Menu Close

All Things Thriller

A celebration of thrillers, noire and black comedy in film and literature by Pamela Lowe Saldana

The Nice Guys, a film directed by Shane Black, 2016; Black Comedy/Farce

Warning: The following content is a virtual ticking time bomb of literary devices. It is especially loaded with ellipses and asides. (Just so you know)

When I was a kid my brother and I would visit our dad in El Paso for about six weeks every summer. I usually looked forward to this because my dad was very permissive (we got to do all kinds of stuff like hike the Franklin Mountains without parental supervision and sunscreen) and my mom wasn’t, i.e., we had a babysitter until I was twelve and I had to take naps until I was eleven.

We stayed in a lot of hotels with my dad, and he was gone most of the day so we’d have run of the place. It was fun. We’d go swimming and check out the spa and eat in the restaurant and roam the grounds and we watched a lot of TV too, just like at home, only we had cable so I watched a lot of movies I wouldn’t have otherwise. One of those movies was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Now that movie made a big impression on me because it was all slapstick and farcical and silly and then all of the sudden, I mean out of nowhere, there would be a horror sequence with Dracula or Frankenstein or this evil, seductive female surgeon that wants to transplant Costello’s brain into the skull of Frankenstein. See what I mean? Fiendish.

So fast forward about forty years…I’m watching The Nice Guys and I realize that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the template for this movie! And Wow! I’m lovin’ it! (Exclamation points because I really don’t care too much for Abbott and Costello; too vaudevillian.) It’s the best comedy I’ve seen in a long, long time! (Plus it’s got Ryan Gosling in it and I like him. He’s a very nice looking young man. And he’s a really good actor.)

Anyway, back to The nice Guys

Here’s what I mean about the Abbott and Costello comparison: The movie starts off with a gorgeous sweeping night time panorama of  Los Angeles and then the camera swoops down onto a very ordinary, middle class house and focuses on this cute little white mutt in the backyard that wants to be let in. The dog is kind of forlorn and antsy, like they get before a really bad storm’s about to hit. A kid in button up pajamas–he’s about twelve–opens the back door and obliges the mutt.

We follow the kid down the hallway of the house where he slips into his parents bedroom–they’re asleep–and crawls halfway under the bed where he snatches one of his dad’s porno magazines. (It’s the 70s. Porno was in magazines back then and only men/boys looked at it. Ahhh…the good ole’ days.)

Then–quiet as a mouse, mind you–the kid sneaks out the bedroom, shuts the door and skips back down the hall to the kitchen. He pours a glass of milk and leans against the counter next to a big picture window. As he’s leafing through the magazine ogling the centerfold, we catch a glimpse through the window of a car that runs off the road. It careens down a hill heading straight for the house. Horrifically, it crashes into it–plows right through it even–and plummets down a ravine, averting the kid and his dog by a mouse whisker.

And the driver? She’s the porn magazine centerfold. Yes, the very one the boy was ogling only forty-seven seconds before. She’s dead as a dormouse now. ( I know. I know. It’s dead as a doornail but I’m going with this mouse thing as an extended metaphor, so…)

The whole movie is like that. It’s a lighthearted, slapstick, physical comedy of errors and hijinks and then–Bang! Boom! Pow!–out of nowhere, sudden, bloody violence hijacks it D.B. Cooper style and we are charmed.

Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a goofy, disenchanted private investigator whose wife was killed in an accident that was his fault. He has a freakishly bad sense of smell and, hence, was unable to detect gas fumes which resulted in their house blowing up. He’s also lacks follow through so he didn’t investigate when she complained about the smell.

Holland has a wise beyond her years but still idealistic thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly, (a terrific Angourie Rice) who saves him from being a complete failure and utter alcoholic. She is a classic case of the child parenting the parent, an unfortunate phenomenon not exclusive to the 1970’s but one that flourished in them none-the-less.

Then there’s Jackson Healy (Russel Crowe) who’s also a private investigator…Umm…Well, not really… He’s more like a leg-breaker for hire, but he’s no monosyllabic Neanderthal. In fact Healy’s actually quite smart–but he’s going to seed and he knows it. When he happens onto Holland’s operation he’s intrigued with the possibility, but his own brand of integrity and a fondness for Holly keeps his ambition in check. (He does break Holland’s arm though.) The three of them team up to investigate a convoluted conspiracy involving–get thisporn stars, the Department of Justice, the EPA and catalytic converters. (Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.)

These tropes prove fertile ground for writer/director Shane Black who penned the scripts for Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodbye. He obviously likes his action/buddy films.

But similarities aside, The Nice Guys has a very different vibe than those movies. It is much more like the appallingly underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) which he also wrote and directed.

Like the traditional buddy team cliches that Black is a prominent architect of, Holland and Healy are mismatched arch-types with their own version of rouge charm. What differentiates them and the director/writer Black from the screenwriter Black is his characters refreshing, invigorating sense of humility, humanity and vulnerability…That and a rather strong, unexpected dose of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.




Big Blonde, a short story by Dorthy Parker, 1929; Classic American Literature; Essay and Anaylis Concluded


There was no settled, shocked moment when she first thought of killing herself; it seemed to her as if the idea had always been with her.

Mrs. Morse occupies a dark, morose space with very few distractions. The maid Nettie does the cleaning, the cooking, the errands while she sleeps till afternoon and then prepares herself for night life. Glamour no longer resides here, but convenience does. She has become little more than a convenience herself.

It is a shriveled, shrunken life–from her apartment to the chop house, to the tavern and back again–that is all about recuperating from the night before, the upkeep of the outward appearance and, more than anything else, the illusion of vigorous spontaneity. She must be frivolous, silly, accommodating, available at the drop of a hat–everything her benefactors wives are not.

In this environment she loses track of how many men there have been; they come and go. Some she likes, others she doesn’t which is neither here nor there as long as her bills are paid.

