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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Classic Film Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Double Indemnity stars Fred MacMurray as Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who gets drawn into a woman's plan to kill her husband for the insurance money. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is enticing to Neff and, together, they exact a plan to kill her husband in an accident which would trigger the 'double indemnity' clause of the insurance contract they have tricked him into signing. As an insurance salesman, Neff knows what works and what doesn't. He thinks he's developed the perfect crime but one kink in the armour and the shrewd investigations of his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), throw a spanner in the works.

The tension of this film comes not from 'will they get caught' or 'who did it'. The film opens with Neff struggling into his darkened office and recording a confession for Keyes. From then all, it's all about how he got involved, how he tried to execute the plan and how it went wrong. It's about seeing how the dynamic changes between Neff and Phyllis and his growing friendship with her step-daughter, Lola (Jean Heather). Double Indemnity triumphs easily on this score: it's always interesting and small touches add to the tension throughout.

Even though the two protagonists are essentially unpleasant, the dark dynamic between them is what makes the film so good. Barbara Stanwyck was a revelation to me, having only previously seen her in the comedy The Mad Miss Manton (1938, reviewed here). There's so much going on behind the eyes that it's easy to think Phyllis is a blank but Stanwyck plays it very cleverly. MacMurray is as solid as usual and the rest of the cast fit in brilliantly.

This is definitely a classic and definitely a film I'm going to watch again. I think on second viewing I'll enjoy it even more.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Doing Enough?

It's probably unsurprising that the question I ask myself on a daily basis is 'am I doing enough?' - it's a symptom of this work ethic I seem to have developed in the last few years. Just when I think I can't add 'more' to my to-do list, I find another gear. In the last month, I've started zooming until the figures waving at me to pull over and have a sit-down are inconsequential blurs. My father's resorted to replenishing my Smarties stash without complaint and knocking on the door every once in a while to make sure I eat proper meals. But, still, the question returns, usually at half past two in the morning when I can't possibly turn my mind off: am I doing enough?

My work diary suggests what can only be described as 'epic multi-tasking'. Since I restarted my it in January following a little hiatus I've apparently worked on two novel manuscripts (completely rewriting tens of thousands of one and indulging in some delicate rewriting on the other), written a full-length play draft, a short play draft and rewritten half a single television drama script draft. I've also got more things out at submission that I've had for literally years: two novels to competitions (different to the above), a script and two short stories. In the next two weeks I hope to add two more scripts to that and a novel (yes, another different one) to another competition. And I keep discovering things I want to enter. That's on the writing side of things. On the academic side, I deleted 8000 words of my fourth thesis chapter and drastically rewrote it (with success, I believe) and I'm currently in the process of drastically rewriting the first thesis chapter I wrote way back in 2011-12 (currently up to 9000 words on that). I've been doing detailed research for two essays I hope to write in the near future, doing some Collins biography work to get my facts completely straight and I've submitted two abstracts, one for a conference and one for an edited collected. Usually, when I hop from one project to another, I don't get much done of anything  but the last two months have defied that formula.

But, still, the question remains: am I doing enough? I think the fact is that I'm never going to believe I am. I mean, how long's a piece of string? What's enough? Do you quantify 'enough' by only doing what you 'have' to? In that case, all my writing's redundant. Or do you judge it by the amount of work you'd 'like' to do? Under that glare, I fail completely. I've made a conscious decision to do as much as mentally and physically possible in 2014, and I think I've stuck to that resolution in the first two months of the year. But, no, I don't feel like I'm doing 'enough' because my expectations of myself are ridiculously high. What's the point if they aren't? There's a wonderful line in Merrily We Roll Along's 'Old Friends' from writer Charley that sums up my feelings: 'Well, what's the point of demands you can meet?' Really, what is the point? It means you're not pushing yourself and I am determined to push myself.

