Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TV: At Long Last, Morton & Hayes

What say we mix it up a little for the last post of 2008? I want to keep things interesting for my readers, especially as I now know, having run the year-end stats, how many of you there are. (I’ll just say “record setting numbers” and leave it at that. But my thanks to all of you, and the regulars in particular.)

I’ve mentioned before the TV series Morton & Hayes, which surfaced during the summer of 1991 and sank without a trace. The brainchild of Rob Reiner and Spinal Tap cohort Christopher Guest, it purported to be a showcase for the films of the forgotten 1930s comedy team of Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak in the role he was born to play) and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral). Each week the boys would appear in a “newly rediscovered” two-reel short, meticulously recreated right down to the jump cuts and shoddy effects.

I watched every episode. And ever since, I have waited in vain for the show to appear somewhere, anywhere else.

The other day I searched the online outlets for older TV series. AOL Video, Hulu, Fancast, Fanlu. Nothing.

But Youtube? Youtube had one episode, in three pieces.

It’s actually one I remembered vividly. Guest himself appears as a bandleader doing the novelty dance “The Cold Potato.” Even better, a then-unknown Allison Janney absolutely nails the period style. The way she says “Pago Pago” kills me. It’s not the best recording – for one thing, you won’t be able to appreciate the show’s look – but it’s better than nothing.

So end ’08 or start ’09 with “Society Saps.” Part one is below, and here are parts two and three. Here’s wishing everyone a happy new year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Good Stuff: Favorite Movies of 2008

Ask people to name the best of anything and they’ll dither, and think about the weight of history, and draft a lengthy list of possibilities to winnow down. I don’t have that kind of time. But ask for favorites and the answers come quick and can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These are movies that spoke to me personally. The marketing workups for these movies identify their target audiences in terms of oddly specific categories (“Copy Shop Employees Who Eat Sack Lunches and Have Never Seen Seinfeld”) and my name. This year, there are five of them, listed in the order seen.

In Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s scabrous and soulful comedy about a pair of hit men awaiting further instructions.

The Bank Job. A heist movie like they used to make.

Man on Wire. The documentary about Philippe Petit’s “coup” of walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. It’s structured like a caper, and is a poem to possibility and to New York.

The Fall. Tarsem’s fantasia on the power of storytelling.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Sublime silliness, with many of the laughs coming from the flawless recreation of ‘60s spy movies.

Here’s how far out of the Oscar loop I am: not only are none of these films year-end prestige releases, all five are already on video. You could watch ‘em tonight if you wanted. In fact, you should.

This is where I’m supposed to name all the movies that came thisclose to making the cut. Instead, here’s A Half Dozen Thrillers That More People Should Have Seen, again in the order I saw them.

Married Life. Calling this a thriller is stretching the definition a bit. Consider it a small, arch marital noir, and proof that Pierce Brosnan should narrate every movie he’s in.

Jar City. A spare, haunting adaptation of Arnaldur Indridason’s Icelandic crime novel.

Tell No One. Some plot contrivances from the book remain, but you won’t notice thanks to Guillaume Canet’s breathless pacing and focus on the emotional underpinnings of the story. That this became a summer arthouse hit is one of 2008’s nicest surprises.

Transsiberian. Brad Anderson’s train-set drama takes its time getting started, but never goes where you’d expect. Emily Mortimer delivers one of my favorite performances of the year.

Body of Lies. And here I thought it had everything: two big stars operating at their peak, exotic locales, a smart script, and energy to burn.

JCVD. I described this to my video game colleagues as “a Charlie Kaufman movie with kickboxing.” I stand by that summation.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movies: Holiday Affair (1949)/Remember the Night (1940)

At Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, which you should be reading regularly anyway, Ivan has a post on holiday movies that mentions the VKDC Christmas Film Festival. In some sense this is appropriate, because Ivan programmed my yuletide viewing. I made a point of recording two movies he championed and watched them as the last of the snow fell on Seattle. With the Shreve Seal of Approval, you’re seldom disappointed.

Although I am confused, because watching Holiday Affair so soon after The Killer is Loose raises a perplexing question: do I like Wendell Corey now? Let’s say I’m open to reappraisal and leave it at that. Corey is the Bellamy in this romantic comedy, set in New York City in the waning weeks of December. Janet Leigh plays a war widow with a young son. Accepting lawyer Corey’s longstanding marriage proposal would allow her to leave her job as a comparison shopper for a department store. But that job is how she meets Robert Mitchum, a vagabond clerk who challenges Corey for her affections.

