The Noir of Who: Part 4

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts.

You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here. 

You may find Part 2 (characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong) here. 

You may find Part 3 (doubling/mirroring) here. 

You may find the last installment of the essay, Part 4 (fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate) below. I will make a PDF of the complete essay available on this site shortly.

Please enjoy.

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The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 4

After watching the “death” of the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio, Utah (“Impossible Astronaut”), River is stunned when a two-centuries-younger version of the 11th Doctor walks out of a nearby diner bathroom. After slapping him, this exchange occurs:

The Doctor: Okay. I’m assuming that’s for something I haven’t done yet.

River: Yes, it is.

The Doctor: Good. Looking forward to it.

River’s relationship with The Doctor is so convoluted each maintains a journal (resembling the TARDIS) to track when they are. When the 10th Doctor first meets River in his timeline, it is the last day of her life: the word “spoilers” epitomizes their interactions.

Film noir similarly disoriented viewers with non-linear narratives. Single continuous flashbacks (Double Indemnity, The Guilty, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Out of the Past, Possessed, etc.) were sometimes divided, as in They Won’t Believe Me. Rebecca embeds a flashback within a flashback, while The Locket embeds a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. There is the drunken recollection of murder in Black Angel, an alternate-timeline dream sequence of The Chase, and characters-as-children flashbacks from Ruthless and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. But these pale next to the multiple flashbacks, from different points of view, in I Wake Up Screaming (aka The Hot Spot), The Killers (both versions), Mildred Pierce, and, of course, Citizen Kane.

“Blink” contains the definitive Doctor Who statement on temporal complexity. Having been sent with Martha Jones (and without the TARDIS) by a Weeping Angel to 1969, the 10th Doctor seeks help by filming his responses to a written transcript onto what will become a DVD “Easter egg.” Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) watches the clip in 2007, mystified how The Doctor can respond, 38 years earlier, to everything she says; her words, meanwhile, are transcribed by Larry Nightingale (Finlay Robertson) onto a copy of The Doctor’s end of the conversation. In the final scene, Sally hands her copy of the now-complete conversation to The Doctor, who has not yet been sent to 1969, completing the narrative loop.

On the DVD clip, The Doctor says:

“People don’t understand time. It’s not what they think it is…It’s complicated. Very complicated…People assume that time is a strict linear progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”

The 12th Doctor breaks the fourth wall in “Before the Flood” (October 10, 2015) to provide this example of the bootstrap paradox: taking Ludwig von Beethoven’s music to Beethoven’s time, finding no such person existed, then publishing the music under the name “Ludwig von Beethoven” (who, then, wrote the music?). These explanations do little to assure us time travel’s paradoxes “by and large work themselves out” (“Hide”).

While Doctor Who’s fractured timelines mostly serve as entertaining narrative devices, they can have painful consequences. In “The Girl in the Fireplace” (May 6, 2006), the 10th Doctor, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) and Mickey find a fire burning in an 18th-century French fireplace—on a crewless 51st century spaceship. They talk through the fireplace to a young girl in 1727 Paris named Reinette Poisson (Jessica Atkins)[1]. When The Doctor revolves through the fireplace wall moments later, months have passed on Reinette’s side. Rotating again shortly thereafter, an adult Reinette (Sophia Myles) is so delighted to see her childhood friend she kisses him passionately (a series first), leading the latter to say—when queried by a manservant—“I’m The Doctor, and I just snogged Madame de Pompadour.” The ship contains random portals into Madame de Pompadour’s life; one traps The Doctor in the past until he locates Reinette’s original fireplace. Before making one last revolution, he says:

The Doctor: Give me two minutes. Pack a bag.

Reinette: Am I going somewhere?

The Doctor: Go to the window. Pick a star. Any star.

But the faulty wall decrees that when he returns moments later for him, years have passed and Reinette has just died (aged 45), leaving a heartbreaking note for her “lonely angel.”

Fate’s malevolence is even more apparent when a character attempts to alter fixed points in time. In “Father’s Day” (May 14, 2005), Rose saves her father Pete (Shaun Dingwall) from being killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking to a wedding in 1987, leading vulture-like Reapers to kill humans to “heal” the time rupture. Realizing who the young woman who saved him is, and what she has done, Pete allows himself to be killed by the car after all—though at least he does not die alone this time. In “Vincent and the Doctor” (June 5, 2010), after spotting a monster in Vincent Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers at a London exhibition, the 11th Doctor takes Amy to 1890 to meet him (Tony Curran). Aiming to prevent his suicide that July 29, they bring Van Gogh to the same exhibition, where a curator (Bill Nighy) proclaims him “not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.” Moved as Van Gogh is by this affirmation, he still takes his life, as a devastated Amy soon learns. And in “The Waters of Mars” (November 15, 2009), the 10th Doctor arrives on the first human base on Mars the day in 2059 it was mysteriously destroyed. Base commander Adelaide Brooke’s (Lindsay Duncan) heroic death inspires her granddaughter to pilot Earth’s first lightspeed ship, triggering space exploration by her descendants. When the virus-infected humans that destroyed the base threaten Earth, The Doctor must choose between rescue and not altering a fixed point in time. With no companion to ground him, he cracks:

 “There are laws of time. And once upon a time there were people. And those people were in charge of those rules. But they died. They all died. And do you know who that leaves?!? ME! It’s taken me all these years to realize the laws of time are mine, and they will obey me!”

laws of time will obey me

Safely returned to Earth with two colleagues, Adelaide worries The Doctor has altered history for the worse. Taking matters into her own hands, Adelaide shoots herself, essentially restoring the original timeline—and shocking The Doctor out of his arrogance (“I’ve gone too far.”).

The Doctor’s inevitable regeneration (a form of death), though is the definitive fated moment in the resurrected series. As the 11th Doctor plaintively observes to Clara in “The Time of the Doctor” (December 25, 2013), “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment…like breath on a mirror,” echoing Roy Batty’s (Rutger Hauer) final words in the neo-noir Blade Runner: “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in the rain. Time to die.” And when the 12th Doctor was convinced by the 1st Doctor (David Bradley, “Twice Upon a Time”), also resisting regeneration, to accept his fate, he still claimed “one more lifetime won’t kill anyone…well except me.”

Cornell Woolrich (aka William Irish), more of whose stories were adapted into films noir than any other author (arguably 17 just between 1942 and 1956), provided the definitive noir statement on death. Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins, Jr. wrote it was…

“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’[2]

The 10th Doctor most actively resisted this fate, famously crying “I don’t want to go” just prior to regenerating (“The End of Time, Part Two,” January 1, 2010). He told Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbens; “The End of Time, Part One,” December 25, 2009) his regeneration will be signaled by “four knocks.” Eventually (“End of Time, 2”), he faces a choice: save Wilfred by exposing himself to a massive dose of radiation or let him die (as Wilfred suggests—after, you guessed it, knocking four times on the door of the booth in which he is trapped). Wallowing in self-pity, The Doctor declares “Well, exactly, look at you. Not remotely important. But me…I could do so much more! SO MUCH MORE! But this is what I’ll get, my reward. But it’s NOT FAIR!” That he ultimately saves Wilfred, calling it “an honor,” does not excuse his arrogant petulance.

Of course, the most catastrophic alteration of a fixed point in time in the resurrected Doctor Who is River NOT shooting the 11th Doctor at Lake Silencio: all of history happens simultaneously. Once the younger 11th Doctor discovers his scheduled demise, he spends Series 6 trying to “outrun” it. Finally realizing running is futile, he accepts his fate…though not before figuring out how to survive.

You may not be able to outrun destiny, but you can occasionally delay it.

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It took only nine episodes for Doctor Who to reach its aesthetic noir pinnacle. The two=part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” 2006 Hugo Award winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, are the first of six episodes (“Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and 2008’s “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”) Moffat wrote before becoming showrunner in 2010. Gorgeously photographed in electric blues and muted browns by Ernest Vincze (2006 BAFTA Cymru winner, Best Director of Photography—Drama), the story unfolds over a single night during the 1941 London Blitz.

Chasing an unidentified cylindrical object, the 9th Doctor and Rose park the TARDIS in a shadowy London back alley. While The Doctor seeks answers in that most noir establishment, a nightclub, Rose spots a small boy (Albert Valentine) on a roof wearing a gas mask and calling for “Mummy.” Climbing light-slicing fire escapes after him, she winds up dangling from a barrage balloon during a German air raid before Captain Jack rescues her. The Doctor, meanwhile, follows teenaged Nancy (Florence Hoath) to a house with a supper abandoned due to the raid, which Nancy shares with other kids “living rough.” The Doctor joins them, inquiring about the gas-masked-boy following Nancy asking “Are you my mummy?” As the boy (who we soon learn is Nancy’s brother Jamie, killed by a German bomb the night the unidentified object landed) seeks entry, Nancy warns The Doctor not to let Jamie touch him, lest he become “empty” as well. Following Nancy’s advice to visit “the doctor” in Albion Hospital, The Doctor wanders its shadowy halls to find hundreds of patients with precisely the same injuries—down to fused gas mask—as Jamie. Captain Jack confesses he tried to con The Doctor and Rose into buying the cylindrical object, a “harmless” Chula battlefield ambulance, before transporting them to his ship. Realizing Captain Jack’s ship (also Chula) is loaded with nanogenes, microscopic robots which heal living tissue, The Doctor concludes the nanogenes from the ambulance saw mutilated dead Jamie in his gas mask and thought that is what humans look like. They then “healed” other humans by turning them into Jamie. When Nancy tearfully claims it is “all my fault,” The Doctor finally understands: “Teenage single mother in 1941, so you hid, you lied, you even lied to him.” At The Doctor’s urging she embraces Jamie and tells him, “I am your mummy, I will always be your mummy.” In a moving sequence, the nanogenes recognize the “superior information” of the parent DNA.

everybody lives

Running to the child, The Doctor pleads, “Oh come on, give me a day like this, give me this one” and pulls off the gas mask to reveal a fully-healed, slightly confused boy. The Doctor then uses “upgraded” nanogenes to restore everyone, proclaiming: ”Everybody lives! Just this once, Rose, everybody lives!”

