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Such a Good Girl by Ed Gorman review [May. 19th, 2005|01:25 pm]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic

Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories by Ed GormanEd Gorman, Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories

Speak to genre writers about the writers they admire and the name of Ed Gorman will invariably come up. His ability to cross mystery, suspense, horror, and western boundaries has given him a large following in the community. Unfortunately, it has also kept him from mainstream success.

Ask about his work and you'll likely be told to "read it all." Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories is probably as good a place to start as any, provided you skip the first couple of tales. They are original to this collection, but they simply don't live up to the rest. Putting them at the front of the book was a poor decision, as they nearly made me give up on the book altogether.

The introduction by Richard Laymon (one of those where one friend writes about another -- pervasive in the mystery and horror genres) promises some of the best stories you've ever read -- morality, sadness, and humor abound -- and urges the reader to seek out Gorman "oaters" (Westerns), as well. You really couldn't ask for a better introduction, but incidentally, Laymon does not mention one single story included in Such a Good Girl, choosing instead to slyly lead the reader toward Gorman's other collections and novels.

Unfortunately, this is the third Five Star short story collection that I have read and, although their books are beautifully produced (the spines are especially strong), the contents have been consistently lacking. (For more indepth information, read my reviews of Jack Dann's Visitations and Barbara and Max Allan Collins' Murder - His and Hers.) Publishing a book without a thorough copy edit isn't doing anybody any favors; it's confusing as hell when characters' names change on a whim, like happens in both "A New Man" and "Aftermath."

The first story, "All These Condemned," has a twist ending but an otherwise unsatisfying conclusion. Next is "A Girl Like You." Rich boy Peter Wyeth can have anything he wants -- except Nora. But who is she? And why does this story have no real resolution? Fortunately, there are some real gems that follow.

"The Way It Used to Be" is the first one to show any real cleverness in style or execution. It follows a teenaged bigot on his search to find out why his sister is dating a black guy. A cross of Joe Lansdale and Rod Serling. "Judgment" (from Monsters in Our Midst) was the first one to show any sign of "genius." Character and plot combine in a classic story of a man who follows his conscience in the face of the rules. "Ghosts" is a more emotional piece, about two out-of-luck characters whose lives intersect. The change in focus is surprising but natural.

"That Day at Eagle Point" follows the lives of three friends through their ups and downs, breakups and reconciliations, up to and including the ends of two lives. It's emotionally solid work from Gorman and it at this point when I realized that I just might get out of Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories entertained after all. The centerpiece, however, is the title novella, which concerns the sacrifices some people will make in the name of a loved one's happiness. "Such a Good Girl" has uncommon characters, a gripping plot, and an unexpected resolution, making it near the cream of this crop. "Aftermath," about what happens when a police officer rapes a local suburbanite instead of his usual prostitutes, is almost as good, but it doesn't quite play fair, hiding information from the reader and offering an ending that could not have possibly been foreseen.

When private eye Jack Dwyer (protagonist of a series of Gorman mystery novels) investigates an assault on a young girl, he finds out that beauty isn't only in the "Eye of the Beholder." In this, and throughout Such a Good Girl and Other Crime Stories, Gorman exhibits his true skill at bringing out the darkness in his characters. This skill is used to perfection in the collection's closer, "Angie," a true ass-kicker (from the Bram Stoker-winning 999) that crosses into Lansdale territory again with its completely irredeemable lead characters. What a terrific bang to end a collection that started out with a whimper.
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Home Before Dark by Gary Braunbeck review [May. 12th, 2005|08:47 am]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic

Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 2 by Gary A. BraunbeckGary A. Braunbeck, Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 2

Speaking as a writer, Gary Braunbeck makes me angry. He's simply too good at what he does. It's not fair that, when talent was handed out, Braunbeck got a double portion while some of the rest of us were stuck with what we could scrape off the bottom of the bowl. As a reader, however, I could not ask for better, and his Cedar Hill stories are the best example of his inimitable skill.

All roads, it seems, lead to Cedar Hill, Ohio. All the stories in Home Before Dark: The Collected Cedar Hill Stories, Volume 2 have been reworked from their original publication to better fit within the town's myth. (Volume one, entitled Graveyard People is also available, and five total volumes are expected in this series from Earthling Publications.)

