Category Archives: Books about film

Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio

“She has the manner of a schoolgirl and the eyes of a sorceress.” Cecil B. Demille describing Gloria Grahame.

Gloria Grahame is one of my all-time favourite film noir actresses. She first came to my attention in The Big Heat–one of my all-time favourite noir films. Unfortunately, as with many actresses of her day, her time in the limelight was short, and fans are left feeling shortchanged that Grahame never really made it to that rare coveted spot of the Hollywood Big Time. Don’t get me wrong, Gloria didn’t do badly, and she rose through the ranks, and through the horrible studio contract system to deliver some excellent performances.

For me, Gloria faded into obscurity sometime in the late 50s, but after reading her biography Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio, I now know that Grahame’s career didn’t end when Hollywood lost interest. She had an extensive career in television and theatre and although she no longer commanded the big bucks contracts, the work was pretty steady–so much so that she left 100,000 to be divided amongst her four children when she died in 1981 at the age of 57.

Curcio’s book is considered the definitive bio on Gloria, and as far as I know it’s the only one–although Gloria’s one-time lover, Peter Turner wrote an account of Gloria’s last days called Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Curcio acknowledges that Gloria was “mysterious and enigmatic.” In writing a bio, those qualities make for a difficult, if intriguing, subject. For the bulk of the book, I didn’t feel as though I had a handle on just who Gloria was, and what made her tick. She remained a mystery through her rise and her fall, her explosive marriages and divorces to Stanley Clements, Cy Howard, Nick Ray, and finally Nick Ray Jr. (the son of her third husband). While the author does an excellent job of charting her career through her films, sometimes the lack of personal details is frustrating and also–since this is a bio–surprising. For example, in one section of the book the author details the pinnacle of Gloria’s film career, which he identifies as 1952-1956. During this productive time, Gloria starred as Irene Neves in Sudden Fear. While the author details how Joan Crawford was talked into accepting Jack Palance as her leading man, and how Crawford couldn’t stand to see Gloria on the set, the reason behind Crawford’s antagonism–the fact that Gloria was having an affair with Palance is mentioned as a minor aside. Now considering that Gloria was at the time married (but separated) from Nick and dating Cy Howard, the affair with Palance would have had some impact on her relationship with Howard, but there’s no idea or speculation if this off-screen affair was normal behaviour for Gloria or an aberration. The author also makes the point that Gloria was very attracted to Sterling Hayden and that during the filming of Naked Alibi, she made some strong overtures towards Hayden which pretty much scared him off–again this is mentioned, and while I began to wonder if this co-star/lover trend was a theme with Gloria, this point is never examined in the book.

Similarly Gloria’s affair with stepson Nick Jr. is downplayed, and then there’s a mention of how she traveled to England and opened a suitcase full of “every Technicolour pill you could dream of.” What does this mean? But the subject is never explored. I was left wondering if Gloria had drug problems, but unfortunately the subject is not addressed.

The book is at its strongest when analyzing Gloria’s career, and the author includes an excellent analysis of why she never became a star: “She was offbeat, both in her beauty and her acting, and producers never were sure what to do with her.” Also included are details about how she fought for some roles which she never got while others fell into her lap simply because everyone turned them down.

But when the book covers Gloria’s character, it’s at its weakest. I get the impression that perhaps the subject eluded the author in many ways or perhaps he just didn’t want to focus on the sensational stuff. Curcio discusses Gloria’s lifelong tinkering with her looks through endless (sometimes botched plastic surgery) and her glaring insecurities, but then at other points the jury is out for such intriguing issues as Gloria’s possible naiveté/love affairs. Additional analysis of some of these behaviours would really have added to the book’s depth. It’s certainly okay for any bio subject to remain an enimga, but there are some issues hinted at in the book which are frustratingly not explored. The book sometimes goes back and forth in time rather than stick to a strict chronology, which confuses matters a bit.

