David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

DIE HARD revived: An entry revisited

Monday | December 4, 2023

Die Hard (1988).

David’s health situation has made it difficult for our household to maintain this blog. We don’t want it to fade away, though, so we’ve decided to select previous entries from our backlist to republish. These are items that chime with current developments or that we think might languish undiscovered among our 1094 entries over now 17 years (!). We hope that we will introduce new readers to our efforts and remind loyal readers of entries they may have once enjoyed.

Today’s revival responds to the return of Die Hard to theater screens in time for Christmas. Since our original posting in 2019 (“Not just a Christmas movie”), this supreme action picture has further cemented its reputation as a yuletide favorite (although it was originally released in July). Happy holidays from the Nakatomi Corporation!

DB here:

It’s been quite a fall season for UW–Madison film culture. There were visits from avant-garde legend Larry Gottheim, New York Times co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis, Schawn Belston (Senior VP of Mastering at Disney), and Julia Reichert, whose American Factory is now routinely turning up on ten-best lists. The semester’s first screening at our Cinematheque was Kiril Mkhanosvsky’s Give Me Liberty, a Milwaukee movie also gracing year-end best lists. Our programs included restored films by African pioneer Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, retrospectives of Reichert and Kiarostami, a 3D double feature of Revenge of the Creature and Parasite (no, the other one), a program of early women directors in America, a selection of films conserved by the Chicago Film Society, and a miscellany ranging from Olivia and Near Dark to Tropical Malady and Red Rock West.

Travels to festivals, partly covered in our blog entries, forced us to miss too many of these shows. But we couldn’t miss the final one: Die Hard (1988).

It’s a film I’ve admired since I first saw it in summer of 1988. I’ve taught it in many classes, but never written about it. Seeing it again, in a pretty 35mm print from the Chicago Film Society, has made me want to say a few things as my final blog entry for this busy year.


The man between

Think-piece pundits like to say that Hollywood movies are about good guys versus bad guys. But usually things are more complicated. Very often the good guy is an outsider caught between two large-scale forces, good or bad or both–the cattle ranchers versus the townspeople, or the mob versus the cops. Often the protagonist is an outlier, forced to solve the problem using means that respectable social forces can’t.

Call it the problem of the House Democrats. When the lawbreaker can’t be brought to justice, how do you make him pay? The answer is one that William S. Hart movies provided in the 1910s. We need a “good bad man,” a rogue agent who knows the scheme from the inside but is willing to do the right thing. Which means that he has to be flawed too, a little or a lot, and that he can eventually reform.

In Die Hard, the forces of law and order line up as the Los Angeles police and the FBI. The threat is Hans Gruber’s gang,  posing as terrorists but actually planning to rob the Nakatomi Corporation of $640 million in bearer bonds and kill lots of hostages in the process. The naive TV broadcasters support both, recycling official scenarios of how hostage-taking works and reinforcing the gang’s masquerade as a terrorist group.

The contrasts are marked. The forces of order are American, in alliance with a Japanese company, while the attackers are Europeans. At the start, we hear  American music (the rap played by the limo driver Argyle), but Hans hums Beethoven. The cops’ technology notably fails, as when the assault vehicle and a helicopter are consumed by firepower. But the gang’s hi-tech expert Theo can crack the vault, assisted by Hans’ plan to push the Feds to cut the building power.

Above all, the forces of social order are strikingly inept, while the gang is ruthlessly efficient. Unlike the police, who “run the terrorist playbook,” Hans boasts that he has left nothing to chance. The cops can’t imagine an adversary that exploits the official by-the-book procedures. As for the business types, Takagi’s calm bluff and Ellis’s freewheeling jargon can’t cope with a gang leader who doesn’t get the Art of the Deal.

Clearly, America and Japan need help. That appears in the form of John McClane, the cop from the East Coast trapped in Nakatomi Plaza.

McLane is the man between, spatially and strategically. He witnesses the action from inside the skyscraper, and bit by bit he figures out the gang’s real scenario. And he’s caught between both forces. The gang tries to find and kill him, while the cops refuse to recognize him as an ally. Confronting Karl’s brother early on teaches McClane that he can’t play by procedure. (“There are rules for policemen,” says a thug who doesn’t believe in rules.) The LAPD’s ineptitude shows that McClane can’t expect help on that front. So he must become almost as reckless as his adversary, though in a virtuous cause. This principally means blowing stuff up.

McClane isn’t totally without resources. He has as helpers Al, the desk cop who comes on the scene and sustains his morale, and Argyle, who’s there to play a crucial role at the climax. But mostly he’s alone in facing problems. He needs weapons. He needs shoes. He needs to protect the hostages, most of all his wife Holly, who has climbed up the corporate ladder. (In another movie, she would be the in-between protagonist.) To keep Holly from becoming a bargaining chip, McClane needs to hide his identity. And he needs to figure out the gang’s ultimate plan, of seeding the rooftop with explosives that will destroy the building and cover their escape.

