Sunday 27 December 2020

52 Pick Up (the novel) by Elmore Leonard

I must have read this book before... Way back when I first fell in love with Elmore Leonard's writing. 

(I subsequently fell out of love with Elmore Leonard's writing, but suddenly it looks like our relationship may be in recovery...)

In any case, I could remember nothing about 52 Pick Up. And when I recently watched John Frankenheimer's movie adaptation, as striking as the film was, it did nothing to rekindle my memories of the book.

But it did prompt me to seek out a copy and read it again. I got the Penguin with the Peter Chadwick cover photo, the nicest edition easily available...

And reading it was sheer pleasure. 

It's odd how similar the book is to the film yet, so vastly different.

It's essentially the story of a blackmail plot gone badly wrong. It goes wrong, as the perpetrators themselves observe, because "we picked the wrong guy."

The wrong guy is Harry Mitchell, known as Mitch, who runs an engineering company. His background in engineering is important because it enables him to provide the explosive retribution that concludes both book and film. 

But that really is the least interesting aspect of the story, and of Mitch's character.

A review in the front of my copy of 52 Pick Up mentions Elmore Leonard in the same breath as John D. MacDonald, one of my great writing heroes...

In fact it mentions him in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald. Stellar company but, on the basis of this novel, not inaccurate. 

Leonard's writing is terse, colloquial and eloquent. He handles agonising suspense and brutal action adroitly.

But his great strength is characterisation. In this story Mitch is up against a triumvirate of extortionists, Leo Frank and Alan Raimi, and the unforgettable Bobby Shy.

Leo runs a sleazy business where customers can take photographs of live nude girls (this is 1974) or just ogle them. He's a "fat-ass little juice head who was liable to melt with a little heat."

Alan runs a porno movie theatre where he whiles away his time dreaming up criminal schemes. He's a "hip creepy guy" who's "got a weird fucking mind."

Bobby — my favourite, and no doubt everybody else's — is a "quiet, easy-moving black dude" and also a "badass... gunslinger." 

The cowboy comparison is no accident. Elmore Leonard used to write Westerns, and when we first meet Bobby he is performing an armed hold up on a bus full of tourists — "robbing the stage coach," as Bobby puts it.

Mitch has fallen foul of such people because he was having an affair with the beauitful young Cini, one of those live nude models, and that gave Leo the idea to blackmail Mitch, who is a respectable married man with money.

We never meet Cini in the book. She's an offstage presence when the story begins, and apparently at least a passive accomplice to this extortion plot.

But we never find out exactly how deeply she's involved, because when Mitch fails to cave in to the blackmail demands (he's the wrong guy to try this on, remember), the bad guys decide to change tack...

They kill Cini and convincingly threaten to frame Mitch for her murder. This presents a major problem for Mitch.

But also a problem for the book. Because on the one hand Mitch never seems sufficiently upset by the death of Cini — he is supposed to have cared for her, even loved her.

On the other hand, Leo and Alan and Bobby seemed to have escalated to first degree murder, without any certainty of reward for it, remarkably easily. 

However, as we gradually begin to realise what a psycho Alan is, and how casual Bobby is about killing, Cini's death becomes a lot more convincing.

Still the problem remains that Cini is a cypher, an undeveloped character, and her death doesn't have enough of an impact on our hero.

That, and the slightly grandiose explosive conclusion, are the only flaws for me in this deeply satisfying crime novel. I haven't enjoyed reading anything so much for months. 

Most notably, there is considerable joy in watching the bad guys realise that Mitch is not "the kind of straight-A stiff he had looked at first."

In fact his response to these shadowy blackmailers is to "Find out who they are. Then kick ass." Indeed it turns out Mitch is an ex fighter pilot.

When his wife Barbara warns him, "They've already killed someone," Mitch replies, "So have I. With six machine guns."

Barbara is an excellent character in the novel, much more three-dimensional and well realised than in the movie. At one point she says she's just "Trying to grow old gracefully. Like everyone else."

