Saturday, March 28, 2015

Writers Born Today - Nelson Algren

It's the birthday of Nelson Algren, born March 28, 1909 in Detroit. He grew up in a poor ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and his fiction revolved around men and women who lived in the margins of society.

It started with a stolen typewriter, which landed him in a Texas prison. After he was released, he mined this episode to produce some of the most powerful fiction of the 20th century.  When asked who the best writers in America were, Ernest Hemingway named Algren second only to William Faulkner. "You should not read it if you cannot take a punch," Hemingway noted in reference to Algren's fiction.

Algren doesn't pull any punches. At a time when America was celebrating its postwar prosperity in the late 1940s and 50s, he wrote about con men, swindlers, corrupt politicians and petty criminals. His second novel was banned in Chicago, but his third, The Man With The Golden Arm, won the National Book Award. It was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra and broke a film taboo with its depiction of narcotic use.

A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.

                                             - Nelson Algren

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writers Born Today - Leonard Nimoy

It's the birthday of poet and writer Leonard Nimoy, born March 26, 1931 in Boston. Although he wrote in English, Yiddish was his first language, and he spoke and read it fluently all his life.

Nimoy was the author of two autobiographies, several volumes of poetry and numerous scripts and sketches, including several written for the Army Special Services branch while doing his military service in Georgia in the 1950s. He also signed a recording contract and sang or narrated several pop music albums. The reviews for his first album described his vocals as "pleasantly rugged".

Later in life he worked in black & white photography and his photos can be found in many exclusive art galleries. He directed several movies, including Three Men And A Baby, which was the highest grossing movie of 1987. Ticket sales in the U.S. alone topped 167 million dollars. The budget was a mere 11 million dollars.

There was almost no creative medium he did not attempt, and although he was not equally successful in all of them, he was always distinctive and often original.

He is of course, most famous for his acting, particularly the role of Mr. Spock, created for the television series Star Trek. The sci-fi series, which explored space in a futuristic setting and which declared at the beginning of each episode that its mission statement was "To boldly go where no man has gone before", was gone after just three seasons.

Yet it broke new ground and inspired a die hard group of fans whose buoyant devotion would resurrect Star Trek through a series of movies, additional TV shows and even a cartoon. The original Star Trek often tackled weighty issues like racism and what it means to be human, themes that were easier to get away with when the cast was filled with space aliens. Leonard Nimoy's cerebral and logical Mr. Spock eventually garnered more fan mail than Captain Kirk. He was "the conscience of Star Trek" according to the show's creator, Gene Roddenberry.

After the series ended, Nimoy continued to work in television and in 1975 published his first autobiography, I Am Not Spock. Some fans saw this an attempt to refute his character, but Nimoy stated he was merely exploring the conflicts that arise between an actor as a person and his character. For someone as famous as he, it was a difficult balancing act.

His second biography, I Am Spock, came out in 1995 and discussed in depth the creation of Spock and how Nimoy influenced the character.

Star Trek fans bought the biographies.  His volumes of poetry did not sell as well. But as an actor and a writer he inspired many fans and writers to "go where they had not gone before".

Click here to read Ryan Britt's tribute to Nimoy,  How Leonard Nimoy's Spock Taught Me To Be A Writer.

And if you can't get enough of Leonard Nimoy (and who among us can?), check out  Leonard Nimoy - 14 Things You Didn't Know About His Career.

Now then, does anyone know where Sheldon put that napkin with Leonard Nimoy's DNA on it?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mystery History - The Hitchhiker Released Today in 1953

On March 21, 1953, The Hitchhiker was released in U.S. theaters. The first film noir directed by a woman, it tells the story of a psychopath thumbing his way across the southwest. At the end of each trip, he rewards his Samaritans by murdering them. It was a low budget B thriller, but it had several current and future stars in front of and behind the camera.

Emmett Myers, the killer, is played by William Talman, who became well known as the prosecutor Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason TV series.  The Hitchhiker was one of the best performances of his career. His brutal treatment of the victims coupled with his physical deformity (a strange unblinking eye) lent shocking power to the role.

Edmund O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy played the vacationers Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen who pick up Myers. Myers forces them to drive to Mexico while uttering a constant barrage of death threats and insults. Suspense is created by the efforts of the men to escape and the tension of not knowing whether they will survive.

The players were well established in Hollywood, despite the low budget afforded this independent film. O'Brien had made a spectacular impression two years before as a walking murder victim in D.O.A.  Frank Lovejoy played mostly supporting roles but was a reliable and solid actor.

The most surprising performance of the film came not in front of the camera, but behind it. Ida Lupino was a rarity in the male dominated world of Hollywood...a director. She had begun her directing career by accident when the director for The Bigamist fell ill and she stepped in to take his place.  She not only directed the film but co-starred with Edmund O'Brien.  Lupino had been an actress for many years and her interest in directing first bloomed while she was on suspension for refusing a film role.

The Hitchhiker was well received, but the idea of a female director was still so new that the studio was on the defensive and released an interview for the press upon the film's release entitled "Ida Lupino Retains Her Femininity As A Director". She survived the scrutiny and went on to a long career as a director for movies and television, including Thriller and several Alfred Hitchcock episodes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Mystery History - The Naked City Released in 1948

On this day, March 4, 1948, The Naked City was released in theaters. The story of a model who's found dead in her bathtub introduced a new style of film-making. The tone was set from the opening scene as the film's producer introduces himself and addresses the moviegoers directly. As he speaks, we fly over a great metropolis, New York City...The Naked City. 

