Illustrator Tony Stella Talks Columbo

”Columbo – Étude in Black” at its 50th anniversary, illustrated by Tony Stella

Who wears a raincoat in sunny LA all the time? Columbo, that’s who. Why? Just instinct.

His crumpled raincoat, his cheap cigar, his rusty car, his humble manner. Elements that shaped up the image of one of the most distinctive, recognisable and beloved film characters of all time. Peter Falk’s disheveled and disarming, enormously engaging and quirky lieutenant Columbo lives on popular culture in a way that few television and movie characters ever manage. I sometimes find myself opening the Columbo cigar case-resembling box set and rewatching an episode. I never tire of it, I still find it incredibly interesting, unexpected, ingenious and believable. But it mostly has to do with the character, of course, played by Peter Falk, an ordinary guy… and a great actor. Columbo is just a regular guy… with a brilliant mind. He is likable, polite. He has got his mannerisms, absentmindedness, a sense of humour and no change of clothes. But behind his coat and nonthreatening face, he has an obsessive streak. His mind never rests until he gets the answer. These opposite traits residing within the same man, that’s what fuels my never-ending fascination with Columbo.

This Christmas I am treating myself to a Columbo Étude in Black illustration by Tony Stella – the pairing of these two, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, in a classic Columbo under the brilliant brush stroke of Tony Stella is simply unmissable. It is a great pleasure to have one of my absolute favourite illustrators as my guest today, sharing his wonderful work and his own fascination with Columbo.

”Columbo” illustration by Tony Stella


More than 50 years on since the air of the first episode and we are still talking about (and still watching) Columbo. What made it so special, what is the secret to its endurance? And what is it that fascinates you personally about it?

As 80s kids, we grew up with the TV culture of the 60s and 70s in endless reruns. Besides its brilliant structure and perfect match in Peter Falk – Columbo does not only satisfy the nostalgia we have for the times as a healing “comfort food”, but it also connects us to our loved ones – since Columbo was always mandatory family viewing. In the age of social media and streaming, we lost many of those connections – nevertheless a whole new generation seems to have now caught on during the pandemic… I definitely noticed it in the reception to my old illustrations…

Maybe a need for a kind of wholesome justice is the ingredient that makes it connect in recent years…

The character of Columbo was the heart of the show. How would you describe Columbo? Why did people identify with him to such extent?

Columbo was first played by Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell and has quite a number of predecessors who more or less display his characteristics, but it was only in Falk’s brilliant take that the character came into its full form. He provided his own wardrobe and went off script to expand the Lieutenant’s eccentricities. Although Jewish, Falk translated his NY/Bronx upbringing seamlessly into a warm Italian nature that made him a role-model in the community. And, in my case, a grandfather role-model.

How many times have you watched it? Do you have a favourite episode? How about particular scenes?

Many, many times over the years – especially before streaming, it was hard to catch them all, still not sure I’ve seen all the modern ones. I love all the classics of course: “Any Old Port in a Storm”, “Murder by the Book”, “A Friend in Deed”, “Double Exposure”, “Prescription: Murder”, “Ransom for a Dead Man”…

I particularly love when Columbo comes up against “modern art” as in “Playback” or “Suitable for Framing” – as Falk was a talented but very conservative draftsman himself, it’s so much fun to see him take jabs laced with a lot of his own opinions.

Looking at your “Étude in Black” illustration makes me rewatch the entire episode in my head. Tell us a few words about it.

I had planned a whole Columbo art-book maybe 10 years back – it had all the villains, LA locations… episode posters, imagined book covers etc… a whole world of Columbo collected in paint. It didn’t go anywhere, but I’ve got an entire archive of work and so far I’ve released a few as art-prints and two 50th anniversary episode posters: “Murder by the Book”, which was given to Spielberg as a gift from his staff at Amblin, and “Étude in Black”, which of course, pairs the irresistible friends and introduces everyone’s favourite DOG.

”Any Old Port in Storm” and “Murder by the Book” illustrations by Tony Stella


You can order your own Tony Stella Columbo poster art here.



The art of film posters: Interview with Tony Stella

Editorial: Every day is opening night

Read instead…in print #14: Cassavetes on Cassavetes

Posted by classiq in Film, Interviews | | Comments Off on Illustrator Tony Stella Talks Columbo

Dorothy Dandridge Brings an Element of Noir to Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones”

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


On the sound of George’s Bizet’s overture, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones opens with a frame shot by title sequence designer Saul Bass: a live flame at very high speed that captures the “sensual, quixotic and volatile nature” of the lead character, Carmen Jones, played by Dorothy Dandridge. This contemporary tale of love and desire, with an all-black cast, was based on Bizet’s opera Carmen. The action was transported from the South of Spain of the 19th century to an army base in the American South during the World War II. To capture the essence of the film, Saul “submerged a symbol of love in a symbol of passion, adding ambiguity by making the rose both red and black. As the various credits appear, the flame leaps up, dies down, expands, contracts… momentarily revealing the rose by filling the space behind it, and alternately obliterating the rose as the flame shifts, and the black rose disappears into a black background.”

