Tuesday, May 14, 2019

R.I.P. Doris Day

Film, TV, and recording star Doris Day died Monday at age 97.

She was a big-band singer in the 1940s, starred in movies beginning in 1948, and was a top box office draw in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1960, she was nominated for an Academy Award for the comedy, “Pillow Talk” (1959). She also should have been nominated for the 1955 drama “Love Me Or Leave Me,” and for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Doris Day starred in her own television series for five seasons (1968-1973), then retired from show business and devoted her time to her animal welfare foundation.

Of the many, many songs she recorded, this version of “Again” is my favorite:

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Thirty-Nine Steps vs. The 39 Steps

John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, is one of the grand old spy adventures of yesteryear and is still a pretty great read.

Most people will know the plot thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version, “The 39 Steps.”

A spy with information vital to the British government is killed in Richard Hannay’s apartment. The police think Hannay did it and hunt him down. The real culprits - enemy spies – think Hannay knows their secret plans, and set out to kill him.

Richard Hannay, with only a partial idea of their plans and a couple of clues, takes off for the Scottish Highlands to track down a man and get to the bottom of this mystery. He cleverly eludes both the cops and the killers while putting the story together. When he figures out enough of it, he makes his way back to London to inform the British military chiefs.

The novel, written and published during World War I, is set in the pre-war years but features German agents as the bad guys. The spies’ secret mission is to assassinate a foreign diplomat visiting England and stir up a lot of trouble for the British and to steal Naval secrets. John Buchan devotes a lot of ink to explaining the convoluted plans.

Hitchcock wisely collapsed the spy plot into a brief description, believing the audience did not need to know too much about it, other than that it is the thing Hannay needs to find out and the spies need to conceal.

While condensing the spy plot, Alfred Hitchcock expanded the cat and mouse game between Hannay (played by Robert Donat) and the spies by adding an attractive young woman to the plot, Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll), who does not appear in the book. John Buchan’s Hannay travels alone. Alfred Hitchcock’s Hannay has a lovely, if reluctant companion who, for a while, is literally handcuffed to him. Hitch has a lot of fun with this situation.

Alfred Hitchcock also gave the head spy a better physical trait for Hannay to discover and unmask the villain. But while eliminating some of the far-fetched aspects of the book, Hitchcock also added a bizarre element in the person of “Mister Memory,” a music hall entertainer with a photographic memory who the spies use to convey secret military plans. Mister Memory is not in the book.

The book keeps the action going with Hannay bursting in on a meeting of British military chiefs to tell them of the spies’ plans. That Hannay could arrive where the brass is meeting, be allowed in, and have those men listen to him, seems absurd now, a century later. Maybe it was absurd then, too. Perhaps the book’s Richard Hannay could do it because he is a wealthy, educated man who by his mid-30s had made a fortune in Rhodesia and settled in London to live a life of leisure – and boredom – until this all happened.

Informing the officials of what he has learned is not the end of the book. Hannay has to catch the spies before they slip out of the country.

The Thirty-Nine Steps creaks a bit, but it remains an entertaining, fast-paced read.

(And, if you enjoy fast-paced stories, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Bogart, Lupino, and a dog in High Sierra

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.
The 1941 Warner Bros. movie, “High Sierra,” is a film I have seen many times and never get tired of watching.

The movie of "High Sierra" was based on W.R. Burnett’s 1940 novel of the same name. (A post about the book is here.)

It is the story of paroled gangster Roy Earle who travels west to lead some young wannabe bad guys in the robbery of an upscale California resort.

The movie, which closely follows the plot of the book, was written by Burnett and John Huston. Raoul Walsh, an expert with action pictures, directed.

Humphrey Bogart got the role of Roy Earle and it was perfect casting. The rest of the players are likable, but not too convincing in their parts, with two exceptions.

Ida Lupino, is nothing like the tough, dime-a-dance girl described in the book. But she is such a fine actress it doesn’t matter. Her scenes with Bogart are the best in the picture.
Bogart’s dog Zero does tricks 
on the set of “High Sierra.”

The other exception is the well trained actor who played Pard, a little dog who takes a liking to Roy Earle and follows him around.

The last time I watched the movie, I noticed how fond Bogart seemed to be of the dog. Then I learned it was Bogart’s own pet, a dog named Zero. Bogey could hardly stop smiling every time he had a scene with Zero.

The dog was quite a performer, too, and could do any number of tricks on command, including escaping from a locked room through a partially open window.

“High Sierra” delivers on many levels and is well worth watching, and watching again.

