Tag Archives: New York City

Christmas Noir II: Beyond Tomorrow

This year, my subject for Christmas noir is Beyond Tomorrow  (1940), an intriguing little dark fairy tale.  Well, aren’t most fairy tales dark somewhere along the line?  Edward Sutherland’s film starts with three “fairy godfathers,” wealthy old gents and business partners.  One Christmas Eve, on a whim ˗˗ and out of loneliness ˗˗ each puts his business card into a separate wallet with ten dollars and tosses it out the window of their mansion onto the snowy Manhattan sidewalk below.  All to see who will return the wallets and perhaps become a new friend to replace the old ones that one partner points out have disappeared into death.
Indeed, fate seems to reward them.  The first wallet is nabbed by a jaded socialite, who keeps it while carelessly tossing the ten bucks  to her chauffeur.  They dodge a bullet missing this brittle babe.  The other wallets are returned by two who promise to fulfill the old men’s wishes for rejuvenating friendship.  The first is Jim Houston, a polite, young, down-on-his-luck cowboy, stranded after a rodeo at Madison Square Garden.   The second is a Jean Lawrence, a sweetly pretty but pert and practical young woman who works and lives at a children’s clinic run by “The Wayne Foundation” (Bruce’s parents?).  Fate scores big for the old guys, as the young people share their lives and open up all kinds of opportunities for fun and giving, especially working with children.  Why the whole set up even earns the approval of the sensitive, spiritual elderly housekeeper (played by who better than Maria Ouspenskaya?)   Of course, the young people brought together by their godfathers fall in love and plan to marry.
A merry Christmas movie, right?  Full of jingle bells, holly wreaths, caroling children, and glittering lights and ornaments.  Um, not exactly.  Characters, plot twists, mise en scène, and lighting combine to create a noir ambience.  Early on, the film does present a cherubic Charles Winniger, as Michael, bursting into a business meeting of his partners at home on Christmas Eve. Laden with presents and releasing overworked secretaries for the holiday, Michael is a kind of redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge.  Yet all this fun and cheer is threaded with dark elements.  There are intimations of something sinister in the past of the crotchety partner George Melton.  The other partner, Chad Chadwick, casts longing glances at photos of a wife and a son long lost to death.  Dear friends scheduled to visit for Christmas Eve have canceled out, leading the men to reflect that those they love are mostly dead and gone.
Even the advent of the fresh, kind, and honest Jean and James is overshadowed, literally, by a noir mood.  Sutherland does use bright filler lighting for the Christmas Eve dinner, but that moment is brief.   When old and new friends and servants Madame Tanya and Josef come to the window to listen to a Christmas band, though inside the window frame  is fairly bright, the area surrounding that square of light, the outside world, is darkly shadowed, even the strolling musicians.  The band is brought inside to play for a comradely sing along, yet shadows encroach on the firelight holding the people.   When James sings a love song, though he and Jean exchange tender looks, the shadows insistently fringe their medium close ups, with soft focus further creating an eerie  effect.  Even the love song, “I Dream of Jeanie” emphasizes longing rather than communion, conveying the effervescence of happiness in a noir world.
Throughout the film, noirish night undermines stability, comfort, and humor.  Jean and Jim’s romantic walk home and funny encounter with a mounted policeman and his sergeant occur in small pools of soft-focus light with darkness shrouding most of the frame.  Jim’s later proposal to Jean, though the two laugh playfully, is not in a sunny Central Park but in a dark, shadowy, late night walk there, only faintly illuminated by narrow key lighting on their mostly shadowed faces and the faint glow of a street lamp.  Such imagery  would not be  out of place in the hauntingly sinister streets of Val Lewton’s eerie New York in The Seventh Victim or The Cat Woman
Later, when the femme fatale lures away Jim as he becomes a successful radio star, they meet in a bright apartment.  Yet through the slits of partially open blinds between them pour in the black  night , with intermittent points of light from skscraper windows piercing in on them like intrusive, glaring eyes. It is the noir world that forms the apex of this triangle, predominating and binding the humans together  beneath in tragedy and corruption.
Elsewhere, Sutherland uses darkness and mise en scène to signal that alienation and tragedy inevitably supplant good fortune.  The reporter getting the story he will spread of Jim’s and Jean’s inheritance from Michael is framed in front of  the two (all three in medium closeup) a black silhouette before and between them, almost blotting them out with his black fedora and his black trench coat.  He looms between them and between them and their future  like Death incarnate.  Even the godfathers and their magical influence are at crucial moments overwhelmed by noir ‘s fateful darkness. 
The afterlife is given the noir treatment as well.  Isolated and alone, like many a noir anti-hero, Melton is drawn into and swallowed  by a photo- negative of inky, roiling clouds after his death, predicated by his dark past. Michael’s call to the beyond, though promising peace and happiness, is portrayed disconcertingly:  bright, thin rays against a black sky striking earth from a mass of black clouds.  The friendliness of the angelic voice calling him is unsettlingly undermined by this nightmare image of the divine- all in the surrounding darkness of Lewtonesque city night.
The plot twists imbue Beyond Tomorrow with the same noir vision as the lighting and setting, sometimes even in conjunction.  Just when the godfathers and the young folk seem happy, hopeful, and excited to live, where many a Christmas movie ends, the business partners are killed in a plane crash.  The signal of their deaths merges this ironic turn with dark imagery to create noir ambience. The lovers’ joy as Jean accepts Jim’s humorously inadvertent marriage proposal is undercut for the audience by unseen newsies’ growing cacophony of “Extra” surging insistently out of the shadowed night surrounding the unwitting lovers, hinting that a dreadful turn is emerging from the darkness. It more clearly emerges as the scen closes with a closeup of a headline proclaiming the three godfathers’ deaths.
Other expectations of “comfort and joy” are obliterated with noir’s relentlessly disconcerting unexpectedness.  The three godfathers return as ghosts and settle in their old study to preside over those they love, comforted by Mme. Tanya’s sense of their presence.  However, just when we and they start to get comfortable with this cozy turn, they are one by one called to leave by a darkening of the screen and a mysterious higher power, two to pain and sacrifice. 
In another noir reversal, Michael’s final godfatherly act in life to leave the young friends some dough to make their lives easier and their dreams come true turns out to be exactly the curse Melton warns him it would be – foreshadowed by the reporter’s ominous depiction darkly splitting the lovers.  The news story on the couple’s luck leads to Jim becoming a radio star who deserts Jean under the spell of Arlene Terry, whose fatale ways with her former husband drive him to shoot Arlene, Jim, and himself.  Just when we become comfortable in our security, happiness, love, and fellowship are all battered by the darkness of the world outside us, and also by the darkness within even the best of us that will reach for that darkness without.
There are happy endings in the film, but not without pain, disillusionment, falls from grace, and even death.  Madame Tanya is proved right in her observation that the power and prestige of being royalty in old Russia is nothing compared with the joy of loving and serving others. Loving sacrifices are rewarded; friendship even redeems Melton’s soul from roiling clouds of bitterness and despair.  And yet, Melton’s sadly cynical recognition of human weakness in the face of the darkness outside and within imbues this Christmas film with a noir outlook:  “To be born innocent is natural.  To die pure is a gift.”  No one dies pure in Sutherland’s film.

