Thursday, December 15, 2016

FFB: Hitchcock Truffaut a book-length interview

A few days ago, when considering a post about film director Alfred Hitchcock’s original and his remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” I took an old book off my shelf to refresh my memory on a point or two. Once I started, I kept on reading. It is that kind of book.

The book is Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, which was published in French in 1966 and in English in 1967.

Truffaut, a film director himself who burst onto the international scene in 1959 with his first film, “The 400 Blows,” was a leading light of the French New Wave. Before making movies, Truffaut critiqued films in the French press, including Cahiers du Cinéma, an influential film magazine founded by critic André Bazin.

Truffaut and his fellow New Wave filmmakers – Jean Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others – were fans of American directors like Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, and Hitchcock. They found that certain Hollywood filmmakers were able to put a personal stamp of the films they made for the studios and showed a consistency in the kinds of stories they chose to tell and the way in which they approached the material.

Some directors, like John Ford, were reluctant to discuss their techniques. But Alfred Hitchcock was not. In fact, Hitchcock was happy to tell interviewers just what he looked for in a story and how, precisely, he made his movies – sometimes going shot by shot to explain his methods.

Truffaut invited Hitchcock to sit down for a series of interviews in which the younger man went through each of the old master’s movies, from his first efforts in the silent era, to his break through films, like “The Man who Knew Too Much,” to the two best films he made in England (in my opinion), “The 39 Steps” from 1936, and “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938.

Hitchcock talked about going to Hollywood and working with producer David O. Selznick – which he hated – and working with Cary Grant – which he liked. Hitchcock and Grant made four films together: “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “To Catch A Thief,” and “North by Northwest.”

Another favorite star was James Stewart. Together they made four films: “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “Vertigo.”

He also loved working with Grace Kelly. In the book, Hitchcock told how he always had a thing for cool blonds. They made three films together: “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” and “To Catch a Thief.” The last of these was filmed on the Riviera. The following year, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and Hitchcock lost his favorite leading lady.

Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock is a master class in film history and technique as the older director explained the language of film and how he used it.

Many have tried to use the master’s techniques, but no one yet as been able to beat Hitchcock at his own game.

(For more on books, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hitchcock Times 2: Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few movie directors of the past who, decades after his death in 1980, is still well known.

In the 1950s, Hitchcock, at the height of his powers and popularity, remade one of his earlier films. Some might say Hitchcock remade many of his films, just giving them different titles, but that would be unfair, and would definitely be the subject for another post.

The film he remade was “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

In the 1934 original, produced in England, a family – mother, father, and little girl – on vacation in the snowy mountains of St. Moritz, Switzerland, get tipped off to a planned murder. The villains, discovering that the parents could notify the authorities about their plot, kidnap the little girl to keep them quiet. The father and mother learned that the baddies plan to assassinate a foreign diplomat in England during a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The couple is faced with the choice of either saving the diplomat and possibly avoiding a war (remember, World War 1, which ended just 16 years earlier, was touched off by an assassination) or saving their daughter.

In the1956 remake, a family – mother, father, and little boy – on vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco, learn of a mysterious plot, which turns out to the be the same scenario as the earlier version.

Both films feature women with extraordinary talents. Edna Best, as the mother in the first film, is established as a crack shot with a rifle, which plays directly into the strange shootout with the villains at the end of that picture. Doris Day in the remake plays a singer who gave up her career when she married a doctor, played by James Stewart, and her voice plays an important part in the recovery of her boy.

Edna Best, was a London stage star who did not make many movies, and in this film, Hitchcock did not give her much to do. Doris Day, on the other hand, is given many scenes that establish her character, her talent and her rapport with the boy and with Stewart. In the opening scenes, Doris Day and James Stewart seem to be improvising, although that is not likely in one of Hitchcock’s films. They also have a powerful scene together when Stewart, who learns of the kidnapping first, has to break the bad news to his wife. (Anyone who thinks Doris Day was just a pretty comedienne with a good singing voice, should check out that scene and reconsider.)

The original version, with a running time of 75 minutes, seems rushed and does not give an audience time to get to know the family. When Hitchcock went to remake the story, 22 years later, he had a solid reputation and the backing of a major Hollywood studio and took his time, allowing the audience to care about the people, and more importantly, allowing the tension to build. The 1956 version runs 120 minutes. It was also shot in color and in Vista Vision and was made partially on location in Morocco and England.

But despite the short running time of the original, Hitchcock presents a typical Hitchcockian scene during the parents’ search for the girl. The scene is both painfully uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. It involves a visit to a sinister dentist. In order to extract information (I know, I know), the dad first has to get into the chair.

Later, Hitchcock inserted a scene into the remake, at about the same point in the story, that was both tense and funny. Following up on a lead, Jimmy Stewart goes to a taxidermist’s studio and winds up in a fight with the employees among the stuffed exotic animals.

Peter Lorre, as the bad guy who kidnaps the child in the original film, was great. His performance is so odd and weirdly humorous that he steals every scene from Leslie Banks, who plays the father. In the remake, Hitchcock toned this down, making the kidnappers a bland, middle-aged couple.

For fans of Hitchcock, both versions are a must see. But the remake is far superior to the original.

In an interview with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was the work of a professional.

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

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Movie-Star Movie: Allied

Looking to escape from the reality of the news and the cold weather this weekend? Then let me recommend the movie, “Allied.”

This is a big, old-fashioned, movie-star kind of movie about a Canadian agent, played by Brad Pitt, and a French resistance fighter, played by Marion Cotillard, who meet on a joint assignment in Casablanca during World War 2, fall in love, and carry out their mission. And there is a whole lot more to the story.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who made “Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future,” and “Cast Away,” gives this picture scope and drive and tension. He also showcases his stars the way Hollywood did during its Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. But the R-rated violence, sexuality, and language is 21st century.

Friday, December 9, 2016

FFB: Fargo by John Benteen

Call it coincidence, call it a sign, call it whatever you want, but there are times when something I have never heard of comes to my attention several times in a matter of days or weeks. At times like that, I get the distinct feeling I had better pay attention.

This has happened to me more than once. It is how, at the turn of the millennium, I came to read Richard Yates’ great novel, Revolutionary Road. That was years before Hollywood turned it into a movie – a movie I have not seen out of respect for the book.

This summer, it happened again when several different people wrote about a Western-action series of books by John Benteen featuring a character named Fargo.

And, as luck would have it, I found a used paperback of the first book in the Fargo series.

The story, published in 1969, opens with Fargo arriving in west Texas in 1916. He is described as tall and lean and wearing an army-style campaign hat over prematurely white hair. Others writing about Fargo say the description sounds a lot like the actor Lee Marvin in the 1966 movie, “The Professionals.”