That moment of supreme jubilation, however, the idea that “just once” nobody died when The Doctor triumphed, only underlines just how much classic film noir influences the resurrected Doctor Who.

Until next time…

[1] For the record, she did not actually gain the nickname “Reinette” until 1731, when she was 9. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/pompadou.html Accessed June 30, 2018.

[2] Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.

The Noir of Who: Part 3

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts.

You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here. 

You may find Part 2 (characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong) here.

You may find Part 3 (doubling/mirroring) below.

Please enjoy.

**********

The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 3

Film noir reflected the divided self both cinematically, by casting faces in shadows, and physically, through doubles and mirroring. Examples of the latter include 1) twin sisters in The Dark Mirror and The Guilty (and twin brothers in Among the Living) and 2) portraits in, among others, Corridor of Mirrors, The Dark Corner, Laura, Scarlet Street, The Unsuspected, The Woman in the Window and, of course, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Twice in Window Joan Bennett’s Alice Reed is reflected in the window through which Professor Wanley stares at her portrait. Shadow of a Doubt features two psychically-linked “Charlies”: Cotten’s “Uncle Charlie” and Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton. In Strange Impersonation and Hollow Triumph (aka The Scar), Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) and John Muller (Paul Henreid), respectively, physically transform themselves into another character; in Hollow, a mirror itself causes the scheme to unravel.

Doubles in the resurrected Doctor Who include: Mickey/Ricky Smith (Noel Clarke) in “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel” (May 13/20, 2006), as well as shape-shifting Zygon mirror images of Queen Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Beverly Cressman) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) in “Day of the Doctor,” and Clara in “The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion” (October 31/November 7, 2015).

And then there is Missy/The Master.

Michelle-Gomez-Missy-John-Simm-Master-The-Doctor-Falls.jpg

After appearing at the end of most Season 8 episodes, the mysterious “Missy” (Michelle Gomez), dressed like a noir Mary Poppins, tells a horrified 12th Doctor (“Dark Water,” November 1, 2014) her name is “short for Mistress. Well…couldn’t very well keep calling myself The Master, now could I?”

When eight-year-old Time Lord Academy initiates stared directly into the untempered schism of the Time Vortex, “some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad” (“The Sound of Drums,” June 23, 2007). One initiate went mad and ran away, morphing in the process from The Doctor’s friend to his arch-nemesis (and negative image).

As Missy, though, she has mixed feelings about “my boyfriend” (“Deep Breath,” August 23, 2014), seeking redemption throughout Series 10, despite briefly allying with an earlier incarnation (John Simm; “World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls,” June 24/July 1, 2017). Simm’s Master is clearly attracted to Missy, his future incarnation. Ultimately, however, the incarnations kill each other, becoming literal fatales.

Of course, the clearest reflection of the divided self in the resurrected Doctor Who are duplicates of The Doctor himself. Multiple Doctors have appeared in the same episode, not always happily. In “The Three Doctors” (December 20, 1972), the 1st Doctor sniffs, “Oh, so you’re my replacements: a dandy and a clown.” While assisting the War Doctor (initially put off by his future selves) in “The Day of the Doctor” (November 22, 2013), the 10th and 11th Doctors squabble over the question “Did you ever count…how many children there were on Gallifrey that day [you ended the last great Time War]?”

In “Human Nature” (May 26, 2007), the 10th Doctor excruciatingly transforms into the human “John Smith” to hide from the Family of Blood on Earth in 1913. To remain undetected, The Doctor must forget who he is (amnesia as disguise). Unfortunately, he did not anticipate falling in love with Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes), an oversight “John Smith” disdains (“Falling in love, that never occurred to him? What sort of a man is that?”). And when the Family pose an existential threat, “John Smith” resists transformation, desiring only to share his life with Joan (shown in a poignant flash-forward). A heartbroken Joan is equally unimpressed: “If The Doctor had never visited us, never chosen this place on a whim, would anyone here have died?…You can go.”

doctor-who-the-family-of-blood-review-david-tennant-jessica-hynes-john-smith-joan-redfern-tenth-doctor-paul-cornell-human-nature

Harsher self-division occurs in the haunting “The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People” (May 21/28, 2011), photographed in eerie shadows by Balazs Balygo. Near-future humans create “flesh” doppelgangers to handle dangerous chemicals. These “gangers” are melted down (or simply discarded) when no longer necessary. After a solar flare also transfers emotions and memories to the gangers, a battle for dominance occurs, ending in an uneasy truce. A flesh avatar of The Doctor is created, though (for once) the two get along famously.

But the Series’ nadir of self-division nadir comes in “Time Heist.” The Doctor, Clara, Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner), who replicates—or “doubles”—anyone she touches, are directed by the unseen “Architect” to break into the most secure bank in the universe. Their memories of how they arrived there are erased—amnesia as self-protection.

In the climax, they confront bank director Madame Karabraxos (Keeley Hawes) in the bank’s private vault. Unfazed, she calls her Director of Security on a computer screen:

Karabraxos: Intruders, in the private vault. Send me The Teller. I want to find out how they got in, and then…I want to wipe their memories.

The Doctor: She’s a clone.

Karabraxos: It’s the only way to control my own security. I’ve a clone in every facility. [To the screen] Get on it right away.

Ms. Delphox: Yes, of course.

Karabraxos: And then, hand in your credentials. You’re fired. With immediacy.

Ms. Delphox: But please…I’ve been in your service…

Karabraxos: …ever since the last one let me down, and I was forced to kill it. I can’t quite believe that you’re putting me through this again…My clone, and yet she doesn’t even protest. Pale imitation, really. Ha. I should sue.

Clara: You’re…killing her. You just said “fired.”

Karabraxos: I put all of the used clones into the incinerator. Can’t have too many of moi scattered around.

Psi: Sorry…you don’t get on with your own clone?

The Doctor: She hates her own clones. She burns her own clones. Frankly, you’re a career break for the right therapist. [An idea strikes him]. Shut up. Everybody just, just shut up.

Karabraxos: [Mimicking The Doctor] And what is this display? Now, as amusing as you are…

The Doctor: Shut up. Just shut up. Shut up shut up shuttity up up up. What did you say? What did…what did YOU say? What did you say about your own eyes? De-shut up. Say it again.

Saibra: How could you trust someone if they look back at you out of your own eyes.

The Doctor: [To Clara] I know one thing about The Architect. What is it that I know about The Architect? I know one thing, one thing I have known from the very start.

Clara: What?

The Doctor: I hate him. He’s overbearing. He’s manipulative. He likes to think that he’s very clever. [Pointing to himself] I HATE HIM. Clara, don’t you see?!? I hate the architect!

Karabraxos: What in the name of sanity is going on in this room now?

The Doctor: We’re getting sanity judgment from the self-burner?

Doctor-Who-Time-Heist

Of course, The Doctor is The Architect, and he sees his own darkest side in him.

Still, not all “doubling” in Doctor Who is tragic, as seen in this exchange in “A Good Man Goes to War”:

Rory: I’ve come from The Doctor, too

River: Yes, but at a different point in time.

Rory: Unless there’s two of them.

River [Grinning lasciviously]: Now, that’s a whole different birthday.

To be continued…

The Noir of Who: Part 2

I have long been fascinated by “two worlds collided” connections between disparate things. Emblematic of that fascination has been observing the influence of classic-era film noir on the television series Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. Emerging from those observations was the essay “The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who,” which I first wrote in the summer of 2018. I had hoped it would be published in a particular film noir magazine, but it was deemed too long and off-topic. To be fair, the criticism was valid–though I did not agree with the presentation of that critique.

The upshot, then. was that I edited the original essay down to roughly 7,600 words for publication on this site in four parts. You may find the full backstory and Part 1 (establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself) here.

Part 2, addressing characterization (femmes/hommes fatale and the Chandlerian good man gone wrong), may be found below.

Please enjoy.

**********

The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 2

An archetypal film noir character is the strong, seductive and duplicitous woman (or man) who uses a willing man (or woman) for selfish, often deadly, ends. The Rough Guide to Film Noir lists 10 exemplary femmes fatale including Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity, Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady From Shanghai, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) in Out of the Past, Anna Dundee (Yvonne DeCarlo) in Criss Cross and Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street.[1]

A thought-provoking variation on the femme fatale in the resurrected Doctor Who is the psychopathic River Song.

