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Friday, September 17, 2004

Book: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Hammett’s classic, making it the ideal time to revisit the book. Anything that can be said about it has already been said, many times over. Like that’s gonna stop me.

1. The 1941 John Huston film is quite possibly the most faithful adaptation of any book. The oft-repeated legend is that Huston simply had his secretary retype Hammett’s novel in screenplay format (INT. SPADE’S OFFICE – DAY), but there are enough deviations from the text to make me think it’s an apocryphal story. The dropped scenes always feel a little off to me when I read them. I can’t tell if it’s because they weren’t in the movie or if they’re inferior to the rest of the book.

2. The characters are extraordinary. Even if you’ve never seen the film, and consequently wouldn’t hear the voices of Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor as you turned the pages, you would remember these people. Their interaction matters far more than what they’re after. It’s a brilliant joke, then, that in the statue of the Falcon Hammett created the most storied McGuffin in crime fiction. It’s an even better joke that the genuine article never surfaces in the story.

3. Hammett never once lets the reader into Sam Spade’s head. We know how he rolls his cigarettes, but we’re never privy to his thoughts. This makes Spade inscrutable at best and unlikable at worst, but never less than compelling. Most contemporary fiction is lousy with psychology. It’s bracing to read a book that asks you to judge its characters on the basis of their actions alone.

4. The best-known omission from the film is the Flitcraft episode. Spade recounts an earlier case to Brigid O’Shaughnessy to pass the time. Flitcraft, a successful Tacoma businessman, disappeared without a trace. Five years later, Spade was hired to investigate a report that the man was living in Spokane. It turned out to be true. Flitcraft had been on his way to an appointment when he was almost killed by a falling girder. As a result, “he felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.” He walked away from his old existence, drifted around for a while, and then settled back into a new one that was virtually identical.

“He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

A shocking sentiment, and one that has even more resonance now. It’s hard to believe Hammett wrote it 75 years ago.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Website Update: Practice

The latest installment of ‘In the Frame,’ my column from Mystery*File, is now up. Read it here.

Book: Grifter’s Game, by Lawrence Block (1961)

All hail Hard Case Crime, the publishing imprint that’s putting a new spin on old-fashioned pulp paperbacks. The line debuts with this reprint of a Gold Medal book originally titled MONA. It’s a gritty story of lust and murder, with a truly sick twist of an ending. What happens is purely malevolent yet motivated by something akin to, but not quite, love. I can see how people would have carried the memory of this book around with them with 40+ years. It’s an auspicious beginning for a label I hope is around for a while.

DVD: The Set-Up (1949)

Perhaps the least-known title in Warners’ film noir collection. I expect that will change in short order. Boxer Robert Ryan is so washed-up that his manager doesn’t even bother to tell him that he’s supposed to take a dive in his next bout. Why cut him in for a share when he’s got no chance of winning anyway? Turns out the pug’s greatest weakness is his only strength: he has no idea when he’s beat.

It’s based on an epic poem – that’s right, poem – by Joseph Moncure March. Considering that another of March’s poems, THE WILD PARTY, was turned into not one but two musicals, maybe he should have written more. The film unfolds in real time, evidenced by the opening and closing shots of the same clock. 72 minutes have passed, and you won’t soon forget them. On the commentary track, Martin Scorsese praises the boxing scenes as the most visceral in cinema. The word of the director of RAGING BULL is good enough for me.

Miscellaneous: Links

Larry David explodes the myth of the undecided voter. And, courtesy of Jim Romenesko’s Obscure Store, an explanation of why so many kids waste time playing video games: there aren’t any good car shows on TV.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

TV: Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood

AMC aired this documentary by former Clinton/Gore staffer Jesse Moss last night. It’s a look at the burgeoning influence of conservatives in Hollywood, loosely organized around Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign. Frequent mention is also made of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST’s box office success.

