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Archive for the ‘John Grant’s movie reviews’ Category

by John Grant

US / 31 minutes / bw / Huntington Hartford Dir: James Whale Pr: Huntington Hartford Scr: George W. Tobin Story: Hello Out There! (1941 play, staged 1942) by William Saroyan Cine: Karl Struss Cast: Marjorie Steele, Harry Morgan, Lee Patrick, Ray Teal.

Created as a segment of an anthology feature whose other two segments never got made, Hello Out There is a fairly faithful—perhaps too faithful—adaptation of a William Saroyan one-act play. One odd change (aside from the removal of the exclamation mark from the title) is that the play’s Emily Smith becomes Ethel Smith in the movie.

An itinerant gambler, Photo-Finish (Morgan), is in jail in the small Texas town of Matador, falsely accused of having raped a married woman in the neighboring town of Wheeling. Everyone’s gone home from the jail except the cleaner Ethel Smith (Steele), who cooks for the prisoners whenever there are any. She arrives in response to his incessant calls of “Hello out there!” and an instant bond springs up between the two: “I’m kind of lonesome too,” she says. “Yeah, I’m almost as lonesome as a coyote myself.” (more…)

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by John Grant

A train on the Chicago El clatters past the windows of the Independent News Service (INS). Within, investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is having his millionth stand-up row with his boss, agency manager Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Their problem is that the two men have entirely different worldviews: Kolchak will follow a story to wherever it might lead him, even if he discovers that at its heart lie ghosties or ghoulies or, anyway, something that goes bump in the night. Vincenzo, more pragmatic, just wants some usable copy he can file to head office.

The pair are old adversaries. They met in Las Vegas in The Night Stalker (1972), where Kolchak managed to settle the hash of a vampiric serial killer. Next time their paths crossed was in Seattle, in The Night Strangler (1973), where this time it was a seeker after the elixir of life whose murderous exploits had to be terminated with extreme prejudice. Needless to say, in both instances Kolchak had the adventures and the girl while Vincenzo had the office job and the (apparent) security.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak.

As often happens between old adversaries, they’re in a sense the best of friends. But at the same time they really, really can’t stand each other:

Kolchak: “What don’t you like about this hat?”
Vincenzo: “What’s under it.”
(from #7 “The Devil’s Platform”)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker first aired on ABC in 1974–5, which was fine for US viewers but not so very much use for me, because I lived in the UK at the time. It’s possible that either the BBC or ITV aired it over there soon after its ABC appearance, but my guess is they didn’t. I first became aware of the series in the early to mid-1990s, when it was my job to write a brief entry on each of the two TV movies for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), which I edited with John Clute; the even briefer entry on the series itself was passed along to our TV specialist, Bill Cotter.

So I was surprised to discover, on blitzing through the twenty episodes of the series more recently for the purposes of this countdown, that at some stage I’d watched them before—if not all, then at least most of them.

Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo.

The Kolchak/Vincenzo dynamic is a constant of the series. The series tried hard to build up similarly adversarial relationships for Kolchak with milksop fellow-reporter Ron “Uptight” Updyke (Jack Grinnage) and Monique Marmelstein (Carol Ann Susi), an intern of staggering incompetence employed by Vincenzo because her uncle’s one of the INS’s top management.

“Uptight,” who’s present in almost all the episodes, is merely an irritant for Kolchak, too slight a character to be anything more than verbose office furniture. Monique, on the other hand, represents a challenge to our hero . . . the challenge of how to get her out of his thinning hair whenever events start heating up. The character lasted just three episodes: #2, #3 and #6. (Rather confusingly, she was pitched from the INS at the end of #3 but then reappeared without comment for #6. We have to assume the episodes were aired out of order.)

Jack Grinnage as Ron Updyke.

Carol Ann Susi as Monique Marmelstein.

