Thursday, December 31, 2009


He Ran All the Way by Sam Ross (1947)

Someone once described the classic noir plot as a man gradually realizing that he's fucked. Well, He Ran All the Way's Nick Robey is way ahead on this game. The novel opens with him having a full-on expressionistic nightmare of him playing himself in craps--and losing.

Yes, Nick is filled with a sense of foreboding. He convinced the stick-up he's planning with his pal Al is doomed And it is. It winds up with a cop dead, Al in jail (singing the tune "Nick did it!") and Nick himself on the run.

As long as Nick is in motion, the novel has a pleasantly sweaty kinetic energy emphasized by Ross's staccato style. "He couldn't afford to make a mistake. He couldn't afford to take chances." Unfortunately, rather than careening about Chicago like the hottest pinball in town, things grind to a screeching halt out of The Desperate Hours.

Realizing "...he had no way of getting anywhere and he had no place to go," Nick picks up 19-yr. old Peg Dobbs at the beach and convinces her to take him home. Oddly enough, her pathologically post war nuclear family raise nary an eyebrow over their daughter bringing home an obviously agitated and armed lunatic. But even though they seem quite amenable to letting him hang around the house for a few days with the housing shortage and all, he panics, pulls his gun and takes the whole lot of them hostage.

The next 200 pages of the parents freaking, Peg sympathizing, and Junior smart-assing are pretty dull. You want to scream at Nick, "Move, man, move!!!!" There's even a Flitcraft sequence where for no real reason Mr. Dobbs tells Nick that a man's dreams shouldn't come true because when they do, "you feel a little more hollow inside."

This doesn't stop Nick from ultimately tossing the seven-out of his dreams. He gets a screwball idea for Peg to buy a car and drive him to the coast. She comes through with the car, but faced with his increasingly irrational behavior, she embraces him--and fatally stabs him in the back with a handy kitchen knife.

Ultimately, the novel is done in by by the lengthy hostage sequence. However, the prospect of having a screen presence like John Garfield ranting and raving and screaming at the elder Dobbs, smacking Junior, fondling Peg (a young Shelly Winters? Mmmm...) and sweating over the tastefully-furnished Dobbs home does have enormous cinematic potential.

We'll see if this potential is realized on January 26th when He Ran All the Way screens at the Castro.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Yes, it's almost January, which can only mean one thing around here: Noir City! From January 22 through the 31st, when the lights go down in San Francisco's Castro theater, the theater will be enveloped by our favorite shade of black: Film Noir! This year's festival features 24 films (15 not available on DVD!) on the theme of "Lust and Larceny." Each double bill (and in Noir City, every bill is a double bill) will feature one film with the theme of lust, one with the theme of larceny. Who says you can't have it both ways?

As always, I will attempt to review/discuss all the books the films are based on. There are 10 in the line-up this year, ranging from The Postman Always Rings Twice to A Place in the Sun , which had its genesis in Dreiser's An American Tragedy. And I guarantee I'm not going to let the 700+ pages of the latter deter me.

Coming soon: Sam Ross's He Ran All the Way.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction by Bradley Mengel (McFarland, 2009)

Ever since reading the cover blurb of The Destroyer #23: Child's Play ("Who would think of booby-trapping a frisbee?"), I've been fascinated by what I call Men's Action/Adventure paperback series of the '70s (MAA70 for short): The Executioner, The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, The Butcher, and their many violent imitators. Not that I actually read the damn things; most are dull, if not downright unreadable. It's the peculiar package: the neatly number titles, the bizarrely-named protagonists, the blazing violent covers, and the mind boggling body counts. I just love having them lined up neatly on my shelves.

I have been waiting for a book like Serial Vigilantes for 30 years. MAA70 are the male analog of romance novels. Critics ignore them. Respectable bookstores don't carry them. Information of any sort about them is almost impossible to come by.

