A Farewell to the Ghost of Oxford

My last day in Oxford was spent again walking around campus, alone. I had lunch in the student union and then walked on to field at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. I even strolled the perimeter of the campus as a sort of way of “peering into” another world. My last stop was here:

The Lyceum.

The main administration building on the Ole Miss campus. It’s the signature building on this out of the world place in the world. And I took a picture.

Afterward, I met up again with Van for a last goodbye. I snapped a picture of him standing outside of Alumni House and standing next to his Volkswagen Beetle. Thinking that what we had established over the past few days would be the start of a long term friendship, I hardly wondered if and when I’d see him again…

Back north, I sat at my desk and wrote a letter of thanks to Van for his kindness and generosity during my visit to Oxford. Once mailed, I began to anticipate his response.

That anticipation continues to this day because I never heard again from the Ghost of Oxford.

A desiccated rose

Turning my head slightly to the side, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. In the car next to me, would she have smiled too?

Funny. The metaphor wasn’t lost.

The autobiography? Hasn’t been finished. You have no idea.

An outstretched hand leads the way. Following the flashlight’s beam and heading down the stairs, it’s time to go back.

Seascape ’82. That’s what the cover says; was what I saw. What a strange secret I’ve kept. All these years, I thought someone was watching. Instead, I’m the lead.

Far away, I kid myself that she’s peeked too. And me? Left rummaging in the basement, looking in a book. It’s usually kept just safely out of reach. Except for tonight.

In between the pages, the wax paper cocoon is a silent tomb. It’s a thirty-something haunting.

I put it there; then.

Now I look in the mirror. Same person, different shell. No longer of the sea, the change in seasons has parched the skin. In my hands tonight though, the rose I hold has dried out too.

Rock Lobsters

We were at a party looking for them. And while most of the time we got skunked, sometimes we’d get lucky. They were the best bait for catching things. But that was a long time ago.

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Maybe under this one. There is a connection somewhere.

I’m just trying to find it. And I keep looking around and inside hoping to find some light in the dark.

Films from a time-period, in (dare I say) a type of style . But why these films?

Kids do funny things to pass the time and our summer free-time was spent looking for crayfish. We called them rock lobsters. We were kids then.

You already knew that, right?

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Hey. Yeah you. See the mug above? The one with the dame. Well that’s Richard Conte, the boss, see? The dame? She’s Jean Wallace. Some catch huh?

Later when I started turning over other things, I came across Conte in a number of noirs. Always seeming to play the heavy mixed-up in some racket, I thought I’d seen him somewhere outside those shadows.

Racking the same brain that fades, it hit me. He was Barzini from The Godfather, a film he appeared in many years after his film noir heyday.

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Here was a clue and perhaps a bridge. A rock turned over.

Another mug. This one of Old Spice shave soap in a medicine cabinet. With a brush nearby. That was poppy’s way. He was a bridge too.

And another clue; more rocks.

So what’s the angle? That no one’s on the level.

Now it’s in another time in another place and in another form.

A frame.

And a good one. Thank you Mr. Kubrick because the mug below is hidden by a mask in this frame. Nothing but a two-bit hood. And Sterling Hayden was a good one too in The Killing.

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But you’d take the mask off the hood and you’d get another peek.

Cuz that’s the mug again. In another scene from The Godfather. This time he’s the tall guy in the middle about to take a slug from Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino to his right.

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Sneaking up.

So you see, it ain’t just chasing dames and broads.

It’s about finding things and getting closer. It was a rock lobster.

Don’t mention it.

The First Amendment

It’s a right, they say. One of the freedoms, so I’m told.

Fortunately she smiled at me once. And she spoke to me too. Freely.

My brush up against beauty and fame was an extinguished candle on an obscure New York City street.

Trying my hand at stand-up comedy in the late 1980’s, I responded to a newspaper advertisement looking for those too willing to trade in time for chance. All I had to do was work the lights or pass out some programs or sweep up afterwards. In return, I’d receive some training in the art of improvisational comedy. Training that didn’t stick, but at least was planted.

The place was called The First Amendment.

Wedged into and hidden among the alleyways within the Greenwich Village and Little Italy regions of New York City, it was a past-its-prime noir-like comedy lab. Here was a greenhorn with a chance to assimilate into the comedy subculture. A chance to be someone. A chance indeed. That assimilation, was a reserved table on its periphery. Direction, or lack of; and self-confidence, or lack of, would be my governor. But that’s a ticket to another show.

On this or that day, I stood outside the club acting as a sort of sentinel. Poetic license and justice mixed with a chaser of selective embellishment allows me to paint the day as a grey one. And that’s when she sauntered by; a real life star walking past a hope to be one day.

Lauren Hutton smiled at me. It was a long time ago, but it helped get me here.

Our frozen moment gave me some freedom.

Straight Down the (thin) Line

The line.

It’s strange. And thin too.

Coming of age in the mid 1970’s, I had heard her name. But she was one of those old movie stars. She was “in the pictures,” as my grandparents would say, that they watched. And those pictures were watched during the week, in the afternoon, or late at night as they lay in bed for the evening. I’d be wondering what to be when I grew up. Or if Linda would like me.

To me though, she was a star in name only. I don’t even remember seeing any of her films back then.

My first Barbara Stanwyck encounter was The File on Thelma Jordan, an underrated film noir from 1950. And I only watched that for the first time about five years ago. Since then, I’ve gone back and seen more of her acclaimed pictures. Not all, of course, but enough to realize that she earned the reputation.

She was a star.

Transition to:

(Right about here the rules say that I should include a mini biography of her life to sort of validate things. To show that I’ve put the time in. Done my homework. But I won’t because I’ve got excuses.

And then I’d follow that up with a review of Double Indemnity. Because that would be something new. With my own spin. But I won’t do that either).

Instead, I’ll let her do the walking. Because like her, “inside this stupid body…”

 

 

Walking to Hollywood: Podcasts for Noir Heads

Walking alone off the beaten path, I get to travel to Hollywood. In spirit at least. Along the way, I’ve found it beneficial to take with me a collection of go-to podcasts. Time and attention, the commodities most of us have too little of, can be impediments to the podcasting world. But because walking is a pretty regular retreat for me, I’ve found a way to circumvent these two thieves.

Here’s a look at one film noir podcast that helps me get there:

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Out of the Past: produced by academic colleagues Richard Edwards and Shannon Clute, this podcast is the standard bearer of, in their words, the “canon of film noir” podcasts.

The series debuted in 2005 and ran until 2011. There were a few random episodes after 2011, but for all intents and purposes, the series ended with Episode 53: Out of the Past Act II.

Clute and Edwards cover most of the films from the noir Golden Age, in addition to discussing many “neo-noirs.” Each episode runs approximately 30-45 minutes in length and they don’t rely on the over-production audio gags too often heard in many podcasts today. These are two colleagues who know and respect their material and never speak down to their audience.

Listening to this podcast became my baptism into the world of film noir. I had always been interested in the films of this, dare I say “genre,” but the hosts helped me come to terms with what I found so intriguing about these classics. Their podcast takes a somewhat scholarly approach to the material without in any way coming off as pedantic. The episodes are easy to listen to and very approachable for all fans of these groundbreaking films.

As a side note for the many podcasters out there, both men were able to parlay the success of their efforts into new career directions. Richard Edwards is currently the Executive Director of iLearn Research at Ball State University and Shannon Clute is Director, Business Development & Strategy at Turner Classic Movies. So keep following your passions.

Here are links to some of my favorite episodes:

  1. Episode 1: Out of the Past
  2. Episode 2: Double Indemnity
  3. Episode 19: The Killing
  4. Episode 30: The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Man Who Wasn’t There
  5. Episode 39: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

 

Behind Green Lights: Looking for Carol Landis

She appeared in more than fifty films, was married four times, and toured extensively during World War Two bringing to the troops who pinned her up along the way a bit of American pulchritude rarely matched before or after. And Carol Landis did all of this before she turned 30.

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She’d have to because she would be dead at the age of 29, taking her own life, heartbroken over her unrequited love for Rex Harrison.

If I could drive alone along a winding road somewhere near Topanga, could I find her? And if I did, what would I say? Could I help her find it if I didn’t even know what I was in search of? What was struck within me when I bumbled upon her in “Behind Green Lights.” I don’t remember much about the film. But I do remember her. Strangely (or not), I was unaware of her story. Yet she was the one I had discovered. And then it dawned on me; perhaps she had found me.

That’s one of the things that happens whenever I go back and watch a film from that era. These lives are introduced to me and I look into them. Who were they? Who was she? What did they do off screen? With the lights off and no cameras around. I have trouble shaking these thoughts off. Maybe that’s what was intended.

There’s always been an attraction for me to the underbelly of celebrity, i.e., the noir of Hollywood. And as I’m writing this, I’m thinking about it. Again. Does all of this get a little too close to my own underbelly? What dark side of my own private Hollywood do stories and thoughts such as these touch?

I once saw the cover of Circus by Alistar MacLean. It stayed with me. Of all the seconds of moments I’ve had over fifty plus years, what is it about something so seemingly indistinct about one cover of one book? Like “Behind Green Lights,” I don’t remember MacLean’s story, but I do remember the cover. And like Carol Landis, those memories troubled me. There seemed to be something sinister going on.

My guess is that we aren’t supposed to see those things too clearly nor too often because they are not the stuff of dreams. They are instead, shadows.

A final random thought goes something like this: David Lynch‘s film Mulholland Drive had a devastatingly powerful impact on me. In a film about the dark side of Hollywood, I’m left to wonder how much of an inspiration for his film was a real life Carol Landis.

I’ve got to look behind more green lights.

The Woman in the Window

Talking about film the other night with a custodian in my school, he asked “So what’s your favorite film noir?” Not wanting to disappoint, I searched my increasingly aging mind and, of course, hedged. Luckily I had a copy of “The World’s Most Overly-Used Cliches” handy and was able to respond with, “Well, you know there are so many that it’s hard to pick just one.”

Nevertheless, here’s one to consider with a good plot summary of the film from its Wikipedia site (CAUTION: SPOILER ALERT )

The Woman in the Window (1944) starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, and Dan Duryea

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“After criminology professor[4] Richard Wanley sends his wife and two children off on vacation, he goes to his club to meet friends. Next door, Wanley sees a striking oil portrait of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) in a storefront window. He and his friends talk about the beautiful painting and its subject. Wanley stays at the club and reads Song of Songs. When he leaves, Wanley stops at the portrait and meets Reed, who is standing near the painting watching people watch it. Reed convinces Wanley to join her for drinks.

Later, they go to Reed’s home, but an unexpected visit from her rich lover Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) leads to a fight in which Wanley kills Mazard. Wanley and Reed conspire to cover up the murder, and Wanley disposes Mazard’s body in the country. However, Wanley leaves many clues, and there are a number of witnesses. One of Wanley’s friends from the club, district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) has knowledge of the investigation, and Wanley is invited back to the crime scene, as Lalor’s friend, but not as a suspect. There are several comic dialogues in which Wanley appears to know more about the murder than he should. As the police gather more evidence, Reed is blackmailed by Heidt (Dan Duryea), a crooked ex-cop who was Mazard’s bodyguard. Reed attempts to poison Heidt with a prescription overdose when he returns the next day, but Heidt is suspicious and takes the money without drinking the drugs. Reed tells Wanley, who overdoses on the remaining prescription medicine.

Heidt is killed in a shootout immediately after leaving Reed’s home, and police believe Heidt is Mazard’s murderer. Reed, seeing that the police have killed Heidt, races to her home to call Wanley, who is slumped over in his chair, and apparently he dies. In an impossible match on action, Wanley awakens in his chair at his club, and he realizes the entire adventure was a dream in which employees from the club were main characters in the dream. As he steps out on the street in front of the painting, a woman asks Wanley for a light. He adamantly refuses and runs down the street.”

As for my own thoughts, this was one of the first films I watched after my nior baptismal. It’s held a special place for me for a number of other reasons too.

For one, Edward G. Robinson’s character is not one I would have previously associated with his acting career. As a kid, my opinions of Robinson had been shaped by the characterizations of him as a cigar-chomping cartoon character from Looney Tunes and Courageous Cat episodes. As an every man of sorts caught up like future Hithcockian protagonists , I could relate to his plight and sympathize with his character.

Additionally, the role of the femme fatale was played to perfection by the lovely Joan Bennett. I was stricken by how risque her dialogue, costumes, and actions were in the film. Anyone thinking that old films play as prudish by today’s standards (or lack of) need only watch Bennett’s portrayal here.

Finally, The Woman in the Window carries with it a sense of redemption missing (and with good reason) from most noirs. Fortunately it pulls it off without feeling forced or heavy-handed. Not an easy task to accomplish. This is a not only a highly recommended film noir held in high regard by fans of the genre, but also one that’s easily accessible to all.

Click the link to watch The Woman in the Window (1944- Directed by Friz Lang)