Showing posts with label Basil Rathbone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Basil Rathbone. Show all posts

15 February 2019

The Manual of Mindfulness: Thinking Like Sherlock Holmes


by Lawrence Maddox

Sherlock Ommmms
The modern concept of mindfulness seems as far from Victorian England as Optimus Prime does from Robbie the Robot, yet maybe it's most ardent fictional practitioner shot out of that era like a bullet from a Webley Bulldog Revolver.  Roughly 2300 years before the Victorian Age's namesake took the throne (and about 2420 years before The Kinks sang her praises in "Victoria"), the seeds of what we now call  "mindfulness" started with Buddha himself, passing into the west largely through meditation, yoga, and for me as a kid, the TV show Kung Fu.

The western medical community began picking up on these stress-reducing practices as an alternative to the drugs, booze, and all the other fun stuff we westerners use to to chill out. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of the first to do so and call it "mindfulness." "Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally," said Kabat-Zinn. "And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."

Basil Rathbone being iconic
Jeremy Brett being brilliant
So who is this Victorian-era Buddha I mentioned earlier? His black shag tobacco is still sprinkled all over pop culture, one hundred and twenty-two years after he first appeared in print. We just can't seem to get enough Sherlock Holmes, be it in print, radio, theater, TV or movies. Holmes has been played by actors as varied as Basil Rathbone (my childhood favorite), Jeremy Brett (my all-time fav), Hammer Horror heroes Peter Cushing AND Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Mr. Spock and Dr. House certainly share much of the Holmes DNA, as does last year's animated hit Sherlock Gnomes. I bet if you looked long enough, you'd find Holmes porn floating around the internet. Please don't forward any links.

What is it about Holmes that still fascinates us? The knowledge, the reasoning, the braininess of Holmes is what most consider Holmes' primary traits. Fans of the detective know there's so much more. Holmes' imagination, his ability to be present and live utterly in the moment, his awareness of his own thought processes, his mindfulness, are perhaps his greatest and most impressive gifts.

If Doyle meant the Holmes stories to be idle entertainment only, he was wildly successful. What if Doyle was also showing us a better way to live? Maria Konnikova thinks that's exactly what Doyle was doing, and she teaches us how to think like Sherlock Holmes in her fascinating manual-of-mindfulness Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (2013)

Maria Konnikova first caught the Holmes bug when her father read Holmes stories to her when she was little. She eventually earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia and has published extensively about science, yet she owns up to the role that reading fiction has played in her life:  "I think the best psychologists are actually fiction writers. Their understanding of the human mind is so far beyond where we've been able to get with psychology as a science."

Mastermind presents the two different ways in which people use their brains. There is the Watson system, which is our default system. The Watson system makes all the mental errors that Watson, Lestrade, and the rest of the bumblers make in the Holmes stories. The Watson system jumps to incorrect conclusions, is influenced by appearances, and isn't really paying attention, either to the outside world or to it's own mental workings.

The Holmes system will have none of that. By dent of effort, it takes the Watson system offline and installs a new operating system in our consciousness. "Checklists, formulas, structured procedures: those are your best bet," Mastermind explains.  Through practice, habit, and the pursuit of mindfulness, Mastermind claims that the Holmes system opens up a new world of thought: it forces us to be neutral in our observations; it cajoles us to be doubtful of first impressions and of our own minds; it commands us to be superior observers; it directs us to engage the world with all of our senses; it frees up our imaginations; it forbids multi-tasking and it demands focus on the job at hand.  Be present, it shouts, like a teacher to a student drifting off in class.

Mastermind backs up its precepts with science, and it can be a little dry. Having said that, I think Doyle (and Holmes) wouldn't have had it any other way. Konnikova digs into the science, but there is never any doubt that her inspiration for Mastermind is the fiction of Doyle. I really enjoyed Mastermind when it uses the Holmes stories to illustrate a point.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson and Holmes take turns deducing the biographical details of Dr. James Mortimer by examining the absent doctor's walking stick. Watson makes his usual mistakes, and Holmes "embarks on his own logical tour de force." Holmes goes on to deduce much about Dr. Mortimer's background, age, habits, ambitions, and pet ownership.

According to Mastermind, this scene "brings together all of the elements of the scientific approach to thought that we've spent this book exploring and serves as a near-ideal jumping-off point for discussing how to bring the thought process together as whole." Some of the thought-practices Konnikova garners from this episode are: being aware of our environment; the value of thoughtful observation; and allowing the imagination, maybe the most powerful tool in our mental arsenal, to tangle with life's problems.

It wouldn't be fair to boil Mastermind down to only one mental habit, but if forced to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, I'd say it's the same exercise that's at the heart of mindfulness. "Holmes' mental journeying goes by many names, but most commonly it is called meditation," Konnikova writes. "Holmes is neither monk nor yoga practitioner," Konnikova adds, "but he understands what meditation, in its essence, actually is–– a simple mental exercise to clear your mind."

Konnikova argues that meditation trains our brains to be more Holmes-like. She discusses studies that show that meditation boosts concentration, learning,  memory, and even brain density. Meditation "can help you create the right frame of mind to attain the distance necessary for mindful, imaginative thought."

