Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Suspenseful Crime Film “Strongroom”

Another terrific little crime thriller from England in the early 1960s is “Strongroom.”

The title refers to the basement vault of a bank built out of concrete and with a thick steel door.

Three young men stake out a neighborhood bank for weeks, planning to knock it over. But when they move on it, things go wrong.

Forced to lock two bank employees in the air-tight strongroom in order to make their getaway, they are faced with the moral dilemma of possibly letting those people die of asphyxiation while they beat it with the money.

That dilemma creates the tension and suspense in this small, 75-minute movie from 1962.

“Strongroom” has uniformly good performances and some great plot twists.

It stars Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, and William Morgan Sheppard as the bank robbers, and Colin Gordon and Ann Lynn as the bank workers. The movie was directed by Vernon Sewell, a veteran of small-budget pictures, and a good craftsman.

This, and films like it, are difficult to find. But finding it will have its rewards. Right now, a version of it is on YouTube. But many an English B-movie appears and then disappears off that site. So move fast if you want to catch a good one.

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

FFB: Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein’s first book, 1997’s Final Jeopardy, featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper, is two things: a good murder mystery and a well done novel depicting the hectic, stressful life of an ADA. Alex is the top prosecutor of sex crimes in the Manhattan DA’s office

Fairstein knows her subject, she spent 25 years in the Manhattan DA’s office as the leading prosecutor of sex crimes. Her book has the texture and sound of the real thing. She knows how the prosecutors, cops, and criminals think, act and talk.

In this story, an acquaintance of Alex Cooper’s, a beautiful but pushy movie star, is staying at Alex’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard when someone blows her head off. At first, the local police think the victim is Alex, and Alex reads her own obituary in the New York newspapers the next morning. To help the police, she flies up to her summer place with New York City police detective Mike Chapman. Chapman has worked with Alex for years and is assigned to escort her, in case the killer meant to shoot Alex and got the actress by accident.

The suspects in this mystery are well drawn and nicely hidden. The other cases Alex works on are equally interesting and lend a sense of reality. They show how prosecutors with heavy workloads do not focus on one case at a time, but must keep all their cases moving forward.

Since this first book, Fairstein has written 18 more Alex Cooper mysteries. She and her fictional counterpart are said to be the inspiration for the female prosecutors on the TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In July, Fairstein was interviewed on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” program by her friend, reporter Leslie Stahl. The video can be seen here.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Tall Target (1951) a Civil War noir

Director Anthony Mann transitioned from making some of the best noir films of the 1940s to making some of the best westerns of the 1950s. Around the time of that transition, he made the noir period piece, “The Tall Target.”

It is the story of a New York police detective in 1861, who gets wind of an assassination plot against the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, and rushes by train toward Baltimore to intercept Lincoln, who is headed for Washington, D.C., before the plotters can get to him.

The detective, John Kennedy, is played by Dick Powell. Powell at that time in his career made a successful transition himself, from juvenile lead in Warner Bros. musicals to film-noir tough guy in movies like “Murder, My Sweet.”

Much of “The Tall Target” takes place on a train. Its passengers are the suspects. Many of them are Southerners traveling back to their home states.

Actor Marshall Thompson plays a West Point cadet who has resigned to join the Southern cause. He is traveling with some serious weapons, his worried sister, her maid, a young slave woman, played by Ruby Dee.

Also on board is a uniformed Northern militia major, played by Adolphe Menjou, a politician who glad hands Kennedy, but seems only to help if he himself can benefit.

Will Geer plays a tough but tolerant train conductor who grows weary of the many hassles and scrapes detective Kennedy finds himself in.

Leif Erickson, a large actor with a booming voice, plays a dangerous baddie in a startling turn in the film.

This small, dark, 78-minute movie from 1951 is filled with complex characters, and while it has some hokey moments, it is mostly a taught, well-made and suspenseful mystery.

