PAINTED LADY. Joint production of Granada Television (UK) and PBS (US). Broadcast in the UK, December 1997. Two-part mini-series, approximately 3 1/2 hours without commercials. Broadcast in US on Masterpiece Theatre, April-May 1998. Helen Mirren, Iain Glen, Franco Nero, Michael Maloney, Lesley Manville, Iain Cuthbertson, Barry Barnes, Michael Liebmann, John Kavanagh. Writer: Allan Cubitt. Director: Julian Jarrold.

   From what I’ve read about this particular production, this was designed to be a showcase for Helen Mirren’s acting talents after she’d finished five years of playing DCI/Supt. Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect.

   And display them she does, with Mirren first appearing as Maggie Sullivan, a more-or-less involuntarily retired folk-rock singer staying in Ireland in the lodge house of her benefactor, Charles Stafford, then after his murder, transforming herself into a (supposedly) wealthy Polish countess Magdelena Kreschinskaá in order to enter the fast-paced world of fine art in London.

   Her objective: to track down the only painting that was stolen in the aborted robbery that turned tragically to Stafford’s death. Supporting her with the funds to begin the masquerade are her half-sister and her husband, both notables in London’s art circles, and agreeing to her plan only with amusing doubts. Her purpose: to obtain the money Stafford’s son owes a local Irish gangster, and the reason the robbery was staged in the first place.

   The actors, the photography and the setting are all top notch — a statement that includes Franco Nero as a Italian art dealer whose path crosses that of the countess in more ways than one — a fact that accounts for the rave reviews this TV mini-series has gained from most, but not all sources.

   And therein I also am in the minority. Those of us who prefer stories that make sense, that aren’t wrapped up in five minutes at the end after watching a slow and deliberately paced work of television for well over three hours, and yes, dare I say it, more bloody violence than I expected to see in a very elegant tale of high art and sophisticated people.

   The latter could be forgiven, though, if some effort had been into making a coherent whole out of a lot of very nice pieces, and I do mean mean nice. Some scenes are extremely well done. I wish I could be more positive about this, but in all honesty, I can’t.

REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:


WILLIAM G. TAPPLY – Tight Lines. Brady Coyne #11. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1992. Dell, paperback, 1993.

   I like the Brady Coyne books. This isn’t bis best, but it isn’t bad, either. One of Coyne’s wealthy clients (for those of you not familiar with the series, he’s a lawyer whose specialty is ministering the needs of the very wealthy) is dying of cancer, and hires him to find her estranged daughter.

   She hasn’t seen or heard from her in a decade or more (for reasons she doesn’t understand) and wants both to be reconciled, if possible, and to take care of some complicated estate matters. Coy Coyne tries to avoid the chore, but eventually acquiesces.

   He locates her residence, but she is not there. The girl is a card-carrying neurotic, Coyne discovers, with several past and present older lovers to her credit, plus a psychiatrist. Shortly thereafter her body is discovered in a New Hampshire pond under ambiguous circumstances. The rest is a fairly standard excursion into her past and charader, with the identity of the doer of the deed eventually discovered, and justice sort of served.

   As usual Coyne is likeable and Tapply does a good job of pacing the story. I think he’s a very competent writer, but for some reason I wasn’t able to get involved with this set of players; perhaps my mood, perhaps not. I saw the ending coming, and thought it weak and not well enough set up, but so-so. Tapply is still worth reading. Recommended, though not strongly.

– Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #2, July 1992.


Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


JAMES JONES – Some Came Running. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1957. Signet, paperback, abridged edition, 1958.

SOME CAME RUNNING. MGM, 1958. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Nancy Gates, Franklyn Farnum, Denny Miller, James Jones. George E. Stone . Written by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman. Directed by Vincente Minnelli.

   As I read this I kept wondering if it was indeed a Great American Novel — on the order of Look Homeward Angel or Sometimes a Great Notion — and when I finished I had to conclude: Not quite, but you can see it from there.

