Books »A Rage in Harlem

by Chester Himes (1957)

It’s a shame that the name Chester Himes  is not as well know as Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. His colorful mix of humor, poetic despair, violence, and action put him on par with the best noir writers. A Rage in Harlem is my first Himes read but definitely won’t be my last.

It concerns a gullible square named Jackson who’s been had by some no good swindlers and a dame. In a half brained frenzy to put things right, he only spirals into deeper and deeper trouble leading him to seek help from his doped up street smart brother Goldy who makes his way by impersonating a nun and selling tickets to heaven.

The book is packed with wild, intriguing characters like Goldy ( including two hard ass cops named Grave Digger and Coffin Ed) but Harlem itself plays the biggest role.

Vivid and taut, this book is both gruesome and absurdly funny. While reading, I kept thinking what a great movie it would make and was surprised to learn there already is one from the early 90’s starring Forrest Whittaker. It’s said to be pretty good so I look forward to watching it.

PS – the book as also released under the name For Love of Imabelle and I’d love to get my hands on those photo cover Panther editions!

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on October 13, 2011

Books »Deep Water

by Patricia Highsmith (1957)

Patricia Highsmith‘s Deep Water is a slow simmering thriller. It’s a claustrophobic look inside the very strange and cruel marriage between Vic and Melinda. Living in separate quarters, theirs is a loveless but weirdly co-dependent relationship based on the odd, not quite unspoken arrangement that Melinda can take as many lovers as she pleases.

Teetering between loathing and dedication to his wife, whose affairs are viciously paraded in front of him (often in his own living room), Vic loses himself in his unusual interests, like book printing, poetry, entomology… and eventually murder!

Not since George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has there been a fictional couple so messed up yet willfully entangled in their daily chaos.

Though it’s not written first person, the book is definitely from the point of view of Vic, which makes the reader feel like, if not a cheerleader for him, then at least a confident. It’s not hard to be on the side of Vic, despite his crimes, as his wife is so outwardly awful.

By the end, you feel that uncomfortable queasiness you get when you’ve seen far too much of someones personal life and find it repulsive… but at the same time, you can’t resist hearing more and more details.

I have been meaning to read a book by Patricia Highsmith of Talented Mr. Ripley fame for some time and this certainly won’t be the last.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on June 16, 2011

Movies »Pale Flower

directed by Masahiro Shinoda (1964)

From the Japanese New Wave movement emerges this hard boiled noir. Pale Flower, of the gambling noir sub genre, is tough, cool, and stylish. Shot in such stark black and white that only slivers of the action are often visible, it takes us on a cold journey to the Tokyo underworld where addiction, desperation, skewed loyalty, and failed redemption run rampant.

It follows yakuza gangster Muraki who has just been released from prison for murder to find his old life changed. His gang’s in a truce with his rivals, he no longer yearns fpr the woman that waited for him, a young man enters his life unexpectedly, as does an strange, beautiful and mesmerizing gambling addict named Saeko.

Muraki is played with calm gravitas who barely registers emotion whether he’s falling in love or some one attempting his assassination. His contorted pain finally reveals itself in a surreal nightmare sequence that will have you wondering if Polanski saw this before making Rosemary’s Baby.

Saeko is equally enigmatic. Wildness and lunacy stir quietly behind her doe eyes. It almost makes you wonder if she were simply perfect casting for her inherent madness or if Mariko Kaga is one fine actress who does more with her vacant eyes than all the smizing in 100 cycles of ANTM (yes, I’ve taken up watching again.)

It’s funny, I usually scoff at remakes, but I often cast them in my head as I watch classics. In this case, I’d move the story to Las Vegas, focusing on rival meth gangs. Titus Welliver would be my lead with Juliette Lewis as his former lover, Joseph Gordon Levitt as his new young friend and, if she can lose the vampiness, Evan Rachel Wood perhaps as the degenerate gambler though I’d consider Amanda Seyfried or Angela Bettis.


See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on April 18, 2011

Movies »Femme Fatale

directed by Brian De Palma (2002)

While I have to admit on second viewing, Femme Fatale is far less clever and more cheesy than I remember, it’s still a great noirish guilty pleasure that marked Brian De Palma’s return to over the top form – mirroring some of my favorites of his career: the Hitchcock inspired Sisters, Blow Out, and the best, Body Double.

