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Showing posts by: Jake Hinkson click to see Jake Hinkson's profile
Mar 28 2015 12:00pm

Noir’s Goon Squad: Brad Dexter

Brad Dexter has evil eyes. There are a lot of guys who have that whole hollow-on-the-inside steely-eyed-gaze thing going on in classic noir, but no one does it better than Brad Dexter. To catch up with him in some of his classic roles is to stare down the barrel at a man who simply does not care about anything but himself.

He’s probably best known today as one of the gang in The Magnificent Seven —though he once remarked, and not incorrectly, “I’m the one from The Magnificent Seven that no one remembers.” One of the reasons he got lost in the shuffle of the big stars of that film is because he had never been a big star, nor did he go on become a star. He was simply dependable Brad Dexter.

He was born Boris Velijko Milanovich in Goldfield, Nevada, the child of Serbian immigrants. Tall and brawny, in his youth he worked as a meat packer and an amateur boxer. Soon enough, though, he made his way into acting and was pretty much immediately put to work playing a series of heavies. After serving in the Army in World War II, he started making movies billed as “Barry Mitchell” in the Roy Rogers western Heldorado (1946).

[He'd catch on right away...]

Mar 18 2015 4:00pm

Beast in View: Margaret Millar at 100

In the vast criminal menagerie that Margaret Millar created over the course of her long career, there is a special place for the “woman in distress” plot. She wrote many different kinds of stories — and her novels were as likely to feature male protagonists as female — but one of the things that she did best was to put a young woman in a pressure cooker of a situation…and then keep cranking up the pressure.

Perhaps the best example of this is her 1955 novel Beast In View. It tells the story of Helen Clarvoe, a well-off “spinster” (at the ripe old age of 30), who is being stalked by an insane woman named Evelyn Merrick. Clarvoe asks her family lawyer, Paul Blackshear, to get rid of the troubled Ms. Merrick. Things do not go as planned.

Beast In View was, in some respects, Millar’s most successful novel. It got rave reviews, sold well, and won Millar the Edgar Award for Best Novel. As the years have gone on, it has remained perhaps Millar’s best known work. It was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the 60s and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 80s. Writing about the book in 1984 for the New York Times, Anthony Boucher said, it was “written with such complete realization of every character that the most bitter antagonist of mystery fiction may be forced to acknowledge it as a work of art.”

[Warning: Spoilers Inside...]

Mar 16 2015 2:30pm

The Stand Alones: Georges Simenon’s The Widower

I don’t know if we can say with certainty that Georges Simenon was the most successful writer of the 20th Century, but he would certainly be a top contender for the title. It wasn’t just that he wrote books that sold well around the world, it was that he churned out a new book seemingly every week. A ballpark estimate of his output is somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred books, and that’s in addition to reams of articles and short stories. His most famous creation was Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, who headlined 75 different novels, 28 short stories, and dozens of movies and television shows. IMBD puts the total number of Simenon adaptations at 137. Anyway you cut it, those are some impressive numbers.

But they are, in the end, just numbers. The real success for a writer, of course, is found in the work itself, and Simenon’s literary reputation was just about on par with his output. The Maigret novels remain masterful models a certain kind of psychologically loaded pop mystery. Simenon could concoct a puzzle as well as anyone, but it’s not really the puzzle that you care about. A Maigret mystery is as likely to be a whydunit as a whodunit. Oftentimes, you’ll see Maigret compared to other famous sleuths—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot—but he’s a quiet companion to that kind of company. He’s neither an arrogant robot like Holmes nor a preening dandy like Poirot. He is, instead, a sturdy professional. Moreover, outside of his detecting skills, his most marked characteristic is, of all things, compassion. The success of the character owes a lot to the fact that he is, in the end, simply a good man.

[And there was so much more than Maigret...]

Feb 25 2015 3:00pm

Agent Carter 1.08: Season Finale “Valediction”

On its eighth and final episode of the season, “Valediction,” Agent Carter comes to something of an awkward conclusion. In many respects, the show does a workmanlike job of bringing its first season to a close. It wraps up its main storyline, leaves several interesting ends dangling tantalizingly loose, and drops a big revelation in the last scene. But it also makes a couple of odd little missteps… and one big mistake.

I’ll get to all that in a second, but first a quick catch-up: when we last left the intrepid Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) she was searching for the evil Russian scientist Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown) and his lethal assassin sidekick Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan). They’d just unleashed a gas canister that made a movie theater full of people kill each other.

