Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ripper (Book) (2014)

Ripper, by Isabel Allende
New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2014
Paperback edition
Translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brook and Frank Wynne
Hardcover edition published in 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers
Originally published in Spain in 2014 by Random House Mondadori under the title El juego de Ripper

List of main characters:
Amanda Martín, creator of the online game Ripper
Bob Martín, Amanda’s father, deputy chief of homicide in the Personal Crimes Division, San Francisco
Blake Jackson, Amanda’s grandfather
Indiana (Indi) Jackson, Amanda’s mother, Reiki practitioner
Ryan Miller, client of Indiana Jackson, former Navy SEAL
Alan Keller, Indiana’s boyfriend
Pedro Alarcón, Ryan’s friend from Uruguay

Players in the online Ripper game:
Esmeralda (boy in New Zealand)
Sir Edmond Paddington (boy in New Jersey)
Abatha (girl in Montreal)
Sherlock Holmes (African American orphan)

I read the paperback edition of Ripper. The cover image above and all page references below are from the paperback edition. The list of characters is abbreviated, partly for the sake of convenience and partly to avoid giving away any additional details.

First, I have to confess that I have been a fan of Isabel Allende since a friend recommended her first book, The House of the Spirits, to me. I haven’t read all of her novels, and I never imagined that I would find one to call noir. But I think Ripper, about a serial killer in San Francisco, qualifies as noir literature.

(This blog post about the novel Ripper contains spoilers.)

The main character, Amanda Martín, is hardly a typical noir protagonist: Amanda is a high school student who decides to investigate a series of murders using the help of the players of an online game that she herself has created. The title of the novel comes from Amanda’s game, which she plays with four gamers (Esmeralda, Sir Edmond Paddington, Abatha, and Sherlock Holmes). When Celeste Roko, Amanda’s godmother and a famous California astrologer, predicts a bloodbath at the hands of a serial murderer in San Francisco (something that proves true), Amanda decides to use her own skills and the skills of her fellow gamers to solve the crimes. (Allende has brought noir right into the twenty-first century.) Amanda can also take advantage of the help offered by her grandfather, Blake Jackson, and her father, Bob Martín, who also happens to be the deputy chief of homicide in the Personal Crimes Division in San Francisco.

Aside from its title, the novel starts ominously, in noir fashion:
For the Ripper players, this first murder [the Case of the Misplaced Baseball Bat] was the start of what would become a dangerous obsession. . . . Up to this point the game had revolved around fictional nineteenth-century crimes in a fog-shrouded London where characters were faced with scoundrels armed with axes and ice picks, archetypal villains intent on disturbing the peace of the city. But when the players agreed to Amanda Martín’s suggestion that they investigate murders in present-day San Francisco—a city no less shrouded in fog—the game took on a more realistic dimension. . . . (pages 3–4)
Readers know right away that they, Amanda, and everyone she knows can expect danger ahead, which sets the right noir tone.

All of the main characters are multidimensional, and Allende makes sure that all of them have imperfections that could be interpreted as guilt or as a motive for murder. For example, Amanda’s mother, Indiana Jackson, is a Reiki practitioner who cares about her clients and barely charges them enough to pay her own bills. Allende offers the following description of her state of mind after treating one of her clients:
Indiana said good-bye to the man [Gary Brunswick], listened as his boots padded down the corridor toward the stairwell, then slumped into a chair and heaved a sigh, feeling drained by the negative energy that radiated from him, and by his romantic insinuations, which were beginning to seriously irritate her. In her job, compassion was essential, but there were some patients whose necks she longed to wring. (page 100)
This description is but one of many examples in which Allende insinuates a motive for murder. Before long, everyone could be a suspect. And it works. Even when I thought I had figured out who did what, more surprises were in store for me. I always enjoy novels and films that keep me guessing, and Ripper does not disappoint on that score.

Allende has a way of creating fully developed characters that I care about, and when they suffer the misfortunes that can happen to some people in real life, it’s a bit of a jolt. She remains true, however, to the plot and to the characters, which is something I have always admired about her writing. Ripper is thus not exactly an easy read, but the mystery is solved, and the characters reach some type of resolution. The novel is satisfying in the way that real life can sometimes be satisfying: In other words, the ending is satisfying, but the underlying angst of the human condition still lies just below the surface.

