Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets with Dennis Price and Alec Guiness

Dennis Price plays Louis Descoyne in this brillant British send up of murder mysteries. He plays 13 parts. Narrated by Alec Guiness,this movie is a gem.

When his mother is cast out of the family her son is denied his rightful title of Earl. This leads him to not getting the woman he loves who is only interested in money and power.

When his Mother dies he vows to attain his righful place as Earl. To do this he must ingratiate himself with his estranged family.(All played by Dennis Price.) After becoming acquainted with them one by one,he kills them, one by one,each murder bringing himself one step closer to the title he so eagerly covets.

When he is accused of the one murder he didn't commit, he is sentenced to hang. Recognizing the irony of it all he proceeds to pen his memoirs the night before his execution. When dawn arrives and with it a Pardon, he joyfully leaves the cell a free man.

But a last minute twist of fate, which rivals anything by O. Henry, leaves you with no doubt that crime- while attractive- does not always pay. And things are never quite what they appear to be.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

Neal Bascomb writes in a pulse pounding way that brings urgency to the topic at hand.

When he opens this book on Garibaldi Street outside of Buenos Aires, we already know what is going to happen. But as you are waiting for the bus to arrive you find yourself worried when it is late, that something has gone wrong. This is writing at it's best.

In recounting the tale of one of the largest manhunts in history Mr. Bascomb provides background on all of the lead characters. He also skillfully weaves in and out of the politics that wrought these events.

I was 7 years old and living in Brooklyn, New York when Israels' Mossad kidnapped Eichmann from Argentina and tried him for murder. He was found guilty and hung. I had seen the documentaries about his capture and trial but never gave much thought as to exactly how he got to Argentina in the first place.

I always assumed that Eichmann, along with thousands of other former Nazi's, went there immediatley after the war was over. This is not true.

Eichmann wound his way through several American detention camps in Europe at the close of the war, escaping several times. He carefully kept his identity hidden through the use of false documents provided by an extensive network of former Nazi's.

Mr. Bascomb takes us on a journey through the mountains of Germany and Austria showing us Eichmann on the run. He works as a lumberjack for 18 months before finally making his way to Genoa. From there he obtains the necessary Visa's and Passport to travel to Argentina. His new name is Ricardo Klement.

Carefully woven into the story is the subplot of why Argentina became the haven for former Nazi's. This involved Juan Peron's government and their quest for industrial leaders to become a major power in South America. Ironically, the Argentine government declared war on Germany a few weeks before the war ended. In this way they would remain unlinked to the war crimes trials that were going to take place. Argentina had been the main intelligence gathering point for the Germans during the war, while carefully retaining "neutrality."

This book reads like a master spy thriller. With the Haganah team tracking every possible lead Eichmann still manages to board the Giovanna C in Genoa and actually makes it to Argentina. There he uses his experience as an Architect to gain some employment with the government.

Simon Weisenthal plays a large role in keeping the fires lit so that the search will not die. His efforts are instrumental in bringing Eichmann to justice. A group of Israeli operatives, who have a very personal stake in this chase, are relentless in their pursuit and capture of Eichmann in Argentina.

This book covers the years 1945 through the trial and verdict in 1961. During those 16 years there was always someone looking for Eichmann. With every false report of his death Eichmann hopes that he has eluded his past. He rationalizes his role in the Final Solution as having only obeyed orders.

His wife and children eventually arrive in Argentina. Mr. Bascomb gives us an up close look at the family and how they coped with living this secret life.

This book is the result of painstaking research - even utilizing some of Eichmanns' own account of his time on the run.

Eichmann was transported out of Argentina in a steamer trunk aboard an El Al flight to Israel. There he was tried, convicted and hung for his role in the murder of 6 million Jews.

This book lives up to everything I have come to expect from this author. He lures you in, keeps you interested and then delivers the goods.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Movie Review: Talk To Me with Don Cheadle

This is one of those movies based on real life events that we often take for granted.

AM Radio was king in the early 1960's. With fast paced DJ's rapping between songs and commercials often done by the DJ's themselves there was something more intimate about radio back then. But as the Nation changed so did the expectations of the average listener. They wanted something more relevant to what was happening in the community. At Radio Station WOL- 1460 AM in Washington D.C. this was apparent in the falling ratings.

Into this vacumn comes former Inmate Petey Greene. A chance meeting with the Program Director of WOL during the latters' visit to a relative in prison leads Greene to believe that he has a job waiting for him at WOL when he gets out. He has been doing "broadcasts" inside the Correctional Facility and fancies himself to be a top notch DJ.

When he is released after a very comical situation he heads straight back to D.C. and his old girlfriend (played by Taraji P. Henson and you gotta love her in this role!) Together they invade WOL to claim His job.

