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July 2016

Those British Crime Dramas Just Keep Coming

Seems I should get tired of these--but they're just so very well done, especially the acting. As we were discussing in the comments on some other post recently, most of the characters are truly believable as real people, and this is partly because they aren't Hollywood-beautiful. Frequently the women in American productions who are playing supposedly tough action-oriented characters somehow manage to convey to me the sense that they're way more concerned with how they look than with being the character. 

Anyway, I have four to recommend:

Happy Valley, which really exemplifies what I was just talking about. This is not a mystery, but a cop show. The cop is a middle-aged woman, Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire. and she is utterly convincing, as is another important character, Catherine's sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran). The valley of the title is, as you might expect, not at all happy; it's a rather depressed area of Yorkshire. There are two series of six episodes each, and each series is a complete story. My only hesitation about recommending it is that the subject matter is pretty grim. There's not much explicit violence, but there's disturbing psychological stuff.

Shetland and Vera are both based on mystery novels by Ann Cleeves. I knew nothing about Cleeves until my wife read one of the novels featuring Deputy Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope and found out there was a BBC series featuring her. Vera is a female variant of the traditional gruff-but-basically-kind-hearted cop, a rather dumpy, plain, and unfashionable middle-aged woman who is of course brilliant at solving crimes. She's a great character, wonderfully portrayed by Brenda Blethyn.

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Shetland is almost as good. The biggest difference is that the detective, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), is not as vivid a character as Vera. It's set in the Shetland Islands, which means you get many glimpses of great scenery. (Vera, set on the coast of Northumberland, also gives you a good bit of that.) And by the way if you wonder about "Perez", as I did: Spanish Armada.

Endeavour is the somewhat unlikely attempt to portray Inspector Morse, of the famous novels and late-'80s/early-'90s TV series, as a young man. In my opinion it works very well for the most part. Shaun Evans plays the young Morse. It's a lot to ask of a young actor to play a role in which he's expected to resemble one (John Thaw) playing an older version of the same character, but Evans is at least plausible. I notice that he uses a certain pained grimace-smile that Thaw often used. The series is set in the mid-1960s, and of course for someone my age that's interesting. Also interesting for fans of the old series are the characters who are the younger versions of characters from the old series. I especially like young Max, the pathologist (James Bradshaw). Also of interest to fans of the old series is that John Thaw's daughter, Abigail, has a small but recurring role as a journalist. 

Also worthy of mention, I think, so far, is The Tunnel, although I don't like it as well as the others. It's currently being broadcast on PBS. We're about halfway through ten episodes. Like Happy Valley it's one long story, and the individual episodes are only forty minutes or so long. It's a joint Anglo-French production, featuring a beautiful and eccentric (mildly autistic, or something of that sort) young French policewoman played by Clémence Poésy. I thought she looked slightly familiar: turns out she played  Fleur Delacour in one of the Harry Potter movies. It's very well done (as usual), but be warned that it is much more grim, violent, and generally disturbing than any of the others. It's based on a Swedish series called The Bridge, which I have not seen.

And be advised that I don't really care that much about the plausibility and coherence of plots in crime stories. That's definitely a fault in some of these, especially I think some of the Endeavour episodes. But it's the characters and the way their moral choices play out that keep me interested--in addition, of course, to the basic what-will-happen-next appeal of a good story.

All of these except The Tunnel and probably the current season of Endeavour are available on Netflix.


52 Movies: Week 30 - A Majority of One

It's hard to figure out how to start this post because I am writing about a movie that is bad in so many ways. Most of the characters are very stiff. The leading man is an Englishman playing the part of Japanese and the leading woman is an American playing the part of a Russian Jewish immigrant. Neither of these portrayals works 100% of the time. The Japanese houseboy, played by Marc Marno, who you will think is Bobby Darin, is an outrageous parody along the lines of Jose Jimenez, or more like Jerry Lewis in Still Laughing. (I'm not against all ethnic humour; I just think these are insulting and over-the-top). In so many ways the movie just does not work.

So, I've been asking myself why this is one of my favorite movies--one of the few that I own?

Well, one thing is that it is in places hysterically funny. There's one line from the movie (which I will not divulge) that regularly comes up in family conversations. And then, the stars of the movie are Alec Guinness and Rosalind Russell, and despite the fact that their accents are occasionally a bit jarring and that Alec Guinness just looks a bit strange, the chemistry between the two is wonderful. I'm not talking about romance, although there is that, it's more like the feeling you get when you meet someone with whom you can really communicate. They really hear what you are saying. They understand your jokes. They care about the things you care about.

