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Monday, October 24, 2011

My View of the Alwyn Court Apartments

From time to time, I leave the sanctity of my room with no view.  I am always pleasantly surprised to discover that there is indeed a whole other world out there beyond my windowless walls.  And in that world, nestled amongst the masses of people, are wonderful little places that catch my eye.  The Alwyn Court Apartment building most certainly caught my eye last June.

I was out in the streets of Manhattan alone, it was close to seven in the morning.  My family, still in bed at the Wellington Hotel, was not excited about sightseeing so early, so I grabbed my camera and took a morning stroll.  After hitting the Starbucks, that was literally just across the street from the hotel, I began to wander along Seventh Avenue, clicking away at anything that interested me.  As a lover of city architecture, I found plenty to interest me.  Just a few blocks north of the hotel, I came upon an amazing sight.

The Alwyn Court Apartments have stood at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 58th Street since 1909.  The Original apartments were designed to have fourteen rooms and five bathrooms, though these were later subdivided during the Great Depression.  Built in the French Renaissance style, it is covered in Gothic Terra cotta designs that includes dragons, urns, cameos and crowns.  With many more intricate details, this facade drew praise from critics at the time it was unveiled.

With two apartments per floor, if you were lucky enough to be able to afford one of them in 1910, it would have cost you $10,000 a month.  Unless you wanted the one duplex available!  Being only one block off of Central Park, you would really have to think this was a steal of a deal.  However, the president of the United Cigar Stores, Jacob Wertheim, moved into the duplex and so you wouldn't have had a chance.  Another early tenant included one of the Steinways.

These little darlings to the left look sick to their stomach, as if they've eaten too much caviar!

A large fire raged through the building shortly after it opened, when only five apartments had been let.  No one was injured, though the lack of fire safety design was highlighted at this time.  Fully occupied for the next few decades, the Midtown area around it lost popularity and it was empty by the mid-thirties.  Gutted, it was redesigned to have 75 apartments.  No longer an address of elite businessmen, it was soon rented to capacity and began to turn a profit.

At this time, The Petrossian Restaurant occupies the first floor.  With a French contemporary menu, you could fill yourself to bursting on their smoked fish, caviar and foie gras.

It is this kind of craftsmanship that is visible throughout the city, and I suspect, is largely ignored by the uncounted New Yorkers who stride along West 58th street and Seventh Avenue during their daily hustle.  I was able to enjoy the magnificent view during a quiet summer morning, and have captured these images for you to enjoy as well.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Five Reasons to watch The Beast with Five Fingers

It is getting close to Halloween, which is a great time to dig up some old, black and white movies of yesterday to warn us of the many dangers that lurk in the dark.  In our present age we spend too much time worrying over the economy, pandemics, the price of gasoline, and who will run for the Presidency.  These might be valid concerns, if you are into reality, but these do not begin to compare to the worries that really ought to keep us up at night.  If people today could only realize the horrific and plausible prospect of giant leech attacks, great globules of furious jellied alien life, and apes run amok in the streets of Paris, our petty concerns about overcrowded jails and teenage bullying would be forgotten in an instant of pure terror.
     Just the other night, around midnight, I came into our bedroom and found that my wife had gone to sleep with the TV on.  In the blackened room, lit only by the pale light of a black and white horrorfest, I watched a poor woman running from a deranged ghoul.  Locking herself in a bathroom, she stared in horror at the water running from the faucet.  Through the miracle of Hollywood, this water was bright red, even though the rest of the film was black and white.  Turning from the crimson flow of bloody water, she stared in catatonic shock at a bathtub full of the same, bright blood.  Rising out of this viscous pool was a hand covered in gooey crimson muck.  The woman, in the face of this incomprehensible yet totally reasonable scene, died of fright.
     This was typical of the macabre scenes we often saw as children when the late, late movie was playing at this time of year.  I hated these things, and only watched a little of them before rushing to the TV and turning them off.  Who could blame me?  Even during the day, watching Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons, I had trouble making it through such terrors.
     Now, older and wiser, I have come to enjoy these movies on a higher level.  Yes, they are often filled with campy scenes and low budget monsters that look like the director’s teenager in a suit made out of old carpet swatches, but that is hardly the point.  What these movies really did was allow us to escape fears of reality through the terrors of imagination.  If you need to do so this season, here are five reasons that you would do well to watch The Beast with Five Fingers.

