San Francisco's city hall was built following the earthquake and fire of 1906, which destroyed three-quarters of the city, including the old city hall. Legend has it the mayor at that time, James "Sunny Jim" Rolf, insisted the top of the dome be higher than that of the US Capitol, thus ensuring bragging rights.
Citizens come and go on routine errands: getting a marriage license, attending meetings of the Board of Supervisors, visiting the offices of the Planning Commission and many other government offices. All this is done in an interior as magnificent as the exterior.
City Hall is the grandest of the grand buildings that surround Civic Center Plaza, including state and federal court houses, the Asian Art Museum, Main Library, and the Civic Auditorium built for a world's fair in 1915 and renamed for Bill Graham in 1992.
I recently wrote a scene for the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery in which Nicole and her friend, Irene, are strolling through Civic Center Plaza, admiring the magnificent buildings, and observing the pitiful life of the people on the streets. Irene asks, "Why did the French Revolution happen?" Nicole says, "The rich got too rich, and the poor got too poor."
Memorial Day at the Presidio felt like the reunion of a very large family. Veterans, active-duty personnel, teenagers from military academies, couples, families. Some wore the uniforms of bygone days, World War II, the War in the Phillipines, the Civil War. The mood was surprisingly festive, considering all were there to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I felt like a member of the family, which was strange since I've never served in the armed forces. I stood around in my vest that says "Presidio Trust/Volunteer" and gave directions to the restrooms and the road to the national cemetery. I even helped one woman find where the Buffalo Soldiers are buried. At the end of the day, I joined the volunteers folding the garrison flag.
Toward the end, as Ann and I were handing out boxed lunches, a Vietnam-era vet thanked me for my service. Made my day.
When the Smuin Contemporary Ballet does a program entitled, "The Best of Smuin," they refer to choreography by the founder of the company, Michael Smuin. Over several seasons, I've seen dances he choreographed to the music of classical composers beginning with Bach as well as dances to the music of the Beatles, Xavier Cougat, Leon Redbone, and hundreds more.
The spring 2019 program included a solo dance to the song, "Fever," by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell. In the 1950s, it became Peggy Lee's signature song. More recently Madonna and Beyonce have had success with it.
In Michael Smuin's choreography, the song, with its obsessive refrain, "You give me fever," becomes an encounter between a woman and a folding chair. This photo by Chris Hardy of company member Erica Felsch suggests the mood of the dance, but the variety of interactions must be seen to be believed.
San Francisco's Asian Art Museum has occupied the former main library since 2003. It's vast collection has been built upon donations from Avery Brundage and Chong-Moon Lee among others. Even a cursory viewing of the 18,000 objects in the collection will convince you that, as the website says, "Asia is not one place."
Currently on display outside the front door of the museum is a sculpture by Yoshitomo Nara, entitled Your Dog. According to the museum, Nara's "blending of cute, creepy, and vulnerable" has earned him a cult following and comparisons to Jeff Koons and Keith Haring.
Early in the fourth Nicole Tang Noon mystery, Nicole pops into the Asian on her way to the Main Library. Both stand along the eastern edge of San Francisco's Civic Center. You'll have to read the book when it comes out this summer to find out why she goes there (beyond the obvious, to see great art).
Everyone found out who Bernie Madoff is in 2008 when he was arrested by the FBI and charged with securities fraud. It is estimated he stole $18 billion through a Ponzi scheme he operated for at least twenty years.
He certainly wasn't the first infamous confidence man. In 2002, Steven Spielberg released Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, who stole millions while pretending to be an airline pilot, a doctor, and ironically a prosecutor.
There have been other high profile cons, but, as Maria Konnikova writes, most scams "are never because prosecuted because they are never detected." Apparently the true con artist not only creates a story to separate the victim from his money, but also creates a story to leave him thinking it was all bad luck.
Her book contains plenty of documented examples, but her analysis of who commits these crimes, how they do it, and why is most fascinating. It seems the typical scam artist is psychopathic (lacking empathy), narcissistic (entitled), and Machiavellian (scheming). Add to this genetic predisposition circumstances in life that provide motive and opportunity, and you have a confidence man.
The portrait of evil is compelling and seems to apply to other types of criminals as well.
Like many titles of paperback originals, this one has no connection to what happens in the novel, at least none that I can detect.
The hero of this short novel is Kid Collins, an ex-boxer, so punch-drunk he flew into a rage and killed a man in the ring. Thompson wrote other books featuring killers, notably The Killer Inside Me, but the hero of After Dark My Sweet, is different. He knows killing is wrong and knows he can't control himself.