Canned performances by child actors sink many films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but Gordon Gebert feels almost contemporary as the lonely little boy who holds the action together. Isobel Lennert’s script is nicely balanced between the characters. Corey has a lovely moment late in the action when he lays out the facts of the case with legal precision. Some might be surprised by how easily Mitchum takes to the genre, but I’m not; the man always knew how to handle sardonic dialogue, and I will forever insist that His Kind of Woman is a comedy. Amidst the gossamer, Affair is quite tough-minded. Mitchum buys Gebert an extravagant gift because he wants the boy to know that good things are possible in life. Leigh protests only to have Mitchum remark, “Not every surprise is a telegram from the War Department,” a line that brought her and me up short.

Another sweet confection with a tart center followed in Remember the Night. The last script Preston Sturges wrote before moving to the director’s chair teamed Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck four years before Double Indemnity. He’s a New York D.A. charged with prosecuting her for shoplifting. He cagily has the trial postponed until after the holidays, only to discover that fellow Hoosier Stanwyck will be alone in the city for Christmas. The road trip that follows has its share of screwball antics, but mainly it affords Stanwyck’s character the chance to see that a hardscrabble start in life doesn’t have to dictate one’s fate. Sturges fills the screen with his typically vivid supporting characters – Elizabeth Patterson’s Aunt Emma lives an entire life in a single reaction shot – and wraps up the story with an unsentimental but potent ending.

TCM airs both films every December in the hopes of making them seasonal staples. I’ll certainly watch them again, after my screenings of The Ref and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I still prefer my Christmas movies naughty, not nice.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Miscellaneous: Ho Ho Huh?

From Alan Feuer’s New York Times article:

There is a theory of journalism that holds that Christmas Day is relatively news-free, a day spent peacefully at home opening presents, entertaining Grandma, watching “Klute” on DVD or simply mulling over what to order — the shrimp or the chicken lo mein — at the Empire Grand later that night.

Klute? Really? Who watches Klute on Christmas Day?

Ah, well. To each his own. Happy holidays, everybody.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Good Stuff: Favorite Novels of 2008

Some years I don’t feel like making lists. This year I do. Blame the weather. These aren’t “bests,” just my favorites.

To begin, the Grand Master slots. It’s not fair to cite these authors here, because my saying I like them is akin to opining, “I endorse breathing” or “You know what’s good? Bourbon.” So I again salute Donald E. Westlake in his Richard Stark guise for Dirty Money, the last of his triptych about a very hectic month in the life of his thief Parker. And Lawrence Block for Hit and Run, in which philatelist assassin Keller goes to ground in a gratifyingly old school way.

Now, ten books listed in the order I read them with minimal commentary, as I’ve already bragged ‘em up good.

Money Shot, by Christa Faust. Hardboiled stuff served up straight. I want more Angel Dare. I’d say please, but how hardboiled would that be?

Saturday’s Child, by Ray Banks. Banks! Get that website back up! You’ve got more books coming out.

Gas City by Loren D. Estleman. An almost clinical look at corruption in a fading Midwestern burg. Beautiful prose on every page.

Matala, by Craig Holden. A slim volume full of menace.

Frames, by Loren D. Estleman. Estleman’s second book on the list is a complete change in tone, an almost lighthearted story of a “film detective” caught up in a decades-old Tinseltown murder.

Hollywood Crows, by Joseph Wambaugh. Another peerless picaresque about day to day life in the LAPD.

Vampyres of Hollywood, by Adrienne Barbeau and Michael Scott. The most fun I’ve had reading all year.

Small Crimes, by Dave Zeltserman. Lean and dark with a chest punch of an ending.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. A haunting tale made all the more so by the author’s death.

Toros & Torsos, by Craig McDonald. The only book on this list I haven’t mentioned before because I just finished it, so allow me to sing its praises now. Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted pulp writer who featured in the Edgar-nominated Head Games, is embroiled in a series of murders inspired by Surrealist art. Spanning many years and locations with cameos ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Orson Welles, it’s a ferocious, wildly ambitious novel and a grand way to close out a year’s worth of reading.

