Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dashiell Hammett. Show all posts

01 May 2020

Our Flitcraft Moment


I think there’s an argument that we’re all turning into Flitcraft. You remember him, don’t you? He was the everyman character mentioned briefly and so enigmatically about a third of the way into The Maltese Falcon. Flitcraft was at the center of a missing person job that stayed with Sam Spade long after the job tied up.

Spade shares the tale from his past with Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Chapter 7, while the two of them are waiting in a hotel room for Joel Cairo (aka Peter Lorre) to come over. It’s a story that has delighted and puzzled mystery lovers for ages, since the anecdote seemingly comes out of nowhere and doesn’t dovetail neatly with the rest of the plot. Hammett is known for being such a spare, tight writer, so he must have had a reason for sticking this bit in. So goes the argument.

I’ve read dozens of articles, academic or otherwise, about the so-called Flitcraft Parable over the years, and the analyses differ greatly, depending on who’s doing the thinking. That’s part of the Parable’s charm. It’s like Melville’s white whale—overdetermined as hell, and deeper, richer, fuller in nuance than any of us can imagine. Mostly, the Flitcraft Parable gets you thinking about how humans react to mortal peril, which, call me crazy, sorta kinda fits the zeitgeist.

Flitcraft left his real-estate office in Tacoma one day and disappeared. When Spade finally tracked him down, the poor sap confessed why he suddenly abandoned his job, wife, two kids, new Packard, and country club membership in Tacoma. All it took was a brush with death. A near miss.

Out on that street in Tacoma, Flitcraft narrowly missed being squashed flat by a falling beam from a nearby construction job. The beam took out a chunk of sidewalk, and sent a concrete chip into his cheek, leaving a scar. If I may oh-so-melodramatically surmise, in a flash Flitcraft saw that the life he was living was a pathetic sham. He was not the man he ever wanted to be. If life could be snuffed out so unpredictably, well, damn it, he was going to Stop Living the Lie! From this moment forward, he was going to do things differently. Get back to his roots. He was going to shake things up.



Sort of the way I was going to do six weeks back when my wife and I decided to grow our own food in the garden. Supermarket shortages be damned! We didn’t need to play the industrial food game! We’d fill our bellies with nutrients coaxed from the earth by our own two hands. That was right before we learned that the nation was facing a shortage of garden seeds.

No problem! We’d bake our own bread. Guess what? Remarkably, the nation is facing a shortage of flour and yeast. Well…okay, maybe we’d raise chickens the way we’d always talked about doing. Henceforth, we former big-city types were going to transform ourselves into rustic homesteaders! We’d gorge ourselves silly on golden-brown frittatas while we played jigsaw puzzles at night, mended our frayed garments, and exercised obsessively. Oh, and the whole while I’d grow myself a luxurious lockdown man-beard.

Well, you can imagine how that all played out. For every single thing I contemplated doing as an expression of my highly personal, spanking-new creative identity, everyone else on the planet was thinking of doing exactly same thing, causing runs on everything from backyard chickens, to jigsaw puzzles, to sewing supplies, to exercise equipment. And experts were reminding newbie beard-growers to disinfect their new scruff before they hugged loved ones.

Don’t get get me wrong. This pandemic is radically altering many people’s lives and careers. My state has never seen so many unemployment claims, as is yours, I’m sure. Businesses in our lovely mountain town have been devastated by the lack of tourists who were historically their biggest class of clientele. Brewers, tour guides, chefs, bartenders, and baristas are out of work, and desperate. Already I’ve heard of a local businessman, a dear friend, who is considering shuttering his shattered business and moving to Europe with his young, EU-born wife, especially if a certain politician is reelected in the fall. People like my friend are going full frontal Flitcraft: disaster sparks change.

The rest of us are flirting with Flitcraft Lite. Near disaster sparks change of a sort. Change, I might add, that may not outlive the pandemic. After all, the final biting irony of Hammett’s parable is that after resolving to change his life, Flitcraft ended up replicating exactly the same life he left behind. In his new life in Spokane, Flitcraft had set himself up in a successful car dealership, with a lovely new wife who was expecting their first child. Spade’s assessment of the outcome is marvelous:

His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.

I’m probably distorting the crux of Hammett’s parable, but the beams sure are falling big time right now. And I think there’s some truth to the notion that we humans are binary creatures. We are at heart either changing, or not. From an evolutionary perspective, true behavior change is time-consuming and dangerous. If you’re a Neanderthal hunter of big game, the tribe will go hungry while you learn how to hook and land your first coelacanth.


Look up, Mr. Flitcraft.Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

In the wacko HBO sci-fi series Westworld, based on the old Michael Crichton film from the 1970s, nefarious engineers conspire to implant the behaviors of real-life people (“guests”) into robot doppelgängers (“hosts”). Imagine! Your body dies, yet your brain lives on in a robot. A chance to live forever! A chance to live the life you were always meant to have. A chance, dare I say, to Shake Things Up!

Thing is, late in the second season, the mad geniuses discover to their horror that the zillionaire they brought back to life makes the same boneheaded decisions he made in life. Conclusion: Humans don’t change.

I understand the instinct of the individual to revert to previous behavior. I totally get that. I’ve made and abandoned far too many New Years resolutions not to. But what I am finding fascinating is the herd instinct toward sameness even in what is theoretically a very personal and trying moment of change. Somewhere in our DNA, the survival code is apparently written thusly: <alone:same> and <species:same>.

In a million lifetimes, a million simulations, O’Shaughnessy will always double-cross Spade, and while the thought of it probably makes our antihero a little sad, he’s expecting it.

In a million pandemics, a million Americans—hell, a million urbanites, suburbanites, Canadians, Minnesotans, D’Agneses, or genetically-enhanced, intelligent rutabagas—will all tend to make the same choices when their world is upended. They will panic-buy jigsaw puzzles and toilet paper. They will resolve to be better people. They will hug their children close, and privately wish theyd go back to school.

