Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Disappearance of Agnes Lowzier

The last time I saw Agnes Lowzier, it was a misty night in L.A. She had just bargained a dowdy shamus out of a couple of Cs in exchange for some information on the whereabouts of the blonde wife of a mob boss. After performing her part of the bloodless exchange and asking the detective to wish her luck, she simply drove away into the night in her gray Plymouth, never to be seen again. Until now.

“Wish me luck,” she said, before she put her pointed toes down on the gas pedal. “I got a raw deal.”

“Your kind always does,” said the detective.

The detective was Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep. The movie has grown in stature over the years. It was initially faulted by critics for the untidiness of its labyrinthine plot, but now it is seen as a classic example of film noir, in which story takes a backseat to process, mood and atmosphere. Another way of describing the film, which is one of my favorites after all, is that it is a canvas for a collection of cold-blooded murders and beatings, some fascinating character encounters, and a constant volley of wisecracks.

And who was Agnes? Agnes Lowzier was a slender, pretty “brunette with green eyes, kind of slanted” as Marlowe describes her (Chandler had her down as Agnes Lowzelle, a blonde), who cracked wise in her every scene. The first time we see her she is pretending to be a sales clerk at Geiger’s Rare Books, a shop that Marlowe supposes is actually a front for a bookie’s joint. Marlowe comes in to check things out, and poses as a collector. After establishing that Agnes doesn’t know too much about rare editions and anyway doesn’t seem to have any in stock, thus confirming his suspicions about the place, Marlowe asks, still in character as a collector, “You do sell books, hmm?” Agnes replies, gesturing carelessly at a random row of books: “What do those look like, grapefruit?”

Marlowe returns to the bookshop and reveals himself as he sees that the back of the store is being emptied. Agnes tells him to come back “tomorrow” if he wants to see Geiger. “Early, then?,” Marlowe asks with a note of sarcasm, letting her know that he knows the place will be empty tomorrow. “Yes, early,” she snarls, disgustedly acknowledging Marlowe’s cleverness.

Critic David Thomson calls what transpires between Marlowe and Agnes as a kind of “nagging marriage” – providing the film with one of its funniest subtexts. Marlowe sees Agnes’ shoes behind a curtain leading to another room in the apartment of a grasping, small-time hood named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). “Why don’t you ask your friend with the pointed toes to come out of there – she must get awful tired of holding her breath.” He calls her “Sugar” over and over again, because he knows it annoys her.
By the time Marlowe has disrupted Brody’s attempt to blackmail the Sternwoods and has generally humiliated everyone involved, Agnes almost seems willing to trade sides, registering her impatience with Brody’s incompetence. “Hm!,” she grunts. “What’s the matter, Sugar?,” Marlowe asks. Agnes replies: “He gives me a pain in my –“ and she is interrupted by Brody. “Where does he give you a pain?” Marlowe asks. “Right in my –“ and again, Agnes is interrupted by Brody. “That’s what I always draw,” Agnes says, “Never once a man who’s smart all the way around the course. Never once.” Referring to an earlier moment when he wrestled a gun away from her, Marlowe asks Agnes, who is rubbing her wrist, “Did I hurt you much, Sugar?” “You and every other man I’ve ever met,” she says.

Brody is killed by Geiger’s bodyguard a few seconds later, and Marlowe is on to other things, but Agnes comes back into the story when one of Brody’s associates, a dour little man named Harry Jones (Elisha Cook, Jr.), comes to Marlowe with a proposition. “So Agnes is on the loose again,” Marlowe cracks. “She’s a nice girl,” Jones says, “we’re thinking of getting married.” “She’s too big for you,” Marlowe says, but then thinks better of the remark and apologizes. He’s still wary of the way she insinuates herself into the schemes of one small-time grafter after another, hoping to make a quick buck, and when Mr. Jones suggests he’d be willing to stand up to a police grilling for Agnes’ sake, the still skeptical Marlowe remarks that “Agnes must have something I didn’t notice.”

