"Buffalo Noir," Scott Adlerberg, and Chandler's Lasting Impression on Science Fiction by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Steph Cha, the Los Angeles Review of Books' noir editor, interviewed Ed Park—"Korean-American novelist, editor, and proud, affectionate Buffalo native"—who oversaw Buffalo Noir, a collection of twelve grim stories set in New York's second most populous city.

Curious? You should be. Here's Park on the collection:

"Noir is a mood, a stance, a way of seeing, but there’s no single right way of expressing it. The voices here work in different registers: grim, gossipy, jaded, detached.  I think it would get tiring to read a dozen stories that all affected the same tone, but taken together, they work as a definition of the term coined on the cover: Buffalo noir. As for the local angle, I keep thinking of Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66—a perfectly executed noir vision of his hometown. It was chilly, intense, absurd, and monomaniacal, built around the city’s other primal wound: the “wide right” field goal miss in Super Bowl XXV. Put another way, a review of our anthology mentioned a recent moniker for Buffalo that’s apropos: The City of No Illusions. That’s pure noir."

And honestly, if you're a fan of noir and aren't all about the Los Angeles Review of Books, I'm not sure what's going on, but you should fix it. Absolutely some of the best writing and coverage of noir. Case in point: Alex Segura's interview with Scott Adlerberg, author of Graveyard Love. Some snippets:

On art:

"There’s one thing that I did really try to keep in mind throughout the book, to keep sex and death linked, close, page after page after page, as a kind of thematic thread, if that doesn’t sound too pompous—and that’s a coupling I’ve long been fascinated by, going back to when I first discovered my favorite painters, the old surrealists. Dali, Magritte, Paul Delvaux, and on and on. If I could get a little of that quality of menace and fright and weirdness mixed with sexual desire that they show, the idea of the attraction to something that might kill you, the idea of l'amour fou, mad love, which is not a romantic love at all and pretty much indistinguishable from psycho stalking. All core ideas of the surrealists."

On tone:

"The main goal was to have a narrator’s voice that’s obsessive and, hopefully, compelling. There was a challenge in writing a narrator who repeats himself, as obsessive people tend to do, and digresses sometimes as he narrates but whose storytelling, for the reader’s sake, remains tight and forward-driven. That was something I worked hard to get, and I hope I did. Besides that, it’s the old thing: whether you like a character a lot or not, the important thing really is you have to understand where that character is coming from."

When you hear the name Raymond Chandler, you think the accidental inventor of Google, right? In a 1953 letter to his editor, H.N. Swanson, Chandler parodied science fiction, where the name "Google" shows up 45 years before its inception—Chandler even makes 1953's Google sound a little like our own, despite gendering it: "I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn't enough. He was right." 

Chandler's feelings about science fiction aren't exactly unknown in the sci-fi community, which makes Adam Christopher's Made to Kill all the more interesting. Lit Hub notes that Christopher hoped that Made to Kill would feel like "Raymond Chandler’s long-lost science fiction epic." (While I understand the impulse, I'm not sure that Chandler would have gone for an "epic.") Though, as Lit Hub points out, Christopher is far from the only author to try to bridge Chandler's world of detectives and the sci-fi genre he mocked. Jonathan Lethem told the Paris Review that he'd tried to find "the exact midpoint between Dick and Chandler" in his novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a hardboiled piece of speculative fiction whose armed kangaroo features prominently on many of the book's covers.

Unsurprisingly, Chandler's words, even his harsher ones, live on—though to some writers of science fiction, the words of that 1953 letter exist as a challenge to find the liminal spaces between the noir-ish detective story Chandler championed and the science fiction landscape he lampooned. Not a bad reaction.

Crime Novel Cover Quiz! by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Even before this great crime novel cover quiz happened, I'd already become a big fan of the Guardian's little quizzes (see: James Joyce's Dublin, match the cop to the film, Franz Kafka, sci-fi book covers, gangsters in fiction, Cohen brothers or Blues Brothers?, '70s album covers... hell, just look at them all, as I am sure there are many I missed that you'd enjoy).

