Tag: noir (page 1 of 2)

Movie Review: Casablanca

There are some iconic scenes in fiction, and a lot of them happen in watering holes and cosmopolitan places where people gather. The Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars, Knowhere of Guardians of the Galaxy, The Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings… the list is extremely long. When it comes to films, there are few taverns that have had quite as much influence on the tone, composition, and nature of goings-on within such places as Rick’s Cafe Americain. After all, everybody comes to Rick’s. That is the name of the play upon which the unquestionably classic film, Casablanca, is based.

Courtesy Warner Bros

The year is 1941, and it is early December. The city of Casablanca is relatively neutral territory, even if it is controlled by Vichy France and the oversight of the German Reich. It is a hotbed of clandestine activity, from smuggling to gambling and even the sale of exit visas, which desperate refugees require to flee Europe for the promise of freedom and opportunity in America. Many of these sales happen at Rick’s, where the proprietor is surprisingly neutral and reserved, conveying only quiet bitterness and healthy scepticism towards both starry-eyed freedom-fighters and ironclad fascists. All of that changes, however, when the one woman who has ever truly captured Rick’s affections walks into his cafe, asking the piano player to play the one song Rick insists he never plays, and changes things in Casablanca forever.

It is pretty clear that Casablanca is adapted from a stage play. The settings, dialog, and even the lighting of the scenes could easily be recreated by a savvy director and a good stage crew. In the 1940s, many films were produced in this way, opting for a faster route from script to screen rather than saddling the production with glitz and glamour. In fact, when it was released, a lot of people didn’t expect anything groundbreaking from Casablanca; it was just another of the hundreds of films being produced by the studios. But even as it was being made, those directly involved with its creation knew that it was something special.

Courtesy Warner Bros
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”

A big reason for this is the talented, international cast. Only Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Dooley Wilson (Sam), and a minor role or two were American actors. The woman in question, Ilsa Lund, was played by luminous Norwegian actress Ingrid Bergman. Paul Henreid, Ilsa’s husband and a reknown freedom fighter named Victor Lazlo, was Austrian. Many actual refugees played roles of all types in the film, including the main antagonist, Major Strausser, who was portrayed by Conrad Veidt, a German who had himself fled from the Nazis. This gives the entire production of Casablanca a palpable sense of authenticity and earnestness. In one of its most famous scenes, Lazlo leads the people in Rick’s in a rendition of “La Marseilles”, and during the scene, many of the actors burst into tears on set. The nature of this cast is one of the things that makes Casablanca singularly special.

There’s also the fact that every single leading role is brilliantly executed. Bogart hadn’t done any romantic work before Casablanca, but watching Rick’s carefully crafted demeanor crack under the pressure of Ilsa’s presence is clear evidence of the actor’s talent. Bergman smolders, and the two have electric chemistry. Just as good is the interplay between Bogart and the inimitable Claude Rains, who plays Casablanca’s prefect of police Louis Renault with equal parts legitimate sleaze and good-natured humor. Henreid is compelling as a man who has witnessed horrid injustice first-hand and will stop at nothing to combat it, and Veidt gives Strausser real menace barely contained by the sort of impersonal, surface-level diplomacy that villains use just long enough to get what they want. Even smaller roles have real talent and nuance behind them, from Wilson’s unflappable and loyal Sam to Sydney Greenstreet’s unabashedly profit-minded underworld magnate. The performances in Casablanca are more than enough to keep an audience riveted to the screen, far moreso than any amount of modern special effects or computer-generated gimmickery.

Courtesy Warner Bros
The 40s were a great time for hats.

Full of classic quotes, unforgettable scenes, scintillating performances, and a true time-capsule of the atmosphere of its day, Casablanca has a lot to offer an audience even in the 21st century. What was once anti-Nazi propoganda now plays as dramatic historical fiction, as uniformed German officers never occupied Morocco and the MacGuffin of the film, the “letters of transit”, never existed. Still, as a setting for intrigue, drama, romance, and suspense, Casablanca and Rick’s are the foundation upon which many future tales were built. It is film noir at its finest, a shining example of a tightly-produced character-driven story, and one of the best films ever made.

Flash Fiction: Destroyer’s Lament

Courtesy Warner Bros

For the challenge Subgenre Frankenstein over at Terribleminds.

