Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Greed (1924)

Greed is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating reviews over there.

Marcus (Jean Hersholt) to McTeague (Gibson Gowland): There's no water... within a hundred miles o' here! We...are...dead...men! 

© www.public.wsu.edu
American novelist Frank Norris (left) was only 32 when he died, apparently, of a ruptured appendix. During the course of his young life, however, Norris wrote several novels that mostly depicted the dark and insensitive side of human nature, of greed and corruption and suffering, and their often tragic outcome.

Greed, a black-and-white silent film made by noted actor-director-producer Erich Oswald Stroheim, is one of
many and more popular remakes of McTeague: A Story of San Francisco written by Norris in 1899.

Recently, I downloaded this and two other books by Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California and The Pit: A Story of Chicago, and had commenced reading McTeague when I found the movie playing on TCM last Saturday. Unfortunately, I caught only the last half-hour of the film, which isn’t the best way to watch a movie. So admittedly, this cannot be said to be a review of a film I have seen. I also missed watching the rerun later that evening. Nonetheless, Greed is an overlooked film and long forgotten too.

Having read a fairly long synopsis of the ebook, I soon realised that McTeague and Greed were one and the same story even though I have read only the initial few pages of the book and seen only the last part of the film. I must, therefore, depend on IMDb to tell you the story.

McTeague (English actor Gibson Gowland, a big man with thick wavy hair and bushy eyebrows and often cast as a thug) is a dentist in San Francisco. He marries Trina (Zasu Pitts) whose greed for money is matched by her reluctance to spend it. She wins a $5,000 lottery which is what Greed is about. She saves the money and hoards what her husband makes. In walks Marcus (Jean Hersholt, Danish by birth) who is spurned by Trina and avenges his humiliation by exposing McTeague as a dentist without a license. Forced to shut down his practice, McTeague takes up a job as a labourer, and he and Trina move into a dirty rat hole. When McTeague finds out that his wife has been hoarding the money, he kills her and runs away into Death Valley with the bag of gold. Marcus follows him.

Gibson Gowland (left) and Jean Hersholt

“I want that money,” he said, pausing in front of her.
“What money?” cried Trina.
“I want that money. You got it —that five thousand dollars. I want every nickel of it! You understand?”

— From the book,

This is where I come in.

McTeague, whom Norris describes as “a young giant, carrying his huge shock of blond hair six feet three inches from the ground,” is riding a well-packed mule through Death Valley, a hot, vast, merciless desert land. Marcus, who is after the bounty, follows him on horseback: he stops every few minutes to look into the blurry horizon and drink the last few drops of water from his canteen. As the scorching sun beats down, his horse collapses and dies. Marcus trudges on foot and soon catches up with McTeague. Gun levelled, he tells the dentist to hand over the gold. As the men argue, the mule bolts with the saddlebag of gold coins. Marcus fires with his revolver and brings down the animal. He also puts a bullet through McTeague’s water canteen. The two men fight and big man McTeague hammers Marcus to death with his own gun. But as he tries to get off the ground, he finds himself handcuffed to the dead man with no key in sight. 

McTeague looks around him, at miles and miles of barren land stretching between him, the dead man, the dead mule, the bullet-riddled canteen, and the torn bag of gold coins, and eternity—a dead man alive.

Greed is a silent film with subtitles. The section of the black-and-white classic that I saw was tinged with yellow, which could have been due to either the blazing sun or a bad print. If there is no speech, there is very little action. The fight scene between McTeague and Marcus, who look like they have been working the sewers, is short but decisive. The dentist’s killing of the suitor is crude, yet convincing. The cinematography, in the final scene, is ordinary as the bone-tired men first make their way through Death Valley and then confront each other in the middle of nowhere. What is extraordinary is Erich Oswald Stroheim’s portrayal of man’s avarice and the lengths he will go to possess wealth.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vintage Pictures

Divided nation, divided books

The Partition of India by the British in August 1947 did more than create the two sovereign nations of India and Pakistan, displace millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs on either side of the newly-drawn border, and result in one of the world's largest refugee crisis leading to violence and slaughter by people who once lived together. It also divided the libraries in the new dominions. In the above photograph, published by Life magazine on August 18, 1947, a curator at the Imperial Secretariat Library (now Central Secretariat Library) in Calcutta, West Bengal, tries to divide some 1.50 lakh books into equal parts for each of the two countries.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


The Continental Classics, Volume XIV, and 
The Vampire by Jan Neruda

These two literary works are my contribution to this Friday’s Forgotten Books edition over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Don’t forget to read the fine mix of reviews of forgotten books by other bloggers over there.

“There is but one vast treasure-house of Eastern lore, and from its miraculous riches every bard and rhymer, every recounter of things marvelous and glad and sad, has drawn to his heart's content since the days of Babylon. No one can say how old these stories are. They are primeval. Some of them are as old as man. Some of them go back to those days when kindly spirits walked the earth among mortals, wondering gently at the new creature, with his fancies and his whims, and now and then touching man's work to unravel some knot of fate or to bring an unexpected blessing to some simple, good person. Of these tales of fairyland and its ministering visitants there is a web all round the world, and every wise child should believe them until he grows old and hard and incredulous.”
— Charles Johnston in his introduction to the section on Oriental Mystery Stories in The Continental Classics, Volume XIV.

Some of the world's best-known, and untold, stories are found in literary compendiums such as the twenty-volume The Continental Classics and the ten-volume The Best of the World's Classics. Written and translated in lucid prose, the stories cut across peoples and countries and races and continents, and cover nearly every literary category there is — from mystery and adventure, fantasy and horror, romance and satire to tragedy and philosophy.

Many of these folktales and fairytales are undated and have been passed down the centuries for readers like you and me to savour and want more.

One example of the wide and varied reach of literary anthologies is The Continental Classics, Volume XIV, Spanish, Italian and Oriental Tales, a 370-page assorted collection of early mystery stories from Europe and Asia.

These are divided into three parts: Italian and Spanish Mystery Stories, Oriental Mystery Stories, and Ancient Latin and Greek Mystery Stories.

The Spanish and Italian section includes stories by Italo Mario Palmarini, Camillo Boito, Antonio Fogazzaro, and Pedro de Alarcón among others. I have been reading about these unheard-of writers on the internet.

For instance, Camillo Boito (1836-1914) was an Italian architect and engineer, first and foremost. He was also an art critic and historian, and a novelist. He wrote many short stories that included a psychological thriller titled A Christmas Eve, “a tale of incestuous obsession and necrophilia” which is apparently similar to Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1882, he came out with his most famous work, Senso, a short novel about 
sexual decadence. A few of his tales have been shot into film. 

Spanish novelist Pedro de Alarcón (1833-1891) was the author of El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat, 1874) which tells the story of village life in his native region of Andalusia, in southern Spain. Apart from another short novel, El capitán Veneno (Captain Poison, 1881), Alarcón also wrote four full-length novels, three travel books, and short stories.

An illustration with the Arabic story
The Craft of the Three Sharpers

Coming back to The Continental Classics, Volume XIV, I was delighted to discover five traditional Sanskrit tales that included ‘The Brahman Who Lost His Treasure’ from a book called the Ocean of the Rivers of Stories, written some eight centuries ago. It tells the story of King Prasenajit of Sravasti who helps a miser recover his stolen wealth. The rich merchants of the place bestow all kinds of presents on the man they think is a virtuous Brahman (belonging to the highest of the four social classes of India). He hides his treasure at the foot of the medicinal nagabala tree till one day he finds that it has been stolen. Distraught over losing his wealth, the man decides to commit suicide. The king comes to his rescue by nailing the culprit who had used the roots of the tree to cure his headaches. 

Most Indian stories of old times are philosophical in nature. When the merchants learn that the miser is going to starve himself to death, one of them says, “Brahman, why do you long to die for the loss of your wealth? Wealth, like an unseasonable cloud, suddenly comes and goes.”

I am reproducing below the table of contents to give you a fair idea of the kind of stories you can expect in The Continental Classics, Volume XIV. You’ll find this and most of the other volumes at Project Gutenberg.

Part I: Italian and Spanish Mystery Stories

J.M. Palmarini — Shadows
Camillo Boito — The Gray Spot
Giovanni Verga — The Stories of the Castle of Trezza
Antonio Fogazzaro — The Imp in the Mirror
Luigi Capuana — The Deposition
Pedro de Alarcón — The Nail
Alfredo Oriani — The Moscow Theater Plot

Part II: Oriental Mystery Stories (with an introduction by Charles Johnston)

The Power of Eloquence (Japanese)
The Dishonest Goldsmith and the Ingenious Painter (Turkish)
The Craft of the Three Sharpers (Arabic)
The Cheerful Workman (Arabic)
The Robber and the Woman (Arabic)
The Wonderful Stone (Chinese)
The Weaver Who Became a Leach (Arabic)
Visakha (Tibetan)
Told by the Constable (Arabic)
The Unjust Sentence (Chinese)
The Scar on the Throat (Arabic)
Devasmita (Sanskrit)
The Sharpers and the Money-lender (Arabic)
The Withered Hand (Turkish)
The Melancholist and the Sharper (Arabic)
Lakshadatta and Labdhadatta (Sanskrit)
The Cunning Crone (Arabic)
Judgment of a Solomon (Chinese)
The Sultan and His Three Sons (Arabic)
Tale of a Demon (Sanskrit)
The Jar of Olives and the Boy Kazi (Arabic)
Another Solomon (Chinese)
Calamity Ahmad and Habzalom Bazazah (Arabic)
A Man-Hating Maiden (Sanskrit)
Told by the Constable (Arabic)
The Clever Thief (Tibetan)
The King Who Made Mats (Persian)
The Brahman Who Lost His Treasure (Sanskrit)
The Duel of the Two Sharpers (Arabic)
The Lady and the Kazi (Persian)
Mahaushadha (Tibetan)
Avicenna and the Observant Young Man (Turkish)

Part III: Ancient Latin and Greek Mystery Stories

Herodotus —
The Thief Versus King Rhampsinitus
The Oracle Its Test by Croesus
The Oracle Its Repulse of the Persians
The Oracle Behind the Scenes

Lucius Apuleius —
The Adventure of the Three Robbers

Pliny, the Younger —
Letter to Sura

Scroll down for The Vampire by Jan Neruda or click here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Vampire by Jan Neruda

“The air was as clear as a diamond, so soft, so caressing, that one’s whole soul swung out upon it into the distance.”

There is no vampire in The Vampire, a six-page undated short story by Jan Neruda (1834-1891), the Czech journalist, writer and poet of the 19th century. The ‘vampire’ is a young Greek artist or a creature in human form, with supernatural powers. He has an uncanny ability: sketching corpses. In other words, he sketches the doomed beforehand and completes it the day they die, as if prophesying their death.

Jan Vilímek/Wikimedia Commons
The Vampire, which is and isn’t a fantasy tale, is about six people who go on an excursion from Constantinople to the island of Prinkipo, in modern-day Turkey. They include a Polish family of four consisting of a man and his wife, their beautiful but ailing daughter and her handsome husband, and the narrator and his (or her) companion. On the way they meet the mysterious Greek artist who, later, sketches them on the beach from afar.

Back in their hotel, the Pole and the narrator ask the innkeeper about the identity of the artist and are told, “We call him the Vampire” because “he sketches only corpses” and “he never makes a mistake.”

The artist certainly doesn’t make a mistake when he sketches the girl with her eyes closed and a wreath on her brow.

I am assuming the translation is true to the original in the Czech language in which case the story reads quite well and manages to hold your interest, though it could have been longer.

A word about Jan Neruda
Jan Neruda was born in Prague, Bohemia. He was the son of a grocer who lived in the Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter) district of Prague. He studied philosophy and philology (the humanistic study of language and literature) and worked as a teacher until 1860. Thereafter, he became a freelance journalist and writer. He was a leading light of Czech Realism and promoted the idea of rebirth of Czech patriotism.

Neruda’s most accalimed work is Povídky Malostranské (Tales of the Little Side), a collection of short stories which “takes the reader to the Lesser Quarter, to its streets and yards, shops, churches, houses, and restaurants” and known for their “satirical depiction of the petty bourgeois of Prague.”

His bibliography
Hrbitovní kvítí (Cemetery Flowers), 1857
Knihy veršu (Books of Verses), 1867
Zpevy pátecní (Friday Songs), 1869
Povídky malostranské (Tales of the Little Quarter), 1877, translated into English for the first time in 1957 by mystery writer Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters).
Písne kosmické (Cosmic Songs), 1878
Balady a romance (Ballads and Romances), 1878-83
Prosté motivy (Plain Themes/Simple Motifs), 1883
The Vampire, a short story

I’m looking for the translated version of Tales of the Little Quarter.

Interesting facts
The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda (real name: Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) took “Neruda” as his pseudonym.

Jan Neruda once said, “Men are jealous of every woman, even when they don’t have the slightest interest in her themselves.”

In his first spaceflight in May 2009, American geophysicist and astronaut Andrew J. Feustel took a copy of Cosmic Songs with him.

The Jan Neruda Grammar School in Prague is, obviously, named after the Czech intellect.

You can read more about Jan Neruda here and here. The above profile has been culled out from these two sites.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Vintage Pictures

Roundup on the Sherman Ranch

A cowboy in Genesee, Kansas, USA, with lasso at the ready maintains a vigil on the herd on the open range, in 1902. His fellow cowpunchers are seen on the horizon.

This image, culled from The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, is a stereographic card that can be seen through a stereoscopic viewer, an optical device for viewing similar images or photographs. The picture is attributed to Keystone View Company, of Meadville, Pennsylvania, which produced and distributed educational and comic and sentimental stereoviews, and stereoscopes from 1892 through 1963.

According to an article at the Collectors Weekly website, “Stereoscopes use two nearly-identical images, each taken a few inches to the side of the other. When viewed through two lenses set 2.5 inches apart, approximately the space between the eyes, the result is the illusion of a three-dimensional picture. In fact, stereoscopes are seen as the precursors to 3D entertainment.”

Sir Charles Wheatstone of Great Britain is credited with inventing the first stereoscope in 1833.

Todd Mason has generously included this post in Tuesday's Overlooked Films/Television over at his blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to read the many fascinating entries over there.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


The search for Georges Simenon

“Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”
— Georges Simenon in an interview to The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No.9, Summer 1955

Patti Abbott has thrown a mean challenge for this week’s edition of Friday’s Forgotten Books — Georges Simenon and his work — over at her blog Pattinase. So pardon me if this post reads like an author review.

© Erling Mandelmann/Wikimedia Commons
Weeks after the announcement, I have drawn a complete blank on the renowned Belgian author of 220 novels that include 86 featuring his most famous character, Parisian police detective Jules Maigret, who has been described as the Sherlock Holmes of France, and about 200 novellas under all kinds of pseudonyms.

Simenon smoked a pipe, so did Maigret, whom he described thus, "His build was plebeian. He was enormous and bony. Hard muscles stood out beneath his jacket… Above all, he had his very own way of planting himself in a spot... He was a solid block and everything had to break against it." For the uninitiated like this blogger, that is a vivid description of Maigret.

Simenon was a prolific writer
 who authored some half-a-dozen novels a year though, it is said, he was capable of producing much more. He wrote his first novel at the age of 18. 

This FFB seemed like a good opportunity to acquaint myself with Jules Maigret or at least with some of the non-Maigret novels which, I read somewhere online, have been reprinted. I don’t know how far that is true.

Now Simenon is not the kind of author whose novels you’ll find easily in India unless you borrow them from a friend, a discerning reader, or from a library. So, in a frantic effort to locate at least one of his 200-odd novels before Friday the 20th, I contacted the two secondhand bookstores I frequent but neither of the booksellers had even heard of him — “Georg who?” I don’t blame them: while I have heard and read about Simenon, I have never read anything by him. I then got in touch with two reliable new bookstores and their response was identical — “Georges Simenon? Sorry, out of stock. Would you like us to order any of his books?”

Simenon’s novels are still under copyright and, I suspect, they are going to be tied up in legal knots for a long time. Giving him good company will be Margaret Millar whose books are as elusive as the God Particle. No, they found that one at least, didn’t they?

When you have no choice, you do the predictable thing: you read what others have written about Simenon and his work or what the author himself has said over the years, which isn’t much.

Strand Magazine profiled Georges Simenon’s hero in a lengthy article titled ‘The Great Detectives: Maigret’ by Peter Haining. You can read it here. It is one of the better articles on Inspector Maigret.

Likewise, The New York Times paid a fine tribute to the author following his death in September 1989. You can read that piece titled ‘Georges Simenon Dies at 86; Creator of Inspector Maigret’ right here.

The two articles provide an excellent insight into the master storyteller’s life and his fiction.

Georges Simenon unveiled Jules Maigret’s statue
in Delfzijl, The Netherlands, in September 1966.
© Wikimedia Commons

Simenon’s fiction has received heaps of praise. As American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder observed, “The gift of narration is the rarest of all gifts in the 20th century. Georges Simenon has that to the tips of his fingers.”

Wilder’s remark must be seen in the context of Simenon’s own views on writing fiction and on the way he likes to write fiction, which is keeping it simple. “I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words,” he says. I don’t know when he said this but in 1955 he told The Paris Review, “Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”

It is possible Simenon may have been influenced by Hemingway’s plain and uncomplicated narrative style.

© University of Liege, Belgium
Can you write without the use of adjectives and adverbs? I knocked off a few over the course of a fourth revision of this post and I am quite satisfied with the result. Now if only I had read just one of Georges Simenon’s novels, I could have added substance to this piece as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


The Beast (1988)

The Beast is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating reviews over there.

Konstantin Koverchenko (Jason Patric) to Daskal (George Dzundza), his commander: “Sorry, sir. Not much of a war. No Stalingrad. How is it that we're the Nazis this time? How is it? I tried to be a good soldier. But you can't be a good soldier in a rotten war, sir. Now I want you to live to see them win. Go...I said go!” 

The Beast, or The Beast of War, is a compelling film based on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The film, directed by Kevin Reynolds, who made Red Dawn, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld and The Count of Monte Cristo, tells the story of a feisty band of mujahideen (Islamic insurgents engaged in jihad or holy war) who set out to blow up a Soviet T-55 tank that has lost its way in the desert terrain after destroying an Afghan village.

Khan Taj (Steven Bauer), whose family is wiped out in the attack, swears vengeance and, accompanied by a handful of mujahideen fighters, goes after the menacing tank — the beast — with a mad zeal and rocket-propelled grenades that are no match for the armoured vehicle and its powerful guns.

Commanding the tank is Daskal (George Dzundza), a cold-blooded Russian officer, who drives the tank and its crew on a suicide mission against the rebels in one of the most hostile terrains in the world. Daskal is proud and ruthless and puts his tank’s interests before that of his soldiers in his battle against the insurgents.

The cat-and-mouse game between the Russians and the mujahideen, led by the turbaned Khan and played out in the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan, runs through much of the nearly two-hour long film. Assisting the Khan and his men is Konstantin Koverchenko (Jason Patric), the tank driver, who gets on the wrong side of his commander, on matters of principle, and is left to die in the scorching desert. The bespectacled Koverchenko is stoned by Afghan women out to seek revenge against the invaders but is saved in the nick of time by Khan. 

The Khan’s noble deed of rescuing the Russian soldier is an allusion to the famed principles of Pashtunwali, the Afghan people’s code of honour that, among other things, includes nanawatai which means giving sanctuary even to the enemy.

The Russian soldier is torn between his loyalty to his country and his desire to help the Afghan people in a war he knows isn’t right. He chooses the latter. Khan and Koverchenko strike up a friendship and the verbal communication between the two battle-hardened men is what makes this film quite entertaining. Koverchenko teaches Khan how to use the RPG with deadly effect.

The Beast, released in September 1988, five months after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered his troops out of Afghanistan, is a low-budget film with (pardon me) a second-rung of decent actors which, apart from Jason Patric, include Stephen Baldwin who plays one of the tank’s soldiers and Steven Bauer who is convincing as the Pashto-speaking mujahideen leader.

I liked this film because it is, in many ways, a Cold War film, and because of its realistic portrayal of Afghanistan, its hostile land under a merciless sun, and the courage of a people who desperately want their freedom back. There is plenty of action as the T-55 and the mujahideen play hide and seek in the "dust bowls" of the mountain country.

Friday, July 13, 2012


Run, Mann, Run! By James Keenan (1975)

This novel is my contribution to Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the fine mix of reviews by other bloggers.

“It was a hot day in Dornville when Mann drove in; it got a lot hotter when he was framed for murder!”

Run, Mann, Run! by James Keenan is probably the most forgotten book I am writing about since enrolling in FFB. There is absolutely nothing about either this novel or its author online, as far as I know, except for its availability on a handful of book retail sites. Even then, there are no images of the book cover or the author. I have no idea who James Keenan is or if he has written other books. My copy of the paperback (left) simply begins and ends with his story (Major Books, Chatsworth, California).

However, my search did throw up a book and a film that sounded exactly like this title, only it wasn’t the same. The book Run, Man, Run is a crime novel written by Chester Himes in 1966 and is about racism in New York City. The film of the same name is a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Sollima in 1968. Note the missing ‘n’.

The Mann in Keenan’s story is Perry Mann, an ex-Vietnam soldier, who travels hundreds of miles to a dark cabin in the hills of Dornville, a sleepy Ozark town, to meet his close friend and business partner, Pearl Dobson. The two men served in Vietnam together and have been crop dusters in Salinas, California, after the war till, one day, Dobson leaves for the hills where he grew up, to make millions for himself and his friend. Mann finds Dobson strapped to a chair and tortured to death. His grandparents and their dog have been shot dead too.

Mann, a tall, lean man in his late twenties, drives down to Dornville to report the murders and steps right into hell he hadn’t bargained for. His nightmare begins as soon as he comes face to face with Deputy Sheriff Merl McKinstry who is built like an ox and is crooked as a fish hook. He controls everything and everyone in the county whose folks, including the attorney general and the judge, are too terrified to oppose his mean and wicked ways. If McKinstry says “Squat!” people squat.

McKinstry had his henchmen, fellow deputies, kill the Dobsons and later set their cabin on fire because he had found out Pearl Dobson’s secret — a hidden cave called Witch Cave on the Dobsons property that has uranium deposits worth millions of dollars. McKinstry frames Mann for the murders but doesn’t kill him because he thinks the brave young man knows the exact location of the cave.

Mann finds no friends in Dornville whose inhabitants don’t like strangers in their midst, especially those accused of murder. His attempt to escape from the town, with the help of the lovely Penny Gay Parsons, who McKinstry boasts he has had since she was fourteen, fails, and he is back at the sheriff's mercy. Mann is unarmed and uses only his wits and fists to get out of situations.

McKinstry’s grand visions of rolling in money, however, come to a naught when Margaret Nome, a tall and handsome woman and the editor of the local paper, enters the scene. Her agenda is as sinister as that of the sheriff: she wants Witch Cave all to herself. The cave is her route to riches and a new life far away from Dornville.

Maggie Nome kills McKinstry in cold blood and pins the blame on Perry Mann who then sets out to clear his name and get out of Dornville with Penny Gay.

Run, Mann, Run! reads like a western novel. The small county has an attorney general, a judge, and a sheriff, but no law. Mann tries to escape because Penny Gay’s timid father warns him that McKinstry’s hoods are going to lynch him. The people of Dornville are not law-abiding citizens; they are a mob willing to hang anyone they are told is guilty of crime. The county, set among the hills, is reminiscent of a western town in many ways, with its small establishments like a telephone office, a beer parlour, a little grocery, and a Missouri Pacific depot with only one train a day.

James Keenan portrays a stark picture of Dornville, a town more dead than alive. You don’t want to be there even if you were elected mayor. In contrast, Perry Mann is a man of virtue, of grit and purpose, whose singular aim is to avenge the murders of Pearl Dobson and his grandparents without taking the law into his hands. In the end Mann doesn’t run, he stands his ground.

Run, Mann, Run! is a rather predictable story with an unpredictable end, that is if you haven’t guessed it halfway through. While it is well-written and fairly gripping, I wouldn’t recommend it as a must-read.

So, does anyone know who James Keenan is?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Becker (1998)

“Why do women always scream when they're surprised? Can't you just clutch your heart and drop dead like a man?”
— Dr. John Becker

Now that the internet connection at home has been restored fully (see earlier post), I thought I’d do a quick short piece for the Overlooked/Forgotten films and television meme over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. I saw a couple of fairly good films over the past few days, not counting Hitman, but neither of them fits in the above category (this one may not either).

I also watched a recap of the week’s episodes of Two and a Half Men and something about Charlie Sheen’s character, the self-centered Charlie Harper, rang a bell. I mean, he reminded me of someone I had seen on television before, in another entertaining sitcom. 

Not Frank Barone. The patriarch of the Barone family is cranky and obnoxious and openly critical of his wife Marie but he’s not egocentric in the way the lustful Charlie is.

It was someone else…someone with a medical degree and a stethoscope around his neck, someone who hated the world and made sure that everyone hated him. A description like that could only fit Dr. John Becker who one reviewer at IMDb aptly called a “misanthrope” — yes, he would be the original Charlie Harper minus the obsession with women and sex.

Becker, played by Ted Danson, is a good doctor and a cynical bastard and is convincing in the shoes of both the characters. He runs a clinic in the Bronx along with Margaret (Hattie Winston), his superefficient receptionist whose opinion of her employer is none too flattering, and Linda (Shawnee Smith), his assistant who has her head in the cloud and her two feet above the ground.

Dr. John Becker: The world is full of idiots, and someone needs to point it out to them or they will never know. 

But, Dr. Becker is a decent man who cares about his patients though he is also wont to send them off with a cure and a depression at the same time. 

After peppering Margaret and Linda with a liberal dose of his profound cynicism, Becker takes his misanthropic ways to his favourite diner across the street, to Reggie (Terry Farrell) who runs the place, his blind friend Jake (Alex Désert) who runs a newsstand inside the diner, and the effeminate Bob (Robert Benito), the fast-talking super at Becker’s apartment who drops in frequently, to ask Reggie for a date rather than to order a meal. Reggie and Becker have a thing for each other but neither will admit it.

Dr. John Becker: If you and I were the only people on the face of the Earth, that would be the only thing we'd have in common.

John Becker, who smokes cheap cigarettes, hates his life and hates other people’s lives too and has a grouse about everything and everyone, a fact he doesn’t hide from Reggie, who is quite
exasperated by his attitude, and Jake, who takes his friend’s sarcasm in his stride. 

Ironically, Becker’s angst, about nothing really in particular, is what gives the sitcom its entertainment value. The thirty-minute serial, which ran from 1998 through 2004, is hilarious with deadpan Beckerisms coming at you from the start, as the mighty opinionated Becker takes on the world even if no one takes him seriously. Becker’s rile is so much bile but, hey, there’s a John Becker in all of us.

The tagline of Becker, created, written and produced by Dave Hackel, is “His bedside manner is no manners at all!” I’d modify that to “If you are happy and feeling on top of the world
, steer clear of Dr. John Becker!”

Dr. John Becker: Oh great, no cigarettes, the perfect cherry on this crap sundae of a morning.

Ted Danson is a talented and versatile actor and one of the best comedians to come out of Hollywood in the past three decades. I remember him most in his comedy roles, especially in Three Men
and a Baby and its sequel Three Men and a Lady, as well as the very touching film Dad alongside Jack Lemmon and Ethan Hawke, and Getting Even with Dad with Macaulay Culkin. He plays a father in the initial two films, a father and a son in the third, and once again a father in the fourth – roles that seemed to have been made for him. I have heard much about his long-running sitcom Cheers though I have never seen it.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Hitman: The movie of the game

Last week, my home Wi-Fi modem went bust and I was without an internet connection till this morning when the new D-Link wireless modem router I purchased on Saturday finally put us back into cyberspace. Since I started blogging, I have been watching very little television, save for the odd serial like Two and a Half Men or a classic on TCM or MGM. The lack of internet over the weekend left me more time to catch a film or two (as well as renew my USB-based wireless broadband device). I watched Hitman (2007) on HBO with my teenage son and I quite enjoyed it.

While I was vaguely familiar with this movie, my son knew all about it. He told me that it was based on the ‘Hitman’ game series first released in 2000. In fact, he even had one of the game CDs in his PlayStation collection. I have never played this game with him before.

Hitman, the film, is about a cold-blooded super assassin called Agent 47, played by Timothy Olyphant, who works for a secret entity called “The Organisation” or “The Agency” that could well be the CIA. Agent 47 knows no emotion other than the motion of killing, and killing quietly and swiftly. He is embroiled in a political conspiracy and finds himself on the run from Interpol and the Russian military even as his handlers disown their once blue-eyed boy and put his enemies on his trail. As Agent 47 goes on a killing spree, he meets Nika Boronina (Olga Kurylenko), the mistress of Russian President Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). He is ordered to kill Nika because she supposedly witnesses his assassination of Belicoff who turns out to be a body-double.

Agent 47 spares Nika’s life because, in spite of being genetically engineered, he is still capable of developing feelings and falls in love with her. In the end he kills all his enemies including the hitman sent out to eliminate his girl —“I told you to leave her alone. You should have listened,” he says, posing with his long-range rifle over the dead body of the sniper on the terrace. 

Timothy Olyphant looks the part of the Hitman from the video game. He is tall, well built, and bald with a tattoo at the back of his head which distinguishes his kind of people from others. He is not the only numbered agent. He wears a dark suit and a red tie. He has a stern look on his face, he speaks without moving his lips much, and he seldom smiles. He raises his gun, fires point blank, and walks away. Just like that. When he is not using his two silver guns, he uses his hands and legs to engage his enemies in mind-boggling martial arts. But, in spite of his don’t-you-mess-with-me persona, Agent 47 doesn’t look as menacing as you would expect a hired genetically-engineered assassin to look.

Agent 47 is also highly trained to observe and store everything in his brain, or maybe he has a sixth sense, that enables him to perceive certain things that normal people cannot. For instance, while dining with Nika in a restaurant, she asks him, “The woman, two tables behind you — what’s she wearing? Agent 47 counters: “The one with the red hair and the silk dress — facing you?” When Nika nods, he says quietly, “That’s not a woman,” referring to the transvestite that Nika and the viewers can see over his shoulders.

Hitman is full of the Arnold Schwarzenegger type of one liners, inane but funny. Here are a few of them, courtesy IMDb, just so I get the quotes right.

Yuri Marklov (screaming): You bastard!
Agent 47: Yell all you like — the Lord himself won't hear you.

Agent 47: Nika…
Nika Boronina: Yes?
Agent 47: Stop talking or I'll put you back in the trunk.

Agent 47: Eat your sandwich. I need to get some sleep.

Nika Boronina: What are you going to do?
Agent 47: What I do.

Nika Boronina: What colour underwear am I wearing?
Agent 47: You're not wearing any underwear.

Like I said, Agent 47 doesn’t talk much.

Hitman is entertaining, the kind of film you can watch when your modem goes kaput and you are suddenly left without internet. Now for 'Hitman' the game…

Thursday, July 05, 2012


The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock 
by Anna Katharine Green (1895)

This novella is my contribution to Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Hop over and check out the fine mix of reviews by other book lovers.

“God! What have I done!” 

Last evening, I spent a pleasant one hour reading The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock, a 50-page novella by American poet and novelist Anna Katharine Green who is regarded as one of the earliest writers of detective stories. She introduced her now little-known detective, Inspector Ebenezer Gryce of the New York Metropolitan Police Force, in The Leavenworth Case in 1878, well before his more famous counterparts Sherlock Holmes came to life in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and Hercule Poirot made his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920).

In The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock, which I read as an ebook on my desktop, Ebenezer Gryce is a young, energetic and determined police detective who is entrusted with the investigation of the high-profile murder of Mr. Hasbrouck, a wealthy and influential resident of the Colonnade in Lafayette Place. The murder creates a stir in the neighbourhood as men and women peer out of their windows and doorways and gather in small groups to talk about the crime and who might have committed it.

After his customary interrogation of Mr. Hasbrouck’s family, consisting of his wife and three servants, Ebenezer Gryce steps out onto the balcony and looks at the people gathered below, when he spots an attractive woman holding on to her husband who matches her good looks. The seemingly devout couple, he discovers, are Doctor Constant Zabriskie, a blind but highly skilled doctor, and his wife, the very graceful Helen Zabriskie. He also finds out that Hasbrouck and Zabriskie were not just neighbours but also esteemed friends.

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce’s investigations lead him to the house of the Zabriskies where he meets Helen, apprehensive in her bearing, and Constant, who is so agitated as to confess outright that it was he who killed his dear old friend. The dutiful wife, in a desperate effort to save her husband, pronounces his confession as the rambling of a blind man with an unsettled mind. She insists that her husband is hallucinating and is taking responsibility for Mr. Hasbrouck’s unaccountable death. The doctor is equally adamant and implores the inspector to take him in rather than be certified as a mad man.

Anna Katharine Green
“No, no, it is false! I will never believe that your hands have been plunged in blood. You are my own pure-hearted Constant, cold, perhaps, and stern, but with no guilt upon your conscience, save in your own wild imagination.”

Stricken by guilt, Doctor Zabriskie makes an unexpected offer to Inspector Gryce and his superiors at the New York Metropolitan Police Force, a proposition that causes further anguish to Helen, even as experts judge him insane and incapable of shooting anyone. To prove his sharp skills with a pistol, even in his blind condition, and show that he is as sane as the rest of them, the doctor offers to shoot at a clock no sooner it strikes five.

“Can you shoot a man dead without seeing him?” asked the Superintendent, with painful effort.

“Give me a pistol and I will show you,” was the quick reply.

The blind doctor hears the clock go off, turns and fires, except it’s the wrong clock, held by his wife and set to go off a full minute before the one he was supposed to fire at, to prove his sanity and his capability with a gun. Helen dies on the spot but not before telling her husband that she could never have survived the proof that he had, unwittingly, killed Mr. Hasbrouck.

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce suspected the truth behind the murder long before this tragic turn of events. Doctor Zabriskie, it seems, loved his wife deeply but was also insanely jealous. Suspecting Helen of having an affair, he returns home one night with the explicit purpose of shooting her mysterious lover. In spite of his blindness, the doctor never misses his doorstep but that night he does and stops at the next door…that of Mr. Hasbrouck.

“Am I not correct in my surmises, Dr. Zabriskie, and is not this the true explanation of your crime?”

With a strange look, he lifted up his face. “Hush!” said he, “You will awaken her. See how peacefully she sleeps! I should not like to have her awakened now, she is so tired, and I…I have not watched over her as I should.”

This may seem like one spoiler too many but there is more to this fascinating story.

The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock is only the first of forty books by Anna Katharine Green I have read and I am already willing to certify that she is the original queen of detective fiction. She tells a captivating story in a simple and lucid style even as she astounds the reader with her rich and flawless narrative. There is an old charm to her writing reminiscent of the period she lived and wrote in.

Green has an uncanny eye for detail, particularly legalese, which she may have inherited from her father, a defence lawyer from Brooklyn, New York. Her characters, though just three in number, have depth and are entirely convincing. For instance, Green’s characterisation of the blind and intelligent doctor, Constant Zabriskie, and his lovely wife Helen Zabriskie is so real they seem to come alive through the pages, as if you were watching them play out their emotional drama on screen. 

Inspector Ebenezer Gryce, on the other hand, is an excellent specimen of a detective who, I have no doubt, influenced fictional sleuths of the future. He is a clever and calm-headed detective who holds on to the case till he has solved it. He goes about solving Mr. Hasbrouck’s murder with precision and in the absence of clues because there aren’t any. The mystery unfolds as you read. He is described as “eccentric” though I did not find him peculiar in any way. In fact, Gryce is portrayed as sensitive and considerate, especially towards Helen for whom he has a deep admiration. He sympathises with her plight and tells her, rather quietly, that he is her friend. This is his story and he recounts it as a spectator in spite of being at the heart of the mystery.

The Doctor, his Wife, and the Clock is a superb piece of fiction by Anna Katharine Green and one of the best short novels I have read in recent times. I intend to read her other books most of which are available online legally.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


Cocoon (1985)

Cocoon is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating reviews over there. 

“Men should be explorers, no matter how old they are. I don't know about anybody else, but I'm going.”
— Art Selwyn (Don Ameche) 

No one likes to grow old, fall ill, and die. Every one wants to live forever, with health, vigour, and a dash of spice. Like the elderly folks in Cocoon.

Director Ron Howard made this enchanting film under the sf banner probably because Cocoon can never happen in our life and on our planet. You need aliens to make you feel young and happy and invigorated all over again. Prozac and Viagra is the closest thing we have to a fleeting rejuvenation of mind and body. Crack is no more than a mind-numbing addiction spelling slow death. Of course, there is spiritual nirvana, but how many of us get that far.

So Howard leaves it to a small group of intelligent and peace-loving extraterrestrials from a distant planet called Antarea to inject a new life-force into the elderly people living, with their aches and pains, in a retirement home in Florida. The four aliens, disguised as humans and led by Walter (the very gifted Brian Dennehy), travel to earth to retrieve the cocoons his kind had left behind thousands of years ago.

But things don’t go as the aliens plan: instead of taking back the lost Antareans in their giant cocoons, they offer the “vacant seats” to the elderly who, except for one gentleman who has lost his wife and doesn’t believe in distorting the divine laws of nature, happily accompany the aliens to their new home — where there is no decease, decay and death and where an immortal life awaits them all. 

Wilfrod Brimley (behind), Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche.

There are some unforgettable moments in Cocoon. For instance, when three elderly men from the old-age home — Art Selwyn (Don Ameche), Ben Luckett (Wilford Brimley) and Joe Finley (Hume Cronyn) — accidentally discover the life-force in a swimming pool (where the cocoons are stored) and are never the same again; or when one of them inadvertently spreads word about the magical powers of the pool and all hell breaks loose among the retirees, much to the annoyance of Walter; or when Jack Bonner (Steve Guttenberg), a local boat owner, falls for alien Kitty (Tahnee Welch) and the two, presumably, make cosmic love in the swimming pool without physical contact.

In spite of his overbearing presence in most of his films, Brian Dennehy is rather restrained as the alien chief, Walter, but that’s because the role demands it. He is an alien and already far superior to earthlings. Hollywood veteran Don Ameche is his usual affable self, the trademark smile a permanent fixture on his face. The amiable Steve Guttenberg, hired by the aliens to ferry them to and from the spot where the Atlantis sank, the original site of the cocoons, is in awe of all the strange things happening around him but he knows how to keep a good secret. 

Steve Guttenberg and Tahnee Welch make cosmic love.

Cocoon, as far as I can recall and at least among the movies I have seen, has the maximum number of elderly people in one film, stealing the show from beginning till end. They are all character actors, most of them well known, such as, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Jack Gilford, Maureen Stapleton, Gwen Verdon, and Herta Ware. All of them reprised their “youthful” roles in the 1988 sequel Cocoon: The Return. Sadly, however, none of them, including Don Ameche, is alive today.

In Cocoon, Ron Howard tackles the subject of old age and death, which haunts every one at some point or the other in their lives, and the perpetual longing for immortality in the human heart, with a great deal of sensitivity. The film is a celebration of the indefatigable human spirit. Though classified as a sf film, it could pass off as a fairy tale — charming all in all.

Walter (Brian Dennehy): I want you all to consider what I am about to suggest to you. You people seem to want what we've got. Well, we have room for you. We have room for you and about 30 of your friends. You would be students of course, but you'd also be teachers. And the new civilisations you would be travelling to would be unlike anything you've ever seen before. But I promise you, you will all lead productive lives. 

Ben Luckett (Wilford Brimley): Forever? 

Walter: We don't know what forever is. 

In case you missed, I wrote a small piece titled The horror of horror films on June 30, 2012.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Charles Dickens on copyright

English author Charles Dickens had strong views about copyright and its infringement by publishers and newspapers, as evident from this letter he wrote his close friend and brother-in-law, Henry Austin, an American architect and artist, on May 1, 1842. Not much has changed since Dickens’ angry outburst against “scoundrel booksellers” and “detestable newspaper(s)” a hundred and seventy years ago.

“I am glad you exult in the fight I have had about the copyright. If you knew how they tried to stop me, you would have a still greater interest in it. The greatest men in England have sent me out, through Forster, a very manly, and becoming, and spirited memorial and address, backing me in all I have done. I have despatched it to Boston for publication, and am coolly prepared for the storm it will raise. But my best rod is in pickle.

“Is it not a horrible thing that scoundrel booksellers should grow rich here from publishing books, the authors of which do not reap one farthing from their issue by scores of thousands; and that every vile, blackguard, and detestable newspaper, so filthy and bestial that no honest man would admit one into his house for a scullery door-mat, should be able to publish those same writings side by side, cheek by jowl, with the coarsest and most obscene companions with which they must become connected, in course of time, in people's minds? 

“Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled an author should be forced to appear in any form, in any vulgar dress, in any atrocious company; that he should have no choice of his audience, no control over his own distorted text, and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course the best men in this country who only ask to live by writing? I vow before high heaven that my blood so boils at these enormities, that when I speak about them I seem to grow twenty feet high, and to swell out in proportion. Robbers that ye are, I think to myself when I get upon my legs, here goes!”

[The above section has been excerpted from The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol.1 (of 3), 1833-1856, edited by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law, and Mamie Dickens, his eldest daughter, under Project Gutenberg License.]

Love Is a Many Splendored Thing
by The Four Aces

Love is a many splendored thing
It's the April rose
That only grows in the early spring
Love is nature's way of giving
A reason to be living
The golden crown that makes a man a king

This is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. The lyrics and music are soulful. The song, which first played in the 1955-film Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, was written and composed by Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain respectively. The music duo collaborated on the original score for several films including "Secret Love" in Calamity Jane, 1954. They won the Oscar for both these songs.

Since the song played out in the William Holden-Jennifer Jones romantic film, set in Hong Kong, it has been recorded by various singers like Nat King Cole, Engelbert Humperdinck, Andy Williams, The Four Aces, Frank Sinatra, Ringo Starr, Neil Sedaka, and Connie Francis who sang it in Italian. 

So far I have only heard two versions, those by The Four Aces and Engelbert Humperdinck. Though I have loved nearly every song of Humperdinck and though he sings this number well, I like The Four Aces version more. They sing it slowly and the chorus by the American quartet blends in really well with the music, the gentle highs and lows at just the right pitch not to mention the element of Chinese music in the beginning. Humperdinck sings Love Is a Many Splendored Thing in his trademark deep voice which somehow didn't work for me. 

Love Is a Many Splendored Thing belonged to my parents' generation and yet I can easily identify with the song and the era it was recorded in. It reminds you of the innocence and simplicity of life back then and kind of makes you homesick.