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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Bird-Watching

What I’ve Been Watching: Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Who’s Responsible: Sydney Pollack (director), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel (screenwriters), Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Cliff Robertson (stars).

Why I Watched It: I like to revisit it periodically.

Seen It Before? Yes, several times.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 7.

And? Joe Turner (Redford) is a mild-mannered CIA analyst who returns from buying lunch for his colleagues at the Manhattan brownstone housing their front, the American Literary Historical Society, only to find that they have been brutally gunned down during his brief absence. For years, I have argued that those who considered Redford too much of a pretty boy to be taken seriously as an actor would do well to study his reactions here, as they escalate from shock and horror to fear for his own life and the grim determination that he is not going to be next. This sequence is a tour de force in many ways, but for me at least, the film falls into the unusual trap of never living up to those first twenty minutes.

Turner’s job is to read omnivorously, sifting through novels and articles and feeding them into a computer in search of security leaks or new ideas, and he has recently run across a mystery novel with a very curious publication history. It’s now clear that his dismissed report struck a nerve somewhere in Langley, having unwittingly uncovered something worth wiping out the ALHS, and Turner—code-named Condor—is instantly suspicious when he speaks with Deputy Director Higgins (Robertson). These suspicions are in no way allayed when his last surviving colleague, who called in sick, is killed in his home, and an attempt to bring Condor in from the cold, via a rendezvous with his section chief and an old friend, goes south in the worst way, with Turner framed for his friend’s death.

A lethal game of cat and mouse ensues as Turner, unable to trust anyone he knows, forces himself into the company of a total stranger, Kathy Hale (Dunaway), first to take refuge in her home and then, as they establish a gradual rapport, to enlist her active assistance. The very fact that Turner is an analyst rather than a field agent gives him an unexpected advantage, both because of the arcane knowledge he has assimilated over the years and because his status as an amateur makes his moves unpredictable. With Kathy’s help, he moves back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C., as he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and avoid getting killed by Joubert (the great Max Von Sydow), a freelance assassin and sometime Company employee who oversaw the hit on the ALHS.

Although I have qualified admiration for this film, I damn it with faint praise by saying that it’s my favorite among the seven that Redford made with Pollack, ranging from the classic Out of Africa (1985) to the soporific Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and the unbearable The Way We Were (1973). If you said that their joint filmography did not augur well for a spy thriller, you’d be right, and my primary objection to the opening sequence is that the main-title theme by Dave Grusin (a lightweight if ever there was one) is too upbeat for the mayhem to follow. Likewise, by the time he shot Condor, Owen Roizman was already the cinematic poet laureate of ’70s New York for The French Connection (1971) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), yet this Manhattan lacks their edge.

It’s interesting to note that the screenplay tries to amp up the tension by halving the time-frame in James Grady’s 1974 source novel, Six Days of the Condor, and the filmmakers were clearly going for a Hitchcock vibe with that whole “an innocent man running for his life must earn the trust, and the heart, of a random woman” thing. But sadly, my lifelong antipathy for Dunaway—whose films such as The Three and Four Musketeers (1973 and 1974), Chinatown (1974), and Network (1976) I loved in spite of, rather than because of, her—blinds me to any chemistry they might have achieved. By the way, I wrote my very first press release for Grady’s 1985 novel Hard Bargains, and he was very kind to a wet-behind-the-ears publicity assistant at his first real job (at Macmillan) in the big, bad city.

Overall, I found the film a little too slick for its gritty subject matter, which is perhaps not surprising coming from impresario Dino De Laurentiis, but Von Sydow predictably tries to make the most of his limited role, and I suppose that Robertson, who always seemed a little sketchy to me, is well cast as a guy who may or may not be trustworthy, interacting nicely with boss John Houseman. This is certainly one of the better efforts from Semple, whose work oscillated from the height of the superior political thriller The Parallax View (1974) to the depths of Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983); Rayfiel worked on the Elmore Leonard adaptation Valdez Is Coming (1971). Someday, I’ll have to compare this with Grady’s book and check out his 1978 sequel, Shadow of the Condor.

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Hat Trick

Lord knows, I don’t have time to do this justice tonight, but the way things are going lately, I’d rather get at least a provisional word out while it’s fresh in my mind, and then build on that later if and when the opportunity arises.  I’ve just become aware of a wonderful blog, Tipping My Fedora, whose author, Sergio, describes it as “Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media,” which—needless to say—I do, too.  I became aware of it in the nicest possible way when Sergio, who was reviewing the early Hammer film Wings of Danger, was kind enough to direct his readers to my series of posts on the late, great Elleston Trevor, who co-wrote the novel upon which the film was based.