Full marks to Leonard for his touching and convincing depiction of a good marriage. One which survives not only Mitch's infidelity but the blackmail and murder that ensue.

And when Alan the creepy psychopath decides to target Barbara, we genuinely care about what happens to her.

But throughout the book, it's the trio of crooks who hold centre stage and command our attention:

Alan Raimi, a rivetting portrait of a murderous monster who just loves creating mayhem and who has ambitions not just to show smutty movies but to become a director and make "a good hard-core porno but done well, with style; not just a dirty movie, a dirty film."

Leo Frank, the fat, soft, greed cowardly drunk who is in way too deep, and swimming with sharks, to boot.

And of course Bobby Shy, a latter day cowboy outlaw snorting cocaine with a silver Little Orphan Annie spoon.

And we can all sympathise with his musings about his girlfriend, the beautiful and amoral Doreen when Bobby says of her apartment, "I got half my clothes there now. I don't know where I live." 

This is a beautifully observed character detail. But such incipient domesticity doesn't stop Bobby from smothering Doreen almost to death while interrogating her about Mitch — a harrowing scene in both the book and the movie.

Elmore Leonard's affection for these bad guys (and girls) is evident in the way he calls them by their first names, whereas the hero is always known by his last name; even his wife calls him Mitch. 

(This, incidentally, is a reversal of the standard procedure in popular fiction.)

But as dangerous as Bobby and Alan are, Mitch proves to be more dangerous still, playing them off against each other and finally luring them to their doom.

I enjoyed 52 Pick Up immensely and it compells me to reassess Elmore Leonard's work.

Leonard wrote over 30 crime novels, the last one published in 2012. And I suspect I'm not entirely wrong in my impression that he went somewhat off the boil in his later career.

But this book is serious evidence that there are masterpieces in his back catalogue.

(Image credits: The main picture — the gorgeous black and yellow Spanish edition — is from ABE and Chantaje Mortal means Deadly Blackmail. The Penguin cover with Bobby Shy in a stocking mask, with a photo by Peter Chadwick, is my scan of my own — now  rather beloved — copy. I plan to make that Spanish one mine, too. The rest are from Good Reads, including the nicely dynamic first paperback edition (Dell 4555) of the guy in the movie theatre. I also covet that one.)

Sunday 20 December 2020

A View to a Kill by Fleming, Maibaum and Wilson

I've always been a follower of James Bond, both in print and on screen. 

I'm writing about A View to a Kill this week because I'm discussing this film with Matt in our podcast.

And, to be honest, I nominated this particular 007 screen outing, the last to star Roger Moore, because I remembered it as being the worst in the series.

But I hadn't seen the film again since I first caught it on the big screen in Leicester Square in 1995 and it turns out I was considerably too harsh on it.

James Bond was, of course, created by novelist Ian Fleming. Fleming also posthumously contributed the title to this movie — a variant on his short story 'From a View to a Kill'.

Other than that, it is entirely the work of two screenwriters, the veteran Richard Maibaum who had been scripting Bond since the very first movie, Dr No (1962), and Richard G. Wilson, who had been Maibaum's co-writer since For Your Eyes Only (1981).

A View to a Kill is very much a movie of two halves. The first part, protracted, dull and undistinguished, involves James Bond (Roger Moore) circling around billionaire bad guy Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) mostly at an event in France showcasing Zorin's thoroughbred race horses.

This includes a fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower and a car chase through Paris, but it's still dull and undistinguished.

When this far from thoroughbred section finally reaches its finish line, the movie relocates to California, around San Francisco.

And it picks up wonderfully, mostly because Stacey Sutton (Tanya Roberts of Sheena fame) is a first rate Bond girl.

For a start, she's intelligent and highly educated, a geologist who analyses earth tremors on her computer. Which is lucky because Zorin's sinister scheme is, effectively, mass murder by earthquake through fracking, with Silicon Valley the main target.

