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One Day at a Time
In the Frame, my column of book and movie reviews
From Mystery*File #43 (April 2004):
It was only a matter of time before enterprising suspense authors turned from the front page to the business section in their hunt for hissable villains. With the past few years of financial scandals as grist and John Grisham's THE FIRM as a model, the corporate thriller is ripe for a dotcom age comeback. Fortunately, the first such novel out of the gate, Joseph Finder's PARANOIA (St. Martin's Press, hardcover, January 2004), has been crafted by capable hands.
Adam Cassidy, bored by his low-level job at Wyatt Telecom, gets caught committing what he thinks is petty malfeasance. But CEO Nicholas Wyatt doesn't fire him. Instead he blackmails Adam into going undercover at the company's largest competitor. A crash makeover as a wunderkind lands Adam a new job at Trion Systems. He wins the trust of the company's kindly founder and woos a beautiful coworker. He also hates himself every minute of the day, and starts hatching a plan that will allow him to escape Wyatt's hold while keeping his new life intact.
The story moves at a propulsive clip. Adam is compelled to think on his feet on almost every page. The book earns its title; Finder makes being at the wrong end of a question during a PowerPoint presentation every bit as terrifying as being at the wrong end of a gun. His send-up of corporate lingo and the constant jockeying for position in even the most mundane workday matters is ruthless. Adam's intrigues are always believable, largely because Finder, a former CIA officer, shows how espionage techniques can be applied to the business world.
The author isn't above stacking the deck in his favor, though. Nicholas Wyatt is roughly as evil as THE SIMPSONS' Montgomery Burns, while Trion boss Jock Goddard has more in common with St. Nick than anyone profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Even Adam's crime - using company money to fund a retirement party for a blue-collar worker who would otherwise be forgotten - is calculated to show Adam in the best possible light. Finder does perhaps too good a job getting into the head of his callow lead character; Adam is constantly dismissing literary and historical references as over his head, and has a fondness for frat-boy phrases like 'bodacious ta-tas.' The portrait is nicely balanced by Adam's relationships with his aging father, his father's caregiver, and a slacker best friend who's determined not to 'sell out.' There's an opportunity for Adam to turn to a friend with criminal contacts to bail him out of his troubles, but Finder wisely avoids the cliché and forces Adam to rely on his own resources, which prove surprisingly ample.
The final twist is not the shocker that Finder thinks it is, but it does clear up a few lingering questions. The closing scenes paint such a bleak picture of the business world that they raise the possibility that Finder set out to write not a thriller but a satire, a black comedy of ethics. It's a testament to Finder's skill that PARANOIA succeeds on both levels.
City Lights Noir has done American readers the great service of introducing the works of Jean-Patrick Manchette (THREE TO KILL, THE PRONE GUNMAN) to these shores. Their latest effort reverses the cultural flow, showcasing an American author who previously had only been published in France.
Elizabeth Stromme's JOE'S WORD (trade paperback, October 2003) focuses on the job of public writer, a position common in immigrant communities throughout France. Joe shares space with the ladies of the Hair Today salon and writes whatever the citizens of the ethnically diverse Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park need. Puffed-up résumés, threatening letters, eulogies; Joe will pen them all for a price. It's a hard way to make a living, but bit by bit it draws Joe into the lives of the people around him.
JOE'S WORD is, to say the least, an odd book. It contains several criminal threads - the crash of an LAPD helicopter during a purported drug bust, an oracular bum who draws an uncommon amount of police attention, the suspicious reappearance of an old friend who may know about Joe embezzling from the Peace Corps - that never coalesce into an actual plot, but that are eventually resolved and add heft to the story. At times, it seems the only mystery is why the book was released under the noir label. But Stromme's vision of Echo Park provides the answer. Her meticulously etched study of the neighborhood, rich in detail, is steeped in the noir world of people living on the fringes, taunted by broken dreams and desires beyond their grasp.
