Appetite for Destruction: So Many Doors by Oakley Hall

So Many Doors by Oakley Hall

“Do you love her?” Gene whispered.
“No,” Jack said. “No, I guess I hate her.”

I’m fascinated by destruction. Enthralled. I crane my neck as I pass the smoking ruin of a car on the highway; I peer past the flashing lights hoping to glimpse the nucleus of the disaster. What happened? Give me the gruesome details. Don’t sugarcoat it. Most are like me. Whipping around the periphery we’re held in orbit by forces we can’t explain. How can we not know? When the knowledge of a tragedy migrates from the recesses of our mind, rolls rough past the lump in our throat, and punctures the flowing curtains of our heart, the tears well unbidden and remind us of our humanity, our fragility. Tragedy in others stirs gratitude in ourselves. We’re grateful we weren’t chosen…this time.

So Many Doors by Oakley Hall is a tragedy. The accompanying catharsis of the novel is a welcome guest, like greeting a friend after a long bout of loneliness. For me, it was less a work of noir crime fiction than it was a romance novel, minus all the beauty and eroticism; an ode to human suffering on behalf of love, lust, & ego. Life & death permeate the pages. The touchstone of a great novel is its ability to convey something true of the human experience, and Mr. Hall’s work meets the criterion.

Is all noir tragic in nature? I’ve oft written of the inevitability of the noir plot: the way the protagonist careens toward painful endings as if drawn by pitiless gravity. So frequently is the hero punished we cease blaming fortune and instead call it fate. “He was meant to suffer.” (Perhaps it’s easier to explain our own daily suffering by assigning it meaning?)

Oakley Hall, Author of So Many Doors

Oakley Hall

The novel revolves around two lovers, Jack & V. They’re no good for each other.

“He’s got that something women like,” she said. “Those eyes and those big shoulders and those little-bitty hips, and when he looks at you sometimes you know you ought to slap him but you don’t really want to.”

The Anti-Hero

Jack is a beautiful man-piece. A hard-working, good looking, road working man known as a “cat-skinner” – he has everything going for him. His confidence is astounding. Other men simultaneously admire him and hate him. He’s a ladykiller. The only problem is, he’s killed the wrong lady. He first meets V while removing stumps on her daddy’s farm one summer. She’s a teenager. She’s naive. She’s easily won. What could have been, and should have been, a beautiful relationship is cheapened by his selfish behavior and lack of commitment. He uses her. He takes her virginity, gets her kicked out of her home, and eventually dumps her. Only, she won’t leave him alone, not after she discovers that she has all the tools to win him back and the wherewithal to use them.

As she passed him he saw her face. It shocked him. It was as though it had been, for a moment, agonizingly contorted into the shape of everything inside her. But there was no grief there now, no fear; there were only the hard, cold angular lines of complete determination. It was as though every quality but this had been suddenly wrenched out of her; as though all there was left was an iron and single-minded resolution. Revenge, he thought, and with the glimpse of her face, the thought frightened him; but then he knew it was not revenge. Knowing what it was he felt tired and wrung, and all at once the feeling welled up in him that he had to get away from this. He was going to get away from this.

The Femme Fatale

V is a dime. A vivacious cowgirl budding into glorious womanhood. She’s curious, rambunctious, and loyal to a fault. She falls hard for Jack, and almost loses herself in the falling. But at rock-bottom, she’s greeted by an epiphany: Jealousy can be a weapon as real as any blade, a bond as real as any rope. V becomes a peddler of jealousy. Half-desperate, half-crazy, Jack loses himself in her pursuit only to find that the lovely rose of their love is now only a stem of thorns. Only one conclusion is possible, and it’s punctuated by a gunshot.

She’d had the tools. He’d told her she had the tools, if she only knew how to use them. He said, half to himself, “I didn’t know you’d learn to use them this well…You didn’t know when to quit hitting him.”

Oakley Hall is a magnificent author. So Many Doors is a wonderful book. Read it.

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Noir as Religion: Steranko’s Chandler

Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko

my lil’ copy, published 1976

An Illustrated Novel: CHANDLER… a tough, new detective in a new kind of mystery thriller that explodes with the fury of a lightning bolt!

When Chandler by Jim Steranko was published in 1976, it was cresting the neo-noir wave in which many of the great artists & storytellers of the decade were paying homage to the hard-boiled past. Released just 2 years after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, even the title (and protagonist’s namesake) is a wink at one of the “big three” noir crime fiction authors, the Holy Trinity of noir to which we offer humble obeisance: The Dashiell Hammett, the James Cain, and the Holy Raymond Chandler.

