Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump Comes to Town on TV’s Trackdown

Last Saturday morning, cable’s ME TV channel showed an old, black-and-white episode of a Western series in which a man named Trump arrives in a small town and warns the people that meteors are about to hit and destroy everyone, and only he can save them.

He convinces the crowd and they clamor to buy his expensive protection – little umbrellas with symbols he claims have the power to deflect the killer space rocks.

Into this comes a Texas Ranger who tries to expose the fraud. But the people, carried away with fear, are willing to do anything to save themselves.

The episode, “The End of the World,” was from a show called Trackdown, and originally aired in 1958. The series starred Robert Culp and ran from 1957 to 1959.

(For more overlooked TV and film, visit Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, January 6, 2017

FFB: New Year’s Eve/1929 by James T. Farrell

This review was intended for last week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books, but the night before, a light snow storm knocked out the power in my area. Funny, the electric stays on through heavy rains and high winds, but let one snowflake land on a wire and a lot of little houses go dark. The lights eventually came back on, but the deadline had passed. So, here is what I hoped you all could have read before the calendar change.

James T. Farrell’s slim novel from 1967, New Year’s Eve/1929, takes place in Chicago on the afternoon, evening, night and the following morning of the last day of the 1920s and the first day of the 1930s. It is his bitter look back at the end of the Roaring 20s.

In the book, Beatrice Burns, a woman about 29 years old, dying of a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, lives near, and desperately wants to be part of, a group called the Fifty-seventh Street Art Colony. The colony was an actual group of writers, painters and college students residing in a south-side neighborhood near the University of Chicago. This is the same part of the city in which Farrell (1904-1979) grew up, went to college and wrote about in many of his novels, including his Studs Lonigan trilogy.

Beatrice longs for a blow-out New Year’s Eve party, a party to end all parties. A couple she knows, who usually throw huge parties seem too tired and uninterested in hosting anything that night. But Beatrice goes around telling people that there will be a big bash at the couple’s place, and feels she is doing everyone a favor by promoting a party.

That evening, the couple’s little apartment is jammed with people. Most know each other, everyone is talking at once, no one is listening much, and all are trying too hard to have fun. These people seem to know they are headed for tough times. This could be Farrell’s 20/20 hindsight, writing from a nearly 40-year distance.

One of the characters who appears in several of Farrell’s books, a writer named Dan O’Neil, comes to the party with a pretty young girl from the neighborhood whose mother does not approve of O’Neil. When Dan and the girl see Beatrice, they worry that Beatrice will cause trouble by telling the girl’s mother. Beatrice delights in knowing that she is upsetting them.

Dull and manipulative, Beatrice wants more than anything to be the center of attention. The idea of gaining the spotlight by causing trouble for others, thrills her. She takes note of couples sneaking off to the bedroom or locking themselves in the bathroom. She relishes the idea of catching them and having some juicy gossip. In short, Beatrice is a thoroughly dislikable character and a person the group barely tolerates and mostly ignores.

When a man gets drunk and starts shadow boxing, he accidentally clips Beatrice, knocking her to the floor. When she gets up, Beatrice laughs it off hoping the incident will finally draw everyone’s attention to her. It does, but momentarily.

At dawn, she tags along with a small group leaving the party. When they play a noisy game on the sidewalk, an irate neighbor throws cold water down on them. The water only hits Beatrice, and again, she laughs it off, hoping it will make her the life of the party. Instead, the group takes it as a sign the night – and the fun – is over and they go their separate ways.

New Year’s Eve/1929 is a quick, interesting read, but not a pleasant one. Anyone unfamiliar with Farrell would do better reading Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935).

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

FFB: Hitchcock Truffaut a book-length interview

A few days ago, when considering a post about film director Alfred Hitchcock’s original and his remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” I took an old book off my shelf to refresh my memory on a point or two. Once I started, I kept on reading. It is that kind of book.

