A mongoose scratching at a well-fed cobra

Although Joan Crawford made many movies that have not seen, it seems that most cast her as a determined-to-rise and quick-study woman from the wrong side of the tracks. Her characters have to overcome considerable disdain from those born to the upper class and flashes of self-doubt. Although she often seems to be using men whose status is higher than their IQs or will, generally the screenplays try to make the audience believe that she really loves the men and give her chances to prove devotion beyond her interest in securing and maintaining a status in the elite of whatever locality she is operating in.


The 1949 “Flamingo Road,” based on a long-forgotten best-selling novel, sticks to the formula; indeed it reunites director (Michael Curtiz), male and female leads (Zachary Scott and Crawford), and, unfortunately, supplier of frenzied overkill music (Max Steiner) from “Mildred Pierce,” the overwrought melodrama that revived Crawford’s career after she was dumped by MGM and won her an Oscar.

I have been watching a number of late-1940s movies in which the leads were far too old for their parts (Greer Garson in “Valley of Decision”, Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin in “B. F.’s Daughter”), but at least those other movies covered long spans. Even with repeated reference to being tired of knocking around, Crawford was fifteen years too old for the part of the traveling-carnival exotic dancer who does not flee with the carnival. She was also ten years older than Zachary Scott, who was also 5-10 years too old for the part of Fielding Carlisle, the son of the deceased, highly respected Judge Carlisle and protégé of the local boss eager to use that family name.

The boss, Sheriff Titus Semple (played with cold, calm menace by Sidney Greenstreet), has made Field a deputy sheriff with few responsibilities, but sends him to serve papers attaching the carnival for nonpayment of debts. The only remnant of the carnival is a tent in which Lane Bellamy (Crawford) is listening to the radio. Field takes her to a diner and gets her a job waitressing there. Such a romance does not fit with Titus’s plans. He more or less orders Field to marry a member of the local elite (those who live on Flamingo Road) Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston).


Titus also makes Lane disappear, having her picked up and thrown in jail for 30 days for soliciting prostitution. Lane is not so easily driven off. She makes some interesting alliances with a man and a woman of some independence from Titus. Much of the fun of the movie is watching Crawford and Greenstreet glower at each other while making polite talk in front of others., Eventually, they have it out alone in private.

In that Crawford really did rise from the wrong side of town through dancing and marrying up (ultimately to the president of Pepsi Cola), as well as making a career out of playing upwardly mobile women, her clawing her way up the social (/economic) ladder is believable. The problem is that her character could not possibly have kicked around as a second-string feature in a third-run carnival so long before starting her ascent. The incongruity of the 45-year-old in the part of Lane is only made more glaring by the repeated references to her as a “girl.”

What redeems the movie is the relentlessness of the story and of the antagonists. In the immense Sidney Greenstreet, Crawford had a rare male worthy opponent. (The only time I can think of that Crawford was overmatched was by Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, though Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny Guitar” and Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” were formidable in their hatreds of her.) In earlier roles (Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) Greenstreet played grasping, amoral characters with a certain amount of sardonic charm. Titus is content for people to maintain their stereotypes of joviality being a concomitant of fat, but is a completely cold-blooded grafter. His smiles are mostly grim. If he has any emotions, they are so well padded that they do not emerge. As Crawford goes from being potential trouble for his plans to being a clear-and-present lethal danger, he never shows anger. He drinks pitchers of milk, rocks on the porch of the Palmer House Hotel, collects his graft in cash, minimizes movements, and pulls strings to bring down anyone who gets in his way.

Zachary Scott was good at being pushed around (as in “Mildred Pierce”). Gladys George played savvy survivors in many movies and provides a leavening of wit to the fast-rising melodrama. Fred Clark plays against type, an idealist newspaperman who dares to criticize the corrupt state and local government (which state is not specified; from the title, one might think Florida, a state that democracy still has not reached; but the milieu seems as western as southern). David Brian plays a peculiarly written role of a builder who became a political boss because contracting in the state was so corrupt that he could not be an honest builder. He falls fast and hard for Crawford, which ensures that Greenstreet will arrange legal troubles for him.


