Sunday, September 28, 2014

Film Pairings — Farley Granger Times 2

Granger and O'Donnell
Farley Granger had a look — corruptible innocence — that worked for those mid-century film noir and black & white B movies. Nice guy makes a mistake and things run amok. Granger turned out to be an Alfred Hitchcock favorite (Strangers on the Train and Rope). However earlier in his gracefully-aged, long career, Granger made a couple of movies that put him on the road to stardom. In the following two movies he is paired with Cathy O’Donnell, the feminine version of corruptible innocence. There was something oddly and attractively androgynous about both of them. There was magic between them.

Edward Anderson's Novel
They Live By Night (1948) — Veteran gangsters help a young and green prisoner (Granger) escape. In return, they expect him to help them in their chosen field of employment.  When he meets a semi-tough daughter (O'Donnell) of grifters (O’Donnell), they both see a way out of their current existence.  The movie, directed by the highly regarded Nicolas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause), was based on a depression-era novel, Thieves like Us by Edward Anderson. Escaping his fellow escapees, as well as the police, proves to be more than he can handle. Character actor Howard Da Silva gives an outstanding performance as “One-eye” Mobley.

Side Street (1950) — While current critics seem to dote on the noir qualities of They Live By Night, I favor this one right up to, but not quite all the way to the end. What could have been the perfect noir turned out to be a perfectly fine police procedural with exquisitely photographed scenes of 1950 Manhattan. Granger plays a down-and out, part-time postman whose wife (O’Donnell) is pregnant. He engages in what he believes to be a petty theft. The opportunity (temptation) practically falls in his lap. Unfortunately there’s nothing petty about his crime. And each time he tries to clear himself, he gets in deeper. Blackmail and a couple of murders later, Granger’s character is running for his life. Anthony Mann directed.

Both films are not only blessed by great cinematography both are able to draw from a stable of under-rated character actors, many of whom will be familiar to fans of “B” films of he era.

Netflix has put both these films on one disc.  If you are staying in and you are looking for some spirits to get in the mood, get a blanket, dim the lights and pour a glass of whiskey. Somehow wine spritzers and tough guys and gals don’t go together.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Observations — 1959, The Year The Music Died

Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba.  Fidel Castro took over. The Dalai Lama escaped to India. Nikita Krushchev became the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Charles de Gaulle became President of France. Richard Nixon and Krushchev engaged in the historic “Kitchen Debate.” Louisiana Governor Earl Long was committed to a state mental hospital. Using the power of his office, Long fired the hospital director, and hired a new one who set him free.  American Japanese regained American citizenship. Alaska and Hawaii became states.  Texas Instruments developed the first integrated circuit. The first transatlantic jet flight (LA to NYC) cost $301. Ford stopped producing the Edsel model. The Supreme Court ruled that a ban on black-white boxing unconstitutional.  Ingemar Johannson TKO’d Floyd Patterson. Typhoons battered Japan, killing thousands. A 7.1 earthquake shook Yellowstone.  A hurricane killed 2,000 in Mexico. Contestant Charles Van Doren revealed the popular TV Quiz Show “21” was rigged.  “Twilight Zone” debuted. So did “Rawhide.”  Sweet Bird of Youth and Raisin in the Sun premiered on stage in NYC . Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash. The album of the year Emmy went to Songs from Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini. We also listened to “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton, “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin, “Personality“ by Lloyd Price, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Lonely Boy” by Paul Anka, “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin, “Put Your Ahead On My Shoulder” by Paul Anka and “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price.  The Nobel Prize for Literature went to poet Salvatore Quasimodo.  The Pulitzer went to the book The Travels of Jamie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor.  The Mystery Writers of America gave its best novel Edgar for The Eighth Circle by Stanley Ellin. We also read such controversial books as Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence as well as more accepted books such as Hawaii by James A. Michener, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth. We watched Some Like It Hot, Anatomy of a Murder, Ben Hur, and Room At The Top. Gigi picked up The Oscar for Best Picture during ceremonies for movies released in the previous year. Born in 1959 were Magic Johnson, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, Michael Kors and Richie Sambora.  Many talented people departed: Frank Lloyd Wright, Billie Holiday, Mario Lanza, Mel Ott, Ethel Barrymore, Raymond Chandler, Lou Costello, Errol Flynn and George Reeves.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the earth pig?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Book Notes — 25 Books Some Folks Want Banned

When I was growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana’s attorney general made a really big deal about banning Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.  The owner of a downtown scholastic bookstore was arrested and prosecuted for selling it “under the counter.” I also remember seeing paperbacks with a banner across the top proudly proclaiming that  particular book was “banned in Boston.”  I often wished one of my books would be banned.  It’s not only a badge of honor but likely to increase sales. It’s not so much fun for librarians who have to deal with irate citizens who think they have the right to control what other people read.  Every year the American Library Association (ALA) sponsors “Banned Book Week,” reminding the public that librarians across the country must still deal with serious attempts at censorship.
Books like Fifty Shades of Gray are expected to stir up some dust. It stirred up so much, in fact, that it sold like i-Phones and spawned sequels and clones. For reasons less obvious such books such as J. K. Rowlings’ Henry Potter series, (books that inspired more children to read than any Dick and Jane book ever written), scare parents because they allow children to think for themselves.  Below is a list from the ALA of some of the 20th Century classics medieval library-goers want removed from library shelves. What they’ve actually created is a valuable set of important books to add to our bucket lists.
Crime fiction, the usual subject for this blog, has for the most part, slid under blue-nose radar. However, Thrilling Detective web site editor Kevin Burton Smith notes that Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man as well as James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were honored with a “banned in Boston” distinction. These four books, of course, are considered by many crime fiction lovers to be among the very best of the genre.
The ALA Most Challenged Book List
 The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
1984, by George Orwell
Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son, by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway

Banned Book Week begins today (September 21).  Libraries and bookstores are highlighting the event.  For a list of independent bookstores, click here.  For a list of mystery bookstores, please click here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Film Pairings — King of New York, Last Man Standing

If you dislike screen violence, move on.  Nothing you want to see here.  Seriously.

In King of New York almost all of it happens at night — what you would expect from a noirish film like this. Night fell on the screenplay and couldn’t get up.  Last Man Standing is late afternoon to sunset, orange-gold overlays a world of endless dust, appropriate for a near-noir film.  In both movies, there’s lots of guns and lots of blood.

Though King has a remarkably talented supporting cast — Lawrence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes and a brief appearance by Steve Buscemi — there is no doubt Christopher Walken is The King of New York.  Walken ‘s character is cold-blooded and charming, crazy as a loon and despite his last, heartfelt and determined humanitarian attempt he fails to redeem his life of serious and gruesome criminality. The machine moves on. Directed by Abel Ferrara, the visually, but brutally striking film prompted some audience members at its premiere to walk out.  Filmed in 1996, it is one of few relatively recent films to meet the exacting standards of what constitutes noir.  There is no hope.

I’ve never seen Bruce Willis give a bad performance.  He is solid here as well, but something is missing.  Arthur Hill has admittedly and respectfully taken the story from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and it was also inspired, some say, by Dashiell Hammett’s work, The Glass Key and Red Harvest. A corrupt town is cleaned up by one tough and unrelenting gunslinger. Director Hill, mines the gold of his Western-movie roots.  He brings prohibition-era gangsters into a wild west town. Willis’ success in going up against impossible odds has less to do with an extraordinary intelligence but rather his ability to fire two guns at the same time. I believe Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers had this skill as well. But things were not nearly so bloody in their dramas. And we are not sure whether the main character is going against the odds, risking his life in the cause of justice or because he was disrespected. Early on, we’re promised the appearance of a super-gangster. Throughout the first half of the film, we (maybe just me) can’t wait for the meeting of the super good guy and the super bad guy, who we know by process of elimination, has to be played by Christopher Walken.  Walken’s surprisingly restrained performance is adequate here.  Given such a pivotal role, though, he’s not been given much to work with and the let-down is inevitable.  The movie is worthwhile entertainment, but it seems to me, Last Man falls well short of its potential. In the end, the most interesting character is the ineffectual sheriff played by Bruce Dern.

If you are staying in, this is definitely a hard liquor night.  I’d save King of New York for last to savor Walken’s incredible performance.  Nobody does crazy as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Observations —1988, Year of Crackpots and Fools

Nick & Cher, Top of Their Games
"Diver," by jasper Johns  Sold for $4.2 million
A terrorist bomb blew up a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Benazir Bhutto was the first Islamic to lead Pakistan. Burma suspended its constitution. Francois Mitterrand was elected French president. Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis as its nominee for President. Republicans nominated George Bush, the elder. Bush was elected. NASA first warned of global warming.  Anthony M. Kennedy was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Robert Bork’s court nomination was rejected. Trash is not private property and may be searched without a warrant said the court. Congress overrode Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act. The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart confessed having “sinned” with a hired dominatrix.   The Rev. Jerry Falwell lost his libel case against Larry Flynt.  However, The Hustler publisher was alleged to have put out a “hit” on rivals Hugh Heffner (Playboy) and Bob Guccione (Penthouse), as well as Frank Sinatra. Mike Tyson hired Donald Trump as an adviser.  Tyson sought psychiatric help. Trump charged Tyson $2 million for advice. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Jasper John’s painting, “Diver,” sold for $4,200,000.  “48 Hours” premiered on CBS.  Rush Limbaugh first went on national radio. Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for Beloved. The Mystery Writers of America gave their “Best Mystery award to Old Bones by Aaron Elkins.  The Private Eye Writers of America gave their top prize, The Shamus, to Benjamin Schutz for A Tax On Blood.  We also read The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy, The Sands of Time by Sidney Sheldon, Zoya by Danielle Steel, The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum, The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice, Alaska by James A. Michener, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  We watched Coming To America, Rain Man, Beetlejuice, Big, Die Hard, Bull Durham, Naked Gun and A Fish Called Wanda. Musical treats included “Faith” by George Michael, “Need You Tonight” by INXS, “Got My Mind Set On You” by George Harrison, “Never Going To Turn You Loose” by Rick Asti, and “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘n Roses. Rihanna, Adele and Michael Cera were born in 1988.  Those who left us included Roy Orbison, Chet Baker, Divine, John Carradine, John Holmes, Trevor Howard, John Houseman, Andy Gibb and Robert A. Heinlein.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the earth dragon?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Notes — Ten Books That Served As Courses in Life And Writing

Aside from cat videos, a relatively current Facebook trend is to get folks to list their ten top books.  The point here is to list those books that have stayed with them in some way, a special place in their hearts and or minds.  Because I’m a suspicious sort, I worry that some of these lists wander into the top-ten-books-of-all-time kind of thinking.  

I first learned of this “tag-a-friend” project on the crime fiction web blog, Rapsheet, which I go to every morning to accompany my first cup of coffee of the day.

I dutifully posted my ten (eleven sort of) in the comment section of that post and have been perusing other lists on the blog and on Facebook and decided I would like to explain my choices.  My first thought was that the premise was the greatest or my favorite 10 books. I would be unqualified to list the 10 greatest books because I don’t have the literary or historical qualifications, and because I really haven’t read enough to do such a list justice. Second, readers and writers may approach reading differently. The following is a list of books, not necessarily my favorites, but books that, in some way, changed my life, or my craft or at least my view of the world.

Young Törless, Robert Musil   Musil wrote this prescient tale about the end of innocence and the onset of adolescence while the Nazis were gathering their evil forces in Europe.  The book foresaw the human capacity to force people to belong to a powerful group and to torture those who don’t or can’t.  Musil also introduced me to his more famous contemporaries— Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré. Le Carré let me know that crime and espionage novels could offer much more than the solving of a puzzle and introduced me to the concept of the  deeply flawed protagonist. We find ourselves interested in a central character who is no longer interested in the world.
Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver  There’s no way that a middle-class white kid like me could understand racism as it was at the time without exposure to the stories of people who lived it.  I’m sure there are other great books (Baldwin and Wright) that could have provided me with that kind of education — perhaps a better one.  But at the time, this was what I found and what I needed and when I needed it. Cleaver went off into the ozone later. This, however, was a powerful and meaningful story.
Armies of the Night/Miami And The Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer   I’m not sure this is history as fiction or fiction as history, but Mailer’s journalistic style strikes me as a valuable writer’s resource. These two books, observations of our government’s bad behavior, were part of a new kind of writing that many well-known authors claimed to invent, including Truman Capote with his celebrated, In Cold Blood.
Tesseract, Alex Garland  Again, this is something for writers especially.  How much energy can anyone put into the written word? The words move. The reader must chase them. This was a book that shook me up.
The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda  Fact or fiction?  I’m definitely voting for fiction and from what we’ve learned later that’s a safe vote.  This first volume of books on “the Yaqui way of knowledge,” however reads as well-written magical realism that snagged my young mind.  It opened up possibilities.
Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey  However desperate some writers are to leave the traditional behind, it’s great to be grounded by a master mystery writer now and then. This was an assignment for a mystery conference.  Otherwise, I might have have missed this tightly-plotted classic.
Diva, Daniel Odier (a.k.a. Delacorta) What fun!  Not every book has to cause a furrowed brow. In the end, what this book (and the series) did for me was to say:  “This would be fun to write and “You could do this”— an inspiration I couldn’t resist. It was this series that caused me to write the now out-of-print, Eclipse of the Heart.
Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Irving Stone I was a strange little kid.  I didn’t have any real heroes until this book came along and I got to know something about Clarence Darrow.  A little later I discovered a second hero – Cassius Marcellus Clay (not the boxer, the abolitionist).  Both gained a significant amount of power and stature.  Both were deeply flawed, but both were willing to risk everything to pursue causes they believed in.
Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith  Much like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, we have an author who can create memorable characters and weave them into suspenseful tales relevant to our times. It’s education made compelling.  One learns or tries to learn from the masters.