Monday, November 29, 2021

Noirvember 29: Zach Vasquez on Lynchian Noirs

Film noir and David Lynch go together like coffee and cigarettes (or coffee and donuts, if you prefer). The connection is obvious even to neophytes of both: the man’s films are soaked in the style, mood, and tropes of the genre, often so much so—as in the case of Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001)—that they can border on parodic, although ultimately, the terror and wonder at the heart of them are too strong to ever dip over into irony.

Like true-blue noir, Lynch’s films operate on the emotional logic of nightmares, although, unlike noir, they don’t necessarily adhere to a sense of fatalism, as that would follow too linear a narrative for his liking. 

Lynch himself has talked about his love of certain noir films—in particular, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), which along with The Wizard of Oz (1939) is probably the most notably influential Hollywood movie on his own work—but there are many examples, including films that predated his career as well as those that followed in his wake, that give off that ‘Lynchian’ feel.

Here are five such films:

Dementia, aka Daughter of Horror (1955)

This experimental, near-silent, black-and-white oddity from John Parker (his sole feature) mixes elements of German expressionism, classic film noir, Bunuel-esque surrealism, Freudian psychology and outright horror tropes to portray the troubled dream journey of a young woman haunted by sexual trauma. As our nameless heroine moves through a shadowy urban hellscape stalked by ghouls and guilt—it becomes more and more apparent as the film progresses that she has murdered a man—as what little grip on reality we and she had to begin with rapidly unspools.

As much a precursor to proto-American new wave cult classics like Night Tide (1961) and Carnival of Souls (1962) as it is to Lynch’s ‘women in trouble’ films (particularly 2006’s Inland Empire), those who haven’t seen this dark gem will likely find it a revelation. Be sure to see the film in its original form, and not the butchered version put out schlockmeister Jack H. Harris, which was retitled Daughter of Horror and had voice-over narration—from Ed McMahon of all people!—added to it. 

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

The only movie on this list that’s not a deep cut, and one of only two that I feel like Lynch had to have seen (the other being #3), Robert Aldrich’s iconic horror melodrama sees screen legends and bitter personal rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis playing sisters and former child stars living in a secluded old mansion. Confined to a wheelchair after a mysterious car accident that took place years earlier, Crawford’s Blanche Hudson wants out of the suffocating relationship, but Davis’s dangerously infantile Jane is dead set against letting her sister leave, as it threatens her deranged and hopeless plans for a comeback. 

Between the stark black and white cinematography, pitch-black comic grotesquerie, and dream-like musical sequences on display, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? seems as obvious an influence on Lynch’s first feature, the experimental Eraserhead (1977), as its mix of faded Hollywood glamour, sordid showbiz secrets and desperate battle of feminine attrition are on Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

Experiment in Terror (1962)

An opening title sequence punctuated by a landmark sign that reads: Twin Peaks. A terrifying sexual predator who has already  “killed twice” and promises to “kill again.” A string of murdered women and stalwart G-man hot on the case.

From that basic description, you’d assume I was describing Lynch’s seminal series, Twin Peaks, but in fact, I’m writing about the black-and-white Blake Edward’s thriller Experiment in Terror.

The year between his two most famous movies—1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and 1963’s The Pink Panther—Edwards helmed this moody, usettling noir (arguably a neo-noir), about an asthmatic criminal named—wait for it—Garland ‘Red’ Lynch (Ross Martin), who threatens a San Francisco* bank teller (Lee Remick) into helping him rob her place of work, all while Glenn Ford’s FBI agent tries to stop him.

It’s not only the aforementioned individual references that make it seem like David Lynch had to have seen this film at some point (although it’s also possible his Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost could have been the one influenced by it), there’s an air of sexually charged, at times hypnagogic dread overhanging Edward’s film that feels entirely of a piece with Lynch’s work, (particularly Blue Velvet [1986] and Lost Highway). Indeed, the character of Red Lynch has much in common with the villains of those films, a progenitor of Dennis Hopper’s psychosexual brute Frank Booth and Robert Blake’s seemingly omnipotent Mystery Man.

(Experiment in Terror also feels like a huge influence on Dirty Harry, what with its criminal/cop cat-and-mouse game plotting, San Francisco setting, and a major set price taking place inside a sports stadium.)

*The Twin Peaks sign at the beginning belongs to that city’s real-life neighborhood.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, Tough Guy’s Don’t Dance writer/director Norman Mailer admitted to being a little inspired by David Lynch’s film from the year prior, Blue Velvet. However, watching Tough Guys, you’d likely assume the entire thing was a conscious attempt to ape Lynch’s controversial, but acclaimed breakout hit: both star Isabella Rossellini as a not-quite femme fatale and the kept woman of a psychopath (in this case, the great Wings Hauser, whose turn at the beginning of the decade as killer pimp Ramrod in Vice Squad is probably the only psychosexual lunatic of that decade’s cinema more loathsome/fearsome that Frank Booth) and both are scored by Angelo Badalamenti. Yet, the publication of Mailer’s novel of Tough Guys Don’t Dance predates Blue Velvet by two years, so any credit owed to Lynch must be limited. 

Those earlier surface details certainly make Tough Guys the perfect pairing for a double feature with Blue Velvet, although make no mistake, it’s the second movie on that bill. An exercise in pure excess—emotional, stylistic, and especially performative (just see the film’s most infamous scene)—Tough Guys is perhaps the quintessential Canon Films-produced, auteurist-driven movie (other examples include Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and John CassavetesLove Streams): so singular and weird that it could only have come from Mailer, but sleazy and exploitative enough that it fits neatly into the Canon cannon.   

The Kill-Off (1990)

Released in only a handful of theaters the same year that Twin Peaks briefly took America by storm, Maggie Greenwald Mansfield’s loose adaptation of hard-boiled master Jim Thompson’s 1957 novel shares a number of similarities with Lynch’s series, including a murdered woman at its center (not, in this case, the beloved young prom queen, but rather the despised and aged town gossip), a roadside bar that works as a front for a drug-dealing operation, a working-class town filled with hidden affairs and secret rivalries, and a disturbing theme of incest and familial abuse.

