Sunday, October 28, 2007

Book report: "Blackmailer"

George Axelrod isn't exactly a household name these days. And perhaps he wasn't exactly a household name in the 1950s and 1960s either, but that's when he was at the top of his form. For quite a while he was hot stuff in the entertainment world. And you would have been hot stuff, too, and deservedly so, if you had written "The Seven Year Itch" for Broadway and the screenplays for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the original film version of "The Manchurian Candidate." He also directed a couple of movies.

Axelrod's stock-in-trade was sophisticated satire, and though his work was mostly limited to plays and screenplays, in the early 1950s he tried his hand at a crime novel. "Blackmailer," recently republished by Hard Case Crime, was the result.

The book begins as a mysterious woman comes to the offices of Conrad, Sherman, Inc., Publishers, and says she has only copy of the book that literary lion Charles Anstruther (think Hemingway) finished before he died. (We later learn that Anstruther, like Hemingway, died of a gunshot wound -- perhaps a case of Life Later Imitating Art, or, perhaps, Art Taking a Lucky Guess.)

Our hero, Dick Sherman, has trouble understanding why the woman would bring such a literary bonanza to Conrad, Sherman, considering that the company mostly publishes textbooks and puzzle books.

And so begins what might be described as a literary version of "The Maltese Falcon," though the plot of "Blackmailer" is so dizzying, what with double and triple crosses and one or two developments that might make The Long Arm of Coincidence say "Uncle," that Dashiell Hammett's story by comparison seems as complex as a robust game of tic-tac-toe. Even as I was reading the story, I didn't always believe it, any more than I always believe a cabbie in a strange town who says he knows the quickest way from the airport to the hotel. But this didn't matter much to me, because despite this, "Blackmailer" was a fast, enjoyable ride.

The book is particularly notable for what we now call Attitude and its portrait of a bygone literary-entertainment scene.

As for Attitude, here is Sherman discussing one of his firm's top money makers, whom he unwillingly has to take to lunch:

"Lorraine Carstairs is the middle-aged alcoholic who is the author, or inventor, or whatever you call it, of the Triple-Cross-O-Gram. Triple Cross-O-Grams are a combination crossword puzzle and twenty-question game. I have never been able to solve one. I have never desired to be able to solve one."

This seems like a barely veiled reference to Elizabeth S. Kingsley and her Double Crostics, which were long a mainstay of the Saturday Review. I have no way of knowing whether Ms. Kingsley was actually a "middle-aged alcoholic," or whether she had a legal staff that was well-versed in libel. (Or whether Axelrod's original publishers also had good lawyers.)

Another character is either based on Truman Capote or on the person Capote would eventually become. (Another well-taken guess?)

Given Axelrod's background in playwriting and movies, it's not surprising that "Blackmailer" seems to want to be a movie, and I wouldn't be surprised if some filmmaker optioned it. It's too bad that Axelrod, who died in 2003, isn't around to direct it himself.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Case of the Regurgitated Reruns

If you wait long enough, every show that was ever on TV will show up on DVD. (One possible exception: that old standby, "Please Stand By," which unexpectedly popped up on the schedule many times when I was a kid. It never did have much of a plot, but it always offered plenty of nail-biting suspense.)

The people who sell such DVDs are asking you to pay good money for stuff -- good and otherwise -- that you've seen already, perhaps many times.

I admit it: I've taken the bait a number of times. SCTV. Sgt. Bilko. Groucho's quiz show. And some shows I hadn't seen, Sid Caesar, Steve McQueen in "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Wally Cox in "Mr. Peepers" among them.

And I'll confess that I've also been tempted by the Perry Mason DVDs, the ones with early episodes of the original series starring Raymond Burr. But a voice in my head keeps saying to me, "You've seen them. And seen them. And seen them. And seen them...."

Sad but true.

It all began, your honor, when I was a kid. Saturday night at 7:30 was Perry Mason time. I'd watch the first few minutes, and then I would be summoned -- not to superior court, but to the bathtub. I'd usually be bailed out just before the end of the episode, so I could see who did it.

Years later, the episodes were on five days a week in syndication. And years later still, TBS, the Superstation, showed them during the noon hour -- which was when I used to get up after another graveyard shift.

The result of all this -- and I'm not necessarily proud of it -- is that if you show me just a few frames from any Mason episode, I can usually name the episode, who the defendant is, who the killer is, whether it was based on one of the Erle Stanley Gardner books, etc. (Hey, at least I don't show up at Perry Mason fan conventions dressed as Paul Drake. For one thing, they don't have Perry Mason fan conventions, and for another, just try finding one of those hound's-tooth jackets that Paul seemed to love so much.)

