Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Boy Solves Murder Mystery in Richard Harding Davis’ “Gallegher”


When I was a kid, Walt Disney had a one-hour television program every Sunday night. Often, the shows were continuing, two part stories. One, I vaguely remember was about a newspaper copyboy who aspires to be a journalist and out investigates the seasoned reporters, and the local police, and solves crimes.

Recently, I found and bought a copy of the original source material for that series, a long short story published in 1891 called, “Gallegher: A Newspaper Story,” by Richard Harding Davis. 

This 11,000-word yarn is narrated by a reporter on a Philadelphia daily newspaper. He recalls a scrappy, 12- or 13-year-old kid working in the city room and how the boy broke a murder case and helped scoop all the other papers in town.

Early one morning, a prominent attorney is found dead in his home, his safe open, and $200,000 missing from it. Also gone is the man’s secretary, a guy with a missing finger, and the only other person with a key to the safe.

Gallegher spots the secretary on the street and follows the man to an out-of-town inn where an illegal prize fight is set to take place in the barn. The boy figures his newspaper’s sports reporter will likely show up for the match. When he does, Gallegher lays out a plan to alert a detective to come and arrest the secretary, giving the sports reporter an exclusive for their paper—which Gallegher will slip away and carry back to town—as well as a claim to a $5,000 reward for the capture of the murderer.
 

“Gallegher” reads like a modern story. As a writer, Davis had one foot in the 19th century and one in the 20th century. A few times the dialogue had a formal, awkward, unnatural sound. But most of the story was sharp and punchy. The passages of Gallegher following the secretary, the descriptions of the fight, and the boy’s mad dash back to the city and the newspaper office with the sports writer’s copy in his pocket were fast paced and exciting.


Harding subtitled the yarn, A Newspaper Story. Readers today get a glimpse at how a daily paper operated in those days, 130 years ago, when they had to move fast to get the jump on all the other city papers. 

 In the 1890s, Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) had become a famous, globe-trotting journalist and author, writing for the top papers and magazines in the country and befriending people like Teddy Roosevelt.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Up for Oscars

More than a year ago, we saw our last film in a movie theater. This month, we returned to one of our favorite venues to see the Oscar nominated picture, “Nomadland.”  

Here are some notes on it and two other films with Academy Award nominations:

“Nomadland”   

It is hard to recommend a movie that is nearly two hours of watching a middle-aged woman living in her van and taking temporary, low-wage jobs to get by. But there is something wonderful in the spirit of this woman and her friends who are in the same situation.


Frances McDormand plays Fern, a woman whose life fell apart when the one, giant employer in her town shut down operations.

McDormand is excellent and is up for a third Academy Award. She won best actress for “Fargo” and for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

Director ChloƩ Zhao pulls no punches in telling this story based on the book by Jessica Bruder. But at an hour and 47 minutes, the whole thing feels too long. Zhao is also up for Oscars for directing and screenplay.


“Hillbilly Elegy”
 
 

Veteran actress Glen Close is up for an Oscar as best supporting actress for playing, Mamaw, the strong-willed, country grandmother in “Hillbilly Elegy.”


The film, based on the autobiographical book by J.D. Vance, was much better than I thought it would be.

The book tells the story of how Vance, with the tough-love guidance of his grandmother, broke out of the cycle of violence, drug addiction, and chaos that surrounded him as a child.

The movie’s producers smartly trimmed the book, cutting out characters and incidents which could have been overkill on the screen, yet still retained Vance’s story.

Ron Howard directed the film. Gabriel Basso plays Vance as a young man and Owen Asztalos plays Vance as a boy. Amy Adams plays Vance’s mother, and it is mystery why she was not nominated.

“Sound of Metal”

The bravest production of the Oscar nominees has to be “Sound of Metal.”

It is the story of Ruben, a drummer in a heavy metal band, who starts going deaf.

I call this a brave film because of the way Ruben’s hearing is handled. At times, the sound track approximates his situation with an audio point-of-view. The technique is well done.

Riz Ahmed is up for best actor this year. “Sound of Metal” is also nominated for best picture, original screenplay, editing, sound, and for supporting actor for Paul Raci, who was great.

The Oscars are scheduled to be given out on Sunday, April 25.

