Thursday, November 8, 2018

FFB: Guns of Brixton by Paul D. Brazill

It is hard as hell to be funny in print – just ask anyone who ever sent a supposedly humorous text only to have it backfire.

But Paul D. Brazill makes funny writing look easy in his crazy crime novel, Guns of Brixton.

Fast paced, this 2014 book is filled with odd, weird, violent, and often hilarious characters.

Two dim goons are sent out to retrieve a lost briefcase for their gangster boss, and manage to screw things up at every turn, including a side trip to rob a jewelry store while dressed in drag.

They kill a man, hide him in the trunk of their car, then crash into the Mercedes-Benz of a young executive who is far tougher than they ever expected, and on and on.

In the meantime, the big boss sends others out to clean up the mess, including a killer priest.

Brazill loads up his story with bizarre twists and some of the most laugh-out-loud writing I have encountered in a long time.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

“Bohemian Rhapsody” the movie

Despite the reviews, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is not a bad film. What it is, is a safe film.

This biography of the band Queen and its lead singer Freddy Mercury is slick and well crafted with a lot of the group’s hits, one outstanding performance by Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, and a faithful recreation of the band’s set at the 1985 Live Aid concert (although anyone interested can see the real thing on YouTube).

It is a pleasant evening’s viewing. And that is too bad. It seems the producers sanded off any rough edges on a film that could have been edgy and terrific.

Making movies about celebrities is a risk, and it is especially risky when there is so much original footage about a person or group. Watching actors (and Malek really is very good) portray extraordinary people, just reminds viewers of how talented and charismatic the original subjects were.

After watching “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I made a short list of rock films about actual rock bands and came up with a few I thought were well done. See if you agree.

“Control” about Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division;

“Love & Mercy” about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys;

“Backbeat” about the Beatles’ early days playing in Hamburg;

“Purple Rain” this may be cheating, but it is a good film with Prince playing Prince;

And my all time favorite, “A Hard Day’s Night,” with the Beatles played by the Beatles.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Orson Welles’ Ghost Story

Halloween is this week, so it is a good time to shine a spotlight on a dark, little-known movie.

In the early 1950s, while Orson Welles was in Europe filming his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” he also helped his friend, Irish actor Hilton Edwards, by starring in Edwards' eerie short film, “Return to Glennascaul,” which is also called “Orson Welles’ Ghost Story.”

The 22-minute film was shown in 1953 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best two-reel short of that year. (It lost to Walt Disney’s “Bear Country.”)

Here is a link to Edwards’ movie on YouTube.

And here is a link to an introduction to the film by Peter Bogdanovich.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

FFB: The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are Dashiell Hammett books I’ve read and re-read over the years. But I don’t think I’ve opened his 1931 novel, The Glass Key, since college. It was time for another look.

Between the covers is a good murder mystery and great character study.

Main character Ned Beaumont is a part-time gambler and a full-time political operative working for Paul Madvig, a power broker who runs a small American city.

Madvig also owns a club that offers illegal gambling and booze (the story is set at the end of the Prohibition era). Since Madvig has control of everything in town, the police leave him alone. But he has a problem. The son of a U.S. senator is found dead, murdered, just down the street from Madvig’s club. All of Madvig’s people are up for re-election, including the senator. Madvig cannot have this unsolved murder hanging over them. The opposition will eat them all alive.

Ned Beaumont, who found the body, sets out to clear things up. But the harder he works, the more complicated things get and higher the stakes grow.

A bigger mystery than finding the killer is trying to understand Beaumont’s actions. He will walk right into dangerous situations, and at one point takes a hell of a beating from the guys working for the gangster who is trying to oust Madvig.

Beaumont keeps his cards close to his vest, also keeping his plans and reasons for them a secret from the reader until he springs into action.

Madvig himself throws Beaumont several curves that lead to their splitting up professionally and ending their long-time friendship.

Ned continues to work on the murder case, because more is at stake than Madvig and his political pals.

As always, Hammett’s lean, tight prose style and cooler-than-cool main character make The Glass Key a pleasure to read – and re-read.

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

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Darktown is a Book to Read

In 1948, the Atlanta Police Department, under political pressure, hired its first African-American officers.

