Friday, December 30, 2016

Madame de... (1953)

The Earrings of Madame de..., France / Italy, 105 minutes
Director: Max Ophüls
Writers: Louise de Vilmorin, Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, Annette Wadamant
Photography: Christian Matras
Music: Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys
Editor: Boris Lewyn
Cast: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Lea di Lea, Jean Debucourt

A hasty internet search this morning failed to reveal the circumstances of the title change for the American release of this movie (to The Earrings of Madame de...). So I don't know who did it or why. What's interesting is how it subtly yet effectively alters the prevailing frame, from a wry focus on the upper-class foibles of the elaborately unnamed protagonist, which is appropriate, to a focus rather on a classic cinematic "MacGuffin," a plot device of an object in which all characters have an interest, but which otherwise has little point. The statue in The Maltese Falcon is a classic MacGuffin.

Just so, the earrings in question, which appear in the first and last shots of this movie, are a notably busy kind of MacGuffin all through, moving from the possession of one character to another over a dozen times, which is taken to a particular point in the second half where credulity itself begins to be strained. It's easy to be distracted by them, so easy that you might be tempted to feature them in a retitle for midcentury American audiences. But this MacGuffin actually has meaning—many meanings. The earrings are always a reflection of any character in possession of them at the moment they have them, and always further receding reflections in an opposing mirror of Madame de (we never quite catch her name though it comes up now and again, concealed presumably as a matter of valor or at least discretion). At first the Madame finds the earrings ugly, when she is deciding to sell them to pay off illicit debts. Later, when she can no longer possess them, she will love them with all her heart.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Handmaiden (2016)

As it happens, I overheard numerous complaints all week in real life and on Facebook about the length of The Handmaiden: cautions that it was long, real-time anguish from someone realizing too late he had arrived at a long movie, even bathroom jokes, etc. So heads up everybody. The Handmaiden is well over two hours, at 144 minutes, and it's good to be prepared, as it moves at a leisurely pace. I thought it was ravishing good fun, not referring specifically to the generous sex scenes, and I got a great big kick out of the way it clanked and swooped along. It's funny and harrowing and full of surprises. It's divided into three parts, the first two of which advance and bend reality in a show of literary legerdemain, as Park likes to do it. What you see is not always what you get, and I really shouldn't say more than that. A Japanese woman engaged to her uncle takes a handmaiden, who is part of an elaborate scheme—bup bup! That's all I can say. I've seen a couple of other pictures by Korean director and cowriter Chan-wook Park, most notably Oldboy, probably his most famous, as well as I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, which is more in the way of a throwaway. What I like most about The Handmaiden is how much it feels like a big swooning novel, at pains to yoke together two separate narrative styles—the British gothic as in Wuthering Heights or Oliver Twist combined with a Japanese chamber drama about love and deceit. So at pains is Park to emphasize this double whammy that he sets it in a mansion which is itself half English countryside manor and half Japanese villa. In Korea. By obvious careful design. I'm sure a lot of cultural business between Japan and Korea, and England too, sailed right over my head—among other things, it's set in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. The subtitles are careful to distinguish the two languages, and the circumstances under which either is spoken in the story carry many ambiguous meanings. In the third section the whole thing becomes a bit of a runaway happy ending train, but that's just the kind of thing we need at this time of year, innit? Along with, for the delectation of the male gaze, a bunch of reasonably hot lesbian sex scenes. Also, it wouldn't be complete without shocking violence, so look out for that too. If I'm going to complain about this, and I really don't want to, it's more about the tidy wrap-up. I liked it more in the first two sections when it was sprawling and opening wider and wider and the ground was always shifting. Park is good at that, and this movie is a pretty good time. Have you heard that it's long?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"Redemption" (1977)

Read story by John Gardner online.

