Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”

Over the weekend, I heard the theme from the movie “Charade” and that spurred me to watch it again.

I have seen “Charade” a half a dozen times over the years, and even though I know the story, know the mystery’s solution, know where the clues are planted, I still enjoy it.

While on vacation at a French mountain resort, Regina Lambert, played by the elegant Audrey Hepburn (in clothes designed by Givenchy) contemplates divorce from her shady husband. She does not have to think too long about it because he is murdered on a train by men searching for stolen money. The men and the husband were all in on the theft, but the husband made off with it, and now they want their share.

Regina meets a dashing, mysterious and somewhat older man, played by Cary Grant, who volunteers to protect her from the bad guys. Or, does he just want the money himself?

Grant was 25 years older than Hepburn, but that hardly matters since these movie stars are such charismatic superstars, complete with their own unique accents.

So right there, the movie has two of the most charming people ever to appear on the silver – or Technicolor – screen.

Hepburn and Grant are plunked down in Paris to solve the mystery, while trying hard not to be killed by three odd villains played by James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass. Into this mix comes a square, but humorous American government man, played by Walter Matthau.

For just under two hours, this group dodges, attacks, evades, and detects in a clever, intricate, and light script by Peter Stone and Marc Behm. The doings were guided by director Stanley Donen, in a departure from the musicals he made in the 1950s, many with Gene Kelly.

And talking about music, “Charade” has one of the best theme songs courtesy of the great Henry Mancini. If you don’t remember what it sounded like, click here and listen.

Now a question:

Was there ever a cooler, classier, comic-mystery-thriller than this 1963 film?

Maybe there was. “North by Northwest”? Perhaps. But for me, Hepburn and Grant were a better combo than Grant and Saint.

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

“It Always Rains on Sunday” Kitchen Sink Noir

As a fan of British films, particularly those of the post-World War II period, I waited a long time before catching “It Always Rains on Sunday”.

The movie is a surprising combination of styles, one that was near its height when it came out in 1947 and another not quite a style yet. “It Always Rains on Sunday” is a crime picture, a thriller with film-noir touches, and an early example of “kitchen sink” drama, a style that would catch on a decade later with the “angry young man” dramas.

This film could be called an angry young woman film. In fact it has several angry young women in it.

Rose, played by Googie Withers, is a former barmaid whose boyfriend proposes to her just before getting arrested and shipped off to prison. She settles for a man 15 years her senior whom she marries. When the picture opens, she is living with him and his two grown daughters and little son in a tiny attached house. A good deal of Rose’s life, and this movie, is spent in the cramped kitchen which doubles as the dining room, laundry room, and bathroom – that is, the tub is in there, too. The other fixture, I am guessing, is out behind the house.

One night, Rose’s former boyfriend escapes from jail and hides in a shed in her backyard. She finds him, takes him in, feeds him and lets him sleep in her bed while the rest of the family is out on a rainy Sunday. But family members keep returning to the house, giving Rose and the con several scares and breaking up a rekindled romance.

In the meantime, one step-daughter is seeing a shady, married man. The shady man’s brother, a small-time gambler and fence of stolen items, is putting the moves of the other, more na├»ve step-daughter. And the married man’s wife, who catches on to the affair, is the fourth angry woman in this film.

This moody, edgy film has some unusual twists for its time. It is as crowded with story as its streets are crowded with people. In a subplot, three petty criminals try to unload stolen goods and immediately attract the attention of a police detective, played by Jack Warner (not the Hollywood mogul, but the British actor who looked a bit like Jack Hawkins). The detective is happy to pinch them, but he is busy on the trail of Rose’s old boyfriend. The circle quickly closes in on Rose and the con.

The man makes a run for it and Rose considers suicide in a subtle but horrifying scene in the kitchen.

This rough, crude drama winds itself up with an exciting finish in a railroad yard.

“It Always Rains on Sunday,” based on a novel by Arthur Le Bern, was directed by Robert Hamer, and was produced by Michael Balcon and Henry Cornelius at Ealing Studios. Ealing was famous for its Alec Guinness comedies, but the company produced a variety of very good dramas in the 1940s and 1950s. “It Always Rains on Sunday” was one of them and it is well worth seeing.

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

FFB: The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman

Moe Prager is a former New York City cop who left the force after a knee injury. He splits his time between the up-scale wine shop he owns with his brother, and the occasional private investigation job.

At the beginning of The James Deans, a wealthy man pressures Moe to investigate the unsolved case of a murdered intern of a state senator. The crime derailed the career of the politician, changing him from a rising star to a prime suspect. His wealthy backer wants him cleared so the man can continue his climb.