The symbolism of the opening credits soon emerge in the film, but not right from the beginning. The first sequence couldn’t be more realistic than that of a bus driving on a dirt road lined with telephone poles and then pulling off to let the workers get out. They work in a parachute factory inside the military base. One of the passengers is not a worker however, she is the sweetheart of a corporal, Joe (Harry Belafonte), coming to see him off for pilot school the next morning. Only after the two lovers meet and go to the canteen for lunch, where workers and soldiers alike gather for their meals, are we introduced to an element of fantasy. It’s through the appearance of Carmen Jones, in a fire-orange pencil skirt splitting up in front to allow free movement and a low-cut black blouse with transparent short sleeves and black high-heeled strapped sandals – the very colours used by Saul Bass in his opening credits design.

The entire singing sequence establishes Carmen Jones as the beautiful temptress – through costume (all the other workers wear plain looking clothes resembling uniforms), body language and attitude – who will lure Joe away from his girlfriend and military duties. Carmen leaves him her rose when the lunch break is over. Soon thereafter, she engages in a cat fight in the factory, sentenced to jail, and the corporal is made responsible for taking her into custody and driving her to the next town to serve her time. It’s the beginning of the end for both of them.

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


Otto Preminger had an intimidating personality that had earned him a reputation of being temperamental and very difficult to work with. In my interview with Christopher Willoughby, the son of famed film still photographer Bob Willoughby, who was as great as the Hollywood stars he shot, he said: “He did seem to have a unique relationship with Otto Preminger who yelled at everyone on set, but never had a harsh word for Dad. I think there was some sense of mentoring, and certainly mutual respect,” and further recounts Otto Preminger’s reputation on set and his father’s relationship to both Otto and Jean Seberg, the heroine of two Preminger films: “Before Bonjour Tristesse, dad worked with Otto and Jean on Saint Joan in 1957 – Otto had hired Bob for an earlier film, Carmen Jones, and seemed to like Bob right off the bat, I think they had similar interests in art and culture. Jean was a seventeen year old Iowa schoolgirl who emerged as Saint Joan after a massive publicity based talent search. During production in London, Jean was young and out of her depth and on set Otto was emotionally brutal with her, trying to get the performance he wanted. Dad and Jean became good friends and spent a lot of time together. I believe Otto was relieved Jean was being chaperoned around and that he didn’t have to do it. By the time Bonjour Tristesse went into production, they were old chums. Here again I feel trust and affection is the collaboration and played a huge part in creating those beautiful images.”

Dorothy Dandridge on the set of ”Carmen Jones”, photographed by Bob Willoughby


But Preminger was also a versatile director, a man of instinct, and one who thought for his vision and who, starting with The Moon Is Blue (1953), became an independent filmmaker. Furthermore, according to Saul Bass, his grasp for design was stronger even than Billy Wilder’s or Hitchcock’s. “Preminger, whose art collection included Matisse, Mondrian and Klee, was also passionately interested in modern design, and in Saul he intuited a striking new talent that he wanted to tap”, so he “picked a young designer who had never worked in film before and launched him on a second career,” writes in the book Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. For Saul, “Otto had a vision, a true, artistic visual vision, he believed that what he knew, together with what would come out of our work, was worth defending to the death… I discovered that what we wound up with together was better that what I started on my own,” the designer confessed. Preminger and Saul Bass would work together on 13 title sequences and numerous advertising campaigns. The main poster for Carmen Jones won Saul his first prestigious New York Art Directors Club Medal.

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


Carmen Jones was Preminger’s second independent production, one in which he explored his stylistic vision unhindered, alternating fantasy with realism. “Preminger is not a very commercial director,” Truffaut wrote, “probably because he devotes himself to a search for a bit of truth that is particularly well hidden, almost imperceptible, the truth that is hidden in looks, gestures, attitudes.” The social reality shown in certain settings, like that opening shot, as well as in the way people behave and dress, are used to great contrasting effect to better emphasise the world of fantasy that also resides in the film, a world inhabited only by African Americans, a world of doomed romance that feels nowhere more dim and obsolete than in the stylised version of Chicago, the grey and drab big city.


”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


Carmen is wild and free and wants to remain free, and the director is on his heroine’s side. Dorothy Dandridge – cool swagger, eyes aflame, every move a prowl – is fierce in her performance and Preminger directs her so that we know, too, that she loves freedom and is as dangerous as a feline on the lookout for her next prey, determined “to look life and death straight in the eye”. She fiercely goes – in a physical way, too – for Joe. It’s this femme fatale trait alone, this deadly mixture of lust and loathing for the men that catch her interest, that gives this dramatic musical a noir element.