Then one day on her way to the tavern to meet Art, her current “friend”, she sees a sight that shakes her to her core:

…a big, scarred horse pulling a rickety express wagon crashed to his knees before her. The driver swore and screamed and lashed the beast insanely, bringing the whip back over his shoulder for every blow, while the horse struggled to get footing on the slippery asphalt. A group gathered and watched with interest.

When she breathlessly tells Art why she is late for dinner and upset, he doesn’t want to hear it.

“What’s the idea of all the bellyaching? What have you got to be sunk about?…Pull yourself together will you? Come on sit down, and take that face off you.”

But this time she can’t outrun the shakes or numb them either. Later at her apartment she examines vials of sleeping pills she’s been hoarding and her reflection in the mirror.

“Well, here’s mud in your eye,” she said. 

Big Blonde is a cautionary tale. Like all literary works with a capital L it is multifaceted.

Within in its approximate twenty pages, Parker explores a life steeped in alcoholism even before the catalytic onset. Hazel Morse is not an organic alcoholic if, indeed, one even exists. She becomes one while trying to medicate herself in the presence of problem drinkers and alcoholics. For them any infraction or malady is cured with another shot and some laughs.

Early in the process she uses alcohol as a means to loosen up, to make herself lively and uninhibited at the behest of her husband Herbie. She finds it does more than that. It evaporates her depression. It allows her to be what others want her to be, to win their approval, so she drinks more. But of course her relief is only temporary and so is her marriage.

At first glance it is easy to assign Herbie Morse the villain of Big Blonde, but a longer look puts him in a less glaring light. Herbie has been played by his wife. He never asked for traditional domesticity of the day, of house slippers laid out and supper on the table when he gets home. Instead he wants her “dolled up” and waiting for them to go out on the town. He wants her to be fun, like she’s always been and when she’s not, when at first, she slips into one of her moods, he is concerned.

At first, when he came home to find her softly tired and moody, he kissed her neck and patted her shoulder and begged her to tell her Herbie what was wrong. She loved that. But time slid by, and he found that there was never anything really, personally, the matter.

This is Hazel’s fatal flaw. She always opts for the easy way. It’s not that she’s not legitimately, yes, even organically depressed. She is. And, yes, depression was misunderstood in those days, as it still is (but especially then); the crux of the problem is that Hazel is not above using her mental illness as a means of getting what she wants, which is to be forever babied and pampered on her own terms. And Herbie is not that guy.

As is almost always the case in tragedy, the protagonist is his/her own worst enemy. Hazel Morse is a classic example of this device. She enters into an ill advised contract with herself with no gun to her head. Willingly, she will never come into her own; she will sacrifice her self respect, her sexuality, morality, ambition and happiness (the superego, if you will) at the alter of convenience and self indulgence. Therefore, it is not Herbie, or the many men who enter into this contract of destruction with her that are villain, nor is it the serpent alcohol, but it is Hazel Morse herself that is the architect of her demise.

And, even in that, she ends up failing herself.



Big Blonde, a short story by Dorthy Parker, 1929; Classic American Literature


A Mrs. Martin moved into the flat across the hall. She was a great blonde woman of forty, a promise in looks of what Mrs. Morse was to be. They made acquaintance, quickly became inseparable. Mrs. Morse spent her days in the opposite apartment. They drank together, to brace themselves after the drinks of the nights before.

In the company of her new friend, Hazel is known only as Mrs. Morse, though there is no mention of Herbie. It is assumed that he is always away on business–the same with Mrs. Martin’s husband.

Mrs. Martin throws poker parties with her friend and admirer Joe. Joe has several friends–the boys, he and Mrs. Martin calls them–who attend. There is, of course, lots of drinking and uproarious laughter at the poker parties. Hazel–ahem, Mrs. Morse–is instantly popular with the boys, she allows herself to wallow in the levity of her old charm, and the pall of failed domesticity lifts. With the help of Scotch she becomes an expert reveler. She tells some jokes now rather than just laughing at them. One of the boys, a successful business owner who travels, is bedazzled. His name is Ed.

He was married. He showed Mrs. Morse the then current photographs of Junior and Sister, and she praised them abundantly and sincerely. Soon it was accepted by the others that Ed was her particular friend.

Still, she doesn’t give up entirely on Herbie although he is hardly ever home. On the rare occasion that he shows up, Hazel doesn’t cross the hall to her friends. But things never go the way she hopes they might; Herbie is not only immune to her charm, he is determined to eviscerate it. Self preservation numbs her to him. When she comes home from a poker party early one day to find him packing she is neither surprised or mad or even more than a little hurt. She pours them a good stiff drink.

He took his highball. “Well,” he said, and he gave a sudden, uncertain laugh. “Here’s mud in your eye.” “Mud in your eye,” she said. They drank.

Herbie takes the elevator and the six o’clock train to Detroit. Hazel traipses back across the hall. She is older now–still pretty but heavier (then there’s the drinking)–and no longer a candidate for stout women’s fashion modeling. Herbie has left her the contents of their bank account but that won’t last forever.

Ed swoops right in. He walks with her across the hall to her apartment that very evening after poker. Hazel is lost to her. Now she will only be Mrs. Morse. She invites him in.

“Got a little kiss for me?” he asked. He wrapped her in his big arms and kissed her violently. She was entirely passive. He held her away and looked at her. “Little tight, honey?’ he asked anxiously. “Not going to be sick, are you?”

“Me?” she said. “I’m swell.”

Mrs. Morse wants for nothing with Ed. He moves her out of her old flat to an apartment close to the train station, far from Mrs. Martin and the boys. He hires a maid for her and they frequent a tavern called Jimmy’s where she makes friends of women of her own ilk and girth. They all are kept women.

The aim of each was to have one man, permanently, to pay all her bills, in return for which she would have immediately given up other admirers and probably would have become exceedingly fond of him; for the affections of all of them were, by now, unexacting, tranquil, and easily arranged.

Ed had a good year, increased her allowance and gave her a sealskin coat. But she had to be careful of her moods with him. He insisted upon gayety. He would not listen to admissions of aches or weariness.