And yes, I am aware that half of these titles involve the nexus of crime and movies. You should know to expect that when you come here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book: Hey There (You with the Gun in Your Hand), by Robert J. Randisi (2008)

In the third of Randisi’s Rat Pack novels, Eddie Gianelli is once again called on to perform a service above and beyond his duties as a pit boss at the Sands. Someone is blackmailing Sammy Davis, Jr., and only Eddie is fit to be go-between. But this caper could extend beyond show business; after all, it’s 1961, and Rat Pack crony JFK is in the White House. The book is Randisi’s usual mix of clean prose and sharp period detail. If he writes a dozen of these books I’ll read them all, because the Rat Pack are my version of superheroes. Sure, Tony Stark can build a pocket fusion reactor in a cave with a box of scraps. But could he do a number with Allan Sherman and Vic Damone like Dean Martin?

Eddie did a favor for Dino in the first novel, then helped Frank in #2. I doubt that Peter Lawford will be next, based on how he’s treated in the books. I’ve always felt some degree of affection for Brother-in-Lawford, who had to know he was in over his head. (Lawford, well played by Angus Macfadyen, is the focus of HBO’s The Rat Pack.) He was a mere mortal who found himself amongst gods, and that’s as close as you’re going to get to tragedy in the world of ring-a-ding-ding.

Movie: The Killer is Loose (1956)

I owe Randisi. His book kept me up late the night I was recording this movie on TCM and the DVR stopped six minutes early. Because I was awake to notice it, I was able to grab the fraught closing scenes, which play out like ur-DePalma.

Killer marks a foray into crime drama by Budd Boetticher, a director whose lean psychological westerns are winning deserved acclaim on DVD. While attempting to arrest mousy bank clerk Wendell Corey for robbery, detective Joseph Cotten accidentally kills Corey’s wife. Several years later, Corey escapes from prison hell-bent on responding in kind, targeting Cotten’s spouse Rhonda Fleming.

Boetticher’s economy and stark compositions ratchet up the tension brilliantly. Corey is an actor I haven’t particularly cared for in the past but he’s phenomenal here, his face rendered a void by Clark Kent eyeglasses, his psyche scarred by his perceived failures during the war. There are terrific supporting performances by veterans of the Jack Webb Players John Larch as Corey’s former sergeant and Virginia Christine as a cop’s wife who knocks Fleming off her pedestal. A genuine B-movie gem.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie: It Happened In Hollywood (1937)

Since making my way through most of The Whistler movies, I’ve become a fan of the stolid charms of actor Richard Dix. So when TCM aired this obscure movie, aka Once A Hero, a few weeks ago, I recorded it. Little did I realize that bonuses were in store.

Bonus #1: It’s the second writing credit for the great Samuel Fuller.

Bonus #2: It features an extended sequence that earns it a small place in Hollywood history.

Bonus #3: It’s awful, but in a way that fascinates.

Dix, in an echo of his own career, plays a star of silent movie westerns devoted to his young fans. Then talkies come in. After one session with a diction coach (Franklin Pangborn in the Franklin Pangborn role), it’s clear that Dix ain’t cut out for Coward. As his best girl Fay Wray moves on to success, he loses his money. He gets a second chance when he’s offered a role as a tough guy in a gangster film, but Dix refuses to be a bad example to the kids by gunning down a cop in cold blood. He decides to leave Tinseltown and return to life on the range, where based on his duds he was a midnight cowboy. That’s when Billy, one of the kids he doesn’t want to disappoint, turns up on his doorstep. He won’t go back to the welfare home until Dix introduces him to some movie stars, a plot development that makes zero sense considering Billy’s stated contempt for every film that isn’t a western.

Bringing us to bonus #2 above. Dix throws a party for Billy at the ranch he’s already lost to the bank, and invites the stand-ins for the biggest names in the business. All of whom are played by the actual studio doubles for those stars, in the only on-screen appearances many of them had. You see facsimiles of Clark Gable, Mae West, James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Arthur McLaglen turns up as his brother Victor. Sisters Betty and Carol Dietrich appear as Greta Garbo and Marlene (no relation) Dietrich. Bing Crosby’s doppelganger lip syncs to one of Bing’s records. It’s an amazing bit of movie history.

Normally I don’t give away endings, but It Happened in Hollywood goes so off the rails in the closing minutes that I have no choice. Consider yourselves warned.

