Sunday, August 08, 2010

The week's best bit

"Begg was a freckled heavyweight, as friendly as a Saint Bernard puppy, but less intelligent. Lanky detective sergeant Hacken, not so playful, carried the team's brains behind his worried hatchet face.

"`In a hurry?' I inquired.

"`Always in a hurry when we're quitting for the day,' Begg said, his freckles climbing up his face to make room for his grin.

"`What do you want?' Hacken asked."

— Dashiell Hammett, "The Main Death"
I could write lots about that selection, but I'll let you do my work for me. Why do you think the passage works?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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56 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

It works because it's good. Interaction between two people and enough said about both of them, to get the dynamic.

And then one wants to know what happens with the rest of the discussion between them and who goes where and why.

I've only read "The Maltese Falcon," by Hammett. Is this written the same way, in that sparse, terse style?

I could read this.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

It's an effective establishing shot: giving us their looks & their relationship in a clever way in less than a hundred words.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Patti nailed it (as usual). He tells us all we really need to know about both of them, and then has their dialog seal the deal. Very concise, not a word wasted, but nothing we need is left out, either.

Oh yeah, and the mortar of genius holds all the words together. Analyze Mozart's music, and he did the same things most of his contemporaries were doing, but his music will live forever and their was forgotten the next morning. There are some human qualities that can be far more easily identified than described.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

for me that opening paragraph is enough; it not only describes the two protagonists, beautifully, and succinctly, but pretty much tells you how their conversation, such as it will be, is going to develop.
'Brevity is the soul of wit', indeed.

btw, Peter, I'd love a bigger scan of that cover for my desk-top!

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, before I proceed with the discussion, I saw Fergie at a picnic yesterday. Unfortunately it had been so long since you mentioned that your brother knew him that I had forgotten your brother's name. But I have since looked up the name and forwarded it to Fergie, and I'll let you know when he writes back.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I know Pat regularly frequented Fergie's various hostelries so I'm sure he'll probably remember him!

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, yes. Hammett efficiently conveys the two officers' contrasting personalities. And yes, the style is typical of the story, though I think Hammett emphasized it particularly in this excerpt, from the story's opening paragraph, to grab readers' attention. That's a good thing to do at the beginning of a story.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, the movie metaphor is especially apt in this case. The passage is as efficient as a brief but telling establishing shot.

You, I or anyone else might enjoy an actor's expressive face in a close-up or two-shot, but could we describe it as well as Hammett did: "...his freckles climbing up his face to make room for his grin."?

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There are some human qualities that can be far more easily identified than described.

Or, you know it when you see it. It worked for Potter Stewart with obscenity, and it works for me with noir. Any number of writers have set up a contrast between cops like that, but how many have done so that well, either before Hammett did it in 1927 or since?

"`What do you want?' Hacken asked." effectively conveys, in its literal meaning and in its sharp rhythm, the contrast between the two characters. Those last two paragraphs convey their meaning not just through literal sense, but through contrasting rhythm. Yep, Hammett was a kind of Mozart, at least for the time it took him to write this opening.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, another thing about this opening (part of the opening scene, in fact, though not the story's very first words):

Think about the characters' names: Begg, for the happy, Saint Bernard-like character, evoking a dog happily performing tricks for its master, and Hacken, with its swift, harsh first syllable for the cop with the hatchet face. Hammett pulled that off rather smoothly, I think.

I found that cover by accident; I had looked for a scan of the cover of my edition of the book but could find no good ones.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Agreed: the names were very well-chosen.
I wonder how much thought went it it, though?

btw, I see the 'word verification' prompts have returned, but at least they seem to be much shorter, these days

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I'm trying to figure out what combination of security measures is best at combatting unwanted comments.

I don't know if Hammett's process was all that deliberate; maybe he (or his editor) just thought the names sounded good. But why those particular names? Whether they knew it or not, Hammett and Joseph Shaw had good ears.

