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.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Suspense film “Moment of Indiscretion”

The 1958 British movie, “Moment of Indiscretion,” is a Hitchcock-style suspense film made on a limited budget but which delivers some decent twists and some good performances.

Janet, a woman recently married to a successful lawyer, is persuaded by her former fiancé to visit him one last time, to say goodbye before he leaves for a long-term job in the jungles of South America. The times being what they were, the fellow convinces her the meeting will be completely above board and held on neutral territory, a place where no one will see them, the apartment of one of his friends. She agrees, but must sneak away so her jealous husband will not find out. The husband once punched out her old boyfriend, and Janet wants to avoid trouble.

The two meet, and it is all very chaste, but leaving becomes a challenge as people are in and out of their apartments and these two do not want to be seen together. He leaves first. When she goes to leave, she pauses on the staircase as a man and a woman have an argument on the next floor. Watching for them to either go inside or go away, Janet sees the man stab the woman to death.

Now what will she do?

Well, that is the rest of this 71-minute, black and white picture.

Complications pile up and Janet does not seem get much help from her husband after she comes clean about the meeting and the murder she witnessed. He is supposed to be such a hotshot lawyer, but he makes several bone-headed blunders which worsen the case the police are building against her.

This is an enjoyable movie and the leads: Lana Morris as Janet, Ronald Howard as her husband, John Van Eyssen as a suspicious neighbor, and Denis Shaw as a police detective (none of whom do I recall ever seeing before) are all good.

It was directed by Max Varnel, who went on to have a long career in television.

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

FFB: Down There by David Goodis

It has been a long time since I read anything by David Goodis – until now.

My memory of his writing was that it had a hypnotic, nightmare quality.

That impression was reinforced reading his dark, 1956 novel, Down There, which was later reissued under the title, Shoot the Piano Player.

In this story, we meet Eddie, a once-promising pianist, now barely scratching out a living playing piano in a Philadelphia dive bar. He is an odd man, seemingly detached from everything around him. More than detached, he seems to have some connecting wires missing in his brain. He barely reacts to violence, he smiles at the wrong time, and the things that come out of his mouth baffle everyone.

The story starts with a bang – literally – as a man, running through the streets pursued by a couple of gangsters, smacks his face into a light pole. But he keeps running until he gets to the dump where Eddie works. The man is Eddie’s brother who is in big trouble with the mob and needs Eddie’s help getting away from the hitmen.

Eddie seems to barely notice his brother and continues plinking out tunes, grinning, and seeming so detached that a reader might think something is seriously wrong with this musician. That something might run in the family. His brother’s panic and fear turn quickly to lust, first for the tough woman who owns the bar and then for a young waitress.

The hitmen show up and Eddie surprises himself by helping his brother escape. The gangsters lose the brother but turn their attention to Eddie.

When they catch up with him, they force Eddie into their car and go looking for the brother. Riding around, the hoods have a bizarre conversation between themselves that Quentin Tarantino may have read before making “Pulp Fiction.” Then an incident occurs and Eddie is out of the car and on the sidewalk. Here, again, Goodis’ writing has a dreamlike quality.

I will stop at this point because summarizing this noir novel is like trying to recount a dream the next morning. That strange, hazy world Goodis concocts is one of the things that make his writing so unique. The way he does it is interesting. While the story is told in third person, Goodis often switches to first person when inside Eddie’s head, then switches again to second person as Eddie talks to himself about his screwed up family, about how he got away from them to study music, and about how his life came apart.

Reading this strange crime story about this strange character leads me to think Goodis (1917–1967) was acutely aware of the strange behavior of others.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

“Only the Brave” is a Movie to See

Firefighters on the front lines of raging forest fires are called hotshots.

They work and train and workout like a military unit to earn certification and the right to take the lead in battling wildfires.

“Only the Brave” is based on the true, and tragic, story of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona.

The film takes its audiences into the blaze and shows just how difficult, dangerous and frightening it is to work against a towering wall of flame that can be pushed by the wind and move like a tidal wave.

It is a tribute to the extraordinary people who volunteer for the job and to the families that support them.

The film stars Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, and Jeff Bridges.

This one is a must see.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

FFB: Wolfshead by Robert E. Howard

Wolfshead is one of Robert E. Howard’s earliest stories, published in Weird Tales in 1926 when the author who later wrote the Conan stories was 20 years old.

It is a werewolf yarn, and since the Wolf Man was my favorite of the old movie monsters, and with Halloween approaching, I thought this novella (or is it a novelette?) would make a good Forgotten Books post this week.

The time of the story is not stated, but best guess puts it in the 17th or early 18th century. A former soldier travels to Africa to visit an old friend who has grown rich by shipping goods to Europe. The friend is also involved in the slave trade, which contributed to his wealth. At the castle of the friend, the unnamed narrator meets a variety of guests, one of whom turns out to be a werewolf. This werewolf, like all werewolves of future stories and movies, knows what he becomes at night and desperately longs to be rid of the curse or to die.

The first half of this story is a horror mystery as the narrator and the surviving guests try to figure out who – and what – is attacking them at night. The second half of the story is the surprising reveal and explanation, followed by some fine action as the werewolf goes on a rampage for good.

The story is written in a formal style with a dark, chilly tone, and Howard ’s talent keeps it from bogging down. His action passages are excellent and his rethinking of the werewolf legends is an intriguing twist.

This shorter piece is worth reading and can be found on-line.

(For more posts about books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Incident at a Corner”

Two months before Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” premiered in June, 1960, his one-hour television movie, “Incident at a Corner,” aired on April 5, 1960.

What movie, you may be asking?

“Incident at a Corner” was part of a series called “Startime,” that ran from fall 1959 through spring the following year.

It is the story of James, an older man working as a crossing guard for a local school, who becomes the target of an anonymous note sent to the school. The malicious letter warns teachers and parents to keep their children away from him. The rumor gets around town fast and James is fired. Outraged by the public’s reaction to gossip without ever hearing from James or questioning the kids to find out the truth, his niece and her fiancĂ© set out to set the record straight and restore James’ reputation.

This Hitchcock-directed episode has the feel of some of his later films where quiet scenes build the tension. He used this technique in "The Wrong Man" and "Vertigo," as well as in "Psycho." While the most memorable moment of "Psycho" is the shower sequence with its fast cutting and shrieking music, much of that film is eerily quiet.

"Incident at a Corner" was based on a short story by Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969), a prolific author.

Character actor Paul Hartman played James. The two fighting against the accusation were played by Vera Miles and George Peppard. Also in the cast were Philip Ober, who played the brief but memorable part of the man who gets a knife in the back at the United Nations in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” and Jerry Paris, who went on to become the funny dentist neighbor on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Behind the camera, Hitchcock regulars Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd produced the color episode, and John L. Russell, who shot “Psycho” and 96 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” was the director of photography.

“Incident at a Corner” is currently on YouTube (here). I say currently because films are often taken down due to copyright issues. This one is worth seeing.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

FFB: True Grit by Charles Portis

The 1968 novel True Grit is a remarkable book on all levels: story, character, dialogue and overall sense of place.

Mattie Ross, the first-person narrator, is telling her story from a distance of 40 or 45 years, and looking back to events that happened around 1880 when she, an intelligent, assertive girl of 14, sets out to catch the killer of her father.

Frank Ross left the family farm in rural Arkansas to go to Fort Smith to buy horses. He took along a farm hand called Tom Chaney. Chaney got drunk one night and shot Frank and then ran off to hide in Oklahoma, at that time called Indian territory. There he joined a gang of outlaws lead by Lucky Ned Pepper.

In Fort Smith to claim her father’s belongings, Mattie seeks help in tracking down Chaney. She needs a federal marshal since only he has the authority to make an arrest in the Oklahoma territory. The lawman she wants to help her is the gruff, middle aged Rooster Cogburn, a man with “true grit.”

Cogburn will go because he wants to nab Ned Pepper, and because he wants the cash Mattie offers him for his services.

Mattie and Rooster, along with a Texas Ranger who is also looking for Chaney, set out on their journey. Portis’ descriptions of the territory and the people in it, all through the voice of Mattie, depict a rough, untamed land with few inhabitants.
Charles Portis
 At times the narration and dialogue are formal. I believe it was Portis’ way of recreating the past, a past he himself could not have known since he was born in 1933. Perhaps he was recalling the way some of the old folks of his native Arkansas spoke when he was a boy. Perhaps it was the way accounts of the 1880s were reported in books and newspapers. Whatever it was, it was an effective technique.

Here is an example:

While dickering with Mattie, a horse dealer named Stonehill says, "I would not pay three hundred and twenty-five dollars for winged Pegasus…”

And later, when she tells him she is going to Indian territory with Rooster, he says, “Cogburn? … How did you light on that greasy vagabond?”

In her dealings with people, Mattie often comes across as a know-it-all, but she is usually right. That and her strong will make her a memorable, if somewhat annoying, character.

Was she always right? Is her memory of events the truth? Or is Mattie an unreliable narrator? True or not, it is her story and she is telling it in an interesting and compelling way. Mattie, a fairly humorless narrator, does recall some funny dialogue, as when after getting the best of Stonehill, he sees her the next day and says, “I just received word that a young girl fell head first into a fifty-foot well on the Towson Road. I thought perhaps it was you.”

And later, when she is in the Oklahoma territory, Rooster meets an Indian police officer and friend. The two men are razzing each other when Mattie pushes in to introduce herself saying, “Perhaps you are wondering who I am.” The officer says to the young girl in the oversized getup, “Yes, I was wondering that … I thought you were a walking hat.”

Kim Darby & John Wayne
Near the end, Rooster Cogburn proves that while he likes to drink and collect cash rewards on wanted men and fudge his expense accounts, he really does have true grit. Squaring off alone against Ned Pepper and some of his gang, he calls out, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience! Which will you have?”

Pepper laughs at him and says, “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”

To which Rooster replies, “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” and rides at him.

If some of this dialogue sounds familiar, it is because the 1969 movie produced by Hal B. Wallis and directed by Henry Hathaway, with John Wayne as Rooster and Kim Darby as Mattie, lifted a lot of it directly out of the book. I don’t know if the 2010 Coen brothers’ movie used any of it, because I never saw that one. But that is a post for another day.

(For more posts on books, check outPatti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cagney & Day in "Love Me or Leave Me"

Doris Day and James Cagney
The 1955 MGM production, “Love Me or Leave Me” is a James Cagney gangster movie and a Doris Day musical, and the two elements work well together. It is also one of my favorites.

Based on the life of 1920s singer Ruth Etting, the story opens with Ruth, played by Miss Day, working as a dime-a-dance girl in a cheesy Chicago club when she is spotted by tough-guy Marty “the Gimp” Snyder. Marty is the owner of a legitimate laundry that illegitimately forces nightclub owners to use his service, thus making this intimidating thug rich and powerful. Marty is smitten by tough-cookie Ruth and introduces her to his clients securing her jobs in the chorus and then as a featured singer.

Ruth Etting has talent, but she uses Marty for his connections to advance her career. She falls in love with a musician, played by Cameron Mitchell, who urges her to get away from the gangster before it is too late. Ruth puts her career first and ends up marrying Marty.

As she rises in fame, Marty fearing he is losing control of her, causes problems everywhere she works.

Cagney, as Marty, is great as usual and is possibly more ferocious here than in his portrayal of psychopath Cody Jarrett in “White Heat.” He is also more understandable, even sympathetic, than any of his other gangster roles. Doris Day gives her best performance ever as the determined Ruth. Any other actress attempting this role would have been hated by the audience, but due to Miss Day’s charm and voice, she wins viewers.

“Love Me Or Leave Me” was directed by Charles Vidor, who made the 1946 noir classic “Gilda.” It was produced by Joe Pasternak, one of the three staff supervisors of MGM musicals.

The picture features plenty of Ruth’s 1920s songs, updated to Doris Day’s style, including the tough, “Ten Cents a Dance,” along with “At Sundown,” and this simple version of “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Noir Suspense Film “The Narrow Margin”

A little, black and white movie from 1952 with no big stars may be one of the best films in several categories.

“The Narrow Margin” is a terrific suspense picture, it is a good crime movie, and it is a classic of film noir.

While it was made on a small budget it is as good as any big-budget A-picture, and it may be the best B-movie ever produced.

Detective Walter Brown is assigned the thankless task of escorting and protecting a prosecution witness on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Brown, played by tough-guy-actor Charles McGraw, the man with the sandpaper voice, does not like the job and does not like the witness, a Mrs. Neil, played by B-movie bad-girl Marie Windsor. Mrs. Neil is the wife of a slain gangster. Brown hates gangsters and their relatives.

Minutes into the movie, Brown and his partner are ambushed by hit-men aiming to knock off Mrs. Neil. Brown’s partner is killed and Brown’s nerves start buzzing like high-tension wires.

Most of the film takes place on the train where the claustrophobic quarters, tight corridors and no-place-to hide situations tear at Brown, as he spots one, then another, and finally a third gunman on the train.

Charles McGraw does an excellent job of projecting a sense of duty-bound courage and almost overwhelming fear. The assignment is eating him alive.

His job is made no easier by Mrs. Neil, who is nearly impossible to protect. She is a wisecracking pain in the neck who does not seem to realize the mortal danger she is in. At one point, when Brown is trying to keep her hidden in her compartment, she starts blasting her record player.

“The Narrow Margin” is full of crazy twists and moments of suspense.

The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and is one of his earliest productions. Fleischer makes the most of his opportunity, coaching strong performances out of his cast and employing a camera style that projects the sweaty unease of Brown right off the screen and into the audience. His direction is the work of a young, energetic director proving he is worthy of handling bigger budget films. In a sequence at a station stop, one of the few times Brown gets outside, Fleischer’s innovative camerawork keeps Brown uncomfortably close to the audience while framing and reframing a host of suspicious characters lurking about, all keeping an eye on Brown.

For a fight scene in a compartment, Fleischer uses a hand-held camera before that technique was readily accepted. It gives the fight a brutal feeling. Watching it, I wondered if British director Terrence Young recalled “The Narrow Margin” when staging the fight scene between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in a train compartment in “From Russia With Love."

In "The Narrow Margin," Charles  McGraw (1914-1980) gets one of his few chances to play the lead. For about four decades, McGraw played supporting parts, usually as gruff military men or gruff cops. He is also remembered as one of the hit-men sent to kill Burt Lancaster in 1946's "The Killers."

Marie Windsor (1919-2000) had a long career in movies and television, often playing tough women in crime films like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.”

Richard Fleischer (1916-2016) was the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer, and nephew of Dave Fleischer. He had a long and varied career making all sorts of films from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, including “The Boston Strangler” with Tony Curtis and the big-budget, action-picture “The Vikings” with Curtis and Kirk Douglas.

“The Narrow Margin” was scripted by three writers: Earl Felton, a long-time Hollywood screenwriter who worked on several films with Fleischer, including 1950’s “Armored Car Robbery,” which also featured McGraw; Martin Goldsmith, who also wrote original story of the classic film noir “Detour” and; Jack Leonard, a screenwriter who died two years later at age 41.

The film was produced by Stanley Ruben (1917-2014) who started his career in the Paramount mail room in the 1930s and went on to produce movies and television programs into the 1990s.

“The Narrow Margin” is a lot of movie packed into a small, 71-minute package.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

FFB: Round Trip by W.R. Burnett

Robinson, Burnett, LeRoy
A bit of a cheat here for Friday's Forgotten Book. “Round Trip” may be forgotten, but it is not a book. It is a short story by W. R. Burnett.

More than 20 years ago, I read Burnett's 1949 heist novel, The Asphalt Jungle, but never returned to his work until now.

“Round Trip” is the story of George Barber, a Chicago gangster in the 1920s. He is the muscle the owner of a gambling joint uses to collect unpaid debts. George is good at his job, but tired of the grind and tells his boss he is taking off on a little vacation. He takes the train to Toledo, a small city in north-western Ohio and not exactly a vacation getaway from windy Chicago. Cabbies, bellboys and hotel clerks treat him with disdain, which annoys George who is used to being treated with respect in his home town where people know and fear him. On top of that, he comes down with a bad cold. In Toledo less than a day, he gets a visit from some hard-bitten cops who send him packing right back to Chicago.

This 1929 story is told almost entirely through dialogue, and that dialogue, along with the attitudes of George and the other tough guys, is about as hard-boiled as it gets. Burnett’s writing style is straight forward and matter of fact, but it seemed he had a great ear for the slang and speech patterns of the underworld characters of his time. It is no wonder Hollywood grabbed him after his first novel, 1929's Little Caesar, came out. “Round Trip” was written shortly after Little Caesar and the death of Rico, the main character in that book, is mentioned in this story.

William Riley Burnett was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ohio, and died in 1982 in Santa Monica, California. After working in an Ohio state government job, and writing stories on his own time, he moved to Chicago in the late 1920s. There he met many of the real-life characters he later depicted in print and on screen. Warner Bros. bought Little Caesar, and produced it as a movie in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Around the same time, Burnett moved to Hollywood. Over the next 52 years he turned out 38 more novels and wrote, co-wrote or contributed to more than 50 film and television scripts.

Now that I am reacquainted with Burnett, I want to read more and there are a several of his novels, including Nobody Lives Forever from 1943, now on my list.

“Round Trip” can be found in a 1995 collection called, Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian.

(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)