The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 10,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 17 years to get that many views.
A TALE OF TWO MOVIES
Two films I recently saw that were shot on shoestring budgets, and that took two very different paths in story telling. One I liked, and one, well………………
By Shaun Costello
Greg Harrison 2004
This low budget indie made quite a splash at the 2004 Sundance Festival, and was well received the following year at the Festivals in LA and Seattle. Considering its budget, November is visually dazzling, but there’s much less here than meets the eye. When a director on a low budget film decides to compensate for lack of funds with dizzying camera tricks, editorial gimmickry, and story telling razzle-dazzle, the result is usually disappointing, and lovely-to-look-at though it is, November is no exception. Who exactly died here? Did he die? Did she die? Did they both die? Do I really care?
This Lynchy, Shyamalanesque, neo-Roshomon attempt runs out of steam early on, and becomes unforgivably derivative and imitative. On the evening of November 7, photographer Sophie Jacobs (Courtney Cox, who does not change her facial expression once throughout the film) and her attorney boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. As they travel home afterward, Sophie develops a craving for “something sweet” and stops their car at a convenience store. While Hugh is in the store buying some chocolate for Sophie, an armed man (Mathew Carey) arrives and holds up the store, shooting the store clerk, his son, and Hugh dead. He runs away as Sophie arrives.
Sophie sinks into a deep depression, and cannot bring herself to erase Hugh’s voice from their apartment’s answering machine. She consults her psychiatrist, Dr. Fayn (Nora Dunn), about persistent headaches that she has been suffering from since his death. She tells Dr. Fayn that the headaches started to occur before the incident at the convenience store, and that she had been having an affair with a co-worker, Jesse (Michael Ealy). After Hugh’s death Sophie has dinner with her mother, Carol Jacobs (AnneArcher), who accidentally knocks a glass over.
During a college photography class that she teaches, Sophie sets up a slide projector for the students to showcase their best photographs. One slide in the slide show depicts the exterior of the convenience store on the evening of November 7. Sophie contacts Officer Roberts (Nick Offerman), the head of the investigation into the shootings at the convenience store, who is as puzzled as she is as to who is responsible for the photos. Sophie’s headaches continue, and she begins to hear strange noises coming from within her apartment building and mysterious voices on the phone. Later, Officer Roberts discovers that the photo of the convenience store was paid for with Sophie’s credit card.
The film presents two more different versions of these events, and Sophie must figure out which is real before she loses grip on her sanity, and her life. The second version suggests that Sophie was present at the shootings and was only spared because the shooter ran out of bullets, and the third suggests both Sophie and Hugh were killed. In the words of Cox, her character “goes through three phases. First there’s denial. Then she feels guilty and sad about the situation. Then she has to learn to accept it.” According to Greg Harrison, the events in the film were Sophie’s memories as she and Hugh lay dying on the floor of the convenience store: “Each movement of this memory was her process of coming to terms with the terrible trauma, which was that she was killed for absolutely no reason, and it was some random act of violence she couldn’t confront”. He added he felt November was “open-ended” enough that he hoped viewers would “come up with the most beautiful stories themselves that are very different from how I saw it.”
Really, Greg? As each version of the story unfolds, the plot becomes almost laughably confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying. By the last shot, of the two lovers, hands extended toward one another in some cinematically sculpted mini-apocalypse, lying in pools of blood on the convenience store floor, I had long since stopped caring what had happened to whom, and why.
Oddly, I both liked and hated this movie, and am glad to have seen it, if for no other reason than Nancy Schreiber’s hypnotic visuals. Shot on mini DV at 24 FPS, the ‘look’ of November is worth the time spent watching it. If only Greg Harrison knew how to tell a story.
Nicole Holofcener 2010
I was hooked 15 seconds into the credits, which are supered over a montage of breasts being squeezed and flattened onto mammogram plates at a radiology center, scored to the Roches’ hilarious and wise song, “No Shoes”, with its litany of self-mocking complaints, “I had no shoes and I complained/Until I met a man who had no feet.” Please Give is a wonderful example of movie-making on a budget, without resorting to gimmickry.
The last words in “Please Give,” Nicole Holofcener’s latest comic drama of spiky manners, are “you’re welcome.” They’re uttered by Kate, a New York malcontent played with complex appeal by the wonderful actress Catherine Keener. Kate’s daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), a stridently truculent teenager, has in a rare instance of filial generosity just thanked her mother for agreeing to pay for a pricey pair of jeans. From the near-beatific look on Kate’s face, it seems that after struggling to make amends for some vague, unarticulated wrong — by doling out cash to homeless people, for instance — she has found her moment of grace.
Few American filmmakers create female characters as realistically funny, attractively imperfect and flat-out annoying as does Ms. Holofcener, whose features include “Friends With Money” and “Lovely & Amazing.” You may not love them, but you recognize their charms and frailties, their fears and hopes. They may remind you of your friends, your sisters or even yourself, which makes them attractive and sometimes off-putting, an unusual, complicated mix. We don’t necessarily or only go to the movies to see mirror versions of ourselves: we also want (or think we do) better, kinder, nobler, prettier and thinner images, idealized types and aspirational figures we can take pleasure in or laugh at in all their plastic unreality. The female characters in Ms. Holofcener’s films don’t live in those movies: they watch them.
“Please Give” involves a cluster of such women, including Kate and her only child, the 15-year-old Abby, and their irascible next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), a nonagenarian with two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Kate and her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), expect to take over Andra’s apartment when she dies, a macabre objective that they compensate for with strained smiles and by running an occasional errand for her. Kate and Alex also own a store specializing in midcentury Modern furniture, lamps and the like, which they stock from the apartments of the dead. It stings when a customer calls them ambulance chasers, but there’s a touch of truth to that remark.
Given how unpleasant Andra is, you can almost understand Kate and Alex’s impatience, though I don’t think that is exactly what Ms. Holofcener had in mind when she gave her characters so many thorns. Kate and Alex want to expand their already spacious Upper West Side apartment, a desire that slightly embarrasses them and creates tension, particularly during a birthday party that Kate gives for Andra. Mary, who comes with so many spikes she could star in a “Hellraiser” sequel (as Mrs. Pinhead), and has had too much to drink (as is her habit), urges Kate to explain her renovation plans to everyone, Andra included. It’s an uncomfortable exchange, but like too many scenes, it also feels rigged for maximum outrage.
Most of Andra’s needs are met by Rebecca, who works as an X-ray technician taking mammograms. Ms. Holofcener doesn’t overdo the scenes of Rebecca tending to the patients, who might soon learn the worst. But the delicacy of Rebecca’s touch speaks a great deal about a woman who is also so depressed or repressed or something that she can’t even admit that she wants to see the leaves turn colors in the fall.
What’s eating Rebecca? What isn’t? Certainly she doesn’t have it easy. Her mother died when she and Mary were young, and their dad soon headed out the door. (Maybe he was running from Andra.) Having been raised by her grandmother, Rebecca now buys Andra’s groceries and doles out her medications, living with Mary in a dreary, sterile apartment where they eat microwave dinners and watch television amid sisterly sniping. A sloppy, mean drinker with a quiver full of insults, Mary works in a spa and spends far too much time browning in a tanning bed — she looks like a Creamsicle. Neither sister seems to have any outside friends or, initially, a love life, which strikes a false note until you get to know them.
Generationally, Abby, Mary and Andra embody the ages of woman — youth, adulthood and old age — a sort of variation on Gail Sheehy’s “Passages.” But because they’re so unmodulated, barely saying a kind word among them, they become tough to take. (Ms. Peet, nonetheless, keeps you watching and engaged.) The appeal of Ms. Holofcener’s films, which are visually unmemorable, rests almost entirely in her characters, so the lack of shading among these three throws the story off balance. Rebecca lacks a similar modulation until she meets a guy, Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas). Men might not make women happy here, but left to their own devices, women tend only to make one another unhappy.