Witnessing Harry’s murder at the hands of a mob brute named Canino (Bob Steele) while protecting Agnes’ whereabouts is Marlowe’s last straw where Agnes is concerned. “Your little man died to keep you out of trouble,” he tells her over the phone. He squints contemptuously and says, “I got your money for you. Do you want it?” When Marlowe meets her near the corner of Rampart and Oakland to give her the two Cs, she asks him, “What happened to Harry?” “There’s no use going into that – you don’t really care anyway. Just put it down your little man deserved something better.” At the moment that Marlowe seems to hate her the most, Agnes has never looked lovelier.

There are a small bevy of both credited and uncredited actresses who make splendid little impressions in the movie, but Thomson and numerous others single out the work of Sonia Darrin as Agnes. Thomson writes:

There is Agnes Lozelle [sic], in Geiger’s shop, dumb on books but hip with grapefruit, and later the dreamgirl for Joe Brody and Harry Jones, both of whom (if you’ll pardon the remark) are too small for her. Indeed, Marlowe has sized her up and knows how to whip her with words – he understands the b*tch, and she looks at him with the bruised gratitude of someone who knows she’s been understood. What ever happened to Sonia Darrin, who played Agnes?

Darrin is officially uncredited in her role. As Hawks’ biographer, Todd McCarthy, tells the story, Darrin was originally a contender to appear in the film as Carmen Sternwood, the nymphomaniacal sister of Lauren Bacall’s character, Mrs. Rutledge. Ultimately, however, the mercurial Hawks settled on a former model, Martha Vickers, for the Carmen role, relegating Darrin to the supposedly smaller role of Agnes. Although Carmen is pivotal within the film, some of Vickers’ work ended up on the cutting room floor due to censorship concerns and other reconfiguring. As a result, perhaps, Agnes becomes a much more memorable character, especially as she is played by Darrin.

Roger Ebert writes:

One of the best-known of all Hollywood anecdotes involves the movie's confusing plot, based on the equally confusing novel by Raymond Chandler. Lauren Bacall recalls in her autobiography, “One day Bogie came on the set and said to Howard, ‘Who pushed [Owen] Taylor off the pier?’ Everything stopped.” As A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax write in Bogart, “Hawks sent Chandler a telegram asking whether the Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor, was murdered or a suicide. ‘Dammit I didn't know either,’” Chandler recalled.

It is refreshingly consistent with the on-screen persona of Agnes that, as told by McCarthy, Sonia Darrin also had a wry sense of humor:

A sarcastic young woman herself, Darrin was on the set when it was asked who killed Owen Taylor, and she burst out, “It must have been Hawks.”

Thomson’s curiosity about Darrin is echoed by other fans of The Big Sleep. On the IMDB message board for Sonia Darrin, for example, one fan writes: “This is one of the big Hollywood mysteries, considering the importance of The Big Sleep. Note also that she did not receive any credit in the movie, despite the fact that her role was infinitely more important than e.g. Dorothy Malone's, and despite the fact that only Bogart and Bacall (I think) got more screen time than her!! Something really smells here...” Others chime in with similar sentiments, and there are other websites that raise the same question: what happened to Sonia Darrin?

The annals of film history – carelessly curated by the Hollywood studios and pressed piecemeal into tawdry scrapbooks by adoring fans like me – have left us few clues to the identity of Sonia Darrin. She appeared in minor roles in a few more films, but after 1950, she is gone. For awhile one of the only clues was a reference I found to her being involved as a “guest artist” at the Los Angeles Labor Zionists' 4th annual Bikkurim Festival in Griffith Park, held June 10, 1945, in support of a free and democratic Jewish state in Palestine. Other guest artists at the event included Bette Davis, Ernst Deutsch and Joseph Szigeti. I dutifully entered the reference into the Internet Movie Database, hoping that some other Sunday researcher would be able to make something out of it. They never did. Another clue came up in a bit of syndicated gossip from the summer of 1946, in which it was reported that Sonia Darrin, “Warner fledgling,” was seen in the company of press agent Arthur Pine and was “coming East to see him soon.”

I could write my own Big Sleep about how I found Sonia Darrin, but it lacks mood and atmosphere. There’s no misty L.A. in it. There are no unsolved murders and no bookies; I don’t get beat up in it; and frankly, I don’t look so hot in a fedora.

