Thursday, December 21, 2017

FFB: Maigret’s Christmas by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon
Author Georges Simenon’s fictional Paris police detective, Jules Maigret, has his Christmas morning interrupted by two neighbors with a strange tale to tell in the 1951 story, Maigret’s Christmas.

The neighbors – two women from the apartment building across the street – tell the detective that a man dressed as Santa Claus entered the younger woman’s apartment, went into the room of the woman’s adopted daughter and was prying up a floor board when the little girl woke and saw him. The Santa gave the child a doll, went back to work on the floor, then left.

Intrigued by the story, Maigret crosses the street to talk to the little girl and get a look at her room and the floor. While the younger woman is dismissive of the girl’s story, her older, nosy neighbor insists some kind of crime was committed.

Intrigued, and glad for the diversion, Maigret conducts an investigation using his own apartment as a base of operations. The story takes off as Maigret calls in his squad and gets officers at police headquarters digging into the background of the younger woman and her husband and their peculiar movements Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

In the meantime, Madame Maigret does not seem to mind the cops using her flat as a temporary station house. All day, she fixes food and coffee for those who come and go.

This is an intriguing if lightweight story. Any heaviness here is in the implication that Maigret and his wife were glad for the distraction, the company and the mystery. Otherwise, they would have faced a quiet, somewhat sad Christmas Day.

Maigret ’s Christmas is a novella and one of nine stories featuring the detective in a volume called Maigret ’s Christmas.

Simenon (1903-1989) wrote 76 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The prolific author also turned out many stand-alone novels.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”

It could be I needed an antidote to all the sugary sweet, made-for-TV Christmas movies flooding cable right now that got me thinking about a tough, cynical, black and white film set during the holiday season.

The picture is Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, “The Apartment,” in which he stages an office Christmas party the cast of “Mad Men” only wish they could have attended, as well as the most depressing Christmas Eve, and the worst Christmas gift scene.

Did I mention this is a pretty cynical movie?

Set in December in a gloomy Manhattan, Bud Baxter, one of 30,000 employees of a giant insurance company, garners favor with executives of the firm by letting them use his bachelor pad as a love nest for their extra-marital affairs.

Not the usual stuff of a Christmas movie. But Wilder (1906-2002) was not the usual Hollywood director.

He fled the Nazis in the mid-1930s and went to Los Angeles where he scripted dark comedies and humorous dramas. He became one of the first of the Hollywood hyphenates, a writer-director, and from the early 1940s through the 1970s, alternated between comedy and drama. In 1959, he co-wrote and directed just about the best comedy ever, “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The following year, he teamed with Lemmon again for this dark, dark drama that also has a good deal of biting humor thanks to a script by Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond.

In “The Apartment,” Lemmon plays the shy, mousey Baxter who can never say no to the middle managers, until the day Sheldrake, the manager of managers, asks for the use of the apartment and Baxter recognizes a new path to promotion.

SPOLIERS AHEAD, so if you have not seen the picture, you may want to skip down to the last photo. 

But the girl Sheldrake is taking to his apartment is Fran, someone Bud likes but has been too shy to ask out.

On Christmas Eve, Bud gets stinko in a neighborhood bar, while Sheldrake and Fran are up at his place. It is in the apartment that Sheldrake gives her the worst gift.

After she gives him a thoughtful present, Sheldrake, the married man who has been stringing her along with false promises, says it would be too awkward for him to go shopping for her. So he flips open his wallet and hands her some cash. Feeling like a whore, she starts to mechanically undress.

Did I mention Wilder turned out some dark pictures?

Sheldrake is played by Fred MacMurray, the All-American dad of TV and Disney films. Here, he reteamed with Wilder 16 years after playing the sneaky, conniving and murderous Walter Neff in the director’s great film noir, “Double Indemnity,” based on the James M. Cain novel.

Fran is played by Shirley MacLaine, who was doing some very good work at that time in some very good pictures like this one and 1958’s “Some Came Running.”
Wilder’s resolution for “The Apartment” is not quite a happy ending, but I won’t spoil that moment.

“The Apartment” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards.

It won five Oscars for best picture of the year, best director, best screenplay, best art direction, and best editing.

It really is a terrific film – but probably not the best choice for viewing at Christmas time.

And P.S. – Not all the made for TV Christmas movies are terrible, a few are not bad, and some pack quite a surprise with their casting. One in particular, “Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage,” is worth seeing just for Peter O’Toole’s performance. Yes, that Peter O’Toole.

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Dangerous Thing by Bill Crider

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.

(This post originally appeared here on The Dark Time in 2015. For more posts on books by Bill Crider, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Suspense film “Moment of Indiscretion”

The 1958 British movie, “Moment of Indiscretion,” is a Hitchcock-style suspense film made on a limited budget but which delivers some decent twists and some good performances.

Janet, a woman recently married to a successful lawyer, is persuaded by her former fiancé to visit him one last time, to say goodbye before he leaves for a long-term job in the jungles of South America. The times being what they were, the fellow convinces her the meeting will be completely above board and held on neutral territory, a place where no one will see them, the apartment of one of his friends. She agrees, but must sneak away so her jealous husband will not find out. The husband once punched out her old boyfriend, and Janet wants to avoid trouble.

The two meet, and it is all very chaste, but leaving becomes a challenge as people are in and out of their apartments and these two do not want to be seen together. He leaves first. When she goes to leave, she pauses on the staircase as a man and a woman have an argument on the next floor. Watching for them to either go inside or go away, Janet sees the man stab the woman to death.

