Friday 17 December 2021

Book Review: The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and The Far Side of the Dollar (1964) by Ross MacDonald


Sometime during my mid-teens in the early 1970s, Ross MacDonald became my favorite writer. I'd had limited experience with "adult" literature, so I was bowled over by his convoluted tales of murder and sleuthing set in California, that impossibly glamorous and faraway land, especially when seen from a Canadian perspective. His stories seemed immeasurably more real and gripping than the cream tea world of Agatha Christie, who was the only other crime writer I was familiar with. I wasn't MacDonald's only fan. In the '60s he began to attract widespread critical acclaim and regular appearances on best-seller lists. He was even dubbed a great novelist, let alone a top crime writer. I'm here to report that we didn't know what we were talking about back then. I've reread a lot of writers I enjoyed when I was young and found them lacking in one regard or another, but I've rarely come across one who has so comprehensively failed the test of time. 

Lew Archer is MacDonald's detective, and the stories are told from his perspective. Stylistically he follows in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The main, and devastating, difference between the two is that Archer is both dull and annoying. He's less a character than a private detective bot that trundles around California asking suspects questions with the tirelessness and borderline rudeness of a customs inspector who's been called in to cover someone else's shift. Where Marlowe dropped ironic, flippant, and caustic remarks as a reaction to the nastiness and weirdness California threw at him, and did so with humor, Archer comes across as petty and nagging, a sort of gumshoe Karen. And his observations about life and the people he encounters are shallow, unimaginative, and seasoned with tidbits of pop psychology that feel like they were gleaned from Reader's Digest articles. MacDonald was, and is, strongly identified with California but his descriptions of the land and architecture are sparse and boilerplate.

Like all of MacDonald's work, these two novels feature murders caused by ruined or poisonous family relationships that have their roots in the past, usually with a psychological motive. People don't often murder for money in Archer's world. In Zebra, a young woman kills because she's jealous of her father's affection for a girl he regards as a surrogate daughter. In Dollar, jealousy rooted in parentage becomes the reason for murder. MacDonald is certainly skillful at constructing mystery plots that move quickly and hang together logically. Where he runs into trouble is in showing how Archer deconstructs the puzzles he's faced with. The plots are absurdly dependent on Archer sub-contracting his investigations to contacts he has in law enforcement all over California. He picks up a phone and asks a detective to check out this or that, et voila, a few pages later he gets a gift-wrapped piece of crucial information. In a similar vein, when  Archer questions someone they frequently spill their guts to him faster than you can say "I don't think so." This makes the novels brutally efficient examples of storytelling, and yet lazy at the same time. 

MacDonald's writing has aged poorly in the usual ways: teenagers and young adults are faintly ridiculous creatures with their interest in music and surfing and not wearing fedoras; modern art (modern anything, really) is weird and pretentious; and the defining characteristic of women is how attractive or unattractive they are, with a special emphasis on the size, shape and movement of their breasts. Not surprising stuff for the era, but coupled with his other deficiencies it makes MacDonald a tough author to look back on with fondness. So what can I say? We had lousy taste in detective fiction back then. Sorry.

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Film Review: Only the Animals (2019)

Quick, think of a film with the most devious and startling plot twists you've ever seen...Got it? Whatever you chose, it's not a patch on this one. Compared to this film, The Usual Suspects is an episode of Murder, She Wrote. This fiendishly-plotted French mystery-thriller came out in France two years ago, but has just been released this year (subtitled) on streaming services. Why did they make us wait? French filmmakers and writers have a definite affinity for twisted storytelling that confounds the viewer/reader, going back to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955). Sebastian Japrisot ranks as the grandmaster in this field having created classics of deception and intrigue on screen and in print, as have the novelists Frederic Dard and Boileau-Narcejac. Dominik Moll, the director of Only the Animals, has form in this Gallic genre, having directed the scary/nasty With a Friend Like Harry in 2000. He's created a classic this time out.

Now here's the hard part: doing a synopsis without spoilers. The plot is so finely crafted, so filled with small but crucial elements, that saying anything about it beyond generalities risks ruining it. The first scene takes place in the Cote d'Ivoire and follows a young man delivering a goat to an apartment building. The next scene is set on a snowy plateau in rural France where an abandoned car is found. And that's all that's safe to say. The story follows a handful of characters whose seemingly separate lives are invisibly linked in ways that will result in a murder. The delicate architecture of the plot and the economy with which it's told are breathtaking. But this film doesn't succeed just because of its engineering; it's not simply a technical exercise in misdirection and clue-finding like an Agatha Christie story in which the characters are merely pieces on a chessboard. These people are linked, and in some cases doomed, by their extreme need for different kinds of love, and the film, using only a few deft, narrative strokes, sketches in the causes of their heartache. 

Several reviews I've read have comparted its plot structure to Rashomon, which is somewhat misleading. Kurosawa's film looked at one event from the perspective of various characters, each of whom saw it differently as filtered through their memory and moral point of view. This film shows a series of events as seen by different characters. They all see exactly the same things, but they don't fully realize what they're looking at. Is the story farfetched? Yes, definitely. But that's what's required in a film of this type, it's what makes them so audaciously entertaining. And, like the best mystery films, Only the Animals saves one of it's most stunning reveals for the very last scene. 

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Book Review: The N'Gustro Affair (1971) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Jean-Patrick Manchette is one of several French crime writers (Dominique Manotti, Didier Daeninckx, Pascal Garnier) who combine hard-boiled prose and characters with equally savage political and social commentary from a left-wing perspective. It's not a combination often found in Anglo-American crime writing. Julian Rathbone and early Eric Ambler come to mind, but neither were as cold-blooded and forceful as their French brethren. And in the U.S.? I can't think of any authors who fit that mold, with the possible exception of Ross Thomas.

The N'Gustro Affair is a fictionalized account of a political kidnapping and assassination that took place in France in 1965 and involved the Moroccan security services, crooked French cops, and a petty criminal. Manchette makes Henri Butron, a career thug and sociopath, the centre of his novel, which unfolds in two interlocking narratives, one told by Butron through a tape recording he makes before his (unexpected) death, the other observing two African politicians as they listen to Butron's tape. Butron tells his entire life story as one long boast about his scheming, nihilism, and cruelty. There was never a time when he was anything other than a petty monster. From a youth spent in brawls against parties of the left and right, he moves on to porn films and gun running, and finally becomes an unwitting and expendable pawn in an assassination plot. 

Butron is a truly appalling character: boastful, racist, misogynist, sadistic; I could go on and on, but suffice to say no tears are shed when he dies. Manchette has no sympathy for Butron, and doesn't try to explain his maliciousness through psychology. As in his later novels (The Prone Gunman, Fatale), Manchette sees his sociopathic central characters as natural by-products of their toxic political and cultural environment. Butron is the effluvia of a France poisoned by colonial wars and a reactionary petit bourgeois mentality. This also makes him a useful idiot/tool for bigger, more predatory fish. 

