When Dark Is Beautiful, And Gritty Is Glamorous.

Deadline At Dawn 1

What better way to (intentionally or not) achieve the look and feel of what we now consider ‘classic’ film noir then to have the entire thing set at night? One single night, as a matter of fact.

RKO’s Deadline At Dawn (1946) was famous stage director Harold Clurman’s only film (and some claim that assistant director and production designer William Cameron Menzies actually handled much of the work). It’s an adaptation of William Irish’s novel by the same name (Irish being Cornell Woolrich, of course), who may have been responsible for more postwar film noir and crime melodrama story sources than any other author.

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Despite her better judgement, Susan Hayward’s street-smart and world-weary New York dance hall girl hooks up with a hunk of a sailor who emerges from a drinking binge with a mysterious wad of cash in hand. And that dough may have belonged to a girl who’s been murdered. Is he a killer? Was he framed? The duo only have a few fright-filled hours to find out before he’s due back from leave, so the entire tale unfolds during one eventful night as they prowl shadowy apartment buildings, smoky nightclubs and eerie rain-soaked streets, mixing it up with various nefarious types and guided along the way by a philosophical old cabbie played by Paul Lukas. All of this speeds along (somewhat confusingly at times) towards a “Gotcha” resolution, this dark and moody film wrapping up on an unexpected positive note.

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Damn near every shot’s a frameable fine art noir photo, with twisty camera angles, elongated shadows and one ominous room, hallway and stairwell after another. The big city never looked more menacing, or more darkly beautiful, for that matter. Susan Hayward’s cynical but vulnerable character is as gritty as the city she calls home, but she never looked more beautiful, even though she’s ‘dressed down’ for the part. I think that Deadline At Dawn was the first top billing for the hard-working actress who’d toiled in numerous bit parts and second (third and fourth) billed roles for nine years at Warner Brothers, then Paramount, United Artists and even Republic before she nailed this role at RKO. And though she only made two films that year, it was a turning point, soon moving her up to one lead role after another and securing five Oscar nominations and one win. Here she’s street-smart but world-weary, tough as nails but revealing a very human vulnerability. Sure, she gets to deliver some real gems, Irish/Woolrich’s novel adapted for the screen by playwright Clifford Odets. But watch closely and marvel at how Hayward achieves a poignantly bitter yet hopeful demeanour… lovely, of course, but always looking just a little bit bruised and disheveled. But then she was no stranger to NYC’s mean streets, born Edythe Marrenner in Brooklyn herself in 1917.

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This one’s a must-see, though it doesn’t command the attention of some more widely acclaimed movies from the classic noir era. Thanks for small favors, even my crummy cable subscription let me see it.

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Redemption’s Where You Find It.

Clandestine

“Three out of five ain’t bad”, I wrote a few days back, referencing the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. The first two of five books stacked there turned out to be duds, but the remaining three more than made up for that. The last, a 1999 Avon Twilight trade pb edition of James Ellroy’s 1982 novel Clandestine, was a risky choice right now. Like many, I’ve got the blues these days, whether it’s from the pandemic, or politics, or just every damn thing. An Ellroy novel, while sure to be a crime fiction masterpiece, is unlikely to lift anyone’s spirits.

Just goes to show ya…

Young uniformed LAPD cop Fred Underhill has a skeleton or two in his closet but is brimming with as much ambition as cynicism. He’s buddied with a loveable lush of a partner, spending his nights in an endless series of cocktail lounge pickups and seeking some vague something (which he calls the ‘wonder’). But the partner dies in a bloody holdup shootout. Then Underhill falls hard for beautiful, accomplished but broken prosecutor, Lorna Weinberg. The seamless monotony of Underhill’s daily life is unraveling. Skirting the rules to solve a possible serial killer’s rampage, he’s soon in plain clothes and in pretty heady company, and his attempts at leverage and manipulation are ruthlessly squashed by real department pro’s. When the prime suspect he fed to a rogue detective squad turns out to be innocent (discovered only after the culprit kills himself in his cell), Underhill’s career is destroyed, his marriage crumbles, his entire life seems over. Years pass, the ex-cop’s obsession with the murders still simmering, when events send him far from the familiar glitter and grime of Ellroy’s mid-twentieth century Los Angeles to the seemingly pristine pastures and small towns of America’s Dairyland. There Fred Underhill uncovers scandals and crimes that are almost too vile for the underbelly of Hollywood at its worst.

