Pop Culture, High and Low, Past and Present.
One Day at a Time



Column from M*F #44

Column from M*F #43

Reviews from M*F #42

Mystery*File Home Page



In the Frame, my column of book and movie reviews

From Mystery*File #45 (August 2004):


I know I'm in the minority on this, but George P. Pelecanos' music references leave me cold. Titles and artists are listed two or three deep on every other page, many of them obscure enough to feel exclusionary. Ultimately this name-dropping tells me more about the author than his characters.

Other than that, I have few complaints. HARD REVOLUTION (Little, Brown, hardcover, April 2004) is the author's latest fusion of urban crime novel and social critique. Here, Pelecanos brings the historical sweep of his D.C. Quartet to bear on Derek Strange, the African-American private investigator who is one of the protagonists of his last cycle of novels. The previous entry in that series, SOUL CIRCUS, left Strange in uncharted waters. Pelecanos turns to the character's past as a way of giving insight into his future.

The novel opens with a lengthy prologue set in 1959, when Derek is a young man savoring the last of his childhood. Pelecanos introduces us to a sizeable cast of characters, including an assortment of neighborhood toughs destined to cause trouble and Derek's immediate family. Particular attention is paid to Derek's relationship with his older brother Dennis, a one-time Navy man slowly getting lost in a miasma of addiction.

The remainder of the story unfolds in the tumultuous spring of 1968. Derek is a rookie police officer, and Dennis is torn between the burgeoning black power movement and a life of crime. The slow build-up soon gives way to masterful editing as the characters' lives collide. Even for Pelecanos, this book is blisteringly cinematic. His prose is simple and unadorned, at times so much so that it feels like he's determined to dot every 'i.' ("Derek and Billy lived a few short miles apart, but the difference in their lives and prospects was striking.") Turn the page and it reads like telegraphed poetry, as when a man is shot during a robbery: "He saw fire and his mother and nothing at all." Pelecanos provides brief flashes of insight into minor players like a high school janitor and an ex-con-turned-mechanic that lend the book uncommon dimension. Few writers deal with the day-to-day indignities of racism better; a scene where Mrs. Strange's white employer commiserates with her about reported lynchings while carefully separating the dishes each of them has used is quietly devastating. The novel culminates in a painstaking recreation of the riots that swept Washington, D.C. in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination that is a true tour de force.

Terry Quinn always seemed the more interesting figure in Pelecanos' last few books. He was deeply conflicted, while Derek Strange had his act together. It's clear now that in the earlier works Pelecanos was playing the silences of Strange's character while in HARD REVOLUTION he plays the notes. Together, they form the full measure of a man.

Great. Now he's got me making musical references, too.

Reed Farrel Coleman introduced his sort-of P.I. Moe Prager in 2002's WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE. The self-deprecating Moe, an ex-New York police officer sidelined by an accident involving a sheet of carbon paper, seemed tailor-made for a series. But SQUARE, with its intricate structure set in 1978 and 1998, took the character full circle and ended with such finality that it almost precluded bringing him back. Coleman skirts the dilemma by setting the follow-up, REDEMPTION STREET (Viking, hardcover, March 2004), in 1981. The approach means some of Moe's complexity is lost, but we also get to spend more time in his company.

Moe is now a successful wine-store owner, but the measure of fame he achieved as a police officer still attracts strays like Arthur Rosen. Rosen has dedicated his life to proving that the 1965 fire at a Catskills resort that claimed his sister's life was no accident. Now he wants Moe to join his crusade. Moe is not inclined to take the case until he learns that one of the fire's other victims was his high school crush. A girl he still pines for.

Again Coleman vividly depicts the Big Apple's darker days, but he also turns his sharp eye to the waning glory of the Catskills. The once-storied hotels that catered to the Jewish community are collapsing into ruin, and the area is now home to neo-Nazis and cult members. In spite of these groups, REDEMPTION STREET is somewhat underpopulated, making the mystery's solution easy to divine. But Moe's wise, weary attitude is a powerful draw. The book's last page strikes a perfect, heart-breaking note of melancholy.

Jodi Compton makes a solid debut with THE 37TH HOUR (Delacorte Press, hardcover, December 2003). Minnesota sheriff's detective Sarah Pribek specializes in missing persons cases. She's taken to working on her own while her partner and mentor Genevieve Brown recovers from the shocking murder of her daughter. Sarah is also a newlywed, but her marriage of two months already faces a hurdle. Her husband Michael Shiloh is leaving the Minneapolis Police Department to enter the FBI Academy, a development that may force Sarah to make changes in her own career. Then Shiloh fails to arrive in Virginia for his training. As Sarah delves into his disappearance with fitful help from Genevieve, she begins to realize how little she knows about the man she married.

Sarah is a compelling protagonist, competent and compassionate yet constantly on the verge of giving over to her darkest fears. Compton's writing is spare and evocative, which eases the blow of a story that grows progressively bleaker. She has a marvelous sense of place, creating vivid locales not just in the Twin Cities but in Utah. Shiloh grew up as the child of evangelical Christians in a Mormon stronghold, and the thorny family relationships that may have had a role in his fate are deftly rendered. The book has its share of flaws. There's a dream sequence late in the narrative that's a grievous misstep, and once the question of Shiloh's whereabouts is answered the ending comes rather abruptly. But the story is not about that mystery so much as the fundamental unknowability of others, even the ones we love. It's a potent theme that Compton explores with delicacy and skill.


