A Killing for Stroby: Scenes from THE KILLING, Stanley Kubrick’s classic caper from 1956 — screening this Sunday in Asbury Park as part of a “BookFLX” presentation on film noir, hosted by Ocean Grove-based mystery novelist Wallace Stroby.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 11, 2011)
There’s the rain-slicked pavement, lit only by neon chophouse signs and the bloodshot embers of a hundred thousand Chesterfields. Suit-and-tie hustlers pacing in front of payphones that never ring; off-duty dance hall dames slipping out of themselves in the nineteenth hour of their girdles. An urgent message on a matchbook; another bad choice or lousy break waiting around every alley corner. It’s that place where the streets have no name; where the sidewalk ends, while the city sleeps. A town called Film Noir.
Ask Wallace Stroby about the much-discussed genre of Noir and he’ll tell you that it’s more than just the sum of its visual signifiers. He’ll tell you it’s about fatalism; about obsession; about the dark forces that swirl around our daily-bread existence. And, as an award winning specialist in the modern American crime novel, he’ll even tell you that it took a bunch of French film critics to give a name to this peculiarly American genre.
A graduate of Red Bank Catholic and a battle-tested veteran of both the Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press, the Shore-born Stroby used his unique vantage point on the mean streets of (ahem) Ocean Grove to craft his debut novel, The Barbed Wire Kiss, a thriller of misplaced loyalties and overdue paybacks that starred a former state trooper, and used the tired, peeling Tillie-face of our local seaside haunts as an effective backdrop.
Asbury Park (and that same ex-cop) figured heavily in his followup effort The Heartbreak Lounge — but for his recently released Gone Til November, Stroby shifted the locale to small-town Florida, and presented as his protagonist a savvy single-mom sheriff’s deputy named Sara Cross. The novel has garnered a slew of positive reviews, and has kept Stroby busy through a gantlet of personal appearances, the most recent of which brought him to the downtown Asbury bookstore words! last Saturday night. The author makes the short trip to Cookman Avenue once again this Sunday, March 14, when he presents a 4pm screening of Stanley Kubrick’s film The Killing at Mike Sodano and Nancy Sabino’s nifty nickelodeon known as The Showroom.
Not just a noir picture but a prime example of the “heist” or “caper” film in all its double-crossing glory, The Killing is a terse, hardboiled procedural (only with crooks instead of cops) that employs Dragnet-style narration and a non-linear timeline to tell an exciting story of a daring racetrack robbery, pulled off by a motley collection of yeggs, ganefs and ham-and-eggers. The great Sterling Hayden (that hangdog hero who was either the poor man’s Gary Cooper or the thinking man’s Jock Mahoney) heads a cast of classic faces that include forever fallguy Elisha Cook, Jr., Ben Casey’s Vince Edwards, B-list bombshell Marie Windsor and the one and only Timothy Carey, possibly the strangest actor in Hollywood history and the man who later made The World’s Greatest Sinner).
It’s another in a series of BookFLX events co-sponsored by words and the online literary mag Splash of Red (the same team that previously hosted Hos, Hookers author David Henry Sterry). And if you’ve never seen this early gem by the mad-genius director of Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, here’s a great opportunity to catch this noirish nugget among fans and friends and ‘ficionados — complete with a post-screening discussion moderated by yours truly.Red Bank oRBit sat down with Stroby to talk film noir, novels and the no-man’s-land between; in a moment, the results of that trial…
Wallace Stroby on the beach, not far from the settings of his first two novels.
RED BANK ORBIT: Nothing like a little film noir on a Sunday afternoon, I always say. So what are we gonna witness this Sunday at the Showroom? Are you there in the flesh, or via Skype?
WALLACE STROBY: It’ll be via hologram, actually — no, it’s me in the flesh, with The Killing on the screen. We’ll be talking about the connection between films and writing; in this case about the noir genre. And we are selling some of my books at the event.
So then what do you define as being a film noir? Have we ever really arrived at a constitution or a set of commandments as to what makes a noir?
Well, the phrase film noir was coined by French film critics, really to describe American films that were made just before or during the second world war — all films that French audiences weren’t able to see while the war was going on. Some people will say that there was no noir made after 1955, while others will tell you thatTaxi Driver is a noir; that there are movies coming out that continue the tradition.
So the definition in general has been kind of loose, but to me there’s always a crime involved — there’s an obsession as well, and a fatalistic mood to things. The main characters in the movie often find themselves caught up in dark forces; it could be a guy entrapped by a woman who represents those dark forces, or someone entrapped by their environment, by the city.
When somebody mentions film noir, it triggers things in your mind like black and white, nighttime, rain. We think of Robert Mitchum’s face; Robert Ryan. But I also think of a film noir as involving normal people, caught up in the consequences of their actions. It could be just one action in an otherwise normal existence.
Like, say, murdering someone’s husband. Which is kind of what happens with the protagonist in Double Indemnity — he’s not a cop or a career criminal, he’s an insurance salesman who gets involved with things he shouldn’t have messed with.