Their arrangement lasts three years. Then, suddenly, he has to move to Florida and can no longer travel to New York so freely. Ed gives her a hefty check and some shares in his stocks. He is sad. There are even tears in his eyes as he says goodbye. On a rare occasion he slips into town for a visit.

She was always pleased to have him come and never sorry to see him go.

One of Ed’s friends at Jimmy’s, a guy named Charlie, is enamored with her. He has an irritating habit of maneuvering in conspicuous ways so he can touch her.

Charlie picks up where Ed has left off, but Mrs. Morse isn’t very fond of him. She describes him to friends as “not so bad.” He will do until another comes along. And another one does.

And another…And another…


Big Blonde, a short story by Dorthy Parker, 1929; Classic American Literature (with an introductory aside regarding Janis Joplin)


I’m a big Janis Joplin fan. My high school theatre teacher turned me onto her when I was fourteen. I have every album she ever recorded. I even own the “special 24-karat Gold Disc” Master Sound Series of her seminal album Pearl. My husband paid a fortune for it back in the day when CDs were cool. It was an anniversary present. I was delighted, though that was some time ago. He knows my taste in anniversary presents has changed.

Janis Joplin was a great singer. Just listen to her tough yet tender rendition of the Bobby Womack penned Trust Me on Pearl and try not to be swept away by the pain and the poignancy. The urgency. The sheer pleasure of it. Go on…Listen..

Okay. All that is interesting–or maybe not–depending on your opinion of Joplin. Some folks do not like her. Her fandom usually comes at the price of acquired taste, as it did with me. But, irrespective of that, what does she have to do with Dorthy Parker? Fair question.

When you talk about Janis Joplin it’s easy to get sidetracked by her life, the shortness of it; the obscenity of it. Her bombastic style. The drugs and drinking. The fatal overdose. So much so that her voice, her artistry, yes, her greatest gift is often assigned to the backseat.

I’m not going to do that with Dorthy Parker. I’m not going to quote her quips or expound on her seat at the Algonquin Round Table. You won’t hear details of her marriages, romantic trysts, Communist sympathizing or her admirable contribution to the NAACP from me. It’s all very interesting. Fascinating even. I urge you to read up on these things and many, many more details of a rich, often troubled, but always colorful life. You won’t be disappointed. Despite a myriad of problems and systemic alcoholism she did not flame out at an early age like Joplin did.

But here, in this singular outlier of a post, I’m going to focus on Dorthy Parker the writer and her composition Big Blonde for which she was awarded the O. Henry Award for best short story of 1929. Big Blonde is a testament to the breadth and depth of her talent.

And yes, of course, it highlights her wit. Absolutely, without question, it does–and her sardonic underpinnings too. But more than that it flaunts her easy way with words. The flow. The rhythm. Her uncanny ability to turn on a dime within the whim of economy and summon a tale from the distance of sympathy and the intimacy of empathy. It is her best known short story.

I think it’s her best. Period.


Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were.

This is sum of Hazel’s life. She is the party girl who does not drink. She is the life of the party who doesn’t tell jokes. Instead she consoles and cajoles her drinking companions and is audience for their jokes–especially the jokes of men. She laughs and flirts for a living while being a plus sized model on the side.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Hazel’s no floozy. She wants to settle down into the bliss of domesticity and Herbie Morse is her kind’a guy. Smart, industrious–on the smallish side–Herbie’s a well dressed ball of nervous energy. He loves raucous hilarity and lots of stiff drinks. They are handsome couple, each on opposite ends of the scale, ample and svelte sliding toward each other. Together they make the rounds of the neighborhood hot spots. Hazel is a good sport. Herbie decides to make an honest woman of her.

She loved the flat, she loved her life, she loved Herbie. In the first months of their marriage she gave him all the passion she was ever to know.

Hazel grows comfortable as wives and husbands often do–too comfortable, perhaps. She feels free to finally be herself, to be moody sometimes, to cry. The fact is, she suffers from depression. Nothing debilitating but little things can set her off. A movie. A poem. An orphaned animal. She grows sentimental and likes to stay in at night. This is not what Herbie signed up for. He feels stifled and put upon. What happened to the enabling, accommodating girl he fell in love with?

“Ah, for God’s sake,” he would say. “Crabbing again. All right, sit here and crab your head off. I’m going out.” And he would slam out of the flat and come back late and drunk.

Commitment is important to her. Marriage is what women of her time aspire to. It is the barometer of their self worth. So she takes up drinking to save it even though she’s repelled by the taste and smell of liquor.

After experiment, she found that Scotch whisky was best for her. She took it without water, because that was the quickest way to it’s effect.

Herbie pressed it on her. He was glad to see her drink. They both felt it might restore her high spirits, and their good times together might again be possible. “Atta girl,” he would approve her. “Let’s see you get boiled, baby.”

Now she is a conspirator in the debauchery. Things might start off innocent enough, they might even have some fun, but it is short lived and liquor fuels their mutual resentment. They quarrel incessantly. Then it turns physical.

There were shouted invectives and pushes, and sometimes sharp slaps. Once she had a black eye. Herbie was horrified next day at sight of it. He did not go to work; he followed her about, suggesting remedies and heaping dark blame on himself. But after they had had a few drinks–“to pull themselves together”–she made so many wistful references to her bruise that he shouted at her, and rushed out, and was gone for two days.

She commenced drinking alone, little, short drinks all through the day. It was only with Herbie that alcohol made her nervous and quick in offense. Alone, it blurred sharp things for her. She lived in a haze of it. Her life took on a dream-like quality. Nothing was astonishing.




Let’s Discuss; my top 10 favorite movies with 5 runners-up

Who doesn’t love a good top 10 list? Best Dressed? Ummm…David Bowie, later period (as in not Ziggy Stardust or Thin White Duke era). Most Beautiful? Duh. Ava Gardner. Best Guitar Player? Jimi Hendrix, hands down. (Yes, it’s the obvious answer for a reason.) Best Singer? Billie Holiday, of course. Most Handsome? I gotta go with Paul Newman but it’s wonderfully close between him and about six other guys.

