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All Things Thriller

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

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.)

Runners-up:

  • 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

http://reprints.longform.org/the-devil-and-john-holmes

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.

 

 

 

Fret

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/fret

 

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.

Touch of Evil, a film directed by Orson Welles, 1958; Classic Film Noir

Attention film buffs and cinephiles: Do you have a film(s) that fits your criteria to a T and yet you continually pass up every opportunity to watch it? If you’re like me you do. (Currently Hell or High Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri are in my perpetual queue.)

Why do we (I) do that?

For years, Citizen Kane was that movie for me. (Yeah, I know…What can I say? I’m ashamed.) Perhaps it was because I knew that I should watch it, because I knew that any and every self respecting buff absolutely must watch it, that I just never did–until a few years ago.

Newsflash: It was great. Even revolutionary. But not as good as Touch of Evil. To me.

Yes Touch of Evil is a recognized masterpiece, recorded in The National Film Registry, Library of Congress; ranking #64 on American Film Institutes 100 Years, 100 Thrills; coming in at #26 and #57 respectively on Sight and Sound’s directors and critics Greatest Films of All Time list and the accolades go on. Any fanboy or fangirl should be pleased with this representation and I am, (not so much with the fangirl part, but it is what it is) it’s just that Citizen Kane ranks #1 on these directories.

Do I think that’s fair? Umm…Nooo.

Do I think Touch of Evil should be #1? No. I do not. But # 64 on American Film Institutes 100 Years, 100 Thrills? Come on.

Then what should be #1? I’d rather not go there. 

So then, where is this going? To an unspecified town on the Mexican border actually. And yes, it’s going to get messy…And complicated. (Duh. It’s a border town. And I’m interviewing myself.)

When critics talk about Touch of Evil they always talk about the opening scene. Let me see…How can I describe it? Well that’s hard because I haven’t got a clue as to the technical side of it. Of course I could brush up on the research but I’m going to skip the analysis since a lot of famous critics and directors admit they don’t know how Orson Welles pulled it off.

If you’ve seen the opening scene to La La Land, the spectacular choreography, to me that’s what’s going on here. Choreography. But in Touch of Evil, it’s even better (and that’s saying a lot since I love the La La Land opening scene) because instead of dancers, this choreography is with moving cars, pedestrians in crosswalks, vendors and peddlers pushing carts, a passel of goats, more pedestrians and cars intertwining at intersections, going through checkpoints and all the while, one particular car is intersecting at different points with one particular couple, walking. (Yes, there is a couple in the car of question. It is not driven by ghosts.)

Except for the opening establishing shot and the ones that are immediately subsequent, all of this is filmed moving toward the camera while the camera(s) is backing away in a beautiful collage of orchestrated chaos pulsing to a percussion heavy jazz intro. It is absolutely, unequivocally spectacular.

Oh, did I mention that it is suspenseful? And on the edge of your seat thrilling?

Well it is. That’s because that one particular car that is intersecting with that one particular couple (along with all the other people, cars and the passel of goats) has a ticking time bomb in its trunk. We know this because the ticking time bomb, in unidentifiable hands, is the opening establishing shot. And the fiend–whoever it is–is seen placing it in the trunk of the car in the immediate subsequent opening shots.

So this is what the movie’s about? Well…Yes and no. 

What this movie is about is Charlton Heston in all of his overacting glory. Believe me, there are plenty of Damn you…Damn youDAMN YOU…(Planet of the Apes) moments here.

What this movie is about is Janet Leigh, pre Psycho, giving a very nuanced and spunky, spirited performance.

What this movie is about is Denis Freaking Weaver executing one of the most bizarre, jittery, over-Kilimanjaro feats of acting in all of cinematic history. And it is wonderful.

But if you want to know about plot, you are just going to have to watch the movie. I’m not going to lay it out for you—it’s far too brilliant. I can’t give it justice. (Plus it’s really complicated and I’ve already taken up too much time and space interviewing myself.)

That said, I will delve into theme. (You didn’t think I’d let you off that easy did ya?)

At it’s core, Touch of Evil is about corruption. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) is a nefarious, aging police captain in a border town on the U.S. side. When I say aging, I’m being kind. A more accurate adjective would be decaying. He’s a mess. Obese. Obviously diabetic. Lumbering, with a cane. So riddled by booze and sugar that he cannot speak without slurring his words.

