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From The Blog
January 26, 2015
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Literary Mysteries: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
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Woman Feels No Fear
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Showing posts by: Jake Hinkson click to see Jake Hinkson's profile
Jan 14 2015 4:30pm

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 5:00pm

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 1:00pm

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 1:30pm

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 12:00pm

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 12:30pm

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 12:00pm

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 6:30pm

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 11:00am

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...]

Nov 29 2014 12:00pm

Noir’s Hard Luck Ladies: Mary Astor

Mary Astor once summed up what she called the five stages in the life of an actor:

Who's Mary Astor?

Get me Mary Astor.

Get me a Mary Astor Type.

Get me a young Mary Astor.

Who's Mary Astor?

Astor was part of the first generation of actors who more or less grew up in the studio system, and maybe for that reason, she viewed movie-land with a particularly cynical eye. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois in 1906, she was shunted into modeling and acting by her ambitious parents and was signed to a Hollywood contract by the time she was 14. “I was never totally involved in movies,” she would later remark. “I was just making my father's dream come true.” After getting started in silents and shorts, she embarked on a career that found her drifting from place to place, always a dependable performer but never really a breakout star. She’d been in the business twenty-one years before she found the role that would cement her cinematic legacy, the conniving femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. The film was a big success, and while it sent Bogart’s career into overdrive, Astor went back to being a dependable performer.

[She might not have been Bogart, but she was good...]

Nov 23 2014 12:00pm

The Stand Alones: Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere

This post kicks off a new series which will look at stand alone novels by mystery writers who are better known for their big time franchise characters. First up, we look at I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman.

For most people, Laura Lippman is best known as the author of a series of novels featuring reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan. The Monaghan books make up one of the best mystery serials of the last two decades—quick and fun enough to devour on a beach, but meaty enough to keep you interested in the character over the course of several novels. To extend the food metaphor a bit more, the trick of any series (and this is as true of mysteries as it is of science fiction or westerns) is to give readers what they expect while finding new ways to spice up the recipe. Lippman knows how to cook. In fact, given the success of the Monaghan books and the armload of awards they’ve won (including the Edgar and the Shamus), it’s fair to say that Lippman is one of the best cooks in the business.

Any series novel has built-in constraints, though. Most obviously, the writer is saddled with one central character. Even if the writer loves complicating the character, it’s still the same character. The other main obstacle is that series characters—even if they are complex and ever-changing—tend to be heroes of one kind or another.

[Stand alones offer more freedom...]

Nov 14 2014 10:30am

Noir’s Goon Squad: Percy Helton

For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.

Born in 1894, he came from a vaudeville family and grew up on the stage, working for a time with the great George M. Cohan. He performed on stages large and small (including Broadway), and he began doing occasional film work as early as 1915. He finally committed himself to movies in 1947 when he played a drunk Santa Claus in Miracle On 34th Street—the same film, incidentally, that marked the film career debut of Helton’s fellow Goon Squad member Thelma Ritter. Helton, not unlike Ritter, was marked by this late arrival into films. Sure, you can comb back through some old silents to find glimpses of the young Percy Helton, but for most moviegoers he seemed to have be born 53 years old.

[We need more guys like him...]

Nov 6 2014 12:00pm

Fire, Brimstone, and a Loaded .38: The Rise and Fall of J. Frank Norris

J. Frank Norris was a fundamentalist preacher who believed in the literal interpretation of scripture, but he was a little lax on the whole “turn the other cheek” injunction. On July 17, 1926 a man named D.E. Chipps stormed into Norris’s office at the massive First Baptist Church of Fort Worth and threatened to kill the preacher. Norris—one of the most powerful religious figures in America at the time—pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

The killing scandalized Texas and riveted the country as the preacher was put on trial for murder, but the killing of D.E. Chipps was not Norris’s first experience with bloodshed, nor was it his first time to tangle with the law. In some ways, his whole life had led him to that courtroom.

[Let's start at the beginning...]

