Losing my Religion by K. A. Laity

Flash Fiction, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine, Tony Hancock

“I could do it,” Tony said as I started the engine. “Believe me. Easy.”

I backed the Subaru up then eased away from the kerb. An old lady in a Ford pulled into the spot almost before I got out. Life in the congestion zone. “Might better open up a car park. You’d get rich a lot quicker. Especially around here.”

Tony shook his head. “A car park is a finite investment. There’s no end of growth potential for religion.”

“Growth potential? You’ve been watching those YouTube videos again.”

“Sidney, the knowledge of the ages is free for the taking if you know where to look.”

I checked the map and made a right at the corner. “What, Wikipedia?”

Tony sighed. He thought I lacked ambition. “You really need to develop your online presence.”

“I’m not getting on Friendface.” I shot him a look as we idled at the light.

“Facebook! Criminy, you don’t even know what it is. You might as well live among the Neanderthals.”

I shrugged. “I got plenty of friends. They drink at my local. Why would I need friends I can’t drink with?” A muffled shout from the boot made us both turn around. Some impatient stockbroker behind me tooted the horn of his Mercedes and I stepped on the accelerator.

“Think we need to pull over?”

“Nah, it’ll be all right.”

Tony turned around to face front again. “You might be content with your lot in life–“

“I am.”

“I’ve got ambition, Sidney. I want something better.”

“Your own religion?”

“Small investment, low overhead at the start then huge results.”

I laughed. “What about those vows of poverty?” The evening sky had that pink glow that never lasted for long but made the old city look new again.

Tony laughed. “That’s for the low level minions. You ever been to the Vatican? Untold wealth. Same thing for all major religions. Mecca. Taj Mahal. Crystal Cathedral. Scientologists.”

“They got a church?”

Tony shot me a look of withering scorn. “They’ve got the whole of Hollywood! Hands in everything. All those rich actors and directors — they’re all due-paying Scientologists.”

“Not Jason Statham.”

“Well, no,” Tony admitted, “but then he’s not really Hollywood is he?”

Another muffled scream from the boot, more of a sob really. “So what’s your religion going to be about?”

When he thinks he’s got a world-beater, Tony gets this smug look that begs for a punch to the kisser. “Happiness. What everyone wants and nobody’s got.”

“I got it.”

“You don’t count, Sidney. Most people are miserable. Hold out the possibility of happiness and riches and you’ll have people eating out of your hand.”

“You don’t say.” I looked at the map again as I found myself facing the wrong end of a one way street.  “You’re going to offer them riches? Won’t that deplete your own quickly?”

Tony sighed. He could sigh for England. “You don’t give people riches. You hold out the possibility of riches. Like car commercials that hold out the possibility of sex with supermodels. You ain’t getting it, but you think you might.”

“So you’ll be advertising?” I slowed the car, squinting into the thickening dusk.

“All modern religions advertise. I’ll have my own website, Facebook page and YouTube channel. I’ll be an internet sensation.” Tony looked properly smug.

“We’re here,” I said, turning into the building site. I pulled around behind a large skip filled with rubble. Old Bill said they would be pouring concrete in the morning. All seemed quiet.

“Looks wet.” Tony sighed.

“Well, let’s dig first, then see about the baggage after,” I suggested, opening the rear door to grab the shovels. I handed one to Tony who frowned at it. “They don’t come with golden handles, mate.”

He scowled and pointed. “Here?”

“Looks good to me.” The dirt was wet, but the shovels cut through it with ease. Nonetheless we soon sweated profusely. “Not so young anymore, are we?”

“Speak for yourself,” Tony retorted. “Prime of my life.”

“Think it’s deep enough.” I scanned the horizon. All remained quiet. People having their tea  about now, surely. “Let’s get the baggage.”

“So what was he?” Tony stared at the face without recognition.

“Someone who made a serious error in judgement. You want feet or hands?” We dragged him over and dropped the baggage in the hole.

“Face down so he can see where he’s going,” Tony snickered.

“Will there be a hell in your religion?”

Tony considered the thought, which meant he leaned on his shovel and let me do the work. “Carrot and stick really, eh? You need to have both.”

“Dig.”

“If there were no fear of punishment, more people would end up like this baggage. But you can’t have it too grim or people won’t be attracted. Gruesome punishments but easily avoided.”

“Like fairy tales.” I heard a sound and whipped round. The biggest dog I ever saw stood by the skip, hackles up, a low growl rippling from its throat. I lifted the shovel, figuring I could bash it with the blade. Tony stared.

