Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Thoughts on "The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad






The Secret Agent: A Simple Taleby Polish-British author Joseph Conrad, is anything but simple. Published in 1907, it’s the earliest example of realistic literary espionage I know of. Its complex plot centers on one Adolf Verloc. Verloc wears three faces: one face belongs to a small-time shopkeeper who lives in London’s Soho with his adoring—and fatally trusting—wife, Winnie; her little brother Stevie (who may be autistic); and Winnie’s mother. 

Behind his dowdy public face hides another: Verloc is also part of an anarchist ring. His comrades gather often, talk much, but do next to nothing. The most radical of them is known only as “the Professor,” a nihilist who wanders London with a live bomb in his pocket and his hand on the trigger. He’s an incisive portrait of the “horseshoe theory” of political radicalism, where extreme left and extreme right meet up to the ruin of everyone in between.

But as we learn, in a neat twist, Verloc’s anarchist face hides another: He’s also an informant and agent provocateur for an unnamed foreign government (likely Russia). This government finds Britain’s comparatively open attitude toward political dissent a threat to their own internal control. 

His handler, Mr. Vladimir, orders him to commit a terrorist act in order to provoke a crackdown, an action that would also ensnare Verloc’s comrades. He proposes bombing the Royal Greenwich Observatory. When Verloc balks at this daft idea, Vladimir threatens to expose him as an agent, betraying him to both his comrades and British authorities.

Verloc carries out his mission. But the attack goes wrong and an innocent is killed, leaving Verloc alone to face his pursuers in Scotland Yard, in British intelligence, and finally, within the walls of his own home. As Conrad painstakingly shows, Verloc and his comrades are mere pawns in a game they really no play no part in.

Joseph Conrad was a deeply political writer who seems to have hated politics. In this novel he portrays a world of politics as a sphere with no moral center and where everyone is at constant cross purposes. His view of terrorism is only partial—those more acquainted with more “successful” terrorist organizations may dispute his portrayal of terrorism.

Like his other work, The Secret Agent is a little dense and digressive for today’s readers, but it’s written in beautiful but careful prose throughout. Its picture of terrorism may be incomplete, but its gritty detail, pathos, and detached bitter view of politics are echoed in the work of John le Carré. It’s been adapted for the screen several times, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 version, Saboteur, and, most recently, in 2016, a typically smooth and elegant BBC production that stars Toby Jones as Verloc that adds a romantic angle missing from this resolutely unromantic novel.


Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character). His contemporary vampire novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. In addition to his own blog, he’s also published in Bright Lights Film JournalThe Strandand Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Noir City, 2019



It’s January, the most terrible time of the year! But for Bay Area movie buffs that means another stroll down some of cinema’s meanest alleys, a concrete and steel universe of endless shadows and impenetrable smoke. 

Yes, it’s the 2019 edition of Noir City-San Francisco,the annual film festival founded and sponsored by the Film Noir Foundationand its founder, and master of ceremonies, Eddie Muller. It plays at gorgeous the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, starting Friday, January 25th and closes Saturday, February 2nd: twelve films over ten days.

This time, the festival fixes its gaze on noir films produced in the 1950s, when the genre was just at its peak before fading out of fashion. As in years past, it’s a jewel case of gems and oddities: a few premieres mixed with B-movie obscurities plus solid classics that bear repeated viewing.

Time and space allow me to see only a fraction of the program. Most of them I've seen before, some just recently, some not since I was a silver-faced tyke sitting cross-legged in front of the TV.



Of those unseen, I’d call the opening night feature, Trapped, starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by Richard Fleischer the most intriguing.  Its plot sounds a bit batshit (a convicted counterfeiter released from jail and sent undercover), but there are two good reasons to see it. 

One is Lloyd Bridges. You all know his sons Jeff and Beau, but their dad, your elders will also have you know, was a star back in Boomer days and a fine, well-respected actor who played mostly straight-arrow, second-tier leads, in the manner of other actors such as Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves and Robert Stack. He’s well remembered for playing Deputy Harvey Pell in High Noon, a role, it’s said, originally marked for Lee Van Cleef.

