The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures, by Bosley Crowther (1967)
A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video, by David N. Meyer (1998)
Bosley Crowther reviewed movies for The New York Times from the early 1940’s to the late 1960’s. Such was his influence as a critic during those years that the producers of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde are said to have panicked over his negative review, fearing that it would cause people to stay away in droves. (They were wrong, of course.). I remember making my way up Fifth Avenue in New York City in 1967, stopping at Brentano’s, seeing this book, and buying it immediately – a large format soft cover book for the whopping price of $3.95!
Somehow, through forty years of frequently moving house (until 1987, when things finally stabilized), I have managed to hold on to this precious volume. It is currently somewhat tattered but still intact. Bosley Crowther’s astute and trenchant criticism (accompanied by marvelous black-and-white stills from the films he discusses) has contributed immeasurably to my lifelong movie-going enjoyment.
Leafing through The Great Films has brought back many memories. For instance, I recall that my mother could hardly wait for me to be old enough to see Camille (1936) with her. She was waiting for my romantic sensibilities to mature, I think. I’ll never forget watching it with her, and I’ll never forget Camille/Great Garbo dying in Robert Taylor’s arms as he cries out, “Don’t leave me, Marguerite!” I was in tears, as was my mother.
Here is Bosley Crowther on Marlene Dietrich’s performance in The Blue Angel (1929):
“The woman that Marlene Dietrich exudes in this dark, degenerate tale of the destruction of a German schoolmaster by a faithless cabaret girl is so far advanced beyond the limits of the sleek, husband-stealing vamps, the poignant, self-sacrificing mistresses and the shimmying bowlfuls of ‘it’ that so inadequately stated the attraction of women for men in silent films, it’s no wonder she caused a world sensation, launched Miss Dietrich on a fabulous career and became, as it were, the grandmother of a whole slew of notable screen sluts.”
Some of my other favorites from this book:
Finally, two films that I truly treasure:
Through a series of stunning images linked to a medieval knight’s despairing quest, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956) forces us to face the most fundamental questions of our existence – and dares us to find the answers.
A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video by David N. Meyer is a traversal of the dark world of film noir that is blessedly free of film school jargon. Meyer’s writing is witty and accessible, and he has a way of codifying the film noir sensibility that makes the appeal of this genre immediately understandable. (The book takes its title from a comment by Jean Luc Godard: “All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun.”)
From the introduction: “As purely an American art form as jazz or the Western, noir sprang from a specific set of social and creative circumstances: the end of World War II, the impact of European refugees on an American art form, the mainstream film studios’ need for a steady supply of low budgets, lurid pictures, and the ascendance of a particular writing style.”
Meyer is, of course, alluding to the clipped, highly stylized argot of the masters of hardboiled detective fiction.
Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane – all wrote stories and novels that were made into classic noir films. “The writers created heroes who dealt with spiritual crisis (caused by the emptiness of Amercian middle-class life) by alternating between emotional withdrawal and attack. The refugee directors preferred a more sardonic, alienated approach.” Meyer then concludes: “The combining of these sensibilities helped create one of the great creative outpourings in American history.”
Meyer goes on to expatiate on what he considers to be the defining themes of film noir:
“No good deed goes unpunished.
A detached, ironic view is the only refuge.
Crime doesn’t pay, but normal life is an experiential/existential straitjacket.
Character determines fate.
Though love might seem to be the only redeeming aspect of human existence, it’s not.
Kicks count for something.
The author proceeds to list seventeen titles – the “Noir Canon” – that best represent the genre. Among them are The Asphalt Jungle, Chinatown, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly, Laura, and of course, The Maltese Falcon. A more comprehensive list, with commentary and critique on each film, rounds out the book.
Some of my favorites among them:
And finally, a film that you could say transcends the genre by virtue not only of stunning performances by Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles but of terrific writing by Graham Greene: The Third Man.
[Left to right: Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Graham Greene]
Well, you’ll say, this is quite the collaborative effort, n’est-ce pas? Mais, bien sûr, is it ever! Williams has made her cottage dwelling into an hommage to Provence, that storied region of France beloved by so many. The odd thing – or, one of the odd things about this project – is that at the time that it was conceived and launched, Niña Williams had never been to Provence. So, the decoration of this house is meant to embody a sort of Provence of the mind.