The dog crept closer. I wondered if he were diseased or something. Tony joined me, keeping the corpse between us and the mutt. The dog lunged forward and grabbed the baggage’s hand in its mouth and started pulling at it, growling even louder.

“S’pose its his? Trying to rescue him?”

“Bit late.” At least the dog didn’t seem to want to attack us. Inspired, I leaned forward, brought down the shovel and sliced through the wrist. The dog, who’d shied away at first, made a lunge and sank his teeth into the hand. Then he turned and ran off with his prize.

I laughed until I cried. Tony scowled. “What are we going to tell Old Bill?”

“Nothing. He won’t mind him being a hand short. Or is that against your religion?”

“Maybe my faith needs a dog.”

“Well, dog spelled backwards –“

“Stop that.”

“Hand of glory –“

“Shut up and shovel.”

[Originally appeared in Spinetingler Magazine: 29 June 2012. Reprinted in Kwik Krimes. Ed. Otto Penzler (Thomas & Mercer).

hancocks-half-hour

Confession by K. A. Laity

K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine

Confession

K. A. Laity

 

I didn’t mean to kill him. Let me get that out there straight away. I know things have not been great between us and certainly there was some hostility—okay, a lot of hostility. But it wasn’t deliberate! I certainly didn’t mean to—

 

I mean—a butter knife! Would I have ‘armed myself’ with a butter knife if I had been feeling murderous? I’m not making light! I’m just—I’m just—you know…Stunned, right? Stunned! A butter knife! Who would have ever imagined—

 

Yes, I admit it. I did poke him with the butter knife. Sure, sure. I did that. I didn’t mean any harm. Well, not much harm. I was annoyed, to be sure. I had a passing—passing!—moment of irritation. I poked him. I’m sure it would have annoyed him any way. Annoyed yes, but not lethally so. Really. Most unexpected.

 

It was his own fault the cellar door was open. He had left it open. He always does—did—that and irritated me to no end. Doors left open, cupboard doors ajar, the tap dripping. There’s a reason they use that in torture—or was that only in cartoons? No, I’m quite certain I read about it in that book—

 

What?

 

No, I’m pretty sure, I mean it’s the only possibility, right? As he was falling down the stairs—having tripped, having dodged away from the butter knife poke, as it were—his elbow—yes, must have been surely, his elbow caught on the bag of potatoes which landed on him. He loved potatoes. That’s why had such an enormous bag of them. Full, too.

 

Oh no, I loathe potatoes. Can’t eat them. They give me the runs.

 

Yes, I suppose if it hadn’t been for the bag of potatoes landing on him just there, perhaps he would have only broken a leg or an arm or both. Quite painful I bet. No, not happy about it, just mentioning, like. It was rather fortuitous—or what’s the word? Coincidence? Infelicitous. That’s a good one. Yes, infelicitous it was that the potato bag fell as it did and snapped his neck. Just like that. What are the odds, indeed.

 

Am I going to have to explain this all again at the station? 

White Rabbitproof

Punk Before Punk: The Party’s Over (1962/5/6) by K. A. Laity

Brit Grit, Films, K A Laity, punk, Punk Noir Magazine

olly reed

Just as the word punk existed before the music did, the concept of the rebel outsiders breaking all the rules has existed as long as rules have (probably: I’d bet my PhD on it anyway). One of those iterations surely included the beatniks, at least in the popular imagination. The Party’s Over’s release was delayed for a while due to censorship not of its violence, youthful decadence, matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality but – wait for it – for featuring necrophilia. The director Guy Hamilton and producers Jack Hawkins, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Perry demanded their names be removed in protest. It was finally released three years later in 1965 (1966 in the US).

 The film starts with the fanfare accorded to a production company named Monarch, but quickly switches gears by opening on a guy hanging from a balcony crying for help as a party goes on inside the building. Funky jazz plays on a Victrola while desultory young people smoke, smooch, drink, and mill about. The walls are covered with tennis rackets, beer mats and art. We follow a cigarette from hand to hand, introducing some of our key players until we end on Moise (Oliver Reed) who uses it to light a cigarillo and, swilling beer, wanders over to the balcony to take a butcher’s. He responds by pouring some bevvie over the luckless lad.

