Friday, March 30, 2007

Book: The Birthday Party, by Stanley N. Alpert (2007)

Alpert was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City when, in 1998, he was abducted off the street by a trio of thugs. What was supposed to be a quick forced trip to the ATM became a 25-hour kidnapping ordeal. Although he was offered drugs and sexual favors once his abductors discovered it was his birthday.

The second section of Alpert’s memoir, recounting how his captors were caught, drags a bit. But his recreation of his own experience is riveting, and offers an object lesson in how to remain cool under pressure. Here are a few others things I learned:

1. Those oddball crime stories treated as curiosities by the news are significant events for those involved – and if they’re lucky, they won’t be defined by them.

2. There’s no point in waiting until your life is almost over to start living it. Or as Alpert puts it, order what you want when you want it.

3. Never wear a nice trench coat in Manhattan. You’re just asking for trouble.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Turns out there’s still a grindhouse in New York and it’s in Queens, the borough of my birth. I used to go to some of the theaters mentioned in the article – before they went porn. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

While we’re in grindhouse mode, let’s hear from the Godfather of Gore himself, Herschell Gordon Lewis!

Seattle Weekly delves into the epic lawsuit between Harlan Ellison and Fantagraphics Books.

Bill Pronzini remembers novelist Elliott Chaze at the Mystery*File blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Book: The Spoiler, by Domenic Stansberry (1987)

Baseball season kicks off Sunday evening with the Mets and Cardinals in an NLCS rematch. That may be one of my few chances to catch the Amazin’s on TV, as it’s increasingly likely that MLB’s Extra Innings package won’t be on cable. (Senator John Kerry, you disappoint me again.) So it’s for me. Like I don’t spend enough hours in the day staring at my computer screen.

I warmed up for the season opener by reading this debut novel from Edgar-winner Domenic Stansberry. A reporter on the run from a failed marriage finds himself in a Massachusetts mill town with a struggling minor league team, a spate of arson fires, and some surprising connections between the two. It’s not just a good crime novel, it’s a good baseball novel, a good newspaper novel, a good small-town novel.

Get ready for the season yourself by singing along.

Movie: 300 (2007)

My take on the movie, mainly so I can link to some others: It’s kind of nuts. But the gonzo quality is part of writer/director Zack Snyder’s vision. I’m still not sold on the CGEverything™ concept, and there’s not much of a story. (In a nutshell, 300 Spartans hold off the Persian hordes – until they don’t.) But I wasn’t bored.

Here’s John Rogers on the movie’s screenwriting, Archeology Magazine on the historical perspective, and Michael at 2Blowhards on the critical hand-wringing the movie has spawned plus much more.

John P. Ryan, R.I.P.

The veteran character actor never had a breakout role but worked steadily, often with director Bob Rafelson. He’ll always be remembered around here for two performances: as the gangster with a soft spot for another man’s moll in Bound, and as a hard-ass prison warden in one of the great films of the 1980s, Runaway Train. No doubt he’s bellying up to the bar in tough guy heaven at this moment.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

DVD: The Michael Shayne Collection, Volume 1

I watched all four movies in Fox’s new two-disc set in four days, popping them one after another like Raisinettes (or your candy of choice), so obviously I liked them. I don’t want my newfound affection for these films to lead me to overstate their quality or importance. But it’s worth pointing out that actor Lloyd Nolan had worn Mike Shayne’s fedora three times before Humphrey Bogart appeared as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The 1940s was the decade of the hardboiled gumshoe, and Nolan’s Shayne was one of the first.

The movies are all solidly crafted entertainments, as you might expect from the B-movie unit at Fox responsible for the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series. They use the name of Brett Halliday’s character but little else; the cinematic Shayne is your basic wisecracking big-city P.I., although what big city changes from film to film. In fact, there’s no continuity between the movies other than a stable of actors who recur in different roles. (For a sense of Halliday’s Shayne, check out Thrilling Detective or Flagler Street. And many thanks to Steve Lewis at the Mystery*File blog for clearing up questions about source material and for backing me on some other points.)

As is often the case, the debut title in the series is the best. Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940) is the only film based on a Halliday novel, 1939’s Dividend on Death. A wealthy client hires the shamus to baby-sit his daughter, a degenerate gambler running with a shady crowd. An early scene in which Shayne hustles the men sent to repo his office furniture not only demonstrates a refreshing honesty about the realities of a private eye’s life, but establishes Nolan’s sly take on the character.

The follow-up film Sleepers West (1941) prefigures the classic noir The Narrow Margin as Shayne escorts a witness (Mary Beth Hughes) to trial on a train while fending off those who want to silence her. The next Shayne outing, Dressed to Kill, isn’t in the collection but is available on an older DVD. Here’s hoping a restored version is in Volume 2.

Blue, White and Perfect (1941) may be my favorite of the bunch. Shayne’s fiancĂ©e (Hughes again) pressures him to leave the detective racket, so he hires on at an aviation plant only to wind up tangling with Axis spies. The movie boasts a nice turn by TV’s Superman George Reeves as the mysterious Juan Arturo O’Hara. With a moniker like that, you know he’s up to something.

1942’s silly The Man Who Wouldn’t Die strands Shayne in a haunted house caper, but Nolan’s insouciance and the presence of Shayne regulars Marjorie Weaver and Helene Reynolds keeps the action snappy.

Fox errs in the placement of the movies, pairing the first and last titles on one disc. But crisp digital transfers and useful extras more than make up for the oversight. A feature on Shayne’s long history includes comments from Otto Penzler, Stuart Kaminsky and Mary Dresser, the widow of Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser). There’s a gallery of covers by Robert McGinnis as well as an informative interview with the artist. My favorite line is when McGinnis says that the women in his paintings are “ladies at a higher level, yet still appealing and provocative.”

What registers most strongly in these films is Lloyd Nolan’s wonderful performance. He’s given only stage Irishness and a bit of business with a keychain to define Shayne, yet he inhabits the role completely. Concocting disguises that fool no one like a proto-Fletch, tossing off sharp lines, engaging in deft physical comedy while still coming across as a man who can handle himself, Nolan essentially creates the modern P.I. template out of whole cloth.

Rosemarie planned on watching only the first film with me, but was so taken by Nolan’s work that she stuck around for all four. As the last movie ended she said, “I finally realized who Lloyd reminds me of: Bugs Bunny.” Fast on his feet, forever in trouble but always coming out on top ... yeah, I can see it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Book: Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime, by Robert J. Randisi (2006)

You can have your rock’n’roll fantasy camps, your dude ranch getaways where grown men play cowboy, your baseball weekends where you take the field with the last of the Brooklyn Dodgers. My dream experience would require a wormhole. I want to be in Las Vegas in the early 1960s, when the Mob ran the town and the Rat Pack ruled the land.

So Robert Randisi’s latest novel is pure wish fulfillment. Eddie G is a Brooklyn CPA turned pit boss at the Sands. When Dean Martin starts receiving threatening letters on the set of Ocean’s Eleven, Frank Sinatra asks Eddie – as a personal favor – to get to the bottom of it.

All the boys – Sammy, Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, even Henry Silva – are characters in this yarn, and Randisi nails ‘em all. He even captures behind the scenes figures like casino kingpin Jack Entratter. But above all, he brings the mood of that place and time to life: the booze, the broads, the hellzapoppin’ masculine energy, the devil-may-care attitude. I can’t actually wow a showgirl from the Sahara with tickets for Buddy Hackett and Patrice Munsel, so this book will have to do. I devoured it in one sitting, and can’t wait for the follow-up.

Miscellaneous Rat Pack Note #1: Henry Silva had one of his only cracks at a lead role in Johnny Cool, based on a Gold Medal paperback by John McPartland. No less an authority than Bill Crider has spoken highly of the film. Turner Classic Movies is scheduled to air it next Tuesday, March 27, at 6PM EST/3PM PST. My DVR is already set.

Miscellaneous Rat Pack Note #2: Through Rhapsody, I have discovered Sammy Davis Junior’s cover of the theme song to TV’s legendary flop My Mother The Car. I can’t stop listening to it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

On The Web: Mystery*File

Steve Lewis and I continue our conversation about Brett Halliday’s shamus Mike Shayne and his incarnations on screen and on the radio. Steve, ever diligent, has even included a 1948 episode of The New Adventures of Michael Shayne starring Jeff Chandler. It’s a blast. Give it a listen.

On The Web: Crimespace

I’ve hung out a shingle at Crimespace, the new social networking site dedicated to crime fiction. It’s the brainchild of writer Daniel Hatadi, who’s doing a bang-up job of running the place. It’s meant to be the online equivalent of the bar at a convention. Considering that I attended my first convention earlier this year and found the experience ... odd, maybe a virtual version is more my speed.

At such sites you’re faced with the eternal dilemma of making friends. At least, you’re supposed to be. You should see my MySpace page. My only friends are tumbleweeds. And Tom.

So I’ve established some hard and fast rules at Crimespace. I don’t want to go all Tila Tequila on the place. If I’ve read your books or your blog, you get a friend request. What the hell, right? It’s only the internet. Trust me, I’m a good guy to know. I don’t eat much and I tend to keep to myself.

Whereas if you send me a friend request, I’ll accept it even if I don’t know you from Adam or Eve. That’s just how I roll. Amigo de todos.

Miscellaneous: Links

One of the pluses of living in Seattle is proximity to the unassailable Zen cool of the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki. Turns out he’s also a talk show host. Here’s a clip of him playing a word association game with singer/musician Shiina Ringo. It’s in untranslated, unsubtitled Japanese and I don’t care. The man is that charismatic.

Speaking of baseball, I want this nonsense resolved in a hurry. I’ve got Mets games to watch next month.

I have a near-pathological dislike of National Public Radio. The sound of earnest vanilla voices backed by tastefully-selected world music makes me want to hurl in my eco-friendly tote bag. So I don’t know much about This American Life, the radio show. But if it’s going to have animated segments by Chris Ware, I may gave the TV edition on Showtime a shot.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Miscellaneous: Link

The AV Club lists 22 opening credit sequences that fit their shows perfectly. Points for acknowledging the cheestastic magnificence that is Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Of course, this is just an excuse to link to the opening of Jack of All Trades again. It doesn’t belong on the list because it was better than the show itself. But it’s still the greatest credit sequence ever. Watch and see.

Movie: Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966)

James Coburn plans a heist to coincide with a visit by the Soviet premier in this caper film. There are plenty of slick bits as well as Harrison Ford’s first film appearance. But some aspects of Coburn’s scheme are needlessly complicated, while others aren’t explained at all. The twist ending is clever without being satisfying. On the whole, the movie is what we at Chez K call --

Hang on. I should explain first.

I used to work at a magazine. (Don’t worry. You’ve never heard of it.) Once, when the editor Bruce and I helped out a coworker, she rewarded us with two microwavable s’mores. You know how it gets around 3:30 – you’ll eat anything. Bruce and I decamped to the break room to heat those bad boys up.

The company’s microwave had seen better days. Many of them. Within seconds, it began spewing smoke and the odors of chocolate and burning graham cracker. All of which were then sucked into the ventilation system and pumped into every office.

Someone pulled the fire alarm. The building was evacuated. The fire department showed up. Excuses were made.

Later, Bruce and I retrieved our snacks. We hadn’t gone through all that trouble to go home hungry. Bruce took one bite of his s’more and said, “I don’t know. It’s a long way to go for a hot Mallomar.”

When Dead Heat ended, Rosemarie turned to me and said, “That movie was a hot Mallomar, wasn’t it?” And I said, “Yes, sweetie. That’s exactly what it was.”

OK, so maybe it’s not Hank Azaria’s “idiot ball.” But I like to think of the phrase as my personal contribution to the lexicon. Even if I’m not the one who said it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Over at the Mystery*File blog, Steve Lewis takes my thought on the Michael Shayne films and runs with it. So it’s decided. I will travel back in time to cast Ken Tobey as Brett Halliday’s private eye in a series of movies. And do some other stuff.

By now you’ve probably heard about the secret FBI file allegedly linking Robert F. Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe’s death. What I find most interesting is that this new evidence was unearthed by the filmmaker behind The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf. I refuse to weigh in on the matter until the director of Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest is heard from.

Book: The Sound of No Hands Clapping, by Toby Young (2006)

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, the first book by Toby Young, chronicled his doomed attempt to break into the front ranks of American magazine journalism at Vanity Fair. Young, who can be what the English refer to as a “wanker,” has no one to blame but himself for his lack of success, self-sabotaging his efforts at every turn. (For example, it is not a good idea to ask the actor you’re interviewing for a puff piece if he’s gay.) But Young’s willingness to own up to his every stupid move – and his decision to stop chasing after models and commit to a woman who’s smarter than he is – made him strangely likable.

The second memoir cribs the structure of the first, pairing another ill-advised pursuit for fame (in the movie business) with massive personal changes (impending fatherhood). Like most sequels, it’s not as satisfying as the original. But Toby remains an affable chap, in spite and perhaps because of his penchant for boneheaded plays. (For example, it is not a good idea to approach an established Hollywood player by having your paparazzi friend tail him to the Ivy. Particularly when the player has Halle Berry in his car.)

I like Toby because his goals sound awfully familiar. He has no delusions of creating the next Citizen Kane. “I wanted to write something that would be regarded as a fine example of its type, like a good screwball comedy or a well-crafted thriller.” Later, he says that “being hailed as a genre master ... (is) the highest compliment I could imagine.”

Sometimes you meet yourself in the oddest places.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Movie: Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006)

In college, I roomed with a guitarist in a metal band. A great guy. He explained to me that bass players the world over loved the theme from Barney Miller because it gave them a chance to shine. Sadly, there are few requests for it.

That limited I’m-with-the-band experience is one reason why I’ve always found Tenacious D funny. Consequently, I laughed all the way through their first movie, even though it’s dumb. Really dumb. On a scale of one to five, with one being sober as a judge and five meaning deeply ridiculous, Pick of Destiny rates a B+. That’s how dumb it is.

Here’s a quick test to see if the movie is for you.

1. Do you know who Ronnie James Dio is?

2. Does the prospect of a poster of Mr. Dio coming to life fill you with anticipatory glee?

If your answers are yes, rent it now.

Books: The Worst Pulp Novelist Ever?

In Seattle’s alt newspaper The Stranger, Paul Collins remembers Leo Child, “the worst pulp novelist ever,” on the tenth anniversary of his death. Child went from ghostwriting Hollywood bios to churning out titles for Holloway House.

His signature accomplishment is The Werewolf Versus Vampire Woman, which “has the reputation among aficionados as the most craptastically awful book ever written.” Collins says it’s “an extremely loose adaptation of an Italian schlock-horror film.” If I had to guess, I’d say that film is, um, The Werewolf Versus Vampire Woman, one of the many Waldemar Daninsky movies made by Paul Naschy.

The notion of any writer trying to capture the weirdness of a Naschy film on the page boggles the mind. At the very least, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers should name an award in his honor.

Magazines: Famous Last Words

I read the final issue of Premiere, although I fully expect the magazine to be revived within five years. (If they can bring back Tab ...) The last page is a brief interview with Jeff Daniels, who’s asked how he feels about being remembered primarily for Dumb and Dumber. Daniels responds:

Listen, over the weekend I saw soldiers at the Walter Reed hospital – no arms, faces blown up – and every single one of ‘em quoted Dumb and Dumber. Later, I was told that those were the first words one guy had said in three days. So that’s my answer: “Absolutely, it was worth it.”

Not a bad way to bring down the curtain.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Miscellaneous: Vamping

Work, work, work. Here’s some stuff for you while my nose is applied to the grindstone. You could head over to Damn Interesting and read about bizarre phenomena. Or you could watch this video of Raquel Welch dancing with a giant spider from The Muppet Show. I have to admit, I’m kind of turned on by this. I don’t know if I should talk to a therapist or an exterminator.

Monday, March 12, 2007

TV: Andy Barker, P.I.

There are several reasons why I’m going to watch Andy Barker, P.I. on NBC Thursdays, even though it’s temporarily spelling the now-firing-on-all-pistons 30 Rock. (Last week’s episode, featuring Nathan Lane as Alec Baldwin’s estranged brother, was the greatest depiction of Irish Catholicism on network television since the heyday of Bishop Fulton Sheen.) Said reasons follow.

1. I am an unabashed Andy Richter fan. His first sitcom, Andy Richter Controls The Universe, deserved to run a lot longer.

2. The premise kills me. Andy Barker is a CPA who rents what used to be a private eye’s office and finds himself handling cases.

3. Andy is assisted in his new career by a movie-mad video store clerk and the septuagenarian gumshoe, played by Fargo’s Harve Presnell in full old-guy roar.

4. Any series with episodes titled “Fairway My Lovely” and “The Lady Varnishes” has a shot with me.

5. It’s funny. I already watched the premiere online.

But the main reason is Lookwell, the last detective sitcom from Andy Barker co-creator/producer Conan O’Brien. Adam West played Ty Lookwell, the washed-up star of a ‘70s cop show who in better times was named an honorary member of the LAPD. As far as Ty is concerned, that gives him license to solve crimes.

Lookwell never made it past the pilot, which aired only once in 1991. I was one of the few people watching that night, and loved the show. I don’t know how it would have worked week after week, but that one outing was inspired silliness. Helping was the direction by E.W. Swackhamer, a veteran of McCloud and The Rookies, who gave the show that authentic ‘70s look.

See for yourself. The pilot is available on on YouTube. Look for Academy Award-nominated writer/director Todd Field as one of Lookwell’s acting students. If you don’t want to watch the whole 22 minutes, at least check out the opening scene in which Lookwell clears up any confusion by enumerating all the ‘70s TV cops he didn’t play.

I’m sure some of you think that watching a 22-minute busted pilot is a waste of time. But remember, you don’t waste time. Time wastes you.

Miscellaneous: Links

At Slate, use the new-fangled science of bracketology to determine once and for all what the greatest movie death scene is.

The A.V. Club cites 14 cover songs that are better than the originals. It is policy to link to any list that includes multiple Elvii.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Movie: The Host (U.S. 2007)

Here’s what I want to say: “It’s a monster movie! Go already!”

But I realize that the phrase “monster movie” may not carry the same magical charge for you that it does for me. (Although let’s be honest: if it doesn’t, what are you doing here?)

Besides, The Host is more than a monster movie. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a monster in it and what a beast it is, a mutant sea creature at once hideous and graceful, looking strangely at home beneath the bridges than span Seoul’s Han River. Yes, it goes on a rampage. Several, in fact. And more importantly, yes, it stomps things.

The movie is also a shrewd family comedy – there’s a scene involving an escape in a van that brought to mind Little Miss Sunshine – and a sharp satire of paranoia. Director Bong Joon-ho has worked similar cross-genre magic before. His 2003 film Memories of Murder, a true-life tale about the years-long hunt for a serial killer that devolves into obsession, makes a striking companion piece to Zodiac.

Americans aren’t the villains of The Host, but we come close. It’s always interesting to see how we’re perceived elsewhere in the world. (Briefly: in charge and kinda stupid.) Plus there’s an additional contrast. The Host has storytelling stones that you won’t find in a U.S. film. Nothing goes the way you’d expect, so hang on for the ride.

Speaking of monster movies, I happened to catch the original version of The Blob again yesterday. Chuckle over it all you want, but that movie still scares the bejesus out of me. Must be that scene in the theater.

Miscellaneous: Link

I love this poster.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Movie: Green For Danger (1946)

Seeing Green for Danger has been a mission of mine since first reading about it in my trusty Leonard Maltin Movie Guide (“exciting whodunit ... a must-see classic”). The fact that Rosemarie had stumbled onto a rare TV screening as a child and still vividly remembered the movie only made me more determined.

Now, thanks to a new DVD from the Criterion Collection, I can finally cross that goal off my list. Next up: bring sexy back. (Damn it. Remind me never to draft a list while sitting next to Justin Timberlake.)

At a rural English hospital during WWII, a patient dies on the table – before his operation begins. An eccentric inspector from Scotland Yard, played by the incomparable Alastair Sim, must discover which member of the surgical staff is the killer.

Danger is that rarest of birds, a mystery movie that succeeds as both mystery and movie. Co-writer/director Sidney Gilliat plays fair with his clues while capturing life in a once-bucolic setting where V-1 flying bombs, or doodlebugs, now rain down on the countryside. Best of all is Sim as the preening master detective who may not be as clever as he thinks he is. Danger lives up to its billing.

Upcoming: The Michael Shayne Collection

Volume One of Fox’s Michael Shayne, Private Detective collection will be out on March 20. The two DVD set contains four 1940-41 films starring Lloyd Nolan as the gumshoe created by Brett Halliday, as well as plenty of extras: a history of the character, a feature on the work of paperback cover artist extraordinaire Robert McGinnis, and more.

I’m curious to dig into the Shayne movies for two reasons. One, Nolan, while a fine actor, doesn’t jibe with my sense of the character. He certainly looks nothing like the mug on the covers of the books. (You know who would have been perfect as Shayne? Ken Tobey from The Thing. Tell me he’s not a dead ringer for Halliday’s “reckless, red-headed Irishman.”)

And two, after the debut film – Michael Shayne, Private Detective, which is based on Halliday’s Dividend for Death – the series cribbed from anything but the Shayne books. Take Sleepers West, for instance. It’s a remake of – what else? – Sleepers East (1934), from a story by Torchy Blane creator Frederick Nebel. A Nolan/Shayne film that will with any luck appear on Volume Two, 1942’s Time To Kill, is actually an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window with Shayne subbing for Philip Marlowe.

Fate can be cruel. Decades later, another Michael Shayne novel finally reached the big screen as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, only without Michael Shayne. But that’s Hollywood.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

I didn’t plan on filing a post tonight. But I’ve had an excellent day and found plenty of good stuff to share.

John August says adios to MySpace. I have a MySpace page myself – I didn’t want some other Vince Keenan seizing it, piggybacking on my good name – but I never use it. I assume people searching for me on the web will eventually make their way here.

In recent days, Ken Levine has offered a tribute to Steve Gordon, the writer/director of Arthur, as well as two scenes from the original script that didn’t make it into the movie. Great stuff.

At The Rap Sheet, Jeff Pierce takes an early look at NBC’s new noir-inflected crime drama Raines, starring Jeff Goldblum.

And the U.S. print edition of Premiere has officially bitten the dust, a fate considered in this space last month. As I told Ivan, maestro of the must-read Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I didn’t actively wish for the magazine to be killed. I simply wanted a once-noble publication to be put out of its misery. You know, like Old Yeller.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Website Update: Links

Not reading The Rap Sheet? Well, you oughta be.

Movie: DuBarry Was A Lady (1943)

CNN used to be the default station on the Chez K TV. But at some point during their relentless coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s death, I said to hell with it. Now when I fire up the tube I’m greeted by Turner Classic Movies. Puts a whole new disposition on the evening. And more often than not, I get sucked into whatever is on.

Like this musical starring Red Skelton, Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball. It has a half-baked plot – nightclub attendant Skelton dreams he’s Louis XV – and jettisons all the Cole Porter songs from the stage version save ‘Friendship.’ But there’s plenty to recommend it: a young Zero Mostel, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra in powdered wigs, a cameo from Lana Turner.

And then, be still my heart, there’s Virginia O’Brien, who knocks ‘em dead with the comic number ‘Salome.’ (“No matter how you slice it, it’s ...”) She does the entire song without cracking a smile, instead punctuating the lyrics with perfect throwaway looks and gestures. That shtick – accidentally developed as the result of stage fright during her debut performance, according to legend – earned her the nicknames ‘Miss Deadpan’ and ‘The Red Hot Frozen Face.’ A gorgeous dame with a sense of humor who was the daughter of the LAPD’s captain of detectives and married to Kirk Alyn, the first Superman? Sounds like a character right out of James Ellroy. Or maybe Megan Abbott. (Who, as it happens, recently wrote a birthday salute to Ellroy at, you guessed it, The Rap Sheet.)

I watched ‘Salome’ again when DuBarry was over, tracked down some of Virginia’s songs on Rhapsody, and queued up the few other movies she made. Always nice to have a new retro crush.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Movies: Memories of Meme

When at a loss for something to post about, I turn to that evergreen subject: me. Here’s a screenwriting meme I poached from Ken Levine.

Name one (1) earliest film-related memory.

Making a pilgrimage to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie. I can’t even remember what it was now – probably a reissue of one of the Disney cartoons – because I was so overwhelmed by the experience of being in the theater. The vastness of the lobby. The size of the crowd. The sense of hushed anticipation as the lights dimmed. All I could think was, “I want more.”

Two (2) favorite lines from movies.

From Out of the Past. Script credited to Daniel Mainwaring (Geoffrey Homes), based on the novel Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes.

Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer): Oh, Jeff, I don’t want to die!
Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum): Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I’m gonna die last.

From Once Upon A Time In The West. Story by Dario Argento, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Sergio Leone and Sergio Donati.

Cheyenne (Jason Robards): You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month – he must have been a happy man.

Three (3) jobs you’d do if you couldn’t work in “the biz.”

FBI agent. Seriously.
Genially corrupt political operative.
Alcoholic copywriter.

Job I would most likely have: overnight manager at a 24-hour copy shop.

Four (4) jobs you have actually held outside the industry.

Writer of phone sex ads. As I’ve said before, the only job I was truly good at.
Legal assistant.
Journalist at a business magazine.

Three (3) book authors I like.

Lawrence Block.
Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark.
Ross Thomas.

Two (2) movies you’d like to remake or properties you’d like to adapt.

There’s this Hong Kong gangster movie called Infernal Affairs that would ... what? Damn. I should get out more.

There are plenty of remakes and adaptations I’d like to do that I’m actively pitching, so I’m not naming them here. Instead, I’ll give you two (2) remakes that actually work: His Girl Friday and The Fly.

One (1) screenwriter you think is underrated.

From the golden age of Hollywood, Jay Dratler. The best known film he worked on is Laura. He also contributed to gems like the Fred Allen comedy It’s In the Bag, the true-crime drama Call Northside 777, the Lucille Ball film noir The Dark Corner, and the sorely neglected Impact.

From today, Ron Shelton. Because comedies and sports movies (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) always get short shrift. No one writes contemporary American men in all their befuddled glory better. And at times he seems like the only studio filmmaker who’s interested in sex – real, human, occasionally goofy sex. Blaze, Cobb and Hollywood Homicide all deserve to be better known.

Friday, March 02, 2007

TV: Watching The Detectives

New month, new leaf. I’m going to be a giver.

So is Turner Classic Movies, with their festival Watching The Detectives. 53 films shown every Tuesday and Wednesday night in March.

Things kick off next Tuesday, March 6, with the most famous gumshoes in their most famous cases: Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon), Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep), Mike Hammer (Kiss Me Deadly). More obscure titles come to the fore on March 7, with the TCM premieres of four Lone Wolf films. I haven’t seen any of these movies starring Warren William as Louis Joseph Vance’s gentleman thief Michael Lanyard. I assume that the keeper of the lot is 1939’s The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, featuring Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth and a script by novelist Jonathan Latimer. Later in March is an entire evening of Boston Blackie films starring Chester Morris that haven’t been seen on TV – or anywhere else, most likely – in ages. Fire up that DVR.

TV: Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

I’m sure this Fox game show will grow old quickly. I already hate the music. But I have to admit that the concept is ingenious. The questions are drawn from elementary school textbooks – in other words, everyday stuff the contestants learned ages ago and have stopped thinking about.

So when host Jeff Foxworthy asks how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, you think, “That’s easy. Two ... right? No, wait, it’s three. Or two. Hang on.” And next thing you know, you’re copying answers off a ten-year-old. (It’s three, by the way. I did know that five U.S. states border the Pacific Ocean, and if my answer of ‘Kodiak’ had not been accepted in response to the question “What is the largest species of bear?,” I would have appealed to the judges. Or the hall monitors. Whoever. Kodiaks are comparable in size to polar bears. Honest.)

The crowning touch is that when contestants get an answer wrong or opt to take the money and run, they must look into the camera and say, “I am not smarter than a fifth grader.” That kind of mortification will keep me tuning in for at least another week.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Books: The Bridge of Sighs (2003) and The Confession (2004), by Olen Steinhauer

There must be a word that means “to read an author’s blog before reading any of that author’s books.” Maybe the Germans have one. If they came up with weltanschauung ...

I can’t remember how I discovered Contemporary Nomad, a group blog written by a quartet of authors featuring smart posts on life and culture and a name I always sing to the tune of Re-Flex’s immortal “The Politics of Dancing.” (In my head, everything is set to music.) Once it became one of my regular stops, I decided I might as well check out the contributors’ books.

Olen Steinhauer is the site’s unofficial ringmaster and an American living in Europe. His crime novels chronicle life in a fictional unnamed nation behind the Iron Curtain.

In Sighs, set in 1948, a young homicide inspector is assigned a politically sensitive case that no one expects or wants him to solve. The novel, touching on wartime atrocities committed by both the Nazis and the Russians and including a jaunt to Berlin during the height of the Airlift, deftly introduces the country and the core group of characters that appear in subsequent books.

I liked it enough to move right on to the follow-up, and what a huge step forward it is. The Confession unfolds in 1956. The Hungarian revolution is in the air. A murder investigation involving state-supported artists triggers a personal and political awakening in a detective/frustrated writer. More than a smartly plotted mystery, The Confession lays bare the social and psychological survival methods that develop in totalitarian states.

Still to come are 36 Yalta Boulevard, Liberation Movements (recently nominated for the Best Novel Edgar) and the final book in the series. Not to mention the latest icy thriller from Steinhauer’s fellow Nomad Kevin Wignall. Then, only two more Nomads to go. Whew.

Miscellaneous: Links

I was lax in not doing an Academy Awards recap this year. (I’ll say only this: with big wins for The Departed and The Lives of Others, it was a grand year for the thriller.) Jay A. Fernandez of the Los Angeles Times looks back at the ceremony from the screenwriters’ perspective.

Also from the L.A. Times: director David Fincher and novelist James Ellroy, a man who knows something about obsession, talk Zodiac.