Monday, November 24, 2014

Another Film Noir: Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 masterpiece SCARLET STREET, with Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, is disturbing to say the least. The film plays with appearance and reality almost in the same way that the characters do, conning each other into one thing or another, becoming one character or another as they all greedily, and without compunction go for the brass ring, the main chance, the big enchilada.

I wondered as the opening credits rolled if this was even going to be a noir movie. Maybe I had gotten mixed up when I was browsing Netflix and gotten hooked into some romance? The music over those credits seemed breezy and romantic, and I couldn’t see where we were going to get noir at all. The only detective in this piece turns out to be the deceased spouse of Robinson’s battle-axe of a wife Adele, and he was a dissolute bum who is more concerned with chasing down bribes than he is with chasing down criminals.

Robinson, playing the part of Christopher Cross, the same Edward G Robinson of the parts Rico in PUBLIC ENEMY and Rocco in KEY LARGO, plays an unassuming, diffident little wallflower who wouldn’t say sh*t if his mouth was full. He is too soft-boiled to be the protagonist of the typical crime drama.

In the opening scene, the guys from work are having a little party, and Robinson, a cashier who has performed faithfully for 25 years, is given the clich├ęd watch that you always get when you have been a wage slave for decades. He stands in the rain at the bus stop with a co-worker, both tipsy, and they seem like lonely guys, even though they are both married.

Robinson started out as a boarder in Adele’s place, and she acted sweetly at first, but she turned shrewish upon taking the wedding vows, just one of the people who gull Robinson throughout the story. She has insurance money from the sainted and dead husband (easier to be one when you are dead, as we will see later) but won’t spend any of it even for a radio, which she continually nags at Robinson to purchase for her.

Robinson dabbles at painting, turning mundane reality into beautiful fantasy even though he “could never master perspective.” Adele thinks his painting silly, and even accuses him of wanting to paint naked women. He protests that he has never seen a naked woman, and you feel sorry for him until you remember what Adele probably looks like in the buff (and how she behaves, clothed or not).

As Robinson walks through a depression era Greenwich Village, he sees a woman being accosted (Bennet being slapped around by Duryea), and rushes to the rescue, the sight of a woman in distress inspiring him to overcome his milquetoast nature for once. He whacks the fellow with his umbrella, and takes the poor girl home after going for a cop who goes after the fleeing attacker in vain.

This damsel in distress motif is extended into a sweet scene where Cross takes Kitty home and they have a soda in the basement establishment below her apartment, which she shares with a girlfriend. Kitty appears to be a sweet girl, and here we have the film trope of the “cute-meet” whereby the couple that will end up together first spark each other’s interests, before being blocked from being together in the second reel, and then finally united in the third.
But Kitty is far from what she seems to be. And Chris is not entirely honest either, telling her that he is a successful painter, or at least not disabusing her of that notion when she gets it into her head. He, who has seen his boss drive off with a young girl who is not his wife, and doesn’t consider that perhaps money has something to do with the pairing of a silver-haired oldster with a girl young enough to be his daughter, is playing the romantic role, and she, out of pity or for laughs, plays along.

Lang here is saying something important about human nature, I think. As human beings, we are self-conscious creatures, and we are aware of how we are supposed to act, and how we seem to others. So we create social personas, or masks, and use those masks to navigate our social world. And sometimes that mask is worn so long that we forget that it is a mask.

The movie merrily hums along in a romantic direction until the next scene, where we learn that the “attacker” was really Kitty’s boyfriend, who was just slapping her around because she wouldn’t give him any more money to gamble with. The two of them are as id-driven and libidinous as you could possibly be in a 1945 movie. Her apartment is filthy, and she lies around all day in her bedclothes, and throws cigarette butts into a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. “Johnny” practically lives there. He’s a hoodlum, a ne’er do well, and a grifter, but she doesn’t mind because, as she says to her girlfriend, she is in love. In a movie of the new millennium, I am sure there would have been violent sex, and it is intimated even here.

