Thursday, November 24, 2011

Curly Stuffs a Turkey

On this festive Thanksgiving Day here in the US, we at Another Old Movie Blog, as a public service, are providing an instructional video on how to stuff a turkey.  Here is our own Curly showing you in quick, easy steps how it's done.  Please pay attention, and take notes.  This scene is part of "An Ache in Every Stake" which we previously discussed here.  Good luck, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Please remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and pause the music so you can hear the video.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Movie and a Serving Platter

 Company coming for Thanksgiving?  Dragging out the "good" service for eight?  Don't have a "good" service for eight?  This theater is offering "Vermillion Rose Dinnerware for the Ladies".  It's 1943, and they hadn't yet started calling these "dish night" items "Depression glass".

Jane Withers is on the bill in "Johnny Doughboy" with Henry Wilcoxon and William Demarest, with "Let's Have Fun" with Margaret Lindsay and John Beal as the second feature. 

Better get down there and get your free butter dish.  Or, maybe it's a serving platter this week.  In six months, you'll have that service for eight.

For more on Depression Glass, have a look at this previous post.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Sleeping Tiger - 1954

“The Sleeping Tiger” (1954) is a little like a Rorschach test -- an ink blot image whose design can be interpreted in different ways, but for which there is no "right" answer, or at least no conclusive answer.

All movies are subject to interpretation. This movie, either by intention, or the serendipitous marriage between a dynamic director and a quirky script, invites us, teases us to interpret whole scenes and even small gestures -- but never to be too sure about our conclusions.   Our conclusions change, sometimes minute by minute, depending on how we hold up the inkblot.

This story embodies the personality of Alexander Knox, who plays the unflappable psychiatrist putting his wife and his patient through an emotional and psychological obstacle course.

His habit is to usually answer a question put to him, no matter how ordinary or innocuous, with another question (re: "Do you want some coffee?" -- "Is there any reason why you think I should want coffee?") the probing manner of a psychoanalyst. So does the director of this movie. You want to slap both of them after a while. We are never really given conclusions, only more questions, and sometimes this works to make the film fascinating, and sometimes it makes us frankly annoyed and impatient for a simple answer.

The director is Joseph Losey, who also gave us “The Prowler” (1951), which we discussed here. In this film’s credits he is listed as Victor Hanbury. He left the US in the early 1950s to escape the House Un-American Activities witch hunt, and worked for a time, as did many blacklisted filmmakers, under a pseudonym.

By the way, this post is going to be one long SPOILER. If you don’t want to know anything, then go into the kitchen and make me a cup of tea. Do the dishes while you’re out there. And see if the mail came.

It’s also going to be an excruciatingly long post. Yeah, big surprise.

The setting is England in the mid 1950s, still wearing its post-War bleakness. We haven’t got to Swinging London yet, that’s for later on in the Cold War.  The script is taut, and often a curious mixture of intelligent lines, but hard-to-swallow plot turns. We are prodded to question our assumptions -- at the same time we are told to accept what seems improbable.

We start with improbability.  Dirk Bogarde is a thief in his early 20s, a former juvenile delinquent now settling satisfactorily into a life of unending crime and violence. He attempts to mug Alexander Knox on a dark street, but the good Doctor had hand-to-hand combat training in the late war. Knox also collects psychological guinea pigs the way Dr. Frankenstein collects brains. He fights him off and convinces Bogarde to stay in his home for a six-month psychotherapy experiment. Bogarde agrees to avoid going to jail.

Alexis Smith is Knox’s wife, just returning from a trip alone to Paris and finding a sneering Bogarde in her living room. Cool, with the appearance of a somewhat bored sophisticate (how many times has she played that part?), she is amazingly far less perturbed about a street criminal staying as a guest in her home than is their shrill, opinionated maid, played by Patricia McCarron.

“How are his manners?” Alexis asks her husband, as if she were a school matron taking on a new charge. When one has a criminal under one’s roof, manners should be the least concern, but this is a clue to her personality. Even the most evil intent can be hidden with charming manners. Alexis does not like to look below the surface, unlike her husband. She is unsettled by what she may find there in others -- and in herself. She leaves probing under layers to the Doc.

Rounding out the family circle is Maxine Audley, who plays Knox’s lab assistant. She is perhaps the biggest question mark of the bunch. Always present with the Doc in his office, always seated at the dining room table where they have dressed for dinner and trade pleasantries over wine, always following the Doc out the door when he leaves for one of his many nightly lectures or board meetings. We are told very little about her, and so of course we wonder. It isn’t until well into the film we discover Alexis wonders as well.

It’s a low-budget film, you can see that from the start. A few shots of dark village streets under dim streetlamps, most of the film shot in the claustrophobic confines of their home. And it’s a public domain film, so of course the print could be better.

Dirk Bogarde’s manners, to begin with, are terrible. He is snide, rude, and quite mean to the maid when nobody is looking. He bullies her because he cannot bully Alexis or the Doc. He is immature, sullen, and resentful. He chafes under Doc’s grilling of his childhood memories.

These sessions take place in Knox’s office, which is in the home. His office is a stark contrast to the rest of the house, which appears cozy-cluttered, with dark wainscoting and bowls of flowers. And several photographs of Alexis.