The book is a sermon. Steranko pounds the pulpit with all the good stuff we’d expect from the gutter genre we’ve come to worship. How’s this for a hook: A dead man named Bramson Todd comes to Chandler looking for revenge. He’s been poisoned and doctors have given him 72 hours to live – 3 days for Chandler to find whodunnit. Chandler’s plot doesn’t disappoint. The hook is a promise that’s delivered like a haymaker; it’s a head-spinning, ears ringing, nose breaking race from one revelation to another.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 1

“I’ve got 72 hours to live, Mr. Chandler. I want you to find my murderer.”

Steranko certainly flexes his storytelling muscles, but it’s his art that makes you stop and stare. 2 vertical panels per page, with all the quality of an ad you’d see on an easel at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. These images have a limited color palette & limited space, but there is nothing limiting about their impact. Sexy silhouettes, mean mugs, fisticuffs, wet city streets, & deadly docks are framed with a director’s eye. Steranko is a master stained glass artisan in the Cathedral of the Night.

The Femme Fatale

Our goddess, Ann Crane, is worthy of our devotion. She’s full of lies we want to believe, and she’s got her hooks so deep into Chandler that he believes every one of them. Her shadow looms large over his past and sends us all spinning into the darkest abyss of his pain (the pain of what could have been). I want to tell you that in the end, she doesn’t win. I want to tell you that, but I can’t. She’s femme fatale incarnate; a truly deadly woman.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 2

“Stay out of it Ann,” I said. “Promise me. There’s a red tide coming that’ll drown all of us.”

The Anti-Hero

Chandler is the priest of these cold streets. He’s intimate with the prayers of the hard-boiled and more than familiar with the scars of the flagellants. His god insists he work alone; outside of the system, apart from the herd – a shepherd of the sinful hiding their sins. “I’m not a hired gun.” He tells a client, “I don’t like to be shot at.” But his profession often makes him a target anyway, because he gets paid for doing “what other men couldn’t do— or wouldn’t do.”

My Advice: Get you some religion. Read Chandler.

Chandler Red Tide by Jim Steranko 3

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The Fragile White Man in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” by Horace McCoy

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy

“What’s the matter with you?” he said suddenly. “What are you shaking about.”
“Shaking?” I was. I hadn’t been aware of it, but I was. I was shaking all over.

My relationship with the noir crime fiction novel Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy is complicated. In brief, I’ve started it 3 times over the last decade. I just couldn’t seem to get through it. What does that mean? …I dunno, but it ain’t good. Not that the story isn’t worthy, it just never wounded me deeply enough to keep my focus. (You know those books that mess you up some, and you have to see them through in order to heal? Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye wasn’t that kinda book for me).

I’m exhausted even thinking about tapping out a synopsis for this one so I’ll leave it at this: It begins a bit like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and ends a bit like The Great Gatsby. BUT, it’s not as funny as “O Brother” and lacks the finesse of Gatsby. Don’t let that scare you away; it’s still got all the tough guy pulpy bits in between.

Horace McCoy

The fragile, fearful, furious white male anti-hero in the novel is Ralph Cotter. He’s a lot of things. Here are some of my favorites:

Ralph Cotter is a Racist

“Tell him to get out, goddamn it, tell him to get out,” I said. The black boy stood there, tensed like a goddamn tiger, his eyes riveted on Mandon now, just waiting for the signal to spring. I was scared of him. I knew goddamn well that I could bring him down with a bullet, I knew what a bullet could do when it hit you in the middle of the stomach, but I was still scared of him. “Tell him to get out,” I said again.

…the Negro had disappeared. I felt better with him out of sight.”

Hmmm… racist. In a different passage, he speaks to this man’s “master” and coaches him on how he should train the “boy.”

Ralph Cotter is a Homophobe

Hurry up, you son-of-a-bitch, I was thinking, but I confess that I felt some admiration for his poise. He seemed entirely unaware that another man was standing beside him. How any man can go into a lavatory and be unaware of other men, impervious to them, fully at ease, untortured, I do not understand, but this one was.

Afraid of men in the men’s bathroom? What does he expect to happen? Later in the novel, he has to chase down a contact in a gay bar. Here’s a gem from section:

I made a sudden and extraordinary discovery. The noxiousness and disgust I had felt a few moments earlier were gone, my own strength and virility, of which I was so proud when I entered, with which I could prove our difference, now served only to emphasize our sameness. We all had a touch of twilight in our souls; in every man there are homosexual tendencies, this is immutable, there is no variant, the only variant is the depth of the latency, but in me these tendencies were not being stirred, even faintly, they were there, but this was not stirring them. No.

Who are you trying to convince, Ralph? Yikes! Be comfortable in your own skin for once in your life!

