Archive for January, 2022

A Free Quarry Book, Plus Why Reviews Do and Don’t Matter

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

Here is an interview with me about two upcoming Hard Case Crime titles, Quarry’s Blood and Tough Tender, conducted by the great Andrew Sumner of Titan.

* * *
Quarry's Blood cover
Trade Paperback: Indiebound Purchase Link Bookshop Purchase Link Amazon Purchase Link Books-A-Million Purchase Link Barnes & Noble Purchase Link Target Purchase Link
E-Book: Google Play Kobo

And now – the first book giveaway of 2022. I have ten advance copies of Quarry’s Blood available to the first ten interested readers. [All copies have been claimed. Thank your for your support! — Nate]

More book giveaways will follow – I hope to get some copies of No Time To Spy to offer soon, and I have on hand advance copies of Tough Tender (which collects the Nolan novels Hard Cash and Scratch Fever), which will be given out possibly next time.

These reviews are extremely important in an era when I am no longer doing signings and haven’t done a convention since Covid came calling. Even brief reviews are appreciated, particularly since there are a handful of apparent trolls out there who want to make sure I can’t make a living during my dotage.

A No Time to Spy review, by the way, accuses you fine people of laziness, concluding: “And by the way most of the positive comments to the Sand trilogy as of today are copy and paste from the Collins blog.” (Feel free to defend yourself in the comments area under that review, which is by Robert Hölzl, who knows he hates all three Sand novels – would you keep reading a series you dislike? – but does not know how to spell my name.)

Just to clear the palate, here is a wonderful write-up from Facebook that just popped up out of nowhere, from Rick Greene:

I love the Quarry novels. They are all fast reads, masterful page-turners that one completes in one or two sittings, wildly violent, wickedly funny, the ultimate anti-hero. As much as I love Quarry – and the Spillane/Collins Hammer novels – I consider Max Allan Collins’ masterwork to be the Nathan Heller series. I’m just more than halfway through these detective thrillers that take real life crimes and revisit them via a fun house mirror. The Heller’s are NOT fast reads – they are dense, complex, deeply moving stories that often leave the reader emotionally shattered at the finale. You have to pay attention and turn the pages slowly. The Heller’s are books to savor, to immerse one’s self in. I’ve said before that the Quarry books are cake and ice cream where the Heller series are a five course gourmet meal. I love them all for different reasons. Collins is my favorite living author… and I hope he goes right on living and writing for a few more decades. Just imagine if Ian Fleming had lived another twenty years – the unusual and complex places he could have taken James Bond as they both aged together. I can’t wait to read about the true last Quarry adventure and to revisit Heller as much as Collins will indulge us with. Bring it on.

This came at a lovely time because (a) the new Quarry book is about to be published, and (b) I have just started writing the new Nate Heller. And the Hellers have always been hard to write, but I find that, at my age, the process may be the same but I am not. I was struggling with the first chapter and then Rick Greene’s nice words came along.

What was really nice about these words is that they were just a heart-felt reader’s outpouring of appreciation – not a review. I feel like I can take Rick’s words to heart whereas it’s dangerous to believe any review, good or bad. And then there’s karma….
Later the same day I read Rick’s celebration of my work, I came upon a current review of (the 39-year-old) True Detective that was patronizing and close to nasty in things it said about my work. I write “bad dialogue,” I’m told, and the reader has to slog through my work, and as a stylist I have all the poetry of the directions on a paint can. I would have shared this condescending thing with you, but I failed when I tried to track it back down via Google.

The review was well-written and not stupid, although – as usual – no proof backing the opinions was provided. How about quoting a few clumsy sentences to make your point, or reprinting a particularly bad patch of dialogue? (By the way, I have been publishing since 1971 and have never before had my dialogue singled out for anything but praise.)

The danger for a writer – and let’s pretend Rick Greene was writing a review and not just a sending me a valentine – is that if you take the good reviews seriously, you have to take the bad ones seriously, too. And doing so will make a real writer – which is to say, a working writer who makes his or her living this way – crazy. I will admit that the day after I read that largely negative True Detective review, I found myself back at work on The Big Bundle, second-guessing every Heller sentence I wrote.

The truth is, many of us in the arts can remember every bad review – can quote from memory reviews dating back decades – whereas the positive ones fly away like tissue paper on the wind. It’s human nature, I guess, but at the same time I know that I have to pay no real attention to any reviews. I am past the point, fifty-one years into my novel writing career, that I can learn much. I do still learn, but it’s incremental, and it comes from trial and effort, not something a reviewer points out or suggests.

