Saturday, July 9, 2011

TV NOIR (the book)

Back when I was a nine-year-old kid growing up in suburban Detroit there was no shortage of useless crap for me to spend my meager weekly allowance on: comic books, Mad magazines, paperback Mad books, monster magazines, and that most prized thing of all: TV Guide. The whole TV Guide mania occurred for me around 1957, the year local television stations began running syndicated packages of Universal's 1930s and 40s horror pictures (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, etc.), wedging them into late-night showcases with monikers like “Shock Theater” or “Chiller Theater” or “Nightmare Theater.” These Friday and Saturday night TV fright-fests became all the rage with kids who demanded as much quantity as quality which meant, simply put, a never-ending onslaught of inappropriately unwholesome entertainment. So each Tuesday afternoon (when the new weekly magazines hit the racks) I'd hightail it over to the corner drugstore and fork over 15 cents for the latest TV Guide, rushing home in order to begin that frantic search for all the incredibly astounding movies I could look forward to seeing that week, knowing that only the smallest fraction of them would actually materialize before my eyes—seldom was it possible to sneak into the den at 2:30 in the morning to catch Lon Chaney, Jr. and Barbara Peyton in the unspeakably lurid “Bride of the Gorilla.” But the intent was always there. Always.
Eventually everything dark and weird became interesting to me. Murder mysteries of all shapes and stripes were suddenly the most sinister and appealing thing to watch (or at least read about) on TV. Any B movie about crooks or escaped maniacs or set in the jungle or at some haunted ranch—which was pretty often given their plentiful and cheap availability to local television stations—was instantly and indelibly fascinating.

Of increasing interest were the half-hour TV shows that came on every week on the same night, usually around 10:30 and usually about tough-guy public and private eyes like Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato and Lt. Frank Ballinger from M-Squad and Chief Dan Matthews from the Highway Patrol.

With grisly  summaries befitting Russian novels, the fractured syntax used by the staff writers of TV Guide was nothing if not altogether mesmerizing.

Armed with a pair of scissors, I clipped out the listings for these movies and shows and glued them into a notebook, gradually accumulating a massive compendium of darkly pungent blurbage that I would read all the time. Reading and rereading this often disturbing and demented nocturnal poetry (subterranean haiku for the nuclear generation?) messed with me in ways that comic books no longer could.

Skipping ahead some thirty years to 1989 and I was still preoccupied with B films and old TV crime shows. By then these films had an easily recognized label: film noir, “that term” coined by the French in the mid 40s to visually and thematically characterize the bleakness inherent to so many fatalistic and foreboding American crime pictures. My own career, as it turned out had veered into this territory, initially as a filmmaker with a small handful of short black & white films to my credit, and then finally as a film programmer for the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Many of the films I like to program for the big screen are the obscure and darkly forgotten B noirs from the poverty row studios—films that were secretly introduced to me in my childhood in the pages of TV Guide—and seen first by me on the small screen. One afternoon around this time a friend came by the house and let me have a big cardboard box with dozens of old TV Guides from the 50s and 60s in lieu of squaring some money he owed me. The effect was staggering: the accidentally artistic descriptions of movies that long ago had formed the foundation of my earliest attraction to them were mine again to do with whatever I wanted.         

I began xeroxing pages—hundreds of them it seemed—then isolating those and only those movies and shows that subscribed to the noir ethos. Cryptic, abrupt takes on tales about human monsters, maniacs, alcoholics, shoplifters, communists, reporters, and robots; sometimes only one or two lines to snare you that wind up haunting you. I wound up with many hundreds of these twisted listings, each one a stark revelation of oddness, often depressing and final. Cutting and pasting, I was able to recreate over 100 brand new freshly minted pages crammed with all kinds of film noir, worldly and otherworldly, adrift together through an impossibly endless Friday night in February.