An imperious Melina (Louise Sorel) demands that he help the unfortunate. Moise instead calls on Geronimo (Mike Pratt) and the others manage to drag the fellow up. Moise shrugs at Melina, who rises and commands him to drop dead. Moise climbs up on the balcony rail and jumps. Cue screams, a passing look of angst on Melina’s face and then laughter from the crowd as we cut to Ollie hanging from a lamppost, smiling around his cigarillo. He bows and walks on.

Cut to the group as they begin desultory walk over a pre-dawn Albert Bridge as the voice-over by Reed describes the film as the story of these young folk who became ‘for want of a better word…beatniks’. It also clarifies that ‘the film is not an attack on beatniks; the film has been made to show the loneliness and the unhappiness, and the eventual tragedy that can come from a life lived without love for anyone or anything.’ Sure we’re going to cast glamourous young actors and make cool beatnik art studios but the message is this is bad.

Also necrophilia, much more clearly a bad thing.

Like so many films that show youth subcultures, it both glamourises it and oversimplifies it. We’ve already seen Reed as the beatnik artist in Tony Hanock’s The Rebel though he was French there. One of the most fun things here is Reed getting to trot out a series of accents in one brilliant scene as he shows down Melina’s American fiancé who’s come to drag her back to New York. So often Reed was forced to play to type, it’s always good to be reminded how much he could do.

The beatniks lead the hapless fiancé Carson (Clifford David) on a merry chase from studio to pub to café and back again until Nina (Katherine Woodville) takes pity on him. Unlike the dilettante Melina, Nina is a real artist though posh as the day is long (which makes all the difference in the end).

The problem is Melina disappeared after a whale of a party and it takes a while for people to begin to put together their fractured memories of what went on at the party. And what’s up with nervous Philip (Jonathan Burn)? With Nina by his side, Carson fights to find out what’s really going on with his mercurial fiancée in the face of the beatnik hostility, mostly wrangled by Reed’s Moise. In between there’s a lot of vintage footage of swinging Chelsea, gorgeously shot and a lot of beatnik posturing, bad art and slang. There’s even a cameo by Eddie Albert that proves surprisingly tender (yes, that Eddie Albert).

Well worth a watch even if you aren’t the kind of person who would watch Reed in almost anything. C’mon: beatniks in swinging 60s London! Currently streaming on Amazon in the US and I think BFI in the UK.

 

The Click of the Shutting by Graham Wynd

Crime Fiction, Flash Fiction, Graham Wynd, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine

The Click of the Shutting

Graham Wynd

 

She waited for the sound of it, the sound that meant safety, the sound that meant it was over for now. The time it was when his shouts might soften, sometimes even turn to tears and beg forgiveness, beg for comfort, remind her again how it was all her fault.

If only she wasn’t like that. 

If only she didn’t get in the way of things. If only she should read his mind so she would know what he was thinking because he didn’t have time to tell her. He was in a hurry, always. Unless he was taking his time.

‘You know I don’t mean it, Georgie,’ he would say after the click, after he shut the blade safely away. After the cutting, after the tears – hers anyway. Then it was sorry, then it was I didn’t mean it, then it was you made me do it. And she would believe it if only it weren’t for the scars.

He loved the scars.

Gregory traced the white lines on her arms and her legs with the wonder of a child. I made this! That mixture of pride and awe as if it were some kind of accomplishment. A five-year-old’s finger paints or a macaroni collage.

Georgie traced them herself in the few minutes of quiet before he knocked on the door to ask if she were done yet. They were memories – the burnt dinner, the too-loud laugh, the phone call – and they were badges. They were badges that said I am still here.

The click of the shutting blade made her shoulders drop back into place, her breath escape in a sigh, her fingers unclench. It would always be this way. Her mother said as much. 

‘At least he doesn’t beat you.’

Aye, that was something. Her mother never smiled because of the missing teeth. ‘I’m just waiting for him to die,’ she’d told Georgie one afternoon as they both washed up the dishes. ‘Not going to lift a finger after that. Eat takeaway. Use paper plates.’

At least she had goals. Georgie tried to remember what she had once dreamed. When Gregory first wooed her. She felt so proud. He was so much older. Then she had imagined he thought her real mature. But no. She’d learned another word for what she was: gullible.

Georgie wondered how the word had come about. After all, the gulls that haunted the city centre were anything but gullible. They were careful if aggressive. Didn’t trust humans, but followed them closely, looking for a chance. She’d seen people try to kick at them or throw cans at them. They dodged all weapons with loud honks like they were laughing.