The more you get to know these women, the less time you want to spend with them — they’re so full of complaint that it feels as if Ms. Holofcener were worried about making them false, turning them into movie characters. The exception is Kate, because she comes with the most dimensions and is played by Ms. Keener (a Holofcener veteran). No one in American movies does difficult women better than Ms. Keener, who’s fearless when it comes to nasty, cold roles, yet resists caricature. (At her most withering, she can recall George Sanders.) Her character in “Please Give” isn’t acerbic, but Kate has bite, along with a lot of underexamined — by her and by Ms. Holofcener — guilt, most of which appears to have something to do with being bourgeois.
Kate’s habit of giving money to homeless people, along with the film’s title, suggests the scope of Ms. Holofcener’s intentions. There’s so much hurt in the world, and Kate wants to help. But she’s a rotten volunteer, weepy and self-conscious, and she doesn’t seem to see the pain closer to home. She’s the definition of the guilty white (presumed) liberal and might have been a rich source of comedy and pathos. But only if we saw her working through her issues (and her narcissism) with more obvious intelligence and greater self-awareness, wrestling more thoughtfully with life the way that Ms. Holofcener herself has tried to do in this likable if frustrating film. Ms. Holofcener didn’t need to come up with answers for Kate — the ones in the movie are less than satisfying — but it would have been nice if she had let Kate ask some harder questions.
That said, I really liked this movie.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
Ten fantasy-driven films I saw on TV, while home from school, pretending to be sick in the fourth grade, that changed my life forever.
By Shaun Costello
My life-long love affair with motion pictures began, not in the cavernous movie palaces of New York City, although I regularly accompanied my parents, or my grandmother to see the latest offerings at Radio City Music Hall, The Roxy, The Loews State, and the Palace; but instead on the 15 inch screen of my family’s black and white Dumont television set, that occupied a place of honor in the finished basement of our house at 9 Elderberry Lane, in the suburban village of Valley Stream, about a 40 minute car ride to mid-town Manhattan. I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade at the local Catholic School, and for purposes of full disclosure, have to admit to taking full advantage of every trick imaginable in order to accrue more than my share of sick days, pretending to be at death’s door, in order to not be held accountable for homework not done, or book reports not finished, or maybe just giving in to chronic laziness in a Herculean attempt to keep my eyes glued to our television screen, without interruption, for, if possible, the entire day.
Daytime TV in the mid-Fifties offered a cornucopia of entertainment, beginning with NBC’c Today Show with Dave Garroway and his chimp Mr Muggs, followed by Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, featuring The McGuire Sisters, Julius LaRosa, and Hawaiian Hottie, Haleloke, who sang songs like ‘Lovely Hula Hands’. Then came a half hour watching Jack LaLane pumping iron and drinking carrot
juice, followed by an assortment of Game Shows and Soap Operas. The afternoon kicked off with Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane, which offered Franklin talking with people I’d never heard of and showing old shorts and Feature Films. There were two channels, WOR Channel Nine, and WPIX Channel Eleven that regularly showed old movies. Channel Eleven showed mostly Westerns – lots of Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Bob Steele, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Westerns were right up my alley, but Channel Nine showed a variety of movies, some of which got my attention, and had me clambering for more. Movies about the supernatural which included ghosts, goblins, fairy tale characters, outrageous swindles, outlandish inventions, mermaids, men who could walk through walls, statues that came to life when you kissed them; genies, giants, magic carpet rides, magicians, and friendly spirits who could appear and disappear at will. I was hooked. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t get enough of this newly discovered form of entertainment.
The purpose of this list, dear reader, is to share ten of these gloriously outlandish movies with you. Ten preposterously unearthly and undignified examples of fantasy cinema, that thrilled me beyond my wildest expectation, and changed my life forever. Of course, you might excuse my reaction to these movies by suggesting that I was nine years old, but here we are, a half century later, and I can still hear that haunting musical score, the sound of singing, the kind of singing that only comes from out near Key Ora, as Mr. Peabody rows his boat through that thick fog bank, following the song, and searching for his mermaid.
So, in alphabetical order:
BABES IN TOYLAND
1934 Charles Rogers and Gus Meins
Based on Victor Herbert’s popular 1903 Operetta of the same name, Babes in Toyland was later released under the titles ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, and ‘Wooden Soldiers’.
This is a delightfully silly fantasy amalgam of Fairy Tale characters with Laurel and Hardy at its center as Stanley Dum and Ollie Dee. The film’s story takes place in the fictional Kingdom of Toyland, inhabited by Mother Goose, Tom-Tom Piper, Mother Peep and Bo Peep, Stan and Ollie’s boss the Toymaker, and the evil Silas Barnaby, who holds Toyland in a constant threat of siege from his henchmen, the Bogey Men, who lurk just outside the gates of the city. Stan and Ollie live in a shoe, with “The Old Woman”, who turns out to be Mother Peep, her daughter Bo Peep, a mouse that is actually played by a monkey in costume, and so many children she didn’t know what to do. The mortgage on The Shoe is owned by the villainous Silas Barnaby, who has his eyes on the lovely Bo Peep. Stan and Ollie try to borrow enough money to pay off the mortgage from their boss the Toymaker, but the normally kindly gentleman is furious at our boys for mixing up an order from Santa Claus, and building one hundred Toy Soldiers six feet tall, rather that what Santa really wanted – six hundred Toy Soldiers one foot tall, so he fires them. With Stan and Ollie unemployed, and The Shoe in foreclosure, Barnaby’s got his clutches into Bo Peep, and the horrible Bogey Men are breaking down the gate to the city. All seems lost, until Stan comes up with the solution. “The Soldiers, the Toy Soldiers”, so our heroes wind up their army of one hundred six foot tall Toy Saviors, Victor Herbert’s March music begins to swell, and Toyland is saved in the nick of time.
Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers (whoever they are), Produced by Hal Roach, and released through MGM. Silly, delicious fluff that I must have seen 20 times down through the years. I can still hear that ‘March Music’.
THE BARON OF ARIZONA
1950 Sam Fuller
How can a person own a whole state? That’s the question I asked myself when I first saw this Hollywood ‘land-grab’ fantasy. But the fact is, it turns out to be based on a true story, as preposterous as that might seem, and not really a fantasy at all. It’s based on the story of master forger James Reavis, who, in the late Nineteenth Century, almost got away with taking over the entire State of Arizona, forging documents claiming that the area then called Arizona had been granted to his family by the King of Spain, centuries earlier. The U.S. government recognized land grants made when the West was under Spanish rule. This inspired James Reavis to forge a chain of historical evidence that made a foundling girl the Baroness of Arizona. Reavis married the girl and pressed his claim to the entire Arizona territory. And he almost gets away with it. Makes you wonder where John McCain would be today, had this delightful bit of mischief actually succeeded. The real James Reavis (1843 – 1914) was found guilty of creating forged documents, paid a fine of five thousand dollars, and spent two year in jail.
A nice turn here by Vincent Price, as the adventurous forger, and Ellen Drew as the foundling child, who almost became the Baroness of Arizona. Solid direction by war film maven Sam Fuller, and stunning, as usual, black and white lensing by the inimitable James Wong Howe. An aside – Ed Wood does a turn here as a stunt double.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
1951 Brian Desmond Hurst
The one and only. So many movies have been produced from Dickens’ classic story (even my own), but this Alistair Sim version still holds up as the all-time champ. A wonderful story, simply told, with a bumbling, befuddled, and delighted Sim at its core. The word “humbug”, forever connected to this story and with the Scrooge character, is misunderstood by many people, which is a pity since the word provides a key insight into Scrooge’s hatred of Christmas. The word “humbug” actually describes deceitful efforts to fool people by pretending to a fake loftiness or false sincerity. So when Scrooge calls Christmas a humbug, he is claiming that people are only pretending to be charitable and kind in a scandalous effort to delude him, each other, and themselves. In Scrooge’s eyes, he is the one man honest enough to admit that no one really cares about anyone else, so for him, every wish for a Merry Christmas is one more deceitful effort to
fool him and take advantage of his good nature. This is a man who has turned to profit because he honestly believes everyone else will someday betray him or abandon him the moment he stoops to trust them.