Monday, March 22, 2021

To Find a Killer by Lionel White

This can happen. There is a writer you like, you admire his style, his plotting, everything about his work, you really love his books. Then you get your hands on one of his titles and it just falls short.

This happened to me with Lionel White’s 1954 crime novel To Find a Killer. But, being a fan of White, I hung in there. The guy was a craftsman who knew how to tell a complex crime story in a blunt, hard-boiled style. So, I figured there was something good ahead. 

After a slow start, it picked up momentum. The book never reached greatness, but it was not too bad. 

The problem with To Find a Killer is its main character. Marty Ferris is a New York police detective with a good track record and a reputation as a tough guy not shy about applying physical pressure to a suspect in need of encouragement to confess.

Marty has a problem. He suspects his good-looking wife is an unfaithful liar with a criminal past. A friend in the FBI found her real name and her prison record, both of which she kept from Marty.

While working a new homicide case of a beautiful night club singer who was found murdered in her apartment, Marty gets an idea that will solve his personal problem. He will pressure a suspect in the murder case into murdering his wife. Marty’s plan is complex, but perfect, he thinks.

Many a character in a Lionel White novel thinks his detailed plan is perfect only to have the whole thing unravel. 

To Find a Killer does not come up to level of The Snatchers (1953), the book White published the year before, or to the level of the book he published the following year, Clean Break (1955), which might be his most famous novel thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s film based on it called, “The Killing.” 

Lionel White (1905-1985), a former reporter who turned novelist when he was in his late 40s, wrote more than 35 books.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Swedish TV’s Wallander, is a series to watch

From 2005 to 2014, Swedish television produced 32 hour-and-a-half episodes of Wallander. They were based on stories by Henning Mankell, author of the terrific novels featuring Kurt Wallander, a police detective in the small southern city of Ystad.

Compared to the books, the TV stories are a bit lightweight. The fun is in watching Swede’s handle Swedish stories in Sweden. At times, the show can be very low key with Wallander and his team remaining unusually calm in the face of violent crime and murder. Other times, the episodes are suspenseful with good action sequences. All the shows are well produced and the subtitles not intrusive.

While series star Krister Henriksson did not fit my impression of Wallander from the books, he did a fine job.

Season 2 is currently on streaming site Kanopy. More episodes are on Amazon Prime Video.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Bulldog Drummond by H.C. McNeile


In H.C. McNeile’s 1920 adventure novel, Bulldog Drummond, Captain Hugh Drummond, back in England after years in the trenches on the Western Front, finds life in peacetime London boring.

Looking for something interesting, challenging and dangerous to do, he places the following ad in a newspaper:

“Demobilized officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate, if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.”

Several responses come in, but the one that intrigues him is from Phyllis Benton, a young woman whose father has fallen into the hands of manipulative criminals.

These bad guys are led by a cunning mastermind called Carl Peterson – which may or may not be his real name – a European gathering a group of agents to disrupt British industry and the government.

McNeile uses Peterson’s plan the way Alfred Hitchcock used his McGuffin. For the director, the word meant the thing the bad guys want which puts the story in gear, but that the audience (in this case the readers) do not care about. The McGuffin in Bulldog Drummond should not be analyzed too closely.

The bad guys are using a mansion close to Phyllis’ home as their base of operations. Drummond takes up the challenge but soon finds he is up against a larger force than expected. To combat Peterson’s henchmen, he calls on his pals who served with him in France. They, like Drummond, jump at the chance for a little action.

As he gathers his troops, Drummond’s friend Algy Longworth tells him, “Toby Sinclair is running round in circles asking for trouble Let’s rope him in.”

Beyond the tongue-in-cheek romp of their adventure, the glimpse of post-war veterans was interesting.

Bulldog Drummond is lightweight stuff. But a lot of it will test a reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. The two wackiest instances are when Drummond discovers a secret room in the bad guys’ headquarters is guarded by a cobra, and when the baddies sick a gorilla on Drummond. These enemies of England spend a lot of time dreaming up bizarre ways to kill Drummond when they could have shot him and dumped his body in the woods.

The character, Bulldog Drummond, has been compared to James Bond. But reading this book, I pictured a younger John Steed, the character played by Patrick Macnee in The Avengers TV series.

Readers today may be offended by the intolerant attitudes of Drummond and his friends. While I picked up the book for a breezy read, there are passages that jumped off the page and made me think we have come a long way in 100 years from the prejudices of the past. But have we?

Herman Cyril McNeile (1888-1937), who wrote under the pen name “Sapper,” turned out this first plus nine more Drummond novels. An additional nine were by other authors. The Bulldog Drummond character was adapted for film, radio and television. McNeile died of cancer at age 48.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Film Noir “I Wake Up Screaming” from a novel by Steve Fisher

In the debate over identifying film noir and its beginnings, John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” from the Dashiell Hammett novel is just about the first. But so is “I Wake Up Screaming.” Both pictures opened in October 1941.

“Falcon,” is the far better film. But, despite problems with its screenplay and its presentation, “Screaming” has a lot going for it.

Based on a crime novel by Steve Fisher (my post about the book can be found here), the film version of “I Wake Up Screaming” changes the locale from Los Angeles to New York City, and the main character from a screenwriter to a sports promoter. I have read that Darryl Zanuck, boss of 20th Century Fox in those days, would not make movies about the movie business.

In the film, as well as in the book, a beautiful young woman is murdered and the man she has been seeing is the prime suspect. While the man tries to clear his name, one police detective is obsessed with the idea of sending the him to the electric chair.

Victor Mature plays the man and in an excellent casting decision, Laird Cregar plays the detective. Mature was a big guy who looked like a body builder and not the type who would be intimidated. But Cregar was a huge, heavy-set actor who looked like he could squash Mature. Cregar bravely played the role without a hint of begging the audience to like him. The detective is malevolent and scary.

In the book, the detective is emaciated and dying and like a ghost he haunts the man. One of the movie’s creepiest moments is when the man wakes in the middle of the night to find the detective sitting in a chair next to his bed, watching him.

Another oddity about the movie is the casting of rising musical-comedy star Betty Grable as the leading lady. She plays the sister of the murdered girl.

But the strangest thing in “Screaming” is its music. It uses – make that overuses – an instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow.” I cannot guess why the producers used such a recognizable tune associated with another movie.

“I Wake Up Screaming” was directed by Bruce Humberstone with too many light, even comedic moments. Humberstone is not known for film noir. Today he may not be known at all. But, he was a craftsman of the old school who directed a wide variety of productions including Westerns, comedies, and a lot of television later in his career. In the 1930s, he directed four of the Charlie Chan pictures. Those little films, if my memory is correct, usually had some dark, noir-like photography.

“Screaming” has some excellent high-contrast, black and white cinematography thanks to cameraman Edward Cronjager.

As for the debate over what constitutes film noir, I will just adopt Potter Stewart’s test for pornography and simply say, I know it when I see it.

(In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, wrote that phrase in an opinion on whether or not French director Louis Malle’s film, “The Lovers,” was obscene. Stewart said it was not.)

Monday, February 22, 2021

I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher

For some reason, author Steve Fisher rewrote his 1941 novel, I Wake Up Screaming, and republished it in 1960.

Sources on-line say he wanted to update the book from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.

This is the beginning of the 1941version:

It was a hot Saturday night and I wore white flannels and one of those blue sport shirts and sat in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Cine-Grill drinking Bacardis. The bar stools were white leather, and the wall decoration was a maze of old film cuts blown up – Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Milton Sills, Harold Lloyd, Wallace Beery and like that. Across the street at The Chinese they were having a minor premiere of the newest Dr. Kildare picture. Arc lights were swinging back and forth, limousines arriving, and cops holding off the crowd.

And this is the update:

It was a hot Saturday night and I had on a Sy Devore suit and a hand-knit tie and sat at the bar in Mike Romanoff’s drinking Canadian Club old fashioneds. The bar stools were leather and the wall decorations had that ultra look and Zsa Zsa Gabor was at a closeby table, her head thrown back in laughter, and Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby and Bill Holden were at other tables and a couple of blocks away, on the corner of Wilshire and Beverly Drive, they were having a premiere for the latest Jerry Wald epic: arc lights swinging back and forth, limousines arriving, and cops holding off the crowd.


A lot of pop references are different in the later work, but the story is essentially the same.  

I Wake Up Screaming is about a young writer working at one of the big studios who meets Vicky, a beautiful young woman who also works there. They start going out together, but Vicky is murdered and the police jump to the conclusion that the writer did it.

One detective, Ed Cornell, has it in for the writer and makes no secret that he wants to put him in the electric chair. Cornell is a ghostly presence, he looks like death, skeletal, pale and sickly. The man is dying and knows this is his last case and promises to live to see it through. Cornell shadows the writer and appears out of nowhere in unexpected places to haunt the writer.

Fisher does an expert job of plunging the reader into the dark, murky, nightmarish world in which the writer finds himself.

Monday, February 15, 2021

“The Midnighters” is a Movie to See

Until recently, a little crime film from 2016 called “The Midnighters” was unknown to me.

It is the story of Victor, an older man who spent the last 30 years in prison. No sooner is he released than he is pulled back into crime.

The guy pulling him is his adult son. The son is mixed up with some very bad guys who want to pull off a big heist. All the son and his cohorts need is an ace safe cracker. That is where Victor comes in.

Leon Russom plays Victor and he is terrific. In fact, all the acting in this picture is top notch.

“The Midnighters” was written and directed by Julian Fort, and for a first feature, it is extremely well done.

The movie is available on the streaming site, Kanopy.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Sins of the Fathers by Lawrence Block

Forty-five years ago, master craftsman Lawrence Block kicked off his long-running series of novels featuring Matthew Scudder with The Sins of the Fathers.

The compact book starts with hard drinking, former cop turned unlicensed investigator, Scudder in a bar and meeting with the father of a murder victim.

A young woman was slashed to death in her Greenwich Village apartment. The man she lived with was found moments later out on the street, covered in blood and shouting obscenities. The guy was arrested and taken to the city detention center called the Tombs where he committed suicide. Case closed, as far as the police were concerned.

But the father, who had lost touch with the girl when she dropped out of college, pays Scudder to find out what his daughter’s life had been like in the past few years. The newspapers called her a prostitute.

Scudder learns the girl had been a prostitute, the man she lived with could not have killed her and the case was not resolved.

Block’s prose is tight and his dialogue natural. This lean book provides readers with everything they need to know about the girl, the father, the suspects, and about Scudder, including why he quit the force.

The Sins of the Fathers, with its blunt descriptions of sex and death is still hot read today.

There are 11 novels in the Scudder series, which you can see at Lawrence Block’s website. Over the years, I’ve read a bunch of them, but not in order. Now, I plan to work my way through the books.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Film Noir “Thieves’ Highway” from Bezzerides novel

Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb

Last week, I posted a piece about A. I. Bezzerides’ hard-boiled 1949 novel of independent truckers, Thieves’ Market.

The same year the book was published, 20th Century Fox released a film version of the story re-titled, “Thieves’ Highway.”

Bezzerides, in an interview, said the studio did not want to offend the city of San Francisco by using the original title.

The producers made other changes as well, the biggest of which was making Nick Garcos a hero rather than the nasty anti-hero of Bezzerides’ book.

In the film, he no longer steals from his mother to set himself up in the trucking business, but becomes an independent hauler partly as an act of vengeance to right a wrong done against his father.

With the revisions to the character, the studio cast one of its up and coming players, Richard Conte, in the role. Conte was a good – if underrated – actor. He later slipped into supporting roles, perhaps because his stoic demeanor fell out of style with the influx of emotionally charged Method actors arriving in Hollywood.

Lee J. Cobb, a gruff stage actor (he played Willy Loman in the original Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman”), was cast as the crooked produce buyer who attempts to hijack Nick’s load. Cobb was great in this kind of part. He also played the union boss in “On the Waterfront.”

Millard Mitchell, a character actor who usually played sheriffs and generals, was cast against type as Nick’s unscrupulous and untrustworthy partner, and he does a great job.

Valentina Cortese played a hooker with the heart of gold who is hired to distract Nick while the buyer commandeers his load.

Jules Dassin directed the picture in an almost documentary style. Dassin at that time was known for making tough, hard-boiled films like “The Naked City” and “Brute Force.” Later, after being blacklisted, he directed the heist film “Rififi” in France, and the comedy-heist film “Topkapi” in Greece and Turkey.

Bezzerides may not have minded the changes the studio demanded of his book since he has the solo credit for writing the screenplay. Besides, “Thieves’ Highway” was a lot closer to the book than the Warner Bros. production of his 1938 novel about truckers, Long Haul, re-titled, “They Drive by Night.” But that is a story for another post.