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But This Isn’t a Detective Story: Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, the Film

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I’ve loved detective fiction since I was 6 and discovered the Nancy Drew mysteries in the bookmobile, preferring Nancy and her pals to the Hardy Boys and their adventures. Later, I dove into Edgar Allan Poe’s mystery stories without even realizing that Poe is credited with the invention of detective fiction in English, with his 1841 publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which appeared before the word “detective” even existed. Without even knowing that I was reading a specific genre, I tore through all the works of Wilkie Collins and Agatha Christie, loving the casts of strange and fascinating characters even more than I cared about “whodunnit.” Little did I realize that Agatha Christie was considered the star of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (1920-1949) when the whodunnit was the primary genre of crime fiction. Nor did I realize that Christie was one of the bestselling novelists of all time: I just knew she wrote lots of books and the bookmobile seemed to have all of them. Most importantly, I liked her books very much.

Gillian Anderson as Magda, and Julian Sands as Philip, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

I wasn’t as interested in Christie’s plots as much as I was in her flawed but vitally interesting characters. I often guessed whodunnit and was unimpressed with many of the detectives, not realizing that the amateur or inept investigator is one of the tropes. Gosh, I didn’t even know what a “trope” was, let alone that genre authors used recurring types of characters, themes, or plot devices in their books. And I certainly didn’t realize that many of the detective stories I read had “several classic features,” such as a large, rambling country estate where a group of equally suspect characters distracted the sometimes amateur investigator (and readers) while the least suspicious character continued to commit the murders. I did, however, learn to ignore “red herrings” before I realized there was a term for it, if only because I concentrated instead on the characters themselves, little caring who had actually committed the crime. It wasn’t the murder or the initial victim that I was interested in. I liked all the people involuntarily pushed together after the crime, where they flailed and fought against their lives, against fate, and against each other.

Crooked House, First British Edition, 1949 ©

I still read mystery fiction, though these days I prefer the hard-boiled or noir genres. Again, it’s the characters that interest me, not the crimes or even the process of solving the murder. So it was with great surprise that I saw a 2017 film version of one of Agatha Christie’s classics, Crooked House, which she herself listed as one of the favorites of her own works. I’d heard of the book, and have it on my TBR list, but I hadn’t heard of the film, and I tend to notice films that are adapted from books pretty quickly, especially when the screenwriter is Julien Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame since I so love his work. With a cast of excellent actors playing atrociously selfish and seriously flawed characters, Crooked House is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Perhaps because I had not read the Agatha Christie novel of the same name on which it is based, I came for the actors and stayed for the characters, watching it again immediately afterward to see all the delightful ways the author — and the screenwriter — give clues, scatter red herrings, and create the kind of ambivalent characters that I adore.

Stefanie Martini as Sophia Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Dark and moody, the film begins with the detective’s office, where an unnamed lady is waiting, without an appointment, and where viewers immediately learn that she and the private investigator have some prior relationship. Beautiful, young, vastly wealthy Sophia Leonides (Stefanie Martini) requests that her former lover Charles Hayward (Max Irons) come to her family’s estate because she believes her grandfather’s recent death may have been murder. Further, she is afraid that the murderer is still in the house.

Max Irons as Investigator Charles Hayward, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because the investigating business is not going so well and he needs the money, because Charles doesn’t want to work at Scotland Yard in the shadow of his own famous father’s career nor under the eye of his father’s colleague, Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp),

Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

who constantly reminds Charles of how his father sat, leaned forward, looked, acted; and perhaps because he’s never gotten over being summarily and without explanation abandoned by the lovely Sophia, Charles goes to the house — the big and gorgeous country estate house — to talk to the Leonides family members.

What a group! Charles immediately meets the family matriarch, Aunt Edith aka Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close) who wields s shotgun like a pro and laughs at Charles’ delusions that he “saved Sophia” when the two were in Cairo.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Aunt Edith came to the Leonides’ English estate years ago, from America, to nurse her dying sister. After her sister’s death, Edith stayed on to run the household, and raise the murdered man’s two sons, Philip and Roger.

All grown up, with wives and children, the boys still live at their father’s home, on their father’s money, though each has his own reasons for doing so.

Julian Sands as oldest son Philip Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Sophia’s father Philip (Julian Sands) is an author and a playwright, who had some minor financial troubles that forced him to return home and live under his father’s controlling and manipulative domination.

Gillian Anderson as Philip’s wife Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Philip’s wife — Sophia’s mother — Magda (Gillian Anderson) is a once-glamorous, heavy-drinking, stage actor who has delusions of grandeur and talent. She’s convinced she could become a film star if only her father-in-law would give them the funds to produce her husband’s brilliant screenplay, written specifically for her as the lead. Now that her father-in-law is dead, however, she fears that she will continue to wither away in relative obscurity on the estate, albeit in the company of her husband Philip, her eldest daughter Sophia, her disgruntled and angry teenage son Eustace (Preston Nyman, below), and her youngest daughter Josephine.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith, and Preston Nyman as Eustace Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Twelve-year-old Josephine (Honor Kneafsey), who loves ballet and wanted to become a dancer, welcomes Charles to the estate because she loves to read detective fiction almost as much as she loves to spy on family members via a telescope from her treehouse.

Honor Kneafsey as Josephine, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Because she then writes everything down in a journal that she never shows to anyone, her family is convinced that she is writing down their secrets.

Christian McKay as younger brother Roger Leonides, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Youngest brother Roger (Christian McKay) also lives at his father’s home, ostensibly because it is he, rather than his older brother Philip, who runs his father’s business.

Amanda Abbington as Roger’s wife Clemency, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Roger is an angry young man, and though his prickly wife Clemency (Amanda Abbington) attempts without success to keep her husband’s outbursts under control, it is soon clear that both of them resent their father’s new wife more than anything else.

Christina Hendricks as the new, much younger wife, Brenda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Of course, the new, much younger wife is everything you’d expect in a story like this. A former Las Vegas showgirl, Brenda (Christina Hendricks) is naïve, voluptuous, and rumored to be having an affair with Laurence (John Heffernan),

John Heffernan as the tutor, Laurence, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

the tutor of Philip’s children Eustace and Josephine, as well as the ghost-writer of the deceased patriarch’s memoir, the only copy of which seems to have been stolen.