Traveling on the TARDIS after their wedding, Rory impregnates Amy. Soon after, Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) has The Silence kidnap Amy, replacing her with an avatar. “Melody Pond” is born in the 52nd century on the asteroid Demon’s Run (“A Good Man Goes to War,” June 4, 2011) then taken to 1960s Earth by Madame Kovarian. Conceived in the time vortex, Melody has both human and Time Lord DNA, meaning she can be conditioned to become a weapon against The Doctor. Amy, Rory, River and the 11th Doctor unknowingly encounter young Melody (Sydney Wade) in Florida in July 1969 (“The Impossible Astronaut,” April 23, 2011) as she escapes her captors. One night six months later, she wanders into a noir-lit Manhattan alley, where she assures a concerned wino “It’s alright, it’s quite alright. I’m dying. But I can fix that. It’s easy really. See,” before regenerating in a chiaroscuro explosion of light (“Day of the Moon”).

1970 regeneration.jpg

Later, a newly-regenerated River engages in a flirtatious cat-and-mouse game with The Doctor before kissing him with a poisoned lipstick with no known antidote (“Let’s Kill Hitler,” August 27, 2011). However, River soon begins to fall in love with the man she was raised to kill, upending her femme fatale persona (at least where The Doctor is concerned), using her remaining regeneration energy to save The Doctor. Nonetheless, Madame Kovarian eventually recaptures River and forces her to kill the man she loves. Indeed, we are told over and over that this is a fixed point in time—it must happen where, when and how it happens. Thus, when River instead empties her weapon pack, time itself collapses (“The Wedding of River Song,” October 1, 2011). Literally to “save time,” the 11th Doctor marries the psychopathic daughter of his closest friends—the woman who is ultimately incarcerated in a maximum-security prison for his “murder.” No classic film noir ever contained so many twists of fate.

river berlin

Film noir hommes fatale, meanwhile, include Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney) in Born to Kill, Webb Garwood (Van Helfin) in The Prowler, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) in Shadow of a Doubt, Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum) in When Strangers Marry (aka Betrayed) and multiple Zachary Scott portrayals (Danger Signal, Mildred Pierce, Ruthless). Jerry Slocum provides a homoerotic twist in The Sound of Fury.

the empty child

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, above on the right, along with Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston’s 9th Doctor) is the resurrected Doctor Who’s clearest homme fatale. When we first meet him (“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” May 21/28, 2005), he is a con artist who left the 51st-century Time Agency after two years of his memories were erased (amnesia as HR policy). He is also a sexually-flexible man willing to betray and/or seduce to get what he wants. Handsome, charming and intelligent, Captain Jack briefly travels with The Doctor before turning the Torchwood[2] Institute, founded by Queen Victoria (“Tooth and Claw,” April 22, 2006) to protect the Earth from aliens (even The Doctor), into The Doctor’s ally. In fact, the spin-off series Torchwood (2006-11) is an even darker, more violent and sexually-explicit version of the resurrected Doctor Who.

But The Doctor’s own transformation best exemplifies noir in the resurrected series. In “Into the Dalek” (August 30, 2014), the 12th Doctor asks Clara for help:

The Doctor: I am terrified.

Clara: Of what?

The Doctor: The answer to my next question. It must be honest, cold and considered, without kindness or restraint. Clara, be my pal and tell me. Am I a good man?

Clara (taken aback): I…don’t know.

The Doctor (resigned): Neither do I.

Their exchange captures The Doctor’s struggle to remain (in Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation) a “force for good in an otherwise uncertain universe,” evoking Chandler’s idealized detective/hero:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world […].”[3]

As we saw with Ford’s Dave Bannion, this heroic persona can be difficult to sustain down those mean streets: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) cuckolds his partner and sends his lover to prison in The Maltese Falcon; Mike Hammer is a narcissistic thug in I, The Jury, My Gun is Quick and, especially, Kiss Me Deadly; Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) is all too willing to run away with his client’s lover Kathie in Out of the Past.

And not only detectives go off the moral rails. Decent men like Bart Tare (John Dall) in Gun Crazy, Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) in The Woman in the Window, Joe Peters (Charles McGraw) in Roadblock and Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith) in Nora Prentiss are lured by desirable women into criminal activity. Failure to provide for his family drives Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) to join Jerry Slocum’s crime spree in The Sound of Fury, with fatal results. But the definitive noir good-man-gone-wrong is Robinson’s milquetoast bank teller in Scarlet Street who lies, embezzles and kills—before allowing Johnny Prince’s (Dan Duryea) unjust execution for the crime—to win Kitty.

The “good” Doctor sees his character eroded by unbearable guilt and self-righteous egotism. In “Dalek” (April 30, 2005), the 9th Doctor is locked in a pitch-black room with an unknown alien subjected to brutal torture (like Grayle’s Weeping Angel). After The Doctor offers aid, the alien slowly reveals itself to be a Dalek—albeit one too weak to “exterminate” a terrified Doctor, who then maliciously describes how he destroyed both their races. When the Dalek notes they “are the same” because both are “alone in the universe,” The Doctor snaps, viciously torturing the Dalek himself. Later, having regained full power, the Dalek (now on a killing spree) seeks orders:

The Doctor: Alright, then. If you want orders, follow this one: Kill yourself.

Dalek: The Daleks must survive!

The Doctor: The Daleks have failed! Now why don’t you finish the job and make the Daleks extinct? Rid the universe of your filth! Why don’t you just DIE?!?

Dalek: You would make a good Dalek.

This theme is repeated in “Into the Dalek” after the 12th Doctor and medical personnel are miniaturized to enter a dying Dalek—evoking 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, coincidentally directed by film noir veteran Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, Follow Me Quietly, Bodyguard, etc.). Confronted with its race’s atrocities, the Dalek observes The Doctor’s own cancerous hatred: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.” And in “Witch’s Familiar,” the 12th Doctor angrily confronts the Daleks he mistakenly believes killed Clara, leading Missy (about whom later) to tell her, “Listen to that. The Doctor without hope…Nobody’s safe now…He’ll burn everything, us too.” Befitting a Doctor fighting his own demons, Ali Asad photographed “Witch’s Familiar” in near-constant darkness, creating an oppressive sense of doom reminiscent of the neo-noir Se7en.

It is not only Daleks who trigger The Doctor’s dark side, though. In “Family of Blood” (June 2, 2007), the 10th Doctor (David Tennant), arrogating judgment to himself, metes out eternal punishments to the titular family: “He never raised his voice. That was the worst thing. The fury of the Time Lord.” In “Journey’s End,” the 10th Doctor is shown the collateral damage of his righteous arrogance. The Doctor, companion Donna Noble, some allies and a “human” Doctor (created when The Doctor short-circuited regeneration after being mortally wounded by a Dalek) are trapped on a Dalek base by their creator Davros, who seeks to detonate a “reality bomb.” In response, former companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) threatens to destroy Earth with nuclear weapons (thwarting Davros’ plan), and Captain Jack threatens to destroy the base with a “warp star.” Davros easily stops them, then delivers his coup de grace:

The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons…Behold your children of time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this…How many more? Just think. How many have died in your name? [A sequence of 15 faces from prior episodes plays] The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dares not out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor, I have shown you yourself.

But The Doctor’s fall from grace is most clearly displayed in “A Good Man Goes to War.” highlighted by River’s climactic voiceover:

Demons run when a good man goes to war.

Night will fall and drown the sun when a good man goes to war.

Friendship dies and true love lies.

Night will fall and the dark will rise when a good man goes to war.

Demons run but count the cost; the battle’s won but the child is lost.

Stunningly photographed by Stephan Pehrsson in ethereal reds, blues and greens, nearly every face is shrouded in shadow. Outside the brightly-lit white room in which Amy is held captive,

amy demons run

little light is visible on the base in which most of the action takes place.

demons run

To rescue Amy, The Doctor calls upon those he once helped. However, when Rory tries to recruit River, she refuses, adding “This is the Battle of Demon’s Run, The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further.”

After “too easy” a victory, The Doctor insists that Colonel Manton, allied with Madame Kovarian, tell his troops “to run away” so children will mock him as “Colonel Runaway,” adding…

The Doctor: Look I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.

Madame Kovarian: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.

The Doctor: Good men don’t need rules…But today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

While The Doctor spars with Madame Kovarian, a trap is laid for Amy, Rory and five allies, three of whom are killed in the ensuing battle (over which River recites the poem). Too late, The Doctor realizes his vengeful blood-lust blinded him to Madame Kovarian’s plan to kidnap Melody Pond, as revealed by the just-arrived River:

The Doctor: You think I wanted this. I didn’t want this. This isn’t me.

River Song: This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. “Doctor,” the word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?…To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word means “mighty warrior.” How far you’ve come. And now they’ve taken a child, the child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.

Even though 12th Doctor tells his next incarnation (“Twice Upon a Time”)…

“Never be cruel. Never be cowardly…Remember, hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind […] Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”

…the necessity to remind his future self (“let’s get it right”) of Chandler’s precepts underscores the inevitable tension between the “untarnished hero” and the “mean streets” in which (s)he labors, be they in mid-20th-century Los Angeles or across all of time and space.

[1] Ballinger, Alexander and Graydon, Danny. 2007. The Rough Guide to Film Noir. London, UK: Rough Guides, Ltd., pg. 210.

[2] “Torchwood” is an anagram of “Doctor Who.”

