Wednesday, 16 August 2017

AT MOUNT RUSHMORE: My London Review of Books Essay

Sunday in the National Park with Donald. I wrote about the encounter Nate and I had at Mt. Rushmore with the Trump triumphal float last Sunday. It's up at the London Review Of Books blog; you can link to it here.

I had originally begun with a long paragraph starting with the protests and deaths in Charlottesville, and giving a summary of how, over the past 50 years, America has got to this point, but the piece as published is better without the attempt at historic analysis, which in any case I have written here before.

Viewing Mt. Rushmore, we felt the America the way people used to believe it was, or at least should be. Even a cynic like me could feel sincerely about the promise and the greatness of the nation. The Trumpmobile crew were gleefully tearing about everything about that America, under the guise of making it great 'again', and without the slightest sense of irony, celebrating that destruction. They were feeling empowered, almost strutting in the face of those whom they knew they were offending, and to watch them empowered further by the park rangers broke my not so knee-jerk patriotic heart.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

REMEMBERING TY HARDIN

While wandering around 1880 Town in Midland, South Dakota today, I came across a copy of the famous photo of the Warner Bros.' TV western stars drawing their pistols. What made this one special was that it was autographed by Ty Hardin, who at that point was playing Bronco Layne in a series that had originally been a replacement for Cheyenne, when WB had contract trouble with Clint Walker, and now was rotating through schedule spots with Cheyenne and Will Hutchins' Sugarfoot.

But it reminded me that Hardin died last week, and I wanted to write something then, so it's a good excuse to say a couple of things about him now. One thing I hadn't known was that he was a football player. His obits said he got a scholarship to Blinn Junior College, then attended Dallas Bible Institute before joining the Army. Then he enrolled at Texas A&M and, so the story goes, played for Bear Bryant there. It's hard to check, because he didn't graduate, but the stories I read said he played tight end, in the days before that was a position. He registers no stats as a receiver from 1954-56, when A&M had John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, and Jack Pardee. I did find a picture of him in a football uniform, but I don't know who's it was and he looks younger than a post-Army Ty Hungerford.

What I did know a bit about was how fragile his career was. It resembles, in some ways, Clint Eastwood's early career, except that Hardin made a couple of bad decisions, whereas Clint made a couple of good ones. But they got into TV by luck, more or less. Both were hired originally because of their good looks, as beefcake. Clint was wone of the last of Universal's apprentices, and he had been trying to get into acting. Hardin (or Orison Whipple Hungerford, Jr. as he then was named, though Ty was his family nickname) was spotted by a Paramount scout at a costume party (he was a cowboy) and was signed to a contract. He had bit parts in a couple of films, including Last Train To Gun Hill, billed as Ty Hungerford, when, like Clint, he got lucky and landed a TV gig.

Hardin met John Wayne, and  when he tried to get the Ricky Nelson part in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. Wayne introduced him to Hawks, who was with William Orr of Warners. Orr soon bought his contract. Warners changed his name to Hardin, gave him acting lessons, and introduced him into the Cheyenne series as Cheyenne's cousin. He was an instant hit, and Bronco ran for four years. His best film part was in Merrill's Marauders, and it looked like he was on his way. After Warners, he was getting 'exposure' roles in big films like Battle Of The Bulge and PT 109, where he had a blonde goatee, but not yet any serious starring parts.

Then Hardin made a couple of bad decisions. One was to pass on a western role offered by an Italian director, Sergio Leone. He wasn't the only actor to either pass or want too much money, and of course the part eventually went to Clint.  The next one was to pass on the TV show Batman, ironically because he had a committment to film in Spain, on a  sort of spaghetti western, Hugo Fregonese's Argentinian Savage Pampas.

Hardin played the lead in Riptide, a series that was made in and set in Australia, but was shown in the US. He was in Custer Of The West, and in a weird British circus horror film, Beserk, with Joan Crawford. But his career stalled. He made three disposable spaghetti westerns in 1971, and then worked only intermittently, though he had a part in a TV movie remake of Red River, which starred James Arness and Bruce Boxleitner in the John Wayne and Montgomery Clift roles, but had parts for oher old western TV stars like Hardin, Guy Madison, Robert Horton and John Lupton. Hardin was tall and good looking, but unlike Wayne or Eastwood, never really learned to control his image on screen.

Off screen was another story. His third wife was Marlene Schmidt, the East German-born Miss Universe of 1961. Ironically, she went into the film business after they divorced. In all Hardin had eight wives, and ten children. Which may help explain why he had problems with the IRS, which helps explain why he helped found the Arizona Patriots, which sounds like football team but was an anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party type group that evolved into a militia. In 1986 they were raided, and accused of planing to attack a federal office in Utah. Hardin wasn't charged with any crimes, but the group disbanded.

The photo above is not Hardin as a militia leader, but a fan show where he appeared alongside Clint Walker and Will Hutchins, and he was the only one not quite in costume. I find it tremendously nostalgic, especially now, viewing a Wild West town that only moderately appeals to my 13 year old.

Hardin died at 87. It is easy to imagine scenarios in which he was a successful film actor, or a busy TV star. But his other difference from Clint was lacking Clint's study of the business, and his nous for it. Clint's acting and directing careers are actually meshed to his producing career; he became virtually a studio himself; this would have been beyond Hardin. On the other hand, there aren't many people, not even Clint, whose obituaries will say 'he is survived by his eighth wife; his previous seven marriages all ended in divorce.'  And I found, while writing this, the reverse angle of that famous photo, an earlier unused take. That's Hardin on the left, nearest to the camera. Those were the days.

















Monday, 7 August 2017

RICHARD LANGE'S SMACK

Rowan Petty is a grifter on a downward roll. He’s eking out an existence in Reno, pulling phone scams for a guy who he had originally brought into the business. His wife left a long time ago, his daughter doesn’t speak to him. It’s the holidays, and that’s a bad time to try to cold call people to detach their money from them. So one cold night on the street he meets Tinafey, like the comedienne, but all one word, a hooker with a smile, and pretty soon he’s helped her out of a jam, and he has to make a decision.