The jacket copy makes a few grandiose claims for the book, calling it the spiritual conclusion to the L.A. crime trilogy begun by CHINATOWN and THE TWO JAKES. One of the blurbs says it's as funny as the Coen Brothers' crackpot noir THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which is patently untrue; nothing is as funny as THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Such comparisons are usually misleading, never more so than in this case. JOE'S WORD is a singular book, one that defies description even as it haunts the reader.
In THE BODY OF DAVID HAYES (Hyperion, hardcover, April 2004), the ninth entry in his series about Seattle police detective Lou Boldt, Ridley Pearson shows a refreshing willingness to play with expectations. He shifts the focus to Boldt's wife Liz, a cancer survivor and bank executive. Years earlier, with her marriage to Boldt in trouble, Liz had a brief affair with David Hayes, a younger colleague. After they broke up, Hayes stole seventeen million dollars from the bank. When he's released from prison under questionable circumstances, he contacts Liz for help in retrieving the money, which remains hidden in the bank's computers. If she refuses him, word of her indiscretion will leak out and destroy her career, her marriage, and her family.
Pearson demonstrates obvious affection for his characters, especially Liz. Every aspect of her life, from exercise habits to personal faith, has changed as result of her battle with cancer, and Pearson takes that transformation seriously. The book focuses squarely on the day-to-day difficulties of marriage, so that series regulars John LaMoia and Daphne Matthews - who shares a romantic history of her own with Boldt - take secondary roles here.
It's unfortunate, then, that the plot not only fails to live up to this level of character development but actively impedes it. The convoluted storyline, involving the Russian mafia and the shadowy agendas of other law enforcement officers, gets bogged down in a morass of cross-purposes that saps the book's energy. The title to the contrary, David Hayes is a minor character, and what little we see of him is unpleasant. It's difficult to fathom how, even in a moment of weakness, Liz Boldt could jeopardize her marriage for him.
As usual, Pearson's clean writing style conveys the technical and procedural information well. But his determination to maintain a breathless pace results in transitions between scenes and chapters that are rushed and at times unclear. What's more damaging is that this frenzied clip comes at the expense of characterization. The Boldts are reduced to discussing their fragile marriage in flurries of therapy-speak before the next hectic action sequence. The end result is an uneven novel that works against the author's skills and his intent.
One of the cinematic high points of 2003 was Rialto Pictures' release of the director's cut of Jean-Pierre Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE. When the heist thriller was originally screened in the United States in 1970, forty minutes had been trimmed from its running time. They've been restored in the new print, which is now available in a two-disc Criterion Collection DVD.
Alain Delon's Corey is an icy thief just out of prison. Gian Maria Volonte, a familiar face from Sergio Leone Westerns, plays Vogel, another criminal whose daring escape from a police escort on a train opens the movie. The two rogues decide to throw in together. Corey provides the job, a supposedly foolproof jewelry store robbery planned by a prison guard. Vogel supplies the third member of the team: a marksman who happens to be an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand).
The film unfolds at a fleet 140 minutes; frankly, it's impossible to tell where those considerable earlier cuts could have been made. Melville's penultimate film is the epitome of new wave noir, its swaggering gangsters in big cars both self-consciously theatrical and effortlessly cool. As is always the case in Melville's hypermasculine world, women are exiled to the margins, but here he's able to pierce the armor of his characters. The scene where the demons of Montand's addiction take on physical form still has the power to startle.
Criterion's transfer is typically immaculate, doing justice to the film's autumnal palette. The discs' extras focus primarily on the cult of Jean-Pierre Melville, and deservedly so. He cuts quite the noir figure himself in his ever-present Stetson, sunglasses and trench coat. A weirdly arch - or perhaps just French - 1971 TV documentary allows the director to explain why he's drawn to the genre, saying that "the police thriller is the only modern form of tragedy possible." He also details the history of LE CERCLE ROUGE, recounting a late-night walk in 1950 when he cased the jewelry store in the film's location and determined how to break in, only to have RIFIFI and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE steal his thunder. The extras also offer the bewildering spectacle of Melville and the ultra-suave Delon appearing on a French talk show, the sort of goodie that DVDs were invented for.