This plot has the effect of rendering A View to a Kill, so antiquated in other respects, strangely up to date. And Stacey has some sharp lines — "If it happened at the peak of the spring tide for maximum effect..."

This is excellent and indicates both that she knows her stuff and that the writers did their research.

Stacey also has a cat. (Mercifully Maibaum and Wilson refrain from pussy jokes... even though that does seem to be the cat's name.)

And when Bond rescues Stacey from home-invasion and intimidation by Zorin's thugs, instead of trying to immediately and remorsely bed her afterwards, he sees her safely off to sleep and then watches over the house.

The next morning we find Bond dozing in a rocking chair with both a pump action shotgun and the cat in his lap — a genuinely appealing figure.

Pitted against him, Walken as Zorin is a fun villain, the product of Nazi breeding science and a bloodthirsty maniac, he channels Robert De Niro when he goes full murderous psychopath. 

And, at the end, as Zorin slips to his doom from the Golden Gate Bridge, he gives a little self deprecating laugh.

Zorin's girlfriend is May Day, a striking performance by model turned singer turned movie star Grace Jones.

Incredibly striking visually — at times virtually a pantomime devil — and a considerable physical screen presence, May Day is an interesting figure: combination femme fatale and bad guy's powerful enforcer, à la the steel-toothed Jaws.

And, ultimately, Bond's ally when Zorin betrays her: "I thought that creep loved me." 

A View to a Kill is directed by John Glen, who began with Bond as a film editor on On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and has alluring costumes by Emma Porteous.

It also possesses a major asset in the form of John Barry's music. After nearly twenty years writing soundtracks for Bond movies it wouldn't be surprising if Barry had been running out of steam — and ideas — at this point.

But his score for A View to a Kill is terrifically strong and memorable. 

The main theme gives a catchy melody to the song 'Dance into the Fire', which Duran Duran fail to do justice to, and provides excellent thematic material throughout the film.

A View to a Kill isn't all good, but the bits that are, are surprisingly first rate.  

I feel a little bit bad about my previous judgement...

This movie clearly is far from being the worst Bond...

To find out what that is, I would have to rewatch the whole series.

Which I might just do.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday 13 December 2020

The Infinite Hive by Rosalind Heywood

This book is a non fiction work about the paranormal and is a sequel to Rosalind Heywood's The Sixth Sense, which I wrote about here. In that post I discussed my ambivalence to the whole notion of ESP — I feel the subject is fascinating but the evidence is not compelling.

Many would disagree with me. Although he's not cited in this book (he was a forgotten man at the time it was written) it seems Alan Turing was interested in the paranormal: “the statistical evidence, at least for telepathy, is overwhelming.”

The Infinite Hive (the title is a quotation from a sermon by John Donne, alluding to the buzzing complexity of the human mind) is different from The Sixth Sense. The earlier book was a scholarly study of the subject.

This one is a collection of personal experiences which fall into the paranormal realm. Sounds juicy? Yes, but it takes its bloody time to get going. The endless pussyfooting build-up drove me crazy. 

I wanted to shout "Get on with the good stuff." But we're on page 46 and Heywood is still hedging her bets and establishing the terms of the discussion, before offering her stories of ESP.

When we do get down to these accounts, they disappointingly start with a "famous spiritualist medium of unquestioned integrity" whose spirit guide was "transparently honest."

Well, you can guess what I think of that... Or, in case you can't: I immediately questioned the integrity of the famous spiritualist, and I suspected the spirit guide was opaquely deceitful.

Heywood's own memoir is considerably more interesting. Her experiences as a war nurse would win the respect of any reader. And I was impressed by the profound insight she got from trying mescalin: "to take my yapping little ego at all seriously is quite ridiculous."

Indeed, Heywood is an altogether charming writer. She discusses her lifelong love of reading and says "the library had the effect on me that the smell of fish has on a kitten."

The book is full of intriguing but unverifiable anecdotes. At one end of the scale there's her son, who would routinely look up streets on a map because he knows he'll soon be asked where they are by a stranger when he goes out.

