The Hollywood film critic is a suspect in a second murder at the Cannes Film Festival. 2,903 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
There were enough security guards to stock an island dictatorship. Instead of colorful uniforms with feathered hats, gaudy medals and polished swords, they wore Armani tuxedos. The crack unit stood at attention in front of the mansion gate for the Cannes Film Festival’s elegant party. Despite their disciplined pose, their eyes were riveted on Ryan’s model girlfriend Delisha.
Within seconds, an attendant pulled up with a gleaming Aston Martin V12 bestowed on Ryan for the long drive back to town and belonging to one of the movie producer-distributors. At least half the valet parkers rushed to help Delisha into the passenger side. She slid into the classic vehicle. “Allons y,” Delisha called out, bestowing a celebratory wave.
Ryan idled the car as the iron gates snapped open with crisp precision, spreading their steel in a deferential backward swoop, like an old-fashioned servant. Only then did Ryan punch the pedal and sail through the estate’s stone entrance.
Delisha clasped his hand. “Home, James.”
“Bond, James Bond,” Ryan called out in his best 007 accent.
Delisha giggled and planted a quick kiss on his neck. For the moment, Ryan felt like the glamorous super-agent. The trouble was: he didn’t really know how to work a shift. Maybe, if it was all downhill, they could continue in this gear.
“You’re grinding. You’ve got to let it out,” Delisha said.
“I haven’t driven a manual since high school.”
Delisha grabbed the gear handle. “You just steer.”
Up above, the moon darted and winked between the branches and the spring leaves of the sycamores and eucalyptus. The nocturnal fragrances mingled with the lush leather interior. With the soft night air whisking over the windshield and forming a cushion over them, Ryan adeptly navigated the road’s curves. The wine had loosened him, and he felt the May breeze. Ryan relaxed his grip on the wheel, gaining confidence, knowing that Delisha had her hand on the gear box.
Delisha down-shifted, but the car shot forward barely missing a head-on into the stone wall that lined the road. Ryan eased his foot from the accelerator. They skidded and blasted into the road’s upward loop.
“Oh, my god. You’ve got to slow down,” Delisha called out.
“I can’t! The brakes are gone!”
Ryan pulled the car a hard left, dovetailing it away from the wall. Sparks flew as it scraped against the stone. He had nicked James Bond’s perfect automobile. With its perfect calibration, the Aston Martin seemed to thrive on the crazed drive. Yet the downward incline was too steep. It felt like they were on an ice chute. Ryan whipped the wheel, left and right, left and right. Delisha double-shifted into as low a gear as the engine would allow.
Ryan needed an opening. He swerved left and spotted what looked like a clearing. Behind it – only the moon, the stars and black emptiness. The Aston Martin lifted up, like Thelma And Louise soaring off into the Grand Canyon. The impact jolted Ryan. A pain shot up from his knees. Then, a bounce, thud, bounce – the vehicle had landed.
“We’re going to be alive. We’re going to be alive!” Delisha shouted.
They were indeed alive, spinning in a soft country field. Everything looked like big soft blankets. No, not blankets. Sheep. The animals scampered back and began to bleat.
Delisha planted a big kiss on Ryan’s forehead. “That was fun. Can we do it again?”
Ryan circled the car. Scrapes on the left rear side and the back-end drooped. “I can’t believe I did this. I’m screwing up this entire festival,” he moaned. Ryan dreaded having to explain to Hands-On film company co-owner Nick Steele what had happened to the car. This was going to be crazy. Word would get out, and Ryan knew it wouldn’t help him with the French police who had just released him as a murder suspect.
Hitchiking back to town, Ryan and Delisha could see the haunches of Cannes and detect the whiffs of sea sneaking in over the beach.
“Monsieur, Monsieur.” Just then a truck ambled by and the driver’s voice rang out. Ryan stood up to see the man stopping and gesturing to him and jumping out of the truck.
He then pulled out a knife. He flashed it at Ryan, sneered and moved in closer.
