Upcoming Movie: The Irishman

For a few years now, there have been rumours going around (mainly thanks to Wikipedia) of a new Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro collaboration. A film titled The Irishman, based on Charles Brandts’ I Heard You Paint Houses (a book which, I must confess, has thus far escaped my radar), which tells the tale of a man’s disappearance from the eyes of a dying mob boss, it is set to reunite Scorsese and De Niro, whilst also bringing in crime film stalwarts Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

robert-de-niro-and-martin-scorsese-at-king-of-comedy-(1982)

(Image courtesy of http://www.movpins.com)

Details are vague at this time (some more detailed articles can be found here and here), but if it comes to pass (and I hope to heavens it will), it will be the first De Niro/Scorsese collaboration since 1995’s masterful Casino. It will also mark the first time Scorsese directs Pacino, and it will (hopefully) make for a true Pacino/De Niro pairing which we’ve longed for since  1995’s Heat. Bringing Joe Pesci back out of retirement (where he’s been pretty much hidden for the better part of 20 years) is just the icing on the cake.

It sounds like production is still in the early stages, but by all accounts it is now actively moving forward. For the sake of all Godfather and Goodfellas fans who’ve been starved of a true operatic crime film for too long, we hope it is sooner rather than later.

More updates to follow as they are announced.

In the meantime, here are a few reminders of past glories:

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Al and Rob

 

 

Book Review – March Violets (Philip Kerr)

March Violets

Philip Kerr

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When reading a private detective novel set in the 1930s, there are a number of things that, as any fan of the genre will tell you, you can expect to see. A heavy-drinking, wise-cracking, world-weary private detective. A sexy yet deadly femme fatale. A sense of overwhelming cynicism, a feeling that the world and an awful lot in it is corrupt beyond repair. Missing people, dead bodies, over-zealous cops, gangsters… Philip Kerr’s debut novel has all of these. But it has one thing which most other classic detective novels do not – and that is an absolutely distinct setting which throws all of the expectations we otherwise have out of the window.

March Violets is a detective novel much in the vein of classics established by Chandler and Hammett.  The detective, Bernie Gunther, fits well within the cast of detectives that collectively form the archetypal noir private eye. None of that is a criticism. The voice and character of Gunther is clear and unique. A former cop-turned-detective may not sound a revolutionary concept, but Kerr adds a certain x factor element to the character which sets him apart from all the eyes that came before him.

And that x factor is Nazi Germany. Looking back on it in retrospect, it is absolutely a perfect setting for a detective novel. An abhorrently evil regime filled with corruption, greed and a penchant for absolute power. A Country where entire ethnic groups were stigmatised, persecuted and forced into exile or left to face the inevitable fate of being sentenced to death in a concentration camp. Where people lived in fear and tried to ignore the sinister events surrounding them by, for all practical purposes, taking part in those very events themselves.

For all the horrors that world brings, it lends itself well to a noir novel. The sense of despair and a creeping sense of dread as Germany marches ever closer towards the world-shattering events of 1939 and beyond. Missing persons, murders, thefts, all of it means business is open for the world of private detectives.

It starts out much as you would expect. Gunther, after attending the wedding for a man he didn’t particularly care for, is called to the side of an aging client trying to locate rare jewels stolen from his daughter’s safe the night she and her husband were killed. Before long, Gunther is dealing with underground criminal groups, luscious film starlets, and even finds himself paid a visit by Herman Goering. Tensions between different Nazi factions and their influence on the world around them is a central theme of the story, while Kerr acts as a spectator to the world around him. The book culminates with a remarkable sequence with Gunther having to play the role of a prisoner within a concentration camp in the hope that an inmate can furnish him with the information he needs to save himself and wrap up his case. It is here that the book takes flight and confirms Kerr as a writer of true power.

There is perhaps a certain degree of retrospective thought used throughout the book. The characters are clearly aware that war is coming, and there is a distinct air of desperation in the story that feels it would be better suited to a mid or post-war setting, when the true horrors of the regime were becoming clear. It is the first book in the series (a series which does indeed cover the time frames suggested here), so I remain hopeful for the rest of it.

As an introduction however, March Violets is an impressive read and although stylistically it doesn’t vary much from what a fan of the genre may expect, the setting and story provides a thoroughly unique take on noir. Importantly, it also shows that noir fiction is just as thrilling as it was when it first started turning up in the pages of the pulps. Best yet, the book can be found within the collection entitled Berlin Noir which brings together the first three books in Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.  For any fan of the genre who is interested in history, World War Two, or just wants to read a more contemporary take on this kind of fiction, March Violets delivers in spades.