At least, this is what he thought before that fateful Christmas Eve, when the spirit of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, made his ghostly appearance at Scrooge’s bedside, foretelling of the coming of three apparitions that would all appear to Scrooge that very night, in the hope of saving his soul. At the age of nine, I hadn’t read the Dickens book, and was unaware of the story, and this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Although this film is carefully directed, beautifully shot and art-directed, and a typically solid early-Fifties British Production, it’s Alistair Sim’s delicious performance, as the transformed miser, that drives the bus here.
Beyond Sim, there’s Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddelee as the Cratchits, Michael Hordern as Marley’s ghost, George Cole as a hopeful but broken-hearted young Ebenezer Scrooge, and Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim, who has the last word, “God bless us, everyone”.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR
1947 Joe Mankiewicz
In early 1900s England, a young widow, Lucy Muir (a devastatingly beautiful Gene Tierney), moves to the seaside village of Whitecliff and into Gull Cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood)) and her maid Martha (Edna Best), despite
the fierce disapproval of her mother, and sister-in-law. She rents the house despite discovering that it’s haunted. On the first night in her new digs, she is visited by the ghostly apparition of the former owner, a roguish sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who reluctantly promises to make himself known only to her; Anna is too young for ghosts. When Lucy’s source of investment income dries up, he dictates to her his memoirs, entitled Blood and Swash. His racy recollections make the book a bestseller, allowing Lucy to stay in the house. During the course of writing the book, they fall in love, but as both realize it is a hopeless situation, Daniel tells her she should find a real (live) man.
When she visits the publisher in London she becomes attracted to suave Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a writer of children’s stories known as “Uncle Neddy” who helps her obtain an interview. Despite a rocky beginning, the publisher agrees to publish the captain’s book. Fairley follows her back to Whitecliff and begins a whirlwind courtship. Captain Gregg, initially jealous of their relationship, decides finally to disappear and cease being an obstacle to her happiness. He ends their relationship and convinces her that his ghostly apparitions were only a dream. Shortly thereafter, while visiting her publisher in London (the book has become a bestseller), Lucy pays a surprise visit to Fairley’s home and discovers that, not only is Miles already married with two children, but that this sort of thing has happened before with other women. Lucy leaves heartbroken and returns to spend the rest of her life as a single woman in Gull Cottage with Martha to look after her.
About ten years later, Anna (Vanessa Brown) returns to the cottage with her Navy Lieutenant fiancée and tells her mother that she knew about Captain Gregg and Miles Fairley all the time, rekindling faint memories in her mother of the captain (we also learn that Miles Fairley has become fat and bald and that his wife and children finally left him).
After a long peaceful life spent at the cottage, Lucy dies. This being a movie, Captain Gregg appears before her at the moment of her death – reaching out, he lifts her young spirit free of her old dead body. The two walk out of the front door arm in arm, into the mist. Two spooks in love, and together at long last.
This movie hooked me from the very first moments, and kept my nine year-old eyes glued to that screen. Nicely directed by Joe Mankiewicz, and released by Twentieth Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck. I could spend my whole life in Gull Cottage by the sea, listening to Bernard Herrman’s fabulous music, and playing bridge with ghostly apparitions. I’m just saying………………….
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
1951 Alexander Mackendrick
A delightful satirical comedy from England’s ever-fabulous Ealing Studios, who brought us The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Lady Killers. It followed a consistent Ealing theme of the common man (Alec Guiness) against the establishment (everyone else). Sidney Stratton, a brilliant young research chemist and former Cambridge scholarship recipient, has been dismissed from jobs at several textile mills because of his demands for expensive facilities and his obsession to invent a long-lasting fiber. While working as a research chemist at the Birnley Mill, his daily toil accompanied by the constant, almost musical sound of bubbling liquids, he accidently invents an incredibly strong fiber which repels dirt and never wears out. From this fabric, a suit is made – which is brilliant white because it cannot absorb dye, and slightly luminous because it includes radioactive elements.
Stratton is lauded as a genius until both management and the trade unions realize the consequence of his invention – once consumers have purchased enough cloth, demand will drop precipitously and put the textile industry out of business. The managers try to trick Stratton into signing away the rights to his invention but he refuses. Managers and workers each try to lock him up, but he escapes.
The climax sees Stratton running through the streets at night in his glowing white suit, pursued by both the managers and the employees. As the crowd advances, his suit begins to fall apart as the chemical structure of the fiber breaks down with time. The mob, realizing the flaw in the process, rip pieces off his suit in evil triumph, until he is left standing in his underwear. Only Daphne Birnley, the mill-owner’s daughter, and Bertha, a Mill laborer, have sympathy for his disappointment.
The next day, Stratton is dismissed from his job. Departing, he consults his chemistry notes, and slowly, an expression of revelation overcomes him, as we hear that sound of those bubbling liquids once more. “I see!”, exclaims young Stratton. And off he goes, with another outlandish invention in his crosshairs.
As a nine year-old, what I liked most was that the white suit glowed in the dark. Guiness, as usual, is a delight, as is Joan Greenwood – she of the voice like tinkling crystal. Early, and solid black and white lensing by British cinematographer Doug Slocombe. You might find a dvd of this at your local library – mine has all the Ealing classics. Grab it, if you can.
MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID
1948 Irving Pichel
This one absolutely knocked me out. It was my first exposure to the idea that Mermaids were a possibility. This fish fantasy stars William Powell as Arthur Peabody, who is undergoing a mid-life crisis as he approaches his 50th birthday. Much of the story is shown in flashback as Peabody tells his skeptical doctor a fish tale for the ages.
Peabody had gone on vacation with his wife Polly (Irene Hervey) to a sea side resort in Bermuda. One evening, he hears singing coming from the distant Key Ora, singing, the likes of which he’s never heard before. He asks s few of the locals, and some of them have heard it too, but long ago. So, our song-smitten hero decides to do a little fishing. To his surprise, he reels in a beautiful mermaid played by Ann Blyth. He names her Lenore (shades of Poe here), and although mute, Lenore is mischievous and childlike and not just a little bit alluring – so much so that before long Peabody has taught her the art of kissing. She shows him an extraordinarily beautiful comb, made from a shell, that she wears in her hair. He hides Lenore by letting her soak in a suds-filled bathtub, then later in the resort’s fish pond. But confusion ensues as his wife thinks he has a big fish in their bathtub and later suspects him of infidelity with Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), a vacationing singer. Things get even more complicated when, after an angry Polly returns home without Peabody, police suspect him of her murder. But they’re British Police (hey, it’s Bermuda), after all, and it would be uncivilized to arrest a man in his home, even if it’s a rental.
And Peabody hears that singing again, out from somewhere near Key Ora. Out in that thick fog bank. And off he goes in his little boat, searching for the lost Lenore. A wave capsizes his craft, and while trying to survive under the water, he see’s and reaches for Lenore’s beautiful comb.
We dissolve here, ending the fishy-flashback, to his shrink’s office, back in Boston. He’s told his story to a doubting psychiatrist, who knows a mid-life crisis when he see’s one. But wait – Peabody’s got something in his hand. Something he’s been holding all the while he’s been telling his tale. “What’s that”, asks his shrink. “Oh nothing”, say’s Peabody. “Just a comb I found somewhere”. “How extraordinary”, say’s the Doctor, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it before”. And we begin to hear that singing again, like the kind of singing that only comes from that thick fog bank, somewhere out near Key Ora.
