Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Top 10 Reasons to Attend Bouchercon

Bouchercon starts in just a couple of weeks. And though I've made it to 3 of the last 4 events, I'm very sad not to be going to this year's conference in San Francisco. But I still want YOU to go, if you have the chance. A very nice man with very little hair asked me last year to guest blog about the best reasons to go to Bouchercon. Here is an updated revision of that post.

My first Bouchercon was in Madison, Wisconsin. It just happened to be the old stomping grounds of a colleague (Dan Wagner, who calls himself The Hungry Detective) who also just happened to be a big mystery reader. It was exciting and overwhelming, but by the end, I knew I wanted more. I got more when I went to Indianapolis last year. Armed with foreknowledge of what to expect, I got much more out of it, and I am unfortunately not returning this year. Here's to hoping for St. Louis in 2011!

So what keeps bringing me back? There are 10 things. At least. Here are my Top 10:

10) The Gift Bag – The first thing that happens to you when you check in is this: someone hands you a big bag of free books. Now, free is not one of those four-letter words your mother taught you to avoid. This is FREE! And they're not slouches, either. Here are some of the authors I've gotten free at Bouchercon: Laura Lippman, John Harvey, Lawrence Block, Sean Chercover, Theresa Schwegel. If nothing else, this is a great opener for an author you haven't met yet.

9) Authors Sign Books – This is not as important to me. I'd rather have a handshake, a conversation, even a picture, any day, but it does provide an opportunity for anyone to interact with a favorite author and have a keepsake of the experience.

8) Explore the Area – You may not have time, but if you can, you should explore the area you've been brought to. There are usually numerous interesting things to do and see wherever you go. For instance, in Indianapolis last year I explored the historic Lockerbie Square neighborhood. And if you were to go to San Francisco this year, you might go on a cable car tour, or cruise around the bay, or take a wine tour, not to mention the Dashiell Hammett walking tour, and probably several other things I'm forgetting. And I wouldn't know what great Mexican food was if I hadn't visited Madison, Wisconsin. Honest.

7) The Anthony Awards – These awards are voted on at the conference. You are eligible to nominate and vote based on being registered at the conference. The winners will likely be at the conference. It's synergy.

6) Meet the Fans – You have a chance to meet other people who are interested in the same books, the same authors, that you are. They are probably even more knowledgeable than you are, and you can finally have an enlightening conversation, in person, about your interests.

5) The Panels – Mystery novels get talked about from every angle in these 45- to 50-minute sessions. Some are not so good. Some are out-of-this-world fantastic. A particular one that comes to mind is Laura Lippman, Thomas H. Cook and Reed Farrell Coleman talking about setting as a character. Just magic.

4) The Interviews – In Baltimore there were two fantastic interviews, Michael Koryta interviewing Laura Lippman, and Charles Ardai interviewing Lawrence Block. There were two more excellent interviews in Indy as interviewed Michael Connelly and Terence Faherty (a personal favorite) interviewed SJ Rozan. The interviewing authors are extremely well-versed and thoughtful in their interviews, and there's nothing quite like two intelligent people talking. I'm very sorry to be missing Jacqueline Winspear's interview of Eddie Muller and Robert Crais's interview of Lee Child. VERY bummed.

3) Meet the Authors – I have a little secret. I have a list of 10 people I HAVE to talk to at each Bouchercon. Some know me, some are acquainted with me, and some have no idea I'm coming. But this is why they're at this conference: to meet the readers, connect with them. It is an opportunity that you should be taking advantage of.

2) The Parties/the Bar – This is where the concept of authors and readers really comes together. Yes, there are formalized panels and interviews and events during the day, but at night-time you might find yourself sitting in on a conversation with Bill Cameron, Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne, or talking to Thomas H. Cook or Trey Barker or Craig Johnson (or Sean Doolittle or Marcus Sakey, Sean Chercover, Megan Abbott), or just watching people come in and out the door. Without the artifice, everyone is just someone, and you can communicate on a different level.

