Leslie Charteris Oddity: Lady on a Train

Monday, September 15, 2008

A bunch of buddies hereabouts maintains a movie club. Once a month we get together for lunch, pick a movie to watch in the ensuing month, circulate DVDs of that movie, and spend the following month's lunch discussing (or failing to discuss) that pick.

This time around, we picked the Deanna Durbin film Lady on a Train (1945), which I had wanted to see for some time, having bought the paperback at an earlier point. The back cover of the paperback, signed "The Publishers," was clearly written by the publisher -- but that happened to be author Leslie Charteris (1907-1993) himself. Of interest to me when I bought the used copy was that it was a non-Saint mystery (though, despite what the cover copy says, it does have one passing reference to Simon Templar).

In any case, the short novel has another distinction, outlined by mystery writer Charteris inside the front cover. (See left.) And I embarked on the most sensible method of consumption: I watched the movie first, then read the book. And found massive changes in the story.

And, yes, the story in the novel is an improvement over the story in the film. Charteris added several new characters and better defined the Deanna Durbin character's motivation for being where she is and doing what she does.

On the other hand, he deleted one of the major characters in the film: mystery writer "Wayne Morgan," who becomes involved in attempts to solve the puzzle. Played by David Bruce (1916-1976), Morgan is reduced almost to comedy-relief status at times, as Durbin's character barrels ahead relentlessly to untangle the threads of where and when and how and who. But an additional gag (whether from the screenwriters or Charteris) is that Bruce bears a startling resemblance to Charteris himself.

If you find this interesting enough to pursue, the film is on a set of Durbin DVDs titled Deanna Durbin Sweetheart Pack. On the other hand, the book isn't as accessible. I find a few on Amazon, starting at (yikes!) $52.39, and bookfinder.com starts at $56.38 and ranges as high as $114.25. It apparently only had the one edition: a saddle-stitched paperback. Maybe it's time for Universal to bring out a collector's edition of the movie and the book in a single package? Just a thought ...


Highly Seasoned

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I've commented in the past that I watch very little TV as it's being broadcast these days. The advertisements annoy me, the all-too-frequent time dance that leads to my missing an episode of a continuing story, and the long wait between episodes has become more a torment than a delightful anticipation. There's a bit of guilt about my cunning plan, since the ratings help determine the ads, and the ads are what pays for the shows. Nevertheless, I've been hooked for some time on the practice of buying DVD sets of many series' episodes.

And now, thanks to the impending new season of such series, I find myself almost overcome by the plethora of such DVD sets, with a stack now awaiting viewing. (Moreover, one of the best set-producers today is BBC Video -- and, to review those for Comics Buyer's Guide, I have to watch every minute of every disc, variant soundtracks and all. I am in the midst of watching-and-notetaking Spaced: The Complete Series, which ran only two short seasons, written by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes starting in 1999 [ISBN 1-4198-6845-4]. They're only half-hour episodes, but there's an original video commentary and a current video commentary, not to mention a bonus disc -- so the 14 episodes take three times as long to view as the simple episodes themselves, and I could actually add a fourth viewing, if I wanted to keep track of the Homage-O-Meter information. [That, for example, identifies the brief appearance of two grim little girls as a tribute to the two little girls in Kubrick's film of The Shining.] As noted, I still haven't finished watching the delicious show about [to quote the box] "two idle twentysomething flatmates -- immature skateboarding would-be comic artist Tim and moody, responsibility-shy writer Daisy and their self-induced lack of success in employment, relationships, and life in general." End of parenthetical remark.)

So I find myself in the midst of a backlog. There's a stack of such older boxed sets as Poirot: The New Mysteries Collection; Poirot: Classic Crimes Collection; Poirot: The Classic Collection, Sets 1-3 [which, right, turns out to be a repackaging of an earlier Acorn Media set, left, titled simply Poirot and which is further complicated by Volume 1 of Set 2 carrying the identification on the disc itself as Set 4; I've never been fond of Acorn's packaging; but I digress]; and Midsomer Murders Set Three. (Do you detect a theme?)

But it's the new material that is my current challenge. As a beginning, toward the end of the summer, I found Eureka's two seasons a pleasure: The concept of a town filled with geniuses could have been improbable with routine scripts; instead, the lines and plot devices sparkled and worked.