 

Launching Letter from a Dead Man

Saturday, 11/18/17, Letter from a Dead Man got its official launch at The Booklovers’ Gourmet in Webster.  What a wonderful experience!  There was a nice turnout of friends, colleagues from school, fellow writers, students from WSU, and even new people I didn’t know yet.  As usual, Deb Horan had the room set up beautifully, and we all had the opportunity to partake of some yummy comestibles and beverages.  I smoothed out my vocal cords with a tasty pumpkin latte – ’tis the season!

 

We all started off by chatting about writing, teaching, and the inspirations for my 1940s-style mysteries, especially how I like to cast my characters as  favorite actors from the era: Joan Bennett and Rosalind Russell as the smart-talking Minton sisters, Lloyd Nolan as the tough-guy henchman, and Claire Trevor as the ultimate femme fatale, for example.   Interspersed with these points, I did some readings, which I’m happy to report, people found tense and intriguing.  I gave them a scene where sisters Jessica and Liz have to face off against the threats of the femme fatale’s menacing torpedo – without giving away what mysterious object he held in his hand that would prove a vital pivot for the plot.  I later read from the scene where Jessica had to flee and seek refuge from deadly pursuers behind one of the lions in front of the New York Public Library. This led to a discussion of Dead Man’s cover and the fun story where I went to New York with Yang to “test” out the scene of Jessica’s flight.

 

I was fortunate that two of my Sisters In Crime, Lisa Lieberman and Leslie Wheeler, joined me.  The three of us bounced questions and comments off one another to give the rest of the audience insights into the sources of our ideas, how we write (outliners or seat-of-our-pantsers), how we overcome writer’s block, and how good editors or writers/readers groups challenge  and inspire us to overcome obstacles in the way of getting the right words on the page and those pages into print.