As a bibliography alone, Serial Vigilantes fills a gaping void. It has the scoop on more than 130 series from Able Team to Z-Comm. Each entry describes the series hero and premise, gives a complete list of titles through 2008, and unmasks many of the writers lurking behind pen names like "Stuart Jason" and "Nick Carter." It's decently written, nicely organized, neatly presented, and seems pretty comprehensive. It's earned a spot on my reference book shelf. To think, all those years I thought Michael Avallone wrote the early Butchers...I'm sorry, Mike

But I can and must kvetch about details. First, the term "serial vigilantes." I hate it. Although it accurately describes guys like the early Executioner, the Lone Wolf, and a whole passel of Death Wish-like gun-toting goofballs, just as many of the subgenre's so-called "vigilantes," including mainstays like Nick Carter and my beloved Destroyer are agents clandestinely working for the government. What self-respecting vigilante takes orders, much less pulls down a civil service paycheck? Me, I'm sticking with MAA70, with "action" being a code word for one of the sub-genre's most prominent features: excessive gratuitous violence.

Mengel's history of the sub-genre is also pretty sketchy. I will spare you my lengthy rant about the pre-history of the sub-genre. Just let me say that I see a lot more Tarzan, James Bond, and Mickey Spillane and a lot less Doc Savage than Mengel does. He also makes no comment about how or why the sub-genre seemed to take a strong martial turn around 1980, with mercenary vs. terrorist supplanting man vs. Mafia as the conflict of choice. Since I frankly don't care about these later series, it's no big deal. But I do wonder.

My biggest gripe, however, is personal. For many years I have been on a quest for the worst MAA70 series. Is it The Hitman? Gannon? The Lone Wolf? Alas, Serial Vigilantes is utterly uncritical. It treats these abuses of the reader's endurance with every bit as much respect as the excellent Destroyer, the Ur-Executioner, and the always-good Revenger. I suppose neutrality is good in a reference book. But I did have my hopes.

At least I know I only have 100 more series to check out!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

Until recently, Patrick Hamilton was a mainstay of "forgotten novelists" lists, touted by a distinguished group including J.B. Priestly, Doris Lessing, and Nick Hornby. Many of his best books have finally slipped back in print over the last few years, only to be marketed to the minor British novelist crowd. In noir circles, he's best known for the plays that were the basis for the films Rope and Gaslight.

Which is too bad, because Hangover Square is truly one of the great noir novels. The grim setting--a London neighborhood of dank rooming houses, cheap hotels, greasy coffee shops and, above all, seedy pubs on the very eve of World War Two--oozes with dark atmosphere. It was a world Hamilton knew intimately. A life long hard drinker (one of his bios was entitled Through a Glass Darkly), he was a Boswell of the barroom, unsurpassed at capturing the boredom, loneliness and above all, the hopelessness of the habitual public drinker.

At the center of Hangover Square is George Harvey Bone, a large, weak, and amiable man in his mid-30s. He is desperately in love with Netta Longdon. Alas, not only is his love unrequited, Netta is a femme fatale of a sort that gives the rest of the subspecies a bad name. Vicious, cruel, and utterly self-absorbed, she is described as looking " a Byron beauty, but inside, she was a fish." She is at a center of a crowd that even George recognizes to be a "Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant pub crawling cheap lot of swine." Yet George can't bear to tear himself away, putting up with an endless stream of humiliations in the forlorn hope that maybe somehow, someday, Netta would care. Not that she ever will. She only tosses George an occasional bone of civil treatment because he does have his uses: an ever-handy stooge, a reliable source of small loans, the possessor of tenuous connections that may further her "acting" career.

There is no shortage of darkness and desperation in George's plight, and doom is just around the corner. But Hangover Square is more than a beer-sodden take on Of Human Bondage. Periodically and without warning, a loud "Crack!" sounds in George's head. He snaps into a "dead mood," a fugue-like state (that is completely unrelated to schizophrenia) where he continues to act more or less normally. But when he snaps out of it, he has no idea what he's been up to. It just happens that during these "dead moods," he's planning to kill Netta Longdon. In the true noir tradition, every time things are looking up for George--he's cutting down on the drink, he's not hanging around with Netta, he's breaking free of his dead-end life--Crack!

Any list of best noir novels that doesn't include Hangover Square is merely joking.

Monday, September 7, 2009


True Crime Detective Magazines 1924-1969 by Eric Godtland, edited by Dian Hansen (Taschen, 2008)

A a long time lover of True Detective magazine and its many imitators (and one of the few to notice its passing), I've been waiting for years for an even half-assed history of the genre. And, with the publication of True Crime Detective Magazines, I'm still waiting.

Not that there isn't a whole lot to love about this lavish volume. For Taschen books, pictures are the thing. And there is no shortage of eye candy here. The book is loaded with some 400+ drool worthy reproductions of detective magazine covers. It begs for coffee table display.

