Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Guest Post: Books, Movies and a Beardy Scotsman, by Russel D. McLean

No, don’t run away. I know I’m not quite as rakishly handsome as your usual blog host, the marvellous Vince Keenan. But don’t let the beard scare you. I may be Scottish, but I don’t bite. I’m not related to Sawney Bean.

My name is Russel D. McLean, and I am an alcoho... I mean, an author. An author of dark and deadly crime stories set on the east coast of Scotland in the city of Dundee. I’ve been spending the last week invading blogs in an attempt to spread the word about my latest US release, The Lost Sister. So let’s get the marketing out of the way and say that people have been very kind about the book and its predecessor, The Good Son. Both are PI novels in the grand American tradition, but set in modern Scotland with all that entails. Dig what Vince had to say about the first book right here. They’re available now in hardcover and e-format from those wonderful folks at St Martin’s Press.

Every day I’ve been covering a different topic. I’ve talked about everything from the city of Dundee’s dark side to my own journey of discovery as a writer. I’ve even listed my top 10 books. You’d think by now I’d have run out of things to say. Well, you’d be wrong, brother. Because an innocuous answer to an upcoming interview got me thinking about movies. And when I remember that Vince loves to talk movies, including his great Sundays with Hitchcock series, I knew what I’d be yakking about here.


Because despite what you think, there’s as much influence to be found in movies as there is in prose. And any modern author who claims not to be literate in the language of movies is plain kidding themselves.

I grew up on movies. My dad loved ‘em, and he passed that love on to me. When I was young we’d seek out the few remaining Saturday Matinees. Older movies. Great movies. We still quote Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester (“the vessel with the pestle has the pill that will kill ...”) and double over with laughter. When I got older, he introduced me to films I needed to see. We went to Perth cinema to watch the first two Godfather films over two nights. We travelled to Kirkcaldy just to watch two Bogey movies back to back. We saw some weird stuff (I think we were maybe one of the only people in the cinema for the sadly ignored Trigger Happy) but we always talked about what we saw, same as we did with books.

So I figured, since I did a top ten of my favourite crime novels for Declan Burke a few days ago, I’d do something similar for Vince with crime movies. This is a carefully selected list of movies that had an immediate effect on me or that I come back to time and again. Some films are floating just above this list (I know some people will ask where Goodfellas is, and while it nearly made it, I couldn’t justify the effect it had on me at the time compared to other films) and some may be curiously absent due to gaps in my film knowledge. Some films that I come back to again and again are mere comfort food (The Big Easy and Midnight Run) and some films I may just have forgotten about during composition. After all with only ten spots and so many great films, you just have to go on instinct.

10) Point Blank – Decades later Mel Gibson would make an inferior film by the name of Payback. But this is the closest we’ve ever come to seeing professional criminal Parker – from the novels by Richard Stark – on screen. Lee Marvin is simply perfect in this role, conveying menace with the minimum of movement and dialogue. Okay, a few sequences (the nightclub) are relics of their time, but as a whole this is pretty much a masterpiece of a movie. Why it doesn’t have a release on R2, I’ll never understand.

9) Bullitt – That car chase. Steve McQueen’s stoic portrayal of Frank Bullitt. That car chase. Pretty much one of the most perfect and concise crime movies ever shot.

8) In the Heat of the Night – I still to this day love the story of Rod Steiger going to an audition years after this was released and being asked if he could “play a bigoted Southern sheriff”. In the Heat of the Night is a perfect little movie; a perfect time capsule of a time and place. Steiger and Poitier are the perfect double act, and the film refuses to pull its punches.

7) The Limey – An updating in many ways of Point Blank, The Limey features Terrence Stamp as an English con just out of jail and coming to America to find the man who killed his daughter. It's funnier than you might expect and yet the rage emanating from Stamp is electrifying and the final revelations are heartbreaking. “Tell him I’m fucking coming!”.

6) The Big Lebowski – Probably the only post-millennium film on my list, it's just a genius screenplay and a perfectly cast movie. There’s a reason it's become a cult, and quite honestly, man I’m thinking of converting to the recently founded church of Dudeism. That’s like, man, once I find my rug. It really tied the room together ...

5) North by Northwest – “That’s funny. That plane’s dustin’ crops, where there ain’t no crops.” A brilliantly constructed, tense little movie that’s a perfect product of its time and still stands up as a perfect adventure film. The least exciting part, if I’m honest, is the finale. But the sequence on the train, the moment where “Mr Kaplan” tries to make an escape while drugged, and of course that sequence in the corn fields… all absolutely brilliant. And Cary Grant is perfect as the suave but slightly dangerous Roger Thornhill (just watch the movie and you realise he’s just a little bit more callous than your average hero)

4) The Maltese Falcon – Bogart’s going to appear time and again on this list, I’m afraid. Yes, he plays basically the same part every time with minor variations but he’s so damn good at it. I first saw this in a double bill with THE BIG SLEEP thanks to my dad’s influence. Gutman, the fat man, is one of the screen’s greatest bad guys without ever appearing to do anything evil on screen and he gets one of my favourite lines: “I like to talk to a man who likes to talk.”

3) Psycho – I first saw this at the Steps Theatre in Dundee. I went with my flatmate who thought he was in for a cheesy evening. But the film still holds up remarkably and it says a lot that the moment where the detective creeps up the stairs to mother’s room and ... oooo, well, I can’t say what happens, but it elicited a scream of terror from a member of the audience. A member of an audience watching the film some thirty-odd years after it was made. There’s the sign of a good movie.

2) The Godfather (all 3 of ‘em) – No, listen to me. Don’t walk away. Part 3 is nowhere near the same level as one and two but it provides a kind of closure, like the gentle fading out of a classical piece of music. It is the end of the story, and when we see Michael’s final fate an air of wistfulness permeates the frame. That said, your mileage for three may vary but you cannot and will not deny the sheer power of one and two.

1) The Big Sleep – A perfect script. A perfect cast. Bogart and Bacall just sizzle there on the screen, and the dialogue is perfect. “I enjoyed your drink as much as you did, sir.” “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up” “My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!” and so many others. This is the movie that made me want to write private eye novels. And is it a coincidence that the book also made it to my number one slot?

So there you are. Ten movies that influenced me as a movie goer, as a crime fan, as a crime writer. I love all these films in different ways, and I think that each of them probably played a part in my development as a storyteller. Because as a novelist you don’t just want to pay attention to your own medium. You need to keep your eyes and ears open. The silver screen has a lot to teach us about storytelling. And vice-versa of course …