First lesson: It’s pronounced Para-DEEN, not Para-DINE. I’ve been getting the title of this Alfred Hitchcock courtroom drama wrong for years.
Second lesson: Never let it be said that Hitch didn’t make a bad movie. Because The Paradine Case stinks on ice. How bad is it? I didn’t turn it off, because I vowed to watch every Hitchcock film and I pride myself on being thorough. But a Scrabble board did make an appearance partway through the proceedings.
Maddalena Paradine is accused of poisoning her much older retired colonel husband. He was also blind, because if you’re gonna stack a deck you might as well shoot the moon. Her attorney is Gregory Peck, who promptly falls for Mrs. Paradine and compromises both his marriage and her defense. The rest is hokum; it’s a strain on my memory to recall even that much of the plot.
Paradine was the last collaboration between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, and the tension in their relationship is evident in the film. Selznick is credited with the screenplay, and if ever a movie was written by its producer this is it. Critical events happen off-screen and are relayed to us after the fact. Peck’s wife and her friend Greek chorus their way through the trial, underlining the blatantly obvious for those not paying attention (maybe because they’re too busy trying to land on those coveted triple word score squares). And Peck’s feelings for his client are never dramatized, simply asserted.
The casting, a bone of contention between Hitchcock and Selznick, further compromises the movie. Peck is wildly out of place as a barrister. I know actors and audiences weren’t as particular about accents then, but hearing that oh-so-American voice break out the m’lords is too much. Selznick discovery Alida Valli never registers as the alleged object of his affection, the worst-written part in the film. And how do you underuse Charles Laughton?
The few overtly Hitchcockian flourishes – shadows of clouds scudding across Valli’s face during an interview with Peck – come across as desperate attempts to liven up staid material. A passage where Peck visits the forbidding Paradine estate briefly grants Hitch firm footing on the Gothic ground he knew so well, but it’s too little too late.
An interview with the director excerpted on the DVD reveals that he essentially disowned the film because of Selznick’s interference throughout production. I hereby do likewise. Making matters worse, I also lost at Scrabble.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
First lesson: It’s pronounced Para-DEEN, not Para-DINE. I’ve been getting the title of this Alfred Hitchcock courtroom drama wrong for years.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Tamara Drewe (2010). The latest film from director Stephen Frears slipped briefly into theaters under cover of darkness last year. A funny, sexy, literate romp, it’s well worth catching up with on DVD. Set in and around a writers’ retreat, it throws together a hugely successful and deeply fatuous crime novelist (Roger Allam), his long-suffering wife (Tamsin Greig), an academic constipated in every conceivable sense, the title character (Gemma Arterton) who has returned to the village where she grew up, two teenage girls who are desperate to leave, and a host of other characters. A textured movie that surprises throughout, it’s based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds (shrewdly adapted by Moira Buffini) that in turn updates Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. (Not that I am so versed in the work of Thomas Hardy. I had to learn that elsewhere. If it were based on the work of Frank and Joe Hardy, that I would have figured out on my own.) The marketing campaign consisted entirely of Gemma Arterton in hot pants; even though the scene in question lasts only a few moments and makes sense in terms of the story, it’s exploited repeatedly on the DVD’s special features. A splendid sight to be sure, but it sells the movie, um, short. Featuring the best ill-timed will-you-sign-your-book-for-me? moment ever, it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in the literary life.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945). This Robert Siodmak film screened at Noir City in San Francisco but didn’t make the trip to the Seattle fest, so I was pleased to find it on Netflix Instant. George Sanders plays Uncle Harry, a New England bachelor who lives in a rambling home with his two sisters. When Harry falls for Ella Raines, Geraldine Fitzgerald decides she’s not going to share her brother with anyone. Psychosexual tension galore, deftly dealt with in the face of the censors of the time. Raines’ character is allowed to be smart, sending the film down some unexpected paths. Sanders is quite touching, and Fitzgerald is, as usual, a powerhouse. The ending, alas, is a complete cheat, but you’ll know the real climax when you see it.