Lloyd Bridges achieved his greatest success in television: Probably his most famous role was as Mike Nelson in the TV series Sea Huntan underwater crime show that helped popularize scuba diving in the 1960s. (It inspired one of my older brothers to purchase scuba gear, which he never got to work properly, causing our mom’s blood pressure to swell to high triple digits: “I had you on bottom of the Hudson River!”)

Bridges spent the latter part of his career in television. He sprung to the spotlight once again in the classic 1980 spoof Airplane! Here, I assert, the sight of straight-arrow Lloyd Bridges sniffing glue while hanging upside down remains an inspired gag and a highlight of my long life at the movies.

The other reason to see Trapped is the direction of Richard Fleischer, who helmed the wonderful noir classic The Narrow Margin. Boomers remember Fleischer for directing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney and many other top Hollywood projects. (His best later film, to me, is the serial killer drama 10 Rillington Place, a superbly directed film.) Trapped is almost sure to feature some strong visuals from this master of noir.

As for the rest, I’d also like to see The Burglar, from a David Goodis novel, starring Dan Duryea. Goodis (author of Down There, aka Shoot the Piano Playerwas a famously downbeat noir novelist and it would be interesting to see how closely the film captures his bleak view.

As for the known knowns, there’s a lot to see. Among them is one of three Sam Fuller films, Pickup on South Street. Here we’re graced with Richard Widmark as a Gotham pickpocket whose sticky fingers ensnare him in brutal Cold War intrigue. Widmark was a master at playing lowlifes—Night and the City, high among my favorite noirs, is great due partially to him. There’s also great work by Thelma Ritter as one of Widmark’s colleagues and, of course, director Fuller’s ultra-punchy style. (The festival also features Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.)

I also recommend The Detective Story. From a play by Sidney Kingsley and directed by William Wyler, it’s social realism in the guise of noir. It follows a day in the life of a New York City precinct and its chief detective, Jim McLeod. It’s no Barney Miller, but a sad and distressing story of a veteran cop’s unravelling as the moral absolutes he lives by collapse in rubble.

William Wyler was not a noir director, but he was one of the master big studio directors of his time. His films are neglected, I think unfairly, by today’s critics for being “too establishment.”

Then there’s the performance of Kirk Douglas, an actor for whom, I’m sure, they coined the word “powerhouse.”  Douglas dominates the screen like no other star, but he has a way of making us squirm. Even his noblest heroes seem arrogant bastards, making McLeod the perfect role for him. Douglas was a great movie star who bravely embraced singularly unpleasant roles. As we reach the end of the “difficult men” era in prestige TV (The SopranosMad Men, etc.), remember that Kirk Douglas was there before any of them.

You might get a kick out of Angel Face, a 1953 melodrama directed by Otto Preminger and featuring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Mitchum plays an ambulance driver who gets mixed up in Jean Simmons’ scheme to murder her wealthy husband. The story behind the film sounds more dramatic to me but stick around for a shocking fiery climax.

The festival also gets a revisit from that old 1950s noir warhorse, Kiss Me Deadly, up there with The Big Combo as one of the most florid, perverse and looniest noirs ever. Directed by Richard Aldrich, it stars Ralph Meeker (an underrated, underused actor) as Mickey Spillane’s brutal, granite-fisted hero, Mike Hammer. (Fun fact: Meeker replaced Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway and is said by some to have been the better Stanley.)

Also worth a ticket is Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) featuring terrific work from Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan and direction from Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Haunting). On the surface, it’s the story of a bank robbery gone wrong. Underneath there’s real drama in the racial conflict between the two leads, a misery still well with us. It’s a case where a film’s underlying themes actually are weaved within the drama rather than being forced upon it.

Of the two real classics that close the festival, it’s impossible to say which is “Best of the Fest”, but Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is definitely one of them. So much has been written about this film, it’s hard to say anymore, but suffice it to say, if you haven’t seen it, see it now, and if you have seen it before, see it again!

