Monday, December 9, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: DESPERATE MEASURES by David Morrell

For better or worse, author David Morrell will forever be known as the man who created John Rambo, one of the central cultural touchstones of that decade we all love to hate - the gung-ho 'eighties. Doesn't matter that First Blood - actually written in 1972 - was the only book of his to feature the disturbed Viet Nam veteran (if you don't count the movie tie-in adaptations Morrell penned for the sequels which I don't), it's Rambo who he'll be best remembered for, regardless of the two dozen novels he's written since. Which is kind of a shame as there are some real doozies tucked away in his bibliography, and some of them quite recent.

Now I have to say I've never been much of a fan of Morrell's 'eighties output, which, along with the aforementioned movie adaptations, seemed to consist of interchangeable conspiracy thrillers with titles like The Fraternity of the Stone, or The Brotherhood of the Rose, or The Something of the Something Else. I tried a couple back in the day - no idea which ones - and didn't come away all that impressed. But then in 1990 Morrell came out with the highly entertaining bodyguard thriller, The Fifth Profession, and it was at that point that Morrell seemed to really hit his stride. For the rest of the decade he produced one high quality thriller after another, and all with catchy two-word titles like Assumed Identity, Extreme Denial, Double Image, and Burnt Sienna. And right in the middle of this run, in 1994, came Desperate Measures.

The story starts off intriguingly enough with a deeply depressed man planning his own death. Matt Pittman is an ex-current affairs journalist for the Chronicle whose life has gone steadily downhill since the death of his 12-year-old son from bone cancer seven years before. His wife's left him, he's on the verge of alcoholism, and instead of reporting on current events, he's now relegated to writing obituaries. Or he would be had he not already quit. By the time the story begins he's finished settling all his affairs and is preparing to end it all with a bullet in his brain. However, just as he's about to pull the trigger the phone rings. And keeps ringing until Pittman gets out of the bathtub and answers the damn thing.

It's his editor, Burt, at the Chronicle, who explains that the paper's bankrupt and is to close in a week. And with most of the staff out looking for new jobs he asks Pittman, as a favour to him, to lend a helping hand in the obituary department for its last few days. Feeling that he owes Burt for his kindness during his son's illness, Pittman puts his suicide on hold and goes back to work, temporarily. And his first assignment is to write an obituary of a man who isn't actually dead yet, but will be soon: Jonathan Millgate, one of the 'Grand Counsellors' - five patrician diplomats who've helped manipulate US government policy behind the scenes for decades. But in the process of researching the man's history, Pittman comes across some sensitive information that causes Millgate's death and he soon finds himself on the run for murder. Chased by the police and any number of professional assassins, Pittman gradually comes back to life again as his old reporter instincts kick in and he decides to find out for himself why so many people are desperate to kill a man who wanted to die anyway...

With Desperate Measures, Morrell has constructed an entertaining 'ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances' conspiracy thriller, only with an extremely sympathetic character in the lead role. Right from the first paragraph, the reader is on Pittman's side as we learn how he's determined to exit the world with the minimum amount of disruption to his neighbours. Which means sitting in his bathtub with the shower curtain pulled across to keep the mess down, and arming his 9mm automatic with a single bullet to ensure whoever finds his body won't be picking up a loaded gun. I ask you - how can you not warm to a person who's that considerate to his fellow man?

Actually, it's a good thing Morrell does make Pittman so appealing as the narrative stays with him for the entire novel, despite it being written in third-person. Which is interesting. As an author myself, I'm always paying close attention to how other writers construct their narratives and upon reading the book again I think Morrell was wise to avoid the obvious first-person POV here. It's a great narrative device that instantly allows the reader to connect with the story's main character, but the downside is you take away some of the suspense since the narrator can only be relating their story if they ultimately survive. So in Desperate Measures (as with the previously reviewed 'Nothing Lasts Forever') we get the best of both worlds, with a third-person limited perspective that allows the reader to empathise totally with Pittman without knowing for sure whether he'll still be breathing by the end of the book. So, win-win.

And it's a very fast-paced story too. With First Blood, Morrell quickly proved himself a master of the chase thriller and he constructs another variation on that theme here. We get to know Pittman and why he is the way he is, then Morrell drops the poor guy straight into the shit and by page 60 he's already running for his life. And despite spending much of his time trying to find out why everybody wants him dead, he basically doesn't stop running for the rest of the book. It also helps that Morrell divides the novel into small bite-sized chapters (usually between 2-5 pages in length), which, along with the terse no-nonsense prose, really helps the pages fly by.

But therein lies part of the problem. Morrell's decision to make this a pure adrenalin-rush of a novel with everything moving moving moving means he falls prey to one of the worst cliches of the genre. And I'm not referring to the introduction of Julia, the requisite romantic interest who's brought into the storyline about a third of the way in, either (Morrell actually handles the burgeoning relationship between the two of them in a nice low-key manner). No, I'm talking about how anytime Pittman and Julia visit another vital character or witness, the interview is almost always cut short by the arrival of either the police or a cadre of armed bad guys desperate to kill them all. Usually the latter. There then follows another fierce gun battle and/or a tense escape, whereupon our heroes lick their wounds and try again with the next person on their list. And this basically happens all the time.

Now there's nothing wrong with having the book's villains one or two steps behind the leads in a chase thriller - that's what makes it a chase thriller, after all - but it gets to a point in this one where the reader's waiting for the bad guys to show up at the door, which they invariably do, and that's really not good for a suspense novel. There's that famous line of Raymond Chandler's where he said that anytime you're at a loss have a man enter the scene with a gun - but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean keep on doing it. There's such a thing as overkill even in a formula thriller such as this, and an experienced author such as Morrell really should know better. And then there's the whole final act, which could have been structured a lot better. As it stands there's just too much exposition to explain away the previous 400 pages, and it's all stuff that really should have been rationed out in smaller doses beforehand.

But to be honest, it's really the character of Matt Pittman - rather than the plot - which makes this book stand out for me. As a man who's got nothing left to live for, at least at the beginning of the story, Morrell does a really excellent job in bringing the man's anguish to life on the page so that the reader can totally empathise with his situation. And this is perhaps not too surprising once you learn Morrell lost his own son to bone cancer in the late eighties, so it's clear the author is exorcising a few demons of his own in this one. There's a telling passage early on, for example, where you wonder if Morrell is actually describing himself during his darkest periods:

     So he went home. Rather than take a taxi, he walked. He needed to fill the time. As dusk increasingly chilled him, he stopped for several drinks - to fill the time. The elevator to his third-floor apartment creaked and wheezed. He locked himself in his apartment, heard laughter from a television show vibrate through thin walls from the apartment next to him, and had another drink.
     To fill the time.
     He sat in darkness.

Not a bad little passage that - just a pity there isn't more like it in the book. But that said, Desperate Measures still remains one of my favourites of David Morrell's, and if you enjoy a good thriller with a hero who's a little different from the rest, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

** On a final note, there's a film called Desperate Measures that was made in 1998, which as far as I'm aware has no official connection to the novel - there's certainly no mention of David Morrell in the credits, and the plot is admittedly very different. However, a major plot device in the movie has cop Andy Garcia frantically searching for a compatible bone marrow donor for his 12-year old son. Who's dying of leukemia.

Now call me cynical, but that strikes me as a little more than coincidental. And the only time I've ever seen Morrell mention it is in an interview where he said the book was 'not to be confused with the wretched movie of the same name.' Now I sense a certain amount of anger in that statement, which makes me think that the moviemakers simply decided to lift various plot points from the book - not to mention the title itself - without actually paying Morrell for the screen rights. Which, if true, sounds pretty underhanded, even for Hollywood.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Interim Holiday Blog Post

For those of you wondering why I've been lax in the blogging department recently, there's a very simple reason. My mum and brother flew over to Thailand to spend some quality family time with me and my wife (and our dog), and the five of us are currently spending a couple of relaxing weeks in a rented house near the beach in a quiet little town just outside of Hua Hin.

