Friday, December 2, 2016

MORIARTY


Anthony Horowitz's MORIARTY (2015), is a Sherlock Holmes story in which the Great Detective does not appear. That's because the action in the book takes place after the "deaths" of both Moriarty and Holmes at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, an event that Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engineered to get rid of the characters. The death of Holmes was, of course, temporary, as Doyle eventually was forced to resurrect the sleuth due to reader demand.

Here, both Holmes and Moriarty have met their deaths in the treacherous falls. Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones, a Holmes protege, is on the scene to investigate, tie up loose ends and confirm the deaths, While in Switzerland, he meets Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, an American detective who has come to Europe with a specific task. American master criminal Clarence Devereux and his henchmen, have come to London to fill the void left by the death of Moriarty. Devereux intends to be the new king of crime in the London underworld and it's up to Jones and Chase to put a stop to his nefarious plans.

All that sounds pretty simple and straightforward but it's not. That's because MORIARTY is one gigantic magic trick, a feat of literary prestidigitation that Horowitz executes with remarkable skill and aplomb. For three quarters of the book he has us looking over here, when what's really happening is going on over here. It's a remarkable "gotcha" narrative moment that I did not see coming and one which I guarantee will take you by surprise.

Fun and fast paced, MORIARTY is the second Horowitz Holmes novel. Both his previous book, THE HOUSE OF SILK and this one are fully authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. and that's a genuine seal of approval for Holmes fans. MORIARTY would make one heck of a good movie if anyone is paying attention. It's far better material than either of the lame Robert Downey Jr. Holmes films.

Read MORIARTY and prepare to be amazed by a literary sleight of hand that will leave you in awe of master magician  Anthony Horowitz. Highly recommended.



Thursday, November 24, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 8


Legendary 1950s pinup/bondage icon Bettie Page was a mix of sweetness and sin. Her wholesome beauty projected the innocence of the girl next door (as seen in this photo), while some of her other photos depicted her in decidedly more naughty poses and situations. But even in her more outre photo sessions, Bettie always maintained a spark of fun and joy. It's clear she didn't take any of the bizarro stuff seriously. For her, posing in front of the camera (clothed or not), was always fun.

Bettie disappeared off of the pop culture radar after her heyday in the 1950s. She was re-discovered by several fans in the early 1980s, among them comic book artist Dave Stevens who used Bettie as a model for a character in his ROCKETEER series. Suddenly, Bettie Page was once again everywhere in the pop culture of the early '80s which is where and when I discovered her.

Bettie died in 2008 but her images will live forever. 

A THUNDER OF DRUMS


Contrary to the title, there is no thunder, of drums or otherwise, to be seen or heard in director Joseph Newman's routine 1961 western A THUNDER OF DRUMS. So, points off for false advertising. However, any western, no matter how generic, that has both Slim Pickens and Charles Bronson in the cast, automatically gets points on. Call it a draw.  Bronson gets more screen time than Pickens but it's always a treat to see these guys, two of my all time favorites.

Richard Boone stars as Captain Stephen Maddocks, the commander of Fort Canby, located deep in Indian territory. Boone is another one of my favorites. He was capable of playing both good guys and bad with equal skill. Here, he bears the weight of command heavily as four of his men and two white women have just been killed by a marauding band of Apaches.

Before he can address the current crisis, Lt. Curtis McQuade (George Hamilton) shows up at the fort, ready for duty. He's a brash young officer, full of spit and polish, with no military experience. Captain Maddocks served under McQuade's father and there was bad blood between them. Maddocks takes an instant disliking to McQuade and vows to make him learn how things are done at Fort Canby.

To add further spice to the mix, Lt. Tom Gresham (James Douglas) is engaged to be married to Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten). As it turns out, McQuade and Tracey were former lovers, a relationship that is rekindled at the fort.

Maddocks sends Gresham out on patrol with a small group of soldiers. When they don't return, McQuade is the only one left to command a patrol. He sets out to find Gresham and the Apaches. A battle ensues in which he proves himself a capable soldier, winning the respect of Maddocks.

