Sunday, January 25, 2009

Noir City, Night Two: What a Dahl!

The loyal denizens of Noir City were treated to a visit by Hollywood Royalty last night. The Film Noir Foundation and a sold-out theater of 1,407 lucky film-goers paid tribute to the legendary Arlene Dahl, va-va-va voom girl and wonderful actress. What a night ... and what a Dahl!

The evening began with an ode to nostalgia: this year, as part of the Newspaper Noir theme, newspaper boys--and girls--dressed in the archetypal hat and knickers of legend, roam the waiting lines of the festival, hawking free Noir City programs to eager ticket holders. Last night they yelled "Extra, Extra--Arlene Dahl in person between shows!" It's a great gimmick, and the kids were wonderful ... and I'm betting it helped sell a few more Chronicles and New York Times, too.

Ms. Dahl arrived to applause from the hundreds of people waiting in line, accompanied by her husband, Marc Rosen, and actor son, the gallant and handsome Lorenzo Lamas. A bit later, passport holders were allowed into the theater for a fabulous reception, complete with cocktails made with the official Noir City spirits Rain Vodka and Eagle Rare Bourbon (my poison was bourbon and soda, natch), and a sumptuous feast of hors d'oeuvres. Ms. Dahl, as gorgeous as ever, graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures, while her family watched proudly.

Then ... the movie. WICKED AS THEY COME (1956) was a star vehicle for Ms. Dahl, showcasing not just her amazing beauty, but her formidable talent. She portrays an impoverished, working-class girl who scrambles over a chain of men into a rich marriage ... only to have her past catch up to her with disastrous results. What do you expect? This is Noir City, baby!

The film is reminiscent of the pre-code Stanwyck masterpiece Baby Face, but offers an interesting twist (and one that indicates how obsessive filmmakers were with psychology and juvenile delinquency in the mid-'50s): Ms. Dahl's character, Kathy Allen, harbors an emotional block against intimacy and a pathological hatred of men not because she is as "wicked as they come", but because she was the victim of a horrendous crime in her early adolescence. Heady stuff--and Ms. Dahl's performance was perfect.

Philip Carey and Herbert Marshall ably rounded out the star list, and the film was sumptously filmed--on location in Britain--by Basil Emmott. Director Ken Hughes may be more famous for his British Double Indemnity noir, The House Across the Lake (1954) -- and for directing the only Ian Fleming musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) -- but WICKED AS THEY COME is a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and a shining example of Ms. Dahl's tremendous talent.

After the credits, the screen segued to a delightful series of film clips from Ms. Dahl's films, everything from song and dance numbers (Three Little Words) to melodrama (Woman's World) to historical noir (Reign of Terror--shown at last year's Noir City) to fantasy adventure (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Audience favorite was probably the steamy clip from Sangaree (1953), in which she co-starred with husband Fernando Lamas. What made it even more memorable is the fact that Lorenzo had never seen his mother on the big screen before last night.

Noir Czar Eddie Muller then brought Ms. Dahl to the stage for a champagne toast and a tremendous standing ovation. Gracious, delightful, and a mesmerizing conversationalist, Ms. Dahl discussed her origins in show business, her work, her equally legendary co-stars, and paid tribute to both the Castro's own beauty as a movie palace and to the adoring audience. The time passed too quickly ... and after another standing ovation, Ms. Dahl and her family made their way out of the theater, accompanied by the sound of applause and the hearts of 1,407 habitues of Noir City.

The second film then aired: a technicolar and Super Scope 1956 feast called SLIGHTLY SCARLET, starring Ms. Dahl and friend and fellow redhead Rhonda Fleming. If you don't think noir can be shot in color, think again. John Alton--probably the foremost master of shadow and light to grace Hollywood--made the oranges and greens and blues and purples as lurid as a black and white Bowery gutter.