Roger Ashton-Griffith as the family attorney, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

Now, just for fun, throw in a bumbling family attorney (Roger Ashton-Griffiths, who’s no doubt best known as the bumbling Mace Tyrell in Game of Thrones, who suddenly realizes that, inexplicably, the Old Man Leonides’ will most recent will, where everyone in the family was equitably and reasonably provided for, was never actually signed. That means everything — the estate, the businesses, the vast fortune — goes to the widow. That American, that dance-hall trollop, that Brenda, who probably — insists virtually everyone in the family — knew all about the unsigned will and so had the most motive of anyone to commit the murder in the first place.

Jenny Galloway as Nanny, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

And for even more fun and intrigue, stir in old Nanny (Jenny Galloway), who fears that she’s soon to lose her comfortable job and home because the widow, who is without children, won’t need a nanny, and because Nanny’s youngest charge, Josephine, is now too old to have a nanny anyway. Now make Nanny obsessed with getting that nasty journal away from Josephine because… well, just because… it’s a nasty, dirty book. And Nanny hasn’t even read it.

The family dinner, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

By the time Charles’ third-hand car won’t start and he has to stay the night and we get to the family dinner — the first time we actually see all the family members in the same room actually interacting with each other — this party is roaring dangerously, combustibly hot.

Glenn Close as Lady Edith de Haviland, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

When Lady Edith asks Charles to tell them what a murderer is really like, he rather smugly lists a murderer’s traits as “vanity, distorted morality, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to believe they’re above the rules that govern others.” The rest of the family’s rather bored expressions, along with Lady Edith’s boisterous laughter as she quips “that description fits every member of this family,” are no surprise. After all, no one knows villains so well as their fellow villains.

A few critics felt that the cast of accomplished actors in Crooked House  “promised… more than it could deliver” or that the the film was “flawed” though a “top-notch period piece.” Emily Yoshida of Vulture described the the film as “directed with slightly sleepy, but entertainingly morbid style” and said that, ultimately, Crooked House knew what its job was and did it: “to set up a tangled web of colorful characters, throw in a few red herrings, set off its dynamite, and make its exit while the smoke is still in the air.”

Stefanie Martini as Sophia, Julian Sands as her father Philip, and Gillian Anderson as her mother Magda, Crooked House © Sony Pictures

From the bumbling, naïve, inept investigator to the thoroughly despised former-showgirl young wife, from the two bickering, resentful, completely spoiled brothers to their angry or utterly vain yet bewildered wives, it is this tangled web of deliciously twisted characters that makes Crooked House worth watching. If you haven’t read the novel on which it was based, even better: then everyone in the film can surprise you.

Like me, you may find that you don’t actually care who committed the murders. Yes, murders, because, as detective-fiction fan Josephine points out, there’s always another murder. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll be both delighted and horrified when you finally learn who, actually, done it all. And while the younger stars are certainly talented, it is Glenn Close, as Lady Edith, and Gillian Anderson, as Magda, who shine as hot and bright as their characters’ falling stars.

Unfortunately, although this film is free to watch for Amazon Prime members, it is not yet available via rental, only purchase ($14.99) from Amazon, YouTube,and GooglePlay. If you do buy it, you won’t regret it.

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Maybe It Was the Heat of the Sun, Maybe It Was Something Much Hotter: Hombre, the Film

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If you’re not a fan of Elmore Leonard, you should be. He’s one of the best storytellers around, renowned for his gritty realism, his succinct and highly memorable dialogue, his intense characters, and conflicts that turn audience expectations upside-down and backward before rolling those expectations down a steep hill. Twenty-six of Leonard’s stories and novels have been turned into films or television series, and you can always pick out the original dialogue because, as he memorably quipped, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” and “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip” (Ten Rules of Writing).

Whether you’re a fan of his early Westerns or his later crime fiction, you can never go wrong reading one of Elmore Leonard’s pieces of fiction or watching one of the dramatic adaptations of his work. “Edgy” and “unexpected” are probably two of the best adjectives to describe his fiction, although he’d no doubt object to my using so many adjectives, since he was famous for describing his characters as little as possible, letting their dialogue and their actions reveal all that was essential in their natures.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Diane Cilento as Jessie, and Margaret Blye as Doris, Hombe ©

Based on the novel of the same name by Elmore Leonard, Hombre (1967), the film is everything you’d expect from Elmore Leonard, but nothing you’d typically expect from Hollywood, espcially in the 1960s. If you were to see the advertisement, you’d think it was just another white man raised by Indians trying to return to white society where nobody wants him kind of movie. “Ah, yes,” wrote Roger Ebert in his original review of the film, “we know the characters well from a thousand other Westerns”:

The good but indecisive Mexican, the decisive but bad Mexican, the thieving Indian agent, his cultured wife, the desperado, the lady boarding house operator with a heart of gold, and the Kid.

While those are, indeed, some of characters in this story, Hombre goes far beyond the Western tropes and clichés to become an examination of morality, human nature, and the struggle to survive.

Some critics call Hombre a “revisionist Western” because it shows Indians — or, at least, a white man who was raised by Indians — in a way that’s different from the shrieking savages riding circles around burning covered wagons that Hollywood typically portrayed. But the film is not really interested in the conflict between the races, although racism certainly is a significant part of the characters’ natures and contributes to many of the film’s conflicts. Instead, Hombre is about human conflict, no matter the race, the gender, or the age of the character. And that’s what makes this film a classic.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Hombre opens with a blue-eyed Indian (Paul Newman) and a band of fellow Apaches patiently waiting for a group of horses to come down to a waterhole, which they have fenced off in order to capture them.

Peter Lazer as the Kid, Hombre ©

A Kid (Peter Lazer) comes down and tells the blue-eyed Indian, whose adopted name is John Russell, that Henry Mendez wants to see him about an important matter.

Martin Balsam as Mendez, and Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

When John Russell goes to see Mendez (Martin Balsam), a half-Mexican, half-white stage driver, he tells Russell that his adopted father has died and left him a boarding house that actually makes money. Mendez encourages Russell to “accept” his own half-white heritage and take ownership of the boarding house, which would make his life easier. Mendez also encourages Russell to cut his hair so that other whites will accept him more easily.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

Meanwhile, at the boarding house, the woman who has been running it for years is nervously anticipating the new owner’s arrival.