He is terminally prejudiced and dangerously criminal. Even so, as I write this, there are tears in my eyes for him. And I’m not kidding.

Quinlan has a partner, of course. His name is Pete (Joseph Calleia) and he would be a thoroughly decent man and honest cop, if not for Quinlan. Even with him he’s a nice guy.

Pete is completely devoted to Quinlan. He admires him. Reveres him even. Why?

And he’s not the only one. The police chief, the District Attorney, just about all the old guard of the town hold this ugly, contemptible man in high esteem. Are they all in cahoots with him in his corruption? Possibly. Probably. To some extent. But it’s more than that.

There is an aging prostitute, a madam in this border town. Yes, sadly, there always is at least one. But unlike Quinlan, she has retained vestiges of her charm. She is in fact, still, exotically beautiful–and mysterious. Her name is Tanya. (She is portrayed by the great and legendary Marlene Dietrich.)

Quinlan wanders into her brothel in a perpetual stupor and when he sees her, when he recognizes her, his disease ravaged face is transfixed and just barely, but still, it is transformed…With kindness. With awe…With, even, love.

Later when Tanya is questioned about what she thinks of  Quinlan, she talks about who he was before he completely disappeared into a fog of vile, “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

This revelation is stunning as it hints at what has been lost not only in the character of Quinlan, but in Orson Welles himself. At the time Welles was suffering from chronic alcoholism, binge eating, drug dependency and numerous infidelities. For his old and much respected friend Marlene Dietrich to deliver these lines with such matter of fact poignancy is fitting and exploitatively sublime…Exactly the way Welles intended it to be.

 

Manhattan Beach, a novel by Jennifer Egan, 2017, Scribner; Historical Fiction

It takes a certain discipline to read literature. There is no standard template, no conspicuous signposts to reassure along the way. The unraveling is sporadic, often leisurely and that tends to frustrate the mere genre fiction reader; yes, even those of us who like our airplane reads robustly seasoned with character development, metaphor and symbolism. When we get a hold of the “real thing” we know it, if only because we are tempted to abandon it to a prominent position on our book shelves prematurely. One hundred pages in and we are growing increasingly restless for something…anything to happen…

This is so often the way it is with literary fiction and those of us who want to like it, but so often don’t.  Like with fine dining, we are compelled to savor when we really just want to dig in. Jennifer Egan’s historical novel, Manhattan Beach, provides a rich return for the investment of time and patience. Trust me. This one’s worth it. Here is that rare novel that nourishes our intellect and satiates our nagging appetite for something more. Oh yeah, the entertaining part? It is…if given the chance.

Anna Kerrigan has always been a daddy’s girl. She’s a lot like him: introverted, lithe in body and mind, pleasing to look at but not beautiful, occupying her skin and space contentedly. Precisely because of this and, more importantly, because she whispers to his conscience so affectingly that sometimes he even listens, she accompanies her father on journeys to the waterfront where he works as a bagman for a mid-level hood who is also a childhood friend. (Plus she’s flat out cute and the gangsters like her. It’s less likely that there will be any shenanigans while she is present.)

Eddie Kerrigan should do better– he could parlay his underworld connections into a real longshoreman’s job– if not for Anna and his wife, for his severely disabled daughter Lydia who needs expensive, specialized care. But dirt under the fingernails doesn’t appeal to Eddie (he had been a successful stockbroker) so he pines for something more befitting his pedigree. It doesn’t help that it is 1930s New York and the entire country, if not the world, is in the throes of the stock market crash.

Then one day Eddie takes twelve-year-old Anna on an unusual journey to an opulent home on the beach, ostensibly to play with a business associate’s children and actually, of course, to charm the associate, Dexter Styles, who is really a high powered racketeer. True to form Anna comes through on both fronts, especially excelling with the well-healed, handsome gangster when she shucks off her shoes and wades out into the ocean. It is cold. She is brave. And precocious. Styles is impressed. He has an affinity for intelligent women outside the confines of his bed. He wishes his own daughter was more like Anna.

In the car after the meeting with Styles, Eddie intimates that everything went swimmingly but Anna’s not so sure. She had observed Styles and her father from a distance and there was something about the former’s body language that didn’t set well with her. Sometime later her beloved father abruptly disappears.