Maybe she needed to be more gull than gullible.

Georgie lived on the scraps of Gregory’s life anyway. Sometimes literally: he would let her finish off the chips he didn’t eat when he got takeaway for himself. Other times he would make her beg. Trade cuts for a chicken wing. If she refused he cut her anyway, so might as well get something out of it. It helped to feel like a gull instead of a dog, which he made her feel like at first. 

The big gulls had a little dot of red on their beaks, like a drop of blood. That was like her too, though her blood was usually on her legs and arms, where the scars didn’t show as much. Georgie never wore shorts or short sleeves anymore. They weren’t big scars, except that one and Gregory had apologised for that and bought her a teddy bear, as if she were a child that needed bribing. He blamed the horror film they’d been watching. Gregory loved his horror films.

It might have gone on like that except for the pub. 

It was a rare enough outing. Gregory went to the pub on his own sometimes, though he didn’t trust her to be on her own for long. But he wanted to celebrate some football thing so they didn’t go to the local but to the big sports pub down by the church in the centre. When Gregory got fed up with all the noise and the shouts, they skipped out the back way into the alley, which led around to the bus stop faster.

But there was some big shaved head menace there that made even Gregory pause before he grabbed Georgie’s hand and plunged on, chin in the air, belligerent like. 

‘What’s your damage?’ the big bloke said, stopping Gregory short with a huge hand to his chest. 

‘No damage here, mate.’ Gregory kept the chin high and for a moment Georgie remembered loving him when the sun shone and his curls blew in the wind and he smiled.

‘That right?’ The big man sneered at Gregory and then for good measure leered at Georgie. ‘You got something to say for yourself?’

Georgie shook her head. Gregory took a step forward. The big man grabbed the front of his jumper.

‘What?’ Gregory asked with as much venom as he could manage.

‘I said, what’s your damage?’ the man repeated, then punched Gregory in the face. He went down like puppet with its strings cut. The big man sniffed and headed back toward the pub. Gregory lay still.

Georgie thought, what would a gull do?

She slipped her hand into his trouser pocket and pulled out the blade. With a press of the button, the knife clicked open. The blade shone in the moonlight.

Gregory was groaning and beginning to stir. Without thinking Georgie’s hand shot out and, like she’d seen in a thousand gory films, pulled the blade across his neck where it pulsed. Gregory’s eyes flew open and he made a sound that was half annoyance and half fear. Or maybe it was just all disbelief. His hands clutched at his throat. Blood poured between his fingers.

Georgie wiped the blood from the knife on his sleeve, then savoured the click of the blade shutting for the last time. Gregory kept one hand on his neck and the other reached toward her, then started scrabbling in the dirt and stones of the alley. She watched him for a few minutes, then turned and walked to the bus stop.

It was almost time for the 9:20.

Detour(s) by K. A. Laity

Blue Collar Noir, Films, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

-DetourPoster1

God, it’s easy to kill a person!’

The noir classic Detour (1945) impressed most of my students with the wildest femme fatale they saw all semester. Ann Savage, to borrow a line from Peter and Dud, Savage by name plays a part completely Savage by nature. Her Vera completely terrifies the itinerant musician Al (played by Tom Neal) as well as scarring for life the bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). Al just wants to get to Los Angeles for a reunion with his gal Sue, but when Haskell unexpectedly kicks the bucket and Al gets mistaken for him things begin to go south. When a passing moment of kindness leads him to pick up a hitch-hiker, Savage’s Vera knows he’s not Haskell and blackmails the hapless schmoe into a scheme to make her rich. If they don’t kill each other first.

The film is told in flashbacks from Al’s point of view, from his first shambolic appearance to the improbable end. Filmed on the cheap, Edgar G. Ulmer gets the most mileage out of smoke, mirrors, cheap sets, and budget dialogue. If you remember nothing else, I guarantee you Ann Savage’s turn as Vera will be seared on your eyeballs. Also the strange plot holes (more about that shortly) which begin to make you wonder how much of the story has been (inexpertly) revised by Al.

The 1992 remake in some ways is even stranger. Weirdly riffing on the relationship of fathers and sons, Tom Neal’s part is reprised by his son, who shares a striking resemblance with his dad, but not the sense of aggrieved every man. It starts out in black and white and like van Sant’s Psycho mostly reproduces the original film. It’s got its fans but I’ve not made my way through it yet. It has interesting moments: the first flashback is when the film changes to colour. Some of the added material has to do with Sue’s life in Los Angeles.