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for a film that opens with an epic heist set to classical music involving a bra made of diamonds and lesbian bathroom stall groping. Or maybe not… It was a box office bomb and most people seem to hate this movie.

But despite porny dialogue, bad acting (Romijn playing French speaking English, whew!), and a ludacris, off the rails plot about fate and a paparazzo – or maybe because of all that, I have loads of fun watching.

Just don’t take it too seriously or have lofty expectations.

See more: Movies

Posted on February 21, 2011

Movies »Coup de Torchon

directed by Bertrand Tavernier (1981)

If nihilists believed in heroes then Lucien, the small town sheriff in Coup de Torchon could be the man for them. He comes by way of Jim Thompson, darkest noirest extraordinaire and his novel, Pop. 1280. That book is set in 1917 Texas but the movie is cleverly moved to 1930s West French Africa, Senegal.

I haven’t read the book to compare it to (though it’s definitely making my list), but I think director Bertrand Tavernier has captured the weird, almost surreal darkness of Thompson’s work most effectively on film. (P.S. – other notable adaptations: Serie Noir, After Dark My Sweet).

To say Lucien is disrespected is an understatement. He’s called ass licker and turd more than by name, he is kicked by other policemen, pushed around by the local pimps, mocked by his own wife – and for good reason. As a policemen he never arrests anyone and ignores crime as much as possible, even when own mistress is being abused publicly.

He seems to initially be a gentle and simple sort who detests violence and has more respect for natives than most. Which is why you are almost on his side when he begins to take action against the “trash” of the city by committing righteous murder.

But, as the film progresses and his motives become less about justice than his selfishness, any semblance of morality is blown. Played with just right amount of pathos and underlying insanity by Philippe Noiret, the sheriff, if I had to imagine him cast today, could be pulled off by a bitter little Patton Oswald and his unassuming baby face.

Scrounging around in the mud of human depravity with him are his scheming wife played by the always amazing Stephane Audran, her “brother”/secret lover – a half witted brute (I’d cast John C Rielly in my remake), his mistress, Rose, a piece of amoral work with a naive lust for violence and chaos played by the also always amazing Isabelle Huppert.

The cast is astounding, turning almost cartoonish physical comedy into something dimensional. Not that it’s cartoonish due to sloppy film making, quite the opposite, Tavernier manages the tough balance of darkest comedy only to reveal something very sinister.

The totally bizarre alternate ending, featuring dancing man apes, is worth a look on the Criterion Collection release. The only way this low profile masterpiece could have better is if it had stayed in.

Click here for the rest of Coup de Torchon

See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on February 12, 2011

Books »The Lady in the Lake

by Raymond Chandler (1944)

While I know the Raymond Chandler character Philip Marlowe well from movies (and I don’t care what people say – Elliot Gould was genius), The Lady in the Lake is actually my first time reading one of the novels. Set, as expected, in the streets of LA, this one also takes us to the tranquil vacation lakes surrounding the seedy town. Of course, they turn out to be just as deadly when our private eye is sent looking, simply enough, for a rich man’s missing wife.

Nothing is ever so simple though, in a snappy noir, so murder, villains, scandal, witty dialogue, and plot twists ensue. While I guessed the major plot twist far too soon (blame a healthy education in murder mysteries), like most noirs, the plot isn’t always the star of the show, it’s the long, often punch-in-the-jaw getting there that’s fun.

Some say this is one of Chandler’s weaker efforts, which only makes me excited to read more since I quite enjoyed it. Not as enjoyable, unfortunately, is the 1947 film adaptation which features a gimmicky first person perspective (all characters address the audience with exaggerated expressions) which wears off after a couple minutes. Strangely, they made it into a “Christmas” themed movie too – my guess is hoping for box office returns during the holidays. Yes, stick to the far more nuanced and clever book – even cranky Chandler took his name off the film (and he wrote it!).

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on January 12, 2011

Movies »Winter’s Bone

directed by Debra Granik (2010)

Jim is a bigger fan of back woods noir author Daniel Woodrell but after seeing Winter’s Bone, the exceptionally gritty, atmospheric and unique film based on one of his novels, I may just take second look. Woodrell specializes is grim mysteries in the deep south and this particular story about a tougher than nails Ozark teen forced to look after her sick mom and siblings made its way to the big screen with tremendous dignity with haunting suspense.