His lair is spare, walls painted white, a set of narrow frosted windows placed high on the wall reminding one of an institutional infirmary, with modern furniture, peg-legged, Scandinavian design, utilitarian and not a bit cozy or ornamental.

There is a piece of modern art on the wall which the police inspector, played by Hugh Griffith, scrutinizes in frank puzzlement. This is the room of a man of unsentimental intellect and bold drive to expose naked the emotions and psyches of those who enter it. Curiously, he keeps his own emotions well hidden, or controlled, or perhaps he hasn’t any.

But Alexander Knox plays the man with such a pleasant, easygoing, almost guileless devotion to the truth. He is honorable, and we trust him. He does not appear cold or indifferent, though his actions reflect an ironic insensitivity. On a mission to tackle the obsessions of others, he does not realize how obsessed he is with his work.

The Doc keeps a loaded revolver in his desk which we see from time to time, and one wonders at the lack of prudence, but we always seem to find loaded guns, and open checkbooks, in desk drawers in the old movies, don’t we? I think they are a more common plot contrivance than boy-meets-girl.

However, we also have boy-meets-girl. Alexis, who spends several hours almost every day horseback riding (she seems to have very little else to do), is urged by her husband to take Bogarde along. She’s not happy about babysitting his patient, but they ride together and over a montage of scenes we see they share a similar restlessness that is relieved by the freedom of galloping fast. They both want to escape. He gets a little too familiar with the Doc’s lady, but she is more than capable of verbally slapping him down, back to his place as a street thug and object of charity.

“I despise hoodlums of any kind…they’re just stupid little animals asking for cages.”

They are left alone in each other’s company when the Doc goes out with his lab assistant -- a restful evening listening to oddly cacophonous symphonic music from the radio, fortified by cigarettes, brandy snifters, and the thrust and parry of quiet conversation. Ah, those days when we could amuse ourselves at home without 500 cable channels or 500 text messages.

Alexis is not afraid to be alone with Bogarde. She seems to want him to know this. She wears the protective armor of her own superiority.

All three principals have great roles in this movie, and they perform very well. Mr. Knox plays that fine line of unwitting cruelty in a mask of cultured academia. Dirk Bogarde, though in real life the same age as Alexis Smith, convincingly plays a younger man just clawing his way out of boyhood. He flip-flops in his manners and attitudes so smoothly that we don’t always know when he is putting someone on, including his seduction of Alexis Smith.

Miss Smith reportedly once remarked in an interview that in many films she did not wear shoes on set, to make her appear less tall against shorter actors. It might have been done in this shot, as she was actually a wee bit taller than Dirk Bogarde. More on the tall girl’s career in this previous post.

Alexis, bewitching in this dark role, starts the movie as a cool customer, classy and almost as self contained as the Doc, but by the end she downward spirals helplessly into an emotional train wreck. It was one of her last starring film roles and she must have savored the challenge.

We gradually learn all about Dirk Bogarde through his sessions with the Doc, because he tells us about his past, even when he lies about it. We do not have this open conduit to the other characters. Alexis reveals only briefly to Bogarde, meant as a put-down on his bad behavior, that she had an unhappy childhood, came from a broken home, and that her mother hated her.

“I made a life for myself just the same,” she slams him, not allowing him the convenient excuse of a bad childhood to entitle him to bad behavior as an adult. But Bogarde, bored with being the Doc’s guinea pig decides to get one for himself. Her. He astutely accuses her:

“You’re a phoney…inside you’ve got nothing. You’re empty. You’re hungry….You’re a tight wire and it wouldn’t take very much to break you.”

The thing is, he’s right. There’s a volcano under that black cocktail dress with the pearl choker. What was she like before her marriage with the Doc? How much did Knox do to hammer down her insecurities, or bolster her sense of self worth, or suppress her desires to make her the intelligent but bloodless Galatea she seems at the beginning of the movie? He took away the taint of her bad childhood with the prize of a secure marriage to an intellectual giant. But what did he give her?

The Doc clearly has regard for his wife. He talks shop with her constantly, interested in her opinion. They are equals. But there is nothing more than a chaste peck on the cheek between them, even when she has returned from a vacation she took by herself. He constantly apologizes for putting his work ahead of her, but one senses he is not deeply troubled by it.

His wife and his lab assistant are like a platonic harem over which he is lord. His manner of being completely unaware of this, and what seems his earnest desire to help Dirk Bogarde makes Knox a still likeable character, fascinating for his contradictions.  I love the contrast between his short military haircut and Bogarde's abundant pompadour.

Hugh Griffith comes around snooping for dirt on Mr. Bogarde, whom he is tracking like Inspector Javert. The Doc keeps covering for, even at some points, lying for Bogarde, putting himself and his professional reputation on the line in an extraordinary way.

And he persists in peeling away Bogarde’s protective lies about himself. Knox wants to know if he liked his stepmother.

Bogarde relents and describes her, “Tall, blonde, very smart. All ice on the outside and rotten inside.” He hated her. Is he describing Alexis, too?