If one can accept Joan Crawford starting her move upward looking obviously more than 40, and enjoys watching evenly matched characters battling to the death like a mongoose (Crawford) and a cobra (Greenstreet), “Flamingo Road” is a lot of fun. It certainly has a consciousness of class that is missing in third millennium American movies (to take an instance with another machine-picked politician named Fielding, “Waking the Dead”). For all its cynicism about electoral democracy, like so many late-40s Hollywood movies, “Flamingo Road” affirms the American dream of rising in the social and economic hierarchy through individual effort, making it is an interesting document of postwar American ideology. It also shows that 1949’s Oscared “best picture,” “All the King’s Men,” was not unique in portraying graft-ridden government and political bosses (which Preston Sturges had already done in “The Great McInty,” anyway.) A bonus is the nourish look provided by cinematographer Ted D. McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden).


©2002, Stephen O. Murray


Travel kaleidoscope

A blurb from Julio Cortazar on the front cover of The Ship of Fools (first published in Spanish in 1984 as La nave de los locos), by exiled Urugyan Christina Peri Rossi (1941-) asserted that “He great gift is the ability to projecton on the high plains of imagination the historical present in all its tragic reality.” There is nothing identifiable to me as the present (ca. 1984). The book is largely unmoored in time and space (many of the locations are referred to only by an initial). I also don’t see how it is a novel, even a lumpy one with lots stuffed into it. There are some characters who recur.


If I didn’t know, I’d have guessed that the novel was written by a man. The perspective is mostly male, as is the writing about women. (Also the answer to the riddle “What is the greatest thing a man can give to a woman?”). I can conceive of a man deciding to embrace his impotence.

Most of the book vignettes are set on terra firma, though I like the first of Eck’s (X’s? Equis’) journeys, on an ocean liner and another poignane one about a ship filled with crazy people that is left by its crew adrift. And I like the preternaturally wise nine-year-old Percival who enchants Morris later (I don’t see any erotic/pedophilic in the account).

The journeys alternate with descriptions of panels of the medieval (11th or 12th-century) Tapestry of Creation (from which half of the outside panels are missing) in the Girona Cathedral. That approaches ecstasy, while most of the novel is melancholic (which does not bar some comic moments and observations). Early on, Ecks tells a woman “I was not born a foreigner. It is a condition one acquires through force of circumstances.” Nowadays, it seems that many people ARE born foreigners, including those born in the US of foreign-born parents and the


[a boat, not a ship, vverdad?]

I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but found enough there there to read it through (the syntax is not convoluted in the manner of much “Boom” fiction from writers born in South America).


Since the Readers Inernational edition of her second novel that has been sitting in a to-read bookcase since they sent it to me in 1989, Peri Rossi, who has long lived in Barcelona, has published many other books, some of which have been translates into English, btw.

The malevolent dwarf, narrator of Pär Lagerkvist’s breakout novel

My attempt to revive my adolescent admiration for the novels of Pär Lagerkvist is not going well. I don’t think I read his first international success, Dvärgen, published in Swedish in 1944 (which I don’t think much was making it out of Sweden), first translated into English as The Dwarf after Lagerkvist had won the Nobel Prize in 1951. It presents the diary of a dwarf, Picoline, a bitter misanthrope. Picoline does not hate his master, a philosophical Renaissance-era Italian prince who has brought a Leonardo da Vinci (as if, there could be more than one!) called Bernardo to court. Bernardo tends not to finish things, including a fresco of the Last Supper and a portrait of the princess. He also designs military devices, some of which are built and used in a war with a neighboring principality.


Picoline has some respect for the range and intensity of Bernardo’s interests, but is mortified when Bernardo strips and draws him. Picoline wants to keep his body unseen by others, but does not try to kill Bernardo.

Besides hating human beings in general, especially laughing ones and young lovers (he considers both laughing faces and sex offensively grotesque), Picoline hates other dwarfs. During the war he hunts down and slays the dwarf of the rival prince. He recalls with relish having earlier strangled the other dwarf in his prince’s court.

