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Friday Night Noir
Film Noir (noun) a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair
During the late 1980s, the Department of Cultural Development conducted a multi-million dollar study that revealed a shocking lack in the city’s number of artistic venues. Gas stations, convenience stores, and coffee shops (the three indicators of urban excess and indolence) were flourishing, although art galleries had reached near extinction. In an effort to combat this apparent breakdown of high culture, millions were poured into citywide art programs and theaters. Several thousand went towards the much-neglected McClellan Community Theater. The cash transformed a dilapidated, threadbare playhouse into a dilapidated, threadbare movie theater. Despite the Arts Council’s good intentions, an extra movie theater was unnecessary in that area of town, an area of banks and boutiques, for a much cleaner and recently built Cineplex could be found several blocks away. And, unfortunately for the McClellan, the majority of moviegoers would gladly forsake the feel of an early twentieth-century architectural relic for stadium seating.
The McClellan’s classic movie schedule gradually dwindled from its original offerings; Western Wednesdays were the first to go, followed by Mystery Mondays and Thrilling Thursdays. In a matter of weeks, the only commercially viable screenings were the Friday Night Noir double features. Either due to nostalgia or an unhealthy inability to resist a bargain, the theater became crowded every Friday night with hordes of octogenarians, hordes that kept the theater fiscally afloat.
The Arts Council decided to appoint the corpulent Clarence Hodge, a smalltime film critic for the city’s daily, as Executive Director of the McClellan. Hodge’s film reviews were almost exclusively negative, yet the Council hoped he would have made enough friends over the years to fill up a few seats. Upon conducting a cursory examination of the rundown theater, Hodge determined that a handyman, projectionist and ticket seller were needed in order to restore the theater to its former glory. After weeks of throwing his (admittedly hefty) weight around with the trustees of the Arts Council, Hodge discovered that the grant money for the McClellan was limited. This discovery prompted an ad for a “projectionist with general knowledge of painting, carpentry, electricity, etc.” at the bottom of Hodge’s biweekly column.
Three long weeks passed without a response until, finally, a call came inquiring as to the job. The young man certainly seemed capable. His experience with carpentry, projectors, and business were highly satisfactory, and he was perfectly fine with minimum wage. Yes, Hodge thought, Troy Marlow’s got the job.
The next day, Hodge did not show up at the theater, telling Marlow to begin “touching it up” immediately. The same for the next day. And the next. And so on, until Hodge had not so much as seen the theater for almost one week. Both constant work and ceaseless rain had prevented his checking in. Thinking it unwise to allow this new employee to go unchecked for so long, Hodge dropped by the McClellan during his lunch break on a stormy Wednesday. Opening the doors, he was shocked.
The frayed carpet had been ripped up, and the newly revealed hardwood floors were sparkling. The counters had been refinished, the lights replaced, and even the defunct popcorn machine appeared to be operational. Both amazed and bewildered, Hodge stood in the doorway, gathering his senses.
“Marlow!” Hodge called “Are you here?” Only silence answered. Hodge checked the concession area, the bathrooms, and then headed into the theater itself, but could not find Marlow anywhere. When he walked back into the concession area, however, a man stood behind the counter with his back to Hodge. A curl of cigarette smoke coiled, serpentine, above his head.
“Hey- there’s no smoking in here,” Hodge said, advancing towards the man. The man turned around, and Hodge gasped.
Here stood a man in a gray flannel suit with a thin black tie, his defined, handsome face reminiscent of the movie stars of old. His dark eyes stood out against the faintness of his skin, which seemed almost translucent in the bright theater lights. Somehow, the man was oddly familiar to Hodge, but Hodge could not place him in his memory. The man, his dark eyebrows knitted, pulled the cigarette from his mouth and tossed it into an ashtray.
“The name’s Marlow. And it was only a prop,” he said, in a voice that was both confident yet, somehow, almost sinister.
Hodge eyed him frantically.
“A prop? Well… none of those either! We’ll have none of that here!” Hodge nodded to reassure himself. He then stuck out his hand. “Clarence Hodge, as I’m sure you already know.”
Marlow eyed the hand, although did not take it. Watching Marlow’s gaze, Hodge felt a chill go down his spine.
“It’s a pleasure,” Marlow said, pulling out a toothpick from his jacket in the process. Hodge watched as Marlow stuck the toothpick in his mouth, mimicking the prop cigarette that had been their moments earlier. Already, a strong feeling of dislike was creeping into Hodge’s mind. A long silence overtook the two.
“I notice you made some changes to the theater,” said Hodge.
“Touching up, as you said,” replied Marlow.
“I’d prefer to be notified if you are going to do anything so… drastic. Do we understand each other?”