Fargo is a hired gun with plenty of experience. In this tale, he is hired by the co-owner of a silver mine in northern Mexico who wants Fargo to accompany him down to the mine and to organize and protect a train of pack mules that will haul the silver out of a remote mountain valley and back to Texas. To do this, they will have to go through bandit territory and past the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa.

With his employer, Fargo has to get down to the mine in one piece, while fighting off gangs of violent bad guys. Once they get to the mine's location, they find their mission complicated by a renegade army blocking the mouth of the valley and waiting to strike and steal the silver.

Benteen (the pen name of author Ben Haas) keeps the many varied and at times hair-raising situations moving rapidly along. In a favorite section, Fargo and the mine owner avoid the renegades by entering the valley on a foot-wide trail high up on a rock wall. Not only do the men have to navigate this treacherous route, but also they must guide their horses along it.

Fargo is a fun, fast, short book and a welcome break from some of the heavier stuff I have been reading lately.

Among those who have written about Fargo is author and blogger Paul Bishop. James Reasoner wrote an introduction to a recent Kindle edition of Fargo.

(To read more book posts, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Film Noir: The Crooked Way

Amnesia stories require an enormous suspension of disbelief, at least for me, and yet they can be such great yarns.

“The Crooked Way” from 1949 is one of those stories.

Eddie, played by John Payne, is a returning World War 2 veteran with a brain injury that erased his memory. He believes he was originally from Los Angeles and so returns to that city to see if there isn’t something he might recognize that will help him recover. Shortly after arriving, he is harassed by cops who claim he is a gangster, a woman who tells him she is his wife, and some thugs who work him over for cheating them.

If the amnesia premise was not hard enough to overcome, why Eddie would not turn around and get back on the train – any train – and get out of there, is an even bigger mystery than the one proposed in the film. But then, if he did that, there would be no movie. So Eddie sticks around and takes a lot more punishment at the hands of gangster, Vince, played by Sonny Tufts.

Tufts has the usual beef with his former colleague in crime, but even more interesting here is the very strong suggestion that Vince is a drug addict. Drug addiction in movies was strictly forbidden by the Hollywood production code of the time. The filmmakers get around this with a quick explanation that Vince is taking meds for his nerves. They even show the audience his prescription bottle. And somehow they got it past the censors.

Director Robert Florey provides a fast pace and a lot of violence in this 90-minute movie. And not just movie violence, but people getting the living snot kicked out of them. This was a rare thing for movies of the 1940s, a little less rare in noir films. Still, in this production, the violence is intense. Perhaps the code enforcers paid less attention to modest little pictures than they did to the big studio productions.

Cameraman John Alton – the man who really puts the noir in film noir – keeps everything dark, intriguing and menacing. Even ordinary moments, like three gangsters going up a staircase, is so interesting in its angle and use of light and shadow that it exudes tension. Alton also had a technique in close ups of placing a speck of light in the lead actor’s eyes which somehow created a subtle star burst that gave the players’ faces a special life. He used this technique on leading lady Ellen Drew. He was also great at lighting the villain. Vince always looks crazed and dangerous.

There are a lot of clichés in “The Crooked Way”, and John Payne is not too convincing as a tough guy – not like Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan could be – but the movie is worth watching, especially for fans of the genre.

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

Thursday, December 1, 2016

FFB: Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke

This post comes after a re-reading of James Lee Burke’s 2002 novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, or, more accurately I should say it is the second time around. This time I listened to the unabridged audio book of the novel.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is the 12th of Burke’s 20 Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave Robicheaux is a former homicide detective who left the New Orleans Police Department during a low point in his life when he was drinking too much and ghosts of his past were haunting him – the murder of his wife, the war in Vietnam. Now, he is a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, lives in the community and also owns a fishing-tackle and boat-rental business located on his home property.

Iberia Parish is an actual place about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of New Orleans. A parish, is what the state of Louisiana calls its counties. Burke describes many actual places in this and his other Robicheaux novels, and he is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, smells, and time of year in that part of the country.

In Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Dave Robicheaux has two murder mysteries to solve, which may or may not be related. He also goes up against a host of suspects including local toughs, New Orleans mob guys, and a man who may or may not be possessed by the devil, if not a demon himself. The man goes by the name, Legion, which is a reference to a story in the New Testament. Legion is a tall, wrinkled 74-year-old man who is physically powerful and has the power to scare the crap out of everyone – including Dave Robicheaux.

The only one not afraid of Legion, although he should be, is Dave’s friend and former homicide partner, Clete Purcel, now a private detective and bounty hunter. Throughout Burke’s series, Clete will step in to assist Dave, and more often than not he storms ahead and gets himself into a world of trouble. Here, I should note, there is a lot of violence, graphically described, in this book.

While parts of the story can make your hair stand on end, and parts could get your heart racing, the novel also has a good deal of humor, sometimes supplied by Clete Purcel, sometimes by Dave Robicheaux’s first-person observations of the people he must deal with day-to-day. Burke also shows tender moments with Dave and his second wife Bootsie and their adopted daughter Alafair.

Burke's storytelling skills weave so much of the culture, history, food, and dialects of the place into this, and all his Dave Robicheaux novels, that I almost feel I know more about that section of Louisiana than I do about my own town.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is another great novel from James Lee Burke, someone who has been a favorite writer of mine for many years. The audio book, narrated by the late actor Mark Hammer, who recorded several of Burke’s earlier mysteries, is excellent.

(For more book posts, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Eastwood is a youngster compared to Oliveira

The other day, I was talking to someone about Clint Eastwood, saying he was remarkable for continuing to direct movies at his age. He is 86 now (born 1930) and his latest film, “Sully,” came out in September of this year (2016). Mr. Eastwood is defying the idea that the difficult, stressful and physically taxing job of directing films is a young person’s game.
Some of the Hollywood legends made films into their 70s. John Ford was about 71 when he made his last movie, “Seven Women.” Howard Hawks made his last, “Rio Lobo,” when he was 73. Alfred Hitchcock made “Family Plot” when he was about 76. Michael Curtiz did “The Comancheros” when he was about 75.

But Eastwood is unique, turning out movies well into his 80s.
And then I remembered an even more remarkably superannuated movie maker: Manoel de Oliveira.

A few years ago, I saw some of his films on DVD, and was amazed he was still creating at his age. But, when I looked him up the other day on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I was saddened to learn that he had died in 2015 at the age of 106.

Now here is the part that should knock you out: He made his last feature film in 2012 at the age of about 103. Let that sink in before I tell you that the IMDb also says he made a 15-minute documentary the year he died.

