Sunday, November 30, 2014

Agatha Christie's Misfire

All I know about the publication of Agatha Christie's "Hallowe'en Party" is that it was published in November 1969.

I don't know the exact date, but I suspect the book was published closer to the beginning of November (and, consequently, closer to Hallowe'en itself). Perhaps such timing would have helped. By 1969, Agatha Christie was nearly 80, and her writing engine seemed to be running out of gas. "Hallowe'en Party" was disappointing when compared to her earlier works. The plot wasn't bad, but the telling of it was weak and a bit inefficient for Christie.

The book matched Christie's most popular detective, Hercule Poirot, with Christie's caricature of herself, Ariadne Oliver. Ariadne was a rather eccentric sort, a celebrated writer who was averse to publicity, fond of apples, a teetotaler. Poirot described her as having an "original if untidy mind" — the ideal complement to Poirot's tidy gray cells.

If opposites attract, Hercule and Ariadne were a match made in heaven; in fact, I have often wondered why Christie wrote about Ariadne so seldom. Ariadne appeared in roughly half a dozen Agatha Christie books. She was an old friend of Poirot's — hence, nearly all of her appearances were in books that featured him prominently, although I think there was one book in which Oliver was featured as a sort of tangential character, but Poirot was not part of it.

Readers of "Hallowe'en Party" could be forgiven for thinking Poirot would not play a role in this one, either — at least, at first. In "Hallowe'en Party," Ariadne happened to be present when, while preparing for a Hallowe'en party, a 13–year–old girl related that she had witnessed a murder once but only recently had come to realize that it was a murder she had seen.

Not long thereafter, the girl was found dead — drowned in an apple–bobbing bucket — and Ariadne called on her old friend to solve the murder. Considering what she had heard from the girl herself, Ariadne was concerned that the murder might have been prompted by the girl's revelation.

It was a missed opportunity in many ways. At a time when many were examining the so–called "generation gap," it was a chance to remind readers that such a gap has always existed. It was an opportunity to examine the logic (or lack thereof) of teenagers, but, by the time Christie wrapped it up, "Hallowe'en Party" was still loaded with loose ends and characters who seemed promising at first but sort of fizzled out.

Well, Christie was nearing the end of her life, and she had written so many excellent books that I suppose she could be excused for making the occasional misfire.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Premiere of Judy Garland's Transitional Movie

"A lie's a lie, and dressed in white don't help it."

Katie the maid (Marjorie Main)

Vincente Minnelli's "Meet Me in St. Louis," which premiered 70 years ago today, is highly regarded by the American Film Institute — as well as many devotees of the movie musical.

I say that from personal experience because my grandmother was a fan of movie musicals, and she always liked "Meet Me in St. Louis." Maybe that was because she really liked Judy Garland — which I knew as a child. But, when I got older and saw the movie for myself, I kind of felt the main attraction for "Meet Me in St. Louis" really was 6–year–old Margaret O'Brien, who appeared in several movies in 1944 and was rewarded with a special juvenile Oscar.

It was O'Brien's most memorable role in a movie career that was too short; she wasn't able to make the transition to adult roles as Garland (who also won a juvenile Oscar) had.

(Whatever the reason, I often heard my grandmother singing songs from "Meet Me in St. Louis." My grandmother loved to sing, and she had a pretty good voice, too. As a child, I didn't know which musical featured those songs, but the first time I saw the movie, I knew the words to the songs — and, in my head, I could hear my grandmother singing them.)

"Meet Me in St. Louis" was something of a milestone for Garland, though. It was her transitional movie, marking her shift from children's roles to adult roles. She was 22 when it premiered. She had been a teenager when she made "The Wizard of Oz," which was probably her breakout role (even though she had already made movies with Mickey Rooney by that time), but it was also a children's role.

And movie purists might argue that "Meet Me in St. Louis" wasn't really her first adult role; they might be inclined to mention "Presenting Lily Mars" or "For Me and My Gal," but I'll stick with "Meet Me in St. Louis" because it was more commercially successful than the others.

The story was set around the turn of the century — in St. Louis in the months before the opening of the 1904 World's Fair. It followed the Smith family, who enjoyed a middle–class lifestyle (which, at the turn of the century, was pretty darned affluent — affluent enough to afford a maid to take care of the family and the large house it occupied).

Leon Ames played the head of the household, and Mary Astor, not too far removed from her role in "The Maltese Falcon" and her Oscar–winning part in "The Great Lie," played his wife. Garland was one of their daughters. So were O'Brien, Lucille Bremer (who always reminds me of Julianne Moore — maybe it's the red hair) and Joan Carroll; Henry H. Daniels Jr. played the only son.

Carroll and Daniels had relatively small roles; Garland, O'Brien and Bremer got the most attention. Marjorie Main, who was best known for playing the movies' Ma Kettle, was the maid.

When I saw it for the first time, it was already three, maybe four decades old, and it struck me as being similar to "Life With Father" (which came out a few years later but was set perhaps 20 years earlier than "Meet Me in St. Louis").

Both movies were so frothy and sweet they could give you cavities — but they were also charming and endearing with stories that were mostly told from the young people's points of view. When Mr. Smith's work required him to uproot the family and move to New York, it created crises within the family: They would have to leave St. Louis before the start of the fair they all had been eagerly anticipating, and Garland's blooming relationship with the boy next door would collapse.

Oh, the humanity.

What's more, O'Brien (who was more aware of mortality than most children her age) began a serial execution of snowmen upon learning the news.

O'Brien stole the show, but "Meet Me in St. Louis" really was built around two themes — music and crises. It started with songs, then there was a family crisis, followed by more songs, then more crises, then more songs ... well, you get the idea.

Astonishingly, it was nominated for four Oscars. It didn't win any, but it was still nominated for its cinematography, screenplay, musical score and song ("The Trolley Song" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane).

"Meet Me in St. Louis" was noteworthy for something else.

It was the first pairing of Garland and Minnellii, who married the following year.

The marriage ended in divorce, but it did produce a child — Liza Minnelli — who has enjoyed some professional success of her own.

They worked together on "The Clock" (1945) and "The Pirate" (1948) before they divorced, but Liza remains their most famous post–"Meet Me in St. Louis" collaboration.

The movie itself was remade twice for television — in 1959 and 1966.

The second remake was made without music and was intended as a pilot for a TV series, but it wasn't picked up. That's for the best, I suppose. O'Brien notwithstanding, it's hard to imagine "Meet Me in St. Louis" without Garland, isn't it?

(By the way, you can see "Meet Me in St. Louis" tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. Central time on Turner Classic Movies.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bringing Agatha Christie to the Big Screen

Bianchi (Martin Balsam): You mean you saw the man? You can identify the murderer?

Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall): I mean nothing of the kind. I mean there was a man in my compartment last night. It was pitch dark, of course, and my eyes were closed in terror ...

Bianchi: Then how did you know it was a man?

Mrs. Hubbard: Because I've enjoyed very warm relations with both my husbands.

Bianchi: With your eyes closed?

Mrs. Hubbard: That helped.

I remember the night my father took our family from our central Arkansas hometown to Little Rock to see "Murder on the Orient Express," which premiered on this day in 1974. I have read many Agatha Christie books in my life, and I have read the one upon which the movie was based, but I had not read it before I saw the movie.

So I was completely fished in by the solution — which I won't give away, in case someone reading this would like to read the book (which I recommend) or see the movie (which I also recommend). In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert reminded readers that "nothing is as it seems (and you knew that already about a movie based on an Agatha Christie book)."

