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Column from M*F #45

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Recent installments of In the Frame, my column of book and movie reviews, can be found at Mystery*File.

From Mystery*File #46 (November 2004):

BOOKS

S. J. Rozan's Bill Smith/Lydia Chin series established her as a premier New York writer. Her current novel ABSENT FRIENDS (Delacorte Press, hardcover, September 2004) is a standalone, however, one which revisits the worst days in the city's memory. Firefighter Jimmy McCaffrey was a hero before September 11, 2001. When he dies in the collapse of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, he becomes lionized as a symbol of everything New Yorkers did right on that morning - and of all that they lost. Seven weeks later, with the city's wounds still raw, a newspaper runs a story focusing on Jimmy's possible involvement with organized crime. The suspicious death of the reporter prompts Jimmy's childhood friends to reevaluate everything they thought they knew, including their own pasts.

As usual, Rozan packs the novel with well-observed characters. The most compelling figure is conflicted lawyer Phil Constantine, privy to many of Jimmy's secrets but never a part of his inner circle. Rozan demonstrates a native's feel for New York, particularly when capturing the sense of insularity on Staten Island.

The story of Jimmy and his friends is ultimately a familiar one, with an outcome that is never in doubt. A far more serious problem is that the 9/11 material diminishes the plight of Rozan's characters instead of investing it with significance. The impact of that day remains so powerful that it overwhelms Rozan's small-scaled narrative.

This weakness is compounded by ABSENT FRIENDS' complex structure, which employs multiple viewpoint characters and strands of time. Rozan has said that she used this approach to replicate the way New Yorkers felt in the wake of the attacks, but it doesn't feel organic to the story. It comes across as an imposed device meant to dole out information.

The book is at its best when noting details of those days. Reminders of the attacks are forever catching the characters off guard: "An American flag snapped in the wind in the yard of a nearby house. Laura had learned in grade school that the flag was supposed to come down at night, but these days the flags weren't coming down." The closing chapter, in which we finally get to spend time with Jimmy McCaffrey on the morning of September 11, is a beautiful note on which to end the book. Perhaps it's best not to think of ABSENT FRIENDS as a mystery at all, but as a snapshot of a time and place that already seem to be receding into the distant past.

Greg Rucka's A GENTLEMAN'S GAME (Bantam, hardcover, September 2004) is a 9/11 novel of a different stripe. Critics have asked how espionage writers would respond to the challenge of depicting a world transformed by terrorism. Rucka dives head on into the chaos. He transports the characters from his "Queen & Country" graphic novel series to the printed page with spectacular results.

When Islamic extremists stage a devastating attack on the London Underground, elite Special Intelligence Services operative Tara Chace is assigned to carry out a retaliatory strike. She ends up succeeding beyond anyone's expectations, but in a way that puts her at jeopardy. Not only from terrorists, but from representatives of her own government who have the nation's best interests in mind.

Rucka's action sequences are electrifying, his take on politics (especially in the Middle East) withering. Focusing on British intelligence allows Rucka to take some pointed shots at the CIA ("Even if they don't know the truth, their lies are always better than our own") and American foreign policy. He also does a miraculous job of getting inside the heads of young Muslim men bent on jihad. One of them is a Caucasian Englishman who has embraced radical Islam, similar to the American John Walker Lindh. Rucka brings his contradictions to vivid, jangling life. This creates the expectation that the character will be sent home to the United Kingdom where he can inflict the greatest damage, but Rucka has other plans. Considering how strong a presence the character is, it represents something of a missed opportunity.

Events move toward a conventional action ending, but Rucka's lean and commanding prose never lets up. Throughout, he finds ways to illuminate the isolating nature of intelligence work and the toll it takes on those who practice it. In Tara Chace, he has created a tough but vulnerable heroine worth following to the ends of the earth.

Robert Reuland introduced Brooklyn assistant D.A. Andrew 'Gio' Giobberti in 2002's HOLLOWPOINT. The events of that novel have Gio working in the Appeals Bureau as SEMIAUTOMATIC (Random House, hardcover, June 2004) begins. It's a dead-end assignment "where you never see a jury, never see a defendant, never see a judge. Where no one shouts, no one sweats." He's asked back to Homicide to help an inexperienced prosecutor handle the open-and-shut case of a bodega shooting. But when the only witness' story collapses and the arresting detective makes himself scarce, Gio comes to suspect that he's being used. Reuland, a former D.A. himself, has his details down cold. But the book is fatally infatuated with its own staccato rhythms. The wounded humanity that bled through the bluster in HOLLOWPOINT is stifled here. The thin story is sustained only by Gio's abrupt shifts from na´vetÚ to cynicism.

DVDs

Sometimes writing this column couldn't be easier: if you're reading this, you'll want a copy of Warner Brothers' Film Noir collection. Buffs may argue that some of the titles are noir in look only, but there's no doubt that each movie deserves the treatment it receives here.

It says volumes about the quality of the collection that John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) is the least of the five films. That's only because it hews closely to a formula, albeit a formula that the movie largely invented. In many ways JUNGLE is the ur-caper film, telling the story of a jewelry store break-in solely from the perspective of the thieves. (That change is one respect in which the script by Huston and Ben Maddow differs from W. R. Burnett's novel.) Step one, assembling the crew. Criminal mastermind Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh out of prison, has the plan. Crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (a powerhouse Louis Calhern), determined to hang onto his standard of living and his mistress (a young Marilyn Monroe), fronts the cash. Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, signs on as muscle so he can "wash this city dirt off" and buy back the family homestead. Step two, pulling the job, doesn't go off as planned. Step three is the hard part - getting away with it. The crew doesn't have to fear the police so much as themselves. As Doc puts it, "One way or another, we all work for our vice," and it's those vices that threaten to bring them down. JUNGLE, which treats crime as a job like any other ("a left-handed form of human endeavor," as Emmerich says), has been copied innumerable times. But the original remains sharp.