Embarrassingly, I got a rather paltry 6 out of 10 of the crime covers. (In my defense, having looked at the answers after taking the quiz, some of the covers are from editions I hadn't seen before.)

If you're more a fan of film noir than crime fiction, the Guardian has you covered. And if you're still hungry for more, they also have a quiz to see if you can identify classic books by their covers.

 

Hell's Half Acre, a Hawaiian Noir by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

One of my principal attractions to film noir and hardboiled detective fiction are the mediums' abilities to move easily from the roughest neighborhoods to the most exclusive areas of a city, from the decaying outskirts of town to the marble steps of City Hall. This perspective allows viewers and readers to see an intriguing portrayal of the cities and areas in which the works are set, albeit through a glass darkly. Often the city is as important to the story as its main characters, as evidenced by Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles in the Philip Marlowe stories, Jules Dassin's Paris in Rififi, and Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco, to name just a few. Some critics even categorize these noir narratives by their location—Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy is often considered the harbinger of "Mediterranean Noir," David Fine's wonderful Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction traces the roots and importance of Los Angeles' history in early hardboiled detective fiction and noir literature, not to mention the distinctions made by film and literary critics between East Coast and West Coast noir, European, French, and American noir, and so on.

Given the importance of setting in film noir and crime fiction—indeed, the entire premise of Akashic Books' wonderful noir series—one of my first thoughts when visiting somewhere new is, "I wonder what noir is set here?" The day I landed in Honolulu, I Googled "Hawaiian noir" and stumbled across Hell's Half Acre, a lurid, pulpy film directed by John H. Auer and penned by Steve Fisher (Lady in the Lake, Dead ReckoningSong of the Thin Man) set in Honolulu eleven years after Pearl Harbor, which, as luck would have it, is currently streaming at Amazon Prime.

If you go in expecting The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep set on O'ahu, you'll likely be disappointed by Hell's Half Acre. If you have more tempered expectations, however, the film is a strange, enjoyable hour and a half of pulp. Just remember the film was made in the 1950s, not necessarily a decade known as a shining beacon of hope for American race relations. Certain portrayals of Hawaiian and Asian people and cultures are not Hollywood's finest moments. Ironically, one scene in particular—when Honolulu Police Chief Dan (Keye Luke) basically says to Donna Williams (Evelyn Keyes), "All Asians look the same to you, huh?" and Donna concedes the point, then uses the word "Orientals"—diffuses some of the film's problematic elements in a moment of unintentional humor. After this scene, all you can do is laugh at the careless—ignorant, as opposed to malicious—ethnocentrism, cultural insensitivity, and naïvety at work from time to time.

The film opens up just as you'd expect a 1950s film set in O'ahu to, with Hawaiian music and picturesque scenes of Honolulu acting as the backdrop for the credits (which reveal that the technical advisor for the film was Don the Beachcomber, whose Wikipedia page is worth a read). Interestingly though, just as the credits end, the daytime shots of the city and its beaches suddenly slip into darkness—a scene with a beach full of people, Diamond Head in the background, quickly shifts to the beach deserted at night, the ridge now a shadowy silhouette. Within the next few minutes, all the elements that make up the plot of Hell's Half Acre come together. During a party to celebrate a song written by our protagonist Chet Chester (Wendell Corey), a spoken word number called "Polynesian Rhapsody" which extols the virtues of the Hawaiian islands, we witness the heights to which Chet has risen (he owns the swanky bar where the party is being held, Chet's Hawaiian Escape), learn of his checkered past when an old criminal associate tries to extort money, and before the film is even seven minutes old, we have our first dead body, courtesy of Chet's girlfriend, Sally Lee (Nancy Gates).

