|I just finished reading RIO by Doug Wildey, a graphic novel published by Comico in June 1987. The entire package, story, art, everything is by Wildey who was one helluva storyteller. Wildey (May 2, 1922-October 5, 1994) was perhaps best known as the co-creator of the legendary animated television series JONNY QUEST in 1964. If he had done nothing else in his career, that feat alone would earn Doug Wildey a measure of immortality.|
But Wildey was a terrific comic book artist whose work appeared all too infrequently over the years. He excelled at drawing westerns and RIO stands as his magnum opus. The graphic novel is told in three chapters and the story finds former gunslinger and outlaw Rio working for President U.S. Grant to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of buffalo by "hunters" sitting in passing locomotives. Rio gets crosswise with a wealthy railroad baron and is framed for murder after which he strikes out after the gunman who set him up. Rio crosses the trail of a cavalry troop led by an insane commander before finally finding his man in a lawless Mexican town just south of the border.
While reading RIO, I kept thinking that this material would make a terrific film starring either James Stewart, Randolph Scott or Clint Eastwood (take your pick). I also thought that Wildey's art at various times slightly resembles the work of Al Williamson, Gray Morrow and Jim Aparo. But make no mistake. Wildey was a true original, a vastly underrated comic writer and artist who was at the peak of his career with RIO. Highest recommendation.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
|My first encounter with American mystery writer John D. MacDonald (July 24th 1916-December 28th 1986) was in an English class I took in college. The class focused on mystery and suspense fiction and one of the novels on our syllabus was MacDonald's THE LAST ONE LEFT. I must confess that I only read the first couple of chapters of the book and found it boring. I didn't finish the book at the time (I did read it years later) but I still passed the course without really experiencing the work of John D. MacDonald.|
In the early 1980s, I read a book about how to write best-selling fiction by Dean Koontz. Throughout the book, Koontz sang the praises of John D. MacDonald over and over again. Since I wanted to learn how to write best-selling novels (something I've never done by the way, a write a novel of any kind), I decided to pick up a MacDonald novel and see what all the fuss was about.
I chose the then current Travis McGee novel, THE EMPTY COPPER SEA. MacDonald wrote twenty-one novels (each one with a color in the title) about "salvage expert" Travis McGee who lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. McGee takes his retirement in chunks and only works when he's low on funds. And he only takes a job in which something of value is missing under the consideration that he will retain one half of the value of said object as his payment.
I don't remember the specifics of the story but I was immediately hooked. MacDonald's characters, his vivid sense of place, his masterful plotting and above all, his authorial "voice" all won me over in an instant. I decided to start reading the rest of the McGee novels as well as the many non-series, stand-alone crime novels that MacDonald wrote.
I came to discover that as good as the McGee books were, MacDonald's other books were, in my opinion, better. Perhaps his most famous book is THE EXECUTIONERS, published in 1958. It was later filmed twice as CAPE FEAR. The first time in 1962 with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, and then again in 1991 by Martin Scorsese with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro (the 1962 version is the better of the two). Travis McGee was played by Rod Taylor in the film adaptation of DARKER THAN AMBER in 1970 and again by Sam Elliott in the 1983 made-for-television version of THE EMPTY COPPER SEA (Elliott was totally wrong for the character and the script relocated McGee from a houseboat in Florida to a sailboat in California!).
Over the years I managed to read the entire McGee series and most of MacDonald's other novels. And over that time, he became one of my all-time favorite authors. I had seen his books around for years before I ever read them and I always thought that, given the way they were packaged, the books were intended for an older, more mature reader than I was at the time. Reading the works of John D. MacDonald in the 1980s, I felt like a "grown-up" in many ways. The books are full of adult concerns like jobs, money, careers, business, crime, murder, infidelity, the environment, adultery, blackmail, alcohol and sex (among many other things). Those are all ingredients for cheap pulp trash but MacDonald took those elements and used them to craft exciting, engaging stories about mid-century America. MacDonald had something to say about our post-war consumer culture and the price of progress and prosperity on the men and women caught up in the angst and anxieties of a rapidly changing new age. You think MAD MEN is hot stuff? The novels of John D. MacDonald are the real thing.
