Saturday, November 28, 2009


On an impulse last week, I picked up the new 50th anniversary edition of Alfred Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hadn't seen it in decades, and then only on commercial television, so the restored 2-disc DVD set gave me an excuse to take my first look at it in years.

It's a great movie. Or maybe that should be, it's a great movie.

That's because, watching it, it occurs to me it's as close to pure cinema as most films get. It's a confection that works only as a movie. As a novel, it would make no sense. As a television series, it would seem redundant and silly (though shows like CHUCK and BURN NOTICE owe a debt to it). On radio, it would be absurd. But as a film, it's an almost perfect merger of images and sound, expertly used to evoke emotions. It's funny, it's suspenseful, it's beautiful to look at and, despite its two-hour-plus length, it moves like lightning.

On the face of it, Hitchcock's tale of an advertising executive (Cary Grant) mistaken for a spy and chased cross-country by enemy agents, police and his own government, bears no resemblance to reality. In the first place, it's Cary Grant, not exactly the American Everyman. Secondly, the plot mechanisms that launch the chase are outlandish bordering on ludicrous. An assassination in the U.N. lobby is nearly a parody in itself, and fifteen minutes into the film, when the villains have poured a bottle of bourbon into Grant and set him behind the wheel of a sports car careening along a cliffside Long Island road, one wonders why he doesn't just pull over to the shoulder. But they're both great sequences, rich with color and detail and enhanced by Bernard Herrman's iconic score (for an earlier variation on it, check out his orchestration for Nicholas Ray's 1952 noir ON DANGEROUS GROUND).

The same applies to the film's most famous sequence, in which a crop-dusting plane chases Grant's Roger Thornhill along an empty Indiana road. It's one of the great scenes in cinema, despite the fact it makes little sense. Why lure a man out into the middle of nowhere and then try to kill him with a plane, of all things? (Not to mention, if the plane had actually hit him, it would likely have crashed). Certainly a bullet in the head and a quick drop in Lake Michigan would have been a more efficient - and cost-effective - solution. And what does "North by Northwest" mean anyway? The chase takes Thornhill south before it takes him north, though it does end, memorably, at Mount Rushmore (actually a cleverly painted studio backdrop) in South Dakota.

But in the end, none of this matters. You could say NXNW is greater than the sum of its parts, except those parts are all pretty great on their own. Eva Marie Saint is luminous as Eve Kendall, Thornhill's love interest/nemesis, delivering some pretty risque (for 1959) sexual innuendo without ever breaking eye contact. James Mason is smooth and charming as the chief villain, Martin Landau subtly menacing as his henchman, and Ernest Lehman's script is full of sparkling dialogue ("That wasn't very sporting," Mason's character deadpans at the finale. "Using real bullets.").

Few films utilized the VistaVision/Technicolor process as well as it was used here, and this restored/remastered print is a sheer pleasure to look at, with its vibrant colors and perfectly framed shots, whether they be wide masters (the many action scenes) or detail inserts (Landau's eerily blue eyes). The art direction and wardrobe are practically characters themselves - check out Eva Marie Saint's black and red dress in the Chicago auction house scene. And when was the last time you saw bright green used so well in a title sequence?

The special features on the set are excellent as well, including lengthy documentaries about Grant (a frank and forthright one), Hitchcock and the making of the film. Also included is a feature-length commentary by screenwriter Lehman retained from an earlier release (he died in 2005 at age 89). Newark, N.J., native Eva Marie Saint appears prominently in all the features and is still going strong at age 85 (she gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle about the film on Friday, and there's another recent one on Kim Morgan's Sunset Gun blog.).

In some ways, NXNW marked the end of Hitchcock's "Old Hollywood" period. It was his final film (of four) with Grant, and though he would continue to use soon-to-be-major stars (Paul Newman, Sean Connery) in his remaining seven films, it's the last gasp of the man who made TO CATCH A THIEF, REAR WINDOW and other thrillers steeped in Hollywood glamor. The next year, he would get down and dirty with PSYCHO.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I don't write many book reviews these days. I use to do quite a few during my newspaper years, but now I only dabble with the occasional freelance piece, usually for nonfiction works, such as the recent biography of actor Warren Oates. I shy away from reviewing fiction now, especially since I've had my own books published and reviewed. Part of that is karmic fear (what goes around comes around) and part is that I now realize how much work it is to actually write a book. As a result, I'm more reluctant to be critical of someone else's work (plus, the odds are greater now that I might actually bump into the author at some point).

