Jul 282014


Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.
Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker inSuperman III.
Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”
As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

Before we examine that moment, some context.  Silver Streak was an action comedy co-starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in the first of numerous pairings.  It was directed by Arthur Hiller, from an original script by Colin Higgins.  And, it is a pointedly Hitchcockian picture.
I don’t mean anyone would mistake this for a Hitchcock film.  And it has none of the ostentatious panache of the thrillers from the supposed “heirs” to Hitchcock’s mantle: Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, Claude Chabrol.
But, it’s a film that was clearly made by filmmakers who had learned lessons from Hitchcock.  They hadn’tmastered any of those lessons, but they at least did their homework and turned in a credible effort.  If the Argentos, DePalmas, and Chabrols of the world were the ace students, Hiller at least earned a gentleman’s C.
Here’s the wrongly accused man (Wilder), caught mid-way between two chases—racing after the real bad guys, racing away from the cops.  Here’s his love interest, an improbably available Hitchcockian blonde played by Jill Clayburgh in her best Eva Marie Saint imitation.  Here’s the MacGuffin that motivates this chase.  Here’s a story that basically just mashes up The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest.
The story goes that Gene Wilder was attracted to the project (the first movie in a long time that he hadn’t written himself) because of the opportunity to play a “Cary Grant-like” character—and don’t think the parallel was lost on Grant, either.  When Grant met Wilder for the first time, his first question was Hey, did you guys just copy North By Northwest there?  And Wilder’s response: Yup.
Trains make great settings for thrillers—the claustrophobic confined space hurtling at great speeds across picturesque landscapes make for as romantic and dramatic a setting as a filmmaker could ask.  Airplanes offer many of the same attributes, but for all their surface similarities, planes and trains make for very different kinds of movies.  A typical thriller set on a plane would focus on the threat to the passengers posed if something were to happen to the plane—whereas a train-based thriller would typically emphasize the enclosed space and the tension that comes from trapping a bunch of strangers in a thin metal tube from which no one can easily enter or leave.
Which is one reason why Silver Streak works as well as it does: it willfully violates those familiar rules.  A thriller set on a train should be about the sensation of being trapped—but Gene Wilder gets thrown off, knocked off, or forced off the train three times in the course of this adventure!  Far from being trapped on the train, he spends as much time off the train as on.
Another rule willfully violated by Silver Streak is that it is a buddy comedy in which the second half of the team, the co-billed star of the thing, doesn’t even appear until 60 minutes in.  And here we are, halfway into this blog post, and we’ve barely mentioned Pryor—I’m trying to model that disorienting, frustrating feeling.  But, while it’s true that the movie is half over by the time Pryor shows up, it’s also true that it doesn’t really start until he arrives.
I mean, no disrespect to Gene Wilder—he’s terrific.  He deserves the Cary Grant role here, and he does it well.  And he’s certainly capable of bringing manic intensity to his work (cf. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, still the default version of that story, despite the best efforts of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp).  And despite what the title says, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is the demented masterpiece it is because co-writer Gene Wilder insisted on keeping faith with the Universal classics that inspired it.  But, for all that, Wilder’s Cary Grant-ification is a little low-key.  Enter Richard Pryor and suddenly a whole new movie gets going.
Arthur Hiller was reluctant to work with Pryor—the comic’s reputation had preceded him, and Hiller was worried he’d be difficult.
And, just once, he was.
The scene in question occurs when Pryor’s character is trying to help get Wilder’s character safely past the various federal agents who are out in force looking for him.  He takes a can of shoe polish, a gaudy jacket, and a radio and tries to disguise this red-haired Jew as a black man.
OK, so… blackface.  The third-rail of American comedy.  Touch it at your peril.
But, that’s not to say it’s necessarily fatal.  As I’ve written about here before, there are instances of genuinely funny blackface comedy that wrestle with the terrible racial offense without falling victim to it.  There are ways to do this—it’s all in the details.
The scene involves Gene Wilder rubbing shoe polish on his face and indulging in the broadest, most cartoonish racial caricature he can summon.  That’s a given.  What happens next determines the context of this gag, and how the joke is pitched.
As written, the script called for a white man to enter the bathroom while Wilder was blacking himself up and accept the ruse, believing him to be black.
And here’s where Pryor drew a line.  Although Pryor didn’t articulate what bothered him about the staging, it’s easy enough to figure out: in this version, the joke seems to be that this absurd racist stereotype is close enough to the truth about black people that it’s convincing.  It gives audiences a place to laugh atblack people.
Pryor instead suggested an alternate staging—why not have a black man come in instead, the shoeshine man for example, and immediately see through this as an incompetent effort.  “You must be in a lot of trouble,” he could say, and shake his head in disappointment at the world.  Then, when Wilder later manages to fool the cops with this blackface act, the joke isn’t directed at black people, it’s directed at Wilder’s character and the foolish white people who can’t see past the fake skin color.
Pryor had to basically go on strike to force Hiller to shoot it his way—but he was right.  Pryor’s version not only rehabilitated the ethical stance of the joke, he just plain made it funnier.  It was one of the bigger laughs of the movie—a signature moment.  A small tweak, but one that shifted the focus of the joke in a crucial way–and it’s too Pryor’s credit that he saw how to rescue the scene with such a subtle change.

 Posted By John : July 26, 2014 2:17 pm
Great post and excellent observations. Reblogged, natch.

 Posted By AL : July 26, 2014 8:33 pm
On the list of the Top Ten Comedians of all Time, this brilliant gifted man is near to position #1. Richard Pryor. We lost him too soon…

 Posted By pdb : July 26, 2014 9:17 pm
I wholeheartedly agree with AL. My son and I watched Silver Streak recently and I remember the scene Mr. Kalat discusses in this post. His insights and description of how that scene evolved make me respect Richard Pryor even more, if that’s possible. He had his personal demons but he fulfilled his mission of lessening hatred.

 Posted By Doug : July 26, 2014 10:33 pm
It’s said that all humor comes from pain; Pryor was the master comedian because he hurt so much.
Mel Brooks wanted Pryor for Bart in Blazing Saddles but the studio balked because of Pryor’s drug use, so he only had a writing credit in what could have been his biggest starring role. That had to hurt,too.
It’s been too, too long since I saw “Silver Streak”.
I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.
I think Wiig cast her in the role of her mom to honor her, to give Clayburgh a curtain call on her career.
Pryor wrote/directed his own career summation, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling”. He did more projects after, including two more films with Wilder, but what he wanted to say, he said in Jo Jo Dancer.

 Posted By george : July 27, 2014 12:38 am
“I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.”
Well, she was dying from leukemia. In fact, she died six months before the film was released. I haven’t seen BRIDEMAIDS. Maybe she should have retired after her role in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS.
Pryor looked bad in the last film he made with Wilder, ANOTHER YOU (1989). The effects of MS were painfully obvious … so obvious that I couldn’t laugh at the film, or even watch it until the end.

Jul 282014
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

KANSAS PACIFIC. Allied Artists, 1953. Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane, Harry Shannon, Tom Fadden, Reed Hadley. Director: Ray Nazarro.

   Kansas Pacific is a perfectly watchable, albeit altogether unremarkable, Western set in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Directed by the prolific Ray Nazarro, whose The Black Dakotas was reviewed here on this blog, the film stars Sterling Hayden as Captain John Nelson, a U.S. Army engineer. His mission: ensure that the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which the U.S. Army plans to utilize for troop movements to the West, is constructed in a safe and timely manner.

   Nelson arrives in Kansas to assist Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane) in building the railroad. Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller) is suspicious of Nelson’s encroaching on her father’s turf. She also wants her father to quit his work and go back East. Naturally, there’s tension between Capt. Nelson (Sterling) and Barbara Bruce (Miller), which eventually culminates in love.

   Opposing the two men are the Confederate sympathizer, William Quantrill (Reed Hadley), and his gang of generic thugs. Among them is a guy by the name of Stone, portrayed by Clayton Moore of The Lone Ranger fame. The Confederates aren’t presented as anything other than violent men determined to stop the construction of the railroad. There’s not much nuance here.

   Hayden’s character comes across as both gruff and sentimental. He wants very much to earn Barbara Bruce’s respect. On the other hand, he’s a man on a mission and determined to get the railroad built, even if it causes friction between the two of them.

   There’s not much in the way of memorable dialogue in Kansas Pacific, but no one watches this type of film for snappy banter. There is, however, a good bit of action, some of it quite explosive. There’s a well-choreographed fight scene, replete with artillery, at the end. There’s also a fairly tense scene in which Capt. Nelson and Quantrill face off in a saloon.

   Kansas Pacific is a decent, average Western with about average performances from Hayden and MacLane. The historical context, rather than the acting, may be the most intriguing aspect to the film. Kansas prior to the Civil War is a rich area for writers and filmmakers, and it’s a bit different from the overused Western narrative of a Confederate soldier returning home from the war.

   In conclusion, the film’s not bad. It’s just not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
Jul 282014
“The nature of modern warfare, modern espionage, is that it has truly become global – there is no one front, it’s all the front. In the same way that terrorism and organized crime have synthesized into one organism, we’re seeing the same in regard to military and espionage operations. To depict that, the whole world had to be open for play.”

- Greg Rucka talks to The Reading Room about widening the scope of Jad Bell’s world in his new novel, Bravo.
Jul 282014

A man in possession of many bolts of woolen cloth, quantities of lining and interlining, buttons, thread, needles, and padding is not, of necessity, a tailor. A man in possession of many characters, many situations, many startling and dramatic events, and many gags is not, of necessity, a storyteller.

