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High Sierra: Bogart’s Breakthrough Role

17 Mar

HIGHSIERRA_2Lead character Mad Dog Earle is a cold-blooded killer at the beginning of High Sierra (1941). But by the end he’s helped heal a disabled young woman and fallen hard for a cocktail dancer named Marie (Ida Lupino), in a rare noir western that would be the breakthrough film cementing Humphrey Bogart’s A-List Star status. Unlike Private Investigator Sam Spade, the main character in the Maltese Falcon, also made in 1941 and starring Bogart, Roy Earle is a hardened criminal. The character is the literal half-way point for Bogie’s evolution from B-movie gangster tough guy to screen preeminence as ultra-cool, bowtie and tuxedo wearing Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942).

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Bogart’s breakthrough-role involves the wide-ranging emotional landscape Bogart would dominate in from the early-40’s into the early-to-mid fifties. But in 1941, he was breaking into the mainstream as a tough guy with a heart. Bogart’s characters would still be tough and more than able to defend themselves, simultaneously someone you wouldn’t want to mess with while every woman in the world secretly wanted to be in love with – they would mellow over time like fine aged whiskey.

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High Sierra is known for being the movie where Bogart showed true range. He let’s himself fall in love with Marie – yet remains wildly unstable. And while the film may seem dated to some, unlike Falcon and Casablanca which seem to retain their style and freshness timelessly – High Sierra is well worth-watching to see the genesis of the Bogart character coming into it’s own. Mad Dog has a vulnerability that is meant to be ironic and against-type, and it’s exactly the role Bogart needs to test the romantic waters for Casablanca.

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Bogart was not at all sure audiences would buy him as a romantic lead in 1942. It was the experience of shooting High Sierra that gave him the initial confidence to take the Casablanca role. And while Sam Spade was toying with Brigette O’Shaunessy (Mary Astor), through most of Maltese Falcon, Rick is truly smitten with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca. The vulnerability Bogart is able to show and still remain manly and tough in Casablanca began in High Sierra. I won’t spoil the ending, but just watch for the moment when Bogart’s Roy Earle decides maybe love is worth sacrificing for, if not the greater good.

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Bogart with his trademark Mad Dog Earle haircut yukking it up with his High Sierra director, Raoul Walsh.

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Garbo: Oscar-Winning Real Life Heroine

24 Feb

Greta Garbo is considered the Queen of the Hollywood Golden Age, from her silent films to her sound film classics. She was nominated four times for an Oscar for Best Actress award: In 1929, Garbo received two nominations for films Anne Christie and Romance, losing to Norma Shearer in the Oscar’s inaugural year. Then again for Camille in 1937, and finally Ninotchka in 1939. She would later receive an honorary Oscar in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards (of course, which she refused to attend) for her “luminous and unforgettable screen performances.”

Garbo was the biggest star in Hollywood in 1939. Her Oscar-nominated star turn in comedy Ninotchka with the tag-line GARBO LAUGHS was atop a crowded box office landscape in a year that would see film classics Gone with The Wind, Wuthering Heights, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Wizard of Oz in their first run glory. But it was an off-screen role Garbo was preparing for that might be considered the greatest role of her lifetime.

It’s almost hard to comprehend being on the brink of world war today – but the average American citizen, circa 1939 had a lot of things on her mind. And if you happened to be the greatest movie star ever to grace the earth, the one the Guinness Book of World Records declared the most “beautiful woman that ever lived”  – you were apparently thinking of assassination in 1939. Not only thinking about it but preparing for it with the help of a foreign spy agency.

It was all part of a secret plot to do nothing short of save the planet from another devastating world war. Of intelligence officers from the British MI6 instructing the consummate actress in how to prepare to do the unthinkable: to shoot a man in cold blood. A man who was arguably your biggest fan. A man who wrote you fan letters begging you to be his country’s Aryan Goddess. Become the woman who would embody the epitome of his master race.

