty well at) and then acting, Anna being her second film project. Here she plays a young Russian woman who escapes years of domestic abuse by making a deal with the devil: Undergo grueling KGB training, give them five years, and after that she can go free. Working undercover as a Paris fashion model (a real stretch for Luss), Anna’s particularly good at what she does (kill people) until her cover’s blown. Reluctantly agreeing to become a double agent for the CIA, Anna now faces a dizzying series of double-crosses and betrayals before she finally breaks free…or at least, achieves some sort of fragile truce.

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.

Some regard Anna as a derivative and inferior version of Bresson’s own La Femme Nikita (one hell of a film, as was its U.S. adaptation, Point Of No Return). I won’t argue, but I also don’t care. Anna is easy on the eyes, packed full of Luc Bresson’s trademarked action sequences, and even deploys credible costars like Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy and Luke Evans.

Mindless action with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness? Well, yeah..it pretty much is.

And that’s a problem?

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.Anna (Sasha Luss, left) and Maud (Lera Above, right) in ANNA.Anna 6

Paris, Texas…Revisited.

Paris Tx 2Cult film fave Wim Wenders’ 1984 Paris, Texas wasn’t really a neo-noir film…and yet it is, in its own weird way, isn’t it? Loosely based on co-writer Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles, and starring Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski and Dean Stockwell, the quirky, unsettling, and bleakly surreal movie says ‘desert noir’ in every shot. Enough so, apparently, to inspire photographer Steven Lippman to swap model Carolyn Murphy for Kinski for his own “Paris, Texas” photo suite, with spot-on recreations of memorable scenes from the film.

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