The True Detective reviewer clearly considered me a pedestrian stylist. Hey, I think I can turn a pretty fair phrase. But I can guess the writers that this reviewer likes – the ones who are writing to impress, not to entertain. I pick up books at Barnes & Noble or BAM! and read the first paragraphs by writers with reputations as stylists, writers far more celebrated than I ever will be, and what I see is overloaded, overwritten, trying-too-hard bullshit (do not ask for names).

Reviews, as far as my growth is concerned, are irrelevant to a writer who has been working as long as I have. All I know how to do at this stage is write the book I would like to read. Really, I think that should be every novelist’s goal – write a book you wish somebody else would have. Please your own taste and hope enough others out there will have similar enough tastes to keep you in business.

And yet I am doing a book giveaway, soliciting reviews. I don’t do this so that you will tell me how wonderful I am (though feel free to do so). I do it to help sell books, so I can stay in business. To get the word out.

I talk a lot here about how, in recent years, in recent days, I have felt cut off from current popular culture. Today I went over the copy edited manuscript of the second Fancy Anders (Fancy Anders For the Boys) and was told I shouldn’t mention Mantan Moreland or Jap Zeroes. How am I supposed to react to that? As someone who writes about the Twentieth Century, must I clean up that century’s idiosyncrasies and failings? Or do I have a responsibility to depict that century as accurately as my flawed memory will allow?

But the truth is, it’s harder for me now to be accepted in a world of publishing where I am white and old and male. It’s not the marketplace’s fault – it’s just the reality. I am so very, very lucky that publishers like Hard Case Crime, Titan, Neo-Text and Wolfpack still find me a worthwhile addition to their lists. In a world where I have to explain to people who Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer are, I am damn lucky to still be in business at all.

* * *

Some advance readers of Quarry’s Blood have nice things to say about it at Goodreads.

Check out this lovely piece at Crimereads on Marshall Rogers, who illustrated my brief run on the Batman comic strip.

Finally, has it really been twenty years since Road to Perdition was released?


Reassessing Priorities & Fancy Anders Sounds Great

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

For the first time in four or five months, my band Crusin’ played a gig. Generally we haven’t played during the winter months for the past several years, but this was a private party for a 60th wedding anniversary for a couple who had employed us for their 50th (back when Andy Landers and Jim Van Winkle were in the band). Also, they are clients of our drummer, Steve Kundel, who is an attorney (when I introduce the band members on a gig, I usually mention Steve being a lawyer, saying we find it wise to travel with in-house counsel).

Anyway, like Steve McQueen said in The Magnificent Seven, it seemed like a good idea at the time (it was not yet winter when I booked the gig). Now as the job approached, it was clear Covid was kicking back in, and the job was in Iowa City (forty miles away) and a snow storm was predicted. We did not, however, cancel.

The snow arrived but was not such that we couldn’t make the trip with relative safety. We arrived at the Iowa City Eagles and were pleased to find it a very nice venue. None of us were crazy about playing a job in a college town, particularly so soon after the holidays, with Omicron (which sounds like a bad science-fiction movie) running rampant. But we wore masks loading in. Barb accompanied me and helped a great deal, both in setting up and making several key suggestions about what songs to perform (for example, advising me to open with a slow song and have the celebrating couple start the festivities alone, then asking the rest of the guests to join in).

Crusin' at the Iowa City Eagles, January 15 2022

The people were as warm as the night was not and there was dancing and a nice receptive response to our foolishness. A wonderful time was had by all. We’d only had two rehearsals to go back over the list and, surprisingly, we were pretty darn good. My bandmates, drummer Steve and guitarist Bill Anson and his son Scott Anson, who took over on bass when Brian Van Winkle passed, are fun to be around – very good company. At the rehearsals the absence of Brian’s sunny personality was keenly felt. Over the years the loss of bandmates – I’ve been playing rock ‘n’ roll since 1965 – is a wound that never really heals. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about my musical collaborator Paul Thomas.

I’ve had enough health problems that Barb has really been pitching in to help me set my stuff up and tear it down. I’ve talked here before about how the performances themselves are not any way burdensome, but loading up, setting up, tearing down, and loading back in will probably determine when I stop doing this. Musician friends have written me insisting that I should employ roadies, and these are mostly musicians who are getting paid the kind of money that allows that.