I’m sure that in one of those robot simulations, O’Shaughnessy is wearing a homemade shift dress and collecting free-range eggs out of a nesting box. But not for long. When the beams stop falling, she will revert to form, snatch up a gat, and come gunning for some unsuspecting sap. No wonder Spade drinks, and why I need one too.

***

Postscript: Mexico and Canada recently ratified the USMCA, a new pact the cheeky are calling NAFTA 2.0. I am not an attorney, but it appears that this joint legislation goes into effect in June 2020. When it does, I believe this means that Hammetts book, currently in the public domain in Canada, will no longer be. (I am waiting for someone with actual expertise to weigh in on the matter. Lawyers, please speak up.) However, dedicated mystery fans should bear in mind that because of the public domain declaration, countless crappy paperback and ebook versions of this classic novel are flooding the Interwebs. Most of these versions were poorly produced; their “publishers simply scanned copies of the paperback, and uploaded them to various retailers without bothering to proofread them. Please dont buy these editions; if the reviews are any indication, you’ll be greatly disappointed by the quality. The only authorized editions are the ones published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (ie, Penguin Random House). This page will direct you to the correct edition at the retailer of your choice. And of course, the official prices of the authorized book are much higher than the bootleg editions. But come on. Did you really think you could grab the Falcon for 99 cents? Don’t be a palooka.

03 July 2019

Rushing Mount Rushmore


by Robert Lopresti

An author out standing in his field
If you have time for only one blog in your busy life obviously it should be SleuthSayers.  But if you can fit in more, you might want to consider Something Is Going To Happen, the blog of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.*

They recently featured an interesting piece by Dave Zeltserman in which he described his "personal Mount Rushmore of crime fiction writers."

It's a fun concept.  Can you reduce the pantheon of the greats down to four?

I'm not going to reveal Mr. Z's choices, because you should definitely go read his piece for yourself, but I will list my own and invite you to do the same in the comments.  You will find that I overlap with his, but we are not identical.

My monument is arranged in the order I discovered the writers.

Rex Stout.  The first adult mystery writer I found after Conan Doyle.  He was the pusher who got me hooked.  Stout is all about character and voice.

Especially voice.

Nero Wolfe: "Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth."

Archie Goodwin: “When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it.

Occasionally Stout has moments of plotting excellence (e.g. Too Many Cooks) but more often Wolfe and Archie have to carry him over bumps in the road.

Donald E. Westlake.  I first read his story "Come Back, Come Back," in one of those Alfred Hitchcock paperbacks.  It was a dead serious story about a cop suffering from a possibly fatal heart condition trying to convince a wealthy, perfectly healthy business executive not to commit suicide.

In high school I discovered his early comic classics, what David Bratman  called "the nephew books," in which some luckless schmuck finds himself in deep doodoo (The Spy in the Ointment, God Save the Mark, etc.)  By the time Dortmunder tried (and tried and tried...) to steal The Hot Rock I was hooked.   Westlake was the master of chaos, crisply described.  Movies based on his books usually failed because they couldn't capture his narrative tone.


Dashiell Hammett.  I confess I am not a fan of most of his novels (the exception being you-know-what).  But the Continental Op is everything the private eye story wants to be.  And could that man write an ending!  I'd give several toes to write a last paragraph as good as the one in "The Gutting of Couffignal."

Stanley Ellin.  Like Hammett, he had one great novel.  Stronghold is about a young man who grew up bitter on the outskirts of a community of modern Quakers (Ellin was one).  As a full-fledged adult psycho he brings back a gang to kidnap all of their women, yearning for either ransom or a bloody shootout with the cops.  But the Quakers won't cooperate with violence, even by calling the police.

Ellin's genius was for the short story.  "You Can't Be A Little Girl All Your Life" was a story about rape a decade before its time.  "The Question" is a quiet reflection by an executioner that turns into a stunning social comment.  And "The Payoff," well, the ending is just a punch in the gut.

So, while I brush away the stone scraps and clean off my carving tools: Who would you put on your mountain, and why?

*Also, Trace Evidence, from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

04 January 2019

Stop Meddling in My Genre - Part 1


by Lawrence Maddox


Dean Martin, actor, singer,
Post Modernist?
From the 1950s through the 70s, Variety shows were TV's shining jewels. Seen as quaint, corny, and conspicuously dopey by today's standards, elaborately produced offerings like The Ed Sullivan ShowPerry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour were hugely popular. The majority of Americans would tune in to see not just cultural shifts, like the Beatles' American debut or Nat King Cole breaking racial barriers, but also to catch the icons of the day step out of the roles they were associated with.  You could watch Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart sing "Personality" with Dean Martin; marvel at the ultimate cross generational Christmas mash-up of Bing Crosby and David Bowie dueting on "The Little Drummer Boy"; gasp at eternally square Richard Nixon trying his hand at comedy on the televised height of Hippy-dom, Laugh-In.

Though now viewed as old-fashioned, by allowing the famous to escape their prescribed boxes and take part in the equivalent of modern-day mash-ups, these shows could also be seen as doing something new and inventive, all in the name of fun.  In Smoke and Mirrors, John Leonard wrote that "We've a more pretentious word today for such radical juxtapositions of the silly and sublime, random conjectures of blank incredulity and dreadful apprehension (nostalgia laced with contempt) an absurd snippet (Rise Stevens singing "Cement Mixer, Putty Putty"). Instead of novelty, we have post-modernism."

When the same approach is taken with literary genres like crime fiction, feathers can get ruffled. As John Leonard implies, mixing genres can be seen as a post-modernistic reshuffling of the deck.   I'd like to make the case that crossing genres was right there at the beginning, when 20th century American crime fiction was taking shape in the widely read and cheaply made pages of pulp magazines. After cajoling you with my cross-genre calculations, we'll talk with genre bending daredevil Earl Javorsky, author of the multi-faceted and endlessly riveting PI Charlie Miner series.