Turns out the gas was another Howard Stark invention, called Midnight Hour, that he’d developed for the military. The gas was supposed to help keep soldiers awake, but instead it makes people psychotic. Ivchenko blames Stark for the deaths of a town full of Russian soldiers who were exposed to the gas by a rogue general. Now he kidnaps Stark (Dominic Cooper) and brainwashes him into thinking that he can save Captain America by flying a planeload of the gas into Times Square.

[Why is it always NYC?]

Feb 24 2015 9:45am

The Cowboy Rides Away: Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and The Cheyenne Social Club

The Cheyenne Social Club poster featuring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda had one of the longest lasting friendships in the history of Hollywood. They met as young actors, became instant pals, and stayed close until Fonda’s death in 1982. Orson Welles is supposed to have said, “I thought these two guys were either having the hottest affair in Hollywood, or they were the two straightest human beings I ever met in my life. I came to conclusion that they were the two straightest human beings I’d ever met in my life.”

In a sense, they were perfectly matched. Both were tall and thin and possessed of a certain soft-spoken middle American charm. Naturally reserved, they were both always well cast as quiet men of bedrock decency. It was always easy to believe that the fella who played Jefferson Smith would be best friends with the fella who played Tom Joad. They seemed like a couple of regular guys.

[Guys you'd want to grab a beer with...]

Feb 18 2015 5:15pm

Agent Carter 1.07: “SNAFU”

Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Jarvis (James D'Arcy). More please!

The folks behind Agent Carter have been smart about how they parcel out information. Take the character of Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown). We first met him as a prisoner that Peggy (Hayley Atwell) rescued back in Episode 5. He seemed like a harmless old man. Last episode, however, we discovered he was in league with Leviathan and its killer agent Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan). Now, in Episode 7, Ivchenko reveals himself to be a full-on super villain.

We begin back in 1943. (I like how the last few episodes have begun with flashbacks, another nice way of giving us little breadcrumbs to follow in a story with a lot of twists and turns.) We see Ivchenko on the frontlines with the Russian army. The medics have run out of morphine, and they come to Ivchenko because they hear that he can alter the state of people in pain. What we discover in this sequence, which is nicely done, is that the good (actually bad) doctor can control minds, sweeping people away into alternate states, so that a solider having his leg sawed off smiles happily because he thinks he’s sitting next to a river talking to his beloved mother.

[Talk about waking up with regret...]

Feb 13 2015 10:00am

Do Evil in Return: Margaret Millar at 100

Note: This post kicks off a series celebrating the career of one of mystery fiction’s true giants, beginning with the novel Do Evil in Return.

This month marks the centennial of the great Margaret Millar. At her peak, Millar was about as successful as a mystery writer could be. She published 27 books, won the Edgar for best novel (twice), served as president of the Mystery Writers of America, and won the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Her fan base was so notoriously fervent it caused one critic to remark, “Millar doesn’t attract fans; she creates addicts.”

All of which makes it remarkable that Millar isn’t as well known today as she should be. The reason for this, ironically enough, is bound up in one of her strengths as a writer: she did a little of just about everything. She wrote noir novels, hardboiled novels, classical whodunits, suspense novels, and pitch black comedies. She wrote books about women. She wrote books about men. One of the primary joys of being a Millar addict is that you never know what you’re going to get, and this very unpredictability is probably the reason that she remains a cult figure today. You can’t pin her down the way you could with—oh, just to pick an author completely at random—Ross Macdonald.  Yet the personality, the authorial voice, of her work remains remarkably consistent. Mordant, inventive, and psychologically curious—the chief characteristic of her writing is quality. That’s why Millar attracts addicts. You never know what you’re going to be get, but you know it’s going to be pretty damn good.

Her best noir novel is probably 1950’s Do Evil In Return. It tells the story of a doctor named Charlotte Keating who turns away a young woman looking for an illegal abortion. Later that night, Keating starts to feel bad about it and tries to track down the girl, Violet O’Gorman, only to discover that she’s missing.

[Got a bad feeling about this…?]

Feb 11 2015 11:15am

Agent Carter 1.06: “A Sin to Err”

In Agent Carter 1.07, "A Sin to Err," Peggy discovers the shocking truth about Leviathan but doesn't realize that her true enemies are even closer than she imagined.

Episode 6 of Agent Carter, “A Sin to Err,” finds Peggy (Haylet Atwell) in full-on super agent mode. Last episode, we saw her reteamed with the Howling Commandos for some overseas adventuring, but this time around she’s back in the states, running around being a badass in what is probably the best installment of the series so far.