As a cop in Brooklyn ten years earlier, Moe Prager made the papers when he solved a missing child case. The rich man believes Moe is luckier than the police and the private investigators stumped by the case.

The pressure applied to Moe comes in the form of a state inspector arriving at his wine shop. The message to Moe is people with political pull can make his life miserable if he refuses to work the case. Moe agrees to take a look. A friend in the NYPD helps him with department information. But another former cop, the hard-drinking father of the dead woman, refuses to talk to Moe, which is a smaller mystery within the larger story.

Moe digs into the case, exposing other mysteries and placing himself, his brother, and his wife and child in danger.

The James Deans is Reed Farrel Coleman’s third Moe Prager mystery, but the first I have read. Meeting his cool, savvy P.I. and sampling his hard-edged writing style, I will be reading more Moe Prager stories, soon.


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

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Western Movie: Return to Warbow

“Return to Warbow” is one of the better, budget Westerns turned out by Hollywood in the 1950s.

Clay Hollister, a prisoner for eleven years at Yuma for robbing a stagecoach, is on a work detail outside the walls when he coordinates a violent escape. He and two others use their picks and shovels on the guards, steal the work wagon and drive the team of horses nearly to death in their getaway.

The men head for the town of Warbow where Clay plans to meet his brother, Frank, who was in on the robbery, got away and promised to hold the loot until Clay returned. Clay and his tough, untrustworthy gang make their way to the home of Clay’s former love. She is now married to the owner of the stage outfit, whom Clay will force to go fetch his brother. When the brother, now a drunk, learns Clay has escaped, he is terrified.

The prison notifies the sheriff of Warbow of Clay’s escape. The sheriff forms a posse and they comb the area for the gang. Complicating matters, Clay can barely control the two men he brought with him who have no regard for anyone but themselves and are a danger to the woman and her young son.

This 67-minute, Technicolor movie from 1958, has enough action, violence, twists and turns for a full-length feature. It moves along at a nice pace.

Clay is played by Phil Carey, an actor who appeared in many films and television shows from the early 1950s through the 1970s. The owner of the stage line is played by Andrew Duggan, another actor who shows up in supporting roles in movies and TV. Carey, listed on the IMDb as 6-foot-4, and Duggan at 6-foot-5, both close in age, both World War II vets, are well-matched as rivals. Robert J. Wilke, another big guy, 6-2, made a career of playing hard-bitten bad men, and here he is the member of the gang Clay has the most to worry about. Clay’s love interest is played by Catherine McLeod, and her son by Christopher Olsen, one of the better child actors. Clay’s brother Frank is played by James Griffith, a good character actor of the day. And, in a small role, Jay Silverheels, best remembered as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” series, plays a former stage employee who was blinded in Clay’s hold up.

“Return to Warbow” was written by Les Savage, Jr., based on his novel. It was directed by Ray Nazarro, a man who made dozens of Westerns in the 1940s and 1950s.

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“Seven Keys” a Tight Little British Mystery Movie

Released in 1961, “Seven Keys” is a fast-paced English crime film about a surly prisoner named Russell, played by Alan Dobie, who is informed by the warden that he has inherited a strange gift from a fellow inmate who died behind bars.

The inheritance is a ring of keys. Russell learns the old prisoner was sent to jail for embezzling £20,000. The money was never recovered and the warden, the guards, the police, and Russell suspect one of the keys will open the secret hiding place of all that loot.

Once Russell is out of the can, he goes through the keys, one-by-one, discovering what each opens. While working his way through the ring, he attracts the attention of baddies who would also like to get their hands on the cash.

This quirky little movie, with a running time of just 57 minutes, was most likely the second feature on a double bill, but it is miles ahead of the usual B-picture. The twisty story, the acting, and the visual style are well above average.

“Seven Keys” was directed by Pat Jackson, who went from making documentaries in the 1930s and 1940s, to feature films in the 1950s, to television in the 1960s and 1970s. He directed several episodes of two shows starring Patrick McGoohan – “Danger Man” (called “Secret Agent” in the U.S.) and “The Prisoner.” Both of those shows have some of the flavor found in “Seven Keys.”

The quirky, jaunty quality of “Seven Keys” with its snappy pace and eccentric supporting characters, may be the influence of producer Julian Wintle. In the 1960s, he produced all the Emma Peel episodes of “The Avengers.”