Fans of Quentin Tarantino's game-changing crime drama Pulp Fiction might be mislead into thinking that pulp fiction itself is synonymous with crime fiction.  Pulp magazines, and the novels they spawned,  weren't actually genre specific at all.  Pulp magazines were named for wood pulp, the inexpensive main component of their pages, and they were cheaper to buy than their highbrowed antecedents, the pricier "slicks." Popular from roughly 1900 until TV began rotting America's mind in earnest in the early '50s, the pulps dabbled in fantasy, sci-fi, horror, westerns, crime, and adventure. Populism ran rampant in the pulps, and literary merit took a backseat to entertainment, no matter how tawdry or fantastic. Want tales of a flying ace that fights zombies? Here's G-8 and His Battle Aces. How about a Los Angeles socialite who wears a backless dress and a domino mask to rob from criminals a la Robin Hood? Look no farther than Saucy Romantic Adventures for tales of the Domino Lady. There were few sacred cows, and popular elements would be plucked from different genres and scattered about, all in the name of commerce.

Using cheaper paper wasn't the only way pulps kept the cost down; they also paid writers less than what other markets offered. This allowed the pulps to catch some luminaries-to-be at the start of their literary trajectories.  Perhaps the first pulp superstar was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose "Tarzan of the Apes," published in All Story in 1912, was a national phenomenon. It not only helped kick off Burroughs' influential career but was a fillip to all the pulps in general.  Many other notable fantasy authors took the pulp plunge, including Conan creator Robert E. Howard, and the brilliant sci-fi subversive Philip K. Dick.

Pulp also provided the means for many burgeoning crime authors to gate crash the zeitgeist. Though Dashiell Hammett first published in the much tonier Smart Set magazine, his Continental Op tales became an early staple of the uber pulp Black Mask starting in 1923.  The Continental Op was a detective for a Pinkerton-esque agency (Hammett himself had been a Pinkerton) , and he was the proverbial joker in the deck.   The Op was a master manipulator who cast a cold, calculating eye on his fellow man. The Big Sleep author Raymond Chandler, one of many hard-boiled authors who followed Hammett into the pulps, famously said that Hammett "wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." David Goodis, whose Shoot the Piano Player became a New Wave masterpiece under Truffaut, prolifically contributed Western stories to the pulps as well as crime stories.

The pulps were like a cheap hotel, and with that many different genres checking in, there were bound to be some illicit hook-ups. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the so-called pulp adventure stories, and there were none more popular or cross-pollinated than The Shadow.  The Shadow character began life in 1930 as the eerie omnipotent narrator for the radio show Detective Story Hour,  which in turn was a product of Detective Story Magazine. Like Tarzan eighteen years earlier, The Shadow character grabbed America by the imagination and wouldn't let go. The Shadow Magazine began less than a year later. Popular novels, a radio show, and movies followed. Orson Welles, thirty years prior to joining Dean Martin's wobbly orbit, voiced an early version of The Shadow on the radio.

Author Walter B. Gibson was tasked with turning the sinister Shadow into a fleshed out character who could lead his own adventures. Since Gibson was writing for a detective pulp, The Shadow was placed in the world of crime, gangs, and murder. The Shadow operated like a detective, but also a vigilante. Many of his characteristics, like taking justice into his own hands and manipulating others like pawns, came directly from pulp characters like Hammett's Continental Op. Yet The Shadow was also a figure of horror who had the supernatural ability to cloud men's minds, though actual invisibility happened  only on the radio show.  Gibson said Bram Stoker's Dracula was an influence.  Sci-fi elements were also included when The Shadow would occasionally battle mad scientists and their inventions.  The influence of The Shadow can't be overstatedThe Shadow may also be unfortunately responsible for what I'll call "The Scooby-Doo Effect"; stories where the bad guys dress up as something spooky in order to scare away intruders, and would've gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids. The Shadow was a smorgasbord of genre elements, and so were the "hero pulps," such as Doc Savage, that it paved the way for.

Really, so much of what entertains us today began with pulp.  Bill Finger, who along with Bob Kane developed Batman, said "my first Batman story was a take-off of a Shadow story." Superman was inspired by Doc Savage. Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (aka Blade Runner) is sci-fi at its finest, but it's also a hard-boiled detective novel. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, the basest of Private Dicks. He's got a gun, a list, and police bureaucracy up the wazoo.  It's as if the other Burroughs (Beatnik William) used  his cutup technique, clipping at one story from Analog and another from Black Mask and pasting together this dystopic hybrid

Charlie Huston carries on the fine tradition of genre mixing in his thrilling Joe Pitt series. Starting with Already Dead in 2005, Huston's Pitt is a private detective working the mean streets of New York. Pitt is also a vampire who must negotiate his way among cops and dangerous vampire clans while solving cases. Huston has said he prefers to be called a pulp writer.

I'm fortunate to have author Earl Javorsky's take on mixing genres, among other topics, in my next installment.  His Charlie Miner books, Down Solo (2014) and Down to No Good (2017), are my latest hobby. Miner is an insurance fraud investigator who keeps getting killed, but that doesn't stop him from playing detective in his own deaths, or from helping Homicide Detective Dave Putnam with his cases.  Join Earl Javorsky and myself outside the box for part two.

Note: A technical issue isn't letting me respond to comments to my blog. This is a real bummer. Please continue to comment. I'll be reading what you have to say and yelling my appreciative responses at my computer screen until this glitch is resolved. Thank you and Happy New Year!

12 December 2017

Early Clues That I Might Become a Crime Writer


by Paul D. Marks

Since we’ve been on fire watch this past week when I’d normally be writing my post I’ve been a little scattered, so I hope you don’t mind a not-so-instant replay (hey, the networks do it over the holidays) of something I did somewhere else some time back. I’m sorry for not having a totally fresh post today, but most of you probably haven’t seen it.

