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 "...work 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.