Sunday 30 June 2013

Snitch (No, Really) by Haythe and Waugh

Big surprise. Snitch is a really outstanding movie. I don't mean to be snotty about it, but this was genuinely quite a surprise to me.

The trouble with Snitch is that it looks like — indeed is being marketed like — just another undemanding action movie starring Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock). Johnson is a former football player (he played for the University of Miami and, briefly, the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL) and a professional wrestler. In recent years he has proved that he has considerably more acting ability than your average action-man star — and he also has a nice line in ukulele playing.

Nonetheless, he is still best known for routine adventure film franchises like GI Joe and The Fast and the Furious. So it wasn't difficult to see Snitch in that category. Particularly with a poster featuring Johnson, muscles bulging while a juggernaut of a truck crashes in the background.

But Snitch is the real stuff. Far from being an empty headed action spectacle, it's a compelling street level, blue-collar crime thriller. It is more Michael Mann than Michael Bay and you should go and see it before it vanishes from the screens of your local multiplex.

Snitch tells the story of an ordinary businessman who is sucked into the violent world of drug cartels and narcotics cops when his estranged son is busted with a thousand ecstasy tablets. Thanks to America's insanely draconian mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws the kid is facing ten years in prison unless he rats out his friends — just like his own friend ratted him out. The kid refuses to roll over and his father steps in, offering to finger a drug dealer in return for his son's sentence reduction.

The obscenity and injustice of the war against drugs and mandatory sentencing gets the audience emotionally involved right away. But the excellent script — by Justin Haythe and director Ric Roman Waugh — doesn't stop there. Johnson's entree into the world of drugs is through an ex-con employee of his (Jon Bernthal). But the ex-con is desperately trying to go straight. And by pressuring him to return to the world of crime, Johnson is effectively destroying the guy and his family.

It's a tough, complex, contorted moral problem and makes this movie vastly superior to most multiplex fare. And the film makers are very much aware of the hideous nature of the war against drugs, as is made apparent by a scorching end-titles card with some facts and figures about the current laws in America.

Writer Justin Haythe's previous script credits include Revolutionary Road, for which he received a BAFTA nomination. Ric Roman Waugh has written and directed In the Shadows and Felon. I haven't seen either of those, but now I want to. And I will be watching out for new movies by both these guys.

Snitch also has a first rate cast including Susan Sarandon as a dubious Federal Prosecutor and Barry Pepper as a scary undercover narc (the casting was by Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu). I was also impressed by the photography (by Dana Gonzalez) and the excellent music (by Antonio Pinto, who also scored Mel Gibson's under-rated, quirky thriller How I Spent My Summer Vacation).

Snitch is a high quality production all the way and I recommend it. The film doesn't seem to be getting the audience it deserves, perhaps because the people who would really enjoy it are mistaking it for just another Dwayne Johnson action movie, while his fans are turned off by a movie in which their hero gets the shit kicked out of him by street corner crack dealers.

In many ways, it's the same fate which befell Clint Eastwood when he first tried to broaden his work, with an interesting and excellent film like The Beguiled.

In any case Dwayne Johnson is to be applauded for his courage in this departure and for lending his box office muscle to get a movie like Snitch made.

(Image credits: The shot of Barry Pepper with his scary DEA disguise and handgun is from Flick Minute. The vertical poster ("Justice on his terms") is from Amazon. The shot of Jon Bernthal and his handgun is from Flicks & Bits. The soundtrack cover is from TV Movie Songs. The shot of Sarandon, with Pepper in the background, is from the Providence Journal.)

Sunday 23 June 2013

The Splendid Diversity of Brian Moore

It isn't often that I feel envious of my brother in law — he is, after all, married to my sister.

However, there was certainly one occasion when I felt the unworthy stirrings of envy. It was when he attended a reception at Bloomsbury the publishers, where he was then employed, in honour of one of their star authors.

And he sipped champagne with Brian Moore.

