Archive for the ‘Film Noir’ Category


For some time the idea of creating a way to indulge my fascination for all things pulp has been sitting in the back of my mind. Maybe more like lying in wait. Yes, that sounds more pulpy. Well, finally, I’ve decided it is time to explore this particular diversion with a place that catalogues these dark detours and more: Cartoon Pulp. Cartoon Pulp will feature online comics and other narrative experiments, all with the notion of blending, in some form or another, pulp, film noir and cartoons. There might be print editions in the future, although that will not be the focus initially.

The first ongoing comic released by Cartoon Pulp will be the mod noir, Ginger North.

Here’s the press release:

The First On-Going Comic Under the Cartoon Pulp Imprint Launches This Fall!

Ginger North will be the first on-going comic released under the Cartoon Pulp imprint, the online publishing site of cartoonist, illustrator Scott Brothers. It’s the mid 1960s ,and Ginger North is an ex-Scotland Yard detective, hired by a Hollywood studio to keep tabs on their stars and directors. It’s a strange gig to be sure, one that this British detective is not exactly prepared for. But when the studio’s biggest star, Charles Mannning, is found murdered in a seedy motel room, things become even more complicated. On the trail of Manning’s killer, Ginger North descends into the bizarre world of B-Movies, mod biker gangs and hand and foot models.

From the promo:

“Hey cats and kittens, it’s Hollywood,1965, the merging of glitz and glamour with menace and mayhem. This is the L.A. of dreams and nightmares, a city on the make, and private detective Ginger North is caught in the middle. Meet a gaggle of mods, beats, hoods, junkies and grifters, all occupying a luridly dangerous world of make-believe.”  

Cartoon Pulp will publish digital comics, narrative experiments, and any other interesting storytelling device that involves comics, pulp and possibly, but not exclusively, dames with attitudes.

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It’s been awhile since my last art update and to kick off a new round of illustration work is my paperback cover for the trash thriller, The Killing Kiss (1963, by Robert Daly). This was the first novel in the Ginger North series of books. Ginger North, of course, was the sultry private spy/lawyer/CPA who had a knack for taking down Russian bad guys and throwing back a few Martinis.

Below is another version of the cover illustration…


Ginger North, as a character, was loosely based upon British actress Diana Dors, particularly from the publicity stills below…

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There is a Los Angeles of the cinema. And of novels. This is the L.A. of dreams and nightmares, a place that exists on the periphery, a time and place that has been willed into being over that last 100 years, the modern L.A. stretching out across the desert like a monolith. This slippery version of the truth is the epicenter of glamour and glitz, of crime and punishment. This is the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, of Billy Wilder’s poison ode to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. It’s not the reality—far from it—but there are entire cottage industries devoted to this decadent mirror image. Not being from L.A. I have the luxury of indulging in this version, something akin to my romantic image of New York, seen forever in black and white, and as if everyone thing had become set dressing in a Woody Allen film. And that’s OK, I suppose. These are versions we cling to for one reason or another, spurred on by memories of sitting in the dark, watching hours of movies. All of this begs the pointed question: Which came first? L.A. or the movie version of L.A.?

Photographer Alex Prager knows this cinematic version of L.A. inside and out. Her Technicolor photos are steeped in reverence for Hitchcock films and B-movies of an old Hollywood that meets with the modern one. The lineage of her style can be traced directly back to such photographers as Cindy Sherman (especially Sherman), a photographer that also likes to stage entire scenes, microcosms of some unseen, fragile world only viewed through the lens of a movie camera. Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking photo series, Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980, are the likely forebears of Prager’s world. Sherman’s photos are all familiar in their own way. Haven’t we seen these scenes before, these characters? Yes and no—that’s the answer that Sherman is driving at. Her heroines are often photographed looking off-screen, as if a sinister presence was waiting just beyond the frame of the photo. These characters were always played by Sherman herself, doled up in wigs and make up that transformed her into some gangster’s moll, or femme fatale, or just a hapless victim. The photos, shot in grainy black and white, hinted that something terrible was about to happen, that, just like in the movies, we as the audience are unable to alter the future, we are made to be passive, watching until the final, fatal frame. Indeed, there is something deeply dark and disturbing about Sherman’s series that ultimately trumps the reference to certain movie tropes, and this is their ultimate power: they are tapping into something that we know on a basic level and then they are leading us further down a very dark hallway.

