Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF

“Keep in mind, kid, until your dying day, the only crime anywhere in the world is being broke.“
– “Oklahoma” Smith, as quoted by Frank Hohimer, in THE HOME INVADERS: CONFESSIONS OF A CAT BURGLER (1975)

“I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”
– “Frank,” as played by James Caan in THIEF (1981)

Michael Mann’s THIEF is the rarest of creations, an almost-perfect marriage of character, narrative and action. It gave James Caan what is probably the best role of his career. And, as Mann’s directorial debut, it announced his presence in the feature film world with authority.

THIEF centers around the single-named “Frank,” a Chicago jewel thief and safecracker who reluctantly agrees to take down some high-end scores for a mob fence and loan shark named Leo (Robert Prosky in his screen debut). Frank hopes this last string of lucrative robberies will help him create the life he aspires to, with a wife, Jessie (played by a weathered-but-still-luminous Tuesday Weld), an adopted child and an extended family that includes his mentor-in-crime, the imprisoned “Okla” (Willie Nelson in one of his first film roles).

Frank, who’s spent nearly half his life in prison, sees no reason why he can’t have these things, or why committing serial felonies isn’t the road to Happily Ever After. He wants to assemble his life the same way he organizes a heist, and he carries the blueprint around with him in the form of a childlike collage of Polaroids and pictures cut from magazines.

That new life is easier envisioned than realized though. As the stakes get higher and both the mob and crooked cops close in on him, Frank finally explodes, and embraces the nihilism he adopted in prison (what Mann calls his “Darwinian adaptation”). It’s his armor against a brutal world where, as Bruce Springsteen sings in “Something in the Night,” “As soon as you’ve got something/They send someone to try and take it away.”

THIEF is based on the book THE HOME INVADERS, a 1975 memoir by Francis Leroy Hohimer (left), a career criminal and burglar from Chicago who wrote the original manuscript while still in prison. It was eventually published by the indie Chicago Review Press, and soon optioned by Chicago native Mann for his feature debut. Mann had previous experience with the subject matter, having directed the acclaimed ABC-TV movie THE JERICHO MILE (1979), starring Peter Strauss and filmed at California’s Folsom Prison.

In commentary and interviews – most recently on the Criterion Blu-Ray of THIEF released in 2014 – Mann says after optioning THE HOME INVADERS he “threw the book out” and wrote the screenplay from scratch. However, significant parallels remain between the two. Both Franks own car dealerships and nightclubs, and have a mentor in prison (the character of Oklahoma Smith is carried over from book to film, as is much of the wisdom he imparts to Frank). Both are vocational criminals whose young adulthood was spent behind bars, and both work for brutal mob figures who eventually turn on them.

The differences, though, are major. The real Hohimer was primarily a cat burglar who, as the title of his book suggests, specialized in home invasions, targeting wealthy families. The film’s Frank excels in high-tech safecracking and sophisticated industrial robberies (depicted in rich detail by Mann, informed by a crew of Chicago “advisors”). Frank utilizes burning bars, magnetic drills and electronic countermeasures to commit his crimes. Hohimer’s method of opening a safe was to have the owner do it, on pain of injury or death. And most of Hohimer’s entries were by key, not by force, those keys having been provided to him by the notorious Chicago fence and mobster Leo Rugendorf. In THIEF, Caan’s Frank makes the distinction clear when he tells the film’s Leo what he will and won’t do. “No cowboy shit.” he says. “No home invasions.”

(Wikipedia and IMDB entries for both the film and Hohimer himself incorrectly state that “Frank Hohimer” was a pen name used by another convict named John Seybold. That’s untrue. As many sources have confirmed, Seybold and Hohimer were two different men).

Despite its urban nightscapes, rain-swept streets and atmosphere of claustrophobia and impending doom, THIEF is not a film noir, according to its director. In an interview taped for the Blu-Ray, Mann describes Frank as “a rat in a maze, the three-dimensional maze of the city,” but asserts that “I wasn’t thinking consciously about film noir at all. I think in true film noir there’s a sense of hopelessness, a sense of ennui ... that’s not THIEF.”

