Crime

When Obi-Wan Kenobi Robbed a Bank

Alec Guinness was an important actor, of course.  He was world famous long before he played that hermit, Old Ben, but unlike many of his great films, Star Wars is still a hugely central part of modern culture.  Perhaps it should have been more important to us that he played several weird roles in the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets, but to be honest, it was more mind-bending to see Kenobi robbing a bank in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Audrey Hepburn and Obi Wan Kenobi in the Lavender Hill Mob.png

This is a British caper film classic, in the style of The Italian Job, a nice counterpoint to the dense, grim crime films that were being produced in the US as noir disappeared into its own nether regions.  It’s lighthearted and a joy to watch, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the plot.  All you need to know, all anyone needs to know is that Kenobi robs a bank.

Half the time, I was expecting him to do the Jedi hand wave or go berserk with a lightsaber, but he stayed in character and used his mind to run the job.  I suppose that was best for the film.

Several actors that went on to great things got their screen debut in this one, but the two that caught my eye were not on their first film, but still hadn’t played the roles that fixed them in my head.

The first, as you can see from the picture above, is Audrey Hepburn, who has a minor part at the very beginning of the film.  She plays a charming young woman, so no real surprise there.

The second, and much more important in my view is Desmond Llewelyn, who played a tiny, uncredited role in this picture, later went on to scale the heights of movie glory.  Why?  Because he played Q in the James Bond films.

There used to be two film franchises that I would go to the movies for: Star Wars and James Bond.  Star Wars lost that distinction after The Last Jedi (I skipped Solo because I hated the preaching, message-filled stupid of TLJ) and James Bond, which is still attractive (although we’ll need to see if the character, so beautifully neanderthal, survives much longer in this day and age.  While he stays true to the original, the producers will get my money).  So Q is an important figure in my movie-watching.

Anyhow, this is one to watch.  Fun without any ifs or buts.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  If you enjoy your crime modern, edgy and international, then this one is definitely for you – have a look here.

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

Those following along will remember that the last two Agatha Christie novels we reviewed here were Tommy and Tuppence vehicles.  You can see my take here and here.

These are not the books that made Christie famous.  Not by a long shot.

But, like finding a glass of water in the desert, one appreciates her great work more by exposure to the arid wasteland.  And when Poirot returns, rejoicing ensues.

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it was the rebound effect, but I found Evil Under the Sun to be a near-perfect murder mystery.  It has everything you want from Agatha Christie: a secluded location, a group of people with motives for killing the victim, wonderful red herrings and a resolution that depends on the psychology of the victim.

It’s a simply beautiful piece of mystery fiction and blows away the boring image of the Tommy and Tuppence books.  I suppose the reason it works so well is that the setting is comfortable and familiar, and that the possibility of the reader guessing the murderer exists (though that is never necessarily Christie’s strongest suit in my experience).  The clues in this one exist… but you don’t necessarily manage to put them together until Poirot explains them.

So THIS is classic Queen of Crime, and if you’ve already read The Murder of Roger Akroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, this is a good choice for continued reading.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write whodunnits, but his book timeless is a sexy, fast-paced thriller.  You can check it out here.

Tommy and Tuppence Again

I recently reviewed an Agatha Christie book entitled Postern of Fate.  Its main characters are a married couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are serial Christie protagonists.  Unfortunately, they are not the most interesting of her creations.  Poirot, to take her most important protagonists as an example, they most certainly are not.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

The main problem is that she breaks her own formula (after decades, I imagine she was ready for a change).  Instead of giving us the characters and then murdering one of them and then sifting–with the reader watching over her shoulder–the nuggets of information from the red herrings, these stories involve long-buried mysteries and the criminal ends up being someone we don’t particularly care about.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs is better than Postern of Fate in that, unlike the latter, at least all the actors are involved in the book.  There aren’t any last-minute additions that make no sense.

But we don’t actually care about the resolution.  A murder mystery should involve the reader and this one doesn’t.  The only characters we care about are Tommy and Tuppence, while everyone else is just there to play a part, often a strangely twisted part that throws you off.  The resolution, though surprising, is not enough to raise this one to the Queen of Crime’s usual standards.

The contrast with Christie’s usual technique of doing nuanced psychological studies of the people surrounding the detective(s) is what makes this particular volume, though pleasant reading, one for Christie completists only.

There’s a reason Poirot and Marple are better known.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own thriller–most certainly NOT a cozy mystery–is called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

A Flat Detective

It should have been a match made in heaven.  Murder mysteries are one of my favorite genres.  Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  And Sicily is just paradise if you happen to like the same kinds of places that I do.