Things open with a flashback to Russia in 1944. It’s a variation on the way last episode opened with the girls’ assassin school. This time we see back story of Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown) as he’s given the option to join Leviathan. The sequence is the typical villain stuff—goofy fake accents and the casual use of murder as a HR tool—which feels shipped in from an early 80s Roger Moore Bond flick. It’s retro, but, then again, the whole show is kinda retro.

[I don't suppose you'd care for a nightcap...]

Feb 4 2015 12:30pm

Agent Carter 1.05: “The Iron Ceiling”

Let it be noted that Episode 5 of Agent Carter is the moment where the show goes from “promising” to “good.” After setting up various plot points and intrigues over the course of the previous four episodes, the story really achieves liftoff with “The Iron Ceiling.”

We open with a flashback to a bizarre school in Russia where a dormitory full of pubescent girls are handcuffed to beds. They’re uncuffed in the morning, drilled in English (via a recitation to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and set against each other in hand to hand combat. We see one girl kill her friend (or, to put it more accurately, we hear it), and then we see the girl wake up in the show’s present day as Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), Peggy Carter’s chipper neighbor who also happens to be some kind of sleeper agent.

At work, Peggy (Hayley Atwell) breaks a coded intercepted message that seems to pinpoint a meeting between the fugitive Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and the mysterious covert Russian organization Leviathan. The meeting will take place in Belarus, so Peggy’s boss Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) assigns a task force led by Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) to go capture Stark.

[What about Peggy?]

Feb 2 2015 2:30pm

Noir’s Goon Squad: Barton MacLane

In the classic era, Warner Brothers was the most hardboiled of the major studios. It was the home of the gangster flick and the detective movie. In short, it was the kind of place that gave steady work to a guy like Barton MacLane.

MacLane just had a face you wanted to punch. On the Warner roster of hoods and heavies, he held a special place. He rarely played a nutjob. No, what he did was less flashy, but just as important to helping create the milieu of the classic crime flick. Barton MacLane was the king of the assholes.

[The noblest of titles...]

Jan 28 2015 3:30pm

Agent Carter 1.04: “The Blitzkrieg Button”

Considering Episode 4 of Agent Carter takes its title from a military maneuver notable for its ferocity and overwhelming power, it’s surprising that the episode itself is the most laid back episode of the series thus far.

We begin with everyone continuing their search for Howard Stark. Peggy finds him hiding out in a storage container, but not before she stumbles across Jarvis trying to pay off the goons who snuck him into the country. There is some ominous mention of a Mr. Mink—one of those comic book villain names that’s supposed to derive its power from the contrast between the timidity of the word and the innate scariness of the dude who would casually take it on as a moniker. More on Mr. Mink in a minute.

Peggy kicks the crap out of the goons and saves Jarvis. Alas, the action here is underwhelming. Peggy takes out the last guy with little more than one hard tap of her shoe. We get that she’s a badass and can beat up any goon on earth, but the effect here almost seems like bored slapstick. Also, this is pretty much the only action we’ll get this episode, and it’s over pretty quickly. Now, I don’t mind that the show decided to give Hayley Atwell’s right hook a little rest, but it doesn’t replace it with much. After the opening, we get five minutes or so of some mild screwball humor as Peggy sneaks Howard into her women’s only hotel, The Griffith.

[The original Iron Man?]

Jan 14 2015 5:30pm

Agent Carter: 1.03: “Time and Tide”

By this point, we know that Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is on the trail of something big. Howard Stark is on the run from the SSR, and while all the other agents are chasing him, Agent Carter is hunting down the mysterious organization behind the theft of all of Stark’s super weapons. (I can’t believe I just wrote “super weapons,” but this is, after all, basically a comic book.) The trick of the show is to keep Peggy one step ahead of her friends and one step behind her enemies.

“Time and Tide” finds her with her hands full on both counts. The SSR boys decide to pull in and interrogate Peggy’s one real ally, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Stark’s loyal butler.

As an aside: Is it me or do heroically steadfast English butlers only exist in comic books? There has be to some kind of post-colonial theory that can explain why billionaire American playboys always seem to want a manservant from the U.K.

[Besides the obvious reason: the accent...]

Jan 7 2015 6:00pm

Agent Carter: 1.02 “Bridge and Tunnel”

One of the charms of Captain America: The First Avenger was the way Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) held her cards close to her vest. Quiet and watchful, she seemed to know more about what was going on than anyone else around her. There was something extremely appealing about finding that kind of restrained character in such a big loud summer blockbuster.

