Oldie Noir: Killers

DATELINE: Hemingway Classic

Burt Lancaster Awaits the Grim Reapers.

 

A late 1940s film noir version of “The Killers” made author Ernest Hemingway wince. He was hypercritical of the Hollywood versions of his novels and stories.

Yet, the star vehicle for Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster used the first twenty-minutes to tell the short story. The rest is Hollywood explanations that have nothing to do with Hemingway except to build off his message.

The original dark opening seems to tell an inexplicable tale of a gas station attendant who is hunted down by two hired gunmen. Instead of running when he is warned, he simply waits for the inevitable killing.

When asked why he won’t flee, he gives the ultimate Hemingway man’s answer. There comes a time when you stop running because it doesn’t matter in the end.

The moody and eerie tale is brilliantly directed by Robert Siodmak and were it a short subject could have been a masterpiece after the killers climb the boarding house stairs and let their bullets fly.

Young Burt Lancaster is suitably tough and handsome, as you’d want you hero, but he is antiheroic in not fighting. The rest of the movie is a pathetic attempt to flashback to his roots and how he upset the mobsters.

Quiet nighttime moments in an old-fashioned diner and the ominous sense the Swede’s friends have about the mystery visitors is all part of the philosophical insight of the author.

Many questions about the Swede are raised and there are no answers. It was always the style of Hemingway to omit key information: you fill in the blanks. Sometimes if you have enough questions, they provide an answer. The central mystery of the Swede is explained in banal terms during the remainder of the movie.

Heminway gives you suspense in the anticipation of answers, but you will be thwarted and left to your own devices to figure out the moral of the story.

 

 

And Leave the Driving to Hitch….

DATELINE:  Hitchcock’s Breakdown

 Trapped in his car!

“Breakdown” brought Joseph Cotten back together with his old friend Alfred Hitchcock for a half-hour television episode that would send chills down the spine of anyone thinking of driving down to Florida alone. It was supposed to be the first episode of the new TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents…but was held back.

Once again, Hitchcock played with his words. His breakdown could be a fancy sports car in disrepair, or a man in mental exhaustion. In the case of the show, it could be a word for all seasons.

A ruthless business tycoon (Cotten) fires people over the telephone without remorse and is shocked when one accountant begins to cry piteously. Contempt is his best reaction, finding such weakness to be beneath his attention.

Yet, when a bulldozer working with a chain gang hits his car, he is left paralyzed behind the wheel, looking to the world like a dead man. The steering wheel has crushed his chest, or so concludes every witness.

Not one takes his pulse, so convinced are they of his demise. Thus begins his voice-over thoughts as he is robbed, stripped, has his identity taken, but is able to tap his finger to alert the world of his living carcass.

It is to no avail as the shroud is put over him, and he is left in a morgue. Hitchcock pulled out all the stops of fear on this one—from dying, from being buried alive, to fear of loneliness in its ultimate form.

Augurs and omens dominate the first few moments, perhaps giving a clue or two about the fate and character of Cotton’s heartless protagonist.

Cotten must act without benefit of any movement, tic, or facial acknowledgement. He is up to the task, a monumental endeavor for an actor to act dead for a half-hour TV show.

 

 

 

 

 

 Apocalypse Earth as Frozen Popsickle

DATELINE: Doomsday Glacier

  

Now blizzards are something we can warm up to. The latest doomsday show starts off with the 1300s and the Little Ice Age, which was bad for a 100 years but lingered until almost 1900.

If the series is correct, everything from the Black Death to the French Revolution could be traced back to failed crops and angry people. And, the worst may be about to return.

It’s enough to make you want to colonize Mars where it’s cold, but there is no snow. This is another of those compilation from the lost burial ground of snow documentaries.

Smack in the middle of discussing ice ages, there is a sidebar in which climbers of a Himalayan mountain barely escape an avalanche. It is adrift from the rest of the show, under the odd heading of survivor stories. You mean there was no one who could speak to the Blizzard of ’78 and how hard it was?

Not in this oddball pastiche.

The best part of the show came in the final 30 minutes or so when glaciers and hailstorms came under discussion. Rock gouges indicate that there have been a dozen glaciers coming and going over the past million years.

One glacier may have been four times as high as the Empire State Building over New York City.

Another shocking moment was the home video of a family home in Oklahoma being decimated by softball size hail. It is terrifyijng, and this few scenes make up for the drivel also poured over the audience.

These “specials” from History are hit or miss, every other week. And they are hit and miss within their own hour or two. The final episode of the “season” will be shown next week on the topic of tsunamis, again with no particular order or progression of development.

 

 

 

Caricature King

DATELINE:  The Line King

Hitch by Hirsch: we couldn’t find Nina.

 Al Hirschfeld likely hated being considered an artist who was a cartoon caricaturist. He was much more, and only in recent years after a 70-year career is he receiving his due.

Hirschfeld is the titled The Line King  in this fascinating and surprising documentary. It divides his life and career into decades from the start of the 20thcentury. He lived well past 90 and was active until the end.

