Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mystery movie "Town on Trial" with John Mills

The 1957 British film, “Town on Trial,” starts with a visually-stunning series of quick shots, setting up the story in about 60 seconds, and ends with a sweaty-palm, acrophobia-inducing climax. It fills in the middle with a good mystery, told in a smooth, cinematic style by director John Guillermin.

A town is shocked by the murder of a gorgeous young woman, but the people close ranks against police investigators, revealing little for fear their reputations and that of their town will be marred.

A detective superintendent, played by a strong John Mills, is sent in to crack the case. He tramples all niceties and gets right to the point with the residents and especially with his prime suspects, peeling away the protective armor people placed around their less-than-upright lives.

This fast-moving, black and white movie has the feel of the great films made in post-war England, and, under Guillermin ’s guidance, feels modern with its intense performances and constantly moving camera.

For more about this film, please see (here) the review my friend Sergio posted a few years ago on his blog, Tipping My Fedora.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

FFB: Where the Boys Are, Glendon Swarthout's novel of Spring Break, Sun and Sex

Right about now, thousands of college students are thinking about or heading out for spring break. So, it is a good time to look back at spring breaks past.

Other than a couple of newspaper articles in the late 1950s and a feature in Time magazine, the first major chronicle of kids hitting the beaches was Glendon Swarthout’s 1960 novel, Where the Boys Are.

In the book, two coeds, Merritt and Tuggle, travel from their cold, Midwestern college to Florida where they meet and bed a series of men – sometimes the same men – and party like crazy.

As fast as the girls and guys meet and hook up, they move on with only the memories of some so-so sex, except for one night of passion when Merritt and a musician get into some experimental sex and rock each other’s worlds. While the musician is the only one to show any signs of commitment – he wants to take her with him to San Francisco – Merritt is noncommittal, and soon has something more important and complicated to think about. Which of these guys, she wonders, is the father of the child she is now carrying?

Where the Boys Are is a comic novel, but not a laugh-out-loud comedy. The humor is dark and subtle and meant more to shock the parents of beach-bound students than to titillate those not old enough or financially able to take the trip. To those who go, it is something of a warning, but not a preachy one.

Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992), according to some brief, on-line biographies, taught at Michigan State University in the mid-1950s. After hearing spring break stories, he went to Ft. Lauderdale in 1958 to check it out for himself. The book was the result.

Swarthout was an interesting writer. Among his novels were several westerns including The Shootist, which was later made into a film starring John Wayne.

College kids getting away for spring break goes back a lot further than the 1950s. Students who could afford it were doing it in the early 1900s.

Ft. Lauderdale became a destination in the 1930s when the city built an Olympic-size pool and promoted the facility to college swim teams. The teams went, an annual swim meet was created, more and more students heard about the gathering and over the next couple of decades hundreds of kids flocked to the beach.

By the late 1950s, about 20,000 students went there for spring break. After Swarthout’s book and MGM’s movie of it came out, the numbers more than doubled. It got so big the mid-1980s saw several hundred thousand descend on the city. Ft. Lauderdale decided it did not need the headaches of being overrun every spring. The city began promoting itself as a great destination for families. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a wild party like the idea of a vacation with parents. For a while, the students moved up the highway to Daytona, and later to the Florida panhandle.

(For more posts about books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Death Wish, a Movie Hit that Missed the Mark

"Death Wish," a 1974 movie based on a Brian Garfield novel, missed the point of the book and became a boxoffice smash.

In Garfield’s novel (reviewed here), middle-aged accountant Paul Benjamin, a man who could have been played by Jack Lemmon, is traumatized and enraged by the death of his wife and the near-death of his daughter at the hands of some New York City thugs. The police seem to be doing little to stem the rise in street crime and they have no hope of ever finding and arresting the men who assaulted Paul's family. He comes to believe the only solution is to get a gun and rid the city of criminals on his own. His repeated killings are part of his mental breakdown.

In the movie, middle-aged architect Paul Kersey, played by tough-guy star Charles Bronson, is  enraged at what happened to his wife and daughter. The scene of their attack is shocking in its brutality. (Almost as shocking as seeing  Jeff Goldblum playing one of the violent creeps.) After that scene, audiences were with Paul as he took to the streets, tempting punks to attack him, then blowing them away.

For the movie, Paul’s agony and psychological damage are reduced to quickly get to the action. Garfield spent a great deal of time – nearly half the book – describing Paul’s mounting anger and showing his descent. The movie’s Paul is angry, too, but he is soon provided with a solution.

After his wife’s funeral, Paul’s firm sends him to Arizona to supervise a development project. Changing Paul’s profession gave the filmmakers a chance to show Bronson in the desert sunshine overseeing the operation. On his last day out west, Paul is given a gift by a grateful client. The gift, he discovers on his return to New York, is a revolver. The gun goes into Paul’s coat pocket and Paul heads out into the streets at night hunting for bad guys. The movie becomes a blood fest as cool, cold-eyed Bronson knocks off criminals on streets, in parks, and on subways.

Director Michael Winner was an expert at staging violent scenes. He had worked with Bronson on three previous action films. They went on to do two “Death Wish” sequels. Two additional sequels starring Bronson were not directed by Winner.

The gunplay thrilled audiences. Seeing dirtbags get it, was highly seductive stuff. The filmmakers made it clear everyone Paul shot deserved it.

While Paul's transition from helpless victim to active vigilante was quick, Charles Bronson made the most of it, turning in a good performance. Later, when faced with a variety of dangerous situations, Bronson was too sure, and the only suspense was in how far he would let a potential mugger mess with him before he let him have it.

The movie left viewers cheering Paul who eludes the police until the end. A detective, played by Vincent Gardenia, catches up with him, and sounding like the sheriff in a western tells Paul to get out of town. Paul takes his advice. Arriving in Chicago in the last scene, he witnesses a group of toughs jostling people. He points his finger at them, in a gesture meaning they are in his sights, and indicating he has not changed, but will continue his one-man mission.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

FFB: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Brain Garfield’s 1972 novel Death Wish is not so much an action story as it is an indictment of a city and time when crime was increasing, people were scared, and cops and politicians were unable or uninterested in doing anything about it.

The first half of the novel focuses on Paul Benjamin’s rage and feeling of impotence after his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of thugs. His wife dies of her injuries and his daughter is traumatized and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The cops investigating the crime have no leads and no hope of ever finding the criminals. While Paul rails against New York City’s crime problem, his son-in-law, a lawyer for a public defender’s office who spends his days in court representing violent punks, tries to calm him down.

Paul’s anger grows stronger. He is sick of feeling like a victim, cringing in fear when he walks down a dark street, and knowing hoodlums will get away with their crimes.

When he returns to work after a few weeks off, the partners in his accounting firm decide Paul needs a break from the city and send him to Arizona to work on a corporate merger. There, Paul is taken with the myth of the Old West, where a man with a gun could confront outlaws. Before leaving, he buys a revolver, hides it in his luggage and sneaks it into New York.

Now armed, Paul does not wait until he is preyed upon, he goes looking for trouble. He shoots and kills a junkie attempting to rob him, and when the sickening sensation leaves him, he has a feeling of accomplishment. Night after night, he goes out looking to repeat the incident. At first, he rationalizes the shootings by only killing those out to do him harm or in the middle of committing other crimes. Soon his actions leave him feeling nothing. He is as numb to the world as his institutionalized daughter.

A psychiatrist, interviewed in a New York magazine provides a profile of the unknown man whom the press is hailing as a vigilante and citizens are applauding for cleaning up the streets. The psychiatrist says the vigilante is a middle-aged man who has experienced a terrible act of violence either against himself or a family member and is driven by fear and a mental breakdown. The article startles Paul, but does not stop him. By the end of the book, Paul is roaming the streets like an animal, looking for his next victim.

Death Wish is provocative, but, with new fears of terrorism and mass shootings, this novel of street crime reads like yesterday’s headlines.

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

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quirky Crime Film: Blast of Silence

Frankie Bono, an out-of-town killer hired to take out a New York crime boss, spends several days stalking his intended victim, learning the man’s routines, and picking the best spot to do the job in the off-beat, low-budget, noir film, “Blast of Silence.”

The grim, stoic Frankie, played by Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed this independently made, 1961 feature, goes about his business during the Christmas season and the contrast between the hired gun moving among the happy shoppers is striking.

More striking is the divided nature of Frankie. While he is a cold-blooded pro, he is also a lonely hitman. Accidentally running into an old buddy, Frankie is invited to a party, meets a girl, and desperately goes after her, stopping just short of rape. This makes for a very strange tangent in this odd, intriguing movie.

The many scenes of Frankie doing his job – contacting the man who hires him, buying an illegal gun, and following his target – are accompanied by strangely poetic narration. But it is not the usual first-person narration commonly found in film noir. It is second-person narration delivered, uncredited, by once-blacklisted actor Lionel Stander – he of the distinctive, gravely voice, who later co-starred on TVs “Hart to Hart.” The narration was written by once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, under the pen name, Mel Davenport. Salt later wrote the screenplays for “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Serpico.” The voice-over comes from an omniscient character who is talking to Frankie, commenting on his thoughts and actions, rather than informing the audience.

Shot entirely on the streets of New York in a documentary style, “Blast of Silence,” has the look and feel of early John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick films and is nearly a decade ahead of Martin Scorsese’s first efforts.

The movie was co-produced and photographed in gritty black and white on dark dreary days by Merrill Brody, a friend of Baron’s since grade school. Another plus is the film’s jazz score by Meyer Kupferman.

This excellent, 77-minute movie was originally released by Universal-International and has recently been given a new life on DVD by Criterion.