Vertigo and How to Steal a Million – Two short reviews (spoiler-free)

Recently I saw these two classic films for the first time: Vertigo (1958) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  On the surface, they have really nothing in common, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to compare and contrast them.

Vertigo


Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock film, considered by many reviewers to be his masterpiece.  James Stewart plays a retired detective, Scottie Ferguson, who is commissioned by his friend to follow said friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, to determine if she’s become possessed with the spirit of her great-grandmother.  Matters become weirder when Scottie finds himself falling head over heels for the chilling but attractive Madeleine, who also seems to have a thing for him.  Scottie, unfortunately, suffers from vertigo and a fear of heights, which threaten to jeopardize his task and Madeleine’s life.

Let me just say I have mixed feelings about Hitchcock films.  This is how I’d rank the ones I’ve seen so far (best to worst):

  1. Rebecca
  2. Strangers on a Train
  3. The Wrong Man
  4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  5. Vertigo
  6. North by Northwest
  7. The Birds
As you can see, the popular ones I don’t care for very much.
Vertigo actually started out very promising, but somewhere around the halfway mark, it got very slow and tedious.  The plot is predictable and, at times, unduly macabre.  As usual with Hitchcock, I did find the cinematography to be stunning – with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as they looked in the 50s – but it wasn’t enough to carry the film through.  There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend, with an unlikely romance and one or two gaping plot holes.

How to Steal a Million

Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn?  That was all I needed to know.

How to Steal a Million follows an art forger and his loyal daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) who will do what it takes to keep her scoundrelly dad out of jail.  That includes staging a faux burglary to prevent a particular sculpture from being tested for authenticity. Enter Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who claims to be an expert burglar.  With great reluctance, he agrees to take on Nicole’s challenge and break into a high-security museum to “steal” her father’s own statue and save the family honor.
This was the dumbest, cutest, cringiest movie I’ve seen in a long time. (I guess that’s what rom-coms are?  I don’t usually watch that genre.)  O’Toole manages to make a creepy role extremely charming, and Hepburn’s cute innocence outshines even her chic wardrobe (designed by Givenchy and made rather a big deal of).  I’m pretty sure nobody except these two could play such lovable dorks.
As it is, what starts out as a cute comedy turns into a long-winded, tedious ordeal, during the greater part of which the two are trapped in a broom closet and exchanging risque jokes.  Again, rom-coms aren’t exactly my thing, so I was disappointed when the plot kind of fizzled out in the second half.

Lessons Learned

Here’s my takeaways from these two films:
  • If you’re going to make a movie – or write a book, for that matter – that is really unbelievable, your best outlet is comedy.  Tragedies have to be plausible for me to care.
  • Great actors/actresses can make bad films watchable.
  • A story should never start out more exciting and engaging than it finishes up.
  • Sometimes Amazon reviewers and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • I should probably stop watching Alfred Hitchcock films (but I know I won’t).
Thoughts…recommendations?  I’d be curious to hear if any of you like Vertigo.  It’s the kind of film where I at least understand its popularity.  I just didn’t care for it personally.  How to Steal a Million is pure fluff and I’ll probably watch it again, to my great chagrin.  

The Professor – Charlotte Bronte’s First Novel

CharlotteBrontePortrait
Portrait by J. H. Thompson

First novels can be hit-and-miss, even those of “great authors.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne was so ashamed of Fanshawe he wanted all copies burnt.  Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship, written in her teens, did not (unsurprisingly) carry the depth and drama of her later, famous novels.  Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, is arguably one of the weaker of the four.  While some talented authors debut a masterpiece, it’s as equally likely that their first book is not their best. All of this goes to show that 1) no one is born a great novelist, and 2) it is worthwhile to keep trying, even if your first writing is highly flawed.

The Professor was Charlotte Bronte’s first novel but not published until after her death.  It has a very similar plot to Villette (1853), and it’s best read as a first draft of that superior novel.  Unfortunately, this is still insufficient for enjoying the book, because it’s just not a great story.  It took me several tries over many years to start and continue reading it, and I’ll be completely honest: if it weren’t for me trying to read all the Bronte novels (with just Anne’s Tenant remaining), I don’t think I would have finished The Professor.

