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Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

Of course, Bram Stoker is often cited (by everyone who isn’t a serious student of the genre) as the father of Vampire fiction.  With Stephanie Meyer’s popularity, I suspect that the group of people who aren’t experts but are giving their opinion anyway is pretty big.  Hell, for all I know, Meyer’s fans might think the genre started with Anne Rice…  or with Meyer herself, and that this Dracula guy is a character from one of her unpublished novels.

At the risk of adding another non-expert voice to the discussion, I will not attempt to trace the genesis of the vampire myth in eastern European folklore (there are people who have dedicated their lives to that.  Go read their work) but will simply limit myself to expressing my thoughts about an early exponent that I happened to stumble across in my readings.

I was never specifically planning to read Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darklybut it happened to be included in Easton Press’ Horror Library, which I had signed up for (as mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for pretty editions).  It’s from 1872, which means that it predates Dracula by over 20 years, and it contains at least one story,  “Carmilla” which foreshadows the sexual overtones of Stoker’s book but focused on a lesbian as opposed to heterosexual relationship.

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

Of course, in 1872, you couldn’t really make things too explicit, but savvy readers will have known what LeFanu was talking about.  In fact, the story (more of a novella than a short story) has been adapted several times for film, always with a view for its shock value.  There’s an excellent article dealing with the film versions here (slightly, not excessively, NSFW).

Despite its notoriety, Carmilla wasn’t, in my opinion, the most memorable story in the book.  That honor has to go to “The Room in the Dragon Volant“, another novella length tale where sexual innuendo and dark motivations combine in what is essentially a modern horror/thriller framed in a Victorian writing style.  It develops slowly, but is extremely satisfying once it does.  No vampires in it, though.

The rest of the book is composed of shorter tales, of which “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, a tale of divine retribution, is also better than “Carmilla” IMO.  Satisfying and brutal– everything one needs in a horror story!

So, without opining on things I have no first-hand knowledge of, I can safely state that, while Stoker might have popularized the form, the vampire story in English literature preceded him.  And LeFanu was much braver in the use of cutting-edge, controversial elements than Stoker would ever be.

All in all, a good book, especially for those who enjoy a good haunt.

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!

Apocalypse is a Dirty Business

 

We’ve got a treat today.  Author Nick Barton is celebrating that he has a story in the Enter the Apocalypse anthology (in which our editor-in-chief, Gustavo Bondoni also has a story) by writing about the apocalypse.  We think you’ll enjoy his take on what makes the subject so effective.

 

Apocalyptic stories have always appealed to me. That sounds somewhat sinister out loud, but I can’t help it. I’m not alone, either. So many writers have shared their own cataclysmic nightmares, all brought to print, the big screen, and in video games. From nuclear fallout to monster floods, dangerous spores and chemical warfare, and nameless disasters and formless creatures, you could say we are well studied.

However, insane weather and giant comets are great, but it’s the mystery of the disaster that always gets my attention. This year alone I have read around five apocalyptic stories (not always by choice) and each one has featured its own harrowing brand of terror. Four out of the five have clear names for their horsemen, but one book, BIRD BOX keeps the nature of its horrors unknown. This is a good thing. Monsters remain scary the less you see of them. That’s why the Xenomorph in ALIEN only has a token amount of screen time. In BIRD BOX, the end of the world comes about by erratic murders. Later it becomes apparent people are going kill-crazy because they have seen something. People begin to stay indoors, boarding up their windows so they can’t look outside. It gets to the point they must wear blindfolds to navigate outdoors. Scary? Bloody terrifying. I was genuinely getting anxious while reading it, and once when I left it to get a drink I jumped at a window. I was still halfway locked inside the story. That’s immersion on a level I haven’t experienced before. BIRD BOX is simply a book you must read.

While reading BIRD BOX, it reminded me of another end of the world novel that has haunted me long after reading it. THE ROAD. Perhaps the ultimate apocalyptic novel (at least in my mind.) Nothing remains. Nothing and nobody has a name, and the reason behind the burnt world is never explained. In every story like it there’s always a glimmer of hope, but for the Man and the Boy there is no hope. Trees are falling down, what people left have become cannibals, and the sun is always snuffed by the ashen atmosphere. You really wonder what the Man and the Boy are living for. They’re heading south for the coast, but it’s clear even if they do make it, what happens next? Without an ecosystem, the planet isn’t going to last.

THE ROAD, much like BIRD BOX, also features incredibly vivid and frightening imagery. BIRD BOX’s unseen horrors drive people rabid. One of the deaths include someone getting their lips torn off. In THE ROAD, the Man and the Boy come across a campfire with a charred newborn baby on a spit. It’s dark, terrifying and disturbing, but at the same time you sympathize with the characters. You don’t hate them. Survival instinct runs hot in humanity, and in THE ROAD it really does seem like people are surviving, not because they’ve got anything to live for, but because it’s in their nature. They just have to.

Hopefully we won’t ever have to.

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCover

Nick Barton is a speculative fiction writer living in Somerset, England. His horror short story, THE LAST RESORT can be found in Wicked Tales anthology, ‘Muffled Scream: Corner of the Eye.’ If Nick has gone missing, chances are high he is living as a wood elf in Skyrim, dancing to The Beatles or watching The Lord of the Rings, again. Visit him at nickbartonauthor.weebly.com, or on Twitter @NickBarton101.

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!

Eventually, the War Ended

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Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

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The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

Book Recommendation – Siege by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here!

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Siege is a far-future SF piece in which humanity is fighting for its very survival.  From the book description at the publisher’s page, we get the following:

Threatened on all sides by enemies they can’t fight and often can’t even comprehend, the human race has taken refuge in an inhospitable corner of the galaxy. A tiny pocket of habitable space concealed by black holes and dust clouds, hiding a cluster of colonies where the last humans in the galaxy reside, preparing themselves for a war of annihilation against all comers.
Crystallia is a hidden military base that guards the access route to the colonies. The main mission of the soldiers there is to remain undetected for as long as possible, to spot any incursions from the outside and to hit them with everything in humanity’s arsenal.

No one is quite convinced that this strategy will be enough to save the colonies or even to create enough of a delay for some of the colonists to escape. The best bet for the human race is to remain concealed.

Unfortunately, something has found them.

Siege can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

If you do happen to read it, drop us a line and let us know what you thought.  You might make an editor’s day!

 

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

Ratings Don’t Lie: An Open Letter to Bernie Ecclestone

Who says the epistolary narrative is dead?  Hear at CE, we believe that it has energy and relevance, and our sports correspondent uses it to talk formula one… he doesn’t seem to be particularly impressed.

Monaco-Formula-One-Grand-Prix

Dear Bernie,

I’ve been following F1 since the 1983 season, when I was a seven-year-old who didn’t entirely understand the whole thing, but who never missed a race.  Even back then, I knew there was something special about the sport, that it represented the pinnacle of something glorious, with tradition and pageantry to match.  I was hooked forever and have been scheduling my Sundays around the Grands Prix ever since.

Well, until now, at least.  I very nearly gave Hungary a miss (and let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have missed much).  I believe that people like me, not uninterested millennials, are driving the ratings decline for F1.  It’s the core motorsports fans who are leaving.

And the reason is pretty simple – though the hybrid cars are interesting technically, the rules around everything else seem designed to destroy all the drama that F1 used to have.  I see there’s now an initiative to fix radio rules, but I think that’s kind of like painting over the damage left by an atom bomb.  I believe the real problem is a bunch of things that have accumulated over the years, and need to go… preferably immediately, possibly in 2017.

At the core of the problem lie the cost control rules.  The ban on testing and engine development mean that a team that starts a new formula with an advantage keeps it – so Mercedes, with two uninspiring drivers (one whiny and one timid) has an unassailable advantage until the next complete package overhaul.  So people, even hardcore fans, tune out.

We all understand that this is there to make the smaller teams more competitive – or at least allow them to survive.  Well, hasn’t worked.  Scrap it.  In fact, think of how we used to have Dallaras qualifying third at Hungary, or Onyx’s on the podium.  The situation has gotten significantly worse wince then, and we’re still losing teams left and right.

The second consequence of the cost control rules is that engines / gearboxes / etc. no longer break.  This is because of silly limits on the number you can use in a year.  I’d definitely watch with more interest if I knew that say Romain Grosjean’s car had been fitted with a hand grenade of a power plant that is giving 30% more power than usual, but is unlikely to last the whole race.

I remember some very strong BMW engines that led every race until they detonated… do you?  That was exciting to watch.

Having every single car finish a GP is not anyone’s idea of entertainment, especially as the racing on the track is artificial and has to do with the tires.  Let the teams risk it all for glory and if it breaks, then that is sufficient penalty in itself.  Cars breaking makes for much more exciting races…

Also, bring back classifying engines.  Senna on a hot lap is still the epitome of the perfect racer in the zone, but he’s been dead for 20 years.  There’s only so many times the F1 channel can repeat his brilliance before everyone has seen it.

Cost-cutting, however, isn’t the only culprit.  Other stuff which isn’t helping has accumulated over the years.  Any single one of these might not be terrible, but together, they add up to YAWN:

Track limits… the fact that track limits don’t enforce themselves is stupid.  If you go off the track, you should be prepared to have that limit enforce itself aggressively.  Trees might be a bit extreme, but grass, gravel traps and armco are nice substitutes – see if you can find the last time a driver was killed in an F1 race after hitting one of these things (hint, it hasn’t happened for 20 years).  That is why Indy, Monaco and Le Mans are still revered.  You don’t need to enforce track limits there.  Firing Mr. Tilke might help (although, in fairness, it’s not his fault – he has to do the best he can with the current nanny state situation).

There is no excuse for starting a wet race behind a safety car.  Any F1 race director who pushes that should have his credentials revoked (again, as we live in a politically correct age, we can’t actually request the guillotine).  If you feel a need for that kind of thing, there’s probably a rookie league somewhere that needs a steward to take care of the rich dilettantes making their first competitive drives.

There’s a mantra you should repeat: “Rain at Monaco is a blessing from the gods.  I will never again allow it to be squandered the way it was in 2016”.  Say this a thousand times.   Make Charlie repeat it. Please.

This is actually the main reason people are leaving.  It seems that when the weather cooperates to make the racing better, the powers-that-be are actively sabotaging this.  It make it look like F1 HAS to be boring.

Tires…  Make it so anyone on the planet with a vulcanization plant can produce F1 tires.  Tire wars are interesting.  Also, make it so everyone can use as many tires as they want, and of whichever type.  F1 should be about the cars going as fast as they can under the current rules, not about which tires you’re on.

Leave it 100% up to the teams whether to change tires or refuel during a race. Just make sure refueling rigs are to code.

DRS is fun.  Give full control of that to the driver, for use anywhere on the circuit.   I might make an exception to this if Takumo Sato comes back, but other than that, go for it.

Other than that, the rules seem to be fine.  The cars are interesting and don’t look anywhere near as bad as the ones from the late 90s.  The power units may be complicated, but so were the first turbos, so were the first injection systems.  Just make it so the engineers can work on stuff and improve it every single race.  Also, permit alternative engine types for people who don’t want the hybrid hassle.  Loosen the noose.

Fix it soon… there are too many other options now for a crappy product like the current F1 to survive.  Hell, the WEC is the best it’s been since the 962s and, trust me, had you insisted on causing Baku and Le Mans to clash, my set would have been waiting for that big Rolex to strike the 24th hour.

We all want F1 to be unpredictable again without becoming a spec-racer series with artificial excitement injected (see current stupid tire rules for a good example of that).

Right now, the only thing keeping the series afloat is the fact that it’s the place where the holy red cars are entered by the factory.

Lose that and no amount of glorious history will save it.

 

 

Reversing Noir

 

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Films of the noir era usually focused on one character who, though no saint himself, had a strict view of just how much bending of “right” was acceptable.  The hardboiled dick who lets the dame off despite the fact that she is guilty as hell because the guy had it coming is the typical storyline.  There is one other twist which is that everyone, including the point-of-view character is so deeply mired in muck that they are irredeemable.

By 1945, however, Michael Curtiz decided that the genre needed a new twist, and used that feeling to create his take on Mildred Pierce, an adaptation of the novel by James Cain (who you might remember from here).

In this film, while some characters are certainly sleazy, there is only one who is actually bad… and the rest of them spend the entire film putting themselves at risk in order to try to help that one character (I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who might be watching).  Their reward?  Betrayal of all sorts, from sexual to downright criminal.

Other than that particular twist, the film is notable for the way Mildred Pierce creates a business empire against all odds, often hindered by friends and family.  It’s a sign of how the war had affected American society – audiences accustomed to women performing war work were definitely ready to see them on screen as strong business leaders.  Although this isn’t the central theme of the movie, it is strong enough to be very notable.  And Joan Crawford is extremely believable in the role, one can’t help but think that she was a much better choice than the other women considered for casting.

This is a good complement to the noir era, something to watch if you’re really into noir in all its permutations.  Of course, it’s a film a casual viewer might never actually get to, but for fans of the genre, it’s a must.

Ann Blyth

Also, a shout out to surviving cast member Ann Blyth, who is notable because she was a key member of the cast – and central to the plot.