Sunday 26 July 2020

Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Matt Helm was the American answer to James Bond — a spy empowered to kill enemies of the state. But if he's remembered now, it's all too likely to be in connection with the brief series of films that were made of the books.

These, too, were the American answer to Bond —  they sought to top the more extravagant and fantastical elements of the 007 franchise and they were terribly camp. My memories of them are of flying saucers and go-go dancers and Dean Martin looking none too convincing holding a submachine gun.

(There's a clip from one of these Matt Helm movies in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

But it's unjust to judge books by the films they spawned. The Matt Helm novels were the creations of Donald Hamilton, a writer who was similar to Elmore Leonard in that, while he would become a major figure in suspense fiction, he spent the better part of the 1950s writing Westerns. 

Indeed, his hero Matt Helm is also a writer of Westerns, living with his wife and kids in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a good place for a creator of Westerns to reside). He is peacefully settled into a routine and mundane existence.

But during the Second World War, Helm had been a secret agent — in fact an assassin. And when we first meet him, in the opening pages of Death of a Citizen, he is at a cocktail party where he recognises a beautiful woman called Tina, who had fought at his side  — "our world had been young and savage and alive, instead of being old and civilised and dead."

Tina gives him a wordless signal that she's still active and not to blow her cover, leaving Helm's head spinning with memories of the two of them "making love... in a ditch in the rain, while uniformed men beat the dripping bushes all around us."

To her credit, Helm's wife Beth immediately senses that something is up. But there's no way that she can stop what's coming. Before you know it, Helm is compelled to help Tina dispose of a corpse — an enemy operative — and they are on the run together across a memorably described southwestern wilderness.

Tina is sort of generically foreign and exotic — Hamilton can't seem to make up his mind if she's French or German, or what the hell she is. 
But she, too, is memorably described, both in retrospect as a "bedraggled fury" killing a German officer in the "wet woods at Kronheim" during the war, and in the present "stretching and yawning like a waking cat" on the first morning of their new adventure together.

But Matt Helm has no illusions about Tina. "She wasn't a person in whom one could place one's childlike and innocent trust."

He tells Tina, "I'm bound to be unfaithful to my wife before I'm through with you... Let's get it over with so I can stop wrestling with my conscience."

Tina says, "I do not think you are wrestling very hard." Helm shrugs and replies, "It's not much of a conscience."
Besides showing Donald Hamilton's gift for sardonic wit, the fact that Helm so casually betrays his wife is a bracing, cynical shock, and oddly elevates the book to a more mature and serious level.

What ensues is a well paced and entertaining thriller populated with vivid and often amusingly evoked characters, and possessed of a really terrific plot twist.

It also features some things I found quite hard to take, which is fair enough. In a book so full of violent action and killing there should at least be a sense of consequence and loss...

And incidentally the "death" of the citizen in the title refers to the fact that Matt Helm can never return to the routine normality of his old life after undergoing the events in this story.

To give you some idea of how impressed I was with novel, I am going straight online to look for the next book in the series. 

(I just discovered that Titan Books have laudably reprinted the entire Matt Helm series. I tend to hold Titan in high regard — they also publish my Vinyl Detective novels.)

(Image credits: The Hodder Fawcett/Coronet copy with the lingerie clad model loading the gun on the front cover — so objectified that her head has been removed — and the back cover with its rose and perfume bottle, are scanned from the copy I read. The others are mostly from Good Reads. With these exceptions... The earlier Coronet with the film frames on the cover is from Existential Ennui. The red Fawcett back cover is from Flickr. The entirely imaginary but very nicely done movie tie-in with Steve McQueen posited in the role of Matt Helm is from an excellent post at Hazard Publishing and is © 2014 N. David Bauer. The Fawcett white $2.50 cover is from Grave Tapping. The Fawcett black $3.50 cover is from the Nick Carter and Carter Brown blog.)

Sunday 19 July 2020

The Towering Inferno by Stirling Silliphant

I know, I know... posting about a Western, and now a disaster movie. 

Well, if you steered clear of The Towering Inferno all your life because it looks like a cheesy piece of mainstream Hollywood junk, then you're in good company.

Or, at least you're in my company, because I've been avoiding this movie since 1974 for exactly that reason. What changed my mind?

Well, the fact that it was written by Stirling Silliphant. 
Silliphant (odd name, I know) was a dismayingly prolific screenwriter, which makes it easy to assume he's just no good. In fact he's a distinctive and intriguing talent. 

He worked extensively in television on the ground breaking shows Naked City and Route 66, then moved to Hollywood where he won an Oscar for his script for In the Heat of the Night. But let's come back to Stirling Silliphant in a moment. 
The Towering Inferno came about when two major movie studios discovered that they had each bought similar novels about a massive fire ravaging a glass skyscraper...

The novels were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern and The Glass Inferno by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson. 20th Century Fox bought The Glass Inferno and Warner Bros. bought The Tower.