1.  Gothic Atmosphere and Music
     Right from the start this movie has all the makings of a classic horror.  It is set in an Italian village, which is like so many of the European settings for movies like Frankenstein, The Black Room, and The Masque of the Red Death.  It was a way for movie makers to take American audiences and place them in strange lands that were still highly superstitious and plausibly full of dark undertakings.  This was also a chance to fill out the cast with odd, harsh looking immigrants who were readily available in California to project a disturbed view of the population.  There are rarely scenes that include blond All-Americans with classic facial proportions.
     The house in which the story takes place is full of Germanic decoration, large rooms with startling shadows, and statuary that keeps one wondering if they just might come to life.  The central room is nearly empty with only a grand piano set in the middle of it.  Adding to the gloomy and majestic set is the music of Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor, a dark piece that is not only heard throughout the film by the audience but also by the characters who learn it is a sinister precursor to death.  Again and again we hear the music along with the characters and wonder, who will die next?
2.  Robert Alda’s Performance as Bruce Conrad
Robert Alda     A nice treat in this movie is the performance of Robert Alda.  The father of Alan Alda, Robert Alda plays the heroic lead.  We first see him as a scam artist, with a wisecracking attitude around the local law enforcement as well as those who live in the main house.  It is easy to see the seeds of Alda’s son’s character “Hawkeye Pierce” in this smart-alecky role.  As the plot progresses, we see Alda slip into the familiar horror hero role, maintaining an easy-going skeptical presence, intent only on keeping near the heroine and securing her attentions by protecting her from whatever silly thing is worrying her.  He will of course have to both seduce her and save her while keeping above all the horror.

3.  J. Carrol Naish’s Performance as the Commissario
Naish (left)

     Naish is one of those character actors that would never get a chance to perform today.  An Irishman by birth, he played nearly every ethnic role (with accent) but an Irishman.  In The Beast With Five Fingers, Naish plays the local lawman, known to all as The Commissario.  An over-the-top character, Naish delivers an unmistakable (and some would now say unforgivable) Hollywood Italian accent, complete with-a the added a on-a every-a word-a.  (Naish had done the very same thing just three years earlier as the tragic Italian in the World War II thriller Sahara alongside Humphrey Bogart.)  Yes, many would shun such nonsense and shake their fingers at this kind of condescending thing, but why?  It’s a foolish performance to be sure, but it is so over-the-top that it can’t be taken seriously.  I suppose if I were Italian I might take offense.  However, as a good German, I don’t take offense at the equally silly performances of actors like John Banner’s Shultz in Hogan’s Heroes.  Why would I?
     Here in Five Fingers, Naish plays a police chief who does a more than competent job investigating the murders.  He does a good job of throwing his authority around, with sincerity at times, and he moves the story along quite well.

4.  The Hand!

     What horror movie would be complete without a monster?  And here, in brilliant black and white, we get to see a most horrifying sight: the murderous, finger-walking hand!  Now here I must spoil the movie for you and warn the faint-hearted that this movie does indeed have a disembodied hand scampering about and killing willy-nilly.  It might just make you ill to see it, so don’t watch if you have a weak stomach.  This hand is so realistic you can see the remains of the radius and ulna where it is cut at the wrist.  Even worse, at times this hand, animated by the magic of Hollywood, looks just like a fake hand that cannot move unless manipulated by Peter Lorre as he hugs it to his chest.  It is almost too terrifying to behold!  (Ummm, never mind.)
     There is, in fact, an intense scene in which the hand crawls through fire, and I am sure it must have been pretty dramatic for audiences in 1946.  As we watched this movie just the other day, my wife remarked that she well remembered the fire scene from watching the movie as a young girl.  Such things are nightmares made of!

5.  The Always Perfect Performance of Peter Lorre

The Beast with Five Fingers, Peter Lorre, 1946 Photographic Poster Print, 12x16
You can buy this poster at Amazon, check it out!
       One can never say enough about the screen presence of Peter Lorre.  A mild-mannered, creepy scholar who only wants to be left alone with his books, Peter Lorre’s character, Hilary Cummins, carries the movie with his large sad eyes, and his halting thin voice that never ceases to both repel an audience as well as win them over.  Lorre has always been able to do this.  Even in one of his greatest roles, as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, the audience is quickly repulsed by his degenerate behavior, yet equally filled with compassion for him.  Lorre never passed up the chance to exploit this advantage with the audience.  He does so in Five Fingers and then lures the audience along with him as he descends into madness.
     Lorre can’t help but steal the show.  He cannot even walk into a room with the other characters without grabbing your attention by the throat.  In one scene, as all of the characters follow the lawyer into the main room to sign a document, Lorre is the last to enter.  Sliding off to one side, he sits with his back to the others, pausing a few moments before turning to look over his shoulder at them with those big eyes, as if to say, okay, I know I have to be here, just don’t make me join the group.  I don’t like groups!  He never says a word, and that’s the best part of it.
     I know it will come as a shock that Lorre is revealed as the villain.  Who could have seen that coming, right?  But the great bit of writing here is the way in which Lorre loses his mind.  He is no mad-dog monster who charges blindly around attacking the females in the house.  His near sleepwalk attack of Andrea King’s character is as subtle as his transformation to madness is hysterical.  It is easy to quit mocking the Gothic camp of the film and allow yourself to get caught up in his insanity.