Perhaps I'm asking the wrong question. Perhaps it's not 'am I doing enough?' Perhaps it's 'am I doing too little?' that will satisfy me that I'm not failing. That one I can almost always answer with a resounding 'NO'!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Classic Film Review: The Bishop's Wife (1947)

The Bishop's Wife stars Cary Grant as Dudley, an angel who answers a call from Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) who is desperate to arrange funding for his new cathedral. He has been grovelling to wealthy Mrs Hamilton (Gladys Cooper) who is adamant that her late husband's legacy should be immortalised in the building, however illogical that may seem. On the outskirts of this is the bishop's wife, Julia (Loretta Young). She and her daughter are frequently sidelined by Henry's myopic business head. Not only is he losing the devotion of his wife but his religion seems to be lacking too. Just what is Dudley here to fix and will he get too close to Julia?

This was a charming film, showcasing Grant as his best. He gets plenty of opportunities to deliver brilliant lines and react to them, bouncing well off all the cast, especially Elsa Lanchester as Matilda the maid. Apparently, the first intention was to have Niven playing the agent and Grant the bishop - switching them was genius. Niven's performance as the harried bishop is stiff and proper, perfectly in keeping with the role. It's difficult to see them the other way round. Loretta Young is good as Julia, contrasting her hopeless distraction at the beginning of the film with the way she comes alive when she meets Dudley. Also watch out for James Gleason in a small role as a taxi driver and Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge, an old friend of the Broughams who is foxed by Dudley. There's a particularly delightful scene involving an ever-replenishing glass played to just the right effect.

Obviously, it's a fluffy film. Set at Christmas, it has the undeniable air of that season around it with ice-skating, snow and shopping. However, it's still very pleasant, a nice little foray into the unreal. Cary Grant doesn't play Dudley as very different to the humans he helps, only all-knowing and with a sense of humour. The Bishop's Wife can't be easily categorised as a 'fantasy' film - it doesn't have the air of the fantastical hanging around it. Instead, it's a good light comedy about human nature and what you need over what you want.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Book Review: Intersection by Nancy Ann Healy

Intersection tells the story of Alex Toles, an FBI agent assigned to protect Congressman Chris O'Brien's ex-wife and son following the delivery of some suspicious letters. Alex soon learns that there is much more going on than meets the eye and becomes embroiled in political conspiracies. Added to her problems is the fact that she has quickly fallen for Cassidy O'Brien, making her desire to protect Cassidy and her son Dylan as much personal as professional.

The plot of this novel works really well. It's intriguing, fast-moving and with enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested. Healy has certainly mastered the use of cliffhangers, employing them to great effect throughout. She's also adept at cryptic dialogue, forcing you occasionally to struggle to keep up with what's going on. Some of the twists were expected, some weren't, and she often manages to build suspense by giving the reader knowledge the protagonist doesn't have. The cliffhanger at the end of the book to lead into a sequel is fine because the main tension of the book, the danger posed to Cassidy by a stalker, has been rectified. All that works well.

Similarly, the characterisation of Alex and Cassidy is excellent, although the love story is a little rushed at the beginning. They are different enough to spark off each other and I came away from the book thinking of them as real people. Dylan, the young son, is also well-drawn, not coming across as a cardboard cut-out the way some children in fiction do. Possibly my favourite character, though, is Cassidy's mother, Rose, simply because she's so grounded and practical.

All that said, I did have a few issues with the composition of the book. There's an intermittent problem where the tags after speech are wrongly capitalised (eg, 'Yes,' He said.) which is distracting. Equally, there's a little too much 'the agent', 'the teacher' identification throughout which was unnecessary and could easily have been remedied. Healy needs to keep a tighter grip on her prose, checking for repetitions within sentences and ditching some of the more obvious clich├ęs.

I don't mean these to be criticisms so much as helpful observations. As I said above, I enjoyed the book as a whole - it kept me hooked despite the problems with the composition. I would like to see Healy improve and I will certainly be reading the sequel when it's released.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Axed - The Paradise

Learning that The Paradise has been axed, I have to say, I wasn't too surprised. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot. I reviewed the first series on here but didn't have time to review the second. The thing is, the second series seemed much less ordered than the first. By the end of it, with Denise (Joanna Vanderham) starting her own business away from the department store, there was a sense of fragmentation. And, also, I'm afraid, of things having progressed a little too quickly with Denise going from shop girl to department head to running her own business with undue haste.

I think the resolution of Miss Audrey's (Sarah Lancashire) storyline in the first two episodes of series two was a real problem for the programme as a whole. However, it was nice to see her ride off into the sunset with Edmund (Peter Wight). Then again, his dithering and returning, obviously giving Denise something of a safety net in her uncle, was a little demeaning to their happily-ever-after. It just accentuated the sense of fragmentation I got throughout the series, along with plots and schemes piled on top of one another. I found the really interesting characters - Clara (Sonya Cassidy), for one - got their screen time but they deserved much more. Equally, I enjoyed Katherine's (Elaine Cassidy) difficult relationship with her new husband and step-daughter but it melted under the conspiracy plot.

When I reviewed the first series it was on a week night and I suggested it was typical Sunday night fare. They did move it for the second series but put it on at 8pm - not exactly what I had in mind. It works for Call the Midwife because that programme has a devoted following but a lot of people watching live just skip over the 8pm slot and tune in later as this household does. Perhaps it was too late to save The Paradise after lacklustre first series figures caused by dodging scheduling. It's a shame but, as I said, not unexpected.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

'Opening Doors' - Saving My Sanity?

Yesterday, I was having a bad day. I felt unwell and the weather was absolutely dreadful. My umbrella had an argument with the wind five minutes after I arrived into Sheffield so I gave that up as a bad job. There was nothing for it but to get soaked through and live with it. Needless to say, I was a little irritated. Until I wasn't.

I walk a rather odd route up to university, deliberately to avoid crowds and people. When I'm in a bit of a state, as I usually as when I get to Sheffield, the last thing I want to do is walk past people. I was getting lashed by the rain, crossing a road, when the song on my iPod changed.

'Opening Doors' from Merrily We Roll Along is one of my favourite songs of the moment. It has been ever since I saw the show last July. It helps that it comes towards the end of the show, allowing you to recover from what's come before. Coupled with 'Our Time', it allows Merrily to end on an almost happy note. Certainly always has the effect of spurring me on to work. I've never yet come away from this show without the desire to write. It's the jolt I need whenever I get that nagging feeling I'm not a good writer. It helps remind me that I am and how much hard work it takes to get other people to recognise that.

So there I am: soaked to the skin, on a fairly deserted street in Sheffield, with 'Opening Doors' blaring in my ears. What do I do? That's right. I start singing. Loudly. Because at that point I don't care who knows how crazy I am. What mattered most was getting me through that tortuous walk and reminding me that, just maybe, I can be a success after all. Not bad, Mr Sondheim. Not bad at all.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Rediscovering Charlotte Mew

When I picked my undergraduate dissertation topic (a scary number of years ago now), I startled myself. You see, my plan had been to research Virginia Woolf. I'd read Mrs Dalloway during my second year and I was in a modernist phase. In the event, and not really knowing how I came across her, I alighted on Charlotte Mew. I have no memory of how I got from Woolf to Mew - or even why - but it seemed to be a damn good decision. 

I think there are certain moments in your life when you need to cling onto a writer because they offer a sense of security or allow escapism. My third year at university was such a time. Although I'd finally made a friend and found myself actually talking to people, I was living in a house with fourteen strangers who didn't have my sense of being respectful to others. Looking back now, I wonder that one of them didn't get pushed 'accidentally' down the stairs. Anyway, the point is, while I did literally all of my essay and dissertation writing on campus because I hated spending time in the house, the reading was something I did on my bedroom floor.