There is also a heavy sheen of grimy surrealism that runs through the film (as well as Thompson’s work, although it’s less prevalent in this novel than others) that connects it to Lynch’s oeuvre (in particular, a bizarre dance sequence that would feel right at home in just about any of his films). 

If anything, Mansfield’s film feels more grimy than most of Lynch’s work, absent of any of the sublime beauty or quirky humor he layers throughout his art. Come to think of it, the town at the heart of The Kill-Off doesn’t resemble the original Twin Peaks, but rather the darker, meaner, more desperate version of it that we find in Twin Peaks: The Return.

Zach Vasquez
is a writer of film and literary criticism and fiction. His work has been published in The Guardian, Crime Reads, SF Public Press, Full Stop, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. He is from Los Angeles.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Noirvember Pods Part 3: Brokebrain Noir

This week on The Projection Booth podcast I joined Mike White and Bill Ackerman to discuss David Lynch's 1997 freakout noir Lost Highway, a movie I've been preparing to discuss for nearly 25 years. This is my 17th guest host appearance on The Projection Booth and a pattern of unreliable narrator/open to interpretation narratives has emerged as a theme in the films I've covered there. Those episodes are...

Lost Highway - One of my favorite movies ever, man. This meeting of minds between Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford is a runaway train to hell that takes you right back home to start over again. The plot is a gordian knot that never entirely unkinks. There's always a stubborn 'fact' or two that comes along to fuck up all your hard work, but don't let it drive you crazy. Groove on its trippy rhythms, marvel at its audacious confidence, just try to blush away its sexual confusion or avoid its consuming dread. Brokebrain noir don't get no gnarlier. Be sure to check out this episode for an interview with Barry Gifford!

Mulholland Drive - Before Lost Highway, I had the opportunity to discuss part 2 of David Lynch's Hollywood Trilogy (concluded? by Inland Empire) and it's such a fuckin beautiful piece of heartbreak I get why it seems to overshadow LH for most folks. While I personally prefer Lost Highway's jagged edges and harsh tone I'll confess that I never get too emotionally attached to any of the leads. Not so here. Naomi Watts' descent into hell hurts me bad. Laura Harring leaves me weepy. I love this movie too. I have ideas about it and you can hear me go on about them to Mike and Erik Marshal. The episode also features interviews with Laura Harring and Patrick Fischler.

Session 9 - Nothing about his earliest films could prepare you for Brad Anderson's hard left turn from romantic comedy indy darling to modern psychological horror master. This film about a buncha blue collar boys busting their butts to de-asbestos a broke down ol' looney bin begets bugs in the brains of all who brave its bedeviled borders and begs a billion returns. Can you catch insanity like a virus? Are we dealing with demonic possession? Is this a ghost story or a tale of ordinary homicidal madness? All the answers are questioned. Mike and I are joined on the episode by Axel Kohagen, plus there interviews with Anderson and co-writer/star Stephen Gevedon. (And look for me and Mike providing a commentary track for the UK special edition from Second Sight Films in December - available to pre-order now).

12 MonkeysTerry Gilliam's apocalyptic prophesy is more terrifying than ever in the never-ending reality of Covid-19, but just because the killer virus that wipes out civilization seems real to Bruce Willis don't necessarily make it so. On my most recent watches I was awfully impressed by the lengths Gilliam and screenwriter David Webb Peoples (inspired by Chris Marker's film La Jetéego to support multiple readings of the film (he's a time traveller! he's mentally divergent!). Considering Gilliam goes to this fantasy-relieves-reality theme again and again (Brazil, The Fisher King, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Tideland, Don Quixote) especially supports a reading of mental divergence, but hey, maybe you're happier thinking he's not crazy. But that means everybody's dead. Listen to me and Mike and Tony Black hash it out. The episode also features an interview with Dahlia Schweitzer, the author of Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World.

Total Recall - Paul Verhoeven's second ultraviolent hit Hollywood subversion is a candy-colored/coated/coded story about an average Joe who'd like to get the hell out of his life and see the red planet, but his virtual vacation don't go as he planned it...or did it? By the film's end we're not sure what to believe about our hero's journey. Who the hell is he? What even happened? Join me and Mike and Rob St. Mary for a conversation about a film that's all at once distinctly a Verhoeven joint, a perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle and an entirely recognizable Philip K. Dick premise. Quite a feat. The episode also features an interview with screenwriter Gary Goldman. Bit of a stretch to include it in a Noirvember post, but life's short, get limber.

Noirvember podcasts part 1

Noirvember podcasts part 2

Friday, November 26, 2021

Noir Friday

Black Coal, Thin Ice - Diao Yi’nan - Parts of a dismembered body are discovered inside a coal shipment and the investigation ends in a sudden, horrific bloodbath that leads Liao Fan's detective to retire. Five years into a new career as a half-assed private dick and full time drunk another killing with the same weirdly-specific M.O. has him looking into the murders with new ideas. The hoops this one jumps through plot-wise are maybe a twist too-far, but it's an effectively moody mystery with at least three memorable scenes. The aforementioned bloodbath is a wonderful set-piece that comes out of nowhere - a routine investigation scene jumps sideways - it's messy, brutal and shockingly funny, a character has his motorcycle stolen in another vignette of inverted expectations and the use of ice skates as a murder weapon is surprisingly effective. The filmmakers know their genre tropes and have fun playing with expectations all the way through while sticking to them faithfully, it's exactly the kind of measured, skillfully executed mystery film that I can enjoy without feeling like an asshole afterward.

Black Dahlia - Brian De Palma - This film was understandably a big disappointment for fans of the superior source novel by James Ellroy about two cops embroiled in a lot more muck than the murder of Elizabeth Short, but for fans of De Palma and stylish style and handsome style and stylized violence and set pieces I still think it's underrated. Your favorite De Palma shit is represented: voyeurism, leering cameras, secret sexual obsessions, doubles, handsomely lit staircases, bright splashes of blood, slo-motion tumble over a precipice... Look, but don't touch and don't be caught looking and don't always listen - it's a look party and you're a looker.

