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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Classic Film Review: An Inspector Calls (1954)

Based on the J.B. Priestley play, An Inspector Calls stars Alastair Sim as Inspector Poole, a mysterious detective who intrudes on a well-respected family in 1912 to inform them of the death of a poor girl. It transpires that all of the family knew the girl in some form or another, leading to secrets spilling out and the younger members of the family becoming convinced that things are irreparably altered for them. The film also stars Arthur Young as Mr Birling, Olga Lindo as Mrs Birling, Eileen Moore as Shelia, Bryan Forbes as Eric, Brian Worth as Gerald Croft and Jane Wenham as Eva Smith.

This is a brilliantly successful adaptation of the play which, while remaining faithful to the text, intersperses the dialogue with flashbacks to alter the location somewhat. It's a trade-off - you sacrifice watching the reactions of the characters for a little variety in setting - but it works. It assists what is otherwise a very static piece of writing to become a very good piece of cinema.

This was my first experience of Alastair Sim in a dramatic role and, actually, I'm wondering if he was wasted in all those comedies. He inhabits the character of the inspector so thoroughly that I won't be able to think of the role again without linking him to it. Sinister yet congenial, it's a fantastic performance that is easily the highlight of the film. That isn't to say, however, that the other actors are inferior. I particularly enjoyed Bryan Forbes as Eric, who has to run through a lot of emotions during his time on screen, and Eileen Moore as Shelia.

There are niggles, of course. Some of the flashbacks went on a little too long and the music jarred at times. Even so, this is an excellent adaptation of an excellent play, definitely worthy of a viewing.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Emotion Overload

The novel rewrite I'm working on at the moment is a tricky one. Of course, I didn't realise it was a tricky one until I got about 10,000 words into it. That was about the moment when I understood the mood I was going to have to get into it in order to make this story work properly. It needed resonance, emotional power. I've got through six drafts with this one but I knew there was something missing. It could be that I just didn't want to go to the place it took me to, but now I don't have much of a choice. Because, after all, if something is this painful to write then some good must be coming out of it, one way or another.

One of the central themes of this novel is rejection, which works on several levels. It's a dual timeline narrative and to say my protagonist is damaged in the front story would be an understatement. However, it took this draft for me to realise how damaged she is in the back story too. I suppose this is what happens when you spend five years with a character - it's a slow process of revealing the layers and reaching the core. The fact that I finished the first draft of this novel in June 2010 is scary, but it's one of those I'm determined to work on until I'm happy with it. As with all my novel drafts, even if I don't get them published, I want something that I'm eager to read every now and then.

As ever, I took refuge in music to work out what's going on with my protagonist. There are a couple of songs that fit where I'm heading with this story and how she reaches the end she does. One of those is 'Reason to Believe', my favourite version of which is by the wonderful Bobby Darin.

"If I gave you time to change my mind,
I'd find a way and I'd leave the past behind,
Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried,
Still I'd look to find a reason to believe..."

The other song, unsurprisingly, comes from one of my favourite musical scores, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. It's one of the most gut-wrenching songs I've ever heard and Bernadette Peters makes you feel every spasm of pain. In the end, the conclusion my protagonist comes to is that, once anger fades, the emotion it was concealing still remains. Because time heals everything except...

I'd better get back to work. If I don't finish this rewrite soon I'm going to be a wreck.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Classic Film Review: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate stars Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw, a former Korean POW who has been brainwashed into becoming a political assassin. On his return from combat, he was awarded the highest military honour available, something his mother Mrs Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and Senator John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) are pleased to shout from the rooftops. They're waging a war against potential communists in positions of power, though Eleanor is very much the driving force. The trouble is, Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is having flashbacks of his POW experience with Raymond Shaw where he seems to recall Shaw killing two members of the team and casts doubt on the heroic feats that gained Shaw his medal. Marco feels like he's going mad but a chance encounter convinces him he's right. From then on, his aim is to work out what's going on with Shaw and how he can stop it. This film also stars Janet Leigh as Eugenie Rose Chaney, a woman Marco meets on a train heading to New York.