Manhattan Beach has been roundly praised and lauded as exquisite, cinematic and viscerally stunning. It has been occasionally criticized, too, as conflated, compartmentalized and overwrought. I found it to be all those things at varying times and degrees with the good far outweighing the paradoxically overburdened.

Perhaps Egan’s follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad would have benefited from more clearly defined genre-like boundaries. I float that out there as a mere possibility in response to some critics musings. Personally I think not. Anna’s character is simpatico with the novel’s nonconformist spirit and vice versa. And though Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles are interesting, well represented characters, Manhattan Beach is all about Anna.

The novel leaps ahead some six years with America on the verge of entering World War II. Anna is now the dutiful head of household and sole provider for her mother and disadvantaged sister. But Anna is more than just dutiful, she is decent and she deeply loves Lydia.

Anna is also as adventurous as she in industrious. Like so many other intrepid protagonist, almost all of them male, she is drawn to the sea. In a wily, almost impossible for its time feat if not for the looming war, she finagles a job as a deep sea diver and repairer of ship hulls. This is where Egan’s prose, so skillful and elegant, becomes poetry mingled with science.

At last her shoes met the bottom of Wallabout Bay. Anna couldn’t see it: just the wisps of her legs disappearing into dark. She felt a rush of well-being whose source was not instantly clear. Then she realized: the pain of the dress had vanished. The air pressure from within it was just enough to balance the pressure from outside while maintaining negative buoyancy–i.e., holding her down. And the weight that had been so punishing on land now allowed her to stand and walk under thirty feet of water that otherwise would have spat her out like a seed. 

Though Anna is strong, shrewd and capable, destiny will have its way with her inevitably. It intrudes upon her in the form of Dexter Styles. They meet again in one of his nightclubs and even though she believes that he is in someway responsible for her father’s disappearance she is drawn to him. They plunge into a sexual tryst that it is dangerous for all the obvious reasons (yes, he is married) and then some.

Longing for something more than what they have been allowed, or what they have allowed themselves, binds Anna, Eddie and Dexter Styles together as does the sea. When Anna surveys it she sees an eternal expanse of gorgeous possibility. Eddie, on the other hand, takes solace in its tranquil, hypnotic effect and Dexter Styles is overwhelmed by its powerful mystery that evokes in him a sense of purpose and duty. This linkage bridges the “compartments” of noir, adventure, romance and history into a cohesive if not seamless narrative that, like the sea, is sometimes serene, sometimes tempestuous and always compelling.

But above all Manhattan Beach anchors itself in the father daughter dynamic. With this bond as catalyst, Jennifer Egan explores loyalty, sensuality, the aptitude of trait and the feasibility of redemption with uncommon pathos ensnared in hope.

 

Panic, a film directed by Henry Bromell, 2000; Crime Drama/Comedy, Independent

Back in the early days of the millennium when everybody was in love with quirk, Panic was the indie darling that all the critics were hot and bothered about. Since I consider myself a reasonably discerning moviegoer, I attempted to give it a go.

I had to bail out. I didn’t get it.

The other night I was searching for something to watch and there it was. I was in the mood for a comedy and it was billed as such. So I gave it another try. This time I made it through the whole film…

I still didn’t get it. And that bothers me. I pride myself on getting it. (Hey I got The Killing of a Sacred Deer so…)

By and large, late director Henry Bromell’s (award winning writer of Showtime’s Homeland) film, plays more like an off kilter family drama. Seriously, I would consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more of a comedy, but that’s just me.

In Panic head of household Alex (William H. Macy) is in a perpetual funk. His marriage has lost its spark. He has zero job satisfaction and, though he’s in his mid forties, he’s still under his parents thumb. That’s because he works for the family business and his dad (Donald Sutherland, playing the smart aleck as usual) is a genuine control freak. Plus the family business is kind of a mom & pop (and son) Murder, Inc. That’s right, they’re hitmen. (Not Alex’s mom. She’s dad’s support system, but she knows everything.)

There is one sunny exception to Alex’s emotionally spartan life: his son Sammy (David Dorfman). Sammy is a cute, precocious five to six-year-old. If this sounds a bit ho-hum, seen-it-about-a-hundred-times already, wait up a second…

In Panic David Dorfman gives one of the top ten, all time great, cinematic kid performances. I was awed and delighted by his interpretation, his quizzical expressions and, above all, his timing. The scenes where he and Alex lie in bed discussing the issues of the day, some quite philosophical, but always through the filter of innocence are life affirming and offer a simultaneous lifeline to Alex’s character and to the movie. Just about every parent will recognize the way Sammy touches Alex’s face when he asks him, “Dad are you alright? You look like there’s a lot on your mind.” It’s pure. And yes, it’s funny.

