Friday, 31 December 2010

THE REAL MIKKE BLOMKVIST? JAN GUILLOU'S ENEMY'S ENEMY: A Forgotten Friday Entry

For years, whenever I would discuss Henning Mankell or later Stieg Larsson with Swedish friends or relatives they inevitably would suggest I start reading Jan Guillou, whose series of spy novels featuring Swedish intellgience agent Carl Hamilton were the country's most popular books. I also think it was Guillou's back I saw after he'd exchanged a greeting with Henning Mankell when I was interviewing Mankell in the lobby of London's Savoy; Mankell pointed and said 'that's the second-best novelist in Sweden.'! I finally came across a copy of Enemy's Enemy, the fourth in the series, originally published in 1989 and in English in 1992. The novel's translation was credited to Thomas Keeland, who apparently was actually Tiina Nunnally and Steven Murray working jointly; Murray later would translate Stieg Larsson, and unhappy with the published reslt, use the pseudonym Reg Keeland.

What is fascinating, given the Swedish enthusiasm for Guillou, is the idea that he turns out to be a real-life Mikke Blomkvist. If you recall Larsson's Millennium trilogy, it begins with Blomkvist, a journalist for a small left-wing magazine, being sent to prison for libelling a major industrialist. Jan Guillou was one of three people (his co-writer and editor being the others) sent to prison in 1973 for espionage, after publishing a series of articles in their small left-wing magazine. Even more interestingly, given that the Millennium trilogy turns out to be about exposing a small, unknown group within Swedish intelligence which has had Lisbeth Salander committed to protect their secrecy, Guillou's expose was of something called the 'Information Bureau', which turned out to be a secret agency within Swedish intelligence which was spying domestically on Swedish citizens suspected of being communists, subversives, or other leftish undesirables.

There are more parallels in the work itself. Enemy's Enemy is a sophisticated work of spy fiction, more concerned with political reality than thriller action. Although Hamilton is often called the Swedish James Bond, this novel at least carries a sort of realism, un-romantic, matter-of-factly violent, which reminds me more of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm, who is nominally of Swedish descent, and made me wonder if Hamilton's name was intended as some kind of hommage. The Helm books, if you don't recall, or only saw the Dean Martin movies, were very much in the Gold Medal mode, and Helm was the kind of efficient, everyday kind of killer one could appreciate working for a quasi-secret branch of intelligence. Guillou is also playful with his Swedish influences; there is a character in this book named Gunvald Larsson, who makes a point of disassociating himself from Martin Beck's colleague; there is also a character named Stig Larsson, which could be a name-check for the Stig who caused the big Stieg to add the 'e' to his name, but would be very prescient otherwise, as Stieg was still writing for small magazines in 1989.

Enemy's Enemy pits Hamilton against his fellow Swedish agencies as much as against the Russians, and eventually unites the ostensibly neutral Swedes with their Red enemies (there is much reference to a previous Swedish operation against Russian submarine intelligence in Swedish waters) chasing a turned mole. Guillou is excellent at Hamilton's time in Moscow, which rings true from my (admittedly non-spying but journalistic or business) experience in the city. He also plays the relationship between Hamilton and the Russians brilliantly, even skipping the chance for one final twist which would have made it a different story entirely, and may have been a more realistic, if less happy, ending.

But the tour de force of the book is an extended courtroom scene, just as it is in the third of the Millennium trilogy. Here Hamilton faces down a parliamentary committee, transforming himself from suspected abuser of Swedish democracy and human rights world-wide, to national hero. Guillou handles it extremely well, shifting the tension and the equilibrium between politicians and spies brilliantly. As I said, the focus of the novel is indeed politics, and this not only resolves much of the book's action, but reinforces and explains its reason for being.

As far as I can tell Enemy's Enemy is the only Hamilton novel translated into English; not even the first, Coq Rouge, appears anywhere. Guillou is in print in English with a trilogy of novels set in the Crusades, which is interesting because part of Enemy's Enemy is set in Beirut. I've picked them up, and will look at them sometime soon, because Guillou is the real deal. I just hope they did well enough, or the Mankell/Larsson phenomenon is strong enough, to get more Carl Hamilton novels into English print.

Enemy's Enemy by Jan Guillou (translated by Thomas Keeland)
Bloomsbury 1993, £10.99 paper, ISBN 0747515778
The Crusades trilogy, translated by Steven Murray,
published in paperback by Harper

Thursday, 30 December 2010

GOING DOWN TERRACE: BRIGHTON ROCK FOR A NEW CENTURY

Down Terrace is a darkly comic thriller that plays like theatre, specifically Fifties kitchen-sink dramas. Directed by Ben Wheatley, and written by him with Robin Hill, who stars as Karl, it's a low budget first feature that makes much of its limitations, in the much the same way, one comes to think, that the characters themselves do. It's set in Brighton, to which Karl has returned after his unexpected acquittal. Karl's living in his parents' home, wanting to know which of his father's gang has grassed him, wanting to get back into the family business, and not wanting to paint the sitting room, which seems to be his dad's main concern. Father Bill is played by Hill's father Robert, and he more than holds his own with the professional Julia Deakin as his mother Maggie. Much of the humour comes from the family setting; Bill is an unreconstructed hippie who's progressed from dealing drugs into bigger time crime, and his gang are played as a bumbling group of losers you'd find in your own local, almost like kids playing at gangsters, just the average psychopathic British family. It's sort of like Mike Leigh without the tenderness, and the corrupt local councillor and the bigtime gangster from London could have walked out of almost any Sixties or Seventies sitcom, soap, or crime drama. And there ought to be a part for Rita Tushingham in it somewhere. But it's also very modern, as the characters discuss their problems in various sorts of psychobabble, aware of some of their own limitations, or at least the defintions of them, not that it has any effect on their behaviour.

But there's another kind of theatre happening here, which is cued by Deakin's performance as the passive-agressive Lady Macbeth, Maggie, with plenty of Oedipal Gertrude thrown in. It's classic Elizabethan revenge drama at its most grand guignol, Titus Andronicus or The Revenger's Tragedy set in a Brighton Terrace. Karl has trouble adjusting to his return; he tries to put his life right but gets his girlfriend pregnant. Eventually, always surrendering to his need for revenge, and never getting it right, he accepts what seems the inevitable path--the film descends into bloody black comedy, which doesn't quite work, in the sense that it is a sharp jump in mood. But throughout the film, we've been given such jumps, with the characters often revealing hidden emotions, personal interpretations loaded with violence, and sometimes larded with humour. It's very well written, and well-acted, especially in the sense that the amateur nature of the case reinforces the ordinariness of this criminal world. It's a shame this film, which was generally well-reviewed, didn't get more attention when it was released; I suspect that, half a century after John Osborne and the rest, there's still that Brighton Rock-style disconnect; these working-class criminals are supposed to be supporting players in society's bigger story--the fact that these are, on the face of it ordinary English folk who turn out to be quite psychopathic when you dig below the surface may well have been something which, after a decade of horrible Lock Stock gangster-chic films made by posh types glamourising the lower classes, was too much a short sharp shock.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

MICHAEL VICK AND TUCKER CARLSON (NO RELATION)

I was on the BBC World Service's World Update today, discussing President Obama's praising Philadelphia Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving quarterback Michael Vick a second chance after he served 19 months in prison for running a dog-fighting ring and abusing his dogs. I was all set to talk about how Obama might have been trying to push his proposed expansion of the Second Chances Act in Congress (Lord knows enough Congressmen have got second chances, and more), and how Tony Dungy has mentored Vick, how Andy Reid has brought him along slowly and transformed his quarterbacking, and how both those coaches had personal tragedies with their own wayward children. I was also prepared to discuss the agenda of the animal rights advocates who use Vick as a way to generate publicity, and the right-wingers who use him as another club to beat Obama over the head with his own blackness. But the conversation was hijacked into that last direction by an unexpectedly virulent clip from Tucker Carlson, the Bow-Tie-That-Talks who plays an intellectual on Fox News.

