Thursday 31 July 2014


My obituary of Thomas Berger is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, except that my final line was omitted, which I thought was a shame, since it was a quote from Berger: 'real life is unbearable for me unless I can escape into fiction.'

I may have been a little harsh in calling him a 'recluse'. He appears to have been, like JD Salinger, not trying to avoid the world, not a hermit, but merely fed up with the business of the literary world, and trying to avoid its distraction. Like Salinger, he appears to have been very much a part of his small-town community. And unlike Salinger, he produced his fiction steadily.

That fiction was something he, and the reader, could escape into. You often got the sense in his novels that he was following not the plot, or the character, but the way the prose sounded, what he might call 'the tone', and that if you were not in tune with that you might be missing a great deal. He was a playful novelist (though that term would probably make him bristle, as he was deadly serious about it) in the post-modern sense.

A number of writers have claimed that Little Big Man is not his best book, which is fair game. But a few years ago in the Guardian someone named Tom Cox outsmarted us all by saying it was 'far from Berger's best novel'. On the contrary, what the picaresque epic style does is allow Berger to mix his tones, and the changes fit so well with each of Crabb's tales it keeps the reader involved.

Sometimes I got the sense, as in Teddy Villanova that Berger was trying to say something about the hard-boiled genre itself that I wasn't getting, or that wasn't particularly new. But it is that need to comment on, if not deconstruct, with his fiction, that reminded me of the Coens, and made me think they would be well-matched with a novel like The Feud.

I read somewhere that Berger was one of the last major novelists who served in World War II. James Salter springs to mind as one who is still with us, but I am hard-pressed to think of another. I tend to link Berger with slightly younger writers who dove into what the critics began calling meta-fictions, like Barth or Pynchon.But it's not a strong parallel because truly he was one of a kind.


Television has overtaken Arne Dahl. The small problem with the publishing of his 'new' novel, written in 2000, is that fans who watch the torrent of Scandinavian series on BBC4 will have seen the two-part adaptation of it last year. It's a small problem because the writing is a different enough experience, and the time-frame is long enough, for this to be a unique experience worth savoring on its own.

I wrote about Dahl's Blinded Man last year (you can link to that here) and pointed out its place in the Sjowall/Wahloo and Henning Mankell tradition, but how Paul Hjelm, Dahl's erstwhile lead character, actually isn't a protagonist in the same way as Martin Beck or Wallander. Dahl's sense of the team dynamic is very strong, and it is that dynamic that carries the books, and the TV series, though in different ways for each. In fact, on television, it is the casting which helps give the characters depth, and oddly enough, the one bit of casting that doesn't seem to reflect the novels is Shanti Roney, a bit too young and edgy for Hjelm. They've also changed Hultin, the unit commander, to a woman, but that actually works fine.

The novel begins with the Intercrime unit having been disbanded, after the events of Bad Blood, but they are reunited when a series of crimes – a prisoner being blown up in a maximum security prison, a massacre in a bar, and attacks on a major drug lord all seem to tie together. What makes it more interesting is that Gunnar Nyberg, the former Mr. Sweden, has been working with the paedophile unit, and is torn about whether to give up that work or return. Eventually, of course, that strand will intersect the others, in effect making the decision for him.

It's a fine story. Dahl works easily with complicated plots, and only once has to resort to the helpful hand of coincidence: Aarto Sodersted, the Finnish-Swede, is checking the personals in the Swedish equivalent of Car Buyer, and finds an important clue. Dahl's tried to set up the likelihood, but it still seems a catching point. On television, of course, such coincidences can be sped past in the car chase of resolution, which is an advantage.

But what makes the story work so well is Dahl's handling of characters. He's deft at giving out enough of his cops' emotions to create dilemmas within the story, but he's almost as good with the supporting cast and the villains, keeping point of view firmly in line, and thus creating the framework of a classic whodunit but filling it in with the depth of conflict which makes this one of the very best police procedural series being written anywhere.