Oct 29 2014 3:00pm

Comics without Capes: Crimes by Women

Crimes By Women was a ten cent comic book published by the Fox Features Syndicate from June of 1948 to August of 1951. It was an anthology series that showcased a series of femme fatales, gun molls and full-tilt psychopaths engaged in all manner of sexual seduction and wanton violence. It was, in a word, trash.

Trash has its appeal, though, and—more importantly—it can tell us something about the shifting currents of a culture.

Fox Features Syndicate was the brainchild and ongoing concern of one of the most interesting figures in the early days of comic books. Victor Fox was a Russian immigrant who had been born in England before his family settled in America in 1898. Short (only about 5’2”) and bursting with energy, Fox had an obscure early life that was later shrouded in myth. There was talk of a career as an illegal boiler-room stock trader, of a conviction for mail fraud, of a side job as an accountant for National Allied Publications (which later became DC Comics) that gave him the idea to start his own business ripping off his old bosses. (Comics legend Jack Kirby, who later worked for Fox, compared him to movie gangster Edward G. Robinson.)

[That's a bold claim...]

Oct 22 2014 10:15am

The Cowboy Rides Away: John Wayne and The Shootist (1976)

This is the second entry in a series on the final Westerns of the great cowboy stars. The previous entry looked at Gary Cooper and The Hanging Tree.

Don Siegel’s The Shootist is an elegy. Made three years before John Wayne’s death from cancer, it tells the story of a gunfighter (or a “shootist” to use the archaic newspaper term) who rides in from the range, gets a room in town with a prim widow woman and her impressionable son, and settles down to die. The film is an elegy for many things—for the Western itself, for the idea of the cowboy hero, but mostly it’s an elegy for the man who, more than any other, defined the idea of the American film hero for the entire world.

By any standard, John Wayne had an amazing career. Born Marion Morrison, he started out in pictures in the 1920s as just another tall, good-looking guy in crowd scenes—a football player here, a solider there. (In the 1928 Noah’s Ark, he survived the botched flood sequence that killed three extras.) Raoul Walsh gave him his big break playing the lead in the epic 1930 Western The Big Trail. The film was a flop, and Wayne spent most of the next decade riding the range in cheapie oaters, playing second fiddle to guys like Tim McCoy and gradually working his way back up the call sheet. His second big break—the one that actually succeeded in breaking him out of the world of Poverty Row horse operas—was John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. He was 32, a bit old to be playing someone called the Ringo Kid, but there was no doubt he was a star. Those nine years had taught him how to work a camera, how to pace his walk, how to listen to other actors. (“I’m a reactor,” he once said of his approach to his craft.) He looked like he’d been born with a gun in his hand, and though he famously didn’t care for horses, you can never catch him thinking about what he’s doing with one. He rode like it was second nature.

[And we watched him like it was second nature...]

Oct 15 2014 11:30am

God and the Gangster: How Billy Graham Tried to Save Mickey Cohen

Publicity makes for strange bedfellows. So does crime. So does religion, for that matter. Add publicity, crime, and religion together, and you get the fascinating story of how the Reverend Billy Graham set out to save the soul of the most notorious gangster in the history of Los Angeles: crime lord Mickey Cohen.

Billy Graham wasn’t the first dynamic man of god to gain a widespread following in the 20th century—he was preceded by the immensely popular outfielder-turned-preacher Billy Sunday and the notorious J. Frank Norris, among others—but with his huge public rallies in the late forties, Graham became the first superstar preacher to break into the national consciousness in a sustained way. Originally from North Carolina, he began as a Southern Baptist evangelist in the Youth For Christ organization, and though he lacked much in the way of formal training, he possessed a powerful stage presence and an instinct for showmanship. In 1949, he arranged several outdoor revival meetings in Los Angeles. These weren’t the first rallies Graham had ever held, but they were hyped by the newspaper machine of William Randolph Hearst. (Hearst had a soft spot for flamboyant religious types and had previously promoted both Billy Sunday and the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy.) Thousands of people flocked to the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street to hear Graham’s sermons at an enormous pavilion made up of two interlocking circus tents called “The Canvas Cathedral.”

