Sometimes, I feel like I was born in the wrong era. There was something about the 1940s and 50s that came across as appealing: the snappy clothes, white-walled tires, fast-talking dames, being a gumshoe seemed like a worthwhile profession, dimly lit alleyways, seedy bars with unsavory characters, and the streets were perpetually enveloped in fog. It was an era where you could wear a fedora without looking like a red-pilled troglodyte. Yet this fascination is all fantasy and conjecture because of my love for film noir.
I’m not exactly sure when my love for film noir came about. I know at some point I was struck by the dynamic lighting, hard shadows, off-kilter framing, femme fatales, anti-hero protagonists, pessimistic tone, double crosses, and bleak endings. The name came from French critics (it means black film), its aesthetic was born from the German Expressionism of the 1910s and 1920s, Italian neorealism of the 1940s lent to the use of location shooting, and the hardboiled detective stories and pulp magazine tales from the late Great Depression were adapted to the screen. These films made a monumental impact on Hollywood and cinema all over the world. It continues to morph and mutate, seeping into different genres like westerns and science-fiction.
While at grad school in San Francisco I was sort of in a film noir club. It was a monthly or so screening and discussion curated by the local fan club. San Francisco has its roots deep in many of these films. The first film of its kind, The Maltese Falcon, took place in the city. You could say the city itself became a character in these stories.
What better beer style to drink watching a film noir than an imperial stout? It’s a rich black like the harsh shadows cast on screen, and the taste will seduce just as the femme fatale would.
Fancy Effing Stout: The Basics
- Brewery: River North Brewery (Denver, CO)
- Style: Imperial Stout
- ABV: 10.8%
Fancy Effing Stout: The Details
I had been sitting on this bottle for some time. The name alone would have gotten me to purchase it, but then I read that it was aged in cocktail barrels. Intriguing. I’ve had a few beers that were meant to resemble mixed drinks, but never had anything like this. Clearly, the brewery was going for the classic Manhattan with barrels previously hosting whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. The label didn’t state what kind of whiskey. I was hoping for rye since, in my own honest opinion, that’s the only whiskey that should be used in this cocktail. The spiciness of the rye is a nice counterbalance to the sweet vermouth. Alas, I’m here to talk beer.
This beer is pitch black with a bubbly, light brown head. The head had some life to it before gradually fading away, while the remainder clung to the sides of the glass after each sip. Fancy Effing Stout has a boozy nose, but you can notice some other things going on. The dark chocolate and coffee notes from the roasted malts were a given. The smell of what kind of whiskey used was hard to determine. It had a generic whiskey smell. Not sweet like some bourbons, but also lacked any spiciness of a rye. I also got some dark cherry notes to go along with a vinous vermouth scent.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the complex taste of this beer. It’s full on dark chocolate with some coconut and vanilla from the whiskey and barrel aging. After that is when things get interesting. The sides of my tongue detected a fruitiness that was hard to decipher. One sip it had some cherry qualities, but then the next it had a hint of wine characteristics. On the aftertaste, you are hit with the herbal notes of the bitters. This is much different from the bitter, herbal notes of an IPA, and is much more akin to drinking Campari or Fernet-Branca straight. It’s an acquired taste.
The creaminess of the beer hides the heat from the alcohol very well, although I could feel the sensation of tiny bubbles at the back of my throat. While it is fruity, there is no sense of sweetness, making for a dry finish. After numerous sips, I noticed a charcoal taste and a lingering, gritty feeling on my tongue.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Director: Billy Wilder
- Genre: Drama
- Total Running Time: 1hr 50mins
- Rating: Passed per the Hays Code (pre-MPAA)
- Availability: Netflix
I found it odd that for all the times this movie was referenced in film classes, or how much I read about it I wasn’t positive that I had actually sat down and watched it. Sunset Boulevard isn’t like your typical film noir. There’s no private detective or some mystery driving the story to be solved, and it doesn’t take place on the grungy city streets at night. There isn’t even a double cross. The film takes place in sunny Hollywood and features characters that have been used and discarded by the industry. Sunset Boulevard is a testament to film noir’s malleability.