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As good as Alec Guiness is, the star of this movie is Rosalind Russell. Her character, Bertha Jacoby is wise; she is funny; and she knows who she is, and what her place is in this world. All my adult life I have wished that I knew some wise, older woman who I could go to for advice, and I have never found anyone to fill that role. I think this woman might. And as ably as Ms. Russell portrays the serious side of Bertha Jacoby, she truly excels in the humorous side. Her comedic timing is impeccable--from the few scenes that approach slapstick to the more numerous scenes where the humor is more subtle.

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Bertha is a widow whose son was killed by the Japanese in World War II. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City, where she appears to be very content. As the movie begins, we find her awaiting the visit of her daughter, Alice, and son-in-law, Jerry, who is a member of the U. S. Foreign Service. She knows they have an announcement to make, and she is sure that the announcement is the one that every mother of a young married person awaits—but she is far off the mark. She finds that Jerry has been assigned to the U. S. Embassy in Japan to help with negotiations for a trade agreement with that country. Still bitter over the death of her son, she cannot at first accept the situation at all.

Gradually, however, she comes to see that this is an advantageous position for Jerry. She accepts the fact that they are going to what she sees as an enemy land, and then receives a further surprise. Alice wants her mother to come with them. Neither Jerry nor her mother thinks that Bertha could be happy in Japan, but gradually their objections are overcome and off to Japan they all go.

Once aboard the ocean liner, they meet Mr. Koichi Asano, a Japanese businessman who will be taking part in the negotiations that Jerry will be helping to conduct. Mr. Asano attempts to befriend Mrs. Jacoby, but she is very cold. Eventually, though, after finding out a bit more about Mr. Asano and his life, she comes to see him as an individual who could be a friend, rather than as an embodiment of the enemy who killed her son.

A Majority of One was released in 1962, and was based on a Broadway hit starring Gertrude Berg, and Cedric Hardwicke that opened in 1959. I would guess that at this time there were still many people in the United States who had the same feelings toward the Japanese as Mrs. Jacoby did. Perhaps, this was considered a daring movie. I don't know. It dealt with racial prejudice—although not the sort that we are most accustomed to—in a time when that was not a popular topic. It does not however, sink under the weight of the topic, or become so preachy as to be tedious. The story, not the lesson, always drives the movie.

One thing I really enjoy about the movie is the discussions where Mr. Asano and Mrs. Jacoby compare their different cultural/religious traditions. There is a certain amount of similarity which comes, I think, from the fact that we are all human and the tools that we have to express our traditions are the same for us all: beauty, nature, our inward desires and search for meaning—many similar things. Different cultures and religions inform these basic similarities, but it's natural that we would come to some common expressions of what is most important to us. The movie doesn't downplay the differences, however. In fact there is one scene where Mr. Asano talks about how difficult those differences can be.

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It would seem that Mrs. Berg, who won the Tony Award for best actress in the role of Bertha Jacoby, would have been perfect for the movie version, but Jack Warner did not want her, and offered the role to Rosalind Russell, who was shocked. This exchange is found on the TMC website

"You've been drinking," she told Warner according to her 1977 autobiography Life Is a Banquet. "What would I be doing playing this Jewish lady from Brooklyn? I'm a little Irish girl from Waterbury, Connecticut. Use Gertrude Berg, it's her part," she said.

"We'll never use Gertrude Berg," replied Warner. "She made a picture over at Paramount years ago, and it was a disaster."

"But that has nothing to do with this," said Russell. "You'd be crazy to put me in that part, and I'd be crazy to take it."

However, when Jack Warner suggested that she could possibly co-star with Sir Alec Guinness, Russell reconsidered. "Well, that's another cup of chicken soup," she told him. "I'll think about that little item."

Earlier, I mentioned the stiffness of some of the characters, and, indeed, there is a sort of stiffness in several of the scenes, and I wonder if that can be attributed to the fact that the movie is derived from a play. In fact, it frequently has the feel of a play. I can think of certain scenes in the movie that were probably staged in the exact same way as those in the theater.

Unfortunately, this movie is difficult to find. It is occasionally on TMC, and probably elsewhere on cable. If you want to watch it soon, though, you will probably have to buy it, or you can come to my house or go wrest my other copy from my granddaughter in San Juan.

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—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.


Give Up, Liberals and Conservatives

From James Piereson's review of The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin, in the June issue The New Criterion:

Mr. Levin views the post-war era—roughly the period running from 1945 to the year 2000—as following a coherent trajectory that has left us in a situation in which it is impossible to put into place the grand designs of either liberals or conservatives. As he writes, “In our cultural, economic, political, and social life, this has been a trajectory of increasing individualism, diversity, dynamism, and liberalization. And it has come at a cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, stability, authority, and social order.” This is what he means by the “fractured” republic. Over the course of these decades, Americans lived through a cultural revolution that promoted greater freedom and liberation from social norms and a market revolution that promoted dynamism and innovation while destroying the private sector unions and corporate oligopolies that dominated economic life from the 1940s to the 1980s. Conservative attempts to restore social consensus and liberal attempts to restore a managed economy are both bound to fail due to the liberating effects of these twin revolutions.