Adolf Hitler was goofy over Garbo. He obsessed over the black and white image of her dying in Camille. Watched her die over and over again in his own private screening room every night. It was true, no one died like Garbo. In the final moments of portraying the famous Camille the Parisian Courtesan, Hitler watched Garbo cross over from life into afterlife. Fascinated with the Occult, Hitler fantasized her a goddess come to life, only to die on screen for the world’s sins. He wanted to gaze upon her close up and in color. So much so that Hitler formally invited her to come to Nazi Germany under the grandest of circumstances.

But Garbo would have none of it. If she agreed to come, it would be under cover, and on orders of her spy handlers at MI6. Her cover story would be supplied by another undercover agent working for the Allied cause, Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda. Garbo and Korda had worked together several times during WWII. He had introduced her to William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, the British secret agency’s senior representative for the entire Western world during the war. Intrepid was thought to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s master spy: James Bond. And he would help Garbo prepare for the “Big One” – the plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Ideally, Garbo would travel to Germany, meet with Heir Hitler, and murder him before the war even began. Garbo later told her close friend Sam Green: “Mr Hitler was big on me. He kept writing and inviting me to come to Germany, and if the war hadn’t started when it did I would have gone and I would have taken a gun out of my purse and shot him because I’m the only person who would not have been searched.”

Garbo planned her trip to England (enroute to Nazi Germany) under the guise of shooting a feature film about one of her personal favorite heroines. With the help of Hedda Hopper, the biggest gossip columnist of 1939, a snippet from her popular Los Angeles Times column declared: “Great Garbo has finally got the role she’s been waiting for. She’ll sail sometime in September (1939) for England to play Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan under the direction of Clarence Brown.

Sure enough, the British Press picked up and published the ruse, complete with the film to be produced by Rank at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire – 17 miles outside London, England.

The war in Europe began on September 3, 1939. But what if Garbo had embarked on her journey, on the eve of World War II? Made her way via ocean liner to a fateful meeting with the madman of Europe. Even to save the world, would the most glamorous movie star in the world have been able to take a gun out of her purse and pulled the trigger. Killed Hitler in cold blood? Play the heroine, like she did in Mata Hari, and Queen Christina for real? And what would the world look like today if she had succeeded?

Order Looking For Garbo: A Novel (Amphorae Publishing) coming on May 7 and find out what might have happened on Garbo’s fateful trip into history:

 

I Am The Night: The Black Dahlia’s Final Resting Place is in Oakland, CA

27 Jan

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On January 15, 1947, in the early morning hours of a chilly Wednesday in Los Angeles Betty Bersinger took a stroll with her daughter and spotted what they thought was a mannequin tossed onto the ground. Dumped in an abandoned lot in Leimert Park, the mannequin turned out to be the body of a murdered young woman: 22-year old Elizabeth Short aka The Black Dahlia.

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The LA press chose the name Black Dahlia after a film noir released shortly before the murder starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd called The Blue Dahlia. I was shocked to find that Elizabeth Short is one of the most famous people buried in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, near to where I live. But how did the Black Dahlia’s final resting place end up being a sprawling, Oakland cemetery instead of Los Angeles where she was killed?

Short’s mother, Phoebe M. Short, arrived at San Francisco Airport on Jan. 18, 1947 – three days after her daughter’s body was found in the Los Angeles lot. Phoebe had flown from her home in Medford, Massachusetts  to see two of her five daughters. Virginia West, who lived in Berkeley, greeted her at the airport. But Elizabeth had never shown for the family reunion and nobody in her family knew why.

Elizabeth Short, with blue-green eyes and raven hair – wanted to be a movie star. And like hundreds of thousands of young women before and after her, she came to Los Angeles with stars in her eyes and very little else. No family or friends, the Medford woman would often date men to get a meal – not an uncommon occurrence for a struggling actress who had more ambition than connections in the City of Angels.

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The gruesome murder generated several weeks of newspaper headlines in LA’s four major dailies. Reporters started referring to Short as the Black Dahlia, and would do anything to get a scoop on the crime of the century. An ambitious young rewrite man from the LA Examiner named Wain Sutton tracked down Phoebe Short while in San Francisco Bay Area. Sutton told Mrs. Short that Elizabeth had won a contest and wanted background information on her for the public prize announcement. But after squeezing as much information out of the mom about her dead daughter, the city editor told the brash reporter to inform Phoebe of her daughter’s ghastly demise.