Ralph Cotter is a Misogynist

I could not hope that I had aroused in her what she had aroused in me, I could not hope that she was even interested… I resolved then that before I got through with her she’d be interested…

Ralph has just met this woman, and he finds her irresistibly attractive. The problem is she doesn’t reciprocate. He finds this unacceptable (yuck).

I knew why she was belligerent; nobody had given her a tumble. She had put the rises and falls of her body on exhibit and nobody had paid the slightest attention… That is why she was belligerent.

Of course. She’s got an attitude so that means she must be craving sexual attention. Riiiiiggggghhhhhttttt… More of the same:

She was thinking of the first time she’d seen him, when she’d put her body on display for him in that pleasant predatory way that women have, and he had disregarded it, showing no interest in the rises and falls and curves of her body… This was what had burned her up…

Ralph Cotter is a Narcissist

“I came into crime through choice and not through environment. I didn’t grow up in the slums with a drunk for a father and a whore for a mother and come into crime that way. I hate society too, but I don’t hate it because it mistreated me and warped my soul. Every other criminal I know – who’s engaged in violent crime – is a two-bit coward who blames his career on society. I need no apologist or crusader to finally hold my lifeless body up to the world and shout for them to come and observe what they have wrought… Use me not as a preachment in your literature or your movies. This I have wrought, I and I alone.”

I absolutely LOVE that he anticipates that his career will make him SO famous that literature and movies will be created about him. ‘What a piece of work’ I think as I complete an article ALL about him…

Ralph Cotter is Afraid

I couldn’t turn it off, I did not want to remember it, I had been a lifetime learning to forget, but I could not turn it off.

Goddamn that radio, I wasn’t listening for anything in particular, I just turned it on to kill time, and this was what I had heard. And this was what it had dug up. Get out of my mind, you ghosts, I told them, I’ll remember you later…

Afraid of the past, afraid of women & minorities, afraid of marriage, & so so much more.

The book was published in 1948, but the character is terribly recognizable in 2018. Fragile, fearful, furious white men are everywhere. Are we witnessing the death spasm of this deeply embedded, American mindset? Or the rebirth of the same old stuff?

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Songs of Goodbye; Review of “My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies” by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Mannequin gaze from a femme fatale

Notice her tiger stripes of shadow? She’s deadly.

The newest window into the world of “Criminal” is fogged with sorrow & deception. Ellie (a.k.a. Angela) standing on a lonely beach serves as bookends to this noir comic. Her mannequin gaze invites us into the book and betrays the ice that must flow in her veins; she’s our femme fatale, a predator. The choice of setting is deliberate. The shoreline is a symbol of stark contrast – an area where the colors don’t mix and where there’s more below than there is above. What’s lurking in those depths? What lies beyond that horizon? This place is where Ellie contemplates the memory of her dead mother and a life she never knew. A life of love.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies pg. 3

page 3

The story appears simple in the beginning: Two addicts (Ellie & Skip) stuck in rehab & falling in love. We want to believe it’s that simple. It makes sense to us. But it isn’t simple, and it’s clear from early pages that there’s only one way this will end. You see, Ed Brubaker gives us an untrustworthy narrator – what’s more, he tells us she can’t be trusted within the first few pages: “All junkies are liars on some level” she says. This conceit is exceptionally noir. It creates a level of discomfort that most readers aren’t okay with. We like our narrators to be honest with us. It’s easier that way.

“I don’t like pretending to be something that I’m not.” (she says as she pretends to be something she’s not for the rest of the book)

Barring a whole synopsis, sufficeth to say that Ellie’s goal is to seduce Skip and convince him to give up his father’s location (who’s been hiding in witness protection). She has powerful motives for doing so (a blood debt to settle), and when pleasure fails to win Skip’s trust, she has no choice but to turn him over to pain. She hates herself but it’s difficult for the reader to hate her. We actually admire her for the ‘honor among thieves’ aspect of her sacrifice. Ellie owed a debt and she paid it in full. (The inevitability & deception is beautifully tragic. Textbook noir crime fiction).

A central theme of the novella is how Ellie romanticizes drug abuse. She frequently turns to the works of fantastic musicians and artists and points out how influential drugs were in the development of their most impactful contributions. She argues that drugs weren’t only helpful, but essential to some of the greatest works of art known to mankind.

“What if drugs help you find that thing that makes you special?”

Her own mother was a heroin addict, and Ellie had problematic proximity to the practice of abuse during her formative years. Ellie saw drugs as deifying – a means of escape & transformation. She said that her mother floated like a beautiful bird when she dosed.

My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies pg. 15

page 15

Music also permeates the story. Ellie speaks of a mixtape she found after her mother’s death. It was a cassette made for her father; songs of love & longing from parents she never quite knew. The tracks are all written by addicts, and ooze with sorrow, conflict, desire, & hope. For her, music is a time machine. Each song another injection of sweet nostalgia (isn’t music like that for most of us?) (Here’s a link to a playlist featuring the songs mentioned in the book)

“I was much further out than you thought, and not waving but drowning.”

A few years back my parents divorced. Their song was “Babe” by The Styx. It didn’t strike me until now that theirs was a song of goodbye. How could their relationship have ended any different? I wonder which of them chose it? Or if they ever contemplated the real meaning of the song? “My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies” is full of songs of goodbye. Goodbye truth, goodbye innocence, goodbye love.

Postscript – A note on the quality of this graphic novel:

I’m struck by the thickness of the no-gloss pages and the overall quality of the work as a whole. Sean Phillips is as good as I’ve ever seen him – perhaps cleaner in his line work than I’ve noticed in his other Criminal novels. The coloring style is a bit different but after an additional read through I felt that it works. It’s pastel in many areas and there are lots of page breaks where white space is left to breathe. This gives the appearance color splashes & and a highlighter effect. I wonder how conscious the creators were of this choice? It actually adds to the sense of incompleteness which comes through the narrative poignantly through Ellie. Ed Brubaker’s script is intentional and well-paced – in some areas reminiscent of Frank Herbert: where a character is thinking one thing, saying another thing, and acting out something entirely different. These multilayered moments can be difficult to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the style, but I feel that Brubaker executes this wonderfully (and the comic format is perfectly suited for the task).

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“Quarry” by Max Allan Collins Review

Quarry by Max Allan Collins

Quarry by Max Allan Collins

(Tip for newbies: The book is never as risqué as the cover suggests, but they know what sells)

Here we are again Quarry, I’m giving you the second chance that should have been your first chance. Huh? So the last Quarry novel I read by Max Allan Collins was NOT my favorite (I didn’t care for it).  To be fair, it probably wasn’t the best place to start with Quarry, so here I am at the beginning. This reprinting was originally titled “The Broker” and was released in 1976 as the first glimpse of Mr. Collins recurring hitman character. In this iteration, it’s more appropriately titled “Quarry” and serves to kick off the pulpy serials.

For the first few chapters I had a serious chip on my shoulder (bias from the previous book I’d read) but I shortly ditched the attitude. “Quarry” is good. The narrative follows him on two jobs in the midwest, both of which are outside of his comfort zone. When things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, he has to adapt and make several dangerous decisions. Ultimately, the book is about his professional relationships; not only with his ‘boss’ the Broker but also with his partner Boyd. Both relationships are fraught with potential landmines, which Quarry detonates more frequently than diffuses.

I realized that the reason I liked Quarry this time around is because he reminded me of Parker. The only difference is that Quarry is more vulnerable and accessible to the reader (primarily due to the first person narration) whereas Parker is a sonuvabitch. In the afterword by Mr. Collins, he actually talks about how Quarry is different than Westlake’s famous criminal:

I thought Parker and Nolan were to some degree cop-outs. They were “good” bad-guy thieves– oh, sure, hardbitten as hell, but they stole mainly money and only killed other bad guys… Also, “Richard Stark” and I both wrote our crook books in third person. Safe. Detached.

I wanted to take it up a notch–my “hero” would be a hired killer. The books would be in first person. In the opening chapter, Quarry would do something terrible, giving readers an early chance to bail; late in the book he would again do something terrible, to confront readers with just the kind of person they’d been easily identifying with.

I actually can see the logic of what he’s saying, but I actually feel like Parker is more of a ‘bad-guy’ than Quarry. This isn’t a statement based on fact, because as Mr. Collins said, Parker “only killed other bad guys.” I think that the reason I feel more inclined to forgive Quarry is based purely on narrative technique; Quarry allows us in his head, allows us to be convinced by his reasons for doing what he is doing. Thus Mr. Collins accomplishes what he set out to accomplish; he confronts readers with their acceptance of a baser brand of criminal.

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

The femme fatale archetype makes a splendid appearance– a woman who causes Quarry to question his vocation; to actually consider a life outside of his profession. She is a light of hope that must compete with the long shadow of his actions. But, in true misogynistic fashion, Quarry says,

She was getting dangerously close to being a person in my life. Women hasn’t been persons in my life for a long time. Women were pretty receptacles for pent-up biological and psychological waste material. An extension of self-abuse, nothing more.

