Reaching milestones of my own invention

In my last post, I described how a great friend of mine and I exchange generous Amazon gift cards for our birthdays. One gift I have already used this year’s card to purchased is this four-DVD film noir box set:

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Of the four titles in this no-frills set (the only extras are trailers for every film except Storm Fear), the only one I had already seen was He Ran All the Way. Both the surprisingly-well-made Storm Fear and the classic He Ran All the Way are superb examples of what could be called “hostage noir.” Other examples would be Suddenly—featuring a spellbindingly psychotic Frank Sinatra; Blind Alley and its 1948 remake The Dark Past; and the underrated gem Dial 1119.

Witness to Murder, despite featuring Barbara Stanwyck, George Sanders and Gary Merrill, is a watered-down version of the brilliant Rear Window; what redeems it is mesmerizing black-and-white cinematography by the ground-breaking John Alton. The titular witness, Stanwyck, does her best with the material, including a hard-to-swallow romance with Merrill’s homicide detective. Sanders, however, is believably menacing and creepy as he-who-is-witnessed; no spoilers here, as the trailer itself reveals Sanders is the killer.

A Bullet For Joey is a 1955 film best described as “bonkers,” albeit generally entertaining. Edward G. Robinson, terrific as always, is wasted as a homicide Inspector—working in a Montreal which looks suspiciously like Los Angeles, and where nobody speaks with a Canadian accent. Audrey Totter looks bored, and George Raft is—well, George Raft, wooden yet strangely charming. Both Robinson and Raft had great early success in early 1930s gangster films, but while Robinson seamlessly shifted to other roles, Raft always seems stuck around 1931. To be fair, Raft is quite good as a homicide detective in a 1954 film I quite like called Black Widow, a rare example of color film noir from the “classic” era, roughly 1940 to roughly 1960.

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But wait, IS Black Widow a film noir?

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote about the “personal journey” I had taken to become a devoted fan of film noir. Two months later, a conversation with my wife Nell about career paths inspired me to write the book I am close to finishing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive into My Family’s History…and My Own). My original plan was simply to flesh out the multiple facets of my personal journey into book-length form, but it quickly morphed into a full-on investigation of…what the working title sums up nicely.

In that May 2017 film noir post, I introduced my quantitative film noir research project. Essentially, I collected as many published—either as a book or on a credible website—film noir lists as I could find. These lists could be explicit (encyclopedias, dictionaries, guides, filmographies) or implicit (discussed as film noir within the text of a book about film noir), and needed to include a minimum 120 films.

Ultimately, I acquired 32 such lists, from which I created an Excel database of 4,825 films at least one “expert” labelled film noir, however indirectly. From these data I calculated a score cleverly called “LISTS,” which denotes how many lists feature that title. The idea is simple: the more film noir lists on which a film appears, the more widely it is considered film noir. Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a measure of how “noir” a film is, merely how often it is cited by acknowledged experts as noir. To date, no agreed-upon definition of “film noir” exists.

Somewhat to my surprise, only four films appear on all 32 lists: Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice; not surprisingly, these are exemplary films noir. Along those lines, only 201 titles (4.2%) appear on as many as 20 lists, and only 478 titles (9.9%) appear on as many as 12 lists; at the opposite end, just under half of the films appear on only one list.

Using additional information from 1) 13 shorter lists and 2) lists within lists, such as the 50-film Canon in The Rough Guide to Film Noir[i], I next calculated a score called “POINTS.” The maximum number of POINTS a film can receive is 67.5; Double Indemnity comes closest with 62.0 POINTS, followed by Out of the Past (59.0); The Maltese Falcon (58.0); Kiss Me Deadly (54.0) and Murder, My Sweet (53.5). As with LISTS, shockingly-few films had as many as 20 POINTS—249, or 5.2%–while only 515 (10.7%) had as many as 12 POINTS. Just under half—48.2%–of films had only one POINT; by definition, they appeared on only one list as well.

You may review my 46 total sources and POINT-allotment system here: Film Noir Database Sources.

Based upon the similar distributions of LISTS and POINTS[ii], every title is classified as Universal (≥12 LISTS or POINTS), Debatable (>5, <12 LISTS or POINTS) or Idiosyncratic (≤5 LISTS or POINTS); the percentage of films in each category is roughly 10%, 10% and 80%, respectively.

