Oct 132014
 

Then there is the marvelous story about William Faulkner – which I never bothered to ask him about, because we used to talk of other things whenever I visited his office or we had dinner with my wife at Musso Frank’s on Hollywood Boulevard.

The story had it that once, early in Faulkner’s Hollywood career, he sat in his office for several weeks doing nothing (sometimes he played dominos, sometimes he played chess). And there came a day when the producer, tired of waiting for “pages,” came to his office in person (which was really a breach of Hollywood protocol) and wanted to know how he was getting on.

Faulkner, who had not written a single line, reached for an old screenplay he had found in his desk and said, “Ah’m not satisfied with it.” Then he slowly tore it up, page by page, and dropped it into the wastebasket.

The producer reported back to his own boss, “That fellow Faulkner’s great! Tore up a whole screenplay because it didn’t satisfy him. Conscientious. I wish we had more writers like him. See that he’s not disturbed.”

From Alvah Bessie’s 1965 memoir Inquisition in Eden
 Posted by at 5:54 pm
Oct 022014
 

I say this every time a new issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine hits in-boxes around the globe. So I’ll quote FNF jefe Eddie Muller: this latest edition of Noir City is “the best written film journal in the world – certainly the most entertaining.”

Want proof? I thought my word was good enough for you. I thought we were friends.

Fine. Here’s proof. Inside the Fall 2014 issue:

- Imogen Sara Smith’s expansive survey of noir westerns

- Your friend and mine Christa Faust sizes up noir vixens of recent vintage

- Michael Connelly names his five favorite noir films

- Wallace Stroby on the real life origins of the neo-noir classic Thief

- Profiles of Mike Mazurki and William Castle

- Muller mulls the question of the definitive heist film: The Asphalt Jungle or Rififi?

I’m particularly proud of the sidebar to that piece which I helped assemble, in which we ask a rogues gallery of crime writers to single out their favorite cinematic caper. Faust and Stroby chime in, along with the likes of Duane Swierczynski, Laura Lippman, Ken Bruen, Roger Hobbs and Ray Banks.

Plus plenty more. I contribute a few film reviews and my usual Cocktails & Crime column … and eagle-eyed readers may spot breaking news about what I’ve been up to lately.

Don’t have a copy? Never fear. Simply make a contribution to the Film Noir Foundation and ninety-four pages of majesty will be winging their way toward you. Don’t miss out.
 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Oct 012014
 

From Joseph Cotten's 1987 autobiography Vanity Will Get You Somewhere:

The following day Orson and I had a date for lunch with two gentlemen (not from Verona, I fear). They were two tough and exceedingly wealthy businessmen. The reason for our meeting was simple; Orson needed money for his next film and he intended to acquire some of theirs.

Walking into the restaurant I saw Winston Churchill seated quite close to our table. As we passed the great man, Orson said to my horror, “Winston, how nice to see you again.” Churchill made no response at all. Our lunch was a fiasco. Orson made some lame excuse about, “Winston’s not feeling well.” He mentioned other big names, big money, which almost caused me to say, “Big deal.” Actually it was no deal, for our money men asked if we could postpone our discussion until dinnertime, as they were expecting several overseas telephone calls.

Late that afternoon, we spotted Churchill swimming in the Lido. In a flash, Orson had his swimming trunks on and was in the water beside him. He was talking, but thank heavens I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Apparently neither could Churchill, for he just turned and swam in the other direction.

Later I asked Orson, “What did you dare say to him this time?”

“I apologized for being fresh,” he said, “but I told him I just wanted to impress two gentlemen whose money I needed for a film.”

Rather unnecessarily I asked, “Did he reply?”

“No,” said Orson.

That evening, we walked into the dining room, our two prospective backers following gloomily. As we reached Churchill’s table, he stood up, looked directly at Orson, and bowed slowly and deeply.

We got the money.
 Posted by at 6:53 pm
Aug 132014
 
While I was mourning the untimely death of Robin Williams yesterday (an event that broke my heart and saddened me for much of the day) something else happened in the entertainment world that nearly passed me by. I just now discover this morning that Lauren Bacall died. Clearly, I'm an entire day behind on the rest of the world.