[3] Chandler, Raymond. 1944. “The Simple Art of Murder” (revised edition) in Haycraft, Howard. 1946. The Art of the Mystery Story. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc., pg. 237.

 

The Noir of Who: Backstory and Part 1

Back in, I think, 8th grade English class, we read Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. A friend of mine (whose mother would later introduce me at his wedding as “her third son”—a high compliment) was so taken with the intricate web of connections between the book’s many characters that he pulled out a piece of paper and attempted to graph them. He ended up with two columns of identical names with lines connecting nearly every name in the left-hand column to nearly every name in the right-hand column. It looked like a game of cat’s cradle gone horribly wrong, and I was fascinated by it.

To this day I remain fascinated by connections between seemingly disparate things. Because in life, as in art, everything connects to everything when looked at just the right way (though with all due respect to Carl Jung and The Police, I think the “acausal connection” of “synchronicity” is a stretch; like cigars, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence).

It was inevitable that connections like this would make their way into my posts, beginning with describing the joy I took tracking how many actors and actresses from the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of 1935-43 had appeared in the two dozen films screened during the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival. This exemplifies what I would call the “two worlds collided” connection, when disparate interests overlap in an interesting (if not necessarily meaningful) way. Great examples (for me, anyway) would be if I turned on MSNBC one weekday evening—and Rachel Maddow was interviewing director David Lynch or Chris Hayes was dissecting the latest game played by the Philadelphia Phillies[1].

Or when you continually see elements of film noir appearing in Doctor Who, following its resurrection in 2005. I use the word “resurrection” in homage to the scene from the brilliant film noir Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955; 54.5 POINTS) in which Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) says, after he and his goons have tortured Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) to death:

If you revive her, do you know what that would be? Resurrection, that’s what it would be. And do you know what resurrection means? It means raise the dead. And just who do you think you are that you think you can raise the dead?

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To be perfectly honest, for most of my life I was not a fan of Doctor Who. My wife Nell (now as ardent a fan of the series as I am) and I had similarly annoyed reactions to the show as children: it always seemed to be airing (or about to start) on our local PBS station just as we wanted to watch something else.

In fairness, I did love the show’s original opening theme (which for a time I conflated with the opening theme from Dark Shadows[2]).

Around 1991, not long after the first incarnation of the series was cancelled, an apartment-mate would watch Doctor Who every Saturday afternoon with a small group of friends. The few times I tried to watch an episode with them, I was stymied (and, frankly, a bit bored) by the serial nature of the show (prior to 2005, a single story would be told in multiple half-hour-long episodes).

And that was that…until May 2010.

At that time, I was vaguely aware that Doctor Who had returned, but it still held no interest for me. But then another friend shared this video with me.

Charmed by Craig Ferguson’s boyish enthusiasm, I relented and decided to watch the first few minutes of a recent episode, expecting to be confused and bored again. Our OnDemand included the current Series (#5). It made sense to start with first episode of the Series (“The Eleventh Hour,”[3] April 3, 2010). I settled onto the sofa, clicked “Play” on the remote control and began to watch.

Within a few minutes, I realized I was inexorably hooked on Doctor Who. It was that compelling. It helped that this was the first episode to feature Matt Smith as The (11th) Doctor, as well as the Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill as new companions Amelia Pond and Rory Williams, respectively, and that it started a new storyline under a new showrunner, Steven Moffat[4]. Not only could I enjoy the episode on its own merits, it allowed me (and Nell, also instantly transfixed when I convinced her to watch the episode a day or so later) to ease into the series and its particular iconography.

We watched all of Series 5, first OnDemand and then as they aired, and we have watched every episode since then. Between Series 5 and 6 (I think), I watched the previous four Series’ in order. I also watched some episodes from the first incarnation (1963-89), though I remain less enamored of them (with a few notable exceptions from Tom Baker’s run as the 4th Doctor).

It was only a matter of time before a) our daughters also became fans (our eldest daughter practically memorized this book) and b) we started buying Doctor Who paraphernalia—I even had a TARDIS iPhone case until I inadvertently drove over it a few months ago. And one of the first posts I ever wrote was a data-driven analysis of post-resurrection Doctor Who episodes (updated and vastly improved here).

TARDIS phone.JPG

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As I watched the series, I was also further exploring my growing fascination with film noir. It was inevitable that I would begin to observe “noir” aspects to the series (even if, as Ferguson notably sang, the show “is all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”). Not long after defending my doctorate in December 2014, I started to play with the “Doctor Noir” persona (the appellation was, I believe, coined by a college friend)—even going so far as to adopt the handle @drnoir33 when I joined Twitter in July 2017.

IMG_1595.JPG

The author at the 2015 NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco brandishing a replica of the 11th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (and omnipresent bow tie).

These two worlds “collided” in my head until June 2018, when I finally sat down to write what would become “The Noir of Who: Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who.”

What I originally expected (naively, perhaps) to be roughly the length of a short peer-reviewed journal article (3,000 words) soon evolved into a 10,000+-word magnum opus. Following some gentle, albeit pointed, criticism from Nell, I whittled it down to just over 8,300 words.

And that was the version I e-mailed to the editors of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine NOIR CITY on August 17, 2018, knowing full well the usual procedure for prospective authors is to submit an idea for a piece first; I suppose I was thinking “look, I actually have a finished product for you.” I was also aware there is little overlap between film noir devotees and Whovians, even joking on Facebook when I posted this photograph of my replica of the 9th/10th Doctor’s sonic screwdriver sitting atop a 2015 NOIR CITY souvenir brochure that “nobody here knows what this is.”

IMG_1524.JPG

The bottom line is that I was going to write “The Noir of Who” anyway. One reason I remain comfortable with the decision I made nearly two years ago to become a writer, despite not yet earning any income from it, is that as difficult as the writing process is, I have taken more joy in it (especially on this site) than in nearly anything I ever previously done. Moreover, at times it as though ideas need to physically come out of my head and onto the page. (Never mind that it has also been almost two years since I started writing the book I thought would take six months, tops, to write.)

Needless to say, after a bit of nudging, I had a response on September 28: a unanimous “intriguing idea, but far too long to fit within the traditional confines of a print magazine), suggesting I trim the essay to ~1,500 words as a possible installment of “Noir…or Not?” However, in January 2019, the revised version was also unanimously rejected.

Which, I must admit, stung a bit[5]; I was proud of what I had written, and I thought had presented solid examples of the influence of classic film noir on the resurrected Doctor Who. I concede the original submission was both too long for a publication governed by traditional size restraints and somewhat “off-topic.” Indeed, where I struggled most writing “The Noir of Who” was in providing enough information about the series to elucidate its basic premise, characters and themes for readers who had never seen the show without inundating them with unnecessary information. I likely would have had the same challenge establishing what “film noir” is to an audience of Whovians, had I submitted the essay to a Doctor-Who-themed publication.

But in cutting the essay down to 1,500 words, clarity was sacrificed for brevity. Necessary background information on the series, along with many examples of noir influence, was removed.

So after much though (and trying not to think about it), I have decided to post the essay on this site (edited down to just over 7,600 words) in four installments.

The first installment, establishing the essay’s premise and introducing the series itself, may be found below.

Please enjoy.

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The Noir of Who: Classic Film Noir’s Imprint on the Resurrected Doctor Who

Part 1

Typewriter keys pound out narration amid nocturnal views of the Manhattan skyline: “New York, the city of a million stories. Half of them are true, the other half…just haven’t happened yet.”

Mark Hellinger’s closing words in his exemplary film noir The Naked City echo unmistakably: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them,” while the typewriting recalls neo-noir Hammett as the titular detective-turned-writer rewrites the film’s events in a literary Moebius strip.

An older man speaks: “So, will you take the case, Mr. Garner?”

Garner, the narrator, is a dark-haired young man wearing a gray raincoat over a dark suit, tie loosened at the collar: “Sure, why not?”

“Because you don’t believe me,” answers a large gray-haired man in a stylish blue three-piece suit: Dashiell Hammett’s man of power, broadly afraid of nothing and no one.

“For 25 dollars a day plus expenses, I’ll believe any damn thing you like.”

The office where they stand is lit solely by two thick-shaded table lamps behind Garner’s head, a desk lamp, an inconspicuous fire and street lights dimmed by thick curtains.

After more banter, Garner says “Goodnight, Mr. Grayle.” He pockets a packet of bills, dons his gray fedora and departs. Outside, rain soaks Manhattan.

More typing: “The address Grayle gave me was an apartment block in Battery Park. He said it was where the statues lived…I asked him why he didn’t go look himself…He didn’t answer…Grayle was the scaredest guy I knew. If something scared him, I kinda wanted to shake its hand.”

An obscured Garner climbs short stone steps into an eerily dark brick building atop which a red neon sign flashes “WINTER QUAY.” Inside the dusky lobby, he is a dark shadow crossing a black-and-white chessboard tile floor. His shouted “Hello?” causes a cage elevator straight from the Bradbury Building to whirr into life, its car descending and opening with a sharp ding. It deposits Garner at the end of a short hallway with blood-red carpet and doors reminiscent of the blistering-hot hallway at the end of the neo-noir Barton Fink.

The typewritten label affixed to the right of the door to room 702 reads “S. GARNER.” Garner enters with a tentative “Hello? Anyone home?” A standing hat rack holds a fedora and raincoat exactly like Garner’s, while a battered wallet on a wooden side table contains the time-worn private investigator’s photo-license of “S. Garner.” Pulling out his wallet, Garner extracts the identical—albeit practically new—license.

