Thursday, 28 February 2019

BETWEEN US (LOGATO): a poem from Italian Sonatas

I've been working a series of small poems, titled Italian Sonatas. This is one of them; they originate in little notes I've discovered in my notebooks and files, from the early Eighties. There is a theme....



Between Us (Logato)

There is nothing
soft, except
the way that night

Escapes your eyes
& drapes itself,
laughing light,

Round the arcs
Of shooting stars
Lost in their flight.






 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

COLIN KAEPERNICK & THE NFL: THE BUSINESS AND THE GAME

Last week when Colin Kaepernick's collusion suit against the NFL was settled, I wrote about what the settlement meant, and the issues behind it. If you don't subscribe to my Friday Morning Tight End column at Patreon.com, you can now find the column at Arc Digital, here. A quick summary: the settlement has very little to do with knees, and lots to do with owners; note that I wrote it before Robert Kraft took his chauffeur-driven Bentley down to the Orchids Of Asia....

https://arcdigital.media/colin-kaepernick-the-business-and-the-game-37be3626619?sk=03f72df243354388786af77d496c1587

Monday, 25 February 2019

JOE IDE'S IQ

Isaiah Quintabe is a detective, a community problem-solver in the run-down East Long Beach area of LA. He doesn't get paid much, some muffins, a chicken, whatever. But one day his former friend Dodson, a small-time hustler with big-time attitude, brings him a case with a juicy payday: a drug-addled rap star whose life is being threatened, whose entourage contains nothing but suspects, and an attempted murder by a trained giant pit bull who recalls an urban Hound of the Baskervilles.

IQ is not a black Sherlock Holmes, of course: just listen to his lecture about inductive versus deductive logic. But he's as close as it's going to get in Los Angeles, and with Dodson as his even-more-unlikely Dr. Watson, he's soon caught up with a vicious killer for hire who has him firmly in his sights.

If this were simply a Holmes pastiche dressed up for modern LA, this first novel would be nothing memorable but two things make it stand out. First is Joe Ide's deft handling of character and dialogue, which allows the characters space to make the story move, rather than letting it be driven solely by plot. But even more impressive is the way Ide structures the story, taking it back to Isaiah's childhood, the death of his older brother, and his former relationship with Dodson, to fill in not only how he became IQ, but the wider picture of the environment, the hood, and the lives of the people who live there. There is a good analogy with the Holmes stories: part of their enduring charm is the portrayal of the world around Holmes and Watson, and the ways in which they navigate it: Ide had done much the same thing for IQ and his LA.

This is as impressive a first novel as I've encountered in years; which is not a daring thing to say as it was nominated for the Edgar for Best First Novel. I got the same sort of buzz I did when I read Walter Mosley's first, for much the same reasons. Easy and IQ are a nice comparison, though no one is a Mouse. It works because IQ is not a gimmick detective, but because for all his exceptional skills, he is a real character, one smart enough but not quite as worldly as you might think, which allows the rest of the cast to bounce off him. Which, when you think about it, is what Holmes does too. Though Watson is no way as hip as Dodson.

IQ by Joe Ide
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £8.99 ISBN 978147460718 

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

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

FOLLOWING THE FALCON IN MEXICO

After watching John Ford's The Seas Beneath over Christmas (see my essay on it here), I mentioned the Argentine actress Mona Maris, who was one of the most interesting characters in that film, and who, as if by coincidence, turned out to play a part in a Falcon movie I came across, one of the few I had never before seen.

The Falcon In Mexico is one of the Tom Conway Falcons; you'll recall he replaced his brother, George Sanders, when Sanders wanted out of what Saint creator Leslie Charteris called the 'bargain-basement Saint'  series. (I wrote about the best of the series, The Falcon Takes Over, based on Raymond Chandler's Murder My Sweet, here). Sanders' Gay Lawrence was replaced by his brother's Tom Lawrence, and adjustments were made for Conway's lesser talent. It is Conway at his most hapless; RKO wanted to play the Falcon for more laffs than the Saint, and made the most of Conway's trademark double-take,which, especially when women are confusing him at the same time he is being irresistible to them, has to be see to be disbelieved.

