Sunday, December 31, 2017

Video of the Day: Lombardi’s ‘Ice Bowl,’ on Its 50th Anniversary

I didn’t have the chance to see the TV documentary “Vince Lombardi: A Football Life” when it first aired—much to my regret, as I would have liked to see how it depicted the influence of my alma mater, St. Cecilia High School of Englewood, NJ, where he began his coaching career.

But, in researching the episode of his pro career that fascinates me the most—his leadership of the Green Bay Packers in its last NFL championship during his years there—I came across this vivid 10-minute YouTube segment from the documentary, on his “Ice Bowl” victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which occurred 50 years ago today. 

Interviews with son Vince Lombardi Jr., lineman Jerry Kramer and quarterback Bart Starr (the last two instrumental in the win) add personal behind-the-scene perspectives on this epic game. Game-day conditions (15 degrees below zero, (-35 degrees wind-chill factor) made a hash of the coach’s high-tech attempt to keep the turf easy to run upon, leading to something close to a fight for survival between the upstart, dynasty-in-the-making Cowboys and the aging but proud Packers.

On the coldest day to that point in NFL playoff history, the Pack launched its final drive with 4½ minutes to go. The winning play, on third down, with 16 seconds to go, represented “the culmination of everything Lombardi and his Packers had been preparing for for the last nine years,” according to Lombardi biographer David Maraniss.

I recommend Maraniss’ superb account of the coach’s life, WHEN PRIDE STILL MATTERED, for additional colorful details on this climax of Lombardi’s career. (For instance, Frank Gifford, broadcasting the game, told listeners: “I just took a bite out of my coffee.")

W.H. Auden, With Wise Advice for the New Year

“Convict our pride of its offense
In all things, even penitence,
Instruct us in the civil art
Of making from the muddled heart
A desert and a city where
The thoughts that have to labor there
May find locality and peace,
And pent-up feelings their release.”— English poet-critic W.H. Auden (1907-1973), “New Year Letter” (1940)

“New Year Letter” is far longer than my favorite W.H. Auden poem, “In Memory of W.B.Yeats.” But if it didn’t have that elegy's concentrated power, it issued an equally ringing summons to the best human impulses toward tolerance and hope only a few months into a second world war that had arisen from the most hideous brutality the world had ever known, as I think you'll see in the above lines.

Quote of the Day (Maisie Ward, on God and Time for ‘Everything That Matters’)

“It is the chief character of a life lived for God that there is time in it for everything that matters.”—English publisher and writer Maisie Ward (1889-1975), quoted in Robert Ellsberg, Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses (2016)

(I took the attached photograph of London’s Big Ben while on a trip to London in January 2013. My, how time flies!)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Appreciations: Dorothy B. Hughes’ ‘In a Lonely Place’ and the Male Predator, Then and Now

This past summer, I started to dip into the work of Dorothy B. Hughes, a postwar American master of crime fiction, for two reasons: for research on a blog post on lawyer-detective Perry Mason and his creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, the subject of a biography by Hughes; and for the pleasure of reading In a Lonely Place, one of four works in a Library of America anthology, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s

Little did I know that the latter would so profoundly and disturbingly explore the vulnerable, resentful male psyche, with more than a little contemporary relevance. 

Even today, more people know of this work secondhand, through Nicholas Ray’s 1950 big-screen adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame (pictured here). For all the great talent involved in that production, the filmmakers still had to pull their punches with the very dark material in this innovative 1947 crime novel.

The problem was that Hughes was one of the first, if not the first, to write from inside the consciousness of a serial killer—a term not even coined until the 1970s. Most reviews of the time used words or phrases like “pathology” and “periodic bloodlust” to describe this new kind of criminal. Her protagonist, Dix Steele, was a demobilized and disoriented WWII pilot, the kind of character only then appearing on film and in literature.

But like many other writers whose works turn out to have enduring resonance, Hughes had also identified a type more commonly identified in the last several weeks, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal: the male predator. 

From virtually the novel’s opening pages, Steele approaches women less as human beings than as prey. In this sense, he resembles the entertainment, media, and political figures exposed in recent weeks as part of the viral #MeToo movement. 

“This treating of the hunt like a craft, the carefulness of it, is one mark of what we often call a predator,” Michelle Dean writes in a recent “First Words” column in The New York Times Magazine. “People like that word because of its certainty, the way it rules on the case all by itself. A predator naturally lives outside the herd, and because of that, he can be very easy to ostracize. The shaming, the firing, the possible criminal prosecution: All of that seems a logical consequence for predators.”

But preceding ostracism, or even noticing the predator’s pattern, is identifying him in the first place, by no means a cinch. Dix has “a good-looking face but nothing to remember, nothing to set it apart from the usual.” No outward sign testifies to his inner ugliness and turmoil. 

