Thursday, December 17, 2015

FFB Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

Since the late 1980s, Alan Furst has built a big reputation writing novels of intrigue and espionage set in Europe just before and during World War 2, and Spies of the Balkans from 2010 is another terrific story from him.

In 1940, when much of Europe is at war with Nazi Germany, Greeks were hoping to stay out of the war. But some knew the conflict was inevitable.

In the northern Greek city of Salonika, police detective Constantine Zannis is the go-to guy for sensitive assignments like finding out what a mysterious German is doing in town, or making an indiscreet politician's irate lover quiet down and stop making a public spectacle.

Zannis at heart is an honest cop with a conscience, and that conscience is put to the test when a German woman recruits him to help her smuggle Jewish refugees out of Germany.

His task is to set up a network of safe havens in nearby countries and into Greece where the refugees can catch international ships to neutral countries. Zannis takes on this job which requires him to travel in and out of Greece and into some dangerous cities where an underground network of petty criminals will assist – he hopes – for a price.

The price is met by a wealthy Greek shipping tycoon and friend of Zannis’ police boss. The tycoon has a beautiful young wife, and as if Zannis is not in enough danger defying the Nazi’s and dealing with gangsters, he falls in love with the rich man’s wife and begins an affair.

Spies of the Balkans is a well written, well researched, compelling and topical read during this time when thousands of refugees escaping war are trying to reach safe haven through the same part of the world.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Vacancy

Watching “Vacancy” was the most fun I have had sitting through a horror movie.

Fun is a strange word to use with this genre, a category I rarely choose for my viewing pleasure. The humor comes from the small but excellent cast in this 2007 film.

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale play a married couple lost on a dark, deserted stretch of rural two-lane highway. Their car breaks down and they choose to stay at a dumpy motel run by Frank Whaley. Up to this point, the movie plays like a close cousin to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

Soon Luke and Kate suspect they are the intended victims of some local psychos who aim to beat, abuse and kill them while recording it all for a snuff film. Here the movie turns into a close cousin of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Despite the low-rent premise, the movie is exciting and scary. It is also funny thanks to Wilson and Whaley. Beckinsale, one of the best actresses we have, is also very good here, and I have never seen her less than terrific since first seeing her in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare film, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Her terror seems genuine and her humor comes from her bitter rapport with Wilson (at least I found their banter funny.) As their situation grows more serious, the laughs are of the nervous kind as we, the audience, are a little ahead of the couple because we know this is a horror film.

“Vacancy” was directed by Nimrod Antal, a filmmaker new to me, who has made half a dozen features in a dozen years.

I can recommend this film to those who like this kind of picture and to those having a tough week and who want to kick back and forget their own problems for 85 minutes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Prowler

“The Prowler,” a rarely seen noir film from 1951, is the story of a corrupt, immoral and dangerous Los Angeles cop, played by Van Heflin, who starts an affair with a suburban housewife, played by Evelyn Keyes, and together their passions run out of control.

Heflin by this time was a movie star who had played villains in supporting roles and anti-heroes in noir films like “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” and here he projects sleazy depravity from his first scene in which he responds at a report of a prowler at Keyes’s home.

Heflin’s character – a former jock and high school hero – is now an ordinary patrol cop who believes he deserves more from life and that he has the right to take what he wants. His badge and gun give him the power to threaten and intimidate others. When Heflin and his patrol-car partner are sent to the home of Keyes, we see that he is a predator. As his partner talks to Keyes at her front door, Heflin walks right into her living room and starts checking out personal items on a desk. This man cannot be trusted. He is up to no good.

By coincidence, he and Keyes know each other. They grew up in the same town. She had a crush on him. He moves in on her and is not rebuffed as Keyes is unhappy in her marriage to a successful radio personality. This is typical of film noir, but several things stand out to make “The Prowler” a very different kind of film. First, few if any cops in movies of that time were depicted as corrupt and immoral. Second, the film takes several turns making the plot unpredictable.

Unlike many noir films which start in the calm, placid daylight of post-World War 2 America and grow darker as the story does, “The Prowler” starts in the night and grows lighter, leaving the characters in the bright sunlight where there is no place to hide.

The film has many subtle elements to set an audience on edge, things like the oddly long hallways in Keyes’ suburban house, through which the characters move, creating an uneasy feeling.

“The Prowler” was directed by Joseph Losey, who right after making this film fled HUAC (the U.S. Congress’ communist witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee) and went to England where he remained and directed many good films including “The Servant.” In “The Prowler,” Losey presents most of Heflin’s and Keyes’ scenes in long, unbroken takes, displaying the skills of two very good actors. The tension Losey creates is never broken for the length of this 92–minute movie.

The movie’s screenplay was by black-listed Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, who at that time was still turning out scripts, but submitting them to producers by having friends put their names on the cover pages. Several years earlier, Trumbo and a handful of black-listed film people refused to provide HUAC with names of suspected Communists and all were sent to prison for contempt of Congress. He and the other nine were dubbed “The Hollywood Ten.” Trumbo’s problems with HUAC are the subject of a new movie, with Bryan Cranston (of “Breaking Bad” fame) playing him.

“The Prowler” was produced independently by Sam Speigel, through Horizon Pictures, the company he owned with director John Huston. Evelyn Keyes at the time of this movie was newly divorced from Huston.

The sleazy story of a corrupt cop sounds like the work of crime writer James Ellroy, but predates his book L.A. Confidential by nearly 40 years. Ellroy said “The Prowler” is one of his favorite films. When author Eddie Muller, head of the Film Noir Foundation, heard that, he tapped Ellroy for money to help restore the film, and Ellroy came through.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Take

“The Take” from 2007 is a good and unusual crime film told from the point of view of an armored car driver, played by John Leguizamo, who is trapped into participating in a robbery.

In the first few minutes of the film, Leguizamo is seen with his wife, played by Rosie Perez, and children as he gets ready to go to work. A minute or two after that, a man points a gun at his head and tells Leguizamo that one of his gang is now at his house with his family.

Leguizamo’s character watches helplessly as the gang pulls off the robbery, kills his coworkers, and shoots him in the head. He recovers only to find himself the No. 1 suspect of the police and the FBI.

The beginning will give fans of film noir a flashback to Robert Siodmak’s 1949 film, “Criss Cross” and Steven Soderbergh’s 1995 film, “The Underneath,” in which Burt Lancaster in the first, and Peter Gallagher in the second, play armored car guards involved in robberies. But “The Take” goes off in a completely different direction.

Told in a semi-documentary style with shaky camera work and muted colors rendering parts of Los Angeles even harsher and more dangerous than they already are, the film follows Leguizamo as he tries to recover from his wounds and tries to hold his life together.

Bobby Cannavale as a tough but sympathetic FBI agent is excellent, as always. And Tyrese Gibson as the leader of the hold-up crew is very good in a part that is something of a cliché. But that is not his fault, it is the fault of the writers, Jonas and Josh Pate.

The 96-minute film, directed by Brad Furman, who also made “The Lincoln Lawer,” was unknown to me until it showed up on cable. And it was Leguizamo and Rosie Perez who kept me watching.

(For more links to films and television, see Todd Mason’s site.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Story for Halloween

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.” I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there”s somebody on my bed.”

(This story by Juan J. Ruiz appeared in Reddit's call for two-sentence horror stories.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

FFB: 13 French Street by Gil Brewer

Gil Brewer’s 13 French Street is a sexy noir novel from 1951 written for a male market and first published as a paperback original, the kind of book once found on revolving wire racks in corner drug stores and bus stations. It has since been reprinted and continues to find new and appreciative fans.

Brewer’s smooth, easy writing style lures readers into this story of an average guy, Alex Bland, a World War 2 veteran now settled into a steady, average job and engaged to a steady, average girl, who accepts an offer to go visit an old army buddy, Vern Lawrence.

Verne has done well in the post-war construction business and lives in a large house on the outskirts of a middle-American town. When Alex arrives, he quickly discovers two disturbing things at 13 French Street. The first is Verne’s beautiful, young, sexually charged wife, Petra, seems way too interested in him as he steps into the house. The second is Verne, himself. Once a big, strong, vibrant guy, Verne is now a haggard and worried man looking old beyond his years. Alex wonders if his friend is worn out from the job or from Petra? He has his suspicions, and with Petra coming on strong, he toys with the idea of doing a little aging himself.

When Verne announces that he must go out of town on urgent business, he insists Alex stay and keep Petra company. And that is where the average guy with his wits about him would put on his hat, grab his valise, and say, Wait up, Verne, you can give me a lift back to the station. But not Alex. Average guys in noir stories always fall into this trap. Didn’t Alex read Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice?

After a fast start, Brewer’s story bogs down a bit, becoming a repetitive tease, throwing Alex and Petra together in scene after improbable scene. This goes on too long with a conflicted Alex wanting Petra and not wanting to betray his friend. But when Verne’s suspicious old mother, who also lives at the house, catches Alex and Petra in a compromising position, the story lifts off. There is blackmail and murder and more guilt until Alex feels like everything is going against him, even the weather. “The sky was a gray pall, splotched with black, as if it had some kind of disease that was spreading.” The disease is in his soul, and Alex knows it. He can see there is no escape for him. “It seemed as if every way I turned I ran into a hot iron wall.”

Brewer had his biggest success with 13 French Street, which sold more than a million copies, said Bill Pronzini in an essay on Brewer. The success kept Brewer mining gold from the same male oriented market for the next decade. The money may have kept him from fulfilling his dream of someday writing a serious novel. Then again, it might not have. Pronzini said he struggled with alcohol problems that lead to his death.

At his peak, Brewer was a writing machine, able to knock out a 50,000-word novel in less than two weeks, sometimes in as little as five or six days, Pronzini said. From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, Brewer wrote 50 novels and 400 short stories, according to an article on him in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

While 13 French Street is a genre novel, Brewer’s talent is evident. His rapid writing is surprisingly readable and his spare style propels the reader though the story at high speed.

(For more links to books, see Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Director Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7”

On October 14, the Music Box Theater in Chicago showed Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7,” and after the film the director came on stage for a question and answer session conducted by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

I was lucky enough to be in town that day and in attendance that night.

Ms. Varda was in the windy city for a week-long retrospective of her films and her photography and to teach classes at the University of Chicago.

The 1962 film is the story of a young Parisian woman, played by Corrine Marchand, nervously awaiting the results of a cancer screening. She tries to fill her time and distract herself from thoughts of possible bad news by visiting friends, walking in her neighborhood, going to a cafĂ©, and wandering in a park. Nothing seems to help and she continues to fret until she meets a sympathetic soldier on leave who befriends her and agrees to go with her to the hospital and helps her find the courage to face the doctor at seven o’clock.

The film, one of the best of the French New Wave movement (and my personal favorite), tells its story in nearly real time. Ms. Varda, laughed when asked about this, and said she aimed for exactly real time, however, while the story covers two hours of Cleo’s life, the movie only runs 90 minutes.

“Cleo from 5 to 7” seems simple on the surface, but it is quite complex.

It opens with Cleo consulting a fortune teller who sees death in the tarot cards. While she refuses to tell Cleo what she sees, her reaction frightens Cleo. Next, Cleo’s personal assistant further worries her with her superstitious talk.

Getting outside and walking through her neighborhood only relieves her anxiety temporarily until she meets the sensible soldier. They walk, talk, and then take the bus to the hospital together, all the while developing a nice rapport. The film, which starts with superstition, ends with science as Cleo meets with her doctor.

The near-capacity crowd, which included many young women who came out to see a film about a woman made by a woman, appreciated the movie and applauded it at the finish. The applause continued as the 87-year-old director was escorted onto the stage by Mr. Rosenbaum. The witty, energetic and highly intelligent Ms. Varda was willing to take many questions from Mr. Rosenbaum and the audience, and to talk at length about the film, her career and her associates.

Noting the structure of the film, Rosenbaum said the story is in two halves. In the first, Cleo, a pop singer, is a self-centered, diva wearing fancy clothes and a wig. But when nothing seems to relieve her anxiety, she rejects superstition, pulls off the wig, changes to a simple dress and goes out to visit friends, observe other people, and take note of the world around her.

“You got the point, my dear,” Ms. Varda said with a smile and the audience enjoyed her quip. By the way, Agnes Varda’s English is excellent.

Despite a heavy topic, “Cleo from 5 to 7” has a light, free spirited feeling to it. This is due to Ms. Varde’s shooting style. Like most of the New Wave directors, she filmed in the streets, in moving cars and in the apartments of friends. Using the new, light-weight equipment of the time and employing documentary techniques, she was free to shoot where she wanted and was not enclosed in a studio.

A moment that captures this style is the scene in which Cleo goes into a shop and tries on hats, moving from display to display and from mirrors to windows.

In one sequence, Cleo goes with a friend to see a projectionist. In the booth, they watch a short that is being shown, which in “Cleo from 5 to 7” is a film within a film, and a takeoff on silent comedies. Like “Cleo from 5 to 7” itself, the short is populated with friends of Ms. Varda’s including the famous New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard.

At the mention of Godard, some in the audience booed. But Ms. Varda quieted the crowed saying Godard and his then girlfriend, actress Anna Karina, were friends and frequently spent Sunday afternoons with Ms. Varda and her husband, New Wave director Jacques Demy.

Godard, she said of the provocative bad-boy director, was an important part of the New Wave.

“He was working to create a new language for film,” she said.

Ms. Varda created the cameo for Godard to not only get him in front of the camera, but also to get the director to remove his ever-present sunglasses. “He had beautiful eyes,” she said. “Like Buster Keaton’s.”

About 20 years ago, Madonna approached Agnes Varda about remaking “Cleo from 5 to 7.” But nothing came of the idea, she said.

Agnes Varda has been making films for 60 years. Her first feature, “La Pointe Courte” was produced in 1955, preceding the French New Wave by three years.

In the 50 years since directing “Cleo from 5 to 7,” Agnes Varda has directed nine other feature films and many shorts and documentaries.

(For more links to films and television, see Todd Mason’s site.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Overlooked Film: Three Stripes in the Sun

A 1955 film I had never heard of had this astonishing description on the cable guide:

“An army sergeant (Aldo Ray) helps orphans and falls in love with his colonel’s (Dick York) interpreter (Phil Carey) in postwar Japan.”

What? In a 1955 movie? This I had to see.

Well, I won’t keep you in suspense, the film was not as promoted. The erroneous blurb only got some of it right.

“Three Stripes in the Sun” is a good, little, black and white movie, filmed on location in Japan, and based on a true story about Sergeant Hugh O’Reilly, played by Aldo Ray, assigned to occupation duty in Osaka after World War 2. Three years of combat have left O’Reilly with a deep hatred for the Japanese. But his prejudice erodes when he sees the wretched conditions of an orphanage and decides to help the children. He persuades his fellow soldiers to donate money and sneak food off the base and out to the orphanage. He even raises enough to build a new home for the kids. Yuko, a young Japanese interpreter for the army, played by Mitsuko Kimura, also assists Ray in helping the kids. O’Reilly and Yuko fall in love and have to fight the forces to stay together.

The film is similar to the Marlon Brando picture, “Sayonara,” which was based on a James Michener story, but came out two years later in 1957. The story of “Three Stripes in the Sun” originally ran in the New Yorker magazine.

Ray, Kimura and Phil Carey, as the commanding officer, are very good in the movie, but Dick York tries too hard to be funny and was better suited to later playing Samantha’s husband on “Bewitched.” A young Chuck Connors is also featured in the film as one of the GIs.

Writer Richard Murphy, a veteran of the war in the Pacific, directed the picture, and while he made only two films in his career, he did a good job of telling the story and using the Japanese locations. He had help from long-time Hollywood cameraman Burnett Guffey.

(For more overlooked movies, TV and videos, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: “The Killers” (1946)

“The Killers” from 1946 is an acknowledged film-noir classic. In fact, if it is not No. 1 on the list, it is surely in the top five.

It has all the elements of the genre: crime, conflicts, betrayals, violence, plot twists, boxing, a heist, a femme fatale, and a tough, cynical detective. It also has all the techniques: flashbacks, voice-over narration (bridging the flashbacks), deep shadows, beautiful, expressionistic black and white photography, claustrophobic sets (some with ceilings).

One of the masters of film noir was at the helm. Director Robert Siodmak came up in the German cinema of the 1920s and 30s, then fled the Nazis, landed in Hollywood and directed many films including the noir classics, “Criss Cross” and “Phantom Lady.”

The film also has star-making parts for Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, an excellent role for Edmond O’Brien, and a great supporting cast: Albert Dekker, Same Levene, and Jeff Corey as a hoodlum junkie. (Drug abuse in a 1940s movie? How did that get by the Hollywood censors?)

But what “The Killers” does not have – and here I am going anger all the loyal fans of this movie – is a good opening.

Two button men show up in a small town looking for a man they have been hired to kill. They cannot find the guy, so they go into a diner, order dinner, bully the counter man, the cook and a teenager, and tell the locals exactly what they plan to do. People love this opening which is lifted directly from an Ernest Hemingway short story. They praise the tough, clipped dialog and the menace.

But look again.

The story by Hemingway has two highly unprofessional professional killers. Would a couple of hitmen walk around town, talk to the locals, tell all what they are going to do, and allow everyone to get a good look at them?

Hemingway needed Martin Scorsese to straighten him out. Even the attempt at humor, when the bad guys order fancy dinners, falls flat.

That a scene like that was allowed to stand is surprising, seeing as Mark Hellinger produced the picture. Hellinger was a long-time newspaperman who became a famous New York columnist in the 1930s before going to Hollywood. He should have known better. But, then again, he and Universal bought the rights to a short story by the very famous Hemingway and used the story and the name to promote the movie.

The reasons the opening does not kill "The Killers," are that it is played to the hilt by two great character actors: William Conrad and Charles McGraw. And director Siodmak takes his time setting a tone of danger and anxiety. Photographer Woody Bredell presents the most noirish of noir settings, making placid, middle America look dark and creepy because evil has come to town. Composer Miklos Rozsa pulls it all together with his hyper, chaotic music, underscored with the hitmen’s pounding theme, which is unforgettable.

The following 90 minutes of “The Killers” is terrific and was created by screenwriter Anthony Veiller, and, according to the IMDb site, by John Huston and Richard Brooks, who are uncredited.

Is "The Killers" a great film? You bet it is. So, don’t let my criticism keep you away.

(For more links to films, TV and videos, see Todd Mason’s site.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Call Northside 777

“Call Northside 777” from 1948 was one of the early docu-noir crime films made after World War 2 and filmed on location, something new for Hollywood at that time. It was directed by Henry Hathaway, who was no stranger to working on location having made many westerns, and who had also done several docu-noirs including: “The House on 92nd Street,” “13 Rue Madeleine,” and “Kiss of Death.”

In “Call Northside 777,” James Stewart plays a reporter on a Chicago newspaper who responds to an unusual classified ad offering $5,000 to anyone with information about the killing of a police officer a decade earlier. Stewart’s reporter discovers that a scrub woman named Tillie Wiecek, played by a wonderful actress named Kasia Orzazewski, placed the ad in an attempt to gather new evidence to free her son, Frank.

Frank Wiecek, played by Richard Conte, who turns in a strong, sympathetic performance, is serving a life sentence for the murder. The reporter is skeptical at first, but as he digs into the facts of the case and uncovers lying witnesses and possible police corruption, he changes his mind and goes full out to prove Frank’s innocence.

“Call Northside 777,” which was based on a true story, was mostly filmed on location in Chicago, capturing scenes on city streets that have either changed beyond recognition or no longer exist.

On a recent trip to Chicago, my destination in the Near North Side was close to one of the locations in “Call Northside 777.”

The Holy Trinity Church, on Noble Street, near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street, stood at the head of the street on which Tillie Wiecek lived in the film.

Today, Tillie’s street is gone as are the old houses that ran east toward what looked like a gas tank. New brick apartments were built across from the church replacing the houses and the shop on the corner where Jimmy Stewart caught a taxi cab. The street was removed and a pedestrian square is now in its place along with many new trees.

Where Tillie’s house was located in the movie is now a ramp to the Kennedy Expressway. The church is still there and appears well kept with its original Polish name written above the pillars: KOSCIOL SWIETEJ TROJCY.

In a quiet neighborhood just west of the stadium where the Chicago White Sox play baseball, is another location used in the film. When Stewart’s character searches for an elusive witness, he enters a corner bar which appears to be at the corner of Halstead Avenue and 37th Street.

In the film, a bar across the street with a beer sign that says Nectar can be seen out the window. It had a rounded brick entry and looks like one of Chicago’s oldest taverns, Schaller’s Pump. Next to the bar was a brewery which had many names over the years, but at that time was called Ambrosia. Today, the brewery building is gone, but Schaller’s remains. The corner tavern Stewart went into is now an office.

(For more on the locations used for this film, see the Forgotten Chicago Forum where people have done a lot of research.)

A glimpse at Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods of the past is an added bonus for today’s viewers of the film. Another plus on the DVD is the commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, the authors of several books on film noir. But the main attraction of “Call Northside 777” is the film itself, which, despite some pretty old technology – from the reporter’s manual typewriter to an early lie detector test – still holds up as a solid detective story.

 (For more overlooked films, check out Todd Mason's site.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Bastard

Italian crime films of the 1960s and 1970s are a guilty pleasure of mine. They were generally cheap, fast and violent, often oddly plotted and at times incoherent. Euro Crime or “poliziotteschi” films, as they are sometimes called, were a hot genre that Italian producers got into when Spaghetti Westerns cooled down.

“The Bastard” from 1968, is either an early example of this genre, or a modernized reworking of the Spaghetti Western. Set in the American southwest, it is the story of two criminal brothers, played by Giuliano Gemma and Klaus Kinski, their boozy mother, played by Rita Hayworth (yes, that Rita Hayworth), and an attractive femme fatale, Margaret Lee, and a good girl played by former Miss France and Bond girl Claudine Auger.

Gemma’s character robs a jewelry store, makes off with a bag of gems, guns down half a dozen rival bad guys who want the loot, and is then ripped off, maimed, and left to die in the desert by his own brother. He is found and nursed back to health by ranch owner Auger. To show his appreciation to her, he steals $200 and her car and goes after his brother for revenge. Before he can reach Kinski, an earthquake strikes and the film ends with bloodshed in the rubble.

Writer-Director Duccio Tessari keeps the whole thing moving at a rapid pace. But, most of the actors either overplay their parts or shuffle through scenes like zombies. The usually energetic Kinski, is cool and restrained. Rita Hayworth, on the other hand, chews up the scenery. Gemma, who got his big break in movies from Tessari and who made several films with the director, including, “A Pistol for Ringo,” (a Spaghetti Western liked by Quentin Tarantino), does a pretty good job making his way through this movie which seems to have been written on a series of cocktail napkins, some of which got lost.

Fans of poliziotteschi films will like “The Bastard,” choppy editing, poor dubbing and all. Others may find it interesting that this film was at the beginning of the transition from Italian-made westerns to crime films. Shot in New Mexico, the bad guys zoom around the hot rocky desert in big, wide American cars rather than speeding through the streets of Rome, Naples or Milan in tiny Italian cars.

“The Bastard” (the original title was “I bastardi,” and for an obscure reason the video is called “The Cats") may not be for everyone, but those who like Italian genre films might enjoy this movie. I know I did.

(For more overlooked movies, TV and videos, head over to Todd Mason’s site.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Ride the Pink Horse

“Ride the Pink Horse” is hardly an overlooked film. Many mystery, crime and noir fans know the 1947 movie. But what may be overlooked is the work of director Robert Montgomery who also starred in the picture.

Robert Montgomery came to movies around 1929, landed featured parts in a variety of films from the prison drama “The Big House” to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” and many light comedies. In 1937, he starred in the suspense film, “Night Must Fall,” which would foreshadow some of the darker films he would do later in his career.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War 2 and right after the war, starred in the excellent John Ford film “They Were Expendable,” playing the skipper of PT Boat in the Philippines.

The following year, he directed his first film, “Lady in the Lake,” from the Raymond Chandler novel. (The film was released in January, 1947.) Montgomery also starred himself in that movie, but was hardly seen on screen because of his stylish technique of using the camera as the point of view of his character, detective Philip Marlow. Montgomery was only glimpsed when he passed a mirror or a shop window. The gimmick still amuses viewers. But within the gimmick was another style Montgomery used in his next picture, “Ride the Pink Horse.” That style was the use of long scenes, unbroken by cuts. Other than Orson Welles and John Farrow, I cannot think of another director from that time who used as many extended takes. (Perhaps someone can fill in my film-history gaps.)

“Ride the Pink Horse,” adapted from the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, is the story of Gagin, a bitter war vet who travels by bus to a town in New Mexico to catch up with a racketeer, Hugo, played by Fred Clark, who had a friend of Gagin’s killed. Gagin has a piece of evidence that could send Hugo to a federal penitentiary and he plans to squeeze Hugo by making him pay hard cash for it. But Gagin is followed by a federal agent, Retz, played by a gray haired, Southern-drawling Art Smith, who is the conscience of the film. Retz wants Gagin’s evidence to put Hugo away.

Gagin is befriended by Pancho, played by the great character actor Thomas Gomez, who operates a children’s merry-go-round in a poor section of town. Pancho not only looks after Gagin who is now chased by both the feds and Hugo’s hoods, but also takes a beating from the hoods.

Director Montgomery handles the violence by implying it rather than displaying it. His own character takes a savage beating in which he is also shot and wounded. But Montgomery shows only the aftermath in which Gagin is so dizzy, disoriented and weakened that a teenage American-Indian girl, Pila, played by Wanda Hendrix, has to nearly carry him to the safety of Pancho’s. The small, innocent, superstitious girl is another self-appointed protector of Gagin and a second conscience of the movie. At the merry-go-round, Pancho hides Gagin and takes a beating to save him. Again, Montgomery implies the violence, playing it off the reactions of the horrified children who are stuck on Pancho’s whirling ride. These scenes of violence are still effective today.

Even more intriguing than the unsavory characters and the violence was Montgomery’s use of very long takes. When Gagin arrives in town, he goes from the bus, into the station, up to some coin-operated lockers, where he stores the evidence, and then to the waiting room where he hides the locker key, all in one take. Later, Gagin meets Hugo in a night club, has words with the racketeer, then moves onto the dance floor with Hugo’s conniving mistress, played by Andrea King, and then over to a side door to have a private chat with the woman, all in one take. The movie has many extended dialogue scenes done in long takes, often filmed from behind Montgomery, as if allowing the audience to witness the scene from Gagin’s point of view.

“Ride the Pink Horse,” with a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, and produced by Joan Harrison, one of the few women producers in old Hollywood, is a stylish, well crafted film, and worth a look. And Robert Montgomery, although he directed only five films in his career, should not be overlooked.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Overlooked Film: The List of Adrian Messenger

This review goes out with thanks to Yvette who mentioned “The List of Adrian Messenger” in a post last week on her excellent site, In So Many Words. I commented that I saw the film long ago and did not remember much about it except the disguises and deceptions.

In thinking about the 1963 film, I realized I had not seen it since watching it on TV as a kid with my family in the living room of our old house.

A quick search turned up a very good video of the entire movie on YouTube. If anyone has not seen “The List of Adrian Messenger,” please take a look. If anyone has seen it and wants to view it again, move fast. Films like this are often taken down as quickly as they appear.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a John Huston film based on a Philip MacDonald novel and starring George C. Scott.

Scott is terrific, as usual, this time playing a retired British intelligence officer who is asked by a friend, Adrian Messenger, to check into the whereabouts of a group of men. The friend does not say much more about his list of names and soon cannot say another word as he is murdered by someone who is killing off everyone on the list.

The killer is seen from the beginning of the picture, but only in the disguises he uses. His identity and his reasons for knocking off these men is the mystery Scott’s character sets out to discover.

To say any more about the intricate plot would ruin the fun for anyone who has not seen the movie.

For George C. Scott, this film was his first starring role. His previous film roles were in supporting parts in “Anatomy of a Murder” and “The Hustler.” He had also appeared in many TV dramas. With this film, Scott got a chance to show he had the chops to carry a major movie. And carry it, he does. Scott dominates every scene he is in with his personal power and that fast, sharp, distinctive speech pattern and gravelly voice. He also brings an intensity and danger to this highly polished film.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is filled with wonderful supporting players, including: Dana Wynter, Herbert Marshall, Clive Brook, Gladys Cooper, and Marcel Dalio.

In the opening credits, names of some of the biggest movie stars of the time float across the screen, but these actors are not seen in the film. Or are they? Huston, in keeping with the theme of disguises, disguised Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Burt Lancaster so well, that only in the final moments of the movie does he reveal which parts they played. Well, at least three will be revealed. One will be quite obvious.

“The List of Adrian Messenger” is a highly enjoyable feature.

Finally, when the video started I recognized the cool, intriguing theme music by Jerry Goldsmith. As it turns out, I remembered more of this movie than I thought. So, I suppose everything we see and hear is stored away somewhere. And if we cannot immediately access it, there is always YouTube.

(For more links to movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Johnny Come Lately

Discovering the James Cagney film, “Johnny Come Lately,” was a bit like finding an old family photo I had never seen. In it are familiar faces, younger and in their prime, along with faces I never knew.

“Johnny Come Lately” is a little, independent film from 1943 starring Cagney and produced by his brother William.

Different in many ways from Cagney’s Warner Brothers movies, “Johnny Come Lately” is a quiet, nostalgic picture about a kindly older woman who has been running a small-town newspaper, but who is about to be run out of business by a corrupt mayor and his cronies.

Cagney enters the fray as a free-spirited vagabond who turns out to be an experienced reporter. To help the lady, he takes on the job of running her paper and running the mayor and his flunkies out of town.

The film has tons of charm but struggles against itself. Cagney’s natural personality is too energetic for such a leisurely film. Viewers may grow impatient with a movie that is in no rush to get going and takes too long before bringing Cagney into the story.

Co-starring with Jimmy is Grace George, a stage actress who spent much of her career on Broadway and made only two films, this one and a previous one in 1915. For an actress with nearly no film experience, Grace George is wonderful, and she is the reason anyone might forgive this movie’s slow pace.

Also in the picture in supporting roles are the lovely Marjorie Lord, as the woman’s niece, the great Hattie McDaniel as the woman’s sympathetic cook, Edward McNamara, who antagonized Cagney in several Warner’s pictures, as the mayor, and the loudly exuberant Marjorie Main as the madam of a thinly disguised bawdy house.

“Johnny Come Lately” was based on a novel called McLeod's Folly by Louis Bromfield. It was directed by Hollywood veteran William K. Howard, released through United Artists as a William Cagney Production, and is now available on DVD.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Movies & TV: Remembering James Garner

Following up on the recent tributes to James Garner, the film and TV star who passed away last year, I would like to add a few thoughts on the popular actor.

Garner was much more than just a handsome movie star of yesteryear. He could play the hero, he could play the comic hero, he could play the cowardly hero. He could hold his own with Marlon Brando in one of his earliest movies, “Sayonara.” He could be the comic foil to Doris Day in two films.

Garner could play the cool, scavenging rogue in “The Great Escape.” He could also play sympathetic, bewildered victims in “36 Hours” and in “Mister Buddwing.”

He did some of his best work in “The Americanization of Emily” playing a cowardly naval officer and handling all that great Paddy Chayefsky dialogue. He also starred in some excellent TV movies, including "Barbarians at the Gate," "Heartsounds," and "Promise."

Garner did something few could pull off and that was moving easily between films, made for TV movies, a television series, and commercials, without diminishing his popularity or star power.

Off the screen, in what could have been a career-ending move, Garner in 1960 sued Warner Bros. for pay owed him for the show Maverick. He not only won against the studio, but also went on to become an even bigger star.

James Garner passed away in July 2014 at age 86. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: The Dam Busters

By coincidence, less than a week after viewing a DVD of the 1955 war film, “The Dam Busters,” the news reported the death of former RAF pilot John Leslie Munro, one of the last surviving members of that WW2 British air force raid on Germany.

The story of the bombing mission is told in the movie in three sections. In Act 1, Dr. B. N. Wallis, a scientist played by Michael Redgrave, works endless hours on the seemingly impossible problem of bombing three dams in the Ruhr Valley of Germany. Those dams supplied water and electricity to an industrial area used by Nazi Germany to build war weapons. Knocking them out would knock out those factories. But destroying the dams was proving to be difficult. Earlier attempts failed. Dr. Wallis figured that a bomb released at low levels and designed to skip across the water, the way a stone can be skipped over the surface of a pond, could hit a dam at exactly the right place to blow a hole in it. His theory worked well enough in scale models to get the green light from the military.

In Act 2, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, an ace bomber pilot played by Richard Todd, is recruited to form a squadron that will train to fly at low levels, come at their targets over water and drop these special bombs. His problem is getting his planes to fly at the right speed and at the right height. Flying over water is tricky. Gibson and his men have to create a simple, crude but accurate device to achieve it. In the meantime, Dr. Wallis is trying the patience of the brass with test after test of full sized bombs that fail by breaking apart on hitting the water. Before the plan can be cancelled, Wallis creates a bomb that works and can bounce along the surface of the water.

Act 3 is the bombing raid itself. This section is all Gibson’s. Dr. Wallis, the scientist, is at RAF headquarters sweating it out, while the squadron flies off to hit the heavily defended dams.

Even though most viewers will know the outcome, the tension created by the tests and preparations is very effective in this picture.

“The Dam Busters” delivers a lot of excitement and punch. In many ways it is similar to “Apollo 13,” in which three American astronauts face a life or death problem while in space and they, and the scientists and engineers at mission control, must race to find a solution.

The film was directed by Michael Anderson, who had a long and varied career in England and in Hollywood and who directed 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” and “Logan’s Run” in 1976. “The Dam Busters” was based on Gibson’s memoir and a book by Paul Brickhill (who also wrote the book on which the movie “The Great Escape” was based). The screenplay was by R.C. Sheriff, a long-time film and television writer who wrote the scripts for 1939’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and 1947’s “Odd Man Out.”

And two minor points worth mentioning: First, viewers with a sharp eye will spot a young Patrick McGoohan as a guard at the air base; Second, there is a disturbing note in the film in the offensive name of Gibson’s dog.

(For more overlooked movies, see Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom.)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Broken Gun

Louis L’Amour’s 1966 novel The Broken Gun is one of his rare modern day adventures and an Old West mystery all in one fast-paced story.

In the first paragraph of the first chapter, Dan Sheridan, a writer in Arizona doing research for a new book on the Old West, looks at a dead Native American man outside his motel. “Two police cars with flashing lights stood nearby,” started the second paragraph. Until reading those words, I did not know L’Amour had written any contemporary novels.

Sheridan is trying to find out what happened to two pioneering Texas cattlemen, brothers, who in the 1870s had driven a herd into Arizona and then disappeared. What happened to them? What happened to the cowboys employed by them? What happed to the herd?

Rumors said the Apache’s killed the men and stole the cattle. But Sheridan found a diary written by one of the brothers. Several pages of the diary were torn out and Sheridan later discovers them hidden in the barrel of a broken revolver. Those pages will help Sheridan solve the mystery.

In the meantime, a seemingly friendly rancher who does not want the writer poking around, invites Sheridan out to his spread for a visit. It is a visit Sheridan realizes too late that could end in his own mysterious disappearance.

But Dan Sheridan is not so easy to kill. He saw combat in Korea, he can ride and shoot, and he can handle himself with his fists. He also has an unexpected ally somewhere in the region. The dead man’s brother was in his army unit.

Along with the rugged southwestern men are two women: the rancher’s wife, who may be tougher than any of the cowboys, and a young woman who has inherited a neighboring ranch when her sister died in a strange accident.

L’Amour expertly weaves all these plot threads together with a dose of geography that, despite his knowledge of the west, were a little draggy. Thankfully, those sections were brief and L’Amour gets back to the problems at hand for Dan Sheridan – staying alive and finding out the truth about the brothers and the people now occupying the land.

The Broken Gun was an enjoyable read and a pleasure to spend time with a very good storyteller.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Movie: Tracy-Hepburn Noir “Keeper of the Flame”

The Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn films that first come to mind are the comedies, like “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike,” but of the nine films the famous couple made together, nearly half of them were dramas, and one of those could be considered film noir.

“Keeper of the Flame,” from 1942, is the story of the media circus caused by the death of a wealthy and prominent businessman and self-appointed spokesman for Americanism, Robert Forrest. Reporters from all over descend on the little town in which he lived, but none can get an interview with the grieving widow, Christine Forrest, played by Hepburn. The only one to succeed in getting through to her is foreign correspondent, Stephen O’Malley, played by Tracy.

Recently returned from Europe where he has seen too much death and destruction during WW2, O’Malley decides to write a positive biography about Forrest, a man much loved by the public. But while gently probing into the accidental death of Forrest in a car crash, O’Malley comes to suspect the death was not accidental. The more he investigates, the more skeletons he finds in Forrest’s closet. The hero worship fades as O’Malley realizes the great man was not so great.

“Keeper of the Flame,” an MGM picture, was directed by George Cukor, a great friend of both Tracy and Hepburn. He directed eight of her movies, and allowed Tracy to live in the guest house on his grounds. Cukor was known as an actor’s director and a director of comedies and women’s pictures, but he also did some serious dramas and several noirish crime films, like this one and 1947s “A Double Life” with Ronald Colman. The Cukor touch can be seen in the many long takes in which he allows Tracy and Hepburn to play scenes with no cuts. He also brought a low-key style to the picture, both in the quiet, subdued acting and in the deep, shadowy lighting, the later thanks to ace cinematographer William Daniels.

Also appearing in “Keeper of the Flame” are Richard Whorf (a good but overlooked actor who the same year played Sam Harris to James Cagney’s George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) here as the manipulative secretary to Forrest, Margaret Wycherly (who played Cagney’s mother in “White Heat”) here playing Forrest’s mother, Howard Da Silva, Darryl Hickman, and Forrest Tucker.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Friday’s Book: A Dangerous Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Same Song 2 Singers: Tony Bennett & Doris Day

With summer proving a hot one, I thought I would put up two cool versions of the same song.

The tune is “Close Your Eyes,” by Bernice Petkere, which was recorded by many artists, but in the early 1960s, two popular and very different singers gave it a swinging-jazzy sound.

First up is Tony Bennett from his 1961 album My Heart Sings.

Next is Doris Day with Andre Previn on piano from their 1962 album, Duet.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: “La Bete Humaine”

“La Bete Humaine” is a 1938 French film from Jean Renoir, based on an Emile Zola novel, about obsessive love, passion, murder and mental problems.

Jean Gabin plays a tough, stoic, train engineer whose desire makes him a danger to women. Simone Simon plays a cheating wife whose husband kills her lover and the only one who can nail them is the unwitting witness Gabin.

Gabin falls for Simone. Simone Simon, often described as kittenish, is today best known for her role in the 1942 movie, “Cat People.” Gabin promises Simone he will keep quiet, and from there the story twists and turns with passion, mistakes and guilt piling up in scene after scene.

French films like “La Bete Humaine” and a handful of others, known as Poetic Realism, were also the predecessors to American film noir along with the German Expressionism movies of the silent era. Gabin, a sort of James Cagney of France, who could also out cool Bogart, was a frequent star of Poetic Realism (“Quai des Brumes,” “Pepe le Moko”).

He and all the actors play their scenes in a low-key manner, but the emotions bubbling beneath the surface are feverish. The sex, while tame by today’s standards, must have been sizzling in the 1930s, especially for American audiences subjected to Hollywood’s Hayes code. But audiences here may have seen a censored version. A 1940 New York Times review noted the film’s running time as 90 minutes, while the complete film runs 99 minutes.

Renoir, the son of the French Impressionist painter, was a director known for his deft handling of social settings, so it is surprising to see how well he integrates the many fast-moving train sequences.

How much symbolism can be read into shots of large, powerful locomotives hurtling down the tracks with their blazing hot, coal-fired engines? Yet one of those shots was almost comical. Following a dispute between Gabin and Simone, Renoir cut to two engines in a rail yard heading for what looks like a sure collision.

“La Bete Humaine” is one of the great films of its era, and with its attractive stars and snappy pace, it holds up surprisingly well today.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: North Dallas Forty

A friend who is a huge sports fan borrowed my copy of North Dallas Forty soon after I finished it and when he returned it, said, Do you think all that stuff really goes on behind the scenes in pro football?

Other than the team, few people know what really goes on in the locker rooms and at players’ parties. For a look at the over reliance on pain medications, the recreational drug use, the boozing, the hard partying and the sexual escapades, we will have to rely on Peter Gent’s 1973 novel.

Gent should know. He played for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the 1960s (and note, he never calls the team in the book the Cowboys). But, did he accurately depict that world in his novel? Those who know are not telling, and Gent who once told, is no longer here. He passed away in 2011.

North Dallas Forty is the story of Phil Elliot, a wide receiver (as Gent was), who is nearing the end of his career and doing anything he can to keep playing. He is also doing as he is told by the team’s coaches and owners to garner favor in order to stay in the starting lineup.

Phil is basically a good guy and through his eyes we see the people involved in the sport. But Phil is no saint (that is an unintentional pun, for those who know the league).

The novel follows Phil through a crucial week in his life in which we see his painful recovery from the physical punishment of the last game through his preparation to play in the next one, and all the things he does in his off hours.

Phil has a rebellious side which makes it nearly impossible for him to toe the line. He knows this about himself and his urge to get away from the injuries and the feeling of being treated like an old piece of equipment by the team's bosses are in conflict with his need to stay employed. He worries about being replaced by younger athletes and having to look for some other line of work, which to him means a job that will never pay as well or be as much fun.

Peter Gent was a surprisingly good writer. A quick search to find out if he wrote the novel himself, or put his name on a ghost-written book, came up with a reference to Gent in the memoir of his agent, Sterling Lord. Lord said Gent was the author and that he, Lord, was surprised to find a former athlete who could write so well.

North Dallas Forty is a fascinating novel with some hilarious scenes, but be warned, the humor can be crude, the language is definitely locker room, and some passages are hard to stomach.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Too Late For Tears

Actress Lizabeth Scott may not be the Queen of film noir, but from the many shadowy crime films she made in the 1940s and ‘50s, she could be dubbed the Duchess of Darkness.

One of the darkest movies she made was “Too Late for Tears” in 1949.

Scott plays an unhappy housewife whose ordinary husband, played by Arthur Kennedy, does not earn nearly enough to support her in the style to which her character feels entitled. Out for a drive one night, someone in a passing car tosses a satchel full of money into the backseat of their convertible. Scott urges Kennedy to keep it even after they are chased by someone, obviously a blackmailer, who was supposed to get the bag.

As a compromise to his wife, the husband hides the money. But just having the illegal loot is eating him alive. Scott on the other hand is thrilled and excited by their windfall, despite the very real danger of being tracked down by the blackmailer.

The blackmailer is played by Dan Duryea, a noir regular and a man who could portray sleazy corruption very well. Duryea shows up at Scott’s apartment to force her to give him the money, but he finds himself up against someone tougher and more ruthless.

To reveal any more of the plot would take away the pleasure of watching this crazy, twisty movie.

The cast is excellent in making this farfetched story into an enjoyable and suspenseful little film. Credit must also be given to director Byron Haskin, a former cameraman and special effects expert who went on to direct many films, including the 1953 version of “The War of the Worlds.”

“Too Late for Tears” was written by Roy Huggins, who later had a big career in television as creator of the James Garner series Maverick and many others. The film was produced by long-time MGM supervisor, Hunt Stromberg, who by the late 1940s was making movies as an independent producer.

Poor quality prints of “Too Late for Tears” are in circulation and even available on YouTube. But a beautifully restored version aired recently on Turner Classic Movies. The showing was hosted by author Eddie Muller, the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization responsible for the restoration of this movie and others.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday’s Book: Bad Country

This week, I would like to bend the rules a little with a novel that is not a forgotten book. It is not even an old book. It is a 2014 mystery by first time novelist C.B. McKenzie, and it is a good read.

Bad Country has one foot in the rocky desert of southern Arizona, and the other in the urban landscape of Tucson. This is where Rodeo Garnet, a former rodeo rider, now a private detective with a somewhat shady past, lives and works.

Several murders have occurred in a sparsely populated county near the Mexican border. The latest victim was found just outside the gates of an unfinished and abandoned development where Rodeo is the lone resident.

The deaths all seem to have a connection to the Native American population living in the area and to people crossing illegally into the United States. That is one story thread.

Another thread begins with a ornery old woman living on a reservation who asks Rodeo to find out what really happened to her grandson, who was found dead under a bridge in Tucson.

The two threads are connected and Rodeo winds up with city cops, county deputies, reservation police, and several murderous bad guys after him as he tries to figure out what is going on in his own backyard.

Author McKenzie does a great job of establishing a unique detective and of making life in the low rent section of Tucson and in the rough desert country come to life on the page.

I hope we see more of Rodeo Garnet.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tuesday's Film: Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker

“Duck, You Sucker” from 1971 is the last, and arguably the best, of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns.

In this movie, which is also known as “A Fistful of Dynamite,” Rod Steiger plays a poor Mexican bandit who, with his six sons ranging in age from little children to older teens, robs and humiliates the rich and finds himself an unwilling participant in a revolution occurring around 1914.

Steiger teams up with an Irish national and explosives expert, played by James Coburn, who has dreams and nightmares of his own country divided by revolution.

Leone’s history may be deliberately inaccurate to make a political statement and to create some interesting dramatic tension between the two men. Throughout the movie, Steiger is intense and opposed to the revolt which, he tells Coburn, brings only death to the poor. Coburn is cool and detached, having survived a revolt in his own country, but he has a change of heart.

Together, Steiger and Coburn plot to rob a bank. They blast their way in and, in a plot twist, Steiger is hailed as a hero of the people for his actions, an honor he rejects, but a situation he cannot escape. From there the film moves on to bloody reprisals, violent ambushes, and full battle scenes.

While there is a good deal of action, and a lot of humor, this is a far more serious film than Leone’s earlier Clint Eastwood movies.

In true Sergio Leone style, the 2½-hour film unfolds at a deliberate pace. It is both grand and personal. There are scenes involving hundreds of extras, horses, trains, and there are scenes between the two stars played in Leone's well known lower-lip to eye-brow close-ups.

“Duck, You Sucker” was beautifully photographed by Giuseppe Ruzzolini, with music by Ennio Morricone.

(This one is for Randy Johnson, who posted many reviews of spaghetti westerns on his blog, and who passed away last weekend.)

Friday, July 10, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: That Summer in Paris

That Summer in Paris is a 1963 memoir by Canadian novelist, short-story writer, and journalist Morley Callaghan about the beginning of his career and the famous people he hung out with in 1929.

Starting with his first writing job as a reporter on the Toronto Star while still in college, he tells of a colleague who briefly joined the newspaper. This reporter was just getting noticed for his short stories and was something of a curiosity in the newsroom. It was Ernest Hemingway.

Callaghan had read Hemingway’s stories. The two became friends and Hemingway asked to see some of Callaghan’s fiction. Hemingway encouraged Callaghan and asked him to send more of his short stories to him when Hemingway returned to Paris, which Callaghan did. Hemingway thought Callaghan had talent and showed his work to his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald wrote to his New York editor, Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s, and soon Callaghan found himself with a new group of friends.

Moving to Paris with his wife in 1929, Callaghan, then 26, picked up his friendship with Hemingway. The two men would workout weekly by going to the American Club, putting on the gloves and boxing. Heavy set and over six-feet tall, Hemingway seemed no match for the five-foot-eight Callaghan. But Callaghan had written a boxing story and Hemingway wanted to see if the younger, smaller man knew anything about the sport. Callaghan not only knew his stuff, but was a better boxer than Hemingway and often bloodied the big man’s lip. Hemingway professed to enjoy their private bouts, but Callaghan’s skill irked him.

Callaghan understood Hemingway’s need to be the champion in everything: boxing, drinking, writing. His competitive spirit extended to all writers, even to Fitzgerald. When he knocked Hemingway down during a workout at which Fitzgerald was present, one of the best scenes in the book, Hemingway turned on Fitzgerald, and Callaghan recalled it as the beginning of a rift between the two men.

While Callaghan’s memoir is mostly focused on Hemingway and Fitzgerald, there are many anecdotes about, and observations of, famous people of the 1920s, including Perkins, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, Sylvia Beach, and James Joyce. In one of the funnier stories in the book, Callaghan recalls meeting the Irish writer who had a reputation for being shy and reserved and reluctant to meet new people. But he found Joyce warm and welcoming and with a wicked sense of humor.

That Summer in Paris was written shortly after a friend of Callaghan’s told him in 1960 of meeting Hemingway and how Hemingway recalled the times he and Callaghan boxed. This stirred Callaghan’s memories of Paris and how rivalries and squabbles had distanced many of those writers from each other. Callaghan had been out of touch with Hemingway for many years. In 1961, he learned of Hemingway’s death and decided to write the memoir.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: “Laura” Noir or Not?

“Laura”, the glossy, intriguing, 1944 murder mystery, appears on many lists of the best noir films.

But is it really film noir?

The setting is not the seedy neighborhoods of American cities, but tony uptown apartments and restaurants. There are no wet cobblestone streets, no bowling alleys, not even a shot of Angels Flight.

The main character, played by Dana Andrews, is not a criminal, nor an ordinary guy who makes a fatally criminal mistake. He is a police detective.

The look of the picture is not particularly dark. There are no deep shadows and odd camera angles. The settings, lighting and camera work are smooth and in the best tradition of old Hollywood. "Laura" was produced by 20th Century-Fox with the studio's A-list players and directed by Otto Preminger.

Even the music is smooth. The theme song of “Laura” is the beautiful David Raksin tune, not the pounding scores of Miklos Rozsa or Bernard Herrmann.

So what makes “Laura” a noir?

A good portion of the story is told in flashback as the detective questions friends of a murdered young woman, played by Gene Tierney. That is a noir technique.

From these flashbacks and from the alluring portrait of Laura hanging in her apartment, the detective finds himself attracted to and soon obsessed with the dead girl. OK, now we are entering noir territory.

The cop returns often to her apartment, the scene of the crime. He reads her letters, he helps himself to her liquor, and he gazes at her portrait. One of the girl’s friends even chides him for falling in love with a corpse.

At this point in the film, viewers really have something to worry about. From routine work, to curiosity, to obsession, the detective could be lost in noirland.

But is "Laura" a noir piece, or not?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Friday’s Forgotten Book: “Pick-Up”

Describing Charles Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, even in a positive review – which this is – could cause readers to treat the book like a hot barbeque coal: They would not touch it.

That would be a shame because Pick-Up is a noirish page turner.

Hard drinking Harry, a once aspiring artist, now lives hand-to-mouth, taking part-time jobs as a fry cook or a bartender. One day, he picks up Helen, a raging alcoholic, who is roaming the slums of San Francisco after running from her home in a comfortable California town where she was dominated by her mother.

Harry takes her to his room in a cheap boarding house and there they drink, day in and day out. 

While boozing their lives away, Helen persuades Harry to paint her in the nude. He does, but the picture only stirs up bad memories of earlier struggles and defeats.

When their money runs out, Harry gets a job. While he is away, Helen goes out looking for anyone who will buy her a drink. He finds her in a bar accepting drinks from a bunch of soldiers and allowing them to grope her. Harry manages to get her away from the men and back to the boarding house.

Things worsen and their situation becomes almost absurdly awful. There are suicide attempts and brief stays in a mental ward, and run-ins with Helen’s mother.

In the hands of another writer, this could be a frustrating book. But Willeford creates a compelling, suspenseful, and nightmarish tale with twists and turns so unexpected they seem like scenes from a fever dream.

Pick-Up was reprinted in 1990 by Black Lizard, and later included in the anthology, Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, published by the Library of America in 1997.