   I was prompted to read the original full-length edition by George Kelley’s article which I recommend to your attention. Running covers a few post-war years in small-town mid-America (1947 to 1950 to be exact) and it captures a sense of ordinary people struggling to come to terms with their lives in the midst of the post-war boom — and mostly failing.

   The center of the novel is Dave Hirsch, a late-arriving veteran home from the wars, failed writer and a perennial ne’er-do-well. Inadvertently returning to his home town of Parkman Illinois, he quickly manages to become the center of local gossip by insulting his respectable brother Frank (who sent him away years ago with five bucks to make his start in life) and hooking up with ’Bama Dillert, a local gambler and all-around low-life, who is also one of the greatest creations in 20th century fiction.

   There are in fact, quite a few all-around low-lifes in Running: easy women, feckless young men, town tramps and unredeemed bums, all observed by Jones with a passionate objectivity that makes them real and poignant on the page. There’s also Parkman’s “better element”: the upwardly mobile Frank and his family, a minor poet and his college professor daughter, local politicos and landed gentry—not merely background characters, but vital parts of a vivid and complex story.

   In fact there are no minor characters in Some Came Running, or damn few, anyway, and this is the novel’s greatest strength. When Jones brings someone on stage, he brings on a person, not a character. His people are complex, ambitious, troubled, and all too prone to screw up their lives. And when they converse, it’s a real conversation: rambling, lengthy, and real-sounding.

   Which may be one reason why the novel flopped; all that depth and realism takes a lot of ink to put across: 1266 pages of it in fact, a daunting prospect for any but the most avid reader. The main problem with the book though, is that it’s a bit of a downer; without giving away too much, let me just say that most of the characters manage to mess up their lives pretty thoroughly, and by the end Jones’ gloomy outlook actually starts to seem somewhat gratuitous — as if he were trying for Melancholy and overshot the mark rather badly.

   Along the way though, there’s some damn fine writing: a searing love story, a compelling look into the mind of a writer and the creative process, a road trip to make Kerouac envious, and an overall structure that keeps the reader hooked and wanting more. Despite its flaws and overall despondency, Some Came Running has a lot to reward the patient reader willing to risk a bout of clinical depression at book’s end.

   MGM filmed this in 1958 and, scenting profit but wary of a bespoke flop, Signet put out an abridged edition with pictures of the movie stars on the back cover. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin described the paperback as “brutally abridged” but it ain’t that bad. And at 620-some pages, it’s hardly a negligible read. I found that it cut a lot of the depth from Jones’ novel, but it added a certain momentum and focus. You needn’t be ashamed of reading it, if you don’t feel like mortgaging your summer with the unabridged text.

   I suspect MGM bought the book sight unseen after the success of From Here to Eternity and only belatedly realized they had Moby Dick on their hands. Nothing daunted, producer Sol C. Siegel (whose credits range from the 1930s Lone Ranger serial to Ben-Hur) hired a Pulitzer-winning writer and a gagman for the Marx Brothers to wrest something commercially acceptable out of it, ensured box-office returns by casting Sinatra, Martin and MacLaine, then wisely hired Vincente Minnelli to balance the artistry and melodrama as only he could—and oh yes: they slathered a wonderful Elmer Bernstein score all over it to accentuate the moody quality of the thing.

   Any film based on a book like this is bound to cut something out, and this one cuts more than its share. The result is a fine drama, with here and there a line or two from the book. Writers Patrick and Sheekman change the ending with a cavalier attitude, but more than that, they make subtle but important changes to the characters and overall tone of the tale. Dave Hirsch in the book is fat, awkward and a born follower. In the film, he’s “Ladies and gentlemen…. Frank Sinatra!” cool, self-assured, with a stacked deck of smooth lines he deals out with the assurance of a Big Star. Dean Martin is ideal as “Bama Dillert — one of the best bits of casting Hollywood ever did — but the biggest change comes in the character of Ginnie Morehead.