I suppose the revelation for people who hadn't already appreciated the depth of their talents would be the brilliance of both Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra. Lansbury certainly should've won the Oscar for her supporting performance that easily steals the film. The way the character develops from an enthusiastic mother to master manipulator is a brilliant evolution that feels completely natural thanks to Lansbury's subtle performance. The best scene of the film easily belongs to her, though I won't ruin it for those unfamiliar with the plot. Frank Sinatra, too, puts in a stellar performance as the tortured Marco who then drags himself back together to try and stop the assassination attempt. As a dramatic actor, Sinatra is often overlooked but his roles in this film and in From Here to Eternity (1953, reviewed here) are proof that he was more than just a musical star.

I did have a few niggles with The Manchurian Candidate, though I understood the reasoning behind them. The flashback scenes where Shaw explains how his relationship with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish) began and ended feels a little shoehorned in but, since the character becomes important very quickly, it was a necessary evil, and also allowed for another riveting Lansbury scene. Equally, Janet Leigh was monstrously over-billed, and I say that as someone who adores her in every role, regardless of the quality of the film. Her performance was excellent, yes, but her role was a small one.

Overall, this is another film that deserves all the praise. It's long but the last half an hour is a lesson in how to ramp up tension and keep it there. A fantastic film that is an intricate as it is suspenseful.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A Fresh Approach

Now that I'm in that scary limbo between thesis submission and viva I decided that a little shake up of my daily plans was in order. I've just been muddling through for the last year or so, trying to do everything all at once and getting snowed under with it all. It was only when I allowed myself the novelty of a weekend off that I realised there are better ways to split my time for the moment. I won't like it, on account of it feeling like I'm doing too little on certain days, but I'll try to stick to it where I can.

So I've got various irons in the fire as far as work goes. I'm researching several academic papers that I think I can set my mind to drafting now the thesis is gone; I've got a steady stream of short stories that I'm writing, rewriting, editing and submitting; I've got two blogs to keep ticking over; I'm hoping to stand for election in the locals in May for Yorkshire First (I forgot to mention that over here, see my other blog for details); and, of course, I have those pesky novels in various stages of rewriting. If I don't break it up a bit then I'm liable to feel more overwhelmed than I do just looking at that list. We're probably looking at something like this:

  • An admin day - Time spent on catching up with blog posts, typing up short stories ready for editing, sorting out submissions.
  • An academic day - Work on those papers I've got in mind, one at least is ready to be written straight away.
  • A short story day - For the actual writing and editing of short stories, which will entail me going to the library because that's definitely an out of office task. 
  • Two novel days - To work on whatever novel I'm beavering away on at the time. 
  • Evenings - Fan fiction or other relaxing activity that is probably not work.
  • Weekends - I can work, if I want, or I can write fan fiction or I can read. I don't have much of a social life but who needs one when you've got books? 

I know myself well enough to say that Mondays will probably be my admin day unless there's something pressing to be done in the other categories. We'll see how it goes, of course, and I might go back to muddling through very quickly. Anyway, it's worth a shot.

Here's Snowdrop with my thesis, to brighten up a dreary Monday...

Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Review: Four Stories by Alan Bennett

Four Stories compiles 'The Laying on of Hands', 'The Clothes They Stood Up In', 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' and 'The Lady in the Van' in one collection. All display Bennett's trademark humour and skills of observation whilst looking at vastly different situations. 'The Laying on of Hands' takes place at the funeral of a masseur who seemed to have some very famous clients (including the presiding vicar), all of whom are a bit concerned about his cause of death. 'The Clothes They Stood Up In' tells the story of a couple who come home from the opera to find their flat has been stripped of everything from the curtain rings and light fittings up. 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' is about a school teacher who goes to see his dying father while 'The Lady in the Van' is the true story of the woman who ended up living on Alan Bennett's drive (and you have no idea how much I'm looking forward to seeing Maggie Smith take on that role in the near future).

I thought I enjoyed the first piece in this collection, then I read the second and enjoyed it more. I wasn't as keen on the third piece but the final one easily became my favourite and left me laughing in the early hours of the morning. Firstly, 'The Laying on of Hands' is a brilliantly witty analysis of modern culture with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Both the images of celebrity and religion which Bennett depicts in this story are recognisable and there are numerous asides that showcase Bennett's peculiarly British humour.

'The Clothes They Stood Up In' explores the upheaval caused by this wholesale burglary and the way it forces Mr and Mrs Ransome to adjust, which the latter does with more success. I particularly enjoyed her connecting with the places in her vicinity which she had never contemplated visiting before. I also appreciated the resolutions of the tale and found it a very compact and fulfilling story that nevertheless says a great deal.

I think my problem with 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' was that it just didn't seem to have the same flow the others have. Quite often I got disorientated about who was saying what and where, possibly symptomatic of its roots in visual drama. Also, I disliked pretty much every character and didn't care much about them, the honourable exception being Aunty Kitty.

'The Lady in the Van' is easily my favourite piece, told with understated Bennett humour and all the more enjoyable (as cruel as that sounds) for being true. It's full of little incidents that create a grotesque picture of life inside and outside that van with Bennett's postscript adding some fascinating notes about her life and history.

All in all, this was a pretty good collection, and I'll definitely be reading three of the stories again.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Book Review: A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody

A Medal for Murder is the second book in the series of 1920s detective novels centred around the character of Kate Shackleton (of which I've read books one and four already). This one begins with Kate and her partner Jim being hired to investigate a robbery at a pawn-shop which could prove embarrassing for both the owner and his clients. She combines a trip to Harrogate to watch an amateur production of Anna and the Five Towns with delivering the news of the theft to one of the clients, but she finds the house doesn't exist. More pressingly, as she leaves the theatre later that night she stumbles over the dead body of local car salesman Mr Milner. The leading lady of the play has gone missing and a ransom note delivered and Kate soon finds herself tangled in a web of deceit that goes back to the Boer War.

As with the other books in this series, I enjoyed A Medal for Murder. I think what I especially like is the location, unsurprisingly enough. I adore being taken through Yorkshire in the 1920s and Brody is excellent at evoking both the time and place. Kate Shackleton is a very good protagonist to take us on the tour too, with a forward-thinking attitude that captures the essence of the era whilst still appealing to a modern reader.

The murder mystery itself was cleverly constructed and, though I knew the main suspects couldn't be the killer, I couldn't put my finger on who it was until Kate herself did. As with the other two novels, I enjoyed the ride and the amusing asides littered throughout the narrative. Brody's good at developing self-centred characters and there are some crackers in this novel. However, it also asks some powerful questions about guilt and responsibility, ending up ambivalent about punishment in more than one strand of the plot. That's something I noted in Dying in the Wool too and I appreciate the indecision - it makes the series feel very human.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Classic Film Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death tells the story of flyer Peter Carter (David Niven), a man who knows he's heading for death as his plane is going down and he has no parachute. He reports his situation to June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator, and they spend a few moments talking before he bails out of the plane. Unfortunately, the conductor (Marius Goring) sent to escort him to heaven loses him in the fog and Carter finds himself instead on the beach where he reunites with June. When asked, he refuses to meekly carry on his journey to heaven and appeals against the date of his death. In the 'real' world Dr Reeves (Roger Livesey) tries to save him from the hallucinations but the matter will only be solved after the appeal.

Needless to say, this film certainly deserves its reputation. It's witty, intelligent and both lovingly acted and directed. David Niven, one of the most reliable leading men of the era for me, is excellent, never too melodramatic in a film that could easily stray too far along that spectrum. Equally, Kim Hunter is beautifully reserved as June, creating a love story that the audience wants to see succeed. In fact, perhaps the word to describe this film is 'quiet', though I mean it in the best possible sense. It's quietly wonderful and delicately assembled.

The use of black and white for the heaven sequences and vivid colour for the rest is an inspired decision, particularly when, towards the end, we then get the crossover between the two. The film also uses silence effectively when the conductor appears and freezes everything. Probably my favourite scene was between Carter and the conductor as they sit on the heavenly escalator discussing potential counsels for the defence, primarily because of the dialogue. You can see this film as an easy fantasy and enjoy it that way or you can really immerse yourself in the dialogue and live every word and historical reference.

Unquestionably, this is a film I'll watch again at some point - and no doubt more than once. A classic deserving of the title.