It occurred to both Barb and me, as we were driving up and back to the gig, that this might be my last performance with the band. Certainly it’s doubtful I would do more than one more summer season – last year, just four gigs. I would like to do a farewell appearance, and I’ve hoped to do one last CD – we were already working up originals and even playing them on the job when Covid hit and we lost over a year.

By the way, as you may have already noted if you follow these update/blogs, Barb is the best wife anybody ever had. She is smart, funny, thoughtful and beautiful. She does not, however, cut me undue slack – she knows just when I need to be cut down to size and reminded of reality. Which is of course frequent. But my God I am a lucky man.

My 74th birthday is approaching soon – March 3rd – and I find myself reassessing priorities. Last year I was crazily prolific, in part because I was doing my own fiction writing as well as putting the Mike Hammer 75th anniversary into motion. Adding in a 100,000-word biography to an already busy writing schedule took it out of me.

So while you may look to me to keep working as long as my noodle is functioning and I am above-ground, the pace is going to slow. I had to ask for an extension on the deadline for the new Nate Heller, The Big Bundle, after the unanticipated and most unwelcome return of kidney stones, which hadn’t reared their nasty, spiky little heads since 1998.

I have now begun The Big Bundle – one whole chapter is written (but also the research completed and the book worked up in chapter outline) – which is the first of a two-book RFK/Hoffa cycle (overall completing the Kennedy cycle begun by Bye Bye, Baby). Will these be the last Heller novels? Maybe. Right now my job is to complete these two. The Big Bundle will appear late this year, if all goes well.

* * *

A benefit of the Iowa City band job was that Barb and I were able to finish listening to the audio book of Fancy Anders Goes to War from Skyboat Media. (You can read about it here)

I’ve been blessed by having mostly really good readers of my books on audio. The head honcho at Skyboat, Stefan Rudnicki, has been doing both Quarry and Mike Hammer and knocking the ball out of the park; recently he’s embarked on Nolan, in his usual stellar manner. When we submitted Fancy Anders to Stefan, however, I requested that he use a female narrator, specifically Gabrielle de Cuir. He and she came through for me, and how.

If you haven’t read Fancy Anders Goes to War yet, this is an excellent way to do so. If you have read it, it’s still well worth the ride (and the price of admission), because Skyboat has done a fantastic job. They’ve used music and sound effects to really create Fancy’s world. Gabrielle does a lovely job, superbly differentiating the characters and (unlike some male narrators with female characters) nails the men, as well.

Skyboat will be doing the next two Fancy Anders books, as well – Fancy Anders For the Boys and Fancy Anders Goes Hollywood. Both are written (Fay Dalton is almost finished with the second book’s illustrations) and should be out next year as e-books, book-books, and audios.

* * *

Speaking of Fancy Anders Goes to War, here’s a great review of it at the Mostly Old Books and Rust review blog.

And the great James Reasoner likes Fancy, too – check this out!

Quarry’s Blood, not quite out yet, is already getting some swell reviews at Goodreads.

Finally, here’s a great look at the Nolan series.


Happy Birthday, Mike Hammer – All Year!

Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

So it’s 2022 and that makes it the 75th anniversary of Mike Hammer.

More specifically, it’s the 75th anniversary of the publication of I, the Jury (1947), the first Hammer novel. The character, arguably, begins with Mike Lancer, who appeared in one story written by Spillane and drawn by Harry Sahle, “Mike Lancer and the Syndicate of Death,” in Harvey’s Green Hornet comic in 1942. Lancer became Mike Danger, although none of the comics stories were published till 1954.

Kill Me If You Can cover
E-Book: Google Play Kobo

If you’ve been following this update/blog, you may recall that we have a lot of special things in store this year for the Hammer birthday celebration. I have used several unproduced TV scripts by Mickey to write the 2022 novel, Kill Me If You Can, available in August (and for pre-order now). The book is the prequel to The Girl Hunters (1962) and deals with the missing period between it and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), showing how Hammer dealt with Velda’s disappearance and apparent demise. (Hint: not well.)

But wait, there’s more: in addition to the full-length novel, we are including five short stories written by me from unpublished Spillane material; this includes two Hammer stories and three others in the Hammer-verse. These stories have appeared in The Strand, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Mystery Tribune, and are collected here for the first time. I am very grateful to Titan publishers Vivian Cheung and Nick Landau and editor Andrew Sumner for giving me this opportunity to make the 2022 Mike Hammer book something really special.