See what I mean? It’s fun. And a little contentious, but that’s just part of the livliness.

So anyway, without further ado and blather, here are my top 10 favorite movies of all time with the obligatory (and totally necessary for my peace of mind) runners-up:

10.  Magnolia (1999) – Director, Paul Thomas Anderson (Audacious. Kind. Inspiring. Tom Cruise smiling and posing–and it’s a good thing. Oh, yeah, the cast breaking out into Amiee Mann songs. Yes!)

9. Rififi (1955) – Director, Jules Dassin (Best heist movie ever.)

8. The Conversation (1974) – Director, Francis Ford Coppola (Oh my gosh, the ending. Heartbreaking.)

7. Badlands (1973) – Director, Terrence Malick (A strange and beautiful movie about a mass murderer/serial killer and his girlfriend. Chilling.)

6. There Will Be Blood (2007) – Director, Paul Thomas Anderson (Daniel Plainview…I pity the misanthrope.)

5. The Last Picture Show (1971) – Director, Peter Bogdanovich ( Maybe the most poignant performance ever depicted on screen. Cloris Leachman; genius.)

4. Sunset Boulevard (1950) – Director, Billy Wilder (Gloria Swanson and William Holden as a couple. It doesn’t get any better than that.)

3. Night of the Hunter (1955) – Director, Charles Laughton (Terrifying. Brutal. Life affirming. Beautiful. Only Charles Laughton could have pulled all of the above together for absolutely breathtaking cinema.)

2. Nights of Cabiria (1957) – Director, Frederico Fellini (See number 8 and add hope to the mix.)

1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Director, Robert Altman (It is what it is. Original. Truthful. Spectacular.)


  • Fargo (1996) – Director, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Director, Robert Mulligan
  • Days of Heaven (1978) – Director, Terrence Malick
  • Bonnie and Clyde (1967) – Director, Arthur Penn
  • Drive (2011) – Director, Nicolas Winding Refn

(Oh what the heck. Two more: Jaws (1975) – Director, Steven Spielberg; Touch of Evil (1958) – Director, Orson Welles)

So what are some of your favorite movies? Let’s unpack it–if you want to…

Midnight Cowboy, a film directed by John Schlesinger, 1969; Drama

Ahhh…New York City. I once had dreams of living there, dreams of acting on a Broadway stage. When I heard Sinatra sing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” I would get chills. I still do…Sometimes.

This inconsistency is by no means due to me out growing Sinatra’s bodacious song stylings–hardly, he’s only gotten better to me– rather, it’s because I’ve out grown my youthful bravado…Finally.  And that’s a good thing, since I’ve gotten a lot older and, yes, a little wiser. Plus I finally made it there–for the weekend. And it was awesome. And intimidating as all git-out.

Hot. Crowded. Relentlessly noisy…Fast.

Too fast for this woman who has lived the last thirty years in Nashville. Way too fast for the twenty-year-old who left Odessa, Texas to live in Nashville because her husband said, “No way am I moving to New York City.” (Thank you honey. We would have lasted about two weeks, if that.)

In John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking 1969 grunge drama, Midnight Cowboy, huckster Joe Buck (Jon Voight) has dreams of New York City too. That’s because he lives in Podunk Texas and washes dishes in a diner. (In fact, the opening scenes of Midnight Cowboy were filmed in Big Spring which is just seventy-miles from Odessa. If you lived there you’d probably dream of being someplace else too.)

When Joe Buck preens and flexes in his dresser mirror–shirtless and shiftless–he doesn’t see what we do. He sees Paul Newman in Hud. We see a goofy man-child with a decent physique who talks to himself. Tellingly, when he brags to a fellow dishwasher that he’s about to blow the sad-sack joint for NYC where he has plans to be a hustler, i.e., a male prostitute for wealthy women, the guy–not exactly demonstrative to begin with–goes witheringly blank. “I don’t know nothin’ about that,” the guy says.

“I’ll send ya’ a postcard,” Joe Buck gloats. With that he hops on a bus.

Even in West Texas, among a western wear sporting citizenry, Joe Buck stands out. Like a sour thumb. While those so inclined might look like a Sears and Roebuck LBJ (keep in mind this is late sixties, hence the references) or a real deal kicker with fraying boot cut Wranglers and sweat stained straw Stetson, Joe Buck favors aqua blue shirts trimmed with roses and black bandannas knotted Roy Rodgers style around his neck.

On the bus he is all wide-eyed wonder with about another thousand miles to go. He’s got one of those portable AM radios from the time–a little bigger than the transistor–that’s his prized possession. When, finally, they are some two to three hundred miles out, he picks up a local radio station, “You hear that?” he enthuses to anyone who will listen–and, cringingly, to those who don’t want to–“that’s New York talkin’.”

At first it’s fun to experience the city with Joe Buck. Once there he heads straight for what he’s seen on TV–Midtown Manhattan. He checks into a not too unreasonably seedy hotel that overlooks Times Square and spends his days walking the streets. We walk with him.

Joe Buck is broad-chested and rangy. When he walks down his hometown streets to the lilting guitar strumming of Nilsson’s gorgeous Everybody’s Talking he has a ridiculous flailing swagger. He chews his gum obnoxiously with a lascivious grin plastered on his face. Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever without the rhythm or the sex appeal. But when he walks the Manhattan streets–again to the same lilting strumming–he is boxed in. With shoulder to shoulder crowds there’s no room to get his groove on. And though he’s head and shoulders taller than everybody else he doesn’t emit power, or even his previous doofus charm, here it’s strictly awkwardness.

Still he is happy and awe struck. That is until his money starts to run low and that doesn’t take long because he spends it like water (at one point giving it away to a slutty sixty-something kept woman who was supposed to be his client). Then he becomes bewildered and scared. Even then he’s too “proud” to take a job as a dishwasher.

Big city life is hard on the disenfranchised. Joe Buck has never seen a homeless person before and now he’s inundated with them. Upon running onto a drunk-sick bum sprawled out on the sidewalk he is overwhelmed with helplessness; under the sheer veneer of bluster lies a gentle soul. So gentle that when he is driven by desperation to turn a gay trick in a movie theater, he can not bring himself to beat the bookish young man who can’t come up with the money after the deed is done. He can’t even take the kid’s watch.