The writers on the film were Henry Blyth and Jack Davies. Davies had a long career in movies, including the scripts for the tricky Michael Caine picture, “Gambit,” and the comedy, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”

This good little film is out on DVD, part of a series of box sets called "The Edgar Wallace Mysteries." But the discs are not available in a format for the U.S. and Canada.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

“Road House” with Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliott

The 1989 movie “Road House” is a rip-roaring action comedy that took me 28 years to see.

Dalton, played by Patrick Swayze, the coolest, toughest bar bouncer in the country is hired to come to a small town and clean up the roughest dive in the burg. Liking the challenge, as well as the big bucks that go along with the job, Dalton sets out to kick ass. And he does, although it takes him half the movie to whup all the dirtbags, and to teach the bouncers and bartenders how to do the same, with style.

Dalton takes his lumps along the way, and when he can’t administer first aid to himself, he is forced to go the hospital, where he meets a beautiful young doctor, played by Kelly Lynch, and – well, you are way ahead of me.

The biggest problem in the town is a rich gangster named Wesley, who is running a protection racket and collecting from all the honest businessmen. Wesley is played with zeal by the great Ben Gazzara, who all but steals the show from Swayze.

Just when Wesley and his goons step up their strong-arm methods, Dalton’s old mentor, Wade, played by Sam Elliott, rides into town to help. Elliott is another actor who nearly steals the show from Swayze. But Swayze persists, taking on the gang, including a one-on-one martial arts showdown with Wesley’s top henchman, and finally Wesley himself.

This film was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who made a handful of action and crime films over the years, along with an interesting movie about pro golfer Bobby Jones. “Road House” was produced by Joel Silver who made tons of action films since the late 1970s.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

“A United Kingdom” is a Movie to See

If “A United Kingdom” is still playing at a theater near you, go see it.

It is the true story of Seretse Khama, played by David Oyelowo, the heir to the hereditary kingdom of Bechuanaland (now Botswana, but in the late 1940s, still a British protectorate), who, while a law student in London in 1947, meets an English girl, played by Rosamund Pike, and marries her over the objections of his uncle, the acting king of his country, and the British government.

When I saw the coming attractions, I thought it was going to be good, but it was far better than I expected.

So check your local listings (OK, a Google search), find out if it is playing, and go see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon"

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and as they usually do every March 17, the cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, is showing Irish-themed films all day.

Tonight at 8 p.m., TCM is scheduled to show John Ford’s “The Rising of the Moon.” (But, please check your cable guides. The times can vary and schedules can be different outside the U.S.) .

“The Rising of the Moon,” from 1957, is an unusual little black and white film with no big-name stars, except Tyrone Power who introduces segments of the picture.


The movie is in three parts, each a separate and unconnected tale, based on short stories and plays by Frank O’Connor, Michael J. McHugh, and Lady Augusta Gregory, and adapted by long-time Ford collaborator, screenwriter Frank S. Nugent.

The first two stories are told with a gentle sense of nostalgia. The last is harder and tougher. All three parts were made with care and artistry on location in Ireland.

Don’t miss this one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Don’t Bother Seeing “I See a Dark Stranger”

St. Patrick’s Day is approaching and, ironically, I happened to watch a film the other night with a distinctly anti-Irish tone. But then, most of the English characters in this movie did not come across too well, either.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is a 1946 war film set in Ireland and England in the weeks prior to the 1944 D-Day invasion. I was expecting a noir thriller, but was disappointed.

Bridie Quilty, played by Deborah Kerr, a young, obstinate and none-too-bright young Irish woman who spent her life listening to stories of fights for Irish freedom from the British, decides to serve her country against its ancient foe by becoming a Nazi spy in England.

While working diligently and unthinkingly for a nest of spies gathering information about the coming invasion, she attracts the amorous attention of a British officer, played by Trevor Howard. Why the Howard character would think Bridie anything but an ill-tempered idiot is beyond explaining. Bridie makes Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher of “The Quiet Man” look like an easy-going hippie girl.

“I See A Dark Stranger” is part adventure film, which the producers supposed would be in the mold of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” and part slapstick comedy with most of the slaps coming in the last 15 minutes of the picture. But this movie is a 100 percent mess, although a technically well-crafted mess.

The film was co-written and produced by the team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, with Launder directing. The two wrote the script for Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” so this one should have been a lot better. But they did not have Hitch to guide them.

My advice is to skip “I See A Dark Stranger,” especially if you have any Celtic blood in your veins. You might want to skip it, too, if you are British because the movie is none too kind to your people either.

Now, so as not to leave you without a movie recommendation for March 17, do try to see John Ford's "The Rising of the Moon," Friday on Turner Classic Movies (in the U.S.). And, please check back here on St. Patrick's Day for a post on Ford's film.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

FFB: Six Days of the Condor by James Grady

The violent spy thriller, Six Days of the Condor, is a fun, fast read from 1974.