The LA Examiner flew Phoebe Short down to Los Angeles in exchange for an exclusive. But the distraught Mother refused to identify her daughter’s remains for two days, preferring to remember Elizabeth as she had been. Phoebe appeared at the Los Angeles District Attorney Inquest on Jan. 22, 1947. The Black Dahlia’s body arrived in Oakland a day later. The LAPD conducted house-to-house searches for the next month to find her murderer but never did. The case is still unsolved.

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Elizabeth Short was laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery on January 25, 1947, ten days after her mutilated body had been found by a mother and her young daughter. In attendance were her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a pair of reporters. Over 70 years after her death, a Black Dahlia cocktail is served at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, where Short was last seen alive, and a new TNT miniseries called I Am The Night sheds light on her murder case.

Whoever Elizabeth Short’s killer was, they were someone looking for publicity. Over the ensuing months after her murder – the killer sent letters to the press signed mockingly as the “Black Dahlia Avenger,” and distributed packages containing her clothes to media outlets. This lasted throughout the investigations and made Elizabeth Short more famous than any Hollywood starlet for the rest of 1947.

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Today, Elizabeth is best remembered for the horrific details of her death. But her modest gravemarker in the Oakland Hills gives no indication of her infamous murder case, or her ambition to be famous one day. It simply reads, “Elizabeth Short, Daughter July 29, 1924 – January 15, 1947.” But her fans know better and have been coming to Oakland to give their respects more and more over the years. They pass by the Ghirardelli Chocolate family crypt, turn a sharp left and climb the tall stack of steep cement stairs to get to Elizabeth’s final resting place. For them, she’s the reason they came to East Bay, to reflect on her abbreviated, short life and  place their Black Dahlias.

Dropping In: An Actor’s Truth as Poetry

29 Dec

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Dropping-in is a technique Tina and Kristin Linklater developed together in the early 1970s to create a spontaneous, emotional connection to words for Shakespearean actors. In fact, “dropping in” is integral to actor training at Shakespeare & Co. (the company the Linklater’s founded) a way to start living the word and using it to create the experience of the thing the word represents.

The process of dropping-in involves a teacher and student, the former asking questions and the latter repeating the word in the text (in bold below). The process gives each operative word depth and dimension and allows it to come into the body. Apparently, it can also release strong emotions. Once an emotional connection is made with individual words, then phrases or sentences can be strung together and “dropped-in.” Here’s an example from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the sentence:

“May All To Athens Back Again Repair”

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Do you like the month of May? May.

Do you hate the month of May? May.

Do you say “May I?” May.

Say “all the days of May?” (three times fast)

“All the days of May. All the days of May. All the days of May.”

All to Athens

Is Athens a mythical place? Athens.

Is Theseus the ruler of Athens? Athens.

Is Athens in Greece? Athens.

Is Athens a state of mind? Athens.

Back Again Repair

Have you ever repaired an injury? Repair.

Have you ever repaired another repair? Repair.

Will the lovers’ be able to repair their relationship? Repair.

Shall we repair together? Repair.

Will we be able to repair the repair? Repair.

Personally, I have no idea if this actor process works. All I know is that Shakespeare is the most demanding when it comes to recitation and an actor’s breathing is essential to getting through a scene. The first time I witnessed dropping-in, I was struck by what appeared an incidental form of spoken word. It was from my favorite movie of 2017. You can see the scene I’m talking about here. Special kudos to Ryan Gosling, who borrowed the lines spoken from Nabokov’s novel and epic poem, Pale Fire.

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Sometime, I’ll have to try this technique with my writing. Maybe when I write my first play. For now, I like these dropping in exercises for their poetic appeal. With two talented actors, I can imagine being riveted as they help each other “drop-in” words.