Diane Cilento as Jessie, Hombre ©

Jessie (Diane Cilento) even tosses her sheriff-boyfriend Frank (Cameron Mitchell) out of her bed, sending him back to his own room in the boarding house, since she isn’t sure how the new owner will take such “immoral” relations. She gets the house ready for John Russell’s arrival, even polishing the silver, causing Mendez to laugh, telling her that Russell “eats with his fingers,” so she’s going through a lot of work for nothing.

Cameron Mitchell as Sheriff Frank, Hombre ©

Russell doesn’t want the silver because he doesn’t even want the boarding house. He intends to sell it, leaving Jessie out of a place to live and of an income. After she attempts to convince her boyfriend — Sheriff Frank — to marry her, she decides it’s time to leave and start a new life somewhere else.

Margaret Blye as Doris, and Peter Lazer as the Kid (Billy), Hombre ©

At the station, two other boarding house residents are also waiting to leave so they can start a new life: the Kid, whose name is Billy, and his wife Doris (Margaret Blye), who apparently married Billy to escape a brutal, unhappy life with her father, only to have an equally unhappy life with her new husband. She believes if they start their life somewhere else, their relations will improve, and Billy hasn’t much choice except to go along with her.

Barbara Rush as Audra Favor, and Fredric March as Reverend Dr. Alex Favor, Hombre ©

While this group is waiting for the stage’s departure, an obviously wealthy woman (Barbara Rush) and her older husband (Fredric March) come into the station. When Mendez informs them that they cannot hire the stage to get to their destination in three days, Mrs Favor buys the stage, horses and all, to ensure that she and Favor are able to make their trip.

Richard Boone as the Bad Guy, Hombre ©

Later that night, the Bad Guy (Richard Boone) comes into the station and insists on taking one of the passengers’ places on the stage. After he intimidates an army officer into giving up his seat, he joins the rest of the passengers on a journey that, rather than being merely the trope of strangers on a journey in a stagecoach who are forced to form a community, albeit a temporary one, becomes, instead, a journey that will show the racial, cultural, and economic tensions that divide everyone in the group.

All the gang in Hombre ©

When the stage driver Mendez attempts to go a different route to avoid three strangers that he fears are highwaymen who want to rob the passengers, the group is attacked by some people they never expected to fear. Stranded in the desert with the money the outlaws want, they attempt to return to the town they left. The outlaws, who have a hostage and some of the water, follow the group, willing to kill any and all of them for the fortune they stole from the stage.

Paul Newman as John Russell, Hombre ©

As if an abundant stolen fortune and a serious lack of water in the desert weren’t enough for a group of clashing personalities to deal with, the group members turn on each other for every reason imaginable, revealing the greed, misogyny, racism, and elitism that makes this Western more than a cowboys vs. Indians, white men vs. non-white men, good vs. evil tale. Virtually everyone in this story is selfish and ugly, everyone wants something he can’t have without hurting someone else, and everyone seems ready to betray everyone else in order to survive.

Hombre is an “excellent example of how violence is more effective the less it’s used,” and the emotional and cultural violence is more important to the story than any of the physical violence, most of which, including the murders, is not graphic. With outstanding performances by Newman (John Russell/Hombre), Boone (Bad Guy), and Cilento (Jessie),  Hombre‘s messages are far more brutal than its shootouts.

Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial of Starz), GooglePlay, YouTube (not available for iOS), and Vudu. Always free for Starz or DirecTV subscribers.

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Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.

DON’T DO THIS.

Don’t do this either.

AND DEFINITELY. DO. NOT. DO THIS.

Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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The Sweet Smell of Murder: The Noir Film Classic, Double Indemnity

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In 1925, Ruth Brown Snyder, of Queens NY, who was having an affair with a married salesman, Henry Gray, decided to kill her husband. With the assistance of an insurance agent, who was later fired and imprisoned for forgery, Snyder purchased an insurance policy in her husband’s name, a policy that paid extra — double indemnity — if her husband died in an act of “unexpected violence.” Snyder then attempted to kill her husband at least seven times, finally succeeding with her lover Henry Gray’s assistance, and subsequently staging the murder as a robbery gone bad.

Snyder’s inconsistent stories about the robbery-murder, along with the police discovery of the stolen items hidden in the house, caused detectives to investigate Snyder more thoroughly. When police located her lover, Gray, he confessed in great detail. Snyder was found guilty and imprisoned. In 1928, she became the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899. Tom Howard’s dramatic photograph of Snyder in the electric chair mid-execution was printed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Ruth Brown Snyder, photographed mid-execution by Tom Howard, © New York Daily News

Many celebrities and reporters covered Snyder’s trial, including crime reporter James M. Cain, who subsequently based two of his novels on Snyder’s story: The Postman Always Rings Twice, about a woman who murders her husband with the help of her ex-con lover; and Double Indemnity, which more closely follows Snyder’s story.

The novel is a crime fiction classic, and the 1944 film of the same name, co-written by director Billy Wilder and crime fiction author Raymond Chandler, has since become one of the defining classics of Noir Film, with all the genre’s requisite essentials: a morally dubious male protagonist, Voice-Over narration limiting the audience’s perspective to the male’s version of the tale, and the dangerously duplicitous but always beautiful and sexually alluring femme fatale.

Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Double Indemnity opens with a gun-shot insurance salesman, Walter (Fred MacMurray), sneaking into his company offices at night to record a Dictaphone message for a colleague, Keyes, a brilliant claims adjuster noted for ferreting out insurance fraud. Walter’s confession becomes the characteristic Voice-Over for the remainder of the film.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Wise-cracking, womanizing Walter relates his initial contact with Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck), with whom he flirts outrageously though she’s already married and, furthermore, seems to be seriously offended by his behavior. Phyllis is not only physically striking: she’s a damsel in distress. Lonely and anxious, she’s worried about her husband’s dangerous job but helpless to protect him. When she discusses accident insurance, Walter becomes wary, but it’s too late: he’s already obsessed with the “dame.”