Oddly enough, despite living in one of the world's most popular tourist destinations I rarely find time to actually enjoy the place as I'm usually at home writing - so this makes a nice change for me. Nothing to do but chill and catch up on all the books I've been meaning to read for so long. And although I'd planned to write another post in my GREAT 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS series while I was here, I find I just can't seem to muster the energy required. Too relaxed, I guess. Anyway, I'll do a new FORGOTTEN THRILLERS post in about a week's time, once I'm back in Bangkok, but until then you'll just have to make do with a shot of the view from our front porch...

Not a bad way to start each day, is it?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: HOOLIGANS by William Diehl

So after a brief hiatus, we're back with another entry in my 'Forgotten Thrillers' series - and this time I take a look at a classy offering from an old fave of mine, William Diehl. Now I think the first time I ever came across Diehl's work was probably around 1981 or 82 when I saw the excellent Burt Reynolds movie, 'Sharky's Machine' (based on Diehl's first novel), at my local cinema. A tough, gritty cop thriller set on the mean streets of Atlanta really wasn't something you expected from Reynolds, who generally specialised in good ol' boy crap like 'Smokey and the Bandit', 'Cannonball Run' and 'Stroker Ace', so I was as surprised as anybody when the movie turned out to be as good as it was.

And it still is, actually. If you haven't seen the movie you should find yourself a copy and check it out. Despite being made in 1981 it's actually a great example of a 'seventies thriller,  with Reynolds - who directs as well as stars - on top form as the titular character. The guy didn't make too many notable movies during his long career, but this one sits comfortably alongside his few other highlights such as 'Deliverance', 'The Longest Yard' and 'Boogie Nights.' Add a great soundtrack and an even better supporting cast - with Henry Silva a stand-out as the OTT villain - and you're onto a winner.

But I digress.

Anyway, it was some time after seeing this movie that I happened to notice a paperback on my Dad's bookshelf one day: 'Hooligans' by William Diehl. The name rang a bell so I pulled it off the shelf and right there on the front cover was the tagline '...from the bestselling author of SHARKY'S MACHINE.' Ah, so that's where I saw the name, I thought, and without further ado opened it to the first page and got stuck in.

The story focuses on Jake Kilmer, an agent for the Federal Racket Squad (or 'The Freeze'), who has been trying for five years to build a case against a cosa nostra family known as the Cincinnati Triad, but with little luck. This Mob then disappear off the face of the earth, only to show up again nine months later in Dunetown, Georgia. So Kilmer, who actually lived in Dunetown twenty years before, is sent in to find out how deeply the Mob's got its hooks into the area and is shocked to see how the idyllic backwater of his youth has been transformed into an unrecognisable mini-Vegas, complete with porno palaces, strip bars, casinos, nightclubs, and a racetrack.

Assigned to help Jake get to the bottom of things are a ragtag team of renegade cops known as the 'Hooligans', as well as a hotshot undercover fed who goes by the nickname of Stick. But then a professional killer starts systematically picking off local mob bosses in well-organised hits, and Kilmer and his team have to move fast in order to prevent open warfare erupting on the streets. And just to make his job that much more difficult, Doe Findley, the current wife of the town's most prominent citizen and the woman Kilmer loved and lost twenty years ago, shows up on the scene and decides she wants to renew their relationship...

Now those of you who've read my previous entries might remember that I originally planned to post about another one of Diehl's, called 'Thai Horse', but chose not to when I realized it wasn't actually all that good, thus defeating the whole object of the exercise. Fortunately, 'Hooligans' more than makes up for that temporary lapse in judgement. Despite being an unapologetic 'guy's book,' this still stands up as an impressive hard-boiled crime thriller with a strong lead character, a memorable cast of supporting players, and some neat twists along the way.

Oddly enough, it was only after reading it for the second time that I realized 'Hooligans' also fits nicely into that previously discussed niche category of 'Novels that are heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest'. Somebody else - I can't remember who - once referred to these kinds of books as 'Town-Tamer' novels. That is, a hero rides into a crooked town or city, and decides to rid it of its corrupting influences by setting the various factions at each other's throats and then picking off the survivors. And this is essentially what Kilmer does in this novel. The only real difference is he's not working alone - he's got a whole squad of law enforcement outcasts to back him up. Nevertheless, he does spend much of his time fending off the so-called town elders, who turn out to be just as corrupt as the Mob they helped bring into town. It's even got a femme fatale in the form of Kilmer's long-lost love, Doe, who seems to jump in and out of Kilmer's bed whenever it suits her.

There's also a nice little bit near the beginning of the book, as Kilmer arrives at the airport, that put me in mind of Hammett's unforgettable 'Personville/Poisonville' opening paragraph in 'Red Harvest':
     In the time it took me to walk the length of the terminal and pick up my bags, I saw a first-class dip from Albuquerque maned Digit Dan Delaney, two hookers from San Diego whose names eluded me, and a scam artist from Detroit named Eddie Fuereco, spinning the coin with a mark in a seersucker suit and a Hawaiian shirt.
     They were all working. That told me a lot.

Now I've read all of Diehl's novels at one point or another and as much as I've enjoyed them, I have noticed a major fault in his writing. Actually, two. The first is his tendency to constantly hop between characters' POVs. Often in the same paragraph. Admittedly, this is more a personal peeve than anything else, but I've always found it really distracting when you're following the thoughts of one character only to suddenly switch to another character's viewpoint without any kind of break between the two. It really takes you out of the book. And that was one of the reasons I wasn't too impressed with 'Thai Horse' upon reading it again - Diehl did a lot of POV-hopping in that one. Added to which, his plots are often far more complicated than they need to be.

But here Diehl manages to avoid both those shortcomings by writing in first person for much of the novel (perhaps in another tip of the hat to 'Red Harvest' - who knows?). Other than the occasional foray into the mind of the assassin as he prepares to pick off another Mob enforcer, here the reader only feels what Kilmer feels and sees what he sees, and as a result it's a lot easier to keep track of what's happening throughout the story. Especially as there are so many sub-plots and minor characters to contend with.  Diehl also comes up with some choice dialogue scenes in this one too. Actually he's always been pretty reliable at that kind of thing, but in this one you can tell he's really enjoying himself - such as when he recounts the first meeting between Kilmer and the town gossip, Babs Thomas:

     'Jake Kilmer,' she said. 'Why do I know your name?'
     'It's fairly common.'
     'Hmm. And you're a cop,' she said.
     'Kind of.'
     'How can you be kind of a cop?'
     'Well, you know, I do statistical profiles, demographs, that kind of thing.'
     'You're much too cute to be that dull.'
     'Thanks. You're pretty nifty too.'
     'You're also an outrageous flirt.'
     'I am?' I said. 'Nobody's ever complained about that before.'
     'Who's complaining?' she said, dipping her head again and staring at me with eyes as grey as a rainy day. I passed.

But lest you think it's all fun and games, it's worth mentioning the nice underlying melancholy running throughout the whole novel that helps sets it apart from its hard-boiled brethren. Like the obviously doomed love affair between Kilmer and Doe, for example, with both characters constantly regretting the missed opportunities and bad choices they made twenty years ago. In fact, their relationship actually ends up as one of the book's more absorbing subplots, which is pretty uncommon for a cop thriller.

After 'Hooligans' Diehl went on to write a further half-dozen thrillers of varying quality before his death in 2006 - including 'Primal Fear', which was later turned into a successful movie starring Richard Gere. With the exception of the aforementioned 'Thai Horse' I'd say all are worth reading, but those wishing to seek out his very best work should really try his debut novel, 'Sharky's Machine' (Dirty Harry Goes To Atlanta), 'The Hunt' (AKA '27') - a fine chase thriller set in the opening days of WWll - and his final novel 'Eureka' - a great period murder mystery that manages to span four decades.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

10 Mind-Blowing Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen - Part 2

Welcome back for the final (belated) part of this two-part blog series where I delve into the odder corners of Hollywood. All sitting comfortably? Excellent. Then let's get the ball rolling with...