I first came across Richard Lange’s short story collection Sweet Nothing when I was judging the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger award, and I pushed one of the tales, Apocrypha, to which we gave the prize. And Smack works for the same reasons his stories do.

Grifters live in a world where decisions you have to make outside the grift can always lead to trouble. An old friend, or colleague, of Petty’s, approaches him with a score. Don’s been on the downward spiral too, ever since his wife died, but he picked up a tip on a big cache of money smuggled out of the Middle East and being stored in LA by the brother of one of the thieves. Petty had turned it down, but it’s the holidays, he’s sick of working for someone, and his daughter’s in Los Angeles. So he says yes to the job, and invites Tinafey off for a holiday trip.

Of course, it’s no holiday. No sooner has he started to reconcile with his daughter, she’s in the hospital, and the job, which looked hinky in the extreme, becomes more attractive, even after parties unknown start butting into the action. From this point, Lange weaves a tale which involves battered veterans, con men, his ex-wife and her brawny enforcer of a husband, and those various crooks who might get in the way.

It’s a classic noir, where it’s almost impossible to get what you want, and in which every possible road out turns into a dead end. Petty’s a scammer, and used to be a good one, but he’s not a hooligan, and the world of violence is one he’s always wanted to avoid.

Lange makes this work not in the way he resolves the plot, but in the way he draws his characters. He controls the pace of the story beautifully, letting the twists grow naturally, and letting the reader experience them through the eyes of those characters, particularly Petty, but also the soldier Diaz, whose original scam this was, and who’s coming to collect. There's a constant sense that trust is a fungible commodity in this world, and of course the grifter's world is in some ways a metaphor for our own.  The tensions are internal, and the real beauty of the story is the way the reader begins to root for Petty, an amoral thief whose life involves cheating marks, to succeed in something far more serious. The Smack is an exercise in finely pitched writing, and the kind of noirish tale you relish even as you dread turning the page to get closer to its conclusion.


The Smack by Richard Lange

Mullholland Books £14.99 ISBN 9781444790047

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

BILL GRIFFITH'S INVISIBLE INK

Bill Griffith is a cartoonist, most famous for Zippy the Pinhead, who began life in underground comics and became a successful syndicated strip, the four panels a day kind of thing we used to read in the newspapers, and the funny papers sections on Sundays. One day, living in Connecticut, he gets an actual letter, hand-written and posted, from his uncle in North Carolina, who has boxes of family memorabilia, if Bill is interested.

Invisible Ink is the story of what is a Pandora's box of memory and investigation. Years before, Bill's mother –his uncle Alan's older sister—had confessed, moments after his father had died, to Bill and his sister, that she had carried on a long-term affair with the man she worked for, a cartoonist called Laurence Lariar, for whom she worked as a secretary. Now, looking through his family's past, Bill begins to put together a fuller picture of his parents: his often absent (in the military) and generally angry father, and the the mother whom he knew, even at an early age, was no June Cleaver.

The thread holding this all together is Lariar, and the unlikely synchronicity of Griffith's following in his trade. He tracks Lariar's career as a writer as well as a cartoonist, as a hustler on the fringes of the entertainment world, because it's a world he understands. And through that he gets to draw his mother into sharper focus, the needs her affair filled, the expectations, or maybe dreams, she had of happiness. He discovers his mother's own writings, and that also lets him understand better his father. And of course, himself.

Griffith's story is told brilliantly. It encapsulates the world of the Fifties and Sixties perfectly; growing up in Levittown, the promise of more life in New York City, the social strictures, the built-in repression, and behind it all that underlying sense of unspoken frustration that might be seen to define his parents' generation (and who knows, maybe all). He tells the story with great sensitivity, and using Lariar's cartoons as well as his own to illustrate it, and show the ways in which cartoons reflect the world in which his characters are living. It's a memoir too, of the kind of passion we feel at his age, of wanting to know more about the things we maybe half-understood at the time, then thought we understood when we were adult, but realise only as we start to reflect on our own lives and possibilities and pasts, that perhaps we didn't understand them at all. That maybe we didn't really know what it was about the people we are supposed to love most, because we are supposed to be their greatest loves. Bill finally gets to meet his parents, and they are different people from the ones he knew growing up, and different people from the ones he's discovered through his research. As perhaps we all are.

'How did they become two different people over the course of their marriage?' Griffith asks himself, and us, and Uncle Alan, who says 'I don't know, Bill...it's a funny world'. This is a fascinating, tender book, which leaves you looking at it silently, with your own cloudy memories coming back, sombre and joyful, and with a nostalgic sadness welling up behind your eyes.


Invisible Ink: My Mother's Secret Love Affair With A Famous Cartoonist
by Bill Griffith
Fantagraphics Books, $29.99, ISBN 9781606998953

Sunday, 30 July 2017

JUNE FORAY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of June Foray, the voice-over artist who was most famously the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatale, is on line at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper tomorrow.

It appears pretty much as written. I'm not sure why they describe WBZA radio in Springfield, where Foray got her start, as a 'music station', in the 1930s it was a radio station, producing and broadcasting all kinds of programmes: any station with its own WBZA Players was obviously producing drama. I couldn't find out whether BZA's programmes went out on thr NBC Blue Network; the station was leased by Westinghouse to NBC, and was a sister station of Boston's WBZ. Reading other accounts of her early life it was difficult to get an exact chronology of which programmes she did where.

It was tempting to throw in lots of the great stuff from Rocky & Bullwinkle, George of The Jungle, and Dudley Do-Right, or to trace the series' roots back to Jay Ward and Alex Anderson's Crusader Rabbit, where Crusader and Ragland T Tiger were prototypes for Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Dudley Nightshade for Snidley Whiplash). I hadn't been aware of Mel Blanc's exclusivity on voice credits on the Warners' cartoons; it was a shame. That's Chuck Jones (left) and Blanc with June.