Moss tries to get Republican celebrities to talk about their beliefs on camera. The big names like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson don’t speak to him. Neither does Heather Locklear, who in my opinion is making a huge mistake. Republicans need a spokesbabe. Bush may be in for four more years, but we all know Heather’s new show LAX won’t live out the season. The people Moss does include represent the spectrum of Republican thought: small government libertarian (Drew Carey), pro-life (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND’s Patricia Heaton), military first (John Milius). There’s also bad boy Vincent Gallo, whose conservatism was sparked as a youth when he saw all-American Johnny Unitas square off against selfish hedonist Joe Namath in Super Bowl III. It’s a diverse range of views, although I haven’t been able to take Milius seriously since learning he was the inspiration for John Goodman’s character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

A number of the Republicans Moss interviews talk about the need to take Hollywood back. They control all three branches of government but still view themselves as outsiders thanks to show business. Think of it in terms of high school. (I think of everything in terms of high school. It is the kiln that fires us all.) Republicans have the student government locked up, not to mention the glee club. All the hall monitors are theirs. But the cheerleaders ignore them, so they feel empty inside.

For further proof, consider the first annual conservative film festival, which you can read about here and here. Its genesis? A trip to the Little Rock art house, where the only options were BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FRIDA, which is about a Communist. “Where are the films for normal people?,” one of the festival’s founders asks.

At the mall, genius. Where the normal people are.

Side note: This is the first program I’ve watched on AMC in months. Tonight’s classic American movie is THE REAL McCOY (1993), with Kim Basinger and Val Kilmer. When it comes to thrillers about blonde single mom cat burglars that co-star people who share my initials, this one is easily in the top six.

TV: The Al Franken Show

A one-hour condensed version of each day’s Air America broadcast runs on Sundance Channel every night at 11:30. Just after THE DAILY SHOW ends, which I’m sure is not a coincidence.

For some inexplicable reason, Air America doesn’t have an affiliate in ultra-liberal Seattle, and I have no interest in downloading MP3s of Franken’s chat-fest, so this is my first exposure to the show.

TV ruins Franken’s best gag, the fake interview. He introduces a conservative guest and we can clearly see that it’s Tim Meadows, or Bebe Neuwirth, or some other actor playing a role. They then read scripts into microphones. It’s not exactly scintillating television. I couldn’t guess how well it plays on the radio.

Overall, the show is strident, one-note and relentlessly negative. Just like every other political talk show I’ve heard regardless of affiliation. The success of these programs only demonstrates that Americans are spending too much time stuck in traffic or at unfulfilling jobs.

Miscellaneous: Link

To keep today’s political streak going, here’s a reasonable statement of my views on the subject of free speech, from a man I regard as my personal spokesman, Penn Jillette. Courtesy of Mark Evanier’s News From Me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Cable Catch-Up: The Seven-Ups (1973)

Producer Philip D’Antoni wanted to make another tough New York thriller after his Oscar-winning success with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. So he hired himself as director, brought back Roy Scheider, and asked real-life detective Sonny Grosso (the inspiration for Scheider’s character in FRENCH) to provide the story. The result is a cop movie that’s all balls and no brains. It’s a STARSKY & HUTCH episode inflated to two hours. There is one hell of a car chase, though.

Book: The Poker Club, by Ed Gorman (1999)

Four poker buddies accidentally kill a burglar who breaks in during their game. They decide to dispose of the body without informing the police, unaware that the intruder had a partner. Who begins stalking them.

The novel is an expansion of Gorman’s short story “Out There In The Darkness.” He sucks you into this nightmare in short order. He has a pulp master’s inherent feel for story, along with a deceptively simple prose style reminiscent of Stephen King’s. Digressions on pop culture and memory catch you by surprise with their emotional force.

A few months ago, Ed praised another suspense novel of this stripe, James Siegel’s DERAILED. That book didn’t work for me, largely because of a preposterous plot twist. But it also wasn’t grounded in reality the way THE POKER CLUB is. The characters’ decisions have a relentless grim logic, which only tightens the book’s grip.