Brian (pronounced 'Bree-ann' if you want to be a show-off) Moore was one of the finest novelists of the 20th century (he died in 1999; if he'd hung on a few more years he would also have been one of the finest novelists of the 21st century). He was an Irishman from Belfast who became a Canadian citizen after the Second World War.

One of the most striking things about Moore's work was the diversity of his output. He wrote mainstream 'literary' novels and explorations of character and relationships (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne — parodied in the title of this post — and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes are good examples). 

But he also wrote Fergus, an amiable, amusing ghost story; Black Robe and The Magician's Wife, historical novels; Cold Heaven, what I would call a tale of the supernatural but which most people would discuss in terms of Catholicism and miracles; The Great Victorian Collection, a Borgesian fantasy; Catholics, a science fiction novel (though its publishers would never have referred to it as such a thing) and a number of thrillers — one of which, Lies of Silence, provided the impulse for this posting.

Lies of Silence deals with a hotel manager in Belfast who falls foul of the IRA, although that doesn't begin to do justice to the richness of Moore's characterisations, the vividness of his writing, the utterly clear and compelling plotting or the incredible level of suspense he manages to generate. 

The book sustains a sick feeling of tension and dread which keeps you turning pages and hoping against hope that everything will turn out all right at the end for his protagonists.

It's not surprising that Moore was such an accomplished writer of suspense (though he was equally good at just about any kind of writing). He was no stranger to thrillers. Before he launched his illustrious highbrow literary career with Judith Hearne (aka The Lonely Passion of...) in 1955, he wrote seven pulp crime novels, most of them under pseudonyms. The earliest ones were published by the dodgy Canadian firm Harlequin, before they became fixated on producing romance novels. The dodginess of Harlequin is evidenced by the fact that they didn't even manage to put Moore's name on the cover of his first book Wreath for a Redhead ("Montreal Means Murder!").
Although Moore later disowned them, these books have a surprisingly high reputation and the 'pulp' label is probably unfair. Certainly the snooty and dismissive treatment they get by the literary establishment is unacceptable, uncalled for, and often unintentionally hilarious — in an otherwise carefully researched biography of Moore, Patricia Craig deals with these books so carelessly and cavalierly that she refers to Knox Burger, the renowned editor at Gold Medal books and a legendary figure in the field, as 'Mr Knoxburger'.
Moore's pulp thrillers are now expensive and sought after collector's items. I was lucky enough to recently obtain a copy of Murder in Majorca and I will report on that soon — if I can bring myself to turn those rare and delicate pages...

In the meantime, you could try Lies of Silence or Moore's The Statement, which I think is an even better thriller. Or if you'd like to dip into his mainstream fiction I'd recommend The Doctor's Wife, The Mangan Inheritance or the delightful, light hearted Temptation of Eileen Hughes.

Wonderful books, all of them.

(Image credits: the early 'pulp' covers are all from a really tremendous blog by Brian Busby called The Dusty Bookcase and you can find his various postings at: The Executioners. French for Murder. A Bullet for My Lady. This Gun for Gloria. Wreath for a Redhead. The Patricia Craig biography cover is from a German blog called Lesefieber. The minimalist Vintage Lies of Silence cover is from Love Reading. The Bloomsbury cover for Lies of Silence is from Middlemiss’s Booker Prize website — shamefully, Moore never won a Booker despite being repeatedly nominated.)

Sunday 16 June 2013

Comments, Replies and Corrections...

First of all I want to thank all the readers of this blog who have taken the trouble to not only read my postings, but also to provide feedback.

If you look at the bottom of each post you'll see there's a little area which allows comments and responses. Many of you make use of this facility and I've often been impressed with the insights and information you've provided. I always read these with interest, appreciation and gratitude. What I haven't been able to do is reply to them.

Because, although there is a great big button marked 'Reply', all this would do is allow me to write a long and considered response — my feedback on your feedback — and then when I pushed the button it would disappear. Into the void. Forever.

