Saturday, February 25, 2017

Manhattan Nocturne (Book) (1996)

Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison
New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1996

List of main characters:
Porter Wren, tabloid newspaper reporter
Lisa Wren, surgeon and Porter’s wife
Sebastian Hobbs, Australian billionaire and owner of the tabloid that publishes Wren’s column
Walter Campbell, personal assistant to Hobbs
Caroline Crowley, Porter Wren’s mistress
Simon Crowley, famous filmmaker and Caroline’s husband
Frank Crowley, Simon’s father
Josephine Brown, the Wrens’ housekeeper and nanny
Billy Munson, friend of Simon Crowley

Porter Wren, a famous tabloid newspaper columnist in New York City, is the narrator of Manhattan Nocturne. In typical noir fashion, he starts an affair with a woman he is attracted to and begins a downward spiral that almost costs him his marriage, his son’s life, and his ego. It’s true: Ego doesn’t usually appear on a list of details making a film or a novel noir. And I have to be honest: I don’t think Wren loses his ego, at least, not all of it. For me, this characteristic made Wren unsympathetic, almost to the extreme. I began to wonder about his intentions and his reliability, which I suspect wasn’t the writer’s intention. It made the novel in turn an unpleasant read, and this is one of those rare instances when I much preferred the film version over the novel. Manhattan Nocturne would have been so much better pared down to essentials, to the action, with much less chance to “hear” Wren thinking about himself, his work, and what he was going to do to get out of the mess he creates for himself.

Many of the characters in Manhattan Nocturne are not particularly likable, and likability is not a prerequisite for noir, of course. However, Porter Wren is particularly unlikable. Here he is trying to justify chasing stories in the streets of New York City for his tabloid newspaper column:
. . . I like the romantic angle. And if the newspaper is a vulture, then it restores me even as it tears from me. Listening to, say, the grieving confessions of a humble, decent woman in her kitchen in New Jersey, I find that there is a moment when I am made whole by her suffering, when I glimpse the humanity of a stranger, am made better than I really am. (page 91)
Romantic angle? That’s hardly the right expression for witnessing a woman grieving the death of her daughter. Porter Wren is “made whole by her suffering”? As I understand it, a person is made whole by wrestling with his or her own suffering. Witnessing the suffering of a stranger and then writing about it for publication doesn’t strike me as a genuine way to make oneself whole. And precious little about the rest of Wren’s story makes me think he is whole at the conclusion. He nearly destroys his family, his son is shot and injured by people Wren has angered, and his wife can barely trust him again. I thought Porter Wren was much more likable in the film, where viewers don’t have to listen to his inner monologue about the misfortunes he has brought upon himself and so many others.

(This blog post about the novel Manhattan Nocturne contains spoilers.)

I am emphasizing the line about spoilers in this post because I want to compare some points from the novel to the film version. I read Manhattan Nocturne after I saw the film Manhattan Night, which was based on the novel. I blogged about the film on November 18, 2016, and you can find the post by clicking here. (You can also click on the arrow for 2016 in the left-hand column of this screen and then click on the arrow for November.)

