Archive for the literature Category

Louche lips

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on July 23, 2014 by dcairns

ambility

Latest second-hand shop acquisition — The Ability to Kill, by Eric Ambler. Ambler is my favourite spy writer, a bit like Graham Greene, whose mode he anticipated, but without the booby-trapping with Catholic allegories and wildly depressing bits. Ambler wasn’t brilliantly served by the movies, though Welles produced JOURNEY INTO FEAR and Walsh directed BACKGROUND TO DANGER based on his novels. Jules Dassin’s sprightly TOPKAPI is probably the best.

But Ambler also worked as screenwriter, chalking up the odd classic like A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and a few decent programmers like THE OCTOBER MAN.

The Ability to Kill is a collection of non-fiction — several of the pieces are reportage on true murder cases, and they’re quite fascinating, but there’s also humorous essays on spy-spotting. The true professional spy, says Ambler, can be identified by the singular quality of loucheness, and he further claims that loucheness itself can be measured on a sliding scale of 1 to 10.

1. I wonder who pays for his/her clothes.

2. But I thought that he/she came with you.

3. There is something about him/her that I don’t quite like.

4. That mouth of his/hers is quite peculiar.

5. I wouldn’t trust him/her farther than I could throw him/her.

6. This one’s straight out of the woodwork.

7. Thank goodness he/she is three tables away.

8. Better feel to see if my passport’s safe.

9. I feel I ought to warn some authority about him/her at once.

10. I must get to a telephone.

Sessue Hayakawa The Bridge on the River Kwai

Ambler also recounts an amusing story about Bangkok which I hope is true. His point is that Bangkok is a strange place, and prolonged residence can give rise to a specific neurosis:

“A slight fever is followed by mild dysentery. Then, after a few days, you find yourself adopting a sort of Dali-esque attitude to life that is not far removed from whimsicality. This is the tertiary stage. Not only occidentals become infected.

In the Garden of the British Embassy in Bangkok there is a life-sized statue of Queen Victoria. When the Japanese army entered the city in 1942, they took over the embassy as a military headquarters, and the local Japanese commander gave orders for the statue to be boarded up. But after a few days in Bangkok, he found that something was troubling him. It was the statue. Queen Victoria it had been who, at the turn of the century, had recognized Japan as a great power. Japanese history books approved of her. No disrespect ought to be shown to her effigy. And yet, the political situation made it difficult. In the end he compromised. The boarding would remain, but in order to cause Her late Majesty the minimum of inconvenience, he gave orders for two small eye-holes to be cut in the boarding so that she could look out.”

Finally, in a piece called The Magic Box of Willie Green (reminding me that Ambler also scripted THE MAGIC BOX, about cinema pioneer William Friese-Green), Ambler discusses the plight of the screenwriter, and it’s some of the wisest stuff on the subject I’ve ever encountered. He goes into the various pitfalls that can render a writer either unemployable and embittered, or a worthless hack, as well as sketching the way he can navigate the perils and emerge with self-respect intact. I confess I didn’t fully understand this last part, because I guess I have to find my way there myself. From that serene pinnacle, once achieved, I hope to look back and fully grasp Ambler’s analysis of the problem.

Heavy Sentences

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona just read Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster, The Authorized Biography by Stephen Jacobs and pronounced it good. “You really feel like you’re being taken day by day through his entire life,” she said. So I was charged with inserting some Karloffiana in the Panasonic. It had been probably ten years since we’d watched THE CRIMINAL CODE, which has dual interest as its sampled in TARGETS…

Boris rocks in this one. If it had been made at Warners it would have been crusading — but it’s a Columbia picture from Howard Hawks and so the tone is breezily cynical but disinterested in political analysis — DA Walter Huston jails juvenile Adonis Phillips Holmes and then becomes prison warden at the jug he’s banged up in, where he tortures him in solitary — and yet Huston is positioned as the film’s hero. In fact, if we disregard the appeals to sentiment and use of physiognomy-as-character, Huston can be seen as the bad guy (but with a mildly vicious guard inserted to soak up the audience’s hostility) while Karloff is the hero’s best pal who saves the day. The remaining weirdness is the inert hero, whose one self-determined act, refusing to snitch, is presented in passive terms. He’s a ping-pong ball batted about between Boris and Walter.

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The script forges a fascinating connection between two meanings of the title — the criminal code Huston lives by is the law of the land, which “Someone’s gotta pay!” for murder. The criminal code Holmes and Karloff must obey is the law that says No Snitching — and if somebody does snitch, then, well, “Someone’s gotta pay!”