Cedar Hill, like most towns, carries a lot of pain, and that pain is Braunbeck's focus. That he doesn't sensationalize it is all the more remarkable. The best stories can actually bring real tears from the right reader, his skill at expressing human emotion within the limitation of words is so true. "Safe," a novella of how an incidence of mass murder resonates with the family's survivors (and others), is one of these. It is a thing of beauty, the story that Braunbeck calls "the central piece in the Cedar Hill cycle." (It was also based on an event he experienced.)

A lot of the pain, as can be expected, comes from familial relationships. Family emotions play a large role in the stories in Home Before Dark. In "Safe," for obvious reasons, and also in "After the Elephant Ballet," with is a sort of Field of Dreams, except with a mother and a circus. "Duty," a Bram Stoker award-winner, houses more than its fair share of familial guilt (so much that it must be at least semi-autobiographical). There are also a couple of "holiday" stories ("Palimpsest Day" and "Dinosaur Day"), both of which feature dysfunctional families. These arrive at their conclusions by opposite means while both illustrating that Braunbeck likes to help those who can't help themselves.

"Safe" is the second entry and is a hard act to follow; few could really compare. The story with that unfortunate position, "In the Direction of Summers Coming," doesn't even come close. Another story of the streets that appears later, "That, and the Rain," succeeds much more fully, even when things take a decidedly fantastic turn. "The Box Man" doesn't feel like it belongs here at all, but in some sort of themed tribute anthology. It is so reminiscent of many other classic stories in the genre (shades of Dickens, Bradbury, and Poe), that there is little room for the author's own stamp. Also, unfortunately, the ending is no shocker, having been telescoped from almost the very beginning.

The centerpiece of Home Before Dark is the novella "Kiss of the Mudman" (published here for the first time anywhere) -- a story of music, stardom, death, and the combination of notes that brings dirty destruction to the Cedar Hill halfway house. Along the way, a visit from the "ulcerations" of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, and Billie Holiday enlighten the legend of just why the greatest guitar player that ever lived was a woman. Music fans will love it, and Braunbeck's fans should not miss it. It has all the things that make his work special: the pain, the despair, and the fear, all combined but with each one allowed its own moment in the sun, each one getting its own time with your nerves before they all come crashing down, leaving you with just enough energy to turn the page.

"Rami Temporalis," about a man with "one of those faces," was, in my opinion, the best entry in Borderlands 5 (in paperback as From the Borderlands), an anthology with a lot of great stories. It is also included here in case you missed it, or just wanted to read it again. It's just as good the second time around.

On the surface, "Some Touch of Pity" is a Werewolf / Indian tale, but there is much more going on. In fact, it just may be too powerful for its own good; I couldn't wait to be done with it (and it does go on a little too long). The central event of the rape of a teenage boy by other teenage boys is so graphically depicted as to inject the victim's physical pain and emotional trauma into the reader. I shudder to think how I would have been affected if I identified with the situation....

"The King of Rotten Wood" discovers that someone has to be the recipient of the hidden knowledge of the dead, and why shouldn't it be the fellow who creates their memorial videos? "The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women" gives Amanda a opportunity to see how the other half lives (and loves, in one very effectively-written scene); she quickly discovers that "beauty gets what beauty wants." And the book closes with "The Circus of Central Motion," which is told partially in verse(!). Rhythmically, the poetry is uneven, but the content ties up the collection nicely.

Also included in Home Before Dark are excerpts from A Visitor's Guide to Cedar Hill, and a page torn directly from the local newspaper, The Cedar Hill Ally. The art of Deena Warner is represented both by a full-size illustration on the cover and by smaller, but no less evocative, accompaniments to each story's title. Some of these are particularly effective in setting the mood, and all of them are worthy of deeper perusal. The details that went into these is astonishing, especially considering that many readers will ignore them outright.

I simply can't get over how utterly true these stories feel; more so than anything I've read in a long time. Very few of the contrivances that often distract from the experience of good writing appear here. The stories in Home Before Dark are pure, as if they -- to borrow a cliche -- are being told through Braunbeck, and not simply by him. You owe it to yourself to visit Cedar Hill. Just be happy you don't live there.
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Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge review [May. 6th, 2005|12:02 pm]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic

Plunder of the Sun by David DodgeDavid Dodge, Plunder of the Sun

"When the nocturno pulled out for Cuzco, we slept in separate compartments .... I suppose I was getting old, but it was a dirty racket and the arithmetic was simple: eighty-four divided by two is forty-two, eighty-four divided by one is eighty-four.

