Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: Cornell Woolrich

Your vote: what are the best noir films?

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Anyone who thinks of Fred MacMurray mainly as the jovial father on the 1960s TV series My Three Sons or the screwball title character in The Absent Minded Professor film, doesn’t know the real Fred MacMurray.

The real Fred MacMurray was the scheming insurance salesman and murderer in the 1944 film, Double Indemnity. In so many scenes, from his first meeting with Barbara Stanwyck, the wife of the man he would ultimately kill for his life insurance money, to a secret rendezvous in a grocery store, MacMurray has an undisguised devious look in his eyes yet a guarded set to his lips.Crow-gun-Web-opt-w-title619 (It’s a different, yet equally dishonest countenance he bore as Lt. Tom Keefer in The Caine Mutinty.)

Combine MacMurray’s persuasive performance with his two assured costars, Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson plus a script by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on the James M. Cain novel, and you have what many people think is the finest noir film ever made.

What do you think?

What are the best noir films?

Mystery fiction scholar Francis M. Nevins defines noir as, “…the kind of bleak, disillusioned study in the poetry of terror that flourished in American mystery fiction during the 1930s and 1940s and in American crime movies during the forties and fifties. The hallmarks of the noir style are fear, guilt and loneliness, breakdown and despair…” Although many noir films were stylish, often featuring avant garde cinematography, as Nevins points out, happy endings were rare.

If you do a Google search for “favorite noir movies” you immediately see a spread of movie posters in this order:

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. The Maltese Falcon
  3. The Third Man
  4. Out of the Past

It would be difficult to argue with that selection. The Internet Movie Database says Sunset Boulevard and Night of the Hunter edge out Out of the Past and Double Indemnity, though the latter film is ranked number five.

Films based on novels by the leading detective writers of the period rank high in many ratings. In addition to Double Indemnity, Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is another highly rated noir flick. The Maltese Falcon novel was written by noir master Dashiell Hammett and Chandler novels also became classic noir films such as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely.

The writer who I would count as the fourth of the great noir authors, Cornell Woolrich, had more than two dozen of his novels and stories made into movies, many, unfortunately were forgettable adaptations. His most famous, Rear Window, was a superb suspense movie with many noir elements, not the least of which was the villainous Raymond Burr.

Other films I think you should consider for your top ten include: Brighton Rock, Lost Weekend, Touch of Evil and Kiss Me Deadly. Sydney, Australia, blogger, Tom D’Ambra, has one of the most comprehensive noir film websites you can find. Among his many suggestions: Journey Into Fear, I Wake Up Srcreaming and The Seventh Victim.

Many noir fans have favorite lines from films. One of mine comes from Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He stares at Humphrey Bogart as he says, “By gad, sir, you are a character.”

So, think of some noir characters yourself, and let me know your favorite films of the noir era.

Hyperlinks:

IMDB/noir

Tom D’ambra on noir films

Great moments in the history of anxiety

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“Fear rots the faculties.”
–Cornell Woolrich, “Deadline at Dawn”

 In a few days, my publisher will release my novel, Death in Nostalgia City. Not my first book but my first novel. A debut mystery is the industry term and it’s appropriate as I feel not unlike a tense debutant taking tentative steps onto a stage, hoping for the approbation of her society.

Writing in general is nervous work. Novelist Shirley Hazzard said, “The state that you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums to get rid of.” But at least, with any luck, an anxious mystery writer can transfer that feeling, so necessary to the genre, onto paper.Anxious author 3 tiny  6151

I’ve experienced several levels of anxiety during the creation of my book. (See photo.) In this case, it was the production stages and the promotional planning, rather than the writing, that seem to have challenged my sangfroid.

Although I’ve had my writing critiqued and edited thousands of times–dedicated writers crave editing–my publisher’s multiple editing process was a bit unnerving, confusing. Then there’s the two biggest tasks that await a writer whose manuscript has been sufficiently vetted: approving a cover design and obtaining blurbs.

In this case, the cover design was the easy part, though not a short process. Ultimately designer Jacci Wilson created just the right cover.  It conveys the fact (a) that this is a mystery novel–although any title with the word “death” in it is likely a crime story–and (b) that the setting for the crimes is the desert near old Route 66. The cover also shows a hint of a town and an amusement park in the distance. That’s where the story’s headed.Final Cover front +++

The second of the two required tasks is to obtain blurbs. For the uninitiated, a blurb is a flattering quote about a book, preferably from an authority or well-known person, which is plastered on the cover. You’ve seen them.

