I wouldn't recommend reading A Touch of Death and River Girl back-to-back. The similarities in these two fine novels by Charles Williams make it hard to appreciate their striking differences.
In both novels our hero winds up in a stolen car with a beautiful woman and a wad of ill-gotten cash, driving country roads, on the run from police. Williams writes these chapters well, but I had a sense of deja vu.
But they are very different stories.
In River Girl, the man falls in love with a woman and scrounges enough cash so they can run away together. In A Touch of Death the man starts out needing cash, and accidentally winds up on the run with a beautiful woman he he hates .
Rick Ollerman recommends A Touch of Death as "superbly crafted." He's right. It is tightly plotted without feeling clockwork, suspenseful without feeling melodramatic, and noir with being grotesque.
Ollerman says River Girl contains a lot of superfluous description. It does. I have to assume better editing would have made a masterpiece on par with A Touch of Death instead of merely very good.
The big tree in the middle of this picture is the Centennial Tree on the Main Post in the Presidio. The National Park Service gives such a wonderful description of its origin that I will quote it in full:
"In 1876, the post's trader, Angelo Marcian Gasper Beretta, planted three eucalyptus trees in honor of his three daughters to celebrate the centennial of the American Revolution. The Army cleared the area for a new parade ground but left one of the trees, the Centennial Tree, which still stands near the center of the parade ground . . ."
I think all patriotic Americans can appreciate Beretta's gesture and the Army's decision to save one of the trees for posterity. What I love about this story is the haphazard process by which we arrived at a centennial tree in a prominent place in a national park. History is so messy.
By citing this account, I am correcting my own blog post in which I said the Army planted the Centennial tree. It turns out the Army only spared its life. Beretta planted it. No word yet on which of the daughters had the satisfaction of seeing her tree saved.
Also worth noting is the Bicentennial Tree next to it. A plaque near the tree says, "Commemorating 200 years of America's freedom. Sequoia Chapter NSDAR. March 7, 1976." NSDAR would be National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
It's great to see lots of people and organizations pitching in to make the Presidio what it is.
This ticking-clock thriller has a lot to recommend it. Reviewers complained it strains credibility, but they always do with mysteries and thrillers. That's like complaining that there's no such thing as a light saber. Get with the program, critics! If you want to talk about plot holes and coincidences, let's talk about Oedipus the King.
I liked the low stakes in this movie. One decent but flawed guy (Denzel Washington) gets in over his head by devising a scheme that is partly noble, partly selfish. If it all goes wrong, the worst that can happen is a small town in Florida has to get a new police chief. Leave global domination to the James Bond franchise. Give me one relatable character to root for.
Whether or not you like the basic noir plot involving a guy putting it all on the line to save a damsel in distress (and getting some ugly surprises), you have to admire the performances in this movie. I vaguely recall seeing it in a theater sixteen years ago, and I vividly recall walking out and asking, "Who is she?"
"She" is Eva Mendes. She plays the no-nonsense cop who follows the evidence even when it threatens to lead to her almost-ex-husband. She matches Denzel's intensity and credibility without breaking a sweat (and this is in Florida!).
The same can be said for Sanaa Lathan, who plays the damsel in distress. In fact the performances are uniformly good in this movie with Chris Harrison playing the heavy, John Billingsley as the comic sidekick, and so on down the line.
If you go looking for it, watch out for other films with the same title. Several were released at around the same time as this one. One was released last year. There's also a TV series called Out of Time.
Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams tells the story of multiple confidence games, perpetrated for the purpose of revenge. It's like The Sting (the great film with Paul Newman and Robert Redford) but much more complicated. And, like The Usual Suspects, which deceives the audience, this book deceives the reader, but does so several times.
Also, perhaps surprisingly for a book written in 1953, the plot is driven by a woman who is smart, strong, and determined. Not a femme fatale, she's comparable to the character played by Barbara Harris in Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot. The story is told in the first person by her partner in crime, who scrambles to keep up, as does the character played by Bruce Dern in Family Plot.
River Girl is simple and straight-forward by comparison. A man dissatisfied with his life becomes obsessed with "another woman" and creates a scheme to run away with her. The story consists of all the things that go wrong and his struggles to keep his scheme going. The suspense is among the best I've read.
As I read these novels, I was thrilled to discover an author comparable to Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. The I read the introduction by Rick Ollerman included in this volume from Stark House Books and saw that Anthony Boucher made the same comparison in his review of Williams's Hell Hath No Fury.
Ollerman's introduction is an excellent way to discover this author who, as many have said, ranks with the best mid-century crime writers but never achieved the same recognition as Woolrich, Cain, Highsmith, and others. Possibly this is because none of the film adaptations of his books was as high-profile as Rear Window (Woolrich), Double Indemnity (Cain), or Strangers on a Train (Highsmith).
This office building on the east side of the Main Post of The Presidio is now the San Francisco Film Centre. Scanning the building's directory I notice tenants include for instance Zap Zoetrope-Aubrey Productions, Friday's Films, Actual Films, 72 Productions, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and Edelman Productions, along with law offices, funding organizations, and other services associated with film production.