One of the fires was fairly close to us and when it crested the mountain to our side, well, it was a little hairy. Amy left work early and stayed home a couple days just in case we had to evacuate. And, besides the big fires, another one did break out in a barn near us. Luckily they got that out before it spread. But it’s always a little nerve-wracking when the Santa Anas are blowing. Raymond Chandler famously said of those devil winds in Red Wind:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

And because I won’t be posting here again until after the New Year, I want to wish everyone Happy Holidays and a Terrific New Year. And thanks to Rob and Leigh, and the board, for hosting us here, and to all the SleuthSayers and everyone who’s come by to say hi and check things out.

So, here goes. Early warning signs that I would go down this wayward path:


Well, aside from the seven banks I robbed and my days as a benevolent hitman, sure, there were signs I might become a crime writer. But I was disappointed never to make it onto the FBI’s Top Ten.

And while the romance of being an outlaw is tempting, I think my temperament is better suited to that of “crime fighter” and crime writer. And not just because they rhyme.

I have a bit of a different take on how I came to be a crime writer. I was influenced by film noir and crime movies and later by the great writers from Hammett and Chandler on up. But because of certain things in my checkered past I think I’ve always had a strong sense of justice. And, while not getting involved in marches or crusades, I’ve tried in my own way to bring a little justice to this world on a micro level.

Someone who knew me well told me a long time ago that he thought I was like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I’ll take it as one. As I tell my wife, who would rather avoid confrontation than fight, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but at least you have to stand up for yourself or others. And I don’t do this as much anymore. I guess I’ve mellowed with age and the sage advice of my wife. And also knowing that I can’t fight every battle.

At some point, I figured out one way that I could make justice prevail was to write about it. I think the below stories illustrate what I mean when I say I think I was born to be a crime fighter-writer.

Everything below has been abbreviated and abridged. Names changed to protect the innocent and guilty.

La Barbera’s/West LA:

clip_image002Many years ago (decades), my mother, grandmother and two brothers and I went to La Barbera’s (sadly no longer there) on Wilshire for dinner. Dad was out of town. We were seated in a booth. My youngest brother and me on one side of the booth. Mother, grandmother and middle brother on the other. The younger one was, well, young, squirming a little in the seat. The man in the next booth could feel him squirm through the seatbacks. He turned around and started yelling at my brother. Yelling and nasty! He finally turned around back to his companion. I didn’t like what he’d done so I started to mimic everything he said so he could hear it. I also started jamming my elbow into the back of the seat, so he could feel it on his side—yeah, I’m a little nuts, or used to be.

So he turned around, started yelling at my brother again. I said “I did it.” He didn’t respond, just turned away. But I couldn’t stop mimicking him. Well, to make a long story short, after some more back and forth, he ended up at our booth—pulling a knife on me. I had long hair and at that time it wasn’t cool with some people. And I thought everyone in the restaurant would de facto be on his side, especially the UCLA jocks sitting nearby on one side and a Marine in dress blues on another. But the jocks were on my side. One stood up and said, “I saw it, the guy pulled a knife on him [me].” And the Marine kept to himself. Eventually, we were moved to another side of the restaurant. Our original waitress came over to us, put her hand on my shoulder and thanked me for putting the guy in his place since he lived near the restaurant and came in every week with his sister causing trouble. But they couldn’t say anything since he was a customer. A couple other waitresses did the same. That made me feel good. But my mom and grandmother almost had heart attacks...

Dupar’s/Farmer’s Market:

clip_image004

Once again out to eat. With grandmother again and whole immediate family this time, dad included. Man in the next booth was yelling at his kid. Nasty. Deriding him for everything. Humiliating. Young kid, maybe around 5, 6, 7. As I say, because of my background things like this get my back up. “Why don’t you leave him alone?” I said. Uh oh! Paul’s at it again, the family thinks. Tell me to shut up. Nobody pulled a knife this time and the man’s wife finally got him to shut up. But I couldn’t help myself. And when it was over, nobody at my table said anything to me for some time. I guess they thought here goes crazy Paul again.

The Bus/Westwood:

A friend of mine and I were in Westwood which, at the time was a hub of activity. Crowded sidewalks. Lots of street traffic. A bus pulled up to a bus stop. An old man was running for it—“running” as best as he could. The bus driver saw him but didn’t wait. I was pissed. So I ran down to the next bus stop a block or two away, beating the bus by seconds—he was in traffic. When the driver opened the door I said “Why didn’t you wait for that old man?” The driver told me to “&#%*#@$ off” and drove off. I didn’t win that one, but maybe the next time the driver saw an old man running for his bus he would wait for him. Nah, not that guy. —And, of course, I’m abbreviating our conversation, but that’s what it amounted to.

The LAPD/West LA

I can honestly say that I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. After all, here I am.
According to some people, if the LAPD is known for one thing it's for being trigger happy, ready to bust people up. Well, I'm happy to be able to say that I'm one of the few people to have pulled a gun on two cops and lived to tell about.
* * *
I was living in a four unit apartment building in West LA, a good neighborhood. Three downstairs units, one upstairs unit. I lived in the upstairs unit and had a view of the front door to the middle apartment downstairs from the top of the outdoor stairs. The woman who lived there had been attacked by a guy who tried to rape her. Her face was black and blue from the first attack.

The first time it happened, I was in my apartment (the only upstairs unit in a four unit building) and heard yelling and screaming. I went outside. Sally’s (name changed) boyfriend said something about her being attacked and the guy was in the alley. Her boyfriend and I chased him down the alley. The police came out in force, including choppers that lit up the alley like daylight. But they didn’t’ catch the guy.

Every night after the first I would search her apartment for her when she came home from work, if her boyfriend wasn’t there. I'd let her sleep on my couch. And then she started staying at her boyfriend’s place off and on, so I asked her to let me know if the cops were going to stake out her apartment. She said she would.

clip_image006Then, one night I’m watching “In a Lonely Place” on the tube (one of my favorite movies) when I heard helicopter noises. I grabbed my politically incorrect pistol, headed to my front door. I opened the door slowly and headed out to the landing at the top of my stairs. I watched a chopper circle above. Then, two scuzzballs came out of Sally's apartment at the bottom of the stairs. Greasy long hair. Big mustaches. Dirty clothes. The bad guy and a friend?