“And where’s your uniform, Marlow?”
“The theater is not open for business on Thursdays. Why dress up?”
“Nevertheless, Marlow, it must be worn at all times. The next time I stop by, I’d like to see it on. Do we understand each other?”
“What you will,” Marlow said, twirling the toothpick around and around in his mouth, his eyes emanating both a challenge and a threat.
“I don’t like it. Not one bit.” Hodge was back in his office, his secretary (actually, his previously unemployed niece, Diana) half listening as she pecked away at her keyboard. Hodge paced back and forth between his desk and window, which looked out on the rainy street. Hodge’s office was a hotbed of chaos and disorder, largely due to a powerful, Finnish-made oscillating fan that propelled all of the papers around the room in a breezy tornado whenever it swung past. Despite his niece’s protests, Hodge refused to replace the fan, citing both its cooling abilities and sheer elegance. Needless to say, paperweights were a common Christmas gift in the Clarence Hodge office. “I don’t like him, I don’t like his debonair attitude, his debonair clothes, or his debonair face.”
“Sounds like my type.”
“Humorous, Diana. You should have seen the way he was talking to me… Does he realize that I am the premier movie critic for the entire city? That I was appointed Executive Director of the McClellan due to my lifelong contributions to the arts? I have half a mind to fire him.”
“I thought you said he did good work?” asked Diana.
“That’s another thing; he’s too competent. Why would he want to take minimum wage for completely remodeling some half bit movie theater?”
Diana looked up, her eyebrow raised.
“You know what I mean. The whole thing, it’s just very strange. Get this- he was smoking fake cigarettes.”
“Yeah- fake. He said they were props.”
“Well, maybe he’s an actor?”
“I know guys who drink nonalcoholic beer. I guess it’s the same thing. More importantly, he’s getting the job done, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but that’s not the issue-”
“Than why should you care?”
Hodge looked out the window, the rain pelting the glass.
“I guess that’s the problem.”
After meeting Marlow, Hodge began to obsessively check in at the McClellan anywhere from two to four times a day. He stopped by for a variety of reasons: he left his coat by the cash register, he received a complaint about the draft in the theater, he needed to take inventory of refreshments. Whatever the excuse, the motive was always the same; Hodge hoped to catch Marlow at some indiscretion worthy of dismissal, for he wanted to rid himself of the man as soon as humanly possible.
Despite Hodge’s persistence, Marlow appeared infallible. Every time Hodge popped in, Marlow was hard at work in some area of the building. Steady progress was being made on the theater’s interior, and a near doubling in the amount of ticket sales could be almost directly linked to the eviction of a putrid stench that had haunted the theater for months. The only misdemeanor that Hodge could discover was an occasional prop cigarette thrown on the floor, although Hodge was less angered over this habit than he was perplexed. In any case, the butts were so few in number that they were hardly worth mentioning.
The dislike and uneasiness that Hodge felt for his new employee was, however, much deeper than that which arose from their tense initial conversation. At times Hodge felt as if this Marlow character was a man he had previously met, perhaps a figure from his childhood. This, though, could not be, for Hodge had at least twenty years on Marlow. If Hodge was a man to believe such things, he may have considered Marlow a person from a previous life, a person who made a most negative impact on Hodge’s past self. But, alas, Hodge observed no such faith, and had to content himself with the concept of pure intuition.
A week after his first meeting with Marlow, Hodge stood staring outside the window of his office at the soaking city street below, his stare uninterrupted by papers fluttering past. Marlow was dancing on the fringes of Hodge’s mind, although ‘dancing’ would seem inappropriate for the man; perhaps he slinked, or was slouched against the cerebrum, his fingers balancing a prop cigarette that sends up a lazy coil of smoke…
“What the hell is going on?” Hodge whispered. Then, more loudly: “What the hell is going on?”
Diana looked up from her keyboard, expecting more of the same. For the past few days, she had noticed her uncle ranting and rambling on about the McClellan Theater and its worker with distressing frequency. She was beginning to worry that he would forget her paycheck, and a call to her mother would be necessary.
“It has been raining for nearly two weeks straight. Has anyone else notice this?” Diana pointed a finger to an antiquated television in the corner of the room, which broadcasted a national news station. The reporter appeared to be standing in the city’s business district, clutching tightly onto his umbrella as water poured around him. The caption on the screen read “Rainfall Record Washed Away”, and the reporter discussed the incessant, nonstop rainfall that had been plaguing the city for fourteen days.
“Maybe if you weren’t thinking about this ‘Troy Marlow’ twenty-four/seven you’d have some time to watch the news. Hell, I bet you’ll be blaming the rain on Marlow soon, too.” Diana sat back in her chair, shooting an accusatory glare at Hodge.
