One of the best fight scenes ever written

This is how you do it. Or, one of the ways, anyhow. There is no single way to do it. (Or, rather, the single way to do it is “Do a good job.” There are many ways to do that). But this is one of them.

It’s from Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate (1959), which if you only know from the movies, you’re missing a lot, not least an oddly affecting treatment of Captain Marco. For those of you who haven’t seen the movies, Captain Marco and his friend Raymond Shaw were captured during the Korean War and brainwashed. This turns Shaw into an assassin. Marco only gets nightmares. Horrible, persistent, driving-him-close-to-derangement nightmares, in which he sees North Koreans murdering men in his platoon. Condon’s good enough, as a writer–take a look at his bibliography and you’ll recognize some pretty good (or at least solidly entertaining) books–to make the reader sympathize with poor, twitchy, near-the-point-breakdown Captain Marco, who no one believes. Marco finally visits Shaw, hoping for some human company. Unbeknownst to Marco, Shaw’s Korean handler, Chunjin, is staying with Shaw to make sure that Shaw carries out the assassination.

Chunjin is one of the figures Marco sees in his nightmares.

Chunjin answered the door. He stood clearly under good light wearing black trousers, a white shirt, a black bow tie, and a white jacket, looking blankly at Marco, waiting for an inquiry, not having time to recognize the major, and most certainly not expecting him. To Marco he was a djinn who had stepped into flesh out of that torment which was giving him lyssophobia. Not more than four fifths of a second passed before Marco hit Chunjin high in the chest, having thrown the desperate punch for the center of the man’s face, but the Korean had stepped backward reflexively and had saved himself, partially, from the unexpectedness of Marco’s assault. Because he had not thought of himself as being on duty while Raymond was out of the city, Chunjin was unarmed. However, he was a trained agent and a good one. He held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Soviet security forces and he had been assigned to Raymond on a crash basis. He had recognized Marco too late. He was entirely current on Marco’s dossier because the major was Raymond’s only friend.

The elevator operator, a sturdy twenty-eight-year-old, watched the Korean carried backward and the door flung inward to bang against the pink plaster wall. He rushed in fast behind Marco and tried to pull him back. Marco held Chunjin off with his left hand and cooled the elevator man with his right. Chunjin took that left arm and drew Marco into a prime judo catch and threw him high across the room so he could get at Marco’s neck, coming down on it hard enough to break it in the follow-up, but Marco rolled and kept rolling when he hit the floor and slipped locks on hard when Chunjin came down, missing him.

They were both Black Belts, which is the highest judo rank there is, this side of a Dan. Marco had weight on his man, but Marco was in a run-down condition. However, he had been lifted into a murderous exhilaration and was filled to his hairline with adrenalin because he had at last been permitted to take those nightmares and one of the people in them into the fingers of his hands to beat and to torture until he found out why they had happened and where they had happened and how they could be made to stop. What worked the best was the twenty-nine extra pounds of weight and, as four neighbors watched with studious curiosity from the safer side of the doorsill, he broke Chunjin’s forearm. The Korean almost took the side of his face and his neck off, not losing a beat of his rhythm during the fracture and appalling Marco that such a slight man could be so tough. Then Marco dislocated the man’s hip joint as he leaped to jab his foot into Marco’s larynx, and it was that second catch which brought out the great scream of agony.

He was pounding the back of Chunjin’s head into the floor and asking him a series of what he thought were deliberative questions when the youngest squad-car cop came into the room first and fast, hitting him behind the head with a sap, and the entire, wonderful opportunity passed.

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Films Noir 101

(because it’s Noirvember, of course)

Before I begin: films noir is one of the subjects in film studies that is disputed the fiercest, that contains the most critical controversies, that everyone has an opinion on and which no two opinions are in agreement upon. Basically, put three film scholars in a room, you’ll get four opinions about what films noir is, five opinions about which films are the classic films noir, and a fistfight over the subject of when the classic period of films noir ended. So—the following is my opinion on those subjects. You can take it as a given that others will disagree with it, but my opinions have the advantage of being right. Unlike them other folks.

So. Films noir. First, it’s a genre (believe it or not, this is a major point of dispute for films scholars); that it has a great deal of variance in core elements, plots, cinematography and visual style, endings, and so on is irrelevant. Superhero films can be nearly anything; same with Westerns, mysteries, and horror. So, too, with films noir. Genres aren’t binaries and don’t have solid borders; they are fuzzy things made up of a wide range of component, with any combination of those components qualifying a text for inclusion into the genre without defining the genre in any way. It’s math, essentially: if a movie has a certain number of noir elements, it qualifies a film noir, even if it doesn’t have a private eye or a femme fatale or even an unhappy ending. You can’t argue with math. (Not that that’s ever stopped the films noir fanatics).

Second, film noir is a genre with a fuzzy chronological borders, which is to say that the nineteen years between 1940 and 1958 contain the classic films noir and are the peak period for noir, but that there were classic noir and proto-noir made before 1940, and some classic noir and “neo-noir” made after 1958. Wikipedia’s list starts at 1927 and ends with 1959. Other people’s lists have different starting and ending places. I’m going with 1940-1958 because that time period makes the most sense to me as the years in which classic films noir were made.

Third, the bedrock story of films noir—the ur-plot, regardless of setting, character, and plot—is that a man gets into trouble because of a woman, and dooms himself by his choices regarding the woman. There are many exceptions to this, of course, but they are exceptions, not the rule. The key motivators in films noir are fear, greed, hatred, and revenge, all complicated by sex, but the ur-plot is about a man being a patsy for a woman and paying the price for it.

Fourth, classicera films noir customarily had a visual style: low-key lighting with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning; low-angle, wide-angle, or skewed shots; disorienting shots, including ones reflected in a mirror, shots through curved or frosted glass; night-for-night shooting; and location shooting. Noir in the classic period is commonly associated with black-and-white photography, flashbacks, voice-over narration, unbalanced compositions, vertiginous camera angles, and deep focus. You pretty much know a film noir shot when you see it—they are very distinctive.

Fifth, films noir can be divided into opposing binaries in several ways: studio noirs vs. location noirs, soft-focus noirs and deep focus noirs, grey noirs and black noirs. But different periods—different decades—generally had their own unique noir styles. In the 1940s, everything from censorship regulations and available technology to conventions in narrative, genres, costumes, and photographic lightning helped establish the noir style of the decade, as did what critic Geoffrey O’Brien calls “a nexus of fashions in hair, fashions in lighting, fashions in interior decorating, fashions in motivation, fashions in repartee.”

In the 1950s, the studio system was irrevocably changed, new technologies came into use, and entertainment diversified; cities in America transformed from what scholar Edward Dimendberg calls “centripetal” to “centrifugal” spaces. Movie fashions and modes of production changed, leading to other period styles. By 1958 these changes had accumulated, leading to the death of the “classic” noir.

You can write a whole book on what makes up a film noir—many people have. The preceding doesn’t cover nearly enough of film noir’s core elements. But I’ve got limited space and time and concentrating power, so that rather than go in depth on those elements, I thought I’d sketch out my version of the canon of films noir.

I realize that canons are held in a bad light these days, and for good reason, but the nice thing about films noir is that the classic films noir, which appeared in those nineteen years between 1940 and 1958, are frozen in time, with no new additions or subtractions coming, so that it is after all possible to take a run at defining which of the films noir that appeared during the classic period were the best films noir.

The following, which skips over some of the more memorable proto-noirs like Little Caesar and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and some very good classic-era films noir like Criss Cross and Pickup on South Street, is mostly the consensus list, with a few argument-making additions of my own.


The Letter, directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall.

Leslie, the wife of British rubber plantation manager in Malaya, shoots dead her friend Geoff. She claims he “tried to make love to me” and that she shot him to preserve her honor. Only her lawyer doesn’t believe her. But that’s enough to start her down the path to Hell.

The Letter is one of those rare films noir with a female protagonist being led astray by a sexy man. That it’s much less known than the other films noir on this list doesn’t make it shouldn’t lead you to conclude that The Letter isn’t as good, or noir, as they are. It’s a tense, grim, well-directed gem about one woman’s inexorable doom. Consider it an overlooked masterwork, with stand-out performances by Bette Davis (of course) and James Stephenson, who plays the suspicious attorney.

Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It was based on the outstanding novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier.

Fontaine plays a young woman who meets and rapidly marries a much older aristocratic widower, Maxim de Winter, played by Olivier. De Winter is obsessed with his first wife, Rebecca, who disappeared in a boating accident; de Winter freely admits to his obsession with her, but it soon becomes a problem for Fontaine’s unnamed character. Making matters worse is the icy Mrs. Danvers, who had been Rebecca’s confidante and assistant. Adding to the mess is the discovery of Rebecca’s body and de Winter’s confession to Fontaine’s character that not only didn’t Rebecca love him, but that she died during an argument with him. All ends well, sorta. Kinda.

Some critics have credited Rebecca with being “the first true noir,” while others have classified it as a “Gothic noir.” Whatever the case, it’s a deeply noir film—as the New York Times said, “haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played.” If the nominal happy ending is at odds with the endings of most films noir, so much else about the movie makes up for it.

Rebecca was enormously successful, earning eleven Oscar nominations and winning two of them, and in doing so leant momentum to other hybrid Gothic and hybrid noir films.

The Stranger on the Third Floor, directed by Boris Ingster and starring Peter Lorre, John McGuire, and Margaret Tallichet.

A reporter is a key witness at a murder trial; his testimony is key in convicting the accused taxi driver of murder. But the reporter’s fiancée begins to question the reporter’s memory—an accusation that begins to haunt the reporter, who becomes convinced of his own guilt in the convicted murderer’s fate. Then a stranger appears on the third floor, where the reporter’s apartment is—and then the reporter’s neighbor, who he hates, is found with his throat slashed in the exact same way that the first murder victim. The reporter is arrested for the murders, so his fiancée is forced to find the real murderer herself.

One of the first true noirs of film noir’s classic period, The Stranger on the Third Floor was not well-received by critics when it debuted. It was only decades later that it was appreciated for what it was: a claustrophobic psychological horror-noir, set in a German Expressionist world where guilt, paranoia, and outright madness dominate. The protagonist’s famous nightmare sequence is appropriately nightmarish, and his sense of guilt over helping wrongfully commit the taxi driver propels the story to its final quarter, when in proper film noir style the reporter’s fiancée leaves her secure world and enters the dark side of society to save her loved one. Stranger on the Third Floor is unjustly forgotten today, and is well worth searching out by modern filmgoers.


The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet.

Sam Spade, private eye, investigates the death of his partner. Spade soon becomes entangled with a femme fatale and with Greenstreet and Lorre’s characters, both fortune-seekers looking for the gem-encrusted solid-gold Maltese Falcon. After the requisite number of double crosses, the femme fatale is put in police hands for murdering Spade’s partner, the Maltese Falcon everyone’s been searching for has been revealed as fake, and Spade is left alone but unsullied.

Bogart, as Sam Spade, created the archetypal film noir private eye, and Mary Astor plays one of the archetypal femmes fatale. That so much else about The Maltese Falcon doesn’t seem to fit into the films noir category doesn’t really matter; that the film is brightly lit, with conventional camera angles, has a happy or at least bittersweet ending, and has a somewhat fantasticated plot are ultimately irrelevant. The weight of Bogart’s Sam Spade and Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy overcomes the non-noir elements and makes the film not just noir but one of the core films of the genre.


Shadow of a Doubt, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.

The uncle of a young woman comes to stay at her family’s house. He’s initially friendly, and at first she likes him, but it is slowly revealed that he’s the “Merry Widow Murderer,” and she finds her life and others endangered. By story’s end she’s survived a fall, being stuck inside a carbon monoxide-filled garage, and nearly being thrown off a moving train, but the woman’s uncle is dead and she agrees to keep his crimes a secret.

While Shadow of a Doubt is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, it still bears the masters’ touch in its mounting tension and palpable fear. Teresa Wright’s performance as the threatened young woman was justly acclaimed and remains riveting. And the script, jointly written by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville, has aged little if at all.

Shadow of a Doubt is one of the films noir that have regrettably slipped from the public consciousness—and that’s a shame.


Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edgar G. Robinson, and based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novel of the same name.

Fred MacMurray’s insurance adjuster Walter Neff is a weak, lust-driven man. He meets and develops a sexual infatuation with a cold, scheming woman—Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson. Together they conspire to murder Phyllis’ husband, but a tangled skein of desire, lies, and lust leads to more deaths.

Generally seen as the first complete, thoroughgoing film noir, Double Indemnity was popular with the public, well-received critically, and received seven Oscar nominations, though it lost in every category. Its reputation has grown over the decades, so that it’s now ranked in the top three or four best films noir. This is with good reason; the combination of the Billy Wilder script, Wilder’s direction, Stanwyck and MacMurray’s performance—MacMurray was never better than when cast against type—and the darkness-heavy cinematography of John Seitz make Double Indemnity immortal.

Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price.

Andrews’ detective is investigating the murder of Gene Tierney’s character, Laura, a young, beautiful, and very successful advertising executive. Andrews’ interviews—with the newspaper columnist, played by Clifton Webb, who acted as Laura’s mentor; with Vincent Price’s parasitic playboy fiancé of Laura’s aunt—Laura was infatuated with him—lead to Andrews becoming obsessed with Laura, discovering she’s still alive, and ultimately discovering the real murderer. (Clifton Webb, if you’re curious).

Laura is the films noir connoisseur’s film noir; the average film noir fan has likely heard of it but not seen it, as it takes place in a world of upper-class escapist glamour, it avoids the mean streets, it has a surface gloss, and it has no femme fatale. Yet Laura was important in the evolution of the film noir, establishing not only the popularity of mystery plots but also several of the genre’s basic elements. It’s also got a divine script, wonderful performances, acute direction by Otto Preminger, and one of the all-time performances by Clifton Webb. To quote Andrew Spicer, “Laura is a Hitchcockian romance-thriller which exploits sexuality in a complex and quite daring way through the suggestiveness of décor.”


Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

An unemployed piano player hitchhikes his way west, on the way to California. In Arizona he is picked up by bookie, but the bookie dies en route to Los Angeles, and the piano player, convinced that the police will charge him for the bookie’s death, takes the bookie’s car, money, clothes, and identification and leaves the body and drives away. Unfortunately for the piano player, he picks up a hitchhiker named Vera, who finds out about the bookie’s death and blackmails the piano player, leading to her death and his downfall.

Although Detour was produced by PRC, one of the poorest studios in Hollywood, it was not made for only $30,000, as some critical sources claim. Director Ulmer, with limited resources, got fantastic performances out of Tom Neal and esp. Ann Savage, created evocative (and ominous) compositions and use of shadow, fog, and street signs, and in general summoned onto film a general sense of a prolonged, surreal nightmare taking place. Detour is the quintessential low-budget film noir, and a genuine goddamned masterpiece.

The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman.

The story of six days in the life of an alcoholic and spiraling writer, played in standout fashion by Ray Milland. His brother comes to have a weekend vacation with him, and the writer’s girlfriend tags along, but the writer ruins everything through his constant, near-blackout drinking, finally ending up pawning his girlfriend’s coat to buy bullets to kill himself. He is rescued by his girlfriend and resolved to go straight and stay sober.

The Lost Weekend was nominated for seven Oscars and won four: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It remains well-known as an unflinching look at the effects of alcoholism on both its victims and its victims’ loved ones. Wilder used location shots with hidden cameras to create documentary-style realism, and included a hallucinatory scene of vivid, nightmarish expressionism as contrast. The Lost Weekend is in the top tier of films noir despite the happy ending and the lack of femme fatale.

Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Eve Arden, based on the very good James M. Cain novel of the same name.

The movie is about a mother, the titular Mildred Pierce, her bratty social climber teenaged daughter Veda, and the various men in Mildred’s life. Mildred undergoes various hardships and broken relationships while Veda sneers at her and voices her desire for a wealthy lifestyle, which Mildred can’t afford to keep her in; eventually Veda becomes a lounge singer, carries out a blackmail pregnancy scam, and then shoots Mildred’s second husband when he refuses to marry her. Mildred tries to cover up for her, but fails.

