Category Archives: Movies

North by Northwest

North by Northwest is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films. Released in 1959, the movie tells the story of advertising executive Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken for a non-existent spy.

The story, written by Ernest Lehman, is breezy entertainment, a series of stylish set-pieces. The central plot revolves around a roll of microfilm. However, that microfilm – a McGuffin in the words of Ernest Lehman – is largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of the movie.

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Ernest Lehman made the story up as he went along and he freely admitted that occasionally he painted himself into a corner. However, he always managed to extricate himself, and his characters. The finest example of this is the scene where Eve Kendall, Eva Marie Saint, pulls a gun on Roger Thornhill, Cary Grant. If you look closely, in the background you will see a young boy, one of the extras, as he places his fingers into his ears before the gun goes off. Clearly, this was not the first take and the boy was anticipating the noise. Nevertheless, Hitchcock selected this take for the final cut of his movie.

North by Northwest developed from a series of conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman. Hitchcock wanted to make a movie that included a chase scene across the famous faces at Mount Rushmore, an idea Lehman liked. Another scene that developed from Hitchcock’s fertile imagination was the aeroplane chase scene across a barren landscape. For the best part of eight minutes nothing happens in this scene, but it is gripping nonetheless.

The casting is excellent with James Mason and Martin Landau suitability menacing as the villains. However, it’s interesting to note that Jessie Royce Landis, who played Roger Thornhill’s mother, was only one year older than Cary Grant at the time (!)

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Eva Marie Saint with Cary Grant in North by Northwest, 1959

The star of the movie, in my eyes, is Eva Marie Saint. She doesn’t appear until a third of the way into the movie, but from then on her combination of beauty, elegance and vulnerability is enchanting. One of her first lines is, “I never make love on an empty stomach.” However, the censors changed this to, “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” Watch her lips in this scene and you will notice the subtle difference.

While directing Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock offered the following advice, “Lower your voice, don’t wave your hands around, and when you speak always look into Cary Grant’s eyes.” Advice that, in the movie, works to stunning effect.

North by Northwest was the working title for the movie. At one stage the title of The Man in Lincoln’s Nose was suggested, but thankfully that was rejected.

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Alfred Hitchcock

The movie includes many of Hitchcock’s trademarks, including a cameo appearance by the director at the very start of the film and his generous use of subtle lighting and overhead shots.

The film isn’t perfect, and the Studio worried that it went on for too long. The drunk driver scene at the start was inserted for humour, but it isn’t funny and it does go on for too long. The dramatic cliffhanger at the end, classic Hitchcock, is spoiled in my opinion by an abrupt ending and a cut that placed the characters on a train. That train then disappears into a tunnel in a metaphor for sex that was a cliché even in the 1950s.

Overall though North by Northwest is fine entertainment, and if you haven’t seen it you are in for a treat.

Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney

Through her looks and life story, Gene Tierney has provided the inspiration for two of my characters – Ann Morgan in my 1944-5 Ann Morgan Mystery Series and Dana Devlin in my forthcoming Sam Smith Mystery Series novel, The Devil and Ms Devlin. Therefore, in appreciation of Gene Tierney’s life and career, I decided to write this article.

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Born on the 19th November 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, to a wealthy insurance broker and a socialite mother, Gene Tierney enjoyed a privileged upbringing, an upbringing that included exclusive schools, extensive travel and glamorous parties. Aged seventeen, she met Anatole Litvak, an influential Hollywood director, and he invited the debutante to make a screen test for Warner Brothers. Impressed by her looks and potential, the studio offered her a contract. However, her parents were not pleased.

Obeying her parents, Gene Tierney returned to Connecticut where she endured a mind-numbing season of debutante parties. At the close of the season, she informed her parents of her desire to carve out a career as an actress. On this occasion, her parents offered their support. Her father, Howard, secured mentoring and schooling, and he formed a company, to assist Gene in her ambitions.

Gene Tierney’s early theatre performances attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who, once again, offered her a contract. However, she turned them down; instead, she signed a six month deal with Columbia.

With Gene Tierney’s star on the rise, eccentric movie mogul Howard Hughes entered the picture. He was besotted with her beauty. However, as she later pointed out, “Cars, furs and gems were not my weakness.” And she rebuffed Hughes.

Despite the rebuff, Howard Hughes remained friends with Gene Tierney, one of many influential and powerful people she encountered during her life. At this stage, she was a contract actress with a major studio, reduced to roles dependant on her looks, rather than her acting ability. Then she caught the eye of Darryl Zanuck, of Twentieth Century Fox. Later, Zanuck stated that Gene Tierney was, “the most beautiful woman in movie history.”