Our male protagonist (Bronte’s only one) is William Crimsworth, a young Englishman just recently finished with his education.  He attempts to work for his industrious brother (think Gaskells’s John Thornton, except meaner), which doesn’t pan out, so he goes into the world to seek his fortunes independently.  He ends up teaching English at two schools in Brussels, one of which is a girl’s school.  He falls awkwardly into a love rectangle involving the directors of both schools and one of the students (who is also a teacher, to make it slightly less weird).  Some conflict ensues.

The story is highly uneven and overall uneventful, not a winning combination.  For fans of Villette, there is some interest in seeing the precursors for better characters: William and Frances are like Lucy and Paul, Zoraïde is clearly an early version of Madame Beck, and the minor character Hunsden is not unlike Rochester in his charisma and abrupt manners.  However, you’re left wishing you were re-reading Villette instead, with all its intrigue, mystery, and surrealism.  The Professor, by contrast, is very careful and stolid and utterly boring.

In addition to the lackluster plot, Crimsworth is a rather irritating narrator.  One doesn’t feel quite comfortable in his romance with his female student, and apart from that, his prejudice against Catholicism and various nationalities is rampant throughout the book.  (There is some of this in Villette, though less, if I remember correctly.)  It really shows how even within one race of people, there can be many deep divisions.

In the end, I can only recommend The Professor to Bronte completionists.  It is probably for the best that it was rejected by publishers, because Jane Eyre came next, bringing with it a dynamic female narrator that was to carry forward to Villette, the refined novelization of Charlotte’s own experience in Brussels.  Those of us trying to write our own stories can look at this as an example of why not to give up, and also of how our characters, given enough time, will evolve and mature just as we do.

July Miscellany – Books + Life

It seems the theme of my life in 2019 is “life gets tougher, books get better.”  Well, some books anyway.  I have to say, I haven’t been reading as much as I would like, but in spite of that, am pretty pleased overall with the books I have read so far.

I’ve also highly enjoyed reading other’s blogs this year and found many new ones to follow.  I’ve been thinking about doing a post series sharing links to blogs I follow, if that would interest anyone (?).

Ok, let’s talk about some books.

Another one bites the dust…

Here’s one of those “not so great” reads of the year.  I had every intention of posting a review on The Scapegoat, by Daphne du Maurier.  But after reaching a glorious 44%, I came to a screeching stop.  The plodding repetition of the plot was one thing… the narrator’s nauseating “aha!” moment was the cherry on top.  I thought I’d take one for the team, finish the book, and present you with a scathing review, but sanity won, and I had to shelve it.  So alas, no review of The Scapegoat.

Jonah, revisited

I may have mentioned it before, but over the past year, my family and I have been watching a YouTube series on the Bible by a preacher named David Pawson.  While I don’t agree with all of his views, the series is nonetheless thought-provoking, as he goes in-depth on the historical and geographical context of each book.  The last episode we watched was Jonah, which, coupled with the upcoming Moby-Dick readalong in August, prompted me to re-read it.

Jonah has always been one of my favorite Old Testament books.  At just four chapters, it is incredibly short, but there’s much to unpack – judgment, mercy, high-seas drama, miracles, and even humor (maybe it’s just me, but I always thought the worm eating the vine was hilarious).  Pawson observes the references to Sheol (the grave), as well as the succeeding lines in chapter 2, suggest that Jonah may have actually died and was resurrected, as a precursor to Jesus.

I grew up with the 1956 Moby-Dick film, starring Orson Welles as Father Mapple.  The sermon on Jonah is one of the most memorable scenes.  I just recently noticed how the camerawork cuts to Starbuck during the line, “preach truth to the face of falsehood,” as a foreshadowing of his moral dilemma to come.

