Friday, December 28, 2007

Fire! ...And gangsters!

My commute to work this morning was delayed a bit by a small track fire at the DeKalb Avenue subway station. The several adorable firemen lingering on the platform completely made up for the inconvenience. I'm not exaggerating, these were some of the cutest, most baby-faced firemen I've ever seen. I think Brooklyn has the cute ones, Manhattan has the hot ones.

In completely unrelated affairs, I have a 4-DVD box set of 16 mobster b-movies that I bought several years ago for about $8, and last night I took a look at it to see if I could find any inspiration in the titles or plot summaries, when I discovered that it includes The Big Combo! Now that I know what a hot little flick it is, I could hardly believe it. I had watched a few of the other movies in the collection, which are mostly from the early '30s to the early '40s, and they were pretty cheesy, but not in an entirely bad way.

Speaking of which, anybody remember Johnny Dangerously? I discovered it in the late-'80s when I was obsessed with spoofs (Mel Brooks) and Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Batman), and had but a fledgeling interest in gangster movies thanks to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Cartoon noir wins over all.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Unsociable...in the rain.

There's nothing like standing alone under a cold, misty drizzle in Madison Square Park, quiet after work hours and lit with strings of golden Christmas lights, with the silver glow of the Empire State spire rising above the winter-stripped trees to your right, and the fashionably old-fashioned Flatiron diverting 5th Avenue and Broadway traffic to your left, while you bite into a freshly grilled Shake Shack cheeseburger whose grease warms your bare fingertips through its wax paper wrapping, the puffs of fog rising from your lips as you chew in indulgent isolation. And then you think: You will never get these pathetic ten minutes of your life back, so you might as well savor them and remember them well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Long life, much laughter."

It's very rare to be able to meet your greatest influence in person, so I consider it an amazing gift that I met Pete Hamill today at the Brooklyn Book Festival, so much so that I get a little misty eyed just thinking about it.

I was having a bit of a sickness relapse today, so I wasn't able to get out of the apartment until about 2:30. The panel he was on was scheduled for 4:00 at St. Francis College, and tickets were going to be available at 3:00. After some snafus with the subway, I managed to get to Court Street at 3:20 or so, but by then, all tickets were gone. Bollocks. Plan A foiled. Initiate Plan B.

So I wandered around, checked out some of the vendors and the books on sale, sat on some steps while a panel of graphic novel authors talked about their work, saw babies and kids having their pictures taken with the Target dog (not an actual dog -- someone in a fuzzy bull terrier costume).

Then I came across a booth selling the Noir series, and I instantly said "OOOH." I already have "Brooklyn Noir," but I had no idea the publisher had come out with "Brooklyn Noir 2," "Chicago Noir," "Twin Cities Noir," "DC Noir," "LA Noir," "Manhattan Noir," and "London Noir." It was like looking at a table laden with sweet, sweet candy. One of the editors was selling them, and he said they're coming out with a bunch more. These were on sale for only $10, so I made it easy on myself and bought "London Noir" and "Manhattan Noir."

Treasures in tote bag (never having been a fan of tote bags, I've discovered that they're actually really good for carrying books), I went across the street to St. Francis College, where Plan B was to take place. It was about 10 minutes to 5:00, and the panel discussion/reading should have been done. The lines for the next event were already stretching down the block from the main entrance. So I waited nearish the doors, sitting on a bench, occasionally dipping into "London Noir" to pass the minutes by.

At about 5:10, a whole bunch of people began to stream out of a second exit a little down the block. I waited and watched a little more. At about 5:20, a guy with a professional video camera came out of the main entrance. And...there was Pete Hamill. He paused there on the steps to talk to the camera man, and over the murmur of people and traffic, I could still hear that gravelly New York accent I'd grown familiar with after watching him on the Ric Burns documentary about NYC.

He came down the steps and some dude went up to him to shake his hand, yadda yadda. Then when he started to walk off, I sallied forth and said, "Mr. Hamill...?"

He turned around and then...some other dude cut in and started talking to him first.

Okay. Stay calm. Stay calm.

