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.)

Friday, July 1, 2016

FFB: A Man Called Spade by Dashiell Hammett

A Man Called Spade is a collection of five short stories by Dashiell Hammett, three of which feature his private detective Sam Spade – or as Hammett always calls him – Samuel Spade. (Interesting that Hammett’s first name was Samuel. His middle name was Dashiell.) Hammett introduced Spade in his 1929 novel, The Maltese Falcon.

In “A Man Called Spade,” the first story, Spade gets a call from a man who says he is being threatened and wants Spade to come to his home right away. When Spade arrives the man is dead and the police are there, including Detectives Polhaus and Dundy, who were also featured in The Maltese Falcon.

Spade behaves as an equal and a professional around the cops. He is friendly with Polhaus, but at odds with the older detective, Dundy, who outwardly shows his dislike of Spade. Spade maintains a quiet, professionalism. Hammett lets the reader know how good he is under pressure, at a murder scene or facing a potential killer, by briefly noting how Spade rolls his own cigarets. When things heat up, Spade will spring into action, moving very fast.

In short order, a series of characters, any of whom could be the killer, are introduced and questioned by Spade and the cops. In about 50 pages, Spade figures out whodunit.

Hammett’s trademark style of lean, hard prose and clipped, realistic dialog are there on every page of the three Spade stories. Like Ernest Hemingway, Hammett found that what he left out was as important as what put into a story. A nice example is the opening of “They Can Only Hang You Once,” the second story in the collection:

Samuel Spade said, “My name is Ronald Ames. I want to see Mr. Binnett – Mr. Timothy Binnett.”

“Mr. Binnett is resting now, sir,” the butler replied hesitantly.

With those two spare lines, Hammett paints a vivid picture. Spade is at the front door of the mansion of a wealthy, probably elderly man, and he is pulling some kind of ruse to gain entry to the house. Hammett says all that without saying it.

In this story, Spade gets involved with the murder of a relative of the old man and one of the house servants. They die due to a secret the old fellow is hiding and which Spade discovers.

In the third story, “Too Many Have Lived,” Spade gets in the middle of a blackmail scheme and butts heads with some other baddies looking to cut themselves in on the payoff.

All three of the Spade stories are – I hate to say it – a little thin and give the impression that Hammett was resting on his laurels and dashing off puzzles for quick money. The stories appeared in magazines in the early 1930s, before being collected in this book.

The fourth story, “The Assistant Murderer,” does not feature Sam Spade and is a long, fairly dull procedural featuring an uninteresting detective.

The book is saved by the last story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” which was quite good and written in a different style. Through first-person narration, the story is told by a very young boxer at a crucial point in his budding career. His older brother is acting as his manager, even though the brother does not seem to know much about training or arranging bouts. But the boy trusts him to the point of being blind to the deals the brother is making. The tragic ending is touching, and that is unusual for the usually cool Hammett.

All in all, this 1944 Dell paperback was a treat to read. Even if the tales were not as good as his earlier work, just being in the world of Hammett was well worth the time spent.

(For more posts on forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog and Todd Mason's blog.)