In 1940, Gene Tierney played Eleanor Stone in The Return of Frank James. The reviews for the movie, and Gene’s performance, were unkind. Indeed, Gene endured a number of unfavourable reviews throughout her career, and while some of those reviews were merited, you have to wonder if jealousy, over her looks and privileged upbringing, was also at play.

Also in 1940, Gene Tierney’s private life changed direction. She met fashion designer Oleg Cassini and within months the couple were married. Once again, her parents were not pleased and a rift developed within the family. Over time, that rift widened until Gene was cut off financially, and from Connecticut high society.

Stressed, and enduring a string of dubious movies and poor reviews, Gene fell ill. Nevertheless, she remained in Hollywood and continued to work, landing the lead role in the 1943 movie, Heaven Can Wait.

In June 1943, a pregnant Gene Tierney contracted rubella. On the 14th October 1943, she went into premature labour and soon after her daughter, Daria, was born. Tragically, the rubella affected Daria’s development and she suffered from a number of impediments.

With professional help, Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini raised Daria at their Hollywood home. While adjusting to her maternal responsibilities, Gene landed the title role in Laura, in 1944, arguably the highpoint of her acting career. Although the film received mixed reviews – a consistent thread throughout Gene’s career – it did well at the box office, netting over a million dollars, and now is regarded as a cinema classic. As Vincent Price, one of her co-stars in Laura, said, “No one but Gene Tierney could have played Laura. There was no other actress around with her particular combination of beauty, breeding and mystery.”

The success of Laura should have brought Gene Tierney great happiness. However, Oleg Cassini could not cope with his daughter’s disability and, in 1946, he walked out of the family home.

Before that, in 1945, Gene Tierney starred in Leave Her to Heaven, and received an Oscar nomination for her performance. In 1946, she co-starred with Vincent Price in Dragonwyck and during the filming she met J.F. Kennedy. A relationship developed, but was not pursued because of J.F.K.’s political ambitions.

In 1947, Gene Tierney made The Ghost and Mrs Muir. However, unhappy with her personal life, she decided to leave Hollywood and returned to Connecticut. In 1948, while constantly crying tears for Daria, Gene went through a whirlwind of emotions with Oleg Cassini – they divorced, Gene became pregnant, she gave birth to a second daughter, Christina, on the 19th November 1948 her 28th birthday, and later remarried Cassini.

Unable to cope with Daria’s health problems, Gene bowed to Oleg’s insistence and placed her daughter in an institution. At this point, Gene’s health faltered and she slipped into deep depression. Mood swings ensued. A lack of understanding from the medical profession and the stigma from an uncaring society added to Gene’s problems. She threw herself into her work and later wrote, “As long as I was playing someone else, everything was fine. It was when I had to be myself that the problems began.” She added, with great insight, “Depression is only a temporary thing. I’ve often thought that if people who committed suicide could wake up the next morning they’d ask themselves, ‘Now why in the world did I do that?’”

In the early 1950s, Gene divorced Oleg Cassini for a second time. Her career, personal life and health were in crisis.

In 1955, while working with Humphrey Bogart on The Left Hand of God, Bogart noted that Gene had problems. He alerted the executives at Fox studios, but they dismissed his concerns in flippant fashion. As Gene Tierney later wrote, “It was the fashion at the time, still is, to feel that all actors are neurotic, or they would not be actors.”

On set, Gene continued to work to a high standard, while at home she struggled to cope with the basic tasks of life. In despair, Gene entered a sanatorium. Within the sanatorium, she received electroconvulsive-therapy, a degrading and barbaric practice, now considered inappropriate by many mental health professionals.

In the spring of 1957, Gene Tierney contemplated suicide. In New York, she walked on to the ledge of her mother’s 14th floor high-rise apartment. She later wrote, “I felt serene…totally without fear.” However, she didn’t jump because vanity took hold. She confessed, “I thought of what I’d look like when I hit the ground – like a scrambled egg. That didn’t appeal to me.”

More treatment followed, but thankfully treatment of a saner, helpful variety. Gene entered the Menninger Clinic in Kansas. There, in an atmosphere of peace and quiet, she was encouraged to talk. With support, she developed skills and coping strategies, until she reached the stage where she felt more in control of her illness. Today, even though drugs and other treatments are available, talking often remains the best cure.

While on holiday in 1958, Gene met W. Howard Lee, a Texas oilman. A year later, she resumed her acting career in Holiday for Lovers, but the strain proved too much, and she dropped the part. However, on the 11th July 1960, she did marry W. Howard Lee and stated, “The only time I was really happy was in my childhood – and now.”