After doing this half a dozen times, you can understand why I despaired and gave up replying. Of course, I tried to figure out what was going wrong. This being Blogger, though, the help and guidance provided is pretty much non-existent. So I asked more technically savvy friends. They too were baffled.

And naturally I trawled the internet for clues. Which is where, last week, I finally found the answer. I won't bore you with the details but it involved adjusting the third party cookies on my browser. Whatever they are. (The pictures from The Nutty Professor at the beginning of this post will give you some idea of my own estimate of my abilities in this technical area.)

So now I can reply to comments, and I'll endeavour to do so in a timely fashion. But just so I don't feel all alone with my screw-ups I thought I'd talk briefly about other people's. In particular, blunders by publishers.

Following on last week's discussion on The Great Gatsby I re-read Fitzgerald's novel, the better to compare it to the film (which I must say is holding up rather well). I read the handsome vintage Penguin Modern Classics copy I had on my bookshelf.

Unfortunately, it contains a risible printing mistake.

There's a scene where the narrator Nick Carraway is drunk at a party in an upstairs apartment in New York City. He looks out the window and describes "the casual watcher in the darkening streets". In my Penguin edition (Chapter 2, page 42) it goes on to say "and I saw him too, looking up and wondering."

Well, anyone who has read another edition of the book or seen the film, with Toby Maguire standing down in the street and looking up at himself in the window, will know the passage should actually read "and I was him too, looking up and wondering". (Italics in both quotes are mine.)

Quite a difference.

Although perhaps not as much as a blunder as in the first Penguin edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which contains an afterword by the author, which concludes with the words "which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use..."

(Frac-tails, as you may have guessed, are those long old fashioned black tailcoats.)

Well the Penguin edition rendered this as "frac-tails frying" (my italics). Which is not the same thing at all.

(Advice to publishers: try not to get a misprint in the last sentence of a book. Even the first sentence isn't as bad as that.)

That's all for now folks. And if you spot any typos in this post, you can leave a comment. And I can reply. The picture from The Nutty Professor at the end of this post will indicate that I'm a lot happier about my abilities in this area now. Jerry's happy because he's got Stella. I'm happy because I've triumphed over my cookies.

(The image of Jerry Lewis from the Nutty Professor holding the test tube full of green stuff is from Broadway dot Com. The Penguin Gatsby with the Kees Van Dongen cover painting is from good old GoodReads. The Penguin Lolita is from Giraffe Days. The Nutty Professor image with the pink background is, by a very odd coincidence, from a site called Lolita's Classics. The other Nutty Professor image featuring Jerry and Stella Stevens is from Cinésthesia. The photo of Josephine Baker looking decidedly fetching in her frac-tail coat is from Stage Wear. By the way, don't try and look up 'frac-tails' online, because the moronic search engines will insist that you mean 'fractals'.)

Sunday 9 June 2013

The Great Gatsy: Fitzgerald meets Luhrmann

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby now sells more copies every month than it did in the author's entire troubled lifetime. Deservedly so, since the book is a small masterpiece.

I say 'small' masterpiece not to denigrate it but because it's a short novel, a novella actually — around 50,000 words, or half the length of your average novel today.

It is also lean in its prose. Saving the occasional purple lurch, Fitzgerald writes sparsely and economically, with precision and elegance. Elegance in the sense of an elegant mathematical equation, which achieves its goal directly and minimally, without extra detail or unnecessary effort.

Balance this against the director responsible for the latest screen adaptation — Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge).

Luhrmann, whatever his virtues — and I've often enjoyed his films — is a film maker who likes to pour on the syrup, and then add a layer of custard and cream. And possibly several scoops of tutti-frutti ice cream.

So, not surprisingly, the early section of the film is a classic example of Luhrmann extravagance. But despite this it turns out to be an admirable adaptation of the book. Partly because Fitzgerald's original is strong enough to be impervious to camp excess.

