Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

What to watch while you’re safely isolated

1

Part 3 – final installment

Classic noir and mysteries make a great alternative to repetitious bad news

Mystery fans holed up at home and searching for a distraction from the ugly news today could do what I’m doing: bake chocolate chip cookies as a mood booster (see part 1) then dive into a contemporary or classic mystery novel (see part 2). But if you’re eager to watch something on the flat screen besides recitation of the daily toll, you don’t have to watch Tiger King (Donald Jr. watched the entire season in two sittings) or sit through all 24 seasons of The Bachelor.

Robert Mitchum, as Philip Marlowe, tackles gangsters, murderers, and frisky heiresses in the 1978 version of the The Big Sleep available without extra charge to Amazon Prime members.  The movie is not Mitchum’s best, nor the best version of the Raymond Chandler novel, but it’s eminently more engaging and worthy of your time than the parade of reality shows and sitcoms the streaming services offer at the top of their program lists. 

But if you scroll down farther, or do careful Internet searches, you’ll find Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Barbara Stanwyck, and a host of other noir film stars awaiting your streaming request.  I spent an enjoyable afternoon recently trying to make sense of The Big Sleep, having not seen this version in so long I’d even forgotten the nude scenes.

Mitchum and Candy Clark at target practice

Lamentably, director Michael Winner made a few changes in the Chandler classic.  First, it takes place in London, not Los Angeles, and Winner transplants a handful of American actors in addition to British standbys like John Mills and Edward Fox. Second, Marlowe is an ex-pat American who has lived in England since the war.  Third, the film takes place in the present day, not Chandler’s 1940s.

Like the Bogart version or the novel, Marlowe is summoned by wealthy General Sternwood to investigate blackmail involving one of his two fast and loose daughters played by Candy Clark and Sarah Miles.  The story makes several twists and turns as each daughter tries to seduce Marlowe in her own way, Clark in the nude, Miles slightly more reserved.  Multiple plot detours, a disappearance, many bodies and subtopics including pornography and blackmail make for a convoluted plot.

But that’s the way Chandler wrote it.  One of the characters who don’t make it to the end of the story is Sternwood’s chauffer. When Howard Hawks was directing the 1946 film version of the book, he too reportedly had trouble with all the loose ends, and he called Chandler asking who killed the chauffeur.  Chandler is supposed to have told him that he didn’t know.

Apparently director Winner did.  His film shows the chauffeur driving a fancy Sternwood car off the end of a pier.  Mills, as Scotland Yard Inspector Carson, decides it was suicide almost before the body is removed from the sunken auto.  A motive for the plunge might have been helpful.

Sarah Miles or Gilda Radner?

The film has other issues.  Richard Boone as one of the bad guys seems hopelessly out of place in the British countryside.  A fine villain, Boone is more convincing in the old west when he’s menacing Paul Newman (Hombre, 1967) or John Wayne (The Shootist, 1976).  Miles’ frizzy hair makes her look like Gilda Radner playing Roseanne Roseannadanna on Saturday Night Live, and Oliver Reed as gangster Eddie Mars just isn’t intimidating.

Roger Ebert reviewed the film at the time saying it felt embalmed because Marlowe didn’t belong in the 1970s, but what carries the film, as Ebert concluded, is Mitchum’s definitive screen presence.  The film succeeds, but not nearly as much as Mitchum’s first go at playing Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely in 1975. 

I’ve seen that film several times recently and it’s filled with so many memorable lines, so many good supporting performances and enough noir atmosphere to fill your family room with an eerie fog.  Look for a young a Sylvester Stallone in the background when Marlowe takes on a pugnacious brothel madam in one of the film’s classic scenes.

So where do you find these master mystery movies? Certainly not on Netflix.  The service that used to offer nearly every classic film you could name, regardless of genre, now focuses on its own video productions and relatively recent B movies.  When you search for “classic film noir” on Netflix it offers Blade Runner and Dirty Harry.

Humphrey Bogart in the original The Big Sleep

Amazon Prime is different.  While they often charge a little for the best noir flicks, they are available now.  Here are a few of the classics on Amazon Prime and the cost of rental:

Double Indemnity, $3.99
Farewell, My Lovely, $3.99
Out of the Past, $2.99
The Maltese Falcon, $2.99
The Thin Man, $2.99
Key Largo, $3.99
The Third Man, $3.99
The Big Sleep (Bogart version), $2.99

It’s interesting to note that Amazon doesn’t charge extra for the Mitchum The Big Sleep, but Farewell, My Lovely is $3.99.  Is that based on quality or customer demand?

YouTube has for years been a reliable source for free noir and classic mysteries. Today hundreds of noir films—not all gems—are available free and many of the best now carry a small fee. The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example,  is just $1.99. See links below for listed films. 

