Quote of the Day: Short People


Walter Matthau, as Kendig, in HOPSCOTCH, to a photograph of Myerson, played by Ned Beatty.

“Hello, Myerson, you short person.”

I liked this film, lightly. I always sort of wondered what it was doing in the esteemed Criterion Collection. Always sort of assumed it was just somebody’s perverse favourite. And I still suspect that’s the case. But as I say, it’s likeable, and there’s room for a certain chance element in a (supposedly) well-ordered universe. A nice little film like this turning up amongst all those world classics kind of makes me feel warm inside.

Footnote: Ronald Neame is still very much alive. He’ll be ninety-seven in April. Good show!

I heard about somebody once whose answering machine message was a plummy, “Hello, this is Ronald Neame.” But IT WASN’T.

Footfootnote: Glenda Jackson does have real screen chemistry with Walter Matthau. But I still don’t want to see them touch each other in any way.

Footfootfootnote: several supporting characters are named after crime/espionage writers: Follett, Ludlum, Westlake. The mention of Donald Westlake brings me back to my oft and loudly stated contention that Walter Matthau should have played Westlake’s doleful criminal mastermind John Dortmunder.

I’m currently reading The Road to Ruin, which pits Dortmunder against an Enron-style corrupt executive with a valuable car collection. Fun!

18 Responses to “Quote of the Day: Short People”

  1. My favourite Walter Matthau moment among many is the baleful glare he gives Martin Balsam at the very end The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3 (what an underrated film) as Balsam gives himself away with a tell-tale sneeze. And the last line from The Front Page’ “Son of a bitch stole my watch!” And… (that’s enough Walter Matthau quotes – ed).

    As for fantasy casting of harboiled crime novels – that’s a wonderfully rich seam. I note that Tommy Lee Jones will appear as James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux in Bertrand Tavernier’s next film. A big improvement on Alec Baldwin I’d say. This is a genre where casting seems to get it right more than wrong- Fred Ward as Hoke Mosely in Miami Blues, Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank, Robert Foster in Jackie Brown etc. I look forward to someone doing justice to George Pelecanos’s Nick Stefanos and Washington Quartet series – especially King Suckerman.

  2. Oh but that was early Alec Baldwin when he was still smokin’ hot! He started out as a Studio 54 bartender you know.

    Mr. Neame told me he enjoyed working with Matthau and Jackson enormously and they simply adored each other. It shows. Making a light film like this is no simple task.

  3. “He started out as a Studio 54 bartender you know”…I *did* *not* *know* that!

    That’s even better than Sir John Mills starting out as a Noel Coward chorus boy!

    I had forgotten until I re-read your article that Neame made The Prome of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the best Edinburgh-set films (as well as giving Maggie Smith a chance to practice her Miss McGonigall accent for Harry Potter.)

    I guess the hardboiled thriller casting tends to work well as there’s never any shortage of good tough-guy actors. And if they don’t have to look pretty, the field widens considerably.

    I’ve read a Hoke Mosely novel or two but not any Pellicanos or Burke. But that’s exciting about Tavernier, an appealing director who’s done good work with US thrillers in the past: his Jim Thompson adaptation, Coup De Torchon is well worth a look.

  4. Wouldn’t a sub-footnote be a toenote?

  5. Maybe…and then a toenailnote. But what THEN?

  6. Okay, so this has no bearing on the current discussion, or on the post at hand, but I can’t resist. I guess I’ll plead that it’s tangentially connected because . . . um, the actor in the anecdote I’m going to share has roots in TV’s Homicide, a cop show, which while not being hard-boiled is at least . . . a cop show?

    Anyway, on today’s Fresh Air program on NPR, Terry Gross interviewed TV actor and director Clark Johnson (who played Detective Meldrick Lewis on Homicide and is now involved in The Wire). Johnson started out in special effects, and he talked about working effects for David Cronenberg, whom he said “loved to use lots of fake blood.”

    Johnson said that while he was working on The Dead Zone for Cronenberg, he was on a truck setting an explosion, and the moment the explosion went off, he fell off the truck and cut his arm. There was blood everywhere. Cronenberg walked up carrying a bucket! and said, quietly, “Let’s keep the blood.”

  7. Baldwin is quite open about his Studio 54 days. He gave a teriffic interview to Interview where he talked about the exceedingly well-turned-out gentlemen who would give him $100 to “fetch” a packet of cigarettes.

    This is why his dream has been to play Halston in a biopic of the fashion designer and inveterate partygoer.

  8. Even the most tangential discussion is justified by its subject being Clark Johnson let alone any of the Homicide Life on the Street/The Wire cast/Shield directors. I’d show myself up by saying that I love Clark Johnson’s commentaries on The Shield dvds especially his nicknaming of hulk-like star Michael Chiklis “Chiks”. So I won’t.

    Not denigrating Alec Baldwin – incendiary cameos in Glengarry Glen Ross & Malice (“God Complex? I AM God!”) and big kudos for all those great animated voice jobs – but he just wasn’t the right Robicheaux.

