Sunday 29 March 2020

The Concrete Flamingo by Charles Williams

What a pleasure — discovering an outstanding crime novelist who looks destined to become a favourite of mine.

I was already aware of Charles Williams, primarily through two films that were made from his books, The Hot Spot and Dead Calm. But he wasn't exactly on my radar. He is now.

When I happened upon a vintage copy of his novel The Concrete Flamingo on eBay (US title: All the Way) I was immediately taken with the striking cover art and tempted to give it a try...

What clinched the deal for me was discovering that the novel was the basis for a rare and obscure film noir that I love — The Third Voice, directed by Hubert Cornfield.

So I ordered the book, and the day after it arrived I'd devoured it...

But even before then I was scouring the web for other copies of his books.

Charles Williams is an excellent novelist. He can write with great economy and understated beauty — "We sat forward under the canopy to avoid the tatters of spray as the Blue Runner knifed into the light ground-swell."

The Blue Runner is of course a boat. Williams, like John D. MacDonald, wrote a lot about boats and the sea. And, like MacDonald, he uses Florida as his setting here.

Most of The Concrete Flamingo takes place on land, however — although a dead man's body ends up deep in the ocean: "in the gloom and the everlasting silence, with his chest crushed by the pressure."

These vivid observations come from Jerry Forbes, a cynical, intelligent drifter who is  possessed of an "elastic conscience."

Jerry finds himself targeted by a femme fatale called Marian Forsyth who has a use for him — he's the critical element in a wicked scheme she's dreamed up.

It is Jerry's great misfortune that he falls for Marian. But then, who wouldn't?

Marian is superbly evoked. "The blue eyes were coolly satirical... she was unbelievably exciting.... the slender patrician face with the long lashes like soot against the skin."

Dealing with her, Jerry feels like "an oaf at a county fair." Eventually, when she succumbs to his advances, she does so in "rather the way you'd buy a potato peeler from a salesman to get rid of him."

Nonetheless, Jerry falls for Marian so hard that he goes along with her scheme not for the $75,000 she's offering him (a tidy fortune in 1958) but because he loves her.

The poor fool. The poor noir fool.

Actually, "femme fatale" sells Marian short. She is a woman scorned. (In fact one of Williams's other novels is entitled Hell Hath No Fury — that's the one that became The Hot Spot).

Marian's plan is one of vengeance against the wealthy man who has dumped her for a younger, more beautiful woman — a scheming little gold digger. 

Marian wittily describes this usurper in piratical terms: "I could see the cutlass between her teeth as she came over the rail." 

The Concrete Flamingo is sharply funny, but it's also sharply tragic. Because the scheme Jerry finds himself inexorably caught up in is not just one of robbery. It's also murder.

Marian has a plan to take all of her former lover's money — and also his life. And it's a breathtakingly ingenious plan. "It all fitted perfectly, like the stones in an Inca wall."

This is a terrifyingly suspenseful story; almost unbearably gripping.

And even though it's a conspiracy to commit coldblooded murder, the reader can't help being swept up in admiration and fascination as the plan comes together, and hope against hope that none of those perfectly fitting stones in that Inca wall come loose...
You can expect posts on other Charles Williams novels soon.

And also on the movie The Third Voice, if I can bring myself to buy one of the slightly dodgy looking DVD-Rs that are for sale...

(Image credits: The front and back cover of the Pan edition are scanned by me from my own, now treasured, copy. The British hardcover, the eBook and the rather groovy Italian edition are from Good Reads. The front cover of the US Dell edition All the Way is from NoirBoiled Notes. The back cover is from this eBay listing. The Third Voice poster is from Pinterest. The Third Voice lobby card is from Movie Mem.)

Sunday 22 March 2020

Dracula by Gatiss, Moffat and Stoker

Like The Invisible Man, Dracula is a radical reinterpretation of a spooky classic of Victorian literature for our 21st century screens

Unlike The Invisible Man, though, this BBC-Netflix production gives full credit to its creator.

Bram Stoker is prominently named in the show's opening title sequence, right up there with writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat.