Mildred Pierce, nominated for five Academy Awards and winning one for Best Actress, is very much a story for women. Even in the twenty-first century it still gets mixed reviews. But that’s because critics misunderstand what noir is, and don’t understand that “domestic noir” still counts as noir. Mildred Pierce is very good at being domestic noir, with all that entails—a focus on women and women’s stories, a focus on domestic drama, the home as the setting and family members as the main cast.


The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, based on Raymond Chandler’s excellent novel of the same name.

Detective Philip Marlowe is hired by an aging general to resolve his daughter Carmen’s gambling debts. Unfortunately, the holder of the debts is a bookseller, and Marlowe soon finds his body. Blackmail photos of Carmen arrive. The general’s limousine driver ends up killed. And so on, on and on, in an ever-more-intricate web of theft, blackmail, seduction, and murder, until Marlowe is able to engineer the death of the man who is behind Carmen’s blackmailing.

The Big Sleep is in one sense pure detective noir and in another sense not very noir at all. The Big Sleep has femmes fatale, it takes us on a tour of Los Angeles’ pure noir settings, it has an intricate plot in which the downfall of men is due to their own weaknesses, and it is memorably shot. But Bogart as Marlowe is not one of the weak men, nor is ever seduced by any of the femmes fatale. He is in command at all times, seemingly invulnerable to desires and emotions and damage of every kind—a very un-noir kind of man to be. The Big Sleep has the Howard Hawksian touches: a rapid pace, nicely evoked settings, three-dimensional characterization, witty dialogue, and strong visualization. And certainly the film’s many awards and audience affection have led to its ranking among films noir to be a high one. But an argument can be made, and without much difficulty, that The Big Sleep is not films noirat all, simply hardboiled detective.

Gilda, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford.

In Buenos Aires Johnny Farrell, an American tourist, wins a lot of money gambling. He is quickly the victim of a robbery attempt, but is saved by an older man, Mundson. Mundson hires Farrell to become his casino manager, but the growing closeness between them is interrupted by the arrival of Mundson’s new wife, Gilda. Mundson assigns Farrell to bodyguard Gilda. Farrell met Gilda before, and doesn’t trust her, and she doesn’t trust him. From this distrust comes a mutual lust, which drives the film into darkly passionate areas before Mundson finally dies for good and Farrell and Gilda can escape to America together.

Gilda is an intensely sexual film noir, perhaps the most sexual of film noir’s Golden Age. The sex, and the sadomasochism, and the bisexuality and homosexuality of the characters, is shown as blatantly as possible for a film in 1946—which isn’t blatant to modern eyes, but definitely were to 1946 audiences. The trio of main characters are all obsessives and fill with desires to an unhealthy degree. The happy ending and disappearance of the obsessions and mind-warping passion were insisted upon by a producer; the true fate of the main characters was clearly going to be properly-noirunhappiness and death for at least two of the three protagonists.

Up until the final scenes, which reinstate the power of America to cleanse foreign depravity and sickness and establish America as the place film noir characters go to escape from films noir milieu, Gilda is a top-notch noir, a classic of the genre: well-written, wonderfully acted, and thick with noirish desire. Even with the imposed happy ending, Gilda is still one of the best noirs made during noir’s Golden Age.

The Killers, directed by Robert Siodmak, starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien, based on the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name.

Two hired killers arrive in town intent on killing a broken-down boxer. They stalk him, find him in his room, and kill him, with the boxer showing no signs of resistance at any point without. A life insurance investigator begins investigating the killing and through interviews with the boxer’s friends and associates piece together the boxer’s life, why he was murdered, and most of all why he was so passive about being murdered.

The Killers has an unusual narrative structure and does not tie the boxer to the chain of events particularly strongly—as one critic put it, there’s a vacuum at the center of the film. Nonetheless, The Killers is one of the more accomplished and stylish films noir of the 1940s. Director Robert Siodmak was never better than in composing and directing this film, with its 11 flashbacks in addition to various set-piece scenes, and the performances of Burt Lancaster (his first role), Edmond O’Brien, and Ava Lancaster make the film come to life. Gardner is vividly and erotically portrayed, shot in as lustful (but stylish!) a way as possible.

The Killers, as mentioned, is stylishly shot and very well acted, but beneath those things are violence and a great deal of anger; the film is layered, which is all to the good.

Notorious, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.

US government agent T.R. Devlin needs to infiltrate the upper circle of executives of the German firm I.G. Farben. The executives escaped to Brazil after the war ended, and Devlin wants to bring them to justice. To do so, he enlists the unwilling aid of Alicia Huberman, the American daughter of a convicted German spy. Devlin and Huberman fall in love, but the assignment requires that Huberman seduce Alex Sebastian, one of the Farben executives. She does, and then marries him and discovers the secret of the Farbin executives: they are smuggling uranium ore. A spot of poisoning disables Huberman, but Devlin rescues her and Sebastian is left to meet his fate at the hands of his co-conspirators.

Notorious is routinely rated as one of the best films of all time and as Hitchcock’s best film. Hitchcock’s direction is a dream and he gets wonderful performances out of actors and actresses of major and minor characters—Leopoldine Konstantin, in the role of Alex Sebastian’s mother, nearly runs away with the film and is on the short list of most ferocious film mothers of all time. (She’s Angela Lansbury in the original Manchurian Candidate, only she’s a Nazi). Notorious is damn near a perfect film, and its visuals, themes, and motifs make it a top-notch spy noir.


Lady from Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles, starring Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, and Everett Sloane, based on the novel If I Die Before I Wakeby Sherwood King.

An Irish sailor meets a beautiful blonde woman as she rides a horse-drawn carriage in New York City’s Central Park. He rescues her from three thugs and brings her home. He learns that she and her husband are newly arrived from Shanghai and are on their way to San Francisco. The sailor is infatuated with the woman and agrees to be a seaman on the husband’s yacht. The husband sets up the sailor in an insurance scam which results in the police arresting the sailor for murder. The sailor escapes from the courthouse during his trial, but is double-crossed by the blonde and is carried, unconscious, to a fun house. But the sailor wakes up too soon, and in a climactic shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, the husband is killed, the blonde woman is mortally wounded, and the sailor escapes.

The Lady From Shanghai was dreadfully interfered with by Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, who disliked almost everything about the script and Welles’ direction and ordered many reshoots and then heavy editing that took more than a year to complete and cut more than an hour from the film. The result is widely acclaimed as one of the best movies of all time, with some polls placing it in the top ten best movies of all time, but is also apparently a long way from what Welles envisioned. The script, by Welles and three uncredited men including William Castle—yes, the William Castle of “The Tingler”—has some deficiencies, but Welles’ direction, the performances of Hayworth and Welles, the wide array of location shots, and the set designs overcome those deficiencies.

Initially receiving mixed reviews, over the decades The Lady From Shanghai has come to be viewed with the respect and admiration it deserves. It is one of the classic films noir, with a wonderful femme fatale in Hayworth and a great patsy in Welles’ character.

Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas, based on Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High.

A man in a rural California mountain town is out fishing with his sweetie when an outsider comes to town and tells the man he needs to go to Lake Tahoe. The man goes, accompanied by his girlfriend, who gets to hear about the man’s past. The man was a private detective, but a job he hired on for—to find and retrieve the ex-girlfriend of a gambling tycoon—goes badly wrong, and in the end the ex-girlfriend has seduced the private eye, killed the private eye’s partner, and skipped town with $40,000. In the present day the gambling tycoon wants his money back. At the end, the ex-girlfriend kills the gambling kingpin and the private eye and then gets killed by the police.

Out of the Past is the quintessential film noir, filled with a complex, doom-laden storyline, shadow-filled cinematography, and a wonderful, classic femme fatale. The movie didn’t make a lot of money when it first came out—the audience wasn’t quite ready for so potent a combination of the core noir elements. Mitchum is superb as the weak protagonist trying and failing to escape his inevitable fate, a fate that comes about as a result of his own choices. Greer’s performance as the femme fatale is an all-timer. The direction is very smart, the cinematography a graduate course in how to shoot a film noir, the location shots are perfectly suited to the film, and the script, though complicated, is splendidly noirish.