In the following scene, Lorre explains what he has done with the Horrible Hand! 

     When all is said and done, and the ghastly hand is finally revealed, The Beast with Five Fingers satisfies on many levels, leaving five reddened finger marks at the base of your neck.  Dare I say, it will really grab you?  The solid screenplay is from the pen of Curt Siodmak, who earned his monster chops writing during Universal Pictures’ golden age of monsters, including the screenplays for The Wolf Man, The Son of Dracula, and The Invisible Man Returns.  (Other notable screenplays by Siodmak include I Walked with a Zombie and Donovan’s Brain.  He also developed the story for Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, a favorite Sci-Fi of mine.)  The creepy atmosphere includes a mausoleum in the center of a graveyard, desecrated bodies, and creeping hands.  Along the way you will be entertained by the performances mentioned above, as well as the heroine played by Andrea King.  The best line of the movie might just be Robert Alda’s.  As he hears Peter Lorre hammering in a far corner of the house, he asks King, “what’s he hammering on down there?  He’s a sick man!”  Priceless!  Also, keep a sharp eye out for William Edmunds, known for his role as Mr. Martini in It’s a Wonderful Life as one of the servants.
     As in all movies of that age, the greedy will be punished, of course, and the lovers will be united.  It was imperative in that era that the criminals always paid for their crimes; a sentiment that has disappeared in Hollywood.  Once the horror has come to an end, all ends well as the Commissario enjoys a last joke and reminds us just how fun and absurd it has all been.

This movie is not available on DVD, but there are several online movies sites that list it available for download. Amazon is presently providing it for download rental, or you can buy it for download.



Saturday, October 15, 2011

One Reason I Do Not Give Up Writing

As a writer who often struggles with the temptation to give it all up, there are not many things that can convince me to continue writing.  Here, however, is one very good reason that keeps me going.  The following story was published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Louisiana Review.  It is always encouraging to pull this out now and again.

1. The Wanting Dead
(The Louisiana Review, vol. 6, Spring 2008)
a story from The Cities of the Dead
by Jason Phillip Reeser