The story is actually a fairly complicated parlour mystery, built around the murder of an art dealer in New York, and the disappearance of a new painting by an artist, Humphrey Wade, who is supposed to be dead. Lawrence had been conned into breaking into the gallery by Dolores Ybarra, a young Mexican woman who claimed to have modeled for the painting. Of course Tom now finds himself in the frame, if you'll excuse the expression, for the killing, but he goes on the lam pronto.

The trail takes him to the artist's daughter Mona (played by Martha MacVicar, soon to be renamed Martha Vickers by Warner Bros.) who is haunted, she believes, by her father's ghost, and thence to Mexico, where her father lived and worked (and which enabled RKO to use some of Orson Welles' stock shots from his never-finished Brazilian film, It's All True). There they meet Maris, playing Wade's widow, and her slick new husband Anton, who's in the Falcon's face PDQ. A Wade collector, 'Lucky Diamond' Hughes (perhaps to distinguish him from Howard Hughes?) shows up trying to chase down the stolen 'new' painting. Emory Parnell plays Hughes with a combination of bluster and sneaky greed that is delightful, if a bit embarrassing (check him out in his jammies when The Falcon breaks in on him).

Dolores soon turns up dead, so throw in the local taxi driver (Nestor Paiva), his son, the mysterious hotel clerk (Mary Currier, a kind of B move Bette Davis), cops and Dolores' father and you've got a twisty mystery that Conway struggles to solve.

Maris (second right in the photo right) is again one of the best things about the film; she has more range than most of the actors involved, though her role doesn't necessarily demand it. She gets second-billing, after Conway, and deserves that, perhaps because this was her second Falcon pic; she played in Sanders' second one, A Date With The Falcon, as the exotic femme fatale who involves him with a gang trying to get a formula for artificial diamonds, which coincidentally prevents his marriage to long-term fiance Wendy Barrie, who, for all her pizazz, isn't as interesting as Maris.

Paiva as Manuel, the taxi driver (center in the picture above), does a nice job of insinuating more than the usual Mexican cliches in his role, but the hidden star is MacVicar (left). She seems to be sleepwalking through much of the movie, but then, when the mystery becomes clear, you realise that has been the effect of his haunting--and the closing scenes when he is 'herself' again her vitality jumps off the screen. It is no surprise Warners had things in mind for her, and it was her bad luck to have her part in The Big Sleep reduced when the film was re-edited to emphasize the Bogart-Bacall relationship, following their success in To Have And Have Not. I wrote about that for Crime Time many years ago, perhaps I'll need to revisit the piece myself. In the meantime, this is a fun episode of the Falcon series, helped by the setting and especially by the two actress leads.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

LIAM NEESON AND DEATH WISH: THE ANATOMY OF A CONTROVERSY

In the days of click-bait celebrity journalism, identity-politics opinion, and memory that extends no farther than the last hit of the 'delete' key, it was hard to figure out exactly what it was that actor Liam Neeson had done forty years ago after a 'close friend' had been raped that merited the headlines it generated. The rapist had been a black man, and the tabloids, both printed and virtual, screamed that Neeson had gone out on the streets looking to kill a black man in revenge. And of course the tabloid headlines generated more 'serious' reflection. One opinion piece in Britain's Guardian explained that Neeson confessed to having 'entertained a racist lynching fantasy' and gone 'looking for a black man to murder'.

But what Neesom had actually said was something not so subtly different, and it rang a warning bell in my head, as it should have done for anyone with a passing knowledge of popular film. Neeson told the online newspaper The Independent that he had packed a cosh and gone to black neighbourhoods hoping 'to be approached...that some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me so I could kill him'. So he was a man seeking vengeance for a rape going out and making himself an obvious target so he could exact his revenge? I've seen that movie.