Rock critic Gail Worley writes in her blog in 2007:

If you were, say, over age ten in the early to mid '70s and living in the United States, you will remember [Mason Reese] as the adorably precocious 7 year old spokesperson for Underwood Deviled Ham in the commercial that swept the nation by storm and had everyone mispronouncing the word ‘Smorgasbord.’

Our scene switches from “EXT. MISTY LOS ANGELES STREET - NIGHT” to “INT. ON THE SET OF A DAYTIME TALK SHOW. It is Halloween, October 31, 1973. Mason Reese, a red-headed 3’-8” gnome who talks like he’s a 32-year old trapped in a little boy’s body – using big words and the attitude of a seasoned commentator – is co-hosting for the fourth time with the reigning king of daytime variety/talk, Mike Douglas. Today’s guests are Leonard Nimoy, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, game expert John Scarne, and the beatnik poet/gadfly Tuli Kupferberg and his partner in pop/countercultural crime, Sylvia Topp. Before the week is over, Mason will have the opportunity to quiz the likes of Art Buchwald, Ralph Nader and Theodore H. White, author of The Making of the President 1972.

Mason Reese became a bit of a TV phenomenon in the early to mid-1970s, doing commercials not only for Underwood Deviled Ham (through which “Borgasmord” became a household word), but for Dunkin’ Donuts, Ralston Purina, Ivory Snow, Birdseye Frozen French Fries and Thick and Frosty, winning seven Clio awards for his work. Mike Douglas took him on, first as a one-time guest, and later as a temporary co-host, finding his appeal irresistible. He became a children’s reporter for WNBC-TV, worked on a prime-time show with Howard Cosell, and even did a pilot for his own TV series.

Also on hand for some of the Mike Douglas appearances was Mason’s mother, Sonia (see photo below). As Mason writes in his “autobiography,” published at the height of his fame in 1974:

Mommy has red hair, too. When she was a little girl, she lived in Hollywood and became a beautiful actress. She doesn’t act any more, but she’s still beautiful.

Somewhere along the line, Sonia Darrin left Hollywood and did, in fact, go East, meeting and marrying Bill Reese, a one-time theater set designer who eventually ran his own marketing services company, specializing in 3-D design work. She and Bill raised at least 4 children in a stylish place on West End Avenue in Manhattan – Mason, the youngest; daughter Suky; and two older sons, Lanny and Mark.
Mason’s fame faded as he grew older, and eventually he and his family settled into a less visible existence. Mason eventually went into the restaurant business, owning and co-owning a number of places around lower Manhattan, including Nowbar on Seventh Avenue South, Mason’s on Amsterdam Avenue, and Paladar on Ludlow Street.
Hollywood bad-boy director Brett Ratner briefly brought both Mason and Sonia out of retirement in 1990. When Ratner was a film student at NYU, he had a chance meeting with the instantly recognizable Mason Reese on the street. This led to the creation of a bizarre 12-minute film Ratner made as a student project, Whatever Happened to Mason Reese (1990) in which Reese appears as an ex-child star who hangs around with models in limousines and eventually gets gored by a fan whom Reese has humiliated. Reese hurt his leg during the filming, got into some kind of fight with Ratner, and allegedly threatened to tie up the film in litigation; Reese’s voice was later dubbed in by Anthony Michael Hall when the film was finally finished, apparently with dollars begged from Steven Spielberg. It can now be seen as an “extra” on the DVD of Ratner’s hit Hollywood movie, Rush Hour. And Sonia Darrin even got a film credit out of it – “Thanks … Sonia Reese.”

While all of that gives us an inkling of what Sonia Darrin has been up to since
The Big Sleep, we’re still left to wonder – where did she come from?
“EXT. – A SAN DIEGO BEACH – THE 1930s.” Sonia Paskowitz sits in the sand and watches as her eldest brother Dorian, a lifeguard, looking like Charles Atlas, chats up a few adoring female sunbathers. “You know, the girls would be drowning,” says Sonia. “They wanted to be rescued by him.”
Louis and Rose Paskowitz landed at Galveston, Texas in the early years of the 20th century, when Galveston was a common port of entry for Russian Jews. They married and had three children: two sons, Dorian and Adrian, and a daughter, Sonia. Louis opened a dry goods store, but it didn’t survive. Dorian claims that he convinced his parents to move to San Diego after seeing a postcard of some San Diego surfers. In any event, the family moved there in 1934, and Louis found work as a shoe salesman.
Dorian went to Stanford and became a doctor. Adrian studied music, and became a respected music teacher and violinist. Sonia drifted toward Hollywood, and acting.