For a very brief period of time, Carmen also has a strong instinct for domesticity and the conviction that a woman has got to take care of her man… but only as long as they both remain free. As soon as she finds herself forced to hide away, trapped in a shabby room in the big city, because Joe is wanted for desertion, her fieriest instincts only get sharper. She wants out. And out is through the means of another man by the name of Husky Miller (Joe Adams), a successful fighter. And it is again costume – designed by Mary Ann Nyberg – that makes this transition very visual.

”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


Up until this point, Carmen’s costumes are not expensive, but they are distinctive, clearly setting her apart from the rest and establishing a narrative thread. First the fire-orange skirt and black blouse, her temptress costume. Once she’s earned Joe’s love interest, she wears powder pink. It’s her innocent, faithful lover colour in the shape of a low-necked dress, tight to right above the knee and erupting in a flare that stops right below the knee. It’s the only one she has while on the run and in hiding with Joe. After she hooks up again with her friends who are now higher up on the social-climbing ladder, she changes clothes (bought most probably with the money she gets after selling a piece of jewellery). She buys herself a peach-coloured dress with a bejewelled shoulder and a wrapped skirt at the back. The only thing she keeps for now are her trademark hoop earrings, a possible allusion Preminger wanted to make to Bizet’s Carmen, a gipsy cigarette girl from Seville.


”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films


The peach dress is the transition to the glamorous outfits she clads herself in once she trades Joe for Husky. First, a grey sequined sleeveless top and an elegant, tailored, knee-long grey skirt. Then, for the climactic scene, a white lace strapless gown with a white stole on top. The hoop earrings have also been replaced by now, with diamond earrings most probably. But it’s the choice of white that plays up so well the theme of doomed romance and the tragic ending, so stylistically staged by Preminger in that ordinary storage room stacked with cases of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Carmen looks more otherworldly than ever before.


”Carmen Jones”, 1954. Otto Preminger Films



Gloria Graham in film noir

Bob Willoughby, the Hollywood photographer that was as great as the stars he shot:
In conversation with Christopher Willoughby

The Nest: In conversation with costume designer Matthew Price

Posted by classiq in Film, Film costume | | Comments Off on Dorothy Dandridge Brings an Element of Noir to Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones”

Telling Good Stories, with Ileana Achim

”Secretul lui Raul Taburin” (“Raoul Taburin Keeps a Secret”), by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Editura Frontiera


Zoe navigates on an umbrella on the sea of the world’s stories. She is endlessly curious and eager to explore new frontiers. She is like one of the great storybook travellers – Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Phileas Fogg and Dorothy Gale – and she takes children to magical worlds. Zoe is every child.

Zoe is the little girl in the Frontiera logo that meets our eye whenever we spot her on the cover of a book. She is the gate to new worlds, the playful promise of a great adventure, of a new discovery. Frontiera is a small independent publishing house in Romania, guided by a dedicated and passionate editorial team. They publish beautiful books for wise children, from world renowned children’s authors, some of them for the first time published in Romanian (Gabrielle Vincent, Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Raoul Taburin Keeps a Secret), to contemporary Romanian illustrators and new authors. But, most importantly, they care about the stories they send out into the world. Stories that may look simple but come from far away and carry deep meanings. Short funny stories. Stories that capture our interest through illustrations rather than text and leave us freedom to create our own stories or test our feelings. Stories that educate our vision and train our eye. Rich allegories for all ages, humorous poetry, extraordinary voyages. In books, everything is open. Everything is possible.

We live in a world in which we are always wired to some kind of device, but which feels more and more disconnected. Yet, in the midst of it all, Frontiera finds the power, courage and skill to gather all kids of stories, for all kinds of readers, from all kinds of perspectives, connecting everyone, forging friendships, feeding and freeing our minds.

In our interview, Ileana Achim, the co-founder of Frontiera, and I talk children’s books, writers and illustrators, finding good stories to publish and why preaching about the importance of books is not the best strategy for turning children into life-long readers.


Suflătorul de vise (“Le souffleur de rêves”), by Bernard Villiot, with illustrations by Thibault Prugne. Editura Frontiera


Are children the most demanding readers?

I am not sure if they are the most demanding readers, but surely, they could be very demanding, especially when they are little. You cannot “sell’ any kind of story to them – it simply doesn’t work. You’ll know right away if the story is boring, if they don’t understand what all is about or if they simply don’t feel like listening to you. Also, they have the „bad” habit of being quite loudly when demanding to hear a story before going to bed. You must find a way to speak with all the voices required by the characters of the story, even if you have had a hard day and already dream of tucking into your own bed.