Witness A KEY TO THE SUITE. Originally published in 1962, this novel was just reprinted in a handsome trade paperback by Random House, who has been bringing back most of the MacDonald catalog (both the McGees and the stand alones) over the last year or so. Kudos to the publisher for this long overdue move. The books feature introductions by Dean Koontz and Lee Child wherein both authors admit their debt to the works of MacDonald.
I read A KEY TO THE SUITE years ago but I devoured this new edition over the course of a week. I remembered the general plot of the story but I didn't recall the particulars so it was like reading a new book for me. The story takes place at a big business convention at a Florida hotel. Corporate hatchet man Floyd Hubbard has been sent to the convention by his bosses to gather information on one Jesse Mulaney, an aging, over-the-hill executive that the top brass want to get rid of. Mulaney gets wind of Hubbard's mission and sets a diabolical trap for him in the form of a very expensive, very classy and very beautiful call girl named Cory Barlund. The plan is for her to seduce Hubbard (a married man with two kids) and then cause a big scene in the middle of the convention that will discredit Hubbard and, hopefully, save Mulaney's hide.
But things don't go as planned. There are other plots and schemes in place amidst the drinking and whoring taking place at the hotel and two people are dead before it's all over. A KEY TO THE SUITE isn't a mystery novel. It isn't a crime novel and it's not your typical thriller (although MacDonald does an excellent job of building the suspense slowly and methodically). But it is a superlative novel full of insight into human nature, the ins and outs of big business, the desires of the heart and the flesh and the regrets of the soul.
If you've never read a John D. MacDonald novel, you now have a perfect opportunity to do so. The books are back in print and every one of them is worth reading. You can start with A KEY TO THE SUITE which gets my highest recommendation. But then, so do all of the books by the master, the one and only John D. MacDonald.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
|ARABESQUE (1966) (which I watched the other day), is one of those 1960s spy films that was influenced by both the then concurrent James Bond films and the works of Alfred Hitchcock. It's not as good as any Connery Bond film and it has far too much humor to justly compare to Hitchcock but the elements of each are there. |
To begin with, the title sequence was designed by Maurice Binder, who did the credit sequences for the Bond films. The swirling, brightly colored geometric patterns and shapes along with the Henry Mancini title track practically scream mid '60s spy fare. Director Stanley Donen had scored box-office gold with his previous film, CHARADE (1963) and much of what worked in that film is put to use again in ARABESQUE.
CHARADE had two beautiful leads in Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. ARABESQUE gives us Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. CHARADE was set in Paris, ARABESQUE in London. Both films have scores by Mancini and both films have plots propelled by McGuffins in the form of searches for something valuable that has gone missing (in CHARADE it's money, in ARABESQUE it's information).
ARABESQUE opens with a sequence set in an optometrist's office in which every shot looks like it was lifted from the BATMAN television series. Everything is slanted this way and that and we don't get a normally composed and framed shot until after this sequence is over. But even then, Donen doesn't let up with his visual tricks and gimmicks. Throughout the rest of the film, he constantly uses mirrors, lenses, glass tanks, chandeliers, television screens, and other reflecting and refracting surfaces to frame his action either on or through.
The story concerns an Oxford don, David Pollock (Peck) who is recruited by the prime minister of a middle eastern country (which is never specified) to infiltrate the organization of an Arab shipping magnate named Beshraavi (Alan Badel) and learn just what he's up to. Beshraavi (who wears dark sunglasses at all times) looks like the love child of Peter Sellers and Roy Orbison. Beshraavi wants Pollock to translate an ancient scrap of hieroglyphics under the belief that it contains important information (important enough to kill for as seen in the cock-eyed opening scene). Pollock finds that the house where Beshraavi lives is really owned by Yasmin Azir (the criminally beautiful Sophia Loren) who may or may not be everything she tells Pollock she is.
There are other factions that want the cypher and a mad chase ensues to get and keep the piece of paper, decipher it and figure out what it all means. Of course, Peck and Loren are forced to team up and go on the run together and there are multiple plot twists and turns before they discover the secret of the cypher. Hint: it has something to do with a piece of 1960s high tech called a "micro-dot" and an assassination plot against the aforementioned middle eastern prime minister.