One might argue that THIEF certainly *looks* like a film noir. The art direction and cinematography, by Mary Dodson and Donald E. Thorin, respectively, lovingly depict a city gleaming with reflected neon, where shiny dark cars prowl wet streets, all of it set to an otherworldly electronic score by the German band Tangerine Dream.

With its glowing neon palette (including title credits that Nicolas Refn Winding obviously paid homage to in 2011’s DRIVE), THIEF does feel dated in a certain ‘80s way, but only in its stylistic tics. In one sense, it’s a throwback to American cinema of the 1970s, when even crime and action films tended to be character-driven. Caan’s Frank is fully realized, a man with a past, if not much of a future. He’s charming, but dangerous when cornered. On one level he’s a classic existential noir hero, yearning for things he can never have, and eventually dragged down into a hell of his own making.

When his partner Barry (played by Jim Belushi, in a role that seemed to promise a better film career than he actually had) is killed, and Leo threatens everything he loves, Frank again becomes the caged animal he knows he is at heart. He casts off his connections to the civilian world, and reverts to his prison mindset in order to become a man with nothing to lose, who can wreak vengeance without concern for its consequences. He tells Jessie that, in prison, “You gotta forget time. You gotta not give a fuck if you live or die.”

Leo begs to differ. “You one of those burned-out, demolished whackos in the joint?” he says. “Don’t come at me now with your jailhouse bullshit, because you are not that guy. ... You got a home, car, businesses, family, and I own the paper on your whole fucking life.”

But Leo’s wrong. As Frank proves at the end of the film, he *is* that guy. When he eventually takes down his tormentors in a brutally efficient gun battle at a suburban Chicago home, there’s nothing triumphant about it. His victory is both cathartic and tragic. Frank surrenders his hard-won humanity and post-prison achievements in order to survive. This rat escapes by blowing up the maze.

(Continue reading PART TWO here.)

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine as part of its "My Favorite Neo-Noir" series.)

My Favorite Neo-Noir: Michael Mann's THIEF (Part Two)

(This is Part Two of an essay that originally appeared in an earlier form in the Film Noir Foundation's NOIR CITY magazine.) You can find Part One here.

Though a centerpiece heist takes place in Los Angeles, THIEF is very much a Chicago film, shot mostly on location and steeped in local history. In addition to being Mann’s feature debut, it’s also full of local actors he’d use again. The late Dennis Farina, a former Chicago cop, plays one of Leo’s henchman. William Petersen (who starred with Farina in Mann’s MANHUNTER four years later) has a bit role as a nightclub bouncer. The leader of the corrupt cops is played by John Santucci, a real Chicago jewel thief who lent the production both his expertise and his burglary tools. Busy character actor Ted Levine (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, MONK, THE BRIDGE) plays one of his partners. Another real-life Chicago cop, Chuck Adamson, is seen as one of the officers who give Frank a station house beating in an attempt to shake him down.

Farina, Santucci and Levine would go on to star – and Adamson write and produce – Mann’s TV series CRIME STORY in 1986, a period piece set in Chicago in the early -60s that eventually migrated – as did the Chicago Outfit itself – to Las Vegas (in the series, Levine played a career criminal named “Frank Holman,” perhaps an homage to the author of THE HOME INVADERS). Other THIEF actors, such as Tom Signorelli and Nick Nickeas, eventually appeared in other Mann projects, including his breakthrough show, MIAMI VICE. Prosky, here alternately avuncular and terrifying (he smoothes the way for Frank and Jessie to adopt a baby, then threatens to kill all three of them), went on to a long career in film and TV.

Mann would revisit the world of professional thieves in his 1995 film HEAT, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, based on a 1989 TV movie he’d written and directed called L.A. TAKEDOWN. One thing all three films have in common is a long dialogue scene set in a coffee shop, in which the characters explain their philosophies, what’s important to them, and how far they’ll go to protect it.

Of the three, THIEF’s version is far and away the best, as Frank tells Jessie about his wasted prison years, and his hopes for the new life he plans to build piece by piece. She’s intrigued, and a little freaked out, but she’s had a rough time with men up until now, and though Frank is no prince himself, she’s ultimately won over by
his sincerity. He tells her about his first year in Joliet Prison, after being convicted on a $40 theft charge, and how he survived the abuse of guards and cons alike – though fighting back cost him another eight years behind bars. Caan and Weld are in top form here, and he brings it all home by giving us a glimpse of a “state-raised” kid who caught one bad break after another. It might be his finest moment on screen.