"Murder on the Orient Express" wasn't the first Agatha Christie book to be brought to the big screen, but, to my knowledge, it was the first to do so with such a heavyweight cast.

My parents were Agatha Christie fans. They read most, if not all, of her books — and my memory of that night is that they were almost giddy with anticipation. Looking back, I realize they must have read articles about the movie — reviews, features about the cast members, that sort of thing — but my brother and I had not, and we were bewildered; we knew some of the stars in the movie, but we had no idea what to expect from the plot.

I had seen Ingrid Bergman in movies on TV, but she was young and beautiful in those movies. She was nearly 60 when she made "Murder on the Orient Express" — still beautiful, as I found out later, but the role she played required her to look even frumpier than many women look at that age.

Bergman actually chose the role she played, an old Swedish missionary, even though director Sidney Lumet wanted to give her a better role, a still older yet prettier and wittier character than the missionary, a more graceful role with which he felt she could win another Oscar. But Bergman was "sweetly stubborn" about the role she wanted to play, Lumet said, and he couldn't deny her. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.

In the end, she won an Oscar, anyway. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.
Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney): Mr. Ratchett, I have made enough money to satisfy both my needs and my caprices. I take only such cases now as interest me, and to be frank, my interest in your case is ... dwindling.

Really, it was an all–star cast, befitting a story that seemed to have randomly thrown together a dozen colorful characters — until a rather tenuous link between them all and the victim was established.

Personally, I found the story's solution to be a clever twist, the kind of thing that only Agatha Christie could conceive. She put all the characters on a train that had been stopped by a snowdrift. They were confined to the train, where Poirot interrogated them all and then revealed the two conclusions he had reached about how the victim had been killed.

Must have been a delight to be on the set with all those talented people.

Hercule Poirot: You never smile, madame la princesse?

Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller): My doctor has advised against it.

For the quality of its production, "Murder on the Orient Express" was rewarded with half a dozen Oscar nominations — and one victory, Bergman's Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But Bergman, when she accepted the award, apologized to the actresses she had beaten, especially Valentina Cortese, who was nominated for her performance in a film that was made in 1973. Bergman thought Cortese's performance was better.

"She gave the most beautiful performance," Bergman said admiringly as applause erupted from the audience.

Granted, but Bergman was pretty good, too. After all, she was Ingrid Bergman.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Telling the Tale of a Trip Through Time

1955 Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd): It was nice talking to you. Maybe we'll bump into each other sometime in the future.

1985 Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd): Or the past.

I thoroughly enjoyed the original "Back to the Future."

When I saw it, it was pretty obvious that a sequel was planned — if not already in the works — and that was OK with me.

But I was disappointed.

See, I already knew "Back to the Future" was going to end up being a trilogy; consequently, I knew that the second installation would be incomplete, as second chapters in trilogies always are. They are extensions of the original — and promises that conclusions will be forthcoming — but they do not provide satisfactory resolutions. After all, gotta save something for Part III, right?

But there were other problems with this sequel.

In many ways, I thought Derek Armstrong of made a good point when he wrote, "A successful sequel duplicates the characteristics that drew audiences to the original, but [director Robert] Zemeckis saps the buoyant spirit from the series by presenting a world dominated by the pimp–like, unimaginably wealthy and vulgar Biff."

The dark vision of the future in "Back to the Future Part II" offered little of the joy of the original — only most of the original cast.

I must say, though, that I appreciated the detail of the research. In the scene where young Biff was driving along and listening to the football scores on the radio, I can say that the scores are accurate from Saturday, Nov. 12, 1955. I checked on this once when the movie was showing on TV and was able to quickly confirm the authenticity of the scores in the sports almanac.

UCLA really did kick a late field goal to beat Washington, as Old Biff bet a skeptical Young Biff would happen while they sat in Young Biff's car and they listened to the final minute of the game on the car radio — and all those other scores that were mentioned by the radio announcer were accurate, too — but Biff shouldn't have been so surprised that UCLA pulled off a come–from–behind win.

UCLA was ranked fourth in the nation and ended up going to the Rose Bowl. Washington hadn't won a game in a month. As any sports fan can tell you, near upsets happen all the time; truly talented teams frequently find ways to overcome.

Of course, Biff confirmed that the scores matched the scores in the almanac — something he shouldn't have been doing while operating a vehicle, but perfectly in keeping with his character.

(Considering the size of the almanac and the movies' attention to detail, I — as a former sports copy editor — found it difficult to believe that every score of every sports event over half a century could be contained within its covers.)

There was a dark side to "Back to the Future Part II" that was more personal for Marty McFly, as observed.

I guess the point that the "Back to the Future" series made so well was Doc Brown's repeated admonition not to meddle in future (or past) events. His intention was to use the time machine only for research purposes, to observe and learn, not to become involved.

It isn't a new theme, this idea that history cannot be altered, and it would be a wise rule — if time travel were possible. But it isn't, and so the influence of the insertion of a visitor from another time remains theoretical.

Still, it makes sense, doesn't it? I'm a Southern boy so I liken it to something I saw all around me when I was growing up — dominoes. If you look at time like a row of dominoes — I don't know what the dominoes would represent; increments in time (days, weeks, months, years), I suppose — and if you further assume that one at the end of the line is not permitted to remain standing, its fall will affect the next domino, and that effect will continue until there are no more dominoes standing.

If you apply the domino analogy to the context of the "Back to the Future" movies, especially Part II, you do get to see an apocalyptic vision of a radically altered future.

And that seems to have been what Zemeckis was aiming for.

There really was a lot going on.

"I should have brought a big yellow legal pad to the screening," Roger Ebert wrote, "so I could take detailed notes just to keep the time–lines straight."

Ebert wrote of the "paradoxes" of time travel. That's probably the best word for it. I have to admit it was not what I was expecting. Given the nature of the first movie in the franchise, I expected something similar. Zemeckis threw me a curve.

But it intrigued me. What did the final installment in the trilogy have in store? We only had to wait six months to find out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Was 'Adam's Rib' Hepburn and Tracy's Best?

I don't know if "Adam's Rib," which premiered 65 years ago today, was the best of the Spencer Tracy–Katharine Hepburn movies.

Tracy and Hepburn made nine movies, after all.

But the American Film Institute ranked it higher than any of their other movies — #22 overall.

They played a variety of roles in their movies. In this one, they played married lawyers who had to oppose each other in court. Hepburn was defending a woman accused of shooting her husband. Tracy was the prosecuting attorney. The defendant was played by Judy Holliday in only her second credited movie. Her husband was played by Tom Ewell, who went on to star in "The Seven–Year Itch" on both stage and screen.
Amanda (Katharine Hepburn): What I said was true, there's no difference between the sexes. Men, women, the same.

Adam (Spencer Tracy): They are?

Amanda: Well, maybe there is a difference, but it's a little difference.

Adam: Well, you know as the French say...

Amanda: What do they say?

Adam: Vive la difference!

Amanda: Which means?

Adam: Which means hurrah for that little difference.

Seems Ewell's character had been itching in "Adam's Rib," too. That is why Holliday shot him. She believed he had been having an affair, and she opened fire on him when he was with his girlfriend, but she wasn't a very good shot and only managed to strike his shoulder. She was distraught, not responsible for her actions.

Well, that was Hepburn's argument.

Hepburn's defense really was ahead of its time — it was, essentially, the battered wife syndrome. Well, not so much battered as abused — as in emotional, not physical or sexual, abuse. Hepburn argued that Holliday had been forced to act as she did because of Ewell's poor treatment of her.