There were some connections I didn't include, like Bill Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, who worked with Foray on Speaking Of Animals. Or the stuff she did with Stan Freberg, a comic genius of of radio, advertising and records. That's her in between Daws Butler and Freberg. When she performed on Carson's Cellar she was doing skits and sketches, playing the Imogene Coca role from Sid Caesar's show, and she was funny. It was before my time, but you can find a bit of it on the You Tube. I remember the Talky Tina episode of Twilight Zone (but didn't recall Telly Salvalas!). I don't remember the High Priestess Sabaka, and I watched Andy's Gang as a kid, and loved Gunga ('such is so, sahib') and Rama ('ayee Gunga!'). I will have to search out that movie. It even has Boris Karloff! And the one role I wish I had mentioned was voicing Wheezy, the zoot-suit hyena in Roger Rabbit.

She was a pro, she worked constantly, always gave the client what they wanted and moved on. She also made great efforts on behalf of her fellow workers in voice and animation, and that was something she should be admired for doing. That's her posed with (left to right) Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng and Bob Babbitt. While I was researching the obit, I read a couple of pieces about her by Mark Evanier, whom I remembered as a comic fan and then writer, and who co-wrote her biography. I got the image of a tiny dynamo always in motion or on voice. It was that image I held with me as I wrote the obit. RIP.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

BOSTON'S OTHER BABE: BABE PARILLI, THE QUARTERBACK'S LIFE


Looking at the life of Babe Parilli, who died recently, was more compelling than I'd thought it would be, for not only was Parilli probably the first star the Boston Patriots ever had, and one of the biggest names in the early years of the AFL. Parilli was known as a leader, an erratic but strong-armed quarterback not afraid to take chances, and was a decent runner, especially in his early years. He was also good looking and known to enjoy a good time. Babe was in many ways a poster boy for the life of NFL quarterbacks in the 1950s, and of those retreads and journeymen who populated the position in the early years of the AFL as well.

The Babe was, until Tom Brady's 2007 season, still the Pats' record holder for TD passes in a season; Brady had broken his yardage mark in 2002. Parilli's 1964 season was one of the biggest of any AFL season, 3.465 yards and 31 touchdowns. The shortlist of great Patriots' quarterbacks is very short indeed. Steve Grogan is the gridiron embodiment of the franchise for its first four decades, gritty, tough, trying hard but not talented enough. Tony Eason, Drew Bledsoe and Parilli each led the Pats to one championship game, and each lost that one. Bledsoe's probably the number two, and I'd be tempted to list the Babe at number three; they were in some ways pretty similar: pocket passers with big arms who trusted their arms maybe more than they should. Pats fans tend to put Grogan up there, and ignore Eason who was basically a two-year wonder, with a bad year in between. Which, as it happens, was very much the Parilli pattern.

Vito Parilli was born May 7, 1930, in Rochester Pennsylvania; the fertile area which produced so many great quarterbacks: Johnny Lujack, John Unitas, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, etc. He was recruited by Bear Bryant to play at Kentucky, where he followed George Blanda. Parilli ran Bear Bryant's T-formation perfectly, where ball-handling was his first responsibility; he got the nickname 'Houdini Hands'. His second  responsibility may have been running, but he was a good passer and probably the best QB in the SEC following the time Billy Wade played tailback at Vanderbilt. He told the story of playing with an injured arm against LSU; Bryant put him what amounted to a shotgun formation, he was never touched, and the Wildcats won the game. He took Kentucky to wins in the '51 Sugar Bowl over undefeated Oklahoma and in the '52 Cotton Bowl over TCU. Those wins probably put Bryant on the watchlist for SWC teams; after the '53 season he would be hired by Texas A&M.

The Packers drafted Parilli with their first pick in the 1952 draft, which was odd since they had drafted Tobin Rote of Rice with their second pick in 1950. Rote was a good but erratic passer, and a tremendous runner. Parilli and Rote shared the job in '52 and combined for 26 TD passes (Babe 13/17 Rote 13/8) which should have augered well for the future. Don't forget, in these days defenders could contact a receiver from the line of scrimmage until the pass was actually in the air; completions were a lot harder to come by. But in '53 Babe slid to 4 TDs and 19 picks; Rote played along with 5/15, meaning they combined for 34 picks with only 9 scores.

The New York Times said Rote played in Canada in 54-55, but he was actually in the Air Force, and when he left the Packers traded him to Cleveland in a package for QB Bobby Garrett of Stanford, whom the Browns has drafted first overall in the '54 draft. Garrett, it turned out, stuttered. Scouting wasn't what it is today, and Paul Brown found this too much. Garrett never started a game, played in a few for the Packers, and was out of the league. Paul Brown got Parilli because he was looking ahead to when Otto Graham retired, although Graham's backup, George Ratterman played well the next two years (in '55 Brown had to lure Graham back with a huge $25,000 deal). With Graham gone in '56, Ratterman took over, and in the fourth game suffered a knee injury that ended his career. Parilli took over, got four starts, and then was injured himself. Tommy O'Connell played the rest of the year as the Browns finished the year 5-7, their first-ever losing season.

This was life in the NFL in the Fifties. Although Parilli had loved Bear Bryant he didn't really get along with the cutting and sarcastic Paul Brown, so in 1957 Brown traded him. Back to Green Bay. It was 10 player deal that some say included the rights to Bobby Garrett. This kind of stuff happened all the time. George Blanda hated Bears' owner/coach George Halas with a passion, and Halas, whose evaluation and use of quarterbacks was always suspect (he ruined Johnny Lujack, dumped Bobby Layne, and dumped on Blanda, all of whom he had at the same time in the Forties behind Sid Luckman). Anyway, Blanda once traded Blanda to the Colts, to Blanda's delight, then bought him back a week later.

The Packers had picked up Parilli intending to trade him on, so instead they traded Tobin Rote to the Lions. Bobby Layne got hurt that year, and Rote stepped in to lead Detroit to an NFL title. Coach George Wilson decided he didn't like Layne, and the next year he traded him to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers turned into winners while Rote turned into a pumpkin, turning in 5TD 19 int passer rating 29.8 season. In 1960 Rote was playing in Toronto, where he threw 38 TD passes and led the Argos to a divisional title (actually, the championship of the Inter-Provincial Rugby Football Union).