Cladestine Group Shot

Clandestine surprised me in two ways. First: This was, I believe, Ellroy’s second published novel, and the very familiar creative wordsmithing and staccato rhythm prose that readers cherish from his masterful L.A. Quartet (1987 – 1992) and the in-progress second L.A. Quartet (214 – 2019) is nowhere to be found. Ellroy’s writing’s is very straightforward here (though no less darkly poetic). Second: The novel’s closing pages provided a very unexpected balm to my blues. No one should seek redemption in James Ellroy’s bleak world, but there it was in the conclusion of Clandestine. The “R” word even lurks in the novel’s final sentence. After 320+ pages of Ellroy’s trademark cynicism, corruption and violence, there was a glimmer of hope after all.

Again, it just goes to show ya…

Clandestine is considered a standalone book in the Ellroy bibliography, but it actually nestles quite comfortably alongside the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with familiar faces making cameo appearances and the long shadow of dastardly Dudley Smith looming over all.

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Ellroy experts (and I’m not one, only an avid reader) will know better, but Clandestine also seems to point towards his 1996 true crime/memoir My Dark Places, or so it seemed to me. But whether it does or not, Clandestine is an amazing novel on its own, and whatever I reach for next will have to be mighty good to stand up to any comparisons. But the fact is, the writing lair’s endtable is empty now, the to-be-read pile sorely in need of replenishing. There’s a stack of Adventure House 1930’s-40’s Spicy Detective pulp reprints on my bookshelves that are still unread, and they’ll have to do for now…

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.) 

Hugo Hass & Cleo Moore: Bargain Basement Noir.

One Girls Confession 1

I’m starting to appreciate the MOVIES! channel’s two nights per week of back-to-back noir showcases, “Noir To Die For” and “Sunday Night Noir”, no longer griping about the loss of TCM’s carefully curated classics hosted by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller, or even complaining about the MOVIES! channel’s frequently re-run well-known’s from a mighty short list of noir faves. Instead, I’m learning to enjoy some of the oddball unknowns and rarely viewed films aired there, those not-quite-B-movies that maybe don’t even qualify for cult status.

Example: Hugo Haas’ films, at least two of which (maybe more) are currently in rotation on MOVIES!.

Hass (1901 – 1968) was an Austrian expatriate who’d been acting and directing in Prague theater and films in the 1930’s, but after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he fled Europe (his father and brother who remained were killed in Auschwitz in 1944). Haas made it to Hollywood, where he found frequent work as a character actor. After WWII, he directed (and usually starred in) a series of low budget melodramas and crime films, typically focused on the story’s female leads, which almost always were predatory femmes fatales of one sort or another. Cleo Moore (1924 – 1973), one of the 1950’s many ‘blonde bombshells’ looking to ride Marilyn Monroe’s coattails to fame and as much a pinup model as an actor, starred in no less than six of Haas’ films (bleaching her brunette tresses the entire time, at the studio’s insistence).

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The first Hass-Moore collaboration I saw on MOVIES! was Columbia’s One Girl’s Confession (1953), written, directed and produced by Hugo Haas…with him in the male lead. But it’s really Cleo Moore’s film all the way, “the kind of girl every man wants…but shouldn’t marry”, as the poster touted. Here she’s a bitter waterfront tavern barmaid nursing a grudge against her boss, the man who swindled her family out of their life’s savings years before. Her chance for revenge comes when she steals twenty-five grand, but is caught, convicted and sent to prison, though the money’s never retrieved. Once paroled, she finds herself in the same job in yet another harbor dive, working for another less than honorable boss, but snagging a handsome hunk along the way. It gets a little confusing here, but she’s double-crossed once more, the new boss gets his mitts on the stolen loot, and now she’s really out for vengeance.