Neither Kitty nor Johnny is much for work, so they come up with a scheme for Kitty to induce Chris to get her an apartment she will “pay” for by modeling. Johnny gets hold of Chris’s paintings, which Chris has never been confident enough to sell, and Kitty starts to impersonate Chris, who doesn’t care, because now he imagines they will be together. The paintings begin to see like mad.

And then, of all things, Adele’s ex husband reappears. He supposedly drowned when he tried to save a woman suicide from doing so, but really he had been attempting suicide himself, because he had gotten caught taking bribes from speakeasies to allow them to stay open. He is mistaken for dead, and he doesn’t mind. He is a great big lout, a greasy, smelly, bear of a man, and a lush. He asks Chris to pay him off so he won’t tell Adele he is back.

And for the first time Chris really, and cleverly, is as duplicitous as those around him. He tells the ex that he can come by the house when Adele is out and get the insurance money she got from the insurance company upon his death, but of course she is home, she sees him, and now Chris, still deluded into thinking Kitty loves him, thinks he can finally be with Kitty. It is the ending of the perfect romantic comedy, lovers meet, lovers spark, lovers can’t be together, lovers can be together (when Chris’s marriage is dissolved).

But when Chris goes to see Kitty, he undergoes the same shocking reversal we did when we discovered Kitty’s attacker was really her lover (a not too complimentary view on what keeps men and women together, violence and sex, or violence followed by sex). She tells him he is old and ugly and she hates him. And when he finally must face that fact that perhaps he is, and that his romantic notion of love is ridiculous, he kills her.

Johnny gets blamed for the murder, but he is so obviously a hoodlum that no one believes him. It doesn’t help that he steals Kitty’s jewelry when he sees she is dead (“she didn’t need it anymore”). And no one believes that Chris was really the painter. Chris greatly enjoys Johnny’s death in the chair, until he thinks how Kitty and he will be lovers together in eternity, laughing at him. Chris is broke, fired for stealing from the boss to pay for Kitty’s apartment. He wanders the depressing Depression era streets, shattered, starving and crazed, and finally tries to hang himself, only to get saved by another boarder in the shanty of a rooming house he is living in. His mind gone, he tries over and over to confess, but no one will listen to him. He is in hell, but one of his own devising, not one for those who have sinned against other men, but for those who can’t come to terms with life without the social mask.

The twist in this particular noir film is that passion, combined with the inability to reconcile a romantic view of life with the harsh reality of life as really lived, is what destroys Cross. He never wanted to be a crook, a criminal; he never set himself against society. He just, as he says to his friend, wanted to know just once what it would be like to be loved by a beautiful young girl. It seems like a small crime to commit, his deluding of the self, but it leads to the killing of Kitty, and his inability to let go of the dream finally drives him mad.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Moment with Albert Campion

Some years ago Mystery! on PBS featured a series based on Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries. It starred Peter Davison. The episodes were wonderful and even my friends who told me time and again that they never read mysteries watched the show avidly.

I tuned into NJN, the broadcaster of Campion, one evening during a fundraiser. I always felt sorry for NJN because they were competing with WHYY in Philadelphia and WNET in New York City for viewer dollars. Imagine my delight when they announced that the special in-studio guest for the evening was Peter Davison.

“Yes, friends, for a pledge of $35.00 you can talk to Peter Davison, star of the PBS series, Mystery!”

I seized the phone and was greeted by a lady with a clarion New Jersey bray. (Hold your letters filled with outrage and umbrage. I mean this characterization as a compliment.)


“Yes. I pledge $35.00 and I want to speak to Peter Davison.”

I surrendered name, address and credit card information.

“Just a minute,” said the lady on the line. “Where’s the CELEBRITY?”

I hear a murmur of voices and then I hear the telephone lady say, “STEPHANIE.”

“Good evening, Stephanie. Lovely of you to ring.”

This was said in the most beguiling British accent. (Heaven, I’m in heaven)

We talked for a while about Campion (I assured him the series had many American fans), his impressions of America, and his wish to do a play on the West End. Mr. Davison was was a delight and seemed to have the entire evening to talk to me.

