Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ca Suffit: Manchette's Fatale.

Jean-Patrick Manchette's books seem perfect for graphic novel adaptations. If for no other reason than they are primarily about imagery, with a short punchy existential, often poetic, prose that purports to be only surface-deep, but which, in fact, delves further down than few crime writers seem able or willing to go.  I remember reading Fatale in French about fifteen years ago and being somewhat perplexed by it. Though its line "Vous-bridgez?" has, for some reason, remained, for me, as memorable as anything in Manchette's oeuvre. Since then I've read the novel in English and now in the present graphic novel adapted by Max Cabanes and Doug Headline (Manchette's crime writing son), translated by Edward Gauvin, which Titan has recently published in the UK by Titan. With the results now in, I can say the latter is almost as effective as the original.  

Maybe more effective. Though much of Manchette's writing has been edited out, there is still enough to get the story across, aided by Headline's textual selection and Cabanes's images and cinematic eye, which are about as noir as it gets. And no wonder I was perplexed by the novel. Whether a scorned woman's revenge on a corrupt and bourgeois French town, or something deeper, I'm not sure. For the femme fatale's motives remain ambiguous- even though we eventually learn that "she saw herself wearing a scarlet evening dress... climbing with ease an endless snow-covered slope."

Cabanes and Headline's adaptation  made me wonder how the work of other  crime writers might fare as graphic novels. Early stylists like Hammett and the Black Mask School seem best suited. Though Chandler, being mostly about language, would be a bit tricky.  Spillane, I hate to admit, would probably work as well. Of present writers, the only one I can think of who would be well-suited would be James Sallis, who, in some respects, comes across like an American Manchette minus  the political edge. And  if I'm not mistaken, there is a graphic novel of  Drive.

But who else? For instance, I doubt if Ellroy would translate all that well. Of course I could be wrong. For all I know there might be any number of such adaptations around these days. But I still think Manchette is better suited  than most. And better suited to b.d.'s than he is to the cinema; that is, based on  recent evidence, i.e., Pierre Morel's glossy 2015 The Gunman (from The Prone Gunman). For me, the best Manchette adaptations for the screen were those stylish if somewhat ridiculous films released during  the 1970s and 80s, like  Jacques Bral's 1984 Polar (from Morgue Plein), Chabrol's The Nada Gang and Yves Boisset's Mad Enough to Kill (from O dingos o chateaux). Not that Manchette's work is enmeshed in a  time warp, but one can't help but conclude that there is an element of artifact to them, one which conjures up a particular era.  Of course, in France there are now any number of graphic novels by Manchette, illustrataed, for the most part, by Tardi, like La princess du sang, Le petit bleu de la cote Ouest, O dingos, o chateau, and La position du tireur couché. All of them deserve English editions. But on those and others we'll have to wait... In the meantime, Fatale will more than suffice.  

Monday, February 01, 2016

Jake Hinkson: Pictures From Life's Other Side

The stories in Jake Hinkson's recent volume might well be retitled- apologies to Hank Williams- pictures from life's other side. Of course, that other side depends on which side the perceiver is situated. Pictures of which being, for the most part, in the eye of the beholder, dependent on perspective, point of view, place, class, etc. All key elements in noir fiction and film, with which Hinkson is both conversant and exploits to great effect. Moreover, that perspective is reflected, more often than not, in the first-person, the narrator's camera-eye and a subjectivity embedded in working-class culture (marginal), mood (downbeat), geography (southern) and historical drift (chaotic).

Hinkson's short fiction (I've yet to read his novels) takes place in a world in which religion invariably rubs up against reality, with a thin line separating good and evil, lawfulness and lawlessness. Which means the stories are firmly in the tradition of noir,  in which  a black and white manichaeism is replaced by the relativity suggested in the book's title. Of course, noir aficionados will know about that deepening shade, deployed adeptly by the best noir writers, directors and cinematographers. Consequently, I was hooked from the first story, in which a burnt-out police officer gets increasingly drunk behind a gas station before shooting someone who's attempting to rob the place. It reads like it could have jumped out of a Drive By Truckers songbook. These stories about killer cops but psychos, religious obsessives, lowlifes, abusive relationships and the already-wounded also contain some great lines, like the opening sentence of The Big Sister, about a stripper who helps her young sibling who has just killed a man: "I was shaking my tits at the Friday night crowd when I saw my kid sister walk through the back door of The Fur Trap." Like a cross between Harry Crews and James M. Cain, with an attitude summed up in a line from another story, Cold City, about a cop in debt to a local bad-news loan shark: "If God wanted us to have moral clarity he wouldn't have created us blind and stupid."

So it's hardly surprising that Hinkson should be as knowledgeable as they come regarding film noir. But, then, he has over the years written on the subject for publications like Noir City, L.A. Review of Books and Mulholland Books. It's those articles that have been collected in the appropriately named The Blind Alley. And the book is every bit as good as one might expect. But, then, maybe I'm biased, because anyone who mentions, as Hinkson does in his introduction, the 78 blues record collector and eccentric James McKune (on whom I based the character Felix in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime), is going to be of no small amount of interest to me.  Covering considerable ground, Hinkson divides his book into four parts: 1) The Beginning and The End, which functions as an  introductory essay on the subject, one in which he lays out his approach, aesthetics, key movies, as well as various likes and dislikes; 2) Blind Alley, which tackles  particular themes and unexplored or misunderstood areas of the genre; 3) From the Shadow Gallery, which explores overlooked figures in film noir; and 4) Mug Shots, devoted, for the most part, to character actors.  I particularly liked his thematic essays: All Kinds of Women: The Lesbian Presence in Film Noir; Through the Camera's I: Noir's Experiment with the Subjective Camera; Hearing Voices: The Varieties of Film Noir Narration: and Women In Trouble: The Crisis Pregnancy in Film Noir. But there are also excellent entries on children in film noir, as well as profiles of Welles, Garfield, Mitchum, Peggie Castle, Frank Lovejoy, Richard Quine, Norman Foster, Felix Feist, Elisha Cook, and, in Hard Luck Ladies- on Thelma Ritter, Linda Darnell, Martha Vickers and Barbara Payton. In each Hinkson links his  subject with a theme or tendency, as in  What Shows and What Doesn't:  Frank Lovejoy and the Cult of Masculinity. And he does all this without engaging  in needless academic jargon, or appealing to the lowest common denominator. Nor is Hinkson afraid of voicing an  unpopular opinion, as in the opening chapter, 1944 and the Birth of Film Noir, in which he admits to not caring all that much for Barbara Stanwyck and Double Indemnity. Some might say a lapse, but more than made up for a few pages later when  he pinpoints the missing scene in Preminger's Laura and cites Dymtryk's  Murder, My Sweet as the visual template for future film noir.

Of the two books, I suppose I marginally prefer The Deepening Shade. After all, credit to anyone who can manage the tricky terrain of the noir short story. Not that such stories don't proliferate on the internet these days; it's just that so few live up to the tradition of which they claim to be a part. Finally, it's worth mentioning that both The Deepening Shade and The Blind Alley are published by  small presses: the former by All Due Respect, the latter by Broken River Books. It's  publishers like these who appear to be producing some of the most interesting crime fiction around. I wonder if that could have anything to do with the fact that they operate outside the restrictions and contractual obligations of corporate publishing? My guess is that just might be the case.