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.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

FFB: The Money Trap by Lionel White

Lionel White is known for his heist novels in which tough, confident criminals make intricate plans, hire the guys they need to pull off the caper, and then ruthlessly execute the plan, only to have their heads handed to them.

Unlike White’s famous book, The Killing, his 1963 novel, The Money Trap, does not follow a criminal gang but two New York City police detectives. The book is also unusual because their plans are not thought out in precise detail.

Detective Joe Baron and his friend and partner, Detective Pete Delanos, are assigned a simple case of attempted robbery of a doctor’s office which ended in the death of a junkie burglar at the hands of the medical man who came home early and shot him.

But before he kicks off, the junkie tells Pete the doc is dirty, is selling drugs, and has about a million bucks in cash in his safe. He dies and Pete finds the combination to the safe in his pocket.

Pete takes his partner aside and tells him what he discovered and how easy it would be for them to break in and steal the dough.

Joe is intrigued. He is an honest cop, but he could use the cash. He is married to a young woman raised around money. She is not only used to having things, but also has a trust fund providing her with a larger annual income than Joe makes on the force. Joe resents his wife’s money. His pride will not let him take anything from her. He is in debt after buying a house in an upscale neighborhood to please her, and every day he sinks deeper into a financial hole. He also feels he is the butt of jokes among his wealthy neighbors.

All this drives him to go along with Pete. Together they make some sketchy plans, Pete insisting it will be easy.

But this is a Lionel White novel, and in White’s world nothing is easy and little goes as planned.

The Money Trap is written in White’s blunt, forceful, straight forward style. It is a style he mostly likely developed during his years as a newspaper reporter and editor and later as an editor of detective magazines. The book is a quick read with nicely developed characters – except for the doctor who is a bit of a throwback to the days of the evil criminal genius. The other characters, the cops, the mugs, a chorus girl, and some snotty neighbors, are well done.

(To read my review of Lionel White’s The Killing, click here. To read my review of his novel The Snatchers, click here.)

(To read more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog, here.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The Hero" is a Movie to See

Some fans of actor Sam Elliott are not too keen on his new, non-Western movie, “The Hero.”

This is a quiet, slow-paced film of 70-ish Lee Hayden, a once popular star of Westerns, who now earns a living doing TV commercial voice-overs, and who spends far too much time smoking dope and daydreaming of a glorious return to the big screen.

Lee has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife (played by Elliott's real-life wife, Katherine Ross), but no rapport at all with his adult daughter.

Then two things happen that shake him up. He finds out he has cancer. And he meets 30-ish woman who is interested in him.

Sam Elliott gives a subtle, deeply-felt performance in this film.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

FFB: The Killing by Lionel White

Johnny Clay plans the perfect caper, a racetrack heist, worked out and timed to the split second in Lionel White’s 1955 novel, The Killing. Clay had four years to figure out the details while serving time in Sing Sing. Once out, he puts his plan into play.

He recruits four men, all in need of money – big money – and all clean. They have no police records. Each also has something Clay requires for his scheme to work.

Marvin Unger, a sour little man needs to make up his heavy losses in the stock market. Big Mike Henty, a racetrack bartender with a weakness for the horses, needs money to move his wife and daughter out of the slums. Randy Keenan, a police officer, owes big dough to a loan shark. And George Peaty, a race track cashier, needs lots of money to please his hot, young, high-maintenance wife, Sherry.

Sherry, who is seeing a smooth gangster on the side, poses an early complication in the story. To impress her and assure her he is going to come into money, Peaty tells her the set up. He does this against Clay’s strict orders for everyone involved to keep his mouth shut.

Johnny is the only cool pro among his gang of amateurs. Each of the others has his doubts and fears. And, as often happens in a Lionel White novel, the carefully planned robbery has too many ways of going wrong. If any one of his men screws up, they could all wind up in jail – or dead.


Lionel White's writing has the clean snap of someone who spent many years knocking out newspaper copy and editing crime stories. He started his writing career as a reporter in the 1920s. He later became a newspaper editor and went on to edit detective magazines. The Killing (originally published as Clean Break) is probably his best known novel. He wrote 38 books between the early 1950s and the 1970s, including The Snatchers (which I wrote about here).

White's characters all ring true. He does not do lengthy descriptions of people or places, but gives the reader enough to form vivid mental pictures.