Manchette is an uncompromising chronicler of how brutal humanity can be, so much so, in fact, that at points it becomes difficult to stay with the novel. His prose, however, is always sharp and clever, and he never, ever glamorizes or humanizes his heinous characters. What mars this novel is his presentation of the African ringleaders of the conspiracy, which is filled with racist imagery. This can be partly explained by Manchette trying to portray them in as bad a light as Butron, but he does this with, at times, excessive zeal. This isn't Manchette's best novel (that would be Fatale), but it's a good introduction to a French sub-genre of crime fiction that deserves more attention.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Book Review: Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep (2021) by Philip Reeve

Let's talk about world-building. It's the keystone of sci-fi and fantasy novels, but in my reading experience it's the rare author in those fields who can do it well. Some writers over egg their pudding by cramming details about customs, languages, laws, and zoology into their writing until their "world" begins to feel like a fussy, claustrophobia-inducing, overfurnished apartment filled with things and people who apparently got their names as the result of a tragic draw of tiles from a Scrabble bag. These are the writers who probably spend their spare time building extravagant model train layouts. Frank Herbert and Iain Banks must have been enthusiastic hobbyists. On the other hand, there are authors who pay as little attention to world-building as I do to maintaining my lawn. I can recall an SF novel set on a planet that was one big ocean and yet contained only one described type of fish. One! N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is very well-written but I couldn't finish it because the world-building was so threadbare. And that's the unique thing about world-building; otherwise good writers can be duds at that particular craft. 

The kings and queens of world-building would be Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Diane Wynne Jones. So where does that leave Philip Reeve, author of the Mortal Engines Quartet and a wide variety of other SF/F novels for the YA and JF crowd? I'd rank him as a princeling or dauphin, able to shape and populate living, breathing new worlds that fire the imagination without resorting to boxcar-sized info dumps. In Utterly Dark, the setting is an alternate reality Britain in the early Victorian period(?). Utterly Dark is also the name of a girl, a foundling who washed up on a beach in a basket on the island of Wildsea off the coast of England. She was adopted and raised by Andrewe Dark, who has the ancestral, but boring, task of watching the western seas from a tower at sundown every night. He's on the lookout for a legendary sea monster called the Gorm, who, so far, has never shown up. Andrewe drowns and Utterly takes over his job, at least until Will, Andrewe's brother, arrives from England. Soon enough, the Gorm goes from legend to kraken-ish reality, a cohort of Seaweed Men appear, as well as a sunken city and an irate Queen of the Deeps. 

Reeve's is on top of his world-building game here. Wildsea is a recognizably English world, but one seasoned with enough subtle differences to make it pleasingly new and intriguing. When the action moves on and under the ocean, things kick up a notch. The highlight is the sight of the phosphorescent souls/spirits of drowned men and women bobbing below the surface of the water like so many ethereal jellyfish. It's a brilliantly haunting image. Utterly Dark delivers in terms of imagination and adventure, but if there's problem with the novel is that it feels like an amuse bouche setting up the planned sequel(s). The undersea section is the most compelling part of the story, but, unfortunately, it doesn't take up enough of the plot. Here's hoping for an entirely sub-aqueous sequel. 

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Book Review: The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma (1932) by Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz

This Polish satirical novel first gained fame when it became known that Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski had plagiarized it for his novel Being There (1970), which later became a critically-acclaimed film starring Peter Sellers. It's only recently been translated, and it's easy to see what made it a tempting target for Kosinki: the story is wrapped up in details of Polish political and cultural life from the 1930s, but the basic concept of a ne'er-do-well making a meteoric rise from the gutter to the top thanks to a chance remark is clearly and easily transferable to other countries and times.

We meet Nicodemus, the titular rascal, just as he fails an audition to be a "taxi dancer," a job that entails being paid to dance with any and all partners at a low-rent dance hall. This is the latest in a lifetime of setbacks for Nicodemus, who's approaching forty and lives in the corner of a grotty Warsaw apartment with a prostitute and an unsympathetic landlady. Nicodemus is wandering the city when he comes into possession of an invitation for a banquet at one of Warsaw's top hotels. Since his worldly wealth consists of the evening suit which he'd hoped to use to get a dancing job, Nicodemus decides to don this disguise and go to the banquet in the hope of scarfing as much food as possible before he's thrown out. The banquet is attended by the country's political elite, and Nicodemus is just about to start gobbling some food when a man bumps into him and sends his food to the floor. In his rage at losing some nice grub, Nicodemus loudly curses the man out. The man is Terkowski, a minister in the government, who, it turns out, has many enemies and rivals, all of whom are delighted that he's been cut down a notch in public. Nicodemus harsh words are mangled and revised in the retelling, and within the space of an hour he's a hero. 

From there, Nicodemus rides a rising tide of rumor, dumb luck, and baseless supposition that casts him in the role of a financial savant who can solve Poland's economic woes. Nicodemus is avaricious enough to seize this opportunity, and cunning and ruthless enough to rise still further. The only person who sees through him immediately is an aristocratic madman, the brother of a wealthy heiress Nicodemus eventually marries. As the novel ends, Nicodemus is contemplating an offer to form Poland's next government.

The novel's satire is broad and savage, and Nicodemus's rise to the top is cleverly plotted. The author is particularly good at showing how the elites Nicodemus moves among are eager and willing to interpret his ignorant and clueless statements as pearls of wisdom, and a lot of the humour arises from this dichotomy. Any comparisons to Donald Trump are entirely appropriate. A sub-plot about a cult of devil-worshipping women who appoint Nicodemus as their leader feels out of place, but I'll assume it would have had some meaning for the novel's original audience. It's clear Kosinski stole this novel's plot, but I'd guess Dolega-Mostowicz was inspired by the story of Wilhelm Voigt. In 1906 Voigt disguised himself as a German Army captain, commandeered a group of soldiers in the small town of Kopenick, marched to the town hall and had the town's mayor arrested on fraud charges. He then took 4,000 marks from the town coffers as "evidence" and promptly disappeared. Voigt was a career petty criminal, and the success of his scam relied on the automatic and unthinking respect Germans gave to army officers. Voigt and his ruse became famous (he made a personal appearance tour!), and his story was told in films and a play called The Captain of Kopenick. The Big Lie, it seems, works equally well in fiction and real life.

Thursday 4 November 2021

Film Review: The Girl with a Pistol (1968)


The amazing variety and quantity of good to great films produced by the Italian film industry from, say, 1955 to '75 never ceases to amaze me; what's even more startling is how many of these films are barely known or even forgotten. The big name directors like Fellini, Bertolucci, and Antonioni still get their justly deserved due, but filmmakers such as Elio Petri, Mario Monicelli, and Antonio Pietrangeli, like the other three, should be in the pantheon of directors famous enough to be known by their last names only. 

Monicelli,  the director of The Girl with a Pistol, was, and is, famous for Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but his greatest film, The Organizer (1963), a beautifully-crafted and entertaining story about a labour revolt in 19th-century Turin, never turns up on listicles of all-time great films. Girl is a picaresque comedy that's good, but not great, and features some of the best qualities of Italian cinema from that period. And, of course, it's almost forgotten. 

Assunta, played by Monica Vitti, is a young Sicilian woman who is accidentally abducted by her sister's suitor, Vincenzo. According to Sicilian custom, a woman taken like this must marry her kidnapper to avoid the shame of being a "dishonoured" woman. Assunta is happy to have been taken, but Vincenzo is alarmed by her sexual enthusiasm, which he feels make her a "shameless" woman. He abandons her and flees to England. Sicilian tradition dictates that Vincenzo should be killed by a male member of Assunta's family to restore Assunta's honour, but there are no men in Assunta's family. Assunta decides to follow Vincenzo to England and kill him herself.