However, while on the road the last two weeks, I read James Ellroy's new novel BLOOD'S A ROVER, the conclusion of his "Underworld U.SA." trilogy, and feel inclined to say a few things about it (coincidentally, one of my first reviews for The Star-Ledger was of Ellroy's memoir MY DARK PLACES).

First off: BLOOD'S A ROVER is long - that's looonnnnggg - topping out at 640 pages. THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, the previous book in the trilogy, published in 2001, was a little longer, but seemed to read tighter. Ellroy's writing style in BAR is probably more accessible than it was in CST - there are fewer three-and-four-word sentences filled with punchy alliteration ("The Deuce was dead. The dealers yawned. The barman yawned. Stray dogs meandered through. They beat the heat."). But Ellroy's headlong pace lags several times in BAR, and I sometimes felt myself stopping to take a breather before gathering the energy to read on.

It also feels slightly padded. Ellroy often halts the narrative to insert diary entries from his main characters. However, a lot of those entries seem to be written in the same voice, despite the fact they come from characters with varied backgrounds. At least three of them use variations on the phrase "I ride the zeitgeist" at one point or another. That is to say they speak like no one else in the world - except James Ellroy.

BAR is also a direct follow-up to CST, and if you're not familiar with the previous book, you may find yourself a little lost, even though Ellroy helpfully drops in several pages of backstory early on. BAR opens in the aftermath of the MLK/RFK assassinations, which were orchestrated by some of the major players in the trilogy, a few of whom are now seeking redemption. Others, like the French/Corsican mercenary Jean-Philippe Mesplede, who took out JFK with a shot from the grassy knoll, have moved on to other evil business, including illegal commando raids and scalping expeditions on Castro's Cuba. Rogue FBI agent Dwight "The Enforcer" Holley (a nickname recycled from Ellroy's 1992 novel WHITE JAZZ, whose main character was rogue L.A. cop Dave "The Enforcer" Klein) is regretting his career as a "right-wing thug," yet planning another assassination and setting up a likely fall guy to take the rap - and a bullet. Ex-Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow, son of a white supremacist hatemonger, is racked with guilt over his own role in the killing of MLK. And young "peeper" Don Crutchfield (a name Ellroy borrowed from a real L.A. private detective) is learning at the feet of them all. And like them, he's soon obsessed with the mysterious Joan Rosen Klein, the left-wing radical at the center of all the mysteries, who men kill and die for without ever really understanding.

Throw in Haitian voodoo, the mob, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Dominican Republic casinos, anti-Castro extremists, black revolutionaries, various psychedelic drugs and a 1964 armored car robbery that somehow sparks the whole plot and you have an idea of why it took took Ellroy 640 pages to get it all in, in a way that makes sense. Well, sort of makes sense.

Still, BAR is a James Ellroy novel, and there's only one writer in the world who can pull that off. For scope, complexity and breadth of ambition, no one else comes close. He doesn't always succeed in his efforts, but the arrogance and energy of them can be invigorating in itself. BAR would work better if it were tighter - 100 pages could have been easily chopped - but it's still unlike anything else out there.
Some other quick notes:

- The title comes from an A.E. Houseman verse ("Clay lies still/But blood's a rover"). That's also the long-announced title of Harlan Ellison's yet-to-be completed novel about the adventures of Vic and Blood, the post-apocalyptic duo from his award-winning novella "A Boy and His Dog."
- Dwight Holley is haunted by the death of George Diskant, a Nyack, N.Y., man whom Holley killed in a drunken driving accident. George Diskant is also the name of a celebrated cinematographer who shot some of greatest films noir of the 1940 and 50s, including THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, THE NARROW MARGIN, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

- Ellroy isn't always so good with technical details. He repeatedly has his characters use "silencered" Magnum revolvers. Silencers/suppressors don't work on revolvers (what law-enforcement types call "wheel guns"), much less with high-powered Magnum rounds. Any noise abatement at the silenced muzzle is more than canceled out by the blowback through the open cylinder.

Still, like him or not, if you're attempting to write serious crime fiction these days, you have to read Ellroy. His slow output and occasional stumbles aside, the Demon Dog still leads the pack.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

First reviews

Publishers' Weekly, Nov. 2, 2009
(Starred review) Gone 'til November
Wallace Stroby.
Minotaur, $24.99 (304p)
ISBN 978-0-312-56024-9

Tormented lives brutally intersect in Stroby's powerful thriller, the possible first in a new series to feature Sara Cross, the lone woman sheriff's deputy in Florida's St. Charles County. One night, Cross, a single mother who's coping with her son's leukemia and the remnants of a two-years-gone postdivorce fling with fellow deputy Billy Flynn, arrives on the edge of a cypress swamp where Flynn has just shot a 22-year-old black man from New Jersey allegedly fleeing a traffic stop. Sara tries to smother her still-simmering lust for no-good Billy, but her cop instincts drive her toward a dismaying truth that hurtles her into a violent showdown with an aging New Jersey contract killer stricken with a rare cancer. While relentlessly probing the eternal mystery of why bright and capable women fall for dangerous losers, Stroby (The Heartbreak Lounge) explores moral choices that leave his devastatingly real characters torn between doing nothing and risking everything. (Jan.)

Booklist, Dec. 1, 2009 issue
"GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER is rock-solid crime fiction that melds compelling characters, crisp writing, and a finely rendered portrait of Old Florida, the state's thinly populated, less-storied interior. Sara and Morgan, an aging career criminal who has just been diagnosed with cancer, are Stroby's best creations. Morgan is ruthless and resourceful, but he also has a quite dignity and a streak of humanity that may have readers picturing actor Morgan Freeman."

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Final cover and early words

Here's the final, slightly tweaked, cover for GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER (due out from St. Martin's/Minotaur Jan. 19), along with some very generous early responses from a trio of terrific writers:

"In GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, Wallace Stroby’s mastery of character and dialogue is mated to a hellacious narrative engine. His heroine, Sara Cross, is a wonderful creation.”
- George Pelecanos, author of THE WAY HOME and producer/co-writer of THE PACIFIC and THE WIRE

"Just when you think that you can't be surprised anymore, a writer like Wallace Stroby ups the ante, finds a way to use familiar elements in new and surprising ways. This is a first-rate novel, with characters who live on in the reader's mind long after the book is finished. I always expect great things from Stroby, and GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER is a significant addition to an already impressive body of work."
- Laura Lippman, author of WHAT THE DEAD KNOW and ANOTHER THING TO FALL

“In these days of mega formulaic blockbusters, it seems almost impossible to find a novel that not only has depth of characterization, but a compelling plot. GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER achieves both and seamlessly. The novel takes off like a freight train... the writing is a joy, full of beautiful asides, an almost weary compassion and some passages that literally break your heart. Sara Cross is a wondrous character. This novel sings, darkly and irresistibly.”
Ken Bruen, author of LONDON BOULEVARD and THE GUARDS

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Random Readings, Vol. 8

This uplifting installment of Random Readings comes from Don Carpenter's brilliant 1966 novel HARD RAIN FALLING, recently reprinted by New York Review Books. In this passage, a down-on-his-luck ex-boxer named Jack Leavitt - who's gone from orphanage to reform school to penitentiary in short order - contemplates the ironies of lust late one night on his bunk in San Quentin. HARD RAIN is only peripherally a crime novel, but this passage is a noir as it gets:

"It struck him with horrible force. His parents, whoever they were, had probably made love out of just such an itch. For fun, for this momentary satisfaction, they had conceived him, and because he was obviously inconvenient, dumped him in the orphanage; because he, the life they had created while they were being careless and thoughtless, was not part of the fun of it all; he was just a harmful side effect of the scratching of the itch; he was the snot in the handkerchief after the nose had been blown, just something disgusting to be gotten rid of in secret and forgotten. Cold rage filled him, rage at his unknown parents, rage at the life he had been given ....
Fifteen or twenty minutes on a forgotten bed between two probable strangers had given him twenty-four years of misery, pain, and suffering, and promised, unless he were to die soon, to go on giving him misery for another forty or fifty years, locked up in one small room or another without hope of freedom, love, life, truth or understanding. A penis squirts, and I am doomed to a life of death. It has got to be insanity; there has got to be a God, because only an insane God could have created such a universe."