Scenes from Mantis…sort of

Redford in The Sting

The Sting was on the other night and I felt like I was catching glimpses of scenes from Mantis. What a gorgeous set—the dark alleys and walk-ups, the milk bars, the steam trains, the El. It’s Depression-era Chicago (1936) but it would work just as well for Manhattan 1940… even with the elevated train, which ran through the Lower East Side, where Lucas makes his home soon after travelling back in time.

And sure, no doubt I had The Sting lurking in the back of my mind while writing Mantis. When I was about nine, the local cinema was rerunning the film and my parents took me to it. The plot totally bamboozled me. I didn’t understand the whole con thing—good guys who were also bad guys pretending to be good guys trying to take down worse guys. I kept elbowing my mom and asking her what the hell was going on. But still, I loved the movie, mostly because of Redford. For a couple of years afterward I kept asking barbers to cut my hair just like his. Never quite got the look I wanted. And hey, I’d still give the cut a shot if my hair would cooperate.

If you’d like a peek at what Mantis will look like when it hits the big screen (fingers crossed!) check out these short clips and stills from The Sting.

There’s a scene in Mantis where Lucas and his partner Olivia meet in a milk bar just like one:

Depression-era milk bar

Depression-era milk bar

No cell phones! It’s over rotary phones in booths like these where Lucas exchanges crucial information.

1930s phone booth

1930s phone booth

Love these hump-shaped cars. Makes for a slower chase scene, but no less dramatic.

1930s car

1930s car

The skunk that led me to the Casbah

Why I set part of Mantis in the mysterious and exotic Casbah of Algiers has a lot to do with a little cartoon skunk. His name was Pepe Le Pew and he was one of my favorite Looney Tunes characters. As a kid, I loved watching Pepe—a hopeless romantic with a suave Parisian accent—hit up every female black cat he saw who happened to have a white stripe on her back. The cats would always run from his stench and Pepe would saunter after them through the streets of Paris. In his narcissictic mind, the misfortunately colored cats were flirting with him.

One episode that I particularly loved was a 1954 episode called “The Cat’s Bah”. Pepe, now living in the Casbah, spots a cat visiting from America and immediately dashes off to make his move. The chase that follows takes us through the Casbah with its twisted alleys, narrow archways and Arabian marketplaces. This labyrinthine city fascinated me and I would tune in every Saturday, desperate for a rerun of that episode.

As I grew up, Pepe’s Casbah would linger in the back of my mind as a place of mystery and romance. And so, when I came to plotting out the various settings in Mantis, I chose the Casbah for the finale.

For my visual research I would go a little further than Looney Tunes and turn to the few major films that have been made of the Casbah—The Battle of Algiers (1966), Casbah (a 1948 musical film), Algiers (1938) and Pepe Le Moko (1937, French).

The Battle of Algiers is a critically acclaimed political film, while the other three are variations on the same story about a jewel thief. Casbah, the most recent, is a campy, musical remake of Algiers, which is a great film and near replica of the French precedent, an even greater film. The hero of all three movies is the thief, Pepe Le Moko, from whom Pepe Le Pew gets his name. If you check out the short episode of “The Cat’s Bah”, you’ll spot a reference to Le Moko.

I was eager to see the three films because they include actual footage of the Casbah.  Algiers was of especial interest because it predates the Mantis storyline by only two years. Though rough in spots, Algiers would prove to be a fantastic revelation of the ancient fortress city and its motley population of Arabs and Africans, Gypsies and expats from all over the world. And among them, the pickpockets and grifters, the demimondes and snake charmers.

Hedy Lamarr in Algiers (1938)

Hedy Lamarr in Algiers (1938)


Part of the film’s appeal, of course, is the allure of the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr. Algiers, in fact, was the inspiration for Casablanca and Lamarr was originally slated for Ingrid Bergman’s role. But MGM wouldn’t release the actress to Warner Brothers, the producers of CasablancaAlgiers is now public domain. TCM plays it occasionally, but you can see the full film on YouTube. You can also see The Battle of Algiers and Pepe Le Moko in their entirety and a clip of the opening of Casbah.


Below is an excerpt from Mantis of Lucas’s arrival in the Casbah. Enjoy.

As our ship blares its siren on approach into port, the three of us stand on the prow with our hands on the gunwale. The salt air blows in our faces while we stare out at the Casbah, a white city glowing under moonlight. An imposing line of imperial buildings—wide flat facades standing on arcaded bases—hugs the shoreline. The Low City, the new city, Nick informs us. Above and beyond it, the ancient High City crawls higgledy-piggledy up a mountainside—minarets and domed cupolas of mosques reach up out of a chaos of crammed and haphazardly arrayed buildings. It is the city of my dreams, the place where Elsa and I are together. My heart jolts.

