Category Archives: Crime

Hitchcock, Vertigo & Me: A Threesome in Fogtown

Vertigo

Horror writer Robert Dunbar posted on Facebook about the fact that Vertigo beat Citizen Kane in the prestigious Sight & Sound film. That got me thinking — always a dangerous prospect. I remember having a fascinating conversation with Dunbar about Vertigo specifically and Hitchcock in general at the World Horror Convention some years ago…must have been in San Francisco, 2006. I had just been introduced to Dunbar by P.D. Cacek. As I recall, Robert and I both share a great love for this film, but at the time I weighed in much more heavily on the “Hitchcock is a sadist, and that’s why he’s cool” side of a minor philosophical debate over just how warped Hitch’s mind is/was. Dunbar, to his credit, was willing to take a much more humanistic and whollistic view of the master’s brain, which got me thinking (then) about just how much I was reading my own motives into Hitch’s, and (now, again) about just how completely lost I was in despair in the years when I first saw Vertigo, and still (even more so) that year that I met the esteemed Mr. Dunbar.

Things were not good for me in those years, emotionally. That’s why I celebrate life now with such angry delirium, because I never know when the bell jar might drop and I’ll be stewing in my own sour air.

While I love Citizen Kane, I’ve always found it a bit too in love with its own artistry, at the cost of its humanity. Don’t get me wrong, I freakin’ love Welles; the man may be the most interesting son of a bitch ever to make a film. If his Macbeth doesn’t leave you twitching on the floor, if The Stranger doesn’t make your head spin, if his performance in The Third Man doesn’t awe you, then I’ll personally inform your next of kin that you’ve been replaced by a Body Snatcher. And that’s leaving aside the  fact that Welles presided over the greatest non-hoax in radio history (not counting, of course, Vrillon’s 1977 invasion of the UK, which was technically a television hoax and also was a hoax [ I hope], which Welles’s War of the Worlds wasn’t.)

But Citizen Kane, like everything by Welles, is best when it’s viewed through the prism of culture. Like the film I consider to be by far Wellse’s most interesting, F for Fake, Citizen Kane dominates because it rips a hole in the fabric of reality, not because it exists in flat narrative space. But where Hitchcock drilled a hole in screen and pumped cyanide in, Wells tore through the screen ready to brawl. His ambitions were in many ways greater, but he never had the control of Hitchcock.

Between the oeuvres of Welles and Hitchcock there’s ample fodder for a PhD thesis in any field you want, perhaps most notably clinical psychology, except that sounds far too much for comfort like the beginning of a Welles or Hitchcock film in which the psychologist does not meet a happy end.

But between Citizen Kane and Vertigo, I far prefer the latter, because I have always valued control over audacity — for deep psychological (and possibly psychiatric) reasons that may become tellingly obvious if you’re weird enough to stick with me for a while.

And I remember what a fucked-up experience it was the first time I ever saw Vertigo.

 

Vertigo2

 

You see, the first time I ever saw Vertigo I was incredibly depressed. I’d left my apartment on 14th Street to wander the streets, as I often did, which sounds more dangerous than it is when you wander toward Church instead of Capp, and when it’s early on a weekend afternoon, as it was, instead of three in the morning, as it occasionally was when I wandered in those days.

This time, the weather was beautiful and I was ugly, or thought so. I wandered for hours, my mood not improving but the sense of motion being helpful.

I found myself walking past the breathtaking Castro Theater, which I was lucky enough to be able to call my neighborhood movie house (along with the Victoria Theater and the utterly imcomparable Roxie, one of the greatest movie houses on the planet).