Credit goes to Anthony Mann for the pacing, the tension, and the look of the film. Here he worked with cameraman Paul Vogel with great results. But at that time, Mann often worked with John Alton who shot some of his great noirs like “Raw Deal,” “T-Men,” and “Border Incident.”

“The Tall Target” is an average title for an above average film.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian McShane as an Angry Young College Man in “The Wild and the Willing”

Ian McShane and Samantha Eggar
There is a British movie I saw on television as a teenager and never saw again until recently. But all these years later, two things about the film stuck in my mind. One was the exciting climax of the picture. The other was actress Samantha Eggar.

The movie, “The Wild and the Willing” from 1962 (also called “Young and Willing”), is the story of a group of men and women at an English college, their friendships, their love affairs and their ambitions.

The main story is an “angry young man” tale which does not hold up too well. Harry, played by Ian McShane in his first movie, is a working class lad who earned a scholarship to the college, but who bridles against the institution and the older generation in charge. He believes the professors look down on him and will never accept him.

Harry comes across as a spoiled crybaby. What has he got to complain about? He can do the work. His teachers do not like him, but admit he is smart – smarter than the other students, smarter than some of the instructors. Harry is popular with classmates. And he has a beautiful, intelligent, and level-headed girlfriend, Josie – played by Miss Eggar. He also has a scholarship. I repeat myself, but that one gets me. Today, anyone in college or putting a kid through school would jump for joy at the prospect of a free ride.

The “angry young man” cycle started with John Osborne’s 1956 play, “Look Back in Anger,” which was made into a 1959 movie, and continued for a few years with films like 1960’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Unlike the main characters in those dramas, Harry, is not stuck in a dead-end job nor facing a dull future.

The other puzzling thing about Harry is why Josie wants to be with him. Samantha Eggar is a good actress and she plays the attraction for Harry very well. All the acting here is fine, it is the script that is at fault.

Other, parallel stories are of Andrew, played by Jeremy Brett, a student having an affair with a professor’s wife, and Phil, played by John Hurt, an introverted, socially awkward guy, who looks up to his dorm roommate, Harry.

When Harry decides to pull a dangerous stunt by climbing the exterior of a stone tower, Phil insists on going with him, to prove himself. The climb is a sweaty-palm sequence.

Despite its faults, “The Wild and the Willing” is an entertaining film from the team of director Ralph Thomas and producer Betty E. Box, with a script by Nicholas Phipps and Mordecai Richler, from a play by Laurence Doble and Robert Sloman.

The young cast makes this picture go. Along with McShane, it was the first movie for Samantha Eggar, John Hurt, Jeremy Brett (although some sources say he appeared an earlier film), and others who will be familiar to viewers of English films and television.

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

FFB: A Delivery of Furies by Victor Canning

The adventure novels of Victor Canning are the kinds of books I grew up reading. But I don’t remember ever cracking open one of Canning’s books.

Then, while out of town, I found a 1964 Berkley Medallion paperback of Canning’s 1961 novel A Delivery of Furies in a used bookstore, for a price no one could resist – 25 cents.

A Delivery of Furies is the story of former Royal Air Force pilot Keith Marchant now living in South America and making money by taking on risky assignments from Barrau, a shady middleman. Sometimes the jobs reap big profits, sometimes things go bust, as happens at the beginning of the book when Marchant straggles home to his lodgings in a hotel with nothing – nothing except his life.

Marchant wants to quit this life, buy a friend’s small hotel on a Caribbean island, and live out his days in tropical ease with his girlfriend Drea. But to do that, he needs money. One big score would do it.

Barrau has one for him: Hijack a ship transporting fighter planes – the Furies of the title – and deliver the airplanes to a rebel group fighting for control of an island country. The rebels will pay him cash on delivery.

What could go wrong?

Plenty. Although some of the plot twists were pretty obvious. It is amazing the experienced Marchant could not foresee them. But Canning’s brisk writing speeds past those holes and plunges Marchant into more trouble. Along with first-person narrator Marchant, two other characters, Monk, a middle-aged former soldier who goes along on the job as Marchant’s right-hand man, and Parkes, a gruff engineer sent along by the aircraft company to supervise the assembly of the planes, are well drawn.

Canning’s writing style and his ability to keep the action moving is enjoyable, making A Delivery of Furies a fast, fun read.

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Suspenseful film “Terror on a Train”

“Terror on a Train” is the terrible title of a tight thriller. In this 1953 film, Glenn Ford stars as a former army bomb disposal expert called in to take care of a device planted on a trainload of munitions.

Anytime anyone on screen has to defuse a bomb, the tension and suspense is always high. This plot has worked in any number of films from Michael Powell’s “The Small Back Room” in 1949 to Richard Lester’s “Juggernaut” in 1974 to Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” in 1996. It was even the plot of a British TV series from 1979 called “Danger UXB.”

In “Terror on a Train,” average-guy Ford is the only expert who can get to the targeted train in time to do the job. The former World War II service man is now settled into a suburban life in England with his volatile French wife. The subplot of the wife feels tacked on and adds nothing to the movie.

What works like crazy is seeing Ford arrive at a small village where the train has been sidetracked and realize he has only hours to find the detonator that will ignite half a dozen train cars loaded with undersea mines. The job is nearly impossible, but he tackles it – gently. Every bump could set off an explosion that would not only vaporize Ford and the train, but also a big hunk of the town.

This taught little 72-minute, black-and-white thriller was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who four years earlier made the terrific suspense film, “The Window.”

If “Terror on a Train” shows up on cable, watch it. And don’t let the title turn you off. This is a good one.

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mystery “Wind River” is a Movie to See

Wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, discovers a young Native American woman dead in the snow, miles from anywhere on the Wind River Reservation. The girl is barefoot, appears badly beaten, and only her own tracks lead to her body. Lambert works with an inexperienced FBI agent and an older, Native American tribal police officer to find out what happened to the girl.

“Wind River” is a fine mystery with a serious theme of violence against Native women. The film was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the modern-day Western, “Hell or High Water,” my favorite film of 2016.

The acting, especially by Jeremy Renner in the lead and Gil Birmingham as the father of the dead girl, is way above average. Add to that the mountains, the snow, the homes and the people of the region and this a movie to see.

Catch it on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Film Noir: Alias Nick Beal

The 1949 film noir, “Alias Nick Beal,” is a movie I waited decades to see again. This month, I got my chance thanks to a late-night showing on Turner Classic Movies.

Foster, an ambitious district attorney, lacking evidence to prosecute a slick racketeer, states aloud he would sell his soul to nail the guy. Right on cue, he receives a note to meet a mysterious and sinister man named Nick Beal who claims he can help.

Beal’s help is strictly illegal, but Foster gets the evidence he needs and never questions how Beal accomplished the impossible. Beal continues to help Foster win cases and eventually become governor. Before calling for the ultimate payment, Beal insists Foster appoint certain people to influential offices.

Foster is in too deep, but a close friend, a local pastor is on to the devil in disguise and steps in to help his friend.

Nick Beal is played by a quietly understated Ray Milland, who is usually the sophisticated lead, sometimes the comic hero. Foster is played by character actor Thomas Mitchell, who was Scarlet O’Hara’s father in “Gone with the Wind” and the drunken doctor in “Stagecoach.” The pastor is played by George Macready, who usually portrayed villains. Audrey Totter is a woman recruited by Beal to lead Foster astray, and Geraldine Wall is Foster’s strong, upstanding wife.

“Alias Nick Beal” plays out in deep shadow, fog and settings straight out of German Expressionism. A waterfront dive Beal uses as his meeting place with Foster is literally crooked, with a sloping floor, a bar angling downhill and cockeyed tables. The saloon, with its sketchy lighting, is as disorienting to the viewer as it is to Foster.

Director John Farrow displays some of the fluid camera work that made his 1948 film version of “The Big Clock” – also with Milland – so interesting. And the subtle, low key tone of the film adds to the mystery and menace.

“Alias Nick Beal” is well worth a look, and now that TCM has shown it, let’s hope it is not decades before it airs again.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

FFB: Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Last month, Patti Abbott on her blog asked the question: What book has been on your to-be-read pile the longest?

For me, it had to be Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. That one was on a shelf behind my desk for – I don’t know how long.

Last week, looking for a fun summer read, I took it down and gave it a try. It grabbed me right from the start and I sped through it in no time. That last is not hard to do. The paperback was 159 pages. The adventure tale was a pure pleasure as told by Hope in a brisk, exciting style. He kept the story moving on every page, and even had his first person narrator, Rudolf Rasendyll, apologize to the reader when he felt the need to provide a bit of background before pressing on with the action.

Rasendyll, an English gentleman, travels to the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, a small, German-speaking state, curious to see where a distant part of his family came from. Generations back, the then king of Ruritania visited Britain, had an affair with an English woman, and ever since an occasional descendant of the lady inherits the unmistakable looks of the Ruritanian royal family. Rudolf Rasendyll, inherited those looks, and once in the country, finds that he is a dead ringer for the new king.

By chance, English Rudolf meets King Rudolf and, delighted, the king invites him to dinner at his country lodge along with his faithful companions, a loyal old soldier, Colonel Sapt, and a young nobleman, Fritz von Tarlenheim. These two men are astonished by the identical looks of the two Rudolfs.

That night, the king’s evil half brother, Michael, springs a plot to seize the throne of Ruritania by kidnapping the king and holding him prisoner at his castle in the country’s region of Zenda. But Fritz and Sapt counter Michael by coaching English Rudolf and convincing him to impersonate the king until they can rescue royal Rudolf. These events send the adventure into high gear as Michael and his gang try to eliminate both Rudolfs. English Rudolf, is successful in his impersonation, and for weeks takes on the role of the king and does it well. But thrown together with the beautiful Princess Flavia – whom the king, through long arrangement, is to marry – Rudolf falls in love with her himself. Rudolf even considers remaining on the throne of Ruritania. But he is a high-minded Englishman, and his code of honor will not allow him to follow his heart. Instead, he carries out his task and risks his own life fighting to rescue the king.


Even though I knew the story well, having seen three movie versions of it – the 1922 silent, a 1952 MGM remake, and best of all, the 1937 David O. Selznick production – I still enjoyed the novel. Where the movies had to streamline the story, reducing the amount of action and behind the scenes intrigue, the novel was free to plunge Rudolf into many more situations.

Reading The Prisoner of Zenda, I found the time period a little hazy. The independent kingdom could have been one of the German states of the mid-19th century, before unification. But that is a minor point.

Another small point that intrigued me came at the beginning when Rudolf Rasendyll explains to his sister-in-law that he sees no need to work since his late father set him up with a comfortable annual income of £2,000. Wondering how much that would be in today’s U.S. dollars, I used some on-line conversion sites and figured £2,000 in 1894 would now be more than $265,000 a year.

The Prisoner of Zenda was the most enjoyable book I have read so far this summer, and I look forward to reading Anthony Hope’s sequel, Rupert of Hentzau.

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a Video to See

Tim Jenison, an inventor and entrepreneur who made a bundle in the tech industry with innovative computer graphics, read a couple of books each of which touching on the idea that Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, may not have been so much an artist as an inventor.

Using lenses available in his day and the concept of a camera obscura, Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces by using a form of image projection.

Intrigued by this concept, Tim set out to recreate the ancient technology Vermeer may have used, and to paint his own picture in Vermeer’s style.

The project took years, but Tim seemed to be on to something.

This documentary follows his incredibly painstaking process, including building a replica of Vermeer’s studio and creating paints from scratch to match what was available in Holland at the time.

Tim’s journey is so intriguing, so interesting and so revealing, that halfway through the movie, I suspected the whole thing was a hoax – a mockumentary. After all, the film was produced by Penn and Teller, the comedy and magic team.

But “Tim’s Vermeer” is real, the man's dedication and persistence is amazing, and the 80-minute movie is worth watching.