John’s solutions are notably low-tech. While the police and the gang depend on advanced firepower and computer finagling, McClane lashes an explosive to a desk chair and uses a fire hose as a rope. He has to improvise shoes by taping a maxi-pad to a bleeding foot. No holster for your automatic? How about some Christmas wrapping tape? And don’t forget to taunt your adversaries with Yankee wisecracks.

In the course of this drama, the very physical McClane becomes a model for his allies. Holly punches the reporter who revealed John’s identity, and Argyle cold-cocks Theo at the point of getaway. Most dramatically Al kills the revived Karl when he’s about to plug McClane. The people in between take up arms.

McClane and his allies solve the House Democrats’ problem. Law can’t be lawless, even in protecting itself. Business, always aiming at the bottom line, has to give up principles. (“Pearl Harbor didn’t work out, so we got you with tape decks.”) These forces of social order are inefficient, trusting, and superficial. They can’t stand up to sheer brutal onslaught. In a crisis they will fold, or simply choose the nuclear option: agents Johnson and Johnson are ready to lose a big chunk of hostages.

McClane is a mediating figure that permits the film to show you can be strategically lawless for the sake of lawfulness. The fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, screws up plans on both sides, but for the benefit of everyone else.


The Big Dumb Action Picture isn’t so dumb

This thick array of thematic parallels would be interesting in itself, but it gets worked out through precise storytelling. There was a time when critics knocked action movies as simply ragbag assortments of fights, chases, and explosions. Die Hard, I think, changed ideas of just how well-wrought an action picture could be. About 53 minutes of it consist of physical action (including people sneaking around), leaving almost 70 minutes for other stuff: suspense, changing goals, surprise information, attention to parallel plotlines, and little moments like the thief pilfering candy just before an ambush.

The film typifies tidy classical Hollywood construction, beginning with an arrival (the jet) and ending with a departure (the McClanes in a limo). In between we get a big dose of the classic double plotline, romance and work. Holly’s job at Nakatomi threatens their marriage, and John takes on a temp job, that of fighting the gang, which also endangers the couple’s efforts to reconcile.

For every Superman, there’s a Kryptonite, and here the protagonist’s flaws include his fear of heights (set up in the second shot, reiterated throughout) and, more importantly, his resistance to Holly’s independence. By the end, he’s learned a lesson. The film’s streak of male sentimentality allows John to ask his wife’s forgiveness for blocking her career ambition. She’s ready to compromise too, reassuming his last name when she meets Al. The characters we care about change, at least a little. That could be the motto of most classical Hollywood plots.

As usual, we get crosscutting among several lines of action. John’s arrival is crosscut with Holly at work fending off Ellis, and in the rest of the film the gang’s stratagems are intercut with the cops’ plans and McClane’s efforts. At various points, five or six actions are alternating with one another.

All these escalating situations cluster into distinct parts, the four that Kristin has argued for as typical of Hollywood architecture.

The Setup runs about 33 minutes, culminating in the murder of Takagi and Hans’s promise that he can open the vault.

The Complicating Action, a counter-setup, coalesces around John’s goals of communicating with outsiders, avoiding capture, and attacking the thieves when he can. Through many chases and fights, the gang seeks to block all these efforts. The lines converge when John shoots Marco and tosses his body onto Al’s car. He gains the bag with the detonators, giving him the upper hand. Then the TV reporter gets involved, the cops arrive, and John is ordered to wait. Things seem to be stabilized.

After this midpoint, the Development supplies what Kristin calls “action, suspense, and delay.” Officer Dwayne Robinson arrives, pitting himself against Al and McClane. We can regard the police assault, Ellis’s clumsy attempt to broker a deal, and the arrival of the FBI men as a series of delays that endanger the stability of the standoff. At the end of this section, John meets Hans (posing as an escaped hostage): now both men know each other. And in the firefight that follows, John loses the detonators. Hans declares, “We’re back in business,” and the original plan can go forward.

The last twenty-five minutes constitute the Climax, launched by McClane’s “darkest moment.” He seems utterly beaten. Picking glass shards out of his feet, he gives Al a message for Holly over the CB radio. Al tells of his own burden, the accidental shooting of a child. The stakes are now very high.

Rapid crosscutting shows John finding the bombs on the roof and fighting with Karl, while the FBI helicopter attacks the building and Hans discovers that Holly is John’s wife. John stampedes the hostages down the stairs off the roof and escapes the strafing from the chopper before it blows. Argyle dispatches Theo, while John finds the surviving gang members in the atrium and shoots Hans, who falls to his death.

In the Epilogue, Al and John meet, Al dispatches Karl, Holly socks the newsman, and John and Holly drive off with Argyle.

These parts present a tight, logically building plot composed of swiftly changing situations. Along the way we encounter a great many motifs that create echoes or contrasts. Everyone notices the Rolex, at first a symbol of Holly’s talents but also of corporate swagger; only by unfastening it can they let Hans drop from the window. When Argyle floats the possibility that Holly will rush back into John’s arms for a movie ending, John murmurs: “I can live with that.” Agent Johnson speaks the same line, but for him it means an acceptable level of civilian casualties.