The ending of the film is changed to be more in line with the original novel—that’s right, there is a source novel. Martin H. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name tells more or less the same story. This Detour had a very different fate from the movie. I tracked down a copy of the 2013 Black Curtain edition which is frills-free even of original publication information and mostly typo free, except for one persistent repeated one. The font is big to give it a novel-length page count (145) but it’s really more of a novella.

I’m always interested in the ways novels get adapted to film. What’s interesting about the novel is how much more noir it feels than the film and how awful all the characters are—and none of them are on to themselves except maybe Vera. She doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself. Chapters alternate between Al and Sue. Al is originally Alexander Roth, changed to the generic Al Roberts in the film. Roth surely chosen for the point of someone waxing wroth, as Groucho might say.

Everybody in this novel is very angry, too. Alex is a lot more of a jerk than the hapless innocent the film makes him. Picked up hitching, he’s asked where he’s from but says Detroit instead of New York. ‘I don’t know why I said that; there was really no call to lie. Maybe I was so accustomed to lying it had become a habit, I don’ know. But that’s me all over. For the life of me, I can’t figure myself out.’ He is indeed in pursuit of his Sue, whom he idealises ridiculously, in the same way he disparages women in general. ‘If there is any worse spot than for a man to find himself a slave to a woman’s whims I’d like to know about it.’ Of course this is when he’s dealing with Vera, but as he concludes, ‘All women are dangerous.’

‘What makes it so tough is you never can be sure what a woman will do. At one moment she’s calm and everything is velvet; then in a flash, it all explodes sky-high and she’s got it in for you. And when she’s got it in for you, brother, look out. There are never any halfway measures. A woman loves or she hates. Pity and all the feelings in between she’s never heard of.’ Alex pities himself more than anybody else, even when he’s murdering someone.

While there’s still some uncertainty about Haskell’s death, there’s no lame attempt to make Vera’s death accidental as with the ridiculous scene in the film. His loathing just wells up. ‘She was the type of woman I have always despised: the kind who knows all the answers and makes no bones about being hard-boiled. Even though I know just how women are underneath, I still prefer them to have that phony sweetness in their manner.’ Alex prefers lies.

The big difference in the novel is Sue. The second chapter catches up with her in California—right after a date rape. She’s full of tears and recriminations, mostly aimed at herself. ‘When a man gets finished, he’s through; his appetite’s been satisfied, except now he wants a plate of ham and eggs. We girls are quite another story. We have emotions and what not. We feel things. Any woman will know what I’m talking about. So I felt terrible.’ 

Singer Sue goes to Hollywood to break into the films but ends up waiting tables. In the film she gets a moment of that on the phone with Al. In the novel we see a lot more of her life. She really has an ambition to get into the pictures, but is hesitating to give in to the casting couch. Her weary dissection of Hollywood’s shabby reality still can’t dim her dream. Sue hopes the B-actor Raoul will give her leg up instead of getting a leg over.

Angry with herself, she finally gets even more angry at Raoul’s obliviousness. He thinks he gave her a swell time and asks for another date. At first she tries to find the easiest way to slip out of any commitment, but his cocksure attitude – flourishing his fountain pen to write in his address book – tips her anger over the edge and she tells him he’s been a terrible lover. ‘There was a jubilance in me for the first time in ages. I watched him flinch and I knew I had struck home, into the most vulnerable spot in the man’s armour.’ She is pleased he’s so deflated and talks of it as a way to ‘avenge poor Alex’ too. 

It would give more sympathy to her character if Goldsmith didn’t make plain that she is everything that Alex thinks of women: duplicitous, vengeful, cruel and above all, an actor. When Haskell’s death is reported as Alex’s, Sue performs grief styles she has seen in films, trying to convince herself she feels something other than relief. All it really does is boost her confidence that she can make it in Hollywood after all.

And Alex? ‘I wasn’t sorry she was dead; just sorry it was me who killed her.’ Nothing is as he claims, except maybe this. The original film had to soften the ending a bit. The remake is closer to the book. The twists and turns match Alex’s own thoughts: ‘God or fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.’ Not getting caught; it’s the same as not being guilty for him as long as he can keep wondering about that fateful day Haskell picked him up on the road. ‘Well, sometimes I want to curse and sometimes I want to cry.’