I was actually nice about it and didn't say anything. I just stood there smiling faintly. The guy also called him "Pete." I couldn't do that. "Pete" also probably thought I was with him, so as they got into this whole conversation...um...we all started walking down the block towards the courthouse plaza where the book fair was. So...yeah...I was just walking along, walking along, trailing behind them a few steps, anxious as all hell.

At the crosswalk, "Pete" pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He turned around and glanced at me, and I smirked. Once we all crossed the street, I finally got up the nerve to talk to him. And I called him Mr. Hamill, dammit. That's who he is to me.

So while clutching a copy of "Downtown: My Manhattan," I told him how much of an influence he was on me as a writer and as a lover of New York history; that I always look to his work to inspire me; that I have only two authors who I want to emulate: the first being F. Scott Fitzgerald, the second being him. And he thanked me very sweetly for that. I then said that I know that autographs are really silly... But he obliged me and took out a pen and signed the inside of my book, inscribing it with "For Meisje -- Long life, much laughter! Pete Hamill, 9/16/07 Brooklyn."

I thanked him profusely for it and I thought it was going to be over when he asked me, "So what do you write?"

And there I was, standing on a Brooklyn street, with Pete Hamill asking me...ME...what kind of stuff I wrote. WAIT. WHAT.

I told him historical fiction, mostly set in New York City during the 1930s and '40s, because I loved those decades so much, and I often felt that I should have been alive during that time. "Well, now you can live it through writing," he said grinning. He said writing characters from other times should be like writing from memories -- their memories. After doing all the research, after looking at all the old photos, just set all that information aside and write, and write fast. Write like you're writing from memory. Writing longhand helps because it's more like writing a letter -- when you're writing a letter, the sentences come more freely -- from memory. And then sleep on it: "You gotta let it stew. Let it marinate. Let their memories become yours."

...How the hell do you adequately thank your idol for that kind of advice?

He was going to go to one of the booths ("I guess I'm going to go over there and...sit down?") to sign some books and chat with people, and so since I'd already said what I needed to say to him, although there is just so much more that I would have loved to say, I thanked him for the advice and shook his hand. He told me once more: "Remember: longhand, and let it marinate."

He's like the uncle you wish you had, the one who can tell countless stories, the one you can listen to all day because he never ceases to be interesting. And I walked back to the subway, thinking...oh. my. god. I don't even know how to express how much this brief contact means to me. To just be in his presence and to speak with him. It really is a gift.

Monday, June 4, 2007

"You're about as romantic as a pair of handcuffs."

Here's a list of movies that I've seen recently and meant to talk about them but didn't.

Bullitt -- Sex on a stick. No, sex on the hood of a Mustang. Best. Car chase. Ever. But more importantly, Steve McQueen's character, Frank Bullitt, for all his machismo and tough exterior, is deceptively deep and becomes a truly sympathetic figure. I was pleasantly surprised.

Where the Sidewalk Ends -- It's hazy in my mind now, but I thought this was a decent noir thriller in which a tough cop gets in over his head when he accidentally kills a suspect and tries to cover it up. Nothing spectacular, but it was entertaining enough.

The Third Man -- This was a polished bit of gold, this one. Such a tight screenplay with perfect characters and perfect cinematography. An American, Holly Martins, arrives in post-war Vienna (haunting in its ruined beauty) to find that his friend Harry Lime has been murdered, but as he tries to find out more details about it, the less people want to cooperate. Seems that his friend wasn't the swell guy he thought he was. The distraught lover Anna was particularly heartbreaking. There's a part where Holly finally makes Anna laugh. Holly likes to see her smile and wants her to laugh again. "There isn't enough for two laughs," she says and she breaks down in tears. Orson Welles was, of course, brillliant. Excellent chase sequence through the sewers at the end. Oh, and the very final shot made my heart crack a little more, but that was to be expected.

Green for Danger -- British mystery starring Alastair Sim as a quirky Scotland Yard inspector sent to investigate a murder at a rural hospital. A nice, smart little mystery that kept me wondering whodunit, and Alastair Sim was a complete hoot. This film was also extremely English. Oh my God. I don't think I've seen anything so English in my entire life, except for maybe a crumpet. Yeah, this was as English as tea time and biscuits. It did give some nice insight into what daily life and work was like in the countryside during 1946 when air raids were still taking place.