Holly’s unmarried name, Gennero, shows how a motif can develop in relation to the drama. At first it’s a sign of pride in her own identity (typical corporation, Nakatomi has misspelled it on the touch screen). Her name-change triggers the couple’s quarrel, but it has another narrative use: It conceals John’s identity from Hans. And at the end he introduces her to Al as Gennero but she reasserts her love by correcting him: “Holly McClane.”

Then there are differences of class and country. Hans reads Forbes, but McClane the US boomer references Roy Rogers and Jeopardy. (Hans is so unplugged from pop culture he thinks John Wayne was in High Noon.) Argyle the former cab driver and Al the cop know the downside of city life, but so does John the New York detective, who adapts Roy’s trademark phrase to the mean streets: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

Even a conventional Hollywood gesture, that of attacking a picture of a loved one, acquires a nifty plot function. Annoyed at John, Holly slaps down the family portrait on her shelf. Good thing too, because otherwise Hans would have seen it during the invasion. We’re reminded of that picture when in a moment of quiet John looks at the same snapshot in his wallet. Only after Hans has encountered John is he able to flip the portrait back up and realize that Holly is the “someone you do care about.”

There are lots more felicities like these–so many that I’d consider Die Hard a “hyperclassical film,” a movie that’s more classically constructed than it needs to be. It spills out all these links and echoes in a fever of virtuosity. Hard to believe that the makers started shooting without a finished script.


Intensified continuity, personalized

Die Hard is a good example of a stylistic approach I’ve called “intensified continuity.” It’s a modification of the classical method of staging, shooting, and cutting scenes. Here director John McTiernan and DP Jan de Bont tweak that approach in distinctive and powerful ways. You can find examples all the way through the movie, but I’ll draw most of my illustrations from the first hour, when the stylistic premises get laid out for us.

Cutting speeds accelerated sharply in Hollywood films from the 1960s onward, and for its time, Die Hard was a rapidly-cut movie. The average shot runs just under five seconds, about what you’d get in a 1920s silent film. By today’s standards, which fall more in the 3-4 second range (even for movies outside the action genre), it’s a bit sedate.

One factor that increases the cutting pace is a greater reliance on singles and close-ups. These are tighter than we’d expect in most studio films of the classic era.


Even in close-up, the shots aren’t snipped free of their surroundings, thanks to the wide frame and layers of focus–both important in the film’s overall style, as we’ll see.

Likewise, intensified continuity exploits a greater range of lens lengths than we’d find in studio films of the classic era. We get wide-angle shots like those above along with telephoto shots throughout. Here the long lens is used to pile up people around Holly, and an even longer lens shows her optical viewpoint on the bandits in the office.


And there’s a free-roaming camera, thanks chiefly to Steadicam technology. But interestingly, Die Hard avoids some of today’s most common camera movements, such as shooting a fixed conversation with a sidewise or circular tracking shot. These would become more common in the 1990s.

McTiernan thought a lot about his camera movements, as he explains in interviews and the commentary track on the DVD. He wanted to shape spectators’ attention, to use camera movement to nudge things into view. “The audience’s eye wants to go with you.” Accordingly, more than in many contemporary films, Die Hard‘s camera movements have a shape: they end on a point of information.

Sometimes it’s just a quick pan, doing duty for a cut. At other times, the reframing is a gentle nudge that prepares for a new scenic element, as when Holly enters her office.


In shooting Predator (1987), McTiernan wanted to cut moving shots together, but his editor resisted. For Die Hard, he refilmed his camera movements at different rates so that two would match. A good example is when Karl’s brother strides carefully into an area under construction. The camera tracks with him, but when he turns to find the source of a whining noise, the arcing movement at the end of one shot is picked up in the next as the framing circles to reveal the saw.


That reveal is given, characteristically, in rack focus. I could have added rack focus as another featured technique of intensified continuity. McTiernan and de Bont take it very far, making Die Hard one of the great rack-focus movies. The image is constantly shifting focus to guide our attention to the changing layers of the scene.


This neat, compact presentation not only preserves the commitment to long-lens close-ups we find in intensified continuity. The technique also gives each rack focus the snapping force of a cut. (And you don’t need to build big sets.) Needless to say, the rack-focusing wouldn’t work if McTiernan hadn’t committed himself to staging his action in depth. More on this below.


Staging in ‘Scope

Die Hard finds ingenious ways to “let the audience’s eye go with you” in the widescreen format. Sometimes it’s a matter of classic edge framing. Thanks to a low angle, John and Holly converse along a wide-angle diagonal.

Sometimes McTiernan reverts to a technique not enough directors use nowadays: blocking and revealing. In classic cinema that was usually a technique reserved for long shots, when actors could move aside as part of ensemble. Die Hard applies blocking and revealing to the tight framings of intensified continuity.

A thug in an elevator checks his weapon, pivots for an instant, and then moves aside to show the elevator arriving at the target floor.