            My first night in the City of the Dead was a real eye opener.  I was not in the least ready for anything that happened.  But then, no one alive can prepare you for your first night as one of the dead.  No one really tries.  And why should they?  I would never have listened.  I never listened to anyone when I was alive.  I had no idea I would learn to listen so well once I was dead.  But death is full of so many surprises.
            I’d like to explain how it all came about.  At least how the night progressed.  It is a curiosity I’d like to be able to logically describe—how I was lying in the coffin, surrounded by darkness, and how later I came to be standing outside my crypt, reading the inscription on the faceplate as if I were looking for errors in the non-erasable marble.  I remember that distinctly.  I remember reading over it hoping I might find some mistake I could point to and say “there, you see?  They placed the comma in the wrong spot, so obviously I’m not dead.  I may only be alive by a technicality, but I’ll take what I can get.”  I had a vague feeling that such an idea made no sense, but it only bothered me more when I realized it made no sense to be standing outside my burial crypt as well. 
            Maybe, I concluded, what made sense in the world of the dead did not always translate into the world of the living.
            But I have very little patience to explain anything.  I want most of all to speak of what I saw.  And when I think of doing so, I immediately think of this dead guy who went by the name of Dodd.  I don’t remember his first name.  But Dodd sticks in my mind like a migraine.
            “Let me ask you something,” he said to me straight off.  They were the first words out of his mouth.  He just walked up to me and started up a conversation that I soon learned he had with everyone.  “Think about putting a gun to your head.  A big one.  You pull the trigger, right?  BAM!  You’re dead, right?  Isn’t that what you’d expect?”
            I tried to think through his question.  I was sure he was driving at something.
            “Well?  Am I right?”
            “Sure.  Bam—you’re dead.”  My delivery of this response was greatly lacking in passion.
            “That’s what I thought!”  He supplied the passion to our conversation.  “Jeeze Louise!  No one ever said it would hurt!  I mean, you pull the trigger, it should all be over.”
            “It hurt?”  I found myself mildly interested in his scenario.
            “Hell yes, it hurt!  You ain’t never felt hurt like that.   I screamed and screamed.  God, I must have screamed for an hour.  And the whole time I was thinking no one said this would hurt!”
            I watched him shake at the memory.  He drew deep breaths in his open mouth and forced the air out through his nose.  He was obviously more enraged at not having known how painful his death would be than at the pain itself.
            “Don’t mind him, that’s only Dodd.”  A thin little man stepped up beside me and waved dismissively as Dodd continued to describe his pain.  “He goes on like this forever.  Only the new guys listen to him.  Everyone else gets tired of hearing it.”
            “I’m Jack,” I said to him, offering my hand.
            “Nice to meet you, Jack.  I’m Joseph.  Sorry, I don’t—“ he held a hand up and waved away my attempted handshake.  To Dodd, he added “Yeah, yeah—hurt like hell.  We know.  You put a bullet in your brain, you idiot.  You thought it would tickle?”
            Without touching me, he reached out and guided me away from Dodd.  Dodd didn’t seem to mind.  He just kept on saying over and over “hurt like Hell!  God!”
            We walked down the rows of crypts, moving aside from time to time to allow others to pass.  I don’t remember when I accepted that there were so many of us walking about in the early darkness of the evening.  I knew what we were.  No one had to say it out loud.  In fact, that was a distinct point to be made.  No one did say it out loud.  No one dared to mention just what we were.  At least that’s what I assumed.  I came to realize later that most of them simply did not care to say it out loud; as if the whole matter were trivial.  There was no spell that might be broken if our true nature was spoken of.  But from my own point of view, I felt certain it would be in bad form to say anything.
            Joseph led me on past crumbling tombs and one or two weary cast iron fences.  I had no idea where we were going, and I repeatedly asked him where we were going.  He would never give an answer.
The blue and purplish twilight mixed with the glow of white plaster and marble, highlighting our shapes with an otherworldly aura.  This radiance was unnerving to me at first, for it gave off no light beyond the outlines of our bodies.  It merely burned within the boundaries of our frames.  The total effect gave us the appearance of being lit from within by shrouded firelight.  This became more and more apparent as the night grew darker.
            We crossed from one crowded lane of crypts to a more spacious avenue.  Large crypts with detailed stonework stood like the stately homes in the surrounding Garden District.  Beyond these, we came upon a group of low flat coping tombs.  There were a great number of the dead congregating here, the coping tombs being used as benches.
            I had imagined Joseph was leading me here to introduce me to someone who might explain what was going on, or at the very least he would tell me this was the best place to spend the night for safety’s sake.  I wasn’t really sure what would be said, but I expected something—anything.  I never suspected he would lead me there and then promptly ignore me.  Once there, he spoke to one or two of the others then idly wandered away.
            I stood at the head of one of the makeshift benches and watched a woman who sat on the far end of it.  She sat motionless, staring straight ahead.  I turned my head to my right to see just what had her attention.  Across the wide avenue sat a tall narrow crypt with six squares.  The whole mausoleum was done in marble.  It was expensive work, this was no brick memorial overlaid with plaster.  A fat milky cross sat imposingly on a thin shelf just below the name plates.  An inscription in the gable of the roof read Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys with the year 1894 in its center.  There was something both noble and heartbreaking at the thought of someone or some group spending so much money and effort on children who had spent their life here on earth wanting and alone.