The crafts of the tailor and the storyteller are not dissimilar, however, for out of a mass of unrelated material, each contrives to fashion a complete and well-balanced unit. Many stories are too heavy in the shoulders and too short in the pants, with the design of the material running upside-down …

The customer walking home in his new suit is razzed by small boys as he passes. I thought I knew how to put a story together, but it might turn out I was meant to be a tailor.

- From Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990). Sturges’ first hit play Strictly Dishonorable is back on stage in New York City, revived by the Attic Theater.
 Posted by at 7:33 pm
Jul 282014

The post For Your eReader: Spree by Michael Morley appeared first on Mulholland Books.

Spree eBook by Michael MorleyAt Mulholland Books, we’re surrounded by great book publishers. We’ve got our parent imprint, Little Brown and Company (hi, mom/dad!). We’ve got Orbit Books downstairs (hi, Comic Con partners!). And we’ve got Grand Central Publishing down the hall. Today we’re highlighting a new eBook available tomorrow from GCP  that we think readers of Mulholland Books—including fans of James Patterson, David Baldacci, Jeffery Deaver, and Harlan Coben—will love.

A madman is on the rampage in the Los Angeles streets. The City of Angels has become The City of Fear. And everyone from the Oval Office down wants a quick result. The heat is on Jake Mottram, head of the FBI’s new Spree Killer Unit, and psychological profiler Angie Holmes to find the madman responsible.

Until now, they’ve been great together. Both at work and in bed. But a killer is about to come between them, in ways that could cost them far more than their careers. Will they survive the spree about to come?

Spree: Life and death in LA—like you’ve never seen it before. Click here to read an excerpt.

Preorder the eBook from Google Play | iBooks | Kobo | Nook

The post For Your eReader: Spree by Michael Morley appeared first on Mulholland Books.

Jul 282014
by Marv Lachman

MICHAEL INNES – A Night of Errors. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1947. US paperback reprints include: Berkley F833, 1963; Penguin, 1966; Perennial Library, 1989 (shown). First UK edition: Gollancz, hardcover, 1948.

   In A Night of Errors by Michael lanes, the inspector who asks Sir John Appleby’s assistance says, “The whole thing is a nightmare. Three identical brothers creeping around the place with each other’s dead bodies! It’s like a drunken hallucination.”

   It’s certainly a hilarious farce, one which owes more than its similarity of title to Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. One character is Romeo Dromio. There is also a thieving butler named Swindle, and Grubb, the gardener who “had long schooled himself in the prime duty of being disgruntled

   Besides the civilized dialogue and literary allusions we have come to expect from Innes, there are many plot surprises, as well as a fair and ingenious, if scarcely believable, solution.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.

 Posted by at 6:23 pm
Jul 282014
The next stop on the 2014 USA Fiction Challenge is the state of Louisiana.

New Orleans Mourning
by Julie Smith

When the smiling King of Carnival is killed at Mardi Gras, policewoman Skip Langdon is on the case. She knows the upper-crust family of the victim and that it hides more than its share of glittering skeletons. .......

It's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and civic leader and socialite Chauncy St. Amant has been crowned Rex, King of Carnival. But his day of glory comes to an abrupt and bloody end when a parade-goer dressed as Dolly Parton guns him down. Is the killer his aimless, promiscuous daughter Marcelle? Homosexual, mistreated son Henry? Helpless, alcoholic wife Bitty? Or some unknown player? Turns out the king had enemies...

Enter resourceful heroine Skip Langdon, a rookie police officer and former debutante turned cynic of the Uptown crowd. Scouring the streets for clues, interviewing revelers and street people with names like Jo Jo, Hinky, and Cookie, and using her white glove contacts, the post-deb rebel cop encounters a tangled web of brooding clues and ancient secrets that could mean danger for her, and doom for the St. Amants. 

 Printing History 
Written by Julie Smith (1944- )

St. Martin's Press
February 1990
ISBN 312 03892

 Posted by at 5:02 pm
Jul 282014

On Goodreads, you can enter to win a copy of A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. Read it now before the movie comes out on September 19!

(In case you haven’t yet seen it, the movie trailer is below.)


Goodreads Book Giveaway

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Matthew Scudder) by Lawrence Block

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Matthew Scudder)

by Lawrence Block

Giveaway ends August 02, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win



Jul 282014
I am happy to announce this year's ReadWest Awards for Literary Excellence. Each year, the ReadWest Foundation, Inc., chooses three award recipients for "Excellence in Western Literature," and a Presidents Award for a "Significant Career Contribution to Western Literature." In the past ReadWest has honored best-selling authors such as Stephen Harrigan, Thomas Cobb, Kat Martin, and Craig Johnson.