Here again a rack focus helps. The moment reiterates the importance of the thirtieth floor in the skyscraper’s geography.

When Hans finds the body of Karl’s brother, we can study his expression. He flips the victim’s head to reveal a gunman, who looks to Hans before he says his line.


In a neat touch, the thug’s mouth isn’t shown. Today a director would probably show his whole face, but, really, who cares? The careful framing keeps him a secondary character, and a future target of McClane. And no need to rack focus on him, which would give him unwonted importance. All we need to remember him is that he’s the thug with long hair.

I can’t refrain from using one audacious example from late in the film. John and Hans have met, and Hans has revealed himself by targeting John with the pistol McClane has given him. In reverse shot, John reveals that it has no bullets and grabs it away from Hans.


But the pistol, and that gesture, have concealed the elevator behind them. When the pistol is knocked down, the elevator light pops on in the background. Our attention snaps to it, aided by that characteristic ping we hear throughout the movie (another motif).


The crisp turn of events, given visually and sonically, gets ampified by the acting. McClane’s cockiness turns to panic and Hans gets the upper hand. (“Think I’m fucking stupid, Hans?” Ping. “You vere saying?”)

The most bravura rack-focus comes during the climax, when the firehose reel whizzes down behind McClane and he realizes that he’s being dragged through the shattered window.


The coordination of the long lens, camera movement, staging, and racking focus is especially rich when Hans drifts among the hostages searching for the man in charge. He recites Takagi’s life history as he passes from one possibility to another (including, comically, Ellis).


At the climax of the passage, McTiernan’s staging-in-layers sets up Takagi, Karl, and Holly before Takagi takes charge. Briefly blocked by Hans, he admits his identity by stepping out from behind and into focus.


McTiernan isn’t done. A reverse shot of Hans finishing his spiel (“…and father of five”) punctuates the suspense. McTiernan buttons up this passage by returning to his “moving master” shot and having Karl shove Takagi out.


That clears the way for us to see Holly’s reaction. A beat dwells on her as she shifts her eyes to Hans, foreshadowing her conflict with him at the climax.


This sort of layering of faces popping in and out of visibility has precedents in earlier cinema, chiefly of the “tableau” period of the 1910s. McTiernan has, I think, spontaneously rediscovered for modern times what William C. de Mille was up to in the party scene in The Heir to the Hoorah (1916). (For more on that, go here.)


Of course McTiernan also has to work with the 2.35:1 anamorphic format, which enables him to spread his layers out more. That format also allows some remarkable compositions, such as the one surmounting today’s entry. The cut to the shot of John in Holly’s office uses the abstract splash painting (seen here for the first time) as a visual analogy for the explosion of gunfire offscreen at the same time.

McTiernan and de Bont constantly find striking but cogent images, thanks to lighting as well as color and format. Here’s McClane on top of an elevator peering through the perforated grille; his POV is a striking but still informative composition. the cut between the two provides a little punch of contrasting light and shade.


There are felicities like these feathered all through this remarkable movie, but the momentum of storytelling never flags. This remains a masterpiece of Hollywood filmmaking.


Thanks to our readers for following us this year. Kristin will be weighing in soon with her annual list of best films from ninety years ago. In the meantime, HO-HO-HO.

Madison owes an enormous debt to our Cinematheque team: programmers Jim Healy, Mike King, Ben Reiser, and Zach Zahos, as well as veteran projectionist Roch Gersbach. Santa should reward them. You can too by visiting the Cinematheque’s Podcast, Cinematalk. There you’ll find conversations with Manohla Dargis, Schawn Belston, and James Runde.

For lots of background on the making of this film and the four sequels, there’s Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History by Ronald Mottram and David S. Cohen. At rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz has a discerning appreciation on the occasion of the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Jake Tapper has provided the definitive analysis of Die Hard as a bona fide Christmas movie.

McTiernan (with whom I share an alma mater) provides very good DVD commentaries (even for Basic). Prison also seems to have given him some pronounced political views. Alas, the website he created as a platform for them is apparently no longer available. Word is that McTiernan is preparing a new film, Tau Ceti 4, with Uma Thurman. A videogame promo is purportedly signed by him.

Of other McTiernan films, I also much admire The Hunt for Red October (1990). The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) seems to me better directed than the original, and The 13th Warrior (1999), despite being taken out of his hands, remains a pretty interesting film. (Name another Hollywood movie in which a Muslim poet visiting Northern Europe is justly appalled at its barbarism.) Nomads (1986) also has its good points.

I discuss the issues of narrative and style raised here at greater length in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. You can also search “intensified continuity” for blog entries hereabouts. On CinemaScope aesthetics, see this entry and this video.

Die Hard (1988).

Thank you, Lignan

Friday | November 3, 2023

DB here:

On 2 November, Lignan University of Hong Kong conferred upon me an honorary doctorate. My health situation kept me from attending, but I sent a statement of thanks. I’m grateful for the honor, and for Professor Darrell Davis for reading it at the ceremony (pictured above). Here it is.

