Monday, April 28, 2008

Tag, I'm It

This is a tag. This is only a tag.

We interrupt this blog to disclose six random factoids about the author. Said author was tagged by noir writer and pal Bill (LOST DOG) Cameron ... we repeat, this is tag, and only a tag ... if it were a real blog post, you'd hear the sound of Bogart bitterly muttering "It's the stuff that dreams are made of" ...

So here are the six random facts, and following Bill's example, I will attempt to list them with a solemn air. Or a sober air. Come to think of it, solemn might be easier ...

Random Fact #6: I had two ponies (at different times) when I was a little girl. One was a pinto, one was a Shetland. These were not "my little ponies," either. In fact, the Shetland hadn't been gelded yet, and one time when my mother was feeding him, she found two hooves on her shoulders.

Random Fact #5: I first sang in public at the age of five at a concert of a Mexican guitarist whose name, alas, escapes me. I warbled "Que Sera, Sera." How I got on stage, I don't remember, but it took me a good many years to get off of it. My favorite role in college was as the Courtesan in The Comedy of Errors ... it was an awesome costume, and I won the role with a Mae West impression (and yes, I can still sound like Mae if plied with enough bourbon).

Random Fact #4: I love pigeons. In fact, I love all animals, though I have an aversion to earwigs. Pigeons (the common Rock Dove) have actually contributed a great deal to civilization (other than pigeon poop). Would that the same could be said of a few people I've known ...

Random Fact #3: I co-exist in the DC Universe. Back when we had a comic book store -- Robin Williams and Anton LaVey were both customers--our business was illustrated in an issue of Batman (my absolute favorite superhero and one of my favorite fictional characters) in which the Darknight Detective visits San Francisco. I was an Overstreet Adviser, on the DC Retailers Board, and Denny O'Neil called us "his favorite store in his favorite city." I still collect (old) comics, though my habit has been severely curtailed by my career. Other geek-type factoids: I own a copy of every Detective Comic from 1958-1985 (pre-Crisis); my oldest issue is Detective #40, from 1940 (first Joker cover; first appearance of Clayface), and I can remember not only all the pre-Crisis Earths and who inhabited them, but the members of the Legion of Super-Pets.

Random Fact #2: I drove Greer Garson home from a Dallas production of "Sweeney Todd"; I walked through the San Francisco Wax Museum with Jason Robards; I've talked politics with Justine Bateman and Robert Downey, Jr (and Leif Garrett). I've been a foot away from Billy Joel's socks (OK, that was the Stormfront tour).

And finally ... Random Fact #1: In order to help pay my way through college, one summer I sold phone advertising for massage and escort services. Talk about student debt.

So now the madness (and fun) continues ... I get to tag six more people.

The vict-I mean, winners, are:


As for the rules--

The rules are as follows:

Link to the person that tagged you - i.e. me.
Post the rules on your blog.
Write six random things about yourself in a blog post.
Tag six people.
Let each person know they've been tagged by leaving a comment on their post.
Let the tagger know when your entry is posted.

Noir, like James Bond, will return!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

St. George's Favorite Son

April 23rd has always been a holiday for me. I confess; I'm an Anglophile. But don't think that mars my noir street cred. Chandler spent most of his boyhood in England, and the "English Gentleman" ideal was inured in his soul. And his books were recognized as literature there -- not just thrilling crime fiction.

So I'm in good company. I love the green and pleasant land, even when it isn't green and pleasant.

So why is today a holiday? Well, it's St. George's Day. As a Dragon myself (in the Chinese horoscope), I don't take too kindly to that dragon-slaying image. But good ol' George (no report on whether he was curious) is the patron saint of England. But even that's not enough to make it a real holiday for me.

What clinches the deal is Shakespeare. And no, I'm not talking about Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Queen Elizabeth, or any of the other royals academics and conspiracy buffs have foisted upon the public as the "real deal." I'm talking William Shakespeare, middle class glover's son, who ran off to London, became an actor, made a decent enough living and impact to get some royal backing and procure a coat of arms for his dear old dad, and who, incidentally, wrote the greatest literature in the English language.

Shakespeare. The one and only Will. He may or may not have looked like Joseph Fiennes, but the man did exist, and he did write plays. Middle class education and all ...

Take a look at Julius Caesar, for example. A long, long time ago (as a student) I wrote a rather extensive research paper on how Elizabeth employed imagery of imperial Rome to help tie her to her father and legitimize her reign; Julius Caesar, performed for Elizabeth in the midst of her troubles with the rebellious Essex, fully supports the legitimacy of princely rule -- as heroic as Brutus (or Essex) may have seemed.