At the other is the lonely cottage she and her husband rent which contains such a malign and overwhelming sense of a hostile presence that they get the local vicar in to conduct an exorcism.

Now, I feel that Heywood was an honest and intelligent woman who had some extraordinary experiences. 

And I sympathise with her when she's hurt because somebody "rejects as nonsense an impression which one feels, but cannot prove to be, extra-sensory. It is as if music one heard in the distance were to be dismissed with contempt as only the wind in the trees."

Yet, I'm afraid that somebody is me. Heywood writes, "Such feebly corroborated experiences as mine are easy game for people who fear ESP."

Is that me, too? I think not. One doesn't need to fear ESP to have problems with these kind of accounts, although they remain fascinating. And frustrating.

(Image credits: The two pan editions are from Tikit. The American hardcover with a different title is from Amazon. The British hardcover is from ABE.)

Sunday 6 December 2020

The Hateful Eight by Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, appeared in 2015. It's a raw, violent, wintry western where a blizzard is effectively one of the major characters. (Tarantino compares it to the monster in a monster movie, which isolates and menaces the protagonists.)

The film begins with a striking credit sequence, yellow text laid in dramatic contrast against the winter blue landscapes.

And what landscapes they are. The Hateful Eight was shot using the revival of a special Panavision widescreen format that hadn't been used for 50 years (the last time was a lukewarm Charlton Heston historical adventure called Khartoum).

There's a documentary on the Blu-ray I watched which charts the heroic efforts by the good folks at Panavision and by The Hateful Eight's cinematographer, Tarantino regular Robert Richardson, to bring back this 70mm technology. They succeeded in a spectacular fashion.

Ironically, releasing the movie in this deluxe format in the UK lend to a petulant spat between two cinema chains over who would have the exclusive rights to show it. (Apparently sharing was out of the question.)

The upshot was that the movie chain I subscribe to, Cineworld, sulkily refused to show this film at all. Thanks a bunch, guys.

Anyway, that's why I am only catching up with this film now, and on Blu-ray instead of the big screen.

The Hateful Eight begins with a bounty hunter tallying up the value of the corpses of the bad guys he's killed. 

This gave me déjà vu for a moment until I realised where my memory was coming from — Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollar More, which I'd recently watched.

The bounty hunter there was Clint Eastwood. Here it is the always welcome Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren (a nod by Tarantino to Charles Marquis Warren, a prolific writer and director of B-movie and TV westerns).

From the spaghetti western beginning, The Hateful Eight transforms swiftly into a classic Hollywood western set up — can a prisoner be safely transported to prison before they're rescued by their gang? This is the plot of 3:10 to Yuma, based on an Elmore Leonard short story.

The prisoner in this case is Daisy Domergue, played with spirit and humour by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her captor is another bounty hunter, John Ruth, portrayed by Kurt Russell looking like Yosemite Sam in his winter plumage.

John Ruth is another bounty hunter, though unlike the Major, his shtick is bringing in his prisoners alive, so that they hang. Hence his nickname, the Hangman.

The Major joins the Hangman — who is super paranoid about Daisy being freed — on the stagecoach so he can escape the blizzard.

Soon they are joined by another refugee from the storm, Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix. His arrival only heightens the Hangman's paranoia.

A paranoia which, by the end of the film will prove richly justified.

The motley crew on the stage coach take shelter  from the burgeoning blizzard at an isolated way station, the bizarrely named Minnie's Haberdashery.

Here they find a healthy — or, rather, unhealthy — assortment of very suspicious characters any one, or more, of whom might be in league with Daisy and looking to slit the Hunter's throat.

With our characters isolated by the storm and not knowing who to trust we are now in Agatha Christie territory — specifically And Then There Were None or The Mousetrap.

Indeed, with everyone locked in this rambling shack and the blizzard howling outside we might almost be in for a locked room murder story.
However, when violence erupts it is much more savage than that rather genteel genre ever depicted. Indeed, The Hateful Eight's final stage of evolution is into what is effectively a back-woods horror movie.