A further regular character was the elderly Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt); just to confuse matters, (a) “Miss Emily” is sometimes credited as Edith Cowles and (b) McDevitt’s first appearance in the series, in #1, was as a quite unrelated character, an elderly witness to a crime. “Miss Emily,” who sets the puzzles that the agency syndicates to its clients, eagerly aids Kolchak in his various subversive activities, because he’s a nice boy whom someone should take proper care of.

Ruth McDevitt as Miss Emily.

The episodes by and large follow a single format. There’s a murder or series of murders; sometimes an inexplicable disappearance instead. Vincenzo doesn’t think there’s much of a story there; Kolchak’s grizzled old crime-reporterly instincts lead him to think otherwise. There’s at least one knockout beautiful woman involved. The cop in charge of the case is hostile to Kolchak’s interference, but the journalist persists nonetheless—and discovers that the perpetrator of the atrocities is a witch, a werewolf, a ghost, a reincarnated Aztec demigod, a nigh-immortal Jack the Ripper, a visiting extraterrestrial . . . but never, never, never yer average Joe Schmoe human sociopath.

The solution to each case is thus a mindblowing revelation, and would hugely expand humanity’s view of the universe’s fundamental reality if ever it became widely known, but Vincenzo doesn’t believe it and spikes the story and/r the authorities anyway clamp down on it, so the world never learns of it. This reversal does nothing, however, to dampen Kolchak’s world-weary resolution when the next case comes along . . .

From this brief description of the formula, it’s obvious Kolchak: The Night Stalker can be seen as, so to speak, a dry run for the far more successful and better-developed series The X-Files (nine seasons 1993–2002, spinoff tenth and eleventh seasons 2016 and 2018). Chris Carter, the later series’ creator, acknowledged this, and indeed wanted McGavin to appear in The X-Files on a semi-regular basis as an elderly Kolchak. McGavin declined, though he did accept another occasional role, that of Arthur Dales, the supposed progenitor of the titular files.

For a series that has earned such a measure of cult fame, Kolchak: The Night Stalker had a surprisingly brief original run: just a single season of twenty episodes. (The episodes were aired at somewhat random intervals/times, too, which cannot have helped ratings.) A number of further episodes made it to varying stages of production but were left unfinished. Two of these—“Eye of Terror” and “The Get of Belial”—were later adapted as graphic novels by Moonstone Books, as has been the screenplay for a third Kolchak TV movie, developed but, again, never produced: The Night Killers, set in Hawaii, in which invading aliens, Body Snatcher-style, murder important personages and replace them with androids. (You can find the relevant page of the Moonstone Books site here.) Richard Matheson’s screenplay for The Night Killers has appeared from Gauntlet Press alongside those of the two earlier movies.

Two movies were produced by cobbling together episodes of the TV series:

  • Kolchak: Crackle of Death (1974 TVM), combining #6 “Firefall” and #10 “The Energy Eater,” and
  • Kolchak: The Demon and the Mummy (1975 TVM), combining #16 “Demon in Lace” and #17 “Legacy of Terror.”

In Kolchak’s concluding monologue for #20, “The Sentry,” there’s a sense of futility, as if McGavin were acknowledging that this was the end of the line, that the formula had delivered as much as could have been expected from it and indeed rather more: “Don’t walk, run to the nearest exit,” are his final words to us. The rumpled, rebarbative investigative reporter would be absent from our screens—aside from reruns, of course—for another thirty years or so, until the short-lived 2005 series Night Stalker attempted to breathe a new lease of life into him.

That series would, alas, be something of an audience disaster; it was pulled after just six episodes had been aired of the ten that were made. (All ten are available on DVD.) Yet again the Kolchak saga has reached its finish, dying with a whimper rather than a bang.

Or has it?????

As Carl Kolchak would be the first to remind you, death is not necessarily the end . . .

++++++

When Wonders in the Dark’s genial host, Sam Juliano, asked me if I’d like to contribute a piece on Kolchak to the countdown, my first instinct was to say no. I’d already said no to the idea of contributing to the countdown at all, since I’m even less informed about TV than I am about most other things. However, Sam knew how to lure me: sure enough, the thought of revisiting Kolchak proved to be just too tempting to pass up.