To The Top Of The Mountain by Arne Dahl

Harvill Secker £14.99 ISBN 9781846558085

This review will also appear in Crime Time (

Sunday 27 July 2014

A RED KLOTZ LIMERICK (for Steve Springer)

As a boy I was thrilled by Red Klotz.
Generals' master of long distance shots.
Red's old two-handed sets
Were as good as it gets.
When he swished them I wanted to plotz.


My obituary of Red Klotz appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, you can link to it here. Oddly enough, I had sold it to the editor based on my lede, which the subs then edited out.  There were a few other small changes, like 'second bananas' became 'fall guys' and of course excisions: they were hugely skeptical of the figure of 14,000 losses even after I explained the Globetrotters' traveling schedule, and in the end they left that out.And there was one large change that rankled: someone added the line 'But the scorecard of Fate could not be fooled' at the end of the second graf, which might suit EW Swanton writing about cricket match, but didn't suit Red Klotz, or me.

I met Red once, around 1988 when I was troubleshooting their performance in West Berlin for ABC's Wide World Of Sports. The big story was Nancy Lieberman playing for the Generals (and married to the Generals' Tim Cline, though when she came out to dinner with us it was on her own); she'd signed just after Lynette Woodard, the first woman to play with Globetrotters, had left their team. The other story, of course, was Berlin, and ABC wanted to show the Globetrotters in East Berlin, but the German officials and DDRF (television) had denied my request. So I hired one of the tour buses that made the trip every day, just for us, and then explained to the driver that no, we weren't going to the Pergemon, or the Telecom Tower, we wanted to see the basketball courts. So we cruised around, and found a playground, and the Globetrotters got out and with our cameras running, started to play. A crowd gathered quickly, they interacted, and inevitably the Vopos showed up soon after. We argued, pretended to stop filming, eventually got back on the bus, and left, looking for another court. After the third time, we had enough tape, and returned to the West. At some point, probably at the performance, I was talking to Red, who of course was fine with women playing on his team and their opponents, and I told him the story. I said something like 'you should've come along' and he said 'no, the Globetrotters do that stuff, not us. They're the Globetrotters.' For some reason, I thought that was funny. Here's the piece as I wrote it:

In sport there are winners, there are losers, and then there are the Washington Generals. The public face of the Generals, who served as the regular opposition and straight-men for the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, was for more than four decades Red Klotz, who has died aged 93. By conservative estimate Klotz came out on the losing side to the clown princes of basketball more than 14,000 times. He lost in 117 countries, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, in a bull-ring, before H.M. the Queen, in the Amazon rain-forest and in a German football stadium before 75,000 people, playing on a plywood floor set on beer barrels. He lost playing under aliases like New York Nationals, International All-Stars, Atlantic City Seagulls and Boston Shamrocks. He called himself the 'loss leader', but quickly lost count. 'It's easier to keep track of the wins,' he said.

It was easier because there was only one, though Klotz always claimed a scorekeeper's error had stolen a Generals victory in 1962. But there was no mistake on 5 January 1971, in Martin, Tennessee. With seconds remaining, Klotz hit his trademark old-fashioned two-hand set shot from 20 feet out, giving his team, that night playing as the New Jersey Reds, a 100-99 victory. The crowd was stunned. 'Beating the Globetrotters was like shooting Santa Claus,' he said.

Ironically, Klotz came to his calling because he was a winner. Born Louis Herman Klotz on 21 October 1920, in Philadelphia, where his father, an immigrant from Russia, was a carpenter, his nickname came from his hair. Despite standing only 5 foot 7, he led South Philadelphia High School to two city championships. He played at Villanova University for two years before joining the army in 1942, serving as a fitness instructor. After the war, he played for the Philadelphia Sphas (an acronym for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) in the American Basketball League, then joined the Baltimore Bullets of the Basketball Association of America, winning the 1948 championship of the league which the following season became the National Basketball Association. He remains the shortest player to win an NBA title.

He returned to the Sphas, who beat the Globetrotters two games out of three on a barnstorming tour in 1949. The NBA integrated in 1950; in those days the Globetrotters showcased the skills of the nation's best black players against whatever opposition they could find. Although they could still beat some NBA teams through the Fifties, Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein saw the writing on the wall and in 1952 asked Klotz to put together a team to provide regular opposition and allow his team to become entertainers. Naming them Generals after President Dwight Eisenhower, Klotz owned and ran the team, coached it, and became its most memorable player.