The Big Heat -- Whoa, now this one was goooood. From 1953, it actually surprised me with its violence, both depicted and implied, and this was the first cop-noir-thriller that made me cry! Several times! And it made me yell out "Oh shit!" twice! Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) is known as a tough-as-nails ball-buster at work, but at home, he's a complete sweetheart, which is what endeared him to me. His relationship with his wife was surprisingly "modern," as he helped with the dishes, set the table, and shared drinks and cigarettes with her. He was a doting dad, too, and couldn't say no to telling his daughter her favorite bedtime story. But he's got a job to do, and when a cop is found dead from an apparent suicide, it touches off a string of not-so-coincidental murders, and he becomes hell-bent on revenge when his family is targeted. He's determined to bring down the corruption surrounding this whole thing, starting with a godfather-type mob boss with an accent that sounded like a mix between Jackie Mason and Al Pacino. One of his vicious underlings, Vince Stone, is played awesomely by Lee Marvin in a not-to-be-missed performance. Seriously, when is Lee Marvin NOT awesome? The female characters all may seem stereotypical at first, but they develop nicely into strong and sympathetic figures. There's even a little old lady who helps Bannion catch one of the bad guys, and you can tell that for a man who hates cowards, Bannion truly had admiration for this one elderly woman who was brave enough to speak up. I liked his character very much. I think this movie could be remade today and it would totally fit modern standards of cop-thrillers.

Annnnnd that's all I've got.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Awfully cold around the heart.

Last night I watched Out of the Past, from 1947 and starring Robert Mitchum. This one was good. So good. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a man in a small town trying to make an honest living when his dirty past and unpaid debts come back to haunt him. It was so hot it boiled over. Mostly I think it was the way the characters interacted (sometimes you couldn't tell who was messing with who), and the incredible dialogue full of stinging one-liners straight out of a pulp novel. Check out all these quotes.

Kathie Moffett: Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!
Jeff Bailey: Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last.

Ann Miller: She can't be all bad. No one is.
Jeff Bailey: Well, she comes the closest.

Leonard Eels: All women are wonders, because they reduce all men to the obvious.

Kathie Moffett: Can't you even feel sorry for me?
Jeff Bailey: I'm not going to try.
Kathie Moffett: Jeff ...
Jeff Bailey: Just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room.

Cold, man. Cold.

I also took note of how as Jeff Bailey narrated, femme fatale Kathie Moffet either "came in out of the sunlight," or "walked into the moonlight," and then "I saw her in those headlights." Really nice.

Robert Mitchum had permanent bedroom eyes and you can't really tell if he's in love with you or wants to smack you upside the head. And when he and Kirk Douglas shared scenes, it was like Ultimate Deathmatch: Cleft Chin vs. Dimple Chin. Douglas was an awesome villain, charming and smarmy 'til the end when he really turned into a snake.

Not action-packed, but definitely thrilling with lots of twists and turns.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Are you packing?" "Yes, dear, I'm putting away this liquor."

After the Thin Man -- Yep, I'm still officially an official Nick & Nora fan. While there didn't seem to be as much boozing as in the first one, the couple seemed to have gotten a lot more adorable. I thought that the murder mystery this time was more interesting as well. Also, a very young Jimmy Stewart was involved! Asta the dog had a little more screen time, with puppies (aww!) and a cheating wife. Again, I thought his scenes were going to be overly cloying, but once more he proved me wrong! I seriously want a dog just like him.

We get to see Nick and Nora's different backgrounds. Nick's friends are all newsmen, paperboys, prizefighters, pickpockets, and the usual rough fare that comes from being a former flatfoot. Nora's family is rich and haughty, mainly consisting of old stodgy biddies who tell her how sorry they are that she's married to Nick -- right in front of him. That was pretty harsh!

Nick and Nora sleeping in separate beds somehow adds to their adorability. There's a scene where Nora can't sleep, so she turns on the light and lays on her side facing him. "I like to watch you sleep," she says. "You're so cute. Do you have any pictures of you when you were a baby?" "No," he mumbles, trying to get some shuteye, "but you can take one in the morning." And then she talks about scrambled eggs, and he gets up and offers to make some for her but she says no, never mind. So he gets back into bed and she's all, "But you are a better cook than I am." Eventually, at the end of this scene, he gets up to cook her some eggs because she's basically just so darn cute. I'm explaining it really badly, but the whole thing just kinda tickled me. (Plus, I realize now that this scene totally sets up the movie's ending.)

This is not a nitpick, just a curious observation: why...why did the detective from the San Francisco police department have this really grating Chicago-ish accent? Did all Chicago/New York detectives get transferred to San Francisco during the 1930s and '40s? Because I haven't seen a detective movie set anywhere other than Chicago or New York where the lead detective didn't have an accent.

Speaking of accents, this is a nitpick: the Lychee club owner, Dancer, was in the beginning derided for being a "kraut," at least I think he was, and then at the end, he suddenly gained an Irish accent. Either I didn't notice it at first because it was bad, or I noticed it because it got worse. In any case, I had to pause the movie and say aloud, "Wait, when did he become Irish?!" It didn't really matter, it just threw me.

Oh, and for once, I didn't really mind the way the Asian characters were portrayed. One of them even spoke in perfect American English. Go figure!

The gag in which the butler says "Walk this way" and the guest imitates his funny walk occurs in this movie. And for all this time, I thought Mel Brooks invented it.

Overall a really fun film! Another Thin Man, coming up next.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

OTP circa 1934

The Thin Man stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, who are a former detective and his rich wife. They are such an adorable couple. They drink a lot, suffer hangovers, and throw snaps and barbs at each other and make faces, all carried out with the most playful affection I have ever seen onscreen. And because of this chemistry, they're also quite sexy together, even though they sleep in separate beds.

It's a complicated mystery (beautifully filmed, too, with nice use of lighting and shadows) full of one-liners and witty banter that's almost as quick paced as a Marx Brothers movie. In once scene, a police detective is rummaging through Nora's dresser. She blurts out, "What's that man doing in my drawers?" And Nick does a spit-take.

Their terrier Asta is adorable as well. I thought he'd be an annoying, extraneous animal actor, but he actually played a nice third wheel to Nick and Nora's antics.

And Myrna Loy was so cute and made the most amusing expressions. Her enthusiasm for martinis rivals Karen Walker's on "Will & Grace."

Turns out the movie will be on TCM this Tuesday. Catch it if the 1930s is your thing.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

There is such a thing as too evil.

I'm officially a Richard Widmark fan. I first saw him in No Way Out, in which he played a vile racist opposite Sidney Poitier's interning doctor. Last night I watched another piece of noir called The Street With No Name where he was the dapper leader of a gang of thugs. Oh. He was evil. I've rarely seen evil played so well, so coolly, so brutally. And in these two characters there was underlying cowardice as well, and Widmark just absolutely hit the nail on the head. I would say that as an actor he's definitely on par with James Cagney in the bad guy role. So now I've just added a whole bunch of his movies to my Netflix queue. Apparently he did a lot of westerns, and while I'm not really a fan of the genre, I will certainly watch a good western now and then.

But about The Street With No Name. Its opening theme and the first 15 minutes or so seemed straight out of a newsreel documentary about the FBI. It was like "J. Edgar Hoover: Crime Scene Investigator!" When they showed trainee Gene Cordell (played by Mark Stevens, the lead dude) at a shooting range, they gave him posters of Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson to shoot at. Cordell is recruited to investigate a series of robberies and murders that the authorities think were carried out by the same gang, so he goes undercover as a seedy drifter type, with another agent covertly looking out for him and relaying any information back to the Bureau. Going under the name of George Manley (heh), he's given a full fake criminal background and documents.

Cordell wanders into a gym where bets are taken on boxers. Upon scanning the crowd of onlookers, he spots a group of well-dressed men who seem to be overseeing the operations. (And they were rather pretty in their suits and fedoras, I must say. 'Specially this one guy in a dark pinkstriped suit...but more about him later.) And then the movie really starts when Alec Stiles (Widmark) makes his entrance, all cool and sinister, and you know by his look that he's the big boss around here, and he happens to own the gym, too, so all that gambling money is his. Cordell needs to get in good with him somehow, so he starts heckling one of the fighters. Stiles challenges him and says he'll give him $5 for every round he goes with that boxer. Cordell says make it $10, and it's a deal. After holding his own in the ring for two rounds, and after some banter with Stiles, Stiles decides to look into him via his super-special screening process. One of his thugs has already gone through Cordell's pockets and stolen his fake Social Security card. And from that, Stiles finds out all he needs to know, thanks to secret connections in the police department.

Stiles runs a tight little gang of thieves. He welcomes Cordell into it after he "passes" the screening process (that fake criminal record was convincing, I guess), and gives him a roll of cash to buy himself some new clothes, because he says, "I like my boys to look sharp." And he's kind of hot when he says that. Speaking of hot, the guy in the dark pinstriped suit from earlier, his nickname happens to be Shivvy because he carries a pocketknife. He's played by actor Donald Buka, and I wish I'd taken some screencaps because he was so pretty.

Stiles shows his brutal, neurotic side fairly early when he's seen habitually inhaling menthol, and then while at home he snaps at his wife for leaving the window open ("You open that window again and I'll throw you out of it!"). He also reams one of his guys for giving a stolen fur coat to a girlfriend. He's prone to smacking people's faces with precision whenever he loses his temper. All this is worthy of an ideal bad guy. But then suddenly the character loses all its appeal when you see for sure that, yeah, wow, he's bad, in a scene where he (falsely) accuses his wife of tipping off the cops to a big heist. When she smacks him, he goes ballistic, straddling her on the bed and pinning her arms while he hits her again and again. Now, the camera pans up a little so we don't actually see his hand strike her, but I was like damn, man. I think that's the turning point where you believe that Cordell will really be in trouble if he's ever exposed.

Widmark definitely carried this movie, but overall, it was really, really good. The engaging character actors, the tight scenes, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography make for an entertaining, fast-paced 90 minutes. Two minor issues I had with it were, as I said before, the dry and dated opening sequence ("We're the FBI and we are so awesome!"), and the boxing scene, which I thought went on a bit long. At least they looked like they were actually hitting each other, though.

Monday, January 29, 2007

In pursuit of speakeasies.

Stanley Walker's The Night Club Era was published in 1933, and according to its content, it probably was completed just before Prohibition was repealed. Walker was a journalist, and while he conveyed facts as a journalist should, his style and tone is definitely of the era. That is, conversational, snappy, and droll, with the fedora brim tilted just so. I imagined the text as a script from one long radio show. And since he was a journalist, immersed in the culture and politics of the day, the man name-dropped like a name-dropping fiend. I could only pick up a small percentage of the bigger names, like Al Smith and Jimmy Walker, but the rest, I had to take his word for it that they were who they were. Still a surprisingly fun read, though. His description of the NYPD and its men was pretty much spot-on, and it still applies today. A choice observation:

It is true in Chicago, as it is true in New York, that the average citizen wants to trust the police, but he can't do it. The administration usually is shot through with politics of the worst sort; if not politics, then sheer incompetence. Most policemen are brave fellows, with a savage hatred of crooks, but they are members of a system which often handcuffs them.

I loved the way the author took you right down into the speakeasies, even gave their names and addresses if he could. You could tell that he loved this city, every inch of it. I guess he reminded me of Pete Hamill in that way, because he always balanced the good with the bad, giving equal attention to both, reminding the reader that all of it made up the essence of New York.

I think what impressed me most about this book was that Walker singled out Florence Mills in a section all her own, as one of the top good things to come out of this era. Today, hardly anybody knows about her anymore. But in her day, she was big enough and bright enough for him to dedicate a few pages to her in his book. He praised her. He praised Harlem and its people's love for her. He was reverent when writing about her death, the way her passing brought out thousands of mourners into the streets.