The Castro is gorgeous, in case you don’t know. It’s got a beautiful facade, it’s on a lovely block that just happens to be one of the two or three gayest damned blocks in the nation, possibly the gayest, possibly not just in the nation but in the world. It’s in a beautiful neighborhood and as if that’s not enough it has a freakin’ organ. And no, that isn’t a double entendre. The Castro Theater has a bloody pipe organ, which gets played before select performances and as accompaniment to silent films. The Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer joins the Spreckles Organ at the even more breathtaking (if that’s possible) Palace of the Legion of Honor on this Bach lover’s very long shortlist of San Francisco’s lesser-known pleasures. There are far too few pipe organs in the world, just like there are too few people watching Hitchcock movies. It seems like I never stop hearing how great they are, but every day I encounter people who haven’t seen them.

Anyway, on this particular afternoon it turned out I had rolled my meatwad of dispair to the Castro’s doorstep just a few minutes before an afternoon showing of a brand new 35mm print of (wait for it) Vertigo!

I had never seen the film, although I loved at least a dozen of Hitchcock’s other films by then. I have my sister Lisa to thank for this — she introduced me to Psycho and Rear Window when I was young. I’d devoured many Hitch films on VHS by the time I saw Vertigo — among them favorites-to-this day Strangers on a Train, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train (screenplay by Chandler from a novel by Highsmith, incidentally) and the screechingly brilliant The Birds, which bears a certain terminal similarity to Vertigo for reasons I’ll go into later.

So I was tangled up in blue and I had money in my pocket. The film nerds were positively shitting themselves and smearing it on the walls over how unbelievably significant this new print of Vertigo. And it’s never a bad time to see a flick — any flick — at the Castro Theater. I figured, “WTF, life couldn’t possibly get any worse, could it?”

I paid my ten cents (or whatever it cost in those days) and delivered myself unto the tender mercies of the esteemed Mr. Hitchcock.

Life couldn’t possibly get any worse? How wrong I was!!

Mr. Hitchcock’s Mercies are not always tender. Sometimes they are not tender at all.

I’m not one of those people who just falls into a movie and the experience is awesome even if it’s a bad movie or I just don’t like it. Especially on the big screen, alone, I experience films so viscerally that I often become quite a dick about them, actually. That’s why — fair warning — disgreeing with me on the ending of Birdy might get you punched in the face some day. (See? Now you have something to look forward to!)

Those of you who have not seen Vertigo, or those for whom it’s just a great escapist film, may forget what it’s about. It concerns a guy who is paralyzed by his — well, call it fear if you like, though in psychological terms I don’t know that it’s accurate to call vertigo “fear” as such. It’s a weird, paranoid, beautifully evocative and seductive film packed with the beautiful and the beautifully hideous.

But unlike in Psycho or The Birds, there isn’t a whisper of ugly in Vertigo. Within Vertigo‘s  visual language, violence is made ugly by the removal of beauty. In Vertigo, beauty just vanishes. You don’t see it pecked apart or even running down the drain. It’s just gone. The visually hideous is, therefore, left revealed only in the resulting spin within Scottie’s brain. It’s ugliness by imbalance…a puke-inducing destabilization of the self, like the devotional whirling of dervishes crossed with the spinning of baby chicks down a funnel in Baraka. Scottie Ferguson twirls because beauty is gone, and he can’t find it…and he’s not too damn sure who took it, but he thinks he’s pretty sure he knows for certain whoever took it isn’t who he thinks he knows he thinks it isn’t who he thinks it is. Spin spin spin, like the propeller on a Liberator. Spin, Scottie, until you’re the engine of your own destruction.

Vertigo is no less tense and no less scary than The Birds or Psycho or Rear Window (which uses a similar language of off-camera violence). But personally — maybe because of the way I first saw it — I still find Vertigo the most sadistic film by a truly sadistic director.

Watching it that day at the Castro, choked by my depression, I had the sense of Hitchcock sitting in front of me politely saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, did I just punch you in the nuts? Here, like THIS, is that what I did? Oh, did I do that? THIS? I did THIS? Oh, I’m sorry, here, let me do it again just to make sure I know what you’re talking about.”