But also, in fairness, because Luhrmann and his longtime screenwriting partner Craig Pearce have taken great pains to be faithful to the novel. (Besides his movies with Luhrmann, Craig Pearce also worked on the superior screenplay for The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, from Ben Sherwood's novel).

The result is a startlingly effective Gatsby, despite its flaws. Perhaps this isn't surprising since Romeo + Juliet was also a refreshingly smart adaptation of a classic text.

Both these films share the crucial virtues of a sharp script and superb casting.

Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Gatsby, Fitzgerald's "elegant young roughneck." I can't imagine a better performance. He understands the character completely, and inhabits him with total conviction. 

Daisy, the object of Gatsby's doomed love, is played by Carey Mulligan. I wasn't sure of her in the early part of the film, but as soon as she is put together on screen with DiCaprio the effect is electric. When Daisy looks at Gatsby, emotion just wells up in her and the whole movie comes to life.

The early part of the film is probably its biggest problem. Luhrmann and Pearce have devised a framing story in which Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) , the narrator, is in a nut house. He relates the film to a shrink who encourages him to turn it into a book. And thus he writes the story of Gatsby.

It's easy to see the attraction of this device, but frankly its creaky and just encumbers the movie.

There's also the problem that Gatsby doesn't turn up on screen for a long time. Again, the appeal of doing this is easy to understand. It really builds the character up and makes for a big impact when he does arrive.

But it also means that the early section of the movie just flounders. It's a vacuum which Luhrmann fills by doing his big production number schtick, which some might unkindly describe as Ken Russell without the genius. It's unsatisfactory stuff and despite Luhrmann's generally great use of music, Bryan Ferry's wonderful retro-jazz version of 'Love is the Drug' gets thrown away.

There are also some annoying anachronisms in the film. Did people really indulge in air-kissing in the 1920s? They certainly didn't call anyone a "scumbag", not for about another 50 years. (They did, however, talk about tabloid journalism, which surprised me — I'm glad I checked before I castigated the screenwriters on this.)

Enough nitpicking, as soon as Gatsby turns up, we're off to the races. And the film does a marvellous job of depicting his tormented love affair with the married Daisy.

Despite its imperfections, it's hard to imagine a more faithful or effective adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel.

Ultimately Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a beautiful painting — perhaps even a masterpiece — in a distractingly ornate and over-decorated frame.

 (The book cover is from Wikipedia. Daisy poster detail is from Indie Wire. The whole poster is from First Showing, as is the DiCaprio poster. The 'profile' posters of Mulligan and DiCaprio and the Maguire poster are from Bad Ass Digest. The still of Gatsby and Daisy together is from Contact Music.  Gatsby with champagne glass and fireworks is from The Boar.)

Sunday 2 June 2013

John Huston & W.R. Burnett: High Sierra

W.R. Burnett, now shamefully forgotten, is one of the greatest American crime writers. (He also wrote some notable Westerns, which makes him the Elmore Leonard of his day.)

High Sierra may well be Burnett's masterpiece, it's certainly one of my favourite crime novels, and it deserves a blog post all of its own. However, to do it full justice I'm going to have to re-read it. So that's for another time.

Today we're talking about the screenplay of High Sierra, which was made available by the nice people at the University of Wisconsin Press in their Warner Bros. Screenplay series and which has been my reading-on-trains-and-buses book lately.

I recently posted about John Huston's film of The List of Adrian Messenger. Huston is one of our finest film directors. He was also a top screenwriter. And he wrote the script of High Sierra based on W.R. Burnett's novel. (Burnett also gets credit on the title page of the script, which suggests he did early drafts before Huston was brought in.)

The U. of W. book is a lovely item. It features an introduction, footnotes and photographs. And, crucially, it contains scenes which were cut from the final version of the film. It's also a real screenplay, containing the dialogue and scene directions as Huston (and Burnett) wrote them — not like some published "screenplays" which are nothing more than transcriptions from a DVD of the movie, taken down by some poor hack (Faber & Faber, I'm looking at you here).