In a later scene, rolling around on the ground cuddling together (“Follies” fans - “Could I bury my rage/With a boy half your age/In the grass? Bet your ass!”) -- he lays his head on her chest a moment and they appear that instant almost as a son taking comfort in his mother.

He gets back at the Doc by sneaking out to commit robberies. He gets back at Alexis by probing her emotional hunger and suppressed desire.

At one point, she catches him bullying the maid, and she is furious. She wants to deck him (why do directors of old movies insist women fight with polished claws extended. Like tigers? If I wanted to deck somebody for being nasty to the maid, I’d make a fist and fire off a haymaker at the cad), but he grabs her, and forces a kiss under which Alexis struggles, and then accepts, and then wants more. As he predicted, it doesn’t take much to break her. The more he breaks her down, the more she opens up.

“Don’t pretend you don’t like winding people up like little toys,” Alexis says in a rare moment of sniping at Knox. We see that she is more aware of things under the surface than she may have previously wanted to admit. Little by little she’s losing her protective reserve and finding the courage to look.

Left alone with Bogarde on another night, they prepare to go the movies together. He knots his tie at his mirror -- where another photo of Alexis has found a place on his dresser. She’s at her own mirror, excited, fingertips dabbing perfume behind her ears. They are Tony and Maria getting ready for date. Tonight…tonight…

But there’s no good movie, so she dares him to take her to his favorite hangout, a dingy club where 20-somethings writhe to bebop played by an African-American jazz combo. The musicians are cool, tight, and it sounds almost like the birthing pains of rock n’ roll.

Look at the guy perspiring as he plays his trumpet, cigarette burning in his free fingers. He’s in his own little world, in the throes of his passion, but free of everything else.  His torment and his escape from it are the same.  They are Americans, outsiders here and appreciated for being outsiders and being authentic musicians.

Interestingly, Alexis is an American, as Bogarde notes. I don’t know why she would not have been English, since she was able to do accents perfectly well, but being American also makes her an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. There the discussion of her origins ends. Too bad, we want more back story on her.

The other distinctive music in the film is the bluesy saxophone we hear whenever Alexis and Bogarde are together.

She is amused at slumming here, and teasingly tries to emulate the kids who cling to each other in couples by pressing herself against Bogarde. He verbally smacks her down, as well as with a cruel grip on her neck, just as she has discouraged him previously, and she is humiliated at being rejected. Like the horses they ride, he has learned when to give her her head, and when to rein her in.

At the same time, parallel to the development of their relationship, Doc has made progress in his therapy with Bogarde. They are forming a father-son union, something Bogarde is just beginning to realize he craves. Doc also wants to pursue the playacting of a father figure, but not to fulfill any emotional needs of his own -- he hasn’t any. It’s merely fascinating research. Bogarde is a specimen in a jar.

One day he catches Bogarde playfully pestering Alexis in the kitchen, trying to steal a kiss. Alexis is rattled at their being caught by her husband, and feigns the act of a virtuous wife on whom liberties have been taken. She demands an apology, and Bogarde plays along, apologizing. The scene gets more interesting when Bogarde leaves and Knox wants to know what brought the incident about, and Alexis fibs that Bogarde insinuated there is something romantic between Knox and his lab assistant. “He implied that you were neglecting me.” She does have not have the courage to confront the Doc herself, but we see this has been on her mind for some time.

The Doc does not deny it; the accusation is barely noticed by him, except with what appears to be faint amusement. Would Lab Assistant be amused at his amusement?  I wonder.  Instead he vacillates on whether to kick Bogarde out of their home now that he appears to be a danger to his wife, but the experiment is just too interesting to him. Perhaps if Alexis insisted he leave? She does not.

On another evening alone with Bogarde, they go to the jazz club again, and she’s having a blast. He is the responsible one, taking control, reminding her it’s time to leave. She doesn’t want to, and he daringly asserts that he’s “ready for a showdown” with her husband anytime she says.

His remark rebuffs her like a girl, but at the same time challenges her to be a big girl and decide what she wants. She can’t yet. A sudden, surprising fit of hysteria and she nearly knocks out the window of the car with a block of wood because she can’t open the door with her key. She drives like a maniac through winding country lanes, and then pulls over into a wooded copse to avoid the cops and let loose a crying jag, conflicted by her feelings and terrified at what is happening to her. Bogarde’s painful manner of closing his eyes when she wails, part concern, part relief, and part disgust, is one of his most eloquent actions. He’s creating a monster. He is just beginning to feel the consequences of it.

Meanwhile, the Doc, covering up for Bogarde again, pontificates, “All of us are capable of anything given the right provocation…in the dark forest of every human there’s a tiger -- a sleeping tiger.”

Tonight, it’s his wife.

While she’s beginning her downward spiral, Bogarde is being tamed by the Doc. In a climactic scene, the Doc finally penetrates Bogarde’s childhood torment over a father who abused him, and whose sudden death haunts him. Bogarde has a good scene here, breaking down and sobbing the story of his life. He feels comfortable at last to tell Knox because Knox has defended him time and again to the police and come to his rescue, supporting and nurturing him in a way his father never did. In case we miss that message, there is a melodramatic ending to scene where Bogarde swoons from the emotional effort and faints on the floor.