Ripper intrigued me for many reasons, and not just because it could be classified as noir literature and not just because it is written by one of my favorite authors. I suspect that Amanda Martín will have the opportunity to solve more murders in her future, and I am hoping that I am right because that could mean a sequel—another book by Isabel Allende to look forward to. In the meantime, I am hoping that someone has the imagination to turn Ripper into a neo-noir film, which would also be something to look forward to.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940)

December 19, 1940, release date
Directed by Eugene Forde
Screenplay by Stanley Rauh, Manning O’Connor
Based on the novel The Private Practice of Michael Shayne by Brett Halliday
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Alfred DeGaetano
Cinematography by George Schneiderman

Lloyd Nolan as Michael Shayne
Marjorie Weaver as Phyllis Brighton
Joan Valerie as Marsha Gordon
Walter Abel as Elliott Thomas
Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Olivia
Donald MacBride as Police Captain Peter Painter
Douglas Dumbrille as Benny Gordon
Clarence Kolb as Hiram B. Brighton
George Meeker as Harry Grange
Charles Coleman as Ponsby, the Brightons’ butler
Adrian Morris as Al, assistant to Captain Painter
Robert Emmett Keane as Larry Kincaid
Frank Orth as Steve
Irving Bacon as the fisherman

Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox

Michael Shayne, Private Detective, released almost exactly seventy-six years ago, is the first in a series of twelve films. Lloyd Nolan starred as Shayne in seven of the films until the series was dropped by Twentieth Century Fox. These seven films were released from 1940 to 1942. When the series was picked up by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Hugh Beaumont took over the role of Shayne for five more films, all of which were released in 1946. I have not seen all of the films in the series, but, of course, I have seen Michael Shayne, Private Detective, and I do think it can be considered an avant noir (or proto-noir, a precursor to noir). Some may prefer to call it a mystery, and I am quite comfortable putting it both categories.

The film opens at the racetrack, and viewers understand from the start that Phyllis Brighton likes to bet on the horses. Her father, Hiram P. Brighton, is a member of the racing board, which checks horses for doping via a saliva test. When Brighton won’t give his daughter Phyllis any more money to bet on a horse called Banjo Boy, she looks for and finds someone who will loan her money in exchange for a brooch. Detective Shayne interrupts the transaction because he knows Phyllis’s father, although he has not yet been introduced to Phyllis.

The film then cuts to Shayne’s office. Moving men employed by the Eastside Furniture Company are moving furniture out of Shayne’s office because he can’t pay his bills. A Mr. Kincaid (Shayne calls him a shyster lawyer later in the film) comes in and offers Shayne a case, but Shayne refuses on ethical grounds. He doesn’t appreciate being asked to pressure a friend to pressure in turn an employee, Harry Grange, to pay the $10,000 he owes after betting on a horse that won. Kincaid and Shayne get into an altercation over Shayne’s definition of ethics. Shayne punches Kincaid, and Kincaid steals Shayne’s gun. He holds Shayne at gunpoint and then leaves with his gun.

I am pointing out these opening sequences because they are packed with detail that viewers need to note if they are to make sense of the plot. The film is only about seventy-seven minutes long, and these opening sequences are short, too. Viewers in 1940 would have had to pay attention if they wanted to understand the twists and turns of Shayne’s detective work. Viewers today have to do the same, but they are at a disadvantage because cultural and historical events that would have been common knowledge in 1940 are not so today. This lack of cultural and historical context doesn’t have to be an obstacle. At least today viewers can search for confusing terms online to find an explanation.

One example is The Baffle Book, which Phyllis’s Aunt Olivia discusses with Detective Shayne when she waylays him on his first visit to the Brighton household. From an online search, I discovered that The Baffle Book: Fifteen Fiendishly Challenging Detective Puzzles (by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay, hardcover, 286 pages, published in 1928 by Doubleday, Doran & Company) was popular reading at the time Michael Shayne, Private Detective was released. Viewers in 1940 would have understood what Aunt Olivia was talking about; I had to search online to figure out the reference.

(This blog post about Michael Shayne, Private Detective contains spoilers.)

Michael Shayne, Private Detective mixes murder, mystery, and humor. Aunt Olivia provides some comic relief for the film and for Detective Shayne. At one point, she takes it upon herself to solve Grange’s murder, which she read about in the newspaper. She and the Brighton’s butler Ponsby are starting a file on the case.
• Aunt Olivia (to Detective Shayne): “Here I’ve been, solving other people’s murders all my life, and now that I have one so close to home, why, it’s just wonderful. Ponsby and I have started working on the case, but we haven’t any decent clues, have we Ponsby?”
• Ponsby: “Only the fact that Mr. Grange died in a sea of tomato ketchup.” [a reference to Shayne’s attempt to fool Phyllis into thinking that Harry Grange, who was merely unconscious at the time, had been shot in the chest by pouring ketchup over the man’s shirtfront]
• Aunt Olivia: “Yes, and that doesn’t make sense. The Baffle Book always gives you one or two things you can get your teeth into.”

