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Column from M*F #43

Reviews from M*F #42

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In the Frame, my column of book and movie reviews

From Mystery*File #44 (June 2004):


A novel by Rupert Holmes? I had my doubts. Sure, he won an armload of Tony Awards for his musical adaptation of THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and took home an Edgar for his play ACCOMPLICE. But he's also responsible for 'Escape (The Piña Colada Song).' Sing it with me, people: "I - am - INTO - champagne!"

Holmes' smashing debut WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (Random House, hardcover, June 2003) takes on the show business world he knows so well. It's the 1970s, the heyday of New Journalism, and there's no better practitioner of the form than K. O'Connor. She's primed to hit the big time by writing a book about the most legendary comedy team of the '50s, Collins & Morris, who are in no way intended to resemble Martin & Lewis. The suave half of the duo, Vince Collins - who is not Dean Martin - has agreed to cooperate, but his ex-partner Lanny Morris - the one who's not Jerry Lewis - is writing a book of his own. One that will tell the real story of their very public break-up and answer the question that's dogged both performers for thirteen years: did the dead woman found in their suite at a Mafia-controlled New Jersey resort have anything to do with the collapse of their hugely successful act?

Most novels set in this milieu reduce celebrities to caricatures. But Holmes pulls off the uncanny trick of making Collins and Morris believable as both superstars and human beings. His gift for characterization extends to those on the opposite end of the spectrum: a small-time racetrack tout, a mother who has come to terms with the loss of her daughter. He also nails O'Connor's voice, a perfect blend of cynical and star-struck.

The book's greatest asset is Holmes' unerring eye for detail; an extended scene recreating a transcontinental flight in first class, complete with carving tables on the aisles, reads likes an elegy for a bygone era. The book richly evokes celebrity haunts in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. (I was hoping for a jaunt to Las Vegas myself, but you can't have everything.) Like any good showbiz story, WHERE THE TRUTH LIES is packed with sex. But here it's imaginatively written and adds to our understanding of the characters. You'll never look at Disneyland the same way again.

A rich vein of misery and deceit runs under the great state of Kansas, and Scott Phillips has staked his claim to it. He mined this lode in his bruising noir novels THE ICE HARVEST, set in 1979, and THE WALKAWAY, which reached back to the 1950s. The action in COTTONWOOD (Ballantine, hardcover, February 2004) unfolds primarily in 1873 and finds still more Jayhawkers getting themselves into trouble.

Bill Ogden is a saloon keeper, an unsuccessful farmer, and a man trapped in a spectacularly loveless marriage. (Because Phillips likes to link his novels, he's also the grandfather of THE WALKAWAY's villainous Wayne Ogden.) When Marc and Maggie Leval arrive from Chicago with a vision to transform the town of Cottonwood into a showplace, Ogden falls under their spell. In short order, he becomes Marc's right-hand man and Maggie's lover. The fates of all three becomes bound up with that of the Bloody Benders, a real-life clan of German settlers who murdered wayward travelers.

The trappings may be western, but COTTONWOOD is all of a piece with Phillips' earlier work. It depicts a world filled with casual sex and even more casual violence, where even the darkest acts are conveyed with a deceptively light touch. Phillips is a master of the well-timed comic shock. He takes full advantage of the period setting to create pungent scenes that build to an apocalyptic conclusion. Ogden is as hardboiled a protagonist as you'll find: sardonic, self-satisfied, and in thrall to his own appetites. He's intimate with the past (his minister father left him with a deep appreciation of the classics) but dreaming of the future (he harbors the notion of becoming a professional photographer), a combination that gives his narration a wry and memorable flavor. Phillips is a startlingly original novelist whose gifts keep pace with his ambition.

Victor Gischler is another member of the neo-noir school looking to stretch. His debut novel GUN MONKEYS was nominated for an Edgar Award. In THE PISTOL POETS (Doubleday, hardcover, February 2004), he applies his two-fisted style to a send-up of college life. Mixing genres is always a risky proposition ("Hey! You got your academic satire in my crime novel!"), and the combination here ultimately proves unwieldy.

Eastern Oklahoma University in Fumbee (Go, fighting Buffalo Skinners!) is the latest stop for itinerant English professor Jay Morgan. Halfway through a one-year contract, his prospects don't look bright. A co-ed OD's in his bed on the morning his department chair orders him to edit the poetry of cantankerous local "philanthropist" Fred Jones. Little does Morgan know that his biggest problem is about to roll in on the bus from East Saint Louis. Harold Jenks, a lieutenant in an inner-city drug operation, has stolen the identity of a murdered grad student, as well as a considerable quantity of cocaine. He hightails it to Fumbee to give himself a fresh start. His former employer has other ideas, and before long bullets are flying all over campus.

THE PISTOL POETS never recovers from its sour opening pages. The deaths of two innocent students - and Morgan's cavalier reaction to one of them - aren't exactly the stuff of comedy. Gischler seems to know this, and loads up the narrative with wacky characters and incidents intended to compensate. As a result, engaging supporting players like Wayne DelPrego, a screw-you trailer park kid who's dead serious about becoming a poet, are crowded off the page while solid comic ideas, such as Morgan's flight to a Houston literary conference to avoid the police and Jenks' desperate attempts to pass himself off as a writer, peter out after promising starts. The escalating mayhem as the book nears its climactic poetry reading feels forced.

Taking potshots at higher education is like shooting tranquilized fish in a barrel, but Gischler, a college professor himself, knows how to draw fresh blood. His depiction of writing workshops - and, more painfully, the kind of poetry they produce - is merciless. He sketches a vivid portrait of Fumbee, a grim backwater where Garth Brooks Boulevard leads to a sports bar called Peckerwoods. And the byplay between Morgan's colleagues is bitter and hilarious. Given the choice of meeting my end at the hands of drug lords or English professors, I'll pick the kingpins every time. At least they'd be quick about it.


