Fire Down Below: Centralia

I was staring directly into the fissure — a ragged scar that ripped across the face of the asphalt and heaved up mounds of broken black rock on either side of the opening, leading off into the swaying scrub that grew alongside the road. I read the sign, photographed for posterity the warning that I was standing on top of an underground fire. This was Centralia, just about smack-dab in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania, the heart of anthracite coal mining country. Below me — I wasn’t sure exactly how deep — was the fire that brought me here and sent everyone else away, burning since 1962 and showing no interest in extinguishing itself or being extinguished by the occasional intervening hand of man.

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Casino Royale

Common knowledge holds that the character of James Bond is vastly different in the books than he is in the movies, that the literary Bond is far more ruthless, cunning, and mean — a real bastard, if you will — while Bond even as played by Sean Connery is a bit more playful and whimsical. I decided it was high time I filled in the gaps and started reading the Fleming novels, and there seemed no better place to begin than with the first one, Casino Royale. In the end, Casino Royale would prove to be a bit rough around the edges — Fleming’s Titus Andronicus, if you will — but the seeds of what would become a long-lived worldwide phenomena are there. It begins with a simple but highly interesting idea: a Russian agent, Le Chiffre, with a penchant for the good life has “borrowed” a ton of money earmarked for the Communist party in France. And then he lost it all.

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A Drink Before Dying

It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.

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China Seas

“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell

When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.

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Bottled in Bond

‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.” – Bond. James Bond.

To call James Bond a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment stand-in for author Ian Fleming is to make the hilarious presumption that there’s any veiling at all. The Bond of the novels was basically a walking, talking catalog of everything that happened to interest and delight Fleming at the time he happened to be writing that particular novel (the movie Bond, on the other hand, was modeled somewhat more closely after British director Terence Young). Whether it was a drink, a meal, or “Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos,” just about everything that fills James Bond’s universe was ported over wholesale from his creator’s life. And as anyone familiar with the books or the movies knows, alcohol occupies an important — more likely the most important — place in Bond’s life. Not to mention my own. And perhaps yours as well.

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Shanghai Gesture

If you ever want to see a scene that perfectly captures a heady air of decadence and mania without going all over the top and Caligula on you, look no further than the scene in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture that introduces us to the opulent gambling parlor operated by the enigmatic Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Centered above the main gambling floor, the shot assumes a bird’s eye view of the hall and its inhabitants as it spiral downward into the fray, where people drink, gamble, and flirt with an orgiastic glee as the delirious music swells. It’s an incredibly effective and a perfect way to sum up this oddball noir drama set in the indulgent underbelly of Shanghai just prior to World War II.

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