Monday, June 29, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: A Close Call for Boston Blackie (dir. Lew Landers, 1946)

Boston Blackie, at least in the movies, is like Archie Goodwin without Nero Wolfe. He is brash, insouciant, snappy, self-delighting, well put together, and always seems to be having a grand old time. Timothy Hutton, who played Archie in the great cable TV series A Nero Wolfe Adventure, might very well have been drawing on the work of Chester Morris, who played Boston Blackie in 14 movies during the 1940s. And even if he wasn't, the affinities between the performances are apparent.

In the original stories by Jack Boyle that began appearing in magazines in 1914, Boston Blackie was an American version of A.J. Raffles, a jewel thief and a safecracker. He was also depicted that way in a series of silent films. By 1941, when Columbia revived the character and cast Morris, the Hays Code was in place, and Blackie had to become a former jewel thief who was now working as a P.I. (but continually coming under suspicion of crimes because of his past, rather like Matt Bomer's Neal Caffrey in White Collar). He attained his greatest popularity in this guise, making a mark in radio and television as well as film.

A character like Blackie needs a foil (or several), so where Archie had Wolfe, BB has the ever-skeptical Inspector Farraday (played by Richard Lane). Each of the men has a sidekick: Blackie's is uncharitably called the Runt because he's a short fellow, and Farraday's is the rather dim Sergeant Matthews.

Morris (1901-1970), from a theatrical family, was active on Broadway by age 15 and in movies shortly after that. His first big role, in the early sound film Alibi (1929), netted him an Academy Award nomination. Like a number of actors of that era, Morris was a beautiful young man, really quite dazzling-looking, but there were many of his type, and his career didn't quite sustain itself. Getting cast as Boston Blackie as he hit his 40s was a stroke of good fortune, not least because he got a chance to put his old-style theatrical chops to work - he appears in disguise in a number of the Blackie pictures, and pulls it off well. (He was also an excellent magician.)

A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946), the 10th in the series, is compact and fun, although it must be said that the plot is inscrutable. That doesn't matter, because you watch a film like this (as you watch many television series episodes) mainly to "hang out" with the characters and enjoy their company. The Runt (George E. Stone), his brassy girlfriend Mamie (Claire Carleton), and Sergeant Matthews (Frank Sully) all have good comic opportunities here.

It all centers on a toddler who has to be thoroughly adorable for the movie to work, and sure enough, he is, I mean take a look at that picture. I am usually immune to young 'uns in the cinema, but this kid does great reaction shots. The child actor is not credited in any source that I am aware of.

Here we have Stone, Carleton, and Morris serenading the baby to amuse him - nice scene! The child is a pawn in an extortion plot and is actually "impersonating" a child that does not exist, which is where the twistiness of the plot gets going. Things could have turned out rather tragically for this tot, but Sergeant Matthews of all people reveals himself as a solid guy and saves the day.

One convention in this and similar movies of the era that is a little risible is the handling of gunshots. One shot in a non-lethal location with no blood in sight is enough to kill a character! They just fall to the floor, and that's it.

But realistically depicted violence would disturb the overall breeziness of the tone. That's why Sergeant Matthews has to step in at the end - otherwise the movie would end on a truly sour note.

A Close Call for Boston Blackie

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Northlore Series, Volume One: Folklore (M.J. Kobernus / Katie Metcalfe, editors)

Is this book light reading or heavy reading? Well, certainly light reading in terms of its abundant entertainment value for anyone who enjoys folklore, mythology, fantasy, epic, and modern spins on them. But heavy in the sense that the great majority of the contributions here, 17 short stories, 16 poems, and accompanying line illustrations by Evelinn Enoksen, are fueled by anxiety, often specifically sexual anxiety. (The other pieces are more comic, such as Gregg Chamberlain's take on trolls and Paul Kater's on elves.)

This seems true to the original folklore, which often focuses on cross-species pairings between humans and selkies (seal people), hulder (seductive forest women with hidden tails), maras (she-werewolves), trolls, witches, and so on. Rarely can these contradictory attractions or seductions end well, it almost goes without saying. They turn nasty or tragic, depending on the situation, and that is the vein that is well explored here.

Nordland Publishing had a pip of an idea - it's promising to see that it's the first in a series - and invited many accomplished authors to participate. Of course, there is some variability in quality of offerings, as there is bound to be, but there is nothing remotely embarrassing here. The volume reads very nicely from cover to cover.

Scandinavian folklore encompasses the countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands, and because of geographic proximities and cultural cross-contacts overlaps considerably with German, Celtic, and English folklores. This is a big book, but it can scarcely begin to cover all the different aspects of this huge field.

In terms of creatures, there is a strong concentration on trolls, draugrs (undead), hulder, and selkies. Maras show up in a couple of hair-raising poems by Andrew James Murray and Laura Johnson, fossegrim (waterfall spirits) in a more lyrical piece by Steve Klepetar. Murray takes on the legend of the myling (restless spirits of infants who die before being baptized) in his bleak story "And the Snow Came Down," and there is even a memorable turn by a polar bear in Sarah Lyn Eaton's "Hold the Door."

But there would definitely be room in a companion volume for more about dwarves, dragons, will o' the wisps, nokken (aquatic shapeshifters), vittra (underground wights), ellepiger (alder tree girls), and so on.

A few pieces deserve to be shouted out. Hugh B. Long's "Draugr's Saga" leads the pack in narrative propulsion (but somehow, Long got omitted from the contributor biographies at the end of the book). Long is prolific in the space fantasy genre and draws liberally on Norse mythology. His story here was the kick-off in an ongoing serialized novel of the same title (subtitled "A Tale of the Zombie Apocalypse in the Viking Age"). Since I was criticizing the general quality of writing of this type just the other day, I must salute Long and say that based on this story, he really knows what he's doing. Zombie apocalypses are pretty hot right now, but there are still better and worse ways to tackle them!

Mikaela von Kursell's "Gustave Trolle (1488-1533) - The Gammeltroll of Gamlastan" is easily the most linguistically accomplished fiction in the book, making as sharp use of modernist techniques as one would expect from a translator of Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof. I won't say more so as not to spoil it.

Among the poems, Kim Goldberg's "Visitation" is a standout, poised perfectly on the border between poetry and prose.

