Saturday, September 29, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Human Desire (1954), I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954)

Her legs crossed, propped-
up on dressing-table. Eye
moving from slip to slippers. 
Her right arm across stomach, 
left hand resting on left knee. 
Head tilted to the right. Not 
yet thirty: if vulnerable, then 
contemplative. Or vice versa
Perhaps a neon hotel, refuge 
from everything but the camera. 
Lit to highlight the shadows. 
Three profiles, two mirrors
In one an open door, a towel 
on a hook. Next to another door, 
room or hallway. How many 
doors to make room, or an 
exit? How many mirrors to 
reflect the worldHow many 
profiles to glimpse a likeness
And who would enter, if jealous 
husband, roustabout lover or 
predatory boss. She who might 
murder, the desire to be human, 
so human to desire. The tracks 
parallel, meeting, crossing, straight 
out of Europe, the entrance like 
the exit, through the hallway, 
door, shadows, reflection, desire.

I Wake Up Screaming 
(H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941)

Walls, staircases, elevator shafts.
This must surely be why venetian 
blinds were invented. City angles 
dark rooms, claustrophobia, less 
angelic than threatening. Zanuck 
hated Tinseltown critiques, so took
it all to New York, with its nightlife, 
square jaws, hats, and cosmopolitan
homosexual innuendo. Then why
shouldn't a woman be attracted to 
the man who might have killed her 
sister; then that man waking up to 
find some inquisitive cop sitting 
next to his bed. droit de philosophe 
turning into templated shadows, severe 
lighting and a timely portentousness, 
like “What’s the good of living without 
hope?” Answer:  “It can be done.” Then
dogged by fog of intention: “What she 
meant we’ll never know. It’s what she 
said that counts.” Even if no one knows 
or cares what she or anyone says or 
means, be it melodrama or comedy. 
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow," 
reminder: this is a nearly recognizable 
nightmare of geometric wit and deceit.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Four More: So Many Doors by Oakley Hall, November Road by Lou Berney, Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar, This Is What Happened by Mick Herron

This Month's Favourite
Oakley Hall, So Many Doors (Hard Case Crime)
Praised  by Pynchon, Chabon, Richard Ford and Amy Tan, Oakley Hall has sometimes been referred to as a writer's writer. That could be the case, but it could also be something of a misnomer, since Hall was, if nothing else, a populist who had no qualms about pursuing a mass readership. After all, this is the person who wrote one of the great westerns, Warlock, that near-Marxist tale about an Arizona mining town. But Hall wrote  twenty-five other novels, most of them  historical in nature, invariably taking place in the west. His subjects included industrial disputes (Separations), the Mexican Revolution (Adelita) as well as Native Americans as well as the "taming of the west (Warlock, Bad Lands, Apache). He finished of a fifty-year career with the coming-of-age Love and War in California preceded by five novels featuring the infamous Bay Area journalist, wit, bon vivant, and disappearance artist, Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1950, and out of print ever since a 1959 edition, So Many Doors was Hall's second novel. It seems an unlikely choice for the Hard Case list of books. After all, one does not immediately think of Hall as that kind of pulp crime writer. But he did produce a handful of books that fit, easily or not, into that category, not only So Many Doors, but Murder City and Too Dead to Run. Set prior to, during and just after WW2,  the California-set So Many Doors moves  from Bakersfield  to San Diego, amidst graders, "cat skinners" and bulldoze drivers, their job being to flatten the land for future developers. But it's really a tale- like David Goodis's doomed lovers crossed with Jim Thompson's working-class malcontents- about the failure of men and women to understand one another, resulting in a kind of emotional sadism. All taking place in a world  in which everyone appears trapped, whether by class, job, or gender. That a murder has been committed seems as inevitable as the changing landscape and fortunes of the country itself.  (Published by Hard Case Crime in November)

Best of the Rest

Lou Berney, November Road (Morrow)
It's November, 1963, in New Orleans, just after JFK's assassination.  Frank Guidry,  a suave, middle ranking New Orleans crime boss finds himself peripherally connected to JFK's death. Realizing his life could be in danger, not so much from the authorities as from New Orleans crime boss  and assassination-fixer Carlos Marcello, he leaves the city and heads west, to Las Vegas where he hopes to seek sanctuary with a rival crime boss. Along the way he meets Charlotte,  travelling with her two kids and their dog.  She has recently ditched her hard-drinking but boring husband in Oklahoma and is also heading west. Though smart, she has no idea who she is dealing with. But, then, neither does Frank. One of those road novels that once you take the first bite, there is no way to resist the entire meal. 

Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land (Tachyon). 
In Tidhar's latest, the Jewish homeland is in Palestina, East Africa ("It feels like a historical accident"), as proposed by some major Zionist figures in the early years of the 20th century. It's a world in which "there is still a Hitler, but it had escaped a Final Solution." Pulp detective writer Tirosh who lives in Berlin, returns to visit his homeland. He is meant to give a lecture, but wherever he goes mayhem follows him, and his original reason for being there gets lost in the mulch. All because he ends up searching for his niece who has gone missing. But this is not only an alternative world, one in which "you wonder what Jews are like when they are defined by the great Holocaust that shaped them, the survivors that formed of them creatures of power and guilt: more easy in their ways, more comfortable in their skin, or chaps just a nation as all other nations...," but an in-between world, where everything is breaking down and set to come apart at the seams. As usual, for a Tidhar novel, Unholy Land is prescient and nostalgic at the same time. If you know Tidhar's work- my favourite is still A Man Lies Dreaming, you won't want to miss this. If you've never read Tidhar, this is a good to start. You won't be sorry. (Published by Tachyon in November).

Mick Herron, This Is What Happened (John Murray)
Herron's This Is What Happened is a genuinely creepy tale, but one that, unlike his recent efforts,  does not center on, or have anything to do with, Slough House and that  group of marginal and much maligned British agents. And, I for one, was glad of it. No matter how much I enjoyed those novels, I was beginning to think Herron was stretching himself a bit too thin, and that he should set his sights on something different, if even for a book or two. The good news is that This Is What Happened  is every bit as good as the Slough House novels. This one takes place in London where a gullible, lonely woman, new to the capital, is kidnapped by a misogynistic, psychopath who, to keep her prisoner, feeds her a a false dystopic narrative.  It's both a novel, written in Herron's concise and spine-tingling prose, about misogyny, and a tale about how easily people can be manipulated on a steady diet of what can only be described as extremely fake news.  Though, after moaning that I was growing slightly tired of Jackson Lamb and his minions,  I found myself hoping they might pop up to save the day. Which I guess means I'm now ready for yet another Slough House episode from one of the finest writers around when it comes to espionage crime fiction.

Friday, August 31, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- Gun Crazy (1950), The Hitch-Hiker (1953).

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

                     Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Gun Crazy (Joseph Lewis, 1950)

Another case of Godard getting 
it right. Perhaps all you really do 
need is a girl and gun. Plus thirty 
days and a black-listed ghost, star-
crossed by mutual obsession. Soak 
and stir in delirious metaphor: trick-
shooter, gun stealer, carnival contest 
winner, to prove whose is bigger, if 
not best. Sleazily slipping on silk 
stockings, threatening to walk if her 
boyfriend isn't with the programme, 
ready to swim in her hapless pit of 
anxiety. Together seeking redemption 
in one-shot heist, from, not in, 
the back. Why show the teenage 
robbery- with ghost-laden precision- 
when you can depict trembling smirks, 
gazing into the past, while making 
plans to finagle the future. Adrenalin 
pumping gaggles of personas: tight 
sweater, cowboy gear, beret, like 
shapes of things to come, breathless, 
amidst soiled pruriencequote “Your 
cock has never been...female dog 
in heat." Perhaps that's just stating
an obvious ellipsis.  Better, if possible
to scam the studio, Das Capital in 
their pockets and Fuck you, League 
of Decency on their backs.  

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)

Fear of the other, past and
present. From picket-fence 
and fishing trips to inflagrante 
hitch-hikers with psychotic 
tendencies. Is that tough love, 
or, if pushed, simply physical 
deformity- the hitcher's drooping 
eye which, like Pinkerton's, 
never closes. Breaking in this 
new smog of paranoia, dragging 
those hostages all the way to 
Baja, tortured by a survival-of-
the-fittest spiel and the irksome 
inadequacies of everyday life. 
Like sharecropping desolation 
row. If you don't believe me, 
check the map: Lone Pine, not 
far from the source of L.A.'s 
water. Manzanar, where other
others were interned. Ida,
geographically sussed, riffing 
on the dangers of an outstretched
thumb and proverbial obsession:
a stranger asking for help could
be a killer, a commie, or, worse,
a commie killer. But when have
non-drivers not been suspect?
Like paying in cash, thumbing 
is a state of mind lacking in 
negotiable currency. And Ida, 
air-brushed, herself a hostage, 
stuck in another kind of desert, 
released for a price only after the 
world had all but passed her by.