photo by Cindy Sherman

photo by Alex Prager

Alex Prager’s characters are more often than not female as well, archetypes from some B-movie, framed in strained, contrived poses as they too, often stare off-screen. But these cotton-candy photos insinuate a camera crew just out of frame rather than a killer/abuser about to strike. Whereas Sherman’s photos underlined a certain comment about how women are portrayed in the media (most particularly in film), Prager embraces the artifice of movie making itself—she is giving in fully to the characters and situations; everything is familiar, but unique and different at the same time. They are photos that love the movies, that are in love with the movies, that embrace the illusion that Hollywood readily provides. No doubt there is probably a subtext that Prager is driving at—after all, this is contemporary art—but the why seems less important next to the striking quality of the images themselves.

There are often dark deeds being conducted–staging that alludes to doom, to disaster, or to something so banal and everyday that surely there is terror hidden within their blandness. The situations, however vague or bleak are always formally imaginative, Prager deftly constructing each photo in such away that draws the viewer in time and again. Her photos are sumptuous, seductive, alluring. The colors and forms, the costumes and wigs, the compositions and staging all tie together to form a dark universe.  In one photo titled Eve, from her Big Valley (2008) series, a frantic woman is framed in that iconic green suit that Tippi Hedren wore in The Birds, being overwhelmed by attacking pigeons, but the background, with its rolling desert hills and looming  powerline, is obviously L.A.;all at once the photo is breaking and reinforcing the idea of  the appropriation of cinema. In another photo called Emily from the photo series Polyester (2007), a woman, pictured only from the waist down, is escaping down a rope, presumably out the window of an apartment building. Although no particular film is referenced, it seems as if this scene could have been lifted from any number of suspense movies. With these photos and others, Prager is erecting her own take on the power of cinema and its ability to fascinate, to capture a viewer’s imagination.

In recent years Prager has moved to making short films and commercials, which seems like a natural fit. One of her first short films Despair (2010), plays like a the crossroads of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Todd Haynes, a deadpan piece brought to life with Prager’s pension for luridly saturated colors and wonderfully contrived compositions.

In April of this year, Prager will be debuting a new exhibition of photographs complete with short film that ties into the series Compulsion (what seems to be a sly nod to Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion). A press release says this of the accompanying short film, La Petite Mort: the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth — the former a grand exit, and the latter a slow escape.”

Clearly L.A., and Hollywood in particular, continue to be fruitful muse for Prager. She is creating a landscape, a world that is so close in many ways, but one that still exists only in the world of the cinema, a place that can only come to life in a darkened theater, the audience captured by images that evoke an L.A. of wonder and darkness. This is the Los Angeles of the cinema, a distorted doppelgänger of the original, shimmering and pulsing out there in the sprawling desert of California, just close enough to touch.

You can find more of Alex Prager’s work at her website, Alex Prager Photography and Films.

All photos copyright Alex Prager and Cindy Sherman.

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A film still from the trailer for Lawrence Stigleman’s Ring-A-Ding-Dead! (1959).

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Dick Powell is a glutton for punishment. More specifically, Powell’s Philip Marlowe is a glutton for punishment. In the 1944 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farwell, My Lovely, renamed Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell played the part of the famous private detective as if it might be the last acting gig he ever got. He is funny, strangely charming, clumsy and a joy to watch even as he’s repeatedly beaten over the head, drugged, tossed in an insane asylum, and temporarily blinded by gunshot fire. Powell doesn’t simply play Marlowe as the typical tough-guy detective—there was always more to Chandler’s character than that—his version is fully formed; vulnerable, really vulnerable, which makes him more likeable, certainly more sympathetic. Much of the unintended glee in watching this film are Marlowe’s dealings with the somewhat sociopathic nitwit, Moose Malloy played deftly by Mike Mazurki. Moose is all blunt, dumb menace and is constantly annoyed by the wise-cracking Marlowe; his first instinct always violence.  As twisted as the plot can sometimes become, the interplay between these two actors helps to ground the film.

Many consider Humphrey Bogart’s take on the seminal literary figure in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep to be the best rendition of Marlowe (Elliott Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is certainly odd, not bad, just odd), but Dick Powell is my personal favorite; his reverence for the hardboiled dialogue comes through in every scene and really, truly, he looks and acts the part. In my mind, this is Marlowe, sinking into the seedy shadows of old Los Angeles, waiting for the next case to walk through the door.

