Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MOVIE: The Saint in London (1939)

“The Saint in London” is considered the best of the seven-film series of B-movies made by RKO in the 1930s and 1940s featuring Simon Templar.

Templar, aka the Saint, was Leslie Charteris’ sophisticated thief and modern-day Robin Hood.

After watching “The Saint in London” recently, I would agree. It is the third entry in the series, the second to star George Sanders – the best Simon Templar, in my opinion – and the only one produced in England. Later Saint movies were filmed there, but of the original series, this (I am pretty sure) was the only one. All the others were made in Hollywood.

The use of actual London locations and an English cast, including a young Sally Gray as Simon Templar’s girlfriend, was a big plus.

Unlike the original Leslie Charteris story it is based on, Simon Templar and Penny Parker (a name change from the original story) do not live together. He meets her for the first time at the beginning of the film. After that, she comes and goes easily from Templar’s London townhouse.

Sally Gray did not make too many movies, but was a good actress with a fantastic voice, and who was memorable in the movie, “Green for Danger.”

George Sanders was perfect casting as Simon Templar. He could pull off the debonair, witty, anti-hero better than almost anyone. Sanders is perhaps best known for his role as the theater critic in “All About Eve.” The only drawback to Sanders as the Saint was that he did not seem young enough or fit enough to match Leslie Charteris’ descriptions. But, for that, they would have needed Errol Flynn, which would have made it a whole different kind of picture.

The film follows a Leslie Charteris’ story, but if his plot about a gang attempting to distribute illegal Italian currency was thin, the filmmakers played it down even more, the way Alfred Hitchcock used a “McGuffin” – a plot device to thrust the characters into action, but something the audience does not care about. That works thanks to the brisk direction of John Paddy Carstairs. The film also has a nice, dark, noir look to it.

Now for a bit of confusion: The film, “The Saint in London,” is not based on Leslie Charteris’ 1934 book, The Saint in London, which is a collection of three novellas. It is based on The Million Pound Day, which is a novella found in a 1932 collection of three called, The Saint versus Scotland Yard. (My review of the novella is here.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

FFB: The Saint / The Million Pound Day by Leslie Charteris

It has been a long time since I read any of Leslie Charteris’ stories of Simon Templar – aka the Saint. The last time may have been in high school – so make that a very long time.

Last week, I bought a $1.49 Kindle copy of The Saint versus Scotland Yard, a 1932 book containing three Saint novellas – The Inland Review, The Million Pound Day, and The Melancholy Journey of Mr. Teal – and read the middle story first.

In it, Simon Templar, driving back to London at night, stops to help a dazed, exhausted and beaten man running from a pursuing thug. The thug is part of a gang planning to pass a million pounds worth of illegal Italian currency. The man Templar helps is an Italian official in England to stop the gang. The Saint hides the man in a safe place and takes up the cause.

None of this will spoil the mystery of the story because there is not much of a mystery in The Million Pound Day. The novella is an adventure yarn with the Saint hunting down the leader of the gang while dodging the police. The cops are always eager to slap the cuffs on Simon Templar because the Saint frequently breaks the law, but usually to help others.

The dashing, erudite Templar goes head to head with the gang’s leader, matching wits and showing just how unflappable he can be in the face of danger. At one point, a gun at his back, he causally composes a little ditty about the situation just to annoy the bad guys and amuse himself.

But, occasionally, the Saint can be an obnoxious jerk, as when he eludes Inspector Claud Eustace Teal of Scotland Yard with a rapid fire stream of pure BS. In that instance, he was assisted by his girlfriend, Patricia Holm.

Templar and Holm live together in the Saint’s London townhouse, an interesting plot element considering the era.

The Million Pound Day is a fast, easy read, written in a breezy, lighthearted style, although Charteris’ unusual word choices sent me to the dictionary a few times, looking up words like “spondulix,” an archaic term for money. The language, especially Templar’s clever dialogue add to the fun of this Saint story.

The one sour note was the racist descriptions of one member of the gang. Maybe that was acceptable then, but we know better now. (I hope.)

Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) introduced Simon Templar in his 1928 book Meet the Tiger. He continued writing Saint stories until 1963 when other authors took over the writing under Charteris’ guidance.

Monday, June 4, 2018

“The Rider” is a Movie to See

ChloĆ© Zhao's quietly moving modern-day western “The Rider” is not so much a drama as an experience.

The film blends fact and fiction in the story of Brady Blackburn, a young rodeo rider, who after an accident and a serious head injury can no longer do what he lives to do.

Brady is played by Brady Jandreau, a former rodeo rider who had the same thing happen to him.

Jandreau can not only mesmerize audiences, he can also mesmerize horses. In an astounding scene, Jandreau, who is also a trainer, approaches a wild horse in a corral and gently calms it.

This movie's story and the images will stay with you long after the lights come up.