Alexis is surprised to see the Doc emerge from his office carrying Bogarde in his arms, taking him to his bedroom upstairs. The picture of father and son, or Pygmalion with a new Galatea.

We know from the fact of his subduing Dirk Bogarde at the beginning of the movie, which happens off camera, that Knox is a physically powerful man. Bogarde still bears the bruise on his twisted wrist. His first chastisement from Papa. When we see Knox carry Bogarde, it strikes us that not once in this movie has Knox ever taken Alexis in his arms.

We see there is a triangle here, not with the lab assistant, though she’s still in the ballgame. Alexis has lost her lover to her husband. They spend father-son fishing trips from which she is excluded.

She anticipates their homecoming excitedly, but only Doc comes home, and only because he remembered he has a paper to write. He did not come home to be with her, and Bogarde is distancing himself because he now thinks the Doc is a swell guy, and he feels guilty about luring his wife into cheating on him. She is more lonely now than she ever was before Bogarde came into their lives.

The Doc just gets more and more interesting. How much does he really know about their relationship? He declares Bogarde is cured. He confesses how hard his job has been, that as a therapist he is not supposed to show fear, dislike, or jealousy.

“Jealousy?” Alexis asks. Is she flattered that he might be jealous of Bogarde’s time with her? Or is she worried that he knows about her passion for Bogarde?

He suggests that he and Alexis should go on a vacation together. Earlier she would have jumped at the chance, but now she doesn’t want to leave Bogarde and she can’t tell the Doc that. What power over her does he have that she simply cannot ask him for a divorce? She becomes secretive and paranoid. She finds Bogarde at the inn where he is staying now and begs him to come back. “You’ve never seen me really angry. I warn you, you don’t know what I’m capable of.” It’s not a threat, it’s an intriguing, whimpered confession and is one of those elements in the script that gets dropped in but never explained.

But Bogarde is firm in breaking up with her because he just can’t hurt the Doc anymore. When he returns to their house to pack up his things, she finally rages at the humiliation to which he’s subjected her.

“You’re not going to give me notice like a waitress.” In her torment she has bit the back of her hand until it bleeds, finds the blood on her mouth. She’s gone over the edge. She staggers to the Doc, inferring that Bogarde became violent. Goads him into doing something about it, demanding some emotional response from him.  Doc goes for his handy dandy handgun in the desk drawer to avenge his wife.

Lab assistant tries to stop him (my heavens, this woman is always skulking around), but we hear the sound of a shot, and Alexis, shattered,

“You killed him?” she asks when Doc emerges from Bogarde’s room.

“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” The man of science. We see that it’s a trick. He never shot Bogarde. He wanted to jolt Alexis into confessing her feelings for him. How long has he suspected? This man never lets a chance pass to do an experiment, to “wind up people like little toys.” What must it be like to live with a man who turns every encounter with his wife into a psychotherapy session?

When Bogarde swooned to the floor, Knox cradled him in his arms. When his wife crumples to the floor in a sobbing, confused mess, he stands over her with probing questions and a shining light in his narrow eyes in what is probably the most cruel scene in the movie.  Doc is not a fiend, but his relentless clinical approach to everything has cruel repercussions.  They are both tragic.

Alexis bolts out of the house, now that she knows Bogarde has gone and there still might be a chance for her to catch him.

Finally…finally, we get some plot exposition from the lab assistant, who tries to keep Doc from going after her, “Let her go. It’s been wrong between you for years. You’ll never put it right.”

Whoa, about time, lady. Where were you in the first reel?

But what exactly do you mean? Riddles are pointless without solutions.

There’s a bit of a chase scene here, and the upshot is Alexis drives through what appears to be a circus billboard with a lunging tiger painted on it. She dies. Did I mention there would be spoilers?

I have a problem with the protagonist dying at the end of movies like this. Wages of sin and all, I know, but still, it smacks of laziness and the writer’s inability to find a resolution so it’s just more convenient to kill the character off.

We have no resolution for anybody, except that Bogarde intends to give himself up to Hugh Griffith to set things straight. But Doc expresses no emotion at the physical wreckage of his wife anymore than he did her emotional wreckage. Lab assistant, always prepared, remembers to grab his coat as they leave together for the chase scene. What is her story?

This is a film where the set decoration tells us much (or at least is supposed to) about the story and characters. We see that Alexis and Doc have twin beds in their room, but whenever she is in a bedroom with Bogarde it’s on a double bed. We get the message about Doc’s personality from his office. But the photos of Alexis all over the house are put there for what message?

In classic films I think we tend to know little about set designers, at least not as much as we know of costumers or cinematographers. In theatre they are immensely important because when it comes to deciphering a set, theatre audiences tend to be more sophisticated than film audiences. They know that everything on the set is there for a specific reason. The stage director hasn’t the luxury of a film director of soaking up a variety of images just by panning the camera. All he has to work with is this space.