The Hateful Eight is very violent indeed. Indeed it's brutality proved a bit of a turn-off for me. I was particularly unsettled by the casual bashing of poor old Daisy Domergue.
Now, Daisy is set up as being a ruthless and pitiless killer in her own right. The problem is that we only know of this through dialogue and by inference.

We never see Daisy do anything wicked, so that makes the violence against her seem entirely unjustified.

But I am an enthusiastic admirer of Quentin Tarantino and I've learned that I can't always judge his movies on my first reaction — that kind of mistake led to me wrongly dismissing the terrific Inglorious Basterds, for instance.

So I'll watch the movie again and in the meantime just close my observations here with some of its praiseworthy aspects.

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Ennio Morricone provides a powerful score — the first time Tarantino has hired a composer instead of using music from his record collection (though there's some of that, too). Morricone's music seems to arise seamlessly out of the action and the ambient noise of the film. 

And it's always gorgeous visually thanks to the brilliance of Robert Richardson (also incidentally Oliver Stone's regular cinematographer). Even when the story is constrained to a stage coach or log cabin, it looks great. And it never feels like the vast 70mm frame is being wasted. 

There also is a typically strong and talented cast, largely consisting of Tarantino regulars. It's fascinating to see Tim Roth (as Oswaldo Mobray) initially channelling Christoph Waltz, although he goes on to add some fine toothy mannerisms of his own.

But the acting honours here really go to Walton Goggins in a superb performance where he subtly transforms his normal voice and physicality to achieve something entirely new. 

This part clearly shows his growth as an actor and one can see him on a trajectory leading to this year's Them That Follow and his career-best performance as a snake-handling hill country pastor.

The Hateful Eight is brutal, shocking and never dull. It's often very funny, and very cruel. The brutality and cruelty are absolutely deliberate, and it's certainly no accident that the first image of the film is a crudely carved and tormented looking Jesus on a wooden cross.

But it is also a skilfully constructed mystery and, full marks to Tarantino, you won't guess the ending.

Or soon forget it.

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

Sunday 29 November 2020

Thriller by Bo Vibenius

I'm currently working on a new podcast about cult cinema with my friend Matt West, who is an expert in such matters. 

And it was Matt who introduced me to this extraordinary movie — I was struck by the T-shirt he was wearing at a Doctor Who convention which we were both attending in Sweden.

Rather aptly, since this is a Swedish film, written and directed by Bo Vibenius, who began his career as a second unit director on Ingmar Bergman pictures.

This movie is very definitely not an Ingmar Bergman film, though. Released in the USA by exploitation specialists American International, it was retitled They Call Her One Eye.

The original Swedish title is Thriller, a loan word from English, subtitled en Grym Film — "A Cruel Movie".

Which it is, recounting the tragedy of Frigga, a young woman who was rendered mute as a child by the trauma of a sexual assault. 

The film begins with this incident and then flashes forward to her as an adult, played by Christina Lindberg. Luckless grownup Frigga is soon abducted, drugged and trafficked...

Hooked on heroin against her will, she is enslaved and forced to work in a brothel.

Christina Lindberg is remarkable in this role. Required to remain silent for the entire film, her performance is accomplished through the great expressivity of her face, especially her eyes.

"Or, rather, her eye," as Matt West remarked... Because when Frigga tries to escape, her captors respond by putting out one of her eyes.

But Frigga, now wearing an eyepatch, is intent on wreaking retribution on them.

Indeed, the movie was also known in America as Hooker's Revenge — a fairly unforgivable title, suggesting as it does that Frigga's defined by the role she's forced into by others.

The movie is in many ways a mess, with Poverty Row sets and a script that frequently comes unmoored from reality — or even logic.

But the photography by Andreas Bellis, is often rapturously beautiful, revelling in the yellows and reds of autumnal Sweden.

The music is also remarkable, a ferociously avant garde score by Ralph Lundsten.

