A Showdown and a Ghost

April 4th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

The mass-market edition of The Big Showdown, the sequel to The Legend of Caleb York, has just come out. It continues with the characters and stories that Mickey Spillane developed in the (unproduced) screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne in the late 1950s.

Response to this new series, representing my first westerns (unless you count the movie novelization Maverick and maybe my Wyatt Earp meets Al Capone novel, Black Hats), has been positive. In fact, I’ve completed a third Caleb York story, The Bloody Spur, and have signed to do two more.

The novels are in part mysteries, befitting the two bylines, and are otherwise very old-fashioned westerns in the manner of Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy movies of the fifties and early sixties…but with a higher, more Leone-like level of violence, which is only appropriate with the name Spillane invoked. Mickey’s York screenplay was far more violent than anyone in the western film or novel field was doing at the time. The sexual content was adult for its time, but that time has passed.

The book was one of the last that I completed before I went in for my heart surgery – one of a handful on my docket that I wanted to make sure got done in case…well, you know. I thought it came out well and am particularly proud of the finale, a shoot-out – you might say, a big showdown – in a rainstorm…also typically Spillane.

If you like my crime novels but don’t usually read westerns, give these a try anyway. I’m pretty sure you’ll like them.

* * *

The movie Ghost in the Shell, based on a famous Japanese animated film (which spawned an anime series and many sequels) has been getting a rough time of it. Only 43% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it received a scathing review on Facebook by my pal, Terry Beatty, with whom I rarely disagree on films. He hated it so much that I’d decided not to go, though based on the previews I’d been looking forward to it.

But the workload right now is so brutal, I needed a break, and took a risk. I’d read the positive reviews among the pans and caught hints that I might not agree with Terry. And I didn’t.

Barb and I are becoming infamous for walking out of movies, and we fully expected this to be one of them. Instead we both loved it. Scarlett Johansson is Major, whose human brain has been inserted in a robot body, designed to be the perfect terrorist fighter. She inhabits a world futuristically Asian, influenced by Blade Runner’s city but even more complex in its imagery.

Johansson is very good, much as she was in Lucy, moving with a certain robotic gait though not overstating it, her dialogue delivered in a similar fashion. She has a team of cyber-enhanced soldiers, one of whom is her partner, played by “Pilou” Asbæk, the Swedish actor who was so good in the TV series Borgen, the nordic West Wing. Major is having flashes of memory and humanity that are intruding on her search for an uber-terrorist, but of course everything is not as it seems.

A special treat is the presence of Takeshi Kitano, director/writer/star of Violent Cop and Boiling Point, among other great Japanese crime films. He’s essentially M to Major’s Jane Bond, but he gets out from behind the desk and kicks ass, late in the proceedings.

Themes of identity, family and loyalty are explored, but not to the detriment of well-staged action scenes that don’t indulge in that speeded-up crap. The art direction is stunning throughout, and seldom has CGI been better employed. We saw it in 3-D, which really enhanced the levels of the design work.

I have hesitated till recently to review movies again. I know how hard it is to make one. And I realize that taste is individual, and smart people can disagree. If you skip a movie because I don’t like it, you may be making a mistake. And if you go to one because I did like it, you might also be making a mistake.

But I don’t think so.

* * *

This review of The Big Showdown first appeared last year about this time, but if you’re considering picking up the paperback, you might want to check this out.

M.A.C.

How to Make Me Smile

March 28th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

As you may have gathered, if you’ve stopped by here at all frequently, I am a collector of movies on Blu-ray and DVD. Many of my favorite films have made it onto Blu-ray, like Kiss Me Deadly and Gun Crazy (though I had to get that from Germany). And a fairly short list of my favorites remain on DVD only, like the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, and the great film version of the Broadway musical, Li’l Abner.

One of my favorites, poorly represented with a terrible transfer on DVD, has finally made it to Blu-ray, in a limited edition of 3000, from Twilight Time, the boutique label that has brought us any number of terrific films, from The Big Heat to the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles, from a Sinatra Tony Rome double feature to Pretty Poison.