Now what will she do?

Well, that is the rest of this 71-minute, black and white picture.

Complications pile up and Janet does not seem get much help from her husband after she comes clean about the meeting and the murder she witnessed. He is supposed to be such a hotshot lawyer, but he makes several bone-headed blunders which worsen the case the police are building against her.

This is an enjoyable movie and the leads: Lana Morris as Janet, Ronald Howard as her husband, John Van Eyssen as a suspicious neighbor, and Denis Shaw as a police detective (none of whom do I recall ever seeing before) are all good.

It was directed by Max Varnel, who went on to have a long career in television.

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

FFB: Down There by David Goodis

It has been a long time since I read anything by David Goodis – until now.

My memory of his writing was that it had a hypnotic, nightmare quality.

That impression was reinforced reading his dark, 1956 novel, Down There, which was later reissued under the title, Shoot the Piano Player.

In this story, we meet Eddie, a once-promising pianist, now barely scratching out a living playing piano in a Philadelphia dive bar. He is an odd man, seemingly detached from everything around him. More than detached, he seems to have some connecting wires missing in his brain. He barely reacts to violence, he smiles at the wrong time, and the things that come out of his mouth baffle everyone.

The story starts with a bang – literally – as a man, running through the streets pursued by a couple of gangsters, smacks his face into a light pole. But he keeps running until he gets to the dump where Eddie works. The man is Eddie’s brother who is in big trouble with the mob and needs Eddie’s help getting away from the hitmen.

Eddie seems to barely notice his brother and continues plinking out tunes, grinning, and seeming so detached that a reader might think something is seriously wrong with this musician. That something might run in the family. His brother’s panic and fear turn quickly to lust, first for the tough woman who owns the bar and then for a young waitress.

The hitmen show up and Eddie surprises himself by helping his brother escape. The gangsters lose the brother but turn their attention to Eddie.

When they catch up with him, they force Eddie into their car and go looking for the brother. Riding around, the hoods have a bizarre conversation between themselves that Quentin Tarantino may have read before making “Pulp Fiction.” Then an incident occurs and Eddie is out of the car and on the sidewalk. Here, again, Goodis’ writing has a dreamlike quality.

I will stop at this point because summarizing this noir novel is like trying to recount a dream the next morning. That strange, hazy world Goodis concocts is one of the things that make his writing so unique. The way he does it is interesting. While the story is told in third person, Goodis often switches to first person when inside Eddie’s head, then switches again to second person as Eddie talks to himself about his screwed up family, about how he got away from them to study music, and about how his life came apart.

Reading this strange crime story about this strange character leads me to think Goodis (1917–1967) was acutely aware of the strange behavior of others.

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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

“Only the Brave” is a Movie to See

Firefighters on the front lines of raging forest fires are called hotshots.

They work and train and workout like a military unit to earn certification and the right to take the lead in battling wildfires.

“Only the Brave” is based on the true, and tragic, story of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona.

The film takes its audiences into the blaze and shows just how difficult, dangerous and frightening it is to work against a towering wall of flame that can be pushed by the wind and move like a tidal wave.

It is a tribute to the extraordinary people who volunteer for the job and to the families that support them.

The film stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, and Jeff Bridges.

This one is a must see.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

FFB: Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard

Wolfshead is one of Robert E. Howard’s earliest stories, published in Weird Tales in 1926 when the author who later wrote the Conan stories was 20 years old.

It is a werewolf yarn, and since the Wolf Man was my favorite of the old movie monsters, and with Halloween approaching, I thought this novella (or is it a novelette?) would make a good Forgotten Books post this week.

The time of the story is not stated, but best guess puts it in the 17th or early 18th century. A former soldier travels to Africa to visit an old friend who has grown rich by shipping goods to Europe. The friend is also involved in the slave trade, which contributed to his wealth. At the castle of the friend, the unnamed narrator meets a variety of guests, one of whom turns out to be a werewolf. This werewolf, like all werewolves of future stories and movies, knows what he becomes at night and desperately longs to be rid of the curse or to die.

The first half of this story is a horror mystery as the narrator and the surviving guests try to figure out who – and what – is attacking them at night. The second half of the story is the surprising reveal and explanation, followed by some fine action as the werewolf goes on a rampage for good.

The story is written in a formal style with a dark, chilly tone, and Howard ’s talent keeps it from bogging down. His action passages are excellent and his rethinking of the werewolf legends is an intriguing twist.

This shorter piece is worth reading and can be found on-line.

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Incident at a Corner”

Two months before Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” premiered in June, 1960, his one-hour television movie, “Incident at a Corner,” aired on April 5, 1960.

What movie, you may be asking?

“Incident at a Corner” was part of a series called “Startime,” that ran from fall 1959 through spring the following year.

It is the story of James, an older man working as a crossing guard for a local school, who becomes the target of an anonymous note sent to the school. The malicious letter warns teachers and parents to keep their children away from him. The rumor gets around town fast and James is fired. Outraged by the public’s reaction to gossip without ever hearing from James or questioning the kids to find out the truth, his niece and her fiancĂ© set out to set the record straight and restore James’ reputation.

This Hitchcock-directed episode has the feel of some of his later films where quiet scenes build the tension. He used this technique in "The Wrong Man" and "Vertigo," as well as in "Psycho." While the most memorable moment of "Psycho" is the shower sequence with its fast cutting and shrieking music, much of that film is eerily quiet.

"Incident at a Corner" was based on a short story by Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969), a prolific author.