If you are going to start watching films noir and aren’t sure where to begin, choose Out of the Past. You won’t be sorry.


Force of Evil, directed by Abraham Polonsky, starring John Garfield and Marie Windsor, and based on Ira Wolfert’s novel Tucker’s People.

Garfield’s wealthy and successful lawyer, Joe, is the younger brother of Leo, a minor banker in the numbers racket. Joe works for a powerful gangster who wishes to consolidate all the numbers operations under his control. This includes Leo’s. Joe tries to protect Leo from the crossfire when rival racketeers become violent, but Joe fails and Leo dies. Then Joe sacrifices his own freedom to allow the police to gain enough evidence to badly hurt the numbers racket, promises the police he’ll testify himself, and kills his boss as revenge for Leo.

Force of Evil is unique among the films noir in that it takes the elements of standard films noir—compromised, weak hero, criminal milieu, themes of hypocrisy and betrayal, shadowy locales, and an inescapable doom brought about by the protagonist’s own actions—and combines them with the elements of a standard late-1940s art film. The dialogue is stylized, even mannered, the action and characterization show no concern for the audience, the story is programmatic, and the movie’s take on social realism is abstracted. Taken as a whole, viewers generally had and have a hard time becoming emotionally involved with the main characters, but conversely the film has strong aesthetic gloss.

Force of Evil received mixed reviews on release, but it was profitable for MGM and in latter decades has been acclaimed by critics like Andrew Sarris as “one of the great films of the modern American cinema” and as a high point in the films noir genre.

The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin and starring Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart and Don Taylor.

Late in a dark, hot, New York City night, two men strangle a former model and drown her in a bathtub. One of the murderers panics, forcing the other murderer to kill him and dump his body in the East River. Two policemen are assigned to the case, one younger, one older, and through a tedious but methodical investigation they uncover the murderer and the doctor who gave them the orders to kill the ex-model. Good triumphs, and evil, in the form of the murderer, is punished by being riddled with bullets and falling to his death from the Williamsburg Bridge.

The Naked City gave the world the phrase, “there are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” That should suffice for its noir­-ness. Further, its cinematography was inspired both by the photographs of urban photographer Weegee as well as Italian neorealism—more noir-ness. Moreover, there’s a whole school of films like The Naked City called “semi-documentary films noir” for The Naked City to exist in. Nonetheless, some critics refuse to see The Naked City as noir on the grounds that its core ideology is conservative rather than subversive and radical. That’s a silly position. The Naked City, impressively shot on location in New York City, has significant characters who are traditionally noirin their combination of strength and weakness, has shadow-laden shots, and involves men being led to their doom by lust and greed and their own bad decisions. It’s noir.

The Naked City was a box-office hit and scored three Oscar nominations, winning two of them. It’s not in the top 10 of any list of films noir, but it certainly merits inclusion in a list of the top 20.


All the King’s Men, directed by Robert Rossen, starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge, and Joanne Dru, and based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name.

A Southern politician named Willie Stark—who has a number of similarities to real-life Louisiana politician Huey Long—rises to power in his state, beginning with a rural county seat and culminating in becoming the governor. Stark is opposed by corrupt local and state governments and by various corrupt politicians, but he teaches himself the law and beats his opponents and the system at its own game. But the closer he becomes to being governor, the more corrupt and unprincipled Stark becomes, until he is no better than the men he defeated, and his talk of running for president presents his opponents with a nightmare scenario. Ultimately he ruins the reputation of a judge—the uncle of his mistress—and the judge commits suicide, followed by the judge’s brother assassinating Stark.

All the King’s Men, despite being a political thriller, is thoroughly noir; although it lacks a true femme fatale, its protagonist’s story arc is irrevocably headed toward downfall, nearly completely because of the protagonist’s own choices, which spring from his flaws, his lust, and his greed. The film shows a milieu of graft, corruption, love, booze, and betrayal, and the subversion of idealism by power. What’s more noir than that?

All the King’s Men was saved by the editor, who took a mass of unwieldy footage and produced a white-hot masterpiece that scored seven Academy Award nominations and won three of them. It’s a compelling film that holds up today, and what it lacks in pure noir-ness it makes up for in other ways.

White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh, starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, and Margaret Wycherly.

A ruthless rural gangster with a disturbed attachment to his mother and undefined mental and illnesses carries out a series of crimes along with his gang, always returning to his Ma when the crimes are completed. When the Feds close in on him, the gangster comes up with a plan to plead to a lesser charge which will give him a false alibi for the federal crime he committed. In jail, a planted Fed saves his life and befriends him. When the gangster discovers that his beloved Ma has been murdered by his wife, he breaks out of prison and attempts to return to crime while also avenging his Ma. Trapped again by the police, he climbs to the top of a gas tank, shouts “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” and shoots the gas tank.

White Heat does not at first glance seem to be a film noir. It’s one of the best gangster movies ever made, but it lacks the femme fatale who ruins the protagonist’s life, the sexual weakness in the protagonist that leads the protagonist to his doom, and the shadowy cinematography. What White Hot has instead is a bravura performance by James Cagney, who superbly conveys the very disturbed inner core—an essential part of most films noir—of his Cody Garrett. Cody Garrett’s weakness inevitably leads him to his doom, but his weakness is a homicidal psychosis and a dangerous Oedipal complex.

White Heat is almost always classified as a gangster movie, but I think it’s a hybrid, a combination of gangster film and film noir. Cagney’s performance as Cody Jarrett puts White Heat above most of its competition.


The Asphalt Jungle, directed by John Huston and starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, and Jean Hagen, based on the W.R. Burnett novel of the same name.

A criminal mastermind is released from jail and immediately goes about rounding up a gang for a heist of half a million dollars in jewelry. But the heist goes wrong and leaves one of the gang shot in the stomach and all of the gang be the target of a police manhunt. As the police close in on the gang, the betrayals and double-crosses begin, and the mastermind committing suicide while in custody, three of the gang in jail, one dead, and one mortally wounded by driving himself to Kentucky so he can die on his family’s former farm, surrounded by horses.

The Asphalt Jungle—well, I’ll let one critic say it: it “definitely has the most typical noir look of any of Huston’s films with its high contrast and source lighting. Furthermore, its thematic preoccupation with temptation, loss, failure, and marginalized lives is a central issue in the genre.” The movie is a noir caper film

The Asphalt Jungle is a noir caper film rather than a classic noir, but noir themes, such as isolation, existential angst, corruption, betrayal, and cupidity are rampant in the film.

D.O.A., directed by Rudolph Maté and starring Edmond O’Brien and Pamela Britton.

Frank Bigelow, accountant and notary public, shows up at a police station and reports his own murder. He was out at a bar and someone switched his drink and poisoned him with “luminous toxin,” for which there is no antidote. With only 48 hours to live, Bigelow races to discover the identity of his own murderer. Bigelow eventually does and guns down the man responsible for his poisoning. Bigelow finishes telling his story to the police and then dies.

D.O.A. is a classic film noir. The film strongly emphasizes the noir premise of a man who is going to be dead soon through circumstances beyond his control but not ones he is 100% innocent of. The cinematography and direction continually drives home how small Bigelow is compared to his surroundings, and as one critic put it, “D.O.A. explores the classic noir motif that shows the deadly consequences when the male libido strays from its secure environment.”

Gun Crazy, directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall.

A young teenager, Bart, gets sent to reform school for stealing a gun from a hardware store. He’s obsessed with guns, and is a crack shot with them, but refuses to kill anything or anyone with them. After getting out of reform school, he joins the Army, and after getting out the Army he joins a circus, where he and the sharpshooter—Annie—become smitten with each other. They leave the circus and live a life of itinerant crime, with Annie proving to be a ruthless killer. Eventually the cops get them, and Bart is forced to shoot Annie to prevent her from shooting his friends.

Gun Crazy is a product of stellar direction and a killer script. In the words of one critic, “Joseph H. Lewis’ direction is propulsive, possessed of a confident, vigorous simplicity that all the frantic editing and visual pyrotechnics of the filmmaking progeny never quite surpassed.” And the script, though limited by the codes of the time, still succeed in driving home for viewers how gun-obsessed Bart and Annie are and how much guns and sex are entangled for them.