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

Anne Billson, Crime Fiction, Films, Jim Thompson, K A Laity, Nightmare Alley, Punk Noir Magazine

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

Two by Hughes by K. A. Laity

Crime Fiction, Dorothy Hughes, K A Laity, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

so blue the marble

It’s easy to focus on the very greatest books by Dorothy B. Hughes: after all, any one of them would be enough to make her name immortal. In A Lonely Place: possibly the first in-the-mind-of-serial-killer novel, a masterpiece of psychological insight and noir ambience from 1947. Or her New Mexican novel Ride the Pink Horse that brings noir to the desert, a heady mix of crime, Mexican and indigenous voices that will haunt you long after reading. And of course her 1963 novel The Expendable Man which looked at the fate of a black man accused of murder in the heyday of the American civil rights movement. 

Small wonder if her earlier books haven’t got the same attention, but they’re well worth a read. I’ve written about some before and talked about them at conferences. With Holding and Highsmith, I think Hughes is one of the finest noir voices ever. Pity she didn’t have a drinking problem then die sad and alone or she would be more famous.

That’s sarcasm. Nothing like being a quiet, competent middle-aged woman to get you overlooked. 

The So Blue Marble (1940) is very nearly a romp. Her debut novel is full of the Golden Age mystery twists and turns – and snooty ambience – as well as a dash of the espionage stories much relished during the war. There’s the titular McGuffin, the socialite who went to Hollywood but found it all a bore, the absent ex she divorced in a fit of pique and two psychotic identical twins, a long-lost sister and a suspiciously helpful college professor across the hall. It all sounds a bit hectic but Hughes manages to keep the pace fast enough that you don’t question anything as you trundle around Manhattan (okay, maybe stretching credulity to end up on the Berkshires, but that’s always the case). It’s fun, fast and satisfying.

Then there’s Dread Journey (1945): I’m proud to say I have a gorgeous Pocket Book edition of this, the back blurb promising a ‘One-Way Ticket to Death!’ Why is this not a film? It should have been snapped up right away. What it owes to Christie’s more murderous train it trumps with a complete lack of snobbery and racism. Indeed, one of the characters whose eyes we see the story unfold is Pullman porter James Cobbett. Cobbett is astutely aware of how he appears (or doesn’t) to the passengers, noting their racism when it was subtle as well as when it is overt. The Hollywood folk vary from timid to belligerent, with a generous side of desperation thrown in. There’s a louche band leader who hides a lot behind his blood-shot eyes. There’s a reporter who lost his nerve in the war who might just rally back to the fight—possibly too late.

I probably shouldn’t tell you that it’s also shot through with great snippets of poetry and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I don’t want to put you off! If you don’t want to know, you won’t. They’re not there as they would be in some freshman essay. They’re tied into the characters, their conversations and thoughts. Producer Vivien Spender has spent his life looking for the perfect Clavdia Chaucat, the romantic object of Mann’s novel. He wants to make an epic film of the Bildungsroman and had discarded one ingénue after another when they failed to embody her perfectly.

That’s the problem with ideals. Frail humans seldom live up to them.

But don’t worry. The extras don’t slow down the pace and Hughes keeps the pervasive sense of dread ramped up. You don’t even know who’s going to die, but you know something’s going wrong and it’s all going to go haywire. Good stuff. 

Do yourself a favour: read more Dorothy Hughes.

dread journey

Art/Heist by K. A. Laity

Art, Films, International Noir, K A Laity, Noir, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing

kansas city

When I’m not thinking about grifters, I’m probably thinking about heists. There’s a good bit of overlap in the miscreants involved in each, I’m sure. Are we talking fiction or non-fiction? I hesitate to call it reality. Does anything seem real right now? 

With news that there’s was another big art theft this week, we can guess that people are taking advantage of the distracted state of the world under pandemic. Old Masters worth $12 Million looted from Oxford: some fancy paint there. But will the thieves earn that much? Probably not:

While unauthenticated works can easily make their way through the open market, that’s not the case for known pieces of art. As soon as stolen works are listed for sale, authorities will seize them. Thus some art criminals turn to the black market, where stolen works fetch a far lower price than their actual worth. 

Likewise the theft the other day that nabbed a Van Gogh. You can’t help but wonder if a specific collector was making use of the lockdown time to acquire something he’d been wanting for a while. I love how the staff are reported to be “shocked and unbelievably annoyed” as one might expect. Capitalising on the prurient interest, the news site leads to another heist, jewels this time. There have always been those who were not willing to wait for the things they want.

