Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cagney & Day in "Love Me or Leave Me"

Doris Day and James Cagney
The 1955 MGM production, “Love Me or Leave Me” is a James Cagney gangster movie and a Doris Day musical, and the two elements work well together. It is also one of my favorites.

Based on the life of 1920s singer Ruth Etting, the story opens with Ruth, played by Miss Day, working as a dime-a-dance girl in a cheesy Chicago club when she is spotted by tough-guy Marty “the Gimp” Snyder. Marty is the owner of a legitimate laundry that illegitimately forces nightclub owners to use his service, thus making this intimidating thug rich and powerful. Marty is smitten by tough-cookie Ruth and introduces her to his clients securing her jobs in the chorus and then as a featured singer.

Ruth Etting has talent, but she uses Marty for his connections to advance her career. She falls in love with a musician, played by Cameron Mitchell, who urges her to get away from the gangster before it is too late. Ruth puts her career first and ends up marrying Marty.

As she rises in fame, Marty fearing he is losing control of her, causes problems everywhere she works.

Cagney, as Marty, is great as usual and is possibly more ferocious here than in his portrayal of psychopath Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” He is also more understandable, even sympathetic, than any of his other gangster roles. Doris Day gives her best performance ever as the determined Ruth. Any other actress attempting this role would have been hated by the audience, but due to Miss Day’s charm and voice, she wins viewers.

“Love Me Or Leave Me” was directed by Charles Vidor, who made the 1946 noir classic “Gilda.” It was produced by Joe Pasternak, one of the three staff supervisors of MGM musicals.

The picture features plenty of Ruth’s 1920s songs, updated to Doris Day’s style, including the tough, “Ten Cents a Dance,” along with “At Sundown,” and this simple version of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Noir Suspense Film “The Narrow Margin”

A little, black and white movie from 1952 with no big stars may be one of the best films in several categories.

“The Narrow Margin” is a terrific suspense picture, it is a good crime movie, and it is a classic of film noir.

While it was made on a small budget it is as good as any big-budget A-picture, and it may be the best B-movie ever produced.

Detective Walter Brown is assigned the thankless task of escorting and protecting a prosecution witness on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown, played by tough-guy-actor Charles McGraw, the man with the sandpaper voice, does not like the job and does not like the witness, a Mrs. Neil, played by B-movie bad-girl Marie Windsor. Mrs. Neil is the wife of a slain gangster. Brown hates gangsters and their relatives.

Minutes into the movie, Brown and his partner are ambushed by hit-men aiming to knock off Mrs. Neil. Brown’s partner is killed and Brown’s nerves start buzzing like high-tension wires.

Most of the film takes place on the train where the claustrophobic quarters, tight corridors and no-place-to hide situations tear at Brown, as he spots one, then another, and finally a third gunman on the train.

Charles McGraw does an excellent job of projecting a sense of duty-bound courage and almost overwhelming fear. The assignment is eating him alive.

His job is made no easier by Mrs. Neil, who is nearly impossible to protect. She is a wisecracking pain in the neck who does not seem to realize the mortal danger she is in. At one point, when Brown is trying to keep her hidden in her compartment, she starts blasting her record player.

“The Narrow Margin” is full of crazy twists and moments of suspense.

The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and is one of his earliest productions. Fleischer makes the most of his opportunity, coaching strong performances out of his cast and employing a camera style that projects the sweaty unease of Brown right off the screen and into the audience. His direction is the work of a young, energetic director proving he is worthy of handling bigger budget films. In a sequence at a station stop, one of the few times Brown gets outside, Fleischer’s innovative camerawork keeps Brown uncomfortably close to the audience while framing and reframing a host of suspicious characters lurking about, all keeping an eye on Brown.

For a fight scene in a compartment, Fleischer uses a hand-held camera before that technique was readily accepted. It gives the fight a brutal feeling. Watching it, I wondered if British director Terrence Young recalled “The Narrow Margin” when staging the fight scene between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in a train compartment in “From Russia With Love."

In "The Narrow Margin," Charles  McGraw (1914-1980) gets one of his few chances to play the lead. For about four decades, McGraw played supporting parts, usually as gruff military men or gruff cops. He is also remembered as one of the hit-men sent to kill Burt Lancaster in 1946's "The Killers."

Marie Windsor (1919-2000) had a long career in movies and television, often playing tough women in crime films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.”

Richard Fleischer (1916-2016) was the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer, and nephew of Dave Fleischer. He had a long and varied career making all sorts of films from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, including “The Boston Strangler” with Tony Curtis and the big-budget, action-picture “The Vikings” with Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

“The Narrow Margin” was scripted by three writers: Earl Felton, a long-time Hollywood screenwriter who worked on several films with Fleischer, including 1950’s “Armored Car Robbery,” which also featured McGraw; Martin Goldsmith, who also wrote original story of the classic film noir “Detour” and; Jack Leonard, a screenwriter who died two years later at age 41.

The film was produced by Stanley Ruben (1917-2014) who started his career in the Paramount mail room in the 1930s and went on to produce movies and television programs into the 1990s.

“The Narrow Margin” is a lot of movie packed into a small, 71-minute package.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

FFB: Round Trip by W.R. Burnett

Robinson, Burnett, LeRoy
A bit of a cheat here for Friday's Forgotten Book. “Round Trip” may be forgotten, but it is not a book. It is a short story by W. R. Burnett.

More than 20 years ago, I read Burnett's 1949 heist novel, The Asphalt Jungle, but never returned to his work until now.

“Round Trip” is the story of George Barber, a Chicago gangster in the 1920s. He is the muscle the owner of a gambling joint uses to collect unpaid debts. George is good at his job, but tired of the grind and tells his boss he is taking off on a little vacation. He takes the train to Toledo, a small city in north-western Ohio and not exactly a vacation getaway from windy Chicago. Cabbies, bellboys and hotel clerks treat him with disdain, which annoys George who is used to being treated with respect in his home town where people know and fear him. On top of that, he comes down with a bad cold. In Toledo less than a day, he gets a visit from some hard-bitten cops who send him packing right back to Chicago.

This 1929 story is told almost entirely through dialogue, and that dialogue, along with the attitudes of George and the other tough guys, is about as hard-boiled as it gets. Burnett’s writing style is straight forward and matter of fact, but it seemed he had a great ear for the slang and speech patterns of the underworld characters of his time. It is no wonder Hollywood grabbed him after his first novel, 1929's Little Caesar, came out. “Round Trip” was written shortly after Little Caesar and the death of Rico, the main character in that book, is mentioned in this story.

William Riley Burnett was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ohio, and died in 1982 in Santa Monica, California. After working in an Ohio state government job, and writing stories on his own time, he moved to Chicago in the late 1920s. There he met many of the real-life characters he later depicted in print and on screen. Warner Bros. bought Little Caesar, and produced it as a movie in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Around the same time, Burnett moved to Hollywood. Over the next 52 years he turned out 38 more novels and wrote, co-wrote or contributed to more than 50 film and television scripts.

Now that I am reacquainted with Burnett, I want to read more and there are a several of his novels, including Nobody Lives Forever from 1943, now on my list.

“Round Trip” can be found in a 1995 collection called, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Detroit News in a 1970 Film


News coverage has always been a lightning rod attracting criticism from all quarters.

In “Both Sides of the Question,” a 1970 film about the Michigan newspaper, the Detroit News, the then editor of the paper said some complain it is too liberal, others that it is too conservative.

“The day we get no complaints is the day we’ve put out a dull newspaper,” he said.

Whether conservative, liberal, exciting or dull, what made this movie interesting to me was watching the staffers doing their jobs in the era of typewriters, teletypes, and Linotype machines, and when smoking was permitted in the office.

Recently, I told some teenagers that I went to work in the final days of typewriters and ashtrays on desks. From their expressions you would have thought I was talking about life in ancient Rome.

As for the movie, this 27-minute film, shot like a documentary, was produced by the Detroit News to promote itself as an even-handed reporter of the news.

As a fan of corporate films, I found this one to be an enjoyable glimpse at a time long past.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Film Noir: The Street With No Name

“The Street With No Name” is a great noir title of a good noir movie. It comes from a mid-century statement by then FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

This 1948 film features Mark Stevens as Cordell, an agent sent into a city to find and infiltrate a criminal gang run by Stiles, played by Richard Widmark.

With the help of a phony criminal record, Cordell edges his way into the gang.The gangsters have been so successful, Cordell learns, because Stiles has a crooked cop on his payroll providing all sorts of valuable information. As Cordell closes in on Stiles and his contact, the contact and Stiles become suspicious of him. All this leads to a tense climax with Stiles setting up Cordell to be killed.

A decade earlier, a conclusion like that would have had no suspense at all. But “The Street With No Name” was made in the post-WWII, film-noir era, when anything could happen, including the death of the hero

Of the sub-genres of film noir, “The Street With No Name” would fall into the category of docu-noir. Much of the film was shot on location, giving the picture and extra gritty feel. The dark, shadowy look of the film is courtesy of cameraman Joe MacDonald.

Veteran Hollywood director William Keighley, kept the whole thing moving at a rapid pace that never let up. Sometimes, the tempo and the jaunty acting of the gang had the slick, fast-paced feel of a 1930s Warner Bros. movie. Not a bad thing, very entertaining, but not really in keeping with the tension of film noir. This is a minor quibble considering Keighley cranked out many films at Warners in the ‘30s.

“The Street With No Name” is an above average crime picture with many good scenes between stars Stevens and Widmark. And, thankfully, director Keighley restrained Widmark from doing his manic giggle, which the actor used to great effect in “Kiss of Death,” but then overused in several subsequent films. Widmark was a fine actor who could portray cold-blooded villainy as well as cowardly panic better than most of the actors of his era. Mark Stevens seemed to have a spotty career. In the 1950s, he went on to act and direct in television. He also made an interesting noir Western called “Jack Slade."

Also featured in “The Street With No Name” were Lloyd Nolan as Cordell’s FBI superior, John McIntire as another agent on the case, Ed Begley as a senior police official, and Barbara Lawrence in the thankless role of Stiles’ wife, who spends all her scenes being abused verbally and physically.

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

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.

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.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

“Lawrence of Arabia” before O’Toole & Lean

T.E. LAWRENCE
Last week’s post on the low budget 1944 film, “Action in Arabia,” drew an interesting comment from Sergio, who blogs at the terrific site, Tipping My Fedora.” He said the large scale shots of Arab fighters were filmed years earlier for a never-completed movie about T.E. Lawrence. This intrigued me enough to hunt for more about this early version of “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In a 2011 post on “Action in Arabia,” Mark Gabrish Conlan said Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack planned a Lawrence film after they finished “King Kong.” They took the first production steps, sending Schoedsack to the Middle East to shoot scenes of mounted Arab fighters. The Lawrence film was cancelled and years later, the scenes filmed wound up in “Action in Arabia”.


COOPER & SCHOEDSACK

LESLIE HOWARD
 The Cooper and Schoedsack production that almost happened makes for a great “one-that-got-away” story. Before making their now famous studio productions in Hollywood, the team made some fine documentaries in far off places during the silent era. A great one is “Grass” from 1925. Cooper and Schoedsack recorded the journey of a tribe of about 50,000 people and their livestock over mountains between Turkey and Iran to reach good grazing lands.

Another site, Crawley’s Casting Calls, provides the bumpy history of attempts to make a movie about T.E. Lawrence. Crawley’s says Cooper and Schoedsack also considered hiring Howard Hawks to direct Ronald Colman as Lawrence. Around the same time, producer Alexander Korda also wanted to make a “Lawrence of Arabia” with Leslie Howard playing Lawrence, which would have been excellent casting. Korda produced some big pictures with exotic locals around that time, including “The Four Feathers” in 1939. His Lawrence film could have been a Technicolor spectacular.

Cooper and Schoedsack had also produced a version of “The Four Feathers” in 1929.

Too bad Korda, Cooper and Schoedsack could not have teamed up. They would have made a terrific movie. But, if they had, we may never have gotten David Lean’s great 1962 film.

DAVID LEAN
PETER O'TOOLE



















And Lean’s casting of Peter O’Toole in the lead (although not his first choice), was pretty darn good, too.

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

Edward Bunker’s 1973 novel, No Beast So Fierce, is no book for the feint of heart.

This story of 31-year-old Max Dembo, who is released from prison after eight years and never wants to return, but cannot tolerate the rules, regulations, and boredom of straight life and returns to crime is filled with crude, coarse scenes, and language so raw, it must have curled the hair of readers five decades ago. (Of course, similar scenes and language are now accepted entertainment on cable TV.)

Max, who spent a good part of his life behind bars, from reform school, to county jails, to the California prison system, is released at the beginning of the book and he vows never to return. It is 1964 and he is going home to Los Angeles determined to get a job and live a straight life. But his plans have big flaws. Max does not know how to live a straight life. The only life he knows is crime, and the only people he knows are criminals. He finds it impossible to straddle the straight world and the underworld and after a short struggle, gives up and turns back to crime. He regrets not being able to turn his life around, yet he craves action and enjoys the outlaw life.

No Beast So Fierce starts off hard. The prison situation is hard, and the language of the men inside is hard. Once out and reverting back to his old ways, the story meanders a bit and introduces too many petty thieves, drunks and junkies. But Bunker’s purpose is clear, he is sticking the readers face into the hard realities of these character’s lives – the crummy living conditions, the edginess and violence around them, the day-to-day, hand-to-mouth existence. And he knows what he is talking about. Bunker spent time in reform schools and state prisons until he straightened himself out. He began reading and then writing. Every page has the odor of reality on it. This man knew what he was talking about.

Once Max gets to work robbing, the book picks up speed. He goes from a supermarket stick up, to bank robbery to a major jewelry heist. And when things start to go wrong, they really go wrong for Max, and the story flies to its conclusion.

No Beast So Fierce, like other Bunker novels, is a fast read, but a gritty, grubby one, which will leave you feeling like you need to go outside, breathe the fresh air, and thank your lucky stars you are not in Max Dembo’s world (at least, I hope you are not).

Edward Bunker was born in 1933 in Los Angeles. He died in 2005 in Burbank, California.

(To see my review of Bunker's novel Dog Eat Dog. click here.) 

 (For more posts on books this week, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)