WOL is a Black Soul station run by a stuffed shirt white guy, played by Martin Sheen. The black Program Director, Dewey Hughes,is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.He
promises,and then manages to deliver,the job as DJ. The repurcussions of this dramatic change are worth seeing.

The lead DJ at the station, "The Hawk",is played with great effect by Cedric the Entertainer. His story could provide a whole other movie! And his potrayal of the "Nighthawk" is right on the money. He has issues with the new DJ that ultimatley get worked out to everyones satisfaction.

With the racial divisions of the 1960's as a backdrop and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Greene rises quickly to fame. He is changing the way radio is done. He is the precursor to Richard Pryor, Howard Stern, even George Carlin.

But the forces of commercialism and profit propel Greene on a stairway to stardom that he neither wants nor is looking for. It all comes apart when he appears, unwillingly, on The Tonite Show and realizes that he has nothing to say to white America. So he fades away at the height of his popularity.

But he left his mark forever on the media in the form of the freedoms we take for granted today. The movie is very fast paced and with a tremendous soundtrack of Motown and Soul Music this movie is worth the time. First released in 2004 I don't know how I missed this one!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Trilogy of Books by Studs Terkel

These three books by Studs Terkel will take you on a journey through 20th Century America. "Working" was originally written as a series of Occupational Interviews for the NRA Writers Project during the New Deal. Writers were sent out across America to interview people of all occupations in all areas of the country. The results are fascinating.

Studs Terkel is an American journalist and a treasure. At 96 he is still active and writing. His writing style in these books is to let his subjects speak. This is oral history at it's best.

The next book "The Good War" is again a series of interviews with every conceivable person involved in the war. From Rosie the Riveter to the guys who flew the planes to the politicians who waged the war, it's all here.

The final book of this trilogy is "American Dreams-Lost and Found" which came out towards the end of the Vietnam War. It chronicles the differences between "The Good War" and the War in Vietnam through interviews with the people who fought in it as well as the people at home who were against the war. A real journalistic approach to the conflict that divided America so deeply. It is also a foray into what Americans really expect from their government.

The key to these books is that Mr. Terkel has an unusual understanding of people and how to get them to open up. Through his writing we see glimpses of other peoples lives and even come to understand our own in a more clear way.

These three books will help you understand how we got where we are. They will also have you wondering where we are going.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Plain Speaking-An Oral Autobiography by Harry S. Truman with Merle Miller

This is a book that I return to from time to time in order to clarify an historical point or opinion. I don't do politics here. But I am an active follower of what is happening in the news. And this book proves that the only thing new is the history you don't know.

This book is also essential to understanding not only the history of Post World War Two and how it affects us even today, it is also a passionate history of America. And it is told by the last President to not have a college degree. A failed businessman from the racially divided Kansas-Missouri border who went on to desegregate the Armed Forces while his mother in law (who had been a prisoner of the Union at Andersonville)railed against him as a traitor.

This book will make you feel as if your Grandfather is in the room and talkng to you-it's that personable. His experiences as a Gunnery Captain in World War One are truly captivating. So are his accounts of chasing down graft during World War Two and his battle with Glenn L. Martin over defective aircraft knowingly being sent into battle.

His humbleness at finding himself the Leader of the Free World at the close of World war Two is refreshingly innocent. He had been in the dark about the Manhattan Project and now had to make some fateful and momentous decisions. He would more than measure up.

The book came about in 1962 as a result of a TV special that one of the networks did in Independence, Missouri at the Trumans home. Merle Miller had interviewed the President before and they had an easy relationship. This enabled Truman to let loose with history, opinion, fact and his feelings about the Bomb, creating the CIA and what it would mean to America.(His only regret by the way is having created the CIA.)

The history of the division of the States and the War Between them is fascinating. He was married into a family that had suffered greatly at the hands of Union raiders in the cross border Kansas-Missouri conflict. His mother in law, who despised him as worthless, was a prisoner at Andersonville and he goes into some detail of the horrors she endured there.

His first hand accounts of the legendary confrontations with General MacArthur are piceless. His take on the best and worst Pesidents will amaze you in it's logic.

A self educated man who had read all of mythology and every classic from Plato on, his unigue take was summed up in this quote; "The only thing new is the history you don't know."

This is the man who with a penstroke ensured that Israel would be recognized by the UN in 1947 as an Independent Jewish State. He was greatly influenced in this by an old friend and Army buddy named Eddie Jacobsen. And all this was going on at the time of the Berlin Airlift and the newly founded Cold War!

He also created the Middle Class in America with the passage of the GI BIll at the end of the war.

His simple vision and common sense attitude is sorely missing in todays political environment-on both sides of the aisle! Like I said, I don't do politics here. This is history and has much to offer in that regard. You will bask in the warmth in which it is served up. And learn quite a bit in the bargain.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fiction vs. Non Fiction

I have often wondered why people take real life events, with all the drama they afford, and turn the events into fiction. "Titanic" with Leonardo DiCaprio springs to mind.

So I was a bit taken aback when I read a review of the new E.L. Doctorow novel "Homer and Langley." He sets the story in the 1950's several years after the brothers died. He even has them dying at seperate times! This is a book I will probably not read- but let me tell you the real story, as I remember it being told by my Uncle Irving when I was about 8 years old.

I had been going in and out of the deserted houses that were coming down all over my neighborhood to make way for new apartment buildings. My Uncle found out and told me of the structural dangers and possible pit falls attendant to playing in such places.

This is the story he told me- Once there were two brothers,Langley and Homer Collyer, who lived at 128th Street and 5th Avenue in an old brownstone. They were hoarders. That is, they kept everything and anything.

Born to a Gynecologist, Herman Collyer and their mother Susie Frost, they were said to have roots extending back to Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower. The parents were both dead by 1929 and Homer and Langley were left to their own devices.

They both had Columbia University degrees. One was in Admirality Law and the other in Engineering. They continued living in the family home even as the demographics of the neighborhood changed around them.

Acting on rumours of great wealth hidden in the old brownstone, several attempts were made to break in during the 1930's. This resulted in one brother booby trapping the entire house. The brothers lived as virtual recluses for years. In 1939 they lost their electric and water due to non payment of utility bills. Langley fetched his water from a park 4 blocks away at night! Homer, blind and crippled by 1933 was under the care of Langley for the rest of his life.Neither brother worked but when the City tried to foreclose on the property for tax reasons in 1939 Langley wrote a check and paid the amount in full.

Around 1943 the press found the story too compelling to ignore and went in to the house to investigate. They found piles of newspapers floor to ceiling. Langley claimed that he was saving them for Homer when he regained his sight. Langley had actually started his brother on a diet of 100 oranges per week in a hope that the massive amounts of Vitiman C would do the trick.

Someone passing by the house in March of 1947 smelled a foul order and called in a tip to Police. It took 7 men to get in the house and past all the rubbish. They found Homer, newly dead and not the cause of the smell. Dependent upon Langley for food he had died blind and alone about 10 hours earlier of starvation.

Langley would be found weeks later,the body trapped beneath one of his own booby traps. Most of the junk in the house was worthless bric a brac and newspapers, boxes and string. There was also a large cache of guns and ammuntion.

So this is a perfect example of why I read Non-Fiction. You can't make up stuff as good as this.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

King of Heists by J. North Conway

This is one of those books that reads like fiction. I can compare it to "American Lightning" which I reviewed earlier this year in both its' scope and flow. It reads like good fiction ought to.

George Leslie, the main focus of the book, is a ne'er do well son of an aristocratic family from Ohio. His father buys George out of military service in the Civil War. This makes him an undesireable person in the years following the war. By this time he has become an architect of some renown. But upon the death of his parents in the late 1860's he turns to New York City where he hopes to re-invent himself.

Upon his arrival in New York in 1869 he begins to do just that. He starts with dinner at the old Delmonico's, then the most extravagant dining establishment in the world. Here he meets Jim Fisk who introduces Mr. Leslie to the likes of Jay Gould, William "Boss" Tweed, and most fascinating of all, Marm Mandelbaum.

Ms. Mandelbaum's claim to fame is that she was the biggest "fence" in New York for the last half of the 19th Century. She held sway over all of the 5 Points Gangs that picked pockets, stole from stores, robbed homes and killed people. She paid 10 cents on the dollar for anything of value. She ran a school for young pickpockets that served as a model for Charles Dickens character Fagin in "Oliver Twist". Dickens had visited New York in the 1850's and met her.

The following day Leslies' pocket is picked. The money and papers that go missing are trivial compared with what he has hidden in that wallet.

Mr. Leslie had been at work on an invention that would soon revoltionize bank robberies. No more explosives, drilling or safecracking. George Leslies' "Little Joker" was a small metal plate that fit beneath the combination knob on the front of a safe. When the safe was opened it left small marks on the metal plate indicating the numbers that had been used. Now all that needed to be done was try the various combinations and you were in!

When his wallet is stolen Leslie makes contact with the Police as well as his friends Jay Gould and Jim Fisk. Within a day his wallet is returned through the connection of Marm Mandelbaum. She knows of the device in his wallet and a criminal alliance is formed.

With the Gilded Age as a backdrop, Leslie and his gang set up an elaborate fake bank in a warehouse in Brooklyn. There they practice the robbery over and over until they have it down to a science. His first trial run at the Ocean Savings Bank nets him $800,0000. It was a record.

