Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Nightmare Alley, The Big Con, The Black Dahlia

Megan Abbott on Zodiac: I’ve long wrestled with serial-killer movies, a genre historically fraught with issues of gender and power. For every American Psycho, with its wildly subversive take on toxic masculinity and capitalism, or for every Dressed to Kill, with its twisty, provocative deconstruction of sex and the body, there are countless others that are queasy, underdeveloped, exploitive, tedious. But one of the greatest riches of David Fincher’s extraordinary 2007 film Zodiac is how little gender and sex matter in traditional ways. The Zodiac’s victims were both men and women: a pair of couples, a lone cabbie... The murders aren’t sexualized in obvious ways. Their horror emanates from a place that seems, somehow, at least in Fincher’s parlance, beyond or before sex. A heart, Zodiac is not a serial-killer movie. It’s about our relationship to darkness, our attraction to it, our obsession with the shadowy unknown. “I need to know,” Graysmith says at one point, exhausted and baffled by the depth of his own obsession. In its final, shattering moments, the movie teeters perilously close to a solution, a confirmation. But Fincher is after a far deeper truth than identifying a killer. Solving the crime would provide momentary satisfaction, but the void it would create is too terrifying to ponder. Obsession—perpetual, inexhaustible—keeps alive the possibility of a deeper logic, a sane world, satisfying answers, closure. On some level, you don’t really want to know the truth, because if you did, it would be over and you’d have to face a larger truth—that the darkness isn’t just out there, and spreading. It’s inside you. The virus is you. Source:

Steve Hodel takes great offense because he believes that Larry Harnisch has been “misinforming his readers.” Hodel portrays himself as a man who cares about the truth and cares about getting his facts straight, yet the facts paint a very different picture of Steve Hodel. Months ago, I posted by my review of Hodel’s book Most Evil. In that review, I proved, beyond any doubt, that virtually all of Hodel’s Zodiac-related claims were 100% false. Most of Hodel’s bizarre solution to the Zodiac case is based on geography and geometry, and I proved, again, beyond any doubt, that virtually all of Hodel’s presentations were inaccurate on both counts. Hodel continues to claim that this already-debunked material is still valid, going so far as to boast of his PowerPoint presentations and continuing to post the same material on his site as if it were factually accurate. An examination of Hodel’s “message” in Most Evil and on his website proves that his work is consistently inaccurate and his claims are easily debunked. One of Hodel’s recent blog entries featured his already-debunked presentations as if they are still valid. Source:

Nightmare Alley (2021). Like a stage magician, writers can take advantage of the way we think to keep us looking in one direction while important things are happening somewhere else, burying plot-critical information where it can be uncovered later, without drawing your attention to its significance too early. The hold that stories naturally have on our attention and imagination helps the process along. The psychologist Melanie Green and her colleagues have found that people are more open to persuasion as a function of what they call ‘narrative transportation’. When a story is gripping, vivid, engaging and immersive, we are less on guard, less concerned about whether all the details add up, and more willing to follow a narrative wherever it wants to take us. In the 1970s, the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman observed that people often take an approach to reasoning that can be described as ‘anchoring and adjustment’. Presented with some piece of information – the asking price for a condo, early results from exit polls, a sample answer to a trivia question – people tend to use that information as a starting point in formulating their own estimates, hypotheses and predictions. 

Nightmare Alley (1947). Characters make particularly useful vessels for misleading information, because they add deniability. A character can lie or be mistaken without making the story as a whole inconsistent or dishonest. This handy fact works nicely with another predictable feature of human cognition: our relatively bad memory for source information. Especially if we’re distracted (say, by some compelling, emotionally engaging story content), we can encounter claims in dubious settings, or even see them being debunked, but later remember only that we’ve heard them somewhere before. Then if we encounter the claims again, that sense of familiarity can make us more likely to take them seriously. The psychologist Daniel Schacter, a major figure in the cognitive and neurological study of memory, calls this failing and others like it the ‘sins of memory’, and stories can use them to plant information in places where we are likely to remember the misleading bits while losing track of the caveats. Fortunately, despite our tendency to lose track of this information, we never fully lose track of the distinction, so if a story shows us that a source we trusted was unreliable, we get it. The source is blown, but the story itself can still be on the up-and-up. The con artists in The Big Con (1940) are fond of the maxim ‘You can’t cheat an honest man.’ That claim holds true for some kinds of confidence tricks, perhaps. It’s also a nice thing to tell yourself if you happen to cheat people for a living.

Erving Goffman, one of the most prominent sociologists of the 20th century, wrote his classic essay ‘On Cooling the Mark Out’ (1952) drawing on David Maurer’s The Big Con (1940). Maurer’s account of the later stages of a big con: the first work of grifters is to identify a target, or mark, and gain his confidence. Then the mark can be roped into the criminals’ fraudulent scheme, drawn further in with some small successes, encouraged at last to make a really large investment, and fleeced accordingly. But simply getting the mark’s money is not enough. ‘Suspicious marks are not unusual,’ Maurer reports; ‘in fact all marks are suspicious at first.’ The skilful cooler pours oil on those troubled waters, redirecting, mollifying, distracting and reassuring as needed so that, when it is time to make the big play, the mark goes quietly and willingly, a lamb to the slaughter. As a sociologist, Goffman points out that even though it’s pretty rare to be the victim of a big con, social life is full of people in need of cooling out. Any time someone is ‘caught out on a limb’, when their expectations are dashed and they feel that their status is precarious and their fate is threatened, there is a crisis. If not pacified, they could make a scene, file a lawsuit, or otherwise lash out and spin out of control. Behavioural economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber called ‘the curse of knowledge’: once we know something, it becomes impossible to fully remember or imagine what it is like not to know it. Our earlier selves seem gullible and stupid by comparison. How could we have failed to see what was coming? When we have this reaction to a story, it makes the plot seem brilliant and revelatory. When we have it to events in our own lives, we are more likely to feel guilty and ashamed, culpable in our own downfall. When a story serves up a convincing surprise, we get to have an epiphany about a deeper, truer interpretation of what went before. Source:

While his name is likely derived from Charles 'Tex' Watson, Dr. Charles Montgomery’s character most similarly resembles the story of Dr. Walter Bayley, a prime suspect in the murder of the real-life Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short. Dr. Bayley became a popular suspect long after the initial Black Dahlia investigation. The doctor was a surgeon who lived one block from where Short's body was found; furthermore, after his death, an autopsy revealed he had been suffering from a degenerative brain disease, which could have caused sudden violent behaviors. A popular aspect of this theory is the belief that he had performed illegal abortions, and that he was angry with Short for lying about having a dead son because he had tragically lost his own son years earlier. Considering the fictional doctor performed illegal abortions, and was traumatized by the death of his young son, it’s clear that Charles Montgomery is based on the real-life Dr. Bayley. Dr. Charles Montgomery’s plotline also shares similarities to the real-life case of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In March 1932, Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was kidnapped from his crib on the upper level of their home. Over two months later, a truck driver found the infant’s body on the side of a road. In Murder House (2011), Charles and Nora’s son Thaddeus is kidnapped from his upper-level crib by the boyfriend of one of Charles Montgomery’s patients, who then dismembered the baby in revenge. From the Charles Manson murders to infant kidnappings and a suspect in an unsolved case, Dr. Charles Montgomery in AHS is inspired by some of the most infamous criminal cases in American history. Source:

BLACK DAHLIA, RED ROSE - The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America’s Greatest Unsolved Murder (2017) by Piu Eatwell: “Nobody had expected her to be so sullenly beautiful,” says Eatwell, who speculates that Elizabeth Short’s striking beauty—which inspired the infatuated press to call her “The Black Dahlia” (“evocative of an exotic flower, of desire both toxic and intoxicating”)—prompted her enduring legend. Piu Eatwell's
 zealous efforts to solve the case and name the killer (in her view, Leslie Dillon) are less than convincing, but her immersive style is filled with camera-ready period detail. Leslie Dillon was an aspiring screenwriter who was both a former mortician's assistant and a bellhop. Dillon entered the investigation by reaching out to Dr. De River about the case. Dillon claimed a friend of his could have killed Elizabeth Short. De River thought it was a smoke screen and that Dillon may have actually killed Short. Source:

Elizabeth Short was a 22-year-old Boston native committed to being married, her fiancé being killed during the Second World War. Grieving, accounts tell of Elizabeth falling in with dodgy characters as she sought to stay in LA. She variously rented a room behind the Florentine Gardens nightclub and equally had been forced to stay with others at the Chancellor Hotel on Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood. 
Red Manley was the last person seen in Short’s company, having dropped her at the Biltmore Hotel. Short had told Manley that she was meeting her sister there, but this was a lie, some speculating she may have been meeting another man or simply wished to be rid of Red Manley's company. Manley had been discharged from the army for mental instability and complained that he heard voices in his head. Despite this, Manley had a watertight alibi for the time of Short’s murder and successfully passed two separate polygraph tests. It seems evident that her killing had a profound effect on him, and he was committed to the Patton State psychiatric hospital in San Bernardino in 1954.

