Thursday, January 26, 2023

My Favorite Crime Movies

 That’s right, my Top Ten list. You don’t like it, make your own.


Top Ten lists are the two-inch erections of writing.  (A man and a woman go to bed together. She sees his erection measures two inches, at best, and asks, “Who do you expect to satisfy with that?” “Me,” he replies.) Everyone has their own tastes and criteria. Watching the Godfather trilogy a few weeks ago got me to thinking about my personal Pantheon of crime films. Take it for what it’s worth.


I have two primary principles when evaluating films for my list:

1. I have to like the movie.

2. It has to bear up under repeated viewings.


This means pictures such as A Touch of Evil don’t make the cut, no matter how much Chili Palmer likes it. I can appreciate the art, but a movie that casts Charlton Heston as a Mexican and leaves Janet Leigh to sit alone in a motel room for most of its duration is not something I’m going to watch a lot. Or even again.


Pulp Fiction is also right out. I’ve seen it many times and will probably see it again, but my opinion changes with every viewing. Is it brilliant? Is it a series of brilliant scenes that don’t quite equal the sum of their parts? Is it indecipherable, self-indulgent twaddle? Is it all of the above? Every time I watch it, I come down on the side of a different answer.


What does make the cut? These are all movies I’ll watch again—most of which I own—and look forward to doing so, knowing I’ll find something to enjoy I missed before. I made no effort to rank them; they are displayed in chronological order of their release.


The Maltese Falcon (1940)

The quintessential black and white noir film, in my mind rivaled only by Sunset Boulevard. (Which did not make the list because I don’t consider it a crime movie, though there is a crime committed.) The complex plot is not too complex to follow, and all the ends are tied off without being too pat about it. Bogart looks nothing like how Spade is described in the book, but he’s still perfect in the part. My only quibble was with Mary Astor as the femme fatale, but a little research taught me she had a reputation as a Hollywood bad girl at the time, which made her more believable to audiences of the day.


The French Connection (1971)

Including this one saved me a beating from Reed Farrel Coleman, but it would have made the cut, anyway. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider made their bones here; Hackman already had a name for himself, but Popeye Doyle blew him up. Don’t pay too much attention to the story; this is the ultimate mood picture, with one of the great (underrated) soundtracks ever. The chase sequence still grips me, though I have come to wonder how many cars that subway train had.


The Godfather (1972)

I talked about this one last week.


The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Wonderful and faithful adaptation of George V. Higgins’s groundbreaking novel. My favorite Robert Mitchum performance, though Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, and Steven Keats were all worthy of award consideration. The movie that, as much as any, shaped my ideas about criminal life.*


Chinatown (June 1974)

My go-to film when anyone complains about the water situation in Southern California. It’s a desert. People weren’t meant to live there. Just about a perfect noir.


The Godfather Part 2 (December 1974)

I talked about this one last week, too.


The Usual Suspects (1995)

It’s hard to imagine anyone who reads this blog isn’t familiar with The Usual Suspects, but I’ll not say much just in case, lest I spoil the greatest reveal in crime film history. Kevin Spacey steals the show, but all of the supporting actors are outstanding. Fun fact: Chazz Palmentieri played federal agent Dave Kujan (pronounced koo-yawn.); “Cujon” (very close in pronunciation) is a Cajun word for “fool.”


LA Confidential (1997)

Here it is, Mike Dennis. I wrote a blog about this one over ten years ago that probably needs some updating now that I’ve read the book. The only thing close to a flaw I can find is the display of Susan Lefferts’s body in the identification scene. She was killed by shotgun but doesn’t have a mark on her. Think how good a film must be for that to be my major quibble.


The Drop (2014)

A clinic in how to get in and get out of a story as economically as possible while still providing maximum impact for the audience. Tom Hardy is at his chameleon best, and James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, and Mattias Schoenaerts hang right with him. The final reveal here is first rate.


Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan’s masterpiece to date. Not that his other work isn’t good, but Hell or High Water shows both the criminal and law enforcement side with equal depth and understanding. The final scene between Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, each understanding the other better than the other thinks, worthy adversaries to the end, ties off a movie as well as any I’ve seen.