1) Learn About New Authors You May Never Have Heard of – This is by far the most significant benefit I've gotten from these conferences. There are so many authors that I read on a regular basis now that I didn't before I went to a conference: Megan Abbott, Trey Barker, Lorraine Bartlett, Lawrence Block, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey. Do yourself a favor and check out one or more of these authors. I've done the footwork for you. Or treat yourself and attend a mystery convention. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week

As the spouse of a school librarian that has faced book challenges, I don't think I can be impartial. But even if I wasn't, as a free-thinking American that appreciates his inalienable freedom of expression, I don't think I could be impartial in the arena of people who don't want art to be seen. And as a film archivist, whose experience has shown over the years that you can never predict what will become important in the future, I cannot abide by those who deem it their duty to decide for others what has meaning and significance, and what is or isn't appropriate to feel or think.

As such, I support the American Library Association, and you should too, in this week (Sept. 25-Oct. 2) as they celebrate the annual Banned Books Week. There are activities scheduled all around the country, but if you don't want to, or can't make one of the events, just try one of these:

1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses by James Joyce
7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
9. 1984 by George Orwell
10. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
11. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
12. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
13. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White
14. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
15. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
16. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
17. Animal Farm by George Orwell
18. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
19. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
20. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
21. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
22. Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
23. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
25. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

These are the top 25 challenged classic books. The list goes to 100. Give your support to the freedom of ideas and laugh in the face of censorship. Read a book!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Vicki (1953)

From AFI:
"After the slaying of New York glamour girl Vicki Lynn, zealous homicide detective Ed Cornell insists on canceling his vacation and heading the investigation. Upon his arrival at police headquarters, Cornell learns that Steve Christopher, the promoter responsible for Vicki's career, and Jill Lynn, Vicki's sister, are being questioned. Cornell grills the exhausted Christopher, who relates how he met Vicki"

And that's all you really need to know. If you've seen LAURA before, you'll recognize that Fox is trying to capture the same magic again, with the single-named titular heroine, "dead" before the first frame, who had been elevated in stature by a Zvengali-like figure tapped into the culture. They even try to throw you off the scent by having this Zvengali tabbed by the police early as the killer. But instead he becomes the protagonist, the wrong man. But like A CRIME AGAINST JOE, the protagonist doesn't really step outside of proper conduct or find darkness within himself. The psychological obsessiveness comes from other characters - the killer and the cop, but we're never really put in their shoes, only observing them from outside. It was fun, however, to see Aaron Spelling as a creepy little hotel desk manager.

Judgment: Not noir.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Terriers 1.1

The FX network has a new crime series on Wednesdays at 10pm. Now, I'd normally give any new FX show a try, but this one is produced by Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield", stars Donal Logue, most recently seen in the second season of "Life", and the pilot is directed by Craig Brewer, who also helmed HUSTLE AND FLOW and BLAKE SNAKE MOAN as well as an episode of "The Shield." These are men who know their way around what I like, and while try to remain skeptical about new shows, this one has a longer leash than most.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

From AFI:
"Without telling her family, Lucia Harper drives from her seaside home in Balboa to Los Angeles to warn reprobate Ted Darby to stay away from her seventeen-year-old daughter Beatrice. When Darby agrees to leave Bea alone for a price, Lucia refuses to pay him off, convinced that her daughter will have no interest in a man who would accept that kind of money. Back in Balboa, Bea, who has already spoken to Darby on the phone, does not believe her mother's story and refuses to stop seeing him. Lucia, whose husband Tom is out of town, must handle this problem without his help and forbids Bea to return to art school in Los Angeles. That night, Bea sneaks out of the house and meets Darby in the boathouse, but when he admits that he did ask for money, she strikes out at him in anger with her flashlight. Dazed, Darby stumbles outside and is killed when he falls on top of an anchor. Lucia then discovers her distraught daughter and sends her back to bed. Early the next morning, Lucia finds Darby's body and, not wanting her daughter to be involved in a scandal, dumps the body in the bay along with the anchor that killed him."