I had some questions after seeing the film Manhattan Night, and I wondered if they would be answered by reading the novel. Alas, not all of my questions were answered to my satisfaction. Here are my questions from my previous blog post about the film and my lingering concerns:
1.  How did Caroline escape suspicion with all the blood she must have had on her after Simon’s evisceration?
The answer to this question is explained in great detail in the novel. Caroline takes off all her clothes before eviscerating Simon to get the key that he swallowed:
. . . She [Caroline] stands abruptly and walks over to the bed. There she kicks off her shoes, then lifts up her yellow dress and lays it carefully on the bed. There is a colored shape on her shoulder blade, a butterfly. She takes off her bra, then her panties. These, too, she lays down on the bed. Then she takes Simon’s baseball cap off the floor and tucks her hair up into it. Her naked bottom rests on her heels. A naked woman in a baseball cap. Then she returns to Simon. The knife is still sticking out of his belly. She leans over the body, looks away, then sets her weight above the knife. It goes in with a bellowing whoosh of air and blood. Now she is wet. She looks at it and sighs. Then she saws at the flesh, cutting a flap. Holding the flap back with one hand, she cuts deeper. . . . Then she reaches her hand into the cavity and fishes around. Nothing. She sighs. . . . Now she cuts a larger flap. Then she sits back to one side of Simon and rolls him onto his stomach. There is an audible dribbling as the contents of his stomach come out. She rolls him onto his back again. She pushes around in the stomach contents with the knife, looks up. Rats have appeared in the shadows. . . . She returns to the task. She puts her hand back into the cavity and then suddenly pulls something out, looks at the bloody object in her hand. The key. Now she stands, puts the key on the table, and moves back to the bed, where she removes a pillowcase and wipes her hands and belly carefully. There is a bit of blood on her thighs, her knees. She rubs each place vigorously. She checks her pubic hair for blood, sucking in her belly, both hands pressed against her hipbones. Then she wipes off her fingers and hands and looks at the back of her legs, her ass. She steps back into her panties and shoes, then slips on her bra and yellow dress, buttoning it behind herself with the awkward grace that women have. She takes off the baseball cap, inspects it, shakes it, inspects it again, then tosses it onto the floor next to Simon. She slides the key off the table and puts it in her purse. . . . (pages 336–337)
2.  No one else, including Hobbs’s henchmen, could figure out that the key opened the padlock on the basement door of the building that had been demolished after Caroline had killed Simon and left his body there?
Porter Wren goes to 537 East Eleventh Street in New York City at least three times, the first time to see the site where Simon Crowley died. He goes with the padlock key, given to him by Sebastian Hobbs, to 535 East Eleventh Street and asks the superintendent about it, who tells him that both buildings could be accessed from the sidewalk doors to 535 and that Caroline’s key opens the sidewalk doors. Near the end of the novel, Wren excavates some of the rubble at 537 to find the elevator shaft, where he finds the tape of Simon threatening Caroline and Caroline stabbing him. If Porter Wren could do it, surely a billionaire like Sebastian Hobbs could have hired someone to figure out the same details before coercing Wren into doing it.
3.  No one else, including the police, was able to trace the mailings of the video copies to Norma Segal?
The following lengthy explanation didn’t satisfy my curiosity enough:
. . . This [Simon’s death] had transpired either in the last hours of August 6 or the early hours of August 7. If the time had been late enough, it was possible that no one had noticed her [Caroline] or remembered that they had noticed her. After all, Simon’s body was not discovered until August 15, and that interval was certainly long enough for someone to forget what they had seen. But Caroline’s immediate actions were not the only indication of her guilt. She had gone to elaborate lengths to cover up what had happened. She had lied to the police about the nature of Simon’s disappearance. She had told them that she didn’t recognize the little piece of jade figurine. She had the cleverness to hire a private investigator to try and determine what had happened to Simon. That was smart, for the investigator might unknowingly report to her information that might implicate her, allowing her to anticipate problems. Even more ingenious was that such an arrangement, should it come to the attention of the police, would seem to indicate that she was not the culprit. The investigator found no useful information, of course, because if he had checked the ownership of 537 East Eleventh Street, he would have found out that a Korean owned it, not the Segals. If, like the police, he had talked to the Korean owner, the owner would have been able to tell him nothing, because, being unfamiliar with the building that was about to be demolished, the owner did not know about the quirky sidewalk doors. Nor did the foreman from Jack-E Demolition, who was obsessed with a piece of rope he’d found. The detectives had no reason to seek out the Segals, and Mrs. Segal, because of her questionable deal with the Koreans, had what she believed to be a good reason not to seek out them. The police did talk with the superintendent of 535, but their conversation had centered on access to the roof door of 535, not on the sidewalk doors to 537. It was true that if the police had looked through the paperwork to Simon’s estate, they might have been led to Mrs. Segal, as I had been. But I had been looking for a singular item, namely, the Hobbs tape, when I found her and not, as the police would have been, for information about how Simon had entered a building. It was logical contraption of chance and intent. No one had acted with full knowledge; no one had planned on the events as they occurred, including Caroline. So was it murder? In my mind, yes. (pages 340–341, emphasis added)
But surely Sebastian Hobbs could have hired someone to trace the packages containing the copies of the tape. Hobbs was also looking for the “singular item . . . the Hobbs tape . . . .” Hobbs could have approached the problem from a different angle and hired a private investigator clever enough to figure out how to trace a package. Once the investigator discovered Norma Segal’s involvement, he or she would likely have found out the information needed to solve the mystery. It is possible that I watch more than the average number of films noir and read more noir literature than the average person does, but wouldn’t the audience for Harrison’s novel almost guarantee that many like me would be reading his novel, too?

