IN THE FRAME, by Vince Keenan
Lee Child has become a name to conjure with among thriller writers. His series about Jack Reacher, a military policeman cut loose from the service, debuted with 1997’s Killing Floor and has become a consistent seller. I read the first novel soon after it had been published, but as I recently realized, none of his books since then. It seemed like an opportune time to revisit Jack Reacher and see what I had missed.
One item on the list is Child’s third-person phase. Persuader (Delacorte Press, hardcover, 2003) is told from Reacher’s perspective, a device Child hadn’t used since Killing Floor. The seventh Reacher novel kicks off with a virtuoso action sequence, one of Child’s strong suits. Reacher steps in when he finds himself on the scene during the attempted kidnapping of college student Richard Beck. But Reacher’s daring is a sham meant to put him close to Richard’s father, a drug dealer who has been targeted by rogue DEA agents. Reacher has agreed to help them for personal reasons: he has a score to settle with Beck's chief enforcer.
Reacher remains a potent lead character, trapped between the civilian and military worlds. At times he can come off like a bit of a Superman, as when he goes at an adversary with “the kind of kick that would have sent a football out of the stadium and into the parking lot. It would have cracked a utility pole. It would have put most guys in the hospital all by itself. It would have killed some of them.” But Child wisely leavens the bravado with the occasional weakness. That kick, for instance, has “about as much effect on (his opponent) as a polite tap on the shoulder.” At another point, we learn that Reacher has no idea how to hotwire a car because he's been taking vehicles out of the motor pool for his entire adult life. Child also plays the other characters’ perception of Reacher as a warrior for dry laughs. When Reacher and one of Beck’s henchmen reconnoiter a building, the ex-M.P. employs a series of complicated hand signals. “I knew Duke wouldn't understand them. I didn't understand them either. As far as I knew, they were completely meaningless. I had never been a sniper-spotter. But the whole thing looked real good. It looked professional and clandestine and urgent.”
Persuader moves at a breathless pace. Having the action unfold as part of an off-the-books operation helps enormously; it forces Reacher and his government contacts to take risks and act quickly. There’s not enough of F. X. Quinn, the hired muscle who is Reacher’s nemesis and the reason for his involvement in the caper. Toward the end of the novel, Child cuts between Reacher’s past and present pursuits of Quinn. The juxtaposition occurs too late to make Quinn into a memorable villain, but it does a great deal to tie Reacher’s personal story together. Not that I wasn't with him already. Fight scenes like this had me completely won over
I caught him with a wild left in the throat. It was a solid punch, and a lucky one. But not for him. It crushed his larynx. He went down on the floor again and suffocated. It was reasonably quick. About a minute and a half. There was nothing I could do for him. I’m not a doctor.
That is just cold. It made me eager to hang out with Reacher a little more.
The Enemy (Delacorte Press, hardcover, 2004) is set in January of 1990, when Reacher is still on active duty. The Berlin Wall has come down, and America’s armed forces are in a state of flux. Rumors of the force reduction that will lead to Reacher’s dismissal from the service have begun to circulate. Changes are already underway; Reacher has been abruptly pulled from Panama to take an undistinguished post at a North Carolina army base. His first assignment: look into the death of a two-star general in a sleazy motel. Reacher’s investigation ultimately leads to questions about his own transfer and a conspiracy involving the highest levels of American military and political power.
The Enemy is more of a conventional mystery than Child’s other novels, and one with a closed set of suspects. But the scope of his story is breathtaking in its ambition, and it’s well-served by his gift for pacing. Child is at the top of his game here, delivering complications at every turn. He’s obviously invigorated by the prospect of exploring Reacher’s character in the context of the military. How does a maverick who graduated from West Point but sees himself as “a guy who was better at cracking heads than cracking books” function within the system? And how does he become disillusioned by that system? Child demonstrates a genuine empathy for people making a career of the military: the nagging concerns about money, the struggle to preserve individuality while maintaining discipline.
Child can’t help falling victim to one of the perils of setting a book in the past, which is giving his characters uncanny foresight. A colonel assessing future trouble spots manages to name every flashpoint of the last fifteen years. The book is filled with telling details (Reacher noting that a priest is present at every groundbreaking ceremony in Germany in case war dead are accidentally uncovered) and fine writing, such as when Reacher tries to think of the “twentieth century's signature sound” and nominates “the squeal and clatter of tank treads on a paved street ... heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin.”
But the true worth of The Enemy is the insight that it provides into Reacher’s history. Scenes with his brother – a key figure in Killing Floor – and his aged mother open up reserves in the character that were only hinted at in earlier books. By the end of The Enemy, there’s an impressive sense that much of Reacher’s story has yet to be told.
Following the Hollywood dictum “Anything you can do, I can do ... also,” Universal released a film noir collection at the same time that Warner Brothers did. The Warner set, which I reviewed in M*F #46, got the lion’s share of the publicity, partly because the Universal titles aren’t as well known. That may work to the films’ advantage. They’re ripe for rediscovery.
1946’s BLACK ANGEL is the genuine sleeper of the four and the only one that hasn’t been remade. Which is a surprise, considering how compelling the Cornell Woolrich premise is. June Vincent’s husband is on death row for killing his mistress. Vincent sets out to clear him with the unlikeliest of allies: the dead woman’s husband (Dan Duryea), an alcoholic composer still carrying a torch for his wife.