From Max Ophuls, the same director who made CAUGHT, in the same year, this film deals with the other side of noir: what happens after the crime. While Leonora from CAUGHT waits all film to find her dark side, here Lucia wastes no time in covering up what she thinks is a murder by her daughter, and this leads her further down the path as she has to cover up her cover-up. Though not as good a film as CAUGHT, it still fits comfortably within the framework of noir and features a female protagonist, a rarity in the genre.

Judgment: noir.

Pay attention to this blog, and you may here more about these titles soon...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Human Target 1.12

"Christopher Chance is the guy you go to when no one else can help." This is the "origins" episode that at least partially explains how our team came together, and ties in some of the other threads from this first season, which ends in a cliffhanger, and gets us excited for the 2nd Season premiere on Friday, October 1st. Guest stars for this episode include Armand Assante (Q&A), Lee Majors (The Night the Reindeer Died) and Amy Acker (Angel).

As my wife and I were watching the episode, we ticked off several similarities to the first two episodes of the new CW series "Nikita." They both feature professional assassins trained by secret para-military organizations. Both protagonists have escaped and are trying to take down their previous employers, to different degrees. "So why," the wife asked, "do I like this one so much better?" Well, for me, I think it has to do with the fact that this is a much more traditional adventure show, a throwback not only to the television heroes of the 80s (think Magnum or Spenser - and, now that I think about it, to a lesser degree, shows like "The Fall Guy" with Lee Majors), but to filmed heroes of the last 70 years, right up to the symphonic notes that carry Chance off to the unknown in the last shot of this season. While "Nikita" is ultra-serious, "Human Target" never takes itself too seriously, giving us a chance to smile in between the well-choreographed action scenes. Thumbs up to Fox for bringing us more Christopher Chance.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Caught (1949)

From AFI:
"Leonora Eames, a young woman from Denver, and her roommate Maxine, a gold-digging model, share a modest Los Angeles apartment and the determination to move up in the world. To that end, Leonora, who works as a carhop, has enrolled in Dorothy Dale's charm school. After graduating from the school, Leonora gets a well-paying job modeling fur coats at a department store. One day, while modeling a coat, a man named Franzi Kartos introduces himself to Leonora and invites her to a party aboard millionaire Smith Ohlrig's yacht. Leonora rejects the invitation because she does not approve of rich men sending scouts to find pretty young women to attend their parties. Maxine, however, convinces Leonora to attend the party, calling it an "investment" in her future. On her way to the party, Leonora meets Smith at the marina, and he persuades her to join him on a late night drive. After sharing a romantic evening with her, Smith takes Leonora to his house and invites her in for a drink. Leonora, however, turns down the offer and asks to be taken home immediately. Smith complies with Leonora's request, but the rejection torments him for some time. Smith tells his psychiatrist about Leonora, and insists that she is like all other women, and that she is merely interested in his money. The psychiatrist disagrees, and tells Smith that he is obsessed about his money and is frustrated at his inability to attract and control Leonora. Angered by his doctor's diagnosis, Smith vows to prove him wrong by marrying Leonora."

This might not sound like the perfect set-up for a film noir, but neither would the first 20 minutes of SCARLET STREET or DESPERATE. This is the type of film that agonizingly shows what it takes to turn one person to criminal acts. What's interesting about this film is that 1) the protagonist is female, and 2) the ultimate crime is not only a crime of non-action, but ultimately unsuccessful. But the motivation and willingness were there. Leonora was at the edge and was ready to cross over, so much so that she admitted guilt without knowing the outcome. She had consented to the crime. Max Ophuls has a real eye for composition that works well within the noir milieu, and enhances the on-screen content.