5. The Salton Sea (2002) - directed by D.J. Caruso

Val Kilmer's always been very hit-and-miss as an actor. He's appeared in some woeful crap over the years, he really has - but he's also found time to put in some truly exemplary performances too. Like all good things, you just have to search for them. As Doc Holiday in the old-style western 'Tombstone,' for example, he owns every single scene in which he appears. And in the excellent 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' his Gay Perry character almost steals the whole film away from Robert Downey Jr - which is no mean feat. Then there's his turn as Danny Parker in the obscure 2002 neo-noir thriller, 'The Salton Sea' - and while it's hardly one of his most memorable roles, it's certainly one of his most entertaining.

The tale begins in proper noir fashion with a wounded Kilmer playing trumpet in a burning apartment with a bag of money at his side, while the rest of the film acts as a flashback to explain how he reached this point. It turns out he's been living a double life in recent years. Once a happily-married jazz musician until his wife was murdered in a roadside dive, he's since morphed into a tattooed speed freak and meth middleman who, when he's not getting wasted with his fellow junkies, also sells information to a pair of undercover narcotics agents. He's also attempting to finalise a major drugs deal with the seriously deranged dealer, Pooh Bear, while at the same time trying to rescue his pretty neighbour from her own personal demons...

With its hip flavour, cool dialogue and eccentric characters, 'Salton Sea' is one of those crime tales that couldn't have existed had Tarantino not paved the way years previously, yet the director still manages to come up with something that's a little different from the norm. Despite an over-reliance on flashbacks the storytelling is top-notch and keeps the audience on its toes until the very last frame. Believe me, nothing is what it seems in this one. Kilmer's great as the fatalistic narrator with shadowy motives, but it's really the supporting cast that helps make this one to remember. Vincent D'Onofrio as the bizarre Pooh Bear is a standout, as is Peter Sarsgaard as Kilmer's drug buddy. An that's not mentioning Deborah Unger, Luis Guzman, Danny Trejo and all the other familiar faces. A word of warning however - those of you planning to watch 'The Salton Sea' for the first time will get a lot more out of it if you avoid reading anything about the film's plot beforehand. Um, with the exception of this blog post, obviously.

Weirdness Factor: Medium.
The film itself isn't particularly hard to follow, although the constant flashbacks, plot twists, and odd little vignettes the director inserts into the narrative means the viewer really has to pay attention all the way through. Some of those vignettes are truly bizarre, though, such as the planned robbery of Bob Hope's stool sample by a bunch of speed freaks. And then there's the unforgettable Pooh Bear character, who's obsessed with recreating the Kennedy assassination over and over by using pigeons in radio-controlled toy cars...

Current Availability: Easy to find.
As a Warner catalogue title, this can be picked up pretty cheaply at most outlets.

4. The Limits of Control (2009) - directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favourite directors and I love pretty much everything he does without reservation. 'Strangers in Paradise,' 'Down By Law,' 'Mystery Train,' 'Ghost Dog,' Dead Man,' - each one's great in its own way. And even his lesser movies (e.g 'Night on Earth', 'Broken Flowers') I can return to more than once. The guy's made a career out of directing movies totally on his own terms, which I greatly admire, but one thing that becomes obvious fairly early on is that he doesn't really care about plots. And nowhere is this more obvious than in his most recent movie, 'The Limits of Control.'

What little story there is revolves around a nameless, taciturn, sharply-dressed man on a mysterious assignment that involves wandering around various regions of Spain to have cryptic conversations with an odd assortment of characters (including John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, among others). At the end of each conversation his contact hands him a matchbox containing an instruction of some kind, which he then gobbles along with an expresso served in two cups. Thus armed, he moves on to his next contact in another part of Spain, all the time getting closer and closer to his final task...

'The Limits of Control' is an existential crime movie without a crime. Or at least one that's never specified. But it doesn't really matter because Jarmusch has constructed a film where the viewer is encouraged to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And thanks to cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, it's one hell of a beautiful ride too. Every shot in the film is so meticulously constructed that you could freeze-frame it and stick it on the wall. And because you're never sure where the movie's headed every scene is totally unexpected too. Plus it's got Bill Murray in it - which always helps.

Weirdness Factor: High.
Those hoping for a coherent story may want to look elsewhere, 'cause they sure aren't gonna find it here. There's a certain amount of cause-and-effect present, but not a whole lot - and because so little is explained in the narrative it's left to the viewer to come up with his or her own answers as to the film's meaning. Assuming there is one. And similar to Jarmucsh's previous works, the film moves at a very slow pace, which may prove taxing to most modern-day viewers.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
You can pick this at most of the usual outlets without too much trouble. It's a pretty nice little package too, with a cool, hour-long 'making-of' documentary as a bonus.

3. Lost Highway (1997) - directed by David Lynch

To be perfectly honest, I could have stuck any David Lynch movie on this list - and anybody who's seen 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me', 'Eraserhead,' 'Mulholland Drive,' or 'Inland Empire' will know what I'm talking about here. But put a gun to my head and I'd have to say of all the movies in Lynch's filmography, 'Lost Highway' remains the most inscrutable - which is really saying something. And since it's almost impossible to give a coherent summary of the film I won't even try. Instead, here are a few highlights to give you a taste:

Saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) receive a series of videos taken by somebody who enters their house and films them as they sleep. At a party he meets the man responsible who says he's at Fred's home right now, so Fred calls his own number and ends up talking to the same man who's also standing in front of him. Before too long there's a murder and a transformation, and then we follow an auto mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who becomes involved with a gangster boss (Robert Loggia) and his manipulative young wife (also played by Patricia Arquette). But what ultimately connects Fred and Pete, and who is the mystery man with the camera who seems to control everyone's fates...?

On the surface, 'Lost Highway' starts out as a noir-ish mystery thriller, but as usual Lynch discards the familiar genre tropes early on and instead makes his movie a nightmarish meditation on identity and paranoia, with doppelgangers and time-loops thrown in just to confuse things further. For those willing to look for it, there is an internal logic to the film, but it's definitely not an easy movie to figure out. Which is the whole point, of course. Each time I see this one I spot something I missed before and another theory immediately goes flying out the window.

Weirdness Factor: High.
In terms of inscrutability, this really is the ultimate Lynch movie - although 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' comes a pretty close second. As with most of his stuff, there's no way the viewer can guess what's coming next which only adds to the queasy nightmare quality of the film - that sense that there's something really horrible just around the next corner. Which there usually is. Worth mentioning is Robert Blake's intensely scary performance as the Mystery Man, and Robert Loggia's unforgettable scene where he confronts a motorist who dared to tailgate him.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
Plenty of versions available, but the 2-disc DVD from Cinema Club has got the best selection of extra stuff.

2. The Swimmer (1968) - directed by Frank Perry

One sunny day, middle-aged Ned Merrill (Lancaster), clad only in swimming trunks, suddenly appears in the backyard of some neighbours several miles from his home and asks to use their pool. As he reminisces happily with his hosts, whom he hasn't seen in a long time, Ned comes up with the idea of using his other friends' and neighbours' backyard pools to 'swim' all the way to his house. But what starts out as a fun adventure soon turns sour as the people with whom he comes into contact gradually become less and less welcoming. And as the day wears on and more of Ned's past comes to light, we learn his life is perhaps not quite as wonderful as he's been making out...

'The Swimmer', based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, is a surreal, highly stylized, allegorical drama that examines middle-age disillusionment and failure. It's also a film that could only have been made in the late sixties - as the score by Marvin Hamlisch only confirms - but that's also part of its charm. At its most simplistic, the story tells of a hero setting off on a journey and having a bunch of strange adventures before reaching his end goal, a little wiser than he was before. But in this case a lot less happier. A lot less. Yet while it may not be an uplifting film by any means it's still a hugely satisfying one, and Lancaster - who was in his mid-fifties at the time and had to spend the entire film in just swimming trunks - really gives a powerhouse performance as the tragic Ned.