I dined out on this experience for some time. I not only told my friends about it, they put me in touch with friends of theirs so that I could recount the experience. I was excited to tell the story over and over and any number of people seemed enchanted by it.

Then came my friend Jane. Jane, the reader and watcher of science fiction. Jane who once accused me of thinking less of her because she read science fiction.

“What did he have to say about Doctor Who?”


“You didn’t ask him about Doctor Who?”

“Why would I ask him about Doctor Who?”

A great sigh that spoke of regret, resignation and not suffering fools gladly was released.

“He played Doctor Who and you didn’t ask him anything about it?”

“Do I get a reprieve from your scornful attitude if assure you my failure to ask questions about Doctor Who was the result of ignorance and not malice?”

I did feel awful about this oversight for a few minutes, but not much longer.

Over the years, I have given money to public television and radio and collected mugs, t-shirts, tote bags, books and God knows what else.

Those few minutes with Peter Davison, though I have nothing to show for it but the memory, remain my favorite thank you gift.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Friday, November 21, 2014

Everything Comes in Pieces Nowadays

A lot of us have gotten out of the habit of going to the store to buy things like clothing and furniture. Buying clothing online is the simplest thing in the world. You don't even have to be decently dressed while you do it. It comes, it fits or it doesn't, if it doesn't you put it back in the box and take it across the street to the post office. No problem.

Furniture, not so much.

We've been living in this house for thirty years. We don't generally require more furniture. Sometimes we require less. There's a table with matching chairs in the kitchen, all solid maple, that my mother bought for her house in Massachusetts sometime in the sixties. I think it must be the last furniture she bought. But, the truth is, it doesn't fit in my little kitchen. I'm covered with bruises from bumping into the chairs. The table offers no storage underneath. There's stuff all over the tabletop that I can't fit in the cupboards. I've taken to storing potatoes and bags of flour on the chairs.

That's the kitchen problem. Then there's the trouble with my office. If you think the kitchen is cluttered, you should try wading into the office. You all know how long I've been complaining about this. It's been years, right? The desk is too big for my little office, there's stuff all over the floor, blah, blah.

If you can state a problem clearly, the solution will suggest itself. I have always believed this. So. Away with the too-big desk, get a smaller one with a file drawer. Out with the kitchen table and chairs, replace them with a modest kitchen island of a good height to work on and a stool for when I want to work sitting down. Simple matter. And yet I would never dream of going to a furniture store and selecting a kitchen island and a desk. Instead I did what I always do, go online and poke around until I find something that looks good.

This desk looked good! And the price was right. I sent away for it, along with two nice-sized bookcases, the day the shelves began to peel away from the wall. All of these things, the desk as well as the bookcases, came in pieces. I should have understood how it was when I read the reviews for some of the desks that were for sale on Amazon. "It only took my boyfriend three hours to put it together." "Remarkably good quality for the price. The fact that they included glue for the joints made this desk unusually sturdy." I read these words with a vague feeling that rabbits were walking over my grave. They make you put it together. Still. How hard could it be?

Harold, God bless him, put the bookcases together. They were real wood, solid wood. The desk was not. It came several days after the bookcases in a flat package with warning stickers for the delivery man to get help picking it up. I think he delivered it solo. I heard a thump on the front porch and went to the door in time to see him getting back in his truck. "I will drag this into the house myself," I thought, "and then I will unpack it and take it upstairs piece by piece and put it together. Harold will be so surprised." But I couldn't budge it. You know how heavy particle board can be, many times heavier than wood. Luckily the young fellow next door picked it up and carried it in for me. I opened it up on the living room rug and took the heavy pieces up the stairs to my office, rejoicing in the prospect of doing all the assembly myself without bothering Harold. I would have it finished, I thought, before he got home from work.