The story was ostensibly based on James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit, but the script rambled, sometimes into incoherency. The plot involved the ostensible clean-up of a crooked Bay City by "publicity man" John Payne, who is actually an underling of the mob boss his clean-up machinations overthrows. He uses his knowledge of Rhonda's relationship with the newly-elected goody-two shoes Mayor (she's his secretary--and what a secretary!) and her younger sister's klepto- and nymphomania (played to the delicious and perfect hilt by Ms. Dahl) to manipulate them into helping him with his coup.

The problem is that despite Payne's charisma and able performance, his motivation is unclear and underwhelming, and the movie doesn't flesh out Cain's plot well enough to make you sympathize with him. Ted de Corsia turns in his usual spectacular character performance as the overthrown Little Caesar, but Ms. Dahl, as Dorothy Lyons, steals the show ... and not just in her leopard print swim suit, but in a captivating, convincing performance of mental illnesss that made me wish she'd been able to play Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

Veteran director Allan Dwan wisely kept the camera on the eye-popping scenery--Rhonda and Ms. Dahl against a symphonic technicolor backdrop. SLIGHTLY SCARLET may have suffered from a weak script, but with star power like that, you can quote Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past ... "Baby, I don't care."

I'm a working girl, so I've got to leave the mean streets for a few days, hopefully to return on Thursday. In the meantime, keep your powder dry and watch out for redheads ... they spell terrific trouble in Noir City!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

That's the Press, Baby! - Noir City Opening Night

Last night it rained in San Francisco. It always rains in San Francisco for two weeks in January--when she opens the Golden Gate to murder, lust, corruption and cheap cigarettes.

Yes, it was Noir City night at the Castro Theater, and Bay Area residents let the rain drops drip from their fedoras, and sauntered over to a sold-out movie palace to pay tribute to urban poetry. Noir Czar and Czarina Eddie Muller and Anita Monga have programmed a punchy, timely and provocative theme this year--Newspaper Noir, from the days when the press didn't mean smarmy, politicized gossip from ill-educated and attention-seeking hacks.

... or did it?

One thing a steady dose of noir will teach you--and I've been dipping into it for a long, long time--is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So last night we were treated to two films that dealt with the distintegration of news to sensationalism and the tawdry manipulation of fear and wish-fulfilment ala "reality tv" ... only the year was 1952.

Just as the internet threatens -- and some would say, has sealed the fate -- of the printed "wuxtry!" that was the most popular and affordable media of its time, back in the early '50s the threat was TV. And then--as now--the owners of said news outlets wrestled with what to do.

The first film, Richard Brook's DEADLINE--USA, is an obit for the ethical newspaper man ... the current editor and now-deceased owner who believed in the power of the press and in the dignity of the human being. In newspapers that function as social outlets, the voice in the wilderness crying for reform, the byline that isn't afraid to speak the truth to the masses, not just cater to their taste for sensationalism.

And what a movie ... no film about the press captures its allure and its power and the Sophie's Choice of its purpose--to report or to exploit?--better than DEADLINE. Only the sardonic comedy of The Front Page and its remake, His Girl Friday, comes close at all.

Richard Brooks (Brute Force) wrote a snap-crackle screenplay, sharp with wit and observation, and matched it with flawless direction. Humphrey Bogart is perfect casting as the epitome-of-decency editor, Ethel Barrymore also perfect as the owner's widow who regains her self-respect and fighting spirit in battling to save the paper her husband founded. No one--and I mean no one--ever played those parts as well as Ethel, my favorite of the Barrymores.

The always believable Kim Hunter rounds out the stars of the cast as Bogie's ex-wife, but the film really sang with stellar performances by some terrific character actors. Fleshing out the roles of reporters were Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane, The Window, Kiss Me Deadly) perfect as the tough sports writer, Jim Backus in an understated and convincing performance as the gossip man, Warren Stevens as a cub reporter determined to get the story, Broadway actress Audrey Christie as the hardboiled press dame, and Ed Begley as Bogie's right-hand man. Martin Gable owned the part of Rienzi, the untouchable city crime boss, and never overplayed a moment (it's the kind of role Rod Steiger would have chewed to bits).