Friday, April 12, 2019

High Sierra by W.R. Burnett

Those who have seen the 1941 movie, “High Sierra,” might skip the 1940 novel of the same name. The film follows the plot of the book exactly with a few edits and an extended finale. But those who skip the book will miss out on the pleasure of W.R. Burnett’s lean, hard prose, and some of the larger ideas overshadowing the characters.

Roy Earle, a career criminal and one-time member of John Dillinger’s gang, is released from an Illinois prison thanks to bribes paid by mob boss, Big Mac M’Gann. The boss wanted Roy free so he can lead a daring robbery of a Southern California resort. Big Mac planned the heist and recruited two young “jitterbugs” for the job, but needs a reliable old timer like Roy to run the show.

The young guys, Big Mac, and Roy himself think of Roy as old. He  lived a hard life that put miles on him, but Roy is only 37. Big Mac is feeling old, too, and wants this big score to be his last so he can go off somewhere and live out his days in grand style.

In debt to Big Mac for getting him out, Roy drives west to meet his two wild accomplices at a rustic hideout high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. During the journey, two things are on Roy’s mind: nostalgic memories of his boyhood on an Indiana farm; and Velma, the sweet 20-year-old granddaughter of an old couple who lost their Ohio farm and are making their way to California. This family is the living reminder of a life Roy longs for. He even has ideas of marrying Velma and living the simple good life he once knew.

But reality catches up with Roy when he meets the irresponsible men he is supposed to lead and the young woman, Marie, they have brought with them. Roy wants them to dump Marie, but he finds her smarter and tougher then the two hoods, and she soon winds up in Roy’s bed. It becomes a threesome in the bed when a scrappy little stray dog takes a liking to Roy and follows him everywhere.

This strange set up has nowhere to go but to hell.

The heist goes badly, the getaway away goes worse, Big Mac was terminally ill and dies, Roy has no choice but to turn the stolen jewelry over to a fence he does not know, and the authorities have a line on him, Marie, and Pard, the little dog they have taken with them.

When he was in prison, Roy’s cellmate, a convicted conman, jailhouse intellectual and self-educated philosopher shared books and ideas with Roy, including his theory of “the indifference of nature.”

Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Roy comes to understand this when he drives into the western deserts where the sun beats down, the wind blows the sand, and the land does not care if you are out of gas or water. The idea is further driven home when Roy is in the Sierra Nevadas, where the mountains do not care what happens to cars on roads with sheer drops into gorges or boulders or snow blocking the route. In those places, Roy gets a sense of his place in the universe. In the end, he is pursued high up into the mountains where he knows there is no escape.

High Sierra is another fine crime novel from a master of the form. If I have one criticism of the book, it is with the opening pages. The book starts with a surprisingly dull chapter of Roy Earle’s boyhood. Surprising since Burnett wrote some of the toughest, fastest paced crime novels of his era.

William Riley Burnett (1899-1982) was the author of The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar and many other novels and short stories, and quite a few movies. For a review of one of his lesser known books, Dark Hazard, click here.

(And if crime novels are your thing, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Grind Joint by Dana King

Dana King’s first novel in his Penns River crime series, Worst Enemies, was one of the best books I read last year (reviewed here).

It would be hard to top a start like that, but King does it with his second book in the series, Grind Joint.

Detective Benjamin “Doc” Dougherty and the cops of the Penns River Police Department are back, along with a visitor from another state – and another crime series by Dana King – private investigator Nick Forte.

Forte, who is Doc’s cousin, comes to Penns River to visit his mother and gets involved in Doc’s latest case.

A new casino is about to open in an abandoned shopping mall in the seen-better-days fictional city of Penns River. Doc knows it will be a grind joint, but the powers that be welcome it as a source of income and jobs.

Before the grand opening of the gambling joint, a body is dumped at the front door. The murdered man was a known drug dealer and former associate of local mob boss, Michael “Mike the Hook” Mannarino. Suspicion falls on Mannarino who lives quietly in Penns River while committing crimes in other towns.

The casino is not an innocent victim. A sleazy real estate developer is backing it along with a silent partner, a wealthy Russian gangster. The Russian’s violent and loony son, Yuri, also has an interest in the casino and in expanding his own drug business in the region.

All these major-league criminals are more than the small municipal police force can handle. Doc recruits his visiting cousin, Nick Forte, to assist in his investigations. Soon, both of them are targets of the out of control Yuri and his mob.

Grind Joint moves at a pulse-pounding pace with Doc and Nick in serious danger all the way.

Not only is King’s plot involving, but I also enjoy his writing style. He has a way of making a reader worry and laugh at the same time. He also has a subtle way of describing characters and their actions.

