THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (March, 2017 Edition)

Previous rules apply… Reverse order. Umpteenth viewing means it’s a lot and too much trouble to count. Etc….42 days, 10 movies)

February 6-Where Eagles Dare (967, Brian Hutton, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the crackerjack plot (not usually the first thing that comes to mind in a thriller). For the headlong fusion of momentum and anarchy that Quentin Tarantino and his arty acolytes are forever running out of breath trying to catch. For Richard Burton’s voice, which could make lines like “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” sing. And for the Polish actress, Ingrid Pitt, who has maybe ten minutes of screen time and who, if she had been allowed to kill as many Germans as the perfectly respectable female lead, Mary Ure, would have been the sexiest thing in the history of film. She’s pretty close as it is.

February 12-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (962, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

I always watch top-tier John Ford films with an idea of getting to the bottom of them. I never do. What, you think it’s possible to get to the bottom of a film where  Ken Maynard’s seventh billed Doc Willoughby is in a bar, falling off his feet, declaiming “Gettysburg? You’ve heard of Gettysburg? Two hundred and forty-two amputations in one…” and, the fifteenth time you watch it, you realize that he’s just explained why there are so many drunken doctors in post-Civil War westerns? Or that anyone but Ford would have cut the line off so that you never know One What?…Day? Week? Battle? Hour?

Okay, Robert Altman maybe…but he would have insisted on you noticing.

February 13-Dial M for Murder (1954, Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

So I can feel chic, of course. Not an everyday occurrence but sometimes even I have to digress from the norm. I save this for the rare occasions when I don’t want to feel like I’m seeing too much of how the world is made. That’s what happens when I watch Andrew Davis’s superb (I’d even say superior) 90s remake, A Perfect Murder. Sometimes you just need to escape into a world where John Williams’ dour Scotland Yard Chief Inspector can handle Ray Milland as he smiles and smiles and remains such a perfect villain you can easily imagine him wanting to off Grace Kelly for God’s sake.

February 19-Run of the Arrow (957, Samuel Fuller, First Viewing)

Because it was mostly unavailable and legendary for decades. And it’s a 50s western. Worth the wait? Yes. The fine performances you would expect from Rod Steiger, Brian Keith, Ralph Meeker. Plus a sympathetic view of not only Native Americans, but the staunchest of the Confederate holdouts and their own curious brand of honor. On a first viewing I didn’t come away thinking I’d seen a masterpiece. But it was moving and intriguing enough for me to know this won’t be my last visit…And, oh by the way, that’s a poster.

February 19-The Lion in Winter (968, Anthony Harvey, Second Viewing)

To see–and hear–Pete and Kate converse. Not as good as Becket (which just missed this list). Not as good as a local stage version I saw a decade or so back. But if you like your politics literate and bit unstable…

February 20-Blow Out (981, Brian DePalma, Third Viewing)

Speaking of unstable. For the modern zeitgeist. For career best performances from John Travolta, John Lithgow and, especially, Nancy Allen (playing the kind of woman who is almost always treated with contempt in American film and American life) and for the one DePalma film I’ve seen that justifies his reputation. I understand the mixed responses, then and now. I didn’t get it the first time I watched it way back when. A subsequent viewing set me straight. This third viewing confirmed its value. The one film from the eighties which had to wait for the world to catch up to it? To everyone’s regret?

Yeah, that could mix a response or two.

February 23-A Fistful of Dollars (964, Sergio Leone, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, because one of the twitter writers I follow (Mark Harris wrote something interesting about the Man With No Name Trilogy. This is my least favorite of the three by far but it’s still pretty entertaining. I kind of like that it takes a classic, flawless story-line and turns it into a fever dream which might even lift the eyebrow of a modern Hollywood producer.**

I realize that’s saying something.

(**Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, was turned into a samurai movie, 1961’s Yojimbo, by Akira Kurosawa, who later successfully sued Leone for copyright infringement, even though neither he nor Leone ever credited Hammett, or, it seems, quite admitted they borrowed from it.)

February 25-Rush Hour (998, Brett Ratner, Third Viewing)

Because I was flipping channels and it was just beginning. And because the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker chemistry jumps off the screen every time. It jumps off the way Fred and Ginger and Myrna and Bill still do. Only modern Hollywood would have wasted the new version on two uninspired sequels and left it at that.

March 20-The Law and Jake Wade (958, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

For perhaps the best of Robert Taylor’s many fine stoic leads. For Richard Widmark’s riveting turn as what amounts to a jilted lover. For the coiling tension in a script that serves as a reminder that spurned friendship can burn as deep as the worst fights between siblings or spouses. For the way Taylor’s shoulders slump at the end of a final showdown that’s on a par with Winchester ’73. (No surprise given John Sturges in the director’s chair.) And for a standout supporting cast, led by Robert Middleton’s sad-eyed outlaw lieutenant and Henry Silva’s messed up kid, always keeping one eye open for the chance to be captain.

