Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (1931) directed by Roy del Ruth (starring Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels, Una Merkel, Dwight Frye)

The Maltese Falcon (1931). Screenplay and dialogue by Brown Holmes (Street of Women) and Maude Fulton from the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

The three-disc special edition of the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon contains some very interesting bonus features: the two previous adaptations of Dashiell Hammett's novel, the first also called The Maltese Falcon (though it was renamed Dangerous Female for TV in the '50s to avoid confusion), and the second titled Satan Met a Lady.

Since the 1941 version (directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre) is the one considered "definitive," it's not surprising that relatively few viewers realize that was actually Hollywood's third adaptation of Hammett's classic detective novel.

Satan Met a Lady (directed by William Dieterle and starring Bette Davis and Warren William), is by all accounts a disaster (a very loose adaptation by screenwriter Brown Holmes, who co-wrote this version), but the first Maltese Falcon, filmed in 1931 by director Roy del Ruth, is a terrific alternative for viewers who love the story and would just like to watch a different take on it. (Both films are faithful to the source, with few changes.)

The main difference in tone comes from the portrayal of Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade. Cortez's Spade is much more of a ladies man than Bogart's. In fact, the opening scene of the movie shows a woman leaving Spade's office, adjusting her stockings (later, he is shown picking up sofa cushions from the floor). His roving eye (and hand) also includes his secretary, Effie. Una Merkel plays Effie as if she's not only a willing participant in these shenanigans, but is also quite aware of Spade's other dalliances — including partner Miles Archer's wife Iva (Thelma Todd) — and thinks it's funny.

That lightness extends to Cortez, as well. He goes throughout The Maltese Falcon with a huge smirk on his face, as if everything going on around him is endlessly entertaining. And I can imagine why. When Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) comes into his office, he probably already knows she'll end up naked in his bath, in his bed, and in his kitchen. Cortez displays just the right mix of sleaze and charm.

But the only other actor who gives anything close to as interesting a performance is Dudley Digges as Kasper Gutman. Digges gives the role real grease, making him a truly unlikeable antagonist (Greenstreet always charmed even in his most villainous roles, much like Claude Rains, his costar in Casablanca). And I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Dwight Frye (Renfield in the Lugosi Dracula) shows up briefly as Wilmer Cook. He doesn't say much, but just try to look away when he flashes those psychotic eyes.

This Maltese Falcon was made three years before the enforcement of the Production Code that would whitewash movies for the next thirty years. Thus, there are instances like those mentioned above that did not make it into the "cleaner" 1941 version. One major effect this had is when Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy proclaims to Bogart's Spade, "I thought you loved me," it doesn't make a whole lot of sense based on what preceded. Here, when Wonderly (who never reveals herself to be O'Shaughnessy, a plot point I always thought was unnecessarily confusing anyway) says the same words, they hold real meaning.

Though quite entertaining in its own right, the 1931 Maltese Falcon is undoubtedly destined to remain forgotten in the shadow of its later remake. I recommend it, however, due to its lighter and sexier tone, handsomer leading man, and almost completely different approach to the same source material. Fans of pre-Code cinema will especially enjoy it, even if they generally prefer a little more noir in their detective stories.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Cutting Room by Laurence Klavan

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that simply screams out to a reader, "I was made for you!" Recently, I heard that clarion call from The Cutting Room, written by Laurence Klavan, winner of both the Edgar Allan Poe Award (for Mrs. White, written under the pseudonym Margaret Tracy) and the Obie Award (for his musical based on the classic film Bed and Sofa).

I read the blurb on the back and felt as if I were home (even though I was standing in a train station bookstore). Anyone who likes mysteries and movies — especially Orson Welles — will be taken away by The Cutting Room to a land of murder and film trivia as amateur gumshoe and "trivial man" Roy Milano pursues the long-lost original two-hour cut of The Magnificent Ambersons.

Roy Milano lives in a unique circle. He spends his days amassing and distributing movie trivia, mostly through his newsletter, Trivial Man. His friends, such as they are, are also in the "business". And, though she couldn't stand it when his focus was more on films than her, his ex-wife Jody still calls him when she needs to identify someone in a old movie.