One parlor game I never play is “What’s Your Favorite Alfred Hitchcock film?” because the Master made so many great films it’s impossible to decide. Psycho for one, stands among his greats not only for its direction, stark atmosphere, terrific score, editing, and acting, but also the underlying anguish in the colliding fates of Marion Crane and Norman Bates, which gives the film a hint of unexpected tragedy arising from pulp material. Knowing what’s to come, their final scene together is a sorrowful moment.

Everyone rightly mocks the penultimate scene (with poor Simon Oakland bravely wrestling through cornball Freudian speculations). It's my bet that if you cut that scene, you wouldn’t lose a thing and be left with a perfect movie in Psycho. The worst thing about it then becomes all the terrible imitations that have followed in its wake and still assault us sixty years on.

Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he also published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Word on "Murder": "The Word is Murder" by Anthony Horowitz


If Anthony Horowitz isn’t a more familiar name to you, he should be. Fans of the BBC known him firstly as the creator of Foyle’s War, among the best TV mysteries ever. Others know him as the author of the Alex Rider series of YA spy novels. On occasion, he turns his busy pen to more adult novels. His last, Magpie Murders, was a witty delight about the mores and conventions of the modern mystery, wrapped nicely around a good puzzle. 

Now he’s sent two new books out the gate at once. One of them is Forever and a Day (a James Bond novel). What concerns us here is The Word is Murder, a standalone follow-up to Magpie

In Magpie, Horowitz cleverly touched on the tensions between fictional crime and real-life crime. In The Word is Murder, he goes farther and deeper with excellent results. It’s that’s rarest of books in this hyper-serious era—a genuine tour-de-force and a great excuse to stay put in your reading chair.

The novel opens with the last day in the life of Diana Cowper, a middle-aged Englishwoman and theatre enthusiast. She starts her day arranging her own funeral. By the end of it, she’s been murdered, strangled with a curtain rope.

Scotland Yard, as you’d expect, is baffled by a murder whose victim seems to have anticipated her own demise.  For help, they turn reluctantly to Daniel Hawthorne, a former investigator, to help crack the case. Dismissed in disgrace from the force some years before, Hawthorne now freelances as a technical advisor to both BBC mystery shows and the Yard, two relationships driven by necessity and steeped in mutual distaste.

Hawthorne brings his own agenda to the hunt for Ms. Cowper’s murderer: He plans to publish a book about himself to settle some scores and restore his tattered reputation. No writer himself, this modern Sherlock Holmes needs a Watson to follow alongside as he brilliantly solves the murder of Diana Cowper, revealing his genius to the world.

For his Watson, Hawthorne reaches out to a writer, a former client whom he advised on a previous BBC mystery show, a real one in fact, known by the title Injustice. Its writer was a noted screenwriter and novelist, a guy named . . . Anthony Horowitz. 

Like everyone else at Scotland Yard and beyond, once around the track with Hawthorne was enough for Horowitz. Even so, despite his reservations, he finds himself drawn to Hawthorne’s offer and the crime in question.

The collaboration is a rocky one from the start as Hawthorne rips up Horowitz’s first chapter (which you’ll have just read). His demanding presence knocks Horowitz’s writing life off its keel, culminating in a disastrous encounter between Horowitz, Hawthorne and two real-life pop-culture titans, a hilarious moment that will be an absolute hoot if it ever makes it to the screen.

Despite the chaos brought by Hawthorne, there’s nothing like murder to get a genre writer’s juices flowing and Horowitz, fascinated by his rather repellent but brilliant client, slowly becomes determined to stick with the case, no matter how obnoxious Hawthorne becomes or how great the dangers that lay in wait.

Anthony Horowitz clearly had a swell time weaving himself into his own novel. He makes the most of it as he deftly maneuvers that weird territory between the real-life creator of Foyle’s War and the meta-fictional Horowitz who becomes entangled in a mystery novel. What’s factual and what’s not is one of the book’s entertaining puzzles.