March 20-Experiment in Terror (962, Blake Edwards, Umpteenth Viewing)

Crisp. The opening sequence is as good as it gets. It brings the “terror” close enough that it never stops resonating, even in the few relatively mundane spots of what is essentially a well-made procedural. And it’s always worth remembering a time when the sisters next door could be played, believably, by the likes of Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers, even if it comes at the cost of also believing the FBI can protect you.

…Til next time.

SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

virginiahamilton1

josephinetey1charlesportis1

The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

HOUSEOFDIESDREAR1

This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

MISSPYMDISPOSES

“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

truegrit1

The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

TEN THINGS I REALLY BELIEVE

No, really…

(1) I am the reincarnation of Charles Hardin Holley.

buddyholly1

This was revealed to me some time ago and normally I wouldn’t buy it with a three-dollar bill. But the burning bush was very convincing.

(2) Raymond Chandler’s plots were great.

bigsleep3

I mean, just because you don’t know whether the Spirit of Carmen Sternwood, Los Angeles or the American Dream killed the chauffeur…

(3) Not unrelated: Nearly all great prose fiction to date was produced by the Victorians…..

henry-james2

or the Pulps…

hammett1

That’s Mister James and Mister Hammett to you!

(4) The truest definition of rock and roll is as a musically and culturally aspirational train that left the station the first time Antoine Domino’s left hand, a piano and a recording device were put in a room together.

fatsdomino1

(5) The second truest definition of rock and roll is as a corrosively nihilistic trainwreck that, unfortunately, did not simply end the day this sad young man, in what an entire collapsed culture had by then taught him was an act of courage, blew his brains out.

kurtcobain

(6) Not unrelated: “America” is now in the past tense. Sorry, folks, it was an idea whose time had not yet come after all. No pictures available. But there is news at 11:00….Every night!

(7) I don’t believe there was/is such a thing as “The Great American Novel,” but if forced to both convert and choose, my top three contenders in the stretch would be The Deerslayer, The Long Goodbye and True Grit, with The Man in the High Castle coming up on the outside and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sneaking up on the rail.

deerslayer

True confession: I’ve read most of the crit-approved contenders, but I’ve been saving Moby Dick for either old age or “next month” for about thirty years now.

(8) The most abused quotation in the history of quotations is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives.” I went into the reasons here.

(9) Not unrelated: The greatest line in American fiction was uttered in a movie called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which also happens to contain the second most abused quotation in the history of quotations (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) That one gets all the ink, perhaps to keep us from thinking too hard about this:

libertyvalance1

“Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden….Aren’t you proud?”

Well, aren’t we?

(10) If it turns out this is all we were, we did have some things to be proud of…

…so saith the burning bush.

MIDDLEBROW AT HIGH TIDE (Quarterly Book Report: July–September 2014)

To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee–1960; Audio by Sissy Spacek–2006)

TKAMSPACEK

I’ll save any complicated thoughts I have about Lee’s much misunderstood novel (so often perceived by both its admirers and detractors as a rather simple celebration when in fact it was a stark warning) for its own post some day. For now, I’ll just mention that Spacek’s much-admired reading, which I’ve been meaning to get hold of for years, deserves every bit of the lavish praise it has received. A perfect match of narrator and material.

New Hope (Ernest Haycox–1998)

NEWHOPE

A collection of Haycox’s stories from the 1930s, threaded together by some common themes and characters, concluding with his “New Hope” stories, which are a pulp version of Winesburg, Ohio. The stories are romantic but the tone is spare and unsentimental. The best Western pulp writers have received nowhere near the acclaim that the Crime pulps have and that’s a bit unfair. If there’s no one quite at the level of Hammett/Chandler/MacDonald in the genre there is still quite a bit of fine writing and here “The Hour of Fury”–written in the same era as Hammett’s end and Chandler’s beginning by a man who was admired by Faulkner and Hemingway, among others–is easily as good as their short fiction. At three hundred published stories in less than twenty years, I don’t doubt that he wrote too much (and some of that deadline strain shows here and there in this collection) but if three or four dozen were on a level with “Hour” and “Stage to Lordsburg” (the superb source story for John Ford’s monumental Stagecoach, which is available in the Criterion release of that film), then he, like Dorothy Johnson and a few others from the genre, is probably worthy of a look from the Library of America.

Rogue Moon (Algis Budrys–1960)

ROGUEMOON

Hardcore sci-fi from the golden age, meaning it’s a novel of ideas. In this case, the idea is an interesting and rather prescient one. Something is peeking in from another dimension and using the dark side of the moon for a base. The U.S. security state (yes it was already in full swing) has come across the thing and assigned scientists to study it. They keep transporting men (in the manner that would become familiar on Star Trek a few years later) and having them returned in various states of madness because their “other” bodies have experienced death.

So the lead scientist decides that they need a man who courts death–an early Evel Knievel type say.

Good thinking. Especially since the head of personnel has a perfect example in mind and he’s anxious to get the man out of the way so he can have a run at his gorgeous girlfriend.

See, I told you it was a novel of ideas!

In all seriousness, though–given pulp limitations–Budrys does a good enough job of keeping the balance between the human story and the somewhat abstract (he doesn’t over-explain, which is a place where sci-fi so often tends to fail) extra-dimensional elements. I can’t say it was a page-turner, but the pace was lively enough and the ending was both a genuine surprise and–given how little I thought I had invested in the two not-very-likable main characters–oddly touching.

QUARTERLY BOOK REPORT: 3/14 (Walter Mosley Walks the Walk…and I Finally Catch Up)

(NOTE: Since most of my scant reading time is now devoted to material for BWW (all reviews accessible under that category at the right), the Monthly Book Report is, at least for now, going to have to become the Quarterly Book Report. I’ll change back if I start getting time to read more, but, for now, I’ll be lucky to read more than a book or two on my own stick in any given quarter.)

Black Betty

Black Betty (Walter Mosley–1994)

Whenever I start reading a new-to-me detective series written in the American vein (called “hard-boiled” for the usual mix of not-very-good reasons among which bleeding obviousness is actually far from the worst), the first question that always arises is whether it raises the game invented, refined and still (for my money) defined by the Big Three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

Black Betty–the fourth of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins’ series and, as of this week, my introduction–doesn’t exactly lead me to believe that he has raised the game, but it certainly provides some strong evidence that he has at least broadened it.

That’s no small feat.

Since it’s the first Rawlins (and the first Mosley) I’ve read, I can’t say where Black Betty stacks up in the series–whether it’s prime, low or middling. But it has enough good and interesting elements that I’m definitely eager to read more.

As many before me have doubtless pointed out, Mosley’s series is marked by two distinct departures from the Big Three (and from most of the rest of American detective fiction). First, he’s trying to make his main character three-dimensional. Second, he’s telling his stories from an African-American perspective.

On the first matter, I don’t think he’s terribly successful, at least not in this entry. Yes, Rawlins has more “character”–meaning more real history, family connections, childhood memories and so forth–than his standard models. Not that this requires much. Hammett’s Continental Op didn’t even have a name. Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe had a name and not much else. MacDonald’s Lew Archer had at least a few of the elements of a specific–as opposed to archetypal–character, but not so many that they intruded on, or, if you prefer, distracted from, the narrative. Unfortunately, while Easy Rawlins has a lot of dimension compared to his most obvious predecessors, I don’t think he has nearly enough to make him interesting in and of himself.

At least not in this one book, which has warm “humanizing” moments with Rawlins’ adopted children and random departures into civics’ lectures (the book is set during the early sixties) that are nowhere near strong enough to stand on their own and add nothing whatsoever to plot, character, theme, etc. I’ll have to suspend judgment on the overall effectiveness of this element until I’ve read some more of the series but here, at least, it landed with a series of small, annoying thuds.

I definitely will be reading more, however–probably the whole thing. Because Mosley’s second inventive feature–the perspective of Black America–is completely compelling.

This is literally Ross MacDonald’s turf–Mosley has even gone back to the same time period–seen from a completely and refreshingly different angle.

Going back to a few of MacDonald’s novels myself in recent years has given me a whole new appreciation for them, one which I wrote about briefly here. And Mosley has made a world that is every bit as compelling, even if Rawlins himself usually seems like the very sort of (admittedly morally ambiguous) narrative convenience that the Big Three always took their detectives to be. That’s not a bad thing. When Mosley leaves him alone–just a man with some sort of conscience trying to do a dirty job–the novel hums. It’s precisely when he tries to broaden the character that the thing begins to slog.

If that turns out to be typical of the series, that’ll be a bit of a shame because Mosley is very nearly MacDonald’s equal in terms of plotting (which is saying a mouthful). And, by presenting Black America’s version of this world, a world where the middle and lower classes are, of necessity, much more communal and far more tightly bound to each other than they are in White America’s version of same, he’s given himself a big, rich canvas to paint on.

Civics lessons and warm family moments–indifferently rendered as they are here, in a story that covers admittedly familiar tropes but is delivered with sufficient skill as to make familiarity beside the point and has a corker of a denouement to boot–can, ironically enough, only hold him back.