These days, one or two blurbs seems not sufficient to establish a writer’s credibility. Many books have one or more pages of quotes attesting to the author’s talent, the incredibly involving content of the book and the necessity for readers to cease all productive activities in their lives until they’ve finished the tome.

One of the first places I went looking for a blurb was the Boston Globe. As a large part of my book takes place in Boston, I contacted a respected Globe feature writer offering her my manuscript for review. Turns out, reporter Beth Teitell has written books too, and was wise to my ploy. “You’re on a blurb quest,” she said.

Indeed. Fortunately, I managed to receive good blurb comments not only from other mystery writers, but from people in specialized fields–such as oldies music, theme parks and 60s/70s culture and trivia–that are part of the subject matter of my book.

With those two tasks behind me, I’ll be dividing my time between promoting the book and trying to write Nostalgia City volume II. Either of these tasks can easily be a full-time job. Pass the tranquilizers.

Post script.   My book was supposed to be available for advance orders on Amazon, a couple of weeks prior to its release. Today, in addition to noticing that the thumbnail of my book cover looks cloudy on Amazon (ditto for B&N), I also saw that the print version of the book is available for sale earlier than I expected. Also, the Kindle and print versions are not linked.  I’m told that after the Oct. 4 release date the listings will be combined.

Amazon and my publisher will sort things out. In the meantime,  read the first four chapters of the book here, on my website.  My reluctant investigators Lyle and Kate have some exciting surprises for you.

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I’m often asked if I have advice for people just starting out to be writers. My advice: Some less stressful jobs might be worth exploring, like crab fishing in the arctic, testing experimental aircraft or painting radio towers.

“Deadline at Dawn” uneven Woolrich adaptation

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Deadline at Dawn, the movie version of the book of the same name by William Irish, is an uncertain attempt at film noir with Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas and Bill Williams dashing about city streets–that are obviously soundstages–looking for a murder suspect and running into seedy types portrayed by a cast of familiar character actors who provide the darkest scenes and the darkest dialog.

The first scene of the 1946 movie is promisingly noire as Marvin Miller, looking a little like Peter Lorre, knocks on the door of an apartment where a semi-intoxicated Edna Bartelli (Lola Lane) is asleep with a fly crawling across her face. When she finally staggers to the door she says, “Why, it’s Sleepy Parsons. Aren’t you dead?”

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas

Later, Bartelli picks up innocent-looking sailor Alex Winkley (Williams) and brings him back to her apartment. Winkley drinks too much, passes out, and eventually discovers that Bartelli has been murdered. First, he thinks he may have done it after he blacked out but June Goth (Hayward), a taxi dancer he meets, persuades him that he could not have committed the crime.   Since people saw Winkley go up to the victim’s apartment, he knows he’ll be accused of the murder and he has to catch a bus in a few hours to get to his navy ship. Goth tells him that to clear himself he must look for clues and find out who did kill Edna Bartelli.

That’s the improbable setup. The goal: With little or nothing to go on, they must find the murderer before the 6 a.m. bus.

Hayward is obviously the brains of the duo and she pushes the plot along with beauty and spunk while Williams, in his sailor suit, is the gee-willikers, guileless young seaman. (He actually delivers a line, “Gee, look at the time.”) The first clues lead the young duo to dead ends, but soon they’re joined by a cab driver (Lukas) who decides to help the struggling couple. The cabbie finds some additional evidence the youngsters missed and that leads them to the meat of the film when they encounter suspects played by Jerome Cowan, Osa Massen and the ever-menacing Joseph Calleia. The latter trio have the truly noir scenes in rooms with stark lighting contrasting with deep shadows.

Joseph Calleia

Joseph Calleia

Later, in a private club, Lukas gets a noirish line, courtesy of screen writer Clifford Odets. “The city is full of men like that. Nerves and worry. Living on cigars and bicarbonate of soda. Wrung out by sleepless nights.” Shortly thereafter, the mood shifts in a corny good-cop, bad-cop scene in a police station.

Miller makes another appearance as well, and the ending, although a surprise, does not save the picture. Directed by Harold Clurman, the film bears little resemblance to the mystery novel written by Irish, a penname for noir master Cornell Woolrich. Had I not seen the movie right after reading the book I might not have noticed similarities which are pretty much limited to Goth’s occupation and the 6 a.m. deadline. Certainly not A-list noir but worth watching if you’re a Hayward fan or a fan of the character actors of that era.

The film is part of a series, Film Noir Classic Collection, on DVD and available from Netflix.

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