And, me being me, and thanks to a publisher pissing me around so that I had a bit of free time where I didn’t expect any, I went a bit over the top. I soon realized I was producing far, far too much stuff for a countdown entry. I decided accordingly to put my accounts of the two Kolchak movies, the twenty Kolchak episodes and the two Kolchak novels as a sort of archive on my own Noirish site, whose owner would be in no position to beef about all the space I was hogging.

You can find those individual discussions as follows:

The Movies

The Night Stalker (1972 TVM)
The Night Strangler (1973 TVM)

The Series Episodes

#1–#4
#5–#8
#9–#12
#13-#16
#17-#20

The Novels

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973) by Jeff Rice
Kolchak: The Night Strangler (1974) by Jeff Rice, based on a screenplay by Richard Matheson

I was hoping to find the time to watch and report on the Night Stalker TV series as well, but then the publisher, breaking with centuries of professional tradition, stopped pissing me around, and since then things have been a bit harum scarum as I try to finish the book in question by what’s now a very tight deadline. Maybe one day . . .

—John Grant

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by John Grant 

charmingly innocent (well, sort of) romp, all done to the music of the Tango!
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US / 16´ 24´´ / bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Pr & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Cine: Mauricio Carvajal
Cast: Matthew Mičetić (Reynold Clifton), Julene Beeson (Natasha Primrose), Jenna Hastreiter (Mabel May), Lilah Wallach (Harem Girl), Jerry Wallach (Genie), Evan Halbert (Natasha’s Genie), Steve Correl, Elango Samy Manin, Julian Prokofiev, Patrick Bledsoe, Carol Hess, Monte Hess, Ted Roe, Christopher Duff, Graham Powrie, Jessica Kimmet

The fifth, last, most ambitious and in my opinion finest of the Tango Silent Films series of short movies made by Joe Leonardo with the participation of various members of the Portland (Oregon) Argentine Tango Community. You can find below details of #1–#4 in the series, plus an ancillary song-short. A recurring backdrop in some of the movies is the Portland center Tango Berretín. The soundtracks to the movies consist of Tango music, plus the whirring of a (supposed) projector. Verisimilitude is enhanced by the use of black-and-white stock, occasional fluctuations in brightness, and of course the performances of the cast.

Pornography has two acts. In the first, set in the Tango Berretín, rich Reynold Clifton (Mičetić) is incensed when trophy spouse/girlfriend Natasha Primrose (Beeson) flirts outrageously to the room. Reynold responds by doing his very best to get into a clinch with alluring barfly Mabel May (Hastreiter). Just before a fight can break out between the two women, Reynold takes Natasha home.

Julene Beeson as Natasha Primrose.

Act two starts with the couple spatting:

Reynold: “Frankly, this conversation is beneath me.”
Natasha: “Well, that’s the only thing that will be beneath you tonight . . .”

She stomps off to bed while he retreats to his study and his stash of vintage cheesecake. As he peruses a photo essay called “The Dance of the Harem Girl” it comes to life in his imagination as a scene of a belly dancer (Lilah Wallach) performing for a genie (Jerry Wallach). This transforms, as Reynold’s fantasies get more feverish, into a scene of Mabel May dancing for him . . .

Jerry Wallach as the Genie.

Jenna Hastreiter as Mabel May.

Matthew Mičetić and Julene Beeson (like Jessica Kimmet, who alas has only a bit part here but stars in others of the series) have brilliantly expressive faces, which makes them perfect pieces of casting for a silent movie; Mičetić in particular can have me chuckling with just the flicker of an eyebrow, while Beeson’s caricature of the incandescently hot superbitch trophy wife offers a wonderful foil.

Matthew Mičetić as Reynold Clifton.

In an email, creator Joe Leonardo explained to me:

“Pornography deals more abstractly [than the earlier movies] with the concept of objectification and fantasy, which still have strong roles in social dancing, though the story itself has the least to do with actual tango dancing.”