 

 

Speaking of reading/writing groups, one of the posse who keeps me on my toes, my friend Judy Jeon-Chapman, was able to join us. Not only has she given me great feedback, but  there were days when she’d needle me every night to get her more chapters to calm the suspense I’d enkindled with my writing.  So, as a reward, I worked her into the third story (yet to be published)  as I was editing it!  Several of these pictures even came from her.

You can see how enthusiastic I am about talking writing here.   I also love Leslie’s “Crime Scene” scarf!

 

Maybe the best part of the day was getting to spend time with old friends and colleagues whom I hadn’t seen in a while, like Rini Kilcoyne and Jim Foley from Worcester State.  I so much appreciate how these folks support me and the good friends and coworkers they have been over the years.  I’m a lucky gal!

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a picture of my favorite supporter!

Maybe I shouldn’t be charging him for the books?

Location! Location! Location!

I recently posted a blog on the Touchpoint Publishing Web Site discussing how real life settings inspire my writing as well as how ideas for my novel inspire me to seek out real life settings.  Click here to read “Location!  Location! Location!” 

Carven (not craven) Creatures of the Big Apple

 On one of our several peregrinations to NYC, Yang and I were strolling around the upper Westside, near Central Park, where we were taken by the marvelous reliefs and carvings on the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings.  Here’s a record of that intriguing stroll.

 I’m not sure if this is the head of a cupid or a Roman youth.  It looks like wood lacquered over  black paint.  Or it could be masonry painted over.  What do you think?  I love the sheaf of what look like cattails surrounded by scrollwork.

 

The whole side of this building was alternating Classical mythological figures and Green Men – sort of like the melange of classical and native mythos in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I decided to include only this detail of what looks like Athena flanked by two Green Men.  I’m fascinated by the thought of who decided on this design.  Was it the architect’s idea or did the original owner order the magical artwork?  Was it a signal of the owner’s or the architect’s learning and sophistication?

 

Here, you can see swans above gryphons holding escutcheons, but with no motto or symbol on the shield.  The wider shot below illustrates the art deco design over the entranceway.  Would this building have been constructed in the 1920s or ’30s?

We photographed these reliefs of mythical beasts on one building.  I can definitely identify the creature over the entrance as a dragon.  The others I’m not so sure about at all.

 

I think this might be a form of a gryphon.  It has a lionlike head and paws in front. It is a winged critter,  Yet, are its hindquarters too reptilian?

 

 

 

These next ones have me really scratching my head.  I seem to have heard of some mythic beast with the tail of a snake, but I can’t quite remember what it was.  I definitely see a bird’s wings and claws.  However, what is the head?  A dog?  A donkey? El chupacabra?

This one completely knocks me for a loop.  The head is clearly reminiscent of what all MST3K fans will recognize as Trumpie from The Pod People.  So, is it proof of earlier alien invasions?  Interestingly, the creature doesn’t seem to have both arms and legs, but one pair of limbs that could serve both purposes – unless the wings count as arms/hands – as with bats.

 

I’m not sure if these chaps are supposed to be gods or Green Men, but the fellow in the other picture certainly looks as if he could be Bacchus.  I love the contrast of the red brick with the cream-colored carvings.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, this shot is particularly interesting for more than one reason.  First, of course, is the graceful carving of the British lions above the entrance.  Especially interesting is the cat in the window perfectly situated above the lions.  However, if you take a closer look at the cat you may exclaim, “Say what!”

That sweep of black fur across the forehead, that little smutch of black fur under the nose.  Good Gravy Train!  The cat looks like Hitler! How embarrassing in front of the other cats.

A Visit to the Cloisters

Many moons ago, back in grad school, my friend Andrea Rossi Reder told me about this wonderful museum of Medieval and Renaissance art, the Cloisters, that was constructed like a medieval cloistered monastery.  It took me a few years to get there, but my husband and I visited one spring some time ago.  It was a beautiful place, near Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the Hudson River.  I not only enjoyed all the exquisite art and the ancient-styled construction, but loved wandering the  herbal garden in the sun and warmth of spring.  Last week, my husband proved is is indeed “goals” by taking me back there after another stretch of many years.  This winter visit had charms of its own.  I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed the museum.
After taking the A-train from the 125th St. station, we hopped the 100 Bus to St. Nicholas Street, then another subway, and we were right outside Fort Tryon Park.  Crossing the park showed us the bleak beauty of winter, the red bar berry bushes, crimson hemlock berries,  and the frosty-blue berries of another type evergreen.  acloisters2We even got to see a fluffy, black squirrel, rare in my neck of the woods.  Then the Cloisters loomed through the trees against azure shading down to soft winter-blue skies .