After continued treatment at the Menninger Clinic, small acting roles followed, along with greater insight into Gene’s problems. She later wrote, “If you break an arm or a leg it takes months for it to really heal, and years for it to be the same again. So you can imagine the problems with a broken mind.” And, “More than anything, I learned that the mind is the most beautiful part of the body and I am grateful to have mine back.”

In 1962, Gene suffered a miscarriage. Bouts of depression and periods of mania followed, but when they faded she was able to reflect on them with humour, often joking with her new husband.

Although not reaching the heights of Laura, Gene appeared in movies and television series, until 1969 when she quit Hollywood and television for good.

W. Howard Lee died in February 1981, and from that point on, after years in the spotlight, Gene Tierney decided to live a life of seclusion.

Gene died on the 6th November 1991, of emphysema, a condition brought on through chain-smoking; at the start of her acting career, and showing no regard for the individual, the studio suggested that Gene should take up smoking, to make her voice huskier.

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Gene Tierney wrote, “Wealth, beauty and fame are transient. When those are gone, little is left except the need to be useful.” And she served that statement well by writing her autobiography, Self-Portrait, in 1979. Through her frank and honest account of her life, Gene Tierney helped to break down the stigma of mental illness, and along with her numerous movies, that stands as her greatest legacy.

Further reading: Self-Portrait – Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz.

https://www.amazon.com/Self-Portrait-Gene-Tierney/dp/0883261529

 

Brenda Starr, Reporter

Currently, I’m enjoying a 1945 serial, Brenda Starr, Reporter, starring Joan Woodbury, on DVD. The serial is made up of thirteen twenty-minute episodes for screening at cinemas and each episode ends in a cliffhanger, to tempt the cinema-goers back the following week.

Brenda Starr started life as a comic strip, the creation of Dale Messick. The comic strip first appeared on 30th June 1940 and was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Initially, the strip was relegated to a comic book supplement within the Chicago Sunday Tribune, but by 1945 it was running daily and attracting a loyal following. This following increased during the 1950s, the comic strip’s heyday, when Brenda Starr appeared in over two hundred newspapers.

Brenda Starr was based on a 1930s debutante, Brenda Frazier, and movie actress Rita Hayworth. Inevitably, the comic strip incensed the narrow-minded guardians of public decency on the grounds that it was drawn by a woman and, gasp-horror, Brenda sometimes revealed her cleavage or her naval. This was too much for the censors who promptly reached for the smelling salts and removed the offending body parts.

The serial I’m currently watching was the first cinematic attempt to depict Brenda Starr. A TV movie starring Jill St John was released in 1976 and a film starring Brooke Shields and Timothy Dalton was released in 1992. Unfortunately, the latter was not a commercial or critical success.

The 1945 serial is of its time and displays its comic book origins. Nevertheless, if taken in the right manner it provides a great deal of entertainment. The writing and performances are sold, and filming is up to standard. With a sympathetic writer and production crew Brenda Starr could well be a hit today, though any modern version would do well to pay tribute to the series’ mid-twentieth century origins.

Spenser

Spenser is the creation of Robert B. Parker, 1932 –2010. He is a tough, wise-cracking detective from the ‘hard-boiled’school of crime fiction who prides himself in his self-belief and his autonomy. The series is largely set in Boston, USA, and Robert B. Parker’s skilful pen brings the city vividly to life. The Boston backdrop is one of the highlights of the series, which runs to thirty-nine books, along with Spenser’s laconic narration, an easy voice that offers pleasure to the reader.

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Boston, the setting for the majority of the Spenser books

Spenser is an ex-boxer and a Korean veteran. He is also ageless and his physical attributes remain undiminished by the passing of time. The reader can see this as a flaw in that it requires too much suspension of disbelief, or you can accept the premise if you subscribe to the notion that ‘heroes never get old’. What is more troublesome, however, are Spenser’s references to his mother: in some of the books, Spenser’s mother died in childbirth, while in others he refers to her homilies and cooking. Given that an international publisher of some repute published the Spenser series, you feel that someone somewhere should have addressed this anomaly.

Robert B. Parker wrote lean, mean prose and personally I think his books are at their strongest when they are lean and mean as well. As Robert B. Parker’s career progressed he changed publishers and his new publishers seemed to insist on longer books, which meant a lot of ‘middle’and chapters that did little for the overall story. Therefore I would recommend the early books, God Save the Child through to Crimson Joy as the strongest in the series.