It may be noteworthy that those characters play minor roles. Such label names on a protagonist might have been a bit much. Hell, the Continental Op had no name at all.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

kafkaesque, perhaps?
"the Continental Op had no name at all".


btw, I taped over 'Jack Taylor' ('The Guards' tv dramatisation)!

August 08, 2010  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I was immediately wondering how many writers had borrowed that line.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, nothing Kafkaesque about the Op. He's just a man with a job to do.

Did you tape over "Jack Taylor" intentionally?

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, do you mean "...his freckles climbing up his face to make room for his grin."? It sounds like the sort of thing a million writers have borrowed but none nearly as well because they were not so observant or could not fit words so precisely to an image as Hammett could.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

No, nothing Kafkaesque about the Op. He's just a man with a job to do.
no, about his name, or lack of one!

Did you tape over "Jack Taylor" intentionally?
Yep; space is at a premium so every video recording needs to justify its existence.
I felt last night's 'Wallander' probably had a stronger case!

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't seen either the English or the Swedish Wallander series. I've heard good things about both and conflicting reports about which is better.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I saw a couple of the BBC productions a few years back; Kenneth Branagh is, of course, an excellent actor, but too often you're mindful of watching Kenneth Branagh.
The Swedish actor, with whom I'm not otherwise familiar, lives the part.
And its got a superb ensemble cast.

Stories might be a bit improbable, but you can detect a common thread of the writer's social and political concerns coursing through each episode.
And without him being too preachy

I've kept a whole bunch of them on videotape, and may convert them onto DVD-R, unless I can get a box-set bargain

I can't imagine ever wanting to watch the BBC versions again

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd read a similar comment about Branagh recently, perhaps from you.

Someone once wrote that Branagh was a brilliant actor but not necessarily a movie star.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I think many of the best British stage actors have had problems transferring their talents to the screen; believe they're delivering an important Shakespearean speech to the back row of the theatre, when they're supposed to be having a 'one on one' conversation.

Branagh's not quite that bad, but he has a tendency to attach too much weight to the mundane.

I think Robert Mitchum, for example, was a far superior screen actor to Laurence Olivier, but he probably wouldn't have got to first base on a Shakespearean stage

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But ifhe got himself fully awake, he could have kicked Olivier's ass in a fight. I don't think Olivier overplayed in screen in the ways you suggest -- or maybe it's that he played roles where he was the director, the center of attention, or both.

In re screen and stage, Allan Bates has had a nice career as a movie actor, but I saw him in "Antony and Cleopatra" with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he was just fine.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I remember the first time I saw Alan Bates was in a contemporary filmed play and I thought he was an outstanding actor; I can't remember though if I saw him in much material written specifically for the screen.
But I'm not saying all of the classical British actors are like that.
But I think, as a rule, American actors can translate, or adapt,
better to screen acting

August 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if British training is more exclusively directed at the stage (or more dismissive of film acting) than American training.

August 08, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I suspect so; I'm sure you've heard of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)?
Just compare its title with the American 'The Actor's Studio', and their respective weightiness.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's interesting to see the Actor's Studio invoked in this discussion. I know nothing about the Actor's Studio except the potted descriptions and cliches: method acting, emotional performances, scenery chewing and so on. I guess that's a different sort of overacting than that of projecting to the back row.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

from the point of view of comparing the respective acting styles, it wasn't the best example to use but from the point of view of the implied looseness as being indicative of the American acting tradition, it is.
Although, as a rule, I hate Method Acting performances

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I know I probably should spare myself the grief that I'll get, but I prefer Branagh's Hamlet to Olivier's. I actually prefer Branagh to Olivier in general, at least when it comes to Shakespeare. It's funny, though, that when I compared notes with my sister, the way I felt about Branagh's Hamlet is the same way she felt about Olivier's. I think what we have in common here is something to do with the first really deep glimpse you get into the play making you cast your lot with the actor who gave you it.