Character actor Paul Hartman played James. The two fighting against the accusation were played by Vera Miles and George Peppard. Also in the cast were Philip Ober, who played the brief but memorable part of the man who gets a knife in the back at the United Nations in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” and Jerry Paris, who went on to become the funny dentist neighbor on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Behind the camera, Hitchcock regulars Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd produced the color episode, and John L. Russell, who shot “Psycho” and 96 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” was the director of photography.

“Incident at a Corner” is currently on YouTube (here). I say currently because films are often taken down due to copyright issues. This one is worth seeing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

FFB: True Grit by Charles Portis

The 1968 novel True Grit is a remarkable book on all levels: story, character, dialogue and overall sense of place.

Mattie Ross, the first-person narrator, is telling her story from a distance of 40 or 45 years, and looking back to events that happened around 1880 when she, an intelligent, assertive girl of 14, sets out to catch the killer of her father.

Frank Ross left the family farm in rural Arkansas to go to Fort Smith to buy horses. He took along a farm hand called Tom Chaney. Chaney got drunk one night and shot Frank and then ran off to hide in Oklahoma, at that time called Indian territory. There he joined a gang of outlaws lead by Lucky Ned Pepper.

In Fort Smith to claim her father’s belongings, Mattie seeks help in tracking down Chaney. She needs a federal marshal since only he has the authority to make an arrest in the Oklahoma territory. The lawman she wants to help her is the gruff, middle aged Rooster Cogburn, a man with “true grit.”

Cogburn will go because he wants to nab Ned Pepper, and because he wants the cash Mattie offers him for his services.

Mattie and Rooster, along with a Texas Ranger who is also looking for Chaney, set out on their journey. Portis’ descriptions of the territory and the people in it, all through the voice of Mattie, depict a rough, untamed land with few inhabitants.
Charles Portis
 At times the narration and dialogue are formal. I believe it was Portis’ way of recreating the past, a past he himself could not have known since he was born in 1933. Perhaps he was recalling the way some of the old folks of his native Arkansas spoke when he was a boy. Perhaps it was the way accounts of the 1880s were reported in books and newspapers. Whatever it was, it was an effective technique.

Here is an example:

While dickering with Mattie, a horse dealer named Stonehill says, "I would not pay three hundred and twenty-five dollars for winged Pegasus…”

And later, when she tells him she is going to Indian territory with Rooster, he says, “Cogburn? … How did you light on that greasy vagabond?”

In her dealings with people, Mattie often comes across as a know-it-all, but she is usually right. That and her strong will make her a memorable, if somewhat annoying, character.

Was she always right? Is her memory of events the truth? Or is Mattie an unreliable narrator? True or not, it is her story and she is telling it in an interesting and compelling way. Mattie, a fairly humorless narrator, does recall some funny dialogue, as when after getting the best of Stonehill, he sees her the next day and says, “I just received word that a young girl fell head first into a fifty-foot well on the Towson Road. I thought perhaps it was you.”

And later, when she is in the Oklahoma territory, Rooster meets an Indian police officer and friend. The two men are razzing each other when Mattie pushes in to introduce herself saying, “Perhaps you are wondering who I am.” The officer says to the young girl in the oversized getup, “Yes, I was wondering that … I thought you were a walking hat.”

Kim Darby & John Wayne
Near the end, Rooster Cogburn proves that while he likes to drink and collect cash rewards on wanted men and fudge his expense accounts, he really does have true grit. Squaring off alone against Ned Pepper and some of his gang, he calls out, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience! Which will you have?”

Pepper laughs at him and says, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”

To which Rooster replies, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” and rides at him.

If some of this dialogue sounds familiar, it is because the 1969 movie produced by Hal B. Wallis and directed by Henry Hathaway, with John Wayne as Rooster and Kim Darby as Mattie, lifted a lot of it directly out of the book. I don’t know if the 2010 Coen brothers’ movie used any of it, because I never saw that one. But that is a post for another day.

(For more posts on books, check outPatti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cagney & Day in "Love Me or Leave Me"

Doris Day and James Cagney
The 1955 MGM production, “Love Me or Leave Me” is a James Cagney gangster movie and a Doris Day musical, and the two elements work well together. It is also one of my favorites.

Based on the life of 1920s singer Ruth Etting, the story opens with Ruth, played by Miss Day, working as a dime-a-dance girl in a cheesy Chicago club when she is spotted by tough-guy Marty “the Gimp” Snyder. Marty is the owner of a legitimate laundry that illegitimately forces nightclub owners to use his service, thus making this intimidating thug rich and powerful. Marty is smitten by tough-cookie Ruth and introduces her to his clients securing her jobs in the chorus and then as a featured singer.

Ruth Etting has talent, but she uses Marty for his connections to advance her career. She falls in love with a musician, played by Cameron Mitchell, who urges her to get away from the gangster before it is too late. Ruth puts her career first and ends up marrying Marty.

As she rises in fame, Marty fearing he is losing control of her, causes problems everywhere she works.

Cagney, as Marty, is great as usual and is possibly more ferocious here than in his portrayal of psychopath Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” He is also more understandable, even sympathetic, than any of his other gangster roles. Doris Day gives her best performance ever as the determined Ruth. Any other actress attempting this role would have been hated by the audience, but due to Miss Day’s charm and voice, she wins viewers.

“Love Me Or Leave Me” was directed by Charles Vidor, who made the 1946 noir classic “Gilda.” It was produced by Joe Pasternak, one of the three staff supervisors of MGM musicals.