To many readers the strongest character in the series is Hawk, Spenser’s sidekick. Hawk is a mercenary, an assassin, a man without apparent emotion. In less skilful hands, Hawk would come across as hard and cold, but the genius of Robert B. Parker makes Hawk the centre of attention whenever he appears; the character consistently enlists the sympathy and support of the reader. Without doubt, Hawk is one of the finest creations in crime fiction.

The other leading character in Spenser’s world is Susan Silverman. Susan Silverman first appears as a guidance counsellor in book two, God Save the Child. In many respects, this is the highlight of her involvement in the series. In the fourth book, Promised Land, Spenser and Susan discuss marriage; she is keen, he is reluctant. By the end of the book, Spenser comes around to Susan’s way of thinking and proposes marriage only for Susan to say that she has changed her mind. As a relationship study this book is excellent and I regard it as my favourite Spenser novel.

In A Catskill Eagle, Susan runs off with a lover. She decides that she cannot escape from him, even though she is not being held against her will, and asks Spenser to ‘rescue’ her. This he does, leaving a trail of devastation and murder in his wake – one of the accepted premises of the Spenser series is that he can commit murder with the tacit approval of the authorities – and when he does finally ‘rescue’ Susan, she offers little gratitude. Maybe none of this matters, except that Spenser’s love for Susan is a central part of the series. In A Catskill Eagle, and the middle series novels, Susan comes across as a self-centred, selfish character and it is difficult to understand why all the other regular characters in the series love her as much as Spenser does. Robert B. Parker wrote from life and he based Susan on his wife, Joan. Maybe it says something about Susan when even Joan Parker stated that she did not like the character! The tiresome nature of Susan’s character is a frustration; with a more sympathetic female in her stead, you feel that the series would qualify as the best in private detective literature. As it stands, it is still essential reading for all fans of the genre.

In defence of Susan she is very much her own woman and in the later books there is a mellow glow to Spenser’s relationship with her that displays the familiarity of a long-standing couple. Susan comes across as a more appealing character in these books, especially when compared to the woman who ran off in A Catskill Eagle. This Susan is likeable, and for this reader certainly more likeable than the character portrayed through the middle books of the series.

The Spenser characters were adapted for television as Spenser: For Hire. The show ran for three seasons and sixty-five episodes with Robert Ulrich in the title role, supported by Avery Brooks as Hawk and Barbara Stock as Susan Silverman. Four movies were also made. Unlike the majority of the TV series, the movies were based on Robert B. Parker’s books. These movies were followed in 1999 by three more movies, made with a new, non-TV series, cast.

Serpico

Serpico

Serpico was based on Peter Maas’ biography of New York Police Department officer Frank Serpico, who went undercover to expose corruption in the police force. Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, the film was released in 1973 and was a great commercial and critical success. Furthermore, Al Pacino won his first Golden Globe award for Best Actor in 1974 for his portrayal of Frank Serpico. Indeed, critics proclaim that the role of Frank Serpico is one of the highlights of Al Pacino’s career.

The film covers twelve years in the life of Frank Serpico, from 1960 to 1972. During his career, Serpico uncovered mass corruption in the N.Y.P.D. and he exposed this corruption to the authorities. However, far from being grateful and supportive they turned their backs on Serpico, exposing him to harassment and persecution. This harassment and persecution culminated in a shooting, when Serpico was wounded in the face during a drug raid on the 3rd February 1971.

The story was filmed on the streets of New York City and the real-life Frank Serpico looked on during the filming. However, Sidney Lumet considered that Serpico’s presence on the set would distract and inhibit the actors, especially Al Pacino, and so he was asked to leave.

In real-life, Frank Serpico grew his beard and hair, totally altering his appearance from clean-cut police officer to shaggy-haired hippy hero. In the film, this change of appearance was depicted by filming the scenes in reverse order, gradually trimming a hirsute Al Pacino as the scenes moved back in time.

Frank Serpico testified before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into N.Y.P.D. corruption. The inquiry sat between 1970 and 1972. On resigning from the police force Serpico was awarded the Medal of Honor and a disability pension. With his police career over, but his integrity intact, he moved to Wales and then Switzerland.

Happy St David’s Day

To help celebrate St David’s Day, The Detective Issue #2 will be offered free today on Amazon’s Kindle. If you are able please take advantage of this offer. The Detective Issue #2

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The Detective Issue #2

The second issue of The Detective is now available from Amazon. Tomorrow, Issue #1 of The Detective will be offered free on Amazon so please take advantage of this offer if you are able…. The Detective Issue #2

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