SURREAL TRAPDOOR: What’s Under Niagara Falls?

Greetings, Readers!

I’ve been offline for much of January doing what writers do: writing! Finished up two short projects and now I’m re-attacking Danny Bluestone’s next adventure, Windigo Ice.

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13 Claws coming soon!

Lots to look forward to in 2017: the launch of the Mesdames of Mayhem’s third anthology, 13 Claws; Left Coast Crime in Hawaii; Limestone Expo in Kingston; Word on the Street; and Bouchercon right here in Toronto!

But of course my fingers strayed over to the internet from the time to time and I came across this retro gem though: what happened when engineers stopped Niagara Falls in 1969?

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The American Falls before…
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American Falls after

 

 

 

 

 

When I was a kid in school, my science teachers were preoccupied with the demise of Niagara Falls. If Something Wasn’t Done, the Falls would deteriorate post-haste into a series of rapids and precious tourist dollars would evaporate. Rock slides in 1931 and 1958 had dumped a sh*tload of rubble at the base of the American Falls.  The Niagara Falls Gazette created a fervour by predicting the Death of the Falls and the cause was taken up by a zealous senator and congressman.

And so on June 12, 1969, the US Corps of Engineers did the unthinkable: they stopped Niagara Falls for the first time in 12,000 years. (Well, not exactly. A half a dozen ice jams have blocked the flow over BOTH sets of falls, most significantly in 1848, but only for a few days each time.)

Once the water dried up, what a desolate and unattractive site it became!

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To dry up The Falls, the US army dumped 27,800 tons of rock upstream across the Niagara River, creating a 600 ft cofferdam that diverted the water away to flow over the (to my mind) far more beautiful Canadian Horseshoe Falls.  Over the next six months, army engineers mechanically bolted faults and drilled holes in the riverbed in hopes of delaying further erosion. 

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As a crime writer, I was curious to know what workers found UNDER the falls once the water dried up. Well, at first, lost coins drew a ton of fortune seekers. Eventually tourists stayed away in droves, because the falls had become, quite frankly, ugly.

Sadly, two bodies were recovered: the first a man, a recent suicide. The other, the skeletal remains of a woman wearing a red and white striped dress and a narrow gold wedding band with the inscription “Forget Me Not”. There’s a story there certainly.

Experts soon realized the enormous cost of removing all the rubble from the base of the Falls. On November 24, 1969, the workers dispatched the coffer dam in front of 2500+ spectators, restoring the flow of water, the Falls’ beauty – and collective sanity all at once.

For more details about this engineering oddity, follow this link.

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Santarchy 2016!!

Greetings Readers!

20161222_073127Thank you for making 2016 a fabulous year – with even more to look forward to in the New Year.

After a quick family visit to London, England, we are back home to celebrate Christmas and to perform our sacred rituals – like nom-nom-noming the Festive Special at Swiss Chalet with Ed’s car club!

Santarchy ruled again on Dec 17th.  Costumes were especially creative with an emphasis on naughty. No need for a big budget as you will see in the following pics!

 

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Ed at the Imperial Pub
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Naughty elf!
Naughty Mrs. Clauses
Naughty Mrs. Clauses
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First stop: The Black Bull

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rudolph always a fav with kidx
Rudolph always a fav with kids

This year went off without a hitch. The weather was mild and perfect for marching down Queen Street. Gathering at the Imperial Pub, we stormed Dundas Square then invaded the Eaton Centre to  give out candy canes and treats to kids.

Group photo on the steps of Old City Hall, then after a long wait for the Zamboni, an impromptu slide across the skating rink at city hall dodging security guards and skaters on blades.

Get turned away at The Rex – check. Wave to Christmas-spirited cab drivers and cops – check.  First stop, The Black Bull – check. The bartenders serve 50+ customers without missing a beat. Amazing!

Some great costumes below.