This seems like a great place for folks in this business to gather since the Letterman Digital Arts Center is a ten-minute walk away on the east side of the Presidio, and the Walt Disney Family Museum faces this building across the parade ground.
I should mention that it's called "The Walt Disney Family Museum" because it was created by Walt's family, not by the Disney Corporation. It is really a museum about Walt Disney as a filmmaker. Not only can you learn about his life and career, you can also learn a lot about filmmaking. He experimented with lots of things that never became family oriented feature films.
So the Presidio is quite a filmmaking hub. No word yet on why they went with "Centre," the European spelling, instead of "Center."
Across the street from the former Bachelor Officers' Quarters Building, which is now the Inn at the Presidio, are these lovely wood frame houses that date from the time of the Civil War. They once served as housing for married officers and their families in the Presidio,
Most of the former military housing in the Presidio, from mansions for generals, to duplexes, and apartments, has been refurbished and offered for rent at market rates, This was a boon to San Francisco's housing stock in the early 2000s.
However these little houses have been rented as professional offices. They are occupied by investment advisors, accountants, psychotherapy practices, and the like. Delightful as it is to think of living in one, this was a good decision by the Presidio Trust. Just behind these houses are buildings used for public events. It would not be a quiet place to live.
These houses line the western side of Funston Way, named for "Fightin' Freddie" Funston. He was the general in command of the Presidio in 1906 when an earthquake followed by a firestorm destroyed three quarters of the city, which then had a population of almost 400,000.
Funston made the still controversial decision to dynamite parts of the city in an effort to create fire breaks. The jury is still out on whether or not this instead spread the fire.
This is an entertaining thriller that reveals the power of at least one underappreciated artist. I'll admit I thought of Don Johnson as the pretty boy from Miami Vice, but in this film he shows range. As the character demands, he goes from boyish charm without empathy to narcissistic rage when anyone tries to deny his whims. Scary.
Rebecca De Mornay has been greatly appreciated for the films of the 1980s and 1990s in which she played roles both heroic and villainous, and she continues to work, most recently in the TV series, Jessica Jones. She has star power here, playing a character more given to fight than flight.
Director Sidney Lumet is in full Hitchcock mode, which is generally a good thing. He photographs De Mornay as Hitchcock famously photographed the blondes in his thrillers. There is more than one back-of-the-head shot and several moments when De Mornay is frozen in terror while we hear Johnson off-screen threatening her. Unlike Hitchcock's blondes, De Mornay's character is in full attack mode from start to finish.
Although screenwriters are generally underappreciated, one aspect of this film made me look up the name Larry Cohen. The moments I found most chilling often come from a line of dialogue, delivered simply, in keeping with the scene. These lines reveal the next twist in the villain's scheme. No underscoring, no camera work, no "action," just story. Perhaps this is not surprising from a writer quoted as saying, "Many of the A-movies are long forgotten. They're boring, slow, and tedious. The B-movies are fast-moving, exciting, and energetic."
This fine old building in San Francisco's Presidio was built in the 1880s, around the same time as the enlisted men's barracks. It was also around that time the US Army planted the forests of eucalyptus, Monterey cypress, and Monterey Pine to shelter the army base from the wind coming off the Pacific ocean.
This was the barracks for bachelor officers. Each man had his own bedroom and parlor. There was an officer's mess on the ground floor where they took their meals. It is only a few steps from the Officer's Club.
In recent years this barracks was made into a bed-and-breakfast hotel called the Inn at the Presidio. If you stay there, you will have a bedroom and a parlor, just like those bachelor officers did. You will also have a bathroom all to yourself. And you will have breakfast in that officer's mess.
I haven't been inside, but I'm told the Presidio Trust has been true to its policy of preserving the military history of the Presido in the decoration and furnishing of this B-and-B. Even the beds have the same olive-green wool blankets as the Pendleton Company of Portland Oregon supplied to the Army.
In a previous post, I wrote about the graveyard of ships that lies outside the straits known as the Golden Gate, the only entrance to San Francisco Bay. Here is a photo of it, taken at relatively low tide (I did not consult tide tables. I just happened to be there.) You can see some of the off-shore rocks that become submerged at high tide.
According to the National Park Service, there have been "countless" shipwrecks in these straits since the Gold Rush of 1849 first brought ships to San Francisco Bay. Many natural features make this entrance perilous, including a channel hundreds of feet deep beneath the bridge. But one feature causes more wrecks than any other: fog.
Among the victims of fog was the the Ohioan, which ran aground in 1936 about where this picture was taken. It's cargo was salvaged for months, and it's skeleton lay exposed for two years. Parts of it can still be seen at low tide.
You can read about other infamous wrecks at the Park Service page linked above.
San Francisco's new Main Library opened in 1996. It is built around this atrium, which fills all six floors of the library with natural daylight.
This new building was necessitated by damage to the old Main Library in the earthquake of 1989. After it opened, the older building was retrofitted for safety and has reopened as the Asian Art Museum. The two now stand side by side on the south side of Civic Center Plaza.
As the plot thickens in Dark Video, I have Nicole Tang Noonan, art historian and amateur sleuth, stop here for some research and then meet an informant in the library's cafe, which is tucked away in the basement.