With his little "Joker" and the gang he has assembled with the help of Marm Mandelbaum he goes on a 9 year spree of robberies, culminating in the 1878 robbery of the Manhattan Savings Institution for $3 million dollars.(over $50 million today)

What brings this man down from the highest of criminal enterprises will surprise you. His roving eye and ego are two of the things that form his Achilles heel.

Set against the backdrop of Black Friday and the Gold Scandal of 1869,the book traces the scandal from Jim Fisk and Jay Gould all the way to the White House and President Grant. This is a book that is filled with things about history that are not taught in school. Some of the lessons of financial manipulation in the Stock Market apparently have gone unheeeded over these last 140 years.

The book is a great look at the seamier side of New York during the Gilded Age. Written with great style and energy this is a very enjoyable and thought provoking read.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Niagra Suspension Bridge

I found this interesting shell about 20 years ago in Burtonsville, Md. while working as an assistant to a surveyor. I would “comp” the formulas in the field in order to get a quick “traverse” of the properties we surveyed. This was before the computer stuff took over. I was good at it due to my experience as a Quartermaster in the Navy and later as a Navigators Assistant while serving as Third Mate in the Merchant Marine.

Anyway, there was an old mobile home on one property and I went in to look around. See what treasures might have been left behind- but expecting nothing. I found this in the kitchen area and it evoked in me the scene from “Grapes of Wrath” where Jane Darwell is going through her old memory chest and finds the pin from the St. Louis Exposition of 1903. It must have meant a great deal to someone a long time ago.

At the time internet was still in its’ infancy and I couldn’t find out too much about this bridge, which of course was long gone. While reading a book today I came across an item mentioning that James Roebling had built a suspension bridge over the Niagra in 1855. I Googled it and came up with a wonderful Wilkipedia article on it. I wondered where the shell was and happily found it in our china closet, way in the rear where it could not be seen.

The bridge was taken down in 1897 which finally gives me an age for the shell. It is from the 1890’s or older. And the illustration is so much like the one etched in the shell that I wanted to share it. For more on this brige and it’s remarkable history hit the link;

Meantime the shell is out of the closet so to speak, and now occupies a prominent place on the piano.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Two Great Movies- "Flawless" and "Holiday Heart"

These 2 movies will take you by surprise. They both feature actors in lead roles you would least expect to see them play.

In "Flawless" Robert DeNiro is a former cop who lives alone and works as a security guard. He is a bitter and homophobic man. He lives in a flophouse hotel inhabited by whores, transexuals and drag queens. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the Drag Queen. He is also Robert DeNiros' worst nightmare. You might even say they hate one another.

Against the backdrop of a drug rip off gone bad Robert DeNiro becomes involved in an incident late one night and has a stroke. He plays the stroke victim to perfection.

Initially unaccepting of his physical state,he tries to shut out the entire world in a bath of self pity. But his needs, as well as those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman,will not allow it. Through the vehicle of singing lessons to regain his speech, DeNiros character forms a bond with Hoffman that is tempered by the fallout from both his own stroke as well as the drug rip off.

Aside from being a great action film this movie offers more. There is a relationship with a woman that also leads DeNiro to discover that love is not what it always seems to be on the surface.

This film has a great supporting cast and fantastic direction. The plot is fast and the movie has deep meaning concerning what we each owe one another as fellow human beings. Respect.

If you have never seen this movie you should. We have all seen the tough guy potrayals of Ving Rhames as a big black guy. He's great. But after a while you wonder what else can he do? "Holiday Heart" answers that question. He can act. Boy, can he act!

In this movie he plays a drag queen/transvestite named Holiday. That's right. Ving Rhames. And he does it with integrity and compassion.

The movie is also a social commentary about about how we are all interwoven. Your pain is mine. Through a set of circumstances he becomes involved in the life of a young girl who lives next door and is being raised by a crack addicted mother and a dealer father.

And that's all I will tell you about this extraordinary movie. But in the end, Holiday Heart proves himself to be more of a man than most. A very worthwhile movie.

The Only Smart Move I've Ever Made

The photo above was taken in 1985. That's Sue on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge before South Street Seaport came along and replaced the Fish Market. It was a gloriously deserted and somewhat dangerous place to hang out.

The point I want to make is this- When I met Sue she was engaged, ring and all. But I wanted her- and in the only smart move I've ever made I pursued her. Today it would be called stalking I suppose. But I won.

I have been really sick this week with stuff relating to my HLA B27- and Sue has taken care of me in every way possible. I never knew, or realized how much I am loved. Too busy thinking about the bad stuff in the past to be thankful for what I have in the here and now.

So this is my public thank you to my partner in life. And Sue, I love you too.