The murders committed by Steele obscure a more fundamental link to his contemporary real-life descendants in the entertainment industry, such as Harvey Weinstein and James Toback: not merely the shared male pronoun, but also the assumption of male privilege and power that they feel continually under assault in a new, more uncertain environment. (Yes, even the name of Hughes’ killer is a wicked pun—and a clue into his fear of being unmanned.)

Even as the women’s movement and the threat of sexual harassment lawsuits meant that they might face challenges to their authority, producers, directors and stars such as Weinstein and his ilk longed for the days of the casting couch, when their kind were riding high and starlets were there to do their bidding.

Dix Steele had his own actual experience of riding high. Standing on the beach at night in the opening paragraphs of In a Lonely Place, he drifts back to his time as a nighttime pilot in the European theater of WWII, particularly “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky. There was a touch of it here, looking down at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon; here high above the beach road with its crawling traffic, its dotting of lights.”

But already this feeling of expansive self-confidence is being revealed as illusory. Just as Dix’s aerial triumphs happened over a dim but blasted landscape, his current reverie occurs amid “the pale waste of sand, the dark restless waters beyond.” Above all, there is an enveloping fog, all making for “an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind.”

Encountering fog and darkness everywhere, Dix finds himself all too adaptable to this new environment. He had "moved more than once in his seven months in California," with the very indefiniteness of the number suggesting his rootlessness. With his interior landscape “dark [and] restless,” all he can do is reduce female lives to his own nagging sense of ruin and insubstantiality, a “pale waste of sand.”

“Waste” aptly describes Steele’s life. A Princeton education had given Dix a sense of entitlement without a commitment to hard work. A monthly check from a stingy uncle back east has been secured through the dubious assurance that he’s hard at work on a mystery novel, and he resides in an apartment complex under equally ambiguous circumstances: a college friend, he tells those interested, who rents him the space while away in South America. 

It will become all too apparent by the end of the novel just how unreliable a central consciousness that Steele represents. But early on, Hughes follows him on the disturbing evening walks where he tracks his victims:

“He didn’t follow her at once. Actually he didn’t intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn't walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid.”

Working within a pulp crime genre dominated by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Hughes subverts reader expectations as much as her novel undercuts Steele’s. Critic Lisa Marie Hogeland notes that Dix never receives an “origin story” to explain his pathology, such as the errant mother that Freudian-influenced psychologists inflicted on a generation of American women. 

Superficially, that might make her protagonist an example of what William Hazlitt, in describing Shakespeare’s villain Iago, memorably termed “motiveless malignity.”

But there is an emptiness inside him that he is unable ever to fill, and his wounded ego lashes out repeatedly in virulent misogyny. Feeling rejected, he thinks: “There wasn’t any girl worth getting upset over. They were all alike, cheats, liars, whores. Even the pious ones were only waiting for a chance to cheat and lie and whore. He’d proved it, he’d proved it over and over again. There wasn’t a decent one among them.”

While the police hunt vainly for this killer who strikes again and again before slinking into the night and fog, the two people who sense something deeply amiss in Dix are women. One is aspiring actress Laurel Grey. Meeting her for the first time by literally bumping into her, Dix is immediately nettled by her cool appraisal: “He stood like a dolt, gawking at her.” She allows Steele to take her to bed, but resolutely resists his attempt at possession.

The other woman is Sylvia, wife of his wartime buddy in England, Brub Nicolai. Even as Brub (now an LAPD detective) searches in frustration for the mysterious strangler, Sylvia senses something amiss about his friend. Her loveliness, reserve, and centrality in Brub’s life simultaneously lure and disturb Dix. This remote object of desire only reinforces his isolation and resentment of all women.

It was only natural that the Ray adaptation of In a Lonely Place became a staple of film noir, because the genre originated in a war that revealed to Americans the evil latent in all human beings, even themselves, and that the men who fought the war came home often unable to express what they had seen to women they had hoped to share their lives with. 

And women, through their entrance into the military-industrial complex in the war (symbolized by Rosie the Riveter), represented, in their rising assertiveness and accomplishment, a new threat to the likes of Dix. Possessing, then repressing, them becomes all the more important. Harvey Weinstein could relate to that feeling.

Seventy years after its original publication and nearly two decades after Hughes, the signs are growing that this lean and haunting suspense novel is receiving its long-deserved appreciation. In addition to its Library of America inclusion, it was also republished over a decade ago by the Feminist Press and this year by New York Review Books Classics.

The new Annette Bening film, Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool, will, one hopes, make casual filmgoers as well as cinephiles hunt down all the movies of the marvelous Gloria Grahame, very much including In a Lonely Place. That, in turn, might make the more curious seek out the original novel that provided Grahame with this entry in film noir. 

All I can say is that my own initial experience reading Hughes made me go the other day to New York’s famous Strand Bookstore and purchase a copy of an earlier suspense novel of hers, The Blackbirder. I can’t wait to start reading it.

Quote of the Day (Albert Camus, on Struggle and Heart)

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." —French novelist, essayist and playwright (and Nobel Literature laureate) Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien (1942)