Unlike Caan’s character, the real Frank Hohimer eventually turned and became a government witness in 1974, after being prosecuted by a federal organized crime strike force in Chicago. He was being groomed by the Justice Department to testify against Rugendorf, who died before he could go to trial. His later years found Hohimer in and out of prison on a variety of charges. He died in 2003.

In retrospect, THIEF may or may not, as its director contends, be a film noir. But there’s no question it’s one of the most vivid cinematic renderings ever of the criminal life – and one of the best films of the decade.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Talking with Germany's Polar Noir magazine (Part Two)

Part Two of an indepth interview with Sonja Hartl from the German crime fiction magazine/website Polar Noir, tied to the release of the first Crissa Stone novel KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ (aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART) in a German translation from Pendragon Verlag.
The German translation of the interview can be found here.
Part One of the original English version is here.

SONJA HARTL: You have worked as a journalist – does this experience help you?

WALLACE STROBY: Yes. It’s no coincidence that a lot of crime fiction’s most successful authors – Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, John Sandford, Gene Kerrigan, etc. – are former journalists. Working in journalism teaches you how to write under deadline pressure, how to organize information properly and also how to handle the editing process – you build up a very thick skin working in journalism. You also look at the writing as a product of effort, rather than strictly inspiration. You often find that, even on what seems like uninspired days, if you just do the work – one foot in front of the other – the inspiration will come. But sometimes it doesn’t, and you just have to deal with that as well.
In the end though, all writing routines, systems, etc. are about the same thing – the illusion of control. As Stephen King says, there are only two pieces of advice to give to aspiring writers – read a lot and write a lot. That’s it.

SH: When you started writing novels, why did you choose to write a crime novel at all?

WS: I think what you write chooses you more than you choose it. When I was younger I read a little bit of everything – fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc. But in my later teen years, I found crime fiction was something that seemed to speak to me more, especially once I discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and others. Those books felt like real life.

SH: In your blog "Live at the Heartbreak Lounge“ you write a lot about noir in literature and film. What is noir for you?

WS: I like to go with James Ellroy’s (possibly apocryphal) definition: “Everybody’s fucked – and then it gets worse.”

SH: A lot crime fiction aficionados (among them myself) like to say, that a crime novel is the best way to describe and analyse our society. What do you think about this?

WS: Crime stories have been around as long as there have been stories, beginning with Cain and Abel. So yes, I think they do give you a handle on addressing certain societal issues. Greed, corruption, jealousy and violence are the darker parts of human nature, but they’re always there, always have been and always will be. In traditional crime and detective fiction, order is restored out of chaos. In noir, chaos is the norm.

SH: Which noir writers have influenced you? (Please tell me something about them and how they have influenced you.)

WS: A long list. As I said above, Hammett and Cain at first, then Chandler to a certain extent, mainly for the way he evoked time and place. I loved – and still love – the dark prose-poem novels of Cornell Woolrich. Later I discovered more contemporary writers, such as John D. MacDonald, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake and others, who all seemed to come from that tradition, but were taking it in new directions. Then George V. Higgins’ THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE ushered in an ultra-realistic style of crime fiction, which influenced a whole generation, from Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos.

I’ve also been influenced by many non-crime writers. For story, I always go back to Rafael Sabatini (CAPTAIN BLOOD, SCARAMOUCHE, etc)., who was a master at combining character and action. The opening line of SCARAMOUCHE – “He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.” – tells you almost all you need to know about the main character.

SH: In most articles about your novels, Richard Stark and Garry Disher are mentioned. What do you think about this reference?

WS: Both are excellent writers. Westlake’s “Richard Stark“ books are master-classes in terse writing and narrative drive. I reread them often. They were out of print in the U.S. for many years, so I always kept a lookout for them in used book stores. I wasn’t able to read the complete series until years after they were first published.
I enjoyed Garry Disher’s Wyatt books very much in the 1990s, during that long break when Westlake had retired his Richard Stark persona. I’ve read all of them, and originally acquired them on-line as imports in the early days of internet shopping. Most of them are out of print now, and quite valuable apparently.

