Thursday, December 31, 2015

Writers Born Today - Helen Eustis

It's the birthday of mystery writer and translator Helen Eustis, born December 31, 1916 in New York City. Although her output was small, she made a lasting impact in the mystery field. She attended Smith College as an art student but began writing fiction.

Her debut novel, The Horizontal Man, was based in part on her experiences while attending Smith College. A philandering professor is murdered in his home and the suspects (students and staff) are either mad, lovesick, or rivals of the victim. In 1947 the Mystery Writers of America awarded it the Edgar for Best First Novel. It was one of the earliest examples of the psychological suspense thriller. Eustis once joked that she had written the novel because "she knew so many people in college she would like to murder".  

She wrote short stories for many of the era's prominent magazines. An American Home won the O. Henry Award in 1947, and appeared as part of a short story collection, The Captains and the Kings Depart and Other Stories. She also translated works of french writers into English, including detective novels by Georges Simenon.

Her 1954 novel, The Fool Killer, was turned into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Eddie Albert. And this year, Sarah Weinman included The Horizontal Man in her acclaimed Library of America collection, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mystery History - Sydney Greenstreet

It's the birthday of actor Sydney Greenstreet, born December 27, 1879 in Kent, England.  One of eight children, he left England as a young man for colonial Ceylon to seek his fortune, but failed as a business man. Once back in England, he took acting lessons for something to do, and soon became a star on the stage. His first appearance in 1902 was as the villain in a production of Sherlock Holmes.

For decades he was a successful stage actor, first in England and then in the United States. But it was as an actor in Hollywood that he is best remembered. John Houston cast him as Kasper Gutman, known as "the fat man" in the film The Maltese Falcon. Along with his cohort in crime, Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre), the pair sought an elusive jewel encrusted statue worth a fortune. Their search pitted them against Sam Spade, played by Humphrey Bogart. The movie was a critical and financial success, and it established Greenstreet as a character actor who would go on to play the villain in nearly two dozen films.  His weight (nearly 300 pounds) and his piercing hawk-like eyes, gave him an ominous presence, and his stage acting experience allowed him to deliver lines that became classic quotes among fans of film noir.

After his film debut he went on to star in numerous films recognized as classics today, including CasablancaPassage to Marseille, The Mask of Dimitrios, and The Verdict. In all he made 24 films in a Hollywood career that lasted only eight years. Yet his impact has been remarkable. He was the perfect villain, a man who spoke politely and with a rich vocabulary, and yet could be ruthless. He was often paired with Peter Lorre, with whom he made nine films. Greenstreet even helped inspire the alien villain in Star Wars. When receiving instructions from George Lucas on how to create Jabba the Hut, the designer thought of Sidney Greenstreet.  It was a comparison Greenstreet would have appreciated.

"Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice, and I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."

- Kasper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Mystery History - The Crime Films of Frank Sinatra

It's the birthday of Frank Sinatra, born 100 years ago today in Hoboken, New Jersey. Besides being one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, he starred in more than a few movies, and did quite well as an actor. He was nominated for four Academy Awards and won three of them, in 1946, 1954 and 1971, as well as numerous others. He also won three Sour Apple Awards, for the dubious distinction of "Least Cooperative Actor".

Many of his films revolved around crime or have a noir film style, and these are my personal favorites. One of the earliest of these was Suddenly, a 1950 movie starring Sinatra, Sterling Hayden and Nancy Gates. Sinatra plays the part of John Baron, an assassin who plans to kill the President of the United States at a train stop in the small town of Suddenly. He and his team take over the home of a family that lives near the station and hold them hostage while they wait for the train to arrive. A sense of claustrophobia created convincing fear as the family struggles to deal with the home invaders. Sterling Hayden played local Sheriff Todd Shaw, assigned to protect the President during his visit. Sinatra got good reviews for his performance as the psychopathic killer who takes joy in his work.

A few years later Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in The Man With The Golden Arm. Many people consider this his best film performance, although he lost the Academy Award that year to Ernest Borgnine. Directed by Otto Preminger, The Man With The Golden Arm was the first film to treat the subject of drug addiction seriously. Sinatra played Frankie Machine, a drummer who has recently been released from prison after overcoming his addiction to heroin. His attempt to stay clean and land a job with a band fall apart and he succumbs to drugs and illegal poker games. The film failed to get a seal of approval from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), but did well at the box office and received strong approval from critics.

In 1960 he played Danny Ocean alongside the rest of the rat pack in the ultimate Las Vegas casino heist film, Ocean's 11. The idea behind the robbery came from a gas station attendant. When Peter Lawford, who had bought the film rights, approached Sinatra about starring in the film, he reportedly said, "Forget the movie, let's pull the job". The New York Times liked the film's dialogue and skilled performances, but lamented that former war heroes could treat robbery and crime with no moral baggage or seeming consequence. The Times' critic must have missed the end of the movie, when Danny's crew suffers from a finale that brings them all to tears.

One of Frank Sinatra's most controversial roles occurred in The Manchurian Candidate, released in 1962. The cold war thriller had a star packed cast with Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, Henry Silva and James Gregory. Sinatra plays Major Bennett Marco, a Korean war veteran who uncovers a plot to assassinate a Presidential candidate in an upcoming election by one of the men he served time with in a POW camp. The plot is the result of wartime brainwashing by the communists. After the Kennedy assassination, the movie fell out of favor and, except for a brief viewing on NBC in 1974, was not seen again until 1987.

Sinatra appeared in another taboo breaking film in 1968 with his starring role in The Detective. Roger Ebert praised Sinatra's performance and the film's "clear, unsentimental look at a police investigation." The movie was one of the first films to tackle openly the subject of homosexuality and treat it seriously.

Almost as interesting as Sinatra's appearance in so many fine crime movies are the movies he didn't make. He was chosen for the starring role in Dirty Harry, a character later made famous by Clint Eastwood. Sinatra had suffered a broken hand while filming The Manchurian Candidate, and as a result he was unable to lift the character's trademark .44 Magnum. The role was also turned down by John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster.

Frank Sinatra was also selected to play the star in the movie that was later filmed as Die Hard. Based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, it was a sequel to The Detective, which had starred Frank Sinatra. Thus, the producer was obliged to offer the role to Sinatra. By the time filming was ready to begin, he was 73 years old, and turned it down. It later went to Bruce Willis.

Click here for a complete list of movies with Frank Sinatra with rankings and reviews.

Suddenly has lost copyright protection and is in the public domain. You can watched the entire film on the internet. The You tube link is listed below.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Writers Born Today - Cornell Woolrich

It's the birthday of Cornell Woolrich, born December 4, 1903 in New York City.

For a while he lived in Mexico with his father after his parents separated, but returned to New York to live with his mother. F. Scott Fitzgerald was an early influence on his writing. He went to college at Columbia, but dropped out after his first novel, Cover Charge, was published.

His best writing occurred in the 1940s, with titles such The Bride Wore Black, I Married A Dead Man, and Night Has A Thousand Eyes. He also wrote under the pen names William Irish and George Hopley.

Many of his characters face a world of bleak prospects with little room for success or sentimentality. In his novel The Black Angel a man kills himself for the love of a woman, She remarks with cynicism, "I gave him something to die for. That was more than he'd had before. It's better to die for something than to live for nothing."

He's been called the Poe of the 20th century. Much of his work, especially his short stories, were published in pulp detective magazines, and are out of print. But as a testament to his skill, over two dozens films have been made based on his stories and novels. The best known is Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, based on his story It Had To Be Murder.