Book Review – The Cocktail Waitress (James M Cain)

The Cocktail Waitress

James M Cain

 

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James M Cain is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the top three hardboiled crime writers in American fiction, the other two being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Unlike his colleagues however, Cain is only remembered for a short selection of the many works he produced. Specifically, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce. All are excellent pieces (and each were all made into very satisfying film adaptions), but few other works of Cain’s are remembered, much less held in the same air of reverence as the other three. It makes for a contrast with Chandler and Hammett, whose complete works can be picked up at any bookshop with a half-decent crime section. Although admittedly neither of them had a particularly vast novel output (Chandler with seven and Hammett on five), the numbers of short stories they produced, most of which are still in print today, makes up for this.

Maybe it’s because Cain, unlike Hammett and Chandler, didn’t ever rely on one character for multiple books, and he strayed away from the classic detective-thriller style which they went for. Cain’s books are much darker and focus on baser instincts such as lust, greed and desire.  It was perhaps that which hindered, and which even now still hinders, him. Publishers now who keep works by the old authors in print seem to favour books which belong to a series (look at the way Penguin make the point of numbering all of Chandler’s books, or Orion doing the same with Spillane’s Mike Hammer series). It puts Cain at a disadvantage. Fortunately, the above ‘big three’ are still in publication (along with another early novel, Serenade , which I was pleased to pick up during a recent trip to London). Picking any of his later works up seems to be, at best, luck of the draw.

Much respect is therefore due to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime. A self-professed lover of Cain (one who, as he himself states, went to great lengths to track down all of Cain’s books which are now difficult to get hold of),  he managed to track down a long-lost manuscript of Cain’s final work. An unpublished thriller written by Cain during the final years of his life before his death in 1977. Thirty-five years later, Hard Case Crime finally made The Cocktail Waitress available.

I should point out at this stage that my feelings towards posthumous novels are mixed. Taking the unpublished work of a deceased author and finishing it without their involvement seems to be disrespectful, even if the intentions are honourable. They come across as if the publisher or ghost author is saying that the book doesn’t need the author, and that it can be completed quite adequately without them. This seems to undermine the importance of the author – the personal touches, the voice, not to mention any additional plot points that may not have found their way into a notebook.  A ghost author can make a posthumous work feel more like a homage to the deceased and their previous works rather than as the stand-alone work it should be (Poodle Springs, anybody?)

The (fortunate) difference here, however, is that Cain finished The Cocktail Waitress before he died. In fact, he finished multiple drafts. This means that the story is, more or less, as complete and true to the author’s intention as any posthumous novel could hope to be. Whilst Charles Ardai states in his afterword that he did have to pick and choose certain chapters/sections to include in the finial manuscript, this is no more or no less than the suggestions that any reasonable editor would make in other circumstances.  As such, I’ll let my objections slide.

In these cases, I suppose the question to be asked is whether or not the author would have been happy with the draft that makes its way out. Unfortunately, the fact that the author is dead makes it difficult to assess that. Instead, we should ask whether or not the book which makes its way out is faithful to the author and that it reads, sounds, and feels like something that the author would have put out had death not taken them away. In that sense, The Cocktail Waitress is a success.

Much like Mildred Pierce, The Cocktail Waitress tells the story of a woman trying to make her way to the top after escaping a loveless marriage, who is trying to provide the best for her child whilst also being brought down by those closest to her. But The Cocktail Waitress isn’t to be mistaken for a cheap re-telling of Mildred Pierce. Even though such a comparison is perhaps justified from an initial summary, there are a number of differences which sets The Cocktail Waitress apart. Firstly, it is told through the eyes of the central character herself, as opposed to the third-person narrative of Mildred Pierce. Secondly, there is more of a tragic feeling about the character. Here, Joan Medford is a twenty-one year old widow with a husband killed under circumstances which the police consider to be rather suspect, with a son being looked after by a controlling sister-in-law, no friends or family to care for her, and no money aside from what she can make washing cars for neighbours. A sole friendly guide helps get her a job as a (hold onto your fedoras) cocktail waitress, where she meets a selection of men with differing combinations to money, looks and problems.  Needless to say, the further she gets up on the ladder of her ambitions, the more forces around her (whether of her own making or otherwise) try to drag her down.