Gun Crazy was the best B-movie Hollywood ever made.

In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, and based on the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name.

Dixon “Dix” Steele is a violence-prone and down-on-his-luck screenwriter. An encounter with a nightclub hat-check-girl leads to Dix being suspected of her murder. Fortunately for him, his new neighbor, a lonely woman named Laurel, can verify that Dix is innocent, which she does. Slowly Dix and Laurel fall in love, but Dix’s violent temper gets the better of him and leads to the ruin of their relationship.

In a Lonely Place is generally seen today as one of the ten or five best film noir ever made. Some critics demur, of course, believing that the lack of crime and lack of femme fatalemean that the film is only marginally noir. But the movie’s central themes are distrust, suspicion, betrayal, loss, alienation, and paranoia, all of which elevate In a Lonely Place from a merely intelligent adult romance movie into the more rarefied air of the film noir.

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder, starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, and Erich von Stroheim.

Sunset Boulevard is a flashback movie; it starts with the body of Joe Gillis, struggling screenwriter, floating face down in a swimming pool, and then shows the events leading to his death, with Gillis himself doing the narrating. Joe became entangled in the life of Norma Desmond, a fading silent film star. Desmond refuses to accept that she is no longer famous, and plans a return to the screen. Joe and Desmond become lovers, but her delusions and his ambitions are a bad match, and when he’s ready to walk out on her, he tells her that she’s forgotten now and that her butler Max writes all her fan letters. She shoots him three times. When the police and press arrive she believes the press’ cameras are there to shoot her in her next film, leading to the iconic final line of the film, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Sunset Boulevard isn’t just one of the best films noir of them all, it’s widely seen as one of the best films in the world. Some films noir critics and historians claim there has to be a crime in a film to make it noir; apart from the shooting of Joe Gillis, there is no crime in Sunset Boulevard. What the movie does have, however, are (quoting a critic here) “relentlessly and insightfully depicting a shadowy world of self-serving, self-deceit, and exploitation which both embodies the thematic preoccupations of film noir and excoriates the very Hollywood system that produced the classical cycle.”

Wilder’s script (co-written with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.) is top-notch, the performances are wonderful—Gloria Swanson, a faded silent film star, knocks it out of the park as Norma Desmond, faded silent film star—the direction is superb, and the big moments in the film, like its ending, are powerful. Sunset Boulevard deserves every bit of praise it gets.


The Big Heat, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, and Jocelyn Brando, and based on William P. McGivern’s novel of the same name.

Sergeant Dave Bannion, on the outs with his department, investigates the questionable death of a fellow officer. The investigation leads to the murder of the dead man’s mistress, to pressure placed on Bannion by higher-ups in the police department, and ultimately to the mansion of the crime lord who rules the city. In retaliation the crime lord’s thugs plant a bomb in Bannion’s car, but it kills his wife rather than him, turning him into a relentless motor of vengeance. Bannion gets kicked out of the police department by its corrupt commissioner, but eventually he sees that justice is done, that the crime lord is captured, and that the corrupt police commissioner is indicted. The film ends with Bannion’s reinstatement to the police force.

There’s some dispute about just how noir The Big Heat is. Bannion is certainly an incorruptible vigilante whose work ultimately reinforces the power and image of the police department as he relentlessly and mercilessly pursues criminals—the exact opposite of the usual film noir protagonist. Yet the film not only shows him to be the kind of marginal victim hero fighting against a malevolent fate that was common in films noir of the 1940s, but also shows that the corruption of society has reached as far as the police themselves. Moreover, the film inverts the traditional role of the femme fatale, making Bannion the agent of destruction for all the women he knows or meets.

Whether it is truly noir or not—and I’d argue that it is—The Big Heat is certainly Fritz Lang’s best film.

The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino, starring Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Tallman.

Two friends, driving down California toward Mexico, pick up a hitchhiker. The man pulls a gun on the friends and holds them hostage, forcing them to take a series of dirt roads into Baja California. The hitchhiker humiliates and terrorizes the friends, forcing them to walk when the car breaks down and mocking them for refusing to try to escape. When they reach the coastal town that the hitchhiker plans to depart to Mexico from, the hitchhiker is recognized by a civilian, and a struggle ensues followed by a shootout with the police. At the end the hitchhiker is arrested and the friends free.

The lone major film noir directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker is Ida Lupino’s best film and a sterling film noir. The vast emptiness of the southwest desert is a more-than-able stand-in for the empty streets of the city, the two friends are innocents whose fate is in the hands of a malevolent being, and the grim arbitrariness of life is driven home by the film’s premise and execution.


Kiss Me Deadly, directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, and Maxine Cooper, based on the novel by Mickey Spillane.

Private detective Mike Hammer picks up a female hitchhiker, an escapee from a mental asylum who is wearing nothing but an overcoat. Unfortunately, they are waylaid by criminals, and Hammer is knocked unconscious as the thugs torture the hitchhiker to death. On recovering, Hammer decides to find out who was responsible. The clues lead to a high-up gangster named “Carl Evello,” and from there to a mysterious box of something that Hammer’s police chum describes as involved with a government experiment akin to the Manhattan Experiment. At length the box is opened, igniting the woman who opened it and the house she was in, and Hammer and his secretary escape.

Kiss Me Deadly is one of the most significant and interesting films noir from late in the classic noir cycle of films. It can be read as a radical subversion and undercutting of the classic noir private eye tradition, or it can be read as the culmination of that tradition in noir. Mike Hammer has all the externals of a 1960s private eye, but his milieu is the darkly lit buildings of Old Los Angeles, and those he interacts with marginal and displaced souls. The box disrupts what is otherwise a somewhat ordinary plot by dragging the film and the noirgenre into the atomic fifties and in undercutting the Mike Hammer strain of private detectives. Quoting a critic, ““Kiss Me Deadly continues a left-liberal critique of capitalism by turning the self-righteousness and brutal pragmatism of Hammer’s world inside out”. Essentially, the film subverts and deconstructs the masculinist ethos of traditional private eye films and Spillane’s own novels, where the protagonist’s violence and ruthless egotism are valorized.”

Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish, based on the Davis Grubb novel of the same name.

A wandering preacher named the Reverend Harry Powell, who also happens to be a serial killer, travels along the Ohio River in West Virginia. He finds out about $10,000 that a convict stole and hid during a bank robbery in which two men were killed. Despite Powell’s best efforts, the convict takes the secret of where the $10,000 are hid to his grave. So Powell goes to the convict’s small hometown and woos and marries his widow—Powell knows that the convict’s two small children know where the treasure are. They instinctively dislike and distrust him, however, so he kills the widow and threatens the children. They escape from him and take a johnboat down the river, where they are taken in by a tough old woman, who protects them from Powell and sees to it that the police arrest him.

Night of the Hunter is a strange chimera of a film, part thriller, part fairy tale, and part film noir. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director got an intensely negative reaction during its showing at the Cannes Film Festival and was a complete bust with audiences and critics, but it is now acclaimed and lauded as it deserves and is considered one of the greatest films of all time. Its style is lyrical and expressionistic, the performance of Robert Mitchum is an all-timer, its influences (silent films and fairy tales) are used sharply and wonderfully, and the script wonderfully expresses both innocence and depraved evil. In all, one of the best films noir and one of the best films of all time.


The Sweet Smell of Success, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, and Martin Milner, based on Ernest J. Lehmann’s novelette of the same name.

Sidney Falco is a morally corrupt press agent who is having trouble getting positive publicity for his clients. J.J. Hunsecker is a powerful and sleazy nationally syndicated newspaper columnist whose only redeeming feature is his protectiveness of his younger sister. Hunsecker hires Falco to ruin his sister’s relationship with a jazz guitarist who Hunsecker despises. One thing leads to another in traditional films noir fashion, and Falco becomes Hunsecker’s tool only for everything to go wrong and for him to be beaten in the street by a brutal cop. Hunsecker ruins his relationship with his sister, who after breaking up with the jazz guitarist to protect him from her brother walks out on Hunsecker to reunite with the jazz guitarist.