Weirdness Factor: High.
There's a dreamlike quality to the whole film (Lancaster just appears from nowhere as the opening titles begin) that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. The conversations Ned has with his neighbours are all cryptic enough that the viewer has to work to figure out the underlying meanings. Also, the movie's got none of the fluid movement one usually expects to see between scenes. Is the story a hallucination or reality? And if it's the latter, does it take place over a whole day, or over the course of many afternoons (as it does in the original short story) to represent the seasons of a man's life? You decide.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
Currently available as a Sony Pictures DVD. However the specialist distributor, Grindhouse Releasing, have said they'll be releasing a version of 'The Swimmer' next year with an improved picture and some extra features. So if you don't mind waiting...

1. The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) - directed by Timothy Carey

Actor Timothy Carey was one of Hollywood's true eccentrics, and when you consider how many crazy people there are in Hollywood, that's no small claim. But even amongst that kind of competition Carey was a one-of-a-kind. Stanley Kubrick clearly saw something unique in him too, and gave him memorable roles in two of his early films, 'The Killing' and 'Paths of Glory', and from there the legendarily unpredictable Carey went on to become the 'go-to' man whenever a strange oddball character part needed to be cast. But he was also itching to make his own unique statement on film and from 1958 to 1961, whenever he could scrape a few bucks together he went about shooting scenes for his own labour of love: 'The World's Greatest Sinner'.

Clarence Hilliard (Carey) is a frustrated insurance salesman who quits his meaningless job one day after he's struck with the revelation that there is no god but man, and every man is a god whose birthright is eternal life. He starts preaching his gospel on street corners but after witnessing an ecstatic crowd at a rock and roll gig, Clarence forms his own band and soon learns how to get his message across while whipping his audience into a frenzy. With his growing fan base he decides to not only become the head of his own religious cult (rechristening himself 'God Hilliard' in the process), but also decides to form his own 'Eternal Man' political party and put himself forward as the next presidential candidate. But the biblical God has other ideas...

So as you can see, nothing too ambitious - just God, the universe and everything in between. But I have to be honest here, as fascinating as 'The World's Greatest Sinner' is, it's not a well-made film by any stretch of the imagination. It's been made on a very low budget and for most of the running time the film is barely coherent. The direction is stilted, the editing is choppy and amateurish, and the cast are clearly people Carey just found on the street and said, 'Hey, you're in my movie. Now say this!'

But Carey's as charismatic a presence as ever and the whole thing is still worth a look - even if it's only the once - just so you can say you've seen it (Carey never put the film out on general release and for most of its 50-year history it's been confined to an occasional special showing at selected cinemas). And believe it or not the title song is composed and sung by a young unknown named Frank Zappa. So altogether now: 'As a sinner he's a winner / Honey, he's no beginner / He's rotten to the core / Daddy, you can't say no more / He's the world's greatest sinnnnner...'

Weirdness Factor: Off the scale
This one starts off being narrated by the devil in the form of a snake, and things only get stranger after that. I guarantee you will not find an odder movie anywhere else - this one really is in a class of its own.

Current availability: Not as hard to find as it used to be
For a long time this was almost impossible to find in any format, but those who are interested can now buy it in DVD format directly from Timothy Carey's estate on Ebay. Just type in the title in the search box and you should find it easily enough. However, it's not cheap and this movie really isn't for everyone - so think hard before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Mind-Blowing Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen - Part 1

I love weird. There, I said it.

For some reason I've always been attracted to the odd and the outlandish. I'm not sure why exactly, but it probably started in my teens when I was introduced to the bizarre world of 'The Prisoner' - courtesy of those old Channel 4 repeats. Man, I was addicted to that series from the very first frame - not only was Patrick McGoohan the coolest actor ever, but each episode ended up producing more questions than answers, and by the time the credits came up my head felt close to bursting. And I loved that.

Same goes for movies. Now don't get me wrong - I can appreciate a well-made commercial blockbuster as much as the next guy, but it's the weird ones I keep going back to. Because the way I see it any movie that can keep you thinking for hours, or even days, afterwards is one worth watching again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. And so I thought, as a temporary break from my GREAT 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS series (which will return shortly folks), it might be an idea to write a post about a few of those mind-blowers that have meant something to me. Now I could waffle on about those ones I love that everybody else talks about - such as 'Memento,' 'Fight Club,' '2001,' Donnie Darko,' 'Performance,' and even 'Inception' - but where's the fun in that? No, I think it's much more enjoyable to take a look at those neglected movies that have managed to slip past people's radar for one reason or another, and so that's what I've done.

Now I should mention at this point that I've already written this blog post once, except Google Blogger, in its infinite wisdom, decided to delete it just as I was adding the finishing touches. Which I thought was nice of them. So because I'm having to recreate everything again from scratch, I've decided for the sake of my sanity to split this post into two parts - five movies this week, and then five more next week. So without further ado, and in no particular order, let's begin with...

10. The Passenger (1975) by Michelangelo Antonioni

Okay, this one stars everybody's favourite, Jack Nicholson. You can see him in the screenshot there, looking down at his doppelganger on the bed. Now I admit you may have already seen this one as it's been on TV a fair few times, but as it's also one of the more uncommercial movies in Jack's filmography there's an equally good chance it slipped you by.

Made back in the 'seventies when Nicholson was pretty much up for anything, the story focuses on journalist David Locke, who's in the Sahara researching a documentary on post-colonial Africa and hoping to interview some rebel fighters in the current civil war. Totally frustrated at his lack of success (and his life in general), Locke trudges back to his one-star hotel to find a fellow guest he's befriended has died in his room. Realizing that they look very much alike, Locke decides to swap passports with the dead man, little realizing that he was an illegal arms trader in the middle of a major deal...

This, along with the peerless 'Chinatown,' has to be one of my very favourite movies of Nicholson's, who's at his laconic best as the frustrated everyman trying to find some meaning to his life. The plot is constructed around a classic thriller premise, and brings to mind Graham Greene with its assumed identities and chases by shadowy figures across foreign landscapes. However Antonioni pretty much confines all that to the background and instead focuses on the psychological aspects of the story, such as the loneliness and spiritual turmoil of everyday existence. But don't let that put you off. Despite the slow pace which may frustrate modern-day audiences, this tale of identity, destiny, reinvention, and existential ennui remains film-making par excellenceand climaxes with a stunning, single seven-minute take from Antonioni that's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Weirdness Factor: High.
Although the movie contains a fairly linear narrative, with a beginning, middle, and an end, Antonio subverts the structure so that the meaning of each scene often only becomes clear on a second, or even third, viewing. And then, of course, there's that ending - which still puzzles audiences to this day. Not only in regards to its meaning, but as to how Antonioni actually shot the bloody thing.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
I believe Jack Nicholson actually owns the rights to this one, and after being unavailable for a long time, he finally consented to a DVD release a few years back. The movie clearly means a lot to him though, as it's the only time he's ever done an audio commentary for one of his films. The fact that it's also an interesting, not to mention extremely laid back, listening experience makes this one a must buy.

9. The Power (1968) by Byron Haskin

Remember George Hamilton. No? Well, I can't say I blame you. He hasn't really made many films of note over his long career. But you know what they say - every actor's got at least one good film in him, and if that's true then this is George's.

When members of a laboratory research team begin dying under suspicious circumstances, biochemist Jim Tanner (Hamilton) starts to think the killer may be a colleague of his possessing telekinetic abilities. But when he's put in the frame for the murders Tanner is forced to go on the run, and with only the name Adam Hart to go on, he's in a race against time to find the killer before he becomes the next victim...

Despite making almost no impact on its original release, 'The Power' must have made an impression on a certain David Cronenberg, as a decade later he made the far more successful 'Scanners,' which explored many of the same ideas as Haskins' movie. But as good as 'Scanners' is, it lacks the psychedelic ambience of 'The Power' - the feeling that just about anything could happen in the next scene. Which it usually does.

