Monday, May 25, 2009

Liberty for All

It's been an eventful few days!

Last week I received my ISBN number for CITY OF DRAGONS, an occasion for much celebration--which I did as a guest blogger on Working Stiffs, through the generosity of the wonderful Joyce Tremel and other friends on that fabulous grog.

My friend Rebecca Cantrell is in town to launch her extraordinary novel, A TRACE OF SMOKE ... we were the literary salon guests of one of the most wonderful and fascinating people in a wonderful and fascinating business, Mystery Readers International founder (and chocolate lover) Janet Rudolph.

Becky had a SRO launch party at one of my favorite places, M is for Mystery--and if you haven't had a chance to pick up her book, you should. Historical noir at its finest--and at its darkest (the setting is 1931 Berlin).

And I've been chugging away at various deadlines, editorial and non-editorial, with nary a moment left over for noirish indulgence. But soon, soon ... particularly as I'll be blogging over on Pop Syndicate about my favorite film noir flickers.

Today, however, I want to talk about Memorial Day and San Francisco.

Beyond the normal tourist sensations of Fisherman's Wharf--the ode to consumerism that is Pier 39, the gimmicky restaurants, the cheap t-shirts, the always-real and welcome barks of the sea lions and smell of sourdough bread--behind the wizard's curtain is another chapter of The City's history.

I'm talking Pier 45.

Just a short stroll down a working pier--yet miles away from the silver men and the keyboard players in the parking lot--is the Jeremiah O'Brien. One of two remaining fully-functional Liberty ships surviving from World War II.

She shares the berth with the U.S.S. Pampanito, a valiant WWII era submarine that has been preserved under the auspices of the National Park Service: the San Francisco National Maritime Park Association, to be exact.

The Jeremiah, though, isn't part of the park. It stays afloat--and takes full-throttle cruises, particuarly during Fleet Week and for special commemorative occasions like the anniversary of D-Day--solely through memberships and volunteers.

Think of it! A living, breathing, working ship, one of only two remaining of 2,710 built--iron and steel, history in the water. And all through the tireless efforts of volunteers who love her, who maintain her, and who make sure that the Jeremiah will live over Memorial Days past counting.

I've had the honor of sailing on her--for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. And while most of the world knows her--if they know her at all--from the engine room of James Cameron's Titanic (yup, she doubled for the tragic White Star liner), her legacy, her courage, and what she stands for touches us all.

The Jeremiah O'Brien is a Liberty ship. She is the last unaltered example of her kind. A floating museum of a war that was not predetermined, that was not a foregone conclusion. She and her sister ships ferried supplies and cargo to the front lines, and were a core part of the lend-lease program to Britain before the US joined the war. Roosevelt said this class of quickly built and aesthetically plain ships would bring liberty to Europe. And so they did.

In 1994, the Jeremiah O'Brien journeyed from San Francisco to the beaches of Normandy, revisiting her part in Operation Overlord. She was the only large ship to return for the 50th anniversary.

If you ever have a chance to see her, I hope you do. She--and the Pampanito--are floating Memorial Days, 365 days a year.

Next: More film, more San Francisco and more news!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Climbing the Noir Walls

"Murder! Infidelity! Brain damage!"

That could've been the tagline for the MGM (yes, they made dark stuff too, not just glossy musicals) noir High Wall (1947).

Y'see, High Wall is a terrific example one of a fascinating film subgenre ... the damaged vet/re-establish life and family noir, sometimes with amnesia thrown in as a sideline (others include The Crooked Way (1949), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Somewhere in the Night (1946), and last week's Cornered (1945)).

Amnesia was a staple of films, particularly with war veteran heroes -- check out Random Harvest (1942) for a quintessential example--but in the hands of the noir masters, these films weren't about amnesia as much as they were about wiping the slate clean.

Think about it: after the cataclysm and upheaval of the world's biggest and bloodiest conflict--one that forever reshaped this country, overthrew Empires and remade the Superpowers--redefining one's place in the New World Order was imperative ... and frightening. Dramas like William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)--which certainly possessed a few noirish touches--helped reestablish normalcy in a forever changed and abnormal world. But noir ... well, it tackled the anxiety head on.

Wartime marriage? Afraid you married a slut? Get in line, bub. Having trouble sleeping? Nightmares? Head injury? We know just how you feel. And thanks to the era's fascination with and confidence in psychiatry, we've got a cure, too, and she sometimes looks like Ingrid Bergman (Spellbound, 1945) or Audrey Totter (High Wall).

These films said it was OK if you got hurt and you can't remember and nothing is what it seemed like in 1942. They said it was OK if you married in haste and she's been cheating on you with a black market 4-F. Don't murder the bimbo--just divorce her and move on to Veronica Lake. The films typically offered cures, either through therapy or a dame or both, and ended with the vet establishing a new family, location in a dislocated environment.

And that brings us to High Wall. Directed by the under-appreciated Curtis Bernhardt (Conflict (1945) Juke Girl (1942) and Possessed (1947)), it stars Robert Taylor as a brain damaged flier who suffers black-outs ... and who has apparently strangled his greedy, adulterous wife (Dorothy Patrick). Enter Audrey Totter, in a rare non-femme fatale role, as devoted and caring psychiatrist Dr. Ann Lorrison, who treats Taylor while he's locked up in the looney bin. The once sleek and sophisticated Herbert Marshall plays the bimbo's boss (he's a publisher of a religious books) with a certain degree of both debauchery and pathos, and even H.B. Warner (It's A Wonderful Life, 1946) shows up in a small role.

