1/26/22

The Eyes of Tammy Faye: Look Away!

 

 

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

Directed by Michael Showalter

Searchlight/Disney Pictures, 126 minutes, PG-13 (sexual innuendos, greed)


 


 

 

What is the difference between The Joker and Tammy Faye Bakker? The Joker was honest about his intentions and had better makeup.

 

I can assure you my cheap joke is better than The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which should not be confused with a revealing 2000 documentary of the same name. Abe Sylvia used the latter to fashion a screenplay for this 2021 turkey, but he burnt the bird.  

 

In the 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the most famous televangelists in the country. Out of curiosity, I tuned in a few times and couldn’t believe anyone would send money to such obvious charlatans. Their empire ultimately crumbled under the weight of scandal, debt, and lawsuits though incredulously, Jim Bakker has gotten a post-prison second act. The Eyes of Tammy Faye traces the rise, pinnacle, and fall of the Bible-thumping power couple.

 

One of the many problems of the film is grounded in trying to do too much. We see young Tammy (Chandler Head) seeking conversion, but being barred from entering the church because her mother, the pianist, is barely tolerated herself because she divorced her husband, a no-no among evangelicals in International Falls, Minnesota. But when a defiant Tammy enters on her own, falls to the floor, and begins speaking in tongues, she is proclaimed a miracle. From that point on, we are fed a steady diet of how Tammy loves people of all sorts and wants to bring them to Jesus–again not a popular thing among those hueing to the narrow path. And, a straight one; preachers admonished flocks to avoid homosexuals.  

 

We jump to 1960, when Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy Faye LaValley ((Jessica Chastain) are in Bible college. They married the next year but even Rachel (Cherry Jones) pegged Jim as a huckster in pursuit of mammon, not souls. Should have to mama, Tammy. After small-time hustling, Jim ingratiated himself into the evangelical power circle of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), and Jimmy Lee Swaggart (Jay Huguley), an unholy a trinity. After some time as a Hee-Haw-like “act” on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network–Tammy sang and did a puppet show–the two launched the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club on their own in 1976. At their height (mid-1980s), the Bakkers claimed to reach an audience of 20 million.

 

The movie casts Tammy as sincere and Jim as a materialistic conman. He was/is, but it’s hard to swallow the notion that Tammy was so naïve or under a Svengali spell as to deserve our pity. We do see her have a brief (fully-clothed) fling with record producer Gary Paxton (Mark Wystrach), though the film omits the fact that contractor/real estate developer Roe Messner–who bankrolled and built the Bakkers’ hokey Heritage USA theme park–ended up marrying Tammy Faye when she divorced Jim in 1992. By then, Jim was in prison, for bankruptcy fraud and the news was filled with stories of an affair Jessica Hahn–who claimed he raped her­–and rumors of gay flings—which he denies to this day–with his PTL assistant the Rev. Richard Fletcher (Louis Cancelmi) and a PTL director. Bakker was originally sentenced to 45 years in jail, but it was reduced to eight and he served less than five. (Guess who his parole lawyer was? None other than follow-the-money Alan Dershowitz!) The movie correctly shows how Falwell and Robertson double-crossed Bakker as a way to gain control of PTL. (I know; who could imagine such nice men doing such a thing?) Does it surprise you to learn that Huckster Jim was recently sued in Missouri for peddling fake Covid cures?

 

The film shows Tammy living in a down-market neighborhood, where she was the butt of jokes because of her red wigs and clown-like eyes. Not exactly! She married Messner but when he went to jail for fraud, Falwell exiled Tammy Faye to Palm Springs–not exactly a ghetto–to keep her quiet. She died of cancer in 2007, by which time she was considered a champion of LGBT rights.

 

What in the name of all that is holy was Chastain thinking? She plays Tammy Faye as if she was Minnie Mouse. Memo: When life hands you a parody, don’t tamper with it! The wounded-daughter-seeks-mama’s-approval subplot is positively insipid.  Garfield the Cat could have done a better Jim Bakker than Andrew Garfield, who comes off as a dopier and greedier version of Mr. Rogers. His performance invites adjectives such as incompetent, maladroit, and amateurish.