In other words, Shakespeare supported a typically middle-class position. Now, since this is a blog and not an academic journal (and huzzah for that!) I won't go into detail. Just know that good ol' Will was (I believe) a solid burgher and devoted supporter of Tottenham Hotspur (never Chelsea).

Anyway, here's the point: today is his birthday. And whether you read noir, cozies, historicals, chick-lit, paranormal horror or romantic humor, you need to hoist a glass to Shakespeare ... because, in his thirty-seven surviving plays ... the Bard wrote it all.

Paranormal? Try Macbeth. Noir? Othello or Hamlet (yes, both protagonists are #&*%@ on page one). Chick-lit? Well, there's The Merchant of Venice with the cross-dressing legal eagle, Portia. Historicals are there in abundance, from the John and all the Henrys down through Troilus and Cressida. If you seek a cozy, try the Merry Wives of Windsor ... romantic humor? Much Ado About Nothing comes to mind. And of course, for (tragic) romantic suspense, you can't beat Romeo and Juliet.

So pull out the London Pride and pour yourself a tall one ... and on April 23rd, remember St. George's Favorite Son. "To die ... to sleep ... to sleep, perchance to dream, aye, there's the rub ... for in that sleep of death what dreams may come--when we have shuffled off this mortal coil-- must give us pause ..."

Now, that's noir! ;)

Next week: back to film with #9 on the countdown ...

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Say What?!

Mitchum's looking a little skeptical, but once in a while, you've got to forgive an author for sharing news. Particularly when it's good news. :)

In the April 15th edition of Library Journal, the cover story focuses on trends in the mystery/crime genre, like the mushrooming popularity of audio books (ITW's The Chopin Manuscript) and the growing awareness of and market for large-print editions.

It then concludes with the subheading "Roman noir, anyone?", and goes on to highlight my debut novel NOX DORMIENDA as a combination of two hot, emerging trends in the genre: historical fiction and classic hardboiled/noir/PI stories.

You can read the full article here:

To say I'm thrilled beyond belief would be an understatement! I'm not literally dancing in the streets at the moment, because I happen to be in Denver for the next few days, and it happens to be snowing. But when I get back to San Francisco ...

After a suitable interval, noir will return. Right now, I want to post about bubblegum rock (just kidding!)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Thieves' Highway: Want an Apple?

The next time you're feeling up the produce at your favorite mart, considering which juicy apple to sink your teeth into, you might be surprised to find yourself thinking instead of Richard Conte.

I know I've never been able to eat an apple with the same air of nonchalance since my first viewing of Thieves' Highway(1949).

This week we're looking at that paragon of noir cinema as the start of a new/old theme for Writing in the Dark. Though other news will inevitably preempt our schedule, I thought it was time to discuss some of the films on my personal "top ten noir" list. These are films I love unabashedly, films that have influenced me, haunted me, pursued me down dark rainy pavements, and made me question my produce purchases.

We're starting with Thieves' Highway because it currently lodges at #10 and because Jules Dassin, its brilliant and blacklisted director (and the genius behind Night and the City, The Naked City, Brute Force and Rififi) passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 96. With the loss of Dassin and Widmark, the world is much darker, and not in a good noir way.

Thieves' Highway is a gut-wrench of a political movie, a social-commentary on the efforts of the working man to earn an honest living in a world that doesn't reward it -- not even in the seemingly pure and innocuous produce trade.

Conte (and he was never better) brings a capacity for violence that few leading actors shared: Cagney, Bogart, Lancaster, and few others. Conte played both good guys and bad guys so effectively, because he seems like an in-between guy ... in other words, like one of us.

In Dassin's cinematic tone poem set in San Francisco's once thriving produce mart, Nick Garcos (Conte) is a war veteran who returns from a world war to a personal one: his father has been financially and physically crippled by a racketeering produce kingpin, Mike Figlia (a world-class performance by Lee J. Cobb). Determined to redeem his family's honor and salvage its fortune, he teams with Ed, another trucker, to bring an early shipment of Golden Delicious into San Francisco.

Naturally, Figlia tries to dupe him, as he did Nick's father. He employs a prostitute (a riveting and ravishing Valentina Cortese -- whom I had the privilege of seeing in person at a play in Rome many years ago) to distract Nick so he can steal the cargo of apples. Meanwhile, Ed (played by Millard Mitchell, an actor better known as the studio mogul in Singin' in the Rain) still hasn't brought his truck through. A dangerous contest of pride and revenge between Nick and Figlia erupts, leading to increasingly violent consequences.