What follows is a road movie as Assunta bounces around England searching for Vincenzo and experiences multiple culture shocks as she encounters a vastly more liberal society. After a variety of comic adventures she becomes romantically involved (sort of) with an English doctor (played by Stanley Baker) begins working as a model, becomes liberated, and finally gets a measure of revenge against Vincenzo. 

The humour in Girl is often on the broad and silly side, but Vitti's skillful, charming performance makes most of it palatable. Although the film gets some comic mileage out of poking fun at Brits (OMG men in kilts! Gay aristos!), the sharpest comic barbs are aimed at Sicily's codes of honour, modesty, and machismo that trap women and men in ridiculous and dangerous relationships. This is driven home in the film's first scene in which a rooftop full of single men dance the twist with each other while looking longingly at a shuttered window across the street behind which single women dance together to the same music. In this regard Girl is very on point for Italian cinema in its charting of the massive fault lines in Italian society. The other hallmark of the best Italian directors is their strong visual sense, and that's very much on show here. The scenes in Assunta's village are strikingly composed and include several brief fantasy sequences that are of a Fellini standard. But the English scenes! Sometimes it takes a stranger to see a country as it really is, and Monicelli shows us images of the country that UK directors of the time probably avoided. Part of the story takes place in Sheffield, and Monicelli delights in showing its blackened buildings and smoky atmosphere. And his London isn't swinging, it's dirty and filled with poky little restaurants and cafes. The film, despite being a big hit in Italy, was never released in the UK, and one wonders if it was because of how it depicted Britain and the British.

This film exists--barely, it seems--on DVD, but I saw it on YouTube, and that print has pretty minimal subtitles. Despite that drawback, it's still very entertaining and a reminder that for twenty years the Italians ruled cinema. 

Friday 22 October 2021

Book Review: Child of All Nations (1938) by Irmgard Keun


Remember the Eloise books by Kay Thompson about a precocious ten-year-old who lives in New York's swanky Plaza Hotel with her nanny and pet pug and turtle? Now imagine Eloise plunked down with her parents in pre-war Europe and on the run from fascism, and you'll have a rough idea of what Child of All Nations delivers. Like The Passenger, which I reviewed previously on this blog, this novel is about Germans fleeing their country, one step ahead of the Gestapo.

In The Passenger, the title character never manages to leave Germany, while in this novel, Kully (the child of the title) and her parents have already left Germany and are hopscotching around Europe desperately trying to beg, borrow and steal enough money in order to pay for train fares, hotels, and boat passage to America. Told from Kully's point-of-view, Child of All Nations strives to capture the mood of Europe as it becomes awash with rumors and fears of war, and fills with political refugees desperately searching for a bolt hole, or at least a visa to a friendly country. 

Kully's father is a writer, spendthrift, and bon vivant who is ill-suited to life on the run. He drops his wife and child off in a series of hotels and rooms, some comfortable, others sketchy, while he hares around non-fascist Europe trying to get writing gigs, borrow from easy touches, and collect on monies owed to him. His wife is long suffering and frequently paralyzed with embarrassment when she's forced to lie or plead with hotel managers who want bills paid, now! Kully takes all the travel and hand-to-mouth living in stride, as children usually do, and finds amusement and wonder in the cavalcade of people she encounters as she crosses Europe, and then finally ends up in the U.S. The world she sees around her is often sad and desperate, and she has the intelligence to recognize this, but her innocence and childish joie de vivre keeps her mostly happy. It's Kully's sunniness and curiosity that throws the agonies of pre-war Europe into stark relief.

Irmgard Keun lived this story as an adult, fleeing Germany in the late '30s with her partner, Joseph Roth, a Jewish German journalist and author. Both were banned authors in Germany. Roth died in Paris in 1939 from acute alcoholism, while Keun hid out in Belgium, changed her name and then spent the rest of the war in Germany. Her novel The Artificial Silk Girl  (1931) is set in the last days of Weimar Germany, and in Ferdinand, the Man with a Kind Heart (1950) she paints a gently comic picture of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. Both are excellent and, fortunately, still in print.

Thursday 14 October 2021

Book Review: The Golden Spur (1962) by Dawn Powell

There's a small army of writers who are famous for not being famous, or at least not famous enough. Some of the famously not known include Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning, Charles Portis, James Salter, and Thomas Berger. Dawn Powell, who wrote novels about New York City's cultural movers and shakers and spear carriers from the 1930's to '60s, is in the vanguard of this group. Gore Vidal championed her in in the late '80s, and from then on her rise to being a celebrated un-famous author was certain. Yes, she truly does deserve to a greater degree of fame.

Powell wrote novels set in the Midwest, where she was born and raised in Dickensian poverty, and New York City, where she lived from the early '20s until her death in 1965. The Golden Spur is a N.Y.C. novel. The main character is Jonathan Jaimison, a Candide-like young man who moves to New York to find his father. He was born illegitimate in Ohio, the son of a woman who lived and worked briefly in New York as a typist in 1928. Based on a few clues provided by his aunt, Jonathan thinks his father might be one of three men she came in contact with: a famous painter, a great writer, and a successful lawyer. 

Jaimison's search for his father is the loose framework Powell uses to give us a comic tour of New York's cultural population, from major artists down to the wannabes and the hangers-on. Greenwich Village is the centre of most of the action, which is where Jaimison first lands in NY and begins his quest to determine his parentage. Powell has great fun describing the tired boarding hotels, decrepit artists' studios, and speakeasy-ish bars that the characters move between; they form a kind of coral reef which sustains the city's floating population of mostly penniless artists and writers. The novel's title is that of a Village bar in which Jaimison is properly introduced to the city, and it can also be read as a poetic description of the ambition that drives many of the characters to seek fame and fortune.

Powell's comic tone is pitched just this side of savage. She skillfully dissects the pretensions and foibles of the great and the small, but her obvious affection for her characters and their desperate, sometimes hopeless, chase for success and respect stops her from skewering them too badly. Oddly, she seems to have more sympathy for her male characters, viewing their infidelities and selfishness as part and parcel of the artistic temperament. The women, especially a pair of groupies (before that word was known), often seem ditzy or predatory, or both. Jaimison is the Midwestern naif we follow through the big, bad world of Manhattan, and he's successful as the reader's proxy, but the best character is probably Earl Turner, a middle-aged writer who once had a great future but now begs and cadges his way through life while reflecting bitterly on what might have been. 

The end of the novel is kind to almost all of the characters, especially Earl, and Powell leaves us with the idea that what she, and her characters, find most fascinating and enthralling about the cultural whirlwind of New York is its constant change and the struggle to be a part of it. 

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Flics and Voleurs

Popeye Doyle saying "Bonjour!"
The fiftieth anniversary of The French Connection (1971) has arrived, and it's a reminder that once upon a time, in the 1970s, stories about big-city cops, buddy-style or otherwise, were a staple of film and TV, largely thanks to William Friedkin's film. This genre, which I like to call cop noir, gloried in charting the decline and fall of the urban version of the American Dream; corruption was everywhere; streets were filthy and dangerous; bureaucracy stifled policing; the Mafia was the only efficiently functioning urban organization; and rough justice was the norm. Serpico, Busting, The Seven-Ups, Across 110th Street, Freebie and the Bean, and Dirty Harry followed on from The French Connection, and the TV imitators are too numerous to mention. The influence of these films also give rise to the Italian poliziotteschi films, which were an even more feverish take on urban blight and policing. 