The sets, costumes, editing, everythingare pure bargain basement, but it moves along at a steady clip, perfect for a drive-in, a double feature, or in my case, something to chase away the blues after viewing the cable news shows.

More about some of these not-quite-B and not-quite-noir films (and Cleo Moore too) to follow soon…

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Bob’s B-Day.

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You could light up a dark and shadowy film noir set today with 103 candles for one of noir’s greatest anti-heroes and a Hollywood icon who might be unrivaled for filling out a billowing topcoat or letting those sleepy (or veiled bedroom) eyes peer out from beneath a wide fedora’s brim.

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Is Robert Mitchum (8.6.1917 – 7.1.1997) my favorite film noir male actor? Yeah, probably. From Mitchum himself: “I kept the same suit for six years and the same dialog. They just changed the title of the picture and the leading lady.”

Maybe so, Mr. Mitchum. But damn, you did it so well.

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Darkness And Light: Trouble The Saints

Trouble The Saints

Whether I’m a purist or simply have bland taste, I’m not sure. I just know that I tend to favor things straightforward and unadorned. I have a wardrobe of solid color clothing, prefer my cars without dealer-added doodads, and if I was more of a drinker (I’m really not) I suppose I’d go for bourbon straight or on the rocks, leaving fancy cocktails for the more adventurous. And when it comes to my reading material, I usually don’t go for genre bending projects, and enjoy pretty linear narratives the best.

But then, masterful writers can always change my mind.

You could consider Alaya Dawn Johnson’s Trouble The Saints (2020 Tor-Tom Doherty Associates) traditional crime fiction in a mid-twentieth century setting, if you like, or a dreamy dark fantasy, or literary fiction. Each of those labels apply. Johnson’s novel is set in the early 1940’s New York underworld, specifically in Harlem nightclubs and the numbers racket, where light-skinned Phyllis Green (AKA Phyllis Leblanc, AKA “Pea”) is one of the so-called “Saints”, blessed — or afflicted — with the JuJu curse of magic hands that can read people, foresee the future in puzzling dreams and, in her case, make her a deadly assassin, her arsenal a holster of lethal blades hidden in her garter. Employed by a vicious Russian mobster, Pea believes she’s ridding the world of evil people, and that’s how she justifies too many bloody deaths to even count. Till she discovers that she’s been played all along, that is, and learns that no one really is who they seem to be, not even her lover Dev, who the discovers is an undercover cop.

Partly set in Harlem, partly in a small town in upstate New York, the novel is told through Pea’s perspective, then Dev’s, and even Pea’s pal, decadent cabaret dancer Tamara. This is all done in lyrical prose that might take some getting used to for fans of more straightforward narrative genre storytelling, and that’s partly why the multiple labels apply. Crime fiction? Dark fantasy? Literary fiction? I still haven’t decided, only concluding that Johnson skillfully interweaved classic underworld gangster intrigue with Southern mysticism and doomed love while confronting institutionalized racism, and her darkly poetic novel had me completely in its spell.

Saints - Crime Reads

If you haven’t read Trouble The Saints yet, but plan to, I recommend Alaya Dawn Johnson’s 7.31.20 essay at Crime Reads (link below): “Finding Room For Black Hope, Black Justice, And Black Love In Noir Fiction”. The author grapples with a portion of a topic that’s vexed me for some time (and pops up here often enough), specifically, how to process noir, mystery and crime fiction classics – whether the iconic novels, pulp stories or films – that as products of their eras are usually awash in ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes, dismissiveness and misogyny. For my part, I’ve opted to ‘compartmentalize’ so many classic and not-so-classic works, refusing to digest them through contemporary filters and acknowledging their often-dreadful anachronistic flaws (even while cherishing them). Johnson struggled with classic noir’s rampant racism, pointing to Raymond Chandler and Farewell, My Lovely in particular. But she also notes, “…noir is not only a genre about darkness, but about light. Not only about corruption, but about a desperate, often failed search for justice. Noir was the perfect genre for the story I wanted to tell, not in spite of its white and racist history, but because of it.” For her, noir is part of a genre “whose very premise undermined the racist conclusions of its most popular writers”.