"I didn't want to shoot Jeff if a locked door between us made it unnecessary."
-- Plunder of the Sun

It's a first: a novel from Hard Case Crime that I didn't particularly like. Not that there's anything especially wrong with David Dodge's Plunder of the Sun; I'm just not a big fan of the international-treasure-hunt genre, which actually made it a struggle to get through the book. So much so that I would finish other books in the time between I put this one down and picked it up again. Purely a matter of personal taste, but it does make a difference.

Plunder of the Sun is the second of three novels by Dodge starring Mexican-born private detective Al Colby. It was made into a 1953 movie, produced by John Wayne(!) and starring Glenn Ford, with only minor plot changes. The plot, in essence, is fairly simple: Colby, vacationing in Chile (he is fluent in Spanish) is paid a too large a sum of money to ignore, in order to smuggle an unknown package to Peru. (He should have known better, but a thousand dollars is a thousand dollars.)

Before long, his client is dead and a cadre of people are trying to get their hands on the mysterious package, which is alleged to contain information leading to an ancient Incan treasure. Can Colby decipher the message and get there first, or will he survive to get there at all?

As implied earlier, I didn't give two bits about Colby, his priceless Quechua pergaminos, or any of the losers tripping over themselves to get their hands on whatever lay at the proverbial spot marked X. But I wouldn't say it was Dodge's fault. In fact, it was his way with words, plotting skill, adept characterization (surprisingly enough, the females were especially well-drawn), and detailed setting (the author also wrote travelogues) that actually helped me make it to the end.

I liked Dodge's style enough that I would likely try another of his books, as long as it contained a significantly different setup. Apparently, the three Colby books are all similar, so maybe his other series character, accountant James "Whit" Whitney (who has been compared to Nick Charles of The Thin Man), would be more my style. However, given that Plunder of the Sun marks the return in print of any of his books (which is really hard to imagine, given that he also wrote the novel that the Alfred Hitchcock / Cary Grant / Grace Kelly romantic caper To Catch a Thief was based on), that may prove difficult.
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361 by Donald E Westlake [Apr. 27th, 2005|11:59 am]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |deviousutterly criminal]


361 by Donald E. WestlakeDonald E. Westlake, 361

(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Donald E. Westlake's 361.)

Just when Raymond Kelly was returning from military service, just when he was ready to settle down and spend some time with his family -- his brother, his father, his brother's wife whom he's heard all about and is excited to see in person for the first time -- just then, that's when it all went wrong.

One occasion of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and a month later he wakes up in a hospital room minus a father, a sister-in-law and an eye. With no family left but his brother, Bill, they set to find out who is responsible and wind up discovering a little more about their family than they ever guessed, including the surprising significance of their father's last word. But blood must avenge blood, so Ray and Bill spend a lot of the novel playing a Holmes and Watson with attitude.

The prose in 361 is so fast that I had to slow down my reading just to keep up. It is a fascinating example of the development of Westlake's craft. Most of the Westlake I've read came from a much later period of his career (1980s or later), and I've not read any of the Richard Stark novels, but this book seems like it would suit Parker fans more than those of his comic mysteries. The many fans of other Hard Case Crime novels, however, will eat it right up.

Only his third novel, 361 is not as solid and confident (or as funny) as the only other earlier work I had read -- the Edgar Award-winning God Save the Mark, published just five years later in 1967. What carries it along wonderfully, however, besides the pure power of the storytelling, is the sense that, behind the typewriter is a writer intensely trying to make an impression on the reader. And, as usual, he succeeds.

One thing was decidedly familiar, reminding me of the Donald E. Westlake style his fans know and love: the number of surprises present in this story allow for plenty of leeway in telling the story. You start to think he's going one way, and he goes another. Or he'll spring something unexpected, hiding it within a paragraph of description or "stage business" (as opposed to giving it its own paragraph like most writers do), thus guaranteeing that the reader does a mental "double-take." That's the kind of writing that makes me celebrate. And that's the kind of writing you can expect from 361.
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Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon review [Apr. 15th, 2005|01:51 pm]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |accomplishedaccomplished]
[Current Music |Stevie Nicks - "Edge of 17" (get it?)]


Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammonRobert McCammon, Speaks the Nightbird

Seven years after the Salem witch trials, the Southern colonies are seeing some of the same action. The citizens of the new settlement of Fount Royal blame recent widow Rachel Howarth for all their recent tribulations, including the murders of the local preacher and her own husband, and a rash of fires that has claimed some of the town's important buildings.

