Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Crime Beat

Someone spray-painted the word “Dred” onto a second-floor window of a Monroe Avenue office on March 12.

An editor, passing by, took a spray can out of her purse and added a chevron and the letter "a".

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946)

Did I say 10 Days? Well, it is 10 separate entries done on 10 separate days. Sure, the implication was that it was 10 consecutive days, but...

THE BIG SLEEP is another Philip Marlowe mystery, this time starring noir veteran Humphrey Bogart. Marlowe is drawn into the investigation by the aged Genreal Sternwood, the father of two promiscuous young ladies: Vivian, the divorcee; and Carmen, the chemically-addled wild child. It seems Carmen has accrued a large gambling debt and her creditor, AG Geiger, wants payment. Marlowe advises the general to pay, but promises to look into the situation. After following Geiger and Carmen to a cottage, Marlowe hears a scream and some gunfire. Two cars pull away and Marlowe rushes in to find Carmen alone, in a stupor, next to a corpse and an empty camera.

The plot gets more complex from there, as Vivian becomes involved, not only with the case, but also with Marlowe. She tries to buy him off the case, but he won't be satisfied until he's unraveled the knot of murder, blackmail, betrayal and revenge that he's found himself tied up in.

THE BIG SLEEP is notorious for its incomprehensibility. There was a cut that was finished by 1945, but was held back in deference to all the war-themed films, so that they could be released while victory was still fresh in the minds of the audience. This 1945 cut (available on the DVD), although clearer in its narrative, apparently did not feature Lauren Bacall as prominently as a star as she was being touted. Various extra scenes were written and shot, including the double-entendre-laden horse-riding exchange. But to include this footage other footage needed to be cut, including a nine-minute sequence where Marlowe explains the murders. What remains, intelligible or not, is considered a classic film noir.

But is it noir? For the most part, I would say no. Even though it features Philip Marlowe, the main character of two previous noir films, Hawks/Bogart's portrayal of him is much closer to the classic image of a hero than the previous films. Yes, he's a private dick, and he sometimes works the dark side of the street, but he seems to ba able to maintain a traditional moral compass, defending the weak, and righting wrongs. It is not until the end that Marlowe is truly tempted by the darkness. In his blood-soaked revenge haze, he inverts the villain's plan to kill him, torturing him with gunblasts inside the house, driving him outside the house, where his goons lie in wait to shoot whateve comes out.

This certainly qualifies the film for the "cruel" status laid out in Borde and Chaumeton's book. It also definitely has an erotic quality, not just from Lauren Bacall, but from Martha Vickers as well. The narrative is told straight, without voice-over or flashback, but does have a strange, disjointed quality due to the convoluted motivations and reasoning.

I have a preliminary definition scratched out, but I'll work on it a little bit before I post it. I want to go back and do some re-reading, as a definition of this sort is no easy task. Even so, it will probably go through several changes before I get it right.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Lady in the Lake (1947)

THE LADY IN THE LAKE is the second of three Philip Marlowe adventures in the series. In this, Marlowe is called to the office of a magazine editor (Audrey Totter) that has decided to publish a story Marlowe wrote based on an actual case. Instead, she offers him $500 to find her boss (Leon Ames)'s wife, who has run off, ostensibly with a gold-digging gigolo. Totter wants the boss to divorce, but when he refuses, she calls off the search. Secretly, Ames re-hires Marlowe to find the wife and what transpires is a convoluted mystery of murder, betrayal, and ambivalent attraction.

It's hard to separate this film from its gimmick: Most of the narrative is shot in first-person perspective, following Marlowe's investigation. That being said, there is little that can be done to more evoke the oneiric than this type of camera placement. The camera floats through space, tilting and panning at the whim of a character within the film. You are in the place of the character, but have no control over the movement, as you often find yourself in a dream.

The lighting is downplayed in this film, presumably not to pile too much onto the viewer at the same time. But the expressionist lighting may have been more in keeping with this first-person narrative, as it would have been a direct expression of how this character sees the world, as opposed to an intimation of it. Audrey Totter, so wonderful in THE SET-UP is the erotic quotient of the film, but here she expresses herself in repeated eye expansion and retraction. What is lost in this relationship is seeing how Marlowe reacts to her, giving us a clue as to how he actually feels. Given his sardonic dialogue and lack of facial expressions, I was always under the impression that he was playing Totter for his own purposes, but they end up going on a New York vacation together, suggesting there was something there that didn't translate to the screen.