 

I’ve written more words than this gobbler deserves. If I see a worse film than this in 2022, I will write down and eat Psalm 38:18: “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.”

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

1/24/22

January 2022 Music Roundup: Dwight and Nicole, Aigua, Elgin, and…



 

Dwight + Nicole

Further

 


Dwight Richter and Nicole Nelson
have been nominated for fistfuls of music awards in Boston and throughout New England. Deservedly so. Theirs is a delightful throwback to the age of straight-ahead soul, blues, and R & B of the sort that can actually be played on stage and doesn’t resort to gimmicky attempts at rapping. They have recently dropped a new EP, Further, that pays homage to musical inspirations such as the Staples Singers, Roberta Flack, and Etta James but without being derivative of them. Nelson, who also plays bass and violin, isn’t merely a talented vocalist; she knows how to sing, if you catch my distinction. The reason this is noteworthy is that she’s a natural soprano within genres that have traditionally favored mezzos and altos, so she resorts to her full bag of skills to roam on the range. Richter is also an adept singer, though his Flying-V Gibson is the first thing you’ll notice. They’ve added Erza Oklan, a steady drummer, to the mix and everything is oh-so-fine. Check out “The Next Go Round,” which croons, swoons, and busts out its lo-fi wrapper to soar. Richter takes the mic for the title track and gives it a quasi-Aaron Neville treatment. "Wait" is another muscular treat–and it has a message. Keep your eyes peeled for these folks.   ★★★★

 

Aigua

Noninó

 


First let’s get this straight. There are two groups called Aigua, one of which is a jazz ensemble. This review is of the folk duo of Lies Hendrix and Joan Pieiró Aznar, he from Belgium (and now living in Sweden) and she from the Valencia region of Spain. Not that nationality matters very much, as most of the vocals are in Spanish from the Belgian-born Hendrix who plays a lot flamenco-style guitar, while Aznar accompanies on melodeon, a diatonic button accordion invented in Germany. Does it work? It sure does; listen to the album’s first single “Décime de la mare terra” and hear it for yourself. Is it a multicultural world or what? Aigua is Catalan for water and that’s a good metaphor for music that flows, cleanses, and takes us on journeys and lets us dance a bit as we go. You might feel like traipsing along the water’s edge to “Bruidsmazurka,” or breaking out the castanets for “Fandango D’Aiora.” Perhaps you’d rather queue up the Nonino and feel a bit melancholic. It’s based on a tango that Astor Piazzolla dedicated to his father, whose nickname was “grandfather, the meaning of noninó. It’s an apt way of thinking of the entire project, which has echoes of Piazzolla and the manouche jazz of Django Reinhardt throughout. ★★★★

 

Elgin

Weightless Still

 


The Irish band Elgin used to be called The Young Folk and there comes a time when that’s the kind of handle you want to lose. It’s really a duo of Anthony Furey and Paul Butler, with a programmer usually sitting in as well. I have mixed feelings about the latter. Weightless Still is what you might get if you blended Clannad, The Low Anthem, and an electronics-heavy indie band. Furey and Butler have soothing voices and when you see them in performance, those voices make for a pleasing effect. You can witness this to good effect on “Cherry Picked,” the first single released from Weightless Still. There is a nice balance between the voices, acoustic guitar, keyboards, and a small dose of computer-generated backing. Matters shift a bit when we hear studio recordings and the electronic portions get bigger. Watch the video of “"Stone’s Throw,” which could be summed as a girl, a swirl, and a whorl. Perhaps there’s a bit too much of the last of these, as the light voices are easily subsumed when too much is going on. Another in this vein is “Sloe,” which uses programmed drum loops. The album is actually terrific as background music, as it’s melody-heavy and unobtrusive. The question is whether this is the vibe they aimed to create. ★★★  

 

 

 

Hmmmm…

 

Ro Myra

Nowhere Nebraska

 