Judgment: noir.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Burglar (1957)

From AFI:
"In Philadelphia, soon after burglar Nat Harbin sees a newsreel about a priceless emerald necklace owned by a spiritualist named Sister Sara, he dispatches Gladden, a woman in his gang, to case Sara’s mansion. Pretending to be an admirer of the spiritualist, Gladden gains entrance to the estate and reports back to Nat that the necklace is locked in a safe in Sara’s upstairs bedroom. Gladden continues that Sara always watches newscaster John Facenda’s nightly broadcast. The next evening, as Sara settles into her easy chair in front of the television set, Nat scales the trellis to her bedroom and begins to drill open the safe. While cruising by in their patrol car, two policemen notice Nat’s auto parked outside the estate and stop to investigate, prompting gang members Dohmer and Baylock to signal Nat. Scurrying back down the trellis, Nat approaches the officers and lies that his car has broken down. After the police depart, Nat returns to the safe, removing the necklace just seconds before Sara climbs the stairs to her bedroom. Speeding away into the night, Dohmer, Baylock and Nat drive to their hideout in a run-down tenement. There, Baylock values the necklace at $85,000 and nervously presses Nat to sell it immediately."

A classic set-up for a noir heist film, where the criminals are at each other's throats, and the tension ratchets from the beginning. Dan Duryea is Nat, and Jayne Mansfield is Gladden. Although I don't see much in Mansfield's performance other than a Marilyn Monroe retread, I've really started to like Duryea, who's usually a heel's heel in films like THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SCARLET STREET and CRISS CROSS. In true noir fashion, we are given a reason that Duryea has decided to become a criminal, but in true David Goodis fashion (author of both the source novel and the screenplay) that reason is completely sympathetic and tied to family. The relationship between Duryea and Mansfield is intriguing and a nice change of pace from the norm. There was some location shooting in Philadelphia, Goodis' home, and I'm excited to see if I can spot any of those sites when I go there in November.

Judgment: noir.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When the Clock Strikes (1961)

From AFI:
"After helping to convict a man of murder, Sam Morgan is troubled, and he races through a blinding storm to the prison where the man, Frank Pierce, is scheduled to be executed at midnight. En route, he picks up a young woman named Ellie and gives her a lift to a nearby lodge. When he is unable to stop the execution, Sam returns to the lodge and joins Ellie for a drink. As the hour of execution nears, she tells him she is Pierce's wife. At midnight, a man named Martinez rushes into the lodge and confesses to the crime for which Pierce is being executed. The next day, after Martinez has been taken into custody by the police, Sam and Ellie go through the last of Pierce's belongings and find a key to a post office box in New Mexico. Certain the box contains money Pierce had stolen 2 years before, they decide to have the money sent to the lodge and divide it."

This neat little noir was released after 1958, which many see as the end of the classic era. It was made on a small budget and utilizes very few sets, making it seem more like a television production than a film (think of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"), but what I like about it is that we do get a turn from light to dark, and the reason is not what you might expect. Our portagonist becomes disgusted with the criminal justice system and seizes a ready opportunity. He decides that doing the right thing hasn't worked out in his life, so he's going to give the other side a try. Though not classic noir in its denouement, it's interesting to note that black-and-white work of this nature was still being made at this time (see: THE NAKED KISS).

Judgment: noir.

If you'd like to check it out, it's free on Hulu for another 6 weeks or so:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Human Target 1.11

Chance is hired to protect the Princess of Wales from her murderous husband and his footman. The penultimate episode of last season, and the new season is only 16 days away.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Human Target 1.10

Chance has to infiltrate an Alaskan island to rescue a beautiful young doctor. Don't ask, just go with it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Third Man (1949)

It's hard for me to admit this in public, and maybe, just maybe, it undercuts my status as...whatever. But, hey, we all have holes in our education, right? So, it is with much head-hanging and abashment that I admit I had never seen THE THIRD MAN. I don't know how it happened. I'm sure there have been dozens of opportunities, on TV, on VHS, on DVD, at the wonderful Dryden Theatre. It just...never happened. So here I am, a convert telling you, you HAVE to see this movie! Here's how AFI starts its entry on the film:

"In post-war Vienna, a city occupied by four Allied forces and sustained by a thriving black market, American writer Holly Martins arrives, penniless, at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime, who had offered him a job. Holly goes to Harry's apartment and is told by the porter that Harry was run over by a car and killed. He rushes to the cemetery, where he finds Harry's funeral in progress. As he leaves the gravesite, Holly is approached by a British officer, Major Calloway, who offers him a ride and buys him a drink. When Calloway tells him that Harry was a notorious racketeer, Holly drunkenly vows to prove him wrong. Later, at his hotel, Holly is approached by Crabbin, the head of a cultural institute, who mistakes him for a prestigious novelist and offers to pay for his stay in Vienna if he will speak at one of their meetings. Holly soon receives a call from "Baron" Kurtz, who identifies himself as a friend of Harry and arranges to meet Holly at a café. Kurtz describes Harry's accident and mentions that Harry's Rumanian friend Popescu was also present when Harry died. Holly inquires about the beautiful woman he saw at the funeral, and Kurtz replies that she was Harry's girl friend, Anna Schmidt, an actress at the Josefstadt Theatre. Holly calls on Anna after a performance, and she tells him that Harry's personal physician, Dr. Winkel, happened to show up at the scene of the accident, and that the man behind the wheel of the car was actually Harry's driver. Anna expresses her suspicion that Harry's death was not accidental, and accompanies Holly to Harry's apartment to question the porter. Contrary to Kurtz's account, the porter says that Harry was killed at once, adding that an unidentified third man was present and helped carry the body."

Of course, that's just the set-up. The script from Graham Greene is twisty and wonderful. Director Carol Reed was obviously influenced by Orson Welles' style, specifically THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, but (very possibly) takes it further. Not only does it have the canted angles and quick cuts of the former film, but shooting in war-torn Vienna lends an incredible reality to the Kafa-esque landscape through which our hero, Joseph Cotten, runs through. The crumbling cityscape suggests absent information and the broken steps ensure that no one has secure footing, even as our hero tries to put it all together. The entire film is scored by zither, lending a playful counterpoint to the deadly proceedings. I dropped the DVD in when I couldn't fall asleep and ended up watching the whole thing, finally falling asleep at about 3am. I couldn't stop watching. It's one of those films.

Oh, it's not noir, but it's good. The problem with classifying this film as noir, despite its formalist visuals, is the protagonist. Joseph Cotten is a loyal, bumbling hero, not an anti-hero, not a criminal himself. He doesn't find a new darkness in his soul, he is simply dropped into a dark world. He is out of his element, but still makes it through somehow, by virtue of his virtue, or sheer persistence and connection with capable people. He is much more akin to a Hitchcock hero, and Hitchcock is quoted almost visual-for-visual in one sequence in particular.

So, please, if you haven't already, run out and see this film. I think you'll thank me for it. Then come back and we'll discuss.

Monday, September 6, 2010

No Country for Old Men (2007)

From AFI:
"In 1980, in west Texas, Anton Chigurh strangles the young deputy who arrested him. Using the authority provided by the deputy’s police car that he steals, Chigurh stops a man in a Ford and shoots him in the forehead with a stun gun attached by hose to a compressed air tank. Later, Chigurh decides by the flip of a coin whether or not to kill a proprietor of a gas station who has unintentionally annoyed him. In the Texas wilderness, Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope when he discovers an area strewn with many corpses, marking the site of a drug deal that culminated in a shootout. Leaving behind a large quantity of heroin stashed in the back of the trunk, Llewelyn steals a suitcase filled with two million dollars, but feels unable to help the only survivor, who is critically wounded. However, during the night, in the trailer home he shares with his wife Carla Jean, guilt prompts Llewelyn to return to the site with a jug of water for the suffering man. There, he must run for his life from armed thugs associated with one of the parties in the failed drug exchange who have come to retrieve the goods. He barely escapes, but realizes afterward that he still can be found by the license plates on his truck, which he was forced to abandon. To ensure their safety, Llewelyn sends Carla Jean to her mother’s house and then takes a room at the Regal Motel in a different town."