“That’s not bad, actually…” Hodge collapsed into his chair, head resting in his hands. Diana stared at her fallen boss and stood.
“Well, I’m taking my lunch break. You have these to file. Enjoy your old reviews.” Diana picked up a thick pile of papers, stood, and tossed the papers onto her uncle’s desk. As Diana walked out, the top few were caught by a gust from the Finnish fan, and were propelled into the air.
Hodge watched the door close on Diana as the papers continued to flutter off of his desk. Once again, the cool, arrogant face of Marlow appeared before Hodge’s eyes. A face tauntingly familiar, both two-dimensional yet surprisingly human. The dark eyes, staring out from the body, the body with the translucent skin. The face of Marlow-
And there it was! For a fleeting moment, Hodge had seen the face of Marlow appear out of midair. Right before his eyes, close enough to touch, then, in a second, gone. In a panic, Hodge screamed and leaped over his desk, toppling his lamp in the process, in the hopes of finding an impish Marlow crouched behind his desk; he found nothing. Hodge got to his feet, feeling both foolish and fearful, but was struck by a number of the papers. Pulling them from his face, Hodge stared at his old movie reviews, and, in a flash, the identity of Troy Marlow came to Hodge.
For perhaps the first time in the history of the office, the Finnish-made oscillating fan was shut off, allowing the many papers to careen down to the floor, dead in their stillness. Hodge dropped to all fours, scurrying around in search of what he had just seen. After checking nearly every critique, he found the paper that had, moments before, flashed before his eyes. Hodge’s condemnation of a 1980’s neo-noir film, a film nearly universally praised for its artsy flavor, a review that contained both the negative text, and a picture of the film’s debonair antagonist lazily smoking a cigarette on a rainy, dismal street corner.
A short five minutes later found Hodge sitting in the back of a speeding taxi, exhilarated and terrified for the impending confrontation. Hodge had taken a lot of flak for his admonishing review of what was declared by some as the “greatest film of the decade”, although he was adamant in his opinion. Despite this, Hodge had never expected the film’s main character to emerge from the silver screen, and Marlow was the character. The actor playing Marlow (who had received a plethora of awards for his performance) had died in a well-publicized motorcycle accident ten years back, and, besides, Marlow appeared not a day older than he was in the photograph. Marlow, the character known more for his calculated acts of criminality, violence, and vengeance than for his ability to forgive and forget. Yes, Hodge thought to himself, this entity was something beyond the realm of special effects, of CGI, of green screens. This was movie magic at its worst.
Hodge hopped out of the taxi; he had arrived at the theater. Standing across the street from the McClellan’s sparkling, golden doors, all appeared fine. The rain was still pouring incessantly around him, and the street was nearly empty, although all was still. Then-
The doors to the theater flew open with a bang, and a crowd began to pour out.
“Fire!” yelled a seventy-year old man at the front of the pack, waving his cane at Hodge as he sprinted out, “Fire! Call for help!”
The crowd was growing larger and larger, and the elderly (it was a Friday night) massed on the side of the street where Hodge stood, transfixed. The theater began to feature flames leaping out of the roof and windows and, in a matter of minutes, the entire theater was ablaze in an inferno that stretched from street level to sky (although somehow affected none of the neighboring buildings). The rain, which was falling harder than ever, appeared to feed the fire more than fight it.
After the ordeal was over, it would come to light that a massive arson insurance policy had been taken out on the McClellan the same day of the fire. The bank that had insured the McClellan was later criticized for overvaluing the structure by nearly one hundred thousand dollars. The bank, however, cited the impeccable condition of the building as the basis for their liability estimate. The bank’s payment, which was put on hold for nearly a year in order for a lengthy investigation to be conducted (with Clarence Hodge as the primary suspect), was eventually sent to an untraceable offshore account. And Clarence Hodge, smalltime film critic for the city daily and Executive Director of the McClellan Community Theater, resigned from both of his posts in disgrace.
For the moment, however, Hodge was not thinking of his future, or much of anything. He could do nothing but watch in shock and despair as flames devoured the old structure, watch from a crowd of similarly awestruck seniors, a club that he would soon be joining.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hodge saw movement down the street. He turned and looked. A man stood on the street corner, the streetlight illuminating his gray suit and fedora through the rain. Although Hodge could not see the figure’s face, he knew just who he was. The man removed a burning cigarette from his mouth and tossed it in the street, jauntily rubbing out the butt with the heel of his shoe. And then, with a gaze toward the theater, at his fiery handiwork, the man gave one look at Hodge, inclined his head ever so slightly, turned on his heel, and vanished. The end.