Sleep, My Love (1948). Also streaming on Netflix. The second movie I watched in as many days in which doctored hot chocolate is essential to the plot. Such is the life I lead. Claudette Colbert is a New York socialite who wakes up on a train to Boston with a gun in her purse and no memory of how she got there. What follows is a variation on Gaslight, with Don Ameche as the scheming husband. But it’s served up with uncommon flair, thanks to a sophisticated screenplay co-written by Leo Rosten from his novel and skillful direction by Douglas Sirk before he entered his lush melodrama phase. The movie’s secret weapon is Robert Cummings, his delivery so sharp and fresh his scenes could have been filmed yesterday. Also with the gorgeous Hazel Brooks, hell-bent on finishing her dialogue as quickly as possible.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Everyone has their limits, some act of cruelty that they don’t care to see rendered onscreen. For me it’s any disrespect paid to a dead body. I’ve never watched Weekend at Bernie’s for that reason. Much less Weekend at Bernie’s II. My God, what that poor man went through …
It’s therefore a sign of Alfred Hitchcock’s skill that I was able to enjoy his black comedy The Trouble with Harry, in which the entire plot revolves around a corpse that is buried and dug up repeatedly.
Gorgeous credits establish the mood, Bernard Herrmann’s first score for the Master playing over a child’s drawing of the bucolic setting in which mystery man Harry turns up stiff. We transition to the leafy magnificence of the Vermont locations, the screen bursting with color. Harry’s dead up in the woods, and most of the local residents have a reason to blame themselves for his demise. Hence the repeated spadework.
Harry has a very English feel - that’s where the original novel by Jack Trevor Story unfolded - and would function better in that setting. The dynamic in the town would certainly make more sense, as would the madcap painter who comes across as a neo-Beat. Cary Grant or David Niven, for instance, would have been ideal. (Dream actor for the role: Leslie Howard.) Still, the very American John Forsythe does his best with a tricky characterization. And the rest of the cast – Edmund Gwenn, Mildred Natwick, and especially Shirley MacLaine in her screen debut – is perfect.
The shenanigans start out as arch, occasionally veering into twee. But Hitchcock eventually establishes a more interesting tone, using fades between scenes to lend the film the feel of an adult fable. By the close, it has struck a note of silliness spiked with gravitas. Life goes on in the midst of death, and Hitchcock finds the notion both right and rather amusing. Harry is a slight bit of business, but it’s a film no one else could have pulled off.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
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 …
Friday, March 18, 2011
In conversations about Alfred Hitchcock, Topaz doesn’t come up. It’s not one of Hitch’s weird psychological movies like Marnie that has a cadre of ardent admirers. It’s simply never mentioned. Going in, I wasn’t even sure what it was about.
It’s about the Cold War, inspired by a scandal that occurred in the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s about two and a half hours long. Considering that it’s based on a novel by Leon Uris, whose books snap the needle on the Michener meter, that’s no small accomplishment on the part of Hitchcock and screenwriter Samuel A. Taylor (Vertigo).
The globetrotting thriller opens in Copenhagen, with a Soviet official and his family defecting to the U.S. in the care of intelligence operative John Forsythe. Upon learning about the Russians’ plans in the Caribbean, Forsythe reaches out to a French counterpart (Frederick Stafford) for assistance. Stafford journeys to New York, Washington and Cuba to confirm the threat at great risk to both life and career. He then returns to Paris where he must square off against the title spy ring, a group of officials in his own government who are relaying information to Moscow.
In many ways Topaz feels like Hitchcock’s reaction to his disappointments on his previous film Torn Curtain. The studio forced stars on him; here he relies on a cast of little-known European actors. There is no love story. Stafford and his wife are jaded sophisticates, each having an affair that has bearing on the plot. Hitchcock puts the narrative squarely at the center, emphasizing tradecraft and the incremental gathering of knowledge and not his flamboyant visuals. He allows himself one “Hitchcock” moment in the Cuba section, a dazzling overhead shot granted additional impact because it stands alone.
The director’s genius expresses itself in more subtle ways. Like the cunning use of silence during the set piece in Harlem, where the Cuban legation to the U.N. stayed. We don’t hear Stafford’s instructions to his agent Roscoe Lee Browne, and when Browne tries to suborn a Cuban official we watch their conversation from across the street, filling in the blanks ourselves. Hitchcock takes this adult approach throughout.
Poor responses during test screenings led to changes in the film’s ending. The DVD print uses the climax Hitchcock preferred, but the disc includes the intriguing original coda and the slapdash one put together for the American release. Watching the Washington scenes I became convinced that several of the same locations were used in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading. It’s the kind of oblique tribute I wouldn’t put past those scamps.