Black '47 - Lance Daly - In this fucking grim famine drama James Frecheville plays an Irish ranger returned home from fighting the empire's wars to find his kith and kin facing eviction on top of starvation - their homes systematically destroyed rather than shelter them as soon as they can no longer afford to pay live in them and the meager crops being shipped away to their land lords and sovereigns. An entirely legal all-out war on the poor is being waged and with approximately zero hesitation the former soldier turns his formidable murderous skills to the private sector turning his weaponry against the same oppressors that taught them to him and taught him it was his duty to use them for their purpose. Sent after the rogue ranger is Hugo Weaving's conflicted, disgraced and condemned detective who once fought alongside his quarry. Strains of First Blood, The Proposition and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid run through, the violence is up close and personal and the supporting cast is top notch to boot (Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene). 

Black Rain - Ridley Scott - Two American cops (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) burdened with the task of delivering an extradited Japanese prisoner home, promptly lose their charge upon arrival and take it personally and insist upon sticking around and making big, ugly American pains in the asses of themselves until they have the satisfaction that the baddy is visited by justice. Douglas as a cop really should be its own movie genre - always surly, always named Nick, or Vic or Rick, ridiculously coiffed and aftershave so strong you can smell it from the screen. Visually amazing, babe.

Black Sea - Kevin McDonald - A dirty dozen of out of work sailors put together a crew in a hurry to recover Nazi gold from the bottom of the ocean under the nose of various world governments. It's a dangerous, dirty job, but the recovery is the least of their problems - once recovered, can they survive each other? Great cast - Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Scoot McNairy and Michael Smiley and a crew of 'that guy' faces. Great premise. Great looking small-scale, large-scale adventure/thriller. I want more. 

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Noirvember Pods Part 2

Here's another round of Noirvember specific podcasts you can listen to me prattle on if that's your thing...

The Big Combo
- On this episode of The Projection Booth I join Mike White and Brian Hoyle to discuss Joseph H. Lewis' 1955 classic starring Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte and Jean Wallace. We get into the topics like the peculiarities of writer Philip Yordan, the noir majesty of John Alton's cinematography, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman's gay button men, Lewis' elegant long takes and the many wild stylistic touches that make it so memorable.

Elevator to the Gallows
- Louis Malle's directorial debut was the subject on my very first episode of The Projection Booth. Co-hosts Mike White and Rob St. Mary let me join in the conversation and the episode features interviews with Malle scholar Nathan Southern and Miles Davis expert Jack Chambers

Increment Vice
- I had a ton of fun talking with obsessive host Travis Woods on his long-form dissection of Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice starring Joaquin Phoenix as an ever-addled hippie detective out of time and place beset by a bevvy of baddies and embroiled in a byzantine conspiracy of sticky, icky spider-silk tendrils with broad implications and blunt machinations from batty billionaire philanthropists, a cabal of cocaine enthusiast dentists, new age white supremacists and the always encroaching fascist police state (personified by Josh Brolin's one for the ages performance as Bigfoot Bjornsson).

Ride the Pink Horse
- For this episode of The Projection Booth I jumped at the chance to talk about Robert Montgomery's treatment of Dorothy B. Hughes' novel about an opportunist out for... a shakedown? Revenge? General criminal misanthropy? (Something sinister regardless) in the New Mexican desert town of San Pablo (standing in for Santa Fe). To prepare I read Hughes' source material and also watched Don Siegel's adaptation (The Hanged Man), but I bow to guest Carol Borden's and interview subject Sarah Weinman's insights and Hughes expertise on this episode.

Watch With Jen
- On this episode of Jen Johans' expansive, wide-ranging film podcast I chose to chat about classic crime flick remakes from the 1990s. A favorite focal point for my film fixation, the 90s were full of oft overlooked mainstream giants and indie gems which I'll go to bat for and destroy all credibility long the way to champion against the wiser bet classics and status quo opinions of my betters. No, they're not all better, and no, they're not all good, but I'm here for the fuck-it-ness, shamelessness and audacity. We barely scratch the surface of the decade's remakes, but Jen and I discuss the originals from Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Siodomak and Henri-Georges Clouzot as well as their remixes by Steven Soderbergh, Walter Hill, Roger Donaldson, Andrew Davis and Jeremiah S. Chechik. It's a fucking lot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Noirvember: Pete Dragovich's French Excess Film Noir Festival

If you like your Noirvember to be a time of tight, twisty plots and snappy dialogue with maybe some shadows and trenchcoats thrown in, then this ain't your list, dear reader. This little marathon (you can knock it out in a night- I believe in you!) is all about grooving out, about being down with the vibe and going wherever each fucked up film wants to take you. It is my French Excess Film Noir Festival, a series of noir-ish films from, you know, France (okay so Corpses is Belgian but they strictly speak French in it- don't "well, actually" me) that are all recent, gnarly, stylish, and in their own distinctive ways completely fucking over-the-top.

Revenge (2017) written and directed by Coralie Fargeat

Fargeat's rape-revenge thriller starts with a gorgeous young woman going on vacation deep in the desert with her married rich dick boyfriend at his glass palace of a getaway. When two of his scummy buddies show up to go hunting, the rape part of the story happens. After she's killed by the boyfriend she then, um, self-resurrects herself (you read that right) and you have the glorious revenge shit. Everything in this film is at eleven: the relentless soundtrack, the sun-scorched and sweat-drenched cinematography, and the onscreen nudity and violence. If once you get to the dizzying climactic showdown, which features the very wounded and very naked rich dick running around his house getting all the blood on all the surfaces, and you're somehow not fucking totally blissing out from gnarly-overload? Well, then, I dunno. We have differing tastes in movies, I guess. It happens.

Stranger by the Lake (2013) written and directed by Alain Guiraudie

If you want far less blood and way more dude-wiener than in Revenge, might I offer you a seat next to a certain Stranger by the Lake? The film's about a guy who witnesses a murder at a gay cruising beach, but instead of going to the police our hero opts to keep coming back to the beach to have sex with the murderer. A lot. With its graphic gay sex, lack of a score, distancing shooting style, and dare-you-to-hit-fast-forward slow pace, Stranger by the Lake is a real fuck-you to most viewers and, well, that only makes me want to rewatch it more. If you can get on this film's very particular wave-length, you too will be tantalized and tortured by its many mysteries and shocked by its bewildering finale. And if you happen to be as entranced by it as myself, might I also recommend Guiraudie's less-heralded but even crazier Staying Vertical, which features a graphic anal sex/euthanasia scene.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017) directed by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, written by Cattet, Forzani and Jean-Pierre Bastid, from a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Much as I dig Guiraudie's work, I would much rather be buttfucked to death by a Cattet/Forzani movie (they call me the king of transitions). The giallo obsessives/leather fetishists behind the similarly excellent movies Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears bring their bugfuck talents to their adaptation of a novel by noir legend Jean-Patrick Manchette. This nearly dialogue-free gold brick of madness is about a heist crew laying low after violently stealing a bunch of gold who then get their world blown apart when two motorcycle cops track down their hideout. This thing is basically a ninety minute shootout with every single bullet accounted for, thanks to the film doubling back over and over again to see the same moment from different characters' perspectives. It's breathless, overwhelmingly pervy genius stuff, with the only moments you're able to slow down your overworked brain being a certain character's fantasies of a beautiful woman being covered in gold paint and pissing what looks like molten gold into the dirt.

Nocturama (2016) written and directed by Bertrand Bonello

Whether Corpses knocked your dick in the dirt or pissed you off (transitional peerlessness is as much curse as it is gift), maybe Bonello's Nocturama is more your (s)peed (okay, okay, I'll stop). We follow a bunch of kids as they commit a series of terror attacks on Paris then cool out in a department store after hours. As with Corpses, we get lots of doubling back to different viewpoints to see another side of certain events but the style is more fluid and dread-filled instead of frenetic and intense. After the initial rush of racing along with them as they blow shit up and shoot folks, we wait for the hammer to fall as they hang out and reveal their youth and innocence in their weird consumerist playground/Eden. Then the hyper-melodrama of the ending is such a feat of filmmaking that I'm not sure if I am getting chills from the sad fates of certain characters or just the jaw-dropping directorial brilliance on display. Thankfully, the movie is so fucking rad I know I'll happily give it another spin to try and figure out my feelings all over again in a year or two. Here's hoping at least one of these fucked-up French groove-outs I've presented makes your rewatch rotation as well, dear reader.

Pete Dragovich has written for Crimespree, Crime Factory and Spinetingler Magazines. He still has the Nerd of Noir blog but doesn't post shit up there anymore and a bunch of the links don't lead anywhere now so maybe just skip it. He's @nerdofnoir on twitter (which he kinda sucks at) and NERD_OF_NOIR on letterboxd (where his opinions are the correct ones). He lives in Minneapolis.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Noirvember: Adam Frost

The Fury of a Patient Man - Raul Arévalo - I stumbled across this gem on a flight which admittedly is not the ideal screening environment but damn she left a mark. Going off the title alone, my expectations were extremely low but the film delivered all the right noir punches. I’m a sucker for long takes and the opening kicks off with a tight one-two punch. Then the filmmakers ambitiously chop up the classic go-to structure, breaking the film into four sections that all build, as advertised, with a simmering measured intensity and a most satisfying finish.  

Tell No One
- Guillame Canet - I debated whether this film warranted the Noirvember nod but at the end of the day felt it housed enough core ingredients – A doctor receives a strange message claiming to be from his dead wife so he sets out to find the truth about her murder… Sits more on the thriller noir scale but it’s a ripper of a mystery that churns with engaging plot twists and the filmmakers manage to stick a tricky landing in the third act. 

One False Move - Carl Franklin - A classic from Team 90’s Noir, this imperfect gem boasts a wicked performance from Bill Paxton as an in-over-his-head small town Arkansas cop looking to head off some nasty criminals fleeing LA. The filmmakers do not shy away from some grizzly crimes in the opening but it feeds the story well, driving up the stakes as the big city demons inevitably roll into town. Complete with some perfectly dated and arguably borderline abrasive bluesy guitar riffs, stiff 90s detective acting and a wicked slimy young Billy Bob Thornton (who co-wrote the script) it’s a fun underrated ride. 

Elevator to the Gallows - Louis Malle - I love nothing more than stumbling upon a film that for whatever reason has managed to evade me over the years and Elevator is one of those gems. Shot in stylish black and white, the French film crackles with a classic noir set up: Florence and Julien are having an affair and Julien plans to kill her husband at his office. He breaks in after hours and stages the killing but gets stuck in the elevator of the building before he can escape. Meanwhile, Florence thinks her lover has abandoned the plan and given up on her. In classic noir style, the plan goes to hell and the players are left scrambling to pick up the pieces when the getaway car is stolen. It's Malle's first film and considered to be Jeanne Moreau's breakthrough performance. Shot on location in parts of the city, the verité of 50s Paris absolutely dazzles. Added to that the film boasts a jazzy score by Miles Davis said to be recorded all in one night. It's a wicked noir romp that begs to be included in Noirvember! 

Adam Frost is a screenwriter primarily known for Tribal and Castle. His debut crime novel, The Damned Lovely is set to be published in May 2022. He lives in east LA, and watches way too much baseball.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Noirvember: Kate Malmon's Firsts

Being this is the first time I’ve officially celebrated Noirvember, I decided to spotlight my Noir Firsts.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender - Matthew McBride - I first heard a portion of this book at my first ever Noir at the Bar at my first Bouchercon in 2011. (I think I may have met Jed for the first time at this event, but I was overwhelmed by everything so I’m not certain.) This book was also my first introduction to rural noir. Bad dudes, stolen money, drugs, and a sketchy ex-cop turned PI – what’s not to enjoy?

Queenpin - Megan Abbott - My first exposure to noir was the traditional novels and, let’s be honest, women were never portrayed in the best light. The one that ends with a naked woman being shoved off a roof while she’s engulfed in flames was not a favorite. Then I read Queenpin and found that women could be just as powerful and dastardly as the men. A former mob lady takes a young woman under her wing and shows her how to run with the guys and get the big money. These women are not shrinking violets by any means.

Fargo - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - I saw this movie for the first time in college and hated it. I was going to school in Minnesota and no one I met at school spoke like that. The Minnesota’s own Coen brothers show us that even if people are nice to your face, there’s a darkness hiding just under the surface or even in a tan Oldsmobile Sierra.

Double Indemnity - Billy Wilder - I’ve been fortunate to see this film multiple times on the big screen. For me, this is the purest example of what noir means to me: desperate people making bad decisions. Sometimes a woman just wants out of her marriage so badly that she’ll do anything to make this desire a reality, even if it means shoving her husband off the back of a moving train.

Stanwyck sure played MacMurray for a sap.

Kate Malmon has been a reviewer for Crimespree Magazine and the Anthony nominated Writer Types podcast. She and her husband Dan edited the Anthony nominated anthology, Killing Malmon, and the follow up anthology, Revenge of the Widow Malmon. All proceeds from both collections go to the Upper Midwest Multiple Sclerosis Society. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Noirvember: Jordan Harper's Splatter Noir

Violence lies at the heart of crime fiction. The draw of the genre comes in part from the way it externalizes the conflicts inside all of us, give our problems a face, a pulse, a neck you can reach out and squeeze. Rare is the crime movie without a hint of violence. Sometimes it is done through implication. Sometimes a few squibs (practical, please, CGI squibs are a sin) here and there will be enough. And sometimes a crime film’s violence will crest over the lip of the bucket and spill great gouts of blood all over the place. Splatter noir. These are films that borrow special effects from the goriest of slasher films, sometimes becoming horror films themselves. For my definition of splatter noir, I’m leaving out serial killer films, but I thought long and hard about the excellent I Saw the Devil before making that call.

Pusher III – I’m The Angel of Death - Nicholas Winding Refn


I’ve pushed the Pusher trilogy here before, but no list of splatter noir would be complete without I’m the Angel of Death. Zlatko Buric’s Milo, a minor character in the first two movies (and the English-language remake), takes the lead in this movie, as the aging middleman finds himself losing ground to younger dealers and new drugs. The film is a low-key character study for most of the film, until the last act, which is graphic in a way little experienced outside of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. That Refn presents that final act in almost documentary style is the perfect cap to his plain-eyed portrayal of the nastiness of the Dutch underworld.

Why Don’t You Just Die! - Kirill Sokolov


Taking place almost entirely in one room over the course of one increasingly gore-spattered day, Why Don’t You Just Die! is a twisty and surprisingly funny story about a young man who goes to visit his girlfriend’s parents with a hammer tucked behind his back. The twists and violence pile up quickly, and the walls gets painted red one incredible set piece at a time. The violence is both graphic and cartoonish, like if after Wile E Coyote got a boulder dropped on him, you saw his guts on the desert floor.

Graveyard of Honor
- Kenji Fukasaku / Graveyard of Honor Takashi Miike


There is noir that is a moral exploration of an amoral world, and then there is noir that blankly presents a nihilistic view of life. Both these movies are shining examples of the latter. In stark contrast to most gangster films, which draw in audiences by exploiting both the appeal and repulsiveness of their subjects, Graveyard of Honor shows the world of the Yakuza as glamourless and empty from the jump. Bad sex, bad drugs, sloppy violence and inevitable failure are the only rewards for the criminal life in this movie, and the protagonist is presented as the only type of person who would be attracted to such a life, a total sociopath.

There’s a perfectly valid (and very long) splatter noir list you could make using only films by Takashi Miike (as is currently being explored on the Agitator podcast). His remake of Graveyard of Honor stays truly to the utterly nihilistic portrayal of an empty soul set loose in the Yakuza wars, while upping the blood and nastiness.

Green Room - Jeremy Saulnier


As Predator is Friday the 13th with special forces soldiers instead of campers, Green Room is a zombie movie with Nazi shitheads standing in for the walking dead. The plot is an admirably simple engine of thrills: A plucky punk rock band accidentally ends up playing a white power club – they witness a horrific crime – they find themselves trapped in the titular green room as swarms of skinheads try to figure out how to smoke them out and chop them up. Punctuated with bursts of Saulnier’s trademark clinical violence, the movie uses gore not just to shock but to raise the stakes of what is already and incredibly high-tension film.

Jordan Harper is a TV writer and the Edgar-winning author of She Rides Shotgun. New books coming "soon": The Last King of California (UK - 2022),  Everybody Knows (US - 2023) His newsletter Welcome to the Hammer Party can be found here.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Noirvember: Jen Johans on 5 Fantastic French-Language Neo Noirs

When my good friend Jed Ayres asked me to contribute something for Noirvember, I was both immediately honored and immediately stumped. Not only had I submitted noir lists to Hardboiled Wonderland in the past but we have so many brilliant friends in common that I knew that most of my selections would turn up in their posts (and for very good reason, because they have impeccable taste). In starting to think about the films, directors, and stars that I most frequently recommend to others, however, I discovered one big pattern, which is that most of my favorite neo-noirs or noir adjacent titles of the past few decades are French-language films.

C'est la vie, c'est la noir. From Malle to Dassin to Truffaut to Melville and beyond, France is a country that knows how to chronicle superb crime sagas. Frequently producing the best Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell adaptations, in their storied history of filmmaking auteurs, they've produced some of the most stunning crime movies of the past several decades in works that have and continue to inspire directors from Paul Schrader to Michael Mann and beyond.

'60s and '70s France has been on my brain a lot over the past year because my friend Kate Gabrielle has been introducing me to Alain Delon deep cuts like Any Number Can Win, The Sicilian Clan and Borsalino. And in taking a cue from her in making sure I don't miss the films that have been largely forgotten, today I thought I'd serve up five titles I love from the past thirtyish years that – despite contemporaneous critical acclaim – haven't received the lingering attention they so richly deserve in the United States.

While two of the films are made by directors who were born in Germany and one – crafted by their country's Alfred Hitchcock aka Claude Chabrol – takes place in Switzerland, instead of his native France, all of these thrilling neo-noir and noir adjacent films have the French language in common. Also, none require a passport

Caché (2005)

Much like the anonymous videos left for Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette in David Lynch's Lost Highway, suspense starts similarly for Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil in writer-director Michael Haneke's masterpiece Caché as the two find an anonymous videotape in a plastic shopping bag left outside their Parisian home. Seemingly shot from a location roughly a half a block away and capturing not only the residential street view but all of their comings and goings, including Auteuil's, who walked right by the location of the camera without noticing it earlier in the day, everyone and everything in this film is suspect as soon as it starts.

Filled with long static takes, including the opening sequence (which reveals we're watching the tape that's been left), that scene is book-ended by another long static shot at a different location that might or might not unveil something shady about two characters we hadn't considered before. Centered on karma, class, and the sins of the past, this film is one that begs to be screened, discussed, and then screened and discussed again, as each time you press play, you'll see or hear something different than you did before.

From the very pointed films playing at a movie theater in a key alibi scene that Jed Ayres sleuthed out for a recent Pandemic Movie Club discussion – which all seem to have something to do with the plot of Caché – to my paying much closer attention to its décor, costumes, and production design (especially in the couple's home), this film rewards its viewer's intellect and curiosity mightily. Additionally, it continues Haneke's fascination with voyeurism in the electronic age and again questions both what it means to watch something unspeakable, and the effect that it has on the viewer who in his eyes is complicit. It's a through-line that goes from Benny's Video to Funny Games all the way up into some of his most recent work.

Definitely a film to be avoided if you need everything to be wrapped up in a neat little bow or dislike the way it traffics in ambiguity, particularly in that final sequence that might not offer as definitive of an answer as western audiences believe it does, Caché delves in as much uncertainty as Lynch's brilliant Lost Highway. However, I appreciate the way that this one interrogates its male character's past behavior more than Lynch is interested in exploring in his modern work of horror. While this film, I hope, will make you more curious about Haneke's filmography (be sure to seek out The White Ribbon), there's something to be said for playing Caché and Lost Highway together as the ultimate double feature of middle class surveillance paranoia.

Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000)

As a total Francophile who grew up seeking out as many French films as I could possibly find, I know I'd seen Isabelle Huppert many times before I saw this one play at the Scottsdale International Film Festival. However, this was the movie that made me instantly realize that I needed to make a conscious effort to see as many of her films as I possibly could (including Haneke's frightening The Piano Teacher, which monopolized the post-film discussion at the screening I attended).

Based upon the novel The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong and released overseas as Nightcap, (and indeed, both of those titles are infinitely preferable to the clunky sentence that Claude Chabrol's film got saddled with here in the states), regardless of its name, Merci Pour le Chocolat, is a frightfully good throwback to Chabrol's early New Wave noirs. (Side Note: And although Truffaut and Godard get all the glory, it was actually Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge that historically kicked off my favorite filmmaking movement, even if Chabrol was fiscally unable to jump headfirst into crime until his sophomore effort Les Cousins.)

Constructed with some of my favorite thriller tropes, Merci Pour le Chocolat features amateur sleuths and Huppert as an immediately suspicious Swiss chocolate heiress/femme fatale who might just be killing people with kindness or roofie laced chocolate. From its earliest scene, Chabrol throws us immediately off-balance by introducing us to Huppert on her wedding day to the famous pianist she'd been married to decades before. Leaving it up to the audience to quickly piece together that this is a remarriage (and in between weddings A and B, there had been another wife who'd tragically died), Chabrol then jumps to a different gathering altogether where a quartet of seemingly unrelated characters meet up for a meal.

Seeing the wedding announcement in the paper, one brings up their connection to this couple in the form of a baby girl born at the same hospital on the same day as the pianist's son and the potential mix-up that might've taken place roughly twenty years earlier. Studying to be a pianist as well, upon discovering the link between the two families, the young woman (Anna Mouglalis) decides to contact the newly remarried couple and finds herself in the middle of more than one mystery that just might cost her her life.

Of course, Huppert's potential involvement in at least one death doesn't exactly come as a surprise to veteran French film fans because she intimidatingly acts everyone else off the screen, like she always does. And in reuniting with a director who knows how to use her to her fullest potential, Chabrol seems to be taking a similarly spectator's level of delight in just letting her unsettle whoever's unlucky enough to share a scene with her. Still, impressively matching her intensity, Mouglalis is quite good in Merci and it's still a great little out-of-print thriller that you should definitely track down on used DVD that fans of both actresses (as well as Chabrol) are sure to enjoy.

Monsieur Hire (1989)

In writer-director Patrice Leconte's brilliant first drama, reclusive tailor Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc) is a peeping Tom. But as this richly hypnotic yet stomach-churningly apprehensive film continues, we discover that he is far from the only voyeur populating Leconte's frames as Hire is hounded by an obsessive police detective, and suspicious neighbors who gawk, sneer, and recoil because they suspect him of a young woman's brutal slaying. And indeed, they're right to worry. There is most definitely something off about Monsieur Hire as soon as we meet him but what is it and who's to blame?

Based upon Belgian author George Simenon's novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, which was first brought to life in the 1947 film Panique by Julien Duvivier, after seeing the original film on TV, Patrice Lecone's imagination was sparked by something he couldn't let go of until he decided to act. Yet rather than remake the French classic (which you can often find on The Criterion Channel), he decided to go back to Simenon's source material and start from there and the result is an unexpectedly erotic, undeniably peculiar film that paved the way for his work that followed.

Centered on a lonely outcast, in Leconte's film, Blanc's eponymous Hire grows bolder thanks to his love for Sandrine Bonnaire's Alice, whom he watches obsessively every night (and who gets turned on by his prying eyes herself, in a surprising turn of events). But although it's Alice who serves as the muse that makes Hire venture out into the world as her bold lustful ways give him confidence, this same set-up of two strangers – out of step with society – who find the right rhythm in one another can be found in countless other superlative Leconte films, including The Girl on the Bridge, Man on a Train and Intimate Strangers.