Folklore (The Northlore Series) (Volume 1)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities (Robert Smith Surtees)

When I was growing up in Passaic, New Jersey, my mother got me borrowing privileges in the adult department of the Julius Forstmann Library when I was in 4th grade, because I had pretty much read my way through the children's room by then, and had been reading adult classics (starting with Jules Verne) from 2nd grade on. Two "adult" volumes at the library that I immediately took a shine to were Edward Wagenknecht's Cavalcade of the English Novel (1943, revised 1954) and Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952). In a very real sense, these delightful books have guided my reading for a lifetime.

Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was old-fashioned (although perceptive enough to realize early on that film was a coming medium), and is not really trustworthy on 20th Century literature. He is excessively bothered by "coarseness," whereas we are unperturbed by it, maybe even attracted to it because of its honesty. But he had a generous spirit, and made literature sound like something you wouldn't want to miss. He is the sort of critic it is very good to encounter when you are young.

There are authors mentioned in the Cavalcades that it took me a very long time to catch up to, and one of those is Robert Smith Surtees. who shares the chapter "From Scott to Dickens" in Cavalcade of the English Novel with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, Charles Lever, William Carleton, Frederick Marryat, and Thomas Peacock (quite the diverse crew!).

Surtees has been pigeon-holed as a fox-hunting novelist, and perhaps partly because of that, has never "boomed," as Wagenknecht points out. But Wagenkecht also astutely notes that it is easy to enjoy Surtees even if one thoroughly disapproves of hunting, because he excels at comic characterizations.

Surtees' slangy language is very dense for us and takes some getting used to; some references will be missed by non-specialists. But he is a joyously high-spirited writer, which is immediately noticeable and sustained me through the early going while I was getting used to the style. By the 100-page mark, I was reveling in the entire performance.

The book I chose for my initiation was Surtees' first, Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities, not a novel but a collection of fictional sketches that first started appearing in the New Sporting Magazine (which Surtees co-founded) in 1831, and that were gathered between hard covers in 1838. (The Pickwick Papers, very obviously influenced by Jorrocks' adventures, had made Charles Dickens' reputation in the meantime.)

John Jorrocks is a rumbustious Cockney grocer whose character develops over a number of Surtees' fictions, but at the beginning he is pretty much a flat-out idiot, though not lacking in a certain crude charm. At his social level, he is clubbable; his friends enjoy him, for his inanities as much as anything else. And every now and then amidst much foolish chatter he comes out with a bit of down-home wisdom: " - so come without any ceremony - us fox-hunters hate ceremony - where there's ceremony there's no friendship."

Only the first few of the 13 sketches in JJ & J are really hunting pieces; after that, Surtees starts to vary the game, so that we get Jorrocks at the seaside, Jorrocks on excursion in France, Jorrocks throwing a dinner party, and so on. Abundance of ingestion is a running theme; the man eats like one of his horses. He also dandies himself up as much as possible, doing his best to be a "man of mode" despite having (to put it mildly) no gentlemanly or intellectual qualifications.

But elan vital, now that he's got. And if Surtees can't help satirizing Jorrocks, he also admires him for the sheer life-force he represents; appetite for hunting, for food, for nice togs translates easily into appetite for life in general. Fast-forward Jorrocks a hundred years, tone him down somewhat, and you're not far off Leopold Bloom.

"Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."

"Grant your Jorrocks but one request, and that is the contents of a single sentence. 'I want a roasted or boiled leg of mutton, beef, hung beef, a quarter of mutton, mutton chops, veal cutlets, stuffed tongue, dried tongue, hog's pudding, white sausage, meat sausage, chicken with rice, a nice fat roast fowl, roast chicken with cressy, roast or boiled pigeon, a fricassee of chicken, sweet-bread, goose, lamb, calf's cheek, calf's head, fresh pork, salt pork, cold meat, hash.' "

Like many a vigorous fellow, Jorrocks feels himself hobbled by his wife, which lends a good deal of marital comedy to the book's later passages: " - wish to God I'd never see'd her - took her for better and worser, it's werry true; but she's a d----d deal worser than I took her for."

In short, if you have any winking fondness for vulgarity at all, Jorrocks is your man, and you ought to make his acquaintance. And there's really no excuse not to, because JJ & J is readily available as a free download at Project Gutenberg.

Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities

Reviewing Notes

Like the cat in the picture, I am surrounded by texts these days - although many of them are on my iPad. I have been very pleased with how the book side of this blog has been developing in recent weeks, and I hope to push the movie side in upcoming weeks as well. Since I also have to do a lot of paid freelance writing and editing work to stay afloat, and need to put in plenty of hours to find that work, and am also caring for not one but three cats, as well as a ferret and a puppy - well, I am a pretty busy guy. Fortunately, my surroundings here in Queretaro are pleasant and conducive to getting much done.

I am trying, along with everything else, to get more reading done per day than I have in a very long time. Otherwise, my backlog will get incredibly big.

At the moment, I am engaged with books from four sources:

1) Books submitted to me for review. Authors find me primarily through my reviewer listing at The IndieView. They then check out this blog and the Review Guidelines. Most of the writers understand perfectly well what sort of books I am interested in - it's a pretty broad range - and query appropriately. I say "Yes" 80% of the time. (More below on what I turn down.)

2) Books requested by me for review. I am just starting on this, but having success with it.

3) Books found in the special offers listings at eReaderiQ, priced free or close to it. "Free" is hard to resist! I scan the listings carefully for promising titles.

4) The huge world of books I simply want and elect to read.

I switch back and forth every day between books in all of these categories, giving special attention to the first. I have always been a promiscuous reader with a dozen or more titles going at once, so this is nothing new for me.

Even though I have eclectic tastes, the burgeoning realm of independently published and self-published ebooks consists 90-95% of product that I am not particularly interested in. I have to make some categorical decisions about what I will and won't handle, and that means knocking most science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance, and YA fiction out of contention immediately, unless a description is exceptionally enticing.

It's not that I dislike good work in any of those genres. It's that the standards within the genres are not very high. In my opinion, independent crime fiction holds itself collectively to a much higher standard than independent science fiction or fantasy does. We could speculate all day about why this is so, but I think it is a glaring fact.

So when someone writes asking that I review the first volume in their planned YA dark dystopian trilogy with fantastically attractive, Hollywood-ready teen protagonists, I am afraid I must beg off. That's when I feel that life is short.

I accepted one first volume in a science fantasy / space opera series early on, read about 30 pages, and then wrote back to the author saying that I wasn't the right reviewer for it. That was a rarity for me, but I couldn't see persisting through all 400 pages.