Looking befuddled, Garner hears a noise in the bedroom, where a figure lies in bed. To Garner’s angry-scared “Who are you?” the response is, “They’re coming for you. They’re going to send you back.”

“Who’s coming? Back where?”

“In time. Back in time. I’m you.”

An old man with wispy gray hair sits up in bed, fully lit. Pointing mournfully at Garner, he repeats, “I’m you.”

Garner darts into the hallway, murderous-looking marble statues at either end. Looking from one to the other, they get closer. Garner’s drawn gun looks useless. Entering a dark stairwell—its slats cutting shafts of light—his descent is blocked by statues, forcing him to climb flight after flight as the typing reappears: “1. The Dying Detective.”

On the rooftop, Garner backs to its edge as loud thumps shake the building. He pauses, bewildered. Looming behind him are giant sharp teeth menacingly arrayed inside a wide-open marble mouth. With his head framed by the Manhattan skyline, Garner turns to look, and exclaims, “You gotta be kidding me.”

And we see

Winter Quay Statue of Liberty

…just before the opening credits, not of a classic or contemporary film noir, but of “The Angels Take Manhattan”, the September 29, 2012 episode of the longest-running science fiction television series ever: Doctor Who.

Yet only the overtness of noir distinguishes “Angels.” While Doctor Who has mostly fit Craig Ferguson’s pithy summation (The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, November 16, 2010) as “the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”[6], it has also exhibited far more “noir” since its 2005 resurrection than one would expect. Among other elements, the resurrected Doctor Who has effectively utilized three interrelated aspects of classic film noir:

  1. Characterization: femmes/hommes fatale and Chandler’s “good man” gone wrong.
  2. Doubling/mirroring: the divided self
  3. Fatalism: convoluted timelines and inexorable fate

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”The Doctor” (original name a secret) is a centuries-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords can see and feel time itself, enabling them to protect the laws of time, including “You can’t rewrite history, not one line!” (“The Temple of Evil,” May 23, 1964).

For unknown reasons, The Doctor stole a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), the device Time Lords use for time/space travel, and ran away from Gallifrey. Despite having all of time and space to inhabit, The Doctor maintains a particular affinity for Earth.

As for The Doctor’s name, in “Twice Upon a Time” (December 25, 2017), the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) warns the about-to-debut 13th Doctor (Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor), “you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No one would understand it anyway…except children. […] But nobody else. Nobody else, ever.” This pseudonymity evokes Hammett’s unnamed Continental Detective Agency operative and reminds us the second “Mrs. DeWinter” in both Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca and its 1940 film adaptation has no first name.

Doctor Who was conceived by Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who astutely made 27-year-old Verity Lambert the first woman to produce a drama at the BBC. With its hypnotic black-and-white title sequence and intelligent writing, Doctor Who’s debut episode (“The Unearthly Child,” November 23, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was shot—a truly noir debut) instantly distinguished itself. “Unearthly Child” also featured the first of 40+ “companions” to travel with The Doctor and the first startled observation the TARDIS (now permanently disguised as a 1950s British blue police box) is “bigger on the inside.”

2010 T

A life-long fan, Newman once described science fiction “as a marvelous way—and a safe way, I might add—of saying nasty things about our own society.”[7] The same is true of film noir, and not only in sci-fi/noir hybrids like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Actors like John Garfield (critiquing capitalism in Force of Evil) and Robert Ryan (anti-Semitism in Crossfire, racism in Odds Against Tomorrow) used film noir to express their social conscience. Media’s demagogic excesses were excoriated in Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival), Try and Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury) and The Underworld Story. And crime-reporter-turned-director Samuel Fuller tackled faux patriotism in Pickup on South Street, inter-racial romance in The Crimson Kimono and prostitution in The Naked Kiss.

Doctor Who connected instantly to film noir, casting popular actor William Hartnell as the peripatetic Time Lord. Hartnell may best be known to film noir fans as Dallow, Pinkie Brown’s (Richard Attenborough) henchman in the 1948 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock. Hartnell had played harassed publican Fencie in the 1947 robbery-gone-wrong noir Odd Man Out (co-star Cyril Cusack actually turned down the role of The Doctor), and also appeared in the films noir Appointment with Crime, Escape, Footsteps in the Fog and Temptation Harbor.

Within three years, however, Hartnell’s arteriosclerosis led him to flub lines with increasing regularity. Facing cancellation, Doctor Who’s producers had an ingenious solution: Time Lords could prolong their lives by “regenerating” into an entirely new body (with equally-new personality) while retaining all knowledge and memories. In “The Tenth Planet, Episode 4” (October 29, 1966), The Doctor regenerated into the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). Five additional Doctors followed before decreasing ratings and shrinking budgets led to the series’ cancellation in December 1989. Other than a 1996 American series pilot that went nowhere (featuring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor),  the series would not air again until the BBC aired “Rose” on March 26, 2005 (starring Christopher Eccleston at the 9th Doctor). Executive Producer (and chief writer) Russell T. Davies would helm 60 episodes before being replaced by Steven Moffat in “The Eleventh Hour,” himself replaced by Chris Chibnall in September 2018.

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Following the opening credits of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the 11th Doctor enjoys a sunny afternoon in modern-day Central Park with married friends Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill). The Doctor reads aloud from the hardboiled “Melody Malone” novel being typed in the cold open. While getting coffee, Rory encounters Weeping Angels, perhaps the most terrifying villains in the resurrected Doctor Who. “Quantum-locked” beings who turn to stone when seen, they are described as:

Weeping_Angel

Sent to 1938, Rory encounters Melody Malone, actually River Song (Alex Kingston), about whom more below. The Doctor and Amy follow in the TARDIS, despite difficulty landing in 1938 Manhattan. They learn Grayle has been torturing a captured Weeping Angel, explaining his terror. Rory soon meets his older self in a Winter Quay apartment, where Manhattan’s Weeping Angels store time energy. After “old Rory” dies, Amy and “young Rory” find themselves trapped on the roof by the Statue of Liberty, the definitive Weeping Angel. “Young Rory” reasons if he dies then and there, the resulting paradox (he cannot be sent back from 2012 if he dies in 1938) would destroy Manhattan’s Weeping Angels. In a heart-stopping moment, Amy and Rory leap together off the roof…and land unhurt in modern-day Central Park, alongside The Doctor and River. But a surviving Weeping Angel sends Rory back again. Since the TARDIS can no longer land safely in 1938 Manhattan, a tearful Amy allows the Weeping Angel to send her to join Rory, whereupon she writes the novel.

Neville Kidd pointedly photographed the 1938 scenes in “Angels” using the low-key high contrast lighting of classic film noir. As producer Marcus Wilson explained in 2012, he “[t]ried to shoot [“Angels”], not in a film noir style but [to…] look like film noir.”[8] In the same interview, Moffat’s “Angels” writing is termed “Chandlerian.” Asked if his “head is full of film noir,” Moffat said, “As research I watched The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.” His research paid off, as the episode successfully uses various film noir tropes—femmes fatale, private detectives, convoluted timelines, doubling/mirroring, and a malevolent-fate ending—to tell a tragic story.

DalekTPO2

Again, however, the resurrected Doctor Who has been aesthetically and tonally darker overall. The in-universe reason for this shift is how the 9th Doctor engineered the end of the last great “Time War,” conflicts fought across all of time and space between Time Lords and Daleks (metal-encased squid-like creatures whose sole purpose is to “exterminate” non-Dalek lifeforms). Weary of the endless carnage, the War Doctor (John Hurt, a “shameful” incarnation between Doctors 8 and 9) simultaneously annihilated the Daleks AND the Time Lords. The devastating psychic impact of this type of act is described by Major Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) in “Hide” (April 20, 2013) as he and The Doctor stand in a literal darkroom (the developing photograph of The Doctor evokes Weegee, whose darkly-beautiful photograph collection Naked City inspired the 1948 film noir):

The Doctor: Yes, but how does that man, that war hero end up here, in a lonely old house, looking for ghosts.

Palmer (remorseful): Because I killed. And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths. Yet here I am, still alive. It…it does tend to haunt you, living, after so much of…the other thing.

Like Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) after gangsters killed his wife in The Big Heat, the 9th Doctor was “born in battle, full of blood and anger and revenge” (“Journey’s End,” July 5, 2008). He is crushed by guilt like Frank Enley (Van Heflin), who betrayed his fellow prisoners of war in Act of Violence, or Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), who allowed another man to be executed for his crimes in Scarlet Street.

Reflecting The Doctor’s transformation, the interior of the TARDIS itself changed from brightly lit

Tardis interior #5.jpg

…into a dark and shadowy lair:

Tardis shadow.jpg

This interrogation scene in “The Idiot’s Lantern” (November 10, 2006), set in 1953 London, has a distinctly noir feel.

Idiots_Lantern_37884

Even new villains physically manifest noir: the tiny piranha-like Vashta Nerada travel as literal shadows, Weeping Angels thrive on darkness and The Silence—Edvard Munch’s The Scream in black suits, white shirts and black ties—are forgotten when you cannot see them (amnesia—a staple of classic film noir plots since 1942’s Street of Chance—as cloaking device).

