Monday, 31 January 2011
Dennis Lehane returned to Kenzie and Gennaro after a ten year hiatus that saw the huge jump forward of Mystic River, which of course rode the success of Clint Eastwood's film. He followed that up with Shutter Island, a daring and offbeat novel rather than one designed to capitalise on Mystic River's success. That one became a Martin Scorsese film, and he went on to script for The Wire, so there was little predicting his next book, the remarkable historical novel The Given Day. When I interviewed Lehane about The Given Day, we talked about the return of Kenzie and Gennaro, and Lehane explained it simply: 'he (Patrick) hadn't talked to me for ten years, and then all of a sudden I heard his voice in my head'. I asked if the voice he heard was Casey Affleck's, who had played Patrick in his brother Ben's faithful adaptation of the Amanda story, Gone Baby Gone. He said 'no, but it's funny, because Casey wasn't anything like I'd pictured Patrick, but I can't get him out of my mind'. (You can read the whole interview here)
To an extent, that's a problem with Moonlight Mile, because it's hard now to separate Affleck's protean ability to enter a character and reflect his inner workings from the Patrick we may have imagined. If anything he adds depth, and Lehane himself was scared by the task. 'Do I still have that looseness,' he wondered. 'They had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I've flirted with self-importance.'
Patrick remains an unlikely detective hero. His world sometimes seems to be an extension of high school, where he was not quite tough or cool enough to be successful, or become a target, but just cool and smart enough to be a mark. And trying to locate Amanda quickly throws him in over his head, because her mother Helene and Helene's latest loser boyfried are tied in with the Russian mob, and a hit man named Yefim who's got almost as funny a line of ironic patter as Patrick. Of course Patrick finds Amanda, he's too good and dogged not to, and everything gets far more complicated than he could have imagined. Which is what happened in Gone Baby Gone, and as in that book Patrick needs to make a decision. But this time the decision is informed by his added age, his added responsibility as a father, and his exposure to the results of his moral decision twelve years earlier.
Lehane does a nice job of picking up his characters and allowing them their changes. He's as sharp as ever; Patrick remains a knowing-smart ass; 'I see a future for you in self-help,' he says to a drug-addled youth counselor who's made some bad decisions. At times it seems this book is more consciously funny than its predecessors, but that may be because it is more informed by the world around Kenzie and Gennaro; the concerns of Mystic River, The Wire, and The Given Day are never far away. It is not a world gone well: the shadow of economic inequality, of injustice, of greed, hangs over everyone in the novel. Lehane's remarkably straight-forward about society's failures; a dog-walking woman in western Massachusetts launches into a fantastic diatribe against the perverted values of our education system that could have come right out of The Wire. And, if I may be indulged one pedantic quibble, his sense of geography remains odd; in the Given Day a train took an impossible route to New York; in Moonlight Mile there's a house in western Mass 'south of the New York border', which is weird because the border runs almost due north-south!
There is almost an inevitability to the denouement, and Patrick in particular is again forced into decisions that make him question how best he can be true both to himself and those he loves. And follow the responsibilities of society as well. He's helped a bit by a twist which some may see coming; but it's no small task, just as revisiting a successful series more than decade later wasn't. Lehane has written the kind of comeback novel any writer would admire; he has questioned his characters, and let them find their own way. It's another fine achievement.
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Little Brown, £15.99 ISBN 9781408703137
This essay will also appear at Shots: www.shotsmag.co.uk
Monday, 24 January 2011
Monday, 17 January 2011
The Sentry is the third Pike novel (just published in the US, out in the UK in March), and its title reflects the first, defining Pike and his character. The story is simple: Pike interrupts what looks like a gang-banger shakedown at Wilson's Po' Boys, a touch of pre-Katrina New Orleans transplanted to a Venice cafe, and falls for something in the manner of Dru Rayne, the niece of the strangely uappreciative Wilson, who runs the cafe and whom Pike has saved from a more severe beating. Of course, it turns out there is more going on that just a small-time protection racket, and soon Dru has disappeared and Pike, who said he would protect her and her uncle, is on a mission to rescue her.
The beauty of the Pike books is that Crais can indulge in thriller writing, the kind of thing he did to an extent in television, and in Pike he has the perfect kind of hero to do that. Pike may be somewhat utilitarian as a character, but because he remains so constant, so true to that character, and because he remains almost unaffected by the way 'normal' characters interact, he provides a certain amount of freedom. Where Elvis Cole becomes the centre of every scene he was in, and we understand characters through his own, limited in some ways, perspective, with Pike the other characters become the focus, and we understand them as Pike does, and perhaps better.
That's certainly the case here, as a femme fatale shows Pike's own vulnerability, the way he is trapped within his own code of behaviour, which is almost existential apart from when it is cracked open by a woman. In that sense, Crais' take on a classic film noir situation is made even more stark by Cole's presence, as alter-ego to Pike.You would actually like to see more interaction between Pike and Dru, because she's a strong character but primarily off-stage; in fact, her most chilling scene is probably whe Pike observes her from afar, and ought to realise what the score is at that point, since we do, but may be reluctant to believe the evidence of his eyes.
It's also interesting because the story actually starts, as Wilson and Dru do, in New Orleans, and the most frightening of the book's many villains, Daniel, a self-described werewolf, is drawn with strong overtones of horror, sort of John Connolly on the bayou. But there is a twist to the werewolf's behaviour, one whose success depends on how much you sense it coming; which is why I won't mention what it is. If it works for you, it provides the book with an odd moment of sympathetic frisson. But for a full-bore, fast-paced thriller, which it most certainly is, The Sentry is a suprisingly soft-centered and sensitive story. Crais has come a long way since The Monkey's Raincoat, never boring and often surprising. Twenty-five years? Really?
The Sentry by Robert CraisOrion Books, £12.99 ISBN 9781409116004
NOTE: This review will also appear at crimetime.co.uk
Friday, 14 January 2011
This tribute forms the lead of my weekly Friday Morning Tight End column at nfluk.com. If you want to see the whole column, you can link to it here. Otherwise, here's my remembrance of one of the iconic players of my childhood, and his importance...
I was reminded of a landmark this week, and no it wasn't Brett Favre retiring or the Seahawks making the playoffs with a losing record and upsetting the Super Bowl champion Saints. But this landmark did take place in New Orleans. It was 11 January 1965, and the event was the 1964 AFL All-Star game, held in a neutral site to seal the deal for an expansion franchise in the city. But a funny thing happened on the way to the game. A number of the players found they couldn't get taxis from the airport. They'd been booked into different, less attractive hotels than some of their fellow all-stars. They weren't allowed into the same night spots, or to eat at the same restaurants. These players were, of course, black.
Cookie Gilchrist, died 10 January, just a day off the anniversary of that game. It was Cookie who stood up and called a meeting that led to the 22 black players voting to boycott. You think of the guys at that meeting: Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Dick Westmoreland, Sherm Plunkett, and the idea that people would try to treat them like 'boys' seems absurd, but the absurdity simply highlights the atrocity which was America's apartheid in my childhood. Gilchrist's teammate Jack Kemp, the future congressman who during the season had kept Cookie on the Buffalo Bills after he feuded with coach Lou Saban and took himself out of a game, had himself walked out of a nightclub the night before when they wouldn't admit his teammate Ernie Warwick; Kemp and the Chargers' Ron Mix (who was Jewish) got the other white players on board. The game was moved to Houston, and New Orleans didn't get a team at all, not until after the AFL merged into the NFL, at which point the city agreed to take steps to ensure the same thing wouldn't happen again.
It was inevitable Cookie would take the lead, because he began his career as a man among boys, and demanded to be treated as a man among men. Sometimes a bit more, because he also tried to sell the story of the boycott to the papers! Once, when Buffalo was losing a game, Gilchrist told his teammates in the locker room that if they didn't put it together and win he would beat up every one of them. Then he pointed to the coach, Saban, and said 'starting with you'. The Bills won. In the spectrum of role models of the time Cookie fit somewhere between the quiet self-assertion of Jim Brown or basketball's Bill Russell and the flamboyance of Big Daddy Lipscomb. He saw the world from Cookie's point of view, and expected others to do likewise. Like Brown, he was a fullback, but at 6-1 250 pounds, Cookie was even bigger, probably stronger and maybe even faster. But his application to the game was not always as great as Brown's and his approach less orthodox. Cookie was a punishing blocker, a strong runner, a placekicker (until his hamstrings stopped that) and even offered to play linebacker for the Bills, but only if they'd pay him two salaries. He always needed money, because he was fond of bad investments and according to his teammates was also an inveterate, and lousy, poker player.
