Monday, June 25, 2018

Boston Noir (Book) (2009) and Boston Noir 2: The Classics (Book) (2012)

Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane
New York, NY: Akashic Books, 2009

List of short stories:
“Exit Interview” by Lynne Heitman
“Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane
“The Place Where He Belongs” by Jim Fusilli
“Dark Waters” by Patricia Powell
“Femme Sole” by Dana Cameron
“The Dark Island” by Brendan DuBois
“The Reward” by Stewart O’Nan
“The Cross-Eyed Bear” by John Dufresne
“The Oriental Hair Poets” by Don Lee
“The Collar” by Itabari Njeri
“Turn Speed” by Russ Aborn

Boston Noir 2: The Classics, edited by Dennis Lehane, Mary Cotton, and Jamie Clarke
New York, NY: Akashic Books, 2012

List of short stories:
“The Marriage Privilege” by Chuck Hogan
“Night-Side” by Joyce Carol Oates
“Home Sweet Home” by Hannah Tinti
“Surrogate” by Robert B. Parker
“Mushrooms” by Dennis Lehane
“Lucky Penny” by Linda Barnes
“Blanche Cleans Up” [excerpt] by Barbara Neely
“The Balance of the Day” by George V. Higgins
“Bait” [excerpt] by Kenneth Abel
“Townies” by Andre Dubus
“Driving the Heart” by Jason Brown
“The 5:22” by George Harrar
“Infinite Jest” [excerpt] by David Foster Wallace
“At Night” by David Ryan

I write briefly here about two publications by Akashic Books, Boston Noir and Boston Noir 2, mostly because I want to introduce noir fans to Akashic Books and its noir series. I think that fans of noir literature across the country and around the world will be able to find a short story collection at Akashic Books that takes place in a locale they know well.

Akashic Books has published a long list of books that collect noir short stories mostly, but not always, according to geographic location. For more information about their books and forthcoming titles, click here.

What I love about these two books, these two short story collections, is that I can recognize the locales. Each story is set in a Boston neighborhood or a city or town just outside Boston. And the presentation fits the subject: Each book comes with a map on a two-page spread that shows each neighborhood or town where a short story in the collection takes place, and each location is marked with the drop-out white form of a dead body.

The presentation isn’t the only detail to love about these books. The writing, of course, is the main draw.

I want to try other books in Akashic Books’ noir series, and I have already started Providence Noir. The noir series is such a wonderful idea: Anytime I want a quick noir fix (and who doesn’t?), I can pick up a short story in one of these collections.

Boston Noir: All the stories in this collection are superb. It’s hard, however, not to have favorites. I especially enjoyed “Femme Sole” because it’s colonial noir set in the North End, and “The Dark Island” because it takes place when film noir was at its peak, right after World War II. Of the two short story collections, Boston Noir is the one that I enjoyed the most and can recommend without reservation. And if you’re from Massachusetts, you’ll enjoy it all the more.

Boston Noir 2: According to the “Introduction: They Look Like You and Me,” the parameters for story selection were slightly different for each Boston Noir book:
. . . Whereas Boston Noir comprised brand-new pieces commissioned for the anthology, our charge here [in Boston Noir 2] was to scour the body of Boston literature for previously published short stories and novel excerpts that best illuminate the dark corners of the Hub. (pages 13–16)
I didn’t enjoy Boston Noir 2 as much as the first. I couldn’t finish “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace after starting it on two different occasions. The run-on sentences didn’t draw me in. They were too distracting and made the story too hard to follow. And the main characters seemed unlikable. If the story was meant to be from their drug-addled point of view, the story was a success. But it didn’t help me to like the characters or to understand the story.

It was great, however, to read more work by George V. Higgins, Chuck Hogan, and Dennis Lehane. All three authors have already been mentioned in my blog because their writing has been the basis for some great neo-noirs. You can click on their names in the search terms listed on the left to read my blog posts about the films based on their writing.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Niagara (1953)

January 21, 1953, release date
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen, Walter Reisch
Music by Sol Kaplan
Edited by Barbara McLean
Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald

Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis
Joseph Cotten as George Loomis
Jean Peters as Polly Cutler
Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) as Ray Cutler
Denis O’Dea as Inspector Starkey
Richard Allan as Patrick
Don Wilson as Mr. Kettering
Lurene Tuttle as Mrs. Kettering
Russell Collins as Mr. Qua
Will Wright as the boatman

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

I wasn’t looking forward all that much to seeing Niagara. Film noir in color? I didn’t believe color could work for film noir. And I had seen bits and pieces of the film at various times on television and wasn’t impressed. I should know by now, from my own experience, that it’s impossible to judge a film from bits and pieces, but initial impressions are so hard to overcome. Seeing Niagara from beginning to end on DVD was a very pleasant surprise, however. In fact, I plan to see it again.