Funnily enough, when the book moved on to Gloria’s post-Hollywood career, there are more anecdotes from co-workers and it’s at this point that a fuller, less distant impression of Gloria begins to appear. In her final illness, her toughness comes through loud and clear. Her final illness remains a bit of a mystery: was she in denial about the seriousness of her cancer or was this just a coping mechanism? I think there are arguments both ways on this one, but one thing is for certain, she most definitely grasped the idea of the futility of surgery, so no one was about to convince her otherwise.

One thing–the book’s synopsis of Naked Alibi is incorrect. The book states that Joe Conroy (Sterling Hayden) is “taken off the force for almost strangling” Al Willis (Gene Barry). That’s not correct. Hayden is fired for an incriminating photo snapped by an enterprising photographer. The photo, due to the angle and the circumstances, makes it look as though Conroy means Al Willis harm, when in reality he’s trying to stop Al stumbling into an oven.

All in all, in spite of its shortcomings, this book is a must read for any fan, and thanks to the book, I am now inspired to hunt through my Tales of the Unexpected DVDS and find the episodes in which Gloria starred.

Finally, I wanted to include this quote from the book because I think it nails Gloria’s on-screen mystery.
Peter James:

“She had a terrible way of appearing to be totally absent from anywhere, which is probably the very thing that made her a star in the films; she put a peculiar kind of distance between her and what was happening at the moment. This disengaged quality about her in films is what made her unique. There was a kind of loneliness about Gloria, and in a way, her greatest acting moments were lonely moments.”

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Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works. Scripts, Stills, Documents

“They are the most important radical films ever made.”

Guy DeBord founded the Situationist Internationale–a subversive group that was a formidable contributing factor to the May 1968 revolt in Paris. Although Debord may be more famous for his ever-pertinent, radical book The Society of the Spectacle, Debord also wrote & directed six films that were withdrawn from circulation at his request in the 80s. Following Debord’s death from suicide in 1994, his widow, Alice Debord authorized a re-release of her husband’s work. The book, Guy Debord: Complete Cinematic Works is edited and translated by Ken Knabb, an acknowledged expert on Situationist theory and author of Public Secrets. Knabb’s introduction provides a brief–but solid overview of Debord’s philosophy–including “detournement”–“the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes.” Knabb’s introduction is then followed by the scripts with accompanying scene direction and voice over for Debord’s six films:

Howls for Sade (this film is all blank–with no screen images)
On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time
Critique of Separation
The Society of the Spectacle
Refutation of All Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film The Society of the Spectacle
In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

Accompanying the film scripts are several black & white stills taken from the films, and then follows a number of articles about the films and Situationist theory. Finally, the book includes a section of notes on the films, a chronology of Debord’s life, a filmography, a list of “unrealized film projects”, an index, and an all-important bibliography for further reading. This bibliography very specifically recommends some books for Situationist information while referring to others as a poor source–this is extremely helpful. Debord’s films may never be accessible–we can hardly expect them to pop up on cable any day soon, so the scripts become a valuable tool in understanding Situationist theory, and the book’s layout ensures at least a representation of Debord’s films.

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Jean Vigo by P.E. Salles Gomes

“He had succeeded in introducing subversive elements into film.”

French director Jean Vigo produced just a handful of largely reviled films during his brief lifetime, and yet now, more than 70 years after his death, film historians agree that Vigo made a considerable contribution to the industry. It’s taken a long time to get this sort of acknowledgment. It’s an acknowledgment that Vigo certainly didn’t get before he died at age 29. During his lifetime, according to Brazilian film critic and historian P.E. Salles Gomes, Vigo was ignored and dismissed as a filmmaker, and quite possibly some of the reason for this can be found in Jean Vigo’s troubled past.