The text, however, is another matter. Granted, the image-heavy format and Taschen's policy of printing the text in English, French, and German doesn't give the writers much to work with. But even allowing for these tight constraints, the "history" presented herein is sketchy, scatter shot, and from what I can tell, frequently inaccurate. The authors seem to have been so distracted by the chapters on bondage covers and "girls smoking" covers (??) they appear to have spent little time actually reading the damn things. As painful an experience as this may be, sometimes a writer's gotta take one for his audience.

An even bigger gripe is 1969 cut-off. Why, my god, why? This is when things were getting really interesting ironically. The wave of sleaze they describe as engulfing the magazines in the 1960s didn't really hit until the 1970s. During the disco decade, every cover was a tasteless tableau of a woman about to come to a painful, violent, and frequently sexually sadistic end. Blurbs promised to reveal the truth about the "Mutilation Murder of Palm Beach's Millionaire Homo" of "When You're Done, Stack Her With the Others." They were truly documents of a nation seemingly going insane.

Luckily, there is something more than pretty pictures. Almost as an afterthought, they include "I Was a True Detective Editor" by Marc Gerald, wherein Mr. Gerald describes his memorable first job out of college in 1989. This article about the almost-final days of the crime magazines is worth the price of admission alone.

It's sad that even Canada's really crappy crime magazines have gotten a real book (True Crime, True North) while the land that invented the damn things (all praise St. Bernarr MacFadden!) has to make do with this. But it does look so nice on my coffee table....

Thursday, August 6, 2009


The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd by Jana Bommersbach (Simon & Shuster, 1992)

Megan Abbot's next book, Bury Me Deep, is loosely based on the 1931 Winne Ruth Judd "Trunk Murders" (not, as one or two pinheads suggested, the Brighton Trunk Murders.) Naturally, this sent me scurrying to my library to do a little background reading.

The first book on the case, 1973's Winnie Ruth Judd: The Trunk Murders, is little more than as assemblage of newspaper clippings tediously re-written into narrative form. Definitely not worth the bother. Bommersbach's book is definitely the one to get, and as a read it goes done painlessly. But accurately? That remains to be seen.

First, the facts. Winnie Ruth Judd was a 26-yr old medical typist trying to may a go of it in Phoenix in 1931. For friends, she had x-ray tech Agnes LeRoi and TB patient Hedwig Samuelson. For fun, she had big-wheel lumberman Jack Halloran. And she did have a husband, but he was conveniently out-of-state looking for work and played no role in subsequent events.

On the night of October 26th, Judd visited her pals. There was an altercation caused, Judd later claimed, by her introducing Halloran to a woman with a arrested case of syphilis. Two days later, her erstwhile friends were found in a pair of leaky trunks in the checkroom at Los Angeles's Union Station; Samuelson's body had been cut into four pieces to fit. Judd was quickly arrested. In a trial that can only be described as "unusual," she was convicted of LeRoi's murder and sentenced to death. She was ultimately found insane and remanded to a state mental hospital. She would escaped seven times over the next 30 years (once staying AWOL for seven years) before being finally paroled in 1971

Bommersbach makes a good case for the investigation being flawed, the trial unfair, and the whole process skewed by official efforts to protect Halloran. But to protect him from scandal, or prosecution? Bommersbach has her explanations; in fact, she has two. Unfortunately, her solutions are as problematical as the prosecution's. To run them down, they are:
  • Single Woman Theory: Acting entirely alone, Winne Ruth Judd shot her two friends, did her own chopping and stuffing, and then put a bullet in her hand to make it look like self defense. This is the official prosecution theory.
  • That Nasty Man: Jumped by her two friends, Judd somehow wrested the gun away after sustaining a bullet wound in the hand and proceeded to kill them in "self defense." She summoned loverboy Halloran, who arranged to have the bodies loaded in trunks. This is Judd's personal story.
  • The Second Gunman: There was another gunman who shot one, or possibly both, of the women, leaving Judd entirely innocent.

All are flawed. Although it isn't as hard to chop up a body as Bommersbach makes out, she does make a good case that Judd's hand was injured before the bodies went in the trunks. Dissecting assistance is probable. But Judd's self-defense claim flys in the face of physical evidence. LeRoi was killed by a single shot to the head fired at extremely close range. But would Halloran, a businessman with ready access to trucks that could easily transport the bodies out into the desert, bring in a second witness to chop up Samuelson and then send the injured and no doubt thoroughly rattled Judd on a lengthy, idiotically conceived trip with no clear plan to get rid of the evidence?