This is a second reading of The Killing. The first was more than 20 years ago when I picked up a 1988 Black Lizard paperback reprint of the novel. Even though I knew the story – as well as the Stanley Kubrick film version – The Killing still delivered a punch.

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

James Cagney, Yankee Doodle, and Happy Fourth!


Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and a movie that is as much a part of the Independence Day celebration as “A Christmas Carol” is to Christmas and “The Quiet Man” is to St. Patrick’s Day, is “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The film is the1942 Warner Bros. biography of Broadway song and dance man, George M. Cohan, who wrote the book and lyrics, produced, directed and starred in his own musicals in the early 20th century.

Cohan’s songs included “Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway,” all of which – and more – are featured in the movie.

The picture stars Cagney as Cohan and Joan Leslie as his wife, Mary. It was directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz.

The final dance Cagney performs as the aging Cohan is this brief walk down a staircase in the White House after a visit with the President of the United States.

Here is a clip. But, please, do not try this at home.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” is schedule to show at 8 p.m. (Eastern time), July 4, on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Paris Can Wait" is a Movie to See


Despite the opinions of some film critics, I am recommending a little road movie called, “Paris Can Wait.”

It is the story of Anne, a woman of a certain age, who is in Cannes with her film-producer husband. When he has to fly off on business, Anne hesitantly accepts an invitation from his French colleague to return to Paris in his car.

And with that, she is off on an unexpected adventure.

While she wants to get to the city as quickly as possible, Jacques is in no hurry. He wants to stop and eat at great restaurants and see the countryside. “Paris can wait,” he tells her.

Anne is played by Diane Lane. Jacques is played by Arnaud Viard. And Anne’s husband is played by Alec Baldwin in a small part.

The film is a romantic tour. Everywhere they go is gorgeous. Even a service station where they stop for gas is picture perfect.

If you want ugly reality, this is not the movie for you. If you want a 90-minute visual vacation, see “Paris Can Wait.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

John Wayne in “This Little Bullet”


The other day, I was looking at the list of John Wayne's films on the IMDb and my eye stopped on an unknown title. I thought I had seen all of the Duke’s pictures. But there was one listed from 1970 that not only had I never seen, but also had never heard of.

Wedged between “The Undefeated,” from 1969, and “Chisum,” from 1970, was “This Little Bullet.”

On the page for the film, the IMDb noted it was an 88-minute American movie.

But, reading further, I learned “This Little Bullet” was not a John Wayne western. Nor was it a contemporary cop film, like the ones he made late in his career like “McQ” from 1974 and “Brannigan” from 1975.

In fact, it wasn’t a John Wayne movie at all.

It was an 18-minute gun-safety film featuring Wayne and produced by the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

John Wayne, wearing a cowboy hat, western clothes and holding a rifle, introduces the subject which he then turns over to a shooting instructor. The instructor, Jack Ellison of the Arizona Firearms Safety Program, then runs through several demonstrations. Wayne comments on the demonstrations and warns of the power and destructiveness of one little bullet. He returns at the end for some parting comments.

This little film is packaged with two other safety films in a DVD, which must account for the 88-minute running time.

A viewer on YouTube remembered “This Little Bullet” being shown in schools throughout Arizona.

No matter which side of the gun debate you come down on, this safety film, and John Wayne’s presence in it, is worth a look.

And – because the makers of instructional and corporate films rarely get any recognition – the film was directed and edited by Wes Keyes; written by Bob Hernbrode; photographed by Davd Daughtry; and had Dale Dundas as technical advisor.

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

Saturday, June 10, 2017

“Megan Leavey” is a Movie to See

A super, non-super-hero, movie opened locally and we caught one of the first showings. The film is “Megan Leavey” and it is a good one.

The story is based on the experiences of the real Megan Leavey who joined the Marines in the early 2000s, worked, worked out, and trained to be good enough to join the K-9 unit. There, she was assigned to the most vicious dog in the military kennel, learned to work with it as a bomb-detecting team, and was sent to Iraq where she and her dog conducted some hair-raising searches.

Kate Mara does a terrific job playing Megan Leavey. The actor and rapper, Common, is excellent as the sergeant in charge of the K-9 training program. And, director Gabriella Cowperthwaite, who previously made documentaries, does an excellent job here. The cast is strong, the action is well done, and the emotions are right up there, as you would expect in a dog movie.

If it is playing at a theater near you, go see it. If has not opened, keep an eye out for it.