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.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Film: “Old Glory” 1939 Cartoon Short

Here is an 8 ½-minute short film for the Fourth of July.

In “Old Glory,” Porky Pig falls asleep and gets an American history lesson in his dreams.

This 1939 Warner Bros. cartoon was directed by Chuck Jones and produced by Leon Schlesinger.

YouTube has the film in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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

Friday, July 1, 2016

FFB: A Man Called Spade by Dashiell Hammett

A Man Called Spade is a collection of five short stories by Dashiell Hammett, three of which feature his private detective Sam Spade – or as Hammett always calls him – Samuel Spade. (Interesting that Hammett’s first name was Samuel. His middle name was Dashiell.) Hammett introduced Spade in his 1929 novel, The Maltese Falcon.

In “A Man Called Spade,” the first story, Spade gets a call from a man who says he is being threatened and wants Spade to come to his home right away. When Spade arrives the man is dead and the police are there, including Detectives Polhaus and Dundy, who were also featured in The Maltese Falcon.

Spade behaves as an equal and a professional around the cops. He is friendly with Polhaus, but at odds with the older detective, Dundy, who outwardly shows his dislike of Spade. Spade maintains a quiet, professionalism. Hammett lets the reader know how good he is under pressure, at a murder scene or facing a potential killer, by briefly noting how Spade rolls his own cigarets. When things heat up, Spade will spring into action, moving very fast.

In short order, a series of characters, any of whom could be the killer, are introduced and questioned by Spade and the cops. In about 50 pages, Spade figures out whodunit.

Hammett’s trademark style of lean, hard prose and clipped, realistic dialog are there on every page of the three Spade stories. Like Ernest Hemingway, Hammett found that what he left out was as important as what put into a story. A nice example is the opening of “They Can Only Hang You Once,” the second story in the collection:

Samuel Spade said, “My name is Ronald Ames. I want to see Mr. Binnett – Mr. Timothy Binnett.”

“Mr. Binnett is resting now, sir,” the butler replied hesitantly.

With those two spare lines, Hammett paints a vivid picture. Spade is at the front door of the mansion of a wealthy, probably elderly man, and he is pulling some kind of ruse to gain entry to the house. Hammett says all that without saying it.

In this story, Spade gets involved with the murder of a relative of the old man and one of the house servants. They die due to a secret the old fellow is hiding and which Spade discovers.

In the third story, “Too Many Have Lived,” Spade gets in the middle of a blackmail scheme and butts heads with some other baddies looking to cut themselves in on the payoff.

All three of the Spade stories are – I hate to say it – a little thin and give the impression that Hammett was resting on his laurels and dashing off puzzles for quick money. The stories appeared in magazines in the early 1930s, before being collected in this book.

The fourth story, “The Assistant Murderer,” does not feature Sam Spade and is a long, fairly dull procedural featuring an uninteresting detective.

The book is saved by the last story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” which was quite good and written in a different style. Through first-person narration, the story is told by a very young boxer at a crucial point in his budding career. His older brother is acting as his manager, even though the brother does not seem to know much about training or arranging bouts. But the boy trusts him to the point of being blind the deals the brother is making. The tragic ending is touching, and that is unusual for the usually cool, Hammett.

All in all, this 1944 Dell paperback was a treat to read. Even if the tales were not as good as his earlier work, just being in the world of Hammett was well worth the time spent.

(For more posts on forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog and Todd Mason's blog.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Film: In the Heat of the Night

Recently, I wrote a piece about John Ball’s 1965 novel, In the Heat of the Night. Several days later, a cable channel ran the 1967 movie based on the book.

The movie I had seen before, but watching it again so close to having finished the novel made for an interesting comparison.

The book and screen stories are about a black man, mistakenly arrested for murder in a town in the American south, who turns out to be a cop. Virgil Tibbs, the black detective, is asked to help the local police chief, Bill Gillespie, in the murder investigation. Tibbs stays, and his presence causes sparks to fly in a town unused to dealing with an African-American as an equal, let alone an authority.

Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Norman Jewison wisely kept the structure of the mystery and even more wisely kept some of the best lines from the book, particularly, “I’m a police officer,” and “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” But the filmmakers veered away from the book in adapting it for the screen. Again, wisely, they created more drama and more dramatic scenes between Tibbs and Gillespie, played by Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. They also took away the only ally Tibbs had in the novel, a rich and powerful man named Endicott. In the movie, Endicott is the county’s wealthiest resident and his cotton empire is the major employer. Reimagining him as a bigoted Big Daddy brings about a conflict with Tibbs that so shocks Endicott that he has to confirm the incident by asking Gillespie, “Did you see that?” To which Gillespie responds, “I saw it…” and actor Steiger leaves off the usual completion of the phrase, “…but I don’t believe it.”

At that point in the story, Tibbs won a grudging respect from Gillespie, who is losing his balance and is now putting the law and good police work ahead of the traditional racial biases.

Steiger did a great job of playing the middle-aged southern cop who changes during the course of the story. As in the book, Gillespie is a newly appointed police chief and over his head when it comes to major crimes. As played by Steiger, he seems to have been a former motorcycle cop (his tinted glasses and his trousers tucked into his boots give that impression) who thinks he can control the town the way he controlled speeding motorists.

The movie’s Virgil Tibbs is more aggressive than the book’s when it comes to showdowns with Gillespie. Their scenes together make this movie soar.

The filmmakers made a few other changes for the film. They set the town in Mississippi, where the book mentioned it being somewhere in the Carolinas. They added a chase scene when a suspect is tracked down. They also amped up a fight scene and the climax of the movie. Some of the characters were changed, including the murdered man. They also dropped several characters or reduced them to supporting roles, like Officer Sam Wood, who plays a central part in the book.

“In the Heat of the Night” hit theaters at a time when civil rights were on the news every evening. Americans saw southern cops turning fire hoses on protestors and threatening them with police dogs. Activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. The movie, “Mississippi Burning,” was based on that case. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. One year after “In the Heat of the Night” came out, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. It was a violent and dangerous time in America.

As a kid growing up in the North, I remember teenagers talking worriedly about plans to go on spring break in Florida. To get there, they would have to drive through several southern states where they feared cops like Chief Gillespie would not look kindly on “hippie long hairs.” Even if their hair was not that long, they were still Yankees.

Strangely, just three years after the release of the movie, Dodge, the car company, came out with a television commercial in which a southern cop pulls over a young (white) fellow driving a new, 1970 Challenger. The spot made fun of the cop who in a few short years had become a cliché and a joke. Several years after that, Jackie Gleason played a comic version of a small-town southern police chief chasing Burt Reynolds in 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit.”

But in 1967, when “In the Heat of the Night” came out, that kind of cop was no joke.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2016

FFB: In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

John Ball’s 1965 Edgar Award winning In the Heat of the Night is a book I owned but never read because I knew the 1967 film so well. I thought it would be impossible to separate the actors in the movie from the characters in the book. As it turned out, Ball’s depiction of Police Chief Bill Gillespie of a small, southern town, and Detective Virgil Tibbs from a big city were physically and at times temperamentally different enough to create new mental images of the two men.

In the book, Gillespie and Tibbs are thrown together when Tibbs, while waiting for a train in the middle of the night is picked up on suspicion of murder. The police, including Chief Gillespie, who are white, treat Tibbs, who is black, in the gruff, demeaning manner that was all too common in the south in those days.

When the cops learn that Tibbs is a police officer from Pasadena, California, and that he is a homicide detective, their insular little word is shaken. Most of the staff and many in the town cannot believe that a black man could be a police officer anywhere in America. To further upset them, the wealthiest man in town, Endicott, who moved there from the North, insists that Chief Gillespie contact Pasadena and request Tibbs be loaned to Gillespie’s department to solve the murder case.

The murdered man was an orchestra conductor Endicott invited to organize a summer music festival. The mayor and council agreed to the plan and hoped it would attract tourists and boost the town’s economy.

Under pressure from the city fathers, Chief Gillespie reluctantly agrees to let Tibbs head the homicide investigation.

In the Heat of the Night is not only a good murder mystery, it is also a slice of American history frozen in time. The treatment of Tibbs is especially well drawn by Ball. Only Endicott calls him, Mr. Tibbs. Everyone else calls him Virgil, out of habit and to show they consider him an inferior person. Tibbs, they soon learn, has more education, more police training, more experience and more character than almost anyone else in the town.

The book has three main characters: Virgil Tibbs, Chief Gillespie, and Officer Sam Wood, the cop who discovered the body of the murdered man. Ball presents most of his story through the eyes and thoughts of Gillespie and Wood. These two police men are similar: both are tall and powerful; both are young, 32 and 29; and both are southern. During the course of the novel, they are the characters who change the most. Gillespie and Wood work closely with Tibbs, get to know him, and come to respect him. Scenes involving Tibbs without Gillespie or Wood, remain objective and Virgil Tibbs' thoughts are never revealed other than through observations of his behavior.

Ball, the author of more than 30 novels, went on to write seven more Virgil Tibbs books.

Fifty years after its publication, In the Heat of the Night is still relevant and still packs a punch.

(For more old and possibly forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Film: “The Big Combo” the End of Film Noir

The crime picture, “The Big Combo,” is so chock-full of noir elements it is almost a parody of that film style.

Hitting theaters when it did, in 1955, makes it one of the last movies of the film noir era. That era – the dates are constantly argued – goes from the end of WW2 to about 1955, when the form ran out of gas and tastes changed. Some say film noir started in 1944 with Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” and ended with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in 1958. Others claim earlier and later start and end dates. Whatever the time frame, “The Big Combo” shows the genre coming apart at the seams.

Shot in shadowy black and white by ace cinematographer John Alton, “The Big Combo” is the story of Lt. Diamond, a police detective, played by Cornell Wilde, with twin obsessions – he wants to rid his city of a racketeer named Brown and he desperately wants Brown’s girlfriend, Susan, played by Jean Wallace.

Brown, played by Richard Conte, also has twin obsessions – he wants to be the biggest wheel in the city and he must have sex with Susan, the former society girl now living with Brown. He nearly loses control whenever he is around her, and his touch sends her into a sexual fog. In one scene, Brown practically breaks her neck in the roughest screen kiss ever. In interviews, director Joseph H. Lewis said he pushed the Hollywood production code further than anyone ever had with those scenes. But they are so overwrought that they border on the comical.

In supporting roles as Brown’s hired guns, Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman play heartless killers who also share a bedroom. Veteran tough-guy, Brian Donlevy, is a resentful second in command of Brown’s empire, and through no fault of his, Donlevy’s final scene is so bad that he must have needed the paycheck. Helene Stanton has a nice turn as a leggy chorus girl obsessed with Diamond.

Diamond, the tormented cop, has a smiling, untrustworthy superior, played by Robert Middleton, who is constantly trying to cool down the detective, to the point of killing Diamond’s investigation into a disappearance that Diamond believes was a murder committed by Brown.

Lust, corruption, crime, and violence all play into “The Big Combo,” and are barely contained by director Lewis, who also made “Gun Crazy” and was no stranger to modestly budgeted crime films. He usually handled atmosphere and action well, but in “The Big Combo” he stages a torture scene that is so ludicrous that it damages the remainder of the movie. The dramatic scenes are presented in long, uninterrupted takes with his actors speeding through their lines.

Rushing through Philip Yordan’s script was a mistake. He should have trusted Yordan, a reliable Hollywood vet. (Yordan was also a hero for serving as a “front” for blacklisted friends the 1950s, putting his name on their scripts and selling them to the studios, then turning the money over to the writers so they could make a living.)

Yordan’s stylized lines usually sound great in films like this, and many of them come through fine in “The Big Combo.” For instance, when Diamond tries to convince Susan to leave Brown, she tells him:

“I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond, a strange, blind, and backward maze. And all the little, twisting paths lead back to Mr. Brown.”

Now is that noir dialog, or what?

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

TV: Excellent Mystery Series "Broadchurch"

In a string of comments last week about the mini-series, “The Night Manager,” and its excellent cast, Col, of Col’s Criminal Library, recommended another crime series called “Broadchurch,” which also stars Olivia Colman.

Until this spring, this actress was unknown to me. Until last Friday, this excellent show was unknown to me. (Somehow, I missed the promotional push it got in 2013 when it aired on BBC America.) But, if Col was recommending this 8-episode series, then I was going to watch it. And watch it, I did. In fact, my wife and I binged on it for two days. We just had to find out whodunit.

In episode 1, the fictional seaside village of Broadchurch is rocked by the murder of a local, 11-year-old boy. Suddenly, in a town where everyone knows just about everyone else, people start eying other residents with suspicion.

At the regional police department, a newcomer to town, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant, is assigned to the case. Also on the case is long-time resident, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. Miller, who was hoping to get the DI’s job, is not only disappointed at losing out, but also at having to work with her cold and quirky new boss. Miller, the mother of an 11-year-old boy, also struggles to detach herself emotionally from the case which involves questioning people she has known for years.

To say any more about “Broadchurch” risks spoiling the twists and turns and surprises in this series.

Olivia Colman, who many have the most expressive face on any screen, does a fine job as a woman caught between the job and the town. Tennant also does a good job as the gruff, difficult, and troubled lead detective.

This well written show was created and co-produced by Chris Chibnall, a veteran of British television who wrote for “Doctor Who,” “Law and Order: UK,” and many other shows. He not only creates a compelling mystery, but also populates the show with realistic characters, including the grieving family of the murdered boy.

Another highlight of the show is its location. It was filmed on the southern coast of England, in an area called Dorset where the cliffs are so spectacular I though they may have been created by computer imaging.

“Broadchurch” is an example of just how good television can be.

(For more overlooked films and television shows, visit Todd Mason’s blog.)