James Warner Bellah's screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers. Although produced by MGM, it's definitely not one of their "A" pictures. The fort is clearly the studio back lot, the interiors were shot on a sound stage and there's little location work until the third act. Joseph Newman was a journeyman director who knew where to put the camera but he brings nothing special to the material. The supporting cast features Arthur O'Connell as a crusty old sergeant, a young Richard Chamberlain (who was probably under contract) and rock star Duane Eddy, who strums the guitar in several scenes.

Routine and predictable but enjoyable for the presence of Boone, Bronson and Pickens, A THUNDER OF DRUMS made for a pleasant enough time killer on Thanksgiving Eve.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

DEAD OF NIGHT


I've read and heard about DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) for years but had never seen it until the other day (thanks to a recent airing on TCM). This classic British horror film has a reputation as being a must-see film and, while I certainly agree that it's worth seeing, it's an uneven movie that doesn't entirely hang together.

That's mainly because of it's format. It's an anthology/omnibus (or portmanteau, if you want to get fancy) type of film comprised of several short segments stitched onto an framing narrative. An architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), is invited to the country estate of Elliot Foley (Ronald Culver) for a weekend of consultation on some upcoming renovations. When Craig arrives and meets the people already assembled at the estate, he has an unshakable feeling that he's been there before, in that very room with those very people. And he knows exactly what's going to happen next. All of this is, of course, impossible and is chalked up to either deja vu or a particularly vivid dream that Craig had the night before. Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a man of science and medicine, especially discounts any supernatural or paranormal explanation for Craig's behavior.

The guests set about recounting their own personal weird tales and it's here where the short segments begin. The Hearse Driver and Christmas Party sequences are short, "gotcha" type stories with twist endings that are seen from miles away. They're relatively tame and offer no real scares whatsoever. They're the types of stories that later appeared in the DC's mystery comics. Heck, they're mild enough to have run in any Gold Key mystery anthology title.

The Haunted Mirror sequence, with a longer running time, is a good one that anticipates and prefigures the type of stories that would find a home on the Boris Karloff hosted THRILLER television series of the early 1960s. The Golfing Story sequence (from a story by H.G Wells) is the weakest of all. It's more of a "Topperesque" fantasy, light-hearted and whimsical and frankly, a waste of time. It just doesn't fit into the overall tone of the film and the other stories. It could be cut entirely and the film wouldn't suffer in the least.

The final sequence is the best. It's the legendary Ventriloquist's Dummy story in which ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) is dominated by his evil dummy Hugo. It's material that would later be revisited in both the classic 1962 TWILIGHT ZONE episode "THE DUMMY" and in William Goldman's novel and film MAGIC (1978). But this segment did it first and arguably best in a story that is truly terrifying and makes up for the weaker stories leading up to it.

After the stories have all been told, Craig plays out what he saw in his dream only to find himself in an unusual situation. To say more would be to spoil the surprise narrative twist at the end of the film but suffice it to say that it's a good one.

DEAD OF NIGHT is definitely worth seeing, especially if you're a horror film fan. It's uneven but earnest and while not every story works, the one's that do, do so exceedingly well.


MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 7


There are a multitude of reasons why Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is one of the greatest films ever made. Claudia Cardinale, who stars as Jill, is just one of them.


Friday, November 18, 2016

THE WORST HARD TIME


I read the introduction, entitled "Live Through This", to Timothy Egan's THE WORST HARD TIME (2006) and uttered one word:

"Wow."