The Word is Murder could have wound up a dispensable bit of self-referential post-modernism but instead provides a vivid, funny look at the joys and frustrations of a successful writer’s life. It also explores the problems inherent in the creation of literary characters. Saints make for bad pasteboard heroes in fiction, but, we all wonder, how much bad can we put up with in our good guys? 

Hawthorne, you should know, is a flaming bastard, a bigot who’s smart about many things but ignorant of much else, a man sometimes deeply “unwoke.” He may be the intellectual equal of Sherlock Holmes, but he makes Holmes seem like Philip Marlowe as played by George Clooney.

Horowitz never answers this question—as a novelist myself, I’d say there really isn’t an answer beyond “whatever I think I can get away with.” But he makes it stick nicely in the memory, long after events draw to the suspenseful action-packed finish. 

While he can’t provide an answer regarding Hawthorne, Horwitz does provide an antidote with his charming and genial self-portrait. We learn a fair bit about Anthony Horowitz, the successful writer as he gracefully takes us behind the scenes of the world of TV, theatre and movie productions and even into the back parlors of the funeral business.

The Word is Murderis a fun read that leaves you thinking. I can’t wait for the movie. And I bet Horowitz can’t either. Read carefully, and you’ll find a clue as to whom he wants cast as Hawthorne. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be watching.

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Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller that was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett. (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)His contemporary vampire novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

In the Beginning: "A Coffin for Dimitrios" by Eric Ambler



Before British author Eric Ambler came along, thrillers and spy yarns were mostly romantic affairs, populated by flag-waving heroes and brimming with manly idealism, jut-jawed jingoism, and, sometimes, a disturbing racism.

There were exceptions: Both Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent, 1904) and Somerset Maugham (the “Ashenden” stories,1928), laid some groundwork for a greater “realism.” But all that had to wait until Eric Ambler’s second novel, Background to Danger(1937).

A Coffin for Dimitrios (1938) was the fifth novel Ambler wrote in his pre-WWII period. It stands tall among his classics, and firmly alongside other novels of its era. It tells the story of Charles Latimer, a minor scholar and old-school English mystery novelist (author of such cosies as The Bloody Shovel and “I” Said the Eye). While vacationing in Istanbul in the late 1930s, he meets a fan, the sinister and charming Colonel Haki, who may or may not work for the Turkish secret police.

Colonel Haki is thrilled to meet of one of his favorite mystery authors but adds that “I find the murderer in a roman policier much more sympathetic than a real murderer.” For reasons left unsaid, he shares with Latimer a dossier detailing the violent career of Dimitrios Makropoulos, a profoundly unsympathetic thief, murderer, assassin and drug-dealer. There’s also an important detail missing from the dossier: Dimitrios is dead, his corpse recently found floating in the Bosphorous straits. Who put him there, and why, is the mystery at the novel’s core.

Perhaps a little ashamed of his sheltered life, Latimer leaves his cosy world behind to launch an obsessive and dangerous plunge into the mystery of Dimitrios. The trail leads him through a shadow-riven Balkan landscape still haunted by World War I and seething with criminal intrigue as it gears up for the next one. As he wanders dank alleyways and cobbled streets, he encounters a parade of gamy characters and cruel deceptions, all of it glued together by that simplest and most reliable of motives, greed. 

Ambler was a leftist radical during this period and salts his novel with numerous insights into the links between capitalism and crime. Along the way, Latimer winds up an early pioneer of the investigative practice of “following the money.” 

“The most important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination,” Ambler writes in one of his most famous quotes, “is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.”

While the novel risks becoming a finger-wagging lecture, Ambler’s eye for detail, character and pacing keep the narrative rolling. He knew when to shut up and let matters speak for themselves. The money trail, convincingly laid out, leads to a conclusion that may not be too surprising to jaded modern readers but remains convincing and thrilling, while taking a witty final turn.

