Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Film: A Face in the Crowd

125 minutes, B&W, 1957
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa

Andy Griffith. What do you think when you hear that name: Mayberry, Opie, Barnie, and Aunt Bea?; Matlock? If you're my age you might remember that he wrote and performed humorous monologues (What it Was, Was Football) and played Will Stockdale in No time for Sergeants. But between the confused country preacher watching a football game and the country bumpkin drafted into the Army, and the kindhearted, folksy, good humored, Andy Taylor and the folksy and cantankerous lawyer Matlock, Griffith demonstrated that he was also a serious actor.

In 1957, he delivered an outstanding dramatic performance as Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter whose rapid rise and fall in chronicled in A Face in the Crowd. Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, is discovered in a small town jail in Arkansas by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neil) who routinely visits the jail for personalities to feature on her radio program, A Face in the Crowd. His folksy talking and guitar playing make him an instant hit with the listeners who relate to him as one of their own and he gets a show. He speaks their language.

But underneath the "shucks, I'm just a country boy" demeanor is something darker. The article in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas (link below) describes Lonesome as feral and you see that in the wild animal reaction when Marcia wakes him up in the jail cell. His open mouthed braying laugh (see the image on the poster) takes on a sinister, animalistic tone as the film progresses.

Lonesome has an innate ability to manipulate people's emotions and actions. He is charismatic with an animal magnetism that makes him a powerful force. This gets him recognized and offered a television show in Memphis, Tennessee. From there he moves to New York to rejuvenate a bogus energy supplement and he gets a network television show, Lonsome Rhodes' Cracker Barrel.

Now in the big time, Lonesome's ambitions come to the surface. He is going to be a kingmaker, he's going to have the rich and famous coming to him, his endorsement is going to get candidates elected, no one will be willing to cross him. A banner in his penthouse reads There's nothing as trustworthy as the ordinary mind-of-the ordinary man. We the viewers know that Lonesome is anything but trustworthy or an ordinary man. Marcia knows he as to be stopped and exposes him to his listening audience. We last see him screaming her name from his penthouse, asking her to come back to him.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas makes several interesting points:
  • It (A Face in the Crowd) is significant for its prophetic theme of the cult of celebrity, the power of television, and the merging of entertainment and politics.
  • [It shows] the new medium of television's power to make or break a performer of politician.
  • It depicts] 1950s America as television replaces radio as the most powerful form of mass communication.

A Face in the Crowd has a scary significance today where the "merging of entertainment and politics" is very real and has become a substitute for genuine discourse and information.

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and culture: A Face in the Crowd.
Senses of Cinema: a face in the Crowd by Thomas Beltzer
Wikipedia article on A Face in the Crowd

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The White Gallows by Rob Kitchen

IndePenPress, 2010. 322 pages.

Author web site, The View from the Blue House
Promo trailer for The White Gallows

This review is based on a ARC of the book which will be available 12 June 2010.

Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy returns in The White Gallows, a traditional detective/police procedural. It's been six months since the events described in the The Rule Book and the hunt for the serial killer, The Raven, is stalled. Unfortunately for McEvoy, there is no relaxing and, if anything, he is more beleaguered than during the Raven case. The economic downturn has reduced the ranks of guarda, straining McEvoy's capability to effectively manage investigations
People are being killed faster than we can investigate them. We're at full stretch McEvoy says to the chief pathologist, Elaine Jones.

With two murders, a scam artist who drove a man to suicide on the loose, and a major case coming to trial, the last thing McEvoy needs is another case, especially one involving the death of elderly German billionaire, Albert Koch. The family and his personal physician are anxious to have a ruling of death by natural causes but an observant local sergeant thinks something isn't right. With his superior pressuring him to wrap the case up right away and the family of Koch stonewalling his efforts, McEvoy persists in his thorough investigation. He begins to uncover anomalies in the victims past that, unfortunately, increases his pool of suspects.

I enjoy a good police procedural. The interviews, the research, sifting evidence, spotting inconsistencies, making connections, the false leads, all make for a satisfying read. The story is also realistic in that detectives are seldom handling only one case and here we experience the frustration of McEvoy to allocate already stretched resources and monitor and advise his detectives assigned to other cases. When McEvoy makes a mistake he is still following a logical line of inquiry; I had no "What! No police officer would do that" moments.

The story moves at a good pace though perhaps too good. I found myself, late at night, setting up elaborate conditions under which I would stop reading, e.g. I will read until there is a section break that occurs on an even page number unless I am within 5 pages of the end of the chapter. You'd be surprised how long you can prolong a reading session this way.

Rob's two books are populated with good solid characters, even the ones you dislike, and I can see at least one being developed more fully and taking on a different role in Rob's next book. I appreciate the depth given to McEvoy. Here is a man trying to do good police work with superiors who have no love for him and at the same time trying to deal with the memories of his late wife and not doing very good at providing a stable home life for his daughter. The level of tension hits 11 at times. I hope that the next books sees McEvoy getting a good meal and a good night's sleep.

