School finally started around these parts. My daughter has been out of school, or at least not physically attending school since March. COVID shut her classes down after Spring Break. She was getting some form of online education a few weeks after that but it was clear everybody was just winging it. We have elected to keep her home this year as well, but the school seems much more prepared this time around. Still, it will be a challenge.
It seems like I’ve been talking about COVID and its effect on my life forever. That always seems weird since this is supposed to be a column about the great and interesting art I’ve consumed over the week, but the virus has affected every aspect of my life, including the art I get to enjoy. I don’t know how my daughter going back to school will affect how I consume movies, books, and music. It didn’t affect it that much this week, which is what we’re here to talk about. So let us get to it.
The High Window
I watched Murder My Sweet, the 1944 movie starring Dick Powell and Claire Trevor the other day. It is based on the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely. It is a pretty good movie, though I’ll always prefer Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe than anybody else. That got me in the mood for more Chandler so I picked up my copy of The High Window and plowed through it this week. I’ve spoken many times about my love for detective fiction and Chandler was the master. He didn’t invent hard-boiled crime stories, but he perfected them.
As I write this, I’m realizing I never finished reading Farewell, My Lovely. I mean I’ve read it before, but I started it again a few months ago and didn’t finish it. I think I must have laid the book down and then my wife or daughter picked it up and shelved it and I forgot to return to it. I do that sometimes. I have a bad habit of picking up books and then scattering them through the house. I’m always reading multiple books at a time and sometimes they get dropped. I think I shall have to find it and finish it soon.
The High Window is the third novel Chandler wrote. Like all of them, it features Phillip Marlowe, the rugged, wise-cracking private detective who sticks to his own code. It begins with a rich, old, cranky woman asking him to find a rare coin that was stolen from her. But like most of Chandler’s work, it twists and curves and wanders through an assortment of fascinating characters from the seedier side of the city. Honestly, his plots are so convoluted I rarely understand everything that is happening and I never care. It is the same here. He even does something of a long explanation at the end but I couldn’t tell you who did what if you paid me. And again, I really don’t care. His writing is so sharp, so joyous to read I just love reading it no matter what happens.
I do love detective fiction but I’ve never fallen in line with Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read several of his stories, but they almost always leave me cold. The trouble I have with them is that Sherlock is too clever for his own good. He walks into a room and immediately knows everything about everything. It is kind of fun to see how he can immediately deduce that someone he has never met before used to have a French seamstress when he was a boy by the scar behind his left ear, but that does not a good story make. I did enjoy The Hound of the Baskervilles, the only non-short story I’ve read involving the character, but that may have been because Sherlock is absent for most of the story’s action leaving Doctor Watson to do most of the work.
But while I don’t enjoy the books, I do find that I quite like his cinematic adaptations. I don’t know why. I suppose they tend to fill out the stories more, or perhaps the trick of Holmes’ deductions work better visually than on the page. Based upon a book series by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes focuses on the titular character who is the sister of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve not read the books but the trailer for this film looks delightful. It stars Millie Bobbie Brown as Enola, who gets up to her own detecting after her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) disappears. Henry Cavill plays Sherlock. I can’t wait.
The Sign of the Cross
This drama from 1932 starring Frederic March and Claudette Colbert from director Cecil B. DeMille may be the most notorious pre-Code movie ever. It bills itself as a Biblical epic but they seem to have thrown God in just to get all the raunchy stuff past the censors. Colbert takes a bath in a giant marble tub filled with goat’s milk, naked ladies are tied to stakes and attacked by alligators, Christians are eaten by lions and apes, little people fight giant women, etc. and so on. It is hard to believe this film ever got made, much less in 1932. It is a spectacle and a half and loads of fun. You can read my full review here.
Death on the Nile (2020)
My wife and I lived in Strasbourg, France many years ago. We had a friend who lived in Paris and since he was spending the holidays with his family in Spain, he offered us his flat, which is how we spent Christmas in Paris that year. It was one of the best weeks of my life. Every day, we got up relatively early in the morning and would spend the entire day walking around seeing all of the sites. We get back to the flat around 6 or 7pm that evening completely and utterly exhausted. Our friend didn’t have a television and we didn’t bring any electronic devices, so we’d spend our evenings reading.
I had recently bought a couple of Agatha Christie novels (Murder on the Orient Express & Death on the Nile) and devoured them. I’m not a huge fan of Christie’s work. I prefer the down and dirty murders of guys like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to the bloodless drawing-room crimes of the likes of Christie, but I quite liked these two novels. They were the perfect reading at the end of those long days.
Christie’s novels tend to work like puzzles. A crime is committed and the detective must piece together clues to solve it. Those two books were really well put together. I’ve seen at least three cinematic adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express including the recent one from Kenneth Branaugh. I’ve not loved any of them. The trouble with that story is that once you learn how the murder was committed there isn’t much more too it. Also since it almost entirely takes place on a train there isn’t much you can do visually speaking.
I’ve seen one or two adaptations of Death on the Nile so you would think I’d have little interest in yet another one. However, unlike Murder on the Orient Express, I don’t actually remember how this one ends. Or much about it at all other than it has Hercule Poirot visiting Egypt, solving some murders. Branaugh once again is in the director’s chair (and donning Poirot’s mustache) while Gal Gadot, takes the lead. Armie Hammer and Rose Leslie also star. The trailer looks beautiful and I figure if nothing else we’ll get some nice visuals of Egypt. And in this time of quarantine that might be enough.
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
In 1973, the stalwart British studio Hammer was in a decline. Their particular brand of horror was out of fashion and they were failing to find a new way to bring in audiences. At the same time, Chinese studio Shaw Brothers was banging out the newest genre craze, Kung-Fu. It seemed perfectly natural, in the weirdest possible way, that these two studios would come together to create an incredibly wacky if not all that good mashup.
A Daoist priest finds Dracula’s castle where the evil bloodsucker has been trapped for who knows how long. He comes to ask Dracula to help him command seven golden vampires. Drac says yes, then turns himself into the monk. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing is a professor of vampirology and lectures bored Chinese students on those seven vampires. Eventually, Cushing and a crew of others take off to Transylvania to kill Dracula and rid the world of golden vampires.
Or something. Not a lick of the plot makes any sense despite there being a whole lot of nothing but people walking around laying down lots of exposition. The vamps versus kung-fu fighters are handled well. There is lots of kicking, punching and axe-throwing. Old Cushing gets into it a little bit, waving a torch around from time to time. None of it is particularly good, but it is goofy and weird. It is well worth watching if you are into that sort of thing.
Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020)
The movie world awoke to a shock this morning, Chadwick Boseman star of such films as 42, Message from the King and Black Panther was dead. He’d lost his battle with cancer, a terrible disease hardly anyone knew he was suffering with. It is a great loss to cinema. May he forever rest in power.