Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

27 May 2020

Another Day in Paradise


I used to have a theory that the defining characteristic of a successful television series was the comfort factor. I don't think this is actually an original idea of mine, but likely somebody else's observation I've appropriated. If you take a show like Rockford, or Murder, She Wrote, or Magnum, it's a relationship, and you build on familiarity. It's about your engagement with Jim Garner, or Angela Lansbury, or Tom Selleck. Pause for a moment and consider that Columbo was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bing Crosby.

So if first we have character, then we have circumstance. To what degree is any given series situation? The term was coined to describe the half-hour comedies that came after Lucy, and Gleason's Honeymooners - even thought those shows were ensembles, and very much dependent on situation. In this case, though, we're talking situation drama, distinct from soaps. These are programming definitions, and not all that useful, except as shorthand.

Taking, again, Magnum for our template. Tom Selleck says the concept was a kind of James Bond party boy, beating women away with a stick, hot cars and vodka martinis, and Selleck was, No, been there, done that. How about beer and a Tigers cap, or the guy gets conked on the head a lot, he's even kinda slow on the uptake, from time to time? In other words, more like the rest of us. Then we begin to discard the other generic conventions. Higgins is an awful stiff, with only one note, the aggrieved and aging queen. John Hillerman clearly loses patience with this pretty early on. T.C. and Rick are there for what, protective coloration? This, too, goes by the boards. The dynamic of the show turns collaborative. It's character-driven.

Selwyn 
Catherine


Now, what if we turn this back to front? Suppose we take a situation that's character-driven, and keep changing the cast? This is Death in Paradise. It has some similarities to Murder, She Wrote, for one. It's not singularly gruesome, and mostly has a light touch. Nor does it break new ground. It's formulaic, and follows an established pattern. But consistency works in its favor. It's closing out the ninth season, and headed for ten.

Poole
Camille


The premise is a fish-out-of-water story. A cop from London, a detective inspector, is assigned to a somnolent Caribbean oasis. There's a lot of French heritage mixed in, but it's part of the British Commonwealth. (The show is an Anglo-French co-production, and actually shot on Guadeloupe and nearby islands.)

We have the expected culture clash, but the charms of the place turn out to be irresistible, and even the flintiest of hearts begins to soften. The other underlying commonplace is that our visiting fireman has the nearly magical ability to read the runes, and rescue clarity from the jaws of disorder.

Dwayne
Fidel


I know I'm not alone in thinking the first two season were the best, because of Ben Miller in the lead. He seems to have made a career of playing anal-retentive Limey twits or chilly Whitehall mandarins - for which see his iceberg performance in Primeval, opposite the indispensable Dougie Henshall. Cast out of rain-soaked England into the sudden sunshine of the New World, the guy never loosens his tie or undoes the top button of his collar. When he finally unbends enough to take off his shoes and socks and wade barefoot in the surf, it's as much of a character reveal as Dorothy Malone undoing her hair in The Big Sleep.

Humphrey
Florence



The third season introduced Kris Marshall, who hid his light under a bushel of socially awkward mannerisms, which never convinced me or won my heart. Both the way Humphrey was written and the way Marshall played him were enormously annoying. Here's the weird thing. I kept watching the show. Kris Marshall put me off but not enough to give up on the rest of them, Fidel and Dwayne and Camille. The concept held my attention, and the ensemble. And then another whammy. Putting up with Humphrey, and having lost Fidel at the end of Season Three, we then lose Camille, and Florence Cassell moves up a notch.

Ruby
J.P.



We finally unload Kris Marshall in Season Six, and Ardal Hanlon steps aboard. Big improvement. Except that Florence leaves. Two new constables have been slipped into the mix, Hooper and Ruby, but the real blow is at at the beginning of Season Eight, when Dwayne has disappeared, and without ceremony. By this point, the entire main cast has rolled over twice. The only stable support personnel are Don Warrington as the police commissioner and Elizabeth Bourgine as Catherine. Oh, and of course Harry the lizard, a still point in a turning world.


Jack
Madeleine



I just find it strange, quite honestly, that I've stuck with it. The locations are gorgeous, the hot colors, the laid back island vibe. There's familiarity, shrugging into a well-worn set of clothes, your expectation that it's all going to be set right. Terrific guest shots - James Cosmo, Adrian Dunbar, Denis Lawson, Clare Holman, Peter Davison.

Who wouldn't give up a week in the clammy UK and fly to the French West Indies? Maybe that's it, in the end.


I've got no explanation. I can only suggest that you pick up the DVD's at your library, or stream it on BritBox. You may well be as pleasantly surprised as I've been.