Well, this being my first mermaid experience, I was just as smitten as poor Peabody – smitten, but combless.
1951 Jean Boyer
This one also knocked me for a loop. In Paris, a simple civil servant named Léon, who has the unusual ability to walk through walls (who cares why – he can really do this), falls madly in love with a hotel thief by the name of Susan. He poses as Garou-Garou, a dangerous gangster to attempt to woo her affections, but is mistakenly arrested and sent to jail. While incarcerated, he annoys the guards by walking in and out of his cell, right through the bars, and the cell walls. It’s a bizarre, modern/fantasy/adventure/ romance. It’s boy meets girl with an walk-through twist. Leon’s friends suggest he use his odd ability to become the criminal of the century, walking through bank vaults and off with the loot. But, Leon instead, see’s his strange gift as a way to help Susan, who is being blackmailed. A very moralistic tale – love triumphs over crime. The film stars Bourvil, as Leon, who up until this effort, had been a semi-successful French lounge singer and comedian; and the delightful Joan Greenwood (that voice again) as Susan the Cat Burglar. Fantasizing about having Leon’s abilities took up a great deal of my young life. The possibilities were endless. Unlike other films on this list, I confess to only having seen this that one time, on my family’s black and white Dumont, but I never forgot this delightful French fantasy. I know it’s a one trick pony – but what a trick.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS
1948 William A. Seiter
Kiss a statue, and it turns into Ava Gardner? Yikes! Since I’ve turned parts of this Blog into a my own private confessional, I might just as well go on record here, as having laid the smooch on countless pieces of marble and granite, in a futile attempt to recreate the aforementioned morphing, after seeing this movie, at the tender age of nine, in the confines of my basement. I even talked my puzzled parents into a trip to the Metropolitan Museum so that I could sneak up on renowned statuary and, when no one was looking, do some furtive fondling. The idea of possessing my very own Ava Gardner overwhelmed me, and probably was the beginning of my inability, throughout my life, to nurture and maintain a lengthy and lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I was looking for a statue, instead. But, before I rant on about one of my favorite fantafilms, let me give you some of the surprising background for this production from Universal’s fluff department.
One Touch of Venus was a Broadway musical with the score written by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, and book by S. J. Perelman and Nash, based on the novella The Tinted Venus by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and very loosely spoofing the Pygmalion myth. The show satirized contemporary American suburban values, artistic fads and romantic and sexual mores. Weill had been in America for ten years by the time he wrote this musical, and his music, though retaining his early haunting power, had evolved into a very different Broadway style.
The original Broadway production opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 7, 1943 and closed on February 10, 1945 after 567 performances. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and featured choreography by Agnes de Mille. It starred Mary Martin, Kenny Baker and Paula Laurence. Marlene Dietrich reportedly backed out of the title role during rehearsals, calling it “too sexy and profane”, which gave Martin the opportunity to establish herself as a Broadway star. The show was made into the 1948 film, directed by William A. Seiter and starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker. The movie version omitted much of the Broadway score and received poor reviews.
OK, enough surprising background. Let’s get back to kissing a statue and getting Eva Gardner in the bargain. Wealthy department-store mogul Whitfield Savory II (Tom Conway) buys a statue of Venus for $200,000. He plans to exhibit it in the store.
Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker), a window dresser, kisses the statue on a whim. To his shock, Venus comes to life as Eva Gardner. She leaves the store and Eddie is accused of stealing the work of art.
Nobody believes the truth, including secretary Molly Stewart (the one and only Eve Arden), who is Savory’s right-hand woman, and Kerrigan (James Flavin), a detective. Venus turns up at Eddie’s apartment, forcing him to hide her from girlfriend Gloria and roommate Joe.
Entranced by Venus’s song of love, Joe falls for Eddie’s girl Gloria. At the store, meanwhile, Venus has fallen asleep on a sofa and is discovered there by Whitfield, who is instantly smitten.
Kerrigan decides it’s time for Eddie to be placed under arrest for the statue’s theft. Venus, to save Eddie, is willing to seduce Whitfield, but a threat by Molly to leave him brings Whitfield back to his senses. He realizes it’s Molly he truly loves. Aw Geeze.
Venus is called home by Jupiter and must return to Mount Olympus, so she returns to her pedestal. Whitfield can now display his work of art to the public. Eddie is the only one left alone, at least until he meets a new salesgirl who is, I’ll bet you knew this was coming, a dead ringer for the goddess of love.
I’ve spent my life trying to turn marble into flesh, only to find that the opposite usually happens.
THIEF OF BAGDAD
1940 Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan
A fantasy for all seasons! Years ahead of its time, in special effects, cinematography, and directorial vision, this movie, maybe more than any other, just plain blew my sox off. When the giant genie, all 100 feet of him, lowers his hand, allowing Sabu to climb aboard, and then flips the little fellow up onto his shoulder, telling him to take hold of the long pig tail, and with Sabu holding on for dear life, and an echoing, thunderous laughter, the Genie takes flight, I just stood up and started screaming…..screaming! I couldn’t contain my joy.
OK, I’ll calm down now, enough to explain the story. Ahmad (John Justin), the naive King of Bagdad, is convinced by the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), to go out into the city disguised as a poor man to get to know his subjects (in the manner of his grandfather Harun al-Rashid). Jaffar then has Ahmad thrown into a dungeon, where he is joined by Abu the thief (Sabu), son of Abu the thief, grandson of Abu the thief. Abu arranges their escape.
They flee to Basra, where Ahmad becomes acquainted with its Princess (June Duprez). However, Jaffar also journeys to Basra, for he desires the Princess. Her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson), is fascinated by the magical mechanical flying horse Jaffar offers and agrees to the proposed marriage. Upon hearing the news, the Princess, by now deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away. Confronted by Ahmad, Jaffar magically blinds him and turns Abu into a dog; the spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.
The Princess is eventually captured (but not recognized) and sold in the slave market. She is bought secretly by Jaffar and taken to his mansion, but falls into a deep sleep from which he cannot rouse her. Ahmad is tricked by Jaffar’s servant Halima (Mary Morris) into awaking the Princess. Halima then lures the Princess onto Jaffar’s ship by telling her that there is a doctor aboard who can cure Ahmad’s blindness. The ship immediately sets sail. Jaffar informs the Princess about the spell; she allows herself to be embraced, whereupon Ahmad’s sight is restored and Abu is returned to human form. They chase after the ship in a small boat, but Jaffar conjures up a storm to shipwreck them.
Abu wakes up alone on a deserted beach and finds a bottle. When he opens it, an enormous djinn or genie (Rex Ingram) appears. Embittered by his long imprisonment, the genie informs Abu that he is going to kill his rescuer, but Abu tricks him back into the bottle. The genie then offers to grant Abu three wishes if he will let him out again. The hungry boy uses his first wish to ask for sausages. When Abu demands to know where Ahmad is, the genie flies Abu to the top of the highest mountain in the world. On it sits a temple, and in the temple there is an enormous statue with a large jewel, the All-Seeing Eye, set in its forehead. The genie tells Abu that the Eye will show him where to find Ahmad. Abu fights off a giant guardian spider while climbing the statue and steals the gem.
The genie then takes Abu to Ahmad. When Ahmad asks to see the Princess, Abu has him gaze into the All-Seeing Eye. Ahmad despairs when he sees Jaffar arranging for the Princess to inhale the fragrance of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, which makes her forget her love. In agony, Ahmad lashes out at Abu for showing him the scene. During the ensuing argument, Abu unthinkingly wishes Ahmad to Baghdad. The genie, freed after granting the last wish, departs, leaving Abu alone in the wilderness.