This was one of those situations where you don't have time to think. You have to act.

"Hold it," I said, aiming near-point blank at them only a few yards below. I could have dropped them both before they had a chance to turn around. "Turn around, slowly."

It was just like in the movies.

They did as ordered. Turned s-l-o-w-l-y.

"We're the police," the scuzzier of the two said. "Put the gun away and go inside."

I asked for ID and he badged me, cautiously. That was good enough for me. I went inside. So much for a trigger happy LAPD, though I wouldn’t try this today. It’s a whole different world.

Back in my apartment, “In a Lonely Place” was still on. And then the reality hit. Jesus, they were cops. And I had pulled a gun on them. The movie droned in the background. It could have been anything as far as I was concerned. I was freaking out. Visions of SWAT teams surrounding my apartment flashed through my mind.

The thoughts grew larger. What should I do? Sally hadn’t told me the police were staking out her place, as she’d promised. Now I’d pulled a gun on two cops. I called her apartment. One of the cops answered.

"Are you the guy from upstairs with the gun?" he said.

"Yes," I said.

"Man, you really made me nervous."

Not as nervous as I was when I found out you were the cops, I thought, but didn't say. He was cool. They weren't going to bust me. I had, indeed, pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it.
Sally moved out not too long after that. And, shortly after that the Westside Rapist was caught a block away. Not sure if it was the same guy who attacked Sally, but I tend to think it was.

***
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So there you have it. My crazy adventures seeking truth, justice and the American Way...and there’s more. But I guess that’s for another time. So when I started writing I naturally gravitated towards telling stories where the bad guys would get punished. What better genre to do that than crime writing. Of course, sometimes, especially in the noir genre, the bad guys don’t get caught, but then there is always the great hand of fate that I can bring down on them as I sit at my computer screen in my captain’s chair and steer my boat to exact revenge and justice in the world. …Okay, so I’m a little over the top but you get the idea.

I don’t do this much anymore – after all, someone might pull a gun on me. And I don’t think the bullets would bounce off my chest.

*** *** ***


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com



04 April 2017

Cornell Woolrich: The Forgotten Man


by Paul D. Marks

Cornell Woolrich was one of the most popular writers of crime/mystery fiction in the mid twentieth century. He also wrote under the names William Irish and George Hopely. Today he’s largely forgotten at least on the written page. But I’m not going to talk about him as a writer per se. I’m going to talk about him as the hardboiled or noir writer who’s had more stories adapted for film than any other.

To give some idea of his popularity on celluloid, on IMDB there are 103 movies credited to him, including foreign movies. Chandler has 37. Hammett: 33. David Goodis 19. Mostly these are “based on” credits, but Chandler, Goodis and even Hammett actually wrote screenplays (the latter for Watch on the Rhine, not a mystery or noir, but a World War II propaganda flick).

The first movie based on a Woolrich story (writing as William Irish) was The Haunted House in 1928. The credit reads “titles,” so I assume that means he was writing the titles for a silent movie. The first flick credited to a story of his is Children of the Ritz (1929). The last movie listed on IMDB based on one of his stories is She’s No Angel (2002), based on I Married a Dead Man, which had been filmed several times before both domestically and in other countries. The American version was called No Man of Her Own (1950).

So 1928 to 2002 is a pretty good run, with over a hundred adaptations. And I suspect it’s not the end of his run.

Woolrich started out writing Fitzgerald-like stories, but found his niche in the mystery-suspense field, writing both short stories and novels. He spent some time in Hollywood but eventually returned to New York, where he lived in a hotel with his mother until she died, then he moved to another hotel. In the early days of his return to NYC he socialized with fans and MWA members. But alcoholism and the loss of a leg to gangrene because of a too tight shoe and the infection it caused, plus not going to the doctor soon enough, turned him into a recluse. A closeted homosexual, he spent the last years of his life alone and lonely. Nobody attended his funeral in 1968.

Here’s a handful of noir and mystery movies based on his work:

Phantom Lady, 1944: A man (Alan Curtis) and his wife have a fight on their anniversary. He takes a powder and picks up a woman in a bar. When he finally returns home he finds his wife strangled with one of his ties, the police crawling all over his place. And guess who’s the prime suspect? At first the only person who really seems to believe in him is his secretary, the bewitching Ella Raines. Curtis was seen by several people while out that night, but when Rains or the police talk to them they deny it. Eventually Curtis’ best friend (Franchot Tone) returns from South America (I hope I’m remembering this right) and Ella hopes he can help out. Noir icon Elisha Cook, Jr. has a great turn as a crazed drummer. A pretty good B flick, directed by Robert Siodmak.



Black Angel,1946: Blackmailer Mavis Marlowe is murdered. Kirk Bennet, a married guy with a loyal wife, is sentenced for the crime. His wife teams up with Marlowe’s ex-husband, an alkie composer and pianist, Dan Duryea, to try to find the real killer before the state executes her husband. Peter Lorre does a turn as a sleazy nightclub owner. Hey, it’s Peter Lorre, can the club owner be anything but sleazy? And any noir with Duryea is worth watching.



The Chase,1946: From the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished school of storytelling. Down on his heels World War II vet Robert Cummings returns a lost wallet to gangster Eddie Roman. Roman rewards him with a job as his chauffeur. Eventually Cummings volunteers to help Eddie’s wife, Michelle Morgan, escape her crazy husband. Will they get away to sail into the sunset together?

Deadline at Dawn,1946: A sailor wakes up with a stash of cash after a night of heavy drinking (hey, he’s a swabbie, what do you expect). With the help of dance hall girl Susan Hayward he tries to find the woman it belongs to, and does. Just one problem: she’s dead. He’s not sure if he did the deed or not. And now they only have a few hours to find out the truth before his leave is up.