High Sierra tells the story of Roy Earle (played in the film by Humphrey Bogart, a tough and experienced bank robber serving life who is sprung from the penitentiary (pardoned thanks to a bribe) to take place in a jewel heist at a resort in the eponymous mountain range.

When Roy arrives in the clean air of the wild peaks he soon finds himself acquiring a loyal and loving girlfriend (Marie, played by the admirable Ida Lupino) and an equally loyal and adoring dog (Pard). Both Marie and Pard are strays. And Roy has been a loner all his life. Now he becomes part of a family virtually overnight.

The reader's heart goes out to him...

Unfortunately, he still has that robbery to pull. 

And his cohorts are not as strong and reliable as his new mistress ("The girl's the best man of the lot," says Roy) — or even the dog. Sadly, Marie and Pard aren't part of the jewel-raid team, otherwise things might have turned out differently.

High Sierra is a heist-gone-wrong story, but it is also much more than that. Mostly, to me, it's a tragedy about Roy Earle, an admirable man trapped by circumstance.

One of its strongest sub plots concerns a family of hicks whom Roy rescues and befriends. The grand daughter, Velma, is a pretty young woman with a club foot. Roy pays for the surgery to have it repaired. He is smitten with the girl.

This is where the script and the novel diverge. In the book Roy visits Velma, recovering in bed after her successful surgery, and clumsily proposes to her. 

She turns him down, because she is loyal to her 'boyfriend' back home. There is a strong suggestion that this guy just shagged and her and ditched her, and Velma's feelings are misplaced. Anyway, she makes the classic suggestion to Roy that they can still "be friends" (some dialogue just never dates).

In the screenplay, something similar happens. But the crucial difference is that the post-op Velma, liberated from her club foot, is revealed to be an empty headed little jitterbugging slut, partying with a bunch of moronic lowlifes.

In both versions Roy is rejected, but in the John Huston script his kindness and generosity is shown to be utterly wasted by the revelation of Velma's true nature. This sort of twisted cynicism is highly characteristic of Huston — and I must say, I like it. I think it's probably even stronger than W.R. Burnett's original.

In any case, I recommend both Burnett's  novel and Huston's script in the highest possible terms. The actual movie I can't vouch for. I haven't seen it for years. But it was directed by Raoul Walsh — Huston 'only' wrote the screenplay — and I am not a huge fan of Walsh. He certainly isn't in Huston's league as a film maker. And I suspect the movie has dated somewhat, despite Bogart's iconic presence.

But I'll have to get the DVD and check it out.

Like Donald Westlake's Parker, Roy Earle is a totally professional armed robber. Like Parker he is only vulnerable when let down by treacherous, amateurish or incompetent associates. Unfortunately, unlike Parker, he didn't go on to enjoy some two dozen capers. 

More's the pity.

(Picture credits: The really striking 10 18 French paperback with its graphic Bogart profile cover is from Amazon. I like this so much I'm tempted to buy a copy even though I don't speak French — yet. The cover of the screenplay is from the Strand Bookstore and you can buy a copy there. The orange movie poster ("He must be killed!" — which expresses the Hays Code morality of movies of the day) is from Docs on Film. The narrow pink and yellow film poster is from a useful site called Noir of the Week. The attractive variant on this poster is from Cinema Gumbo which is replete with great images. The VHS cover (I think that's what it is) is from Detnovel. The image of the slightly dodgy DVD cover is from Daily Kos. The nice shot of Roy, Pard and Marie is from Aurora's Gin Joint, a classic film blog. The photo of Bogart with his rifle crouching in the mountains is from Classic Film 101. I couldn't find a decent image of this photo on the internet, but I loved it so much I included this pixelated one. The great still of Bogart in a chair with a shotgun is from the Night Editor. Bogart with the two .45s is from Flixster.)