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Pale Fire is also a fascinating book if you’ve never read it!

 

Garbo – The Art of Visual Contact

4 Nov

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When I searched for Garbo photos the other night, I was once again sucked into a vortex of trying to find the one photo that defined this divinely beautiful woman. And once again, I was reminded after two hours of stunning image after stunning image – that the camera loved this woman like no other before or since.

Garbo was photogenic like no other human had ever been before her. Partly this was because the still photography of her day was becoming more and more advanced, able to capture images with such clarity and detail than ever before in human history. But even candid images of Garbo from early in her career would indicate a bigger explanation: The woman was naturally photogenic, even in the worst light, captured by the cheapest photographic equipment. Because when your model is a goddess, you can be the worst photographer in the world and it won’t matter.

I chose the image of Garbo above to accompany this meandering stream of consciousness on her beauty because she is in her silent movie phase here – where literally every emotion must be conveyed visually. Silent movies were the world’s introduction to Garbo. She was an international phenomenon since her earliest silent movies for MGM. They also happen to have produced the greatest still images of the star – when black and white visual contact was first made with the larger world – then she completely dominated for the next decade.

Garbo’s sound movies arguably are the reason we remember her today. She conquered sound the way she had light: her low-contralto matched perfectly with her visual effects. I daresay the true test of Garbo’s beauty is time itself. Whether silent or early sound, her movies are but time capsules through which Garbo’s eternal beauty still shines as bright as the day it was captured in silver. The men and women behind the camera in those early days obviously knew what they were doing recording this beautiful creature. But I doubt they realized how long after they were dead and gone – someone in the early years of the 21st century would see these images and marvel at how the woman they worked hard to immortalize on film – would be as popular today as in those early years of the 20th century in which they lived.

Greta Garbo became famous without uttering a word. Then, she became more famous when we heard her voice for the first time. But it is my believe that she was the most beautiful when she simply stared directly in the camera at us. That’s when Garbo is the most entrancing and intoxicating, as she beckons us to join her at her table and have a martini – for old time’s sake.

 

Blade Runner 2049: A Worthy Sequel

12 Oct

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Blade Runner 2049 was by far the best movie-going experience I have had in a long time. So much so that I’m going to the theater again this weekend to watch it on the big screen before it disappears. By no means a box office bomb, BR2049 was unable to excite the all-important 25 – 34 age demo Warner Bros. was hoping would show up.

But you know what? I don’t care. Because the film stands alone as a masterpiece and a worthy sequel to the groundbreaking original – which just so happened to tank at the box office 35 years ago – even with Harrison Ford headlining! It goes to show that audiences still don’t have a clue when it comes to what truly matters in a movie: astounding visuals and a narrative that makes the audience think.

I predict that Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 will in the end inevitably spawn another sequel, just not anytime soon. I’m predicting a Blade Runner 2079, in which you’ll be able to literally enter the movie’s environment and maybe even walk beside whomever is the lead actor in that futuristic flick. Maybe by then, we won’t measure a movie’s impact by how much money it made at the box office. Maybe by then, audiences will be replicants themselves – watching the movie and laughing how right the filmmakers were back in the dark ages of 1982 and 2017.

For now, I’m telling everyone and everyone to watch this movie in the theater while they still have the chance. It’s truly a magnificent piece of filmmaking – and you probably won’t have any problem getting a good seat in your neighborhood multiplex in spite of that fact.

 

 

Live Long and Prosper: My Ben Cooper Spock Halloween Costume

8 Sep

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It seems like only yesterday that my older brother Tom and I watched Star Trek on the family’s old Sony 15-inch color television set. I wasn’t sure whether the technicolor of the original show was reduced even more by our tiny set (our oldest brother watched the first moon-landing on it – that’s how old this TV was) but every show came across as if drenched in vibrant, primary colors. So, it wasn’t much of a stretch when September came around and we made our traditional pilgrimage to the Bantam or Woolworth Five N’ Dime to make the most important decision a kid had to make: What Ben Cooper Halloween costume, with their larger than life masks and uber-bright costume fronts displaying your favorite character – would you get?