Alex seeks more joy. To that end he consults a psychotherapist (John Ritter). There’s just one problem. Alex’s dad finds out. He doesn’t like the idea of Alex giving up family business secrets to anyone. All things considered, I get his point. He’s still an asshole though. The part where he berates Sammy over spilled glue hammers this home.

Then one day Alex gets a manila folder with–dun dun dun– his psychotherapist’s picture in it. Therein lies the conflict.

Later, after Alex has stalled out on the hit, (he doesn’t want to do it) his dad takes Sammy on a squirrel shooting outing. This is the preliminary stages of hitman training. Alex is mortified. And so are we. Therein lies the heart of the conflict.

As I’ve intimated–even put it in the title–Panic is considered a comedy. That’s the thing I don’t get.

Now far be it from me to come across as a know it all…(pause for snickering)… but I understand the ins and outs of black comedy and I presume you do too, so I won’t explain…(pause for relief)…Panic just doesn’t come across as one to me. Yes the aim is to derive humor from the dire circumstances and family dynamic e.g., a condescending patriarchal grandpa, a depressed family man with a very unusual side job, and prim and trim matriarch with a heart of coal (they’re just like us, or people we know, except for the hitman part) but here, at it’s very core, it falls short.

If it was only just about acting, dialogue and cinematography–the opening scene, a homage to noir, with emphasis on geometrical design and forced perspective, is brilliant–Panic would be a sparkling little gem. As a comedy, black or otherwise, it comes across a little lackluster. But then again comedy is the most subjective of all genres. And admittedly with Bromell’s highly acclaimed indie I just don’t get it.

  • Neve Campbell as Sarah Cassidy, Alex’s love interest (Yeah, I know, I didn’t mention her. She’s solid but I found her character unnecessary.)
  • Tracey Ullman as Martha, Alex’s wife (She’s really good here; very natural.)
  • Barbara Bain as Deidre, Alex’s mother (Besides David Dorfman, hers is the best performance.)
  • Miguel Sandoval as Detective Larson (He’s always good; plus I find him very attractive. Just sayin’.)

The Long Haul

via Daily Prompt

Her back ached; the lower back, just above the hips. It was her kidneys. She knew it. It hurt to straighten up. It hurt to walk, to breathe.

The shower pattered over the low murmur of the TV. She longed to dip her body into a warm shampoo bubble bath up to her chin and then drift into a doze. When he got out, that’s just what she would do. He always went first.

She threw back four Advil with just a tad bit of the tap water that tasted like rusty pipes. It was always the same in these dumps–water spot stained ceilings, an odd musty odor and dirty carpet. She had known better, much better, though he didn’t know it.

It wouldn’t be long now. Soon she would sleep in a comfortable bed again. Soon she would eat charred asparagus and prime rib with raw horseradish and pearl onions. She would treat herself to bottle of top shelf cabernet sauvignon. It would be nice to wear a dress again–and a bra.

She peered out the venetian blinds at the black pearl Harley sportster with intricate red trim and raised piping on the luxurious seat and bitch pad. Bitch pad. That thin little strip of leather that she rode hundreds of miles upon.

A rueful little smile parted her lips, just barely. Tomorrow they would deliver eight ounces of cocaine and pick up thirty-five thousand in Sheffield like they did every third Tuesday of the month. Then they would ride six hours to Barton where they would stay at the Knights Inn by the truck stop.

He would force himself on her of course. Then off to the shower he’d go. She would order two double cheese pepperoni pizzas and a two liter bottle of Pepsi like always. He would buy a twelve pack of Budweiser.

After gorging on pizza (and wiping his greasy hands on his t-shirt, the bedspread, her butt) when he was on about his eighth beer, she’d slip him five crushed Sominex and wait until he was snoring. Slobbering.

The two liter bottle and a couple of pillows would muffle the sound of the .32 Berreta enough, she hoped. In any case it was worth the risk. Better than more pizza, more groping and rough house humping. Better than more stinking armpits, sunburn and aching kidneys.

She could endure one more night. One more day. One more long haul.

Haul

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