Joe Buck is not gay as some critics opined back in the day. He is, however, impotent when he is with women of his own age, although he has no problem performing with the raunchy older woman (Sylvia Miles) who becomes offended when he asks her to pay. This is not just a kinky predilection. He was sexually groomed and abused as a child. He has also been cloistered and fawned over. This is what drives his inappropriate naivete and inability to take care of himself. When he gets kicked out of his hotel room for not paying the bill, he’s surprised. We knew it was going to happen before he even checked in.

This is where Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) comes in. Ratso is a native New Yorker. He is also a disgusting specimen of human flesh. He doesn’t bathe even on the rare opportunity that he gets the chance; like Joe Buck, he’s homeless.

Ratso walks with a limp–probably from getting hit by a car in an insurance scam–and is noticeably sick. He coughs a lot. He survives anyway he can besides violence (he hasn’t got the strength or the acumen) or turning tricks (he’s not interested and he doesn’t want to starve).

At first he rips Joe Buck off, taking his last twenty bucks. Later when he sees the wannabe hustler, pale and skinny, he has a crisis of conscience and fear; Joe Buck’s some kind of pissed off and the streets have made him meaner than he was with the kid.

Joe Buck’s also sick and starving. Ratso takes him to an abandoned building where he’s been squatting and nurses him back to health. Then he shows him the ropes of surviving the streets of NYC homeless style.

Together they form a seemingly ridiculous partnership–Joe Buck as the talent, Ratso as the pimp–that, incredibly, takes them all the way to an upscale artist’s loft (an obvious reference to Andy Warhol) and one of his wealthy, well connected lady friends who’s amused, curious and willing to pay Joe Buck for his services. (She also has friends who are interested too.)

Now, just as Joe Buck teeters on the brink of his dream, Ratso nearly succumbs to his illness; he has tuberculosis. Rather than go to the hospital Ratso is convinced that the Florida sunshine is his cure. If only they could wait a week or so Joe Buck could amass the funds for the trip with proceeds from his new found client and her friends. But Ratso can’t wait–he has to go NOW. This means Joe Buck has to do what he is loath to: go back to the movie theater area where he picked up the bookish young man and ply his wares as a midnight cowboy.

If all of this sounds a bit too bleak and a lot too unsavory think of how it played forty-eight years ago. Then ponder this: Midnight Cowboy has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry and it ranks #36 on the American Film Institute Greatest Films of All Time list. It won the Academy Award of 1969 for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screen Play. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were nominated for Best Actor. Sylvia Miles was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

But perhaps even more significant is this curious (and whether or not it is that depends on your point of view) tidbit: Midnight Cowboy is one of Jimmy Carter’s favorite films. He would often screen it in the White House. He appreciated its humanity.

The Devil and John Holmes, an article by Mike Sager and inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights

With music from artist such as ELO, The Emotions, Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and War, the Boogie Nights soundtrack represents a curious window of time, late 70s through early 80s, when everybody was doing it in every conceivable way; when cocaine was thought to be relatively harmless despite enormous evidence to the contrary and, yet, there was still a pervasive, wide-eyed innocence that could be exploited to the max. These are the times of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a well endowed porn star straight out of high school who, through a series of mishaps, winds up on the couch of a coke crazed millionaire in bikini briefs and a wide open silk robe. Now this guy loves (and I do mean loves) mix tapes. While he hits the freebase pipe, his mix tape blares–dun dun dun–Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. As the crescendo builds he air drums manically, passionately. Normally this would just be lame, but here it is unsettling because Dirk and a couple of his buddies have conspired to sell the dude a large plastic bag of baking powder despite his–Rahad’s his name (Alfred Molina)–bandying about a huge revolver, albeit playfully. Even more disturbing, a weird teenage boy unceremoniously lights firecrackers and then throws them onto the carpeted floor, over and over again. Those of us who partied hearty in the 80s pretty much agree–no good can come of this.

I wrote the above passage in a post back in February that highlighted some of my favorite films that utilized the needle drop to perfection in the soundtrack. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights was number one on my list.

The description is a lighthearted capsule of a harrowing scene in the movie. I remember well the first time I saw it. I was very uncomfortable. Urgency and dread pushed me to the edge of my seat.

My reaction is a testament to powerful movie direction, yes, but that is not all. I recognized a similar turn of events from an article that I had read in the Rolling Stone back in the day that undoubtedly inspired the Anderson scripted film. As good as Boogie Nights is, the article is even better because there is more at stake than a dysfunctional porn family’s adventurous stab at redemption through a facade of normalcy.

It’s about porn actor John Holmes and his involvement in the Wonderland murders. I had heard of John Holmes but I knew nothing of his backstory or the horrific murders  that that rocked Hollywood in 1981.

Trust me, there is zero normalcy here. No naivete. No boyish charm or good looks either. (Look no further than the above feature image of John Holmes. Point taken? Good.)

The following is an excerpt from Mike Sagers article for the 1989 May issue of Rolling Stone magazine entitled The Devil and John Holmes. I’m including the link to the article. I urge you to read it in entirety. It is a riveting account of the narcissistic downward spiral of a man that destroyed or, at the very least, severely damaged everyone that came within its wake.

The Devil and John Holmes was written at a time when Rolling Stone was a creditable, viable force in print media, some twenty-five years before it published the disastrous and erroneous Rape on Campus article that decimated its credibility. It was a good magazine back in the day.

John Holmes was a porn star. Eddie Nash was a drug lord. Their association ended in one of the most brutal mass murders in the history of Los Angeles.

…Holmes was into Nash for a small fortune. Now Holmes owed the Wonderland Gang, too.

“I leave the sliding door unlocked—this one,” said Holmes, pointing to the floor plan, “here, in the back. The guest bedroom. Then I leave. I come back to Wonderland. Tell you it’s all clear. Then you guys take him down.”