Silent.jpg

To be continued…

[1] Unlikely perhaps, as Hayes is a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan.

[2] Newspapers.com tells me that in 1976 and 1977, it aired at 11:30 pm weeknights on Philadelphia’s Channel 48, right after Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which I would watch with my mother. This is a great example of “interrogating memory,” as I thought I saw the beginning of the show around 1983 or so, after a show like Doctor in the House at 11:30 pm or so. And while we are making connections: a star of Dark Shadows was one of the queens of classic-ear film noir, Joan Bennett.

[3] OnDemand did me no favors by listing Billie Piper—who left the series in 2006—as one of the stars of the episode.

[4] Curiously, the last time I had an instant visceral positive reaction like that to an unfamiliar television show was when I stumbled one night onto the “Nightlines” episode of Coupling. I had no idea who any of the characters were, but I pretty much laughed from start to finish. Both Coupling and Series 5 of Doctor Who had the same show-runner: Steven Moffat.

[5] I would also argue the e-mails were unnecessarily…let’s call it “snarky.”

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9P4SxtphJ4 Accessed June 14, 2018.

[7] Cook, Benjamin. January 12, 2006. “Chaos and Creation in the Junkyard, “Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition: In Their Own Words. Panini Comics (12): 5.

[8] http://femalearts.com/node/309 Accessed June 19, 2018.

NOIR CITY 17: New heights of noir!

The streak ended at five.

For a number of reasons (including having already seen 20 of the 24 films to be screened[1]), I did not attend the NOIR CITY film festival in San Francisco this year[2]. I had attended—and enjoyed immensely—each of the previous five years after attending the 2014 festival (NOIR CITY 12) on a lark.

After returning home to Brookline from the 2018 festival (NOIR CITY 16), I wrote a 10-part series detailing my extraordinary 11-day trip. You may find all 10 parts towards the end of this recent post.

I also wrote a post in which I observed that the “noir” level of the festival had increased dramatically since the relatively low-level heist-themed NOIR CITY 15 in 2017. By “noir level,” I simply mean the degree to which the films screened at the festival are considered noir by a range of published experts in the field (including being screened at NOIR CITY).

Briefly, since March 2015 I have been constructing an Excel database, which currently consists of 4,825 films discussed, explicitly[3] or implicitly[4], as “film noir” in at least one of 32 publicly-available sources (minimum 120 titles). For each film, I entered all alternate titles, release details (year, format, BW/color, primary production studio), director(s), cinematographer(s) and country(ies) of production. I have also recorded the top-billed (up to 10) actors and actresses (separately by gender) in the 300 films most often considered noir, according to that film’s entry in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). I supplemented these “master” lists with a) sub-lists in the 32 primary sources (e.g., the 50-film canon in Ballinger’s and Graydon’s The Rough Guide to Film Noir) and b) 13 shorter lists (25-119 titles), including the 77 films discussed as noir in Paul Schrader’s seminal 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir[5].”

From these data I calculated two measures:

  • LISTS: number of times a film was included in a primary source (124-3,253 titles[6]), meaning LISTS range from 1-32. All lists are weighted equally.
  • POINTS: LISTS plus “1” if on one of the 13 shorter lists[7] or up to “2” for appearing on a sub-list (up to 100 titles) in one of the 32 primary lists. Currently, POINTS has a maximum of 67.5; Billy Wilder’s 1944 masterpiece Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 points.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that films with higher LISTS/POINTS scores are intrinsically more “noir” than films with lower LISTS/POINTS scores. That would require a consensus definition that does not yet exist[8]. Instead, I simply observe that the higher the LISTS/POINTS score, the higher the level of consensus that a particular title is film noir, because more writers who have examined these films have denoted it as such, however indirectly. That said, only 11% of films in the database have as many as 12.0 POINTS, while only an additional 9% have between 5.5 and 11.5 POINTS. The former I label “Universal,” the latter I label “Debatable,” and the other 80% of films (including 2,327—fully 48%–with only 1.0 POINTS) I label “Idiosyncratic.”

That being said, because a higher POINTS score results in part from inclusion on more smaller lists often specifically intended to highlight exemplary films noir, films with a higher POINTS score can broadly be considered more “noir.”

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Since its inception in 2003, a total of 346 films have been screened at NOIR CITY, primarily at the magnificent Castro Theatre, with 64 screened multiple times; the entertaining Night Editor has been screened four times[9]! These 346 films average 16.4 LISTS and 20.1 POINTS (with medians of 18 and 19, respectively); by comparison, the overall database average is 4.0 LISTS and 4.5 LISTS (both medians=2).

The theme of NOIR CITY 17 was “films of the 1950s,” a natural follow-up to the NOIR CITY 16 theme of “A” and “B” film pairs, 1941-1953. Curiously, while the latter period is generally considered the apex of noir (especially 1944-50), it is clear from Figures 1 and 2 that the years 1950 to 1961 showed no drop-off in noir level[10].

Figure 1:

Average LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17

Figure 2:

Median LISTS POINTS NOIR CITY 1-17.jpg

In fact, the 2019 NOIR CITY had its highest noir level since 2006, averaging a robust 19.9 LISTS and 25.0 POINTS (medians 20 and 24, respectively). One reason for this high noir level was that every screened film was in the “Universal” category, including the films from 1960 (A bout du souffle [Breathless], 15 POINTS; Psycho, 13 POINTS) and 1961 (Underworld U.S.A., 21 POINTS; Blast of Silence, 12 POINTS) which closed out the festival. Moreover, among the 24 films screened this year, six rank in the top 100 by POINTS (≥29)—including two in the top 10:

Kiss Me Deadly (54.5)

Touch of Evil (52.0)

Pickup on South Street (40.5)

Odds Against Tomorrow (36.5)

The File on Thelma Jordon (35.5)

Angel Face (33.5)

**********

NOIR CITY is scheduled to return for a second year to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA on June 7, 2019; I will definitely be attending, likely with one or both daughters in tow (less certain of my wife Nell). As of this writing, I do not know which, if any, of the 24 films screened in San Francisco will be screened at the Brattle, though I hope the 10 films include at least one of the four films I still have not seen[11].

As for the yet-to-be-scheduled NOIR CITY 18: as of now I am planning to attend. Stay tuned.

Until next time…

[1] In the previous five years, I typically had already seen only eight of the average 25 films to be screened.

[2] Also, the previous five years the “official” NOIR CITY hotel was closer to Union Square. Due to renovation, this year the “official” hotel was a few blocks from the Castro Theatre. While that is a fun neighborhood, half of the fun of these trips is being a short walk from Chinatown and other “downtown” sites. This made it that much harder to justify the time and expense of an 11-day trip some 3,000 miles to the west.

[3] Dictionaries, encyclopedias, “filmographies” in books about film noir

[4] Cited in the text, however obliquely, in such overviews as Foster Hirsch’s The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and The Art of Noir: The Posters and Graphics from the Classic Era of Film Noir, and James Naremore’s More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts.

[5] Schrader, Paul. 1972. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Comment 8:1, pp. 8-13

[6] Range: Mark Osteen’s Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream to John Grant’s A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir

[7] Because each of the three ground-breaking mid-1940s articles by Lloyd Shearer, Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier cite only a handful of titles (14 in total), I assigned 1 point to a film discussed in only one and 2 points discussed in more than one. Shearer, Lloyd. 1945. “Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen,” New York Times Magazine, August 5, 1945. Frank, Nino. 1946. “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: l’Aventure Criminelle.” L’Ecran Francais, August 1946. English translation “A New Kind of Police Drama: The Criminal Adventure” by Alain Silver. Chartier, Jean-Pierre. 1946. “Les americains aussi font des films ‘noirs.” La Revue de Cinema, November 1946. English translation “Americans Also Make Noir Films” by Alain Silver. All three articles were reprinted (pp. 8-23) in Silver and Ursini’s Film Noir Reader 2.

[8] In fact, one goal in constructing this list is to single out the films most-often cited as “noir” then examine those films for commonalities from which a formal definition could be constructed.

[9] 2006, 2009, 2013, 2018

[10] I subtracted one LIST and one POINT from each screened film because appearance at NOIR CITY is one of the primary sources. Simply add one to each value to calculate each year’s actual LISTS and POINTS average and median.

[11] The Scarlet Hour, Trapped, Underworld U.S.A., The Well 

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

**********

My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

**********

Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

Center-City-map-small2.jpg

The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

**********

When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

IMG_0292.JPG

I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

**********

The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

**********

But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

IMG_0274.JPG

The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

When is a pleasure “guilty?”

I first watched The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) as a sophomore in college, under curious circumstances.

That year, I lived with two other men in a converted basement seminar room in Ezra Stiles College. The year before, that room had been occupied by a student we generally referred to as the “Saudi prince” (or was it “sheikh?”); I forget his actual nationality and title. He apparently purchased a great deal of electronic equipment—and by “purchased,” I mean “charged without ever paying”—which he used in secretive solitude.

All that remained when my friends and I moved into the room was the mid-1980’s version of a big screen television. Another classmate lent us her early-model VCR—which made the fact that one of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual department all the more valuable.

I do not remember how a copy of Café Flesh turned up in our room…but that was quite an education for me (the previews were a hoot), back when adult films were expected to have at least some coherent plot. The film made enough of an impression on me that I purchased the terrific Mitchell Froom soundtrack on vinyl.