Uncredited and virtually unknown actress Kasia Orzazewski portrayed the immigrant mother of a crime victim and dominated a moving scene late in the film. This was a character actress made for noir. Though her filmography is unfortunately tiny, she played small but memorable bits in three other top-notch noirs: Call Northside 777, Thieves' Highway (one of the very best) and I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Watch DEADLINE-USA if you can catch it on TCM, and advocate for its release on DVD. It's a truly great film, and a loving ode to the power of the press ... baby.

SCANDAL SHEET rounded out the opening night double-feature, and Broderick Crawford--always a superb actor--makes a dynamic and convincing editor, one who can recognize the merit of a story to emotionally manipulate the "slobs" that increase his tabloid's circulation. Yes, ladies and gentlemen--this was tabloid "journalism", and the year was 1952.

"Yellow" journalism is something you might remember hearing about in your high school history class, often linked with the name "Hearst". While Bogart and his paper recognized the power of the press and lived up to the moral responsibilities that came with it, Crawford and his Board of Directors -- despite hypocritical complaints about "immorality"--recognized the power and exploited the hell out of it.

Give the public what it wants ... a sucker is born every minute ... you get the idea. The more lurid the content, the more cheap and tawdry and trashy the stories, the more exploitative of people's victimization or misfortune, the more the circulation numbers shoot up--up--and up. It's Noir City, baby ... and it's also tomorrow's headline.

Ironically, Crawford's downfall begins with his reality-show-type creation of a Lonelyhearts Club, purely a publicity stunt designed to prey on the saps. It all seems so (unfortunately) modern--but Queen for a Day had been around for years (radio and then television), and no other show before--and possibly, since--so shamelessly milked false sentiment from dried up mammary ducts.

SCANDAL SHEET'S twists are many, and they all start to tighten around Crawford's thick neck. Y'see, he kills his ex-wife, covers it up, and then his star cub reporter--the dreadful John Derek--decides to solve the crime ... all in the name of circulation.

Donna Reed is terrific as the moral yet sexy good girl, Rosemary de Camp gives the performance of her life as Crawford's ex-wife, Harry Morgan is acid and biting as the cynical photographer, and character actors Henry O'Neill and Griff Barnett give excellent performances as two men who pull Crawford's noose ever tighter. And there are some amazing shots of amazing character faces playing rummies in the Bowery. As Morgan acerbically observes, "That does it--I'm not taking another drink."

SCANDAL SHEET, ably directed by Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential) and based on a Sam Fuller novel, only fell short with its second lead John Derek. Though he offered a brash sort of energy reminiscent of Tom Cruise, Derek was completely unconvincing in every role I've ever seen, and this, sadly, was no exception. Possibly cast to capitalize on his earlier portrayal of Crawford's son in All the King's Men, an actual actor would have been a much better choice. Still, the film's treasures outweigh Derek's feather-light performance.

Noir City continues tonight with a tribute to leading lady Arlene Dahl, and yours truly will be back with more ... for now, pay honor to the power of the press ... quit reading this blog and buy a newspaper, baby!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Before Noir City starts tomorrow and I immerse myself in amour fou, sweaty obsession and rain-darkened streets, I have to indulge in something on the opposite end of the spectrum ... purely joyful and purely heart-warming.

So what am I talking about ... a Capra movie? The end of The Christmas Carol? An episode of The Waltons?

Thankfully--at least regarding The Waltons--no. I'm talking about the amazing generosity and support that exists in the crime writing community. It's not the first time I've encountered it, but for the last two days I've been privileged to be dramatically reminded of it.

Here's the story: my first book--NOX DORMIENDA--was nominated for the Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery Award. And it's in the company of writers I deeply admire and friends I deeply care about--Rhys Bowen, Tasha Alexander, Laurie King. I am stunned, honored and humbled.