Well, it took the two of us, working alternately, a full week to put that sucker together. I finished it yesterday morning. The sticker that said Made in America was particularly piquant. Yes, the desk is made in America, if you live in America; you're the one who makes it. I noticed the rail supporting the file drawer was made in Taiwan, and a very sturdy piece of machinery it was. As for the rest of the desk, it's good-looking, and that's the best I can say for it. I hate particle board. The veneer on it is so thin that you only have to scratch it a little to reveal the pale crumbs of glued-together waste wood beneath. Which I did, through various accidents.

The new kitchen furniture promises to be much classier, having cost a lot more. The stool arrived weeks ago, a dear little retro stool with steps that fold underneath. It, too, had to be put together; Harold got busy and did the job in an hour and a half.

The kitchen island comes today sometime. It will be solid wood, with a butcher block top, no particle board, and I don't expect to have to do anything to it other than unwrap it and carry it into the kitchen. Maybe attach the legs. Maybe put the shelves underneath. But probably not anything, because the guys at the John Boos factory worked on it for a month before they shipped it. Surely they got it all finished. And they made it in America! Is this a great country, or what?

Note the rounded edges. I can't possibly bump into it and hurt myself. It will be just the right height and size for rolling out Thanksgiving pie crusts.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Bouchercon Photo Essay

I am in the midst of a quick turnaround between Bouchercon and Icelandic Noir.  Who knew writing books would be so strenuous.  In truth, I feel tremendously lucky to be attending these book festivals.  And especially now, at my ADVANCED age, to be part of such a welcoming tribe of talented and interesting people.

My time for the keyboard is limited, so today the best I can managed is these glimpses of what the last week was like.

My week began with a visit to a life-long friend, which included her grandson's
second birthday party and an unforgettably joyous reaction of the little guy to
her birthday gift to him.

The pre-B'con days included visits to LA's museums.  LACMA has on view a
fabulous exhibition of samurai armor.


We continued with the Asian aesthetic at Huntington Gardens and the Chinese
and Japanese gardens.  These are bonsai Italian cypresses. 

A pavilion in the Chinese gardens.

The view from my room at the Long Beach Hyatt

The MWA table featured a cut-out of our patron saint.  When
I happened by, friends Michael Sears and Susan Spann were
also on view.

My panel with the Murder is Everywhere bloggers: Stan Trollip, Cara Black,
yours truly, Jeff Siger, Caro Ramsay, and the other Michael Sears.

The panel on Asian mysteries, with Lisa Brackmann (on the right) holding forth.

Since I was on the Pacific coast and this is the sun over water,
you might think this is sunset, taken from my room.  But it is dawn !?!
And I thought the geography of LA was difficult to understand.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, November 17, 2014

Out of the Past—Classic Film Noir

Is it more admirable to struggle, hopelessly, against your fate, or to accept it with as much dignity as you can? Robert Mitchum, as Jeff Bailey/Jeff Markham, in the brilliant film noir OUT OF THE PAST, tries one and then settles for the other.

And he does it in great film noir style, traipsing around gritty nighttime New York and San Francisco in a fedora and a trench coat, with an omnipresent cigarette practically surgically attached to his lips. Mitchum is a great physical presence, a quite large man with broad shoulders and a deep chest, and a sinewy, sinuous slow and cocky walk that seems to say, “I can kick your ass now or later, but I’m going to kick your ass.” And you don’t doubt him for a second.

And Jane Greer, as Kathy Moffat, the beautiful, sultry and terribly sexy femme fatale, has an equally dangerous physicality, a vamp-y, lusty sense of her own sexual power that mirrors Mitchum’s in the sense that she seems to be saying “I can f$%^ you now, or I can f$%^ you later, but I am going to f$%^ you.” And you don’t doubt her for a second.

And when Moffat says “we deserve each other,” and when she asks Markham if he believes her when she says she didn’t steal $40,000 from the gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in a great early role) and he tells her “I don’t care” you believe them again. The irresistible force and the immovable object, the yin and yang, the head cheerleader and the quarterback on the football team, the masculine and feminine principles, the two of them are so powerfully drawn to each other that you can’t imagine they could ever resist each other.