Mr. Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908 and made films there starting in the silent era. Due the political climate of the country, his output was spotty until the 1970s, said Dennis Lim in his New York Times obituary of the director.

The three Oliveira films I have been able to view are:

“The Strange Case of Angelica” (2010). This is a strange one indeed. It is the story of a young man who falls in love with a young woman but can never be with her. The movie feels like it traveled through time from the silent era to the 21st Century. I saw it when I was researching a movement called Slow Cinema and I am here to tell you this one is slow – really slow. Luckily, I like a lot of the Slow Cinema productions.

“Belle Toujours” (2006) is the story of an older man who sees an old flame at a concert, pursues her, and after a time convinces her to have dinner with him. Secrets and a lot more are revealed at the dinner and the meal goes on in almost real time. Very slow, but fascinating.

“Taking a Picture” (2003) is several stories about people on a cruise ship. Some of the passengers, including Catherine Deneuve and Irene Pappas, spend a lot of time talking during meals at the captain’s table. John Malkovich plays the ship’s captain. Malkovich made several films with this director, as did Ms. Deneuve.

The films of Manoel de Oliveira are not for everyone, but anyone feeling a little adventurous and willing to let an old master do his thing – no matter how slowly – should give his movies a try.

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

Thursday, November 24, 2016

FFB: N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims a Thanksgiving Story

Around the turn of the millennium, I found a glossy, soft-cover book about the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving on sale at a local bookstore, and bought it as a way to teach the story at home.

N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims is an over-sized book of artwork illustrating the story of that famous group who left England in 1620 and sailed for two months to the New World on the ship Mayflower. Their destination was the Virginia Colony, but they landed about 600 miles north in what is now the state of Massachusetts.

There, they established the Plymouth Colony, endured a harsh and deadly winter, and befriended the natives who introduced them to local crops. They planted, tended and harvested the food, and in the fall, had a three-day feast for the survivors of the colony and for their Native American friends.

The paintings in the book are reproductions of murals created by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), depicting scenes in a colorful and romantic style. The story was written by Robert San Souci.

Wyeth, an accomplished artist, had studied at the studio of artist and illustrator Howard Pyle. Later, Wyeth created illustrations for popular editions of Treasure Island and Robin Hood.

In 1940, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (today known simply as MetLife) commissioned Wyeth to create the series of murals for its New York City headquarters.

Wyeth worked on the project until his death in a car accident. His son, Andrew completed the project. Andrew’s son, James, is also a well-known artist.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Three Spy Films from Len Deighton Novels

Love them, hate them, or never read them, I think most people would agree that the movies made from Len Deighton’s three spy novels, The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain, are pretty darn entertaining.

In 1965, Harry Saltzman, the producer of the James Bond films, took on another fictional British agent for a series of very different films – very different from the Bond pictures and very different from each other.

Again, the producer and his people pulled off a casting coup landing young, rising-star Michael Caine to play the spy they named Harry Palmer. In the Deighton books, this character has no name. Caine brought his considerable acting talent and personal charm to the role, which burst through despite a rather restrained, at first, portrayal of the somewhat bland, but deep down rebellious character. Even the heavy, black-rimmed eye glasses he wore in all three pictures could not flatten out his personality.

“The Ipcress File,” the first of the trio, is the story of the British military intelligence service setting out to find a kidnapped scientist. Harry Palmer, who had a crooked reputation while in the regular army, is reassigned to the service where, his stuffy superiors believe, his talents could be better used. The picture was directed by Sidney J. Furie, a Canadian, who gave this film a realistic, cold and claustrophobic atmosphere. Furie was greatly aided by Otto Heller’s photography. Together they employed odd framings and cocked camera angles to keep Harry Palmer, and the audience, off balance and on edge.

In the second film,“Funeral in Berlin” from 1966, Harry Palmer is sent to West Berlin and ordered to cross into Communist controlled East Berlin through Check Point Charlie, to meet a Communist colonel who wants to defect but needs help getting out. Directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed “Goldfinger" in 1964, “Funeral in Berlin” is a smoother production than "Ipcress," but still has a bit of grit and some very good location photography, again by Otto Heller. It also has a wonderful performance by Oscar Homolka as the jovial colonel. Over all, this movie has a lighter feeling than the first.

The last of the three, “Billion Dollar Brain,” from 1967, is the loopiest and slickest of the series. Here, Harry Palmer goes to frozen Finland in the middle of winter to deliver a mysterious package, discover what the package contains (deadly viruses), who wants them (Karl Malden as a slippery middle man), and the ultimate plot of a crazy Texas millionaire out to destroy Communism with the aid of a self-financed army and a computer, the billion-dollar brain of the title. Not much of this one makes sense, but the film is so lavishly produced and so artistically directed by Ken Russell, that the plot did not matter as much as the wild visual ride. “Billion Dollar Brain” is the closest to what the Bond franchise became with beautiful location photography by Billy Williams and a beautiful leading lady in Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s late sister). Oscar Homolka also returns in this one.

The three films showed back-to-back on cable last weekend and gave me the chance to watch “Funeral in Berlin,” which I had never seen before, and which is now my favorite of the three.

I had seen “The Ipcress File” several times, including earlier this year. “Billion Dollar Brain” I had not seen since I was a kid, watching it on TV, and unable to make head or tail of the story. But there was one sequence in it that stuck with me all those years.

When Harry Palmer is given the mysterious package to deliver, his instructions include the warning not to try to open what looks like a coffee thermos. Harry takes it to a London shopping area, enters a shoe store where they have some kind of X-ray device for customers to look down through a viewfinder at their shoes and see the bones in their feet. Harry sticks the thermos in there and has a look. It is still my favorite scene in this oddly funny movie.

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

FFB: This is Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner is one of my favorite writers. Every Perry Mason novel I read, I enjoyed. And, since the man wrote about 80 of them, I still have a ways to go with that series. However, I am not so enthusiastic about his non-Mason books.

And then came This is Murder – a big disappointment.

That surprised me. Just writing this surprises me. I never thought I would be bashing the work of this writer I admire.

But Gardner can take it. Yes, I know he has been dead since 1970. Even if he were not, any writer with a body of work like his – at least 100 books, some say more – can handle it if one blogger does not like one of his stories.

In this 1935 stand-alone novel, which he wrote under the pen name Charles J. Kenney, Gardner introduces us to Sam Moraine, an adman and friend of the district attorney of a cold, windy, unnamed city. For kicks, Sam involves himself in a kidnapping case and is soon tangled up in a complicated murder investigation.

Political corruption is part of the plot along with many twists and turns, convenient coincidences and improbable – if not impossible – situations. All of which caused me to lose interest in Sam, the suspects, and the whole thing.

