Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer


Author: Nancy Springer
Title: The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

The upcoming Enola Holmes movie on Netflix made me aware of the existence of this first book in a series about Sherlock Holme’s sister.  I’ve read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes writings and numerous non-canonical works by other writers, and this is definitely a good addition to that body of work.  Enola Holmes is certainly more interesting than the mystery sister introduced in the BBC’s deeply-flawed final series of Sherlock, who also had an odd name starting with E – Eurus.

Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft who grows up isolated at the family’s estate after the death of her father and her mother estrangement with her brothers.  The novel begins on Enola’s 14th birthday when her mother disappears without a trace. Her famous brothers arrive and Mycroft decides to send the non-gender conforming Enola to a finishing school.  Enola decides instead to run away and investigate her mother’s disappearance on her own, stumbling into another mystery along the way.

Springer does a good job avoiding making Enola immediately as intellectually brilliant as her more famous brothers, allowing her to develop these skills over the course of the book.  She also does a good job showing the Holmes brothers dismissive and chauvinistic attitudes – which is straight from Conan Doyle’s characterization – and the restraints Enola has to work with in as a woman in Victorian society.  Although I know the book is a series, I was surprised by the unresolved conclusion. Nevertheless, I would like to read more about Enola Holmes.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Trouble With Harry (1955)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Trouble With Harry
Release Date: September 30, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched The Trouble with Harry several times in my teen years and found it uproariously hilarious with gorgeous scenery of autumnal Vermont.  I’d went so far as listing it as one of my favorite movies of all time. Granted, my recall isn’t perfect as I also remember a scene set at a barn dance that I must have conflated with some other movie.  Viewing the movie again after several decades, I found it not as laugh out loud funny as I remembered but, nevertheless, an entertaining, well-acted, and clever bit of movie-making.

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead.  With his body found laying supine in a hillside meadow, several people in the nearby town have reason to believe that they are responsible for his death.  Capt. Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) fears he may have shot Harry while hunting, while Miss Ivy Gravely  (Mildred Natwick) thinks it the result of her hitting him on the head with her boot in self-defense after Harry stumbled upon her on a trail.  Bohemian artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) takes a whimsical interest in the whole proceedings, while Harry’s estranged wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) feels no regret at becoming a widow.  A very young of Jerry Mathers of Leave it to Beaver fame also appears as Jennifer’s curious son Arnie.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Rear Window
Release Date: September 1, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Patron, Inc.
Summary/Review:

If I played Jimmy Stewart’s part in Rear Window:

ME: I’ve been so bored, I’m just looking out the window watching my neighbors.

GRACE KELLY: I love you. I think we should get married.

ME: Wow! Really?  Forget about the window!  Let’s get married

(Roll credits)

Apart from my inability suspend disbelief that L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart) is not interested in Lisa Fremont (Kelly), Rear Window is a fascinating motion picture. Built on a remarkable studio set, Jeff’s window looks out on a courtyard surrounded by New York City apartment buildings where his neighbors go about their daily lives.  Many of the actors in this movie only appear in distant shots through windows which requires remarkable skill and timing (and ear pieces so they could get direction from Hitchcock). I’m also amazed by the ambient sound of city life in this movie, and even the soundtrack is built entirely of diegetic music.

The movie cycles through experimental, comical, and thrilling moments, but it is also contains dark undercurrents.  The movie makes the audience conspirators in Jeff’s voyeurism as we look at his neighbors through the movie camera.  It also needs to be said that Jeff is a jerk, and treats Lisa awfully.  It’s no surprise that Hitchcock cast the beloved Jimmy Stewart in the role so we would care about him at all.  While I wonder why Lisa would like Jeff in the first place, I am impressed in the way that Kelly maintains her dignity and demonstrates her value.

This movie confines the story to a single place, much like Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder, and makes that limitation a strength.  There’s so much happening in this movie that will take repeated views to catch.  I think this is among Hitchcock’s best works.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Dial M For Murder (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Dial M For Murder
Release Date: May 29, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie when I was younger and remember that it was Hitchcock’s only movie filmed in 3-D with a famous scene of Grace Kelly reaching toward the camera to get a pair of scissors.  That was about all I remember.  Like Rope, Dial M for Murder is set primarily in one apartment although without the tension of taking place in real time. Retired tennis player Tony Wendice (played as a gleeful sociopath by Ray Milland) comes up with an elaborate plan to murder his wife Margot (Kelly) as revenge for her having an affair with crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), while also being able to inherit her wealth. Tony comes up with an elaborate plan to blackmail a university acquaintance and low-level criminal, Charles Alexander Swann (Anthony Dawson), into carrying out the murder while he’s at a party with Mark.