Gatiss and Moffat are, of course, responsible for Sherlock — a clever, highly successful and entertaining reworking of Conan Doyle's detective.

And they have both had a considerable impact as writers on Doctor Who, with Moffat going on to become the producer of that great science fiction warhorse. 

So there was every reason to hope for a similar high profile success with Dracula. But the three part mini-series — which is wildly loved by some enthusiasts — wasn't a hit.

And I think there's a basic and simple explanation for that. Because, although it sounds odd to say it, Count Dracula is a very boring character...
Of course, he can be a very scary bad guy — providing he only appears sparingly in the story. But if your plot requires seeing a lot of him, then he rapidly becomes wearisome. 

Because what does he do? He bites people. And that's about it. That's his schtick.

Yes, he's a charismatic Byronic seducer who exerts a powerful, eerie attraction etc. etc.

But again this is only effective if  he is rarely on the screen. 

Dracula needs to remain mysterious and remote. If you see a lot of him, he gets a lot less scary and his Byronic charisma gets tiresome.

And he just bites people.

If you do want to see a lot of Count Dracula, if you want him at the centre of your story, as Gatiss and Moffat clearly do, you need to give him more substance, more motivation... 

And more of a character arc than merely seducing and drinking blood.

This was done with great success in the 1992 movie called Bram Stoker's Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola Dracula and written by James V. Hart.

That movie presented Dracula as a tragic romantic hero with a doomed love affair that echoed down the centuries — and drove the plot and characterisation in that movie. 

A great idea, but as I've discussed elsewhere, it didn't originate with Hart and Coppola, but rather with writer Richard Matheson and director Dan Curtis in a 1973 TV movie, also called Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Unfortunately, Gatiss and Moffat haven't done anything comparable to this in their take on the Dracula legend. 

Of course, it's commendable that they didn't rip off the Hart/Coppola movie, which was itself a rip off of the Matheson/Curtis one...

But they also failed to come up with a viable alternative. And they badly needed to... Without something of this nature, the Gatiss/Moffat Dracula was a car without an engine...

It still has many cool things going for it, though. And it's well worth discussing. So much so that I plan to look at each episode separately, starting next week. Then I might also take an in-depth look at the Hart/Coppola movie... Keep your crucifixes and garlic ready.

(Image credits: The official poster is from Imp Awards. The highly imaginative Dracula billboard is a screenshot from this great time lapse photography clip at the BBC. Dracula in the red cloud is from the Radio Times; blood spattered Dracula is also from the Radio Times. The smiling and fanged pic is from Chronicle Live. The poster for the Matheson/Curtis Dracula starring Jack Palance is from Kult Guy's Keep. The Coppola Dracula poster is from Imp Awards.)

Sunday 15 March 2020

The Call of the Wild by Michael Green and Jack London

I tried to re-read Jack London's Call of the Wild recently and found I couldn't get much further than the kidnapping of poor Buck...

Buck is a pampered pet belonging to an affluent family who is stolen and transported across the continent and beaten into submission and forced to work as a sled dog in the far north. 

The gold rush has created a demand for such dogs, and criminals are only too willing to provide them.

The cruelty of Buck's treatment isn't ignored in the new film, but thankfully it's only briefly touched on and then Buck is sold to some rather nice people — a delightful couple who deliver the mail for the Canadian Post Office.

Perrault and Francoise are played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee, just the tip of the iceberg in a fabulous and remarkably strong cast. Buck's adventures with them are sheer pleasure, but it can't last...

The mail route gets cancelled and Buck is reluctantly let go, and sold to a trio of drunken and rather vicious dilettantes who are going gold prospecting with a gramophone and a case of champagne on their sled.

The dilettantes are played by Colin Woodell, Dan Stevens and Karen Gillan — I told you it was a fabulous cast.

And Dan Stevens remains in the story when the other dilettantes drop out, as the villain of the piece. 

He pursues Buck and Buck's final and best human companion, Harrison Ford as John Thornton, as they go on a journey of discovery, both outer and inner...