Seems pretty accurate to me. The book sounds worthwhile, although I probably won't read it just because I have so much other reading I want and need to do. A bit more about Levin's assessment of that post-war era:

The main problem...is that Americans across the political spectrum are caught in a “nostalgia trap.” They assess the current situation in terms of social and economic standards that were established in the immediate post-war decades....

As a consequence, the two political parties are exceptionally backward looking, albeit in quite different ways. Republicans and Democrats long to restore different elements of the post-war order. Liberals and Democrats, for example, wish to restore the corporatist economic structure of the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by powerful labor unions negotiating with corporate oligopolies, while also reigniting the spirit of liberation and rebellion that burned during the 1960s. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to assess the present in relation to recollections of the social stability and shared values of the 1950s and take their economic and political bearings from the 1980s when, under Ronald Reagan’s leadership, they restored the nation’s economic dynamism following the inflation and slow growth of the 1970s while presiding over a military build-up that helped to win the Cold War. Each side looks back to the post-war period as a kind of golden age and seeks to restore a piece of it without acknowledging how far away we have since moved from the conditions of that era.

Perhaps it's just a matter of what I've happened to see and read, but it seems to me that liberal affection for the 1950s is a fairly new thing. I've been accustomed since the late '60s to hearing the '50s vilified as everything from merely conformist to quasi-fascist. But then I've probably been more exposed to the cultural revolutionaries than to old-line liberals.


52 Movies: Week 28 - Out of the Past

Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, introducing this film, says it’s his favorite film noir, and one of the best. I agree. In preparation for writing this note, I’ve just watched it for the third time, and liked it even better. I’d have to say now that it’s one of my favorite movies, period.

I think any reasonable critic would agree that it’s at very least among the best of its kind. To pick a personal favorite from a list including other excellent examples (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, et.al.), is partly a matter of subjective preferences. The noir plot generally has near its center a bad romance, a man who is tough and perhaps somewhat shady, but usually fundamentally decent, and a beautiful but treacherous woman.

If you’re going to be emotionally involved in the story, you have to find that couple convincing and at least somewhat appealing. And for me that’s one of the things that distinguish Out of the Past from others: the couple are played by Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and both of them are to me both convincing and appealing. I’ve liked Mitchum for as long as I can remember watching movies. (If I saw Thunder Road soon after it was first released, which I think I must have, I was only ten or eleven.) As far as I can remember Out of the Past was the first time I’d seen Greer. What can I say except that she’s very beautiful, and in a way that happens to hit the mark for me? I’d certainly fall in love with her if I were sitting in a dim cantina in Acapulco and she walked in out of the sun.

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But that gets ahead of the story. The second thing that makes Out of the Past so powerful for me is the cinematography, which seems to me superior to most similar films of its time. This is especially striking in the opening. We’re given a number of beautiful scenes of the Sierra Nevadas, then a road sign that sets the stage: Los Angeles that way, Lake Tahoe and Reno the other way, and just one mile away, Bridgeport.

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Corruption this way, corruption that way. Or you could stop and hide in Bridgeport.

We see a man in a dark hat and a dark coat driving a dark car into Bridgeport. It’s a nice-looking little town, and in fact a real town, in which these scenes were filmed. The man isn't Mitchum’s character, but someone out of his past, Joe Stefano. Stefano is looking for Mitchum’s character, who is introduced first as Jeff Bailey but is actually named Jeff Markham, and who runs a garage in Bridgeport. (If you wonder why it’s called “Mono Motor Service”, it’s because Bridgeport is in Mono County.)

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Stefano arrives at the garage.

These opening scenes are bright and crisp. It’s winter and the trees are bare, but the sun is bright, and lines are sharp. The town is quiet. Stefano arrives at Bailey’s garage, and learns from a deaf-mute boy who works there (referred to only as “the kid”, as far as I remember) that Bailey is not there. There is a bit here that I hadn’t noticed until I watched the opening again just now. We don’t yet know who these people are. But as Stefano is talking to the kid, a police car comes down the otherwise empty street. Stefano watches it come, which is natural. But then he turns to watch it go, with an interest which is not quite so natural. And the kid notices this, and doesn’t like it. We learn soon enough that his suspicion is justified.