Roger Kong (Philip Ahn) and Rose Otis (Marie Windsor)

Roger Kong (Philip Ahn) and Rose Otis (Marie Windsor)

From this point on, miscommunications, assumptions, and coincidences push the plot forward. Chet decides to take the rap for the murder, claiming the only reason he didn't kill the blackmailer was that Sally saw his note first, and asks Sally to get fifty thousand dollars to his lawyer in San Francisco, who will conceivably bolster his "self defense" case and help bring about an acquittal. Donna Williams hears Chet's song in Los Angeles and believes that Chet is really her husband Randy Williams, who was meant to have died on the USS Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the final words of the song echo a note Randy left Donna before he shipped out. If Chet is Randy, he is also the father of Donna's eleven year old son (who we learn is very "manly," even as a pre-adolescent, and would make any father proud, hitting a grand slam home run the last time Donna say him play baseball). Donna then, of course, decides to leave Los Angeles (and her fiancé) to travel to Hawaii to see if her dead husband is actually still alive, living in Honolulu under a different name. And while this is going on, a supposed friend of Chet's, Roger Kong (Philip Ahn), also a former criminal conspirator, believes that Chet is having Sally (and perhaps even Donna, whom Chet doesn't even realize is in Honolulu) take all of their ill-gotten gains to the mainland and out of Roger's grasp. Roger is put on to Donna by Ippy (Leonard Strong), a man with his ear to the ground willing to sell (or not sell) information to the highest bidder, who just happened to overhear Donna talking with Chief Dan about Chet/Randy, claiming to be "a relation" of his. (One can almost imagine Peter Lorre playing the role of Ippy had the film been set elsewhere.) Oh, and Donna is shuttled around Honolulu and helped throughout the film by the kind-hearted cabbie, Lida O'Reilly (Elsa Lanchester).

Now the stage is set for a taut pulpy drama, all of which—in wonderful noir tradition—could have been so easily avoided with just a little communication and trust. Instead, we get a front row seat to violent dysfunction, suspicion, and treachery, most of which is set in the real Hell's Half Acre, a lurid tenement where thieves lie low, men pay "taxi-dancers" for more than just a dance, and a general seediness pervades the region. While Chet, Donna, Roger, Ippy, and Chief Dan take up a fair amount of screen time, our arrival in "the Acre" also introduces us to the bottom-dwelling couple of Tubby and Rose Otis (Jesse White and Marie Windsor), who each play their part in resolving this murky tale: Tubby as a mostly useless, but dangerous henchmen in Roger's employ, and Rose as a sleazy, scheming femme fatale who is seeing Roger on the side.

By the end of the film—which I won't spoil, as Hell's Half Acre really is worth ninety minutes of your time if you're a film noir, pulp fiction, or B-movie fan—a lot of people are dead, the rest disappointed, and yet, somehow, the final moments of the film are shot as if everything has somehow worked out. It's a strange moment in the history of film noir, but, in some strange way, it kind of, sort of, maybe works, too. If you've been able to swallow the coincidences necessary to drive and resolve multiple storylines over an hour and a half, you'll be able to handle the sudden burst of sunlight at the end of a series of shadows and darkness.

All in all, there's a fair amount to nitpick (and cringe at) within Hell's Half Acre, but when it gets it right, it does the noir tradition proud. It also lives up to what it was trying to be: a look at the dark underbelly of the Paradise of the Pacific. If you think of it as a Tiki Noir (a term I read over at Back Alley Noir, the official forum of the Film Noir Foundation) with more pulp than a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (yep, that just happened), you won't be disappointed. 

True Detective: "The Crime Lying Hidden in History and Buried Deep in the Landscape" by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

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In Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction, David Fine writes that it is the role of the detective to discover “the crime lying hidden in history and buried deep in the landscape." Fine’s concern here is with Los Angeles noir fiction, but the same can be said for fictional detectives working in any region—their role is to unearth veiled histories and truths, to drag skeletons (animal masks and antler crowns optional) into the light of day. For anyone with a familiarity of Los Angeles’ rich, yet dark history, the task Raymond Chandler assigns to Phillip Marlowe is a weighty and dangerous one, not only for the character himself, but for the ersatz historians who constantly recreated the origin myth(s) of Los Angeles as the city grew and evolved. As Fine notes, “In Chandler’s world, both the view [as in ‘living with a view’] and the future are purchased by the gains of brutal acts committed in the past. The job of Marlowe, as detective, is to drag the criminal rich down to the flatland, carry them back to their histories, their crimes."