The second gunman theory is simply silly. Not only does this beg why Judd would spend the rest of her life screaming self defense, the only basis is the early news stories that had the women being killed by different guns. Where Bommersbach sees evidence of a sinister conspiracy protecting important men, I see another screw-up by know-it-all newshounds.

My theory is that Judd sneaked into the house, shot LeRoi and then brawled a bit with Samuelson before shooting her. If she did have some post-mortem help, I think it was a third party that lacked access to more convenient methods of body disposal. But who... and why?

It is with keen anticipation that I await Ms. Abbott's novelization (and hopefully, rationalization) of these events.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Autoerotic Fatalities by Hazelwood, Dietz, & Burgess (Lexington Books, 1983)

Recent events in Thailand inspired me to dust off my copy of this transgressive classic from the '80s and skim the good parts. Aimed at a professional audience of the hardworking souls who have to clean-up the medical and legal aftermath of these mishaps, the writing is dry and matter-of-factual, but never dense or dull. After reading this, you could one-up the Bangkok police.

The book is based on a a study of more than 100 cases, with a generous number described in detail in the text. There are common elements. The victims are almost invariably male. They are generally found nude save for a few articles of women's clothing and/or bondage gear. Typically, "the victim hid this sexual activity from family and friends." But it's not just classic autoerotic asphyxiation; the authors delve into cases involving a floor buffer, home-made electrodes, and household refrigerants. While the famous "Love Bug" case is only alluded to, not discussed in detail, there is no shortage of cases illustrating other novel expressions of the human sexual instinct.

The bulk are, of course, autoerotic asphxiations. My personal favorite was about a 19-year old man who was visiting his fiance's family. After dinner, he begged out of a shopping trip. After they all left, he stripped down, shoved a corncob into his rectum, and filled a shallow hole in the backyard with water. He wallowed in his improvised bog until he was thoroughly covered with mud and then proceeded to hang himself from a fence. But as happens so often, he got carried away and wound up asphyxiating himself. When his fiancee and family return home to make the horrifying discovery, one can only imagine that their shock was tinged with a slight sense of relief that the marriage was off.

There are dozens of others in here that are almost equally novel. After reading this book, Mr. Carradine's apparent misadventure starts to look not only far from unusual, but decidedly unoriginal.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Most of Westlake's early stories appeared in the digest-sized mystery magazines that came and went during the 1950s. Although emminently readable, they weren't particularily Westlakian. "Arrest" (Manhunt, 1/58) was a decent, albeit typical atmospheric killer-waiting-for-the-cops story. "Everybody Killed Sylvia" (Mystery Digest 5/58) was an uneven, undistiguished PI caper with a few comic touches. "The Ledge Bit" (Mystery Digest 9-10/59) had an actor trying to revive his career by playing "suicidal" on hotel ledge; alas, the hotel he chose lacked this vital architectural feature.

For the first touches of that inimitable Westlake style, we must turn to the November 1959 issue of the Guilty Detective Story Magazine. Published by a schlocky Massachusetts-based outfit, Guilty (and its sister magazine Trapped) were far more interesting than they had any right to be. Although their contents were dominated by the hack work of burnt-out pulp writers, the editors preferred JD stories (touching relics of the days when the biggest threat to Western civilization was a teenager with a zip gun) to the standard vitrified Mike Hammer clones. They also published a surprising number (not large, just surprising) of good stories, including early work from Lawrence Block, Harlan Ellison, and of course, Westlake.

"The Knife Fighter" is a bouncy, lightly-written vignette about Al, an ordinary looking teenager who provokes a philosophical confrontation with three JDs. "...let's say we get into an argument...and we decided to settle it with knives," he tells them. "What would it prove?" Using reverse psychology, he manipulates the leader of the trio into an alley for one-on-one action. The action is short and quick. After he wipes his knife off, he walks out of the alley, sadly telling the dead boy's companions, "You can't prove a thing with a knife." He walks down the street and decides to head for the Upper West Side because "he needed more action tonight...[and] there were some real mean guys up there." The Sharks and Jets were never this much fun.

Next up: the most unusual Westlake book you'll never read.


