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Showing posts by: Jake Hinkson click to see Jake Hinkson's profile
Feb 23 2018 1:00pm

Review: The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon

The Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon is the seventh book in the Maigret series—a sensational tale of deceit and back-stabbing in an isolated community.

The Night at the Crossroads was Simenon’s seventh book in the Maigret series, released in the insanely prolific year of 1931. After the publication of the first book in the series, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, Simenon had produced 10 more books almost monthly—books that burst out of him like a volley of gunfire.

His methods for achieving this level of prolificacy are legendary. Each book took about 11 days to write; working without an outline, he would plan the book in his head, put on a “lucky shirt” (not always the same lucky shirt), and then write a first draft in about a week, with a few days to revise. With a Do Not Disturb sign on the door and all connection canceled to the outside world, he’d produce one or two chapters in the morning, vomit in the afternoon, and then rest in the evening. This way of writing, complete with the daily puking, was like nothing so much as going on a binge.

The results of Simenon’s “produce and purge” technique were impressive, and the public scooped up the Maigret books as fast as he could write them. One of the best books of this first year, and in some ways the breakout book of the series, was The Night at the Crossroads.

[Read Jake Hinkson's review of The Night at the Crossroads...]

Jan 24 2018 1:00pm

Review: The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon

The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon is the eighth book in the Inspector Maigret series, a gripping novel set in an insular fishing community.

There’s a subgenre of mystery fiction that we might call the Interrupted Vacation. This plotline finds our hero on holiday when—wouldn’t you know it—a body pops up, and the detective has to abandon his or her leisure in order to go set the world right again. Virtually every series hero has one or two of these stories somewhere in their oeuvre. Think of Holmes and Watson going on their ill-fated holiday in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” or Hercule Poirot’s attempt to vacation in Devon in Evil Under the Sun. Closer to home, it seems like Murder, She Wrote was based almost entirely on the concept of the Interrupted Vacation.

Simeon’s Inspector Maigret had more than his share of ruined holidays. In 1947’s Maigret’s Holiday (alternately titled, appropriately enough, No Vacation for Maigret), the inspector tries to pass a few nice days in Les Sables-d'Olonne with his wife, but of course, work intrudes. In Maigret’s Little Joke (1957), he tries to take two weeks off for a stay-at-home vacation. Guess how that turns out. In Maigret Takes the Waters (1967), he tries to relax in Vichy for his health. No dice. The best of Maigret’s Interrupted Vacations, however, came relatively early in the series: the ninth book, 1931’s The Grand Banks Café (aka Maigret Answers a Plea).

[Read Jake Hinkson's review of The Grand Banks C...]

Jan 10 2018 1:00pm

Review: Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters by Georges Simenon

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters by Georges Simenon is the 39th book in the Maigret series, where Maigret goes up against a group of American gangsters and finds he just might have met his match.

Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters (aka Maigret and the Killers) was the novel that made me a Maigret fan. I think I’d read a couple of Georges Simenon’s later efforts in the series and found them a little stale. Which is fair. Any series that runs to well over 70 installments is going to produce some duds. Like Picasso supposedly told André Malraux, “You can’t be a sorcerer all day long.”

With Maigret and the Killers (if you’ll excuse me for using the snappier American title of the old pulp version I know best), Simenon was working his magic. This is a classic installment in the series and a great place for newbies to begin. Fast, exciting, and compulsively readable, it is Simenon and Maigret at their best.

[Read Jake Hinkson's review of Maigret, Lognon and the Gangsters...]

Jan 3 2018 1:00pm

Georges Simenon and the Top 6 Maigret Mystery Novels

The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon was a monster. I’m not talking about his failures as a human being, which apparently included being a faithless husband, a wartime opportunist, and a problematic father. No, I mean, he was a monster in the sense that he worked like a beast. Over the course of his decades-long career, he published hundreds of novels and stories. The exact count of these published works is impossible to calculate because, starting out, Simenon toiled for years under various pen names, producing pulp by the truckload before finally affixing his name to The Strange Case of Peter the Lett in 1931.

In this novel, Simenon created a character that would change the course of his career: the French Inspector Jules Maigret. The brilliant, pipe-smoking detective was an immediate smash hit in France (and soon, all around the world). So the monster went into action, churning out 10 more Maigret novels in 1931. You read that correctly. It isn’t a typo. In the first year of producing Maigret adventures, Georges Simenon published 11 books. Maybe he took off December for the holidays.

[Read more about Georges Simenon & see which Maigret novels topped the list!]

