Somewhere I have never travelled..

…Gladly beyond any experience.

I have recently started to suffer with insomnia, rarely sleeping more than a few hours a night. One of my readers (hello Kenneth!) suggested imagining a journey to a place I have visited or would like to visit as a way of drifting off. And so I find myself in those hollow morning hours (or The Hour of the Wolf as Ingmar Bergman so brilliantly put it) travelling to places I know and love and also those imaginary places of the past which no longer exist or the cities of my mind where I have yet to venture.

I know them well. Those New York drugstores illuminated late at night on street corners where you can get a coffee or an ice cream sundae. There are the neon signs and theatres to discover on Times Square in the 1920s. There is always a film I want to see at the all night cinema and I can observe the lights of the apartments whizzing past from the Third Avenue El.

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Esther Bubley

Nina Leen

In L.A, there are the dazzling headlights to admire from the hills, Schwab’s pharmacy, Romanoff’s and the Brown Derby if there’s a free table, palm lined avenues and morning walks in the grounds of the Griffith Observatory. Sometimes the Hollywood sign still reads Hollywoodland.

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In San Francisco, I imagine the winding roads of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and those shadowy streets which Fred Lyon captured so brilliantly. Or hear the music in the jazz club visited by the ill-fated Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A.

Fred Lyon

And of course there is Paris in its greatest times. The hotel rooms you can live in so cheaply can be rather cold and dingy but you only need to walk a short distance to be enveloped in the warmth of the Flore or the Deux Magots as you sit and write on the first floor. There are books to borrow from the original Shakespeare and Company or something in French if you prefer from Adrienne Monier’s ‘La Maison des Amis des Livres’. And at night, there are strolls along the wide avenues, sometimes even climbing the steep flights of stairs up to Montmartre to observe the city at your feet, other times wandering by the Seine to admire the Pont Neuf.

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

Roger Schall

André Kertész

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In Venice, I think of the poet Joseph Brodsky who went there every year, generally in winter, arriving for the first time late at night by train, smoking and drinking coffee in the station cafe while he waited for someone to meet him, as described in his exquisite book ‘Watermark’.

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Gianni Berengo Gardin, 1960

All of this makes me a hopeless romantic or a misguided nostalgic for something I never knew, depending on your viewpoint. The past was never this wonderful in reality, I’m fully aware. And yet as I drift between wakefulness and sleep, I think about the spaces we need to think and exist which are missing in today’s cities, how much has been lost and how much we need to save and feel glad that these invisible cities are still accessible to us in books, films, photos and perhaps even in dreams.

The Richfield Oil Tower, Los Angeles

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No(ir)vember: Laura (1944)

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Otto Preminger’s ‘Laura’ is not only one of the finest noirs but also one of the most popular, even among those who are not die hard fans of the genre like me. Is it the theme tune by David Raskin, or Gene Tierney’s exquisite beauty, or the witty dialogue which crackles throughout? To be honest, it’s all of these and more.

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The film opens with a murder mystery. Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is investigating who killed Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Could it be her acid tongued friend, Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), her shady fiancé, Shelby (Vincent Price) or someone else? As the mystery deepens, MacPherson finds himself more and more drawn to Laura, reading her letters and even sleeping in the apartment underneath her portrait. She seems to have inspired a strange kind of devotion, even in her housekeeper determined to keep her memory unsullied, and in death, she represents female perfection. But who really was Laura?

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I can’t say much more without giving away a major plot twist which would somehow rob the first time viewer of the pleasure of discovering that for him/herself. So I’ll just say that this is a flawless noir, superbly directed by the great Preminger and with equally superb performances from the cast, particularly Clifton Webb whose first major screen role it was. Waldo Lydecker is truly one of the great characters in film, vicious and cynical and unafraid to destroy any potential rivals through the column he writes and his wit. Watching it again recently, I was also struck by the way this film influenced David Lynch in Twin Peaks whose whole plot revolves around the murder of Laura Palmer, another beautiful and enigmatic character who in death exerts a powerful fascination on all those around her but was not quite what she seemed.

A film to fall in love with.

No(ir)vember: Nightmare Alley (1947)

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Let’s take a stroll down Edmund Goulding’s ‘Nightmare Alley’, the one of the darkest and grimmest places  you can venture in film noir. Cast against type, Tyrone Power gives arguably his greatest performance as scumbag trickster Stanton Carlisle who works at a travelling carnival. Stan is ambitious and will stop at nothing to reach the top so when he hears that fellow artiste Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell – fabulous) and her husband once had a lucrative mind-reading act, he sets out to seduce her to learn the code while all the name making eyes at gorgeous Molly (the excellent Coleen Gray) who’s in an act with strongman Bruno. Only one thing haunts Stan; the geek, part man, part animal, a stage show freak who devours live chickens and can only be calmed by a bottle of spirits a night. How could anyone sink so low, he wonders?

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Once he has the code, Stan and Molly get married and set about hitting the big time with their new act and make quite a stir in Chicago. But Stan finds himself drawn to Dr. Lillith Ritter (Helen Walker as a chilling therapist), a fellow charlatan and opportunist. They seem to make a great team but can she really be trusted?