Donald Westlake's passing this past December inspired a large number of respectful obituaries, fond tributes, and humorous anecdotes. And justifiably so; he was a true master of the genre who could have used his prodigious output to shake the MWA for three Grandmaster Awards: one for Donald Westlake, one for Richard Stark, and one for a the goofy pen name he could have used for the Dortmunder books. It would have been a joke that I'm sure he would have enjoyed hugely

The closest I have to a Westlake anecdote is more about editorial myopia. Back in 1997, when Westlake brought back Parker (yippie!) in Comeback, I was doing a very small amount of freelance writing for a would-be Details. I pitched my editor what I still think is my best-ever book review idea: an "interview" with the monosyllabic Parker that would end with him breaking my arm or something. He said no. "Too obscure" were his very words.

Two weeks later, Comeback received a full page review in that renowned journal of the obscure and idiosyncratic, Time.

However, there is much Westlake that is truly "too obscure" for all but the fanatics. Next up: a look at some of his earliest stories.


Belatedly wrapping up the Noir City...

The Unsuspected: The atmosphere on the screen trumps the novel, but the the convoluted plot did not translate well. Presumably, key expository scenes wound up on the cutting room floor. I was the only person in the theater who could actually explain it.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is beyond a reasonable doubt not adapted from Grafton's novel.

Two O'Clock Courage is a heavily streamlined, but reasonably faithful adaptation of Burgess's novel with a surprising amount of B-movie charm.

The Harder They Fall: A great flick from a great novel that I really should re-read. But those who look upon this as an accurate depiction of the Primo Carnera story should be advised that liberties were taken. Legitimately or not, Carnera did KO Jack Sharkey for the title, boxed for four years after losing his title, and went on to a long and successful career in wrestling.

The Sweet Smell of Success was, as always, a success. I even managed to restrain myself from shouting "There's Frank Rosolino," although I did twitch. The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river!

Next up: an even more belated Donald Westlake tribute!

Monday, February 16, 2009


I'm back from Noir City. Even after two weeks, I'm still a little bleary from seeing 22 films in 10 days. But it was worth it, especially the night I got to surreptitiously sit behind Miss Noir City (at right.) Now that's a cinematic experience that you'll never have in your "home" theater!.

Obviously, I didn't make my goal of blogging (or even reading) every novel. I never even made it to James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit (filmed as Scarlet Street) or Samuel Fuller's Dark Page (Scandal Sheet) and didn't get around to re-visiting Budd Schulberg's wonderful The Harder They Fall or Hemingway's "The Killers." I did get about 1/4 of the way through Tiffany Thayer's One Woman (Chicago Deadline) before throwing in the towel. I'd already seen the movie, which was shaping up to be a reasonable adaptation and welcome condensation of the too-long novel.

Now for the rehash:

Wicked as They Come: great flick, decent adaptation of Ballinger's Portrait in Smoke. They ditched the cheap skip tracer (no problem), but inexplicably shifted the action to London for no apparent reason. Arlene Dahl is suitably vicious.

While the City Sleeps: the business end of the novel is handled well, with the contenders reduced to a more manageable trio, and the plot follows the book closely. My only gripe is that the cool Freudian seductive mother and kinky killer son are replaced with a Reader's Digest-style weak mother and JD son. C'mon, it's about handkerchiefs and underwear!

Big Clock: Very nifty flick that does justice to the novel. Of course, the homosexual subplots have been all but erased, but attentive viewers can spot some vestigial mincing. Kudos to scripter John "Cuban Pineapples" Latimer for actually coming up with a more logical end for Janoth!

to be continued....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by C. W. Grafton (1950)

I have more than a reasonable doubt that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is actually the basis for the 1956 movie of the same name (which was certainly Fritz Lang's last American movie.) But I read the ting anyway, so what the hell.

Undoubtedly, C.W. Grafton's most significant contribution to the mystery genre was siring a daughter who grew up to pen whodunnits like D is For Dipshit. However Grafton pere, a practicing lawyer, wrote a handfull of mystery novels that are well regarded in some circles, of which Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is the most noirish. More a legal thriller than traditional mystery, it does have its moments.

Jess London is a rookie lawyer working for his sister's unscrupulous husband Mitch Sothern. After a party at Sothern's place which features much group singing and even more drinking, London returns to retrieve his hat. He overhears a bitter fight. Sothern is leaving his pregnant sister, and using London's job with his firm to blackmail her into a quiet divorce. After the sister exits to the hospital, London bursts into the room and clubs Sothern over the head with a substantial cigarette lighter with the usual results.