There's enough violence, on-screen and implied, to qualify for the cruelty signpost, and the double-crossings, double-dealings and switched identities qualify for the strange and ambivalent. This novel has never been adapted to the screen again, and I think it would be interesting to compare, since this film is such an experiment. What are the advantages and disadvantages, once you get past the novelty?

Next (and finally): The Big Sleep

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Crime Beat

Michael A. Welty, 29, of 5665 Running Brook Road, Farmington, was charged Tuesday, March 17, with felony driving while intoxicated by Ontario County deputies, who said Welty pulled out of the McDonald’s on Route 96 in Farmington and almost crashed into a deputy’s vehicle.

Go ahead and make this hard for me...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Gilda (1946)

Gilda, like our other eponymous female in the series, Laura, is not the main character in her own story, pointing to the obsessive nature that she instills in the male characters in the film. Instead, our main character is Johnny (Glenn Ford), a down-on-his-luck gambler on his first night in Buenos Aires. When Johnny bilks some American sailors with loaded dice, he gets held up with a gun. Along comes the dapper Ballin Mundson (George Macready), quick with his wit and his stiletto-loaded cane. When Johnny finds out who Ballin is (the owner of a high-class gambling establisment), he sees an opportunity and becomes Ballin's right-hand man, overseeing operations and supplying security. They pledge fealty to each other, claiming that "gambling and dames don't mix."

That is, until Ballin returns from vacation with a new wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), who just happens to be Johnny's former lover. Gilda, distraught over being rejected by Johnny, married Ballin on the rebound and uses the relationship to taunt Johnny, who has been ordered to keep an eye on her. They irritate each other, their love-turned-to-hate building to a passion that neither can deny.

GILDA is easily the most overtly erotic film in the series. The way that Hayworth is dressed, posed and made up provides all the senuality we need to see into Johnny's vision of her. But add the biting, suggestive dialogue that she uses to taunt Johnny, it builds the tension to levels that can do nothing other than explode.

We have another film told with voice-over, which suggests a foreknowledge of events, which suggests again the fatalism of the story and the dream-like aspects of memory. Additionally, there is the Kafka-esque strangeness of happenstance that also feeds into the fatalist mentality. There are some things that you just cannot run from, no matter how hard you try. The first shot of the film pans up from beneath the ground, suggesting that something buried is about to rise.

The three main characters are a triumvirate of ambivalence, alternately committed to, suspicious of, and hateful of, the others in the triangle at one time or another. Their complex feelings toward each other create a flux of motivations that adds density to the relationships and unpreditability to the narrative. And although the characters rarely get physical with one another, the emotional cruelty of their constant maneuvering stands out.

What is lacking from this noir is the crime factor. Yes, crime is all around the plot. There are payoffs, illegal cartels, betrayal of country, a cop that sets up shop at the casino, not to mention a few murders. But it is not crime that drives the plot. It is the descent into a man's obsessive desires that is the focus of the film. This is certainly a dark subject, as are the lengths he goes to to extinguish those desires, but its lack of a central crime marks this a different experience from the other films.

Next time: The Lady in the Lake

Friday, April 3, 2009

Megan Abbott Wuz Here

Megan spoke on the St. John Fisher College campus last night, reading from her forthcoming book, "Bury Me Deep," coming in July (which I can already tell is brilliant, and you should make plans now to buy it then), and taking questions from the audience. Megan is a fantastic speaker and reader, and had great insights into the world of noir, both written and filmed.

This picture may have been taken right before she called me a "baby-killer." It's not as bad as it sounds.

Megan's long day continued into a long night when she sat down for drinks with friends new and old. In this picture: Megan, Megan's friend Steve, local mystery author Patricia Ryan, local mystery author Charles Benoit, Ruth Benoit, Pat Doyen, Robert.