The White Gallows is another excellent contribution to crime fiction from Rob Kitchen. Highly recommended if you like police procedurals and traditional detective stories.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alone in the Crowd by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Picador/Macmillan, 2010, 225 pages.
Alone in the Crowd will be available from Picador 25 May 2010. This review is based on a copy of the book I received from the publisher.
It was copyrighted by the author in 2007.
Translated by Benjamin Moser

This book is one of my entries in the 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

UPDATE: Jose Ignacio Escribano has a link on his blog, The Game is afoot, to an interview with Garcia-Roza. While you are there, add Jose's excellent blog to your feed reader.

I'm always looking for a new author or series in the crime fiction genre that will capture my loyalty to the point where I want to read everything the author writes. That's how I felt shortly after starting Garcia-Roza's Alone in the Crowd. This is the seventh in the Chief Inspector Espinosa series set in the Copacabana Rio borough of Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. I normally want to read a series from the beginning for continuity but I don't feel that the previous six books were needed to follow the story.

Alone in the Crowd is a police procedural. Laureta Sales Ribeiro, an elderly, widowed pensioner, is struck and killed by a bus near Chief Espinosa's Twelfth Precinct in Copacabana. If she hadn't been to the station seeking to speak to the chief half an hour before her death it might have been written off as an accident but there is a vague suggestion from those standing on the corner with her that she had been pushed. Vague or not, that plus her visit to the precinct house is enough for Espinosa and his detectives to open an investigation.

Part of the pleasure of procedurals is watching the detectives collect facts, build time-lines, look for linkages, and connect the dots. When one person emerges as a common element their investigations shifts direction to one of finding proof. As they get closer to their person of interest, Hugo Breno, the story takes a psychological turn with the suspect subtly playing the detectives and Espinosa playing the suspect. The contest between the two men takes a sinister aspect when Esponisa discovers that there is a connection between him an Breno, one that takes him back to his boyhood. This is my favorite aspect of the story because of what it reveals about the way Esponisa thinks, how he interprets behavior, how he analyzes motivations. There is a parallel story involving Espinosa, his lover Irene, and her friend and possible lover, Vânia that further shows that Espinosa has an acute understanding of they way people think and act.

The setting of the book also contributed to my enjoyment. It is a pleasure when an author is able to convey a feeling of place. I know they have been successful when I find myself Googling the place names and pulling up Google maps. I'm embarrassed to say that if I thought about Copacabana or Ipanema at all it was probably the songs that came to mind. Now I actually have a sense of where they are when the author has characters walking down the Rua Barata Ribeiro or the Avenida Copacabana.

I highly recommend Alone in the Crowd to readers who enjoy police procedurals that focus on psychological maneuvering and understanding of character. The story flows easily and the characters are well formed and Garcia-Roza brings in their personal lives in a way that makes you want to learn more about them.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Old Dogs by Donna Moore

MaxCrime, 2010. UK ed. ISBN 978-1-84454-922-1. 282 pages. Cover with cake.
Busted Flush Press, 2010. U.S. ed. ISBN 978-1935415244. 250 pages. Cover with Lette and Dora.

The old dogs of the title are two jewel-encrusted gold Shih Tzu dogs on loan to the West End Park Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. These statues, originally from Tibet but now in a private collection, are worth around £15 million. An odd assortment of people are "interested" in these objets d'art but at the centre are La Contessa Letizia di Ponzio and her sister, Signora Teodora Grisiola, otherwise known as Letty and Dora, ex-prostitutes who have turned to grifting in their old age. They are in town running a long con involving horses when they read about the exhibit. Let's say that the intrinsic beauty of the statues is not what is drawing them to the museum. I'm not going to say any more about the plot; watching the different parties work their angles is part of the enjoyment of reading the story and I don't want to give anything away.

I was going to put Old Dogs in the screwball noir genre but then noticed that the blurb on the UK cover calls it a screwball caper. The two terms mesh well in this book and give you a pretty good idea what to expect: there are screwball characters, there is a caper, and there is a bit of dark nastiness. It all adds up to a fun read.

Donna introduced Letty and Dora in the short story anthology, Damn Near Dead: Old, Bold, Uncontrolled An Anthology of Geezer Noir. Donna's contribution, Pros and Cons, features the "Contessa" and the "Signora." It's published by Busted Flush Press and available from the Amazons and Book Depository.

Besides a fine story well told, non-Scottish readers will feel that they are learning a foreign language, Glaswegian. If I make it to Glasgow and someone calls me a mad rocket or a fannybaws I'm well prepared to respond.