 

 

These sculpture, likely not Medieval, greeted us as we made our way up the drive.  acloisters3We took turns guessing what the hell they were as we approached. I hit the jackpot with the conjecture of, “Pears?” For once, modern sculpture stuck in the middle of nature didn’t appear so terribly intrusive.

 

I like this shot of  the arched entry way. Note the cobblestone drive way.  We had to dodge a few not so Medieval buses dropping off passengers here. acloisters5I’ll apologize in advance for not having pictures of Yang.  We used his Ipad and I hate trying to take pictures with the darned thing. 

 

 

 

 

After entering and moving through the great hall, we moved off to the side to the square surrounding the cloisters garden, now closed off from us by glass – allowing us to look out at the neatly mown ghost of the  summer garden, while keeping the December cold outside.  acloisters10During the warmer months, this area is all open.  When I visited Mont St. Michel and saw their cloister garden growing within the monastery, high atop the island mountain, I realized the inspiration for the Cloisters garden.  Even with winter’s hand stilling the garden, the December sunshine filled the indoor court surrounding it with brightness and beauty.  acloisters9The carvings on the capitals of the columns were fascinating – humans, beasts (mythological and fanciful), gods – I could swear I saw C’thullu.  

 

 

We went back into the building proper, then wandered from room to interconnected room, drinking in the sacred images culled from monasteries, churches, and castles – excited to find these treasures opened up to our experience, but, perhaps, a bit troubled that they had been stripped from their original homes.  Still, here, they are restored, protected, and cherished. acloisters16Towards the end of our meander, we came across this carved altar with the golden reliquaries of a saint and her attendants – I think St. Ursula.

 

 

Female and male martyrs of the early Church were honored in stained glass, wooden statuary, and paintings. There were tons of artwork  of St. Margaret.   However, in honor of acloisters20my BFF Barbara, I have to include this statue of St. Barbara.

 

 

From the other side of the arch in the same chamber, here is one of my favorite statues of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus.  She is clothed in the sun and stands on the crescentacloisters21 moon.  Just to the left, you can see a carving of St. Christopher bearing the child Jesus.  These statues are more colorful than some of the others.  I don’t remember if their paint had been restored.  Most likely the case.

 

 

acloisters14Here are some more particularly striking carvings of Virgin and Child.  What must the colors have been like when this piece was even relatively new? The thought takes my breath away.  If you can look closely at the folds of Mary’s robes and the strands of her hair, you’ll be filled with amazement at the workmanship.  Truly, this work is a loving prayer.

 

 

 

 

Similarly, look at this exquisite piece.  I am amazed  at the fluid drapery of the folds ofacloisters32 her clothing, the mobile shape of her body, and the moving tenderness of her expression.  The soft shining polish of this wood dissolves any impression of stiffness and immobility.  The statue seems a fluid prayer of gentleness, love, and faith.  What a pity the Protestant Reformation looked at these works and only saw “painted idols” instead of art’s living prayer to God.

 

 

 

There is also a room in the lowest level, at the far end of the gallery, acloisters24designed like a crypt, that displays effigies. The ceiling is shaped into beautifully vaulted Gothic arches – again, I remembered Mont St. Michel.   I noticed one family had a faithful dog under the feet of the various sculpted forms of generations of its nobility. acloisters25 The novel The Undying Monster gives an intriguing play to this custom as a hint to the UM haunting its family through innumerable generations.  I guess when I go, they will have to surround me with  effigies of my plethora of cats!

 

 

We also made it into the unicorn room, with all the famous tapestries.  I was not pleased to see so many unicorns so mistreated.  No wonder they’re so hard to find nowadays – or it could have to do with the dearth of virgins. acloisters33jpg Nevertheless, I couldn’t report on a visit to the Cloisters without a picture of the most famous unicorn tapestry.

 

 

There were also displays of jewelry,  fine utensils, and various types of game boards. acloisters27There were several chess boards with figures carved from ivory or bone (whose?!), often with the knight displaying an accurate depiction of armor on man and horse.  My favorite was this chess set made out of amber.  If you look closely at the board, you can see pictures created in the chess squares.acloisters31

 

 

Of course, we also did some touristy things in town.  arockefeller3After a wonderful dinner at Alice’s Teacup – with equally wonderful tea! – we went to Rockefeller Center and got a look at the famous tree as well as the skating rink.

 

arockefeller5

 

 

 

 

So, by eight o’clock or so, we were on our train, heading back to Connecticut.  Our dogs might have been barking, but we ended the day culturally and spiritually enlightened.