Tracy thought Holliday was guilty of attempted murder — then found out he had been assigned the case. Normally, that would be cause for celebration, but Tracy immediately realized it would mean a pretty unpleasant home life until the trial was over.

Therein lay the plot of "Adam's Rib." I'm sure you can guess many of the jokes. It could have been a routine comedy except for the professional approaches of Hepburn and Tracy.
Amanda: No part of marriage is the exclusive province of any one sex.

Even obvious jokes were enjoyable when they were delivered by Hepburn and Tracy, though. "Adam's Rib" may not have been an Oscar–worthy movie — unlike other movies they made together — but it delivered on entertainment. In fact, there are those who consider it a classic of the romantic comedy genre.

Setting a Standard of Epic Proportions

"You may conquer the land. You may slaughter the people. That is not the end. We will rise again."

Judah Ben–Hur (Charlton Heston)

As a general rule, I have found that it isn't a good idea to judge a movie you haven't seen by how many Oscars it won. Some of the best movies I have ever seen won no Oscars, and some of the worst movies I have ever seen won several.

That said, "Ben–Hur," which premiered on this date in 1959, managed to live up to the hype created by its then–record 11 Oscars. It was a deserving recipient.

There certainly was a lot to recommend "Ben–Hur" as a movie — and as historical fiction, with its apparently accurate costumes and lavish sets, but not as the literal history of Jesus' life story, which remains the subject of disagreement among people the world over.

I also thought "Ben–Hur" had a bit of a tendency to beat viewers over the head in the process of making its points. It was a little heavy–handed at times.

Early in the movie, for example, when Ben–Hur was watching the parade for the new governor from a rooftop, a loose tile fell and injured the governor. The same thing happened in the book, but, in the movie, the unnecessarily loud sound of loose tile could be heard when it was touched, setting up the viewer for what was to come next. In the print context, I suppose the noise level varied from reader to reader.

It cost more than $15 million to make, and nearly as much was spent on advertising. That was an astronomical amount in 1959, but it paid off handsomely. "Ben–Hur" was the highest–grossing film of the year — and became the second highest–grossing film ever, up to that time (behind "Gone With the Wind").

Director William Wyler didn't like the widescreen format, but it is hard to imagine "Ben–Hur" being nearly as effective without it. Much has been made over the years of the nine–minute chariot race scene, which really is an amazing film sequence, the kind of thing that must be seen either on the big screen or in the letterbox format that simulates the big–screen experience at home.

In the context of the story, it was after the chariot race that Heston's character experienced a reversal of fortune and began to learn the ways of ancient Rome. Still, he wanted to be with his family in his homeland.

Heston went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor — ironic, considering that many other actors were approached about playing the lead role before Heston was asked. Hugh Griffith (whose career began during the heyday of the Ealing Studios comedies) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Wyler won for Best Director.

And Miklós Rózsa received an Oscar for his score, which is often said to be his best. It was certainly influential, and it remained (pardon the pun) instrumental among film music composers for nearly two decades.

Monday, November 17, 2014

'Another Thin Man' Helped Depression-Era Audiences Escape

Nora (Myrna Loy): How did you find me here?

Nick (William Powell): I saw a great group of men standing around a table. I knew there was only one woman in the world who could attract men like that. A woman with a lot of money.

For the third time in five years, movie audiences were treated to William Powell and Myrna Loy as the wisecracking detective spouses, Nick and Nora Charles, in "Another Thin Man," which premiered on this day in 1939.

Powell and Loy made six "Thin Man" movies together, but they were paired in 14 movies all told. Well, to be accurate, they were co–stars in 13; the last one was Powell's movie, and Loy made a cameo appearance. Even so, without a doubt, they were one of the big screen's most prolific couples.

In a way, I think the "Thin Man" movies proved what a great actress Myrna Loy was. I guess you have to put her performances as Nora Charles up against her performances in other movies with other leading men to see what I'm talking about but try to stay with me here. Powell was a center–of–attention kind of guy, and Loy tailored her performance to let him do his thing. For want of a better label, she was Powell's straight man.

In her other movies, she had different personae to complement her leading man, be he Fredric March, Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable. Each brought different strengths and weaknesses to their roles, and Loy was always able to be whatever she needed to be to make it work.

Now, I liked the original "Thin Man" movie (which was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel), and I liked the sequel that was made two years later, too. In some ways, I liked the sequel better — because it did the things that a good sequel ought to do. It expanded on themes that were introduced in the original, and it even had a surprising twist at the end. Can't ask for more than that from a sequel.

In some ways, though, I felt the story was getting a little tired by the third installment. It was aptly named, but it needed a question mark to be correct, I suppose, and maybe an underline — Another Thin Man?

The third movie came out three years after the second one so it was only right to wonder what Nick and Nora had been up to. Well, as the audience discovered early, they had been fruitful and multiplied. The audience was already familiar with the Charleses' pet terrier, Asta, from the first two movies; now, there was a fourth member of the group, 8–month–old Nick Jr.

I am still not sure how I feel about that addition. In hindsight, it sort of strikes me as the kind of thing the writers for TV shows do when their programs are running out of gas. They insert a new character or they transport the cast to a new setting, hoping to open up new story lines and revive a sagging audience.

On TV, this tactic usually only buys the series a little more time, perhaps another season or two, at best. But it didn't seem to hurt the "Thin Man" franchise. It went on to produce three more movies in eight years.

It was a formula that happened to work very well. It was like some TV series that continue to thrive even after adding new characters. It was that way with Happy Days, which added characters and even a phrase to the popular vocabulary that defined desperation ("jumping the shark") yet continued to thrive.

Audiences knew what they were getting with Nick and Nora. The plot of the movie only existed to give the audience what it wanted.

It was strictly entertainment, nothing Oscar–worthy about it. And, in fact, "Another Thin Man" received no Oscar nominations — unlike the original "Thin Man," which received four Oscar nominations five years earlier.

Well, 1939 was an especially difficult year for movies to get popular attention, but I don't think "Another Thin Man" really deserved any nominations that year. It was just good escapist fare for Americans who were still trying to free themselves from the grip of the Great Depression.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Special Treat From Pink Floyd

Earlier this week, Columbia Records released Pink Floyd's "The Endless River," a collection of previously unreleased tracks recorded during the sessions that produced "The Division Bell" 20 years ago.

I didn't get the CD on the first day it was available in the United States (it was actually released a few days earlier in the United Kingdom). I got my copy after it was released, but I've been listening to it whenever I could since then.

I grew up listening to Pink Floyd. Well, from my teen years on, I suppose. As a youngster, I listened to the Beatles a lot. Then, sometime in my teens, I heard "Wish You Were Here" and "Dark Side of the Moon." I've been a Pink Floyd fan ever since.

I still love the Beatles, of course. I like a lot of different kinds of music. In fact, I'll listen to just about anything — except rap. To any of you who may be rap fans, I'm sorry. I just don't consider it music. One of my students once asked me, "What's your favorite rap song?"

And I replied, "The closest thing to rap in my collection is Bob Dylan singing 'Subterranean Homesick Blues.'"

Anyway, I thought I would never hear another new release from either the Beatles or Pink Floyd. I was wrong.

Nearly 20 years ago, the surviving Beatles took recordings John Lennon had made and dubbed in their own vocals and musical instruments to create not one but two songs featuring the Beatles — even though Lennon was dead. They weren't exactly new to me. I had heard Lennon's solo recordings. But it was nice to hear the four of them performing together again. That part was new to me.