The next day, Sothern confesses to police. Suspecting he's covering for his sister, they don't believe him. But London discovers Sothern has framed him for dereliction of duty and possibly for a disbarrable offense. At this point, the story stumbles and takes on the dull tedium of a bad hangover and meanders along for 150 or so pages as the police gradually decide they may have been too hasty discounting London's confession. Only the occasional bit of pre-war color (can you believe teenagers going out on a Saturday night to park, drink whiskey, and singing "Down By the Old Mill Stream"?) brightens the tedium.

Interest returns when London is finally indicted. The prosecution has motive, opportunity, and no shortage of witnesses placing London near the scene. So London decides to defend himself and insists on starting the trial the next day!

The sneaky legal maneuvering, the legal rock throwing between counsel, and the clever way that London dismantles the prosecution's seemingly overwhelming case dispel the lingering hangover. It may not be real, but Grafton, a practicing lawyer, makes it nicely realistic. In the end London gets off, but in a lightly noirish twist, loses the girl when she realizes that he's just sold the court a dog & pony show.

Sources inform me that the film is about a man who frames himself for murder so his ultimate vindication be a critique of capitol punishment. Unfortunately, a key witness dies before the show can begin! It sure doesn't sound like Grafton's novel. But we shall judge for ourselves when Beyond a Reasonable Doubt screens at the Castro on Saturday, January 31.

Monday, January 19, 2009


"The Sweet Smell of Success" by Ernest Lehman (1950)

Unlike most of the Noir City films, I have seen The Sweet Smell of Success multiple times and recommend it wholeheartedly. Such is my devotion to this noir I own both VHS and DVD copies despite the fact I have never owned a TV. As far as I'm concerned, this is the movie.

The source material ain't too bad either. Co-screen writer Ernest Lehman's novelette originally appeared in 1950 in Cosmopolitan (then a very much different magazine.) It opens with poor press agent Sidney Wallace listen to his mother kvetch about the seamy nature of her boy's chosen profession. Even his brother would rather work his way through college in a steam laundry than accept the cheerfully proffered proceeds of press agentry because there people " standing up--never on our knees."

Sidney doesn't disagree. He notes "...there was nothing I was not prepared to do, no level to which I would not descend..." to get his clients in the Winchell-like Harvey Hunsecker's column. In fact, he's just done a nice little favor for Hunsecker. To break up the romance of Hunsekcer's chihuahua-girl little sister Susan and crooner Steve Dallas, Sidney has placed a blind items accusing Dallas of marijuana usage and Communist sympathies in two other Broadway columns.

Dallas's career is derailed. Alas, Susan announces she's still going to marry him. A surprisingly sweaty Hunsecker is not pleased. With a few twinges of guilt, Sidney has to enact plan B, planting a few marijuana cigarettes in Steve's pocket and arranging a meet with a heavy handed member of New York's Finest. Listening to a drunk in a bar describe the results made even Sidney sick. But alas, it's all for naught. Sidney finds out, much like his cinematic counterpart, that little girls do learn many valuable lessons from their incest-minded big brothers.

It's a great little story, with cool atmosphere. Sidney describes one bar being:
...crowded with people like myself, who never went home if there was till someplace to go. Home is where the music stops, the floor show ends, the lights go on, and you are only you again.
Fans of the film will delight in many of the great subplots that made it to the screen almost unaltered, most notably Sidney's slimy way of "getting" the old comedian into Hunsecker's column. But Hunsecker himself is almost a shadow of the Lancaster character, who may pervade the novelette but has preciously little stage time. And those looking for dialog on the order of "You're dead. Go get yourself buried" or even "Match me, Sidney" are doomed to disappointment. The acid in the dialog was provided by pinko playwright Clifford Odets, who also apparently restructured the story to amplify the themes to infinity. The Sweet Smell of Success is that rarest of birds: a pretty good story that got made into a great picture.

I certainly am planning to see The Sweet Smell of Success for the umpteenth time on February 1st at the Castro.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Noir City Notes: Spoilage!

A few people have commented (both virtually and to-my-facially) about my propensity for violating one of the cardinal rules of the mystery genre: revealing the ending. As a long-time advocate of not matching wits with twits like Hercule Poirot, I personally am never bothered by knowing whodunnit beforehand. The joy should be as much in the journey as the destination. It takes more that a clever ending to redeem a crappy book.

