Sunday 26 April 2020

Man in Motion by Charles Williams

Here is another outstanding suspense novel from Charles Williams, with the emphasis on the word suspense

At times the tension in this book became so unbearable that I had to just set it aside for a couple of minutes.

Man in Motion (US title: Man on the Run) tells the story of Russell Foley, who has been framed for the murder of a cop.

It begins in headlong fashion, with Foley already on the run, jumping off a freight train into the dirt in the middle of a rain-swept night: "the rain was slowly washing mud out of my hair and down across my face."

"I was going round and round in an endless circle in a nightmare. I was a mechanical rabbit running for ever in front of a pack of hounds along a dark race-track..." 

Foley knows no one will believe his story and that if the police catch him he's done for.  

And Williams really puts us through the wringer in that short first chapter.

Then, from there, the tension only ratchets up...

At one point Foley has a close encounter with a cop. He escapes but is left, "limp and useless as jelly." So was I after reading it.

The story moves like a rocket, propelled by the life or death dilemma of the protagonist. But, fortunately for Foley. he is lucky enough to run across a classic Charles Williams heroine.

Williams writes women well, but even by his high standards Suzy Patton is an extraordinary character. 

She finds Foley hiding in her holiday cottage, which he has broken into, and wearing a blanket because his clothes are soaked.

She laughs and says he looks like a "displaced gladiator" or a "raffish Medieval monk who got caught in the wrong bedroom."

For her part, Suzy looks "as big and vital as a Viking's dream." Then she hears about how Foley was framed. "The hardboiled grey eyes were alight with interest."

She decides to help him and, voila, suddenly Suzy and Foley are a detective team!

Foley has a clue in the shape of a Latin femme fatale clue whom he believes really killed the cop. 

So Suzy gets herself ready to go out and track the murderess down, announcing, "The brunette being stalked by her only natural enemy."  (Suzy is a blonde.)

Man in Motion is enthralling, witty and thrilling. Extremely thrilling...

Just to complicate matters, as the story warms up, the real killers get on Foley's trail and try to silence him permanently, just in case he might be able to implicate them.

It's a classic double chase, even more intense than in The Sailcloth Shroud, exerting an inexorable hold on the reader from the first page.

And the writing is simply wonderful, with a strong line in sardonic humour.

The apartment where Foley had a fight with the late cop looks like the two of them "had been playing polo on bulldozers."
And when Foley asks if a drowned man was murdered, the response is, "Yeah,  unless he always went swimming with a Ford transmission tied to his leg." 

I feel I've hit the jackpot with my discovery of Charles Williams. You can expect to hear more from me about this forgotten but great American writer — soon.

(Image credits: The front and back of the Pan edition with cover art by 'Peff' — Sam Peffer — are scanned from my own prized copy. The Gold Medal cover — Man on the Run — is from Ipernity. The Mysterious Press ebook and the French Gallimard edition with the photo of the woman and the bathtub are from Good Reads. The Gallimard edition with the black and green cover is from Dialogues la Librairie. The Gallimard Serie Noir is from Amazon UK. The British Cassell hardcover with the rather crude cover painting is from Heritage Auctions.)

Sunday 19 April 2020

Malice by Sorkin and Frank

Aaron Sorkin is one of my screenwriting heroes. Scott Frank is no slouch, either.

They are two of the credited writers on Malice, a 1988 thriller directed by Harold Becker, also a considerable talent, who is best known for Sea of Love.

Becker describes the movie as being "in the Hitchcock vein", which indeed it is.

It was Aaron Sorkin's first movie job after the enormous success of his play A Few Good Men on Broadway had brought him out to Hollywood. 
Sorkin is very dismissive of the movie these days, calling it a "mess" and being rather negative about Harold Becker.

But Becker is much more generous towards him. "A wonderful writer," he says of Sorkin.
And Malice is far from being a mess. It is, in fact, a sly sucker-punch of a thriller which utterly deceived me and had me chuckling with pleasure. It's a small but genuine classic of the genre. 