Salles Gomes’ book Jean Vigo includes a chapter on Vigo’s parents, and this is an essential subject, since Vigo’s father was anarchist Miguel Almeyreda (an anagram of y’a (de) la merde–“there is shit”). Almeyreda–whose real name was Eugene Bonaventure de Vigo began living in Paris on his own as a teenager, and after a short stint in prison, Almeyreda firmly nested with the Parisian anarchist community. Almeyreda co-founded the radical paper, La Guerre Sociale. According to Salles Gomes, in 1912, Almeyreda appeared to abandon his anarchist beliefs. He became a socialist, lived in a private mansion surrounded by servants and began La Bonnet Rouge. The author cautions, however, that some of the stories about Almeyreda appear at the very least exaggerated, and acknowledges that it’s impossible to sort the facts out without the “distortions of political polemics.” Within a few years, Almeyreda became involved in a political scandal and was murdered in jail.

After his father’s murder, Jean Vigo’s relatives were forced to shield the child from scandal–hence the name change back to Vigo. One chapter provides great detail about Vigo’s short, difficult life after his father’s murder. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that his childhood experiences infiltrated his films, but it’s uncertain how much Vigo’s parentage affected the treatment of his films: A Propos de Nice (1929), Taris, Roi de l’eau (1931) Zero de Conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934). During his lifetime, Vigo’s films–with their anarchist vision–were considered subversive and dangerous. A Propos de Nice contained “revolutionary ideology,” Zero de Conduite with its anti-authoritarian message was banned, and L’Atalante was renamed and chopped to pieces by the distributors during Vigo’s final illness. Salles Gomes argues that certain myths arose around Vigo’s films. For example, it was generally thought that the censors ripped L’Atalante to shreds, but Gaumont films was responsible for eviscerating Vigo’s last film.

The book provides superior analysis of Vigo’s films and includes many, many quotes from film critics of the times. One paragraph of the book even includes a list of the key words used in newspaper and magazine articles that described Zero de Conduite in the year 1933. Another section covers the “critical success and impact of Vigo’s films.” Also included are many black and white photographs, an index, a filmography, and a section of notes and references. If you are at all interested in Jean Vigo, his life, and his films, this book is an invaluable, thorough, well-researched, and highly recommended source.

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Red by Robert Laguardia and Gene Arceri

“The geography of ambition and love delayed, though not wholly denied.”

Red, a biography of Susan Hayward written by Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri takes the reader from this phenomenal actress’s poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn to her premature death from cancer at the age of 57. The authors weave together glimpses of Susan from many sources–friends, fellow actors and actresses and her long-estranged sister, Florence. Red paints a portrait of a woman of contrasts. Loathed by some fellow actors who considered her ‘cold’, we also see flashes of a woman who showed instances of remarkable kindness.

Susan Hayward was born as Edythe Marrenner in 1917 in Brooklyn, and grew up in the shadow of her glamorous older sister, Florence. Susan sustained and overcame a horrible, potentially crippling childhood injury. Showing tremendous strength of purpose, and remarkable willpower, Susan overcame considerable obstacles to become a model. She landed in Hollywood to screen test for Gone With The Wind.

Reading about Susan’s acting career illustrates just how bad the studio system was for actors and actresses. They all coveted contracts but then once they had a contract they were stuck, and talent certainly didn’t guarantee roles. Susan, groomed by her loyal agent Benny Medford, a man who stubbornly believed in Susan when no one else did, landed a contract with Warner Bros but was later dropped. She then signed with Paramount but managed to alienate studio heads with her outspoken public comments and complaints about her lack of roles. The studio subsequently withheld film roles as a punishment. Susan eventually managed to gain the recognition she so justly deserved with such films as: I’ll Cry Tomorrow, With a Song in My Heart, Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, and I Want to Live, but in spite of these phenomenal successes, under contract to 20th Century Fox, Susan’s fame and talent were used to bolster the studio’s stinkers.

The book charts Susan’s personal life: her two marriages and her climb to success, and a suicide attempt. The final section of the book makes for difficult reading due to the subject matter: Susan’s struggle with alcohol, her illness, and death.