For decades the sight of the tiny Klotz chasing Curly Neal or Meadowlark Lemon as they dribbled circles around him or having balls bounced off his head as he jumped futilely at a taller player, served as a metaphor for an audience with dreams but no hope of playing basketball at the highest level.Then Klotz retreated long distances from the basket and sank two-handed shots, restoring a glimmer of that hope.

Klotz played for the Generals until he was in his 60s, and coached them until 1995. He chose players who understood their role as second bananas, but insisted they always played to win within those limitations. And in 1988 Klotz and the Generals made history when forward Tim Cline married the team's point guard, Nancy Lieberman.

After retiring Klotz passed control of the team to one of his sons-in-law, but he continued to play pick-up basketball on local courts well into his eighties. In 2011, the Globetrotters retired his jersey number when he joined Neal, Lemon, and three others (note: Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum, Wilt Chamberlain; I left that out of the Telegraph's copy) in the team's Ring of Honor. A biography, The Legend of Red Klotz, by Tim Kelly, appeared last year. He died of cancer 12 July 2014 at home in Margate, New Jersey, and is survived by his wife of 72 years, Gloria, three sons and three daughters. As he once told an interviewer, 'somebody had to make it a show.'

Wednesday 23 July 2014


Today I saw a post reminding us that we celebrate the birthdays of Edward Hopper and Raymond Chandler on successive days this week, and a brief essay of his which begins with a very apt comparison of Chandler's 'Red Wind' with Hopper's 'Nighthawks'. Check out Agnieszka Holland's version of the former, with Danny Glover and music by Jan Garbarek, from the Showtime series Fallen Angels, if you doubt it. Anyway, it reminded me of an essay I wrote, reviewing two books about Hopper, probably in late 1997 or early 1998, and which was published with very English indecent haste and minuscule payment, in London Magazine halfway through 1999. Which is 15 years ago, but it sprang to mind immediately when I read that post. So here it is... 


One scene from Wim Wenders’ recent film The End Of Violence meticulously recreates Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Since much of Wenders’ violent vision of Los Angeles is filtered through the peeping electronic eyes of a network of surveillance cameras, this ought to evoke the Hopperesque sense of our being intruders when we enter into a painted scene. Instead, Wenders’ appropriation of “Nighthawks” rings hollow, a conceit reflecting Hollywood’s love of both Hopper and classic film-noir, but confusing and conflating the two, as if the violence and powerlessness of that film genre were somehow Hopper’s too.


We know that Hopper and his wife Josephine were inveterate movie-goers. We know from Deborah Lyons’ research that Hopper began “Nighthawks” the day after seeing Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's film of Hemingway’s The Killers. But knowing that is not, in itself, enough to transform Hopper into Norman Rockwell’s evil twin.
The editors of Edward Hopper And The American Imagination have made the same false connection. These stories, poems, and essays were either written with Hopper in mind or supposedly reflect the spirit of his work. Most, ranging from a 1940 story by Norman Mailer to an excerpt from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, deal with bums, hobos, and stiffs, and have at least an undercurrent of overt violence. Grace Paley’s Italian cop shoots his adulterous wife, his kitchen and himself. Walter Mosley’s black youngster kills his retarded playmate. This is about as close to Hopper as the kitsch poster, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, which pre-empted Wenders and this book by inserting Elvis, Marilyn, Bogart, and James Dean into “Nighthawks”.
It's as if Hammett or Hemingway were filtered through the grist mill of 40s movies and 50s pulp novels, melodramatic in a way Hopper simply is not. Only James Salter’s story “Dusk” comes close, in its uncomfortable, awkward intimacy between two people still alone, and its imagery of light and shadow, to a Hopper scene. No story rings as false, however, as Tess Gallagher’s “From Moss Light” an embarrassingly self-absorbed poem, inevitably recalling Raymond Carver. Lines as arch as “a woman fond of wearing hats opined, 'chic chapeau!'” hardly relate to Hopper, much less illuminate him. Hopper and the American Imagination?