I am deeply proud to receive an honorary doctorate from Lingnan University. It is one of the jewels in the crown of Hong Kong higher education. I have enjoyed my many visits to the campus and have made many friends during that time. Conversations with them have inspired me to improve my work.

I fell in love with Hong Kong film before I came to love Hong Kong. In the 1970s I was deeply moved by Bruce Lee’s films beyond their obvious visceral appeal, they showed a young Chinese man standing up for justice and righteousness. I now realize that Bruce Lee embodied the dignity and compassion for others that remain central to the spirit of Hong Kong itself. In the years that followed, my appreciation of Hong Kong cinema grew, and I was inspired to express my ideas in a book on it. As I became more acquainted with its many fine filmmakers and the craftspeople who supported them, I came to realize that the same spirit has continued in this film culture.

My admiration for Lingnan, therefore, is part of my overall respect for the excellence of Hong Kong cinema and of the community it represents.

I regret that my health situation does not allow me to participate more fully on today’s occasion, but remain assured that my heart is with Lingnan University, its students and faculty, as well as the people of Hong Kong.

My thanks to the University, to Professor Davis and Profesor Emilie Yeh Yueh-yu (below), and  to Ginn Fung Kai Chun and Amy Pang Wing Si for their kind assistance.

Crime spree

Monday | September 4, 2023

Patricia Highsmith (from Loving Highsmith, 2022).

DB here:

Crime fiction, whether in words or pictures, is a bigger category than we might initially think. There are whodunits, hardboiled detective stories, police procedurals, suspense thrillers, and stories of gangsters, professional crooks, and petty scoundrels (e.g., Elmore Leonard’s world). That’s a lot in itself. But since every plot of any interest depends on some disruption of a stable situation, an illegal transgression can do the trick. So we can get bank robbery in a comedy (e.g., Take the Money and Run, 1969), or murder and extortion in a family melodrama (The Little Foxes, play 1939, film 1941), or authorial disputes about plagiarism (Secret Window, 2004). Even romantic comedy has room for a crime or two (Date Night, 2010).

Geoffrey O’Brien is a polymath. He’s written poetry, evocative memoirs (Sonata for Jukebox, 2004), experimental fiction (the recent lyrical “fantasia,” Arabian Nights of 1934), and outstanding literary and film criticism (Castaways of the Image Planet, 2002). He’s also an expert in crime fiction (Hardboiled America, 1997), so he’s ideal for editing the new Library of America collection Crime Novels of the 1960s. His choices, all unimpeachable, cover a lot of the central creative options. There are crook stories, suspense thrillers, a police procedural, several strains of whodunit, psychological studies, and at least one crime novel possibly lacking a crime. In style they vary between pitiless hardboiled narration and more delicate but still forceful dissection of middle-class mores. As you might expect from books of their era, racial prejudice, urban upheavals, and the folkways of the counterculture are seldom far away.


Taking pulp mainstream

The nightmarish plots and staccato vernacular of O’Brien’s hardboiled sampling are vestiges of the pulp magazines, where Hammett and Chandler developed their technique in the 1920s and 1930s. But the classic crime pulps were long gone by the 1960s. What replaced them were the massive paperback originals pouring from presses from the Forties onward.  A first paperback printing of a novel would routinely run to 150,000 copies. The success of cheap reprints of hardcover titles impelled publishers to capitalize on the new market with novels written specifically for paperback distribution.  The most popular genre was crime fiction. Originals tended to be short, running 60,000 to 80,000 words, with plenty of blank space for laconic dialogues. A dedicated pro could turn out one in a month or two, at a fee of a few hundred dollars.

A vivid example in this collection is Dan J. Marlowe’s The Name of the Game Is Death, which first appeared as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback in 1962. It starts with three thieves executing a bank robbery. The opening plunges us into the crossfire of pulp narration.

Bunny went through the front door in a sliding skid. The kid took one look at my face and started to run back in front of the Olds. Across the street something went ker-blam!! The kid whinnied like a horse with the colic. He ran in a circle for three seconds and then fell down in front of the Olds, his white cottom gloves in the dirty street and his legs still on the sidewalk. The left side of his head was gone.
Bunny dropped the sack and scrambled for the wheel. I was halfway into the back seat when I heard the car stall out as he tried to give it gas too fast. It was quite a feeling. I backed out again and faced the bank, tried to have eyes in the back of my head for the unseen shotgunner across the street, and listened to Bunny mash down on the starter. The motor caught, finally. I breathed again, but a fat guard galloped out the bank’s front doors, his gun hand high over his head.
I swear both his feet were off the ground when he fired at me.

Bunny flees with most of the loot, and our nameless narrator escapes alone. He waits for news that Bunny has found sanctuary and is ready to divide the take. When the narrator hears nothing, he worries that Bunny is in trouble and sets out to find him. In his travels from Phoenix to Florida he encounters several problems that demand violent solutions. Across his trip, it becomes evident that our protagonist is a borderline sociopath.