Ahmad appears in Jaffar’s castle and is quickly captured, but seeing him restores the Princess’s memory. The furious usurper sentences them both to death. Abu, unable to watch his friend’s impending doom, shatters the All-Seeing Eye and as a result is transported to the “land of legend,” where he is greeted by the Old King (Morton Selten) and thanked for freeing the inhabitants, who had been turned to stone. As a reward, he is given a magic crossbow and is named the king’s successor. However, in order to save Ahmad, he steals the king’s magic flying carpet and rushes to the rescue.
Abu’s marvelous aerial arrival (which fulfills a prophecy often cited in the course of the story) sparks a revolt against Jaffar. Abu kills the fleeing Jaffar with his crossbow, and Ahmad regains his kingdom and his love. However, when Abu hears (with growing alarm) Ahmad tell the people of his plan to send him to school to train to become his new Grand Vizier, Abu flies away on the carpet to find his own fun and adventure.
Did you get all that? Just checking. And every frame is gorgeous and thrilling. Nominated for four Oscars, it won three: Best Cinematography, Special Effects, and Art Direction. Shooting began in England, but with the outbreak of WWII, the picture was finished in Hollywood. Produced by Alexander Korda, it took three directors to make this happen; Michael Powell (later to dazzle with The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and many more), Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan. Absolutely dazzling, from beginning to end.
1937 Norman McLeod
Well, we’ve come down to it – ghosts, fun loving, hard drinking, practical joking ghosts. Appearing and disappearing at will. What could be better? Those funloving Kerbys, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), stockholders in the bank of which henpecked, stuffy Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) is president, drive recklessly once too often and become ghosts. In limbo because they’ve never done either good or bad deeds, they decide to try a good one now; rehabilitating Topper. Lovely, flirtatious Marion takes a keen personal interest in the job. Will Topper survive the wrath of jealous ghost George? Will Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke) find that a scandalous husband isn’t all bad?
“Topper”, a delightful and original film directed by Norman Z McLeod, should be on everybody’s ‘must see’ list. It is one of the best films Hollywood produced, at the height of the madcap comedy craze of the thirties. Just to watch Roland Young, Constance Bennett and Cary Grant in the same film is pretty delicious.
Constance Bennett and Cary Grant made a fabulous couple. Ms. Bennett had the uncanny gift of blending with all her leading men well. She was a charming actress with such a sense of style and an amazing figure to boot that made her an irresistible presence on the screen. Cary Grant is also seen at his best in the film as the carefree and fun loving George Kerby.
But it’s Roland Young who steals the show! He plays the staid banker Cosmo Topper, who is all business until he starts being made the object of the Kerby’s antics. Cosmo Topper’s wife is the incomparable Billie Burke, the Queen of Ditz.
Produced (uncredited, for some reason) by Hal Roach, shot by Norbert Brodine, and music by Marvin Hatley, Topper, referred to as ‘Toppie’ by Ms Bennett, makes me happy every time I see it. Delicious fluff!
© 2011 Shaun Costello
THE TEN BEST PRIVATE EYE MOVIES
Ten rainy day whodunits that have stood the test of time.
By Shaun Costello
Just exactly who was the best cinematic Private Eye, anyway? For my money, Phillip Marlowe is tough to beat, even though he was beaten up fairly often, staggering to his feet after being cold-cocked with a heavy object (usually a gun butt) held in the hand of a beguiling femme fatale who had gotten the drop on him. Marlowe leads the chase in three of the titles I’m listing here, and is played by three different actors. Two of these films were adapted from the same book, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The first, Murder My Sweet (1944) was renamed as box office strategy, which I suppose worked, to a degree. And, the 1975 remake with the original Farewell My Lovely title intact. The third Marlowe caper, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, had maybe the greatest writing team ever assembled, even though the audience had a tough time figuring out what, in God’s name, this movie was about. Sam Spade, a Dashiell Hammett creation, and a Marlowe contemporary is of course, the chief sleuth in The Maltese Falcon, which has Bogie and Huston and the fabulous Warner Bothers repertory company, and lines like, “You’re good. You’re very good”.
But, what about Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles and their clue-finding pup Asta, Mike Hammer, Jake Gittes – snappy snoops all; tough, relentless, with a curiosity that won’t quit. These guys will stop at nothing in getting to the bottom of things, sorting out the details, finding out exactly who killed whom, and why.
In alphabetical order:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Alfred L. Werker 1939
The best of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes/Watson capers, from Fox and Darryl Zanuck. Holmes and Watson again do battle with that criminal genius, Professor Moriarty, nicely played here by George Zucco. And, this one’s got the fabulous Ida Lupino to add a bit of heat.
Moriarty has a plan to make off with the Crown Jewels, but Holmes stands in his way. Juicy Holmesian dialogue like:
Holmes, “You’ve a magnificent brain, Moriarty. I admire it. I admire it so much I’d like to present it pickled in alcohol to the London Medical Society.”
Moriarty, “That would make an interesting exhibit. Holmes, you’ve only now barely missed sending me to the gallows. You’re the one man in England clever enough to defeat me. The situation has become impossible.”
Holmes, “Have you any suggestions?”
Moriarty, “I’m going to break you Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late. That will be the end of you Mr. Sherlock Holmes. And when I’ve beaten and ruined you then I can retire in peace. I’d like to retire; crime no longer amuses me. I’d like to devote my remaining years to abstract science.”
Crafty direction by Alfred Werker, and a solid screenplay by Edwin Blum and William Drake. And, lovely black and white cinematography by Leon Shamroy.
The Big Sleep
Howard Hawks 1946
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe finds himself in a nest of vipers, as usual, in this brilliant, if a bit confusing, film noir. Howard Hawks, probably Hollywood’s best dialogue director, has
a field day, juggling juicy lingo penned by an incredible writing team that included William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman, and Hawks himself. The problem is, the story makes no sense. But, who cares, with Bogie as Marlowe, and Betty Bacall as a devious femme fatale. The now-famous jockey/horse-Bogie/Betty scene, filled with hilarious sexual innuendo, was added to the troubled production over a year later to spice things up. A solid cast, including a surprisingly sprite Dorothy Malone, makes this movie work, even if you may have trouble understanding what’s going on. Nice black and white lensing by Sidney Hickox, and a haunting, if sometimes abrupt, musical score by Max Steiner. I’ve seen this picture an embarrassing number of times, but for you, once should be enough – but see it!
Best scene: Bogie and Malone in the book store.
Roman Polanski 1974
“C’mon Jake, it’s Chinatown”, pleads Gittes’s friend, attempting to drag him away from the horrific car scene at the very end of the film. “Chinatown” means what you think, but it’s also an old expression meaning crazy, upside-down, or meshuganah – something best left alone. This is may be the best period film ever
made, and Polanski does it without the usual cheap tricks like historical references. He does it instead, with a fabulous cast, John Alonzo’s scorched cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s luscious score, Anthea Sylbert’s glamorous costumes, and Robert Towne’s Oscar winning screenplay. It’s all about water – Los Angeles doesn’t have any. And the Hollis Mulwray character is based on William Mulholland, the brilliant head of LA’s water department, who turned this parched patch of Southern California into the metropolis it was to become.
Jack Nicholson, as Jake Gittes, a private eye who makes a living on matrimonial cases, is sucked into a noirish whirlpool, where virtually nothing is as it seems. Polanski does a masterful job of slowing down Nicholson’s usually manic delivery, turning the performance into something more sensual and cunning. Faye Dunawaye is elegantly deceitful, and Polanski himself, plays a murderous knife wielding midget. But it’s John Huston’s Noah Cross that steals the show.
One of my all-time fave films. If anyone reading this hasn’t seen it, you’ll probably find a disc at your local library. Delicious sleuthing.
Best scene: Anything with John Huston, and “My sister – my daughter, my sister-my daughter, my sister AND my daughter.”