Parilli mentored and relieved Bart Starr, a 16th round draft pick, and actually won the first game at Lambeau Field, then called City Stadium. But when Vince Lombardi arrived, Parilli was gone. Babe said it was because he'd beaten Lombardi at golf, and Vince didn't want to pay him the one dollar bet. He claimed Lombardi told him “that will be the last dollar you ever get from me.” He landed with Ottawa in the CFL, but played behind the great Canadian QB Russ Jackson and the veteran Frank Tripucka. Tripucka's another one of those crazy Fifties stories. He was drafted in the first round by the Eagles in 1949: then traded to Detroit in mid-season without having played a down. You wonder if they scouted him or just figured that a star QB at Notre Dame was worth a first-round pick. The Lions sent him to the hapless Chicago Cardinals, who traded him to the even more hapless Dallas Texans. Tripucka saw the light and bolted for Saskatchewan, where he played for Frank Filchock and, apparently, was making a lot more money than he ever got in the NFL.

But in 1960 the American Football League was launched, and they needed quarterbacks. Tripucka had retired and was assistant coach to Filchock in Denver. After a couple of practices, they realised he was much better than the guys they had, so he became the starter. Parilli signed with Oakland, where he shared the job with the starter Tom Flores, a local product of College of the Pacific who'd been cut by the CFL the year before. George Blanda was signed by Houston and led them to the championship, beating Jack Kemp and the Los Angeles Chargers in the final. Tommy O'Connell resurfaced as the starter in Buffalo, and got injured in the first quarter of the first game against the New York Titans, whose starter Dick Jamieson was benched in the first quarter for Al Dorow.

In 1961 Oakland traded Parilli to the Boston Patriots, whose QB in 1960 had been Butch Songin. Songin, a hockey and football star at Boston College, who had last played football in 1954, for Hamilton in the CFL. That's the kind of league it was. They split time in '61, but in '62 Parilli took over and had what may have been the most efficient season of his career. Completing 55.3% of his passes, 18 touchdowns and only 8 picks, and a passer rating of 91.5, which is probably the equivalent of something at least ten points higher today. The next year Babe regressed to 13 scores and 24 picks, but the Patriots went all the way to the AFL championship game, where the Chargers destroyed them 51-10, with Keith Lincoln having a game for the ages. The Chargers, whose coach Sid Gillman supposed spied on the Pats to get their game plan, were quarterbacked by, wait for it, Tobin Rote, whom Gillman had signed because he'd lost Kemp and thought John Hadl wasn't yet ready. Rote had suffered his usual reversion to below the norm in Toronto, and been released after the '62 season.

Parilli had that big year in '65, then two more typical Parilli years. In 1968 the Pats traded him to the Jets for Mike Taliaferro, who had lost his job to Joe Namath. Namath was from Beaver Falls, Pa, about five miles away from Rochester, and the first quarterback he idolized growing up was Babe Parilli. Parilli was a perfect backup for the Jets; under Weeb Ewbank he was consistent when he had to play. He did the holding so Namath didn't have to risk injury, and the New York press made as much of his ball handling as Jim Turner's holder as the football writers had made of his ball-handling at Kentucky. When the Jets won Super Bowl III, Parilli got his championship ring at last, and as an AFL original, and as a typical gypsy QB of the NFL's Fifties, he deserved it.

After the 1969 season, Babe retired. He was a quarterbacks coach for the hometown Steelers, mentoring Terry Bradshaw (whose first few seasons' stats could be mistake for a Parilli years). He then  coached in the World Football League, and later for many teams in the Arena League, which was the kind of game made for the Babe Parillis and Tobin Rotes of the 50s NFL. He retired to Colorado, where he died July 15th. RIP. 


Thursday, 27 July 2017

IRON MIKE: THE EARLY YEARS

Nat Coombs had been saying how he wanted to spend some time on his show talking about how I got into the business of sports broadcasting, and I was going to be in the studio this week to try. But thanks to Southwest Trains, I didn't dare try the trip into London to do The Gnat Coombs Show Starring Gnat Coombs on Talksport 2. But thanks to the miracle of modern communications, I called into the show for the second hour. Gnat wanted to talk about how I got into the business, which meant my going through some of my antics as sports editor of UPITN and director of programming in Europe for ABC Sports, and VP Europe for Major League Baseball, and then my first years on camera or microphone for Screensport and Sky.

You can find the programme here, I'm on 53 minutes in if you're listening after the newsier parts of the show are a little dated. I'll be in the studio with Gnat next Tuesday, August 1st, and we'll probably discuss the reaction and I will tell the story of the Transatlantic Wrestling Challenge, and my work as a heel announcer....

Monday, 24 July 2017

THOMAS KRUITHOF'S SCRIBE: EXISTENTIAL CONSPIRACY

Duval is a little guy, slaving away while everyone else in the office celebrates, and then he's handed a glass of champagne and a request for a report the following morning. But none of the files are where they should be, and after a few more drinks, and a fruitless night, he explodes.

Two years later he's been out of work since the incident, he's a recovering alcoholic, and out of nowhere he's offered a job. He's to sit in a room alone, listening to audio cassettes of wiretaps, and transcribe the tapes on an IBM selectric, leaving the papers on the desk at night. Then he hears something worrying, which turns out to be a murder, and suddenly he's at the centre of a conspiracy.

To this point, Scribe suggests any number of films about surveillance in which the unexpected or awkward is overheard or seen, those like The Conversation, Blow Up, Blow Out, or more recently, The Silence Of Others. But there is a crucial difference, in that Duval is not an evesdropper (apparently, the original international title for this film) himself, merely middle man, functioning anonymously in a room otherwise empty but for his cassette player and typewriter.

This is the material of Kafka, or Melville's 'Bartleby The Scrivener', an existential tale of a man lost in the system and faced with a decision about whether to go on or resist. Calling him by just his surname suggests a sort of anonymous everyman status. But the question soon becomes less existential and more political. The typewriter itself recalls other conspiracy films from the past, All The President's Men or Three Days Of The Condor, and those point the way to where Scribe is actually heading.

That path is set up very cleverly, with clues dropped in. There is an election in progress, and a slick candidate whose slogan is 'La France est la Retour', a sort of Gallic 'Make France Great Again'. There is also an ongoing French hostage crisis referred to in the background.

