Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thoughts on "Force of Evil"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


In “Force of Evil,” (1948) the protagonist, Joe Morse (John Garfield), is an over- idealistic criminal. He really seems to believe that everything is going to be okay in the end. He even thinks that the illegal activities he gets sucked into will only be illegal temporarily. In fact, Joe is so confident, he tries to convince and eventually forces his brother Leo into the business. The strange part is that Leo runs an illegal gambling bank, but doesn’t seem to be involved in the underworld. Somehow, Leo has managed to stay immune to such things. If he was smart, Joe would take a lesson from Leo, but Joe believes he can get rich quick and does not have to work hard for his whole life like Leo. Throughout the movie, it seems as though Leo doesn’t really like his brother. When Joe bails Leo out of jail, Leo says to Joe, “All that Cain did to Abel is murder him.” In other words, Leo is saying that Joe is a worse brother than Cain. However, later in the movie when Mr. Bauer betrays everyone, because he is deeply afraid of the mob, Leo tells him, “I’ll kill you with my own hands rather than let you put the mark of Cain on my brother.” This means that Leo feels like Joe may be wrong, but he’s still his brother, and no one is going to do him wrong, no matter what.

There is a romantic subplot: Joe falls for Doris Lowry, Leo’s secretary, who is like a daughter to Leo. The interesting thing about the romance, is that Leo always warned Doris about his brother and told her that he was no good. However, instead of making Doris cautious of Joe, this seemed to backfire and actually endear him to her. Doris was unable to resist the “bad boy,” the idea of whom she had already fallen in love with even before they met. Somehow, she seemed to have gotten it into her mind that she could change Joe and make him a good person. She might have even thought that it was the perfect way to make up the great debt she felt she owed Leo. A line that Joe says in the middle of the film sums it up well: “I think she made up her mind to fall in love with me.”

This film had two scenes that were just classic noir. The first scene is when Joe goes into his office and sees that a light is on. The only light in the scene is from the office and the use of shadows is great. Joe quietly stands on a chair and looks into his office though a window on top of his doorway. (What ever happened to windows on top of doorways? They just aren’t popular anymore.) He sees a cop tapping the phone he keeps locked in a drawer. A detail, I thought was a little over the top. I understand that it is hidden because it’s a direct line to his mobster boss, but come on, who locks a phone in a drawer? The second scene is when Joe realizes that he has been defeated. He goes out of his office and thinks to himself that he’ll never see this place again. Then he walks in the middle of a downtown Manhattan street, except there are no cars or people anywhere. This clearly represents how alone Joe feels even in a city.

The gangster side of the movie was interesting. You can see that the makers of modern gangster movies were heavily influenced by this movie. For instance one of Ficco’s henchman delivers a line that could have been right out of any modern gangster movie: “What do you mean gangsters? It’s business.” Also, later on in the movie, Mr. Bauer lures Leo to an Italian restaurant where they are both murdered by gangsters. Sounds like the "The Godfather," doesn't it?

This movie definitely has some flaws. For instance, I don’t understand the mobster’s plan to make gambling legal or why that many people would bet on a horse with the number 776, even if it was the fourth of July. Also, there is no point to the character Edna Tucker. Were all of her scenes cut? She does wear a cool spider woman outfit that would be perfect for some sort of femme fatale. However, her character must have been seducing men in some other movie, because it wasn’t in this one.

I really enjoyed Joe’s cynicism when he realizes he’s done for. He says to Doris, “A holiday is when you celebrate something that ended long ago.” “When did your life end,” Doris asks him? “The day I was born,” Joe replies.

The final scene in the movie where Joe runs down hundreds and hundreds of steps so that he can see for himself whether his brother is really dead, was also very powerful. Especially with the narration, “It was like going down to the bottom of the world to find my brother. He was dead and I felt like I killed him.”

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts on "Out of the Past"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Even though “Out of the Past” (1947) seemed to borrow heavily from earlier film noirs, it also managed to introduce a new idea or two.