Natasha (Julene Beeson) discovers the seductive joys of unadulterated SMUT.

The movie’s attraction for this particular viewer, aside from the humor and the cleverness of the cinematography, is the fact that it’s such an effective piece of fantasy. Yes, of course it echoes the fantasies you’ll find scattered through countless Arabian Nights-style feature movies, not to mention any number of pre-Code and later romantic comedies, and it does so deliberately, but at the same time, because the movie signals its allegiance to two quite different periods, the 1920s (if not before) and the twenty-first century, the fantasy gains an extra layer that gives it a quite surprising impression of freshness.

You can find the Tango Silent Films on YouTube and Vimeo, but a better option is to go to the project’s own site, where you can watch the complete series. A long interview with creator Joe Leonardo on the Oxygen Tango site goes into far more detail about the background to the movies than I have space for here.

 


The Tango Silent Films Series

Although each of the five movies stands on its own (especially Pornography), the fact that they share a number of recurring characters and become progressively more expansive means there’s a lot to be gained by watching them as a set, in order.

Brief notes on the others:

#1: A Christmas Present for Hannah (2009)
US / 10´ 55´´ / bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Pr & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Cast: Joe Leonardo (self)

A circular tale, in that the movie itself is the Christmas gift, made using the camera (in fact a Kodak Brownie or similar) that, within the movie, Hannah leaves for Joe as his Christmas present. According to the Tango site, this was made as “the experimental prototype and template for the Tango Silent Films project.”

Joe Leonardo in A Christmas Present for Hannah.

#2: The Private Lesson (2010)
US / 11´ 25´´ / bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Pr & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Cine: Wayne Williams
Cast: Jessica Kimmet (Patience Trueheart), Jade Luiz (Sadie Bloom), Ted Roe (Rudy Valentine), Julene Beeson (The Two O’Clock)

Two wannabe students of the Tango—the flamboyant Sadie Bloom and the mousier-seeming Patience Trueheart—have been given clashing appointments by dance teacher and lothario Rudy Valentine.

#3: Oh My, What a Night! (2011)
US / 12´ 23´´/ bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Pr & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Cine: Wayne Williams
Cast: Christopher Duff (Buddy St. Cloud), Graham Powrie (Chance Beaumain), Jessica Kimmet (Patience Trueheart), Julene Beeson (Natasha Primrose), Ted Roe (Rudy Valentine), Matthew Mičetić (Reynold Clifton)

Everything conspires tonight at the Tango Berretín to stop the shy Buddy St. Cloud getting a girl to dance with him, and the advice of his pal Chance Beaumain doesn’t help. Fat-walleted Reynold Clifton lures away Buddy’s second preference, Natasha Primrose, while his ideal, Patience Trueheart, seems out of his league. But then . . .

Jessica Kimmet as Patience Trueheart in One, Two, Three!

#4: One, Two, Three! (2012)
US / 13´ 20´´ / bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Pr: Joe Leonardo, Jenna Hastreiter
Cine: Wayne Williams
Cast: Jessica Kimmet (Patience Trueheart), Graham Powrie (Chance Beaumain), Christopher Duff (Buddy St. Cloud), Ted Roe (Rudy Valentine), Jenna Hastreiter (Mabel May)

At Tango practice, pals Chance Beaumain and Buddy St. Cloud have a contest of testosterone to see who gets to dance with the lovely Patience Trueheart. (Ans.: Neither.)

Jade Luiz as Sadie Bloom in Sadie’s Song.

A Tango Silent Films Short: Sadie’s Song (2011)
US / 2´ 30´´/ bw / Tango Silent Films
Dir & Pr & Scr: Joe Leonardo
Cine: Wayne Williams
Cast: Jade Luiz (Sadie Bloom), Graham Powrie (Chance Beaumain), Ted Roe (Rudy Valentine), Matthew Mičetić (Reynold Clifton)

Essentially a song-video, this features Sadie Bloom and three of her admirers.