Buck himself is a CGI creation and, like the other critters in the movie, is far too expressive in a cartoony kind of way to ever seem real in any naturalistic sense.

But he did seem real to me in another, more important sense. I was engaged by his character and captivated by his story.

The film is written by Michael Green who recently wrote Murder on the Orient Express and co-wrote Blade Runner 2049

I think he's done a fine job of modernising and softening Jack London's original, making it accessible to multiplex holiday audiences, but still retaining a real sense of wonder.

I particularly liked his idea of personifying the call of the wild as a phantom black wolf who appears to Buck as a vision at key points in the movie.

The picture is directed by Chris Sanders, who has previously done animated films (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch) and photographed by Janusz Kaminski, who has shot almost all of Spielberg's features, including Schindler's List.

But the name I really want to draw your attention to is Kate Hawley, whose costume designs for Call of the Wild are so marvelous that she deserves an Oscar.

This is really a terrific film, and I adored it. 

I'm sure many would find it too phony or sentimental, but I laughed and I cried and I was enthralled.

Even if you don't like dogs — and I'm notoriously a cat person — I think you might enjoy it.

Give it a chance.

(Image credits: three posters from Imp Awards, Cara Gee and Omar Sy in a blue ice cavern from Vital Thrills, Dan Stevens in his red and black check cap from Tumblr, Omar Sy and Buck from ABC News, and some great photos from Karen Gillan's Twitter feed.)

Sunday 8 March 2020

The Invisible Man by Leigh Whannell and H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man is a fabulously good movie, and you should rush out and see it immediately.

I only have one complaint about it: it wouldn't exist without the H.G. Wells novel of the same title, but Wells gets no credit whatsoever — and Leigh Whannell hogs two writing credits — screenplay and screen story. WTF?

But Whannell does a terrific job on the script, and also on directing the movie.

And certainly his movie departs considerably from Wells' original novel.

It concerns an abused wife, Ceclia Kass — Elizabeth Moss in a stunning piece of acting — who manages to escape her controlling, vicious, enormous wealthy husband. Or does she?

When I tell you that the husband, Adrian Griffin, played with great creepy subtlety by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is also a genius scientist working in the field of optics...

Well, then you can guess where this is going.

Or rather, you can't, because The Invisible Man delivers superb, scary surprises which will have you jumping out of your seat.
Besides the first class writing and directing mention should be made of the outstanding special effects, by Dan Oliver, and the pounding, menacing music score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which delivers huge, brutal slabs of sound.  

And the supporting cast is exemplary — Harriet Dyer as Cecilia's sister Emma, Aldis Hodge as Cecilia's friend a San Francisco cop, and Storm Reid as his daughter Sydney.

And also Michael Dorman as Griffin's brother Tom, who at first seems like an arrogant prick, and then in a memorable scene reveals unexpected vulnerability and empathy.

But above all we have Elizabeth Moss, courageously and brilliantly performing in a role which will make your heart pound with suspense and ache with sympathy for her...

This is a beautifully made film which absolutely delivers the good. Leigh Whannell has done a fantastic job.

He has a long track record working as a writer on horror franchises Saw and Insidious. But who could ever have guessed that he had a movie as great (I use the word advisedly) as this in him?

Nonetheless, he should have insisted on some kind of credit for H.G. Wells.

Wells' invisible man was even called Griffin...

(Image credits: mostly typographical posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 1 March 2020

Natural Born Killers by Quentin Tarantino

Like True Romance, Natural Born Killers (1994) was a script by Quentin Tarantino which he sold before he rose to fame with Reservoir Dogs, and which ended up being directed by someone else.

But unlike True Romance, Tarantino has disowned the movie that resulted.

In the case of True Romance, Tony Scott was a gifted director who was willing to serve the vision of the writer, without particularly imposing his own vision on the material.

Natural Born Killers, however, was directed by Oliver Stone — in my view, an even more interesting and talented filmmaker — who took a very different approach.

Tarantino's script was initially acquired by two young producers looking to break into the movie business, Jane Hamsher and Don Murray.