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With Phyllis’ ostensibly reluctant help, Walter sets in motion a murderous plan to get the girl of his dreams and a huge pile of money from his own insurance company. To really reap the financial benefits, however, the husband’s “accident” needs to trigger the policy’s “double indemnity” clause, a provision for payment of double the face amount of the policy, payable only under certain specific and statistically rare conditions.

Fred MacMurray as Walter, and Edward G Robinson as Keyes, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Walter’s colleague, Insurance Investigator Keyes (Edward G. Robinson, playing against type as an honest man instead of as a criminal or gangster) is immediately suspicious about the husband’s accident. Keyes intentionally stalls payment on the insurance policy to aggravate Phyllis, complicating Walter’s relationship with her.

Jean Heather as Lola, Double Indemnity © Paramount

Further, the victim’s daughter Lola (Jean Heather) knows some secret about Phyllis’ past that makes Lola also suspect foul-play was involved in her father’s death. While simultaneously side-stepping his colleague’s ongoing fraud investigation, Walter spends more time with Lola to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions. Though still sexually involved with Phyllis, Walter begins to have feelings for Lola. When she tells him that she thinks her stepmother Phyllis is involved with Lola’s own boyfriend Nino, Walter’s guilt about the murder and his burgeoning fear of Phyllis make him anxious for his own life.

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Fred MacMurray as Walter, Double Indemnity © Paramount

With snappy dialogue and great acting, Double Indemnity is a “moody, pessimistic crime story with strong overtones of spiritual bankruptcy and moral cynicism” and is considered both a model and an archetype of the Noir Film genre.

Filmed in black-and-white, and

[b]rilliantly photographed by John F. Seitz, Double Indemnity’s use of ‘Venetian Blind’ lighting (creating a jail bars effect that foreshadows the likely, if not actual, fate of its protagonists) was to go on become a staple of the film noir look.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, regarded as a “template” for Noir films, and considered by most critics and archivists to be one of the best American films of all time, Double Indemnity is available for rent for $2.99/3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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The First Award-Winning Horror Film: The Exorcist

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Though the word “horror” was not used to describe a film genre until the 1930s, films including supernatural or frightening elements, usually adapted from fictional sources, began to be made as early as the 1890s. Between 1910-1920, quite a few European films featuring the supernatural, witchcraft, or superstitious beliefs were released. The German film Nosferatu, though an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was the earliest vampire-themed production. Many of the earliest American horror films, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — both based on novels — were considered dark melodrama rather than horror, if only because of their stock characters or romance elements.

In the 1930s, horror films began to do more than just startle or frighten audiences. Filmmakers inserted elements of Gothic fiction into their stories, giving audiences dangerous mysteries, ancestral curses, remote and crumbling castles, doomed Byronic heroes, and oft-fainting heroines. Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau contributed elements that belonged more to science fiction than to Gothic horror, such as the “mad” scientist or doctor who, playing God, wants to re-animate corpses or manipulate human genetics to create some superior being but instead develops monsters. In 1933, the mad scientist appeared alongside Gothic elements in James Whale’s film The Invisible Man, known for its “clever and ground-breaking special effects,” and a new film genre was successfully underway.

In the 1950s-1960s, the subject matter of horror films began to include contemporaneous concerns along with the science fiction, supernatural, or Gothic elements. Alien invasions, deadly (atomic) mutations, demonic possession, post-apocalyptic worlds, and social alienation were prevalent in horror films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Godzilla (1954), The Innocents (1961), When Worlds Collide (1951), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). The terror of demonic possession reached its apotheosis in 1973, when The Exorcist — the first horror film ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture — demonstrated that a horror film could be as artistic as it was frightening.

Based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of the same name, The Exorcist tells the story of a young, innocent child possessed by demons. The novel was inspired by the 1949 story of a mentally ill boy, Roland Doe (psyeudonym), who was the last person to be subjected to a Catholic Church-santioned exorcism. According to the film’s director, William Friedkin, Blatty originally wanted to write a non-fiction account of the thirteen-year-old boy’s experiences in a psychiatric hospital but couldn’t get enough details: Blatty dramatized the story instead.

Linda Blair as Regan, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Extremely faithful to the book, the film version of The Exorcist tells the story of 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair),

Ellen Burstyn as mother Chris MacNeil, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

who lives with her actress-mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn).

Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When Regan’s personality begins to change, and when she complains of strange events, such as her bed’s shaking, her mother initially seeks helps from the medical community. Examined by doctors and psychiatrists, Regan is initially misdiagnosed with personality disorders, rebellious attention-seeking behavior, and brain lesions. Subjected to tests that are as frightening as any demonic possession could be, Regan suffers but does not improve. In fact, her condition worsens.

Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant Kinderman, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

When one of Chris MacNeil’s colleagues and friends is murdered after having been alone with the severely ill Regan, Detective Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) begins to investigate Regan, terrifying Chris that her young daughter will be accused of a crime she may have committed but of which she is not morally guilty.

Jason Miller as Father Karras, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

In desperation, Regan’s mother seeks help from a local Jesuit psychiatrist, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who is experiencing his own crisis of faith after the death of his mother and his inability to successfully counsel his fellow priests.

Max von Sydow as Father Merrin, The Exorcist © Warner Bros

Although skeptical of demonic possession, Father Karras soon concludes that something supernatural and demonic is, in fact, happening to Regan. Karras does not have the experience to help her, however, and he decides that he needs the help of an expert exorcist: Father Merrin (Max von Sydow, known most recently for his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones).

Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and winner of two — Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing — The Exorcist is still the highest-grossing horror film ever made (the earnings for the new version of Stephen King’s It have not yet been adjusted for inflation).

The film’s weaknesses are the same as those in its source material: its inability early in the story to decide if it is a murder mystery or a horror story, for example, and its extended scenes setting up the “innocence” of the major protagonists.

The Exorcist © Warner Bros

The film’s strengths outweigh any weaknesses, however, and its exploration of faith, maternal devotion, and possible psychological illness are still powerful more than 40 years after its release. The complex special effects are outstanding, as is the demon’s terrifying voice, which was supplied by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge.