In this fashion, the writers throw up felicities and clunkers in equal measure — Huston’s rat-a-tat delivery at times overemphasises the fact that much of his speechifying consists of a single, on-the-nose pronouncement of his position, followed by twenty or so paraphrases of the same statement. One gets the impression that his character is trying to persuade himself of something — maybe that he deserves the role of hero in this picture. When in doubt, he snarls “Yeah?” at anyone who’ll listen. A bit like Eddie G. Robinson’s “See?”

Karloff has to deliver American vernacular dialogue in a middle-class English accent, but mostly gets away with it. Though his face and sinister haircut suggest pure villainy — and he does kill a couple of people, even stalking one around a room in an exact preview of FRANKENSTEIN  — his character is actually pretty complicated. While Huston, in order to “save” Holmes, tortures him, Karloff refuses to let the young man take the rap for him. His malevolent activities are strictly for revenge, and you can understand his rage at the screw who grassed him up for taking a single drink while on parole.

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In the end, Karloff and Huston are both extremists, devoted to their own particular criminal codes at the expense of humanity. Holmes and romantic interest Constance Cummings are simple humanists, who don’t understand much about codes and things but know what decency is. Young Holmes, whose every appearance caused Fiona to swoon away (“And I don’t normally care for conventionally handsome men”), does eventually put forth a more sophisticated interpretation of the code — “It’s right for them.”

Features some great yegg types and as fine a display of yammering as you’re likely to encounter.

“You don’t get yammering like that any more,” said Fiona.

“No. It’s gone the way of the rumble seat.”

UK purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster
THE CRIMINAL CODE (Walter Huston, Boris Karloff) Region 2

US purchasers:

Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster

Karloff: Criminal Kind DVD

Stark Truths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2014 by dcairns

westlake

I’m nearly finished reading Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark Parker books (that’s the books written by Westlake using the name Stark about a heister named Parker). When I’m done I may celebrate by rewatching POINT BLANK (the best film adaptation) or THE GRIFTERS (scripted by Westlake) or by watching THE STEPFATHER, which I’ve never seen. At present, since I’ve been reading the books in the order I could get them, I have The Seventh and Butcher’s Moon left to go. The last-named was the climax of the first phase of Stark’s work, after which he disappeared for twenty-three years, unbidden, leaving Westlake to subsist on the less lucrative novels published under his own name.

So this was a near-perfect time for The Getaway Car to turn up. This is a collection of Westlake’s non-fiction work — interviews, introduction, essays and letters — collated by my online friend, regular Shadowplayer Levi Stahl, who blogs at I’ve Been Reading Lately. Despite having never met face to face, we’re perhaps chummy enough to make this not so much a review as just an appreciation. I was never comfortable with the consumer guide aspect of criticism anyway, so please just regard this as an enumeration of some of the things in this tome, and make your own decisions.

Westlake had a brilliant criminal mind (after reading some of his stuff, the problem-solving part of his skillset becomes very noticeable in John Boorman’s adaptation, POINT BLANK), and if there’s any disappointment to be had from the collection it’s that he isn’t able to pass the gift on to the rest of us. He writes about writing a bit, but it’s not a book of tips — except you will get some good hints about other crime writers worth checking out. You learn about Westlake’s influences and who he rated, and it’s a surprise to find a passing swipe at PG Wodehouse since Westlake from Plum the notion of characters being referred to by beverage (from Wodehouse’s Mulliner stories —> Westlake’s Dortmunder novels). But there are great appreciations of Hammett and Poe and Willeford and someone I didn’t know called Peter Rabe, and some fascinating insights into Westlake’s screenwriting career. He credits Stephen Frears’ persuading him to adapt Jim Thompson for THE GRIFTERS as triggering the reemergence of hardboiled Stark, for which we can all be grateful.

And we can be grateful for Westlake’s perfect summation of Dortmunder as “a capable and workmanlike professional criminal who lives under a black cloud (me).”

We also learn the complicated and amusing circumstances under which Jean-Luc Godard’s MADE IN USA, an adaptation of Stark’s The Jugger (which he dismisses as his worst book — I liked it fine) wound up with its US rights owned by Westlake. A story which might be salutary and helpful to movie producers, somehow.

My copy of the book is an uncorrected proof. My favourite typo = a reference to something called “Cayenne paper.” The kind of hot, strongly flavoured, spicy paper Westlake/Stark typed on, no doubt.

The typo will be corrected by the time you go here and buy: The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany

 

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