On the negative side, I don’t think enough credit was given to her early deprivation. Susan came from a very poor background, and I don’t think that was really addressed when comments appear about how “cheap” she was when it came to spending money. A great deal of the information about Susan comes from Florence, and the book makes it clear that there wasn’t much love lost between the sisters. Florence at one point notes that things were so bad at Susan’s home when she was married to first husband Jess Barker that their twin sons packed suitcases to leave (before Nov. 1947). For the time frame given the twins would have been 2-3 years old, so the packing of cases seems somewhat unlikely. These sorts of points are unchallenged by the authors. You can ask 100 people their opinions about someone they all know, and you are going to get 100 different answers. The book doesn’t address some of the apparently conflicting information about her. Why for example, did some people love working with Susan while others did not? Why did she apparently have problems with inter-personal relationships?

That said, Red, is an highly readable book that offers an account of Susan’s life–its triumphs and its tragedies. There are a lot of details here for any reader interested in understanding Susan’s career, and I particularly enjoyed reading the information regarding Susan’s favorite photograph of herself. It seems ironic that at first the biggest criticism of Susan’s acting ability was that she was unable to show emotion: “She has no heart.” But Susan worked intensely to overcome that and during the course of her career she delivered some of the most memorable and emotional performances ever in the history of Hollywood. The book details the enormous price she paid while throwing herself into her greatest roles. This is a portrait of a woman who was at times her own worst enemy–a woman who desperately wanted to be liked and loved but who often inadvertently alienated those closest to her. The book includes an index and a filmography of this remarkable star.

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Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth by Philip Core

 “They repelled them, not with knuckle dusters or karate chops but with hand-bags.”

As the preface to Camp: The Lie that Tells The Truth explains, this book is a “Who’s Who and a What’s What” of Camp. The section “Camp Rules” is followed by a splendid introduction and explanation of Camp by author Philip Core. The substantive section of the book takes an encyclopedic approach to the subject. Entries range from personalities–famous, infamous, and long forgotten, to films, and even patterns (Zebra print is the Camp “battle flag”). It’s easy for any lover of Camp (me) to go through these pages and discover hideous omissions–in my case, I’m devastated by the absence of director John Waters. While JW’s muse–Divine–claims an entry, JW–the maniacal genius behind many camp films–is missing. Since director Doris Fishman is also absent, I can only conclude that the book’s emphasis in on Camp cultural icons–rather than Camp films. So if you’re looking for a definitive book on Camp film, this is not it.

While some of the entries are notorious amongst Camp lovers (Danny La Rue, Dame Edna Everage), many of the entries here offer new horizons of exploration (the obscure Dancing Marquess of Anglesey, for example). There’s a generous bibliography to guide Camp addicts for further reading, and gorgeous black and white photographs are scattered throughout the text. If you’re a Camp lover like me, this book is well worth adding to your shelf, and the author’s witty tongue in cheek style make every entry a pleasure to read.

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Trash Trio: Three Screenplays: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and Flamingos Forever by John Waters

“I’d like to report a lewd and disorderly party.”

I’m a John Waters fan. I love his films, and to me, one of the very best things about a Waters film is the dialogue. Those funny lines come fast and furiously. Sometimes I’m so busy laughing at one line, that I miss the next one. The book Trash Trio is the answer for me. Here in print–at last–are the immortal scripts of Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living and Flamingos Forever. The latter script is especially valuable, for as fans know all too well, Flamingos Forever was never made (sob). But now there is no reason to mourn–for here I can drool over every nasty word to my heart’s content. In fact, I’ve highlighted my favourite lines and plan to memorize them for special occasions.

Included in the book are–not one–but TWO–yes, let’s count them people–TWO introductions by the master himself–John Waters. One introduction was written in 1996, and the other was written in 1998. Waters mulls over the cast for a remake of Pink Flamingos, and he also explains why he never made Flamingos Forever.

Each of the scripts contains a cast list, and scene directions–along with treasured photographs of the many memorable moments from each film. As much as this pains me to admit it, John Waters is not for everyone–but for Waters fans, this book brings hours of enjoyment and many filthy memories.

Now I have no excuse to forget these immortal words:

“Filth is my politics, filth is my life!”
“Tell her this isn’t some communist day-care centre.”
“After Divine is humiliated and destroyed, Maryland will be ours!”
“She’ll be a heroine–even to non-filthy people.”