In Old Dogs I also learned about a carbonated soft drink called Irn-Bru which the two neds in the story say is good for hangovers. I found a couple of bottles in a local supermarket. In spite of the blinding florescent orange color that earned me a skeptical look from my wife ("You're going to drink that!?") it's OK. The advertisements are quite funny so check out their web site.

I knew that Donna could tell a good story from her blog, Big Beat From Badsville. So to supplement your reading of Old Dogs, I recommend On Being Mugged and Half Mugged where you will learn about neds and boiler suits. Other fun reads are her Tales From the 62 Bus which gets a nod in the story.

Despite being a librarian, I don't often engage in "If you liked this..." recommendations (I think it's something we are supposed to do). In this case, however, if you enjoy Old Dogs then read Declan Burke's The Big O and its sequel Crime Always Pays. Likewise, if you've read Dec's books then get Old Dogs immediately.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get Carter, the film

Get Carter (1971) is the film adaptation of Ted Lewis' noir gangster thriller, Jack's Return Home and is #16 on the British Film Institute's list of the 100 best British films of the 20th century. It is available through Amazon (UK and US) and Netflix.

Works referenced:
Chibnall Steve. British Crime Cinema. Florence, KY, USA: Rutledge, 1999.
Chibnall, Steve. Get Carter : A British Film Guide 6. London, GBR: I. B. Tauris & Company, Limited, 2003.

Warning, there are spoilers.

Get Carter is number 16 on the British Film Institute's Top 100 British films of the 20th century.

Plot Summary: Jack Carter, an enforcer for a couple of London mobsters, returns to his home town (Newcastle) to bury his brother Frank who apparently died in an alcohol fueled automobile accident. Frank left behind a daughter, Darleen, his wife having left him some years back. Jack doesn't believe the official account and wants to find out who did his brother. No one wants Jack in town, not the local mobsters, not his own London bosses. His investigation is bad for business all around. "Sorry for your loss mate but let it go, it's not like you really cared anyway" is the sentiment of everyone but Jack. His investigation is pure hardboiled -- pain and intimidation -- and gets results but his actions have made him a liability. He is alone against powerful enemies.

Chibnall says that Ted Lewis wanted to help write the script but that director Mike Hodges
...wanted to write his own adaptation. He claims that his script 'ultimately bore very little relation to the book' despite the fact that all the major characters and most of the dialogue comes from Lewis' novel.
Having read the book and seen the film, I find it an odd claim to make. It is true that there are notable differences between the two works but Hodges is true to Lewis' gritty, noir, revenge thriller. In several instances he adds to our understanding of Jack's character though additional scenes.

Michael Caine is brilliant as Jack Carter. Really brilliant. When we first see him, his bosses are watching a porno film but Jack, in his sharp grey suit and tasteful cuff links, is aloof. Later, on a train, he could be a business executive, reading (Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely), fussily polishing the silverware in the dining car. But this is just a skin. Underneath, Jack is cold, violent, devoid of feeling toward others, and implacable in his focus to take out those who killed his brother: owner of the boarding house needs placating, sleep with her; need to find out who's looking for him, set up Frank's friend to get a beating and see who it flushes out; porn actress might have information, sleep with her; find out that the porn actress was in a movie with your niece, drag her out of the bath and stuff her in the trunk of her car; the car with the porn actress in the trunk gets pushed into the harbor, watch it sink without expression; want to set up one of the local gang bosses, inject a woman with heroin and dump her in a pond to drown. Several of Jack's more cold-blooded actions are not in the book but they develop our understanding of the kind of man he is.

Jack does show a bit of concern for his niece Darleen but it rather perfunctory -- want to go with me when I leave, no, OK, here's some money. It's pretty obvious the kind of life Darleen is destined for but Jack is indifferent.

The film would have been strengthened and made more coherent for those who hadn't read the book had some back story been provided in flashbacks. From the film we don't see why Jack and Frank were alienated: Jack didn't respect Frank because he wouldn't stand up to a local thug who pushed him around; Jack had sex with Frank's fiancee just before the wedding and Darleen might be his daughter and not his niece. The film shows that there is a history between Jack and Eric Paice but not its cause which is that Jack forced Eric to back down and let his girlfriend be tortured. Perhaps Hodges wanted to keep the film moving forward and flashbacks would have interrupted that flow.

There is violence in the film but by today's standards it is rather mild and often occurs off-stage. The female characters (except Darleen) don't fare well in the film and all are on the receiving end of much the violence which gives the film a misogynistic tone.

In his film guide to Get Carter, Chibnall says:
Get Carter (1971) is the finest British crime film ever made. Hold on: some truths take longer than others to become self-evident. It took almost twenty-five years for the critical orthodoxy to accept that the cult followers of Mike Hodges’ dark and downbeat tale of fear and loathing in Newcastle had some justification for their reverence. Clearly, the film had not changed, but something in the culture of its reception most certainly had.
It is at the top of my list of crime films. I recommend it highly to students of film noir and gangster films. You do have to have a high tolerance for a depiction of a dark and degraded life with no way out.