The Sweet Smell of Success was a box office failure and got a mixed reception from critics, but over time it’s become acclaimed as a classic. It’s got intense acting, taut direction, superb camera work, and whiplash dialogue, as a critic for Time Magazine put it. A must-see.


The Touch of Evil, directed by Orson Welles, starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and Victor Milan, based on the novel Badge of Evilby Whit Masterson.

In a town along the US-Mexico border, a car blows up, killing a man and a woman. American and Mexican police and lawyers begin investigating the murders, only to come into conflict with each other and with themselves. A corrupt American police captain with a penchant for leaving incriminating evidence on the dead bodies of criminals comes to a dirty end, but his Mexican counterpart, a moral special prosecutor, survives to be reunited with his wife.

The Touch of Evil is often described the last great film noir of the classic noir cycle of films. Whether or not it is, it’s certainly the last great flourish of the expressionistic style of the classic film noir. Welles did a superlative job directing the film, combining many of the traditional noir tactics of odd camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting with a disconnected and disjointed narrative. While the plot is somewhat ordinary, the acting makes up for it, with Welles and Leigh being particularly good, and Welles’ insistence on including American racism toward Mexicans in the final script, as well as emphasizing the corrupting nature of America on border towns, add significantly to the noir-ness of the film.

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My Toy Story theory

(Originally appeared here in 2010).

picture of my then two-year-old son HenryIt’s not like I want to spend time thinking about the following. I’ve got a steampunk novel to plot. But my son Henry–that’s him on the left–loves Toy Story  We watch a part of it every night before bed. Have done since we bought an iPad. So I’ve seen Toy Story every night for over three months now, and while it still retains its ability to charm, I have to admit to not paying full attention to it, or letting my mind wander…

…which is how I came to ask the question, Who Is Andy’s Father?

You’ll note that there aren’t any pictures of him in the house. Don’t believe? Go look. I can wait.

See? Lots of pictures of Andy and Molly, individually and together, and one or two of Andy’s mom, Mrs. Davis, but none of Andy’s dad. Why is that, do you think?

The obvious answer is that Andy’s mom took them down. Why would she do that?

Let’s think this through. Andy’s father never appears in any of the films. He’s never even mentioned. If Andy’s mom was still married to “Mr. Davis,” that wouldn’t be the case. He’s deliberately absent from the films because he’s not part of the family any more.

If he had died, there would still be pictures of him in the house. Divorce is a possibility, but I don’t believe Andy’s mom would have removed all the photos of Andy’s father just because of the divorce, not least because of how Andy might react to that. If there was a divorce, then Andy’s mom won custody, and while Andy is clearly happy with his mom, it’d only be natural for Andy to want something of his father, if only a picture.

The remaining alternative is that Andy’s father abandoned Andy’s mom, and Andy, and Molly. This would explain why Andy’s mom removed all the pictures of Andy’s father. It would also explain why Andy’s mom is moving the family to a smaller house during Toy Story 1. Go ahead and compare the house at the beginning of the film with the one in the final scene–post-move house is smaller. it also explains why Andy’s mom is bringing so little furniture to the new house–take a look at the contents of the moving van in TS1, there’s practically no furniture in it, and the time from when the movers arrive in TS1 to when they leave can’t be much more than an hour. Not only is the new house smaller and needs less furniture than the old house, but Andy’s mom, having been abandoned by the former Mr. Davis, is in all probability facing some difficult financial times and is selling not just the house but some of the furniture.

But the matter of “Mr. Davis” doesn’t end there. Consider Woody. We know from Toy Story 2 that he’s a valuable and rare collectible. How did he end up in Andy’s hands?

According to Andy’s mom, Woody is an old family toy. But if that’s really the case, why is he in mint condition? If he’s been played with before, by a previous generation of Davis children, why does he look like he’s fresh out of the box? And why does he act like Andy is his first owner?

We have to assume that Woody was, indeed, an old Davis family toy. The logical assumption is that he was Mr. Davis’ before he was Andy’s. (We could extrapolate other ways in which Woody joined the Davis family, but Woody being Mr. Davis’ toy is the least unlikely). But how did Woody remain mint if Mr. Davis played with him? And if Mr. Davis played with him, why doesn’t Woody remember him? We know the other toys remember their previous owners–Jessie remembers Emily, Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear remembers Daisy–why doesn’t Woody remember Mr. Davis?

If–as I think is a reasonable assumption–Mr. Davis abandoned Mrs. Davis, Andy, and Molly, he did so recently. Molly’s only a year old, and it’s probable that she is Mr. Davis’ daughter, which means that Mr. Davis abandoned Mrs. Davis when she was pregnant or had a one year old to raise. Which ain’t cool, at all, and hints that Mr. Davis might be worse than just a deadbeat dad, he might be a genuinely Bad guy.

(There’s also the matter of Sid Philips, the psycho boy next door in Toy Story 1. Sid is disturbed in the ways that Andy is not…but they both have vivid imaginations when it comes to toys, both are resilient (notice how quickly Sid recovers from the disappointment of the sudden rainstorm in TS1), both are energetic, and while Sid is cruel to his toys he loves his dog Scud.

Could Sid and Andy be…related? Sid looks nothing like Andy, but then, Andy looks nothing like Molly. During TS1 Sid is 10 years old and Andy is 6. Did Mr. Davis abandon Mrs. Davis because Mrs. Davis discovered Mr. Davis’ affair, previous or ongoing, with Mrs. Phillips?)

Okay, perhaps not–perhaps that is a stretch. But the point about Mr. Davis being a rotter remains.

Now, as we see in TS1, when toys are tortured, they are traumatized. Only one of Sid’s toys can communicate in any way, and none of them have the ability to make facial expressions, whereas most of Andy’s toys can talk and move their faces. In the world of Toy Story, as in ours, torture leaves a permanent mark on its victims.

But there are many different types of trauma, and some are more subtle than others.

Consider Woody’s relationship with Andy. Woody is devoted to Andy. Fixated on him, really. Is willing to do anything to get back to him (as we see in TS2 & TS3), refuses to admit that Andy has outgrown him (in TS3)…I’m not sure that “obsession” is too strong a word for Woody’s devotion to Andy. Woody’s feelings for Andy are clearly much stronger, much more obsessive, than what any of Andy’s other toys feel for Andy.

Why? Why does Woody not seem to have any memories of his previous owners, but is fixated on his current one?

Because his previous owner did something to cause some trauma in Woody, I think, a trauma which gave Woody either traumatic amnesia or a deeply-embedded case of denial of memories as well as a case of idealization (in the psychological, defense-mechanism sense) of Andy. Woody can’t remember (doesn’t want to remember) his previous owner, but his current owner, Andy, is wonderful, worth following to infinity and beyond (idealized owner, safe owner, everything’s okay with Andy, everything’s fine).

Obviously Woody was never tortured by his previous owner–Woody couldn’t have been, not and be in mint condition.  But he could have witnessed torture. That would certainly qualify as traumatic.

Woody is fixated on Andy. But he actually considered abandoning him for a new life with Jessie, Bullseye, and Stinky Pete. It wasn’t the lure of the museum which temporarily changed Woody’s mind–it couldn’t have been. No, it must have been the prospect of a reunion with Woody’s toy family.

Reunion? Yes, reunion. Who do you think Woody saw being tortured by his first owner?

I’m sure there were other toys that Woody’s first owner tortured. But I think it’s safe to suppose that the rest of the Round-Up Gang were some of the victims there. The reason Woody escaped the torture? Woody’s previous owner just never got to him–moved on to other things, and left Woody in the attic, in the dark, wondering when he was next to go under the magnifying glass or scissors…in the dark for years, for decades, until he is given to Andy, wonderful, kind Andy.

And so the obsession is created.

I’ve painted a dark picture of Mr. Davis, Woody’s original owner: abandoner of wife and children, possible adulterer, torturer of toys. This begs the question: who is Mr. Davis?

Andy was born in 1989 (6 in 1995, the year of TS1). In TS1 I’d put Mrs. Davis at around 40 (which is how old Laurie Metcalf, the voice of Mrs. Davis, was in 1995), and we can assume that Mr. Davis is roughly the same age, meaning he was born in the early/mid-1950s. Woody’s tv show lasted from 1946 to 1957, so–assuming Mr. Davis was given Woody & the Round-Up Gang in the last year possible, and when Mr. Davis was young–we can put Mr. Davis’ birth year in the 1951-1953 range, which would have made him 35-37 when Andy was born.

Mr. Davis: born in 1951-1953, a torturer of toys, a man who abandons his wife and children. We have the makings of a true villain in Mr. Davis. So who was he? He would have been active in his twenties during the 1970s and still alive, though temporarily settled to a suburban lifestyle in his forties.

Who fits this profile? What villain of tv, movie, or comics could this apply to?

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Second Kickstarter for The Fury of the Northmen has launched!

An image of the necromancer character class, drawn and colored by Russell Marks.

The necromancer character class. Art by Russell Marks.


My first attempt at a Kickstarter for The Fury of the Northmen failed, so I’ve relaunched it with a humbler funding goal (only $5,000) and humbler aims (the funding will pay for layout and cover art so I can sell the books on

Naturally, with the lower budget, the Kickstarter was fully funded in three hours and hit its first stretch goal in eighteen hours. And I’ve still got 29 days to go! So–think about pledging something, if you’re inclined, or spread the links, if you’re in the mood.

What’s the game? The Fury of the Northmen is a 5e-compatible rpg set in England during the first six years of the Viking invasion of England (865-871 CE/AD). The Fury of the Northmen is historical fantasy; it’s an equal mix of imagination and intensely researched Scandinavian & English history, myth, legend, and folklore.

An image of the heidr character class drawn and colored by Kim Van Deun.

The heidr character class. Art by Kim Van Deun.

The three books that make up Northmen are:

  • The Player’s Guide, a 450+-page book containing completely new character classes (nearly all the 5e character classes weren’t compatible with the historical setting), new PC folk, 600+ new spells, dozens of historical ethnicities, and everything else needed to create a Northmen character and play a Northmen game or campaign.
  • The World Book, a 250+-page book containing everything a GM could want to know about the Northmen setting: the kingdoms of England as of 865, the cultures, the religions, the philosophies, the lived experiences, and all the other basics of both English and Scandinavian societies; a gazetteer of the England of Northmen; the who, what, where, when, and why of both the historical Viking invasion and the Viking invasion in the world of Northmen (two different things); rules for large-scale battles; sixty manuscript pages of new treasure types and items; and a long list of resources for people interested in learning more. The World Book is mostly setting-agnostic, and can be profitably used by anyone interested in learning about or gaming in England during the Viking Age.
  • The Bestiary, a descriptive catalogue of 240+ new monsters for the setting. I put all 240+ monsters on a free website, but people also wanted the Bestiary as a book, so the first pledge goal for the Kickstarter was to make enough money to afford to get the Bestiary layout and cover art to sell on

Northmen is unlike any other Viking rpg ever published–more historical information (as much as fun allows) and more intensely researched setting, cast of characters, and monsters–and it’s pretty good. (Admittedly, I’m biased). So…take a look, won’t you? Thanks!

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My new Kickstarter has just gone live!


My new Kickstarter has just gone live. It’s for The Fury of the Northmen, a 5e-compatible rpg set in England during the first six years of the Viking invasion of England (865-871 CE). The Fury of the Northmen is historical fantasy; it’s an equal mix of imagination and intensely researched Scandinavian & English history, myth, legend, and folklore.

If the Kickstarter funds, patrons can get:

  • The Player’s Guide, a 450+-page book containing completely new character classes (nearly all the 5e character classes weren’t compatible with the historical setting), new PC folk, 600+ new spells, dozens of historical ethnicities, and everything else needed to create a Northmen character and play a Northmen game or campaign.
  • The World Book, a 250+-page book containing everything a GM could want to know about the Northmen setting: the kingdoms of England as of 865, the cultures, the religions, the philosophies, the lived experiences, and all the other basics of both English and Scandinavian societies; a gazetteer of the England of Northmen; the who, what, where, when, and why of both the historical Viking invasion and the Viking invasion in the world of Northmen (two different things); rules for large-scale battles; sixty manuscript pages of new treasure types and items; and a long list of resources for people interested in learning more.
  • The Bestiary, a descriptive catalogue of 240+ new monsters for the setting. Rather than create a third book for the Kickstarter, I decided to put the entirety of the Bestiary–all 240+ new monsters–on a free website whose design will be paid for by the Kickstarter and which will contain not just the Bestiary but all the errata and freebie material for Northmen.
  • various add-ons: a poster-sized map of the England of the Northmen setting; a pad of Northmen character sheets; a leather Northmen dice tray; and a set of six Northmen dice.

Northmen is unlike any other Viking rpg ever published–more historical information (as much as fun allows) and more intensely researched setting, cast of characters, and monsters–and it’s pretty good. (Admittedly, I’m biased). So…take a look, won’t you? Thanks!

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A Lovecraft story you won’t be expecting.

A story by me in which I attempt to tell a Lovecraftian tale that’s never been told before.

reverse the charges

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The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victorian (2nd ed.) now online!

the cover to my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

It’s true. I converted my blasphemously long Victorian encyclopedia–all 2,259 manuscript pages of it–into a series of web pages which are now publicly accessible.

Of course, I’d still prefer you buy the ebook over at Amazon–only $9.99, which comes out to 4/10ths of a penny per page, and where else are you going to get a deal like that?–but I know people don’t like to use Amazon and of course there are those of you who can’t afford it. So every page is open to the public. I hope you find it useful!

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My bibliography of sources for my Viking work.

I’ve been banging on about Viking stuff over on Twitter and on my Patreon for some time now. What really started me on this was the Viking roleplaying game (working title: The Fury of the Northmen; tagline: “the greatest Viking roleplaying game ever written,” a claim which I stand by) I wrote, which is only awaiting me getting the money to pay artists for me take the game to Kickstarter. But my interests in Viking stuff took on a life of its own, and now I’m writing a Viking novel and thinking about other ways I can incorporate all the reading I’ve done on the Vikings into something productive.

Over the past year and a half I’ve written a lot about the Vikings, and inevitably some people have asked me for my sources. So the following is my bibliography for The Fury of the Northmen, with everything I read that ended up in the book, one way or another (though not everything I read, naturally):

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It’s New Year’s Eve! Let’s talk about lutefisk!

We’ve been blaming the French for various woes for decades, if not centuries, although the British have been doing it for a lot longer. (The O.E.D. has a pejorative use of “Frenchified” dating back to 1592). But let’s not forget to blame the Swedish. Or, more precisely, Gustav Vasa.

Once upon a time, it was an honorable thing to be given the title of lord (occasionally, lady) of the grain. Shénnóng was “Emperor of the Five Grains.” (Chi (setaria millet), shu (panicum millet), shu (legumes), mai (wheat and barley), and either tao (rice) or ma (hemp), depending on which translator you use, were the staples of Chinese diet in antiquity). Suddhodana, the father of the Buddha, was known as the “Pure Rice King.” The Izapa Maize King drew blood from his own mouth to use as an offering to the gods, while Mayan mortals who wore the headdress of the Jester God were the Maize Lords. (Keep in mind that, for the Mayans, human flesh was made from maize dough, which should hint at the level of importance of the Maize Lord, which is why his sacrifice to the gods, every April 20th, was so vital to the health of the community). The Golden Bough tells us of the Silesian “Oak King,” one of a bridal pair who–well, go ahead and read it yourself, although you should probably start at the beginning of the chapter. (But then, the oak was Jove’s tree, so of course the Oak King is going to be important). And, of course, there was John Barleycorn, lord of the corn, always dying, always reborn. The ancients being what they were, we can assume there was some human sacrifice involved. (What, you want to tell Rabbie Burns and James Frazer (yes, him again) they were wrong?)

You’ll note that these individuals didn’t grab the title for themselves. They were assigned it or given it, and accepted the responsibilities which came with it. Indeed, sacrifice and responsibility were a central part of the role. The kings and lords came from the community and died in the community, and theirs was a role of significance.

More recently?

There was John Mackay, the Canadian “Barley King” and Almon James Cotton, the Canadian “Wheat King.” There was Henry Wilson, the South African “Oat King” of the Boer War, who was apparently succeeded by Tom Rhatigan, the “World Oat King.” There was Lê Van Lap, the “Millet King.”

The “Sorghum King” is a special case. The lineage is unsettled, and the title contested. Was it the Cherokee Charley Bumper? The South Carolinan W.S. Wilkerson? The Missourian John Heathman (father of Frankie Lee Timbrook)? The Georgian Walt Medlock, “Sorghum King of Sand Mountain?” Phelix Pryor Nance, “Indiana’s Sorghum King?”

We’ve also seen a number of “Rice Kings,” from Korean-American Kim Chong-nim, who had over 2,000 acres of rice in the San Joaquin Valley, to a succession of Chinese businessmen in Vietnam, all calling themselves “the Rice King.” But the last Rice King in Saigon was Ma Hy, and the Communists arrested him in ’75, and since then, the only Rice Kings have been…something quite different.

So where did it go wrong? When did the title of lord of the grain shift to profiteers and outsiders? How did it become about avarice and not responsibility, about aliens and not members of the community? Somewhere along the way the archetype of the Lord of the Grain flipped; it went from Tammuz/Attis/life-death-rebirth gods to something colder and crueler and altogether more exploitive, to the naiad of Love Canal. How did this happen?

If Ken Hite (@kennethhite) were writing this, he would describe, with erudition and wit, the occult significance of the change in the nature of the identities of the title-holders, perhaps involving the Green Man or Caliban’s “pricks at my footfall” speech as displaying the symptoms of ergotism or the manner in which Lussi, Queen of Light was replaced by St. Lucia.

But, alas, I’m not Ken. My thoughts are more base. Like Falstaff, I’m led by my belly, or at least preceded by it, and so my thoughts turn to food.

I mentioned Gustav Vasa. In The Observer Guide to European Cookery Jane Grigson mentions seeing “a portrait…of the great Gustav Vasa, the 16th century King of Sweden, dressed all in black with yellow slashes, like a regal insect, who encouraged his subjects to grow rye and make crisp bread. He is the Rye King of the packaged crisp breads sold in Britain.” Not just of the crisp breads, though; he was known as the Rye King during his lifetime.

Let’s look closer at Gustav. Founder of modern Sweden, but known as a tyrant. Led the rebellion against Christian II of Denmark, a.k.a. “Christian the Tyrant,” the man responsible for the Stockholm Bloodbath–but Gustav was no cupcake himself when it came to massacres, so that’s a wash. He oversaw the breaking of the monopoly of the Hanseatic League and the conversion of Sweden to Lutheranism–again, a wash. And the gematria gives us a 79 for Gustav, and a 1010 for Kristian (Christian II’s real name), which would seem to indicate that Gustav was one of the white knights.

On balance, Gustav seems a positive figure. But there is one area in which we can fairly describe Gustav, or at least his impact, as calamitous, and that’s in matters culinary.

From 1470 to 1521 Kristian II and Denmark ruled Sweden, but Gustav led the rebellion, got himself elected regent in 1521, and then was elected king in 1523. At the time of Sweden’s independence the most influential school of European gastronomy was French, and this was magnified in 1533 when Catherine de Medici arrived in Paris from Florence. She brought with her a retinue of chefs, pastry makers, and gardeners, and revolutionized French cooking, leading to a deluge of French cookbooks swamping Europe, including Pierre Sergent’s very influential Le Grand Cuisinier de Toute Cuisine (1540), which displaced the more traditional Le Viandier (circa 1485).

Denmark, as it happened, was and remained primarily influenced by German cookery. (This changed in the 1830s, with Madam Mangor‘s Cookbook for Young Girls, Written by a Grandmother (1837), but we can attribute that to Denmark’s choice of Napoleon as an ally). Sweden, on the other hand, more quickly took to French cookery.

Now, consider lutefisk. (In the Swedish, lutfisk). Garrison Keillor, who presumably knows whereof he speaks, described it this way:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

And where can we find the first written mention of lutfisk?

That’s right.

In one of Gustav Vasa’s letters, written in 1540. (Wikipedia doesn’t give a citation for this, but it can be found in Astri Riddervold‘s Lutefisk, Rakefisk, and Herring in Norwegian Tradition (1990)).

Gustav didn’t invent lutfisk–the taste for lutfisk already existed among Swedes–but he surely had a hand in popularizing it. (We can’t discount the effect of royalty’s imprimatur on food; just look at what Catherine de Medici did). Swedes wanted to emphasize their differences from the Danes, and so they embraced the French rather than the German influence on their cooking.

This, by the way, was a decision Swedes surely came to regret. Patrick Lamb, cook to five kings and author of Royal Cookery: or, the Compleat Court-Book (1710), described northern European, German, and Danish cooking as a “substantial and wholesome plenty.” The French of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, on the other hand:

  • followed the Italian lead in seeing the tomato as evil and claiming that it caused “inflamed passions;”
  • blamed chocolate for corrupting women’s morals;
  • said that too much chocolate consumption led to women giving birth to coal-black “cocoa babies;”
  • likened chocolate to feces;
  • said that Madame du Barry‘s appetite for chocolate came from her propensity for anal sex, gotten from her brothel training at the House of Gourdan;
  • claimed that allowing proles to eat pain mollet, a light bread formerly reserved for royalty, had introduced “an element of voluptuousness” into France;
  • sneered at rye and barley bread, with only white bread being good enough for French palates, so that the elite were “bread mouths,” who dined only on white bread, and the proles were “fodder mouths,” peasants who lived on dark brown bread;
  • agreed with Diderot, who said, in his Encyclopédie, “the potato is rightly held responsible for flatulence. But what is flatulence to the vigorous organs of peasants and workers?”;
  • and ultimately created the attitude which Brillat-Savarin described so well: “a true gourmand is as insensible to suffering as is a conqueror.”

Now, lutfisk was originally prepared with potash (K2CO3), but that was displaced by the stronger “caustic soda,” a.k.a. NaOH, a.k.a. lye. The way it works is, a white fish (usually cod) is steeped in lye for several days, rinsed under running water, and then boiled, which reduces it to a shoggoth-like mess gelatinous substance. It’s then served with boiled potatoes, flatbread, a white sauce, pepper and melted butter.

Between 1820 and 1920 over a million Swedes emigrated to the United States, many of them settling in the midwest and bringing their culinary traditions with them. So we can assume that, during that time, an unusually large amount of lye was used and dumped into the soil. Lutfisk consumption declined after the 1920s, when roast rib of pork replaced it as the main dish of Christmas Eve dinner, but lutfisk made a comeback in the late 1970s and has been going strong ever since.

Lye is an alkaline. And the Mississippi River (which, as you can see, runs along the Wisconsin border), is suffering from greatly increased alkalinity (see, for example, Science v302n5647, 7 Nov 2003, esp. Jones, “Increased Alkalinity in the Mississippi” and the Lackner/Raymond/Cole exchange on “Alkalinity Export and Carbon Balance”), with, as Jones puts it, “important implications for the biogeochemistry of the region.”

But not just biogeochemistry. Regularly dumping toxic amounts of alkalines into the soil for almost two centuries has, obviously, done more than just poison the rivers. It poisoned the earth, so that those who would claim to lordship over its produce are poisoned themselves. No more self-sacrificing Corn Kings for us. The Lord of the Grain has become a dictator. Now we get Blairo Maggi, the iniquitous “Soy King.”

And it’s all Gustav Vasa’s fault.

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Cyberpunk master’s thesis bibliography.

Last week I provided a Cyberpunk 101 reading list in response to some discussion over on Twitter about the game Cyberpunk 2077. As follow-up, I ordered a copy of my master’s thesis (“The Evolution of the Myth of the Frontier in Cyberpunk”, Bowling Green State University, 1995). It came, and I made a thread about what I wrote in the thesis. (Well, I’ll write that thread tomorrow).

For anyone curious, here’s the bibliography of cited works in the thesis. (Keep in mind all this is as of 1995, so naturally twenty-five years out of date) (Also keep in mind that I read a hell of a lot more books than I cited–the bibliography is the only a fraction of my research).

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