In tribute to this glamorous actress and all around classy dame, a gallery of stills from some of her better crime related roles and movies.




Slim Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944)


Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)


The Happy Couple circa 1947


Irene Jansen in Dark Passage (1947)


Lucy Moore Hadley in Written on the Wind (1956)


Mrs. Samson in Harper (1966)


"Harriet Hubbard" in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
(Caroline Hubbard in the book, but doesn't matter. It's an alias)



Sally Ross in The Fan (1981)
The only musical-slasher-stalker movie I know of in existence.
 Dear ol’ James Garner was her co-star. R.I.P. to you too, Rockford.


Lady Westholme in Appointment with Death (1988)
Not the most successful of the Ustinov as Poirot movies by a long shot.
Good night, Mrs. Bogart, wherever you are.


 Posted by at 5:57 pm
Aug 112014
 

Furthermore, practically all the Hollywood film-making of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates and masturbators. If that isn’t a slide, it’ll do until a real avalanche hits our film Mecca.

- Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title (1971)

 Posted by at 9:15 pm
Jun 042014
 

Let’s dole out the superlatives early. Five Came Back is an essential for students of Hollywood and history, easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. In recounting the role of studio filmmakers in the Allied war effort, it represents the rare combination of a story that demands to be told and a writer who is more than up to the challenge.

The directors who chronicled World War II would not only shape how that conflict would be perceived by future generations, but how combat itself would be portrayed thereafter. Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) wisely keeps the focus on a quintet of individuals, weaving their narratives together as he follows them before, during and immediately after the war. It’s still an epic tale, touching on all branches of the service and every theater of operations. It helps that each of the five men is a larger-than-life figure, entering the military with, as Harris notes, the experience of a private but the attitude of a general.

Frank Capra, who won three Best Director Oscars in the 1930s, didn’t go to war so much as to Washington, his stint as a bureaucrat only underscoring the muddiness of his personal politics. John Ford, who joined the Navy and led the photographic unit of the OSS, would do some of the best work of his career in the heat of battle only to be sent back to Hollywood in disgrace. John Huston had scored his first triumph with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and initially regarded the war as an inconvenience to his rapid ascent. He blithely staged recreations for his “documentary” The Battle of San Pietro to get the footage he wanted, but the truths he told about the psychological traumas suffered by veterans in his long-censored Let There Be Light proved too hard for the government to hear. William Wyler welcomed these years as “an escape into reality.” His insistence on putting himself in harm’s way to follow aviators on their missions led to permanent injury, material he would then mine for the greatest film about the post-war period The Best Years of Our Lives. And the urbane George Stevens would be unable to return to his métier of comedy after being one of the first American officers to provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the wake of the liberation of Dachau; he would go on to compile photograph evidence for the Nuremberg trials.

If the book has a hero it’s Lowell Mellett, the ex-newspaperman appointed as liaison between Washington and Hollywood for the Office of War Information. He played a long game, concerned about maintaining accuracy in what he acknowledged to be propaganda films and bearing the Allies’ eventual victory in mind when addressing issues of racism in how the Japanese were depicted.

Harris strips away any “Greatest Generation” sanctimony, honoring the accomplishments of these individuals while reveling in their humanity, their cantankerousness and foibles. American filmmakers coerced their British counterparts into a lopsided collaboration because U.K. efforts like Desert Victory far surpassed their own. Some things never change: audiences spurned most of these films in favor of newsreels because they craved immediacy and quickly grew bored with a steady diet of war dramas, craving the lighter fare no one felt comfortable making. While the directors lobbied to have their government-bankrolled productions considered for Academy Awards, fearful their careers would be in jeopardy once hostilities ended.

An astonishing array of talent participated in the propaganda campaign, names like Irwin Shaw and Eric Ambler popping up with regularity. Capra’s greatest contribution was an afterthought, approving the “Private Snafu” cartoons spearheaded by Chuck Jones and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. I knew Louis Hayward as a serviceable player in lesser noirs like Repeat Performance and Walk a Crooked Mile; I had no inkling he won an Academy Award and the Bronze Star for making the harrowing With the Marines at Tarawa.