At first the film appears to be a routine serial killer story. A predator is stalking the campus of a university in Massachusetts where Andy (Bill Pullman) teaches.

Meanwhile, allegedly charismatic surgeon Jed (Alec Baldwin) renews a high school friendship with Andy and begins to take rather too much interest in Andy's wife Tracy (Nicole Kidman).

All of these characters were uniformly cold and unengaging and I was on the verge of switching the movie off — but then, about a third of the way in, the whole serial killer story is abruptly wrapped up and we discover that the film is about something else entirely...

In fact, Becker refers to that entire self contained story as the "McGuffin" in this movie. You could also call it a red herring, distracting us from what is really going on.

And from this point on, Malice is simply great.

I don't want to say too much more, because I'm loath to reveal any of the splendid surprises in store for viewers of this gem.
But I will tell you that Anne Bancroft (Mrs Robinson from The Graduate) puts in a fabulous appearance as a drunken con-woman who schools Bill Pullman in the facts of life in the real world.  

"She's terrific," says Becker, "That was my favourite scene in the movie." Maybe mine too,
though there is close competition.

Nicole Kidman is fantastic and also has something of a jackpot scene — I agree with Becker's assessment that it's breathtaking. "That was good stuff," he says. "I enjoyed it." Me too, Harold.

And a young Gwyneth Paltrow features in one of her first screen roles, looking surprisingly
Junoesque with long tresses, in a sharp and memorable appearance as an entitled brat of a student who is not long for this world.

The movie has a top cinematographer in Gordon Willis — nicknamed the 'Prince of Darkness' by Conrad Hall for his shadowy compositions in films like The Godfather.

And the music is by the magnificent Jerry Goldsmith, who provides a classic score featuring beautiful and ethereal voices.

"It was a great group," says Becker. "Maybe that's why I enjoyed the film so much."

Having seen Malice, I immediately did two things — I bought the CD of the Goldsmith music, and set about writing this post to alert you to the movie.

Oh yes, I meant to say... the film also features a scary old house on a cliff above the sea which looks very hokey and silly and is unworthy of a movie which otherwise is an ingenious, audacious and deeply satisfying thriller. 

If you are stuck at home, at a loose end, with time on your hands (and I'm writing this in April 2020, when a large portion of the world is in exactly that position) I suggest you spend an entertaining hundred minutes or so with Malice.

(Image credits: The movie poster, creases and all, is from Imp Awards. The MGM DVD cover and the Czech movie poster are from the Movie Poster Shop

Anne Bancroft drinking with Bill Pullman is from Hotflick. Nicole Kidman with windblown hair is also from Hotflick. The portrait of Anne Bancroft is from Pinterest. Gwyneth Paltrow is from Fatal Attractions on Twitter. The other images are from my copy of the DVD, and the CD of the gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith score, which I am listening to as I write this. By the way, the back of the DVD cover is a breathtaking extravaganza of error: Jonas McCord, the third credited screenwriter is listed here as "Jonas Sorkin" — presumably Aaron's long lost brother. Scott Frank is "Jcott Frank" (sic) and poor Jerry Goldsmith is "Gerry" Goldsmith. Someone deserves a stern talking to...)

Sunday 12 April 2020

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? by George Axelrod

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is a fun title, but Who the Devil is George Axelrod? might be another good one.

Although it's not a question I would need to ask myself — I've always taken a keen interest in screenwriters, and Axelrod is one of the best, with credits including The Manchurian Candidate and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But it was as a playwright that he first made his name. In 1952 Axelrod had an enormous hit with The Seven Year Itch — another good title, and a phrase that has since passed into the language (meaning the point in a marriage when infidelity is likely to set in).

The success of Seven Year Itch swept Axelrod to Hollywood. It was such an overwhelming triumph that he feared it would paralyse him, and he'd never write another play.

However, his experiences in the surreal world of movie-making soon provided him with rich material for an inspired follow up...