But reading the 30 pages was instructive. I don't want to get all snarky about it. The book was clearly a cherished project. The author had been working on the construction of her space fantasy universe and its 30+ alien races for a decade, only later getting around to composing the stories that take place within it. This is the way that Tolkien went about his labors on Middle-Earth, too - he created the languages and peoples first, the narratives after.

That worked for Tolkien; he was a genius, after all. This author, not so much. A lot of her expository material is shunted into appendices and footnotes - I can't say as I've ever encountered a footnoted piece of pop fiction before. Tolkien offered appendices, too, but you didn't have to read them in advance to understand what was going on.

But none of that was the real problem. The real problem was this: The author writes from multiple alien points of view, yet the thoughts and the dialogue of these alien characters are all given in contemporary-casual 2015-speak.

From my perspective, this simply will not do, because it represents a total failure to conceive the book linguistically. I would much rather have aggressive faux-medievalism a la William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land or E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros than no attempt to come up with apt language at all.

I don't think this failure is peculiar to this book. I believe it is absolutely widespread even in science fiction and fantasy put out by mainstream publishing houses, let alone all the self-publishers.

Maybe that's why crime fiction comes out ahead. Most of it takes place in our contemporary world, and the current language that is at most crime authors' immediate disposal is adequate for telling those stories.

But fantasy and science fiction are like poetry: they demand more stylistically. And many authors who aspire to write in those genres have, alas, little in the way of stylistic resources.

If your alien races are imaginatively conceived but they sound like Joe down the block, that is not going to fly except for satiric purposes.

Worth Your Time: Thomas Heatherwick

This audio interview with designer / architect / ideas man extraordinaire Thomas Heatherwick (born 1970) is intensely stimulating and covers quite a range of ground in a half-hour. It opens with a discussion of how people define what Heatherwick does, a topic that, although it comes up frequently in consideration of his work, he has some mild impatience with because he is multi-disciplinary and anti-"silo."

Many of Heatherwick's projects have attracted a high level of attention; he is very good at publicity and self-promotion, although one sense that he does not want to admit this ("I'm a terrible, terrible businessperson"). The Seed Cathedral that he designed as the U.K. pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in 2010 is eye-popping:

Heatherwick designed a new London double-decker bus that has proven extremely popular:

He was responsible for the memorable "Cauldron" that graced the 2012 Summer Olympics:

"The second it feels that you're not doing something with your whole heart, believing that you are contributing something, it feels like you should close down and stop immediately."

I listened to the whole interview for a second time this morning and found it just as absorbing to re-visit.

Thomas Heatherwick: Making

Quotation of the Day

[I had] a desire to have a novel that moves like a good cable TV series, from scene to scene, character to character, standoff to standoff. A good series has a good mix of characters across demographics. Also, I like that cable television shows often are happy to play with ideas of the fallout from coincidence and impulse and secrets, and I wanted those three things to be a big part of why people do and say things in this book. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't borrow the structure of the book, and the way the scenes move, at least in part, from season one of Mad Men. - Novelist Dean Bakopoulos, speaking about his new novel Summerlong

Ah, we have come full circle. For a long time now we have been talking about how fictional philosophies and techniques influence the best television series, and how those series essentially are novels, in a different medium. Here we have a novelist who is more than willing to admit that his watching of those series is shaping how he constructs his fiction. Interesting!

Summerlong: A Novel

Friday, June 26, 2015

Two Birds: A Short Mystery (Vicki Tyley)

One of my collecting ambitions is to start laying in more issues of the classic mystery digest magazines of the postwar period, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. A good introductory piece on these can be found at The Thrilling Detective Web Site.

Vicki Tyley's Two Birds, which is available for Kindle, is just exactly the sort of short story that would have been published in AHMM or EQMM in their heyday (or still, for that matter; both those magazines remain on the newsstands). Of necessity, a short crime story with a whodunit element is light on setting and texture because of space considerations; it might have an almost geometric quality, and so it is with Two Birds. It might take place anywhere.

But Vicki Tyley is a New Zealander transplanted to Australia, and since I have always been very attracted to Australia, I am curious to take a look at her full-length novels (five so far) for their local flavor. Mysteries with a strong sense of place are self-recommending for me.

The element of Two Birds that grabbed my attention was the psychology of the protagonist, Daniel Abbey, from whose POV the story is told. The thoughts of a married womanizer who suffers no apparent guilt or even particular concern over his habits is fascinating to me. "Don Draper!" you immediately think, but I ask you, do we ever really get Don from the inside? I haven't seen Mad Men all the way to its conclusion yet, but in the four seasons I have watched, I haven't developed a sense of how Don really thinks about what he does. He remains somewhat opaque (but still fascinating, of course).

Daniel Abbey is a little different story, because we are given access to his mental processes. Tyley effectively hints at a whole string of adulteries (and some other intriguing bits of backstory, such as the death of a brother-in-law in a "boating accident," hmm). My reader feedback to Vicki Tyley is, go all the way with this theme sometime! It truly has a lot of potential. And you have definite insight into this type of masculine psychology.

Two Birds (A Short Mystery)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Silent Film Tragedies

You do not want to know what I went through to compile this list of silent film actors and directors who died prematurely or tragically. I included deaths up to the age of 50, and in instances of murder or suicide, sometimes went beyond that cut-off. I had the help of many members at a well-known classic film discussion board, but I was also roundly abused by others there. And they were vicious! They apparently felt that if I wasn't going to do original scholarly research and obtain an official death certificate for each entry, I was just a misinformation spreader. (One fellow accused me of being a sick, morbid ghoul, an insult I shall cherish always.) Specifically, they went into conniptions over directors Thomas H. Ince (above) and F.W. Murnau, and Danish actor Valdemar Psilander.

There have long been rumors about the possibility of murder in Ince's death; Peter Bogdanovich's film The Cat's Meow is based on those. In a 2011 biography of Ince, film scholar Brian Taves does his best to lay those rumors to rest, and his findings have been widely accepted in the academic and film buff communities. But the dispute between murder and natural causes is still given full play at Wikipedia, like it or not the world's most visited information source, with nary a mention of Taves in the relevant section. So one could not say that his interpretation has yet prevailed. Maybe it will some day. But until then, I think there is still a dispute.

Murnau's cause of death is exactly what it says in the list. He died in a car crash caused by his chauffeur. Wikipedia says the chauffeur was 14 years old, although apparently he was in fact an adult. There have been rumors over the years, spread largely by Kenneth Anger (Hollywood Babylon), that the (fairly openly) gay Murnau was giving head to the driver when the crash occurred.