Farewell My Lovely
Dick Richards 1975
This is the third and, in my opinion, best movie made from Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel. As I’ve previously stated, Philip Marlowe is my favorite Private Eye and, although Bogie was near-perfect in The Big Sleep, Robert Mitchum is even better, as a big, hulking Marlowe, who seems constantly recovering from a whack on the noggin, or the woozy effect of the knock-out drops that some swell dame slipped in his drink. Unlike Polanski’s Chinatown, director Dick Richards uses the historical reference of Joe Dimaggio’s 57 game hitting streak throughout the movie to maintain a feel for 1940 period. OK, so it’s a gimmick, but a forgivable one – it works. Come to think of it, just about everything in this movie works. Great Chandler narration like, “I’d hardly reached the corner, when a hand so big I could of sat in it, landed on my shoulder”. Besides a wonderfully effective Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling provides the heat in a cast rounded out by John Ireland and Sylvia Miles. There’s even a quick glimpse of Sly Stallone in one of his first movie roles. Dark and sultry lensing, once again by John Alonzo, and a delicious musical score by David Shire make this recreation of 1940 Los Angeles believable. If you can find a DVD of this – pounce.
Kiss Me Deadly
Robert Aldrich 1955
No more Mr. Nice Guy – not with Mickey Spillane’s brutal, tough, take-no-prisoners Mike Hammer on the case, and in this case, the case is a box – Pandora’s Box, filled with nuclear material ready to go off. Ah, the Fifties, when every right-thinking American had the A-Bomb on his mind, 24 hours a day. An apocalyptic murder mystery? You bet, and Mike Hammer’s the right guy to put the pieces together. A nice turn here by Ralph Meeker, as the Private Eye with an attitude problem. And the movie debuts of Cloris Leachman, and Maxine Cooper
On a lonely country road, Hammer gives a ride to Christina (Cloris Leachman), an attractive hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat. She has escaped from a nearby mental institution. Thugs waylay them and Hammer awakens in some unknown location where he hears Christina screaming and being tortured to death. The thugs then push Hammer’s car off a cliff with Christina’s body and an unconscious Hammer inside. Hammer next awakens in a hospital with Velda (Maxine Copper) at his bedside. He decides to pursue the case, both for vengeance and because, “She (Christina) must be connected with something big”.
“The great whatsit”, as Velda calls it, at the center of Hammer’s quest, is a small, mysterious valise that is hot to the touch and contains a dangerous, glowing substance. It represents, of course, the 1950s Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb that was all the rage back then.
A dark, noirish nightmare, deftly handled by director Aldrich. Murky, night time Los Angeles locations, made to shine by cinematographer Ernst Laszlo. This is a low budget ($400,000), no nonsense, first rate film noir, with a game cast, and a savvy director. A film not to miss.
Otto Preminger 1944
OK, I know, I know – it’s not a private eye movie, it’s a cop caper, but it’s Laura, the one and only, and this is MY list so it’s just tough. We have to get past this. Good.
A detective (Dana Andrews) investigating the grisly murder of a famous actress (Gene Tierney) falls in love with her painting. The more he hears about her, the deeper his spell. (I’d do the same thing if that music followed me around all the time) Everyone Andrews interviews seem to be in love with her too. Venomous gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) seems to be the late Laura’s biggest booster. Her grief stricken fiancé Shelby (Vincent Price) is beside himself. Just who would kill such a beloved creature? Just when the audience settles in to accepting lovely Laura’s demise, plot twist of plot twists, the door to her apartment opens, and in walks, you guessed it, Laura, live and lovelier than ever. Andrews, who had fallen asleep on the couch under Laura’s portrait, is awaked to find his obsession, alive and kicking, and wondering what this stranger is doing in her apartment. As Andrews adjusts to this new situation, he finds the living Laura to be everything he’d hoped. But, who was the disfigured corpse, who everyone mistook for Laura? It turns out that Lydecker’s obsession with our leading lady got the better of him. If he couldn’t have her, he’d kill her instead. But he shot the wrong woman, and she was too disfigured to identify, so everyone assumed it was Laura’s body. A living Laura is just too much for Lydecker to accept, so he tries once again to kill her. Andrews intercedes, shooting the murderous Lydecker in the knick of time. As Waldo lies dying on Laura’s carpet, and of course under the portrait, his last words are, “Goodbye. Laura. Goodbye, my love.”
It sounds pretty silly, but it works. Tierney is simply too beautiful to believe, and a game cast does wonders with this material. But, maybe the most important element, the glue that binds this classic together, is David Raskin’s haunting, memorable musical score – one of the real champs. I wonder what happened to the portrait?
The Maltese Falcon
John Huston 1941
This 1941 Warner Brothers release is the third movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. The first, released in 1931, starred Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, while the second, Satan Met a Lady, was a loose adaptation that was a bit more comedic. It was released in 1936, with Warren William, and a very young Bette Davis in the leading roles. Warner Brothers had been prevented from re-releasing the 1931 version by the Hays Office censors, because of its “lewd” content, so they went into production in 1941, on a new, cleaned up version, which is the beauty we all know and love.
First-time director John Huston wanted Bogie to play Sam Spade, but producer Hal Wallis wanted veteran leading man George Raft, who rejected it because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director. Raft also turned down the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “High Sierra”, the film that launched Bogie’s career as a leading man.
So, is The Maltese Falcon the ultimate private eye caper? You be the judge, but if it’s not, then it’s certainly close. Warner’s had the best ensemble of character actors in Hollywood, and most of them strut their stuff here. Beyond Bogey and Mary Astor, there’s Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sidney Greenstreet as Gutman, Barton MacClane and Ward Bond as Spade’s detective buddies, and Lee Patrick as Effie, who Spade addresses as “Precious” and “Darlin”. Huston even hired his father Walter, to play the ship’s Captain.
Whose got the bird, is the game played here. What exactly IS this Maltese Falcon, anyway? And why is it worth so many murders? Astor wants it, Greenstreet wants it, Lorre wants it, and the body count is mounting. Juicy, nest of vipers stuff here, and Huston is up to the task of getting the most out of this remarkable cast. A solid, tangy screenplay, written by the first-time director, nice dark lensing by Arthur Edeson, and a warm musical score by Arthur Deutsch. A bird for all seasons.
“You’re good. You’re very good”, say’s Bogie to Astor, and who among us could argue?
Murder, My Sweet
Edward Dmytryk 1944
This is the second movie made from Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely novel, and has a very different feel from the 1975, and third remake, above. The powers that be at RKO thought that changing the title to Murder, My Sweet would add some zip the film’s box office. Who knows, but the film did well.
Casting crooner Dick Powell in the Marlowe role was a gamble, but he’s an effective, if different gumshoe. With a small budget to work with, and 1944’s censorship problems to overcome, Dmytryk does an admirable job creating a dark, violent world for Marlowe and his cronies to inhabit. Nice turns by Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Otto Kruger. And, solid black and white camerawork by Harry Wild, plus a low-key musical score by Roy Webb rounds out the production. Powell is surprising here, and worth a look. Like Alec Guinness as George Smiley, when I read Chandler, I hear Mitchum’s voice, but Powell gives us an alternative.
Murder on the Orient Express
Sidney Lumet 1974
Agatha Chistie had been quite displeased with some film adaptations of her works made in the 1960s, and accordingly, was unwilling to sell any more film rights. When Nat Cohen, chairman of EMI Films, and producer John Brabourne attempted to get her approval for this film, they felt it necessary to have Lord Mountbatten of Burma (of the British Royal Family and also Brabourne’s father-in-law) help them broach the subject.
In the end, according to Christie’s husband Max Mallowan, “Agatha herself has always been allergic to the adaptation of her books by the cinema, but was persuaded to give a rather grudging appreciation to this one.” Christie’s biographer, Gwen Robyns, quoted her as saying, “It was well made except for one mistake. It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest moustache in England — and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity — why shouldn’t he?”