At a banquet celebrating a peace treaty, Picoline poisons the other prince and some others, missing the prince’s son, who is having puppy love with his prince’s daughter. Later Picoline finds that this adolescent has snuck in and is sleeping with the daughter. He wakes his prince, who goes to his daughter’s room and decapitates her sleeping lover, rather distressing his daughter…

The promiscuous wife of the prince likes Picoline and confesses everything she does to him. He despises her as a trollop, but had nothing to do with her death (unlike those of so many others!). Bernado paints a portrait of the dead princess as a radiant Madonna (this portrait he actually finishes, and it is hung in the cathedral, where it becomes an object of popular veneration). Picoline thinks the first portrait showed the real character of the princess, but does not tell the prince that. The prince decides Picoline was responsible for his death and has him chained in the dungeon (after torture fails to produce any confession).


Picoline is too monochrome a character, devoured by his hatred of most everyone, to provide an interesting sensibility. I find his catalog of contempt for people and other dwarfs tedious. There is no flicker of guilt in him. I guess he represents evil, though not a very interesting evil and one that is, shall we say dwarfed by others active in the world when Lagerkvist was writing the book in neutral Sweden. Is he a vision of Hitler transported to servitude in Renaissance Milan? He craves war and thrives on destruction, but he is not in charge.

The prose is stripped down, consisting of simple syntax declarative sentences, as in other Lagerkvist novels, such as the more engaging The Sibyl. The character and the outrages he perpetrates or imagines seem very heavy-handed to me, though occasionally his excesses seem funny, not just abhorrent. He is SO consumed with misanthropy (he doesn’t consider that dwarfs are human, though hating them just as much or perhaps more). He does not think that dwarfs are at all like children, but in his frantic imagining and incomprehension of adults, there is something childlike about him, in addition to his diminutive stature. He hates what he cannot understand, which includes most human conduct.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray



Thwarted Europeans in two films directed by Luchino Visconti and one by Sidney Lumet

With its melodrama amped up by the use of Bruckner’s very heavy Seventh Symphony, Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” (1954) is quite slow, running more than two hours. Alida Valli played a countess who is easily ensnared by a handsome but caddis Austrian lieutenant, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). She is slow to realize that he is using her (to get money) while she throws away everything for her Great Love. When finally he decisively humiliates her, she uses her position. She does not seem to care what will happen to her after she has avenged herself (and the movie ends).

Granger and Valli spoke to each other in English during shooting. They were dubbed into Italian, as was standard practice for Italian movie-making. Criterion found a version in English (and German), that was shortened by half an hour. Granger’s performance is more compelling in his own English. Valli had made movies in English (most notably “The Third Man”) and was also more affecting in English, though watching “The Wanton Countess” showed me that she does not speak very much. Also, she sounds like Ingrid Bergman, to whom the part had been offered (when she was being monopolized by Roberto Rossellini; the first choice for her lover was Marlon Brando; the Italian producers thought that Granger was going to be a bigger star than Brando…).

senso 1954.jpg

The Criterion edition includes a making-of feature that does not even mention the dialogue credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. It does get into the outrage of the Italian government about the portrayal of the “Italian army” before there was an Italy, and what a martinet Visconti was on-set. The opening scene in La Fenice was supposed to feature Maria Callas in an excerpt (obviously a different one) from “Il Trovatore,” but she was in America when it was shot and it was Pasolini rather than Visconti who made a film starring her (Medea). Having just watched the Visconti documentary on the “Ludwig” disc, I didn’t watch the British one (“Man of Three Worlds,” which I think I’ve seen before) on the “Senso” one, nor find out what Peter Cowie (whom I find insufferable) had to say about “Senso” and Visconti.


I also watched again the ponderous (238-minute) 1973 “Ludwig” in which most scenes run on too long. Helmust Berger plays the Bavarian king who is an enigma to himself (why his subjects like him is another mystery; he cared not at all about them). Though he eventually marries (Sophie), his loves are Richard Wagner (played by Trevor Howard), and “Sisi” (the Empress Elisabeth), the wife of the Hapsburg emperor. Romy Schneider could be imperious, but was compassionate for her cousin Ludwig.


The post-dubbing bothered me in “Ludwig,” too. I can understand an Italian release dubbed in Italian, but I think a version in German should have been the international version. Berger and Schneider, as well as supporting players Gert Fröbe, Heinz Moog, and Helmut Griem) were native speakers of German. (BTW, Visconti wanted Laurence Olivier to play Wagner, though I don’t think he would have done better; Richard Burton, maybe, though I have not seen his Wagner (a ten-part, 300-minute miniseries).)