Billy has one of those movie accidents. Dix needs money to save the kid’s life. So he returns to the bank he was supposed to rob in the gangster film, this time to knock it over for real. Only before he can do so, it’s held up by actual thieves. After one of them shoots a cop, Dix draws his six-gun and saves the day. By this point the studios have figured out how to record sound outdoors, so westerns are back in vogue. And Dix returns to the silver screen, a bigger star than ever. The end.

It Happened in Hollywood is four different movies jammed together, often in the same scene, and none of them good. I’d call it a comedy because it’s impossible to take seriously, not because it’s funny. But in holding up a funhouse mirror to show business, it was years ahead of its time. And in my book, you get points for being early.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Miscellaneous: Yuletidings

It’s a Letterman tradition: Paul Shaffer’s interpretation of Cher singing ‘O Holy Night’ from an old variety special. Now, thanks to some enterprising elf, I can finally see the original. It’s just after the four minute mark, but why would you want to fast forward? Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

As you prepare for your holiday festivities, allow yours truly to shoulder some of the burden and make your movie selections for you. Here are the standard titles in the VKDC Christmas Film Festival.

The Ref. A movie I have watched every Xmas since its release.
Die Hard
The Ice Harvest

Blast of Silence. A new entry this year. Thanks to Christa Faust for reminding me.

Followed by the collected oeuvre of the true auteur of the season, Mr. Shane Black:

Lethal Weapon
The Last Boy Scout
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

And now, by popular demand, I give you Vince and Rosemarie Keenan’s Shane Black’s The Twelve Days of Christmas. Well on its way to become its own holiday tradition.

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (U.S. 2008)

Jumping on the bandwagon is no fun. I prefer being a contrarian myself. But sometimes there’s no choice. You’ve got to join the choir and sing your hosannas with everyone else.

The drumbeat for this debut novel started last year. No doubt the author’s personal story contributed to the buzz: a crusading Swedish journalist delivers manuscripts for three interconnected books shortly before dying of a heart attack at age 50.

The first installment justifies the hype. It is, in a word, bewitching, thanks to an alchemy of setting (Stockholm and the frigid reaches north), character (a disgraced journalist and the investigator of the title, an enigmatic and damaged ward of the state) and story (a 40-year old locked-room mystery set on an island that ultimately encompasses crimes of the boardroom and of the heart). Nearly 500 pages, read in a flash. The next book can’t come fast enough.

Monday, December 15, 2008

DVD: Capricorn One (1978)

Much as I’d love to be able to say that I’m the product of the best influences, that I was forged in the kiln of the works of our greatest writers, thinkers and artists ... it ain’t necessarily so.

Capricorn One is a crackpot conspiracy thriller about a faked Mars landing. It’s more than a favorite movie of my childhood. It’s the first story of any kind that I ever analyzed. I watched it repeatedly on TV and took the entire narrative apart, sketching out the plot in detail in the back of my social studies notebook. I even scared up a copy of the novelization by Ron Goulart and dissected that. I never did anything by half-measures, even as a kid. Except social studies, obviously. Capricorn One marked the start of my awareness of the craft of storytelling. Yeah, I wish it were Shakespeare or Kubrick or Faulkner, too, but we are who we are.

Among the lessons learned that still hold up, based on watching the recent special edition DVD:

- Give your supporting characters a signature detail. Writer/director Peter Hyams does this throughout. Take Sam Waterston’s astronaut, given to cracking ancient jokes. He tells himself one as a distraction while climbing a sheer rock wall. He reaches the top and the punchline at the same time – then makes an unwelcome discovery. I never forgot that moment. It’s cheesy, and it still plays.

- Reluctant villains are more powerful. I like a psycho as much as the next guy. But when your heavy says over and over, as Hal Holbrook does here, “I hate like hell to do this to you,” and then does it anyway – his actions have that much more impact.

- Never hire O.J. Simpson.

And two random observations:

It’s strange to watch this movie and think that only two years earlier Holbrook had a key role in All The President’s Men. They say the cultural metabolism moves fast now, but that’s a pretty speedy arc for conspiracy tales and the image of journalists. From Woodstein to Elliot Gould’s hangdog horndog in about 24 months.

The evil company behind the phony landing? The same one up to no good in Hyams’ 1981 Outland, set late in the 21st century.

TV: The Age of Believing

Turner Classic Movies is airing this documentary on Walt Disney’s live action fare as part of December’s tribute to family films. It doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time on the Medfield College trilogy starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, but otherwise it’s pretty thorough. I think I saw every film highlighted, thanks largely to the Catholic school tradition known as Movie Day. Nuns love Disney.

I bet Rosemarie beforehand that the special would make no mention of one of Uncle Walt’s lesser efforts, Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN, but sure enough there it was. How bad was the movie? The third time it screened on Movie Day, I wandered to the back of the auditorium and found the school principal.

“Sister Maureen,” I said, “can I go sit in the library?”

“What’s wrong? Don’t you feel well?”

“I’m great, Sister. But this movie is not.”

Sister Maureen wrinkled her nose. “You’re right. But it’s the only one we could get.” You know a movie’s bad when a kid would rather do his homework. Especially this kid.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

TV: Scream Queens

By rights, Scream Queens should have been crap. It is, after all, part of VH1’s reality lineup, in which hustlers and fame whores acquire wisdom and disease via hot tub. The premise: ten aspiring starlets share a house (again with the communal living, reality TV?) while competing for a role in the upcoming Saw VI. But Scream Queens, in spite of itself, became DVR-worthy. I learned more about acting in its brief run than I have from years of Inside the Actors’ Studio.

Each episode is as rigorously structured as a Feydeau farce. In Act I, Saw actress Shawnee Smith leads the ladies through an acting exercise informed by the realities of low-budget horror. Sometimes you have to create a character while drenched in fake blood. Or make ridiculous dialogue believable, hence a recreation of a scene from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in which you play a disembodied head. Low budget means varying acting ability, so your scene partner will be a gorgeous male model incapable of human emotion.

Next up, workshop. John Homa, possessed of the righteous prick demeanor and facility for gnomic utterance essential for any acting coach, puts the girls through their paces. At times his tactics seem dubious. More often than not they’re unhinged: locking a bunch of twenty-somethings in the drawer at an abandoned morgue? But there’s Method to his madness. The morgue bit, for example, prepares each actress to play a character facing death. (OK, it’s still ridiculous. But it’s great TV.)

At this point there’s some filler about “tension in the house,” but the show’s heart isn’t in it; you can sense the producers thinking, “Hey, this acting stuff is actually interesting.” The ladies bring all they’ve learned to bear on the director’s challenge in which they work with James Gunn, the Troma vet who made the delirious Slither. The outcomes can be genuinely surprising. In one episode an early favorite, a striking actress with real chops who occasionally made baffling choices, waited until cameras were about to roll before telling Gunn that she was uncomfortable with kissing another woman. She was cut at the end of the episode for unprofessional behavior. That this was presented as an ethical dilemma – and that we got the girl-on-girl action anyway with a different actress – demonstrates the program’s particular genius.

There’s also a nice mix of personalities among the contestants. Like Lindsay, a former child actress working through confidence issues. (Politically incorrect aside to Lindsay: in addition to being skilled, you also have the best rack on the show. Do not be afraid to use it. This is Saw VI we’re talking about here, not Mother Courage.) And Tanedra, the oldest and least trained of the ten, who has undeniable raw talent. Both of my favorites made it to the Final Girl stage. Can I spot ‘em or what? I am Flo Ziegfeld reborn.

It’s been said that it takes as much work to make a bad movie as a good one. Scream Queens drives that point home. Episodes are still airing, or you can watch them at VH1’s website.

Miscellaneous: Radio, Radio

The peerless Bill Nighy stars as Simon Brett’s dissolute actor-cum-sleuth Charles Paris in Dead Side of the Mic for BBC Radio. The four-part series airs on Wednesdays, and you can hear each installment online for the next week. Hat tip to Ed Gorman.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Music: You Got EBN In My OZN!

The MTV Music video database expands. Gaspo, this one is for you. Still not enough Adam and the Ants, though. Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd look owes something to EBN. It’s amazing we communicate at all. Languages and dialects ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Books: A Pair of Hard Cases

Steve Fisher netted an Oscar nod for Destination Tokyo, and his name appears on the writing credits of some interesting noir films. Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart. Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person camera take on Chandler, Lady in the Lake. The singularly odd City That Never Sleeps, narrated by Chicago incarnate. He was also a novelist perhaps best known for I Wake Up Screaming, a tale of the showbiz margins turned into an offbeat B-movie.