Then came Burn Notice Season One. I'd been looking forward to seeing it since I saw the first few episodes at Harlan and Susan Ellison's house, at their recommendation. Captivated, I discovered I'd missed some episodes and then gave up attempts to watch it when broadcast. "When Michael receives a 'burn notice,' blacklisting him from the intelligence community and compromising his very identity, he must track down a faceless nemesis without getting himself killed in the process. Meanwhile, Michael is forced to double as a private investigator on the dangerous streets of Miami in order to survive." It's sharp, it has a great script, it has terrific performers (including Sharon Gless and Bruce Campbell), and it's action-packed. I'm going to wait for the next set rather than try to follow it as it airs. But I love it.

Then, I went on to The Closer, which has a total of three seasons out on DVD, which means I've been missing it for a while. Kyra Sedgwick plays the head of a Los Angeles Priority Murder Squad, a C.I.A.-trained interrogator who's known as someone who can close cases successfully. It's fun, it's involving, it's entertaining, and I've now watched two of the three seasons with much enjoyment.

Excellent. Next? Well, then I thought I'd try doling things out, much as if I were actually seeing them on TV, instead of pounding down episode after episode of a single series nonstop. So I've now watched two episodes of The Dresden Files (Harry Dresden is a Chicago wizard who "deals in all matters of supernatural threats"). It's based on books by Jim Butcher, and the performers and script are amiable enough, but it's easy to remind myself to dole it out an episode at a time. Unless later episodes are more gripping, it'll be no pressure to wait to see Season Two.

And Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season One is OK but (after three episodes) I don't see it going much of anywhere. Summer Glau is terrific and probably the main reason for continuing to watch.

Life Season One derailed my decision to dole things out, and I'm not sure quite why. "After 12 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, offbeat Charlie Crews has returned to the force with a $50 million settlement [says the box; I don't think it's specified in the show], a new spiritual outlook, a strong fondness for fruit, and a highly unusual approach to solving crime." Scripting is fun, and Damian Lewis puts across the character of Crews compellingly. In any case, after a couple of episodes, I went back to watching the entire series back-to-back and found it rewarded the attention.

Back to doling things out, I come to The Big Bang Theory. This is a torment. Box description: "Physicists Leonard and Sheldon [trivia shout-out to Sheldon Leonard, obviously] understand everything from the inescapable gravitational pull of a black hole to the intricate structure of the atom. But take those atoms and assemble them into a woman, and their comprehension comes to a grinding halt." Well, that sounds pretty dreadful. But the scripts are fall-down-funny -- and that's what makes the horrendous laughtrack even more agonizing. I'd pay extra for a set that would make it possible to watch without the laughtrack, because this is packed with geeky humor that brilliantly portrays My World. I'm doling it out because I can't take the automated giggles in large doses; otherwise, it'd have been another back-to-back treat. (In the entire first disc, I've only hit one geek line that didn't display the full spectrum of knowledge -- and I think it was a slightly misdelivered reading, not realizing The Avengers is a group's name.) Johnny Galecki's presence adds resonance to occasional appearances by other Roseanne cast members. Aieee!

I have other discs waiting in the proverbial wings: The Simpsons Season 11, The Office Season Four, Jericho, Heroes Season 2 (which is the only one of these that I saw when it was broadcast but hey!), and House Season 4.

But I've hit another show that has derailed the doling-out process, and it's jaw-dropping, at least so far. Damages Season 1 had an ending on the first episode that left me stunned. The summary on the box gives away little: "Set in New York's world of high stakes litigation, Damages follows the lives of Patty Hewes (Glen Close), the nation's most revered and most reviled litigator, and her bright, ambitious protegee Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) as they become embroiled in a class action lawsuit targeting Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson)." I'm captivated -- and find the storytelling is (at least, after three episodes) closest to mini-series style rather than what we find is the usual short-stories-in-a-larger-frame that has become standard TV lately.

So why am I posting this? Time to go on to Episode 4.


In the Midst of Morphing

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Slowly, this website is evolving into a spot I hope to visit more often. In a way, that hope is assisted by the fact that I haven't been able to communicate directly here for quite some time. Kudos to the dogged determination of John Jackson Miller, who has been at work with drywall, plaster, and paint -- not to mention smelling salts and a transfusion -- to restore the domicile and its contents.


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