But the focus remains on these five men and their films. Even under extreme conditions, they brought their personalities to bear on their work. Ford captured riveting footage for 1942’s The Battle of Midway, but couldn’t resist adding a folksy voiceover by his Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Wyler’s instinct for drama compelled him to shape The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress around a single B-17’s crew. The impact of those years transformed each of the directors, altering their subsequent films. Capra lost his way in the industry, Ford retreated to westerns, Huston gave vent to his innate cynicism. Five Came Back is a sprawling yet fleet book, compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating.
 Posted by at 11:06 pm
Apr 302014
 

At the heart of this mammoth biography lies a simple piece of psychology that explains what may be the greatest career in movie history. John Wayne, born Marion Morrison, insisted that everybody call him Duke for a reason. Here’s the man himself making the point:

“I know (John Wayne) well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

And here’s Scott Eyman’s version: “In Wayne’s own mind, he was Duke Morrison. John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin – a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it.”

That tension animates Eyman’s opus, almost elevating it to the level of case study. Duke wasn’t merely a nickname, it was a boundary. Or, in the Duke’s parlance, a frontier. He was forever conscious of crossing it, and patrolled it rigorously. It chafed when other actors didn’t do likewise; he was disturbed by Robert Montgomery’s acclaimed turn as a killer in Night Must Fall (1937), feeling Montgomery betrayed the audience’s trust, and told Kirk Douglas (who goaded Wayne by insisting on calling him “John”) after a screening of Lust for Life, “We got to play strong, tough characters. Not these weak queers.” But like a veteran scout Duke knew every inch of that frontier’s terrain, sensing where the shadows were darkest and tapping into them to enrich performances like Red River and The Searchers. (If only he’d taken that offer to co-star with Clint Eastwood in a western written by my hero Larry Cohen.)

This constant tending to his alter ego led to a lot of lousy movies, and Eyman watched them all. (He even made it the end of both The Alamo and The Green Berets.) He pays particular attention to the run of middling Poverty Row oaters Wayne made following the failure of 1930’s The Big Trail, those low-budget years honing his chops, forging his persona – and building an audience in what’s now dismissed as flyover country. His return to prominence in John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach surprised only the critical establishment; as Eyman notes, “Wayne may not have been a star in New York, but he was assuredly a star in Waco and Rockville and Atlanta.” Ron Howard, who appeared in Wayne’s final film The Shootist, said the actor “respected the fact that I had come out of TV. Early on, he said to me, ‘I came out of cheap westerns, and that was the TV of our time.’ He liked the unpretentious work ethic of television, where you have to finish it by Friday.”

Wayne is still remembered and even caricatured for his conservative politics. As he did with his previous book on Cecil B. DeMille, Eyman humanizes an imposing, almost monolithic figure without pulling punches. Wayne was a member of the John Birch Society (although he didn’t buy their fears about fluoridation and the “horseshit” charge Ike was a Red) who uttered cringe-worthy comments about race in a notorious 1971 Playboy interview. But the same man who offered that unwanted advice to Kirk Douglas also said of Rock Hudson’s sexual orientation, “It never bothered me. Life’s too short. Who the hell cares if he’s queer? The man plays great chess.” His Rooster Cogburn co-star Katherine Hepburn had the poor-boy-made-good’s number when she said, “He suffers from a point of view based entirely on his own experience.”

Duke Morrison was generous and loyal to a fault, famously democratic to cast and crew. He relished debate while respecting others’ opinions. Before work started on In Harm’s Way, Otto Preminger told Wayne anyone over thirty has their mind made up about politics and suggested they not try to convert each other. Wayne happily agreed, and the director found him “the most cooperative actor.” Eyman spends considerable time on a series of elegiac commercials Wayne made at the end of his career with the staunchly liberal Haskell Wexler – the man made Medium Cool, for Christ’s sake – recounting how some retrograde views the actor voiced early in production upset a female crew member. Wayne was crushed to have hurt her feelings and eventually won her over; decades later she calls him “a charming chauvinist” while Wexler dubs him “a principled reactionary.” French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier tweaks his leftist friends by praising Wayne over the more politically simpatico Marlon Brando, saying Wayne was the more intelligent film actor and while Brando at his apex “specialized in terrible movies and ridiculous accents,” Wayne used his power to make the best work of his career.