Ro Myra makes no bones about needing to break away from her rural Nebraska roots and sew her own wild oats. She has met a lot of the right people to help her along her musical path, but she might wish to consider really busting out. Although she’s now in Nashville, Nowhere Nebraska feels too subdued and introspective for a town that’s crawling with hungry talent. I watched the video of “She's Not the Road” one of her singles, and immediately thought “folk circuit.” Another song is titled “More Than Just Okay,” but her repertoire needs to establish more distance from that low-bar standard. There’s promise here, but my Spidey-Sense tells me that her songs, arrangements, and presence need to marinate. ★★

 

 


Errin Peet Lukes
is from California but she too is now in Nashville. Her EP titled EPL shows that Lukes has a nice voice, but it’s not a clear one and you’ll need a lyrics sheet to unravel them. I wouldn’t bother; there’s not much poetry to them. Her music is informed by a bit of bluegrass, her youthful devotion to Britney Spears, and a lot of indie pop and rock. The melodies are strong, as one would expect from Nashville sessions musicians. Frankly, though, they threaten to overwhelm her. Lukes may have a bright future, but EPL doesn’t establish a unique identity. Try “Catalyst” or “Country Music Breaks My Heart.” If they don’t grab you, she won’t. ★★

 


Esbe
apparently has a following in London where she’s a composer, producer, and singer. Her LP Under Cover is, at the title suggests, ten covers of everything from The Beatles (“Yesterday,” “Eleanor Rigby”) and Simon and Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water’) to Cole Porter (“Night and Day”) and a Christmas song (“Silent Night”). There’s a reason why great performers parsimoniously parcel out covers. After all, you didn’t come to a show to hear someone else. Esbe’s covers are piano-based and so deliberate that somnambulant would not be too strong a word to describe her approach. It doesn’t matter how many candelabra you put on the piano or how many strings you fold in, unless you’re breathing new life into old tunes, you’re a cover band and I can hear really good ones in bars near me. Zero stars.  

 

 

1/21/22

Belfast: The Troubles through a Child's Eyes

 

BELFAST (2021)

Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh

Focus Features, 98 minutes, PG-13 (some violence)

★★★★★

 

 

Belfast has won scads of awards already and will certainly be nominated for Oscars as well, though it’s unlikely to win many given that American audiences will find its Irish accents difficult to understand. It’s definitely worth putting on your Netflix queue though and watching it with subtitles.

 

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical take on director/writer Kenneth Branagh’s childhood. Branagh (b. 1960) was 9-years-old when “The Troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland, the sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics that left more than 3,500 people dead before they quelled in 1998. We pick up the story in 1969, when Protestant and Irish Republican Army thugs turned neighbor against neighbor. That’s exactly what happened in Tigers Bay, Branagh’s lower middle-class section of the city where Catholics and Protestants peacefully intermingled. The film blames Protestants for precipitating violence, which is perhaps how he remembered it, but it would be either naïve or blindly nationalist to interpret the tragedy within any sort of white hat/black hat framework.

 

In Belfast, Branagh’s alter-ego is Buddy (Jude Hill), a charming, whip smart towhead. Buddy’s family is Protestant, and that’s one of several clever and effective choices made in the film. The second was the decision to depersonalize the conflict by identifying key players by their roles rather than names. Buddy’s parents are simply “Ma” (Catríona Balfe) and “Pa” (Jamie Duncan), and his grandparents, “Granny” (Judi Dench) and “Pop” (Ciarán Hinds). Another deft touch was instructing cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos to use low-angle shots so that we experience The Troubles from a child’s POV, right down to the way things were “seen” on store shelves.

 

Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) live carefree days playing football (soccer) and other games in the narrow streets lining the rowhouses and young Buddy has a wicked crush on flaxen-haired Catherine (Olive Tennant), a Catholic. It’s such an infatuation that he works hard on his math and other subjects so that he can eventually sit across for Catherine. (The teacher stratifies the class according to their grades.) Pa, like Branagh’s actual father William, works in England as a plumber and joiner for a firm that specializes in suspended ceilings and is usually home only on weekends. That’s not a popular place to earn one’s bread when violence flares and even the local Protestant minister (Turlough Convery) resorts to histrionics. And it’s really uncomfortable as children begin to form gangs and a puffed-up criminal named Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) applies pressure to Pa to choose sides (which he refuses to do). As if the family doesn’t have enough problems with their tax bills, Pa’s gambling, and Pop’s declining health.