Like everything else in life (I would learn this the hard way later on) what I ended up being for Halloween came down to timing. Specifically, how long it took to convince Mom that you had to get your Halloween costume NOW because if you waited too long, you’d end up as something stupid (i.e. all that was left on the shelf). The high-ticket items like Spider-Man, Superman, Batman or Spock would be long gone if you procrastinated about such an important decision. It happened every year. We’d wait too long to go to Woolworth’s, I’d have to “settle” for some inferior pop-culture iconic costume character meant for a little kid like “tweety-bird”, then suffer the indignity of seeing some wretched neighbor’s kid on my street wearing the exact costume I should be wearing on Halloween night. Such was the case with Spock from Star Trek.

Spock was the best character on the original show, hands down. He was smart, strong, logical in an illogical universe, and had those awesome ears. He had the added benefit of being tall and skinny, which I was for my age, too. He projected such a commanding presence, in fact, that I felt I would be “in charge” on Halloween night if I went out as him. No Captain Kirk for me. Spock was the real brains behind the operation, and with my other props – a tricorder, communicator, and phaser set on stun – I could explore my neighborhood as if an alien world full of exotic and dangerous creatures; all dressed up in Halloween costumes so you couldn’t easily identify what they were behind those brightly-colored, deceptive masks.

Alas, we never made it to the five-n-dime on time to get Spock. It might have been that our local Woolworth’s didn’t rate more than one or two of him, or, more likely that Spock wasn’t as popular in other households as he was in ours and they may never have ordered a Ben Cooper Spock costume in the first place. So, I would have to go out as Spider-Man again, or, god forbid wear the same Batman costume I’d worn the previous year. That’s why I always kept my mouth shut and never complained to my Mom. Because in a kid’s world back then, going out in the same costume on two consecutive Halloweens was a fate almost as bad a the kid whose Mom kept him home that night because he had something stupid like walking pneumonia. After all, Halloween was all about the action. And the action was walking around in your neighborhood in the pitch black behind a Ben Cooper mask – a new one that smelled like vinyl and made you sweat no matter how cold it was outside. And in that dark abyss of the imagination, whoever said I couldn’t “act” like I was Spock, even if I wasn’t wearing the costume?

But then a wonderful thing happened. Thirty years after the fact, I was finally able to purchase my Ben Cooper Spock costume on ebay. I’m a little embarrassed to say how excited I was when I opened the brown box that it came in the mail and from the first second I laid eyes on Spock’s mask staring up at me (from within the famous cellophane window all Ben Cooper costumes came in) I was beamed back in time. Spock brought me right back to those days I spent watching the original show with my brother Tom. He brought me back to those chilly Halloween nights I’d wished I’d been dressed as TV’s favorite Vulcan. But most of all, that Spock costume with it’s bright mask and tableau on the front, transported me back to when our neighborhood transformed for a precious few hours into a dark and wondrous galaxy, populated by strange yet familiar colorful characters, all running around together under a blanket of stars.

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Nancy Allen: I Want To Hold Her Hand

15 May

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Anyone who is a fanatical film fan will instantly recognize Nancy Allen from one of several iconic roles she portrayed in over 40 years in the business. What amazes me, however, is so many of those roles I had forgotten about over the years. It’s kind of like growing up with someone you went to school with and then losing touch when you graduate. There are so many memories you share that are triggered when you see each other again that come back in a flood. That’s what happened to me recently when I caught sight of Nancy in Carrie (1976).

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Nancy played Chris Hargensen, the most popular girl in high school opposite the least popular, Carrie, played by Sissy Spacek. Nancy did a phenomenal mean girl, defining the archetype for decades to come. It was a monumentous movie for many reasons – Stephen King’s beloved book was successfully translated to film by director Brian DePalma (who would end up marrying Nancy!), it was John Travolta’s breakout movie role, and, the film would usher in the teenage horror genre like none before it.