This statement creates two effects: 1) it causes the feminist within me to sound the war cry, and 2) it connects the novel with the long tradition of misogyny in noir crime fiction before it. This may seem a shocking viewpoint from the main character, but it’s a symptom of textbook noir.

Pick up “Quarry” by Max Allan Collins if you want a quick, squirmy read, sure to entertain you as well as any classic pulp shoot-em-up.

(I just realized that the last few books I’ve reviewed have all been by Max Allan Collins– I need to switch things up a bit) (But I have pre-ordered Quarry’s Cut already….)


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Rear Window (1954) and the Film Noir Tradition

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954) directed by Alfred Hitchcock is considered by many critics to be the apex of the suspense genre films. The film stars James Stewart opposite Grace Kelly, with Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr rounding out the rest of the main cast. With a stellar screenplay from John Michael Hayes (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich), Rear Window is a touchstone for film quality to this day.

Our protagonist, Jeff, is a world renown photographer who makes his living in the dangerous spaces of the world. One of those dangerous spaces was a race track, where he snapped an incredible picture before nearly becoming roadkill. Now recovering from these injuries in his studio apartment, he finds himself confined to a wheelchair and an itchy cast from hip to ankle. Jeff’s only past time now is spying on his neighbors through broad windows that all face the same courtyard. His socialite girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, is ready to take their relationship to the next level of commitment, but Jeff sees marriage as a prison more permanent than his current circumstance. He escapes her advances through the windows of his neighbors, becoming withdrawn and emotionally unavailable in an attempt to discourage her. Jeff’s nurse Stella, reproves him for being a ‘peeping tom’ but ultimately enables him in the same breath. The plot revolves around Jeff’s seemingly harmless voyeurism gone wrong, when circumstances in a salesman’s apartment across the way lead Jeff to believe that the man has murdered his wife. The sensation of suspense coupled with the anxiety of helplessness collide in Rear Window, from off-handed comments portending trouble to stifled screams in the black of night; the film delivers thrills from opening to closing shot.  Although most reviews of the film tend to focus on its incredible treatment of suspense, I assert that this film is birthed from the film noir genre as one of the first true ‘neo-noir.’

James Stewart in Rear Window

James Stewart – “Jeff”

Critically, Rear Window is universally praised for its suspense.  Roger Ebert relates in his review:

This level of danger and suspense is so far elevated above the cheap thrills of the modern slasher films that “Rear Window,” intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revered as art. Hitchcock long ago explained the difference between surprise and suspense. A bomb under a table goes off, and that’s surprise. When we know the bomb is under the table but not when it will go off, that’s suspense. Modern slasher films depend on danger that leaps unexpectedly out of the shadows. Surprise. And surprise that quickly dissipates, giving us a momentary rush but not satisfaction. “Rear Window” lovingly invests in suspense all through the film, banking it in our memory, so that when the final payoff arrives, the whole film has been the thriller equivalent of foreplay.

His assessment is correct, I believe, because the film doesn’t hide its intentions from the viewer. From the beginning the audience is promised murder, and the suspense is the result of awaiting its arrival; “the bomb” as Hitchcock put it, is under the table and we can hear it ticking. In 1954, Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times said that “the purpose of [the film] is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace towards the end.” That “flood of menace” is what the film does best, and what begins as a trickle of suspense in the end drowns the viewer. Crowther’s compliment concerning the detail present in the film is interesting, because I would argue that it is the conspicuous lack of detail that creates suspense. We cannot see everything that is happening in Thorwald’s apartment, and thus our unease. Reviewer Killian Fox highlights the arguably most suspenseful scene in the film saying, “there is the scene of perfect suspense when Kelly’s character steals into Thorwald’s apartment while he’s momentarily out. Powerless to intercede, Stewart can only look on with mounting anxiety and implore her in a strangled whisper to “Get out of there,” like a jumpy audience member in a horror film, when he knows that the murderer will be returning any second.” The scene she describes is more perfectly suspenseful than any other because the sense of dread is displaced by a degree. Instead of Jeff being the victim in this scene, it is his beloved Lisa Fremont; instead of fearing for his own life at the hands of Thorvald, he fears for the life of the woman he loves. The scene is brilliant because he cannot be brave in the traditional sense; Jeff cannot face his fear with the stiff upper lip of masculinity because it isn’t his own life hanging in the balance. I don’t believe that it is possible to deny Rear Window is a masterful example of suspense.

