Sunday 30 September 2018

Critic's Choice by Ira Levin

We continue my survey of the writings of the great Ira Levin with another one of his plays. Critic's Choice was his third Broadway production after No Time for Sergeants (1955) a hit comedy; and Interlock (1958), an under-appreciated psychological drama.

Critic's Choice, which appeared in 1960, is again a comedy, and it's an absolute cracker (audiences thought so, too — the show was another hit). Levin here takes up the challenge of writing about a drama critic, Parker Ballantine whose wife Angela has written a play of her own. 

Angela's play is, to say the least, not great. But it is surprisingly fast-tracked into production and bound for Broadway, leaving Parker with the dilemma of what to do. Does he review the play and tell the truth, jeopardising his marriage? Or does he chicken out, and compromise his principles?

The sequences where Angela is happily bashing out her masterwork has a fascinating, and hilarious, parallel in Levin's later triumph Deathtrap — which features two writers in competition rather than a writer and critic warily circling each other.

There is also a pre-echo of Deathtrap in the wickedly funny scene in Critic's Choice where the maid answers the phone and gives a quick summary of where everyone is, in exactly the manner Parker described as a howling cliché.

What's more, Critic's Choice interestingly prefigures Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, both in the egregious clunkiness of the play-within-a-play and (spoiler alert) in the wife's infidelity. 

Yes, Angela has a fling with the director of her play, the marvellously realised Dion Kapakos, a pretentious wunderkind who keeps banging on about "roots" and authenticity. He is, of course, a big phony.

Levin's play is packed with wonderful characters — and they're not just charged with comic potential: everyone is real and solid and three dimensional and has a valid point of view. ("I'm listening to me for a change," says Angela, who is sick of just being a housewife.) 

These characters include Parker's ex-wife Ivy, a glamorous actress, who has just had a flop of her own ("There are some books that simply cannot be made into musical comedies and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of them"); his precocious son John, who is a budding critic himself and earns money selling his dad zingers to use in his reviews; and his mother in law Charlotte who advises Parker that if he goes ahead with his review he'll have "more integrity and less wife than any man in town."

Of course, what counts in a comedy is being funny. And Ira Levin hit a home run in this regard. But what really elevates Critic's Choice is some underlying seriousness and  — take note, Dion Kapakos — authenticity. 

It's a mark of distinction that Parker has genuine, and believable, reasons for sticking to his guns and inviting disaster by reviewing his wife's play, rather than just behaving in an arbitrary fashion to suit the needs of the plot.

Surprisingly, the original Broadway production was directed by Otto Preminger, a high-powered movie maker (Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus) who specialised in much more heavy material. Apparently Ira Levin and Preminger met when Levin's first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, was published and the director considered filming it. Levin went on to write an early draft of Preminger's film Bunny Lake is Missing.

Needless to say, Otto Preminger did not direct the Bob Hope and Lucille Ball movie version of Critic's Choice — which I might well report on in this continuing overview of the magnificent Ira Levin.

(Image credits: The very dull Random House cover is from Wikipedia. The Dramatists Play Service edition is from Between the Covers Rare Books at ABE.  The cover and photo from the theatre programme — or theater program — for the London production at the Vaudeville is from my own collection. The Playbill cover is from Amazon. The DVD cover is also from Amazon. The newspaper clipping is courtesy of the official Ira Levin website — many thanks indeed to them for providing this. If you're squinting at it trying to read the caption, it features Preminger, actress Gena Rowlands — who actually dropped out of the play before the opening — and the mighty Mr Levin himself.)

Sunday 23 September 2018

The Sixth Sense by Rosalind Heywood

I am ambivalent, to say the least, on the subject of extra sensory perception. The romantic side of me thinks it would be so cool if such a thing existed. The scientific side shakes its head at the quality of evidence...

But I remain sufficiently interested in ESP to read the occasional book about it. I am very cautious about choosing these, because there is — to quote Fight Club — "an avalanche of bullshit" out there on the subject.

One writer I trusted to discuss the phenomena sensibly was Arthur Koestler. Having exhausted Koestler's writings on it, I've now begun to explore the books by other writers that he recommended.