* -- This is why Heat, Goodfellas, and Casino didn’t make the list. They’re all brilliant films worthy of repeated viewings, but they’re too flashy.


I expect this list to satisfy no one other than myself. Bring it on.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Godfather Trilogy

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I took a few days to watch all three Godfather movies in order. For Christmas, The Sole Heir gave me Mark Seal’s excellent book Leave the Gun, take the Cannoli, which describes how the films came to be, from Mario Puzo’s personal backstory right up until the movie’s phenomenal success. Seal wrote an entire book about just one of the pictures, so I’m not going to try to get into all of them in a single blog. I can supply a list of salient thoughts.


·       The original is the best. For a long time I was unsure if Part 2 might be better, but on further review, The Godfather is damn near a perfect film, maybe the best ever.

·       Part 3, or as it’s now called, The Death of Michael Corleone, is not worthy of inclusion with its predecessors. I’ll not spend any more time on this lizard.

·       Forty-seven-year-old Marlon Brando’s performance of the aging Don Corleone is one of the great performances of all time. There are those who criticize his speaking voice and mannerisms; I grew up around a lot of people of Italian ancestry, used to rehearse at the local Italian American Club, and he nailed those old guys.

·       Francis Ford Coppola and Puzo worked hand-in-glove on the screenplay, which is brilliant. Kudos to Puzo for acquiescing to cutting a lot of the book. Not that he had much choice, but Seal describes the collaboration process as more than cordial, leading to a life-long friendship.

·       The lighting and cinematography of the original are breathtaking. One can almost smell the interior of the Corleone house. The contrasts of New York, Hollywood, and Sicily are artfully displayed in the photography.

·       For all the graphic, extreme, and cartoonish violence we’ve seen over the past fifty years, the death of Sonny Corleone is still hard to watch, as is his beating of Carlo Rizzi.

·       The first two films contain wonderfully controlled performances by Al Pacino. Great as his career has been, he would have been well served by doing more of this in his later years.

·       Let’s not forget the performances of James Caan as Sonny and John Cazale as Fredo. Robert Duvall has a much smaller part, but has Robert Duvall ever given a less than masterful performance?

·       Nino Rota’s score is unobtrusive and enhances every scene in which it appears.

·       Has there ever been a second-tier supporting cast better than Richard Castellano (Clemenza), Abe Vigoda (Tessio), John Marley (Jack Woltz), Sterling Hayden (Captain McCluskey), Al Lettieri (Sollozzo), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene), and Richard Conte (Barzini)? Adding Michael V. Gazzo (Frankie Pantangelo), Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth), G.D. Spradlin (Senator Geary), and Dominic Chianese (Johnny Ola) in Part 2 was pretty slick, too.

·       It’s Michael’s story, but the depiction of the Cuban revolution in Part 2 provides pithy commentary on American hubris regarding Cuba and, by extension, much of the rest of the world in the 50s and 60s.

·       Diane Keaton is better in Part 2 than in the original, but she didn’t bloom as an actress for another few years. Fortunately for all of us it was in time for Annie Hall.

·       Interesting note from the book that I did not know: Sofia Coppola is the baby christened in the finale of the original.

·       The wedding scene is masterful at providing exposition and backstory without being too obvious about it. Well, yeah, it’s clear that is what’s being done, but it has momentum of its own while laying out everything we need to know for the next two-and-a-half hours.

·       Rivals Casablanca for iconic lines.

o   “I believe in America.”

o   “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

o   ‘What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”

o   “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

o   “Someday, and this day may never come, I will ask you for a favor.”

o   These were off the top of my head. I could fill a blog post on great lines alone if I took the time to check them out in IMDB.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who reads this blog who has not seen at least the first two Godfather movies. If you haven’t, rectify the situation as soon as possible. While they hold up to repeated viewings, revealing new things each time, there’s nothing to compare to seeing them for the first time. Darken the room and make sure you go to the bathroom before starting. You’re not going to want to stop.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Jim Winter, Author of The Dogs of Beaumont Heights

 Jim Winter is the crime fiction name of TS Hottle. Born in Cleveland, he was raised on a steady diet of Star Trek, The Rockford Files, and early Spenser novels. He moved to Cincinnati in 1991 to be with the love of his life. He finally met her in 2017 and married her a year later.


As TS Hottle, he writes science fiction, but as Jim, he's written crime fiction for over twenty years. By day, he is a software developer. He lives with his wife Candy in suburban Cincinnati.


One Bite at a Time: Hi, Jim. It’s always good to talk with you. I think we go all the way back to the old Crimespace web site. Your new book is The Dogs of Beaumont Heights, which is an intriguing title that could go several ways. Which way does it go?


Jim Winter: It's a play on words. The dogs refer to the gang members trying to use vacant houses to store their stashes. It also refers to the literal dogs the leader Linc uses to guard those stashes. He has an associate running a fighting ring for pit bulls and hits on the idea of using the females to guard the houses in a neighborhood called Beaumont Heights.


OBAAT: This is the second book in the series set in Monticello, Ohio and featuring Detective Jessica Branson. Is this a sequel, a separate entity that uses the same characters and location, or a mix of the two? For example, are the bad guys here the same, related to, or completely different from those in Holland Bay?


JW: Special Investigations is the same. I actually didn't add anyone new to the mix. But Branson is more established in her role. Linc was a minor member of Baggy's crew in Holland Bay. Now he's stepped into the roles filled by Baggy and Armand. And Rufus King still looms over that operation, all with an eye of leaving the Game, as it's called in Monticello.


Roberts was a minor character in Holland Bay, a potential threat to Branson. But now he's doubly frustrated trying to get rid of Branson and chasing after the chief's position.


If anything is new, it's Isaac, the former Amish man who runs the junkyard. He enjoys dressing the part of his former life, but he's also every bit as ruthless and shrewd as those he does business with.


OBAAT: What led you to choose Ohio as the setting?


JW: When I first had the idea for Holland Bay, I had written stories set in Cleveland, where I grew up. But the city has become unrecognizable to me over the years, and Cincinnati, where I live now, is too close for me to write about. I need distance. On the other hand, placing a city in between Cleveland and Toledo and giving it a history and cast of characters from history let me come up with a living, breathing setting. And you can see reality from Monticello. Cedar Point and Put in Bay are visible from the lakefront, and the tallest building downtown offers a view, on clear days, of Canada and of the Key Tower in Cleveland. Once you have the source for names of streets and neighborhoods and the geography, a fictional city just comes alive.


OBAAT: Tell us a little about Jessica Branson, including who would play her in a movie?


JW: Branson, after several rewrites, became the series' central character. I was drawn to her because she got knocked down for doing her job and sent to a dead-end squad in hopes she'd quit. But she likes being a cop and decided to force a paycheck out of the city until they fired her. Only the dead-end squad suddenly becomes the mayor's pet project, and the man who investigated her gives her the second chance he thought she originally deserved. So Jess has to adapt. She's got a house she can't afford to keep and can't afford to sell, and, as I had happen when I owned a rental, gets saddled with the tenants from hell. That puts her in Roberts's crosshairs. But, as we found out in Holland Bay, she's done taking crap off of people more powerful than her. She tells Roberts the only way he can get rid of her is to fire her, and of course, she's going to make sure that decision hurts badly.


When Holland Bay started making rounds, I always thought Jessica Chastain or Jeri Ryan could play her, and Ryan could probably still pull off the character. Now, maybe if it were a streaming series or a movie, Jess Bush from Strange New Worlds could be a logical next step for her. Justine Lupe from Succession and Mr. Mercedes might be a good choice. Only she would have to play the role a lot harder than she did Holly Gibney (whom she really brought to life), but I think she has the chops.


OBAAT: What writers, books, films, or television shows influenced you when you developed the idea for this series?


JW: Originally, I pitched Holland Bay as The Wire meets 87th Precinct. I still think that's true, though the idea of a rotating central character has gone by the wayside. From the police side of things, Branson is front and center when I'm not focusing on the political machinations within the city. So she's more McNulty than Carella, though she has better control of her appetites than McNulty ever did.