Somehow, Klavan makes Roy's life seems pitiable and enviable at the same time. Perhaps an outsider would see it as pathetic, and Roy is a self-described "loser," but I immediately identified with the protagonist (though I have been able to come out of my shell enough to maintain a happy marriage, which, in that way, makes us more like the Kripps, another couple in the novel).

The Cutting Room is a pure joyride. Milano travels to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Barcelona in pursuit of the film, finding out information about Welles along the way, as well as trying to fight his way out of harm's way.

There is a good amount of disbelief to be suspended, but going along with the idea is more than rewarding. It's fluff, but in the best way. And any character who recites Oscar winners in chronological order to calm himself is one that I'll be standing by. I'm already looking forward to the next one: The Shooting Script.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Western Quote of the Day (from Trailin'! by Max Brand)

Bard was turning the pages slowly. The title, whose meaning dawned slowly on his astonished mind as a sunset comes in winter over a grey landscape, was The Critique of Pure Reason. He turned the book over and over in his hands. It was well thumbed.

He asked, controlling his voice: "Are you fond of Kant?"

"Eh?" queried the other.

"Fond of this book?"

"Yep, that's one of my favorites. But I ain't much on any books."

"However," said Bard, "the story of this is interesting."

"It is. There's some great stuff in it," mumbled Lawlor, trying to squint at the title, which he had quite overlooked during the daze in which he first picked it up.

Bard laid the book aside and out of sight.

"And I like the characters, don't you? Some very close work done with them."

"Yep, there's a lot of narrow escapes."

"Exactly. I'm glad that we agree about books."

"So'm I. Feller can kill a lot of time chinning about books."

— from Trailin'! by Max Brand

Friday, April 11, 2008

Black Hats by Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane (historical crime fiction)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

It's hardly a secret that author Patrick Culhane is actually Max Allan Collins (in fact, it's all over the dustjacket copy), who is probably best known as the author of Road to Perdition, but who has been writing crime (and other) novels since 1973. He also occasionally collaborates with his wife Barbara under the name Barbara Allan. But whatever name his work appears under, Collins is a solid, dependable writer whose specialty is taking real events and people and crafting a fictional framework around them. Black Hats is no exception. From its high concept (Wyatt Earp meets Al Capone) to its exhaustive research (a Collins signature), it fits easily into the author's bibliography.

It is 1920. The Volstead Act was passed and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution ratified just months ago, beginning the era of Prohibition. Ex-U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp, now 70 years old, has adapted to the disappearance of the Wild West by working as a private detective in Los Angeles (and occasionally consulting on "those so-called Western pictures").

One day, "Big Nose Kate" Elder shows up and wants Earp to go to New York since her son (John Henry Holliday, Jr.) has gotten mixed up with a "dangerous lot," including an up-and-comer with the Italian mob named Alphonse Capone. Earp subsequently hops a train, winds up in Manhattan at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties in the middle of the Roaring Forties, and pairs up with old pal Bat Masterson (now a sports editor) to help out Holliday, the son of his late best friend.

Though its prose is as readable as is to be expected from so experienced an author, Black Hats is actually, generally speaking, a disappointment. Collins/Culhane spends too much story time introducing Earp to Manhattan and personages of the day. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy taking the trip along with Earp. Collins's skill at folding real people into a nearly seamless fictional narrative is in full swing the whole time, and getting to see folks like Damon Runyon and Texas Guinan come to life is a great deal of fun. But at times it does feel like he tried to include too much color, and was distracted from setting the stage for the advertised meeting of six-guns and tommy guns.

This is a minor quibble, however. I think the main problem with Black Hats comes from the restrictions that historical fact places on the options for the story. As promising as the premise is, the story must also gibe with documented truth, and since Earp lived nine more years, with Capone lasting till the 1940s, that pretty much cuts out any opportunity for a satisfying "showdown" of sorts, which leaves us with only a struggle over the liquor rights of a speakeasy, and that's not enough to carry a novel starring characters of this magnitude.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Giver by Lois Lowry (audio book read by Ron Rifkin)

When author Lois Lowry regularly visited her parents in a nursing home, she noticed that her father was physically well but his memory was going, while her mother's memory was good but her body was failing.

According to a 2004 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this gave her the inspiration for her Newbery Award–winning novel, The Giver: "I began to think a lot about the concept of memory. When it was time for me to begin a new book, I began to create in my mind a place and a group of people who had somehow found the capacity to control memory."

Jonas lives in a utopian society where rules, discipline, politeness, similarity, and daily medication rule the day. The only time that differences are celebrated is during the Ceremony of 12: when twelve-year-old children are assigned their careers, based on meticulous observation of how they spend their volunteer hours.

While his peers are given jobs like working with the elderly, and Assistant Director of Recreation, Jonas is selected to be the community's next Receiver of Memory. Training him is the current Receiver, whose task is to pass on all the community's "memories" to Jonas — thus turning the Receiver into The Giver.

It is during this long series of scenes that Lowry really gets her point across, as Jonas learns more about his fellow residents that anyone but other Receivers has ever known, and he slowly discovers just to what lengths his community has gone to get the result it desired.

There is much more to the story, but describing it here would take away from the experience of reading this wonderful novel that has become a sort of Brave New World for modern readers. Lowry's ability to choose exactly the right word is not surprising for a story that considers a lack of "language precision" to be worthy of punishment. The way she reveals piece by piece the myriad things that this "perfect" community is lacking, making for a level of suspense that rivals an Alfred Hitchcock film, is nothing less than astonishing.

Actor Ron Rifkin approaches his work on the audio of The Giver with the proper amount of gentleness and distance. For a story that hinges on several revelations, Rifkin does not give anything away too early with his voice. At the same time, he captures the wonder of this unfamiliar world and yet portrays the familiarity of residents that live there every day. It's a perfect balance that enhanced understanding of the story.

(The audiobook label suggests a listener age of 10 and up, and this is a good general guide, but parents should use their discretion regarding their children's ability to handle a particularly intense moment in the second half of The Giver. It is a vital scene to the plot but may affect particularly sensitive readers more strongly than others.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Zero Cool by John Lange (Hard Case Crime)

If you do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

If you refuse to do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

What's a vacationing radiologist to do? Dr. Peter Ross is going to find himself very busy over the next few days, involved with so many people, he'll be lucky to make it in time for the radiologists' convention.

Zero Cool is the second John Lange novel (after Grave Descend) to be revived by Hard Case Crime, but it was actually published first originally. It is also, I think, the better-written and more entertaining of the two.

John Lange was the pseudonym for an author who later became a huge best-seller under his own name. I'll hint by saying he's an "admirable" sort of fellow (unless that's a reference too dated for modern readers), but a quick Google search will reveal all.

Events in Zero Cool pile on one another in an almost improvisatory fashion, as if Lange were simply taking dictation from a compulsive liar with A.D.D. The seemingly unplanned nature of it simply means I was unable to predict much of what happened.

Ross hops from Spain to France and back again, mostly against his will, all the while leaving behind what must be the world's most tolerant (and trusting!) girlfriend, a woman he only met days ago on the beach (portrayed in Gregory Manchess's cover painting by model Meredith Napolitano, who is cleverly shown reading a copy of Grave Descend.)

It's a lot of fun, but it's not the best-written book in the world. Its classic pulp adventure–inspired origins shine through brightly, with at least three occurrences of "And then it happened." But the fact that the author added new material for this reprinting makes it just that much more special. The new pieces, a prologue and epilogue that bring the action into the current day, make Zero Cool feel like a new book, even though it's almost 40 years old.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Long Riders directed by Walter Hill

The Long Riders (1980). Screenplay by Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach, and James Keach.

They was called long-riders, I guess, partly because they was in the saddle all the time, and partly because they done their jobs so far apart. They'd ride into Eldara and blow up the safe in the bank one day, for instance, and five days later they'd be 250 miles away stoppin' a train at Lewis Station....

Now and then a gang held together long enough to raise so much hell that they got known from one end of the range to the other. Mostly they held together because they had a leader who knew how to handle 'em and who kept 'em under his thumb.
— from Trailin'! by Max Brand

Walter Hill's 1980 Western The Long Riders (his first film after the 1979 cult classic The Warriors) starts out with a gimmick — the casting of famous Hollywood brothers as famous outlaw brothers — but ends up as a fair addition to the genre (and it reportedly began its life as a musical!).

The main reason most people will get curious about The Long Riders is the cast. But look at that cast! It is likely to be the only place you'll see such a parade of prominent Hollywood families all together in one film.

Here's the lineup: David Carradine as Cole Younger, Keith Carradine as Jim Younger, Robert Carradine as Bob Younger; Stacy Keach as Frank James, James Keach as Jesse James; Dennis Quaid as Ed Miller, Randy Quaid as Clell Miller; Christopher Guest as Charlie Ford, Nicholas Guest as Robert Ford. (Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges were originally offered the Ford roles but were reportedly unable to clear their schedules.)

Among this band of brothers, I was pleasantly surprised that James Keach — whose work I was only passingly familiar with thus far and had found mostly unmemorable — was the real standout. He draws the eye every time he is on the screen, not least because his face seems to have been carved out of rock. There's hardly a rounded surface to be seen, which just serves to make every emotion more intensely expressed.

In retrospect, this should not have been too surprising, given that the film was originally conceived by the brothers Keach as a vehicle for themselves. The familial aspect does serve to make the interrelations of the characters more palpable (unless that was just my own projection), and it's certainly worth at least one viewing, but The Long Riders is unlikely to be seen historically as anything more than a minor contribution to Western film.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Folgers Classic Roast instant coffee

I drink a lot of coffee — primarily Eight O'Clock 100% Colombian (whole bean) brewed in a Cuisinart Grind and Brew Thermal coffee maker. I also get up a good deal earlier than everyone else in the household. And when I don't want to wake everybody up with the loud coffee grinder, having a jar of instant on-hand is a life-saver.

Most instant coffee I've tried tastes like what it is: a reconstituted, reheated cup of previously brewed weak bitterness. But Folgers Classic Roast surprised me with its depth of flavor.

It's a little too bitter when I make it black; its fascinating richness comes out best when a heaping tablespoon is mixed into a large mug filled with hot skim milk. In fact, I like it enough this way that I sometimes make a cup even when the coffee pot is not empty, and I don't know a better recommendation than that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Reviews of Books for Children Ages 9-12

In addition to all the reviews I've written of crime, horror, and Western fiction intended for adults, I've also written several reviews of books for children, specifically those for kids in grades 4 through 7. Here is a list:
  1. Avi, "Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?"
  2. Judy Blume, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing
  3. Jeremy Brown, Crime Files: Body of Evidence
  4. Eoin Colfer, The Legend of Spud Murphy
  5. Susan Cooper, King of Shadows
  6. Sharon Creech, Heartbeat
  7. Roald Dahl, Esio Trot
  8. Roald Dahl, The Minpins
  9. Charles de Lint, Waifs and Strays
  10. Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie
  11. John Fardell, The Seven Professors of the Far North
  12. Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
  13. Tom Llewellyn, The Tilting House
  14. Lois Lowry, The Giver
  15. Donna Jo Napoli, Bound
  16. Mary Pope Osborne, Tales from the Odyssey, Volume One: The One-Eyed Giant and The Land of the Dead
  17. Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry
  18. Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
  19. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  20. Louis Sachar, Holes
  21. Donald J. Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown Solves Them All (and other books in the series)
  22. Matthew Woodring Stover, Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (novelization)
  23. J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters from Father Christmas
  24. Wendelin Van Draanen, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief
  25. Michael Winerip, Adam Canfield of the Slash
I wrote most of these for a newspaper, so I've taken things like age-appropriateness into account in their writing. I hope you find these reviews helpful when choosing books for your children. Drop me a line and tell me what you think.
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