Porter Wren may have believed he was the only one clever enough to learn what he did, but I didn’t believe it. He was unreliable as a narrator in the novel. And he is very quick to judge Caroline (see the passage quoted above), without mentioning his own weaknesses that led him into the mess he’s in by the end of the novel. I found it frustrating that the author left questions partially unanswered in the plot, and doing so did not add to the mystery or to the noir-ness of the story. Porter Wren explained too much in all the wrong places throughout the novel, and he still left me wondering why there wasn’t at least a little bit of humility left in his own heart.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Burglar (1957)

June 1957 release date
Directed by Paul Wendkos
Screenplay by David Goodis
Based on the novel The Burglar by David Goodis
Music by Sol Kaplan
Edited by Paul Wendkos, Herta Horn
Cinematography by Don Malkames

Dan Duryea as Nat Harbin
Jayne Mansfield as Gladden
Martha Vickers as Della
Peter Capell as Baylock
Mickey Shaughnessy as Dohmer
Stewart Bradley as Charlie
Wendell Phillips as the police captain
Bob Wilson as the newsreel narrator
Phoebe Mackay as Sister Sara
Steve Allison as the state trooper
Richard Emery as the child Nat Harbin
Andrea McLaughlin as the child Gladden

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

The Burglar, which was released almost sixty years ago, opens with newsreel footage, and one of the news stories is about the death of the millionaire Jonesworth in Philadelphia. When the camera finally moves out to show the audience, I realized that the newsreel was part of the story. And Dan Duryea, as Nat Harbin, the main character, is sitting in the audience of a movie theater, watching the newsreel, which gives him the idea for a heist. The newsreel footage was so effective that I almost believed that I was watching the wrong film! It is a great device for revealing many plot details and then tying them to the subsequent action.

The Burglar was filmed on location in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, cities that David Goodis knew well (Philadelphia was Goodis’s hometown). The opening credits are striking, with the bold use of white type and lines organizing the text. The cinematography throughout the film is beautiful, especially after Nat Harbin arrives in Atlantic City. The lighting emphasizes the unraveling of the jewelry heist and of Harbin’s plans for the future, and it emphasizes the escalating tension and suspense. The jazz score throughout is discordant. I can’t say that I would enjoy the soundtrack separate from the film, but it is well suited to the plot: a story full of despair, frustration, and loss. Everything about The Burglar qualifies it as noir.

(This blog post about The Burglar contains spoilers.)

I am emphasizing the line about spoilers in this post because I want to compare David Goodis’s screenplay to his novel The Burglar, which is the basis of the film. To do that, I will be giving away several plot points about both the film and the novel. You can read my blog post about the novel by clicking here. (You can also click on the arrow for 2016 in the left-hand column of this screen and then click on the arrow for May.)

