Sunday 22 February 2015

Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton

My brother James and I are both admirers of the American crime writer Lawrence Block. When James told me that Block kept mentioning another writer, Sue Grafton (for instance, Block's characters were often to be found enjoying Grafton's crime novels) I decided I had to check her out. 

In selecting my first Grafton book to read, I used my tried and tested method... I waited to see what turned up cheap in charity shops or at jumble sales.

What turned up was Q is for Quarry and T is for Trespass, the 17th and 20th adventures in the alphabet-titled series featuring female private eye Kinsey Millhone (great name). 

Kinsey is a very engaging character. A bit of a slob, she tries to go jogging every day but doesn't quite make it. And she has a real junk food jones, whimpering with pleasure as she devours her quarter pounder with cheese. Besides having created an engaging and well developed character, Sue Grafton also scores highly for the scrupulous research she does. A sense of rock solid authenticity pervades her writing. I particularly like the way the retired (but still active) cops in the book always lock their guns in the trunk of their car before they go into a restaurant. Details like that convey a strong sense of everyday reality which elevates Grafton's work above the competition.

But what really I really admire is the quality of her writing, which vividly evokes the southern California coastal locale: "The surf looked forbidding, a silt-churning cold, applauded only by the sea lions who waited off shore, barking their approval."

Q is for Quarry tells the story of a cold case, a murdered teenage girl who has never been identified and whose killer remains at large. Kinsey and her partners go to the forensic unit to inspect the victims remains: "... we all fell into a respectful silence. Eighteen years after the violence of her death there was only the crackle of white paper and the snap of gloves."

I love Grafton's observations, and her similes. An unpleasant revelation is like finding "a nest of spiders in the pocket on an old overcoat." And there are admirable, punchy descriptions of characters — "I could smell whiskey fumes seeping through her pores like toxic waste."

Q is for Quarry proved to be an engrossing, methodical procedural which at the end moves towards a satisfying — and unexpected — conclusion with great efficiency and considerable excitement. After 16 previous books in this series Grafton has obviously perfected her technique. She's a master of the genre.

At the end of a post I usually find something to moan about, so what is my complaint here? Well, perhaps there's a little too much about Kinsey's family background in this story. But to regular readers this may well be catnip. Then there's the fact that both the retired cops who work with Kinsey are seriously ill, and that makes the story a bit of a downer. 

However, I doubt very much that this will be an issue with the next Kinsey Millhone adventure... which I am already eager to read. In fact, I've just started it.

 (Image credits: all the book covers are from Good Reads.)

Tuesday 17 February 2015

White Heat by Goff & Roberts and Kellog

Of course I knew White Heat was a classic movie, but I hadn't seen it since I was a kid. And I had no idea what a knockout it was. It's aged amazingly well and is one of the best movies of the 1940s. A classic crime thriller, people also call it a film noir, but personally I don't think it fits into that category by almost any criteria (except the music). Who cares? It's great.

The director is Raoul Walsh, who does a spectacular job. The script is also terrific, well researched, beautifully paced and extremely well organised. Some of the dialogue is the usual phony hardboiled poppycock of the era, but we'll forgive them that. 

The screenplay is by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts from a story by Virginia Kellogg. Goff & Roberts (the ampersand is appropriate, since they were a screenwriting team) had a long and successful career in together movies followed by an equally long and successful career together in television — they created Charlie's Angels! But we'll forgive them that, too.

Virginia Kellogg wrote for the movies for over twenty years, including the Anthony Mann crime thriller T-Men, though her women's prison movie Caged is probably best remembered now — as something of a camp classic.

White Heat doesn't have the depth of feeling, or quite the complexity of characterisation of High Sierra — also directed by Raoul Walsh. It does, however, start with a brisk robbery sequence which is set in the High Sierra mountains, the first of two major heist setpieces in the movie. And White Heat is very dynamic and gripping, moving swiftly from heist to manhunt to prison to escape to climactic heist. The basic spine of the story is how an undercover cop (Edmond O'Brien) infiltrates the gang of dangerous psychopath Cody Jarrett (James Cagney).