John Hollander’s poem, suggesting Hopper as abstract painter, throws some light on reality, and the non-fiction is far more telling than the fiction. Gail Levin’s essay on contemporary artists influenced by Hopper makes a similar, well-drawn comparison with Richard Diebenkorn, who has learned framing from the way Hopper uses architecture, both inside and out. Leonard Michaels’ essay on “New York Movie” compares Hopper to Wallace Stevens’ “plain sense of things”. A more interesting match might be Charles Ives. Both men have 20th century minds trapped in 19th century souls, and Hopper often seems to play awkwardly with the shapes of the visibly modern world. Though neither Ives nor Stevens was a full time artist.

There's another difference: Ives drew inspiration from his wife, Harmony, while Ed and Jo apparently waged lifelong battle. Yet it is to Jo that we owe the ledgers which are reproduced in Edward Hopper: A Journal Of His Work. Hopper provides a proportional sketch of each painting, and lists, in his sparse handwriting, the materials used. Beneath, in her flowery, expressive hand, Jo describes each painting, and its disposition. Her descriptions belie the melodrama some read into his work. Jo may reserve some bitchy vitriol for Ed’s female figures, or the way they dress, but the paintings ARE the stories. 

One of the things that attracts us to Hopper is the way his paintings leave themselves open to our imaginations. This is inevitable, given how his art insists on each object, including people, establishing its own space. He is a painter of distances: we look into scenes from odd angles, then discover light coming from two directions at once. Light does more than create mood; Hopper manipulates it to establish the relation between all the objects he paints. The two-dimensional sketches in the Journal make this obvious. This is why he has inspired generations of movie art directors and cameramen. But compare the figures in “Nighthawks” with the faces inside the diner in The Killers and you’ll see why the “mean streets” approach to Hopper is a dead end.
It is also why Hopper’s people stand alone, each the start of a lonely crowd. The 1981 film Heartbeat used Hopper's vision to give Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady a backdrop for their now-iconic search for America. The essential emptiness of the wide-open highway and the loneliness of the places it leads to is more Hopperesque than anything in Edward Hopper And The American Imagination is able to suggest. Thankfully the Journal is here to remind us of that.
edited by Deborah Lyons and Adam Weinberg
Norton/Whitney Museum, 253pp, £18.95 (paper)

edited by Deborah Lyons and Brian O’Doherty
Norton/Whitney Museum 104pp facsimile edition, £17.95

Sunday 13 July 2014


Politics often plays a huge part in Swedish thriller writing, but usually it's the politics of the past. Stieg Larsson's trilogy moved from who-dun-it to chase thriller before moving into politics in its third volume (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest), which centered, in the end, around the assassination of Olaf Palme, and the idea of elements of the Swedish state working against its elected government. This trope recurs constantly; in Henning Mankell's final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, the crime goes back to relations with allies, and subterfuge (literally) concerning the crisis of submarines caught in the Stockholm archipelago.

So it is no surprise that Andreas Norman's first novel should take up those themes, of the state within a state and the abuse of Swedish trust by allies. What is new and surprising is the way he does it, in the present day context of the war on terror, and Sweden as a part of the European Union.

Carina Dymek works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She's a career-minded, unexciting, dare we say boring, prototype Swede. On a trip to Brussels, after a meeting of the EU's committee on security, she is approached by stranger who claims to be an EU civil servant, and who hands her a memory stick. On it is a proposal for a unified EU security service, one which would have the right to spy on suspected terrorists in any EU state, and share such spying with EU allies, like the US.

Being a good civil servant, she immediately turns the stick over to her superiors back in Stockholm. And quickly finds herself suspended from her job, and being invetsigated as a potential terrorist. To make things worse, Carina has a boyfriend, a fellow civil servant called Jamal, born in Egypt, and within hours MI6 is in Stockholm, saying Jamal is a terrorist, and Dymek is part of a major terror plot to strike against the EU in Brussels. The Swedes assign one of their toughest agents, Bente Jensen to the case, and she soon discovers there is more going on than she, and her department, are being told.

