Monday, June 28, 2010

You are watching "Leverage," aren't you?

This is just a quick note about a show you should be watching even though the powers that have the power at TNT have inexplicably moved the show to Sunday evenings: Leverage.

Simply, it’s a heist show. But to be sure no one is corrupting anyone’s morals as we watch these five attractive people break all sorts of laws, Leverage is a Robin Hood kind of heist show. The marks in Leverage are nasty, mean, powerful, and usually rich people who’ve done wrong to real, working people, and so deserve their comeuppance, whatever it takes. Who are these dastardly villains? Insurance executives who deny medical coverage that might save a child’s life. Traffickers in children. Phony psychics and other con men who prey on the vulnerable of all ages. People the law cannot or will not touch. We love watching the mighty fall, especially when they are felled with wit and humor and verve.

Leverage offers us a team of four career criminals and the mastermind, a formerly straight-and-narrow insurance investigator who’d chased them all in years past – Nate Ford, cleverly and sweetly played by Timothy Hutton. His four misfits are:

The Thief – the quirky, rather asocial Parker. We enjoy her gymnastics even if they’re performed by a fabulous stuntwoman, and definitely adore Beth Riesgraf’s verbal and facial gymnastics as this unusual character.

The GrifterGina Bellman as Sophie Devereaux is a reason for many men to watch this series. Sophie’s a terrible actress when she’s on stage (her true love), but when she’s on a con, she’s stellar. Not to mention lovely and smart, when she disappeared for half a season some of us were panic-stricken. Happily she returned.

The Hitter Eliot Spencer abjures guns, but he does seem to like hitting people. Christian Kane – I’m sure you remember him as “Lindsey” the slimy singing lawyer in Joss Whedon’s Angel – is the gruff muscle of the team, and anyone would be glad to have him backing them up.

The Hacker – is Hardison, a genius computer nerd, among other things, played by the charming Aldis Hodge. No longer able to hide behind computer screens, his other talents are displayed episode by episode.

These characters don costumes, accents, and personas each week to the detriment of villains and delight of their audience.

There’s even a great recurring nemesis, “Sterling,” an insurance guy from Nate’s old company. The whole team disdains him, and when he’s used in a plot, he notices that they rely on him being “a self-serving utter bastard.” And he is. Sterling is smarmily and brilliantly played by Mark Sheppard, whom I’ll watch in anything (he was “Romo Lampkin” the defense attorney for Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica, “Badger” in Firefly, and happily brightens many, many other television programs).

The show started out with four very separate misfits and one disillusioned, bitter, and occasionally drunken man who’d always been part of the establishment. Although useful to Nate as a team, none of the criminals played well with others, or trusted one another. Trust and betrayal are recurring themes in this show, with its shifting loyalties and alliances. Of course, the moment an external threat like Mark Sheppard’s Jim Sterling appears, they close ranks like any other family.

Once the disparate members of the team coalesced into a family, internecine sparring and jealousies throw them all off balance. In many a heist show, all the terrific chemistry between the characters and actors might take focus and sacrifice story. Happily we can rely on Leverage’s multiple writers (series creators Chris Downey and John Rogers, among others) to wittily finish what they start – fell the mighty, provide justice if possible, closure if that’s the only thing available.

The team will knock the rich, powerful, and uncaring off their pedestals, out of their towers, and hoist those people on their own petards – and show us in flashbacks what was really going on all the while we were misled by misdirection. It’s delightful.

The new season has introduced a new recurring villainess, presumably inserted to ratchet up the tension between Hutton and Bellman. I haven’t yet decided how I feel about this character or actor (Elisabetta Canalis).

With brisk writing and sharp direction, Leverage is altogether a treasure, a show to look forward to all week. And now that the show’s on Sunday nights, look at it as a way to push back those Monday morning blues.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time to re-view last night's episode!

As I Journey Southward

Saturday 26 June

Heading down south to the nation’s capital so as to visit dear friends on the other side of the Potomac in Alexandria. The Bolt Bus picks up at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue, which with I am quite familiar. It’ll drop off in DC at 10th and H Streets, with which I am totally unfamiliar, but I assume it can’t be too far from a subway station. Blue line to King Street in Alexandria.

Excuse me, not the subway. It’s the “Metro” in DC. They think they’re French.