TV NOIR (the book) is now finished and available to anyone who wants to buy it. Through the kindness of Moe’s Books (thanks Doris!) it is available through the store’s website (More Moe’s link) or at the book’s website,

Later this month I’ll be presenting a special three-night FESTIVAL of TV NOIR at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco! Seventeen different and incredibly rare television films from the 1950s will commandeer the big screen from Monday, July 18 through Wednesday, July 20. If you reside somewhere here in the Bay Area, don't miss this golden opportunity to see a select group of some of the most interesting films made for television--shown on the big screen for the very first time ever! Visit the theater’s website, for all the unbelievably true details!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Goddamn Book Reports!

As a young teen I enjoyed reading enormously but I disliked being told what to read. This opened up a roomful of problems whenever those goddamn book reports were assigned. A list of five or six books would be presented to the class and from that list we could pick the book we wanted to read and write a book report on. But it would invariably be boring books like SILAS MARNER or IVANHOE and the prospect of reading these particular classics usually interfered with my regular reading schedule of important works such as THE AMBOY DUKES or BLACKBOARD JUNGLE. Those books—even hip ones like CATCHER IN THE RYE (too many dirty words) and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (too subversive)--never appeared on these lists and I felt it was criminally unfair to exclude them. But my protests were dismissed by bored and indifferent teachers. One time, in the eighth grade, after seeing Paul Newman in THE HUSTLER,  I snagged a paperback copy at the local drug store and devoured it. Man, what a book! Almost as good as the movie in fact.
 So I quickly dashed off a book report on it despite knowing that it would no doubt be handed back with a stern reprimand. Which is exactly what happened as I recall. I was then offered the chance to reclaim a passing grade by agreeing to read Mark Twain's HUCKLEBERRY FINN and submitting a book report on it in one week. One week to read it and write a report. Sure thing. So the night before it was due, I dug out my old cardboard box of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED comic books from an earlier period of youthful mania and pulled out my ratty old copy of Twain's timeless tale of misspent youth--#19 in this awesome series, "featuring stories by the world's greatest authors."  I had forgotten how utterly enjoyable these brightly colored comics were; tons of great literary violence and passion. Finished it in twenty minutes and hastily
scribbled out a five page report with lots of adverbs and exclamation marks. I was in like Flynn and I knew it. Several hours later I found myself still buried in these great comics, gleefully  revisiting so many terrific stories like FRANKENSTEIN, ROBN HOOD, and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, that one being an especially exciting, thrilling saga of violence and vengeance. Even nutty and obtuse ones like Hugo's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was a turn-on and it astonished me to realize that my favorite J. D. Salinger short story, "The Laughing Man" was clearly inspired by it! Incredible!

Two days later my report on HUCKLEBERRY FINN was handed back to me with a red F emblazoned on the top of the page with the accompanying request that I refrain from ever relying on comic books to fulfill my book report requirements. Damn, where did I go wrong? How did she guess? I followed that stupid comic book like a Triple A road map. Turns out that so-called map took a number of liberties with the story, so much so that it must have appeared to old Mrs. Goldsmith that I had read an entirely different book. Believe me, I learned a very valuable lesson that day: comic books, even brainy ones with great covers like CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED simply couldn't be trusted when it came to book reports. And that's why they invented Cliff's Notes. Goddamn book reports.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Charles Willeford and the return of THE WOMAN CHASER

Here at Moe's Books, up on the 4th floor, we specialize in hard-to-find antiquarian books, mainly in the fine arts, but virtually in every imaginable subject area. Twentieth Century American fiction is a strong area of interest (we just this week sold a first edition hardcover of Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY for $3,000 – without a dust jacket!) Many of the most sought after writers of American fiction belong to the hard-boiled school of literature. Chandler, Hammett, and Cain, along with more esoteric names like Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy generate high prices when they turn up in first (or early) printings, especially with dust jackets.

But it's the nefarious outer circle of fellows who wrote specifically for the paperback market in the 40s, 50s and 60s who are now commanding the keenest interest and biggest values from the most ardent collectors: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, and Day Keene are just some of the names that keep popping up in conversations about the hardcore Who's Who of American crime writers. Most genteel readers of mysteries are but barely familiar with this rogues' gallery of wordsmiths who would regularly grind out hundred and fifty page pot-boilers at an alarming rate of speed. Those seemingly non-discriminating readers fortunate enough to explore the seedy drugstores and truckstops of rural America in search of a couple hours' worth of quick and disposable entertainment, were often rewarded with unexpectedly grim treatises on the darkness of human nature and abnormal psychology.