There is a lot that is familiar from novels of paranoid conspiracy in Into A Raging Blaze, but what makes it work so well is Norman's familiarity with the milieu; he worked in the Swedish foreign ministry, and he is very good at conveying that sense of humdrum bureaucratic inevitability about the progress of this case. The novel starts slowly, but gradually gathers momentum as Dymek, in effect, goes on the run. There's a little of the deus ex machina of Larsson's trilogy; skilled hackers seem not only thick on the ground in Sweden but also remarkably accessible—after all it is a small country so everybody knows one. The story is forced to resolve itself somewhat mechanically—but not until Dyke herself has been rendered; a nice touch as Sweden's putative allies turn out to be taking liberties with Swedish liberties...this is the other subtext of much of Swedish political thriller writing, a sense of naivete, a willingness by sections of the democratic society to throw ideals away for a chance to play with the big boys.

What also helps this novel work well are the two main characters, both women, whose contrasts are evident, but whose similarities, while more subtle, are even more telling. If we think of Swedish society as being, in theory, fair and rational, it's interesting how it is left to the women in the tale to display those characteristics, and for the men to be the ones duped.

Because what is most chilling, and realistic in the wake of what the world now knows about the NSA and GCHQ and their massive spying on their citizenries and on those of putative allies, is that when an intelligence organisation chooses not to believe in something, facts don't matter. And Norman does a brilliant job of putting that idea into context by using a book of Arabic poetry send to Jamal by his uncle, whom MI6 are claiming is a terrorist. The idea of MI6 as literary critics is both amusing and frightening.

As with most thrillers of paranoia, unless the ending be tragic, it tends to be a little forced. But here there is a realistic element of unhappy resolution, enough to suggest that the abuses will continue and any checking will be only temporary. In the meantime, this thriller starts slowly, builds nicely, and manages to do a good job of putting the reader into the mind of the character whose position is rendered almost hopeless by the security state. An impressive debut.

Into A Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Quercus £12.99 ISBN 9781782066033

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday 12 July 2014


Appropriately enough, Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah. This was in Iowa; the name is the same as one of the greatest traditional American songs. He began singing professionally when he was two, country music, on the radio with the Haden Family Band. Polio turned him into a bass player, when it damaged his vocal chords. He followed his older brother on the upright bass, but he was more taken with classical music, especially Bach, and with jazz. When he was 20 he headed out to Los Angeles to study and to seek out Hampton Hawes. He played with Hawes, and Paul Bley, and Art Pepper, before he wound up in his first great band, the Ornette Coleman quartet, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, who were busy inventing 'free jazz'

It makes sense, because Coleman was from Texas, with a heavy blues influence, and he could hear the country roots in Haden's bass. There's a lot of modern jazz, particularly involving Bill Frisell, that sounds like what jazz would be had it come out of country rather than the blues, and there's a lot of that underlying Coleman's relentless improvisations. With Coleman, Haden pushed the bass out front.

He left Coleman to enter Synanon, which if you're not of a certain age won't mean anything to you, to kick his drug habit. When he came out he got busy as a sideman for everyone from John Handy to Bobby Timmons, Pee Wee Russell to Red Allen. Then he joined Keith Jarrett's 'American Quartet', Jarrett fresh from Charles Lloyd, along with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian. There's a lot of Coleman and Coltrane there, as there was when he began recording with Old And New Dreams: Cherry, Redman, and drummer Ed Blackwell.

That's probably where I came in, working my way back to Ornette. I was gone from Montreal by the time of the Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Carla Bley's always evolving big band—Montreal always seemed to have a special place for him. The 'Liberation' part wasn't taken lightly; Haden had been detained in Portugal when he performed his 'Song For Che' there, and he was quizzed by the FBI after he returned stateside. By the time I left Montreal for London I was firmly embedded in the ECM jazz world—Jarrett's European Quartet and Gary Burton led me to Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber as well as Old And New Dreams. But it wasn't until the mid-80s, when I was again living on my own, that Charlie Haden really made an impact on me.