Hot and muggy at 9:45 a.m. in midtown. It’ll be much hotter in DC. Gonna be tough to look nice for the party. I found a dress that suits, despite my excess weight. And shoes that are ‘dressy’ without being painful. It’s tough, clothes-shopping these days. Like an aging movie star, I have if not a glamour shot then a rather humorous version of one on the living room wall. I was quite young, I was quite slim, I was cute. It even includes the erstwhile mole that one friend had called ‘piquant’ but the personal rep didn’t like, so off it went, leaving me feeling like a fake. It didn’t help. At any rate, the picture’s up on the wall now to try to get me off the couch to exercise. It’s not helping either.

The Bolt Bus stop is not where the sign says because of a street festival on 6th, but across 7th. There’s some confusion – lots of people, some waiting for the 10:15 to Baltimore and Greenbelt, some for the 10:30 to DC. No one telling anyone what’s going on, no signs. I’ll get over this abhorrence of inefficiency someday, I’m sure I will.

It’s a nice bus. Comfy seats with footrests. Suitcase stowed in the belly of the beast, I sit by a window two seats behind the driver and take out my Acer. Off we go. Everything seemed go, anyway, then stop-and-go, but all the while I’m reading, writing, using the free WiFi…. Then I realize that the bus driver got off the highway. Kindly, he announced that he’s just trying to circumvent traffic, taking a back way. We’re not being abducted. Bet we’ll get in late. But this is prettier anyway.

Bus stop on side of road with shopping carts lined up behind the shelter. Very odd. Plainsboro. Route U.S. 1, Scudders Mill . Rt 614, Jct 683. Middlesex County. Jeez. Still in Jersey after two hours on the road. Jersey’s always in the way.

We’re on South 1 now, 614 having ended. Jct 526. Princeton, Hightstown. 12:23. Ah, there, we’re picking up 295 South via the Jersey 'pike. Hate the Jersey 'pike. We’re right behind the 10:15 to Baltimore, which must be depressing for the folks who left 15 minutes before we did. Heavy traffic on whatever that road was. I wasn’t paying attention at the time.

Just passed a car on 295 with Pittsburgh plates, and thought of Cedar Tavern friends who moved back home. This driver’s a long way from home, once we get to Penna, he’ll have to hang a westward ho and go a hellluva long way.

High up in a bus, there’s a lot to see out there in the wilds of south Jersey.

Now what. Cops. Cars stopped. Everyone slowing down. What’s the stop for? Weird spot. Three lanes of car, bus and truck traffic on 295 south --why do they stop us? A herd of motorcycles breezes by from the right --the cars are crawling along, the motorcycles are zipping along. What the hell? Why they’re first class citizens and 4-, 6-, and 8-wheeled vehicles are second class I don’t get. Finally after they blast past us (this bus is great, the motorcycles are not deafening from in here), and eventually we start driving as if on a highway and not city streets.

How can we bypass New Jersey? Can’t get out of it. So glad I’m not driving. And it’s amazingly cheap --$11 round trip!-- so cannot complain of inefficiency. And when it comes to traffic – the moment you choose surface transportation, all schedules are fiction.

Especially in New Jersey.

From high up in the bus I can see so much more than I could were I driving myself. The vehicles stopped in front of me would have obscured my view of anything. From up here, I see us crossing over lakes and creeks and railroad tracks. There are trees all around, and so much land. After the cramped spaces of Manhattan during most of my daylight hours, even the relative openness of Queens is eclipsed by the sheer broadness of everything once away. And we’re still just in Jersey. I’ve only driven parts of the West, and flown over it. Maybe I should take a bus ride out West. Feel the hugeness.

I’ll still get in with time to go from DC by Metro to Alexandria, check into my hotel, and get ready for a party. Probably not enough time for the pool….. but I’m staying over tomorrow as well, so I can swim as often tomorrow as I’d like, then take a morning dip Monday before I reverse the process and take the Bolt Bus back to NYC in the afternoon.

The party is at some historic restaurant overlooking the Potomac, plus an excuse for a long weekend at a hotel with a pool -- pools are an easy lure for me! Since they moved down to Virginia a decade or go, B&A have been to NY several times, but this is my first time to Virginia to see them. Not that it’s my first time in DC.

Years back a friend was performing at Ford’s Theatre. Another friend and I drove down in my old Dodge that had never, ever made such a long trip in all her fifteen or so years. I took a photo of her in front of the theatre to prove to the aunt and uncle who ‘sold’ her to me that she could make it there just fine. And then there were the trips to Silver Spring. I always drove. Lots more stress involved. Freedom ain’t free. I love public transportation!!