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Tinsel & a string of lights make a Christmas tree!
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No Santa beard? This handy bag got our friend a lot of positive attention!
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Real antlers! Hairstyle and crown remain this partyer’s secret

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On to night clubs, Crocodile Rock and The Ball Room, where like the Big Lebowski, you can go bowling. At 1 pm, Ed and I called it a night and walked through the rain to the perennial late night fave, Fran’s on Shuter street. We survived and look forward to Santarchy 2017.

Happy Holidays, folks.  As a special treat, I leave you with one of my big favs, Cats vs Christmas trees!!

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Your tree – I eated it!

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Santarchy Rules!

Every year on a Saturday mid-December 100+ Santas storm through Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and head down Queen Street west. Flagrant rebels in search of BEER! This is a world-wide movement from Hanoi to Helsinki to Tokyo to London and beyond. Read about Santacon here.

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100+ rampaging Santas!

Ed and I have been part of this rampaging mob for several Christmases now, thanks to our friend Eric. (Read more about Eric and his Grand Guignol clowning in my most popular blog ever, Charlie the Lonely Sentinel. Charlie’s a stuffed dog BTW.)

We’re polite rebels with several rules of decorum, including being nice to kids and obeying police officers and security guards. After all, we’re Canadian! A Santa suit is a must, but one’s imagination may run wild from racy to saucy Mrs. Claus. We’ve even had a Thor Santa! (Sorry, ladies, no photo). And we are led by Old St. Nick in resplendent bishop’s robe and staff.

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Racy Santa
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Saucy Santa

Typically, we meet up at the Imperial Pub on Dundas St. East then march through the Eaton Centre, giving out candy canes to kids. Then on to Nathan Philip Square for a rampage through the skaters. Group photo at the war memorial on University Avenue then on to The Rex to be refused admission. (Hey, it’s tradition!) The Black Bull though is usually our first and favorite watering hole.

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Getting tired as evening wears on

We wend our way down Queen Street, invading the pubs that will let us in. (To be fair, they’ve been pre-warned.) The Academy of Spherical Arts is a fav as well as the late, great Hideout.  This is a way to get in to clubs who would never otherwise let you in because you’re obviously middle class and O-L-D. We’ve even witnessed Fetish Night. (Great material for crime fiction, but who would believe me?)

By 2 am, Ed and I are ready for food (poutine anyone?) and home. Many times the subway has gone sleepy-bye for the night so we’ve relied on the notorious Zoo Bus of our youth. The Yonge St. night bus is a whole quantum level more surreal  and never fails to disappoint. 

Interested? The info isn’t up on the website yet but word is that if you come to the Imperial Pub at 6 pm, Sat Dec 17th, you may find something to your advantage…

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Brantford – Retro Bizzaro!

Cathy Astolfo
Cathy Astolfo

My friend and fellow crime writer, Cathy Astolfo, recently moved to Brantford.  I’ve made flying visits there to give talks with other crime writers that Cathy arranged with her local Brantford library.  My impression: Brantford’s nice and quiet – a typical small Ontario town.

How wrong can you be! 

Follow the link here to fall through the Surreal Trapdoor and discover Brantford’s loveable eccentrics, like Mike on a Bike and Captain Kindness.  And time warps like the Dairee Delite selling ice cream  so good, Canadians line up for it in winter!

Directions to Surreal Trapdoor here: http://katywords.blogspot.ca/

Cathy writes two series: the light-hearted Kira Callaghan series set in the ReVisions Retirement Residence and the darker, Emily Taylor series. She’s also penned the standalone noir psychological thriller,  Sweet Caroline and published many crime fiction stories. Do check out this Arthur Ellis award winner’s  books here.  http://www.catherineastolfo.com/.

MY NEW BOOK: GLOW GRASS & OTHER TALES – EXCERPT 8

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The Ultimate Mystery

 This cross-over tale stemmed from an idea that had nagged me for many years. It poses the question: What is a deity?

 Published in World Enough and Crime, Carrick Publishing, 2014.