Written by a first-time author, then in his mid-20s, James Grady quickly sets up a deadly predicament for his main character, Ron Malcolm, a man in his mid-20s, working for the CIA.

Malcolm is part of a research division in which half a dozen men and women read novels all day and turn in detailed reports on them, noting any passages that may reveal a deeper knowledge of the world’s spy agencies than any ordinary person could know.

This division is off on its own, housed in a Washington, D.C. townhouse. Into this quaint building on a residential street come three men with machine guns who massacre everyone working there – except Malcolm, who left through a back door to run some errands for his boss and pick up lunches for the staff. Malcolm returns to find his colleagues dead. He calls headquarters and arranges to be picked up and taken to safety. But the pick-up is a trap which he narrowly escapes and which sets him running for his life, not trusting anyone.

Why the employees are killed is not too hard to figure out. The people behind it are well disguised. Malcolm's struggle to figure it all out takes a backseat to his avoiding the hitmen and staying alive.

In a strange twist, Malcolm kidnaps a young woman and hides in her apartment. He explains his crazy situation, she forgives him and jumps his bones. Well, 1974 was not that far removed from the free-loving 60s.

With a little suspension of disbelief, Grady’s novel is a swift, action-packed yarn with several well-done, tension-filled moments that keep the pages turning.

A couple of minor criticisms of the book are its use of two old devices. One is concealing the identity of the bad guys by using only vague physical descriptions in scenes featuring them. The other is leading the reader up to a revealing moment, and then cutting it short with a chapter break. The following chapter jumping ahead in time to the characters carrying out the plan which was not revealed to readers. These devices are still in use.

Overall, Grady did a fine job of setting up and sustaining suspense, and his lean prose style made for an enjoyable read.

In 1975, Six Days of the Condor came out as a film, with many changes from the book, including its title, called “Three Days of the Condor,” starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Western theme songs by Frankie Laine

One thing leads to another.

Last week, I posted about the Elmore Leonard short story, “Three-Ten to Yuma," which started me thinking about the two films based on it, one from 1957 with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and the other from 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. As much as I liked the Leonard story, I cannot say I cared much for either picture. But, I do like the theme song from the original movie performed by Frankie Laine.

Laine was born Frank LoVecchio in 1913 in Chicago. During the 1930s, he sang with bands in nightclubs. In 1946, he recorded “That’s My Desire” for Mercury records. The song became a hit, and made Laine a national star along with fellow Italian-American recording artists, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

In 1949, Laine recorded “Mule Train,” which seems to be the song that opened up a new track in Laine's career – singing theme songs for Westerns.

Some of the movies he contributed to are the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas “Gunfight at the OK Corral” from 1957, the Kirk Douglas “Man Without a Star” from 1955, and “3:10 to Yuma.” Along with the movies came TV theme songs. Perhaps the most famous was “Rawhide,” for the show starring a young Clint Eastwood. “Rawhide,” like “Mule Train,” is punctuated with whip cracks.

Then, in the 1970s, the story goes, funny man Mel Brooks was preparing a Western comedy and put out a call for someone to sing the theme song who sounded like Frankie Laine. How about Frankie Laine? the singer himself asked Brooks. And that, they say, is how he came to record “Blazing Saddles.”

Laine passed away in 2007.

Here are some links to Frankie Laine’s songs:

That’s My Desire

Mule Train

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Man Without a Star

3:10 to Yuma (the movie version)

3:10 to Yuma (another version)

Rawhide

Blazing Saddles 

And here is Laine with Perry Como in 1951 on The Frank Sinatra Show

Thursday, March 2, 2017

FFB: Three-ten to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

Recently, my friend, Prashant, who blogs at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema, posted a piece about the 2007 movie, “3:10 to Yuma.” The film is a remake of a 1957 movie with the same title. Both are based on a story by Elmore Leonard.

While I have read many of Leonard’s contemporary crime novels, I have read few of his Westerns. I went in search of a copy of this one and found it is not a novel. Elmore Leonard’s “Three-ten to Yuma,” is a fairly short, short story – about 17 pages, in the hard cover collection of Leonard’s Western stories called, The Tonto Woman.

The two movies beefed up the back-story and tacked on motivations that are not present in the short story. In Leonard’s version, first published in Dime Western Magazine in 1953, Paul Scallen is a deputy sheriff in Arizona tasked with getting outlaw Jim Kidd from Tucson to the Yuma Territorial Prison, near the border of California. To transport him the roughly 250 miles, Scallen will escort Kidd on a train leaving at 3:10 in the afternoon.