2:47 p.m.. At 2 we pulled over for our rest stop in Delaware. Soy Chai Latte, a penny more than in NYC. My seatmate had a yummy smelling something from Cinnabon. Baltimore is almost 60 miles away.

We’re in Maryland and I just saw a confederate flag. Quite surprised. Well, I’m easily shocked. Bus driver figures now that we’ll get into DC around 4 (over an hour later than scheduled). Now I’m impatient to get there. My nephew called, so at least he’s in town. Hope to see him tomorrow – brunch maybe? Would be nice for him to meet my friends who are a few train stops away from where he lives (about 17 minutes by car).

Battery icon looks low, but it reads over an hour, so might as well type my impressions. Wish I could identify more than three trees. Did humans carve their way through these trees, always here, or did we destroy everything in our path and replant? How much work was involved in clearing the way for this 6-lane highway with grassy meridian the size of at least two more lanes. Love all these trees. Horses. Cows. Sheep? Ducks in a pond, don’t know why they make me so happy.

Babs’ sis in law will pick me up from hotel and we’ll go to the party together. I could cab, I’m sure, if need be – looks about 15 minutes away from the hotel, straight run down King to the River, hang a ralph for a little over 7 miles, it’d be tough to miss. I’ll ask at hotel. Maybe cab back so as not to bother anyone?

Baltimore is now 24 miles away. Trooper car in between north and south roads, everyone slowed down. Of course.

So dense, hilly, can’t see beyond the woods lining the road on either side. See into it and sometimes see a walking trail. Amazing country, really. Amazing that people went all the way west in just a couple hundred years.

Ah, there is something beyond the trees over there, low slung buildings, an industrial park? Princeton area had nice buildings, even the corporate ones. Almost 3 (should have been there by now), coming up to Rt 152 (Fallston/Joppatowne).
The trees must be a buffer, a barrier muffling the sound of the road for the buildings, communities, whatever is on the far side. Up a ridge to the west, what’s beyond that? Someone must have wondered long ago – what’s beyond? What’s over there? Let’s go look. I long to go to western Pennsylvania, where the forests are supposed to be practically virgin, the way they were when Europeans first came here. Massive. Dense. Dangerous and scary. As close as we’ll get to the Black Forest that generated so many fairy tales. All the ancient forests that covered the land and blocked the light. Dark tales, not really for children, unless the intent is to cripple them.

There’s a big hoe. Back hoe? Front hoe? Big. Digger. Dipper. With its maw painted as a monster, its teeth red on the black ‘face.’

Little Gunpowder Falls. Weird name. Think I’ll go online again, since this WiFi in the middle of nowhere is kind of fun. Another state trooper, on the northbound side, but hidden better, so a speeder won’t see him until it’s too late.


The highway has widened to six lanes in either direction. Big Gunpowder Falls. A river runs way beneath us.

I-95 expansion. “Road work next 10 miles.” Hell. 10 miles that’ll take the same amount of time to cover as 30. Imagine, I-95 needs expansion when it’s this big already. There go the trees. Already some houses are too close to the road. We not only encroach on nature, we encroach on the roads cutting through. We must be near Baltimore now. White Marsh Blvd., Gunpowder State Park. Another Strayer University -- there was one near Princeton.

Tunnel coming up. “No Hazmats.” Remember when that was a strange word. We several of us, driving back from DC, saw the signs on the way to the Baltimore Tunnel and tried to puzzle out the word. Hilarity ensued, of course. Then we asked a tollbooth person what it meant. Our hearts were young and gay. How sweet we were. Imagine, there was a time when we didn’t know what “hazmats” meant as we were warned of their prohibition in the tunnels.

Wow. Intertwining roads like Roman aqueducts. Or have I got Roman aqueducts on my mind because I just finished Robert Harris’ “Pompeii.” Which was well constructed like those aqueducts, tense, historical. The man’s a smooth writer. His words flow well together, he switches from his primary third person POV character to another seamlessly. Never confusing. And renews my desire to see Pompeii, which I’ve had since Aunt Lois wrote “Fire in the Sky: Story of a Boy of Pompeii.

"Harbor Tunnel approaches."

I hate tunnels.