The realization that Sonia Darrin has been hiding in plain sight all these years, even a couple of years after I managed to draw the connection between Sonia and her son Mason Reese, really hit me with the release of Doug Pray’s documentary Surfwise (2007), in which the unorthodox life of Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, his wife Juliette and their 9 children is chronicled. In it, we learn that Doc Paskowitz led his family on a relentless quest for freedom and health, moving from beach to beach in their 24-foot camper and eventually opening a surf camp in Southern California. We watch as Doc, Juliette and each of the 9 children tell us, from their own individual perspectives, about their nomadic, bohemian lifestyle, their strict “health food” diet (no fat, no sugar, no exceptions), and the requirement that each and every one of them surf, as often as possible.Also on hand, providing her outsider’s view of Dorian Paskowitz and his family, is Sonia Darrin, Dorian’s little sister. Sonia talks about her brother’s stubbornness and the harsh conditions his family sometimes suffered, and explains how she took in two of Dorian’s sons in New York when they decided to rebel against their father’s iron regime.She has red hair now – just like her son Mason wrote in his autobiography. Her green eyes light up with that sly intelligence when she smiles, and the years cannot hide that melodic quality in her voice, the one that you can hear in each line she delivered in The Big Sleep, over 60 years ago. Sonia Darrin – truly hiding in plain sight -- appearing on The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s and in a documentary film about her brother in 2007, risking detection but somehow escaping it.The word on the street is that Sonia Paskowitz Reese, better known as Sonia Darrin, is around 80 years old (which would’ve meant she was around 17 when she was making The Big Sleep) and that she is now living in New York. I’m sure she has even better stories about her life than the ones we can glean through public sources.It is kind of tempting to think of Agnes Lowzier speeding off into the desert on that misty night in L.A., meeting up with a traveling theater troupe as the clouds parted somewhere outside of Barstow, sidling up to a tall, handsome stage carpenter and eventually settling down and having a child who would be known for his expressive wisecracks … ah, but that is conflating fiction with reality -- and really, do we need to do that here? Sonia Darrin’s reality has enough twists and turns and notes of interest that there is probably no need for it.

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Blogger Jeff Duncanson said...

Just brilliant, Ron.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So th' heck was she not credited?

12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting.

9:00 PM  
Blogger CST said...

you made my day.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful work!

12:12 PM  
Blogger John B said...

Wow -

for years, I've wondered why I'd never seen her in anything else. It's not like anything else she did ever had the visibility of the Big Sleep.

Damned impressive. This is a piece of detective work worthy of Marlowe. Thank you, Ron.

11:37 AM  
Blogger John said...

I want to add my thanks. Sonia is one of a number of actors/actresses whose standout performance in a film has left me wondering why he or she was not used more.

John S.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mason and I went to elementary school together and were close friends until jr, high school sent us our separate ways. I saw Sonia daily and was very fond of her, yet never knew anything about her Hollywood past and never suspected. I'll have to watch "The Big Sleep" again, now that I know the early part of her story.

5:38 AM  
Blogger Thamuhacha said...

Thanks for this!

I created the wikipedia page for Sonia because I was hoping someone would add some detail. Great to find out some more about her.

Good work

6:53 AM  
Blogger Neeraj Rao said...

Wait, she was only 17 when the movie was made? That doesn't sound right. Also, she looks very different in the black-and-white photograph than she did in the movie.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Video of her from 1974

Fast forward to 4:05 mark.

3:06 AM  
Blogger 65drummer said...

Excellent research

8:28 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Really helpful research. Sonia speaks!

11:13 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Hugely helpful research. Sonia speaks!

11:14 AM  

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