What looks at first glance like Independent film award fodder: downtrodden Americans shot against grim but undeniably beautiful landscapes (the cinematography is brilliant) of a country falling apart, is much more than an outsider’s glimpse into a mostly unknown world. While I can not claim to know what the cabins and trailers of the Ozarks look like, the sets, settings and actors here feel genuine and are neither pedantically  glorified or demonized. The cast that (like almost anything of value these days) includes actors from Deadwood is superb with Jennifer Lawrence as the heroine, Ree, earning every bit of buzz and praise she’s received.

At heart, Winter’s Bone is a mystery. Ree must find her father, or perhaps the remains of him in order to keep the house he put up for bail on a recent meth arrest. The journey, that climaxes in an act of savage, cold survival, is wrought with tension as she makes her way through the rough, complex order of a dangerous society populated by the stoic, hardened, and vicious.

We were taken with the movie more than we expected. Maybe it’s so effective because Debra Granik is less interested in forcing her opinion of the characters than letting them exist within the simple but gripping plot.

See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on November 11, 2010

Movies »The Square

directed by Nash Edgerton (2008)

Lofty comparisons to Coen Brothers or the noir great (and recent Brix Pick) Body Heat are given out generously but rarely to a movie that actually deserves it. Australia’s neo-noir The Square comes pretty close. Set in a suburban town among thugs and working men, the script seems interested in seeing just how very wrong plans can go when they involve taking a bag full of money.

Actor David Roberts plays Ray, a man desperate enough to go to greats lengths usually preserved for characters in just this kind of movie for a woman he loves with iron jawed realism. The rest of the cast is notable too for their believable portrayals, particularly Joel Edgerton (who also wrote the film – brother Nash directed) as a criminal for hire. After all, as film like as the plot is, with hired killers, black mail, and affairs, I’ve seen enough true crime shows in my life to know that normal people do bad things like this all the time. Though presumably without as much bad luck as Ray.

Can’t reveal too much without giving away the enjoyable suspense, but there are enough twists and surprises delivered with gritty, bleak gravitas to forgive that it doesn’t exactly live up to the comparisons its garnered. In a  drought of decent new movies to watch on DVD (Marmaduke or Tooth Fairy anyone?) this lesser known thriller is a godsend.

I look forward to following the Edgerton brothers future directing projects (Nash is also a stunt coordinator on movies like Knight and Day that are less intriguing).

See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on September 18, 2010

Books »Wild Town

by Jim Thompson (1957)

Even a lesser work by Jim Thompson is great fun to read. It is with reluctance that I admit Wild Town falls into that category, especially with such a strong set up. Bugs is a life time loser, in and out of jail with a temper and a lust for women. He wanders to an oil boom town and in the employ of local rich man, Hanlon as a hotel detective. Lou Ford is the deceptively hayseed sheriff capable of great violence.

Of course, there are dames too: Hanlon’s loose young wife whose got her eye on Bugs, the seemlingly innocent hotel maid that can’t resist a strong man, and the goodhearted school teacher that seems like the image of perfection to Bugs. The characters are colorful, they just are left in one of Thompson’s most straight forward and least bleak plots.

I can’t give too much away without spoilers, but there’s a murder, blackmail, some missing money and double crossing, it’s just missing the bleak almost surrealism that brightens the best works by Thompson (see Hell of a Woman, The Killer Inside Me). Still, fans of noir could do much worse for quick and mostly satisfying summer reading.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on September 5, 2010

Movies »Mulholland Drive

directed by David Lynch (2001)

With such a unique point of view and mind, a David Lynch project is always worthy of excitement, even if the results are extremely uneven and sometimes downright unbearable (see Inland Empire). It’s a pleasure then to revisit Mulholland Drive, even if it loses some of it’s stunning effect upon second viewing – there are just so many odd surprises first time round, it’s hard to recapture. By all means this should have been a confusing mess, and with dropped plot points, characters and strange twists, it nearly is – but somehow it all manages to work beautifully if not confoundedly.