Mostly, This is Murder suffers from over plotting. It is said that Gardner created a plot wheel, a paper device he could turn and come up with a variety of situations, to help him create all those stories. This time he gave the wheel too many spins.

Gardner also seems out of his element writing about an ad executive who runs a one-man advertising business with his secretary. It all came across like a law office not an ad agency.

So, I will stick with Gardner’s stories featuring his famous criminal-defense attorney.

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

MOVIE: Decision Aginst Time

The 1957 British film, “Decision Against Time,” is the simple but tension-filled story of a test pilot for an aircraft manufacturer who, while demonstrating a new cargo plane to a potential buyer, has engine trouble and is forced to fly the damaged plane until it is safe to land, all the while wondering when the engines will completely fail and the whole thing crash down into a suburban neighborhood.

Jack Hawkins does a terrific job playing the pilot who is sweating out the ordeal. Hawkins may not be remembered today, but he was a major talent and appeared in many big movies like “Lawrence of Arabia," "Ben Hur," and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” He also starred in many smaller films, including the excellent, “The Cruel Sea,” where he played the commander of a British ship during World War 2 and which may be his best performance. He was also in another good airplane-in-trouble movie called “No Highway in the Sky,” where he co-starred with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.

A familiar face in “Decision Against Time” is mild-mannered Donald Pleasence, playing the mild-mannered client the company is trying to impress. This was years before Pleasance reinvented himself in horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s.

The picture was directed by Charles Crichton, a versatile filmmaker who did the great Alec Guinness comedy “The Lavender Hill Mob” in 1951, and “A Fish Called Wanda” in 1988.

“Decision Against Time” was written by William Rose, an American who worked in England and who could create thrillers as well as comedies.

The film was produced by MGM and the Ealing Studios. Ealing is best known for its comedies, but it was a company that also turned out well-done dramas.

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

FFB: Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1923, Dorothy L. Sayers published her first novel, Whose Body?, a puzzle mystery filled with wit, humor, and sharp observations.

The book introduces Lord Peter Wimsey, the son of a noble family who, for excitement, involves himself in local crime cases. He is bright and inquisitive and usually helps the police, although some on the force find him a meddling nuisance.

The discovery of a dead body sets this story in motion. The situation is unusual, clever, and – to me, at least – very funny. A dead man is found naked in a bathtub in a home that is not his, and the owner of the house has no idea who the fellow is or how he got there. There is one more intriguing element to the discovery. The dead guy was wearing a pince-nez (those odd, old-fashioned glasses without arms that clip onto the bridge of the nose).

By chance, Lord Peter arrives on the scene before the cops, which gives him the opportunity, with the help of his manservant, Bunter, to closely examine the body and the bathroom.

Not long after the discovery, Wimsey hears about the disappearance of a wealthy financier, and comes to suspect the two mysteries are related.

Lord Peter is the kind of guy who pokes his nose into a case, ferrets out clues the police overlooked or cannot connect, and then wishes he could step away and let the cops handle it. But he can’t step away. Once he gets in, Lord Peter is committed to solving the mystery and nailing the criminal.

If he has any fault, it is his penchant for babbling on and on. But every time he launches into one of his monologues, Sayers peppers it with humor and clever comments.

His chatty, overly polite, sometimes scatter-brained style may be Wimsey’s way of distracting people, disarming them, making them believe he is not serious, while he is actually focused on gathering information, putting together the clues and solving the mystery. Sayers does this in an amusing way and may have been poking fun at the idle rich of her day.

Wimsey is about 30 in this story, and a veteran of World War 1. In a disturbing scene, Lord Peter, who was a major in the British Army, dreams he is back in the trenches, and it takes Bunter, a sergeant who was with him, to hear him, go in and wake him from the recurring nightmare. After the war, Wimsey returned to England with a case of shell shock. Today, it is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sayers shows that it was taken seriously back then, too.

Sayers wrote 11 Lord Peter Wimsey novels and about 21 short stories which often featured characters introduced in Whose Body? – Wimsey’s mother the Dowager Duchess, his pompous older brother Gerald, Bunter, and the detectives Sugg and Parker.

For more on Whose Body? and Lord Peter, take a look at Sergio's fine review at Tipping My Fedora.

And for more forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott's site, Pattinase.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Storm Warning, musical-comedy cast in film noir

“Storm Warning,” a Warner Bros. picture from 1951 about the Klan in a southern town, is a combination of “Black Legion,” the studio’s 1937 Bogart movie on that subject, and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Marsha, a fashion model, played by Ginger Rogers, traveling across the country makes a detour to a small town for a quick visit with her sister Lucy, played by Doris Day.

Marsha is not in town 10 minutes before she witnesses a gang of Klansmen drag a man from the county jail and shoot him down in the street. Hiding in a doorway, Marsha plainly sees two men whose hoods have come off.

Shaken, she meets her sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s new husband, Hank, played by Steve Cochran. Hank was one of the men she saw.

To protect her sister and to get away from her new brother-in-law, Marsha plans to get out of town early the next morning. But county prosecutor Burt Rainey, played by Ronald Reagan, has Marsha picked up and questioned as a witness.

Things heat up for Marsha, Lucy and especially Hank, who is part bully, part simpering coward, when both the prosecutor and the leader of the Klan lean on them.

And when things could not get worse, Hank tries to rape Marsha.

From there, the film slips into an old formula and while not a happy ending, it is not as hard-hitting and memorable as it could have been.

One of the problems is Ronald Reagan. His part is not well written and Reagan was always better as an amiable second lead to stars like Errol Flynn. Doris Day, on the other hand, was a good choice for the young wife so in love that she cannot see that her hubbie is a lout. Ms. Day was a much better actress than people remember. This is also one of Steve Cochran’s better films. Usually cast as a gangster in movies like “White Heat,” here he gets to do a lot more with the part of a wannabe tough guy.

The picture was directed by Stuart Heisler, a Hollywood veteran, who in 1940 made the excellent feature, “The Biscuit Eater.” Heisler does a good job with the material he is given, and brings a taught, noir feeling to the film. The night scenes leading up to the killing are dark and moody, thanks to cameraman Carl Guthrie.

“Storm Warning” was written by Daniel Fuchs, who wrote the screenplay for the 1949 noir classic, “Criss Cross,” and Richard Brooks, who had a long career in Hollywood first as a writer and later as the writer-director of films like “In Cold Blood” and “Blackboard Jungle.”

This fast-moving, 93-minute movie is well worth a look.

(For more on film and television, visit Todd Mason's blog.)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Movies to Watch on Halloween

Today is Halloween, and to get everyone in the mood for it, the cable this past weekend was flooded with horror movies.

But, with the beautiful mild weather each day and the World Series each night, there was little time left to watch any of them.

Two films that aired the night of game five of the series were Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” two of my favorites. Had they played either before or after the baseball game, I would have gladly watched them.

Both are a joy to watch and while they are comedies, they use all the elements of classic horror movies to their advantage.

Gene Wilder, in Mel Brooks 1974 film, is brilliant as the heir to the Frankenstein castle who finds his grandfather’s notes and creates a project of his own. The entire cast is terrific: Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, who, when pressed to reveal her relationship with the original Dr. Frankenstein, admits: Yes! He was my – boyfriend! By the way, Mel Brooks, in a TV interview, said the name Blucher means glue maker, and that’s why the horses go crazy when they hear her name.

“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” from 1948 is, to me, the comedy teams’ best film. Abbott and Costello play moving men who bring crates containing Dracula and Frankenstein to a museum and some great stuff happens when the monsters awaken and chase the guys. To further complicate things, the Wolf Man also shows up. Universal got Bela Lugosi to play Dracula again, and Lon Chaney, Jr. to reprise the Wolf Man. Frankenstein, in this picture, was played by Glenn Strange, who for many years played Sam, the bartender at the Long Branch Saloon, on the TV show “Gunsmoke.”

Because those two comedies were the ones I regretted missing, I wondered which horror movies – true horror movies – I would want to look at again?

Would I want to watch “The Exorcist,” probably the scariest movie I have ever seen? No thanks. Once was more than enough.

How about some of the classic slasher films like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th”? I don’t think so. I saw a lot of them years ago and still remember all the twists, shocks and surprises.

As for classic monsters, I will watch almost any film with a werewolf in it. I particularly like the early ones featuring a sympathetic Chaney. Another older one I like is the low-budget “The Werewolf” from 1956 starring Steven Ritch and directed by Fred Sears.

The 1942 film, “Cat People,” starring Simone Simon, is another film I would gladly watch again. Its story, atmosphere and performances all add up to one creepy movie. The scene that gives me a chill is when Simone Simon, who we suspect is capable of turning herself into a large cat and killing anyone she is displeased with, is approached in a restaurant by another woman with rather feline features. The woman calls her, My sister, in another language, but the message is clear.

One more film that is on my watch-again list is “Curse of the Demon” (also called “Night of the Demon”), from 1957, starring Dana Andrews. This quiet little movie about an American in England and an curse that can bring down the wrath of some terrible monster, will stick with you long after seeing it. But, had the movie ended five minutes before it did, it would have been even better, creepier, and more memorable.

Which horror movies do you remember, and which would you watch again? Or, which films would you rather not see again?

Now, I’ve got to go. Little ghosts and goblins are at my door looking for treats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MOVIE: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” starring Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton

Critics say the decade of 1970s was a golden age of movies. Newcomers were given a chance to do the stories they wanted, and commercially doubtful films found their way to the screen because the filmmakers believed in them.

But, having read Charles Willeford’s novel, Cockfighter, I had to wonder why anyone wanted to turn it into a motion picture? Did they expect audiences to flock to the theaters to see it. (Sorry about the bad pun there.)

“Cockfighter," the 1974 movie, was directed by Monte Hellman, a quirky filmmaker who directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns in the 1960s, and who made the terrific “Two-Lane Blacktop” in 1971. “Cockfighter” was produced by the dean of low-budget movies, Roger Corman. It starred Warren Oates, a very good actor, who proves it again here. Also in the cast were Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Troy Donahue, Ed Begley, Jr., Laurie Bird, and Charles Willeford, the author himself, in a surprisingly big supporting role as the referee of the fights.

All those people made me want to see the movie. But before watching it, I read the book.

I found the novel jaw-dropping in its violence. The movie follows the book very closely. Willeford wrote the script himself and the fights are as they were in his novel. But, without the gory descriptions Willeford detailed in the book. The documentary-style footage of roosters fighting mostly looks like a lot of wings flapping and feathers flying about. Still, it is pretty brutal stuff.

Aside from the fights – which look real – the story of Frank Mansfield doing everything he can to be the top owner and trainer of gamecocks is quite good, better than the book, which is due to Oates, a likeable actor. His scenes with the other trainers, his brother and a woman who wants to marry him are well done, if very slow by today’s standards. Movies back then took their time and allowed an audience to observe the characters, unlike today when too many movies feel rushed and choppy.

Oates, Stanton and the other actors were very good in their low-key, naturalistic performances, which fit the style of the film. Hellman seems to have used a lot of non-actors and it all blends together very well. But be warned, this movie is pretty tough to take, even for a fan of Hellman, Corman, Oates and company.

(For movie posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog)

Friday, October 14, 2016

FFB: Cockfighter by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford’s brutal 1972 novel, Cockfighter, can be read as an indictment of the sport in which two roosters are pitted against each other in a fight to the death with razor-sharp metal spurs attached to their feet.

Frank Mansfield is a Florida-based bird trainer, handler and gambler who, when we meet him, is fixing a cock fight by handicapping his chicken. I will not say how he is doing this and only note that those first few pages will give any reader a horrifying heads up of what to expect in the rest of the book.

During the tournament season, Frank travels around the southern U.S., entering his birds into matches and betting on the outcomes. While cockfighting is now illegal in all 50 states, when Willeford wrote the novel, it existed in a shadow world, technically illegal, but still a popular sport.

Willeford tells his story in a blunt, matter-of-fact style using Frank as his first-person narrator. But, too much of the book reads like a how-to manual on the care and feeding of gamecocks, peppered with flashes of shocking violence.

The novel also meanders off into Frank’s affair with a wealthy woman and his returning to his hometown to have a quick roll in the hay with a country girl who always hoped to marry him. Those sections are not surprising after reading Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, about two dislikable characters. Frank is a pretty dislikable guy, but I will grudgingly say this for him, he is very good at his job.

The blow-by-blow descriptions of the many fights also make Cockfighter a difficult book to get through. But it is the author’s skill, and Willeford (1919-1988) was a very skillful writer, that kept me hanging in there to find out what happened to Frank and his champion rooster in the big, final match.

(To read about other forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Serial-killer film: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Part mystery, part western, part slasher film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a good little picture from 1976.

Based on a true story, the movie is about a killer targeting young couples around Texarkana, a city on the border of Texas and Arkansas.

In 1946, a man described as big and “strong as hell,” assaulted and in some cases killed young couples parked at night on dark, deserted roads.

The movie opens in a semi-documentary style with an authoritative-sounding narrator setting the time and place. It then moves into horror film territory, when a man wearing a sack with eyeholes cut out stalks and attacks the couples. It then crosses over into a detective story when the local police, baffled by the case, call in a noted Texas lawman, played by Ben Johnson, to lead the investigation. Despite his efforts to protect the town and close in on the killer, the murders and attempted murders continue.

One of the intended victims is played by Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island” fame. She is listed on the channel guide as co-starring with Johnson, but her part, unfortunately, is very small.

Johnson lends an air of authority and class to the low-budget film. In 1971, he appeared in “The Last Picture Show,” in a part that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Others in the cast include Andrew Prine and Charles B. Pierce who also directed the picture. In 1972, Pierce’s first film, “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” was a low-budget hit.

Films like this were once hard to find, but “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” not only ran recently on Turner Classic Movies, but also is here on YouTube.

(For more overlooked films, see Todd Mason's blog.) 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

FFB: Old Hellcat by T.T. Flynn

Until this summer, T.T. Flynn was unknown to me. But after reading James Reasoner’s review of The Man from Nowhere, Flynn went to the top of my list of authors to read.

In 2002, Leisure Books published a paperback collection of three short western novels by Flynn – Gallows Breed, Old Hellcat, The Devil’s Lode – and called the book The Devil’s Lode. By chance, I found a used copy of it and dug in. The character of Shack Anderson in Old Hellcat grabbed me from the first paragraph and that is where I started.

Shack is an irascible, funny old cuss at the opening of the story. He does not like being old and he does not like being retired, although retirement was his own doing when he decided to give the cattle ranch he built up over decades to his daughter and her mild-mannered husband to run. The introduction to Shack, sizing himself up and talking to himself in a hotel room in town, comes to an end quickly when a woman he has known since his days as a hell-raising young cowboy and her days as a young dance-hall girl arrives with news. She tells Shack that trouble is brewing for his daughter and son-in-law.

A no-good, land-grabbing, cattle-rustling neighbor of Shack’s is trying to muscle his family off their land. On hearing this, Shack, the grumpy old goat, straps on his guns and, feeling young again, heads out to handle things himself.

The plot of Old Hellcat sounds pretty standard when summarized, but what makes this novel go is Flynn’s skill as a storyteller. The man was a master at launching a story quickly, painting brief but vivid word pictures of characters and situations, and handling action.

Flynn (1902–1979) wrote short stories and short novels for the western magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Old Hellcat, which today would be considered a novella, was first published in the March 7, 1936 edition of Argosy.

Since buying this book, I found a copy of Flynn's 1954 novel, The Man from Laramie, so I will be reading more Flynn stories soon.

Anyone interested in reading or writing action stories should get to know the work of T.T. Flynn.

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

FFB: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is hardly a forgotten book. This famous collection of a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been so popular that it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1892.

The forgotten part, for me, was the edition of this book that I read as a kid.

A few days ago, Patti Abbott, on her blog, asked the question: “Who were the first adult crime fiction writers you read?”

Right off the bat, I knew the first was Conan Doyle, and the book was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked on Holmes after reading the first story, “The Red-Headed League.”

But “The Red-Headed League” is not the first story in the collection. So how did I come to read it first?

Traditionally, the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are:

“A Scandal in Bohemia”

“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”

“A Case of Identity”

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

“The Five Orange Pips”

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

“The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb”

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

Still, I was sure “The Red-Headed League” was my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. I could not check the book because I have not seen it in years. One of my siblings might have it, and I’ll bet I know which one – the one who saved all the board games we had as kids.

A quicker way to find it than rummaging around in an attic, is rummaging around on the Internet. And that is what I did. There, I found the book, identified by the cover art of Cheslie D’Andrea (pictured here).

This version of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, put out by Whitman Publishing, was an abbreviated collection in that it contained only eight of the Holmes stories:

"The Red-Headed League"

"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"

"The Five Orange Pips"

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"

"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"

"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"

"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"

"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Whitman, I learned, was part of Western Publishing of Racine, Wisconsin, a company that also published Golden Books for young children.

How this particular book first came into my hands, I do not know, but it made me a lifelong Holmes fan.

And, by the way, "The Red-Headed League," which I reread for this post, is even better than I remembered it.

(For more forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

MOVIE: Noirish crime film Shield for Murder

Old Hollywood could not produce a film with a lead character like Barney Nolan, at least not the Barney Nolan of William P. McGivern’s 1951 novel Shield for Murder.

In the book, Philadelphia police detective Barney Nolan is a bad cop who hits rock bottom. In the 1954 movie, “Shield for Murder," Barney Nolan, as played by star and co-director Edmond O’Brien, is a complex man, not particularly good or bad, just human, who makes a series of bad – really bad – decisions and goes down the moral drain.

Both book and movie start with Nolan killing a bookie in order to rob the man and then claiming it was an accident, a warning shot gone wild. Nolan, in both versions wants the money to win a girl.

In the book, Nolan needs the money to lavish expensive jewelry on a nightclub singer who has no romantic feelings for him. In the movie, he wants the money to marry a nightclub cigaret girl, buy a small house in the suburbs, move there and live his own vision of the American dream.

Characters like Nolan who make criminal choices for women are a staple of film noir. In the hands of a director like Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann, this movie could have been a great addition to that genre. But as it is, “Shield for Murder” does not reach that level. Still, it is not a bad little crime picture.

The movie might get a better grade from me if I had not read the McGivern novel right before seeing it. (A post about McGivern’s book is here.)

Aside from Nolan’s motivation to commit murder, there is another interesting difference between the book and the movie. In the book, the man who starts suspecting Nolan is a murderer is Mark Brewster, a young newspaper reporter. In the movie, Mark Brewster is Nolan’s police partner. The change may have been dictated by the old Hollywood production code.

O’Brien, who co-directed with producer Howard W. Koch, may have miscast himself in the movie. Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum could play hard guys on the edge and capable of going over to the dark side. In McGivern’s book, Nolan is a big, violent thug who scares the hell out of everyone. The movie’s Barney Nolan is a softer, almost sympathetic guy, thanks to O’Brien’s personality and skill as an actor. (O’Brien deserves a post about his career.)

As Nolan's partner, actor John Agar is wooden and not nearly as good as he was in his first film - John Ford’s “Fort Apache.” Also in the cast is the great, gruff Emile Meyer as a captain of detectives who also suspects Nolan. The cigaret girl is played by Marla English, who did a handful of films in the 1950s. Carolyn Jones has a nice supporting role as a woman in a bar trying to pick up Barney Nolan. Others in the cast who became regulars on TV are Claude Akins, William Schallert and Richard Deacon.

Overall, “Shield for Murder” is an OK picture, but the book is a lot better.

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

Thursday, September 22, 2016

FFB: Shield for Murder by William P. McGivern

The first sentence of Shield for Murder is a grabber:

“The man Nolan planned to kill came out of an all-night taproom about one o’clock in the morning.”

William P. McGivern really knew how to get a crime novel up and running.

In this 1951 book, Barny Nolan is a Philadelphia police detective who got on the force and rose through the ranks by luck and political connections. In his youth, he was the muscle behind a district boss. Now pushing 40, Nolan is still violent with a built-up resentment for anyone with money, anyone with power, and anyone in his way. He kills the man who comes out of the taproom, a bookie, so he can steal his bankroll. Nolan needs money to impress a nightclub singer, but is unaware that she has no interest in him. In the bookie’s pocket is a huge wad of cash belonging to a local racketeer. Taking it does not worry Nolan. He figures that as a cop he can derail any investigation and get away with it.

But nothing ever goes smoothly for Barny Nolan.

Not only does the gangster find out he took the money, but also a young newspaper reporter, Mark Brewster, suspects Nolan of murdering the bookie.

Brewster starts putting a case together against Nolan, but runs into resistance from the cops when he tries to tell them that one of their own is a bad guy. He also makes a target of himself when Nolan learns Brewster is investigating him.

McGivern paints a dark, seedy picture of the City of Brotherly Love. How accurate a picture, I cannot say having only visited Philadelphia a couple of times as a tourist, eating cheesesteak sandwiches, visiting the Liberty Bell, and, yes, running up the steps of the art museum with a couple of my young nephews. (No, I did not raise my hands like Rocky. But they did). McGivern’s Philadelphia felt genuine through his descriptions of the neighborhoods, the police precincts, and the taprooms. (By the way, can anyone from Philly tell me what a taproom is, or was? Was it a small pub? Was it a bar that only served beer?)

For a while, William P. McGivern was a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia and several of his crime novels were set there. Shield for Murder and other McGivern books like Odds Against Tomorrow, The Big Heat, and Rogue Cop were made into Hollywood movies. McGivern died in 1982 at age 63.

(An earlier post on McGivern’s novel The Crooked Frame is here.)

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

MOVIE: Bank heist film The Lookout

Last weekend, I caught up with a nicely done little heist movie from 2007 called “The Lookout”

In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a former high school athlete, who suffers a serious brain injury in a car crash. Employed as a night janitor for a local bank in his small, Midwestern town, he hopes his condition improves enough to get a teller’s job with the bank. But his injury makes that goal nearly impossible since his short-term memory is damaged.

Some local dirtbags get the bright idea of befriending Chris and recruiting him to help them rob the bank.

This deliberately paced movie is quite involving as we get to know more about Chris’s guilt at causing the car crash which killed and injured his buddies and girlfriend, and his frustrations with his current condition.

There are two outstanding supporting characters in the picture. One is the blind man, played by Jeff Daniels, who shares his apartment with Chris and who helps Chris with his recovery. The other is the head bad guy played by Matthew Goode, who makes the initial contact with Chris and becomes his new best friend.

The cast also includes Isla Fisher as a former stripper who gets involved with Chris, and Sergio Di Zio as a goodhearted deputy sheriff.

“The Lookout” was written and directed by Scott Frank.

This 99-minute film is well worth a look.

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

MOVIE: Noir prison-break picture Canon City

Released in 1948, “Canon City” is a modestly-budgeted prison picture with several things going for it.

First, this docu-noir film is based on a true story from 1927 in which a gang of convicts broke out of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility at Canon City, Colorado. Part of the movie was filmed at the prison and around Canon City (which should be called Canyon City according to the Spanish spellings used there). Built in 1871, in the harsh landscape of rocky, treeless hills, the CTCF is still there and is the oldest prison in the state. Photos Googled up show a stone structure with guard towers that looks more like a movie set than a real place.

Next, the star of the picture is a young Scott Brady. Brady in real life was the tall, tough brother of tall tough actor Lawrence Tierney who was the tough old gang leader in “Reservoir Dogs.” Brady’s character is forced to participate in the prison break. Once on the outside, he does all he can to keep the others from killing anyone or harming local residents.

Next, there are a couple of sequences that make “Canon City” a thriller. One scene would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud. The men who bust out of prison, split up and because it is winter, and because they need a sure way out of the area, the men barge into several homes looking to steal guns, cars and food. In one sequence, a group of cons holds a family hostage and demands food. The old granny goes into the kitchen to fix them something to eat and while there and out of sight of the baddies, she must decide whether to feed them or to bash in the ringleader’s head with a hammer. It’s a great scene.

And last, the film was photographed by John Alton, the great cinematographer of so many moody black and white noir films like "The Scar" from the same year.

“Canon City” was written and directed by Crane Wilber and produced by Bryan Foy. Also in the cast were Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, and DeForest Kelly, 18 years before he played Doc McCoy on “Star Trek.”

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

Thursday, September 1, 2016

FFB: The Mystery of the Stolen Hats

The 1939 novel, The Mystery of the Stolen Hats, is a humorous story that starts with a missing American, leads to a murder, then to a suspicious death, and all the while weaving in a story about a hat thief.

Superintendent William “Big Bill” Stevens of Scotland Yard, is asked as a favor by a high ranking official to get a line on an American businessman who was scheduled to arrive in England but never showed up. Stevens tracks the man’s movements to France.

Arriving in Paris, Stevens is met by his old friend, Inspector Pierre Allain of the Sûreté Nationale. The robust French detective says he will help his stoic British counterpart look for the American and assures him they will find the man in no time. But first, they must dine together. Pierre Allain is fond of fine food. He also claims to be the best detective as well as the greatest lover in all of France.

Author Bruce Graeme takes a bit of pleasure in poking fun at the volatile French inspector. He also shows Allain is an excellent detective.

Before Stevens and Allain can get started on the manhunt, two things happen. An older woman is murdered and her servants, her beautiful adult daughter, and the daughter’s mysterious friend are all suspects. Equally troubling for Allain, someone steals his favorite hat. Men’s hats are being stolen all around Paris and Pierre Allain is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Into this crazy mix of storylines come two more detectives. There is Floquet, Pierre Allain’s arch rival from the Préfecture of Police. It seems the national Sûreté and the Paris based Préfecture have overlapping jurisdiction. The fourth is B.Y. Heck, from Pinkerton’s in the United States, who was hired by the American’s wife to find her husband.

Much of the fun of The Mystery of the Stolen Hats is watching the four detectives deal with each other while trying to find the murderer, search for the missing American and locate Pierre Allain’s hat.