Hia works are notable for the gimmick “Nina” name of his daughter that need to be located—and in multitudes, counted. It was another device that seemed to lessen his artistic reputation, though it is a clever indication of how bright his mind always was.

He started out sculpting and doing watercolors, but those did not sell. He worked in early movie studios, under Selznick and Mayer, sketching all the great comedians. He knew them all, too, including Chaplin who rescued him from poverty when he was in Bali without funds.

The Line King learned about people daily, and his wisdom emanates in every segment that relies on interviews he gave.

What a brilliant man—and many stars, like Katharine Hepburn, bought his works and offer glowing testimonials to his insight.

He never tried to be cruel. When he did his most nasty version of David Merrick, the Broadway producer bought the original and put it on his annual Christmas card.

Hirschfeld did all his work in his little office sitting in a barber’s chair, his idea of comfort, and worked seven days a week. He never had a contract with the New York Times until his last years—and he was more important to Broadway and film than the critics.

If you wanted a seminal insight into every great performer and his work, you need only consult a Hirschfeld sketch. Absolutely brilliant and the film is too.

 

Apt Pupil Outruns Mentor

DATELINE: Crypto Nazis in Suburbia

Bryan Singer, director of Apt Pupil,first ran into hot water, not because of the subject matter that indicated Nazi youth were living in American suburbs, but because he filmed teenage boys in the high school shower after gym class.

This 1998 film should not be forgotten for more important reasons.

High crimes differ in every culture. Singer’s point made Stephen King’s novella more horrific than the original story where the FBI could identify your garden variety mass killer with a profile. In this film version an All-American boy on a bicycle discovers the old man in his neighborhood is no innocent immigrant, but a fugitive Nazi killer from Auschwitz.

It was an era when immigrants were welcomed into the United States at the border, no matter how dubious their credentials. After all, safe haven is often de rigueur for evil-doers.

Instead of turning the reprobate into authorities, the kid wants to be tutored in the fine art of Nazi supremacy. It was a wild idea twenty years ago, but today with neo and crypto Nazi supporters all over the landscape, we might discover this budding monster wins some sympathy. How many shooters in recent years were teenagers with MAGA caps?

Performances make this essential two-character drama into something special. Ian McKellan plays an older Nazi and Brad Refro is the innocent-looking teen. The sophistication of Refro’s work makes his early death a far greater loss to acting. Each star is brilliant as we watch their subtle sexually charged father-son jamboree.

At one point, Refro as Todd buys a Nazi uniform for his pal to see him march around. McKellan dryly announces, “I see I have been promoted.”

The revelation that Refro’s youth may be worse than the Master comes at different points for some audience members. You could think that the kid is a victim of a powerful influence, but his treatment of his high school teacher Mr. French who discovers the ugly secret is far more stinging than the headlines of today’s child abuse cases.

Who can you trust in this world? Everyone uses a façade to shield their hideous criminal intentsions.

Up to the ending, McKellan’s Nazi thinks he can outsmart the American Nazi, but the freedom of choice in the United States makes for a far more dangerous brand of Fascism, as we now know from Trump’s campaign for a second term.

This is a chilling look at Nazis, homegrown and imported.

Black Butterfly in the Yard!

DATELINE:  Noir Papillion?

Our summer of paranormal messages continues its barrage of weekly activities.

The latest visitor to our little corner of spooky alley is a black butterfly.  It might have piqued our interest in normal times, but over the past few weeks, it has become a culmination of strange events.

According to some experts in mythology, Irish and Celtic legends say that black butterflies are also the souls of deceased people who are unable or unwilling to move on to the afterlife; they may return to the place they once lived or somewhere they were fond of visiting when they were alive.”

If you have followed our adventures, you may recall that three days in a row, we had a visit from a gold finch. We had never seen one around here previously, in person, but to have it show up for an afternoon tea break for three separate visits was fascinating. The totem mythology of gold finches is their spiritual impact, sending positive vibrations.

After a tropical storm not a few days earlier, we discovered a white quartz rock, flat and unusual, next to the car that also seems to have positive predictive qualities if you follow the buzz on the Internet.

So, should I be surprised when a few days ago a black butterfly sat on my car’s windshield before I could adjust my eyes and grab the camera.  A few friends told me it was bad luck and not to drive the car for a while.

A Haitian friend who knows his voodoo told that the black butterfly is feared as a portent of death to come.

This morning the black butterfly returned, and he sat on my white garden chair. He stayed long enough for me take a video.

Investigating its meaning, I discovered the old Celtic legend about a spirit returning to its old home for a visit.

None of this would matter much except for the long history of my home, once the residence of two victims of the Titanic in 1912.  Now, one of them has taken up regular stays in my library where paranormal experts and psychics have been in ecstasy over the ghostly presence. We have had more than a few seances!

Now, a series of physical and totem experiences has made the theory more concrete for me. Gold finches, white crystals, and black butterflies. It is a summer to remember.