An official selection at Cannes that introduced Leconte to the world and went on to be listed as one of Ebert's Great Movies, although it's woefully out-of-print, for Leconte devotees eager to see his first foray into his favorite subjects of erotic desire and human connection, Monsieur Hire is well worth locating as I did, on used DVD and/or on Kanopy, where it's currently available to stream.

Tell No One (2006)

In my eyes, if you use a song by Jeff Buckley or U2 in your movie, you damn well better earn it, and that actor turned director Guillaume Canet most certainly does in the frenetic, fast-paced, twisty neo-noir thriller Tell No One based on the titular novel from Harlan Coben. At the start of the film, we're introduced to a deliriously happy married couple – formerly child sweethearts – whose relationship is cruelly upended in the worst way possible by the appalling murder of his wife by a serial killer, which leaves pediatrician Dr. Beck (François Cluzet) knocked out, left for dead, and slightly suspicious in the eyes of the law. Following this shockingly dramatic set-up, Canet's film jumps ahead eight years in time.

On the eve of the anniversary of the death, Beck receives an anonymous email link to what appears to be CCTV surveillance footage of his wife looking very much alive and well. With new evidence to the original crime cropping up that might implicate Beck as well, soon the Parisian doctor finds himself evading law enforcement as he works to unravel the mystery. Along the way, he learns that the people he thought he knew better than himself (including his wife who may or may not be alive) might have deep dark secrets that are threatening to come to light.

Increasingly convoluted, sometimes to the point where you might just need to rewind a scene ortwo to try to figure out exactly what's going on, this film starts out slowly and methodically, as we watch Cluzet's doctor go about his day but then, just like a roller-coaster creakily making its way to the top of that first steep hill, without warning, the film's action takes hold and doesn't let go for the rest of its riveting 131 minute running time.

From an unfathomably scary female villain who can inflict harrowing pain just by applying pressure to the wrong places at the right time to a breathlessly photographed multi-location foot-chase, it's a nerve-jangling, yet surprisingly tenderly moving, romantic thriller that sneaks up on you with its well-earned, devastating finale. Featuring terrific supporting performances, includingone by Kristen Scott Thomas who's done some of her career best work of the 2000s in the French language, Tell No One is a must-see. Additionally, it marks one of only a few times in film where the hook of U2's “With or Without You" and Jeff Buckley's “Lilac Wine” are not only completely effective but also completely earned.

With a Friend Like Harry (2000)

If you fell in love with writing at a young age, you undoubtedly reached that moment where you had to decide whether or not you wanted to share your work as well as whether or not you wanted to stop or continue on. If you were comfortable letting other people read your writing, you might've had that friend or teacher who believed in you, or perhaps that newspaper, class chapbook, or literary magazine where you first saw your words in print. But just like most teens in garage bands dreaming of becoming the next Kurt Cobain eventually set down the guitar and focus on other things after high school and/or college when they join the work force or start a family, so do a majority of young writers. And this includes the protagonist of the unspeakably eerie film from director Dominik Moll With a Friend Like Harry, in the form of Michel (Laurent Lucas) who last saw his poetry in print in a school literary magazine back when he was younger and felt like he had his whole life ahead of him.

Currently in his thirties and on a headache inducing road trip with his wife and two daughters, Michel is unnerved by a stranger staring at him in a rest stop bathroom who, as it turns out, is not a stranger at all but an old classmate named Harry (Sergi López).  Asking him almost right off the bat about his writing, we soon realize that Harry is not just a former acquaintance but also a serious fan whose keen interest in what he considers Michel's artistic genius grows increasingly obsessive over the course of the film as the two men reconnect. Going even further, soon Harry takes it upon himself to solve each and every problem that he perceives are impediments to Michel's future literary success.

A shockingly comic, extraordinarily nerve-wracking macabre affair, With a Friend Like Harry, which was released overseas as Harry, He's Here to Help, feels perhaps the most truly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre than any of the films I'm recommending in this list. In Harry's potentially homoerotic charged affection for Michel, despite his voracious sexual appetite with his sweet if slightly naive girlfriend, you can see flashes of Strangers on a Train, Rope and more, which is all evident in López's extraordinary César award-winning performance.

Such a critical hit for that time that it's been long said to be on the cusp of an American remake that hasn't happened as of yet (though Joel Edgerton's The Gift feels like it could be this film's second cousin), Harry is sure to be particularly haunting to viewers who had those former literary pursuits that Michel did when they were young. But, more than that, it's bound to unsettle viewers of all backgrounds into maybe thinking twice about hanging out with someone they come across by chance that they haven't seen or thought about in years. After all, friends are one thing but friends like Harry are something else entirely.

A three-time national award-winning writer, when Jen Johans isn't reviewing movies at or releasing new episodes of her podcast Watch With Jen, you can find her on Twitter @FilmIntuition.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Noirvember: Brian Lindenmuth - Around the World in 5 Noirs

During the pandemic Year One, I started a blog dedicated to foreign language films called One Inch Tall Movies. Now that I'm working back in the office I don't update it nearly enough. But I do plan on doing better. So check it out if you'd like.

When Jed messaged me I had three ideas: 5 Hidden Japanese Crime Gems; 5 Indian Crime Flicks to Get You Started, and this one, Around the World in 5 Noirs. If you want to bullshit about movies, books, or whatever, hit me up somewhere.

First stop - France

Touchez Pas au Grisbi - currently streaming on Kanopy

As far as French noirs go, Touchez Pas au Grisbi isn't exactly unknown. But I still believe it to be under recognized and I recently re-watched it and so wanted a chance to write about it because I fucking love it. To be reductive, Noir was created in the U.S. but it was the French that recognized its value. To put it simply, French noirs are worth checking out if you haven't watched any and are worth digging deeper if you have. Touchez Pas au Grisbi is one of the OG French noirs and arguably the most influential. It went on to influence Jean-Pierre Melville. There's also a sincerity present that wouldn't be present in Godard's work. Where Godard was aping/channeling/riffng on American hardboiled tropes and Humphrey Bogart, the protagonist in Touchez Pas au Grisbi is more authentically his true self.