SH: Do films influence your writing? (If yes, how?)

WS: To a certain extent, yes. More for visuals than for story. Certainly anyone who’s written crime fiction since the 1930s has been influenced by the hundreds of crime films that have been made since. The visual component of modern crime writing is strong, and I think that’s the direct influence of films. For a lot of authors working today (myself included), one of the biggest influences are probably the character-driven crime films of the 1970s, such as THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE GETAWAY, SERPICO, etc.

But I’m also a huge fan of the westerns of Sergio Leone, and the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, as well Vittorio DeSica’s neo-realist dramas, and almost anything by Samuel Fuller. Among current directors, Martin Scorsese, of course, as well as James Gray, Johnnie To and many others.

SH: Which are your favourite film noirs? 

WS: From the classic period – say 1940 to 1958 –- one of my favorites is a low-budget film called ARMORED CAR ROBBERY from 1950, which packs a great story, characters and action into 67 minutes. Also from that period, Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956), and Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP (1949) and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959).
From the ‘70s and ‘80s – what you might call the “neo-noir” period – I’d list TAXI DRIVER, CHINATOWN, THIEF, MANHUNTER and others.

SH: And are there any plans to adapt the Crissa Stone novels into a film? 

WS: Showtime Networks optioned the character for a possible series in 2012, and Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for adapting SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, wrote a pilot script. Like the majority of cable projects in development, however, it never went to pilot, and the rights reverted back to me last year. There has been a lot of interest since, but no commitments.

(In the interim, Pendragon Verlag created this full-cast trailer for KALTER SCHUSS ENS HERZ).

SH: My last question: Who are in your opinion the “unsung heroes” of noir?

WS: So many! I’ll stick with those who are no longer with us though, so as not to leave out any of my contemporaries.
Foremost, I’d say Malcolm Braly, who was probably America’s greatest prison novelist. His 1967 novel ON THE YARD is a masterpiece. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Eugene Izzi wrote a great series of crime novels set in Chicago, which are sadly out of print now. And although he’s best known for THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY?, Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1948) is a brilliant noir novel, told in first person by a psychopathic career criminal. W. L. Heath’s trio of long out-of-print crime novels – VIOLENT SATURDAY, ILL WIND and BLOOD ON THE RIVER – are also forgotten classics. As far as one-offs, Dan J. Marlowe’s THE NAME OF THE GAME IS DEATH is hard to beat for sheer cold-bloodedness.

I’ll mention one author who is still alive, though not writing and publishing fiction anymore. Poet and educator David Bottoms – once Georgia’s poet laureate – wrote two excellent crime novels in the late ‘80s, set in the rural South, ANY COLD JORDAN and EASTER WEEKEND. Both are beautifully written, but his only forays (so far) into fiction.

Talking with Germany's Polar Noir magazine (Part One)

Sonja Hartl from the German crime fiction magazine/website Polar Noir interviewed me indepth recently on a whole array of topics, tied to the release of the first Crissa Stone novel KALTER SCHUSS INS HERZ (aka COLD SHOT TO THE HEART) in a German translation from Pendragon Verlag.
The German translation of the interview can be found here. What follows is the original English version.

SONJA HARTL: How did you develop the idea for COLD SHOT TO THE HEART? Why is your protagonist female?

WALLACE STROBY: I’d always wanted to write an entire novel from the point of view of a career criminal, but someone with whom the reader might have a certain amount of sympathy. Part of my third novel, GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER, was written from the perspective of an aging black hitman, while the rest was from the point-of-view of a female sheriff’s deputy and single mom in a rural Florida town, the only woman in an otherwise all-male department.
With COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, I wanted to combine those two ideas, and have my criminal also be a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment. That raised all kinds of interesting possibilities.

SH.: I have to admit that I am a little skeptical when male crime authors have female protagonists. Was it difficult for you to write a crime novel with a woman as a main character?