 Finalist, Derringer Award, Long Short Story, 2015

In this excerpt, we see two parallel worlds: the underground kingdom where Lily exists and the isolated prairie farm where her earthly counterpart, Lucy, dwells.

Lily rarely saw diggers her size, since children fared poorly in the tunnels. Many died because they did not get enough to eat. During the frequent rock falls and tunnel collapses, children were more likely to lose their lives. Often, when she and Maria picked their way through the aftermath of a catastrophe, she’d see small limbs protruding from the debris.

            More disturbingly, she’d heard stories about guards taking young ones to the Supreme Ruler. In the dark, the other diggers whispered that those children simply disappeared. The guards had their way with them. Then ate them.

            She asked Maria if this was true.

            “Of course not,” Maria replied. “If we uphold The Law, the Authorities take care of us. That is the social contract our ancestors made long ago. We work to support the Supreme Ruler and the Authorities – and they feed us and keep us safe.”

            Which really means we dig and dig for nothing, Lily thought. Their food consisted of chunks of matter heavily processed at The Centre. On rare occasions it tasted sweet, but other times it tasted foul and bitter. Her fears multiplied.

            “Is there meat in the food?” Children? she wanted to ask.

            “No, not for diggers like us,” Maria replied. “Only the privileged eat meat. Meat keeps them strong so they can take care of us.”

           In other words, the Authorities and the guards ate meat. But so did the hunters who left the citadel to forage for food. At the rare gatherings with other diggers, Lily heard exciting tales about the hunters’ exploits. Rumour had it they did not always bring back all the food they found, even the precious meat.

            “That means the hunters are breaking The Law!” Lily whispered to Maria.

            “The hunters must sample their takings,” Maria said, hiding a smile. “To make sure that the food is fit for the Authorities.”

            “I want to be a hunter.”

            “That is not your rank. You are a digger. The Authorities decided this for you when you were born.”

            “Why? And don’t just say they obeyed The Law. Who made The Law anyway?”

            “The Goddess made The Law and everything in our world.”

            Lily thought this over. Every digger knew the Goddess made the world, and that She had created the Authorities in her own image. Of course, no one had any idea what the Goddess looked like, or the mechanism whereby She passed on Her word to The Authorities.

            “What if the Goddess got it wrong?”

            “Enough! No more questions.”

            Not understanding the reasons for what happened in the world made Lily feel stupid. She longed to go to school, but education of diggers was forbidden. Learning was reserved for the privileged. Maria reminded her yet again that their low status was an advantage: to be overlooked meant to be safe.

            “Are hunters allowed to learn?” Lily persisted.

            “Only enough to navigate the Outer World, so they can bring food home to our citadel.”

            Now, more than ever, Lily wanted to become a hunter.

***

            Lucy fidgeted on her kitchen chair. Every day Mom made peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, to save money, so Dad could have steak for dinner. To keep his strength up, Mom said. Because he was the one who travelled to earn money for the family.

            “Time for your lessons, dear.” Miriam gathered up their dirty dishes, clearing the way for Lucy’s textbooks.

            “Why do I have to learn at home? Why can’t I go to school like other children? And don’t just say it’s God’s will.”

            Miriam sighed. Lucy was always so full of questions. “Your father and I decided to home-school you the day you came into our lives. Public schools don’t follow God’s word, so the children there just learn about sex and drugs. I know you’re lonely, but out here we’re safe. And you’ll stay pure.”

**

HAPPY FIRST BLOG ANNIVERSARY – Taxidermy proves popular!

Greetings Readers!

October 29, 2015 I published my first blog: All Hail Word Press! 

Blogging is great!  Free license to explore street art, weird stuff, books, books and more books! And it’s a procrastination tool extraordinaire when I should be working on my next book in the Danny Bluestone series, Windigo Ice.

Most of my blog’s followers by far live in the USA and Canada. The split is almost exactly 50/50. Next up: Brazil (!), West Germany and the UK.   I’ve had hits from around the globe, including places as far flung as Angola, Macau and Mongolia. (Really? Crime fiction fans …or not?)