The Professor, and writing what you know

Cleo mentioned she’d be reading The Professor by Charlotte Bronte this month, so I picked up where I’d left off (not very far).  Why oh why is this book such a struggle for me to read?  Here’s some theories:

  • Male narrator – Bronte is not bad at it, but you get the sense of her holding something back.  It just doesn’t sound entirely natural, compared with Jane Eyre and Villette.
  • Plot – The plot, thus far, is like a much more boring version of Villette – English teacher moves to French-speaking country.  However, while our narrator has some unfortunate circumstances, it is nothing compared to the heart-wrenching, excruciatingly depressing life of Lucy Snowe, which grabs you immediately.  To be fair, The Professor feels much more realistic, more akin to naturalism than the other novels.  It is more like Anne’s novel Agnes Grey, though even there, Agnes’s conflict is more pronounced.

While The Professor was indeed based on Bronte’s own experiences, so far I would say she did not perfect that story until Villette.  I think the lesson for us writers is…go all in.

Anyways, I will be finishing this one, so maybe it will get better later on.  🙂

Iwan Iwanowitsch Schischkin 003

Other stuff

I am considering trying to pare-down my 700+ list of books to-be-read.  It disturbs me.  On the other hand, it may be a waste of time trying.  I already cheat right now with a bookmarks folder of “Books” that I haven’t added to Goodreads, out of the sheer number of them (some of them are links to other people’s lists) and/or embarrassment.  But I’m genuinely concerned that the list will grow (has grown??) so large, it will cease to be useful.

I would also like to publicly confess that, thanks to the election season beginning, I’ve become slightly addicted to YouTube, particularly binge-watching political commentary.  This is part of what is taking time away from my reading.  Not sure if it’s time well spent (though I am learning things).  Hopefully I will eventually get sick of it.

Overall I would, as usual, like to take a more simplistic approach to life.  I am a very organized person, but unfortunately I am not a minimalist.  I get bored way too easily and am interested in a wide range of things, which is a dangerous combination.  See, I’ve always had escapism in my life, but it used to be books almost exclusively.  Now the internet has taken over that role, and it’s endless rabbit-hole of genuinely useful information.  Still, I probably need to change some habits, because there is still something important about reading a book, a whole composition, that the internet can’t give you.

The Last Tycoon … Questioning Why I Read Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is one of those authors who provokes in me a love/loathe reaction.  There was something unforgettable and moving in The Great Gatsby and This Side of Paradise; the surreal, Wuthering-Heights level of drama and the tragic stories lingered in my mind a long time afterward.  Tender is the Night haunted me in a different way: an instant trainwreck with little rhyme or reason, it left me so disgusted I had to quit reading early on.  So when I saw the library had just added The Last Tycoon to their ebook collection…and it was available, and it was under 200 pages…I invariably got pulled into checking it out and reading it over the 4th of July.

There aren’t many authors I would recommend reading solely for their writing style, but I think every aspiring American writer should read something by Fitzgerald, even if it’s just a chapter.  There’s something distinctly American about his style.  It’s a strange, signature combination – breathless, matter-of-fact, poetic, alluring, and mournful all at once.  The Last Tycoon (1941), set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, has all of this, and being an unfinished novel it holds an additional sense of mystery, somewhat diminished by the addition of Fitzgerald’s notes and plans for the novel at the end.

I usually can’t tolerate “meta” stories, i.e. stories about authors or movies about movie makers, so it’s to Fitzgerald’s credit that my favorite thing about this book is its setting and the commentary on Hollywood in the 1930s.  He doesn’t even bother to change the names, so you’ll see a minor cameo by Gary Cooper, a mention of Cecil B. DeMille, and a myriad of other name-dropping references fans of classic film will enjoy (unsurprisingly, some actors and actresses are disparaged, but Fitzgerald manages to leave them anonymous, at least by name).

The plot is both compelling and frustrating.  Our Gatsbyian protagonist, Monroe Stahr, is a brilliant film producer still mourning the death of his wife, Minna, while battling the last months of his own life.  One night he catches a glimpse of her doppelganger in the face of an elusive British woman, who, as it turns out, is as interested in him as he is in her.  The book is partly told in third person and partly in first person, because the other piece of this lust-triangle is the sometime narrator, Cecelia Brady, a much younger girl who since childhood has had a massive infatuation with Stahr.  The storyline follows the ups and downs of Stahr’s work life, Cecelia’s plotting to be with him, and their efforts to find out more about the woman who looks like Minna.