His journey gives Marlowe’s plot a linear trajectory that is studded with flashbacks to his childhood, including a traumatic incident with his beloved cat. The episodes build a degree of understanding of his damaged personality, only to have that mitigated by a savage climax. Hardboiled to the end.

Donald E. Westlake, a favorite of this blog, was endlessly prolific, cranking out erotica, science fiction, comic fiction, psychological thrillers, and hard-core crime stories under several pseudonyms. He created two long-running series, both based on heist plots. A comic one centered on John Dortmunder, a hapless down-at-heel thief. The other series was dead serious (though with some light touches) focused on Parker, an impassive, nearly amoral robber specializing in organizing big capers. The Score (1964) is one of Parker’s most ambitious projects. With a large team, he ransacks an entire town.

Westlake broke nearly all his Parker novels into four parts, and within them he enjoyed mixing flashbacks and shifting viewpoints. Part 3 of The Score is a virtuoso panorama of the entire raid, played out in short scenes in different parts of town. It provides a careful layout of how the takeover is engineered. Most scenes are devoted to the robber in charge and provide us characterization that enlivens the action. As usual, the perfect heist goes badly wrong, and Westlake’s anatomy of the scheme forces us to admire its precision up until the final catastrophe.

Westlake exemplifies how the hardboiled tradition could be exciting without being sensationalistic. Avoiding the near-hysteria of Marlowe (no double exclamation points here) and the florid metaphors of Chandler, Westlake is close to Hammett in his understated but elegant style. He playfully references books and movies, as when Parker’s colleague Grofield imagines his thieving days as a long film with a musical score and swooping camera angles. I devoted a chapter of Perplexing Plots to the rigorous intricacy and captivating style of the Parker books. (For online instances, go here and here.)

Hitchcock and Evan Hunter (Ed McBain), who wrote the screenplay for The Birds.

The Score was a paperback original for Pocket Books, which also initiated Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. McBain’s police procedurals mixed a realistic treatment of procedures (printed-out lab reports, fingerprint files, and the like) with a slangy dialogue redolent of the hardboiled pulps. Doll (1965) includes not only a gory murder but a series of punishing scenes in which a killer repeatedly injects a captive cop with heroin.

McBain sought to capture the protocols of investigation through the “conglomerate hero” formed by an entire squad. Although Steve Carella is the first among equals, inquiries get split up among his colleagues. In Doll Carella is reluctantly partnered with the troubled Bert Kling. But Carella soon disappears and is believed dead. Kling continues solo until he’s replaced by Meyer Meyer, who’s aided by colleagues Hal Willis and Arthur Brown. Eventually Kling rejoins the hunt and partners with Meyer to resolve the case. In other books, cases run in parallel or are revealed as connected. This sort of plotting, popularized in Hill Street Blues, is common in modern procedurals. McBain complained that others swiped his idea.

Another McBain innovation was an intrusive authorial voice. The action is typically recounted in the third person and through shifting viewpoints in a moving-spotlight manner, but the narration injects digressions and ventures into sheer chattiness. The opening of Doll interrupts the scene of a grisly murder with a lengthy reflection on how police cope with unimaginable crime scenes. This meditation isn’t attributed to Carella or anyone else. McBain, who was an English major in college, deliberately flouted the demand for neutral narration.

I know that in these books I frequently commit the unpardonable sin of author intrusion. Somebody will suddenly start talking or thinking or commenting and it won’t be any of the cops or crooks, it’ll just be this faceless, anonymous “someone” sticking his nose into the proceedings. Sorry. That’s me. Or rather, it’s Ed McBain.

McBain’s string of police procedurals quickly graduated to hardcover publication by Delacorte Press. His success exemplifies the new respectability of  the pulp tradition.

The insanely prolific Fredric Brown gets some respectful mentions in Perplexing Plots for eccentric experiments like The Far Cry (1951). Echoes of the hardboiled school show up more mutedly in his The Murderers (1961). The protagonist, a shiftless would-be actor, drifts through Hollywood trying to pick up commercial gigs or small parts in an ongoing TV series. Mostly he’s interested in drinking and hanging out with hippies and pliable women. He gets attached to a businessman’s wife, and together they fumble into a murder scheme. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Double Indemnity, and the hero is a softer, semi-comic descendant of James M. Cain’s doomed fools for passion. Overall, Brown presents a cooler, more laid-back vision of Cain’s sunbaked California car culture and killing fields. As a bonus, Brown merges his murder scheme with another swiped ingeniously from the most prominent woman writer of psychological thrillers.


Murder with gravity

Chester Himes and James Baldwin, 1973. From Stars and Stripes.

Late one night a drunken, psychopathic cop shoots and kills a restaurant’s two kitchen cleaners. A third man witnesses the crimes and escapes. The cop uses all the authority of the law to pursue him. Moving-spotlight narration switches us rapidly from one man to the other as the tension builds and the cop closes in.

Sounds like pure pulp, no?