Donen keeps thing moving and the plot is engaging enough. The screenplay by Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price is based on the novel THE CYPHER by Gordon Cotler and it insists on giving Peck a series of one-liners that just sound wrong coming from his mouth. Gregory Peck was an extremely accomplished actor but he wasn't good in light comedies. His whole demeanor was just too dignified and drenched in gravitas for him to believably lob one bon mot after another as he does here. The dialogue would have been much better suited to an actor better known for light comedy, such as Cary Grant. But since Grant had starred in CHARADE for Donen a few years previously, Peck (who had starred in another mid-1960s spy film, MIRAGE in 1965) was the choice. He's not terrible (how could he be, he's Gregory Peck!) but ARABESQUE isn't his best work.
But who cares about Peck's lame jokes when you've got the stunning Sophia Loren (in clothes by Christian Dior) to look at? ARABESQUE is pure eye candy, a relic of the swinging sixties that's worth seeing at least once.
Friday, February 28, 2014
|This morning I finished reading THE BIG SCREEN: THE STORY OF THE MOVIES by British film critic/historian David Thomson. Let me state upfront that this is hands down not only one of the best film books I've ever read, it's one of the best books (fiction or non-fiction) that I've read in years. Yes, it's that good.|
Thomson provides a history of film here but it's not a strictly chronological narrative of what happened and when. He digresses often and leavens the history with opinions. He leaves out a lot of films and filmmakers, gives a handful of paragraphs to some films, their directors and stars while other films and artists receive multiple pages of coverage. And it's not just film history that Thomson writes about. He makes space for "Muybridge, I Love Lucy, television as a whole, the money and the deals, pornography and video games, the cell phone, streaming, and all the things that make up the shapes on our screens."
That sentence is a guide to understanding Thomson's grand thesis that operates throughout the book. He's as much concerned with the types of screens on which we perceive these images, this interplay of light and shadows as he on the films themselves. Thomson's chief thematic concern is how we watch movies and what that watching does to us.
THE BIG SCREEN is beautifully written and there's not a boring passage to be found anywhere in the 525 pages of text. Thomson's prose is always elegant, engaging and compelling. You can agree or disagree with him about certain films and directors but you can't deny his deep seated passion for film. Thomson made me reconsider films I've seen many times, casting a new light and a fresh perspective on them which makes me want to revisit some of these works with new eyes, understanding and appreciation. He also made me want to see many films that I've never seen (witness my recent posting on Godard's BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)). In short, reading THE BIG SCREEN was like attending a two-month (that's how long it took me to read the book) seminar on film history with a very erudite and entertaining scholar presenting the material.
It's been almost forty years since I took my first film class in the spring of 1975 during my freshman year at the University of Texas. The textbooks we had for that class were dry, pedantic and dull but the films we saw were terrific. Once a week we were required to attend at least one film screening for class. I often attended other screenings of other non-required films if my schedule permitted it. The films we saw were rented 16mm prints, projected on the screen of Jester Auditorium on the UT campus. There was no such thing as home video in any format and the idea of downloading or streaming a film onto a computer or tablet was quite simply the stuff of science fiction.
Reading Thomson's book brought back to me those heady days of adventure and exploration when almost every film I saw was new to my eyes. I was learning both the history of the medium and how to watch a film. The movies, textbooks and lectures back then were of enormous benefit to me. I was a young and eager cinephile and I was falling deeply in love with movies. That love has waxed and waned over the years but it's still there. Reading THE BIG SCREEN recharged my cinematic batteries and rekindled the passion for movies that I've always had. As such, it served as a sort of new textbook for me proving that there's always something new to be learned about the subjects we care most about. I don't know that THE BIG SCREEN will ever be adopted into the curriculum of film schools as a canonical text but it should be. It's that good.