The movie starts out pretty strangely, but it really goes to town when Tanner's forced to go on the run and becomes the target of the villain's various head games. One of the best scenes has Tanner walking dejectedly along the street when he ducks from toy soldiers shooting real bullets at him, only to come across a dipping water bird who winks back. At an intersection, the traffic signs change from 'Don't Walk' to 'Don't Run,' and then he finds himself trapped on an empty carousel that speeds up to become a centrifuge. It's all great stuff, complete with freaky lighting and some nice special effects. There's also an unforgettable moment later on when Hamilton's character breaks the fourth wall by reacting to a musical cue on the film's soundtrack! Added to which, the surreal scene where Tanner's dropped into the middle of nowhere only to find an oasis that isn't what it seems could have been lifted straight from 'The Prisoner.'

Weirdness Factor: Medium.
Despite the numerous plot holes (such as, what's the villain actually doing with this awesome power of his?) the movie works as a sci-fi murder mystery with Tanner journeying across the country digging for clues as to the killer's identity, but the consistently psychedelic tone and goofy plot elements ensure that almost every scene is weird in its own way.

Current Availability: Fairly easy.
After being unavailable for a many years, Warner Brothers have now released this as part of their DVD-R Archive Collection, although it's region-locked for US customers. Answer? Get a multi-region player. Problem solved.

8. Seconds (1966) by John Frankenheimer

This Faustian paranoid thriller from 1966 could almost be a companion piece to 'The Passenger,' dealing as it does with the same themes of loneliness, identity and spiritual dissatisfaction. Except this one's much darker, both in tone and execution. The story concerns itself with sixty-something banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is dissatisfied with his marriage and his suburban life in general. When he's contacted by a mysterious organisation that can offer him a second chance at life with a new name and identity, as well as a new body in the shape of Rock Hudson, he jumps at the opportunity. The operation is successful and he slips into his new role as a bohemian artist on the west coast, but soon discovers that starting again isn't quite as straightforward as it seems, especially when you're constantly under the microscope...

I became a fan of director John Frankenheimer the moment I first saw the 1962 movie, 'The Manchurian Candidate', upon its re-release sometime in the mid-eighties. It's a fantastic film that marked the beginning of the director's 'sixties golden period, continuing with 'Seven Days In May,' and 'The Train', only to come to an inglorious end with the 1966 release of 'Seconds'. Which flopped badly. And it's no wonder, as it's one of the darkest and most uncommercial movies ever to be released by a major studio. Fortunately for Frankenheimer's career, he followed it up with the successful 'Grand Prix' the same year - which kept the money men happy at least - but he would never be as experimental as this again.

The story's almost an extended 'Twilight Zone' morality tale, albeit an extremely pessimistic one, and postulates that trying to reinvent yourself by destroying your past will leave you spiritually empty and unable to function. Nevertheless, 'Seconds' remains an unforgettable movie that defies classification (part horror, part thriller, part sci-fi, part black comedy), and features a career best performance by Rock Hudson as the distressed Tony Wilson(!) going through the mid-life crisis to end all mid-life crises. It also ends with one of the most terrifying climaxes in modern cinema.

Weirdness Factor: High.
On the surface, James Wong Howe's distorted camera angles and Jerry Goldsmith's edgy score contribute greatly to the nightmarish quality of the movie, but really it's the bizarre plot and the sense of paranoia present throughout that makes this one so memorable. Plus there are images in the movie that will haunt you for days.

Current Availability: Fairly easy.
Paramount released a great DVD a while back and even included a nice informative John Frankenheimer commentary. Unfortunately, it went out of print very soon after. Fortunately, Criterion have now come to the rescue with a brand spanking new release that contains the very same commentary along with a host of new special features. It's region-locked to the USA, but if you've got a multi-region player (and if not, why not?) then that's not really a problem.

7. Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) by Norman Taurog

Anybody wondering why I've inserted an Elvis movie into this list need only glance at the photo above. We've got Elvis in a shiny cyan suit singing to a dancing girl while a man in a tatty and mildy disturbing dog costume stands behind him, panting. Okay, okay, granted, it's a dream sequence, but still what the hell was Elvis thinking when he signed up for this one?

The plot, such as it is, concerns Greg Nolan, a photographer who's literally swept off his feet by a neurotic girl named Bernice and her violent dog, Albert (played by a real dog you'll be glad to hear - Elvis's own, in fact). For reasons I'm not about to go into here, Greg then loses his job and apartment and Bernice finds him another place to live. Unfortunately the rent's so expensive that he ends up taking two jobs in the same building to pay for it. For the rest of the film we follow Greg as he fends off Bernice while trying to juggle two jobs without either employer learning of the other. Hilarity ensues.

Now it has to be said this is not a good film, although it is odd enough to keep you watching. Just barely. In a clear attempt by the desperate Elvis management to alter a formula that was no longer working, they somehow came up with an adult comedy premise (Look! Elvis actually shares a bed with a woman!) that's not very adult, and not at all funny. And Elvis sings just four songs in the movie and only one of them ('A Little Less Conversation') is any good, which is still a better ratio than most Elvis movies of the same period. And the Bernice character, despite being played by the very sexy Michele Carey, is seriously annoying to the point where you're hoping Elvis will just say, 'The hell with it,' and throttle her with his bare hands. No such luck, however. The Elvis management weren't prepared to screw with the formula that much.

Weirdness Factor: Low.
To be honest, this is not a great deal weirder than most of Elvis' post-Army ouvre, although the very odd dream sequence does distinguish it from the rest of the bland fare. Somebody was definitely on drugs for that one. Also, Elvis seems to be angry all the way through the movie for some reason, not just with Bernice but with almost every other character as well. But then again, it's possible he'd just read his next movie script. 

Current Availability: Easy to find.
All of Elvis's movies, including this one, are readily available on DVD. You have been warned.

6. The Music of Chance (1993) by Philip Haas

Ex-fireman Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is driving across America on his father's dwindling inheritance when he spots beaten and bloodied professional gambler, Pozzi (James Spader), by the side of the road and offers him a lift. Pozzi accepts and says he was on his way to meet a couple of eccentric millionaires, Flower and Stone, for a poker match and asks Nashe to lend him the $10,000 seed money stolen from him in return for 50% of the profits. Pozzi has seen them play and assures Nashe that they're novices, so Nashe agrees and takes them both to the millionaires' mansion in Pennsylvania. But it soon becomes apparent that Flower and Stone have improved their game and it's not long before Pozzi and Nashe owe them money. With no way of paying them back, Flower and Stone insist the losers work off their debt by constructing an enormous stone wall in their garden...

Based on the novel of the same name by Paul Auster, 'The Music of Chance' is the very definition of strange and existential, which is exactly why I love it so much. After seeing it the first time (on video, if I recall correctly - it had a very limited theatrical release), I was so impressed that I bought the book immediately after and was amazed at how closely the director stuck to the source material. Such a pity then that so few people know about it, as it's a real diamond in the rough.

The meaning of the film can be found in the title, although there are numerous layers to the story for those willing to look. Primarily it's about how one random act can forever alter, and even destroy, lives. Nashe and Pozzi start out the movie as drifters and are brought together by chance only to become slaves to Flower and Stone's peculiar vision, under the malevolent guardianship of groundskeeper Calvin Murks (the great M. Emmet Walsh). As the story progresses, each man is forced to deal with his prospective fate in his own way. The acting all round really is top notch in this one, with Spader playing successfully against type as the seedy Pozzi, and Patinkin superb as the likeable and even-tempered everyman, Nashe. 

Weirdness Factor: High.
'The Music of Chance' is one of those rare movies where those watching it for the first time will have no idea what's going to happen next. There's an underlying sense of dread and mystery throughout the whole thing too, which helps keeps you glued to the screen. Much of the narrative is left unexplained, and the ending, although satisfying, is left fairly open-ended as well. As with 'The Passenger', metaphors and symbolism are rife throughout, so that the meaning of each scene is not always immediately obvious on the first viewing.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
You can pick this up for a song on Amazon, but it's not a particularly great print, and its in full frame too. If ever there was a movie in need of restoration and a little bit of love it's this one - but since that's unlikely to happen anytime soon this budget release will just have to do.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: Interlude - THE FAILS (so far)

I've said it before, but one of the nice things about writing these particular posts is that it gives me a valid excuse to revisit some great old books from my past - some of which I haven't cracked open in twenty years or more. And therein lies the problem. Because it turns out that a few of those I once considered great reads are in fact just the opposite. Which is kind of understandable - after all, I'm not the same person I was twenty years ago. Nobody is. Added to which, I'm now in the fortunate position of being able to call myself a professional author, and as a result I know a little more about the craft of writing than I did back then. So occasionally I'm sitting down and rereading one of these books and find myself amazed by the bad writing decisions that jump out at me.