            “Have you ever spoken to any of them?  The children, I mean.” I asked her.
            She turned and gave me a startled and curious look.  I saw right away how drawn and tired she looked.  Her hair was black, as was her dress.  A shadow lay across her and I could not see her hands.  After staring at me for an uncomfortable silence, she answered me with a shake of her head.  I felt as if I’d asked an obviously stupid question.
            “They don’t come out?”  Even as I asked, I knew the answer.  I wished I knew why the orphans never came out, but I did not wish to ask a second stupid question.
            “I knew one of them,” she said softly.
            “There are no names on the plates.  How do you know?”  I thought I had better stop asking questions.  I sensed my questions were not only stupid, but that they were becoming increasingly insensitive as well.
            “He was my child.  My little boy.”  She said nothing more.  She had no need to say more.  She hadn’t been staring at the crypt.  She had been weeping before it, quite possibly each and every night for God knew how many years, only she had no more tears.  Her tears had run out a very long time ago.  Her sobs had ceased to shake her frame as well.  All she appeared to have left was the pain and despair that clouded her soul.  I wished I had never spoken to her.  And yet I wished to know everything; why had the boy been orphaned?  Why had he died young?  Unable to make such wishes come true, I did the one thing I could do and turned away from her.
            “Something the matter?”  A tall man stood beside me furiously cleaning his eyeglasses on his shirt tail.  He held them up to the blackness of the night as if he were looking for spots on them.  He glanced down to take his measure of me before returning to the task of making his glasses spotless.
            “No.  Nothing’s wrong.  I wouldn’t have thought you’d need glasses… anymore.”  I blurted that last bit out before I remembered how taboo the subject of death seemed to be.  I had not meant to make such an obvious allusion to the man’s condition.  I flushed at my error, but he never seemed to notice it.
            “If it’s the girl that’s bothering you, don’t worry over her too much.  That’s just Marie.  She’s batty.”  He felt for a less soiled corner of his shirt tail and smothered a lens with it.
            “I can understand that,” I said with what I hoped would sound like sage understanding, “I’m sure a mother handles the loss of a child with less pragmatism than do fathers.”
            “You’re not seeing things clearly,” he said after sliding the glasses on and wrapping them around his ears.  “It appears to me you’re being made a fool of.  It is as clear to me as my own hand in front of my face—Marie’s no mother.  Never had a son.”
            “How do you know that?” 
            “Oh, damn it all.”  He pulled his glasses off and stuffed them back into the shirt tail, vigorously rubbing at the lenses.
            I turned away from him as eagerly as I had from the grieving mother.  His fanatic craving for spotless lenses baffled me.  I hurried away.  I must have rudely pushed people out of the way.  With a certain detachment, I could hear people complaining as I jostled my way through them.  Whether I murmured my apologies to them or not I cannot say.  But I continued to push on with a total lack of decorum for maybe two or three minutes.
            I eventually regained my composure and walked alone for maybe half an hour.  Honestly, time for us dead did not move in the same way it did when our hearts pulsed with blood.  I had not been buried with a watch, and so I had no way to prove this.  But I had no illusions about how we moved through time.  I could see already that the night would drag on far longer than it would have when we were alive.  I didn’t like that thought.  I wanted to get on with it.  I felt like a sleepless man who lay feverishly in bed only too aware that he had seven more hours alone with his thoughts.  But what added a great deal of unease to my mind was the realization that I was trapped not just with my own thoughts, but the thoughts of all those dead that surrounded me.
            William and Thomas were prime examples of this.  I found them both standing in the middle of a lane, staring at two crypts that stood close enough that only weeds were able to fit between them.
William was a large and imposing figure.  He stood shaking his head at an ornate cathedral shaped memorial made of red granite.  It was topped with four spires at each of its corners.  A high pitched roof bridged the gap between the spires.  Colonnades on both sides of the intricately carved door were covered in stone ivy and flowering vines.  William gestured at the ornate structure without turning an eye in my own direction.
            “Have you any idea how much that cost?  Red Granite, for God’s sake.  Look at it.  I made no provisions for that.  She must have mortgaged the house to have that erected.  What was she thinking?  That woman will be the death of me.”
            “She must have loved you a great deal.”  I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  But I caught myself in time to say nothing more.
            “Loved me?  I’ve got nothing to do with it.  This is her way of putting on a show for her friends.  She’ll play it up all the way.  They’ll be shaking their heads in wonder and admiration at her sacrificial gesture.  More’n likely they’ll take up a collection for her.  Oh, just look at the flower vases.  Four of them!  Paid full price on all of them, I’d bet.”
            “I’d take red granite,” Thomas said, managing to sound forlorn without serving it up too thick.  “Red granite lasts such a long time.  Can you believe I’ve only got brick with plaster smeared all over it?  They didn’t even bother to add the fake lines that make it look like stone.  And why should they have?  The plaster’s already cracking and flaking off in places.  See there?  Just under the south eave.”