Dr. William Russo is author of several Titanic books: Tales of a Titanic Family, Chess-mate from Titanic, Spooky Geology & Titanic. All are available in print or ebook format on Amazon.com.

 

Hurricanes of the Apocalypse

DATELINE: Raindrops on Your Head! 

 1938

This series on unpleasant natural phenomena now adds big wind and rain to the mix of devastation. Apocalypse Earth is offering no relief from the Weather Channel.

If you want to see the most disappointing of the Apocalypse Earth specials, welcome to hurricane city. It’s nowheresville done up big.

As one of the longer entries in the series, we thought we might receive slightly more indepth scenes of rushing water than News at 11. Don’t count on it.

Human folly is the theme of this episode:  experts told that the New Orleans levee system can withstand a category 3 hurricane seemed to think that it would hold up against a Category 5. Hunh? We learn the system of water dispersal in the city actually encourages storm surge right into the downtown area. What?

If you want a catalog of follies, here is the episode you have been waiting for:  since the 1990s Florida has had a boom of population from the Midwest, people who never experienced a bad hurricane and had no idea what might happen.

As per usual in a crisis, you have drunken young men having a party. Some stand out in the 150mph wind to test their mettle, and some die. Par for the course, as we have learned in a pandemic.

A meteorologist in a cinder block house never thought he’d lose his roof. The show is rife with bad decisions, and there are names of infamy like Katrina and Andrew.  We learn the obvious: Florida is the most likely hit by hurricane state.

Hurricanes are the most predictable of major disasters, but that doesn’t mean much when complacency and apathy are the hallmarks of an uneducated public.

One of the storm chasers is a callow youth when we realize he was interviewed in 2005. We do not see his viewpoint recently, and again this is a pastiche show of long-ago footage, including interviews.

One of the most interesting segments was on the great hurricane of 1938 that hit New England. Color newsreel helps to bring it to life, and there is also evidence shown of the hurricane of 1893 that devastated Far Rockaway, New York.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Benny & Marilyn

DATELINE:  An Innocent Age

Back in 1953 for the first show of his second season, Jack Benny garnered the biggest name and biggest star of the year:  Marilyn Monroe. It was called the Jack Benny Program.

As all the set-ups in the Benny program were at the expense of Jack’s delicate ego, he took the barrage of raps and insults with his usual aplomb.

You might be ready for some outdated racial profiling when Rochester showed up: Eddie Anderson always played Jack’s valet who goes with him everywhere and calls him “Boss.” Here they go to Hawaii, and we find Jack lugging all the luggage with no Rochester.

Jack sits on the dock, ready to leave, while flower leis are given to all the departing guests for their generosity, kindness, and friendship. Alas, even a dog gets a lei, but not Jack. Finally a delicatessen owner shows up and gives him a lei of chicken livers. He is warned to be careful of the seagulls.

We learn too that Jack is carrying Rochester’s luggage because he was late for the ship.

When Benny falls asleep on deck, he dreams about the star he saw that night in a ship’s nightly movie: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes megastar, Marilyn Monroe.   And, in one of her designer gowns, she drops into the barcalounger recliner next to Jack in his dreams.

She professes her love for him despite their age difference. She points out she is 25 and he is 39, but in 25 years she will be 50, and he will still be 39. She is enchanted by his big blue eyes.

It was Monroe’s first TV appearance as a guest star (we don’t count her TV commercials, satirized in All About Eve).  She is lovely and charming, and so is Jack.

You simply don’t have that kind of weekly series surprise, even with cable nowadays. It was a gentle treat of a bygone era, and a lovely little escape from today.

 

Social Skills Bite the Dust

DATELINE: Curmudgeon’s Perspective

Role Model: Heidi’s Grandfather

Leave it to the New York Times to write up a report that one hideous side-effect of the coronavirus is that social skills are biting the dust.

Yes, apparently people are not using their social skills and are losing the edge in dealing with other people in a variety of ways. They are cranky, depressed, short-tempered, and in fact are becoming Heidi’s grandfather, that old isolated reprobate who hated kids. The new paranoia mistrusts everyone.

As an old curmudgeon who has been bilious for years, this is amusing to no end.

Meeting new people has never been high on this writer’s list, but apparently many in society thrive on socializing. We can offer a few tidbits of advice to those who are snappy at stay-at-home children and grandparents: try to use good manners.

It’s a concept in short supply in the new century and has been endangered for decades. Intolerant, impatient, people have shrugged off etiquette in the 21stcentury like toilet paper they cannot find in proper quantities.

Your good manners may be more important than toilet paper or hand sanitizer.

According to expert psychologists, this is a biological problem because the species is a social animal. We think that rats trapped on Antarctica might also turn on each other. Psychologists have learned these lessons from studying hermits, like this author, and from isolated people in various self-imposed quarantine.

The world had better learn how to deal with fewer social skills if you plan to fly to Mars and live in an enclosed environment with a few colleagues for years on end.

We may, in fact, be preparing for the next stage of anti-civilization: when we are schizoid, alone with our thoughts, and must come to grips with philosophy concepts you avoided in college classes and Phil 101.