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The film owes much to Nancy’s role as antagonist. She is such a bitch in the film that sympathy is consistently thrown to Carrie, making the climactic ending all the more satisfying. Nancy played the role to perfection and it would launch her A-List status in Hollywood for the next two decades. But it is the film Nancy made two years later that would really cement her status in film actress history: director Robert Zemeckis’s film debut “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

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I Want To Hold Your Hand is a wonderful movie, full of nostalgia for Beatlemania told on a human scale in the form of Beatles maniacs who will stop at nothing to meet their idols. Nancy is luminous in her obsessive-determined fan role and her performance is worth renting the often-overlooked film.

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As far as music-themed fan-based films, I Want To Hold Your Hand is right up there with That Thing You Do, Starstruck and Backbeat. And if you haven’t heard of those films, you need to stop reading this blog and immediately rent them now.

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Nancy’s next big role was in the thwarted comedy by Steven Spielberg called “1941” (Speilberg had produced I Want To Hold Your Hand). By any standard, 1941 is a hot mess of a movie but it does have it’s moments – one of them being to watch Nancy Allen. It’s almost impossible for me to recommend this movie for any other reason – maybe to watch John Belushi – then again, just stick with watching Nancy and turn it off immediately after.

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Nancy would go on to shine in several movies in 1980, the greatest among them being husband Brian DePalma’s “Dressed To Kill.” This movie is a hot mess too but in a very different and much more entertaining way. For me, Nancy is the emotional center of this movie, scenery-eating portrayals by Micheal Caine and Angie Dickinson notwithstanding. Maybe even because of the camp factor in this splashy, glamour-lit murder/horror show, Nancy looms largest in her portrayal of a call girl who dabbles in the stock market. Also, it is one of the few times in film history when an audience can tell that a director is totally in-love with an actress. Just compare it with any Hitchcock movie and you’ll see what I mean.

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A particularly saucy shot of Nancy seducing the audience from Dressed To Kill.

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At this point in the movie, we don’t know Micheal Caine is a killer. All we know is that Nancy slays in black lingerie.

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After Dressed To Kill, Nancy followed her director-husband’s lead and did “Blow Out” a 1980 thriller starring John Travolta at the height of his initial fame. It bears mentioning that DePalma is the biggest Hitchcock fan on the planet and really took what old Alfred did best and kind of bastardized it in his own films. Please don’t get me wrong, DePalma is a gifted director and made one of my all-time favorite films – The Untouchables. That said, the single-biggest reason to watch Blow Out today is Nancy Allen. She’s smart, she’s sassy and she’s a hell of a lot better actress that young Travolta is in this cross between The Conversation and Blow Up. I’ll let you Google those titles, but they are yet more cinema classics that deserve your attention.

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And now we come to Nancy’s most iconic role: Police Officer Anne Lewis in the seminal sci-fi classic “RoboCop.” The 1987 film was the Hollywood debut of Dutch directorPaul Verhoeven, and did extremely well at the box office. This is by far one of the most intelligent, violent and flat-out balls-to-the wall crowd-pleasers that came out of the 1980s. It would spawn two sequels and become a highly-lucrative franchise for fanboys who couldn’t get enough of Peter Weller’s RoboCop and his sexy, loyal partner, Anne. Again, I think Nancy brings so much heart to the proceedings that it keeps the otherwise over the top movie grounded in an almost romantic realism. I just love everything about her here and believe Nancy was at the at the top of her game.

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Nancy’s evolution from starlet to movie star is one worth revisiting. From her early 1970’s work…

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…to her breakout in Carrie…

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…how much fun does this look like! To her marriage to DePalma and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood heavyweights…

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You know DePalma is in heaven here nestled between two gorgeous and famous blondes…

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To her sexy, smart turn in Dressed To Kill…

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To her cameo in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998) opposite George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez…

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Nancy Allen held her own and portrayed sensitive, often vulnerable no less formidable females on the silver screen.