Rework that final sentence to include Rust Cohle's and Marty Hart's names and replace "flatland" with "bayou," and the parallels between Raymond Chandler's and Nic Pizzolatto's characters, and their roles as detectives, are rather striking. It's not just a recent past that is being excavated in these cases, not a murder that leads to an argument a few weeks in the past and then ends. Their investigations strike upon a central, yet hidden nerve connecting the present to a shadowy past. The cases get snagged on threads of an expansive, blood-slicked tapestry, revealing that the crimes under investigation are part of the very landscape (and history) of the world they live in, and involve the rich and powerful, "pillars of the community," much like how in Chinatown Jake Gittes shifts from a simple investigation of an "extramarital affair" into the very history of the city of Los Angeles, with Gittes finding his way to the doorsteps of the people who made the dream of the city into a reality. Unsurprisingly, there is much darkness to be found in Gittes' investigation, as there are in Marlowe's, Cohle's, and Hart's cases—it is not an uncommon trope in American history and fiction that the present is a construct built upon the crimes of the past.

Jacob Mikanowski's fantastic piece for the LA Review of Books"'True Detective': Down the Bayou (Far From Any Road)", delves very deeply indeed into the history and the landscape of Nic Pizzolatto's southern Louisiana, which like many depictions of the American South in fiction is a liminal space and a convergence point for many histories: Puritan religious ideals, Continental philosophical thought, American folk music, European colonialism, and early 20th century horror fiction, just to name a few of the connections Mikanowski makes. William Faulkner's Light in August similarly enlarges the idea of the South with readers stumbling over the "torso of the beheaded mastodon," looking with Reverand Hightower along "barricades from the middleages," and witnessing Joanna Burden's hair coming alive "like octopus tentacles," alluding to Medusa. There is a tradition of depicting the South as a world seemingly superimposed over or coexisting alongside many other histories and narratives, as can also be seen in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, whose title comes from Agamemnon's words to Odysseus in Book XI of The Odyssey, and the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which also draws from Homer's epic, to just name two key works.

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Mikanowski keenly notes that while the portrayals of Rust and Marty keep us hooked, "it’s the trail of allusive breadcrumbs and narrative trapdoors that have transformed criticism of the show into a paranoid art." Many people aren't content with their weekly allotment of True Detective, and choose to follow Pizzolatto's "breadcrumbs" into the forest, back into the past, into history, down into the landscape, away from the light and into the darkness, just as the Puritans would have warned us against. (Also, I very much enjoy Mikanowksi's term "paranoid art," as it seems to describe not only how certain fans and critics of the show engage with True Detective, but gives name to the type of investigation Rust continues against Reverand Tuttle after leaving the police.)

Even my friends who are not as enamored with the show as I am seem unable to look away. Despite all their complaints about Rust's cryptic soliloquies or the seemingly unfocused narrative or their desire to "get back to the investigation" and away from the characters' messy inner lives, they still follow alongside Marty as he is being lead into Carcosa by Rust. If I was to hazard a guess, I think this inability to disengage can be summed up neatly by the title of a recent Hazlitt piece, "True Detective is Heading Somewhere, Isn't It?" There must be an end goal, a payoff, a golden fleece, an Ark of the Covenant. Right?

I have a feeling the success of tonight's final episode is going to hinge on this expectation—once Rust gets to Carcosa, he'll know, he'll have found some essential truth, exhumed a terrible history and dragged it back aboveground for all to see, and then he can shuffle off this mortal coil. In some ways, this is also Marty's expectation—further horror, the unraveling of a conspiracy, and perhaps death. He visits his ex-wife to thank her, presumably for the good years of their marriage, for raising their daughters in his absence (both before and after the divorce), to which she asks if he is "saying goodbye." He doesn't directly address her question, adding weight to her words and his silence.