And so the plan was fixed. At midnight, the Wonderland people scraped together $400, and Holmes, whose pretense for entrance would be buying drugs, drove off to Nash’s house.

As night stretched into morning, Holmes had an attack of conscience, a glimmer of an understanding that knocking over Eddie Nash might lead to a lot of trouble. Nash knew the Wonderland people. He’d never met them, but he had, through Holmes, given them a $1000 loan. Holmes muttered something to Nash about the gang. He wasn’t specific, but it really didn’t matter anyway. Nash hadn’t slept in ten days. He hardly knew what Holmes was saying. And, as Holmes’s supply of coke dwindled, his conscience was overruled by his jones. He excused himself, left the room and unlocked the sliding door.

Arriving back at Wonderland just after dawn, Holmes announced the coast was clear. 

Tracy McCourt turned right onto Dona Lola Place, drove 100 yards into the cul-de-sac, parked, cut the engine. DeVerell, Lind and Launius pushed aside the chain-link gate to Nash’s driveway and filed around to the right, behind the house. The sliding glass door was still open, as Holmes had said.

“Freeze!” yelled Lind. “You’re under arrest! Police officers!”

DeVerell and Launius covered Nash. Lind made his way behind the shirtless, blubbery bodyguard. He shifted the badge to his gun hand, his left, then took out the handcuffs with his right. As he fumbled with his paraphernalia and Diles’s thick wrists, Launius came over to help, tripped, bumped into Lind’s arm. The gun discharged. Diles was burned with the muzzle flash. The right side of his back, over his kidney, began to bleed. Nash fell to his knees. He begged to say a prayer for his children.

Lind rolled Diles onto his stomach, handcuffed him, threw a Persian rug over his head. Then he joined the others in Nash’s bedroom. Everything was where Holmes had said. Lind put his .357 to Nash’s head, asked for the combination to the floor safe. Nash refused. Then Launius forced the stainless-steel barrel of his gun into Nash’s mouth.

In the floor safe were two large Zip-lock bags full of cocaine. In a gray attaché case were cash and jewelry. In a petty-cash box were several thousand Quaaludes and more cocaine. On the dresser was a laboratory vial about three-quarters full of heroin.

“Where’s the rest of the heroin?” he demanded. “I don’t know,” said Diles. Launius pulled a knife slowly across Diles’s neck. Blood flowed. Suddenly, outside, Tracy McCourt began honking the horn of the getaway car.

“Forget it!” said Lind. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gregory DeWitt Diles, six feet four, 300 pounds, barged through the front door of the house on Dona Lola, dragging John Holmes by the scruff of his neck.

“In here,” said Nash.

Diles shoved, Holmes skidded across the carpet. Nash shut the bedroom door.

Eddie Nash was fifty-two years old, six feet tall, gray haired, strong and wiry. His family had owned several hotels before the creation of Israel in 1948. Nash told a friend that he missed the moonlight and the olive trees of his homeland, that he’d spent time in a refugee camp, that his brother-in-law was shot by Israeli soldiers.

The youngest son in the family, Nash arrived in America with seven dollars in his pocket. He worked for others for a time, then opened Beef’s Chuck, a hotdog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. Nash was on the job day and night, wearing a tall white chef ’s hat, waiting tables himself.

By the mid-Seventies, Ed Nasrallah had become Eddie Nash and had amassed a fortune. He was also a drug dealer and a heavy user. His drug of choice was freebase; sometimes he mixed the crack with heroin. Nash was missing part of his sinus cavity, one of his lungs had been removed, and he had a steel plate in his head.

For the last several years, Nash had rarely left his white-stone ranch house in Studio City. At home, Nash walked around in a maroon silk robe, or sometimes in bikini briefs, his body covered with a thin sheen of sweat. His voice had a smooth Arabic lilt. “You want to play baseball?” he’d ask his ever-present guests, lighting his butane torch, offering a hit off his pipe.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 1st, 1981, Eddie Nash was again consuming drugs at an alarming rate. He’d been ripped off for eight pounds of cocaine, but the Wonderland Gang hadn’t found his private stash, and now he was bubbling his glass pipe furiously. 

Diles smacked Holmes, threw him across the room, shoved him against a wall. “How could you do this thing!” Eddie Nash screamed. Diles hit him again. “I trusted you! I gave you everything!”

Holmes was crumpled on the floor. Diles leveled a gun at his head. Nash was leafing through a little black book that Diles had taken from Holmes’s pocket.

“Who’s this in Ohio?” Nash screamed. “Who’s Mary? Your mother? Who’s this in Montana? . . . Is this your brother? . . . I will kill your whole family! All of them! Go back to that house! Get my property! Bring me their eyeballs! Bring me their eyeballs in a bag, and I will forget what you have done to me! Go!”


Three Paragraphs Besides the Murder: The Content of the Life of Bobby Franks Googled

I have grappled with murder. And I have imbibed in it. From an early age I have been both fascinated with and repelled by it. Murder has entertained me. Is that right? Or wrong? I’m not sure. Perhaps that’s because I hang out in a patch of gray with a lawn chair that is perfectly molded to my form and variables strewn carelessly around. I don’t know.

I do know that true crime occupies a more distant space inside that patch of gray for me. I keep it at arms length. That’s because there are real people involved. Someone’s life has been taken; their soul has been required of them and, as is so often the case with true crime, murder has happened as a consequence of a piece of…a human stain seeking their own morbid entertainment. When I gawk at this, I’m compelled to do it behind mirrored glasses.

It was my intention to write about the Alfred Hitchcock film Rope and another film, though not as critically acclaimed, Compulsion and even another lesser known and much more current film Swoon. I was pleased with myself and up for the challenge until I started the doing the research. That made me queasy.

Now I have a pretty strong stomach and a taste for the macabre, but these films have variables and stains in common that tragically are related to one fourteen-year-old boy. Bobby Franks.

I’m a mom. I remember when my daughters were that age. And my brother too.

