Thursday, July 20, 2017

FFB: The Money Trap by Lionel White

Lionel White is known for his heist novels in which tough, confident criminals make intricate plans, hire the guys they need to pull off the caper, and then ruthlessly execute the plan, only to have their heads handed to them.

Unlike White’s famous book, The Killing, his 1963 novel, The Money Trap, does not follow a criminal gang but two New York City police detectives. The book is also unusual because their plans are not thought out in precise detail.

Detective Joe Baron and his friend and partner, Detective Pete Delanos, are assigned a simple case of attempted robbery of a doctor’s office which ended in the death of a junkie burglar at the hands of the medical man who came home early and shot him.

But before he kicks off, the junkie tells Pete the doc is dirty, is selling drugs, and has about a million bucks in cash in his safe. He dies and Pete finds the combination to the safe in his pocket.

Pete takes his partner aside and tells him what he discovered and how easy it would be for them to break in and steal the dough.

Joe is intrigued. He is an honest cop, but he could use the cash. He is married to a young woman raised around money. She is not only used to having things, but also has a trust fund providing her with a larger annual income than Joe makes on the force. Joe resents his wife’s money. His pride will not let him take anything from her. He is in debt after buying a house in an upscale neighborhood to please her, and every day he sinks deeper into a financial hole. He also feels he is the butt of jokes among his wealthy neighbors.

All this drives him to go along with Pete. Together they make some sketchy plans, Pete insisting it will be easy.

But this is a Lionel White novel, and in White’s world nothing is easy and little goes as planned.

The Money Trap is written in White’s blunt, forceful, straight forward style. It is a style he mostly likely developed during his years as a newspaper reporter and editor and later as an editor of detective magazines. The book is a quick read with nicely developed characters – except for the doctor who is a bit of a throwback to the days of the evil criminal genius. The other characters, the cops, the mugs, a chorus girl, and some snotty neighbors, are well done.

(To read my review of Lionel White’s The Killing, click here. To read my review of his novel The Snatchers, click here.)

(To read more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog, here.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The Hero" is a Movie to See

Some fans of actor Sam Elliott are not too keen on his new, non-Western movie, “The Hero.”

This is a quiet, slow-paced film of 70-ish Lee Hayden, a once popular star of Westerns, who now earns a living doing TV commercial voice-overs, and who spends far too much time smoking dope and daydreaming of a glorious return to the big screen.

Lee has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife (played by Elliott's real-life wife, Katherine Ross), but no rapport at all with his adult daughter.

Then two things happen that shake him up. He finds out he has cancer. And he meets 30-ish woman who is interested in him.

Sam Elliott gives a subtle, deeply-felt performance in this film.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

FFB: The Killing by Lionel White

Johnny Clay plans the perfect caper, a racetrack heist, worked out and timed to the split second in Lionel White’s 1955 novel, The Killing. Clay had four years to figure out the details while serving time in Sing Sing. Once out, he puts his plan into play.

He recruits four men, all in need of money – big money – and all clean. They have no police records. Each also has something Clay requires for his scheme to work.

Marvin Unger, a sour little man needs to make up his heavy losses in the stock market. Big Mike Henty, a racetrack bartender with a weakness for the horses, needs money to move his wife and daughter out of the slums. Randy Keenan, a police officer, owes big dough to a loan shark. And George Peaty, a race track cashier, needs lots of money to please his hot, young, high-maintenance wife, Sherry.

Sherry, who is seeing a smooth gangster on the side, poses an early complication in the story. To impress her and assure her he is going to come into money, Peaty tells her the set up. He does this against Clay’s strict orders for everyone involved to keep his mouth shut.

Johnny is the only cool pro among his gang of amateurs. Each of the others has his doubts and fears. And, as often happens in a Lionel White novel, the carefully planned robbery has too many ways of going wrong. If any one of his men screws up, they could all wind up in jail – or dead.


Lionel White's writing has the clean snap of someone who spent many years knocking out newspaper copy and editing crime stories. He started his writing career as a reporter in the 1920s. He later became a newspaper editor and went on to edit detective magazines. The Killing (originally published as Clean Break) is probably his best known novel. He wrote 38 books between the early 1950s and the 1970s, including The Snatchers (which I wrote about here).

White's characters all ring true. He does not do lengthy descriptions of people or places, but gives the reader enough to form vivid mental pictures.

This is a second reading of The Killing. The first was more than 20 years ago when I picked up a 1988 Black Lizard paperback reprint of the novel. Even though I knew the story – as well as the Stanley Kubrick film version – The Killing still delivered a punch.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

James Cagney, Yankee Doodle, and Happy Fourth!


Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and a movie that is as much a part of the Independence Day celebration as “A Christmas Carol” is to Christmas and “The Quiet Man” is to St. Patrick’s Day, is “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The film is the1942 Warner Bros. biography of Broadway song and dance man, George M. Cohan, who wrote the book and lyrics, produced, directed and starred in his own musicals in the early 20th century.