Seeking to keep the sensationalism going, the Examiner and other newspapers such as the LA Times needed to one-up the Herald-Express and began to add hints of sex and scandal, suggesting that Elizabeth Short had been a victim of a “sex fiend.” The claims not only hindered the investigation but left a lasting legacy with some still contending to this day that the victim had worked as either a high-class escort or prostitute. There is no evidence for either. On January 17, the Herald-Express first referred to Short as “The Black Dahlia,” a nickname she’d acquired at a local drugstore. Upon investigations, it was revealed that Short had stayed with Mark Hansen before her death, and he quickly became the new prime suspect in the murder despite the fact he would have been unlikely to send the press an address book with his own name on it. Legend tells of how this address book was full of Hollywood names. But this was fiction, and Hansen would later tell police he had given Short his address book as a gift. The nature of that relationship has come under much scrutiny over the years. Hansen had owned several theaters, two boarding houses, and he was a part-owner of the Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. Short had lived with Hansen in October of 1946 and ten days in November. Hansen eventually asked her to leave because of what he saw as her undesirable associations. Some have claimed that Hansen and Short were romantically involved, while others as Elizabeth's close friend Ann Toth contend that she had rejected his advances. 

Others suggest that she had “led on” the businessman, angering him when she made it clear she wasn’t really interested. Yet others suggest that there was nothing between the two, and Hansen had merely allowed a lonely woman to stay at his home, being worried about the characters surrounding her. The various versions of the truth are standard with the Black Dahlia case, with much of the evidence convoluted and contradictory. Running a successful nightclub in 1940s LA likely meant that not all of Mark Hansen’s activities were entirely legitimate. Yet, there is nothing to suggest he possessed the level of psychosis attached to the Black Dahlia killing. He had no record of violence in his life and, by all accounts, had felt genuinely sorry for Elizabeth Short and concerned for unnamed associations she was involved with. Having dismissed Manley and Hansen as suspects, police eyes turned toward doctors and medical students. This was both the view of the LAPD and the FBI, with lead investigator Harry Hansen saying that the killer was a “top medical man” and “a fine surgeon.” Police thoroughly investigated medical schools in the area, including the University of Southern California Medical School, located a few miles from the dumpsite. Carrying out extensive background checks, nobody raised any red flags, except Dr. George Hodel for a while. 

However, George Hodel wouldn’t be the last physician to be linked with the case. Mainly proposed by LA Times copy-editor Larry Harnisch, Dr. Walter Bayley was a surgeon who lived a mere block south of the lot where Elizabeth Short’s body was found. He had left his wife in October of 1946, just months before the killing, and Dr. Bailey had possibly known Elizabeth Short, being his daughter Barbara a close friend of the Dahlia’s sister, Virginia. While Dr. Bayley had no history of violence or criminality, following his own death in 1948, it was revealed he’d been suffering from a degenerative brain disease. This disease may have made his behavior erratic, with the condition known to cause violent behavior in normally calm individuals. Source:

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Black-Eyed Blonde (A Philip Marlowe novel) by Neil Jordan, Raymond Chandler

Diane Kruger, Jessica Lange, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Alan Cumming, Danny Huston, Ian Hart and Colm Meaney have joined Liam Neeson in noir thriller Marlowe, which is now filming in Ireland and Spain. The script from William Monahan (The Departed) is based on the novel The Black-Eyed Blonde by John Banville, with Oscar winner Neil Jordan (In Dreams) aboard to direct. In Marlowe, when private detective Philip Marlowe (Neeson) is hired to find the ex-lover of a glamorous heiress, it looks an open and shut case, but Marlowe soon finds himself in the underbelly of Hollywood’s film industry and unwittingly drawn into the crossfire of a legendary Hollywood actress and her subversive, ambitious daughter. Kruger will play Clare Cavendish, the femme-fatale instigator of the plot, who inherits her irresistible charm from her notorious mother, Dorothy Cavendish, played by Oscar winner Jessica Lange. Hart is set to play detective Joe Green, whilst Colm Meaney plays Bernie Ohls, the DA’s investigator and Chandler’s other recurring character from the original stories. Danny Huston will play the colourful country club manager, Floyd Hanson. Akinnuoye will play Cedric, the right-hand to sharply-dressed gangster Lou Hendricks, played by Cumming. Source:

In a 1945 essay, Edmund Wilson, America’s premiere man of letters in the 1940s, singled out Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled fiction for grudging praise. Dismissing the novels of Dashiell Hammett as little more than a comic strip, Wilson saw Chandler’s value as atmospheric: “It is not simply a question of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms.” Chandler, who regarded Wilson as the kind of snobbish intellectual he despised, agreed. Chandler was clear-eyed about the reason Hollywood studios had hired him. He knew it was because of the atmosphere he gave to screenplays. Robert Towne cited Chandler’s description of California as the inspiration for his Academy Award-winning script for the neo-noir film Chinatown. 

Ridley Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher summoned Chandler when they made the future-noir Blade Runner, with its burn-out, alcoholic detective played by Harrison Ford amidst a rain and pollution-drenched Los Angeles. Chandler was not crazy about The Big Sleep (he thought he ran his trademark similes into the ground). Nevertheless, the editors of this Black Lizard’s new annotated edition of The Big Sleep, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto, regard the novel as a masterpiece. Chandler considered himself “an intellectual, as much as I dislike the term.” Although he followed the prejudices of his day when dealing with gay characters (in The Big Sleep he called homosexuals “queens” and “fags), unlike other mystery novelists of his era, Chandler didn’t always follow the noir theme of a good, honest man seduced and then brought down by a femme fatale.

By contrast, his female characters were sometimes perverted and insane, like the certifiable nymphomaniac Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep” who, when angered, hissed through her animal-like teeth. Throughout almost all of the novels, Marlowe, in pursuing the task he was hired for, discovers along the way a much bigger crime. In The Big Sleep, Chandler was hired to muscle a blackmailer away from the Sternwood family. But he learns what actually happened to the father’s best friend, Rusty Reagan. Reagan didn’t run off. He was murdered by the spurned Carmen. Critics have often characterized Chandler’s plots as confusing. Chandler himself had no real interest in plotting. But read carefully, his novels did have a distinctive and pioneering plotting. In 1950, Chandler admitted modestly in a letter: "As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published." “Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence,” said crime novelist Ross Macdonald—author of The Way Some People Die (1951), reviewed by The New York Times as: “The best novel in the tough tradition I've read since Farewell, My Lovely and possibly since The Maltese Falcon.” The Chicago Tribune stated:“Ross Macdonald gives to the detective story that accent of class that Raymond Chandler did. His enduring virtue is compassion.” John Sutherland, emeritus professor at University College London, stated: “Raymond Chandler qualifies as the Marcel Proust of the hard-boiled detective novel.” 