Among classic film directors, I think Alfred Hitchcock was the most cognizant about this, the most theatrical, and obviously left his mark on every frame. You just know everything’s in the shot for a reason. Joseph Losey gives us as much as he can with “The Sleeping Tiger” in terms of imagery (including a couple of interesting mirror shots) -- again, which sometimes provoke more questions than answers, but some answers can only be provided in the script. And they aren’t there. We come to know all we need to about Dirk Bogarde, but the others in the original triangle -- Doc, Wife, and Lab Assistant -- are still beyond our reach.

The movie is one of a string of films made in this period about the mysteries of psychoanalysis, movies often lurid and fantastic, but in this case it’s interesting that psychology is used as the basis of a love triangle, and for manipulation. What Doc does is on purpose. What Bogarde does is on purpose. Only Alexis seems powerless, losing her grip on her emotions and on her thinking bit by bit until she destroys herself with her obsession.

As mentioned in Monday’s post, this movie is on YouTube here in a single file. Please go have a look, and when you’ve seen it, come back and tell me what you think. For once, we can all watch the same movie together. Pass the popcorn. And, as The Muppets say, no singing opera during the movie.

Monday, November 14, 2011

This and That...

A few things to clear off the desk today. First, to answer to what I’m sure is your burning curiosity about the screen caps I used for my post to illustrate the first chapter of my cozy mystery “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red”. This was a lot like playing with paper dolls, or those Colorforms things when we were kids. They are in order:

“The Turning Point” (1952). My lead character female character is played by Alexis Smith.

An actual Hampden Ale advertisement.

“Vertigo” (1958) - car traffic.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) - apartment building and lobby.

“The Sleeping Tiger” (1954) - female lead still played by Alexis here. Dirk Bogarde was in the mirror reflection, but I erased him. Don’t you wish you could to that with more people?

By the way, try finding a shot of nekkid people copulating on the floor of a swanky apartment in an old movie. I wasted some of the Best Years of My Life looking. Imagine my disappointment. I settled for….

“All About Eve” (1950) - apartment interior and stairs

Actual photo of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

“Vertigo” again, this time the lady in the museum.

“The Sleeping Tiger” again - shot of modern art.

“Executive Suite” (1954) - Since Alexis wanted too much money, I put her on suspension and continued the movie with Nina Foch. From the back, who can tell?

“Executive Suite” again - desk blotter.

“Make Haste to Live” (1954) - Nina Foch started making too many demands, like only blue M&Ms in her trailer, so I put her on suspension and hired Dorothy McGuire to finish the film. It was dark in this scene. Who’s going to know? When are these actresses going to learn that it’s my studio and I call the shots? Seven-year contract means shut up and do what I tell you.

“Make Haste to Live” again.

“Make Haste to Live” again. You don’t really get too many dramatic scenes around an office desk, which in my mundane world I think is the most exciting place in the world. The male lead is played by Stephen McNally.

“Vertigo” again - painting.

“How to Steal a Million” (1966) - the lead male is taken over by Peter O’Toole. Stephen McNally complained too much about the script. Since we never see either of their faces, I’m thinking of not giving them screen credit.

Next on the things to do list: Announce that this coming Thursday I’m giving a talk on Melzar Mosman, one of the foremost American craftsmen in the casting of bronze statuary of the 19th century, and a sculptor as well, at the Chicopee Public Library in Chicopee, Massachusetts. If any of you are in northern Connecticut or western Massachusetts and you are fascinated by 19th century bronze sculpture (and let’s face it, aren’t we all?) then do please drop by, I’d love to meet you. I’m showing slides.

Hey, I don’t make fun of your work.

Next on the list is a preview of Thursday’s post. I recently recommended the movie “The Sleeping Tiger” to someone (see screen capture reference above) at the YouTube link below, where it is posted in a single file. Then it later occurred to me that this would be a pretty nice opportunity for us to discuss a movie that we all have access to at the same time. Usually when we classic film bloggers post reviews, our readers inevitably have either never seen the movie, or saw it a long time ago and passion for it has waned. Or we were too young to get it. Or too old to remember it.

Here is the link on YouTube for “The Sleeping Tiger” starring Alexis Smith, Dirk Bogarde, Alexander Knox and Hugh Griffith. It’s a dark, psychological suspense story that takes place in England and was filmed there. I’ll be talking about it on Thursday, and there will, of course, be spoilers. Enough to choke a horse. So, watch the film first and then go back to my post when you can and do please let us know your opinions. My favorite thing about this blog is reading the comments. I learn new facts, I gain insight with the fresh perspective you give me and we give each other.

Think of it like a book club, where we’re all reading the same book so we can talk about it.

See you Thursday.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

No, not a Monty Python sketch.  But almost.  What follows below, just for a lark, is the first chapter of  “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” - my post-World War II “cozy” mystery about a museum heist, a missing child, a murder, a recent ex-con and an even more recent widow, presented as a noir pastiche.  See how many films you recognize from the screen caps.  The actors were all sent over by Central Casting this morning.  They agreed to work for scale, since most of them haven't worked in a long time.

Think of it as a literary "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

The story:  In Hartford, Connecticut, 1949, Juliet Van Allen, a museum administrator, discovers that her artist husband is having an affair with another woman. Elmer Vartanian, recently released from prison for a museum robbery, is coerced into helping scout the museum for a heist by a gang that has kidnapped his daughter. When Juliet's husband is murdered, she is the chief suspect and Elmer signs on as her alibi in exchange for something he wants.  Together, dogged by the scandal-monger newsman, the shrewd police detective, and scrutinized by the even more judgmental eye of Hartford’s elite, the rich widow and the ex-con try to outrun them all in a 1948 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, in world where Modern Art meets old-fashioned murder.