We took the Lincoln out this morning, and it was, as usual, interminable even though I was already typing away on the short story I’ve been working on. I’m quite enjoying typing as I ride, as he drives. The woman in front of me is wrapped in an afghan, napping. Guess this is routine for her. It’s fun. 895 South toward Annapolis. Heart of the republic coming up. Or perhaps liver.

Funny, in here it seems so cool. But outside, an hour ago when we stopped, it was very hot. Not terribly muggy, just hot, as expected. Navigating unfamiliar subway system with suitcase ought to be entertaining -- to someone watching. We’ll see.

Johns Hopkins exit. Greektown. Pulaski sure did get around. Funny to see a jeep named Rubicon. It thinks a lot of itself. Well, I won’t cross it anyway.

"Overheight detector ahead." Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. I guess we aren’t overheight. We’re pretty tall. This BoltBus. Most people don’t talk. My seatmate and I exchange normal greetings at the first and second boardings, pleasantries, ‘love the smell of cinnabon,’ ‘won’t get into DC until tomorrow at this rate’ sort of thing. Someone’s snoring lightly. Ah, the other bus driver, the one who’s a passenger. Not the one driving. The one who needed a lift to DC so could drive some other bus. Hope that wasn’t supposed to be at 2:45, 'cause he’s late.

I see natural light! Well that wasn’t such a bad tunnel.

When not thoroughly occupied with something other than driving, the only way to get through the Lincoln is to sing along with the long version of American Pie. As the ending chord dies out, natural light appears within reach. And it’s a great song anyway.

Annapolis. Glen Burnie. Where’s Glengarry Glen Ross?

I keep thinking about what I have to do next week. At home research. Strategic thinking. Taking Balt/Wash Pkwy 29south. It’s 3:23 pm.

Nice ride but long. My fault – if I hadn’t been lazy and booked the 10:30 bus instead of the earlier one, probably would have missed most of the traffic. Of course, can’t check into the hotel until 4 anyway.

Computer says 1 hour 13 remaining on the battery. Good little Acer. Hopefully I’ll have put it away long before that! Hopefully we’ll be getting off this bus in half an hour, so I can find my way to the subway/metro/whichever to the blue line to Alexandria. The road is smaller now. The trees, the overpasses enclose the way. Everything’s closer together. Visibility impaired. This is urban. Washington 31 miles. This road is like the Grand Central Parkway -- so much more civilized than the LIE, but still a city highway.

Went out back this morning to ‘feed’ the flowers. I got this liquid plant food that spreads via the hose. “Feed every 7-14 days,” instructions read. Well, if I suddenly after two decades started feeding my flowers every week, they’d die of shock. So I’m going with 14 days. While I was out there, tiny critters swarmed. Suddenly I was all bit up, just from watering by hand. Gosh. Perhaps I smell sweet in the morning in my unwashed state. Au naturel. Hmmm. Oh gosh I hope I remembered to turn off the a/c. I hope the dishwasher doesn’t overflow and flood the kitchen. That only happened once in two years, but it was disturbing. At least I think it was the dishwasher.

Fort Meade, 2nd right.

Jct 175.

Two lanes in either direction now, but not at all crowded. We’re all moving quite briskly. Anticipation. I spoke too soon, we’re slowing down. Blinking lights: "Speed limit 55." “Arrive Alive.” “Caution.” And everyone slows down. But suddenly there are more cars in front of us than there were before the signs. Mystery entrances. Platform 9 ¾?

NSA. Employees Only.” Yikes.

National Cryptologic Museum.”

Forgot my vitamins. Glad I brought the Green Energybars. Had a McDonalds egg mcmuffin without meat at 9:45. Soy chai latte at 2. Nibbles on the energy bar (3/4 of it anyway) in between. Stop thinking about food.

Powder Mill Rd. Beltsville. Can’t see us navigating city streets all the way to 10th and H by 4. Of course, I don’t really know where we are, so I will shush. Sensible people are napping. I keep typing. Nice footrest drops down from the seat ahead. A little snug side by side, but not bad at all. Especially for eleven dollars round trip!

Jct 5. Annapolis.

When did we get on West 50? Closed my eyes for just a few minutes….

Passing the Washington Times building. Douglas Development Corp. “Arizona’s Jackson pitches no hitter.”

US National Arboretum. Ooh….

A Days Inn…. Fairfield Inn. Checkers, burgers fries colas. The Salvation Army Harbor Light Center. This is the outer edge of a big city. We’re here. Siren. Holiday Inn. “Evacuation Route.”