Don’t ask me how they found me. I’d changed my name, moved across the country, started over with a new job, a new life. I stayed off of the grid, paid for things in cash, and wasn’t exactly on the right side of the law. I’d never been one to kowtow to established high-profile authority, and while that’d put me in hot water more than once, I was still my own man and I still made my own way in this world, busted and broken and threatened as it was.

So imagine my surprise when old Colonel Richmond knocks on the door of my dinky apartment.

It was 2 AM when he came calling. I’d killed half a bottle of whiskey a couple hours earlier and my intent was to finish it off the moment I woke up. Big Jim had more work for me, but the fat fuck was keeping me in a holding pattern while he cleared something or other with his bosses, or at least found a way around ’em. I thought it might be him, but when I staggered up from the couch and looked through the peephole, I saw the old handlebar mustache and crisp military stance I both admired and hated. He couldn’t hide those behind civvies. I grunted, and opened the door until the chain was taut.

“I’m retired.”

“No. You’re deactivated. For now.”

“What d’you want, Paulie?”

“I hate it when you call me that.”

“So go away, ’cause I ain’t stopping.”

“I can’t. I have orders.”

I’m not sure if I grunted or chuckled. Maybe both. “Those orders prevent you from drinkin’?”

Richmond gave me a thousand-yard stare. I closed the door, undid the chain, and threw it open. I turned my back on him and went back to the couch and my bottle. He stood on the other side of my coffee table as I took a swig. It burned in my throat and all the way down. Woke me up.

“What brings you to the ass-end of the urban sprawl, Colonel?”

“This.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a mini-tab. A couple of touches later, I was watching video footage of Los Angeles. Something at least fifteen feet tall and made of scales and bad attitude was smashing into buildings and roaring, something bright and probably acidic dripping from its jaws. I watched for a few moments before taking another drink.

“We don’t know why or how they’re here. But chances are there’s more coming.”

As I watched, two fighters swooped in. For a moment, the casual observer could have mistaken them for your typical military aircraft. But as they turned, they changed, weapons pods becoming arms and thrusters legs, grasping massive cannons that had formerly run the length of their fuselages. The monster turned and spat at one, dissolving the chest that protected the cockpit, while the other opened fire.

“We believe this is a scout. Others popped up in Tokyo, Singapore, Seattle, Vladivostok, Melbourne…”

“I get the picture.”

“We’re spread thin. The UN has authorized us to take steps to ensure we have the defenses we need. Last time, the threat came from above. We’re afraid this is something new, from the sea or another source. We’re working on it.”

“Can ya get to the part where you tell me what th’ hell this has t’ do with me?”

“You’re the Destroyer.”

I glared up at him. “Was. I told you. Retired.”

“Deactivated.” He tapped something on the minitab. An official document appeared. “This is a reactivation order. Full rank and privileges from the time of your discharge. Back pay. First crack at the new Variable prototypes.”

I set down my bottle. “You must want me pretty bad. Question is, what for?”

“We’re getting volunteers by the truckload. Somebody’s gotta train the ones good enough to pilot Variables.”

I laughed in his face. “Forget it.”


“I said no, Paulie.”

“We need you.”

“Why? Didn’t anybody else survive the invasion?”

“None of them are as good as you.”

“That’s because most of ’em are dead.”

“That isn’t your fault.”

I stood and started to pace. I didn’t like where this was going. “Explain that to me, Paulie, ’cause my understanding of ‘CAG’ is that I command the air group. Meaning the people under me are my responsibility. And when an entire squadron gets blown outta the sky by an alien death ray nobody told me about I might add, I figure it’s the CAG’s duty to feel shitty about it. You didn’t write out all of those goddamn condolence messages, Paulie. I did. ‘Destroyer’? Got saddled with that back at Acad. Didn’t think I’d be destroyin’ the lives of the people I called brother an’ sister.”

“We were at war. People die.”

“They got massacred, Paulie, because they didn’t know what they were flyin’ into. I was deliberately kept in the dark because some egghead in Intelligence wanted data on that superweapon. And now you want me to tell starry-eyed wet-behind-the-ears kids how to fly and fight without knowin’ what they’re going t’ be fightin’? Forget it. I got enough blood on my hands as it is.”

“So I heard. How’s the leg-breaking going?”

I gave him a thousand-yard stare of my own. “At least these chuckleheads have it comin’. Kids like Parker and Tibalt and Sanderson never did anything wrong. And I’m expected t’ just keep on goin’ when shit’s being kept from me that could’ve saved ’em? No.”

“Hear me out.”

No, Paulie. Fuck your orders, and fuck you for knockin’ on my door.”