Aside from some incompetent police work by Broderick Crawford, there’s much to enjoy. The film milks the forbidden attraction between the leads for all it’s worth, never losing sight of the fact that if they succeed, they’ll never be together. Duryea, one of noir’s great louts, is given the rare opportunity to put his shiftiness in service of a sympathetic character. Peter Lorre walks off with the movie, simpering gloriously as a shady nightclub impresario. As you might expect from Woolrich, there’s a lulu of an ending. Roy William Neill, who directed several entries in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, died soon after completing BLACK ANGEL. The film, shot with imagination and flair, is a fitting tribute to his skill.
THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942) may be the best known title in the collection because of its pedigree (it’s based on the novel by Graham Greene) and its role in launching actor Alan Ladd. But it’s easily the most disappointing of the four films, owing to a plot stitched together by coincidence.
Ladd’s Raven is a ruthless assassin on the run. He’s determined to track down the man who double-crossed him before the police, led by Robert Preston, close in. To do this, Raven will require the help of chanteuse Veronica Lake, who is not only Preston’s fiancée but a recent recruit to Uncle Sam’s spybusting efforts. (I warned you that the coincidence level was high.)
A strong cast propels the movie past its implausible plot. Ladd gives a ferocious performance. He’s even able to sell a ham-fisted scene intended to humanize his character in which he recounts a dream loaded with psychological portent. Character actor Laird Cregar gets to work his peculiar dark magic as the fussy factotum who’s the only link to Raven’s quarry. Director Frank Tuttle stages a rousing climax.
I have to comment on Veronica Lake’s two musical numbers, which stop the action cold. The first incorporates several magic tricks, including a “disappearing act” that wouldn't fool anybody. Lake performs the second in a fishing outfit that you’d never see on the Outdoor Life Network, consisting of black vinyl hip waders and a matching hat. I can’t believe and deeply regret that the makers of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL missed the opportunity to put Kim Basinger into a similar ensemble.
1949’s CRISS CROSS marked the reunion of director Robert Siodmak and actor Burt Lancaster three years after their success with THE KILLERS. Daniel Fuchs’ adaptation of the Don Tracy novel also drinks deep from the noir well. Lancaster plays an armored car driver who can't keep away from ex-wife Yvonne DeCarlo, even after she takes up with the local crime boss (Duryea again). He’s hooked on her so bad that he hatches a robbery scheme simply so he can stay close to her.
The film’s casting doesn't completely work. It’s tough to buy the virile Lancaster as this big of a chump, and DeCarlo has a brittle sensuality. But the actors compensate by pitching their performances at a near-delirious level. Their intensity is matched by Siodmak’s swooning direction and Miklos Rosza’s score. Duryea doesn't have to do anything special; his preening gangster sets the film’s tempo. Tony Curtis made his debut in a brief appearance as DeCarlo’s dance partner, swaying to music by Esy Morales & His Rhumba Band.
The film’s high point occurs when Lancaster is laid up in the hospital, certain that Duryea’s thugs will come to kill him. Another man is in the hallway, waiting for an update on his injured wife. Or is he? I’m convinced that Steven Soderbergh remade the film (his version is 1995’s slight but engaging UNDERNEATH) simply so he could recreate that moment. It’s terrific stuff – in both movies.
Some may quibble at the inclusion of THE BIG CLOCK (1948), which is more of a thriller than a film noir. But there’s no questioning its entertainment value. Publishing magnate Charles Laughton murders his mistress in a jealous rage and seeks to pin the crime on her mysterious visitor. He puts ace reporter Ray Milland on the case – not knowing that Milland was the visitor in question.
Jonathan Latimer’s mile-a-minute script, based on the Kenneth Fearing novel, tosses the viewer headlong into the action. At first the caustic dialogue moves almost too quickly. But once the plot kicks in, the film can’t be stopped. The last forty minutes in particular are a marvel of construction, as Milland’s efforts to find evidence tying Laughton to the crime only tighten the noose around his own neck. Director John Farrow makes tremendous use of confined space; all of the late action unfolds in a single building that has been sealed off for a police search.
Laughton is a treat as the villain, nailing the boredom of a wealthy man whose life is timed down to the minute. The film is studded with marvelous turns from supporting players, such as Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Laughton) as a bohemian artist caught up in the manhunt and Harry (then Henry) Morgan as Laughton’s silent, black-clad enforcer. George Macready is equally vivid playing Smithers to Laughton’s Montgomery Burns. ( Actor Will Patton scored in the same role when THE BIG CLOCK was remade as NO WAY OUT in 1987.)
Universal hasn’t lavished a great deal of care on this collection. It isn’t available in a boxed set, as Warner Brothers’ is, and there are no extras to speak of. (We do get the original trailer for THE BIG CLOCK, which features Ray Milland promoting the film on the radio drama Suspense.) You’ll simply have to make do with the movies, which in this case is enough.
PostScript: For more of Vince’s commentary on the world of pop culture on an (almost) daily basis, visit his blog at www.vincekeenan.com.
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