Scribe's title in French is La mécanique de l'ombre, which might be translated as 'the mechanism of the shadows'. This recalls the TV series Spin, whose French title was similiarly The Men In The Shadow, and signals an ongoing sense of unsettling conspiracy and 'deep-state' in France. And the real strength of the movie is the way it combines that sense with the more personal shadows hanging over Duval. He's admittedly apolitical, an office-man whose self collapses when he's lost his job. He is in that sense, a modern man, an average Jo in France, lost in the shadows.

This is director Thomas Kruithof's first feature (he also co-wrote the script) and he maintains a firm grip on the mystery. Alex Lamarque shoots the film in a brilliant collage of shadow and blankness; it moves between dark and less dark, and never undercuts the mood. The score by Gregoir Auger is more geared toward the traditional thriller, but works. But because this film is about blank slates which need to be filled it, it revolves around some fine performances: Denis Podalydes is exceptional as Clement, who hires Duval: all control and domination, even when he's engaged in crucial bartering with the authorities, but especially with Duval. Simon Abkarian is a tremendous contrast, all unleashed menance and energy, alternately affectionate and threatening, as the man who drags Duval deeper into the world of spycraft. They are like two magnets pulling Duval in opposite directions, until a third figure enters the frame, a government man played by Sami Bouajila, all bureaucratic menace, but with a lower energy than the other two.

But the key to the film is Francois Cluzet's Duval. I wrote when he starred in Tell No One about his being the French Dustin Hoffman, and the comparison is even more telling here. He acts with small movements of the face, little tics, which make the scenes between him and Clement as effective in their way as Hoffman and Olivier in The Marathon Man. As in Tell No One, he has to deal with forces well beyond his control, which in the end comes down to a crucial moment which I won't give away. The situation is made possible by the addition of a love interest for him, a fellow recovering alcoholic, played with more brilliant understatement by the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. But just when she seems to be impinging on Duval's existential dilemma, she becomes a plot device used to exert pressure on him.

How much you wind up liking Scribe will depend on how much you appreciate its resolution. The French October Surprise is something you should not be surprised by, but it basically slides by as if it were inevitable. Duval's own situation, again, is presented by allusion, which I took as an open-ended question: the idea is that nothing has really changed, nor will it. I might have enjoyed Scribe as a more existential drama, I might have enjoyed it more as an all-out thriller. Yet it is a beautifully constructed conspiracy thriller that, despite its smaller focus, and in an almost throwback way, is successful in its own terms.

Scribe (La Mechanique de l'ombre) France 2016
directed by Thomas Kruithof, written by Kruithof and Yann Gozlan with Marc Syrigas and Aurelie Valat
On general release

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

Sunday, 23 July 2017

JOHN HEARD: AN APPRECIATION

When I saw that John Heard had died, at 71, I messaged my friend Michael Goldfarb, who like me considers Cutter's Way a magnificent meaningful movie, and Heard and Jeff Bridges tremendous in it. We didn't discuss the awful fate of being remembered primarily as the hapless and largely off-screen father in the Home Alone movies. Michael then on social media recapitulated a discussion we'd had many times, about Heard's huge talent, how he was regarded as maybe the best of his generation of actors, by friends of Michael's when he was trying to make it s an actor in New York, and how a propensity for wild living may have impeded his progress to stardom. Of course anyone who marries Margot Kidder for six days (officially, apparently, it took more than a year to dissolve the union) may be confirmed into some sort of pantheon of wild.

One part of my half of the discussion was about meeting Heard, as I did one night at the Flask pub in Highgate. I can't remember when that was; I want to say in the early 80s, but I doubt Heard would have remembered the meeting ten minutes after he left. He was spectacularly hammered, dressed as if he had been spending his nights sleeping rough on the Heath, and if you thought he might have been in character as Alex Cutter you would not have been that far off.

But the rest of my part of the discussion involved Heard's actual star potential, because Cutter's Way is sort of fulcrum on which the rest of his career balances, though balances with most of it on the distaff side.

Heard's first big part was in Joan Micklin Silver's Between The Lines (1979), based on the story of the Boston Phoenix. This is one of those Sixties generation films (like Return Of The Secaucus Seven) that got subsumed by The Big Chill, just as William Hurt seemed to subsume John Heard (not to mention John Hurt). Heard's is the linchpin role, while Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Michael J Pollard steal scenes; he battles with Lindsey Crouse in the ones they share, and Jill Eichenberry's take as the idealistic 'secretary' didn't seem to get her anywhere. But Heard went on to take the lead opposite Mary Beth Hurt in Silver's Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979), which was originally titled Head Over Heels before someone realised it wasn't a sweet romantic comedy and reverted to the original title of Ann Beattie's novel. Heard could be a romantic lead in a small indy film, but where he went from there was the question. That same year he had a big part in another off-beat romantic part, as Reverend Dimmesdale in a TV mini-series version The Scarlet Letter, which was most notable for improving on Hawthorne by making Meg Foster's letter A gold rather than scarlet. Oddly enough, Dimmesdale, a role requiring wide range and considerable restraint, would come to define Heard's future.

His next three films are his best. In Heart Beat (1980) he plays Jack Kerouac to Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady and Sissy Spacek's Carolyn Cassady. John Bynum's film seems forgotten now, but it was very sharp in its tone, and Heard, who wouldn't spring to mind as a Kerouac, catches the writer's vulnerability, while inevitably having to play second-fiddle to Nolte.

Which didn't happen in Cutter's Way (1981), at least on screen. Originally called Cutter And Bone, after Newton Thornburg's powerfully gritty novel, this one was retitled after it's initial release, sort of Head Over Heels in reverse. You could make a strong case that this is the last great movie of the Seventies, something that could be shown in double-features with Who'll Stop The Rain (Dog Soldiers) in repertory theatres forever, were there still rep cinemas. Heard's performance is spectacular without being overly showy, but it was Jeff Bridges, more straightforward on the surface as Bone, who was the star. Of course, he'd be seen as a lead ever since The Last Picture Show, and had ten or more starring roles, in some great films, since then. In fact, think of Timothy Bottoms in that film, or Barry Brown in Bad Company, and compare their careers after Bridges to Heard's.   