I caught up with his albums with Garbarek and Egberto Gismondi. I was immensely taken by Quartet West; with the great and versatile sax man Ernie Watts, alongside Alan Broadbent and Larance Marable; by then I was also immersed in film noir and Haunted Heart, their first album, touched a nerve. It's an amazing record, not just for its original compositions, but for the songs sung by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, and Billie Holliday. Stafford's 'Haunted Heart' is so, well, haunted, that I ran out and got one of her collections, only to discover it was the arrangement and the quartet that set her voice free; it's its time it was buried under a lava flow of sickly sweet charts, apparently by her husband.

Haden had a wonderful partnership with Pat Metheny, which began with 80/81, with Michael Brecker and Jack DeJohnette alongside Dewey Redman, and the 1986 record Song X, a re-working of and homage to Ornette Coleman which confounded those who found Metheny too glib. They culminated in the 1996 classic Beyond The Missouri Sky; two Midwestern boys playing the most lovely duets imaginable. Go back to 'Shenandoah', whose subtitle is 'Across The Wide Missouri'. I've played the disc almost to death; it played a huge part in winning my second ex, and it played an even bigger part in helping me through the pain of the breakup a decade later.

What's amazing in the two decades from the early 90s is the range of music Haden was playing. Folk songs and spirituals with Hank Jones; Latin music with Gonzago Rubalcaba; with pianists John Taylor and Kenny Barron; with Ginger Baker (a great trio with Bill Frisell); with the Italian guitarist Antonio Forcioni, a disc which my late father-in-law gave me, and which I treasure. In 2008 he made another country record with a new version of the Haden family; his wife Ruth Cameron (listen to the lovely 'Waltz For Ruth' on Missouri Sky, or live in 2009 here) including his son-in-law Jack Black.

I've been listening to a lot of Haden lately. Not the daytime Haden, the trios with Gery Allen and Paul Motian, or Joe Henderson and Al Foster. But the nighttime Haden. There's a 2012 two-disc set called Magico: Carta de Amor; a live recording of that band with Garbarek and Gismonti. There's Live At Birdland (2011) with Lee Konitz, Motian, and pianist Brad Mehldau. Most of all there's Jasmine (2010), duets with Keith Jarrett. By this time Haden was suffering from post-polio syndrome; Jarrett of course had suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and come back a somewhat gentler player. Haden also suffered from tinnitus; he attributed it to the loudness of those early groups, and I've no doubt the polio left his ears more vulnerable; the quiet of his late work seems a just response to that. It suited the two of them, and their versions of standards resonate. They made a sequel, called Last Dance, which came out this year and topped Billboard's 'traditional' jazz chart.

I look back on what I've just written and it seems like a list—and a fairly incomplete list at that. I thought to myself, that doesn't do Charlie Haden justice, and then I realised that yes, it did. Because in a sense, I grew up in jazz with Charlie Haden. Everything from the freest of free modern jazz to the softest of ballads, as if to belie the jokes we used to make about ECM standing for European Chamber Music, or Exceedingly Caucasian Music, as much to belie the blackness of the post-bop era. I started flipping through my discs, and finding Haden on some where I'd forgotten he played. I wished I had the vinyl, those records that played on the turntable that sat on top of one speaker on the floor of the one closet in my tiny Montreal flat. I know tonight I will play a Charlie Haden disc as I lie in bed and wait for my mind to find its space in the night, and the melody of his bass will show my pulse the way to go.

Saturday 5 July 2014


My obituary of Louis Zamperini, the world-class miler who survived his bomber's crash into the Pacific, 47 days adrift in a rubber raft, and two years of torture as a Japanese prisoner of war, went up at the Guardian, appropriately enough, on the Fourth of July. You can link to it here.

There are a few changes from what I wrote. The obit as printed gives the impression Zamperini was a pilot; he was a bombardier. And it's unclear to me when his parents received notice that he was killed in action; 1944 makes more sense than 1943, but it may be that one was a personal note from President Roosevelt.

Also cut was the fact that Zamperini had been named Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade next New Year's Day, and that the organisers announced no replacement would be named. I also wrote briefly about his relationship with Hillenbrand, who called him a 'grandfather figure' when she took ill, and with Jolie.

And the lede graf was reordered somewhat. Of course, I like my version better...