This of course puts me in mind of Jean-Pierre Melville’s influential Le Cercle Rouge (1970) with a mustachioed Alain Delon, a surprisingly seedy Yves Montand as the alcoholic ex-cop with some very unbelievable DTs, and André Bourvil as the dogged Captain Mattei. I like to imagine a string of cosy mysteries with Mattei and his cats. The (alas, out of print) Criterion edition of the film includes interviews and footage of the Stetson-hatted Melville as well as an essay by John Woo talking about his influence. With its Gallic languor and genesis from a Buddhist quote, the film offers a heist that is doomed before it ever starts. 

The American take on the heist is often much more triumphant. This week my students are watching Kansas City Confidential (1952) which offers a more mundane bank heist but with some innovative differences: none of the heisters (is that a word?) know each other and they’ve all worn masks, so they can’t identify each other. They were brought together by a Mister Big, who has set up an elaborate gig, sending them all to Mexico to wait out the heat. 

Hey, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam! A gum-chomping Neville Brand. Jack Payne stars as a down-on-his-luck but amply-medalled vet (hey, this is #noir after all) who finds himself the fall guy when his delivery van appears to be the getaway vehicle. If the lazy cops won’t crack the case, he’ll go to Mexico and sort it out. Yes, some unfortunate brown-face: ironically African-American actor Dona Drake had an interesting career passing as Latina (hint, filmmakers: a great story to be done there).

Colleen Gray shows up as the innocent daughter of Mister Big who’s studying for the bar (of course) but takes a liking to Payne’s ex-con (who’s pretending to be Elam’s characters – it’s easier to follow in the film) and has no idea what her father’s been up to. Cue some sneaking around by everyone, some really terribly choreographed fist fights and not enough Van Cleef glowering. It’s entertaining nonetheless. I look forward to my students’ comments on it. 

Are you planning a heist for the lockdown? Watch a few films to see where they always go awry. And wear a mask – it’s a good idea even if you’re not pulling a needlessly complicated heist.

K A LAITY IS ON THE LAM HERE.

THE GHOST IN YOU by Graham Wynd

Crime Fiction, Fiction, Graham Wynd, K A Laity, Noir, Punk Noir Magazine

Read part 1 here.

2

It was their first ever encore. The others wouldn’t have paid attention but Frazer had been waiting for such a moment to come. Ego, yeah. So what? You had to have an ego to get out there every weekend and play to the punters who seldom care if you lived or died—actually, most of the time they’d preferred that you died so you would just shut up and they could fill the jukebox with coins and play Van Halen or Katy Perry over and over until their ears bled.

But not tonight. Tonight was magic and the crowd called for an encore. The crowd, the audience: not just Pam and Janet, the girl friends of Pike and Jones. The pair were always there, the gruesome twosome they called themselves. Sometimes more happy to chat to each other than to pay attention. Admittedly they heard the songs a hundred times or more, nothing new. They were great at getting the drinks in and even better at cheering the spirits of the lads on bad nights. There were always bad nights. But the two of them were always full Macca thumbs-up for the band. Not like Olive. Remember Olive? They all remembered Olive.

The people you surround yourselves with have a lot to do with the quality of your life. Doubly so if you were trying to make something, do something beyond your dead-end job that you forgot once you were punched out and out the door.

An encore, a real encore. Pam and Janet were cheering away but it wasn’t even them that started chanting, ‘More more more!’ How do you like it, how do you like it, well they liked it just fine. They felt it too. They wanted more.

Frazer looked up, sticks in hand, in wonder. Pike caught the grin on her face. Did a double take. More more more! The chant was real. And louder. Some feet stamping. They had a hit of it and wanted more. Wanted the high to last. Pike collared Jones, who’d already slung his Gretsch over his back, plucking his sweat-soaked shirt from skin. He stared in wonder at the crowd. Godfrey shook his head, not a no but a kind of disbelief.

There was a moment of swaying disbelief. It might have all got away, but Jones swung the guitar back around, looked at Frazer and grinned. They didn’t have any songs left that they hadn’t done already. It was a thing with them all that they never did covers. All original songs, live or die.

But now was not the time for purity.