They had each spent a lot of money to acquire these books and were going to spend vastly more on making two virtually identical movies. This potentially bankrupting collision was avoided by one of the rare outbreaks of common sense in Hollywood history.

Fox and Warner decided to pool their resources and collaborate on making a single blockbuster film. So The Tower and The Glass Inferno were combined to form The Towering Inferno.

The picture was directed by John Guillermin, a Brit with an interesting track record (The Blue Max, Shaft in Africa) and produced by Irwin Allen, famed in his day for spectacles, schlock and science fiction (coincidentally, Scortia and Robinson who wrote The Glass Inferno also had backgrounds in science fiction).

Irwin Allen, whose career would be all downhill from The Towering Inferno, also takes a credit on the film for directing the action sequences.

The directing of the movie as a whole ranges from effective to incompetent. And in those action sequences which Allen was so eager to lay claim to, it's sometimes difficult to even know what is happening, at least in the DVD print that I watched.

The screenplay, however, is a different matter. It is ferociously proficient. Recalling his work on the movie in an interview Stirling Silliphant said, "You have to deal with the logistics of the physical action... what you are not doing is writing. What you are doing is juggling."

That is, juggling the large cast of characters. Interestingly, when he was planning the screenplay Silliphant even treated the fire as a character — "my favourite character in the script" — and gave it a name.

And the end result, despite the cheesy trappings of the movie, is gripping and unpredictable — you won't be able to guess who lives and who dies.

But Silliphant's writing was not just a masterful exercise in logistics, he also crafted some superb dialogue. The fire chief O'Halloran, played by Steve McQueen, talks about what death traps these skyscrapers are and how he's sick of "eating smoke and pulling out bodies."

Silliphant reminisced amusingly about dealing with the egos of his two leading men, McQueen and Paul Newman. (Look at the publicity material for the film, which has been cunningly designed so that they both appear to be getting top billing.) But he concludes,
"Despite this, The Towering Inferno did emerge as a powerful and engrossing film."
And he's right. But regarding the competition between McQueen and Newman, there is really no contest. Steve McQueen is easily the best thing in the movie, impressive — low key and believable and tremendously watchable. 

Admittedly his role as the fire chief was a hell of a lot more interesting that Newman's part as the architect... but it is Steve McQueen's naturalistic, understated, contained acting style which really triumphs, making Paul Newman look outmoded and cumbersome by comparison.

I watched this film expecting it to launch me on a mini-festival of movies written by Stirling Silliphant. In fact, it looks more likely to set me off on a retrospective of pictures starring Steve McQueen, a great actor and a major movie star in his day, now mostly forgotten...

At the conclusion of The Towering Inferno there is great satisfaction in seeing the fire finally snuffed out. 

But, for me, the big emotional moment was discovering that Jennifer Jones's cat had been safely rescued — even though the rescuer was an actor called O.J. Simpson...

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

Sunday 12 July 2020

The Tall T by Elmore Leonard and Burt Kennedy

I know, I know, it's not like me to be writing about Westerns... 

But I love a good Western as much as any other genre, especially when it's as well written and well directed as this little low-budget gem from cult film maker Budd Boetticher (pronounced "Betticker").

Budd Boetticher did an excellent job directing The Tall T but the movie's crucial strengths lie in a skilful screenplay by Burt Kennedy based on a strong and efficient little short story by Elmore Leonard.

Yes, that Elmore Leonard. Before he moved on to crime fiction he made a respectable career writing memorable Westerns.

In this case, a story called The Captives. The interesting names in the movie — Rintoon, Tenvoorde — originate with Leonard. Indeed Burt Kennedy is gratifyingly faithful to Leonard's material.

Basically The Tall T is the story of some bad men — very bad men — who want to rob a stage coach. But they get the wrong stage coach. 

Instead of the regular vehicle, which is set to be carrying a large sum in payroll cash, they accidentally swoop on an unscheduled coach, specially commissioned by a honeymoon couple. 

Also hitching a ride on the stage coach is hardbitten loner Brennan (Randolph Scott) and the doomed bad guys take him prisoner along with the honeymooners.

They're doomed because Brennan is a classic Elmore Leonard hero — intelligent, practical and ruthless.  

Having blown their chance at the payroll robbery, the gang of thieves led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) come up with the scheme of ransoming the honeymoon bride Doretta (Maureen O'Sullivan), who is the daughter of a rich man.

So they take Doretta and Brennan as their captives, hence the title of Leonard's story. Doretta's cowardly heel of a husband Willard (John Hubbard) has only married her for her money and is only too pleased to act as a cooperative  bag man between the kidnappers and his wealthy father in law. (Much good it does him.)

The Tall T came out in 1957. In an interview many years later Elmore Leonard said it was his favourite among his Western movies. "Richard Boone recited the lines just the way I heard them when I wrote the story." 

