Film Review Round-up – JOHNNY GUITAR (1954); THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS (1973) and THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL (2011)

51H5XHQ9HGLJohnny Guitar (1954; USA; Trucolor; 110m) ∗∗∗∗½  d. Nicholas Ray; w. Philip Yordan; ph. Harry Stradling Sr.; m. Victor Young; ed. Richard L. Van Enger.  Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Ben Cooper. A strong willed female saloon owner is wrongly suspected of murder and bank robbery by a lynch mob, when she helps a wounded gang member. Stylish and original western is superbly directed by Ray and performed by a strong cast with Crawford and McCambridge standouts as feuding strong-willed women. Hayden is also excellent as the gunfighter who has a thing for Crawford. Filmed on location at Sedona, Arizona and at Red Rock Crossing. Entered 2008 into the National Film Registry. Based on the novel by Roy Chanslor. [PG]

41NVPY92GGL._SY300_Marcus-Nelson Murders, The (TV) (1973; USA; Technicolor; 137m) ∗∗∗∗  d. Joseph Sargent; w. Abby Mann; ph. Mario Tosi; m. Billy Goldenberg; ed. Carl Pingitore, Richard M. Sprague.  Cast: Telly Savalas, Marjoe Gortner, José Ferrer, Ned Beatty, Allen Garfield, Lorraine Gary, Roger Robinson, Harriet Karr, Gene Woodbury, William Watson, Val Bisoglio, Antonia Rey, Chita Rivera, Bruce Kirby, Robert Walden. A homicide detective begins to suspect that the black teenager accused of murdering two white girls is being framed by his fellow detectives. Gritty police and courtroom drama is well acted and directed and makes excellent use of the seedier streets of New York. Savalas is compelling amongst a strong cast. Based on the book by Selwyn Raab and an actual case known as the “Career Girl” murders that happened on 28 August 1963. Served as a pilot film for the TV series Kojak (1973-8) only here Savalas’ character’s name is spelled “Kojack”. [15]

5020111000Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The (2011; UK; Colour; 124m) ∗∗∗½  d. John Madden; w. Ol Parker; ph. Ben Davis; m. Thomas Newman; ed. Chris Gill.  Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Celia Imrie, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup. British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways. Top-notch cast adds great dignity to the story and they are helped by a witty script, which manages to navigate the more predictable and familiar elements.  Based on the novel “These Foolish Things” by Deborah Moggach. [12]

Book Review – HOPE TO DIE (2001) by Lawrence Block

HOPE TO DIE by LAWRENCE BLOCK (2001, Orion, Paperback, 340pp) ∗∗∗½
      Blurb: Byrne and Susan Hollander stroll home from a concert on a fine summer?s evening in New York. Some hours later, their daughter Kristin arrives home to discover her parents brutally killed and the house ransacked. She also finds she is now a very young millionaire. A few days later the police trace the two killers to an apartment in Coney Island, and both are dead. One killed the other before turning the gun on himself ? at least that?s the way it looks. So that?s another case solved. But for Matt Scudder it’s only the beginning. The more he looks into it, the more things look wrong to him. There’s a murderer out there, and he’s just getting started. Pitted in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Scudder is up against the most resourceful and diabolical killer of his career.

isbn9781409130109-detailHaving recently watched and enjoyed the old-school thriller A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson as Lawrence Block’s ex-alcoholic and part-time detective Matt Scudder, I remembered I had bought a copy of another of Block’s Scudder tales from the bargain bin at Asda some months ago and never got round to reading it. So I decided to catch up on what I had missed.

I found the first half of the book a little too ponderous after the initial set-up of the case. There’s a lot of pages devoted to exposition and a sub-plot featuring the death of Scudder’s ex-wife and his re-uniting with his two sons. We are also reminded that Scudder is a reformed alcoholic who still regularly attends AA meetings. Now older and wiser he finds solace in helping others. Whilst this adds depth to the character it tends to slow the pace of the story. But Block is an experienced and canny writer and he gradually homes in on the case in hand, which twists and turns in unexpected directions. The pace picks up in the last hundred pages and the conclusion is both shocking and surprising.

When I was reading Scudder’s dialogue I had a clear vision of Liam Neeson in mind, showing what a good piece of casting it was and a significant improvement over the previous film adaptation of Scudder – Eight Million Ways to Die (1986) – in which he was played by Jeff Bridges. I look forward to reading more Matt Scudder and also hope he returns to the screen soon.

Comic Book Review – SHAFT #1 (2014)

SHAFT #1 (3 December 2014, Dynamite Entertainment) ∗∗∗∗
Shaft Created by Ernest Tidyman
Written and Lettered by David F. Walker
Illustrated by Bilquis Evely
Coloured by Daniela Miwa
Cover A by Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz and Ivan Nunes

Shaft01-Cov-A-Cowan-cfb1c (1)I’m not a regular reader of comic books – I own a handful of graphic novels and compilations of such newspaper comic strips as James Bond, Garth and Modesty Blaise – but being a huge fan of Shaft I was excited to hear about the launch of this series. It is not widely known that Tidyman himself did plan to launch a daily Shaft newspaper strip in 1972/3, but failed to secure interest from the syndicates. I will be covering this in a chapter of my book The Complete Guide to Shaft. David Walker’s new comic book series, courtesy of Dynamite Entertainment, is therefore the first representation of John Shaft in comic form.

David Walker is also a Shaft fanatic and he has done Ernest Tidyman’s creation justice with this “origins” story set before Tidyman’s first novel. Walker calls on the snippets of Shaft’s history referenced in the books – his Harlem foster parent childhood, his service in Vietnam where he also boxed – and built them into a re-introduction to the character for a new readership. The plot is geared around a boxing match, which Shaft is expected to throw. When Shaft refuses he incurs the wrath of the fixer, Junius Tate who works for Harlem gangster Knocks Persons and Italian gangster, Mr. Sal. We are also introduced to Shaft’s former mentor, Bamma Brooks, who now works as Tate’s strong arm man.

Shaft's RevengeThis issue is primarily designed to set up the circumstances leading to Shaft becoming a private detective and does an admirable job of this. The art work by Bilquis Evely is beautifully detailed, notably the snowy street scenes. She has made Shaft’s likeness close to Tidyman’s description in the novels rather than base him on Richard Roundtree. Walker’s script and lettering is economical and wonderfully captures the essence of Tidyman’s John Shaft, whilst delving deeper into his psyche. All this makes for a first issue offering great promise for the series ahead.

As a bonus readers can download via a QR code the first few chapters of Walker’s prose novella, Shaft’s Revenge, which is set between Shaft’s Big Score! and Shaft Has a Ball. The remaining chapters will follow over the next five issues and the full book will be published in Spring 2015. Walker also suggests and eclectic playlist featuring artists as diverse as Curtis Mayfield and AC/DC.

Book Review – THE BROKEN PLACES (2013) by Ace Atkins

THE BROKEN PLACES by ACE ATKINS (2013, Corsair, Paperback, 432pp) ∗∗∗∗∗
Blurb: A year after becoming sheriff, Quinn Colson is faced with the release of an infamous murderer from prison. Jamey Dixon comes back to Jericho preaching redemption, and some believe him; but for the victim’s family, the only thought is revenge. Another group who doesn’t believe him – the men in prison from Dixon’s last job, an armoured car robbery. They’re sure he’s gone back to grab the hidden money, so they do the only thing they can: break out and head straight to Jericho themselves. Colson and his deputy, Lillie, know they’ve got their work cut out for them. But they don’t count on one more unwelcome visitor: a tornado that causes havoc just as events come to a head. Communications are down, the roads are impassable – and the rule of law is just about to snap.

9781472112149Ace Atkins’ third novel featuring Sheriff Quinn Colson maintains the solid standard of the first two books – The Ranger and The Lost Ones. The book weaves a tale of convicts on the run in search of their hidden loot, and the ex-convict who has turned to Christ and wants to marry Colson’s sister, with the natural disaster of a tornado hitting the town of Jericho.

Whilst the story holds no real surprises and unfolds in a similar fashion to the first two books in the series, the added dimension of the storm hitting the community makes for a large scale climax. The family conflict surrounding sister Caddy taking up with seemingly reformed and misunderstood Jamey Dixon, is also a familiar one, but essential to give the story some emotional clout. However, Atkins employs a tight writing style built around a group of strong characters, not least Colson’s support team including Deputy Lillie Virgil and the one-armed Boom.

The final showdown is suitably tense and whilst Atkins never scales the heights of Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, this is a perfectly entertaining read on its own terms.

Film Review – A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (2011)

A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (2011, Carnaby International / Eigerwand Pictures / Molinare Studio, 99 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, Dolby Digital, Cert: 15, Action Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Alec Newman (Rob), Ed Speleers (Ed), Melissa George (Alison), Kate Magowan (Jenny), Garry Sweeney (Alex), Holly Boyd (Anna), Douglas Russell (Hunter 1), Alan Steele (Hunter 2), Sean Harris (Mr. Kidd), Stephen McCole (Mr. Mcrae), Karel Roden (Darko), Eamonn Walker (Andy), Paul Anderson (Chris), Eric Barlow (Sergeant Gray), Jamie Edgell (House Owner), Mathew Zajac (Mr. Rakovic).
      Producer: Michael Loveday; Director: Julian Gilbey; Writer: Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey; Director of Photography: Ali Asad; Music: Michael Richard Plowman; Film Editor: Julian Gilbey, Will Gilbey; Production Designer: Matthew Button; Art Director: Daniela Faggio; Set Decorator: Cathy Featherstone; Costume Designer: Hayley Nebauer.

A Lonely Place to DieThe Gilbey brothers have written a neat little B-movie thriller, which makes effective use of its Scottish Highland setting. The story surrounds a group of mountaineers who discover a kidnapped girl buried underground and are pursued by her captors. The girl’s father has hired a group of mercenaries to retrieve her and when the three groups converge on a remote Scottish village in the middle of a Paegan festival a blood bath starts.

The mountain climbing scenes are authentically captured by director Julian Gilbey and the chase scenes on the mountain are gripping as the climbers and the girl are pursued by the kidnappers. The action in the closing village scenes is brutal and the whole thing becomes little more than a bloodbath in its finale. Characterisations are also in short supply, with the actors merely being cyphers for the plot. But the camerawork is excellent and the tension is maintained throughout.

A good example of using location and editing to get the best out of a slight story on a limited budget.

Book Review – DEAD MEN AND BROKEN HEARTS (2012) by CRAIG RUSSELL

DEAD MEN AND BROKEN HEARTS by Craig Russell (2012, Quercus, Paperback, 438pp) ∗∗∗
      Blurb: Lennox is looking for legitimate cases – anything’s better than working for the Three Kings, the crime bosses who run Glasgow’s underworld. So when a woman comes into his office and hires him to follow her husband, it seems the perfect case. And, unusually for Lennox, it’s legal. But this isn’t a simple case of marital infidelity. When the people he’s following start to track him, once more Lennox must draw on the violent, war-damaged part of his personality as he follows this trail of dead men and broken hearts.

9780857381859This is the fourth in Craig Russell’s series about Glasgow enquiry agent Lennox (no first name). Whereas the first three were largely confined to the smog-ridden streets of Glasgow in the 1950s, this time Lennox is involved in two cases with deep plots of subterfuge. The broadening of scope not only extends to the plot but to the setting as we follow Lennox to the Highlands in the book’s latter stages.

Lennox is an interesting character, haunted by his deeds in the war, he is a carefree character, who is beginning to understand the need to have roots and the comfort that can be gained from a steady relationship. But things change in his life that force him to consider returning to his native Canada. But not before he is framed for murder and has to escape police custody in order to clear his name.

The plot elements may sound familiar, but the first-person narrative, again familiar in the genre, is put to good use to create an real sense of mystery around the Hungarian connection and the use of the plot McGuffin being the mystery surrounding a dying man’s last word, “Tanglewood”, is not only pure Hitchcock but evocative of the last James Bond movie, Skyfall.

This is the strongest book in what has been a consistently entertaining, if not overly original, series. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Lennox, although there seems to be a certain amount of finality about the epilogue that suggests it may be.

The other books in the series are:

untitledLENNOX (2009, Quercus, 426pp) ∗∗∗∗∗  Blurb: Glasgow has always been a tough city and it’s getting tougher. Three crime bosses control the mean streets and shady investigator Lennox is the man in the middle. Lennox can be certain of only one thing – in this place only the toughest survive. The McGahern twins are on the way up until Tam, the brains of the outfit, becomes the victim of a vicious contract killing. Tam’s brother Frankie looks to Lennox to find out who killed his twin. Then Frankie turns up dead, and Lennox finds himself in the frame for murder. To prove his innocence he’ll have to dodge men more deadly than Glasgow’s crime bosses if he hopes to survive.

71HYM1tIhvL._SL1000_THE LONG GLASGOW KISS (2010, Quercus, 420pp) ∗∗∗∗∗  Blurb: Glasgow in the 1950s – private investigator Lennox is keeping a low profile, enjoying a secret fling with the daughter of shady bookie and greyhound breeder MacFarlane. When MacFarlane is found bludgeoned to death, Lennox is a suspect. Luckily, he has a solid gold alibi – he was in bed with the victim’s daughter. Lennox is quickly drawn into hunting the killer. It turns out MacFarlane was into some seriously dodgy stuff. One of Glasgow’s notorious Three Kings, crime boss Willie Sneddon, is involved and he’s not a man Lennox wants to cross. But there’s an even bigger player lurking in the shadows and it looks like Lennox is going to get his fingers burnt, badly.

deepdark_sleep_staticcover_THE DEEP DARK SLEEP (2011, Quercus, 358pp) ∗∗∗∗∗  Blurb: Human remains are recovered from the bottom of the River Clyde. Not an unusual occurrence, but these have been sleeping the deep, dark sleep for eighteen years. Suddenly Glasgow’s underworld is buzzing with the news that the dredged-up bones belong to Gentleman Joe Strachan, Glasgow’s most successful and ruthless armed robber. Isa and Violet, Strachan’s daughters, hire private investigator Lennox to find out who has been sending them large sums of cash each year, on the anniversary of Strachan’s most successful robbery. But Lennox’s instincts tell him that this job spells trouble and will take him back in to the dark world of the Three Kings – the crime bosses who run the city. He takes the job nevertheless. And soon learns that ignoring his instincts might just cost him his life. This is the third fantastic thriller featuring shady investigator Lennox as he stalks Glasgow’s tough streets. The Deep Dark Sleep is gritty, fast-paced, and totally absorbing.

Film Review – COLD IN JULY (2014)

COLD IN JULY (2014, BSM Studio, 109 mins, Colour, 2.35:1, DTS/Dolby Digital, Cert: 15, Crime Thriller) ∗∗∗∗
      Starring: Michael C. Hall (Richard Dane), Sam Shepard (Ben Russell), Don Johnson (Jim Bob Luke), Vinessa Shaw (Ann Dane), Nick Damici (Ray Price), Wyatt Russell (Freddy), Lanny Flaherty (Jack Crow), Rachel Zeiger-Haag (Valerie), Brogan Hall (Jordan Dane).
      Producer: Linda Moran, Rene Bastian, Adam Folk, Marie Savare; Director: Jim Mickle; Writer: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici (based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale); Director of Photography: Ryan Samul; Music: Jeff Grace; Film Editor: John Paul Horstmann, Jim Mickle; Production Designer: Russell Barnes; Art Director: Annie Simeone; Set Decorator: Daniel R. Kersting; Costume Designer: Elisabeth Vastola.

Cold In July (2014) 720p WEB-DLMickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. There are strong echoes of Sam Peckinpah in the bloody violence and of John Carpenter in the tense opening and with the use of an electronic score echoing Carpenter’s classic scores.

Set in 1989, Hall plays an everyman who shoots an intruder and then is shadowed by the intruder’s father, played by Shepard, who is an ex-con. What at first seems like a re-tread of CAPE FEAR, turns on its head about mid-way as the plot twists and turns. At this point Johnson arrives on the scene as a pig farmer cum private detective and he, Hall and Shepard make an unlikely threesome.

The shifting plot focus keeps us on our toes, as the movie moves from a tense thriller to a more straightforward tale of vigilantes. The action is bloody and brutal but stops short of the excesses of a Tarantino. There are some unresolved plot points too, but the obvious enthusiasm of Mickle and his crew compensates, notably through Horstmann’s tight editing and strong performances by the leads. Shepard exudes quiet menace, whilst Johnson has the best witty lines. Hall is excellent as he slowly gets sucked into Shepard and Johnson’s world.

It doesn’t quite rank alongside NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but this Texas-based crime thriller has a few tricks of its own and is a very entertaining ride.

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.