Now, Kenneth Anger, a great experimental film-maker as well as a world-class gossip, is not exactly your most reliable source, and his insinuations and accusations have always angered many, including in the discussion group where I was seeking assistance. My merely mentioning Kenneth Anger's take on Murnau (in a post, not in the necrology list itself) set off a firestorm. But it seems to me that any sensible person reads Hollywood Babylon and its sequel as deliciously sordid, manifestly unfair, and rather imaginative books. I heretically insist that their existence is a great thing for classic film, because it creates an interest.

My (somewhat post-modern) philosophical position is that I cannot make a list of facts, only of what are reported to be facts at a given time. As far as "spreading lies," no one spread more lies about silent stars than the stars themselves and their studios! Their names were concocted, their backgrounds were concocted, their romances were concocted, sometimes even their marriages were concocted. Factual information about them was only put forward when it was useful for marketing the personae, which wasn't often. So let's not get too sentimental about hard-done silent stars, shall we? These people were products, and they participated willingly in their own objectification. There is a reason why it is very difficult for people who choose to be public figures to obtain convictions for slander or libel against them - they have put themselves out there for the public to talk about (and hardly in a spirit of adherence to accuracy), and it seems jolly disingenuous for them to complain when that happens. In their world, any attention is better than no attention.

In cultural studies, the history of the reception of a death is as interesting as the death itself - hell, it's more interesting. Once rumors, however outlandish, are part of that reception history, they can't be expunged from it. It amuses me that members of a popular culture discussion group wouldn't understand this, but whatever.

I can't help but note that over my many years of encountering insufferables (and who knows, maybe I'm one of them!) on Internet discussion forums devoted to movies, books, music, sports, beer, etc., I have never come across self-appointed experts more pompous and full of themselves than the ones at the silent film board I shall not name (which has been so disputatious that it naturally gave rise to a "secessionist" board that's even worse). That is saying something.


Yevgeni Bauer (1865-1917) – Complications from broken leg; pneumonia.
Paul Bern (1889-1932) – Suicide (gunshot). Mother was also a suicide (drowning).
Francis Boggs (1870-1911) – Murder (gunshot). Killed by Selig studio employee, Frank Minnimatsu, who “went postal”; studio head William Nicholas Selig was also wounded in attack.
John H. Collins (1889-1918) – Spanish flu.
Alan Crosland (1894-1936) – Car crash.
Bernard Durning (1893-1923) – Typhoid fever.
Louis Feuillade (1873-1925) – Peritonitis.
Thomas Ince (1882-1924) – Cause of death disputed; officially, heart attack (possibly related to overwork); rumors of murder.
F. Richard Jones (1893-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Paul Leni (1885-1929) – Blood poisoning from infected mosquito bite.
Willard Louis (1882-1926) – Typhoid fever, pneumonia.
F.W. Murnau (1888-1931) – Car crash (caused by chauffeur).
Lynn Reynolds (1899-1927) – Suicide (gunshot).
Albert Russell (1890-1929) – Pneumonia; died two weeks after brother William Russell, also a victim of pneumonia.
Stellan Rye (1880-1914) – Died as prisoner of war in World War I.
Lowell Sherman (1885-1934) – Pneumonia.
Harry Solter (1873-1920) – Stroke.

William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922) – Murder (gunshot). Unsolved (and one of the most discussed and written-about crimes in the history of Hollywood).
Frank Urson (1887-1928) – Accidental drowning.
Millard Webb (1893-1935) – Intestinal ailment.
William Wolbert (1883-1918) – Pneumonia.
Duke Worne (188-1933) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
John Griffith Wray (1896-1929) – Complications from appendectomy.


Art Acord (1890-1931) – Suicide (poison).
Jimmie Adams (1888-1933) – Heart attack.
Renee Adoree (1898-1933) – Tuberculosis.
Robert Ames (1889-1931) – Alcoholism.
“Yakima Jim” Anson (1888-1925) – Shot during bar brawl with Tommy Bay and Edward Red Carmichael, fellow cowboy actors; Bay was acquitted of murder.
Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) – Heart attack.
Hal August (1890-1918) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Marion Aye (1903-1951) – Suicide (poison).
Agnes Ayres (1898-1940) – Mental illness, cerebral hemorrhage.
Tommy Bay (1901-1933) – Murdered by his girlfriend, although it is not clear if she was convicted.
Florence Barker (1891-1913) – Pneumonia.
Anita Berber (1899-1928) – Tuberculosis, following on alcoholism and drug addiction.
Vedah Bertram (1891-1912) – Appendicitis.
Francelia Billington (1895-1934) – Tuberculosis.
True Boardman (1882-1918) – Spanish flu.
Elmer Booth (1882-1915) – Car crash (caused by driver, the director Tod Browning, who crashed car at full speed into a moving train).
Olive Borden (1906-1947) – Pneumonia.

John Bowers (1885-1936) – Suicide (drowning). (Bowers' suicide is often cited as the "inspiration" for the suicide of Norman Maine in the various versions of A Star Is Born.)
Sylvia Breamer (1897-1943) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Gladys Brockwell (1894-1929) – Car crash.
Eric Campbell (1879-1917) – Car crash.
June Caprice (1895-1936) – Cancer, heart attack.
Frank Carter (1889-1920) – Car crash.
Vernon Castle (1887-1918) – Plane crash.
Helene Chadwick (1897-1940) – Injuries from fall, reportedly exacerbated by her “highly nervous state.”
Lon Chaney (1883-1930) – Lung cancer.
Rex Cherryman (1896-1928) – Septic poisoning.
Lew Cody (1884-1934) – Heart disease.
Bobby Connelly (1909-1922) – Endocarditis, bronchitis.
Virginia Lee Corbin (1910-1942) – Tuberculosis.
William Courtleigh, Jr. (1892-1918) – Spanish flu.
Ward Crane (1890-1928) – Pneumonia.
John Cumpson (1866-1913) – Pneumonia, diabetes.
Lester Cuneo (1888-1925) – Suicide (gunshot).
Primo Cuttica (1876-1921) – Died “after a long illness.”
Karl Dane (1886-1934) – Suicide (gunshot).
Camille D’Arcy (1879-1916) – Infection from bathing in Lake Michigan.
Lya De Putti (1897-1931) – Pneumonia following accidental ingestion of chicken bone.
Florence Deshon (1893-1922) – Poisoning from gas jet; possible suicide.
Gaby Deslys (1881-1920) – Complications from influenza-related throat infection.
Patterson Dial (1902-1945) – Barbiturate overdose, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Jenny Dolly (1892-1941) – Suicide (hanging).
Lucille McVey Drew (1890-1925) – Died “after a lingering illness.”
S. Rankin Drew (1891-1918) – Killed in battle in World War I.