“I’m a film critic. I’m a film critic,” Ryan blurted.
The man said something but Ryan didn’t recognize the language. The man lunged. Ryan sidestepped, and in a split-second, latched onto the truck driver’s arm, twisted and dislodged the knife. The man screamed out. He tried to get up but that was when Delisha tore into him, pummeling him with her fists and kicking him in the balls. The man shrieked and fell backwards.
“He was going to kill you!“ Delisha cried out.
“We should call someone,” Ryan said. “The police.”
“No way! The police already have you on their radar,” Delisha said. “Someone wants you killed, sweetie, and the police here are not your friend.” She squeezed his hand.
Ryan was mystified. Was the truck driver trying to kill Ryan or kill Nick who owned the Aston Martin? First the car’s brakes, then a knife wielder. There were too many questions and Ryan needed a better spirit if he was going to survive. He had to take charge of his emotions, show some swagger. Ryan decided to stop off at Nick’s yacht on the way back to the hotel and explain what had happened to the James Bond car. It was one thing after another, and he gasped for breath. He stopped and tried to compose himself. Deep breaths. Four seconds in, one-second pause, four seconds out.
He couldn’t put it off any longer. He had to solve what was happening to him before he was actually killed or arrested again for murder. He thought of The Fugitive and Harrison Ford who had to escape not only Tommy Lee Jones, the U.S. Marshall, but also figure out who really killed his wife. But Ryan wasn’t an action star, not a spy, not a terrorist, not a criminal.
Despite the danger, and the craziness, he felt invigorated. Endorphins were soaring. For the first time in way too long, Ryan felt really alive. Was he in some sort of altered state or had he just realized that real life could be as good as the movies, even the dangerous part. Better than the movies, actually. That was a new thought to overanalyze later.
Though someone was still after him, Ryan wasn’t going to star as somebody’s fall guy and rot in a French prison. Again, he flashed to movies – Dustin Hoffman on that terrible French prison island. Ryan couldn’t even think of the name. And he never forgot film facts.
Ryan said good night to an exhausted Delisha in front of their hotel. The city’s service workers were hurrying to their posts to change the beds, serve the coffee, sweep the floors and perform their duties during the busy festival period. No one would write a review about what they had done. Nobody would be impressed enough with their daily contribution to option their next project. Their pictures wouldn’t be on any websites listing their accomplishments. Nor would there be any self-congratulatory awards show. To the film festival participants’ way of thinking, these workers were just the “extras” in life.
Ryan headed toward the harbor. The city’s sidewalks were sprayed and slick at the early hour. Ryan faced the luxury yachts in the Old Port on this Riviera sunrise. No one was around so he vaulted over the little gate and crossed onto the deck, his black party shoes squeaking.
No sounds from below, only the sloshing of the waves. He glanced around and saw a security camera. He gave it a jaunty salute. Ryan circled across the back of the deck and spotted Nick who was straddled against the pole in the center, his head slumped backwards, his eyes open and glassy. His right hand jutted out at a 45-degree angle, and a syringe curdled between his forefinger and thumb. He was stiff as a surfboard. The sleeves on his silk shirt were rolled up and his cuff links, with their gold Hands-On logo, were lying at his side. Nothing else around him, not even a wine glass. It was like Nick had just come out on the deck to shoot up and then overdosed, alone.
Ryan’s heart raced. This was the second suspicious death at the Cannes Film Festival to point at him. What had he stepped into? He should call the police. Absolutely not. No telling how they’d twist this one. One thing he knew: he couldn’t stand over a dead body.
Still, he had to alert someone. He touched on his Galaxy and speed-dialed his publicist pal. “Dennis Barlowe, pick up… Damn. Dennis, I need you to call the police. Nick Steele’s dead on his yacht, and I can’t call them because they’ll think I did it. It looks like drugs. Call me when you get this.”