Murder, mystery, and the detective as the main character aren’t the only reasons to think of Michael Shayne, Private Detective as an avant noir. The use of lighting throughout the film is almost—but not quite—comparable to that used in many films noir. Many of the scenes seem to be lit from the side so that the shadows cast are askew. The shadows don’t obscure quite like they do in films noir, but the use of lighting is noticeably different in Michael Shayne, Private Detective.

There’s no femme fatale, and the general tone of the film is definitely not riddled with angst; instead, it’s rather lighthearted with all the humor and the good nature on the part of most of the main characters. The film is almost—but not quite—a film noir, so it makes sense to call it an avant noir. And it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Following (1998)

September 12, 1998 (Toronto); November 5, 1999 (United Kingdom) release date
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan
Music by David Julyan
Edited by Gareth Heal and Christopher Nolan
Cinematography by Christopher Nolan

Jeremy Theobald as the young man [Bill/Daniel (“Danny”) Lloyd]
Alex Haw as Cobb
Lucy Russell as the blonde
John Nolan as the police officer
Dick Bradsell as the bald guy
Gillian El-Kadi as the homeowner
Jennifer Angel as the waitress
Nicolas Carlotti as the bartender
Darren Ormandy as the accountant
Guy Greenway as heavy #1
Tassos Stevens as heavy #2
Tristan Martin as the man at the bar
Rebecca James as the woman at bar
Paul Mason as the homeowner’s friend
David Bovill as the homeowner’s husband

Produced by Next Wave Films
Distributed by Momentum Pictures

The director Christopher Nolan used only ambient lighting for Following, which adds to the dark, intense mood. He may have chosen black-and-white film for budgetary reasons, but this was also true for many classic films noir, and it works here just as well. The low budget, the black-and-white cinematography, and the urban landscape of London give the film its noir ambience. It almost seemed like a film shot in the 1960s (but not the 1940s), with the black-and-white cinematography and the suits and ties that Bill and Cobb wore.

Following has a structure that loops back on itself. It creates confusion for the viewer, which mimics the confusion experienced by the main character Bill. The whole story, except for the last sequence, is told in flashback, but the flashback is also nonlinear. The nonlinear narration forces the viewer to attend to clues about the story.

(This blog post about Following contains spoilers.)

The premise of the story (following people out of boredom and/or to get fiction ideas) is really stalking by another name. So the premise of the film is a crime, and the stalking leads to more crime—burglary, assault, murder. Bill follows other people because he’s lonely and bored. He admits as much to the police officer at the beginning of the film. His loneliness makes him especially vulnerable to Cobb’s machinations, and Cobb is all about manipulation. Cobb manipulates everyone, not just Bill, to get what he wants. In some ways, he’s the loneliest character, even lonelier than Bill, because he couldn’t care less about the few people in his life.

Bill made rules for following other people (don’t follow anyone if you find out where they live or work; don’t follow the same person twice), but he broke them anyway. The most important rule was the latter, but that was the rule that Bill broke first. He just couldn’t resist the lure of his own game. He created the game, but once he starts playing, he is lured from one bad decision to the next, as though he cannot resist what fate offered to him. Bill meets Cobb as a result of following random people, but he never realizes that Cobb is a walking time bomb. The moment in the film that Cobb shakes a beer can before handing it to Bill, I knew Bill was in trouble. The beer can incident was like a small psychological test that went Cobb’s way: Bill opened the can without thinking and sprayed beer all over. Cobb found out what he needed to know about Bill; he started small and ended big.

The final shot in Following is fantastic: Cobb, in medium shot, stands in a crowd on a busy London street. Pedestrians pass in front of the camera so close up that they are fuzzy. When the picture clears, Cobb is gone. And in the cut back to the police officer’s interview with Bill, viewers discover that Bill is alone again. The scene brings the film back to the beginning, when Bill is explaining why he follows strangers on the street and the camera shows pedestrians in the city walking in slow motion. The scene also adds to Bill’s angst—and to the viewers’, too. Viewers see the story from Bill’s perspective. Because of that perspective, I found his final predicament to be so unsettling.

All the main characters are betraying one another for various reasons. It’s a small dismal world in which no one can trust anyone else, much like many classic films noir. I don’t think there’s a single main character that doesn’t have dirt and/or blood on his or her hands in Following. There wasn’t anyone in the film who seemed the least bit sympathetic or relatable. It made it very difficult to root for anyone, although I was really dismayed by the predicament that Bill finally realized he was in while he is questioned by the police detective. The film put me in his situation, even though I was sure I didn’t want to be there. And yet I still didn’t want to see Bill have to be the fall guy. Following is one of those noirs that leaves the viewer unsettled, which I count as one of its successes.