When Doc is joshing with an old timer, he writes, “West did a thing with his lips and eyes that passed for laughter.” That could be interpreted in many ways by many readers. But a recollection of someone I knew who did something like that flashed across my mind and the book’s character became a real person.

There are now four novels in the Penns River series: Worst Enemies, Grind Joint, Resurrection Mall, and Ten-Seven.

(And while you are in the book-buying mood, please also check out my crime novel, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Invitation to Violence by Lionel White

The 1958 heist novel, Invitation to Violence, is different from other Lionel White crime stories I’ve read.

Usually a caper is carefully planned by one man who, step by step, figures out how to pull it off, then recruits a crew, and assigns them each a task. But bad luck and the personalities of the team cause the whole thing to go wrong. This is what happens in White's famous story, Clean Break. That book was later reissued as The Killing and made into a movie by Stanley Kubrick.

In Invitation to Violence, White places the heist at the beginning of the book. Three men execute a carefully devised plan. They drive to an upscale suburban Long Island neighborhood and break into a jewelry store. Before they can get away, two police cars roll up and a gun battle ensues. Two of the cops and two of the crooks get killed, but the third thief gets away. 

While the thieves are working, Gerald Hanna, an ordinary guy with an ordinary job is playing poker. A usually cautious guy, Hanna takes a big chance and winds up winning a sizable pot.

Driving home to Long Island, he is thinking about his luck and the buzz he got out of taking that chance on his final hand. His car door is suddenly yanked open and the third thief jumps in with a satchel full of jewels and a gun.

From this early point in the story, Gerald Hanna’s life gets turned upside down. After winning at poker and believing luck is still with him, he decides to take a series of chances that put the local police and the boss behind the heist on his trail. But this nine-to-five office worker has no experience dealing with detectives or gangsters.

Invitation to Violence is another smart, suspenseful crime story from one of my favorite writers.

Lionel White (1905-1985) was newspaper reporter who started writing crime novels in the early 1950s, sometimes writing three or four in one year. He published about 35 books.

To read a review of White’s The Killing, click here, and to read a review of his book, The Snatchers, click here.

(And, if you enjoy crime novels with lots of action, please check out my book, Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, March 8, 2019

Last Year’s Man by Paul D. Brazill

Picking up a novel by Paul D. Brazill, a reader can expect fast paced action, humorous observations, funny dialogue, and a seedy, noir quality. His book, Last Year’s Man, delivers all that and something else: a touch of melancholy, a bit of sadness.

Tommy Bennett, an aging gun for hire, reluctantly comes to the conclusion that he is too old for his chosen profession. That profession is killing people and doing it efficiently with no trace of his involvement.

The story opens with Tommy on a job. A moment’s negligence on his part screws up a nice clean hit. It leaves him wondering if it is time to get out of the business. His next job goes wrong, too, but in a much bigger way, and Tommy is no longer wondering. He has to quit and run.

With little money and no passport, there are few places Tommy can go. He chooses to return to his hometown, a small city by the sea that has seen better days. Brazill highlights the city’s decay as Tommy takes in the town for the first time in many years. He gets off the train and notes the shops that are gone and the once proud statute in of “an old civic dignitary,” with a road cone on its head, and “the remnants of a Chinese take-away in its outstretched hand.”

He isn’t in town five minutes when he stumbles into a killing in a crummy bar. Soon, he is back in the company of violent crooks and con men he knew in his youth. But Tommy has to make a living and the local criminals remember him as a guy who can make things happen.

The slangy speech of Brazill’s characters not only gave me a laugh, but also provided an instant picture of the speaker. In a few words, Brazill describes characters. Of an underworld dame, Tommy says, “Bev smiled but there was the familiar razor-sharp look in her eyes.” Placing razor and eyes in the same sentence made me cringe and I knew just what Bev looked like. Later, Tommy calls a local heavy, “an ex-copper who was so bent you could use him to unblock your toilet.”

Last Year’s Man is a raw story seen through the eyes of Tommy Bennett, and is another fine job from Paul D. Brazill. I rarely say this about a book, but I wish this one was longer so I could spend more time with Tommy.

(And, if you enjoy crime novels with lots of action, please check out Lyme Depot. Thanks.)

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Best Commercial During the Oscars

No one I know saw this. My wife was out of the room when it came on. Friends who watched the Oscars missed it.

The best commercial shown during Sunday’s Academy Awards show was Google's 15-second reworking of Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” See it HERE.

(And please don’t leave this page before checking out LYME DEPOT. Thanks.)