Category: Anne Billson

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.

Learn the Art of the Grift From Films by K A Laity

thesting

Crime Reads posted ‘10 of the Greatest Con Artist Films of All-Time’ which might better be called ’10 Con Artist Films I Have Seen’ – only joking (or am I?). Well, in any case as I am sad over Tim Brooke-Taylor dying let me distract myself by suggesting a few other films you might want to see about con artists. First, a couple he mentioned:

THE STING (1973)

Jobb calls this the ‘granddaddy’ of con artist films which I guess makes me an ancient wood witch of untellable age (quite possibly true). One of the things I would add to this being a fine film that holds up well to re-watching (quite true) is that it is largely swiped from the brilliant non-fiction book by David Maurer, The Big Con. I’ve written about it before and it’s well worth reading if you are at all interested in the con, the games and the beautiful language of it.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988)

Any one who talks about this film and does not give full props to the amazing Glenne Headley is missing the reason it works beyond admittedly funny set pieces like Ruprecht. The real art of the con is where you’re not looking.

But wait, there’s more!

THE LADY EVE (1941)

You want to actually go back in time a little: this is a superb film you need to memorise every line of dialogue from. Preston Sturges is rightly praised for his direction and infallible comic timing. Casting, too, is a real skill: Barbara Stanwyck is *chef’s kiss* and Henry Fonda never more charming. William Demarest! Charles Coburn! Fast-talking, con-pulling, ruse-using delight.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

You know I was going to bring this up. The spook racket is a great con. Read more here. In short, creepy, scary, scarring – and the almost-childlike delight Stanton gets when he realises for the first time he has the gift for grift. Magnetic. Yeah, Guillermo del Toro is doing a remake. I’m anxious. Cate Blanchett gives me hope.

THE THIRD MAN (1949)

The three cats are the real clue as Anne Billson would tell you. Everybody quotes the cuckoo clock speech, which is a lie itself and misdirection, which is Lime all over. Lime is a profiteer, whose effects his pal Martins belatedly sees. Again, a superb cast makes every frame of this gorgeously shot film sing. Carol Reed and Robert Krasker shoot Graham Greene’s story better than even he might have imagined and of course Alex Karas’ soundtrack is indelible.

THE MUSIC MAN (1957)

The grift in song: consider it a palate cleanser between old Hollywood and new.

 

PAPER MOON (1973)

There was something in the water that year. Oh, maybe it was in the White House! Anyway grifters were on the mind of America. This film: I can’t stand Ryan O’Neal even before I heard what a louse he was. He was the vacuum at the center of an otherwise stellar rebirth of screwball in WHAT’S UP, DOC? But this film is sublime, mostly due to his daughter Tatum and the comic grace of Madeline Kahn.

THE HOUSE OF GAMES (1987)

It’s easy to overdose on Mamet’s macho hard guys. Lindsay Crouse’s cool, controlled shrink makes this magic. Oh also the late Ricky Jay. Magnificence. Joe Mantegna plays the edges of his character with superb flexion and Crouse watches him with such fascination and admiration that he never suspects there’s something more to her. Great cameo from William H. Macy.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988)

You already know this. It is amazing that in such a stellar and hilarious cast Kevin Kline still manages to be above and beyond.

THE GRIFTERS (1990)

Brutal three-hander based on the disturbingly Oedipal Jim Thompson novel that brings the magnificent Anjelica Huston into direct walloping competition with Annette Bening over an over-his-head John Cusack. The slick screenplay by Donald E. Westlake puts the best of the novel into Stephen Frears’ hands and he runs with it. Delightful cast, right down the line to Pat Hingle, J.T. Walsh, Charles Napier, Xander Berkeley, and Juliet Landau as the young Lily.

Get educated. There’s loads more, but this is enough to get you rolling.

 

K A LAITY IS GETTING AWAY WITH IT HERE

k a laity noir

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CONSUMER: ANNE BILLSON

 

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BOOKS

Dark Entries – Robert Aickman. In 1968 I got this collection of short stories out of Croydon Library straight after seeing The Bells of Hell – an adaptation of Aickman’s Ringing the Changes in the Late Night Horror anthology series; needless to say the BBC has since wiped the tape.

A Harlot High and Low – Honoré de Balzac. A sequel to the more celebrated Lost Illusions, but I read this one first; I love the character of Vautrin, a criminal mastermind who ends up as Paris’s Chief of Police.