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Nausicaa - 5 closer

by John Grant

Originally titled Kaze no Tani no Naushika
vt Nausicaä; cut vt Warriors of the Wind
Japan / 117 minutes / color / Topcraft, Toei Dir & Scr: Hayao Miyazaki Pr: Isao Takahata Story: Kaze no Tani no Naushika (1982 onward manga) by Hayao Miyazaki Cine: Yasuhiro Shimizu, Kôji Shiragami, Yukitomo Shudo, Mamoru Sugiura Voice cast: Sumi Shimamoto (Nausicaä), Yoshiko Sakakibara (Kushana), Yôji Matsuda (Asbel), Gorô Naya (Lord Yupa), Ichirô Nagai (Old Mito), Iemasa Kayumi (Kurotawa). Hisako Kyôda (Oh-Baba), Rihoko Yoshida (Teto), Mahito Tsujimura (Jhil), Kôhei Miyauchi (Goru), Jôji Yanami (Gikkuri), Minoru Yada (Niga), Mîna Tominaga (Lastel).

Sometime in the 1990s a friend of mine, the anime expert Andrew Osmond, suggested I should watch Nausicaä. I was skeptical. Although I knew something of Western animation—I’d written my book on Disney animation by then—I’d been unimpressed by the little anime I’d seen, which seemed to rely on cheesy, 1940s-pulp-style SF clichés and upskirt shots of giggling schoolgirls to cater to the onanistic pedophile market. (There are some upskirt shots in Nausicaä; they’re the one element I really dislike about the movie. Later Miyazaki would learn better, and abandon that particular anime tradition.)

You have to remember that the home video explosion was only just beginning, so it was very much harder to achieve the scope of movie watching that we enjoy today. Even so, thanks to a local video library I was able to lay hands on a not particularly stretched VHS of the movie, and settled in with my metaphorical popcorn.

Nausicaä was an eye-opener for me. In technical terms the animation came nowhere close to the standards of the features that I was accustomed to by Disney, Don Bluth et al., but by way of compensation many of the backgrounds were astonishingly beautiful; more than that, the visualization of Princess Nausicaä’s future world was quite stunning.

Nausicaa - 13 A vision of the time that the Ohma stampeded

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by John Grant

“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
|vt 1984

UK / 110 minutes / color with occasional monochrome / Umbrella–Rosenblum, Virgin Dir & Scr: Michael Radford Pr: Simon Perry Story: Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) by George Orwell Cine: Roger Deakins Cast: John Hurt (Winston Smith), Richard Burton (O’Brien), Suzanna Hamilton (Julia), Cyril Cusack (Charrington), Gregor Fisher (Parsons), James Walker (Syme), Roger Lloyd Pack (Waiter), Rupert Baderman (Winston Smith as a Boy), Corinna Seddon (Winston’s Mother), Martha Parsey (Winston’s Sister), Merelina Kendall (Mrs. Parsons), P.J. Nicholas (William Parsons), Lynne Radford (Susan Parsons), Pip Donaghy (Inner Party Speaker), Shirley Stelfox (The Whore), Janet Key (The Instructress), Hugh Walters (Artsem Lecturer), Norman Bacon (Man on Station Platform), Pam Gems (The Washerwoman), John Boswall (Goldstein), Bob Flag (Big Brother).

  • Note 1: Screen credit for the music is to The Eurythmics and Dominic Muldowney; in fact, depending on the version you find, you’ll hear a soundtrack by either one or the other. Radford preferred the Muldowney soundtrack that he’d commissioned and that had been recorded (as do I). Virgin insisted that their current megaband, The Eurythmics, should provide the soundtrack instead, and that was how the movie was released, over Radford’s protests. Since then at least one DVD has carried the original Muldowney soundtrack.
  • Note 2: Cinematographer Deakins deliberately desaturated the color to draw the life out of the images, and this was the way the movie was released. (The screengrabs here are from the desaturated cut.) In some of the home video releases, however, the colors have been resaturated to give a more naturalistic effect. The DVD release with the Muldowney soundtrack is unfortunately one of those with the resaturated colors—aargh!
  • Note 3: It was only after eight weeks of shooting that Burton was cast as O’Brien. It proved to be his last screen role, and the movie is dedicated to his memory.