Hey, Finney’s waxed lip-rug worked for me, but so did everything else in this dazzling film. I’m not the biggest fan of star vehicles, but Sidney Lumet somehow coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, and probably black-mailed this extraordinary ensemble of show business luminaries into one remarkable performance after another. Finney is a fastidious, almost effeminate Poirot, surrounded by a passenger list that includes (I’m going to name them all because it’s just such an amazing group) Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam, Rachel Roberts, Wendy Hiller, Denis Quilley, Colin Blakely, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and George Coulouris. And, their performances are all uniquely effective, and totally entertaining.
A complex Agatha Christie mystery, in the hands of a neurotic, self-involved detective, on the world’s greatest train, with a trainload of odd characters as suspects. Top notch lensing here by the masterful Geoffrey Unsworth, a lovely, waltzy score by Richard Rodney Bennett, and Lumet’s crafty direction make this memorable.
A throaty Finney, “Touch notheeeeeeng”
John Gielgud as a British valet, “It all started in a fracas in the mess, over a desert called “Spotted Dick”
Igrid Bergman as a Swedish missionary to Africa, “I vont to, um, help little brown babies, who, um, are less fortunate than, um, myself”
The Thin Man
W. S. Van Dyke 1934
Dashiell Hammett’s crafty couple Nick and Nora Charles are on the case here, in the original of, what would become, a series of detective capers. They’ve even got a snoopy, clue-fetching dog, Asta – played by a wire haired fox terrier named Skippy. Nick (William Powell), a retired detective, and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) are attempting to settle in to retirement when the disappearance of a friend pulls him back into professional snooping. Nick decides he’ll solve the case, much to the amusement of his socialite wife. The dead bodies, and empty martini glasses pile up, as an ever-tipsy Nick and Nora, endlessly clever banter at the ready, roll up their sleeves, along with their pup, and do some slippery sleuthing.
All of the suspects are invited to a hilarious dinner party, where Nick and Nora, in a series of brilliant, if tipsy, deductions, solve the mystery. Clever dialogue, written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, and deftly delivered by two pros, drives this unique, comedic mystery. Sparkling black and white lensing by James Wong Howe, and strong ensemble work by Metro’s talent pool make this a movie not to miss. Funny doings.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
She had breasts the size of basketballs.
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
My new friend Jimmy’s family had recently moved to the Gardens from Brooklyn. His father was a famous theatrical photographer who took pictures of movie stars. They lived in an enormous Tudor house on Greenway South, one on the nicest streets in the Gardens where I began to spend a great deal of time. One day Jimmy asked me if I had ever touched a breast. Other than the pictures I saw of Eddie Mann’s mom, I had never even seen one. He told me that he had touched a breast, and if I was interested, he could arrange for me to touch one too. Jimmy had a neighbor named Salvatore, who lived just down the street, and Salvatore’s family had a black maid named Jessie who, for fifty cents would let you fondle her breasts for five minutes. “And they’re really big too”, Jimmy added. This was a shocking revelation. Breasts. Actual breasts. You could touch them and even kiss them, and all for fifty cents. I was nervous but game, and Jimmy made the arrangements.
“What do you do with them?”, I asked. “Anything you want”, said Jimmy. “But why do I want to touch them?” I’m nervous now. “Because they’re beasts, stupid”.
Salvatore lived in a big brick house just down the street from Jimmy. Jessie, the maid lived in a room over the garage, and Salvatore, with Dolphy Maggiore in tow, met us outside. We hid our bikes in the bushes behind the house. Salvatore was very concerned that everyone had their money in their hands because Jessie could get ornery and make a fuss. As Salvatore opened the outside door to the stairway that led to Jessie’s room there was a horrible smell, something I had never smelled before, and it became worse as we climbed the stairs. A smell of something burning. A pungent, rancid smell. Salvatore knocked on the door. “Who?”, came from the other side. “It’s me”, said Salvatore. “Well c’mon honey, I ain’t got all day”. The door opened, and inside, sitting in front of a large mirror, applying hot irons to straighten her hair, was the biggest, fattest black woman I had ever seen. She spoke to us through the mirror. “You chilluns got my jingle?” she asked. Salvatore made a gesture that suggested giving her the money, so we did. At this point she let the robe she was wearing slip to her waste revealing huge brown breasts the size of basketballs, to the amazement and delight of the white chilluns. “C’mon now, don’t be shy. You got five minutes. Love’m up. C’mon now, love’m up”. With hesitation, fearing the unknown but mesmerized by the possibilities, the little fingers of the white chilluns
reached for the huge, soft, brown basketballs, while Jessie applied the hot irons to her singed hair, creating an unbearable smell, and Symphony Sid’s radio theme song wafted through the smoke, and all I could think of was how I could tell this in confession on Saturday.
© 2011 Shaun Costello
IN SHERMAN’S GARAGE
She Looked So Peaceful
By Shaun Costello
Excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir:
THE LAST TIME I SAW JESUS
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
The Kew Forest School was located right on the border between the Forest Hills Gardens, and Kew Gardens, the next community to the East. Their student body was made up of a pretty even smattering of Protestants and Jews, with a few recovering Catholics thrown in for good measure. It was a small, secular, private school, attended by students from all over the borough of Queens. My friend Jimmy went there, and the Bullock twins, the Baxter brothers, Jeff McGann, Frank Sperandeo, and several other kids I knew from the Gardens. It was the kind of institution that was completely outside my experience. There was no hitting, no statues with internal organs showing, no threats, no Sousa marches, no praying, no music room/punishment chamber, and no promise of the eternal agony of roasting in the fires of hell for the egregious crime of talking on line. I don’t think they even had a line. A very mysterious place.
Knowing their route home from school, I would sometimes intercept Stuart and Stephen Bullock, and the three of us would cruise the Gardens on our bikes for a while before winding up at their house for a snack. I liked the Bullocks. They were my size, had the same coloring, were totally unchallenging, and were even worse at sports than I was. Sometimes it was comforting to wallow in the company of compatible mediocrity. My friend Jimmy, on the other hand, who was a constant mental challenge, was good at everything. He was the best natural athlete I had ever seen, the best tennis player his age in the borough. The first time he ever picked up a basketball in his life I saw him make six shots in a row from the foul line. Six shots. It took me a year of daily practice before I even came close to that. He was just better than I was at everything, and probably always would be. He was my best friend, but sometimes I needed a short respite from constantly coming in second, and the Bullock twins were just what the Doctor ordered. The boys were funny, their parents were welcoming and friendly, and the whole after school experience at their house was pretty positive. When it was time for me to return home, we said our good-byes, and made plans for a repeat performance the next day.
It was about a five-minute bike ride from their house to mine, and riding a bicycle around the Gardens was one of the best things about living there. There was very little traffic, and after a while you got to know most of the residents, so that people would wave to you as you cruised by. After collecting waves from Mrs. Watson, and Doctor Kauer, I passed by Sherman Becker’s house, and there was old Sherm, sitting on a bench next to his garage. The word on Sherman Becker was that he was some kind of genius. He went to a special school in Manhattan for kids with extremely high IQ’s and, although a bit strange, he was a nice enough kid to be around. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence Sherman would drift off to some place far away, and just stare at nothing that was visible to anyone else. I never saw it, but kids told me than Sherman had seizures, where his whole body would shake, and he would fall on the floor and try to swallow his tongue. He had an illness called Epilepsy, and had to take medication that sometimes made him moody. “Hey Sherm”, I yelled, as I cruised by, but he didn’t seem to notice me, and I continued on down the street. After a few blocks I stopped. Something was wrong. Sherman looked like he was doing one of his, “staring into oblivion” routines, and if his parents weren’t home maybe it was dangerous, so I turned abound and headed back to his house.