WS: Actually, I found it freeing in some ways, because a woman in that position would handle things differently than the traditional lone wolf male protagonist. She’d make alliances, would have relationships, and would refrain from violence unless absolutely necessary. I’m neither a woman nor a professional criminal, but I did find common ground with her nonetheless. She’s careful, hyper-alert and painstaking to a fault, but at the same time capable of bursts of near-recklessness.
On the more practical side, my first reader, my agent and my editor were all women – and single moms at the time as well – so they were able to supply some guidance when needed.

SH: I like Crissa a lot because she is a woman in a very natural way and does not have to emphasize her “femaleness.“ How would you describe Crissa Stone? And how would you describe the role her mentor and lover Wayne has in her life?

WS: She’s a self-made woman to a certain extent. She had a rough upbringing in a small Texas town, was involved with drugs and petty crime, and thanks to Wayne was able to leave all that, and in the process become part of his world of high-level professional thieves. In COLD SHOT TO THE HEART, all Crissa’s actions revolve around trying to get Wayne out of prison. By the second book, KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, she’s starting to realize that isn’t going to happen. So I think in the four books it’s been a process of her accepting that she’s on her own now. In the most recent one, THE DEVIL’S SHARE, she’s ostensibly become Wayne, setting up the heist herself, recruiting a team to carry it out, etc.

SH: And what about her daughter's role in her life?

WS: Her daughter Maddie is a reminder of what might have been. Part of Crissa’s income goes to her cousin, Leah, who’s raising Maddie as her own. Through much of COLD SHOT, Crissa’s aspiring to a semi-normal life, imagining Wayne out of prison and the two of them raising Maddie. By the end of that book, she realizes the life choices she’s made will never allow that.

SH: In many heist books (or films) the big robbery is in the center of the story. But COLD SHOT TO THE HEART is more like a novel about a certain time in Crissa’s life. Why did you choose this style?

WS: Reading about heists – or watching them on film – can be fun, because it’s like watching machinery at work. At the same time, personally I’m much more interested in the people involved, the run-up to the crime and the aftermath. I'm less interested in the heist itself than the conversations between the thieves immediately before and afterward.

SH: In one dialogue, the importance of paying taxes for thieves is emphasized. What is the background of this?

WS: The classic example is the prosecution of gangster Al Capone in the 1930s. He was one of the nation’s largest bootleggers and mob bosses, who had orchestrated countless murders, but prosecutors could never win a case against him. That was until the Internal Revenue Service was able to prove that he hadn’t paid sufficient taxes on any of his income – legal and illegal – in years. That eventually earned him a long prison sentence.

SH: The first lines are – in my opinion – very important for a book. Why did you choose this particular opening?

WS: I’m very big on opening lines, and I spend a lot of time on them. I worked on this one until it felt right. I wanted something straightforward and direct, but which also raised questions – who is this woman, what is she doing, why is she armed? At the same time, it drops the reader right into Crissa’s world, in the middle of a robbery.

SH: I would like to know something about your writing process: When you write novels, do you develop the plot in advance? What does your writing routine look like?

WS: I don’t plot in advance, because that takes a lot of the energy and fun out of it for me. I think it’s just a question of what works best for your process – there’s no hard and fast rule. With me, I find if I know who the main characters are and what the story is, I can start writing. Then, as I go along, other things – specific scenes, etc. – will present themselves. Sometimes, when the story is complex, I have to work out plot points in the middle of the writing process, but I generally never do that beforehand.

As far as my routine, I try to write every day – if only for an hour – but don’t always succeed. Life sometimes intervenes. I almost always write at night though – usually ten p.m. to two a.m. or thereabouts. Fewer distractions then.


Ennio Morricone's pure pop gem

Friends know my obsession with the music of composer Ennio Morricone, who turned 87 November 10. This is a pop song he wrote in 1966 for the Italian singer Mina, with lyrics by Maurizio Costanzo and Ghigo De Chiara. A hit in Italy again this year in this version by Nek, who goes big without ever going over the top. Still a great song, and it doesn't hurt that just about everyone in the video is beautiful. Here's a brief synopsis of how the song came to be.. And here's a version with different lyrics that was a hit for French singer Francoise Hardy.