Your author with "You" author Charles Benoit, and Megan Abbott

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Megan, Charles, and Killers (1946)

1) This is your last warning. Megan Abbott is in town today and speaking at St. John Fisher College tonight at 7pm. You should be there.

2) Thanks to Charles Benoit for being a good sport yesterday. At least, I think he was. We'll find out tonight. If this is my last post, you'll know what happened.

3) THE KILLERS is the story of The Swede, a boxer-turned-goon thief who has been double-crossed by the woman he loved and awaits his fate at the hands of nameless gunsels. But in a brilliant (and the more I think about it, it only gets better) structure, his story is never told from his point of view. The main characters we follow for the first few minutes of the film are the killers of the title. Once their job is done, an insurance investigator (Edmond O'Brien) comes on the scene. His job is to find out if the $2500 policy that The Swede had through his employer is payable. To this end, he searches out people from The Swede's past, and we get his story, through a series of flashbacks from at least seven different characters, a la CITIZEN KANE. This construct reflects the way our legacy is truly seen after we're gone: through the eyes of others.

The Swede is truly a tragic character, seemingly not in control of himself and his life, and even if he hadn't been killed in the beginning of the film, the fatalism of his charcter would still be there. The earliest we meet him he is a boxer in his last fight, suffering from a broken right hand that ultimately finishes his career. He is then attracted to the flash and fast life of a criminal, and then by the wiles of a woman (Ava Gardner). In all of these instances, there doesn't appear to be a clear choice made by The Swede. Instead, he is motivated by suggestion or plan, or by a code that he feels he should embody. In fact, the only singular decision he makes is to do nothing, to let death find him in the form of The Killers.

Expressionist lighting is important in evoking mood here, whether it's the low ceilings with unnatural shadows on them oppressing the characters, or the insurance investigator caught in the crosshairs of light streaming in the window while he waits for his prey, or The Swede lying in his bed awaiting his fate, decapitated by shadow. Again we have the flashbacks, which contain the unreality of memory, but there is little strange about the film. We experience the eroticism of Ava Gardner through the eyes of The Swede, already filtered through the memory of flashback, which makes me wonder whether this aspect was played up or diminished, based on who was telling the story.

Cold-blooded murder at the beginning of the film is followed by scenes of boxing, where the audience is part of the bloodlust. In response to this, Ava Gardner's character decries the cruelty of the sport, saying, "I could never watch a man of mine suffer like that." Violence bookends the film and the threat of violence is intertwined with the plot, but the real cruelty seems to be the exploitation of innocence and naivete.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Crime Beat

Okay, I realize I'm supposed to be giving you some film noir here, but this was too good to pass up:


Charles Benoit, Poisoned Pen Press' best-selling author, was detained by authorities on Saturday during a typical day at the office: accosting random people in a bookstore and introducing them to his Edgar-nominated debut, RELATIVE DANGER, as well as the follow-ups OUT OF ORDER and NOBLE LIES. The trouble started when a random Young Adult asked him what he had coming out next.

"YOU should be coming out sometime next year," the author replied.

"I should?" the customer asked.

"No, YOU should."

"But I'm me."

"Yes, of course you are," Benoit said, taking the customer by the shoulder. "You are you. But YOU is not you."

"Hey, wait a minute," interjected a tragically helpful bookstore employee, "the proper verb for 'you' is 'are.' "

"Oh," Benoit said, donning a tight smile and attempting to add some humor to the proceedings, "we're back in the "' You' is is 'are.' "

Neither customer nor employee said anything. Benoit waited, but still nothing.

"Look," he said, "normally you are right--"

"See," said the employee, "you are." His eyes closed in self-satisfaction and he crossed his arms with finality.

"Yeah," said Benoit, "got it. Thanks. But in this case, YOU is a book."

"No I'm not."

"No, not you."

"You mean I am?" asked the customer.

"No, you're not the book, but you are the audience for the book."

"You mean I'm the audience for YOU?"

"Well, maybe not for all my stuff, but definitely for YOU."

The conversation went on much longer than this, but the responding officers got sick of it and decided to end the transcription there. Benoit promised to clarify his pitch by the time the book came out, but officials wonder if that's actually possible.

In the words of the great Stan Lee, "'nuff said."