Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Portrait in Smoke by Bill Ballinger (1950)

Bill Ballinger is one of those writers who slipped through the cracks. Not good enough to remain perpetually in print, not hip enough for cult rediscovery, he nonetheless churned out a surprising number of excellent noir novels that beat the tar out of many of his far-more-celebrated contemporaries. Portrait in Smoke, the basis for the 1956 British noir Wicked as the Come, is a case in point. Ballinger uses his trademark clever plotting and multiple-point of view narrative to paint a suspenseful portrait of a femme fatal guaranteed to get a rise out of even the jaded.

It all sounds pretty Laura. Danny April is a cheap little collection agent working Chicago's crummier neighborhoods who stumbles across a 10-year old photo of Krassy Almauniski winning the Stockyard Weekly News beauty contest. Instantly smitten, he sets out to run her down. He's so obsessed at one point he calls up 367 moving companies looking for the one with blue trucks with a white stripe. Ultimately, he traces her from the stockyards through secretarial school, stints as ad agency secretary, executive mistress, war hero widow, and ultimately runs her down as the very bored wife of a very old, very wealthy banker.

But the kicker is that the story of Danny's search alternates with sections telling Krassy's real story. The scrappy little striver of Danny's delusion is a hardboiled schemer climbing the socioeconomic ladder on her back, legs spread, teeth gritted, and claws fully extended. Her first fiancee found himself bankrupt and almost indicted as Krassy siphoned off his life's savings. From the ad executive, she extracted a 45 G settlement. And Danny stumbles into her life just when she needs a fall guy for her ultimate scheme.

No fool, Danny poses as a white shoe bookie to worm his way into Krassy's life (and bed!). But the joke turns out to be on him when she shoots her Daddy Browning and leaves Danny holding the bag (figuratively) and the gun (literally). Danny's no dope, and he does get away, but he now knows the score. Krassy's cavorting on the French Rivera while he waits for the cops to knock on his door.

Wicked as They Come screens Saturday, January 24th at the Castro Theater with Arlene Dahl (who played you-know-who) in person.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Noir City #3: Clocked!

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing (1946)

No quibbles about this one. Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock is a fixture on 100 best-noir novel lists, and is perhaps the perfect man-hunting-for-himself novel. It's the only book worth remembering poet-turned-novelist Fearing for, but it is one hell of a good reason. Everything about this book (pardon me) meshes.

Protaganist George Stroud is a "smug, self-satisfied, smart alecky... rubber stamp executive" for Janoth Enterprises, publishers of a Newsways, a Time-like newsweekly. How smug? Stroud is sleeping with Pauline Delos, megalomaniac publisher Earl Janoth's bi-sexual mistress. How self-satisfied? Stroud keeps an overnight bag and a bottle of scotch at a nearby residential hotel for those frequent "late nights at the office" when he can't make it home to the wife and kid.

The inevitable shit-storm, however, is not the usual shit-storm. One night, Stroud and Janoth see each other near Delos's place. Janoth doesn't recognize Stroud, but upstairs he mocks Delos for this one at least being a man. Delos responds by calling the mighty publisher "a carbon copy of a fairy gorilla" and claiming Janoth's right-hand man, Steve Hagen, yearns for him in a most unconventional way. Janoth retaliates by "accidentally" hitting her over the head with a decanter. Five times.

Janoth and Hagen put their heads together and quickly figure out that the "mystery man" is the only thing tying Janoth to Delos's murder. They mobilize the resources of Janoth Enterprises to "neutralize" this threat. Guess who's the lucky underling tapped to spearhead this no-expenses barred effort?

Stroud is more than up for scheming to avoid being ground up by what he calls "The Big Clock," the novel's symbol for fate and the system that inevitably grinds up all. (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Fearing is a former Time staffer.) But the suspense mounts as the investigation's momentum smashes through his subterfuges. Tension peaks with minions excitedly informing Stroud that a witness has spotted the "mystery man" going into the Janoth building, and all exits are guarded. Fighting/brown nosing to the end, Stroud announces he won't leave the building until they run their man down. The floor-by-floor search begins, and ends with The Big Clock tolling, not for Stroud, but for Janoth. Stroud is saved--and goes back to being the same bastard he was before. Now that's noir!

It takes more than a few cute camera angles for a movie to live up to this book. We'll find out how the 1948 version of The Big Clock fares when it screens Thursday, January 29th at the Castro Theater.