Carlson (who is no relation to me and that is for real sure) said: 'I’m a Christian, I’ve made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances. But Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did in a heartless and cruel way. And I think, personally, he should’ve been executed for that. He wasn’t, but the idea that the President of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs?'

This is fascinatingly hypocritical on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. But let's start with Tucker's so-called Christianity, which sounds a lot more like a version that ends a long time before Jesus actually came along. What happened to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, cast the first stone--well, maybe he thinks it's up to him to cast at least a few stones. Executed for killing dogs? Maybe we just nuke the Dominican Republic and do away with cock-fighting there once and for all. More importantly, it's easy to forgive Tucker Carlson's kind of mistakes, like selling yourself to promote the rich and powerful by using hate and fear. But as I understood Christ's message, it was that you needed to forgive people for the really hurtful, awful things they do. That never sunk in very far with Tucker. Vick, meanwhile, has done the Christian thing and not responded in kind, though the old Mike Vick might have sent the sort of message to Mr. Carlson indicated on the right.

The second, more important message, of course, is the coded reminder that Barack Hussain Obama, as Fox called him, is, uh, black. And that if you ever vote for him again he's going to release hordes of his dog murdering fellow blacks on you--Willie Horton's mutant offspring stealing your daughters, lowering property values, and integrating your Christian academies. Michael Vick is a lot easier a target than, say, Henry Louis Gates, who was merely an uppity black man who wears a bow tie and bristled when accused of breaking in to his own house.

I understand the animal rights people who say 'if he'd done this to people he'd still be behind bars' or 'abusers of dogs and children shouldn't be free to walk the streets' knowing full well that he didn't kill people or abuse children, and that there is a difference between people and animals. I know they want to get their own back. Their job is to demonise a celebrity in order to keep their issue in the news, and someone's right to pay their debt to society and return to his previous life matters little. It is interesting that PETA haven't attacked Vick at all, but his doing public service ads for them might have something to do with that.

The Second Chance Act was enacted by the George W Bush regime, who then failed to fund or enforce it. Obama wants to do something about a prison population that stands at 2.3 million, or almost 1 per 1,000 in America, and 38 per cent of them are black. Americans make up a full quarter of the world's incarcerated, although we are only one-twentieth of the world's population. Prison building and staffing is one of the few growth industries that can't be farmed out to cheaper countries. Yet.

I look at my dog Rufus and my stomach turns at the thought of what Vick did to his dogs, but so far he has done and said all the right things to make one think that his stay in prison did what it is supposed to do, punish, yes, but help rehabilitate, like the new-look Vick we see on the right. The Tucker Carlsons of the world would be happier if the black population could be moved en masse behind bars, a kind of perverse domestic version of Liberia, and maybe the turkeys voting for Christmas who believe what they see on Fox is actually true could all get jobs guarding them. It would be a lot like the ante-bellum South, come to think of it, where the Obamas were quickly put in their place.

Meanwhile, the Eagles lost on Tuesday night, giving NBC a big audience and the NFL a new idea for creating more nights of prime time football: watch the weather reports and move the games. Read my nfluk.com Friday Morning Tight End column on New Year's Eve for more on that...

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

WALLANDER: THE MAN WHO SMILED

Kudos to BBC4, who are showing some of the original Swedish Wallander series, nine movies made by Swedish television (SVT) between 1994 and 2007, adapting all Henning Mankell's novels, and starring Rolf Lassgard as Wallander. BBC4, being English at heart, began in the middle, with The Man Who Smiled (2003) the sixth of the nine. It's a fascinating adaptation, both for the way it follows the novel and for the changes it makes.

The core, of course, is Lassgard as Wallander, and he plays the character much closer to his written persona, seeking no sympathy apart from the odd moment of comic appeal. He's a little too sharp-featured, perhaps;  Krister Hendriksson, who starred in the Swedish TV series, comes close too, but often has a bit too much twinkle and empathy, while Kenneth Branagh in the British version is far too jaw-grindingly existentially tormented, and far too dependent on his designer stubble to render the character with nuance. The BBC recently compared Wallander to a Bergman character (an easy assumption to make, since Mankell is married to Bergman's daughter) but there is a difference, in that Wallander's existence is totally wound up in his personal battle to put the world right. In that sense, he's post-Bergman, less concern with questions of why we are here as to what we do finding ourselves in this milieu. Lassgard's performance suggests someone swept up by the overwhelming pressures of his work, the Martin Beck influence coming through clearly. He looks a bit less solid than I imagine Wallander should, somewhat too soft around the edges, especially with his hair parted in the middle, but he makes up for it with the fiery temper that seems unware of who it might be offending, and the highly visible disdain for authority.

The adapters (Klas Abrahamsson and Michael Hjorth, who also did the screenplays immediate before and after this one) have changed the colleague with whom he has an ill-fated affair; now called Maya and played by the excellent Marie Richardson, she's perfect as the exasperated foil trying to balance the private Kurt with the police Wallander. In that sense, The Man Who Smiled was a good place to start, as it shows the relationship running almost full circle. The rest of the supporting cast is good, but not necessarily foregrounded as they are in the TV series. The first series of television shows benefitted from Johanna Sallstrom as Linda Wallander, and a strong ensemble with Mats Bergman seeming to absorb Wallander's dour side from Henriksson as Nyberg. The Branagh version keeps the supporting cast much more in the background, apart from the huge plus of David Warner as Wallander's father, who doesn't appear in the Swedish TV version, and not in this film. The adaptations are similar in style to the second and third Girl Who movies, obviously shot with the smaller screen in mind, but without too many concessions, and even, as we'll see below, eschewing the opportunity for a car chase of sorts!

Here Kerstin Andersson gets the school-mistress role as Wallander's boss, and handles it very well, while Christer Fant is brilliant as Svedberg, playing him something like a Gunvald Larsson from the Beck series, but a tremendous foil for Lassgard. Lars Melin, as Martinsson, plays the cop who'd rather be somewhere else, and Melin reminds me more than a little of John Pankow (best as William Peterson's partner in To Live And Die In LA).

The big changes to the book involve both the tycoon Harderberg and Wallander's pursuit of him. There is a sub-plot added with Harderberg's adopted daughter (and his IVF impregnation of her), and, more significantly, the ending is changed (if you don't want it spoiled stop reading now). In the book Wallander captures Harderberg after an airport runway chase and he is charged with crimes. In the film, Harderberg apparently escapes, but Wallander passes on his files to an investigative reporter. In a way, this is more Wallander than Mankell; the book highlights his obsessive pursuit of the wealthy industrialist who's beyond the law (a real nod to Sjowall and Wahloo's Murder At The Savoy, as I mentioned in my introduction to the Harper Perennial edition of that book) but the film also shows the limitations of his efforts, held back the influence of wealth and the politics of power, and how he goes outside the rule-book in order to get what British crime dramas would call 'a result'. And thus it ends, with Wallander celebrating with a little rock and roll, the one false note in the entire enterprise. Driving away in the car pounding the roof is more Baretta than Wallander; perhaps driving away slowly with opera rising to a crescendo? BBC4 is already showing a two-part version of Firewall and I'm hoping they go back to the earliest adaptations, because it's a well-done series with an intriguing Wallander.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

CHALMERS JOHNSON: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Chalmers Johnson is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. The importance of his critiques of American foreign policy lay in his straightforward analysis of its consequences, its real consequences, both from the victims of our imperial ambitions and to ourselves. After 911 he was accused by the lunatic right of excusing terror, which not only missed the point but also the fact that Blowback had been published the year before. Interestingly, although this Independent obit seems to be the only one thus far in this country, the Guardian ran a 'In Praise Of...' piece about him on their leader page. You can easily find articles and talks by Johnson on the web, please do.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

WES SANTEE: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Wes Santee, the middle of the three great Kansas milers who disappointed on the international stage (Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun were the others) is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Santee's an interesting story: he must have irritated somebody in the AAU pretty seriously, and those were the kind of boffins in blazers who were never shy about cutting off their nation's nose to spite their authoritarian face (this is known as the Brundage Syndrome). Between his abuse in childhood and his seeming abuse by the AAU, there would appear to be a story in there.

