Weekend Radio Show Recommendation

You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.

p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.

How Jails Stay Full, Always

Governmental organizations have interests, and that includes the jail and court system. They work together to keep jails full no matter whether crime is rising or falling. It’s not that hard: If you hold more people pre-trial and hold all inmates for longer periods, you can keep at capacity in a way that the hotel industry would envy.

But it’s wrong. My analysis in Washington Post today.

Shopping for a Comfortable Coach Airline Seat? Consider the ASSPHIT.

Here’s a travel tip you don’t hear every day: Can you guess how I upgraded all my ticketed airplane seats from basic to premium economy for free? I lost 20 pounds. With two inches taken off my waist, the spacing between me and the arms of my seat has increased to a level I could normally only get by paying for an upgrade. My personal journey of weight loss inspired some research that can benefit any cost-conscious flier, particular those who, like myself, have experienced being “gravitationally challenged.”

Passengers frequently rage at the airlines for restricting seat sizes, and with good reason. Data gathered by former Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Bill McGee, supplemented by some research I did using Seatguru.com while wedged into seat 47Q, shows that the smallest seat width in coach class across American, Delta, and United Airlines declined around 15% over the past three decades.   

But examining airline seat size decline in isolation understates the march of rear-end pinch. Even if seat size had stayed constant, flying would still feel more uncomfortable because the proportion of Americans who are overweight swelled from 55% in 1989 to about 73% today. Clearly, the nation needs a new statistic to assess the combined impact of smaller seats and bigger (cough) seats. I therefore charted the ratio of minimum coach seat width to the proportion of U.S. adults who are overweight.  At the risk of being cheeky, I label this variable the Airline Seat Size to Passenger Heftiness Index Tracker (ASSPHIT), which reveals a startling 36% decline in posterior comfort over the past three decades. 

The extraordinary ASSPHIT of the first class section is mainly for the corporate traveler; what’s the best coach class choice for the corpulent traveler? Delta Airlines, with minimum ASSPHIT of .23 (and even better ASSPHIT on most of its airplanes) is your best bet among legacy carriers. In contrast, one of the seat configurations of a particular United Airlines narrow body jet offers a minimum coach width of just 16 inches. Even if you have a narrow body yourself, that’s one tight ASSPHIT.

As for my recent success at improving my personal ASSPHIT, the hard fact is that most people who lose weight gain it back again. Given how often I fly, I am hoping to beat those odds. I know I have your good wishes, particularly if you are crammed into the seat next to me.

RBC Comments Restored!

Some years ago, the RBC site was redesigned and tens of thousands of comments disappeared. Some readers were upset and a few emailed conspiracy theories (e.g., that Mark had deleted them all on purpose for some reason).

But it was just a technical glitch that no one could fix. As everyone can see, the site’s tech has been revamped again. And I just now noticed that all those comments are back with us again.

The world would have survived either way, but reading through some old ones made me realize how many thoughtful, informed, challenging — and sometimes as well very funny — comments have been made on this site over the years and I am glad to have them in the archive again.

Love Means Saying You Are Woman Sorry

Yesterday, a British journalist asked me how the supporting technology was at Washington Post since Jeff Bezos bought it. I replied “Quite good” and his expression told me I had been misunderstood. So I said “I meant American quite good not British quite good”.

This reminded me of a common problem of the heterosexual couples I counselled back in the day. The wildly popular 1970 film Love Story taught Americans that “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” No wonder the divorce rate was so high in what Garry Trudeau called a kidney stone of a decade. Of course you sometimes have to say you are sorry to keep an intimate relationship going. But what do you mean when you say it?

For most of the men I saw in counseling, saying sorry meant that you had done something wrong and were apologizing. For most of the women, sorry more often meant “I feel you”. A common resulting scenario for misunderstanding would be that the husband would complain about, say, his awful boss and his wife would say “I’m sorry about that”, leading the man to reject this expression of sympathy with “Why? It’s not your fault.” Even more painfully, when the wife would describe her own troubles she might feel hurt that her husband didn’t express any sorrow. Meanwhile, he would be thinking “I feel bad for it, but it’s not my fault, so I’m not going to say I’m sorry”.

A way past this that seemed to help was to teach the couples the difference and help them become comfortable in emotional exchanges to refer to “woman sorry” and “man sorry”, e.g., “I’m not saying it’s your fault, I’m asking you to be woman sorry for me” and “I’m man sorry that I didn’t understand until this moment what you needed from me”.

Black De-Carceration

The imprisonment rate in the United States is down around 10% over the past decade, but this average trend hides a larger trend: African-American imprisonment is down substantially.

As Chuck Lane and I break it down in Washington Post, the African-American male rate is now at a 26.5 year low and the African-American female rate is now at a 30 year low. More details here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Marlowe

Immediately after finishing Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, I decided to revisit a 1969 adaptation of the book I remembered liking many years ago. I am happy to report that having read the source material made me appreciate the movie version even more than I did the first time through. Therefore I give you this week’s film recommendation: Marlowe.

The plot: Orfamay Quest, a woman from the sticks who is less innocent and prudish than she at first seems (Sharon Farrell, very good here) comes to Los Angeles and hires private investigator Phillip Marlowe (James Garner) to find her brother Orrin. Meanwhile, in an ostensibly distinct plot thread which you know will get woven in because it’s Raymond Chandler, someone has taken some compromising photos of a vicious gangster (H.M. Wyant) with an alluring starlet (Gayle Hunnicut, who as ever is nothing if not alluring). Meanwhile, the starlet’s fellow actress and friend Dolores Gonzales (Rita Moreno) tries to help Marlowe while also liking the look of him. The famous PI is soon enmeshed in a net of murder and intrigue.