Star runner, war hero, survivor of 47 days at sea in a rubber raft and two years of torture in Japanese prison camps, Louis Zamperini's life was the stuff of Hollywood movies, and 70 years after he was declared killed in action in the Pacific, four years after Laura Hillenbrand's biography of him became a best-seller, Hollywood got the message. Angelina Jolie's film, Unbroken, with Jack O'Connell playing Zamperini and a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, will be released on Christmas Day, but Zamperini, who has died aged 97, will not be there to see it.

Thursday 3 July 2014


It's ironic that Eli Wallach's most obvious legacy is his role as Tuco, the Ugly part of Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad and The Ugly. But it's a legacy he embraced, playing with the title in his autobiography, and it also makes sense because Wallach, who thought of himself as a stage actor keeping busy and making money in movies, became the kind of character actor who can carry a film.

You can see the better part of his movie career reflected from his first two films, Baby Doll (1956) and The Lineup (1958). Baby Doll was adapted from a Tennessee Williams one-act play (Elia Kazan claimed he, not Williams, wrote most of the screenplay, but then, he would). Wallach was a favourite actor of Williams'; he'd madehis name on Broadway in The Rose Tattoo, did This Property Is Condemned with his wife Anne Jackson (they had one of the great marriages of American theatre) and Camino Real.

The way the story goes, in 1953 Wallach nailed the screen test for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity, but passed on the film to do Camino Real on stage. Of course the way the other story goes is that someone made someone an offer they couldn't refuse to cast Frank. He and Jackson also played, with Zero Mostel, in the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinocerus; he'd already done Ionesco's The Chairs and The Lesson in 1958. I think he's perfect for Theatre of the Absurd. He, Jackson, and Alan Arkin were in Mike Nichol's production of Murray Schisgal's Luv, and around the time he did Rhinoceros Wallach and Mostel appeared off-Broadway in a version of Ulysses directed by Burgess Meredith. It's a same he never appeared in any of the American Film Theatre productions; it would be wonderful to have a record of some of his theatre at his very peak.

In Baby Doll, Wallach plays Silva Vaccaro, who owns a cotton gin which his rival Karl Malden burns down, and he retaliates by seducing Malden's wife, Carroll Baker, who's still a virgin due to a promise Malden made her father, and who parades infantilized self around in what we now call baby doll nighties. This is Tennessee Williams at his best. It was the first of his great sleazy ethnic roles; he's ruthless, he's charming, and, as when he played Tuco, he can physically express something rat like in Vaccaro's character. In contrast, for Don Siegel's The Lineup, based on a popular TV show, he's Dancer, a psychopathic but stylish professional killer, rounding up heroin stashed in tourists' souvenirs. It's a slick procedural which Siegel turns thrilling as Wallach is eventually cornered.

These characteristics of charm, violence, ethnic grease and style came together in Calvera, the leader of the bandits who comes face to face with The Magnificent Seven defending a poor Mexican village. Of course Wallach was coming off playing a cowboy role in The Misfits. There's little doubt Leone had Calvera in mind when he cast Wallach as Tuco, though Leone himself always said it was Wallach's playing a bandit in How The West Was Won that convinced him. Leone liked to cast method (or method-style) actors against 'natural' actors to great effect: Volonte/Van Cleef/Wallach against Eastwood; Jason Robards opposite Charles Bronson; Rod Steiger and James Coburn. In Wallach, he certainly got more than he bargained for. Compare Wallach's Tuco with Gian Maria Volonte's Indio from For A Few Dollars More; Volonte is all inward chaos and explosive violence; Tuco is all outward chaos hiding almost as explosive, if slightly less sociopathic, violence.

Wallach made three other spaghetti westerns, the best of which is probably Ducio Tessari's Don't Turn The Other Cheek, set against a Mexican Reviolution, in which he plays alongside Franco Nero and Lynn Redgrave (!). The others are Corbucci's late (1975) 'comedy' The White, The Yellow And The Black and Ace High (1968) with Terrence Hill (playing a character called Cat Stevens!) and Bud Spenser. Leone wanted to reunite Wallach, Clint Eastwood, and Lee Van Cleef; they were going to be killed off at the start of Once Upon A Time In The West. Wallach and Van Cleef had agreed, but by then Clint was feuding with Leone over both creative and financial issues, and it didn't happen. Luckily, the two reconciled, leading to Clint's touching dedication of The Unforgiven 'to Sergio and Don (Siegel)', both directors who got the best out of Eli Wallach.