Another unique feature is the hero, Charles Latimer. Latimer is no Richard Hannay or proto James Bond, but a fumbling naïve academic who barely knows which way to point a pistol. It was Ambler’s unique insight that the ordinary man, the chap who winds up way in over his head, raises the stakes and builds a better foundation for suspense. To paraphrase Ambler fan Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Latimer is a man to whom things are done as opposed to a man who does things to others. We worry what will happen to him and that makes for greater suspense than a thousand unkillable, unstoppable, immortal super heroes. Every man—and not a few women—like to think of themselves as Mr. Bond . . . but in reality we’re all closer, much closer, to being Charles Latimer.

Ambler’s steely gaze permeates the modern thriller. Alan Furst claims him as a direct inspiration for his pre-WW2 novels of intrigue (though Furst is much more the romantic), while his realistic approach to character can be found in Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Transcription. His name may not be spoken as it once was, but every thriller writer alive owes a deep debt to Eric Ambler.

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Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  that author David Corbett (The Art of Character) called “incendiary!” His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night(e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand. He also published a two-part look at the life and career of the great movie villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Music of the Song: The Beatles Live at the BBC



A Facebook friend recently lamented at hearing some vocal tracks off some very early recordings of some beloved 1960s pop artists. They sounded, he said, like “a brace of baby chickadees peeping for seed.”  It was, it seems, the production team—the guys twirling the knobs, the session musicians who may have joined in later--who improved them into legends of their time, at least initially. But for that, how could they ever have reached the Top 1000, never mind the Top Ten?

From there, the thread briefly waded into the recording process, with discussions of “sweetening” and tape editing, including “Auto-tune” whereby poorly pitched vocals are corrected. Twirl a knob or two and a bleating goat becomes Pavarotti. 

It sounds like cheating, and I’d say it is. But it’s been a part of the record-making process in all genres since the first stereo and multi-track recording systems. Hardly anyone remarks on it anymore. Recording has become so hi-tech clever that some stars—Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney pop to mind—can refashion themselves into one-man bands who work sans any studio musicians, playing all the music, all the instruments, every note and chord, all by themselves. 

God bless Stevie and Sir Paul, but I have to wonder. These musical octopi occasionally bring to mind the acts you see on TCM’s “Soundies” short films of the 1930s; or a street corner novelty act at Fisherman’s Wharf. 

Sure, everyone loves a virtuoso, but I’m one of those who pore over liner notes, in search of my favorite guest and unexpected backup musicians. (“Clapton on nose flute!? Oh joy!”) At best, there’s no one in the studio to share a grin and a cheer: “Hey! We rocked that!” What they save in union wages is lost in the companionable glow cast by a band of musical brothers and sisters.

While on the long Thanksgiving drive back from Pasadena, I by chance pulled out a double that featured Sir Paul’s old backup band from many years ago. It’s been many years since then, but it illuminated the difference between inherent greatness and greatness music that’s been auto-tuned into the Top Ten.

The album is The Beatles Live at the BBC(released in 1994, with an expanded reissue in 2013). It’s the sole remnant of a once fair stack of Beatle bootlegs and ephemera I collected during my years as Beatlephile. Almost the entire pile was made of up stuff suitable only for serious Beatle-ologists (or the zombie fan who rifles garbage cans for tapes, like you know, of that time George accused Paul of using his guitar strings for dental floss).

I don’t think I listened to any of this material more than once. (Most of it the Beatles might well call “rubbish”). Except for that onewith the photo of John Lennon with his schwanzon display, I recall next to none of it.  I finally sold them all off, with no regrets. From this, it would be fair to say that the Beatles, in their final product, got it exactly right and there really is little need for anymore for anyone (excepting for of course, scholars). As I recall George Harrison putting it sagely: “They’ve got thirteen albums. What more do they want?”

And so, of all the Beatle ephemera and re-packaging you could own, I would call Live at the BBCby far the best.

Live at the BBCis one of pop music’s greatest act as themselves, pure, unsullied outside protective studio walls, and stripped to its gears. It’s the band you would have heard if you happened to stumble into the Cavern Club in Liverpool or the Star Club in Hamburg, or any of the other venues they played in early days. (One other example is The Beatles Live at the Star Club Hamburg, a performance caught on a home tape machine, making it unlistenable, though it captures them at their most punk.)