If you love movies, you must read THE BIG SCREEN.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
|Normally I'd cross against the light to avoid seeing any film that came out of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s. Why? Because I really didn't like the few New Wave films I have seen. I found them to be boring, slow moving, tedious, almost entirely devoid of plot and just not my cup of cinematic tea. But a recent event has given me pause to reflect and reconsider.|
That event is my reading since the first of this year THE BIG SCREEN by British film historian David Thomson. I haven't finished the 500+ page tome yet but when I do, I'll post a full review here. Suffice to say that thus far, my reading of Thomson has done two key things. First, it's made me think about films I've seen over the years in a new light and has made me want to see them again with this fresh perspective. Second, it's made me realize that although I've seen a lot of movies in my life, there are still many, many films that I have yet to see, among them, the majority of the films of the French New Wave and a lot of other foreign films. Maybe, just maybe, I'm missing something. Maybe, just maybe, these films are at least worth seeing once (or again, in a few instances). After all, my first exposure to these films came in the Film 101 class I took during my freshman year in college. That was in 1975. A lot has changed since then. So, armed with new information and a willingness to keep an open mind, I've decided to dip just the very tip of my toe into the vast ocean of world cinema.
I started by buying a used copy of BAND OF OUTSIDERS at Half Price Books. It was the Criterion Collection DVD of Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film so I knew that I would be seeing a very sharp transfer of the film along with the first rate supplemental materials that Criterion is known and admired for.
I watched the film the other day and to my surprise, I didn't hate it. I didn't love it either but I did admire what Godard accomplished and came away from the viewing experience with a dose of respect for the film and the director. Maybe there's hope for me yet!
BAND OF OUTSIDERS is loosely based on an American crime novel, FOOLS' GOLD by Dolores Hitchens and even though there is a robbery in the film, BAND is far removed from the typical caper crime film. Godard constantly subverted my expectations and either ignored or gave a new spin to the conventions of the genre. To call BAND OF OUTSIDERS a crime film is not entirely accurate. It can also be described as a drama, a romance, a comedy and a musical. In short, it's everything and anything that Godard wants it to be.
Two young ne'er do wells, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) entice a beautiful young woman, Odile (Anna Karina) into helping them commit a robbery in the house where she lives. That's the basic premise but instead of ratcheting up the suspense and showing us the painstaking planning and execution of the crime, Godard instead meanders down several different cinematic paths and takes his time getting to the crime. Among these digressions are the development of a romantic triangle between the three leads, a minute of silence (actually 36 seconds) in which all sound stops (no voices, no music, no ambient noise) because the characters decide to "have a minute of silence" and the film literally obeys their command, a foot race through the Louvre that takes nine minutes and forty-three seconds (a new world record, we're told) and the marvelous "Madison" scene in which all three characters perform a mesmerizing dance routine in one long, uninterrupted take. Oh, and there's an omniscient narrator (Godard) who makes comments about the action and provides background information but what he says doesn't always match what we're seeing on the screen.
Filmed entirely on location on the streets of Paris by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, BAND OF OUTSIDERS has the look and feel of a documentary. Coutard used hand held cameras in many of the scenes and he had to hang lights from the ceilings of interior rooms so as not to reveal light stands when his camera tracked continuously around in long, unbroken takes.The Parisian landscape is bleak, wintry and stark and odd off screen sounds and noises are frequently heard throughout the film. The robbery is finally committed and of course, as in almost all stories of this type, things go wrong. But Godard gives two of the characters a happy ending and promises that their adventures will continue in a forthcoming wide screen, full color film (which was never made).
But watching just the film was only part of my experience. I waded into all of the supplemental materials on the DVD and was extremely glad that I did. There's a visual glossary that enumerates all of the many film references, wordplay and in-jokes that Godard uses throughout the film (most of which I would have never got on my own). There's interviews with Godard, Karina and Coutard that recount both the making of the film and Godard's career in general. All of this information was of enormous benefit to me and I felt like I'd just attended a screening of the film with a very good film scholar on hand to expand and elaborate on what I'd seen.
BAND OF OUTSIDERS is one of Godard's best loved films by reason of it's accessibility. It's easy to watch and has some moments of genuine fun and cinematic dazzle. I wasn't blown away by it and I don't know that I'll ever watch it again but I did come away from the film with a healthy amount of respect and admiration for it and I can certainly recommend it to anyone looking to expand their cinematic horizons.