It’s not surprising that the project was cobbled together from a pilot for a much larger television series. The fact that ABC, in a climate of prudence, rejected the pilot is a shame. While elements like the monster behind the diner, the hunk lover Billy Ray Cyrus, the cryptic cowboy, the appearance of both Lost’s Jacob and Robert Forster, the blue box, and the magic performance are all effective in the film, I’d love for all the ideas to have had a chance to flourish over time and we all would benefit from a new Twin Peaks style series to become obsessed with.

Click here for the rest of Mulholland Drive

See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on August 22, 2010

Movies »Body Heat

directed by Lawrence Kasdan (1981)

I was a little surprised to learn that the neo-noir Body Heat was not adapted from a 1940’s novel by Block or Woolrich but an original story written by director Lawrence Kasdan, who has in the middle of a career high with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Empire Strikes Back behind him and The Big Chill and Return of the Jedi about to come. The story is a pitch perfect steamy noir set in foggy, sweaty Florida with a charming ladies man lawyer and a sultry femme fatale as the players, with just one pesky husband in the way.

Also perfect is the cast. You may not know it if all you’re familiar with is her early morning cursing, but Turner has the kind of womanly venom of a bad girl with a great body that is hard to find in actresses today. She eats men alive, makes them thank her for it and think it was all their idea in the first place. One of her best lines in the film is “You’re not too smart are you? I like that in a man.” Which, as a side note, is what my friend Bill used to say fit my choice in Junior High School boyfriends.

William Hurt, who again if you’re only familiar with the past couple years of roles as concerned Presidents (Vantage Point) or some father figure in the other Hulk movie no one saw, might surprise you with his sexual affability and greasy charisma. In lesser roles, it’s nice to see Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke round things out.

This is a steamy affair with tons of sex scenes and Chandler-esque dialogue. Perfect for one of these heat wave nights and available from netflix instant.

Click here for the rest of Body Heat

See more: Movies

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on July 25, 2010

Books »When Gravity Fails

by George Alec Effinger (1987)

The cyberpunk novel, When Gravity Fails delivers in it’s vivid sense of place and atmosphere. It’s the 22nd century and while some technological advancements have altered life incredibly, there are still scummy, red light districts and plenty of nere do wellers to occupy it. The lived in vitality is probably due to the author’s personal experiences in the French Quarter of New Orleans that  bears no small resemblance to the novel’s setting. In this case, the area is in the ascending Middle East (which has grown past the now fractionated West as a global power) and called Budayeen. It’s gated off from the rest of the region and home to our drug addicted semi-reluctant detective protagonist Audran.

This hard boiled, glamorized macho druggie persona was part of the my only issues with the book. I read lots of hard boiled genre books with equally questionable characters and even prefer to read about a severely flawed hero than the infallible type. Still, I tend to get understandably rubbed the wrong way by such characters when the author has no hint of humorous loathing, or at least eye rolling.

The plot is straight up noir, with little to distinguish itself aside from the plenty of modified prostitutes and crime lords and fictionalized technology. The idea mind modification is interesting and leads to added plot twists. Aside from body modifications that are no mystery to our modern world, Effinger imagines people wiring their minds for full personality modules (called “moddies”) while allows for James Bond and Nero Wolfe to make unexpected appearances. “Daddies” are like add ons which allow the user to have a certain skill while installed, like speaking an unknown language.

If you’re a fan of noir and cyberpunk, When Gravity Fails is perfect summer time fodder, if you’re unsure, it’s worth a try if you don’t mind grisly stuff.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on July 11, 2010

Books »I Married A Dead Man

by William Irish (1948)

An implausible thriller containing train collisions, stolen identities, pasts reemerging, and doomed romances, I Married a Dead Man is the stuff of classic Hollywood noir. No surprise, considering author Cornell Woolrich (using the pen name William Irish) is the author of the books that Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid, and Cloak and Dagger (to name just a few) were based on.

Woolrich is also the author of one of my best book of the year picks, Rendezvous in Black and while I Married a Dead Man lacks the darkness, strangeness, and suspense of that gem, it’s still a satisfying noir that’s a quick read for summer time.