So, to answer the question with which I opened this section: Black Widow has 7 LISTS and 8.5 POINTS, putting it squarely in the Debatable category. I encourage you to watch it and draw your own conclusions.

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When I first wrote about my film noir fandom “journey” in May 2017, I had seen 558 (11.6%) of the films in the database. Incrementally increasing the LISTS minimum from 1 to 20, the percentage of films I had seen increased steadily to 87.1%. And the films I had seen comprised well over 30% of total LISTS and 40% of total POINTS; unfortunately, I failed to record the precise percentages at the time.

However, through my recent viewing of Storm Fear, every one of those values has increased. I have now seen 698—14.5%–of the 4,825 films in the database; that is 140 first-time film noir viewings in nearly 30 months, or nearly five titles a month. Updating the original breakdown:

Any film        698/4,825=14.5%

LISTS≥3        564/1,613 =35.0%

LISTS≥6        470/890    =52.8%

LISTS≥12       362/478    =75.7%

LISTS≥15      308/364    =84.6%

LISTS≥20      193/201    =96.1%

As of this writing, the only films with LISTS≥20 I have yet to see are The Devil Thumbs a Ride, Suspense, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Rogue Cop, Nightmare, The Thief, The New York Confidential and World For Ransom. The bottom line, however, is that the 698 films I have seen total 8,887 LISTS, or 46.3% of all LISTS in the database, putting me 705 total LISTS shy of a majority. I could reach that milestone by watching the top 40 films, by LISTS, I have yet to see, which I very much look forward to doing.

Meanwhile, when my DVD set arrived, I had seen 695 films totaling 10,735 POINTS, or 49.85% of all POINTS in the database. Witness to Murder (19 LISTS, 19 POINTS) got me to 49.94%, while A Bullet For Joey (10,10) got me to 49.98%. And…after watching Storm Fear (16,16), I was at 10,780 POINTS, which is 50.06% of the 21,534.5 POINTS in the database.

Having seen a set of films comprising a majority of all POINTS in my film noir database is a milestone I invented, but that makes it no less fun to celebrate.

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Speaking of milestones…I am extremely reluctant to tout my blog statistics. I write on this site because I think I have something interesting to say, not for accolades or gaudy view numbers—not that I am averse to either, mind you.

This reticence, to be honest, stems in large part from the statistics themselves: as I approach the end of three years writing on this site, I have “only” 109 followers, and my posts have been viewed “only” 8,814 times. Still, the rate of increase for both—and the latter especially—has been steadily accelerating over time. And I greatly appreciate every single follower and view—even the fellow on Twitter who said that someone to whom he had shown this post—which I published two year ago today—had called it “trash.”

And, to be fair, a number of my posts have been (relatively) widely read. In fact, in September 2018, Film Noir: A Personal Journey became my second post to receive 100 views; it has now been viewed 148 times. One month later, this post on now-Associate-Justice Brett Kavanaugh became the third to reach that milestone, and last month it topped 200 views, my second-ever post to do so. It has now been viewed 215 times, while five posts in total have now topped 100 views—133 or more views, actually.

So which post beat “Personal Journey” to 100 views and “Kavanaugh” to 200 views?

It was one I wrote on a lark as I began to write the “Charlie Chan” chapter of my book, the one in which I describe how my love of classic black-and-white crime and mystery films was predicated upon my discovery—just shy of my 10th birthday—of the 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films of the late 1930s and early 1940s[iii]. Collecting information about those films, I built an SPSS database containing, among other data, how various organizations and critics rated those films. Combining those data into a single value, I was able to “rank” every Charlie Chan film in relative quality from lowest to highest.

I published Ranking Every Charlie Chan Film on August 26, 2017 to what could best be described as crickets. It was viewed only seven times that month and only 23 times through the end of the year, close to the median 25 views my posts receive. By the end of April 2018, it had received 42 views, just over my post-average of 40.

