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review 2014-08-13 13:07
Murder, mystery and the magnetism of Bogart and Bacall
The Big Sleep: A Film Adaptation Directed by Howard Hawks - Leigh Brackett,William Faulkner,Jules Furthman,Howard Hawks,Raymond Chandler

They were one of Hollywood's all-time legendary couples, both on screen and off; producing celluloid magic in the four films they made together between 1943 and 1948 as much as by their off-screen romance, which in itself was the stuff that dreams are made of. He was the American Film Insititute's No. 1 star of the 20th century, Hollywood's original noir anti-hero, who in addition to the AFI honors bestowed on his real-life persona also played two of the 20th century's Top 50 film heroes (Casablanca's Rick Blaine and this movie's Philip Marlowe); epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf, looking unbeatably cool in dinner jacket, trenchcoat and fedora alike, a glass of whiskey in his hand and cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth; and endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his physical stature. She, despite a 25-year age difference his equal in everything from grit and toughness to mysterious appeal; chillier than bourbon on the rocks, possessing more than just a touch of class whatever her role; and long since a bona fide AFI movie legend in her own right.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall met on the set of Howard Hawks's 1944 realization of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, where an obvious chemistry quickly developed between 45-year-old veteran Bogart, who had just scored two of film history's greatest-ever hits with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca in the two preceding years, and the sassy, exciting 20-year-old newcomer who possessed the maturity and sex-appeal of a woman good and well 10 years her senior. They were reunited two years later for this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel (published 1939), based on a screenplay written, like that of To Have and Have Not, by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman, together with Leigh Brackett (who had not participated in scripting the Hemingway adaptation). By the time the movie was released in 1946, Bogart and Bacall were married.

Reprising Bogart's noir gumshoe role with a character not unlike Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, the movie The Big Sleep is as infamous as Chandler's literary original for its labyrinthine plot, which reportedly even the author himself couldn't completely untangle (nor did he care to). The action is essentially faithful to that of Chandler's novel, from which it also takes much of its dialogue; albeit streamlined and with some changes made to fit Bogart's physical characteristics, and eliminating or softening a few scenes considered unfit for display to a moviegoing audience in the 1940s. The story begins when Marlowe is hired by wealthy old General Sternwood to handle a blackmailing attempt involving gambling debts incurred by Sternwood's younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) (whom the detective has already met when she literally threw herself into his arms upon his entry into the house, sucking her thumb and coyly telling him "you're cute"). After his interview with the dying general in the latter's hot and humid orchid house, a disheveled Marlowe is summoned to the rooms of the general's older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who tries to worm out of him the purpose of his engagement and who, as Marlowe quickly concludes, has more than a minor hidden agenda of her own. Soon the detective is up to his ears in the classical film noir brew of murder, damsels in distress, shady characters and a world where nothing is what it appears to be, and where he'll be able to consider himself lucky if he gets out alive – yet, he is determined to see the case through and will neither be bought off by money nor by sweetness and seduction.

Looking back at the movie and its stars' almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, it was originally just one of the roughly 50 movies released by Warner Brothers over the course of one year. But mass production didn't equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score (Max Steiner) and the stars' presentation in the movie itself and in its trailer was at least partly responsible for its lasting success. Indeed, the release of The Big Sleep was delayed for an entire year – and not only because its first version was completed around the end of WWII and Warner Brothers wanted to get their still-unreleased war movies into theaters first, but also, and significantly, because Lauren Bacall's agent convinced studio boss Jack Warner and director Howard Hawks to reshoot several scenes to better highlight the sassy, mysterious new star Bacall had become after To Have and Have Not. And it certainly paid off: The Big Sleep firmly established then-22-year-old Lauren Bacall as one of Hollywood's new leading ladies, and even more than her first film with Humphrey Bogart laid the foundation for the couple's mythical relationship.