Again, if you’ve been following these updates at all, you’re aware that Jim Traylor and I have completed Spillane – King of Pulp Fiction, the long-in-the-works biography of Mickey. It’s in the hands of Mysterious Press publisher Otto Penzler who, after some tweaks and minor rewrites, has sent the book into copyediting. In recent weeks I’ve compiled the photos for the book and written captions, all of which have been approved by Jim and which are now in the hands of my son Nate to prepare them for the book designer.

I don’t have an official pub date yet, but the idea is for the biography to be out toward the end of this birthday year.

Additionally, I am working with Wolfpack editors Paul Bishop and James Reasoner, as well as publisher Mike Bray, to bring out several major Spillane books during this celebratory year. First, a collection of Mickey’s YA adventures novels will for the first time gather all three of those books into one volume, The Shrinking Island, named for the previously unpublished final book in the Josh and Larry trilogy. Hardcore Spillane fans have been waiting for this for a long time.

In addition, I have novelized and expanded Mickey’s unproduced screenplay, The Menace – the only work of his that was designed as a horror property – into a novel. Wolfpack will be bringing that out this year, possibly under their recently acquired Rough Edges Press imprint.

Finally, I am in the process of putting together a collection of Spillane’s short fiction – not all that short, because mostly this is novellas – plucked from two long out-of-print collections I edited (Tomorrow I Die and Together We Kill). This new book – Stand Up and Die! – will excise from previous two collections assorted non-fiction and non-mystery-fiction works and leave only vintage Spillane crime yarns.

Included will be a new edit by me of “The Night I Died,” the Mike Hammer short story that marked the only Hammer collaboration between Mickey and me during his lifetime (we of course worked on the revival of Mike Danger together). It is based on an unproduced radio play Mickey wrote around 1953. I am taking a new look at it because I now feel it was too literally a translation of the script.

The novellas, including the title one and the little-seen “Hot Cat” (aka “The Flier”), are particularly strong. This will be a fine addition to the books published in the Hammer birthday year.

In addition, I am working with Bob Deis, the mastermind behind Men’s Adventure Quarterly, to present a raft of other Spillane novellas in at least one collection including the original men’s adventure magazine illustrations.

We had great success with Mickey’s 100th birthday celebration a few years ago; this represents a new – and perhaps last – bite at the apple. I hope to do a few more Hammer novels for Titan, including Mickey Spillane’s The Time Machine (originally Mike Danger but now Mike Hammer) before wrapping up the saga. And if Wolfpack is successful with the Spillane publications above, I have one more unproduced Mickey screenplay to novelize and half a dozen novels he began that are waiting to be finished.

I’m sorry to report that Kensington has not requested a new Caleb York, but Wolfpack has been very successful with their western line, and – again, depending on how these Spillane titles to for them – we may see Caleb (and me) back in the saddle. I don’t have a pub date, but I think Kensington will still be bringing out Shoot-out at Sugar Creek in a mass market edition as yet another Spillane title in the Hammer anniversary year.

As usual, the success of all this is in your hands.

* * *

Here’s a very smart review of the new Hard Case Comics Ms. Tree collection from Titan, third in the series.

Check out this fabulous review of Fancy Anders Goes to War from Ron Fortier.

Some interesting thoughts about the film version of Road to Perdition here.

This list of the best mysteries of all time includes a number of my titles. Aw shucks, he said. About time, he thought.


Astaire, the Past, the Ricardos and Nightmares

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

In last week’s comments, I was scolded for speaking my mind in a way that might alienate my younger fans. I hope I have some, but if they like my work, surely they don’t want me to mimic their political and social points of view, just to curry favor.

I do read (or at least thumb through) Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, and encounter mostly names of artists in film and music that mean nothing to me. Not that those names should. I am just trying, in a half-hearted, half-assed way, to keep up; but that’s a hopeless pursuit, really. We are so fragmented in our popular culture – we have so much streaming, so much popping up on social media platforms, so little Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan shared experiences, that we are all our own little islands.

That has its pluses and minuses. More stuff can get out there, but fewer eyes and ears will share the same or even similar experiences. When I remark that a TV show or movie is “painfully diverse,” I don’t mean diversity is bad – I mean, forced, cynical diversity is at odds with good storytelling. The preview I saw recently of an upcoming new version of Cyrano features Peter Dinklage in the title role – and swapping the original’s big nose for the actor’s diminutive height seems to make sense. Casting a Black actor as Christian who woos white Roxanne jars. Why, because I hate Black people? No, because it’s (a) historically risible, and (b) the whole story is set up around Roxanne being courted by a conventionally boring socially acceptable superficial clod who (to successfully win her) requires the poetic touch of a man considered to be ugly.