“These are monsters, Jack. Not aliens with tech we can use. Not an enemy with tactics we can exploit. These are just monsters. You’ll know as much as we do. Nothing held back, nothing under wraps. That is a promise.”

I sat back down. I turned it over in my head. Fuck Paulie even harder for having a point. Those kids were going to face combat if I trained them or not, but at least if I gave them the benefit of my experience, they might stand a chance out there. And if I knew what we were up against as much as the black-hearted so-called ‘Intelligence’ branch did…

I took another long pull from the bottle.

“Full restitution to the family of every man I lost. Their children’s children had better have college funds.”


“And I want a free hand to train these kids as hard as I like. I don’t want to give ya anybody only half-prepared for what’s out there. You’ll have hardened Variable pilots or you’ll have kids getting sent home to live long, healthy lives makin’ babies in suburbia.”


“Can I have a pony?”

“Fuck off, Jack, this is serious.”

I grinned at Paulie and finished my whiskey. I threw the bottle out of the window, and was rewarded with a shattering sound and some cursing.

“Fuckin’ vagrant out back thinks he’s hot shit.”

“Are you done?”

I walked to my closet. I didn’t think I’d ever be doing this again. But, against the voices in my head, the screams of the dying, the pleas of Tibalt to look after his son and Sanderson to tell her wife she loved her, I pulled back the cheap shirts and scuffed pants hanging there, and pulled open the false panel in the back. My uniform was there, preserved and crisp in the airtight container, from the beret with my major’s rank on the Variable Defense Force flash to the seams of the pants. I turned to Paulie and gave him a salute.

“No, sir. I’m just gettin’ started.”

Writer Report: Moving Forward

Bard by BlueInkAlchemist, on Flickr

Cold Streets is a slow burner. By that, I mean it’s taking me a while to really get set on fire over it. I’m working on it, and I like what’s happening so far, I just haven’t carved out a great deal of time lately to put more words in sequence. I have a move coming up in the near future, and that’s going to eat in to my writing time. I have books and clothes to donate, old geegaws to bequeath to others, and the current place needs some sprucing.

My mind hasn’t been idle, though. What was once going to be a multi-novel fantasy series will, I believe, get compressed into one epic volume. After reading some other stories and watching a couple old favorite films, it occurs to me that not everything needs to be a serial. Not ever story needs a sequel. So Asherian and his world of Acradea will appear in a single novel. And, based on the timbre and themes of the rewrite, and how much more of the story I will be including from the very beginning, it’s getting yet another title change. For the time being, I’m calling it Godslayer.

Somewhere between the novellas of Morgan & Seth’s escapades and this fantasy epic, I want to work on a smaller novel, or perhaps novels, with a sci-fi bent. The arrival of the new version of Netrunner on my back step combined with classics like Blade Runner remind me that the future doesn’t necessarily have to be chrome-plated and shiny, or at least if it is, it need not necessarily be that way for everybody. What I like about futures with an even slightly dystopian bent is that super-advanced technologies, be they androids so life-like they act and feel like humans or faster-than-light travel or interstellar colonization, feel matter-of-fact, an aspect of everyday life that you don’t have to spend pages upon pages describing. And I’ve already written a couple of well-received short stories with this sort of bent, and I’m interested in seeing how I could expand the idea. Alien races, perhaps? Maybe a distant but superficially benevolent overlord whose dictates are at least partially responsible for the crapsack world our characters find themselves in? This bears further investigation.

More on these ideas to come. Also to come, more reviews of Cold Iron as well as some other surprises! Stay tuned.

Flash Fiction: Payday

Courtesy http://www.milsurps.com/

For the Terribleminds challenge, Antag/Protag. Got to admit, I enjoyed this one.

Flashbulbs crackled in the bank’s lobby. So far the press hadn’t been admitted, which suited Paul just fine. The less they got in his way, the faster he could put together what happened.

Witnesses were saying it was two men with handguns who’d stormed the place. The guard had taken a good crack to the skull from one of the .45s and the robbers went straight to work afterwards. It was straight out of the Dillinger playbook. Paul wished he’d been part of that task force, but now he’d have to settle for his local beat until he could write a letter to J Edgar Hoover’s new FBI listing the reasons he should be included. As he bent over a spent shell casing, he mused that this could be his shot.

“They’re saying about $10,000 is missing, Lieutenant.”

“Thanks, Charlie.” Paul picked up the casing with the end of his pen. “So they come in, clobber the guard, and fire into the air to get people’s attention. Guess they head for the vault directly after.”