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The Real Bettie Page: The Truth About the Queen of Pinups by Richard Foster

“She was always a very, very intense person.”

Bettie Page is an icon–no argument about that. In Richard Foster’s book, The Real Bettie Page, the author reveals the unknown history of the 50s pin-up model. Bettie’s career was sadly all too brief, but many outstanding photographs and films remain. Bettie Page’s unstable and unhappy childhood was fraught with poverty. She always dreamed of being an actress and stumbled accidentally into modelling in 1950. Initially posing for photography groups, Bettie soon became an extremely popular model for amateur photographers. In the early 50s, Bettie began working for Irving Klaw, and together they produced such classics as Teaserama and Jungle Girl Tied to Trees. An FBI investigation of Klaw’s business put an end to the relationship between Bettie and Klaw–and Bettie’s brief modelling career ended as she sank into oblivion.

Foster’s book brings Bettie Page back into the public eye, but I would probably guess that she wouldn’t be too thrilled about it. Foster tracks Bettie’s religious conversation and an almost 20 year odyssey through mental institutions for numerous charges (including attempted murder). It really doesn’t make for pretty reading, and after reading the book, I was left with a feeling of overwhelming sadness.

Bettie Page was a very controversial figure in the 50s, and yet her relationships with men were really rather unremarkable. While she was married 3 times, she turned down many offers to the ‘casting couch’–even though she was quite aware that she had the opportunity to ‘advance’ her career. I would imagine that the author’s exhaustive research would have uncovered all of Bettie’s lovers–and again, the 50s goddess had remarkably few.

At the end of the book, the author has included numerous Bettie Page websites, and a “Catalogue of Curves”–a list which includes the films Bettie made, books about Bettie, and Bettie Page magazines layouts. The Real Bettie Page also includes many photographs of Bettie too. Foster spends some time weighing the possibilities that Bettie posed for “additional shots,” and there is some significance to this question as certain shots would be judged obscene by 1950s FBI standards. The author weighs evidence for and against these additional shots and other career-related rumours. It seems such a tragedy that Bettie profited so little from her work. Foster admires Bettie Page–that’s clear, and the creation of the book was no simple task. But the book isn’t a homage, it’s an expose, and a fascinating read for fans.

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Dark City: The Lost Films of Noir by Eddie Muller

“We’re sisters under the mink.”

A few years ago, I read an article in the newspaper about the SF 2004 Film Noir Festival. It sounded like the sort of thing I would love to go to, but long hours in the salt mine just wipe out that sort of entertainment for me. Eddie Muller, the author of Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir was interviewed in the story, and he also hosts the annual film festival. I really liked what he said about the genre. As a result of the article (and my inability to attend the festival), I ordered his book.

I was aware–vaguely–of the meaning of the term film noir. I had a sense of what it was all about. But, after reading this book, I can say that the amount I knew about film noir only scratched the surface of this absolutely fascinating subject. While I was aware of many of the ‘big’ titles–Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice for example, I had simply no idea that so many B titles existed. This invaluable book gave me many leads to look into. I have to add, though, that I am horrified at how many titles are no longer available.

Muller writes in a hard-boiled detective style, and this complements the genre. Muller’s book is divided into chapters that are organized thematically. The chapter, Vixenville, for example, concentrates on some of the female film noir stars and covers some of the more infamous female roles in the genre. The book is also loaded with short bios of many of the stars–including Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Grahame, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Gene Tierney, and Rita Hayworth. Also included are brief overview of the careers and influence of some of the film noir novelists (Cain & Raymond Chandler)–along with many behind-the-scene anecdotes. While examining the careers of some of those involved in the world of film noir, Muller also touches on the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its impact on Hollywood. Muller also offers his theory of how film noir began and how it ended.

Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir is an oversized book–complete with many gorgeous photographs, a poster gallery, an index (and believe me, you’ll use it) as well as a bibliography. This really isn’t a book that you can sit down and read cover-to-cover in one sitting. It’s a resource to return to repeatedly.