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Maybe that’s what prepared her for her biggest roles later on in life…

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As an advocate for the environment and activist for breast cancer. Now retired from film, Nancy spends all her time as the executive director of WeSPARK Cancer Support Center. Founded by her longtime friend and I Wanna Hold Your Hand co-star, actress Wendie Jo Sperber, Nancy is an inspiration for breast cancer survivors everywhere. It’s the perfect role for an actress who has made an indelible mark through her beauty, poise and intelligence. Check out http://www.wespark.org/nancy-allen/ and let Nancy know how much you appreciate everything she’s done. It’s one way a fan can give back to a beloved actress whose not only touched there lives through art, but continues to move people through her devotion to a truly-important cause!

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Thanks for all the movie memories and everything you do, Nancy!!

 

The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

31 Jan

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If the stars suddenly aligned on an especially dark night and I was given the chance to remake the film of my choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the movie gods I will do The Maltese Falcon. And if such a cinematic fate befell me, my adaptation would include one special passage in Dashiell Hammet’s novel that has never been translated to film even though at least three film Falcons have soared into movie theaters since the novel debuted in 1930.

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Noir fans call it the “Flitcraft Parable” found in Chapter 7: G in the Air — a short digression completely unrelated to the novel’s plot in which Sam Spade, tells Brigitte O’Shaunessy a little story about a man named Flitcraft.

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In the story, Spade explains how Flitcraft, a real estate agent and family man living in Tacoma goes to lunch one day never to return.  Five years go by and his wife comes to the detective agency where Spade is working with news: someone in Spokane has seen a man resembling her husband. She retains Spade to track him down only to discover that it is indeed Flitcraft.

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Flitcraft tells Spade the day he went to lunch, he had walked by an office building under construction and a huge beam fell from eight to ten stories up, impaling itself into the sidewalk right beside him. The experience of nearly being killed had a profound effect on Flitcraft, jarring him out of his very existence for a moment. As Spade explains:

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“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” says Spade. “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

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Flitcraft had left for Seattle that day without any provisions or extra cash. To his family, it was as if he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Flitcraft moved around a little bit before eventually coming back to Washington State where he married again – to a woman very much in appearance and temperament as his first wife – and started a new family. Spade concludes the story with a final thought:

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“I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” says Spade. “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, 1941

THE MALTESE FALCON, Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, 1941

I know why no filmmaker before me has ever seen the need to keep this digression in their movie version of The Maltese Falcon. It’s because on the surface of it, the Flitcraft Parable has nothing specifically to do with the larger plot of The Maltese Falcon. But if you think about it in terms of Spade’s character and, by extrapolation, author Hammett – you see that it has everything to do with how Spade is able to prevail in almost any situation put before him.

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Sam Spade is a master of observation.  A student of human behavior with the uncanny ability to boil life down to its barest and most basic essentials at any given moment. He’s able to see a situation by any given angle and point of view from whichever character he finds in the room. He knows that once you strip away love, desire, greed, lust, rage and romanticism from any equation – you are left with the truth: what we do with our lives is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

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Who we love or hate, who we back and who we resist, will be most certainly be forgotten soon after we shed this mortal coil. That thought, whether delivered by steel beam from the heavens or a loved one’s untimely departure, whether by ugly divorce, chronic illness or natural catastrophe – is coming for each and every human who has ever lived. And when faced with our own mortality, we humans tend to react with varying forms of panic, fear, terror and desperation.

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What is less common, however, and what is so magical and I believe cinematic about Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable is not so much what the character of Flitcraft does – but how and why Sam Spade is telling the story in the first place. Spade is telling Brigitte that he (Spade) perceives life to be a game at best, a cosmic joke at worst. We’re lucky to even be alive, walking the earth so why take things so seriously? And at the same time, Spade plays the game well, better than anyone else and that includes her. And because of this high-powered perception, he knows that she is bad, playing him for a sap, a chump. He’ll play along as long as it amuses him, to see how it all ends up. Because what’s love when there’s a steel beam 30 stories up just waiting to fall with your number on it. Might as well enjoy life before it falls and that includes playing chess with the likes of a beautiful femme fatale.