While she's in the neighborhood, Nicole also stops in at the museum. I'm about one-third of the way through the first draft.
Charles Williams wrote crime novels first published as paperback originals in the 1950s. He shares that distinction with Jim Thompson, Robert Block, John D. MacDonald, and Elmore Leonard, among others. Unlike those writers he never became a household name.
I became aware of Williams when I read Bill Crider's article on paperback originals and saw his name on Crider's checklist of lesser-known author's worth reading. Crider's comment, "Anything by Williams is good," sent me to my libraries but I did not find him in the catalogs.
Amazon pointed me to this volume of two novels by Williams. Crider mentions both as being among Williams's best. I've started Nothing in Her Way and am enjoying the lean storytelling and conversational style typical of the writers mentioned above.
On page one, our hero is approached in a bar by a man who seems to be running a scam. A moment later, we're not sure who is scamming whom. Then the man's partner in crime walks in and it's . . . No. I won't spoil that for you.
I ordered this paperback from Stark House Press, which specializes in reprinting vintage genre fiction. Along with the two novels, it includes an introduction of about 15,000 words by Rick Ollerman. I've read only the first few pages, but it looks very good.
This is a privately owned public open space (POPOS) at the corner of Second Street and Mission Street in San Francisco. It occupies most of the ground floor of a twenty-six-story office tower and is open during business hours for anyone to use.
POPOSs have been required by law since 1985 in all new buildings downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods. Along with requiring public open space proportional to the floor space of the building, the law requires a budget for public art equal to one percent of the total construction cost.
Just this morning, I wrote a scene set in the Greenhouse for Dark Video, the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, Nicole meets her friend, Irene Gonzalo, for lunch so they can compare notes on their investigations. Irene is Nicole's sidekick in this book, much the way Abbie is in the first three books.
If you're ever in town, it's fun to walk around to these. Some are indoors, some are outdoors. Some are street-level, some are rooftop. Here's a partial list.
This movie has the plot of a thriller, but it doesn't feel like a thriller.
The opening sequences build a familiar situation. The hero is ready to make a better life for herself but is pulled back into her old life for one last score. The middle of the film tightens the screws. Every time she takes two steps forward she must take one step back . . . and sometimes two steps back. The climax and conclusion are full of breathless suspense and terrifying threats.
And yet, it doesn't feel like a thriller. There is no escapism for the audience. The circumstances are not exotic. The hero has no superpowers, The stakes are personal, not global. It's a movie about a working woman and her sister. They've had some hard knocks, they've made some mistakes, but mostly they've done their best.
In other words it's a movie about real people in real trouble doing what real people do. It is carried by a luminous performance from Tessa Thompson. And, as many critics have said, the fact that this is a debut for Nia DaCosta as both writer and director is astonishing.
Both for its craftsmanship and its realism, it feels more like mid-Twentieth-Century realism from dramatists such as Cliff Odets, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller even as its subject matter seems ripped from the headlines. That is indeed high praise.
Seeing this movie thirty years ago felt like riding a fast elevator down twenty stories. Seeing it again on DVD, confirmed that impression. The combined talents of director John Schlesinger, screenwriter Daniel Pyne, and lead actors Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, and Michael Keaton produced a durable thriller.
Griffith and Modine are a young couple staking everything on buying a Victorian House and relying on income from two apartments in the house to pay the mortgage. One apartment is rented by ideal tenants, an elderly couple. The other is rented by Michael Keaton, and the nightmare begins.
The husband and the wife respond to their tenant's abuses in different ways. Which one will have the best strategy for saving their investment and their lives?
Pacific Heights is a thriller of that era when the leading woman began to take charge. She was allowed to fight back and often did so effectively. To Die For (1995) with Nicole Kidman is such a film, as is Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts. They are the forerunners of today's female super-heroes.
Anyone who finds the plot far-fetched would be well advised to consult laws regarding tenants' rights in San Francisco. It is still possible for someone to move into a rental property, never pay one dollar for rent, and avoid eviction for a very long time.
Anyone who finds the setting far-fetched would be right. The house used for the exterior shots is actually in another neighborhood. Nothing unusual in that. More to the point, lovely as it is, I doubt there is a house that small in the neighborhood called Pacific Heights.
When the new building on the left was proposed, members of the church on the right fought against approval of its design because it would block sunlight from some of the clerestory windows that let light into its sanctuary.
As you can see, it does. Since the new building is on the south side of the church, the effect is greatest in the winter. You can also see the new building was modified to pull its top story back to let more light in through the windows of the cupola.
Some church members went so far as to say the sunlight was an essential element of their worship and that therefore blocking it compromised their freedom to worship as they pleased. The builders said if that were true the church's architect was wrong to put those windows so close to the property line.
Shade is often an issue for zoning and approval as the city becomes more crowded. It seems a shame for owners of an older building to be told they are losing daylight. But access to sunlight doesn't mean you have partial ownership of the land next door.
Approval of the new building may have gotten a boost from the character of the neighborhood. Across the street are tall industrial buildings housing the Anchor Steam Brewing Company,