Popularity of my blog categories is pretty evenly split although Surreal Trapdoor, Eat This Book and Cyber Café have the edge. And what were my most popular posts?  Check back here: I’ll be republishing them from time to time FYI.

First up, the winner: The stuffed dog – Charlie the Lonely Sentinel!! 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: TAXIDERMY and CHARLIE THE LONELY SENTINEL

 Grinning Halloween lantern vector illustration.This story is true. Strange things always happen to me.

Last Halloween, our friend, whom I’ll call Eric, invited us to a party at his place. It’s a gently decayed mansion divided into flats with high ceilings, narrow twisting corridors and connecting backstairs so that he and his friends have as much company or privacy as they want.

Eric is a software engineer by day but by night, he’s a gifted and well-known cabaret performer. His friends, whom I’ll call Fred and Mary, are musicians who play regular gigs in Toronto. 

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Tommy Wiseau
Me, not exactly as illustrated
Me, not exactly as illustrated

Costumes were de rigueur. Ed went as Tommy Wiseau ,  creator of The Room, possibly one of the worst films ever made. I went as a cat, aiming for so-bad-it’s-good.  We were meeting Fred and Mary for the first time so knowing Eric, I expected the unexpected.

Fred and Mary’s flat was dark and crowded with denizens of Toronto’s demi-monde. Costumes ranged from drag to burlesque to clowns. Wine glass in hand, I wandered past dimly lit museum exhibits of fossils and stuffed rodents.

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“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing one of the stuffed squirrels. “Very Halloween.”

“Oh, they’re here all the time,” said a fellow guest. “They live here with Fred and Mary.”

“Permanently?” I squeaked.

“That’s nothing. Did you see the stuffed dog?” He pointed to a shadowy lump on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sure enough, it was a remarkably life-like black and white spaniel.

Charlie the dog
Charlie the lonely sentinel – note the wooden platform on rollers

Later Fred explained how he and Mary came by Charlie. In life, he belonged to a decrepit and eccentric acquaintance down the street. When Charlie exited this Vale of Tears, the elderly man had him stuffed. And continued walking him along the street on a set of rollers.

 “That’s creepy,” I said.

“Well, the guy came by it honestly. He ran the Toronto Explorers Club,” Fred said.

“There’s an explorers club?!” What an absurd Victorian anachronism, I thought.

“Yeah, there is. And the old guy acquired a load of stuffed trophies from the club. Legit or not, who knows? Anyway his house was crammed with them. When he died, his relatives rented a dumpster and tossed all the stuffed animals into it. Mary spotted it on her way home from work. It was really bizarre, looking inside that steel crate and seeing it full of deer heads and stuff.” 

Fred took a sip of beer. “What was really sad was seeing Charlie lying there on top of  all that. Especially since we knew him when he was alive. Mary didn’t know what to do at first, but then she decided to rescue him.  The problem was that she’d biked to work that day.  So she strapped Charlie onto the back carrier and rode home with him.”

Our friend, Eric, continued the story. “I saw Mary riding along on her bike with this cute black and white dog on the back.  I thought, ‘Wow, Fred and Mary got a dog! And boy, is he well-trained. Look at him sitting still and riding along on the bike like that.’ But when she stopped, Charlie kind of rotated and stayed sitting still in the same position.  That really freaked me out. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”

Now Charlie now stands guard in Fred and Mary’s home: the lonely sentinel.

 

 

 

 

 

MORE BIG NEWS: Announcing the Print Launch of GLOW GRASS and OTHER TALES!

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I’m delighted to announce a the print launch of my collection of short crime fiction, Glow Grass and Other Tales, now available on Amazon.

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Glow Grass includes my Arthur Ellis finalist novella of the same name as well as Derringer finalist, “The Ultimate Mystery” and Bony Pete First Prize winner, “The Lizard”.  The stories are dark, but book-ended by two light-hearted comic turns, “Kill the Boss” and “Amdur’s Cat”. In each tale, justice is served, though it may be slightly twisted.