To paraphrase one of my favorite professors, Dr. David Williams, author of the brilliant work Searching for God in the SixtiesRust and Marty see the world as an artichoke: there are layers to be pulled back to reveal a heart, an essential truth (unlike an onion, whose layers only reveal more and more layers of social construction—no heart, no essential truth). They are detectives, investigators of a crime, and if we take Fine at his word and believe that the "future [is] purchased by the gains of brutal acts committed in the past," Rust's and Marty's worlds are defined by crimes, which can be investigated and, hopefully, solved. If the case cannot be solved, it is only because the detective couldn't find that truth, not because the truth did not exist. As Marty said about suffering from "the Detective's Curse": "the solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues." I have a feeling this quote will play heavily into the final installment of True Detective.

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There is a heaviness and electricity in the air for the show's finale—if done right, True Detective will enter the pantheon of bizarre, challenging crime shows like Twin Peaks that encourage not only an active engagement with the material presented in each episode, but further analysis, asking us to also become detectives, to unearth our own truths; if the final crescendo hits too many wrong notes, if what Rust finds in Carcosa is an endless series of layers and not a heart, not something that can be grasped, held, and appreciated, the entire journey to this anticlimactic end may well come under heavy scrutiny. My only concern is that in some ways we have already found the "heart"—the "man with the scars" was under Rust's nose the whole time, mowing lawns at Tuttle's properties. I know this fact in particular has a good friend of mine worried about an unsatisfactory end to Rust's and Marty's story, a fear I can understand.

My only hope is that Pizzolatto knows exactly what he is doing. When asked back in early February during an interview with the Daily Beast if he knew how the show would end, Pizzolatto responded, "I knew what the last scene was. I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to get ourselves there, but I knew what it was. And if the last scene had to change because the characters revealed something to me, then it would change. But actually the last scene is the last scene that was always intended to be."

As there have only been a few patches of dead air on this show for me, I'm going to hope this final scene, one that seemingly drove and shaped much of the writing of True Detective, will make sense of the journey through the strange Louisiana landscape of Pizzolatto's mind, through the dark history/-ies surrounding his two protagonists, into the turbulent thought patterns of Rust's troubled mind and through the fall of the house of Hart, down into Carcosa in pursuit of the Yellow King. If not, we'll all get to play detective tomorrow, delving into the landscape and history of True Detective to figure out where it all went horribly wrong.

Noir in Toyland by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

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Only ephemerally does Nelly Reifler's short novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge maintain a degree of innocence—the title might at first sound like a children's story (well, for children whose parents hope they'll enter into politics one day, perhaps), then you see the cover: a dress discarded in the mud, pants flung over the hood of a jeep, two sets of legs entangled, the silhouette of a mouse, presumably watching the unfolding sexual scene. Even when learning that the main characters are in fact a mouse, Barbie, and Ken, the illusion of purity is gone—and this is precisely the point. As Claire Cameron writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Are humans inherently good? Are we born bad or do we become this way? These are old questions, so I give credit to Nelly Reifler who, in her weird-enough-to-be-wonderful novel Elect H. Mouse State Judge, adds a new twist: What is the essential nature of our childhood toys?


While the question may seem strange—and perhaps it would be better altered to, "How does the essential nature of childhood toys change as we age, when we look back at Barbie's molded breasts and Ken's plastic bulge as adults?"—it is an unavoidable one given then themes and characters of Reifler's novel, one that Cameron describes as "Barbie Noir." Even if a critic was to only look at this novel as an absurdist tale of crime and corruption merely peopled by children's toys and pets, the preoccupation is undeniably with children: H. Mouse's children have been abducted and he hires the private investigation team of Barbie and Ken to track them down, fearing police involvement would expose the skeletons in his closet. An irony that Cameron overlooks, however, is that in Reifler's novel children's toys are entrusted to safely recover children, to save them from the failings of their parents, yet another strange layer I haven't quite unraveled, but one that I hope to return to in the future.

If someone on your Christmas list has a healthy appreciation for noir and the absurd, you could do a hell of a lot worse than picking up Elect H. Mouse State Judge for them. 