Since the announcement yesterday, I've spent a lot of time responding with thanks to the well-wishes and voices of encouragement and support that have poured in ... and again, I shake my head in wonder at the sheer niceness of this industry. At talks, the audience always laughs whenever I mention that crime writers are the most wonderful--and just plain nicest-- people in the world. But it's true. Criminal minds, warm hearts. :)

To top off all this, the generosity of friends and family is what is allowing me to say "aloha" to Hawaii ... to actually go to Left Coast Crime, which just two weeks ago was beyond my reach.

I've started to do my research, and just discovered "aloha" also means love.

Somehow, that's fitting.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Random 16

A couple of weeks ago, I was tagged for another meme-thing on Facebook ... Linda Richards, top-notch idea woman that she is, inspired me to reuse it here. I like the idea of reuse, make do or mend ... why limit a perfectly good meme to the Facebook environment?

Like everyone else apparently, I'm excited about the Inauguration. I'll be recording it for viewing after work. And I'm hoping that the number of newspaper special editions it sells will help keep our remaining dailies in business ...

Speaking of which, Noir City is this Friday, January 23rd ... Noir City, a font of inspiration and sweaty, heady obsession ... Noir City, the premiere film festival in the world, the dreamchild of the desperate, the deranged and the dangerous. Noir City. The name says it all, baby. And of course I'll be there, holding my Noir City passport. No shots this year--I've been inoculated before.

This year's theme ties in with the sad decline of journalism and the inky magic of tangible print--yes, it's Newspaper Noir, and the lead film is the Humphrey Bogart vehicle Deadline, USA. Noir Czar Eddie Muller's father was a byline sports columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, and believe you me, these films will all pack a nostalgic wallop of the long-gone world of real journalism ... you know, before news became merely opinion.

Somehow, Eddie always pulls rabbits and magic out of his many hats ... this year's festival will be really special (and Arlene Dahl is the guest!), so forget economic news or post-holiday blues--find a million dollar baby at San Francisco's Castro Theater, because Noir Days Are Here Again.

One more thing before the meme: I was saddened to learn that Ricardo Montalban passed away. A charming, ever-urbane man of wonderful talent, charisma and personal appeal, he enriched a bleak television landscape with fun and fantasy, and graced a number of good films with his presence. One of them was a hard-hitting noir, helmed by Anthony Mann and lensed by John Alton: Border Incident. Coincidentally, it's airing on TCM on the opening date of Noir City (Friday, January 23rd), so if you can't come to San Francisco, you can pay tribute to both noir and Montalban by watching this fine film. I'll post a review of it soon ... in the meantime, see the trailer here.

Now ... the sixteen bits of personal trivia. I was originally tagged by legal eagle and thriller writer Ken Isaacson, and the MWA Maven herself, Margery Flax.

1. Ken now owes me at least two drinks at the next conference for getting "The Pina Colada Song" stuck in my head.

2. Confession: I'm a sap for any song that features classic Hollywood ... "Bette Davis Eyes" ... "Vogue" ... and, yes, even "Key Largo" (We had it all ... just like Bogie and Bacall!)

3. I was the only girl in my kindergarten play. I played the little billy goat in The Three Billy Goats Gruff--and not knowing that billy meant male, I wore a pastel dress and a hair ribbon.

4. When I was six I wanted to be a paleontologist.

5. My mother tells me I used to love the Beatles when I was a baby.

6. My first pony's name was Sugarfoot. My second pony's name--when we moved to Florida--was Rascal. My first horse's name was Mahalia. And my mom knew Mahalia Jackson.

7. I am very proud of whistling well.

8. I collect comic books and paper ephemera from the '30s and '40s for research and pleasure.

9. My Mae West impression won the role of the courtesan in The Comedy of Errors for me.

10. I'm an incurable Romantic. That's why I write noir.

11. I almost attended UC San Diego and was accepted there as a Chemistry major ... I thought about becoming a cosmochemist.