That the story is believable doesn’t make it any less depressing, and once you distill it down to the simple facts, it becomes incredibly unromantic and pedestrian.  Stahr has the makings of a great character, but the female characters throwing themselves at him are even less likeable than Daisy Buchanan, so you end up very irritated that Stahr has anything to do with them.  As in The Great Gatsby, there’s also a number of derogatory references to people of other races through the book.

As a story of Hollywood it is all readily believable, and in fact Stahr was based on the real-life head of MGM, Irving Thalberg.  The consolation prize is you feel you’re reading about history, rather than something completely fictional.

While I’m not sure I’d recommend The Last Tycoon, I’m not completely sorry I read the book.  Like This Side of Paradise, it’s a peek into a different era. The biggest takeaway from this book for me is that more things have stayed the same than have changed.

Top Ten Books of My Childhood

Ok… what follows is rather an eclectic list, and many of them are not classics!  But I so enjoyed reading some of you guys’ lists for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, it made me reflect on the books I read long ago and which influenced my childhood.

1. The Children’s Book of Virtues
An interesting collection of fairy tales and poems, some well known (“St George and the Dragon”) and others more obscure. To this day, I can still hear my dad’s voice reading some of these stories.  I’m also pretty sure I’d start bawling if I re-read “Why Frog and Snake Never Play Together.”

2. Dragons, Ogres, and Wicked Witches
I really hesitate to put this one on the list, because these European fairy tales were pretty heavy reading and perhaps not very good for small kids.  (I’m not quite sure how we acquired the book…Costco?  Either way, my mom later got rid of it.)  I’ve always had an inordinate fascination with fantasy monsters, sea monsters, dinosaurs, you get the idea.  Needless to say, this book, while not a “favorite,” made quite an impression on me, for better or worse.

3. The Boxcar Children
As Stephen mentioned, The Boxcar Children was (is?) a long-running series, to the extent that after the original books by Warner were published, ghost writers picked it up later.  Little me was really obsessed with these books; our library had a lot of them, so I read about four a week and somehow didn’t get tired of them.  It was always exciting to see new ones, too.

4. The Magician’s Nephew
Though I read all the Narnia books, The Magician’s Nephew stands out because it was the first one I’d read, and the themes of temptation vs. self-sacrifice in the storyline really appealed to me.

 5. Trixie Belden
This was a favorite series of my mom’s, and I loved it, too!  The original books are set in the 40s/50s and follow Trixie, who is a teenage girl living in the Hudson Valley, New York.  Unlike Nancy Drew, Trixie comes from a middle-class family of mostly boys, and she struggles with normal girl problems like her plain looks. She finds a “Watson” sidekick in her new neighbor, Honey Wheeler, and together with some other friends, they solve mysteries.  What I especially enjoyed about the series is that it doesn’t dumb-down the mysteries – the bad guys are actually real bad guys, and the crimes are real crimes.  The books also cover some tough topics of the day.

6. The Williamsburg Years (Christian Heritage Series)
The Christian Heritage series was a “series of series” featuring different boys in different eras of American history.  My favorite sub-series was The Williamsburg Years, which was about a kid named Thomas and his friend Caroline growing up in Colonial Virginia.  The books were humorous, dramatic, and surprisingly deep, covering family relationships, politics, and faith.  Caroline’s brother Alexander was one of the first characters I really grew attached to.  Unfortunately the books are long out of print…I’m really hoping they get a reprint someday.

7. Escape from Warsaw (AKA The Silver Sword)
I don’t fully remember what this is about, except that it was a great book.  This one and Twenty and Ten are good examples of how to write a historical book for small children without overwhelming them or making light of the topic.

8. The Caroline Years

The Little House series is a given…but at one point I read the Caroline Years, too, and really enjoyed it.  I can’t remember much about it, though.

9. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
I love both Alice books, but something about the second one just tugs at the heartstrings a bit more.  Alice is a bit older, Looking-Glass World is a bit weirder, and the game is chess.  This also includes some of my most loved characters like the Sheep and the clumsy White Knight.

10. The Sherlock Holmes series
I’m sure it sounds like a broken record at this point, but the Sherlock Holmes series was a milestone in my childhood reading.  🙂