13 May 2020

The Tingler



Bringing in the wet dog, my pal Carole made a joke about Odorama - the provenance here being that she's a Baltimore girl, and Baltimore native son John Waters used a gimmick in his more-or-less mainstream debut, Polyester, that was a scratch'n'sniff card, smells keyed to scenes in the movie.


Lest you think this utterly without precedent, think again. John Waters, like Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, is very much a movie nut, and knows his history. Tarantino might champion Sergio Corbucci and a picture like The Great Silence, Scorsese is of course hugely influential in the preservation of significant landmark pictures, many of them marginalized or forgotten. It's no less serious of John Waters to find inspiration in the movies of a Russ Meyer or William Castle.


Russ Meyer was, famously, a schlockmeister. You could argue that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is at least on some level a masterwork, but it's still trash. Terrific trash, maybe. On the other hand, Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss it ain't. Meyer doesn't even come close. Sam Fuller made his share of exploitive B's, but he always had thorough discipline. Russ Meyer, let's be honest, was only in thrall to the great state of mammary.


William Castle is a different story. His career begins in the late 1930's, and lasts into the 1970's. A lot of it is pretty lame; some of it is eye-popping. He was on Welles' Lady from Shanghai. Twenty years later, he bought the rights to Rosemary's Baby, but Paramount wouldn't let him direct - they thought his track record with quick-and-dirty horror would hurt the word of mouth on an A-picture.


So, those horror movies. This is where Castle hit his stride. (He's actually contemporaneous with the glory days of Hammer gothic, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.) The first was Macabre, in 1958, and it was the first where Castle used medicine-show marketing. Along with your ticket, you got an insurance policy from Lloyd's of London: IF IT FRIGHTENS YOU TO DEATH - YOU'LL BE BURIED FREE OF CHARGE. The House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price, where the theater went completely dark and the spooky soundtrack started before the picture did. And a plastic skeleton dangled over the audience (Castle pitched this as Emerge-O).  Then his second picture with Price, The Tingler. The Tingler had an even better device: a few of the seats in the theater were wired for a slight tingling effect, which signaled that the parasitic creature was creeping up your spine - and at which point the ushers were supposed to scream. You see the pattern, here. Even as late as Strait-Jacket, his Joan Crawford ax-murderer picture, he passed out party favor tie-ins, cardboard axes smeared with stage blood.


My personal favorite of Castle's movies is Let's Kill Uncle, which came out in 1966, and is apparently not really considered part of the canon. Maybe because Castle often used name Hollywood actors whose fires were no longer burning bright, like Crawford and Vincent Price, those pictures have a certain camp acidity, and they're not to be taken entirely seriously. Let's Kill Uncle, however, has the great Nigel Green, deliriously over-the-top, as the retired SAS commando major out to  murder his nephew for the kid's inheritance. And the shark in the swimming pool.


Castle himself never tried Smell-O-Vision (used but once, Scent of Mystery, 1959) or AromaRama (Behind the Great Wall, same year), so the mischievous sniff test of Odorama John Waters releases in Polyester is more of an homage, Castle-esque rather than a direct application of the Castle merchandising touch. It's satisfyingly retrograde.


Clearly, there are advances which work. Sound, and color. Widescreen, or Dolby digital. 3D is back, not a novelty this time, but here to stay. Smell is of course evocative. They say the most of all our senses. It's probably genetically hard-wired. Who argues? Maybe there's a way to do this. Easy enough to make a theater seat vibrate, after all, to rumble underneath you, or even tip left and right with the G-forces, so you're in the cockpit with Maverick. On the other hand, we'd probably need warning labels, like a product containing peanuts. You get to choose, 3D or flat, subtitles or dubbed, earthbound or zero gravity, scented or fragrance-free.

[In a cute piece of stunt casting John Waters actually got to play Castle in the miniseries Feud, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford surrounding Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In an Oklahoma publicity appearance for Strait-Jacket, Crawford "decapitates" Castle.]

22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative



Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

*

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

*

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

08 April 2020

Prodigal Son



Here's a binge candidate I wasn't sure about, but after watching the pilot season, a couple of which I missed the first time around, I'm down with it. Miami Vice.

The show went on the air in 1984, but it didn't crack the Nielsen top thirty until the second season, which was arguably its most influential. After that, NBC began to screw around with its scheduling, and audience numbers fell off. The fifth-season finale drew 22 million viewers.