Bogart and Bacall would star together two more times after this movie: In Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). But of their four collaborations, the first two – and in particular, The Big Sleep – remain unparalleled for their secretive, shadowy aura, tight scripting, snappy dialogue, cynicism and underlying seductiveness; due in equal parts to the story crafted by Raymond Chandler, its adaptation by Faulkner, Furthman and Brackett, Howard Hawks's masterful direction, and its starring couple's irresistible chemistry. After three failed marriages, after having produced on-screen magic with Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon and, even more so, with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (and although he would go on to star in such memorable pairings as next to Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen and Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina), Humphrey Bogart had finally met his match – and while his and Bacall's marriage was painfully cut short by the cancer to which he succumbed in 1957, the magnetism they created on screen will live on, and nowhere more brilliantly than in The Big Sleep.

(Original version of this review posted on ThemisAthena.info. To mark Lauren Bacall's passing, also cross-posted on Leafmarks.)

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-04-22 17:07
"It is my shame that keeps me alive ... I have a freedom they cannot understand."
The French Lieutenant's Woman: A Screenplay - Harold Pinter,John Fowles

 

 

"Outside of marriage, your Victorian gentleman could look forward to 2.4 fucks a week," actor Mike coolly calculates after his screen partner (and lover) Anna has read to him the statistics according to which, while London's male population in 1857 was 1 1/4 million, the city's estimated 80,000 prostitutes were receiving a total of 2 million clients per week. And frequently, Anna adds, the women thus forced to earn their living came from respectable positions like that of a governess, simply having fallen into bad luck, e.g. by being discharged after a dispute with their employer and their resulting inability to find another position.

 

This brief dialogue towards the beginning of this screenplay based on John Fowles's 1969 novel succinctly illustrates both the fate that would most likely have been in store for its title character Sarah, had she left provincial Lyme Regis on Dorset's Channel coast and gone to London, and the Victorian society's moral duplicity: For while no virtues were regarded as highly as honor, chastity and integrity; while no woman intent on keeping her good name could even be seen talking to a man alone (let alone go beyond that); and while marriage – like any contract – was considered sacrosanct, rendering the partner who deigned to breach it an immediate social outcast, all these rules were suspended with regard to prostitutes; women who, for whatever reasons, had sunk so low they were regarded as nonpersons and thus, inherently unable to stain anybody's reputation but their own.

 

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review 2014-04-18 14:37
Wexford's Retirement – or Is It?
No Man's Nightingale - Ruth Rendell

 

Agatha Christie famously once commented that, had she foreseen the lasting popularity of Hercule Poirot, she would not have made him a man already in mid-life in the book marking his first appearance – and the beginning of Christie's own literary career –, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). The awkwardness of that situation, from the writer's point of view, would come to be even greater in the case of Miss Marple, who even at her first appearance in 1930's Murder at the Vicarage was already an elderly lady; a character partly inspired by Christie's own grandmother. Maybe Ruth Rendell should have heeded that thought when she was writing From Doon With Death, the 1964 novel which, in turn, marked both her own literary debut and Inspector Reginald Wexford's first appearance. For Wexford, too, came to his readers ready-made as a Detective Chief Inspector; i.e., a police officer of advanced rank and a corresponding degree of maturity. Yet, as in the case of Agatha Christie's famous detectives, readers did not seem overly bothered by the fact that over the course of the decades Wexford did not age in real time, and indeed, he at least did age more noticeably than Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, both of whom remained essentially unchanged even as the world around them changed a great deal. Rendell's career as a writer thrived on the basis of the Wexford novels as much as it did on the basis of her stand-alone mysteries and thrillers, many of the latter published under the pen name Barbara Vine. British TV also went on to produce a long-running TV series, starring George Baker as Wexford and Christopher Ravenscroft as his sidekick, Inspector Mike Burden; in both actors' cases, arguably still the roles for which they are the most widely known.

 

Eventually, however, retirement is bound to catch up even with a fictional detective of Wexford's staying power. Already at the publication of the 2009 mystery The Monster in the Box, an interview given by Rendell herself fostered the notion that this was going to be her last Wexford book. That turned out to be wrong, or in any event Rendell changed her mind; however, in the follow-up novel The Vault, Wexford had retired. No Man's Nightingale (2013) is the second novel in which Wexford is consulted by Burden, now his successor and himself a Detective Superintendent, in connection with a murder case, and brought in as an unpaid so-called Crime Solutions Adviser (whatever precisely that may be).

 

Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info.

 

Preview also cross-posted on Leafmarks.

Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/rendell.html#NoMansNightingale
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-04-07 00:16
"We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be."
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen

 

Thus Mansfield Park's improbable heroine, Fanny Price, admonishes her would-be suitor Henry Crawford when he purports to ask for her advice in a bid to win her around, after having already seduced her much wealthier cousins Maria and Julia Bertram. And in many ways, this one statement sums up the entire novel: More than in almost any other book – with the sole exception of Persuasion – Austen's emphasis here is on self-knowledge and self-guidedness, on knowing what is morally right and acting accordingly.

 

Mansfield Park was the first book by Jane Austen that I ever read, and that was perhaps fortunate: After all, if you fall in love with Austen's exquisite use of language, her delicate characterization, and her dry and often sardonic wit while reading about a little wallflower like Fanny Price, how much more easily are you going to take to the likes of Lizzy Bennet, the Dashwood sisters, and Catherine Moreland? For a wallflower Fanny Price certainly is – and what is perhaps even worse, a wallflower not only by our contemporary definition but also by the standards of Austen's own time – and that is probably at least one of the reasons why many modern readers find her less accessible than, say, the near-universally beloved heroine of Pride and Prejudice (and why also, incidentally, virtually every screen adaptation of Mansfield Park, instead of taking Fanny's character as actually written, seeks to "improve" upon her, with results ranging from the merely irritating to the downright disastrous).

 

Read more on my own website, ThemisAthena.info.

 

Preview also cross-posted on Leafmarks.

 


Favorite Quotes:

"We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be."

 

"If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow."

 

"A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself."

 

"Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody."

 

"But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman's constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately."

 

"Her own thoughts and reflections were habitually her best companions."

 

"[T]here certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them."

 

"But indeed I would rather have nothing but tea."

 

"You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at."

 

"It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed – the two bridemaids were duly inferior – her father gave her away – her mother stood with salts in her hand expecting to be agitated – her aunt tried to cry – and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant."

 

"This would be the way to Fanny's heart. She was not to be won by all that gallantry and wit and good-nature together could do; or, at least, she would not be won by them nearly so soon, without the assistance of sentiment and feeling, and seriousness on serious subjects."

 

"He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before."

 

"I should have thought,' said Fanny after a pause of recollection and exertion, 'that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man's not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself."

 

"[T]hey are much to be pitied who have not ... been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal."

 

"Let us have the luxury of silence."

Source: www.themisathena.info/literature/austen.html#MansfieldPark
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review 2014-01-20 20:33
Picking Over Royal Bones
King Arthur's Bones - The Medieval Murderers

 

Royal births, weddings and burials have fascinated us ordinary humans since time immemorial; and while people's proprietary interest in the fate of the world's rulers is easily understandable in societies where those rulers wield supreme power – including the Europe of yesteryear – the fascination is no less noticeable in today's world, where the discovery of royal remains such as those of Richard III, Alfred the Great or the last Romanov Tsar and his family are still apt to make considerable headlines.

 

But while in today's world the identity of the august personage who may or may not have left behind the earthly remains uncovered under a Leicester parking lot, in a clearing in the midst of a Russian wood, or in a forgotten storage box in a Winchester museum can be determined (or at least narrowed down) by science, tools such as those of forensic anthropology and DNA analysis were not available to those making comparable discoveries in centuries and millennia past.

 

Enter, thus, the Rosetta Stone of all British historical lore: King Arthur himself and the fate of his bones – assuming, that is, that he ever lived at all. If William of Malmesbury's history of Glastonbury (ca. 1130) and Chronicle of the Kings of England (1125), Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and Gerald of Wales's book On the Instruction of Princes (ca. 1193) are to be believed, Avalon – the place of Arthur's burial – is modern-day Glastonbury; and indeed, an 1191 excavation in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey uncovered an oaken coffin as well as, below a stone, a leaden cross with the inscription "His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia" (commonly translated as "Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon" or "on the island of Avalon"). The coffin contained the bodies of a large man and of a woman with golden hair, which was still intact, but crumbled away upon being until touched.

 

Arthur and Guinevere?

 

The fifth entry in the Medieval Murderers mystery "round robin" series, King Arthur's Bones, takes the 1191 Glastonbury discovery as its premise

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