Frank McShane wrote the first biography of Raymond Chandler: The life of Raymond Chandler in 1986. A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler (2012) is an interesting study by Tom Williams, an excellent examination of Chandler's personality and also provides insight into his style of writing. Judith Freeman investigated—in The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (2008)—Chandler's romance and long marriage with Cissy Pascal. The final chapters are especially heartbreaking following Cissy’s death as Chandler spirals out of control. He’s rarely sober and while he’s often in and out of rehab facilities. Romances were attempted—notably Helga Greene, his literary agent and Jean Fracasse, his secretary—but eventually failed as he was never able to get over the loss of Cissy. His crippling loneliness leads to suicide attempts and cries for help before he ultimately passes away following a bout with pneumonia. "What a man wants and needs... and surely a woman too, is the feeling of a loving presence in the home, the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared," wrote Chandler in one of his letters, unveiled by Freeman. "To take care of Cissy. That was his driving life force," Judith Freeman concludes. Chandler turned himself into a crime writer for supporting his wife, while feeling he never "wrote a book worthy of dedicating to her."

Many transgressors in Chandler’s novels are women—Carmen Sternwood, Velma Valento, Elizabeth Murdock, Mildred Haviland, Orfamay Quest, Eileen Wade—and all of them are helped by Marlowe to avoid punishment for their various crimes, deceptions, and misdemeanors. Some of Marlowe’s closest personal acquaintances in the novels are women, such as Anne Riordan and Linda Loring. Chandler acknowledged: “I don’t mind Marlowe being a sentimentalist because he always has been. His toughness has always been more or less a surface bluff.” In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe shows tenderness after spending the night with Linda Loring, Chandler writes: "We said goodbye. I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach. To say good-bye is to die a little." This scene demonstrates that Marlowe is perfectly capable of displaying genuine affection for women, a feature that is evident in his friendships with Merle Davies, Anne Riordan, and his marriage to Linda Loring in the unfinished Poodle Springs (1958). But while Marlowe may occasionally place women on a pedestal, he nevertheless recognizes, unlike other “traditional” hard-boiled detectives, their democratic human value and social parity; a distinct departure from either the highly sexualized femme fatale—for example, Cora in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, or Effie Perrine in Hammett’s Sam Spade novels. Marlowe demonstrates this empathy when responding to Terry Lennox’s complaint about “women screwing up their faces and tinkling their goddam bracelets and making with the packaged charm.” Marlowe simply replies by saying, “Take it easy. So they are human. What did you expect—golden butterflies hovering in a rosy mist?” 

Wallace Stegner once referred to California as “America only more so.” Interestingly, the politically correct of Chandler’s day, the American Communist Party, claimed Chandler as an authentic proletarian novelist. In response, Chandler revealed himself to be more politically astute than the dutiful Marxist Dashiell Hammett. In a series of excellent letters—Chandler was as good at correspondence as he was with fiction—he informed the left that Marlowe didn’t hate the “rich because they take baths.” He hated them because they were “phony.” Politically, Chandler had no sacred cows. He denounced J.Edgar Hoover as inept and dangerous. He bashed the Catholic Church for having “fascist” tendencies. Yet he also was highly critical of Communism. Indeed, in his estimation, Catholicism came off better. Unlike Communists, they were capable of “internal dissent,” and in a typically pithy passage, he wrote that priests didn’t “shoot you in the back of the head for being 48 hours behind the Party line.”

Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet and Hawks' The Big Sleep not only simplify Chandler's novels but also defuse Chandler's social critique, transforming plot and adapting characters when not eliminating them outright. Chandler was equally critical of other writers. For example, he lamented Hemingway’s poor performance in the late 1940s. James M. Cain, the author of the novel Double Indemnity that Chandler adapted for the screen, was akin to a pornographer. Chandler did, however, praise some writers such as Somerset Maugham, who set the gold standard for spy novels. And he was particularly admiring of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald and Chandler make an interesting comparison. Although Fitzgerald had a much more rosey-eyed view than Chandler, both were capable of poetic atmosphere. Toward the end of his life, Chandler came to feel that L.A. had become a grotesque and impossible place to live. It was a “jittering city,” sometimes dull, sometimes brilliant, but always depressing to him. In his later years, Chandler commented that he felt L.A. had completely changed in the years since he’d arrived. Even the weather was different. “Los Angeles was hot and dry when I first went there,” he said, “with tropical rains in the winter and sunshine at least nine-tenths of the year. Now it is humid, hot, sticky, and when the smog comes down into the bowl between the mountains which is Los Angeles, it is damned near intolerable.” Source:

Raymond Chandler was otherwise described, in the course of his life, as cynical and gullible; reclusive and generous; depressive and romantic; proud and paranoid. Two things stabilized him. Being drunk, which he often was, and Philip Marlowe. Described by Evelyn Waugh in the late 1940s as no less than ‘the greatest living American novelist’, he was admired by the likes of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Edmund Wilson. At Dulwich, he was outstanding at mathematics. (This was a proficiency Chandler shared with the two other most famous crime writers of his generation: Georges Simenon and Dashiell Hammett.) On the basis of his short apprenticeship at the Admiralty and his proficiency at mathematics, Chandler decided on accountancy. 

Black Mask was a pulp magazine which had been set up by two New York editors in 1920 to support the lossmaking but prestigious literary magazine Smart Set. The connection with Smart Set – whose most famous contributor was F. Scott Fitzgerald – was an ironic one for Chandler. What was even more inspiring for Chandler was that, despite his respect for Dashiell Hammett (he met him once at a Black Mask dinner in LA), he did not consider Hammett to be an especially good writer: ‘What he did he did superbly,’ decided Chandler, ‘but there was a lot he could not do. For all I know, Hemingway might have learned something from Hammett.’ "Marlowe was an idealist," Chandler admitted, ‘he hates to admit it, even to himself.’ Here was a tough, independent character with an acute and almost constant sense of life’s absurdity. "The Lady in the Lake" (1943) continued to show Marlowe’s frustration, showing Marlowe and Chandler at their most misanthropic. Of all the towns that he and Cissy flitted between, 

Big Bear Lake was still Chandler’s favourite, though. ‘Marlowe would lose something by being promiscuous,’ said Chandler. ‘I know he can’t go on forever saying no the way he does – the guy’s human – he’ll have to break sometime but I’ve never wanted the sex bit to dominate either him or the story.’ Chandler would remain grudgingly fascinated by Hollywood even after he had left Los Angeles. "Anyone who doesn't like Hollywood is either crazy or sober," he once wrote. Chandler thought American critics were suffering from ‘pseudoliterate pretentiousness.’ Intellectuals had no dreams left to offer people, he said, and were embarrassed by any emotion other than disappointment: "An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except that cleverness of a decadence". Of Graham Greene’s "The Heart of the Matter", Chandler remarked that it had everything that made a good book ‘except verve, wit, gusto, music and magic’. Eugene O’Neill was ‘utterly artificial’; Osbert Sitwell was ‘an Edwardian who stayed up too late’; and the critics who fawned around T. S. Eliot were sterile neurotics looking for ‘stale cake’ to ‘wrap up in a fancy name and sell to the snob-fakers’. Chandler believed that the entire intellectual establishment was in a state of terminal self-delusion, cut off from the public it despised. Such people thought they could write, he said, ‘because they have read all the books’, but they were in fact hacks. ‘There is more life in the worst chapter Dickens or Thackeray ever wrote, and they wrote some pretty awful ones’.  Chandler thought Communism was just a ‘fashion’ in America and ‘just as corrupt as Catholicism underneath.’ Suspicious as he was of most institutions, Chandler was politically non-partisan. The trouble was, he believed, that post-war Western culture was being controlled by the first generation of highbrows not to have a grounding in the classics. Without God and without heroes, it was a generation that admired the art of writing itself rather than writing about things that meant anything. Nervous fashion had replaced wisdom. ‘The critics of today’, he told Charles Morton, ‘are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men, confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson.’ They were all hooked on syntax and pessimism, ‘the opium of the middle classes’.