But this time – and my birthday month yet – they have given me (and Barb and for that matter son Nate, who also loves it) a film I could watch once a week – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

There are those who can find reasons not to like this movie, just as there are people who can find a reason not to like ice cream. They are to be pitied. How to Succeed features a brilliant, witty, acid but not hateful score by the brilliant Frank Loesser. A Pulitzer Prize-winning musical (yes, Pulizter Prize-winning musical) in 1961, the Broadway version skewered the shallowness of big business in an up-to-the-moment manner. Unfortunately, the timing of the film’s release – 1967 – made How to Succeed’s cutting-edge satire seem dated, a lot having happened since ‘61.

Fortunately, time has been kind to this early ‘60s musical, with its bright Batman TV colors and cartoon images come to life (cartoonist Virgil Partch – VIP – was a consultant) and Bob Fosse choreography that is as witty and biting as the original play itself. (Fosse is not the actual choreographer of the film, but he’s credited as the source.)

A number of players from the Broadway show are retained, including Michelle Lee (who was the second Rosemary Pilkington in the original cast), the very funny Rudy Vallee, Ruth Kobart, and Sammy Smith, with Charles Nelson Reilly’s Bud Frump M.I.A., though decently replaced by Anthony Teague. Maureen Arthur – a live-action Little Annie Fannie – was in the national company of the musical and joined the Broadway run later.

I saw the national company in Chicago when I was in high school and fell in love with the musical then. The cast included Dick Kallman as Finch (later star of Hank on TV), who was excellent, with the second Great Gildersleeve, Willard Watterman, in the Rudy Vallee role. And of course the eye-popping Maureen Arthur was Hedy LaRue (“O.K. Charlie!”).

Two things make this film one of the best transitions of a Broadway hit to the big screen. First, director/writer David Swift – with credits like Pollyanna and Under the Yum Yum Tree enough to make one doubtful – had the surprising sense to film faithfully a show that had won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The other thing is Robert Morse.

His J. Pierrepont Finch is my favorite performance in any musical film. He shamelessly recreates the Broadway role with only the slightest concession to movie technique. He understands, as does the rest of the cast (though not on this level), that he’s appearing in a cartoon. His character, who climbs from window washer to the chairman of the board in a few days, following a self-help book that provides the film’s narration – should be unsympathetic. He’s manipulative and dissembling and is never seen really working (not really trying, remember?); but the boyishness of Morse himself smooths the edge off.

Morse brings a remarkable energy to his songs and his loose-limbed dancing brings James Cagney to mind. In the ensemble, “Brotherhood of Man,” in the midst of a sea of Bob Fosse choreography, brilliant scene-stealer Morse knows just how to draw the viewer’s eye, chiefly by lagging like a jazz player behind the melody just enough to seem improvisional among all the precise dancers. He alone seems spontaneous.

Does he mug? Almost constantly. His performance is basically Jerry Lewis Goes to Graduate School. Somehow, playing a ladder-climbing nogoodnik, he seems joyful – the perfect conveyer of Loesser’s lyrics, with their hidden dark side.

Famously, the big hit love song from How to Succeed is sung by Morse’s Finch…to himself in a mirror. Few scores rival this one, though like Sondheim, Loesser writes to the story. The songs that were left out (“Paris Original,” “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”) are the weakest in the show. The only loss, besides Charles Nelson Reilly, is the great “Coffee Break,” which was filmed but cut for time. Too bad it doesn’t seem to have survived to be a special feature.

Morse and Reilly, by the way, were so successful on Broadway that they made an album together, “A Jolly Theatrical Season,” in 1963.

If the name Robert Morse seems vaguely familiar to smart younger people, he played Bertram Cooper on Mad Men, a role he was cast in, in tribute to his star turn in How to Succeed. Toward the end of Mad Men’s run, Morse was given a lovely song-and-dance farewell.

Morse’s career on Broadway was a stellar one, particularly his roles in Sugar and his one-man play, Tru, in which he played Truman Capote, winning his second Tony. But his film legacy is, largely, How to Succeed. No other film caught his magic, and a few really did him no favors – Honeymoon Hotel; Quick, Before It Melts – though The Loved One and Guide for the Married Man are worthy credits. I used to feel sad that this great talent had only one film to do him justice.

But with How to Succeed finally on Blu-ray, and with Mad Men as a wonderful, Emmy-nominated coda, I can only smile.

Nice modern-day (separate) interviews with Morse and Michelle Lee are special features. No “Coffee Break,” alas.

Buy it here.

* * *

The Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa gives its mystery-writer black sheep some nice recognition.

And here’s a lovely look at Road to Perdition the film.

M.A.C.

Passings

March 21st, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Three show business figures passed away recently, and as it happens, I had passing meetings with each.

CHUCK BERRY, 90, I met at an airport where we shared a gate. He was traveling with a guitar in its case, and appeared to be alone. But it was unmistakably him. As a longtime veteran of rock ‘n’ roll, I had to have a moment. I didn’t ask for an autograph, afraid I might start trouble for him, because a lot of people obviously didn’t recognize him.

“I just want to thank you for starting it all,” I said.

He smiled and said you’re welcome, and we shook hands.

I think I said something about having played rock ‘n’ roll for decades, and he said where he was headed, though I’ve forgotten. He was quiet but friendly.

What I said to him was about right. Little Richard and other black artists of the early rock days really were r & b starting to become rock, and Elvis fell in that category as well. But Chuck Berry, with his guitar-driven rock and his teenage subject matter, was not r & b, but at the very forefront of the new genre. Pure rock ‘n’ roll.

He was playing regularly in his home, St. Louis, until very recently.

TONY ROSATO, 62, is one of the unsung heroes of SCTV. He and the great Robin Duke were in the final season of the original incarnation of the show (they both moved to SNL after). His big character on the show was TV chef Marcello Sebastiani, but he was also a fine mimic, playing Lou Costello in a memorable Abbott and Elvis Costello parody.

He had a fine career, with a lot of Canadian TV, but mental health problems took him into a tragic area in later years.

I met him at the SCTV reunion in Chicago several years ago, in a crowded lobby of fans and Second City performers. He was accompanied by a minder of sorts and was obviously feeling a little lost. He was frankly surprised when I recognized him and asked for an autograph, which he gave me, and he smiled when I told him what a big fan I was of his SCTV and SNL work.

ROBERT OSBORNE, 84, the charming and knowledgeable presenter on Turner Classic Movies, I met backstage (actually upstairs somewhere) at a theater in Hollywood. My pal Leonard Maltin was giving me a chance to meet Jane Powell and a few other celebrities at the TCM Film Festival that year. I chatted with Osborne about (this will surprise few) how cool it would be to have a Mickey Spillane film festival on TCM, as they’d already shown The Girl Hunters a few times and Kiss Me Deadly many times. He was friendly and gracious, and exactly the guy you saw on TV.

I thanked him for everything he did for classic films and for sharing his enthusiasm, and knowledge, with viewers. And I’m glad I did.

While I never met him, BILL PAXTON, 61, was a good friend of my pal Bill Mumy and appeared in “Fish Heads” (which he also directed) and other Barnes & Barnes videos. What a terrific actor, and what a devastating loss. If you’ve never watched his HBO series Big Love, you should correct that mistake.

I don’t recall meeting the great cartoonist BERNIE WRIGHTSON, who like me was born in March of 1948, but I loved his work. Decades ago, when I started realizing interesting new things were happening in comics, and that I wasn’t the only one who liked the medium, Bernie Wrightson was at the forefront.

Such passings define bittersweet – we are so lucky to have experienced the art these creators shared with us, and so unlucky to be denied any more.

* * *

For those who suspect I have become a curmudgeon where current movies are concerned, walking out more often than staying to the finish, I am pleased to report Barb and I saw a terrific movie this weekend – Get Out.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is a horror movie with darkly satiric overtones and some outright comedy that never dampens a truly creepy tale that might be described as an African-American Stepford Wives…though that doesn’t do it justice.

Remember how lousy I said the script of Kong was? And how I was chastised for expecting a monster movie to have good dialogue? Well, he’s a horror movie on a modest budget with no huge stars (but a strong cast) that not only has sharp dialogue but a well-constructed narrative that pays off everything it sets up, in a most satisfying manner.

This one I’ll be buying on Blu-ray.

* * *

The Will to Kill, the new Spillane/Collins, is getting some lovely reviews. Have you ordered your copy yet? What are you waiting for? You wanna get on Mike Hammer’s bad side? In the meantime, check out this wonderful Criminal Element review.

And here’s another great Will to Kill review, this one from the NY Journal of Books.

The new Hard Case Crime edition of Quarry’s Vote inspired this sweet review.

And Publisher’s Weekly likes Antiques Frame, due out in about a month.

Finally, once again my Eliot Ness/Batman graphic novel of some time ago is getting noticed.

M.A.C.

A Gig, a Walk-Out, and More

March 14th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

Saturday night Crusin’ played for a benefit at the River Music Experience in Davenport. The cause was music education in the Muscatine school system. This was our first gig of the year (by choice), having last played in September for my high school 50th class reunion.

It was just an hour but felt good – nice to be back on stage with the guys, and our guitarist Jim Van Winkle’s son, Teddy, played trombone with us on a couple of songs. Teddy is a music major at the University of Iowa and really tore it up. This my first time performing since lung surgery, and I was of course concerned, but had no problems with either stamina or singing.

We have about half a dozen gigs lined up through the summer and fall.

* * *

I am rather astonished to report that Barb and I walked out of a movie again, one we had been looking forward to all week. Kong – Skull Island has a high Rotten Tomatoes rating, and my pal Leonard Maltin loved it. We didn’t. The script was terrible – cringe-worthy dialogue and a ponderous set-up, and a cast that couldn’t overcome either. Tom Hiddleson, with his narrow face and slight build, is presented as some kind of bar brawler, which is unbelievable even without the notion that this makes him vital to a team going out to track monsters. John Goodman has lost so much weight, he looks ill, as if he’s wearing a baggy skin suit, and Samuel Jackson glowering at Kong and Kong glowering back has an uncomfortable racist tinge. Your results may vary, but we gave it fifty minutes before it got so stupid we couldn’t even stay to watch a bunch of characters we hated get killed.

Barb passed on Logan, but I saw it with Nate a weekend ago, and found it okay, with the trio of actors at its center (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen) strong. Self-importantly dark and almost entirely humorless, Logan also suffers from underwhelming villains in actors Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant, the former silly in his villainy, the latter hammy as an evil scientist. No Ian McKellan or Michael Fassbender in sight.

Some of you are suspecting I don’t like anything any more. But I like lots of things, mostly on TV, including lately Rowan Atkinson’s Maigret (and Michael Gambon’s and Bruno Cremer’s), the fourth season of Endeavor (the Morse prequel) and the Victoria series, though I wish it didn’t want to be Downton Abbey so bad.

* * *

My editor at Hard Case Crime, Charles Ardai, is so fast and efficient I sometimes think I’m hallucinating. Less than a week after I turned in Quarry’s Climax, he gave me edits and then galley proofs, and the book is put to bed.

No sign of a second Quarry TV season, though there’s been no official cancellation.

I am working on the non-fiction book Scarface & the Untouchable, the joint Capone/Ness bio. It promises to be major, but brother is it tough. My co-authors Brad Schwartz and George Hagenauer have written their rough draft material and gathered research, and now I’m up to bat.

Looks like the manuscript could be in the 1200 – 1500 page range. Like we say in the funnies, gulp.

* * *

Now in Paperback!

If you are going to Bouchercon this year, and have been sent an Anthony ballot, and like my work enough to be reading this, here’s a reminder of what’s eligible:

Road to Perdition: The New Expanded Version, paperback original.
The Nate Heller novel, Better Dead, hardcover.
Quarry in the Black, paperback.
Murder Never Knocks, hardcover.
Antiques Fate, hardcover.
A Dangerous Cat,” Hammer short story in the Strand.

* * *

The Will to Kill is out and I hope some of you have already bought this new Mike Hammer by Mickey and me, and that the rest of you will do so soon. We need reviews at Amazon and elsewhere, including blogs, and your participation would be much appreciated.

Michael Carlson has done a most interesting Will to Kill review in his UK column, Irresistible Targets.

Also out in (mass-market paperback) is Hammer’s last year’s performance, Murder Never Knocks. Here’s a great Ron Fortier review of it.

Finally, here’s a Quarry’s Choice audio review, very nice.

M.A.C.

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