One thing for sure, it wasn't Robert Mitchum.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, and so long as I'm expressing opinions, I much prefer the word verifier to the comment moderator method. For one thing, you can see what asinine thing you just typed and correct it immediately, and for another, it makes for more interaction with other commenters. That last is not necessarily the preference of the blog poster, but I think in the case of this blog, it might be a point to consider.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I feel at sea when talking about acting. It's only when I get a rare bit context that I can talk about it in anything but impressionistic terms. One such bit of context is that early film acting was physical and involved much movement; the actors were used to performing in theaters, where folks in the distant balconies had to be able to see them. (I think the change to a style more suited to film had much to do with D.W. Griffith's use of close-ups, which obviated the need for all that movement.)

I thought of this when you rated Mitchum over Olivier as a screen actor. All Mitchum had to do was raise a lazy eyebrow to attract the audience's attention, an economy of action perhaps not part of the repertoire available to stage actors.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I much prefer the word verifier to the comment moderator method. For one thing, you can see what asinine thing you just typed and correct it immediately, and for another, it makes for more interaction with other commenters. That last is not necessarily the preference of the blog poster, but I think in the case of this blog, it might be a point to consider.

That is my preference, too. I like that a comment can appear immediately. I just have to see if doing it this way acts as an effective filter to unwanted solicitations and such.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, you have liked a presentation Ed Pettit, the Philly Poe Guy, gave some time ago. It was about Shakespeare on film, and it included old silents, Olivier, Branagh, Kurosawa, and more.

What Ed highlighted -- and I liked -- about Branagh's Henry V was its naturalism. Battles were battles, battlefield exhortations were shouted in near-frenxy, not delivered as well-mannered set pieces. Branagh brough quite a naturalistic touch ot his line readings that way.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, it's quite interesting how acting styles change, and what was a marvel in one era seems stilted in another. I don't think it means progress so much as that different aspects seem revelatory at different times.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't mind reading a history of acting styles that might take a bit of a sociological tack, with speculation about what might account for a given era's preference.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Me either.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would be easy to assume, for example, that since method acting came to the fore in the 1950s, that era of repression and conformity etc., its unleashing of emotions struck a chord among actors, writers and moviegoers aching for release from the repression and conformity, etc. Too easy to assume, so I don't trust myself.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes. The word verifier is good and one can edit one's comments, especially at 3:00 a.m., when things can go a bit askew and a reread is helpful.

And one does like to read other commenters' messages.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, speaking of Branagh's' 'Hamlet' I think I read where one reviewer said something along the lines that Branagh's interpretation of the role makes the character seem such a strong forceful and decisive personality as to make the 'to be or not to be' speech.

I largely concur although I think, in general, his acting style is far better suited to Shakespearean drama than to drama written for the screen.

I think some of the finest screen acting performances have been given by Ingmar Bergman's 'repertory' company: so much is portrayed in the subtle changes of facial expression, and tone of voice

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, even without a word verifier, I like to preview my comment before I send it. I still wind up posting comments with typos in them, though. At least one blog host will run a spell-check if you choose "preview."

Another benefit of Blogger's word verifier feature is the occasional humorous or pertinent verification word.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, even without a word verifier, I like to preview my comment before I send it. I still wind up posting comments with typos in them, though. At least one blog host will run a spell-check if you choose "preview."

Another benefit of Blogger's word verifier feature is the occasional humorous or pertinent verification word.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I recently repeated my praise for Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," a performance built largely on facial expression. The comment to which I referred about great actors not necessarily making great movie stars was about Branagh in "Dead Again," and it came from The New Republic's Stanley Kauffman.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I haven't read that article, Peter, but I think Kaufmann might be essentially making the same point as me: in 'Dead Again' Branagh may have been employing his dramatic stage acting techniques, whereas a more natural style would have been appropriate.