Fear in the Night x 2, 1947 & 1956: A man (who should have been in outer space—DeForest Kelly) dreams he committed a murder in a strange mirror-covered octagonal room. He wakes up with unusual marks on his throat, blood on his sleeve. His cop brother-in-law tries to convince him that it was just a dream—but he’s freaking out. The cop, his wife, DeForest and his girl go on a picnic to a weird house in the woods…and find a mirrored room just like the one he dreamt about. What the hell’s going on?—I have to admit that, while I like all the movies here, I really love this low-budget flick. I’m not saying it’s even good. There’s just something I like about it. The sort of surreal aspect maybe. Remade as Nightmare (the title of the story it’s based on) with Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy in ’56. Almost an exact remake, but it lacks something, IMO, that Fear in the Night has.



The Window,1949: Woolrich’s version of the boy who cried wolf. It’s hot and sultry in the city, so 9 year old teller-of-tall-tales Tommy decides to sleep on the fire escape, but instead of doing it outside his apartment he does it at a higher one to get a better breeze. While there, he sees the Kellersons murder someone. But no one will believe him because he’s the boy who cries wolf. Well, the Kellersons believe him and they want to silence him...

Rear Window x 2 – 1954 & 1998: POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD. Forget the 1998 version, though it does have one unique thing. Christopher Reeve plays the wheelchair-bound photog played by Jimmy Stewart in the original. And he’s really confined to a wheelchair because of his fall off of a horse. That’s interesting, but the movie doesn’t touch the original. And for those out there who’ve never seen it, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment because of a broken leg. He likes to spy on his neighbors in the voyeuristic way that Hitchcock loves so much (Oh, did I forget to mention this is a Hitchcock flick?) So he’s watching his weird, wild and sad collection of neighbors across the courtyard when he sees someone who looks suspiciously like Perry Mason murder his wife. He soon involves his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and his nurse (Thelma Ritter) in trying to ferret out what happened. Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s 1950s string of great and classic flicks that includes Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and more.

Besides movies, Woolrich’s stories have also been adapted for various radio and television shows, including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Suspicion, Thriller and Fallen Angels.

I picked this group of films from the huge selection of Woolrich adaptations because to one degree or another (not including the Rear Window remake) I like them all and would recommend them as decent adaptations of his work.

Woolrich was very successful, but ultimately lived a life somewhat like his stories, sad, friendless and abandoned. There’s something very noir about the way his life played out.

***

And congratulations to O’Neil, Herschel, B.K. and R.T. on their Derringer noms! Good luck!

And now for a little BSP:

I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down



by Robert Lopresti

While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials...

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

22 July 2016

The Thin Man Called


By Art Taylor

It's rare these days that I reread a story or book simply for the pleasure of it.

I do reread a number of things, I should stress, but almost exclusively because they're texts that I'm teaching in one or another of my classes (though perhaps there's some blurriness here, since I'm obviously assigning books on my syllabi that I enjoy or admire). This past semester, for example, I revisited—and marked up anew—several dozen stories and several novels, including works by classic writers Poe, Conan Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Highsmith and McBain (among many others) and books by contemporary authors Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mark Haddon, Cormac McCarthy, China Miéville, and Steve Weddle (also among others).

But picking up a book I've already read and rereading it solely for fun? with no syllabi or lesson plans on the horizon? That's a luxury that seems tough to afford, when my TBR piles are towering with books I sometimes feel like I'll never get to enjoy. (It's a common problem for all writers and readers, I'd think, that we acquire books faster than we read them—something hopeful about it maybe.)

Given all that, a recent vacation brought a couple of treats. First, our good friends Barry and Meg Teasley passed along a very nice copy of the 1965 edition of Dashiell Hammett's complete novels, a terrific gift in so many ways. Barry and Meg hosted a baby shower for us nearly five years ago before our son, also named Dashiell, was born, and they'd given the book to my parents more recently, but I only got it myself when visiting over Fourth of July.

The second treat? Spur of the moment, I started reading The Thin Man again—a book I haven't taught and therefore haven't read in a long while. Just a couple of chapters, just to reacquaint myself, right? Then a couple led to a few, and a few led to a few more, and pretty soon I was engrossed again in the characters and the story while other books—new books, unread books, at least one I needed to read for the coming semester—fell at least briefly by the wayside.

It felt like playing hooky.

It felt good.

(And I should point out: I've recently been reading Karen Huston Karydes' provocative new study Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Their Detectives, and her analysis about The Thin Man opened up some new perspectives on the book during this rereading—particularly her comments on the "two leveled" nature of the book, where she measured out both its jauntiness and frivolity on the one hand against its undercurrent of sadness, loneliness, and dissipation on the other. Proof that rereading, especially with age and with greater contexts, can reward with enriched insights.) 

What's interesting about all this: While it's rare for me to reread books for fun, there are a number of movies that I've rewatched—and, in fact, several movies that when I've caught them while flipping the channels, I usually settle in to watch the rest of them. I think of Unforgiven, for example, and then a handful of Hitchcock movies—Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest—and then a couple of silly comedies which never fail to please, both classic (Sabrina) and newer (Blast from the Past, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You). But books? I'd be hard-pressed on that count.

I'm curious about others here. How often do you reread books? under what circumstances? and which books? And are you—like me—more likely to rewatch films than reread books? If so, why and which ones? 

Surely, with questions like that, I'll be adding even more titles to my TBR list—and my TBW list too, I guess!


10 June 2016

The Complete Continental Op: An Interview with Dashiell Hammett's Granddaughter, Julie M. Rivett


By Art Taylor


Dashiell Hammett created several of the best-known, most iconic characters in crime fiction: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. But many of his short stories (mostly published in Black Mask) and his first two novels—Red Harvest and The Dain Curse—focused on another character: the Continental Op, an unnamed detective with the Continental Detective Agency. The character and the agency were both drawn from Hammett’s own career with the Pinkerton’s, and Nathan Ward’s recent book The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett has successfully argued that Hammett’s Pinkerton training informed not only the character and conflicts of these stories but also the style: “His Continental Op stories clearly evolved from the form of these Pinkerton reports,” Ward writes, citing those reports particularly for their “habits of observation, the light touch and nonjudgement while writing studiously about lowlifes.”