What if the cop is a racist, and his two victims and third target are Black?

That’s the premise of  Chester Himes’ Run Man Run (1966). Himes was one of several Black artists and writers who found sanctuary in Paris after confronting postwar bigotry at home. He won fame in France, and belatedly in the U.S., with a series of hardboiled detective novels (some as paperback originals) centering on Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The best-known is Cotton Comes to Harlem (1966), which also became a lively movie.

His marquee cops are absent from Run Man Run, but the book is filled out by evocative descriptions of the Harlem milieu and sharp portrayals of the secondary characters, particularly the pursued man’s morally equivocal girlfriend and a cop who’s not as racist as his peers. The density of detail and the psychological probing of hunter and hunted give the book the gravity of a “serious” novel like Himes’ excellent If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945).

Gravity of a comparable sort dominates Charles Williams’ Dead Calm (1963). The situation merges two long-lasting schemas: the woman menaced by the sociopathic killer, and the man trapped aboard a sinking ship. A couple honeymooning in a yacht come to the aid of an apparent castaway and get far more than they expected. Williams gives unremitting apprehension by crosscutting the two situations while also filling in the backstory in ways that add layers of understanding and misunderstanding. It’s a model blend of mystery and suspense.

It’s also a lesson in another, frequently forgotten side of the hardboiled tradition. The tough guy isn’t just a mindless thug; he’s often the master of a delicate craft. Stark’s Parker is a virtuoso in breaking and entering, but also in calmly managing the problems that come up. He works with his hands but also his mind. So does the central male of Dead Calm.  John Ingram must draw on his expertise in professional sailing to stay alive in a crisis, and Williams freely lets us understand the minutiae of survival to make us admire his resourcefulness. More significant, Ingram’s wife has absorbed many of the same skills, and her shrewd use of them renders her as no less tough an adversary.

Williams’ rich vocabulary yields the pleasure of watching neat, efficient intelligence in a crisis. Another sort of literary gravity, then, makes this book as evocative as any piece of straight fiction, and more gripping than most. No wonder that Philip Noyce and Terry Hayes were able to adapt it to the screen in 1989 with trim economy.


Ladies of crime

Women writers have been prominent in crime fiction virtually from the start.  Anna Katherine Green’s bestselling detective story The Leavenworth Case (1878) predates Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Marjorie Allingham and others became famous for their mystery novels.  In the 1930s and 1940s, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Vera Caspary, and many others contributed both whodunits and psychological thrillers.  Sarah Weinman has collected some of these authors’ outstanding suspense novels in a fine Library of America set, which I discuss in another entry.

Among these admirable artisans was Dorothy B. Hughes, whose Ride the Pink Horse (1946) and In a Lonely Place (1947) were adapted to films that became prime examples of what was later called film noir. Hughes also wrote a discerning critical biography of Erle Stanley Gardner. She reflected thoughtfully on the conventions of crime fiction, reviewing books and even teaching a course at UCLA in the 1960s.

Perhaps her acute awareness of how thrillers manipulate viewpoint to maximize anxiety and to build up mystery led her to The Expendable Man (1963). It’s a wrong-man plot. Out of a spurt of kindness Dr. Hugh Densmore picks up a hitchhiking teenage girl on a lonely desert highway. She turns out to be reckless, manipulative, and obviously dangerous. Densmore lets her out at several points on the way, only to find her waiting for him further along. In Phoenix, where he’s come for his niece’s wedding, the young doctor learns that the girl has been murdered. He’s a prime suspect.

During his first police interrogation, Hughes casually drops in a shock that makes the reader reevaluate everything that’s led up to it–and feel not a little shame in the bargain. After this tour de force, Densmore’s struggle to prove himself innocent takes on a new pressure that adds enormously to the growing tension. Sorry to be so cryptic, but you have to read it in innocence to feel the diabolical force of Hughes’s scheme.

Margaret Millar, Santa Barbara. From “Margaret Millar Rediscovered,” Bay Area Reporter.

The Expendable Man locks us tightly to Densmore’s consciousness, while another book by a queen of suspense uses a wider-ranging narration. In Margaret Millar’s The Fiend (1964), a moving-spotlight narration reveals sharp criticism of how wives chafe under suburban routine.

Charlie Gowen spends his lunch hour sitting in his green coupé watching children in a playground. He becomes worried that one little girl takes risks on the jungle gym, and he fears that her parents are neglecting her. This concern grows to the point that he sends an anonymous letter to her mother. But he sends it to the wrong family. From this festers a plot of intricate lies, revelations, misunderstandings, and accusations that pulls in an entire neighborhood–friends, other kids, librarians, a lawyer, a pharmacist, Charlie’s caretaker brother, a would-be romantic partner, and of course the police.