(One mystifying aspect of this book had to do with the actual location of the “Illustrated Cottage.” I had to turn to a review source in order to find out that it’s in Denver.)
The murals are not simply scenes of the region; rather, with the assistance of trompe l’oeil artists Barb Fisher and Laura Chappell, Williams has fashioned a narrative, replete with various characters who have their own stories. We begin with a mural of the beautiful young Severine, in a dreamy contemplative mood. Then we see her out for a stroll with her her lover Robert. Other murals depict Maurice, an elderly gentleman, and his robust wife Celeste. Delphine is the French-American cousin. Nina herself appears toward the end of the tale, as does Ariane, the younger sister modeled on Williams’s own daughter.
In the introduction, Williams offers the following explanation:
“I planned the decoration from several points of view: house as autobiography; house as fairy tale; and house as French fantasy. Here I should state vehemently that the cottage is far from being a purist statement on French and Provençal design. Although some elements are French, the furnishings throughout are an extremely eclectic, personal gathering of art, antiques, and objects from all over the world assembled to suggest a story set in Provence.”
She adds that her design concepts were greatly influenced by the work of Swedish artist Carl Larsson:
It is very difficult to convey the riches of this idiosyncratic little volume without the accompanying visuals. In addition to the murals, there are photographs of the furnishings and accent pieces. The photography, like the cottage itself, is superb. The trompe l’oeil is so cunningly done, it is downright disorienting; there are times when it’s difficult to distinguish the real from the imaginary. I think that was part of the plan. If so, it succeeds brilliantly!
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso (1874) is a frequently seen example of trompe l’oeil painting:
For more examples of art that tricks the eye, see Wikipedia.
Oh, they’re back all right, the whole merry crew – at least, those who’ve managed to survive the murder and mayhem of the last several books in the series. On the law and order side, there’s Superintendent Colin Harpur and ACC Desmond Iles. They have, of necessity, a close working relationship, but it’s one that’s complicated by several factors. Iles lusts openly after Harpur’s 15-year-old daughter Hazel, while Harpur has, in the past, bedded Iles’s wife Sarah.
Actually Hazel Harpur is at the center of the drama in Girls because her boyfriend Scott Grant might be mixed up in a criminal enterprise. Despite all the craziness and inverted value systems on full display in this novel, as well as in all the others in this series, Harpur’s concern for his older daughter’s welfare rings absolutely true. That said, however, it’s Hazel’s younger sister Jill who gets the best lines. Here she is, engaging in flights of literary criticism while trying to explain to her father the nature of Hazel’s attachment to Scott:
” She’s worried. She’s scared for Scott, isn’t she? All right, you’ll say, Just a kid romance. But think of Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare. Many plays. This is also something I get at school.Don’t tell me they was old, Romeo and Juliet. And yet this was real love, bringing death. That’s why the play is what’s known as a tragedy, although they were young. The comedies of William Shakespeare are not comedies. They don’t make you laugh, only groan. But the tragedies are tragic and plenty of deads.”
Chief representatives of the criminal class are Mansel Shale and Ralph W. Ember. In addition to being a highly successful drug supplier, Ralph also owns a club called the Monty. He has high aspirations, does Ralph Ember, for both the club, his family, and himself. He wants the Monty attract a better class of clientele. In fact, he hopes one day to cut mob ties altogether and go legit. He currently lives in a country house, Low Pastures, which, being several hundred years old, possesses real lineage. He sends his daughters to a tony private school. He himself has been enrolled as a Mature Student at the local university. (He’s currently on leave from his pursuit of a degree there, however, while he and Mansel Shale sort out problems having to do with turf wars and outside “firms” muscling in on their extremely lucrative drug trade.)
Wacky behavior on the part of both the police and the crooks and bizarre dialog on everyone’s part are what sets this series apart. Situations arise that are both highly dangerous and completely outrageous. Outcomes are, for the most part, unpredictable. Each book is a wild ride, full of fun and menace.
There’s an excellent article in today’s Washington Post about Beowulf, the poem and the movie. Blake Gopnik is a writer whose coverage of the arts is unfailingly intelligent and perceptive. I am full of admiration for the fact that he studied this amazing masterpiece in the original Anglo-Saxon!
