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.)