He and the prisoner arrive in Tucson just before dawn and wait in a hotel room until it is time to walk down to the railroad station. While waiting, word gets out that Kidd is in the hotel, and members of his gang arrive in town and wait for him and the lawman to come out into the open.

Elmore Leonard’s tough, lean tale holds up as model of good storytelling, quickly setting up the situation, providing just enough background, building tension and bringing the tale to its violent conclusion.

Although the date is not stated, the story takes place between 1876 and 1909. Those were the years the Yuma prison was in operation. It was closed when a new prison was built and is today a museum.

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mystery movie "Town on Trial" with John Mills

The 1957 British film, “Town on Trial,” starts with a visually-stunning series of quick shots, setting up the story in about 60 seconds, and ends with a sweaty-palm, acrophobia-inducing climax. It fills in the middle with a good mystery, told in a smooth, cinematic style by director John Guillermin.

A town is shocked by the murder of a gorgeous young woman, but the people close ranks against police investigators, revealing little for fear their reputations and that of their town will be marred.

A detective superintendent, played by a strong John Mills, is sent in to crack the case. He tramples all niceties and gets right to the point with the residents and especially with his prime suspects, peeling away the protective armor people placed around their less-than-upright lives.

This fast-moving, black and white movie has the feel of the great films made in post-war England, and, under Guillermin ’s guidance, feels modern with its intense performances and constantly moving camera.

For more about this film, please see (here) the review my friend Sergio posted a few years ago on his blog, Tipping My Fedora.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FFB: Where the Boys Are, Glendon Swarthout's novel of Spring Break, Sun and Sex

Right about now, thousands of college students are thinking about or heading out for spring break. So, it is a good time to look back at spring breaks past.

Other than a couple of newspaper articles in the late 1950s and a feature in Time magazine, the first major chronicle of kids hitting the beaches was Glendon Swarthout’s 1960 novel, Where the Boys Are.

In the book, two coeds, Merritt and Tuggle, travel from their cold, Midwestern college to Florida where they meet and bed a series of men – sometimes the same men – and party like crazy.

As fast as the girls and guys meet and hook up, they move on with only the memories of some so-so sex, except for one night of passion when Merritt and a musician get into some experimental sex and rock each other’s worlds. While the musician is the only one to show any signs of commitment – he wants to take her with him to San Francisco – Merritt is noncommittal, and soon has something more important and complicated to think about. Which of these guys, she wonders, is the father of the child she is now carrying?

Where the Boys Are is a comic novel, but not a laugh-out-loud comedy. The humor is dark and subtle and meant more to shock the parents of beach-bound students than to titillate those not old enough or financially able to take the trip. To those who go, it is something of a warning, but not a preachy one.

Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992), according to some brief, on-line biographies, taught at Michigan State University in the mid-1950s. After hearing spring break stories, he went to Ft. Lauderdale in 1958 to check it out for himself. The book was the result.

Swarthout was an interesting writer. Among his novels were several westerns including The Shootist, which was later made into a film starring John Wayne.

College kids getting away for spring break goes back a lot further than the 1950s. Students who could afford it were doing it in the early 1900s.

Ft. Lauderdale became a destination in the 1930s when the city built an Olympic-size pool and promoted the facility to college swim teams. The teams went, an annual swim meet was created, more and more students heard about the gathering and over the next couple of decades hundreds of kids flocked to the beach.

By the late 1950s, about 20,000 students went there for spring break. After Swarthout’s book and MGM’s movie of it came out, the numbers more than doubled. It got so big the mid-1980s saw several hundred thousand descend on the city. Ft. Lauderdale decided it did not need the headaches of being overrun every spring. The city began promoting itself as a great destination for families. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a wild party like the idea of a vacation with parents. For a while, the students moved up the highway to Daytona, and later to the Florida panhandle.

(For more posts about books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Death Wish, a Movie Hit that Missed the Mark

"Death Wish," a 1974 movie based on a Brian Garfield novel, missed the point of the book and became a boxoffice smash.

In Garfield’s novel (reviewed here), middle-aged accountant Paul Benjamin, a man who could have been played by Jack Lemmon, is traumatized and enraged by the death of his wife and the near-death of his daughter at the hands of some New York City thugs. The police seem to be doing little to stem the rise in street crime and they have no hope of ever finding and arresting the men who assaulted Paul's family. He comes to believe the only solution is to get a gun and rid the city of criminals on his own. His repeated killings are part of his mental breakdown.

