Sunday, June 28, 2015

News — Bring On the P.I. Novels & Libraries Celebrate in San Francisco

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the dearth of Private eye depiction in todays‘ movies. But the private eye novel has been declared dead or dying from time to time. J Kingston Pierce, editor of the “rap sheet,” “the go-to source for crime fiction news), also picked up the theme for a Kirkus Magazine article.  Pierce is also senior editor of January Magazine and reviewer for Kirkus. If that weren’t enough for one human he has a special blog on “Killer Covers,” a great place to look at vintage crime book covers. Pierce is convinced P.I. novels are holding their own.  In his story, I found my recent book featuring P.I. Deets Shanahan on his list of new P.I. novels that assured him that the P.I. genre is alive and well.

Here are the five new private eye books the busy Pierce picked:

And Sometimes I Worry About You, by Walter Mosley
Robert Parker’s Kickback by Ace Atkins
Vixen, by Bill Pronzini
Shadow of a Hangman by Edward Marston
Killing Frost by Ronald Tierney

This morning a million folks are gathering on San Francisco’s Market Street to celebrate Pride. Given the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage, there should be a little extra energy this year. 

Two blocks away, mostly underground, at the vast Moscone Center, 10,000 or more people gathered for the American Library Association’s big national conference being held over this weekend.  Two huge exhibit halls are filled with booths for publishers, distributors, periodicals and others in the book business. I was invited by Orca Publishing to sign ARCs for my soon-to-be-released novella for them.  Yesterday, I signed and signed and signed. I found the visitors to be especially happy to have a book that takes place in San Francisco while they were here for a mix of business and pleasure. Due out the end of summer, The Blue Dragon is part of Orca’s Rapid Read series. I am thrilled with the concept – easy to read short books perfect for that flight from L.A. to New York. Some are for younger readers. However some are mysteries for the rest of us by authors you may know and love — Reed Farrel Coleman and Rick Blechta as examples.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Film Pairings — The Maltese Falcon And The Maltese Falcon Plus One More

The Maltese Falcon film most of us know and love is unquestionably the best.  But there was more than one American version.   There were three.

The Maltese Falcon (1931) – After seeing the 1941 version (several times), it is difficult to imagine other actors, or other approaches. However, for old film buffs (or is that simply buffs for old films?), this is an enjoyable movie, but falls well short of its now obvious potential.  This earliest version had Sam Spade as a shallow, well-dressed, smooth-talking, money-grubbing ladies’ man.  The pre-code era film played up the sex angle in this production, and the homosexual attraction between two of the crooks was not repressed as it was in the later version. The film starred an obnoxiously leering sexual predator — as we see it now — Ricardo Cortez as Spade and Bebe Daniels as the sexy, double-crossing vamp.

Satan Met A Lady (1936)  — This little curiosity was filmed in between the original film and the classic. It starred Bette Davis, who was reportedly having a tough time in her career and Warren William in the Bogart part.  It’s pure speculation on my part, but after the incredible film success of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man in 1934, the studio wanted to remake the original Falcon in the fashion of the successful light-hearted Thin Man comedy mystery.  It didn't’ work on so many levels it’s hard to count. They added nightclub scenes so that a dapper Sam Spade could be seen as a worldly Nick Charles. The writers traded wise guy barbs for an attempt at witty banter and had a smarmy Warren William struggle with William Powell’s copyrighted combination of smart and silly, resulting in a difficult to take dandified version of Sam Spade. Warren William is no Powell and legendary as she is, Bette Davis is no Myrna Loy. The best fun here is seeing the delightful Marie Wilson and a young Arthur Treacher in supporting roles. Though entertaining in retrospect, Satan bombed and didn't help Davis resuscitate her career.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) — and while the first Falcon is entertaining, the second attempt a failure, the third won the championship. I cannot possibly know what was in Hammett’s head, but I always thought he succeeded in creating two classic but different literary characters in Sam Spade and Nick Charles.  I also suspect they are created from the extremes of his own personality.  Spade was a reflection of Hammett’s early career as a detective for Pinkerton and Charles a reflection of his high-living, carefree aspiration. The Maltese mystery as it was recreated in 1941 was the tale of a  tough, steet-wise character who, despite temptation, was true to his convictions. Yet the end was tragic — the noir formula missing from the other two versions. Another lesson that comes with looking at these films side by side is how important supporting roles can be. The 1941 film is solid all the way through. We not only appreciate Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in this one, we are enamored of the secondary characters as well, the subtly menacing crooks played by Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook. Ward Bond also appeared as did Walter Huston who directed.

Drinks for the evening? These aren’t gritty crime films for the most part.  Drink something civilized for heaven’s sake, martinis, sherry, even champagne.  For the non-drinker, a spritzer without the alcohol.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Writing — With A Not So Subtle Self-Promotion

The Last Deets Shanahan
My desk is set into a bay window.  Nothing to see though. The windows stare at a three-story apartment building 20 feet away.  I keep my blinds drawn so that those who live across the way don’t see this old man seemingly to look in their direction hours on end, day and night as I sit at my computer. I suspect that to an extent writers are natural voyeurs, and the activities of strangers a seductive curiosity, but I don’t wish to make others uncomfortable.

For a view beyond the walls of my small apartment, I have a comfortable chair in my small living room, where I can look out over a big chunk of the San Francisco peninsula, greenery, houses on hills and lots of sky. Clouds shape shift all day long. I can watch the fog roll in if it chooses. Birds — parrots, crows, blue jays, hawks, and seagulls  — zip, swoop and rise by.  Occasionally a humming bird will hover near my window, peeking in. The rain used to come. On a clear, sunny day, I can see a bright silver line in the distance. It is the glint of the Bay on the horizon.

That’s my world, except for what goes on inside my head. What goes on there makes up most of my conscious life.  And it is almost all fiction.

All the composition work on my last book, Killing Frost is over now.  Frozen in print.  If I have second thoughts, it is too late. The book is out.  Especially in this case — the book being the last in a series that’s gone on for 25 years, the last sentence is the last sentence in these characters’ lives.

The First Peter Strand
This fall, the first in a new series of shorter books (novellas or novelettes) will roll out. The first is The Blue Dragon. A second in the series is under way. Though I have a little fiddling to do, it’s on the publisher’s list. I’ve just begun the third.

Inside my head, I am a voyeur without fear of discovery  — at least to the extent I understand how the world works. I am a peeping Tom, peeping only into my own open window. I am watching these new characters form, hearing them talk, learning what they think of each other. One of them will die, I suspect, but I am not quite sure of the circumstances yet. 

I am busy inside my head. There is a whole other group of people embroiled in a serious life or death drama. The folks in this unfinished novel have been in this turmoil for years now, an entire story hovering near the end, but still without resolution, much like many of our lives.

Finally, I have my own recollections to make sense of, making sense of the time I was more actively engaged, but less reflective. Perhaps such a book will be of little interest to the world outside my head. But maybe it will settle things when the book is in print and neither the words nor the scenes can no longer be altered by self-interest or failing memory.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Pairings — Of Crime And Politics

With all the political buzz these days, it seemed like the right time to revisit two old politics-oriented classics in film. Both have historical underpinnings and are based on popular novels by well-regarded authors. Also, considerable cinematic talent went into their making.

Charles Laughton And Walter Pidgeon
Advise & Consent — The 1962 film was criticized at the time for suggesting that some of our politicians were corrupt and that the making of laws was not always in the best interests of the citizenry.  Otto Preminger directed this film based on Allen Drury’s best-seller by the same name. Historians and those around long enough might well pick up allusions to real-life personages.  The film is also loaded with some of Hollywood’s best character actors.  My favorites here are Charles Laughton who played a particularly nasty southern Senator and Lew Ayres as the ineffectual vice president.   Look for Franchot Tone, Gene Tierney, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, Don Murray and Peter Lawford as well as a cameo by Betty White. It might be interesting to note that this moderately cynical film was released a year before Kennedy’s assassination and before other events (Vietnam for one) also pointed to the loss of America’s innocence

Broderick Crawford
All The King’s Men – People of my advanced age will always remember a hefty, gravel-voiced Broderick Crawford standing just outside his cop car yelling “ten four” into the radio mic on TV’s “Highway Patrol.” However he had quite a film career before he was squeezed into the small screen.  And his performance here earned him an Academy Award. Robert Penn Warren wrote this fine novel that was the basis of several adaptations, including this 1949 U.S. film and a second not particularly successful remake in 2006. In addition to Crawford as a Huey Long –type politician, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, John Derek and Mercedes McCambridge (who also picked up an Academy Award), starred. Character actor Paul Ford played a similar roles in both films in today’s pairing. Directed by Robert Rossen, this is generally considered to be an essentially true story and cinema noir at its best .

Cocktails of any type (with or without alcohol) or Southern Comfort might go well with this double feature.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

San Francisco Crime Movies — The American City Made For The Movies

One of the great things about movies is that you get to visit so many places. As I become more and more rooted in one place, I appreciate the chance to go to Venice as I did the other evening. A trip to a tropical island on a cold, rainy day here in San Francisco is also welcomed.  I also enjoy seeing my own San Francisco itself through the eyes of others and particularly seeing the city during a time when I wasn’t around.  When Dark Passage was released in 1947, I was living around 30th Street and Park Avenue in Indianapolis. I had no idea then that some places had really steep hills, regular invasions of thick fog, an ocean, and a giant bay with massive ships making haunting sounds as they headed to harbor.  At four, I had yet to encounter a single Asian person or Latino.  And my food came from my German-Irish-Dutch and Norwegian heritage long intermingled and settled in America’s mostly flat, land-locked Midwest. If we wanted a ship, we’d have to find one in the clouds.

Fortunately, moviemakers found San Francisco particularly photogenic and there is a substantial list of films set in the City By the Bay. In fact there are too many to mention here. The following list focuses on the San Francisco films that meet this blog’s interest in crime-related cinema. This is not a “best” list.  It contains some clunkers. Viewers beware.  A few other caveats: This list doesn’t include some fine science fiction crime films, westerns or any films in which the city plays a fleeting or minor role.  

The star ratings are subjective, my personal rating.  They o not necessarily designate masterpieces, but I believe they are worth a look. 

Steve McQueen in Bullitt
After The Thin Man – One of the five sequels to the original film, The Thin Man, this holds up in the silly fashion the series is famous for.  Spend a light-hearted New Years with William Powell, Myrna Loy and Jimmy Stewart. (1936)
Another 48 Hours – Comedy Drama starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, sequel to 48 Hours. (1990)
Basic Instinct – Controversial thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone (1992)
Big Trouble in Little China – A martial arts film directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrail. (1986)
Black Bird – A feeble comedic attempt to cash in on The Maltese Falcon. (1975)
The Birds – Alfred Hitchcock directed this Evan Hunter adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story.  Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzzane Pleshette and Jessica Tandy starred. (1963)
Born To Be Bad – Nicholas Ray directed Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott and Mel Ferrer in this film noir. (1950)
Bullitt – Directed by Peter Yates, the film stars Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset.  Especially famous for its car chase through S. F. nearly vertical streets.  Based on the book, Mute Witness, by Robert L. Fish. (1968)

Chan is Missing— This is not to be confused with the Charlie Chan movies.  This is a low-budget, high-quality independent film about a private eye in Chinatown. It was directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1982.
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island — Sidney Toler plays the internationally famous Chinese detective in a film directed by Norman Foster and co-starring Cesar Romero. (1939)
The Cheap Detective — An all-star cast gathered perhaps unnecessarily for this spoof written by Neil Simon. (1978)
Chinatown at Midnight – Noir, serial killer. (1949)
Confessions of an Opium Eater – The film stars Vincent Price about a tong war and an Englishman’s participation in it.  (1962)
The Conversation – This award-winning psychological thriller was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall. (1974)
Copycat – Serial killer is on the loose in this film starring Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Durmot Mulroney and Harry Connick, Jr. (1995)
Dangerous Ground – The action film stars Ice Cube and Elizabeth Hurley. (1997)
Dark Passage – This is a classic. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star in this wonderfully dark film exploiting the tough and mysterious side of San Francisco Based on the novel by David Goodis, it was directed by Delmer Daves.  (1947)
Humphrey Bogart in Dark Passage
The Dead Pool — The fifth and last of the Dirty Harry films, all of them starring Clint Eastwood as the tough cop.
Dirty Harry — Eastwood’s portrayal of Dirty Harry Callahan, a remorseless and relentless cop set the standard for many cop films to follow.  This first one was directed by Don Siegel, and the story, though not the cop, was inspired by the real-life serial killer, nicknamed “The Zodiac.”  (1971)
D.O.A. – Included on most “Best” lists of noir films, this is about a man who goes to the police to report a murder. His own.  Edmund O’Brien stars in this irregular entry. Rudolph Maté directs.  (1950)
Doomed To Die – A Mr. Wong mystery starring Boris Karloff as a Chinese American spy/detective. (1940
The Enforcer – The third in the “Dirty Harry” films starring Clint Eastwood, directed by James Fargo. (1976)
Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry
Escape From Alcatraz – Inspired by a true story, the film stars Clint Eastwood and introduces Danny Glover. It was directed by Don Siegel. (1979)
Experiment in Terror – Directed by Blake Edwards, this thriller stars Glenn Ford, Stefanie Powers and Lee Remick.  (1962)
Eye For An Eye —Not rated highly, this John Schlesinger directed film starred Kiefer Sutherland, Sally Field and Ed Harris. (1996)
Eye of the Beholder — Based on the novel by Marc Behm, the film was directed by Stephan Elliott.  It stars Ewan McGregor, Ashley Judd, Geneviève Bujold, Jason Priestly and k. d. Lang. (1999)
The Falcon in San Francisco — One of a series of mystery films with changing locales, starring Tom Conway as “Falcon,” a “Saint”-like character, and Rita Corday. (1945)
The Fan — The book by Peter Abrahams was probably more popular than the movie.  However, The Fan, directed by Tony Scott boasts a talented cast: Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes, Benicio Del Toro, John Leguizamo and Ellen Barkin. (1996)
The Fatal Hour — The First of the Mr. Wong mysteries was directed by William Nigh and starred Boris Karloff. (1940)
Final Analysis — The expensive cast includes Richard Gere, Kim Bassinger, Uma Thurman and Eric Roberts. Critics disagree about how worthwhile the film is. (1992)
The House on Telegraph Hill
Fog Over Frisco — Bette Davis is the drawing card for this crime film. (1934)
48 Hours – A highly popular and critically welcomed action comedy starring Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy.  Walter Hill directed what many consider the first of the buddy cop films. (1982)
Foul Play — Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Dudley Moore lead the cast in a comedy-thriller. (1978)
Frisco Jenny – Set against the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, this pre-code film stars Ruth Chatterton and Louis Calhern (1932)
The Game – David Fincher directs a taut thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn.  (1997)
Lee Marvin in Point Blank
Half Past Dead — A Steven Seagal vehicle. (2002). I didn’t see it.  Don’t plan to see it.  But I do love the title.
Hardcore — George C. Scott takes the lead, searching for his daughter in all of the city’s low-life places. The film was written and directed by Paul Schrader. (1979)
The Hatchet Man – Based on the book, The Honorable Mr. Wong, Edward G. Robinson plays Wong Low Get, an assassin for a Chinatown tong.  Few if any Chinese actors are employed in this Chinatown film.  Loretta Young stars as well in this pre-code film. (1932)
High Crimes — Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd star in this film based on the novel by Joseph Finder. Thriller.  (2002)
The House On Telegraph Hill — A likely underrated film noir directed by Robert Wise with Richard Basehart and William Lundigan.  The film was based on the novel, The Frightened Child, by Dana Lyon. (1951)
Incident In San Francisco — Richard Kiley, Dean Jagger and Leslie Nielsen appear in this thriller. (1971)
Jade — William Friedkin directed what is described as an “erotic thriller” starring David Caruso, Linda Fiorentino and Richard Crenna. (1995)
The Jagged Edge – This is a legal thriller with Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges, Robert Loggia and Peter Coyote (1985)
Kuffs – Crime comedy stars Christian Slater, Milo Jovovich, and Ashley Judd. (1992)
La Mission – Not an action film, but a smart and well-done movie about an ex-con trying to get his life in order by Benjamin Bratt who also stars. A loving, yet realistic view of the city’s vital Mission District. (2009)
The Laughing Policeman — An American film version of a Martin Beck novel starring Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett, Jr.  (1973)
The Line-up — Based on both a radio and TV series, this film starred Eli Wallach. The screenplay was written by Stirling Silliphant.  (1958)
Magnum Force – Another Dirty Harry Callahan film. In addition to Clint Eastwood, we see David Soul, Robert Ulrich and Hal Holbrook. (1973)
The Maltese Falcon — The classic, starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, is directed by John Huston.  My pick as the best P.I film of all time.  Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are also featured in the film based on the Dashiell Hammett novel. (1941)
The Maltese Falcon – Precode film and first adaptation of this Hammett work. It stars Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez.  (1931)
The Man Who Cheated Himself – Lee J. Cobb and Jane Wyatt are featured in this noir film directed by Felix E. Feist. (1950)
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die — Initially made for TV, Roger Moore, Nancy Allen and Malcolm McDowell star in a mystery directed by Bill Condon. (1995)
Milk – Tough call.  The award winning film is a biography strong on social commentary, but it is also a powerful crime film starring Sean Penn. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the movie also features Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin and James Franco.  (2008)
The Monk – Made for TV suspense film with George Maharis and Janet Leigh. (1969)
Mr. Wong in Chinatown – Boris Karloff as crimesolver. (1939)
Mr. Wong, Detective — Continuation of Mr. Wong crime series. (1938)
The Mystery of Mr. Wong — Another in the Mr. Wong series, starring Boris Karloff. (1939)
No Escape – Lew Ayres and Sonny Tufts in noir film. (1953)
Once A Thief — Alain Delon, Jack Palance, Ann-Margaret and Van Heflin star in a film where going straight isn’t easy. (1965)
The Organization — the last of a trilogy that began with In The Heat of the Night featuring Sidney Pointier as Mr. Tibbs.  (1971)
Out Of The Past — directed by James Tourneur, this often regarded cinema noir masterpiece is based on the novel, Build My Gallows High by Daniel Mainwaring, the film boasts perfect performances by Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming. (1947)
Pacific Heights – Directed by Arthur Schlesinger, the dark film stars Melanie Griffith, Michael Keaton, Mathew Modine.  Every landlord’s worst nightmare. Scary even if you aren’t a landlord. (1990)
Phantom of Chinatown — The last of the Mr. Wong series and the only one with a Chinese actor (Keye Luke) a Mr. Wong.  (1940)
Point Blank — Based on The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake, this stylish noir was directed by John Boorman and stars Lee Marvin, Angie Dickenson, Carroll O’Conner and Keenan Wynn. (1967)
Portrait in Black – Described as neo-noir, the film stars Lana Turner, Anthony Quinn, Richard Basehart, Sandra Dee, John Saxon, Ray Walston, Anna May Wong and Lloyd Nolan.  (1960)
Shadow of the Thin Man
The Presidio – A solid mystery with a solid cast: Sean Connery, Mark Harmon, Meg Ryan and Jack Warden (1968)
The Rock – Producer Jerry Bruckheimer takes on Alcatraz with the help of Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage and Ed Harris.  Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin were among those who wrote the screenplay.  (1996)
Shadow of the Thin Man — One of the great sequels to the original  (The Thin Man) Barry Nelson and Donna Reed join William Powell and Myrna Loy as they cross the other San Francisco (Eastbay) bridge and are off to the races.  (1941)
Shadows Over Chinatown – Charlie Chan again, starring Sydney Toler. (1946)
The Sniper (1952) – In a situation where politics and Hollywood make strange bedfellows, “Hollywood Ten” (read communist) Edward Dmytryk directed the anti-communist film starring virulently anti-communist actor, Adolphe Menjou. (1952)
Sudden Fear — Melodramatic but interesting noir starring Jack Palance, Joan Crawford and Gloria Grahame. The noir film was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Sherry. Apparently no one thought about changing the title. How about a sequel? Gradual fear. (1952)
Sudden Impact — Fourth in the Dirty Harry series, this was the only one Clint Eastwood also directed. (1983)
They Call Me Mr. Tibbs – Sidney Pointier makes the second of what would be three Mr. Tibbs’ films.  This one co-stars Barbara McNair and Martin Landau. (1970)
The Woman On Pier 3 – Originally titled I Married A Communist, the film starred Lorraine Day and Robert Ryan. (1949)
 Woman on the Run — Based on the short story by Sylvia Tate, “Man on the Run,” the film stars Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe.  Apparently something happened between the story and the film. (1948)
Vertigo – One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, this suspense-mystery stars Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. (1958)
View To A Kill – James Bond with Roger Moore in the title role. Performances by Grace Jones and Christopher Walken add to the usual interest in the franchise.  (1985)
You Kill Me – Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson, Dennis Farina and Bill Pullman star in this action comedy directed by John Dahl. (2007)
Zodiac – David Fincher directed this hybrid of biography, journalism and speculation.  It is nonetheless well worth watching. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Brian Cox and other formidable actors reconstruct the scenes of San Francisco’s most infamous serial killer. (2007)

I’ve no doubt missed a few and made a few errors.  Corrections, additions and opinions welcomed. Please feel free to comment.

For a comprehensive list of crime fiction novels set in the San Francisco Bay Area, visit the incomparable Golden Gate Mysteries

For a comprehensive look at Private Eye fiction (books and film), check out The Thrilling Detective Website

While there are several “best” lists on The Internet with regard to crime films and novels in general, I’m not aware of a master file of all crime fiction and or films, Please let me know if I’m mistaken.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Film Pairings — Out Of The Theaters, Into Your Homes

For some I may be a pitiful example of a mystery writer. I get squeamish around a lot of blood and guts. While my most recent book (Killing Frost— have I plugged it enough?) was more graphic than usual, it doesn’t hold a candle to these two contemporary crime tales.  I’m not taking a moral stand here. I don’t believe in censorship. I do believe in warnings, though.  These are two tough films.   In one, however, the violence is intrinsic.  In the other, well, it seems over the top.

Liam Neeson As Matthew Scudder
 A Walk Among The Tombstones — The violence in this gritty P.I film seems organic. It is the nature of the beast. Not only is Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) believable as a kind of determined hulk, but the story is, if you follow the news, grounded in reality. The film (2014) was directed by Scott Frank and based on the book of the same name by acclaimed veteran series writer Lawrence Block. Scudder is largely indifferent human. Generally speaking, right and wrong are empty concepts. Taking joy in unnecessary cruelty is something else and P.I. Scudder handles the situation with proportional retaliation. I hope there’s another Scudder film in the works.

 The Equalizer — The original “Equalizer,” a TV series on which this movie was loosely (and I mean loosely) based, starred Edward Woodward.  The original provided the title, the name of the title character, his former profession and, in a sense, the premise of the plot. Sometimes people find themselves in situations not entirely of their doing and because they are up against a power they can neither defeat nor escape, they need help – usually to beat down a bully. As a private eye writer, stopping bullies is one of my special interests as well.  As these kinds of stories end, we get a sense of fulfillment that the bully has received his or her comeuppance. 

Denzel Washington As The Equalizer
I looked forward to Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the ex-CIA agent Robert McCall who in the past with a little more care than the average vigilante equalized opposing forces.  Washington’ performed well in crime fiction films before. He was Walter Mosley’s creation, Easy Rawlins, in Devil in a Blue Dress and Frank Lucas in American Gangster, and he has had praiseworthy performances in a wide range of films and plays.  He’s good here too. However I’d advise viewers that this isn’t a thriller so much as a horror movie — though as Seinfield would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” The 2014 film exhibits lots of truly unique ways to puncture human flesh. In fact we find an imaginative final battle in a large-box home store with all sorts of gore-producing gadgets not readily available in most street fights. I was more amused than frightened when Washington’s character who moved at a snail’s pace throughout the film to create his sense of calm in the face of danger was also filmed in slow motion to further enhance a sense of menace.  He spends the whole movie looking at his watch.  I know why. I think he was worried the film was going on a little too long.  

Another Equalizer is planned. I hope they spend more time on the psychological rather than physiological and much less time on gadgets of bloodletting.  More cunning, less cutting.

If you are called to the spirits, remember the night is pretty hardcore. Whatever you pour, the glass should contain nothing else but an ice cube or two.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Film Pairings — Noir, Here and There

Sometimes it takes a moment to adjust to the old black and white films. But once you do, you might wonder why so few filmmakers use the medium.

Ida Lupino And Robert Ryan
There are are a few B & W masterpieces nearly everyone has seen — The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Citizen Cane. There are others, many others that are worth a couple of hours of your time. Tonight, should you accept the assignment, you can go for murder in harshly beautiful, wintry rural New York and then travel to Venice for a classic, and mysteriously twisty story in an unrivaled setting.

On Dangerous Ground:  Robert Ryan plays a tough, insensitive New York City cop who is sent to help some country police not experienced in murder investigations. The offer wasn’t entirely sincere because what the NYC precinct really wanted was to get the bad-news cop out of there to take the heat off the squad.  Beautifully photographed by George E. Diskant, equally beautifully scored by Bernard Hermann and directed by the highly regarded Nicholas Ray, the otherwise schmaltzy film is turned into a work of cinematic art. Ward Bond and Ed Begley join Ryan and Ida Lupino who will ultimately show the tough cop what life is about, but at what cost?  The 1951 film is based on Mad with Much Heart, a novel by Gerald Butler.

Eva Bartok And Richard Todd
The Assassin:  I’m convinced one could pick strangers, arm them with a Go Pro, send them to Venice with orders to take two hours of random video and release the unedited results as a film. It’s Venice, for heaven’ sake. Beautiful, romantic, mysterious and timeless.  But here we also have a decent plot a handsome, elegant actor Richard Todd as well as the canals, narrow alleys, stairways, bridges, gondolas and grand architecture — and all sorts of shadows. Everything about this film is elegant, including the chief of police, played by George Coulouris. P.I. Edward Mercer (Todd) arrives in Venice. He’s been hired to find a war hero who may or may not be dead.  And that is the question. If he’s alive, as some evidence suggests, why are so many convinced otherwise? Victor Canning wrote the novel, Venetian Bird, which is also the alternate film title for The Assassin.  Ralph Thomas directed this 1952 movie that also starred Eva Bartok.

For the first film, you’re going to get chilly.  Think Irish coffee or hot chocolate.  For the second, we change seasons and moods. Maybe Limon Ciello.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Commentary — More Private Eyes On Screen, Please

One Of The Few New P.I. Movies
The conventional wisdom — and I buy into it — is that the American fascination with the private eye is merely the extension of its love affair with the cowboy. I say “merely.”  I don’t mean “merely” to lessen its value, but to say that the qualities we ascribed to our western heroes were, as we became a more urban society, appropriated by the private investigator:  Independence to the extent of being a loner and having an independent code of conduct not necessarily shared by society at large, certainly not by the authorities. In crime fiction, police are theoretically bound by the law and supported by network of various institutional professionals. The P.I. isn’t. The American P.I. is a loner.

How About A Whistler Film?
Nothing new here.  But I was reminded of this and a few other thoughts while watching A Walk Among the Tombstones the other evening.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  I was familiar the main character, Matthew Scudder from reading many of the 17 books in the series by Lawrence Block. Liam Neeson played the P.I. in the only Scudder film faithful to the original story. 

What leapt out at me was how many really good American P.I series novels are out there and how very few films (or TV movies) have used them and even fewer who created a corresponding set of movies based on those books.  I say “American” not out of an excess of patriotism, but having in mind the number of great crime films made from English, Scandinavian and other foreign films made from popular books — usually police procedurals – compared to the vast source material available from 20th and 21st Century American P.I. writers.

I understand that the new Bosch streaming video based on Michael Connelly’s popular and award-winning books is doing well. I’ll catch up soon.  But Bosch isn’t a private eye despite the fact that his self-imposed exile fits the profile.  And of course there are all the Hammett, Chandler, Westlake, (Robert B.) Parker, Spillane and the two MacDonalds movies from the past.  Working in reverse, there are also many books written based on successful movies and TV shows.  And there are some fine original, even groundbreaking crime fiction dramas made for TV now, right here in the U.S.  “The Wire” is a masterpiece. Others have followed.

The Tanner Series On TV?
But again, I’m talking a film, or a BBC-quality television production or a streaming video P.I. series based on a book series.  Seeing Matt Scudder on screen reminded me of the great P.I.s in books I devoured in the late eighties and early nineties and how much fun it would be to see them and no doubt the many I missed realized on the screen. I would love to see Neeson reprise Scudder fifteen or sixteen more times as he takes on other cases.  But there are others too.  

A couple of the fictional private eyes who sustained me as I began writing my own books and wanted to see what others were doing were Stephen Greenleaf’s John Marshall Tanner, and Robert Campbell’s “La La Land” mysteries featuring Whistler.

These are merely drops in the ocean.  The list from which great American fictional P.I.s might be taken is nearly endless.  And the number of books within any given series could range from three to more than 100.  I can’t list them all here.  There are two sites to visit to get an idea of the potential.  One is the Private Eye Writers of America PWA web site.  Check out the Shamus awardees over the years to get a sense of the best of the genre. The other site is The Thrilling Detective, a comprehensive consolidation of news and information about fictional private eyes.

If you are willing to go on record with your own views, let me know in the comment section about your favorite P.I series and the actor or actress you’d like to see in the role.