Cookie was that way because he came up on his own. He was so dominant as a high school star in Pennsylvania that Paul Brown, always in the forefront of signing black players, going back to Bill Willis and Marion Motley in the AAFC in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, signed him for Cleveland. But the NFL nullified the contract, because he hadn't gone to college, and the NCAA then declared him ineligible for college. So Cookie turned pro and played for two years for Sarnia and Kitchener of the Ontario Rugby Football Union before moving to Hamilton in the CFL in 1956. He led them to the Grey Cup the next season, played one season with Saskatchewan and then was traded to the Toronto Argonauts. He was an all-star at fullback five times in six years, and at linebacker as well in 1960. He joined the Bills in 1962, became the AFL's first 1,000 yard rusher, and was the league's MVP. When the Bills beat San Diego to win the 1964 championship, he had 122 yards rushing. Saban traded Cookie to Denver for the very similar, but less assertive, Billy Joe (Saban, curiously enough, would also discard black QBs Marlin Briscoe in Denver and James Harris in Buffalo) and Cookie wound up his career with a year in Miami. He was voted to the fullback spot on the all-time AFL team, ahead of Keith Lincoln and Jim Nance, but in modern terms he would have been simply a running back, and a great one.
Cookie turned down the CFL Hall of Fame, because the league's then-commissioner had been the GM he feuded with in Hamilton. The story goes he was asked to behave if he attended, and when he said 'I'll take it under advisement', he was told that wasn't good enough. So he said no. He turned down the Bills' Wall of Fame partly because of more old feuds and partly because he wanted to get paid to appear.
Despite that bad history, I believe four things ought to happen, now that he's passed away. Cookie ought to finally be honoured, posthumously, by both the Bills and the CFL, recognising he was a great player, a trailblazer in a trailblazing AFL, even if he was also sometimes his own worst enemy. There also ought to be some kind of landmark put up at the Hotel Roosevelt in New Orleans, and another at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to mark the act of courage of the players' rebellion that Cookie led, which pushed race relations forward in football, and New Orleans, forever.
Wednesday, 12 January 2011
I really enjoyed the Meredith-Tony LoBianco team in Police Story, which was based on Joseph Wambaugh's books and I remember as being pretty gritty for the times. The Indy didn't mention Meredith and Gifford doing The Odd Couple in summer stock in Santa Fe (now there's something I'd like to see; although Gifford had the looks, you can't imagine him actually acting!) nor did they include the movie Three Days of Rain, which was written and directed by his son (from his first marriage, to an SMU cheerleader) Matthew; Meredith had a small part, as did Keir Dullea, the first husband of Meredith's third wife, Susan.
As a quarterback Meredith is somewhat underrated, in part, I think because his announcing career saw him taken less seriously, and in part because his Cowboy teams fell at the final hurdle, or one before too often. But he lost many of his best years to Eddie LeBaron, who was a gamer but never a top-flight QB, and he lost something to Tom Landry's sense of control as well.
Landry admitted he and Meredith were 'on different wave lengths', but questioned his dedication to the game. Although once, when someone pointed out Meredith had thrown a touchdown pass to Dan Reeves while still only semi-conscious after being smashed by Chris Hanburger, Landry quipped, 'how could you tell, he's like that all the time'. What is indisputable is that when Dallas added receivers like Olympic champ Bob Hayes and Lance Rentzel, their downfield threat with Meredith was a big part of what turned the expansion Coswboys into a dominant team, and had Meredith not retired at only 31, when quarterbacks are reaching their peak, he might well have lost the starting job to Staubach anyway. I think what bothered Landry about Meredith is what I liked so much about him; he always had fun, and thought doing anything you loved doing ought, above all, to be fun.
Tuesday, 11 January 2011
That would be Dennis Christopher, on his bicycle in Breaking Away, chasing the visiting Italian cycle team he idolises, and having that idealism shattered along with his bicycle's wheel. Or if not that one, Christopher's race with his friends in the Little 500; the climax of that excellent film about growing up, friendship and, incidentally, sports. To me, Yates was a director primarily interested in character, who got miscast by Bullitt into being thought of as an action man. His problem was that his 'serious' movies where he tried to examine 'adult' issues, never quite clicked, whereas he does an awful lot with Bullitt's character by letting Steve McQueen simply be, and letting Bisset (again) and others react to him. It makes sense if you think of Robbery, his first feature, which, for all its moving-train action, and the London car-chase that got him hired for Bullitt, is really about Stanley Baker's relationships with his gang members and pursuers. It's noticeable how much Baker is very much a silent-type like Bullitt, and Joanna Pettet a very effective Jacqueline Bisset. It's interesting, because for a while on You Tube, before they disappeared for the inevitable copyright and intellectual 'property' issues, I was watching early episodes of The Saint and Danger Man, the two TV shows where Yates first made his mark, and you can often see how the economies of scale in television result in some very subtle exercising in character. And in Patrick McGoohan's John Drake, you see the same sort of detached cool that McQueen would show as Bullitt.
When taken out of the genre context, Yates' 'serious' work seems just slightly off-the-mark, though some of the knock-off stuff, like The Deep, tries to be better than it is. I think of films as varied as John & Mary; Mother, Jugs, and Speed, Murphy's War, or Eleni, none of which really convinces, and some of which miss by a lot. The exception is The Dresser, but again I think it is the structure of Ronald Harwood's play which helps Yates get to the characters, and get to them he does, with Finney and Courtney delivering epic performances. Yet even at his peak, between Breaking Away, and The Dresser, Eyewitess (written, as was Breaking Away, by Steve Tesich) fell flat, despite a good premise and strong cast. Another promising crime film, House On Carroll Street was perhaps too derivative of its period, and ended flatly, but it was an interesting attempt by Walter Bernstein to put that period into some sort of context, and remains an overlooked but interesting film.
Yates real legacy should lie in two very different crime films based on classic books by pantheon writers. The Hot Rock was scripted by William Goldman from Donald Westlake's first novel featuring the Dortmunder gang, comic caper crime played for laughs but always with Westlake's real crime sensibility not far from the surface. Yates caught it almost perfectly, with a seemingly mis-cast Robert Redford eschewing glamour to portray the permanently-jinxed Dortmunder, George Segal and Ron Liebman perfect as gang-members Karp and Murch, and Zero Mostel an unforgettable foil. Compare it to the sequel, Bank Shot, with George C Scott, to see just how sure a hand Yates had.
His masterpiece, of course, was The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, adapted beautifully by Paul Monash from the understated, dialogue-driven prose of George V Higgins' first novel. There's a bit of noirish inevitability in Eddie Coyle's fate (again, foreshadowed somewhat by Baker in Robbery), from which Robert Mitchum draws out all the emotions, and like The Hot Rock, his supporting cast is wonderful: Peter Boyle as his 'friend', the bartender Dillon, a young Richard Jordan as the Fed, Foley, Steven Keats as the gun-dealer Jackie Brown, and Alex Rocco as the bank-robbing Jimmy Scalise, providing the sort of energy Liebman did in The Hot Rock. Eddie Coyle is one of those magnificent adaptations of a small but perfect novel; like Huston's version of The Maltese Falcon the dialogue simply jumps off the page onto the screen. But as with all his best work, Yates was fascinated by Higgins' concern with the relationships (signalled by the title), the levels of trust and lying, friendship and business, that delineate Coyle's world. The actors get it; they don't play for sympathy from the audience, they play their parts in a world of give-and-take, a world where you make your choices and take responsibility, and what you don't know is your own fault. It's one of the greatest of all crime movies, it's Yates' best, and it's that, not a Steve McQueen car chase, that constitutes his true legacy.
Sunday, 2 January 2011
THE WALLANDER TV MOVIES IN CONTEXT
by Bob Cornwell
I too was puzzled by the ending of the The Man Who Smiled. That final shot, with Lassgård/Wallander grooving along to the Hepcats' ‘Cadillac’, must have sent a shiver down Mankell's spine. Strange that anyone thought that was appropriate, particularly Lassgård (Mankell’s own choice for the role). Or did I detect a certain glee from him, eight years into the series? The adaptation, as you suggest, is pretty free, omitting key parts of what is the book’s central theme, the corrosive effects of untrammelled capitalism, not only on big business (with the book’s link to Robert Maxwell in the UK) but also its effect on individuals and local government. The IVF sub-plot appeared to me as totally gratuitous. The ending was, I thought, a neat compromise, if a little over-idealistic.
I was less happy with the lack of context to Wallander’s anonymous sex with the hotel prostitute, as well as with the scene itself, which shows Wallander out of character, and surprisingly naive for a senior policeman! As you know, in the book Wallander is on leave of absence after the concluding events of The White Lioness, in the depths of despair and considering a possible end to his police career. He knowingly embarks on that brief relationship (it occupies 15 lines in the book) and the character does not recur. Later he takes under his wing the newly arrived younger policewoman Ann-Britt Höglund, a non-sexual relationship which develops innto one that echoes Wallander's relationship with Rydberg, his deceased colleague and mentor) whilst still filled with longing for Baiba Leipa, the Latvian woman he met in The Dogs Of Riga.
Clearly that wasn’t enough for the two scriptwriters you mention, who invented Maja, presumably to spice up the previous film, The Fifth Woman, and beyond: she lasts through to Firewall. I wonder what they do with her in the later The Pyramid, written as a prequel to Faceless Killers? Significantly perhaps in Sidetracked, which markeds the resumption of the Lassgård series after a five year gap, and which according to IMDB, has Mankell as a contributing screenwriter, there is no Maja and Högland appears in her own right.
One issue this series does highlight is the question of runtime. It has always irked me that so many of the facile verdicts on which series is ‘better’, ignore the fact that the Branagh versions are all 90 minute condensations of what are complex 400+ page books, whilst the Hendriksson series, with one exception (After the Frost) are based on Mankell story outlines, not even short stories, and (presumably) lack the careful structure and detail of the books, therefore enabling the screenwriters to produce a product more in accord with conventional series thinking. This is not to decry the Hendriksson series, which has produced some notable episodes, but simply to point out that they are two different beasts.
As is the Lassgård series. Faceless Killers (1995) is a 4-part series running to 209m (again according to IMDB, not always the best source of runtime info) – and this the shortest of the Wallander novels. Later we get 166m for Sidetracked, 127m for The Man Who Smiled, and 180m for Firewall. Such generosity with screentime is surely more likely to produce an adaptation likely to find favour with those who have actually read the books. Wallander’s father appears in these early films, for example, as does Baiba. The exception to the rule is the version of One Step Behind, 90m in the Branagh version, 100m in the Lassgård version. On first viewing, I am far from convinced that the Lassgård version uses its extra minutes wisely (though I think Lassgård’s performance is the superior one). But at least the Branagh version does not ignore Mankell’s underlying theme of the rise of irrational violence in Swedish society, whilst the Lassgård version (though often beautifully directed by Birger Larsen) ludicrously over-emphasises the homosexual aspects of the story to produce a killer who is all-too explainable, and therefore at variance with Wallander’s own post-arrest investigations (ignored in both adaptations). Nevertheless I join you in hoping that the BBC will let us see the earlier episodes in the series, including The White Lioness (1996) to date the only film version of this novel.
The real firewall is the barrier Wallander has erected between himself and others, even between his own feelings and the rest of the world. His hiding of his diabetes is the reflection of this, but the relationships reveal far more, as his private needs affect his work on the case. By alienating Martinsson, who wants a letter of recommendation for a cushier job in Malmo, a letter Wallander is reluctant to write, he creates a persistent critic of his investigation, marginalising himself as the CID arrive from Stockholm. And of course by failing to see through Elvira, he puts the young computer hacker he's brought into the case. Oddly, the hacker, Robin (the engaging Pia Ojansdotter), has been made a young woman in the film, sort of a kinder, gentler Lisbeth Salander, but also a stand-in for his daughter Linda, who doesn't appear in these adaptations. Salander and Wallander, now that's a pairing to consider! But to Wallander, it's the realisation that his own loneliness has blinded his cop instincts which turns out to be the focal point of the film.
Although in fairness, Wallander's police instincts often seem to be fogged by the reality of his life, and by dropping his other obsession, with opera, these films keep that on a very personal level—opera is all about expressing big emotions in a big way, and one of the points of Mankell's books is to examine the way Swedish society and culture discourage just such expression.
That, indeed, is the point of One Step Behind. The focus is not so much on the revelation of that Svedberg was gay, nor that none of his colleagues suspected as much, but the fact that none of his colleagues knew anything about the man away from the job. Wallander is shocked to discover that Svedberg considered him his best friend, indeed, was in love with him. The key scene is when the police gather to watch the peeping-tom videos the killer has taken of all of them, revealing the things that they hide from each other, and the key moment comes when we see Maya with the Danish cop HC (Peter Gantzler). The scene seems gratuitously explicit, but one of the points is the difference between the out-going, fun-loving Dane and his repressed Swedish colleagues. You can even hear it in the faster, slightly slurred Danish contrasting with the more precise Swedish. The other point, of course, is that everybody lies about their personal lives, if only by omission, to keep them secret even from those closest to them.
Birger Larsen's direction of One Step Behind is the sharpest of the three movies BBC4 has shown, he keeps the pace moving in what, once the identity of the killer has been revealed, becomes a fairly standard story. But he is equally as dynamic with the personal stories, and that's what makes this one the best of the three. Interestingly, watching it after Firewall, which preceded it in terms of release, helps put the characters into better, if slightly confusing, context, and noticing that both stories feature killers shooting themselves makes one wonder if it's an easy way out, both in plot terms and for the killer. Certainly, both are justified in the characters' own minds: Solomon has done wrong, and knows it, whereas Ake wants to keep Wallander alive to let him suffer with loss and not give him the satisfaction of bringing him to justice. It would be somewhat perverse to follow these in reverse order, but I suspect the later adaptations may have lent themselves more to foreign sales; needless to say I'm looking forward to the rest of the series appearing in whatever order.