Of course, that doesn't mean I can't post about them - after all, we can't like everything we read - but on the other hand I did insert the word GREAT before 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS, which limits me somewhat. (And yes, I know many of the books I've reviewed fall short of greatness, but in my mind they've gotta be good, at least.) And to be perfectly honest, it's not a whole lot of fun writing a thousand words or so about a book I don't like. I know critics do it on a regular basis, but I've never claimed to be a critic. But by the same token, I don't want to totally ignore them either. So instead I thought it might be an idea to do an interim post to explain why certain books have failed to make the grade, and get all the badness out of the way in one go. (Don't worry, normal service will resume shortly - still plenty more books to go yet.)

So first, let's deal with the elephant in the room that is Ira Levin, who also happens to be one of my very favourite suspense authors. Now when I originally set out to do this series I knew Levin would be in there somewhere, and I was planning to focus on either THIS PERFECT DAY or SON OF ROSEMARY. In the end it wasn't much of a choice and I went for the former, mainly because it fulfills the criteria I put in place from the start. It's pretty damn great, it's an oft-neglected part of Levin's bibliography, and it's a thriller (kind of). So that's three for three right there.

And in direct contrast, we have SON OF ROSEMARY. Which isn't great - not by any stretch of the imagination. I can't really classify it as a thriller either, because there's not a whole lot of suspense in the book. And while it fits the 'Forgotten' criteria well enough, there's a fairly good reason for that. The story takes place 30 years after the original, and it turns out Rosemary has been in a coma for most of that time. She wakes to find her son, Andy, is a globally-revered prophet who's finally bringing peace to the world and who's planning to unite all of mankind in a special celebration on New Year's Eve, 2000. Or is he? Rosemary has her doubts...

It's quite remarkable how Levin gets everything wrong with this one, yet it's like watching a car crash - you can't take your eyes away. Where before, Levin always trod a fine line between satire and straight thrills with his novels, in this one he goes totally OTT and delivers what can only be described as a spoof of his earlier work. And you have to ask yourself why. What on earth possessed him? And then there's the ending, which I refuse to give away here, but let's just say Levin's conclusion breaks one of the absolute golden rules of writing. Admittedly, I never thought this book was all that fantastic to begin with, but I'd hoped it might not be as bad as I remembered. I was wrong. It's enjoyably bad, but still bad nonetheless.

Moving on, we have GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER, a revenge thriller by Tom Barling. Now I do love that title, I have to admit. It's great. And I also like the retro simplicity of the cover design. The black and red text. The simple image of dog tags and blood. I also recall enjoying this one a hell of a lot when I first picked it up half a lifetime ago, but upon rereading it recently I was at a loss as to why. It stars Matthew Pepper, a Vietnam veteran turned successful businessman, whose wife and son are kidnapped by a gang of terrorists. With the police thinking him guilty of their murder, Pepper resolves to get them back using any means necessary and soon discovers an old enemy from that war might be tying up loose ends...

Now this one started badly and just got progressively worse. For example, the first chapter begins with Pepper dreaming about an event from his Vietnam past. In great detail. With dialogue and everything. Because that's how people dream, isn't it? You never dream that the guy standing next to you has just turned into your sister and sprouted antlers, or that your foot's morphed into a bowl of trifle. No, dreams always make complete logical sense with a beginning, a middle and an end. Like this one. What's worse is this particular 'dream' lasts for most of the chapter - and it's a long chapter too.

In fact, every time Pepper closes his eyes for more than a few seconds we're treated to another unnecessary 'Nam flashback. All the way through the book. And Barling's writing style is very confusing too. There are a lot of action sequences in the story and I had to constantly reread most of them because I had no idea what was going on. And the various character motivations are also blurry. Characters walk in an out of the story without reason, and don't get me started on the hopeless dialogue. Also, the main villain of the piece - who's known as 'the man with two noses', yes really - is purposely left unnamed for the entirety of the book and I still can't figure out why. There are just too many things that don't make sense in this book and I was left scratching my head when I finished it. To be honest, I still am. This is a very very odd book, and not in a good way.

Man, what a waste of a good title.

What's next? THAI HORSE by William Diehl. Now I really like William Diehl. Back in the eighties and nineties he specialised in producing gritty intelligent thrillers, and I always made a habit of picking up his newest as soon as it came out and rarely came away disappointed. So when I came up with this blog series, I always knew I'd be focusing on one of his and for a long time I thought it was going to be THAI HORSE. Until I read it again. Oh, dear. I had a vague memory of this being a really gripping men-on-a-mission thriller with a conflicted hero in the leader role. Turns out I was only half right. Actually, less than half. Maybe a quarter.

The book centres on an ex-Vietnam vet (yes, another one) and ex-spy called Hatcher, who having been betrayed on a previous job, has spent a number of years in one of the most brutal prisons in South America. Upon his release, he's called back into action by his old CIA handler to find a man named Cody, a former friend of Hatcher's, who was supposedly killed in Vietnam. Word is he's still alive and his General father, who's dying of cancer, would like to see him one last time. And Hatcher is considered the only man capable of finding him. As he journeys to Hong Kong and Bangkok in search of his missing friend, Hatcher is forced to come to terms with parts of his violent past he'd thought were long buried...

Now this one's not too bad, but the reason it didn't make the grade was that it's simply nowhere near as good as I remember. The pacing's pretty skewed for a start, and there are too many unnecessary flashbacks for my liking. And far, far too many sub-plots. I can usually keep up with the most complex of plots, but this one got a little too convoluted for me. I came away thinking the book could have been so much better with a stronger editor. However, I was impressed with the first section of the novel, with Hatcher stuck in this hellhole of a prison where speech is verboten. It's a great character piece detailing Hatcher's slow descent into madness and I found it totally absorbing. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is kind of a letdown after such a strong start.

There's plenty of action and thrills, but it's kind of all over the place. And the final section, where the tension should really be ratcheted up to the next level, is brought to a grinding halt when the main characters go on a long hunt for a rogue tiger in a Bangkok suburb (don't ask), which has no connection to the plot at all. I was skipping page after page at this point, which is not good news when you're approaching the end of a novel. Nevertheless, I still rate William Diehl quite highly and will very shortly be posting about one of his books that didn't let me down.

Next up we've got THE FOX IS CRAZY TOO, a non-fiction account of little-known seventies skyjacker and bank robber, Garrett Trapnell, by Eliot Asinof. It's a really gripping read about a fascinating character who made a career out of robbing banks, conning people, getting caught and then getting away again. But the thing is, I'd already focused on a bio written in the thriller format with THE HUNTER by Christopher Keane, and both books had me asking myself the same questions. That is, how much of what I'm reading is true and how much is completely made up?

I mean, it's all fascinating stuff, to be sure. Trapnell was a guy with a high IQ and a bipolar disorder who got off on screwing The Man at every opportunity. Which basically meant robbing banks and financial institutions, often by just walking in the door with a slip of paper and walking out with a bag of money. After a spate of these, he'd settle down with a new woman (often marrying them whilst forgetting to divorce the previous ones), set up a new life for himself, then get bored and start robbing again. And each time he got caught he'd claim temporary insanity, get transferred to a mental institution where he'd usually be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, whereupon he'd either escape or get released and then proceed to go through the whole cycle again.