But starting in July 2018, something happened. The post received 20 views that month, followed by 33, 34, 46, 55 and 53 views over the next five months; by the end of 2018, it had been viewed 299 times. And, of course, the more it was read, the higher it rose on Google searches, and so the more it was read. Over the first eight months of 2019, in fact, it was viewed an astonishing (to me, anyway) 823 times, or 103 times a month. And in July 2019, nearly two years after I published it, it crossed the 1,000-view threshold. As of this writing, it has been viewed 1,234 times.

Not coincidentally, if you Google “Charlie Chan films,” the 41st entry is my post; until recently it had been 16th, but I am not complaining one bit. And if you add the word “ranked” to the search, the very first entry is my post.

As esoteric and specific as that is, I am deeply humbled by it.

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There is one last thing.

I do not read or follow as many blogs as I am “supposed” to in order to a “successful” blogger, but there are a handful whose latest posts I am always excited to see appear in my Inbox. In no particular order, they are:

In Diane’s Kitchen

bone&silver

MadMeg’s Musings

JulieCares

What these sites have in common, besides each author’s gracious reactions to my, at times, long-winded comments, is they are all authored by women with uniquely interesting and powerful personal stories to tell. I always have something to learn from them.

Until next time…

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

[ii] The correlation between the two scores is 0.983.

[iii] There is a lot more to this story, of course, mostly involving my relationship with my father, his gambling and an old family business, but I save that for the book itself.

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part I)

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Reservoir Dogs.

I am very squeamish about blood (seeing it can literally cause me physical pain[1]), and I knew there was a great deal of bloodletting in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 heist-gone-wrong neo-noir masterpiece. Plus, a friend had once informed me she could never hear the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in the Middle with You” the same way again.

(Here is why the song so disturbed my friend, if you are game).

Despite my squeamishness, however, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film; it was a well-crafted tale of crime, paranoia and, in an odd way, humanity. But what particularly stayed with me after the film was its opening scene, in which the men about to commit the jewelry robbery eat breakfast in a small restaurant. In typical Tarantino style, the overlapping conversations include pop culture references (e.g., the meaning of the Madonna song “Like a Virgin”), inane recitations from a re-discovered “little black book” and a pointed conversation about restaurant tipping. The latter brouhaha is triggered by Mr. Pink’s (Steve Buscemi) refusal to add his allotted dollar bill to the tip. “I don’t tip,” is his response, though he is eventually forced to do so.

My father had his flaws (boyish self-centeredness, destructive gambling addiction), but he was always generous with whatever money he had. It was from him I learned the value and respect of tipping well, especially while he spent the last year or so of his life driving a cab in Philadelphia. My five months working as delivery boy for a pizza/sub shop (I give you food, you give me extra money? Sign me up!) only reinforced this lesson.

Too many people fail to understand (or care) that waitstaff make little in base salary and so depend on tips for their income. I do not remember who said this, but I once heard that waitressing is the one job that any woman, regardless of education or experience, can always get. Just the other night, in fact, I overheard a young server at our favorite local restaurant observe she had earned $30 an hour in tips one recent shift. Show me an entry-level job where I can earn that much money, she added for emphasis.

The woman making this observation will soon be a college graduate, while her interlocutor just became a college graduate.

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Our summers have settled into a mildly complex routine.

Once our daughters’ school year ends, my wife Nell takes them, the dog and herself to her family’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. They stay a few weeks then return to Brookline for a week or two, so we can take a family vacation somewhere (key requirement for daughters: hotel with swimming pool; they are indeed their parents’ children). Then they return to the Vineyard until the end of the summer, leaving “Daddy” to entertain himself as best he can, with a trip to his birth city of Philadelphia thrown in for good measure. Perhaps finish his darned book as well.

This summer is no different. Nell literally picked up the girls from school, dog and baggage in tow, and drove to the ferry in Woods Hole. Three weeks later, they returned home; two days later, we dropped the dog with Nell’s mother and drove to the always-charming Bath, Maine.

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Not Mario's of Bath

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Yum Mee Chinese Restaurant

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I actually took these photographs on a trip to Maine in July 2015 (when a very odd thing happened to me [Fact #82]), but the city has not materially changed in the interim. Mae’s Café is still THE place to go for brunch—and to learn how to pronounce the county in which Bath resides (Sagadahoc—suh ga duh hoc, accent on 2nd syllable). I have yet to visit Mario’s, Mateo’s (which is NOT Mario’s) or Yum Mee.