The book is Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, which was published in French in 1966 and in English in 1967.

Truffaut, a film director himself who burst onto the international scene in 1959 with his first film, “The 400 Blows,” was a leading light of the French New Wave. Before making movies, Truffaut critiqued films in the French press, including Cahiers du Cinéma, an influential film magazine founded by critic André Bazin.

Truffaut and his fellow New Wave filmmakers – Jean Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others – were fans of American directors like Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, and Hitchcock. They found that certain Hollywood filmmakers were able to put a personal stamp of the films they made for the studios and showed a consistency in the kinds of stories they chose to tell and the way in which they approached the material.

Some directors, like John Ford, were reluctant to discuss their techniques. But Alfred Hitchcock was not. In fact, Hitchcock was happy to tell interviewers just what he looked for in a story and how, precisely, he made his movies – sometimes going shot by shot to explain his methods.

Truffaut invited Hitchcock to sit down for a series of interviews in which the younger man went through each of the old master’s movies, from his first efforts in the silent era, to his break through films, like “The Man who Knew Too Much,” to the two best films he made in England (in my opinion), “The 39 Steps” from 1936, and “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938.

Hitchcock talked about going to Hollywood and working with producer David O. Selznick – which he hated – and working with Cary Grant – which he liked. Hitchcock and Grant made four films together: “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “To Catch A Thief,” and “North by Northwest.”

Another favorite star was James Stewart. Together they made four films: “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “Vertigo.”

He also loved working with Grace Kelly. In the book, Hitchcock told how he always had a thing for cool blonds. They made three films together: “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” and “To Catch a Thief.” The last of these was filmed on the Riviera. The following year, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and Hitchcock lost his favorite leading lady.

Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock is a master class in film history and technique as the older director explained the language of film and how he used it.

Many have tried to use the master’s techniques, but no one yet as been able to beat Hitchcock at his own game.

(For more on books, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hitchcock Times 2: Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few movie directors of the past who, decades after his death in 1980, is still well known.

In the 1950s, Hitchcock, at the height of his powers and popularity, remade one of his earlier films. Some might say Hitchcock remade many of his films, just giving them different titles, but that would be unfair, and would definitely be the subject for another post.

The film he remade was “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

In the 1934 original, produced in England, a family – mother, father, and little girl – on vacation in the snowy mountains of St. Moritz, Switzerland, get tipped off to a planned murder. The villains, discovering that the parents could notify the authorities about their plot, kidnap the little girl to keep them quiet. The father and mother learned that the baddies plan to assassinate a foreign diplomat in England during a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The couple is faced with the choice of either saving the diplomat and possibly avoiding a war (remember, World War 1, which ended just 16 years earlier, was touched off by an assassination) or saving their daughter.

In the1956 remake, a family – mother, father, and little boy – on vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco, learn of a mysterious plot, which turns out to the be the same scenario as the earlier version.

Both films feature women with extraordinary talents. Edna Best, as the mother in the first film, is established as a crack shot with a rifle, which plays directly into the strange shootout with the villains at the end of that picture. Doris Day in the remake plays a singer who gave up her career when she married a doctor, played by James Stewart, and her voice plays an important part in the recovery of her boy.

Edna Best, was a London stage star who did not make many movies, and in this film, Hitchcock did not give her much to do. Doris Day, on the other hand, is given many scenes that establish her character, her talent and her rapport with the boy and with Stewart. In the opening scenes, Doris Day and James Stewart seem to be improvising, although that is not likely in one of Hitchcock’s films. They also have a powerful scene together when Stewart, who learns of the kidnapping first, has to break the bad news to his wife. (Anyone who thinks Doris Day was just a pretty comedienne with a good singing voice, should check out that scene and reconsider.)

The original version, with a running time of 75 minutes, seems rushed and does not give an audience time to get to know the family. When Hitchcock went to remake the story, 22 years later, he had a solid reputation and the backing of a major Hollywood studio and took his time, allowing the audience to care about the people, and more importantly, allowing the tension to build. The 1956 version runs 120 minutes. It was also shot in color and in Vista Vision and was made partially on location in Morocco and England.

But despite the short running time of the original, Hitchcock presents a typical Hitchcockian scene during the parents’ search for the girl. The scene is both painfully uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. It involves a visit to a sinister dentist. In order to extract information (I know, I know), the dad first has to get into the chair.

Later, Hitchcock inserted a scene into the remake, at about the same point in the story, that was both tense and funny. Following up on a lead, Jimmy Stewart goes to a taxidermist’s studio and winds up in a fight with the employees among the stuffed exotic animals.

Peter Lorre, as the bad guy who kidnaps the child in the original film, was great. His performance is so odd and weirdly humorous that he steals every scene from Leslie Banks, who plays the father. In the remake, Hitchcock toned this down, making the kidnappers a bland, middle-aged couple.

For fans of Hitchcock, both versions are a must see. But the remake is far superior to the original.

In an interview with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was the work of a professional.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Movie-Star Movie: Allied

Looking to escape from the reality of the news and the cold weather this weekend? Then let me recommend the movie, “Allied.”

This is a big, old-fashioned, movie-star kind of movie about a Canadian agent, played by Brad Pitt, and a French resistance fighter, played by Marion Cotillard, who meet on a joint assignment in Casablanca during World War 2, fall in love, and carry out their mission. And there is a whole lot more to the story.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who made “Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future,” and “Cast Away,” gives this picture scope and drive and tension. He also showcases his stars the way Hollywood did during its Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. But the R-rated violence, sexuality, and language is 21st century.

Friday, December 9, 2016

FFB: Fargo by John Benteen

Call it coincidence, call it a sign, call it whatever you want, but there are times when something I have never heard of comes to my attention several times in a matter of days or weeks. At times like that, I get the distinct feeling I had better pay attention.

This has happened to me more than once. It is how, at the turn of the millennium, I came to read Richard Yates’ great novel, Revolutionary Road. That was years before Hollywood turned it into a movie – a movie I have not seen out of respect for the book.

This summer, it happened again when several different people wrote about a Western-action series of books by John Benteen featuring a character named Fargo.

And, as luck would have it, I found a used paperback of the first book in the Fargo series.

The story, published in 1969, opens with Fargo arriving in west Texas in 1916. He is described as tall and lean and wearing an army-style campaign hat over prematurely white hair. Others writing about Fargo say the description sounds a lot like the actor Lee Marvin in the 1966 movie, “The Professionals.”

Fargo is a hired gun with plenty of experience. In this tale, he is hired by the co-owner of a silver mine in northern Mexico who wants Fargo to accompany him down to the mine and to organize and protect a train of pack mules that will haul the silver out of a remote mountain valley and back to Texas. To do this, they will have to go through bandit territory and past the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa.

With his employer, Fargo has to get down to the mine in one piece, while fighting off gangs of violent bad guys. Once they get to the mine's location, they find their mission complicated by a renegade army blocking the mouth of the valley and waiting to strike and steal the silver.

Benteen (the pen name of author Ben Haas) keeps the many varied and at times hair-raising situations moving rapidly along. In a favorite section, Fargo and the mine owner avoid the renegades by entering the valley on a foot-wide trail high up on a rock wall. Not only do the men have to navigate this treacherous route, but also they must guide their horses along it.

Fargo is a fun, fast, short book and a welcome break from some of the heavier stuff I have been reading lately.

Among those who have written about Fargo is author and blogger Paul Bishop. James Reasoner wrote an introduction to a recent Kindle edition of Fargo.

(To read more book posts, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Film Noir: The Crooked Way

Amnesia stories require an enormous suspension of disbelief, at least for me, and yet they can be such great yarns.

“The Crooked Way” from 1949 is one of those stories.

Eddie, played by John Payne, is a returning World War 2 veteran with a brain injury that erased his memory. He believes he was originally from Los Angeles and so returns to that city to see if there isn’t something he might recognize that will help him recover. Shortly after arriving, he is harassed by cops who claim he is a gangster, a woman who tells him she is his wife, and some thugs who work him over for cheating them.

If the amnesia premise was not hard enough to overcome, why Eddie would not turn around and get back on the train – any train – and get out of there, is an even bigger mystery than the one proposed in the film. But then, if he did that, there would be no movie. So Eddie sticks around and takes a lot more punishment at the hands of gangster, Vince, played by Sonny Tufts.

Tufts has the usual beef with his former colleague in crime, but even more interesting here is the very strong suggestion that Vince is a drug addict. Drug addiction in movies was strictly forbidden by the Hollywood production code of the time. The filmmakers get around this with a quick explanation that Vince is taking meds for his nerves. They even show the audience his prescription bottle. And somehow they got it past the censors.

Director Robert Florey provides a fast pace and a lot of violence in this 90-minute movie. And not just movie violence, but people getting the living snot kicked out of them. This was a rare thing for movies of the 1940s, a little less rare in noir films. Still, in this production, the violence is intense. Perhaps the code enforcers paid less attention to modest little pictures than they did to the big studio productions.

Cameraman John Alton – the man who really puts the noir in film noir – keeps everything dark, intriguing and menacing. Even ordinary moments, like three gangsters going up a staircase, is so interesting in its angle and use of light and shadow that it exudes tension. Alton also had a technique in close ups of placing a speck of light in the lead actor’s eyes which somehow created a subtle star burst that gave the players’ faces a special life. He used this technique on leading lady Ellen Drew. He was also great at lighting the villain. Vince always looks crazed and dangerous.

There are a lot of clichés in “The Crooked Way”, and John Payne is not too convincing as a tough guy – not like Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan could be – but the movie is worth watching, especially for fans of the genre.

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

FFB: Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke

This post comes after a re-reading of James Lee Burke’s 2002 novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, or, more accurately I should say it is the second time around. This time I listened to the unabridged audio book of the novel.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is the 12th of Burke’s 20 Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave Robicheaux is a former homicide detective who left the New Orleans Police Department during a low point in his life when he was drinking too much and ghosts of his past were haunting him – the murder of his wife, the war in Vietnam. Now, he is a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, lives in the community and also owns a fishing-tackle and boat-rental business located on his home property.

Iberia Parish is an actual place about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of New Orleans. A parish, is what the state of Louisiana calls its counties. Burke describes many actual places in this and his other Robicheaux novels, and he is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, smells, and time of year in that part of the country.

In Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Dave Robicheaux has two murder mysteries to solve, which may or may not be related. He also goes up against a host of suspects including local toughs, New Orleans mob guys, and a man who may or may not be possessed by the devil, if not a demon himself. The man goes by the name, Legion, which is a reference to a story in the New Testament. Legion is a tall, wrinkled 74-year-old man who is physically powerful and has the power to scare the crap out of everyone – including Dave Robicheaux.

The only one not afraid of Legion, although he should be, is Dave’s friend and former homicide partner, Clete Purcel, now a private detective and bounty hunter. Throughout Burke’s series, Clete will step in to assist Dave, and more often than not he storms ahead and gets himself into a world of trouble. Here, I should note, there is a lot of violence, graphically described, in this book.

While parts of the story can make your hair stand on end, and parts could get your heart racing, the novel also has a good deal of humor, sometimes supplied by Clete Purcel, sometimes by Dave Robicheaux’s first-person observations of the people he must deal with day-to-day. Burke also shows tender moments with Dave and his second wife Bootsie and their adopted daughter Alafair.

Burke's storytelling skills weave so much of the culture, history, food, and dialects of the place into this, and all his Dave Robicheaux novels, that I almost feel I know more about that section of Louisiana than I do about my own town.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is another great novel from James Lee Burke, someone who has been a favorite writer of mine for many years. The audio book, narrated by the late actor Mark Hammer, who recorded several of Burke’s earlier mysteries, is excellent.

(For more book posts, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Eastwood is a youngster compared to Oliveira

The other day, I was talking to someone about Clint Eastwood, saying he was remarkable for continuing to direct movies at his age. He is 86 now (born 1930) and his latest film, “Sully,” came out in September of this year (2016). Mr. Eastwood is defying the idea that the difficult, stressful and physically taxing job of directing films is a young person’s game.
Some of the Hollywood legends made films into their 70s. John Ford was about 71 when he made his last movie, “Seven Women.” Howard Hawks made his last, “Rio Lobo,” when he was 73. Alfred Hitchcock made “Family Plot” when he was about 76. Michael Curtiz did “The Comancheros” when he was about 75.

But Eastwood is unique, turning out movies well into his 80s.
And then I remembered an even more remarkably superannuated movie maker: Manoel de Oliveira.

A few years ago, I saw some of his films on DVD, and was amazed he was still creating at his age. But, when I looked him up the other day on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I was saddened to learn that he had died in 2015 at the age of 106.

Now here is the part that should knock you out: He made his last feature film in 2012 at the age of about 103. Let that sink in before I tell you that the IMDb also says he made a 15-minute documentary the year he died.

Mr. Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908 and made films there starting in the silent era. Due the political climate of the country, his output was spotty until the 1970s, said Dennis Lim in his New York Times obituary of the director.

The three Oliveira films I have been able to view are:

“The Strange Case of Angelica” (2010). This is a strange one indeed. It is the story of a young man who falls in love with a young woman but can never be with her. The movie feels like it traveled through time from the silent era to the 21st Century. I saw it when I was researching a movement called Slow Cinema and I am here to tell you this one is slow – really slow. Luckily, I like a lot of the Slow Cinema productions.

“Belle Toujours” (2006) is the story of an older man who sees an old flame at a concert, pursues her, and after a time convinces her to have dinner with him. Secrets and a lot more are revealed at the dinner and the meal goes on in almost real time. Very slow, but fascinating.

“Taking a Picture” (2003) is several stories about people on a cruise ship. Some of the passengers, including Catherine Deneuve and Irene Pappas, spend a lot of time talking during meals at the captain’s table. John Malkovich plays the ship’s captain. Malkovich made several films with this director, as did Ms. Deneuve.

The films of Manoel de Oliveira are not for everyone, but anyone feeling a little adventurous and willing to let an old master do his thing – no matter how slowly – should give his movies a try.

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

FFB: N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims a Thanksgiving Story

Around the turn of the millennium, I found a glossy, soft-cover book about the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving on sale at a local bookstore, and bought it as a way to teach the story at home.

N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims is an over-sized book of artwork illustrating the story of that famous group who left England in 1620 and sailed for two months to the New World on the ship Mayflower. Their destination was the Virginia Colony, but they landed about 600 miles north in what is now the state of Massachusetts.

There, they established the Plymouth Colony, endured a harsh and deadly winter, and befriended the natives who introduced them to local crops. They planted, tended and harvested the food, and in the fall, had a three-day feast for the survivors of the colony and for their Native American friends.

The paintings in the book are reproductions of murals created by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), depicting scenes in a colorful and romantic style. The story was written by Robert San Souci.

Wyeth, an accomplished artist, had studied at the studio of artist and illustrator Howard Pyle. Later, Wyeth created illustrations for popular editions of Treasure Island and Robin Hood.

In 1940, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (today known simply as MetLife) commissioned Wyeth to create the series of murals for its New York City headquarters.

Wyeth worked on the project until his death in a car accident. His son, Andrew completed the project. Andrew’s son, James, is also a well-known artist.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

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