Bavarian reactionaries protested the revelation of homoerotic inclinations of Ludwig, and an hour of the film was cut (then another hour). I doubt that either made the cuts in scene length I think should have been made.


I went on to watch an also slow-moving lethal romance, “The Appointment” (1969), set mostly in Rome. It looks and feels European and stars Omar Shrif (Egyptian) and Anouk Aimée (born in Paris). It was written by James Salter and directed by Sidney Lumet, both Americans and not generally interested in romances. In general, Sharif was likeable and bland, Aimée sphinxlike (elusive). Here Sharif, tormented by jealousy and possessiveness, is not likeable, if not a villain, Aimée inarticulate but relatively sympathetic. Even Lotte Lenya as an antique dealer who is also a supplier of high-end prostitutes, is sympathetic (not like the Stasi agent Lenya played in “From Russian with Love”).


Aimée’s character was a model for a fashion house. The haute couture shows that the fashion disaster that was the 1970s began earlier! I did not like Aimée’s reddish hair or Sharif’s severely cropped mustache either. He did, however, look totally groomed and tailored.

“The Appointment” was Salter’s first screenplay, followed by “Downhill Racer” (also released in 1969, from the novel by Oakley Hall).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray




Turgid rediscovered 1928 Tankizaki novel

I have long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs.” There is no hint of it in what feels like a very long novel that was serialized in Tokyo and Osaka in 1928, Kokubayaku, which has recently been published in English as In Black and White (the Japanese title is a homonym for “Confession”). The English text of the novel only runs 216 pages, but so little happens that it feels much longer.

As in the stories that appeared in English collections of 2016 and 2017 (Red Roof & Other Stories translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions), the protagonist — definitely not a hero or even a likeable character — Mizuno, is a writer. He is quite an unsociable one with no friends. His wife left him after he wrote a series of stories involving murders of wives.

He is classified as a “diabolist,” and the new story, which is late for delivery to a magazine called The People that pays more than other magazines, again focuses on premeditated murder. Its protagonist (yet another writer) seeks to commit “the perfect crime,” that is to get away with murder. The writer of the story within a story has no animus against a less-successful writer, whom he calls Codama. Lack of motivation is part of the reason he expects to escape detection: the murder is a gratuitous act.

In the rush to get “To the Point of Murder” into print, Muzuno slips several times and uses the name of the model for the man being murdered, Cojima instead of Codama. Muzuno is very concerned that Cojima and/or others will notice that unusual name, but cannot get it changed before the magazine is printed.

Then Muzuno is in a prolonged panic that the real Cojima will be murdered in a way like in his story and that he will be blamed for it. Muzuno is paranoid and could hardly have made more of a mess of establishing an alibi for the night of the new moon when he fears that life will imitate art and Cojima will be murdered. There must have been many, many better ways to establish alibis!

Muzuno’s fears are realized, and he is suspected of having murdered Cojima in the way his alter ego does in his story (which establishes premeditation). Could there be a “Shadow Man” going to the extraordinary lengths of murdering Cojima and spiriting away Muzun’s alibi? I don’t think so, but Muzuno does and tries to pin the fictional murder on someone he cannot identify (who also lacking motivation for the murder and conspiracy to make it appear Muzuno committed it).

My ability to suspend disbelief cannot overcome the obstacles of Tanizaki’s novel, neither the frame nor the stories within the story. The police misconduct, on the other hand, is easy for me to believe.

(Tanizaki in 1908)

From translator Phyllis Lyon’s afterword, I learned that the novel followed an extended debate in print between Tanizaki defending the necessity of plots in novels, and Akutagawa Riyûnosuke (best known in English as the author of two stories that Kurosawa Akira based his international breakthrough film “Rashômon” on) maintaining that lyricism was enough, that how a story was told was more important than its content (plot). Akutagawa closed out the controversy by committing suicide on Tanizaki’s birthday (24 July) in 1927, so Tanizaki felt some guilt about having (symbolically) killed another writer. This is pretty outlandish, and Akutagawa was terrified that he had inherited his mother’s insanity, but one can see reasons for Tanizaki to have been shaken and to be influenced by that in writing about a writer killing another writer.