Ubik – Philip K. Dick. I dig the advertising slogans, and the slow drip-feed of hints that All Is Not As It Seems (it rarely is in a Dick novel).

The Enigma of Amigara Fault – Junji Ito. Ito is a genius and his horror mangas WILL give you nightmares. This one is particularly creepy and disturbing.

Le position du tireur couché – Jean-Patrick Manchette. After I moved to France and was training myself to read more French, a friend introduced me to the left-wing “polars” (crime stories) of Manchette; not just terrific reads, but the hard-boiled language is relatively simple. This was filmed, very badly, as The Gunman (2015), starring Sean Penn. A 1982 French adaptation, Le choc, is only marginally better, but at least in that version you get Alain Delon to look at.

Les liaisons dangereuses – Choderlos de Laclos. La Marquise de Merteuil, c’est moi. Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust. Glad I read this in my early twenties; I’d never find the time now. Much funnier than you’d expect (I read the Scott-Moncrieff translation) and the author ties it all up at the end with the Mother of all Literary Pay-offs. Everything you ever needed to know about life, love, art, memory and the passage of time; it really did change my life.

Froth on the Daydream – Boris Vian. Vian is one of my heroes (as well as a novelist he was also a surrealist, poet, translator, literary prankster and provocateur, songwriter and jazz trumpeter), and this is his best-known book, full of wordplay and creative whimsy that ends up leading you into some very dark places.

MUSIC

Le chanteur – Daniel Balavoine (“Je me prostituerai/Pour la postérité” – vicious demolition of your average pop star career)

Bluebeard’s Castle – Bela Bartok (the ultimate musical dispatch from the eternal war between men and women; music to make your hair stand on end, plus some of the best brass ever)

Independence Day – The Comsat Angels (“I can’t relax cos I haven’t done a thing/And I can’t do a thing cos I can’t relax” – story of my life)

Imperial Bedroom – Elvis Costello

Bitches Brew – Miles Davis (I often play his Electric Period albums while writing because it’s extremely effective at neutralising unwanted outside noise, building work etc) Histoire de Melody Nelson – Serge Gainsbourg

Vec Makropulos – Leos Janacek (the downside of living for 300 years, plus lots of brass. I do like classical brass.)

Doctor on the Go – Lee Perry (from an album called Revolution Dub, purchased from Brixton Market with my dole money in the mid-1970s, before I even knew who Lerry Perry is; I love the piano backing, and the samples from TV’s Doctor at Large – Robin Nedwell’s laugh!)

The Royal Scam – Steely Dan (I love all their other albums too; they never get old)

TELEVISION

The Avengers (1965-1968) The Emma Peel years.

Better Call Saul: I much prefer this to Breaking Bad.

Bilko: fastest, funniest, most cynical sitcom ever.

Desperate Romantics: The Pre-Raphaelites as preposterous soap opera.

Futurama: clever, funny, subversive, but can also make me cry.

G.B.H.: British TV drama at its best.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Wire: the first three seasons, with Stringer Bell.

FILMS (This is not to say I don’t love Vertigo, The Seven Samurai et al, but I tried to pick films that don’t usually feature in everyone’s all-time Top Ten Lists)

Green for Danger (1946) Alastair Sim – “When I took my departure that evening, it was not with the feeling that this had been one of my more successful investigations.”

Night of the Demon (1957) “I must protect myself. Because if it’s not someone else’s life, it’ll be mine. Do you understand, mother? It’ll be mine.”

The Rebel (1961) “Blimey, who’s gone raving made here then?” Best film about modern art ever.

Le deuxième souffle (1966) Lino Ventura, hard-boiled French gangsters in mackintoshes; cool nightclubs full of dancing girls; criminal codes of honour. I’m particularly fond of the mysterious Orloff, a peripheral character whose story I would like to write some day.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) “Attack what? Attack where?” The yawning chasm between Britain’s preposterously elevated idea of itself and how it actually is: class-ridden, mired in delusions of Empire, hamstrung by nepotism and petty squabbling. There’s even some Fake News in there. Tony Richardson’s best film, still criminally undervalued, with a brilliant ensemble cast drawn from a Who’s Who of Great British Acting.

The Conformist (1970) Jean-Louis Trintignant is so insecure about his manhood that he becomes a hitman for the Fascists. One of the most handsomely photographed and designed films ever made; Bernardo Bertolucci’s best; and a big influence on the Hollywood movie brats of the 1970s.