Of course, Tony’s plan goes awry, although he is resilient in improvising alternate plots. There are a lot of twists in the story but it also feels overly talky and focused on tiny details. A lot of Hitchcock movie plots don’t make much sense when you think about them after the fact, such as Vertigo, but Dial M for Murder strains its credulity as its playing.  This is especially true in the final act when both Mark and police inspector Hubbard (John Williams) each individually come to realization of what Tony really did and challenge him in his apartment.  The script also doesn’t give Grace Kelly much to do other than react to things happening to her, which seems a big waste of her talent.

Dial M for Murder is mildly entertaining, but by Hitchcock standards it’s a dud.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Lady Vanishes
Release Date: 7 October 1938
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont British | Gainsborough Pictures
Summary/Review:

Set in the fictional European nation of Bandrika, this comical thriller features several British characters being ugly travelers as one of their number mysteriously disappears. The film begins at a snowed-in alpine resort, but the majority of the film takes place on a train. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is reluctantly traveling home to England to marry an aristocrat.  Iris is hit on the head by a falling planter box just before boarding the train, and in a disoriented state she’s helped on board by an elderly governess, Miss Froy (May Whitty).

When Iris awakes from a nap, Miss Froy is missing and no one else on the train remembers her ever being on board. Iris gets help from a smart-aleck ethno-musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), and together they search the train and uncover more and more curiosities. The movie expertly ties together mystery with romance and a comedy of manners. Only in the third act does the movie fall a bit apart with a lengthy gun battle.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The 39 Steps (1935)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The 39 Steps
Release Date: 6 June 1935
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Summary/Review:

The 39 Steps is one of the many great movies I watched in my film studies class in high school.  I remember liking it but I didn’t remember anything about the movie other than the famous moment when the chambermaid’s scream is drowned out by a train whistle. The movie stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, an ordinary person who gets caught up in international intrigue.  The movie is a template for many spy stories and thrillers to follow, but I’m impressed by how fresh and original it seems.

The movie starts with Hannay attending a music hall performance of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired in the theater and panic ensues.  Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in the crowd and take her home for protection. Annabella confesses that she is a spy being chased for assassins because she is trying to stop the theft of valuable British military intelligence. In the morning, Hannay wakes up to Annabella stumbling into his room with a knife in her back, clutching a map of Scotland with Alt-na-Shellach circled.

The bulk of the film involves Hannay traveling to Scotland to find the spies and clear his name of Annabella’s murder. He falls into and out of trouble as he’s pursued both by the police and the spies.  Hannay doesn’t really have a plan but he’s good at improvising and has a good sense of humor.  Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who identifies Hannay to the police on multiple occasions, eventually ends up handcuffed to him by the spies in disguise.  Their scenes together, while fully in the thriller genre, also seem to be protypical tropes of the romantic comedy (and also kind of remind me of Frank Capra’s 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, which I’m going to have to rewatch to make sure).

The 39 Steps is an excellent thriller with great comic moments, inspired acting performances, and directorial innovation from Hitchcock.  It’s definitely worth a spot on lists of Hitchcock’s best movies and the best movies of all time.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Clue (1985)


TitleClue
Release Date: December 13, 1985
Director: Jonathan Lynn
Production Company: Guber-Peters Company | PolyGram Filmed Entertainment | Debra Hill Productions
Summary/Review:

We played a game of Clue and then decided to watch the movie Clue.  The things you do while in isolation.  I saw this movie in the theater back when it first came out.  The gimmick at the time as that there were three different endings released to different movie theaters.  I saw ending C.  By the time it made it to video and television broadcasts (and now on streaming) all three endings are played back to back.

This is perhaps the first, but not the last, movie based upon a board game.  A comedy that parodies ensemble murder mystery movies while bringing in elements from the board game is a good premise. The movie has become a cult classic among Millenials, but I’m surprised at just how few laughs there are, especially considering the stellar cast.  The movie features Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren. but only Curry gets some truly funny moments.  And most of those are held until the end(s) of the movie when he’s revealing whodunnit.

Knives Out did it all much better.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Conversation (1974)


Title: The Conversation
Release Date: April 7, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: The Directors Company
Summary/Review:

Gene Hackman portrays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert for hire in San Francisco.  The movie begins with his team recording the conversation of a young couple, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest) as they stroll through Union Square during lunch hour.  They talk as if they have something to hide but their actual conversation appears innocuous.  As Caul edits and replays the conversation he starts to hear different things (not unlike Blowup where enlarging a photograph reveals tantalizing details).  Caul faces a moral quandary when he believes that if he delivers the recording to his client it could lead to the Ann and Mark’s murder.

Coppola made this movie as a personal project in-between The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. The story reflects the increasing mistrust of government and Big Business the grew in the turbulent late 60s and early 70s, and inadvertently reflected the Watergate scandal that unfolded in 1974.  There are some great scenes of Caul and other surveillance experts at a trade show and party that show the surprisingly sophisticated technology of the era. Harrison Ford has a good small part as a snarky assistant to Caul’s client.  The movie is a slow-burn thriller with a fair amount of ambiguity and a surprising twist.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Knives Out (2019)


Title: Knives Out
Release Date: November 27, 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company:  MRC | T Street
Summary/Review:

Rian Johnson pays tribute to Agatha Christie novels and ensemble-cast mystery movies of the 1970s in this movie mystery with a twist. Daniel Craig portrays the eccentric private detective Benoit Blanc with a Southern twang (because it’s a rule among casting agents that Southerners must be played by British actors).  He’s called in to investigate the seemingly straight-forward suicide of wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer).  An all-star cast portray Harlan’s awful children, grand-children, and in-laws, all of whom have motive to kill him, but the heart of this movie comes in a terrific performance by Ana de Armas who plays Harlan’s nurse and friend Marta Cabrera. I give points to Chris Evans for a remarkable heel turn as Ransom, the biggest asshole of the Thrombey clan.

I went into this movie unspoiled, I don’t intend to spoil anyone else, so here are a few spoiler-free thoughts:

  • I didn’t realize the movie is set in Massachusetts, and was filmed on location in various Boston suburbs (including some places I recognized).
  • Apropos to Massachusetts, Benoit Blanc talks a lot about doughnuts and doughnut holes.
  • The movie is more than a mystery but also a social satire on white American privilege and discrimination against immigrants.
  • The final shot of the film is an absolutely brilliant work of direction and cinematography.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: In the Heat of the Night (1967)


Title: In the Heat of the Night 
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation
Summary/Review:

Set in a fictional Southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night opens in a Norman Rockwell setting that quickly deteriorates into a nightmare scenario.  Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) cruises through the town until he comes upon the dead body of a Northern industrialist who is building a factory in the town.  Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) tells Wood to check the railroad station for any strangers, and there he finds a Black man sitting all alone and immediately arrests him.  The man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he is not a murderer but simply there because he was changing trains after visiting his mother.

It’s soon revealed that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia and is let go.  But since the Sparta police are obviously incompetent, the widow of the industrialist, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), asks Tibbs to stay and investigate her husband’s murderer. This sets up an uneasy alliance between TIbbs Gillespie  as they attempt to work together to solve the mystery.  Poitier and Steiger put in excellent, multi-layered performances which are the strength of this film.

Some of the directorial intent about race relations feels a bit clunky today, but I suspect was powerful in 1967, just two years after Selma and as race riots rocked American cities.  One standout scene is when Tibbs questions a plantation owner named Endicott. Things get heated and Endicotts slaps Tibbs and Tibbs immediately slaps him back. Endicott asks the police chief “what are you going to do?” and Gillespie says “I don’t know.” It’s clear that just a few years earlier Gillespie would have been required to kill Tibbs or call out a lynch mob (even if he didn’t want to) but things have changed enough at this point that Gillespie can do nothing.  Nevertheless, a mob of white men do get together to try to find and beat (maybe kill) Tibbs, adding tension to the investigation.

While Poitier and Steiger stand out, some of the other performances are weak.  Particularly, Anthony James who portrays the diner proprietor Ralph straight out of Southern Gothic nightmare and Quentin Dean, whose bit part as a pregnant teenager seems to be based on a school play performance of Mayella Ewell.  But by and large this movie stands the test of time.  Oh, and the bluesy soundtrack by Quincy Jones, with Ray Charles singing on the title song, is absolutely perfect.

Rating: ****