   In the book, Ginnie is… well, instead of me doing all the work, why don’t you pick up a thesaurus and look up “dull”, “bland”, “repellent”, and maybe “loathsome.” You got it. Shapeless, shallow and intellectually lazy, she garners some sympathy at first as we see her, obviously starved for affection, sadly giving out sex for a few minutes of something that looks a little like love. As the book progresses though, she becomes less of a waif and more of a shrike. By novel’s end, you may actually hate her.

   But that’s in the book. In the Movie, she’s Shirley MacLaine at her best: vibrant, vulnerable, and carrying the greatest purse ever in the Movies. This is more than just a Star Performance; it’s a concept that radically transforms the story.

   To say they changed the ending here, is a bit like saying Custer had a bad day, but the alterations are completely in keeping with the moody tone of the film itself. Where the folks in Jones’ novel seek acceptance and find alienation, the characters in the movie seek love and find acceptance. Important characters in the book die alone, but in the film death brings them together.

   I don’t know how Jones felt about the movie (he has a bit part in it.) Maybe he felt betrayed, maybe he was just glad to get the money. But Some Came Running is an easy film to enjoy.

P. D. JAMES – The Lighthouse. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover. First US Edition, 2005.

   I won’t dignify these comments by suggesting they in any way constitute a review. I’ve read only five pages and looked at the sixth, and that’s as far as I’m going to go. I hit a cropper on page five. What you will read below constitutes all but the first sentence of a paragraph taking up most of the middle of that page.

   Commander Adam Dalgleish is in a briefing room with several other governmental officials about the investigation he is about to be put in charge of:

   […] To have the security services involved was always a complication. Dalgleish reflected that the secret service, like the monarchy, in yielding up its mystique in response to public enthusiasm for greater openness, seemed to have lost some of that half-ecclesiastical patina of authority bestowed on those who dealt in esoteric mysteries. Today its head was known by name and pictured in the press, the previous head had actually written her autobiography, and its headquarters, an eccentric, oriental-looking monument to modernity which dominated its stretch of the south bank of the Thames, seemed designed to attract rather than repel curiosity. To surrender mystique had its disadvantages; an organization came to be regarded like any other bureaucracy, staffed by the same fallible human beings and liable to the same cock-ups. But he expected no problems with the secret service. The fact that MI5 was represented at middle-grade level suggested that this single death on an offshore island was among the least of their present concerns.

   I submit you that this is English, that it does make sense, but when my eyes hit this passage, all it did is make my head spin.

   I did go on and take a look at page six, as Dalgleish continues to be filled in on the case and its significance. Most of the page consists of single paragraph almost twice the size of this one.

   This is a hardcover copy of the first American edition that I have in hand, and in perfect condition. It must have been sent to me as a review copy, as I doubt that I would have purchased it on my own. The list price is $25.95, and it is 335 pages long, not nearly as some novels today, but long enough to get your money’s worth, you would think and perhaps you do.

   I came across it yesterday while cleaning off the stairs to my upstairs study, and since I have never [truth be told] never been able to read a P. D. James novel before, I decided that selling it on Amazon would bring me in a small but tidy sum.

   Wrong! The going price for hardcover editions of this book is 98 cents. And up, of course, but since Amazon takes 15% off the top and provides sellers only $2.64 for mailing the book out, I couldn’t see listing the book there at a competitive price only to lose money. (Postage alone, even without the cost of packing materials, would set me back at least $3.22.)

   You do the math. Of course my copy is a First Edition, which in days past might have meant something, but not any more. Most sellers do not describe their wares on Amazon in any detail whatsoever. I suspect that the one offered at the 98 cent level may even be a Book Club edition. Obviously most buyers do not care.

   I will donate this book to my local library for their next Friends of the Library sale. I thought I’d give it a trial run before I did so, but the next person who buys it is on their own.

THE LADY VANISHES. BBC, UK, made-for-TV movie. First broadcast: 17 March 2013. Tuppence Middleton, Keeley Hawes, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Sandy McDade, Pip Torrens, Stephanie Cole, Gemma Jones, Benedikte Hansen, Jesper Christensen, Selina Cadell, Tom Hughes, Alex Jennings. Screenplay: Fiona Seres, based on the novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Director: Diarmuid Lawrence.

   The original version of this film, the one done by Alfred Hitchcock back in 1938, is generally considered to be a classic, and with one or two reservations, I think rightly so. There was an earlier remake of the movie in 1979 with Cybill Shepherd, Elliott Gould and Angela Lansbury, but I’ve never seen it. (I’ve been tempted, but should I?)

   The basic story is this, in both the Hitchcock version and this most recent one. A young girl gets on a train somewhere in eastern Europe, having been hit on the head before boarding. With her as a companion is a lady she’s just met who’s also heading back to England, after having worked as a governess for a wealthy family in that country for several years.

   After having tea together, they go back to their compartment, the girl falls asleep, and when she awakens, the lady is gone. She has vanished completely, without a trace.

   The other passengers in the compartment claim they have never seen her, including a sinister looking baroness. Even worse, no one else on the train says they saw her either. What comes next is the crux of the tale, including a good-looking young man who comes to the assistance of the even better-looking young woman, and eventually even comes to believe her.

   The Hitchcock version is often described as a comedy-mystery, and I’ve never felt all that comfortable with many of the scenes that that are meant to be amusing. In contrast, this latest made-for-TV version is fairly serious all the way through. No Charters and Caldicott, for example, the two potty British gentlemen who claim not to have seen the missing woman on the grounds that if there is a delay, they will not get home in time for some important soccer matches.

   In their place this later version does have two dotty ladies who need to get home to attend to their roses, but their later role in the movie is negligible, unlike Charters and Caldicott.

   The underlying plot, the reason for this elaborate charade, is slightly different in the two films, and I think the later one is the better one. In neither movie does the conspiracy make sense, however. How could the perpetrators be sure that everyone else on the train would have reasons to say the had never seen the lady?

   The landscapes in the second film are more lovely (Croatia, supposedly), the scenes on the train are better filmed, as the protagonists make their way up and down the corridor. Truth be told, though, the movie may rely a little too often on visuals, leaving the viewer (at least this one) wondering on one or two occasions what happened, or why.

   The ending epilogue is a bit lame in both, so in that regard the two stories come out even. I’m glad to have seen the second. The players are all fine, although none were known to me at all before a watching. I hope this isn’t out-and-out heresy, but when it comes down to a final summing up, I enjoyed this film more than I did Alfred Hitchcock’s version, mostly because of the sinister, less humorous approach, which I suspect is closer to the book. (I’ve not read it. I wonder how many people actually have?)

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


PETER HOPKIRK – Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game. University of Michigan Press, softcover, October 1999. John Murray, UK, 1996.

   This is an adventure story, a history lesson, auto-biography, biography, a journal of a journey, and a literary detective story about one of the masterpieces of English literature and world literature, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Like the author I will not debate the political or racial implications of the novel that takes place in the heyday of the British Raj. This is about the beloved adventure story and its origins, and the India and Northwestern Frontier where they take place, from the hold city of Benares to the Afghan border, the land of the Great Game.

   For anyone who doesn’t know, the war between the Russian and British Empire in India for Afghanistan and the riches of the Grand Trunk road and the gateway to the Far East was fought with actual battles and in the shadowy realm of espionage, dubbed by Rudyard Kipling as the Great Game.

   Kim, Kipling’s novel of half Indian Kim O’Hara, a child of the streets and back alleys of Benares; the strange Lama whose chela or student and servant he becomes and to whom he is wholly devoted; the rascally Mahbub Ali his friend and guardian, a red haired horse trader and secret agent; Colonel Creighton the mysterious head of the British Secret Service on the Indian continent, and all the rest of the motley crew young Kim O’Hara encounters is one of the most beloved books of all time.