And now Pink Floyd has one–upped the Beatles with an entire album. The music is mostly instrumental — with the exception of the final track — but fans will recognize the sound immediately. This isn't a jerry–rigged Pink Floyd with someone brought in to fill in for the late Richard Wright or the long–departed Roger Waters. It's Wright with David Gilmour and Nick Mason.

I have told people that I hear elements of past Floyd albums like "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here" — and I do, to the extent that I expect the music to go in one direction, even after several hearings, and then it goes in an entirely different direction — but I also hear things you might not expect from Floyd — for example, I hear sounds that remind me of Yes and Rick Wakeman.

Like those "new" Beatles songs that were released nearly 20 years ago, "The Endless River" is a special treat I never thought I would get from an old favorite.

Did Loose Lips Sink Caribbean Ship?

Sometimes I think Agatha Christie would have a case of wanderlust, and that was what inspired some of her stories. I mean, if she couldn't be somewhere, at least she could write about it.

Anyway, I have always suspected that the book that was published 50 years ago today — "A Caribbean Mystery" — originated that way. After all, she was in her 70s — which isn't too old for many people who want to travel today, but 50 years ago might have been a different story.

The fact that the story took place in an exotic locale really isn't unusual. Christie did that frequently — and for a variety of reasons. What was unusual about "A Caribbean Mystery" was not the setting but the detective who was there.

Christie's most popular detective, Hercule Poirot, spoke frequently of wanting to retire to some place in the country and raise vegetables in a rather serene setting, but he was always being pulled away by a murder some place, and he went there by plane, train and ship. Poirot truly was a world traveler.

Miss Marple, on the other hand, was a real homebody. She seldom strayed from her quaint little English village — to her, an extensive trip generally meant an outing to London for one reason or another or going on a bus tour of historic homes and gardens in Britain. She almost never went to the European continent, let alone the other hemisphere.

Yet Miss Marple was the detective in "A Caribbean Mystery." Go figure, huh? Miss Marple wasn't her most popular detective. It would make sense to put her most popular detective in a place like the Caribbean.

So how did Miss Marple wind up in the Caribbean? Well, her nephew paid her way. Her health hadn't been good, and the idea was that she would recover faster in the warm Caribbean than in cold, dreary England.

Much like Miss Marple herself, the plot sort of plodded along for awhile. Eventually, even the gossip that Miss Marple engaged in so easily became tiring, and Miss Marple was bored.

Then, as so often happened in Christie's stories — especially, it seemed, the ones that featured Miss Marple — the pace picked up quickly, almost without warning. The bored Miss Marple got into a conversation with a rather long–winded major, who failed to keep Miss Marple's interest until he brought up the subject of murder. Then he told Miss Marple a tale about a murderer who got away with it — several times. He asked Miss Marple if she would like to see a picture of this murderer. That got her full attention. But as he was looking through his wallet for the picture, he abruptly (and loudly) changed the subject, apparently after seeing something behind Miss Marple.

The next day, a maid found the major dead in his room. The death appeared to be due to natural causes, but Miss Marple was convinced that he had met with foul play. If she could see the picture he had started to show her, she might get an idea. When he changed the subject the day before, she looked around to see if anyone behind her had caused him to do so, and she had seen several people standing nearby. Perhaps the picture would contain a clue ...

Thus began a Caribbean mystery. Before it was done, there were several deaths — and a few red herrings. It wouldn't have been an Agatha Christie mystery without those.

And, after the major's body was exhumed and an autopsy was performed, it was determined that Miss Marple had been right. His death was not due to natural causes. He had been poisoned.

It was a good read. I thought it was a conventional plot that would be unremarkable in the hands of almost anyone else, but the details were handled in a style that was Christie's — and Christie's alone.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Science of Sex

Alfred (Liam Neeson): When it comes to love, we are all in the dark.

I have often wondered if the life of sexologist Alfred Kinsey inspired the story that was told in 1989's "sex, lies and videotape." After all, didn't James Spader's character do almost precisely what Kinsey did?

Well, not exactly, I suppose. Spader just switched on the video camera and let the women start talking. He did ask them questions as they went along, but the women introduced the topics, and it was entirely up to them how explicit they were.

Kinsey, on the other hand, asked a lot of specific questions. For his research, questions needed to be asked of many women to get an idea of how common certain sexual behaviors were. (The account of his life was provided in the movie "Kinsey," which premiered 10 years ago today.)

And, of course, Kinsey did not video tape his subjects. The technology didn't exist until near the end of his life. (He may have made audio tapes, though.)

Beyond that, Kinsey was raised by a sexually repressive father (John Lithgow), from whom he apparently received little useful instruction. That could well account for his curiosity about sex. I don't recall ever hearing anything about Spader's character's upbringing, only that he was sexually dysfunctional.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

Kinsey began his professional life as a professor of biology, which evolved into sexology, largely from personal experience — or lack thereof. There was a shortage of scholarly research on sexuality, you see.

"The staggering truth," wrote historian William Manchester, "was that men and women knew more about gall wasps [which had been Kinsey's previous field of study] than each other. Human beings were even uninformed about the erotic behavior of members of their own sex, and therefore had no way of knowing whether or not they were normal."

Kinsey (Liam Neeson) fell in love with and married one of his students (Laura Linney, in an Oscar–nominated performance). Neither was sexually experienced before marriage, and their physical relationship suffered initially, but they worked it out, as I gather spouses had to do at that time; they had to find the solution to their problem almost entirely on their own through a kind of trial–and–error method.

As I say, there were few sex resources to which people could turn for answers, and most of the conventional wisdom was based on myths and old wives' tales. Thus, Kinsey's academic specialty was born.

I don't know a lot about Kinsey's life and work, but the movie seemed to have the ring of truth to it. My generation's teachers probably were students of people from Kinsey's generation — once or twice removed, perhaps — and many of them perpetuated the same sexual myths that were almost universally accepted in Kinsey's day.

That's kinda how it is with misinformation.

The findings from Kinsey's interviews informed people that nearly everything they had been told about sex was not true, and it changed a lot of things. In fact, my guess is that, were it not for Kinsey's research establishing that homosexuality was not a rare deviation but was actually much more common than had been believed, the subject of gay marriage would not be as prevalent as it has become in recent years.

Kinsey himself was bisexual and had a relationship with one of his male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard in the movie) — who then went on to have a relationship with Kinsey's wife.

It was that kind of marriage. The Kinseys had their own definition of love, and Kinsey acknowledged in the movie that love was the one thing that couldn't be measured scientifically.

As I say, I don't know much about Kinsey's life, but I got the sense that he treated his sex research with the same clinical detachment he brought to his voluminous studies of the gall wasp. Film critic Roger Ebert confirmed that.

"The film's director, Bill Condon, who is homosexual, regards Kinsey's bisexuality with the kind of objectivity that Kinsey would have approved," wrote Ebert. "[T]he film, like Kinsey, is more interested in what people do than why."

The acting was great. Linney, as I mentioned, was nominated for an Oscar — for Best Supporting Actress. She lost to Cate Blanchett.

Neeson and Sarsgaard deserved to be nominated but weren't. Neither was Oliver Platt, who played the university president who tried, unsuccessfully, to get Neeson to consider the P.R. ramifications of his activities.

I guess "Kinsey" was the kind of historical movie I like best — one in which I have little knowledge going in and can readily confirm what I learned from watching it. If such a movie has been unnecessarily embellished or the facts have been altered, its credibility with me goes way down.

Ten years later, "Kinsey" remains a highly credible story in my book.