That Santee never did crack the four-minute barrier says something to me about his marching to his own drummer, but I could be reading too much into that. It would have been interesting to see what his career, and the history of the US mile, would have been like had he broken the 4 minute mark.

There's a small error in the text, an extra 0 got added to his time when he crushed the Olympic champion Josy Barthel (whose name also becomes Bartel in the next reference); it was 4:00.7, not .07, which means 4:00.5 was indeed his fastest time. They didn't clock to hundreths of a second in those days.

KLEID AND ALLEN'S BROWNSVILLE

Although everybody knows the names like Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lepke Buchalter, and Mickey Cohen, the overall place of Jews in organised crime has sometimes been overlooked. But Neil Kleid and Jake Allen's graphic novel picks a good starting place for tracing their centrality and importance: the tenements of Brooklyn, where immigrant Jews and Italians grew up side by side, strove to gain acceptance and establish themselves in business, and transformed the gangs of their neighbourhoods into the business of organised crime. It's an inner-city story: the big difference being that the Italians had a tradition of such organisation in their old country, whereas the Jews did not. But free of the shackled existence in ghettos and facing pogroms, the Jewish experience appears to have been one of taking advantage of relative freedom.

Which is what provides the dynamic tension for this novel: the way Albert Tannenbaum turns his back on his hard-working, honest father, and to a large extent on his faith, in order to make money as part of a larger, more successful family.Kleid does a nice job of integrating his story with real gangsters; it's especially good to see a prominent role for Abe Reles, 'Kid Twist', who was arguably the most brutal and most feared of Murder Inc, and who, when he started ratting out his fellows, may have marked the turning point for the Jewish mobsters, certainly as a career option. Kleid is also good on the relationship with the national syndicate, with the Capones, and between the various gangs; there is a parallel with today's drug gangs who work the 21st century equivalent of those neighbourhoods, far more viciously and violently today.

The story doesn't always flow, it's more a series of vignettes whose tension sometimes disipates, especially as Allie moves in and out of the picture. The conflict and torment of informing is probably not milked for all it could be either. But that's also down to Allen's art, which reminds me a bit of Guy Davis' on the Sandman Mystery Theatre. He gets the black and white atmosphere down, and is good on indicating relationships through his layouts, but within the frames he is much dynamic, and his figures sometimes lack enough individualisation of character. This is often a problem in a story which is largely about relationships, the constant betrayal of life in the mob, and the alienation from self which results from it. What is impressive is that when the story reaches its denouement, both writer and artist step up as well, and it delivers a punch.

Brownsville by Neil Kleid and Jake Allen
NBM Publishing $12.95 ISBN 156163459x

Saturday, 18 December 2010

BLAKE EDWARDS AND CRIME

Although Blake Edwards' British obituaries mostly mentioned Peter Gunn, if only for the Henry Mancini music, his television crime work deserves more attention. I wrote about the Brian Keith Mike Hammer in Crime Time 2.6, the Mickey Spillane special issue, and about City Heat in my Pocket Essential Clint Eastwood. It's nice to bring it all together here, because Richard Diamond and Peter Gunn were among my favourites when I was a kid, and impressionable...

In 1999, the National Film Theatre's Crime Scene festival honoured Mickey Spillane, and showed the rare 1954 pilot for a Mike Hammer TV series, written and directed by Blake Edwards. Edwards' got the job because he had created the radio private eye Richard Diamond, played by Dick Powell, which had cashed in on the wise-cracking hard-boiled quality which made his Philip Marlowe so convincing. Edwards' Hammer, Brian Keith, played the part with what I called at the time 'the right mix of violence and affability', tapping into some of Spillane's often-overlooked humour, and though the show wasn't picked up, the pilot became the basis of the Darren McGavin more tongue-in-cheek series a few years later, whose tone prefigured the Stacy Keach Hammer from its many different incarnations.

In 1957, when television asked for a Richard Diamond series, Powell wasn't interested, so Edwards cast David Janssen in his first major role. Diamond was a cool presence moving through a shadowy world, to which he was linked by 'Sam' the operator at his answering service, whom he called from his car phone! Seen only from the waist down, her legs, and voice, belonged to an equally unknown Mary Tyler Moore. But the real star was Henry Mancini's music, which began his long association with Edwards. When reruns were syndicated, they emphasised Sam by retitling the show 'Call Mr. D.' Diamond moved from NBC to CBS, and from New York to a less noirish Los Angeles, but Edwards had already reprised the character in New York with Peter Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, every bit as smooth as Janssen but with a lighter touch closer to Powell's, or indeed a small-screen Cary Grant. That's Mancini, on the left with Stevens and Edwards, on the Gunn set in the photo on the right.

Mancini's Peter Gunn theme has become an icon of 1950s cool, and fit perfectly with Gunn's base of operations, a jazz club called Mother's where his girlfriend, played by the lovely Lola Albright (see photo left), sang. With Herschel Bernardi providing a tired cop foil to Gunn's super-hip detective (basically the same role Ed Begley had played with Powell on the radio Mr. Diamond), the show ran for 114 episodes over four years. Edwards tried to cash in on the formula once again with Mr. Lucky, (1959) based on the 1943 Cary Grant film, but John Vivyan wasn't a Craig Stevens, much less a Grant, and it lasted only one season.

Edwards revisited Gunn twice, first in an underrated 1967 film, whose gender confusions prefigured Victor/Victoria, and whose climax, as Max Allan Collins has pointed out, was borrowed from Spillane's Vengeance Is Mine. But only Stevens returned from the original cast, and its 50s style didn't translate to the Sixties setting. In 1989 he wrote and directed a disappointing TV movie starring Peter Strauss as Gunn alongside Jennifer Edwards, his daughter.

Edwards made one other venture into period crime, writing the script which became the Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds film City Heat, set in early 1930s Kansas City. He was originally supposed to direct, but he wanted to cast his wife, Julie Andrews, in the role finally played by the much better-suited Madeline Kahn. Reynolds had not enjoyed working with Andrews when Edwards directed them in The Man Who Loved Women, and when he objected Eastwood sided with his co-star. Eventually, Richard Benjamin directed, and Edwards' screenplay was credited to Sam O. Brown, whose initials reflect the title of his 1981 film SOB.

Though Edwards remains thought of as a comedy director, his comedies are often less than satisfying. That's partly because they so often depend on the despair of the main characters, and partly because the casting and characters often lack subtlety but fall short of farce. I do remember being enthralled by Operation Petticoat when I was eight or nine at summer camp. But they lack edginess, as if the characters are being softened, despite their obvious faults; it's one of the reasons James Garner and Jack Lemmon (and Grant, for that matter) worked so well with Edwards, because they are essentially likeable; Lemmon's may be the best Edwards' performance, in Days Of Wine And Roses. But when you look, Garner is far better with Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Emily, which itself far outshone What Did You Do In The War Daddy; and he's better in Robert Benton's Twilight than in Sunset, which itself isn't as good as Hearts Of The West. He is the best thing in Victor/Victoria, where I find Julie Andrews' arch in the extreme, less funny than Grant in I Was A Male War Bride but with no real sexual edge to her cross-dressing.