Friday, August 03, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poems- The Gangster (1947) and Gilda (1946)

The Gangster (Gordon Wiles, 1947)

Old-world scar maps a familiar but seldom 
visited country. Where arrogance and bravado 
morph into fear and cabbage. Where fatalism 
and tears flow like honey. So singer-obsessed 
he's lost interest in his empire, gaming tables 
located in the crevices of a diversified ice-cream 
parlour. What about an ad in the classifieds
corporation seeks new emperor of ice cream, 
greased by seam of sleazy modernity. Apply 
to melt this frozen empire. Total liquidation, 
everything slashed. Unreasonable love, hidden 
to heed the voices. Knowing power will soon 
be as negotiable as two-dollar bill. So stylised 
its scheming, one expects Gene Kelly to enter 
the frame, a leap of faith across a rain-ridden 
Coney Island boardwalk.“You know what my 
sins were?" asks Shubunka, yid too far for 
the studios.  "That wasn’t low and rotten and 
dirty enough.” With politicos still seeking less 
with more than ever, final grand gesture 
skinned of old world remnantsslight accent, 
cigarette smog, heart attack sandwiches and 
decayed lungs. Grist for melodrama that turns 
on an empty soap box, the politics of poetic 
realism searching the gutter to touch the stars. 

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)

A sluice of post-war Nazis sleazing it up 
down Argentina way. And that song, 
exotic turbulence churning routine, from 
self-preservation or convenience, the singer, 
displaying metaphorically-stained dress 
Bill might have denied denying, and her 
Nazi, tie the knot, unpredictably gordian, 
entangled by roving gambler with case 
of tango tumescence, rubbing his recent 
past against her precarious future.  But that 
fucking Nazi should have known hiring
a gambler to run a casino, tweaking his job
description to include spying on a libidinous
wife, was a hedge too far. A wall beyond
which to fixate on his sword-tipped cane 
affectionately called my little friendWhile 
an array of sycophants quack dubious dialectics, 
maracas shake, hearing hubby's plane bubbling 
under troubled waters. Disentangled to marry 
the lone stranger, who too will soon learn to 
grovel. As for the Nazi, they rarely die with 
such aplomb, floating shark-infested seas, 
treading wetness until the fish cry mercy, the
Argentine cows come home, and the blame 
is put on...a weapon of mass dysfunction, as 
euphemism for greater obscenity. “Men 
fall in love with Gilda," she said, "but they 
wake up with me.” No wonder out of all 
her filmsit was only musicals that Holly-
wood's closet chicana could bare to watch.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Noir This, Noir That: Understudy For Love by Charles Willeford, The Original Adventurers of Ford Fairlane by Rex Weiner, Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne, The White Devil by Domenic Stansberry, People Only Die of Love in Movies by Jim Ridley

Charles Willeford, Understudy For Love (Hard Case). Available for the first time since its 1961 publication.  A housewife has killed her two children and herself, and  Richard Hudson, here a cynical newspaper reporter rather than the cynical car salesman in The Woman Chaser, investigates the matter. Clearly a novel no Willeford fan will want to miss, while anyone who has yet to encounter this trickster of all things criminal, will find themselves, for better or worse, at the deep end. Probably not Willeford's best, but even so it's better than most and more than worth reading. Who knows, maybe someday the likes of  Hard Case  could even find a way to negotiate the publication of that most infamous of Willeford novels, Grimhaven. What a coup that would be. Or am I dreaming?

Rex Weiner, The Original Adventures of Ford Fairlane (Rare Bird).
Forget that horrible movie based on these pieces, reproduced here for the first time in their entirety. Originally written for the L.A. Weekly and New York Rocker back in the 1980s, they comprise when taken together a fast paced novel that, if nothing else, conjures up a specific time and place. Written in a mock-Chandler style, and fuelled by adrenaline and other substances, these pieces have an undeniable charm and humour, not to mention an almost archaeological presence, with depictions of long gone  L.A. and New York's iconic streets, night spots and personages. Read it and wonder why time never stands still.