It proves The Beatles didn’t need no stinkin’ Auto-tune.

Abbey Road studios, where the Fab Four made all their records, was nothing much when they walked in, in 1962. It wasn’t even called “Abbey Road.” Studio Two, to which they were assigned, contained was called a REDD mixing console, which I gather, was like the proverbial tin cans and string compared to today’s digital wonders.

Within that shelter, the Beatles didn’t need much sweetening, mind you, but there was some. George Martin (the true “Fifth Beatle”) was known for producing classical and comedy albums and light musical acts and wasn’t well acquainted with Rock n’ Roll (though the Beatles were big fans of the comedy recordings he made with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and the Goon Show). 

Martin muffled their sound a bit and would, among other things, add piano riffs. He also muted Ringo’s drums in order to bring John and Paul’s vocals to the fore. He said, maybe inaccurately, that fans didn’t care about drumming and, initially, he didn’t think much of them as musicians. (It was he who finally nodded Pete Best toward the door, opening the way for the pursuit of Ringo). It took awhile, but he changed his mind.

After years of grueling work, the Beatles were getting noticed. As part of the marketing push, their brilliant manager, Brian Epstein, got them a gig on BBC radio. This was a very big deal—in those days there were only two radio stations in all of Britain, and, as now, only twenty-fours in a day.

They made their first BBC appearance in 1962 for a live concert (when Pete Best was still with them). According to the CD liner notes, these recordings, while still extant, are of poor quality and hence left off both editions of this CD. 

Finally, in January 1963, after the release of “Please Please Me,” they made their first major BBC appearance on “The Saturday Show,” broadcast to an audience of 10 million. From that point until June 1965, they appeared on fifty-two BBC radio programs, performing eighty-eight songs. Best of all, thirty-six of these songs never appeared on any of the official releases.

John, Paul and George were still in the dawn of their songwriting career, so most of these songs were covers by the artists who inspired them most, especially Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley. They do a great job with every song, bursting with both professionalism and raw enthusiasm. But again, their final decisions for album inclusion were the right ones.

But the limits placed on them by playing in a radio station provide, for me at least, some of the most illuminating pleasures. These performances were recorded in mono, not four-track stereo, so the mixes are not what we hear on the studio albums. This is a sin for serious audiophiles, but for fans of their musicianship, the result is that Beatles rhythm section—Ringo Starr, drums; Paul McCartney, bass; and John Lennon, rhythm guitar—is brought into full light. You can actually hear all of them play their instruments, providing a worthwhile contrast with the studio albums.

It’s especially true in the case of Ringo and Paul. The drummer is the engine of any band, the center out of which the music grows and springs. Ringo Starr is the most basic of drummers, but John, Paul and George pursued him for good reasons—the basics were exactly what they needed. Besides his own large fan base, he brought both raw power, plus a variety of styles and precise timing. He provided solid ground from which Lennon and McCartney and George Harrison could grow their songs. (Paul has described the moment when Ringo first played live with them and he realized he no longer had to look behind him to make sure the drummer was keeping up.) Whatever’s been said about Ringo outside the Beatles, for them, there could be no one else.

Paul McCartney’s bass playing also sounds a little buried in the studio albums. With the BBC album, though, you can hear him working the strings, growing from a young fella copying Chuck Berry’s bass-lines into what many call rock n’ roll’s greatest bass player, his playing growing more fluid and elaborate, maybe reaching its peak with Abbey Road(where Ringo also excels).

In the fifty years since they first appeared, the Beatles have always flowed but never seemed to ebb. Like all great artists, their music has defied both relentless time and fickle fashions. Live at the BBCshows the roots of it all, shows that some artists don’t need no stinkin’ auto-tune. The Beatles remain a soundtrack for the world.


Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Living Room Bijou: Dogs and Scruggs





Along with so much else, the 2018 holidays have taken a strange turn. Even the climate of holiday movies has shifted. For as long as we can remember, starting at Thanksgiving, Hollywood has rolled out its big pictures for the year: If it’s not Star Wars, it’s James Bond; if not Bond, then Peter Jackson or Michael Bay might lumber out with another Hobbits Meet the Transformers epic, or something equally overweight or overwrought.

This blighted season, however, there seems to be no must-see for-everyone movie, nothing to get us out of the house during those afternoon dead spots when the turkey is cooling down. The closest candidate seems to be the katrillionth version of Robin Hood, which, early reviews indicate, is yet another go round that leaves Errol Flynn and Michael Curtiz securely laughing on their heavenly thrones. (Think about it: eighty years and no onehas bettered Mr. Flynn as Robin Hood. On that score, Hollywood should bury the Robin Hood story in a tomb and just re-release the 1939 version forever. Take it from me and a million others: stay home with Errol Flynn.)

In fact, you might as well stay home in front of a warm TV. And, if not for its ferociously mature content, I’d partially recommend The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest offering from the remarkable, always interesting, Joel and Ethan Coen, now available on Netflix.

Buster Scruggs combines two movies we see little of nowadays: 1) a Western and (2) a portmanteau movie. Anthology movies are most always a mixed bag and this one is more mixed than most, a weave and jumble of old styles and contemporary attitudes as seen through the Coens’ amused and bleak gaze.

The film frames its six stories by use of a facsimile of a western anthology of the type written in the 1900s by Stuart Edward White, illustrated in the manner of N.C. Wyeth. It’s a pleasing nod to an old Hollywood style of storytelling.

First comes the title story, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, an immaculately white-clad cowpoke, strumming his guitar, singing a song, riding along through John Ford’s Monument Valley and right into bullet-packed trouble. As we learn at slapstick speed, his sugary exterior is a mere shell laid over a hair-trigger pistol-spinning psychopath.

The joke is a bit obvious (or maybe I’m a bit old) and B-movie cowboys, such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, are fat targets for parody. But thanks to Nelson’s indomitable cheer, along with the Coens’ visual imagination and slapstick flair, the sequence is very funny, involving a swell gag involving a poker table, followed by droll visions of angels.

From there, slapstick turns to farce with “Near Algodones.” James Franco plays a luckless bandit whose brief career runs through one necktie party after another. (We picked up on hints of Hang ‘Em Highamong other references.) There’s a clever line near the end, but the jokes go flat here.

“Meal Ticket” is memorable almost solely for its conceit: Liam Neeson plays a traveling freakshow impresario whose sole attraction is “The Wingless Thrush.” The Thrush is an armless, legless actor (well played by Harry Melling, a Harry Potter alumnus) who recites Coenesque mashups of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, the Bible, Shakespeare and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to audiences of bored, lonely miners trapped in wintry mountain camps. 

The sequence is mostly a series of dissolves with the camera fixed on Melling’s face as he recites his way through the classics of nineteenth century literature, smoothly edited together to remind us of the Coens’ manner of blending tropes and genres. To the Impresario, the Thrush is but a fancy windup clock. Outside issues of bodily functions—one of them provoking a brief bark of sick laughter— the two men never interact.

The freak show is a success at first as it wanders from camp to camp, but as it goes on—and it does go on—the takings start to dwindle (along with, I admit, my interest). Finally, weary of having to wait um hand and foot on his charge, Neeson resorts to desperate measures to turn his fortunes after an encounter with a calculating chicken. 

For a minute, as my ever-clever wife remarked, it looks as though the sequence would climb the sublime heights of “One Froggy Evening.”  I have little doubt the same idea crossed the Coens’ devilish minds--it sure would mine--but they seemed content to leave it as an anecdotal campfire tale.

The same may be said of the following sequence, “All Gold Valley,” adapted from a Jack London story. Tom Waits channels Gabby Hayes as a gold prospector who lays waste to a pristine mountain paradise. In fact, it’s Tom Waits all by his lonesome until the very end. The underlying environmental message, however, sparks little interest, putting this sequence near the bottom of the pile. But even with the worst westerns, there’s always the scenery to look at. That applies here, too.