Samuel Fuller has long been a favorite among connoisseurs of the B-movie, largely because he consistently delivered on the lurid promise of the form. This former tabloid journalist's name on a film means larger-than-life characters, shocking plot twists, and an emotional level that is tightly controlled yet just short of hysteria.

1953's PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET marked one of the few times this maverick worked with a major studio, in this case Fox. Critic Luc Sante calls the film "quintessential noir ... a penny dreadful with one hundred layers of felt meaning." It recently made its DVD debut in a special edition from the Criterion Collection.

Richard Widmark stars as Skip McCoy, one of New York's finest pickpockets. (Or, in the script's joyously knotty slang, a top cannon who binges girls on the subway.) He's so slick that he raids Jean Peters' purse while she makes eyes at him. Unfortunately for McCoy, Peters is being used by her boyfriend (Richard Kiley) to deliver a strip of microfilm to his Communist masters. That microfilm is now in McCoy's possession, and everyone from Peters to Uncle Sam wants to get their hands on it.

It's a fairly conventional premise by Fuller standards, but one fleshed out with many of the director's trademarks: punchy dialogue, a reporter's eye for detail (note the elaborate hidey-hole Widmark has crafted for his swag), bruising physical action. The closing fight scene between Widmark and Kiley in the subway is a marvel, shot in long, extended takes that allow the stuntmen to savage each other with gusto.

PICKUP is an odd duck among Red Scare films in that it views the Cold War as just another con, one perpetrated on a global scale. Fuller said that Kiley's character is not a Communist, but a man who'd do anything for a buck and doesn't care where it comes from. The theme hits home when an FBI agent appeals to McCoy's patriotism only to have the thief cock an eyebrow and ask, "Are you wavin' the flag at me?" Fuller is far more interested in anatomizing the underworld, which he approaches like an anthropologist. The rules of this world are best laid out in the relationship between McCoy and Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), the aging informer who sells him to the police. McCoy doesn't bear her any ill will because, in his words, "she's gotta eat." Moe says that McCoy "is shifty as smoke, but I love him." They're simply people doing their jobs, and doing them well.

So are the actors. Widmark is at his cocky best, striding into every shot like he owns the joint. He's the living embodiment of Fuller's belief that petty criminals makes the best heroes because they're never late and they don't scare easily. But it's Ritter who walks off with the movie. She takes a stock character and invests her with a history that registers in her weary walk. Her final scene, when she returns to her tiny apartment and confronts the totality of her life, is unforgettable.

Criterion's transfer of the film is sharp, restoring the tabloid immediacy of the cinematography. The disc features Criterion's usual bounty of extras: an extensive collection of stills from the movie, trailers from other Fuller films like FIXED BAYONETS, HOUSE OF BAMBOO and THE NAKED KISS. Text materials include a Widmark interview and an illustrated biographical essay. But aficionados know that nobody talks about Samuel Fuller like the man himself. He weighs in twice on the disc. In a 1982 installment of the French documentary series 'Cinema Cinemas,' he screens the opening minutes of PICKUP on a Moviola and explains his process. He's in great form in an interview conducted by Richard Schickel in the early 1990s, cigar at the ready, gravelly voice in full cry. He recounts a dinner he had prior to filming PICKUP with Fox chief Daryl Zanuck and FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover. I have no idea if the story is true. I certainly hope it is.

DVD mania is rescuing plenty of lesser-known films from oblivion. The 1948 noir curio BLONDE ICE, long thought of as lost, has been issued on home video for the first time by VCI Entertainment. The image quality is poor, but considering the source material (two flawed prints and a portion of a third), the restoration job is remarkable.

Leslie Brooks stars as Claire Cummings, a woman who has labored mightily to reinvent herself as a San Francisco gossip columnist and new society wife. We get the sense that her marriage may be in trouble, though, when she plants a kiss on her ex-beau Robert Paige at the reception and tells him, "I'll think about you on my honeymoon." Her husband quickly sees through her, so Claire kills him and sets her sights on a high-powered attorney while stringing Paige along. Jack Bernhard directs with brutal ingenuity in the Poverty Row style, but the film is primarily worth seeing for Brooks' performance. Her character is perhaps the first 'black widow' killer in the movies, and she sinks her teeth into the role with a ferocity that hasn't diminished over time.

The supplemental material, sadly, is a disappointment. There's plenty to choose from, but it has a slapdash quality. The selection of film noir trailers is actually a choppily-edited compilation of scenes from titles like IMPACT and THE LIMPING MAN. The text material is riddled with typos, and an essay exploring the possibility that noted B-movie director Edgar G. Ulmer (DETOUR) wrote the film's story when it was briefly known as SINGLE INDEMNITY raises more questions than it answers. Film historian Jay Fenton's exceedingly dry interview and commentary are of interest solely to restoration buffs.

An odd 1952 musical short, "Satan Wears A Satin Gown" featuring crooner Ray Barber, is included, along with an episode of a noir-style TV series set in London called INTO THE NIGHT ... unless it's an L.A.-based cop show called HOMICIDE SQUAD, starring Wallace Ford. Both titles appear in the credit sequence, although I could not locate either one in any television reference guide. The DVD doesn't clear matters up, failing to provide any background information on the show. It's great to have BLONDE ICE available to the public again. But Leslie Brooks' revelatory performance is a glittering jewel in an inferior setting.