 

Jude Hill is, simply, adorable and, for a child, a strong actor. He’s the sort who practically invites you to jostle his hair and take him out for an ice lolly. It’s another inspired choice, as it drives home the idea that children are the real victims of ancient hatreds. (In “House of Orange, the last song Stan Rogers wrote before his death in 1983, he implored: Their sons have no politics. None can recall/Allegiance from long generations before. O’this or O’that name can’t matter at all/Or be cause enough for to war.)  Spot on! The film is really about the noncomprehending silent victims, so don’t expect anything from Dornan that approaches his rakishness in Fifty Shades of Grey; if anything, Balfe provides more steam. Though it’s Hill’s film, Hands comes close to stealing his thunder. He’s the kind of grandpa everyone wants–a lovable rascal with a healthy disregard for convention, a quick tongue, and deep love for his wife and grandkids. He can even discourse on why it’s a good thing to have outdoor toilets rather than in-house facilities and how to fool teachers by writing unclear numbers on homework papers. Dench also does a fine job of playing against her exalted reputation. She’s dowdy and stays within herself to drive home the same point as Balfe: In 1969, Northern Ireland was decidedly patriarchal.

 

It should be said that this is by no means an exhaustive or balanced look at The Troubles, nor should it be if your choice is to focus on kids and not politics. Objectively speaking, the film could have been longer to flesh out characters and give more background. Branagh, of course, knows the who’s who of his boyhood, but viewers don’t necessarily bring that foreknowledge into the theater.  The film is a scant 98 minutes, some in period back and white and others in color. Another 10-15 minutes could have sharpened backstories, though again I suspect Branagh wanted us to see types rather than getting bogged down in the lives of adults. If I might add still another excellent decision, though, Branagh’s decision to use Van Morrison songs as a soundtrack enhances the film.

 

If you’re wondering, Branagh’s father saw the handwriting on the wall and moved his family out of Northern Ireland before the worst violence broke out. They did not, however, go to London as the film suggests, rather they moved to Reading, about 40 miles southwest of London. Nonetheless, I guess we could say Branagh eventually did pretty well for himself.

 

Rob Weir

 

1/19/22

The Survivors: A Tasmanian Mystery

 

THE SURVIVORS (2021)

By Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 375 pages.

★★★ ½ 

 

 

 

There are people who can’t wait to leave their hometowns and those who can’t imagine living anywhere else. Kieran Elliott is firmly in the first camp. He came of age in the small town of Evelyn Bay, Tasmania, and you really have to love solitude and the ocean to stay. Kieran has many reasons to live in Sydney, Australia with his girlfriend Mia and their three-month-old daughter Audrey, not the least of which are bad memories. When Kieran was 18, he got trapped in a sea cave during a horrible storm. He survived, but his older brother Finn and Toby Gilroy flipped their catamaran and drowned during a rescue attempt.

 

That’s the setup for The Survivors, a new mystery from Jane Harper. Kieran had issues years before the accident. He was the local golden boy before Ash McDonald showed up and was just a hair better than Kiernan at most things. Ash was so easy-going that he never perceived of any sort of rivalry and befriended Kieran. That mostly worked, but Ash never knew that Kiernan and he were both pursuing the foxy Olivia Birch. Twelve years later Kieran returns to Evelyn Bay with his family in tow. He is there to visit his parents Verity and Brian and help his mother close up his boyhood home. Brian has dementia and has become too much for Verity to handle in a pocket-sized seaside village with few social services.

 

Homecomings are often fraught, especially when the past crashes in like pounding surf. Ash, a landscaper, still lives there, as does Sean Gilroy, Toby’s younger brother, and his nephew Liam, who was four when his father died. Neither Brian, a longtime friend of Kieran’s, nor Toby’s widow blame Kieran, but Liam is resentful and Kieran perceives that all three really do think he was responsible for the drownings. To make matters worse, Kieran thinks Verity also blames him and he has felt guilty ever since the tragedy. The rancid cherry on the cake is that Olivia has returned to Evelyn Bay to be closer to her mother and has taken up with Ash.