            I couldn’t see it from where I stood, but I said nothing in reply.  I was getting better at that.
            “I won’t even mention the name plate.  Unbelievable.”  He shook his head.  I could hear both anger and shame in his words.  I thought he did have a valid point about the name plate.  It was sitting on the ground in two pieces.  The largest piece leaned against the crypt opening.  Behind this, I could see the unevenly placed bricks which had been thrown together in a really shoddy fashion.  Two bricks were missing at the top.  The smaller piece of the name plate lay flat in the grass.
            “Worked nearly every day for forty-three years.”  William was still talking about money.  “Saved everything I could.  The wife spends it on this.  Do you see what I mean?”
            “No,” I answered.
            “I refused the doctor’s last suggested treatment because I told him I’d be damned before I spent that kind of money.  I hadn’t spent a lifetime saving money in order to waste it all in order to keep myself alive.  And look.  I can tell you, I’ve researched this.  I knew what kind of costs were involved in something this grand.  And I know to the penny just how much I had put away.  She spent it all.  It’s all right here.”
            “Don’t let him get to ya,” Thomas warned me with a hand on my shoulder.  “His loved ones obviously cared enough to put thought and effort into this.  It’s magnificent.  How they must have loved him.  My people, on the other hand…” he held his hands out in the direction of his dilapidated vault and nearly growled at what he saw.
            I opened my mouth to ask if his people had the money to spend on his grave but closed it before the words came out.  I didn’t really want to hear his answer.  I could only imagine that no matter their financial situation, he would find some way to demean the choices they had made.
            I left them arguing over their troubles and found my way back onto the wide avenue where I’d started earlier that evening.  I saw Joseph again.  He was leading a short fat man towards the coping tombs.
            “You look like you could use a friend.”
            I turned towards a very young man who smiled with excitement brimming in his eyes.  Despite his near manic enthusiasm, he had a pleasant face.
            “Don’t get me wrong, but maybe a few answers might satisfy me more than just finding a friend.”  I was sure I had just said something offensive.
            “Don’t I know it?  Your first night, am I right?”  If I’d offended him, he never showed it.
            “My first night was worse.  I wandered around all night.  Had no idea what was going on.  I just wanted it to end as soon as possible.”
            “That’s about the sum of my first night,” I empathized.
            “Oh, I know what you mean.  But mine went beyond that.  People came up to me out of nowhere and just whined and complained as if my only purpose was to listen to them cry.  I wanted to be their friend, but not their counselor.”
            I saw Joseph heading towards me and I raised my head in recognition.  He waved a hand towards my excited companion and shook his head.
            “Don’t mind him, that’s only Carter.  He goes on like this forever.  No matter what you say, he’ll not only know what you mean, but he’ll have been through something even bigger than you.”  To Carter he added, “Nobody cares, man.  Nobody cares what you know; nobody cares what you’ve done.  No one wants a friend like that.”
            Before I knew it, Joseph was gently guiding me back towards the now crowded set of benches.  It occurred to me he probably had no idea why he was leading me there.  But I didn’t resist him.  I wanted to find Marie.  I had decided the eyeglass cleaning specter had not known what he was talking about.
            “I’m sorry about your son,” I said softly as I sat down beside her.  She didn’t say anything in response, and I gladly remained silent as well.  I stared at the blank name plates of the destitute orphan boys and waited with her.
            Behind us, a man complained to no one in particular that he was there by mistake.  Some trivial technical error had been made in some vague far off place and here he was stuck amongst the dead.  I tried to block out his voice and just concentrate on Marie and her son.  I couldn’t have said why.  Maybe because she was the only one not saying anything.  Everyone else had something to say.  Even Joseph seemed hell bent on pointing out who should be ignored.  I too had felt the urge to be always speaking, even if it had always been to ask a question.
            But not Marie.  The few words she had spoken had only been in reply to my own questions.  Maybe she had run out of words when she had run out of tears.  I didn’t know for certain.  And I didn’t have to. 
            My thoughts turned towards her son and the other orphaned boys.  Why did they never come out?  Surely they had something to say?  They, more than any of us, had reason to complain; alone, a life of want.  Had they ever learned to accept it?  Maybe in fact they had.  Surrounded by so many who wanted so much, I began to suspect just what set these orphans apart.  They did not demand fairness; they had learned long ago how fickle life could be.  They did not crave the finer things in life; the basics were hard enough to hold onto.  All I had heard and seen that night had been the empty shells of men seeking and desiring what they could not have; before or after death.  One desired to control money he no longer held.  Another had wanted to make and impress a friend.  A mother wanted her son.  And even I had wanted something strong enough to pull me from my grave.  I wanted to understand.  I wanted to know why.
            But there before us lay a tiny group of boys who wanted nothing in death, as they had learned to do in life.
            I only became aware of the tear that rolled down my cheek when Marie reached up and wiped it gently onto her hand.  She rubbed at it with her thumb, rolling it around until it was gone.
            She still had no words to say.  But for that moment, she had taken the tear and it had been enough.  It was something I knew for certain, though I would never understand.  And I hoped that I too could find it to be enough.