But who else could you compare Heard's Cutter to? Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo? Far more depth and menace. Pacino's Serpico? If Pacino hadn't already done The Godfather? Here's where some space exists, because even as Cutter, Heard seems too knowing, not giving up to the intensity. Perhaps he was just a little too cerebral for the Pacino leads, a little less glamorous for the Hurt, Bridges parts. Perhaps Richard Dreyfuss, about whom the gossip, along with Heard, in the famous Raul Julia Othello in the Park was severe. Dreyfuss too bordered on stardom, but lacked leading man looks, for which he compensated by over-the-top emoting. It's a dangerous quicksand of a discussion in which to become mired.

In Cat People (1982) Heard was a torn-romantic lead, the Kent Smith role (with Annette O'Toole excellent in the Jane Randolph part) subsumed by Natassja Kinski and the black cat she played. With Malcolm MacDowell hamming it through every scene he's in, Heard seems to fade, even though his downplaying of the bittersweet ending ought to have scored him more notice. He was Clifford Odets in a 1983 TV movie version of Will There Really Be A Morning, where he captured Odets' callous cruelty to Frances Farmer. Farmer, however, was played by Susan Blakely, and Heard's (and Lee Grant's, as her mother) performances were for naught. He played Geraldine Page's son in A Trip To Bountiful (1985), for which she won an Oscar, and defined his future roles with a great take as Tom Hanks' foil in Big (1988).

Looking at IMDB I realised he worked consistently for the next three decades. If high living had hurt his skills, or cost him stardom, it didn't affect his ability to get cast in roles that more often than not had him playing someone with something evil or bad or treacherous lurking under the surface, something which that innate intelligence usually signalled. He was excellent, however, when he was able to simply indulge playing a fallen hero, as in The Sopranos, where his corrupt detective Vin Makazian got him nominated for an Emmy. His part in Sharknado, on the other hand, didn't.

From potential star of a generation to jobbing actor. In one sense, Heard never fit the description of a Hollywood leading man. What he fit was a perception of the era in which he came of age, and his ability to live up to our sense, as those who came up with him, of what those times meant. If the dreams of the time have crashed, if potential seems wasted, there is still the accumulation of work, and those high points that seem largely weighted in the first few years. Perhaps he still represents a generation in that sense, a generation now looking back on their work. RIP John Heard.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S LATE SHOW

Renee Ballard is a detective working the graveyard shift, nights, in Hollywood. She handles whatever comes along, and whatever comes along is why the cops call the beat the Late Show. Ballard's been exiled to the shift because of she filed a sexual assault beef against a lieutenant, and her then partner didn't back her up. Now she works nights and passes on her cases to the relevant desks in the morning; they follow up and investigate. At least most of the time she does.

The Late Show is Michael Connelly's 30th novel (in 25 years). Renee Ballard is his first new series character since Mickey Haller made his debut way back in 2005, and like Haller, she is instantly convincing. The novel starts with her shift: moving quickly with her through a busy night highlighted by a mass killing. You're already into Ballard's head before you begin to learn the backstory, and when she's slow to pass on a case, and manoeuvres to stay in the loop on the big one, you know what she's all about.

I interviewed Michael Connelly in front of a sellout crowd at Waterstone's Piccadilly to celebrate publication of The Late Show, and suggested that, in F Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, 'character is action', and this book, like the Bosch series, like most of his books, was driven by the character of its protagonist. He said he always had a one-word description of each character in his mind: for Bosch it was 'relentless' (which ruined my next question, which would have been about Harry's 'dogged persistence'), while for Ballard it was 'fierce'.

And fierce she is, relentlessly fierce. It is Ballard's character that makes the novel work, and draws the reader in. She is both unusual and believable. She marches to the beat of a different drummer, finishing her shifts and often surfing and sleeping in a tent on the beach. At times it seems she is running on a store of built up resentment, a refusal to let things lie, that is fierce indeed.

There are comparisons to be made with Bosch, some of which Connelly himself hadn't noticed, or played down in favour of concentrating on the differences. She lost her father, with whom she lived after her parents split, early, so she was, like Bosch, alone as she grew up, despite the presence of her grandmother, at whose house she lives when she needs a house or a grandmother. Her partner, Jenkins, is similar in some ways to Bosch's Jerry Edgar: he's basically a good cop, a loyal partner, but he has other things on his mind too, so keeps the job in its place.

Obviously, Ballard is at odds with at least part of the LAPD bureaucracy, which is a defining point with Bosch. This is a key to The Late Show, because as the stories intertwine, her partner's old betrayal, and the lieutenant's animosity, both figure large.
The story resolves itself with a set-piece scene that works, but will likely work better on a screen: I asked Michael if he had considered that, or if the one hand he keeps on the Bosch TV series had an influence, and he replied that neither was a conscious decision. One thing about the character-driven series novels Connelly writes, they continue to work as procedural thrillers as well.

Ballard is too good a character not to reappear soon, and Connelly is too good a series writer not to draw Harry Bosch into her orbit, or her into his, somewhere along the line. As he said, he likes to plant seeds in his novels, which he can bring to full flowering in the future. Until then, the future is now, and it's Renee Ballard. This one's a keeper.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly
Orion, £19.99, ISBN 9781409145547

This review will also appear at Crime Time (crimetime.co.uk)

ON THE NAMING OF CARRIERS & THE HONOURING OF PRESIDENTS, AND OTHERS

Today Donald Trump, former star of The Apprentice and currently playing President of the United States and Tweeter in Chief, gets to play George Bush Top Gun soldier as he will commission the USS Gerald R Ford, in his words 'the biggest aircraft carrier in the world'. The ship will be a stirring tribute to a world leader whose major accomplishments were sabotaging the Warren Commission, pardoning Richard Nixon, falling down airplane stairs, and telling New York City to (metaphorically) 'drop dead'.