There’s not a lot of information about Robert Emmanuel Franks on the internet. I was six pages into a Google search before I found out this: Franks was a brilliant student at the school. As a member of the Harvard debate team, he had argued against capital punishment. Franks’ conduct, however, worried his teachers. On his scholastic record are the notations “too self-satisfied” and “still hampered by unpleasant characteristics”.

The “Harvard” in reference here is not Harvard University but the Harvard School of Chicago–a prep school for boys endowed by Edward S. Waters a wealthy benefactor and Harvard University graduate who wished to produce candidates for his alma mater. Only the most prestigious families sent their sons to Chicago Harvard School. Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Franks fit the bill in what really mattered–dollars and cents–although the family’s social status was tarnished by Mr. Franks former occupation as pawn broker. Even his ventures into real estate speculation and watch manufacturing couldn’t completely redeem his social standing. This was in 1924, the year his youngest son “Bobby” was abducted.

There are a few pictures of Bobby Franks on the internet. One of them I used as the “featured image” to this post. It shows Bobby Franks from the waist up in what looks to be a suit and tie. It’s not. This is a cropped picture and the real deal shows a gangly teenager in an unfortunate school boy uniform; unfortunate because he is wearing nickers and long socks– and, seemingly, over-sized oxfords, consistent with his “awkward” age–not a good look then or now, in my book.

But there is another picture that is more flattering and, from what I’ve gleaned, a more accurate representation of him. In this photograph he stands on a step or possibly a curb with his father. Mr. Franks looks to be about seventy and he was, sixty-eight to be exact. Both father and son are impeccably dressed. Mr Franks sports a beautifully tailored pinstriped suit. He wears a bowler hat, a monocle eye-piece and there is a cigar between the fingers of his left hand; his right hand is grasping, gentlemanly, his son’s elbow as if he is halting him from stepping down or, perhaps, he is alerting the boy that their picture is about to be taken.

If the latter was the case, Mr. Franks was wasting his time. Here Bobby is exquisitely prepared. He also wears an expensive suit, but it’s his fedora that completes the look of unabashed teenage cockiness. A bit of a smirk creases his lips. He is handsome, but not in the way that he thinks. He’s amusingly cute. And still gangly. He’s skinny too and petite, though, from the length of his limbs and the height of his father, he most likely would have been tall.  The photograph was taken a few weeks before his abduction.

Bobby Franks was walking home from Harvard School that day in late May when Nathan Leopold rolled up in a rented Willys Knight automobile. In the back seat sat Franks’ eighteen year old cousin and neighbor from across the street Richard Loeb. Loeb offered Bobby a ride.

Initially Bobby begged off. He was only a couple of blocks from home but Loeb persisted, claiming he had a new tennis racket he wanted Bobby to check out. Bobby was happy to oblige. He was an excellent junior player, often challenging his cousin to long rounds on the Loeb’s court. And besides, it was unseasonably cold that day. He slid into the front seat beside Leopold.

The Franks household was in a frantic uproar when they would have otherwise been eating dinner. Bobby hadn’t made it home. The family knew Bobby was supposed to umpire a baseball game after school so initially they weren’t worried, but something was clearly wrong. The Franks made a point of eating together whenever possible and though Bobby could be aggravating and self centered, like 99.9 percent of teenagers, it wasn’t like him to make his mother worry to this extreme. Older siblings Jack and Josephine scoured the neighborhood, while Mrs. Franks phoned the headmaster of Harvard School. Mr. Franks left to search the school. It was only three blocks down the street.

While Mr. Franks was away, Mrs. Franks received a phone call from Nathan Leopold. He said his name was George Johnson. He said he had kidnapped Robert Franks and there would be further instruction in regards to a ransom coming soon.

At the time of the phone call Bobby Franks was lying in culvert. Acid had been poured on his face, his belly and genitalia in an attempt to hide his identity. He had undergone abdominal surgery and there was a distinctive scar; and although Mr. and Mrs. Franks, both Jewish, had converted to Christian Science before Bobby was born, he was  circumcised.

It takes a lot of strength to snuff out a life–if you don’t use a gun. That’s what murderers say. Unfortunately I’ve read a lot of accounts. I’m not going to quote them.

The good Lord gave us the will, yes, the instinct to survive. That is what I believe. I’ve witnessed this will personally during my late mother’s long and heroic battle with a very severe form of cancer. I’ve witnessed it with my husband as he struggled for life after a botched kidney surgery perforated his bowel.

He won. I’m grateful.

Bobby Franks fought hard too. He had youth on his side and though he was small, he was fit and had the strength of an athlete. His cousin was surprised.

Richard Loeb used a chisel to bludgeon Bobby from behind. He reached over the front seat suddenly while making small talk and covered the boy’s mouth, at the same time striking the back of his skull as hard as he could. Immediately afterwards he hit him again, only this time he used more leverage, bringing the chisel down even harder. But Bobby was still conscious. Still struggling.

During the struggle Bobby managed to twist himself around, flaying and kicking, so that he faced Loeb eye to eye. Twice more Loeb bludgeoned him. Bobby’s forehead caved in. Blood splattered and spewed all over the car seats, spattering Loeb’s pants. But Bobbie wasn’t dead.

Now Loeb began to panic. How could this shrimp still be alive? Frantically he grabbed Bobby under the arms and pulled him over the seat. Then he shoved a rag as far down the dying boy’s throat as he possibly could and held it there.

The thrashing gradually subsided. Finally Bobby stopped breathing.

Three paragraphs. That’s the content of Bobby Franks’ life on the internet, at least from  what I was able to find and I’m a pretty good searcher.