Chapter 1

“The last spring of the 1940s.”

Juliet said it out loud this time, with equal parts anticipation and regret. Drumming slender white-gloved fingers on the steering wheel as she waited for the light to turn green, giving it her warmest smile as a thank you, she made a left-hand turn onto Asylum Street.

Past the fashionable Bond Hotel, she stomped her brake hard, with heart-pounding, if momentary, panic on discovering the large and dirty tailgate of the Hampden Ale truck in front of her. “You Get More Out of Hampden”.

Stopping just in time, nearly getting more out of Hampden than she wanted, she chuckled a mea culpa at the motto when the flow of traffic resumed, and she was given a reprieve by still being alive.

Juliet sometimes looked for signposts in her life, more supernatural than what was normally found on beer truck advertising or cooperative traffic lights, and invented them when they were not really there. Only dimly aware of this trait, she would have balked had someone accused her of needing some existential hand-holding. Proud and somewhat vain about her independent streak, nevertheless a vague sense of being imprisoned gnawed at her lately.

Perhaps it was her approaching thirtieth birthday, though Juliet told herself she did not care.

Making love on her free afternoon was all she cared about right now.

She left the car for the parking attendant and shot a glance at the upper floor of the apartment building. Kurt was not expecting her, but she knew he preferred surprises.

Hartford, Connecticut breathed easy, in its own self-superior way, and the sun-warmed sidewalk flecked with the reddish droppings of buds from the maple trees, with their tentative crop of tiny new leaves seemed to indicate that the winter landscape had all been a mirage.

The trees in front of their apartment house were something that she would have painted. But, Kurt would dismiss the idea, with derisive laughter, as a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, and move onto deeper subjects in his conversation and in his art.

Juliet entered the apartment house lobby. Mr. Percy, the desk manager with the paunch and the jet-black dyed fringe of hair around his bald head said good afternoon. She would have painted Mr. Percy, too, if only for the novelty of his dyed fringe of hair. When she joked about it to Kurt, he suggested with his own peculiar effortless sarcasm that she ask Mr. Percy to model for her nude.

Mr. Percy looked up at her smiling, as if pleasantly surprised, on cue. Juliet stifled a chuckle, invariably reminded of Kurt’s nude remark, which is all she thought of now whenever she saw Mr. Percy.

The officious desk manager, unaware of her comic fantasies, certainly was surprised, for she usually worked until at least six, sometimes later. It was only four o'clock. Juliet considered announcing she had come home early to make love with her husband, but Mr. Percy was just too easy to fluster. She wondered, with what Kurt might say was disingenuous flippancy, if it mightn’t kill him.

Juliet took the elevator to the fourth floor apartment. The elevator operator, a tall, thin, young black man about twenty named Tommy also gave her a somewhat smile of unexpected pleasure. She wondered if this was indicative of a very well-trained and polite staff or if she really had been so hidebound in her habits. And, if anybody, actually, could be that pleased to see her. She hoped Kurt would be.

“Did you take your car off the blocks, yet, Tommy?”

He caught her eye with a conspirator’s look.

“This weekend. I can’t wait.”

“I’m surprised you’ve been stalling. Winter’s got to be over by now.”

“You can stop teasing me. I needed a tire.”

Tommy brought her to her floor. When the doors opened, he wished her a good afternoon.

“Thank you, Tommy.” Her footsteps echoed in the empty hall, and she touched the key to the keyhole.

She opened the door quietly, with no shouts of greeting. Surprising him was one thing, disturbing his work was another.

Juliet hoped that Kurt was continuing with the series on the Modern Woman. She put her keys in her purse and placed her purse down on the credenza against the wall, above which there was a mirror here in the alcove before the living room. A half wall with a wrought iron railing, which always made the person looking through the balusters seem as if he were in prison, separated the alcove from the living room. She turned and looked into the mirror to remove her hat, a soft, small peach-colored cap that matched her suit and clung to the crown of her light brown hair. She lifted her arms to reach for the hatpin with her right hand and hold her hat with her left, when her eyes were diverted by the flickered reflection of activity in the living room behind her.

She became only then just aware of a low muffled voice or more like a series of human noises. Lowering her arms slowly, pivoting with a gracefulness as if it had been rehearsed, Juliet looked through the thin, ironwork balustrade into the living room.

She noticed for the first time that the furniture was pushed aside. The two couches were pulled away from each other and the coffee table had been moved against one of them, leaving a large clear area in front of the fireplace. She gripped the wrought iron bars like a prisoner in jail, stood on tiptoe and pulled herself up a couple inches and looked down over one of the couches. Of the two naked people vigorously making love on a blanket on the living room floor, she could recognize Kurt, but not the woman whose face was hidden.