He was, however, quite dismissive of the material that Burt Kennedy added to the screenplay, padding his original story: "it takes about 20 minutes to get going."

But in fact these early sequences add enormously to the power of the film. Because it begins with Brennan riding into an isolated stage coach station out in the wilderness. 

Here he knows the station master and the man's young son, a typical cute freckle faced little Hollywood urchin. Brennan promises to buy the kid some candy.

But when he gets back on that ill fated stage coach he finds that Usher's gang have murdered the station master and his little boy and put their bodies "down the well".

This sort of horrific offhand cruelty is almost unprecedented in a Hollywood movie of the period. The Tall T has a succinct savagery which gives it real stature.

The original Elmore Leonard tale builds up a powerful feeling of dread as we wait for Usher's gang to execute Brennan and Doretta — they're going to kill them even if they get the ransom. 

The story exerted an almost sickening suspense even though I knew how it turned out because I've seen the movie (and, let's face it, because I know Elmore Leonard).

Of course, Brennan manages to turn the table on their captors, and in a surprisingly ferocious fashion. He gets a shotgun under the chin of one and pulls the trigger... "Don't look at him," he tells Doretta.

The Tall T is hard hitting, vivid, and years ahead of its time. Apart from the quality of the writing, directing and acting (Richard Boone is particularly fine), there's memorably beautiful photography by Charles Lawton which is pin-sharp on the Blu-ray.

This is one of half a dozen Budd Boetticher Westerns that are said to be classics. If any of the others are as good as this, I'll report back to you. 

(Image credits: All from IMDB.)

Sunday 5 July 2020

Don't Breathe by Alvarez & Sayagues

As part of my personal film festival in these strange days I've been revisiting some favourite movies from recent years, and I was very pleased to catch up with this one again. 

Don't Breathe is often described as a horror film. Indeed, the Blu-ray cover trumpets it as the "best American horror film in twenty years." But I wouldn't call it a horror film at all...

I'd call it a suspense thriller. For a start, there's nothing supernatural about it. It's the story of three young burglars in Detroit.

And that crumbling, semi-abandoned, post-industrial city — a sprawling and eerie urban ghost town — is one of the stars of the movie. 
Indeed, some of its images that remain most vividly in my mind are director Fede Alvarez's breathtaking, moody aerial shots of Detroit.

The highly talented Fede Alvarez comes from Uruguay. He made his feature debut with the Evil Dead remake and would go on to direct The Girl in the Spider's Web, another movie I admire. 

He also co-wrote the excellent script for Don't Breathe, with his regular collaborator Rodo Sayagues. It charts the story of Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto).

Incidentally, 'Money' is a bad choice of name...  at a crucial point in the movie Rocky sends a text about him and we don't know what the fuck she's talking about.

But that's just about the only slip up in this taut, perfectly plotted and beautiful thriller...

Anyway, Money is a scumbag criminal who is on this robbery spree for the money. (What else?)

So is Rocky — but with her, the money is a means to an end. She's a single mother and wants to escape to a better life for her and her daughter. 

Alex is providing them with entry codes for the alarm systems of houses, purloined from his dad's security company.

He is nominally in it for the money, too. But actually he's in love with Rocky, who is going out with Money, the scumbag.

The three of them have a fairly successful little burglary business going on, until they overreach themselves breaking into the isolated house of a blind man (Stephen Lang) who is supposedly sitting on a fortune...

If I tell you that the blind man is actually a tough and resourceful war vet, then you may be able to see how this home invasion could go badly wrong.

Indeed, in other hands, this would be the story of how a plucky handicapped fellow overcomes all odds, and triumphs over the young thugs who break into his house...

But thanks to the cleverness of Alvarez and Sayagues, this is completely inverted. 

The blind man is the menace in the story and we are choked with terror, desperately hoping that Alex and Rocky, at least, will be able to escape from his house alive.

Don't Breathe is expertly written and beautifully shot, with cinematography by Pedro Luque and music by Roque Baños, both also Alvarez regulars.

But perhaps the film's greatest asset is Jane Levy, who so movingly communicates Rocky's terror in this hellish situation she finds herself trapped in — you can see the fear in her face in the superb stills illustrating this post, by ace photographer Gordon Timpen.

Don't Breathe is a meticulously constructed roller coaster ride and when it finally concludes, leaving the sweat of fear to dry on us, all the loose ends seem neatly tied up.

So I would have said, don't hold your breath waiting for a sequel.

But in fact one is in production. And, since it is co-written by Alvarez and Sayagues again — with Sayagues moving up to director this time — I would suggest you make a note of it.

If it's half as good as Don't Breathe it will still be on my must-see list.

(Image credits: All are from IMDB where the superb stills are by the aforementioned  Gordon Timpen of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers, © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. And all images are the property of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and are for promotional use only. Okay, dude?)