Poking Fun at the Church

Bethany (Linda Fiorentino): What's he like?

Metatron (Alan Rickman): God? Lonely. But funny. He's got a great sense of humor. Take sex, for example. There's nothing funnier than the ridiculous faces you people make mid–coitus.

Bethany: Sex is a joke in heaven?

Metatron: The way I understand it, it's mostly a joke down here, too.

"Kevin Smith's 'Dogma' grows out of an irreverent modern Catholic sensibility," wrote Roger Ebert when "Dogma" premiered on this date in 1999, "a byproduct of parochial schools, where the underlying faith is taken seriously but the visible church is fair game for kidding."

When you look at it that way, it really is no surprise that George Carlin was in the cast — as a bishop who tries to modernize the church's image with a "Catholicism WOW!" campaign and a masses–friendly Buddy Christ.

Anyone who ever heard Carlin's "Class Clown" album knew he was a natural for the church ribbing of "Dogma." Frankly, I would have been disappointed if he had not been in it. I'm sure he got a kick out of all the inside jokes that probably had many Protestants scrambling for a Catholic catechism.

"For those reared in such traditions," continued Ebert, "it's no reach at all to imagine two fallen angels finding a loophole to get back into heaven."

That was the real premise of the story. The fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) had been exiled to Wisconsin and thought they had found a loophole in church teaching that would allow them back into heaven — through plenary indulgences being offered to anyone who entered Carlin's cathedral.

As Ebert observed, there are times in "Dogma" when a certain amount of Catholic education — or, at least, exposure to church teaching, if one is not Catholic — is required. Ebert pointed out that "not everybody knows what a plenary indulgence is." I grew up in a Protestant household and attended public schools; if it hadn't been for the fact that my father was a religion professor, and through him I was exposed to a lot of different faiths, I probably wouldn't have known what a plenary indulgence is. But I did.

Consequently, I probably grasped where the story was going before most non–Catholics in the audience did, even those watching at home with the luxury of pausing the tape or DVD and looking up theological definitions before proceeding.
Loki (Matt Damon): Church laws are fallible because they're created by man.

The greater problem with the plenary indulgences was this: if the fallen angels were allowed to re–enter heaven, God would be proven infallible, and all existence on earth would end. Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) was told that, as Christ's last surviving relative, it was her duty to prevent this from happening.

In its way, I suppose, it was a modern–day Revelation.

I agree with Ebert. It helps to know a bit about Catholic teaching to get many of the jokes. Of course, I guess you could just listen to "Class Clown" before watching "Dogma."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Telling Lenny's Story

"Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt gave Lou Gehrig the clap?"

Lenny (Dustin Hoffman)

Dustin Hoffman is probably one of the most prolific actors of his time.

He's been in so many movies in the last 45 years — and many of them were considered great when they were in the theaters and are still regarded as great today, like "The Graduate" and "Midnight Cowboy."

Hoffman has made so many great movies — I would be remiss if I didn't mention "Tootsie," and "Wag the Dog" is one of my favorite movies — that many equally deserving movies seem to get lost in the shuffle when the conversation turns to Hoffman's body of work.

The movie that premiered 40 years ago today, "Lenny," truly was one of his very best, yet I seldom hear it mentioned.

As nearly as I can tell, it was pretty faithful to the story of the life of comedian Lenny Bruce.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the way critic Roger Ebert saw it. He felt Bruce was deified as a "liberating martyr." Maybe it's a matter of perspective. Maybe it is different if you are old enough to remember Bruce when he was alive.

I can't think of a great comedian of the last 50 years who wasn't influenced by Bruce. George Carlin is and always will be my favorite comedian, and he was quite open about the influence Bruce had on him. I've heard other comedians speak of Bruce as well, but I never saw him perform when he was alive. In fact, I did not see a documentary on his life until after I saw the movie starring Dustin Hoffman — and that was nearly a decade after Bruce died.

When I finally did see a documentary, I can say I felt two things: (1) that Hoffman did a great job of portraying Bruce — it really must be a considerable challenge to play someone whose memory is still fresh in the public's mind — and (2) Bruce really was a pioneer.

Ebert disagreed. "Lenny," he wrote, was guilty of "playing fast and loose with the facts."

I don't know to which facts Ebert referred. He isn't alive to ask; neither is Bruce, who could only speculate, anyway. So any points in the movie that don't seem clear are likely to remain that way.

To understand Lenny Bruce, I guess it is necessary to have a certain amount of understanding about the times in which he lived because Bruce's humor almost seems tame compared to the acts of some modern comedians I have seen. Quaint, even. It's like reading Walt Whitman was for me when I was studying journalism in college. It was nice, but it dealt with principles that seemed so basic. That was true, but it is the same way in any endeavor, I suppose. The basic principles have to start somewhere, and they have to be articulated by someone. Precedents must be established.

No story about Bruce would be complete if it focused only on his jokes because his life inspired his art. When he was arrested for violating obscenity laws, he read the transcripts of his trials to audiences who came to hear his jokes, not lectures on the criminal justice system — and "Lenny" pulled no punches in dealing with that part of his life.

Nor did it pull any punches when it came to re–creating his early struggles and his troubled relationship with Honey Harlow (Valerie Perrine in the movie), a stripper whom he married in 1951 and divorced in 1957.

Through it all, Lenny had an interesting relationship with his mother (Jan Miner in the movie). She was responsible for giving him his start, but she was manipulative and controlling.

I thought Miner deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she didn't get one.

Interestingly, the movie never really explored the influence that Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame had on him. Hefner helped Bruce in the early days of his career and published his autobiography in a serialized form.

"Lenny" was nominated for six Oscars but didn't win any. It was the year of "The Godfather Part II," and, like its predecessor, it swept the Oscars in the spring of 1975. Still, no movie or director or actor wins an Oscar by default. There must be a loyal opposition of some sort. And "Lenny" played that role in six categories — Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Garbo Laughs!

"The last mass trials have been a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians."

Ninotchka (Greta Garbo)

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the eighth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
In the first half of "Ninotchka," which premiered 75 years ago today, Greta Garbo lived up to her reputation for being somber and melancholy. But her character, a Soviet envoy, was seduced by the capitalist Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas) in the second half of the movie, and all bets were off.

The pitch for the movie 75 years ago was "Garbo Laughs!" and it was jarringly easy to make her laugh. All Douglas really had to do was take a pratfall, and she was laughing with the best of them.

But in that first half of the movie, she was a real stoneface.
Ninotchka (Greta Garbo): [on a street corner] How long must we wait here?

Leon (Melvyn Douglas): Well, until the policeman blows his whistle again.

Ninotchka: At what intervals does he whistle?

Leon: What?

Ninotchka: How many minutes between the first and second whistle?

Leon: You know that's very funny. I never thought of that before.

Ninotchka: You've never been caught in a similar situation?

Leon: Yes, I have, now that I've come to think about it. It's staggering. Good heavens. If I add it all up, I must have spent years waiting for signals. Imagine, an important part of my life wasted between whistles.

Ninotchka: In other words, you don't know.

Leon: No.

Ninotchka: Thank you.

Leon: You're welcome.

Garbo and Douglas had an impressive chemistry — which was appropriate, given that Garbo's character told Douglas that love was nothing more than a "chemical reaction." It's really no wonder that the story worked as well as it did. It was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and it was co–written by Billy Wilder. Plus, its female lead is the fifth–greatest female star of all time, according to the American Film Institute. AFI also ranks "Ninotchka" #52 among the comedies. "Ninotchka" ranked even higher (#40) among the love stories. How could it go wrong?