He was sitting on the bench next to his garage, and just staring into space. I had seen him do this many times and, sooner or later, he would just snap out of it. I tried talking with him, but got no response. Sherman was somewhere far away, and I’m sure he had no idea that I was even there. It was at this point that I became aware of a noise. A humming, mechanical sound, like a car motor, but very quiet, like it was far away. But it wasn’t far away. It was in Sherm’s garage, and with the doors closed you could hardly hear it. The Sisters had shown us safety films at school about the dangers of running a car inside a garage. There was some kind of gas that put you to sleep, and you never woke up. So the logical thing seemed to be for me to open the garage doors and somehow turn the car off. I opened both of the large front doors, and the smoke inside was a silvery color, and had a gasoline smell. There was a small back door to the building so I ran around and opened it, thinking that the breeze would blow the poisonous fumes from the garage.
I stood there, waiting for the fumes to clear so that I could somehow shut the car off, when I saw it. There was something or someone in the car, behind the steering wheel. I froze. As the breeze blew the silver smoke past me I could see that it was a person. All I knew was that I had to turn the car off, so I covered my nose and mouth and ran for the front door on the driver’s side. I opened the door to reach for the keys when I came face to face with Mrs. Becker. I gasped and flew backwards, crashing into the garage wall. My lungs were expanding and contracting with such force that I could hear my breath over the din of the motor, and I could barely see through the tears. I was violently crying, not from sadness, but from shock and fear. I had to turn that car off, no matter what, so I opened the door again and reached across Mrs. Becker’s lap and fumbled with key, which was on the right of the steering column. Doing this bought my face inches from hers, and my whole body was trembling so violently that I couldn’t seem to turn the key. But then I did, and the motor stopped, and I was still only inches from Mrs. Becker, and I could hear myself gasping for air. I wanted to say something to her. Maybe she was only asleep. She looked so peaceful. But my mouth wouldn’t move. The words wouldn’t come. Maybe she would open her eyes, and stretch her arms the way people do when they wake up, and look down at me and invite me to dinner. But she didn’t. She didn’t move. I realized that Sherm was still outside so I backed slowly out of the garage, never taking my eyes off Mrs. Becker.
Sherm hadn’t moved a muscle. His mind was occupying another world altogether, either because be was steeped in the denial of this horrible event, or because that’s just what his mind sometimes did. There was no 911 back in the fifties. Emergencies were reported to the telephone operator, who then forwarded the information to the appropriate authorities, so I dialed “O”. When she answered I said that my name was Sherman Becker, told her the address, and that there had been a terrible accident, and I hung up. Outside I tried to communicate with Sherm, but had no success. He had no idea that I was there. I had done what I could do. I had tuned off the motor, and reported the tragedy, and the best thing for me to do was to get out of there before the police came. No one would ever know that I had been there. They would simply assume that Sherman turned off the car motor, called the operator, and then flipped out, which was pretty understandable under the circumstances. I just didn’t want to be involved in this.
I raced toward home as fast my legs could peddle, but after a while I came to a stop, dropped my bike, sat down on the curb and started sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the events of the past few minutes. Or was it longer? I had lost track of time. My lungs seemed near exploding, my breath gushing in and out, wheezing like an asthmatic gasping for air. I had seen dead people before on Wayne Baxter’s cadaver tour, but this was different. I knew Mrs. Becker. She had always been nice to me, and now she was dead. She wanted to be dead so she closed her garage doors, slid behind the wheel, turned on the motor, fell asleep, and then died, just like in the safety film we saw in school. But she didn’t look dead. Not like the translucent cadavers at the Fox Funeral Home. She looked like she was asleep. She looked so peaceful.
© 2009 Shaun Costello
Drowning Satan with Holy Water-boarding
By Shaun Costello
This story is excerpted from the manuscript of my childhood memoir;
“The Last Time I Saw Jesus”
Surviving God and Elvis in the time of ‘Duck and Cover’
Children, like sharks with blood in the water, or wild dogs who smell fear, can spot weakness a mile away, and will bide their time until the moment is right to pounce. Sister Lenore showed up one day at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, and became our teacher. She replaced Sister Saint Gerald, who was ill and had to be sent to convalesce wherever nuns went to do that sort of thing. Nuns never talked about themselves so, other than being our teachers, having incredibly clean fingernails, wearing rimless spectacles, enjoying hitting children with inanimate objects, and seldom smiling, we knew little about them. We knew that their order, The Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, came from Scranton Pennsylvania, but that’s all. I’m not even sure how we knew that, but somehow we did. So when Sister Lenore showed up that morning, the occasion was ripe for supposition.
Maybe she had been a missionary in darkest Africa, and was laid low with jungle fever, to be sent back to the States as a teacher. Maybe she toiled for many years in a convent dedicated to the glory of cleaning the toilets of the poor, and as a reward for always producing the cleanest bowl she was sent to our wonderful Parish. Maybe she worked as the personal assistant to the Pope himself, right there in Rome, but was caught with her fingers in the poor box, and was sent to teach at our school as punishment for her sins. We’d never really know for sure, but it was fun to pretend.
Anyway, here she was, so we’d just have to make the best of it. She seemed nice enough. Certainly nicer than that cranky Sister Saint Gerald, who was always coughing into a handkerchief, and swatting kids on the hands with rulers. She seemed friendly, eager to please, even helpful, but something was wrong. It was hard to put your finger on just what, but something was wrong with Sister Lenore.
The exorcisms began when, one morning, we found a Holy Water Fountain just inside the door to our classroom. Sister instructed us to dip our fingers in the sacred waters and cross ourselves before entering the classroom, a common practice when entering or leaving a church. She told us that little children have tiny demons inside them that cause bad behavior, and demons just could not abide the sacred, soul-cleansing waters. This level of demon control lasted for only a few weeks, before she began sprinkling Holy Water directly from a bottle onto the heads of the unruly little perps, whose behavioral irregularities were obviously a direct result of Satanic possession.
During playground conversations over the next few weeks among the core group of class troublemakers, of which I was certainly a part, we came to the conclusion that the woman was a fruitcake, and if pushed far enough, she was bound to crack. Since we knew that she was the only nun in the school who sprinkled water on misbehaving kids rather than swatting them with yardsticks, we figured it was safe to go on the attack.
So it began. Spitball wars, paper plane dog fights, strange messages from Satan that somehow wound up on the blackboard, demonic drawings left in her desk drawers, and the odd behavior of Jim Freeny, the class arch-criminal, whose whole body sometimes shook as a direct result of Satanic possession. For our new teacher, this was the beginning of the end. Sister would walk up and down the aisles spraying her students with Holy Water chanting, “You’re possessed, possessed by devils, possessed by Satan, possessed, possessed. It started as a muffled giggle, but Jim Freeny started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. The more he laughed, the wetter he became, as sister had singled him out as Satan’s host. She kept dousing him with the sacred fluids, and the wetter he got the louder he laughed, and the more she kept screaming at the devil to leave this child, until finally, frustrated to a point of holy rage, she cold-cocked Freeny with the Holy Water bottle.
So, Sister Lenore stood above Jim Freeny’s unconscious form, now lying in the aisle next to his desk, as fifty-nine little mouths silently hung open, stunned at what they had just witnessed, and wondering what would happen next, and she began to scream. She screamed out the classroom door, and screamed down the stairwell, and screamed all the way back to the convent, intensely watched by fifty nine sets of little eyes pressed against the classroom windows. Freeny was taken to the hospital with a concussion, and never admitted whether he was really unconscious, or just pretending, a subject of discussion for years afterward. The next day someone saw Sister Lenore, suitcase in hand, being helped into a sedan with Pennsylvania license plates. She was never seen again. Maybe she should have stayed in Africa. Accidentally wondering into a pride of lions had to be safer than teaching fourth grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs.
© 2009 Shaun Costello