     A short story of mine, Timeless in Winter, will be appearing online at near the end of November.  Keep an eye out for it!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eighteen Reasons the Number Eighteen is Significant

    Today is a great day in history.  On this day, eighteen years ago, the most beautiful little girl was born into this world.  That's right, I said eighteen years ago.  Today, Kathryn, my only daughter, has a most blessed birthday.  As we celebrate this day, here are eighteen reasons the number eighteen is so significant.

1.  My Daughter is Eligible to Vote
     Having spent the better part of eighteen years instructing my daughter in the ways of conservatism, I now add another vote to my point of view.
2.  There are Eighteen levels of Hell in the Chinese Mythos.
     These include such fun-house activities as the Mountain of Knives and the Chamber of Tongue Ripping.  In other words, welcome to the bureaucracy known as adulthood.
3.  Eighteen is the atomic number of Argon.
     Argon is derived from the greek word meaning "lazy" and "inactive".  Argon gas is used as an asphyxiant for the mass killing of chickens.
4.  The Hebrew word for "Life" has the numerical value of eighteen.
     It is a Hebrew custom to give gifts to eighteen-year-olds in multiples of eighteen to express long life.  Congratulations, my dear.  I am depositing eighteen dollars in your savings account!
5.  Eighteen is the Age of Majority.
     You can now vote alone, and with a total of one vote, you can be a majority.  You will no longer outvote yourself when deciding what to do with your personal time.
6.  Eighteen is the legal drinking age in England.
     You can now join a pub full of Brits and get "sloshed".  You can, but you may not.
7.  The eighteenth letter in the alphebet is "R".
     Not only is that the first letter in your last name, it is the sixth letter in your first name.  More importantly, it is a word used by pirates.  And r is the third letter in pirates.  Multiply the ordinal position of the letter "R" in those words and the product is eighteeen.
8.  Eighteen is Peyton Manning's jersey number.
     Just as Peytom Manning is worshipped by fans around the globe, you too can now be considered one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in modern day football.
9.  The eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors.
     Despite reaching the age of majority, this is one of the few restrictions still placed on you.  So for the next three years, no manufacturing alcohol!
10.  The eighteenth sonnet of William Shakespeare begins with the line "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
      This sonnet is the most famous and generally loved of his one hundred and fifty-four sonnets.
11.  The Eighteenth Century saw the Age of Enlightenment.
     This important stage in the intellectual progress of man culminated in the French and American Revolutions.  Keep this in mind as you broaden your mind.  It may in fact bring about the guillotine.
12.  The Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt is the best known of all thirty-one Ancient Egyptian Dynasties.
     Amenhotep, Thutmose, and the boy-king Tutankhamun reigned during this period.  Without this important dynasty, Howard Carter might have lived to a much older age.
13.  The eighteenth President of the United States was Ulysses S. Grant.
     This controversial President was known for heavy drinking and political scandal.  Despite his notoriously bloody record in combat, his campaign slogan was "Let us have peace."  He not only worked to bestow amnesty on confederate soldiers, but he also made an effort to help African Americans and Native American Indians.  Most importantly, he presides over the fifty dollar bill!
14.  Eighteen Calories
     This is the number of calories in one cup of summer squash.  I would have to avoid this, and instead eat just eighteen calories of ice cream.  There are one hundred calories in a half a cup of ice cream, so I need to devide 100 by 18, which is 5.555.  So I can eat a little over one fifth of a half a cup of ice cream.  That is kind of ridiculous.  It is a good thing you like squash!
15.  Eighteen sides to an octadecagon.
     I really can't think of a time you would need an octadecagon.  Maybe if you...nope, still can't think of a use for it.  It would be fairly useless.  Perhaps if you wanted to build, forget it.
16.  Jame Bond 18: Tommorrow Never Dies
     This eighteenth installment of the James Bond series stars Pierce Brosnan, and more importanly, the always tough Michelle Yeoh, a Chinese agent who just might be better than Bond.  Use this as inspiration to rememeber that you can be the best at whatever you do until a Chinese chick comes along and beats you at your own game.
17.  Eighteenth Nancy Drew Mystery:  The Mystery of the Moss Covered Mansion.
     This great mystery seems to center around a truckload of exploding oranges.  How cool is that?  That could only get better if it were exploding summer squashes.
18.  Eighteen Years:  The number of years I have been proud to be Kathryn's father.
     Growing up in a house full of brothers, she has managed to carve out her own space in this family.  Always full of creativity and adorability, she has keep me full of curiosity as to what wonders she will do next.  I look forward to the next eighteen years as she begins to take her own steps out into this great, big world.

    Kathryn, keep your heart turned towards God and always remember we are here for you when you need us.  Happy Birthday, darling.  May your eighteenth year be as exciting and significant as the reasons above.  And maybe even a whole lot more!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Six Reasons I Love Film Noir

     My theater room is covered in movie posters and movie stills, most of which have to do with Film Noir.  I have no idea how I came to this obsession.  I love all sorts of movies.  But Film Noir is just the bomb to me.  Those dark, shadowed scenes with bumbling heroes and sharp-witted femme fatales always knock me over.  With all manners of oddball character actors peppered throughout every movie, it is a delight to see these dark, twisted worlds.  Time and again these movies are parodied and held up for ridicule over their melodramatic atmospheres.  Well, I don't care.  For me, it just doesn't get any better than this.
     The usual lists of great Film Noir contain the well known movies Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, Laura, and The Asphalt Jungle.  I don't agree that all of those are the better ones, though I will undoubtedly add a few of them to a few more lists later on.  These six reasons should not be considered the only six reasons I love Film Noir.  There are plenty more where this list came from.  
(You can click on the titles to see more about these movies at

1.  Pushover (1954)
There's almost nothing about this movie that isn't done perfectly.  The femme fatale is the spell-binding Kim Novak.  The spell-bound detective that stumbles knowingly to his doom is the big lug MacMurray.  There is remarkable cinematography and lighting, with the ever important play of shadows throughout.  Dorothy Malone plays a nice supporting role.  This movie gets little credit, but it is a personal favorite of mine.  Well worth the time. 

"Money isn't dirty, only people."  Priceless.  She should have gone home.