And while Bo Vibenius is responsible for the film's many defects, he also pulls off some unforgettable sequences — Frigga twisting in torment as a voyeur's camera remorselessly clicks away on motor drive, the hypnotic swirl of a hijacked police car's lights as Frigga drives it to a confrontation.

There's also the scene where Frigga prepares her weapons for her vengeance which anticipates Travis Bickle in Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

But, ultimately, Thriller is memorable for Lindberg's powerful and affecting performance, and for its mixture of low budget incoherence and wayward brilliance which suggests David Lynch

I might also add that my cat has never been so fascinated by a movie — thought it was the Swedish landscapes that caught her attention, not the human activity.

(Image credits: all pics courtesy of Matt West, except for the photo of the two of us in Sweden, which was taken by and is copyright Lee W Lundin.)

Sunday 22 November 2020

Dead Bang by Frankenheimer, Beck and Foster

I was recently rivetted by an outstanding BBC radio documentary about the 1995 Oklahoma bombing, the worst domestic terrorist incident in American history.

It got me thinking about this brilliant movie by John Frankenheimer which I had seen many years earlier. 

It's a first rate thriller about a Los Angeles detective whose investigation into the murder of a cop leads him into the murky and murderous world of neo-Nazis and fascists who want to keep America "white and pure."

I tracked down a copy on DVD — it's out of print and not so easy to find — and watched it again. 

And I'm delighted to say that Dead Bang is even better than I remembered. I loved it.

It tells the story of Jerry Beck, played by a compelling Don Johnson, interweaving his chaotic and fractured personal life with his terrifying and thrilling investigation of a lethal conspiracy.

The movie features a taut, efficient and character-rich script by Robert Foster, who has a long pedigree in television stretching back to Run for Your Life in 1967.

The beautiful, fluid camerawork is by Gerry Fisher, a masterful British cinematographer. 

And the magnificent production design is by another Brit, Ken Adam, whose credits include numerous Bond movies and Kubrick's Dr Strangelove and Barry Lyndon. Adam's Nazi stronghold in Dead Bang is particularly notable.

The highly effective music is by Gary Chang and Michael Kamen.

And presiding over all this talent is John Frankenheimer, one of the truly great American film directors (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, Seconds, The French Connection II, to name a few of his achievements).

All well and good, but when I began researching this post I experienced some profound surprises.

The first is that Beck is a real person and the movie was based on his actual experiences.

Frankenheimer says, "Jerry Beck, a homicide detective in the Sherrif's Department here in LA... told me the story more or less as it appears on the screen."

How chilling. What's even more chilling is that, while I thought Dead Bang had been inspired by incidents like the Oklahoma bombing or the sieges at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993), it was actually made in 1988 and decisively pre-dates any of them.

Dead Bang is an important movie. It was extraordinarily prescient.

It is also gripping, exciting, funny, scary and beautifully made, moving swiftly from Los Angeles to Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma, where the well turned out wife (Evans Evans) of a Nazi Reverend (Michael Higgins) serves the police hot apple turnovers...

 (All three of the locations outside LA were actually shot in Alberta in western Canada, in Calgary, Drumheller and High River, since you ask...)

 I can't recommend Dead Bang highly enough, especially given recent events. Do please see if you can find a copy and watch it.

Meanwhile, I'll let John Frankenheimer have the final word:

"I had a good story to tell and it was a well-made movie. Foster, who comes from television, brought the various elements together convincingly. He's a good writer and Jerry Beck is a concerned and colourful character. 

"Ken Adam's production design was remarkable. Gerry Fisher's work was, as usual, excellent, and there were great moments in it. But most importantly the story was topical, urgent and true, in depicting this attempt by the extreme right wing to unite neo-Nazi groups into a dangerous fascist force within the US... This is a real danger both frightening and real. It frightens me."

Amen to that.

(All quotes are from Gerald Pratley's indispensable book on Frankenheimer.)

(Image credits: all from IMDB.)