Daughters of Darkness (1971) Delphine Seyrig as the world’s most soignée vampire, preying on a honeymoon couple in off-season Ostend.

The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) Hong Kong/Taiwanese martial arts period thriller with six great action roles for women. Directed by the great King Hu. One of the most nail-bitingly tense films I’ve ever seen.

The Fury (1978) Psycho kids who can make people bleed from all orifices; John Cassavetes in evil mode. Possibly Brian De Palma’s most bonkers film, full of weirdly mismatched performances, odd comedy, and a contender for most delirious ending ever.

After Life (1998) Dead people have to select a memory to take with them into eternity in Hirokazu Koreeda’s low-key but lovely, humane, deeply affecting and thought-provoking inquiry into the meaning of life.

PLACES

Notting Hill, Soho & Tokyo in the 1970s, Westbourne Park & New York City in the 1980s, Holborn & King’s Cross in the 1990s, Paris in the 2000s, The Low Countries in the 2010s

THINGS

Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate, Belgian frites, Roquefort, Pecorino & Ossau-Iraty cheese, small film festivals, cats, skulls, lipstick, handbags, travelling by train, canals.

Bio: ANNE BILLSON is a film critic, novelist, photographer, style icon, wicked spinster, evil feminist, and international cat-sitter who has lived in London, Tokyo, Paris and Croydon, and now lives in Brussels. Her books include THE HALF MAN, SUCKER, STIFF LIPS, THE EX and THE COMING THING as well as several works of non-fiction, including BILLSON FILM DATABASE, BREAST MAN: A CONVERSATION WITH RUSS MEYER, and monographs on the films THE THING and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.
THE HALF MAN

The Mike Hodges School of Writing School by K A Laity


mike hodges

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me.”

Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

If films about writers are to be believed, all you have to do is live an interesting life, write it down, and change the names. Making things up always fails, like Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Mike Hodges goes further to suggest that cynically manipulating the truth is the true way to success. The director whose work spans gritty neo-noir like Get Carter and the sublime silliness of Flash Gordon, made two films about writers decades apart, but they share some interesting qualities.

pulp

Pulp (1972) features the legend Michael Caine as the man who grinds out the titular tripe, first glimpsed in an office where panting typists churn out his fevered stew of sex and violence to support his indolent emigrant lifestyle in the Mediterranean. He’s tapped to ghost a veteran actor’s memoirs (Mickey Rooney in top form) then everything starts to get strange. Generally thought of as a cult classic, it mixes in a host of winking nods to the genre and ambles along to an odd conclusion.

I’ve only recently got around to Croupier (1998) thanks to Anne Billson and I can’t believe it took me this long. I think a lot of it had to do with how it was marketed as a crime film—which it is, but that’s not what’s interesting about the movie. From the first Clive Owen voice over he sounds like Guy in Your MFA who is writing ‘noir’ in his ironic Chandler persona. I may never get over the first shock of Owen as a blonde though. His girlfriend (fabulous Gina McKee) is clearly keen to think of him as a writer—so romantic! She’s disappointed when he takes a job as a croupier though  astonished at how much he’ll make.

Croupier-2

One of the things I appreciate about the script is how his whole back story in South Africa is built in little pieces throughout the film but never spelled out completely. Owen’s Jack is so tightly wound yet so clueless about himself. Gradually he begins to think about writing a novel about his co-worker, then at last just straight up autobiography (released anonymously). Of course it’s a success: imagination is overrated.

Bonus Alex Kingston, too.

paul mayesbergThe weirdest thing may be the writer, Paul Mayersberg, who has worked in and written about the film industry, as well as penning the Pulp-worthy erotic novels Violent Silence and Homme Fatale. Better known for scripts like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, he also wrote and directed The Last Samurai (1988). No, not the Tom Cruise one: the Lance Henrikson one. Who knows what happened between script and release, but the results were not stellar. On IMDB there are several scathing one star reviews along with a ten out of ten stars review, so who knows? Maybe it’s a hidden gem. I suspect it’s not.

Writing is hard. Live a life someone else can write about and you will probably be better off in the long run.

K. A. Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessLush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, Chastity Flameand Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

She also writes crime as Graham Wynd and historical fiction as Kit Marlowe.

LAITY author photo