I knew, from those ten pages that I was in the hands of a master. When I finished reading all 312 pages of the book the other night, my first impression had been solidly confirmed. THE WORST HARD TIME is, quite simply, one of the best history books I've read in the last 15 plus years. It won the National Book Award and deservedly so. Egan brings a novelists' eye and ear for people and places and a historian's attention to detail in this gripping recounting of the Great American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

When the first settlers came to "No Man's Land" around the turn of the 20th Century, they found an immense grassland covering an area encompassing the Texas panhandle, western Oklahoma, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, and much of western Kansas. The high prairie had remained unchanged for years, providing fertile grazing grounds for bison and subsequently, hunting grounds for various Indian tribes including the Kiowa and Comanche. In less than forty years, it was all gone.

Homesteaders came eager to stake their claim on this land and grow crops, mostly wheat, and for a few years things were going well. Very well. Boom towns were springing up all over the place, record crops were produced, crops which fetched high prices on the open market, especially during the WWI years when European food production was stopped and American farmers stepped in to fill the need both at home and abroad.

But by plowing up the grasslands, the "nesters" planted the seeds of their own destruction if you'll forgive the pun. When wheat prices fell, tons of grain sat unsold and rotting. When a years-long, record setting drought and heat wave struck, what little crops remained withered and died, leaving the topsoil exposed and ready to be lifted up and carried by the wind to places far and wide. Dust storms became a part of life for people in "No Man's Land" and then, to add insult to injury, the Great Depression hit, plunging the nation into an economic tailspin that left the remaining "nesters" between a rock and a hard place. Many migrated elsewhere, especially California, but the Golden State offered no jobs or respite from the hard times. Many people were forced to stay on their land and hope for the best. Many, especially children and the elderly, suffered and died from the "dust pneumonia", a very real condition in which their lungs literally filled up with dust. They had no place to go, banks were foreclosing on their lands, they were forced to sell almost everything they had and yet, they held out hope that help would come in the form of rain and/or the federal government.

President Roosevelt responded to the needs of the people in "No Man's Land" by sending top soil expert Hugh Bennett to the High Plains to begin a series of soil conservation districts that would eventually return native grasses to the area, grasses which could hold down the dirt and keep it from becoming airborne. But he faced a tough challenge in getting everyone to buy in to his plan.

Egan recounts all of this in a gripping, compelling narrative that reads like a Biblical apocalypse. Many of the people who lived through those impossibly hard times must have thought that they were surely facing the end of the world. That fear was confirmed on "Black Sunday", Sunday, April 14th, 1935, when the largest dust storm in American history hit "No Man's Land".  A beautiful, clear spring day was suddenly turned from noon time to midnight, the immense wall of dust and dirt blocking out all sunlight, making it impossible to see your hand in front of your face. Anyone caught out in this massive, miles-wide swath of dust was in true, mortal danger. It was the worst dust storm ever during a period when dust storms were a part of daily life. Good God, it was bad. What could be worse?

How about a swarm of grasshoppers, coming in the form of another gigantic black cloud, this one abuzz with the sound of millions of whirring wings. The 'hoppers landed and immediately consumed crops, grass, trees, even wooden shovel handles. It must have seemed like the plagues of ancient Egypt were upon the land. Dust, locusts, deaths of first born children. What's next? Frogs? Boils?

Much of THE WORST HARD TIME is told in the words of the people who survived the experience. Indeed, that's the subtitle of the book "The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl." It's a grim, depressing story about the collision of capricious nature and human hubris. There are many victims in this story but there are also heroes. Ultimately, it's a hard lesson learned for everyone involved in what stands as the greatest long-term ecological disaster in American history. Those lessons are still vital today in this era of global warming and climate change. There's much to be learned and taken to heart in these pages.

I've read a lot of very good popular history books over the years by a number of first rate authors. Those authors include Stephen Ambrose, H.W. Brands, James Hornfischer, Nathaniel Philbrick, Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson. I can add Timothy Egan's name to that list.

Highest recommendation.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 6


While watching CONSPIRATOR (1949) the other night I was struck once again by just how incredibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor was. In the film, a routine spy thriller in which she co-stars with a much older Robert Taylor, Liz plays a 16-year-old American girl in London. She was actually 18 at the time. She's a bit older than that in the photo above.