When children grow up, they remain demanding readers, but in a different way, from my experience. The flood of stories coming towards them from social media makes it hard to win their attention with written stories from books.


”I believe people are naturally born storytellers.”


And yet, how can we do that? How can we keep children’s interest in books up, when we know for a fact that reading from books is a much more devoted, immersed experience, with much better results than reading on various devices? Is there a right balance, and how do we achieve that?

When children are young, things are a lot easier, as we have a better control of their routine. Reading aloud to them, celebrating their first day of independent reading, making a book for a gift, having books around the house, visiting book shops and buying books together with your child… These are all basic things for raising readers.

When children grow old, I believe that the winning strategy is for us to become a model. Not talking them into books, not preaching about the importance of books, but making reading a habit of our own life. Reading around them, enjoying a book together, discussing about topics found in books… Children do what they see, not what they are told to do. (Well, this is a well-known truth, but it is worth reminding it, as it is sooo difficult to be what you preach about.)

”Ernest și Celestine la muzeu” (“Ernest and Celestine at the Museum”), by Gabrielle Vincent. Editura Frontiera


Storytelling is such an important part of childhood, of life. We should never stop telling stories, reading stories, listening to stories. Do you believe in adults’ abilities to maintain children’s natural imagination for as long as possible?

I think humans are naturally born storytellers. We do tell stories and listen to stories all our life – only that the medium of the stories has now changed a lot. Movies are stories, the media tells stories, history is but a story, the way we retell our past life is a story.

If you strictly refer to stories as fiction, i.e., events that only happen in our imagination, then I admit that… I don’t know. In my opinion, reading and storytelling are not about imagining things, but about catching meaning and learning to find meaning in the story of our own life.

I agree. Books, first and foremost, help us navigate our own feelings and our own life. Do you remember what was your childhood book that opened your mind to new ideas more than any other book?

I did not read a lot as a child. Rather I was told stories by my grandmother. I remember tales (Aleodor Împărat, Finist Șoimanul), I remember a lot of Ion Creangă (my grandma really loved to recount Amintiri din copilărie)… The first book that I read all by myself was Wuthering Heights, when I was 10 years old. I know, it sounds strange, but this was one of the books that I found on the bookshelves left from my uncle, and I gave it a try. It really impressed me and it turned me into a romantic reader for a long time. Fortunately, not for ever.

Why fortunately? What is your favourite type of books?

The romanticism belies a tendency to disillusionment regarding reality. At least, that’s what I think. I lived in the world of books for a very long time when I was young and that brought along a certain disconnection from reality. You know what they say, self-deceit comes with disappointment. I like black humour, I like books where I feel a more profound underlay, which are not just simple bookish exercises. Something like that.


”I am an all-time fan of Sergio Ruzzier.
I love his humour, his bizarre and surreal characters,
his ruzzerian world that one cannot mistake for anything else.”


Left: Zoe’s Little House
Right: ”Leopantera”, by Piotr Wilkoń, with illustrations by Józef Wilkoń. Editura Frontiera

”Spre Polul Sud”, by Emil Racoviță. Editura Frontiera


Gabrielle Vincent, Nina Cassian, two great classics, and a slew of many other wonderful writers in between. How do you choose the books you want to publish at Frontiera?

We generally look for meaningful stories with masterful illustrations. Being exposed to qualitative books from an early age helps children educate their visual and literary taste.

We also have a taste for hidden gems – books or authors that are not mainstream (at least in Romania) and which may seem unusual when you have a quick look at their books. So are, for example, Wolf Erlbruch, Igor Oleynikov or Sergio Ruzzier. Wolf Erlbruch defies anyone’s taste for cuteness. Igor Oleynikov illustrates children’s books without illustrating for children – and I am writing this having in mind Sendak’s sentence that there is no children literature – just literature. Finally, Sergio Ruzzier (one of my all-times favourite artists) is a master of surreal scenery and bizarre happenings while remaining funny, childish, and affectionate.

Another hidden gem is the Romanian Marina Debattista. Marina teaches physics in Oxford, but she is also a writer and an artist. Her book of poems Dejunul unei frunze is a great example of playful and complex children’s poetry. We are very proud that the book has been selected in the international White Ravens catalogue in 2021.

I will conclude saying that there is a carefully discussed reason for any of the books that Frontiera publishes, be they more on the popular side or on the bibliophile one.

”Doi pui de tigru numiți Ninigra și Aligru”, by Nina Cassian, with illustrations by Karda Zenko. Editura Frontiera


I am very fond of Igor Oleynikov’s illustrations. His style is very dynamic and his interpretation of classic stories is not just an echo of the written text. These are stories that leave enough space for imagination and for his own interpretations – the same thing I feel about Robert Ingpen’s illustrations. I find it very interesting when an illustrator adds new meaning to the writer’s words. Which, in your opinion, are some of the most successful writer/illustrator collaborations?