Here is a point-by-point comparison of some of the differences that I found between the novel and the film adaptation:
Gladden accuses Dohmer of always looking at her, always staring at her. Dohmer comes close to raping Gladden in the kitchen of the house they all share. The tension between Gladden and Dohmer is not part of the novel.
Baylock wants Harbin to let Gladden go, to evict her from their organization. That night, Harbin dreams about his escape from an orphanage, and soon after meeting Gerald Gladden, Gladden’s father. There is no mention of an orphanage in the novel.
The film includes dialogue in which Della explains a lot of her back story, and Harbin explains some of his story. There is little of Della’s back story in the novel, where she remains more mysterious and thus more of a femme fatale. It’s a good device in the film, however, to explain something of Harbin’s back story, too, which is told in exposition and in greater detail in the novel.
Della, Gladden, and Harbin all die at the end of the novel. Not so in the film:
Della betrays Charlie at the scene of his shooting of Harbin, and Charlie is arrested. In the novel, Charlie is shot by Gladden, and Della is choked by Charlie.
Gladden lives. She is portrayed as a victim in love with Harbin. In the novel, she drowns with Nat Harbin.
Harbin is killed by Charlie. In the novel, Gladden kills Charlie, and she and Harbin drown together.
Charlie dies in the novel (he is shot by Gladden). In the film, he is caught with the necklace in his possession because Della calls him a liar. He is then arrested, and Harbin’s death is ruled victim of homicide.

Why do I emphasize these points? Because Goodis adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and even though the screenplay changes many of the details from the novel, the film stands as a great film noir and a suspenseful story. I enjoyed the novel more, and maybe that’s because I read it before seeing the film. The film adaptation still holds many plot twists and surprises, even for a viewer like me who read the novel and thought I knew what to expect. In my post about the novel, I said that the plot of the novel had me guessing at every turn, and I can say the same about the film version.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mystic River (2003)

October 15, 2003, release date
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Brian Helgeland
Based on the novel Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Music by Clint Eastwood
Edited by Joel Cox
Cinematography by Tom Stern

Sean Penn as James “Jimmy” Markum
Jason Kelly as young Jimmy Markum
Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle
Cameron Bowen as young Dave Boyle
Kevin Bacon as Detective Sean Devine
Connor Paolo as young Sean Devine
Laurence Fishburne as Detective Sergeant Whitey Powers
Marcia Gay Harden as Celeste Boyle
Laura Linney as Annabeth Markum
Tom Guiry as Brendan Harris
Spencer Treat Clark as Ray Jr. “Silent Ray” Harris
Andrew Mackin as John O’Shea
Emmy Rossum as Katie Markum
Kevin Chapman as Val Savage
Adam Nelson as Nick Savage
Robert Wahlberg as Kevin Savage
Cayden Boyd as Michael Boyle
Tori Davis as Lauren Devine

Produced by Village Roadshow Pictures, Malpaso Productions, NPB Entertainment
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures

Fate plays a large role in Mystic River, which is a moving story of three men, Dave Boyle, Jimmy Markum, and Sean Devine, who were childhood friends and still live in the same Boston neighborhood. For me, the story is mostly Dave Boyle’s, and fate hangs particularly heavily over him. It affects other characters, too: For example, fate brings two men, two strangers, to the boys’ street at the beginning of the film, when the main characters were still children. In the present, fate brings Katie Markum, Jimmy’s daughter, to the street where two boys are “playing” with a gun.

Mystic River opens with a flashback, back to the day that young Dave Boyle was kidnapped. The colors are muted, and the lighting is soft. I kept thinking that the director, Clint Eastwood, managed to shoot all the opening scenes on cloudy days. The softness of the lighting could be interpreted as a way to distort and to create doubt because memory, fear, and guilt are involved in the boys’ childhood story. Certainly Dave’s story is filtered through his grief and pain.

(This blog post about Mystic River contains spoilers.)

