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.