Regan (Linda Blair) floats, watched by Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), The Exorcist (1973) © Warner Bros (Photograph Allstar: Cinetext Collection)

The Exorcist is available for rent ($2.99 SD / $3.99 HD) or purchase from Amazon (free with a 7-day trial subscription to Cinemax), Cinemax (free for subscribers), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

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Review of  The Handmaid’s Tale season 1
by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel about a woman who was kidnapped and forced into reproductive slavery after the U.S. government was overthrown by a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob. Last year, I was thrilled when I found out that it was going to be turned into a TV series.

Today I’m going to tell you what season one of The Handmaid’s Tale was like and what I thought of it without giving away any spoilers for it. Let’s begin with the introductions of the main characters and a brief summary of the plot.

O.T. Fagbnele as Luke, Jordana Blake as Hannah, and Elisabeth Moss as Offred (Photo: George Kraychyk © HULU)

June was the protagonist. Before the United States government was overthrown, she was married to a man named Luke. They were one of the dwindling number of families who had been able to successfully have a healthy child. They named their little girl Hannah.

Unfortunately, this family’s happiness was short-lived. Fertility rates dropped so much in the place formerly known as the United States that it became rare for any pregnancy to lead to a healthy, viable baby. The Sons of Jacob, an extremist movement whose political platform was based on harsh, literal interpretations of certain passages from the Bible, believed that this widespread infertility was a curse from God.

When they gained power and formed Gilead, they passed punitive laws aimed to strictly control marriage, fertility, gender roles, and how people were allowed to live in an attempt to win God’s favour again.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale © Hulu

As you might have already imagined, fertile women were highly sought after in this new society. June and her family was no exception to this rule. June was prized because she’d proven herself fertile, and Hannah was prized because there were far more families hoping to adopt than there were children of any age or race who could be placed for adoption.

After being captured by the authorities, June was torn away from her family and assigned to be a Handmaid for the wealthy and powerful. That is, her only duty in life now was to bear children for couples who couldn’t have their own.

Rather than keeping her own name, June was renamed at every posting. Offred — or “of Fred” — became her new identity after she was sent to live with Fred Waterford, a top-ranking Commander of the new government.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu ©

His wife, Serena Joy, was a wildly unpredictable mistress whose sole desire in life was to be a mother. Her jealousy of June’s fertility is only matched by her hatred of this arrangement.

Offred had a limited amount of time to conceive a baby with Fred. If she failed to become pregnant, she would be sent to a work camp to die a slow, agonizing death. While she waited to see if the monthly sexual assaults from Fred will result in a baby, she also quietly worked to find out what happened to her husband and daughter.

Are they still alive? Will she ever be able to see them again? Even saying their names was forbidden, but this didn’t stop Offred from fantasizing about what it would be like to be her family again.

Roughly translated, nolite te bastardes carborundorum is supposed to mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was a phrase she found scratched into the wood of one of the pieces of furniture in her room at the Waterford’s home. While Offred waited to see what would happen to her next, she had to figure out how to avoid being ground down to dust in the process.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1st edition)

Analysis

As someone who has been a huge fan of the book for nearly 20 years, I was quite happy with how this story was translated to the small screen.

Gilead was a violent and dangerous place to live for anyone who stepped out of line, and the screenwriters weren’t at all afraid to show exactly what happened to people who broke the strict rules there. While I can’t go into any details about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers for everything after the first episode, I will say that this portion of the storytelling was exquisite.

There is a massive difference between maintaining the appearance of a virtuous society and actually constructing it in a way that benefits the very people it was originally meant to help.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the stark difference between the outward appearance of someone’s life and the quiet reality of it behind closed doors. While most of the villains were at least outwardly pious, what happened when they thought no one was watching them was much more complex than following or breaking specific rules.

One of the other things I loved about this season is how it handled the character development. No one in this world was completely evil or good, including people who really did seem like they could be boxed in by these labels when I first saw them.

There were times when the good characters made decisions that I detested. In other scenes, characters who had been violent or cruel showed moments of mercy.

This is not to say that a single act of kindness can wipe away even the worst crime or that good people should be forever judged by their worst mistakes in life. All of these characters are a mixture of faults and virtues just like real people are, and that has permanently endeared them to me.

The science fiction in this universe has a very light touch. If this is not a genre you typically watch, know that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like most other scifi shows. Other than the mysterious origins of the infertility plague, everything that happened in this show could really happen in our world. Indeed, much of it already has happened at various times and in many different places.

By the end of the season finale a question lingered in the air. Would we let something like this happen to us if we began to see the signs of a real-life Gilead beginning to form?

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is tentatively scheduled to be released in April of 2018. Until then, I hope you will mull over this question and come up with your own answers to it as you enjoy season one.

The Handmaid’s Tale won several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss, as Offred), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia), Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Alexis Bledel, as Emily), Best Directing for a Drama Series (Reed Dowd), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Elisabeth Moss at 69th Emmy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images ©

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu (free one-month trial subscription, $11.99 with no commercials, $5.99 with limited commercials), Amazon ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD per episode, or $14.99-19.99 for season), and, for similar purchase prices, on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Lydia Schoch is a science fiction author and longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories. Lydia blogs at Lydia Schoch, tweets at @TorontoLydia, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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The World Breaks Everyone: Horror Film Classic Rosemary’s Baby

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The world breaks everyone, and afterward,
many are strong in the broken places.

Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

It all seems so ordinary and banal. Young couple in New York serendipitously gets the chance to rent an apartment in an elegant old building with an enviable upper west side Manhattan address. Because the apartment’s elderly resident died suddenly and the building is rent-controlled, the struggling, somewhat sporadically employed actor and his pretty, enthusiastic wife can afford to move in, redecorate it from top to bottom, and furnish the looming place, which has 18-20′ ceilings, stained-glass windows in its doors, bay windows with window seats, and elaborately carved, working fireplaces.

The Dakota (exterior only) setting for Bramford, Rosemary’s Baby ©

While Hubby goes to auditions seeking work, Wifey decorates, shops, and cooks, both of them dreaming of — and actively planning for — the little family they want to have. With such a great home in such an exclusive neighborhood, what difference does it make if you can sometimes hear the braying, nasal voice of the Old Lady next door complaining to her husband late at night? All apartments have thin walls and a few annoying neighbors, right? Of course, right.

John Cassavetes as Guy and Mia Farrow as Rosemary, Rosemary’s Baby ©

It is this very banality and seemingly ordinary setting — “like it could be a snippet out of your own life” — that makes Rosemary’s Baby (1968) such a great film. It is one of the best in the horror genre, but not for the reason you might expect. The film doesn’t have any scary special effects: except for the brief “nightmare” scene, there aren’t even any ghoulish costumes. No blood, gore, monsters, or masked villains wielding weapons while dopey teenagers run mindlessly about. Instead, Rosemary’s Baby, based on Ira Levin’s bestselling novel of the same name, concentrates its horror on the fact that virtually everything in the film could actually happen. Young, happy, pretty, and soon-pregnant Rosemary begins to suspect that something is wrong with her husband, wrong with her marriage, wrong with her unborn baby. Even worse, she soon comes to believe that there is a conspiracy to kidnap her baby upon its birth. However, it is because Rosemary is completely correct in her seemingly bizarre fears that Rosemary’s Baby — a triumph of psychological terror — is such a horror classic.

Rosemary’s Baby, first edition

This film is one of the few dramatizations that remains almost perfectly faithful to the novel on which it was based. All the foreshadowing about the neighbors conspiring in a group and doing something more than “not quite right”? In the book. Hubby Guy’s sudden emotional distance and Rosemary’s increasing isolation? In the book. Guy’s escalating psychological manipulation, emotional abuse, and ultimately physical abuse of his pregnant wife Rosemary? That’s in the book, too.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby (B&W still) ©

But the true horror of both the book and the film is more than Rosemary’s “paranoia and loss of control.” After all, her paranoia is based on subliminal indications about her reality: she is losing control of her own life — and of her baby’s — and other people in the apartment building are conspiring against her. Limiting us to Rosemary’s perspective with its film angles, its close-ups, and its spooky lighting, Rosemary’s Baby “relies on creating an atmosphere and story that speaks to [society’s] deeper, subconscious fears:” isolation, betrayal, and madness.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Mia Farrow, a soap-opera actress on Peyton Place who acquired international notoriety when she married famous singer/actor Frank Sinatra, 30 years her senior, does an outstanding job as Rosemary, and not just because she’s so young and waif-thin (okay, bony-thin).

John Cassavetes, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Farrow’s Rosemary is giddy and giggly when she and husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) first look at the magnificent apartment available in the Bramford (named, by author Ira Levin, in honor of Dracula author Bram Stoker).

Maurice Evans as Hutch, Rosemary’s Baby ©

She’s slightly amused by her friend Hutch’s (Maurice Evans) tales of macabre deaths, suicides, murders, and cannibalism at the Bramford, but continues eating dinner as if he were discussing the weather.

Ruth Gordon as Minnie, Rosemary’s Baby ©

She’s friendly and pleasant to their nosy neighbor Minnie (Ruth Gordon, in her Oscar-winning role), who looks through the mail before handing it to Rosemary, and who examines the price-tags on the canned goods while the two of them are sitting at the kitchen table.

Sidney Blackmer as Roman, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Rosemary is subdued and slightly bored by the elderly neighbors, Minnie and Roman (Sidney Blackmer), when they invite Rosemary and Guy to dinner that night, and is somewhat surprised by Guy’s sudden burgeoning friendship with Roman.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

She’s excited when Guy miraculously gets more important acting jobs, attributing it all to his wonderful skill and talent. She works hard decorating the apartment, cooking, doing the laundry, making cushions for the window seats, trying to make friends with the neighbors, and trying even harder to “start their family.”

Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Saperstein, Rosemary’s Baby ©

When Rosemary finally does get pregnant, the real terror of the film begins. Instead of gaining weight, Rosemary loses it. Instead of bouts of morning sickness, she has frightening symptoms and cravings that the congenial obstetrician Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) blithely dismisses, telling her — for months — that they’ll “be gone in a day or two.”

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

The scenes with pregnant-Rosemary are some of the most frightening of the film, as are the scenes where husband Guy begins to be more and more dismissive of Rosemary’s feelings, her concerns, even her basic human rights. When she wakes after a nightmare that she was raped, Guy’s response if terrifyingly abusive and distant.

Mia Farrow as Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby ©

(Guy is undeniably the worst villain in the film, but I won’t get started on any rant about him in this post…)

John Cassevetes and Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Despite the fact that Rosemary’s health seems to improve somewhat mid-pregnancy, her life gets worse.  Guy becomes more and more controlling, resorting to manipulation, psychological battery, and emotional abuse to keep her submissive, obedient, and “nice.” Whenever Rosemary’s friends try to intervene, things only get worse for the already isolated Rosemary.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

When Rosemary finally realizes what is happening to her, she desperately seeks help, only to be betrayed in the most frightening way. Though everything Rosemary suspects is happening to her and around her is, in fact, exactly what is happening, she is threatened into compliance by those closest to her. The very people who are supposed to care for her and her unborn baby terrorize her into submission and obedience.

John Cassevetes, Mia Farrow, Ralph Bellamy, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Still, surprisingly, Rosemary isn’t broken. Isolated and imprisoned, Rosemary begins to rebel.

Ralph Bellamy, Rosemary’s Baby ©

When she escapes the apartment and goes into Minnie and Roman’s apartment, where the entire group of conspirators has gathered, Rosemary is still not broken. Not completely.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

By the last scene, though, which reveals Rosemary’s ultimate reaction to her baby, she is, at last, broken by the evil world that has surrounded her. That is the ultimate horror of Rosemary’s Baby: not necessarily that Rosemary herself is so broken that she might as well have let them kill her. Not that she is no longer naïve, innocent, and trusting. Not that she will never again resist evil. The true psychological horror is not that Rosemary is broken, but how she is broken.

Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s Baby ©

Paranoia, loss of control, isolation, and subjugation. Betrayal and sexual abuse. Emotional and psychological manipulation. Fear of madness. Being irrevocably broken by the world. Rosemary’s Baby shows us everything we most fear in life. Through the “lens of realism,” director Roman Polanski, in his first major Hollywood production, created a “brooding, macabre film, filled with the sense of unthinkable danger,” a danger that becomes reality for its protagonist Rosemary, who is forever “broken” by the world in this horror classic.

Rosemary’s Baby is available for rent — $2.99 (SD) / $3.99 (HD)— from Amazon (free for Prime members), YouTube, iTunes, and Vudu.

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When A Lonely Man Loves His Ideal Woman: Gemma Bovery, the Film

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Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel Madame Bovary, details the tragic life and illicit love affairs of provincial Emma Bovary, married to her “boring” but ever-so-faithful husband Charles, yet constantly longing for a more exciting life, which ideally would take place anywhere but where she currently happens to be. Emma B is completely in charge of her life, her affairs, and, ultimately, her death by suicide, though things never seem to turn out quite the way she hopes or expects. The French-British film Gemma Bovery, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds, and directed by Anne Fontaine, ostensibly examines the character of Flaubert’s famous tragic heroine by placing her in contemporary Normandy. The film begins as a comedy, and has some comedic touches throughout, but is ultimately a drama, which is not surprising given that it is an adaptation of an adaptation of Flaubert’s tragic novel.

The first realistic novel, Madame Bovary has been called perfect [Henry James], with “prose doing what poetry is supposed to do” [Valdimir Nabokov], and with Flaubert’s “modern realist narration” so subtle and pervasive that the Voice of the author-persona is scarcely noticed, Flaubert’s “influence almost too familiar to be visible.” But it is the author-persona’s Voice that gives the novel much of its power, since it observes, comments on, and condemns Emma’s fatalistic, bourgeois romanticism even while it seems to empathize with her plight.

Isabelle Huppert as the tragic Emma in Madame Bovary ©

Almost as important as this Voice in Madame Bovary is the fact that Flaubert’s novel starts and ends with several chapters on Madame Bovary’s husband, Charles, the provincial physician who cannot ever quite believe his luck in getting such a charming and beautiful woman for his wife. Many readers miss the fact that Charles is the emphasis of a substantial portion of the novel long before the titular heroine is even introduced, and that it is Charles who finishes the story after Emma has committed suicide by ingesting arsenic. By taking the emphasis off Emma at both the beginning and the end of the novel named after her, Flaubert is directing his readers’ attention to Emma’s most wounded victim, her husband Charles.

Jean-Francois Balmer (Charles, in background L) and Isabelle Huppert (Emma) in the Oscar-winning 1991 film, Madame Bovary ©

Some viewers and critics also missed this framing technique in the film adaptation Gemma Bovery. Just as Charles, with his idealized image of Emma, begins and ends Flaubert’s novel, the transplanted baker Martin Joubert begins and ends the film, giving viewers his idealized albeit tragic fantasy version of Gemma, not necessarily presenting Gemma as she might really be. It is this view of Gemma, this Martin-narrated perspective, that changes the focus of the film from adulterous Gemma to that of the completely unreliable narrator of the film, the lovelorn baker himself.

Luchini as baker Martin Joubert in Gemma Bovery ©

Critics who found the film a nothing more than a “frothy modern sex comedy” or a “cheeky, literary mash-up” that is both “sugary and soapy,” missed the major premise of the film. Though much of the film’s comedic moments come from the characters’ “infinite capacity to misunderstand each other,” its tragedy derives from that same misunderstanding. Gemma Bovery is not about Gemma, the ostensibly modern equivalent of Flaubert’s Emma. Instead, it is about how men view women as sexual objects, how men idealize women as Madonnas even as they view women as whores, and how men can love a woman without ever really knowing her.

Fabrice Luchini as baker Martin and Gemma Arterton as Gemma in Gemma Bovery ©

Specifically, Gemma Bovery is about how one lonely man, the baker named Martin, views women, how Martin confuses real-life women with his literary heroines, and how Martin views one woman in particular, Gemma, whose name alone reminds him of his favorite novel, Madame Bovary. Almost as tragic as Emma B’s husband Charles, Martin the baker is madly in love with Gemma B, but she scarcely notices him, and it is the comic-tragic character of Martin that gives the film its power.

Gemma Arterton as Gemma and Fabrice Luchini as Martin in Gemma Bovery ©

Martin Joubert, splendidly played by Fabrice Luchini, is an ex-Parisian editor who has settled in the (fictional) village of Bailleville, in Normandy, to become a baker, thinking he would be happier in the more provincial location, where people care about living. Alas, Martin is not happy. He virtually ignores his lovely and insightful wife, Valérie (Isabelle Candelier), though she works alongside him at the bakery,

Isabelle Candelier as Valérie and Fabrice Luchini as Martin, Gemma Bovery ©

makes cutting sarcastic remarks to his clever son Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), and regards everyone in the village with an almost disdainful, emotionally distant eye. At the start of the film, Gemma is already dead, and her husband Charles is burning her clothing in a bonfire in the backyard. Martin, supposedly worried that Charles is so grief-stricken that he will commit suicide, goes over to comfort him. There, he learns that Gemma kept journals, which Charles cannot bring himself to read, and which Martin steals.

Though ostensibly viewed from the perspective of Gemma’s intimate diaries, the story is still from Martin’s perspective since he “imagines” everything else that happens in the film, viewing even Gemma’s adulterous liaisons from his own vivid viewpoint.

Charles Bovery (Jason Flemyng) and his wife Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Gemma Bovery ©

Martin’s imagination involving Gemma begins when Martin introduces himself to the British couple who has purchased the rather decrepit property across the road. Upon learning that their names are Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Charles Bovery (Jason Flemyng), Martin immediately launches into a fantasy about the couple, especially about Gemma, imagining her to be the tragic leading lady of Flaubert’s masterpiece. Likening himself to a director at one point in the film, Martin almost seems to fancy himself as another Flaubert: relating — and attempting to control — the story of a beautiful, sensual woman who does not know the consequences of her adulterous behavior or the impending tragedy awaiting her.

Gemma Arterton as Gemma Bovery ©

Once Martin is convinced that Gemma B is merely a modern day reincarnation of Emma B, her story becomes one of a bored, pampered housewife, whose ennui cannot quite be explained, but which is symbolized by long pensive stares out a rainy window, sighs, dissatisfaction with their crumbling home, and a vague unhappiness with her kindly husband Charles. Everything about Gemma is sensual and exciting, from the way she kneads bread for the first time in Martin’s bakery

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) kneading bread, Gemma Bovery ©

to the way she pours Martin tea when he is answering a legal claim for her,

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Martin (Fabrice Luchini), Gemma Bovery ©

from her reaction after getting stung by a bee

Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Martin (Fabrice Luchini), and Hervé (Nils Schneider) in Gemma Bovery ©

to the way she dances — solely in Martin’s imagination — with one of her lovers after having torrid, adulterous sex.

Hervé (Nils Schneider) and Gemma (Gemma Arterton), Gemma Bovery ©

Martin is so obsessed with Gemma-Emma that he becomes almost creepy, following her everywhere, spying on her, and, aided posthumously by her diaries, vividly imagining anything about Gemma’s private life that he does not witness first-hand.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) visiting Hervé (Nils Schneider) for a sexual rendezvous, Gemma Bovery ©

It is a credit to Luchini’s performance that Martin doesn’t degenerate into a scary stalker. His view of Gemma may be exaggeratedly sensual and recklessly sexual, but Martin is still madly in love with her himself, and Luchini’s poignant portrayal of Martin never lets the viewers forget that.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Martin (Fabrice Luchini), Gemma Bovery ©

As in the novel through which Martin interprets her, Gemma embarks on a series of adulterous affairs, though no reason is ever given for them. She was spurned, before marriage to Charles, by her adulterous lover Patrick (Mel Raido), who happens to be friends with boorish neighbors Wizzy (Elsa Zylberstein ) and Rankin (Pip Torrens), and who comes back into her life when she is emotionally vulnerable.

Wizzy (Elsa Zylberstein ), husband Rankin (Pip Torrens), and friend Patrick (Mel Raido, back to camera), Gemma Bovery ©

Gemma also gets sexually involved with a wealthy aristocratic Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider) who, contrary to his parallel character in the novel, Rodolphe, falls in love with Gemma himself, and it is this latter relationship that the baker Martin most attempts to control, fancying himself more knowledgeable about life and love, I suppose, than anyone else in the story.

Gemma (Gemma Arterton) and Hervé (Nils Schneider) in Gemma Bovery ©

Yes, Gemma Bovery is a tragedy, and like her kind-of-namesake, Gemma dies, but you know that from the beginning of the film, even if you’ve never read the original novel or the graphic novel adaptation. The real story of the film, however, concerns Martin: lonely, aging, misunderstood, and ignored by a beautiful younger woman whom he adores. And it is Martin that viewers should focus on to get the full impact of the pathos and splendor of the film, for Martin is the protagonist of Gemma Bovery, not Gemma, and just as Charles is the most poignant victim in Madame Bovary, Martin is the most poignant and tragically romantic character of Gemma Bovery.

Gemma Bovery is rated R for explicit sexual situations. Available for rent for $3.99 from Amazon (free for Prime members), iTunes, and YouTube.

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Murder, Anyone? In A Lonely Place, the Film

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Even if you’re a fan of the great Humphrey Bogart, you might find it hard to believe that he “played juveniles or romantic second-leads in drawing room comedies [in the theatre], and is said to have been the first actor to ask “Tennis, anyone?” on stage.” As a pre-teen, I watched his films on Saturday afternoons when a local television channel aired classics. I loved Bogart’s characters: the wounded cynic who was tough yet vulnerable, powerful yet caring.

His most memorable films reinforced his “Loner with a Heart of Gold” role: the private investigator with a femme fatale client in The Maltese Falcon (1941), a Noir classic based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; the self-sacrificing expatriate in Casablanca (1942), which was Bogart’s first romantic lead in film; and private investigator Phillip Marlowe in the complex and somewhat convoluted Noir The Big Sleep, (1946), based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.

Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele, In a Lonely Place ©

Until last month, when I first learned of Dorothy B. Harris’ 1947 Noir serial killer novel, In a Lonely Place, however, written in Limited Point of View from the perspective of the killer himself, and its 1950 film adaptation, I never realized that Humphrey Bogart had played a man suspected of being not just a murderer, but a serial killer. Bogart’s angst-ridden and angry character Dixon Steele in the film adaptation of Harris’ novel, is one of his most “fascinatingly complex” roles, one that has earned the film a place in multiple the Top 100 lists.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

Bogart plays once-successful screenwriter Dixon Steele, who is being urged by his agent and colleagues to adapt a trashy bestseller into a script to get his own career back on track, i.e., earning money. Annoyed by the book’s banal content, Steele feels oppressed by the assignment. He attempts a shortcut: instead of reading the entire “epic” novel himself, he asks a young coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) at one of his favorite restaurants to come back to his place to tell him the story. When the two arrive at his apartment complex late at night, Steele glimpses the woman of his dreams, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), who is a new neighbor.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

From that point on, Steele’s life is a tumultuous roller coaster ride. As he tries to write a screenplay for the book he doesn’t even like, he finds himself irresistibly attracted to the mysterious and somewhat aloof Laurel. Worse, he’s under investigation for violent crimes, including a gruesome murder.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, In a Lonely Place ©

Though the film seems to start somewhat slowly and has some inappropriate comedic moments, especially those involving the drunken actor who’s a friend of Steele, and many scenes with Steele’s agent (Art Smith), it mostly concentrates on the disturbing story of Steele’s vivid (albeit scary) imagination and his even more frightening rage.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place ©

The isolation, moral ennui, and angst driving Steele to desperate acts of savagery that begin to terrify even his long-time agent, the beautiful but restless Laurel, and close friends Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) and wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell).

Jeff Donnell and Frank Lovejoy, In a Lonely Place ©

It’s not only the most intense performance Bogart ever gave, it’s considered by many to be his best: “revelatory, vulnerable,” and “unnerving.”

Because the film In a Lonely Place is only very loosely adapted from the novel, I wouldn’t recommend that you read the book beforehand, as the differences between novel and film will confuse you. Instead, watch the film — or read the novel — separately from each other. This film, called the “purest of Existential primers,” is available for rent ($2.99-3.99) from Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu.

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