Grace Kelly in Rear Window

Grace Kelly – “Lisa”

Suspense aside, I believe that Rear Window shares many tropes of the film noir genre out of which it was born. First, the femme fatale is certainly present, though perhaps not in the way you would expect. In traditional film noir, the femme fatale is the woman that brings about the downfall of the protagonist. On her hinges his character’s ability to survive the trials of the plot, and more often than not, she is absolutely central to the development of the action. Lisa Fremont serves this purpose to a great degree in Rear Window. Although she doesn’t necessarily bring about the destruction of the protagonist, her near-death encounter with Thorwald destroys his masculinity. Jeff is reduced to the helplessness of a babe at the sight of Thorwald’s assault; writhing in his chair and whimpering helplessly. He is so unmanned in that moment of suspense that he even lacks the ability to cry out. Additionally, classic uses of dramatic light and shadow are utilized in the film. Tight shots of Jeff’s face half hidden in shadow come to mind, or even the dramatic entrance of Lisa Fremont’s character in the darkness of his apartment serve as examples of textbook film noir tactics. But the most obvious film noir lighting technique would have to be the glowing flare of Thorwald’s cigar in his pitch dark apartment; he glowers over the embers like a fat demon in hell. Finally, I point to the misogyny present in Rear Window. Misogyny is certainly an artifact of the time period, but in the film noir world of gangsters and ‘dames’ it’s inseparable. This misogyny is most clearly revealed when examining the female characters of the film. Miss Torso and the sunbathers are simple outlets of lust for the male creature, their sole purpose to excite the libido. Miss Lonelyhearts entire existence hinges on the lack of affection from men, and she cannot be made whole until she finally receives it. The newlyweds are wholly confined to the marriage bed, and what begins as the exciting expression of a sacred union becomes the begrudging obligation of an ‘abused’ husband. And finally Lisa Fremont herself, a supposedly influential and independent woman, is reduced to yet another female character stuck in the orbit of the male protagonist. All of her growth throughout the film serves to impress upon Jeff that she would be a good wife afterall. Each of these examples serves to reinforce the idea that Rear Window is created from and continues the film noir tradition as a form of ‘neo-noir.’

Ultimately, I praise this film for its achievement not only as a wonderfully visual and suspenseful journey, but also as a work of adaptation. I can see Cornell Woolrich adapting it from the noir crime/film noir genre of stories, and John Michael Hayes adapting it from Woolrich, and then finally Alfred Hitchcock adapting it from Hayes with each layer of adaptation polishing the story just a bit further than the last. This collective creative effort is why I believe that Rear Window may straddle genres and still incite wonderful scholarship from its release to our present day.

Reviews Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “A ‘Rear Window’ View Seen at the Rivoli.” New York Times. N.p., 5 Aug. 1954. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Ebert, Roger. “Rear Window Movie Review & Film Summary (1954) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., 20 Feb. 2000. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.

Fox, Killian. “My Favourite Hitchcock: Rear Window.” The Guardian. N.p., 25 July 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2015.



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A Marxist Reading of Fargo (1996)

Fargo Film

A Homespun Murder Story

Marxist Literary Criticism isn’t so much concerned with how the proletariat is represented in a particular work, but with how plot, theme, and character are a product of a specific period of history. The Fargo movie from the Coen siblings showed up during the neo-noir resurgence in the early to mid ’90s (on the heels of such classics as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)). And as a piece of neo-noir fiction, it’s wonderfully entertaining though a bit enigmatic; it lacks a femme fatale. Thus my normal structuralist approach disintegrates by my third bullet-point. But, in pondering this missing element (which appeared to be gross error), I discovered that although no ‘fatal woman’ appears in the credits, there was a leading lady after all; money.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:10 KJV

Americans have always had a strange affair with lucre. We worship an ideology of hope called ‘The American Dream’ which states that anyone in this country can be a ‘self-made man’– anyone can become wealthy if they roll up their sleeves and do the work. As beautiful as this ideology may be, it has a slimy underbelly of assumptions that come along with it. We assume that the poor are poor because they’re lazy or stupid, while simultaneously believing the opposite– the rich are rich because they’re intelligent and hard working. Unfortunately, the reasons for wealth and poverty are never so straight forward.

How does this relate to Fargo?

Fargo (1996) challenges the ideology of The American Dream and the love affair that Americans have with money. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a cheery car salesmen who has accrued a great deal of debt. He devises a way to get the money to pay off said debt as well as amass a small fortune of his own. He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife so that he can extort ransom money from his rich father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) (who would NEVER give him money otherwise) but quickly loses control of events.

Jerry Lundegaard and Wade Gustafson

Jerry and Wade

Jerry is a fascinating character because he is equally pitiable and detestable. We sympathize with him because of the pressure his debts have placed on him and the demeaning way his father-in-law treats him, but we hate Jerry because he has put his innocent wife in danger for such selfish reasons. But we mustn’t forget that Jerry presents Wade with two options during the course of the film; the first being a legitimate business deal, and the second being the ransom of his daughter.