The Key of Cool

But back to The Cotton Club. I recall vaguely enjoying it (it is a beautiful film), even though much of the historical “back story” eluded me[1]. I also remember hearing stories about how its production was more interesting than the movie itself.

I thought little about the film after that until I kept happening upon it on television in the mid-1990s. And when I sat and watched it from start to finish for a second time, I very much enjoyed it. So much so that I bought the excellent John Barry soundtrack, my first tentative foray into jazz (which I now love) and learned more about the historical “back story” I referenced earlier.

Yes, the plot is overly ambitious and convoluted[2]. Yes, it garbles and condenses and rewrites the compelling underworld history of late-1920s/early-1930s New York City (e.g., the film ostensibly ends in 1931 with the slaying of Dutch Schultz—which occurred on October 23, 1935). Yes, it is too long…or too short, depending how interested in the interweaving plot threads one is.

But I now rank it among my 10 or 20 favorite films, recently purchasing a DVD copy when I was unable to watch it on of our streaming services. As it happens, I also have a copy of Café Flesh (on VHS), and I have previously discussed my continuing love another critical non-favorite I recently purchased on DVD, Times Square.

The Cotton Club.JPG

One thing these three films have in common is a middling average score (on a 0-10 scale) on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB): 6.5 for Café Flesh and The Cotton Club and 6.7 for Times Square. For context, in his 2008 video guide[3], esteemed film critic Leonard Maltin gives The Cotton Club 2.5 stars (out of four) while giving Times Square a rating of “BOMB;” for obvious reasons, he does not include Café Flesh in his guide.

While not the worst-reviewed films ever (hello, Ed Wood!), neither are they among the greatest films ever made. Which begs the question (and setting aside the pornographic nature of Café Flesh) whether they could be characterized as “guilty pleasures.”

Which further begs the question: what makes a pleasure “guilty?”

**********

In this post, I gathered IMDB, RottenTomatoes (RT) and Maltin ratings data to “rank” the 47 Charlie Chan films released between 1926 and 1949. I decided to take the same approach with the larger universe of movies I like (loosely defined as “movies I have seen multiple times, to the best of my recollection”) to see if I could statistically distinguish “guilty pleasure” films (ones I love but to which critics/users respond with “meh”–or worse) from critically-praised films I love (e.g., L.A. Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, numerous films directed by Alfred Hitchcock or Woody Allen[4]—or starring The Marx Brothers), as well as from films SO bad they have become cult classics and/or been parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000).

To that end I compiled a list of 557 films I am fairly certain I have seen in their entirety twice (or, at least, I have seen all the way through once and large segments of at different times). I excluded the Charlie Chan films discussed in the previous post[5].

For each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Year of release (according to IMDB)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • IMDB score and number of raters
  • Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users deeming film “fresh”), average user rating (0-5) and number of user raters
  • Number of stars assigned by Maltin[6], with BOMB = 0.

I included year of release[7] and length as a way to distinguish older, shorter films from more recent, longer films. There are six slightly different ways to broadly measure a film’s perceived quality. I included three “number of raters” measures to see if there was a relationship between a film’s perceived quality and the number of viewers willing to take the time to quantify their opinions on-line[8].

I also divided the films into six broad categories[9]:

  • General  (64%)
  • Film Noir (19%)
  • Other Pre-1960 (7%)
  • Woody Allen[10] (5%)
  • Alfred Hitchcock  (3%)
  • Marx Brothers (2%)

Arguably, there is overlap between Film Noir (restricted for this analysis to films released between 1940 and 1959) and Alfred Hitchcock…and a few Other Pre-1960 films…but I am comfortable with these general categories.

I have complete data for 515 films. Eight films have no Maltin rating, either because they were released in 2008 or later (Frozen, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, The Spirit, Star Trek), are relatively obscure films noir (The Guilty, Night Editor—and the excellent Spanish film Muerte de un Ciclista [Death of a Cyclist]) or…I don’t know why (the charming 1992 film Jersey Girl). The latter four films also have no Tomatometer rating or critic average rating (along with 34 other films, primarily Film Noir); I entered “0” for the number of critic raters. All analyses were performed using Intercooled Stata 9.2[11].

Some of these variables do not follow a “bell curve” (or “normal”) distribution (Table 1). For example, while the average year of release is 1974, the median year (the value at which half of all values are lower, and half are higher) is 1982. The difference results from a “skew” towards earlier films.

Table 1: Summary statistics for Film Ratings Measures

Measure N Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 556 1974.1

(20.9)

1982 1920 2013
Length (mins.) 556 103.4

(17.8)

101.0 61 220
IMDB Score 556 7.1

(0.8)

7.2 4.2 9.0
# IMDB Raters 556 79,833.4 (184,390) 19,095 140 2,015,091
Tomatometer 517 77.1

(22.4)

85 0 100
Critic Rating 517 6.9

(1.4)

7.1 2.1 9.5
# Critics 556 40.0

(42.5)

30 0 342
RottenTomatoes Audience Score 556 71.9

(17.7)

76 20 96
RottenTomatoes User Rating 556 3.5

(0.4)

3.5 2.2 4.4
# RottenTomatoes User Raters 556 216,214.5

(1,965,582)

11,867.5 39 34,296,962
Maltin Stars 548 2.8

(0.7)

3 0 4

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly values cluster around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the clustering. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are within 3 SD.

Indeed, as Figure 1 shows, the distribution of release year is bimodal, meaning there are two “peaks” in the data: one in 1946-50, reflecting the preponderance of film noir titles among my multiple-viewing films, and one between roughly 1978 and 1999, my prime movie-attendance years (ages 11-33).

Figure 1: The Distribution of Year of Release is Bimodal

Film Release Years.jpg

See here for the distribution of Length, in minutes

There is also heavy skew to the right (a long “right tail”) in the three “number of raters” measures, with the median consistently lower than the mean. In the most extreme case, while 452 films (81%) had between 29 and 99,999 RT user raters, 13 films had more than 1,000,000 raters, topping out at a staggering 30,984,432 RT user raters for Donnie Darko and 34,296,962 for Spider-Man. Not surprisingly, these three measures are strongly related to each other: the average correlation[12] between them is a moderately high 0.41; the extreme right-skew of these measures is likely lowering the correlations. There is also a modest relationship between year of release, length and number of raters: films have gotten slightly longer over time (correlation [r]=0.25), while more recent films have more raters (mean r=0.22).

Here are the distributions of these variables:

IMDB raters

Critics

RT Users

The remaining seven variables were generally normally distributed (means≈medians. Thus, films averaged 103 minutes in length (one hour, 43 minutes), with approximately two-thirds of films (66%) between 88 and 113 minutes long; eight films were more than 2½ hours long, topped by JFK (three hours, nine minutes), It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (three hours, 25 minutes) and The Ten Commandments (three hours, 40 minutes). Not surprisingly, the 33 films between 61 (Dick Tracy, Detective) and 79 minutes long had a mean year of release of 1943.5[13].

There was reassuring consensus between the ratings, as the means of IMDB score (7.1), critic rating (6.9), RT user rating (3.5 out of 5 = 7.0 out of 10), and Maltin stars (2.8 out of 4 = 7.1 out of 10) all converge around a “good, but not great” 7 out of 10. Moreover, values tended to cluster relatively around the means (i.e., SD<<mean). Thus, 90% of IMDB scores were between 6.1 and 8.3, 80% of critic ratings were between 5.5 and 8.8, 93% of RT user ratings were between 5.8 and 8.4 (adjusted for a 0-10 scale), and 73% of films were assigned between 2½ and 3½ stars by Maltin (6.2-8.8 on a 1-10 scale). Fifty films I have seen more than once were assigned four stars by Maltin, whereas he rated only four of them “BOMB”[14]. The average correlation between the six pairs of ratings is a 0.75, meaning there is broad agreement between IMDB users, critics, RT users and Maltin (though mean correlation jumps to 0.85 without Maltin’s scores).

IMDB scores

Tomatometer

Critic rating

Audience Score

RT User rating

Maltin Stars

The story is similar for the Tomatometer and Audience Scores, although the former is skewed by 50 films with a Tomatometer of 100 (Audience Scores top out at 96[15]); both measures have higher medians than means. On average, 77.1% of critics, but just 71.9% of RT users, rate a given film as “fresh.” Fully two-thirds (67%) of Tomatometers are 75 or higher, while a similar percentage of Audience Scores (65%) are between 67 and 94. The correlation between the two measures is 0.72.

Across all six ratings measures (15 pairs of measures), finally, the average correlation is 0.76; without Maltin’s ratings, the average jumps to 0.83 (mean r w/Maltin=0.64).

In general, however, the vast majority of these 557 films fall in a fairly narrow range between “not bad” and “fairly good.” Bear in mind, however, that this is the universe of films I have chosen to see again; this could easily skew all of the ratings values up slightly.

**********

To separate the films into “quality” categories, I used a technique called factor analysis[16].

Factor analysis groups variables into underlying “dimensions” (or “factors”). We have already seen evidence of two dimensions in these 11 measures: six (IMDB score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score, RT user rating, Maltin stars) are all fairly highly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “perceived quality,” while the three “numbers of raters” measures (plus year of release and length) are modestly correlated with each other—and thus with a single dimension we could call “public awareness.”