Graeme wrote a leisurely yet well-paced story which judging by the ancient library copy that was located and shipped to my public branch must have been very popular in its day. Almost every page was dog-eared, many of them bent two and three times, some folded so often that librarians of the past had to apply clear tape to hold the corners together. One page had tape over a cigaret burn that made a small hole and a brown spot on the following three pages.

The Mystery of the Stolen Hats was mentioned recently by John Norris on his blog Pretty Sinister Books and that spurred me to find the book. Now, I look forward to tracking down some of the other seven or eight Stevens-Allain novels Graeme wrote between 1931 and about 1940. I suspect the seriousness of World War 2 made writing more lighthearted books impossible.

Bruce Graeme was one of the pen names of the English writer, Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), who turned out more than 60 novels. The figure might be closer to 80. Information on-line about Graeme is sketchy, brief and hard to find.

His books are also hard to find. Hopefully, a publisher will look into reprinting the entire Stevens-Allain series, and I hope the others are as much fun to read as The Mystery of the Stolen Hats.

(For more forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TV: Sean Connery on television as Macbeth

In 1961, Canadian director Paul Almond took a chance and cast a young and not too well known Sean Connery as the lead in his live television production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Almond’s gamble on Connery paid off. Connery, who had little formal training, brought his forceful persona and commanding presence to the role, said Robert Sellers in Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down.

Sellers’ book is about the change in acting talent and styles in England in the 1950s when drama schools, theater groups and eventually movies and TV turned to a new crop of actors that included Connery, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, and others who went on to become big stars in the 1960s.

Connery was 30 at the time, had done a handful of films and several plays, when he was tapped to star in “Macbeth.” 

The TV play is available on DVD and there is also a version of it on YouTube.

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

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

TV: "Broadchurch" the Second Season

Season two of “Broadchurch,” the excellent British television series, picks up where the first season left off. So, to avoid any spoilers, I’ll make this short and just say that season two is different in structure from season one, but just as involving, just as surprising and just as good.

Returning are detectives Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant, and Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. In this new story, their characters have never left the fictional seaside town of Broadchurch. Now they face a new mystery. The new and the old weave in and out of season two. Elements of season one’s mystery haunt them and even come back to bite them.

Series creator Chris Chibnall wrote the clever new eight-episode series and he brings more of his magic to this show. He introduces several new characters and further explores the lives of the people introduced in season one.

“Broadchurch," season two, is something all mystery lovers and all lovers of good TV should watch. But for those new to this series, do not start here. Go back to season one, episode one, and enjoy.

(For more posts on film and television, please see Todd Mason's blog.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

FFB: Perry Mason's Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary by Erle Stanley Gardner

My forgotten book this week is not only not forgotten, but also frequently reviewed. Just yesterday, Steve at Mystery File posted a review of it. I suppose that is not unusual when considering Erle Stanley Gardner. The man wrote more than 80 Perry Mason stories and, 46 years after his death, he is still a favorite among readers of mysteries.

I read The Case of the Sun Bather’s Diary a couple of weeks ago while under the weather and wanting something light and fun to read. This book was just what the doctor ordered. Like all Gardner novels, part of the pleasure was trying to figure out the mystery before Mason reveals it. Another part was spending time with old friends: Mason, the savvy attorney; Della Street, his hard working legal secretary; and Paul Drake, the highly competent private detective.

In The Sun Bather’s Diary, Mason gets involved with an old case of an armored car robbery when the daughter of the man accused and convicted of the crime calls the lawyer’s office and says everything she owns, her trailer home, all her possessions and even all her clothes have been stolen and she is outdoors, naked, making a call from a public phone.

From that humorous and intriguing opener, Gardner sets a complicated tale in motion.

Mason winds up with three big problems in this book. First, he must provide a defense for the nude caller when she is accused of murder. Second, he has to figure out how the seemingly impossible armored car robbery was pulled off and prove the girl’s father did not do it. And third, he has to avoid jail himself when someone tries to frame him. There is a great moment when district attorney Hamilton Burger hauls Mason before a grand jury and grills him.

I am a fan of Gardner, his writing style, his understanding of the law, and his amazing ability to spin so many yarns that kept Mason busy for four decades. I can recommend The Sun Bather’s Diary as another enjoyable puzzle solved by Perry Mason.

(For more forgotten books, please check out Patti Abbott’s blog. And thanks to Todd Mason for compiling the list this week.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

FILM: 7 Marilyn Monroe Movies

Marilyn Monroe made about two dozen films between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. Most of them are pleasant diversions. But a few are really terrific and should be seen today.

Here are seven movies that I think are her best pictures, starting with my personal favorite:

Niagara (1953) This was the beginning of 20th Century-Fox’s build up of MM, and she has a plum role here as a fast, curvy woman in a red dress plotting to do away with her husband while at Niagara Falls. Her husband is played by Joseph Cotton. The beautiful Jean Peters plays a woman who stumbles onto the plot. This is a terrific, noirish film (shot in color), and directed by the great Henry Hathaway.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) Here, the Fox glamour machine was in high gear with MM as Lorelei Lee, the diamond-hungry showgirl. Jane Russell is her gal-pal in this lighthearted musical from director Howard Hawks.

Some Like It Hot (1959) One of the greatest comedies ever made, it also stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon as a couple of musicians fleeing gangsters by dressing as women and joining a girls' jazz band. The band’s singer is MM. The picture was directed by Billy Wilder.

The Misfits (1961) Terrific drama with MM as a woman in Reno, Nevada waiting for her divorce to come through. She gets involved with cowboy Clark Gable, his pal Eli Wallach, a washed up rodeo rider played by Montgomery Clift, and a wise-cracking older woman played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter. The movie was written by MM’s then husband, Arthur Miller, and directed by John Huston.

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) In this Technicolor film version of a Terrence Rattigan play, chorus girl MM attracts the amorous attention of a European nobleman, played by Laurence Olivier, who also directed the movie.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Here, 23-year-old MM has only a small role as the mistress of a crooked lawyer, but her time on screen is magic. This film is the granddaddy of all heist movies. It stars Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Jean Hagen and Louis Calhern as the lawyer. It was directed John Huston.

River of No Return (1954) Old West saloon singer MM gets robbed and dumped by her nasty boyfriend, Rory Calhoun, and goes down river after him on a raft with settler Robert Mitchum and his young son. This short, brisk, color film was directed by Otto Preminger. And old Otto has a bit of wicked fun with his Cinemascope framing during one of MM’s songs.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Film: “Old Glory” 1939 Cartoon Short

Here is an 8 ½-minute short film for the Fourth of July.

In “Old Glory,” Porky Pig falls asleep and gets an American history lesson in his dreams.

This 1939 Warner Bros. cartoon was directed by Chuck Jones and produced by Leon Schlesinger.

YouTube has the film in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

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