Nineteen Eighty-Four - 0a

So there was this guy who sat down in front of his computer in New Jersey, stuck his DVD of Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the tray, and set himself to rewatch the movie so he could write about it for the lauded Wonders in the Dark Science Fiction Countdown. (more…)

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WTDW - cinematog b

by John Grant

The British gem ‘Whistle Down the Wind” came very close to making the Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown.  At ‘Noirish’ the renowned John Grant reviewed it magnificently in one of the writer’s greatest essays.

UK / 96 minutes / bw / Beaver, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Bryan Forbes Pr:Richard Attenborough Scr: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Story:Whistle Down the Wind (1959) by Mary Hayley Bell Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Roy Holder, Barry Dean, Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Patricia Heneghan, John Arnatt, Gerald Sim, Elsie Wagstaff, Hamilton Dyce, Howard Douglas, Ronald Hines, Michael Lees, Michael Raghan.

A number of movies have taken as their subject the mythopoeic tendencies of young minds, whereby they can generate fantastical explanations for misunderstood events, or even their own spiritualities—their own mythologies and religions, in fact. The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the 1954 William Golding novel, is the example that usually springs most readily to mind; others include The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Celia (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and, arguably, The Babadook (2014). First on the scene, though, and in my view the most effective of all of these—certainly the most poignantly beautiful—is Whistle Down the Wind.

In a small Lancastrian community, the three children of the Bostock farm—Kathy (Mills), Nan (Holgate) and the youngest, Charles (Barnes)—save a trio of kittens, the latest litter of farm cat Dusty, from being drowned in a sack by feckless farmhand Eddie (Bird). Charles tries to fob off one of the kitten on first his pal Jackie Greenwood (Holder) and then a Salvation Army street evangelist (Heneghan). The latter tells him that she can’t take the proffered kitten but that she’s sure Jesus will look after it. From this casual statement flows much later confusion.

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In_a_Lonely_Place_-_1

by John Grant

US / 93 minutes / bw / Santana, Columbia Dir: Nicholas Ray Pr: Robert Lord Scr: Edmund H. North, Andrew Solt Story: In a Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes Cine: Burnett Guffey Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart, Robert Warwick, Morris Ankrum, William Ching, Steven Geray, Hadda Brooks, Jack Reynolds, Ruth Gillette, Alix Talton, Lewis Howard, Don Hamin.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s psychological thriller In a Lonely Place (1947) is one of those marvelous novels that make the hardboiled pulp literature of the 1940s and 1950s such a rich trove for lovers of what one might call vernacular literature. Its central character is a serial strangler called Dixon “Dix” Steele. He has murdered the tenant of the apartment in which he now dwells—and he’s living off the dead man’s allowance—but most of his murders are sex killings. To the world, and to his old army buddy Brub Nicolai, now a cop, he pretends he’s a wildly talented upcoming writer; like so many such, he never in fact writes anything. Against all the odds, he strikes up a passionate relationship with the redhead who lives in a neighboring apartment, Laurel Gray. What he doesn’t know is that she has recognized the cigarette lighter she gave to the man he killed; with Brub, Brub’s wife Sylvia and Brub’s boss, Captain Lochner, she works to bring the serial killer to justice . . .

To aficionados of the 1950 Nick Ray movie, the names will seem familiar and likewise some of the circumstances, but the whole basis of the plot disturbingly different, as if Hughes had capriciously thrown together the elements of the movie and made something willfully other out of them. Of course, the reality is the other way round; but the movie has become so very much more a part of the popular consciousness than the half-forgotten novel that it has come to dominate our perceptions of what’s the “right” version. (more…)

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