Come to think of it, reading Johnson’s piece before starting her novel might not hurt.

https://crimereads.com/finding-room-for-black-hope-black-justice-and-black-love-in-noir-fiction/

The Master’s Birthday: Raymond Chandler

Chandler penguin 3

I’m still merrily working through Barry Day’s 2014 The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words (scroll back a couple posts) as the master’s birthday rolls around: July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959…and born right here in “the jewel on the lake”, no less.

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It’s a good thing I’m not really a collector (though admittedly acquisitive) or I’d definitely go broke tracking down the many, many different editions, both domestic and foreign, of Chandler’s works, such as these cleanly simple but handsome Penguin Australia book covers that I stumbled across when snooping for visuals for this birthday post.

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Noir City.

Noir City

Hot off the press (or the drive, I suppose): The new issue of the Noir City e-magazine from The Film Noir Foundation. This came in while I was at the day job, and it just wouldn’t do to start browsing right away (even if I am the boss). But you can bet I’ll be picking up edibles at a drive-thru after work and hunkering down in front of the laptop to pore through 80+ pages of goodness in just a few hours. More to follow after I’ve had a chance to digest it all.

Go to The Film Noir Foundation’s site to learn more, contribute and get your mitts on a copy: www.filmnoirfoundation.org

 

 

 

 

In His Own Words.

Chandler

The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day, is a profusely illustrated (200+ images) 2014 hardcover I stumbled across in my first return visit to a favored used bookstore just a few days ago. Things were rearranged for more open space (which runs contrary to the typical used bookstore ambience, doesn’t it?) with masks required, limited occupancy, one person per aisle/cubicle and they’re only buying books by appointment, no walk-ins. But it was an odd time of day, I was one of only two customers, and it sure was nice to leisurely browse after being away since early March.

In addition to the one James Ellroy novel I don’t have (Clandestine, 1982) I found this Chandler book tucked away in the Memoirs section, and what a treasure it is. Though not a biography, it runs chronologically, the writer’s early years covered mostly through his own correspondence from that period, while his key novel, pulp and screenwriting years are addressed via a mix of excerpts from his own work, juxtaposed with more correspondence and miscellany. Chandler’s thoughts on the art and craft of writing (most of those quite cynical) and fellow mystery/hard-boiled wordsmiths are some of the best parts of this book.

Browse backwards at “The Stiletto Gumshoe” and you’ll understand what a find this book is for me. I honor both of the U.S. hard-boiled mystery granddads, i.e. Hammett and Chandler, but favor Chandler by far, indulging myself with multiple rereads. I don’t turn to him for plotting guidance, Chandler’s plots puzzlingly mixed up at best, but for the music of the language, the endless array of Chandler-esque bon mots and his ability to somehow be gritty and poetic at the same time (something I desperately wish I could succeed at).

Yes, I’m well aware that Raymond Chandler and a host of mid-twentieth century writers have undergone some well-deserved scrutiny and inevitable reassessment of late. But, for good or bad, I’ve chosen to compartmentalize them along with the bulk of sixty to ninety-year-old films, pulp fiction, comics and vintage paperbacks, digesting the material in context of its own time, reluctant to evaluate the work through a 2020 lens. After all, while I can benefit from easy access to reams of modern scholarship, that doesn’t mean I’ll look at Rembrandt, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare through contemporary filters either. For more about that, just follow the link below to an old January 2019 post about Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep, Megan Abbott and more. But while you do, I’ll just continue to savor some of the master’s own words.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

night shift

A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

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Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

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A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

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