My guess is that it must have caught a lot of people by surprise that Garbo was so skilled at comedy; paired with Douglas, perhaps the most sought–after romantic lead of his day, the result was a sophisticated romantic comedy that is often overlooked, I think, by people who regard themselves as students of film.

That's a shame because "Ninotchka" is still funny, especially if it is kept in context when it is watched. It was one of the first movies to poke fun at the humorless culture of the Russian Revolution — and how vulnerable people in such a culture were after they had been exposed to the freedom of the West.

Ninotchka: Why should you carry other people's bags?

Porter: Well, that's my business, Madame.

Ninotchka: That's no business. That's social injustice.

Porter: That depends on the tip.

"Ninotchka" received four Oscar nominations. In addition to its nomination for Best Picture, it was nominated for Best Actress, Best Story and Best Screenplay, but it didn't win any of them.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Man of the People

"Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you're hicks, too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I'm going to fool somebody. I'm going to stay in this race. I'm on my own and I'm out for blood."

Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford)

Robert Penn Warren's novel "All the King's Men" was published and the movie that was based on it (which premiered 65 years ago today) hit America's movie screens long before I was born — but my guess is that everyone knew it was inspired by the life of Huey Long — just as everyone probably knew that "Citizen Kane" told a fictionalized account of William Randolph Hearst's life.

I remember the first time I watched it on TV. I don't remember how old I was, only that I saw it in the TV listings, and I asked my mother if I could watch it. She said I could.

I don't recall anyone telling me that it was based on Huey Long. I just knew. I don't recall reading it anywhere, either. However old I was, I knew enough about American history and Huey Long to recognize his character as it was portrayed by Broderick Crawford.

Some people will tell you life is part of some divine plan, that things are meant to be. I don't know if that is true all the time, but I do believe it is true some of the time and with some people. Crawford, I believe, was born to play Willie Stark. I know that Sean Penn played the role in a remake half a century later, and I respect many of the performances I have seen Penn give, but he wasn't Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford was Willie Stark. The words Willie spoke seemed very natural coming from Crawford's mouth. Sometimes they seemed forced coming from Penn's.

"Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption."

Willie Stark

Stark considered himself a hick, and all the people who voted for him were hicks in his eyes as well. He spoke disparagingly of the hicks. It wasn't complimentary; it was almost a sneering kind of way, derisive. Stark knew the hicks very well — or he thought he did — and didn't have a high regard for them, but he did want to elevate them all (especially himself) above their station in life.

That — being a hick — definitely was not part of Willie Stark's plan. He was meant for grander things. That was Huey Long's belief about himself as well. And it was his undoing. Same with Willie Stark.

Huey Long lived before my time, but in my studies of American history I have read several accounts of his life. He was a professional politician, a cynic, the kind of guy who plays real hardball and plays it well, both in his private life and in the public arena. Willie Stark was that way, too.

I once heard a story about Huey Long that shows how manipulative he was.

In Louisiana, most people are Catholic or Baptist. During a campaign, Long was speaking to a predominantly Catholic audience, and he told a story of getting up early on Sunday mornings to hitch the family mule to the family wagon to go pick up his Catholic grandparents and take them to Mass.

Then, in another speech during the same campaign, Long was speaking to a predominantly Baptist audience, and he told a story of hitching the mule to the wagon on Sunday mornings to take his Baptist grandparents to church service.

One of the reporters who was covering Long's campaign approached Long and said admiringly, "Huey, you've been holding out on us. I didn't know you had Catholic grandparents on one side and Baptist grandparents on the other."

"Hell," Long replied, "we didn't even have a mule."

"You wanna know what my platform is? Here it is. I'm gonna soak the fat boys and spread it out thin."

Willie Stark

That was a story that was worthy of Willie Stark.

"All the King's Men" was nominated for seven Oscars and won three — Best Picture, Best Actor (Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Remembering the First Time

"And Then There Were None," the Agatha Christie mystery that was published 75 years ago today, was the first Agatha Christie book my parents permitted me to read.

I always thought that was sort of amusing. I mean, I had already read a lot of books that really were been beyond my years, as my grandmother would say. But my parents — and my grandmother, too, for that matter — were enablers, giving me books that someone my age probably had no business reading. My parents were educators. They believed in reading, and they encouraged me to read anything and everything.

Except Agatha Christie. They kind of held back on that one, maybe because they still read her books when I was young. Maybe they wanted to keep that just for themselves. I have read most of Agatha Christie's books, and they would have been far easier for me to comprehend than many of the books I read.

I suppose if my first experience with Agatha Christie had not been such a positive one, I might never have read another one of her books.

But I selected "And Then There Were None." It didn't feature any of Christie's well–known detectives. I didn't know at the time that it is regarded by many as her masterpiece. Accordingly, it is Christie's best–selling book. It is also the best–selling mystery ever — and one of the best–selling books of all time.

No, I didn't know any of that when I first sat down to read it. I was only about 12, maybe 13, and I don't remember what attracted me to it. Maybe I liked the title — which was the American version of a well–known nursery rhyme. Maybe I liked the artwork on the cover of the paperback copy I read. As I say, I don't remember now what drew me to it, but I do remember it was my first Christie book.

It really was an absorbing book. Ten people were invited to spend the weekend on a remote island. Each was lured there by a different ruse. As I recall, one was drawn by the possibility of a job, another by the offer of an all–expenses paid vacation, etc.

In fact, each was being drawn into an ambush. Each had been judged guilty (unofficially) of causing the death of another but not in a way that could lead to criminal charges. The person who had invited them to the island planned to execute all, one by one, as their punishment for their crimes.

And, one by one, each one was killed. Or so it seemed.

Actually, the person who was responsible was one of the "guests." He enlisted the help of another guest in faking his own death; he said that, believed to be dead, he would be free to search the island for whoever was doing it. Consequently, he earned the trust of that other guest, who wound up being bumped off shortly thereafter, as I recall. Moral: Be careful who you trust.

Once all the others were dead, the culprit committed suicide — but not before leaving a note explaining to the authorities what had happened.

I thought it was a clever book, and I began taking on other Christie books. I have enjoyed most of them, but I have never experienced the same thrill I got with that first book.

A Routine Courtroom Drama

"The Wreck of the Mary Deare," which premiered 55 years ago today, might have been an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

MGM approached Hitchcock about directing it, and the idea was tempting. Hitch had wanted to work with Gary Cooper for quite awhile, but, after reviewing the script, he reached the conclusion that it could not be done without becoming a routine courtroom drama.

So Hitchcock opted out and began another project, this one with Cary Grant — "North by Northwest."

Michael Anderson ended up as the director, but, in spite of any efforts to the contrary, I don't think the finished product varied from what Hitchcock anticipated.

If you saw "The Perfect Storm," "Titanic" and "The Caine Mutiny," you probably have a pretty good grasp of the story. "The Wreck of the Mary Deare" combined elements of all three.

There were more than two people in the cast, but, ultimately, the story was about Cooper and Charlton Heston.

Heston's character was the captain of a salvage ship that was nearly struck by a freighter that seemed to be abandoned. Heston went aboard the ship looking for property to plunder and encountered its looney captain, played by Cooper.

Despite their efforts, the Mary Deare sank.

Anderson deserved credit, too, for keeping the suspense level up through much of the movie — I'm sure his experience with special effects ("Around the World in 80 Days,") helped. But, ultimately, the story turned out the way Hitchcock expected it would.

