Book Review – SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE (2013) by Ian Rankin

SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE by IAN RANKIN (2013, Orion Books Ltd., Paperback, 389pp) ∗∗∗∗∗

Blurb: A thirty-year-old case is being reopened, and Rebus’ team from back then is suspected of foul play. With Malcolm Fox as the investigating officer, are the past and present about to collide in a shocking and murderous fashion? And does Rebus have anything to hide? His old colleagues call themselves “the Saints” and swore a bond on something called “the Shadow Bible”. But times have changed and the crimes of the past may not stay hidden much longer.

Saints-of-the-Shadow-Bible-Rebus is out of retirement and back on the force – although at the lower rank of Detective Sergeant with Siobhan Clarke now his boss, having ascended to his old rank of Detective Inspector. The case they are working is a car accident where the driver has fled the scene of the crime, but all is not as it seems as the plot thickens to involve local gangsters and a rich businessman. This give Rankin ample time to bring Rebus’ cynicism with both authority and big business to the fore.

Alongside this, the main plot around the death of a local low-life who had escaped prison thirty years previously – seemingly due to police ineptitude – looks like implicating the team Rebus joined as a Detective Constable when he began his career with CID. The relationship between these old-school veteran cops is strained and we also meet an old flame of Rebus as well as a potential new love interest.

Rankin weaves these two separate plots cleverly and the characters retain their interest throughout. He also allows us brief glimpses inside other characters – a variance from his usual focus on Rebus and Clarke. Whilst the book is not as strong as the best entries in the series – its recurrent themes give it a feeling of familiarity – it is still an entertaining read. Rebus is a fantastic creation and it is great to see him back.

Film Review – THE WRONG MAN (1956)

THE WRONG MAN (1956, Warner Bros., USA, 105 mins, B&W, 1.66:1, Mono, Cert: PG, Crime Drama) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Henry Fonda (Manny Balestrero), Vera Miles (Rose Balestrero), Anthony Quayle (Frank D. O’Connor), Harold J. Stone (Det. Lt. Bowers), Charles Cooper (Det. Matthews), John Heldabrand (Tomasini), Esther Minciotti (Mama Balestrero), Doreen Lang (Ann James), Laurinda Barrett (Constance Willis), Norma Connolly (Betty Todd), Nehemiah Persoff (Gene Conforti), Lola D’Annunzio (Olga Conforti), Kippy Campbell (Robert Balestrero), Robert Essen (Gregory Balestrero), Richard Robbins (Daniel), Dayton Lummis (Judge Groat), Peggy Webber (Miss Dennerly).
      Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Writer: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail (from a story by Anderson); Director of Photography: Robert Burks; Music: Bernard Herrmann; Film Editor: George Tomasini; Art Director: Paul Sylbert; Set Decorator: William L. Kuehl.

2mpakhfHitchcock himself introduces this intriguing adaptation of a true story of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who makes little money as a musician. When his wife (Vera Miles) needs some dental work, Manny attempts to cash in on her insurance policy. Unfortunately, he resembles an armed robber who held up the office twice before, so the police are called and Manny is placed under arrest.

Where the film scores is in the unfolding psychological drama. As Manny retains a certain calmness as he attempts to prove his innocence, his wife Rose becomes increasingly strained mentally leading her to an eventual breakdown. Fonda and Miles capture the essence of their characters very well as the story unfolds in a matter-of-fact fashion. Herrmann also contributes another evocative score that conveys the increasing desperation of the couples’ situation. Hitchcock also uses the New York locations (including the city’s Stork Club) effectively, which are captured moodily through Burks’ camera work. The director deliberately steers away from any visual tricks and lets the story speak for itself. As such it is one of his most straightforward films.

Balestrero’s story had previously been dramatised on Robert Montgomery Presents in an episode entitled “A Case of Identity,” which aired on 11 Jan 1954 on the NBC network based on the Life magazine article bearing the same title.

Book Review – EXIT MUSIC (2007) by Ian Rankin

EXIT MUSIC by IAN RANKIN (2007, Orion Books Ltd., Paperback, 460pp) ∗∗∗∗
Blurb: It’s late autumn in Edinburgh and late autumn in the career of DI Rebus. As he tries to tie up some loose ends before retirement, a murder case intrudes. A dissident Russian poet has been found dead in what looks like a mugging gone wrong. By apparent coincidence, a high-level delegation of Russian businessmen is in town – and everyone is determined that the case should be closed quickly and clinically.
      Meanwhile, a brutal and premeditated assault on a local gangster sees Rebus in the frame. Has the inspector taken a step too far in tying up those loose ends? Only a few days shy of the end of his long, inglorious career, will Rebus even make it that far?