Chief among these is Rosalind Heywood. The Sixth Sense, published in 1959, is the first of two notable volumes by her. (The second one, which I will also discuss, is The Infinite Hive from 1964.)

The real problem with ESP is that there have been a huge number of experiments, mostly by J.B Rhine at Duke University and concerning boring and repetitious attempts to guess which Zener cards will come up next in a random sequence.

And when analysed, the  dry boring stats showing irrefutable proof for the existence of a paranormal effect.

Or to quote HJ Eysenck, as quoted in this book: "Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some thirty university departments all over the world, and several hundred highly respected scientists in various fields, many of them originally sceptical to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion that the unbiased observer can come to is that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing in other people's minds, or in the outer world, by means as yet unknown to science."

Eysenck also makes a point which is particularly compelling to me. There are some statistical effects which weren't even thought of at the time of the experiments and and only discovered when retrospectively analysing the data.

So to falsify this would itself have required ESP.

There you go. The results are in, and ESP apparently exists. But, but, but...

But is seems that there is nothing to be done with such evidence. No respectable scientist wants to build on this research — and I completely understand why.

So does Rosalind Heywood. "Most scientists prefer to avert their eyes," she says. And she sympathises: "it is not easy to propound new systems based on facts whose natural habitat seems to be through the looking glass..." 

This is characteristic of her often charming and witty style. And Heywood has some valuable insights, too. She makes the important and telling point that creating the right kind of atmosphere is crucial. Which is why Duke got successes when his counterparts in the UK, doing the same kind of experiments, got nothing.

She also discusses how Sigmund Freud started from a point of not believing in the paranormal, yet he encountered sufficiently persuasive evidence to convince him at that telepathy at least was real. But a colleague, Ernest Jones, lobbied hard to prevent Freud from coming out in public with his belief in telepathy. 

Jones was convinced any action like this would seriously damage the reputation of psychoanalysis. And he may well have been right. The upshot was that Freud's paper on the subject wasn't published until years after his death.

This pretty much sums up the scientific position on ESP. Don't talk about it.

So we end where we began, with the dry boring stats showing proof which can't be denied and should not be ignored and everybody, including me, either denying it or ignoring it. 

Rosalind Heywood wrote, "It is hard to doubt that in time answers will be found to the questions raised in this book." 

Nearly sixty years on there's no sign of them.

(Image credits: The pale blue original British hardcover is from ABE. The American hardcover is from Weiser Antiquarian Books. The early British Pan paperback is from Amazon. The Pan reprint is from Tiki. The Penguin reprint with the rather witty Jones Thompson cover design is scanned from the rather battered copy fromy own sweet library.)

Sunday 16 September 2018

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This book is so great, why didn't someone tell me about it before? The reason I finally got around to reading it was the riveting Radio 4 adaptation of it, scripted by Donna Franceschild. This isn't currently available to listen to, but you can find details here. 

So, what is East of Eden about? Well it's generally described as the saga of two families in California in the late 19th and early 20th Century

And therein resides the book's deepest flaw. It's actually the story of one family — the Trasks. That is where all the interest lies. 

For my money, the parallel account of the Hamiltons could virtually be eliminated. I suspect this problem arose largely because Steinbeck didn't have a rigidly fixed plan as to what he was going to write about, so the book — and it's a big book — just grew organically, and in a baggy and misshapen fashion, as he found his way into it.

And in those pre-computer days (it was published in 1953), the prospect of going back when he was finished and cutting out tens of thousands of words and reorganising the book was probably just too daunting. Or maybe he loved the bits about the Hamiltons. They are actually presented as the ancestors of Steinbeck's own family.
How true this is — and why the book is so oddly out of proportion — I hope to find out when I get a copy of Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters.

But to hell with dwelling on the flaws... what makes this book so wonderful? Well, for a start it features one of the greatest villains ever devised in literature, the astonishing Cathy Ames. Cathy becomes the beloved wife of the central character, Adam Trask. But Adam doesn't have a clue who she really is.

Cathy is a classic psychopath. She murdered her parents, plundered the family business and faked her own death. And this was in her early teens... she's just warming up. I won't give too much away, but she ends up abandoning Adam and her two sons when they are babies — as she sets off to leave, he begs her to stay and asks what will become of the tiny boys.

