Sunday, 27 December 2015

Susan Slept Here by Alex Gottleib and Steve Fisher

Perhaps, like me, you have a favourite Christmas movie which you enjoy watching every year as part of the festive ritual. In my case it's a brilliant, but little known 1954 comedy called Susan Slept Here. I first caught it on TV, was captivated, and kept a treasured VHS copy for years until a very welcome Warner Archive Collection DVD supplanted it in my collection.

This delightful comic gem tells the tale of a grizzled screenwriter called Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) who ends up entangled with a female juvenile delinquent called Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) — some cops who are friends of Mark's have picked her up for coshing a sailor with a beer bottle. Recalling that Mark wanted to research a movie about teenage delinquency, they hook up the two of them.

Hook up indeed. The unlikeliest of romance blossoms, with some nimble plotting, hilarious situations and classic dialogue. ("These gentlemen are from the Vice Squad." "How nice! My favourite squad.")

The film is written by Alex Gottleib, based on a stage play he co-wrote with Steve Fisher. 

Gottleib is a vintage Hollywood pro with a long string of movie and TV credits stretching from 1938 to 1969, including contributions to the screwball classic Hellzapoppin. He seemed to specialise in Westerns, as did Steve Fisher — another Hollywood pro with an even longer string of credits, which interestingly embraces Peter Gunn, The Wild Wild West and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

These seasoned screenwriter achieve a virtuoso tap-dance in their plotting, managing to pair off the thirty-something screenwriter and underage (17 year old) hoodlum and eventually get them happily married without breaking the law or offending even the most delicate of audiences.

Debbie Reynolds is fresh and fetching and proves to be a comedienne of genius. And Anne Francis is smoking hot as the female Baxter. 

(A "Baxter" is a screenwriting term for the character in a romantic comedy who is a —temporary — barrier to the hero and heroine finally getting together.)

The film is directed by Frank Tashlin, a comic maestro who started out making Warner Bros. cartoons before he graduated to live action comedy features starring the likes of Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and Doris Day. 

Tashlin is a recognised titan of the genre and his background in animation shows clearly in the beautifully orchestrated physical slapstick of Susan Slept Here and its terrific, surreal Technicolor dream sequence which wouldn't be out of place in a Powell-Pressburger movie.

The animation connection is also evident in the movie's gorgeous, garish 1950s colour palette. The cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, better known for his black and white work on film noir, of all things. 

I just love this film. Check it out — at Christmas, or any time — I hope you'll love it, too.

(Image credits: The 'girl about 18' poster is from Wikipedia. 'Who's been sleeping in my bed' (blue and horizontal) is from We Are Movie Geeks — an interesting article about the top 15 non-traditional Christmas movies. The red DVD cover — which looks like a bootleg to me — is from Amazon. The official Warner Archive DVD cover is also from Amazon. It's an excellent transfer, and I recommend it highly. The blue sheet music is from Flick River. The head shot of platinum blonde Anne Francis — confusingly, dressed like Susan here in an attempt to lure Mark back — is from DVD Savant, who have an excellent review of the DVD. The head shot of red haired Debbie Reynolds is from Warner Archive on Tumblr. )

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan

Created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is one of the most audacious TV dramas ever conceived

It has now soaked deeply into our culture (you can buy Heisenberg tee-shirts and fridge magnets) and the view of it as a masterpiece of television has become such a widespread cliché that I'd begun to somewhat look down my nose at this show, and discount it. 

However, that opinion was challenged when I finally caught up with the final season

In preparation for this climactic binge, I backed up and watched the preceding series, Season 4, which gave me a chance to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of this excellent — indeed, great — television drama.

In case you're not aware of the story of Breaking Bad, it's about a good and decent man, a high school chemistry teacher called Walter White (the great Bryan Cranston) who is forced to become corrupt and turn to crime. That is what the title means. Walter White's gradual transformation from a bumbling, apologetic victim of fate to a full blown evil villain is the great joy of the show.

Unfortunately it is undermined by the unending whining and wallowing in regret of Walter's wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his chief accomplice Jesse (Aaron Paul). The viewer gets so sick of this that one begins to long for the good old compliant mob spouse and unquestioning sidekick.

The other flaw in the show is that some of the hero's stratagems are just too wildly elaborate. You'd have to be god or the devil to anticipate that they'd play out exactly the way they do. I won't give any spoilers here, but I'm talking about what we'll call the "Lily of the Valley" subplot. Worse yet, this wildly implausible subplot resurfaces in the final season as a ludicrously unlikely trigger to create a falling out between Walter and Jesse. It's just so contrived it could never happen.

Worse yet is the way Walter finally falls under suspicion with his DEA brother in law Hank (Dean Norris). I just couldn't believe that a man as clever and careful as our hero would leave an incriminating piece of evidence like that lying around.

But those considerations aside...

The final season of Breaking Bad is a joy. It is set up wonderfully by the deeply satisfying climax of Season 4 where Walter finally deals with the satanic Gus Fring. That was hard to top, but the show manages it by introducing some terrific new characters, notably the wonderful Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) and the astonishing Todd (Jesse Plemons, who was also excellent in the recent film Bridge of Spies).

Highlights of the final season include an amazing train robbery, a bravura and bloodthirsty sequence eliminating witnesses, a dazzling meth-cooking setpiece featuring the song 'On a Clear Day You Can See Forever' by the British jazz trio the Peddlers (you can watch it, and listen to it, here) and the final apocalyptic reckoning between Walter and those who have wronged him.

Still, I don't think that Breaking Bad is, as many claim, the greatest television show of all time. For my money that title currently goes to Game of Thrones.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.) 

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Pawn in Jeopardy by Adam Hall

This is the second in my rather random sequence of reading the Hugo Bishop novels by Elleston Trevor — originally published in the 1950s under his pseudonym Simon Rattray, then reprinted in the 1970s under his other pseudonym, Adam Hall. The previous one I've discussed is Rook's Gambit aka Dead Circuit (1955).

In Pawn in Jeopardy (originally published as Dead Silence in 1954) we are once again in the world of psychologist turned detective Hugo Bishop, his rather intriguing middle aged female sidekick Vera Gorringe, his incredibly convenient police chum Inspector Freddie Frisnay and — best of all in my view — his Siamese cat the Princess Chu Yi-Hsin: "The fawn cat moved her head, watching the chess board. It was a plaything of hers. She let the larger animal play with it." 

The larger animal is of course our hero Hugo Bishop, whom the Princess regards with a certain detached amused disdain which rings very true. And her observations of the human world are always fun: "The Siamese stared at Bishop with huge eyes. She was listening to the tiny man shouting in the black shape of the telephone. It always interested her."

As with Rook's Gambit, the female characters are a lot more interesting than the male ones; at least the author certainly seems more interested in them. "There's something lovable about your icy calm," the femme fatale tells Bishop. "I feel like an unemptied ashtray," declares the exhausted heroine at one point.

And, as before, there are excellent descriptions of the world and physical things: "Above the streets the sky was just a wide flat glare." Or a train passing in the night: "All the small pounding world of a few hundred strangers had come and gone, with a whistle, into the hill." And here is a laboratory bench with a Bunsen burner on it: "The Bunsen burned on with a long-drawn never-ending breath." And I liked this, "The heat of his hand had left a moisture-smudge on the black Bakelite [of the telephone]."

People are memorably evoked, as well: "A porter, as worn-looking as the steps and as Victorian as the building, was reading an evening newspaper behind a low mahogany desk." Or, here, a delightfully succinct account of a weary commuter: "A trilby hat, a tired face, a newspaper under an arm." 

The minor characters and dialogue are very good in Pawn in Jeopardy. Possibly Rook's Gambit, which was a slightly later book, showed an increased confidence and sophistication in the prose, but Pawn in Jeopardy has the edge in freshness and energy.

And the story is superior here, too. The McGuffin in Rook's Gambit was a death ray. It was a fairly convincingly evoked death ray, but I still couldn't take it seriously. What is at stake in Pawn is an apocalyptic secret discovered by arctic explorers on a polar expedition. Knowledge of the secret is deadly, and the explorers are being bumped off one by one. I half expected Trevor to cheat the reader, and kill the final explorer without ever revealing the secret. But he provides the revelation and it's an effective one. Full marks to him.

I don't know if the police procedure is accurate, but the terminology he uses ("action-calls" and "location-calls") is very convincing. Of course, for all I know, the author could be making it all up. He came up with some convincing sounding poisons which don't exist — tripentacyn and fluocyn (although there is a topical corticosteroid called fluocin). More importantly, there's an exciting, well written car chase and the book displays commendable pace and suspense.

I started to read these Hugo Bishop novels as amusing curiosities, quaint period pieces, purely because I liked the later Adam Hall spy novels. But I'm beginning to see they actually have a value and validity of their own. The author does lose some points for this, though:
"he moved the safety-catch of the revolver." 

Revolvers don't have safety catches.

(Image credits: The cover of the New English Library edition — the one I read — is from eBay. The blue American paperback is from a little known bookseller called Amazon. The British hardcover reprint is from ABE. The audio book, same as the US paperback, is from AudioBookerz. Sadly I couldn't find the cover art for the original 1950s Boardman edition of Dead Silence anywhere on the internet. It would have been glorious, I'm sure.)

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Spectre by Logan, Purvis & Wade and Butterworth

This is a great film, from the breathtaking prolonged opening tracking-shot in Mexico City to the deeply satisfying humorous coda in London. I'm so pleased it wasn't a catastrophic disappointment after the magnificent Skyfall.

The splendid thing about the current Bond team is the way they honour the canon, for example here we have a safe house in a shop called Hidlebrand Prints & Rarities — a gag referring to the Ian Fleming short story 'The Hildebrand Rarity' (which you can find in For Your Eyes Only). And then there's the great way Spectre provides an 'origin story' for super-villain Blofeld's scar and blind eye.

As usual, the screenplay credits feature the British writing team of Neal Purvis & Robert Wade, who have been working on the franchise since The World is Not Enough. Also on board is John Logan, of Gladiator fame, who joined the Bond bandwagon with Skyfall, where he made such a smashing contribution.

The new name on the script is Jez Butterworth, who is evidently the screenwriter du jour and has been doing some terrific work lately — in Edge of Tomorrow and Get On Up.

If we want to be picky — and we don't — we could say that Spectre falls into the classic Bond movie trap of coming up with a great opening sequence and not being able to match it at the end — a problem which Skyfall definitely did not have. Its ending was stupendous.

But if you're going to fall short of an opening sequence, Spectre is the one to do it for. What a magnificent piece of work it is. It is, I would say, the greatest prolonged tracking shot of all time and certainly the best since Orson Welles's Touch of Evil

Director Sam Mendes, who also did Skyfall, says, "Four days to get that shot — but it's a four and a half minute shot. And you can easily spend four weeks on four and half minutes of screen time if you're shooting an action sequence."

Speaking generally about his Bond films, Mendes remarks, "It's like being a surfer and surfing the big wave. You get wiped out nine times out of ten but when you catch the wave you really know it." And with Skyfall and Spectre he has caught two monster waves.

(These quotes are from an excellent interview on Radio 6 Music which you can (hopefully) find here.)

The movie also features a fine Bond girl in the form of Léa Seydoux as Dr Madeleine Swann, an amusingly Proustian name.* Oh, and a cute little mouse, whom thankfully Bond doesn't shoot.

The adroit Thomas Newman score is reminiscent of classic John Barry — interestingly, not just Barry's Bond soundtracks, but also his music for the film Body Heat.

Which brings us to the only real weakness of the movie — and it's nothing to do with Newman — a wishy washy feeble theme song by Sam Smith. At least when Goldfinger didn't rhyme properly ("Midas touch"/"spider's touch") it was in the service of a magnificent and madly ambitious song, which sounded just fantastic. 

Here when Sam Smith fails to rhyme ("glass" with "past"), it's part of a dreary, weak and utterly forgettable song which aspires to nothing and achieves exactly that. Sam Smith is said to have spent 20 minutes writing the song — it's snide and obvious to say it sounds like he spent 20 minutes on it. But it does. It's down there with the worst Bond themes ever, sadly. All the more disappointing after the great job Adele did on Skyfall.

(*In Marcel Proust's bloated tome The Remembrance of Things Past, Proust's fictional hero was Swann, and this long memory novel was inspired by the experience of eating a biscuit called a Madeleine.)

(Image credits: All the movie posters are from the reliable Imp Awards.)

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman

I've seen the first season of the TV series of The Walking Dead and I was very intrigued by the comic book. I'd been looking for an opportunity to catch up with it, so when this handsome volume turned up at a local charity shop I seized it eagerly (after paying for it, of course).

This is an ideal place to start. It's the first hardcover collection and gathers together the initial twelve issues, or the first two trade paperbacks (what I would call graphic novels). 

It omits the covers of the original comics (although they're included at the back of the book) —  I suppose this helps from the point of view of creating a continuous unbroken flow of narrative, but it also has no page numbers, which makes it hard to navigate and almost impossible to reference and indeed has nothing to break up the story except for a division between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (the original graphic novels, or six-issue sequences).

Also, it's printed on glossy, high-quality, but very thin paper which means its easy to inadvertently skip a few pages and lose some of the story (again with the lack of page numbers!).

Well, it won't surprise you to learn it's good stuff. The story is very talky and character driven — it's essentially a soap opera with the occasional zombie. But this is actually highly effective. The usual gossipy guff about some couple having a fight, or someone finding out she's pregnant takes on a whole new aspect when a shambling animate cadaver is likely to lope in at any moment and kill them. It's also rather low key and low budget (so to speak) – no space battles, no flying superheroes; no wonder they turned it into a TV show.

Robert Kirkman is the writer and creator (he also does the lettering). The first six issues were drawn by Tony Moore; the next six by Charlie Adlard who apparently is still drawing it today. Tony Moore's style sort of reminds me of the French comic artist Jean Giraud aka Moebius — but in his Lieutenant Blueberry westerns, rather than his SF stuff.

Charlie Adlard on the other hand is from the school of Alex Toth, one of my favourite comic artists and a towering illustrator. Adlard has the same high contrast style with the emphasis on heavy blacks (the art is all in black and white, by the way). Sadly, Charlie Adlard, at least in these early issues, completely lacks the amazing graphic design sense and story telling genius of Toth. The drawing is nice, but often the reader doesn't know what the hell is going on.

There is no clear sense of geography in the illustration, which vastly reduces the impact of the action sequences: Is he at the top of the stairs or the bottom? Where did his assailants come from? What is happening? While I’m puzzling this out, the excitement and suspense have drained away. Or when the barn door opens — what the hell is supposed to have happened? I don’t know if these problems originate with the art or the descriptions in the script but they are pervasive, and fairly fatal. Also, Adlard can’t seem to draw kids. They look like strangely stunted adults.

The first artist, Tony Moore, drew the hero's wife Lori much more effectively; under his pen she clearly looks Native American — and very appealing. She becomes much blander under Adlard. So it's a bit of a shame Moore departed.
However, Kirkman generally provides potent, strong dramatic writing which, luckily, is often un-fuck-up-able by the visuals, as when the melting snow drops away to reveal a sign warning our heroes — way too late — to stay out of a gated residence full of zombies.

Addictive and engrossing.

(Image credits: The front cover shot is from Amazon. The front & back cover is from AVX Search. The Spanish cover is from Good Reads. The title has been I think inaccurately and rather boringly rendered as The Living Dead. The Walking Dead in Spanish would actually be Los Muertos Caminando.The shot of the kid surrounded by zombies – gulp — is from How to Love Comics. It isn't part of the volume under discussion, but I just couldn't resist it. Also, this site has a very useful essay about the comics and where to begin reading them. Book 1, it turns out.)

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin

I was going to write about the new Bond film this week, or maybe another Hugo Bishop novel, but I've prioritised the superb new film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin — because, perplexingly, it seems to have been received with little enthusiasm, and may vanish from our cinemas soon.

So please consider this a call to action — and rush out and see this extraordinary and splendid movie on the big screen while you still can.

It's obvious from the first seconds that Steve Jobs is an intelligent and surprising entertainment. It begins with black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke making extraordinarily accurate predictions about how computers will change our lives.

We are then tumbled into the world of Steve Jobs, with the wonderful trademark dialogue of Aaron Sorkin (creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network; one of our great screenwriters).

Sorkin has structured his script brilliantly, around three crucial product launches. And if you think that sounds dull, trust me it's anything but. The struggle to get the prototype MacIntosh to say hello in time for the press conference will have your heart in your throat — it's a masterpiece of suspense.

Besides providing a powerful and vivid portrait of Steve Jobs as a cultural force, the film also gives a memorable depiction of his turbulent personal life — his conflict with friends, and his ex-lover, and the daughter whom he initially disavows, and then comes to love.

Michael Fassbender is terrific as Jobs. And he looks eerily like a younger and more muscular Bradley Whitford (a star of The West Wing and a regular in Aaron Sorkin's repertory company). Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) does fine work, using what looks like period colour film stock to evoke the 1980s. He is perhaps a little too flashy in his visuals at times (did we really need the space footage?). But on the other hand, that amazing Arthur C. Clarke clip might have been his idea.

There's a couple of flaws in the script, where it slips up on period detail — no one would have made a joke about being a "Steve Whisperer" in 1984, because the novel The Horse Whisperer wasn't published until 1995 — and I'm still scratching my head over the supposed revelation about the Time magazine cover.

But make no mistake, Aaron Sorkin is a writer of genius and Steve Jobs is a magnificent film. Gripping, moving, revelatory and hilarious.

(Image credits: Only two posters available from Imp Awards, and that's always a bad sign in terms of a movie's commercial prospects. The black and white photo of Aaron Sorkin is from an interview in The Independent.)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Last Witch Hunter by Sazama & Sharpless and Goodman

I like to go on movie binges. This often involves seeing a movie that doesn't especially interest me in order to bridge the gap between two films I really want to see. In the past this has paid dividends by exposing me to some great movies that I would otherwise have missed. 

And the validity of this approach was proved once again when I saw The Last Witch Hunter.

I'd been subjected to the publicity for this film and it looked flatly ludicrous. The presence of Vin Diesel (whose output has been so hit and miss) didn't help. 

But The Last Witch Hunter was a real surprise. It's fun, smartly conceived, well written and entirely effective. It features great production design by Julie Berghoff, photography by Dean Semler and impressive special effects. It's colourful, fast moving and vivid. Kudos to director Breck Eisner, who most recently did the remake of Romero's The Crazies.
The cast of The Last Witch Hunter is excellent. Besides Diesel, Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, Rose Leslie delivers a smart and appealing performance as an absinthe-drinking British witch, Chloe, who runs a bar. (You will know Leslie from Game of Thrones where she plays Jon Snow's dangerous, freckled squeeze Ygritte.)

I think the key to this film's success is that, despite often being humorous ("What are you scared of?" "Public speaking."), it takes itself seriously. 

It creates its own silly little pulp-fiction world in which Kaulder (Diesel) has been cursed with immortality after slaying an ancient Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht in H.R. Giger style make up). So he roams the world policing the witches who live among us, making sure they toe the line, and if necessary killing those who go rogue.

When off-duty he picks up airline stewardesses and returns to his New York penthouse where he has a sealed walk-in closet full of exotic weapons and enjoys a drink with the latest in the long line of priests who mentor him, the "36th Dolan" (Michael Caine).

As I say, silly pulp stuff, but the film inhabits this world with cleverness, wit and conviction. The excellent script surprised me in that it wasn't based on a comic or computer game. It is an original creation by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless who did the early drafts, with a final re-write by Cory Goodman. 

Now, Sazama & Sharpless (the ampersand is significant) came to my attention last year with Dracula Untold, another fantasy/horror action flick which they wrote and which was way better than I expected. 

As for Goodman, he wrote the script for Priest, starring Paul Bettany, which was also fantasy/horror action. I think I saw it, but I can't remember... 

Normally that would say it all. But The Last Witch Hunter was so good I might give Priest another look.

The Last Witch Hunter is a small, unexpected gem. In its comic book/popcorn-movie it is one of the year's best films.

(Image credits: A vast selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller

BBC Radio's recent Arthur Miller centennial season has forced upon me a dramatic (no pun intended) re-evaluation of this great American playwright. 

I was familiar with The Misfits, Miller's ill-fated vehicle for his wife Marilyn Monroe — starring Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, with its Miller script and directed by John Huston, it should have been a masterpiece. But it wasn't. And then of course there's Death of the Salesman, which I'd read when I was young, and The Crucible, which I'd read when I was less young.

But nothing prepared me for the power, sophistication and breadth of his work. What really knocked me out was A View from the Bridge, Miller's mid-1950s masterpiece.

The bridge in question is the Brooklyn Bridge, and the view is of the dockyards in Red Hook and its surrounding community. 

Miller had become familiar with these docks when he researched a screenplay with director Elia Kazan, called The Hook. (Also featured in the BBC season in a special radio adaptation.) Hollywood never bought the hook, but Kazan later developed a similar film without Miller. It was called On the Waterfront. You might have heard of it.

A View from the Bridge is set in exactly this milieu, and I expected it to cover similar territory — labour disputes, gangster involvement in the unions, the dangers facing the longshoremen. But it goes somewhere completely different.

It's a taut family drama. A kind of modern Greek tragedy. Eddie Carbone has raised his orphaned niece Catherine since the death of her parents. Now that she's a beautiful 17 year old his feelings for her have become something other than paternal, but Eddie can't admit that.

The situation comes violently to a head when Eddie and his wife Bea take in a couple of 'submarines' — illegal immigrants from the old country, Bea's cousins. One of these brothers is married and rather dull. The other is young, handsome, and unattached, Rodolfo. Of course, Catherine and Rodolfo fall in love. And Eddie just can't take it. Which leads him to commit an unspeakable act of treachery.

Miller's writing is sheer genius. Immensely powerful, subtle and profound. I was utterly gripped by the play, and knocked out by it. In no way pretentious or theoretical, it is utterly down to earth, accessible and potent. And, as one astute commentator pointed out, in works like this we can see the connection between Arthur Miller's dramas and the likes of The Sopranos.

This magnificent BBC Radio 3 production can be found here and will be available for a couple more weeks as I write. If you're reading this post after it's gone, I suggest getting a copy of the play and reading it.

And do what I'm going to do — catch the next live stage production that appears.

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads. I particularly love the vintage Bantam with the beautiful black and white illustration by Sanford Kossin. Its depiction of Eddie, Catherine and Rodolfo says it all.)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall

Now largely ignored or forgotten (good luck looking him up in the standard works on crime fiction — though this science fiction site has useful info) Adam Hall was one of the finest crime and thriller writers of the 20th Century. 

His 'real' name was Elleston Trevor — I put real in quotes, because his birth name was actually Trevor Dudley-Smith, and he wrote under a blizzard of pseudonyms. 

As Elleston Trevor he published The Flight of the Phoenix, a superb adventure novel which has been filmed twice, in a classic version in 1965 and a ho-hum remake in 2004.

But Trevor probably had his most enduring success with the Adam Hall pen-name, under which he released an excellent series of stripped-down, cynical and thrilling spy novels about the agent Quiller starting with The Berlin Memorandum (aka The Quiller Memorandum)  in 1965, obviously a boon year for the writer. 

The Adam Hall pseudonym became such a hit that Trevor began to reissue some of his extensive back catalogue under it.

Among the newly re-branded books were the Hugo Bishop mysteries. Bishop is a classic amateur gentleman detective. His day job, which hardly features, is writing books about abnormal and extreme psychology. The Hugo Bishop books were originally published under yet another pseudonym, Simon Rattray, and six of them appeared in the 1950s.

Initially the books had chess-based titles, making play on Bishop's name (Knight Sinister, Queen in Danger, Bishop in Check). Trevor evidently got bored with this halfway through the series and chose a new paradigm. 

The last three books were Dead Silence, Dead Circuit and Dead Sequence. The one we're discussing here, Dead Circuit, was sufficiently well received at the time to be serialised as a BBC radio drama. (And was issued as an audio book in Australia in 2012, read by John Lee. You can listen to a sample here.)

In the early 1970s, with the Adam Hall pseudonym proving so successful, Trevor cannily decided to recycle the Hugo Bishop stories under that by-line. He also altered the titles of the last three novels to bring them into line with the chess theme, so that all six books sat together more uniformly as a series.

Thus the novel under discussion was originally published as Dead Circuit by Simon Rattray in 1955, but was reprinted in 1972 as Rook's Gambit by Adam Hall. The author was actually called Elleston Trevor, and his real name was Trevor Dudley-Smith. I'm glad that's all clear.

Rook's Gambit is sometimes dated and clichéd. Our hero smokes a pipe and drives a grey vintage Rolls Royce in the classic tradition. 

Also in the classic tradition, he has a friend who, conveniently, is a senior cop who gives him absurd amounts of access. There are lines like "He must be working like a black." (Trust me, that could have been a lot worse.) 

And the guests at a bohemian party include "four reefer smokers and a nymphomaniac" (the latter, fleeting, description was meretriciously exploited for the cover blurb of the 1970s paperback as if it represented a major feature of the book). And there's some rather heavy handed wisecracking.

There's also some wisecracking which I rather enjoyed: "If I'm not back by cock's-crow, call out the Camel Corp."... "Where are you going?" "To see the maharajah about a jar of marmalade."... "If any stranger calls, shoot him in the stomach and then ask him for his card."

The book is somewhat reminiscent of John Creasey's Dr Palfrey tales in that the McGuffin turns out to be a clunky pulp science fiction device — quite literally a death ray ("It causes immediate mutation of the body's electricity"). 

But Trevor writes a much finer prose than Creasey: "the rain came down bead-bright"; he describes the screech of an old fashioned elevator "scaring the echoes"; and as the villain prepares to makes his escape, in a most casual and confident fashion, "Bishop thought of an eagle, released from a cage, studying its way to freedom before it rose."

There is also some welcome humour. "Is it any cooler on the balcony?" "Only when you jump off it." And nice hard-boiled description of the femme fatale who is working with the bad guy: "her voice was like honey being poured through a velvet sieve." And then this absolutely brilliant bit: "She smiled... Bishop was reminded of opening his refrigerator." 

Rook's Gambit is a little too clunky and of its period to really make the grade, but there are a lot of good things in it. 

Personally I would have liked to see more of Bishop's Siamese cat: "The Princess Chu Yi-Hsin was on the davenport, watching them with half-closed amethyst eyes." Trevor writes very well about this Siamese — "A cat has a phrase for scampi; it is Christmas-in-Paradise" — which perhaps isn't surprising. Under assorted names he had written numerous children's books with animals as the protagonists.

Some good cat writing aside, probably the most interesting feature of Rook's Gambit is the way the cinematic cutting of the Quiller books is already evident, as is the great concision and the technique of telling the story largely through dialogue.

Not a classic, but a flawed and often fascinating early work by a writer who was on his way to becoming a master of the genre.

(Image credits: The cover of the copy I read, the New English Library version comes from a site called — hilariously and not inaccurately — Most Boring Covers. The 1973 White Lion hardcover reprint, also jolly boring, comes from Caerwen Books at ABE. The much superior US Pyramid edition comes from the wonderfully named Books From the Crypt at ABE. The gorgeous facsimile Boardman dustjacket — a facsimile because the original is crazy rare and would cost a fortune — is from the invaluable Facsimile Dust Jackets site. The striking cover art for this splendid Boardman edition is of course by the great Denis McLoughlin. The audio book image is from Audible Australia.)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Sicario by Taylor Sheridan

Sicario (which, as the poster informs us, is Mexican for 'hitman') is easily the finest movie about the war against drugs since Traffic. This wonderful film is already, clearly, one of the best pictures of the year.

The film is written is by Taylor Sheridan, and unbelievably, it's his first produced screenplay. 

He does, however, have a considerable track record as an actor in television, credited as 'Tayler' Sheridan, where he had long runs in the wonderful Veronica Mars and also The Sons of Anarchy. I wonder if the latter series — focused on a drug-running biker gang — might have led to this well researched and beautifully written film script.

Although I tend to focus on the writer in these posts, full credit must also be given to Sicario's director, Denis Villeneuve, who has done a staggeringly good job. Villeneuve is a French Canadian and the only previous film I've seen of his was the glum but powerful Prisoners

One of the greatest assets of Sicario is its cast. Brit Emily Blunt is as wonderful as ever — a highly natural and affecting actress (when she flinches, we flinch, when she's scared, we're scared) who has moved on from comedies and relationship dramas to action pictures (last seen toting a gun, a very large gun, in Edge of Tomorrow) in a very interesting career trajectory. 

Supporting her are Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, both doing some of the best work of their careers.

The splendid photography is by Roger Deakins, who is perhaps a little too fond of shooting dust motes dancing in the sunlight, and the exceptional music, a pounding menacing monster of a score, is by the Icelandic Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also did Prisoners. You can hear some of that music here.

A serious, important and beautifully made film. Also, simply, a great thriller.

(Image credits: Exceptionally rich pickings and a fine selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Martian by Drew Goddard and Andy Weir

Last week I blogged about Andy Weir's glorious novel The Martian (many thanks to Lucy for turning me on to this great book). Now it's time to discuss the Ridley Scott film adapted from it. I won't keep you in suspense. The movie is superb, and entirely worthy of the book.

I was initially worried when I saw it was being made by Ridley Scott. Undeniably a great film maker, he has in recent years displayed an unfortunate knack for turning rich source material into unsatisfactory films (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus, Robin Hood). But not this time. In fact, this is Ridley Scott's best film in decades. His best since Blade Runner, or possibly Alien. Certainly his best since Gladiator.

A lot of credit is due to Drew Goddard, who adapted the novel for the screen. Goodard got his start writing for TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his movie credits include the stupendous Cabin in the Woods, one of my favourite films of recent years. Here he has done a fine job of compressing the source material while remaining true to it.

The novel The Martian is essentially a tale of a man resourcefully overcoming life-threatening dilemmas, and then having more dilemmas thrown at him. The film simplifies the plot, and reduces the number of catastrophes that befall poor astronaut Mark Watney. Which is understandable... otherwise the movie would have been emotionally exhausting and overlong.

It also reduces the comic element of the book, which is a bit of a shame, though probably inevitable and possibly the right call... Nevertheless, I was disappointed to see some of my favourite jokes go ("I call it my lucky cable").

Where the movie scores over the book is that it actually adds a brief epilogue after Mark is rescued... something I would have welcomed in the book, which ends somewhat abruptly.

Lest I dwell too much on Drew Goddard's contribution, Ridley Scott obviously deserves huge plaudits. I particularly enjoyed the montage sequence he contrived, set to David Bowie's song 'Starman'.

My only real complaint is that the film makers made no attempt to depict the reduced gravity on  Mars. This particularly irked me when Mark Watney was chucking heavy objects out of a vehicle, and they fell to the ground just like they would on Earth. Ah well, Hollywood and science... (Oh, and Lucy had a thing or two to say about layered sediment in a landscape where there shouldn't be any.)

Anyhow, a great film from a great book. Nice work all around. Matt Damon is first-rate in the title role, and back on Earth Mackenzie Davis shines as a space nerd at NASA mission control. Indeed the large cast is exemplary. Sean Bean, Jeff Daniel, Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor are amongst the excellent casting choices made.

The cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski. The fine music is by Harry Gregson-Williams, and is reminiscent of Vangelis's score for Blade Runner, and at times of Morricone.

I saw this movie in 3D, but I don't feel that brought anything much to the party. Catch it as soon as you can in whatever format is available to you.


(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)