Watching it thirty-five years later is somewhat of a mixed bag. Certain aspects date badly. Not so much the fashions, as in the clothes, but the fashion of narrative tropes. (There is the matter of Marty Castillo - Edward James Olmos - wearing ties that are less than an inch wide, but that's very much in character.) More problematic is the predictability, that morally compromised good guys are unlikely to survive an episode, for example, or that any fleeting romantic interest is clearly doomed. And why are Trudy and Gina always going undercover as hookers, not even once in a while as, say, lawyers?  

On the other hand, once you re-acclimate to the rhythm and conventions of the series, you find yourself moving to some familiar dance steps. You forget that the color palette was a real departure, back then, the sun-bleached stuccoes and desaturated pastels during daylight, and the heavy, deep, silken darkness of night, streetlights a hot, retinal glare. The look is a character. That, and of course the soundtrack. A little Phil Collins goes a long way, but the use of music bridges as structural was transformative.

Granted, you're shooting as many as two dozen episodes a season, they're gonna be uneven. Some of them are, to be generous, no better than pot-boilers. And then, just when your patience is running low, they serve up an episode like "The Maze" (S1, Ep18), which demonstrates how strong the show can be, without its aggravations. The other thing this particular episode points up is that Philip Michael Thomas, who I always thought was the weakest link, is a lot better than you remember, or gave him credit for. "Evan" (S1, Ep22), also from the first season, has a showcase of a scene - as written and acted - between Tubbs and Crockett, that allows Don Johnson to take all the air out of the room with unexpected discipline: the guy's got serious chops.

The idea that Miami Vice was a game-changer is part of its mystique, and it was used to promote it at the time. Was it all that different? If you compare it to Hawaii Five-O or Mannix, or even Hill Street Blues, you'd have to say yes, because Miami Vice used a less linear narrative. It also moved the goalposts for Standards and Practices, for content, and what followed. It's hard to imagine Wiseguy getting past the network censors, if Miami Vice hadn't come first.

I don't want to stake too broad a claim. American commercial broadcast television has never been known for daring, and cable has changed the environment entirely. Not necessarily for the better. The primary instinct for the lowest common denominator, for audience share, is still dominant. But in a landscape that was often vapid and inauthentic, not to mention technically primitive (stuck following the restrictions of a three-camera set-up, like the soaps, establishing shot, close-up, reverse), the surface tension, the urgency, the angles and the edits, the information overload, gave the show an invigorating edge.

In retrospect, it's probably fair to say that we get the TV we deserve. There was in fact a Golden Age, with scripts by Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky, directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, and a huge stable of actors. But let's be honest, plenty of that live drama was crap. There was at the time, though, a kind of free-for-all, an open market for programing. Locals were by and large network affiliates, and they had to provide a lot of their own content.  Then the marketing challenge changed, and the Big Three dominated, and predictability and stagnation set in. I'd guess it lasted from the late 1950's to the middle of the 1970's, but that's also when PBS got legs. As the market fragmented, with UHF and then cable, the audience became more directly engaged. When there was no selection, and only three choices, ratings depended on audience fatigue, or indifference. The yardstick for the broadcast was least offensive - you didn't have to like what you were watching, but you liked whatever else was on less. It made for homogenized material. As a sort of object lesson, a show like Miami Vice could be seen as emblematic. It came along when we needed it.



25 March 2020

Sleeping Murder



"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
          - The Duchess of Malfi

My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.

Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.


This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.


Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.


Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.


The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.


There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.

11 March 2020

Agent Running in the Field



Like a lot of people, I always looked forward to the new John le Carre. I admit I found The Looking-Glass War unconvincing - for very specific reasons: it was my old operational area, as it was le Carre's, and I thought the premise was faulty. As for The Naive and Sentimental Lover, I've never managed more than the first fifty pages. But in general, what an astonishing run.

Then, after The Little Drummer Girl, we have (dare I say?) a falling-off. I don't buy into A Perfect Spy, despite the amazing portrait of Ronnie, and how clearly the book resonates with le Carre himself. He roars back with The Russia House, but follows up with three more duds. Tailor of Panama is a full-on score, and then four, or even six, passable novels that limp in. I know we're holding him to higher standard, but that's exactly the point.

So, let go of your apprehension. I'm here to tell you that Agent Running in the Field (one of his more clever titles, by the by) hits it out of the park. The old boy definitely isn't hanging up his spikes just yet.

I like the way he's been telling his stories, lately. The impatience with exposition, when he used to be more lapidary. Dutch Leonard once said, skip all that crap the reader is going to skip. It's unnecessary. If you trust you're in honest hands - and who more honest than Dutch or John le Carre? - oh, wait. Either one would cheerfully lead you down the garden path, and you know full well you'd follow along without a moment's hesitation.