“Yes, sir. Eyewitnesses are saying one of them told everyone to stay down and stay out of their way so nobody else got hurt.”

Paul nodded. “Show them the guns work, show them you mean business, and most people will kiss the floor rather than come at you. Smart.”

He put the casing back down on the floor and walked to the fault, Charlie in tow. A good kid, a little wet behind the ears maybe, always telling the boys about news from abroad, but who had time to worry about tinpot dictators and loudmouth Austrians when stuff like this was going down?

“They ignore the cash at the counters and go straight for the vault. It’s got planning written all over it.”

“Yes, sir. Seems they were after the contents of this one safe deposit box.”

Paul narrowed his eyes at it. “Who keeps 10 large in cash like that? We know who owns the box?”

“We’re looking into it.”

“The sooner, the better.” He looked down. “So what’s the story here?”

Charlie scratched his head, skewing the angle of his hat. “One of the robbers, for sure. Same casing next to the body as out in the lobby. So the one who got people’s attention is the killer.”

Paul nodded. The robber lay where he’d fallen, a single bullet wound just above the bridge of his nose. “What do you make of his bullet wound, Charlie?”

The junior detective knelt. “Looks like powder burns, boss.”

“Right. Happened at point-blank range.” Paul made a gun with his fingers and pointed at Charlie to demonstrate. “Poor bastard probably had no idea.”

“So what now, sir?”

Paul adjusted his fedora. “We find the box’s owner, collect statements, and find this son of a bitch. He’s got an armload of cash, knows how to use his gun, works a crowd well, and won’t hesitate to kill. Chances are he’s as ruthless as they come. We gotta find him now.”

Simon closed his eyes and took a deep breath before opening the door.

“I’m back.”

Betty got up from the table to meet him, holding him as he pushed the door to the tiny apartment shut behind him. She took his face in her hands and looked him over.

“Is it finished?”

Simon nodded. “The easy part’s done. Now I gotta meet with Big Louie and give him what he says I owe.”

“I still think he set that fire deliberately. The inspectors said everything was up to code before that happened.”

“All I wanted was to open a bar. You know? My dad’s got shut down by Prohibition, and here I am able to pick up where he left off…”

She kissed him. “You can’t live in your father’s shadow forever.”

“I know.”

“Hi, Simon.”

They turned to see Billy standing in the door between the kitchen area and the small living area, rubbing one eye. Simon pulled away from Betty and picked up the little boy.

“Sorry, sport, did I wake you up?”

Billy nodded sleepily. “Mommy let me stay up and listen to the game. They say the Babe’s going to retire, he’s playing so bad.”

“Well, we’ll just wait and see.” He kissed the boy on the forehead. “Now, sorry I woke you, but you gotta get back into bed. School in the morning.”


Simon set him down and he wandered back towards bed. He turned to Betty, who’d lit up a cigarette by the open window.

“Where’s Frank?”

Simon glanced to make sure Billy was out of earshot. “He wanted a bigger cut. One that wouldn’t have been good enough for Big Louie.”

Betty looked at him evenly. “Frankie wants to be Big Louie’s right hand man. It makes sense.”


Silence. The cigarette burned longer in her hand than usual.

“Oh, Simon. What have you done?”

Simon looked at his feet. He saw Frankie’s sneer, the gleam in his eye, the condescending “What are you gonna do about it, palooka?” that filled Simon with rage. The gunshot had been thunderous in the vault.

“I just don’t want you going back to that life. Billy needs you.”

“Don’t pin this on me. Don’t do it.” She stubbed out the smoke and stood. The white négligée clung to her curves – God, she’s gorgeous. “I’ll do what I have to do for him, don’t you worry about that. You just worry about getting clear of Louie.”

He nodded, putting the locker key on the table. “Grand Central, in case you need it. If I’m not back by morning, call Magda. You know she’ll take care of you.”

The madam’s name made something flash in Betty’s eyes. She blinked, and Simon saw tears. She held him tight, holding them back.

“I know you need to leave, but you come back to me, Simon. End this for us.”

He held her cheek, looking in her eyes. His heart ached, he wanted to stay so badly.

“I will. I promise.”


Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


‘Crime drama’ is a pretty broad spectrum for stories. Some are from the perspective of those on the people’s side of the law, following detectives and prosecutors in their pursuit of justice. Others give us the point of view of the individual criminal, from the ones trying to rise above a life of crime to those wallowing in it. They range from gritty realism to stylized flights of fancy, but there’s something about Gangster No. 1 that refuses to be pinned down to any side of the story save that of our protagonist.