But when Edwards worked in TV crime, his characters' flaws were minimal, and subsumed by their outward cool. They could move through a flawed world as, if not heroes, men to whom small problems were not problems. These characters stopped interesting Edwards when he got to the big screen; the 1967 Gunn is far more vulnerable than his 50s prototype. But you might argue he didn't quite know what to do with his flawed characters and their despair; like the Edwards who hurt himself trying to slice his own wrists, they're caught somewhere between angst and joy, somewhere he often can't define. Gunn's relationship with Edie reflects that: he's often cool to the point of detached with her, often barely smiling in the face of her affection. It's a peculiar sort of 1950's attitude, a bit of understatement somewhere between Hugh Hefner's Playboy and Mike Hammer with Velda.

This article will also appear at Shots (www.shotsmag.co.uk)

Friday, 17 December 2010

STEPHEN J CANNELL: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Stephen Cannell, who created the Rockford Files and the A Team, among other shows, is in today's Indy; you can link to it here. I wasn't a huge fan of most of his stuff, although Rockford is always pleasannt and I do have pleasant recollections of Wiseguy which, as I said was both derivative and highly influential. His career seems a pretty good reflection of the business itself, but better in the sense that he seemed to encourage good writing, particularly in letting characters have their rein, which played well in some of the lighter hearted shows. He was, it seems, genuinely admired and liked by fellow writers. Bob Crais emailed me (after I'd written the piece, and the quote didn't get added to it) that 'Steve was a genuinely good guy...with the enormity of his success, and his wealth, he didn't have to be and so many of them are not, but Steve was--a nice man.' I do wish that had been in the printed piece.

THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest on film suffers from many of the same problems it did as a novel: a need to bring so many plot strands and so much historical background together it sometimes flounders on its own exposition. Of course it's far easier to do in the book, because you have the time, and in reducing the book to a flowing thriller, particularly one in which the main character is hospital bed-ridden for much of time, the film-makers have had to lose a lot. In fact, they appear to take as given that their audience has either read the trilogy or at least seen the previous film, The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was made by the same team and basically appears to have been conceived as one long mini-series, re-edited into two feature films.

I said as much when I reviewed Girl Who Played (link to that here) back in August, after reviewing it for The Strand, that it appeared to be scaled for the smaller screen, and I think viewing the sequel confirms that. The first film, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was conceived by the different team of film-makers as a much more a self-contained story, with the thriller plot foregrounded and much of the rest left behind, but in those terms it worked, and the second-third films of the trilogy may be considered almost as stand-alone.

The biggest cut, of course, is the background into the secret intelligence group that ran Lisbeth Salander's father and others and initated its own political policies within the Swedish government. Larsson approached issues which resonate in Swedish political history, but which aren't really relevant to the basic Salander plot, so out they go in this film. I have commented many times on the similarity of Larsson's trilogy to The Count Of Monte Cristo, and it's here that the comparison is most clear--like Edmond Dantes, Lisbeth is imprisoned for knowledge which is is unaware she has, to protect people she doesn't know she threatens. That Mikke Blomqvist becomes her Abbe puts a slightly different twist on their relationship.

Of course much else is lost--if you hadn't seen the second film you would not even have caught the reference to Erika Berger's being married, which would explain why the spies might think photographs of her and Mikke were compromising. The subplot with her being offered a newspaper editor's job disappeared, instead Lena Endre is left yet again playing the authority figure who acts as a brake or rein on a more committed professional. That she's somewhat too old for the role makes her more of a mother-figure and less a sometimes-romantic partner, but she is so good an actress she carries it off.

Yet another of the novels' unlikely romances for Mikke is left behind, and the story doesn't suffer for that, and again there are only cameo appearances for the cop Bublanski, one of the novel's more interesting characters, and for Armanskij, whose security skills figure heavily on the page. There are so many characters within the intelligence, legal, and police world's that it is hard to keep track of just exactly who is who, and what they did, which is also a problem which having read the book helps solve.

Much of Salander's internet activity from her hospital bed is condensed, which is not a huge loss, but what is underplayed the most is the courtroom. Lisbeth's appearance, back in full punk regalia, is a nice set-piece, but the whole dynamic of the court, complete with a mystifying performance by the chief judge, who keeps nodding and making faces which are supposed to indicate either agreement or disagreement. Of course, given the Swedish justice system's behaviour in the current Assange case, it's not surprising they seem to bend over for the prosecution until they can't. Still, the condensing of the case for the screen loses much of the nuance, and what is lft in the trial is both obvious from a plot summary and questionable from a legal procedural one! The courtroom is central to Larsson's story, however--as you can see from the Swedish film poster--the idea that 'castles in the air' that Lisbeth blows up are the ideal of Swedish society, which only a few committed people (Mikke, Lisbeth's doctor, and some others) actually believe in. Much of Larsson's success stems from the resonance of that residual disappointment in many modern democracies.

But the lone hero triumphing is something of a Dumas cliche, if not one from films. In films, of course, you need yet another small car chase is squeezed into the story, complete with baby-carriage being threatened, but yet again Larsson triumph because of the Salander character, and Noomi Rapace steals the show at the end, with her simple inability to express her thanks in person. This film, and its predecessor, give you the skeleton frames of the novels, much of the fascinating background, and make the best characters play out as they do on the page. It works for what it is, and it would be very hard to expect it to be more--I think of Rosi or Oliver Stone as filmmakers who have approached deep conspiracies successfully in more depth, and I've wondered about historical shorthand turning into longhand in The Baader-Meinhof Gang or Carlos, but I'd be curious to see how this would edit into a mini-series.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

JEREMY DUNS ASKS IF IT'S REALLY A FREE COUNTRY

When I reviewed Free Agent, Jeremy Duns' first Paul Dark spy thriller in Crime Time (you can link to that review here) I said I thought a series which examined some of the shadowy geo-politics of the 1960s from a critical point of view would be fascinating--Free Agent dealt with both the Biafaran war and domestic intelligence plots against Harold Wilson--and Free Country has indeed continued down that path, with the plots against the Labour government now folded into a strategy of those agencies committing terrorist acts which will be blamed on communists and other domestic left wingers, thus itensifying the Cold War and neutralising left-wing political parties at the same time. Since one of Duns' major sources is the estimable Robin Ramsey, editor of Lobster (for whom I write, interest declared) I find these plot threads fascinating. And in light of the current Orwellian War of Terror, Free Country resonates with a moral for our times.

Much as I enjoy such enlightenment, I had also noted in that review that the strongest part of his story was the bit that highlighted the internal workings of MI6, specifically the hunt for moles and the question of whether or not Dark would be outed as a double-agent. Duns is brilliant when he has Dark matching wits with his fellow intelligence operatives, thinking on his feet and improvising, as it were. It works that he is in no way a particularly likeable character--in fact, his character often seems as featureless as Harry Palmer's, if more interesting. The blurbs had called him a cross between Bond and Bourne; really he's much closer to John Gardner's more tongue-in-cheek Boysie Oakes, and when the tension of his battles within MI6 is played as a sort of black comedy is when Duns' touch is deftest.

But as with Free Agent, Free Country resolves itself in what I called then a rock 'em sock 'em race against time, with Dark battling skilled intelligence operatives while hanging off the side of St Peter's in Rome, and more. Again, it works better in the black comic, nod and a wik sense, and that is where the problem lies. Put simply, the seriousness of the issues Duns approaches, and approaches well, sometimes cause the story to grind to a halt for explanation. In the midst of tongue-in-cheek adventure, that's a difficulty. Dark's problems with being unmasked, sinister plots to rework the political spectrum, and indeed, the building of a love interest, all require a slower build than Free Country, once it gets going, can comfortably afford. It's a fun ride with a deeper meaning, but it should be a deeper ride with a lot of fun. And with Dark ending up in Moscow, the possibilities for the third of the prospective trilogy are limitless.

One small but telling quibble amidst all the excellent research. The appearance of the word 'soccer' in a 1969 MI6 report would not indicate the influence or presence of Americans. Soccer is the word any upper or middle class intelligence officer would use to refer to association football, just as he might say 'rugger' for the type of football he would inevitable prefer. Look up the BBC's 1969 Soccer Annual if you doubt me!

Friday, 10 December 2010

ELIZABETH EDWARDS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Elizabeth Edwards is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. It was an interesting one to write, because of those ambiguities I cite at the top: there is a lot that can be said about public v private morality, about the place of spouses in political races, especially when those like Edwards, Hillary, or Michele Obama are successful in their own right, and often characterised as Lady Macbeths, about how our culture suspects the successful but glorifies the victims of tragedy, and about just how manufactured a candidate John Edwards was. But an obit was not the place for extended discussion of those topics. One other point to be made in passing was the role of Lauch Faircloth in the appointment of Kenneth Starr as the Whitewater Special Persecutor. Oddly, Wade Edwards had met Jesse Helms when he got his presentation at the White House, and Helms read his speech into the Congressional Record--then Edwards defeated Faircloth for the Senate. It was Helms and Faircloth who got David Sentelle his position, and cashed in by getting Starr appointed...the rest, as they say, was nauseating history

NORRIS CHURCH MAILER: SCOTT, ERNEST, AND ZELDA

My apreciation of Norris Church Mailer is in today's Guardian, a few days after the paper printed her obituary, you can link to it here. I just felt some recognition ought to be given to her performance (with Mailer and George Plimpton) in a reading of Plimpton's play 'Scott Ernest and Zelda', written with Terry Quinn, the fourth figure in the photo left. The Hemingway-Fitzgerald Paris thing was something I studied a lot in the 1970s, and I still recall how familiar many of the lines were, from letters and from A Moveable Feast, when I saw them perform in London (they also took it to Europe, including, of course, Paris. I enjoyed the night enormously, and obviously, remembered it fondly...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

GEORGE HICKENLOOPER: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of the film director George Hickenlooper is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Hearts Of Darkness remains one of the best docs about movies ever done, but his Hellman documentary is well worth seeing, and I found Reel Conversations, his collection of interviews with both filmmakers and critics, very useful.

I have to say that, although The Big Brass Ring does deserve a wider audience, it won't necessarily reward that audience. It occurs to me that Hickenlooper may have caught some of Orson Welles' creative insouciance -- there's a layer of artificiality about it which sometimes seems arch, though it does pick up some resonance when you consider his cousin John, who went from micro-brewery to governor of Colorado (and started out at my university, Wesleyan, the one just up I95, as Doonesbury would say, from Walden....

Friday, 3 December 2010

GEORGE BLANDA: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of George Blanda, kicker, quarterback, and inspiration for all us old timers who think they can still keep going, is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. Obviously he wasn't a priority, which is why it sat for almost three months before running, but Blanda was a good story. Not just for his longevity, nor for his status as a poster-boy for the rebel AFL, but also for his problems with 'Papa Bear' George Halas. Blanda's career as the most pass-happy of AFL QBs has been well documented, but I particularly like the little pot belly visible in his Oiler football card (right).

When Blanda joined the Bears they had Sid Luckman and Johnny Lujack at quarterback. Luckman remains the best QB the team has ever had, and one of the most underrated of all the greats--he's overshadowed by his contemporaries Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham, but while Graham was playing in the AAFC Sid was the best in the NFL for a few years.

I was reminded of Lujack's story when I broadcast the Notre Dame-Army game from Yankee Stadiuum recently. When the teams met in 1946, both unbeaten, the Irish were coming off two seasons where they'd been drubbed by Army, who were bolstered by the extra recruiting ability the war had brought. The '46 game was the only college game to feature four Heisman Trophy winners on the field: Army's Doc Blanchard, 'Mr Inside', won for the '44 season, Glenn Davis, 'Mr Outside' for the '45 season. Lujack would win the 1947 award (for his play in '46) and end Leon Hart for the '48 season.

The '46 game ended in a 0-0 tie, with Lujack making the game's most crucial tackle when Blanchard broke through the line into the open field. Doc, playing with injured knee ligaments, always claimed he'd likely have scored if he was 100 per cent.

Halas drafted Lujack in 1947, and he joined the team in 1948 along with Bobby Layne. That's Layne (no.22) Luckman (no. 42) and Lujack (no. 32) posed in Bear uniforms, and but for bad luck Lujack would have joined the other two (and Blanda) in the Hall of Fame. In 1948 he barely played QB, but he kicked and played defensive back, intercepting 8 passes. Halas never had an aversion to stockpiling talent, but hated paying it, so he traded Layne to the New York Bulldogs. In 1949 Lujack started seven games, threw for 2,658 yards and 23 touchdowns , and basically took over the job as the Bears (10-2 in '48) went 9-3. They went 9-3 again in 1950, despite Lujack injuring his shoulder playing defensive back. He couldn't throw much, and wound up with only 4 TD passes and 21 interceptions, but he ran the ball more, 11 touchdowns and a 6.3 yards per carry average.

By 1951 Lujack's passing was better than the previous year, but by now he was feuding with Halas just as much as Blanda. While Blanda played linebacker and kicked, Halas replaced Lujack as starter with Steve Romanick, and rather than continue being undervalued by an authoritarian coach, Lujack, still bothered by his shoulder injury and a knee problem, simply retired. He remains one of the great college quarterbacks, but merely an NFL footnote.

Blanda would have been a similar footnote had it not been for the AFL, and as for the Bears, they have laboured under the curse of Lujack, or Luckman, or Blanda, or Halas or whomever, and never found another top quarterback. They won NFL titles with Billy Wade and Jim McMahon, both good players and gamers, but the new Luckman has never appeared.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

MICKEY SPILLANE'S BIG BANG

The Big Bang is the second of Mickey Spillane's novels left in manuscript form and finished by Max Allan Collins. When the first, The Goliath Bone, was published, Max and I had a discussion (which you can link to here) about the reasons for my dislike of Mike Hammer in a contemporary landscape, and at that time Max suggested I might like this one, set in the Sixties, better. He was right.

In fact, the 1965 in which this novel takes place would seem a perfect setting for Hammer, with the contrast between the nascent love generation and Mike's generation mirroring the tension between fathers who'd been to war and sons opposed to Vietnam, between parents and children over the concepts of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Mickey makes the most of it--better here, I think, than my dim memory of his 60s Hammers, or indeed the Tiger Mann books, neither of which I liked as much as those first six Hammers, the ones that seemed to have been written in a white-hot post-war rage.

The Big Bang is full of Mickey anticipating trends that had yet to manifest themselves in 1965. It starts off as if it will be another of those somewhat lighter 60s version of Hammer, the ones that seem to anticipate the Stacy Keach Mike. There's a scene where Velda sets Pat Chambers up with a retired stripper that is amusing in a very 50s way. But it contains that element of self-parody that you don't get in the early Hammers, which are relentless in their self-belief. Soon Mike finds himself caught in the middle of a battle for control of New York's drug trade, and after he gets his digs in at LBJ you wonder if he would have been comfortable, just a few years in the future, to join Elvis in Nixon's War On Drugs. But it is, in fact,very funny at times; Mickey's comic touch is much underrated. It also opens with graphic up front violence, almost as if Mickey were anticipating Bonnie and Clyde, Sam Peckinpah, The Man With No Name and the rest--but perhaps he always did. It wasn't so much that society caught up to Mike Hammer's violence, it's that they accepted it coming from anti-heroes, and the point with Mike Hammer is that, violent as he is, he is a hero, just one willing to make pragmatic decisions.