I expect some eye rolls at this connection of Holmes and meditation, mindfulness, and anything that smacks of New Age mysticism. First I'd say that meditation has been moved out of the realms of eastern tradition and into medical practice by western science. Don't be put off if your MD prescribes a shot of meditation for what ills you, with a tai chi chaser.

The biggest complaint about Mastermind could be that it's taking Sherlock Holmes too seriously. Doyle conjured the stories while his medical practice was slow, and surely he meant them only as idle entertainment. An argument could be made otherwise. Holmes is, after all, largely based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a professor at The University of Edinburgh Medical School who Doyle assisted. Bell was a doctor, a scientist, a teacher, and Doyle's mentor.

Like Holmes, Dr. Bell is purported to have had the skill of being able to tell a person's job just by looking at him. Bell once said "...we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient." Perhaps Doyle is using Bell, a brilliant teacher, to create his own fictional teacher. After all, in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes did write a magazine article on his methods for the public edification. He even gave it the rather self-important title "The Book of Life."

Maria Konnikova calls your bluff

After Mastermind, Konnikova wrote The Confidence Game (2016). In it she discusses the history of con artists and the reasons why people can be so easily duped. It's a great resource for crime writers, and a kind of sequel to Mastermind and its mindfulness techniques. Though continuing to write, Konnikova is now a professional poker player. Considering her interests in Holmes, that should scare anyone with a handful of cards and secrets to hide.

Lawrence Maddox and Samuel Gailey
waiting to read at LA's Noir at the Bar
Thanks to everyone who not only blew off one of the lamest Super Bowls ever, but also braved a stormy night to hit LA's Noir at the Bar at Mandrake. It was a great evening with myself, Gray Basnight, Eric Beetner, Samuel Gailey, Nadine Nettman and Wendall Thomas taking turns at the mic, and Eric Beetner and Steve Lauden  hosting. Afterwards I somehow ended up clear across town at the Altadena Ale & Wine House discussing all things lit. See ya at the next one!

14 May 2013

The Double Dippers


by Terence Faherty

I've always been as big a fan of old movies as I am of detective fiction, as anyone who's read my Scott Elliott series knows. In fact, I first discovered many literary detectives through movies and only later headed to the library to find their books. I was almost always blown away by the source material, but I never lost my fondness for the films.

Somewhere along the line, I spotted the odd fact that is the topic of this column and that I'm offering, free of charge, to anyone stuck for a doctoral dissertation subject. It is that an actor who played one famous detective from popular literature back in Hollywood's golden age often played a second.

Mr. Bogart
The most famous example is Humphrey Bogart, who played both Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The success of Bogart's 1941 The Maltese Falcon certainly inspired his 1946 The Big Sleep. In the trailer for the latter, Bogart enters a bookshop and asks for something similar to the Hammett book. The helpful clerk hands him the Chandler. But Bogart by no means repeated his Spade performance when playing Marlowe. Where he was sardonic and cocky in the first film, he was stalwart and self-deprecating in the second. (Although, you might argue that this was just the way Bogart's screen persona had evolved.)

Mr. Powell
William Powell was a much bigger star than Bogart in the 1930s, though he's not as well- known today. When he is remembered, it is most often as Nick Charles (another Hammett creation) or at least as the man who's always standing next to Nora Charles, as played by Myrna Loy. But Charles was Powell's second detective persona. The first was S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance. Powell first played Vance in the silent-turned-talkie The Canary Murder Case in 1929 and then in three more films. The best is the last, The Kennel Murder Case, released in 1933, only a year before The Thin Man. Powell's Philo Vance, a well-dressed and serious clubman (often in gloves), would never be mistaken for his brilliantly freewheeling Nick Charles. But the Vance role was probably more important to Powell's career, as it lifted him out of the ranks of silent-screen supporting players and made him a talkie star.
Mr. Rathbone

In the middle of Powell's run as Philo Vance, a rival studio brought out Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, starring Basil Rathbone as Vance. Rathbone, as well turned out sartorially as Powell, was much stiffer in the part. He would only find career-changing success as a film detective nine years later, in 1939, when he was given the role he'd been born to play, Sherlock Holmes, in The Hound of the Baskervilles. More on that epic performance at some later time.

Mr. Cortez
Ricardo Cortez is pretty much forgotten outside of film buff circles, but he was the screen's first Sam Spade. His Maltese Falcon was released in 1931, ten years before Bogart's, and, for an early talking picture, it wasn't bad. Cortez was especially good. He was an actor who smiled and laughed a lot, and his Spade was even better-humored than Bogie's. (If you're thinking that Cortez's performance was also a blow for Hispanic actors everywhere, don't let his stage name fool you. He acquired it when he arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s, during the scramble to find another Rudolph Valentino. Up until then, Cortez had been a New Yorker named Jacob Krantz.) Cortez played a second famous detective in 1936's The Case of the Black Cat, taking over the role of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which had previously been played by Warren Williams. Cortez's Mason smiled a lot and acted like he'd actually cracked a law book or two.