Collins runs into Uncle Bud, a grifter who has a plan to make a quick fortune. Collins joins in the plan, but Uncle Bud apparently doesn't know how dangerous he is. When the day comes to put the plan in motion, will Collins do what he knows is right, or will he lose control?
In the film adaptation of the same title, Jason Patric gives a fine performance as Kid Collins, and Bruce Dern as Uncle Bud once again shows the world how to play the kind of characters that reliably turn up in noir films.
Rachel Ward gives a fine performance as Uncle Bud's girlfriend, Faye Anderson, but readers of the novel won't recognize the character. In the novel she's an alcoholic in a downward spiral, and her lust for Kid Collins has Oedipal overtones. The screenwriters made her into a woman who is too young for Uncle Bud, and therefore a better match for Collins.
It is not unusual for Hollywood to make noir a little less bleak.
San Francisco's Opera Plaza is two blocks from the opera house and is near other civic amenities. The ground floor surrounding this fountain contains a deli, a cinema, some professional offices, a florist, and a Peet's coffee shop. The second floor also houses offices. Above that are several floors of condominium apartments.
For the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, I recently wrote a scene in which Nicole and Irene meet at the Peet's coffee house to compare notes on their joint investigation. The cafe is crowded, and they are concerned about sensitive information being over heard, so they move out to a bench near this fountain.
Since the action of this novel is set in November, the weather is chilly, they have to make it quick. There probably would not be flowers blooming in the planters.
Hitchcock/Truffaut, the 2015 documentary film about the book of the same title, includes interviews with ten present-day directors. Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Martin Scorcese, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and others testify to the enduring influence of Alfred Hitchcock on their work and film-making in general.
In Still of the Night (1982), director Robert Benton borrowed many techniques from Hitchcock and also created a pastiche of Hitchcock's films. It's fun to watch this movie and pair up its scenes with the scenes from master's catalogue: the auction-house scene, the dream sequence, peeping in the windows across the across the way, etc.
There are also scenes that are genuinely suspenseful, ironic, and scary. Even if you never seen a Hitchcock film, you can be well entertained for 90 mins by this thriller.
Vincent Canby spotted the movie's chief shortcoming when he said the magnetism between the stars, Roy Scheider and Meryl Streep, is too weak to drive the action. Both actors are great, and the director won an Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer, but the spark is not there.
Still there are chills in this movie about a psychiatrist and an expert in antiques and their obsessions.
Lots of books are described as "gripping" and "spellbinding." Many are said to be a "page-turner." Usually I enjoy such books, but do not literally feel forced to keep turning the pages. But I did while reading Dead Calm by Charles Williams.
Williams creates a wrenching dilemma for newlyweds John and Rae Ingram, who are taking their honeymoon on a sailboat in the South Pacific. They rescue a young man in a dinghy who says he has abandoned a sinking sailboat on which his wife and another couple died of food poisoning.
John rows to the other boat to investigate and finds all is not as the young man said. Meanwhile his wife, alone with the young man on their boat, discovers he is not as he seems. Options are limited since they are on sailboats, and, as the title suggests, there's no wind.
Williams turns this puzzle into suspense that really is "gripping" by having John and Rae think through their situations and try solutions only to be faced with new puzzles. He makes these characters real by including their emotions and ethics in the solutions they come up with.
I recall seeing the film based on this movie when it played in theaters in 1989. With Sam Neil and Nicole Kidman as the newlyweds, it got some rave reviews. The director and screenwriter made some changes in the story, as is routine. However all their changes were for the purpose of inserting horrifying sequences full of graphic violence. There is none in the story. I do not recommend the film.
In the 1940s, Patricia Highsmith graduated from Barnard, lived in Greenwich Village (it was cheap and bohemian then), and wrote scripts for comic books. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was published in 1950.
Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights, and the film version premiered in 1951. Thanks to its success, Highsmith was a household name at age 20. She wrote 21 more novels and many short stories and lived well off her writing.
She wasn't just lucky. She had a truly great idea. To paraphrase, "You murder my enemy, and I'll murder yours." These are to be the perfect crimes, because the murderer has no motive, and the person with a motive has an alibi.
Strangers on a Train has more than a great idea. The execution is brilliant. We get to know the two men who would do such a thing. We come to believe that such people would enter into such an evil conspiracy.
Hitchcock's film version makes critical changes in the plot so we have a sympathetic character to root for. It's still a great film. Reading the book is a different, great experience.
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."