Get Carter was remade in 2000 with Sylvester Stallone in the role of Jack Carter, this time a Las Vegas thug. It is one of the worst remakes of all time and should be avoided. Stallone spends most of the movie with the corners of his goateed mouth turned down so tightly he can barely speak. Instead of a gritty industrial town the action is moved to Seattle, Washington, completely destroying the atmosphere of the original. Think fern bars. It even gets an upbeat ending: Stallone shaves off his goatee, takes off his tie and jacket, and drives off in a convertible. Ghastly.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis

Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970. 206 pages.

Jack's Return Home was also published as Get Carter.

Jack Carter is an enforcer for two London mobsters. He returns to his home town to attend the funeral of his brother Frank from whom he was estranged. He also wants to see to his niece Darleen, his only remaining family. The police say Frank was drunk on Scotch when he drove his car into an abandoned quarry but Jack doesn't believe it. Frank didn't drink Scotch and the explanation that he was upset over a relationship ending doesn't wash; drinking was not Frank's way of dealing with emotional issues. Jack's bosses don't want him there because they think he will upset business ties and the local mobsters have good reason not to want Jack stirring things up.

I learned of this book when I posted a question in the FriendFeed Crime and Mystery Fiction room. I wanted to know about early British hardboiled writers. One poster said that "Ted Lewis was the first truly British hardboiled writer, without a doubt." His books are out of print but my library was able to get me a copy. Besides adding to my knowledge of the history of hardboiled crime fiction, it was a very good read.

Jack's Return Home fits into the noir subset of hardboiled crime fiction in the same way as the writings of Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman, etc) are considered noir. Librarian George Tuttle's essay on noir describe noir as
... as a sub-genre of the Hardboiled School. In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics of this sub-genre are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction.

There is nothing to like or redeeming about Jack. He is a gangster, capable of sudden and extreme violence, who uses people for his own ends without any evidence of having a conscience. His main reason for avenging Frank seems to boil down to he's family, it's what you do. Revenge is the natural course of action for a man like Jack. The same with his nice Darleen who might be his daughter. She's sixteen but Jack doesn't have a problem with her making her own way though he will make sure she gets some money.

The town is unnamed but is generally accepted to be Scunthorpe, the site of a large ironworks. Scunthorpe has the iron and sandstone deposits described in the book and is near Doncaster where Jack stops briefly on his way home. I don't know what the real city of Scunthorpe is like, but Lewis' description of a gritty industrial town where the bar life consists of "singing til ten, fighting til eleven" or "waltzing til ten, fighting til one" makes it the perfect urban setting for a hardboiled story.

Lewis' writing style is lean but carries a punch. Here is the first paragraph:
The rain rained.
It hadn't stopped since Euston. Inside the train it was close, the kind of closeness that makes your fingernails dirty even when all you're doing is sitting there looking out of the blurring windows. Watching the dirty backs of houses scudding along under the half-light clouds. Just sitting and looking and not even fidgeting.

And later, describing the town:
On the surface it was a dead town. the kind place not to be in on a Sunday afternoon. But it had its levels. choose a level, present the right credentials, and the town was just as good as anywhere else. Or as bad.

Here is one of the local mob bosses:
Cyril Kinnear was very, very fat. He was the kind of man that fat men like to stand next to.

The story takes place in 1968 and he uses comparisons that were probably easily recognized when the book was published but which may send a modern reader to Google. For example, several times he describes men by their hair styles:
"Open-necked shirts and Everly Brothers' haircuts."
"His hair style was Irish Tony Curtis."
"His Walker Brothers' hair style flopped over his face..."
Very descriptive once you see a photo of who he is referring to.

One of my favorites is this:
"The girl called Joy brought me my drink. She was strictly Harrison Marks."
Here you need to know that Harrison Marks was a British glamour photographer active when the book came out. In addition to nude photography, he also produced short, 8mm porn movies. Those five words, "She was strictly Harrison Marks", conveys a distinct mental image if you have seen Marks' work. You can get to the official Harrison Marks web site from Wikipedia.

I've read some complaints that the story is too slow and not enough happens. Lewis does spend four pages describing a poker game where Jack is only an observer and the several pages he spends on a porn movie are tame by today's standards. But I didn't feel slowness but a building tension and establishing the dark mood of the characters and setting.

Though fifty years old, the writing and story are excellent and it should be read by anyone who appreciates noir stories where character development is important.

A movie starring Michael Caine as Jack Carter came out under the title Get Carter. It is an excellent noir film and ranked number 16 on the BFI top 100 British films on the 20th Century.