Nonetheless, I am aware that there are some readers bothered by this sort of thing. Point well taken. Normally, I would refrain (and will) refrain from spilling the beans if there are worthwhile beans to spill. But this assumes that someone, after reading this blog, is actually going to go out and read one of these books. I am far more interested in writing about books that most people are never going to read, either due to an excess of common sense or a lack of rarefied access. Not telling how a book ends in the former case is pointless and in the latter assholish.

My Noir City project is a special case. I'm not so much writing about the books themselves but the books as source material for films. OK, maybe here or there I'm spoiling a nice little literary surprise, but for the most part I've been suffering so you won't yet will still being able to cluck to your friends as you walk out of the Castro, "The book had a much better ending." As anyone who's ever read a book and seen the movie knows, any relationship between what you read and what you see is almost coincidental.

Next up: "The Sweet Smell of Success."

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Two O'clock Courage by Gelett Burgess (1934)

Gelett Burgess is perhaps the most unlikely writer on this list. Not only is he patently not noir, he isn't even a mystery guy. He first made a splash in 1890s San Francisco as one of the founders of The Lark, a magazine with an unusual format that was widely celebrated in literary circles. In other words, he was the Dave Eggers of fin de siecle San Francisco. His biggest hits were the Goops and that damn Purple Cow verse.

Nonetheless, he did turn out a few mysteries in his later years, not without commercial success. Two O'clock Courage was filmed twice, first in 1936 as Two In the Dark and then again in 1945 under the original book title in the version to be screened at Noir City 7.

It's not that the set-up is lacking in noir potential. A man finds himself on a dark city street in the grips of amnesia. He has no idea who he is, where he is, or how he got there. All he knows is his brown suit is covered with blood and his pockets are empty save for several $100 bills and a gun. He quickly figures out he's the mysterious "Man in the Brown Suit" sought by police in connection with the shooting of wealthy theater owner John Saxon. But all that ensues is manifestly not noir. Burgess's style is baroque and flowery and the story is devoid of any real tension or desperation.

It's a mild little mystery of the sort I imagine was immensely popular in its day but is now intensely dull. There is no shortage of suspects who were all but stumbling over one another at the murder scene, an ostensibly lonely mansion. There's the plagiarist playwright Saxon was blackmailing, a young actress he was manipulating, an eccentric violinist he'd cheated, the chauffeur he fired, and of course, the protagonist, who was heard shouting, "I'll kill you, you dirty cur!" in Saxon's study shortly before the shooting. In an out of left field development the real shooter turns out to be the mother of an actress he'd in the parlance of the day, "wronged." So much for fair play.

The path to this revelation is pretty tortuous. Action is minimal and cheap coincidences are rife. Much of the exposition is via witness statements and transcripts obligingly printed verbatim in the paper to be read by the characters. Mr. X ultimately figures out that he was in fact a playwright who was selling a play to Saxon. The "You dirty cur!" was a line in his play and his "pistol" was a water-shooting model (groan!) he'd used as a prop for this dramatic reading.

In fact, Two O'clock Courage brings to mind one of my favorite non-noir mystery writers, Harry Stephen Keeler. Often characterized (unfairly, IMHO) as the wost mystery writer ever, Keeler wrote sprawling mysteries with style, plots, and narrative structures ostensibly similar to Two O'clock Courage. But Keeler took things to such extremes that these flaws become utterly surreal and totally fascinating. Were Keeler to have authored Two O'clock Courage, he would have larded the plot with dozens of interlocking coincidences, each more outrageous than the last, interpolated a few of his old short stories (relevant or not), tossed in a circus freak or two, and resolved the mystery with an acrobatic midget lowered from an autogyro or perhaps a rare genetic disorder that only made it look like Saxon had been shot. Whether Keeler was an eccentric genius mocking this sort of mystery, or a deranged hack trying to write one and failing in a most interesting way, the results would have been sublime. It's no coincidence that my copy of Two O'clock Courage was printed by Surinam Turtle Press, a subsidiary of Keeler-publishers extraordinaire Ramble House.

We'll find out what kind of noir they can make out of this pig's ear when the 1945 version of Two O'Clock Courage screens on Saturday afternoon, January 31 at the Castro.