Posts tagged ‘crime fiction’

March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

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March 9, 2011

he feels them, but he has to quell them

by Megan Abbott

Ian Fleming Talks to Raymond Chandler 1958 from 33hirtz on Vimeo.

I posted this delightful and fascinating conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming on Facebook this morning and had so many fun interactions with folks I wanted to put it here too.

I’d never heard the exchange before it makes me love them both even more (Fleming such the adoring protegee, Chandler such the kind mentor). In it, Chandler speaks of beginning to write the eighth Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which had Marlowe marrying Linda Loring (the love interest from The Long Goodbye, if you don’t count Terry Lennox, which I do)  would go unfinished (later “finished” by Robert B. Parker). Chandler died the following year.

There are some real gems in here–Chandler asking Fleming why he always has to have a torture scene, and Fleming’s response; Chandler’s comment that he never felt any of his characters were villains.

But of special interest to me was Chandler’s utterly charming response when Fleming suggests, about 20 minutes in, that if the book isn’t going well, he could always kill off Linda.

“Kill her?” Chandler says. “Oh no, she’s too nice …. Much too nice to kill off.”

And the way he says it, with such warmth. Well. It’s wonderful.

March 7, 2011

la reina ha muerto

by Megan Abbott

The main character in my third book, Queenpin, which is about to come out in Spain, was heavily inspired by the tumultuous life of  mob courier Virginia Hill, née Onie Hill, a.k.a. Virginia Norma Hall, a.k.a. Virginia Herman, a.k.a. Virginia Oney d’Algy, a.k.a. Virginia Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Flamingo.

I wrote the book exactly four years ago and somehow never came upon this terrific glamour shot that Cultura Impopular located for this interview:

virginia hillFour years after I wrote the book, she still intrigues me.  One of ten children born, as legend has it, to an drunken marble carver and mule salesmen, she left home at 17 and moved to Chicago, where she made some very dangerous friends.

If remembered at all now, it’s as a gang moll, Bugsy Siegel’s girl, the one for whom he named the Flamingo Hotel. But she was more than that (and nothing like the Annette Bening character in Warren Beatty’s heavily sanitized Bugsy). An extremely powerful mob courier for what used to be called “the syndicate,” she shuttled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1940s and early 50s, to Swiss bank accounts and back.

It was a dangerous business too, and her end was not pretty. (A case of questionable suicide at age 49.)

You can see her testifying at the Kefauver hearings here, at 0:43 (omerta, indeed):

She was also highly quotable, declaring to an eager press corps at one point that she had more fur coats than any woman in the country.

Gloria, the mob courier in my book, is in many ways much softer than Hill. When reporters tracked her down in Paris to give her the news that her lover Bugsy Siegel had been murdered in the home he bought for her, Hill reportedly replied:

“It looks so bad to have a thing like that happen in your house.”