(Akutagawa in 1927)

There is a surfeit of reflection on the probity of writers and the “truth” of literature in In Black and White, a carryover from his jousts with Akutagawa (who was six years younger than Tanizaki; he seems more remote since Tanizaki outlived him be decades and produced many novels and novellas after Akutagawa’s death). In the novel, like Tanizaki, Muzuno is turning 40 and Cojima was 35, as Akutagawa was when he was sparring in print with Tanizaki.

As in other early Tanizaki fiction, here is a willful semi-modern woman, a femme fatale, in In the Black and White. The prostitute who said she had lived with a husband two years in Hamburg does not tell Muzuno her name—he refers to her as “Frâulein Hindenburg” (Paul von Hindenburg was chancellor of German at the time (1925-34), but addresses her only as “you.” His contracting her for two sessions a week is folly, not even motivated by lust (I don’t think they copulate during their few meetings). She has an aura of perversity and some cunning, whereas he is just a sad-sack painting himself into a corner.

I find In the Black and White less interesting than the other two novels Tanizaki started writing in 1928, Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, and don’t think that exhuming Kokubayaku, was necessary, even for (especially for?) Anglophone Tanizaki aficionados. I found the last part more interesting than the earlier parts, but it seems rushed, with no real ending. The way of telling it, with lots of dialog and lots of paranoid premonitions, did not appeal to me and the plots, as I’ve said, are not credible (as possible human conduct) to me. Though finding them also highly contrived, I prefer Naomi, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and, especially, “Red Roofs” among Tanizaki’s fiction before Some Prefer Nettles… and I am more indebted to Lyons for The Saga of Dazai Osamu, (1985), than for this endeavor, though I’d readily stipulate that her afterword is definitely essential for readers in English of In Black and White.


© 2018, Stephen O. Murray



“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”


(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”


The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

Villa Malaparte

(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

The_Skin_poster (1)

Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


“The book was better than the movie”? Often, but not always.

Back to back as it were, I read Cursio Malaparte’s The Skin (La Pelle) and saw the movie adaptation made by Liliana Cavani (best known for directing “Night Porter”). I much preferred the movie, which mutes the racism, the seemingly endless dialogue in French, and the attitudinizing while showing the most grotesque scenes of the book. (The Neapolitans do not look starving, which is what drove them to sell their bodies and those of their children in reality and in what Malaparte wrote, however).


Cavani also directed the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripleys Game, which I prefer to the book. I also prefer Alfred Hitchcock’s version of her Strangers on a Train, and Anthony Minghella’s of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Wim Wenders’s of Ripley’s Game (as “The American Friend” with Bruno Gang and Dennis Hopper).

André Aciman did not quite say that the movie adaptation of his novel Call Me By Your Name was better than his book, but he did say that someone who was going to see the movie and read the book should see the movie first, and reported that the image of the house in the movie has driven out whatever he was thinking about when writing about it and that he now sees and hears the actors (Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer) when reading his dialogue. I suspect that this will be true for me when I get around to seeing the movie.


Both movie adaptations of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy strike me as better than the book. The young Elizabeth Taylor is a goddess with whom the shrewish (but then-attractive) Shelly Winters has no chance of competing with for the favor of Montgomery Clift. (I have not read Sister Carrie, but am pretty sure I’d prefer the movie “Carrie” with Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier to Dreiser’s novel. I have also not read Franz Werfel’s novel on which Jones’s Oscar-winning performance in “The Song of Bernadette” is based, but would surely see Jones if I ever tried to read it.)

Fred Zinnemann’s multiple award-winning “From Here to Eternity,” despite the censorship that turned Donna Reed’s character form being a prostitute into being a taxi-hall dancer (and also interfered with Deborah Kerr’s character) is definitely better than the book. I’m pretty sure the movie “Some Came Running” is also better than Jones’s book, though I have not read it.

Zinnemann also directed “Member of the Wedding,” the movie version of which is superior to Carson McCullers’s novel. Julie Harris is astounding in it, not least for playing a prepubescent girl when she was 27. Harris was in John Huston’s movie of McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, though what makes the movie stand out are the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.

Huston made some bad movies based on esteemed books (Roots of Heaven, for instance). His final movie, based on James Joyce’s “The Dead” seems at least as good as the novella to me. And earlier movies that surpass their source material include The Maltese Falcon (novel by Dashiell Hammett) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (novel by B. Traven). (I haven’t read Prizzis Honor, but enjoy the movie Huston directed of it.) Also chalk up Huston’s movies of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits and C.S. Forester’s The African Queen as superior to their original source material.