In the previous noirs we’ve seen in class, for example, “The Killers,” the femme fatale was a mysterious temptress. The audience suspects she’s no good, but the protagonist is drawn into the underworld by her “siren’s call” and never returns. In these films, the protagonist’s mistake is thinking with his heart (or loins) rather than his brain. However, in “Out of the Past,” the protagonist, Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum), is all too aware that femme fatale, Katie Moffat (Jane Greer), is all bad. His undoing isn’t that he falls for her again, it is that he is too over confident in his ability to turn the tables on her. He thinks that simply because he is invulnerable to Moffat’s sexual advances that he will be able to foil the machinations of the evil-doers. Unfortunately, this is not the case because, like any good villain, Moffat and Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) have many other tricks up their sleeves.

Another thing that was different about this film was that it wasn’t always focused on the city. In fact, the camera often paused for a moment on a shot of lush mountains or forests. Rather than just presenting the city as a corrupter, this film also presents to us the idea that the country is a safe haven. When we first meet Markham’s character, he is enjoying the day at a lake. When Markham is hiding from the police, he hides near a river. Finally, when Markham sets up a meeting with his girlfriend, Ann Miller, it is in a forest.

This film was about half exposition since it told the whole story of Markham and Moffat’s first encounter and romance. Ultimately, the problem with this movie was that since this first story was so long, it competed for screen time with the second story, which was Markham’s return to the underworld. The second story was, at the same time, more complicated and less interesting than the first. Was this a film about how Markham was doomed by his past? If this is the case, then the exposition could have been much shorter.

I don’t really know what, but there was something about Sterling’s character that was really great. Maybe it was simply that Douglas had great timing. My favorite line in the movie is when Sterling insults his henchman’s intelligence by saying he, “ couldn’t find a prayer in the bible.” Also fun is how Markham constantly insults Moffat. My favorite was, “you’re like a leaf that gets blown from one gutter to the next.”

I found the plot of the film to be very confusing at times. For instance, a new character, Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), was introduced in the middle of the movie and then never seen again. Also, when Markham hid the important papers in a mail storage of some sort, just like Bogart did in “The Maltese Falcon,” Sterling’s henchmen picked Markham up right outside the place. Am I supposed to believe that these guys can’t put two and two together and realize that he must have just dropped off the papers?

This film was successful because I cared about Markham’s character. In fact, I wanted to scream at the screen whenever he kissed Moffat because I knew she was no good for anybody. I thought that Markham would prevail in the end. However, upon deeper reflection, I realized that throughout the film, Markham is over-confident and in control. If he triumphed in the end, this movie’s tone wouldn’t have been film noir at all, because there must be an element of helplessness; fate must play a large role.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

National Novel Writing Month Success


I just successfully completed National Novel Writing Month in November. I wrote a 51,798 word novel in one month.

This was no small feet considering I’d never before completed a novel in my nearly 30 years of living.

It took determination, I kept thinking towards the end that I wasn’t going to finished, but my wife said, “Yes you will, just keep going.” It took discipline, I had to write whether I felt like writing or not. Some nights I felt like I would have rather have done anything in the world other then write another word.

I had a very vague idea about the novel I wanted to write when I started. I based it on a news story that happened in at the end of October. I knew it was going to be about an exotic animal farm in Ohio where the animals are let out and their owner is found dead. Only in my version there is a question as to whether or not he committed suicide or was murdered!

I thought I had the ending in mind and knew who the two killers were, but after a few days I decided I liked one of the characters too much for her to be one of the killers and I decided I didn’t like another character at all so I killed him off. Then I came up with two different guilty parties, so my advice when writing a mystery is have lots of characters that could be guilty.

As you can see on the chart I posted, I had up days where I wrote a whole lot like on the 12th where I wrote 3,839 words. I admit that I was unhappy with part of that days work and it may end up being one of the only chapters on the chopping block.

Then there were days like the 13th where I was sick and couldn’t write anything or the 18th and 19th when I had houseguests and couldn’t write anything.