   It has been read and influenced writers: John Buchan, Talbot Mundy, T. M. Murari, Frederic Wakeman, M.M. Kaye, T.S. Eliot, Philip Knightley, Mark Twain, …; adventurers, Wilfrid Theisger, T.E. Lawrence, Fitzroy Maclean (a model for James Bond), Patrick Leigh Fermor (the poet and wartime hero of the SOE who kidnaped a German General on Crete); and countless other boys grown to men with a taste for adventure and romance on the Grand Trunk road including a boy nicknamed for him, Harold “Kim” Philby.

   The Great Game, India, and the Raj all form the grand theme of the works of historian Peter Hopkirk, whose bestselling non-fiction recounts the exotic truth of that world with titles as evocative as Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, and Setting the East Ablaze knows Central Asia, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East like the back of his hand.

   As one who loved Kim early on, Hopkirk’s paean to the book is a joy to read. He follows Kim’s trail from the relative peace of Benares to the still hazardous and dangerous borderlands of Simla as he tracks down the true locations, and the real people Kipling used in his narrative of life and adventure in 18th century India.

   The result is not only a tribute to the book, but a detective story as he unravels history, legend, and local mythology to bring new life to a living book many of us still turn to for lessons and wisdom. Most of all it is a tribute to a land and people. As Hopkirk concludes: “… the real hero of Kipling’s masgterpiece is neither Kim nor the Lama. It is India …”

   Read this and enjoy a real detective story full of history and adventure, and the wisdom of a young boy who lived in a world so vivid we still seek to visit and recreate, a world no film can do true justice to, a world that once captivated us, and still calls to us across our lives and across time and distance.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


RED BALL EXPRESS. Universal International, 1952. Jeff Chandler, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, Judith Braun, Sidney Poitier, Jacqueline Duval, Hugh O’Brian. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   Although it has a running time just over eighty minutes, Red Ball Express nevertheless manages to pack in many of the familiar tropes of World War II films. There’s the initial backstory setting the film into its proper historical context, a demanding company leader who needs to whip a diverse group of men into a fighting shape, the against-all-odds mission. In Red Ball Express, the mission, however, isn’t so much about combating the Nazis directly as it is supplying the American troops doing the fighting.

   Directed by Budd Boetticher, this Universal-International film is a fictionalized account of the eponymous Red Ball Express, the vast truck convoy network which delivered supplies to the Allies in France after the successful landing on D-Day. The movie is in homage to those soldiers who may not have experienced much in the way of direct combat, but loaded and unloaded supplies and drove trucks through inhospitable terrain. Red Ball Express was intended to assure that these unsung heroes’ sacrifices are not forgotten.

   Jeff Chandler, in a role quite different from some of the escapist, costumer fare he starred in around the same time, portrays the tough, demanding Lt. Campbell. He’s a hard-nosed, not particularly sentimental truck driver originally from Colorado tasked with leading a unit of diverse men.

   These men, some who are experienced in trucking and some who are not, are tasked with a difficult mission. They are to drive trucks to the front lines and deliver much needed supplies to fighting units. Their battle isn’t so much directly against the Germans as against the elements, exhaustion, and their own competing desires, needs, and prejudices.

   Not only is there bad blood between Lt. Campbell (Chandler) and the unit’s second in command, Sergeant Kallek (Alex Nicol), there’s also racial tension, both real and perceived, in the unit. We this through the eyes of the sensitive Cpl. Robertson (Sidney Poitier), who believes he is the target of racial discrimination.

   All told, Red Ball Express remains a significantly above average war film. Even though it’s a short film, the primary characters are all fairly well developed, each with their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Although the film itself fits squarely into the War in Europe genre, none of the characters are mere archetypes or cardboard cutouts. They’re much better fleshed out than that, providing the viewer the feeling that, under different circumstances, these guys could have been your friends. It’s a war film with heart that doesn’t mask the horrors of war or shy away from difficult issues, quite an accomplishment in any era, but ever more so in 1952.

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