Heston's character believed Cooper's character when he claimed that the ship had been sabotaged to collect insurance on the cargo — which had been unloaded earlier — but the court did not. That led Cooper and Heston to dive to the sunken ship in search of evidence to prove Cooper was telling the truth.

Cooper worked right up until his death from cancer in 1961. He made other movies after he made "The Wreck of the Mary Deare," but he isn't remembered for any of them. He is remembered for "Sergeant York," "Pride of the Yankees" and "High Noon," and those movies, as well as a handful of others, were his legacy. And that is as it should be.

He should not be remembered for a routine courtroom drama.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Another Nice Mess From Laurel and Hardy

Ollie: Hey Stan ... oh, Stan ... over here ...

Stanley: [sees a horse in a pasture with Oliver's hat and mustache] Ollie ... is it really you?

Ollie: [as horse] Of course it's me. Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into.

Stanley: Gee I'm glad to see you!

When I was a boy, I remember watching Laurel and Hardy on Saturday afternoons with my father.

I'm sure I must have seen most, if not all, of their movies before I was 10 years old.

Dad would giggle like a little kid. I remember thinking it was cool to share that with him. Well, it was something like that.

We haven't watched Laurel and Hardy together in years. I wonder if he would still giggle. Maybe he would. I know I do.

Over a 30–year period, from 1921 to 1951, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in more than 100 movies together. Nearly three dozen were silent shorts, nearly four dozen were sound shorts and more than two dozen were full–length feature movies.

They were absolutely prolific when they were under contract to Hal Roach Studios. That's where they made most of their movies and enjoyed the peak of their popularity, but they left Roach, and "The Flying Deuces," which premiered 75 years ago today, was the first non–Roach movie they had made together in nearly 20 years.

It wasn't bad. It's just that the material was so familiar. It should have been. The plot was a loose remake of a movie the two made for Roach about eight years earlier called "Beau Hunks." Frankly, "Beau Hunks" was better.

I still giggle at it, though. It's beyond my control. The last time I watched "The Flying Deuces," I admit I giggled at some moments. I was alone when I watched it so I can't chalk it up to any kind of psychological peer pressure. I even mentally scolded myself for giggling.

But I giggled, anyway.

In RKO Pictures' "The Flying Deuces," Laurel and Hardy played a couple of friends who joined the French Foreign Legion so Ollie could forget a girl.

Ollie and Stan were two fish market workers from Des Moines who were on vacation in France. While staying at an inn, Ollie was smitten with the innkeeper's daughter (Jean Parker) — and was crushed to learn she was already married. In fact, Ollie was suicidal until Stanley talked him out of it.

So Ollie and Stan joined the French Foreign Legion to forget.

Ollie: Just how much do we get paid for all this?

Commandant: One hundred centimes a day.

Stanley: That's not bad ...

Ollie: How much is that in American money?

Commandant: American money? About three cents a day.

Ollie: If you think you're going to get that kind of work outta me for three cents a day, brother, you're crazy.

Commandant: Is that right?

Stanley: That's right because we don't work for less than 25 cents a day! Do we, Ollie?

But it wasn't what they were told it would be so they just quit. That was used primarily to set up one–liners or song–and–dance numbers.

Ollie got to sing "Shine On, Harvest Moon" while Stanley did a soft–shoe dance.

And Stanley pulled a Harpo Marx, using his bed springs as a harp to play "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" — while he and Ollie were scheduled to be executed at sunrise.

That scene was one of the most memorable moments in the movie. After being told that he was to be executed for desertion the next morning, Ollie said, "Shot at sunrise!"

"I hope it's cloudy tomorrow!"
Stanley said.

The two managed an implausible escape — followed by an even more implausible plane ride with the two of them at the controls.

The ride ended with the plane crashing. Stanley climbed out of the wreckage, disheveled but apparently unhurt. Ollie wasn't so lucky, and the audience could see his semi–transparent spirit flying away.

Not long after, Stanley encountered a horse with Ollie's mustache and derby. Ollie had earlier said he would like to be reincarnated as a horse; apparently, he was.

Why do I laugh? I guess it's because, like the audiences of that time, I know what to expect when I see a Laurel and Hardy movie — and I want to see it. I want to hear Laurel making his involuntary sounds of alarm when something goes wrong. I want to hear Hardy say, "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into!" And I laugh when they do.

OK, Hardy said, "Here's another nice mess," but why quibble?

The Spell of the Woman in the Window

Richard (Edward G. Robinson): The flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour. You know, even if the spirit of adventure should rise up before me and beckon, even in the form of that alluring young woman in the window next door, I'm afraid that all I'll do is clutch my coat a little tighter, mutter something idiotic and run like the devil.

Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon): Not before you got her number, I hope?

Richard: Probably.

A lot of movies are labeled film noir, but "The Woman in the Window," which debuted 70 years ago today, is a classic of the genre — purely film noir.

And, when I say it is "purely film noir," I mean that is really all that it is — no distracting subplots.

Fittingly, then, "The Woman in the Window" is credited, at least in part, with the first use of film noir as a description of that particular genre. It is my understanding that film noir was first applied to American movies in 1946 when several of the movies that are now recognized as the early ground–breakers — among them "The Maltese Falcon," "Double Indemnity," "Laura" and "The Woman in the Window" — were first released in France.

In many ways, it reminded me of "Double Indemnity," another film noir that was in the theaters only a couple of months earlier and featured Edward G. Robinson — but in a different kind of role. In "The Woman in the Window," he played the same kind of part Fred MacMurray played in "Double Indemnity." He, too, was involved with a seductress; he, too, killed a man who was connected to the woman.

MacMurray's character killed as part of a plot, though, whereas Robinson's character killed in self–defense. Or did he? Was he an unsuspecting pawn manipulated by the woman in the window?

Robinson's femme fatale was played by Joan Bennett. Before I saw "The Woman in the Window," I knew her only as Elizabeth Taylor's warm–hearted mother in "Father of the Bride." But that was a later phase of her career. It really was like watching a completely different actress in "The Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street," both of which were directed by Fritz Lang and starred Bennett, Robinson and Dan Duryea.

As I say, Robinson's character shared some similarities to the one played by MacMurray in "Double Indemnity," but there were some differences as well. MacMurray was in insurance; Robinson was a psychology professor. Well, I suppose there were some similarities there as well. I mean, an insurance salesman has to comprehend a certain amount about human psychology, right? Actually, I guess that is true of a successful salesman of any kind.

They both tried to dispose of the bodies of their victims, and the women with whom they were involved tried to help. Afterward, they both tried to nonchalantly learn details of investigations into the disappearances of their victims — in "Double Indemnity," MacMurray, as an insurance salesman, tried to learn about the investigation from the claims adjuster, played by Robinson.

In "The Woman in the Window," Robinson tried to find out what the police knew by prying details from the district attorney, played by Raymond Massey. And Robinson took some good–natured teasing from Massey — not unlike the joshing Robinson threw MacMurray's way — about really being guilty of the crime (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that was much more on the mark than any of the characters knew.

Of course, the audience knew — and, in "The Woman in the Window," Robinson actually managed to make viewers sympathize with him. He was, after all, a lonely professor whose wife and children were on a vacation; it was purely a random thing that he found himself in the wrong place with the wrong person. He and Bennett met when he noticed a painting of her in a display window, and it turned out she was there to observe people's reactions to the painting.

They struck up a friendship and went back to Bennett's home, where her wealthy lover showed up and got into a fight with Robinson. In self–defense, Robinson stabbed him with a pair of scissors.