 

 

This will be a TRIFECTA launch with two dear author friends and fellow Mesdames of Mayhem: Rosemary Aubert and Donna Carrick.  Rosemary’s book is The Midnight Boat to Palermo and Donna’s North on the Yellowhead.

The launch takes place on Sunday, November 6th at 2 to 3:30 pm at our favorite bookstore, Sleuth of Baker Street. The public is invited. Admission is free. Drinks and nibbles provided!

 

 

SURREAL TRAPDOOR: Gators Love Marshmallows!

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September is marshmallow month!

 

Just got back from Bouchercon 2016 held in New Orleans, LA. It was my first visit to this haunted city – and I loved it. Tropical heat, “painted-lady” mansions, ornate ironwork, fin de siècle French cafes, crass voodoo shops (gruesome made in China shrunken heads), a streetcar really named Desire, antique neon signs, fab music…the list is endless.

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Voodoo & 24/7 beer
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French quarter

A bar culture shocking to a Canadian. Alcohol is freely available 24/7. Walgreen’s Drugstore sports shelves and shelves of bourbon. People wander freely about the streets drinking – as long as the container is plastic.

 

But what did I really want to see? GATORS!IMG_0814Swamp tours out of New Orleans end up at a nature conservancy about an hour’s drive out of the city.  Tourists are loaded into flat-bottomed boats named, somewhat disturbingly, Gatorbait!

Hopefully not you
Hopefully not you
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Rusty drawbridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our guide climbs on board the Gatorbait carrying a bag of marshmallows.  This is not, as we first suppose, a cheap snack for us. No, kiddies, this is the true gator bait!  As we are soon to learn, gators love marshmallows. And propelled by their powerful tails, they will jump out of the water for a hotdog on a stick. After all, hotdogs look just like tourist fingers!

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Our guide tosses a marshmallow onto the brown brackish water. Impossible to know what lurks beneath the surface.  It looks so bland and boring. Until two beady primordial eyes glide to the surface and snap! We’re back in the days of the dinosaurs.

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Where’s my candy?
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Pant like a dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, who cares if the sugar rots the gators’ teeth or clogs their arteries? Gators aren’t endangered, the guide tells us. They’re farmed locally, from eggs collected at the nature preserve. Otherwise the gators would eat them, a twisted sort of birth control. In fact, that’s why they love marshmallows. The candy looks just like gator eggs!

In fact, gators will eat just about anything smaller than them, especially baby alligators. (More birth control.)  Someone asks the guide if they eat humans. “Oh, no” he says. “My buds and I swim and jet ski all through the bayou. They’re a lot more scared of us than we are of them.”

Sure.

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Wild hog
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White egret

 

 

 

 

 

Other denizens of the swamp share the gators’ sweet tooth: an egret, a blue heron and a baby wild hog who chomps away at the mushy treats with a wary eye on a nearby, avariciously hungry baby gator.

More interesting facts: gators are territorial (no kidding), they cool off by panting like dogs, food rots in their stomachs if the weather gets too cold and they can live to be 100 years old.  Reminds me of certain presidential candidates…

For breakfast we sample gator sausage. Hmm. A bit dry with a taste reminiscent of the mystery meat served up in university cafeterias. Better to eat than to be eaten though…

Viva New Orleans!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG NEWS: Cover for Glow Grass and Other Tales

 Greetings Readers!

BIG REVEAL!

Here is the cover of my new book, Glow Grass and Other Tales (Carrick Publishing). With thanks and hugs and kisses to my fav cover artist, Sara Carrick.

Cyber launch date soon.  I’ll be doing a print launch with Rosemary Aubert in October / November. Stand by for dates and details.

glowgrass

 

 

TOP 10 FAV NOIR FILMS!

Really looking forward to Noir at the Bar at Bouchercon on September 14th in gothic New Orleans!