     This little gem stars one of my favorite actresses; Gloria Grahame.  Her co-star is the sensitive Italian Vittorio Gassman.  This is a different sort of Noir, with a villain that is not the usual suspect.  What gets my attention here is the great location shots of New York City, especially as a search is conducted through the bright lights of Times Square.  (That's my guess, anyway.  Let me know if I'm wrong.)  I love the little vending machine lunch room.  All very techno/space age looking.
     There's a bit part with Jerry Paris (later appearing regularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), and a delightful performance by Robin Raymond as an aging stripper who saves the day. 
     The highlight of this is, of course, Grahame's scene in her tiny apartment as she describes how a girl ends up stealing a coat.
     It is interesting to note that during a lengthy scene, it is obvious that the street scenes that were shot at night in New York City and at the United Nations were shot with a double for Gloria Grahame.  These are mixed in with shots of Grahame in studio shots.  I'm terribly curious why she couldn't get to the location shots, but Gassman obviously could.  This kind of thing doesn't ruin a movie for me.  It just adds to the mystery of the filming process.

     I love this movie for the solid (and not overplayed) role of Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson.  His measured, relentless trailing of MacMurray's character is fun to watch.  I have never been a big fan of Stanwyck, but she shines in this perfectly icky role.  This movie, however, is really worth it for the final scene, which I won't spoil for you if you've never seen it.  It is just one of the more perfect Noir endings. 
     MacMurray has a sublime line as Walter Neff when he says of Stanwyck; "I wanted to see her again, close, without that silly staircase between us."

     I just don't know where to begin here.  Maybe at the scene where Bogart pulls that little stunt on Elisha Cook Jr. when he disarms him.  Or maybe the wonderfully insane plot that is rather dizzying to follow.  Sydney Greenstreet is magnificent as the large and sinister Kaspar Gutman.  He is only outdone by the unmatchable Peter Lorre in one of his greatest roles ever, second only to his disturbingly horrific role in Fritz Lang's M.

Here's one of the best scenes of the movie.  Bogart and Lorre at their best.  This was John Huston's directorial debut, and Bogart was offered the role when George Raft said he didn't want to work with a first-time director.  Fool.  And thank you George Raft.

     Here's yet another overlooked gem that gets practically no airtime.  What a shame that is, since you can see great performances by Richard Widmark (one of the toughest banty-roosters ever caught on film), Jack Palance as a thoroughly wicked guy, Barbara Bel Geddes in the sweet-hearted wife's role, and a surprising little appearance by Zero Mostel.
     The real treat here is the location work in New Orleans.  I know this city pretty well, and I can tell you that this is great location work.  There are even a few little roles played by locals.  The French Quarter bar/cafe has some real charm and had to be real.  You can see them pass in and out of it right on the streets of the Quarter.  The climax down at the waterfront warehouse is just magical, since these scenes are no longer visible in New Orleans, the warehouses having all been torn down to make way for the tourists on the river.
     Elia Kazan, far more famous for his other films, crafted a great movie.  Incredibly, at least for now, the whole movie is available on youtube.  (  Don't miss the oddball scene when a man on a stretcher is dumped down a staircase.

     I have, you might have guessed, saved the best for last.  This dark movie is full of humour, the better to offset the intensity of the dark character played by Humphrey Bogart.  In this thriller, Bogart is Dixon Steele, a cold-hearted writer with a red-hot temper.  He meets his match in Gloria Grahame, as Laurel Gray, the shrewd next-door-neighbor who sees the good in Steele.  When Steele declares they will have dinner together that night, she retorts "We'll have dinner tonight.  Just not together."
     But two detectives let her know right away that Steele might just be a murderer.  And so the story begins to tighten.  As their passion heats up, so does Steele's temper in response to the dogged persistence of the police.  If he is the murderer, doesn't that mean Laurel is in danger?
     Watch for two great supporting roles.  The first is a small role by the actress Jeff Donnell (who I would swear is the same actress in the Dorothy Malone role in Pushover).  Her perky, chatty portrayal of a cop's wife is not only fun, but she has a pivotal role in turning the screws on Bogart to begin to ratchet up the tension.  The other supporting role worth mentioning is Steele's agent Mel Lippman, played by Art Smith.  This guy is golden from start to finish.
     There is a priceless scene near the beginning where a hat-check-girl gives Bogey a book report on a novel he doesn't want to read.  A genuinely funny scene.
     Here's a quick clip with Bogart and Grahame together.  I can watch them over and over again.

     This was directed by Nicholas Ray, Grahame's husband at the time.  They were, however, going through a rather nasty divorce even as they were filming.  Now that's dedication to your craft.  I can't imagine how they did that. 
     And to top it all off, this has that great line that only Bogart could deliver--"You annoy me."  The clip can be seen in the Steve Martin Noir send-up "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

     Can you believe those last two came out the same year?  Oh to have been able to see them as a double feature!
     The best way to watch these intense movies is to take them seriously, sit back with some popcorn, and enjoy the melodrama.  My daughter, a faithful companion who does not shy away from watching these classics with me, can tell you that I have shed a tear more than once during these tragic masterpieces.  I would deny it, of course, but she would tell you anyway.