I hope my suggested diversions will please your taste buds, challenge your deductive powers, entertain and help you muddle through.

Links:

You Tube: hundreds of noir films, many B movies. Top classics can be rented for a few dollars.
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLajqNV0-qkKdGiFNzmK5BA16MujBJ0bvv

List of 100 noir movies available for free on YouTube (check availability)
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLbm4HpSnC9E1sovy9Ikx2H_gVRcrpdSFe

 

Escape Covid-19; Get lost in a book

1

Survival guide part 2

Spring is here, and no one is celebrating.  

But once you’ve taken all the sensible precautions and are staying home and safe (and have on a clean pair of pajamas) you have options to make life more enjoyable.  A positive attitude is a good start.  You control what’s going on in your head.  Why not focus on something other than the virus.  Pick up a book.  

Welcome to my survival guide, based on simple things I’ve been doing to offset the grim news.

My coping advice began with cookies (see part 1).  Next, dive into a good novel and get transported away. Getting lost in a mystery lets you take a brief but necessary vacation from reality.  The respite can revive and help you reassess priorities. If you’re working outside your house or are busy home schooling your kids, squeeze in an hour or so of reading when you can. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to escape the uncertain present. 

My wife and I were away from home in California when the Covid-19 alarms belatedly started to sound and Governor Gavin Newsom issued one of the first lock-down orders in the country. To get home we had to drive through the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevadas, but a series of snow storms had taken up residence. Add to that I had acquired a sinus infection—something that had me taking my temperature every few hours to be sure it wasn’t you-know-what. I was sick and  stuck in our tiny vacation rental, so I turned to books.

Here are recommendations and a caution.

Praise for Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is everywhere.  It’s a beautiful coming of age story, an invitation to explore and appreciate nature—from frolicking microscopic life to squawking gulls—a love story of sorts and a meditation on social isolation. It’s also a mystery. Blended seamlessly, these elements create a story that will carry you away to the coastal marshlands of North Carolina and make you forget just about all else.  It was the first book I read when the lock-down began and was just what I needed.

 

Next, when the bad news completely seeped into my consciousness, I reached for The Plague by Albert Camus. I’d read it years ago and still had it on my Kindle. Very timely I thought, but I couldn’t read more than a few chapters.  It’s too realistic. First, the rats start dying…  It’s a classic by the French existentialist author, complete with allegory, but not for now.

 

 

I’ve been working my way through Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer PI series and picked up The Zebra Striped Hearse. This complex story, published in 1962, begins with a rich ex-military man hiring Archer to dig up dirt on his daughter’s fiancée who he suspects of being a gold digger. The repressed 24-year-old daughter has fallen for an itinerant artist who’s been traveling under a variety of aliases.

Macdonald displays his Chanderesque style—“The officers on duty took turns looking at my license as if it was something I’d found in a box of breakfast cereal”—and propels his protagonist through multiple deaths and locales from rural Mexico to Malibu to Tahoe. It’s an emotional ride populated mostly by melancholy characters and it comes with a twist-upon-twist ending. The book appeals to your head and heart. 

The Cohen Bros are reportedly working on a film version that, from early accounts, will carry the novel’s name and little else from the book.

 

Takeoff by Joseph Reid is a thriller with mystery elements revealed gradually through the fast-moving story.  The foundation of the book is the well-rendered relationship between Max, a rising sixteen-year-old female rock star, and Seth Walker an emotionally vulnerable federal air marshal assigned to protect the recalcitrant phenom on a cross-country flight.  When they land at LAX instead of handing off Max and getting back to his regular job, Walker and his charge are greeted with automatic weapons fire. The two go on the run, pursued by unknown gunmen while Walker suspects betrayal by federal agents.  Walker is an electrical engineer with more than a dozen patents to his name and uses his ingenuity to keep he and Max alive while he tries to uncover details in the young girl’s past that may be influencing her present.  Likable characters in bad trouble make for an engrossing read.

 

My next read, after we’d finally made it home, was a book I’d purchased a few years before and never had much time for.  Know the feeling? The Big Book of Pulps is a collection of dozens of noir stories from the 1920s through 1940s. The table of contents looks like a directory of the best authors in the genre.  Rather than begin at the beginning, I started with my favorite authors. The book contains three stories each by Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich and Dashiell Hammett. Other authors include James. M. Cain; Carroll John Daly, credited with writing the first U.S. detective novel; and Earl Stanley Gardner. In one Gardner story, Ken Corning, precursor to Perry Mason, leaps on the running board of a car and battles gunmen. Not the deft courtroom-style exchange you might expect from watching Raymond Burr.