I totally agree. Illustration should not be a mere reproduction of the text, but should bear its own complementary story. This is especially true for young children, who are not able to read the text, but can “read” the images.

Ideally, picture books are written and illustrated by the same person. When the author is skilful both at writing and drawing, the outcome is usually more coherent and consistent. But there are also many successful writer/illustrator collaborations, such as Maurice Sendak & Randall Jarell (The Bat-Poet), René Goscinny & Jean Jacques Sempé (Le petit Nicolas series) or Max Bolliger & Stepan Zavrel. These are random examples from my personal bookshelves.

”Marea întrebare” (“The Big Question”), by Wolf Erlbruch. Editura Frontiera


Wolf Erlbruch approaches existential themes and questions in his books that are accessible for readers of all ages. Some children’s books’ writers avoid these subjects. But aren’t books the best way to teach children, especially young children, about the realities of life?

I am not sure if books are the best ways to learn about reality (probably personal experience is the best), but surely they are very important in this respect. There is a lot to say about sweet and safe stories! For now, I would just say that stories are already safe spaces, the reason being that they allow the reader to experience negative emotions, loss and dangers at a symbolic level. The reader practises the negative sides of reality without really living them. It is a kind of rehearsal within the safe space of the story. So no need to get rid of negative characters, bad language, fears, loss or death. They should all be there, waiting for us to face them and then conquer them (until a new story will begin).

”When children grow old, I believe that the winning strategy
is for us to become a model. Not talking them into books,
not preaching about the importance of books,
but making reading a habit of our own life.”

You mention how Igor Oleynikov illustrates children’s books without illustrating for children. Are there illustrators who draw with children in mind? To what extent is that possible for a grown-up?

I am sure there are illustrators who draw with children in mind, as there are writers who write with children in mind. Equally, there are illustrators and writers who write without thinking of their audience, but for the sake of a good story or a personal vision or an incredible epiphany.

Sometimes, having children in mind may force you into adopting an unnatural voice, so that you sound or draw child-like. Other times, keeping children in mind may prevent you from becoming too sophisticated and artificial.

Oleynikov makes use of children classical texts, but turns them into a majestic art, into an impressive show for audiences of all ages. This is the eternal sunshine of children’s literature, allowing everyone to bask in its rays.

”Camera cu minuni” (“The Room of Wonders”), by Sergio Ruzzier. Editura Frontiera


Who is the latest great new children’s book writer you have discovered?

I am an all-time fan of Sergio Ruzzier. I love his humour, his bizarre and surreal characters, his ruzzerian world that one cannot mistake for anything else. I secretly indulge in his rare titles, such as Birds, and I have made a passion for wonder rooms and cabinets of curiosities since reading (and publishing) his Wonder Room.

What are the challenges of a small, independent children’s books publishing house from Romania?

I would say that the biggest challenge is finding the balance between keeping with your values and still selling your books. Well, time will tell if we have managed that.

Thank you, Ileana, for this inspiring talk and for all the good books you send out into the world!

”Străbunicul meu, Emil Racoviță”, by Andreia Petcu, with illustrations by Eugen Berlo. Editura Frontiera | Instagram: @editurafrontiera




The poetic power of illustration: Interview with William Grill

Making a fictional world feel real: Interview with graphic designer Erica Dorn

Beyond Ernest et Celestine: The Art Gabrielle Vincent:
In conversation with Fondation Monique Martin

Posted by classiq in Books, Interviews | | Comments Off on Telling Good Stories, with Ileana Achim

November Newsletter: I Like to Call It Noirvember


Photos: Classiq Journal

Is Humphrey Bogart the most emblematic actor for the American cinema? Yes, I believe he is. He was a man of his times. And he played both of the most celebrated detectives in American cinema: Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymon Chandler’s Philip Marlow. François Truffaut was once again right. “Humphrey Bogart was a modern hero. The period film – the historical romance or pirate story – didn’t suit him. He was the starter at the race, the man who had a revolver with only one bullet, the guy in 5he felt hat that he could flick with a finger to express anger or gaiety, the man at the microphone: “Hello! Hello! calling all cars…“

I have watched The Big Sleep again. It’s been the third or fourth time. I loved it more than ever before. And this has a lot to do with Bogart. It’s just extraordinary to watch Bogart in this film. His performance is perfectly judged, perfectly paced. Yes, I observed, counted his steps, too. “What Bogart did, he did better than anyone else,” Truffaut wrote in his portrait of the actor. “He could act longer without saying a word than anyone else. He was more threatening than anyone else, and he struck his blows better. When he sweated, you could have wrung out his shirts.”