Whereas it takes considerable effort to piece together a truthful, personal and informative portrait of Franks from fragmented excerpts here and there, there is a whole treasure trove of information about, and an entire cottage industry of entertainment devoted to, his killers. Consider this:

In addition to the films Rope (1948), Compulsion (1959) and Swoon (1992) there are at least three plays, five novels and four films dedicated to Leopold and Loeb. In some of these pieces Bobby Franks isn’t mentioned by name and in Rope he isn’t mentioned at all; the victim is an adult male whom the killers, clearly based on Leopold and Loeb, strangle and then conceal the body in a chest on which they serve horderves.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This inequity is not a revelation to me. Nor is the irony–hypocrisy would be a better word for it–that I am raising the issue of the glorification of murder and, hence, murderers on the very site that I bill as a celebration of thrillers, noire and dark comedy, all of which promote homicide as spectacle and, at least to some extent, objectify and dehumanize the victim(s). I am well aware, as I should be. And no, I will not be shutting down my site or revising it either. It is what it is. And I am who I am. For better or worse. But this isn’t about me. And it’s not about them either.

Bobby Franks was fourteen years old when he was bludgeoned to death by someone he trusted and had known all  his life. He was the youngest child of a sixty-eight-year-old father and a forty-two-year-old mother. He was spoiled. Some of his friends and family members described him as a bit of a smart-aleck. He was a decent athlete; smart, but no genius. Like his friends at the exclusive Harvard School, he was a rich. He lived in one of the finest neighborhoods in all of Chicago. He liked expensive clothes and girls. His parents and siblings loved him. He was well liked. Eight of his friends served as pallbearers at his funeral.

He was good looking kid.




Hard Eight, a film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996 (with an appendaged tribute to Sidney Lumet and Philip Seymour Hoffman); Crime Drama

We get older; we get wiser. That’s how the old adage goes, and I believe it. For the most part.

Sometimes we get lonelier too–because we are alone. And because we know why.

This is the juncture where Sydney (the awesome Philip Baker Hall), an aging professional gambler (I’d say he’s mid-sixties, at least) resides in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed 1996 feature film, Hard Eight. (Well, actually, he resides in various high end casino hotel rooms in Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. There’s no house. Not even an apartment.)

Sydney is strictly nomadic. Unattached. He comes and goes as he pleases. He answers to no one–though that wasn’t always the case, entirely. He was married once, with two children. A boy and a girl. Both are completely grown–late twenties and early thirties–and distant. He doesn’t know where they live.

Regret is a palpable thing for Sydney. It aches like arthritic knees and a bad hip. There is no solace in the day in and day out grind and glare of the casino or the rituals of meals taken in a coffee shop and cigarettes fished from a collapsed soft pack. Expensive suits, manicured nails and good manners don’t help either; they’re just remnants of a bygone era that tend to piss the local yokels off.

But Sydney has wisdom that he longs to share. To that end he takes a dimwitted drifter and a volatile cocktail waitress under his wings.

At first John (John C. Reilly) is weary of Sydney. He thinks the old guy might be some kind of a pervert. But true to his word Sydney just wants to show John the ropes and nothing else. And he does.

He shows him how to finagle a nights room and board on the house by playing the slots and cashing in chips in some kind of round robin manipulation that I couldn’t quite make out the intricacies of. (I’m not very good at that kind of stuff. Not much of a chess player I’m afraid.) He shows him how to win at craps and keno and, probably, (though I’m not sure that this wasn’t just John’s lone con) how to steal cable movies from the front desk.

But more than all of that, Sydney teaches John how to be a gentleman. As such John attracts the attention of Clementine, (Gwyneth Paltrow) a cocktail waitress who moonlights as a hooker and Jimmy, (Samuel L. Jackson) a small time hustler, who moonlights as a security guard.

Sydney approves of Clementine, even though he knows about her hustle, because he sees a fragile, childlike vulnerability in her, but not of Jimmy because…well…Jimmy walks, talks and smells like the rat that he is. The problem is when it comes to Jimmy, John is both nose blind and regular blind. And when it comes to Clementine, neither he nor Sydney can see the forest for the pretty face, the decent heart and the halfway good intentions.

These entanglements are the consequence of the ties that bind, exactly what Sydney has spent a lifetime avoiding. Now he desperately hangs on when every strand of his intricately coiled instinct tells him to cut loose.

And then there’s this: Sydney is a slave to decorum. Jimmy violates Sydney’s beloved master hard. He thinks Sydney’s good manners and fastidious articulation (not to mention the senior citizen thing) indicates softness. He’s wrong.

On the other hand Sydney thinks Jimmy is just a parking lot rent-a-cop with a try-hard vocabulary. He can’t see the fox for the fool’s gold bling. He’s wrong.

Jimmy is cunning. And dangerous…

And so is Syd.

Hard Eight is a great movie. To me it is every bit as good, maybe even better than Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. These movies have a similar feel (though one is straight realism while the other is melodrama, so maybe it’s just me) and while Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite film director, Sidney Lumet comes in a such a close second that, if not for A Stranger Among Us and the remake of Gloria, it would probably be a tie.

Here’s the deal: Hard Eight is Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film. He made it on a shoestring budget when he was twenty-six. Conversely 2007’s Before the Devil Knows Your Dead was Sidney Lumet’s final film. He had a substantially larger budget of eighteen million dollars, but in comparison to the budgets of tepid blockbusters of the same year like Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End and Spiderman 3, it was mere chicken feed.

Lumet was eighty-three when he made Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. The wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in it. Hoffman was also featured in a memorable bit role in Hard Eight. In fact he was cast in the first five films Anderson directed.

Sidney Lumet died April 9, 2011 at the age of eighty-six. Philip Seymour Hoffman died three years later. He was forty-six.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still going strong. They tell me his latest film Phantom Thread is really great. Daniel Day Lewis (one of my all time favorite actors) plays a control freak dress designer with a very serious jones for a much younger woman.

It’s in my perpetual queue.






I have a sense of responsibility to my hobby as a writer and more importantly to those fellow writers who indulge me as audience, and to whom I am audience as well. So while I’m taking a break from my interaction, please don’t fret. (I’m only using this word because it is part the daily post word exercise; it’s a bit dramatic for the circumstances.) Don’t worry, or wonder about me. I’m taking care of business and going to the gym again.

And just in case you are uproariously amused and appropriately chagrined by this post, please make note that I’m aware of the obvious. I will miss you much, much more than you will miss me.

I will be back. Lord willing.

Older Posts