“She was the beat of my heart for thirty years. She was the music I heard faintly at the edge of sound,” Chandler wrote at the time Cissy died in 1954.  "I always opened the car door for her and helped her in. I never let her bring me anything. I always brought things to her. I never went out of a door or into before her. I never went into her bedroom without knocking. I suppose these are small things – like constantly sending her flowers, and always having seven presents for her birthday, and always having champagne on our anniversaries. They are small in a way, but women have to be treated with great tenderness and consideration – because they are women". (Chandler's letter to Deirdre Gartrell, 1957). In letters to Blanche Knopf, Chandler argued that one of Hemingway’s biggest problems was that “ninety per cent of his writing is self-imitation. He never really wrote but one story. All the rest is the same thing in different pants—or without pants. And his eternal preoccupation with what goes on between the sheets becomes rather nauseating in the end”. In a previous letter to Hamish Hamilton in 1951, Chandler expressed his thoughts about F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Fitzgerald is a subject no one has a right to mess up. Nothing but the best will do for him. If the poor guy was already an alcoholic in his college days, it’s a marvel that he did as well as he did. He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, a real distinction, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets. Yes, where would you find it today?"

"The little blonde at the PBX looked at me expectantly, her small red lips parted, waiting for more fun. I didn't have any more. I went on out... Crystal Kingsley moistened her lips and held her head on one side, staring at me fixedly. There was a quiet little silence. The damp breath of the Pacific slid into the room around us." -"The Lady in the Lake" (1943). Chandler was a romantic, more like F. Scott Fitzgerald than the worldly Hammett, and through the character of Marlowe he became a haunting poet of place, this place, Los Angeles, whose split personality of light and dark mirrored Chandler's own. To a correspondent who suggested that Marlowe was immature, Chandler replied sharply that if being in revolt against a corrupt society was immature, then Marlowe was extremely immature. The influence of Chandler is far beyond a detective novelist (he admired Dickens, Flaubert, Fitzgerald). Chandler was admired by W. H. Auden, Albert Camus, Graham Greene; modern story-tellers as Ross McDonald owe him a hefty debt; Frank Miller, Sin City novels' author, described Dwight McCarthy as a 'modern iteration of Philip Marlowe.' 

“I wouldn't say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors.” —“Playback” (1958). For Fredric Jameson (in his essay Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality) the artistic accomplishment of Chandler’s work appears to be its formal evocation of 'the big sleep' itself: “It is this opening onto the not-world, onto its edge and its end, in the void, in non-human space, in death, that is the ultimate secret of Chandlerian narrative.” Richard Slotkin nevertheless holds to the old paradigm and overemphasizes the Western provenance of the hardboiled detective as exemplified by Marlowe. He posits, intriguingly, for example, that Chandler's detective, like James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye, is first and foremost a "rescuer" of the innocent, that both heroes are "engaged in unmasking hidden truth." In response to one of Mousy Orfamay's complaints in "The Little Sister" about the evils of Los Angeles, Marlowe simply says that "we have to take the bad with the good in this life", an offhand, sarcastic comment that neatly sums up the detective's philosophy. And by guardedly engaging the citizens of the city, he avoids the opposite extreme of nihilism as found in Hammett. One might then expect Chandler's class bias to have endeared him to a Marxist critic such as Ernest Mandel, who, however, feels that Marlowe, among other detectives, is a sentimentalist who wastes his energy on pursuing criminals who wield only "limited clout". It is doubtless Chandler's reluctance to make any global condemnation of the capitalist system that bothers Mandel. Chandler consistently and symbolically sought redress for social ills within the democratic system as he knew it in the United States, within the liberal tradition. In "The Simple Art of Murder," for example, he insisted that no social or political hierarchy is truly divorced from the "rank and file" in a democracy, and thus cannot be completely blamed for its failures. 

Ross Macdonald's primary criticism of Chandler is that he is too moralistic; Like other critics, Macdonald misreads Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder," overemphasizing Chandler's call for "a quality of redemption" as a "central weakness in his vision" in novels. Chandler isolates his hero, Philip Marlowe, by means of "an angry puritanical morality" and erects barriers, including those of language. Chandler's deepest concerns - his interest in the community as well as the individual, his hatred of the abuse and the abusers of power, his conviction that ethical conduct cannot be reduced to simplistic formulae and must be continually scrutinized - are inevitably what Hollywood was most concerned to change for the screen. While classics of film noir and exciting, entertaining narratives in their own right, Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet and Hawks' The Big Sleep not only simplify Chandler's novels but also defuse Chandler's social critique, transforming plot and adapting characters when not eliminating them outright. In an interview about why he cast Dick Powell, Dmytryk said: “Dick Powell fit the character, as far as I could see. After all, what is Marlowe? He’s no Sam Spade. He’s an eagle scout among tough guys. He’s a moral, ethical man, with a strong sense of responsibility.”

The detective is reconfigured as a Lost Generation character in a hard-boiled crime fiction setting. Marlowe has the appearance of an ordinary yet unusual man trying to restore what he perceives as the balance between “good” and “evil,” often ending with him “trying to mete out simple justice.” In a world in which the police are as guilty of egregious violence as criminals, Marlowe roundly condemns both; his toughness is measured not by resorting to such extreme measures, but by his refusal to respond violently to the threats of gangsters (Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep, Laird Brunette in Farewell, My Lovely) or the police (Christy French in The Little Sister, Detective Dayton in The Long Goodbye). Raymond Chandler's funeral in 1959 was attended by only 17 people, a sad but in some ways appropriate end for a man who had never gone out of his way to make friends.

"I turned west on Sunset and swallowed myself up in three lanes of race-track drivers who were pushing their mounts hard to get nowhere and do nothing. "I used to like this town," I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. "A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual, used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum either." -"The Little Sister" (1949) written by Raymond Chandler

Cynthia S. Hamilton insists that, in keeping with the genre, "Chandler's misanthropy demands an absolute separation between Marlowe and the moral squalor of his society". In her view Marlowe is antisocial, an "alienated outsider who vindicates that stance by his demonstrable superiority in a society unworthy of his services." Chandler took on the daunting challenge of using the highly individualistic figure of the private eye to explain how and why American rugged individualism has failed. Chandler reserved his bitterness and contempt for society as a whole and those who occupied the upper echelons in society in particular, whom he considered “phoney.” As Marlowe says in The Big Sleep, “To hell with the rich. They make me sick.” Roy Meador observed the disillusioned affinity between Chandler's The Big Sleep and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wraith, also placing them alongside Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust; all of which were published in 1939. However, of these novels, Meador argues that The Big Sleep is by far the most popular because as a character, “Marlowe encompasses the others and reaches out to new dimensions”. -"Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed" by John Paul Athanasourelis (2011)

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Literary insolence and Hollyweird: Widespread Panic (2021) by James Ellroy

Blood’s a Rover is a thrilling conclusion to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. One person who will not be giving a good review is the social commentator, urban theorist, historian, political activist and professional James Ellroy-hater, Mike Davis. In his acclaimed work, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles (1990), Davis wrote an engrossing study of the socio-economic and cultural problems in Los Angeles. He also used the book to take a few potshots at James Ellroy: "Now let me tell you who I can’t stand, and to top the list I would put that neo-Nazi James Ellroy. And to begin with he’s not a good writer. Each of his books is anti-communistic, anti-Mexican, and racist. His Los Angeles Quartet, depending on one’s viewpoint, is either the culmination of the genre, or its reductio ad absurdum. At times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore, Quartet attempts to map the history of modern Los Angeles as a secret continuum of sex crimes, satanic conspiracies, and political scandals. For Ellroy, as for John Gregory Dunne in True Confessions, the grisly, unsolved ‘Black Dahlia’ case of 1947 is the crucial symbolic commencement of the postwar era–a local ‘name of the rose’ concealing a larger metaphysical mystery. Yet in building such an all-encompassing noir mythology (including Stephen King-like descents into the occult), Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre’s tensions, and inevitably its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest."