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter was Axelrod's second outing on Broadway and another big hit, in 1955. It may surprise you to know that no one called Rock Hunter appears in the play.

That's because the title alludes to the kind of dumb, anodyne headlines you would get in those days in magazines for movie fans.

In fact, Axelrod's original title was Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson, a real movie star of that era. But threat of a lawsuit resulted in the (minor) name change.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is a gorgeous, hilarious, wild satire about Broadway and Hollywood. 

It concerns a blonde bombshell of a movie star called Rita Marlowe, played by Jayne Mansfield in the original play.
And based on Marilyn Monroe, who had become a friend of Axelrod (there's a nice photo of the two of them hugging, which I'll include here). 

Also involved with Rita is a playwright named Mike Freeman who has just had a Broadway hit and is bound for Hollywood, where he fears he'll never write another play...

But most of all this sardonic fable is about a little nerd of a journalist called George MacCauley, who has come to the beautiful Rita's hotel room to interview her, for one of those magazines I mentioned...

And suddenly he discovers that he has the power to make this gorgeous star fall hopelessly in love with him and, what's more, in the blink of an eye he has a million bucks in the bank and a stellar career as a screenwriter (adapting Mike's play for the silver screen).

These goodies are all provided for him by a literary agent named Irving "Speedy" LaSalle... at the cost of ten percent of George's soul for each wish he makes come true.

Yes, to my surprise and delight, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is not just a comedy, it's a supernatural comedy — a boisterous and merciless reworking of the Faust legend.

Through the agency (no pun intended) of Speedy LaSalle, George the nerd is swiftly en route to La La Land...

Where he will soon have one hand on Rita's shapely thigh and the other clutching a Best Screenplay Oscar, and only ten percent of his soul left...

George Axelrod — not to be confused with George MacCauley, the nerd on his way to Hollywood and damnation — writes like a dream. 

The quality of his work is divine, or "divoon" as Rita Marlowe might put it, "Absolutely divoon." Axelrod's parody of show-biz types is spot on, and remains accurate today.

And recasting the devil as a hustling agent is just one of the many touches of genius that characterise this play, and indeed much of George Axelrod's work.

Here is the devilish Irving LaSalle pitching a movie: "Picture if you will, a world gone mad — sipping vodka martinis and dancing the mambo in the very shadow of the H-bomb." 

Actually, when asked point blank if he is the devil, Irving replies "Nothing so exalted as that. I am merely the head of the Literary Department." 

This Irving "Speedy" LaSalle is inspired by — perhaps minus the whiff of brimstone — a legendary but very real literary agent called Irving "Swifty" Lazar who represented George Axelrod.

Indeed, the published version of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter contains the wry notation: "Ten percent of this play is dedicated to Irving Lazar."

But while Axelrod had his revenge on Hollywood here, Hollywood soon had its revenge on him...

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter was duly made into a movie, and they threw out Axelrod's play completely. Suddenly Rock Hunter, who was merely a name mentioned in the original, became a central character.

The only thing they retained from the play was Rita Marlowe, again played by Jayne Mansfield. Who could throw her away?

The movie, directed by Frank Tashlin, has its moments, but none of the ruthless, hilarious brilliance of this play.

(Image credits: The dust jacket of the Random House hardback and the inner cloth cover with the photo of Jayne Mansfield inset on it are both scanned by me from my own prized copy of the play. The drawing by William Auerbach-Levy of Walter Matthau as Mike Freeman, Jayne Mansfield as Rita Marlowe and Orson Bean as George MacCauley is from the Museum of the City of New York. The photo of Walter and Jayne on the couch is from Pinterest. The green program cover is from Amazon. The inner title page from the same program is from Collectors dot com. The photo of Jayne smooching Orson Bean is from the Hollywood Reporter. Orson looking worried and holding a notebook with Jayne on the massage table smiling is from IMDB. The (somewhat crooked, sorry) Bantam paperback cover is from My Book Heaven at ABE. The portrait of Jayne in the white dress is by Lou Jacobs Jr. and is © 1978 Lou Jacobs Jr. and is from MPTV Images via IMDB. The Blinn Theatre Arts poster is from their YouTube trailer. George hugging Marilyn is from the Divine Marilyn blog. The movie poster is from a little known site you might nonetheless have stumbled across called Wikipedia...)