cover_exit_musicWhen first published many thought Exit Music would be DI John Rebus’ swansong. Following the lead of his excellent Naming of the Dead, set with a background of the G8 summit, Rankin uses another newsworthy issue as background for this story. The poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvienko in London is referenced on a number of occasions throughout – the timeline of the news story coinciding with events in Rankin’s Edinburgh. Unlike in Naming, the reference is not used to drive the plot. It is used more to pique the curiosity of the protagonists (and the readers) as Rebus looks for a conspiratory answer to the murder of a Russian dissident. This gives Rankin the opportunity to take us on a journey with Rebus’ disdain for authority and politics. There is plenty of opportunity for Rebus to lock horns with Russian diplomats and his own Chief Constable – the latter of which results in a suspension pending his retirement.

The less overt theme, however, is one of coincidence. Not only the coincidence of the murder of two Russian dissidents in separate British cities, but the relationships between the major protagonists, all of whom seem to be interlinked despite their very differing backgrounds. Rankin weaves his plot strands expertly from these threads as they slowly begin to tie together. The conclusion, whilst seeming a little too conveniently tied up on Rebus’ last day with the force, is therefore both logical and satisfying.

Rankin is so comfortable with his characters that the dialogue flows effortlessly and Rebus’ cynicism and dry wit shine through in a naturalistic way, as does his fond mentoring relationship with his successor in waiting, DS Siobhan Clarke. Rankin even manages to mischievously leave us with a cliffhanger suggesting he was not finished with the character, despite the announcement this was to be Rebus’ last case.

Whilst this isn’t the best of the series, it makes for a strong exit and leaves the reader hoping Rebus will return soon – which, of course, he did – albeit five years later.

Film Review – EDGE OF ETERNITY (1959)

EDGE OF ETERNITY (1959, Thunderbird Productions, Inc., USA, 81 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Mono, Cert: U, Crime/Drama) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Cornel Wilde (Les Martin), Victoria Shaw (Janice Kendon), Mickey Shaughnessy (Scotty O’Brien), Edgar Buchanan (Sheriff Edwards), Rian Garrick (Bob Kendon), Jack Elam (Bill Ward), Alexander Lockwood (Jim Kendon), Dabbs Greer (Gas Station Attendant), Tom Fadden (Eli Jones), Wendell Holmes (Sam Houghton).
      Producer: Kendrick Sweet; Director: Don Siegel; Writer: Knut Swenson, Richard Collins (based on a story by Ben Markson and Knut Swenson); Director of Photography: Burnett Guffey; Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof; Film Editor: Jerome Thoms; Art Director: Robert Peterson; Set Decorator: Frank A. Tuttle; Costume Designer: Izzy Berne, Edna Taylor.

edge-of-eternity-x28-1959-x29-cornel-wilde-victoria-shaw-1212-p[ekm]221x336[ekm]The stunning photography in and around the Grand Canyon is the real star of this taut crime drama directed by Don Siegel. Guffey’s aerial swoops (courtesy of Skymasters International) and widescreen vistas add an extra dimension to the familiar greed-driven murder plot.

Wilde is a deputy sheriff looking to atone for his past mistakes in the hunt for a killer driven by a desire to unearth un-mined gold deposits in a ghost mining town. As the murder count rises and Wilde gets close to the wealthy miner’s daughter (Shaw) we are taken on a twisting journey toward an excellent fight finale on a transport bucket hanging from a cable stretched across the Canyon.

The acting is solid at best with Buchanan the most impressive as the aging sheriff. Siegel keeps the plot moving and the editing is tight. But those stunning image of “Filmed at one of the Wonders of the World: The Grand Canyon”, as the titles proudly announce, are what lift this neat thriller above the routine.

Film Review – POINT BLANK (1967)

POINT BLANK (1967, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 92 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
     Starring: Lee Marvin (Walker), Angie Dickinson (Chris), Keenan Wynn (Yost/Fairfax), Carroll O’Connor (Brewster), Lloyd Bochner (Frederick Carter), Michael Strong (Stegman), John Vernon (Mal Reese), Sharon Acker (Lynne). James Sikking (Hired gun), Sandra Warner (Waitress), Roberta Haynes (Mrs. Carter), Kathleen Freeman (First citizen), Victor Creatore (Carter’s man), Lawrence Hauben (Car salesman).
     Producer: Judd Bernard, Robert Chartoff, Irvin Winkler; Director: John Boorman; Writer: Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, Rafe Newhouse (based on the novel “The Hunter” by Richard Stark); Director of Photography: Philip H. Lathrop (Metrocolor); Music: Johnny Mandel; Film Editor: Henry Berman; Art Director: George W. Davis, Albert Brenner; Set Decorator: Henry Grace, Keogh Gleason; Costume Designer: Lambert Marks, Margo Weintz.

point-blank-coverAdapted from Richard Starks’ 1963 novel this is the tale of a gangster (Marvin) seeking revenge on his partner (Vernon) who double-crossed him, stole his wife (Acker) and left him for dead at a money drop at Alcatraz. In his search Marvin finds his wife dead from an overdose and subsequently blows holes in the middle of organised crime with the help of his wife’s sister (Dickinson), who has also hooked up with Vernon.