Agent Running is in many ways a return to form, although he mercifully leaves out the domestic betrayals this time around, the defections in place, and concentrates on the operation, its collateral, and the product. The scope is necessarily tight. The guy himself isn't some old soldier, turfed out and weary, but mid-career and restless. You might wonder, in the moment, why he so credulously accepts a challenge from a younger self, when the kid so generously telegraphs his own disaffection, but the weakness here is vanity. In fact, when Nat, our hero, takes on the job he's offered, he clearly thinks it's beneath him.

Agent Running is really more Smiley's People than any of the recent books. For all that Karla used Ann to blind Smiley to the serpent Haydon, the narrative spine of Smiley's People is always Eyes On The Prize. Karla is looking for a legend for a girl. This is the single detail that drives the story. Smiley fills in the context. In the new book, context appears in the foreground, but of course misleadingly, because as always, the devil is in the details.

I don't know if you'll find this as interesting as I do. Legacy of Spies was elegiac and regretful, a swan song, the old boys revisiting past triumphs over a snifter, and not liking their history revised - although George Smiley had a bracing cameo, still with all his buttons and most of his teeth. Agent Running revisits not just Smiley's People, but Call for the Dead, le Carre's first book. It's a story about treachery, how not? That's le Carre's stock in trade. What's refreshing, oddly, is the very retrograde approach: sources and methods.


26 February 2020

The Missing American



I'm reading a thriller by Kwei Quartey called The Missing American.  New writer to me, but he's got half a dozen books under his belt. This one is about internet scams, and takes place mostly in Ghana - along with Nigeria, Ghana is pretty much ground zero for this racket. We get a fair amount of creepiness - the sakawa boys who run the swindles are themselves prey to priests who do weird shit to live chickens and task their acolytes with specific fetish contributions: have sex with a European tourist and bring me her soiled panties. It's garden variety repellent, but not horrific. They make the boys bulletproof, so they can't fail. The marks keep sending the boys money, and the witch doctors take their cut. Criminal hierarchy. 

I recommend the book, which I haven't finished yet. I strongly suspect it's going to get a lot spookier. Quartey was born in Ghana and brought up in the States. He's not going to give us the generic guys in the bone necklaces, stamping around barefoot, but what he's going to give us is the foreignness.

I'm reminded of, say, Gorky Park. The environment as character. The Missing American does this by sliding bits under the radar. The fact that different languages are spoken in Ghana, and a non-native speaker has a familiar accent, but clearly not his own. One-man-thousand. It's a mess of fried anchovies.

Martin Cruz Smith did this by presenting a place that was the next best thing to science fiction. You park your car, you take the windshield wipers off and bring them inside, because otherwise they'd be stolen by morning. Your sergeant comes into your office, you pick up your phone - a rotary dial - you dial it up to zero and stick a pencil in one of the holes. It blocks the signal, busy but not off the hook. KGB isn't listening to your conversation. Renko treats this as second nature.

The guy who did this best, to my mind, was Jack Vance. If you don't know his stuff, you oughta. He had a line in imagining very strange cultural shibboleths. And he managed to make them entirely convincing. A planet where half the world was dark for six months, and where there was only sunlight the other six. A society where scent, apparently the most evocative of our senses, has to be protected - at supper, we mask our faces, because smell may make us swoon, forbiddingly. The Last Castle, one of the more astonishingly anti-Asimov stories, AI as dystopian, or Animal Farm.

I'm thinking of environment as story. Another good Martin Cruz Smith example is Polar Star, the slimeline on the factory ship. It's very much the narrative. John Berryman famously remarked that Stephen Crane's The Open Boat began with the title. It begins, "None of them knew the color of the sky," but the real first line is, in fact, The Open Boat.  Where it happens.  

What's the shape of the story. I'm suggesting this isn't simply local color. The climate, and the weather. Rain or wind. Gators and snakes. Stony uplands, or quicksand. Vocabulary is climate. One-man-thousand. Those anchovies. It's all about the specific, or the remarkable.  

12 February 2020

Man Without a Star


Kirk Douglas. He wasn't the easiest guy to work with, by all reports. He was driven, and not a little of that leaks into his performances. His acting was muscular - not in the sense of beefcake, but the physicality, his center of gravity, the weight. And the restlessness, an inner engine, a furnace. Anger, certainly. He was trapped by it. If one thing defines Douglas, as a presence, it's that he seethed. He gave off heat like molten glass.