One of the most interesting of these writers was Charles Willeford (1919 – 1988).  Perhaps now best known for his four Hoke Mosley detective novels (MIAMI BLUES, NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD, SIDESWIPE, and THE WAY WE DIE NOW) which came at the very end of his career and life. These excellent books offer only a glimpse of the desperate urgency of his earliest works. Willeford began his literary career in the 1950s with a string of daring paperback originals like THE HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA (1953), PICK UP (1955), WILD WIVES (1956) and HONEY GAL (1958). These books, written in a cold, impassive style, were never designed to reach a broad, literary-minded audience. Usually dealing with tough subject matter (miscegenation, misogyny, murder), Willeford would often mask his thematic intentions with an off-handed, dark humor, sometimes so subtle as to go completely unnoticed. In HIGH PRIEST OF CALIFORNIA he allows himself the opportunity to gleefully lacerate the entire infrastructure of male-female relationships, while in WILD WIVES he gives us an uninhibited and raunchy send-up of the hard-boiled detective genre, and in HONEY GAL he serves up a brilliantly frank mash-up of interracial romance and the dangers of disorganized religion.

The early sixties introduced two of his most startlingly original novels (both paperback originals): THE WOMAN CHASER (1960) and COCKFIGHTER (1962). Both works exuded a tremendous sense of explosive energy and literary integrity relatively uncommon to the “paperback original” market. It is the first of these two incendiary books that this blog will now focus on.

THE WOMAN CHASER was turned into an independently produced film in 1999. Starring Patrick Warburton as the distressingly amoral used car salesman Richard Hudson, the film was remarkably faithful to Willeford's novel. It had its initial premiere at the New York Film Festival in late 1999 and subsequently at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2000, which is where I was fortunate enough to see it. Most everyone in the audience was enthralled by this wholly unconventional, black and white exercise in perversity, yet some were deeply disturbed by the film's outrageously unexpected violence. THE WOMAN CHASER was, without a doubt, one of the most talked about films at Sundance that year. My attendance there was a result of being attached to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. As a programmer there, it was (and is) my job to help find as many interesting films as possible to bring to our screen. THE WOMAN CHASER was right up our dark alley given the Roxie's ongoing commitment to film noir and other edgy styles of filmmaking. But this proved to be a most difficult task, as the filmmakers were deluged with offers that seemed to outweigh anything that we were capable of offering. In the end, the film's producers opted to make a deal that would (allegedly) guarantee them bookings in every theater in the Landmark chain. But there was one caveat: the producers had to excise the single piece of film that seemed to generate hostility in many audience members, that of Warburton's character viciously punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach. This concession was made, much to the chagrin of those who had been impressed by the filmmkaer's decision to include it in the first place. Nevertheless, the cut was made and THE WOMAN CHASER opened that spring in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle to relatively enthusiastic press but very little box-office. After these less than stellar engagements, the film was pulled from distribution and consigned to the annals of cinema obscurity. A 2001 video (cassette) release in its cut version surfaced, but it seemed to do little to enhance its steadily dwindling reputation.

In 2010, in preparation for a film series called NOT NECESSARILY NOIR for the Roxie, I became determined to track down THE WOMAN CHASER and give it another opportunity to prove itself in front of an audience. I eventually connected with the film's producer in Texas who was only too happy to make the film available to me. To make matters even better, I was told that I could have access to the uncut print originally screened at Sundance! The film finally hit the Roxie screen on September 1, 2010, a full decade after its intial release and was met with thunderous approval by a packed house. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that it inspired me to bring the film back for a one-week revival engagement at the Roxie, which begins this coming Friday, February 25, again in the uncut director's version. Fans of Willeford's uncompromising fiction as well as those with a hankering for stylistically bold and unnerving filmmaking will not be disappointed! See you at the Roxie.

And for those interested in pursuing Willeford's literary output, Moe's Books generally has a number of his titles on hand in our used mystery section located on the basement level of the store.