The first clue that Mickey might be moving in more dangerous directions was some extremely poignant description of the decay of the city--at one point he describes 'architectural dentures', an accurate and direct metaphor which suggests the way the changing world meets the old world at just the wrong time. From that point the story changes, and Mike, the great revenger, finds himself being used a part of someone else's bigger revenge. There is another bravura scene in which Mike takes an LSD trip: one which taps deeps into his psychopathology. Again there's a slight element of self-parody here, but mostly it's Mickey getting back to that sense of story being released from the driving need of his character which made those early Hammers so great. I'm not giving much away, because the basics of the plot are fairly obvious, and don't need the denoument scene to explain them, but where Mickey takes them is absolutely incredible, as Mike in the end makes a decision which is pure Hammer, and the book's final lines are as jaw-dropping as the close of I, The Jury, and almost as apocalyptic as the movie version of Kiss Me, Deadly. It's as if, in one bravura moment, Mickey tapped into the basic Mike and gave him his rein again, and it's hauntingly powerful.

The Big Bang by Mickey Spillane with Max Allan Collins
Quercus, ISBN 9781849160414, £19.99

Saturday, 20 November 2010

ROBERT B PARKER'S PAINTED LADIES

I.T. is back in Boston, more hommage to my contributions to Maxim Jakubowski's Following The Detectives, for by coincidence I followed the twenty-year old re-read of George V Higgins with the 39th of Robert B Parker's Spenser novels. Painted Ladies is the first to be published after the untimely death of Robert B Parker, and there is a lot that is familiar about it. Starting with the moment Spenser is hired, by the somewhat pompous art professor, Dr Ashton Pierce, to protect him as he delivers the ransom for a stolen painting, one of the eponymous females of the title. I'm still wondering who the other painted ones were. Now, apart from Spenser's having a bit of fun deflating his pomposity, which by now is a trope for the detective, the set-up is straight out of Raymond Chandler, though none the worse for that. The buy goes wrong, of course, and having failed his client, Spenser sets off to get some justice for him, and to redeem himself.

From there, the tale proceeds along equally familiar Spenserian lines, including an ambush escape that Spenser foils, once Pearl II has sniffed it out, using the same strategy he once used in another book, something Parker himself tells us before the Spenser anoraks out there flood the internet, or now indeed the afterworld, with complaints. He also avoids another killing through sheer chance, which seems to be stretching things. Spenser again gets to visit a college campus, to prove he's still attractive to coeds as much as anything else.

The story also relies on a few coincidences that ring false. Would one character's daughter would be having a class with another character's partner in fraud? Would dog-owners met randomly in the park really just happen to know the best art expert in the same field Spenser is investigating? I was so convinced that must be a set-up I was shocked when Susan Silverman got through the book without being kidnapped! It sometimes bends itself in service of its wisecrackings dialogue (would a Middlesex DA really be unaware that Spenser had killed two would-be assassins?). There is a very interesting villain, who sadly doesn't get enough of a part in the story, especially because his role becomes obvious fairly quickly. There are nice bits for the cops Healy, Quirk and Belson, who would have deserved a novel of their own one day.

What really makes this seem like by-the-numbers Spenser, however, are the dual romances. Yes, Pearl's Public Gardens flirtation with Otto from Central Park is nothing more than another Parker lesson in love. I know people often say 'love me, love my dog', and I might even be willing to do that. But when they tell each other that 'maybe we are the two most interesting people in the world' or 'you and I have something few people in the world are able to get,' you want to shout 'maybe you're not, and maybe more people in the world aren't so damn smug! So I really do hope that Spenser's last word really does not turn out to be 'Otto!'


Painted Ladies by Robert B Parker
Quercus £18.99 ISBN 9781849131312

Note: a slightly different version of this review will appear at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk

Friday, 19 November 2010

GEORGE V HIGGINS' MANDEVILLE TALENT: A Forgotten Friday Entry

I picked up a copy of The Mandeville Talent in a charity shop recently. It's out of print, my original copy is in storage somewhere, but it was one of my favourites among George Higgins' novels, and I wrote about it recently, from memory, in my chapter on Higgins' and Robert B Parker's Boston for Maxim Jakubowski's Following The Detectives. I wanted to re-read the book, almost 20 years after it was originally published in 1991, to see how accurate my memory had been but also to gauge just how much two decades might have changed my appreciation of Higgins.

Turns out I had remembered the book well, and that it holds up rather better than I thought it might. The novel tells the story of Joe Corey, a up-and-coming New York mergers and acquisitions lawyer, whose wife takes a job as a professor at Mount Holyoke, up in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, near the town of Shropshire where her grandfather, James Mandeville, president of the local bank, was murdered just before Christmas 23 years earlier. Dissatisfied with his current life, Joe gets drawn into the unsolved crime, made to look like a suicide, and begins to investigate.

The novel tells two stories. One is the story of the crime, and the other is the story of how life actually works in the world where society still functions in terms of people. This was Mandeville's talent, to be the unprepossessing big-shot in his small town. Corey's volunteer efforts on the case impress a local DA, who puts him on to a retired investigator, Baldo Iannuci, who begins to take him through the few clues buried in the minutiae of the case. Meanwhile, Baldo initates Corey into the way a small town works, the give and take that makes it function. The two lessons interweave, of course, and it is through small things dropped casually into coversation, little facts, seemingly unimportant, that are the result of long-developed relationships, that Baldo and Joe begin to get close to the truth.

There is an element of the too-pat here, as one or two recollections come just too easily or coveniently, and occasionally you wish the voices telling the story were more distinctly individual. But meanwhile, Joe is learning why liquor store owners offer some customers discounts, and how real estate agents behave with their customers. 'The first principle,' Baldo says, '...is that people live up to your expectations. If you let them know you expect them to hammer you, well, they won't disappoint you--they'll do it.' It is a rough principle, but a fair one if you're treating people with respect.

Which of course is what Jim Mandeville never figured on. He had taken a loan to buy property and the fact that he'd guessed right and now his property was worth far more than the loan; in his world that wouldn't change the game. But for the man from whom he'd borrowed the money, the game was played differently. And it is that game Joe Corey discovers he is leaving behind. Higgins ties all the ends together smartly, his two strands weaving together perfectly, and you almost expect 'here endeth the lesson' to pop up somewhere.

The reason I wondered how The Mandeville Talent would hold up was the nature of the changes we've seen in our world since then, and the way the zero-sum game of gangsters, merchant bankers and merger and acquisition lawyers has penetrated right down to small town America. Higgins left Boston for this story partly because he'd investigated a similar small town murder, but more importantly because he wanted to explain society's workings at the micro level. I think he saw the world changing quickly, and needed distance from the Hub, and the State House, and bigger time politics, to say what he wanted to say. Ten years later he would revisit western Mass, in A Change Of Gravity, by which time his recounting of local politics was already elegaic. Higgins knew that the give and take of life wasn't always, strictly speaking, legal, or in the wider sense, fair, but it followed certain rules, it made a certain sense, and things worked reasonably well. I wish I could say the same now.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

GRAHAM HURLEY'S BORROWED LIGHT

When this series began, eleven novels ago, Joe Faraday was the featured character. But his Portsmouth police colleague, and sometimes rival, Paul Winter, joined him centre stage, almost by force of will. This reflected their characters, the bigger-than-life Winter played fast and loose with the rules, and wound up working for the kingpin of Portsmouth crime, Bazza Mackenzie. Meanwhile Faraday plodded on, as frustrated as Winter with the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the police business, but too honest and decent, too committed to his own idea of justice, to give up in frustration, like Winter.

