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.)