Jeanne Eagels (1890-1929) – Drug overdose.
B. Reeves Eason, Jr. (1914-1921) – Hit by truck.
Mary Eaton (1901-1948) – Cirrhosis.
Diane Ellis (1909-1930) – Infection while traveling in India.
Frank Farrington (1873-1924) – Choked to death.
Casson Ferguson (1891-1929) – Pneumonia.
George Field (1877-1925) – Tuberculosis.
Vladmir Fogel (1902-1929) – Suicide (gunshot).
Tom Forman (1895-1926) – Suicide (gunshot).
Henry Fragson (1869-1913) – Murder (shot by his father). The father, diagnosed with senile dementia, died less than two months later while awaiting trial.
John Gilbert (1899-1936) – Heart attack.
Myrtle Gonzalez (1891-1918) – Spanish flu.
Fred Goodwins (1891-1923) – Bronchitis.
Katherine Grant (1904-1937) – Pulmonary tuberculosis.
Joseph Graybill (1887-1913) – Cause of death variously given; possibly spinal meningitis.
James Hall (1900-1940) – Cirrhosis.
Lillian Hall-Davis (1898-1933) – Suicide (gas).
Einar Hanson (1899-1927) – Car crash.
Mildred Harris (1901-1944) – Pneumonia following abdominal operation.
John Harron (1903-1939) – Spinal meningitis.

Robert Harron (1893-1920) – Gunshot, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Dick Hatton (1888-1931) – Car crash.
Bill Hauber (1891-1929) – Plane crash.
Ullrich Haupt, Sr. (1887-1931) – Hunting accident.
Walter Hiers (1893-1933) – Pneumonia.
Thelma Hill (1906-1938) – Alcoholism.
Thomas Holding (1878-1929) – Heart attack.
Allen Holubar (1888-1923) – Complications from gallstone surgery.
Helen Howard (1899-1927) – Car crash.
Shelly Hull (1884-1919) – Pneumonia.
Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins (1925-1945) – Aviation accident in basic training. (Had been in silent “Our Gang” comedies as young as age 2.)
Arthur V. Johnson (1876-1916) – Tuberculosis.
Lamar Johnstone (1884-1918) – Heart disease.
Mildred June (1903-1940) – Cirrhosis of the liver.
Gregory Kelly (1891-1927) – Heart attack.
Merna Kennedy (1906-1944) – Heart attack.
Vera Kholodnaya (1893-1919) – Spanish flu.
Allyn King (1901-1930) – Suicide (jump).
Ruth King (1898-1946) – Unknown.
Florence La Badie (1888-1917) – Car crash.

Barbara La Marr (1896-1926) – Drug addiction and alcoholism. (I once met La Marr's son Don Gallery in Puerto Vallarta, where he was working as a docent at the Elizabeth Taylor - Richard Burton home Casa Kimberley. Delightful guy. He was raised by La Marr's close friend ZaSu Pitts and her husband Tom Gallery.)
Dee Lampton (1898-1919) – Appendicitis.
Elissa Landi (1904-1948) – Cancer.
Florence Lawrence (1886-1938) – Suicide (poison).
Pepi Lederer (1910-1935) – Suicide (jump).
Dan Leno (1860-1904) – Cause of death not reported; suffered from alcoholism and had spent time in an insane asylum.
Max Linder (1883-1925) – Double suicide with wife (sleeping pills, morphine, cutting of veins).

Ruan Lingyu (1910-1935) – Suicide (barbiturate overdose). (For my money, the most beautiful woman ever to appear in movies. Her story is told brilliantly in Stanley Kwan's 1991 film Actress.)
Ormer Locklear (1891-1920) – Plane crash while performing stunt (footage incorporated into 1920 feature The Skywayman).
Harold Lockwood (1887-1918) – Spanish flu.
Jeanette Loff (1906-1942) – Ammonia poisoning, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) – Consumption.
Fred Mace (1878-1917) – Stroke.
Charles Emmett Mack (1900-1927) – Car crash.
Hughie Mack (1884-1927) – Heart disease.
Elsie Mackay (1893-1928) – Plane crash at sea; plane never recovered.
Martha Mansfield (1899-1923) – Accidental burning.
Marguerite Marsh (1888-1925) – Pneumonia.
Otto Matieson (1893-1932) – Car crash.
Eva May (1902-1924) – Suicide (gunshot).
Marc McDermott (1881-1929) – Cirrhosis.
Paddy McGuire (1884-1923) – Complications from syphilis? Had been institutionalized for insanity two years prior to death.
Sunny Jim McKeen (1924-1933) – Measles, blood poisoning.
Earl Metcalfe (1889-1928) – Fell out of plane.
Joe Moore (1894-1926) – Heart attack.
Mary Moore (1890-1919) – Spanish flu (while serving with Red Cross in France in aftermath of World War I).

James Murray (1901-1936) – Drowning (accidental?).
Evelyn Nelson (1899-1923) – Suicide (gas).
Mary Nolan (1902-1948) – Barbiturate overdose, disputed as to whether accidental or suicidal.
Mabel Normand (1892-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) – Murder.
Amieto Novelli (1885-1924) – Encephalitis.
Bill Parsons (1878-1919) – Diabetic coma.
Marcel Perez (1885-1927) – Cancer.
Edwin R. Phillips (1872-1915) – Pneumonia, heart disease.
Jack Pickford (1896-1933) – Drug addiction, alcoholism, and syphilis.
Lottie Pickford (1895-1936) – Heart attack.
Vitold Polonsky (1879-1919) – Food poisoning.
David Powell (1883-1925) – Pneumonia.
Evelyn Preer (1896-1932) – Pneumonia following childbirth.
Marie Prevost (1898-1937) – Alcoholism.
Valdemar Psilander (1884-1917) – Cause of death disputed; officially, heart attack; possible suicide (prescription drug overdose).
Rae Randall (Sigrun Solvason) (1897-1934) – Suicide (poison).
Virginia Rappe (1891-1921) – Peritonitis.
Marvel Rea (1901-1937) – Suicide (poison), several months after she was kidnapped and gang-raped.