The rest of the story was about how Robinson and Bennett (Robinson mostly) disposed of the body and tried to keep from being discovered.

That led to a surprise ending of which the filmmakers were quite proud.

By and large, film noir can be a bit heavy–handed for my taste. For example, the first time we saw Robinson in this movie, he was lecturing his students about the legal degrees of homicide.

"The various legal categories such as first– and second–degree murder, the various degrees of homicide, manslaughter, are civilized recognitions of impulses of various degrees of culpability," Robinson told his students, neatly foreshadowing what was to come. "The man who kills in self–defense, for instance, must not be judged by the same standards applied to the man who kills for gain."

Did I say "foreshadowing?" It wasn't as subtle as that. How about "telegraphing?"

If there was a theme to the story, I suppose it was that conditions often resolve moral dilemmas, one way or the other. That certainly was true of Robinson and Bennett. Everything they did was dictated by things that, for the most part, appeared out of their control.

And if I have a blanket criticism of film noir, it is the general absence of subtlety. Maybe it is because the facts of the case are assumed to be known — or at least strongly suspected — by the audience, whether that much information actually has been communicated to the audience or not.

I'm not saying that was the case with "The Woman in the Window," only that it has been a problem with many of the film noirs I have seen in my life.

"The Woman in the Window" was a pretty good movie. It's a shame that many of the entries in the film noir genre that followed didn't come close to its standards.

The Continuing Partnership of Fonda and Ford

This black–and–white trailer accompanied the 1947 re–release of
"Drums Along the Mohawk," director John Ford's first color feature.

"Oh, Almighty God, hear us, we beseech thee, and bring succor and guidance to those we are about to bring to your divine notice. First we are thinking of Mary Walaber. She is only 16 years old, but she is keeping company with a soldier from Fort Dayton. He's a Massachusetts man, and thou knowest no good can come of that."

Reverend Rosenkrantz (Arthur Shields)

John Ford and Henry Fonda teamed up for the first time earlier in 1939 when they made "Young Mr. Lincoln."

They wasted no time making their second film together, "Drums Along the Mohawk," which premiered 75 years ago today.

It had some things in common with "Young Mr. Lincoln," such as the fact that both were set in specific periods in American history. "Young Mr. Lincoln" was about Abraham Lincoln's early life, and "Drums Along the Mohawk" was about life in colonial America.

Fonda and Claudette Colbert played 18th–century newlyweds trying to set up their home in the Mohawk Valley of central New York. It was a region that had a great deal of importance in Revolutionary War times, a passageway between the Atlantic Ocean and the interior of the New World.

Their story was not one for the faint of heart. Colbert's character suffered a miscarriage. Beset from all sides by Indians and the British, they lost their home. Along with other settlers, they were forced to relocate at a fort, from which they could see their homes and lands being destroyed.

You really had to believe in what you were trying to do to survive. For a movie that was made within the limitations of filmmaking in 1939, "Drums Along the Mohawk" did a pretty good job of presenting a realistic portrayal of the travails of colonial life.

Edna May Oliver, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (but lost to Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in "Gone With the Wind"), played a widow who owned a big farm and hired Fonda to work it. She took in Fonda and Colbert after their farm was burned by Indians.

In a way, it was sort of like the old Green Acres TV show without the jokes. Colbert's character was raised in affluent and comfortable surroundings; she wasn't prepared for the rugged life of a settler. In time, though, she adapted to it and even came to love it.

And, in true John Ford fashion, the movie ended on an upbeat, patriotic note. The Indians had been turned back, and the American flag was raised above the fort.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

When Christie Was in Top Form, It Was a Pleasure to Read

I've always felt that "Cat Among the Pigeons," the Agatha Christie mystery that was published on this day in 1959, was among the better books of her latter years.

Christie was nearly 70 when she wrote it. Considering that she had been publishing mysteries for nearly 40 years, it was a pretty successful merging of a better–than–average thriller with a rather routine detective story. It had several unforgettable characters.

In fact, it could have made a first–rate movie if someone had adapted it for the big screen. But the only adaptation of which I am aware was made for TV and broadcast in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Some changes were made to the story. I have only heard of them, but I had no objections to most of the changes save one — the detective who resolved the case, Christie's signature detective Hercule Poirot, didn't show up in the book until about two–thirds of the way through. The adaptation changed it so that character was introduced at the beginning instead.

I suppose I would have to see the adaptation to decide whether I approve of that particular change or not. It worked in the book to delay Poirot's entrance. Christie needed that running start, I guess. She had so many interesting characters to introduce to the readers. If they were regular Christie readers, after all, they were already familiar with Poirot, but they needed a little time to get used to all the characters in this cast.

The story really was visionary for its time. It began with a flashback to three months earlier, when a revolution was about to occur in a fictitious rich country in the Middle East. (Keep in mind this was written more than 10 years before Middle Eastern countries began to flex their political muscle on the strength of their oil deposits. In 1959, most were likely perceived by the West as poor — which most probably were, except for their ruling elites.) A prince's jewels, worth a fortune, were given to his trusted pilot to smuggle out of the country, but they were observed by a shadowy, sinister woman and wound up dead in a plane crash soon thereafter.

The jewels were missing, launching a search on the part of intelligence officers, and the scene shifted to an exclusive British girls' school.

The espionage angle of the story was entirely in keeping with the time when Christie wrote "Cat Among the Pigeons." It was, after all, at the height of Cold War tensions.

I may have said too much already. Let me just add that Christie's decades of mystery writing experience showed in the telling of the story and the development of the characters. She was truly on top of her game when she wrote "Cat Among the Pigeons."

Saturday, November 01, 2014

'So Many Steps to Death' Wasn't Your Typical Agatha Christie

No matter how many conversations you may have about murder mysteries (I'm speaking of books here, not TV adaptations, so I'm guessing that number is actually lower than you may first have imagined), and no matter how many of them include discussion of Agatha Christie's works, I'd be willing to wager that "So Many Steps to Death" never came up.

And, most likely, it wasn't mentioned under its original title, either, which was, aptly, "Destination Unknown."

But it was probably only possible for Christie to write it in the 1950s. Actually, it was published on this day 60 years ago. The story featured things like a missing nuclear scientist (who may have defected to the Soviet Union) and a secret scientific research facility disguised as a leper colony/leprosy research center in northwest Africa.

The story centered around a woman named Hilary Craven, one of Christie's more inspired character names, I thought — not unlike some of the names of the James Bond characters. Like Ian Fleming's spy novels, "So Many Steps to Death" was a light–hearted thriller, the kind of book Christie had written before — and reasonably successfully.

But Christie was always Bond Lite, in my opinion. I guess it wasn't really her genre. Fleming's stories always had more heft to them. They had more of everything, really — especially more rogue criminals who were just plain evil, perfect for the post–Hiroshima Cold War paranoia in which they were written.

Christie was better at writing detective stories, and hers were the gold standard of that genre. But her thrillers were like horse–drawn carriages compared to Fleming's thrillers, which were like sleek sports cars.

Anyway, back to Hilary Craven. She had been abandoned by her husband, and she was grieving the loss of a child. She had reached a point in her life where she had nothing to lose and was contemplating suicide — when she was approached about posing as the wife of the missing nuclear scientist to help investigators. She was told that it was a hazardous assignment, but she accepted, anyway. What difference did it make if she died by her own hand or someone else's?

Well, I suppose that gives you an idea of what kind of ride you're in for if you sit down to read this book. I'm not saying it isn't enjoyable because it is — but it isn't typical Christie.

Consider yourself warned.