They then struck a deal with Oliver Stone, and became a small part of the juggernaut of a production that ensued.

The wild ride they embarked on, and the making of Natural Born Killers, is vividly and engagingly detailed in Jane Hamsher's book about the experience, one of the best about Hollywood in recent decades.

It describes how they rapidly fell out with Tarantino, who seemed not to want this early effort of his to end up on the screen. When Oliver Stone came on board, he took pains to try and make peace with Tarantino.

But soon Stone and Tarantino had fallen out, too. Because Tarantino didn't like the changes Stone was making to his screenplay.

"I've talked to actors who've read both your script and mine," Tarantino told him, "and they say mine is better."

"Quite diplomatically, Oliver responded that he'd led a different life than Quentin, and his moviemaking was an attempt to come to terms with the real violence he'd experienced... Of course he was going to make a different movie than Quentin."

The real violence in Stone's life came during his military service in Vietnam, which formed the basis for his early hit Platoon (an excellent film).

The fantasy violence in Tarantino's script comes from the killing spree embarked on by his protagonists, the outlaw couple Mickey and Mallory Knox, who would be played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.

Mickey and Mallory are hardly likeable, but the media circus that surrounds them in the story isn't much better, personified as it is by the obnoxious reality TV host Wayne Gale, rather wonderfully portrayed by Robert Downey Jr sporting an Australian accent.

Stone should get full credit for cannily casting Downey, who was still far from being a major star in those days.

But not as much credit as he deserves for choosing his lead actors. It's hard to remember now, but at the time Woody Harrelson was famous for being in the sitcom Cheers, and precious little else (he'd done one other movie).

And Juliette Lewis was known only as the daughter in Scorsese's Cape Fear.

Both are superbly cast, and are perfect for their roles. Whatever Quentin Tarantino might think, Natural Born Killers is a powerful and memorable film and genuinely both experimental and transgressive.

Among the changes to his script that Tarantino objected to were the new scenes written by Dave Veloz, which portrayed Mallory's abusive childhood as a nightmarish sort of sitcom, which seems to be beamed in from the Twilight Zone.

These sequences are wildly original and highly effective.

Less successful are the scenes Stone introduced featuring what Shane Black might have called "a wise old Indian."

As Stone himself quipped, "I always have to have an Indian scene in my movies." But this detour into Native American mysticism doesn't really work.

What does work, and quite brilliantly, is the music in the film — much of it chosen by Jane Hamsher herself, including the Cowboy Junkie's version of 'Sweet Jane' — and the cinematography.

The film was photographed by Oliver Stone's regular collaborator, the great Robert Richardson — who didn't like the script. and had to be lured into working on it by Stone's promise of creative freedom:

"Oliver agreed to let Bob go wild, and use whatever film stocks, rear-screen projections, video, and other visual damage that he wanted to inflict."

And the photography in Natural Born Killers, with its deliberately phoney back projection and extraordinary coloured lighting, is often awe-inspiring, one of the great strengths of the film.

And whatever else Tarantino might have thought of Natural Born Killers, he was clearly impressed by the photography.

Because he soon hired Richardson as his regular cinematographer (starting with Kill Bill), which he remains to this day.

(Image credits: Only two official posters at Imp Awards. The one with the devil's head is from Aliexpress. The nice one of the road turning into two snakes is by Maxime Archambault and is from Curioos. The one with the splattery red sunglasses on a black background is by A Deniz Akerman and is from Society 6. The one with the red Japanese style background is from Image Abyss. The superb high angle illustration where the swirling headscarf forms a skull is from Cute Streak Designs

The director's cut one by Pop Culture Graphics is from Amazon UK. The grey one with the heart and the shotgun is from Vincent Van Doodle. The blueish-grey comic book style one by Darin Shock is from Inside the Rock Poster Frame. The wonderful expressionist cartoony one in green and white and red is by Jakub Hrdlicka, is from Terry Posters. The black and white (actually brown and white) image by Jack Applegate is from Dead Slow. The one with cigarette-and-gun smoke turning into art nouveau lettering is from Pinterest.)