Jun 11 2015 2:00pm

Orson Welles at 100: F for Fake (1973)

Every film that Orson Welles made was distinctively an Orson Welles movie. Even something like The Stranger, which was Welles’s one attempt to make a standard studio film, still ends up looking like an Orson Welles movie. Of all the films he made, however, there might not be a more “Wellesian” Welles picture than F for Fake.

If we can say that there is no other drama quite like Citizen Kane, and no film noir quite like The Lady From Shanghai, and no Shakespeare film quite like Falstaff, then how do we even begin to address the uniqueness of F for Fake? Well, let’s begin with the fact that no one quite knows how to categorize it. Is it a documentary? Or is it better thought of, as some have suggested, as an “essay film?”

I prefer to call it a work of creative nonfiction. It blends together documentary footage, interviews, dramatic recreations, and almost Expressionistic performance art set-pieces for a meditation on art, forgery, and expertise. Welles starts by looking at the career of the world famous (or world infamous) art forger Elmyr de Hory, the subject of a book called Fake by Clifford Irving…who himself was shortly to become notorious as the author of a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles follows this swirl of events and uses them to ponder several questions about the nature of art: What is the value of authorship? If no one knows the difference between a real masterpiece and a fake masterpiece, then is there a difference? Are critics and experts merely con men pretending to know what art “is” so that they can have a job teaching the rest of us? At one point in the film Clifford Irving admits, “I’ve lost my faith in the concept of expertise,” and, indeed, F for Fake functions as a takedown of the very idea of expert appreciation.

[That's a foundation shaker...]

Jun 5 2015 9:00am

Orson Welles at 100: Falstaff, or Chimes At Midnight (1965)

Falstaff might just be Orson Welles’s greatest film. Welles himself thought so, and many among his legion of devoted fans think so. That the film remains largely unseen in America has little bearing on this opinion. In his home country, Welles is still most closely associated with Citizen Kane and The Third Man, but among those who know his work best, Falstaff represents his most fully formed achievement.

First and foremost, it is Welles’s finest achievement as a screenwriter. That may come as a surprising statement, since, the text itself comes from William Shakespeare. But consider this: Welles created this film out of subplots and snatches of dialog lifted from four plays (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor) and some prose lifted from Holinshed’s Chronicles. With these materials he fashioned a drama that is at once distinctly Shakespearean and also, without a doubt, the most radical adaptation of Shakespeare ever attempted on film. Of course, he was already famous for his experiments with Shakespeare on stage  in the ‘30s (the so-called Voodoo Macbeth and his anti-fascist Julius Caesar) and on screen in the ‘40s and ‘50s (the Scottish Macbeth and the hodgepodge Othello), but Falstaff is more radical than any of these. With Falstaff, Welles did not merely interpret a text. He created his own story, the Shakespeare drama that Shakespeare never thought to write.

[Not many people could have pulled this off...]

May 30 2015 11:00am

Orson Welles at 100: The Trial (1962)

I think the chief accomplishment of Orson Welles’s The Trial is that it so fully traps us in its nightmare world. The movie is an adaptation of Kafka’s novel about a man named Josef K who wakes up one morning to find that he is being persecuted for some unknown offense. K stumbles from one bizarre confrontation with the law to another. He is never told what he's charged with, but he is assured that his case is going very badly. Welles’s film takes this surreal premise and runs with it.

The movie was made during Welles’s second European exile. After the failed release of Touch Of Evil in 1958, the director had more or less washed his hands of Hollywood. He would spend much of the 60s in Europe, a period in which he made some of his best work: The Trial, Falstaff (Chimes At Midnight), and The Immortal Story. Not only are all these films fascinating, they also comprise a pretty good run of luck for a director who had so often had to struggle with producers and studios to get his vision on screen.

[Imagine the movies we could have had...]

May 26 2015 9:00am

Orson Welles at 100: Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is one of the great pieces of cinematic trash. It’s a frantic film, wildly over the top, in love with its own squalor, infatuated with the feel and smell of decay. Among the director’s attempts at pulp, it is his masterpiece.

At its center is Welles himself, joyously grotesque in the role of a bloated, degenerate cop named Hank Quinlan. In his small Texas border town, Quinlan is a legend, a fat redneck Sherlock Holmes who always gets his man. When a car bomb suddenly explodes on his side of the border, killing a rich developer and his girlfriend, Quinlan sets out to find the killer. Also investigating the bombing is a Mexican narcotics officer named Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a newlywed in town with his wife Susie (Janet Leigh). Vargas thinks the bombing might have something to do with a high profile case he’s working on involving a Mexican drug cartel headed by a goofball named Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). Quinlan doesn’t want Vargas messing around in his investigation, probably because he’s already decided that the killer is the young Mexican who has been dating the dead man’s daughter.