I watched this film again recently, as a nod to one of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting, since Adam and Matty both had it in their Top 3 of the Decade. The first time through, I hadn't been as impressed as most, although I didn't see it on the big screen, and it had already been overhyped to me. This time, I sat down and made sure I had no interruptions for a couple hours and really started to look at it.

The first thing I noticed was that I had the main character all wrong. Like I'm sure so many people had before, I thought that Josh Brolin was the main character. But on second look, it's Tommy Lee Jones's voice you hear first, setting down to tell us a story about Texas that represents his whole point of view. Much like LAURA, where Waldo Lydecker starts telling us about the night Laura died, the main character here is framing the story, but someone else is driving the action. Brolin is the poor sap in over his head, and Jones is the one that has to pick up the pieces and wonder about the state of the world we live in. In fact, he lays it out in voice-over before the action even starts: "The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, 'O.K., I'll be part of this world.'"

I think this is where the arguments for noir come in. This is a classic "cynical anti-hero" narrative, that guy that walks the line between light and dark. Jones's point is that, for every lawman that works nowadays, you have to walk that line, and do it willingly in order to do his job effectively. I'm not saying it's noir. Or even neo-noir. but when I figure out what noir is, and subsequently what neo-noir is, I'll let you know.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Human Target 1.9

Chance has a plan to win the greatest underground fighting championship in the world, save a boxer who wouldn't take a dive, screw a billionaire and rescue a cowed vamp in the process. Can he do it? This is Christopher Chance we're talking about here. Guesting Grace Park (BSG's Boomer, and the upcoming "Hawaii 5-0"), consider it BLOODSPORT meets THE STING.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Counterplot (1959)

Again, a convoluted plot, but here goes (from AFI):

"Brock Miller is hiding out near San Juan, Puerto Rico, as he has been framed for the murder of New York importer and gambler David Nibley. Manuel, a local shoeshine boy, is helping Brock by bringing food to the abandoned beach house where he is hiding, but displays an unhealthy interest in Brock's gun. When Connie, Brock's girl friend, arrives in San Juan from New York, Manuel is hostile toward her, as he thinks of himself as Brock's best friend and feels she is destroying their relationship. Connie, who has an engagement as a singer at a local club, asks a waiter for information on Brock's whereabouts. Manuel has deliberately failed to tell Brock that Connie is in town, but Brock finds out when he hears her on a radio broadcast from the club. Fritz Bergmann, a crooked lawyer, learns that Brock is on the island and arranges to have Connie meet Brock at his house. Brock then proposes a plan to Bergmann, which he claims would benefit them both. Brock phones Steve MacGregor, an insurance agent with the company that insured Nibley, whose partner, Ben Murdock, had insured him for $200,000. The insurance company will not pay off on the policy until Brock is convicted and he is determined to prove his innocence."

Forrest Tucker, who I remember mostly from "F-Troop," stars as Brock Miller, the Wrong Man. But he is locked away in hiding for the beginning part of the film, doing nothing. Then Fritz Bergmann comes in a more interesting, if poorly acted, character, but he does not drive the film either. Nor does the girl or even the boy. The film looks at all the angles of the caper, but the only character that actually goes through a change is the boy. Otherwise, all the pieces and archetypes are put into play to collide into each other until the inevitable finale. Now, I'm not saying that this approach can't work. Just look at CROSSFIRE (1947), one of my favorite noir; but that film is taking on American society as a whole, and this film just doesn't stand up.

Judgment: not noir