Keeping with Cain’s early works, much of the story is built around lust. From the details of her work ‘uniform’ (with ample descriptions of her won legs and bust given), to her visit to a nightclub-come-brothel with a bar regular, and to a husband’s feeble attempts at celibacy, sex is the overriding driving force of all the men in Medford’s life. Some she enjoys, some she resists. What makes the story interesting (rather than an attempt at mere titillation) is the fact it is being told from the view of the woman (who may or may not deserve the title of femme fatale) involved rather than the man’s. Rather than being a leering spectator, the psychology of what is going on it being delved into more. Rather than desiring someone else, the central character is the object of desire. It adds a different perspective on the relationship between the characters in a novel of this kind. Imagine The Postman Always Rings Twice being written from Cara’s perspective, and you get the kind of idea of what you might be getting.

On the face of it, the story is a tale of a woman’s attempt to make something or her life from nothing. As is Cain’s custom, the story moves at a quick pace and nothing stays still in the character’s world for long. Without giving away too much here, there are enough deaths and police investigations going on to keep any fan of noir and Cain’s previous works interested. But the story goes beyond that and gives us a deeper look at lust and sex, and how these can control and influence our very lives.

It’s not the sort of book which is going to win literary prizes. If it had been published at the same time of Cains earlier works, it no doubt would have earned him the same kind of scorn and contempt from reviewers that had been afforded to him with his other books. But it is a true James M Cain story, and a fine addition to his catalogue. Hard Case Crime should take a bow for stepping in and giving us this chance to see this sinful, decadent world from Cain’s glorious pen one last time.

 

Book Review – I, The Jury (Mike Hammer #1)

I the Jury

 

I, The Jury was Mickey Spillane’s first novel. Published in 1947, it marked the beginning of the Mike Hammer series – the relentless private detective with an eye for justice and a burning desire to see it done using whatever violent means he finds necessary.

It was the first of many novels by Spillane, who debuted towards the second half of the classic pulp era. In comparison, Dashiell Hammett had already long since published all the novels he was ever to make, Raymond Chandler had four novels under his belt, and James M Cain had long since written the three main novels he was to be remembered for. Spillane’s writing certainly has all the hallmarks of the classic works of noir fiction. The no-nonsense private detective, the femme fatale, the double crossings, the gangsters the drinking, and the smoking.

But what sets this private detective, Mike Hamer, apart from the Philip Marlowes and the Sam Spades before him is that whereas they typically always worked at the behest of a client (whether for good or bad), I, The Jury sets Hammer up as much more of a vigilante agent than any of the others could be. Arguably Hammett’s Red Harvest is a point of comparison, in how the Continental Op of that story takes it upon himself to clean up a town of decadence following the murder of his client. But it lacks the personal touch of I, the Jury, where Hammer is searching for the murderer of his close friend, Jack Williams. Hammer makes no qualms about it. He is after vengeance. Bitter, painful vengeance (Spillane makes a point of describing exactly what Hammer wants from the act), and he has no issue with explaining his intentions to his cop buddy, Pat Chambers.

 

On the way, he makes the acquaintance of a range of disturbed and interest characters. A pair of nymphomaniac sisters, a pimp luring young women into a life of prostitution, a cheap gangster, a young hooker, a stunning female psychiatrist, and he even has time to fend off the advances from his own secretary, Velda. Hammer even gets to enjoy a couple of ‘romantic’ encounters with some of them (a loose engagement is even touted around). In the end, Hammer gets his revenge. The last couple of pages, with the desperate actions of the murderess undressing herself in front of Hammer as he is explaining how she ‘did it’ in an attempt t seduce him before he shoots her square in the gut, is quite a jarring read. Hammer makes a point of saying that he knows there isn’t enough evidence that any jury would convict her, and so he makes the point of extracting the vengeance he wants himself.  It’s certainly a memorable way of ending a novel.

 

But At the time of writing, the world had just come out of World War Two – the black-and-white morality (as Spillane’s friend Ayn Rand once described his works), is perhaps a reflection of the mood of the world following the events of that war.

 

Whether you see the book as a reflection of a post-war world, or just a classic piece of detective fiction, I, The Jury certainly delivers. It is fiction work. But fans of this genre aren’t to be put off by such comments. The world is dark and violent place. Spillane understood that. His work captures a mood and sense of morality (whether right or wrong) which is thoroughly distinct and, at its heart, it is a solid detective story and as far as debut novels in a series go, you can’t ask for much better.

 

Next up: My Gun Is Quick.