To an aspiring writer, Ellroy concedes Raymond Chandler's influence is beneficial; Brown’s Requiem melds Ellroy’s ‘personal prejudices’ onto the formula Chandler created in the Philip Marlowe novels. But rather than develop this Chandler-inspired narrative further, Ellroy claims that after the publication of his first novel, the influence came to an abrupt halt. Yet, unlike Ross MacDonald, whom Ellroy does not go back to, Ellroy cannot help but refer to Chandler (again). This inspiration, and subsequent recantation, focuses on Chandler’s work as a novelist. While Chandler made his name writing for pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Ellroy by contrast ‘didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories’ (2008). This criticism is ironic given that Ellroy’s own education as a writer had been through reading pulp novels, and when, after developing a successful career as a novelist, Ellroy turned to composing his own short stories, he did not show much flair for them. Despite this, Ellroy has consistently stated that the private eye novels that could be considered Chandler-influenced were no longer present in his work. Arguably, Ellroy’s noir settings and old Hollywood narratives, would evoke, if not Chandler, then his contemporaries. The author Ellroy would credit with being an influence, more than anyone else, on the LA Quartet was Dashiell Hammett. As Lee Clark Mitchell has argued though, major thematic and stylistic differences which supposedly separate Chandler and Hammett’s work are less significant than has been assumed: "At first glance Chandler seems utterly different from Hammett, though it soon becomes clear that he embraces his predecessor’s techniques, extending and complicating them via both setting and syntax. Or rather, he takes Hammett’s concentration on quirky details and ups the ante by lowering the stakes, giving us less essential description, more frequent diversions and digressions, as a way of further impeding the plot. Ellroy has been guilty of simplifying Chandler’s legacy, limiting it to the creation of the easily imitated hardboiled private detective. Ellroy ‘ups the ante by lowering the stakes’. The paradox here is that the hardboiled PI is not Chandler’s creation alone, his legacy is creatively bigger than Ellroy gives him credit for. Ellroy began shifting his vision of the genre to Hammett, while not acknowledging that Chandler ‘embraces his predecessor’s techniques’. Yet, in interviews, Ellroy would rarely bring up Chandler’s name without also mentioning Hammett and vice versa, indicating some innate understanding of their pairing. Ellroy’s open acknowledgement then disavowal of Chandler has not had its similar counterpart in Hammett, partly because Hammett’s influence on Ellroy’s work was more subliminal. As late as 2008, Ellroy claimed that in retrospect the work of Hammett had been more influential than he realised. Ellroy looks more kindly on these subconscious influences, as his debt during and after the writing process is indistinct. They are not fully formed fonts of inspiration, as MacDonald ‘my greatest teacher’ was, nor do they provide any tangible impediment to creativity, as Chandler’s PI in Brown’s Requiem did. 

By continually playing Hammett against Chandler, the defined and the undefinable, Ellroy has purposefully created a paradox in his relationship with two of the most important practitioners of detective fiction. Ellroy’s definition of the two men is key: Chandler, in Ellroy’s view, was conservative and set the conventions of the genre, whereas Hammett’s writing was edgy and existed in a narrative world without conventions. It is not difficult to observe, given Ellroy’s somewhat unhinged Demon Dog persona, why he would prefer the latter influence. But the oppositional roles he designs for both authors, both oddly reliant on each other, are too simplistic and conveniently suited to the image Ellroy was trying to acquire. Chandler’s influence on Ellroy’s work extended far further than the debut novel in which Ellroy has always attempted to contain it, and that, much like how he overlooked Hammett for lengthy periods of his career, the Chandler effect has been more complex, undefinable and subliminal. Neither Hammett nor Chandler could have known the enormous influence their writing would have in the field of crime fiction over fifty years since their death. Both men died relatively young, unhappy, and past their best. Neither man produced as much as was expected of their peers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner who wrote hundreds of books and had to employ pseudonyms in order to effectively market the enormous output. Nor was there such an interest in crime fiction as an academic discipline. It fell on Chandler himself to codify some of the traits of the hardboiled school in The Simple Art of Murder (1944), a practice which was common among writers from the Golden Age of detective fiction which Chandler explicitly criticises. By separating Chandler’s detective ‘man of honor’ from the ‘toadies of the system’ Ellroy brings the genre full circle. Source: 

Fred Otash is back! Actually, he’s dead. He’s stuck in ‘Penance Penitentiary, Reckless-Wrecker-Of-Lives Block, Pervert Purgatory’. Otash decides to pen a confessional in the hopes of improving his eternal fate. The action jumps back to 1950’s LA, and Freddy’s in his prime. He’s verifying salacious stories for the scandal-rag Confidential. He’s an informer for LAPD Chief William H Parker, who wants to lure Confidential into a honeytrap that will topple its tabloid crown. Freddy’s got the goods on everyone in Hollywood. Otash sees the libertine, hypocritical side of Hollyweird which is closed off to the public. He knows that Phyllis Gates ain’t gonna turn her husband Rock Hudson straight, but frankly the portrayal of that couple is relatively tender given the sordid conduct of everyone else. Then Otash falls in love with the actress Lois Nettleton, and we are reminded that behind the glitz and glamour, Hollywood is still the land of dreamers and hopeless romantics. Widespread Panic is quintessential Ellroy, but with enough alliteration, Hollyweird flavor, booze, distressed damsels, communist conspiracies, and extortion to make this the most Ellroy novel he's ever written. Confidential, in this account, reaches its tentacles into everything. There is an odd echo of J. G. Ballard, in the sense that Hollywood is at once the most unreal and most truthful expression of the historical zeitgeist. Source:

The influence of Confidential magazine is given more page space in Widespread Panic than in Ellroy’s previous work – the novel is all tattle and scoop, blackmail and gladhanding. The hushed-up scandals of the stars had formed a crucial part of Ellroy’s earlier L.A. novels, with his plotting often bringing criminal and celebrity into close proximity, but Hollywood was always used as colour, relief, subplot. Here it takes centrestage, as stars and showbiz types become the engine for murder and multiple modes of malfeasance. Unlike his most recent novels, which restlessly move between numerous voices and perspectives, Widespread Panic is a straight shot –– a weird, raucous, digressive piece of literary insolence. Widespread Panic is a happy roll around in the mud for 300 breakneck pages, with its occasional gestures towards redemptive amour. Otash sleeps with Elizabeth Taylor, beats up Johnnie Ray, turns James Dean into a narc, arranges marital cover for Rock Hudson and funnels pills to Jack Kennedy. While most of his “Hollyweird” riffs are familiar – no one, for example, will be shocked by the Rock Hudson revelations found in Widespread Panic – even his wilder, near-slanderous exaggerations about the private lives of Nick Ray and James Dean feel like comic riffs on fame’s false currency, mere tampering with figures too readily lost to sentimental mythologising. It also helps that Ellroy’s hyperbole and bad taste inventions are so broad and comic that only a dullard could mistake the legend for fact. Freddy Otash isn’t beyond redemption. He has a soft spot for imperiled dames, and now and then, noir chump that he is, he falls for one of them. At last finding the girl of his dreams in actress Lois Nettleton, Freddy croons: “You’ve got this haunted thing going. Like Julie Harris, but earthier and more pronounced.” In true noir fashion, she answers: “I want you to do something bold and brave and more than a little bit stupid, because that’s the type of man I throw myself at.” Source: 

Here's how Otash describes the scene of a snuff movie premier for Hollywood movers and shakers: "It's the egalitarian epicenter of postwar America. It's a colossal convergence of the gilded and gorgeous, the defiled and demented, the lurid and the low-down. This seedy summit set the tone for the frazzled and fractured frisson that is our nation today." This book packs in everything Ellroy has obsessed about over the course of his career. There are echoes of American Tabloid here, The Black Dahlia makes an appearance, and it's a spiritual companion to L.A. Confidential. Widespread Panic is a macho noir-ish romp complete with historically accurate racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks. Anyone who's read Ellroy before—or heard him talk—knows his penchant for the underbelly of 1950s Hollywood can make his work ... not safe for work. Source:

Freddy Otash: I scoured scrapbooks. The old photos got my gears going. There’s pix of my lost love, Joi Lansing. There’s pix of my true love, Lois Nettleton. There’s my dictionary and thesaurus. They were teaching tools for the wrathful writers at Confidential. Utilize alliteration and instill intensive slurs. Homosexuals are “licentious lispers.” Lesbians are “beefcake butches.” Drunks are “bibulous bottle hounds” and “dyspeptic dipsos.” Vulgarize and vitalize. Claire Klein and Rock Hudson sat down with me. They held hands. They looked good together. They glowed. They were actors to their core. They were Strasbergites maimed by the Method. The homo heartthrob marries the sicko psychopath. I dressed sharp for Joi Lansing. I wore my crocodile loafers, a spritz of Lucky Tiger—and a short stroll to the meet. Googie’s was a coffee cave on Sunset and Crescent Heights. The space-age aesthetic rubbed me raw. Fluorescent lights, Naugahyde chrome. Joi Lansing table-hopped. She wore a too-tight gown and a meager mink stole with a pawnshop tag attached. Joi sat down. I pointed to the pawnshop tag. She pulled it off and dropped it in the ashtray. “I’m from Salt Lake City. I’m twenty-four. I went to the MGM school, and went nowhere.” “But now you’re up-and-coming?” Joi stubbed out her cigarette. “I’m uncredited in six pictures, and credited in four. I’ve got Racket Squad, Gangbusters, and a comedy with Jane Russell in the can.” “Give me some dirt on Russell.” “What’s to give? She’s a Goody Two-shoes married to that quarterback for the Rams.” She kissed me. I kissed her back. That’s how it all started.

I scrolled through Connie's columns: Steve Cochran is “leaning left these days.” “B-movie heartthrob Steve Cochran broke hearts at the Shriners last night, and not the hearts of the willing women so often attributed to him. He simply showered affection on those less fortunate than he, and in the process he claimed the hearts of many, including myself. Isn’t it time the world looked at this very talented young man as the gifted and sensitive artist that he is?” Time faltered and failed to trample my trance. Hours passed. Steve Cochran and Joi Lansing came out of the carport and headed for home. His home. Her home now. They lugged her luggage. The matched set I bought her. Monogrammed at Mark Cross. Some cute couple. A matched set. The Stacked and the Hung. Joi wobbled on too-high heels. A Band-Aid on Steve’s right cheek set off his jawline and failed to mar his good looks. Nobody knows my sorrow. Somebody, save me. Who said size doesn’t count? I’m sunk in this sink of self-hate. 

Barbara Payton car-hopped and hooked out of Stan’s Drive-In. It was hard by Hollywood High. She hit her Hollyweird high with Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, circa ’50. She was Mrs. Franchot Tone for a while. Tom Neal beat Timid Tone half dead and conquered Babs with his lurid love. Tattle told the torchy tale, circa ’51. I pulled into Stan’s. A comely carhop cadre caught sight of Big Freddy O. Babs and I go back. We badger-gamed businessmen in my cop days. Babs snared the schnooks at the Kibitz Room at Canter’s Delicatessen. She lured them to the Lariat Motel on Lankershim. She socked the saps into the saddle and made with the moans. I kicked the door in and played irate husband. I glommed the gelt and kicked the cads back out the door. Babs roller-skated over. She wore red-and-white jodhpurs and a too-tight jersey top. She said, “Here’s trouble.” She hooked a tray to my passenger-side door. I dropped a C-note on the tray. Babs got the gestalt. She got in and sat beside me. Babs scooched down and swung her legs up. Her skate boots nudged her knees and fit fetishistic. She posed pouty and ran the rollers on my dashboard. “I’m on my break for the next fifteen minutes. Before you start, let me state no more shakedowns.” I laffed and lit a cigarette. Babs bummed a smoke and lit it off my lighter. “Freddy, the point of all this is—” “Steve Cochran. The smut film he’s making, and don’t ask me how I know about it.” Babs said, “Ha-ha. You’re jealous, because Joi’s in the flick, and she left you for Steve. I don’t blame you, I’d be jealous, too.” I rebuffed her remark and said: “Update me. The film, who Steve’s conned into appearing, the start date, the whole schmear.” Babs shrugged. 

“Steve’s wrapping Private Hell 36 this week, so we’ll start pretty soon. Probably within the next two weeks. Lana Turner, Lex Barker, and Gene Tierney have dropped out, which I know don’t surprise you. Steve’s stuck with me, Joi, and Anita O’Day, and he’s recruiting an additional ten girls, which makes the full thirteen women that Steve will repopulate the world with, after the A-bomb wipes everybody else on Earth out. Need I say that Steve’s hipped on the A-bomb like nobody I’ve ever seen.” I went Don’t stop now. Babs rolled her rollers on my red leather dashboard. Babs tapped ash out the window. “The premiere is sometime later this spring, in Harry Cohn’s rec room." “Why would Jack’s name be in Steve’s address book? Why would Jack Kennedy and Steve Cochran be calling each other?” Babs said: “Because Steve’s Jack’s dope supplier in L.A. Because Steve rolls left, and Jack’s a barely suppressed bleeding heart, right below the surface.” ––Widespread Panic (2021) by James Ellroy

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Larceny (1948), starring John Payne, Dan Duryea, Joan Caulfield and Shelley Winters

Director George Sherman’s exceptionally enjoyable vintage 1948 film noir crime thriller Larceny stars John Payne as a devil-may-care confidence-trickster called Rick Maxon, who is going to save a pretty damsel in distress, grieving war widow Deborah Owens Clark (Joan Caulfield), when she is threatened by greasy crook Silky Randall (Dan Duryea), the boss of Rick (Payne)’s confidence-trick gang of grifters. Rick ingratiates himself with Deborah by pretending he was her husband’s buddy during the war. The sting is to sell her a memorial to her husband and pocket the money. But then Rick starts falling for her, and Silky’s unstable girl, Tory (Shelley Winters) turns up to chase after Rick, followed by Silky. Larceny is a really good, solid film noir, with an engaging story, involving characters and plenty of intrigue, suspense and dynamism, and a strong crime melodrama script. 

The screenplay by Herbert F Margolis, Louis Morheim and William Bowers is based on Lois Eby and John Fleming’s novel The Velvet Fleece. Three years later, writer William Bowers provided the smart-aleck hipster lingo for Dick Powell in Cry Danger, one of the smartest-talking noirs ever. Like Dick Powell, John Payne was another crooner from 1930s musicals—a light leading man—who saw new opportunities waiting in the changing Hollywood of the late ‘40s and seized them in the grittier Bs of the newborn noir cycle. It was a smart move for his career. With rugged good looks but no glamour boy, Payne was a strong, silent type who didn't make it a gimmick. In the half-dozen or so noirs he starred in, he straddled both sides of the law, though he usually found himself stranded in a no-man's land in the middle.