And that is precisely what the factor analysis revealed[17]. Two factors alone accounted for 95% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (71%) was dominated by IMDB Score, Tomatometer, critic rating, Audience Score and RT user rating[18] as well as Maltin stars and year of release. This is clearly “perceived quality.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its perceived quality (PQ)[19] is.

Here are the 17 films with PQ>1.5:

The Maltese Falcon (1941 version) 1.51
Chinatown 1.52
To Be or Not To Be (1942 version) 1.53
North by Northwest 1.53
It’s a Wonderful Life 1.56
Metropolis 1.58
Kind Hearts and Coronets 1.58
On the Waterfront 1.59
Rear Window 1.61
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1.61
Double Indemnity 1.61
Citizen Kane 1.62
The General 1.65
The Third Man 1.66
Casablanca 1.70
Sunset Boulevard 1.75
M 1.78

Just to reiterate: these are not the best films ever made, nor are these my favorite films (to be honest, I don’t love Sunset Boulevard, and I burned out on It’s a Wonderful Life). They are simply the most highly-rated films I have seen multiple times; Nonetheless, this is a very impressive list of films, of which The Maltese Falcon is easily my favorite, followed by Rear Window.

In fact, on average, these films have an IMDB score of 8.3, a Tomatometer of 98.2 (all≥93; six=100), a critic rating of 9.1, an Audience Score of 93.1 and an RT user rating of 8.4 (on a 0-10 scale); three have 3½ Maltin stars[20], with the rest having four. These could all be considered “Classic” films, including three silent masterpieces (Metropolis, Caligari, The General), given their average release year of 1944; only Chinatown was released after 1970 (1974). The average length of these films was slightly higher than average (108 minutes).

At the other end of the spectrum—and now we are getting to the heart of the matter—are the 22 films with PQ<-2.0:

Who’s Harry Crumb? -2.06
Cookie -2.06
Doctor Detroit `2.07
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -2.10
Once Upon a Crime… -2.17
Sunset -2.19
Dog Park -2.24
Mannequin -2.24
Young Doctors in Love -2.26
City Heat -2.28
The Phantom -2.32
The Marrying Man -2.33
Thank God, It’s Friday -2.35
The Meteor Man -2.42
Mixed Nuts -2.55
The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag -2.59
Wholly Moses! -2.61
Random Hearts -2.63
Wild Wild West -2.69
Hexed -2.74
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle -2.87
The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them -3.06

Poor Arye Gross, who starred in two 1993 films—Hexed, The Opposite Sex…—that are two of the three worst-rated of the 515 films with complete data (I suspect The Spirit, from 2008, would also be in this low-rent neighborhood). On average, these films have an IMDB score of 5.3, a Tomatometer of 21.3 (Once Upon a Crime… has the only Tomatometer of 0 in the group), a critic rating of 3.9, an Audience Score of 35.3 and an RT user rating of 5.0 (on a 0-10 scale); the average Maltin stars is 1.6, ranging from BOMB (n=3) to three (Cookie). These are relatively recent films, with an average release year of 1991; only Thank God, It’s Friday was released before 1980 (1978). Perhaps mercifully, these films averaged 98 minutes in length.

The three films closest to the mean of 0 are Murder by Decree, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask and Heaven Can Wait, with PQ of -0.004, -0.004 and 0.004, respectively. All were released in the 1970s, with average scores similar to the overall averages.

As for The Cotton Club and Times Square, they had PQ of -0.68 and -0.85, respectively—definitely in the bottom 25% of films I have seen multiple times.

The second factor (24%), meanwhile, was dominated by critics (factor loading=0.78), IMDB users (0.73), year of release (0.54), length (0.39) and RT users (0.33). This is clearly “public awareness.” For each film, I determined how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) its public awareness (PA) was. Topping the list, with a whopping 7.1, is The Dark Knight, followed by Batman Begins (4.9) and Spider-Man (4.4)—three blockbuster superhero films from the 2000s. At the other end of the spectrum are four films released between 1935 and 1943: Mad Love (-1.30), Journey Into Fear (-1.30), Room Service (-1.29) and the film I consider the first film noir of the classic era: Stranger on the Third Floor (-1.28).

From the perspective of guilty pleasures, however, this particular dimension is far less interesting than the first one.

Before determining what films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are mean PQ values by category:

Category # Films PQ
Other Pre-1960 36 1.11
Alfred Hitchcock 18 0.99
Marx Brothers 9 0.65
Film Noir 80 0.60
Woody Allen 25 0.28
General 347 -0.34

Given that 11 of the 17 top-rated films are in the Other Pre-1960 category, it is not surprising that these 36 (of 39 overall) films have the highest average PQ, followed by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock.

As noted above, I do not necessarily love—or even much like—every one of these 557 films; some I saw multiple times when I was young (e.g., The Apple Dumpling Gang, Hot Lead and Cold Feet) but barely remember now. And there are films I quite like that are NOT on this list simply because I have yet to see them a second time (e.g., The Shawshank Redemption, Zodiac, Shutter Island, Watchmen). But those latter films are generally well-rated (e.g., mean IMDB score=8.2), so they are hardly “guilty pleasures.”

And…finally…to discover which of these multiple-viewed films are my “guiltiest pleasures,” here are the films with PQ<-1.00 I would give a 5 (or maybe 4.5, out of 5) on the “how much I like it” scale.

  1. Thank God, It’s Friday
  2. Doctor Detroit
  3. The Shadow
  4. Radioland Murders
  5. Legal Eagles
  6. Tapeheads
  7. Mystery Men
  8. Empire Records
  9. The Secret of My Success
  10. Johnny Dangerously
  11. So I Married an Axe Murderer

Each of these films are in the General category and were released during my prime movie-attendance years (1978-99), with a mean release year of 1989; I did not actually first view Thank God, It’s Friday and Empire Records until the last five or so years. They average 101 minutes in length, only slightly shorter than average. Their mean IMDB, critic and RT user ratings (on a 0-10 scale) are 6.0, 4.9 and 6.0, respectively, suggesting they are relatively more popular with the broader movie-watching public than with critics; this is echoed by having an average of only 1.8 stars from Maltin (median=2). By the same token, the average Audience Score for these 11 films (51) is higher than their average Tomatometer (43). Finally, they are far less well-known (or, at least, have fewer viewers willing to rate them online, even anonymously), averaging 19,604 IMDB raters (median=12,292), 28 critics (median=17; Mystery Men had 103) and 55,464 RT users (median=9,198).

As I hypothesized, while these films are certainly of less perceived quality compared to the other 546 films I have seen multiple times, objectively they tend to fall in the middle of the “quality” spectrum, or even a hair above it–neither truly excellent nor truly awful.

They are mostly just…meh, according to the larger universe of film critics and casual fans, with the latter being just a bit more accepting of these films than the former.

And all I will say in defense of these films is that there is a fascinating temporal intersection in Thank God, It’s Friday when the late Donna Summer (near the height of her career), a pre-fame Debra Winger and a pre-Berlin Terri Nunn are all looking into the same bathroom mirror.

Finally, to come full circle: The Cotton Club and Times Square rank as “only” my 13th and 16th guiltiest film pleasures, respectively, using this very subjective (and subject to change) method. Still, that puts them in…good?…company.

Until next time…

[1] I expect to revisit this film in more detail in a later post, but for now I will simply say the film revolves around the legendary Harlem night club—owned by powerful bootlegger and fixer “Owney” Madden—between 1928 and 1931, when “Duke” Ellington, then Cab Calloway, directed the house band. A key subplot revolves around Arthur Flegenheimer (aka Dutch Schultz) and his violent takeover of the Harlem numbers rackets.

[2] The film follows two sets of brothers in conflict with each other—one white, one black—with one of the white brothers being close friends with one of the black brothers, while each of those two friends has a love affair blocked by external forces. The parallels are fascinating and complex—but they are only part of the overall storyline.

[3] Maltin, Leonard ed. 2008. Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide: 2008 Edition. New York, NY: New American Library.

[4] Despite my ambivalence about Allen as a human being, I still love many of his films.

[5] Only Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum has a complete set of RottenTomatoes values.

[6] For nine older films, I used the rating in the 2003 edition, as Maltin stopped including many older films in later editions.

[7] As well as date of release, which I do not analyze here.

[8] Recognizing that these primarily measure a film’s overall “visibility.”

[9] I could easily have added “starring John Cusack,” “Jerry Lewis,” “David Mamet,” “Star Trek,” “The Pink Panther,” “Batman,” “Coen Brothers.”

[10] Including What’s New Pussycat.

[11] StataCorp. 2005. Stata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[12] A measure of linear association between two variables ranging from -1.00 (every time one increases, the other decreases) to 1.00 (every time on increases, the other decreases).

[13] That said, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis is a full 153 minutes long.

[14] Besides Times Square, they are Mannequin, The Opposite Sex and How to Live With Them and Thank God It’s Friday.

[15] Pulp Fiction, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, The Usual Suspects

[16] I experimented with cluster analysis, which groups cases instead of variables, but found little of interest.

[17] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to two factors.

[18] Each had a “factor loading” (essentially, correlation with the “underlying dimension”) ≥0.87. The factor loadings for Maltin stars and year of release were 0.72 and -0.52, respectively.

[19] Using the “Predict” command in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

[20] To Be or Not to Be, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.