Taylor turns in an able performance, proving he was more than just a pretty face. Like John Payne and Dick Powell, who made successful second careers playing tough guys in noirs, his film roles had been light comedies or romantic melodramas like Camille (1937), and High Wall gives him something sturdier.

Totter, however, steals the show--as she usually did. And this time without being the bad girl! Paul Vogel's stunning cinematography (he filmed the Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1947), also with Totter, and a little gem with Marsha Hunt and Van Heflin called Kid Glove Killer, 1942) makes me wish he shot more noir and less films like Jupiter's Darling (1955).

Sydney Boehm worked on the script, which is crisp and fast-paced, if not at the deliriously baroque levels of his masterpiece, The Big Heat (1953). He later wrote Rogue Cop (1954), another noir vehicle for Taylor.

All in all, High Wall is a terrific film, and a magnifying glass on the very real anxieties and social issues of the immediate post-war era. Unfortunately, you can't find it on DVD, but watch for it on TCM or try The Danger and Despair Knitting Circle, the best source for noir on the planet. So ... what have you been watching lately? ;)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Forgotten Corner

Before I talk about Cornered, a little-known Dick Powell noir, I need to confess. I'm not in a very noirish mood.

NOX DORMIENDA was just nominated for a Macavity Award--the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award--and, well, I'm happy. Joyful. Surprised and shocked and ecstatic and humbled! More like a Busby Berkeley musical than the mean black and white streets.

It's a wonderful honor to be in company with fellow nominees Rhys Bowen, David Liss, Jeri Westerson, Karen Maitland and Ward Larsen. Thank you, Mystery Readers International!! So I'll do my hardboiled best, but if I suddenly start sounding like Mickey Rooney about to put on a show in a barn, you'll know why!

Now, then (clearing throat). Cornered. 1945. Directed by Edward Dmytryk, the man who helmed Dick Powell's arguably greatest noir role (as Philip Marlowe) in Murder, My Sweet. Produced by Adrian Scott, producer of that earlier film. Unlike MMS, though, Powell is not a professional gumshoe--actually, THE professional gumshoe--but rather a luckless Canadian airman, just demobbed from the War ... out to discover who ordered the murder of his young wife, a member of the French resistance. Along the way, the film reminds the world that fascism didn't end with the War.

If you think Powell is too glib, too shiny, too pat, try this movie. He's got some glib moments--that's the script, and he is still Dick Powell--but the emotional darkness of the film will surprise you.

There is a host of films--and a subset of noirs--that deal with post-War issues, particularly lost relationships. From amnesiac war veteran noir (The Crooked Way, 1949) to the "I married a dame who turned out to be a slut" variety (Chandler's own The Blue Dahlia, 1946), to the excellent High Wall (1947), which is a combination of the two, noir was a cultural lens through which society could face the downside of hasty wartime unions ... and help redefine family for the burgeoning conservatism of the Ike years.

Cornered is unusual in showing a tragic loss--from the GI's perspective. And Powell is quite convincing with the pain he displays in Dmytryk's raw, fast-paced opening scenes.

The setting quickly switches to Argentina--even before the war, a hot bed of fascism. Powell is in Buenos Aires to track down a mysterious German agent whose rumored death was just that ... and who also gave the order to murder Powell's wife. That, as they say, makes it personal.

Walter Slezak lives up to his delightful name in a scene-stealing turn as a sleazy, sneaky peddlar of information. Morris Carnovsky (Dead Reckoning (1947), Thieves' Highway (1949)) is a fascist-fighting lawyer ... before the end of the movie, Powell will need him. Nina Vale is fetching in an Audrey Totter role, and even Jack LaRue (The Story of Temple Drake, 1933) has a memorable part to play. French actress Micheline Cheirel plays a semi-romantic interest--Powell is too broken up over his wife to really pursue her--and carries it off well-enough to make me wish she'd made more films. Even Luther Adler, John Garfield's former theater partner, (D.O.A., 1950) glowers and glimmers in powerful turn.

The script is juicy (uncredited Ben Hecht, credited John Paxton, who penned Murder, My Sweet (1944)), the direction taut, and the cinematography essential, moody noir (cinematographer Harry J. Wild filmed MMS, Pitfall (1948) and other classics.) Unfortunately, Cornered isn't available on DVD, so you'll have to look for it on TCM ... but rest assured, if you liked Murder, My Sweet you should like Cornered. It's worth the wait.

BTW ... Scott, Dmytryk, Carnovsky and Adler were all blacklisted. Dmytryk famously caved in to pressure after spending a few months in jail, and wound up naming names. Anti-fascism in the McCarthy era was synonymous with Communism ... a sad and ironic commentary that makes Cornered more of a noir than it intended.

I'll be blogging over on the Thrillerfest blog on Friday, guesting on Working Stiffs on the 22nd, and starting a regular film noir column at Pop Syndicate in June ... so stop in and pour yourself a drink. :)

Next time: I can't decide between Vertigo or High Wall. I may flip a coin ... but not from the tower at San Juan Bautista!