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Two of Sam Fuller’s best films, The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), have recently received an overhaul from the Criterion Collection. Now, besides HD digital transfers, they both include the extras that fans of the Criterion Collection have come to expect: interviews, documentaries (Shock Corridor features the wonderful 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera) and two box illustrations by cartoonist Dan Clowes. Both Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss represent Sam’s Fuller’s disdain and bizarre admiration of tabloid journalism. To be sure, they were sensationalistic b-movies in the truest sense; they sought to scandalize and titillate audiences with the dark material being presented. But Fuller wanted to also illuminate the human condition, to tackle subjects that were not merely taboo at the time, but that were as dangerous as a loaded gun.

Below, I am reposting my essay from last year on Fuller’s seminal work, The Naked Kiss.


The Naked Kiss (1964)

Director: Samuel Fuller

A sudden explosion of violence. A woman advances toward the screen, brandishing her purse like a weapon and smacking the hell of some drunken palooka who’s just trying to escape. Frenetic jazz music heightens the sense of chaos as the screaming woman continues her assault. Then the man pulls her hair off—her wig we realize— revealing a woman who is completely bald. When she finally wrestles him the ground with the help of a bottle of spray seltzer, she removes a wad of money from his wallet declaring that she is taking only what is coming to her.

This is the opening scene in Samuel Fuller’s 1964 film, The Naked Kiss.  These stark events unfold, rapid fire, in the first few moments following an initial title card. Using mainly a hand-held camera and frequently cutting to a P.O.V. shot of the retreating man, the audience itself feels like it’s under attack. It is a sly, utterly convincing conceit on Fuller’s part. The scene is unexpected and unnerving and once the main character, Kelly’s (Constance Towers) wig comes off it gets weird, really weird (this opening scene itself is really worth the price of admission). We realize in short order that Kelly is a prostitute that’s had it with her pimp and is ready to severe all ties. But Kelly is also someone with morals, even in this dirty business. This is a theme that Fuller would return to again and again over the course of the film.

The Naked Kiss is a movie strangely out of time. I still don’t know what to make of it. It certainly feels like film noir, with its snappy dialogue and pulpy storyline, but it also exists in b-movie territory; low-budget and off-kilter, it lurks about in lurid, often taboo material. At the same time it seems to fit the mold of the 50s melodrama, movies mostly geared toward women. Fuller undermines all of these genres, pulling from them at will, using their hallmarks as subversion, as a way into darker issues. Indeed, the topics that Fuller tackles are still weighty subjects to this day and I can only imagine that movie goers at the time must have been either scratching their heads or utterly incensed by the scandalous content. This is grotesque stuff indeed, a film that doesn’t fit the mainstream mold, that’s not the typical “Hollywood” picture. Fuller had long been know as director with a maverick bent, churning out films like The Baron of Arizona (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953) and Shock Corridor (1963) ; The Naked Kiss only helped solidify this notion.

After Kelly’s initial attack on her pimp, the film skips ahead several years. Kelly arrives in a small town called Grantville, stepping off the bus with only a few pieces of luggage and a new head of hair. Posing as a saleswoman, she quickly takes up with the town cop, Griff (Anthony Eisley), as her first “john” in the new town. Griff offers her work at the town’s brothel, Candy’s. Instead, Kelly decides to shed her past once and for all and takes a job as a nurse helping handicapped children at a local hospital. Once Griff learns that she rejected his offer for work at the club, he begins to shadow her, not believing that she can relinquish her unsavory past.

Kelly soon meets Grant (Michael Dante), the town millionaire and a supposed beacon of the community. They quickly fall in love and Grant proposes. Kelly has several initial reservations about marrying Grant, her former life as a prostitute being one. True to her nature, she comes clean, revealing her past to Grant. To Kelly’s surprise he doesn’t care and still wants to marry her. But, the strangest, out-of-left field twist is still to come.

Fuller executes the story with precision and economy, as he did with most of his films, but like Shock Corridor, the movie that preceded The Naked Kiss, he also allows for detours into dream-like moments, exposing the psyche of the characters, especially that of his heroine, Kelly. They are often odd, unsettling moments: Kelly imagines floating down the streets of Venice in a gondola as the living room of Grant’s mansion vanishes into a sort of stagey darkness; handicapped children singing a song that is recorded for posterity, that we hear again later and is made all the more creepy by the events that follow it.