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1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Jay Schneider

Absolutely priceless film guide

I received a copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die for my birthday, and it was truly an inspired gift. I love foreign films, and recently went on a film noir bender. I have a list of favourite directors, and I make a point of trying to seek out films I’ve heard of–even if they’re not available as rentals. I buy an annual video film guide faithfully every year, but I still have this sneaking suspicion that there are many great films out there that I’m missing. The book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die proved my suspicions to be correct–I have missed many great titles.

This book is a marvelous resource for film lovers. The editor states that it’s “a book that seeks not just to inform and to prescribe, but to motivate.” The contributors began selecting films by taking “a close look at a number of existing ‘greatest,’ ‘top,’ ‘favorite,’ and ‘best’ film lists and prioritizing titles based on the frequency with which they occurred.” At the front of the book, films are indexed by genre. In the ‘meat’ of the book, the films are in chronological order (beginning with 1902 and ending in 2002). Film information includes: country of origin, language, director, producer, screenplay, director of photography, main stars, Hollywood awards, and international awards. Each film entry includes a plot synopsis, and gorgeous photographs complement the text. Contributors include professors of Film Studies, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and doctoral students. There’s a wide range of expertise here, and it truly shows. And for those who want to search by title, there’s a complete title index at end.

I am really impressed by the range of the selections here–including–classics, foreign, documentaries, comedies, horrors, and musicals. While I was happy to see I’d watched many of the titles here, I was shocked at the number of films I’ve never heard of. Believe me, I’m going to remedy that. I heartily recommend this book to all film lovers who–like me–are sick and tired of going to the video rental place and renting the same old rotten mush. Film lovers–this book is for you.

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The McGuffin by John Bowen

 “If one were not obsessed with film one would go mad.”

The McGuffin by John Bowen may seem to be a bit out of place on a film blog, but this is a book written for film lovers. Divorced, middle-aged film reviewer, Paul Hatcher watches at least 5 films a week that are not “one’s own choice” but whatever is playing. His reviews appear in a small, quietly fading magazine, and he teaches a film class once a week. His life is one of incredible self-restraint and routine built around watching fictional lives on screen. One night he is uncannily reminded of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”–a frail elderly woman whose windows face his seems to be terrified of her sudden guests–a younger woman and a large Alsatian dog. As Paul catches a glimpse of his elderly neighbour, he decides to find an excuse to go over and investigate.

A few weeks later, the old woman is found beaten to death and the younger woman–who is actually a man in disguise–commits suicide. Paul feels sorry for the dog, Bonzo, and takes her home. Suddenly, Paul’s quiet life is turned upside down; he’s the subject of intense police scrutiny, he’s tailed, and his flat is searched and bugged.

The McGuffin is an amazingly well written, nice, tight little mystery, and the film allusions laced throughout the novel will appeal to film buffs. What makes this book such a delight, however, is the marvelous character of Paul Hatcher and the way he thinks. He describes himself unsympathetically and ruefully as a failed novelist and “conscientious and obsessed reviewer of other people’s work.” Looking at the bare bones structure of his life, he seems to be a settled creature–unwilling to step out of his rut and interrupt his routine. But Paul is full of surprises, and when he becomes embroiled in this mess, he reveals a logical, methodical approach to his dilemma that is both dangerous and admirable. A less skilled writer would lose control of this intricate plot, but Bowen keeps a firm hand over his narrative through Paul’s character. Another delightful aspect to the novel is the relationship that develops between Paul and Bonzo–Paul is a man without responsibilities who assumes the care of the dog when she’s stranded, and as the plot thickens, so does their relationship.

The book’s title The McGuffin refers to a term used by Hitchcock to describe “the object in any film which gave his characters their motive for action.” Hitchcock even makes a brief–but significant–appearance in the text as a disapproving bystander at a film festival in Liechtenstein. Hitchcock fans will recognize Paul Hatcher as a perfect Hitchcock character, and the riveting plot of this amazingly visual novel should make an incredibly good film. There is a film version of this book, but it sadly does not match the calibre of the novel. Oh well….

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