My paralyzing depressions and my impulse toward artistic brutality are good friends and mortal enemies. They’re also each others’ psychoanalysts, not to mention each others’ landladies, proctologists, bosses-from-hell and occasional pityfucks. They have many late-night discussions over Crisco and MacTavish, and often, without warning, reach the spontaneous decision to murder each other once and for all. In that, they remind me of many great artistic partnerships down through the ages.
 

 

 

 

Jimmy Stewart may have been wholesome to a fault — to my way of thinking, much more wholesome than Hitchcock, whose work I both love and distrust. But you don’t fly B-24s over Bremen, Frankfurt and Berlin without learning how to be shit-scared and deliver your lines anyway. I didn’t know that then — I didn’t even know Stewart had served in World War II, let alone in one of the highest-risk professions a fighting man could have in World War II — not to mention way the fuck up in the air. Vertigo indeed. (Wanna know another interesting Northern California fact? Lt. Stewart — then in his thirties — was a four-engine flight instructor at Mather Field, now Mather Air Force Base, near where I grew up in Sacramento.)

Anyway, some of you may not be familiar with Vertigo. I can’t imagine why you’d give a damn about me if you haven’t experienced Hitchcock, since compared to him I am, at best, an anklebiter of terror. But in case you haven’t gotten around to Vertigo yet, I won’t spoil the ending. Just know that I love endings, at least when it comes to films and fiction. I consider the ending of Vertigo to be the most completely fucked up thing I have ever seen. Remember how I said I felt like Hitchcock was sitting in front of me and he kept punching me in the personals? I think I was overstating it, because ultimately Vertigo is a deceptively subtle film. Really, the end came — and still comes, even though I know it’s coming — as a complete surprise.

Vertigo‘s brilliant final shot hit me like a suckerpunch — a kiss for the damned.

I started laughing. I laughed like a fiend. I howled like a maniac.

I thought it was the funniest, most perverse thing I had ever seen a filmmaker do.

This was a warped and heinous crime against art and humanity, and as such a stroke of the most admirable brilliance an artist can be capable of.

To this day, I find the ending of Vertigo so unbelievably disturbing and funny and weird and creepy and tragic all at once. When I saw it that first time at the Castro, I absolutely could not believe I had seen what I had just seen. Nobody would actually do that, would they?

Oh, I laughed and laughed and laughed, probably for like a minute solid. I laughed until I cried. If I’d had popcorn and Diet Coke in my belly, I would have spewed it all over the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The other moviegoers, politely filing out having chats about what a genius Hitchcock was and how beautiful Kim Novak was, clearly thought I’d gone completely insane. Which I probably had, although some years before and this was really just a late-arriving memo. This was a weekend afternoon showing of a new Hitchcock print at The Castro Theater, mind you. They tolerate eccentricities in that neighborhood. The bar for crazy is pretty high.

That day I proved beyond eccentric. How charmingly Hitchcock talked me into putting my head in his filmmaking guillotine! He did not help my depression, but then, he wasn’t trying to.

Cut and print, Mr. Hitchcock.

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Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker's Guns

Two of Bonnie and Clyde’s guns are up for auction at RR Auction in Amherst, NH…but not the ones that dedicated collectors might hope for.

The weapons in question are the .38 Colt Detective Special (“squat gun”) Bonnie Parker had strapped to her leg and the .45 Colt M1911 in Clyde Barrow’s belt, both taken from the scene by Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a member of the posse that ambushed and killed the couple on the road in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. (Hamer, incidentally, claimed to have been in more than 100 gunfights during his law enforcement career, and to have killed 53 men. His son, Frank Hamer, Jr., was also a Texas Ranger, and provided the statement that authenticates the handguns on the RR Auction site. Also on auction at RR Auction are Bonnie’s cosmetic case, Clyde’s Colt Army Special (a modified “Fitzgerald Special”), his Elgin pocket watch, a letter by John Dillinger, and some really, really, really weird stuff from Capone.