Eight men were sworn in and sent out to enforce the law in a community where they were viewed with suspicion by some and hatred by others. Their follow white officers resented them, did not consider them real cops, and would not allow them in their station house. A separate office was set up for the eight black officers in the basement of a YMCA. (The Butler Street Y building still exists in Atlanta.)

Author Thomas Mullen takes readers back to that time and place in his 2016 novel, Darktown.

Just three months on the job, new officers, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith (Mullen’s fictional characters), encounter a drunk, middle-age white man who crashed his car into a light pole. The passenger in the car is a young black woman who appears beaten up. The driver ignores Boggs’ request for his license and drives off.

Later, the young woman is found dead. When the detective squad shows no interest in solving the murder, Boggs and Smith start digging. This could get them fired or worse, killed, as they uncover corruption in the police department and local politics.

Mullen blends fact and fiction into a violent and suspenseful crime story.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

“Crime Wave” is Gritty Film Noir

The 1954 film, “Crime Wave,” was one I had never seen until this summer when it ran on Eddie Muller’s weekly TCM program, Noir Alley.
As Muller said in his introduction to the film (which you can watch here), “Crime Wave” could not be a simpler story. What makes it a terrific film is the way it is told, the tension, the snappy dialogue, and the cast.

Gene Nelson, a dancer who appeared in numerous musicals, does a good job playing an ex-con trying to go straight and live a quiet life with his wife, played by Phyllis Kirk. One night, some guys he knew in the joint barge in on them. They need a place to hide, but when the heat is turned up on them, they kidnap the couple and force the guy into participating in a bank robbery.

The cop turning up the heat is played by tough, towering Sterling Hayden. Muller said Hayden in this movie was author James Ellroy’s model for the brutal police detective, Bud White, in Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential.

The bad guys are played by Ted de Corsia and a young Charles Bronson under his real name, Charles Buchinsky. In a small role, the amazingly odd Timothy Carey, plays a weird hood ordered to watch the wife while the others pull the job. Phyllis Kirk being left alone with Carey is one of the creepiest scenes in film noir.

Every moment of this 73-minute, black and white movie is tough, thanks to the direction of Andre De Toth.

Muller obviously liked this movie and had a lot to say about it before and after the picture. (You can see his post script here.)

Friday, September 21, 2018

FFB: Stool Pigeon by Louis Malley

A man sitting in his car in New York’s Little Italy is shot to death and police Detective Vincent Milazzo is assigned to the case, in Louis Malley’s 1953 novel, Stool Pigeon.

Detective Milazzo, who grew up in the neighborhood, joined the police department, made good, and got promoted to detective, now needs to find a stool pigeon to break this case. But the neighborhood is traditionally wary of talking to the police. Even though Milazzo is one of them, his choice of profession makes him an outsider.

The dead man is part of a pornography racket luring young women, making sure they are soon broke, then sending them into clubs and onto the street to earn for them. These gangsters have mob connections and may even have powerful members of the police force protecting them. Milazzo finds himself up against the old neighborhood, organized crime, and his own department.

Louis Malley obviously knew how the mob and the cops operated in his era. He uses that knowledge and creates some fine character studies in this suspenseful, fast-paced novel. Every page of Stool Pigeon feels real and true.

Little is written about Louis Malley, other than he was born and raised in New York City and he published four novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, (reviewed here) which was later republished as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later republished as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.

According to court records and a newspaper report, Malley was shot and killed in 1962 at age 40.

Today, Malley’s novels are hard to find, but Stark House Press plans to bring out Stool Pigeon as one of its Black Gat Books.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

FFB: Dark Hazard by W.R. Burnett

The surprise read of the summer was W.R. Burnett’s 1933 novel, Dark Hazard. I fully expected to enjoy what I thought would be another tough-guy yarn filled with gangsters and gun molls. After all, Burnett made a splash with his first novel, Little Caesar, and went on to write other books populated by the underworld, like High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle.

Burnett knew his characters and the worlds in which they lived, and he wrote about them in a clean, hard style. But what surprised me was finding Dark Hazard had a soft heart.