Eastwood would bring him back in one of his best later roles; he absolutely kills the part of a liquor store owner telling the cops about an old robbery; Larry Fishburne and Kevin Bacon just stand there and admire him.

I'd like to mention a few other hidden gems from Wallach's career: everyone mentions his role in Godfather III, but he also played Don Vittorio in the much-neglected Crazy Joe, one of the best of the spaghetti crime films. He played ABC television's corporate boss Leonard Goldenson, the capo di tutto capi when I worked there, in the TV movie Monday Night Mayhem, about the creation of Monday Night Football. There's a 1992 episode of Law & Order, Working Stiff, in which he's hugely touching as a bitter old union man. He had a nice cameo in The Ghost, as a conspiracy-believing recluse on Martha's Vineyard. Ewan MacGregor can only look on in awe.

There's an interesting little bit of trivia I came across when I thought I might write Wallach's obit: his daughter Roberta played opposite Paul Newman's daughter Nell Potts (and Joanne Woodward) in the film Newman directed of Paul Zindel's The Effects Of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It was sort of a like one of those neighbourhood projects, but I remember seeing it when it was released, and liked it then, and wonder if the kids' performances would hold up now. Nell Potts now runs 'Newman's Own'.

As I said, I was hoping to write Eli Wallach's obit for one of the papers. But when you're that talented and you reach 98 years old, your obituary had better be ready to print. As it happened, I couldn't resist writing my appreciation anyway. What I admire most about him is the way he always seems to be enjoying what he is doing; like many of the greatest actors, he doesn't seem to be taking it seriously, even though he is.

Wednesday 2 July 2014


My obituary of director and screenwriter Paul Mazursky is up now at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as written to a very tight deadline this afternoon; they changed the spelling of 'hippie' to 'hippy' (a rhinoceros is hippy; the long-haired guy watching Rhinoceros is a hippie), omitted a specific reference to the Esalen Institute as being the inspiration for Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (I assume to avoid having to explain Esalen to the interweb generation) and a few other small alterations.

There is a resonance to Mazursky's having written the pilot for The Monkees, which obviously drew on the Beatles' Hard Day's Night; it could be a metaphor for much of Mazursky's career. Even the best of his films that draw heavily on European models seem to hold something back, as if unwilling to take a real stand. The same is true of his more personal movies, but within the context of American life and his own experience that makes more sense.

Watching his movies as they came out, I always thought they reflected the arrival of the Sixties into the world of middle class America, as if Benji's parents started smoking dope. It was like Johnny Carson letting his hair grow; Hollywood was a more intense version of people buying (and I choose that word carefully) into the image of the lifestyle without necessarily digging the ethos.

I liked Harry & Tonto the best of his four Seventies hits (you could see Bruce Dern in the latest version, Nebraska, recently). Next Stop Greenwich Village is good but held back by some of the cast, while Blume and Unmarried, while touching at times about love and loss, are also about spoiled people whom Mazursky seems prone to indulge.

Which is why I think Enemies is such an impressive film for him; Singer is able to relate personal betrayal to the wider grief his characters face, and Mazursky doesn't sugar-coat that. His and Simon's reworking of Scenes From A Marriage just doesn't work, although, like Down & Out in Beverley Hills, it does have its moments. It just doesn't deliver in the clinches, mostly because it's too affectionate towards its Beverley Hills neighbours, where Renoir had no such compunctions.

I wonder if there's a comparison to be done between Mazursky and Woody Allen on the basis of Allen's relative independence, or perhaps on Allen's dichotomy in his early work between his comedies and his Bergmanesque dramas, a dichotomy which seems to cease after Stardust Memories, which in a way is his bitter version of Alex In Wonderland. Then Woody goes Hitchockian...

Two things I probably should have said clearly were that Mazursky's films always had heart, and that they were almost always funny, at least in parts, even when the funny didn't fit. And I would really like to see Vic Morrow's version of Deathwatch.