From Wikipedia: “. . . Niagara was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, one of the last films to be made at Fox in that format because a few months later Fox began converting to CinemaScope, which had compatibility problems with three-strip Technicolor but not with Eastmancolor.” Click here for more information about the film.

Rose and George Loomis are an unhappily married couple, and Rose wants out of the marriage. She has found a boyfriend who is willing to help her get rid of George, and they set their plan in motion. Rose presents George to everyone as an unstable sort. The fact that he is a Korean War veteran suffering from battle fatigue (a phrase George himself uses in the film) doesn’t inspire any sympathy from others, including Polly and Ray Cutler, the couple also vacationing at Niagara Falls. Everyone wants to avoid George, at least at first, and his emotional outbursts serve Rose’s purpose.

While Rose and George are vacationing in a rental cottage near Niagara Falls, George breaks a vinyl record that Rose brought to a party outside their cottage. She asked the group to play it, and George doesn’t want to hear the song, one of Rose’s favorites. He cuts his hand on one of the vinyl shards, and Rose won’t follow George into their cabin to help him. Polly Cutler offers to help George, and she goes into the Loomises’ cabin to bandage his hand. This is the scene where George gives his prophetic speech comparing love to the falls.
Polly Cutler: “Let’s go out with the others.” [to see the falls lit up at night]
George Loomis: “I can’t see anybody now. I . . . I feel goofy after what happened. Let me tell you something. You’re young. You’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand like those falls out there. Up above it . . . Did you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm and easy. If you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down, and it gets going fast. It hits some rocks, and in a moment, it’s in the lower rapids, and nothing in the world, including God himself, I suppose, can keep it from going over the edge. It just goes.”
Polly Cutler: “Don’t worry. I’m one of those logs that just hangs around in the calm.”

(This blog post contains spoilers about Niagara and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

From the outset, Niagara sounds like a typical film noir, but the use of color takes it out of the 1940s and updates it—and it’s all done successfully. The cinematography is beautiful. The use of light and shadow is done so well that I almost forgot I was watching a film noir in color instead of one in black and white. One notable exception is Rose Loomis and her red lipstick: She wears it to bed and in the shower! I’m not sure who made the decision to allow Rose to wear red lipstick in every scene, but I’m willing to overlook it because of all the other fantastic shots in the film. For example, Rose Loomis returns to her tourist cabin and looks out her window to the falls. She knows her boyfriend is tracking her husband, and she closes the blinds rather than face the truth, which leaves her alone and in shadow. During the sequence when George strangles Rose in the bell tower, viewers see shot after shot (eight total) of the bells, now still and silent. The sequence emphasizes that it takes some time to kill Rose, and it’s horrifying, even though her death actually happens off camera.

Many of the scenes in the bell tower reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958). I checked to see if the music and the cinematography were done by the same people, but they were not. George uses Rose’s favorite song, one that reminds her of her now-dead boyfriend, to taunt her, and that narrative device also reminded of Vertigo, when John “Scottie” Ferguson wonders if he isn’t going mad after Madeleine’s death.

Another great feature of Niagara is Marilyn Monroe in the role of Rose Loomis. Monroe could have made a career out of playing femme fatales. It’s too bad that the 1940s film noir style was going out of fashion in the 1950s because Monroe’s acting ability shines in Niagara. I have seen Don’t Bother to Knock, in which Monroe stars alongside Richard Widmark, once only. I’m really looking forward to it again after seeing Monroe in Niagara.

Rose Loomis is a femme fatale with emotional layers, and Monroe portrays Rose in all her complexity. From my limited reading about Monroe, I understand that she didn’t have much confidence in her acting ability, which is unfortunate because she gives an outstanding performance in Niagara. She can match Joseph Cotten in his role as her husband George. I have a new-found admiration for Monroe as a serious actress.