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It’s the rise and fall of a man destroyed by his ambition and deceit. I can think of few films so dark and cynical and the alcohol fuelled visions only add to its haunting quality. It’s both compelling and repulsive and one which you’ll never forget. Not even the happy ending they tried to tack on can erase the sense of despair. And you have to see it for Tyrone Power – he is simply magnificent.

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No(ir)vember: Kiss of Death (1947)

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It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Victor Mature. A Hollywood hunk, he gave two of his finest performances in two great noirs, Cry of the City (1948) and Kiss of Death (1947), but was outclassed each time by Richard Conte in the former and Richard Widmark in the latter. It’s hard to believe it was Widmark’s screen debut. In just 15 minutes of screen time, he gives a mesmerising performance as Tommy Udo, taking psychotic to a whole new level. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nobody has ever had such a terrifying laugh and the wheelchair scene is still chilling with its deranged violence and cruelty.

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Convicted for at attempted jewel robbery, Nick (Mature) is happy not to name names until he learns that his wife has committed suicide after struggling with financial problems and that his young daughters have been placed in an orphanage. He decides to cooperate with the D.A. (Brian Donlevy) who’s trying to put deranged criminal Tommy Udo (Widmark) away. Nicks is released and marries Nettie (Colleen Gray), but when Udo goes free, he begins to fear for his family and his life.

Expertly directed by Henry Hathaway, this is a tightly structured and tense film that never lets up. Free to watch on YouTube.

No(ir)vember: The Stranger on the Third Floor

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Welcome to No(ir)vember, the time of year which gives me the perfect excuse to explore my favourite genre. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be going over to the dark side where the women are beautiful but oh so bad and the men are losers and saps, lured by a seductive glance and the promise of one last job which will allow them to escape from this godforsaken city.
The term ‘film noir’ was coined in 1946 by Italian born French critic, Nino Frank who was describing American crime films from this period.
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Critics disagree on the point at which film noir died, but its beginnings are easier to pinpoint. In 1940, RKO released a B-movie called ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’, directed by Boris Ingster. Although it was just over an hour long and probably didn’t seem that much different from the standard melodramas typical for this period, the sense of paranoia and dramatic lighting set it apart. Journalist Mike Ward (John McGuire) gets himself a sensational scoop when he witnesses the murder of a shopkeeper across the street. He identifies a nervous taxi driver (Elisha Cook Jr.) as the culprit and it seems a straightforward crime when he is tried and sentenced to the chair. But Mike’s fiancée, Jane (Margaret Tallichet) believes the wrong man has been convicted, doubts that Mike comes to share when he sees a suspicious stranger entering an apartment in his building and believes his neighbour has been murdered.
That night, Mike has a terrifying nightmare that he is tried and sent to the chair for this murder which fills him with a sense of fear he cannot escape from. He goes to the police the next morning to tell them about the stranger, only to find himself arrested. Although not as famous as other noirs, this film remains a remarkable achievement with its sense of unreality, nightmarish visions and dramatic effects borrowed from German expressionism. Two things in particular stand out: Peter Lorre’s performance as the mysterious stranger and the dark vision of art director, Van Nest Polgase, who went on to design a film called ‘Citizen Kane’ the following year which used and developed many of these techniques (the magnificent overhead shots and the extraordinary scene in the library come to mind). Elisha Cook Jr. and Peter Lorre would go on to star in many classics of the genre, but it’s a pity none of the other actors had much success afterwards. Definitely one you need in your collection!
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All change

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Le rouge in all its lipstick forms

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Le (film) noir with Rita Hayworth as Gilda

If you regularly stop by here, you may have noticed something different. ‘Chimes at midnight’ has become ‘Le rouge et le noir’. In a way, I felt a little restricted by the original name, as if I had to call it that because of my Instagram account and I kept thinking that people would imagine it was only related to films and Orson Welles.

My friend Jan suggested exploring le rouge et le noir through different posts and then I thought it seemed like a more appropriate name for this blog, in light of the fact that I love all things red, particularly lipstick, and that film noir is my favourite genre.

I hope you will get used to the new name and I look forward to taking the blog in new directions which reflect the things I love most.

Prater violet

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If truth be told, these are not recent photos at all, but rather from winter 2012 which I have never got around to sharing. I had already given up my other Berlin blog and in fact, writing anything altogether. So I hope you won’t mind me sharing them now. It’s a pity that many of my most vivid impressions of this wonderful city have now been lost but the pictures help to remind me what I love about being there. It was a very beautiful, crisp November when I visited with brilliant sunshine every day which made walking a pleasure. I also achieved a couple of my dreams – namely, returning to the Kunsthistorishes Museum to see Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White Bearded Man which features so prominently in Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister, one of my favourite books and the first one I ever read in German, watching The Third Man at the charming Burg Kino which shows it every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, and also taking a ride on the famous Prater ferris wheel like Holly Martins and Harry Lime so many years before.

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The Third Man at The Prater Vienna from Ian Buckland on Vimeo.