Wallace Reid (1891-1923) – Drug addiction.
Lucille Ricksen (1910-1925) – Tuberculosis.
Billie Ritchie (1878-1921) – Cause of death reported as complications from internal injuries caused by kick in the stomach by ostrich on set; may have been stomach cancer in actuality.
Edith Roberts (1899-1935) – Septicemia following childbirth.
Earle Rodney (1888-1932) – Pneumonia.
Ruth Roland (1892-1937) – Cancer.
Alan (Albert) Roscoe (1886-1933) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources.
Alma Rubens (1897-1931) – Drug addiction.
William Russell (1884-1929) – Pneumonia; brother of director Albert Russell, who also died of pneumonia two weeks later.
Emilie Sannom (1886-1931) – Aviation accident (failure of parachute deployment).
Dorothy Seastrom (1903-1930) – Tuberculosis.
Larry Semon (1889-1928) – Pneumonia, tuberculosis.
Clarine Seymour (1898-1920) – Strangulation of the intestines.
William Sherwood (1896-1918) – Cause of death not listed in reference sources; Spanish flu?
George Siegmann (1882-1928) – Pernicious anemia. Had been badly hurt in Tod Browning-Elmer Booth car crash years earlier.
Milton Sills (1882-1930) – Heart attack.
Hal Skelly (1891-1934) – Passenger in a car that was hit by a train. (He entered films in 1928, so all his movies are actually sound.) 
Sid Smith (1893-1928) – Alcohol poisoning from bad liquor.
Jack Standing (1886-1917) – Pneumonia.
Emily Stevens (1882-1928) – Pneumonia.
William Stowell (1885-1919) – Train crash.
Lilyan Tashman (1896-1934) – Cancer, complications from surgery.
Lou Tellegen (1881-1934) – Suicide (stabbing hara-kiri style).
Olive Thomas (1894-1920) – Mercury bichloride ingestion; disputed as to whether accident or suicide.
Fred Thomson (1890-1928) – Tetanus.
Mary Thurman (1895-1925) – Pneumonia.

Thelma Todd (1906-1935) – Carbon monoxide poisoning (car in garage); disputed as to whether accident, suicide, or murder.
Wayland Trask, Jr. (1887-1918) – Spanish flu.
Hugh Trevor (1903-1933) – Complications from appendectomy.
Norman Trevor (1877-1929) – Brain malady.
Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) – Peritonitis.
Conrad Veidt (1893-1943) – Heart attack.
Marie Walcamp (1894-1936) – Suicide (prescription drug overdose).
Blanche Walsh (1873-1915) – Kidney failure.
Dorrit Weixler (1892-1916) – Suicide (hanging); suffered from morphine addiction.
Pearl White (1889-1938) – Cirrhosis.
Robert Williams (1894-1931) – Peritonitis following two appendicitis operations.
Al Wilson (1895-1932) – Plane crash.
Grant Withers (1904-1959) – Suicide.
Helen Lee Worthing (1905-1948) – Suicide (barbiturate overdose).
Ralph Yearsley (1896-1928) – Suicide.
Valentina Zimina (1899-1928) – Influenza.

The bit about Helene Chadwick's "highly nervous state" irresistibly reminds me of the great scene in Wonder Boys when celebrity suicide aficionado Tobey Maguire, egged on by Katie Holmes, recites some of his knowledge to an amused Robert Downey, Jr.

Hannah Green: Mr. Crabtree was saying how George Sanders killed himself, only he couldn't remember how.
James Leer: Pills. April 25, 1972, in a Costa Brava hotel room.
Terry Crabtree: How comprehensive of you.
Hannah Green: James is amazing. He knows all the movie suicides. Go ahead, James. Tell him.
James Leer: There are so many.
Hannah Green: Well, just a few. The big ones.
James Leer: Pier Angeli, 1971 or '72, also pills. Donald "Red" Barry, shot himself in 1980. Charles Boyer, 1978, pills again. Charles Butterworth, 1946, I think. In a car. Supposedly, it was an accident, but, you know, he was distraught. Dorothy Dandridge, pills, 1965. Albert Dekker, 1968. He hung himself. He wrote his suicide note in lipstick on his stomach. William Inge, carbon monoxide, 1973. Carole Landis, pills again. I forget when. George Reeves, "Superman" on TV, shot himself. Jean Seberg, pills, of course, 1979. Everett Sloane - he was good - pills. Margaret Sullavan, pills. Lupe Velez, a lot of pills. Gig Young, he shot himself and his wife in 1978. There are tons more.
Hannah Green: I haven't heard of half of them.
Terry Crabtree: You did them alphabetically.
James Leer: It's just how my brain works, I guess.

"But, you know, he was distraught." Classic.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Crimes of the Century 1949: The Screaming Mimi (Fredric Brown)

Psychiatry was all the rage in late 1940s popular culture, very au courant, as witness films such as Spellbound and The Snake Pit, or the three dazzling novels that John Franklin Bardin published between 1946 and 1948, The Deadly Percheron, The Last of Philip Banter, and Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly. So when a character early in Fredric Brown's equally dazzling The Screaming Mimi makes a seemingly casual reference to having had psychiatric training, you may be sure it is a significant moment.

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) is one of the rare authors to distinguish himself in both crime fiction and science fiction, and he brought an offbeat sense of humor to both. The Screaming Mimi (1949) is a standalone hard-boiled mystery with a newspaper reporter rather than a detective as its protagonist. Bill Sweeney is an unmarried Irish-American scribe in his early 40s who claims not to be an alcoholic (right) but who goes on benders during which he winds up on park benches with other drunks - which is how the novel opens, as a matter of fact, and it gives nothing away to say that is how it ends, as well. Loop the loop!

Brown says on the opening page, "it isn't a nice story. It's got murder in it, and women and liquor and gambling and even prevarication" (love that "even," a neat specimen of Brown's puckishness). Sweeney will witness the aftermath of an attempted killing and become obsessed with the victim, who just happens to be a stripper who performs an act with a large and ferocious-looking dog. You can already see how this gets psychological.

The "Screaming Mimi" of the title is a semi-mass-produced "fine art" statuette of a terrified nude woman, which figures heavily in the narrative: "The mouth was wide open in a soundless scream. The arms were thrust out, palms forward, to hold off some approaching horror." Believe me that I know that the phrase "semi-mass-produced 'fine art' statuette" is rife with internal contradictions, which happen to be completely germane to the story. Sweeney is a high-culture snob who dotes on his semi-mass-produced classical music 78s and shudders when he hears Irving Berlin mentioned. (This is funny, since Berlin and his "Great American Songbook" colleagues are now considered classical composers, just about.)