Sunday 5 April 2020

The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams

Isn't a book an amazing thing? You can fit one into your pocket and, whenever you want, take it out and open it and be plunged into another existence... 

In this case, into an existence that will have your heart pounding the way mine's pounding now. Because Rogers has just escaped the bad guys.

Okay, let's back up a little. Rogers is Stuart Rogers. The time is 1959 and the place is Southport, North Carolina. Rogers has brought a sailing boat he's purchased back from Panama, to renovate and resell.

Rogers is the hero of a novel — a truly brilliant novel of suspense — The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams, a new favourite author of mine whom I discovered with a book called The Concrete Flamingo.

And Rogers is indeed a hero, not like the protagonist of The Concrete Flamingo who was a doomed anti-hero. Although there's a pretty good chance Rogers is doomed, too...

When the police turn up at the boatyard where he is working on his vessel, he assumes they're after an "exuberant type off the shrimp boat" nearby. 

But, no, they have questions about the man who helped Rogers sail up from Panama, and who died of a heart attack en route.

And that's not all. They take him to the police morgue where, among the "grisly filing cabinets of a city's unclaimed and anonymous dead," Rogers is shown the third member of his crew.

"If you had any breakfast, better hang onto it," the cops tell him. The man has been brutally beaten to death and dumped into the water off a pier, his body washed to the surface by the propellers of a docking ship.

And so begins a nightmare ordeal for Rogers, as he tries to avoid ending up as dead as the other two. The police want to know what's going on and advise Rogers to tell them, "before you wind up in an alley with the cats looking at you."

The trouble is, Rogers doesn't know what's going on. And soon he's on the run — from both the police and the bad guys — in a race against time, trying to find out. 
Before he ends up, terminally, in that alley with those cats. "It was a weird sensation, and a scary one, being hunted," he reflects.

The Sailcloth Shroud is ingeniously plotted and magnificently well written. Talking to a policeman who gives nothing back is "like pouring information into a hole in the ground." And Rogers feels "a quick ruffling of anger" — presumably like wind on still water.

Water, and boats, feature potently in Williams's prose: "the surface of the bay burned like molten glass in the sun... It had rained during the afternoon, a slashing tropical downpour that drummed along the deck and pocked the surface of the water... I stared out at the water with its hundred gradations of colour from bottle green to indigo."

The Sailcloth Shroud is a beautifully written and elegantly intertwined blend of mystery and thriller. And it's utterly agonising when the bad guys close in on Rogers.

I won't give you any spoilers, but the mystery here has a fascinating and satisfying solution and the book features a violent and cathartic climax which is powerfully evoked.

Perhaps, like Rogers, you will find "it would be a long time before I forgot the horror of that moment."
Another marvellous book by Charles Williams. You can expect to hear more from me about this masterful writer.

(Image credits:The grey Pan 'handcuffs' cover, front and back, are scans by me of my own beloved copy. The yellow Pocket Books 7756, with its misleading cover painting by Stanley Borack — sailing hunk, bikini chick — is from a nice scan by Wunderstump from their eBay listing. The red Dell D410 and the Italian Longanesi edition Mai Dire Mai ('Never Say Never') are from Good Reads. The French edition, Péri en Mer ('Lost at Sea' or 'Perished at Sea') is from Le-Livre on ABE. The white cover paperback — 'Harper Suspense' — is from Amazon UK. The Viking hardcover front cover is from Waverly Books' eBay listing. The spread dustjacket of that edition is from Antiqbooks. The English hardcover ('Crime Connoisseur') originated on ABE but the link, like so many characters in this story, is now dead...)