Traveling magistrate Isaac Woodward, accompanied by his clerk Matthew Corbett, has been called to preside over the trial that is planned purely to speed the execution of Madam Howarth as a witch. It the majority of the town had its way about it, she would be burned immediately, but the magistrate is determined to see that justice is served. It is Matthew, however, who is most interested in pursuing the final truth of the matter, especially once the evidence -- although damning on the surface -- just doesn't seem to gel properly.

Speaks the Nightbird was Robert McCammon's first published novel in a decade and was finally released along with the announcement of his retirement. Written years before, it took a long time to publish because publishers expected him to write only horror, that they could sell, and they didn't know how to market this new work (even though he had been leaving the horror genre over the last few books). McCammon became thoroughly disgusted with the industry and longed to wash his hands of it entirely, focusing instead on fatherhood.

This was unfortunate for us because Speaks the Nightbird is his best book to date, even, in many ways, triumphing his previous masterpieces, Boy's Life and Swan Song. It is an epic historical novel combining suspense with a murder mystery, American colonial history, and a little romance, the likes of which I have never seen. McCammon uses this somewhat-familiar format to make several comments about human nature, and especially people's responses to the unknown (and the mob mentality). The accused's foreign heritage (Portuguese, in this case -- not far from the hated Spaniards) and dark skin plays a sizable role in her accusation, but McCammon makes subtle use of this fact. The setting is so clearly laid out that I felt as if I could draw a map of Fount Royal, and I still have a clear picture of many of the locations in my mind. Also, the characters brought out genuine emotion from me, whether it was love or hate. Part of what makes Speaks the Nightbird so appealing is the realism in McCammon's portrayal of colonial times. The amount of research that must have gone into it is very apparent and admirable. (Though McCammon's use of stately words like "gaol" and "poppet" is at first distracting, it soon becomes simply part of the book's beauty.)

Originally published in one hardcover volume by River City Publishing, McCammon's usual paperback purveyor Pocket Books decided to split the book into two separate volumes. (Volume II: Evil Unveiled simply picks up where Volume I: Judgment of the Witch leaves off.) The second half of the story, however, does have a different tone, emphasizing the coming-of-age and murder-mystery aspects of the story, and winding down the story in general towards its completion. Young Matthew defies Magistrate Woodward and continues to look for evidence of Rachel's innocence in the few days remaining before her judgment is to be delivered. In the largest sense, this is about him becoming his own man. He also discovers love and this makes the investigation even more emotional and suspenseful. His discoveries regarding the citizens of Fount Royal are stunning to say the least. Apparently absolutely nothing is as it seems in this town and McCammon reveals these secrets with aplomb, leading us along willingly until he decides to spring another surprise on us. This novel could have been a lot shorter, but most of the reasons I liked it so much would have been lost.

The end descends into the murder-mystery cliche of the perpetrator being discovered and the "detective" (Matthew) offering up his speculation as to what happened. This part is fun, if you're a mystery buff, but actually breaks the mood a bit. Luckily, McCammon followed it up with a whiz-bang ending that left me -- after nine hundred pages -- still wanting more! Also luckily, it kept the door opened for the possible sequel that has recently been announced, The Queen of Bedlam. The author, as stated in an interview early in 2005, hopes to write four or five books with Matthew Corbett (though not of this length), and I for one will be eagerly awaiting their publication. Here's hoping that the success of Speaks the Nightbird has revived McCammon's interest in writing (and publishing). He is one of our greats and should be supported in whatever genre he chooses to write.
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Flesch-Kincaid [Mar. 29th, 2005|09:57 am]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |indescribablehumbled]

Just out of curiosity, I ran the review I wrote for the local paper (geared to the fourth- to seventh-grade crowd) through Word's grammar checker.

Apparently, I wrote it at the twelfth-grade level. That's something I'll need to keep an eye on in the future.

In related news, I sent a copy to my mom. She called me the other day saying that several of the words had gone over her head, so she definitely knew that I wrote it.
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Home is the Sailor by Day Keene review [Mar. 21st, 2005|03:30 pm]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |contemplativescheming]


Home is the Sailor by Day KeeneDay Keene, Home is the Sailor

(Hard Case Crime is a new imprint from Dorchester Publications and Winterfall LLC that focuses on books written in the style of the old pulp crime novels. They will be publishing new works in the old style, as well as reprinting classics from the masters, like Day Keene's Home is the Sailor.)

Day Keene's name (itself a pseudonym for Gunnar Hjerstedt) isn't as well-known as James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, or Raymond Chandler, the acknowledged masters of noir literature. That's probably because Keene's writing isn't as generally palatable, tending toward an even darker tone than the others.

Even in a book with such irredeemable characters as Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, there is a sense that they are at least aware that what they are doing is wrong. There is no such guarantee with Day Keene. (In one of his later books, for example, one character has molested his mentally-disabled sister so often that she stays in bed most of the time, just waiting.)

Home is the Sailor is, like most of its ilk, based on the common assumption that a woman who is good in bed can make a man do anything, and killing is just the beginning. Usually the men in these books are about half-witted, mostly unaware of how skillfully they are being manipulated until it's too late. Such is the fate of Swede Nelson, who falls into the clutches of young widow Corliss Mason and gets taken on the ride of his life, with options for the other kind, when all he wants to do is settle down and buy a farm....

Corliss is a lot of the draw that this book holds, her status as a femme fatale is secure, and Swede Nelson is the kind of fallible hero who is easy to identify with. I saw the revelation coming miles away, but I've been reading a lot of these kinds of books lately, and Keene more than makes up for it with the pace of the story (though it is a little on the long side once things start to wrap up). With Home is the Sailor acting as the springboard, I'll definitely be looking for more from Day Keene.

(I do have a couple of questions: How does a guy named Swen Nelson, of Scandinavian descent, nicknamed "Swede," end up with brown hair on the book cover? And why did it take two artists to do it? Although I have to admit that the separation is invisible.)
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Full Out Freak self-titled debut review [Mar. 21st, 2005|01:24 pm]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |nerdyultracool]


Full Out Freak, Full Out Freak

The great thing about being a reviewer is the opportunity to sample lots of independent music for virtually no cost (after all, posting my opinion on a free website can scarcely count as "work"). In exchange for a little publicity (positivity is not guaranteed, but having a review come up when a prospective fan types your name into Google, with an easy purchase link, can make the difference for struggling bands), I get to hear more new music than the average person.

Of course, a lot of this music is, to put it bluntly, crap -- generally someone who bought a guitar, a computer, and some James Taylor CDs used and decided to become a recording artist -- but occasionally I am treated to a surprise: a band who is just a well-connected publicist away from stardom. New Jersey's Full Out Freak is one of those bands.

Their debut album (also entitled Full Out Freak, which will certainly avoid confusion) is full of hummable power-pop tunes written by lead vocalist Joey Aparicio (the sole exception being guitarist Will Harrington's "Little Conversations") that easily translate into mental music videos due to their purity of emotion. (I would recommend licensing a few of these songs -- specifically "After All," "I'll Be Damned," the punny "Loser Anyway," and "What It's Worth" -- to film soundtracks. "Damned" simply cries out to underlie a montage.)

The band's musicianship is impeccable. Aparicio (also the album's producer) has one of those enviable lite-metal voices that can reach every note and Harrington seems to know when to lead the charge with his axe and when to provide rhythmic support along with bassist Eric Berkowitz and drummer Joe Timm (alternating with Skyline Studios owner Jonathan Mover). The album starts to lose momentum in the latter third, but the closer, "Drama", is a stunner, ending Full Out Freak on just the right note. With a collection of terrific tunes and eye-catching graphic design (both the CD and the band's website), Full Out Freak are destined for future earworm status.

Full Out Freak: Full Out FreakFULL OUT FREAK: Full Out Freak

Fusing energetic, edgy modern rock with the song-based, power pop sensibilities of Cheap Trick, Foo Fighters, Butch Walker, Incubus, New Jersey pop/rock quartet, Full Out Freak is a band about which no assumptions should be made.

Buy the CD
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The Big Sleep review [Mar. 16th, 2005|11:05 am]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |confusedconfused]


Cover of The Big Sleep DVDHoward Hawks' The Big Sleep

How does a movie become a classic when it doesn't make any damn sense? Howard Hawks' adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel, The Big Sleep, is a perfect example of what happens when box office potential trumps creative integrity.

The plot of Raymond Chandler's novel (featuring his most famous creation, gumshoe Philip Marlowe) is confusing enough. (Even the author didn't know how one character died.) Putting it on the screen would have to be done very carefully. Unfortunately, after the film was shot, someone decided that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall needed more scenes showcasing their sexual tension -- scenes that aren't in the novel.

As the film was already approaching two hours in length (and it's a long two hours, at that), it was decided to put the duo's new scenes in place of existing ones that just happened to be instrumental in the furtherance and clarification of the storyline. Thus, we end up with a mystery that has an unfair solution. But, hey, there's Bogey and Bacall giving the look to each other under a haze of innuendo.

The couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not, but Bogart tried for a while to make his marriage work. The couple would wait until after The Big Sleep to wed. (Which brings up a point: Bogart and Bacall are such a legendary Hollywood couple, I wonder how many people are aware that, after Bogart's death, she was married to Jason Robards for eight years.)

Credited with writing the screenplay are two names of great import in Hollywood and literature: William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. The pair, together with Jules Furthman, adapted Ernest Hemingway's novel for To Have and Have Not. (Faulkner adapting Hemingway? Wow!) Faulkner also did a lot of uncredited work on other scripts. Leigh Brackett, primarily a writer of genre fiction, was associated with only a few films, but almost all of them were classics (and most were Howard Hawks / John Wayne collaborations). A rundown of her (yes, her) credits (in addition to the two above) includes Rio Bravo, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, The Long Goodbye (from another Chandler novel), and The Empire Strikes Back (she died before completion of her draft). John Carpenter and Debra Hill even named the sheriff in Halloween after her (her gender was not widely known by her fans).

Watch out for Martha Vickers as Bacall's sister. The first scene is a real firecracker, and the rumor is she was so good in this film that she outshone Bacall, leading to much of her role ending up on the cutting room floor. It doesn't pay to act better than the star.

Well ... since this seems to have degenerated from a discerning review into a "How much trivia can I fit on one page?" random ramble, it's probably best to cut it short. My original point was simply that The Big Sleep is a film classic and should probably be seen by anyone who calls himself a film buff, but that doesn't mean that the viewer has to go along with the general assessment of it as a "good" film, or even an "entertaining" one. Because, other than watching Bogart and Bacall go at each other in a couple of contrived scenes, it isn't. Read the book instead.
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Panic in the Streets review [Mar. 15th, 2005|09:06 am]
Craig Clarke, the Charming Critic
[Current Mood |quixoticnoirish]


Cover of Panic in the Streets DVDElia Kazan's Panic in the Streets

This is one of those films that looks great when you read the cast list, but that suffers in the execution. It is the terrific acting that carries the viewer through Panic in the Streets' non-plot (actually an Academy Award-winning screen story from the husband and wife team of Edna and Edward Anhalt).

Richard Widmark stars as a military doctor who discovers that a recently murdered man had pneumonic plague and would have died in a couple of days anyway. Since it is communicable through the air, he wants to find and quarantine the killer in order to avoid an epidemic.

At the same time, he is trying to keep the story from the press -- one tenacious reporter, in particular -- because people will leave town, those already infected spreading the plague over the country (and possibly throughout the world). The meat of Panic in the Streets involves Widmark searching for the killer with local police chief Paul Douglas.

Said killer is Blackie, played by Jack Palance (or Walter Jack Palance here) in his film debut. When Blackie gets wind of the investigation of the murdered man, he assumes that he had been hiding something and goes after the man's cousin, with flunky Fitch (Zero Mostel) in tow. (Their relationship reminds me of the Warner Brothers duo of Cockney cartoon dogs Spike and Chester -- or Abbott and Costello without the humor.)

(About Zero Mostel: Director Kazan would later name Mostel to the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Mostel was one of many who were blacklisted and didn't work in entertainment for most of the 1950s. He would eventually revive his career and appear in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Producers, and The Front, a film about the Blacklist).

Sprung from a potentially fascinating story, Panic in the Streets is, unfortunately, overlong and contains little suspense about the eventual outcome. On the plus side, Widmark has a terrific talent for palying a regular guy and his antagonistic relationship with Douglas is the heart of the picture (despite Kazan's attempts to do that with Widmark's scenes at home with wife Barbara Bel Geddes).

Also, Palance shows why he made a career of playing creeps (and then making fun of that persona in his Academy Award-winning performance in City Slickers): the man has an awesome presence. Mostel, on the other hand, seems to be only going through the motions, giving Fitch none of the depth that he would endow Max Bialystock with almost twenty years later in The Producers.

An extra subplot or two might have fleshed out Panic in the Streets closer to perfection but, as it is, it is simply a passably tense film of a universal fear. However, I do hope that this DVD release introduces Richard Widmark to modern audiences. Popular in radio and film (he's likely best known for his darker turn in his debut, Kiss of Death), Widmark has an instantly recognizable voice and a naturalness that makes any performance of his worth watching.
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