In the movie, middle-aged architect Paul Kersey, played by tough-guy star Charles Bronson, is  enraged at what happened to his wife and daughter. The scene of their attack is shocking in its brutality. (Almost as shocking as seeing  Jeff Goldblum playing one of the violent creeps.) After that scene, audiences were with Paul as he took to the streets, tempting punks to attack him, then blowing them away.

For the movie, Paul’s agony and psychological damage are reduced to quickly get to the action. Garfield spent a great deal of time – nearly half the book – describing Paul’s mounting anger and showing his descent. The movie’s Paul is angry, too, but he is soon provided with a solution.

After his wife’s funeral, Paul’s firm sends him to Arizona to supervise a development project. Changing Paul’s profession gave the filmmakers a chance to show Bronson in the desert sunshine overseeing the operation. On his last day out west, Paul is given a gift by a grateful client. The gift, he discovers on his return to New York, is a revolver. The gun goes into Paul’s coat pocket and Paul heads out into the streets at night hunting for bad guys. The movie becomes a blood fest as cool, cold-eyed Bronson knocks off criminals on streets, in parks, and on subways.

Director Michael Winner was an expert at staging violent scenes. He had worked with Bronson on three previous action films. They went on to do two “Death Wish” sequels. Two additional sequels starring Bronson were not directed by Winner.

The gunplay thrilled audiences. Seeing dirtbags get it, was highly seductive stuff. The filmmakers made it clear everyone Paul shot deserved it.

While Paul's transition from helpless victim to active vigilante was quick, Charles Bronson made the most of it, turning in a good performance. Later, when faced with a variety of dangerous situations, Bronson was too sure, and the only suspense was in how far he would let a potential mugger mess with him before he let him have it.

The movie left viewers cheering Paul who eludes the police until the end. A detective, played by Vincent Gardenia, catches up with him, and sounding like the sheriff in a western tells Paul to get out of town. Paul takes his advice. Arriving in Chicago in the last scene, he witnesses a group of toughs jostling people. He points his finger at them, in a gesture meaning they are in his sights, and indicating he has not changed, but will continue his one-man mission.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

FFB: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Brain Garfield’s 1972 novel Death Wish is not so much an action story as it is an indictment of a city and time when crime was increasing, people were scared, and cops and politicians were unable or uninterested in doing anything about it.

The first half of the novel focuses on Paul Benjamin’s rage and feeling of impotence after his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of thugs. His wife dies of her injuries and his daughter is traumatized and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The cops investigating the crime have no leads and no hope of ever finding the criminals. While Paul rails against New York City’s crime problem, his son-in-law, a lawyer for a public defender’s office who spends his days in court representing violent punks, tries to calm him down.

Paul’s anger grows stronger. He is sick of feeling like a victim, cringing in fear when he walks down a dark street, and knowing hoodlums will get away with their crimes.

When he returns to work after a few weeks off, the partners in his accounting firm decide Paul needs a break from the city and send him to Arizona to work on a corporate merger. There, Paul is taken with the myth of the Old West, where a man with a gun could confront outlaws. Before leaving, he buys a revolver, hides it in his luggage and sneaks it into New York.

Now armed, Paul does not wait until he is preyed upon, he goes looking for trouble. He shoots and kills a junkie attempting to rob him, and when the sickening sensation leaves him, he has a feeling of accomplishment. Night after night, he goes out looking to repeat the incident. At first, he rationalizes the shootings by only killing those out to do him harm or in the middle of committing other crimes. Soon his actions leave him feeling nothing. He is as numb to the world as his institutionalized daughter.

A psychiatrist, interviewed in a New York magazine provides a profile of the unknown man whom the press is hailing as a vigilante and citizens are applauding for cleaning up the streets. The psychiatrist says the vigilante is a middle-aged man who has experienced a terrible act of violence either against himself or a family member and is driven by fear and a mental breakdown. The article startles Paul, but does not stop him. By the end of the book, Paul is roaming the streets like an animal, looking for his next victim.

Death Wish is provocative, but, with new fears of terrorism and mass shootings, this novel of street crime reads like yesterday’s headlines.

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quirky Crime Film: Blast of Silence

Frankie Bono, an out-of-town killer hired to take out a New York crime boss, spends several days stalking his intended victim, learning the man’s routines, and picking the best spot to do the job in the off-beat, low-budget, noir film, “Blast of Silence.”

The grim, stoic Frankie, played by Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed this independently made, 1961 feature, goes about his business during the Christmas season and the contrast between the hired gun moving among the happy shoppers is striking.