You’ll have to thank this film if you’ve seen American Beauty or Archer as the film opens with a dead body floating in a pool with narration. The narrator casually tells us that is him we see. It’s the journey of this story that’s important, not the destination.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) is a cynical screenwriter on his last legs, and those legs have been worn down to stubs. He’s behind on his rent and the repo men are after his car. Through a series of events, he finds himself at the mansion of the eccentric Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star in her fifties. She finds out that Joe is a writer and talks him into doctoring the horrible script she wrote for her big return. Norma promises to reward him handsomely.
Joe soon finds himself as a kept man. He’s moved into one of the luxurious bedrooms in the mansion, where he finds it odd that there are no locks on any of the doors, but Norma showers Joe with spending money, expensive gifts, and custom-made suits. The more time Joe spends in the mansion the more he realizes how detached Norma is from reality. Yet she uses her mental health issues to keep him tethered to her.
Norma’s servant, her first husband and a former director, has become her enabler by creating an imaginary world where she still matters in Hollywood. He has done this to keep her depression and suicidal tendencies at bay. At one point, Norma slits her wrists after Joe abandons her on New Year’s Eve. It’s a hard scene to read. It plays into what we’ve learned about the character, but she also uses the incident to manipulate Joe into sleeping with her.
A good opportunity strikes for Joe’s when his friend’s fiancé, Betty, a studio script reader, contacts him about reworking one of his old scripts. The idea of working on something fulfilling drives Joe to sneak off at night to meet up with Betty. The two eventually fall in love. All the while, Norma is under the assumption that Paramount and legendary director Cecil B. DeMille are interested in her script.
Jealousy grips tight onto Norma when she finds a draft of Joe and Betty’s script. She is able to track down Betty via phone to inform her what kind of man Joe really is, but Joe intervenes and does the dirty work for her. After breaking Betty’s heart Joe realizes there’s nothing left for him in Hollywood. He decides to give up on his dreams, and head back to Ohio.
Norma pleads with him to stay, and even the threat of self-harm with the gun she just purchased doesn’t dissuade him. You can probably put two and two together here.
The next morning the cops and press swarm to the mansion. With her sanity shattered, Norma descends down the regal staircase as if she’s back on set for her triumph comeback. Delusional, she utters the iconic line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Fancy Effing Stout is one of the better examples I’ve had integrating the traits of a cocktail into beer. There were definitely elements of a Manhattan that I detected. As a cohesive unit? I’m not too sure. The dark cherry notes, while not maraschino cherries, were nice and unexpected. It was one of the elements of a Manhattan that seemed to be missing in the description on the label. The bitter, herbal aftertaste still throws me off. It was way too potent. If that could have been dialed down this stout probably would have gotten closer to resembling the classic cocktail.
Considering the one major gripe I have, this is an interesting beer. Fancy Effing Stout is a rare beer to find. This year’s vintage was released back in May, and it might be some time before another vintage hits the market. According to River North’s website, the cocktail barrels they use are becoming harder and harder to get a hold of. The vintage I found was from the previous year. This is a beer I’d be interested in comparing a new release to one that’s been aging for a couple of years.
Sunset Boulevard is not just a classic film, but it’s also a cautionary Hollywood tale. The minds behind the camera had previous experience in film noir and it shows. Director Billy Wilder helmed Double Indemnity, another film noir classic. His frequent cinematographer, John F. Seitz, was known for his innovative lighting that enhanced the film noir style. The duo was able to integrate the sunshine of Los Angeles with the hard cast shadows inside Norma’s mansion creating a sense of visual tension.
Wilder and longtime collaborator Charles Brackett co-wrote the quirky script with D.M. Marshman, Jr. This time they added a fresh twist to the private eyes and the duplicitous damsels in distress. The story is filled with wry dialogue and some oddball humor. There’s a chimp’s funeral, Norma doing an impression of Charlie Chapman, and even legendary filmmaker Buster Keaton makes an appearance at Norma’s Bridge games.
The character of Norma Desmond is quite tragic, and Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of her is captivating. At first, I was little put off by Swanson’s acting. It was rather quite big. But then it dawned on me: she was a silent screen star and those actors had a tendency to be overly expressive. That tendency carried over into her real life. When the theatrical facade of Norma fades away she is quite endearing. There’s also the issue of her being a woman over a certain age in the film industry where roles are no longer offered, and that is still true today. I’m sure there is someone much more knowledgeable about mental health issues than me that can dig deeper into this complex and intriguing character.