Courtesy Film Four

Said protagonist remains nameless throughout the story much like his cousin in Matthew Vaughn’s seminal and stylish Layer Cake, and is recruited back in 1968 by up-and-coming crime boss Freddie Mays. Our hero looks up to Freddie in a big way, but when it seems Freddie has more affection of a nightclub singer than his new right-hand man, jealousy rears its ugly head. Circumstances fall together for the young gangster to get Freddie out of his way and become the big dog in the London yards, and he rules over a mighty criminal empire until, over 30 years later, Freddie returns from his imprisonment. A reunion is clearly in order.

One of the best things Gangster No. 1 has going for it is the clear influence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. With Malcolm McDowell as the older iteration of the Gangster, and Paul Bettany excellently pulling off the glower from behind lowered eyebrows that Malcolm himself made famous, we’re reminded quite clearly of the film that gave us ‘a bit of the old ultra-violence’. And this movie certainly doesn’t shrink from the heavy stuff. Indeed, one of the best sequences in it involves a particularly brutal and thorough murder from the perspective of the victim, which tells us much more about the Gangster than any words ever could.

Courtesy Film Four
“Totally cool with you dating that chick, bro.”

This is a man driven mad with desires. He came from nowhere and wanted everything he saw. He didn’t just look up to Freddie Mays, he wanted to be Freddie Mays. More than once, we get the impression that the Gangster is struggling with feelings of romantic love for Mays, while at the same time he longs to oust Mays and take his place. This is why he seems so tortured when he’s taking his time to kill the rival crime lord who set about assassinating Freddie: the rival cause Freddie pain, he beat the Gangster to the punch, and he doesn’t dress or live anywhere near as well. The Gangster is out to prove his worth, that he is better than any other lawbreaker running around London, and he’ll leave a trail of bloody, broken bodies to do it without a shred of guilt or even a moment’s second thought.

It must be said that without McDowell’s sour, profanity-laced narration and Bettany’s silent, edgy intensity, this character study would fall completely flat. But thanks to the efforts of these two actors the movie functions quite well for what it is. The best scene is probably between Bettany and Saffron Burrows, the girl who “stole” Freddie from the Gangster. When she crosses the line and spits in the face of this cold-blooded, half-mad killer, Bettany’s face gives us an unflinching look at the anger and insanity writhing around in this character. Yet, he composes himself, without breaking eye contact, manages to smile and conveys wishes that would seem genuine, apologetic and heartfelt if it weren’t for the icy rage we’d seen moments ago. It’s a fantastic bit of acting that stands out among the rest of the film’s scenes.

Courtesy Film Four
Why is Professor Lupin being such a complete jerk?

The problems with Gangster No. 1 come down to tone and pacing. It never seems to decide for certain if it wants to be a mix of character drama and comedy like a Guy Ritchie film or a pure hard-nosed crime tragedy like Scarface. Elements of both are clearly present along with the aforementioned Clockwork Orange but it feels a bit like director Paul McGuigan went to a buffet where all of these options were available and tried to cram his plate with as much as he could from each one. It never becomes an actual mess, but also never finds its own voice amongst these influences. It also seems to accelerate a bit too much in places, as if once past the major turning points in the Gangster’s formative years it just wants to get us to the end. As for the ending, I won’t give anything away, but part of me was slightly unsatisfied with its neatness. Call me crazy, but I was expecting things to be a bit messier.

The director’s later work, Lucky Number Slevin and Push, had a better time with tone and pace, but Gangster No. 1 still gives us clean shots of excellent actors working with good story elements. I do feel there are better movies I’ve mentioned that can satisfy a craving for gritty criminal comedy or unflinching views into the underworld, and our villain protagonist doesn’t quite have the necessary pathos for us to be completely won over by him. He comes close, especially when we see how much unresolved emotion there is inside of him for Freddie, but it feels like too little too late. A little more time, perhaps elements of holding onto that duality of admiration and jealous, would have fleshed it out more and maybe left the ending a bit more satisfying for me. It never quite rises to the point of being more than the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are excellent enough for me to recommend Gangster No. 1 as an addition to any crime, noir or character-driven Netflix queue selection.

Especially if you’re a fan of British slang, or those mirror dresses club girls wore back in the 60s. Pretty groovy stuff.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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