Dassin's shots and ace writer Buzz Bezzerides (whom we just lost last January) populate their canvas with lyrical chiaroscuro and lines sharper than an unripe Granny Smith. The social commentary is pithy and pointed: it's obvious that Nick's waspy fiancee is interested only in his prospects for wealth; she's the real femme fatale, not Cortese's passionate yet moral hooker. In a brilliant casting stroke, Jack Okie, a hot theater ticket in the early '30s and known for his comedy, is cast as "Slob," one of Figlia's henchmen, and the rest of the supporting cast is superb, including later director Joseph Pevney as Slob's partner, Pete.

Moments in this film will haunt you, but particularly a shot of golden delicious apples rolling down a highway embankment. I experienced Thieves' Highway at a Noir City a couple of years ago, and this shot is literally one of the most memorable of any film I've seen.

At one point in Thieves' Highway, Nick asks Rica (Cortese) about fruit:

Rick: Hey, do you like apples?
Rica: Everybody likes apples ... except doctors.
Nick: Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out ...
Rica: I don't know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.

Rent Thieves' Highway, and you'll appreciate your produce like never before.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Where Does Danger Live? Noir City, of course!

There are times that I think I'd like to live in Sea Cliff, the ultra expensive San Francisco oceanside community where you'll find luminaries like Robin Williams. I do live in the city, and actually have an ocean view, but not one from a multi-million dollar house.

Then I remember noirs like Where Danger Lives (1950) and The Man Who Cheated Himself (also 1950) and figure "exclusive" is just another word for "nut case." In Noir City, Sea Cliff is a synonym for too much money, too much power, and too much in-breeding.

Case in point: Where Danger Lives. My subtitle for WDL is "Never Date a Suicide." Even if she looks like Faith Domergue, or maybe especially when she looks like Faith Domergue. But hey -- if you can picture Mitchum as a doctor (and not for the first time -- he played one in My Forbidden Past (1951) and She Couldn't Say No (1954) -- maybe you will also believe that Domergue's character tried to kill herself because she was gorgeous and rich and lonely. Me, I think one of the things money can buy is company.

So the doctor gets suckered, but good, and there's a terrific little scene that looks like it was filmed at one of the Trader Vics or the Tonga Room at the Fairmont. OK, I admit it, I've got a weakness for tiki noir. The dame's "father" just won't let her enjoy her freedom. Still Mitchum doesn't get it. His eyes are dazzled by Domergue's assets and whatever he's sipping in that coconut shell.

Disillusionment follows and it looks like Claude Rains. I wish disillusionment always looked like Claude Rains; I love the guy. He gives a bravura (and all too brief) performance, absolutely pitch perfect (and I mean it--the movie is worth watching for his scene alone), as Domergue's husband. The only daddy giving her trouble uses a first name of Sugar.

The rest of the film is a suspenseful trip into low and lower life, the kind of predators that take advantage of you when you're on the run with a beautiful dame who tells you you murdered her husband. There's a race against time before Mitchum, the good young doctor who took a hard fall for Domergue, knows he's going to literally fall down from a concussion. He's better off with the headache, trust me.

Like any really good noir, the supporting cast is terrific. Phillip Van Zandt, who plays the smooth club owner in His Kind of Woman the next year (part-noir, part Vincent Price comedy) is a sleazy circus owner, Ralph Dumke is a crooked pawn shop dealer (are there other kinds?), and Tol Avery turns in a memorable bit as Honest Hal, Used Cars. If you want to know whether you're watching a noir, look for Honest Hal. He's a noir barometer, and only shows up when it's truly dark.

Ably assisting Mitchum is Maureen O'Sullivan as a sympathetic nurse/love interest. She wears a mask for much of the movie, and unfortunately looks old enough to be Mitchum's mother. But watch what she does with just her eyes (when a mask is covering the rest of her) for a lesson in good acting. The film, incidentally, was well directed by her husband John Farrow (yes, father of Mia).

Where Danger Lives is available on DVD, so queue it up for Netflix -- it's a keeper, even if Domergue isn't. He shoulda known not to fall for a jumper.

On another note, Charlton Heston passed away last night at the age of 84. Unfortunately, he may be remembered more for his politics than his performance in Touch of Evil, which is how I like to remember him. Sure, he played Moses and Michaelangelo and Ben-Hur and maybe even thought of himself as the Almighty. But Welles elicited a powerful performance from Heston as a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, and the film -- as baroque and stylized as Welles himself -- is an absolute triumph (on my top ten list, no less).

Watch this film carefully for the bull-fighting imagery ... Orson plays the bovine to Heston's matador. And like another great director, Hitchcock, he cast Heston precisely because of that upright, stiff quality that '50s epic used with such felicity.

Touch of Evil is so great that I can forgive Heston the extremism of his later years. Whether or not I can forgive him for The Omega Man is another story. But hey--maybe he made up for that one with Soylent Green.