Now, I appreciate a good plug as much as the next guy, but when I started to dip into the blog, I discovered that we have an astonishing array of interests in common, not least of which is a certain Mr. Matheson, who seems to be quite ubiquitous on Sergio’s site.  Just looking through his most recent posts, I see such familiar names and topics as Agatha Christie, Terence Fisher, Quiller, Dying Room Only, Fredric Brown, Sidney Lumet, Robert Culp, Vertigo, Evan Hunter, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Ray Bradbury, John Frankenheimer, No Way Out, James Bond…well, that’s plenty.  On top of that, he’s a big fan of John Dickson Carr, whose Dr. Gideon Fell mysteries I have loved since I was a kid, so start clicking!

And, speaking of plugs, check out my main man Gilbert Colon’s awesome piece on Person of Interest and the Dark Knight Trilogy at SF Signal.

Up next, when time permits, some thoughts on the passing of Herbert Lom.

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It’s Always About Mimi

I’m reading an excellent book by my Marvel University colleague Jack Seabrook entitled Martians and Misplaced Clues: The Life & Work of Fredric Brown (1993), despite the fact that I am as yet familiar with Brown’s work only through the occasional adaptation; his story “Arena” (Astounding Science Fiction, June 1944) was the basis for both the Star Trek episode of the same name and, arguably, the Outer Limits entry “Fun and Games.” Many of his mystery stories also appeared on television, most notably as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Cream of the Jest,” “The Night the World Ended,” “The Dangerous People,” “Human Interest Story“) and Thriller (“Knock Three-One-Two“). Relatively few of Brown’s thirty novels have been filmed, but one exception is The Screaming Mimi (1949), adapted in 1958 by future “Fun and Games” director Gerd Oswald and largely undistinguished horror/SF screenwriter Robert Blees.

One of the reasons I own a copy of the novel, and will one day do a comparison between page and screen, is that it is often said to be the uncredited basis for Dario Argento’s directorial debut, the seminal giallo film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). I’m not a particular fan of either Argento or gialli, but I certainly recognize their importance in the horror genre, and have long noted (not that I’m the only one to do so) that although Argento gets the lion’s share of the credit for popularizing the subgenre, he was in many ways simply following and elaborating upon the template established by Mario Bava—of whom I AM particular fan—in films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye, 1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). What’s especially intriguing in this case is that The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and many of Argento’s subsequent films all rely on a plot mechanism that Brown used in The Screaming Mimi.

Several of Brown’s mysteries hinge upon what Jack calls “the misplaced clue,” in which the “investigation centers on the vicinity of the murders until a point late in the novel, where [the protagonist] must travel out of town or out of state to discover something from the past that provides the missing link needed to solve the puzzle.” In The Screaming Mimi, on the other hand, protagonist Sweeney witnesses the aftermath of an attack on a beautiful blonde dancer by a serial killer known as the Ripper, only to learn later on (without giving away anything for those unfamiliar with the story) that what took place was far different from what he thought he saw. Not only Bird but also Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)—whose hero, like Sweeney, has a friend named “God”—Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Trauma (1993), and others utilize what might be referred to as “the misinterpreted/misremembered/forgotten clue.”

Jack’s book doesn’t mention the Argento connection, of which I first learned from my original 1990 edition of Fangoria contributor Maitland McDonagh’s since-updated Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, autographed by Maitland and Argento himself at a Film Forum appearance. But this essay by David Jacobs from S. Michael Wilson’s 2008 anthology Monster Rally, “Argento’s Big Rip-Off: Stealing Screaming Mimi,” documents it quite damningly; if the Google Books link doesn’t take you right to it, it’s on pages 217-225. The net result, of course, is that Argento—a former screenwriter who denied the aging Brown (1906-1972) proper credit or remuneration for the blatant use of his work—turns out to be even more derivative with his gialli than by merely ripping off Bava or, later (and endlessly), himself.

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Court of First Resort

You should all be so lucky to have a friend like Gilbert Colon.  In addition to being one of my biggest cheerleaders, he is—to quote his official bio—“a County Clerk’s Office employee,” in which capacity he first set out to promote my magnum opus, Richard Matheson on Screen, by interviewing me for the court newsletter Just Us.  Then, ever seeking a bigger venue, he beefed up the New York references we’d taken pains to include and arranged for the piece to be printed in The New York Review of Science Fiction, wherein I’d also published some Matheson reviews.

Fast-forward a few months to February, by which time Gil had taken up his cudgels on behalf of no lesser light than Douglas Trumbull, and written an impassioned article lamenting the fact that Trumbull had been passed over for an Oscar nomination for The Tree of Life, which he placed on the SF Signal site.  Lo and behold, less than three weeks later, he got them to run our interview, presumably ensuring its biggest exposure…so far.  If my ego really were as big as I profess it to be, I’d suspect he wrote the whole Trumbull piece just to establish a beachhead for Yours Truly.