Stefano walks across the street to Marny’s Cafe. Marny, friendly and chatty, tells us, and Stefano, a lot, and in passing utters a line that prefigures much of what is to come “Seems like everything people oughta know they don’t wanna hear.”

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Big-city guy Stefano signals his disrupting presence in Bridgeport by cranking up loud jazz on the jukebox as soon as he sets foot in Marny's Cafe.

The kid has gone off into the mountains in search of Bailey, who is out fishing with a lovely local girl, Ann (Virginia Huston). If the town is pleasant, the fishing scene is idyllic, the winter sun glittering on the lake.

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Talking about clouds, and the future, not realizing that this is noir.

There is a romantic conversation, and a brief kiss. Ann looks off into the distance. Over her shoulder Jeff sees the kid, who is signing to Jeff, and the idyll is disturbed.

Jeff: We’d better go.
Ann: Something the matter?
Jeff: Maybe not.

Not maybe, but maybe not: the perfect note for Jeff’s fatalistic but not hopeless attitude. And those two examples of the dialog illustrate another aspect of the film’s quality: the dialog is for the most part excellent, plain but with resonances, clever but not ostentatiously so, and happily lacking in the overdone wisecracks, labored slang, and macho posturing one often finds in crime dramas of this period. Well, okay, there is some macho posturing, but it's not exaggerated.  

Stefano is a hoodlum who works for a gambler and “operator,” presumably of criminal enterprises, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas). Bailey/Markham had also worked for Sterling in the past, but there are clear indications that the parting was not a friendly one, and presumably has something to do with the fact that Markham has changed his name. Stefano seems friendly but there’s an undertone of menace in the conversation, not least as a result of the fact that Stefano has found Jeff at all. (How this came about is never quite explained.) Sterling wants to hire Jeff again. He agrees to meet with Stirling in Lake Tahoe the next morning. We assume there is an implied threat here, that Jeff was hiding from Sterling, and that now that he’s been found must deal with the situation.

The next scene takes place at night, and from this point the film gets literally and figuratively darker. Jeff asks Ann to accompany him on the all-night drive to Tahoe (only 78 miles according to the signpost in that opening scene, but maybe the mountain roads made for slow going). He wants to tell her the truth about his past.

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Night drive to Tahoe.

In a lengthy flashback we learn of his previous life as a private detective hired by Sterling to locate Kathie Moffat (Greer), the girlfriend who had shot him and stolen $40,000.

I’ll stop the plot summary at this point. I’ve gone into this detail, and included these stills, in an effort to communicate how well-crafted the movie is. The story gets pretty complicated from here on, and I won’t be giving anything away if I tell you it's not a light-hearted one.

If you want to see a clip, go here. I didn't include it here because it goes further in the story than I wanted to, although it's not a major spoiler.

Kirk Douglas gives an excellent performance as Sterling—affable, smooth, and ruthless.

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There's something crocodilian about that grin.

Sterling is involved with miscellaneous other shady types, including Rhonda Fleming as a femme at least as fatale as Kathie. The most potent thing about Kathie for me is that she taps something in men—or at least in this man—which makes us, against all evidence, suppose that a really beautiful woman is also good.  (There is a great riff about this in one of John Le Carre's books, but I'm not sure which one.) Ann is perhaps a bit too sweet; I learn from poking around on the internet that Virginia Huston was somewhat typecast as the good girl in this sort of film, and you can see why. 

The kid is a poignant figure. At the end of the movie we are back with him in Bridgeport. It's another bright day, but things have changed. There's an ambiguous bit at the end which fans of the film don't seem to be entirely agreed upon. Roger Ebert thinks it's just ambiguous, and I tend to agree.

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I like this movie so much that I may buy a copy. That's very high praise for me, as I own fewer than a couple of dozen movies, and a lot of those are Bergman. If there's a noir film that you think is better, please let me know. And of course if you like the genre and haven't seen Out of the Past, do so at your earliest convenience.

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.


So Blue, So White

For several weeks now I've established a routine of going down to the bay every morning with a folding chair, a cup of coffee, and my notebook, and writing for a couple of hours. I also take my phone with me, partly because someone might need to contact me, and partly so that I can set a timer to keep myself from sitting for too long at a stretch (back problems). That obviously presents a great danger of distraction, but so far I've managed to keep it mostly under control. 

What did begin to distract me, though, after the first few days, was my surroundings. There is the constant activity of gulls, pelicans, herons, ducks, geese, kingfishers, and the occasional osprey over and around the water. There is the water itself, the changing light and textures. And a bit to my surprise, the sky, with its constant movement of clouds--not surprise that it is beautiful and changing, but that I find myself paying so much attention to it. Of course that may have something to do with the desire to avoid work. And sometimes I can't resist picking up the phone and taking a picture.

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