Watch This: Crime Writer James Ellroy Recommends — What Else? — Noir Films The author of L.A. Confidential discusses his favorite flicks, including a 1963 Akira Kurosawa film he says may be the greatest crime movie he's ever seen.
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Watch This: Crime Writer James Ellroy Recommends — What Else? — Noir Films

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Watch This: Crime Writer James Ellroy Recommends — What Else? — Noir Films

Watch This: Crime Writer James Ellroy Recommends — What Else? — Noir Films

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have movie recommendations from James Ellroy. He's the author of crime novels like "LA Confidential," including real historical characters of Los Angeles. Ellroy's newest, "Perfidia," portrays some of the same characters, cops, on December 7, 1941. Of course, the LA landscape he portrays includes the movie industry, which Ellroy is part of. He's writing a remake of the 1944 film "Laura" now, so we asked Ellroy to suggest some films for our series Watch This. His picks include "Stray Dog," from the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

JAMES ELLROY: "Stray Dog" is a 1949 movie with a very young Toshiro Mifune. It's bombed-out Tokyo in a heat wave.

INSKEEP: Oh, after World War II?

ELLROY: After World War II. The place is a ruin. It's the ruins of Athens or Carthage or Pompei. And he's on a subway, and he's dozing. He's a handsome guy. He's wearing a white suit. He's a police detective. A desiccated lowlife steals his gun. He spends the rest of the movie looking for this guy. It's the story of emasculated Japan in the wake of World War II. He is on the path, the trail, the quest - Mifune is - for self-vindication. And in vindicating himself, he vindicates all of Japan.

INSKEEP: Now, there's something that marks a memorable movie - the plot is in its way very simple, but you can see how it's profound and how you could - while this guy is trying to chase down the man who stole his gun, anything could happen. It's like "The Bicycle Thief."

ELLROY: Yes, it's very much like "The Bicycle Thief." He's out there. He's looking for his roscoe, his piece, his identity as a policeman. And it's not picaresque; it's not a shaggy dog story. There is a plot.

INSKEEP: You also send us another Kurosawa movie - "High And Low." What's that?

ELLROY: "High And Low" may be the greatest crime movie I've ever seen. It's the most beautifully filmed certainly. Yokohama, 1963. Here's what happened - it's Mifune, again. He still looks good. He's a shoe magnate in the throes of a corporate takeover. His beloved son is kidnapped. The cops are called in. But wait - it's not his son. The doofus kidnapper snatched the chauffeur's kid. The first 45 or 50 minutes of this movie are shot in Mifune's big living room, and there's a large picture window that looks out and down on the slums of Yokohama. And not a lot happens, except men moving in cliques and talking in low voices as their world burns down. We gradually get the sense that the kidnapper, looking up from the slums of Yokohama, has a telescope or some kind of device fixed on that window.

INSKEEP: Wow.

ELLROY: It's a stunning revelation, 45 or 50 minutes into the film.

INSKEEP: You know, it's amazing to think about a sequence like that and wonder what it is about the self-confidence of a filmmaker that would cause him or her to say, I can do the entire first 45 minutes of this movie, and it's going to be one scene, basically one location, and I'm going to have the confidence I'll carry the audience through to whatever happens afterward.

ELLROY: It's a supremely controlled motion picture. It's a long motion picture, and it flies by.

INSKEEP: You have sent us, on this list, quite a few movies from the 1940s, and this is another - "Brief Encounter," David Lean.

ELLROY: It's my favorite David Lean film, and I can't separate it from the soundtrack, which is entirely Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Second Piano Concerto" played low, played throbbing, played monotonously, while Trevor Howard, a married man, Celia Johnson, a married woman, four kids between them - they meet. They fall in love.

INSKEEP: They're both married, not to each other.

ELLROY: Not to each other. But this is the big love for both of them. And it's what they do and what they forfeit and what they gain all to the soundtrack (humming) - low, somber, sonorous, tragically beautiful, monotonous.

INSKEEP: Now, on the surface, this sounds like a different film than most of the others you have recommended to us because, the others, they're crime films.

ELLROY: All drama to me is a man meets a woman. And this might be a good point to segue to Jacques Tourneur's film "Out Of The Past."

INSKEEP: This is 1947, post-war, post-World War II.

ELLROY: Yeah, 1947. And it's a man-meets-a-woman writ very large. Kathie Moffat, portrayed by Jane Greer, plugs her lover, the gangster Whit, played by Kirk Douglas - gloms 40K from him, absconds down to Acapulco. She's the dangerous woman, but - but - Robert Mitchum, as Jeff Bailey, is looking to take the fall. And when you're looking to take the fall for a woman, nothing else matters. Get it, daddy-o? It's the big noir sewer, and you're going for the big ride. There's lots of haunting, doomed voice-over narration. Of course it goes bad - everyone dies.

INSKEEP: So these are all love stories actually that you've sent us, even when people are being killed left and right.

ELLROY: Yeah. As someone once said back when I was a kid in the early '60s, I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he's working on now.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

ELLROY: It's a good one.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's a good one.

ELLROY: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Do you need to stay away from movies when you're writing?

ELLROY: No, I'll go to a movie if I want to see it.

INSKEEP: And it doesn't influence the tone of what you - you don't come back and suddenly you're writing in a different way...

ELLROY: No...

INSKEEP: ...In some way that maybe you wouldn't like.

ELLROY: No. I don't read many novels because I write them, and I want them to be perfect. And I can't tolerate imperfection when I read fiction, and how often do you see perfection? But going to the movies, you've got a good story, a crime, a man meets a woman. You can always go to look, and it's only going to cost you 10 bucks and two hours.

INSKEEP: James Ellroy, a pleasure talking with you.

ELLROY: Always, Steve, always. God bless you.

INSKEEP: His newest novel is "Perfidia." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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