Thanks, partner.

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Part of my “day job” as Copy Specialist for the PCS Stamps & Coins division of MBI, Inc. is to license images for use on our various collector panels and other products, so I had occasion today to contact the New York Public Library in that capacity for the first time. Lo and behold, the guy whose own day job is Manager of Rights & Permissions for the NYPL, Tom Lisanti, is not only a fellow McFarland author (e.g., Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach and Elvis Movies; Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films & TV 1962-1973), but also a fellow contributor to Cinema Retro whom I met in Manhattan at a delightful get-together for Retro writers hosted by our own “Dear Leader,” Lee Pfeiffer, at the Players Club (founded by 19th-century Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes) a couple of years back. Tom is a capital fellow who helped me with some advice while I was writing Richard Matheson on Screen, and duly appears in my acknowledgments. Those interested in the skull-splintering output of quintessential shlockmeister Larry Buchanan–and who isn’t?–will enjoy this article on Creature of Destruction from his website. Great to renew your acquaintance, Tom!

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Tailor Made

I had a lot of good food when the two Mrs. Bradleys and I visited my daughter in Washington, D.C., over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, where our whirlwind itinerary—with which the senior Mrs. B was hard pressed to keep up!—included the Washington, Lincoln, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, and MLK monuments, plus one building of the National Gallery. Some of said food was prepared by Alexandra herself, at the apartment Madame BOF found for her and boyfriend Thomas on Connecticut Avenue, with which they’ve done wonders during their relatively brief time there so far, and where she finally introduced the Moms to one of her favorite films, Moulin Rouge! But the best meal I had was a delicious helping of crow called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I’ve long called the 1979 miniseries based on John le Carré’s novel one of the best adaptations of anything, anywhere, ever, inspiring me to read the book, one of my Top 10, and most of his other adventures of “incongruous spy” George Smiley. I’ve watched Alec Guinness as Smiley in both the miniseries and its 1982 sequel, Smiley’s People, countless times, and despite running times of more than five hours apiece, I found them utterly riveting, to say nothing of flawlessly capturing le Carré’s characters and plots. So when I heard that this satisfyingly complex Cold War thriller was being boiled down into a two-hour feature—even one starring the formidable Gary Oldman and directed by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In fame—I was utterly aghast.

But then I heard about some of the other casting (John Hurt as Smiley’s erstwhile boss, Control, and Colin Firth as Bill Haydon), and I got a little encouraged, and then I read some of those rave reviews, and I started to wonder if they could really pull it off. So, is it as good or as rich as the miniseries? No. Does Oldman incarnate Smiley-as-flesh the way Guinness did, so successfully that le Carré said he could no longer write him without seeing Guinness in his mind? No. Did a superb cast and crew—including Oldman—bring to life a script (by a couple of which the wife, sadly, died before its release) that manages to distill the essence of le Carré’s epic of espionage, in the process creating a breathtakingly excellent film that is top-notch on all levels? Hell yeah.

Here’s the set-up: Control sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a Hungarian defector who will reveal the identity of a mole, or double agent, in the highest echelon of British intelligence (aka the Circus). The suspects are Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Haydon, and Control’s right-hand man, Smiley. When the report comes in that Prideaux has been shot dead, Control and Smiley are tossed out in favor of Alleline’s gang of four, but after Control dies and AWOL Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) resurfaces with a story about a mole, the reluctant Smiley is brought out of retirement by bureaucrat Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), who oversees the Circus, to pick up the trail where Control left off.

Smiley recruits Tarr’s boss, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a protégé of George’s whom the Alleline regime had shunted off to a backwater division called the Scalphunters, and Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a retired Special Branch man he’d met on an earlier case. He calls upon the memories of similarly disfavored Circus vets Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham)—an amalgam of the eponymous character and le Carré’s Sam Collins—and research expert Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) to help him sift through the facts and lies. Among the casualties of the shorter format are George’s serial-adulterer wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva), and nemesis, Karla, neither of whom we see in full, although in general, the screenwriters preserve that which is most essential to the tale.

Those in our party who had seen the miniseries felt that the film might actually appeal more to viewers already familiar with the story, who would appreciate the foreshadowings and nuances, but of course it’s impossible for us to see it through virgin eyes. And, aside from the inevitable compression, it was interesting to see the choices they made, with this version depicting or even creating some things the original did not; I only noticed two notable instances of stuff that I don’t remember from either the book or the miniseries, but won’t reveal them here. As with the show, there were many unfamiliar names and/or faces in the cast, though I recognized Jones as the guy who played Arnim Zola in Captain America, mostly because he looks like a Jack Kirby creation!