Much of Wayne’s legacy is based on the films he made with John Ford, and Eyman digs deep into the truly perverse collaboration between the actor and the director he called “Coach.” Ford regularly humiliated the actor in front of the company, even after they’d worked together for decades, and Wayne gamely took it. But the results of that tortured relationship played out on TCM all of last week. You may disagree with John Wayne’s views, but by the end of Eyman’s book you’ll like Duke Morrison. (Ward Bond, on the other hand? Total shitheel.)

In 1970, Wayne produced and hosted a TV special called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Eyman calls this vaudeville-style history of America “a time capsule of a special kind of show business hell.” With Dean Martin as Eli Whitney, and the Doodletown Pipers singing the entire Declaration of Independence. Naturally, the whole thing’s on YouTube.

 Posted by at 11:56 pm
Apr 302014
 
Syndrome E
by Franck Thilliez
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-147-50971-0
370 pp. $16.00
April 29, 2014

There is a certain type of crime novel that wants to be everything. It wants to comment on the nature of evil and the predilection for violence, criticize government abuse with satiric jibes, entertain with quirky characters, and scare the pants off of you with scenes of grisly crimes that outdo anything in the latest torture porn flick. Syndrome E is one of those books. I should’ve hated it, but I found it to be one of the most guilty pleasures I’ve read in a long time.

Franck Thilliez has written a contemporary horror novel with elements of the detective novel that entertains as much as it repulses and disgusts. Any attempt to make the book a cautionary tale about the abuse of corrupt governments or a stab at educating people about such past disgraces like the Duplessis orphan tragedy and the experiments of the CIA on unsuspecting citizens is lost in his sea of information. Syndrome E is a potboiler thriller with all the usual ingredients in abundant display -- labyrinthine plot, globe trotting scenery, forgotten historical tidbits, arcane lore and legends, and a Pandora’s trunkful of bizarre murders and body mutilations. It does exactly what it should do –- jolt you with a few shocking surprises, terrify you with its indulgent and grotesquely executed murders, and in the intervening scenes calm and assuage you with a perfunctory romance between the two lead characters.

Film lovers more than anyone will find much to enjoy. Thilliez is clearly a movie fan. The cause of all the mass slaughter (there are a lot of bodies) and paranoia found in Syndrome E is a 16mm movie so disturbing it leads one man to suffer hysterical blindness and haunts the memory banks of everyone else who is foolish enough to watch the movie. From it’s jarring opening scene –- that any true cineaste will instantly recognize from Dali’s Un Chien Andalou -- to its ostensibly innocuous images of a little girl cuddling a kitten the movie leaves each viewer with feelings of unease and disquiet without really understanding why. That’s because the movie made in 1955 is an early and very perverse example of subliminal filmmaking. Examination of the film uncovers a second film buried beneath all the primary images the viewer takes in. And that second film rivals any horror movie ever made.

Investigating the many murders linked to the ownership and eventual theft of the 16mm movie are two policeman. Appearing as solo lead characters in Thilliez’ other books (still untranslated into English) they meet for the first time in Syndrome E. Lucie Henebelle is a single mother doing her best to raise her twin daughters. Lucie lives for her job as police officer often abandoning her family and leaving her admonishing mother Marie to take on the role of primary caretaker.

Franck Thilliez, bestselling crime writer throughout Europe.
Syndrome E is his first book translated into English
In direct contrast to Lucie, the go-getter law enforcer addicted to the thrill of the chase, is the intense and morose Franck Sharko, probably the most original character in the book. He's a throwback to the eccentric amateur sleuth of the Golden Age, too. What makes him so eccentric? Franck is suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations after suffering a mental breakdown following the death of his wife and daughter. Even though he regularly medicates himself with Zyprexa he is enslaved to a phantom girl named Eugenie with whom he has frequent arguments. Eugenie goads and taunts him, hampering his decision making while also blackmailing him into buying her jars of cocktail sauce and candied chestnuts. If he gives her the foods she craves, she'll leave him alone...for a while. Of course she’s not real so she can’t eat any of it leaving Sharko with a stockpile of jars in his home and at work that make for raised eyebrows and prying questions from his friends and co-workers.

Lucie and Shark (“No first name, no titles, please.”) become partners through a combination of chance and Lucie’s desire to work with the man. Shark is a world class criminal profiler and has been called upon to use his skills on a case that appears to be the work of a serial killer. Five bodies have been unearthed in rural France, most of them now nothing but skeletons, but all of them with the tops of their skulls sawed off with surgical precision.

As the mystery of the film’s creation and meaning plays out it eventually intersects with the story of the killer responsible for the five murders and many other deaths throughout the world. Is it the movie itself that has created this monster of serial killer? Or is the killer only trying to recover the film for some private purpose? The trail will take Lucie and Shark from France to Egypt to Canada and back to France again. As the bodies pile up the two police discover that the terrible subliminal messages are part of a much larger global conspiracy involving the CIA, the Foreign Legion and the disgraceful past of 1950s era Quebec.

The novel's structure of finding an expert, interviewing the expert, having the expert "info dump" loads of technological or historical data gets to be very predictable. Among the varied topics lectured on are the latest trends in neuroscience, the use of neuromarketing in advertising, the recruitment process of the Foreign Legion, the methods of hiding subliminal images on film, how to splice and edit 16mm celluloid, and the shameful nightmare undergone by the Duplessis orphans in Canada. But at nearly 400 pages you do get your money’s worth in arcane educational moments.

Nicolas Cage can't believe what he sees in 8mm
Like Seven and 8mm (a movie that shares many ideas with Thilliez' novel) the images of violence perpetrated on film and in life are relentless and gut wrenching. A sex scene between Shark and Lucie that basically cures Shark of his schizoid hallucination is absurdly unbelievable. And often the language and sentence structure is inappropriate or awkward. I have no idea if this is the fault of the translator or Thilliez’ original French or a combination of both. But given all these caveats I still found myself turning the pages with abandon. No matter how much I wanted to find fault with this book I will concede that Thilliez sure knows how to tell a good story. He does a fairly good job, too, of creating suspenseful scenes that make the reader want to know what happens next. Plain and simple: a thriller is meant to thrill. Syndrome E lives up to that promise and then some. It may not be for the faint of heart, but any reader daring enough to take on its horrors and thrills will get way more than they expect.

According to Deadline.com Syndrome E has been purchased for the movies. As of February 2013 the screenwriter adapting the novel is Mark Heyman who wrote the very disturbing, surrealistic nightmare movie Black Swan about a ballet dancer losing her mind which won an Oscar for actress Natalie Portman. It’s a daunting project and I wish the entire production team a lot of luck transferring an imagined horror film into a real film. Often the real horror that goes on in the reader’s imagination is completely lost in the adaptation process.
 Posted by at 7:34 pm
Apr 262014
 
It's all about Frances.

Gillian Freeman has taken Richard Miles' character of Madame and a handful of key scenes as a springboard for an exploration of an oppressive and claustrophobic kind of loneliness. The kind of loneliness that will drive Frances (Sandy Dennis in a mesmerizing, bravura performance) to things she had barely dreamed about. Living in a cluttered apartment with all sorts of anachronistic and "old people's" furnishings (she has a harmonium!), cared for by an indifferent bustling housekeeper she also "inherited" from her dead mother Frances seems to have become her own prisoner. But one night at the end of a dinner party for her ancient friends -- most of whom are also inherited from her mother and all of whom are twice her age or more -- she drifts away from their idle chatter to glance out her apartment window. Outside in the pouring rain she sees a young man (Michael Burns) sitting on a park bench, apparently just as lonely as she is, getting drenched. With no umbrella and no real coat he curls up on the bench and lets the rain come down. We see her watch him with a sly smile on her face as she begins to plot. Once her guests have left Frances goes outside to the boy and invites him into her house. Just for a while. Until the rain stops. He can warm up, take a bath, have some food. Then when the rain stops, be on his way.

And so begins That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Robert Altman's second feature film and one of his least known movies. The combination of Altman's love of improvisational dialogue and Freeman's artful and cultivated speeches give the movie an air of timelessness and spontaneity. The movie opens with what seems like banter and chatter among Frances' dinner guests. A similar improvisational feel occurs when we see the boy with his sister and her boyfriend and much later in a visit to a doctor's office. The purpose of the visit and type of doctor are revealed only to us through the seemingly random conversation of three women in a waiting room. Meanwhile the camera follows Frances as she wanders about nervously or fidgets in her seat. This is one of the most clever sequences in the movie, a kind of scene we rarely see on film any more, a scene you need to pay attention to. Only rarely does the dialog betray its 1960s era as in the slangy phrases tossed around by the Boy, his sister and her boyfriend.

And the movie has such a mystery about it. The Boy indulging himself in his fraudulent mute world, toying with Frances, teasing her and Frances not really letting on what she's up to. This is more than a simple act of kindness, of taking a stranger in out of the pouring rain. There is a mind game of sorts going on between the two as well as other games. On his first night she gives him a bath, takes away his sodden clothes and lets him wander around her home clad only in a blanket. They listen to music. He coyly dances for her to gypsy music played on her hi-fi. He practically does a kind of strip tease. What is he up to? Why is Frances so willing to let a stranger run wild in her home? When he decides to stay for the night she locks him in his bedroom. She does it with such purpose we know that she has some kind of ulterior motive.

The Boy comes and goes as he pleases, but always returns to Frances' home. One day he returns with some "cookies" -- really brownies laced with pot. The two of them have a party that night with wine and the brownies. Frances becomes drunk and high and really lets her hair down. They play a game of blind man's buff, she flirts with him and continues her endless monologues about her life. He listens, returns the flirtations, but abandons her once again before the night is over. She's beginning to get a bit perturbed about his disappearances.





The crucial scene and the most poignant in the movie is the night when in a moment of utter honesty Frances bravely walks to his bedroom and delivers a speech about what her lonely life has become. She talks of Charles, a man old enough to be her father, who is attracted to her, who has propositioned her several times. "His immaculate shirts...he has a terrible habit of plucking at the creases in his trousers. He disgusts me." She talks about odd details of the first night she met the Boy. "You wore no socks with your shoes. No socks. That...it gave me such a peculiar feeling." She goes on becoming increasingly vulnerable, confessing her attraction for him, and getting the courage to slip into the bed next to him. What ends the scene is not only terrifying for Frances but heart-wrenching for the audience. We know that from this point on she will stop at nothing to keep the Boy in her home.



From that moment on there is an air of danger about the movie. As if her eccentricity weren't enough Frances becomes totally unpredictable. Her strangest and most desperate act is hiring a hooker by proxy and bringing her back to the Boy as a gift. As in the book this is the climax of the story. Whereas Miles had the third character of Yves enter at the eleventh hour, in the film there is no savior for the Boy. The movie has a very different ending, far more disturbing. For me because the story has always focused on Frances and her slow deterioration into a world of her own making Altman and Freeman's changed ending is much more satisfying. It also makes a lot more sense than Miles' somewhat ambiguous and flat ending in the novel.

That Cold Day in the Park is now available on DVD from that fine video company Olive Films, in both regular DVD and Blu-Ray formats. There's also the internet; I managed to watch the movie broken up into seven parts on YouTube (all seven parts together here). Not advisable for movie purists -- the color is washed out and a few scenes are too dark to see what's really going on. I'd suggest finding a DVD copy. Finally, this underrated movie is reaching a wider audience now as it so long deserved. There are several reviews on movie blogs all over the internet. One of the most knowledgeable and insightful critiques can be found at "Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For".
 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 252014
 

Later US Paperback (Pyramid, 1974)
 I first came to know That Cold Day in the Park (1965) in its effectively creepy and sometimes heartbreaking movie adaptation starring Sandy Dennis in the lead role. Dennis plays an extremely lonely woman who takes the term "kept boy" to its literal extreme. I thought perhaps the book might be the female counterpart to John Fowles' first novel The Collector, also turned into a memorable film. While the movie shares its basic premise with its source and both include three key scenes, the story of Miles' original novel is remarkably different.