Actually, it was on that trip that I discovered Bath’s brand-new Hilton (which I recommend—as well as Kennebec Tavern, directly across the street), the Hilton in which Nell, the girls and I first stayed in July 2016. Not only does it have an indoor pool, the pool’s lights cycle through the colors as you swim.

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I took these photographs in July 2016 trip in the park adjacent to Patten Free Library, just across the street from the Hilton’s back door. The church building now houses the Winter Street Center.

For the record, this is pretty much an impossible choice:

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Before I describe this year’s family vacation to Maine (and a subsequent day trip to Nashua, New Hampshire), just bear with me while I backtrack a week or so.

I first described my penchant for meandering late-night drives here. Generally, I take such a drive the first Saturday night after Nell and the girls leave in late June. This year, though, I waited two weeks, in no small part because I was making headway on my book. I ultimately decided to take a drive on Saturday, July 6; the following day I would thoroughly clean our refrigerator, a necessary task I had been procrastinating for days.

But when I awoke that Saturday, an ominous-looking sky sent me to the Weather app on my iPhone. What I saw was a near-certainty of thunderstorms that night.

Crud!

Disappointed, I decided to flip-flop my days: I would tackle the fridge Saturday then meander on Sunday, whose weather appeared far more promising. Rewarding as a sparkling-clean, odor-free refrigerator was (and there was, in fact, a torrential downpour that evening), it was hard to shake the disappointment, and I ultimately wandered that evening down a bizarre rabbit hole of memory, eventually taking myself for a late-night snack to the nearby New Yorker Diner, which is open from 10 pm to 4 am on weekends.

However, Sunday was as sunny as promised, as was my disposition. And at 8 pm I pulled out of our Brookline driveway, bound for…somewhere or other.

I quickly decided to wander west through Wellesley to Route 135 west. Natick, Framingham, Ashland.

In Ashland, I briefly toyed with stopping for a meal at the supposedly-haunted Stone’s Public House. Sometime in the 1990s, while I dated “AC,” we watched a “Haunted New England” program which featured what was then called John Stone’s House (or something). AC and I went there for supper one night; we had a fine, if unspectacular, meal but did not experience anything remotely supernatural. On a lark, I took the girls (then six and five) there for supper in March 2015; they were fascinated by the stories and the “investigation” documented in this book. For my part, not only was I extremely skeptical, but the report itself was remarkably poorly written.

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On this July 2019 Sunday night, though, I chose not to stop. Instead I continued to drive west on Route 135 into Hopkinton (where Nell called for the “Good night, Daddy” ritual) and Upton. There, just past the intersection with Route 140, I veered south, eventually landing on Route 16 west in Mendon. This took me right past the terrific Miss Mendon Diner, which unfortunately had closed 10 minutes earlier, at 9 pm (photograph taken July 2010); I was starting to get hungry

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Following Route 16 west, I began to hear loud explosions, which I quickly realized were fireworks (it was only a few days after July 4, after all). At first, I thought they were coming from the West Hill Dam, but as I crossed into Uxbridge, I realized they were coming from near the town center. Just before reaching that center—the intersection with Route 122—I drove by St. Mary Parish, home to Our Lady of the Valley Regional School.

I took this photograph of the larger playground adjacent to the school building in September 2012.

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Our younger daughter, then not-quite-three-years-old, accompanied me that day. After enjoying the playground, we had supper at the Miss Mendon Diner. There, I took this photograph of my left hand to send to Nell, reassuring her I had not lost my wedding ring.

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Again.

In March 2011, the girls and I visited that same playground, and while we were there, my wedding ring somehow slipped off my finger into the wood chips comprising its “floor.” Realizing what had happened that night (and with Nell none too pleased), I drove back to Uxbridge the next day, but I could not find my ring anywhere. Being an optimistic sort, I left my name and phone number with the school office.

A few weeks later, literally as I was having my phone interview for the data analyst/project manager job I was about to land at Joslin Diabetes Center, I received a phone call from a woman at Our Lady of the Valley. One of the girls in the school had found a wedding ring, was it mine?