Cohan’s songs included “Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” all of which – and more – are featured in the movie.

The picture stars Cagney as Cohan and Joan Leslie as his wife, Mary. It was directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz.

The final dance Cagney performs as the aging Cohan is this brief walk down a staircase in the White House after a visit with the President of the United States.

Here is a clip. But, please, do not try this at home.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” is schedule to show at 8 p.m. (Eastern time), July 4, on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Paris Can Wait" is a Movie to See


Despite the opinions of some film critics, I am recommending a little road movie called, “Paris Can Wait.”

It is the story of Anne, a woman of a certain age, who is in Cannes with her film-producer husband. When he has to fly off on business, Anne hesitantly accepts an invitation from his French colleague to return to Paris in his car.

And with that, she is off on an unexpected adventure.

While she wants to get to the city as quickly as possible, Jacques is in no hurry. He wants to stop and eat at great restaurants and see the countryside. “Paris can wait,” he tells her.

Anne is played by Diane Lane. Jacques is played by Arnaud Viard. And Anne’s husband is played by Alec Baldwin in a small part.

The film is a romantic tour. Everywhere they go is gorgeous. Even a service station where they stop for gas is picture perfect.

If you want ugly reality, this is not the movie for you. If you want a 90-minute visual vacation, see “Paris Can Wait.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

John Wayne in “This Little Bullet”


The other day, I was looking at the list of John Wayne's films on the IMDb and my eye stopped on an unknown title. I thought I had seen all of the Duke’s pictures. But there was one listed from 1970 that not only had I never seen, but also had never heard of.

Wedged between “The Undefeated,” from 1969, and “Chisum,” from 1970, was “This Little Bullet.”

On the page for the film, the IMDb noted it was an 88-minute American movie.

But, reading further, I learned “This Little Bullet” was not a John Wayne western. Nor was it a contemporary cop film, like the ones he made late in his career like “McQ” from 1974 and “Brannigan” from 1975.

In fact, it wasn’t a John Wayne movie at all.

It was an 18-minute gun-safety film featuring Wayne and produced by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

John Wayne, wearing a cowboy hat, western clothes and holding a rifle, introduces the subject which he then turns over to a shooting instructor. The instructor, Jack Ellison of the Arizona Firearms Safety Program, then runs through several demonstrations. Wayne comments on the demonstrations and warns of the power and destructiveness of one little bullet. He returns at the end for some parting comments.

This little film is packaged with two other safety films in a DVD, which must account for the 88-minute running time.

A viewer on YouTube remembered “This Little Bullet” being shown in schools throughout Arizona.

No matter which side of the gun debate you come down on, this safety film, and John Wayne’s presence in it, is worth a look.

And – because the makers of instructional and corporate films rarely get any recognition – the film was directed and edited by Wes Keyes; written by Bob Hernbrode; photographed by Davd Daughtry; and had Dale Dundas as technical advisor.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

“Megan Leavey” is a Movie to See

A super, non-super-hero, movie opened locally and we caught one of the first showings. The film is “Megan Leavey” and it is a good one.

The story is based on the experiences of the real Megan Leavey who joined the Marines in the early 2000s, worked, worked out, and trained to be good enough to join the K-9 unit. There, she was assigned to the most vicious dog in the military kennel, learned to work with it as a bomb-detecting team, and was sent to Iraq where she and her dog conducted some hair-raising searches.

Kate Mara does a terrific job playing Megan Leavey. The actor and rapper, Common, is excellent as the sergeant in charge of the K-9 training program. And, director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, who previously made documentaries, does an excellent job here. The cast is strong, the action is well done, and the emotions are right up there, as you would expect in a dog movie.

If it is playing at a theater near you, go see it. If has not opened, keep an eye out for it.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“Lawrence of Arabia” before O’Toole & Lean

T.E. LAWRENCE
Last week’s post on the low budget 1944 film, “Action in Arabia,” drew an interesting comment from Sergio, who blogs at the terrific site, Tipping My Fedora.” He said the large scale shots of Arab fighters were filmed years earlier for a never-completed movie about T.E. Lawrence. This intrigued me enough to hunt for more about this early version of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In a 2011 post on “Action in Arabia,” Mark Gabrish Conlan said Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack planned a Lawrence film after they finished “King Kong.” They took the first production steps, sending Schoedsack to the Middle East to shoot scenes of mounted Arab fighters. The Lawrence film was cancelled and years later, the scenes filmed wound up in “Action in Arabia”.


COOPER & SCHOEDSACK

LESLIE HOWARD
 The Cooper and Schoedsack production that almost happened makes for a great “one-that-got-away” story. Before making their now famous studio productions in Hollywood, the team made some fine documentaries in far off places during the silent era. A great one is “Grass” from 1925. Cooper and Schoedsack recorded the journey of a tribe of about 50,000 people and their livestock over mountains between Turkey and Iran to reach good grazing lands.

