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.)