It was called Death Wish, based on the novel of the same name by the recently deceased Brian Garfield, and it starred Charles Bronson and was directed by Michael Winner in 1975, and thus not long before the incident Neeson described. It was a huge hit, and it's not unlikely that the 23 year old Neeson saw it. Bronson plays a Paul Kersey, a New York City architect whose wife is murdered and daughter raped by a gang of intruders (including Jeff Goldblum in his first film appearance). He begins setting himself up as an obvious target for muggers, then kills them.

So rather than seeking out any black man as a revenge victim, Neeson was specifically looking to be attacked, so his vengeance might be justified. Obviously, he never acted out those impulses, possibly because his local community, normally a hothouse of revenge violence, was unwilling or unable to provide the requisite bastards to have a go at him, but the whole thing is so close to the plot of Death Wish to suggest he may have been acting out a movie fantasy in his head. Which is still something for which he can indeed still feel ashamed.

Perhaps we should remember that although he was not an actor then, Liam Nesson is one now, and actors do tend to see the world as an extension of the movies. Let's set some more background here: Neeson gave his interview on a promotional tour for his new movie, Cold Pursuit, in which he plays a snow-plow driver seeking revenge against the drug dealers he thinks murdered his son. The film is a remake of the Norwegian thriller In Order Of Disappearance, and Neeson's casting is rather like Winner's casting of Bronson, because like Bronson, Neeson is best-known for his action hero movies.

In Garfield's original novel, Paul (called Benjamin) is an accountant. The book was originally adapted by screenwriter Wendell Mayes for director Sidney Lumet, the Michelangelo of New York City's urban decay in the Seventies, and was to star Jack Lemmon. In Garfield's words, the story was that of 'an ordinary guy who descends into madness'. It was meant to recall the adage about digging two graves when you embark on revenge. But when producer Dino DeLaurentis acquired the rights, Lumet backed off the project and Winner (whom Garfield called 'an idiot') was brought on board, along with Bronson, with whom he had a successful working relationship. In Winner's subtle hands, the violence was played with voyeuristic celebration, something perhaps more deserving of apology than Neeson's own fantasies. Bronson, of course, became an heroic figure. Enough to propel Death Wish to four film sequels, a fifth film based on Garfield's own sequel, Death Sentence, and a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis, which I have not yet seen because frankly, life is too short.

In his interview, Nesson mentioned his growing up in Northern Ireland, during what are euphemistically called 'The Troubles'. He grew up seeing the urge, the constant demand, for vengeance played out all around him. His film career reflects that, especially the series of Taken movies, in which he avenges himself on kidnappers. Cold Pursuit was getting none of the buzz of a Taken film, and indeed opened to disappointing returns in the US, bringing in the worst box office for any Neeson action film since Darkman in 1990, his introduction to the genre. Which leads to the question of why Neeson felt now was the moment to unroll this forty-year old fantasy tale of revenge?

The original novel was called Death Wish because Paul Benjamin was acting out his own death wish, and Brian Garfield wanted to show his vengeance was leading to his own self-destruction. Winner and Bronson's version was more celebratory of Paul's transformation. Ambiguity persists.

Was Neeson's a bold confession, aimed at pointing out this futility of revenge? Or was he seeing, as Michael Winner had, a simpler vision, that, as Rap Brown reminded us,'violence is as American as cherry pie', and thus he was using his own life to bolster his standing as an action-hero purveyor of violence? Or was he merely conflating his fantasies with a deeper reality?

The link between films and reality is especially strong in Neeson's own life, where the tragedy of his wife Natasha Richardson's death recalled one his own most moving roles, in the days before he became the Charles Bronson de nos jours, in Ethan Frome. Eschewing cynicism, it would not be unreasonable to believe that Neeson was not simply promoting his latest, that he would feel drawn to unburden himself of a memory of great unpleasantness in order to remind viewers that his characters in films are just that, only characters in only movies, and reality is much more cruel. If that be the case, he should be faulted only for not realising that the sins of the past are today grist less for deep reflection than for the internet mill of short-lived high-flame outrage.