Hard Case Crime has brought Fisher back into print with “a novel of Las Vegas,” and brother, is it a doozy. No House Limit (1958) is the story of Joe Martin, the last independent casino owner on the Strip. The Syndicate is out to break him, though, and to do it they’ve brought in Bello, gambler extraordinaire – but he’s only the opening salvo in the battle. It’s also the story of Mal Davis, the two-bit lounge act who falls hard for Bello’s girl.

Fisher knows the city inside and out. He opens each chapter with an icy, clinical paragraph explaining some facet of how Las Vegas actually works. And he takes pains to show that neon lights burn through small dreams as well as big ones. Throw in an afterword by Fisher’s son Michael that includes excerpts from his father’s original outline, and you have one of Hard Case’s best recent titles.

I’d been given the advance word on David J. Schow’s Gun Work by someone in the know a few months back: “pure gun porn.” The billing was accurate. Iraq war vet Barney heads to Mexico to offer what he thinks is help to a guy he considers a friend after the apparent kidnapping of said guy’s wife. Attentive readers may discern that all is not as it appears. An orgy of violence follows, leavened by Schow’s mordant wit and sharp turns of phrase. Fast, brutal, and over the top. Barney even learns a few life lessons. And there are luchadores. What more could you want?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

More premature nostalgia.

The Greatest Show on Earth is widely regarded as one of the worst Best Picture Oscar winners. It beat High Noon and The Quiet Man, although considering that The Bad and The Beautiful and Singin’ in the Rain weren’t nominated that year, it’s safe to say that errors had been made even earlier in the process. If I’m going to begrudge Cecil B. DeMille’s big top extravaganza anything, it’s that its win for Best Story came at the expense of the noir classics The Narrow Margin and The Sniper.

I was in no hurry to see it until we visited Sarasota, Florida. For decades, the Ringling brothers used the town as the winter headquarters for their circus operations. DeMille shot some of the movie in Sarasota, and it had its world premiere there. A section of the John and Mable Ringling Museum is devoted to it. Numerous props including the model used in the justly celebrated train wreck are on display, and the film plays on a constant loop. But that’s not the way I wanted to experience it.

DeMille gives himself a pompous and unnecessary voiceover. That Oscar-winning story? Utterly predictable. Show this movie to a lost tribe that had never seen a film before, and, after marveling at the magic box of color and sound, they would say, “Blondie runs off with Mr. Fancy Pants, right?”

Charlton Heston lets his jacket and hat do the heavy lifting and treats the rest of his role as an exercise: how unlikable can I make this guy and still have the movie work? Betty Hutton looks the part of a trapeze artist but is out of her depth playing her torn between two lovers scenes. The fun is in the supporting ranks. The undervalued Cornel Wilde as an aerialist with a gigolo’s swagger, Gloria Grahame’s seen-it-all type, Lawrence Tierney menacing on the sidelines. Legendary clown Emmett Kelly shows tremendous artistry in his handful of scenes.

And speaking of clowns, there’s Jimmy Stewart as a fugitive from the law hiding out with the circus. Consequently he never takes off his white face make-up, lending a creepy serial killer vibe to the proceedings.

Show is pure, uncut hokum, one of those movies that is hugely entertaining without actually being good. Did it deserve its Best Picture Oscar? No. But I understand why it won, and under the right circumstances could even see voting for it myself.

Rosemarie has always had a soft spot for it. She occasionally quotes one of Grahame’s lines, uttered after the train wreck: “I’ll bring every elephant that can walk. And the ones that can’t walk, I’ll carry.” Her voice always breaks on that last word. For all her chic elegance, my wife is a complete sucker for that show-must-go-on stuff.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Books: Long-Time Listener, First-Time Reader

Meme time. Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet called me out earlier today. The rules:

1. List the authors you read in 2008 who were new to you, regardless of the year of publication.

2. Bold the ones that were debuts (first novel, published in 2008).

3. Tag some people.

I’m going to change them slightly, counting debuts from mid-2007 on. I’m including a pair of titles that I haven’t read yet but will finish by month’s end. And I’ll copy from Jeff and go with two lists. First, fiction authors who were new to me.