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Thirty Little Indians

Thinking—as we often do—of our friend Maria Towers, Madame BOF and I recently unwound after a hectic evening with the 1965 version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, produced by Maria’s late husband, Harry Alan Towers. Next to the Fu Manchu movies with Christopher Lee, this was Harry’s most durable property, which he remade in 1974, and again in 1989. Variously published as Ten Little Niggers and And Then There Were None, the title under which it was first adapted by René Clair in 1945, this ingeniously constructed 1939 whodunit is essentially bullet-proof, so that if you have a decent script (supplied in this case by Harry, under his Peter Welbeck nom d’écran, and Peter Yeldham), a good cast, and a competent crew, you can hardly go wrong.

That was certainly so here and in Peter Collinson’s ’74 version with Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Herbert Lom, former Bond villains Adolfo Celi and Gert Fröbe, and Maria herself. I can’t vouch for the widely panned 1989 version, shot in Africa by Alan Birkinshaw—who made two low-rent Edgar Allan Poe films during the same period—with its limited star power provided by Lom (in a different role this time) and Donald Pleasence. Interestingly, according to the IMDb, the ’89 version was originally supposed to have utilized the ending of the novel, which is downbeat but intellectually satisfying, yet ultimately opted, as did all earlier films, for the happier outcome Christie herself had devised for her 1943 stage version.

’65 director George Pollock was certainly no stranger to this territory, having helmed all four of the films in which Margaret Rutherford played Christie’s Miss Marple. Television vet Yeldham was a frequent collaborator of Harry’s, as was cinematographer Ernest Steward, who worked on the first two Fu Manchu films, as well as the cult favorite The Avengers and innumerable entries in the “Doctor” and “Carry On” comedy series. The jaunty score by Malcolm Lockyer—another Towers regular, who also contributed to Peter Cushing’s Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), Island of Terror (1966), and Island of the Burning Damned (1967)—takes a very different tack than the tingling 1974 music by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, keeping things light and breezy.

Soon-to-be love interests Hugh O’Brian and Shirley Eaton arrive at an Austrian house accessible only by cable car—subbing for Christie’s remote island, inaccessibility being essential—with six other guests and married housekeepers Mario Adorf and Marianne Hoppe. We learn that none of them have met their host/employer, “U.N. Owen” (get it?), and most were lured there under false pretenses, also largely strangers to one another. An audiotape in the uncredited but unmistakable voice of Towers mainstay Lee (succeeded by Orson Welles in ’74) accuses each one of causing a death that is beyond the reach of the law, and it soon becomes clear that the elusive “Mr. Owen” has brought them there to administer his own brand of justice by executing them for their crimes.

In each guest’s room is a copy of the titular nursery rhyme (“Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine,” etc.), forming a template for the m.o. of each killing, after which another Indian figurine is removed from the centerpiece on the dining-room table. The cable car is wrecked, taking the fleeing Hoppe with it, which renders escape or rescue impossible for the moment, and forces the guests to fall back on their own devices. When a search of the house proves fruitless, the survivors are obliged to conclude that Mr. Owen is one of them, and various stratagems are attempted to identify him (or her) while the guests weigh the veracity of the accusations against them, and the possibility that ’fessing up may save their lives.

Of the likable leads, O’Brian was television’s Wyatt Earp, later starring in Richard Matheson’s Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of his novel Ride the Nightmare, and the gorgeous Eaton, best known as the iconic “golden girl” from Goldfinger (1964), was reunited with Towers to play Su-Muru (like Fu Manchu a creation of Sax Rohmer). Fabian stretched himself to play a teen idol, while the exotic Daliah Lavi looms large in the BOF universe for Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963), the Matt Helm film The Silencers (1966), and the Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). Also featured were Stanley Holloway and Wilfrid Hyde-White, both of My Fair Lady (1964); the latter appeared in multiple Towers productions, as did Leo Genn and Dennis Price.

As usual, Christie’s Swiss-watch plotting is as much the star as any member of that name cast, even with the upbeat ending, and I won’t spoil the fun by either enumerating the various deaths or revealing the solution. Although it was not included in the print recently shown by TCM, the film originally included a device similar to the “Fright Break” from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961) or the “Werewolf Break” from The Beast Must Die (1974), in which the story pauses at the climax and a clock appears on the screen, ticking away to give the audience one last chance to guess the killer’s identity. But this well-produced mystery needs no such gimmick to make it work, succeeding on the merits of its premise and ensemble to offer a fine evening’s entertainment.

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