The picture features plenty of Ruth’s 1920s songs, updated to Doris Day’s style, including the tough, “Ten Cents a Dance,” along with “At Sundown,” and this simple version of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Noir Suspense Film “The Narrow Margin”

A little, black and white movie from 1952 with no big stars may be one of the best films in several categories.

“The Narrow Margin” is a terrific suspense picture, it is a good crime movie, and it is a classic of film noir.

While it was made on a small budget it is as good as any big-budget A-picture, and it may be the best B-movie ever produced.

Detective Walter Brown is assigned the thankless task of escorting and protecting a prosecution witness on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown, played by tough-guy-actor Charles McGraw, the man with the sandpaper voice, does not like the job and does not like the witness, a Mrs. Neil, played by B-movie bad-girl Marie Windsor. Mrs. Neil is the wife of a slain gangster. Brown hates gangsters and their relatives.

Minutes into the movie, Brown and his partner are ambushed by hit-men aiming to knock off Mrs. Neil. Brown’s partner is killed and Brown’s nerves start buzzing like high-tension wires.

Most of the film takes place on the train where the claustrophobic quarters, tight corridors and no-place-to hide situations tear at Brown, as he spots one, then another, and finally a third gunman on the train.

Charles McGraw does an excellent job of projecting a sense of duty-bound courage and almost overwhelming fear. The assignment is eating him alive.

His job is made no easier by Mrs. Neil, who is nearly impossible to protect. She is a wisecracking pain in the neck who does not seem to realize the mortal danger she is in. At one point, when Brown is trying to keep her hidden in her compartment, she starts blasting her record player.

“The Narrow Margin” is full of crazy twists and moments of suspense.

The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and is one of his earliest productions. Fleischer makes the most of his opportunity, coaching strong performances out of his cast and employing a camera style that projects the sweaty unease of Brown right off the screen and into the audience. His direction is the work of a young, energetic director proving he is worthy of handling bigger budget films. In a sequence at a station stop, one of the few times Brown gets outside, Fleischer’s innovative camerawork keeps Brown uncomfortably close to the audience while framing and reframing a host of suspicious characters lurking about, all keeping an eye on Brown.

For a fight scene in a compartment, Fleischer uses a hand-held camera before that technique was readily accepted. It gives the fight a brutal feeling. Watching it, I wondered if British director Terrence Young recalled “The Narrow Margin” when staging the fight scene between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in a train compartment in “From Russia With Love."

In "The Narrow Margin," Charles  McGraw (1914-1980) gets one of his few chances to play the lead. For about four decades, McGraw played supporting parts, usually as gruff military men or gruff cops. He is also remembered as one of the hit-men sent to kill Burt Lancaster in 1946's "The Killers."

Marie Windsor (1919-2000) had a long career in movies and television, often playing tough women in crime films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.”

Richard Fleischer (1916-2016) was the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer, and nephew of Dave Fleischer. He had a long and varied career making all sorts of films from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, including “The Boston Strangler” with Tony Curtis and the big-budget, action-picture “The Vikings” with Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

“The Narrow Margin” was scripted by three writers: Earl Felton, a long-time Hollywood screenwriter who worked on several films with Fleischer, including 1950’s “Armored Car Robbery,” which also featured McGraw; Martin Goldsmith, who also wrote original story of the classic film noir “Detour” and; Jack Leonard, a screenwriter who died two years later at age 41.

The film was produced by Stanley Ruben (1917-2014) who started his career in the Paramount mail room in the 1930s and went on to produce movies and television programs into the 1990s.

“The Narrow Margin” is a lot of movie packed into a small, 71-minute package.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

FFB: Round Trip by W.R. Burnett

Robinson, Burnett, LeRoy
A bit of a cheat here for Friday's Forgotten Book. “Round Trip” may be forgotten, but it is not a book. It is a short story by W. R. Burnett.

More than 20 years ago, I read Burnett's 1949 heist novel, The Asphalt Jungle, but never returned to his work until now.

“Round Trip” is the story of George Barber, a Chicago gangster in the 1920s. He is the muscle the owner of a gambling joint uses to collect unpaid debts. George is good at his job, but tired of the grind and tells his boss he is taking off on a little vacation. He takes the train to Toledo, a small city in north-western Ohio and not exactly a vacation getaway from windy Chicago. Cabbies, bellboys and hotel clerks treat him with disdain, which annoys George who is used to being treated with respect in his home town where people know and fear him. On top of that, he comes down with a bad cold. In Toledo less than a day, he gets a visit from some hard-bitten cops who send him packing right back to Chicago.

This 1929 story is told almost entirely through dialogue, and that dialogue, along with the attitudes of George and the other tough guys, is about as hard-boiled as it gets. Burnett’s writing style is straight forward and matter of fact, but it seemed he had a great ear for the slang and speech patterns of the underworld characters of his time. It is no wonder Hollywood grabbed him after his first novel, 1929's Little Caesar, came out. “Round Trip” was written shortly after Little Caesar and the death of Rico, the main character in that book, is mentioned in this story.

William Riley Burnett was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ohio, and died in 1982 in Santa Monica, California. After working in an Ohio state government job, and writing stories on his own time, he moved to Chicago in the late 1920s. There he met many of the real-life characters he later depicted in print and on screen. Warner Bros. bought Little Caesar, and produced it as a movie in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Around the same time, Burnett moved to Hollywood. Over the next 52 years he turned out 38 more novels and wrote, co-wrote or contributed to more than 50 film and television scripts.

Now that I am reacquainted with Burnett, I want to read more and there are a several of his novels, including Nobody Lives Forever from 1943, now on my list.

“Round Trip” can be found in a 1995 collection called, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian.

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Detroit News in a 1970 Film

News coverage has always been a lightning rod attracting criticism from all quarters.

In “Both Sides of the Question,” a 1970 film about the Michigan newspaper, the Detroit News, the then editor of the paper said some complain it is too liberal, others that it is too conservative.

“The day we get no complaints is the day we’ve put out a dull newspaper,” he said.

Whether conservative, liberal, exciting or dull, what made this movie interesting to me was watching the staffers doing their jobs in the era of typewriters, teletypes, and Linotype machines, and when smoking was permitted in the office.

Recently, I told some teenagers that I went to work in the final days of typewriters and ashtrays on desks. From their expressions you would have thought I was talking about life in ancient Rome.

As for the movie, this 27-minute film, shot like a documentary, was produced by the Detroit News to promote itself as an even-handed reporter of the news.

As a fan of corporate films, I found this one to be an enjoyable glimpse at a time long past.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Film Noir: The Street With No Name

“The Street With No Name” is a great noir title of a good noir movie. It comes from a mid-century statement by then FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

This 1948 film features Mark Stevens as Cordell, an agent sent into a city to find and infiltrate a criminal gang run by Stiles, played by Richard Widmark.

With the help of a phony criminal record, Cordell edges his way into the gang.The gangsters have been so successful, Cordell learns, because Stiles has a crooked cop on his payroll providing all sorts of valuable information. As Cordell closes in on Stiles and his contact, the contact and Stiles become suspicious of him. All this leads to a tense climax with Stiles setting up Cordell to be killed.

A decade earlier, a conclusion like that would have had no suspense at all. But “The Street With No Name” was made in the post-WWII, film-noir era, when anything could happen, including the death of the hero

Of the sub-genres of film noir, “The Street With No Name” would fall into the category of docu-noir. Much of the film was shot on location, giving the picture and extra gritty feel. The dark, shadowy look of the film is courtesy of cameraman Joe MacDonald.

Veteran Hollywood director William Keighley, kept the whole thing moving at a rapid pace that never let up. Sometimes, the tempo and the jaunty acting of the gang had the slick, fast-paced feel of a 1930s Warner Bros. movie. Not a bad thing, very entertaining, but not really in keeping with the tension of film noir. This is a minor quibble considering Keighley cranked out many films at Warners in the ‘30s.

“The Street With No Name” is an above average crime picture with many good scenes between stars Stevens and Widmark. And, thankfully, director Keighley restrained Widmark from doing his manic giggle, which the actor used to great effect in “Kiss of Death,” but then overused in several subsequent films. Widmark was a fine actor who could portray cold-blooded villainy as well as cowardly panic better than most of the actors of his era. Mark Stevens seemed to have a spotty career. In the 1950s, he went on to act and direct in television. He also made an interesting noir Western called “Jack Slade."

Also featured in “The Street With No Name” were Lloyd Nolan as Cordell’s FBI superior, John McIntire as another agent on the case, Ed Begley as a senior police official, and Barbara Lawrence in the thankless role of Stiles’ wife, who spends all her scenes being abused verbally and physically.

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Suspenseful Crime Film “Strongroom”

Another terrific little crime thriller from England in the early 1960s is “Strongroom.”

The title refers to the basement vault of a bank built out of concrete and with a thick steel door.

Three young men stake out a neighborhood bank for weeks, planning to knock it over. But when they move on it, things go wrong.

Forced to lock two bank employees in the air-tight strongroom in order to make their getaway, they are faced with the moral dilemma of possibly letting those people die of asphyxiation while they beat it with the money.

That dilemma creates the tension and suspense in this small, 75-minute movie from 1962.

“Strongroom” has uniformly good performances and some great plot twists.

It stars Derren Nesbitt, Keith Faulkner, and William Morgan Sheppard as the bank robbers, and Colin Gordon and Ann Lynn as the bank workers. The movie was directed by Vernon Sewell, a veteran of small-budget pictures, and a good craftsman.

This, and films like it, are difficult to find. But finding it will have its rewards. Right now, a version of it is on YouTube. But many an English B-movie appears and then disappears off that site. So move fast if you want to catch a good one.

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

FFB: Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

Linda Fairstein’s first book, 1997’s Final Jeopardy, featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper, is two things: a good murder mystery and a well done novel depicting the hectic, stressful life of an ADA. Alex is the top prosecutor of sex crimes in the Manhattan DA’s office

Fairstein knows her subject, she spent 25 years in the Manhattan DA’s office as the leading prosecutor of sex crimes. Her book has the texture and sound of the real thing. She knows how the prosecutors, cops, and criminals think, act and talk.

In this story, an acquaintance of Alex Cooper’s, a beautiful but pushy movie star, is staying at Alex’s summer home on Martha’s Vineyard when someone blows her head off. At first, the local police think the victim is Alex, and Alex reads her own obituary in the New York newspapers the next morning. To help the police, she flies up to her summer place with New York City police detective Mike Chapman. Chapman has worked with Alex for years and is assigned to escort her, in case the killer meant to shoot Alex and got the actress by accident.

The suspects in this mystery are well drawn and nicely hidden. The other cases Alex works on are equally interesting and lend a sense of reality. They show how prosecutors with heavy workloads do not focus on one case at a time, but must keep all their cases moving forward.

Since this first book, Fairstein has written 18 more Alex Cooper mysteries. She and her fictional counterpart are said to be the inspiration for the female prosecutors on the TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

In July, Fairstein was interviewed on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” program by her friend, reporter Leslie Stahl. The video can be seen here.

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Tall Target (1951) a Civil War noir

Director Anthony Mann transitioned from making some of the best noir films of the 1940s to making some of the best westerns of the 1950s. Around the time of that transition, he made the noir period piece, “The Tall Target.”

It is the story of a New York police detective in 1861, who gets wind of an assassination plot against the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, and rushes by train toward Baltimore to intercept Lincoln, who is headed for Washington, D.C., before the plotters can get to him.

The detective, John Kennedy, is played by Dick Powell. Powell at that time in his career made a successful transition himself, from juvenile lead in Warner Bros. musicals to film-noir tough guy in movies like “Murder, My Sweet.”

Much of “The Tall Target” takes place on a train. Its passengers are the suspects. Many of them are Southerners traveling back to their home states.

Actor Marshall Thompson plays a West Point cadet who has resigned to join the Southern cause. He is traveling with some serious weapons, his worried sister, her maid, a young slave woman, played by Ruby Dee.

Also on board is a uniformed Northern militia major, played by Adolphe Menjou, a politician who glad hands Kennedy, but seems only to help if he himself can benefit.

Will Geer plays a tough but tolerant train conductor who grows weary of the many hassles and scrapes detective Kennedy finds himself in.

Leif Erickson, a large actor with a booming voice, plays a dangerous baddie in a startling turn in the film.

This small, dark, 78-minute movie from 1951 is filled with complex characters, and while it has some hokey moments, it is mostly a taught, well-made and suspenseful mystery.

Credit goes to Anthony Mann for the pacing, the tension, and the look of the film. Here he worked with cameraman Paul Vogel with great results. But at that time, Mann often worked with John Alton who shot some of his great noirs like “Raw Deal,” “T-Men,” and “Border Incident.”

“The Tall Target” is an average title for an above average film.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ian McShane as an Angry Young College Man in “The Wild and the Willing”

Ian McShane and Samantha Eggar
There is a British movie I saw on television as a teenager and never saw again until recently. But all these years later, two things about the film stuck in my mind. One was the exciting climax of the picture. The other was actress Samantha Eggar.

The movie, “The Wild and the Willing” from 1962 (also called “Young and Willing”), is the story of a group of men and women at an English college, their friendships, their love affairs and their ambitions.

The main story is an “angry young man” tale which does not hold up too well. Harry, played by Ian McShane in his first movie, is a working class lad who earned a scholarship to the college, but who bridles against the institution and the older generation in charge. He believes the professors look down on him and will never accept him.

Harry comes across as a spoiled crybaby. What has he got to complain about? He can do the work. His teachers do not like him, but admit he is smart – smarter than the other students, smarter than some of the instructors. Harry is popular with classmates. And he has a beautiful, intelligent, and level-headed girlfriend, Josie – played by Miss Eggar. He also has a scholarship. I repeat myself, but that one gets me. Today, anyone in college or putting a kid through school would jump for joy at the prospect of a free ride.

The “angry young man” cycle started with John Osborne’s 1956 play, “Look Back in Anger,” which was made into a 1959 movie, and continued for a few years with films like 1960’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Unlike the main characters in those dramas, Harry, is not stuck in a dead-end job nor facing a dull future.

The other puzzling thing about Harry is why Josie wants to be with him. Samantha Eggar is a good actress and she plays the attraction for Harry very well. All the acting here is fine, it is the script that is at fault.

Other, parallel stories are of Andrew, played by Jeremy Brett, a student having an affair with a professor’s wife, and Phil, played by John Hurt, an introverted, socially awkward guy, who looks up to his dorm roommate, Harry.

When Harry decides to pull a dangerous stunt by climbing the exterior of a stone tower, Phil insists on going with him, to prove himself. The climb is a sweaty-palm sequence.

Despite its faults, “The Wild and the Willing” is an entertaining film from the team of director Ralph Thomas and producer Betty E. Box, with a script by Nicholas Phipps and Mordecai Richler, from a play by Laurence Doble and Robert Sloman.

The young cast makes this picture go. Along with McShane, it was the first movie for Samantha Eggar, John Hurt, Jeremy Brett (although some sources say he appeared an earlier film), and others who will be familiar to viewers of English films and television.

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

FFB: A Delivery of Furies by Victor Canning

The adventure novels of Victor Canning are the kinds of books I grew up reading. But I don’t remember ever cracking open one of Canning’s books.

Then, while out of town, I found a 1964 Berkley Medallion paperback of Canning’s 1961 novel A Delivery of Furies in a used bookstore, for a price no one could resist – 25 cents.

A Delivery of Furies is the story of former Royal Air Force pilot Keith Marchant now living in South America and making money by taking on risky assignments from Barrau, a shady middleman. Sometimes the jobs reap big profits, sometimes things go bust, as happens at the beginning of the book when Marchant straggles home to his lodgings in a hotel with nothing – nothing except his life.

Marchant wants to quit this life, buy a friend’s small hotel on a Caribbean island, and live out his days in tropical ease with his girlfriend Drea. But to do that, he needs money. One big score would do it.

Barrau has one for him: Hijack a ship transporting fighter planes – the Furies of the title – and deliver the airplanes to a rebel group fighting for control of an island country. The rebels will pay him cash on delivery.

What could go wrong?

Plenty. Although some of the plot twists were pretty obvious. It is amazing the experienced Marchant could not foresee them. But Canning’s brisk writing speeds past those holes and plunges Marchant into more trouble. Along with first-person narrator Marchant, two other characters, Monk, a middle-aged former soldier who goes along on the job as Marchant’s right-hand man, and Parkes, a gruff engineer sent along by the aircraft company to supervise the assembly of the planes, are well drawn.

Canning’s writing style and his ability to keep the action moving is enjoyable, making A Delivery of Furies a fast, fun read.

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Suspenseful film “Terror on a Train”

“Terror on a Train” is the terrible title of a tight thriller. In this 1953 film, Glenn Ford stars as a former army bomb disposal expert called in to take care of a device planted on a trainload of munitions.

Anytime anyone on screen has to defuse a bomb, the tension and suspense is always high. This plot has worked in any number of films from Michael Powell’s “The Small Back Room” in 1949 to Richard Lester’s “Juggernaut” in 1974 to Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient” in 1996. It was even the plot of a British TV series from 1979 called “Danger UXB.”

In “Terror on a Train,” average-guy Ford is the only expert who can get to the targeted train in time to do the job. The former World War II service man is now settled into a suburban life in England with his volatile French wife. The subplot of the wife feels tacked on and adds nothing to the movie.

What works like crazy is seeing Ford arrive at a small village where the train has been sidetracked and realize he has only hours to find the detonator that will ignite half a dozen train cars loaded with undersea mines. The job is nearly impossible, but he tackles it – gently. Every bump could set off an explosion that would not only vaporize Ford and the train, but also a big hunk of the town.

This taught little 72-minute, black-and-white thriller was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who four years earlier made the terrific suspense film, “The Window.”

If “Terror on a Train” shows up on cable, watch it. And don’t let the title turn you off. This is a good one.

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Mystery “Wind River” is a Movie to See

Wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, discovers a young Native American woman dead in the snow, miles from anywhere on the Wind River Reservation. The girl is barefoot, appears badly beaten, and only her own tracks lead to her body. Lambert works with an inexperienced FBI agent and an older, Native American tribal police officer to find out what happened to the girl.

“Wind River” is a fine mystery with a serious theme of violence against Native women. The film was written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the modern-day Western, “Hell or High Water,” my favorite film of 2016.

The acting, especially by Jeremy Renner in the lead and Gil Birmingham as the father of the dead girl, is way above average. Add to that the mountains, the snow, the homes and the people of the region and this a movie to see.

Catch it on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Film Noir: Alias Nick Beal

The 1949 film noir, “Alias Nick Beal,” is a movie I waited decades to see again. This month, I got my chance thanks to a late-night showing on Turner Classic Movies.

Foster, an ambitious district attorney, lacking evidence to prosecute a slick racketeer, states aloud he would sell his soul to nail the guy. Right on cue, he receives a note to meet a mysterious and sinister man named Nick Beal who claims he can help.

Beal’s help is strictly illegal, but Foster gets the evidence he needs and never questions how Beal accomplished the impossible. Beal continues to help Foster win cases and eventually become governor. Before calling for the ultimate payment, Beal insists Foster appoint certain people to influential offices.

Foster is in too deep, but a close friend, a local pastor is on to the devil in disguise and steps in to help his friend.

Nick Beal is played by a quietly understated Ray Milland, who is usually the sophisticated lead, sometimes the comic hero. Foster is played by character actor Thomas Mitchell, who was Scarlet O’Hara’s father in “Gone with the Wind” and the drunken doctor in “Stagecoach.” The pastor is played by George Macready, who usually portrayed villains. Audrey Totter is a woman recruited by Beal to lead Foster astray, and Geraldine Wall is Foster’s strong, upstanding wife.

“Alias Nick Beal” plays out in deep shadow, fog and settings straight out of German Expressionism. A waterfront dive Beal uses as his meeting place with Foster is literally crooked, with a sloping floor, a bar angling downhill and cockeyed tables. The saloon, with its sketchy lighting, is as disorienting to the viewer as it is to Foster.

Director John Farrow displays some of the fluid camera work that made his 1948 film version of “The Big Clock” – also with Milland – so interesting. And the subtle, low key tone of the film adds to the mystery and menace.

“Alias Nick Beal” is well worth a look, and now that TCM has shown it, let’s hope it is not decades before it airs again.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

FFB: Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Last month, Patti Abbott on her blog asked the question: What book has been on your to-be-read pile the longest?

For me, it had to be Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, The Prisoner of Zenda. That one was on a shelf behind my desk for – I don’t know how long.

Last week, looking for a fun summer read, I took it down and gave it a try. It grabbed me right from the start and I sped through it in no time. That last is not hard to do. The paperback was 159 pages. The adventure tale was a pure pleasure as told by Hope in a brisk, exciting style. He kept the story moving on every page, and even had his first person narrator, Rudolf Rasendyll, apologize to the reader when he felt the need to provide a bit of background before pressing on with the action.

Rasendyll, an English gentleman, travels to the fictional kingdom of Ruritania, a small, German-speaking state, curious to see where a distant part of his family came from. Generations back, the then king of Ruritania visited Britain, had an affair with an English woman, and ever since an occasional descendant of the lady inherits the unmistakable looks of the Ruritanian royal family. Rudolf Rasendyll, inherited those looks, and once in the country, finds that he is a dead ringer for the new king.

By chance, English Rudolf meets King Rudolf and, delighted, the king invites him to dinner at his country lodge along with his faithful companions, a loyal old soldier, Colonel Sapt, and a young nobleman, Fritz von Tarlenheim. These two men are astonished by the identical looks of the two Rudolfs.