But there is a certain protocol to the naming of U.S. Navy ships after former Presidents. Consider this list:

Teddy Roosevelt (Republican): Nimitz-class supercarrier
Woodrow Wilson (Democrat, wartime president): submarine
Harding ( Rep, most corrupt adminstration before Reagan) nothing
Coolidge (Rep, didn't speak) nada
Hoover (Rep, Great Depression) zilch
Frank D Roosevelt (Dem, former asst secretary of Navy, wartime president, elected 4 times): destroyer Roosevelt, also honoring his wife Eleanor...pictured above left
Harry Truman (Dem, dropped A bomb, started CIA, pursued Commies): Nimitz supercarrier
Dwight Eisenhower (Rep, commander of allied forces in Europe WWII): Nimitz super carrier
John Kennedy (Dem, decorated PT Boat commander in WWII, assassinated) Kennedy-class carrier to be replaced by a Nimitz-class
Lyndon B Johnson (Dem, Navy reserve in WWII, sort of wartime president): destroyer
Richard Nixon (Rep, quitter) zip
Gerry Ford (Rep, see above, served in Navy in WWII): super-carrier
Jimmy Carter (Dem, Naval Academy graduate): submarine
Ronald Reagan (Rep, made movies during WWII, colluded in treason with hostage takers in Iran, pursued illegal war in Nicaragua, most corrupt administration before Bush II): Nimitz supercarrier
George HW Bush (Rep, decorated Navy pilot in WWII, joint-architect of treason with Iranian hstage takers, invasion interruptus in Iraq): Nimitz supercarrier
Bill Clinton (Dem, draft-dodger, blow-job receiver): don't even think about it
George W Bush (Rep, failed and still-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq based on knowing lies, most corrupt administration since Reagan, dodged draft via National Guard & went AWOL on that, made 'mission accomplished' landing on carrier, thus far 14 years prematurely): His Time Will Come

Do you notice a pattern here? If you haven't, here's a short-cut:
Republicans: 5 ships, 5 super carriers
Democrats: 6 ships, 2 carriers, 2 destroyers, 2 submarines)

It's as if they're taking advice from Fox News.

The naming of ships is the responsibility of the Secretary of Navy. Traditionally, battleships (extinct) were named after states; cruisers after cities; destroyers after war heroes; submarines after fish, until nuclear missile subs came along and were named after 'statesmen', especially those who encouraged wartime procurement. Carriers were traditionally named after battles (eg: USS Yorktown) except for the Enterprise, carrying on the name of a famous warship. Modern supercarriers are named for presidents, except for the Vinson and Stennis, named for congressional committee chairmen who gave the military more money than even they wanted. Both Vinson and Stennis were staunch and virulent segregationists, while Vinson also gets extra points for having defected from the Democrats to the Republicans when Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed. They seem out of place among the carriers, even among the lineup of B grade presidents.

Interestingly, Obama's Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus (former governor of Mississippi) who served through both Obama terms, thus becoming the longest-serving Secretary of the Navy since World War I, came under huge metaphoric fire for trying to name some smaller ships, including the submarine Lyndon Johnson cited above, after, wait for it, Democrats)! They included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (a littoral ship, sort of a modern PT boat), and auxillary ships after Congressman John Lewis, a hero of civil rights; the late Congressman Ray Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress; Cesar Chavez, the civil rights activist and a Navy veteran; and Harvey Milk, a Korean War Navy veteran and city supervisor of San Francisco, assassinated because of his gay activism. Cue your seamen jokes. The photo above right was posted by the 'American Families Association'. You can guess how they felt about honoring Harvey Milk.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

REISSUES & REMAKES: THE GRADUATE MEETS THE BEGUILED

As movie posters go, the one for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman's Benji staring in stunned bewilderment at Anne Bancroft's outstretched black-stockinged leg, Mrs. Robinson's temptation, is one of the best. Simple, effective, even haunting, it encapsulate's the thrust of the film and reveals much about both characters.

Even if it leg, as it turned out, really belonged to Linda Gray, who confessed just a few years ago that she'd been called in to pose for the photo and been paid $25.

So imagine my surprise as I walked past our local hall and I saw a poster for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman standing in a sort of mini-jungle with a big cat behind his shoulder. I had to cross the street to look close up: the Hoffman looks like an artist's rendering of a botoxed version of young Dustin. But I was still trying to figure out the cat until it came to me: Cougar!

Forget a female Dr. Who. The Graduate has now become a movie to be sold as a tale of a boy and his cougar. Plastics? The marketing guys wouldn't get it. It's got all the subtlety of that TV show with Courtney Cox. 'That's good!' they'd say. 'Friends sells!'

I was probably not in the best frame of mind to receive such a re-booting of a classic film, since a couple of days ago I listened to a powerfully anodyne discussion of Sofia Coppola's remake of Don Siegel's offbeat classic The Beguiled. It was one of those discussions framed by Coppola's best director prize at Cannes, and the residue of Siegel and star Clint Eastwood's heavily masculine approach to the film, yet the panel were incapable of suggesting any real virtue in the film. It looked very pretty, the dresses were far too nice for the situation (girls' school, Civil War, hard times) and the only black character, the maid Hattie, had been written out of the story, so all the cooking and cleaning and ironing happened as if by magic, as it would if you were Sofia Coppola or you were making another movie set in Versailles. So no one really liked the film, but only Tom Sutcliffe, the host, appeared to have seen the original, and he was being very cautious about endorsing Clintonian misogyny.

Then I read the Sight & Sound review, which tried to pretend the remake was based not on the original film, but a new take on Thomas Cullinan's novel, which would make more sense were not the screenplay of the Siegel film, by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (writing as John B Sherry and Grimes Grice) credited. You can fool Sight & Sound but you can't fool the Writers' Guild. The reviewer ended by praising the wonderful bits of embiguity Coppola had inserted. Like the amputation of McBurney's leg. Were they punishing him or saving his life? Oh now there's one that never occurred to Siegel. Nor demanning him, symbolically. Sheesh. They just weren't sensitive enough to make a small masterpiece some big name could come along and remake.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

CHUCK BLAZER:THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Chuck Blazer, the US soccer supremo whose testimony pulled back the curtain on the high level of corruption in FIFA, is online at the Guardian. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. Blazer was an interesting case study, and I was lucky in the sense that I knew enough about the situation, and knew people with far more knowledge of it, to be able to see both sides of the equation. It was important to note the impact Blazer had on the growth of the game in America, particularly in terms of the success of the national teams and the added exposure he got for them. The US still suffers from minnow status in the big world of football: they can go into the World Cup ranked a tier below Mexico even when they have beaten the Mexicans and won their group. But as I never tire of pointing out to British soccer moonies, the men's national team has had a success rate in the World Cup very much comparable to England's, the difference being no one in America really cares.