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Apparently, I did not drive back to Uxbridge—an hour’s drive at the best of times—until April 15, 2011, the date on the card inside this envelope. The envelope which did, in fact, contain my wedding ring. I made a point of thanking the girl who had found it (I think she was in 5th grade) personally.

Meanwhile, back in July 2019, I crossed over Route 122 and continued west on Route 16. Here, only a few miles north of the Rhode Island state line—and only a few miles northeast of the Connecticut state line—the surroundings became much more rural, so I decided it would be prudent to stop for gas at the next open gas station.

I had LITERALLY just formed the thought, when I saw a gas station on my left. As I pulled up to a pump, a young man exited the attached convenience store, heading for my car.

“Is this full serve?” I asked.

“Yes, it is,” he replied, and proceeded to “fill it up, with regular.” My Discover card slip ($32.50 for 12.503 gallons) tells me this friendly interaction—and subsequent $7 tip—took place at 9:50 pm. It was the first time I had not pumped my own gasoline (outside of New Jersey, where it remains full-serve) in years.

Shortly after pulling out of the station back onto Route 16 west, I entered Webster.

Webster, Massachusetts is home to the lovely Webster Lake. However, locals often prefer its original name:

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg

This is the longest place name in the United States. I took this photograph, in a shopping center right on Route 16, in November 2014.

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A few miles after this shopping center, Route 16 ends at the intersection with Route 12, which runs south to Groton, along Connecticut’s southern shore. AC and I took this way home one night in May 1998, after visiting Mystic (yes, THAT Mystic), listening on the radio (back when you could up the Phillies radio station hundreds of miles away at night) to Carl Pavano make his major league debut against my Philadelphia Phillies; the Expos won 3-2).

Here, I had a choice (given that the Friendly’s at that intersection had also just closed): I could take Route 12 north about an hour (half that if I took the interstates) to Leominster, where I knew a Denny’s was, or I could try my luck further south and west along Route 12 (which sort of turns right when it hits Route 16).

It was “only” about 10:15 pm, so I decided to try my luck. Lurking in the back of my mind was the possibility of a late-night diner in Worcester, not all that far to the north. Plus, Connecticut has all sorts of excellent 24-hour diners, right?

Webster is a charming town—at least at night—but I found nothing open there. Continuing southwest on Route 197 when Route 12 veered south again, I crossed into Dudley then, finally, into Connecticut.

The section of Thompson, Connecticut known as Quinebaug was rural enough that I quickly rethought my “Connecticut has SO many 24-hour diners” strategy. This was wise; I later learned the nearest such establishment was the Vernon Diner (which I last visited in August 2018)—another 45 minutes southwest. Earlier in the evening, maybe, but not at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night.

A few minutes after entering Connecticut on Route 197 south, it intersected with Route 131 north. There, a helpful sign informed me the latter road would take me to Charlton, Massachusetts.

If you take I-84 north through Connecticut over the state line into Sturbridge, Massachusetts (which I have done innumerable times over the last 30 years, driving between Philadelphia and Boston), it ends at the Massachusetts Turnpike (known here simply as “The Pike”), just north of U. S. Route 20. If you then take The Pike east a mile or so, you hit the Charlton Service Plaza Eastbound; I have lost track of how many nights I pulled into this rest stop, desperately needing to urinate.

Back in Quinebaug, I prudently chose to turn north (OK, northwest) back into Massachusetts, pinning my hopes for satiating my increasing hunger (clearly, I had not eaten enough before embarking on this drive) on that diner in Worcester. Quickly crossing back into Massachusetts (I was in Connecticut for five minutes—10 minutes, tops), I was in Southbridge; in that town’s center, I turned north onto Route 169, which took me past a string of super-sized triple-deckers looming eerily in the night.

Entering Charlton not long after, I turned east onto U.S. Route 20, which I believed would take me directly into downtown Worcester. In fact, I thought, I think my diner is ON Route 20 in Worcester.

Some 10 minutes later, I hit Auburn, just west of Worcester. I also crossed Route 12 again, which I know for a fact passes through downtown Worcester; this, frankly, confused me. And then I entered Worcester itself…but what I drove past was no downtown. The next thing I knew I was entering Grafton…and then I was at the intersection with Route 9, a few miles EAST of Worcester.