Plus Billy Wilder’s version of Raymond Chandler’s Double Indemnity, as well as Luchino Visconti’s 1943 (Ossessione) version, the Lana Turner/John Garfield version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and both the Joan Crawford vehicle and the more recent miniseries of Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

I liked William Wyler’s pas-de-deux of John Fowles’s The Collector and Jessamyne West’s Friendly Persuasion. Whether his multiple Oscar-winning “Ben Hur” is worse than Lew Wallace’s novel is hard to decide (not least because I read it decades ago during my childhood). Wyler’s “Carrie” I have already mentioned.

It’s been too long since I read Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth to be sure, but I suspect Wyler’s movie is better. Richard Brooks’s film of Lewis’s Elmer Gantry definitely is (with powerhouse performances by Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Shirley Jones).

Bette Davis was indelible in Wyler’s film based on Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter,” and I also prefer the 2000 Philip Haas film based on Maugham’s Up at the Villa. Probably also the Tyrone Power/Clifton Webb/ Anne Baxter version of The Razors Edge, a book I didn’t much like when I read it long ago. I did like Of Human Bondage, but think I prefer the book to any of the three screen versions I’ve seen.

I definitely prefer the 1939 David O. Selznick “Gone with the Wind” to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (which I actually read once upon a time). Also John Ford’s film of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I also think both film version o Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men are outstanding.

Howard Hawks claimed that he could make a good movie from Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel. Hemingway proffered To Have and Have Not and with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Ball Hawks delivered. For that matter the later (1950) adaptation with John Garfield and Patricia Neal, “The Breaking Point,” is also superior to the book. I’d add Franklin Shaffner’s “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the first of posthumous novels bylined “Ernest Hemingway” that he did not finish.

William Faulkner was a credited screenwriter for “To Have and to Have Not” and for “The Big Sleep,” which Hawks also directed, based on a confused novel by Raymond Chandler (also with Bogart and Bacall). Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning last novel, The Reivers, with a rakish Steve McQueen, was also an improvement over the entertaining book. And Martin Ritt’s 1958 “The Long Hot Summer” distilled from Books 3 of The Hamlet (1940) with a great cast headed by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Speaking of Angela Lansbury, John Frankenheimer’s film based on Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate belongs on my list.

I count as an admirer of the novels of Jane Austen, but not as a true “Janeite.” I’ll take Ang Lee’s 1995 “Sense and Sensibility”, Patricia Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” and the 1940 MGM “Pride and Prejudice” (adapted by Aldous Huxley with Edna May Oliver, Greer Garson, and Laurence Olivier) over the original novels.

It’s been a long time since I read Kazantzakis’s Zorba, the Greek, but am pretty sure the movie with Anthony Quinn in the title role is at least as good.

I prefer the movies Teshigahara Hiroshi directed to the Abe Kôbô novels in all three collaborations (Pitfall, Woman in the Dune, The Face of Another). I have not read the novels on which many of my favorite Japanese movies were based, though I have written here about some great Japanese movies based on major Japanese novels.

To conclude, as much as I like the novels of E.M. Forster, I like the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala “A Room with a View” (1985), and 1987 “Maurice” at least as much as the Forster novels, and the screen adaptations by Jhabvala of her Booker Prize-winning Heat and Dust and Kaylie Jones’s memoir A Soldiers Daughter Never Cries more than the books. And there are other Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala contenders (but not David Lean’s version of the greatest E. M. Forster novel, A Passage to India).

Conclusion: I don’t think there are any surefire methods to make great movies, novel adaptations or others. A great cast and a striking look help but every actor and actress I’ve mentioned has been in bad movies, and gorgeous visuals are not enough, either. My rather free association list includes great books and mediocre ones.

John Ford — who won back-to-back Oscars for directing adaptation of big books (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) — said it was better to expand on a good short story than to try to prune a good novel. Others have advocated adapting bad novels, but there are successful exceptions to such admonitions, as well as many, many failures (critical and commercial).


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


Discussion of Japanese literature and movies (in translation and subtitled, respectively).