Mr. Montgomery
There are further examples, like the aforementioned Warren Williams, who, in addition to playing Perry Mason, was yet a third Philo Vance, and George Sanders, who was both Leslie Charteris' Saint and Michael Arlen's Falcon (and good luck telling them apart), but I'd like to close with Robert Montgomery. When I was growing up, Montgomery was already fading from popular memory, being mostly known as the father of Bewitch's Elizabeth Montgomery. But old film lovers remember him as the star of classics like Here Comes Mr. Jordan and They Were Expendable. Montgomery also played two very famous literary detectives. He was another Philip Marlowe, in 1946's flawed but interesting Lady in the Lake. And earlier, in 1940, Montgomery had starred as Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey in Busman's Honeymoon. In both films, Montgomery was more or less miscast, but you have to admire the versatility of an actor who can play both Marlowe and Wimsey with even qualified success.

What does all this double dipping mean? What does it say about the film business or the actors named or the popular fictional detectives of the day? It's your doctoral dissertation; you work it out. And don't forget to send me a copy.

20 December 2012

We're No Angels


by Eve Fisher

"I'll say one thing for prison:  you meet a better class of people." 
               Joseph (Humphrey Bogart) in "We're No Angels", 1955.

Aldo Ray, Bogart, Peter Ustinov
Okay, so that's only true (with some exceptions) in movies.  But I'd cheerfully spend all day with these guys. I first met them when I was ten years old, back in the 60's, watching the 1955 Christmas Classic, "We're No Angels," a black and white TV set, all by myself.  I laughed until I cried, and I remembered lines from it for years afterwards.  It warped me for life.

"I read someplace that when a lady faints, you should loosen her clothing."  - Albert

Three convicts escape from the prison on Devil's Island on Christmas Eve.  There's Humphrey Bogart as Joseph, a maniac and master forger, Peter Ustinov as Jules, an expert safe-cracker, in prison only because of a "slight difference of opinion with my wife", and Aldo Ray as Albert, "a swine" of a heart breaker who only fell afoul of the law after asking his uncle for money (the illegal part was when said uncle said "no" and Albert beat him to death with a poker - 29 times).  Oh, and their fellow-traveler, Adolphe - or is it Adolf?

                       "We came here to rob them and that's what we're gonna do - beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes." - Joseph

Anyway, these 3 convicts need money, clothing, passports - and they find it all at Ducotel's General Store, the famous Ducotel's, "the one who gives credit".  Along with Felix (Leo G. Carroll), the most inept, innocent, and financially challenged manager in history, his beautiful wife, Amelie (played by Joan Bennett), and their daughter Isobel (Gloria Talbott, in full super virgin mode). 

"You really like us, don't you?"  - Amelie (before Sally Field)

You can see where this is going:  they get hired, they get interested, they get all warm fuzzy, they change their ways, everyone is happy.  Right?  Well, not quite.  Because the big fat plum in this pudding is Basil Rathbone as Andre Trochard, who owns Ducotel's, and has come to Devil's Island - with his sycophantic nephew Paul - to do the books on Christmas Day.  I love a good villain, and Basil Rathbone is as snooty, snotty, sneering, vindictive, scheming, insulting, arrogant, belittling, and generally nasty as they come.  ("Your opinion of me has no cash value."  - Andre Trochard.)  He makes Ebenezer Scrooge look like a warm pussy cat.


Andre Trochard - "Twenty years in solitary - how's that for a Christmas present?"
Jules - "That's a lovely Christmas present.  But how are you going to wrap it up?"

There's no Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, or Future in this one; no "God bless us, every one"; no Tiny Tim; but there's theft and forgery, fraud and deceit, murder and mayhem, all done with sharp, hilarious dialog.  Go.  Rent it now.  Pour a Chateau Yquem (you'll understand later) or its equivalent, pull out a turkey leg, and enjoy!  Merry Christmas!  Compliments of the Season!

NOTE:  This was Joan Bennett's last role for Paramount for a very long time:  she was in the middle of a huge scandal when her husband, the Paramount film producer Walter Wanger, shot and almost killed her agent, Jennings Lang, in front of her in the MCA parking lot.  "I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger said.  Ms. Bennett said Wanger was wrong, that Wanger was in financial trouble, that Wanger was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but there would be no divorce. (!)  Wanger got 4 months at the County Honor Farm and went back to producing movies.  (Now that's Hollywood, folks.)  Bennett got blacklisted.  Until, O happy day! Dark Shadows hired her as matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard and she got to play with vampires instead of agents and producers.  As always, life is stranger than fiction.  If only she had had an Adolphe...  or is it Adolf?

SECOND NOTE:  This movie has a ton of great lines, but I have to admit my 2nd favorite Christmas movie has my favorite line of all time - the movie is the 1942 version of "The Man Who Came to Dinner", and it's Beverly Carlton (a thinly veiled Noel Coward) commenting on his former costar Larraine Sheldon (a thinly veiled Gertrude Lawrence):
"They do say she set fire to her mother, but I don't believe it."  
I laugh my head off every time...