That night, the king’s evil half brother, Michael, springs a plot to seize the throne of Ruritania by kidnapping the king and holding him prisoner at his castle in the country’s region of Zenda. But Fritz and Sapt counter Michael by coaching English Rudolf and convincing him to impersonate the king until they can rescue royal Rudolf. These events send the adventure into high gear as Michael and his gang try to eliminate both Rudolfs. English Rudolf, is successful in his impersonation, and for weeks takes on the role of the king and does it well. But thrown together with the beautiful Princess Flavia – whom the king, through long arrangement, is to marry – Rudolf falls in love with her himself. Rudolf even considers remaining on the throne of Ruritania. But he is a high-minded Englishman, and his code of honor will not allow him to follow his heart. Instead, he carries out his task and risks his own life fighting to rescue the king.

Even though I knew the story well, having seen three movie versions of it – the 1922 silent, a 1952 MGM remake, and best of all, the 1937 David O. Selznick production – I still enjoyed the novel. Where the movies had to streamline the story, reducing the amount of action and behind the scenes intrigue, the novel was free to plunge Rudolf into many more situations.

Reading The Prisoner of Zenda, I found the time period a little hazy. The independent kingdom could have been one of the German states of the mid-19th century, before unification. But that is a minor point.

Another small point that intrigued me came at the beginning when Rudolf Rasendyll explains to his sister-in-law that he sees no need to work since his late father set him up with a comfortable annual income of £2,000. Wondering how much that would be in today’s U.S. dollars, I used some on-line conversion sites and figured £2,000 in 1894 would now be more than $265,000 a year.

The Prisoner of Zenda was the most enjoyable book I have read so far this summer, and I look forward to reading Anthony Hope’s sequel, Rupert of Hentzau.

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

“Tim’s Vermeer” is a Video to See

Tim Jenison, an inventor and entrepreneur who made a bundle in the tech industry with innovative computer graphics, read a couple of books each touching on the idea that Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch painter, may not have been so much an artist as an inventor.

Using lenses available in his day and the concept of a camera obscura, Vermeer may have painted his masterpieces by using a form of image projection.

Intrigued by this concept, Tim set out to recreate the ancient technology Vermeer may have used, and to paint his own picture in Vermeer’s style.

The project took years, but Tim seemed to be on to something.

This documentary follows his incredibly painstaking process, including building a replica of Vermeer’s studio and creating paints from scratch to match what was available in Holland at the time.

Tim’s journey is so intriguing, so interesting and so revealing, that halfway through the movie, I suspected the whole thing was a hoax – a mockumentary. After all, the film was produced by Penn and Teller, the comedy and magic team.

But “Tim’s Vermeer” is real, the man's dedication and persistence is amazing, and the 80-minute movie is worth watching.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

FFB: The Money Trap by Lionel White

Lionel White is known for his heist novels in which tough, confident criminals make intricate plans, hire the guys they need to pull off the caper, and then ruthlessly execute the plan, only to have their heads handed to them.

Unlike White’s famous book, The Killing, his 1963 novel, The Money Trap, does not follow a criminal gang but two New York City police detectives. The book is also unusual because their plans are not thought out in precise detail.

Detective Joe Baron and his friend and partner, Detective Pete Delanos, are assigned a simple case of attempted robbery of a doctor’s office which ended in the death of a junkie burglar at the hands of the medical man who came home early and shot him.

But before he kicks off, the junkie tells Pete the doc is dirty, is selling drugs, and has about a million bucks in cash in his safe. He dies and Pete finds the combination to the safe in his pocket.

Pete takes his partner aside and tells him what he discovered and how easy it would be for them to break in and steal the dough.

Joe is intrigued. He is an honest cop, but he could use the cash. He is married to a young woman raised around money. She is not only used to having things, but also has a trust fund providing her with a larger annual income than Joe makes on the force. Joe resents his wife’s money. His pride will not let him take anything from her. He is in debt after buying a house in an upscale neighborhood to please her, and every day he sinks deeper into a financial hole. He also feels he is the butt of jokes among his wealthy neighbors.

All this drives him to go along with Pete. Together they make some sketchy plans, Pete insisting it will be easy.

But this is a Lionel White novel, and in White’s world nothing is easy and little goes as planned.

The Money Trap is written in White’s blunt, forceful, straight forward style. It is a style he mostly likely developed during his years as a newspaper reporter and editor and later as an editor of detective magazines. The book is a quick read with nicely developed characters – except for the doctor who is a bit of a throwback to the days of the evil criminal genius. The other characters, the cops, the mugs, a chorus girl, and some snotty neighbors, are well done.

(To read my review of Lionel White’s The Killing, click here. To read my review of his novel The Snatchers, click here.)

(To read more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog, here.)

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"The Hero" is a Movie to See

Some fans of actor Sam Elliott are not too keen on his new, non-Western movie, “The Hero.”

This is a quiet, slow-paced film of 70-ish Lee Hayden, a once popular star of Westerns, who now earns a living doing TV commercial voice-overs, and who spends far too much time smoking dope and daydreaming of a glorious return to the big screen.

Lee has a cordial relationship with his ex-wife (played by Elliott's real-life wife, Katherine Ross), but no rapport at all with his adult daughter.

Then two things happen that shake him up. He finds out he has cancer. And he meets 30-ish woman who is interested in him.

Sam Elliott gives a subtle, deeply-felt performance in this film.