The gritty realism of the movie resembled a documentary almost as much as a fictional story of murder. It won two Oscars, for Film Editing and Cinematography.

The feel of the film was inspired by Arthur Fellig, a photographer famous for his black and white shots of the city. Better known by his nickname Weegee, he consulted on The Naked City, which took it's title from one of the photographer's photo books. Italian neorealism also influenced the style.

The great Barry Fitzgerald played the main detective, Dan Muldoon. Born in Dublin, Ireland, his Irish accent and humor lent an air of authenticity to his role as a New York City cop. His partner, Jimmy Halloran, was played by Don Taylor. But the most important character was the city itself, and its people.

The film inspired a television series of the same name, and it ran from 1958 until 1963. 

You can read the movie review from March 5, 1948 at The New York Times.

To see some of the actual locations that were featured in the movie and how they appear today, clickety-click here.

"There are 8 million stories in The Naked City. This has been one of them."

- Mark Hellinger

Monday, March 2, 2015

Writers Born Today - David Goodis

It the centennial birthday of crime novelist David Goodis, born March 2, 1917 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He wrote of down and out men and women searching for the American Dream but not finding it. Pulp stories were his bread and butter and many of them found their way into magazines like Dime Mystery and Gangland Detective Stories.

Described as the "Poet of Losers" his novels are considered classics of noir fiction. With titles like Retreat From Oblivion and Street Of No Return, his work described a bleak landscape of urban decay and the impact it had on the men and women who struggled to break free of it. Despair led to crime, but rarely escape. As one reviewer put it, "Goodis didn't write novels, he wrote suicide notes".

Goodis became a best selling writer with the novel, Dark Passage, which first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post as a serial and was later made into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The novel is considered his masterpiece. It tells the story of an escaped convict who undergoes plastic surgery to disguise his face. His days are puntuated by loneliness and fear of being discovered as he searches for his wife's killer, a crime for which he was convicted.

He worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a while but never duplicated the success he achieved with Dark Passage. He returned to Philadelphia and lived with his parents in their downtown rowhouse. He continued to write novels whose themes turned ever darker as time passed.

David Goodis died of a stroke in 1967. Depending on who you ask, he was either killed because of a robbery attempt, a bar fight, or as a result of shoveling snow. It was as if he was overwhelmed by the forces that had destroyed so many of his characters. He was 49 years old.

His reputation and influence grew after his death, and he received the ultimate tribute in 2012 when the Library of America released a collection of his best work, Five Noir Novels of the 1940s  and 50s.

Film maker Edward Holub created a haunting and sympathetic documentary on the life of Goodis which you can view below. It's well worth your time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mystery History - Please Murder Me

It was on this day in 1956 that moviegoers got their first glimpse of Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury in the noir film, Please Murder Me. It's the story of an attorney, Craig Carlson (played by Burr) who defends his lover, Myra Leeds (played by Lansbury) against a charge of murder when she shoots her husband in self-defense. After winning an acquittal, Carlson is horrified to discover that she really killed her husband to inherit his money, and the claim of self-defense was a ruse. Leeds also plans to dump Carlson for another lover, an artist she has been seeing on the sly.

Stung by this double betrayal, Carlson announces to Leeds that he will have her arrested...for his own murder. Leeds dismisses his threat, but Carlson begins his plan. He even purchases a gun in a pawn shop, the "murder weapon" he will use to trap Leeds. By the end of the film, he makes good on his promise and manipulates Myra Leeds into shooting him. Carlson, of course, has already tipped off the police, and when they arrive, they play back the tape recording that will condemn Myra for Carlson's murder.  It was one of the most ingenious movie plots ever put on the silver screen, but the film has fallen into the public domain and remains almost unknown today.

Angela Lansbury was already an established star, with two Oscar nomination under her belt for Best Supporting Actress in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray when she made this film. Until this movie was released, Burr had played mostly villains, such as the psychopathic kidnapper in A Cry In The Night and a wife murderer in Rear Window. Both Burr and Lansbury put in A+ performances.

Angela Lansbury went on to star in many more movies as well as appearing on the stage before taking on Murder, She Wrote. which established her as the "American Miss Marple" in the TV series.

Raymond Burr went on a screen test for a new TV series just two months after Please Murder Me, and tested for both main roles as the DA and the defense attorney. He won the second role, and became the star of Perry Mason. The show ran for nine seasons and became Burr's trademark.

Yet he almost didn't get the part. Many bigger stars auditioned for the role, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Mike Conners, and Fred MacMurray. Burr's reputation as a typecast villain didn't help either, but he got the part. His appearance in Please Murder Me may have played a crucial role in this decision, according to a blog post by American Film Noir.

The evidence is circumstantial but convincing. He did the screen test for Perry Mason just after the movie's release, so the producers of the TV show almost certainly were aware of it or had seen the movie. Several persons associated with the film later played a role in the early Perry Mason series, including production crew and one of the screen writers. Finally, there is the performance of Raymond Burr himself.  Watch the movie and you can see the tone, the voice, and the mannerisms that we recognize as being unique to Perry Mason. Raymond Burr wasn't born for the role. He earned it, with his performance in Please Murder Me.

For an in-depth review and discussion of Please Murder Me, check out this podcast on Orphaned Entertainment.

To watch the film, go to any of the public domain releases. Here's a pretty good one on Youtube.