Where Winter's character has always been defined by action, Faraday's has been one of metaphors: his seemingly isolated house, his bird-watching, his communication (or lack thereof) with his deaf-mute son. As in his police work, Faraday's need for truths and sureties in his personal life has been a problem, not least with his current girlfriend, the French sociologist Gabrielle. Borrowed Light begins with a car crash; Joe and Gabrielle are on holiday in Egypt, their driver is killed, his injuries are worse than hers, and by the time he wakes up Gabrielle has already become attached to a young girl from Gaza, who suffered terrible burns from an Israeli phosphorus bomb during the recent invasion. Joe returns to Portsmouth; Gabrielle and the girl follow eventually, and by now she wants to essay the almost impossible task of adopting the child.

Meanwhile, Joe is greeted back at work by a huge case, the murder of four people, their corpses found charred in the remains of a fire at an Isle Of Wight farmhouse. The killings involve drugs, and Bazza, and because of that Winter, but as the story progresses Winter, prodded by his former protege Jimmy Suttle, begins to realise he's had enough of the dark side of the street. Particularly as Bazza has decided to run for mayor of Portsmouth, and the press seem to be lapping up the image he's selling, of the rough local boy made good. It's another lovely reversal of the situation, but it's like a slap of reality when Bazza, while keeping Winter in the dark, reverts to violent form. But such realisation may be too late. It may also be too late for Faraday, who finds Gabrielle more and more distant, and, despite the thrill of the chase, finds himself less and less able to focus on his work.

Hurley builds a engrossing story, mixing his very accurate-feeling police procedural with the internal traumas of both Winter and Faraday, less reflections of each other than a sort of copshop yin and yang. Both characters seem somehow more real than most cops—eve though Faraday is very much in the depressive tradition of Martin Beck or Wallander, and Winter could come from Joseph Wambaugh or Trevor Preston. And they run up against a brick wall engineered by a madam who could come out of Raymond Chandler at his most fearful of cold calculating black widows.

It's all a heady mix, but the focus is our two main characters, and the ending, while not quite a surprise, is incredibly moving and well done. As well as ever so slightly ambiguous, if you want to read it that way. Hurley has always handled the complicated mix of police work, social analysis of Portsmouth (and by extension, the country—and the new 'coalition' government isn't spared), and the lives of his deeply-faceted characters. The Faraday and Winter series has done what John Harvey did with Resnick in Nottingham, or Ian Rankin with Rebus in Edinburgh, with increasing flair and deepening feeling. It really deserves a place in the British pantheon.

Borrowed Light by Graham Hurley
Orion £12.99 ISBN 9781409101239

This review will also appear at Crime Time, www.crimetime.co.uk

Thursday, 11 November 2010

ON SCREEN IMPOTENCE: WARREN BEATTY & PETER BISKIND'S STAR

When Star first appeared, the attention was directed at Peter Biskind's claim (established through a mathematical assumption that had no basis in statistical reality) that Warren Beatty had slept with 12,775 women. The number fell far short of Wilt Chamberlain's 20,000, but Beatty's might claim a triumph of celebrity quality over quantity. Some who argued against Biskind's exaggeration would point to the relative stability of Beatty's longer term relationships: opportunity argued against Biskind's multiplication of an arbitrary daily body-count. The numbers game got Biskind the publicity he sought, but served to distract the audience, including most reviewers, from the heart of the book, which, in its way is as penetrating an analysis of the workings of Hollywood as was his Easy Riders Raging Bulls. The British edition of Star was subtitled 'The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty', perhaps to cash in on Easy Riders, but the American subtitle was 'How Warren Beatty Seduced America', which is better, but really should have been 'How Warren Beatty Seduced Hollywood'. Because it's arguable just how much America itself has ever really been seduced by him, but inarguable that from the start Beatty has known who his real constituency was, and that constituency has bought was he is selling. Not for nothing was he on the cover of Time billed as 'Mr. Hollywood'. Beatty repeatedly seduced studio execs into ponying up money, even when his reputation for going over budget and over schedule and his remarkable inability to make creative decisions preceded him.

Beatty's film career is most often summed up in comparison to Orson Welles, the only other filmmaker to receive Oscar nominations as producer, director, writer and actor. Like Welles, his career is marked by remarkably few films, and his reputation built on even fewer. Bonnie & Clyde, a landmark which he produced as well as starred in, was Beatty's eighth feature film; he has appeared in only 14 in the 40 years that followed. He's directed only four: Heaven Can Wait (in which Buck Henry managed to hang onto a co-directing credit), Reds, Dick Tracy and Bulworth, and taken credit on five as a writer: Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bulworth, and Love Affair. But as Biskind demonstrates in great detail, it would be foolish to assume Beatty wasn't in some degree of control on virtually all his post-Bonnie films.

Beatty's career resembles his love life: the shining highlights of which are almost buried under an almost childish desire not to miss a single opportunity. Again and again in Star, we see Beatty's relentless and tireless ability to pursue what he wants, but his inability to decide what it is that he does want. He shoots scores of takes, miles of coverage, and relies on armies of editors to keep it all straight. He's not a director, he's a decider, says one observer. He drives screenwriters to distraction, becoming a co-writer by simply reworking, or getting them or someone else uncredited, to rework every word they write.

Beatty's reputation rests largely on seven films: Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy, and Bulworth. Some might add Dick Tracy. I'd include The Parallax View, but consider Heaven Can Wait a pleasant but fairly useless vanity remake which Hollywood liked because it showed them in the kind of light in which they like to be seen.

What stands out in all those canonical films is Beatty the actor plays relatively impotent characters upon whom fate plays itself out. They are often puzzled, if not befuddled, and looking for answers to questions they might not even be able to frame. Clyde Barrow is literally impotent and dies defenseless in an ambush. McCabe dies in a snowdrift, George just peters out, Joe Pendleton might or might not come back and be recognised, John Reed gets sick and dies, Bugsy and Bulworth are assassinated (as is Joe Frady in Parallax). Even Dick Tracy, like Beatty, can't make up his mind about women and families. Apart from Tracy, they are all cut off before they get to accomplish what they set out to accomplish, and if that isn't a metaphor for Beatty's film career I don't know what is.

Biskind isn't very interested in the forgettable parts of that career, and it's true few of his other films bear watching. Beatty started as beefcake on Broadway, interestingly by being taken up by Joshua Logan and William Inge, both of whom were gay. He gathered a Tony nomination, and his first film role came in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Inge's Splendour In The Grass, where he starred with Natalie Wood. Before that, however, he had played Milton Armitage, a sophisticated charmer, in six episodes of TV's Dobie Gillis show. Armitage is set up in opposition to the all-american Dobie, and I'd argue that was always the position he was in to the mainstream audience: America may have been seduced by the outward charm, but failed to fall for the overall package.

Biskind does discuss the notable failure of Mickey One, partly because Arthur Penn is so intent on making something faux new wave, but also because Beatty is so inept at playing a comedian: it asks him to give too much away. It's a problem that won't be overcome until Bulworth, where for once he's willing to let himself look ridiculous. Otherwise, we rightly pass over much of Beatty's career, though there is considerable discussion of the massive clunker of Love Affair.

When you get to the memorable movies, Bonnie and Clyde does what Penn failed to do in Mickey One. It also caught the popular zeitgeist, to the extent it even became a fashion trend, and of course its choreographed violence (which according to Dede Allen was down to Penn's insistence on taking out more and more) was hugely influential. Beatty drove both Robert Altman and Alan Pakula to distraction, but McCabe and Parallax are key films of the era, yet atypical of Beatty in their sense of deconstructing familiar genres, rather than improving on them. In contrast, Hollywood has most rewarded Beatty for a great gangster film that recalled the glory days of the Thirties, for a comedy of manners (Shampoo) which caught the change from the swinging 60s to the me-decade, for a remake, and for a classic epic (Reds) that for all its innovation (primarily the witnesses) and brilliance was more stirring in the sense of Dr. Zhivago than, say, Northern Lights, and wound up taking a Stanley Kramer-type safely liberal position on the Russian revolution. Dick Tracy might be seen as an attempt to revisit the fashion triumph of Bonnie and Clyde. He deserved more attention for Bulworth, whose ultimate failure may be its uwillingness to go beyond a safe liberalism in its ending, and which cynics might have suggested was simply Beatty's chance to get close to Halle Berry and as a side-benefit also reach a new audience thereby.

Biskind's tale is littered with stories of writers left exhausted and discarded (Paul Schrader, after 'winning' the same argument five mornings in a row when Beatty was supposed to star in Hardcore, simply walked away) but remaining (cf Robert Towne) tremendously loyal to Beatty and his charm. Beatty can be tough on his friends: Jack Nicholson's performance as Eugene O'Neill in Reds is one of the best of his career, but apparently there was even better stuff left on the cutting room floor. And when it all goes wrong, as, say, on Ishtar, it goes monumentally wrong.

Biskind is also honest about Beatty's personal life, showing his need to control relationships just as certainly as he controls his films. But in relationships, you can't always steal the credits, or get other people to do the crucial work to allow your ego its full range. Beatty wants always to have it all ways, and that he succeeds much of the time is a tribute to his charm, but even more to the strength of his ego and his persistence in satisfying it. Where this gets shown up is in politics, where Beatty has been at times a power-broker for good causes (most notably George McGovern). His efforts on behalf of Gary Hart, originally McGovern's campaign manager, came to naught because Hart wanted to 'be' Warren Beatty, but in the end he did a better job of that than Beatty did of being Hart. One might speculate what Beatty might have done actually running for office. In a country where lummoxes like Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger can move from the screen to high office, Beatty could not have been much worse. But he lacked the ability to commit himself to the quest. It's a strange inversion of his film career, where he's great at the quest and can't commit himself to the result.

Bugsy may be the best of Beatty's film roles. Barry Levinson seems able to avoid some of the worst distractions of his star, and in the part of the immensely charming gangster whose grandiose dreams fall apart and run afoul of the money men, Beatty again was playing himself. But he did allow himself a touch of the dark side as Siegel. It's almost as good as he would have been playing Howard Hughes, in a project he nutured for decades, but never got around to doing. He was beaten to the post by Martin Scorsese and an unconvincing Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hughes would have also been a facet of himself, especially as Hughes was also a film-maker with the power to indulge his every whim, and get away with it. That Hughes died alone and nutzoid, whereas Beatty simply moved to a domestic life years behind schedule, is ironic.

History may well see Beatty primarily as a producer, a maverick producer working outside the studio system while being dependent on it, and able to create the occasional memorable film. It will be kinder to his personal attributes which may have kept him from doing more and better work. One thinks of Clint Eastwood, who began as studio beefcake, and had his third late flowering as a director not happened in his 70s, might also have been recalled as an interesting film star whose production company kept him working for decades. Beatty, at his best, scored bigger than Clint; Unforgiven didn't have the impact of Bonnie and Clyde, though Sergio Leone might be said to have got to the slow-motion opera of violence before that film. Like Eastwood, you might argue Beatty has always been playing variations of himself, the true definition of a star, as opposed to an actor. But Eastwood's directing, you might argue, is best when he is ignoring his own vanity as a star, which includes films like Mystic River in which he doesn't appear.

With this book Biskind has provided the groundwork for eventual re-interpretations of Beatty's work. His legacy is likely to fall closer to Welles than to Eastwood, both for the work he did, the work undone, and for the personal life and elements of character that both defined him and stood in his way.

Star: The Life And Wild Times of Warren Beatty
by Peter Biskind
Simon & Schuster 2010, £17.99, ISBN 9781847378378

DAVID L WOLPER: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of David Wolper is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. I had the dubious privilege of watching the opening ceremony of the 1984 LA Olympics up close, through its rehearsals, when I was coordinating the host feed from the Coliseum, and that was why I used the word impressario--even if it were monumental in its tackiness. In my mind Wolper was associated with any number of worthy, middle-of-the-road, prestige docs which I saw in my teenaged years, rather than the huge hit mini-series which came after: 'a David L Wolper' production was the sign of a certain quality which was pretty much umatched on US TV at the time. I particularly recall The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich; I had read Shirer's book when I was 12 or 13 and the film lived up to my expectations.

But I hadn't realised it was Wolper who brought Superman to our screens when we were younger, nor that he had produced two excellent though often overlooked films I admired in the late 60s and early 70s, The Bridge At Remagen and Willy Wonka. I might be willing to concede that Fantastic Mr Fox is an equally good Dahl adaptation; I mainly wanted to distance the Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder version from the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake.

The Olympics seemed to bring out the worst in Wolper, as it does to many artists, though I have a fond memory of his Rafer Johnson doc. Visions Of Eight was notable mainly for its unintentional echoes of Leni Reifenstahl and for confirming that TV coverage of sport was already outpacing what film-makers could do. But to me it is always a sign when an obit turns into, at least in part, a catalogue of the person's work, that they accomplished a huge amount that was worthy of note, and Wolper certainly did do that.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

THOMAS COOK'S LAST TALK WITH LOLA FAYE

Lucas Paige is an historian, teaching and writing books that fall far short of the dreams he once had. His wife has left him, and he is in St. Louis, giving a reading of his latest disappointing book to a disappointing crowd of mostly disappointed people. Apart from one of them. Because after the talk, Lola Faye Gilroy introduces herself. The Lola Faye who worked for his father, at his father's unsuccessful little variety store, and whose husband shot his father for stealing her affections away. Luke's life was ruined in that moment, and he has always blamed Lola Faye. And she insists on talking with Luke.

Thomas Cook's novel recounts that conversation, and the flashbacks it triggers for Luke, his memories, believes, all the shadows and frustrations of his life now and their deep roots in his life then. Luke was the smartest boy in Glenville, Alabama, something everyone knew, something his mother cherished and his father frustrated. Glenville was not part of the genteel South, its decay and lack of amenities is something we've seen before in Cook's 'southern' books. I've written before about how his novels seem to divide into southern and northern, and it isn't just the setting. In this case, the work of Edgar Allen Poe resonates through the conversation engaged in by Luke and Lola Faye; Cook builds it slowly, with hints of mysteries unresolved, revenges untaken, lives needing to be accounted for. I kept hearing 'The Cask of Amontillado' in their conversation, and in those moments Luke snaps back from his memories Lola Faye seems very threatening indeed, in that classic Southern gothic way.

Luke's intelligence did not make him a pleasant child. We see him taking cruel advantage of his girlfriend, we feel his sullen resentment of his father, we sense the depth of devotion from his mother. When this fragile system is disturbed, the results might well be incalculable. It's not the run of the mill problem of the bright, arty boy in the physical Southern world, and in this sense it's not a Southern gothic at all. It's more the sense described by the recently-deceased Alice Miller, who wrote The Drama Of The Gifted Child, how the child's talents, and the parent's encouragement of them, along with their expectations, seem to drive the child away from them and into himself. This is the internal world Cook describes, and in its subtle accuracy it is often more chilling, and always more heart-wrenching, than the remarkable suspense he creates from one conversation. As Lola Faye's second husband, a retired detective, told her, 'Things aren't pretty in the human heart'.

The resolution, to which he has built so slowly and carefully, is one of the most surprising in all of Cook's work; it is not a 'typical' Cook ending, and that, for fear of spoiling is all I will say. One of Luke's books was titled 'The Touch Of Time: How History Is Felt', and that might have served as a good title for this book too. For history is the study of ghosts, and this is a novel about the ways those ghosts haunt is. But in the end I went back to the book's epigraph, which Cook takes from Marianne Moore, that least Southern gothic of poets. 'When what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived'. No, it's not a Southern revivial. But it's a brilliant piece of moody suspense writing, and it's a moving novel.


The Last Talk With Lola Faye
Quercus £20
ISBN 9781849162012


NOTE: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)