Bogart was that rare kind of actor who celebrated incorruptibility and people would want to be like him. And no film shows this more than The Big Sleep. He is the ideal screen detective. “If Bogart’s appearance was modern, his morality was classic. He knew that causes are worth less than beautiful deeds, and that every act is pure so long as it goes by the rules.” In Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy writes that Bogart “didn’t hunt, ride motorcycles, or indulge in Hawks’s other would-be manly pursuits”. And yet, he struck a chord with men and women alike and he hated the whole “movie star” thing. He was a very smart and well-read man, and he thought he was no better than anyone else and that’s how he lived his life. “A man with a tough shell hiding a fine core. […] By showily neglecting the outward forms of grace, he kept inferior men at a distance,” said Alistair Cooke in the book Bogie: A Celebration of the Life and Films of Humphrey Bogart, by Richard Schickel and George Perry.

How desperately do we need a new Humphrey Bogart, more high class people, more people to look up to instead of always looking down.


Left image: Christa Unzner illustration


Other viewing

Batman, 1989
Tim Burton

The whole family watched Batman on Halloween and everyone enjoyed the experience to the full. Dark Night might have Heath Ledger in no less than one of the absolute best roles of all time, but Tim Burton’s Batman is the film that has recreated the atmosphere of Gotham City best. Everything is just right, from the conflicted character that hides behind the placid-looking Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, to the costumes that are a perfect depiction of fashion at the confluence of the 1980s and 1990s, and the Prince songs. But it is Joker that, just as in Dark Night, steals the show. Brilliantly played by Jack Nicholson in his purple suit and clown-like makeup, it’s easy to guess who my seven-yer-old’s favourite character was in the film.

The Dark Corner, 1946
Henry Hathaway

“I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.” This line of lead character Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens) sums up Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Galt is a private investigator who is himself being followed and is being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He is being chased and cornered throughout the entire film and he has no idea who could be after him. Galt’s words mentioned above also sum up the world of film noir and how cinema had changed from the 1930s. In Death of the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, Arthur Lyons describes both worlds to perfection: “The well-lit, singing and tap-dancing, happy-ending world of the thirties had in ten short years become a hostile, orderless place in which alienation, obsession, and paranoia ruled. The universe seemed to conspire to defeat and entrap the inhabitants who wandered blindly through it, they were victims of fate, their own worst enemies who, looking for a score, ended by dead eating themselves. They were people unwired to anything and for whom nobody prayed.”

Bertrand Tavernier paid a beautiful homage to Henry Hathaway, one of his American friends, in his book, Amis Américains, to the characters in his films and especially his “spectacular villains”: Richard Widmark in Kiss or Death, Signe Hasso in The House on 92 Street, Hack Elam in Rawhide, R.G. Armstrong in Manhunt, and William Bendix in The Dark Corner. And the presence of a traditional cop does not provide the slightest help to Mark Stevens and the diabolical plan plotted against him. It is a villainous world, where “the hero is a private eye and the world he frequents is sordid and violent. […] The film plays in a very spectacular way on the opposition between two worlds: the wealthy, comfortable world of Clifton Webb, and the dark, nocturnal, worrying one of the private eye. A total absence of dramatic music makes the plot even more suffocating, punctuated by extremely violent moments. From time to time however, an excellent comedy scene lightens the atmosphere a little: the relationship between Lucille Ball and Mark Stevens is relatively brilliant, and we cannot forget this remarkable shot showing the milkman handing a newspaper to Lucille Ball, who has just opened the door of her room. A hand appears in the frame and seizes the newspaper from her arm. It’s Mark Stevens’, but the milkman only sees the arm. The expression of astonishment, admiration and envy that can be read on his face is irresistible. Hathaway excels at introducing brief comedy moments in his films.” Another comedic moment is that of the little girl who continues to blow the whistle to the desperation and fury of William Bendix’s villain. It’s this contrast that reveals Hathaway’s dark universe as even more striking and unnerving. Hitchcock had this talent, too.

Force of Evil, 1948
Abraham Polonsky

Joe Morse (John Garfield) is a smartly dressed, smart young Wall Street lawyer who thrives on both sides of the law. He wants to repay his big brother, Leo (Thomas Gomez), a small-time business owner, for putting him through school, and that means convincing Leo to work for his top client, Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts), a numbers racketeer. There are so many scenes that stand out in this film, like the wordless performance of Roy Roberts as Ben Tucker when he lets Joe do the talking so that everyone in the room knows he is his right-hand man. It’s Joe’s duality that drives the film, revealing the dark and rotten core of the entire system. A story of unscrupulousness, guilt and redemption stylised to the smallest detail in a perfect merger of form and content. “The dialogue throughout is so rhythmic and smart that it’s been described as blank verse,” remarked critic and filmmaker F.X. Feeney. “Polonsky matched this textual richness with visual work by cinematographer George Barnes, a Hitchcock veteran. He urged Barnes to emulate the work of painter Edward Hopper. (“Ah, single source lighting!” Barnes teased, after they’d visited the museum. “Why didn’t you say?”)