Only God Forgives by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

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This is not a film for everyone, even those who enjoyed Nicolas Winding Refn's phenomenal Drive. While sharing the same director, star, and composer, these are very different films. The comparisons are unavoidable, and they are also misleading. Julian may share the Driver's economy with spoken language, but they are drastically different characters, and the tone and feel of Only God Forgives is far more in line with Refn's earlier work than with the movie that first paired him with Ryan Gosling.

Only God Forgives is definitely (and perhaps defiantly) not cut from the same sleek, understated cloth of Drive, nor is it constructed of the theatrical tapestry that made up BronsonI agree with the reviewers who suggest that it has all the makings of a cult classic, a statement you never hear bandied about for an easily accessible film. While I cannot speak highly enough of the cinematography, the locations and sets, Cliff Martinez's score, and the cast (especially Vithaya Pansringarm as a fascinating and frightening Avenging Angel), this movie is demanding: Julian is a far less accessible and sympathetic character than the Driver and completely devoid of the charismatic flair of Tom Hardy's Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson, and it is not a quick ninety minutes. The unnerving and violent world of God Only Forgives is something that either pulls you in or it doesn't, hence the divide between critics and fans, with many either lauding high praise on the film or shaking their heads in displeasure and disbelief—there really isn't much in the way of middle ground. The film may fall a bit short of a masterpiece, but I am perplexed by the critics who were bored by Only God Forgives (see the Washington Post's review) or outright dismissed it. (This isn't to further perpetuate the argument being made in some corners that if you don't like or "get" this film you are betraying a total and complete lack of intellectual prowess, which I personally find to be a ridiculous and baseless claim. Ann Hornaday's intelligence is obvious and on full display throughout her dismantling of Only God Forgives in the aforementioned review.)

Only God Forgives is as noir as it gets, even while bearing the influence of David Lynch and being set thousands of miles away from noir's (and neo-noir's) usual stomping grounds. Where in Drive we wanted the Driver to succeed because we knew him to be a good person, there is no such foothold to be found with Julian. Other than being portrayed by the same devastatingly handsome actor, Julian is not an essentially good guy wrapped up in shady goings on. Where I truly cared about the Driver and his fate, I was fascinated by Julian, very much against my better judgment. Julian is that rare and wonderful noir character who we know to be broken beyond repair, a person we would actively avoid in real life, but that we cannot help but follow into the darkness. No matter what was thrown my way, and there's a lot thrown at you in this film, I still couldn't help but hope that Julian found a way out of the dark labyrinthine hallways that continue to ensnare and close in around him. There's something about the claustrophobic (and ever narrowing) path Julian is on that is endlessly intriguing, and doubly as unnerving. Where Drive builds up to its stranglehold, the hands are already on Julian's throat from the onset of Only God Forgives; as with all good noir, the rest of the film is watching the artful depiction of that violent struggle.

While short of a tour de force, I found Only God Forgives to be a truly remarkable experience. If you are curious (and have read this far), I'd say go for it (and you can watch it on Amazon Instant Video for $6), just be prepared for the waters to be rough. There's a lot to like (or at least ponder and discuss with friends) about this film—its intriguing and disturbing treatment of violence; the viscous, tangible, and nightmarish sense of dread that pervades the film; the fetishistic attention paid to hands; the phenomenal look, feel, and texture of the movie; Ryan Gosling's eyes; and, obviously, the ending. 

Only God Forgives fulfills my one criteria for any "artsy" film—that it can fuel a lengthy and engaged conversation with friends, and there is no shortage of things to analyze, unpack, and discuss in Refn's latest work. Need to crank out a 10-15 page paper for a film studies, psychology, or literature class? You could easily hit that mark just focusing on the symbolic use of hands throughout this film, and I haven't even started in on Julian and his mother yet.

Touch of Evil by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

[Author's Note: I originally wrote this review a few years ago, back in August of 2010. As such, I've made a few edits, updates, and alterations, but the majority of the piece remains in its original form.]

