Thursday, February 23, 2017

FFB: Where the Boys Are, Glendon Swarthout's novel of Spring Break, Sun and Sex

Right about now, thousands of college students are thinking about or heading out for spring break. So, it is a good time to look back at spring breaks past.

Other than a couple of newspaper articles in the late 1950s and a feature in Time magazine, the first major chronicle of kids hitting the beaches was Glendon Swarthout’s 1960 novel, Where the Boys Are.

In the book, two coeds, Merritt and Tuggle, travel from their cold, Midwestern college to Florida where they meet and bed a series of men – sometimes the same men – and party like crazy.

As fast as the girls and guys meet and hook up, they move on with only the memories of some so-so sex, except for one night of passion when Merritt and a musician get into some experimental sex and rock each other’s worlds. While the musician is the only one to show any signs of commitment – he wants to take her with him to San Francisco – Merritt is noncommittal, and soon has something more important and complicated to think about. Which of these guys, she wonders, is the father of the child she is now carrying?

Where the Boys Are is a comic novel, but not a laugh-out-loud comedy. The humor is dark and subtle and meant more to shock the parents of beach-bound students than to titillate those not old enough or financially able to take the trip. To those who go, it is something of a warning, but not a preachy one.

Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992), according to some brief, on-line biographies, taught at Michigan State University in the mid-1950s. After hearing spring break stories, he went to Ft. Lauderdale in 1958 to check it out for himself. The book was the result.

Swarthout was an interesting writer. Among his novels were several westerns including The Shootist, which was later made into a film starring John Wayne.

College kids getting away for spring break goes back a lot further than the 1950s. Students who could afford it were doing it in the early 1900s.

Ft. Lauderdale became a destination in the 1930s when the city built an Olympic-size pool and promoted the facility to college swim teams. The teams went, an annual swim meet was created, more and more students heard about the gathering and over the next couple of decades hundreds of kids flocked to the beach.

By the late 1950s, about 20,000 students went there for spring break. After Swarthout’s book and MGM’s movie of it came out, the numbers more than doubled. It got so big the mid-1980s saw several hundred thousand descend on the city. Ft. Lauderdale decided it did not need the headaches of being overrun every spring. The city began promoting itself as a great destination for families. Nothing throws a wet blanket on a wild party like the idea of a vacation with parents. For a while, the students moved up the highway to Daytona, and later to the Florida panhandle.

(For more posts about books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Death Wish, a Movie Hit that Missed the Mark

"Death Wish," a 1974 movie based on a Brian Garfield novel, missed the point of the book and became a boxoffice smash.

In Garfield’s novel (reviewed here), middle-aged accountant Paul Benjamin, a man who could have been played by Jack Lemmon, is traumatized and enraged by the death of his wife and the near-death of his daughter at the hands of some New York City thugs. The police seem to be doing little to stem the rise in street crime and they have no hope of ever finding and arresting the men who assaulted Paul's family. He comes to believe the only solution is to get a gun and rid the city of criminals on his own. His repeated killings are part of his mental breakdown.

In the movie, middle-aged architect Paul Kersey, played by tough-guy star Charles Bronson, is  enraged at what happened to his wife and daughter. The scene of their attack is shocking in its brutality. (Almost as shocking as seeing  Jeff Goldblum playing one of the violent creeps.) After that scene, audiences were with Paul as he took to the streets, tempting punks to attack him, then blowing them away.

For the movie, Paul’s agony and psychological damage are reduced to quickly get to the action. Garfield spent a great deal of time – nearly half the book – describing Paul’s mounting anger and showing his descent. The movie’s Paul is angry, too, but he is soon provided with a solution.

After his wife’s funeral, Paul’s firm sends him to Arizona to supervise a development project. Changing Paul’s profession gave the filmmakers a chance to show Bronson in the desert sunshine overseeing the operation. On his last day out west, Paul is given a gift by a grateful client. The gift, he discovers on his return to New York, is a revolver. The gun goes into Paul’s coat pocket and Paul heads out into the streets at night hunting for bad guys. The movie becomes a blood fest as cool, cold-eyed Bronson knocks off criminals on streets, in parks, and on subways.

Director Michael Winner was an expert at staging violent scenes. He had worked with Bronson on three previous action films. They went on to do two “Death Wish” sequels. Two additional sequels starring Bronson were not directed by Winner.

The gunplay thrilled audiences. Seeing dirtbags get it, was highly seductive stuff. The filmmakers made it clear everyone Paul shot deserved it.

While Paul's transition from helpless victim to active vigilante was quick, Charles Bronson made the most of it, turning in a good performance. Later, when faced with a variety of dangerous situations, Bronson was too sure, and the only suspense was in how far he would let a potential mugger mess with him before he let him have it.

The movie left viewers cheering Paul who eludes the police until the end. A detective, played by Vincent Gardenia, catches up with him, and sounding like the sheriff in a western tells Paul to get out of town. Paul takes his advice. Arriving in Chicago in the last scene, he witnesses a group of toughs jostling people. He points his finger at them, in a gesture meaning they are in his sights, and indicating he has not changed, but will continue his one-man mission.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

FFB: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

Brain Garfield’s 1972 novel Death Wish is not so much an action story as it is an indictment of a city and time when crime was increasing, people were scared, and cops and politicians were unable or uninterested in doing anything about it.

The first half of the novel focuses on Paul Benjamin’s rage and feeling of impotence after his wife and daughter are assaulted by a group of thugs. His wife dies of her injuries and his daughter is traumatized and committed to a psychiatric hospital. The cops investigating the crime have no leads and no hope of ever finding the criminals. While Paul rails against New York City’s crime problem, his son-in-law, a lawyer for a public defender’s office who spends his days in court representing violent punks, tries to calm him down.

Paul’s anger grows stronger. He is sick of feeling like a victim, cringing in fear when he walks down a dark street, and knowing hoodlums will get away with their crimes.

When he returns to work after a few weeks off, the partners in his accounting firm decide Paul needs a break from the city and send him to Arizona to work on a corporate merger. There, Paul is taken with the myth of the Old West, where a man with a gun could confront outlaws. Before leaving, he buys a revolver, hides it in his luggage and sneaks it into New York.

Now armed, Paul does not wait until he is preyed upon, he goes looking for trouble. He shoots and kills a junkie attempting to rob him, and when the sickening sensation leaves him, he has a feeling of accomplishment. Night after night, he goes out looking to repeat the incident. At first, he rationalizes the shootings by only killing those out to do him harm or in the middle of committing other crimes. Soon his actions leave him feeling nothing. He is as numb to the world as his institutionalized daughter.

A psychiatrist, interviewed in a New York magazine provides a profile of the unknown man whom the press is hailing as a vigilante and citizens are applauding for cleaning up the streets. The psychiatrist says the vigilante is a middle-aged man who has experienced a terrible act of violence either against himself or a family member and is driven by fear and a mental breakdown. The article startles Paul, but does not stop him. By the end of the book, Paul is roaming the streets like an animal, looking for his next victim.

Death Wish is provocative, but, with new fears of terrorism and mass shootings, this novel of street crime reads like yesterday’s headlines.

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quirky Crime Film: Blast of Silence

Frankie Bono, an out-of-town killer hired to take out a New York crime boss, spends several days stalking his intended victim, learning the man’s routines, and picking the best spot to do the job in the off-beat, low-budget, noir film, “Blast of Silence.”

The grim, stoic Frankie, played by Allen Baron, who also wrote and directed this independently made, 1961 feature, goes about his business during the Christmas season and the contrast between the hired gun moving among the happy shoppers is striking.

More striking is the divided nature of Frankie. While he is a cold-blooded pro, he is also a lonely hitman. Accidentally running into an old buddy, Frankie is invited to a party, meets a girl, and desperately goes after her, stopping just short of rape. This makes for a very strange tangent in this odd, intriguing movie.

The many scenes of Frankie doing his job – contacting the man who hires him, buying an illegal gun, and following his target – are accompanied by strangely poetic narration. But it is not the usual first-person narration commonly found in film noir. It is second-person narration delivered, uncredited, by once-blacklisted actor Lionel Stander – he of the distinctive, gravely voice, who later co-starred on TVs “Hart to Hart.” The narration was written by once-blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, under the pen name, Mel Davenport. Salt later wrote the screenplays for “Midnight Cowboy,” and “Serpico.” The voice-over comes from an omniscient character who is talking to Frankie, commenting on his thoughts and actions, rather than informing the audience.

Shot entirely on the streets of New York in a documentary style, “Blast of Silence,” has the look and feel of early John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick films and is nearly a decade ahead of Martin Scorsese’s first efforts.

The movie was co-produced and photographed in gritty black and white on dark dreary days by Merrill Brody, a friend of Baron’s since grade school. Another plus is the film’s jazz score by Meyer Kupferman.

This excellent, 77-minute movie was originally released by Universal-International and has recently been given a new life on DVD by Criterion.

Friday, January 20, 2017

FFB: Lovely Lady, Pity Me by Roy Huggins

Roy Huggins is a name I have seen on TV credits all my life.

He was a novelist who started writing for television in the 1950s and went on to create shows like Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, and many more.

His 1949 murder mystery novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me, is a noir story of an ordinary guy, John Swanney, a reporter for a national news magazine living in Los Angeles, whose marriage has broken up, although he and his wife still share the same house. On assignment and checking out a gambling joint, John meets Ann, a beautiful, mysterious woman decked out in furs, who offers him no information about her personal life while offering him everything else.

John falls hard for Ann. (Guys like John always do. Makes you wonder if he had ever read any James M. Cain or at least seen a Fritz Lang movie. Huggins read Cain. He even mentions the author in the book.) Anyway, John and Ann meet in out-of-the-way places until he discovers, while on another assignment, that she is married to a wealthy and powerful older man.

In an attempt to straighten things out with Ann, he meets her in a dark parking lot at UCLA. Later, when John returns to his house, he finds his wife has been brutally murdered.

Knowing he will be the No. 1 suspect in the case, John contacts Ann and explains that she must tell the police they were together all evening. She refuses and John, now without an alibi, is headed for the gas chamber unless he can find out who killed his wife before the cops nab him.

Huggins creates a fast-paced story with his hero avoiding the police at every turn and at times running like mad to escape them. Lovely Lady, Pity Me, is a fun read and Huggins (1914-2002) was a good storyteller. He also provides a glimpse of L.A. in the 1940s.

In 1958, Huggins used the bare bones of this story as the second episode of 77 Sunset Strip, which he also called, “Lovely Lady, Pity Me.” In the part of John, he inserted series lead character, private investigator Stuart Bailey, which makes a neat circle. In the book, John briefly contacts Bailey. The P.I. first appeared in Huggins’ novel, The Double Take from 1946.

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11

There may be better prison films than “Riot in Cell Block 11,” but it sure is hard to think of one. (“Birdman of Alcatraz” might edge it out for the top spot.)

One of the toughest, most realistic movies about the prison system when it hit theaters in 1954, “Riot in Cell Block 11” still stands up as a hard, fast-paced picture with an important message.

Filmed in a nearly documentary style in California’s Folsom State Prison by director Don Siegel, an action expert, this 80-minute movie is almost non-stop action, and where there is a momentary lull in the action, there is high tension.

In the film, prisoners at the breaking point due to poor conditions, overpower their guards and seize one of the blocks – or corridors – of cells.

Leading the revolt are two of the toughest actors ever in the movies: Neville Brand as the brains, and Leo Gordon as the muscle backing him up. Gordon who was in many movies and television shows, had actually served time in prison, and, from what I have read, could scare the crap out of almost anyone on any production. Brand, who was often cast as a thug in the 1940s and 1950s in films like "D.O.A.," here gets to play a tough guy with brains and a sense of justice.

The prisoners hold the guards hostage and issue a set of demands to the governor. The demands include more space in the overcrowded facility; removal of the criminally insane to a separate cell block; and separation of young offenders with light sentences from the hardened lifers.

Understanding the issues of the prisoners of Cell Block 11, the warden, played by Emile Meyer, is well aware of the problems, but can do little about them. Policy is set by state legislators and they and the governor refuse to spend any money to correct the conditions. Caught in a difficult situation, the warden must maintain order, contain the riot, and negotiate with the prisoners while dealing with a hard-nosed flunky sent by the governor, played by Frank Faylen. Faylen, here in a serious role, was a comic actor who played Dobie Gillis’ father on TV. Emile Meyer, often cast as tough ruthless characters, like the corrupt cop in “The Sweet Smell of Success” and the vice principal of the high school in “Blackboard Jungle,” gets a complex part to play here and does an excellent job.

“Riot in Cell Block 11” is not only a terrific action movie, it addresses realistic problems. And, as far as I could see, there is not a bad scene or a wasted frame of film in the entire movie.

Don Siegel did a great job on this, one of his earlier projects as a director. He later made five films with Clint Eastwood, including “Dirty Harry,” and “Escape from Alcatraz,” and he was a mentor to Eastwood in the actor’s early efforts as a director.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump Comes to Town on TV’s Trackdown

Last Saturday morning, cable’s ME TV channel showed an old, black-and-white episode of a Western series in which a man named Trump arrives in a small town and warns the people that meteors are about to hit and destroy everyone, and only he can save them.

He convinces the crowd and they clamor to buy his expensive protection – little umbrellas with symbols he claims have the power to deflect the killer space rocks.

Into this comes a Texas Ranger who tries to expose the fraud. But the people, carried away with fear, are willing to do anything to save themselves.

The episode, “The End of the World,” was from a show called Trackdown, and originally aired in 1958. The series starred Robert Culp and ran from 1957 to 1959.

(For more overlooked TV and film, visit Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, January 6, 2017

FFB: New Year’s Eve/1929 by James T. Farrell

This review was intended for last week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books, but the night before, a light snow storm knocked out the power in my area. Funny, the electric stays on through heavy rains and high winds, but let one snowflake land on a wire and a lot of little houses go dark. The lights eventually came back on, but the deadline had passed. So, here is what I hoped you all could have read before the calendar change.

James T. Farrell’s slim novel from 1967, New Year’s Eve/1929, takes place in Chicago on the afternoon, evening, night and the following morning of the last day of the 1920s and the first day of the 1930s. It is his bitter look back at the end of the Roaring 20s.

In the book, Beatrice Burns, a woman about 29 years old, dying of a lung ailment, possibly tuberculosis, lives near, and desperately wants to be part of, a group called the Fifty-seventh Street Art Colony. The colony was an actual group of writers, painters and college students residing in a south-side neighborhood near the University of Chicago. This is the same part of the city in which Farrell (1904-1979) grew up, went to college and wrote about in many of his novels, including his Studs Lonigan trilogy.

Beatrice longs for a blow-out New Year’s Eve party, a party to end all parties. A couple she knows, who usually throw huge parties seem too tired and uninterested in hosting anything that night. But Beatrice goes around telling people that there will be a big bash at the couple’s place, and feels she is doing everyone a favor by promoting a party.

That evening, the couple’s little apartment is jammed with people. Most know each other, everyone is talking at once, no one is listening much, and all are trying too hard to have fun. These people seem to know they are headed for tough times. This could be Farrell’s 20/20 hindsight, writing from a nearly 40-year distance.

One of the characters who appears in several of Farrell’s books, a writer named Dan O’Neil, comes to the party with a pretty young girl from the neighborhood whose mother does not approve of O’Neil. When Dan and the girl see Beatrice, they worry that Beatrice will cause trouble by telling the girl’s mother. Beatrice delights in knowing that she is upsetting them.

Dull and manipulative, Beatrice wants more than anything to be the center of attention. The idea of gaining the spotlight by causing trouble for others, thrills her. She takes note of couples sneaking off to the bedroom or locking themselves in the bathroom. She relishes the idea of catching them and having some juicy gossip. In short, Beatrice is a thoroughly dislikable character and a person the group barely tolerates and mostly ignores.

When a man gets drunk and starts shadow boxing, he accidentally clips Beatrice, knocking her to the floor. When she gets up, Beatrice laughs it off hoping the incident will finally draw everyone’s attention to her. It does, but momentarily.

At dawn, she tags along with a small group leaving the party. When they play a noisy game on the sidewalk, an irate neighbor throws cold water down on them. The water only hits Beatrice, and again, she laughs it off, hoping it will make her the life of the party. Instead, the group takes it as a sign the night – and the fun – is over and they go their separate ways.

New Year’s Eve/1929 is a quick, interesting read, but not a pleasant one. Anyone unfamiliar with Farrell would do better reading Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935).

(For more posts on books, please visit Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

FFB: Hitchcock Truffaut a book-length interview

A few days ago, when considering a post about film director Alfred Hitchcock’s original and his remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” I took an old book off my shelf to refresh my memory on a point or two. Once I started, I kept on reading. It is that kind of book.

The book is Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, which was published in French in 1966 and in English in 1967.

Truffaut, a film director himself who burst onto the international scene in 1959 with his first film, “The 400 Blows,” was a leading light of the French New Wave. Before making movies, Truffaut critiqued films in the French press, including Cahiers du CinĂ©ma, an influential film magazine founded by critic AndrĂ© Bazin.

Truffaut and his fellow New Wave filmmakers – Jean Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others – were fans of American directors like Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, and Hitchcock. They found that certain Hollywood filmmakers were able to put a personal stamp of the films they made for the studios and showed a consistency in the kinds of stories they chose to tell and the way in which they approached the material.

Some directors, like John Ford, were reluctant to discuss their techniques. But Alfred Hitchcock was not. In fact, Hitchcock was happy to tell interviewers just what he looked for in a story and how, precisely, he made his movies – sometimes going shot by shot to explain his methods.

Truffaut invited Hitchcock to sit down for a series of interviews in which the younger man went through each of the old master’s movies, from his first efforts in the silent era, to his break through films, like “The Man who Knew Too Much,” to the two best films he made in England (in my opinion), “The 39 Steps” from 1936, and “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938.

Hitchcock talked about going to Hollywood and working with producer David O. Selznick – which he hated – and working with Cary Grant – which he liked. Hitchcock and Grant made four films together: “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “To Catch A Thief,” and “North by Northwest.”

Another favorite star was James Stewart. Together they made four films: “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “Vertigo.”

He also loved working with Grace Kelly. In the book, Hitchcock told how he always had a thing for cool blonds. They made three films together: “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” and “To Catch a Thief.” The last of these was filmed on the Riviera. The following year, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and Hitchcock lost his favorite leading lady.

Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock is a master class in film history and technique as the older director explained the language of film and how he used it.

Many have tried to use the master’s techniques, but no one yet as been able to beat Hitchcock at his own game.

(For more on books, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hitchcock Times 2: Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few movie directors of the past who, decades after his death in 1980, is still well known.

In the 1950s, Hitchcock, at the height of his powers and popularity, remade one of his earlier films. Some might say Hitchcock remade many of his films, just giving them different titles, but that would be unfair, and would definitely be the subject for another post.

The film he remade was “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

In the 1934 original, produced in England, a family – mother, father, and little girl – on vacation in the snowy mountains of St. Moritz, Switzerland, get tipped off to a planned murder. The villains, discovering that the parents could notify the authorities about their plot, kidnap the little girl to keep them quiet. The father and mother learned that the baddies plan to assassinate a foreign diplomat in England during a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The couple is faced with the choice of either saving the diplomat and possibly avoiding a war (remember, World War 1, which ended just 16 years earlier, was touched off by an assassination) or saving their daughter.

In the1956 remake, a family – mother, father, and little boy – on vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco, learn of a mysterious plot, which turns out to the be the same scenario as the earlier version.

Both films feature women with extraordinary talents. Edna Best, as the mother in the first film, is established as a crack shot with a rifle, which plays directly into the strange shootout with the villains at the end of that picture. Doris Day in the remake plays a singer who gave up her career when she married a doctor, played by James Stewart, and her voice plays an important part in the recovery of her boy.

Edna Best, was a London stage star who did not make many movies, and in this film, Hitchcock did not give her much to do. Doris Day, on the other hand, is given many scenes that establish her character, her talent and her rapport with the boy and with Stewart. In the opening scenes, Doris Day and James Stewart seem to be improvising, although that is not likely in one of Hitchcock’s films. They also have a powerful scene together when Stewart, who learns of the kidnapping first, has to break the bad news to his wife. (Anyone who thinks Doris Day was just a pretty comedienne with a good singing voice, should check out that scene and reconsider.)

The original version, with a running time of 75 minutes, seems rushed and does not give an audience time to get to know the family. When Hitchcock went to remake the story, 22 years later, he had a solid reputation and the backing of a major Hollywood studio and took his time, allowing the audience to care about the people, and more importantly, allowing the tension to build. The 1956 version runs 120 minutes. It was also shot in color and in Vista Vision and was made partially on location in Morocco and England.

But despite the short running time of the original, Hitchcock presents a typical Hitchcockian scene during the parents’ search for the girl. The scene is both painfully uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. It involves a visit to a sinister dentist. In order to extract information (I know, I know), the dad first has to get into the chair.

Later, Hitchcock inserted a scene into the remake, at about the same point in the story, that was both tense and funny. Following up on a lead, Jimmy Stewart goes to a taxidermist’s studio and winds up in a fight with the employees among the stuffed exotic animals.

Peter Lorre, as the bad guy who kidnaps the child in the original film, was great. His performance is so odd and weirdly humorous that he steals every scene from Leslie Banks, who plays the father. In the remake, Hitchcock toned this down, making the kidnappers a bland, middle-aged couple.

For fans of Hitchcock, both versions are a must see. But the remake is far superior to the original.

In an interview with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was the work of a professional.

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