Warner Brothers kicked off the Humphrey Bogart Collection with elaborate two-disc sets of some of the most famous films in history: CASABLANCA, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. The second wave is now upon us. The discs aren't as extravagant, but the movies are every bit as important in establishing and deepening the legendary Bogart persona. Let's tackle them chronologically.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) is the oddest title of the bunch, and not just because the fourth-billed Bogart disappears for huge chunks of the picture. It's a rollicking mélange of workplace exposé, romantic melodrama and courtroom thriller, all of it put across with gusto by director Raoul Walsh. Bogart and George Raft play brothers and wildcat truckers with a single battered van to their names. They move produce across California, battling for what they're owed and dodging repo men. The film is based on A. I. Bezziredes' novel THE LONG HAUL, with other elements borrowed from the 1935 Bette Davis film BORDERTOWN. The script by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay crackles with great dialogue, as when another driver describes the brothers' truck by saying, "Everything on that hunk of junk makes noise except the horn." The film made Ida Lupino a star, and with good reason; her meltdown on the witness stand remains astonishing. The disc features the collection's strangest extra, a 1938 Technicolor curiosity called 'Swingtime in the Movies' with cameos by John Garfield, Pat O'Brien and a rather pained Bogart, mugging with his young costars from CRIME SCHOOL.

Bogart reteamed with Lupino and Walsh for 1941's HIGH SIERRA and came into his own as a leading man. W. R. Burnett and John Huston adapted Burnett's novel about Roy 'Mad Dog' Earle, a cold-blooded thief sprung from prison in Indiana so he can rob a resort in California. En route, he falls in with a virginal innocent (Joan Leslie) and a tough-minded moll (Lupino) as well as Pard, the unluckiest dog in the Nevadas. The film has dated somewhat, although there's still much to recommend it: the stark contrast offered by the two women, the bristling intensity of Bogart's performance, and a taut climax filmed on location.

It may be heresy to say so, but TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) is perhaps the most overrated movie of Bogart's career. I know, it's Bogey and Bacall, and "You know how to whistle, don't you?" It's also warmed-over CASABLANCA set in the Caribbean. Director Howard Hawks was so eager to film a work by Ernest Hemingway that he settled for what he called the worst thing Hemingway ever wrote. Screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner jettisoned the novel's Cuban rumrunners in favor of resistance fighters in Martinique. Walter Brennan delivers staunch support. I'd like to know how Bogart can call his bon ami Frenchy when they're in a French colony; wouldn't the nickname apply to virtually everyone? Included on the disc are a 1946 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of the story and the unfunny Warners short 'Bacall to Arms,' also from 1946, where the film-within-the-cartoon stars "Bogey Gocart and Laurie Be Cool."

DARK PASSAGE (1947) is the least known of the Bogart/Bacall films. Perhaps this DVD release will change that, although the movie doesn't do itself any favors; Bogart's face doesn't fully appear on screen until an hour in. He plays a man falsely convicted of murdering his wife. Seizing an opportunity to escape from San Quentin, he takes refuge with the sympathetic Bacall while he undergoes plastic surgery. With his new appearance, he sets out to clear his old name. Delmer Daves' adaptation of the David Goodis novel opens with extensive use of the first person camera technique, employed more effectively here than in the previous year's THE LADY IN THE LAKE. (I never believed I was looking at Bogart's hands, though. There's no way he had such thick wrists.) The plot has its share of coincidences, but there's also great San Francisco location work and an unmistakable feeling of paranoia that infuses the movie from its first frames. The 'happy' ending, with the mystery solved and the lovers reunited, actually plays as more disturbing than an overtly downbeat one. The disc also has my favorite extra: the 1946 Bugs Bunny cartoon 'Slick Hare,' with Elmer Fudd as a waiter at the fabulous Mocrumbo and Bugs as a potential entrée for Bogart and 'Baby.'

All four DVDs include new making-of featurettes with commentary by film historians and Bogart biographer Eric Lax, as well as effusive narration by Monte Markham. They seem to have been made as a single work and then clumsily broken into segments, but they're still worth watching.

Also new to DVD is GASLIGHT, the 1944 Gothic chiller that won Ingrid Bergman her first Academy Award. It holds up well, as you would expect from a movie whose title entered the language (gaslight, v: to try to convince someone they're losing their marbles). Bergman shines as a cloistered young woman whose sanity is being slowly undermined by her new husband. Charles Boyer displays all of the theatrical, oily charm that made him the inspiration for Pepe Le Pew; he's instantly loathsome and a treat to watch. I'm still not sure if Joseph Cotten plays an American detached to Scotland Yard or if he simply forgot to attempt an accent, but he makes an admirable knight in shining armor.

A lightweight documentary hosted by Bergman's daughter Pia Lindstrom features comments from Angela Lansbury, who made her debut in the film. But what makes the disc a must is the inclusion of the original 1940 film of the same story, starring Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook. According to legend, MGM tried to have the negative of this English production destroyed before launching their remake. They needn't have worried. The earlier film hews more closely to the source material (Patrick Hamilton's play ANGEL STREET) and muffs its storytelling; for instance, the husband's motive is revealed in the opening sequence. Walbrook, sadly, is no Boyer. He comes across as Europe's most sinister headwaiter, conveying evil by ending his sentences with a bark: "It's because you are MAD! ... Do you want to see a DOCTOR?" Certain scenes appear in both films, like the husband brazenly asking the maid if she'd be willing to help his wife maintain her color or a bit involving the disappearance of a watch at a concert, but the American version is an improvement in almost every way. The disc is proof that sometimes, remakes aren't necessarily a bad idea.