Dave Boyle is the most complicated character and the one that the other characters in the film have the most trouble with. He was the victim of terrible crimes (kidnapping and sexual assault) when he was young, and everyone in the neighborhood seems to blame him (the victim)—and to continue to blame him. His situation stands in stark contrast with Katie Markum. Both are victims of crimes, but the other characters feel sympathy and sorrow for Katie. Dave is still alive, and he is a constant reminder to everyone of something they don’t know how to deal with and don’t want to think about. Katie Markum has been murdered and is automatically assumed to be a blameless victim. The state police detectives, including Sean Devine (one of the three childhood friends), investigating her death have great sympathy for her and her family:
State police officer (Tom): “We found the registration in the glove box. The owner is Katherine Markum.”
Sean Devine: “Oh, sh--.”
Whitey Powers, Sean’s partner: “You know her?”
Sean: “Maybe. Might be the daughter of a guy I know.”
Tom: “We found a wallet and a license in a backpack on the floor. She’s nineteen.”
Sean: “Oh, f--k, that’s her.”
Whitey: “Is it a problem? You close with the guy?”
Sean: “When we were kids. Now it’s just ‘hello’ around the neighborhood.”
Whitey: “Nineteen. F--k. He’s in for a world of hurt.”

Dave, on the other hand, seems to know that no one wanted to hear what happened to him and that no one knew how to help him. He and his wife Celeste talk about Katie Markum’s murder and the fact that Sean Devine asked Celeste about Dave’s whereabouts the night that Katie was killed. This is the night that Dave begins to open up about his past:
Dave: “Henry.”
Celeste: “What? Henry?”
Dave: “Henry and George. I never told anyone that before. Those were their names. Isn’t that f--king hilarious? At least that’s what they called themselves, but they were wolves, and Dave was the boy who escaped from wolves.”
Celeste: “What are you talking about, Dave?”
Dave: “I’m talking Henry and George. They took me on a four-day ride. They buried me in this ratty old cellar with a sleeping bag. And, man, Celeste, did they have their fun. And no one came to help old Dave then. Dave had to pretend to be somebody else.”
Celeste: “You mean all those years ago when you were a little boy? Dave—”
Dave: [pushes Celeste’s hand away from him] “Dave’s dead. I don’t know who came out of that cellar, but it sure as sh-- wasn’t Dave! . . .”
The result of the conversation is that Celeste is now frightened of her husband. She doesn’t realize or understand how much he is suffering in the present from traumatic events in the past.

Dave Boyle’s loneliness is unique because of his childhood experiences, but he is close to his son. He also protects a stranger from a pedophile behind McGill’s bar. Dave’s actions are misunderstood because he has trouble explaining what happened, and his actions eventually bring him down. His friends and neighbors are willing to jump to conclusions about him because he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They find it hard to trust him. Celeste Boyle doesn’t know where to turn when she starts worrying about her husband’s state of mind. She makes a poor choice in the film, but it’s not out of good or evil intentions.

Jimmy Markum, one of the most menacing characters in Mystic River, always acts on his assumptions, before he has actual proof. He may love his daughter and his family, but he runs the neighborhood with the help of the Savage brothers. They do Jimmy Markum’s bidding and his dirty work, which involves murder if Markum deems it necessary. His wife, Annabeth Markum, could be considered a femme fatale. She gives a chilling speech to her husband after they learn the truth about Katie’s murder and they are alone together. Viewers don’t learn what Annabeth is capable of until the final scenes of the film, but she is propping up her husband all the same while knowing full well what he is capable of and what he has done.

Dave Boyle isn’t the only character to be jarred by fate, and he isn’t the only one to suffer from loneliness. In spite of his bravado and his violence, Jimmy Markum is alone in his grief about his daughter Katie. He had felt so close to her, but he learns during the murder investigation, to his surprise, that he didn’t know her very well. He discovers details about her life and her plans only because she was murdered.

Sean Devine and his partner Whitey Powers may have solved Katie Markum’s murder, but only a few of the main characters are happy by the end of the film. And many of them are still alone, with more secrets to keep. Mystic River ends with one mystery solved and another left hanging, but it never wavers from telling the characters’ stories truthfully.