I’m a visual writer. I fell in love with the movies at age 3.  As a teenager, I fell under the spell of noir cinema: tough settings criss-crossed with black shadows, peopled with sinners doing horrible things to each other – what was not to love?

So in honour of Noir at the Bar, here are my Top 10 Fav Noir Films. Most centre on strong, complex female characters. Their striking settings are often surreal and have stayed in my mind forever.  The characters get justice even if that justice is harsh and twisted. And almost all feature devastating endings with a darkly satiric edge.

So here’s my list. I’d love to hear from you about your 10 Fav Film Noirs.

10.  thBLOOD SIMPLE (Joel & Ethan Coen) – The debut film of the Coen brothers who developed the story from Dashiel Hammett’s phrase “blood simple” meaning crazed by violence. 

An  unpleasant man hires a shady PI to murder his wife and her lover. Things naturally go awry with a literally harrowing murder scene that rivals the death of Rasputin. One of the best exit lines ever, delivered by veteran character actor, M. Emmet Walsh whose performance oozes sleaze.

 

9.   LadyfromS LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Orson Welles) – Orson Welles ran out of money trying to stage a musical version of Around the World in 80 Days. He  allegedly pitched The Lady from Shanghai to Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn while  looking at the cover of a pulp novel he’d never read. It’s a “who’s gonna kill who” thriller with adult dialogue sparked with sharp-edged barbs.

Welles invented the final shoot-out in a fun house of mirrors, a  sequence that’s become standard in action and horror films. Nearly 70 years later, Welles’s original remains the best.

 

8.   SorrywrongnumberSORRY WRONG NUMBER (Anton Litvak) – A spoiled, bed-ridden  heiress overhears a murder plot on her telephone. Through a series of phone conversations with strangers and her unhappy husband, she realizes the thugs are about to murder her

Based on a radio play by Lucille Fletcher, the film works because of  its unusual plot structure and a terrific performance by Barbara Stanwyck as the woman you love to hate.

A devastatingly satisfying one-line ending: “Sorry, wrong number.”

 

 

7.   Mildred-Pierce-One-SheetMILDRED PIERCE (Michael Curtiz) – Based on the novel by master noir writer, James M. Cain.  The film depicts  the rise and fall of businesswoman, Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford).

Abandoned by her husband, Mildred battles poverty and  terrible grief to support her family.  Against all odds, she becomes rich, but her insatiable drive to join high society ends up destroying what she fought so hard to save: her family.  A remarkable film even in 2016,  because the tragic hero is a woman rather than a man.

 

 

6.   220px-Vertigomovie_restorationVERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock) – A masterpiece mystery thriller that shows how a grippingly profound story can be created with a minimum of characters. The film explores the destructive power of self-delusion and mental illness at a visceral level.

A law officer develops vertigo after a nearly fatal fall. His phobia makes him the victim of a diabolical plot. James Stewart is at his best as the unsympathetic hero: even Hitchcock’s heavily artificial camera work, invented to mimic vertigo, does the job. One of the best and most devastating movie endings of all time!

 

5. THE THIRD MAN th(Carol Reed) A thriller filmed on location in the rubble of post-WWII Vienna. It goes beyond genre in examining business corruption, betrayal and the tragedy of misplaced loyalty. 

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a broke pulp fiction writer, travels to Vienna to meet his old friend, Harry Lime, who’s promised him a job.  But he arrives to find that Lime has been killed in a hit and run car accident and is wanted by the police.  Looking for answers, Martins  uncovers some nasty truths about Lime. 

Despite being on screen for only a short time, Orson Welles is the perfect Moriarty, intellectually brilliant, articulate, urbane and utterly indifferent to his friends. The final chase through the sewers of Vienna is pure noir, the unromantic ending logical. When visiting  Vienna, do check out the Third Man Walking Tour .

4.  thFARGO (Joel & Ethan Coen) A police  thriller where the misery of a North Dakota winter and the mundanity of Midwest culture work as well as the mean streets of noir. 