And yet something failed to click.

The Age of Doubt - Inspector Montalbano - Andrea Camilleri.jpg

The Age of Doubt is a book by Andrea Camilleri in the Inspector Montalbano series.  I had seen the Montalbano series on TV a few years ago, and the series hadn’t really caught my attention (I’m much less of a series watcher than I am a series reader), but this was my first exposure to the author’s writing.

I was unimpressed, mainly because, unlike Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg, I found the inspector to be utterly annoying in his insecurity and strangely adolescent (or perhaps even pre-teen-girl-like) in his emotional responses to pretty much everything going on around him.

At first, I was tempted to blame the translator, as I wasn’t terribly impressed with the prose even before encountering the emotional issues, but once I saw how childishly emotions were rendered, I’m giving the translator a pass.  For all I know, this is a faithful rendering of the original Italian (I can read Italian, but not well enough to judge prose quality, unfortunately).

These are small irritants, of course.  The overall review of this book is that it’s an interesting murder mystery with a melodramatic ending.  I personally found the Inspector’s emotional inner monologue to be an irritant, but others obviously enjoy it.

This series can’t be dismissed, as the late Gardner Dozois famously did every year to the even later Martin H. Greenbergs’ anthologies, as “pleasant but minor”, as it is already a worldwide bestselling publishing phenomenon.  So I’ll limit myself to saying that I prefer my investigators to have different neuroses, treated differently, and leave it at that.  If you prefer a touch of overwrought melodrama, this might be just the series for you.

In my opinion, there are better crime novels among the millions of options out there.  Your mileage may vary.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime novel Timeless is a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can buy it here.

Psychological Subtlety Lifts this One Out of Noir

I love film noir.  The moody scenes, the stock phrases, the sultry femmes fatale.  It’s a wonderful transportation to a lost world that probably never really existed.

But subtle?  No way.

The characters spiral out of control and, except when Bogart is involved, come to awful, well-deserved and often gruesome ends.

And then we come to 1949 and The Reckless Moment.

The Reckless Moment - French Film Poster.jpg

This is a noir film where the psychological motivations are much deeper than the usual greed, lust and fear.  It’s a film that leaves you with questions, even though it’s not exactly Camus.

The setup is that a mother is being blackmailed for her daughter’s indiscretions after an unfortunate accident kills off the girl’s lover.  The mother, far from being innocent, responds foolishly – but we’re never quite certain if the mother’s innocent, wholesome facade afterwards is an act or if it’s coldly calculated to draw in the man who ultimately takes the fall.

The criminal element in this one is an Irish gangster with–in what later becomes a cliché–a heart of gold.  In single handedly saving the day, he becomes the sympathetic character, the one socially conscious people point to when the say that people are good, but sometimes their upbringing didn’t give them a chance.

Like Gun Crazy, I wouldn’t call this one noir.  It just doesn’t hit the mark.  While Gun Crazy misses because it’s too B-movie simplistic, this one misses because of its attempt at sophistication.  I would call it a crime drama… but not noir.

As for the film itself, in moving away from the noir formula, I’m not certain it helped its cause.  It is both slower and less impactful than the films which share its supposed genre.  Decent, but others are better.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime thriller Timeless is the story of a journalist who gets involved with forces she can’t quite understand, much less control.  It’s sexy and fast-paced and modern… and you can buy it here.

 

Powerful and Linear – White Heat is a Gangster Rush

In the late 1940s, it’s unusual to find a straight gangster movie in the old-style tradition.  Most of the crime flicks of the era incorporate noir influences in an obvious way (Gun Crazy is a good example).  White Heat, in my opinion, owes much more to earlier films such as Scarface (1932), Little Caesar and The Public Enemy than to anything with Bogart in it.

In that sense, casting James Cagney as the gangster in question was inevitable, wasn’t it?

White heat on top of the world

The plot focuses on a gangster with no regrets, a man who isn’t worried about how to escape from the life, but whose sensibilities have to do with the next score and the next piece of vengeance.  His wife is amoral and sensual, ready to betray anyone to the highest bidder, and suits him perfectly.

No regular Joe getting dragged in above his head for this one.  It’s a straight take on how a homicidal maniac would respond in particular circumstances related to his chosen line of business.

As such, it’s extremely fun to watch.  The action doesn’t slow down to show you the emotional struggle of the doomed man, it just barrels forward at breakneck speed to its inevitable conclusion and ends with a climax that will never again allow you to hear the trite phrase “On top of the world” without thinking of the final scene.

Another interesting aspect of the film is how law enforcement uses cutting edge (for the day) technology to track the criminals and communicate.  Things that seem quaint to us today, but would have looked futuristic to audiences of the day.

It might not be a classic in the critical sense of the word.  It doesn’t delve deeply into philosophical questions, but that just makes this particular movie even better as entertainment.  I’m delighted that this one was part of the 1001 movies to watch before you die because, once in a while, it’s fun to be able to say: watch this film to pass an hour and a half while being entertained.

I enjoyed this one without reservation.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is a fast-paced crime novel.  You can buy it here.

A Film Inspired by Bonnie and Clyde which Inspired the Film Bonnie and Clyde

Gun Crazy is a Hays Code era movie about a couple of gangsters united by their love of guns.  Fortunately, his one manages to be both disturbing and sexy despite the era’s often-obtrusive censorship.

Gun Crazy Movie Poster.jpg

Essentially, it follows the death spiral of an initially well-meaning couple, a guy who is the best shot in town who just came out of the army and wants to get a job at Remington to stay close to his passion and a bit of a fallen woman who falls in love with him (and who also has a passion for handguns) and promises to try to be good.

We all know she’s going to fail.

From the very beginning, the wheels start to fall off.  A bad night at a casino puts their back against the wall financially, and the woman, now a wife, bluntly informs him that either they get more muney–a LOT more money–or she’ll walk.

So they turn to armed robbery.  The guy, essentially a country bumpkin at heart, doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, but the girl is the one who is Kill Crazy on the poster above.  She is utterly trigger-happy, and her protestations–probably code-related–that she shoots because she just gets so scared, aren’t really believable.

And that makes it better.  We like our crazies undiluted.

This one is considered one of history’s better b-movies and, though I didn’t love it, I admit that it deserves its position on the 1001 movies list.  And the main reason I didn’t like it is not even the movie’s fault.  The problem with crime flicks under the Hays Code is that the code wouldn’t permit the movie to have a happy ending for criminals… so as soon as they started on the downward path, you knew they were going to end up as a couple of photogenic corpses.

As always, I like to give a shout out to surviving actors from the old films I watch.  In this case, the survivor is Russ Tamblyn, critical in the film because, in his role as a younger version of the protagonist, he is the first person we see on screen.  So hello, Russ!

Watchable, although I wouldn’t classify it among the noir genre, because it didn’t feel like noir to me, this one laid a lot of the groundwork for the later Bonnie and Clyde films, especially the one from 1967.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s crime fiction is best represented by his thriller Timeless.  Just as disturbing, and much sexier than this film, you can buy it here.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

Looking Back on New York Royalty

Prince of the City by Robert Daley

There’s something about stories of corruption, especially corruption among police officers that makes for compelling reading (and in some cases, viewing, but we’ll get to that later).  Corruption is one of the most human of vices, and seeing just where the tipping point is in different individuals adds to the interest. When you combine that with the intricate warren of life that is woven together in the tapestry that is New York City, compulsion can quickly turn to fascination.

Prince of the City is the book written by Robert Daley about the corruption and ultimate testimony of Detective Robert Leuci, a New York officer who was part of an elite investigative unit.  It was a unit that helped put more criminals in jail than any other, with conviction rates through the roof and which did more to help society solve its crime problem than any other.

But it was also rife with corruption.  These cops, while cleaning the streets, would keep the change.  Percentages of confiscated money would disappear, busts that they knew wouldn’t lead to convictions were negotiated for cash, informants were paid with drugs.

Detective Robert Leuci

Unlike a lot of books from the eighties that dealt with problems inherently seventies in nature, this one became a bestseller, was filmed and is still in print today (although I think it’s only available as en ebook at the moment).

Why?

Because apart from being compelling for the human element, it’s well-written and expertly woven together (Robert Daley was already known to me as the author of The Cruel Sport, but he does just as well in this very different milieux).

That much we already knew, but there’s another element in the mix.  Though Daley only comes out and says it in a few cases, the feeling is that the cope involved in the inevitable fall all feel that prosecuting them was a mistake perpetrated on them by small-minded parsimonious bureaucrats, people so obsessed with the rule book that they can’t see the big picture.

And one is left with a sense, that they just might be right.  There is no doubt they were corrupt, but even with all the facts on the table, one is left thinking that they were doing more harm than good.  That they were essentially good men fighting crime in the most effective way they knew… and reaping certain benefits they felt they deserved.

I recommend this one to essentially everyone.  It’s a character study and a compelling story rolled into one… and even better, it will make you think at the end of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of the well-received novel Siege, as well as several other novels and short stories.  You can find Siege here.