• Peter Spiegelman (Red Cat)
• Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road)
• Ray Banks (Saturday’s Child)
• Joseph Weisberg (An Ordinary Spy)
Tom Epperson (The Kind One)
• David Levien (City of the Sun)
Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)
• Shepard Rifkin (The Murderer Vine)
• Anthony Neil Smith (Yellow Medicine)
• Ian Rankin (Knots and Crosses)
Adrienne Barbeau & Michael Scott (Vampyres of Hollywood)
• Tom Piccirilli (The Fever Kill)
Derek Haas (The Silver Bear)
• James Patrick Hunt (The Betrayers)
• Dave Zeltserman (Small Crimes)
• Michael Koryta (Envy the Night)
• Jerry Kennealy (Still Shot)
• Simon Kernick (The Business of Dying)
• Bill Cameron (Chasing Smoke)
• Steve Fisher (No House Limit)
Stieg Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
• Charles Cumming (A Spy By Nature)

Vampyres of Hollywood marks Adrienne Barbeau’s debut as a novelist, so it gets bolded. And yes, I am admitting that I am a crime fiction fan who prior to this year had never read any Ian Rankin. I’m sure each of you have similar shameful admissions of your own. And I did start with the first of the Rebus books, so give me some credit.

Next up, non-fiction authors I read for the first time.

Kelly DiNardo (Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique)
Stephen Marks (Confessions of a Political Hit Man)
• Hugh Wilford (The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America)
Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood)
• David Hajdu (The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America)
Melissa Plaut (Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Starting Driving a Yellow Cab)
• Matt Taibbi (The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire)
Philip Delves Broughton (Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School)
• Dan Kennedy (Rock On: An Office Power Ballad)

Feel free to leave your own list in the comments. As for tagging people, I don’t want to impose. Although I will say that such a list drafted by Bill Crider would be something to see ...

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive.

Cocktails: Class of the Glass

The New York Times devotes today’s Dining section to cocktail culture, even seeing fit to give my man Murray Stenson at the Zig Zag CafĂ© his very own action shot. I was astounded at how many of the bars mentioned I’ve been to, and was filled with both pride and shame. An experience that is not entirely new to me.

The lead article is on the resurgence of the White Russian, spurred by The Big Lebowski. I confess that as much as I love Lebowski, I have never ordered a Caucasian, nor do I intend to.

I was more interested in this piece on cocktail geeks. I’m not sure if I could call myself one of them. I have never made my own vermouth, and set the bar pretty low when it comes to ice. (If it’s cold, that’s good enough for me.) On the other hand, I too have little use for vodka and can pinpoint my own moment of conversion: entering the Zig Zag for the first time, telling Ben that I wanted to learn about rye whiskey, and being poured a Red Hook. From then on, I was a new man.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Miscellaneous: Thanksgiving Roundup

Chasing Smoke
, by Bill Cameron (2008). Oregon homicide detective ‘Skin’ Kadash is supposed to be on disability while he undergoes cancer treatment. But his ex-partner comes to him with a case he can’t resist: several prominent men, all apparent suicides, all patients of Skin’s oncologist. It’s an involving mystery built around a memorable character in Kadash, a brusque, doggedly unsentimental man forced by his illness to deal with the transcendent even as he copes with countless personal indignities. I hope he makes it. I’d like to hear from him again.

The Tall Target (1951). I never pass up a chance to catch an Anthony Mann movie. Some veteran noir hands spin a historical footnote about Abraham Lincoln’s secretive train ride to his inauguration into a taut thriller. Dick Powell plays the New York cop determined to foil an assassination attempt. (His character is named John Kennedy.) Powell’s brief speech to an impossibly young and beautiful Ruby Dee about his reaction to Lincoln as a man and a leader is a model of Mann’s forceful yet understated style. TCM aired it because it’s featured in Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery by John DiLeo. A book I now have to read.

Ca$h (2008). My affection for OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies lingers. First I bought the DVD days after renting it. Then I ordered this movie from IFC Festival Direct because it also stars Jean DuJardin. Here he’s a small-time con artist bent on taking down Europe’s premiere thief (Jean Reno). Twist heaped upon turn, charismatic actors, lovely locations. The French, they have a word for it: divertissement. It depressed me no end to learn that the French now also say “chill” and “total hottie.” C’est la vie. DuJardin plays it straight in a film adapted from a Lawrence Block novel. Eyes will be peeled for that one.

Transporter 3 (2008). The latest entry in my favorite junk franchise is the least and the least intelligible. Literally; I understood every third non-Statham word. But I don’t go for the dialogue. I wanted over-the-top action and got enough. Read Christa Faust’s take for your word of the day.