I think I first really noticed how great a screen actor James Stewart was when watching 'Vertigo', but I subsequently noticed how good he was even decades earlier

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kauffman's comment would probably have come in a review of "Dead Again." I don't remember if the review speculated to the extent that you are doing.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Frankly, I prefer not to be bogged down at all with verifiers or identifiers. never mind. Just grumbling.

As for the passage: it's a tad obvious, isn't it? I'd like the names, if the descriptions were a little more subtle. On the other hand, the dialog fits the characters nicely.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am interested in languages, cultures and writing systems other than my own. That interest, however, does not embrace the Chinese and Cyrillic solicitations that would deluge the blog without a filtering device such as word verifiers or comment modification. And that's not even to mention the porn spam.

The names are a bit obvious, but they work within the context of the scene. It's a brief exchange involving relatively minor characters in a lighter mood than the rest of the story -- a kind of overture. Any number of dramatic traditions would present a comic piece to leaven the mood of what goes before or after, including ancient Greek and, I believe, Noh as well.

I don't for a moment suggest that Hammett had such precedents in mind, but the opening scene works that way. It offers a short comic contrast to or echo of the main story.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

No, no. Just kidding about the verification. It's not bad if I can make a word out of it. :)

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I do enjoy the occasional appropriate verification word. I feel a twinge of regret that I am depriving others of that pleasure.

My current v-word is a brand of underwear.

August 09, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

It works because one part of the equation -- the two cops are headed elsewhere. Classic storytelling: someone is headed elsewhere, but stops to hear some news. You can it working in the movies, too. If you remember Jim Garner's 1969 "Support Your Local Sheriff" (written by William Bowers) Garner's character was en route to Australia ... but got waylaid. Same (very effective) narrative trick.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! It had occurred to me that this opening was precisely the opposite of in medias res. It does not open as the crime is happening or with the narrator looking back, as so many crime stories do. I knew that created excitement, but I couldn't say why. You have. Thanks.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I think everyone who said that Branagh's great strength is the way he works with language is dead on. He has had little enough to work with apart from Shakespeare, though. Which is a shame.

I do have to say though, that as his Hamlet was his vision, I loved the Elsinore he created. I still think about it sometimes, and its ages since I've seen it. He made a few mistakes in that movie, but really, not all that many and none of them major.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I have a two-tape set of his Hamlet that I bought cheap when my local video store was clearing its stock of tapes. I should have a look.

The Henry V battle scene I mentioned above was astonishing. I've seen it just once, so I can't analyze it in detail, but he somehow managed to create a persuasive illusion that he was speaking in the hear of battle, with all the attendant emotion, and to preserve the rhythm of the lines. That's great acting, I think.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

As far as I'm concerned Derek Jacobi gave far and away the best performance in Branagh's 'Hamlet'
(and he did a decent 'Hamlet' for the BBC, as a much younger man)

Richard Briers, of 'The Good Life' fame surprised me at how good he was.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Robin Williams was in that Hamlet, too.

I remember Derek Jacobi from his commanding role as narrator of a video in the Tower of London about the Crown Jewels. I will always associate him with the courteous beefeaters who teamed up to find the answer when I asked who that actor with marvelous, resonant voice was.

August 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

There were a lot of stars in that movie, not always perfect choices. Branagh must have called in his favors. Jacobi, of course, was excellent as always.

I liked the opening scene in Henry V as well. Precision of language indeed.

August 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe Branagh woke up with a horse's head on his pillow, and Robin Williams got the part the next day.

August 10, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I haven't been much of a "Hamlet" viewer, but I liked Branagh in the Wallender series made by the BBC.

I don't really know of too many movies he's been in that I've seen.

Having a word verifier using the Cyrillic alphabet would be fun, except our keyboards couldn't accommodate it.

Yes, I vote for being able to view one's comment, because at 3:00 a.m., I make typos but then again at that hour, I probably wouldn't catch them either, no matter how many times I reread them.

August 10, 2010  

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