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In the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s greatest fear is not death but being made a fool. And he’ll resist being her fool because as he tells her, “all of me wants to.” Spade could give Gandhi a run for his money when it comes to resisting an urge. He’s a professional, after all, with a job to do. And when death does come for him as it will all of us , you better believe he’ll stare into the Grim Reaper’s eye-sockets and grin back at him. Now that’s dark, people. It’s why I love Noir because it doesn’t hold back on the reality of the human condition – but pushes it kicking and screaming into the center of the spotlight.

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We’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have a little fun. That’s why Noir as a genre is more than alive as well. Why Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable would be right at home in recent existential fare such as TRUE DETECTIVE (can’t you see Matthew McConaughey’s character regaling The Flitcraft Parable to an annoyed Woody Harrelson?) or even THE DARK KNIGHT’s JOKER character played by the late, great Heath ledger.  That’s the power of classic Noir, to strike a chord in every human’s fibrous, meaty core and question why each one of us are here and why the hell we take everything so damn seriously.

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Take Hammett and Spade’s word for it. Life is a game so enjoy it for what it’s worth and remember to play the game well while you have the time. Because you better believe the competition are playing for keeps – and no one likes to be made a fool of.

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Blondie: Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass

3 Oct

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Debbie Harry was one of my first crushes. A beautiful and talented rock goddess who was essentially a supermodel when she hit the stateside music scene in 1977 with her band, Blondie.

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My older brother had a poster of Debbie up in his room but I never made the connection of who she was until I heard “Hearts Of Glass”, the band’s first hit single in 1977. Debbie was not just a pretty face, but a full-throated lead singer about to explode.

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I wasn’t old enough to go to any of her concerts over the next several years as she dominated the airwaves with singles “Call Me”, “Atomic”, and the aforementioned “Hearts of Glass.” But thanks to MTV, I got to marvel at how beautiful and artistic she was live on stage, in music videos and movie cameos.

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Debbie had a raw, fearless sexuality on stage. She wasn’t afraid to do anything her creative urges told her to do. She was about as glamorous as it got back in the early 80’s before big hair, stone-washed jeans and shoulder-pads began to cover the landscape.

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Debbie had a style all her own. Of course, she would eventually succumb to the big hair phenomenon like everyone else. But she did it while retaining her own style. One that no one else could quite pull off.

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Blondie broke up in 1982 (they would get back together off and on over the years) and Debbie would pursue a solo career with success. I always found her fascinating to watch and would now and again check in with her career over the years.

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What I find fascinating now that I’m older, is how you become so nostalgic for the interests of your youth. Some fade and become idle curiosities – namely, why did I ever like so-and-so in the first place. But that has never been the case with Debbie. I’m still as fascinated by her today as I was way back when. A true sign of a class act if ever there was one.

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I think the reason Debbie Harry has retained her mystic over the years is because she never followed trends. She was a true original back when that not only was tolerated in the music industry, but lauded. Her fan base was broad and she had fans young and old, not just because of her music but also her beauty and screen presence.

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And like every other aging fanboy, the older I get I inevitably delve deeper into the past looking for connections to it. Debbie is no exception. I’ve only recently found out that before her musical career, she was a model and, incredibly, a playboy bunny at one point. Interesting how her photos are so tame compared to today. I love their artistic aesthetic, in addition to Debbie’s raw beauty.

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Debbie is still fearless today, posing topless. She is still a very hot momma, in my humble opinion.

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It’s a testament to Debbie’s artistic leanings that none of these images are gratuitous. They all have some intrinsic value in addition to capturing Debbie’s physical beauty back when she was truly in her rock goddess prime.

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Debbie has always been a flirt both on and off stage, as evidenced by this great candid below. Proving that blondes do have more fun.

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I’ll always love this Blonde bombshell. The Rock Goddess with a Heart of Glass captured mine a long, long time ago.

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She survived disco, after all, coming through it unscathed. No easy task for a time when so many lost their artistic souls.

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This is how I’ll always remember Blondie when I first met her, up on my brother’s wall…

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And this is how the Rock Goddess looks today: formidable while still beautiful, and ready to kick some ass!