As a show, Agent Carter uses this quality to great effect. A lot of it comes from Hayley Atwell herself. As an actor, she’s always been reserved and cool. I first became aware of her in Woody Allen’s 2007 neo-noir Cassandra’s Dream. That film was flawed in many ways, but Atwell was a revelation. Gorgeous beyond reason, she was also aloof and unknowable. In Agent Carter, of course, she’s much warmer and pluckier. Episode 2 gives her some old school Nancy Drew level intrigue (hiding under a desk and picking a lock, for instance) that calls for a lighter touch. For the most part, though, the show uses Atwell the way it should. She’s always good when she’s playing the smartest person onscreen, yet she never telegraphs her thoughts. She’s an enigma, which is a good quality for a spy.

[I'm glad she's on our side...]

Jan 7 2015 2:00pm

Agent Carter 1.01: Series Premiere “Now Is Not The End”

First, a confession: I am Agent Carter’s ideal audience. One, I like women who kick ass. Two, my grandmother was an English lass who endured World War II, met a nice soldier from Texas, married him and moved to the US, so I dig English ladies who kick ass. Three, I’m a lifelong fan of Captain America and the whole universe of super-powered espionage that surrounds him, including the formidable Agent Carter. Four, Hayley Atwell, because I would watch Hayley Atwell do pretty much anything.

So, yes, I was on board with this show before it came out, but I was a little nervous because you never know how these things will pan out. I’m happy to report, though, that the show (slated for eight episodes) is a hell of a lot of fun.

[Three cheers for the red, white, and blue...]

Dec 29 2014 2:30pm

The Stand Alones: Robert B. Parker’s Wilderness

I’ll always love Robert B. Parker. He’s not the best writer I’ve ever read, nor is he the most consistent. Doesn’t matter. I discovered him in high school, when all I cared about was being entertained, and Robert B. Parker was as entertaining as hell. His books were funny and exciting and wise. I bought them the day they were released. (Remember how all the kids used to line up to buy Harry Potter books as soon as they were released? That was me in the early 90s—one scrawny weirdo in Arkansas hitting the bookstore at 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning to see if the new Parker was in yet.) The first shelf I hit in any used bookstore was the P under Mystery to see if they had any old Parkers. I read Parker like my friends listened to albums or watched sports. I looooooooooved Robert B. Parker.

I once heard a guy at a crime convention opine that he had to give up on Parker because the wisecracking and headcracking Spenser—Parker’s signature creation—was just too perfect. I know what that guy meant. I also don’t care.

I write noir—dark noir. I read a lot of noir. I watch a lot of noir. I’m up to my eyeballs in flawed heroes and antiheroes and outright villains. Sometimes you want a hero. Sometimes you want Spenser.

[Everyone needs a break sometimes...]

Dec 24 2014 1:00pm

Noir’s Goon Squad: Jeff Donnell (This Goon’s a Gal)

Jeff Donnell just seemed nice. Maybe that’s why she was the resident Nice Girl of film noir. She was always cast as the chipper best friend, or the perky wife, or the goofy roommate. No matter the role, she was almost always called upon to project a certain affability and intrinsic kindness. Maybe it came easy, or maybe she just made it look easy. Either way, in a genre of femme fatales she was la femme par excellence.

It must be said, though, that Donnell didn’t just bring big brown eyes and a shy smile to her roles. In her quiet way, she always seemed just a bit savvier than everyone around her. Her best known role was probably in the Nicholas Ray masterpiece In A Lonely Place (1950) where she played the wife of cop Frank Lovejoy. Of all the characters in the plot, she’s the one who most clearly sees that drunken screenwriter Humphrey Bogart is a violent, misogynist loon. In a film full of great performances, Donnell’s restrained turn can be overlooked. But go back and watch the film again and you’ll see the way her steady, all-seeing presence unnerves Bogart from the get-go. She was perfectly paired here with Lovejoy, who was the great Everyman of film noir. Maybe Donnell was noir’s great Everywoman.

[Overlook no more...]

Dec 22 2014 1:30pm

The Film Noir of Robert Wise

By most measurements, Robert Wise didn’t just succeed as a director—Robert Wise crushed it. He made West Side Story, which, if you adjust for inflation, made about half a billion dollars at the American box office. Then he made The Sound of Music. 2015 will mark the 50 year anniversary of that movie and many articles will doubtless come out to remind us just how gigantic that film was. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the third biggest movie of all time, behind only Gone With The Wind and Star Wars. Like those two films, it wasn’t just a blockbuster, it was a phenomenon. (Read Mark Harris’s wonderful book Pictures At The Revolution, which details how Hollywood basically bankrupted itself trying to duplicate the otherworldly success of The Sound of Music.) Wise walked away from 1965 with armloads of money and awards.