We ache for Jerry when Wade and his business associate Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg) take Jerry’s investment opportunity away from him, essentially stealing the deal for themselves. Sure, they’ll offer him a ‘finders fee’ but they are cutting him out of all future revenues. In this scene, Jerry is the everyday man, the average American trying to create opportunity for himself– and the existing socioeconomic power structure squashes him. With his only legitimate option defeated, he is forced to work outside the law for a means of acquiring his fortune.

Later, when the ransom money has been counted and bagged, Wade again takes the power out of Jerry’s hands– refusing to allow Jerry to take the money to the kidnappers. Jerry is emasculated by his father-in-law, by the kidnappers, and eventually by the police; as Wade takes the money to the swap, we see Jerry sitting by his front door in his coat and boots, impotent. Wade makes the exchange and is killed in the process, refusing to let go of his money until he ‘sees his daughter.’

Fargo in the Marxist sense appears to be progressive because it rails against the established socioeconomic structure– A structure represented in the film by Wade Gustafson and Stan Grossman because of the monetary might they are able to wield. But, à mon avis, the story is repressive because it reinforces the existing structure by punishing those who attempt to escape it (or to climb within its rungs). The American Dream is the fantasy, the religion of hope that keeps men vying for wealth– and in this film it kills them in the process.

POSTSCRIPT: I neglected to mention one of my favorite scenes where the commodification of Wade’s daughter is most apparent. Jerry tells Wade that the kidnappers want a million bucks for her, and Wade asks if they’ll take $500,000. Unreal.


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“King Of The Weeds” Review

(King of the Weeds is a noir crime fiction novel from the legendary duo: Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins)

Book Cover of King Of The Weeds

Book Cover

King of the Weeds is the latest in the long line of heavy-hitting Mike Hammer novels, the iconic former cop turned private eye, whose cynical world-view is only matched by his tenacity in the face of peril. The central plot is dominated by greed, a hunt for hidden mob treasure, billions in cash laid away by the five families. Mr. Hammer knows where the lost cache is sequestered, and knowing is becoming more and more deadly. Add a healthy dose of conspiracy, expert assassins, and familial strife– King of the Weeds is a tasty layered cake.

How does it measure up? Here is the noir definition run down:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Big city living, New York City diners juxtaposed with back country Appalachian roads. A world where the doorman knows  everything that happens in his building and on the street, and the local bag-lady is an undercover cop.

2) The Anti-Hero

Mike Hammer is an undeniable constant (like one of Newton’s Laws)– he never pulls a punch, never backs down, and never hesitates to shoot up the place. But, time catches up to everyone eventually, and age may turn out to be the only enemy he can’t back down. (Plus, the opening page pits him toe to toe with a professional hitman– is there any other way to begin a Mike Hammer novel?)

3) The Femme Fatale

Velda, the once secretary turned partner turned fiancé, is and ever will be the femme fatale of Mike Hammer’s world. Not because she’s evil, but because she’s so good. In all the twisted sinews that comprise Mr. Hammer’s character, she’s the soft spot, the purple bruise that will eventually cost him his life or force his retirement. She’s the only character in the novel that doesn’t take Mike’s crap, and he knows better than to try it with her.

4) Misogyny

Misogyny is one of those inseparable themes from noir, but King of the Weeds, like most neo-noir, isn’t as guilty of it as the old greats from the 30’s and 40’s. Here was one of my favorite ‘give and takes’ between Mike and Velda:

“Let me mull that,” I said. “Meantime, better call Pat, then make us some coffee.”

“Woman’s work never being done.”

“I’m not chauvinistic, I’m wounded.”

“You’re a wounded chauvinist.”

5) Redemption

One of the central plot threads is tied to Mike’s best friend Pat, and a killer that he put away as a young cop. New evidence surfaces that points to the killer’s innocence, and the revelation could destroy Pat’s reputation as a policeman. Mike spends much of the novel striving to redeem his friends reputation in the face of shocking evidence.

6) Loss of Innocence

This theme typically refers to something horrific being inflicted upon something or someone who is innocent and pure. I didn’t really see that in this novel, but I did see an intense struggle to define innocence and guilt, particularly in the scope of justice. When justice is dealt unjustly, what are we left with?

7) Smoke

Present and accounted for.

8 ) Emasculation

Mike Hammer will not be emasculated (thematically or otherwise)– he is a picturesque titan of machismo, but with Velda he becomes a kitten. She has a softening effect on Mike, and provokes a complexity of character that we’d be missing without her.