The performances of Dan Duryea as Silky Randall and Shelley Winters as his poisonous gal Tory who falls for Rick Maxon (John Payne) are bright highspots. Duryea is a splendidly slimy and menacing bad guy, and Winters acts splendidly deranged. Duryea is paranoid about his girlfriend being around the all-male members of his gang, and well he should: His woman is messing around with his right hand man, Rick Maxon. Tori gets the film’s best lines, and she’s personified by a smoking hot Shelley Winters in her first major leading role. Winters leaves a lasting impression as the rock-hard and cold beauty who takes no guff from anyone. Whether participating in a slap-fight with Payne or firing off one-liners made from barbed wire, Winters owns this picture. She’s sexy, funny, dangerous, and adept at running her own game. Joan Caulfield’s performance isn’t bad at all, but her character is so jaw-droppingly stupid it’s hard to root for her. There’s a sort of payoff-slash-punchline to Caulfield’s naïveté, and I suppose one over-the-top femme fatale is all a slightly comedic film noir can handle, but she really tried my patience. Payne, on the other hand, is infectious. Source:

John Payne plays a glib con-artist who specializes in both aping his social betters and in utilizing their own often hypocritical reformist zeal against them. Saddled with the romantic attentions of platinum blonde Shelley Winters, Payne dallies with this desirable paramour at his own peril, considering she is of course the staked-out sexual territory of his sinister boss, played to adjective-appropriate advantage by (almost) always sinister Dan Duryea. When the action switches cross-country to the upcoming Rose Bowl and a real estate-swindle involving pure-of-heart and deep-of-pocket heiress Joan Caulfield, however, Payne’s play-acting among and to the complex participants reaches a breaking point with his shifting and divided personal loyalties. Photographed, like The Web, by ace Irving Glassberg, the shroud of immorality and venality, in equal measure, lowers itself even upon scenes taking place in a youth club, airy offices, plush home interiors, and, most disconcertedly, a stately resort prospect, finding the lower-key lighting casting unmistakable shade on intentions good, ill, or otherwise. These shades of grey receive their most effective reading by depicting the struggle between good and evil in even more ambiguous locales. Source:

Silky has made it clear to Rick that he should steer clear of Tory and admits “Tory’s like a high tension wire. Once you grab on, you can’t let go.” Silky apologies to Rick who maintains he has no interest in Tory (though it’s clear they were having an affair behind Silky’s back). Silky says to Rick, ”I said I’m sorry, but I’m not gonna write it on the blackboard a hundred times.” Shelley Winters probably had the best part as the stop-at-nothing moll. Poor Joan Caulfield has little to do except look at Mr Payne and sigh! Even Dorothy Hart, in a small role as a secretary (who also fancies Payne) is more lively than Joan. Ladies' man Payne catches the eye of both a waitress (Patricia Alphin) and a secretary (Dorothy Hart); the beautiful secretary with glasses, strongly reminiscent of Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep (1946), plays a key role but one feels that perhaps the movie should have been a bit longer in order to flesh out her part. 

As Rick falls for Deborah he has trouble going through with the plan. The screenplay was based on the novel The Velvet Fleece by Lois Eby and John C. Fleming. One of the screenwriters was William Bowers, who wrote the terrific dialogue for Dick Powell's Cry Danger (1951), and the dialogue has a definite flair at times which must represent Bowers' work. Payne has a snarky line about Winters' brain that cracked me up. Surprisingly, Larceny did receive its share of respectful reviews, with the Motion Picture Herald going so far as to label it a “tiptop melodrama.” Here’s what The New York Times had to say: “Joan Caulfield plays the languid widow to the point of weariness, but there is spirit and fire to the vulgar blonde moll whom Miss Winters portrays. She is a coarse, flashy, provocative dame and even though the scenarists have given her some flamboyant lines to speak in her big showdown scene with Payne, Miss Winters carries her role off remarkably well.” Source:

Larceny (1948): A con-man (John Payne) sets out to swindle a widow (Joan Caulfield) out of the money she's received to build a memorial to her war-hero husband, but winds up falling in love with her instead.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

'Noirvember' film series, Larry Harnisch ponders on Michael Connelly and James Ellroy

November is a month to give thanks for cigarettes and chiaroscuro lighting, for sardonic voice-overs and unhappy endings, for doomed detectives and frisky femme fatales. November is “Noirvember” at the Brattle Theatre and the Coolidge Corner Theatre, with both venues celebrating some of the most stylish and cynical crime pictures ever made. If you like watching hard-boiled, heartbroken guys getting played for patsies in smoky rooms with ceiling fans and Venetian blinds, these next few weeks are an embarrassment of riches, with a total of 20 terrific noirs screening between the two cinemas. Throughout the month, the Coolidge is devoting their primetime evening Big Screen Classics slots to 1950s favorites like “Kiss Me Deadly” and “In a Lonely Place,” alternating with the Coolidge After Midnite’s exploration of the 1990s neo-noir revival, including VHS-era staples “King of New York” and “The Last Boy Scout.” The Brattle is spending Thanksgiving week on the 75th anniversary of 11 films from 1946, an exceptionally robust year for film noir that included “Gilda,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Orson Welles was wonderful with actors and technicians but seemed to go out of his way to antagonize the executives. And in Hollywood—just like everywhere else—the suits always win. The studio re-cut “Touch of Evil” against the director's wishes, banishing it to the bottom half of a double bill with Hedy Lamarr’s “The Female Animal.” But the French were onto it right away, with jurors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut naming “Touch of Evil” the best film at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Welles never made another movie in Hollywood again.

The great noirs run almost entirely on atmosphere and charisma, with the details of their plots falling pretty far down the list of what’s important about these pictures. I suppose I could explain exactly what happens in “Touch of Evil” if I had to, but there’s no way I could tell you what the heck is going on in “The Big Sleep,” director Howard Hawks’ absurdly entertaining adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s first Phillip Marlowe novel. A tale of bad girls and blackmail, the Brattle’s Thanksgiving Day treat was famously re-worked in post-production, with a lot of story stuff scrapped and additional flirtation scenes filmed to capitalize on the white-hot chemistry between stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. On the set, Hawks and company were parsing out the mystery and became baffled as to which character could have killed the chauffeur. The director sent a telegram asking Chandler, who famously confessed that he had no idea. “Noirvember” runs from Nov. 2 through Nov. 30 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and from Nov. 19 through Nov. 25 at the Brattle Theatre. Source:

Robert Altman reimagined Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953) in the context of 1973, capturing the comedic side of the noir private eye in the process. The film was not well received by the audience or the critics. When Altman attended a question-and-answer session afterward, the mood was "vaguely hostile", reportedly leaving the director "depressed". Time magazine's Jay Cocks wrote, "Altman's lazy, haphazard put-down is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at the idea of Philip Marlowe but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized. It is a curious spectacle to see Altman mocking a level of achievement to which, at his best, he could only aspire". Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times found the film "inventively photographed... The problem is that the Altman-Brackett Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is an untidy, unshaven, dim-wit slob who would be refused service at a hot dog stand. He is not Chandler's Marlowe, or mine, and I can't find him interesting, sympathetic or amusing, and I can't be sure who will." The events of "The Long Goodbye" are lurid and often disturbing, but as Chandler's famous detective Philip Marlowe, Elliot Gould finds an exasperated side to the character that is hilarious. Between his playful cats and light-hearted banter with his beautiful Free-Love neighbors, Marlowe is hardly a traditional private eye. Marlowe receives a surprising visit from his old friend Terry Lennox, who enlists his help traveling to the Mexican border. Thinking nothing of it, Marlowe is later interrogated by detectives who accuse Terry of murder. Marlowe questions the validity of the accusations and decides to look into the case himself, leading to a series of misadventures involving pretentious authors and local gangsters. In 1973, Alan R. Howard wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: "The Long Goodbye is a gloriously inspired tribute to Hollywood that never loses sight of what Los Angeles has become. But the scenes don’t mesh into a whole, the drama never becomes as powerful... The Long Goodbye charts its own perverse course, throwing much (perhaps too much) of Chandler’s novel out the window."

Dom Sinacola (Paste magazine): "Philip Marlowe is a man of another time, a barely noticed figure, “a born loser” as even one of his closest friends calls him. And the world into which Altman abandons him isn’t one of dark alleyways or the damp, wan glow of streetlamps—chiaroscuro be damned—it’s the bright dawn of something new and something disconcertingly shiny in America. The Long Goodbye is Altman’s stab at the devastation of film noir, pitting its beleaguered protagonist not against those stuffy, old, deeply ingrained mechanisms of institutionalized evil, but against a much younger brand of nihilism."