Afterwards, however, he floundered. He followed his monster success with movies that often felt bloated, self-important, and empty. Today, he’s more of a footnote than a legend. His stylistic impact on generations of subsequent filmmakers has been negligible, and there are few academic studies of his work. The Sound of Music has become a beloved classic sure, but it’s not remembered as Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. It’s remembered as Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.

What all of this obscures, however, is that Robert Wise was a great director.

Not good. Not workmanlike. Not professional.



Dec 17 2014 1:00pm

Dark Christmas: 7 Noir Holidays Films

I’m not sure why there are so many noirs set around the holidays, but maybe it has something to do with seasonal depression. We all know that this time of year can be especially hard on people, when our usual American propensity toward surface cheer becomes something of a national obligation. After all, we quite literally force each other to be—or to appear to be—“merry” (which, when you think about it, is a weirdly antiquated word that we never use in any other context) and to conform to our national religion of positive thinking. All that forced good cheer just gives some folks the winter blues.

Ah, that’s where film noir comes in. As a genre, noir has always been about what’s found underneath the surface of safe and secure facades. Are you tired of the 24-hour The Christmas Story marathon? Don't have it in you to spend another Christmas with the Cranks, or Fred Claus, or Will Ferrell? Join the club. Maybe this year, try on some film noir to cleanse your holiday palate. Here's an overview of some films that are either Christmas themed noir or are holiday movies with a strong touch of the dark side. Either way, just about everyone on this list has been naughty.

[It's time for a vacation from Christmas Vacation...]

Dec 8 2014 7:30pm

Noir’s Serious Goofballs: Mickey Rooney

This post kicks off Noir's Serious Goofballs, a series examining comic actors who gave compelling dramatic performances in film noir.

After singing and dancing his way through most of the thirties and forties, Mickey Rooney found his particular brand of sunshine out of fashion in postwar America. The collapse of his popularity must have come as a shock to a man who, only a few years before, was one of the biggest box office stars in America.

Born Joe Yule Jr. in Brooklyn in 1920, he was hustled onstage in a tiny tuxedo at 17 months old by his vaudeville parents. In a sense, he never left the spotlight. After his parents divorced in 1923, little Joe’s mother hauled him out to Hollywood. After he was cast as Mickey “Himself” McGuire in a series of popular comedy shorts, his mother legally changed his name to “Mickey McGuire” to cash in. A few years later, when he was ready to branch out into other roles, he was rechristened Mickey Rooney. In the 1937 B-movie A Family Affair, he turned the supporting role of a spunky kid named Andy Hardy into a box office juggernaut. Over the course of fourteen Andy Hardy films, he represented a worry-free American boyhood. More successes followed: hit musicals like Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Judy Garland, a critically acclaimed dramatic turn in Boys Town opposite Spencer Tracy, the smash hit National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor. From 1939 to 1941, he was Hollywood’s biggest box-office draw.

Then came the war. By the time it was over, everything had changed—from Hollywood itself to the country it was trying to entertain. No longer a kid, Rooney faced darkening horizons. The country had taken a turn for the noir.

Like many a man faced with trouble, Rooney tuned to crime—at least on screen.

[No sunny, uptempo numbers here...]

Dec 3 2014 12:00pm

The Cowboy Rides Away: Joel McCrae, Randolph Scott, and Ride the High Country (1962)

Ride the High Country (1962) stars Joel McCrae as Steve Judd and Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum.

The Cowboy Rides Away is a series on the final Western films of great cowboy stars. Other entries include John Wayne’s The Shootist (1976) and Gary Cooper’s The Hanging Tree (1959).

The supposed immortality of movie stardom is a funny thing. Some stars only grow in stature as the years go by, but others shrink. They’re “immortal” in the sense that their films still exist, but that’s not the same thing as saying that they endure as icons in the larger culture. Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott were huge stars in their day, but they belong in a particular subset of movie stardom that never quite translated them into legendary status. Please understand, I don’t mean this as any kind of criticism. I’ve always liked both actors. Both actors starred in important films. Both are still, I think, well regarded by critics and historians. But there was a time when Joel McCrae and Randolph Scott were household names. Time, however, has worn away their place in the culture’s memory. Today, most people under a certain age have probably never heard of either man.

This isn't a “what's wrong with these kids these days” lament. Movie stardom is, relatively speaking, still a new phenomenon. Maybe this is just what happens to movie stars. Nobody really gets to live forever.

[We all ride off into the sunset eventually...]