Like anybody else, he made his share of stinkers, but in the main, he brought something to all of his pictures. Most of them are solid, some are extraordinary. Once or twice he played a real skunk, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful. More typically, a guy who was fatally flawed, In Harm's Way, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Arrangement; most famously, van Gogh in Lust for Life. Occasionally, he actually got to be the good guy, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Seven Days in May, notably Spartacus, but by and large, his characters are ambiguous.



He made Man Without a Star in 1955. In brief, it doesn't sound like much. A drifter wanders into a range war, and sides with the little guys, even though he hates barbed wire and what it represents, the end of the Old West, getting crowded in by rules and fences. You've ridden this trail before. Excuse me, no.



The big reveal, when Douglas tears his shirt open to show his scars - roped up in the hated wire, and dragged - isn't simply physical. It's bottled-up psychic fury. This is Douglas balanced on the edge of psychosis, the buried past, the unforgiven injury, the animating event. Nobody is better at this, Like his Holocaust survivor in The Juggler, a much underappreciated movie, this is a guy who isn't simply bruised, but in torment. The thing about both pictures is that they're about redemption. The characters Douglas plays haven't always gotten a second chance. And the other theme in Man Without a Star is the promise of the distant horizon, of escape and reinvention.



There's a darker alternative, of trying to find rescue in flight, and when Douglas to all intents and purposes remade Man Without a Star in 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was 'heroic' on a more intimate canvas, black-and-white, composed in shadows. It was tragedy, absolutely and utterly formal. Douglas exec produced, and this darkness was no accident. He later said it was his favorite among his pictures.




*

Douglas was instrumental in breaking the blacklist. He might have exaggerated his part, but credit where credit's due. Just as it took a collective cowardice, and turning a blind eye, to sustain the blacklist, it took a collective will to beat it. Nobody did it singlehanded. Kirk Douglas did his share.

He hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus. (The novelist Howard Fast, who'd written the book, was himself a former Communist, turned apostate.) They had issues with the script. Trumbo wanted it to reflect the contemporary Red Scare. Douglas wanted it to be more universal. It was a message picture, yes, but not a sermon. Douglas fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and got Stanley Kubrick on board, his guy from Paths of Glory. Maybe he thought Kubrick was more likely to tug his forelock.

Didn't happen. Toward the end of the shoot, they had a conversation about how to credit the screenplay. Trumbo was blacklisted, the kiss of death. Kubrick suggested he himself take script credit. Douglas said fuck it, let's give it to Dalton and take the heat.  Heat they got. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did columns telling moviegoers to boycott such a Commie picture, but Spartacus ran the table at the box office. Otto Preminger followed suit with an on-screen credit for Trumbo, with Exodus.

It was the beginning of the end, no question. It was about money, of course. The blacklist was bad for business.

*

Kirk Douglas had an unquiet heart. A guy with a chip on his shoulder. He was a romantic, how not? And just below the surface, some deep and unknowable sorrow. He may never have made peace with himself, but now he rests.  


22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

08 January 2020

The Rap Sheet



An uncertain year, 2019, but a lot of good books came out. Plenty of brand names, Bob Crais and John leCarre, Alan Furst and Steve Hunter. Here's a completely arbitrary list of my own.



Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake.

A smart, tart, penetrating story about race and class, memory and regret, self-absorption, self-awareness, and the limits of transparency.



Chuck Greaves, Church of the Graveyard Saints.

If not exactly an eco-thriller, at least second cousin to Edward Abbey. A completely Western novel, and a meditation on how landscape inhabits us.



Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept.

Irresistible. A spy story, a history, a corrective to romance. The deep moans round with many voices. A book of echoes, unspoken sorrows, hope.



Don Winslow, The Border.

A fierce, furious, savage novel, a wounded lion dragging himself through a desolate waste, failing in everything but nerve. An absolute shocker.



Philip Kerr, Metropolis.

Bernie Gunther takes his curtain call. A look behind, the uncertain shadows before, a sense of irredeemable loss, and the hinges of horror creaking open under his feet.


A couple of books that weren't new this past year, but that I came on late. Mick Herron's Slow Horses and John Lawton's Black Out, both exemplars of why to start a series at the beginning. I also stumbled across Val McDermid's Forensics (2014), which is utterly indispensable, I kid you not.


Speaking of which, there was still nothing to beat the austere and windswept Shetland, all gorse and moody weather, or the sturdy and engaging Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez.



And best picture? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (I know, I don't like him either, but fair is fair.)

11 December 2019

Smiley



"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.