After disembarking and passing a time-consuming inspection, we make our way out of the harbor on foot, hauling our luggage up an inclined road paved with flat stones. Large civic buildings stand on our right and to our left are shops and eateries, from whose open windows flow various pleasant aromas—of spices, olives, roasted nuts—all mingling with the pungency of human sweat rising off the throngs crowding the street. Half the people are Arabs, men in jubbahs, women in burkas and hijabs, the other half are French settlers and Europeans, many rushing in and out of port. They all move with a distinct agitation, for as in Marseille, the news of Germany’s advances buzzes on their lips.

As we climb uphill through the crowd, we’re all looking out for Black Suits and dictyoptera. Nick has explained to Olivia what the Black Suits really look like and how to spot them. Every now and then I catch her looking in her periphery, her eyes filled with the fear she might actually see the giant writhing insects.

With the aid of a map drawn by Rosa, Nick leads us to a crowded plaza. On the far side looms a large archway, the entrance to the Arab quarter of the old city. We head through that and begin climbing up a winding stepped laneway between stucco dwellings with small lattice windows. Several young boys offer to carry our luggage but we shoo them away. Dozens of beggars, in rags and turbans, sitting crossed-legged, hands outstretched, plead for money, but we ignore them all, as does the rest of the foot traffic shuffling up and down. The occasional musician sweetly playing a warbling wind instrument is a pleasant treat.

Higher up, the lane narrows and flickering torches, some fixed to walls, some carried by hand, light our progress ever deeper into a dark labyrinth that becomes increasingly disordered and nonsensical. Walls jut at every odd angle, second stories are cantilevered overhead, propped up by rows of wooden poles dug into plaster, and steps seem to lead to nowhere as though designed by Escher. In darkened recesses, people lurk, smoking pipes, and whispered voices funnel, amplified, out of alleyways, joining the scattered echo of conversations all around us. Olivia startles as a monkey wearing a vest and a black-tasseled fez whips past her, a large yellow fruit in one of its forepaws.

We enter a tunnel where drainpipes, poking out of the walls, ooze a filthy liquid that swirls down channels at the sides. We all gasp and hold our breath against the overpowering stench of urine and excrement till we debouch on the other side into a public square surrounded by inns and shops and shuttered market stalls. People, mostly Arabs, are about, many standing outside doorways, talking, smoking. A group of teenagers roughhouses around a fountain in the middle. I’m struck suddenly by déjà vu. I’ve seen this place before…


Why I have to watch Miracle on 34th Street

Sometime this holiday season I am obligated to see Miracle on 34th Street for the first time. I’m too old to have a good excuse for never seeing this Christmas classic. I can only lamely point to a general apathy toward an old black-and-white about a guy who claims to be the real Santa. But I’ll probably love it. I do love many black-and-whites. Casablanca for one. And Miracle does have a 94% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again so does Juno and that didn’t do it for me. Sorry.

But back to Miracle. I have to watch it as payback for all the 1940s films I made my partner sit through during the research phase for the first book in the Mantis trilogy. It’s not that I actually forced her to watch them with me, but with tight schedules I had to appropriate dozens of our Saturday movie nights to watch films that I had DVR’d off of Turner Classic Movies. In advance of those movie nights I would scour the upcoming listings for TCM, hunting for any films shot in the late ’30s or early ’40s, especially if it was set in any of the cities featured in Mantis—Manhattan, Lisbon, Marseille, the Casbah. I also had my eye out for a few precious movies I had read about that I absolutely wanted to see. I would record whatever I could find. So I always had a slew to choose from for our Saturday nights. My lucky partner!

Many of those films were horribly boring. Sorry, babe. Still, the suffering—from my POV at least—was worth it because the films gave me stuff like fashion and idioms that are hard to get from other media. TCM would also invariably come through on my must-see list, as they did when they aired The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 semidocumentary film based on an actual 1941 FBI sting of a Nazi spy operation.

Aside from providing detail on the FBI’s counterespionage efforts and a decent glimpse of spy tradecraft at the time, the film—one of the few films ever shot on location in Manhattan during the ’40s—gives a rare tour of actual New York streets. Most films at the time, like The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) and Citizen Kane (1941), were shot entirely or almost entirely in Hollywood studios.

One of the other few on-location films actually happens to be Miracle, which uses actual footage of the 1946 Thanksgiving Day parade. That’s after the war and beyond the time period of the trilogy—I was very particular about wanting to see early-’40s and not post-war footage—but for the rare glimpse of Manhattan around that time, I will be grateful.

Of course, one old Christmas movie is hardly a fair trade for what I put my partner through. So it’s her choice of movies for quite some time.

While I set off to fulfill my Miracle obligation, you can enjoy a brief clip from The House on 92nd Street. By the way, many of the FBI agents are played by real agents. Enjoy.