Lawrence Osborne, Only to Sleep (Hogarth). Osborne is certainly one of the more interesting writers around these days- my favourite of his is Bangkok Days- but he's set himself a monumental task in writing a Philip Marlowe novel. For me, trying to write in the voice of an established crime writer is invariably a losing proposition- apologies to the likes of Banville, Atkins, Coleman, Parker, etc. To even half-way carry it off necessitates some major writing chops. And to  undertake it takes no small amount of courage. Osborne is an excellent writer, but he, like most others, isn't quite up to the task.  Yet it's a nice idea, a 72 year old Marlowe (sometimes it seems that Osborne is writing about Chandler rather than his protagonist) in 1988.  And there are definitely some hauntingly beautiful passages. But Chandler, Osborne is clearly not. Nor, for better or worse, could anyone else possibly be.

Domenic Stansberry, The White Devil (Orion). This is 17th century playwright John Webster crossed with the Amanda Knox case, all of which Stansberry filters through his dark imagination. A story of money and power that moves from Rome and Spain, to Beverly Hills and Malibu. Particularly evocative are passages describing Rome's Felliniesque streets. A young aspiring actress, Vicki with a more than shady past and Texas roots, is married to a fading playwright. But we soon discover that she has a considerably more  intense relationship with her manipulative half-brother. Her brother introduces her to a wealthy, but married, Italian politician. It isn't long before the  politician's wife is found dead, apparently just one of a series of murders. All of which leaves  the reader wondering not only who might be responsible for the various cross-continental murders, but Vicki's  relationship with her half-brother, and whether or not she might simply be a fantasist. Reminiscent of Highsmith ar her best.

 Jim Ridley, People Only Die of Love in Movies (U. of Vanderbilt)
The odd one out, in that it's a book of film reviews rather than a novel. But  deserves to be mentioned. I have to admit I'd never heard  of Jim Ridley until William Boyle posted something about this posthumous collection, after which I immediately wanted to read this book.  I wasn't disappointed, realizing after only just a few pages that Ridley, a regular contributor to and editor the Nashville Scene, was one of those writers who are stylists without, it seems, ever trying to be. Moreover,  Ridley was one of the best, and most soulful, reviewers around.  So why hadn't I heard of him before? I suppose it's one of the downsides to living across the pond. What Ridley shares with the best critics, whether Kael, Faber, Ferguson, Rosenbaum, etc., is that what they write is always  of the moment, yet invariably has lasting value.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- Fallen Angel and Force of Evil.

Fallen Angel (Otto Premminger, 1946)

That was then, when Otto could still
see in the dark, anti-fascism was a 
thing, and straight to the heart the 
method. Even  at the expense of a 
premature cliché. Like sharp-talking, 
eye-candy Stella waiting tables at 
Pop’s, Hopperesquebeach-front 
diner, future real estate fodder, where 
the regulars gawk, slobber, and thrust, 
sublimated nickels into an insatiable 
juke-box. Cue the guileless June, 
another initiate in this cult of the fallen. 
86'd by Zanuck for turning down his 
musical, paid for with a sixteen year 
absence. Meanwhile, designated racaille
Eric plays both sides, as he drifts towards 
the invariable, stranger to every emotion 
save paranoia. Not that a vedette need be 
an actor. Take Mary Holland's nom-de-
plumed novel, revolving camera and 
lighting illiminating Eric’s predatory 
eavesdropping. Less ocular intercourse 
than Otto eroticism. To be filed next to 
another object of consumption: Otto 
mobiles, savoured, rebuilt engines, 
inflated chassis, primed for big budgets, 
low mileage, laundered stock, back-
handed pay-offs, blacklisted schlemiels, 
tuck-and-rolled garage, where no one enters, 
Ottomatically, from the sightless dark.   

Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Fix the numbers, break the banks, 
loan them money, take them over. 
Truly an American story, with an
ever-thinning line between crime 
and business, its pursuit, warping 
happiness, and whatever. Been 
businessman all my life," says 
hard-working Leo, "and I still don’t 
know what business is.” Equally, 
what is corruption and when wasn't 
it endemic? But brother, Joe, has a 
counter credo: Taking what you 
want is natural, but getting your 
pleasure from not taking it…don’t 
you see what a black thing that is.” 
Naturally, refusing to take advantage, 
is, for the takers, malignantly un-
American. And though one might 
speculate on Joe's reference to "a 
black thing," it's social Darwinism 
that keeps it all going, and why Joe's 
awakening is barely political, but as 
much as Hollywood could take, then 
as now. Blank verse, last chance to 
miss the mark before the demigods 
arrived and dismantling became the 
only game in town. Unlike those who 
danced in fear, sleepless from what 
should never have been said, with 
numbers only takers could understand.