It gets better. The statuette looks like it is made of ebony, but it's not. "It is made of a new plastic that can't be told from ebony, unless you pick it up. The dull gloss is the same as ebony's, to the eye." Things are not what they seem!, check. Repros and knock-offs.

Then when Sweeney's apartment is burgled, the thief fails to take "a stickpin with a zircon in it that [he] could not have been sure wasn't a diamond." Who can be sure of anything, those days or these days?

In case you're wondering, Walter Benjamin's seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" would not be published in English translation until 1968, but in 1949 Brown is already channeling its spirit, big-time.

I don't want to go any further with the plot of The Screaming Mimi; you really need to read it. It is an absolute classic of its kind, easily as good as Raymond Chandler when he was cooking. It has a coterie reputation, but is not as well-known as it should be (although you know about it now, and that's all that really counts). No Brown title was included in the Library of America's big two-volume set of noir novels of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and that was a criminal oversight.

The Screaming Mimi has been adapted for the movies twice, by Gerd Oswald as Screaming Mimi in 1958, and by Dario Argento as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970. I haven't seen either, but I feel confident that the Oswald film, at least, must have considerably altered Brown's overall thrust, because there is no way that a 1958 movie, even luridly put forward as "The strip-tease murder case!" and featuring Gypsy Rose Lee in a supporting role, could have encompassed some of the twists of the original.   

Yes, I have been mimicking Brown's Mimi style throughout this piece. Sharp of you to notice.

The Screaming Mimi

The Man Who Remembered the Moon (David Hull)

David Hull's teasing literary fable, The Man Who Remembered the Moon, opens with a gambit that could be considered either Kakfaesque or Twlight Zone-ish - and come to think of it, don't those have something in common? Hull's protagonist no longer sees the moon in the sky, and can't convince anyone that it was once there. They don't know what he's talking about.

Now, you are probably already thinking - what about moon references in literature? What about the word "lunar"? What about the tides? Wouldn't it be a lot darker at night? The author is ahead of you.

It is not just the absence of the moon that renders the world that Hull describes in this novella unfamiliar. That is often true with Kafka and Rod Serling, too - the worlds in which their possibly delusional protagonists are situated are not quite right anyway.

Two peculiarities in the world of Hull's story stood out to me. One, the delusion sufferer is institutionalized over it, and for a long time. We must admit, this could not be our contemporary world. Delusions sometimes used to get you locked up; no longer. We shut down the asylums and made the world the asylum. It saves money, anyway.

Two, strongly related to one, the man who remembers the moon insists on trying to bring everyone around, instead of letting the point be. I suppose that would make him more of an institutional candidate. Think about this. Couldn't you make honest statements that would have others looking askance at your good sense, even possibly your sanity? I know I could; I assume that most people could. We just learn to keep quiet about it, or at the very least to pick our audiences carefully.

Hull's protagonist has no self-preservational filter; by golly, everyone must be made to understand that there was a moon. Which is more problematic, falling prey to a (possible) delusion, or demanding that the world agrees with your perception of it? The latter is certainly more dangerous.

Naturally, I do not want to say how this all plays out in the story, which I recommend to your attention. It is a quick read, and a rewarding one. Hull has a full-length novel announced for a year from now, and I will definitely be reading that book when it appears. It will be interesting to see if it extends the cool, thoughtful tone of The Man Who Remembered the Moon, or goes in a different stylistic direction altogether.

The Man Who Remembered The Moon (Kindle Single)

The Girl Who Went Missing (Ace Varkey)

Reading crime fiction in recent years has increasingly become a form of armchair travel, and I'm all for it! It might even prompt some actual travel, although I must say that after finishing Ace Varkey's excellent debut novel The Girl Who Went Missing, I'm not at all inclined to visit its setting of Mumbai, which sounds too dangerous by half. But I'd be delighted to keep reading about the city in all its colorful and sometimes sordid complexity, especially when I'm in such capable hands as Varkey's.

Ace Varkey has lived in India, and her experience there shows. She is especially sensitive to the texture of women's experiences, both native and foreign, in a country that unfortunately does not have the best record where women's rights and dignities are concerned. In fact, this is the subject and prime mover of the narrative.

As always when reviewing a crime novel, and many other forms of fiction as well, I don't want to give too much away in terms of plot. But I can make a few indications. The title of The Girl Who Went Missing gives you some idea of where the book is headed, and is actually an understatement - quite a number of girls go missing in the course of the story. It is all about exploitation in its ugliest forms, and there are some scenes that go pretty edgy, especially an attention-getting opening sequence, although nothing quite as difficult-to-take as, say, you'll find in Derek Raymond's Factory novels (which I feel pretty confident that Varkey has read).

The novel is choral, written from multiple points-of-view - about half Indians, about half Americans in India. It "plays fair" with respect to scattering clues, and the red herrings are especially skillfully employed because they are all also thematic doublings in a Hitchcockian manner. I took notes as I was reading! Pay special attention to all references to red hair and green eyes.

I did have a few plot quibbles, but I almost always do when reading a mystery, and it is certainly nothing that got in the way of my enjoyment. I'm definitely on board for Varkey's next entry in a planned series of novels about Mumbai Police Commissioner Oscar D'Costa.

The Girl Who Went Missing

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Chicago Confidential (dir. Sidney Salkow, 1957)

Between 1947 and 1952, New York Mirror newspapermen Jack Lait (1883-1954) and Lee Mortimer (1903-1963) collaborated on four sensational volumes about postwar urban crime and corruption: New York Confidential, Washington Confidential, Chicago Confidential, and U.S.A. Confidential. (After Lait’s death, Mortimer would extend the “Confidential” vibe with his solo effort Women Confidential in 1961, which Kirkus Reviews excoriated as “dreary,” “misogynous,” and “shabby.”) The books’ typical-for-the-genre blend of titillation and faux moral outrage made for strong sales and a recognizable franchise. The infamous gossip magazine Confidential, which today is more famous, actually launched after the four Lait-Mortimer books had appeared (in December 1952). James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential and its movie adaptation play off both associations, the magazine and the books – its title suggests a volume that the East Coast-based Lait and Mortimer never got around to writing.