Cinematographer Stanley Cortez helps solidify Fuller’s dark, moody vision of small-town America. Cortez shot the one of the most gorgeous black and white films, The Night of the Hunter and brings many of same sensibilities to bear in The Naked Kiss. Large, almost empty rooms are defined by hard-edged shadows. Fuller lingers mostly in wide and medium shots, only occasionally going into a close-up. He moves the camera only when it serves a purpose.  There is nothing extraneous; he expedites the storyline efficiently with camerawork that only serves further the plot.

With the The Naked Kiss Samuel Fuller creates a pulpy, sensationalistic assault on small-town morality. It is a film that doesn’t pull its punches, literally. The Naked Kiss reveals its horrors and hypocrisy at a singular, unrelenting pace. Kelly is a woman shunned by society, a pariah, but it is she who is really the moral force of the film. The town holds horrible secrets and is itself corrupt to a degree; from the cop to the philanthropist, they are in league, these two archetypes, ready to expose the failings of others while holding themselves as examples of societal “norms”.

But in Fuller’s world there is no room for notions of good and evil, these thematic manifestations simply don’t jive with his world view (Kelly is no saint, but neither is Griff). His is bare-knuckled social commentary, the kind born from years as a newspaper man working in tabloids (in his teens Fuller was a crime reporter for a newspaper called “The Graphic” and continued working in tabloids until turning to Hollywood where he wrote novels as well as directed movies). Indeed, the dialogue itself feels like it was ripped right out of dime store pulp novel. After discovering that a fellow nurse at the hospital made 300 dollars in one night at Candy’s club, we get this monologue from Kelly:

“All right, go ahead. You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life. Oh, you’re a beautiful girl, Buff. Young… Oh, they’ll outbid each other for you. You’ll get clothes, compliments, cash… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet. And, after a steady grind of making EVERY john feel at home, you’ll become a block of ice. If you do happen to melt a little, you’ll get slipped a tip behind Candy’s back. You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman.”

True, some of the writing stretches into the realm of cornball, but there is an interesting cadence to it as well, like the writing of James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, both of whom have an ear of how dialogue is delivered, not simply how it exists on the page. This bit of monologue sums up Kelly’s character fairly neatly, because, after all, it is Kelly’s story. Fuller peppers his script with punchy dialogue such as this throughout the film; as hardboiled and cartoonish as it might seem, it also reveals Fuller’s social conscience and his desire to tell stories that were honest, that exposed humanity for what was.

Perhaps most illuminating of all, Fuller cast his tough-as-nails character, Kelly, as his lead, a role he usually reserved for men. It’s a reversal that is fascinating to watch, especially given the time period in which it was made. Kelly doesn’t need a man to survive, and when she does let her guard down, when she fails to abide her instincts, it leads to her downfall (the “Naked Kiss” of the title refers to the kiss of a degenerate, the taste of ugliness and despair; this was a feeling she experienced with Grant, something she ignored). She is vindicated in the end but chooses to leave town; there is nothing left for her, whatever good she had done was already tainted. She must keep moving, seeking a life that remains elusive, that remains a dream.

Kelly is a woman who knows who she is; perhaps the only character in the movie with enough guts to allow herself this sort of honesty. She will ultimately be alone; made an outcast not by her past, but because of what she believes.

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Check out Trent’s review of Darwyn Cooke’s latest installment in the Parker series over at the Violent World of Parker blog . My inclination toward Hanna-Barbera is noted.

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Guns and Gams

This trailer for the Palm Springs International Short Festival has been making the rounds for a couple of months, but for those who haven’t seen it, I would be remiss if I didn’t write even a small blurb about it. Produced by MAKE animation studios, this bit of cartoon noir is so exciting and inspiring to look at, that I want an entire feature with these characters and this style of animation. Riffing on noir archetypes—albeit with cartoon sensibilities—the short is really fun to watch. Great character design, voice acting and animation abound (even the bits of CG are smart and well-integrated). There are so many small details that become apparent upon repeated viewings; nothing seems inconsequential or an afterthought. More than anything, this ad proves the viability of 2D animation in America, that not every ad/feature film has to be done in 3D to be relevent.

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