It is the story of Jim Turner, once a high-stakes gambler and race-track regular who has fallen on hard times. It is winter, 1928 and he is making ends meet working as a night clerk at a third-rate Chicago hotel. He has a new, straight-laced wife who knows his past and is happy to see him making an honest – if poorly paid – living. The dull job is driving Jim nuts.

In a great twist, Jim meets a gambler who operates on an even larger scale than Jim ever did in his heyday. The gambler owns an interest in a dog track near Los Angeles and hires Jim to go out there and keep an eye on the operation. Jim jumps at the chance to leave wintery Chicago for sunny California.

At first his wife is happy out there. Then, two things happen. Jim, who swore off gambling for her, starts betting on the greyhounds. And Jim falls in love. He loses his heart to a champion dog named Dark Hazard. The more into dog racing Jim gets, the more he wants to buy and race Dark Hazard. His wife is not happy about any of these developments, nor about Jim’s new friends, a bunch of West Coast gamblers and sharpies.

The story follows Jim for several years through ups and downs, and winds up with an unexpected ending.

Burnett’s skill as a writer not only weaves a completely believable story out of these various threads, but also makes the ins and outs of dog racing understandable and exciting.

As Jim gets sucked back into the gamblers’ orbit, readers will worry about him on every page.

Not far into this book, it hit me I knew this story. Warner Bros. made not one but two movies in the 1930s based on this book. Around the time Warners bought the film rights to his 1929 novel, Little Caesar, Burnett went out to Hollywood to work on movie scripts.

After reading several of Burnett’s books, I’ve got to believe he was one of the writers who taught talking pictures how to talk. All through Dark Hazard, his characters’ dialogue is as sharp and funny and energetic as the roaring 20’s must have been.

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

Thursday, August 30, 2018

She Rides Shotgun, Jordan Harper’s violent debut novel

All the praise heaped on Jordan Harper’s 2017 novel, She Rides Shotgun, is deserved. It is a hell of a book.

A large, muscular, tattooed man, just released from prison arrives at a Southern California middle school, puts a little girl into the stolen car he is driving and zooms off with her.

The man is Nate McClusky and the girl is his daughter, Polly.

While in prison, Nate seriously pisses off the head of a powerful gang. The leader puts out an order for members on the outside to track down and kill Nate – and his family.

The gang gets to Nate’s wife before he can save her. But Nate reaches Polly first and they are off on a high-speed road trip.

Nate realizes there is no safe place. The gang has eyes and ears everywhere. He and Polly elude them, and, to protect the girl, Nate teaches her how to fight and survive. Polly learns fast and changes from the quiet, immature schoolgirl who was bullied, into a confidant, self-sufficient young woman.

Despite her increasing toughness, Polly has a good heart. That heart is the bright spot in this dark, suspenseful book.

Harper does a fine job of telling this rocket-propelled story, and more impressive, it is his first novel.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Brutal “Shot Caller” is a Movie to Watch

The 2017 prison film, “Shot Caller,” is not like the old movies where Jimmy Cagney found himself in the big house, nor is it like the men-behind-bars exploitation flicks of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Shot Caller” is a whole new, ultra-realistic look at the violent world behind the walls of American prisons.

Jacob, a successful businessman with a nice family, causes a deadly accident which lands him jail. He is put in with violent criminals and quickly learns the code of survival: Either become a victim at the mercy of the predators, or become a warrior. Jacob chooses the later and as if being sent to jail was not life-changing enough, needing to choose sides in the gang-run prison yard changes his entire being.

Affiliation with the gang not only means participating in drug smuggling, riots and murder, it also means a lifetime membership extending beyond the wire cages when Jacob is released.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, an actor I have seen before in small roles, does a superb job as Jacob. His transformation from the hard-charging executive to the hard-bitten convict is quite a performance. Also excellent in the picture are Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Emory Cohen and Benjamin Bratt. I could go on naming the players in this movie because everyone did a fine job, most portraying some of the most convincingly tough inmates seen on screen.

Ric Roman Waugh, who knows more than most about prison life, wrote and directed the movie.

“Shot Caller” is a tough, terrifying and terrific film.