On Tuesday, June 14, Open Road Media and MysteriousPress.com will release eight e-books toward what will eventually become the complete Collected Case Files of the Continental Op, edited and presented by Hammett’s biographer Richard Layman and his granddaughter Julie M. Rivett. As Rivett notes in her foreword, the series marks “the first electronic publication of Dashiell Hammett’s collected Continental Op stories to be licensed either by Hammett or his estate—and the first English-language collection of any kind to include all twenty-eight of the Op’s standalone stories.” Additionally, the complete series will include the never-before-published “Three Dimes,” a fragment of an Op story from the Hammett archive.

Rivett and Layman have worked together on many projects, including The Hunter and Other Stories, Return of the Thin Man, The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett: 1921-1960, and Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Rivett speaks widely about her grandfather’s work and legacy, and I’m honored to welcome her to SleuthSayers to discuss this landmark project.

ART TAYLOR: Hammett’s characters Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles have surely entered the wider cultural consciousness more completely, but the Continental Op might arguably be the more seminal character in terms of the development of the genre. What do the Op and his stories offer crime fiction readers that The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t?  

JULIE M. RIVETT: The Op is important and, yes, seminal.  Ellery Queen said he could have been Sam Spade’s older brother, equally hardbitten, but with perhaps less spectacular presentation. The Op’s narratives are workmanlike, realistic, and procedurally detailed. His plainspoken wit is at least as dry as Spade’s. It’s a shame he’s not memorialized in film the way that Sam and Nick and Nora are. I think that’s the main reason the Op is less well known to contemporary readers.

One of other the big differences between the Op and Spade, Nick, and Ned Beaumont is that he’s a company man, on the payroll for the Continental Detective Agency, modeled on Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where my grandfather worked for some five years, off and on. Spade and Nick Charles are independent sleuths. Ned Beaumont functions as a detective, but in fact he’s a political operator inadvertently entangled in a murder. Professional standpoint makes a difference in how each one perceives his professional obligations. The Op is the only one who has to answer to a boss, the Old Man.  He fudges his reports at times to cover up some less than conventional tactics, but, still, he’s loyal to the Agency and he loves his job. Or he is his job. That idea of profession as identity runs all through my grandfather’s work. The Op tales offer an extended narration of workaday professionalism in action.

Several collections in recent years have featured Continental Op stories, notably 1999’s Nightmare Town and then more extensively the Library of America’s Crime Stories & Other Writings in 2001, but this is the first time all of the standalone Op stories have been gathered together in series form. What might readers learn about the Op or about Hammett—and what did you yourself take away—from reading these complete case files, finally gathered in chronological order?

Any careful reader will see the progression in Hammett’s work. The stories grow longer and more fluid, the Op more emotionally vulnerable, the resolutions keyed more to justice than law. There’s evidence of both character and story development. Rick does a good job in his introductions of describing shifts in the degrees of violence that take place under Hammett’s three editors at Black Mask—very little under George W. Sutton, with scanty gunplay; much more under Philip C. Cody, the Op tempted to go blood simple; and ample well-developed action under Joseph Thompson Shaw, purposeful as well as thrilling.  

I’m drawn to that biographical potential of the collection, of course. The complete run of stories offers a fascinating opportunity to contextualize the Op’s narratives within Hammett’s real life story. My grandfather starts with a novice’s attention his editors’ demands—thrilled to be published, but also intent on keeping food on the family table. He hits his stride with some great stories, but then there’s a break, when he walks away in anger, deciding to give up on fiction. Then he’s back, with stories more confident, complicated, and ambitious. He’d realized his talents and was ready (with Joseph Shaw’s support) to challenge pulp- and crime-fiction norms. And then the sea change in February of 1930—the final Op story published in Black Mask, the same month that The Maltese Falcon was released by in hardback by Knopf. With that, my grandfather was done with the Op and off to explore other possibilities.


A few of the Op stories have been elusive except in much older editions—“It” and “Death and Company,” specifically. Why have those not been republished more recently, and do you anticipate they will be among the standout gems here for readers who are already fans?

The Op’s publishing history is complex—even frustrating. I don’t know why those two stories have been overlooked for so long. There is a gruesome tinge to each, but nothing sufficient to repel Hammett readers. I certainly can’t explain Lillian Hellman’s choices while she controlled the estate or the decisions made by her former trustees after her death.  I do know that contracts let under their tenure made the publication of Complete Case Files extraordinarily difficult. It seemed ridiculous to me that the Op’s tales couldn’t be collected altogether! Rick and I are both current trustees for Hammett’s literary property trust (under Hellman’s will, no less) and even with that, it was a struggle to assemble all the pieces. We’re hugely pleased and proud of that we were, finally, able to bring together the Op’s complete short-story canon.

“It” and “Death and Company” were last available, alongside many other Op stories, in paperbacks edited by Ellery Queen between the early 1940s and early ’50s [the cover to one of those paperbacks can be seen at left]—but you note that the stories in those editions were presented in  “sometimes liberally re-edited form.” [Editorial note: Don Herron at “Up and Down These Mean Streets” has been less diplomatic, using the word “butchered,” and Terry Zobeck has meticulously charted the editorial changes to “Death and Company” here.] In the newly collected case files, do you and Layman restore these and other stories to their original form?

Yes, absolutely! Rick and I worked from copies of the original publications for each story—26 in Black Mask, and one each in True Detective Stories and Mystery Stories magazines. Our only changes are corrections to obvious typos—which were more common than you might imagine, especially in the earlier editions of Black Mask. The proofreading was grueling. But we wanted to stick as close to Hammett’s originals as possible and when in doubt, we left questionable text unaltered. Unlike Ellery Queen, our first principle was “do no harm.”