A beleaguered car salesman (William Macy) conspires with a pair of criminals to kidnap his wife for money and to get revenge on his rich father-in-law. Naturally things go pear-shaped, partly due to the dogged investigation by the local – and  heavily pregnant- police chief (Frances McDormand). 

Some really macabre scenes – we all know what’s gonna happen with that wood chipper – and lots of dark humour.  Who can forget Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) burying the ransom money in the endless snow along the highway then marking the spot with a tiny ice scraper?  Ordinary folks and petty criminals alike die because they’re not equipped to deal with true evil, as portrayed by Danish Shakespearean actor, Peter Stormare. For once good triumphs over evil…sort of.

 

3.  The_Asphalt_Jungle_posterTHE ASPHALT JUNGLE (John Huston)  The heist film that spawned the caper subgenre. Classic noir: tough criminal characters, mean streets, desperate motivations, greed and corruption. 

Four criminals and a corrupt lawyer conspire to rob a fortune in jewels, but are undone by mutual treachery and unforeseen hitches in their plan. Great performances by Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe. Interestingly, the film features the debut of Marilyn Monroe as the elderly lawyer’s young mistress. At the time, she wasn’t big enough to be on the movie poster!

 

 2.  thTOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles) Tough choice between my top two favs: they’re really a tie.

 I first saw Touch of Evil on late night TV. Deemed weird and disturbing at the time, I secretly loved it and still do. Seeing it now, I believe that the film was too truthful for the time because of its candid portrayal of police corruption and violence. Today it’s listed as one of the best films of the 20th century.

In the story, two people are killed when a car bomb goes off at a border crossing between the USA and Mexico. The veteran American cop, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), wants a quick solution and plants evidence to frame the most likely suspect, a Mexican citizen. Vargas, the Mexican detective (Charleton Heston), stands up to Quinlan with blowback that nearly kills him and his American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh).

Classic noir: mean streets, corruption, nasty characters, drugs, illicit sex, but much, much more. The film foreshadows tech noir: the final confrontation between Quinlan and Vargas takes place in a decayed industrial setting. It’s brutally frank about the bullying nature of American-Mexican relations, the corruption of male cronyism and women’s vulnerability in a patriarchal society.  Some neat touches: Mercedes McCambridge plays a frankly lesbian hoodlum. For readers who don’t know her, McCambridge was the voice of the demon in The Exorcist.

Orson Welles is amazing as bloated, uber-corrupt, sixtyish Hank Quinlan; impossible to believe that he was only 43 at the time.  Incredible, surreal scenes between him and Marlene Dietrich as his former mistress and the owner of a Mexican bordello. The single 3-minute tracking shot at the start of the film, that follows the convertible with the ticking time bomb, made cinematic history.

 

1. SunsetBoulevardfilmposterSUNSET BOULEVARD (Billy Wilder) Not just my favorite film noir, but one of my all-time favs period. In the story, a broke screen writer, Joe Gillis (William Holden) is trying escape the repo men. He hides out on the grounds of a mysterious Hollywood mansion inhabited by a forgotten star of the silent movies, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).  Determined to make a comeback, Norma hires Gillis to rewrite her awful screenplay. Gillis figures it’s easy money, so he agrees, but gradually he becomes Norma’s boy-toy. When he decides to escape, well, guess what happens.

Like all great films, Sunset Boulevard is much more than its gripping story. It’s about the tragedy of vanity and delusion – and the price paid by enablers.  It’s also about the cost of refusing to accept change and abandoning your self-worth for easy money.

Gloria Swanson gives a legendary performance as Norma Desmond as does Erich von Stronheim portraying Max, her ex-husband who works as her butler. (Sick or what?) Wonderful gothic sets. Who can forget the image of the dead chimpanzee’s funeral or the rats in the dry swimming pool?

Billy Wilder broke several Hollywood conventions: many celebrities played themselves ( Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille) and the narrator is a dead man. Truly one of the most haunting and satisfying endings in the movies when Norma walks into the camera for her close-up.