It's a post-code Hollywood production, which means we have the ludicrous spectacle of a gangster and his moll not only having separate beds but separate bedrooms. Although the writers do manage to smuggle in a daring line from Cody's Ma when she sneers at the girl "Wearing out the mattress."

The moll Verna is played by Virginia Mayo. She's given a rather two-dimensional, stereotyped character to play. But she adds some lovely touches. After a drinking session she decides it's bedtime and jumps up onto Cagney and gets him to give her a piggyback upstairs. Heading for the big heist at the end she wishes him luck, and spits out her chewing gum just before she gives him a goodbye kiss. 

Cody's relationship with his mother really makes the film distinctive. Although, interestingly, Cagney's very first movie, Sinner's Holiday (1930), also featured him as a mother fixated hoodlum. Rather disturbingly, in White Heat the undercover cop ends up as a surrogate mother figure for Cody after Ma's death.

Ma is bumped off in an amazingly cold and casual way. It happens offscreen and we only learn about it when the jailed Cagney asks a fellow con for news of her on the outside. The answer that comes back, passed along the line, is brutally terse: "She's dead." And Cody, who is a dangerous lunatic at the best of times, flips. 

Goff & Roberts pull off a beautiful twist in the screenplay. It's what I think of as a Peter O'Donnell reversal, where you set up an elaborate plot development and create audience expectation for it — and then startle us by discarding it for something else entirely. In this case there's a jailbreak all ready to go, with the undercover cop setting up an oscillator to track the fugitives. Everything goes wrong and Cagney's gang escape in an entirely different way. But the neatly set up oscillator proves crucial later in the story. Great writing, boys.

Cagney is magnificent. His believability and charismatic naturalism makes almost everyone else look phony and mannered, though Margaret Wycherly is impressively restrained and menacing as Ma Jarrett.

We also have to note Max Steiner's overpowering noir music score. I think I heard a theremin in there somewhere.

And of course the unforgettable climax with Cagney immolated ("Top of the world, Ma!") atop the Horton spheres in the chemical plant. This explosively apocalyptic ending anticipates Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.

(Image credits: The vintage poster of Cagney and Mayo is from Cagney Online. The poster of Cagney solo is from Films Noir Net. As is the "Top of the world" vignette. Cody and Verna in the car with Ma is from Derek Winnert's Classic Film Review. The shotgun and tear gas image is from Dr Macro's high quality movie scans. The title shot is from the Twenty Four Frames movie blog. Absurdly, it seems impossible to find an image of the Horton spheres from White Heat. The one here is from the the Provincial Archives of Alberta (!) via Flickr.)

Sunday 8 February 2015

The Killer Inside Me by Curran and Winterbottom

The Killer Inside Me isn't a recent release, but it was one of the best films of 2010 and I just watched it again on Blu-ray, so it's fresh in my mind. It's based on a novel by Jim Thompson and is probably the ultimate Thompson adaptation in its quality and fidelity. The other contender is Sam Peckinpah's version of The Getaway, with a script by Walter Hill. But The Getaway cops out on Thompson's nightmare vision of things by dispensing with his apocalyptic conclusion in favour of a happy ending — quite rightly, I think. Jim Thompson's hellish sensibility is not for everyone. Indeed I often think it's not for me.

Written in 1952, The Killer Inside Me was ahead of its time in being a first person narrative by a murderous psychopath, one which forces us to inhabit his skin and see the world through his eyes. 

And, being Jim Thompson, this sadistic killer also happens to be a cop. Stanley Kubrick praised the novel highly and used Thompson as a screenwriter on two of his early films, The Killing and Paths of Glory.

Now, more than half a century after publication, this book finds its way to the screen in a magnificent version, brilliantly directed by Michael Winterbottom and faithfully scripted by John Curran, who directed the impressive Somerset Maugham adaptation The Painted Veil. 

(Intriguingly, there is also a 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me starring Stacy Keach which I have yet to see.)

The new film stars Casey Affleck, who is perfect as the nightmare protagonist Lou Ford, and Jessica Alba as the prostitute who loves him. Alba's presence lights up the screen but, this being a Jim Thompson story, her fate is horrible. 

The brutality meted out to the women in his life by Lou Ford is hard to take, and many viewers have reacted with violent distaste. I can understand that, but it is true to Jim Thompson's vision and Winterbottom and Curran are to be congratulated on their courage. Like I said, this is one Thompson adaptation which doesn't cop out.