“You look like you’ve been through a war,” Hollywood New Times reporter Stan Peck bellowed as Ryan hurried past him in the hotel lobby. Peck was spread out at the table nearest the elevator, pawing at the trade papers. “You and your underwear model must have had some night.”
Ryan knew better than to answer that. A hotel attendant wheeled out a cart filled with cheeses, slices of ham, strawberries, pitchers of freshly squeezed grapefruit and orange juice. Ryan grabbed a handful of breakfast from the cart. His hands shook.
“You really ought to chill out,” Peck said. “Have you been drinking too much?”
“If I had, I wouldn’t be standing.”
Peck rubbed his hands together gleefully. “No one, not Variety or The Reporter, came close to getting my story. Everyone will be talking about it all over the Croisette today.”
“Way to go,” Ryan said half-listening.
“I’ve got it exclusively that there’s more bidding on The Ice Princess than any other film in the history of the festival.” Peck exulted. “The Ice Princess could be the biggest European film ever. And I found out they’re not locked into releasing it online. They think it could be bigger and appeal to real people no matter what elitist film critics think of the movie.”
Ryan knew better than to take the bait of the film critic jab or, worse, question the sources. Instead, Ryan fled into the elevator and thought about Nick. What had happened? Nick had said he had an important meeting last night. Maybe it had gone well and he’d celebrated with a shot of smack. Ryan knew from watching too many detective movies that from his stiffness Nick had been dead at least five or six hours.
Ryan approached his room and slid the entry card into the door slot. It clicked and he entered. Delisha was perched on the bed, wearing scarlet lacy panties and a matching bra.
“I’ve got something important to show you,” she said.
“After I shower.”
“No, it’s really important,” she argued. And then she thrust a piece of paper at him.
Dear Everyone, I have decided to do this because I just can’t undergo the psychological torture anymore, nor will I be able to endure the shame of a trial and certainly not French prison. Please have my body shipped back to the United States and buried. Also, please donate $5,000 to Southern California University’s film school for a scholarship in my name.
It was signed "Ryan Hackbert" and dated yesterday.
Ryan read it again. Whoever wrote this suicide note certainly got his slanted handwriting down pat, but they had screwed up USC. It was the University of Southern California, not Southern California University. Ryan reasoned that a foreigner had written the note.
He grabbed a clean pair of jeans out of a suitcase and squeezed into his black Terminator 2 t-shirt and handed the note back to Delisha.
“Someone really is trying to frame me. Whoever killed Ingrid Bjorge is still trying to pin it on me. They’re making it look like I wrote this suicide note.”
“You’ve got to show this to the police.”
“There’s more. I just found Nick Steele. He was dead.”
“Propped up on his yacht. A syringe in his hand.”
A loud rap jolted the door. “Later. Come back, later,” Ryan said.
The knock erupted again. “Later, after mid-demi.”
“Monsieur Hackbart. Open up! We are the police.”
Before Ryan or Delisha could move, the door burst open and two uniformed cops pushed their way into the room. Both were tall with longish blond hair. They were considerably more buff than the puny guys who had arrested Ryan at the Palais. They brandished nightsticks.
“Monsieur Hackbart, you are under the arrest for murder.”
“Murder? I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Monsieur Nick Steele has been killed. You must come with us immediately.”
“But I haven’t killed anyone. In fact, someone is trying to kill me. Look at this!”
Ryan showed the suicide note to them. The lead officer read it quickly, then he placed it in his pocket.
“Hey, that’s mine,” Ryan said.
“Monsieur Hackbart, your suicide note is now evidence.”
“But it’s not my note. I didn’t write it. Some foreigner did, calling it Southern California University.”
“I do not understand,” the cop said.
“Exactly. Foreigners wouldn’t. Someone killed Nick, and made it look like me.”
“We received a cell phone picture of you standing over Mr. Steele.”
“Yes, I was there and I found him dead,” Ryan said. “I didn’t kill him.”
“That is a very creative story, Monsieur Hackbert."