I also was able to speak, or at least write, with experience of FIFA. I had been doing business with them in the days when Sepp Blatter was the General Secretary and Joao Havelange was the President, and Blatter's reputation was as an 'honest broker' whom you could trust to see a deal through. Times change. Otherwise, writing it was easy, in the sense that Blazer was a larger-than-life character in any sense; I smell the makings of a TV movie, with John Goodman in the starring role. The hardest part was cutting out stories that were entertaining but didn't suit the obit. The macaw, however, made the cut.

Otherwise it is pretty much as I wrote it, with a couple of I think telling omissions.The first came with the mention of Prince William appearing in Chuck's blog. What I had actually written at that point was:  

alongside those (pictures) of Blazer with British royalty and football stars. 'Royalty treated him like royalty,' an anonymous colleague told the New York Daily News, 'because they wanted to host the World Cup and were slavering for the money that could be made buying and selling the beautiful game'.  

This was a reference to the failed British bid for the World Cup, which crashed amidst a 'fury,' as the tabloids would have it, of accusations of bribery. Which turned out to be true, but probably didn't actually take the event away from Britain anyway. But the ideal royals could be slavering for money was apparently beyond the pale.
The second was at the end, in the mention of his survivors. There I wrote:
Blazer is survived by his son Jason, a physio therapist who served as CONCACAF's head of medicine, and his daughter Marci, a lawyer who served on FIFA's legal committee.

I thought that the mention of their positions within world football was a telling point to make, for obvious nepotistic reasons. It wasn't the only case in FIFA history, that's for sure, including Sepp's nephew the travel agent. The paper also had some doubt about his cause of death. When he was hospitalized in 2015, it was reported as colon cancer. His lawyer's statement about his death said he died of rectal cancer. I didn't think it was a cause for omission.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S TRUNK MUSIC: MY SPECTATOR REVIEW 20 YEARS ON

Tonight I will be interviewing Michael Connelly at Waterstones in Piccadilly, to celebrate publication of his 30th novel, The Late Show, which features a new main character, LAPD night shift detective Renee Ballard. As I prepared for the interview I realised that I wrote my first review of Connelly 20 years ago. The novel was Trunk Music (his fifth Harry Bosch novel, and his sixth overall) and the review was published in the Spectator. It was, I think, his first major review in this country. Not long after that, I met Michael when he was reading in Melbourne, Florida, and I've been lucky enough to stay in touch, and to be asked to write an afterword to his collection of journalism, Crime Beat. So I thought I'd reprint that first review, from the Spectator, 8 March 1997. I also discovered that Connelly was mis-spelled throughout, and I've finally corrected that. One line from the close of the review was used as a blurb on any number of Michael's later books, which more than made up for the typo!

THE BEST FROM AMERICA

TRUNK MUSIC
by Michael Connelly
Orion,£16.99, pp.375

The Los Angeles inhabited by LAPD detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch resembles the paintings of his Flemish namesake. Horrors lie underneath the surface of a garden of earthly delights. The classical gives way to the modern; Trunk Music, Michael Connelly’s fifth Bosch novel, is also the first post-OJ police novel; the ghosts of Judge Itoh and Johnnie Cochrane are never far from the thoughts of cops like Bosch, nor from Bosch’s real Nemeses: lawyers, politicians, and police administrators.

When the body of soft-core porn video-maker Tony Aliso is found in the trunk of his car with two .22 shells in his skull, on a hill overlooking a concert in the Hollywood Bowl, it appears to be a classic mob hit (“trunk music”). The trail leads Bosch quickly to Las Vegas, and to an apparent solution. It also leads him back to a woman who betrayed him, in the very first Bosch novel, The Black Echo. The situation may seem old hat but Connelly makes it work by constantly confounding your expectations as he finds new angles to pursue. His stories have more twists and turns than Mullholland Drive, but they never divert you from where they should be going. Because the murder is only part of the story, the rest is Harry Bosch, his character, and his conflicts with authority, the forces of control whose toes he inevitably steps on. “Who polices the police who police the police?” is a favourite Bosch line.

Character is action, said Fitzgerald, and the way Connelly gets to the core of the situation through Bosch suggests the genre’s best writers. If Bosch resembles Hammett’s Continental Op, a lone wolf who’s honest in a corrupt world, the woman who betrayed him is his Brigit O’Shaugnessy. Trunk Music also recalls Chandler’s relishing of the sleazy Hollywood milieu and his use of Las Vegas as a contemporary Bay City, where respectable people go to be bad, and bad people go to help them. The hothouse corruption of Aliso’s wife and the deserted settings in the Hollywood hills smack of Chandler at his best.

There is no new ground broken in Connelly’s prose style, but he writes with sensitivity to nuance, the kind of undercurrent often missed in conversation. He is particularly good in the interplay of verbal and psychological warfare. This was shown best in The Last Coyote (1995) , where Bosch fences with the police psychologist who must decide if he is fit to return to duty after he has assaulted his chief, the wonderfully named Harvey “98” Pounds (as in the American equivalent of 7 stone weakling). 

Bosch uses his suspension to investigate the murder of his mother, a prostitute, who gave him his name because she had no father’s name to use. There is more than a hint of James Ellroy in the pursuit of this case, which leads to revelations of Chinatown-like corruption. Although he lacks the innovative prose fire of Ellroy, Connelly has the skill to create a powerful new story out of familiar materials to create a new story with its own power.

After The Last Coyote, Connelly changed gears with The Poet (1996), a serial killer novel which is interesting, but hampered by the use of a reporter as its protagonist. The journalist, oddly, lacks the psychic empathy to the killer that the cop may have, the kind of feeling for criminals that Bosch has. The Poet, of course, became a best-seller in America. Trunk Music marks Bosch’s return, and lives up to the high standard of The Last Coyote. This is the strongest crime series being written in America right now, and Trunk Music gets an unqualified recommendation.