[But how does this connect to Mickey Cohen?]

Oct 8 2014 1:00pm

Noir’s Goon Squad: William Talman

We've recently featured a post on the noir career of Raymond Burr. Although he’s best remembered today as the stalwart defense attorney Perry Mason, Burr spent much of the 40s and 50s playing demented psychos and cold-eyed masterminds in film noir. It’s interesting to note, then, that William Talman—who played Perry Mason’s loyal opposition, district attorney Hamilton Burger—was himself one of noir’s premier goons. Not just that, Talman specialized in playing full-tilt nutjobs.

He was born in Detroit in 1915, the eldest son of a successful industrial electronics executive, and as a young man he thrived in sports—especially boxing. He went to college at Dartmouth but left after one year when he was involved in a joyride that ended in the death of a friend. He tried his hand at acting, but then the war stopped everything. Talman was drafted into the Army and served in the US Signal Corps, eventually rising to the rank of Major.

After the war, he began working in movies and from the start he was typecast as thugs with a demented streak. Talman had a strange face with weathered features (even as a young man), a severe mouth and off center eyes. His gravelly voice added to a demeanor that made him perfect for characters with bad intentions.

[On to television...]

Sep 25 2014 2:00pm

Bacall By Herself

In our series on Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, we looked at the films the great screen duo made between 1944 and 1948. After 1948, however, the two never made another movie together. (Though they did star in the radio adventure series Bold Venture in 1951 and worked together on a 1955 television production of The Petrified Forest.) In the late forties and early fifties, Betty (her real name; no one ever called her Lauren) slowed down her participation in films to raise two children with Bogart. After Bogie died in 1957, her career slowed even further. Part of this was due to her close association with her former screen partner, of course. In the public mind, she was “And Bacall.” In some respects—as Bacall herself often pointed out—she never fully had a career of her own. The massive overnight success of her entrance into movies, and her connection with Bogart’s legacy, was its own kind of show business prison.

What this obscures, of course, was that Bacall was always a striking screen presence and a serious actor from the very beginning. Here then is a look at some of her most interesting films from the fifties onward.

[Where to begin?]

Sep 17 2014 3:00pm

The Noir Geek’s Guide to The Big Lebowski

The Coen Brother’s 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski has many cultural touchstones—the sixties, hippies, Vietnam, CCR, weed, Busby Berkley musicals—but the underlying structure of the movie goes back further to the days of 40s film noir. In a movie full of touches of genius (full disclosure: I’m a Lebowskiphile from way back), the initiating act of genius was the decision to make the film a modern day update of the hardboiled L.A. crime story. Of course, the Coens were well aware that Robert Altman did this back in the seventies when he brought Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe to the grimy, drugged-out LA of 1973 in The Long Goodbye. The Coens did Altman one better by celebrating/satirizing/sending-up every noir trope they can get their hands on.

Here then is a noir geek’s guide to the land of Lebowski:

1. The Big Lebowski, The Title: In the film itself, “The Big Lebowski” refers to the character played David Huddleston, the rich old man who hires “The Dude” to find his missing wife. The title, however, is a throwback to The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s novel about a rich old man who hires private eye Philip Marlowe to find his missing son-in-law. It’s evocative, too, of other noir titles like The Big Bluff, The Big Combo, and The Big Heat.

[Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.]

Sep 13 2014 1:00pm

Bogie and Bacall: Key Largo (1948)

In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Today we’ll look at John Huston’s Key Largo.

I want to state this up front because I know that many people will disagree: Key Largo is not one of Humphrey Bogart’s best films.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really, really good. Since I’ve seen it, oh, 20 times or so, it must be doing something right. Still, when you consider that his credits include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and In a Lonely Place, you realize that Bogart simply made so many masterpieces that even a film like Key Largo has to get bumped down to the second tier. There it joins films like The Enforcer and Dark Passage. And that ain’t  bad company.

[That's where I want to go...]