Like any overexploited genre, the cop film quickly became played out, and although the 1980s saw them continue to fill screens, the emphasis switched to comedy, over-the-top action and a glossy visual style that was miles from noir. The Last Action Hero (1993) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was a broad parody of cop films, and it effectively announced the end of cop noir as a mainstream genre. At least on this side of the Atlantic.

Cop noir appears to be alive and well in France. Like the American films of the '70s, Gallic cop films take a gritty, uncompromising view of les flics operating in an environment of corruption, compromise, debilitating (from a cop point of view) legal restrictions, and powerful criminal gangs. Paris the City of Light is absent from this genre. The cops' field of operations is usually the sprawling banlieues  that ring Paris, filled with drab, decaying apartment blocks controlled by gangs of African and North African descent who appear to operate as an occupying army. The Eiffel Tower might make a cameo appearance as a distant spike on the horizon, but otherwise things feel very American: the music is rap, the cops and robbers nosh pizza and burgers, and everyone seems to drive outsized SUVs. No baguettes or jaunty accordion music.

Two of the best examples of this French sub-genre are from TV. Spiral (the French title is Engrenages) ran for eight seasons over 15 years starting in 2005. It has a large cast of cops and lawyers, and covers every conceivable kind of serious crime, from the initial police investigation to the politics of the French legal system. I'm making it sound dry, but it's filled with twists and turns, fraught personal and professional relationships, cliffhangers, and lots of suspect-slapping, but surprisingly little gunplay. It sometimes gets a bit melodramatic, but it's unrelentingly tense and enormously entertaining. Braquo ran for four seasons and is straight-up bonkers. It follows four members of a Paris investigative squad who, in each season, go from the frying pan to the fire to quicksand to a crocodile pit and back to the frying pan. The plotting stress-tests credulity, but the action is plentiful and so is the body count. 

On the film side, some of the better examples include 36 Quai des Orfevres, Les Miserables, Bac Nord, Rogue City, Lost Bullet, and Close Enemies. And here's some of their common tropes: displays of macho posturing that would make professional wrestlers blush; lots and lots of cigarettes; riots and near-riots whenever cops enter a banlieue; cops strongarming or blackmailing prosecutors; and at least one scene set in a frantic, strobe-lit nightclub that features a beating and/or killing in a washroom. A rather surprising one is that cops in these shows and movies are almost all white. The French police, like their American cousins, have a reputation for racism, but that issue doesn't come up as often as one would think in these films. The lack of minorities in cop roles undoubtedly reflects reality, but it's jarring compared to contemporary American films and shows which like to present racially diverse cop shops. 

So if you pine for the aesthetic of '70s cops films, with their grimy settings and tough, toxic cops, rest assured that the French are keeping the genre alive and ass-kicking. The French connection lives on, literally.

Friday 1 October 2021

S.A. Cosby, Elmore Leonard, and White on Black Criminals

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby is a savage, twisty crime thriller set in rural Virginia that delivers the goods in terms of intrigue, pace, and action. It also does something rare in mainstream genre literature: it places a Black protagonist (Beauregard Montage) at the centre of a violent criminal enterprise and lets him survive. What's more, he's the savviest character in the story and a skillful getaway driver. So there are three things Black characters don't normally get to do in in crime fiction, at least when White writers are crafting the stories. 

Basically, Cosby has Beauregard do all the cool things that are usually the exclusive domain of White characters in this type of story. He finesses his way through a heist that goes wrong and its aftermath by being smarter and meaner and deadlier than the White guys he's up against, and manages to still be alive at the end. In this regard, Blacktop Wasteland has a strong blaxploitation vibe, and it's hard not to imagine an alternate reality in which Jim Brown would play the lead in the novel's film adaptation. In White-written crime fiction, Blacks usually don't do much more than flesh out the body count.

Car culture is one of the main pillars of post-war American popular culture, but Blacks, as far as I can recall, have never been given a place in it. The glamour, power, and freedom that the car represents in American life has resolutely excluded Blacks. Lots of films have been made about road trips, car thieves, racing, cruising around, and even more than a few specifically about getaway drivers, but it's almost impossible to recall a Black face being behind one of those wheels, with the very, very recent exception of the Fast & Furious films. Blacktop Wasteland puts Beauregard at the beating heart of car culture (he has a garage, owns and worships a boss Plymouth Duster, and is an ace driver), and the impact of seeing a Black character in that rare position is almost vertigo-inducing.

More than a few of the reviews I've read of Blacktop Wasteland have compared it to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, and, yes, in its detailing of deranged and dopey crooks pinballing off each other as they scheme and backstab, it owes a lot to Leonard, who's had a huge influence on so much of contemporary American crime fiction. This inspired me to go back and reread a few of Leonard's books, especially because Leonard was one of the few White crime writers to put Black characters in major roles. I didn't have to read many of them to see that a common trope in his novels is the White hero thwarting and killing the Black criminal. And while Leonard's heroes are often criminals, they're also lovable or honorable rogues, unlike the Black crooks who are usually just plain bad. Leonard lets his Black antagonists be crafty and cool, but they're always undone in the end by the "good" White crook.

In Swag, two White armed robbers, Stick and Frank, team up with Sportree, a Black criminal, on the robbery of a department store. Sportree double-crosses his partners after the heist and plans to kill them, but Stick and Frank manage to get one step ahead of him and shoot Sportree and his partner. Stick kills four Black characters in the course of story, something Frank notes at the end with amused astonishment. Rum Punch, filmed as Jackie Brown, has a White woman and man turning the tables on Ordell, the Black gun runner she's been working for. He's killed by White ATF agents. Get Shorty has "good" mobster Chili Palmer defeating and killing Black drug dealer Bo Catlett. 

And then there's Out of Sight. Snoopy and Kenneth are the bad Black guys, and they're very bad. Snoopy doesn't even have the saving grace of being particularly clever or cool; he's just a stone cold killer. And Kenneth? He likes to rape White women. In one scene he tries to rape Karen Sisco, a U.S. Marshall and White heroine. She slaps him down with an expandable baton. The episode feels contrived and pointless, as though it was only put there to show a White woman flattening a Black man. Snoopy and Kenneth are killed (the latter just as he's about to try and rape another White woman) by Jack Foley, a good White bank robber, at the climax of the story. It would be hard not to argue that the portrayal of the black characters in this novel borders on racist.

So while Leonard could certainly write interesting Black characters, he was even more interested in showing them being outfoxed and killed by his White heroes. That's why it's so refreshing to have a Black character like Beauregard be involved in a Leonard-influenced plot and come away alive. It's also nice to see the template for American crime fiction be given a colour adjustment. 

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Book Review: The Passenger (1939) by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

I've read a handful and a half of German novels written between the world wars and they're always a startling glimpse into a society that's increasingly like our own: cynical, feral, vindictive, petty, angry, and more and more in thrall to fascism. Authors such as Hans Fallada, Erich Kastner, and Irmgard Keun charted the decline and fall of the German people from the Weimar Republic to the rubble of Berlin in novels that were unsparing in their examination of the sicknesses that gripped the German psyche. 

Ulrich Alexander Boshwitz's The Passenger can be added to the list. What makes it special is that it's written by a Jew who experienced the early horrors of Nazism before fleeing the country in 1935. The other authors I mentioned were "Aryan," as the Nazis would have called them, and, as such, weren't exposed to the full panoply of crimes and brutalities the Nazis were capable of. Boshwitz is superb at showing the gross indignities and the matter-of-fact insults Jews were subjected to, as well as the more lethal activities of the Nazis. 

The story, which takes place over a week, is set during Kristallnacht in November, 1938, when the Nazis organized the destruction and looting of Jewish homes and businesses. Otto Silbermann, a middle-aged Jewish businessman, is trying to settle his business affairs prior to fleeing Germany with his wife, who is Aryan. Their son is in Paris trying to secure them entry permits. Silbermann is at home trying to sell his apartment building to a man named Findler, another Aryan, who is beating down the price to a ridiculous level since he knows Silbermann must flee, when there's a pounding at the door. It's the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, and Silbermann runs out of the back of the apartment while the SA beat up Findler.

Silbermann now goes on the run, desperately trying to get his hands on some money, find a route out of Germany, and avoid being noticed. He criss-crosses Germany by rail, tracking down his Aryan business partner who, of course, takes the opportunity to cheat him, as well as following up rumors of secret border crossing routes. As the days and nights of flight take their toll on Silbermann, he becomes more and more exhausted, and, eventually, unhinged. Finally, when his bankroll is stolen while on a train, he completely loses his grip on reality and goes to a police station and demands an investigation. A Jew asking for justice in Germany is clearly insane, and the police inspector he deals with has him sent to an asylum where the novel closes with the inmates screaming in unison, "Jews out!"

Fun stuff. One of the smartest elements of the novel is that Boschwitz uses Silbermann's flight to allow him to meet a score of different characters on trains, and in hotels, bars, and restaurants. This plot device allows him to show us the range and nature of German fascism and anti-Semitism. Silbermann's journey brings him into contact with true believers in Nazism who are anti-Semitic to their core, opportunists who mouth Nazi and racist slogans as a tool to plunder Jewish property, others who parrot the party line without really having thought out what it all means, and a few, including the police inspector, who try, within limits, to help Silbermann. Not all Germans were equal in their enthusiasm for Hitler. 

Silbermann's tortured progress around Germany is paralleled by his existential crisis. He's described as "looking" Aryan, which is something he both takes comfort in and resents. He's been a loyal German, fought in WW I, but now he realizes, more acutely than ever, that he's always been an outsider. At the end, what tips him over the edge is his inner conflict over expecting justice and respect as a "good" German and his refusal to deny his Jewishness. The two are not compatible.

The closest comparison for this novel is Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, written just after the end of the war. It's also structured like a thriller, and features a large cast of characters, almost all of whom are Aryan and are portrayed in an even less sympathetic light than Boschwitz does with his. Both writers are keen observers of how Nazism gave license to the weak, avaricious, and sadistic to indulge in their darkest fantasies. Boschwitz died in 1942 when the British troopship he was travelling on was torpedoed. He was in the process of revising this novel, and it's possible to see why: two short sections of the novel feel tonally wrong and interrupt the flow of the story, and the ending seems dashed-off rather than conclusive. These are, fortunately, only minor problems in a minor masterpiece.

Friday 27 August 2021

Great Scott!

Randolph trying to ignore the hot blonde next to him.
The Criterion Channel is currently showing the "Ranown" westerns, a linked group of six westerns starring Randolph Scott that take their name from the production company (owned by Scott and his producing partner) that made all but one of them. The six were directed by Budd Boetticher, four written by Burt Kennedy. I've watched them all, and they're an intriguing look back to when horse operas ruled the roost in theatres and on TV. They also contain a foreshadowing of the more savage, anti-heroic westerns that were coming down the road, especially the Leone westerns, which hit the screens only four years after the last Ranown film.

Scott's character in these films (bar one) is always, rigorously, the same: taciturn, stoic, rugged, single-minded, solitary. His dialogue is terse and flinty, so much so that in some films, notably Ride Lonesome, he almost becomes a secondary character. Scott was never much of an actor, and in his longish career he morphed from matinee idol in the '30s to sandblasted cowboy in the '50s. Watch his performances across these films and you realize you're watching the template for Clint Eastwood's acting in the Leone films. Eastwood was famous for cutting his own lines in these films so that when he spoke it mattered more, and that's exactly what scriptwriter Burt Kennedy did for Scott. The Man with No Name is essentially a more sociopathic version of Scott's cowboys and sheriffs. 

As if to compensate for Scott's stiffness, he's usually paired with characterful villains (as was Eastwood) played by, among others, Claude Akins, Henry Silva, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, and Lee Marvin, all of whom get juicy dialogue and some interesting quirks; Boone's character in The Tall T is a match for Scott when it comes to being laconic, but whenever someone accidentally hurts themselves he dissolves into sadistic, giggling laughter. Claude Akins in Comanche Station always answers to his character's name with a cheery "Hello" no matter what the situation. It's little details like that help make these films come alive. The bad guys are often well and truly evil. Henry Silva's character is a serial killer in spurs who'd feel at home in far grittier films made in the '70s, and in most of the films the villains think nothing of killing people in cold blood. 

The gender politics (a term we greenhorn dudes from back East like to use) are...interesting. The male characters spend a lot of time talking about what they reckon a man ought or ought not to do. At many points they make decisions based on some unwritten code of behavior for cowboys, and several of the films feel like morality plays in which Scott's hyper-masculine, hermit-like rectitude is held out as the gold standard for maleness. His relationships with the female characters (usually rationed to one per film) are chaste and formal; they're always addressed as "ma'am," sexual tension is absent, and the women are there to be protected. What's striking about four of the titles (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) is the threat of rape from the villain(s) that hangs in the air. In Comanche Station the story begins with Scott rescuing a woman who's been captured and raped by Comanches, and she's then the subject of leering comments from Claude Akins. When sex isn't on the menu, food quite literally is: the women are all asked at various points to do the cooking and then complimented on their ability with a skillet and coffee pot. It's a conservative, Eisenhower-era view of women as homemakers and passive sexual partners who have to be protected or taken. In only a couple of years this trope of chaste heroes paired with virtuous women would die a quick death thanks to Bond films and more forgiving censors.

Two things make these films (four of them, anyway) really watchable: the rich, Technicolor cinematography that captures the strange, forbidding beauty of the deserts of the Southwest, and the scripts, which are admirably tight and economical, resulting in running times well short of 90 minutes. In an age of bloated action films that brush up against 3 hours, that's a blessed relief. Two of the films, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, don't stand up. The latter is a slow tale of revenge that was shot on cheap-looking studio backlot filled with third-string character actors, and the former has Scott playing a surprisingly affable character, but, like the other, it's undone by a weak supporting cast.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Film Review: Fat City (1972)

The poorest of the poor, the denizens of skid rows and flophouses, the frequenters of dive bars and bus station lunch counters, usually don't show up in films as anything but colourful background extras, briefly-glimpsed eccentrics/headcases, or as mildly threatening minor characters. Fat City directed by John Huston takes a non-judgemental, almost cinema verite look at three characters living in the ragged end of Stockton, California. 

Billy (Stacy Keach) is an ex-boxer who's down on his luck, which, for him, is probably a chronic condition. He lives in a one-room apartment and makes ends meet as a day labourer picking crops. He meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges) at the YMCA and convinces him to take up boxing under the tutelage of Ruben, a local boxing coach and promoter. Billy takes up with Oma, a local barfly who's unattached after her boyfriend is sent to jail for a few months. Oma is in love with sherry, and the sound of her own voice in an empty bar. Ernie loses his first two "pro" fights and marries his pregnant girlfriend. Billy tries to make a comeback, wins his fight against an ailing, veteran Mexican boxer, but then loses Oma to her newly-released boyfriend. Billy hits the bottle and the film ends with him bumping into Ernie. The two go have coffee and share a long, uncomfortable silence.

European filmmakers have a long tradition of viewing the downtrodden through a sympathetic or dispassionate lens, but in Hollywood they've most often been viewed as comical, pathetic, or dangerous; abject failures, above all else. Given America's binary moral view of capitalism (poor=bad, successful=good), this is hardly surprising. Fat City doesn't try to place its characters in a socio-political context, or explain why they've ended up on skid row. Neither does it demonize them or go for cheap laughs or maudlin sentiments. The tone is observational, and the cool, unobtrusive cinematography makes the viewer feel at home in the rooms, gyms and bars the characters float between. Essentially, Huston steps aside to let the Billy, Ernie and Oma tell their stories without any directorial signposting or underlining. The films wants us to watch these people and not judge them; just watch and listen and experience their fragmented, messy lives as they do.

Boxing provides a loose framework for the film, with a drunk, destitute Billy meeting Ernie at the end and telling him that he's thinking of getting back in shape for what is probably the umpteenth time. Ernie has found some success boxing, but their final, silent scene together is a foreshadowing that Billy's fate will also be shared by Ernie. Although this isn't really a boxing film a la Rocky, the sport has always been the grand metaphor for American life, with its idea that achievement comes through bold, violent, individual acts in which there are winner and losers, and nothing in-between. Fat City dispenses with this myth by showing that boxing is simply another stop on Billy's stumbling journey through life, not terribly different from his time spent in bars or picking onions for $20 a day. 

The performances are uniformly excellent, but the shining star of the cast is Susan Tyrrell as Oma. This is a role that could have led to severe scenery chewing, but Tyrrell keeps things very real. If you've spent any time in the kind of bars that have a coin-operated billiard table as their sole and only attraction, then you've probably seen, and certainly heard, an Oma. Tyrrell nails this character perfectly. Huston's direction is subtle but effective, and this could be considered a companion piece to Wise Blood (1979), a study of people on the edges in the Deep South. 

Thursday 12 August 2021

Book Review: Mandrake (1964) by Susan Cooper


So let's get the plot out of the way first: Professor Queston, an anthropologist, has spent years away from his native Britain studying stone age tribes in Brazil; in particular, a tribe that has a deep, inexplicable, and religious attachment to a series of caves in a mountainside. On one of his rare trips back to England, Queston finds that his native land is under the sway of Mandrake, a minister in the government in the newly-formed Ministry of Planning. Queston has a brief and unexpected meeting with Mandrake, who seems strangely interested in Queston's research in Brazil. Flash forward a few years and Queston returns to England to find that Mandrake is now the de facto ruler of Britain and has launched the country on a bizarre and quasi-fascist policy of forcing the population to relocate to the places in England where they were originally born. England has become an impoverished dystopia with most of the population walled up in major towns and cities. Queston, who is rootless, finds himself on the run and roaming the "deadlands," the areas outside the control of the Ministry of Planning. In addition, the country is being plagued by mysterious earthquakes and tsunamis. The purpose behind these policies and disasters is rather muddled, but it seems that the Earth, (it's postulated by Queston) is actually a sentient being, and is striking back at humans for using the atom bomb. Mandrake believes that if people move to where they have the greatest psychological attachment, a sense of home and belonging, the Earth will be appeased. I think.

The whys and wherefores of what's happening in this novel are its weakest element. The finale doesn't clear things up, and, if anything, it just muddies the water. Is the Earth the bad guy? Does Mandrake have some strange psychic hold over England? It's all a bit sketchy. In this regard, and in other respects, Mandrake feels very much like a Dr Who or Quatermass story, and certainly Queston's name is almost a joking amalgam of those two characters names. Queston even gets a companion, Beth, who also becomes his love interest. Queston actually does very little in the novel except witness events, but he's a stalwart and agreeable character.

What the novel lacks in coherence, it makes up for in atmosphere. Combining elements of 1984 and tropes from John Wyndham's SF novels, and with an added hint of folk horror, Cooper creates a dread-soaked and demented England that's been brainwashed and bullied into believing happiness only comes from insularity and xenophobia. Here's a minor character's view of the changes:

"I never voted for this government, I'll tell you that, but they've done well. Could have pranged everything, but they've given us peace and quiet. Keep ourselves to ourselves, that's all we've ever wanted. All that Common Market nonsense--England's an island, isn't it?"

A political leader persuades people to take a self-evidently disastrous course of action, like, say, Brexit? Pure science fiction. This was Cooper's first novel, and while its internal logic is flawed, the world-building and atmosphere are excellent. Not a must-read, but a fascinating and well-written curiosity. 

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Film Review: The 317th Platoon (1965)

Ever hear of Pierre Schoendoerrffer? Me neither. He was a French war correspondent and photographer who was present at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and spent four months in a Viet Minh POW camp. As the writer and director, he put all his experience of the war in French Indochina into The 317th Platoon, which, it turns out, is one of the very best war movies I've ever seen. I'd never heard of it, and I thought I was familiar with all of the classic war films. Presumably the fact that it's French and deals with a forgotten conflict has kept it in the shadows of film history. 

Like so many other war films it deals with a platoon struggling to survive against poor odds. This platoon is made up of ethnic Khmer and is led by four French officers. They are in retreat following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and have to travel through a hundred miles of jungle to reach safety. So far, so unexceptional. It sometimes seems more than half of all war films are about platoons battling adversity. The difference here is the almost total absence of sentimentality and the rigorous realism. When men die there is no weeping or reminiscing, just an order for a grave to be dug. The film also avoids big action set pieces. When there is shooting, it's usually seen taking place at a great distance, or the enemy is barely glimpsed, which is how most infantry battles are fought. The intimate shootouts in films like Saving Private Ryan are the exception, not the rule, in modern war. Half the platoon's battle is with exhaustion and the jungle. 

The two main characters are Lieutenant Torrens and his second-in-command, Adjutant Willsdorf. Torrens is young and barely experienced, but the film avoids the obvious trap of making him callow, hysterical, arrogant, or foolish, the usual way newbie officers are presented in war films. Torrens is competent, firmly in command, and usually listens to the advice of his adjutant. Willsdorf is the grizzled veteran of both the Second World War and the war in Indochina. When he disagrees with one of Torrens decisions he explains why, but then shrugs and carries on with his job. Neither of them indulge in histrionics. 

Like the majority of films about colonial wars, the story is told entirely from the point of view of the colonialists. It's depressing but typical that a Western filmmaker has little or no interest in what the war in Indochina meant and did to the people who lived there. Hollywood's Vietnam films had the same flaw, as do recent films about the war in Iraq. The platoon's Khmer foot soldiers are ciphers, although in one brief scene it's made clear that the hold the French officers have over their men is, if not slipping, then certainly being looked at critically. And the ending, which is brutally swift, leaves no doubt that France is doomed to lose all her colonial wars. 

Lastly, one of the most remarkable aspects of this film is that it was apparently filmed with a crew of six people. Six! There are Hollywood productions of the era that don't look half this good with a crew of hundreds. The black and white cinematography is excellent, as is the use of locations in Cambodia. 

Saturday 17 July 2021

Film Review: The Sadist (1963)

The history of B-movies should really be divided in two: those done before the total relaxation of censorship at the end of the 1960s and those before. For argument's sake I'll say 1970 is the dividing line. From that point onwards, the B-movie, more often called an exploitation picture, was all about graphic violence, nudity (female), and sex (hetero, unless set in a convent or women's prison). It would be more accurate to call exploitation pictures men's films, or perhaps testosterone cinema says it better. There's a world of difference between a 50s B-movie creature feature like, say, The Blob, and the sex and sadism of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975). Both successful B-movies, but the former welcomed, rather than enthusiastically scared off, a female audience.

The Sadist is interesting, and shockingly good, because it straddles the B-movie fault line between the tame 50s and the raw 70s. The simple plot has three teachers, Ed, Carl and Doris, driving through the desert on their way to see a Dodgers game in Los Angeles. Their car breaks down and they pull into a salvage yard to see if they can find a mechanic. The place is apparently deserted, although there's an ominously unfinished meal in the kitchen of the house attached to the yard. Ed begins repairing the car and that's when Charlie and Judy emerge from hiding. They're a pair of  young, giggling, psycho killers clearly based on real-life murderers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who were more famously portrayed in Badlands by Terence Malick. Charlie, armed with a .45, forces Ed to finish repairing the car so he and Judy can continue their cross-country murder spree. The rest of the film is a pure exercise in tension as Ed works on the car knowing that he and Doris will be killed as soon as he's finished. 

One of the things that sets The Sadist apart from its contemporary brethren is the absolute ferocity of its nihilistic tone. There's no escaping from Charlie's sadistic bloodlust, as Carl finds out early in the film when he's beaten and executed, joined afterwards by a pair of motorcycle cops who show up unexpectedly. The usual trope of the male hero saving the day through a clever trick or act of derring-do is completely upended by having Ed's stratagems all come to nothing, and he finishes by running for his life through the junkyard only to be shot down like a cornered animal. Only Doris lives to the end, which is due to sheer luck as Charlie falls into an old well and meets up with some pissed off rattlesnakes. The film ends with Doris stumbling through the desert as a baseball game, that all-American symbol of innocent good times, plays on a car radio.

Credit goes to writer-director James Landis (not related to John Landis, apparently) for crafting a tight script that continually defies the audience's expectations. His short-ish CV is filled with credits for run-of-the-mill TV westerns and cop shows, and it's easy to imagine that The Sadist is his reaction to the anodyne product that he had to produce to pay the bills. Of course, Landis probably doesn't make his film so nasty if Hitchcock hadn't kicked down the censorship doors with Psycho two years previously and shown that audiences have a taste for bleak horror. 

Even more praise might be due to legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as William Zsigmond). This was his first feature and it's shot more creatively than many A-list movies of the time, and one brief scene in the house is done exactly as Hitchcock might have storyboarded it. I also think he shot it so that it was editor-proof. The scenes and shots flow beautifully without any of the continuity errors common to B-movies.

But like all B-movies, this one has its faults. The actors aspire to mediocre. Arch Hall Jr. as Charlie is menacing, but often to a cartoonish level, although I did like his hunched-over walk and monobrow, which I think is meant to suggest a hint of the Neanderthal. Helen Hovey plays Doris and seems to have a wisp of talent, but her job is strictly to be terrified. Acting aside, The Sadist is an exceptional B-movie that shows what can be done on a micro budget and a lot of creativity. Supposedly director Joe Dante has the only 35mm print of the film, so perhaps one day it'll show up in a pristine Blu-ray, rather than the dodgy version I watched on YouTube.

Friday 25 June 2021

48 Hours of Heat in Beverly Hills

What did I do in the endless hours of lockdown? Like most people, I watched a lot of streaming services; in particular, I made a point of giving a second watch to films I'd first seen back in the 80s and 90s. What dates some of these films isn't the fashions, it's the attitudes to gender and race. I can hear the protests already: "But those were different times! You can't force today's values on yesterday's films! You can't ignore their good qualities!" Yes I can. Defending or apologizing for the sexism, misogyny and racism of films of the fairly recent past isn't dissimilar to those who argue against taking down the statues of slave traders and Confederate generals because of HiStoRy. In both cases, it's white men standing up for lost causes. What we loosely refer to as the "Hollywood" film has been, until very recently, the creation and preserve of white males, and that species, of which I am a member, has an infinite capacity to gloss over egregious examples of misogyny and racism by shouting, "He's a great director! It's got kickass action scenes! It''s...really cool-looking." Anyway, enough with the rant and on to the reviews.

48 Hours (1982)

Back in 1982 it was amusing to watch a white cop (Nick Nolte) beat up a black man (Eddie Murphy) while spouting lame racist jokes. Of course, the cop rationalizes his behaviour by saying he hates everyone, not just blacks, and, to be fair, Reggie Hammond, the Murphy character, gives as good as gets, but after George Floyd this aspect of the film is painful to watch. This was the vehicle that made Murphy a star, and the beating heart of the film are his comic rants and riffs at the expense of the white world, some, but not all of which, are still funny. The cops and robbers plot is unexceptional, the action's OK, but, all in all, not a film worth a second glance.

Q & A (1990)

Nick Nolte as yet another racist, violent cop! This time he's Mike Brennan, a NYC detective who's going off the rails trying to cover up his execution of a suspect. Pursuing him is Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) a deputy district attorney who begins to suspect the "righteous" kill is bogus. Nolte is fantastic as a sociopathic, closeted cop who thinks his every action is justified because he's keeping the streets clean. Q & A feels very contemporary in the forthright way it tackles issues like racism, police corruption and the code of silence that prevents good cops from ratting out bad cops. Sidney Lumet, who is to NYC what Charles Dickens is to London, wrote and directed Q & A and it's one of his very best.

Another 48 Hours (1990)

Are you noticing a pattern here? I swear, I'm not obsessed with Nolte and Murphy. Anyhow, this sequel ditches the racist name-calling and settles in to being a traditional buddy cop movie, with more emphasis on grittiness and violence, and that makes it better than the original, which just has too many wince-inducing moments. 

True Romance (1993)

If anything, this one has gotten better over the years. Tony Scott, the director, gave his films a lush, glossy, frenetic look that isn't universally loved, but it's distinctly cinematic, and these days, when so many films have a flat, TV-ish look, or have surrendered completely to CGI, his sometimes OTT visuals have nostalgic appeal. The script's by Quentin Tarantino, although it's essentially a hyper-drive pastiche of tropes from Elmore Leonard's crime novels. Cops and criminals bounce violently off each other in the hunt for a bag full of cocaine and lots of people end up dead. The supporting cast is stellar, the plot twists itself into entertaining knots, and the pace is relentless. A classic, of sorts.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

So the pitch for this film was probably, "What if the Reggie Hammond character from 48 Hours was a cop instead of a crook and a fish out of water?" And that gave us Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, a cop from grimy Detroit who comes to sun-kissed L.A. on the trail doesn't really matter. Both films are shaky frameworks for Murphy to repurpose his riffs from 48 Hours and act like an action star. He fails on both counts. I remember enjoying the first one at the time, but the humour this time around falls flat. The sequel is a nasty piece of work (Tony Scott directing) that's even less funny and revels in a kind of sniggering misogyny.

The Firm (1993)

This came out the same year as True Romance and it's hard to find such sharply contrasting films. Where the former is cool, edgy and clever, the latter is stodgy, overlong and void of imagination. It's hard to understand why the film was even made other than as a vehicle for the then red-hot Tom Cruise. There's an hour's worth of dull plot spread listlessly over two and a half hours, and a climactic foot chase involving geriatric Wilford Brimley, which tells you how lame the whole endeavor is. Sydney Pollack is the director picking up a paycheque, Tom Cruise shows off his community theatre acting skills, and a strong supporting cast, led by Gene Hackman, try to bring this corpse to life. This is a film that would be improved by being offensive.

Heat (1995)

For a lot of people this is the holy grail of heist movies. I can't really disagree. The robbery elements are superbly executed, the final shootout is justifiably famous, the cinematography is great, and Al Pacino as the swaggering detective and Robert De Niro as the master thief are at the top of their game. But holy crap does this film hate its female characters. Ashley Judd (Val Kilmer's character's partner) and Diane Venora (Pacino's partner) are given the thankless, and traditional, roles for women in many action movies: they're scolds and nags who complain about the lack of attention they get from their partners, and generally act as ball and chains to the men who just want to go out and have macho fun. The pair cheat on their respective men, which in both cases is presented as an act of petty, feminine vindictiveness since their illicit lovers are such wimpy weasels. But, of course, the women come crawling back to their guys at the end. In Judd's case she stupidly and senselessly risks losing custody of her son to give Kilmer's character a chance to escape, and Venora finishes the film making doe eyes at Pacino after he takes time out of his busy schedule to rescue her daughter from a suicide attempt that's only in the script to make Pacino look good. And McCauley, De Niro's character? He acquires a girlfriend, Eady, almost half his age after he's rude and cold towards her. Yup, the traditional meet-cute of lazy, male scriptwriters. What woman wouldn't be attracted to an old guy who cold shoulders her initial attempt at friendship? And within a matter of weeks (days, even?) Eady is ready to throw her life and career away and go with McCauley as he flees the country. Oh, and McCauley takes time to physically threaten Judd for daring to cheat on Kilmer. By the end of the film I was wondering why Michael Mann, the scriptwriter and director, even bothered putting female characters into his story. In sum: stay for the heist, leave for the misogyny.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Book Review: Soldiers of Barbarossa by Craig W.H. Luther and David Stahel (2020) and An Englishman at War by Stanley Christopherson (2014)


Histories of the Second World War gives us at least a glimpse of its horrors; Soldiers of Barbarossa tells an even crueler story through the words of German soldiers. Soldiers is a collection of letters sent by frontline members of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe to their friends and relations detailing their experiences fighting their way across the Soviet Union from June to December of 1941. What's significant about this book is the glimpse it gives us into the mind of the average soldier.

Letters sent by about 200 different soldiers are used in the book, and perhaps only a handful of individuals could be described as anti-Nazi or neutral. The vast majority are enthusiastic in their loathing of Jews and Russians, approving of executions of the same, and almost uniformly in thrall to Hitler and Nazism. Although the editors of the book point out that only a minority of German soldiers, usually belonging to specialized units, took part in mass, organized killings of Jews and Russian, these letters make clear that most would have been fine with lending a hand. The myth of the "good" German soldier takes a battering here. 

What's almost as disturbing as the vicious descriptions of Jews and Russians is that the rhetoric and logic used to describe these hatreds is astonishingly similar to what Trump, Fox News and the GOP have been spouting for years: opponents are bestial, treacherous, criminal, and irredeemable, and their political views are deranged. The Leader is brilliant, infallible, our last and greatest hope, and knows exactly what he's doing. The letters sent home in late December 1941, as the winter bites and Soviet resistance stiffens, show a slight decline in enthusiasm for the leader and the war effort, but not that much.

An Englishman at War is the memoir of a British tank officer who fought in North Africa and Europe. Over the years I've read a lot of memoirs of this type, and while it doesn't offer anything unique, it's a fascinating counterpoint to the letters found in Soldiers. Politics and ideology are almost entirely absent from Christopherson's book, and that's true of the vast majority of British and American war memoirs I've read. There's lots of talk about the creature discomforts of war, the terror and confusion of battle, and the cruelty of what war does to men's minds and bodies, but  the visceral hatred of the Other and the mindless, true believer worship of a political/racial ideology as shown in Soldiers, is absent from Allied memoirs. 

The term "radicalization" is used to describe the process that's created today's white supremacists and far-right groups, and that term fits perfectly for what's revealed in Soldiers.  By 1941 Germans had been subject to eight years of Nazi indoctrination and propaganda, and the words of the fighting men show how successful that effort was, and all without the help of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Tucker Carlson. 

Thursday 27 May 2021

Film Review: King Rat (1965)

The recent death of George Segal led me to this fim, and it's remarkable for a few reasons. The first is that it's one of the rare Second World War films from that era that isn't triumphalist in tone. The story is set in Changi POW camp near Singapore in 1945, which is where James Clavell, the author of the novel the film's based on, was held captive during the war. The POWs are mostly British and Australian, with a few Americans. Segal is Cpl. King, the camp's fixer, wheeler-dealer and chief predatory capitalist. While the other prisoners stagger around the camp in rags that show their skinny bodies, King always wears an immaculate, if sweaty, uniform and is the picture of rude good health. Being a hustler and middleman has been good for King, and he rules his prison hut like, well, a king. If you need something essential, you have to go through King. 

 King Rat isn't about escape or the triumph of the human spirit, the usual tropes of POW films, it's purely about survival, and the film works hard to show how wretched the conditions were. The easiest comparison point for King Rat is The Bridge on the River Kwai, which almost glosses over the brutality of life in Japanese POW camps in favour of action/adventure. By the standards of early 60s filmmaking, King Rat pushes the envelope in showing the dirt, desperation and starvation afflicting the POWs. The prisoners eat bugs and rats, cheat each other out of rations, and murder those they catch stealing food. A few have been driven mad by captivity, and, in a bold move for a film from that era, there's a clear suggestion of gay relationships. The severity of their suffering is captured in the finale when the camp is finally liberated and the POWs greet the first British soldier as though he's an alien dropped amongst them; they recoil in shock and run away. 

The film is also notable for its gleaming, beautifully composed cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who also shot Bonnie and Clyde, but doesn't have as many major film credits as one would imagine. It was filmed just outside Los Angeles, but it never looks or feels like something made on a Hollywood backlot. Segal, the fit, good-looking version of Walter Matthau through much of his career, gives a strong performance that's matched by James Fox as Marlowe, a British officer who falls under King's spell. 

If there's a flaw here it's that the film can't settle on its view of King. He's cold, calculating, cruel at times, but then he risks everything to save Marlowe's life when he contracts gangrene. And then at the end he cold shoulders Marlowe as the prisoners are being repatriated. Evidently in the novel King was shown as a more heroic anti-hero who realizes that skill at survival counts for more than honour or duty. And the placement of an anti-hero at the centre of the story is probably why this film isn't as honoured or as well known as Kwai and others of that ilk.