Several months ago, I read the Seamus Heaney translation and was struck by the utter strangeness of the world which I had unwittingly entered. Then I listened to the recorded version on the Naxos label of the Benedict Flynn translation, read by Crawford Logan. Ancient sagas like Beowulf were recited before they were written down, and listening to the poem is a different experience from reading it. I recommend highly the Naxos issue. I also want to take this opportunity once again to direct people to Benjamin Slade’s site, Beowulf in Steorarume (Beowulf in Cyberspace).
I have not seen the movie yet, but I’ll report back when I have…
I’ve written before about Inspector Morse, both the books by Colin Dexter and the television series. Now comes this delightful news item from Martin Edwards. How I wish I’d been one of the party that he accompanied to The Trout Inn! The Trout is located near Oxford, in Lower Wolvercote actually, as in TheWolvercote Tongue, one of my favorites from among the TV episodes. Morse/John Thaw can frequently be seen downing a pint at this idyllic spot on the River Thames.
As for Morse and More by Patricia Buchanan and The Oxford of Inspector Morse by Antony Richards, they can be purchased from The Inspector Morse Society.
One of the many joys of the Morse films is the way in which they are enriched and enhanced by music. This music is available on three discs, all of which I own. My favorite is Volume Three, largely because it features the stunningly gorgeous Andante movement from Brahms’s Sextet No.1, heard in the film The Day of the Devil. ( You can listen to this music on Amazon. ) I am in awe of chamber music, like this Sextet, that conveys the same power and majesty as a full orchestra.
In addition to orchestral music, chamber works, and opera from the Inspector Morse films, all three of the above-mentioned discs feature the original music composed for the series by Barrington Pheloung. It is always a pleasure, albeit a melancholy one, to hear Morse’s signature tune, with Morse code woven seamlessly into the melody.
[While trawling through the web for pictures of Barrington Pheloung, I happened upon this rather wonderful Inspector Morse Picture Gallery. ]
Of late, the news about trends in reading has not been encouraging. In a report released yesterday, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) reveals that in reviewing statistics set forth in over forty recent studies, it has found a decline in both leisure reading and test scores. Then there’s the recently released book Print Is Dead, by Jeff Gomez. (Oh, those thudding monosyllables!)
Finally, just as I was thinking, oh well, I’ll move to Britain, where they understand the sacredness of the printed word, I came across this disturbing editorial by William Palmer in a magazine I truly cherish, Literary Review. I beg you, fellow book lovers, read this article, entitled “Losing the Past.” I would dearly love to get your comments on this terrific essay.
But meanwhile…keep reading and sharing your love of books, through blogging, word of mouth, book clubs, and any other way you can think of!
In that spirit, here is a grab-bag of some of my favorite books and authors, from time past and recent years:
In a capsule review of William Trevor’s story collection A Bit on the Side (2004), I made a rather lighthearted reference to his new collection, Cheating at Canasta, which I had not yet read. I should have known better! To me, that title hinted at a possibly inconsequential or humorous event. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the title story, Mallory sits alone at Harry’s Bar in Venice, honoring a promise he made to his late wife Julia to visit once again the places they had always loved. He cannot help reminiscing about her long decline, during which he had kept up the charade of playing canasta with her. (The games had become a charade because she barely remembered how to play; at times, she barely remembered Mallory himself.) Despite his almost overwhelming sadness, Mallory is able to offer an oblique kindness toward a troubled young couple from America as they leave Harry’s Bar. His action, coming from the depths of his sorrow, may be their salvation.
The opening story, “The Dressmaker’s Child,” is about Cahal, a young auto mechanic who gives a lift to a Spanish couple who have come to the town to see a statue of the Virgin. The statue reputedly weeps real tears, and though this legend has been largely discredited, the couple want to see the statue anyway. On the way back, in the back seat, they begin to kiss passionately. Watching them in the rear view mirror, Cahal is mesmerized. He takes his eyes off the road for too long a time, with disastrous results. Not a crack-up – something worse…
In another story, “Olivehill,” a family transforms a large chunk of their property, part of a lovely old estate in Ireland, into a golf course. They must do this in order to hang on to their house and what little land remains around it. Each family member is to some degree appalled by the prospect of this this action, none more so than James, the patriarch of the family. James dies thinking that he and his wife Mollie have made a successful stand against the golf course. But they have not. For her part, Mollie is tormented by the question of what she owes to James’s memory.