12. I attended the University of Dallas on a scholarship as a Drama major instead.

13. I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college.

14. I'm a coal miner's granddaughter.

15. My background is half Polish and half English, Irish, and Scottish with some Choctaw thrown in.

16. I refuse to eat viscera, but I love escargot.

Got a trivium or two? Share some of your own!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Meming of it All

I'm not sure that "meming" is a word -- but it's January, so new words are allowed. How else do little dictionaries grow?

This is the month of Noir City and post-holiday cookie sales ... a month of anticipation, back-to-the-gym promises, of hope and resolve and potential. Of dark, rainy streets projected in glorious 35mm on the Castro Theater screen, of sunshine in San Francisco backyards, and a new inauguration for a New Deal and a New Day in Washington.

You can probably tell I like January.

This week, I'm meming ... it's a receding economy, and in the spirit of "make do and mend", and "reduce, reuse, recycle", later this week I'll post a meme originally created on Facebook. Today, though, I've got a new one for which I was tagged by that talented dame of hardboiled fiction, Linda L. Richards.

You may possibly be wondering exactly what a "meme" is. In the context of Bloggerville, it's one of those response-oriented lists that float from tagger to tagger, wherein you list five foods you won't eat, seventeen most embarrassing moments, seven times you've broken the law or three impossible things before breakfast.

You know the kind of thing. Here's a link to more specific definitions, but their real purpose is to save a busy blogging world a lot of time and let you discover trivia about other people.

So--drum roll, please ... What book, movie and television show makes you cry the most?

(And keep in mind that I give good weep. From the "Old Yeller cry" (the horrible cry of loss) to "La Marseillaise cry" (the choked up cry of sentiment, in this case over the singing of the Marseillaise in Casablanca), I cry at, over and for a lot of things.)

Book: I might cry over my own if I get a particularly nasty review. I first read Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Return of the Native, and Jude the Obscure (all by Thomas Hardy) as a young woman (and re-read them subsequently), and I cried buckets. The sound of my tears used to wake my mother up in the middle of the night. They're among the most powerful novels in English, and Jude the Obscure, hands-down, is the most gut-wrenchingly devasting book I've ever read. Only Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath comes close.

Two more get honorable mentions: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Ayn Rand's We, the Living. The latter was one of my favorite books, and I used to harbor dreams of making it into a movie (I'm far from being a political disciple of Rand's, but she was one hell of a writer.)

A special section might be devoted to children's literature: I cried over the Harry Potter saga as an adult, and as a kid used to wail over Charlotte's Web.

Movie: The aforementioned Casablanca scene always makes me cry. But It's A Wonderful Life makes me cry from the opening scene, just in anticipation (voiceovers of various cast members are praying for George Bailey). I avoid sad animal movies entirely. Crying is a catharsis, and if you've experienced the loss of a beloved pet, you realize crying doesn't help. I don't need an entertainment vehicle to remind me of it.

Television Shows: TV mostly makes me cry in horror--especially the "Queen for a Day" reality programming. Most television--which, when I was growing up, was all network--is presented in bite-size chunks, making it much more difficult to sustain the emotional connection necessary. So I don't think I've cried at TV since the last, farewell episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And for some reason, probably related to why I'm a noir writer, Carol Burnett used to make me teary whenever she dragged out that damn old bucket to play the scrub-woman. I'm sure I would've cried at the last episode of MASH, too, but I was rehearsing for a play in college--and the little (#$^@ student director thought that directing meant being a dictator, and forced us to miss the episode. This in the days of no TiVO. I'm still holding a grudge.

Quid pro quo time: I'm tagging Laura Benedict, Jennie Bentley, Rebecca Cantrell, Bill Cameron, and Alex Sokoloff. And Linda, right back atcha. Memes away, guys! :)