I’m not bent out of shape about it – this new Cyrano is a musical, after all, and there wasn’t a lot of Broadway-style singing going on between sword fights in 17th century France, either. I won’t avoid the movie, as I like sword fights, musicals and Peter Dinklage. But must we pretend the past was ethnically diverse?

The other side of the coin is represented by old Hollywood’s shameful mistreatment of minorities, particularly Blacks. That, of course, is a more complicated, even nuanced thing to navigate. On New Year’s Eve, over champagne and party mix, Barb and I watched Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The 1936 film has the usual trivial, even irritating weak comedy surrounding transcendent dance numbers.

Astaire’s solo number is “Bojangles of Harlem,” supposedly a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose dancing style has little if anything to do with Astaire’s. It’s an uncomfortable watch, though at times exhilarating (it’s Astaire, after all). But it’s Astaire in black face, and one of the special features on the excellent Criterion disc has Imogen Sara Smith discussing Astaire’s dance routine in terms of minstrel shows and other racially denigrating trends in show business during the first half of the 20th Century (and beyond).

Smith is an excellent critic, whose work on film noir has been commendable, and her discussion here of the shameful history leading up to a moment like the Astaire routine is accurate, even astute…as far as it goes. When the young Black woman lays blame at the feet of the “white men” who ran the studios, she neglects to discuss that white men were in charge of everything back then, and also that these particular white men were Jewish, and the object of plenty of prejudice themselves.

In another Criterion special feature, Gary Giddens – Bing Crosby’s brilliant biographer (like me, an old white guy) – discussing Astaire in black face quotes novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I recall vividly my young-person reaction to minstrel show segments in movies and on television shows (this lasted well into the fifties and even sixties) as something distasteful and stupid. My reactions then – and, frankly, now – to how (what-was-already-yesterday’s) Hollywood handled black talent was a combination of marveling at the artistry of a Mantan Moreland or Tim Moore – two incredibly funny comedians – and how sadly ironic it was that men this talented had to maneuver around white stupidity to work their magic.

But as a kid I already understood that when Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor “blacked up” they were part of a show-business tradition they did not invent; and that – this is key – as Jewish comedians black face allowed them to be cheeky in a way they might not risk otherwise. Jolson and Cantor performed in musicals where their “black” characters were the smartest and funniest and most interesting in the story/cast. They were also the stars.

True, Jolson sentimentalized the Old South in a way that now rather curdles the blood – nobody gets caught up in “Mammy” or “Swanee” anymore. But when Jerry Lewis, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was doing “Jolie” songs (he actually remade The Jazz Singer for TV), he was not saluting the Old South or putting down Black people – he was paying tribute to old show business and his own father, who was a Jolson imitator.

The past is a foreign country.

Writing fiction set in the past has gotten tricky as hell, but it always has been. Since the beginning of writing Nate Heller, I’ve had to consider what Heller’s language should be – in dialogue somebody might be “colored,” but in the narration (presumably written by him years later) he would likely use “black” or even “African American” (although we are now back to Black, albeit capitalized).

I almost always like Aaron Sorkin’s work, and his current Amazon Prime movie Being the Ricardos has its merits, with great performers having a blast delivering the writer’s trademark witty-to-a-fault dialogue. But Sorkin stumbles badly in the writing-about-the-past department. Some of it seems uncharacteristically sloppy – he refers to the “taping” of a show in an era before video tape (shows were filmed, or performed live with kinescopes sent to the west coast), even though the revolutionary multi-camera 35mm film technique developed by Desi Arnaz and cinematographer Karl Freund is referred to later.

Sorkin has Lucille Ball up against Judy Holliday for the lead in The Big Street in 1942 when Holliday didn’t even make her screen debut till 1949. He uses the term “showrunner” when it wasn’t around till the ‘90s. Easy-to- avoid anachronisms litter the screenplay. Perhaps the most egregious instance of Sorkin making no attempt to stay in period has Lucy accusing Desi of “gaslighting” her – a form of the word that dates to 2016.

Sorkin has had his problems with “woke” criticism, and he seems to be trying to court forgiveness here through the characterization of the young Madelyn Pugh (played by Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat), portraying Pugh as a modernday feminist somehow time-machined to 1952 to confront Lucille Ball about the infantilization of her performances as Lucy Ricardo.