It's a great story which not only recounts an interesting, if tragic, life but also points a finger at a large loophole in the American legal system - the temporary insanity plea - while also questioning the validity of using psychiatric testimony in the courtroom. But the problem is that great sections of the book are written as though the author was actually there with Trapnell, which clearly wasn't the case. I'm sure the main events that he recounts actually took place, but the large chunks of dialogue contained in the book are also presented as fact, which I find very hard to believe - assuming the conversations took place at all. It's one of those odd 'in-between' books: works fine as a thriller, not so convincing as a biography. Added to which, it was all a little too similar to THE HUNTER for me to want to review it in detail. But that said, if you can find a cheap copy online I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

Okay, BALEFIRE by Kenneth Goddard is next. This one I remember reading in my late teens while I was on holiday somewhere along the English coast, possibly Bognor Regis. And I bought it for two reasons. 1) I loved that stark white cover with the two eyes looking out. And 2) the cover blurb compared it to THE DAY OF THE JACKAL - which was one of my favourites, even back then. And while it clearly didn't equal Frederick Forsyth's classic novel, it still produced the goods as far as I was concerned. At least, it did back then.

The novel concerns itself with a professional terrorist named Thanatos who's been hired by a group of bad guys to single-handedly wreak havoc on the small city of Huntingdon Beach on the California coast as a demonstration against the coming LA Olympics. This he does by taking on the police department in a well-orchestrated series of attacks that soon leaves the city reeling. Fortunately, a team of police investigators and crime-lab specialists eventually realize it's all the work of one man and work against a tight deadline in an attempt to bring him down before the opening ceremony begins...

Again, this isn't a bad novel at all. The author, who was actually a police forensic scientist himself, gets all the details right, which is a good start. But I found my eyes glazing over at various points in the narrative as the same thing kept happening over and over again. Thanatos would strike, kill a cop or two, make it look as though angry citizens were the culprits, then disappear, ready to do the same thing again. And you just know he's not going to get caught until the very end, mainly because he's the only villain and without him there's no book. He is a great villain, though. He kills, mutilates and rapes his way through the narrative to the point where the reader's desperate to see him get his comeuppance, hoping that he'll suffer in the same way his victims suffered. Yet when his end does come I was left thinking, 'Huh? That's it?' Believe me, 'anticlimactic' doesn't cover it adequately enough. Still, not a bad little novel - but once again, nowhere near as good as I remembered.

And finally we've got THE SUMMER SOLDIER by Nicholas Guild. And this is another bad one. So bad, in fact, that I gave up on it about three-quarters of the way through, which is very rare for me. But by that point I'd simply had enough and just didn't care anymore.

The plot, what there is of it, isn't too dissimilar to Barling's GOD IS AN EXECUTIONER either, which is fitting as it's just as awful in its own way. Ray Guinness, an academic at a local college, arrives home to find his wife dead from a house fire - although it soon becomes clear she was murdered beforehand. And it's not long before the police suspect Guinness of being the man behind it, despite his being happily married and having no motive whatsoever (but let's not worry about little details like that, eh?). It also turns out that Guinness is a 'man with a past,' and that he was once a ruthless hitman for Britain's MI6, now retired. And he already knows the murderer too: a guy named Vlasov, whose wife was killed accidentally by Guinness seven years before. And with Guinness's wife having met the same fate, the stage is now set for a duel to the death...

Oh dear, oh dear. This one just goes on forever. It's only 280 pages or so, but it feels double that because so little actually happens. In fact, there's just so much wrong with this one that I can't believe I ever thought it worth a second look. I'll give you an example. By the time the story opens Guinness's wife's body has already been taken away and we see Guinness inspecting the fire damage while a policeman waits to take him to a hotel. Fine. The second chapter has him sitting in a diner while he thinks about his wife. O-o-kay. Then in the third and fourth chapters he thinks back to how he got recruited by MI6 all those years ago and how he handled his first assignment for them. So at this point we're already on page 64 and nothing's happened. The plot's basically just stopped and we're stuck in deep flashback territory.

It's not until we reach the 100-page mark that another character comes along and gets the ball rolling again, by which time it's far too late. The damage has already been done. And the worst isn't even over yet, because there are more flashbacks to come. There's one instance when Guinness starts reminiscing about his first marriage to a lady called Kathleen, who upon finding out what her husband really did for a living quite wisely took their baby daughter and left him. But what could have easily been condensed into several pages lasts two or three chapters. And even that wouldn't be so bad if Kathleen were to make an appearance later in the story, but she doesn't. I checked. I flicked through the rest of the book looking for another mention of her name and there's nothing. So yet again we're given another flashback that has no effect on the plot whatsoever.

And that's not mentioning the endless introspection from Guinness all the way through the book. Dear God, it's like trudging though molasses. It really is. Page after page goes by with no dialogue at all, and what little dialogue there is doesn't flow because Guild inserts more internal monologue in between each snippet, in order to let you know what the character feels about what's just been said. Yeah, thanks for that, Nick. And then there's the problem of the Ray Guinness character himself. Now I like an anti-hero as much as the next reader, but Guinness essentially comes across as a psychopath in this book. In fact, it got to the point where I was starting to root for the villain as he had a pretty clear and sympathetic reason for wanting revenge on Guinness - and that's the point where I gave up on the novel. When you're rooting for the 'bad guy' to kill the lead character, then clearly the author's not doing his job properly and it's time to move on.

So that just about wraps it all up - six books from my past where my memory decided to play tricks on me. And I'm sure it'll continue to confound me, so don't be surprised if another post like this one appears in due course. Hopefully not for quite some time yet, though, as I much prefer blogging about the good books than I do the bad ones...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THIS PERFECT DAY by Ira Levin

It's hard to believe but Ira Levin - arguably one of the finest suspense authors of the 20th Century - wrote only seven novels over the space of forty-five years. And they aren't long, hefty tomes either - in fact, one of them's so short it should really be classed as a novella. But even so that still averages out at about one book every six years or so, which isn't something too many authors can get away with. However, each book was a major best-seller, and the guy was a playwright and songwriter in his spare time, so I guess he had an excuse for not producing more. And seven out of forty-five is stlll a better ratio than Thomas Harris, who, assuming he hasn't retired, has managed to eke out a grand total of five novels over a similar time frame.

But let's put aside quantity for a moment and focus on the quality. Just take a glance at these titles: A KISS BEFORE DYING, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Not bad, eh? And each one's a perfect example of storytelling at its finest, with intricate plots that have been painstakingly worked out to the nth degree. In fact, that first one - a blistering account of a young psychopath who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants - I still count amongst the greatest thriller novels ever written.

And the other three aren't exactly chopped liver either, with each one having imprinted itself onto the public's consciousness in one form or another. The modern Manhattan setting of ROSEMARY'S BABY, for instance, enabled Levin to bring horror fiction screaming into the 20th Century and ended up being so successful that it paved the way for a certain Stephen King to make his own mark on the genre ten years later. Thanks to THE STEPFORD WIVES ('one of those rare novels whose very title may well become part of the vocabulary' - original jacket copy), 'Stepford' quickly entered the American lexicon as a catch-all term for conformism and submission. And the wonderfully titled THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, with its biological engineering-based plot device, doesn't seem quite so farfetched today as it did back in the seventies.

And all four were also turned into movies - some more than once (A KISS BEFORE DYING, THE STEPFORD WIVES), some superbly (ROSEMARY'S BABY, A KISS BEFORE DYING), some badly (both remakes), and one indifferently (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL - which is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, and any movie where the combined ages of the three lead actors surpasses 200 gets my immediate respect). But with the exception of the two remakes all were financially successful, so perhaps it's easy to see why Levin didn't feel compelled to write a book a year like the rest of us poor scribblers.

So what about the other three? - I hear you ask. Well, there's SLIVER from 1991, written a full fifteen years after BOYS FROM BRAZIL. And it's not too bad - the pages certainly fly by without too much trouble - but it's not that great either (although the less said about the movie version the better). Then there's SON OF ROSEMARY from 1997, the critically slated and frankly unnecessary sequel to his most popular novel. I actually have a soft spot for it myself, and believe there's more to that infamous ending than you see at first glance, but even I have to admit Levin was well past his peak with this one. His heyday was really back in the sixties and seventies, back when he really could do no wrong.

