Crime, Movies

Another Thin Man

02.13.12 | Permalink | Comment?

I DVRed Another Thin Man a while back and finally got around to watching it last night. Not bad! Perhaps a bit dated but the chemistry between William Powell (no relation, sadly) and Myrna Loy was really good, and the supporting cast was top-notch.

The story: Nick and Nora Charles have just returned to New York from California, new baby in tow. Their business manager (and Nora’s father’s old partner), Colonel MacFay is being stalked by a former employee who went to jail for ten years and feels he’s owed compensation. This man, Church, says he’s dreamed about MacFay’s death twice, and if he dreams about it again, it will happen.

So naturally he’s the main suspect when MacFay does turn up dead. Hijinks follow.

Sheldon Leonard is really good as Church, as is Abner Biberman as his henchman Dum-Dum. Marjorie Main has a hilarious scene as a landlord. And even Shemp Howard turns up!

But the most interesting of the bit players is Tom Neal. Here he’s as clean-cut as he can be, and a romantic – he writes plays! He has a crush on the boss’s daughter! His part sort of echoes his upbringing, as a well-to-do midwestern college boy. Unfortunately, his more famous turn as an amoral drifter in the noir classic Detour is closer to the remainder of his life.

Neal was a jealous man with a violent temper, and as a former boxer, could back it up. He famously beat the crap out of Franchot Tone over a woman, leaving the Frenchman with a broken cheekbone and nose (basically, he smashed his face in) and a concussion. Years later, apparently tired of his third wife, he shot her through the back of the head with a .45 and served six years for manslaughter.

He got out in 1971 but didn’t get to enjoy his freedom much. The next year he fell over dead from a heart attack at 58.

Books, War

The Case of the Missing World War

02.06.12 | Permalink | Comment?

I picked up John Keegan’s The First World War the other day. I read his book about World War II many years ago and enjoyed it, and though I’d learn a little more about The War to End All Wars.

As I was wandering around the bookstore with this doorstop under my arm, I got to thinkink about World War I and popular fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of traditional mysteries lately, and in may of them – especially those by Jacqueline Winspear and Charles Todd – the war looms large. These character’s lives are changed for ever by the war, and damaged by the things they’ve seen and done, sometimes beyond repair.

But I’ve also read a lot of mysteries that were written in and about Britain in the 1920s and 30s, by authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Philip Macdonald, John Dickson Carr, and others, and these books rarely if even mention the war.

Now, there were books such as Good-by To All That and, in Germany, All Quiet on the Western Front, but not much in the popular fiction of the day. My own guess is that the war was too sensitive a subject to be brought up in something as lightweight as mystery. But it’s interesting to me that so many writers essentially pretended that such a wrenching event that affected so many lives had never even happened.

How about you? Can any of you think of any contemporary references to the was that I’ve missed?

Art, Baseball, Sports

Elvis Lives!

09.26.11 | Permalink | 1 Comment

Went to see the Texas Rangers’ last home game of the season yesterday, and got to see them crush Seattle 12-5. I had only heard of two of the Mariners’ players, Ichiro Suzuki and Wily Mo Pena. One of their starters was under the Mendoza line.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! As part of fan appreciation day I walked off with this fine commemorative figurine:


Now, having just been at Bouchercon, it occured to me that it can’t be that hard to churn out cheap pieces of crap like this. So why not for writers? I mean, who wouldn’t like a cruddy clay statue of John Connolly or S.J. Rozan, as turned out by slave-wage laborers? We could even make them in action poses. Who wouldn’t want a tiny statue of Robert Crais pounding a typewriter, scribbling in a notebook, or throwing back drinks at the Bouchercon bar.

Somebody really needs to make this happen. No, not me. Sorry, I’m busy.

Books, Reviews

FIELD GRAY, by Philip Kerr

06.22.11 | Permalink | Comment?

Bernie Gunther just wants to be left alone. Wanted for war crimes he didn’t commit back in post-WWII Germany, forced to flee from Argentina after he discovers a few uncomfortable facts, he’s now living under an assumed name in Cuba, splitting his time between the casinons and the bordellos. Even in Havana he can’t find peace, as a secret policeman named Quevedo strong-arms him into turning informant.