(And it should be noted that Lou is no sexist. He also murders men and boys. And at one point he puts his cigar out in the palm of a drunk's hand. He may be a homicidal sadist, but he doesn't discriminate.)

It's also a perversely beautiful movie, especially on Blu-ray, with luminous photography by Marcel Zyskind and a gorgeous 1950s graphic-style title sequence. And I guess it says something about me that what I find much more offensive than any act of violence in the film is the fact that poor John Curran is forced to share his screen credit with three producers instead of getting a card to himself, like a writer should.

(Image credits: the blue poster and the Jessica Alba head shot and the Russian one are from Imp Awards. Smoking in the car is from What Culture. Politely holding hat is from Out Now. )

Sunday 1 February 2015

The Drop by Lehane & Roskam

American crime novelist Dennis Lehane has had a considerable presence in films. Clint Eastwood and Brian Helgeland's adaptation of Mystic River was impressively bleak. Martin Scorsese and Laeta Kalogridis's Shutter Island began strongly then turned into a risible misfire. While Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard's Gone Baby Gone was simply terrific.

Now there is another excellent Dennis Lehane movie. It's called The Drop, directed by Michaël R. Roskam. 
And it's different in several ways from earlier Lehane vehicles. for a start, it's based on a  short story ('Animal Rescue') rather than a full length novel (although the author now seems to have expanded it into a full length novel to tie in with the film). Also, the movie shifts the scene of the action from Lehane's native Boston to Brooklyn. 

And the script is adapted by Lehane himself — he's done a sterling job, too. (It's his first feature film script, although he's written for the top TV dramas The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.)

The Drop combines the tale of a bar which is a mob dirty-money-drop (hence the title of the movie) with the story of Bob (played by the redoubtable Tom Hardy), a bartender there, who rescues an abandoned and abused puppy (hence the title of the original story).

In the process he meets and falls for a girl, Nadia (played by Noomi Rapace — the original Girl With a Dragon Tattoo) who own the dustbin where he finds the dog. This action puts him on a collision course with Eric Deeds (a terrific Matthias Schoenaerts), a dangerous nutcase who owned the dog — and thinks he also owns Nadia.

Lehane instantly wins our sympathy for his protagonists, and proceeds to expertly weave together the  strands of this suspenseful story.

As you can see, the film has a great cast, also including in his last role James Gandolfini as Cousin Marv, a bulky, embittered, failed mobster who can barely squeeze past the fridge in the tiny kitchen of his blue-collar dump of a house

Tom Hardy's Bob initially comes across as passive and none too bright. He appears to be permanently bullied and firmly under the thumb of Marv, his boss in the bar (which is called Cousin Marv's). But Bob shows an early flash of spirit that signals all is not what it seems. When Marv refers to the local Chechen mobsters (who've supplanted him) as Chechnyans, Bob corrects him "They're Chechens, not Chechnyans. You don't call people from Ireland 'Irelandians', do you?"

The film features authentic and intriguing glimpses of police life (like a regular spot where the cops park and drink while they watch the sunset). In this regard it's reminiscent of the work of another Boston writer — William Monahan's script for the US remake of Edge of Darkness.

Just as the flunky Bob is surprisingly spirited and assertive, this movie develops in a very unexpected and interesting fashion. In some ways it's a classic tale of the triumph of an underdog, no pun intended. It's a deeply satisfying, very enjoyable crime drama with strong characterisation. And very dark, when you think about it.

My only beef is a tense scene late in the film where Eric the bad guy starts talking about a character called "Didi", causing the viewer to think, "Who the f*ck is Didi?" and jolting us out of the story for a moment. It turns out that "Didi" is his pet name for "Nadia." How are we supposed to know this? Well, we can't. We have to puzzle it out. It's an annoying tyro error. Go back and study screenwriting 101, Dennis. But that's my only complaint about this exemplary script. 

The Drop didn't quite make it into my list of the top films of 2014. But it's a small gem of a movie. And I recommend it highly.

(Image credits: All from the reliable Ace Show Biz. I particularly like the blue and white one with the dog.)