The Reckless Moment, 1949
Max Ophüls

The Reckless Moment marks the last US film directed by the German-born filmmaker. It is an unusual film noir, bringing a twist to the genre: the absent leading male character. Although Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) is a married woman, we don’t feel in any way the presence or influence of her husband in her life. Instead, the male role is assumed by Lucia, who must resort to desperate means in order to protect her daughter who gets involved with the wrong man. James Mason is the blackmailer and his role is remarkable not only because of his talent, but also due to the changes within the character, and the whole emotional spectrum he goes through. I’ve always loved this lobby card from the set of the film that has James Mason, Joan Bennett and director Max Ophüls eating at a table, and the footnote saying: “Joan Bennet breaks bread with her blackmailer”. That’s the plot in a nutshell.

Michael Mann

In the 2000s, they were still making good films. Collateral is the Tom Cruise film that cast him against type. And he is great in it. Vincent is a hit man, a guy without a past. We don’t get to learn much about him, we don’t get any preparation for it, we just meet him, what we see and hear during the course of one night is what we get. He is a well read and well dressed man (his steely exterior is in part due to his all-grey look), he has no emotions, he is not seeking vengeance, he is just a professional killer with his own moral code and he always gets his job done. He reminded me of Alain Delon’s Jeff Costello in Le samouraï. His acting is also very economical and it serves the character beautifully. Jamie Fox – another fine performance – is the cab driver Vincent picks to drive him around to make his round on that particular night, this compressed moment in time when two people, two diametrically opposed lives clash unexpectedly. But my two favourite characters are Mark Ruffalo and the city of Los Angeles by night, mostly seen from the seat of a cab. It’s one of the most distinctive depictions of LA as seen on screen – Nightcrawler, Mullholand Drive, Drive, To Live and Die in LA are a few others.




Tava: Eastern European Baking and Desserts from Romania and Beyond

This is one of those books that must be saluted and ends up by being loved. Irina Georgescu finally brings the amazing Romanian cuisine and cultural heritage to the world table. She opens this unique place to the world through food and this just might be the absolute best approach. A celebration of identity, a constellation of cultures, a clash of flavours.

“Featuring intimate stories that give a remarkable insight into this rich culinary heritage connecting the past with the present, as well as beautiful photography throughout, Tava is a sensitive and personal journey into one of the most fascinating and culturally-diverse places in the world.”

Picturebook Makers

One of the reasons why I love children’s picture books is that they treat children intelligently from the earliest age, as we all should, and they have faith in the children’s ability to understand a lot more than we adults might think. And in front of a picture book, it is adults that often feel insecure and incapable of interpreting an image, a story, art on their own. Children excel at that. I love how picture books balance things out and put children in the front seat.

“What exists in the space between the words and the pictures? How do the stories unfold? What happens from the first sketch to the finished picture book? Twelve of the world’s finest contemporary picture-book makers – Jon Klassen, Kitty Crowther, Eatrice Alemagna, Shaun Tan, Eva Lindström, Blexholex, Chris Haighton, Suzy Lee, Bernardo P. Cavalho, Isol, Manuel Marsol, Johanna Schaible – generously share their experiences, challenges, doubts, sketches, illustrations and invaluable insights into their creative process. They reveal the complex and time-consuming work that happens behind the scenes, in service of their stories and their readers.”


The album: Muddy Waters and The Rolling Stones Live at the Checkerboard Lounge


Les vacances d’Irina is a very special way of making fashion. It feels like a personal journey, of the founder’s, as well as of the one who chooses to wear a piece of clothing. Seek minimal, feel free. It’s a style that speaks about your mood, your feelings and makes you feel good about the choices you make.

“Les vacances d’Irina is a brand that pays homage to the art of holidaying around the Mediterranean, as it once was… A time of simple glamour, when attitude mattered more then who you were. A time when people would still write postcards and wallow in simplicity. A time of simple ideas, honest materials and clean, timeless design. Les Vacances d’Irina slowly grew, in the rhythm and the style we wanted. Unhurried, like those lingering Summers.

We focus on sustainable items designed to last a lifetime. Both in the design and the quality of the materials. We choose to work with linen, silk, cotton and wool – all hand worked by Romanian craftsmen, as they’ve been for centuries. Les vacances d’Irina is about simplicity and authenticity. It is our own unique story that we have chosen to share with you.”