Millar was a major crime novelist recognized in her day but now little-known. (Her fame was eventually surpassed by that of her husband Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald. I think she’s the better writer.) Her many first-rate suspense novels include A Demon in My View (1955) and Do Evil in Return (1950), a sensitive probing of a female doctor deciding whether to perform an illegal abortion. The Fiend sustains suspense to the very last page while offering portraits of children’s efforts to understand adult hypocrisy, and the various ways women cope with suffocating domesticity–not least, the obliteration of their identities. All this is given in a rich evocation of the milieu, down to the redwood picnic tables at a backyard barbecue and chipmunks scampering up lemon trees.

Unlike Millar, Patricia Highsmith was often underrated by American genre fans, while highbrow critics mostly ignored her. Fame has come to her more recently, thanks largely to popular film adaptations of her books (especially The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999) and her tumultuous life as a Lesbian. Her personality, alternately fascinating and repelling, has too often distracted commentators from the power of her plotting and style. I try in Perplexing Plots to provide an analysis of some of her major storytelling strategies.

Her other books do not fully prepare you for The Tremor of Forgery (1969). It’s a crime novel in which the crime has the haziness of a mirage. Howard Ingham is in Tunisia starting to prepare a screenplay when his progress halts after the death of his producer in New York. He decides to linger and work on his next novel. That centers on an amoral, Ripleyesque bank executive stealing funds from accounts. In the real world, Ingham loiters, tours Tunisia, and strikes up friendships with a gay neighbor and a peculiar American propagandist. He also broods on whether his producer was having an affair with Ina, a woman he might marry. All this takes place against the background of the six-day Arab-Israeli war and the ongoing war in Vietnam.

Eighty pages in, Ingham takes a hasty action that may have resulted in a man’s death. By utterly limiting the viewpoint to Ingham, Highsmith keeps us in uncertainty about the consequences. The rest of the book plumbs Ingham’s mind as he tries to discover what he may have done and reacts to the responses of those around him. Highsmith’s finesse in keeping us in suspense about the exact contours of the incident releases her from what Henry James called “weak specification.” Instead she puts at the center of our attention Ingham’s fluctuating uncertainties about what he has done and should do.

The title refers to the telltale tremor in the sort of forgeries that Ingham’s embezzler Dennison commits. If it’s a symptom of guilt, it’s also a trace of Highsmith’s perennial theme of the instability of a person’s identity. Sometimes Ingham feels that he’s no more than all the opinions about him others hold. The Tremor of Forgery asks to what extent all our momentary roles are forgeries, and whether our moments of guilt and indecision betray a fundamental emptiness. At one moment, Ingham considers the possibility that  “One was nothing anywhere, ever.”


As usual for the Library of America, these nine powerhouses are presented in elegant editions, filled out with plenty of authorial background and bibliographical sources. Just as important, this publishing initiative does a lot to dissolve that boundary between art and entertainment I objected to in an earlier entry.

Dead Calm (1989).

Another dispatch from Ennui-sur-Blasé

Friday | August 25, 2023


DB here:

Hardcore Wes Anderson admirers will be happy to learn of the latest entry in the series of massive auteur monographs devoted to the work of the director. After a synoptic volume, The Wes Anderson Collection, there followed one devoted to The Grand Budapest Hotel and another to Isle of Dogs. Now we have one on The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Delayed a bit by Covid, it emerges as just as splendid as its predecessors.ƒteem

Matt Zoller Seitz, impresario of the series, has compiled all the materials we’ve come to expect. There are the usual frolicsome illustrations by Max Dalton. We get to roam through production documents, sketches, storyboards, and interviews with participants, including extras and peripheral contributors. Anderson’s appetite for material is endless, so we learn of layers of citations, shout-outs, and subterranean influences. Binding it all is Seitz’s commentary, both a narrative of the project’s development and an ongoing conversation with Anderson himself.

Seitz is not only a dynamic critic but an imaginative book-maker, with daring conceptions of design and illustration. His gifts are apparent not only in this series but in his nearly phantasmagoric compendium on Oliver Stone and in his more austere but no less forceful The Deadwood Bible. The Anderson enterprise began as a website, and each book has the centrifugal energy of a nest of hyperlinks, with new bits piling onto a single page.

Seitzian ingenuity also emerges in clever ways to evoke, if only as riffs, the obsessive, occasionally silly whimsy that drives the director and his characters. The first book in the series provided a word count for each chapter; the Grand Budapest Hotel volume assigns contributors the role of concierges (“The Society of the Crossed Pens”). In the spirit of a movie about a magazine, The French Dispatch entry includes a magazine, Fondu enchaîné (“Dissolve”). In this English-language feast of cinephilia several critics provide close considerations of the film. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those critics.) The expansive range of these essays nicely miniaturizes the whole book’s urge to explore anything, no matter how remote, that can illuminate the film and Anderson’s creative process.

In all, it’s a collection that I think will delight any Anderson admirer. It teems with the same energy that has animated his body of work for twenty-five years and counting. How fast that time has gone!

Thanks to Ben Adler for all his help on this and other projects.

Full disclosure #2: Matt has kindly co-dedicated the book to Kristin and me. We accept it with gratitude from a generous friend.

David Bordwell
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