So a little boat trip to Haiti seems like a good idea. Especially with a companion like Melba, beautiful and young. The fact that she’s wanted for murder is a bit of a turn-off, but at Bernie’s age he can’t be choosy. Things were going swimmingly right up until the United States Navy boards their boat, and Melba pulls a gun.

So begins Field Gray, Philip Kerr’s seventh novel about Bernie. This time Bernie isn’t the detective; he’s the suspect and the witness, questioned by US Army war crimes investigators, by the CIA, and by French intelligence. His story is the story of much of Europe, from the rising political thuggery in the early thirties, through invasions of France and Russia, to post-war chaos.

This is more a historical novel than a crime story, since there’s no crime to investigate, and since Bernie is no longer the tarnished knight he once was. In the early books of the series he still had the burning sense of justice that led him to quit the Berlin police rather than work for the Nazis, but as the years have passed he’s been forced to make compromises to stay alive. Now he’s weary, and nearly powerless. He can’t fight his captors, he can only insult them.

I’ve read all the books in this series, and in my opinion this is the finest. At the end of the book I was torn. Bernie deserves to find the peace he craves, but a peaceful retirement doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, now does it?

Movies, Reviews

Tuesday’s Overlooked Films: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

06.21.11 | Permalink | 4 Comments

The other day, sportwriter Joe Posnanski was blogging on LeBron James, and how when we root against him, we’re really rooting against a character we see on TV, not against a real person. To make his point, he brings up a (very) minor character from the movie Casablanca. In the film he’s a figure of fun, a self-important ass to be humiliated. But what do we know of his real life?

I thought that would make an interesting story, the unexpected life of someone who to exist in order to be mocked. Then I realized it’s already been done, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

The film begins in 1945. Preparations for the invasion are well underway. A young officer decides to prove a point by launching a training exercise – and “attack” on London – a day earlier than scheduled. When he captures the Home Guard general staff relaxing in a Turkish bath he’s berated by a pompous old officer, whose outdated ideas about “honor” and “chivalry” he dismisses out of hand.

We then flash back forty years, to 1902, when the pompous old officer was himself a dashing young lieutenant named Clive Candy. Hero of the Boer War, winner of the Victoria Cross, now returned to England. He doesn’t stay long, instead heading to Germany, where he manages to insult the army, with the result that he’s forced to fight a duel. Candy’s doesn’t care much for duelling, and his opponent – chosen by lot – also thinks it barbaric, but it’s a matter of honor, so they fight.

As they recover from their wounds they become fast friends. The German, Theo, falls in love with Candy’s friend Edith Hunter, and fears they must duel again for her hand, but Candy is delighted that his two great friends shall be together. Only later does he realize his own feeling for Edith.

Years pass, and Candy remains idealistic and a bit naive. By 1918 he’s clearly an anachronism, the old man who doesn’t understand the new rules of war. His old friend Theo, freed from a prisoner-of-war camp, can’t bring himself to believe that Candy and the British really are the well-meaning souls they claim to be, and they part on sad terms.

By the start of the second World War he’s not just out of date but potentially embarrasing, yet he’s never lost his sense of dignity. When Theo arrives in England, a refugee now, Candy intervenes to keep him from being interned. When Candy’s regular radio address is cancelled he berates the government functionary who gives him the word before falling silent, then saying, “Sir, my deepest apologies. I know it isn’t you.”

A summary of the plot can’t do this wonderful film justice. Clive Candy is a gentleman of the old school, who prefer to fight fair and lose. Everyone tells him that he’s wrong, that this is a new kind of war, but he never wavers, he never changes, and in the end his side fights fair, and wins.

ADDED: It occurs to me that I think of this film in the same way as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, another film that follows a man through his entire adult life, and I think part of the appeal of these movies to me is that we all want our lives to add up to something. When we’re old and know that there are few days ahead, we’d all like to look back and say, “Yes, I did some good. I changed the world, if only a bit.” I know that sort of thing certainly plays to my own romantic nature.

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