Another site, Crawley’s Casting Calls, provides the bumpy history of attempts to make a movie about T.E. Lawrence. Crawley’s says Cooper and Schoedsack also considered hiring Howard Hawks to direct Ronald Colman as Lawrence. Around the same time, producer Alexander Korda also wanted to make a “Lawrence of Arabia” with Leslie Howard playing Lawrence, which would have been excellent casting. Korda produced some big pictures with exotic locals around that time, including “The Four Feathers” in 1939. His Lawrence film could have been a Technicolor spectacular.

Cooper and Schoedsack had also produced a version of “The Four Feathers” in 1929.

Too bad Korda, Cooper and Schoedsack could not have teamed up. They would have made a terrific movie. But, if they had, we may never have gotten David Lean’s great 1962 film.

DAVID LEAN
PETER O'TOOLE



















And Lean’s casting of Peter O’Toole in the lead (although not his first choice), was pretty darn good, too.

(For more posts on movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

Edward Bunker’s 1973 novel, No Beast So Fierce, is no book for the feint of heart.

This story of 31-year-old Max Dembo, who is released from prison after eight years and never wants to return, but cannot tolerate the rules, regulations, and boredom of straight life and returns to crime is filled with crude, coarse scenes, and language so raw, it must have curled the hair of readers five decades ago. (Of course, similar scenes and language are now accepted entertainment on cable TV.)

Max, who spent a good part of his life behind bars, from reform school, to county jails, to the California prison system, is released at the beginning of the book and he vows never to return. It is 1964 and he is going home to Los Angeles determined to get a job and live a straight life. But his plans have big flaws. Max does not know how to live a straight life. The only life he knows is crime, and the only people he knows are criminals. He finds it impossible to straddle the straight world and the underworld and after a short struggle, gives up and turns back to crime. He regrets not being able to turn his life around, yet he craves action and enjoys the outlaw life.

No Beast So Fierce starts off hard. The prison situation is hard, and the language of the men inside is hard. Once out and reverting back to his old ways, the story meanders a bit and introduces too many petty thieves, drunks and junkies. But Bunker’s purpose is clear, he is sticking the readers face into the hard realities of these character’s lives – the crummy living conditions, the edginess and violence around them, the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence. And he knows what he is talking about. Bunker spent time in reform schools and state prisons until he straightened himself out. He began reading and then writing. Every page has the odor of reality on it. This man knew what he was talking about.

Once Max gets to work robbing, the book picks up speed. He goes from a supermarket stick up, to bank robbery to a major jewelry heist. And when things start to go wrong, they really go wrong for Max, and the story flies to its conclusion.

No Beast So Fierce, like other Bunker novels, is a fast read, but a gritty, grubby one, which will leave you feeling like you need to go outside, breathe the fresh air, and thank your lucky stars you are not in Max Dembo’s world (at least, I hope you are not).

Edward Bunker was born in 1933 in Los Angeles. He died in 2005 in Burbank, California.

(To see my review of Bunker's novel Dog Eat Dog. click here.) 

 (For more posts on books this week, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

World War II Spy Film “Action in Arabia”

Last Sunday, as part of its Memorial Day weekend of war pictures, Turner Classic Movies showed a little, and little known, espionage film from 1944 called “Action in Arabia.”

The movie, made two years after “Casablanca,” owes a lot to that Academy Award winning Humphrey Bogart flick. While “Action in Arabia” could not hope to match the older film, it has plenty of intrigue and style.

George Sanders stars as a newspaper reporter in Damascus, waiting for a flight out of the region when a colleague is stabled to death. Sanders refuses to leave until he finds out why. He starts his investigation by searching for the woman his friend met and went off with. The antagonistic French authorities want Sanders to go home. American not-so-undercover agents want Sanders to go home. A sinister hotel owner wants Sanders to go home. And bunch of other people want Sanders dead as he gets too close to solving the mystery.

The mystery is not much of a puzzle. Nazi agents in the region are stirring up and recruiting Arab fighters to come into the war on their side.

The story line is corny and simple, too many characters are thin stereotypes, and most of the action scenes are just so-so, but the ever-suave Sanders brings a sophistication to the movie. He also wears a white dinner jacket well, as Bogart did in “Casablanca.”

Director Leonide Moguy gives this 75-minute, black and white film a smooth, slick, and very dark atmosphere. Russian-born Moguy, who directed films in France before going to Hollywood, makes the most of this little RKO production. It looks less like the usual Hollywood movie of the time and more like a European film. If the name Leonide Moguy sounds familiar, it may be because Quentin Tarantino used the name for one of his characters in “Django Unchained” as a tribute to a filmmaker whose movies he likes.

Early in “Action in Arabia,” Sanders’ character meets an attractive, mysterious woman, played by co-star Virginia Bruce, gambling at a baccarat table. A surprisingly similar baccarat scene was filmed 18 years later by director Terrence Young for “Dr. No.” Young’s scene introduced Bond, James Bond.

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason's blog.)