More striking is the divided nature of Frankie. While he is a cold-blooded pro, he is also a lonely hitman. Accidentally running into an old buddy, Frankie is invited to a party, meets a girl, and desperately goes after her, stopping just short of rape. This makes for a very strange tangent in this odd, intriguing movie.

The many scenes of Frankie doing his job – contacting the man who hires him, buying an illegal gun, and following his target – are accompanied by strangely poetic narration. But it is not the usual first-person narration commonly found in film noir. It is second-person narration delivered, uncredited, by once-blacklisted actor Lionel Stander – he of the distinctive, gravely voice, who later co-starred on TVs “Hart to Hart.” The narration was written by once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, under the pen name, Mel Davenport. Salt later wrote the screenplays for “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Serpico.” The voice-over comes from an omniscient character who is talking to Frankie, commenting on his thoughts and actions, rather than informing the audience.

Shot entirely on the streets of New York in a documentary style, “Blast of Silence,” has the look and feel of early John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick films and is nearly a decade ahead of Martin Scorsese’s first efforts.

The movie was co-produced and photographed in gritty black and white on dark dreary days by Merrill Brody, a friend of Baron’s since grade school. Another plus is the film’s jazz score by Meyer Kupferman.

This excellent, 77-minute movie was originally released by Universal-International and has recently been given a new life on DVD by Criterion.

Friday, January 20, 2017

FFB: Lovely Lady, Pity Me by Roy Huggins

Roy Huggins is a name I have seen on TV credits all my life.

He was a novelist who started writing for television in the 1950s and went on to create shows like Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, and many more.

His 1949 murder mystery novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me, is a noir story of an ordinary guy, John Swanney, a reporter for a national news magazine living in Los Angeles, whose marriage has broken up, although he and his wife still share the same house. On assignment and checking out a gambling joint, John meets Ann, a beautiful, mysterious woman decked out in furs, who offers him no information about her personal life while offering him everything else.

John falls hard for Ann. (Guys like John always do. Makes you wonder if he had ever read any James M. Cain or at least seen a Fritz Lang movie. Huggins read Cain. He even mentions the author in the book.) Anyway, John and Ann meet in out-of-the-way places until he discovers, while on another assignment, that she is married to a wealthy and powerful older man.

In an attempt to straighten things out with Ann, he meets her in a dark parking lot at UCLA. Later, when John returns to his house, he finds his wife has been brutally murdered.

Knowing he will be the No. 1 suspect in the case, John contacts Ann and explains that she must tell the police they were together all evening. She refuses and John, now without an alibi, is headed for the gas chamber unless he can find out who killed his wife before the cops nab him.

Huggins creates a fast-paced story with his hero avoiding the police at every turn and at times running like mad to escape them. Lovely Lady, Pity Me, is a fun read and Huggins (1914-2002) was a good storyteller. He also provides a glimpse of L.A. in the 1940s.

In 1958, Huggins used the bare bones of this story as the second episode of 77 Sunset Strip, which he also called, “Lovely Lady, Pity Me.” In the part of John, he inserted series lead character, private investigator Stuart Bailey, which makes a neat circle. In the book, John briefly contacts Bailey. The P.I. first appeared in Huggins’ novel, The Double Take from 1946.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11

There may be better prison films than “Riot in Cell Block 11,” but it sure is hard to think of one. (“Birdman of Alcatraz” might edge it out for the top spot.)

One of the toughest, most realistic movies about the prison system when it hit theaters in 1954, “Riot in Cell Block 11” still stands up as a hard, fast-paced picture with an important message.

Filmed in a nearly documentary style in California’s Folsom State Prison by director Don Siegel, an action expert, this 80-minute movie is almost non-stop action, and where there is a momentary lull in the action, there is high tension.

In the film, prisoners at the breaking point due to poor conditions, overpower their guards and seize one of the blocks – or corridors – of cells.

Leading the revolt are two of the toughest actors ever in the movies: Neville Brand as the brains, and Leo Gordon as the muscle backing him up. Gordon who was in many movies and television shows, had actually served time in prison, and, from what I have read, could scare the crap out of almost anyone on any production. Brand, who was often cast as a thug in the 1940s and 1950s in films like "D.O.A.," here gets to play a tough guy with brains and a sense of justice.

The prisoners hold the guards hostage and issue a set of demands to the governor. The demands include more space in the overcrowded facility; removal of the criminally insane to a separate cell block; and separation of young offenders with light sentences from the hardened lifers.

Understanding the issues of the prisoners of Cell Block 11, the warden, played by Emile Meyer, is well aware of the problems, but can do little about them. Policy is set by state legislators and they and the governor refuse to spend any money to correct the conditions. Caught in a difficult situation, the warden must maintain order, contain the riot, and negotiate with the prisoners while dealing with a hard-nosed flunky sent by the governor, played by Frank Faylen. Faylen, here in a serious role, was a comic actor who played Dobie Gillis’ father on TV. Emile Meyer, often cast as tough ruthless characters, like the corrupt cop in “The Sweet Smell of Success” and the vice principal of the high school in “Blackboard Jungle,” gets a complex part to play here and does an excellent job.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” is not only a terrific action movie, it addresses realistic problems. And, as far as I could see, there is not a bad scene or a wasted frame of film in the entire movie.

Don Siegel did a great job on this, one of his earlier projects as a director. He later made five films with Clint Eastwood, including “Dirty Harry,” and “Escape from Alcatraz,” and he was a mentor to Eastwood in the actor’s early efforts as a director.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump Comes to Town on TV’s Trackdown

Last Saturday morning, cable’s ME TV channel showed an old, black-and-white episode of a Western series in which a man named Trump arrives in a small town and warns the people that meteors are about to hit and destroy everyone, and only he can save them.

He convinces the crowd and they clamor to buy his expensive protection – little umbrellas with symbols he claims have the power to deflect the killer space rocks.

Into this comes a Texas Ranger who tries to expose the fraud. But the people, carried away with fear, are willing to do anything to save themselves.

The episode, “The End of the World,” was from a show called Trackdown, and originally aired in 1958. The series starred Robert Culp and ran from 1957 to 1959.

(For more overlooked TV and film, visit Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, January 6, 2017

FFB: New Year’s Eve/1929 by James T. Farrell

This review was intended for last week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books, but the night before, a light snow storm knocked out the power in my area. Funny, the electric stays on through heavy rains and high winds, but let one snowflake land on a wire and a lot of little houses go dark. The lights eventually came back on, but the deadline had passed. So, here is what I hoped you all could have read before the calendar change.

James T. Farrell’s slim novel from 1967, New Year’s Eve/1929, takes place in Chicago on the afternoon, evening, night and the following morning of the last day of the 1920s and the first day of the 1930s. It is his bitter look back at the end of the Roaring 20s.

In the book, Beatrice Burns, a woman about 29 years old, dying of a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, lives near, and desperately wants to be part of, a group called the Fifty-seventh Street Art Colony. The colony was an actual group of writers, painters and college students residing in a south-side neighborhood near the University of Chicago. This is the same part of the city in which Farrell (1904-1979) grew up, went to college and wrote about in many of his novels, including his Studs Lonigan trilogy.

Beatrice longs for a blow-out New Year’s Eve party, a party to end all parties. A couple she knows, who usually throw huge parties seem too tired and uninterested in hosting anything that night. But Beatrice goes around telling people that there will be a big bash at the couple’s place, and feels she is doing everyone a favor by promoting a party.

That evening, the couple’s little apartment is jammed with people. Most know each other, everyone is talking at once, no one is listening much, and all are trying too hard to have fun. These people seem to know they are headed for tough times. This could be Farrell’s 20/20 hindsight, writing from a nearly 40-year distance.

One of the characters who appears in several of Farrell’s books, a writer named Dan O’Neil, comes to the party with a pretty young girl from the neighborhood whose mother does not approve of O’Neil. When Dan and the girl see Beatrice, they worry that Beatrice will cause trouble by telling the girl’s mother. Beatrice delights in knowing that she is upsetting them.

Dull and manipulative, Beatrice wants more than anything to be the center of attention. The idea of gaining the spotlight by causing trouble for others, thrills her. She takes note of couples sneaking off to the bedroom or locking themselves in the bathroom. She relishes the idea of catching them and having some juicy gossip. In short, Beatrice is a thoroughly dislikable character and a person the group barely tolerates and mostly ignores.

When a man gets drunk and starts shadow boxing, he accidentally clips Beatrice, knocking her to the floor. When she gets up, Beatrice laughs it off hoping the incident will finally draw everyone’s attention to her. It does, but momentarily.

At dawn, she tags along with a small group leaving the party. When they play a noisy game on the sidewalk, an irate neighbor throws cold water down on them. The water only hits Beatrice, and again, she laughs it off, hoping it will make her the life of the party. Instead, the group takes it as a sign the night – and the fun – is over and they go their separate ways.

New Year’s Eve/1929 is a quick, interesting read, but not a pleasant one. Anyone unfamiliar with Farrell would do better reading Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935).

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)