Juliet lowered herself to her heels again. Her heart leaped into second gear, her breathing shot in gasps all the more painful from trying to stifle them. Her throat began to ache. She knew what it was she was seeing, but a fog of more than shock; of resolute stupidity fell over her. She felt that she needed to look again, really look to make sure she understood the situation.

Juliet stepped quietly around the half wall and almost into the living room. She could make herself look no longer than a moment; it was enough, and too much.

Juliet turned quickly, her head snapping in a jerking movement, an involuntary reaction common to horror, great mirth, and being shot, and stepped back to the door. With a shaking hand, she picked up her purse. Shock and humiliation grabbed her by either arm and escorted her out the door, without even really knowing what she was doing. She only knew where, automatically, to retreat.

Back to her office.

Juliet took the stairs down to the street. She did not want to meet Tommy again. She could not return his smile, or greet him, a friend, without an explanation.

The stairwell behind steel fire doors revealed a quiet refuge, echoing cool solitude down four flights. She shattered the silence with the staccato sound of her heels clicking on the all steps, all the way down to the street. Tingling with cold perspiration, slightly lightheaded as if in the middle of a panic attack, she panted like a runner. Once outside again, she met the spring air, a cool lilac-scented breeze, which, after she had retrieved her car, was the only thing she could remember about the drive back to work. It was like a bookmark, between the awful incident and the quiet limbo of her office.

Juliet worked as an assistant director of marketing at the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the crown jewels of Hartford history. The oldest public art museum in the United States, it had in the 1930s and 1940s begun to shrug off the somewhat stodgy attitude, if not quite all of its reverence for the Hudson River painters, and moved boldly forward to exhibit the works of modern paintings under the direction of its dynamic former curator Chick Austin.

Austin brought Italian Baroque, and theater, to the museum, and dance under Balanchine, and created a wing in the modern international style, the first seen in America. Modern Art, Cubism, Surrealism, the works of people like her husband Kurt, perhaps reflective of a parade of modern talent that led right to Kurt.

The scene she had witnessed on her living room floor might have been realistic, but it seemed very, very surreal to her.

Henry, the security guard looked up at her in surprise when she reentered the building. It was not a look of pleasant surprise, the way Tommy did, the way Mr. Percy did, with solicitude and deference. Just blank surprise. But, he gave her an awkward nod, touched his cap.

“Forgot something,” she said, though, she did not owe him an explanation and he nodded this time with a smile as if, for no reason, he were relieved.

She closed the door to her office and sat there in silence. Only the singular glare from the 60 watt light bulb on her iron desk lamp lit the room, as if she were in a police interrogation office, interrogating herself.

In a way she was, asking the same questions of how could he? Why?

How long she had sat at her desk quietly crying, staring off to a shadowy wall as if she might find answers there was actually about five hours, a little after nine o'clock. A strange muffled sound roused her from misery. She became conscious after a moment that it came from the ceiling above her. In another moment, she saw the ventilation grate in the ceiling tremble. From inside what she supposed was an air duct, the grate shifted from within the ceiling, revealing a dark hole. Then the worn brown shoes of a man slipped through.

Wrinkled brown socks slipped down to reveal two white, rather hairy ankles, wrinkled brown trousers smeared gray with dust slipped down from the open hole in the ceiling.

The stupor that had overtaken Juliet these last few hours evaporated. She snapped suddenly alert and aware again. Sometime in the past few hours she had taken off her white gloves. They were bunched in her hand, twisted, wrinkled and damp from wiping her tears with them.

Could she alert Henry?

She looked at her delicate gold wristwatch. Nine o'clock. Had she been here so long? Kurt will be worried.

Kurt would be worried? Yes, Kurt would be so worried he might need to go out and get another date. She cursed his immortal soul and wondered if anyone else was working late. Chauncey, would he still be here? No. Chauncey always took a moment to look in on her. She had an idea that Chauncey liked her, maybe more than he should. She tried not to encourage him, but she tried not to discourage him either, because after all he was her boss.

Karen was not here either, the secretary she shared with Chauncey. All the office staff would have long gone home by now. There would only be Henry the night watchman and his two assistants.

The trouser legs became a jacket of a slightly different shade of brown, and likewise streaked gray with dust. Then the man lowered himself, very gently, like an acrobat, and dropped himself with only the slightest noise to the floor.

Too late for her to turn off the desk lamp. He noticed his own shadow on the wall, and turned to face Juliet. She attempted to hide under her desk. But, it was too late.

He saw her. She gasped, drawing her arms close to her chest as if protecting herself, clutching her crumpled gloves. He quickly touched his finger to his lips, the sign to hush.

Then he held both his hands up, palms facing outward as if he were surrendering to her, and he touched his finger to his lips again imploring her to be quiet. He called in a whispered stage voice up to the hole in the ceiling.

“We have to go back. I made a mistake.”

Juliet heard a body shift and some muffled reply in the air shaft somewhere deep behind the ceiling panels above her in an otherworld of ceiling infrastructure. The man took the chair for visitors and brought it to the hole in the ceiling and stood upon it, and called softly into his hole again.

“This office, it’s been made over into a supply closet, door’s locked from the outside. We have to go back and try the other way.”

Another muffled reply in the air shaft.

“I'm not playing games,” he said. “I'm coming back up.”