Despite what this scenario might seem to bode, this is a loving family that is by no means riven by conflict. True, the two sons are prime movers in pushing the golf course scheme forward, but they are not happy about it and don’t pretend to be. Somehow, the shared anguish and resignation of both parents and children makes the story all the more poignant.
These tales are luminous and beautiful, but taken all together they are an almost unremitting chronicle of the pain of the human condition. For that reason, I could not read the collection straight through. I am reminded of the line from Julius Caesar that I have quoted before. It is from Mark Antony’s funeral oration: “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.” I also think of the expression from The Aeneid, “lacrimae rerum,” quoted by Penelope Lively in The Photograph.
Many Worlds, Many Portals II: “Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)
A while back, I ended a post with a reference to Celtic mythology, which had nothing to do with what I’d been writing about. I said I’d get back to the subject of the Celts and never did. Well – here it is again…
I have in my possession two wonderful Pitkin Guides on this subject. One is simply called The Celts; the other is Celtic Myths & Legends. What are Pitkin Guides? They are booklets on various topics related to Great Britain. Here are some other titles: The Black Death, Britain’s Kings & Queens, Dissolution of the Monasteries, Dungeons & Torture, Coats of Arms, King Arthur, and Jack the Ripper. As can be seen, they will, and do, tackle just about anything.
The Guides run to about twenty pages a piece. They are lavishly illustrated. Some, not all, provide brief bibliographies. The text is lively and accessible; I think they would be great for classroom use. Fleet Street Press* charges $6.00 a piece for most of the guides. So far I’ve amassed about thirty of them!
Anyway – back to the Celts. Here’s a quote from Celtic Myths & Legends: “In Ireland, there still exists a huge collection of ancient topographical stories, known as Dindshenchas (Landlore), that relate the mythology of the land itself – its trees, hills, rivers anf cliffs, each with its own tale of magic – and of the gods, goddesses and heroes of the Celtic people.” One of the beliefs was that there was another world, the Otherworld, to which one may gain entry at certain secret places, at certain times of the year. In ancient Rome, some believed that Britain itself was the actual location of the Otherworld:
“When the historian and geographer Procopius describes the island that he called ‘Brittia,’ he makes it clear that this is no ordinary place and tells how the fishermen of Brittany are called upon to ferry the dead across the sea to Cornwall. Although they can see nothing of their passengers, their boats are heavy on the way out but light and empty on the way home.”
And finally, there is The Matter of Britain…
[Left to right: The Lady of Shalott, by John Waterhouse; The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones; The Damsel of the Sanct Grail, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. For more art based on Arthurian legends, see the King Arthur Art Gallery]
I recommend Philip Freeman’s book The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts. The author relates the history of this endlessly fascinating tribe through the eyes of the Greek philosopher Posidonius. A bold and resourceful traveler, Posidonius journeyed deep into Gaul in search of the truth about the Celts. In antiquity, they were thought to be savages, possibly even cannibals, but the truth that Posidonius uncovered was something else altogether: “…the Celts were not barbarians, but a sophisticated people who studied the stars, composed beautiful poetry, and venerated a priestly caste known as the Druids.”
Philip Freeman, currently the Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College in Iowa, has an interesting CV. He was the first person to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard in the combined fields of classics and Celtic Studies. He is also a former visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.
I read The Philosopher and the Druids last year, and I’ve had the Pitkin Guides for several years. What has revived my interested in this subject is the discovery of some marvelously imaginative paintings by the Scottish artist John Duncan (1866-1945). Duncan is renowned as the foremost painter of the late 19th century’s Celtic Revival movement.
[Left to right: A Masque of Love, The Riders of the Sidhe, Saint Bride]
What, I wonder, accounts for the spell that Celtic lore and legend continues to cast over the collective imagination of the Western world?