If you need more convincing before going to see this excellent little film, check out Justin Chang’s review in the Los Angeles Times.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

John Garfield in Pride of the Marines

Yesterday was Memorial Day, a national holiday for Americans to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military men and woman, past and present.

On Memorial Day, I caught a picture I had heard about and watched clips of, but had never seen from beginning to end. The movie was “Pride of the Marines” from 1945.

Made during World War II, it was based on the true story of Al Schmid, a Marine whose heroism during the fighting on Guadalcanal in 1942 earned him the Navy Cross, but also cost him his eyesight.

The film is in four parts: Schmid and his budding romance with a hometown girl just before the war; Schmid in combat; Schmid recovering in a military hospital; and Schmid returning home. The first section is pretty corny by today’s standards, but, as was done in “The Deer Hunter,” it showed the characters before the war touched any of them. The second section, set mostly in a foxhole where Schmid and two other Marines fought off overwhelming attacks, was harrowing. The sweat and tension of these men anticipating a night raid and the violence and chaos of the attack was outstanding work by three actors – John Garfield as Schmid, Dane Clark and Anthony Caruso. Garfield was one of the finest actors of his generation.

Another outstanding sequence was Schmid’s resistance to being sent home from the hospital, accepting that he would never see again, and facing his fiancee. And there was a small but poignant moment when an African-American train porter told Schmid he had read about him Life magazine and that it was an honor to have him on his train. The porter then refused to take the tip Schmid’s buddy offered. The simplicity of the scene and the dignity of the porter and of the Marines made the moment memorable. Credit for it, and for the entire movie, goes to director Delmer Daves and writer Albert Maltz.

Daves, who had worked in Hollywood since the early 1920s, wrote and directed films across many genres, including the Humphrey Bogart noir, “Dark Passage,” and the original “3:10 to Yuma.” Albert Maltz was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for “Pride of the Marines.” Two years later, Maltz was one of the “Hollywood 10,” writers and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was sent to jail.

Garfield, Daves and Maltz had worked together on the 1943 submarine war film, “Destination Tokyo,” and Garfield may have known Maltz from his New York days with the Group Theater.

Friday, May 25, 2018

FFB: The Men From The Boys by Ed Lacy

Back in February, George Kelley and James Reasoner, reviewed the same book on the same day, and that sent me hunting for Ed Lacy’s 1956 crime novel, The Men From The Boys.

I found a copy of this hard-boiled, noir novel of a thuggish ex-cop.

Once the toughest detective on the force until he was shoved out in disgrace, Marty Bond, now older and with many regrets, gets the chance to make some things right with one last case.

Lacy pulls no punches with Marty. He is not a good guy. Readers will understand him while not liking him.

This suspense story comes to an action-packed conclusion with a weird final scene. But that hardly matters. It was the characters, the lean, punchy writing style, and the cynical dialogue that kept me turning the pages of this short book.

Ed Lacy (1911-1968) was the pen name of Leonard Zinberg, a prolific writer of novels and short stories from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s.

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

“Beirut” is a Movie to See

Starting in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1972, the film opens with Mason Skiles (played by Jon Hamm), an American diplomat, hosting a party at his beautiful home, when terrorists strike. Skiles’s wife is killed in the attack.

The story then jumps forward 10 years, finding Skiles in the U.S., a labor negotiator by day and a booze hound by night. While knocking back drinks at a local watering hole, Skiles is approached by a man he knew during his foreign service days. The man has a proposition, fly to Beirut and give a lecture at a university and earn a tidy sum for not much work. Of course there is more to this proposal. American officials in Lebanon want Skiles to negotiate for the return of an American who was snatched off the streets of Beirut. The kidnapped man was a friend back in the day, but returning to city of his nightmares tears at Skiles.

“Beirut” is a well-made spy thriller with good performances from Hamm, Rosamund Pike as the person assigned to handle him during the job, and the rest of the cast.

The smart, complex script is by Tony Gilroy, and the direction by Brad Anderson.

This film is not going to attract huge audiences of teens and 20-somethings and may not last long in theaters. So try to catch it on the big screen before it disappears.

Friday, April 20, 2018

FFB: Honey in His Mouth by Lester Dent

Prolific author Lester Dent is a writer I have not read nearly enough of, but working to correct that I picked up Honey in His Mouth, his fast paced, unpredictable, crime novel.

Giving away too much of the plot would steal from readers the pleasure of discovering this story for themselves. So, all I will say is this:

A shifty guy named Walter Harsh, who scratches out a barely legal living as a photographer, is approached by a shady man who has a money-making scheme. Harsh is a dead ringer for an important person.

Dent keeps the story moving, filling it with one unexpected turn after another. Walter Harsh hangs in there, twist after twist, focusing on the big money at stake, even though his life is at stake too. Greed keeps winning out. This is a noir novel with fear, criminality and sex on every page.

Lester Dent (1904-1959) who came up through the pulps and created Doc Savage, knew how to keep his main character and his reader hooked and squirming.

Publishers Weekly said Dent wrote the book in 1956, but it was not published until 2009 when Hard Case Crime issued it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

FFB: Black Mask Stories by Frederick Nebel and George Harmon Coxe

This week I dove into my late-winter impulse buy, The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, edited by Otto Penzler. It is 1112-page paperback with 53 stories from that pulp.

To start, I picked two stories featuring newspaper men.

In “Fall Guy,” by George Harmon Coxe, Boston newspaper photographer Flashgun Casey responds to a call for help from a woman being blackmailed. It is not long before Casey gets himself beaten up, knocked out, suspected of murder, and made the fall guy when $10,000 of the woman’s cash is stolen.

Coxe’s style is light and straight forward. There is not a lot of depth or character development here, and no newspaper work, other than two brief references. I would have liked more newsroom chaos, headlines and great photos caught on the fly. But the story was fast paced with plenty of action.

Publications like Black Mask certainly had an impact on the movies in the early sound era. But, reading “Fall Guy,” I wondered if by June 1936, when “Fall Guy” was published, the movies were having their own effect on the pulps. Coxe’s writing had the feeling of a jaunty B-picture from that time.

George Harmon Coxe, (1901 – 1984), wrote yarns featuring Casey through the 1930s and into the 1940s. The character also starred in a radio program. Coxe wrote another series with another newspaper photographer called Kent Murdock.

“Doors in the Dark,” by Frederick Nebel, was published in the February 1933, issue. In it, police Captain Steve MacBride and newspaper reporter, Kennedy (no first name given), solve the murder of a friend of MacBride’s. The man, found dead in a waterfront warehouse, appeared to have committed suicide. But MacBride rejects that idea and digs into what really happened.

Descriptions in the story are a bit clunky, but Nebel’s dialogue is snappy and his story has momentum. Nothing stops MacBride once he takes on a case. And Kennedy is a surprise. He is always drinking but never too drunk to help solve the murder.

Nebel uses some archaic words which give the story a feeling of the times. He calls MacBride’s police car a “phaeton,” an old word for a touring carriage. A woman “flounced” across a room. And twice someone “scaled” an object, as in, “Cohen scaled a slip of paper onto the desk.”

Scale is a word I associate with climbing mountains, weighing objects, or cleaning fish, but I’ve never heard anyone use it as Nebel does. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary provides several definitions, including this one: “to throw (something, such as a thin, flat stone) so that the edge cuts the air or so that it skips on water: skim.”

Frederick Nebel (1903 – 1967), is a writer I know from a book of his collected short stories featuring a detective named Cardigan. His MacBride-Kennedy characters were featured in a series of B-movies in the 1930s with some changes. Newspaper man Kennedy became newspaper woman Torchy Blane.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Chicago crime film "Undertow" (1949)

The 1949 movie, “Undertow,” is a nicely produced if not too surprising crime story of a returning army vet, Reagan, who travels across the country to marry his long-time sweetheart, the niece of a Chicago racketeer.

Reagan, once a delinquent associated with a gang, is warned off by both the girl’s uncle and the Chicago police who pick him up the moment he sets foot in their city. When he disregards the advice and goes to see his girlfriend, he is slugged and framed for the murder of the uncle.

Wanted by cops, Reagan has nowhere to hide except at the apartment of a young school teacher he met on his cross-country trip.

With all avenues blocked and no leads on who actually killed the uncle, Reagan feels backed into a deadly corner, just like most protagonists in film noir. This is a smoothly told, 71-minute crime picture with compelling stars and a lot of interesting location photography in Chicago and in Reno, Nevada.

“Undertow” stars Scott Brady (brother of Lawrence Tierney) as Reagan, Peggy Dow (an up and coming star of the era who quit Hollywood a few years later) as the teacher, and John Russell (who went on to play a tough sheriff on TV’s “Lawman”). If you look quick, you will spot Rock Hudson (listed as “Roc”) as a detective in one of his earliest roles.

The movie was directed by William Castle, who made crime films and westerns in the 1940s and 1950s, and went on to produce and direct a series of horror movies with promotional gimmicks like “The Tingler,” where theater seats were wired to give viewers a mild zap.

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Radio Interviews with Edward Bunker and Danny Trejo

Danny Trejo
Danny Trejo, the movie tough guy, and real-life tough guy, of films like “Machete,” and Edward Bunker, former convict and author of hard novels like No Beast So Fierce, knew each other.

They met in prison.

Edward Bunker
Both Trejo and Bunker spent parts of their youths in California state correctional facilities.

Last week, Terry Gross, host of radio’s Fresh Air program, interviewed Danny Trejo who spoke about his early days and how he came to know Bunker.

Then, in the same one-hour program, Gross replayed a long excerpt from her 1993 interview with Bunker.

Hearing Bunker’s voice was as interesting as what he had to say. Bunker died in 2005.

The interviews can be found and heard here (NPR).