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.
 

Collateral
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.

 

 

Reading
 

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.”

 
 
Listening

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

 
Making

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.”
 

 

Exploring

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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