  9. Well, if Baldwin’s film comes off, I only hope it’s better than that “54”. What a cop-out that was!

    Baldwin’s best work may be his cameo roles. Sounds like he can be kind of a pain on set (and elsewhere) but he’s a powerhouse alright.

    Love the Cronenberg story, Levi. He says on The Brood, where they massacre a kindergarten teacher in front of her class, the kids found out the gore was made from food colouring and other tasty stuff, so they were chanting “More blood! More blood!”

    Mike, what’s your kid’s name? i could run the Great Dictator clip as Euphoria — or anything else suggested. We haven’t had a suggestion from anyone under 20 yet!

  10. Footnote, toenote, toenailnote, toejamnote?

    Love the Cronenberg story, Levi. He says on The Brood, where they massacre a kindergarten teacher in front of her class, the kids found out the gore was made from food colouring and other tasty stuff, so they were chanting “More blood! More blood!”

    See? This is why I love filmmaking. The actual behind the scene process is so damn weird. Where else can you see kindergarten kids eating fake blood and chanting “More blood! More blood!” ?

  11. Elver, I can see you’ve never been to Edinburgh.

  12. Nope. Never been to England, even. But having just watched two seasons of QI, I must say, I love the British way of making obscure jokes about parts of their own country. That’s the kind of humour that’s not very common in Estonia.

  13. Ah, QI! When Fiona suffered depression, that was the only show that could force a laugh out of her. I should really write to Stephen Fry to thank him.

    Maybe the problem is, all of Estonia is equally obscure? ;)

  14. This is a very late chime-in on Matthau as the best choice for Westlake’s Dortmunder ( happened to come acroos bit of the Dortmunder movie with Redfored today, which inspired me to Google ‘Matthau should have played Dortmunder’ )- agree, no question that he would have been wonderfully suitable for the role – he could have brought off a tour de force in recreating the character for the screen. To bad that that opportunity was passed up in favor of making a run-of-the-mill caper movie.

    A shame Westlake has gone – no more visits with Dortmunder or even Parker. I have all the Dortmunder books, including an old paperback of ‘Jimmy the Kid’ with a cover illustration that perfectly captures how your imagination might picture Dortmunder, May, Andy Kelp, Murch & Mom and I think Tiny, though I may be wrong.

  15. George Segal, cast as Kelp in The Hot Rock, could have made a great Dortmunder.

    I’ve read all of the Dortmunders but still have plenty of Parker and others to read — much as I’d like to, I can’t afford to buy them all up at once and binge for a month, so I’m pacing myself.

  16. The thing with Segal is that he works his face – he’s busy, whereas Dortmunder is a stone-face and an energy conserver. Nothing surprises him; Nothing excites him ( normally, that is. Westlake sometimes flirts with inconsistency. ) Maybe Kevin Kline?

    I just took a look at the Jimmy the Kid cover ( which I’d scanned into digital form ), and the artist’s ( or maybe Westlake’s? ) conception of Dortmunder does resemble Matthau, in a taller and lankier form. His, Matthau’s, signature characterizations have the Dortmundian looks, the hunch, the dolefulness and the dour pessimism, but they are a lot louder and more expansive. Dortmunder’s hunch is really a scrunch – he is trying to diminish himself so as to not to attract attention. He is sparing in speech and mumbles. Unremarkableness is his shield and his modus vivindi. Redford does try to play him that way but he’s working against looks that are not discrete.

    I’ve got the earlier Parkers except Plunder Squad. Will get that, would like to get the later Parkers, too, but have the same $ constraints.

    You might like to read Robert Tanenbaum’s series about a prosecutor for the State of New York. Very witty. You can get listings of his and most author’s titles grouped in series order at
    The site has publishing dates for the US as well as Britain.

  17. Thanks for the tip. Reading Parker after reading Dortmunder, it’s striking how Westlake is still at some level a humorous writer even when his subject is deadly serious. He’s not averse to funny similes and imagery, and the problem-solving situations resemble Wodehouse’s intricate farce structures or Buster Keaton’s manipulations of physical objects.

  18. I agree, there is some fugitive humor in some of the Parker books, and especially those where Grofield comes on the scene. I don’t think Westlake is able to entirely avoid being witty. He’s hilarious in some of his satirical books, too, like ‘Trust Me On This’ and ‘Baby, Would I Lie?’ about reporters for a tabloid newspaper who would tromp over their own grandmothers to get a story.

    You’re right about the problem-solving aspect and it’s interesting that Parker and Dortmunder are both the planners in their crowds. In ‘Slayground’, Parker is trapped by the police in an amusement park. It’s like a giant puzzle he has to solve.

    I know just a little – Bertie Wooster and that – about the Wodehouse books, but haven’t actually read them.

    One of my pick for all-time funniest satirical movies – ‘The President’s Analyst’ starring James Coburn. He used his whole body, almost balletically, in his acting.

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