It is a cinch, by the way, that Lait knew his contemporary and fellow New York journalist Herbert Asbury (1889-1963), who cornered the market on urban historical exposes with his rousing and still very entertaining volumes The Gangs of New York (the source of Martin Scorsese's problematic film), The Barbary Coast, The French Quarter, Gem of the Prairie, and others. The Lait-Mortimer books were in the same line, only “ripped from today’s headlines.”

As collections of various loosely related urban scandals, the “Confidential” books did not lend themselves to direct adaptation, so the two movies (New York Confidential, Chicago Confidential) and one television series (New York Confidential) “suggested by” them basically lifted the titles alone, for recognizability value. I’m sure that Lait and Mortimer didn’t mind the easy cash! Of course, there were many expose-style films with cities in their titles throughout the Fifties, to the extent that they qualify as a crime film sub-genre. The degree of noirishness depends on the particular movie, often amounting to no more than the exploitation of a visual vocabulary that had become pretty standardized by the time.

Still, completists must have them all, and if one is going to watch a batch of relatively routine movies with close attention, it pays to be alert to the minor variations that they present. All movies, even pretty terrible ones, become historically interesting as specimens of their genres as time passes. Film historians will be poring over our lame rom-coms and cookie-cutter action movies fifty years from now. It’s inevitable.

So what does viewing Chicago Confidential, now available on DVD from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, yield? Well, I’ve watched it twice, and both times the 73 minutes went by engagingly enough. Almost (but not quite) across the board, the contributions on display in the movie are, as a Variety review might put it, “solidly pro” or “blandly pro.”

I’m not extensively familiar with director Sidney Salkow’s filmography, but his work here shows the unexciting proficiency that one might expect from a man who directed as many low-budgeted features, series films (Lone Wolf, Bulldog Drummond), and series television episodes as he did. He seems to be the exact opposite of a Joseph H. Lewis, who tilled the same fields with unique results. With Salkow, there are no surprises.

(By the way, has anyone noticed the existence of Salkow’s late Brit-noir The Murder Game [1965]? The only review or comment at the IMDB is Bosley Crowther’s contemporary piece in the New York Times.)

Among the tech credits, Kenneth Peach’s cinematography offers a few decent but not startling night scenes. Emil Newman’s score is in the blaring-brassy style common at the time.

The generally able cast includes:

Dick Foran, who had matured into solid middle-aged parts by this point; he plays union boss Artie Blane, framed for the murder of the union treasurer

Beverly Garland, showing some spunk as Foran’s girlfriend who presses the cause of his innocence

Elisha Cook Jr., at his most pathetic as the drunkard “Candymouth” Duggan, who discovers an important gun

Phyllis Coates, TV’s first Lois Lane, uncredited as the wife of Chicago State’s Attorney Jim Fremont (Brian Keith)

Anthony George, later co-star of Checkmate, as a heavy; he’s visible throughout the film, but barely gets to speak two lines

Douglas Kennedy as the corrupt union V.P.

Gavin Gordon as a Capone era holdover

I’ll offer two special shout-outs. Paul Langton (1913-1980) plays Chicago Police Captain Jake Parker, and is a most agreeable presence. Langton had a long career as a supporting player in film and television, but seldom got a chance to stand out until he took on the role of Leslie Harrington in TV’s Peyton Place. He did, however, play leading parts in three postwar crime films, the recently re-surfaced For You I Die (1947), the very obscure Fighting Back (1948), and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Murder Is My Beat (1955); as well as W. Lee Wilder’s Abominable Snowman movie The Snow Creature (1954). Langton is someone I would like to know more about.

The plot of Chicago Confidential hinges on a possibly faked audiotape brought into evidence at Artie Blane’s murder trial, and whether it is the work of an impressionist. Buddy Lewis (1916-1986) makes his film debut as nightclub artist Kerry Jordan, whom we hear do Al Jolson, Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Durante, and Cary Grant (but who ignores Garland’s impassioned shout from the audience: “Do Artie Blane!” – it’s her best scene). Lewis would continue to appear on screen until 1981, and would put his mimicry of Jolson to use again in the 1965 biopic Harlow (the one starring Carol Lynley, not the Carroll Baker version which came out the same year). Information about Lewis on the Internet is tantalizingly sparse. Again, someone I would like to know more about.

(By the way, whatever happened to impressionists? The Rich Littles and Frank Gorshins, they were big in the Sixties and Seventies – there was even briefly an ABC series called The Kopycats in 1972, with those two as well as Charlie Callas, George Kirby, Marilyn Michaels, Fred Travalena, and Joe Baker. No one seems to make a career or become famous doing this anymore. Kevin Spacey, however, does some mean impressions, including a killer Christopher Walken which he shared with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. I hear there’s a guy named Frank Caliendo who’s pretty good, but I’m unfamiliar with his work.)

I mentioned that there was one contribution to the otherwise formulaic surface of Chicago Confidential that is not quite rote, and for me it is where most of the fascination of the film lies. As State’s Attorney Jim Fremont, a righteous crusader with gubernatorial ambitions (Illinois Governor? Don’t do it, Jim!), Brian Keith gives a profoundly weird performance. I can’t recall that I’ve ever seen an actor who looked so embarrassed to be in a starring role before. As one IMDB commenter puts it, Keith “spends most of the time speaking quietly and staring at the floor.” Is this some bizarre manifestation of the Method? But why would an operator trying to grab the brass ring be so slouchy, diffident, mumbly, eyes-averted? This approach doesn’t capture anything about the character as written, and is entirely out of keeping with a long movie tradition of stalwart heroes; yet it must have been deliberate, and the director permitted it, so what gives? I have thought and thought about this, and I have no answer. Yet I have to admit, Keith’s presence at the dead center of Chicago Confidential makes it unique in a way that another 999 out of 1000 noir leading performances would not have. The film lingers in my mind because of it.

Chicago Confidential

Birthday: Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978)

I first became familiar with the great conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark at a Bay Area exhibition in the late Eighties, by which time he had already been gone for a decade; he died of cancer at 35, in 1978. It seems to me that the quality of a conceptual artist's thought must be very high, since thoughts are their basic materials; the manifestations can't much outstrip the concepts behind them. Matta-Clark, born into a family of distinguished artists -- his father was the Chilean painter Roberto Matta -- had an extraordinary mind, and my initial encounter with his work practically blew me into the Pacific Ocean. There is so much to him, but the famous and provocative "building cuts" are an excellent place to start:

Gordon Matta-Clark

Gordon Matta-Clark

Gordon Matta-Clark: Works and Collected Writings