 

There’s nothing like a small town for big grudges and dark secrets. They begin to surface when Olivia’s summer housemate, art student Bronte Laidler, is murdered outside the cave where Kieran’s troubles began. Evelyn Bay is a summer tourist town and no one wants to imagine that a local could have done such a thing. Local police Sgt. Chris Renn is stumped and Detective Inspector Sue Pendlebury has been sent from Hobart* to investigate.

 

Pendlebury has a fresh take and recognizes that Evelyn Bay seethes with grudges. Ash despises famous author George Barlin, who bought his grandmother’s old cottage and ripped out all of his meticulous gardening; a local waitress likes to play the gossip game; and bar and grill owner Julian Wallis who married Toby’s widow and adopted Liam is the sort who rubs some people the wrong way. Plus, Pendlebury begins to wonder if there is a connection between Bronte’s death and a third that occurred the same night of the big storm. Gabby Birch, Olivia’s 14-year-old look-alike sister, was last seen on a rock jetty as the waves crested. She was presumed drowned, though all that was ever found was her backpack. To make matters mirkier, Mia had been Gabby’s best friend.

 

The Survivors is also the name of a monument to those who died at sea and sits offshore and disappears at high tide. The fact that it lines up with the caves lends a creepy air that Pendlebury ponders. Harper’s mystery turns on several McGuffins that come into play: the backpack; cave wall etchings; a camera; a speeding car that nearly ran over Kieran, Mia, and Audrey; a flashlight; lies and half-truths; and an old timeline that doesn’t work.  

 

The Survivors is a solid mystery, though Harper serves up clues, possibilities, and inuendo in overly large portions that allow readers to discard red herrings and narrow the suspect buffet. However, I did not finger the right person, so credit to Harper for raising enough doubt to keep things interesting. Once again, though, Tom Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Hobart is Tasmania’s capital and half of the island’s half million people live there. Evelyn Bay has a population of around 900.

 

1/17/22

North by Northwest Now Seems Campy

 

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

MGM, Technicolor, 136 minutes, Not-rated

★★★

 

 

 

North by Northwest is considered such a great film that it has been preserved by the National Film Registry. I hadn’t seen it in decades so I decided to see how it holds up. Let’s just say it made more sense in 1959.

 

Hitchcock was definitely being playful in North by Northwest, beginning with the title. Many have pondered its meaning, but Hitchcock insisted that it was just a “fantasy” handle that didn’t mean anything in particular. What’s more obvious is that it is a Cold War film that has been called the “first James Bond film.” If you know nothing else about it, you probably know of its most famous scene in which beleaguered Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is running for his life from a machine gun-blasting crop duster in a barren section of Nebraska that’s flatter than a five-day glass on Coke left on the counter. That clip actually did inspire a scene in a Bond film, a helicopter chase in From Russia with Love (1963).

 

Thornhill is a twice-divorced New York advertising man whose gray suit identifies him as an other-directed interchangeable business cog like those incisively dissected in Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Thornhill’s life is about to become more exciting. Waiters at a New York City bar page “George Kaplan” and several heavies conclude that Thornhill is he. Roger is kidnapped at gunpoint and spirited away to a fancy estate belonging to Lester Townshend. No one wants to hear that he’s not Kaplan; they just want him to die in an “accident.” Thornhill is forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon, placed behind the wheel of a stolen car, and set loose on a winding cliffside road. Against all odds, Townshend survives, is picked up for DUI, and is bailed out the next morning by his disapproving mother (Jessie Royce Landis).

 

Needless to say, no one is buying his kidnapping story. Roger learns that Townshend is a UN official and that he’s being followed by the same team of baddies who kidnapped him. (One is Martin Landau who later starred in the TV spy series Mission: Impossible.) Thornhill meets Townshend at the UN just in time for one of the thugs to fire a knife into Townshend’s back. Great! Now Thornhill really has to flee as photographers snapped him pulling said knife out the dead man’s back. His only way out is to find Kaplan, whom he has reason to believe is in Chicago, and his best chance of getting there is to sneak aboard the 20th Century Limited. There he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who almost instantly seduces him and agrees to help him. What ensues is a chase across three states, the discovery that Kaplan doesn’t exist, a triple cross, a subplot involving foreign agents and microfilm, and flight down the face of Mount Rushmore.

 

A lot of this seemed much more plausible during the frostiest days of the Cold War. From today's perspective, the most cinematic features of the film are the cinematography of Robert Burks and Bernard Hermann’s dramatic musical score. There are numerous comedic touches in the film that suggest Hitchcock intended a Spy vs. Spy* spoof on Cold War skullduggery. In other words, North by Northwest now seems campy. One of its greatest pleasures these days is finding all the plot holes.

 

There are many and I will point out just one. New York’s Finest can’t find Thornhill in Grand Central Station, even though a ticket agent has told them he’s there, his picture is in every newspaper in the city, and he’s wearing the same suit since he was picked up for DUI. In fact, he wears that MacGuffin through the entire movie. Wouldn’t you think at some point someone would say, “It’s the guy in the gray suit with the unusual accent who looks just like Cary Grant.” You also have to love the irony of another British-born sophisticate, James Mason, playing the main bad guy, and a third, Leo G. Carroll as a part of the U.S. spy team. Like Landau, Carroll parlayed his movie role into a TV spy series; he headed the white-hatted counter-espionage agency in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  

 

You really can entertain yourself mightily by counting enough plot holes to make a fishing net. Hitchcock was usually a master at hiding them but to go back to being playful, he didn’t make much effort to disguise them in North by Northwest. He didn’t even take care to hide himself. (Hitchcock always placed himself in a walk-on somewhere in his films. In this one he’s like Waldo standing alone in a snowy field.) To top it off, the final shot of the movie is Sigmund Freud with a sledgehammer. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.

 

A classic film? Not anymore, but camp is fun.

 

Rob Weir   

 

* If this reference eludes you, it was an ongoing Mad Magazine cartoon that satirized Cold War espionage.     

1/14/22

Once There Wolves a Compelling Short Novel

 

 

ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES (2021)

By Charlotte McConaghy

Flatiron Books, 255 pages.

★★★★★

 


 

 

If you transported Richard Powers to the mystery genre, you might end up with a novel such as Once There Were Wolves.  Australian-born Charlotte McConaghy has penned a novel that’s so good it’s already won a place among the best I will read in 2022. Among her many virtues is the ability to tell a gripping story compactly yet still spool out relevant details and backstories at a deliberate pace that keeps you turning the pages to confirm or dispute what you have inferred.

 

Initially, Once There Were Wolves seems like the sort of paean to nature that Powers could have written. Its central character Inti Flynn is an eco-warrior. She is in Scotland as part of a four-person team that’s trying to reintroduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands. It would not be too dramatic to call Inti a zealot. The book’s earliest chapters skirt the border of being a treatise on how nature self-heals when ingredients are added back into ecosystems. Inti is not shy in telling nervous locals of all the wonderful things wolves will bring, though all they can imagine is flocks of dead sheep with their throats slashed and entrails spilt.

 

About the time we are ready to think of this novel as a Scottish version of the battle between scientists and New England lobstermen, McConaghy begins to add ingredients of her own to the novel. We learn that Inti’s mute twin Aggie is with her in Scotland and that Aggie’s silent condition has no physical cause. The two have always been closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives and hints are dropped that something happened to Aggie when she was living in Alaska. Prior to that, Aggie was a lively, carefree young woman.

 

As noted, though, don’t expect to know the details of that until McConaghy is ready to reveal them. We do learn that the Flynn sisters come from a broken home, but not of the conventional sort. Their father was a tree hugger in British Columbia who was so over the top that he believed his environmental activism would single-handedly save the world. It was he who taught Inti much about surviving in the wild. By contrast, their mother is a cop in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in misogynistic crimes. It was she who helped Inti cope with an affliction; she has mirror-touch synesthesia–a condition linked to hyper-empathy syndrome–and literally feels the pain of other people and animals. If Aggie burnt her right hand, Inti also experienced it.

 

Things are not exactly going well in the Cairngorms of Scotland. Several locals led by Red McCrae and Stuart Burns have raised the rabble to staunch opposition to the wolves and Burns has shot one he claims strayed onto his land. That’s rubbish, but local police superintendent Duncan Mactavish can’t prove otherwise and has to talk Inti down from her high horse. (Another kind of horse factors into the story!) He and Inti are also attracted to each other, so Duncan faces a tough task. It doesn’t help that Inti is convinced that Stuart has been beating Lainey, his wife, and it gets very complicated when Stuart disappears. Author Nicholas Sparks once called small-town gossip the “toxic waste” of such places, an apt way of thinking of a Highland hamlet smaller than its nearby “large” town of Abernethy (pop. 945).

 

At this juncture, McConaghy begins to reveal more about Inti, Aggie, Duncan, Burns, and several of the other locals. The experience of reading Once There Were Wolves is a bit like watching a painter whose landscape we only see late in the process, as the artist lays on each of the colors one at a time. You can be excused if you conclude that humans are more vicious than wolves.

 

McConaghy keeps us guessing to the end and even if you do manage to unravel a mystery or two, their details will probably spin differently than you imagined. The final pages are a tad too abrupt in their sunny optimism given the darkness of what comes before. Yet, the ending is also probably just as you would have wished it. Again, one can only applaud Charlotte McConaghy’s concision. She tells a compelling tale in 255 pages when too many writers take twice as long to say half as much.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

1/12/22

The Narrow Margin a Wonderful Overlooked Noir Classic

 

 

THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)

Directed by Richard Fleischer

RKO Pictures, 71 minutes, not-rated.

★★★★ ½

 


 

 

Film noir had peaked in popularity by the time The Narrow Margin appeared in 1952. Very few film fans now recognize names such as Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, or Jacqueline White and even in their day they were considered second-tier actors. Too bad on all fronts, as The Narrow Margin ranks among the best of forgotten film noir classics.

 

As is generally the case, the narrative arc seems simple, though you can rest assured that there are plenty of twists. LAPD Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (McGraw) and his partner Sergeant Gus Forbes (Don Beddoe) have been sent to Chicago to provide bodyguard duty for Mrs. Frankie Neal (Windsor), the widow of a mobster who has turned state’s evidence. She has a payoff list found among her dead husband’s effects whose contents would cripple a major crime syndicate. As a cab drops off Brown and Forbes in front of the safe house, we hear a much-quoted line that’s vintage noir. When Brown ponders what Mrs. Neal is like, Forbes predicts, “She’s the sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy.”

 

Things go wrong from the start. Forbes is murdered as the trio descends a dark stairwell and, though Brown wounds him, the assassin flees. It’s 1952, so the journey from Chicago back to California is by train, not an airplane. Brown faces the daunting task of single-handedly keeping Neal safe. His heart isn’t into it, as his dead partner left behind a wife and three kids, and Neal is a major piece of disagreeable work. She’s acid-tongued, demanding, and has the charm of an enraged hornet. Brown has a double compartment and he shoves Neal into one of them and tells her to lock the door and keep quiet. As if that will happen.

 

Brown cases the cars, identifies a known hoodlum, and fingers several others he suspects are hoods, including the nosy and rotund Sam Jennings (Paul Maxey). Brown also can’t help noticing an attractive blond named Ann Sinclair (White) who is traveling with her young son Tommy and a nanny. Focus Walter! It takes several days to make such a trip in 1952, and are were several stops along the way, any one of which raises the odds that more gun thugs will come aboard. He’s even openly approached by mobster Vincent Yost (Peter Brocco), who’d rather settle matters amicably; he offers Brown a $30,000 bribe to reveal where he has stashed Neal. It’s tempting when your client is contemptible.

 

Will Neal or Brown make it to LA? The Narrow Margin is a taut 71 minutes, most of which takes place inside a train. Credit goes to the direction of Richard Fleischer for keeping tension levels so high that the train’s cramped compartments, berths, and corridors never make the film seem claustrophobic. To be sure, there are MacGuffins and red herrings throughout Earl Felton’s screenplay. In retrospect, there are two major logic errors in the film but as Alfred Hitchcock observed, if directors do their jobs well, viewers won’t notice. Fleischer did his job very well.

 

Rob Weir