But Markham should have, because Moffat is as morally diseased as she is physically perfect. Markham is hired to find her after she shoots her boyfriend Sterling and absconds with $40,000. Markham is a gritty guy in a gritty profession, and agrees to do it even though he knows Sterling may be lying when he says he only wants her back. Sterling tells Markham he likes him because he is smart and honest, implying implies that even those qualities can be bought, which they apparently can.

Markham finds her, of course, and instead of fulfilling his contract, he runs away with her. They both have the idea that they will live an idyllic life of romance, of laughter, of picnics and the racetrack, their primitive longings for each other transmuted into some kind of genuine partnership, something exalted and grand, something miles away from the grime and squalor of the city streets they grew up on. Markham tells Moffat, “Nothing in the world is any good unless you can share it,” and they do try to share their world.

But you can’t escape the past, or who you are, and they are tracked down by Markham’s old partner, who wants some of the dough Moffat stole. Markham gives him a good thrashing (what other outcome could there have been, as Mitchum exudes a supreme physical and sexual confidence, even going so far as telling Douglas as Whit Sterling, when it looks as if they are to come to blows, “forget it, you’re out of shape,” as Markham gracefully takes a seat on the couch and Sterling decides not to test him), but then Moffat kills the partner in cold blood as he lies, senseless and helpless, on the floor. It turns out she did steal the money, and she runs back to Sterling.

Perhaps Markham can’t help his romantic and decent impulses any more than he can help himself from being attracted to Moffat. He goes into hiding as Jeff Bailey, after Moffat leaves, in an unassuming little town in the Sierra Nevada, Bridgeport, runs a gas station, and falls in love with Ann Miller, who is an Ivory Soap kind of girl, the kind of girl who had the best handwriting in third grade in Catholic School and was liked by the nuns and her classmates both. When Sterling finds Markham, Markham tells Miller everything, and she tells him she still loves him, believing Markham didn’t kill his partner (in the dark and convoluted plot, Bailey eventually gets framed for three murders by both Sterling and Moffat), or the other two.

Sterling pushes Markham back into another job for him, and Markham lets himself be pushed, perhaps having an impulse to ruin himself instead of ruining Anne’s life (she really does play a likeable character, a good girl who is not prudish or prissy, and who genuinely love Jeff, going on picnics with him and watching him fish, kissing him and believing in him in a way he can’t believe in himself).

The plot is not all that important, dark and convoluted as it is. Let us just say that Sterling, his henchman, Markham’s partner and a lawyer who got caught up with Sterling all wind up dead, and Moffat is in one way or another involved in all the deaths. She’s the most completely cynical character of the bunch, gulling both Markham and Sterling with that beautiful thoroughbred body, the brooding black eyes, and the radiant smile that promises that you are the only one.

Markham makes one last attempt at the good life, to be with Ann, when he goes to see Sterling to un-frame himself and set everything right. But Moffat has killed Sterling, and tells Markham to run away with her or go to jail for the murders he has been framed for. She is capable of speaking out of both sides of her mouth, this one, as is everyone in the movie, practically, except perhaps Ann and the boy who helps Markham at the gas station, who saves Markham’s life, and who is true to Markham and Ann till the end, no matter how much danger that puts him in. The boy is deaf and mute, unable to be manipulated or to manipulate others with the very language that everyone else uses to deceive.

And so Markham drives away with Moffat, and lust and venality and corruption seem to have taken the day, except that Markham has tipped off the cops. Moffat kills Markham, telling him he is a double-crosser in a voice that seems to betray her truly evil nature for the first time, and the cops kill her.

Maybe it is both noir and romance, this movie, because now Ann is free to be with the boyfriend who has been pining for her all through the movie, a good guy whom she passes up for the more magnetic Markham, whom she can’t resist any more than Markham could resist Moffat. The two survivors drive off together in the end and you know that death at a police roadblock is not in their future.