29 February 2008

Book Review: Manhattan Love Song

Manhattan Love Song (1932)
By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich books fluctuate in print without much rhyme or reason. You have to stay alert on the publishing front and do regular Internet searches to catch the new items as they appear. The sudden re-emergence of Night Has a Thousand Eyes caught me off-guard; I didn’t expect this bleak work to be next on any publisher’s list of Woolrich novels ready for resurrection. Black Angel or Deadline and Dawn seemed much more probable. Publishers have also ignored one of my favorites, Black Alibi, for far too long, and I think the current public would devour this serial killer tale with gory relish. And yet, beyond expectations, the only fitfully popular Night Has a Thousand Eyes is back on bookshelves. No complaints—it’s a great book and quintessential Woolrich doom n’ gloom—but it’s an unusual twist in the tale.

As a capper, the other Woolrich novel now in print is one of his earliest, 1932’s Manhattan Love Song. For any book from the author’s pre-pulp days that started in 1934 with the publication of “Death Sits in the Dentist’s Chair” to get back into print is a minor miracle. Most of these works, which aren’t crime novels and aimed toward the literary crowd of the 1920s, haven’t been available for decades. Woolrich’s first novel, Cover Charge, probably has been out-of-print since the 1930s. Ramble House, a print-on-demand publisher, has made available Woolrich’s semi-autobiographical 1930 work A Young Man’s Heart, which most likely is its first appearance since…well, 1930. As for Times Square, Children of the Ritz, and The Time of Her Life, unless Ramble House decides to add these to their catalog, don’t count on ever seeing them again.

27 February 2008

Hogni expired and later died for this

Reading medieval literature, you often come across some hysterical matter-of-fact writing that must have worked fine for readers of the time but which make us jaded folks of the one-and-twenty smile. Or laugh hysterically. Take this gem from the thirteenth-century Icelandic Edda by Snorri Sturluson:
King Atli had Hogni’s heart cut out while he was alive. This brought about his death.
Thanks for clearing that up, Snorri.

25 February 2008

The Oscars, I suppose

No, I didn’t watch the Oscars, and according to the Nielsen ratings, no one else did either. This was the lowest rated telecast ever. Since no big blockbuster hits found their way into the nominations, general viewers weren’t that interested. I’m not a general viewer, since I see far more movies per year than most people and have an interest in keeping up with the business (I spent a few years working in it), and I wasn’t that interested. At least one of the nominees that I had seen won Best Picture, No Country for Old Men, and Javier Bardem deserved that Best Supporting Actor statue for his freaky assassin with the gravity-defying haircut. Tilda Swinton was also a good choice for Michael Clayton, the other Best Picture nominee I’ve seen.

However… this wasn’t a movie year that excited me that much. Hopefully 2008 will better.

23 February 2008

Woolrich book collection

It has been a long time since I’ve posted a video blog, but Cornell Woolrich inspires such things. Enjoy a short tour through my Woolrich book collection:

My favorite Cornell Woolrich stories

After I revised my file that lists all the Cornell Woolrich stories that I have in my collection, I picked out my favorites in no particular order. I’ve used each story’s most popular title if it has appeared under more than one, listing the original title in parentheses. (For consistency, in my files I alphabetize each story by its original publication title, even if the reprint is far more famous. So “Rear Window” is “It Had to Be Murder.” This is confusing for everyday readers, but this file is for personal purposes.)

1. Three O’Clock
2. Momentum (Murder Always Gathers Momentum)
3. Wardrobe Trunk (The Dilemma of the Dead Lady)
4. Somebody on the Phone
5. The Night Reveals
6. Endicott’s Girl
7. New York Blues
8. For the Rest of Her Life
9. After-Dinner Story
10. Death Escapes the Eye
11. Goodbye, New York
12. The Light in the Window
13. Men Must Die (Guillotine)
14. Mind over Murder
15. Dead on Her Feet

I read “Wardrode Trunk”/“The Dilemma of the Dead Lady” last night for the first time, and it automatically shot into my favorites. This is one of Woolrich’s classics where he forces us to watch a criminal desperately try to avoid capture, turning the screws tighter and tighter. In this case, a con-man/crook accidentally murders his mark when she confronts him about his stealing. He then has to get out of the country (France) with her body packed in his wardrobe trunk. As usual with Woolrich, he had hold of me from the beginning until the bitter and ironic finale. You can find the story in the enormous anthology of pulp detective classics, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps edited by Otto Penzler. (The whole book is loaded with great noir stories from the classic era, and at a thousand pages and a few months of good reading, it’s a steal at $25.)