My most productive day was the 27th where I wrote a whooping 5,282 words.

But enough about all that; you all want to read an excerpt don’t you?

Well here is a random chapter of the soon to be released bestseller “The Tiger’s Claw” (A Peter Gillis Mystery) by John Grayshaw:

Chapter 13

Once again I wasn’t present for these events but I’ve talked to many of the people involved in our to piece together how the events unfolded.

Theodore Roosevelt Grade School was one of three Kindergarten through fifth grade schools in Sherfield. It was on the western end of town and less then 5 miles from the Lawton farm. Therefore it was the closet school to the farm, which is why it was one of the first stops Harper decided to make. She had done a couple of education stories and so was on pretty friendly terms with the school’s principal Miguel Hernandez.

She had in mind that a class of cute little kids learning as if nothing was going on outside their four walls might be the perfect shot to end a nice counterpoint to the article about the animals on the loose. Obviously her paper had already sent every available reporter to the Lawton Farm to “get the story” but she doubted her editor Phillip Cross, a man perpetually six months from retirement, had thought to send one reporter to put together a decent feature story. She had in mind to get quotes from some homeowners in a new development that was close by, the men at the Sherfield fire department, some local storeowners, and hopefully that local librarian Rita Tallmadge. She also planned on going to a local barbershop and seeing if she could get some quotes from the men there about how they just went about their business or maybe she’d find that the animal threat really did freak everyone out. That was the beauty of being a reporter you could plan out your stories in your head, but it was the quotes that really started to shape it.

Gabriel had miraculously been quiet for the entire car ride. Thank God she had learned the importance of swaddling her baby. For as long as Harper could remember she’d felt independent. Maybe it was the fact that she was a latchkey child, walking herself home from school since Junior High School, which was partially responsible for her self-reliant streak. But babies are just the opposite they want to be wrapped up and contained in order to feel safe. Harper wondered when it would change. Would the bars of his crib one day feel like the bars of a jail cell? Or would the change happen at a later age? Harper got the baby out of the car seat and wrapped him in a hands free sling.

In the hopes that Harper would get that perfect shot of the classroom, she had come armed with her trusty camera a high end Canon Rebel. The thing had cost her a small fortune, but it had never taken a bad picture. In her business you sometimes only had one shot to get the picture and if you missed your chance it was all over.

Miss Amelia Jacobs had just moved to Sherfield two months ago. She grew up in Cleveland and thought she’d probably live there her whole life, but the school system there was so clicky. Jacobs had been out of gradschool, where she had gotten straight A’s, for two years and was still subbing because she couldn’t find a permanent job anywhere in Cleveland. Finally she became convince that she was never going to find a job because she didn’t know the right people. The fact that she started getting interviews and ultimately got the job in Sherfield within two months of expanding her search outside of Cleveland seemed to be conclusive proof.

Even though it was only October, Jacobs already felt very close to everyone in her second grade class. She always heard when she was in school from her professors that a teacher’s first class is always very special to them, but she didn’t believe it until she started to experience it for herself. Everyday she felt like she was pouring out herself to these children and she felt like they knew it and appreciated it. But that was stupid they’re just kids her rational mind would tell her. They can’t tell the difference between a teacher who gives it their all and goes the extra mile and a teacher that doesn’t. And yet Jacobs knew in her gut that the kids could tell and that is why they loved her.

At around 9 am in the middle of an art project the classroom phone rang. “Hello,” said Jacobs. It was one of the administrative assistants in the schools main office. She began with “I don’t want to alarm you but…” and then she detailed how Mr. Lawton one of the owners of the paper mill had committed suicide and how he had let dozens of wild animals out of their cages just before that. And she ended her story with, “So we’re gonna keep the children inside today.” Jacobs hung up the phone and tired to put on a bright face. She tried to act as if nothing terrifying had just happened. People say that children can smell fear, but that’s completely inaccurate what is accurate is that children can sense changes in emotions, we are social animals and one of a child’s main jobs is to act like a sponge and soak up all the knowledge he/she can about how the world works, and how people act. After teaching children Jacobs never understood why the police would ever need to use a lie detector test. Even a child can usually tell when someone is being less then truthful. Jacob wondered when people lost that ability.

Jacob walked over to the windows. On the way she looked at Avery, Penelope and Justin’s artwork. Then she closed the windows and the curtains in the classroom. She hoped none of the children started to wonder why she was doing this on a sunny and warm day.

Larry Anderson had heard about the animals being on the loose, he had a radio that he listened to in the supply room in the basement of the school when he wasn’t cleaning up after those filthy kids. Somehow they got dirtier every year. Leaving the toilets without flushing, getting feces all over the toilet seat, playing with the paper towel dispenser and wasting almost a whole roll of towels. “Their parents don’t know the meaning of the word discipline,” he thought. “They just let them run wild at home, so they’re even worse when they get here.”

He learned a lot from the radio, especially the talk shows, they had really smartened him up a lot more then any schooling he got ever did. Now he under that it was the Democrats and their liberal socialism that was responsible for most of the problems in this country. Anderson didn’t usually vote, but he was waiting for a candidate that talked about bringing corporeal punishment into the public schools, that would be a candidate that got his full endorsement.

He thought about that kind of candidate as he smoked a cigarette outside of one of the side entrances to the school, the one that was adjacent to local park’s ball fields. He was only halfway done with his cigarette when he got a text. “What is it now?” he thought. A kid in one of the fourth grade classes had puked up his breakfast. “Every time I try and take a break for just one minute.” Anderson was so angry that he forgot to take the chair out of the entrance to the school, so the door was still propped open.

Helen didn’t know why she was so angry. She just knew that she had traveled away from her own territory and she was hungry. She’d been searching for prey all morning but hadn’t found anything. Suddenly the smells of fresh meat were coming from a building. (It happened to be sloppy Joe day in the school’s cafeteria). So, though she preferred to stay in tall grass she decided to follow her nose.

Helen slowly walked through the empty halls. The concrete floor felt strange on her paws. Her claws went click, click, click, with every step. She followed the smell of the meat. She did not like the strangeness of the place but that would not matter if she could fill her stomach.

Harper was taking pictures of a fifth grade class when she first heard screaming. Not the kind of noise girls make when they see their friend in the mall. Or the sound a grown woman makes when she sees a spider or a mouse. No, this was the sound of true terror.

Harper ran down the hall. Gabrie bounced up and down in the sling but did not start crying. The noise had come from somewhere downstairs so Harper began to take the stairs three at a time. Part of her worried Gabriel was going to fall out, but he didn’t. Harper wasn’t the only one that had come running when they heard the screaming. Anderson the janitor had run too. Harper arrived in the cafeteria in time to see Anderson armed with just a broom attacking a tiger.

The tiger had turned over the lunch table and had his face in the sloppy Joes. The lunch ladies were responsible for the screams. Anderson looked surprisingly valiant as he charged the Bengal tiger. “Shoo, Shoo,” he said as he poked the tiger’s head with the bristly end of the broom. The tiger looked up from his meal and seemed like she was going to back down, but then she lunged at Anderson and sliced open his stomach. Anderson sputtered incoherently as his intestines began to fall out and he backed up and fell against the wall. Meanwhile the tiger returned her attention to the pot of food, but began to push it across the room into a corner.

Harper was horrified, the mother in her wished she’d covered Gabriel’s eyes and hoped he hadn’t seen the man gutted. The reporter in her wanted to take some pictures. But the part of her that was a human being knew that the man needed her help so she ran over to him and did her best to slow down his bleeding by putting pressure on the wound. After a couple of minutes she heard the sound of sirens. “Everything is going to be okay,” she said. “The EMTs will be here soon and we’ll get you to a hospital.”

Anderson looked at his bleed that was getting all over the floor and the havoc the tiger was causing, “If I’m going to the hospital? Who is gonna clean up this mess?”