"Throw them in one of your wells," says Cathy. She then goes, adopts a new identity, and takes over a whorehouse in a nearby town.

When and whether Adam and the boys will find out the fate of their mother becomes the suspenseful central question for the book...

Just to give you a flavour of how brilliantly written this novel is, here's a few quotations culled from the dozens I jotted down while reading it. Steinbeck offers arresting descriptions of people and nature and external things...  

As when Adam's mother "smile flashed and disappeared the way a trout crosses a knife of sunshine in a pool."  Adam's son recalls "the clean sage-laced wind from the hills". Or how Cathy's mother made an unpleasant discovery when she pulled the barn doors open "and the bright sun crashed inside." Or how about the image of a "nervous March wind"?

But Steinbeck also describes thoughts and emotions and internal states with great vividness and psychological acuity.

Such as the way, after the terrible trauma of a savage beating, someone "lay in a cave of shock and opium." And when Adam finally begins to have an insight into what Cathy really is, "He thought he could see her impulses, crawling like ants and could read them." And later, of Cathy herself, when she begins to lose her grip, "Her mind drifted among impressions the way a bat drifts and swoops in the evening." Or when he writes of the "black reasoning" of the subconscious mind. 

Steinbeck is a master storyteller. The emotional impact of the book is considerable. The reader's heart lifts when Adam finally gets free of Cathy. But more often our heart is broken, as when Adam's dying mother attributes his loving gifts to Adam's brother instead.

And we're also appalled — by Adam's goggle eyed love for his psychopathic, murdering whore of a wife — or angered, as when Adam refuses his son's gift of money... at this point I held my breath because I knew something terrible was going to happen. And when it did, I thought it served Adam right, the idiot — he brought this tragedy on himself.

But you'll have your own reactions to this great, sprawling, classic novel. It's not perfect, but it's a masterpiece.

And I'll end on a Steinbeck aphorism from its pages which has become a favourite of mine: "There is no dissatisfaction like that of the rich."  

(Image credits: No lack of cover variants, thank heavens, since this is a long post. Indeed, there are so many to be found on Good Reads that — apart from the Pan version, which is the one I read (and scanned myself) — these are just drawn from the Penguin editions of the book. I particularly like the one of Cathy burning down the family home with her parents in it, cunningly designed to look like the American flag.)

Sunday 9 September 2018

Deathtrap by Ira Levin

I've previously posted about the superb novels of Ira Levin. Now it's time to start looking at his equally memorable writing for the stage.

His 1979 play Deathtrap was a huge smash hit. It is the longest running thriller in Broadway's history; indeed it remains the fifth longest-running (non-musical) play on Broadway.

As part of my one-man Ira Levin revival I got hold of a copy of the published version of Deathtrap and set about reading it with great pleasure. 

I thought I'd seen a stage production of this play, in Croydon some years ago. But the story seemed so fresh to me that I've begun to doubt that...

Maybe I'd just become aware of the general contours of the plot of Deathtrap, through a kind of cultural osmosis. It's a very famous play.

That plot concerns a successful playwright, Sidney Bruhl, who specialises in fashioning murderous thrillers. He's down on his luck though, to the extent that he's teaching the craft of writing to aspiring amateurs (we've all been there). 

So when one of his students sends him a new stage thriller which promises to be a monumental success, Sidney begins to wonder if instead of mentoring this new talent, he can kill him and steal his play...

The play in question is called Deathtrap, and like Levin's play itself, it features one set and five actors...

This sort of meta thing could be very tedious, but in Ira Levin's hands it's positively exhilarating. Over the course of two acts, each consisting of three scenes (just like the play within the play) Deathtrap proceeds to thrill, shock and astonish, its narrative twisting like a serpent.

The concept of a play worth killing over is at the heart of Deathtrap and Levin keeps wringing ingenious changes and variations on it. In the way that this McGuffin becomes both irresistible and almost automatically lethal, Deathtrap recalls The Pardoner's Tale by Chaucer.

It's a wonderful entertainment with a touch of the supernatural (as befits a work by the man who wrote Rosemary's Baby) and it is also hilariously funny.