Raymond Chandler, born in the U.S. in 1888, was classically educated in secondary school at Dulwich College in Dulwich, London. He read Livy, Ovid, and Virgil in Latin, and Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle in Greek. He translated texts from Latin to English, and then, after an interval, from English to Latin. He studied French and German, too, and he lived in each country to become fluent. “I’m an intellectual snob who happens to have a fondness for the American vernacular, largely because I grew up in Latin and Greek,” he has been quoted as saying. “It would seem that a classical education might be a poor basis for writing novels in a hard-boiled vernacular,” he said, “I happen to believe otherwise.” In The Long Goodbye (1953) Chandler wrote: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline…” Source:

Larry Harnisch: As Philip Marlowe might ask: Why am I looking for Michael Connelly books? The Wrong Side of Goodbye, debuted in the United States on November 1, 2016, earning a bravo from Booklist and qualified praise from Kirkus. The novel is the 19th in the consistently well-wrought saga of LAPD Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, currently working as a private detective and volunteering with the budget-depleted San Fernando Police Department—after being forced into retirement at the end of The Burning Room (2014) and filing a lawsuit against the department in The Crossing (2015). In contrast, James Ellroy’s novel Perfidia (2014), drew no more than mixed reviews. In The New York Times, Dennis Lehane offered an extended analysis of Ellroy’s career and the book, which begins a proposed Second L.A. Quartet, saying that Perfidia was written in a “jumpy, feverish and anarchic” style, and deeming the book “erratic.” While Jonathan Shapiro, writing in these pages, called it “not the best, just good enough.” Scott Timberg in the Los Angeles Times declared, with some ambivalence: “Perfidia is 700 pages of ultra-violent, often frenetic police procedural, macho swagger, anti-Semitic broadcasts and racist rampage.” The New York Review of Books passed on the novel altogether. Time might be leaving Ellroy behind. Like Connelly, I was in love with Chandler when I was in my 20s, but between then and now, my exposure was limited to viewing the films based on his novels. 

Rereading Chandler for the first time in 40 years was like having lunch with an ex-girlfriend and feeling the old chemistry. The flawless descriptions and sharp dialogue that had been etched in my mind were there, along with the extraneous characters, strange plot turns, and other problems that I had forgotten and that had been untangled or eliminated by screenwriters. My friends in law enforcement say Connelly is their favorite writer; one LAPD sergeant confided that he was sure Connelly has someone inside the department because he portrays its inner workings so precisely. I worked with Connelly at the Times, along with his fellow mystery authors Miles Corwin and Denise Hamilton, and we’re amiable acquaintances. I was friends with Ellroy for about five years until he drifted away, as he does with everybody. He disappointed me in endorsing Black Dahlia Avenger author Steve Hodel’s theory on the case, after initially repudiating it, but we remain cordial, and when I last saw him, he broke the ice by joking: “Nobody mention Steve Hodel.” Connelly, a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, has an admirable reputation for encouraging other writers. Miles Corwin, in the acknowledgments to his Midnight Alley (2012), calls Connelly “the ultimate mensch.” Still, the disparity between the two is more than a shelving issue at a bookstore. If you go to a bookstore cashier with a stack of Connelly novels, you may get a knowing nod. If you go to the same cashier with a stack of Ellroy novels you will get a wary look — and they may call security. Ellroy looks in the cloudy rearview mirror at a distant and darkly imagined Los Angeles — revisiting Chandler’s era, and using imagined facts, with disinterest if not utter disdain for accuracy. It’s no trick for someone grounded in Los Angeles history to find huge errors in Ellroy’s novels. He is hopelessly lost in even the basics of local government, having the Los Angeles City Council appoint an acting Los Angeles County District Attorney in White Jazz (1992). Granted, novels aren’t supposed to be documentaries, but that is a historian’s spit take.

Anyone who writes about Los Angeles does so in the shadow of Raymond Chandler. Kenneth Millar, who used the pen name Ross Macdonald, reckoned: “Raymond Chandler was and remains a hard man to follow. He wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.” And this is where Connelly and Ellroy are poles apart, the north and south of the same magnet. In public appearances, Ellroy is the carnival barker at a grotesque sideshow and Connelly is the friendly, self-deprecating author who is clinical in discussing the nuts and bolts of his writing. In 1977, Connelly was an engineering student at the University of Florida when he saw Robert Altman’s screen adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Connelly told The Wall Street Journal that The Long Goodbye was “probably the most important book I’ve read” because it made him want to be a writer. The opening of The Wrong Side of Goodbye intentionally echoes the beginning of The Big Sleep and Marlowe’s interview with old and frail General Sternwood. Connelly fits happily into the post-Chandler school of L.A. mystery writers, though, unlike Chandler’s, his Bosch plots are crisp. He starts with a first line and a last line and improvises his way between the two, but there’s usually a clear organization: a main story and a secondary story, with Bosch’s relationship with his daughter and a bit of soap opera about his personal life used as ways to shift between the two narratives. After being fired in the crucible of daily journalism, Connelly writes in the clean, spare prose of a reporter, much like Tony Hillerman, another reporter turned mystery novelist. 

There seems to be minimal difference between his earlier and later novels, except that he switched from third person to first person in Lost Light and The Narrows (2004). He’s at his best in portraying the differences between the many male investigators and police officers who fill his novels. His female characters can be well drawn, but they are sometimes two dimensional with perfunctory backstories. One of the most fully dimensional female characters, though briefly seen, is Bosch’s daughter, Maddie. Make no mistake about it: Connelly can be as dark as Ellroy. Unlike Ellroy, however, his darkness is never unrelieved. Without light, there can be no shadows, and there is always some sunlight in a Bosch novel. Speaking to Nathaniel Rich for The Paris Review, Ellroy said: "Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Dashiell Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important to me." Did Ellroy, of all people, call Chandler’s books “incoherent”? Yes, he did. In Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1996), which deals with his mother Geneva Jean's killing, he says that he graduated from high school in June 1962, but he told Rich that he flunked out in 11th grade. Either way, Ellroy is self-taught as a writer, an outsider artist with no training in perspective or color theory whose canvases are raw, highly individualistic, and deeply problematic. James Ellroy has had many influences, but none more powerful than Jack Webb’s The Badge (1958), an otherwise obscure book that was given to him several months after his mother’s murder and, hence, was carved into the deepest recesses of his brain. From drawing on the Club Mecca bombing in his first book to using LAPD chemist Ray Pinker (a character in the TV show Dragnet) in Perfidia, the incidents, characters, and worldview of Jack Webb are hiding in plain sight throughout Ellroy’s novels. The later Ellroy books are dark, dense, and bombastic, turning the reader’s head into a punching bag, yet he did not start by writing word salad with noir dressing. 

His debut, Brown’s Requiem (1981), begins solidly in the post-Chandler school, with a heavy dose of racial epithets, until it takes a dark, violent, and sexual turn in the second half. Even The Black Dahlia (1987) fits into the post-Chandler school. But in his next book, The Big Nowhere (1988), Ellroy began using a staccato minimalism, reducing a sentence to one or two words. Ellroy developed this style over the rest of the L.A. Quartet—L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992)—until it evolved into the “word confetti” of the Underworld USA Trilogy. I spent a Sunday afternoon sitting with American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Perfidia, trying unsuccessfully to get started in any of them. Nobody is ever going to say that Ellroy’s books are page-turners. American Tabloid is factually ridiculous, and all the characters sound like Ellroy: a writer’s monotone of words dug from a thesaurus. Even J. Edgar Hoover and Robert F. Kennedy sound like James Ellroy. Perfidia features all of Ellroy’s excesses—the factual errors, the eccentric style, the homogeneous voice (even Kay Lake’s diary sounds like Ellroy), the disorganization—and none of his strengths in storytelling. And the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Connelly keeps writing—He has gone on social media to reassure his readers that, contrary to what they might infer from the title of The Wrong Side of Goodbye, this is not the end of Harry Bosch. Connelly says that Bosch looks into the abyss of humanity and makes sure he doesn’t slip in. For Ellroy, his characters have taken the plunge, and he has all too often gone with them. If you are unfamiliar with Connelly, if you are put off by the somewhat contrived name Hieronymus Bosch, or if you aren’t certain whether Connelly is an L.A. writer, The Wrong Side of Goodbye will convince you otherwise. Source: