Sunday, 23 July 2017


When I saw that John Heard had died, at 71, I messaged my friend Michael Goldfarb, who like me considers Cutter's Way a magnificent meaningful movie, and Heard and Jeff Bridges tremendous in it. We didn't discuss the awful fate of being remembered primarily as the hapless and largely off-screen father in the Home Alone movies. Michael then on social media recapitulated a discussion we'd had many times, about Heard's huge talent, how he was regarded as maybe the best of his generation of actors, by friends of Michael's when he was trying to make it s an actor in New York, and how a propensity for wild living may have impeded his progress to stardom. Of course anyone who marries Margot Kidder for six days (officially, apparently, it took more than a year to dissolve the union) may be confirmed into some sort of pantheon of wild.

One part of my half of the discussion was about meeting Heard, as I did one night at the Flask pub in Highgate. I can't remember when that was; I want to say in the early 80s, but I doubt Heard would have remembered the meeting ten minutes after he left. He was spectacularly hammered, dressed as if he had been spending his nights sleeping rough on the Heath, and if you thought he might have been in character as Alex Cutter you would not have been that far off.

But the rest of my part of the discussion involved Heard's actual star potential, because Cutter's Way is sort of fulcrum on which the rest of his career balances, though balances with most of it on the distaff side.

Heard's first big part was in Joan Micklin Silver's Between The Lines (1979), based on the story of the Boston Phoenix. This is one of those Sixties generation films (like Return Of The Secaucus Seven) that got subsumed by The Big Chill, just as William Hurt seemed to subsume John Heard (not to mention John Hurt). Heard's is the linchpin role, while Jeff Goldblum, Bruno Kirby and Michael J Pollard steal scenes; he battles with Lindsey Crouse in the ones they share, and Jill Eichenberry's take as the idealistic 'secretary' didn't seem to get her anywhere. But Heard went on to take the lead opposite Mary Beth Hurt in Silver's Chilly Scenes Of Winter (1979), which was originally titled Head Over Heels before someone realised it wasn't a sweet romantic comedy and reverted back to the original title of Ann Beattie's novel. Heard could be a romantic lead in a small indy film, but where he went from there was the question. That same year he had a big part in another off-beat romantic part, as Reverend Dimmesdale in a TV mini-series version The Scarlet Letter, which was most notable for improving on Hawthorne by making Meg Foster's letter A gold rather than scarlet. Oddly enough, Dimmesdale, a role requiring wide range and considerable restraint, would come to define Heard's future.

His next three films are his best. In Heart Beat (1980) he plays Jack Kerouac to Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady and Sissy Spacek's Carolyn Cassady. John Bynum's film seems forgotten now, but it was very sharp in its tone, and Heard, who wouldn't spring to mind as a Kerouac, catches the writer's vulnerability, while inevitably having to play second-fiddle to Nolte.

Which didn't happen in Cutter's Way (1981), at least on screen. Originally called Cutter And Bone, after Newton Thornburg's powerfully gritty novel, this one was retitled after it's initial release, sort of Head Over Heels in reverse. You could make a strong case that this is the last great movie of the Seventies, something that could be shown in double-features with Who'll Stop The Rain (Dog Soldiers) in repertory theatres forever, were there still rep cinemas. Heard's performance is spectacular without being overly showy, but it was Jeff Bridges, more straightforward on the surface as Bone, who became looked at as a possible lead. Who could you compare Heard's Cutter to? Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo? Far more depth and menace. Pacino's Serpico? If Pacino hadn't already done The Godfather? Here's where some space exists, because even as Cutter, Heard seems too knowing, not giving up to the intensity. Perhaps he was just a little too cerebral for the Pacino leads, a little less glamorous for the Hurt, Bridges parts. Perhaps Richard Dreyfuss, about whom the gossip, along with Heard, in the famous Raul Julia Othello in the Park was severe. Dreyfuss too bordered on stardom, but lacked leading man looks, for which he compensated by over-the-top emoting. It's a dangerous quicksand of a discussion in which to become mired.

In Cat People (1982) Heard was a torn-romantic lead, the Kent Smith role (with Annette O'Toole excellent in the Jane Randolph part) subsumed by Natassja Kinski and the black cat she played. With Malcolm MacDowell hamming it through every scene he's in, Heard seems to fade, even though his downplaying of the bittersweet ending ought to have scored him more notice. He was Clifford Odets in a 1983 TV movie version of Will There Really Be A Morning, where he captured Odets' callous cruelty to Frances Farmer. Farmer, however, was played by Susan Blakely, and Heard's (and Lee Grant's, as her mother) performances were for naught. He played Geraldine Page's son in A Trip To Bountiful (1985), for which she won an Oscar, and defined his future roles with a great take as Tom Hanks' foil in Big (1988).

Looking at IMDB I realised he worked consistently for the next three decades. If high living had hurt his skills, or cost him stardom, it didn't affect his ability to get cast in roles that more often than not had him playing someone with something evil or bad or treacherous lurking under the surface, something which that innate intelligence usually signalled. He was excellent, however, when he was able to simply indulge playing a fallen hero, as in The Sopranos, where his corrupt detective Vin Makazian got him nominated for an Emmy. His part in Sharknado, on the other hand, didn't.

From potential star of a generation to jobbing actor. In one sense, Heard never fit the description of a Hollywood leading man. What he fit was a perception of the era in which he came of age, and his ability to live up to our sense, as those who came up with him, of what those times meant. If the dreams of the time have crashed, if potential seems wasted, there is still the accumulation of work, and those high points that seem largely weighted in the first few years. Perhaps he still represents a generation in that sense, a generation now looking back on their work. RIP John Heard.

Saturday, 22 July 2017


Renee Ballard is a detective working the graveyard shift, nights, in Hollywood. She handles whatever comes along, and whatever comes along is why the cops call the beat the Late Show. Ballard's been exiled to the shift because of she filed a sexual assault beef against a lieutenant, and her then partner didn't back her up. Now she works nights and passes on her cases to the relevant desks in the morning; they follow up and investigate. At least most of the time she does.

The Late Show is Michael Connelly's 30th novel (in 25 years). Renee Ballard is his first new series character since Mickey Haller made his debut way back in 2005, and like Haller, she is instantly convincing. The novel starts with her shift: moving quickly with her through a busy night highlighted by a mass killing. You're already into Ballard's head before you begin to learn the backstory, and when she's slow to pass on a case, and manoeuvres to stay in the loop on the big one, you know what she's all about.

I interviewed Michael Connelly in front of a sellout crowd at Waterstone's Piccadilly to celebrate publication of The Late Show, and suggested that, in F Scott Fitzgerald's phrase, 'character is action', and this book, like the Bosch series, like most of his books, was driven by the character of its protagonist. He said he always had a one-word description of each character in his mind: for Bosch it was 'relentless' (which ruined my next question, which would have been about Harry's 'dogged persistence'), while for Ballard it was 'fierce'.

And fierce she is, relentlessly fierce. It is Ballard's character that makes the novel work, and draws the reader in. She is both unusual and believable. She marches to the beat of a different drummer, finishing her shifts and often surfing and sleeping in a tent on the beach. At times it seems she is running on a store of built up resentment, a refusal to let things lie, that is fierce indeed.

There are comparisons to be made with Bosch, some of which Connelly himself hadn't noticed, or played down in favour of concentrating on the differences. She lost her father, with whom she lived after her parents split, early, so she was, like Bosch, alone as she grew up, despite the presence of her grandmother, at whose house she lives when she needs a house or a grandmother. Her partner, Jenkins, is similar in some ways to Bosch's Jerry Edgar: he's basically a good cop, a loyal partner, but he has other things on his mind too, so keeps the job in its place.

Obviously, Ballard is at odds with at least part of the LAPD bureaucracy, which is a defining point with Bosch. This is a key to The Late Show, because as the stories intertwine, her partner's old betrayal, and the lieutenant's animosity, both figure large.
The story resolves itself with a set-piece scene that works, but will likely work better on a screen: I asked Michael if he had considered that, or if the one hand he keeps on the Bosch TV series had an influence, and he replied that neither was a conscious decision. One thing about the character-driven series novels Connelly writes, they continue to work as procedural thrillers as well.

Ballard is too good a character not to reappear soon, and Connelly is too good a series writer not to draw Harry Bosch into her orbit, or her into his, somewhere along the line. As he said, he likes to plant seeds in his novels, which he can bring to full flowering in the future. Until then, the future is now, and it's Renee Ballard. This one's a keeper.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly
Orion, £19.99, ISBN 9781409145547

This review will also appear at Crime Time (


Today Donald Trump, former star of The Apprentice and currently playing President of the United States and Tweeter in Chief, gets to play George Bush Top Gun soldier as he will commission the USS Gerald R Ford, in his words 'the biggest aircraft carrier in the world'. The ship will be a stirring tribute to a world leader whose major accomplishments were sabotaging the Warren Commission, pardoning Richard Nixon, falling down airplane stairs, and telling New York City to (metaphorically) 'drop dead'.

But there is a certain protocol to the naming of U.S. Navy ships after former Presidents. Consider this list:

Teddy Roosevelt (Republican): Nimitz-class supercarrier
Woodrow Wilson (Democrat, wartime president): submarine
Harding ( Rep, most corrupt adminstration before Reagan) nothing
Coolidge (Rep, didn't speak) nada
Hoover (Rep, Great Depression) zilch
Frank D Roosevelt (Dem, former asst secretary of Navy, wartime president, elected 4 times): destroyer Roosevelt, also honoring his wife Eleanor...pictured above left
Harry Truman (Dem, dropped A bomb, started CIA, pursued Commies): Nimitz supercarrier
Dwight Eisenhower (Rep, commander of allied forces in Europe WWII): Nimitz super carrier
John Kennedy (Dem, decorated PT Boat commander in WWII, assassinated) Kennedy-class carrier to be replaced by a Nimitz-class
Lyndon B Johnson (Dem, Navy reserve in WWII, sort of wartime president): destroyer
Richard Nixon (Rep, quitter) zip
Gerry Ford (Rep, see above, served in Navy in WWII): super-carrier
Jimmy Carter (Dem, Naval Academy graduate): submarine
Ronald Reagan (Rep, made movies during WWII, colluded in treason with hostage takers in Iran, pursued illegal war in Nicaragua, most corrupt administration before Bush II): Nimitz supercarrier
George HW Bush (Rep, decorated Navy pilot in WWII) invasion interruptus in Iraq): Nimitz supercarrier
Bill Clinton (Dem, draft-dodger, blow-job receiver): don't even think about it
George W Bush (Rep, failed and still-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq based on knowing lies, most corrupt administration since Reagan, dodged draft via National Guard & went AWOL on that, made mission accomplished landing on carrier): His Time Will Come

Do you notice a pattern here? If you haven't, here's a short-cut:
Republicans: 5 ships, 5 super carriers
Democrats: 6 ships, 2 carriers, 2 destroyers, 2 submarines)

It's as if they're taking advice from Fox News.

The naming of ships is the responsibility of the Secretary of Navy. Traditionally, battleships (extinct) were named after states; cruisers after cities; destroyers after war heroes; submarines after fish, until nuclear missle subs came along and were named after 'statesmen', especially those who encouraged wartime procurement. Carriers were traditionally named after battles (eg: USS Yorktown) except for the Enterprise, carrying on the name of a famous warship. Modern supercarriers are named for presidents, except for the Vinson and Stennis, named for congressional committee chairmen who gave the military more money than even they wanted. Both Vinson and Stennis were staunch and virulent segregationists, while Vinson also gets extra points for having defected to the Republicans when Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act passed. They seem out of place among the carriers, even among the lineup of B grade presidents.

Interestingly, Obama's Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus (former governor of Mississippi) who served through both Obama terms, thus becoming the longest-serving Secretary of the Navy since World War I, came under huge metaphoric fire for trying to name some smaller ships, including the submarine Lyndon Johnson, after, wait for it, Democrats)! They included Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (a littoral ship, sort of a modern PT boat), and auxillary ships after Congressman John Lewis, a hero of civil rights; the late Congressman Ray Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress; Cesar Chavez, the civil rights activist and a Navy veteran; and Harvey Milk, a Korean War Navy veteran and city supervisor of San Francisco, assassinated because of his gay activism. Cue your seamen jokes. The photo above right was posted by the 'American Families Association'. You can guess how they felt about honoring Harvey Milk.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017


As movie posters go, the one for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman's Benji staring in stunned bewilderment at Anne Bancroft's outstretched black-stockinged leg, Mrs. Robinson's temptation, is one of the best. Simple, effective, even haunting, it encapsulate's the thrust of the film and reveals much about both characters.

Even if it leg, as it turned out, really belonged to Linda Gray, who confessed just a few years ago that she'd been called in to pose for the photo and been paid $25.

So imagine my surprise as I walked past our local hall and I saw a poster for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman standing in a sort of mini-jungle with a big cat behind his shoulder. I had to cross the street to look close up: the Hoffman looks like an artist's rendering of a botoxed version of young Dustin. But I was still trying to figure out the cat until it came to me: Cougar!

Forget a female Dr. Who. The Graduate has now become a movie to be sold as a tale of a boy and his cougar. Plastics? The marketing guys wouldn't get it. It's got all the subtlety of that TV show with Courtney Cox. 'That's good!' they'd say. 'Friends sells!'

I was probably not in the best frame of mind to receive such a re-booting of a classic film, since a couple of days ago I listened to a powerfully anodyne discussion of Sofia Coppola's remake of Don Siegel's offbeat classic The Beguiled. It was one of those discussions framed by Coppola's best director prize at Cannes, and the residue of Siegel and star Clint Eastwood's heavily masculine approach to the film, yet the panel were incapable of suggesting any real virtue in the film. It looked very pretty, the dresses were far too nice for the situation (girls' school, Civil War, hard times) and the only black character, the maid Hattie, had been written out of the story, so all the cooking and cleaning and ironing happened as if by magic, as it would if you were Sofia Coppola or you were making another movie set in Versailles. So no one really liked the film, but only Tom Sutcliffe, the host, appeared to have seen the original, and he was being very cautious about endorsing Clintonian misogyny.

Then I read the Sight & Sound review, which tried to pretend the remake was based not on the original film, but a new take on Thomas Cullinan's novel, which would make more sense were not the screenplay of the Siegel film, by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (writing as John B Sherry and Grimes Grice) credited. You can fool Sight & Sound but you can't fool the Writers' Guild. The reviewer ended by praising the wonderful bits of embiguity Coppola had inserted. Like the amputation of McBurney's leg. Were they punishing him or saving his life? Oh now there's one that never occurred to Siegel. Nor demanning him, symbolically. Sheesh. They just weren't sensitive enough to make a small masterpiece some big name could come along and remake.

Thursday, 13 July 2017


My obituary of Chuck Blazer, the US soccer supremo whose testimony pulled back the curtain on the high level of corruption in FIFA, is online at the Guardian. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. Blazer was an interesting case study, and I was lucky in the sense that I knew enough about the situation, and knew people with far more knowledge of it, to be to see both sides of the equation. It was important to note the impact Blazer had on the growth of the game in America, particularly in terms of the success of the national teams and the added exposure he got for them. The US still suffers from minnow status in the big world of football: they can go into the World Cup ranked a tier below Mexico even when they have beaten the Mexicans and won their group. But as I never tire of pointing out to British soccer moonies, the men's national team has had a success rate in the World Cup very much comparable to England's, the difference being no one in America really cares.

I also was able to speak, or at least write, with experience of FIFA. I had been doing business with them in the days when Sepp Blatter was the General Secretary and Joao Havelange was the President, and Blatter's reputation was as an 'honest broker' whom you could trust to see a deal through. Times change. Otherwise, writing it was easy, in the sense that Blazer was a larger-than-life character in any sense; I smell the makings of a TV movie, with John Goodman in the starring role. The hardest part was cutting out stories that were entertaining but didn't suit the obit. The macaw, however, made the cut.

Otherwise it is pretty much as I wrote it, with a couple of I think telling omissions.The first came with the mention of Prince William appearing in Chuck's blog. What I had actually written at that point was:  

alongside those (pictures) of Blazer with British royalty and football stars. 'Royalty treated him like royalty,' an anonymous colleague told the New York Daily News, 'because they wanted to host the World Cup and were slavering for the money that could be made buying and selling the beautiful game'.  

This was a reference to the failed British bid for the World Cup, which crashed amidst a 'fury,' as the tabloids would have it, of accusations of bribery. Which turned out to be true, but probably didn't actually take the event away from Britain anyway. But the ideal royals could be slavering for money was apparently beyond the pale.
The second was at the end, in the mention of his survivors. There I wrote:

Blazer is survived by his son Jason, a physio therapist who served as CONCACAF's head of medicine, and his daughter Marci, a lawyer who served on FIFA's legal committee.

I thought that the mention of their positions within world football was a telling point to make, for obvious nepotistic reasons. It wasn't the only case in FIFA history, that's for sure, including Sepp's nephew the travel agent. The paper also had some doubt about his cause of death. When he was hospitalized in 2015, it was reported as colon cancer. His lawyer's statement about his death said he died of rectal cancer. I didn't think it was a cause for omission.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017


Tonight I will be interviewing Michael Connelly at Waterstones in Piccadilly, to celebrate publication of his 30th novel, The Late Show, which features a new main character, LAPD night shift detective Renee Ballard. As I prepared for the interview I realised that I wrote my first review of Connelly 20 years ago. The novel was Trunk Music (his fifth Harry Bosch novel, and his sixth overall) and the review was published in the Spectator. It was, I think, his first major review in this country. Not long after that, I met Michael when he was reading in Melbourne, Florida, and I've been lucky enough to stay in touch, and to be asked to write an afterword to his collection of journalism, Crime Beat. So I thought I'd reprint that first review, from the Spectator, 8 March 1997. I also discovered that Connelly was mis-spelled throughout, and I've finally corrected that. One line from the close of the review was used as a blurb on any number of Michael's later books, which more than made up for the typo!


by Michael Connelly
Orion,£16.99, pp.375

The Los Angeles inhabited by LAPD detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch resembles the paintings of his Flemish namesake. Horrors lie underneath the surface of a garden of earthly delights. The classical gives way to the modern; Trunk Music, Michael Connelly’s fifth Bosch novel, is also the first post-OJ police novel; the ghosts of Judge Itoh and Johnnie Cochrane are never far from the thoughts of cops like Bosch, nor from Bosch’s real Nemeses: lawyers, politicians, and police administrators.

When the body of soft-core porn video-maker Tony Aliso is found in the trunk of his car with two .22 shells in his skull, on a hill overlooking a concert in the Hollywood Bowl, it appears to be a classic mob hit (“trunk music”). The trail leads Bosch quickly to Las Vegas, and to an apparent solution. It also leads him back to a woman who betrayed him, in the very first Bosch novel, The Black Echo. The situation may seem old hat but Connelly makes it work by constantly confounding your expectations as he finds new angles to pursue. His stories have more twists and turns than Mullholland Drive, but they never divert you from where they should be going. Because the murder is only part of the story, the rest is Harry Bosch, his character, and his conflicts with authority, the forces of control whose toes he inevitably steps on. “Who polices the police who police the police?” is a favourite Bosch line.

Character is action, said Fitzgerald, and the way Connelly gets to the core of the situation through Bosch suggests the genre’s best writers. If Bosch resembles Hammett’s Continental Op, a lone wolf who’s honest in a corrupt world, the woman who betrayed him is his Brigit O’Shaugnessy. Trunk Music also recalls Chandler’s relishing of the sleazy Hollywood milieu and his use of Las Vegas as a contemporary Bay City, where respectable people go to be bad, and bad people go to help them. The hothouse corruption of Aliso’s wife and the deserted settings in the Hollywood hills smack of Chandler at his best.

There is no new ground broken in Connelly’s prose style, but he writes with sensitivity to nuance, the kind of undercurrent often missed in conversation. He is particularly good in the interplay of verbal and psychological warfare. This was shown best in The Last Coyote (1995) , where Bosch fences with the police psychologist who must decide if he is fit to return to duty after he has assaulted his chief, the wonderfully named Harvey “98” Pounds (as in the American equivalent of 7 stone weakling). 

Bosch uses his suspension to investigate the murder of his mother, a prostitute, who gave him his name because she had no father’s name to use. There is more than a hint of James Ellroy in the pursuit of this case, which leads to revelations of Chinatown-like corruption. Although he lacks the innovative prose fire of Ellroy, Connelly has the skill to create a powerful new story out of familiar materials to create a new story with its own power.

After The Last Coyote, Connelly changed gears with The Poet (1996), a serial killer novel which is interesting, but hampered by the use of a reporter as its protagonist. The journalist, oddly, lacks the psychic empathy to the killer that the cop may have, the kind of feeling for criminals that Bosch has. The Poet, of course, became a best-seller in America. Trunk Music marks Bosch’s return, and lives up to the high standard of The Last Coyote. This is the strongest crime series being written in America right now, and Trunk Music gets an unqualified recommendation.

Monday, 10 July 2017


THE BACK ALLEYS OF NOIR is a title I'll use for occasional essays on the films I'm catching up with (or maybe revisiting) that fall into the general category of film noir. Or perhaps reflect in some ways upon it. I won't go into a great definition debate about what is or isn't noir right now: but I'm going through two editions of the Encylopedia of Film Noir which sit by my bed, and I may have something to say about that later. In the meantime, here's an early Anthony Mann I finally caught up to, and just yesterday I was talking about it with my friend Jeanine Basinger, who wrote the first and best book on Mann, which has been reissued and is still in print...


I'm not sure how I managed to miss Railroaded before, because this early Anthony Mann noir is fascinating at times on its own account, and moreso for what it says in relation to Mann's other work. According to IMDB it was released in 1947 after T-Men, which is often considered Mann first classic, done in a semi-documentary style. The title Railroaded implies some kind of police malfeasance, which would play into a documentary style; some variation on 'Framed' would be more accurate a title. But we do get some of the technical detail, as we did in T-Men: the laboratory forensics (discovering a perfume-scented bullet!), the quick access to the villain's rap sheet, the police radio broadcasting across the nameless city.And more interesting, as in T-Men, we have a top cop, the hard-boiled Capt. MacTaggart, smoking through a cigarette holder, as disconcerting in this movie as in that one, and no accident, as he's shown doing it in multiple scenes. It's sometimes seen as an easy way to make a stock character stand-out, but I think there's something slightly more sinister, more unsettling about it; something about the way the bureaucracy may impinge on the character of those it rewards.

The movie belongs to John Ireland as the villain Duke Martin, and, whenever he's in a scene, the centre of attention (note the poster above right). He could be the template for Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, only he's cooler, more convinced of his superiority, and his violence is more controlled, and thus more vicious. Jane Randolph sadly has to play her part with more vulnerability because of this, but she starts out brassy and tough: Clara Calhoun owns a beauty salon that's a front for a bookie joint; she and Duke plan to rob her take one night and keep the cash. When the heist goes wrong and a cop is killed, they frame young Eddie Ryan for the crime, and it's up to his sister Rosie and hero detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) to learn the truth.

Stella Ryan, as Rosie, is most interesting when she's trying to get close to Duke by playing up to him; there's just the slightest suggestion she might be drawn to dark side of the Club Bombay forever, especially when she (gasp) accepts a cigarette from Duke. Beaumont isn't bad as the cop, though he's almost constantly having to play against his own innate niceness. Which hurts in a sense since his romance with Rosie almost parallels Dukes in its forcefulness, but he has nowhere to go with that.

As in other noirs, from Mann and others, relationships can be highly ambiguous and eminently mutable. Duke rubs down his gun (and its bullets) with a handerchief soaked in Clara's perfume (the scented bullets turn out not to be a key plot point), as well as using his (still-scented) handkerchief to polish his cigarette case feverishly as he tries to seduce Rosie. This frenzied wrist motion highlights Duke's manic sexuality: he's the epitome of what his boss, Jackland Ainsworth (played with great relish by Charles D Brown as he reads to Duke and his own moll passages from Oscar Wilde about the need to keep women under control with force. When Duke eventually shoots him, he does it while telling him about killing his previous boss, up close and facing him. His name, Jackland Ainsworth might be a subconscious kind of clue. This subplot of violence against women also explains why Eddie Ryan has been framed; he beat-up Duke's actual accomplice in the robbery for coming on too strong to Rosie.

But what's most fascinating is watching Mann (working with cinematographer Guy Roe) using the template of noir. It's at its best in interior scenes; the opening is brilliant in Clara's salon (we know she's bad because she has her initials embroidered gaudily on her uniform) where the robbers literally materialise out of the shadows, and where the curtains create dark effects as the robbery and shootings take place. When Duke stashes Clara in a waterfront dive, it looks too elegant for its setting, but when he shoots her he's framed in stark contrast to that setting, turning it into a trap. Even better is the scene when Clara goes to the drugstore phone booth to get help from Mickey, who's at the Ryan's house (don't ask): shot from the outside, framed by the drugstore window and the booth's windows, it's Hopper crossed with black and white Richard Estes. Finally there is Club Bombay, shot through small windows from the outside, and a hidden window that looks like a television screen from Ainsworth's office. The final shootout in the shadows, which Mann expands to include a brilliant bit behind the piano, ends with Duke being shot in the back, dominating the screen as he dies. Sharp contrast to the way he's killed Ainsworth, facing him, previously. There's a subtle diminishing of Beaumont as a hero in that. Duke also plugs Rosie as she stands in the shadows of the Club Bombay, set off in the chiaroscuro shadows, but it's only the inevitable shoulder wound, though in the final scenes it appears that the wrong shoulder has been bandaged.

The plot stalls repeatedly, because it cries for Rosie to be more active in it, and for Beaumont to perhaps get caught up more severely in her ambiguity. One of the key scenes is a cat-fight between Rosie and Clara in Clara's luxury flat, while Duke looks on from behind a doorway. She's brilliant in a three-way scene at he club where Duke and Mickey spar over her at a table. But this story's really about getting from one point to the next. I'm still trying to figure out how writer John C Higgins, who also wrote T-Men simply keeps things moving, to get to the confrontations that are set up so intriguingly by Mann.

Ferguson's partner, the aptly named Jim Chubb (played with great B movie relish by Clancy Cooper) is able to find out where Clara is stashed, as supposedly only she and Duke know where she is. Or why Duke has to write down the number to Rosie's phone, when he already knows it and it's dead easy to remember. But that's just plot and frankly we don' need no steenkin plot. There is more than enough to savour in Railroaded.


I was listening to the estimable Keith Wood on Newstalk Ireland's Off The Ball programme talking about the end of the series between the Lions and the All-Blacks and he said something wonderful about why sport is 'terrific' and why we follow it. 'It means a lot, and it means nothing,' he said, and how true that is.

Which is why I find myself writing this. It might have been fitting that the series came down to a ferocious last-chance drive by the All-Blacks which the Lions' defenders just managed to push into touch to get the final whistle and preserve a tie. And fitting that the ABs appeared to be arguing right to the end that the whistle should not be blown. A 15-15 tie was, on balance, a fair result, as was a drawn series, 1-1-1. The Lions haven't won a tour in New Zealand since 1971, and that mark remains; NZ haven't lost a test at Eden Park since 1994, and that mark remains as well.

But it was also fitting that the biggest controversy of the tour came when referee Romain Poite of France reversed a decision to award a penalty to the All-Blacks, with the score even at 15, changing an offside against Ken Owens to an 'accidental' offside, thus cuing a monumental nationwide whinge which began with All-Blacks' captain Keiran Read arguing and debating the call with Poite on the spot, then exploded with nuclear force in the NZ media the next day and will run and run for decades. Recall Read's words immediately after the match: 'That (the penalty reversal) wasn't why we lost the game.' In NZ, this draw was the equivalent of a loss.

The penalty came off the restart kick following Owen Farrell's penalty that tied the game. The ball had popped loose from fullback Liam Williams as he fielded the kick, and bounced into Owens' hands; after an instant's realisation, he dropped the ball. But what's interesting is that Read, as captain, was leading the chorus of protest, because when the whistle blew, I immediately assumed it would be for a penalty against Reid himself, for lurching into Williams' back as he was in the air fielding the kick. Contact is allowed only if the player is trying to play the ball; Read was no higher than Williams' mid-back when he lunged into the Welshman. He waved an arm around as if he were trying to tap the kick backwards, but the contact was not at all, uh, 'accidental'. Worse, if you watch the replay, as the equally estimable Brian Moore pointed out to me, you'll also notice that Read appears to be ahead of the kicker on the re-start; he's so far ahead that he's in front of referee Poite as he chases the kick, yet Poite apparently never notices him. Had Read not assumed All-Black invisibility, that would have been an offside penalty.

I've been watching international rugby regularly since 1977 (though my first match was the All-Blacks vs Combined Services in 1972 or 73) and trying to fathom the rules has always been a near-impossibility. I've read them, and they are ambiguous to the point of making the NFL's rule book look like it was written by Ernest Hemingway. It's all in the interpretation, and each referee seems to make much up as he goes along. When I first started watching, lifting in the lineout was illegal, yet everyone lifted. Nowadays the feed into the scrum never comes close to being straight; one AB put in during the third test didn't even enter the scrum at all.

And this is one of the areas New Zealand have a huge advantage over everyone they play. The All-Blacks are put on a refereeing pedestal: Richie McCaw spent his career entering rucks from the side without penalty. Rugby minnows are given no benefit of the doubt, the All-Blacks always are.

This is partly deserved. To me what most separates the All-Blacks from the world is their game awareness. They process the game quicker, see options, make decisions more fluidly than any side in the world. The whole country is focused on rugby, they grow up playing and learning the game the same way. Every player possesses a great degree of skill and no fear of using it. They also have a sense of the rules, and of how much they can get away with bending and sometimes abusing them.

M. Poite's decision in Owens' favour wasn't his first use of the accidental or inadverdant call. When Jerome Kaino (born in American Samoa, there's one who got away from gridiron or at least the Eagles) clotheslined Alun Wyn Jones. Despite seeing Wyn Jones' head smashed backward (he was concussed, and allowed to return to play for reasons that deserve explanation), the ref and the video official concluded that it was not contact with any force (!) and that it was a legitimate attempt to tackle within the laws, although Kaino's fist remained closed and arm remained stiff throughout. The clothesline was banned in American football back in the Night Train Lane days. Given that Kaino had been caught (but not penalised) for late hits on Connor Murphy in the second-test, his standard New Zealand reply: 'Its never our intention to hurt someone outside the laws of the game' rang as hollow as it always does.

Read also said 'perhaps we were trying too hard', and that certainly seems true, given the unforced errors the ABs made. The Lions made plenty of their own, but in the end Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly atoned for theirs with penalty kicking. The game was a tactical masterpiece: the ABs reacted to the Lions' defending in the second test by widening their play, and should have had more tries. The Lions adjusted at half-time, and the All Blacks never really adjusted back. The Lions again couldn't finish at the goal line, and Farrell's soft pass nearly turned into a NZ try. It was a fascinating, imperfect, hard-fought match and in the end not marred by the officiating the way the first test had been.

The drawn series seemed to bother some people. The Sky reporter began an interview by saying 'we all know a tie is like kissing your sister', but that's always been a misleading aphorism. It was originated by Bear Bryant in 1966, when an injury-riddled Notre Dame scraped out a 10-10 tie at Michigan State in a battle of unbeaten teams ranked numbers 1 and 2. Bryant's Alabama, also undefeated and ranked no 3, remained there after the game, which irritated Bear no end, as if, when the first two runners finish level, the gold medal should go to the one in third.

I've never been a proponent of overtime in American football (except in the playoffs when it's necessary) and I'm not in rugby. These are heavy contact, physically debilitating games and after 60 or 80 minutes, a result is a result. Overtime tends to work on behalf of the 'better' team, the favourite, the deeper squad, and especially the home team. For the Lions to scrape a tie, and a drawn series, against the odds, is something special, and something that should not be overturned because some people find it inconclusive. To me, it's very conclusive. Over the course of 240 minutes, these two sides were as near enough equal as they could be. The All-Blacks deserved to be favourites, and after the first test they were overwhelming favourites to sweep the series. That the Lions fought within a hair's-breadth of winning (or indeed, losing) the series, but hung on for a draw, is triumph enough; that the Kiwis, threatening to take the whole thing right to the end, couldn't, will remain a disappointment, but in reality, it was a series they didn't deserve to lose. Remember, it does mean a lot, but it also means nothing.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

SAGA: NEW AGE SPACE OPERA by Brian Vaughn & Fiona Staples

The winged people of Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy, are in a state of perpetual war with the rams-horned people of their planet's moon, Wreath. But because the destruction of either planet or moon could wind up destroying the other, the war has been out-sourced across the galaxy, with planets and their creatures forced to take sides. This bellicose state of being becomes threatened when Marko, a Wreathian who is as close as one can come to being a conscientious objector, is captured, and guarded by Alana. Sparks fly, and twelve hours later the two are escaping together. And when Alana gives birth to a Hazel, a feat not believed possible by either race, the new family are pursued by both sides, neither of which has any interest in rapprochement.

Saga is an epic space opera which is the most entertaining thing I've read over the past two years. It's been billed as a cross between Star Wars and Game Of Thrones, but that's much too limiting. Writer Brian K Vaughn draws on familiar tropes, but what brings them together is the way they are used to tell stories which reflect on our present state, while constantly surprising with their innovation. The myriad, mostly humanoid, races include the Robots, androids with video monitors for faces, who, like most of the races in this galaxy are perfectly able to have sex with, if not procreate with, other races. There are mercenary assassins, including The Stalk, with an arachnid body. There is a Lying Cat, who says 'lying' whenever someone does. There is Izabel, a ghost with half a bodywho floats alongside the family. And D. Oswalt Heist, a writer reminiscent of the Man In The High Castle, whose offbeat philosophy seems to mirror the entire Saga itself.

But what makes it work is the way this inter-planetary chase, this violent existence, simply brackets the more human, as it were, problems. Marriage, parenthood, relationships, drug use, reality TV (Alana at one point is acting in a soap opera on 'open circuit'), love, sex, friendship, loyalty...all the things we expect epics to draw upon, and when it is done well, it reflects on us in ways we recognise. Artist Fiona Staples has a wonderful knack of moving from the mundane to the galaxy-busting which complements Vaughn's leaps of imagination and daring.

Saga is published in volumes which collect six issues of the comic. I find this the more satisfying way to read the series, because it operates on cliffhangers which would become too frustrating on a regular monthly basis. I've just finished Volume Seven, which may be the best, and is certainly the most powerful, since the start of the series. It appears to be a pause, a holding pattern, for the series, but really it is a book of losses.

The family has been reunited, and with the unlikely group they've gathered on their tree-based spaceship, they land for re-fuelling on the war-torn comet Phang. In fact they land in the middle of a group of meerkat-like creatures, one of whom, Kurti, becomes Hazel's friend and her first kiss. But pursuit is never far behind, and in the conflict a timesuck is released which threatens to engulf Phang. It's necessary to abandon Phang, and they want to take their meerkats with them, especially Kurti, but the meerkats believe their deity will see them through the crisis. I don't want to spoil this, but near the end of the story is a panel that made me think of Goya's Dog, and the final pages are stunning in their power. These are creatures who would fit the classic comic book definition of 'funny animals', yet Vaughn and Staples have given them life we belief in, and told a story which has the power to bring even cynical adults to teary sadness.

SAGA Volume 7
written by Brian K Vaughn art by Fiona Staples
Image Comics, £13.99, ISBN 9781534300606

Saturday, 1 July 2017

...LISTEN (a poem after Jan Garbarek/Thomas Transtromer)

I started this poem between August and October 1985. That was the time when I had just moved into my flat in Belsize Park, alone. I was listening to Jan Garbarek's new album, It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, in which each of the tunes is based on, and titled with a line from, a Tomas Transtromer poem. There is a lot of inward looking in there, and it was resonating with me at that time, for reasons I got then, but understand a lot better now. It wasn't based strictly on either the title track, nor on "One Day In March I Go Down To The Sea And Listen", which is why the title has its ellipsis at the start. I know I have made notes for both those other titles, but I haven't found them yet.

...Listen was published in December 1987, as part of 'Five Jazz Poems' in Hollands Maandblad, which, as I've said before here, was one of my favourite of my all poetry publications. I've continued to write poems when the jazz music takes me. I was putting some together, maybe for a 30th anniversary at Hollands Maandblad, or for this blog, or something else, when I started looking at this one again. And when I did I reworked it considerably. In fact, what I hear in it now is a lot of 'Witchi-Tai-To', the Jim Pepper tune, in Garbarek's later version, not the one with Bobo Stenson in 1973. It's got the feel of a ritualistic chant, which is an approach to a feeling of aloneness from another side. It was a gray voice I was hearing, and I was not sure it was OK.

                   after Tomas Transtromer via Jan Garbarek

You're learning

something you've known
long time gone
crazy with rain
falling in waves
driving away
wipers beat

blinking not
crying but
trying to

make her repeat
what you don't
want to hear

but you think
needs to
appear & fill
between you


so you'll feel
pain, know
enough to
push her
away, though
she's not
there in the
other seat

so push instead
the last dry
grain of love
to a place
beyond care
you'll never
find again
not in this
rain & then


you can

& drift away
away with
& drift away with
the rain



Thursday, 29 June 2017


My obituary of Michael Nyqvist is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. Sometimes it feels wrong that an actor should be so identified with a character, but in the case of Nyqvist and Mikke Blomkvist it seems appropriate. Nyqvist caught the crucial thing about Blomkvist's sensitivity, and the ambiguity of it, but where the character Stieg Larsson wrote about seems more of a wish fulfillment, Nyqvist made him seem less heroic, which made him even more heroic.

I've written about this before, but when I went to a preview of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I was sitting right behind John Landis. When it was over, one of his companions asked what he thought of it, and very loudly he said 'It's an episode of Columbo!'. Which was true, in a sense, at it was, at least half of it, a who-dun-it, one almost set in an isolated building. Of course, Landis wasn't paying much attention to the Salander part of the story, go figure.

The piece is pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of literals snuck in: as far as I know (and I wasn't able to find the names of either set of his parents) his given names were Ralf Ake Mikael, and Nyqvist was his adopted family name. Also the name of the Matthew Ross film is Frank And Lola. And I had mentioned the film You Disappeared,  but that didn't make the final cut.

There was a lot of his filmography of which I hadn't been aware; Jan Guillou's books about the Crusades are good, so I'd like to find Arn. And there were two TV series after Blomqvist, not just Zero Hour, but a Swedish/German co-production called 100 Code.  I'd also like to see The Girl King, a bio-pic of Queen Kristina, in which Nyqvist plays the Chancellor.

I'd also like to read his memoir now, because he seems to have had such a balanced, contemplative attitude toward life, and especially toward identity. I can't help but think that helped make him such a good, and appealing actor.


Thursday, 22 June 2017


Larry Grantham died this week. He was a linebacker for the New York Jets, who joined the New York Titans out of the University of Mississippi in 1960 and played with them through 1972, including, of course, in Super Bowl III. He was one of of only seven players to play through all 10 seasons of the independent AFL with the same team. He was an all-star eight times, and five times all-league, though his reputation suffered because he was a standout in the early days of the AFL, when the overall league wasn't as strong. It's the reason why guys like Earl Faison or Jon Morris aren't better remembered and why the best runners and receivers from those years tend to be undervalued. Grantham was recognised by the Pro Football Researchers Association, who named him to their Hall of the Very Good. But he was a bit better than very good.

In fact, the Jets' victory over Baltimore in that game brought the AFL into a sort of parity with the NFL,and the Chiefs win over Minnesota the next year cemented it. Joe Namath of course was that game's MVP, because he was the QB and because he 'guaranteed' the win, but what is often overlooked in Namath's brash guarantee was the fact that he was not breashly self-promoting. He was stating what he thought was obvious, that the Jets were the better team. His coach, Weeb Ewbank, had coached the Colts, and he knew it too.

But the Jets did not win on the strength of Namath's arm. They won because they had a good offensive line, and could control the ball behind the power running of fullback Matt Snell, And they had a fine defense which could shut the Colts down, and Larry Grantham was the key guy on that D.  He had been a playmaking star in the early years of the Titans (while Wahoo McDaniel got the publicity) but when Weeb and defensive coordinator Walt Michaels arrived in New York they realised they had more than a playmaker in Grantham, and used his smarts and anticipation to bring out the best in the strongest part of their team. Grantahm called all the signals on the field. He once said he had eyes in the back of his head. 'I could close my eyes and know where all 22 players were on the field'. The Jets' strength was in their pass rushing ends: Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs, and their secondary, which included Johnny Sample, who had won the 1958 NFL title with Weeb and the Colts,  had a big game with four interceptions, two by Randy Beverly. The Jets held the Colts, who were 18 point favourites, to only 7 points. They didn't need Joe Willie to win.

Grantham was switched to linebacker in the pros because he wasn't fast or big enough to play tight or split end, nor big enough for defensive end. Grantham was listed at 6-0 210, but he probably played closer to 190. He'd played both ways even though he was undersized even for college. He was quick enough to avoid blockers, he could run with receivers, and he although he lacked raw strength he was an excellent form tackler against runners. He was also everything southern football players were in that era.
In 1959 I was just starting to become hooked on football beyond the Yale games I'd been going to in the Bowl since I was five or six. I'd watched the 1958 NFL championship with the men, not the kids, at a family gathering, and I knew my dad had played in college against the Giants' Andy Robustelli. I believe 1959 was the first year I encountered a Street & Smith's Annual, probably bought for me by my grandfather, and began to follow the colleges. And I can clearly remember reading the accounts and seeing the picture in the papers (and probably in Sports Illustrated or Time as well) of the LSU-Mississippi game that year.

I remember often playing 1959 Mississippi (and 1960 Washington with one-eyed Bob Schloredt at QB) in the Sports Illustrated football board game, with Seth Davis in the College of Letters when we were at Wesleyan. Ole Miss played a split-T roll-out offense with four different QBs! Bobby Franklin (later an NFL DB) and Jake Gibbs got most of the time; Gibbs would take over in 1960 and go on to catch in the major leagues for the Yankees; he must've had a strong arm but the Rebels rarely threw the ball; Gibbs attempted 94 passes all season. Doug Elmore was a sort of designated passer, while Billy Brewer was a runner who also played as a DB in the NFL. Grantham was third on the team in catches with 10, while Johnny Brewer played TE in the NFL for ten seasons. Their big runner was fullback Charlie Flowers, and they had a 6-4 runner/receiver named Bobby Crespino at halfback, both of them had NFL careers. Their backups were Hoss Anderson and Cowboy Woodruff. Really. But the biggest name on the team may have been tackle Bob Khayat, who had a longish NFL career as a kicker; he was dating Mary Ann Mobley, who was Miss America, in fact for two years running America's Miss came from Ole Miss. Khayat would go on to become chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and help bring it into the 20th century, before the Tea Party allowed at least a partial retreat.

It was as big a rivalry as any in the country, absent, at that time, Yale/Harvard and Army/Navy. And it was big because both teams were undefeated, and both coaches, Paul Dietzel at LSU and Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss, had built dynasties. Plus LSU had the country's best player, Billy Cannon. He had been third in the Hesiman voting as a junior and would win it as a senior. LSU won that game at home in Baton Rouge in monsoon conditions on Halloween. The score was  7-3, the TD coming on an 89 yard punt return by Cannon. You can see the tape of that run on You Tube; it's amazing. In the photo, that's Grantham, number 88. Mississippi allowed only 21 points on their way to a 10-1 season: only two offensive TDs all season. I didn't realise it at the time, but conditions were so bad Vaughn actually punted on first down from deep inside his own territory (that was not the one Cannon returned).

Ole Miss had a 4th and goal shot, but had their 'passing' QB in the game, and failed. The win took so much out of LSU they lost the following week at Tennessee, and handed the SEC championship to an inferior Georgia team. But LSU and Mississippi met in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. Mississippi still could not play games against integrated teams (state law prohibited it) so it was a natural for the Sugar Bowl. That law stopped Gibbs and Khayat from taking their SEC championship baseball team to the NCAA tournament. But Dietzel had to be talked into the game because obviously he had more to lose. Ole Miss won the game easily, 21-0, immediately after the game Cannon signed a contract with the Houston Oilers of the brand-new AFL; odds are the deal had already been done beforehand. Cannon gained only eight yards rushing all game; Grantham was assigned to spy him and hit him on every play.

I mentioned Grantham was a typical southerner. In those days the South seemed like a separate country and the Civil War seemed still fresh in everyone's minds. Yankees might as well have been foreigners. Southern teams were smaller, quicker, and hit harder. They played bowl games with de facto home field advantage against bigger teams from the north who struggled to adjust to the heat. They often had the benefit of southern referees too. But of course in that Sugar Bowl, it was Ole Miss' defense, led by Grantham (this was still both-ways football) that dominated. They finished the season 10-1, but the national championship went to 11-0 Syracuse, with Ernie Davis and Gerhard Schwedes, who beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl. You could argue that despite only playing in the segregated SEC, Ole Miss had a tougher schedule, but Syracuse had beaten two other ranked teams, Penn State and UCLA. Johnny Vaught got his title the next year, with a 10-0-1 team. Mississippi hasn't had one since. Those legendary college coaches seem a different breed than today's chief executives: they were tough. Vaughn in his career was 6-7-1 against Bear Bryant, and not many did even that well. But for a five year period between '59-'63, before the SEC started to integrate, Vaught went 43-2-3, his teams built around smaller Mississippians like Grantham.

Grantham came out of retirement to play one season with the Florida Blazers of the WFL in 1974, but it's as a Jet (and a Titan) he shall be remembered.   Later in life, as his medical bills mounted up, he put his Super Bowl III ring up for auction. When he was younger he had done fund-raising for a drug charity called Freedom House in New Jersey; they raised enough money to win the the auction for the ring, and the auction house handed it back to Larry Grantham, along with the money raised. It was what he deserved. He died in his native Mississippi. 1959 was a hell of year for old time college football. 1968 was a hell of a year to usher in the modern era. Larry Grantham was an unsung hero of both, and I remember him fondly.