The extras include a trailer and a short introduction by Huston. USC professor Drew Casper provides a largely academic commentary track. It's worth listening to for the brief contributions by actor James Whitmore, who offers warm reminiscences of Huston and Monroe.

MURDER, MY SWEET debuted in 1944, a landmark year for film noir that also saw the releases of LAURA and DOUBLE INDEMNITY. This adaptation of Raymond Chandler's FAREWELL, MY LOVELY changed the public perception of actor Dick Powell. The song-and-dance man's natural jauntiness makes him an ideal Philip Marlowe. He handles the voiceover and world-weary quips penned by John Paxton with aplomb. Powell's Marlowe is no iconic character but "a small businessman in a messy business." The messy business in question starts out as a search for a missing girl undertaken at the forceful request of a hoodlum played by noir perennial Mike Mazurki, but ends with Marlowe on the hunt for stolen jade.

Director Edward Dmytryk drafts the noir playbook as he goes: high contrast cinematography, the paranoid sense that the protagonist is and always will be several steps behind his enemies. Dmytryk uses arresting visual tricks to convey Marlowe's state of mind, like cobwebs obscuring the image and black pools that drown the world in darkness whenever the detective gets knocked out. (Three times, by my count.)

Alain Silver, co-editor of the Film Noir Reader series, provides a commentary track studded with facts about the film (Chandler's title was changed so that audiences wouldn't expect a Dick Powell musical) and noir in general (he says 12 films in the genre feature P.I.'s, and half of them are Chandler adaptations).

1949's THE SET-UP may be the least known film in the collection, but no less an authority than Martin Scorsese calls it a masterpiece. He appears on a commentary track with director Robert Wise in a highlight of the set. The film, based on an epic poem by Joseph Moncure March, unfolds in real time, recounting 72 pivotal minutes in the life of boxer Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan). After 20 years in the ring, Stoker is so washed-up that his manager doesn't bother to tell him that he's supposed to take a dive in his next bout. Why cut Stoker in for a share when he's got no chance of winning anyway? It turns out the pug's greatest weakness is his only strength: he has no idea when he's beat.

Sportswriter Art Cohn peppered his screenplay with the language of big dreams ("I've still got my million-to-one shot") and rude awakenings ("Everybody's a sucker for something"). It's in the 20-minute fight sequence that the film truly shines. Scorsese calls it the most visceral in cinema. The word of the director of RAGING BULL is good enough for me. Look fast for the legendary photographer Weegee as the fight's timekeeper.

It's clear from the opening scene of GUN CRAZY (1949), when young Bart Tare steals a gun and flings his arms out like a desperado no one is after, that we're watching a fever dream of a movie. Joseph H. Lewis' low-budget noir has only gained in intensity over the years, owing to a simplicity that cuts dangerously close to the bone. After a stint in a reformatory to curb his unhealthy obsession with firearms, Bart (played as an adult by John Dall) is trying to lead a normal life. But his fate is sealed at a carnival sideshow where he meets trick-shot artist Laurie Starr (the chilling Peggy Cummins). Bart challenges her to a competition, and the resulting shootout is one of the most spellbinding and disturbing love scenes ever filmed. Bart and Laurie take to the road, stealing their way across the country. Their first robbery, captured in a single seamless take from the back seat of their car, has an immediacy that puts contemporary action sequences to shame.

Glenn Erickson, the Web's DVD Savant, provides a breathlessly exhaustive commentary. He contrasts the original short story by MacKinley Kantor and the screenplay by Kantor and Millard Kaufman, working as a front for the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. He also picks out a scene he's certain was added later as a sop to the Production Code, citing its tin-eared dialogue ("We go together, Laurie ... like guns and ammunition") as evidence. The real asset here is the film itself, in a pristine transfer.

And then there's OUT OF THE PAST (1947). The definitive film noir, with a tortured romanticism to match its brooding visuals. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Based on Geoffrey Homes' novel BUILD MY GALLOWS HIGH. Adapted by Homes under the name Daniel Mainwaring, with a strong uncredited assist from Frank Fenton. Kirk Douglas oozes menace in his second screen appearance. Jane Greer - only 22! - plays the most fatale of femmes. And Robert Mitchum stars in the role that defined him for the ages. I'd recount the plot, but untangling it is part of the fun. Instead, I'll give you a sampling of its memorable dialogue, now part of the noir pantheon.

"It was the bottom of the barrel, and I scraped it. But I didn't care. I had her."

"You look like you're in trouble."
"Why?"
"Because you don't act like it."

"We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked."

"You can never help anything, can you? You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another."

"I don't want to die."
"Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

The commentary by James Ursini - the other editor of the Film Noir readers - is informative, but I wish that Warner had secured the rights to the track recorded by noted film critic David Thomson for the film's 1991 laserdisc release. Ursini refers to a 1987 Saturday Night Live takeoff on the film featuring Mitchum and Greer that would have made a splendid extra. Sadly, it's not here. But the movie is at long last on DVD, an event that should bring a smile to the face of any noir fan. Assuming, of course, that that's possible.