The prolific and talented Stirling Siliphant had the most important job in this film, namely converting Chandler’s long, complicated, novel into an hour and a half of cinema. Siliphant did many things right by the famous author. He ditched all the opening exposition involved with Marlowe and Orfamay meeting (I am a big fan of this in movies) and started the movie with the first of the many murders, gripping the audience right off the bat. He also preserved much of Chandler’s terrific dialogue and simplified the plot without making the story less compelling.

Siliphant also added two elements of his own, one of which works and one of which doesn’t. What works is introducing American audiences to his friend and martial arts teacher Bruce Lee. When Lee unleashes his Jeet Kune Do in Marlowe’s office the results are both amazing, and, with a a droll assist from Garner, very funny. What doesn’t work is giving Marlowe a stable, bland, girlfriend. This fish-with-a-bicycle move eliminates the sexual tensions and possibilities that are central to Marlowe’s character and the novel.

James Garner is well-cast as Marlowe, which no Rockford Files fan will be surprised to hear. Indeed, as Garner blearily answers a knock at his front door while dressed in his bathrobe, that trailer on the beach will come to your mind’s eye. Matching his on screen presence, charm, and sex appeal is Rita Moreno, who gets to show off both her acting and dancing chops.

Chandler’s work really belongs in the 1940s, so I tend to like modern adaptations such as prior RBC recommendation Farewell My Lovely a bit more than films like Marlowe that move him out of his natural era. But I still like Marlowe a lot because it’s well acted and exciting, and has a plot structure that is agreeably easier to grasp than that of novel.

p.s. Two trivia notes on the incomparable Rita Moreno. She is among very few performers in the EGOT club (Won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award). She was close friends with Garner, and appeared in three episodes of The Rockford Files.

p.p.s. Director Paul Bogart and James Garner would work together again two years later on another film I commend to you: Skin Game.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line
which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including this week’s film recommendation: Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who begins pursuing Frank Enley remorselessly for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best ever roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Hangover Square

Following on last week’s recommendation of The Charmer, I stick with Patrick Hamilton adaptations again this week, albeit one that departs substantially from the original novel: 1945’s Hangover Square.

The plot: In Edwardian London, brilliant, troubled classical composer George Bone (Laird Cregar) suffers fugue states during which he commits violent acts which he cannot recall afterwards. As Bone attempts to hold his psyche together long enough to complete a concerto, a scheming, alluring dance hall tart named Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) tempts him in every way to devote his talents instead towards producing popular songs that will catapult her to fame. When George finally realizes that Netta is manipulating him, his mind snaps once more, propelling forward this dark tale of suspense, crime, and emotional anguish.

I am going to start my analysis of this film by getting the unpleasant bit out straightaway. The middling script of Hangover Square was written by Alfred Edgar, under the pen name Barré Lyndon (Presumably he was a Thackeray fan). Edgar drained the trenchant political and psychological observations from Hamilton’s novel (which was set during Hitler’s rise to power), added some clunky expositional exchanges while leaving other important elements of the plot strangely unexplained, and concocted a character who makes little sense (Dr. Allan Middleton, played by George Sanders, who is a clinical psychiatrist but is also somehow a front-line police detective and also apparently a romantic rival of George Bone though this is dropped after a single needless scene). Edgar’s is by no means a terrible screenplay, but given the source material — Hangover Square is generally considered Hamilton’s best novel — it should have been better.

Fortunately, other elements of Hangover Square are so remarkable that they overcome the script’s flaws. The film is anchored by scintillating performances by two sadly short-lived talents: Cregar and Darnell. The character of George Bone might easily have repelled the audience, but Cregar conveys such vulnerability and ingenuousness that the audience sympathizes with him anyway. A talented musician in his own right, Cregar is also completely believable in his composing and performance scenes. Darnell, only 22 years old at he time, is just as good at being bad. She keeps every man in the movie dancing on a string with her lovely face, artful conversational dodges, and sexual ruthlessness. One central aspect of the book that the film does maintain are the scenes of love struck George letting Netta hurt him, disregard him, and demean him; Cregar and Darnell play these just right.

The visuals of the movie are as rewarding as the performances. The sets are handsome, the costumes expertly done, and the editing is spot on. On top of all that, the brilliant Joseph LaShelle (whose film noir work I have praised before) contributes gorgeously shadowy cinematography and a particularly superb tracking shot at the climax.

The other undeniable pleasure of Hangover Square is Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the best in his storied career. Herrmann had to write not just the usual movie theme music, but also the piece that Bone is striving to compose and plays in the arresting final scene. The result — Concerto Macabre — is a knockout.

Hangover Square re-united much of the team that made a prior RBC Recommendation The Lodger the year before, but it was not a happy set. Stevens hated his closing line and got into a row about it with producer Robert Bassler that allegedly ended in fisticuffs. Cregar loved the novel and was angry about how it had been drastically changed in the script, and he and director John Brahm clashed throughout the production. Cregar was also struggling with health problems stemming from his attempts to dramatically reduce his weight, including through amphetamine use. He died two months before Hangover Square was released, but at least fate made his last scene on screen an unforgettable image that will stay with viewers of this film for many a moon.