The last chapter is just Walker jotting down his thoughts from the past decade, chock-full of names and places and snarky recollections about politicians and socialites and gangsters. They're microscopic vignettes, fragments separated by ellipses, and they read like writing prompts. And sometimes even if you have no idea who he's talking about, it'll still make you smile.

What did I miss?

The 7th episode of Ric Burns's documentary New York depressed me like you wouldn't believe. I actually saw it a couple weekends ago, but I didn't write about it because I was too emotional. And it's not even the episode about 9/11. This ep focused on the end of Fiorello LaGuardia's reign as mayor (he kicked a lot of ass), and Robert Moses's rise to power.

Under LaGuardia, Moses built a lot of useful things, like bridges and highways. But one of the commentators related an anecdote: one of LaGuardia's friends saw him in a restaurant, looking so down and sad, and he asked him what was wrong. "Moses has too much power," said LaGuardia. "But who gave him the power?" implied the friend. "Yeah," said LaGuardia, "but I could control him."

And that made the bottom of my stomach fall out. Over the next couple of decades, Moses destroyed a lot of old New York. And I mean destroyed. Sure, he built the United Nations, sure, he built bridges connecting all the boroughs, sure, he did this and that and the other. But it was all at the cost of people's livelihoods. Poor people, people who had no voice. The cross-Bronx expressway was a straight line that ripped right through the heart of an old, tight-knit community of Jewish, Irish, and black residents. When the old Pennsylvania Station was put on the list to be demolished...I had to turn the DVD off. I just had to. I couldn't take it any more. I was crying and I felt sick. I'd spent the entire documentary living through the history of this city and now I was watching everything being ripped up and torn apart. I still get dizzy just thinking about how much was lost.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oh Brooklyn, never stop.

Did you know that Legs Diamond's widow was found shot in the head in her home right in my neighborhood? Well, maybe not exactly my neighborhood, but a brief bus ride along the very same avenue.

So. Yeah.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cravat is a stupid word.

Last night I watched Somewhere in the Night. Pretty good piece of noir! All the right clues in all the right places, the kind of mystery I would love to be able to write. It's about a guy who returns from combat in World War II with amnesia, having taken a blow from a grenade. He has no idea who he is, apart from the name everyone's been calling him, George Taylor. The only clues he has to his identity are an angry letter in his wallet, and a briefcase left in storage for the 3 years he'd been gone containing a gun and a note about a $4,000 deposit, signed by "Larry Cravat." What an annoying name. But it's the only name he's got, and so he goes looking for the guy. Whenever he brings the name up to people around town, they give him strange looks and act like he's bad news. The name is bad news, as on his first night he gets trailed by shady-looking people, chased, kidnapped, and beaten up. The only person he can trust is a nightclub singer/pianist, Christy, who helps him by getting her friends, an entrepreneur and a police detective, to try to shed some light on the situation.

One thing I really liked about it is that the characters often made in-jokes about other movies of this kind. For instance, Christy told the detective (who had a very Chicagoan-New Yorkish accent even though the setting was L.A.) that he was the first detective she'd ever seen who never wore a hat. And he replied, "Yeah, I wonder why people think all detectives wear hats? Must be the movies." Very nice. I wanted her to ask why all detectives have Chicagoan-New Yorkish accents. And then there was the mysterious bad guy (I suppose he was the bad guy), who spoke with a sort of thick Hungarian accent. Him: "Pheelees! Hhhow nize uf yoo to zhjoin us!" Phyllis: "Oh, stop talking like Bela Lugosi." Ha! I love a good Bela Lugosi joke.

There's also some catty innuendo between Christy and Phyllis, too, and you know that's always fun.

The biggest problem I had with the movie was that the leading man's head was shaped kinda funny. I know, I know, very superficial, but it was distracting. He also had a bad mustache. And there's nothing worse than a leading man with a funny-shaped head and a bad mustache. Maybe if he'd shaved off the mustache he wouldn't have looked so bad. ...Oops. The actor died while shaving.