*The address for Fleet Street Press is: Fleet Street Publications, PO Box 32510, Fridley, MN 55432. Fax number is 763-571-8292
In Quietly in Their Sleep* (1998), Donna Leon casts a gimlet eye on Venice’s Catholic hierarchy and doesn’t much like what she sees. Maria Testa, formerly Suor’Immacolata of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, turns up unexpectedly in Commissario Guido Brunetti’s office with concerns about the nursing home, or casa di cura, in which she was recently employed. She believes that the recent deaths of several residents were not “natural;” she further suspects that the priests and nuns who administer the facility have been manipulating residents into leaving them large sums in their respective wills.
Brunetti doesn’t realize it right away, but he knows Maria Testa – or rather knew her, as Suor’Immacolata. She had formerly worked in the casa di cura where his mother has resided for some time. A year ago, she had been transferred to another casa, the San Leonardo. By the time she appears in Brunetti’s office, she has not only left the San Leonardo, she has left the Sisters altogether.
Why has Maria Testa taken this drastic step? Because she was unable to get anyone within the administration to act on her suspicions regarding the elderly residents of the San Leonardo. She feels that this juncture, her only recourse is to request the assistance of the police from the vantage point of her new secular identity.
Brunetti has a deep regard for this young woman. She had been exceptionally kind to his mother, and he recalls vividly “…the depths of charity that had radiated from the nun’s eyes as she spoke….” With the help of the able and intelligent Inspettore Vianello, Brunetti sets about interviewing the various family members of recently deceased residents of the casa di cura, as well as some of the staff. He meets some interesting, largely unpleasant people. But he can find no evidence that a crime has been committed. He lets the investigation slide onto the back burner. Then something happens involving Maria Testa that changes everything.
The usual pleasures of this series are found in this novel. Chief among them is the depiction of Brunetti’s family: his wife Paola and two children Raffi and Chiara. This is a fortunate family that dwells, for the most part, in harmony. Their devotion and loyalty to one another is unfeigned. In addition to a still powerful sexual attraction, Paola and Guido Brunetti share a genuine marriage of true minds. Eavesdropping on their conversations is a real delight! I am awed by Donna Leon’s seemingly effortless success in describing a marriage that is both happy and fascinating.
Paola is a ferocious intellectual and – well, at times she’s just plain ferocious! But she always there to support her husband, especially when the going gets dangerous. And it does just that in Quietly in Their Sleep.
Of course, Venice in all its shimmering glory is present almost as another character, and an essential one. The city’s unique topography and illustrious history inform the lives and personalities of those who live and work there.
It’s interesting to read the Amazon customer reviews of this novel. While some readers liked it, others most emphatically did not. Those in the latter group primarily objected to what one reviewer called “anti-Catholic blather.” I have to say that as the narrative proceeded, Leon’s unremittingly negative depiction of the Catholic Church did begin to take on the characteristics of a screed. These characteristics could, and did, become annoying at times. Brunetti’s gracious recollection concerning Suor’Immacolata/Maria Testa, quoted above, was the only positive sentiment expressed concerning the church and its adherents. And while Brunetti’s personal philosophy has no place for any kind of organized religion, Paola is downright militant in her dislike, not to mention distrust, of Catholic officialdom.
Having said this, I have to admit that I did, for the most part, manage to enjoy this novel, primarily because I love Venice and I love spending time with the Brunetti family. I should also add that I was moved by Brunetti’s feelings of guilt and sadness concerning his elderly mother; Leon describes those feelings with great empathy and sensitivity. I don’t think Quietly in Their Sleep is Leon at her absolute best, and it’s certainly not in a league with Suffer the Little Children, which came out earlier this year. The title I would recommend to a reader just starting this series is the first Brunetti novel, Death at La Fenice. You may be pleasantly surprised by the relatively lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek writing as well as the vivid description of the music scene in Venice.This title remains one of my all time favorite international mysteries.
*Quietly in Their Sleep has also been published as The Death of Faith.
Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)
Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). In Scottish Art (Thames & Hudson, 2000), Murdo Macdonald tells us that “Raeburn creates an enduring icon of Scottish musicianship in this portrait of a fiddler whose music is still played today.”
Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn
Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn. Again, Macdonald: “This work is both a brilliant essay in the properties of reflected light and a portrait not just of two people but of a relationship.”
We’ve come a long way from the Towie Ball…