Another of Criterion's 2003 releases represents the format at its most instructive - and exhaustive. In 1927, Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers" was published. A pair of hired guns take over a small town diner so they can kill a regular customer known as 'the Swede.' When he fails to show, the hoodlums leave to ambush him at home. Another customer is able to get word to the Swede, who refuses to run, choosing instead to accept his death. The story is often cited as an example of early noir writing, and went on to inspire two feature film adaptations. Both are collected on Criterion's two-disc set called ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S THE KILLERS.
The 1946 version is easily the better film. Directed by Robert Siodmak, it opens with Hemingway's story virtually intact. The bravura sequence ends with the death of one-time boxer Ole Anderson, played by Burt Lancaster. When insurance investigator Edmond O'Brien goes to deliver the meager death benefits to an Atlantic City hotel maid only to learn that she barely knew the Swede, his curiosity is piqued. He eventually unearths the tortured truth, meted out in flashback. As is so often the case, the Swede's bad luck begins with a bad girl (Ava Gardner). It's a gripping picture, with Lancaster at the start of his career and O'Brien at his most dogged. I wouldn't have minded some more background on the film's screenplay - John Huston contributed to the script but left the project after clashing with producer Mark Hellinger, resulting in a solo credit for Anthony Veiller - but the film more than speaks for itself.
The 1964 adaptation, helmed by Don Siegel, is more problematic. As Siegel points out in excerpts from his memoirs which are included on the disc, Hemingway's story, brilliant as it is, doesn't actually make a great deal of sense. Why would two assassins take over a diner, tell the customers what they intend to do, then let them go when their plan fails? Siegel's idea was to focus on the essence of the story - "a man who knows he is going to be killed and doesn't run away" - and have the killers themselves do the detective work. Of course, that approach meant that none of Hemingway's original would survive the transfer to the screen, which is why Siegel lobbied to have the film called anything but THE KILLERS. It was a battle he was destined to lose.
The film is primarily remembered today for two quirks of history. It was the first made-for-TV movie, although it ended up being released theatrically because of concerns over its violence. It also marked Ronald Reagan's final appearance as an actor. Lee Marvin gives a chilling, Kabuki-like performance as the hit man obsessed with piecing together his last job. He's well-matched with Clu Gulager, playing a character who embodies Charles Willeford's phrase "blithe psychopath." It's too bad they disappear for whole chunks of the film as we learn the story of the Swede, reborn here as race-car driver Johnny North (John Cassavetes, never making the part his own). Ronald Reagan seems uncomfortable in his role as crime boss Jack Browning, although Angie Dickinson does her best to loosen him up.
Again the events leading up to the hit are relayed in flashback, but in a manner that lacks the rigor of the 1946 version. Characters relate incidents that they could have no knowledge of, in sequences that go on too long. In his memoirs, Siegel explains that a film made for TV, broken up by commercials, could not support multiple flashbacks, so he intentionally compressed the scenes. He might have been right, but watching the film uninterrupted becomes a chore. Siegel's characteristically muscular direction helps. So does seeing the future President of the United States and the godfather of American independent film dressed as phony cops.
An interview with Gulager is the best extra on the 1964 disc. It's overly arty in its execution, but the actor shares some great tidbits, like the fact that Marvin played his extraordinary last scene while completely drunk. The real treasures accompany the 1946 version, including the full text of Paul Schrader's landmark essay 'Notes on Film Noir' and an interview with crime novelist Stuart Kaminsky, who ably parses the differences between the original story and both films. Most remarkably, the staff at Criterion has assembled every other incarnation of THE KILLERS. There's an audio version of the Hemingway short, vigorously acted by Stacy Keach; a 1948 radio dramatization of the movie from Screen Director's Playhouse; and a 1956 adaptation from the Soviet Union co-directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, who would go on to become an art-house icon. Clear the decks if you plan on settling down with these discs to give yourself time to savor them.