But lovers of historical firearms know that Clyde Barrow’s favorite weapon was the Browning M1918 Automatic Rifle, or BAR. This bulky .30-’06 rifle was a selective fire weapon, meaning it could be fired single shot or full automatic. Because of the weapon’s size, Barrow famously modified his Browning, chopping down the stock and the barrel. You can see such a modified BAR in the Michael Mann film Public Enemies, where it is ahistorically placed in the hands of the historical gangster Homer Van Meter, a member of Dillinger’s gang. (Dillinger did not use the chopped-down BAR). According to user Mauser at the Internet Movie Firearms Database, the following is an actual historical photo of a chopped-down Barrow M1918  (it’s missing the magazine):

The Browning Automatic Rifle was an infantry weapon designed for World War I and deployed by the US military only late in the war — hence the “M1918,” or “Model 1918” designation. It was meant to replace the despised French Chauchat and Model 1909, which were prone to frequent malfunction. (The Chauchat may be one of the most hated weapons ever used by the US military).

The BAR was intended to be fired on full automatic by an advancing infantryman with the weapon slung over his shoulder, in a kind of suppressive fire that is called “walking fire” or “marching fire.” In military science, “suppressive fire” is fire that “degrades the performance of a target below the level needed to fulfill its mission.” In other words, rather than trying to hit the target, it makes the enemy troops keep their heads down so they can’t stop the squad from advancing.

The BAR was not ideally suited for doing this on the battlefield, for a couple of reasons. First was the powerful .30-’06 round, which remains a standard rifle cartridge to this day. It’s a popular hunting round and the standard for the US Army’s M1 rifle and its successor, the M14, as well as many other military weapons. But the .30-’06 has a fair amount of recoil — especially when fired on the run. Second, John Browning gave the BAR a rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute — good — but equipped it with a 20 round box magazine –bad. Twenty rounds does not last long when one is laying down suppressive fire and glorping across a muddy stretch of No Man’s Land. The BAR can’t use a belt like some other light machine guns (which would probably make the weight prohibitive for walking fire anyway), and the Browning Automatic Rifle could not use a 50-round drum, as could the .45 Thompson.

But while the BAR made it into service in the Great War, it was the Thompson that went into production too late for military contracts. This led Thompson to unload his inventory by advertising the thing in magazines as the ideal weapon for ranchers to shoot coyotes. Bootleggers and bank robbers also found it a great way to take care of unwanted pests.

Having shot a Thompson on full auto, I can say that the weapon’s reputation for jamming is well earned; they jam like holy hell if you ease up on the trigger even for the whisper of an instant. Emptying the drum might seem like a good idea if someone was shooting back at you. The Thompson became known as the “Chicago Typewriter,”  but I’d wager that more memos got written with it in Hollywood than in Chicago. It was not with the BAR but with the Thompson, in The Godfather, “They shot Sonny on the Causeway. He’s dead!” In the Coen Brothers’ brilliant and oft-forgotten Miller’s Crossing, Denholm Elliot’s Irish gangster memoed rival gangsters with the Chicago Typewriter using, shall we say, vivid language. “Fuck off,” he tells them, basically, “Never interrupt an Irishman when he’s listening to ‘Danny Boy.'”

The BAR, on the other hand, ended up remaining in US military service through World War II and the Korean War, but it was used as a light machine gun or squad automatic weapon, not to provide walking fire. In the US military, today’s squad automatic weapons are essentially just beefed-up versions of the AR-15, essentially the M-16 or the M-4 but with increased capacity and a heavier barrel to support fully automatic fire without overheating.

But back in the 1930s, “suppressive fire” has a lower threshold of effectiveness  if you’re, say, a bank robber shooting at local cops with .38 revolvers or FBI agents who aren’t legally entitled to carry weapons. In this context, Barrow found the BAR effective, especially since the .30-’06 rounds he was able to steal from National Guard armories in the Midwest could reportedly pierce the heavy steel doors of 1930s automobiles. For this purpose, one of Barrow’s BARs was used by the 90-pound Bonnie Parker to pin down law enforcement officers in a shootout in Joplin, Missouri.

