Friday, September 30, 2016

FFB: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is hardly a forgotten book. This famous collection of a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been so popular that it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1892.

The forgotten part, for me, was the edition of this book that I read as a kid.

A few days ago, Patti Abbott, on her blog, asked the question: “Who were the first adult crime fiction writers you read?”

Right off the bat, I knew the first was Conan Doyle, and the book was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked on Holmes after reading the first story, “The Red-Headed League.”

But “The Red-Headed League” is not the first story in the collection. So how did I come to read it first?

Traditionally, the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are:

“A Scandal in Bohemia”

“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”

“A Case of Identity”

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

“The Five Orange Pips”

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

“The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb”

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

Still, I was sure “The Red-Headed League” was my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. I could not check the book because I have not seen it in years. One of my siblings might have it, and I’ll bet I know which one – the one who saved all the board games we had as kids.

A quicker way to find it than rummaging around in an attic, is rummaging around on the Internet. And that is what I did. There, I found the book, identified by the cover art of Cheslie D’Andrea (pictured here).

This version of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, put out by Whitman Publishing, was an abbreviated collection in that it contained only eight of the Holmes stories:

"The Red-Headed League"

"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"

"The Five Orange Pips"

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"

"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"

"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"

"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"

"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Whitman, I learned, was part of Western Publishing of Racine Wisconsin, a company that also published Golden Books for young children.

How this particular book first came into my hands, I do not know, but it made me a lifelong Holmes fan.

And, by the way, "The Red-Headed League," which I reread for this post, is even better than I remembered it.

(For more forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

MOVIE: Noirish crime film Shield for Murder

Old Hollywood could not produce a film with a lead character like Barney Nolan, at least not the Barney Nolan of William P. McGivern’s 1951 novel Shield for Murder.

In the book, Philadelphia police detective Barney Nolan is a bad cop who hits rock bottom. In the 1954 movie, “Shield for Murder," Barney Nolan, as played by star and co-director Edmond O’Brien, is a complex man, not particularly good or bad, just human, who makes a series of bad – really bad – decisions and goes down the moral drain.

Both book and movie start with Nolan killing a bookie in order to rob the man and then claiming it was an accident, a warning shot gone wild. Nolan, in both versions wants the money to win a girl.

In the book, Nolan needs the money to lavish expensive jewelry on a nightclub singer who has no romantic feelings for him. In the movie, he wants the money to marry a nightclub cigaret girl, buy a small house in the suburbs, move there and live his own vision of the American dream.

Characters like Nolan who make criminal choices for women are a staple of film noir. In the hands of a director like Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann, this movie could have been a great addition to that genre. But as it is, “Shield for Murder” does not reach that level. Still, it is not a bad little crime picture.

The movie might get a better grade from me if I had not read the McGivern novel right before seeing it. (A post about McGivern’s book is here.)

Aside from Nolan’s motivation to commit murder, there is another interesting difference between the book and the movie. In the book, the man who starts suspecting Nolan is a murderer is Mark Brewster, a young newspaper reporter. In the movie, Mark Brewster is Nolan’s police partner. The change may have been dictated by the old Hollywood production code.

O’Brien, who co-directed with producer Howard W. Koch, may have miscast himself in the movie. Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum could play hard guys on the edge and capable of going over to the dark side. In McGivern’s book, Nolan is a big, violent thug who scares the hell out of everyone. The movie’s Barney Nolan is a softer, almost sympathetic guy, thanks to O’Brien’s personality and skill as an actor. (O’Brien deserves a post about his career.)

As Nolan's partner, actor John Agar is wooden and not nearly as good as he was in his first film - John Ford’s “Fort Apache.” Also in the cast is the great, gruff Emile Meyer as a captain of detectives who also suspects Nolan. The cigaret girl is played by Marla English, who did a handful of films in the 1950s. Carolyn Jones has a nice supporting role as a woman in a bar trying to pick up Barney Nolan. Others in the cast who became regulars on TV are Claude Akins, William Schallert and Richard Deacon.

Overall, “Shield for Murder” is an OK picture, but the book is a lot better.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

FFB: Shield for Murder by William P. McGivern

The first sentence of Shield for Murder is a grabber:

“The man Nolan planned to kill came out of an all-night taproom about one o’clock in the morning.”