No wonder it was such a magnificent success. I'd urge you to read a copy of the play, watch a revival of it, or perhaps see the movie version directed by Sidney Lumet. I say 'perhaps' because I have yet to watch it myself. That will be another post...

(Image credits: The book cover is from ABE. The Harlequin poster is from CTX Live Theatre. The Salisbury Playhouse poster is from Peter Viney's blog. The Palm Canyon poster is from Patch. The clever all typography poster is from London Theatre Direct.)

Sunday 2 September 2018

Alpha by Wiedenhaupt and Hughes

Alpha is essentially a Jack London tale for the 21st century, which come to think of it is a great idea. It's the story of a teenage boy in Stone Age times ('Europe, 20,000 years ago' announces the caption at the beginning) called Keda.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is the son of his tribe's chief and as the movie opens he's setting out with a party of men on his first hunt. This section of the film was the least appealing to me because it involves, not surprisingly, lots of killing of animals — admittedly, entirely computer-generated animals, but still... (To his credit, Keda flinches from the bloodshed, too.)

I am of course a total sentimental softy when it comes to animals. Which indeed was why I'd hastened to see Alpha in the first place. Because it's about how the domestication of the first wolf came about — boy meets dog!

Keda is separated from the hunting party and is left behind injured, presumed dead. He has a long and arduous odyssey to get back home by himself — although as it turns out he won't be by himself, because along the way he befriends a wounded wolf.

The story of the gradually growing bond between Keda and his furry companion, and their battle against other animals, and the elements, on the long voyage home makes for an engrossing and moving adventure. 

In a such a CGI-heavy movie I wasn't even sure if the dog was real — but he absolutely is. His names is Chuck and he's a Czech wolf dog (that's actually a breed) from France.

Chuck is an absolutely lovely dog — you have to realise this is coming from a cat lover! — and a tremendous asset to the film. Which makes it all the more absurd that the clowns at IMDB don't even mention him in their allegedly complete cast and crew for the film. 

The movie is beautifully shot, by the Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht on location in Vancouver and Iceland. It was written by Daniele Wiedenhaupt from an initial draft by Albert Hughes, who directed the film.

Hughes has previously worked in collaboration with his brother Allen, on movies such as Dead Presidents, From Hell and The Book of Eli. This is Wiedenhaupt's screenwriting debut.

I enjoyed Alpha a lot, but I do have a couple of gripes. The dialogue in the movie is all in a made up prehistoric language, with subtitles. I don't like subtitles — they mean that your eyes are always in the wrong place on the screen. I'm willing to tolerate them for a genuine foreign language film, just about. To use them because you've opted for an imaginary language is just a pointless nuisance.

Just shoot the damned thing in English. Or, as my brother suggested, having established their point with subtitles, the movie makers could then have quickly segued into English  dialogue.

But the subtitles and the silly language don't spoil the enjoyment. Alpha is a pleasurable epic and it only really puts a foot — or paw — wrong at the very end when the final, triumphant shots are accompanied by some saccharine narration by Morgan Freeman.

Now Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become the apotheosis of the unctuous, sentimental and unnecessary voice over. I now cringe whenever I hear him dubbed over a movie to tell me how I should be feeling.

Luckily he only had a sentence or two here, so that didn't manage to spoil the film.

Anyway, I liked the movie enough to see it again a few days later, this time in Imax 3D. 

Incidentally the  three-dimensional Imax image is superb — the best I've ever seen, precise, entirely stable and sharp, although the glasses provided are crap: uncomfortable, with distracting reflections in the bottom corners of the lenses. But I digress...

A couple of hours after I saw the Imax screening, something hit me... 

There hadn't been any Morgan Freeman voice-over at the end. It had been removed from that print. This caused me to do a little research on line.

It turns out that the movie was made with narration by Freeman at the beginning and the end. And that's the version that's being shown in the States. 

But here in the UK, at least, the voice-over has been removed either partially or entirely.

Someone made a very smart decision about this. My tail is wagging with approval.

(Image credits: a true wealth of posters, some very beautiful, and mostly aimed at the Far East markets, from Imp Awards.)