And right smack-dab in the middle of this peak period - 1970, to be precise - came the book I'm here to tell you about: THIS PERFECT DAY. It's certainly the least well-known of Levin's novels, and that's possibly because it doesn't fit neatly into the 'suspense' or 'thriller' categories that made his name. Instead, THIS PERFECT DAY is Levin's attempt at a serious futuristic dystopian novel - to go alongside such works as Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, George Orwell's 1984, and Anthony Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

The story's set in a future where uniformity is the norm, and the world is governed by a single supercomputer know as UniComp, which controls and regulates every single aspect of the citizens' lives - including what job they'll be doing, where they live, when they eat, what they eat, who they marry, whether they can reproduce or not, and so on. And everybody dies at age 62. There's only one language, and thanks to eugenics all the previous ethnic groups have now been merged into one race, known as 'the Family', so everybody pretty much looks the same too. There are only four names for men (Karl, Li, Bob & Jesus), and four for women (Anna, Mary, Peace & Yin). And once a month everyone is given an injection of drugs - or a 'treatment' - to ensure any negative feelings of rebellion or individualism are kept locked up in the subconscious where they belong. No need to think, people - leave it all to UniComp.

The lead character is a chap named Li RM35M4419, whom we meet first at the age of six. But his grandfather, who's old enough to still retain a certain amount of cynicism and individuality, gives him the illegal nickname of Chip (as in 'a chip off the old block') and tries to pass these same qualities onto the boy at every opportunity. 'Try wanting something, Chip,' he suggests at one point, 'Try a day or two before your next treatment. That's when it's easiest; to want things, to worry about things...' As Chip grows up he tries, but all too often the drugs win out and it's not long before he's back to square one again.

For much of the book we follow Chip's growth as he matures into adulthood. He works in genetic science in some capacity and as the years pass he goes through a variety of girlfriends, each one no different from the last. And while on the surface he's a 'good Family member' like the rest of the walking dead, he does occasionally commit minor subversive acts that suggest there's something in there that the drugs can't totally subdue. These odd character 'faults' soon bring him to the attention of a secret group of likeminded nonconformists who meet in an old museum to smoke and have sex, and show him a way to avoid his regular treatments without alerting UniComp, so that he can start feeling stronger emotions again.

Upon finally 'waking up' to his true potential, Chip becomes attracted to another one in the group, Lilac, and starts seriously questioning the way this 'perfect' society functions. Finding old maps in the museum, they discover that there might be a few small islands dotted around that are entirely free of UniComp's influence...

Other than one pretty major misstep two-thirds of the way in, Levin's THIS PERFECT DAY is an enthralling novel that succeeds on just about every level. It's accessible and exciting enough to work as popular genre fiction, but it also stands up remarkably well against its more 'literary' counterparts mentioned above. It also helps that Levin's really more concerned with ideas than anything else. And in contrast to the other major dystopian novels, he does a much better job at predicting a possible future based on our own world history. We already live in a society where the computer takes up a large part of our daily existence, whether it be in the form of a laptop or a smart phone, so how many more steps until they start making decisions for us too? And the insistence on 'socially acceptable behaviour' that lays at the heart of the novel is only a few steps beyond the 'politically-correct' world we live in now.

Levin also does a great job of pacing the book, and lays his plans out in clear language on the contents page. Part one is titled, 'Growing Up.' Part two is 'Coming Alive.' Part three is 'Getting Away,' and the final part is 'Fighting Back.' Like a good magician showing his open palms at the beginning of a trick, Levin shows us what he's got planned: this is what's going to happen, then this, then that. But none of it takes place in the manner the reader expects - Levin's too great a storyteller to do the obvious. Anytime the reader expects Chip to go one way, events conspire to force him in another direction.

The author also utilizes his patented technique of itemising the particulars of everyday life to denote the passing of time - very important in a novel covering a thirty year period - thus adding that extra element of realism to an otherwise fantastic story. He used the same method with ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE STEPFORD WIVES - just one of the many ways Levin sucks you into the narrative and makes you believe it. And, of course, there's the arch dialogue, which is often clever without being showy. Such as when Chip's grandfather, Papa Jan - perhaps the most likeable character in the story - takes a very young Chip for a walk in the park near the start of the book:

     He was always saying things vigorously and with enthusiasm and yet giving Chip the feeling that he didn't mean them at all, that he meant in fact their exact opposites. On that subject of names, for instance:
     'Marvelous! Wonderful!' he said. 'Four names for boys, four names for girls. What could be more friction-free, more everyone-the-same? Everybody would name boys after Christ, Marx, Wood, or Wei anyway, wouldn't they?'
     'Yes,' Chip said.
     'Of course!' Papa Jan said. 'And if Uni gives out four names for boys it has to give out four names for girls too, right? Listen, in my day - are you listening? - in my day there were over twenty different names for boys alone. And in my father's time there were even more, maybe forty or fifty! Isn't that ridiculous? All those different names when members themselves are exactly the same and interchangeable? Isn't that the silliest thing you ever heard of?'
     And Chip nodded, confused, feeling that Papa Jan meant the opposite, that somehow it wasn't silly and ridiculous to have forty or fifty different names for boys alone.

And at other times the dialogue is intentionally hilarious in its banality, as when a drug-free and clear-thinking Chip needs to gain access to a closed-off section of the airport and has to dumb down in order to pass himself off as a normal brain-dead worker:

     He (Chip) false-touched a scanner and went into a room where coveralls, ordinary ones, hung on hooks, and two members were taking off orange ones. 'Hello,' he said.
     'Hello,' they both said.
     He went to a closet door and slid it open; a floor polisher and bottles of green liquid were inside.
     'Where are the cuvs?' he asked.
     'In there,' one of the members said, nodding at another closet.
     He went to it and opened it. Orange coveralls were on shelves, orange toeguards, pairs of heavy orange gloves.
     'Where did you come from?' the member asked.
     'RUS50937.' he said, taking a pair of coveralls and a pair of toeguards. 'We kept the cuvs in there.'
     'They're supposed to be in there,' the member said, closing white overalls.
     'I've been in Rus,' the other member, a woman, said, 'I had two assignments there; first four years and then three years.'
     He took his time putting on the toeguards, finishing as the two members chuted their orange coveralls and went out.

Great stuff indeed. Because it's during these sections that you can picture a whole society of male and female Homer Simpsons talking meaningless crap to one another for all eternity, and that, folks, is a very scary concept.

Ah, but all is not perfect in THIS PERFECT DAY - after all, didn't I mention a major misstep a few paragraphs ago? I'll try to keep the details as vague as I can so as not to spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way in, there's a scene where Chip and a previous girlfriend have a major blowup and he ends up raping her. Naturally, the woman is pretty traumatised by the incident, not to mention very angry. And Chip immediately feels guilty and gets teary-eyed, as well he should. But the problem arises the next morning when this woman, who's previously been portrayed as an intelligent person with strong character and a healthy amount of common sense, decides the rape wasn't as bad as all that really, and that maybe Chip deserves a second chance.

What? Seriously, Ira? Is that what happens after a woman's raped? Because I kind of doubt it myself. I have to say it's a real puzzler of a scene - especially coming from Levin, who's always specialized in creating believable and strong female characters. Is this really the same guy who gave us the tough, resourceful Ellen from A KISS BEFORE DYING (in the early 'fifties, no less!), or Joanna from THE STEPFORD WIVES, or even Kay from SLIVER? Because on this evidence it seems hard to believe.

Thinking about it, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was part of the reason why this book was out of print for so many years after its initial publication. Maybe Levin reread the thing, got to that morning-after scene and thought, 'Shit, what the hell was I thinking?' and decided to simply let the book go quietly out of print instead. Who knows - it's certainly possible. Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.

Anyway, assuming one can get past that serious blunder, anybody reading this book will find much to enjoy. They'll witness a master suspense writer spreading his wings a little and showing the 'big boys' what he can do. And there's a definite conclusion to the story too - a good one with plenty of suspense - which you don't often get in these kinds of novels. But Levin doesn't wrap everything up neatly with a ribbon either. The reader's still left with enough loose ends to be left thinking about the book for awhile afterwards, which is really all anybody can ask for in a novel.