A movie version of DERAILED is in the works, by the way. The main character is a regular guy who gets in over his head when he starts cheating on his wife. He will be played by Clive Owen. The man who was King Arthur, and who may yet be James Bond. Not my first choice to play a schmuck from Long Island.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Movie: THX 1138 (1971)

The first feature from George Lucas is back in theaters for a limited engagement prior to its DVD release. It’s easily Lucas’ least believable vision of the future. A society of people trapped in soul-crushing jobs, hooked on mood leveling pharmaceuticals and encouraged to consume? Come on.

The movie is among the darkest of comedies. The title character (Robert Duvall), arrested for feeling too much, writhes in pain while the voices of the prison guards watching him argue about monitor settings. It makes for an interesting contrast with the work of Stanley Kubrick. His films always have the sense of a controlling intelligence, however cold or disinterested it may be. Lucas’ movie is so thoroughly depersonalized that if you beseeched its gods, you’d soon find yourself trapped in their voicemail. And I mean that as a high compliment.

THX ultimately devolves into a chase film, but even in the heat of pursuit Lucas explores the facets of his sterile civilization. There’s a sequence when Duvall escapes from prison only to be plunged into a raging torrent of humanity that had me hyperventilating. And the movie’s closing conceit is grimly hysterical.

Lucas has a habit of tinkering with his movies. He’s added footage to this film, and there are reports that Hayden Christensen has replaced Sebastian Shaw in the ghostly farewell that closes RETURN OF THE JEDI on DVD. So let me make a request. Can Lucas use CGI to correct the misspelling of actor David Ogden Stiers’ name in the THX credit roll?

I saw the movie at my favorite Seattle theater, the Cinerama. It’s one of the only movie houses in the world equipped to show films in the now defunct Cinerama format. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to see 1962’s HOW THE WEST WAS WON there the way it was intended to be seen. Three projectors, three screens. Utterly breathtaking.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Movie: Cellular (2004)

Nobody exemplifies the B-movie spirit better than Larry Cohen (Q, IT’S ALIVE). Why settle for wringing one script out of an idea when you can get two? In the ultimately disappointing PHONE BOOTH, a guy answers a call and can’t move. The same thing happens here, only this time the guy never slows down.

And neither does the movie, one of the happiest surprises of the year. Cohen’s script has been rewritten by Chris Morgan, but his fingerprints remain all over it. A simple premise – a kidnap victim (Kim Basinger) dialing random numbers on the remains of a shattered telephone hooks up with a callow surfer (Chris Evans) – is pushed as far as it can go. Every conceivable complication involving a cell phone call has been worked into the story. You can almost picture Cohen’s checklist. “Low battery? Got that. Driving into a tunnel, done.” There’s not a wasted moment. The movie unfolds in a fierce 87 minutes, helped along enormously by David Ellis’ unpretentious direction.

Evans makes a likable lead, boding well for his future as The Human Torch in the upcoming FANTASTIC FOUR movie, but the day is carried by his costars. Basinger’s character gets to demonstrate surprising resilience. And the action heroics come courtesy of William H. Macy, playing a hangdog cop on the verge of retiring to open a beauty parlor. Sorry, day spa. There’s even room for LAST COMIC STANDING’s season one winner, Dat Phan.

CELLULAR is one of those crackerjack thrillers destined to become a home video staple. It certainly won’t suffer on DVD. But don’t deny yourself the opportunity to see it in the theater. The showing I was at became an authentic grindhouse experience, with everyone in the audience – including me – talking to the screen, hooting and hollering, and then filing out into the night with goofy smiles on our faces. It’s been too long since that’s happened.

Miscellaneous: Links

Forget the Internet and print-on-demand. A writer in China produces a novel distributed via text messaging. And how dumb do you have to be not to tip your waitress in a restaurant called Soprano’s?

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