“Not creative at all. The same thing happened to Cary Grant at the United Nations in North By Northwest when they snapped a picture of him with a knife over a dead body.”
“You’re under arrest.”
But just as the cops grabbed Ryan and a pair of handcuffs, Delisha burst forward, knocking the cuffs out of their hands.
Then she kicked the lead officer in the face and yelled to Ryan, “Come on.” The couple dashed from the room and sprinted down the hallway. They bolted down the stairs in the dark, burst into the lobby and plowed through a group of hotel maids.
As the couple sprinted out of the entranceway, Ryan yelled to Delisha, "Now you’re in trouble for assaulting those cops."
“They weren’t cops,” Delisha barked.
For once, Ryan was glad to see his elbow-patched, chain-smoking, opinion-spouting peers and submerged himself in the pack. He pulled out his Carte Blanc I.D. card and bounded up the Red Carpet.
A blaring whistle staggered Ryan. The two "gendarmes" who had been chasing him were at the bottom of the stairs, no more than 25 yards away. Ryan elbowed his way to the front of the critics and rushed through the glass doors. The auditorium overflowed with more than 300 journalists. Directly in front of the raised podium, swarms of TV cameramen jostled for position. Ryan knew he would be a sitting duck. So he walked to the podium and stood.
The cameras in the front row suddenly pointed straight at him. He felt like he was their prey. All around, the world’s leading entertainment journalists settled down, pulling out their pens and tablets and laptops. They hunched forward, ready for his words. He cleared his throat and picked up the microphone. He pretended to inspect it, buying time. He fussed as long as he could.
He glanced toward the back of the auditorium. The two "cops" had entered. Ryan tried to appear calm behind the podium. But he’d have to start soon. But start what? An announcement about a new film? Something about the Portuguese New Wave? A Roman Polanski or Catherine Deneuve tribute? A lecture on vampires in the old German cinema? Ryan tapped the microphone.
“It’s hard not to praise the work of the great French director François Truffaut too greatly,” he said. “There has, perhaps, never been a greater man in the cinema than Truffaut. It is especially true in this day and age of the big corporations ruling the cinema, We are under the oppressive forces of the American conglomerates, forcing their hamburger tastes and tentpole movies on the entire world.”
To Ryan’s amazement, everyone began to take notes. Ryan had figured that, if stuck in front of a whole room full of journalists at the Cannes Film Festival, the one subject he could safely pacify them with would be a discussion on François Truffaut, now the patron saint of contemporary French culture, such as it was. And the anti-American B.S. wouldn’t hurt.
“In this awful cultural age, movies are made not for the love of the cinema but as a product tie-in with a fast food chain. Yet, it is not only the corporations that are to blame. We are not without guilt. Our entertainment coverage today, with its emphasis on box office, contributes to bad film making.”
Ryan’s enunciation was crisp and clear, free of nervous jitters. He gathered momentum. “Film is not about charts. It is not about rankings or numbers. By our emphasis on money in our media coverage, we only encourage filmmakers and movie studios to chase these false gods.”
Every beard, goatee and beret in the room smiled and nodded.
Ryan glanced to the back of the room. He noticed the two "cops" quickly making their way to the exit as real gendarmes surveyed the area. Once again, he’d be dragged through a gaping crowd of his peers by nasty French police. Ryan headed up the far aisle toward the exit. He walked as evenly as possible, not to draw any attention. Only a half dozen rows from the door, he heard a familiar voice.
Ryan froze. Then he recognized the man in the police uniform as the PR representative from the Cannes Police Department, Lt. Savin, who stuck his hand out.
“That was a positively inspirational talk. I, too, am a big fan of the cinema, the old classic movies, and I couldn’t agree with you more," Lt. Savin said. “I work with the police but am a big fan of your movie critiques.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said.
“Are you speaking at any other festival events?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes I sort of stumble into things at the last minute.”
Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Five.
This story first posted on May 9, 2017.