It was an attic room, a long thin space, and the only reason I'd jumped head-first into a house share. It was gorgeous and I loved it. One afternoon, not long after the household had been fined for a party (which I'd left the county overnight to avoid) I finally knuckled down to reading Charlotte Mew's poetry. I'd done all of the background reading, including Penelope Fitzgerald's wonderful biography, but I'd struggled to find the right 'moment' to properly analyse Mew's poetry line by line. As I read it aloud, the racket from the rest of the house disintegrated. I was sucked in.

I've previously said on this blog that 'Rooms' is my favourite Mew poem - and that's true. But I also mentioned in that post that 'The Trees Are Down' ranks up there too. For some reason, when I think of that afternoon, it's the poem that comes back to me most sharply. I read it over and over, making unnecessary notes in the margins that I don't think I ever looked at once I'd written my dissertation.

Until yesterday, that is. On one level, the poem is about turning points, change. Just at the moment I'm trying to find my courage, just as I had to back then. The poem has the same peculiar resonance it had then. I can only hope it soothes me now as much as it did seven years ago.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Busy, Busy

Apologies for the lack of activity on here this week. 'Hectic' pretty much covers it, and not really the kind of hectic that makes for engaging blog posts. Haven't finished any books, haven't watched any classic films - actually the only things I've really watched are odd episodes of Coronation Street while I eat. The most frustrating thing of all was that this week most things I'd been working towards fell apart. Deadlines were shifted: great, you say, but not when I've worked myself into a really bad state already to get something fit for that deadline. Plans were altered, giving me a weekend to myself but, honestly, I'm just annoyed that people keep moving the damn goalposts. I like to know where I am and this week has offered anything but that.

On Monday my father took a day off work so we could take my grandmother to the bank - why is it when you're 90, institutions like banks insist on dragging you in to request a simple chequebook because you can't use the phone and they don't seem to be able to deal with a power of attorney form? As ever, my grandmother lingered at the counter to tell everyone I was her daughter. Really, if it looks like that is the case I want to sue my genes; no offence, Gran.

The rest of Monday was thesis grind. Tuesday was also thesis grind with a little interlude for the gym to stop me breaking my computer. Then, having got to midnight, I switched into writing mode to work on a script extract I'd decided I needed to rewrite before I submitted it (and I needed to submit it fast). On Wednesday I got the news that my supervisor meeting had been cancelled so there no need to me to zombify myself over the last few days. Instead of rushing to complete the chapter as I'd intended, I did an afternoon of biography work, my effort to make sure that the groundwork of my thesis is solid and that I haven't got any Wilkie Collins information wrong. Then my evening was spent finishing up the play extract, getting it polished for submission and packaging it up. Another night when I said hello to 2am.

Thursday was a day of contrasts. In spite of my supervisor meeting being cancelled, I had to travel to university to return a book someone had requested. If that sounds like I'm a little bitter...well, I was. If I'd known my meeting was cancelled earlier I might have arranged my whole week so my head wasn't buzzing constantly. However, Thursday was lightened by a short spell looking after my twin nieces (who are five this month, unbelievably). Watching Matilda with one little girl who was trying to make herself vomit by swirling around and another one who wanted to tell me everything that was happening before it happened, and as though I'd never seen it in my life, was rather delightful. When I got back I decided to take a final run at that thesis chapter and, around 1am, the draft was finished. The fact that it's of an epic length doesn't really bother me at the moment. I'm taking a short hiatus.

The unexpected freeing up of my weekend, coupled with my determination to get that work done last night, has given me a rare opportunity - a weekend where three straight days can be devoted to writing. I'm switching projects again, though merely because I'm submitting an extract of one novel in a few weeks and I need the rest to be of a decent standard in the near future. It's not me flitting around aimlessly from project to project (the thing I've vowed against this year) but a necessary alteration in path. Unfortunately, as 'Liz' takes priority, 'Lauren' will have to shrink back into the woodwork for a while. Frustrating, since we were getting somewhere.

Still, a weekend of writing with some fantastic films as rewards? Not shabby. I'm thinking of a Cary Grant double-bill: Monkey Business with Ginger Rogers and Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn. You don't get much funnier than that.

And that, dear readers, is what I've been up to this week.