The Coens do finally strike real gold with the fourth tale, “The Girl Who Got Rattled.” Adapted from a story by Stuart Edward White, it’s much the best by a prairie mile.

We meet a young woman (Zoe Kazan) and her bull-stubborn, incompetent brother on a wagon train to Oregon. After her brother dies, she’s drawn into a poignant encounter with the train’s wagon masters, played by Bill Heck and Grainger Hines. 

For once the Coens drop their trademark snigger and chilly post-modern detachment to tell a sad, but thrilling yarn in eloquent but plain style and with heart—something we don’t often see from them. For once, they stop looking down on their characters and try to engage them eye to eye. With simple but excellent compositions by cameraman Bruno Delbonnel and sets and lighting by God, it’s a golden pleasure to watch.

It brings back memories of many a good western of old, including those directed by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. Zoe Kazan is excellent, but someone should cast both Bill Heck and Grainger Hines in another western as soon as possible. Both actors bring saddle-weary truth to their roles, proving that Randolph Scott still rides.

Unfortunately, the movie loses a shoe and goes lame at the end with “Mortal Remains.” The pyrite of the lot, it’s a Stagecoach Meets Twilight Zone affair whose ending we saw comin’ ‘round the mountain long before its gabby characters did, in a tale more static than claustrophobic. Death is rarely a surprise in a Coen Brothers film and it’s sure no surprise here.

Grumbling aside, it’s pleasing to see filmmakers like the Coens once again tackle the western, as they did so well in True Grit. At its best, Buster Scruggs is an expression of both deep love for and ambivalence toward this most American of film genres. Even so, it runs hot only once and lukewarm-to-cold for the rest. It’s no holiday movie, but one for late night, after children and more sensitive souls have long gone to bed and into dreams of angels and sunny prairies.






We saw Buster Scruggs before Thanksgiving was even on us. During Thanksgiving, the TV sat like a plain black rectangle as we preferred the state of hypnosis induced by a jigsaw puzzle. It wasn’t until Friday, with almost everyone else gone, that we noticed the TV in the room—not for a jumbled epic, not for some antic thriller, but for a Netflix documentary about . . . dogs.

Dogs (an on-the-wet-nose title to be sure), is a six-part documentary series about the roles that dogs play in the lives of the neediest among us. We’ve only seen two chapters so far and have been enchanted and moved.

The first episode, “The Kid with a Dog,” deals with Corinne, a severely epileptic teenage girl who’s so in the grip of her condition that she can never ever be left alone, not even in sleep. Her family is committed and loving, but even they are cracking under the strain by the situation. Finally, they turn for help to a “labradoodle” named Rory who’s been trained to detect seizures and raise the alarm when they arrive.

“Bravo Zeus,” the second episode, follows Ayham, a refugee from the Syrian Civil War who now lives in lonely exile in Berlin, Germany. With the help of an NGO, Animals Syria, he arranges to smuggle his beloved (and very charming) husky, Zeus, from the horrors of war-torn Damascus. Next to this real-life story, most fictional thrillers look a little pale.

The series theme song is the worst sort of treacle, but feel free to plug your ears. Once we got past that, we found both stories deeply moving and hair-raising in their own fashion (even for this cat lover). While portraying the emotional bonds between people and their pets, it also, without making too much of itself, hints at some of the wider complications lurking about.

Rory’s work, while greatly easing the strain, only goes so far in helping Corinne’s family, as her mother must still sleep in the same room with her. Their future still looks bleak. Dogs can do a lot but they can’t do everything.

As for Ayham and Zeus, a utilitarian ideologue (among other moralists) will reject Ayham’s priorities and ask whether any resources should be spent at all on “mere pets” in the midst of so much human suffering.

It might be better though to save our fury for the war from which man and dog fled. When Zeus comes bounding into the airport and into Ayham’s arms, objections fall away and Love remains standing.

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel is now out! His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


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