Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Early film noir: Street of Chance

A man walking down a city street gets knocked out by falling debris and wakes up not sure of his own name. Looking around, he has no idea why he is in that part of town. When he goes home, he finds his apartment is not his and his wife moved away a year ago. Who is he? What has he been doing for a year? And worse, who is the tough-looking thug following him?

This is a great set-up for a film noir. It was adapted from a story by one of the great writers of noir tales, Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich (1903-1968) wrote many stories about people’s fears. His characters often dread something in their past is catching up with them, or that they have inadvertently brushed up against evil, and now it is coming for them. His stories include Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Black Angel, and “It Had To Be Murder,” the original short story that later was made as the movie “Rear Window.”

In the 1942 film, “Street of Chance,” from Woolrich’s 1941novel, The Black Curtain, the great American character actor Burgess Meredith is the man who finds he has been living two lives. His wife is played by Louise Platt, who appeared three years earlier in John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” The man’s girlfriend for the previous year, a woman he now has no memory of, is played by Claire Trevor. Trevor was also in “Stagecoach" and appeared in several noir films including “Murder, My Sweet” and “Raw Deal." The thug is played by Sheldon Leonard.

“Street of Chance” was efficiently directed by Jack Hivley, who got some good performances out of his players, but could not overcome the low-budget look of the picture.

Still, this movie is a good – if a little obvious – who-done-it, and a first rate example of noir storytelling.

A faded version of this movie is on YouTube. But since this film is hard to find, faded is better than nothing.

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

Film of blinded war vet “Bright Victory”

This post is a DVR alert.

On Thursday, February 22, Turner Classic Movies will show a terrific little film called “Bright Victory.”

It is the story of a soldier blinded in battle during World War II, and sent to an Army hospital in the U.S. to recover and learn to deal with his loss of sight. He also has to learn to overcome his emotional response and the reactions of his family.

Arthur Kennedy stars in this 1951 movie and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Don’t miss it.

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

FFB: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy’s gritty, sweaty, 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a terrific little, 129-page book.

Robert shoots and kills a girl, and that is not a spoiler, he tells us this on the first page. While listening to the judge sentence him, he thinks back on how he got involved with her.

He and Gloria, after failing to find a day’s work as extras at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, meet on the sidewalk, talk and quickly decide to enter a dance marathon in the hopes of winning the $1,000 prize and being discovered by influential movie people who might be in the audience.

Dozens of other couples have the same dream and will put themselves through grueling hours, days and weeks of dancing round the clock, with ten minute breaks to eat and sleep before being summoned back to the floor.

McCoy, who had many jobs including soldier, reporter and actor, landed in Los Angeles in the early 1930s, pursuing an acting career. Acting did not pan out, but he continued to write novels, short stories and many screenplays until his death in 1955. Several sources say he also worked as a bouncer at a dance marathon. Whether he did or not, he knew his subject and described the marathon in detail with well-drawn characters, from the shady people running the event, to the desperate people competing in it, to the crowds attending it to see the worn out couples collapsing from exhaustion.

Robert and Gloria have dreams of breaking into the movies and making it big in Hollywood, but while Robert’s dream is still alive, Gloria’s is crushed and fading fast.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? could be about Hollywood and how it treats the young hopefuls. Or, the dance marathon could represent the country during the Great Depression, with people willing to do anything to keep living. Most of the dancers are thankful just to have a place to sleep and eat for free. Or, it could be McCoy’s take on human life, but I hope not, otherwise it would make him as cynical, disillusioned and depressed as Gloria. Throughout the book, she keeps telling Robert she wishes she were dead and finally begs him to kill her.

The cops arresting Robert ask why he did it? The former farm boy, recalling a plow horse that broke its leg, answers, “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

Horace McCoy pulls no punches in this book, and some of the language is surprisingly coarse for a novel published in 1935. Several times Gloria snaps off a “f— you” at people, which the publisher printed just that way. She tells off some do-gooders in colorful language and urges a fellow dancer to get an abortion, nearly causing a fight between Robert and the girl’s husband. And Gloria, for cash or advantage, has a quickie under the bandstand with the sleazy master of ceremonies. All this makes They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? sound like an unsavory novel, but McCoy’s talent keeps everything moving and understandable, and for a book about people going round and round in a circle, there is not a dull passage.

After reading the book, I looked for newsreel footage on these kinds of events. Here is a YouTube clip about 1930s dance marathons. Just about everything shown here is also in McCoy’s book.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Day for “Lincoln”

When I first went to school, we kids had two holidays in February.

One was George Washington's Birthday, February 22, a national holiday since 1885. But Congress, in order to form a more perfect weekend, declared it a floating date and ever since 1971 the holiday has floated to the third Monday of the month. This legislative change was part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. (I’m not kidding, you can look it up.) The federal government still calls this day Washington’s Birthday, but most everyone else calls it Presidents Day.

The other day out of school was February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. This was not a federal holiday, but states could declare it locally, and so we had the day off.

Today is February 12, and to remember the man, I am recommending the 2012 movie, “Lincoln.”

It is one of the best films Stephen Spielberg ever directed and it has an outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president.

Other generations have had their Lincoln movies, and for years Henry Fonda, in 1939’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” and Raymond Massey, in 1940’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” were the images many held in their minds. Both were fine actors, but for me, Day-Lewis outdid them by becoming the flesh and blood man. The actor disappeared into the role and he won an Academy Award for his performance.

So today, or sometime this month, see this picture again. And if you have not seen it, put it at the top of your list.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018

FFB: Art in America by Ron McLarty

Ron McLarty’s 2008 novel Art in America is part comedy, part tragedy, and part crime story, peopled with well drawn characters.

In the first few pages, Steven Kearney, a struggling, middle-age, New York City writer with few if any produced plays and several unpublished books, is dumped by his girlfriend, kicked out of his apartment and hit by a taxi. But he is taken in by his old friend Roarke, a theater director who believes in Kearney's talent.

His luck changes when he is offered a paying gig by a small Colorado town to go there and write a play about its history.

The town of Creedemore is filled with residents trying to get along with one another and usually failing. There is nonagenarian Ticky Lettgo a cantankerous old, gun-toting, tough-talking, land owner and his dispute with newcomer Mountain Man Red Fields, the owner and guide of a river-rafting company. When Mountain Man takes customers down a waterway cutting through Ticky’s property, Ticky shoots up the rafts, scares the bejabbers out of the timid tourists and winds up in court fighting to uphold his rights as he sees them.

The trial attracts a crowd of spectators including old-style Westerners supporting Ticky, and protestors on Mountain Man’s side. Some of the protestors get so carried away that they plot a terrorist act to make a point.

Trying to control all this is Sheriff Petey Meyers, a former Boston cop whose partner was killed in the line of duty. Petey talks to his dead partner regularly and out loud, especially when situations get dicey.

Through all this, Kearney toils away at his art, filled at first with self-doubt, but finding his way and a new life, new friends and even love.

Ron McLarty is a long-time character actor whom many would recognize from dozens of TV appearances, including several episodes of “Law & Order” in which he played a cranky judge.

(For more posts on books, head over to Todd Mason's blog. He is compiling this week's Forgotten Books list for Patti Abbott.)