Incidentally, you know that caliber I was talking about? That’s right, .30-’06. Now, if you’ve read this far you probably already know this, but in case you don’t: It’s pronounced “thirty-ought-six. In this case, “ought” is an antiquated way of saying “zero,” and it was a “thirty caliber” round developed in 1906. If you are, say, a writer, and can learn only one thing about firearms, this is a pretty good thing to learn, though the difference between “9 mm” (a common pistol round) and “.9 mm” (a copyeditor’s shooting offense) would also be worth learning. The thirty-ought-six is quite possibly the most common U.S. hunting and military rifle round of the twentieth century — unquestionably so prior to about 1970, and it remains standard. So you can imagine my annoyance when, listening to an audiobook about hunting safaris in Africa, I was subjected to the narrator’s repeated insistence on calling it a “point-three-oh, point-oh-six.”

Ouch. Let Tom Waits explain it to you, and sing you out while he’s at it:

Image from Wikipedia.

Now For Sale in the Kindle Store: Viva Las Vegas, a Zombie Crime Story

I’m celebrating Halloween by putting all my old zombie stories up in the Kindle store. “Viva Las Vegas” is Zombie Stories #1.

When the zombocalypse hits, a Mob hit man who made the mistake of working “one last job” and got his fiancee killed must cruise the broken streets of Vegas looking for her.

Buy a copy of “Viva Las Vegas” for 99 cents in the Amazon Kindle Store.

“Viva Las Vegas” was the very first zombie story I ever wrote.

I had been re-reading The Godfather and Goodfellas and reading the books of former FBI agent William F. Roemer, about the Chicago mob. I was totally obsessed with the Sicilian-American Mafia and organized crime in general. My friend Alex S. Johnson told me John Skipp was reading for another Book of the Dead anthology. Some years before, I had read the original Book of the Dead, an anthology of stories based on the world of George R. Romero. I thought it was the most drop-dead amazing horror I had ever read.

So I wrote “Viva Las Vegas,” “A tale about dirty rotten gamblers and the heavily-armed hit man who kills them a second time…sometimes a third.” I made it as tragic and hard-boiled as I could stand, and extra-bloody because you can’t have a zombie novella without cracking a few heads. The original version was 7,700 words, and i trimmed it down to about 7,200 to speed up the action.

After I submitted the story, Skipp called me at home one day. He told me how much he loved the story, but he couldn’t take it…because while it was 100% true to his crime-novel sensibilities, it wasn’t quite true to his Book of the Dead sensibilities. I think those were his words, more or less. I was so blown away by getting a call from John Skipp that I just bleated and glorped. I think I mighta squeed.

Anyway, when my friend Shade Rupe was collecting stories for a second volume of his amazing magazine/anthology Funeral Party, it was at a time when I didn’t really consider myself a nonfiction writer.

So I sent him this. He loved it. It appeared in that amazing tome.

Some years later, it was selected for a volume of James Roy Daley’s Best Zombie Stories anthology series.

It’s one of my favorites. Like all my zombie stories, it cuts to the heart of my mythology, even if it’s a very different mythology than other zombie stories I’ve written. When I came back to the genre with The Panama Laugh, I had this character very much in mind…but this guy isn’t quite Dante, because the time between one work and the other had warped me profoundly, and I had much more to say.

Zombies, like vampires, are a template for thematic improvisation and psychological exploration. While that’s true of all monsters, fictional and nonfictional, it’s with zombies and vamps that I find my own obsessions framing the argument so the agonies seem real.

Doing anything else would be unfair to the characters. Laugh if you want, but I take horror seriously.

Hope you enjoy it. I know I liked writing it.
 

 

Thomas Roche Story Hell On Wheels to be Broadcast on BBC

My short story “Hell on Wheels,” which appeared in Maxim Jakubowski’s The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4Xtra (the re-branded BBC Radio 7) on November 12th 2011 as part of their Pulp Fiction series. It will be broadcast online, but won’t be podcast — so if you want to hear it, you’ll need to listen then.