Oops.

Route 20, it turns out, does not traverse downtown Worcester, but merely kisses its southern edge.

At the intersection of Route 9, I did something I do not think I have ever done before: I doubled back INTO Worcester. And here I mean absolutely no disrespect to Worcester, the second-largest city in Massachusetts, just edging Springfield, and an area determinedly on the upswing—as evidenced by the gorgeous Route 9 bridge over the Quinsigamond River that takes you west into the city/east out of the city.

Soon after entering Worcester on Route 9, Shrewsbury Street cuts sharply off to the left (southwest), carrying drivers into the heart of the city. The same directional instinct that misled me along U.S. Route 20 told me to turn onto Shrewsbury; OK, I actually could not make it into the left turn lane in time, but rather than make a U-turn, I cut down through the Brasil’s Restaurant parking lot. No harm, no foul.

Maybe three minutes later, I did see a diner off to my left—Mac’s Diner—but it was closed. However, I knew the diner I sought was a classic railroad car diner…and not a minute later, there it was on my left, lit up in a neon welcome.

The Boulevard Diner.

I parked right in front (it was nearly midnight on Sunday after all), walked inside with my copy of Drift (which should be required reading for every American policy maker) and took a seat at the counter.

My recollection of the menu (a giant black board with white plastic letters, surrounded by a forest of multi-colored, star-shaped sticky notes) was correct: mixed in with the usual diner breakfast food, burgers and sandwiches was a wide array of Italian specialties.

The chicken parmigiana over spaghetti (or ziti) caught my eye, but it was not clear if such dishes were time-limited. Nope, the dark-haired 40-something waitress who distractedly took my order assured me, everything on the menu is available 24 hours a day.

It took me a good half hour before I realized that the word “Bully” in a number of the menu items was short for “Boulevard,” as in “Boulevard Diner.” I may be slow at times, but I always get there in the end.

As I waited for, then ate, my meal (it was perfectly good for a vintage railroad car just past midnight on a Monday morning), I noticed that the two waitresses (mine, whose name escapes me, and a younger blondish woman named Kim) rarely walked from behind the counter to the six or seven booths. Instead, they took orders from behind the counter, then called patrons over to the counter to hand them their plates.

Also, while most of the cooking was done in the back kitchen (hidden down a step from the right end of the counter, looking in from the street), the two women worked the grill just behind the counter, efficiently preparing eggs, bacon, sausage, burgers and the like. Oh, and they constantly wiped, restocked and otherwise kept the conga line moving.

I found it all absolutely mesmerizing, frankly, like watching a contemporary minuet, with the background chatter, sizzling grill and clatter of cutlery serving as the music. At one point, the darker-haired waitress stood next to me, kibitzing with a customer, when something she said made me laugh out loud. She laughed quietly herself, playfully jabbing me with her elbow, as if to say, “hush up, you.” Later, when I was leaving, she teased me by asking if they had “entertained” me. Sure, I replied, showing my appreciation with a substantial tip.

After consuming nearly all of my meal (with a full plate of fresh hot Italian bread and butter—my mouth waters thinking about it), well into my third cup of freshly-made black decaf, Kim asked if I wanted desert. I asked what they had besides the few things I saw on the “menu,” specifically what flavors of pie (if any) they had. She went into the kitchen to check, got distracted by a large takeout order, came back to the counter, realized she had forgotten to check on the pie selection, went back into the kitchen, emerging a few moments later.

“We have lemon meringue,” she began.

“Stop there,” I replied. Because, believe it or not, that was exactly what I wanted.

It was delicious.

My drive home, almost entirely along, Route 9, was remarkably uneventful, and I pulled into our driveway at 2 am.

To be continued…

[1] There are exceptions, of course. In June 1991, my mother sliced her thumb open when a jar of cocktail sauce shattered in her hand. My friend and I had just exited our apartment building when she came out onto the porch, dressed only in a dark blue kimono and underwear, to call us back. She was bleeding profusely, but in that emergency situation I did not “see” the blood. At her insistence, however, I did have to dress my mother, including her bra. My mother was a buxom woman. Frankly, that was far more unsettling than the blood.

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.

**********

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)

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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