Book Review: NOIR by Christopher Moore (William Morrow 2018)

In between everything else I do, I read about a book a week, mainly mystery fiction. Current favorites include James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, and John Sandford, all with their own unique styles, and all masters of the genre. But when I need a good laugh, I pick up Christopher Moore. I first became aware of Moore’s work with his brilliant 2002 novel LAMB, OR THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BIFF, CHRIST’S CHILDHOOD PAL, an irreverent satire narrated by Jesus’s good buddy Biff that’s as outrageous as it sounds, and sinfully funny to boot.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in “Out of the Past” (RKO 1947) have nothing on Sammy and The Cheese!

This time around, Moore goes from taking on the Scriptures to the hard-boiled world of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The novel is set in 1947 San Francisco, a very good year for noir (OUT OF THE PAST, NIGHTMARE ALLEY , BORN TO KILL , LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and other seminal films noir were made that year), as we follow the adventures of Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, a down-on-his-luck bartender with a past  working in a seedy dive owned by a sleazy cheapskate. A femme fatale named Stilton (nicknamed “The Cheese”), a serviceman’s widow who can crack wise with the best of ’em, walks into the bar, and Sammy goes head over high heels for her. There’s plenty of intrigue involving an Air Force general who wants to procure some dames dressed like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, a crooked cop who wants a piece of everyone’s action, the dark alleys of Chinatown where men drink snake piss to gain virility… oh, and a man from outer space! Told you Moore was unique!

Distinguished author Christopher Moore

Sammy narrates most of this outlandish stew, except for some chapters told by… well, I’m not gonna say, you’ll have to read it and find out yourselves. There are a ton of characters woven in and out of this funny tale, friends and foes alike of Sammy and The Cheese, and they’re all carefully crafted by the skillful Mr. Moore. Parts of NOIR are laugh-out-loud hysterical, parts drew a chuckle, but all of it kept me smiling throughout the brisk 330 pages (not to mention the Afterword and the special section in the Barnes & Noble edition, an essay by Moore titled “Tough Guy Talk”). Christopher Moore is a satirist worth reading, and NOIR ranks among his best, which means its real damn good. Perfect for beach reading, or those rainy nights when it’s Three AM and you’re down to your last bourbon. Pick up a copy today and discover the wacky world of NOIR and Christopher Moore!

12 Days of Random Christmas Songs: “Green Chri$tma$” by Stan Freberg (Capitol Records 1958)

Satirist Stan Freberg’s fertile comic mind conceived “Green Chri$tma$”, a skewering of the commercialization of Christmas that’s as relevant now as it was 59 years ago. Though not technically a ‘Christmas song’, it’s a hilarious comedy classic that dumps a lump of coal in the wacky world of advertising. Also featuring the voice talents of Daws Butler, Marvin Miller, and Will Wright, enjoy “Green Chri$tma$” (and dig the vintage print ads in the video!):

Prophet Without Honor: Timothy Carey’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (Timothy Carey 1962)

Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929-1994) was an eccentric, oddball actor who played in everything from early Stanley Kubrick films (THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY) to AIP Beach Party romps (BIKINI BEACH, BEACH BLANKET BINGO ). He had the look of an overfed vampire, and was noted for his off-the-wall characterizations. Carey didn’t play the Hollywood game, considering himself an artist, and you’ve got to admire that. In 1962, he made a film called THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, which he produced, directed, wrote, starred in, and released himself. Top THAT, Orson Welles!.

This ultra-low-budget film is totally bizarre right off the rip. Insurance man Clarence Hilliard (Carey) gets himself fired from his job after telling people they don’t need insurance. He wants more out of life, believing man is a superbeing, and begins to set himself up as a God. After watching a rock’n’roll teen idol, Clarence becomes a charismatic, guitar-toting, fiery evangelist, renaming himself ‘God’ Hilliard. Gaining a following, he makes a deal with The Devil and joins the political fray, campaigning for president!

‘God’ Hilliard mesmerizes the masses with his rhetoric, delivering a populist message “for the people” to become Gods themselves, blasting the crooked two-party system, and deriding the news media as “printing lies” (sound familiar?). ‘God’ Hilliard rails against everything, including The Almighty, questioning the existence of God. His final desecration of the Holy Eucharist (which will definitely offend some) gives way to a rather shocking finale.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is shot in a cinema verite stylemuch like the later films of Carey’s good friend John Cassavetes. But Carey adds his own unique vision, “borrowing” from the foreign films of the day. It’s not a great movie, or a particularly good one far as film aesthetics go, but it held my interest straight through til the end. I can’t say that about some of the so-called “classics” I’ve seen (or even clunkers). Carey gave his all for his art here, and created an interesting, thought-provoking film with limited resources, the mark of a true artist.

Portrait of 2 Artists: Frank Zappa (l) and Timothy Carey

There’s some interesting bits of trivia, as well. The score is by Frank Zappa , five years before making the scene with The Mothers of Invention’s seminal psychedelic album FREAK-OUT. Zappa’s distinct musical touch was unmistakable, even back then. The narrator is Paul Frees , well-known voiceover artist who I’ve discussed before. And the cinematographer is credited to one Raymond Steckler, better known as Ray Dennis Steckler (or Cash Flagg, or Wolfgang Schmidt or Cindy Lou Sutters!), who went on to develop his own “artistic vision” with the cult classics THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME CRAZY MIXED-UP ZOMBIES and THE THRILL SEEKERS.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER will not be for everyone’s tastes. It’s below low-budget, sleazy, blasphemous, and like it’s creator completely off-center. Those of you who crave something bold and different will be as mesmerized by Carey’s ‘God’ Hilliard as I was. The oddball auteur later made another solo effort, 1970’s TWEET’S LADIES OF PASADENA. If it’s anywhere near THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, it will be worth watching!

Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

Cockeyed Caravan: SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Paramount 1941)

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I’m no expert on Preston Sturges, having seen only two of his films, but after viewing SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS I now have a craving to see them all! This swift (and Swiftian) satire on Hollywood stars Joel McCrea as a successful slapstick comedy director yearning to make important, socially conscious films who gets more than he bargained for when he hits the road to discover what human misery and suffering is all about.

John L. “Sully” Sullivan sets his studio bosses on their collective ear when he tells them he wants to film an adaptation of ” O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a serious novel by ‘Sinclair Beckstein’. The head honcho balks, wanting Sully to do another comedy, but Sully’s not dissuaded, deciding to see what life among the downtrodden is first-hand. He dresses in rags and sets out on his quest, followed by a gaggle of PR flacks in a bus. Somehow he keeps winding up back in Hollywood, where he meets a girl (her name is never given) in a diner, a disillusioned young actress about to leave Tinseltown behind.

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After the pair get arrested for stealing a car, which is actually his in the first place, Sullivan reveals his true identity to her, taking The Girl to his palatial estate. She’s angry at first, having thought him a real hobo, but when he’s determined to continue his odyssey she becomes equally determined to join him. From there they hop a freight train and live among the homeless souls, dining in soup kitchens and sleeping in a crowded shelter, learning how the poor and desperate souls live. Having gathered enough material, the director decides to hand out $1000 in fives to the street people in gratitude.

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Then the film takes a turn to the dramatic, as Sully gets rolled by the same bum who previously stole his shoes, and dragged onto a train leaving the station. The unfortunate crook drops the ill-gotten dough and is run over by an oncoming locomotive. The studio execs believe the dead man is Sully, who wakes up concussed and confused, charged with trespass and atrocious assault, winding up in a prison work camp run by a brutal overseer who doesn’t take any guff.

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Everything turns out okay in the end, as Sullivan finds a way to be freed and discovers making comedies isn’t so bad after all. Joel McCrea is flawless as the idealistic, earnest director, whose journey of self-discovery leads him to this conclusion: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan”. Sturges punctures the pretentiousness of Hollywood elitists who think they can save the world, suggesting that maybe what the world needs more of is a good, hearty laugh. The fact remains while comedies do big box-office, they get very little love come Oscar time. The great screen comics of their respective eras have rarely been rewarded for their efforts, usually settling for a lifetime achievement award after they’re way past their prime, while “relevant” dramas get all the accolades. Myself, I’d rather be entertained than preached at.

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Veronica Lake  shines as The Girl, showing a flair for comedy as the struggling starlet. She’s the perfect match for McCrea, with comic timing that’s just right. Tons of Familiar Faces parade on the screen, like William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn,  Porter Hall Byron Foulger , Eric Blore, Torbin Meyer, Esther Howard , Almira Sessions, Frank Moran, Chester Conklin, and Dewey Robinson, many of whom appeared in subsequent Sturges films as a sort of stock company. A shout-out goes to Jess Lee Brooks as a black preacher who allows the prisoners to attend his church for a movie, leading the congregation in a stirring rendition of ‘Go Down, Moses” (that’s Madame Sul-Te-Wan  at the organ). Ray Milland also appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

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SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS is social commentary disguised as screwball comedy, or maybe vice versa. Its rapid-fire dialog, great sight gags, and satirical skewering of Hollywood makes it a must-see for film fans. It carries a timeless message, and that is, as Donald O’Connor would say, “Make Em Laugh”! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more Preston Sturges films in the future, because we all need to stop and have a good laugh these days.

No Safe Space: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon (2015, directed by Douglas Tirola)

National Lampoon was the most outrageous satire magazine in history, and this excellent review is reblogged courtesy of Through the Shattered Lens:

Through the Shattered Lens

Drunk_Stoned_Brilliant_Dead_PosterThe documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead pays tribute to National Lampoon.  Founded in 1970, National Lampoon was published for 28 years and, at the height of its popularity, its sensibility redefined American comedy.  When it came to National Lampoon, nothing was sacred and nothing was off-limits.  The success of National Lampoon led to a stage show called Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured everyone from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis.  Michael O’Donoghue, famed for his impersonations of celebrities having needless inserted into their eyes, went from writing for the Lampoon to serving as Saturday Night Live‘s first head writer.  National Lampoon’s Animal House, Vacation, and Caddyshack are three of the most influential film comedies ever made.  Everyone from P.J. O’Rourke to John Hughes to The Simpsons‘ Al Jean got their start at National Lampoon

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Have a Bucket of Fun!: THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977)

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Satire ran rampant in the 70s. Magazines like MAD and NATIONAL LAMPOON were eagerly devoured by hungry youth disillusioned with the status quo, while SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS kept us glued to our TV sets for must-watch comic nonsense. Moviegoers were treated to such farcical fare as THE GROOVE TUBE (1974), TUNNELVISION (1976), and LOOSE SHOES (1980). But without question, the side-splittingly funniest of them all was THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.

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KFM (as I’ll pretensiously call it) was the brainchild of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, those geniuses behind AIRPLANE! The trio of comic terrorists first got together as college chums in a theatrical troupe known as The Kentucky Fried Theater. Making a name for themselves as unbridled smart-alecs taking potshots at everything in sight, they developed this hilarious gumbo of outrageous skits with the help of a young director named John Landis, whose only previous credit in the director’s chair was the horror spoof SCHLOCK! (1971), which I’ll get around to viewing sooner rather than later (I know you’re all excited about that!)

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THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, like everything the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team does, takes guerilla comedy to the extreme. A series of unrelated events, KFM skewers local news, commercials, PSAs (Henry Gibson in a United Appeal for the Dead), TV shows, and movies. There’s some Previews of Coming Attractions thrown in, touting “Samuel L. Bronkowitz” producions of R-rated titillation pics (CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE), disaster movies (THAT’S ARMAGGEDON!!), and Blaxploitation (CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ). The big set-piece is A FISTFUL OF YEN, a pitch-perfect kung-fu parody with leads that can’t pronounce their R’s (“Total consentwation”), cheesy sound effects, an evil villain bent on world domination, and an insanely funny conclusion.

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Filled with groan-inducing puns,non-sequiturs, ethnic humor, questionable taste, silly cameo roles (Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland, Tony Dow, porn star Uschi Digard, FAMOUS MONSTERS editor Forrest J Ackerman) and lots and lots of bare boobs, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is as edgy as it was when it was first made. It wouldn’t go over well with today’s easily offended, politically correct crowd. The film was a big hit with the “party animals” of the day. I remember seeing it at the movies stoned out of my gourd, like I was most of the time back then. But that was many moons ago, and today I’m…..

Nahhh, I’ll save the true confessions stuff if I ever want to start one of those “personal recovery journey” blogs. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  still makes me laugh my ass off! Stoned out of your gourd or stone-cold sober, just watch it and see. Unless you’re one of those overly sensitive types. Maybe you should go watch THE NOTEBOOK or something.