The book was made into a 1950’s Barbara Stanwyck film, No Man of Her Own and (with less success) loosely adapted into the 1992 comedy called Mrs. Winterbourne starring Ricki Lake and Brandon Frasier.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on April 11, 2010

Books »Nineteen Seventy Four

by David Peace (1999)

David Peace‘s Nineteen Seventy Four is both a typical and atypical serial killer drama. Typical in that it focuses on a overly creative killer who leaves behind a trail of the kind of imagery pop-pulp authors can not seem to write enough of these days; typical in that I could almost exactly envision the BBC series it would spawn (actually, as I’ll mention later, 1974 – along with the other books in the quartet – has already been made into a series which will be in theaters soon); and typical in its gritty toughness.

Yet it’s atypical in just how gritty and tough it gets. This book, filled with violent beatings and equally violent love, is one that gets your hands and mind dirty. It’s also atypical in its staccato voice, which makes the giant, convoluted web of conspiracy, corruption and madness a little side-of-the-head-whoppingly hard to follow.

There were definitely times where I had to re-read pages, lost in the pacing, the references to British pop culture of the seventies, and the slang. Not to mention a list of character names that confuse, not in a Dostoevskian way with their complexity, but in their commonality (Johns, Roberts, and Eddies abound).

The first part of a quartet (I have the other three coming in the mail), Peace’s heralded crime drama was inspired by the horrific crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper, though the child killer here is only one part of a whole cast of genuinely horrible people that litter the city. Heroes are not to be found in this world, which makes this a recommendation with a particular admonishment: this novel is not for the faint-hearted and it is not for those that want to feel good.

The theatrical release of the adaptation (starring among others, Sean Bean) comes to IFC Feb 5 but the entire series is available on DVD for region 2 players.

Click here for the rest of Nineteen Seventy Four

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on January 31, 2010

Books »The Deadly Percheron

by John Franklin Bardin (1946)

Surrealism, psychology and noir have been friends before in popular fiction (see the Hitchcock and Dali collab Spellbound, which came out around the same time) but in John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron, it gets a little quirkier and less artful than that. Leprechauns, multiple states of amnesia, Coney Island freaks, stolen identities, giant horses and forced electric shock therapy all come into play. Is it all cohesive and believable? Of course not! But it’s a quick pleasure to read and a unique entry in the over crowded genre of pulp novels written in the forties.

Bardin was a native Ohioan turned New Yorker (as so many Ohioans tend to be) who is most known for this novel and two others (The Last of Philip Banter and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly) though none have exactly made him a household name.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on January 24, 2010

Books »The Mercy Killers

mercy killers coverBy Lisa Reardon (2004)

Lisa Reardon is known as the queen of redneck noir and Mercy Killers is actually the second novel of her’s that I’ve read – Billy Dead being the first – and, like Billy Dead, it’s no cake walk. The world she creates is a grim one rife with abuse, death, drugs, poverty, alcoholism and hopelessness around every corner.

The time is the late sixties and the novel follows a group of trashy friends from early tragedy to the Vietnam years. Some of them go into combat, none come back the same. I won’t give too much of the plot away but, suffice to say, bad things happen to bad people.

What makes the book so readable (albeit depressing) is Reardon’s voice, which somehow makes the characters compelling and sympathetic or, if not exactly sympathetic, at least understandable in their rottenness. After doing some research on the author after finishing the book, I may have figured out why she’s so in tune with the sordid world she depicts!

Just a few months ago, Reardon was jailed for attempting to murder her father with a shotgun. He survived the attack, a fact that prompted her to say “I just cannot believe I missed. I will never get another chance.” Read the full article here.

Click here for the rest of The Mercy Killers

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on November 15, 2009

Books »Queenpin

Two tough-as-nails women (one a fresh faced dame just learning the ropes of book cooking and gangster seduction, the other a hardened moll who's still a looker) make for a dangerous combination in Megan Abbott's Queenpin.

The youthful modern day author pays tremendous homage to the noir genre of old and upholds the style and plot devices. Tough talk and violence abound here, and Queenpin makes for a quick, fun and kind of mindless read.

Abbott has been roundly praised for her efforts to resurrect the noir novel, but I guess my only quibble is that she doesn't bring anything new to the table. While this novel is bound to satisfy the avid pulp reader, it may not convert skeptics of the genre.

See more: Books

Be the first to leave a comment →
Posted on October 19, 2009