Topaz is low-key but consistently engrossing, a procedural with a markedly Continental feel. It’s atypical Hitchcock, more akin to The Day of the Jackal than any of his own films. Hitch partisans may not care for it, but I do.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The whole frightful business begins with the discovery of a corpse in the library at Tawcester Towers (pronounced “Taster,” as people of refinement such as yourselves are no doubt aware). It’s between the wars, don’t you know, when England stood astride the globe like something really rather large, when all was cricket, and when the right sort of people were in charge. People like Devereaux Lyminster, youngest son of the Duke of Tawcester, called Blotto even though he seldom drinks. “Amongst people of his class it was thought bad form for nicknames to have logical explanations; they were items to be scattered about with random largesse, like small donations to charity.” Not to mention Blotto’s beautiful and relentlessly capable sister Lady Honoria, known to all as Twinks. The siblings, with the aid of a discreet butler, a saucy housemaid, and a possibly psychotic chauffeur, will untangle the business of the corpse in the library, even if they have to venture all the way to the besieged and benighted nation of Mitteleuropia to do so.
The fact that Simon Brett feels free to make up countries should tell you all you need to know. Brett channels P. G. Wodehouse in this very funny book that is not afraid to get deeply silly. He also mercilessly skewers every convention of the Golden Age mystery; you will never look at idiosyncratic but basically lovable rustic eyewitnesses the same way again. If the notion of a Central European retreat dubbed Bad Vibesz or conversation “as stilted as a twelve-foot clown” doesn’t amuse, well, then perhaps you’d better look elsewhere for your entertainment. But why would you? My thanks to Mystery File for bringing this corker to my attention.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Alfred Hitchcock’s final film has its admirers, including Rosemarie. I don’t know why I’d never seen it. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of Hitch’s previous movie Frenzy and wish that had been his curtain call: a psychological thriller brimming with black humor and shot on the streets of London. Or maybe I’m still holding out hope of a comeback, that somehow there’ll be another new Hitchcock. But I don’t abide magical thinking. Let’s put this one to bed.
Family Plot announces itself as an odd duck from the start. Barbara Harris (wonderful) plays a bogus psychic whose spirit guide sounds a lot like Sydney Greenstreet. A client offers her ten thousand dollars to find a nephew put up for adoption decades earlier so that he can be made an heir. Harris’ cab driver boyfriend (Bruce Dern) turns out to be a decent detective, and soon is on the trail. But the nephew, played by William Devane, has been a bad boy – he’s carrying out a series of shrewdly orchestrated kidnappings with his girlfriend Karen Black – and is in no hurry to be found, blithely unaware that the bumbling twosome dogging his steps can make him legitimately wealthy.
The cast is the film’s best feature. Considering Devane played this silky psychotic the same year as his memorable turn in Marathon Man, it’s a wonder he ever worked again. (Devane said Hitchcock’s main direction was “think William Powell.” When Devane proved initially unavailable, Hitchcock cast Roy Thinnes in the part. Thinnes still appears in several long shots.) The script by Hitch’s North by Northwest cohort Ernest Lehman has a rambling quality suitable to its time that occasionally verges on Altmanesque, especially whenever Dern’s loquacious loser is onscreen. Hitchcock underscores the seedy vibe by shooting in nondescript corners of the Northern California landscape he loved.
At this point Hitch was set in his ways. The rear projection he insisted on using looks terrible and feels woefully out of place in a film made in the 1970s. A comic car chase is simply leaden. But Hitchcock could still work his magic. A slow-building crane shot at a cemetery keeps Dern and his quarry in the frame to amusing effect. And the wit and playful spirit is intact. Family Plot is a shaggy dog story of a movie, taking its time to reach a payoff that’s never in doubt. But the trip is an engaging one. There are worse ways of leaving the stage.
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
Some book posts should simply be a photo of the cover and the words READ THIS. This novel – spare, haunting, meticulously assembled – deserves to be the best-seller here that it was in Japan.
Ishigami is a math teacher who keeps to a strict routine, and to himself. His only indulgence is a deep, unspoken affection for Yasuko, the divorced mother living next door. He gets an unusual chance to come to her aid when she kills her ex-husband after he threatens her and her daughter. Ishigami puts his fearsome intellect to work creating a flawless alibi. What he doesn’t know is that an old college friend, every bit as brilliant, works as a consultant for the police. Soon he’s matching wits with a most dangerous adversary: someone who knows and likes him.
Mathematics and Ishigami’s appreciation of its beauty is a constant theme, and one can’t help drawing parallels to the book itself. There is a simplicity to its language and its storytelling that is indistinguishable from elegance. Higashino, one of Japan’s most popular authors, weaves in fully wrought characters one at a time, slowly expanding the world as Ishigami’s action draws him out of his shell. It’s possible to read Suspect X as a meta critique of the age-old literary versus genre fiction debate. Only by hewing to a structure can it access the deep wells of emotion at its conclusion. Like a proof, it methodically follows rules to reveal a powerful, almost overwhelming truth.
So yeah. READ THIS.
Monday, March 07, 2011
The McCoy Tyner Quintet. Might as well kick things off by seeing a legend in person. Tyner is one of the great jazz pianists and a living link to John Coltrane. (He played on A Love Supreme, people.) At Jazz Alley, he was backed by a brace of sterling musicians: Gary Bartz on saxophone, John Patitucci on bass, Herlin Riley on drums and the one and only Bill Frisell on guitar. Each had his moments to shine, but all were happy to defer to the master at the keyboard. Their rendition of Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” was pure joy. The show was packed, to the extent that I was initially concerned about our seats at the side of the stage. But that’s where the boys hung out right before they were introduced. And we were positioned perfectly to see Mr. Tyner’s face throughout the set, issuing signs like a wily catcher calling a close game behind the plate. I may request those seats in the future.
Local 360. Dinner was terrific at this new locavore restaurant, but what do I know? I’m no foodie. Of greater interest was the application of their philosophy to the cocktail menu. I had a Manhattan made with Desert Lightning corn whisky from the Yakima Valley. The whisky’s sharp, almost astringent taste was reminiscent of moonshine – yes, I’ve had moonshine – and resisted blending with the vermouth. The result was not entirely successful. But damned if I don’t want another one.
The Adjustment Bureau (2011). This Philip K. Dick-inspired thriller about a man who stumbles onto the mysterious forces who keep us mere mortals on plan is, at heart, a love story. Its light tone makes a nice change of pace from the usual paranoid intensity. Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have better chemistry than any screen couple in recent memory. Writer/director George Nolfi provides them with some good dialogue. Throw in great New York locations and fine haberdashery and I was happy to go along for the ride.
No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948). James Hadley Chase’s 1939 novel about a kidnapping gone wrong, and then really wrong, is one of the premier WTF reading experiences, with jaw-dropping, mind-bending and occasionally eye-rolling plot twists all the way to the closing paragraphs. This lurid U.K. adaptation, its cast of English actors Noo Yawkin’ it up, kept some lulus that an American version would never have gotten away with, but still had to water the strongest stuff down. Despite gutting Chase’s book, it remains deeply nuts.
Friday, March 04, 2011
A particular scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain came up in reference to a project I’m working on. I’d seen the sequence in question several times – it’s one of those signature Hitchcock moments that is regularly excerpted and studied – but never in context, because Torn Curtain is one of the Hitchcock films that I’d missed. I set out to rectify that at once. And because I never do anything in half-measures, desperately crave structure, and need something to stave off the crippling ennui that attacks at the end of every weekend, I decided to devote Sunday evenings to Hitchcock films that are new to me, along with some that I want to revisit.
Torn Curtain finds Hitch working with a script credited to the brilliant novelist Brian Moore and indirectly inspired by l’affair Guy Burgess. Physicist Paul Newman arrives for a conference in Copenhagen with his assistant/fiancée Julie Andrews but then takes an unannounced detour to Berlin, where he defects. A flummoxed Andrews follows him, but of course our all-American boy isn’t really switching sides. He’s simply taking a brief foray behind the Iron Curtain to see what the Reds know about missile defense. It’s a deeply flawed premise: Newman’s harebrained scheme is without government sanction, aided only by a poorly-defined civilian intelligence network. And it’s all so Newman can steal information from the Russians that he can’t figure out on his own. Not exactly the strongest position to put our protagonist in.
The script is a series of set pieces, the best of them the one I already knew. At a secret meeting with his contact Newman is surprised by his Stasi handler and must take drastic action to keep his ruse alive. Done without music, it’s a lengthy, grueling sequence meant to demonstrate how physically difficult it is to kill someone. Hitchcock at his best, this passage makes Torn Curtain worthwhile all by itself.
The other set pieces are good ideas in theory – a slow-motion chase involving a bogus bus operated by the intelligence network, a bit with Lily Kedrova as an exiled Polish noblewoman who may or may not aid Newman and Andrews in their escape to the West – but muddled in execution. The climax cleverly pays off a running gag about a prima ballerina, but is too reminiscent of the ending of The Man Who Knew Too Much. That the stars have little chemistry doesn’t help matters. Both leads were forced on Hitchcock by the studio. In addition, he had a falling out with longtime collaborator Bernard Herrmann that ended their relationship.
It was a troubled production, and the seams show. Aside from one episode of brilliance Torn Curtain is a misfire. It’s utterly impersonal yet thoroughly competent. Even when Hitchcock’s heart wasn’t in his work and he clearly feared losing his way, he was still able to bring his talent to bear. Which makes Torn Curtain thrilling in a completely different way.