I enjoyed King of the Weeds– it’s a swell addition to the Mike Hammer mythos, and I enjoyed seeing the immortal private eye grappling with his own impending mortality.

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“The Wrong Quarry” Review

Cover Image of The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins was my first experience with the enigmatic character “Quarry”, a hitman of hitmen as it were. I’ll commence with a disclaimer: I’ve never read any of the other Quarry novels, so I can’t fairly place it in relation to the others or speak to any backstory I may have missed. This review is purely my understanding and opinion of this novel as it stands, alone. Disclaimer aside, I didn’t really care for the book.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Max Allan Collins, and I greatly respect and admire his work. My problem with this book wasn’t with the plot, the pacing, or even subject matter. I simply don’t like Quarry.

As an anti-hero, I understand that he is flawed (he’s supposed to be). Simply, he’s a loner with a penchant for women who kills for money. But that doesn’t mean he’s likable.

Quarry has severed ties with someone called ‘the broker’– a middle man between hitmen and the individuals who pay for their unique services (I assume this happened in a previous book so sorry for the spoiler).  As a part of this ‘severance package’, he obtained the real names and addresses of all the hitmen then working for the broker at that time. He now uses this list to track hitmen and determine who their targets are before they kill. Quarry then approaches these unsuspecting targets and offers them his services: ten thousand dollars to ‘remove the threat’– and an additional ten thousand to determine the source of the contract and kill them as well. As far as hooks go, this one is dynamite. So why wasn’t I satisfied?

One reviewer said: “I rank the Quarry novels with Westlake’s Parker novels. The two series and characters share a few similarities of a lone criminal. The most important difference between Parker and Quarry is that Parker is not human.” — if this is true, then Quarry’s humanity is what made me hate him. But I disagree. Parker and Quarry are similar only in their operating preference: alone. Beyond that, Parker is a sonuvabitch and Quarry is a horndog with a heart.

Internally, Quarry instantly objectifies every female character in the book, but he wears the facade of someone who genuinely cares for those around him. Perhaps it’s this two-faced nature that peeved me. Additionally, he won’t stop talking to the reader– I understand that he’s the narrator but it drives me nuts when he interrupts a thought to remind me that he’s chatting with me or to make a wry joke of a situation. The book has some wonderful surprises, twists, and turns, but it was like being stuck at the movies next to an annoying acquaintance–  and that acquaintance happens to also be the star of the film.

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

The noir definition line up (anyone sick of this? or should I keep at it?) :

1) The Seedy Underworld

A small town in Missouri; run down bars, big-sky hikes, a highschool parent-teacher night, and a dance studio filled with pageant-bound girls.

2) The Anti-Hero

Quarry. Everything I’ve already said. (appended: he’s an ex-sniper).

3) The Femme Fatale

Two femme fatales in The Wrong Quarry: Jenny Stockwell and Sally Meadows. The former a mid-aged wild-child heiress who survived her riotous adolescence, the latter a teenage nymphet dancer with an eye for trouble. Both put the screws on Quarry, exposing him to greater risk throughout the novel.

4) Misogyny

I can’t imagine reading this book as a woman and not being offended. Every female character is a sad regurgitation of a man’s desire; each carefully shaped to look and pander to a predominantly male readership. Sadly, the holy grail of noir crime fiction is for a male author to create a convincing female character. I don’t know that it’s happened very often in the history of the genre, and it certainly didn’t happen in The Wrong Quarry.

5) Redemption

Much of the novel revolves around the disappearance and likely murder of Candy Stockwell (Jenny’s niece and Sally’s best friend)– the powerful Stockwell family is desperate for resolution. Thus the redemptive theme is present, but not through the protagonist.

6) The Loss of Innocence

Candy and Sally are representations of the lost innocence of youth in modern society– children eager to participate in the adult world, who quickly become stained by the sins of maturity.

7) Smoke

Ever present in the lips of each femme fatale, a smoldering cigarette tribute to former authors and film-makers in the noir art.

8 ) Emasculation

Roger Vale, a homosexual dance instructor in east central Missouri, is the sole threat to Quarry’s masculinity. His role is that of the effeminate victim, the emasculated shell of a threat, now victim of prejudice and violence. Yet, his overly flamboyant mannerisms serve as a smokescreen to a much more complex psyche. Mr. Vale is the unknown; the bizarre hermaphroditic anomaly that portends danger.

I’ve loved a lot of Mr. Collins novels, but this wasn’t one of them. I may give the other Quarry yarns a look, but if the character has the same irking veneer I’ll skip him in the future.


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2013 in review

The prepared a 2013 annual report for– I wasn’t nearly as active this year as I was in 2012. (I really need to get my act together…)

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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