Right. And if you go back and read the book by James M. Cain, you see just how he reinforces the normal-guy thing; there’s a lot of material in the book about the insurance business. Just as there’s a lot about the restaurant business in his bookMildred Pierce; he knows what he’s talking about when he describes how many chickens a restaurant would have to cook in order to break even. But then, some other characters are colder, more dispassionate. Think about Kiss Me Deadly —Ralph Meeker is like a stone as Mike Hammer.
But a noir film doesn’t necessarily need to be set in the 1940s or 50s, doesn’t have to be set in the city, doesn’t need to have a private eye as the protagonist…
As they say, when’s the last time a private investigator solved a crime? They were already making fun of the whole private eye thing in the 50s, on Your Show of Shows. And it’s easy to do a noir story in the present day, in broad daylight, and in the boonies, like in Border Incident. As long as you have the atmosphere, the fatalism and obsession of the characters.
So then how does THE KILLING fit in with your definition of a film noir? And how did you arrive at that movie when it came time to choose one for the program?
I had done a blog about the book that the movie’s based on — Clean Break byLionel White. It’s never really been well known under that title — when Black Lizard reissued the book, they put it out under the title The Killing. But other than the fact that the book is set in New York, the movie is actually very faithful to the original story, which made it an attractive choice for the films and book series. Also, it’s a fairly short film; we didn’t want to go over an hour and a half with whatever we did.
The character of Johnny Clay in the film is not a bad guy; kind of a regular guy, who has a girlfriend who’s really faithful to him. It’s about how fate steps into their lives, which brings it into line with the genre. There’s also an element of black humor that comes to the fore at the end. As Eddie Muller said, who would have known that it would turn out to be the last amusing film that Kubrick ever did?
To me, The Killing is sort of a threshold movie — the golden age of Hollywood had passed by 1956, and the 60s were on their way. It wasn’t a major production; Kubrick wasn’t working with any A-list stars, and he brought in Jim Thompson, who wrote a ton of books himself, to work on the screenplay. Thompson wrote The Getaway, The Grifters — he had really strong noir credentials.
They were making movies out of all his books for a while there — including this really obscure low-budget thing called The Kill-Off, which was filmed in Keansburg! It starred Jorja Fox, years before she became a regular on CSI! But getting back to THE KILLING, it’s obviously Kubrick’s first more or less Hollywood effort, and so it’s a talkier movie than a lot of what he did. But since he started out as a news photographer and not a writer, do you see some of that influence showing through; almost a Weegee sort of vibe in places?
There’s a Weegee influence in a lot of crime movies — his stuff was almost expressionistic. But to me The Killing fits in with Kubrick’s other work in that it’s about the machine breaking down — in this case, the heist, the whole plan, the system just breaking down and going against the characters. Just like HAL in 2001.
Wow, I never thought of it that way before. Well, I’d like to hear your take on some of your other favorite noir films, particularly newer stuff that came after the so-called golden age…
Chinatown is a noir, and a brightly sunlit one for much of the film. Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely. Denzel Washington in Training Day, definitely. Cutter’s Way with Jeff Bridges; One False Move, which fits the theme of the past coming back on you. And the films of James Gray — Little Odessa, and The Yards, which showed you a side of Queens almost no one ever sees.
The French Connection 2 has a lot of noir elements. The Seven-Ups, with Roy Scheider — I wrote about him when he died; he was an actor who was very rooted; very guy-down-the-street. He’s terrified during the car chase scene, whereas now they’d have Bruce Willis wisecracking his way through it.
How about some authors who have been well served by having neo-noir movies made from their work? Stuff like JACKIE BROWN, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE?
Elmore Leonard had three great movies in a row made from his books — Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, and Jackie Brown, which I think is Quentin Tarantino’s best film. No Country for Old Men does speak to the genre; at least Cormac McCarthyassimilated noir influences into what he was doing. I’m not a fan of A History of Violence, though — to me it’s David Cronenberg’s least interesting film; too much of a comic book. I don’t buy the characters; I mean, is the Viggo Mortensencharacter a Philly hood or he is some sort of super ninja assassin?
Have you ever been approached about having one of your own books adapted for the screen?
The last book had some interest early on from Ice Cube’s production company. And I sold the option to my first book to an indie filmmaker — we’ll see what happens. It’s very rare when somebody like Dennis Lehane gets three pretty big movies made from his work — more often than not you’ll have a situation like with James Lee Burke, who hasn’t made out well with Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist. Anyway, the movie thing is something I can’t control; you just cash the check and don’t think about it.
Still, do you ever “cast” a book while you’re writing it? Ever have the perfect actor in mind for one of your characters?
Not so much writing with actors in mind, but I sometimes come up with physical touchstones. When I was writing The Barbed Wire Kiss, I came across a fashion photo on a desk at the Ledger, and I said ‘THIS is what that woman looks like’ — I took the picture of this anonymous model home and hung it up so I could visualize the character as I wrote.
With Gone Til November, I got to thinking that Sarah Polley would be perfect — she struck me as someone who just had this otherworldly quality. Then I met her at the New York Film Critics Awards, and of course she was nothing at all like I had imagined.
Finally, what’s next for you on the writing front? A sequel to NOVEMBER, maybe?
No, it’ll be a more hardboiled sort of crime novel — working title is Blindshot. I’m working on it right now; I just a hundred pages to my publisher and it’s due out in January of next year.