John Gardner's story starts out really well, delivering on the promise of the title with a minimum of fuss, but ends in a strange place. Jack Hawthorne is 12 and he unintentionally kills his 7-year-old brother David in a horrific accident involving farm machinery. That's the first thing we learn, and from there it is no problem to make a need for redemption believable. Jack's father goes to pieces, drinking and carousing and disappearing from home for days and weeks at a time. His mother is more stoic but she is broken too. It's arguably worst of all for Jack. No one blames him—it was a foolish avoidable accident, but an accident—except himself. This is the basic thrust, and it's powerful, based on an incident in Gardner's own life. But the details at the edges are weird and distracting. His father is some kind of poet-farmer, appearing at functions to read and entertain. They are in the country, on a farm, but it feels distinctly urban, or at least suburban. Maybe exurban? Somehow it feels like Ben & Jerry's Vermont. The unfocused and confusing setting only becomes worse when it becomes evident how Jack will redeem himself—by learning to play the French horn from an Old World master. Each element on its own might be convincing, but in the totality they are in conflict with one another. Jack works hard on the farm and also goes to a good school, a modern urban public school. If there's a certain disconnect between how hard and seriously Jack and his father work on the farm, it's even more so when the Old World master and French horn come along. Again, it's convincing enough, in this section, about the wonders and beauties and so forth of music, but it is jarringly at odds with what has gone before. Step back and think about it, and I suppose maybe it makes sense that a poet-farmer would raise a son who finds redemption playing the French horn, but they both feel so outside the norm I don't even know where to start. Their relationship is murky enough as it is, distorted by the tragedy. After the accident Gardner starts to lose me right away and by the introduction of the Old World master I was about gone, though the language is captivating enough to keep it going. This story qualifies for that great bland insult of any fiction, "It's well written." It feels more like a lost opportunity to me.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Friday, December 23, 2016

Schindler's List (1993)

USA, 195 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Thomas Keneally, Steven Zaillian
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Jonathan Sagall, Embeth Davidtz, Malgorzata Gebel, Shmuel Levy, Mark Ivanir

At the time Schindler's List was new I was not entirely on board with the larger Spielberg project and I focused more on the problems I saw with the picture. I'm a little more on board now, and can see I missed a lot of what makes it arguably a great movie. There are great performances and its commitment to showing what the Holocaust and the German Nazi regime looked like is unstinting, the main reason the movie is so long and rated R ("contains some adult material"). It is ambitious about telling a simple, resonant story of the Holocaust, and erecting a broad sweeping vision of that context—the systematic abuse and murder of some 6 million Jews by German Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

Schindler's List is good, even great, because it doesn't flinch from showing the details. It learned well from Shoah the stories of what happened in the Holocaust. Shots and scenes in Schindler's List are often reminiscent of what we came to understand from the massive 1985 documentary and elsewhere. And yet, something nags at me when I look at Schindler's List. The movie often seems bloated and gaseous in memory, over-swamped by the excesses of its own good intentions somehow. I don't doubt the veracity but it often feels exaggerated for effect. And I still see the problems I've always seen with it. They still work to undermine the movie's best intentions and strengths. They aren't big problems, in terms of screen time generally, but somehow they puncture it, almost irreparably.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Even though he's only made three features now to date, Manchester By the Sea director and writer Kenneth Lonergan is one of my favorites. You Can Count on Me is that good, and Margaret is not bad either for a commercially buried studio botch job. Happy then to find that even with highest expectations Manchester By the Sea is one of the best things I've seen in a long while. Once again strained family relations are the focus—it's more pages ripped from that safe place we all go where it hurts. Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, is the setting, a small town on the Atlantic coast of about 5,000. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, a single man working for minimum wage and a room as a building maintenance man in a Boston apartment complex. It's just an aces script. Things happen right along—first off, Lee hears that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, no relation) has died at age 45 from a known heart condition. Lee has to go back to Manchester to take care of affairs. He learns at the reading of the will that Joe has designated and provided for him as the legal guardian of Joe's son, Lee's nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This is not something Lee saw coming, though steady flashback sequences have begun to establish their long-term relationship, and all the swirling events that mark him and his brother and his family. Lee, actually, has quite a lot of baggage from his past, including a former marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams). It's a bit of a jam in the first 40 minutes or so getting the context and details fleshed out. There's a lot of whispering and murmuring from the townsfolk signifying something big. Thankfully, they get to that soon enough that we don't have to be too annoyed with teasing. There are some overdone scenes here—Lesley Barber really sets the orchestra to sawing in a couple of key sequences. But I can't say I wasn't unaffected—it's got a pinch of Mystic River hysterics, but that's reined in enough. It's mostly a showcase for Casey Affleck, who may or may not be underrated, but whose only performance even close to this I know was the underrated Assassination of Jesse James. He is also drawing a lot from Mark Ruffalo's turn in You Can Count on Me (or maybe that's Lonergan's direction). Michelle Williams has relatively little screen time but she's there for every second of it. The best scenes, and there are a few of them, involve a stationary camera, a room, and long, long awkward passages. There is death and tragedy here (and that sawing orchestra too) but it didn't feel too overdone, once acclimated to the premise. Everyone is up for this. I want to see it a bunch more times.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Grown Up All Wrong (1998)

Rather than his own joking self-appellation, the "Dean of American Rock Critics," I tend to think of Robert Christgau more as the Pete Rose of American rock critics. That's for his capsule album reviews, which now number well over 12,000 and counting. And even though I'd bet Rose makes it into his hall of fame before Christgau makes it into his, no one else has accomplished anything like it. Still, I think I get more of everything I like about Christgau these days in his longer pieces, as found in this oversize encyclopedia volume collection from the turn of the century, which feels like a summary statement. It's as thoroughgoing an exercise as one could hope for from the man with perhaps the most catholic tastes in all rock, pop, and beyond. He brings a useful perspective to Elvis Presley, casting him as a literary hero. He has one of the best single paragraphs I've ever encountered on the Beatles (short form, he can't quit you). And there is nothing at all specifically about Bob Dylan. Certain points of his taste are blind spots for me I already know about: the New York Dolls, Loudon Wainwright III, and some others. More often I appreciate the insights. His piece on James Brown, when I first read it years ago, opened the whole world of Brown to me, or somehow emboldened me to explore deep into Brown's strange and massive catalog. Christgau's Nirvana sendoff isn't any more flinty than it needs to be, and hits a good many notes. And the pieces about African music represent an interesting shift in his voice, more evangelist than anywhere else in his writing, and obviously researched with backstories and context because he knows his readers are unlikely to bring it themselves. As it happens, this fights a little with another instinct of his, which is to be the casual wiseacre smartest guy in the room catcalling from the sidelines, an impulse that runs to some excesses here in spots. That's in his capsule reviews too. He can't help himself. He goes out of his way to insult people by name—academics he doesn't trust, various taste makers, and sundry other figures lodged in his craw. Notwithstanding, it's a great bunch of thoughtful essays, even on artists you might not care that much about. He cares, and he's here to tell you why, and that's just infectious enough. It's a big book but worth going through slowly and carefully—among other things, more opportunities for list making and further shopping / streaming considerations. A consumer guide, you might say even. Christgau thinks so hard and so clearly about what he hears that he has the ability to make me think differently about things I've heard all my life, like James Brown.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Allied (2016)

Brad Pitt is back to killing stinking Nazis and there are many details about this movie I am honor-bound to conceal from you. It's a World War II movie about spies set in Casablanca, wishing very hard that it could be the movie Casablanca, which if you will recall had numerous false endings in the delicious pile-up at the end. So mum's the word bub. With director Robert Zemeckis running the show (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), there was bound to be at least a little blast of the meta in Allied. Brad Pitt is Max Vatan, of Medicine Hat, Alberta, a special operations man for the British. Marion Cotillard is Marianne Beausejeur of Paris, a French Resistance fighter. The first half, set in yes French Moroccan Casablanca, is about their mission to assassinate a German ambassador. They fall in love, the mission is a spectacular success (maybe 15 or more visible Nazi kills), and they decide to get hitched in London. Ain't love grand? They have a baby—outdoors, actually, during a German bombing raid. Yes, of course it's overdone, but wait till you see the spectacle of the bombing planes, probing searchlights, giving birth, antiaircraft fire, and even a dirty Nazi plane brought right down to the ground. Huzzah! Next thing you know, Marianne is officially under suspicion by the British military of being a filthy German spy. Well, there's the central conflict for you, and now I must refrain from saying any more. I can tell you it's a pretty good show, tightly written, propulsive, and nearly always interesting. There's some flab around the end of the second third that could get it under two hours if they cared, maybe 20 or so uninteresting minutes. Pitt is solid with his middle-aged Robert Redford shtick which suits him fine. I haven't actually seen that much of Cotillard before but she's fine here too as a sultry dark and mysterious beautiful European woman. My favorite parts were in the first half in Casablanca. It was not at all like the city in the 1942 picture but much more naturally exotic and atmospheric, with strange sights and sounds and ways. The black, red, and white Nazi insignia never fails to fill me with dread and loathing and there's plenty of that here too. In fact, this movie is for anyone who enjoys seeing Nazis killed dead, not to mention an almost swell love story. Not bad.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Popular Crime (2011)

I was familiar with Bill James before I lost interest in baseball, and with some idea of his stature there (still growing I believe), but reviews of his lengthy meditation on true crime literature made me wary in advance. It's true that James attempts some statistical analysis here, much of which is just kind of silly, and also that he has some strange and alienating ideas. But who doesn't, in this realm? He is as much a wonderful read as ever when he enters into certain free-flowing yet steady currents of thought. First, I really appreciate his appreciation of true crime literature itself, in all its low-class stigma and strange and often badly written glories. Among other things I was happy to find James completely at ease in one of its greatest attractions: second-guessing everyone in sight. The police, prosecutors, and media, of course, of course, of course, and in approximately that order. Also juries and suspects. Anyone, literally. Anything that looks remotely suspicious from the vantage of reading a book in your living room trying to figure out how these blasted crimes happen and investigations go so wrong and it all becomes mysterious and deeply knowable-yet-unknowable, like the tricks of stage magicians, eternally nagging away. Plus human primal drama by the gallon—really. At its most base it is probably outrage porn that draws many, but that doesn't make it any less profound or fascinating or repulsive. My particular interests diverge some from James's so he has missed some obvious cases by my lights, such as the West Memphis Three, but often enough he is on to cases and books I hadn't known. It wasn't long before my secondary mission was grabbing titles, authors, and cases for future binges.

I thought James looked most silly (recognizing many others in baseball have seen him as silly and been wrong) attempting to elucidate the paradoxes of Lizzie Borden with a weird point system. I liked his theory of the JFK assassination, that the magic bullet was the accidental firing of a Secret Service gun, because why not? He seems worst to me on '60s crime more generally, veering toward Jack Webb territory with strained theories about liberals, hippies, and especially the Earl Warren Supreme Court. That theme became shrill for me and made me like or trust him less. On the other hand, we are broadly in agreement about the literature. Yes, it is full of ugly photos, bad writing, and human depravity. But it is actually about the most vital and profound issues: life, death, and judgment. Back of that, however, maddeningly, down in the nitty-gritty of the crimes and investigations, it starts to look like the bizarre subatomic world of physics, where forces are at work, but we don't understand them. That's what's so fascinating. We're not always even sure what happened. Thus, for example, the class of cases where people, such as Tim Masters in Fort Collins, Colorado, or indeed the West Memphis Three, are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn't do. That's one of James's many classes of true crime literature quarks and such here. He does a nice job of sorting, among other things, and I came away with a long list too. I enjoyed this a lot. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the stuff.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Eight Black Horses (1985)

At this point—have I said this before?—I have to admit my heart falls a little whenever I start a book in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain and find it's a Deaf Man story. It's a little like realizing a Star Trek episode is about Q, or Lwaxana Troi. The Deaf Man books are giant comic book capers filled with exaggerated and unlikely event, your basic Riddler v. Batman scenario. In this one, traveling under the name Dennis Döve (and asking people to call him "Den" because "den döve" means "the deaf man" in Swedish), he sends confusing messages to the 87th Precinct detectives: images of nightsticks, badges, hats, wanted posters, all things with a vague police theme. The first is of eight black horses. What could this nefarious villain be planning now? Thanks to the omniscient narrator, we see the Deaf Man bed one woman, kill another, tell his henchmen to do this and that, all but cackle and rub his hands. What in the world is he up to? You'll find out soon enough if you just keep reading the book. And it's probably the only way you'll figure it out. Technically, that makes this "unfair" mystery story writing. Eight Black Horses is not an outright failure, but it's not that good and it's way too busy. At this point in the series the novels are about twice the size of the earlier ones. A lot of the extra space goes to understanding the characters better. We learn here, for example, that the reprehensible Andy Parker was married at one time, and how it contributes to his chronic bitterness and rage, which makes him a bad cop. Little is heard from Meyer Meyer, and even Steve Carella is more of a sideline character. No, this one is all about the Deaf Man, which is awkward given the omniscient narrator coupled with the need to disclose some but not all of what he is doing. McBain has painted himself into an odd way of telling the story, not to mention that it's as unbelievable as ever with this character. Once the orchestrated mayhem begins, it's all flash and sizzle, like nothing that ever happens anywhere. I'm willing to indulge McBain these exercises because I'm trying to read them all anyway, and his storytelling works pretty well even when it's for something silly. So if you're reading them all like me, whatever. The rest of you can move it to the back of the stack. Unless you like the Deaf Man stories, in which case knock yourself out.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Ice (1983)

Here's a novel that's typical of the '80s for the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. Over 300 pages, with a single-word title whose metaphorical possibilities are worked over methodically (compare Tricks, the best of them). So it is set in February, involves cocaine, and also a theatrical-world scam known as "ice" (a term I'd never heard before, though I knew the scalping technique). There are also diamonds—you knew there were going to be diamonds—which are hidden inside ice-cube trays. Brrr. The killer is a cold motherfucker too, though I know many criminals in fiction are cold. As usual, except lately, it's a decent mystery story, keeps you guessing, and plays fair, for the most part. I've heard a new term going around: "rapey," which unfortunately often applies to McBain's work. A variation I haven't heard yet applies even more to him: "knifey." Ice is rapey and it is knifey too, though mostly (not always) they are off to the side, in the developing relationship between sad sack turned bad cop Bert Kling (just divorced from his model wife Augusta, who starred in Heat, set in August) and rape decoy specialist Eileen Burks. Ah ha—did the light just go on for you too? That's where all the rapey stuff goes in this one, and a lot of the knifey stuff too. And McBain is really treading risky territory here, attempting to make Eileen a hot sexy redheaded bombshell who has a complicated rape fantasy in her sexuality. Not in her police work, thank God. But I'm not really sure that makes it any better. It feels uncomfortably like McBain's complicated rape fantasy in a way that is annoying at best, or icky and worse. So that's unfortunate. All the personal development is basically with Kling and Eileen. Cotton Hawes and Andy Parker are absent. Meyer Meyer, Arthur Brown, and of course Steve Carella are present. Teddy makes a brief appearance. This one is big but it's mostly about the case, which is mostly about the metaphor conceit. I like setting it in February, as in many ways it's the cruelest month of the winter—still dark and bleak and cold, but now with phony make-believe holidays, Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day, neither one of which anybody ever knows where to put the apostrophes. McBain works those holidays pretty well here. There's a comical phony priest who reminds me a little of Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction. I realize I'm grasping at straws now. OK, it's not one of his best either.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Heat (1981)

Heat is a decent entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, though something of a sad one. The main case involves a locked-room type of apparent suicide. For the most part even that takes a backseat to the personal dramas with hapless Bert Kling, who suspects his wife Augusta is cheating on him, gets pretty hot about it, and sets out to catch her. There's also a psychopath trailing him, in order to settle a grudge. I'm not sure McBain is playing fair with this one either, as he is deliberately misleading on at least one important point. Even worse, the excesses Kling indulges in his pursuit of Augusta are unconscionable. He gets a search warrant under fraudulent conditions and uses it to harass and intimidate someone who is guilty of nothing except being unlikable. There are no repercussions from this, not here or in any subsequent novel. It's appalling—other detectives have to know, certainly our hero Steve Carella, but they appear to cover it up. Oh well, and never mind about the guy held at gunpoint in the middle of the night. Anyway, McBain is plainly more interested in this storyline than in the ostensible main case, which I'll call a good thing. I like that he goes in for the long-term character development, it's the main thing that merits any comparison to Balzac, even if I'm not convinced he always does such a good job of it. Bert Kling loses lots of points on the decent cop score here, and unfortunately McBain seems altogether too sanguine about it too. It's given more as a series of understandable and noble mistakes rather than criminal. Just so, the main case gets rote, turning on a lifelong fear of pills and a suicide death by barbiturate overdose, and the resolution is barely believable. The heat theme is handled all right—it's set in August, no surprise. A corpse is left to rot in a closed apartment with the air conditioning purposely turned off. Mostly I came away from this saddened by the behavior of Bert Kling and how it appears to be condoned.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Ghosts (1980)

Lately I haven't been having a lot of luck with the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either). Here is yet another weak one. It's not even very interested in the crime in this case, let alone the police procedure for solving it. The main thing (after the usual unpleasant fixation on knives, which manifests as a description of all 19 wounds in a slashing and stabbing homicide) is the supernatural. The victim is the writer of a bestselling book about a haunted house in Massachusetts. I'm slow, so it took me awhile to notice the publication date and realize he must be riffing on Jay Anson and The Amityville Horror (the book which served as the pretext for the movie). That's McBain's other main interest here, horror writing and specifically the ghost story. Things happen that seem to be purely supernatural, including a medium with unexplainable powers. Interestingly (or not), she also looks exactly like Steve Carella's wife Teddy. And a Massachusetts winter storm strands Carella with her, as he is investigating a haunted house in a small town. Which also has some connection to Salem while we're at it. Oh it's piled on high here. And it's reasonably effective—weird, moody, vaguely unsettling maybe even. But what's this doing in the middle of my police procedural? It cheats in a really profound way on the whole premise of the series: rational investigation, scientific principles, all that. But what the hell, I suppose, why not? I remember saying something earlier about McBain's restless creativity. Still, it's annoying that the episode is equally as much about boy scout Steve Carella remaining true to his wife even in a situation where almost anyone could forgive him. The medium, recall, looks exactly like Teddy, which, as a plot point, only becomes more creepy the longer we have to live with it. What's more, this medium also has an identical twin sister who is a slut in all but name, so there you have it. Really, I'm not making this up. McBain did. Triple Teddy Strike Force. I guess it all comes with the territory, and to be fair, McBain has explored the bent toward horror elsewhere in the series (the "Nightshade" story in Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here), though never so shamelessly, wantonly indulging the supernatural. I can't really speak to his career as Evan Hunter or other pseudonyms, but I wouldn't be surprised to find he's written a horror novel or two. I would then bet you knives figure prominently. Well, nobody's perfect. But Ghosts is an underperformer in the series by most standards.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

He Who Hesitates (1964)

This is one of the more formalist experiments that show up in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. If it's not entirely pulled off, well, at least he was trying. That restless creativity is also something to like about him. The experiment is also probably the reason that it's very short—hard to sustain. What we have is the point of view of a temporary visitor to the city, Roger Broome, a craftsman in wooden goods such as salad bowls and utensils. He encounters five of the detectives, which is way too much coincidence, all things considered. From the beginning he has something on his mind, or his conscience, and he keeps intending to go to the police. But [the title]. For much of it we have no idea if he's committed a crime, or what, which is clarified later. It depends on many things that don't seem very likely to me. For example, that a woman would notice an abandoned refrigerator in the basement of an apartment building had been stolen. Then that the police would investigate to the extent of canvassing the building. There's a general nod in the direction of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which makes sense for its time. It's also interesting to watch McBain telescope his detective caricatures to the barest terms: Hall Willis "the short one," Cotton Hawes (Broome hears it as "Horse"), with red hair and white streak, Meyer Meyer, bald, Steve Carella, with a beautiful deaf wife, radiating a sense of decency. (McBain always does favor Carella, doesn't he?) There's even a kind of sickening twist at the end. It probably made a good proposal pitch. It's fun to review the premise as now when I'm writing it up. But it never really transcends the bounds of its concept. What we appear to have in the end (spoiler alert) is a psychopath. As everyone knows, psychopaths are going to do what psychopaths do. It's literary license to do practically anything. That's one problem, though the sense of grim chill might arguably merit it. Mostly I missed the personalities of the 87th Precinct detectives, who played in the background, as they had to. Even at that, they were a little too loud and omnipresent. File this one under noble failed experiment, and don't even think about reading it first in the series. Really.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Ten Plus One (1963)

This entry in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series is a single "big case" mystery with most of its essentials as if filched from an Agatha Christie cozy. It doesn't really play fair either way. As a cozy, it does not give us anything like a reasonable chance to figure it out. As a police procedural, it's just a little unbelievable. A sniper is on the loose in the 87th Precinct, which means our usual gang of detectives is responsible for the case, including all the murders that follow. There's also a Nancy Drew character on hand, Cindy Forrest, who later becomes a love interest for Bert Kling. At first the detectives think it's a serial killer—it's 1963 so the term wasn't yet common, making him a "nut" or a "madman." Working at the problem assiduously, the detectives finally find the link among the victims and counting, and then the tiresome business of playing out follows. This isn't one of the best, I must say. It's just the one case, which is rarely believable at any point, and the personal asides are minimal. At the same time it's a little longer than earlier volumes, so the result is it also feels padded, riding on the sensationalism of the Deadly Sniper. Minneapolis is mentioned, which might have some interest for anyone who's lived there, though the city itself is all off-stage. The year 1963 marks a low point in McBain's productivity on the series, along with 1962, which may or may not be explained by his working on movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and Akira Kurosawa's High and Low. This one mostly feels like McBain is phoning it in. The resolution turns on an astonishing presumption of both depravity and prudery, removing it definitively from the cozy realm. Across the arc of the story, once the sniper gets to snipin', that's when it really goes off the rails. Which covers the broad majority of action here. You can hold off on this one awhile.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Like Love (1962)

Here's another very short novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain), and another one that mostly resembles a conventional mystery story. A couple is found dead of apparent suicide in a tenement apartment. The gas for the oven was opened up and eventually the apartment exploded, smashing much of it to smithereens. It's typical exaggerated McBain violence. The dead couple is found in their underwear, lying in bed together, with a suicide note nearby. At this point, ineffable cop instinct sets in—it's Steve Carella as the main detective, as usual, with Cotton Hawes partnering with him on the case. Bert Kling and Meyer Meyer are also around to help out. As these things go it's a reasonably good puzzler. McBain was usually competent about devising these stories, inserting the red herrings, and finally explaining it all. That talent, in fact, is a critical element in the keeping the series going with the variety that it has. The mysteries can often carry the momentum, while he sorts out what he wants to do with the characters for the long term. There's also a separate suicide case, which occurs at the beginning and later impinges on the investigation of the dead couple. The title phrase is spoken two or three times along the way to inject notes of jaded cynicism, corrupted innocence, or a little of both. There's not much here on the personal side. Bert Kling is grieving the death of a girlfriend in an earlier book and that's about it. I wasn't much interested in the case—the whole thing seemed improbable to me, no matter what the "solution" turned out to be. So mostly I rode along on McBain's bantering voice. I wouldn't count this as one of the better books in the series, but as something for travel or a sleepless night it's perfectly adequate. It delivers an enigma and then, if you follow along far enough, a plausible resolution. Maybe you can get some sleep now. Maybe your plane is ready to land now.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Patty Hearst (1988)

UK / USA, 108 minutes
Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Patricia Hearst, Alvin Moscow, Nicholas Kazan
Photography: Bojan Bazelli
Music: Scott Johnson
Editor: Michael R. Miller
Cast: Natasha Richardson, Ving Rhames, William Forsythe, Frances Fisher, Jodi Long, Peter Kowanko, Tom O'Rourke, Gerald Gordon

The Patty Hearst story is always going to be interesting, like the Jonbenet Ramsey murder, JFK assassination, and Lizzie Borden crimes, because of a continuing sense we still don't even know exactly what happened—that it might be impossible to know, it's so slathered over now with distortions of celebrity and passing time. The crusading prosecutor in director and cowriter Paul Schrader's formally fictional treatment of Patty Hearst puts it this way: "America wants to know. Did she or didn't she? Was she or wasn't she?" The scene is a conference between lawyers, late in the movie, after the fugitive Patty Hearst has been run to ground with the remaining members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a year and a half after the kidnapping.

F. Lee Bailey and his team, representing Hearst, cannot believe prosecutors are thinking of taking the case to trial, arguing it would be an open-and-shut case of coercion in a military setting. After Bailey realizes they are serious he makes the speech that defines the problem of Patty Hearst: "How are you gonna get a fair jury? In the '60s, every parent sent their nice normal kid off to college, and bingo! It was like the kid got kidnapped by the counterculture. Turned into a commie and said screw you to society and his parents. Lived in a commune and had free sex with Negroes and homosexuals. They think Patty did the same thing." To which the crusading prosecutor (Tom O'Rourke) responds: "Didn't she?"