22 February 2008

“Cigarette” by Cornell Woolrich

I’m already following up on the promise to post reviews of Woolrich short stories. This is the first review I wrote when I started my “Woolrich Opus Survey” two years ago, and which I will now resume. I won’t spoil the end of any of the stories, but be warned that I do talk about important plot details.

“Cigarette” was published in Detective Fiction Weekly, 11 January 1936 and was most recently reprinted in Night & Fear. This story has a moral: cigarettes can kill you, and in a Cornell Woolrich story, they definitely will.

Poor, simple Eddie Dean, errand boy to a mobster called ‘The Boss’, and another Woolrich nobody who lands in a horrific trap of bad circumstances. The Boss gives Eddie a simple assignment: Take a cigarette case filled with new cigs to a bar where the Boss’s enemy, Miller, hangs out with his cronies. Then offer Miller a cigarette—the first cigarette from the trick ejector case. That’s all. Eddie doesn’t know the cigarette contains a dose of cyanide, and not only will Miller die, but Miller’s henchmen will do the hapless Eddie in as well right afterwards. The perfect cover for the Boss, who will make sure people see him publicly somewhere else while Eddie commits the deed and gets iced for it.

The Madness of Collecting Cornell Woolrich

Woolrich during his college years
Collecting the works of mystery-suspense pulp writer Cornell Woolrich is one of my hobbies. But it also is a way to madness. First, Woolrich goes in and out of print with irregular weirdness, and many classics haven’t seen print in decades. Second, his stories frequently fly around with more than one title. Third, his stories are popular items in general anthologies, so often getting some of his rarer works requires purchasing a whole anthology of other author's stories just to grab one of his. My extensive short story collection sprawls over a labyrinth of collections, and keeping track of what is where can be a tangle. Fourth, collecting Woolrich stories also means reading them, which will send anyone into a deep depression if not done in moderation.

Do not mistake me: I love Cornell Woolrich’s work. More than any American author’s. But it is so utterly bleak and cruel that sustained doses can turn acutely painful. His novels Rendezvous in Black and Night Has a Thousand Eyes should come with a Surgeon General’s warnings to keep away from sharp objects while reading them. (Both are currently in-print, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve just recommended them to you or not.) Minor Woolrich stories, like “The Case of the Maladroit Manicurist,” are aggravating for different reasons, mainly the author’s sloppy plotting and brain-bending coincidences are too noticeable when he wasn’t writing in an inspired mood. It’s easy to tell when Woolrich was just kicking something out to pay the rent on his Manhattan hotel room, and getting through these true potboilers can be tough for a completist like myself. Good Woolrich and Bad Woolrich are both frustrating, but for different reasons.

What I really should do is start the long-term project that for years I’ve promised myself I would one day undertake in earnest: writing a catalog of reviews for every one of the Woolrich stories that I own. I already have a Word file where I’ve listed all the stories in my collection, along with their alternate titles and original publication date and location. But to get a real grasp on this Sargasso Sea of noir, I need to go into greater detail on each work. This wouldn’t just be for my benefit; I might put the reviews on-line to fill in the serious gap in Woolrich criticism on the Internet. It’s a lengthy project that will take years, but I think my favorite American author deserves no less.

I recently got two new additions to my collection: “The Dilemma of the Dead Lady” (a.k.a. “Wardrobe Trunk”) and “Face Work” (a.k.a. “Angel Face”—I told you about those multiple titles!)

21 February 2008

The poor DVD editions are heeeeeeere!

Time for a DVD complaint session, centered on my favorite movie year, 1982. The Blade Runner four-disc release made me very happy, but all is not well in other corners of the Great Year.

Blade Runner wasn’t the only classic 1982 flick that finally got a twenty-fifth anniversary DVD release at the end of 2007. One of that year’s biggest hits, Poltergeist, got a new disc in October. Poltergeist was one of the very first movies released for the format, but like most early discs it didn’t have an impressive transfer. The new disc fixes all that; I’m glad to report that after watching the DVD last night that the image looks great and the 5.1 sound does wonders with some of the great “jump” sound effects and eerie moments—Carol Anne’s voice echoes from different speakers as she communicates through the television—and Goldsmith score has never sounded better.

However, this Poltergeist doesn’t qualify as a special edition of any kind. It’s a “25th Anniversary” edition because it was released twenty-five years after the film’s premiere, and for no other reason. For a major film, a cultural touchstone with Steven Spielberg’s name attached to it, the lack of bonus features on this is embarrassing. The only feature is a half-hour documentary about the “science” of ghost-hunting. It uses clips from the movie, but it isn’t about the movie at all. It’s just the usual paranormal pseudoscience hokum. I enjoy this hokum in the context of the film, but not delivered to me as a “documentary,” especially when I’m expecting something specific about the making of the movie. Poltergeist has a complex history, with the death of two of its stars at young ages (Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunn) and a controversy surrounding Spielberg’s involvement and how much Tobe Hooper was responsible for the film’s direction. Many of the major participants are still alive and could offer great insights into it—come on, at least drag out Zelda Rubinstein!—and the film features some of the earliest effects from the recently formed ILM. There’s a haunted house-full of material here, and the DVD delivers none of it. It’s enough to make me want to rip my face off.

Next I’ll complain about the skimpy treatment that Fox gave to the 2-disc “Family Fun” edition of another 1982 masterpiece, The Secret of NIMH. Here’s a preview: there was no reason they couldn’t have fit it all onto one disc.

And while on the topic of DVDs of 1982, Warner Bros. needs to hustle out a new disc of The Road Warrior. They’ve had the same transfer with no special features since 1997. A recent double-feature disc of The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome actually presented both films in pan & scan, which is worse than no movie at all. This film is a legend, and needs appropriate treatment.

19 February 2008

Don’t I get a Lapidus Durus Romae T-shirt?

It looks as if Fidel Castro is so upset about HD finally surrendering to BluRay in the DVD format war that he decided to retire from running Cuba. (However, I have heard rumors that he wants to work more on perfecting his split-finger fastball.)

In personal news (and I know I don’t report on a lot of this): my mother returned from a trip to Italy, where she spent some time sight-seeing with my sister and her husband, and helped with my sister’s pregnancy and baby-planning. Mom ardently wished I had been along on the sight-seeing, since I’m the humanities guy in the family—the only member who isn’t involved in medicine—and can lecture endlessly about history. You don’t even need to ask me, I launch right into tour-guide mode the moment I’m in Europe. I also can read Latin, which my mother said would have been a huge help in Rome. I would have spent all my time reading inscriptions, probably to the eventual annoyance of everyone else. (But even I have trouble with lapidary shorthand, the Roman tendency to turn everything into an initial so that some sentences on buildings are nothing more than a parade of letters and periods, like: C.I.V.AD.L.T.V.E.) Mom was disappointed with the trip to Pompeii because the tour guide rushed them through the sights and for a hefty load of money (equivalent to USD 150) showed them nearly nothing except some gift shops, complete with “Vesuvius Blew her Top and And All I Got Was This Cheap Toga” shirts. She did love the time spent at the Colosseum, but was amazed to think that crowds could enjoy watching people kill each other in gladiatorial combat. I told her that is much less gruesome and appalling than American Idol, and she understood.

But why didn’t she bring me back a Lapidus Durus Romae T-shirt? (That’s the Julio-Claudian franchise of Hard Rock cafe, by the way.)

16 February 2008

Warning: This book is infected with rabies

A bit of fun with mistaken terms. On the Amazon.com page for a “monster-in-the-water” thriller (a.k.a. the four thousandth rip-off of Jaws), one reviewer provides this header for his comments: “Caution: Read this book and hydrophobia may set in.”

I instantly started to laugh insanely over this. This reader is under the mistaken belief that hydrophobia is the clinical name for a phobia of water. It isn’t. That condition is called aquaphobia, with the Latin term for “water” trumping the ancient Greek one.

But what makes this truly funny is that hydrophobia refers to late-stage rabies! (In fact, it’s often used to describe the whole illness.) This was the first scientific word used to describe the condition. Aquaphobia was invented later to describe the fear of water so as not to be confused with rabies.

But the confusion continues, as we see from this reviewer, who warns you that you may pick up rabies from reading this book. (“Mad book! Mad book!”)

Unless, of course, he’s saying that reading this book will make you enraged. Perhaps this is a negative review in disguise.

12 February 2008

Grab a Fast One

I would like to announce, with some reservations, that one of the classic noir/hard-boiled novels of all time is back in print. Fast One by Paul Cain is a masterpiece of the classic era pulps, well-known to aficianados but not to the general public. That’s not a shame, actually. I don’t know what the general public would make of a book like this, and I don’t think their opinion of it would be pretty. Fast One is so insanely paced that it’s almost dadaist. A blurb advertising it in the back of a U.K. printing of another obscure noir novel describes it this way: “The pace is incredible and the complex plot, with its twists and turns, defies summary.” Which itself is great summary. If I wanted to make a stab at a description, I would mention a massive gang war across Los Angeles, and a fella named Kells at the front lines of it all. People die. Boatloads of them. Characters dash across the city spraying bullets in a sparse prose style that makes you wonder if life has any meaning whatsoever and will also make you swear off coffee and those “energy drinks” forever. If you just put down a Henry James novel before you started reading Fast One, you’d get your neck snapped. Even if you just read an Elmore Leonard thriller, Fast One would still give you whiplash. No exaggeration, this is the fastest moving novel I’ve read in my life.

Yes the plot is labyrinthine, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to “get” what is going on, because I don’t think Paul Cain got it either. He simply slammed his fingers over the typewriter keys, making sure somebody died in a hail of machine gun bullets every other sentence, and waited to see how it would turn out. If the book had a motto, it would be: “Let’s kill ‘em all, and since there’s no god, nothin’ will get sorted out.”

The bitter cherry on top of all this is that Paul Cain is a ghost. A phantom. He wrote this one novel and seven short stories. His real name was George Carroll Syms. Or maybe it was George Sims. He also wrote as Peter Ruric. He might have been born in 1902. There’s not much else to say about him; most sources I’ve come across mention he married a couple of times and dated actress Gertrude Michael.

The novel originally ran serially in Black Mask, the most famous of the detective pulps, in 1931–1932. It has sporadically appeared in book form ever since, materializing long enough to get its reputation restarted among pulp fans, then vanishing into collector lore. My copy is the excellent 1994 Vintage Crime printing. The current print version available comes from BlackMask.com, a division of Munsey’s. I mentioned at the beginning of this entry that I have some reservations about this: I’m thrilled that I can now recommend this novel to other pulp fans and tell them where to get it, but from what I’ve gleaned online, this version has some serious typographic errors. This is the unfortunate price we pay for the small presses who heroically make available older work that the big houses will no longer touch.

If Fast One sounds like your cup of amphetamine-laced java, here’s my recommendation: If you spot a used copy of the Vintage Crime edition, grab it. Otherwise, pick up the new version and caveat emptor, caveat lector. Actually, no matter which version you get, caveat lector: as I’ve said, this a book that could do some damage to your neck.

11 February 2008

We’re gonna need a bigger memorial service

Another sad loss of a great actor, although unlike Heath Ledger’s death, this one comes less unexpectedly.

Roy Scheider died on Sunday at age seventy-five after a long battle with cancer. Scheider was in a lot of great films, such as The French Connection (“You want to play hide the salami with his old lady?”), Marathon Man, and Klute. But his role in popular culture was forever cemented by his lead role as Chief Martin Brody in a little film called Jaws. Scheider himself provided the movie’s signature line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Scheider was part of a triptych of leads in Jaws, sharing credit with Richard Dreyfuss’s oceanologist Matt Hooper and Martin Shaw’s shark-hunter Quint. The three made a perfect triumvirate of Everyman, Expert, and Eccentric. As much as we love Quint’s eccentricity (“Here's to swimming with bowlegged women”) and Hooper’s comic scientist turns (“This was no boating accident!”), it’s Brody who is the heart of the film. He emerges on the scene early, and his struggle to keep the town safe, protect his family, and “do the right thing” in the face of a hostile town where he is viewed as an outsider, form the backbone of the story. It seems only right that he should slay the monster that has come to plague Amity, not the scientist or the hunter. The Common Man victorious. Scheider is a huge part of the film’s effectiveness, and I can’t imagine another actor who could have delivered the key part so well.

We’re gonna need a bigger memorial service.

02 February 2008

Groundhog day predictions

This is one time where television really fails to capture the excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.

Looks like Punxsutawney Phil is calling for six more weeks of winter, but not all the other groundhogs prognosticators of prognosticators agree.

Honestly, this is pitiful. A thousand people, freezing their butts off, waiting to worship a rat. This holiday used to mean something in this town. They used to take the hog out and they used to eat it. You’re hypocrites, all of you!

“Achilles in the Trench”

I am feeling poetic at this moment, so I would like to share one of my favorite pieces of verse. This was written by Patrick Shaw-Stewart, a young scholar and poet who died too young in 1917—a victim of the Great War.

He composed this poem during the Gallipoli campaign, when he overlooked the site of ancient Troy.

There are many classic war poems—indeed, The Iliad is perhaps the greatest—but I think this is the supreme one written in the modern era.
Achilles in the Trench

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o’er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

01 February 2008

Musings on Super Bowl celebrations

I celebrate Super Bowl Sunday the same way I celebrate Easter: try to take advantage of some of the benefits it brings to a person who doesn’t participate in it. For Easter, I eat Cadbury Crème Eggs—one of my few vices. For Super Bowl Sunday, I go see movies or maybe take a trip to an amusement park (usually Disneyland) when I know everybody else will be parked in front of the plasma screen with cases of really cheap beer. Pabst, I would imagine, but since I’m off at Disneyland I wouldn’t know.

(By the way, in a true jubilant mood, I bought my first Cadbury Crème Eggs of the year last night. It’s great they go on sale so early, it helps carry me through the Valentine’s Day zone of darkness.)

Super Bowl Sunday isn’t a true national holiday, but it gets treated like one. I used to treat the Oscars the same way, so even though I don’t watch any sports, I can understand the mania surrounding a single important football game. However, I’m so removed from sports hoopla that I had to go look up on the net to see who was playing in the big game this Sunday. Giants vs. Patriots. Now I know, so if anybody asks me who I favor in the Super Bowl, I at least get a 50/50 chance. I remember hearing something about the Patriots going undefeated this year—I believe I got the info from The Onion, of all places—so I would pick them to win.

But really, don’t bother me with such questions. I’m riding the Haunted Mansion! Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize!

If my younger brother were around right now, I would know a lot more about the Super Bowl. He’s the sports nut in the family, and once played on the Astros farm team, so I trust to him to keep me current on the sports news I need in case challenged in a bar. But he’s in Atlanta in medical school right now, and I doubt he’s keeping up with the Super Bowl because of his intense studies. So I am completely at sea about the game this year, and will try to avoid any sports spots come Sunday so I won’t look so clueless. Time to hide in a movie theater… or the Haunted Mansion! Grim Grinning Ghosts come out to socialize!