This is exactly the kind of thing that turns my stomach – courting the good opinion of the predominant cultural arbiters and selling out in the process.

* * *

Guess who doesn’t sell out? While the new Reno 911!: The Hunt for Qanon is not exactly a great movie, it’s certainly great fun, if you’re already a fan. With Patton Oswalt along for the ride, we travel with the Reno 911 team as they infiltrate a Qanon cruise in hopes of serving Q with a subpoena. How they endure a thirty-day quarantine on the ship (not Covid –“extreme diarrhea”) and wind up on Jeffrey Epstein’s sex island can best be summed up thusly: Trudy has an affair with a potted plant. It’s on Paramount Plus.

* * *
Nightmare Alley, Criterion release

Among noir fans, I may be in the minority; but for me the Guillermo del Toro remake of Nightmare Alley misses badly.

I have pretty much universally liked del Toro’s other work, and have spoken here of how much I value Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water. I sought out William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley in high school after seeing the 1947 film version on TV, and it’s been on my shelf of favorite hardboiled literature ever since. I came to the film as a Tyrone Power fan – based upon such swashbuckling fare as The Mark of Zorro, Captain from Castille and Prince of Foxes – and was gobsmacked by his performance as Stan Carlisle, a carny who rises to prominence as a nightclub mentalist, a grifter who gets out-grifted and falls even lower than the lowly place he started.

It’s a haunting story and works best in its first film incarnation, where Tyrone Power’s handsome charmer makes us root for him at first and even continue caring about him when his flaws start bringing him down. The film is a noir buff’s dream, with Colleen Gray as innocent Molly, Joan Blondell as worldly Zeena, and the wonderful, unjustly forgotten Helen Walker (of Murder, He Says!) as a complex, chilling femme fatale, Lilith Ritter. Written by Jules Furthman (whose screenplays include everything from Mutiny on the Bounty to To Have and Have Not) and directed by Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel, The Razor’s Edge), the film is gritty and uncompromising even while dancing around the Production Code. While the novel ends with Stan condemned to the worst job at the carnival, the film has him reunited with his wife in a superficially, censor-satisfying ending, but clearly doomed to reenact the shabby fate of Zeena and her now-dead drunken husband. (There’s an excellent Criterion edition of this, as well.)

Del Toro claims this is a return to the novel and not a remake; however, the last line of his film comes from Furthman’s screenplay, not the novel. The original film ran 111 minutes while the new Nightmare Alley is two hours and thirty minutes, the storytelling basking in itself and refusing to move along on what is, after all, a carnival ride – a story that is essentially an ironic eight-page EC Comics horror yarn.

The new Nightmare’s art direction is ridiculously lavish – the cheap carnival’s fun house set is a visual feast and at the same time all wrong, and psychiatrist Lilith Ritter’s office is an absurdly vast art deco chamber. It’s like a musical where you come away humming the sets. Meanwhile, the director misuses some of our best actors. Bradley Cooper wanders dazed through the proceedings, utterly lacking the charm and charisma that make Tyrone Power believable as a manipulative charlatan and a rogue at times worth sticking with. Toni Collette’s Zeena trades in Joan Blondell’s earth mother for a skank who immediately climbs into a bathtub with just-walked-in carny Cooper. Cate Blanchette may be sending up every femme fatale of real films noir, or she just may be struggling with a script that presents her as an immediate over-the-top cliche. Rooney Mara’s Molly does whatever the script bids her to do at any given moment, obediently going along.

I am usually not this tough on films. There’s a lot of artistry and talent on hand here, but so is a woeful misunderstanding of the source material. Nightmare Alley, both Gresham’s novel and the original film, utilize a technique I heartily approve of: a melodramatic tale with a gritty surface of realism. But Del Toro actually expands and overblows the melodrama, making Carlisle a patricidal sociopath, turning Lilith Ritter into a witchy parody, and evil kazillionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) into a homicidal maniac spouting the f-word as if it was already common parlance in 1941.

I saw this in a theater, wearing a mask, risking Covid – just another sucker taken for a ride at the carnival.

* * *

Ron Fortier has done a lovely review of the initial title in my so-called “disaster” series.

This is a Crusin’ performance from a few years ago that features our former guitar player Jim Van Winkle, his son Teddy on trombone (an impromptu sit-in), and our much missed bass player, the late Brian Van Winkle. This was a benefit performance at the River City Music Experience in Davenport, Iowa (we were one of a number appearing). Goes out of focus for a while but straightens itself out.