Enough navel gazing, lets get to the movie proper. After a successful job everyone is waiting for things to cool down before cashing out. But word of the job gets out to a rival gang and Max, our lead character, has to use all of his charm, wits, muscle, and skill to retaliate and try to save the neck of his long time partner who kicked this whole mess off by whispering sweet nothings into the wrong woman's ear. 

Touchez Pas au Grisbi is very elliptical in its approach. These characters live their lives and interact casually all the while important info rises to the surface for the viewer in due time. People who regularly interact shouldn't merely be plot delivery mechanisms. Here they aren't. In some respects this feels like a precursor to something like The Friends of Eddie Coyle or the works of Elmore Leonard where a similar elliptical casual approach is used.

Speaking of precursors, Touchez Pas au Grisbi is also reminiscent of Heat. Both movies feature older men who have made it this far and are starting to set their sights on other things. Can they pivot out of the life? Do they want to? But here's the thing, just because these lions are graying, doesn't mean they aren't capable.

Second stop - Japan

The World of Kanako - currently streaming on Tubi

In his earlier movie, Confessions, director Tetsuya Nakashima crafted a labyrinthine revenge plot involving a teacher whose daughter was killed and her students. Confessions is a touch too convoluted at times but two things are readily apparent. First, Nakashima doesn't shy away from taking his narrative and characters to some pretty dark places. Second, he's honest about the ability of children and teens to do some really dark shit. Fast forward a couple of years to The World of Kanako and you get some sort of demented, full dark, basement noir crazy, journey to hell shit. 

When the angelic Kanako, a great student who has lots of friends and is really smart, goes missing her estranged father, a nasty and mean, violent, ex-cop is enlisted by his ex-wife to find her. What he finds instead will shock even him. 

In a lot of noir stories the protagonist steps off the path of his regular life and that errant step leads to his downfall. Here, the protagonist is already well off the path of his old life. This is not a good guy. Which makes him kind of perfect to retrieve his daughter from the underworld she has been pulled into. The "downfall" here is unexpected though because it turns out that she is her father's daughter and she is the underworld. 

Quite by accident, I've watched three Kôji Yakusho movies this year (The World of Kanako, Kamikaze Taxi, The Blood of Wolves) and he's becoming a favorite actor of mine. This one won't be for everyone but will hit right for some. You know who you are.

Third stop - Italy

Confessions of a Police Captain - currently streaming on Tubi

I bought one of those DVDs that has a bunch of low budget, straight to video/VOD, type movies. One of them was the old poliziotteschi movie Confessions of a Police Captain with Franco Nero and Martin Balsam. By poliziotteschi standards Confessions of a Police Captain is pretty tame. It's really closer to standard (in a good way) 70's crime flick.

Martin Balsam's career in the U.S. was waning some when the offer was made for him to fly to Italy to make Confessions of a Police Captain. Just like for so many other actors, it turned out to be a fortuitous move that breathed new life into his career. Balsam plays the police Captain. In the opening moments it is quickly established that he doesn't mind playing outside the law to keep law and order in his city. Nero plays the District Attorney who has a strong sense of justice, fairness, and believes in the law. These two characters will have some wonderful interactions with each other that touch on real estate, crime, class, and politics. If you like gritty 70's crime flicks with something to say you owe it to yourself to give this one a shot.

Fourth stop - India

Paatal Lok - currently streaming on Prime

I've been watching a lot of Indian films since the start of the pandemic. My initial pitch to Jed was something like "5 Indian Crime Flicks to Get You Started". The fluctuating nature of streaming availability steered me in a different topic direction. I still plan on writing that piece so look out for it when I do. (Glimpse into the future: some Indian crime titles to consider and track down, from psychological thrillers to gangsters, to pulpy crime/action to Elmore Leonard blends of crime and comedy: Ishq, Vada Chennai, The Gangs of Wasseypur, Freedom at Midnight, Aaranya Kaandam, Nayattu, Malik, Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, and Soodhu Kavvum. Again, more on those later or hit me up somewhere and we can talk about them.) Instead, for today, I want to point you in the direction of an easily available noirboiled TVshow called Paatal Lok. 

Paatal Lok follows the classic hardboiled template of opening with a seemingly simple crime that isn't as it initially appears. The investigation of that crime will lead to all levels of society and people who will want to hinder the investigation to prevent those levels of corruption from being exposed. Our protagonist is a middle aged cop who wants to advance higher in the ranks and out of the backwater precinct he seems to be stuck in. When the opening crime takes place,he seems like the perfect patsy to take the lead. But his ambition and desire to do the right thing and dogged determination will lead to trouble.

As I said this is a classic hardboiled tale so you'll see, for example, shades of James Ellroy and other writers and movies.

Final stop - Korea 

Memories of Murder - currently streaming on Hulu

It was great seeing all of the acclaim that Bong Joon-ho received for Parasite, a truly great film totally deserving of all the praise it received. Parasite, however, is not his first masterpiece. His second movie, Memories of Murder, is. 

Most people hadn't seen Memories of Murder before Parasite's big award wins. It sat on Youtube as a legal upload for a long time with a pretty low view count. When Bong Joon-ho's movies were picked up by Hulu, Memories was briefly available before getting pulled for the rest of 2020 in preparation of the Criterion release. So even with pandemic time on their hands, viewers seeking to watch the rest of his films still had very limited access, if any at all to Memories. Now, with the Criterion release finished, Memories is back on Hulu. Go fucking watch it.

Sometimes in noir we talk about an impending sense of doom. That doom isn't really present here. But by the third act there is this growing sense that this isn't your typical procedural. There will be no neat and tidy resolution, only ambiguity. And that ending? Wow. Those final moments are daring and haunting. Especially in the context of the real life case the movie was based on. Memories of Murder is a must watch.

Brian Lindenmuth is a reviewer for SciFi & Scary/Leviathan Libraries. He is currently in the research stage of a non-fiction book about foreign language movies. You can find him on social media or at One Inch Tall Movies