I also drew a bit from Stephen King, whose fictional Maine is more real than some people's real-life settings. Castle Rock and Derry and TR 90 are more real than some writers' LA or New York, or even the Cleveland written by this hack in the early 2000s… Oh, wait. That was me.


OBAAT: How long have you been writing and what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned? Could be about craft, the business, or anything related.


JW: I started doing this "for real" about twenty years ago, with a couple of breaks during that time, and a sidetrack into science fiction. Over time, I learned you're not likely to get rich, I'm a bit of a control freak (hence my approach to science fiction), and you have to love what you're doing.


OBAAT: What are you working on now?


JW: I am working on the follow up to The Dogs of Beaumont Heights with the working title Harbourtown. That name will likely go away as the story progresses. And I'm prepping one of several sci-fi books I dictated during what I call my Stupid Writer's Trick™ when the pandemic raged.



Thursday, January 5, 2023

How Much is Enough?

 Editing began last Tuesday on the still untitled work in progress. (Working title: Forte 6.) The current length is 58,427 words. With time on my hands and being a statistically minded SOB, I decided to see where that fell in context with my other books. I knew it was relatively short by my standards, but how short?


Fifteen minutes of research showed it’s shorter than every book I’ve written except its predecessor in the Forte series, Bad Samaritan. Let’s take a look of the numbers and see if anything pops.


Forte novels are shorter than Penns River books by about 16%. (67,037 words vs. 80,154. Everything is rounded to whole numbers because, while I may be a stat nerd, I’m not Rain Man.) This is to be expected. Penns River stories have subplots, tangential anecdotes, and are told through the eyes of multiple characters; Forte’s stories are his alone.


This is unplanned evidence of something I suspected for quite a while: PI stories work better when they’re shorter. There’s only so much heavy lifting one character can do.


All the Penns River books are longer than any of the Fortes, with two exceptions. Forte’s The Man in the Window is a little longer than a few of the Penns River books, coming in just under the PR average. (77,665 vs. 80,154.) The fourth Forte novel, A Dangerous Lesson, is the longest at 81,199. It is also my least favorite of the Fortes.


Much of this is due to it being a serial killer novel, which I wrote because it seemed like I should, breaking one of my cardinal rules, to wit: Write the story you’d want to read. The book is also artificially long, as I was about to publish when a plot twist came to mind. Looking back, I’m glad I made the addition. The book is better and goes a long way to showing Forte’s growing darkness of character.


(Side note: My sole standalone, Wild Bill, is 76,928 words long which is between the two series, though much closer to Penns River than Forte. This also makes sense, as it is a multi-POV story with a lot of moving parts.)


I suspected going into this little project that Forte 6 was my shortest book and learned that’s not the case. Forte books are getting shorter, though. Bad Sam and Forte 6 are 23% shorter than the average of the first four.


Numbers are fun to play with but they’re only important if they teach, so now that I have empirical evidence of things I’ve suspected for some time, what conclusions can I draw?


My writing and storytelling have become tighter. The first four books I wrote were Fortes, and I had an idea in mind of what should be “in a book.” I included tropes that, while not injurious to the book, didn’t really add much. The multi-POV books could get out of hand if I didn’t rein that in.


It didn’t happen right away. PR-1, Worst Enemies, came in at 96,800, by far the longest book I’d written. (And still the leader in the clubhouse.) Grind Joint was 73,763; Resurrection Mall gobbled up 93,076 words. I’m proud of all three, but Grind Joint is my favorite for multiple reasons, not least is that I told a complex story and got out quickly and cleanly. I never thought consciously about that, but my longest book since Res Mall is 80,387 (White Out).


Among interesting (to me) sidelights I found is that I have now written over a million words in novels that have been published or are pending publication. (1,120,429 to be precise. I have that much Rain Man in me.) Elmore Leonard said a writer’s voice should be set once he has a million words under his belt. Things I used to agonize over are more quickly resolved. There’s a pace and rhythm to my writing now that comes naturally, and it’s about time. I’m not as young as I used to be. I no longer feel like everything that isn’t hard is cheating.