Shot on location in San Francisco and Los Angeles – being the first to make use of the then recently closed Alcatraz prison – the story is a simple take on an oft-told story. But what elevates the film is Boorman’s vision – dialling up the psychological impacts on Marvin’s character working with editor Berman in introducing strobe-like flashback techniques to show the scars on Marvin’s psyche. A little disorienting and distracting at first, the cutting style increases in effectiveness as the film progresses and it is used more sparsely. Marvin is cold and clinical in his portrayal of a man driven by nothing more than the need for retribution, showing what a good actor he was when not being asked to ham up his own image. He is given strong support by Vernon, Dickinson and O’Connor. An excellent example of the experimental film making in the sixties it has grown in reputation over the years along with Boorman’s cult status as a director.

A further adaptation of Stark’s novel was produced in 1999 as PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson.

Film Review – BIG BAD MAMA (1974)

BIG BAD MAMA (1974, Santa Cruz Productions, Inc., USA, 87 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 18, Crime Action Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Angie Dickinson (Wilma McClatchie), William Shatner (William J. Baxter), Tom Skerritt (Fred Diller), Susan Sennett (Billy Jean), Robbie Lee (Polly), Noble Willingham (Uncle Barney), Dick Miller (Bonney), Tom Signorelli (Dodds), Joan Prather (Jane Kingston), Royal Dandy (Reverend Johnson), William O’Connell (Crusade preacher), John Wheeler (Lawyer), Ralph James (Sheriff), Sally Kirkland (Barney’s woman), Wally Berns (Legionnaire).
      Producer: Roger Corman; Director: Steve Carver; Writer: William Norton, Frances Doel; Director of Photography: Bruce Logan (Metrocolor); Music: David Grisman; Film Editor: Tina Hirsch; Art Director: Peter Jamison; Set Decorator: Coke Willis; Costume Designer: Jac McAnelly.

big_bad_mama_uk_dvdRoger Corman produced this low-rent BONNIE AND CLYDE clone in which the attempts at comedy seem ham-fisted and ill-conceived when played alongside some often violent and bloody action.

Angie Dickinson stars as Wilma McClatchie who along with her teenage daughters targets 1932 small town Texas with her criminal schemes and daring robberies. Along the way she is aided by a couple of misfits in Skerritt and Shatner and remains one step ahead of the law until the film’s conclusion.

Carver doers conjure a nice sense of period and Dickinson, as ever, is capable in the lead role. The film was shot quickly (in 20 days) and the rushed nature of the production is evident on screen. But where the film mainly falls down is in its shifting tone between comedy and drama. These troubles stem from Norton and Doel’s script, which lacks focus and is episodic, merely shuffling from one set-piece to the next mixing violence and slapstick without enriching the characters or giving us anyone to root for. Alongside the problems of plot and characterisation, Dickinson’s exploitation of her seemingly young daughters (Sennett and Lee) feels a little ill-judged by today’s standards. Corman also exploits the virtues of Dickinson, Sennett and Lee as they seduce their various male accomplices in order to manipulate their involvement in their criminal activities.

Whilst the film has attracted a somewhat dubious cult status, this is primarily due to the exploitative content rather than artistic merit. A sequel, BIG BAD MAMA II, followed in 1987.

Film Review – ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER (TV 1982)

ONE SHOE MAKES IT MURDER (TVM, 1982, Fellows-Keegan Company / Lorimar Productions, USA, 95 mins, Colour, 1.78:1, Mono, Cert: NR, Mystery) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Robert Mitchum (Harold Shillman), Angie Dickinson (Fay Reid), Mel Ferrer (Carl Charnock), José Pérez (Det. Carmona), John Harkins (Smiley Copell), Howard Hesseman (Joe Hervey), Asher Brauner (Rudy), Bill Henderson (Chick), Cathie Shirriff (Caroline Charnock), William G. Schilling (Cab driver), Sandy Martin (Gloria), Grainger Hines (Garage attendant).
      Producer: Mel Ferrer; Director: William Hale; Writer: Felix Culver (based on the novel “So Little Cause for Caroline” by Eric Bercovici); Director of Photography: Terry K. Meade (Metrocolor); Music: Bruce Broughton; Film Editor: Jerry Young; Art Director: Donald Lee Harris; Set Decorator: Ernie Bishop; Costume Designer: Thomas E. Johnson, Joy Tierney.

51KgLaMyjzL._SX200_Robert Mitchum made his TV debut in this old-fashioned mystery. Hale’s movie echoes the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s without ever conjuring the atmosphere to match, despite Mitchum’s world-weary voiceover and Broughton’s retro music score.

Mitchum is a washed-out ex-cop hired by a rich Nevada casino owner (Ferrer) to find his wife (Shirriff) who went missing at the same time as the casino was shut down by the authorities. Along the way Mitchum also meets up with Dickinson, an ex-hooker turned good, who takes a shine to him and helps him out. When Shirriff falls from a balcony, after she has been traced to San Francisco, Mitchum suspects foul play whilst the police suspect Mitchum.

The plot unfolds in familiar fashion from here with a small cast in which both Ferrer and Pérez standout. Whilst Hale fails to inject any real rhythm to the story and it at times feels laboured, both Mitchum and Dickinson hold our interest by turning in performances which play heavily on their iconic status. Culver’s screenplay adaptation could have been tighter and the limitations of TV budget scaled back the production.

Whilst this fails to hold a candle to genre classics it remains an entertaining enough mystery on its own terms and is worth exploring by genre fans.

Book Review – LAIDLAW (1977) by William McIlvanney

LAIDLAW by WILLIAM McILVANNEY (1977, Hodder & Stroughton / Cannongate Books Ltd., Paperback, 280pp) ∗∗∗∗
      Blurb: Meet Jack Laidlaw, the original damaged detective. When a young woman is found brutally murdered on Glasgow Green, only Laidlaw stands a chance of finding her murderer from among the hard men, gangland villains and self-made moneymen who lurk in the city’s shadows.

LaidlawWilliam McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy has found its way back into print courtesy of Cannongate. This is the first and introduces us to DI Jack Laidlaw, who is a maverick detective with more depth and heart than most. He is by no means perfect and has a troubled marriage, prolonged due to the deep love he has for his children. He is also involved in an affair with a hotel receptionist. He also has to blood in a new partner in DC Brian Harkness, whilst being involved in a feus with his colleague DI Milligan.

McIlvanney’s tale is simple, efficient, pacy and populated with characters of depth. He liberally uses Glaswegian slang in the dialogue, which adds a sense of place – although for non-Glaswegians, it can take some translating. The dialogue is also laced with a sardonic humour that nods to the noir classics of the past. As the various factions race-against-time to find the troubled murderer, Laidlaw finds time to lay down his heavy philosophies on Harkness and through this he earns a grudging respect.

This taut, well-written crime novel was highly influential on other Scottish crime and mystery writers such as Ian Rankin, Gordon Ferris and Craig Russell, whose works echo McIlvanney’s vision of the Scottish underworld. Highly recommended.

Film Review – FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975)

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975, E. K. Corporation/ITC, USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Mystery) ∗∗∗∗
     Starring: Robert Mitchum (Philip Marlowe), Charlotte Rampling (Mrs. Helen Grayle), John Ireland (Lt. Nulty), Sylvia Miles (Mrs. Jessie Florian), Anthony Zerbe(Laird Brunette), Harry Dean Stanton (Billy Rolfe), Jack O’Halloran (Moose Malloy), Joe Spinell (Nick), Sylvester Stallone (Jonnie), Kate Murtagh (Frances Amthor), John O’Leary (Lindsay Marriott), Walter McGinn (Tommy Ray), Burton Gilliam (Cowboy), Jim Thompson (Mr. Baxter Wilson Grayle), Jimmie Archer (Georgie).
      Producer: George Pappas, Jerry Bruckheimer; Director: Dick Richards; Writer: David Zelag Goodman (based on the novel by Raymond Chandler); Director of Photography: John A. Alonzo (Technicolor); Music: David Shire; Film Editor: Walter Thompson, Joel Cox; Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis, Art Director: Angelo Graham; Set Decorator: Bob Nelson; Costume Designer: Tony Scarano, Silvio Scarano, Sandra Berke.

Farewell-My-Lovely-DVD-69883Delightful version of Raymond Chandler’s classic 1940 novel, previously filmed as THE FALCON TAKES OVER (1942) and MURDER MY SWEET (1945). Mitchum is a perfect world-weary Marlowe, despite his age and Richards creates an authentic translation of the author’s prose.

Marlowe is hired by oversized ex-con Moose Malloy (O’Halloran) to trace the girl he has not seen for seven years. What follows is a twisting tale of deceit, spiced with witty dialogue and colourful characters. The period detail is also excellent with the dark photography (by Alonzo who also worked on the previous year’s genre classic Chinatown) and mournful music score adding considerably to the mood.

In a strong supporting cast, Miles (nominated for a supporting actress Academy Award) scores heavily as a booze-soaked ex-dancer and Ireland is imposing as the seemingly only honest cop, Nulty. Also impressive is Murtagh as the butch madam of a brothel who also gets the better of Marlowe physically. Some of the other performances are more variable – former boxer O’Halloran is physically imposing as Moose, but delivers his lines with a stiffness that matches his build. Rampling manages to create some sexual tension, but lacks the finesse for this type of role of a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake.

Richards’ pacing of the story is well-judged and his work on this meticulously designed film is supported by editors Thompson and Cox in retaining a sense of clarity and flow through the complex plot twists.

The film’s success led to Mitchum playing Marlowe again in the less successful remake of THE BIG SLEEP in 1978, which bizarrely switched location from 1940s LA to 1970s London.

Film Review – SHAFT (1971)

SHAFT (1971, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., USA, 100 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Mono, Cert: 15, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Richard Roundtree (John Shaft), Moses Gunn (Bumpy Jonas), Charles Cioffi (Vic Androzzi), Christopher St. John (Ben Buford), Gwenn Mitchell (Ellie Moore), Lawrence Pressman (Tom Hannon), Victor Arnold (Charlie), Sherri Brewer (Marcy), Rex Robbins (Rollie), Camille Yarbrough (Dina Greene), Margaret Warncke (Linda), Joseph Leon (Byron Leibowitz), Arnold Johnson (Cul), Dominic Barto (Patsy), George Strus (Carmen), Edmund Hashim (Lee), Drew Bundini Brown (Willy).
       Producer: Joel Freeman; Director: Gordon Parks; Writer: Ernest Tidyman, John D. F. Black (based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman); Director of Photography: Urs Furrer (Metrocolor); Music: Isaac Hayes; Film Editor: Hugh A. Robertson; Art Director: Emanuel Gerard; Set Decorator: Robert Drumheller; Costume Designer: Joe Aulisi.

Shaft 1971Gordon Parks’ ground-breaking crime thriller stars Richard Roundtree as Ernest Tidyman’s iconic tough black New York private detective, John Shaft.

Shaft is hired by Harlem crime lord, Bumpy Jonas, to locate and rescue his kidnapped daughter. Bumpy tells Shaft he suspects she has been abducted by black revolutionaries, led by Ben Buford, when really she has been snatched by the Mafia as part of a turf war. When Shaft realises he has been set-up by Bumpy to enlist Buford and his men he ups his price before linking up with Buford to plan a rescue.

It is easy today to underestimate the impact of SHAFT today when black action heroes are commonplace, but in 1971 Parks’ film was a revelation. From the opening shots of Roundtree’s Shaft strutting his way through Midtown Manhattan to the closing sequence of the daring rescue the film oozes style. With Isaac Hayes’ funky theme playing over the credits a movie icon was born.

The bleak New York winter of 1970/1 helped provide a gritty urban backdrop to Parks’ realisation of Ernest Tidyman’s novel. In his first starring role Roundtree has such an incredible charisma he instantly makes the role his own brilliantly sparring with the police and gangsters alike. Moses Gunn is also commanding as Bumpy Jonas (renamed from Knocks Persons in the novel as a nod to real life Harlem gangster of the ‘20s and ‘30s Bumpy Johnson). Charles Cioffi is the epitome of world-weariness in his portrayal of Lt. Vic Androzzi, whilst Ben Buford is portrayed by Christopher St. John, but is less imposing than the more intellectual version seen in the book.

The film has a slow pace by today’s frenetic standards, but is punctuated by occasional bursts of violent action. Parks’ lack of experience comes through with the aforementioned pacing problems. The editing could also be tighter in certain scenes – although the rescue finale is well-judged. However, his visual eye is evident throughout in the way he captures New York in social decay. The bare tenements and littered streets come sharply into focus against the harsh winter backdrop.

The film’s greatest achievement, though, was the legacy it created, enabling new talent to thrive in a Hollywood that hitherto had been a largely white domain.

Two sequels – SHAFT’S BIG SCORE! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) and a series of seven TV-movies (1973-4) followed. John Singleton attempted to re-launch the franchise in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (also named John Shaft) and Roundtree reprising his role in little more than a cameo appearance.