FGGFG

FGGFG

FGGFG

Giiiiirrrrrl

Pike stretched out the first word so long Jones had to stumble to hold back the next chord and we were all grinning like maniacs but we were together, a unit, in sync. And the audience was too. They had let out a whoop at the first notes so loud we might have been the Kinks themselves on stage or as near as was going to get here in the back end of nowhere tonight anyway. They sang along, shouting out the words as if their lives depended on it and howling at the chorus, shrieking to punctuate the lines.

Frazer nearly collapsed on the kit with the final bash. A sudden wave of exhaustion hit her. They had worked that night. Good work. Sleep would come. No restless obsessive thinking about what to do next time, what had gone wrong, why could Pike never hit that note quite right and did it really matter, should the song change or the singer until it was three and the night too short.

Pike was hopped up now and caught her eye. He wanted more. Frazer shook her head though. They weren’t going to turn into a cover band. It was a little gift for the audience who had been so good to them but no. No more covers. It felt good to belt out something familiar, shared, a little ragged—they had only ever fooled around with it to warm up—but play another and that’s what they’d remember. A cover band.

They took the applause with gratitude. Even bowed with an ironic Beatle formality before laughing and punching one another in the arm. This is what it could be, Frazer thought. This is what it will be if I have to drag them all kicking and screaming into the future.

The high survived leaving the stage. They just about floated into the little dank chamber that served as a dressing room. Pike jabbered a mile a minute whilst Jones nodded enthusiastically. Godfrey just grinned and shook his head as he put the battered two-tone Fender back in its case after wiping the strings and the body with a soft cloth.

Frazer made a quick change of her top, which was wet through and threw on a hoodie for good measure. Her arms ached in a good way. Probably worth icing them before bed; hot bath tomorrow. At least there wasn’t a band on after them so she didn’t have to rush out and break down the kit immediately.

‘They really liked the new one,’ Godfrey said.

‘Yeah!’ Pike agreed. ‘It’s got a good hook.’

‘That’s all Jones,’ Frazer said. She knew it wasn’t just the hook, but it didn’t matter as long as they all liked it, too.

Jones threw his arm around Frazer and Pike. ‘We fucking ruled the night.

GRAHAMWYND NOIR

Film for a Friday: Possessed (1947) – K. A. Laity

A Film For Friday, Films, International Noir, K A Laity, Noir, Punk Noir Magazine

Possessed47Poster

Like so many films noir, Possessed begins after most things have happened then backtracks to find out how we got there. A surprisingly unglamorous and decidedly untethered Joan Crawford wanders down the empty roads of early morning Los Angeles. When a tram driver stops to let her on, she can only ask for David. She’s eventually picked up and taken to a hospital where a kindly doctor recognises that her catatonic state is due to trauma and works to unlock the story from her shattered mind.

Eventually we make it back to a house by a lake and Van Heflin. It is my own shortcoming that I can never take him seriously because I always hear Jasper from the Simpsons demanding that a barber, ‘Gimme a Van Helfin.’ Fortunately he’s not particularly sympathetic here. The script by by Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards, based upon a story by Rita Weiman gives him a few terrific lines like ‘My liver rushes in where angels fear to tread’ and the telling ‘‘If you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies.’

The basic plot line is full of fun twists: Crawford’s Louise in love with Van Helfin’s David but he’s bored with her. She is a nurse to a wealthy woman with paranoid fantasies who commits suicide—or does she? Her husband, Raymond Massey, falls for the nurse, but his college co-ed daughter, Geraldine Brooks, believes her mother’s accusation that the nurse bumped her off to get with her father, and storms off back to campus. At the wedding she meets David and he cheers her right up. But has Louise only married Massey to try to make David jealous?

It’s almost as if caring for the mentally unstable woman unlocks Louise’s own mental breakdown. The film tries to foster a positive attitude toward mental health, with the doctor’s sympathy and criticism of the word ‘insane.’ When a worried Louise visits a physician to see if there’s really something wrong with her, he’s at pains to say that addressing these problems will head off a worse situation—the very one she fears.

However, Louise allows fear to take the reins and there’s some really effective scenes where what is real and what is imagined is hard for the viewer to determine. A terrific sequence focuses on the sounds around her as a part of the unsettling pathology, from the ticking of the clock to the pattering of the rain. The Franz Waxman soundtrack is quiet effective too, much of it resting on a repeated use of Schumann’s Carnaval. When violence erupts we’re never sure if it’s real or not, but it has a surprisingly brutal impact.

Crawford won a lot of (sometimes grudging) praise for this role. She manages to make poor Louise both sympathetic and dangerous. Well worth a watch.