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I was a bit late in my appreciation of film noir, even later with any real knowledge of its seminal works. My teenage interest in cinema first grew into something resembling a passion with pictures like Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club. While Tarantino’s work should have inspired me to work my way back through crime cinema’s dark history, I remained primarily interested in relatively recent films, typically offbeat works like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or heroin narratives like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Darren Aronofsky’s soul-crushing Requiem for a Dreamand Alison Maclean's adaptation of Denis Johnson's wonderful Jesus's Son. When I did watch crime narratives as a younger man they were often of the La Cosa Nostra variety, the oldest probably from the early ’70s.

It wasn't until my early-twenties when I developed an appreciation for crime writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonaldwhose Black Money I first read in a class primarily focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s workthat I went back to films like The Big Sleep  and The Asphalt Jungle and truly recognized them for the accomplishments they are. It didn't take much more to send me down the dark alleys and into the smoke-filled bars of just about any film noir I could get my hands on, usually from a friend’s collection on their recommendation. After a few years, I had a much firmer grasp on and interest in noir, both its literary and cinematic avenues.

That said, it wasn't for some time that I finally sat down to watch Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It didn't surprise me to learn after my first viewing that Welles had requested the worst of a pile of scripts from producer Albert Zugsmith’s desk in order to prove that he could create something worthwhile from even the most paltry of offerings. Welles’ strong performances both in front of and behind the camera aside, there remains a cartoonish feel to a number of the characters and scenes, an issue that the film itself references early on when Janet Leigh tells a central antagonists that he acts like someone who has watched too many gangster films. But even the acknowledgement of scenery chewing doesn't remedy the fact that a number of the menacing figures that should be lurking in the shadows are too often in the light, often as markedly two-dimensional henchmen spewing stilted dialogue. There is even a scene where Charlton Heston’s character is being tailed by a young man who runs, jumps, and ducks behind pillars and walls like some pantomime villain.

Even the film’s hero, Miguel Vargas (yes, this is the film playfully mentioned in Ed Wood where Charlton Heston is playing a Mexican), is lacking in any real depth. Despite the film’s running time—the 1998 cut runs almost two hours—we learn little about Vargas other than he is a honest cop who has recently arrested a notorious criminal in Mexico City. Once he gets wrapped up in Touch of Evil‘s central narrative—wonderfully done in a three-and-a-half-minute long take of ‘Mike’ and Susie Vargas walking through a border town, dramatically and jarringly ending with a car exploding as it crosses through a checkpoint onto American soil—Vargas is little more than a foil to Welles’ shadowy, far more intriguing Hank Quinlan.

Touch of Evil is Quinlan’s film and Welles’ performance alone is enough to make the film worth sitting through. While it’s not of the same caliber as his depiction of Harry Lime in The Third Man (and really here I am talking about the famous cuckoo clock speech), Welles’ turn as Quinlan is something to behold—his decline is far more compelling than Vargas' rise. Add to this performance a story that periodically meanders, but is compelling enough, and a visually striking rendering of the Mexican-American border, and you have an engaging take on film noir towards the end of the genre’s era.

If you want to see what far more qualified people have said about Touch of Evil:

  • Charles Taylor’s 1998 review for Salon.com claims that Touch of Evil "may just be the sleaziest good movie ever made."
  • Reel Classics hosts a New York Times article by Walter Murch who oversaw the 1998 cut of Touch of Evil which drew heavily from Welles' 58-page memo written after he saw a version of the film that Universal had significantly altered with new footage and reshot scenes.
  • David Edelstein’s review for Slate (tucked under his review of Rounders) notes that when the author was younger he "thought [Touch of Evil] was one of the worst pictures ever—garish, oppressive, and appallingly overacted. Grown up, I'd go with those same adjectives, except now I think it’s one of the best."
  • And the master reviewer himself, Roger Ebert, claims "The film has always been a favorite of those who enjoy visual and dramatic flamboyance," and draws parallels between Welles and the character he depicts, Hank Quinlan: "Much of Welles' work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn't get it. He's running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble."