October 2014-February 2015 RSS feed for this section


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I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust is a collection of stories including inmates and survivors of death camps, disenchanted Golems complaining about their designated rounds, Holocaust deniers and their ravings, collectors of Hitler curiosa, an imaginary interview with Eva Braun during her last days in the Berlin bunker, a Nazi camp doctor subtly denying his complicity, and the love story of a Hungarian cantor.


“… Freese’s haunting lament might best be explained (at least to me) by something Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Herman Melville’s endless search for answers to questions that perplexed him all his adult life. Melville was incessantly obsessed with what one might call the why of it all—life, death, metaphysical mysteries. Similar to Freese, Melville was repeatedly afflicted with a dark and depressive state of mind.” —Duff Brenna, Professor Emeritus CSU San Marcos

—Duff Brenna, Professor Emeritus CSU San Marcos

“Freese says that ‘memory must metabolize [the Holocaust] endlessly,’ and his book certainly turns hell into harsh nourishment: keeps us alert, sharpens our nerves and outrage, forbids complacent sleep so the historical horror can’t be glossed over as mere nightmare. The Holocaust wasn’t a dream or even a madness. It was a lucid, non-anomalous act that is ever-present in rational Man. In the face of this fact Freese never pulls punches. Rather, his deft, brutal, and insightful words punch and punch until dreams’ respite are no longer an option and insanity isn’t an excuse.” —David Herrle, Author of Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy


 Other books by Mathias Freese
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Praise for The i Tetralogy at Library Thing: “Over the week it took me to read this novel, my anxiety level rose steadily. My jaws would be so soar when I woke up in the morning and I found them clenching for no reason throughout the day. My physical reaction is a testament to the power of the experience. The i Tetralogy would not have worked if it were written by a lesser author.”

Praise for Down to a Sunless Sea at BreeniBooks: “This is the type of literature that haunts the reader long after the book is put aside. Mathias B. Freese is a brilliant and talented author who inspires serious reflection.”


Praise for The Mobius Strip of Ifs by David Fraser of Ascent Aspirations: “[Freese] advocates that we rummage for ourselves, analyze our lives, live in the moment, de-condition ourselves, be anarchist against conformity and above all struggle to chisel out and define who we really are. This book, although deeply personal, is also an open-ended journey for learning to live with awareness and inner freedom.”


David Herrle reviews BRIGHTNESS by Joy Ann Cabanos Lara

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As I wrote in my endorsement blurb for the book: “Though Brightness casts shadows, the book is a celebration of Light.  Lara performs a solo danse de caractère, glissading through highs and lows, artistic and soulful striving, and familial reverie with an unselfconscious consciousness of self.  It isn’t difficult to tell that Brightness is written by an artist who understands the conjugal dance of colors and emotions, who knows that existence is a living canvas.”

At the risk of sounding self-satisfied (something I could never achieve), I’m not sure how to go beyond that statement in promoting Lara’s debut poetry book.  There’s a skimness to the poems; one doesn’t get lost in cream and calories.  What is her father’s smile and laughter?  Her “true north.”  She’s anxious for the sunrise that seems to never come, and the shadows advise, “wait.  breathe.  wait.”  Two women return from Florence: one filled with Giotto and Botticelli, the other filled with Versace, Ferragamo.  No odes to Grecian urns – but to wildflowers and a redhead (who happens to be a lovely painter and one of the author’s mentors).  How does she revere her aunt?  By celebrating her special lasagna.  “Soup/simmers memory” opens a piece entitled “Nilaga.”  In “Out of Richmond Mornings” she translates birdcall into human sentences.

Though Lara’s language tends toward quaintness (not in the bad way), it’s usually presented freshly.  She’s not afraid to use dance motifs, to ask poesyish questions such as “could I/would I, should I/love you” (without a question mark).  In “Not Dancing” she is unabashedly poetic: “You may think me a sylph/or some raptor unfettered by gravity.” Likewise when she calls a tree “the Rooted Guardian.”  But in “Colors From a Past Life”: “[Y]ou’ve chosen lies, not life force -/that pixel sun,/that jpeg sea,/those plasma blooms…”

Fourteen plates of Lara’s original paintings and sketches (and some photographs) enliven the text and deepen the sense of the poet’s love for her subjects.  They also show off her (primary) talents in the visual arts.  Many of the pieces are studies, which seem more touching due to not being full-blown compositions, especially when they portray her family.  What a treat to see the poet’s father laughing while reading about his laugh.  (A “true north” if I ever saw one!)

Brightness chronicles Lara’s confessional fluctuations through shadows and light while sustaining a rare and enviable underlying exuberance, a…joy (what an appropriate namesake!) even in the loss of loved ones and the frustrating duration of learning, becoming.  In one of the opening poems she is “tired/of dreams remaining dreams;” in the closing piece she vows to be “the one who peels the rainbow off the floor/and hoists it/onto the worldwearied lines of sight.”

– review by David Herrle 1/2012


Author bio: Visual artist and writer Joy Ann Cabanos Lara grew up in Manila, the Philippines.  She moved to various cities in the US, lived in the UK, and traveled in England, France,Greece and Italy.  She is a member of the Westfield Art Society Drawing Group, the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, and the Contemporary Art Group (NJ).  Joy’s  last solo art exhibit, New Eyes (at Windsor Street Gallery, Chertsey, UK) featured her paintings and poems together with great success.

Nick Zegarac Blu-ray and DVD Reviews October 2014 – February 2015

Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, and Jacque Tourneur’s Out of the Past


Ruthlessly butchered in the editing process, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) remains Billy Wilder’s most cruelly underrated and overlooked masterpiece.  Wilder’s and collaborator I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay is an exquisite extension of the super sleuth’s durable mythology: evergreen in its adherence to Arthur Conan Doyle’s intrigues of Sherlock Holmes. This is perhaps the truest evocation of the spirit of the Strand Magazine and undeniably the director’s least disaffected movie and by far his most tender and affecting. For all these many virtues, it was not the film Billy Wilder wanted to make.  His originally envisioned three-hour road-show salute to this enduring and endearing duo from 221B Baker Street was removed from his creative genius in the editing process and distilled into an even more traditionalist approach to the material by its distributor, United Artists, who felt Wilder’s overriding vision was much too grand and complex. 

They ought to have known better and, indeed, did attempt to recall Wilder in the eleventh hour to salvage his final cut. At 125 minutes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is but a delicious prelude to the movie Wilder endeavored to make, although still fascinating and teeming with the sort of infectious glib subtleties for which Wilder’s best movies are most fondly remembered.  Alas, Wilder was to discover too late that his excised footage – nearly an hour’s worth – had been destroyed in his absence. Left on the cutting room floor were a series of mini-mysteries, each building upon Wilder’s and Diamond’s adroit concept of Sherlock Holmes as an increasingly isolated man whose personal investment in the penultimate case in the movie – involving a female German spy – leaves Holmes depleted of his more cerebral pursuits.

Reviews of the time were critical of Wilder’s and Diamond’s lithe approach to Conan Doyle’s enterprising superpower of deductive reasoning, herein recast (and given a multifarious, wounded psyche by Robert Stephens) as a somewhat effete, erudite, self-deprecating academic, who increasingly relies on a mild cocaine addiction to anesthetize his melancholia. More than any other movie in the Sherlock Holmes legacy, Wilder’s “private life” is an investment in the man, occasionally at the expense of his public persona: an absorbing deconstruction of Holmes’ iconography and an enquiry of his tortured inner-self. In short, Wilder is making a genuine attempt to understand Sherlock Holmes as a figure of flesh and blood, rather than one corralled from mere platitudes celebrating his scholastic braininess.

Fair enough, Colin Blakley’s Dr. Watson is no Nigel Bruce, the lovably befuddled cinematic incarnation that shared the screen with Basil Rathbone’s towering incarnation of Holmes from the late 1930s to 1949. But Stephens gives us the second most intelligent reading of Holmes as a creature of habitual self-destructiveness, refreshingly devoid of even a whiff of pomposity or perfection. And Wilder and Diamond immerse us in a richly satisfying milieu of intrigues Arthur Conan Doyle could most definitely admire: a mystery rife with oversexed ballerinas, spurious midgets, Trappist monks, bleached canaries, a mechanical Loch Ness monster and the likes of Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) no less – all neatly wrapped in a plot of international espionage. Better still is Wilder’s and Diamond’s venture into the emotional core of this iconic figure, superbly evoked by Miklós Rozsa’s heart-rending central theme.  Alexandre Trauner’s mind-bogglingly intricate sets resurrect the grace, charm and clutter of Holmes’ Victorian bric-a-brac, the perfect complement to Wilder’s and Stephens’ interpretation of Sherlock Holmes as a fallen, fallible and disenchanted misanthrope.

Like Billy Wilder’s best works, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is deceptively breezy on the surface, Dr. Watson’s voiceover narration, as Holmes’ champion, devoted lifetime companion and chronicler, promising to delve more profoundly into cases too shocking and bizarre for the average heart and mind to comprehend. Alas, the heavy edits that immediately follow the main titles betray this pledge, and the story slips into one joyous and comical vignette, involving Russian prima ballerina Madame Petrova’s vehement desire to have Holmes sire her child, before getting underway with the real mystery at hand.  Holmes narrowly averts illegitimate fatherhood – and inheriting a priceless Stradivarius for his efforts – by hinting of a homosexual predilection for Dr. Watson.

From this inauspicious and farcical debut, Wilder delves into a distinctly more intimate story, Watson forgiving Holmes his injudiciousness with their international reputations as “manly men,” but increasingly becoming gravely concerned for his friend as Holmes falls back on an all-too-familiar addiction to his seven-percent solution of injectable cocaine. Holmes also debunks his own stature as depicted in Watson’s accounts in the Strand, correcting a few misperceptions for the audience along the way. He isn’t 6 foot and 4 inches tall, but rather barely six feet, and he can’t play the violin like a virtuoso. Does it really matter? The film briefly settles into a sort of familiarity with the old serialized Holmes’ adventures made at 20th Century Fox and Universal in the 40s, even giving us a brief introduction to Irene Handl as the ever-devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes chastises this portly Scot for having dusted off his case files, insisting the density of the layers is all important to his cataloging methods.

Wilder gives us Holmes as a man of several incurable and idiosyncratic vices with very few outside interests apart from detecting the criminal element. In the middle of it all arrives the mysterious Belgian, Gabrielle Valladon (Geneviève Page), bedraggled and barely conscious after being pulled from the Thames. Valladon insists she has come to London to search for her husband, Emile, a brilliant engineer working for her Majesty’s government, but who has since mysteriously vanished without a trace. Unbeknownst to Holmes, Valladon is, in fact, a spy working for the Germans, and her handler, Von Tirpitz (Peter Madden), masquerades as a Trappist monk and tailing Holmes and Watson.

In the meantime, Holmes deduces that Valladon must have arrived by the boat train, tracing an imprint of a number on the palm of her hand to a luggage rack at Victoria Station, later discovering a series of letters, presumably written by Emile from a nearby London address. Holmes now encourages Valladon to address an envelope to the same.  Valledon, Holmes and Watson quietly sneak into the abandoned storefront as their letter is delivered by the post. The shop is empty, except for a cage of live canaries, tended by a woman in a wheelchair (Catherine Lacey). Presently, the trio observes as two burly movers arrive to collect twenty-four canaries.  Holmes afterward assesses that they are still no closer to the truth. Alas, he is given a precious clue in his discovery that the letter is from his own estranged brother, urging to attend him at his downtown gentleman’s club.

Descending on the Diogenes Club in search of clues, Holmes is urged by his brother, Mycroft, played by Christopher Lee,  who is utterly magnificent as Holmes’ cryptic and estranged counterpart, to abandon the case.  Mycroft alludes to knowing more than he is willing to reveal. Instead, Holmes stubbornly disregards his brother’s forewarning; pressing on with their journey by train across the Scottish highlands to Inverness. Holmes is intrigued by Valladon’s chronically malfunctioning parasol, gradually becoming aware she is using it to send Morse-code signals to the Trappist monks, who seem to be shadowing their journey.

Not long after, Holmes becomes intrigued by what the trio first misperceives as children standing over three newly dug graves. The gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) explains the coffins belong to a father and two sons, capsized and drowned at sea – an ominous precursor of things to come. Realizing the mourners are, in fact, midgets, Holmes elects to return to the cemetery late in the evening and exhume the bodies. When he unearths the remains of Emile Valledon, buried with three bleached white canaries lying dead atop his pant leg, his wedding ring turned green, Holmes begins to suspect foul play: asphyxiation by chloride gas. Together with Watson and Valladon, Holmes investigates a series of castles along the banks of Loch Ness, noting a considerable commotion taking place at an ancient ruins cornered off by a wooden fence and scaffolding, and a “no trespassing” sign, observing workmen carrying huge crates of sulfuric acid onto the premises. Holmes notes that when combined with sea water sulfuric acid can produce a highly toxic gas. Attempting to explore the ruins by going around back, Holmes and company are turned away by a stern guide who informs them the buildings are being restored by the Society for the Preservation of Scottish Monuments. Testing the guide’s knowledge, Holmes fakes a history for the ruins that the guide backs up.  Holmes realizes the man is lying to them about the work being done on the property. Holmes also observes the same men from the abandoned pet shop in London unloading a cage full of canaries on site. 

Traversing Loch Ness in a rowboat, Holmes, Watson and Valladon come in contact with what appears to be the infamous amphibious monster, and their tiny vessel capsizes. Later Holmes goes the journey alone on foot, discovering Mycroft in a glowing white tent pitched along the moors. Mycroft clarifies for Holmes he is being used as a pawn. Valladon is not the wife of Emile, who died from a chloride gas leak along with his feathered friends, but a German spy named Fraulein Ilsa von Hoffmanstal who intends to steal the blueprints for England’s latest weapon: a steel, cocoon-shaped submersible ship camouflaged to look like the Loch Ness monster. Before the brothers can debate Holmes’ next course of action, Queen Victoria arrives to inspect the top-secret project, utterly horrified to learn it has already cost British lives and has been designed expressly as a vessel of war. Instead, Victoria orders the already built submersible immediately dismantled and the project scrapped in its entirely, much to Mycroft’s chagrin.

A short while later, Holmes reunites with Valladon in their suite of rented rooms, exposing von Hoffmanstal for her treachery. The great detective then uses her parasol to send a Morris Code message to the waiting Trappist monks – actually, Von Tirpitz and a small troop of German seaman anxiously awaiting her cue. Holmes then explains to von Hoffmanstal how Britain intends to let the Germans have the submersible, albeit booby-trapped to sink them into an eternal resting place at the bottom of the sea. On the surface, Holmes is glib and immensely pleased with himself, hinting to von Hoffmanstal that everyone is inclined to suffer a failure now and then: “Fortunately, Dr. Watson never writes about mine!”

Alas, Holmes is holding out, unable to quantify his unsettling affections for this femme fatale, but confirmed when Mycroft explains to von Hoffmanstal she is not bound for a British prison as anticipated; rather, to be traded for the release of a British spy captured in Prussia. She will return to Germany at once. In the film’s epilogue, we receive the ultimate confirmation of Holmes’ wounded heart: his unspoken sorrow after reading a letter from Mycroft, informing him von Hoffmanstal was captured by the Japanese while on another spy mission for Germany and summarily executed by a firing squad for her treason; Holmes reaching for Dr. Watson’s medical bag and his seven percent solution of cocaine to numb his roiling melancholia.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most perfect movie ever made about this iconic detective.  Wilder’s reconceptualizing of Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth predates Guy Ritchie’s mangling of Holmes as a bumbling ragamuffin by nearly 40 years. In eschewing Conan Doyle’s original stories for his own original concept, Billy Wilder assumes a monumental task: to capture the essential flavor of not only the period but also Doyle’s artful sleuth.  Also, to remain faithful to the Holmes already ensconced and fondly recalled in the movies co-starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. For the greater part of this endeavor, Wilder miraculously succeeds. He gives us Sherlock Holmes, quirks and all, a delicate balancing act that never stoops to debase the character; merely, to illustrate his humanizing imperfections.

No one could ever confuse Robert Stephens with Basil Rathbone.  He intersperses his character’s trademarked deductive logic with inspired tinges of Oscar Wilde, also Rex Harrison from My Fair Lady. And yet, Stephens manages a truthful, brooding and splendidly debonair Holmes, one fallible and unreservedly vulnerable in spots, although still able to validate his air of smug superiority where the legend is concerned. 

To his dying day, Billy Wilder chose never to reminisce about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes which turned out to be one of his outright critical and financial failures. Although cut by more than 30 minutes, the film remains brightly satirical and imbued with a delicate sense of decaying intimacy. Here is a portrait of Conan Doyle’s peerless investigator, equally intriguing as he is amusing. Before The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes too few cinematic incarnations managed to rival this beloved literary character. Without a doubt, there have been no contenders since half as witty or worthy of the mantle of quality Wilder has wrought with this classy tale.

Alexander Trauner’s elephantine and sumptuous Victorian recreations of Baker Street would make even the likes of John DeCuir blush. Pinewood’s massive back lot was converted to façades, marking the epitome of London chic. The wholesale lopping off of Wilder’s tertiary storylines – short mystery sketches and a framing device, meant to augment the central narrative – remains lamentable. The movie still works. But what was left on the cutting room floor likely would have transformed this compelling minor classic into a rarified and much celebrated Wilder plat du jour.

Sadly, at 125-minutes, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a coming attraction for a feature yet to be released.  The original prologue, the examination of the contents of Dr. Watson’s shelved personal effects, exhumed from a dusty storage locker some fifty years after the passing of both characters, was meant as Billy Wilder’s sour social commentary on the modern age. This has been distilled into a Maurice Binder montage of moments featured under the main titles, set to Miklos Rosza’s eloquent underscore. It works…sort of. Wilder’s approach would have been much more grand and grandly amusing, and this from a man who considered himself the purveyor of delicious shocks to the system, breaking taboos during the stringent era of Hollywood’s production code. Without the code to rail against, Wilder’s film forgoes shock value for charm, mostly of the old-fashioned ilk.

Arguably, the film’s most daring moment comes with Wilder’s inference that perhaps Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes shared more than an address.  Wilder’s tongue-in-cheek homoeroticism is believable, deliberate and quite funny, as the ballet master attempts to “fix up” Watson with various male dancers from the Ballet Russe. When Holmes refuses to take Watson’s indignation seriously, suggesting they can always meet “clandestinely on a bench in Hyde Park,” Watson’s probing query “I hope I’m not being presumptuous, but there have been women in your life?” is met with an even more naughty inference.  Wilder’s Holmes replies, “The answer is yes.  You’re being presumptuous!”

In years since, the general reputation of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes has been that it brilliantly succeeds at the start, becoming unhinged in its mid-section, then utterly falls apart in its last act. Rubbish! Wilder consistently maintains his verve for the central mystery. Moreover, he commands our attention with a fascinating sect of circumstances; the finale, a thoroughly thought-provoking flourish of Holmesian principles, imbued with an overwhelming sense of loss and personal tragedy.  Unfettered by the usual Americanized tripe about uppity British stoicism, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes translates, not only into good solid second tier Billy Wilder but magnificent Arthur Conan Doyle as well, neither to be lightly disregarded.

Wilder’s shifting affinity for the character gives us Sherlock Holmes, warts and all; a conflicted pragmatist, whose supreme adherence to deductive logic becomes a considerable liability and Holmes’ blind spot in the last act. Wilder’s Sherlock is the Holmes of our youth – deerstalker and magnifying glass (first made famous in Sidney Paget’s illustrations); Robert Stephens borrowing heavily from William Gillette’s (the first to immortalize Sherlock Holmes on the stage) dandyisms and menacing charisma. Yet, far from a deliberately condescending evaluation of Conan Doyle’s ensconced superman, Wilder’s reevaluation of Sherlock Holmes emerges as perhaps the most unvarnished and frankly clear-eyed critique of this enterprising specimen, brought down a peg or two to a level of humanity and compassion we can regularly admire and appreciate.

And Wilder’s own affinity for Holmes, as a man after his own heart, is poignantly illustrated in his astute assessments of Holmes’ intelligence contributing to his own isolationism. This Holmes can no more discover happiness than ignore his private failings or turn a blind eye to the duplicities of the world; forced into accepting his finely honed ego while simultaneously chagrined for possessing it.  In the final analysis, the character’s ambivalence is what sells The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as a meticulous character study.  The movie is disinterested with its whodunit and becomes a superior deconstruction of Holmes’ own emotional fragility and genius.

Were that we could champion Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release as brilliant. Alas, we get the same exceedingly tired old elements used to mint MGM’s DVD from 2002: at times, severely flawed, badly faded and suffering from imploding color balance, hints of vinegar syndrome, very weak contrast levels and a barrage of age-related artifacts scattered throughout: in short, a colossally disappointing visual presentation of a movie deserving so much better.  This 2.34:1 presentation is riddled with digital anomalies, harsh reel changes and a lot of built-in flicker. Christopher Challis’s soft-focused cinematography ought to have looked velvety smooth and dreamy. Instead, colors are muted, flesh tones adopting that unflattering piggy pink patina, the vividness in Julie Harris’ costumes and Alexandre Trauner’s period sets getting lost in the exaggerated film grain looking coarse with pockets of video noise.

Frankly, I am getting sick and tired of third-party distributors getting their hands on other studio’s vintage catalogs, only to slap together shoddy third-rate 1080p transfers and then think they’ve done everyone an immense favor, simply by making these discs – any discs – available to the consumer. Hello, fellas! Olive, Kino, Image, et al. Are you listening? Guess what? You haven’t done yourselves any favors. The public?  Well, judging by this transfer, quality control and consumer satisfaction were never pressing issues or top priority.

The 2.0 DTS audio is adequate – barely, with semi-crisp exchanges of dialogue. Miklos Rozsa’s score sounds just okay rather than exceptional.  Extras are all ported over from MGM’s DVD and include a featurette/interview with Christopher Lee that is badly out of sync, plus script pages to recreate the lost/deleted scenes and a badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: we’ll still recommend this one for content. But you aren’t getting anything close to Blu-ray’s promise of perfection – or a reasonable facsimile of the way this movie looked in theaters back in 1970. Yuck!  And who really needs it? I’m still asking myself that same question!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best) – 4.5
EXTRAS – 2.5


Renowned for its lurid concoction of unrepentantly remorseless and ruinous characters, its startling brutality and its maggoty episodes of sexual betrayal, Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) remains an explosive and exploitative excursion into London’s dodgy netherworld. The film was infamously decimated by famed NY Times critic Bosley Crowther as a “pointless trashy yarn” reveling in its “turgid pictorial grotesque(ness)”.  Crowther’s review, though unapologetically negative, nevertheless manages to tap into the essential “quality” of the piece since earmarking Night and the City as a cornerstone of film noir. We must recall the term “film noir” had no place in the American cinema-maker’s consciousness at the time such films were being made. Dassin, for example, did not set out to make film noir.  The term was introduced into critical discourse as early as 1946 by French critic Nino Frank, though it wasn’t embraced as part of the American lexicon until the 1960s: meant mostly to catalogue and more easily identify “the movement” after the fact, a decided departure from all those frothy light-hearted spectacles from the 1930s toward a more cynical mélange after 1940.

Too many theories about film noir have tried to classify it as a subconscious endeavor. Yet, perhaps, only when considering the rationing of the war years (that decidedly put a cap on Hollywood’s ability to produce spendthrift entertainments as they had done only ten years earlier), does the true impetus of noir style begin to seep into Hollywood’s collective output. Simplified: Consider how the woes of the Great Depression and WWII had made audiences more readily accessible to cynicism. But lest we forget that chiaroscuro lighting, a fog filter and great cinematography can do wonders for any film’s production values when there are no big and beautiful gleaning white sets to photograph. And nowhere is this absence better revealed than in the noir crime/detective thriller. For here is a realm populated by an assortment of distortedly unscrupulous, often vicious reprobates who lived, not in the aristocratic penthouses of the hoi poloi, but in the dank bowels, war-ravaged ratskellers and unseemly ramshackle of wooden huts dotting the perpetual murkiness of sea rot and worm-infested wharfs.

We get all this – and a lot more – in Dassin’s Night and the City: jolly-old London, given over to a post-war squalidness, haunted by urban decay. Jo Eisinger’s screenplay, based on Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name, uses location to extol the stark wickedness of some truly evil people caught in a trap of their own design. There’s Francis L. Sullivan’s Phil Nosseross (as in “rhinoceros”), the perpetually sweat-sticky, portly proprietor of the Silver Fox, a hotbed for underworld espionage. His wife Helen (Googie Withers) is a hot-to-trot ex-showgirl (nee prostitute) given safe haven in trade for a tenuous favor-based marital relationship, since worn severely thin, despite the fact Phil really does love the viper he married. Helen, however, has never been satisfied with their arrangement and yearns to ditch her life as a kept woman to become the owner of her own house of ill-repute.  The Silver Fox is hardly above board.  The hired help has been coached by Helen in the ways of lightening their clientele’s purses once the lights have been turned down low. We also get Mike Mazurki, one of the undisputed criterions of noir – herein cast as “the Strangler”: a pro-wrestler misused by notorious racketeer, Kristo (Herbert Lom).  

Into this den of iniquity stumble two innocents: one marginally tainted small-time operator, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), who, despite possessing both intelligence and charm, is always pursuing the wrong dreams in his desperate desire to “become somebody” quick. We pause a moment here to tip our hats to Richard Widmark.  His tenure at 2oth Century-Fox begun playing raving psychotics like Tommy Udo, Alec Stiles and Jefty Robbins in Kiss of Death (1947), The Street With No Name (1948) and Road House (1948) before effortlessly crossing to the other side as a second-string leading man. It’s in Night and the City that Widmark’s film persona is in its most obvious transitional phase: the bone-chilling whack job from the aforementioned films leaning just this side of misguided. Harry Fabian is a loser, and not of the lovable ilk, but one toward whom we can feel a modicum of empathy.

The other novice of the piece is Harry’s careworn, yet eternally empathetic gal pal, Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney), who is in chronic damage-control mode to keep both she and Harry afloat financially. Alas, there’s just so much even this inherently good woman can do. Pity Gene Tierney, an actress whose talents, honed and willed by Darryl F. Zanuck, made her one of the studio’s most sought after leading ladies of the 1940s, but whose career experienced a cataclysmic downward slalom. Looking back on Tierney’s tragic private life beyond the movies, there always seemed to be another dimension of allure to all those sad-eyed vixens she brought to the screen, occasionally as the willful and self-destructing femme fatale with poison on her mind and venom in her heart – or, at least, occupying the hollow where a real woman’s heart ought to be.   

Night and the City really doesn’t give Tierney much of an opportunity to shine. She breezes in for a few choice scenes at the start, then all but vanishes until near the end, forced to crisscross the backdoor world of Suzy Wong in search of her wayward lover, earmarked for extinction by Kristo as revenge for the death of his own father, wrestling great, Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko).  Interestingly, Night and the City isn’t entirely Richard Widmark’s picture either.  His presence merely essential to keep the machinations of Jo Eisinger’s plot moving along. If anything, the movie belongs to Jules Dassin, newly exiled after being labeled a Communist sympathizer by HUAC. In hindsight, the unpleasantness of that ordeal seems to have effectively soured Dassin on humankind in toto.  Dassin brings a modicum of more personalized bitterness to the movie’s already funereal patina. There isn’t one character among the lot who remains above it all, only varying degrees of villainy from this rogues gallery even the likes of a Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would be hard-pressed to embrace. 

Night and the City works for two reasons: chiefly because it is an exquisitely produced, rancid and juicy slice of ambition given over to the devilry of desperation and vengeance. Also, because today’s topsy-turvy tumult and societal ambivalence toward heroes in general is more willing to embrace the inert and phlegmatic dictates of imperfect vipers and heavies, herein championed as merely par for the course of how the proverbial cookie crumbles in a world feeding upon itself to its own inevitable moral implosion. Particularly in its own time, Night and the City must have seemed foreign, for it doles out an astonishing amount of unalloyed animosity. But Night and the City is more than competently made. It is, in fact, a moody plat du jour for Dassin, working with cinematographer, Max Greene, who gives us a London unlike any we’ve seen before: a claustrophobic cityscape of congested flats and shabby shanties wedged in between Tower Bridge and Piccadilly Square, both prominently featured in the movie.

Our story begins appropriately with a chase, possible the greatest in any noir: Greene ripping a page out of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s manual on deep focus as a means to frame Harry Fabian’s escape down a narrow cobblestone byway in his attempts to elude yet another crony he desperately owes money. Harry bursts into the apartment he shares with live-in Mary Bristol, hurriedly searching the room for some quick disposable cash. Mary catches Harry rifling through her purse. He lies to her about wanting a cigarette. But Mary knows him too well for games. Moreover, she’s been down this road before with Harry. He wants too much – for himself, that is – and not nearly enough for the two of them as a couple.  He’s just a small-time hood who desperately needs to think of himself as the proverbial big man.

Unhappy chance that Mary doesn’t have any money either. Instead she lumps it up a flight to the cramped flat of Adam Dunne (Hugh Marlowe hopelessly miscast as a beatnik artist/sculptor with a surprisingly lucrative cash flow). The screenplay momentarily waffles as we find Adam in the process of burning yet another pot of spaghetti on his stove. Mary pinches him for the money Harry needs. Adam lends it willingly. But he also attempts to clarify for Mary, whom he transparently desires for his own (but who obviously is not yet willing to give up on her paramour), that Harry is an artist without an art. Confused, Mary asks Adam to explain, to which Adam reasons any man without genuine purpose in his life to get up in the morning is doomed to remain perpetually frustrated with life in general. Such philosophizing will prove very prophetic, indeed.

Harry rushes off to pay his debt, also to stop in at the Silver Fox, where he quietly observes Phil’s wife, Helen, going over trade secrets and the rules of the house – or, rather, the scam – with her girls: stiffing the clientele for some high-priced chocolates and pocketing the rest of their dough to feed her kitty. Phil is condescending toward Harry. After all, he can spot a rube from a mile away. Any way you slice him, Harry Fabian is a bad investment. Still, he’s a fairly competent con artist – Phil and Helen exploit Harry’s “talents” as to lure naïve, rich American tourists away from the more reputable clubs in town with the promise of female companionship and excitement in their money trap. Sending three new suckers to their doom after a “chance” cute meet at the American Club, Harry tries a similar ruse at the local fights, nearly booted out by the arena’s manager, but making the acquaintance of retired Greco-Roman wrestler, Gregorius and his protégé/son, Nicholas of Athens (Ken Richmond).

Harry cons Gregorius into thinking he still believes in the art of classical wrestling, something the notorious racketeer, Kristo, does not. In fact, Kristo, who also happens to be Gregorius’ son, has made a killing off  “The Strangler” and his more theatrical bouts. Harry strikes up a deal with Gregorius to resurrect and promote Greco-Roman wrestling in London. The self-promotion alone could lead to a very lucrative cash flow, as well as a perilous confrontation with Kristo. Hurrying back to Phil with his good news, Harry is disgusted by Phil’s lack of vision. Phil suggests if Harry can raise 200 quid he’ll match it, thereby giving him the necessary funds needed to launch his enterprise. But Phil is so condescending toward Harry the bargain immediately turns rancid between them.  Harry attempts in vain to tap every con in the city he knows for the money he needs, including Figler (James Hayter), the king of the beggars, Googin, the forger (Gibb McLaughlin) and black market seller, Anna O’Leary (Maureen Delaney). Each turns him down flat.

Appealing to Phil again, Harry is shot down, this time by Helen’s insistence: to invest in any of Harry’s schemes is tantamount to flushing it all away down the proverbial crapper. Helen has ulterior motives however, not the least of which is her own desires to rekindle a previous affair she carried on with Harry right under her husband’s nose.  Helen’s already pilfered 200 quid from the Silver Fox’s safe to give to Harry.  No, not for his venture, but for him to get Helen a nightclub license on the fly. Alas, Harry can use this money to bait Phil to ante up his half of the promised investment – all of it funneled back into Helen’s nightclub, the Flamingo.  Unfortunately for both Helen and Harry, Phil figures out where the money actually came from, but he allows Harry to continue with his ruse, while insisting that Fabian Promotions remain strictly Harry’s company with Phil as its silent partner.

Not long after Harry and Gregorius form their partnership. Kristo pays Harry a call with The Strangler in tow in order to get him to drop his interests in pro-wrestling…or else. Instead, Harry reveals to Kristo his own father has invested with him; the father/son rift growing into a bittersweet chasm. Kristo confronts Phil who openly confides that his plan is to see Harry Fabian destroy himself. Kristo assures Phil so long as Harry only promotes Greco-Roman wrestling his business is destined to fail. So, Phil promises to withdraw his hundred quid for the rental of the arena at the last possible moment, pretending to Harry he has merely had a change of heart about their joint venture. In the meantime, Harry lies to Helen about securing her a license to reopen the Flamingo. Instead, he’s had Googin forge a reasonable facsimile at a greatly reduced fee, pocketing the rest of the money to use for his wrestling enterprise. 

Harry now appeals to The Strangler’s manager, Mickey Beer (Charles Farrell), concocting a diabolical scheme to get The Strangler to challenge Gregorius’ son, Nicholas, sparking a grudge match. The Strangler is too stupid to figure out he’s being played as the patsy, and Gregorius, while infinitely more intelligent than the competition, is nevertheless blinded by his faith in Harry to see him for the small-time hood he truly is and will always remain. Elated by this turn of events, Harry rushes back to Phil, certain he will put up the necessary funds. Instead, Harry learns too late he has been duped by Phil, who telephones Kristo to explain about the match, believing Gregorius will never stand for it. When Harry informs Phil he has already gained Gregorius’ support on the matter, Phil is both chagrined and amused at once. For Phil has still won their battle of wits, this time, on a technicality. Harry hasn’t the money to rent the necessary venue to stage his match.

Frustrated, Harry elects to tap his easiest mark, Mary, yet again. Thanks to Adam’s intervention, Mary finds Harry trying to steal her money. She begs, pleads and implores Harry to reconsider the error of his ways. But it’s no use. Harry’s a lost cause and, as Phil has already wisely assessed, “a dead man”. Returning to the gym, Harry is confronted by The Strangler, who insists on satisfying the grudge match then and there. Nicholas and The Strangler begin to fight, The Strangler easily breaking Nicholas’s wrist in a few short rounds, thereby ruining Harry’s chances to put on the pro match and thus recoup his losses. As Kristo, Harry and Mickey helplessly look on, The Strangler and Gregorius begin to battle: the old master and the lumbering ox sparing like a pair of sweaty farm animals in a brutal no-holds-barred showdown. After an exhaustive bout, Gregorius is victorious in the ring, but collapses just beyond and is carried into Harry’s office where he dies with Kristo by his side. Kristo now demands blood for blood: Harry’s head on a platter. In the meantime, Helen discovers the license Harry obtained for her nightclub is a forgery. Her fate in question, she slinks back to Phil who may or may not be in a forgiving mood – at least not one without sacrifices yet to be made on Helen’s part.

Kristo puts out a hit. Harry’s fair-weather friends turn coat to satisfy their greed. Narrowly escaping a pair of Kristo’s goons, Harry ducks into Figler’s hideaway. To his face, Figler offers Harry safe refuge. Behind his back, he plots to alert Kristo of his whereabouts in order to collect the reward. Once more, Harry averts certain death, finding his way to Anna O’Leary’s dilapidated shanty on the Thames. She sincerely offers him a place to hide, and Mary turns up unexpectedly to encourage Harry to get out of London altogether before it’s too late. As something of an apology for all the grief he’s put her through, Harry tells Mary to turn him in to Kristo and collect the reward. If someone must, let it be Mary, the only woman who ever truly loved him. Mary refuses to entertain this notion. So Harry makes a spectacle of himself, chasing after Mary while shouting at the top of his lungs, drawing undue attention.  The Strangler, who is nearby, pummels Harry to death before tossing his lifeless remains into the Thames near the Tower Bridge as Mary helplessly looks on. From his place atop the bridge, Kristo looks on with a sinister glint of pure satisfaction, presumably with no intention of paying out anything to anyone.

From beginning to end, Night and the City is relentlessly bleak.  Director Jules Dassin tapped into the darkest parts of the human psyche. Few noir thrillers are as bereft of even the slightest emotional core. None of these characters, except perhaps Harry Fabian in the eleventh hour of his own mortality, exhibit even an ounce of compassion, much less remorse for their wicked, wicked ways. Richard Widmark gives us a pitiable derelict out for all he can get: cruel in his intentions, maniacally manipulating the variables, but without any real success achieved in the end. No, Harry Fabian will never be a “big man.”  At this point he isn’t even much of a human being, just desperate and hapless, bitter and tortured, a shell of something that is supposed to come with a conscience, but instead lacks even a sliver of decency as he drifts from pipedream to pipedream on the ether of his own ego. And Widmark gives a delicious performance herein, the quintessence of a beaten loner just arrogant and dumb enough to think he can pull himself from this bottomless pit.

A trifecta of stellar and blistering performances round out Night and the City.  Googie Withers’s heartless harpy, Francis L. Sullivan’s despicable schemer and Herbert Lom’s outright merciless hoodlum. The sexual relationship between Withers’s gadabout and Sullivan’s oily nightclub owner is bizarre, tasteless and ghastly.  Sullivan’s formidable bulk in constant danger of crushing Wither’s slender frame. At one point, Phil tempts Helen with a stylish mink in trade for just a kiss. She is given the briefest of moments to consider the offer before his abject frustration overtakes. The struggle that supervenes gives the audience a sample of what their sexual relations must be like; perverted – like watching a killer whale trying to mate with a pelican. Withers writhes in disgust while Sullivan locks her in his meaty fists and damn near squashes her against his bloated girth.

The last performance worth mentioning is Herbert Lom’s Kristo, an appetizingly unsparing heavy. Kristo has no soul, no stomach either, for doing the heavy lifting.  His pleasure is derived from quietly observing as his edicts are met with the most brutish reprisals inflicted by his small army of thug muscle. One senses a deeper frustration at play in Lom’s subtle exchanges with Stanislaus Zbyszko’s mountain of a man, the epitome of old world stalwartness.  Lom’s hard-boiled eyes casually ogle Ken Richmond’s more slender, if muscular pinup, his father’s rejection completing his own emasculation.

The real star of Night and the City is undeniably the phenomenal B&W cinematography from Max Greene: a formidable visual artist whose work spanned the early silent era to the mid-1960s. Night and the City is unequivocally Greene’s signature statement, possessing an odious allure. Every element of the plot, each subtle nuance of character development has the sword of Damocles hanging over it; Greene going well beyond mere mood lighting techniques. There’s a distinct and, by my mind, wholly unique style at play herein, a look of oppressiveness and claustrophobia permeating each and every frame, the scenes lacking an appropriate level of oxygen for these characters to survive within the same space.  Watching Night and the City for its visual flair alone (with the sound off) is like being subjected to the chaotic and distressing attributes of a carnival dark ride, our plummet into eerily lit and spookily concealed shadows given over to intoxicating pathos and hopelessness magnified to near lethal levels.

We can start to get excited about the German release of Night and the City; incorrectly advertised on Amazon.UK as a region 2 release in 1.77:1 aspect ratio, from Intergroove under their Pretty Gold Productions label, which appears to be sanctioned by 20th Century Fox. What Night and the City on Blu-ray actually is is a correctly framed 1.37:1 “region free” hi-def offering that will blow you away. Let’s start with the fact you can play this disc anywhere in the world: bonus! All of the menus are in German. However, choosing the English option allows you to view the movie sans subtitles in its original English format: bonus, again!

Now for the really good news: Night and the City in 1080p is a visual feast. With the exception of some extremely minor age-related dirt and speckles, this is a near pristine visual presentation with razor sharp crispness, no artificial enhancements, and with exceptional tonality to boot. We get perfectly pitched contrast levels and film grain accurately reproduced. The DTS 2.0 audio is remarkably aggressive.  Franz Waxman’s score, as example, is pronounced with a genuine sonic kick.  No extras, but we really won’t poo-poo that.

I’ve stated the obvious in the past, but will do so again herein.  Merely to reiterate releasing classic movies ONLY in the foreign markets is an extremely odd marketing decision. In North America we’re repeatedly told by the studios there is no market for a golden-age Hollywood product on Blu-ray, while Europe has been experiencing something of a renaissance and continues to reap the benefits of some truly aggressive classic movie output. I can’t imagine the market share for such releases would be greater over there than it is over here. And let’s be fair, as well as pragmatic, if these discs are being released “region free,” how much more expense could there be in simply issuing them globally with menus in English and English printed cover art? The hard work – the actual remastering of the original film elements in hi-def – has already been achieved. Well…enough said – for now. Night and the City comes very highly recommended on Blu-ray from Intergroove. This is a legitimately authorized 2oth Century-Fox transfer and it looks fabulous. Buy today. Treasure forever.

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best) – 4



Anyone attempting a critique of the stylistic elements that embody the classic film noir should begin and end their treatise with Jacque Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), the quintessential crime drama: a textbook example of how all noir thrillers ought to be made.  It isn’t only Robert Mitchum’s laid-back garage mechanic, Jeff Markham (nee Bailey) or Jane Greer, whose kitten-faced damsel in distress, Kathie Moffat, turns out to be a bone-chilling/coldblooded femme fatale. Then there’s Kirk Douglas’s silken and sinister crime boss, Whit Sterling, and Paul Valentine’s smooth-operating killer, Joe Stefanos: each an exemplar of a certain archetype in the noir movement. Out of the Past has style – plus.  Nicholas Musuraca’s unnerving cinematography, matched by Daniel Mainwaring’s gripping screenplay that doesn’t miss a trick or waste a moment of the movie’s scant 97 minutes as we slip in then out of the past with ease and purpose, discovering along with our doe-eyed heroine, Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), that the man she thought she knew is actually somebody else, neither bad nor good as it were, but severely conflicted over his lingering feelings for the wicked vixen who, once under his skin, has poisoned his blood for all time.

Out of the Past is perhaps an unexpected noir, beginning as it does in the stark light of a brisk late autumn afternoon, in the out-of-the-way town of Bridgeport, California, a rare example where location work in a film and the actual location being depicted are one in the same. Musuraca’s cinematography is tinged in the same fatalist shimmer as Cat People (1942), which is hardly surprising, given Tourneur’s and Musuraca’s conspiratorial aspirations on the aforementioned Val Lewton classic. Albert S. D’Agostino’s and Jack Okey’s art direction takes us everywhere from San Francisco to Mexicali, a remote cabin in the woods, Lake Tahoe, and finally back to the relative banality of Bridgeport, only to be dragged into the mire of this moodily magnificent and moneyed retreat overlooking the lake. Out of the Past is more than a clever travelogue representing these varied locales as deviations on a central theme: each part of the same ever-constricting trap that will ultimately devour and destroy our ill-fated hero and blood-thirsty viper. You just can’t escape from the world that’s been created herein.  It’s suffocating yet strangely intoxicating in the same instance.

Out of the Past comes at a juncture in RKO’s history at the beginning of the death throws soon to snuff out the company from existence by 1957.  In its prime, RKO had fostered some unusual creative talents, gravitating rather unexpectedly from the light and frothy Astaire/Rogers confections a la Pandro S. Berman (very expensive to produce, but yielding spectacular returns) to the weightier films of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons), which lost money, then, doing an about-face with Val Lewton’s low-budget though high-functioning, uber-elegant horror classics.  Lewton’s spate of unexpectedly classy scare-fests temporarily saved RKO from bankruptcy).  And finally, RKO found its niche in hard-boiled B-grade crime/dramas. In many ways, RKO became the “house of noir” throughout the mid to late 1940s. Other studios with more capital and bigger names to headline tried to emulate the style – most notably, Warner Bros. and Fox from the late 40s into the early 50s, with MGM entering the field much too late to be considered a prominent contender.

Yet, only RKO seemed to consistently excel in the noir movement, perhaps because its low-man-on-the-totem-pole scrapper mentality fit best with the unsympathetic cruelty of the traditional noir antiheroes and villains. The suave Cary Grant, for example, could never be a noir hero, nor could Clark Gable or Gary Cooper for that matter. It fit Bogart to a tee, and helped to reinvent Dick Powell’s persona over at Warner. It even resurrected Joan Crawford’s sagging career for two decades, including her Oscar win for Mildred Pierce (1945) after her departure from MGM. Still, in retrospect, noir drama seems to have thrived on that certain autonomy at RKO shared by its less identifiable players.

Arguably, Out of the Past endures today because of Robert Mitchum, who was known then as something of the prototypical Hollywood “bad boy” after being busted (and sent to jail for 60 days) for possession of marijuana and being caught smoking a joint at a Laurel Canyon house party in 1948. Perceived as a career breaker at the time, in retrospect, Mitchum’s tenure in prison had little impact on his ability to procure more acting assignments in Hollywood. Debatably, it altered his on-screen persona, from heroism personified in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) to playing severely flawed men of less altruistic pursuits, beginning with Out of the Past. Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey is a guy still striving to live up to his potential, though ultimately succumbing to the tainted elixir of evil. This, of course, is made attractive in the embodiment of a woman he cannot help but lust after.

Good guy/bad girl: a time-honored impetus in narrative fiction, always raising the ire, eyebrow and curiosity factor for an audience. After all, what could possibly make any man, who wants to live honestly, pursue a female who’s obviously up to no good? Well, sex appeal – duh! And perhaps the naiveté that somehow everything will work itself out in the end, though not even our hero is entirely convinced of it.  In retrospect, Out of the Past is the ideal showcase to reintroduce Mitchum to audiences after he’s taken his own tumble from grace. He’s utterly believable as the faded valentine still caught in Ann’s hopelessly innocent and starry-eyed stares. Things have become all tangled up inside his heart. Jeff Bailey wants to keep promises made; both to Ann and himself, to become that better man. But somehow, he’s unable to find the cure for that sexual sting left behind by the bad girl. 

Out of the Past may be light on sex (one toppled lamp in a rainstorm and a few shadows frantically groping at one another on the wall is about all we get) but there exists a palpable tawdriness to the affair between Jeff and Kathie.  Greer’s minx pleads with Mitchum’s laconic bad boy: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I, I didn’t know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn’t take anything. I didn’t, Jeff. Don’t you believe me?” He coolly replies: “Baby I don’t care.”  We can utterly believe that nothing really does matter except the way Kathie fits so perfectly between Jeff’s bed sheets.

We buy into Jeff’s investment in Kathie much more than his tepid fidelity to Ann, the girl who would willingly do anything for Jeff, not to him. That’s Kathie Moffat’s métier.  Good girls like Ann are hard to come by. But bad girls like Kathie are more fun in the moment. To coin an old Cole Porter lyric, what each “requires is the proper squire to fire her heart.” Ironically, Jeff’s not that guy, neither for Kathie nor Ann. He might have been – once – a long time ago. But things change, and so has Jeff over the course of our story. Arguably, Jeff was never as corrupt as Whit, who is Kathie’s male counterpart. But neither has Jeff been as pure as the driven snow since he started wearing long pants. When Kathie, feigning delicacy, whispers “Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die,” he rather coolly explains, “Neither do I, baby…but if I have to I’m gonna die last.” Jeff’s truer intentions are, of course, to remain above it all, at least to survive this maelstrom he’s helped to perpetuate.

Repeatedly, Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay does its level best to illustrate what a perfect pair Jeff and Kathie are in spite of Jeff’s protestations. And yet, we cannot help but empathize with Mitchum’s laconic loner. He wants out, or, at least, has done everything he can to convince himself of as much.  Greer’s diabolical hell-cat shows her real stripes mid-way through the story by shooting Jeff’s old partner, Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie), after he attempts to blackmail them at a remote cabin in the woods, thus sobering Jeff as to where he fits into Kathie’s scheme d’amour.  That’s some chick! She’d slit her own mother’s throat for a pair of diamond earrings. 

There are, of course, other performances worth noting in Out of the Past, chiefly Kirk Douglas, considerably evolved since his debut as the rather weak-kneed sob-sister in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers (1946) the year before. In Out of the Past we get our first real taste of that larger-than-life Douglas persona soon to dazzle for many decades, reconstituted herein as the beady-eyed mobster, Whit Sterling. With a deliciously bedeviled grin, ominously laid back charm, and, pensive glint caught in his eye, Douglas is a fairly menacing presence, every inch in competition with Mitchum’s 6-feet-plus bulk – no small achievement considering Douglas is a comparatively diminutive 5 feet, 9 inches and more slender and fine-boned. Mitchum’s Jeff could mop the floor with Douglas’s Whit, physically speaking, if only Whit didn’t have the cunning edge on Jeff. 

For decades, Lauren Bacall has insisted she was largely responsible for bringing Douglas’s talents to the attention of star makers in Hollywood, a claim that’s quietly ignored, though never outright contested or denied by Douglas. Whatever the case, Out of the Past marks Douglas’s “real” movie debut as the take-charge powerhouse. Herein, he exudes a shifty charisma. Even when he’s nowhere to be seen, his Whit looms like a winged gargoyle over Kathie’s and Jeff’s affair. Whit’s machismo has been wounded – literally – by a superficial gunshot, Kathie’s parting gift.  She never expected him to live. Now, she’s afraid and with good reason. Whit’s an animal. His wickedness knows no bounds and once crossed he isn’t likely to forgive and forget. 

Last, but certainly not least, is Paul Valentine’s unscrupulously captivating hit man, Jo Stefanos. Frankly, it has always been something of a mystery, as well as a disappointment, that Valentine’s star never ascended the ranks of great noir villains and/or anti-heroes. With his square jaw, glistening dark pate and piercing eyes capable of interpolating moments of gleeful attractiveness and wicked magnetism at a moment’s notice, Valentine certainly had all the makings of a great character actor. Moreover, in his dark trench and half-cocked fedora, he matches Mitchum’s damaged detective muscle for muscle. If Out of the Past has any flaw it is the hasty dispatch of Stefanos in its third act;, taking a tumble off a craggy cliff. Still, the film is undeniably Valentine’s finest moment in a career much too brief and marred by substandard material, more often relegated to second-string support. What a waste!

Out of the Past opens with a magnificent tracking shot, the camera mounted on the back of Stefano’s open-top convertible. His car pulls into an out-of-the-way gas station/garage marked with the proprietor’s name, Jeff Bailey. Flicking his lit match from a cigarette at “the kid” (Dickie Moore), a deaf/mute who doesn’t realize at first that he’s even standing there, Stefanos goads the reluctant boy into giving up Jeff’s whereabouts. But there’s no hurry. Jeff isn’t going anywhere. And neither is Stefanos, taking his coffee at Marny’s roadside café across the street and avoiding sharp-shooter, Marny’s not-so-subtle inquiries. Like all busybodies out to learn what they can, Marny tells more than she hears. From her, we learn Jeff’s been seeing Ann, the girl who “belongs” to Jim (Richard Webb), the local deputy sheriff.

The scene shifts to Jeff and Ann spending some quality time together up by the lake. Ann’s desperately in love, but doesn’t really throw herself at Jeff. On the other hand, Jeff’s not entirely convinced he ought to be with Ann.  He loves her, sort of, and in spite of her parents’ rigid lack of acceptance. Too bad their date is interrupted by the kid, signaling to Jeff that trouble’s afoot back at the garage. Sending Ann home, Jeff meets Stefanos cordially, quickly learning this isn’t a social call. Turns out Whit has sent Stefanos on a knight’s errand, to bring back the one guy, Jeff, who could find Kathie Moffat and return her to him. Jeff tells Whit he ought to forget Kathie but it’s no good. Once Whit’s mind is set on something it’s best to get out of his way. The trouble is, getting out of Whit’s way this time means Jeff has to confront his own past.

On the car ride back to Ann’s, Jeff begins his true confession. His name isn’t Bailey, it’s Markham. He isn’t a nice guy but rather ex-thug muscle for a gangland kingpin who’s rehired him to go in search of the kitten-faced viper under both their skins. In true noir fashion, Jeff’s reflections kick off an extended flashback.  We see Jeff and his business partner, Jack Fisher, as a pair of New York PIs with a spurious reputation between them, hired by Whit to hunt down Kathie after she’s already shot him in the arm and run off with $40,000 of his cold hard cash. Jeff tells Whit to leave well enough alone. But Whit makes Jeff a promise: Kathie will not be harmed. Jeff doesn’t really believe this. Whit isn’t the “forgive and forget” type.

Sending Jack on a wild goose chase, Jeff tracks down an old friend of Kathie’s who suspiciously fluffs him off at first, then confides that Kathie was running away to some place with a lot of sun.  Florida maybe. As it turns out, Kathie hightailed to Acapulco. Jeff wastes no time taking the next flight out. For days he sits in a rather seedy café hoping for Kathie to turn up.  On the third day out, Jeff gets his wish. But you know what they say about being careful for what you wish for.  Kathy is standoffish and faintly sad. She’s coaxed from her shell by Jeff’s smooth operations, also by his easy-going male magnetism. What’s not to like? And Kathie has a sob story to go along with her pouty lips; one that appeals to Jeff’s tainted sense of chivalry, or, perhaps, merely tantalizes his lust.

The two become lovers, meeting in secluded places and the beach after dark, caught in the pouring rain and making love with the lights off in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. Jeff tells Kathie they have to disappear before it’s too late. It may already be later than either of them thinks. For who should appear at Jeff’s hotel room the next afternoon – and just as Jeff is about to pack for his getaway – but Stefanos and Whit. The pair baits Jeff with not terribly subtle hints regarding his deceptions. Jeff plays dumb (he’s fairly good at that) and gets riled when the questions are directly put to him. Whit pulls back from his inferences, encouraging Jeff to find Kathie with all speed. Jeff lies about Kathie gone to South America. Instead, Kathie and Jeff hurry north to San Francisco, living inconspicuously for a time and seemingly happy together.

Time passes and Kathie and Jeff grow complacent about blowing their cover, becoming comfortable in their new lives. Tragically, they bump into Jack at the race track, and Jeff instructs Kathie to go on without him. They’ll rendezvous much later at a secluded cabin in the woods. Jeff loses Jack, or so he thinks, arriving at the cabin very late. But Jack intrudes on their solitude, demanding money to keep his mouth shut. Kathie still insists she never took a dime from Whit, certainly not $40,000. Instead, Jeff takes a crack at Jack, the two old buddies fairly evenly matched as they spar around the room, knocking over furniture. Kathie’s gaze suddenly turns rotten, calculating the inevitable fallout as she reaches for Jeff’s gun and fires a few well-placed slugs into Jack’s back. Her unapologetic killing startles Jeff. Perhaps Kathie isn’t the girl he thought she was. And now he’s an accomplice to murder. What to do?  While Jeff contemplates covering up the crime, Kathie makes a break in her car, Jeff discovering Kathie’s discarded bankbook, clearly showing a $40,000 deposit. She’s lied to him – and not just once.

We return to the present, Jeff and Ann pulling into the semi-circular driveway of Whit’s country estate at Lake Tahoe. Jeff promises faithfully to reunite with her some time later, going into the lion’s den alone to face his former boss. Even more of a shocker, Kathie is there too, Whit’s girl all over again. Remarkably, Whit seems to harbor no ill will toward Kathie or Jeff. Perhaps she’s kept her mouth shut; at least, so Jeff hopes. Whit informs Jeff he is being blackmailed by ex-lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles) who helped cover up a tax dodge, but is now using this information to extort money from Whit. It’s an obvious setup and Jeff knows it. Nevertheless, he finds himself attempting to warn Eels that Whit is on to him. Instead, Jeff discovers Eel’s lifeless body lying on the floor, an affidavit signed by Kathie claiming Jeff murdered Jack amongst the papers on Eel’s desk. Knowing he’s slipped into it up to his neck, Jeff makes a break for Bridgeport. Unbeknownst to Jeff or Whit, Kathie has instructed Stefanos to trail “the kid” who inadvertently leads him right to Jeff, hiding out at a secluded fishing spot near a rocky cliff.  As Stefanos draws his pistol and prepares to take dead aim, the kid hooks his fishing line into Stefanos’ pant leg, causing him to plummet to his death.

In town, Jim tries desperately to convince Ann that Jeff’s a bad egg. He’s suspected in a San Francisco murder. However, believing Jim to be jealous, Ann admonishes him almost immediately and flees to forewarn Jeff. Back at Lake Tahoe, Jeff confronts Whit with the truth: Kathie murdered Jack. Whit has no choice but to turn her over to the police or Jeff will do it for him. Whit admires Jeff’s ruthlessness, agreeing to the exchange so Jeff can run away with Ann and start his life over. Alas, it’s not to be. Hours later, Jeff returns to discover Whit shot through the heart and Kathie declaring she is now in control of their intertwined fates. She still wants Jeff for her own. Either he comes with her or she’ll see to it he goes up for Jack’s, Eel’s and Whit’s murders.

Jeff reluctantly agrees to Kathie’s plan, but telephones the police shortly before they depart Whit’s home. In response to his tip off, the police set up a roadblock at the front gates. Realizing she has been double-crossed, Kathie shoots Jeff, attempting to take control of the wheel. It’s no use. The car careens over the side of a steep ravine, killing Kathie and Jeff.  The police later recover a great deal of money in the trunk. Still unable to bring herself to believe the worst about Jeff, Ann asks the kid if he was lying to her.  Was he really going to run away with Kathie Moffat? The kid nods yes – thereby liberating Ann from her reservations. She’s free to love Jim, who clearly still loves her. As Jim and Ann drive off from the garage, the kid looks up at the placard bearing Jeff’s name, smiles, nods and walks away.

Arguably, Out of the Past remains the greatest film noir ever made. Usually, I avoid such overstatements. And undeniably, there are other noir thrillers in close proximity for this top spot – if, such a position actually exists: Double Indemnity,The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, Murder, My Sweet and Mildred Pierce. Yet Out of the Past just seems to click in a way these others can only guess at, or perhaps mimic is a more fitting word.  Its Samson and Delilah-esque plot, so close to the noir hallmarks that it becomes emblematic of the movement itself. Remarkably, the style never veers into cliché. Even more remarkable, Out of the Past has not aged or become an axiom for the noir movement in all the years (and all the many imitators) that have followed it since. 

Jacques Tourneur’s direction remains a prototype for the noir drama, while Robert Mitchum’s chain-smoking and insolent private dick cum grease monkey all but typifies the good dupe made a bad example by his own ill wind blowing him predictably closer to a twist of fate: the latter amply supplied by the quintessential femme fatale, Jane Greer. The other elements that make Out of the Past work have already been discussed herein. But the kernel of its enduring success really boils down to Mitchum and Greer, and the utterly toxic on-screen chemistry they share. One can as easily see them as the perversely hot-blooded lovers, passionately tearing a little of each other’s skin in the bedroom, as they convincingly mutate into our story’s darkly amused, but even more aberrant adversaries.  Tourneur’s direction never falters and neither does Daniel Mainwaring’s screenplay, which is so tightly woven around its central frame-up that one cannot imagine the movie any other way. No scene is wasted and no further explanation is required. Out of the Past is undiluted perfection, a total enrichment of the noir precepts.

Thank you, Warner Home Video for bringing Out of the Past…well…from out of the past in a restored and remastered hi-def Blu-ray. Prepare to be impressed. This hi-def transfer exhibits a superb image with solid grain and an impressively balanced gray scale, marked by equally impressive contrast levels. Age-related artifacts that were fairly prominent on the DVD have been greatly tempered, to all but eradicated on this Blu-ray. We still have a few fleeting light speckles here and there, but honestly, this is a pluperfect rendering that will surely not disappoint and a definite upgrade from your old DVD.  Out of the Past is only available as part of the Warner Archive, a decision, I must say, I generally approve of, since all Warner Archive hi-def discs support a very high bit rate.

The original mono audio has received a DTS upgrade and wow does it sound good – no, great! Alas, in keeping with the studio’s spendthrift policy, we get no new extras on this disc. But James Ursini’s audio commentary is fascinating and decidedly one of his best.

A quick heads up: it seems noted restoration expert Robert H. Harris has hinted 2015 will be a heady year for Warner Home Video with an aggressive push to release a lot of catalog to Blu-ray. We’ve been promised more Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and three strip Technicolor restorations – always expensive and time-consuming.  (Hopefully we’ll see The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Anchors Aweigh and National Velvet among them.)  Perhaps this newly remastered Out of the Past and the upcoming release of The Great Race is a taste of what’s in store. I do sincerely hope so, because Warner has once more proven with this release when they want to they can and do release the best high end/hi-def product in the business. We’ll wait and see and hope for the best. So start saving now. Bottom line: Out of the Past is a quintessential part of American movie art. This Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best) – 5+
EXTRAS -1   


Nick Zegarac is a freelance writer/editor and graphics artist. He holds a Masters in Communications and an Honors B.A in Creative Lit from the University of Windsor. He is currently a freelance writer and has been a contributing editor for Black Moss Press and is a featured contributor to online’s Subtle Tea. He’s also had two screenplays under consideration in Hollywood.  Contact him via movieman@sympatico.ca.


published by Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014
download here 


Walter Ruhlmann is a softie.  Oh, yes he is.  But a hard softie.  He keeps on keeping on, as Curtis Mayfield sings, despite heartbreak and extreme loss.  He knows how to express his sorrow and ennui, but there’s a resilience and lust for life evident in much of his work.  I don’t know how he does it, but Ruhlmann pumps out a lot of poetry each year, without losing his depth and emotional poignancy.

His latest collected work is called Twelve Times Thirteen, a title that rings like a name of a Twilight Zone episode or a show from America’s golden age of radio.  In the book’s prologue Ruhlmann explains that it’s partly inspired by 5×2, a film directed by François Ozon, and that the poems cover the twelve months of 2013, of which “the first six were about the worst [he] had ever lived.”  Each poem title is made up of its month’s number (“Three Times Thirteen” for March, for example) and the name of the song that inspired the piece. 

While at first the concept of including actual song titles in poem titles jarred me, I came to appreciate it.  If anything, it bolstered my almost obsessive insistence that all titles should be works of art in themselves, so seeing titles selected by a variety of bands (from Boney M to  Nine Inch Nails) reinforced in me how important it is to have cool titles.  I’m sure Rene Magritte would agree.

Also, presenting poems with corresponding songs invites one to become familiar with the songs he or she hasn’t heard, as well as suggests that the poems would be enhanced if the songs were played in the background while reading them.  We all keep a running “soundtrack of our lives,” don’t we?  (See the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.)  You folks around my age still remember the mini-religion of “mix tapes” like they were yesterday.  (What do the youth court each other with now: mix playlists?) Consider Twelve Times Thirteen a mix tape with extra lyrics, the poet’s words overlapping the band’s.

Ruhlmann sums up his 2013’s doldrums and grief immediately in the first poem, “One Times Thirteen: Tesselate, Alt+J”:

The gap between two winters elapses so slowly.
January –
hatred is such a hard feeling when the slowness, the harshness hardens your blasted heart…
Despising the land you dwell in, longing for something else, again, as if the road you started
walking on would never end.

He metaphorizes the 31 days of January as “broken windows to go through,” and that window motif recurs at least one or two more time later in the book.  This subverts the sappy positivity in The Sound of Music’s Maria’s “When God closes a door, He opens a window” line.  We all know what can and most likely will happen when climbing through jagged pieces of glass.  A journey through a year becomes a bloody Via Dolorosa of the spirit.

Though Ruhlmann’s style tends to veer into the esoteric, acclimation comes easily, and Ruhlmann narrates perfectly coherently when the time is right and directness is needed.  The horrible year of 2013 can be expressed in translatable language only so far, after all.  How does one at Ground Zero describe a mushroom cloud?  Truly, this book is a gloomy cousin to Ruhlmann’s preceding book, The Loss and GMO (Greats Moments of Oblivion).  Esoteric or not, his stuff shines best in golden lines (and anyone who knows my artistic preferences knows that I’m usually a sucker for lovely lines rather than waddling wholes). 

What a creative and therapeutic way to assess a hellhole of a year, to process twelve months of broken windows.  Ruhlmann has left us with a painful and touching mix tape as memorial.  I synced the songs with their poems (or the poems with their songs) – and it worked, almost as convincingly as the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz trick.  (Google it if you don’t know what I mean.)  Also, I had a very pleasant side-effect from the experience: I’m now a fan of Alt+J and Gold Frapp. 

So, in honor of Twelve Times Thirteen’s format, let me end this review with clips from a mix tape of my own.  Here are some favorite lines and passages.

“Two Times Thirteen – No I in Threesome, Interpol” (which contains quintessential Ruhlmann sexuality):

…these secrets – moist and dark – hiding at the back of this drawer,
concealed behind your socks, sucked cocks, licked asses and flesh masses.

“Three Times Thirteen – Black Balloon, The Kills” (which emphasizes the ephemerality of our day-to-day bodies, which are kept going only by constant consumption, and the totally independent state of death):

The food you eat is not the one that will sustain the corpse you bear.

“Five Times Thirteen – Desire, Anna Calvi” (which admits our failure to fully suppress our deepest emotions and desires):

Maybe I’m wrong but I believe that no one can fight feelings coming from one’s depths, from the
moistest part of part of oneself, the bottom of the well…a whore of a pressure that pushes against you and won’t leave      you at rest.

“Six Times Thirteen – Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos (which echoes The Brothers Karamazov’s Dmitri’s spiel about the beauty of both the Madonna and Sodom):

…when Hera still believed
I could have performed the most splendid deeds
when all I wanted was some sordid filth.

“Seven Times Thirteen – Closer, Nine Inch Nails” (which contains one of the best metaphors for acute arousal and sexual selfishness ever; no “softie” here):

July shouted word in my ears…
aroused the razor blade hidden inside my shorts.

…The bulging beast went stuff and stuffy and spurted all its spores,
all over the soft face of the source of my bliss.

“Nine Times Thirteen – The Price of Gasoline, Bloc Party” (which more than hints at flirtation with a married man and the narrator’s self-diminishment that’s symbolized by a miniscule and limp-prone penis):

Don’t flirt with the bearded man.
His wife will be upset.
Especially if he accepts some hot business.

…They made you think you were fitted with something huge and uncanny but all you can see is
a pin hardly able to remain stiff.

“Ten Times Thirteen – Sand River, Beth Gibbons & Rusty Man” (which continues the theme of self-diminishment and impotence, but in regard to doubtful reception of the narrator’s writing this time):

Forty next year. Will this lead you to write more than you already do and share this infamous
wording, logorrhoea, verbal diarrhoea that would bore even your closest friends unable to read
it through?

“Twelve Times Thirteen – River, Joni Mitchell” (Mitchell’s introductory piano riffs off of “Jingle Bells” and the song refers to Christmas, but there is no holiday cheer or tidings of great joy here):

Dystopia is your fuel, you can envisage nothing else than an apocalypse.


Walter Ruhlmann works as an English teacher, edits mgversion2>datura and runs mgv2>publishing. His latest collections are Maore (Lapwing Publications, 2013), Carmine Carnival (Lazarus Media, 2013), The Loss and GMO (Flutter Press, 2014) and Crossing Puddles (Robocup Press, 2014). Visit his blog.



Erika Craig

 Erika lives in California.  Visit her site.


Mother and Child




Louis Daniel Brodsky – in memorium

The great poet Louis Daniel Brodsky passed away in June 2014.   Aside from 83 volumes of poetry, he authored William Faulkner, Life Glimpses (University of Texas Press, 1990), shared his Faulkner scholarship in publications such as Faulkner Journal, Southern Review and Studies in Bibliographyco-edited several bibliographical works about Faulkner, amassed the largest Faulkner-materials collection in the world (before giving it to Southeast Missouri State University) and penned over a dozen prose collections.  His daily output of poetry was dizzying: the man literally lived to write.  As someone who creates only after much crawling and many migraines, I marvel at LD’s prolificacy.  And the man seemed as if he could write about everything: from the most bizarre, Swiftian humor to the soul-splitting Shoah, from Thoreauvian nature worship to September 11th, 2001.  (Hell, he even wrote a poetry book about writing poetry books!)

I want to sustain part of L.D’s artistic spirit by sharing some of his works with others, so I plan on featuring selections here in the Tea periodically.  Below are several poems I transcribed from some of his key poetry books: At Water’s Edge, At Shore’s BorderShadow War (volume 1 and 2), The World Waiting to Be, Rabbi Auschwitz, Unser Kampf and The Words of My Mouth and The Meditations of My Heart (which is his final book, about convalescing after glioblastoma removal and during cancer treatment).  Below the poems is part of something I wrote the morning after I heard that LD was no longer among us, that my colleague and friend would write no more.  However, I’m sure he’d be amused to see that he left enough work to keep us busy and edified for quite some time.

Brodsky showing one of William Faulkner’s typewriters at Southeast Missouri State University’s Center for Faulkner Studies.

Black Box

Piloting his flying machine
Is a profession he’s been plying
For more than forty-five years,

Without experiencing a mishap,
Suffering a midair collision
With a low-gliding spirit.

Always aware
That the time will come
When a runway won’t be under him,

Rather a cold abyss
Into which his life-force will lunge,
All systems silenced,

He files a flight plan,
Before every takeoff,
So his remains can be located –

The black box,
Containing the data of his days –
That others might know his flown soul.

–      from
The World Waiting to Be: Poems About the Creative Process (2008)




Too often, I catch myself lost deep in thought,
Meditating about death, afterlife, eternity,
Despite not wanting to spend any more of my treasured time
Contemplating such overwhelming distractions.

I’d rather exhaust the remained of my restless spirit’s days
Exploring only the myriad now and here,
Feeling, holding, embracing, caressing nature’s wonders
Just under my eyes’ close focus,
Within my sensitive nose’s range,
Amidst my vibrant ears’ circumambience,
Beneath my curious hands’ gentle touch,
Behind my wandering mind’s wisdoms and intuitions,
Inside my imagination’s unschooled way
Of perceiving tiny and grandiose souls
Which know, by instinct and conditioning alone,
The complexities that distinguish the fittest from the weakest –
Realities only the blood can taste,
As it flows its course,
From one existence to another, millennium to generation,
Down time’s grand tributary, to death, afterlife, eternity…

Maybe, after all, losing myself to such overwhelming meditations
Is the only true calling I’ve ever been meant to pursue,
Down to this very Thursday noon’s hike,
As I venture into Camp Nebagamon’s woods, again,
And find myself lost deep in thought,
This time inside the mind of a falling raindrop.

–      from
At Shore’s Border: Poems of Lake Nebagamon, Volume Three (2012)



Meditation #196: Where Would We Be Without “It”?

Why I’ve awakened with death on my mind,
I can’t really say, fathom, dug up, exhume
Though it must be attributive to, have something to do with, non-vaguely,
The glioblastoma that was removed, more than seven months ago,
From the right temporal lobe of my brain.

Oh, I’m kidding, joshing, joking, jesting, ribbing you, pulling your third leg…
Only I’m not kidding.
I guess death must never get a rest, when it comes to cracking wise;
It’s got to be exhausted, flat on its back, dead on its ass,
Indefatigably fatigued, fagged out, for the life of it.

It’s what those sleazy comedy-club, striptease-joint,
Borscht Belt-schtick one-liners are all about –
“I’m going to live forever”;
“Where do you get off with a meshuggeneh name like Methuselah?
That doesn’t even sound Jewish”;
“Did you ever ask yourself why a guy’s just being a putz, a schmuck,
A schmegegge, a schmendrick, when he shrugs and hammers ‘it,’
Knowing the whole audience knows ‘it’ is it, which is death?
Like ‘Why doesn’t it ever happen to the other guy?’;
Then he burps, ‘The older I get, the better I was’;
And then, he burps, ‘We’re not going to get out of here, alive’;
And then he farts, ‘It’s a goddamn shame, I tell you.
Nobody can get into Lon Guyland cemeteries, these days,
Without reservations.  Everyone’s dying to get in there.’”

I probably should confess this, now, being a poet:
If I didn’t have the word “death” and its synonyms, in my lexicon,
I could never compose something true to life.
I mean, as “yin” needs “yang,” “here” needs there,”
“Is” needs “was,” and “now” needs “then,”
So “life” needs “Uh-oh, I’m fucked!”
All of these polarities need each other, to achieve completion, closure.
“Immortality” needs “mortality” and vice versa – get it?  Rigor mortis?

Imagine if we could outlive our souls.
We’d always reach eternity way too late.

Lord, thank You for Your unique creation of death, in the beginning.
Look how, without it,
We’d not know what we were missing of the premise of Your Promise.

As a poet, I have to say this: if death didn’t exist,
My lines about life would be lamentably pedestrian, plebeian,
As boring as doing crossword puzzles, Sudokus, Words with Friends,
Writing notes in condolence cards,
For husbands, wives, mistresses bosses, dogs, gerbils,
Composing verses about love.

And what’s to look forward to, after we master death
And get ready to go off, to our final, deathless resting place,
In Heaven, Paradise, Eternity – those green pastures
With rivers of flowing milk, honey, bagels, lox, chopped liver,
Kreplach, gefilte fish, derma, kishke, tongue, schmaltz?
I’ll tell you what’s to look forward to:Nothing but a fermisht stomach, constipation,
And God, Who sprays MiraLAX,
At your punim, kishkes, and farbisseneh wife,
From a Goliath-sized seltzer bottle.

–      from The Words of My Mouth and The Meditations of My Heart (2014)




Stunning! Amazing! Audacious!
Fantastic! Unreal! Surreal!
Unethical! Immoral! Unprincipled! Unscrupulous!
Unbelievable! Inconceivable! Unimaginable! Unthinkable!
Outrageous! Preposterous! Impossible!
Grotesque! Obscene! Horrendous! Horrific! Abominable!
Heinous! Despicable! Cowardly! Repugnant! Intolerable!
Crazy! Lunatic! Mad! Sick! Insane!
Sociopathic! Psychopathic! Megalomaniacal! Inhuman!

None of these desperate modifiers,
Adjectives uttered and muttered in shock and terror,
Words too imprecise to describe dread,
Whose Hydra heads have yet to coalesce
For sheer confusion about the future,
Doubt about right now
Not one of these ineffectual qualifiers,
No matter how thoroughly we explore its roots,
Can adequately encapsulate meaning.

Express a plausible answers, as to how one man,
With nineteen identified hijackers
And a network of operatives in America,
Can knock a nation of 285 million people
So completely off its feet,
Bring it down to its bloody knees,
Bury it under acres of glass, cement, and steel –
Thousands of pulverized bodies –
Create colossal chaos where order thrived.

Yet, lacking better solutions to our problems,
Better responses to the unknown,
Better mollifications of our insecurities,
We insist on platitudes from our president,
Bombast from our senators,
Obligatory indignation and venomous resolve
From our Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Jargon from technical and strategic advisors,
Cant from our spiritual leaders.

Since Moses received from God
The Word made palpable, visible, audible –
Ten covenantal commandments –
We’ve faithfully relied on the power of the word.
But what should we do when words don’t work,
And all we’re left with are rubble and bodies
Transported, in dump trucks,
To the deepest reaches of speechlessness?
Cutting our tongues off would hardly be enough.



Who hasn’t driven down a summer road,
A sporadically traveled passage
Between small country towns,
And seen at least a turtle or two,
Taking their trusting time to cross from one side
To some vague approximation of the other,
Guided by instinctive reptilian design?

Who, witnessing their unnerving progress,
Their reliance on blind faith, dumb luck,
Hasn’t wondered why so few die,
Don’t end their plodding existences flattened?
And who hasn’t imagined himself in their place –
The oblivious grace of fearlessness,
The inarticulate innocence of determination?

The attacks of fanatical terrorists on America,
Which leveled some of our proudest towers
Two persistently present two weeks ago,
Have awakened us to our precarious lives,
Transformed s into frightened turtles,
Withdrawing into our own personal shells –
Our neighborhoods, houses, heads.

But we must keep crossing the highway
Between birth and death
And not think about being hit by jets
Or stopped in our tracks by anthrax or smallpox.
We need to keep crossing our roads,
Believing that reaching the other side
Is our inalienable right.

–      from
Shadow War: A Poetic Chronicle of September 11 and Beyond (2001,2004)



Real Tears

All the interminable drive, this Sunday morn,
From Lake Nebagamon to Duluth’s airport,
I feel palpable sadness, weep real tears.

Finding myself caught between my recent happiness
And this unhappy vacuum
That’s leaving me lower than anything I’ve known

Since those last moments, four weeks ago,
Which I spent in this tranquil, unhurried land,
Resigned then, as now, to having to go home.

With my visits growing more frequent,
These woefully distressful episodes
Seem to bedevil my spirit more readily, of late.

I’m not quite sure
Just what to make of such shows of emotion,
Why departures keep cutting closer to the heart.

Could it be that mortality is getting the better of me
Or, possibly, that there’s yet hope
For my soul to grow, with the water from its tears?

–      from
At Dock’s End: Poems of Lake Nebagamon, Volume Two (2011)




Gold Medalist

Through most of your life,
You never knew or cared exactly where you were.
Only in old age has it become imperative
For you to master triangulation,
Get your geographical bearings,
Coordinates that locate you in the solar system,
On planet Earth, in your state, city, neighborhood,
Your residence in Delmar Gardens –
The “old folks’ home.”

In part, it had to do with your sense of immortality,
Who you were as a college youth:
A robust, vigorous sort,
A massively powerful human being
Who rowed, for Germany,
In the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin,
And won the gold medal.
In part, it was due to your time in Auschwitz –
A Jew with a Teutonic tattoo.

Oh, how painful it’s been,
Growing old with those memories of glory and travail
You accumulated in your “prime of life.”
(Euphemisms tell gigantic lies,
Rise, like corpses, to the surface of slime ponds.)
How sad to be cooped up, here in this compartment,
Relying on Meals on Wheels,
Watching TV, from sunrise to sunset,
Through cataract-clouded eyes.

The fate of refugees, even in the land of the free,
Isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  You know.
For years, you made minimum wage,
Working as a salesclerk for Sears, then JCPenny,
Ringing up cutlery, men’s suits, power tools.
These days, at eighty-eight,
You sometimes let your mind wander
Back to the single-sculls final you won,
And you long for another victory, in your defeat.

–      from
Rabbi Auschwitz: Poems of the Shoah (2009)




The demarcation of weeks into days means nothing.
Nothing to you, anyway,
Since time is just a serialization of changelessness

And you consider yourself but a piece of straw
In a frenzied eagle’s beak,
Destined to line its nest, beyond forever.

Time is as irrelevant to your existence
As summer and winter, left and right,
Memory and forgetting, life and demise.

For all intents and purposeless pretenses,
You can barely distinguish light from darkness,
Such is the mist in which your oblivious spirit operates.

That you’re a recluse is obvious enough.
You can’t even recognize yourself
In a mirror scribbled with your name, in Gothic script,

You, a spectral leftover of something too horrific
Even for God to resurrect from humanity’s ashpits –
History’s invisible misfit,

Issue of Yiddish-speaking Polish ciphers
Spit out of evil’s toothbrush-mustached,
Schnapps-fouled mouth,

Shipped off to the matzah bakery,
To propagate the zombie population,
Destined to line the nest of the crooked-wing eagle.

At eighty-eight, you have some right to complain.
After all, had you just been gassed,
The past sixty years would have spared you this death.



Ask the Rain

How could it have taken tonight’s rain shower
Sixty-five years
To find my shadowy silhouette slipping through the trees,

Trees which, for the past half-century, at least,
Have concealed me from grief’s argenteous spirits,
Protected me from death’s saber teeth?

Could it be that I eluded the clouds’ storm troops
Simply by pure fortuitousness,
A sheer matter of simple, godless probability?

Or was it a case of mistaken Jewish identity
That accounted for my unexplainable escape
From the roll call that devoured Europe’s 1940s?

How can I exhume adequate words, appropriate phrases,
To express my ineffable perplexity?
I don’t have an answer as to why I’m still breathing

Or whether being alive is better than dying might have been,
In that time of spiritual rot,
When decent Germans turned into demons,

Poltergeists who, once upon a civilized time,
Composed symphonies, concertos, sonatas, for the gods,
Created poems and paintings, dreamed millennial Reichs.

All I know is that in these days of my late eighties,
I’m very sensitive to the rain.
Tonight’s drops remind me of bleeding glass.

Could it be that Kristallnacht never happened, never passed,
And that those trees forming the forest beyond my soul
Never sprouted, never provided me with shelter,

That, in reality, I failed to survive the last sixty-five years,
Expired with the rest of my family, my people?
Ask the rain.  Maybe it can tell you why I’m still here.

Unser Kampf: Poems of the Final Solution (2013)



Now and No

The dramatically vast distance between now and no
Is no greater than the width of “w” —
A star illuminating the cosmos, with its lambent light.

I, an inhabitant of the planet Earth,
Know, authoritatively, of what I say, speak, postulate.
After all, I’m of the species Homo sapiens,

A member of human civilization,
A dust mote who’s fated to be born, live, and die,
Relinquish his paltry mosaic of flesh and bones,

Acquiesce to burial in dirt
Or transmogrification into cremated ashes —
Hardly sustenance for worms.

If only man, with all his astonishing genius,
Could devise a methodology, technology, science
For closing the gap between now and no, erasing it,

Creating a treaty, confederation, pact
Between life and transience, ephemerality, evanescence,
Existence and irrevocable nothingness,

Perhaps he could bloom into an immortal flower
That would blossom daily, even nightly,
Like a belladonna, datura, nicotiana, paper-white.
But if he can’t, dear God,
Might it be within Your humbling prescience
To let now subsume no, for the rest of man’s destiny?


The following is part of what I wrote the day after I heard of LD’s death.

I’m proud to say that a mutual long-distance respect grew between LD and I.  Our art brought us together despite being separated by at least three states and a few decades of life.  We trusted each other’s writing, even the poetic personae we created, to fill in the particular blanks.  LD put this miracle of knowing-through-art perfectly in the Welcome section of his official website: “If you’re willing to journey far enough, you might end up knowing me better than I know myself and, in the process, knowing yourself better than before.”

Honestly, LD became an important mentor to me, whether he knew it or not.  His guidance, encouragement and respect for my own work were priceless gifts.  I appreciated not only his superior experience, literary output and scholarship, but his peculiar vision and insight into all manners of things, from the horrible Holocaust to the love of a lady-like lake called Nebagamon.  Above all, I will remember him by his art, especially since he seemed to prefer having his art speak for himself.  So my last words will be LD’s words, from a poem called “Disciple” in his The World Waiting To Be:

…I’m the celebrated one,
The celebration itself.
All else falls away, for the moment,

As I proclaim, to the uninitiated,
That poetry saves,
Redeems the overloaded intellect from emptiness,

Resurrects its devoted novitiates from earthly notions.
At least for me,
It’s given dignity and purpose to my anonymity.


Charles Rammelkamp

My Most Memorable Birthday

Sometimes I think I remember
my first birthday, fifty-three years ago,
my family’s told me about it so often;
it’s like I was there!

A warm day the beginning of November,
all the kids out back,
friends of my brother and sister, mainly,
trading the blindfold
as they all took turns swatting at the piñata
swinging like a hanged man
from the maple tree,
each one lunging in turn
with the long broom handle,
parents drinking coffee and lemonade
while the kids screamed in delight.

They all heard the sharp snap of a gunshot,
or claimed they did,
and the almost instantaneous shattering
of the storm door out front,
a squeal of tires.

There wasn’t panic
so much as disbelief and disappointment:
the kids all wanted the candy, the cake,
the party favors,
but my mom called the police.
Everybody stayed, witnesses
who didn’t actually see anything.

The cops found the bullet in the kitchen.
It must have driven through the living room wall,
slowed by the resisting plaster and wood,
hit the refrigerator and dropped.
Nobody ever found out what happened;
my parents didn’t have enemies they knew about.

Me? I was asleep in the nursery upstairs.
“A birthday party for a one-year old?
He’ll never remember it.  Why bother?”
How many times have I heard that over the years?

The Exile’s Return

Two months after I retired,
I had lunch with a former colleague,
meeting at a modest restaurant
in the neighborhood where we’d worked.

The closer I got to our rendezvous,
the more I felt
like an animal that had escaped its cage,
only to be recaptured,
tugged back by the leash.

Simon was his old jovial self.
We embraced when we met,
long lost comrades –
we’d always been on the same side
in the endless games of office politics.

But over our sandwiches,
as he recounted the office intrigues,
caught me up on projects
that once brought on anxiety
like a stretched rubber band,
my eyes watered
as I tried to suppress my yawn
while keeping my mouth closed.

“We all missed you at Bernie’s funeral,”
Simon murmured into the silence.

“Bernie’s funeral?”
Gaping, mouth full of egg salad.
Suddenly alert.
Bernie Knapp?  Dead?

“You didn’t know? 
Heart failure at the Jersey shore,
visiting his son’s family.
He was buried last Tuesday.”

Bernie dead!  Buried!
We’d shared an off ice for years.
I felt the bite of the leash on my throat.
So much for escape.


“You’re the kind of man
who’s not taking hair loss sitting down.”
The voice on the television commercial 
sounds like a Marine recruiter.
It’s six in the morning at the gym.
I’m in the locker room,
changing into my swimsuit.

The authoritative voice speaks
of omega-3 fatty acids,
different kinds of hair follicles,
anemia, metabolic disorders,
technical language meant to impress.

I remembered my anguish,
hair starting to fall out at eighteen,
in an age when the Beatles and the Stones
were popular, hippies all over the place,
long glorious hair down the back,
sprouting out all over the head.
Me?  I felt a sick helplessness when I found
strands on the shoulders of my shirts,
coating the pillowcase in  the morning,
thick clumps in the shower drain.

My twin brother was in the same situation;
our mother’s father,
gleaming sleek-headed,
our fates sealed by the maternal gene.

Now my brother savors each day he’s alive,
having been diagnosed
with stage 3 lung cancer.

Charles is the author of A Convert’s Tale (Pudding House), i don’t think god’s that cruel and Go to Hell (March Street Press), Fire Drill!, All Hallow’s Eve and FAME (Snark Publishing), and Mixed Signals (Finishing Line Press).  He edits The Potomac literary journal and serves as fiction edition of The Pedestal, as well as writes reviews regularly for Chamber Four.


“The Princess” by Mathias B. Freese

This piece belongs to a book-in-the-making called Tesserae.


In the summer of ’69 I was driving a cab in Manhattan, from about 6 pm to about 4 in the morning. I averaged about 200 miles in a shift, about the distance from Queens to Woodstock. Often my right knee would ache from the stop-and-go traffic of the city. Few New Yorkers knew that there was continual “warfare” between the city buses and the cabbies, blocking one another, cutting across. The origin of that I did not know until I became enmeshed in the crossfire. It was a “secret,” like bus drivers hitting their air brakes – snort snort – if a big-assed or big-titted woman walked in front of them. It took me some time to realize what that was about. The women, I believe, for the most part, were oblivious to this sly automotive leering.

At night the summer city was infused by glaring neon, the air congested with soot, boiled over, like dry espresso, bitter to the smell. When early dawn hit during the summer and I went back to Queens over the 59th Street Bridge, I felt refreshed in my Humvee, for driving a cab in the city is like driving in Iraq during hostilities. I was dressed simply every night: jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and next to my side up front was a Te-Amo cigar box to hold change and my coin changer as well. I relied on a map book which gave all the avenues and exits on and ramps off the Eastside and Westside highways.  I counted on my little blue Baedecker to get across the transverses in Central Park, west side to east side, vice versa. If you missed a transverse, you headed uptown, and that meant Harlem – and fear to the passengers.

I’ve been informed that a cab driver in London is a lifelong occupation and one must pass rigorous tests to be given a license. In New York, after studying a while, I took a very simple test/quiz mostly about major avenues and streets and stations, such as Grand Central and Pennsylvania Station. Some cabbies went in on a mortgage and bought a medallion which was affixed to the hood. A medallion might guarantee you a lifetime business, although you always ran the risk of being held up, which I was, a gun pointed to the back of my head. I recall in the Fifties it was a relatively safe business to own a cab, but that had changed by the time I began driving.

Once my cab was rear-ended and a woman passenger had her face and chin thrown against the passenger side. I called, quite upset, to relate the details to the dispatcher (a lower form of Danny DeVito in Taxi) and a possible injury to the woman, and the dispatcher’s first words to me were “Is the cab all right?” After that, I knew my place in the pecking order. I was in a post-apocalyptic world.

I drove a pattern like most cabbies. I chose a safe one, the Upper East or West Side. I’d go down five or ten blocks, turn right or left, and go uptown, so that I was doing a rectangular or square grid. At times I’d pick up a fare that wanted to go to LaGuardia or Kennedy, which was a break from the routine. The cabbie is always looking for a return fare back to the city and sometimes I would get that. No one wanted to be pulled into Brooklyn, the streets were a maze. I didn’t mind Queens because it was my hunting ground. If I had to piss that could be handled well, but if a cabbie had to shit, that was another story, as New York had scarce facilities for that – still do! – and if you found one, it was much like the men’s room in a one-pump Texaco station on Route 66. Often I would just scoot over the 59th Street Bridge to my Flushing apartment and relieve myself in familiar and hygienic surroundings.

As a cabbie there is much freedom. If you drove five hours instead of ten, if you took off time to see a movie (some did) or ate out for an hour or two, this was fine with the dispatcher, as long as you brought in what was considered a night’s “take” in the cab. Serendipitously I learned how to master the streets and avenues of New York, such stuff as Broadway being an “S” shaped street, Manhattan’s anaconda. You simply had to master Broadway, often through a vehicular repetition compulsion and the other being, for example, Fifth Avenue. All streets east of Fifth Avenue were counted in one way, and all streets west of Fifth ran another way. Figure out the lodestar purpose of Fifth Avenue and the directions east and west of that longitudinal divide became simple to comprehend, my astrolabe. With that in mind and on foot or in a cab, any address given to you by a fare could be figured out, long before GPS.  To this day when I visit the city I get a kick out of my mastery of the streets: Minetta Lane in the Village being the smallest street in all of Manhattan, in case you like such trivia. As to the subway system, that is much too arcane for me.

One muggy night in August, all windows opened, I don’t think I had air-conditioning at that time, I was cruising my grid, which at that time began at Central Park South with the famed Plaza Hotel at the corner. On 59th Street the famed Reubens restaurant, now gone, was situated.  It was the creator of the Reuben sandwich, which is to die for. Uptown avenues had several Greek restaurants of note.  (More of that later.) It was here that I picked up the “Princess.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but she had been drinking and was somewhat tipsy. I opened the door for her, given her condition, and she literally fell into the back seat, and the back seat in the old Checker cabs was really big, often with two additional seats that had to be pulled down to occupy. Like all cabbies, we wanted to get the fare in and the fare out as soon as possible since time was crucial to make a night’s living.

When I asked her to tell me where she wanted to be dropped off, she replied, “Milch. I vant milch.” I knew then it was not going to be an easy fare – or night. And what was more disturbing was that the “Princess” wanted “milch” from a Greek restaurant, a Catch 22. And so I began to cruise for Greek restaurants.  I would double-park and go in, and often they didn’t have milk for sale. Whatever I recall from this adventure was that three restaurants in a row were out of cow juice. And when I reported this to her each time she became slightly surly and expressed her European annoyance at my failure to find her milk. I was dealing with resistance, she just wouldn’t get out of the cab.

So with my Greek princess in the back I just drove around until she made up her mind as to what she wanted to do next. I was fit to be tied. Clearly she didn’t want to get out of the cab, and she reminded me of a Gatsby-esque floozy on a tear. At last, probably out of some sense and sensibility, she asked me to drive over to Reubens, a few blocks off.  As I came to the restaurant and parked, she leaned over to talk to me. “I am sorry for all this. Let me treat you to a meal.” For some reason, which was later justified, I felt her to be a sad woman.

“You don’t have to do that, just pay the fare.”

“But I insist. I took you away from your job.”

I relented. I double-parked the car and was wearing by now a sweat-ridden T-shirt and jeans that felt like humid clouds about my legs. When she stepped out of the cab, I had my first real look at her, and it was striking. She was blond and bore an uncanny resemblance to Melina Mercouri, that’s it, Mercouri in Never on Sunday. Even standing still, she was flamboyant, an Art Nouveau sinuosity.  Dressed in a lovely silken dress, a kind of European sari, if you will, in the early light of city’s dawn it glistened, and I thought of Gustav Klimt’s women.

So slob with coin changer on his belt and a Greek Princess went into Reubens. Two waiters with cloths draped over their arms stood there, and I quickly observed how they thought they had sized us up, cab-driver gigolo with naïve European woman. When we were seated they asked me what I wanted, and since I was not eating well because of a lack of funds, I ordered a steak with a side. And it is here that the princess made a dramatic faux pas. Raising her hand and then the other she clapped both her hands as if a flamenco dancer and said very loudly, “Vaiter, I vant milch.”

I knew that was a majestic error in a Jewish restaurant and with these two Jewish waiters. Before my steak arrived, her milk came. It took everything not to break out laughing. Her milk was delivered in a small carton with a straw on a saucer. She did not know what was going on, a sublimely delivered “fuck you” by my kinsman, milk for the craven shiksa.

Recalling our conversation it was mostly about her life with her husband who was some kind of aristocrat in Greece, that she was here on a trip by herself, that not everything was honky dory in their relationship, and, above all, I could feel she was pained by being so alone and that I had served as her reluctant comrade for a crazy hour or so, about the amount of time it would take to get to the Tappan Bridge on the way to Woodstock. I do recall she wore on her finger a very large gemstone, opalescent, perhaps a moonstone set in rose gold. It bespoke of money, and I have not seen its kind since. (What memory decides to remember!) So I felt I was in the presence of considerable wealth. Returning to the cab I brought her back to the Plaza as the sun was coming up. She paid the fare, smiled at me and left the cab and walked through the brass doors of the side entrance to the Plaza.

Then she turned about, her dress in a swirl and walked back out again. I was watching all this and looked in the back seat in case she had left her purse. She put her head to the window and softly said to me, “756.7856.”And she walked back toward the Plaza.

When I have told this story to others, a follow up question is always asked: “Did you call her, the princess?”

I have no reply to give.

Matt is a writer who lives in Nevada.  He’s the author of The i TetralogyDown to a Sunless Sea, This Mobius Strip of Ifs and I Truly Lament: Working Through the Holocaust Visit his blogHis major works are now available in Kindle format.

Patrick Theron Erickson


      for Christopher

A man
with the spirit of development

extols mortar
and exudes cement

He extols cement
and exudes brick

A man
with the spirit of development

conceives the foundation and
pregnant with the cornerstone

gives birth to the top stone

and the keystone
while he’s at it

The man
with the spirit of development

is the soul of architecture
and the heart of wit.



Pitch your tent
each day
one day closer
to home


home is where
the heart is

well grounded

your tent stakes

lengthen your cords
and broaden your tent flaps

Fill them
with good things

good food
good friends
good times

that larger canopy
the sky
enveloping us

and that greater
base of operations
the earth

now one day
closer to home

where the heart is

well grounded.


What if Justice
is set in cement

her blindfold
and scales fixed and rigid
set in cement?

What if the king
her consort
like his concubine
is fixed and rigid
set in cement

the heavens his headrest
his footstool the earth?

Grovel at his feet

He holds all the marbles.


Kristy Evans

Kristy lives in Houston, Texas.  Visit her professional Facebook page here.