Does each of the eight volumes feature its own individual introductions by you and Richard Layman?

Here’s how the organization works. Two or three stories are clustered into each volume. Then the volumes are collected into three sections: the Early, Middle, and Later Years.  Rick wrote introductions for each of the three sections based on Hammett’s experiences under his three editors at Black Mask, George W. Sutton, Philip Cody, and Joseph Thompson Shaw. A Sutton, Cody, or Shaw introduction opens each volume, as appropriate. My foreword traces the publishing and cultural history of the Op from creation through this most recent publication.  Every volume opens with the same foreword. A separate headnote introduces the never-before-published Op fragment, “Three Dimes.”

Rick and I have worked together since 1999 and this is our fifth published collaboration. We’ve learned to divvy up the editorial tasks. Each book has had its own rewards and challenges. In this case, in addition to constraints imposed by previous contracts, we’re negotiating the relatively new world of e-publication.  It’s complicated. For now, we’re releasing eight volumes, which include 23 stories. We hope to release the remaining handful and the fragment later this year.

“Three Dimes” promised to be a real highlight of the collection here. What more can you tell us about it?

The fragment comes from Hammett’s archive at the University of Texas at Austin. It is unique—a 1,367-word partial draft, in the classic Op style, that leaves us wondering what would have happened next and why the story was set aside unfinished. My grandfather, who saved very little, saved this, along with chapter and character notes, which will be included. I think that rare glimpse of Hammett’s process is going to be a real thrill for fans. Watch for it! 

17 December 2015

Christmas is Almost Always Murder


by Eve Fisher

Seriously, Norman Rockwell has a lot to answer for. All those pictures of Mom and the turkey, the family gathered around... All those "Old Home Folks" stories about the perfect Christmas, and how sweet it was when children were grateful for a penny, and grownups didn't get anything, but they all ate like horses and loved it. All those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (I mean, really, 24 hour a day Christmas movies starting on THANKSGIVING??????) Okay, back to those, where it's all about love, love, love, love, love, with red and green and what is the deal with all those movies about a "Prince/Princess for Christmas"?

I really am turning into a grinch, right?

Wrong.

We're No Angels - 1955 - poster.png I love a good Christmas movie or story, but I take my entertainment with a little salt, thanks. Or at least a shot glass. And a little murder just adds to the fun.

Here's a list of my favorite Christmas movies, the ones my husband and I watch every year, and yes, we know the lines by heart:

We're No Angels, (1955), Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray, and Basil Rathbone. For my 2012 take on this movie, complete with synopsis and begging everyone to go to Netflix and get it immediately, see here: http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2012/12/were-no-angels.html

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Monty Wooley, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, and more. The worst house guest in the world is also the most erudite, witty, arrogant, and popular man on the planet. Sheridan Whiteside was Kaufman and Hart's masterpiece (especially as played by Monty Wooley), based on (of course) the Algonquin Club's founder, leader, gatekeeper and spoiled child, Alexander Woollcott.
Jimmy Durante, Mary Wickes (in her breakthrough screen role), and Monty Wooley
The play - and the movie - are chock full of characters who were based, almost libellously, on real people. Banjo = Harpo Marx. Beverly Carlton = Noel Coward. Lorraine Sheldon = Gertrude Lawrence, of whom Beverly Carlton says, in my favorite movie line of all time,
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."
And Mary Wickes as Nurse Preen, who has to nurse the impossible Sheridan Whiteside:
"I am not only walking out on this case, Mr. Whiteside, I am leaving the nursing profession. I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity. After one month with you , Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory. From now on , anything I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure. If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed YOU, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross!"
Reborn (1981). Directed by Bigas Luna, originally titled Renacer, "starring" Dennis Hopper as the snake-oil selling Reverend Tom Hartley, Michael Moriarty as Mark (a thickly-veiled Joseph), and (I kid you not, spoiler alert!) a helicopter as the Holy Spirit. While it has horrible production values, and was obviously made (in Italy, Spain, and Houston, TX) on rather less than a shoestring (I think all the money was spent on the helicopter), this still may be one of the most interesting versions of the Nativity that's ever been done.
"You're going to have a baby? I can't have a baby! I can't even take care of myself, much less a baby!" Mark.

The Thin Man (1934). William Powell and Myrna Loy. Machine-gun dialog, much of it hilarious. A middle-aged peroxide blonde and an incredibly young Maureen O'Sullivan. More drinking than anyone would dare put into a movie today, at least not without a quick trip to rehab for somebody, especially Nick Charles. And mostly true to Dashiell Hammett's plot.
"Is he working on the case?" "Yes, a case of scotch!"

Okay, a quick break for myself and the grandkids: A Muppet Christmas Carol (with Michael Caine), A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (narrated by Boris Karloff). Love, love, love them ALL.




Okay, back to more adult fare:

Listed under secret pleasures, Love Actually (2003), mostly because I start laughing as soon as Bill Nighy starts cursing. (What can I say? I'm that kind of girl.)
"Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!" Truer words are rarely spoken in a Christmas movie...

Totally NON-secret NON-guilty pleasure: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988). Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder), Tony Robinson (Baldrick), Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Miram Margolyes as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, and Robbie Coltrane as the Spirit of Christmas...
"Mrs. Scratchit, Tiny Tom is fifteen stone and built like a brick privy. If he eats any more heartily, he will turn into a pie shop." God bless us, everyone.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) (1951). Alistair Sim. This is my favorite version, mostly because it feels like Dickens to me, because I love Fezziwig's sideburns, because of the hysterical charwoman, but mostly because Mr. Sim's Scrooge really ENJOYS being a hard-hearted miser from hell. Which makes his delight, after coming back from his Christmas travels among the spirits, more believable. Or at least I always find myself grinning from ear to ear...



"I don't deserve to be this happy. But I simply can't help it!" Hit rewind, while I make another cup of tea and pull out the Christmas cheer…
Merry Christmas, everyone!