The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, translated and edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub (2017). The complete works and then some – this volume contains not only the ten “books” Caesar wrote about the Gallic Wars and the civil war he fought with Pompey, but also four other books about Caesar’s campaigns that were written by other authors. The translation is very readable (I’m in no position to judge its accuracy), and the stories are generally quite interesting. Sure, I occasionally got lost among the many proper names for places, tribes, and people I’d never heard of before, but I didn’t sweat that. One thing was a hoot – Caesar mentions the two soldiers at the center of the HBO miniseries Rome, by name, for their courage during a particular battle in the Gallic Wars! They were real people! Anyway, this edition is a massive chunk of a book because it contains lots of introductions, footnotes, maps, pictures, and appendices. I read the introductions and lots of the footnotes, and they added a lot to the stories. If you’re into the swords-and-sandals genre of history, this is a must-have.
The 39 Steps (B). Well, I intended to see a movie at the theater today, but I got some bad information from the internet and wound up seeing nothing. So I decided to get some use out of my DVD collection and pulled down The Criterion Collection edition of this 1935 Hitchcock thriller. Robert Donat (Goodbye Mr. Chips) stars as Hannay, an ordinary Londoner caught up in a web of intrigue when he takes a beautiful woman back to his flat one evening and she turns out to be a spy—and gets herself murdered that very night! Suddenly, Hanney is on the run—wanted by the police on suspicion of murder and by sinister spies who are trying to steal British military secrets. On a train to Scotland he has a meet-cute with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, Secret Agent), and they later team up to try to foil the foreign plot. The film is not terribly suspenseful but has some pleasant romantic-comedy aspects to it. And at 86 minutes, it’s quite efficient. I didn’t watch all the extras that Criterion packed onto the disc, but a short feature about Hitchcock’s film career in England before moving to Hollywood was interesting, and a critic’s discussion of The 39 Steps itself was also interesting and entertaining.
The Movie Snob checks in with a new review of an old movie.
Gaslight (B+). This 1942 classic stars the beauteous Ingrid Bergman (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as Paula Alquist. In the opening scene, we see a very young Paula being escorted away from the London townhome where she has just discovered the body of her murdered aunt (her guardian since birth). Flash forward a few years, and Paula is living in Italy. She has followed in her aunt’s footsteps by studying music and singing, but we learn she has just been swept off her feet by a debonair foreigner named Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer, Fanny). Anton is strangely eager to move to London, and into the townhouse Paula inherited from her aunt. And once they are ensconced there, Paula seems to start to lose her grip on her sanity, and Gregory becomes ever more controlling. What is happening? Straight-arrow Scotland Yard detective Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten, The Third Man) senses something is amiss, but can he figure it out in time to help Paula? I quite enjoyed this classic old noir. Watch for a young Angela Lansbury (TV’s Murder, She Wrote) as a saucy housemaid.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (originally published 1927). I had never read any of Willa Cather’s work before, but I found this novel very moving and very beautiful. In the mid-1800s, the United States is consolidating its control over the area that would eventually become the State of New Mexico. The Catholic Church responds to these developments by sending a new missionary bishop to take charge of the area—a Frenchman named Jean Marie Latour. His life-long friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, accompanies him, and together the two clerics (who had previously been toiling in the mission fields of Ohio) experience the beauty and the mystery of the southwestern desert and its Mexican and Indian inhabitants. Michael Dirda sums it up well: “The most serenely beautiful of [Cather’s] books, it seems scarcely a novel at all, more a kind of New World pastoral, evoking the beauty of the desert Southwest, lamenting the passing of traditional Native culture, and glorifying the lives of two saintly Catholic missionaries as they spread their faith in a harsh land.” (Classics for Pleasure 255.) For my part, I add this book to Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited as my favorite “Catholic” novels.
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I had never read this famous book before, but when I signed up for a vacation trip to Amsterdam I figured I should read it first. I got about halfway through before my trip rolled around, but that was enough to help give me some context when I visited the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam. I finished the book over the course of the trip. Anyway, it is an interesting book, and Anne comes across as a lively, spirited, and strong-willed teenager. It does get a little repetitive, perhaps, but how could it not, given that Anne lived in hiding in a tiny space with the same group of people for two years?
Five Easy Pieces (C). I caught this 1970 release at the Magnolia this past Tuesday night, knowing really nothing about it except that it starred Jack Nicholson and featured a famous scene in which his character tries to order toast at a diner. It’s okay, but I didn’t think it was so great. Nicholson (The Shining) plays Bobby Dupea, a malcontent who works on oil rigs somewhere in California and is generally rude to his countrified waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black, Nashville). What’s eating him? Well, you find out about halfway through the movie that he has fled a more genteel life, and he decides to go back to the family home in Washington state and see his father, who has had a debilitating stroke. He doesn’t fit in there any better than he does among the commoners. Movies about misfits aren’t really my thing, so I didn’t particularly warm up to this one. Watch for small roles for Sally Struthers (TV’s All in the Family) and Toni Basil (singer of the pop gem “Mickey”). It was nominated for four Oscars®, including best picture, best actor (Nicholson), and best supporting actress (Black), and it’s only 98 minutes long, so check it out and see if you agree with me.
Bonnie and Clyde (B+). I recently got to see a special screening of this 1967 release, directed by Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker) and starring Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy) and Faye Dunaway (Chinatown). It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was still very interesting and entertaining. Beatty and Dunaway play Depression-era outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The fellow who hosted the screening said the movie should be considered “historical fiction,” but, if wikipedia is any guide, one thing this film gets right is that the Barrow Gang didn’t hesitate to shoot people, even (or especially) police officers, who got in their way. It was considered an unusually violent and graphic movie back in the day, and I thought it was still a little shocking at times. I was also shocked to see Denver Pyle in a small supporting role. I knew him only from TV’s Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and especially The Dukes of Hazzard; I didn’t know that he had ever been an actor. It also co-stars Gene Hackman (Heartbreakers), Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) in his film debut, and a kid named Michael J. Pollard who had recently appeared in the original Star Trek episode “Miri.” It’s one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies.” Definitely worth seeing, unless you really don’t like shoot-em-ups.