William P. McGivern really knew how to get a crime novel up and running.

In this 1951 book, Barny Nolan is a Philadelphia police detective who got on the force and rose through the ranks by luck and political connections. In his youth, he was the muscle behind a district boss. Now pushing 40, Nolan is still violent with a built-up resentment for anyone with money, anyone with power, and anyone in his way. He kills the man who comes out of the taproom, a bookie, so he can steal his bankroll. Nolan needs money to impress a nightclub singer, but is unaware that she has no interest in him. In the bookie’s pocket is a huge wad of cash belonging to a local racketeer. Taking it does not worry Nolan. He figures that as a cop he can derail any investigation and get away with it.

But nothing ever goes smoothly for Barny Nolan.

Not only does the gangster find out he took the money, but also a young newspaper reporter, Mark Brewster, suspects Nolan of murdering the bookie.

Brewster starts putting a case together against Nolan, but runs into resistance from the cops when he tries to tell them that one of their own is a bad guy. He also makes a target of himself when Nolan learns Brewster is investigating him.

McGivern paints a dark, seedy picture of the City of Brotherly Love. How accurate a picture, I cannot say having only visited Philadelphia a couple of times as a tourist, eating cheesesteak sandwiches, visiting the Liberty Bell, and, yes, running up the steps of the art museum with a couple of my young nephews. (No, I did not raise my hands like Rocky. But they did). McGivern’s Philadelphia felt genuine through his descriptions of the neighborhoods, the police precincts, and the taprooms. (By the way, can anyone from Philly tell me what a taproom is, or was? Was it a small pub? Was it a bar that only served beer?)

For a while, William P. McGivern was a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia and several of his crime novels were set there. Shield for Murder and other McGivern books like Odds Against Tomorrow, The Big Heat, and Rogue Cop were made into Hollywood movies. McGivern died in 1982 at age 63.

(An earlier post on McGivern’s novel The Crooked Frame is here.)

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

MOVIE: Bank heist film The Lookout

Last weekend, I caught up with a nicely done little heist movie from 2007 called “The Lookout”

In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a former high school athlete, who suffers a serious brain injury in a car crash. Employed as a night janitor for a local bank in his small, Midwestern town, he hopes his condition improves enough to get a teller’s job with the bank. But his injury makes that goal nearly impossible since his short-term memory is damaged.

Some local dirtbags get the bright idea of befriending Chris and recruiting him to help them rob the bank.

This deliberately paced movie is quite involving as we get to know more about Chris’s guilt at causing the car crash which killed and injured his buddies and girlfriend, and his frustrations with his current condition.

There are two outstanding supporting characters in the picture. One is the blind man, played by Jeff Daniels, who shares his apartment with Chris and who helps Chris with his recovery. The other is the head bad guy played by Matthew Goode, who makes the initial contact with Chris and becomes his new best friend.

The cast also includes Isla Fisher as a former stripper who gets involved with Chris, and Sergio Di Zio as a goodhearted deputy sheriff.

“The Lookout” was written and directed by Scott Frank.

This 99-minute film is well worth a look.

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

MOVIE: Noir prison-break picture Canon City

Released in 1948, “Canon City” is a modestly-budgeted prison picture with several things going for it.

First, this docu-noir film is based on a true story from 1927 in which a gang of convicts broke out of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility at Canon City, Colorado. Part of the movie was filmed at the prison and around Canon City (which should be called Canyon City according to the Spanish spellings used there). Built in 1871, in the harsh landscape of rocky, treeless hills, the CTCF is still there and is the oldest prison in the state. Photos Googled up show a stone structure with guard towers that looks more like a movie set than a real place.

Next, the star of the picture is a young Scott Brady. Brady in real life was the tall, tough brother of tall tough actor Lawrence Tierney who was the tough old gang leader in “Reservoir Dogs.” Brady’s character is forced to participate in the prison break. Once on the outside, he does all he can to keep the others from killing anyone or harming local residents.

Next, there are a couple of sequences that make “Canon City” a thriller. One scene would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud. The men who bust out of prison, split up and because it is winter, and because they need a sure way out of the area, the men barge into several homes looking to steal guns, cars and food. In one sequence, a group of cons holds a family hostage and demands food. The old granny goes into the kitchen to fix them something to eat and while there and out of sight of the baddies, she must decide whether to feed them or to bash in the ringleader’s head with a hammer. It’s a great scene.

And last, the film was photographed by John Alton, the great cinematographer of so many moody black and white noir films like "The Scar" from the same year.

“Canon City” was written and directed by Crane Wilber and produced by Bryan Foy. Also in the cast were Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, and DeForest Kelly, 18 years before he played Doc McCoy on “Star Trek.”

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

Thursday, September 1, 2016

FFB: The Mystery of the Stolen Hats

The 1939 novel, The Mystery of the Stolen Hats, is a humorous story that starts with a missing American, leads to a murder, then to a suspicious death, and all the while weaving in a story about a hat thief.

Superintendent William “Big Bill” Stevens of Scotland Yard, is asked as a favor by a high ranking official to get a line on an American businessman who was scheduled to arrive in England but never showed up. Stevens tracks the man’s movements to France.

Arriving in Paris, Stevens is met by his old friend, Inspector Pierre Allain of the Sûreté Nationale. The robust French detective says he will help his stoic British counterpart look for the American and assures him they will find the man in no time. But first, they must dine together. Pierre Allain is fond of fine food. He also claims to be the best detective as well as the greatest lover in all of France.

Author Bruce Graeme takes a bit of pleasure in poking fun at the volatile French inspector. He also shows Allain is an excellent detective.

Before Stevens and Allain can get started on the manhunt, two things happen. An older woman is murdered and her servants, her beautiful adult daughter, and the daughter’s mysterious friend are all suspects. Equally troubling for Allain, someone steals his favorite hat. Men’s hats are being stolen all around Paris and Pierre Allain is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Into this crazy mix of storylines come two more detectives. There is Floquet, Pierre Allain’s arch rival from the Préfecture of Police. It seems the national Sûreté and the Paris based Préfecture have overlapping jurisdiction. The fourth is B.Y. Heck, from Pinkerton’s in the United States, who was hired by the American’s wife to find her husband.

Much of the fun of The Mystery of the Stolen Hats is watching the four detectives deal with each other while trying to find the murderer, search for the missing American and locate Pierre Allain’s hat.

Graeme wrote a leisurely yet well-paced story which judging by the ancient library copy that was located and shipped to my public branch must have been very popular in its day. Almost every page was dog-eared, many of them bent two and three times, some folded so often that librarians of the past had to apply clear tape to hold the corners together. One page had tape over a cigaret burn that made a small hole and a brown spot on the following three pages.

The Mystery of the Stolen Hats was mentioned recently by John Norris on his blog Pretty Sinister Books and that spurred me to find the book. Now, I look forward to tracking down some of the other seven or eight Stevens-Allain novels Graeme wrote between 1931 and about 1940. I suspect the seriousness of World War 2 made writing more lighthearted books impossible.

Bruce Graeme was one of the pen names of the English writer, Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), who turned out more than 60 novels. The figure might be closer to 80. Information on-line about Graeme is sketchy, brief and hard to find.

His books are also hard to find. Hopefully, a publisher will look into reprinting the entire Stevens-Allain series, and I hope the others are as much fun to read as The Mystery of the Stolen Hats.

(For more forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TV: Sean Connery on television as Macbeth

In 1961, Canadian director Paul Almond took a chance and cast a young and not too well known Sean Connery as the lead in his live television production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Almond’s gamble on Connery paid off. Connery, who had little formal training, brought his forceful persona and commanding presence to the role, said Robert Sellers in Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.

Sellers’ book is about the change in acting talent and styles in England in the 1950s when drama schools, theater groups and eventually movies and TV turned to a new crop of actors that included Connery, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, and others who went on to become big stars in the 1960s.

Connery was 30 at the time, had done a handful of films and several plays, when he was tapped to star in “Macbeth.” 

The TV play is available on DVD and there is also a version of it on YouTube.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

TV: "Broadchurch" the Second Season

Season two of “Broadchurch,” the excellent British television series, picks up where the first season left off. So, to avoid any spoilers, I’ll make this short and just say that season two is different in structure from season one, but just as involving, just as surprising and just as good.

Returning are detectives Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant, and Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. In this new story, their characters have never left the fictional seaside town of Broadchurch. Now they face a new mystery. The new and the old weave in and out of season two. Elements of season one’s mystery haunt them and even come back to bite them.

Series creator Chris Chibnall wrote the clever new eight-episode series and he brings more of his magic to this show. He introduces several new characters and further explores the lives of the people introduced in season one.

“Broadchurch," season two, is something all mystery lovers and all lovers of good TV should watch. But for those new to this series, do not start here. Go back to season one, episode one, and enjoy.

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

FFB: Perry Mason's Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary by Erle Stanley Gardner

My forgotten book this week is not only not forgotten, but also frequently reviewed. Just yesterday, Steve at Mystery File posted a review of it. I suppose that is not unusual when considering Erle Stanley Gardner. The man wrote more than 80 Perry Mason stories and, 46 years after his death, he is still a favorite among readers of mysteries.

I read The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary a couple of weeks ago while under the weather and wanting something light and fun to read. This book was just what the doctor ordered. Like all Gardner novels, part of the pleasure was trying to figure out the mystery before Mason reveals it. Another part was spending time with old friends: Mason, the savvy attorney; Della Street, his hard working legal secretary; and Paul Drake, the highly competent private detective.

In The Sun Bather’s Diary, Mason gets involved with an old case of an armored car robbery when the daughter of the man accused and convicted of the crime calls the lawyer’s office and says everything she owns, her trailer home, all her possessions and even all her clothes have been stolen and she is outdoors, naked, making a call from a public phone.

From that humorous and intriguing opener, Gardner sets a complicated tale in motion.

Mason winds up with three big problems in this book. First, he must provide a defense for the nude caller when she is accused of murder. Second, he has to figure out how the seemingly impossible armored car robbery was pulled off and prove the girl’s father did not do it. And third, he has to avoid jail himself when someone tries to frame him. There is a great moment when district attorney Hamilton Burger hauls Mason before a grand jury and grills him.

I am a fan of Gardner, his writing style, his understanding of the law, and his amazing ability to spin so many yarns that kept Mason busy for four decades. I can recommend The Sun Bather’s Diary as another enjoyable puzzle solved by Perry Mason.

(For more forgotten books, please check out Patti Abbott’s blog. And thanks to Todd Mason for compiling the list this week.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

FILM: 7 Marilyn Monroe Movies

Marilyn Monroe made about two dozen films between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. Most of them are pleasant diversions. But a few are really terrific and should be seen today.

Here are seven movies that I think are her best pictures, starting with my personal favorite:

Niagara (1953) This was the beginning of 20th Century-Fox’s build up of MM, and she has a plum role here as a fast, curvy woman in a red dress plotting to do away with her husband while at Niagara Falls. Her husband is played by Joseph Cotton. The beautiful Jean Peters plays a woman who stumbles onto the plot. This is a terrific, noirish film (shot in color), and directed by the great Henry Hathaway.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Here, the Fox glamour machine was in high gear with MM as Lorelei Lee, the diamond-hungry showgirl. Jane Russell is her gal-pal in this lighthearted musical from director Howard Hawks.

Some Like It Hot (1959) One of the greatest comedies ever made, it also stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon as a couple of musicians fleeing gangsters by dressing as women and joining a girls' jazz band. The band’s singer is MM. The picture was directed by Billy Wilder.

The Misfits (1961) Terrific drama with MM as a woman in Reno, Nevada waiting for her divorce to come through. She gets involved with cowboy Clark Gable, his pal Eli Wallach, a washed up rodeo rider played by Montgomery Clift, and a wise-cracking older woman played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter. The movie was written by MM’s then husband, Arthur Miller, and directed by John Huston.

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) In this Technicolor film version of a Terrence Rattigan play, chorus girl MM attracts the amorous attention of a European nobleman, played by Laurence Olivier, who also directed the movie.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Here, 23-year-old MM has only a small role as the mistress of a crooked lawyer, but her time on screen is magic. This film is the granddaddy of all heist movies. It stars Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Jean Hagen and Louis Calhern as the lawyer. It was directed John Huston.

River of No Return (1954) Old West saloon singer MM gets robbed and dumped by her nasty boyfriend, Rory Calhoun, and goes down river after him on a raft with settler Robert Mitchum and his young son. This short, brisk, color film was directed by Otto Preminger. And old Otto has a bit of wicked fun with his Cinemascope framing during one of MM’s songs.