More illustration! The extraordinary illustration universe of Christa Unzner. It simply makes your imagination fly, the way the classics, the likes of Robert Ingpen do. And for children, I believe it’s a place of infinite play and perpetual discovery. Words really are unnecessary.



The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters: Roden and Ridgeline. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. The Racquet magazine newsletter. The Adventure Podcast: Terra Incognita. The print magazines Monocle and Sirene.

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Dorothy Malone, the Character Actor who Almost Stole the Show in The Big Sleep

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep”, 1956. Warner Brothers

Howard Hawks was a born storyteller and an “invisible director”, François Truffaut called him, because “his camera work is never apparent to the eye”. He was also a shrewd spotter of new talent. He “discovered or used effectively for the first time on the screen many actors,” says Todd McCarthy in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, from Paul Muni, Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth, to Montgomery Clift, James Caan and Dorothy Malone. The Big Sleep may be a Bogie and Bacall film and the film was clearly hewed to become a “suitably amorous and balanced vehicle for a Bogart and Bacall” after the success of To Have and Have Not, but being a noir film, we would be remiss if we didn’t look deeper. Especially at the supporting cast, the character actors who usually drive a film, especially a film noir. Because “hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts,” Robert Mitchum said before he himself became one of the stars.

Noir films were films for actors, not stars. The directors and cinematographers had to be inventive and innovative (it’s where many of them cut their teeth in and created their filmmaking style) because the budgets were limited and the time-frames were short. They presented a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life had low values and an even lower running time, a world where love is replaced by obsession and fatal desires, but found a streak of poetry in the light coming out of a street pole in a dark alley or in the smoke of the omnipresent cigar, captured the interest with an odd angle, a glowing haunted face or a sharp line of dialogue, got under the viewer’s skin with deadly femmes fatales. They were made on Poverty Row, but they revelled in their cheapness, creating their own language, honing such a distinctive and definitive cinematic style “where one did not exist before”. It’s more than a genre, it’s called making movies. Maybe that’s why, of all the genres, the classic noir films are those that still hold our interest more than any others. It’s that “making” thing, the realness, the true grit, the unique experience we are allowed of experiencing our dark side but only from a safe distance.

And the supporting actors were the gold mines of film noir. The Thelma Ritters (can you imagine Pickup on South Street and Rear Window without her?), the Elisha Cooks Jr., the Dorothy Malones.

“You begin to interest me, vaguely.”
Dorothy Malone to Bogart, The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep follows private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) as he picks his way through a corrupt labyrinth of gamblers, blackmailers, pornographers, hired thugs and murderers, who have attached themselves to the rich, elderly General Sternwood, and his two daughters, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers). It is one of the classics of film noir, heavy on great dialogue that simply doesn’t let up, it has wit and verve and style and an intricate and fast-paced plot, and where the time of day is appropriately night. It is a “deeply mysterious puzzle in which everyone is suspicious and most are guilty of something,” writes Todd McCarthy, and when the film ends you remain puzzled. I personally revel in its intricate, labyrinthine plot. And Dorothy Malone’s character falls perfectly into place.

She is the bookseller who makes a pass at Bogart. She almost steels the show of the entire film. It is her part that is truly memorable. It was Bogart and Bacall who the audience were waiting to see on screen, and on whom the producers placed their bets, but the surprise came from Dorothy Malone. The combination of mystery, lively curiosity and liberating departure from the faux feminine ideal that she projects grabs your attention, takes you by surprise. And isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place, what we hope to experience? “For the bookseller, Hawks was delighted with a nineteen-year-old Texas newcomer Dorothy Malone. Hawks said that the scene was never intended to be taken as far as it went, but they were able to do so simply because “the girl was so damn good-looking. It taught me a great lesson, that if you make a good scene, if we could do something that was fun, the audience goes right along with it.” Like Bacall, Malone was so nervous doing her first important scene that her hands shook while she attempted to get the drink, prompting Hawks to have the bottom of the glass filled with lead so she could handle it.”

Dorothy Malone, with her character here and other films that would follow, didn’t conform to stereotypes. She doesn’t even get a name in The Big Sleep, she is just the Acme Book Shop proprietress. But she breaths life into her character, just like Gloria Graham or Lizabeth Scott did in their noir roles. She doesn’t conform. She has presence, and this has nothing to do with the costumes she wears. It’s her wit and crafty personality, not her looks, that make for a female’s best guns. And she makes a pass at Bogie while talking about books… and then closes up shop for him. But maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, especially in a Howard Hawks film. The Hawksian woman is just as much part of Hawks’ universe as his tough men are.



Lizabeth Scott: She Had What It Took for Film Noir

Dressed to fir the monochromatic look and distressed reality of a 1955 noir:
Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart

Gloria Graham in Film Noir

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