Everybody’s waking up

“Speed Hump Ahead.” Shouldn’t that be BUMP?

More construction. It’s everywhere. That’s supposed to be a positive thing, right?

Uh oh. “Low battery.” Ah, we’re at 14th street and H. Soon. Wait. 3:58 pm. Passing 10th. 9th. 8th. We’re supposed to be at H Street at 10th. We are reassured by the afghan-wrapped woman ahead of us – there’s another 10th. Oh.

OK, nobody gets to complain about the Queens way of naming some streets – 71st Avenue, 71st Road, 71st Drive, 71st Street are all at least close to one another. Apparently there’s another 10th street on the other side of DC. How confusing is that.

4:21 p.m. at the MetroCenter stop, Blue line to Alexandria. Woo hoo. OK, an hour and a half late. Here we all are in the southland. Yeah.

Monday morning. Alexandria is charming. Too damn hot. Subway appears swell in off hours, but I’m told by those who experience it every day that the Metro was not built for rush hour.

View from my room -- the King Street metro station and the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, which dominates the view as one walks from the river along King Street.

Packing up to head home. Took my last dip in the depth-challenged pool. This day will be different. The trip home to the same old will probably go really really fast.

The pool at the Alexandria Old Town Hilton is three feet deep. Everywhere. It’s not long, it’s not wide, and it’s three feet deep. This is not an issue for me – the water temperature was perfect, the room pleasant, those ugly workout machines were beyond the glass wall in the room next door. The music did not challenge, rather it aided in relaxation. A three foot depth, while odd, makes for imaginative exercising. But then, I’ve always had short arms.

12:05 p.m. In the Starbucks in yet another hotel across from the parking lot where the Bolt Bus picks up. My bus goes at 1, and it’s revoltingly hot out there. No way I can do an hour outdoors, and I prefer outdoors. I prefer New York. So much hotter here than home, how do people bear it? Or does that explain Washington? It’s too damn hot so they all want to spend their time anywhere but here, so they adjourn, they do anything they can to get out of town. Irresponsible as such behavior is, perhaps the heat in this landfill-over-swamp city explains everything. I know something about landfill over swamp. “New” Howard Beach, where I grew up, was landfill over swamp. All houses, after some number of years creak, they groan, they find their footing. They settle. And if where they’re settling is landfill over swamp, no one should be surprised if the suppressed swamp water and bugs seep through the foundations into the house on its ground floor.

1:16 p.m. Finally boarded and leaving in the one o’clock bus a bit late, after standing in the sun for half an hour. $11 round trip, shut up. Driving through Chinatown now. Wok with huge fire burning outside and above one of the restaurants. Odd.

Guy from Queens behind me. He’s loud and he hasn’t shut up since he got to the parking lot at H and 10th. And he had to sit right behind me. Sheesh. Please fall asleep.

Yes, I know I’m from Queens. But I am capable of shutting up. Really.

We’re crawling along on that two-lane road leading away from DC to the rest of Maryland etc. Can’t get out of the environs of DC anymore than we can get out of Jersey. Sky westerly looking cloudy. Maybe some rain will cut this heat. 2:08 p.m.

2:15 -- Sky getting really dark now. Yet no rain. Until 2:18. Hard and steady. Let it cool.
Trees look happy.

2:55 p.m. The Queens man has fallen asleep. He neither speaks nor snores. Nevertheless, I keep my earphones on, playing Artie Shaw on Windows Media Player.

How stupid am I for picking a bus that will go into NYC during rush hour. Sigh.

3:08 Maryland. Rt 222. Still raining. Probably a solid 2 hours, maybe more, to NYC. I did not bring an umbrella or a slicker. Oh well.

3:45. Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The rain and gray skies make it look cooler out there in the un-airconditioned world. Hope it is as it appears. Lanes still closed for construction all though no construction presently happening. The WiFi is having some trouble today.

4:43 p.m. Don't know where in Jersey we are, but I think we're still pretty far south. Traffic slowing to not-moving, so maybe we're closer than I thought. The gray clouds are looking a bit bluer, but the baby in the back of the bus is not comforted.

Finally make our way to the Holland Tunnel and into the city -- an hour and a quarter later than scheduled, just like the trip down to DC. Hmmm. Just remember to add that to every arrival time scheduled, and it works just fine. Especially for $11 round trip!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to head into the subway. At last.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Film Forum to the Rescue

Film Forum made my weekend. As I suspected midway through my Friday, I would not be able to leave the office in time to catch the 7ish showing of “Agora” at the Landmark/Sunshine Theatre, and I didn’t think I could start watching a movie at 9 p.m. without snoring by the end no matter how good it might be. 8 o’clock showings were few and far between on my route home through Manhattan, and in Queens – and the few choices were not choice. So I grumbled and decided to just walk up to the Village and head home. Then it came to me -- what's playing at the the Film Forum?!
The answer was: Lots. I’d have had to rush for the film I didn’t recognize – Double Take. But I had time enough to relax and grab some popcorn and a forbidden cola before the film I chose: Tourneur’s Nightfall. Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, noir. Yes, I’d seen this, but not a brand new 35 mm print and not on a large screen.

Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall is just fun. The writing is crisp, clever, and fast-paced. I felt I was watching a film honoring a great short story, American, noir, post-WW2, of course. The story was by David Goodis, and the screenplay is credited to Stirling Siliphant.

I’ve had a soft spot for Aldo Ray since “Pat & Mike” and “We’re No Angels.” Even if his emotional range is in the shallows, his line readings are clear so doubtless pleasing to screenwriter Siliphant. Aldo is an all-American kind of guy, and even when playing a “bad guy” we just know he must have been forced into it by insurmountable circumstances. We first see him as James Gregory does – at a newsstand in LA looking for a paper from Evanston, Illinois, to no avail. The lights go on as twilight darkens the city street, and Aldo flinches.

James Gregory’s voice, inflections, timing, are those of all the characters he played on probably every television program in the 1960s and 1970s. His character “Ben” approaches Aldo, asks for a light, and engages in small talk. We immediately learn important things about both – that Gregory’s character was 4F and did not serve in the War. Aldo’s character served in the Pacific War, established neatly by talk about the heat, and how can the people in the tropics take it. “Born to it,” Aldo says. The talk is desultory, Aldo only slightly paranoid. Gregory hops a bus while Aldo shakes off his moment of suspicion and chooses to enter a nightclub where Al Hibbert (who sang the opening theme song) might have entertained. He sits and is shortly joined by Anne Bancroft, who is unable to pay for her drink. The pair chat, sharply, not particularly flirtatious, they challenge and parry. The small talk is a tad bitter, and yet she accepts his invitation to dinner. He’s a commercial artist, she’s a model – this is L.A., after all. Bancroft is young but not sweet, with a swell figure. They chat, they laugh, they smooth some rough edges and get along, such that there may be more to the evening

Who knows what might have occurred outside the restaurant had not two very confident men approached, who told Bancroft, essentially, to scram, inviting Ray into their car. She skulks off, looking back with something like anger at Ray, as if he’s betrayed her. He speaks to her in a nasty tone, as if she’s set him up. Ah, the misunderstanding.

But who are those two jokers? The clear and present villains of the piece are: Rudy Bond as seemingly dense thug named “Red,” with a braying laugh and a big gun; and Brian Keith as “John,” the smarter of the two crooks, cool, funny, with gorgeous line readings, style and timing. Brian Keith! Yes, the sweet uncle in the “Family Affair” television series we grew up with, down to the weird hair (although darker here). Keith’s is the most delightful, disarming performance of the film, closely followed by Bond. They want $350K they believe Aldo Ray has; he denies having it, and therein lies some conflict that can be resolved in the viewers’ minds by flashbacks, but not in the minds of the two villains.

Alternating with these scenes are home scenes of James Gregory with very ‘50s Stepford wife Jocelyn Brando. She is the perfect mate for a hard working insurance detective. Gregory clearly leans the way we the viewers do – he just doesn’t believe Ray’s behavior is that of a man who killed his best friend and somehow made off with $350,000.

In the present, the lighting dark when the two villains take Aldo out to a field of oil rigs and derricks, planning to torture the location of the$350K out of him. They beat him up, take his wallet, including an address for Bancroft, then take a really long time to threaten him into confessing. Maybe it didn’t feel long in 1958, but in our jaded century, these guys were remarkably polite.

We flashback to bright whites in the mountains before the snows closed the roads up in Wyoming, when two bank robbers drove a car very badly, crashed it, were helped by Aldo Ray and his camping/fishing/hunting buddy, “Doc.” Suffice to say, the good turn is served with a bad one, crazy Red kills the doc and sets up Aldo for the killing.

So somehow these two bank robbers manage to crash their getaway car when they are many states away from the original robbery, add murder to their crimes, lose the other witness, AND lose the $350,000 they stole. They appear rather incompetent, especially when Aldo gets away a second time in their own car. Then Aldo, for no good reason at all, goes to confront Bancroft.

Misunderstanding is resolved based totally on trust. She thought he was a criminal and the two villains were cops, he thought she’d worked for them in setting him up. Apparently someone thought there was chemistry between these two, but there wasn’t. Just the facts ma’am. He tells her the story in flashback, the villains show up, and the chase begins.

This is the primary failure of the film. I’ve always liked Bancroft, but her character is entirely unbelievable, as is the baseless relationship between her and Aldo Ray. Sigh.

Meanwhile, James Gregory follows Aldo to a bus station where Aldo has bought two tickets back to the mountains now that the roads are open. Apparently this happens based on the calendar, not the weather, since the date the roads would reopen (so he could go back and try to find the $350K) is circled on Aldo’s calendar.

So everybody’s following Aldo Ray, who is going to meet up with Bancroft where she’s modeling in a fashion show for rich people with nothing else to do on a sunny afternoon. Bancroft sees the two villains in the audience (who do not try to hide – they enjoy her discomfiture, hoping perhaps for a smidgen of fear, and Bancroft glares right back at them like the Bronx broad she is). When Aldo appears, she flees the runway in a long tight dress to protect him. They run off together, but clearly the tight dress and foolish shoes pain her, and suddenly Aldo picks her up in his arms and keeps running. The audience howls.

Tourneur uses light, dark, and reversals beautifully. The darkness of the southern nights is hot, the brightness of the northern days are cold. Stark or sultry, the film and Tourneur owe a great debt to cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Gorgeous as only black-and-white film can be.

The thaw allowing them to revisit the scene of the crime, Aldo, Anne, and James Gregory truck through the knee high snow and find their way to the little hut where Aldo thinks he lost the medical bag. A tractor-like plow is outside the hut. Aldo makes his way to the hut, and guess who made it there before him. Yes, “Red” and “John.”

Anyway, despite the fact that this is not Hitchcock, there’s a MacGuffin. It’s that bag filled with $350K in cash (half of which would apparently, in 1958, purchase a tropical island for Brian Keith’s character). A bag that looks just like Doc’s medical bag (the sort of bag Marcus Welby would have carried to a house call). Yes, there was a switcheroo.

This film had two big kicks for me:

Brian Keith. It was like watching Double Indemnity for the first time, when I’d known Fred MacMurray as the dad in “My Three Sons” and the doofus but kind guy in Disney movies for years, there he was – cool and suave and sexy. Him and Barbara Stanwyck. This was similar. Keith would slide into view, shrug, comment, philosophize. Really, a bad guy, but so cool. So different from the television personality I had come to expect.

And the film’s last line. The final scenes of Nightfall are in glaring bright light reflecting off the snow. That snowplow wasn’t there just for show, and that little medical bag? Well by the end, the bad guys have lost the upper hand, the good guys are buddies, and there’s that bag. Sitting in the snow. All by itself. And Aldo Ray says, “Let’s go keep it company.”

Now that’s a last line.

The next night I trekked back in to catch the film I hadn’t picked the night before: Double Take, a film by Johan Grimonprez (apparently there’s also a book). This film is about Alfred Hitchcock (about whom I've been thinking a lot lately -- deju vu?), Hitchcock films, television, the Cold War, the Space Race, paranoia, fear, and doppelgangers. At some point in its creation I would surmise its creators were a little bit stoned, but that doesn’t detract from the entertainment value. There's a lot of Hitch in his hilarious commercial moments, and food for thought in the scenes from Hitch’s films inter cut with the newsreels of the time -- McCarthyism. Nixon/Kennedy debate. Bay of Pigs. Berlin Wall. Kennedy assassination. Art is a reflection of its world, is it not?

And some say we all have a doppelganger.

Two good films at Film Forum saved my weekend. May it save yours.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time for a little Hitchcock....

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Legacy of Reading

Lois Hamilton Fuller. August 13, 1915 - June 14, 2010

My Aunt Lois died yesterday two months shy of her 95th birthday. 94 5/6, as her daughter wrote. Can’t complain about that. It was a fine life. Ups, downs, hard times, times filled with joy and fulfillment, lonely times. Life.

My Aunt Lois wrote children’s books. Her first was inspired by the Brownie Troop her daughter belonged to in New Jersey. It was called The Mystery of the Old Fisk House, and starred an entire troop of Brownies – not one or two lead characters for my Aunt Lois and her friend and co-writer Mary Shiverick Fishler, despite their publishers’ request. First book though it was, the two authors insisted that the story was about the whole group of girls acting together as a team. And they won.

I loved that book. I re-read it recently, and it holds up – well-structured, well-paced, and all of the girls have personalities and roles to play. Unfortunately it’s the one book of my aunt’s for which I don’t have the dust jacket. Here are the endpapers though:

Many years ago (the 1980s, I guess), I worked under two editors in a fine children’s books house, coincidentally to discover they had worked with my aunt on her books in the 1960s – Jean Karl and Marcia Marshall. Life is weird.

Lois Hamilton Fuller was born in 1915. On Long Island, I believe. I’m sure I have some old letters, something in my father’s footlocker (she was the wife of my father’s middle brother), more facts. What counts, of course, is that she was intelligent, literate, compassionate, vibrant and vivacious. She had experienced the twentieth century fully, as an American woman, a teacher, a wife, mother, and as a writer of children’s books.

Here’s the list of Aunt Lois’ books as I’ve known it:
Fuller, Lois Hamilton and Fishler, Mary Shiverick. The Mystery of the Old Fisk House: a Brownie Scout Story. Abington Press, 1960.
Fuller, Lois Hamilton. Keo the Cave Boy. ill. Bolognese, Donald. Abingdon Press, 1961
Fuller, Lois Hamilton. The Jade Jaguar Mystery. ill. Silverman, Mel. Abington Press, 1962
Fuller, Lois Hamilton. Fire in the Sky: Story of a Boy of Pompeii. ill. Silverman, Mel. Abingdon Press, 1965
Fuller, Lois Hamilton. Little Tiger, Big Tiger. Ill. Vyas, Anil. Children’s Book Trust New Delhi. 1970.

A fine legacy --

Today I Googled my aunt and discovered that there’s also a book called Swarup Returns that I never heard about -- she wrote it for the same Indian publisher as Little Tiger Big Tiger, Children's Book Trust of India. Who knew. It’s presently unavailable on, but I’ve put it on my WishList.

Married to a scientist, Aunt Lois’ social circle included other scientists, and the conversations doubtless sparked her interest in many topics. She told stories and listened to them, and needed to know more, always more. She thoroughly researched her subsequent books – coming of age stories and mysteries involving 12-year-olds experiencing the last days of Pompei, a community of Neanderthals in what is now Belgium, and Mayan culture shortly before the coming of Europeans.

She lived with her husband, my uncle, in New Jersey, Ohio, DC, New Delhi, India, and Boise, Idaho, among other cities. In the Boise house I visited the two of them, staying in the guest room with its own wood-paneled shower. Uncle Don cooked and served the two of us cocktails and appetizers. Terribly civilized, with appropriate portions. No wonder they both stayed slim. The Boise house was also where I saw her last, the year she turned 90. It was her birthday party, and I’d driven there from a conference in LA. (Note: If ever you decide to make that drive, bring CDs – radios don’t receive signals in the desert terrain.) Her 90th birthday party was huge, filled with people from different times in her life, different places. Once in Aunt Lois’ life, people stayed there.

My first autographed book:

We’d always corresponded, Aunt Lois and I, since we didn’t live near one another. In her 80s, living in Boise, she took up the computer, and our letters turned to e-mails. In recent years, she’d had to give up her house in Boise and move to an assisted living facility in northern California, nearer her daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. E-mails turned back to letters.

My Aunt Lois could make a life and friends anywhere. Each Christmas that she spent in northern California, I sent her a gingerbread house, which she’d share with the other residents, putting it on display for all to enjoy until it came time for all to eat it. That’s what Aunt Lois was like. Generous. Kind. Social. People gravitated toward her, because she was not only a good talker – and she could talk! -- she was also a fine listener.

Lois Hamilton Fuller was a storyteller. On the jacket flap of her book, Keo the Cave Boy, she wrote, “Although storytelling is fun and writing is work, I can think of no work I want to do more.”


I will always regret not flying out to the Pacific Coast to see her in her final home in California. I thought there’d be time. There never is.

She was a class act, my Aunt Lois. I miss her already.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light. Time to re-read The Jade Jaguar Mystery.