I also know that of all the actors who appeared on the show, only two have achieved what I call the Perry Mason Hat Trick, playing, in various episodes, the defendant, the victim and the murderer: the late, lovely Mala Powers and the late and not quite so lovely (though pleasant enough) Denver Pyle. (Update, 11/7/07: It turns out that 11 actors achieved this feat, according to another Web page: So I stand corrected -- not an unusual posture for me....)

Over the years I also read many of the Mason books -- my dad was a member of the Detective Book Club, which usually featured the latest Gardner novel. I've often wondered, by the way, why so many of the TV episodes based on the books stray so far from the original plot. Or in some cases the plot is similar, but the murderer is a different person. Given the caprices of Hollywood, I normally wouldn't wonder about this much, but Gardner had control over the TV show. Unfortunately, most of the people involved in the production of the show don't seem to be around anymore, so this is one mystery that might well go unsolved.

In one of my favorite moments from the show (and oddly enough for once I can't recall which episode), Burr almost certainly comes close to blowing a line but saves himself (and some production costs) at the last moment. It's during a cross-examination, and Perry is really hammering the poor schlub, and Burr comes out with something like: "And when did you see the defendant -- or, better yet, how could you know...." Burr's very smooth as always, but no writer would have written that dialogue that way. (I hope.)

The regulars were particularly well-cast. Barbara Hale was Della Street, smart but discreet; if the director goofed and there was a problem in the cutting room, the editors always seemed to have a fallback: cut to Della and one of her Knowing Glances. Never mind if it was from several episodes ago, or from her days as an ingenue at RKO.

William Hopper was Paul Drake, who always seemed to be described in the books as "dyspeptic." In each file cabinet in each casting office in L.A., there must have been a manila folder labeled "dyspeptic," and it must have contained just one picture, that of Mr. H.

In the 1950s Jimmy Stewart made a big splash as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's "The Spirit of St. Louis." William Hopper would have been just as big a star if a director with Wilder's clout had opted to make "The Man Who Invented Maalox."

William Talman was nearly perfect as Hamilton Burger. I say "nearly" because in the Mason books (at least early on) Burger is described as being "barrel-chested." I'm sorry to say that Talman fell somewhat short of a full keg. But this is a small point; Talman more than made up for this as an actor by having a range that no performer before or after him has ever equaled. Like one of those souped-up cars that can go from 0 to 100 mph in 10 seconds, Talman, within the same scene, could go from unctuousness to abject apoplexy at a speed that would have left Chuck Yaeger gasping for breath.

Ray Collins' Lt. Tragg was smart, sly, funny and kind of likable. As Collins got older and more frail, he was replaced by Lt. "Andy" Anderson (Wesley Lau), whose sense of humor wasn't readily apparent and who was fond of saying that someone had "just bought a one-way ticket to the gas chamber!" (As if a round-trip ticket would have done anyone much good.)

I've always remembered the last Mason episode, where, in the last scene, the judge was portrayed by Gardner and the murderer was revealed to be (spoiler alert!) Dick Clark! If America's Oldest Teenager could murder not one but two people (one of them -- whaddya know! -- Denver Pyle) in the course of one hour, it was clear that this country was going to hell in a handbasket. (Wonder where that cliche came from, anyway. And would Yogi Bear go to hell in a pick-a-nick basket?)

Anyway, it was clear that the country's values were changing, and it was time for Perry and Della and Paul to pack up and make way for courtroom dramas with more complex themes, like "Judd for the Defense," in which Carl Betz spent two years in front of juries, trying to prove conclusively that I'm Not Just Donna Reed's Husband, See?

In the 1980s Burr and Hale began a series of Mason TV movies. Hale's real-life son, William Katt, played Paul Drake's make-believe son, with better taste in clothes and vastly improved digestion. But somehow it wasn't the same. (And what was it with that beard, Perry?)

Who knows? Perhaps someday I'll weaken and buy the Mason DVDs. Then again, I haven't begun to watch those "Rockford Files" episodes I got a few months ago...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

No prizes, but plenty of e-glory

Recently a couple of friends and I tried to see if we could come up with synopses of famous movies -- limiting ourselves to words of up to four letters.

Here are a few examples. Can you name the movies? Better yet, can you suggest other examples?

1. A man with a gun and a dark past aids a boy and his mom and dad, then goes. Come back, guy!

2. Sexy? I'll say she was.

So when she said, "I wish my mate were dead," it came to me all at once:

A plan to kill him, bilk my firm and make us rich.

"Let me help you," I said.

Oy, if only I'd kept my trap shut....

3. Time and tide do not wait for Deb and Burt.

Friday, October 19, 2007

From 'Son of a Gun' to Eternity

I used to see Joey Bishop a lot on TV when I was a kid. Bishop, who died this week, was a game show panelist, talk show host, member of the fabled Rat Pack.

I remember him being funny in a deadpan, acerbic way. But somehow the only shtick of his I can remember is his catchphrase, "Son of a gun." Boy, did I think that was funny. Don't ask me why. Sometimes he'd roll his eyes, too. I liked that, too. Boy, did I have a subtle sense of humor.

He had a sitcom for a few years, featuring Abby Dalton and the woman who later played Aunt Harriet on "Batman." On the sitcom he had a second banana played by a guy with the unlikely moniker of Corbett Monica. But I don't remember much else about the show.

In the late '60s, Bishop unsuccessfully went up against Johnny Carson. If "The Tonight Show" sometimes seemed too buttoned-down, Bishop's show seemed a bit too loose without being particularly funny. Bishop's announcer was a young Regis Philbin, who I thought was too overbearing for a young second banana. Years later, Regis is doing pretty much the same shtick, but it's somehow much easier to take now that he's grown into the persona of Cantankerous Broadcasting Pioneer With a Heart of Gold.

Why didn't Bishop beat Carson? One example:

It's the night of Aug. 29, 1967. ABC (Bishop's network) airs the final episode of "The Fugitive." Later that night, Bishop, who hasn't seen the episode, has "Fugitive" star David Janssen, who played Dr. Richard Kimble, on the show. Bishop wants to guess the identity of the person who really killed Kimble's wife.

Janssen seems uncomfortable with this, but Bishop insists on guessing.

Carson, I suspect, would have known enough to pull back. ...

I'm sorry to say I haven't seen very many movies starring Deborah Kerr, who also died this week. I've seen parts of "Black Narcissus" and "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison." I'm happy to say I've seen all of "From Here to Eternity" and less happy to say I once sat through "Beloved Infidel," in which Kerr is Sheilah Graham, Gregory Peck is F. Scott Fitzgerald and the audience is hornswoggled.

I heartily recommend one of her very early films, "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," which is much, much better than that title might make it sound.

Kerr always gave the impression of being an elegant lady who, given certain circumstances, might stray from what "society" might consider "acceptable behavior."

It's true that she, like Greer Garson, could be a Goody Two-Shoes. But in Kerr's case, those shoes weren't welded to her feet.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This message won't self-destruct (sorry)

The American Life cable TV channel, whose slogan might as well be "All the TV Shows You Can't Believe You Watched When You Were a Kid," has been showing episodes from the first season of "Mission: Impossible."

If you ask people to name the star of "Mission: Impossible," they'll probably say it was Peter Graves, who took the helm as Jim Phelps in the second season and kept the job throughout the rest of the series.

But Graves' predecessor was Steven Hill, who portrayed Dan Briggs. Yep, that's the same Steven Hill who played District Attorney Adam Schiff on "Law & Order." On the "Mission: Impossible" episodes he's a lot younger, of course, and handsome and tough-looking, though you still sometimes see traces of the other Steven Hill -- particularly that minuscule smile that comes and goes in an instant, like a painful tic that he never did get around to having a doctor look at.

After Phelps took over, Briggs' departure was never explained. Was he killed? Was he fired? Did he give some of our secrets to The Other Side? So far, in keeping with the series' stated policy, the Secretary has so far disavowed any knowledge. (A personnel matter, y'know.)

But when you think about it (and I did, for a nanosecond or two) the solution is simple:

Dan Briggs and Adam Schiff are the same person.

Put yourself in the guy's shoes:

It's the mid-'60s, the James Bond era, and the government has tapped you to head the Impossible Missions Force. You're going to be so powerful that you can arrange to have the crap beaten out of anyone who dares to ask why there is no hyphen between "Impossible" and "Missions." And you'll be engaging in feats of derring-do that will make you a magnet for all those babes who are turned on by the thrill of danger, the virility of a hero who knows no fear, and the smell of rapidly disintegrating audiotape.

There's only one problem. Your name.

Adam Schiff.

Hardly a Manly Man kind of name. Adam Schiff sounds more like an accountant, the type of guy who would pick up a copy of Playboy only if Miss December also happened to be the world's foremost expert on debentures.

So you cast about for another name, and, after many trials and errors, finally come up with one that's perfect: Dan Briggs.

Short vowels, hard consonants. You run with it.

As Dan, you run the IMF for a year, but fatigue and burnout soon set in. You wonder why, every week, you have to be shown looking through the portfolio of available IMF agents when there don't seem to be all that many of them and your memory isn't quite that bad. But more to the point, there's the issue of justice. Week in and week out you do the same type of thing -- like tricking a dictator, usually played by Lloyd Bridges, to set foot in a country from which the U.S. can extradite him -- only to see the bad guy beat the rap on some technicality.

The system's flawed, you think, and there's nothing I can do to fix it as the head of the IMF.

So you quit and go to law school. And after years of careful apprenticeship you find yourself in a position where, with the proper amount of pluck and luck, you might someday have a shot at the New York DA's office and be able to really make a difference.

There's only one problem. Your name.

All any reporter has to do is to run a check on "Dan Briggs" and you're toast. It'll all come out somehow: your involvement in clandestine missions, your employment by a secret organization of the government, your seeming inability to remember the names and faces of the handful of people who work for you.

You come up with the perfect solution: Go back to your real name, Adam Schiff.

As Schiff, you are elected DA with no trouble. No one suspects a thing.

But there's a problem. For years you've been working within the legal system, helping to patch the holes that let some of the world's worst offenders walk free. But you find that there's more to it than that.

You find that some vicious killers beat the rap because they have Influence, and it's amazing how many of them have fathers who look a lot like Robert Vaughn.

Also, after all these years, your old friends Cinnamon, Rollin, Barney and the rest are still spending nearly every week tricking Lloyd Bridges into stumbling into the wrong country -- but when he comes to trial he still beats the rap because, well, Lloyd is such a charismatic guy, and when his two handsome sons, Beau and Jeff, walk into the courtroom with their pianos in tow and play a few riffs from "The Fabulous Baker Boys," well, the show's over. The jurors vote unanimously to acquit Lloyd and send Willy the Strong Man to Attica instead.

And you spend the rest of your career engaging in grumpy badinage with the likes of Jack McCoy:

"Adam! We've got to prosecute! The guy's a serial killer! He murdered 30 people, several of them in St. Peter's Square! The pope saw him do it! And he's willing to testify!"

"Nah! Two popes as witnesses, maybe, but just one? Won't fly. Take a plea -- driving with a faulty muffler!"

Take my blood alcohol level - please!

A law firm in town has a big sign that trumpets the firm's name and, below it, these words:

Serious DWI Defense.

Hmm, thinks I, who have been paid over the course of lo so many years (and not in lo mein, either) to ponder punctuation and other linguistic niceties, did these legal eagles forget to insert a hyphen somewhere?

For it could be that what they actually mean is:

Serious-DWI Defense.

Then again, one might argue, aren't all cases of DWI serious? Don't they all involve people who have imbibed too indiscreetly and could endanger other drivers and pedestrians, not to mention themselves?

Then still again, I suppose there could theoretically be such a thing as a "nonserious" DWI case with little if any potential for bodily harm:

"Police said the suspect was alone in his garage, putting his car in forward, then reverse, then forward, and so on, having a high old time...."

Or it could well be (considering that I don't get out all that much) that there are special raceways where drunken drivers can wheel about to their hearts' content, where instead of a concrete wall they are encircled by a barrier formed by the fusion of 1,573,889 Nerf balls. (By the way, is the Whamo toy company still around? And remember how, even in the '60s, its commercials boasted that the company had been around "since 1949"? -- "Yes, son, when you're looking for the best in whoopie cushions, always go with the old, established firm.")

Then even yet again, perhaps the "serious" pertains not to the DWI, but to the defense. After all, one would hardly want a Facetious DWI Defense:

Judge: Is the defense ready?

Defense lawyer: Yes, your honor, and may I say that a funny thing happened to me on the way to the courthouse today. A lawyer came up to me on the street and said, "I haven't had a subpoena duces tecum in three days!" So I gave him a subpoena duces wild! Say, what is this, a panel of prospective jurors or an oil painting?

At this point the defense should rest. Me too.

But one final thought: If Mel Torme had forsaken singing to become a shyster, would he now be remembered as The Velvet Pettifog?

(Update, 1/17/2008: It turns out that the name of the company referred to above is Wham-O and that it was started in 1948. I learned this after learning of the death of company co-founder Richard Knerr. So if I wind up spending eternity dodging continuous downpours of Super Balls, I'll know why.)