Each story is introduced with commentary by Otto Penzler, editor and owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City.  He provides useful biographical information on the authors, background on the stories and when and where each was originally published.  As the book’s title suggests, all the stories were first published in inexpensive pulp mystery magazines such as The Black Mask.

At 1,163 pages and weighing more than two pounds it requires two hands, a table or bookstand to read comfortably.  Each page contains two columns of type so the book may actually be much longer than its page count indicates.  In addition to short stories, the book includes two complete novels.

The last episode of my survival guide, on movies, will arrive in this space tomorrow

What to eat, read and watch while you’re quarantined

2

Part 1

My survival kit includes Toll House cookies, good mystery novels and classic noir films

 

I’m a slow learner.  But yesterday I dredged up useful cooking tips from a silt-laden inlet of my brain to help me turn out a batch of Toll House cookies.  They are the quintessential homemade comfort sweet to help you through the days ahead.  Chocolate is a mood enhancer; dark chocolate contains antioxidants.  So let’s talk cookies. 

While I’m at it, I will recommend some good mysteries I’ve been reading and offer a few words about streaming noir. Here is my survival guide, a delicious tonic for your confined isolation and a supplement to the daily dose of numbers TV news so efficiently serves you.

Chocolate chip cookies are as American as baseball, which regrettably is on hiatus, and they’ve been a hit since 1937 when Ruth Graves Wakefield accidentally invented them. She and her husband Kenneth started the Toll House Inn near New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the 1930s. According to the Facts About Chocolate website, Mrs. Wakefield wanted to bake chocolate cookies one day but didn’t have any Baker’s chocolate.  Substituting, she chopped up a Nestle semi-sweet chocolate bar and stirred it into her dough.  The chocolate was supposed to melt and spread throughout the dough.  It didn’t, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.   

Unfortunately for Mrs. Wakefield, in 1939 she sold the recipe to Nestle for $1, according to a 2013 New Yorker article, although she became a paid consultant for Nestle, published successful cookbooks and her Toll House name will forever be attached to the cookie.

As to the recipe, it has no doubt changed over the years, but the one you find on the back of the yellow Nestle semi-sweet morsels package can hardly be improved upon.  As we live at 5,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I modify most cookie recipes for the altitude and I occasionally experiment with different recipes, but for Toll House, I stick to the package.  It even includes perfect high-altitude adjustments. Be sure to stir in pecans.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things to make the chocolate chip baking experience a little easier—mainly on the clean-up. Having baked these addicting treats for more years than I care to admit, improvements in my technique sadly have come but slowly. 

One recent revelation involves the annoyance of being showered by flour dust as you add dry ingredients to the butter, sugar and eggs in a running mixer.  I figured out—all on my own—that if you stop the mixer, pour in some of the flour mixture and use a spoon to cover it with the batter already in the bowl, you can start beating again without the snow storm.

My second epiphany: parchment. Even though I use insulated cookie sheets to prevent burning, Toll House cookies sometimes stick. Simple solution: put a sheet of baking parchment on the cookie sheet.  The cookies will slide right off the sheet.  I realize this is not a culinary secret known only to an exclusive set of Cordon Bleu pastry chefs, but for someone who bakes just two or three times a year, it was a breakthrough.  One tip that might be a little less than a century or two old:  get a non-stick silicone baking mat. 

After you’ve eaten half the batch of chocolate chip cookies, even before you’ve pulled the last cookie sheet out of the oven, you might want a change of pace.  (Full disclosure: I have eaten about seven—no, maybe eight cookies—in the time it took me to write this.)  The change of pace I recommend is one of the easiest cookie recipes I’ve ever seen. I received the recipe for these delicious treats from my daughter in law, Brandi.  Taste them and you won’t believe there’s only three ingredients—and that they are so easy to make:

Brandi’s Peanut Butter Cookies

Ingredients:
1 egg
1 cup of peanut butter – crunchy style optional
1 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for 8 minutes or until they are light brown.  As they cool on a rack, the cookies will become firm. I’ve been using massively rounded teaspoonfuls to make a good-sized cookie.

Now that you’re getting comfy with a plate of cookies and milk, (or tea or coffee), the next step is a good book.  My reviews include Where the Crawdads Sing, a sort-of mystery; The Zebra Striped Hearse, an oldie from one of the masters of the PI genre; a chilling story of contagion from a Nobel-winning author; an unabridged-dictionary-size collection of short noir, and more. 

The next episode of my survival guide will arrive in this space tomorrow.

Links:

A history of the chocolate-chip cookie, The New Yorker  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/sweet-morsels-a-history-of-the-chocolate-chip-cookie

Facts About Chocolate  https://facts-about-chocolate.com/history-of-chocolate-chip-cookies/

Nestle chocolate chip cookie recipe  https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/174864/original-nestle-toll-house-chocolate-chip-cookies/

%d bloggers like this: