Monday, February 19, 2018

Film of blinded war vet “Bright Victory”

This post is a DVR alert.

On Thursday, February 22, Turner Classic Movies will show a terrific little film called “Bright Victory.”

It is the story of a soldier blinded in battle during World War II, and sent to an Army hospital in the U.S. to recover and learn to deal with his loss of sight. He also has to learn to overcome his emotional response and the reactions of his family.

Arthur Kennedy stars in this 1951 movie and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Don’t miss it.

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

FFB: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy’s gritty, sweaty, 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a terrific little, 129-page book.

Robert shoots and kills a girl, and that is not a spoiler, he tells us this on the first page. While listening to the judge sentence him, he thinks back on how he got involved with her.

He and Gloria, after failing to find a day’s work as extras at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, meet on the sidewalk, talk and quickly decide to enter a dance marathon in the hopes of winning the $1,000 prize and being discovered by influential movie people who might be in the audience.

Dozens of other couples have the same dream and will put themselves through grueling hours, days and weeks of dancing round the clock, with ten minute breaks to eat and sleep before being summoned back to the floor.

McCoy, who had many jobs including soldier, reporter and actor, landed in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, pursuing an acting career. Acting did not pan out, but he continued to write novels, short stories and many screenplays until his death in 1955. Several sources say he also worked as a bouncer at a dance marathon. Whether he did or not, he knew his subject and described the marathon in detail with well-drawn characters, from the shady people running the event, to the desperate people competing in it, to the crowds attending it to see the worn out couples collapsing from exhaustion.

Robert and Gloria have dreams of breaking into the movies and making it big in Hollywood, but while Robert’s dream is still alive, Gloria’s is crushed and fading fast.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? could be about Hollywood and how it treats the young hopefuls. Or, the dance marathon could represent the country during the Great Depression, with people willing to do anything to keep living. Most of the dancers are thankful just to have a place to sleep and eat for free. Or, it could be McCoy’s take on human life, but I hope not, otherwise it would make him as cynical, disillusioned and depressed as Gloria. Throughout the book, she keeps telling Robert she wishes she were dead and finally begs him to kill her.

The cops arresting Robert ask why he did it? The former farm boy, recalling a plow horse that broke its leg, answers, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

Horace McCoy pulls no punches in this book, and some of the language is surprisingly coarse for a novel published in 1935. Several times Gloria snaps off a “f— you” at people, which the publisher printed just that way. She tells off some do-gooders in colorful language and urges a fellow dancer to get an abortion, nearly causing a fight between Robert and the girl’s husband. And Gloria, for cash or advantage, has a quickie under the bandstand with the sleazy master of ceremonies. All this makes They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? sound like an unsavory novel, but McCoy’s talent keeps everything moving and understandable, and for a book about people going round and round in a circle, there is not a dull passage.

After reading the book, I looked for newsreel footage on these kinds of events. Here is a YouTube clip about 1930s dance marathons. Just about everything shown here is also in McCoy’s book.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Day for “Lincoln”

When I first went to school, we kids had two holidays in February.

One was George Washington's Birthday, February 22, a national holiday since 1885. But Congress, in order to form a more perfect weekend, declared it a floating date and ever since 1971 the holiday has floated to the third Monday of the month. This legislative change was part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. (I’m not kidding, you can look it up.) The federal government still calls this day Washington’s Birthday, but most everyone else calls it Presidents Day.

The other day out of school was February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. This was not a federal holiday, but states could declare it locally, and so we had the day off.

Today is February 12, and to remember the man, I am recommending the 2012 movie, “Lincoln.”

It is one of the best films Stephen Spielberg ever directed and it has an outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president.

Other generations have had their Lincoln movies, and for years Henry Fonda, in 1939’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” and Raymond Massey, in 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” were the images many held in their minds. Both were fine actors, but for me, Day-Lewis outdid them by becoming the flesh and blood man. The actor disappeared into the role and he won an Academy Award for his performance.

So today, or sometime this month, see this picture again. And if you have not seen it, put it at the top of your list.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

FFB: Art in America by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty’s 2008 novel Art in America is part comedy, part tragedy, and part crime story, peopled with well drawn characters.

In the first few pages, Steven Kearney, a struggling, middle-age, New York City writer with few if any produced plays and several unpublished books, is dumped by his girlfriend, kicked out of his apartment and hit by a taxi. But he is taken in by his old friend Roarke, a theater director who believes in Kearney's talent.

His luck changes when he is offered a paying gig by a small Colorado town to go there and write a play about its history.

The town of Creedemore is filled with residents trying to get along with one another and usually failing. There is nonagenarian Ticky Lettgo a cantankerous old, gun-toting, tough-talking, land owner and his dispute with newcomer Mountain Man Red Fields, the owner and guide of a river-rafting company. When Mountain Man takes customers down a waterway cutting through Ticky’s property, Ticky shoots up the rafts, scares the bejabbers out of the timid tourists and winds up in court fighting to uphold his rights as he sees them.

The trial attracts a crowd of spectators including old-style Westerners supporting Ticky, and protestors on Mountain Man’s side. Some of the protestors get so carried away that they plot a terrorist act to make a point.

Trying to control all this is Sheriff Petey Meyers, a former Boston cop whose partner was killed in the line of duty. Petey talks to his dead partner regularly and out loud, especially when situations get dicey.

Through all this, Kearney toils away at his art, filled at first with self-doubt, but finding his way and a new life, new friends and even love.

Ron McLarty is a long-time character actor whom many would recognize from dozens of TV appearances, including several episodes of “Law & Order” in which he played a cranky judge.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Italian Crime Film: Caliber 9

Of the many Italian crime films produced in the 1970s, “Caliber 9” is among the best.

This 88-minute movie from 1972 was made by one of the top directors of the genre, Fernando Di Leo, and it is almost non-stop action.

The story is simple. Local gangsters transferring a large amount of cash get ripped off, but cannot figure out how the package of money got switched with a bundle of blank paper. Their only clue is Ugo, played by Gastone Moschin, an unsmiling, man of few words who was in on the transfer. But Ugo will not help them. All he wants to do is get away from the mob and the cops, and disappear with his beautiful girlfriend, played by Barbara Bouchet.

Director Di Leo excelled in the action sequences, but the overly talky police-station scenes are stagnant. Fortunately there are not many of them.

This kind of violent, low-budget production has some disturbing moments and is definitely not for everyone.

“Caliber 9” is available from Criterion.

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

Thursday, January 4, 2018

FFB: Act of Fear by Michael Collins

Michael Collins was an author new to me until this year when I read a review of one of his Dan Fortune books. The piece intrigued me enough to search out the first Fortune novel and that’s where I started, with Act of Fear.

Dan Fortune is a private investigator living in the Chelsea section of New York City, the neighborhood he was born in, raised in and turned to crime in during his juvenile delinquent years. His criminal career ended before it really got started when the teenage Fortune injured and later lost an arm during a heist. He straightened out and started snooping to earn a living.

In this 1966 novel, a young guy from the neighborhood hires Fortune to look for his friend, Jo-Jo, a car mechanic who disappeared. No one has seen or heard from him in several days.

Fortune accepts a fee and goes looking for Jo-Jo, but the guy is harder to find than the PI expected. A couple of serious crimes were committed in the working-class area including the mugging of a cop and the murder of a young woman. Fortune figures Jo-Jo was either involved in one or both of the crimes or knows too much about them to hang around where the perpetrators can find and kill him. Fortune worries that the bad guys may have already disposed of Jo-Jo and that is the reason no one has seen him.

Collins, the pen name of Dennis Lynds, creates a vivid picture of this tight-knit neighborhood, its hard-working people, and the hoods who prey upon them.

This is a decent mystery with well written scenes, good action, interesting observations on life in the old neighborhood, and unexpected touches like the phantom pain Fortune often feels in the missing arm.

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Notable Viewing of 2017

Here are a few movies I thought deserved better critical reviews, or bigger audiences, or both:

Only the Brave
Wind River
The Hero
Paris Can Wait
Megan Leavey
A United Kingdom

And, here are two of the best things I caught on DVD:
Line of Duty
Tim’s Vermeer

Lastly, one of my all-time favorite low-budget crime films is still available on YouTube:
Blast of Silence

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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

FFB: Maigret’s Christmas by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon
Author Georges Simenon’s fictional Paris police detective, Jules Maigret, has his Christmas morning interrupted by two neighbors with a strange tale to tell in the 1951 story, Maigret’s Christmas.

The neighbors – two women from the apartment building across the street – tell the detective that a man dressed as Santa Claus entered the younger woman’s apartment, went into the room of the woman’s adopted daughter and was prying up a floor board when the little girl woke and saw him. The Santa gave the child a doll, went back to work on the floor, then left.

Intrigued by the story, Maigret crosses the street to talk to the little girl and get a look at her room and the floor. While the younger woman is dismissive of the girl’s story, her older, nosy neighbor insists some kind of crime was committed.

Intrigued, and glad for the diversion, Maigret conducts an investigation using his own apartment as a base of operations. The story takes off as Maigret calls in his squad and gets officers at police headquarters digging into the background of the younger woman and her husband and their peculiar movements Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

In the meantime, Madame Maigret does not seem to mind the cops using her flat as a temporary station house. All day, she fixes food and coffee for those who come and go.

This is an intriguing if lightweight story. Any heaviness here is in the implication that Maigret and his wife were glad for the distraction, the company and the mystery. Otherwise, they would have faced a quiet, somewhat sad Christmas Day.

Maigret ’s Christmas is a novella and one of nine stories featuring the detective in a volume called Maigret ’s Christmas.

Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 76 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The prolific author also turned out many stand-alone novels.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”

It could be I needed an antidote to all the sugary sweet, made-for-TV Christmas movies flooding cable right now that got me thinking about a tough, cynical, black and white film set during the holiday season.

The picture is Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, “The Apartment,” in which he stages an office Christmas party the cast of “Mad Men” only wish they could have attended, as well as the most depressing Christmas Eve, and the worst Christmas gift scene.

Did I mention this is a pretty cynical movie?

Set in December in a gloomy Manhattan, Bud Baxter, one of 30,000 employees of a giant insurance company, garners favor with executives of the firm by letting them use his bachelor pad as a love nest for their extra-marital affairs.

Not the usual stuff of a Christmas movie. But Wilder (1906-2002) was not the usual Hollywood director.

He fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s and went to Los Angeles where he scripted dark comedies and humorous dramas. He became one of the first of the Hollywood hyphenates, a writer-director, and from the early 1940s through the 1970s, alternated between comedy and drama. In 1959, he co-wrote and directed just about the best comedy ever, “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The following year, he teamed with Lemmon again for this dark, dark drama that also has a good deal of biting humor thanks to a script by Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond.

In “The Apartment,” Lemmon plays the shy, mousey Baxter who can never say no to the middle managers, until the day Sheldrake, the manager of managers, asks for the use of the apartment and Baxter recognizes a new path to promotion.

SPOLIERS AHEAD, so if you have not seen the picture, you may want to skip down to the last photo. 

But the girl Sheldrake is taking to his apartment is Fran, someone Bud likes but has been too shy to ask out.

On Christmas Eve, Bud gets stinko in a neighborhood bar, while Sheldrake and Fran are up at his place. It is in the apartment that Sheldrake gives her the worst gift.

After she gives him a thoughtful present, Sheldrake, the married man who has been stringing her along with false promises, says it would be too awkward for him to go shopping for her. So he flips open his wallet and hands her some cash. Feeling like a whore, she starts to mechanically undress.

Did I mention Wilder turned out some dark pictures?

Sheldrake is played by Fred MacMurray, the All-American dad of TV and Disney films. Here, he reteamed with Wilder 16 years after playing the sneaky, conniving and murderous Walter Neff in the director’s great film noir, “Double Indemnity,” based on the James M. Cain novel.

Fran is played by Shirley MacLaine, who was doing some very good work at that time in some very good pictures like this one and 1958’s “Some Came Running.”
Wilder’s resolution for “The Apartment” is not quite a happy ending, but I won’t spoil that moment.

“The Apartment” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

It won five Oscars for best picture of the year, best director, best screenplay, best art direction, and best editing.

It really is a terrific film – but probably not the best choice for viewing at Christmas time.

And P.S. – Not all the made for TV Christmas movies are terrible, a few are not bad, and some pack quite a surprise with their casting. One in particular, “Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage,” is worth seeing just for Peter O’Toole’s performance. Yes, that Peter O’Toole.

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Dangerous Thing by Bill Crider

Bill Crider’s 1994 novel, A Dangerous Thing, is a well written, well crafted and at times very funny mystery novel.

This third book in the Carl Burns series finds the thoughtful, humorous chair of the English department of a small Texas college caught up in politically correct changes on campus instituted by a new dean, and the murder of an offensive and politically incorrect professor in Burns’ department.

Instead of hiding behind his lectern, Burns pokes his nose into the mystery, sorts the clues, interviews witnesses and suspects and puts himself in harm’s way from both the murderer and the aggressive local police chief, Boss Napier.

Burns and Napier tangled before in an earlier campus mystery, but this time, Napier welcomes Burns’ input. The chief’s change of attitude may be an attempt to divert Burns away from librarian Elaine Tanner, allowing the chief time with her.

Bill Crider neatly details campus changes and the different generations found there, while introducing suspects who could have done away with the obnoxious teacher. He also peppers the story with a lot of humor from the oafish chief, to Burns’ colleagues who, now that the new dean has imposed a smoking ban, must hide in a dank, dirty boiler room to sneak a cigaret. There are also some laugh-out-loud moments when Burns tries to correct some appalling student essays.

A Dangerous Thing, which works just fine as a stand-alone, is an intriguing mystery and an enjoyable look back at campus life, told in a smooth, breezy style.

(This post originally appeared here on The Dark Time in 2015. For more posts on books by Bill Crider, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)