[Sounds fishy...]

May 20 2015 3:15pm

Orson Welles at 100: The Third Man (1949)

Joseph Cotten holds a peculiar place in movie history. He was a charismatic and bankable movie star in the forties, and he was a fine actor and an all-around nice guy, but he lived most of his adult life, and will likely live throughout the ages, in the shadow of his friend Orson Welles. Even though Cotten was the bigger star, Welles was somehow the bigger presence. This was never more obvious than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a masterpiece of film noir and perhaps the biggest success of either actor’s career.

Based on the novel by Graham Green (who also wrote the screenplay) The Third Man tells the story of an American pulp novelist named Holly Martins (Cotten) who travels to Vienna after WWII to meet up with an old friend named Harry Lime (Welles). Upon arriving, however, Martins discovers that Lime has been killed in a hit and run accident. At the funeral, he meets a beautiful young woman named Anna (played by Alida Valli), the one person who seems truly upset by Lime’s death. He also meets Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) the army official in charge of policing the English section of Vienna. Calloway is not upset by Lime’s death. In fact, he has some gruesome news for Martins: Harry Lime was a criminal—no, worse, Harry Lime was a downright villain.

SEE ALSO: Is Graham Greene the greatest thriller writer ever?

The exact details of Lime’s crimes, and the events that unfold as Martins begins to look into the curious events surrounding his friend’s death are one of the pleasures of the film, so I’ll avoid getting too specific about plot points. In way, though, the chief pleasure of the film isn’t the story at all but the milieu and the magnificent direction of Carol Reed. The Third Man is, simply put, one of the most beautiful films ever made. Reed shoots at slanted angles, rarely going for a conventional shot when he can visually approximate the unsettled nature of Cotten’s descent into the European criminal underworld. His main collaborator is cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose work here is not just beautiful, it is a flawless use of the medium of black and white film. There may be no better argument for the superior artistry of black and white than this movie.

[Simply put, go watch this now!]

May 13 2015 4:00pm

Orson Welles at 100: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

 Foreign release poster for The Lady from Shanghai (1947)The Lady from Shanghai is a brilliant mess. It is a film that was taken away from its director, edited thoughtlessly, scored with one song endlessly repeated, and then shelved for years before it was finally dumped on the market. And yet it’s still pretty damn close to great.

Before we go further, I should pause to declare something: I am a proud partisan of Orson Welles. No one doubts Welles’s talent, but there is a prevailing opinion in some circles that he died a fallen, undisciplined wunderkind. He made Citizen Kane, the story goes, and the rest was a sharp drop.

Bullshit, I reply.

[After that, some proof better be coming...]

May 1 2015 2:30pm

Orson Welles at 100: The Stranger (1946)

By 1945, Orson Welles was in trouble. He had arrived in Hollywood in 1939 like a hero, been welcomed at RKO with the best contract any director had ever been granted. Of course, many of the old guard in town resented the brash radio star, and they resented him further when his first movie, Citizen Kane, brought down the wrath of the Hearst corporation. But few people doubted the quality of Kane.

Welles followed it by directing an ambitious adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, producing Journey into Fear, and attempting to make a South American documentary-drama hybri, It’s All True. All of these projects had been flops of one kind or another, and by 1945, Welles knew if he was going to survive in Hollywood, he desperately needed to establish himself as a conventional filmmaker.

He got his shot when producer Sam Spiegel hired him to make The Stranger, a thriller about a woman living in a small college town, who discovers that the mild-mannered professor she has just married is really a notorious ex-Nazi mastermind. Welles was cast as the villain, with Loretta Young as his unsuspecting wife and Edward G. Robinson as the government investigator snapping at his heels.

[Always under fire...]

Apr 26 2015 11:00am

Orson Welles at 100: Citizen Kane (1941)

One approaches Citizen Kane slowly because of the enormous reputation that surrounds it like the vast fields, cages, and lagoons that lead up to Xanadu. Almost no one sees it for the first time without being over-prepared for it. All the plaudits, all the scholarly works, all the pop culture references—they sprawl about the film itself, always threatening to make it into the kind of museum piece Charles Foster Kane would have boxed up in Europe and shipped back to the states, never to see again. Sure, the film has lasted over seventy years, but so what? The relative youth of cinema (only about 114 years) gives us a trivial view of eternity. As Kane's director once said in another of his films, most of our art is destined to fall into the “universal ash.” Citizen Kane may yet become just another forgotten artifact.

But for now Kane still lives, and what an amazing film it turns out to be after the fifth, the tenth, the twentieth viewing. I lost count a long time ago how many times I’ve seen this movie—hell, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it projected in a theater—yet more than most other movies it continues to fascinate me. Perhaps more importantly, it continues it entertain me.

[When you boil it down, isn't that what it's all about?]

Apr 17 2015 2:00pm

Letter from Lyon: At 2015’s Quais du Polar

The Quais Du Polar is the largest crime fiction festival in France, and that’s saying a lot, because the French love crime fiction. Sure, mysteries (and to a lesser extent, noir) are big in the U.S., but crime fiction in France is a cultural phenomenon reaching back decades. The French, god love them, are obsessed with all things criminal. The Quais Du Polar festival is headquartered in the magnificent Palais du Commerce in Lyon, where, for three days, over a hundred authors sit signing books for an estimated 70,000 fans and readers. It’s like Comic-Con for noir geeks.

[Bring on the Gallic geekery!]

Apr 16 2015 2:00pm

Orson Welles at 100: Orson Welles’s Last Movie

May 6th, 2015 will mark the 100th birthday of the late Orson Welles. To commemorate the birth of the great filmmaker, we’ll be looking back at many of his greatest cinematic accomplishments — movies like Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, and Chimes At Midnight. First though, let’s pull a real Orson Welles move and start at the end, with his last great movie project, the ill-fated The Other Side of the Wind.

The movie was going to be Welles’s grand statement on filmmaking. It tells the story of an aging movie director, Jake Hannaford (played by a wily John Huston) who is trying to stage a comeback in a Hollywood that has basically left him behind. The film was autobiographical, of course — though Welles, being Welles, dismissed any overly autobiographical readings of the film. He labored mightily on the project for years — fighting money troubles and the indifference of the establishment. In the end, the film was left unedited. To this day, it remains virtually unseen, even by most movie fanatics.

A new book looks at this fascinating period in the life of the great director. In Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind author Josh Karp has assembled the most detailed account yet of the creation of the doomed project.

[And we have some copies you could win!]

Mar 28 2015 11:00am

Noir’s Goon Squad: Brad Dexter

Brad Dexter has evil eyes. There are a lot of guys who have that whole hollow-on-the-inside steely-eyed-gaze thing going on in classic noir, but no one does it better than Brad Dexter. To catch up with him in some of his classic roles is to stare down the barrel at a man who simply does not care about anything but himself.

He’s probably best known today as one of the gang in The Magnificent Seven —though he once remarked, and not incorrectly, “I’m the one from The Magnificent Seven that no one remembers.” One of the reasons he got lost in the shuffle of the big stars of that film is because he had never been a big star, nor did he go on become a star. He was simply dependable Brad Dexter.

He was born Boris Velijko Milanovich in Goldfield, Nevada, the child of Serbian immigrants. Tall and brawny, in his youth he worked as a meat packer and an amateur boxer. Soon enough, though, he made his way into acting and was pretty much immediately put to work playing a series of heavies. After serving in the Army in World War II, he started making movies billed as “Barry Mitchell” in the Roy Rogers western Heldorado (1946).

[He'd catch on right away...]

Mar 18 2015 3:00pm

Beast in View: Margaret Millar at 100

In the vast criminal menagerie that Margaret Millar created over the course of her long career, there is a special place for the “woman in distress” plot. She wrote many different kinds of stories — and her novels were as likely to feature male protagonists as female — but one of the things that she did best was to put a young woman in a pressure cooker of a situation…and then keep cranking up the pressure.

Perhaps the best example of this is her 1955 novel Beast In View. It tells the story of Helen Clarvoe, a well-off “spinster” (at the ripe old age of 30), who is being stalked by an insane woman named Evelyn Merrick. Clarvoe asks her family lawyer, Paul Blackshear, to get rid of the troubled Ms. Merrick. Things do not go as planned.

Beast In View was, in some respects, Millar’s most successful novel. It got rave reviews, sold well, and won Millar the Edgar Award for Best Novel. As the years have gone on, it has remained perhaps Millar’s best known work. It was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the 60s and Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 80s. Writing about the book in 1984 for the New York Times, Anthony Boucher said, it was “written with such complete realization of every character that the most bitter antagonist of mystery fiction may be forced to acknowledge it as a work of art.”

[Warning: Spoilers Inside...]

Mar 16 2015 1:30pm

The Stand Alones: Georges Simenon’s The Widower

I don’t know if we can say with certainty that Georges Simenon was the most successful writer of the 20th Century, but he would certainly be a top contender for the title. It wasn’t just that he wrote books that sold well around the world, it was that he churned out a new book seemingly every week. A ballpark estimate of his output is somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred books, and that’s in addition to reams of articles and short stories. His most famous creation was Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, who headlined 75 different novels, 28 short stories, and dozens of movies and television shows. IMBD puts the total number of Simenon adaptations at 137. Anyway you cut it, those are some impressive numbers.

But they are, in the end, just numbers. The real success for a writer, of course, is found in the work itself, and Simenon’s literary reputation was just about on par with his output. The Maigret novels remain masterful models a certain kind of psychologically loaded pop mystery. Simenon could concoct a puzzle as well as anyone, but it’s not really the puzzle that you care about. A Maigret mystery is as likely to be a whydunit as a whodunit. Oftentimes, you’ll see Maigret compared to other famous sleuths—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot—but he’s a quiet companion to that kind of company. He’s neither an arrogant robot like Holmes nor a preening dandy like Poirot. He is, instead, a sturdy professional. Moreover, outside of his detecting skills, his most marked characteristic is, of all things, compassion. The success of the character owes a lot to the fact that he is, in the end, simply a good man.

[And there was so much more than Maigret...]

Feb 25 2015 2:00pm

Agent Carter 1.08: Season Finale “Valediction”

On its eighth and final episode of the season, “Valediction,” Agent Carter comes to something of an awkward conclusion. In many respects, the show does a workmanlike job of bringing its first season to a close. It wraps up its main storyline, leaves several interesting ends dangling tantalizingly loose, and drops a big revelation in the last scene. But it also makes a couple of odd little missteps… and one big mistake.

I’ll get to all that in a second, but first a quick catch-up: when we last left the intrepid Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) she was searching for the evil Russian scientist Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown) and his lethal assassin sidekick Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan). They’d just unleashed a gas canister that made a movie theater full of people kill each other.

Turns out the gas was another Howard Stark invention, called Midnight Hour, that he’d developed for the military. The gas was supposed to help keep soldiers awake, but instead it makes people psychotic. Ivchenko blames Stark for the deaths of a town full of Russian soldiers who were exposed to the gas by a rogue general. Now he kidnaps Stark (Dominic Cooper) and brainwashes him into thinking that he can save Captain America by flying a planeload of the gas into Times Square.

[Why is it always NYC?]

Feb 24 2015 8:45am

The Cowboy Rides Away: Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and The Cheyenne Social Club

The Cheyenne Social Club poster featuring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda had one of the longest lasting friendships in the history of Hollywood. They met as young actors, became instant pals, and stayed close until Fonda’s death in 1982. Orson Welles is supposed to have said, “I thought these two guys were either having the hottest affair in Hollywood, or they were the two straightest human beings I ever met in my life. I came to conclusion that they were the two straightest human beings I’d ever met in my life.”

In a sense, they were perfectly matched. Both were tall and thin and possessed of a certain soft-spoken middle American charm. Naturally reserved, they were both always well cast as quiet men of bedrock decency. It was always easy to believe that the fella who played Jefferson Smith would be best friends with the fella who played Tom Joad. They seemed like a couple of regular guys.

[Guys you'd want to grab a beer with...]

Feb 18 2015 4:15pm

Agent Carter 1.07: “SNAFU”

Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Jarvis (James D'Arcy). More please!

The folks behind Agent Carter have been smart about how they parcel out information. Take the character of Dr. Ivchenko (Ralph Brown). We first met him as a prisoner that Peggy (Hayley Atwell) rescued back in Episode 5. He seemed like a harmless old man. Last episode, however, we discovered he was in league with Leviathan and its killer agent Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan). Now, in Episode 7, Ivchenko reveals himself to be a full-on super villain.

We begin back in 1943. (I like how the last few episodes have begun with flashbacks, another nice way of giving us little breadcrumbs to follow in a story with a lot of twists and turns.) We see Ivchenko on the frontlines with the Russian army. The medics have run out of morphine, and they come to Ivchenko because they hear that he can alter the state of people in pain. What we discover in this sequence, which is nicely done, is that the good (actually bad) doctor can control minds, sweeping people away into alternate states, so that a solider having his leg sawed off smiles happily because he thinks he’s sitting next to a river talking to his beloved mother.

[Talk about waking up with regret...]