He looked down at Juliet and touched his finger to his lips again. He called again into the air shaft.

“Someone's coming! Go back! I’ll hide here.”

In another moment, they heard a muffled movement from the ceiling that became more and more faint.

They both knew they were alone. He stared at her intently through the dim glare of the single 60 watt bulb from black iron gooseneck desk lamp, as if he were deciding what to do. Then he replaced the ceiling panel, and stepped down from the chair, never taking his eyes off hers.

“I won't hurt you. Just don't scream, or we’ll both be in for it.” He said it in a slow, calm, deliberate way, as if he were talking to a small fretful child, or training a dog. He kept doing that same gesture with his hands. Both slightly raised, as if he were surrendering, palms facing outward to her, patting the air in front of him gently. She finally began to feel her heartbeat slowing, as if his hand motion was making her slow down. She managed a few deep breaths.

“There's going to be a heist pulled on this museum in two or three days. A week. I don't know yet. I'm not involved in it. I mean, I am, but I'm not a crook. Until about a month ago I was in prison, but I never stole anything or hurt anybody. These guys, they've got me over a barrel. They've got my kid. And if I don't help them pull off their job, they won't tell me where she is. They might even hurt her.

“I want to set them up, so they get caught. I want to fix it so that the cops or your security staff knows when it’s going to happen. But, I don’t want to be here. I don't want them ever to know that I squealed. Do you understand?”

He waited what seemed like weeks for her to nod.

“As soon as I find out what's really happening and when it's going down, I'll contact you. Don't tell them that you found out through me. Just an anonymous tip. Okay?”

“I don't believe any of this.” Juliet finally said, in a faint, shaky voice, the first thing she had said in hours and it was true, and she meant more than just the strange man falling out of the ceiling, or the museum going to be robbed. She meant Kurt McLeod, that miserable lying cheating pig of a husband, whose superior artistic talent was surpassed only by his lust, and perhaps by his arrogance.

“I swear it's true. I want to stop these guys and I don't want to get involved. I got out of prison a month ago. I want to start my life over.”

“What were you in prison for?”

“Breaking into a museum, so some guys could rob it.”

Oh, swell.

Juliet had been gripping the armrests of her office chair. She pulled her white-knuckled grip off the chair, put her hands in her lap and began to rub them, leaving her white cotton gloves in knotted ball on the desk. Her wedding ring lay on the desk blotter by the gloves. She had wriggled it off hours ago. Rose gold with three diamonds. Kurt bought it with his separation pay from the Army. Or, he said he did. Suddenly her entire history with him was a question mark.

She looked up at the man, noticing that he saw the ring.

“You can have it, the ring…and here, my watch, if you just leave me alone.”

“I don’t want them. I swear, lady, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I'm not alone. I could scream, or call and get help very quickly.”

“There's a security guard on the outside of the building and one on the inside on the first floor. You're alone and there's no one to hear you.”

She swallowed audibly and her heart began to pound again, hammering blood to her temples. Again he lifted his hands.

“I don't say that to scare you. I know the routines of your schedule and others. You sure weren’t supposed to be here tonight.

“But, I'm not here to hurt you. We’re going to walk out of here, you and I, right through the lobby where the security guy is sitting alone. When we pass him, I’m going to look right at him, so that he knows my face. When the cops get involved, he’ll be able to identify me later on if he has to. When we’re out of the building, I’ll leave you. And we won't see each other anymore, but I will contact you when I know what the plans are for the break-in so you can alert your staff.

“I’ll even tell you my name, but I’d rather you not tell it to anybody, not yet. But, if you need to tell the cops who I am, eventually, my name is Elmer Vartanian. I’ll trust you, if you trust me.”

The name meant nothing to her. She'd never heard it before. Her first thought was that it was a made-up name. It sounded silly enough to be a made-up name.

“Well, Miss Van Allen? Do we have an agreement?”

“You know my name?”

“It's painted there on the glass of your office door, Miss Van Allen, Associate Director, Marketing.” They both looked at the glass and read it, backwards.

“You want me to wait for your call to tell me when the break-in is going to occur and to alert my security staff to catch them. But, you don't want me to mention your name to the police. Is that it?”

“Yes. That way, I don't get in trouble with these people. And I get my daughter back, and you don't get your museum robbed. Is it a deal?”

“What are these people supposed to be stealing?”

“You’ve got a collection of gold on the first floor, plates and cups and things on loan from the Southwest Museum.”

“It's an Aztec collection.”

“They don't care about that. They expect to get a fortune when it’s fenced.”


“Do we have a deal?”

“I want something else, too.”

“What?” He frowned, hesitating.

“I want you to destroy some paintings.”

He look of incredulity encouraged her. She explained quickly, with a sense of sureness that had finally returned to her after the last miserable hours.

“There are seven paintings in the third floor gallery, a collection of modern art by Kurt McLeod. I want them destroyed.”

If you haven't figured it out already, this is an insidious publicity ploy.   For those of you brave enough to continue the story without screen caps, the novel is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Sony, Kobo, and Diesel.
I won't be posting next week as I have some other fish to fry, but I'll be back with a new post on Monday, November 14th.

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