Madame (we never learn her real name) meets a young man in the Tuilleries, the famous public garden of Paris, befriends him in a short conversation and convinces him to come home with her. Throughout their brief meeting the young man, a stunningly gorgeous blond haired Adonis, never speaks. Madame thinks, as does the reader, that the boy is mute. That he can hear her is made very clear. Only in the second chapter titled "The Boy" do we realize he has chosen not to speak. He often plays the role of a mute in order to manipulate his targets. The boy goes by the nickname Mignon. He and his friend Yves are male hustlers roaming the streets and bars of Paris' less than touristy areas taking advantage of lonely, affection starved men and robbing them.

Mignon stays with Madame most of the time, but escapes his new home each night by climbing out the window and down the fire escape in order to visit Yves. As the book progresses we see that Mignon is both manipulator and manipulated. He is caught between two worlds -- his life of crime with Yves (who he is clearly sexually attracted to) and his freer, more creative life with Madame who is also controlling him and shaping him to become what she wants. She is a hostess, a housemaid, a mother and eventually his lover. The book takes on a sinister element when Madame learns of his nightly escapes. We begin to see the fragile state of Madame's mind when she imprisons Mignon in an attempt to possess him completely.

UK 1st ed (Souvenir, 1966 )
The novel explores this very strange ménage à trois of sorts and its inevitable deceit and betrayal through alternating chapters told in the first person by Madame and in the third person omniscient voice when it focuses on either the boy or Yves. There is a middle section entitled "Interlude" centering on a minor character's visit to a sex club. Here we see the kind of sex trade Yves engages in with both men and women. It's the first taste of what will become a more lurid, sexually graphic, and sensational story.

The key scenes that I remembered from the movie -- Madame bathing the boy, her locking him in his bedroom and nailing the windows shut, and the climactic scene when she procures a prostitute for him -- all are present in the book. It is the story of Yves' relationship to Mignon that was removed in the movie adaptation.

In the novel the boy is conflicted between trying to change himself under the guidance of Madame, who seems to be the only person who doesn't desire him only for his body and good looks, and his life of adventure and crime with Yves -- his best friend, pseudo-brother and quite obviously a surrogate father. As the silent kept boy Mignon is at first a pet, then a student of painting, and finally a lover. With Madame the boy is more compassionate and pitying, emotions he does not feel for the men he robs when he is with Yves. There seems to be hope for both of them in their secret life together.  Yves doesn't want things to change. Mignon must make several decisions -- who is he really, who does he want to be with,  and perhaps most important of all who and what can he become.

In the final pages the book turns into a lurid thriller complete with embarrassingly written sex scenes that reminded me of the worst of 60s erotica ("throbbing rod" and "swelling member"). Madame's character transforms too quickly into yet another psycho-sexual lunatic bent on deadly violence. Miles nearly destroys the interesting contrast in characters that, up to the bloody climax, was the most fascinating part of the book. The story works best in the sections between Madame and Mignon and weakens in the too predictable sequences when Yves appears.

1st UK paperback (Corgi, 1967)
Richard Miles is the pseudonym for a former child actor turned writer and high school teacher named Gerald Perrau-Saussine. He first performed in movies under his slightly shortened, given name (Gerald Perreau) and later as "Peter Miles". His movie roles include Possessed w/ Joan Crawford, The Red Pony w/ Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, Heaven Only Knows and Quo Vadis . As a teenager and young adult he later appeared in a variety of TV shows such as Dragnet, The Lone Ranger, Maverick and Perry Mason. He had a long running role on The Betty Hutton Show where he played brother to his real life sister, actress Gigi Perreau.

That Cold Day in the Park is Miles' first novel. He followed up with Angel Loves Nobody (1967), a prize-winning novel about high school violence and The Moonbathers (1974), a revenge thriller featuring a Japanese secret society. One of his lesser works is the script for one of the worst movies ever made -- They Saved Hitler's Brain. But we all make mistakes, don't we? Don't judge him by that big one.

Turn in tomorrow when I examine Robert Altman's movie version of this book with a screenplay adaptation by Gillian Freeman. It's an example of taking the basic story of an intriguing novel and transforming it into a much improved and resonant character study.

*   *   *


Reading Challenge update:  Silver Age Bingo card, space  L2 - "Book Made into a Movie"
 Posted by at 8:16 am