Friday, March 29, 2013

Unpardonable puns

I like puns. I really do. Puns, to me, are not a low grade of humor, as some people seem to think, but a high form. Intelligent people come up with the best, most original puns.

So I am not sure why I so strongly detest puns in the titles of mystery novels. Here are some examples of the many such books now available:

Naughty in Nice

Quilt or Innocence

Book, Line and Sinker
Fowl Prey

The Real Macaw

Hearse and Buggy

Death of a Rug Lord

Deader Homes & Gardens

Let It Sew

Suture Self

Hiss and Hers

Grape Expectations

Last Wool and Testament

Bell, Book and Scandal

Read and Buried

Murder for the Halibut

And Then You Dye

Bone Appetit

Reel Murder

Tiles and Tribulations

Pies and Prejudice

Roast Mortem

Reap What You Sew

Hell Hath No Curry

As the World Churns

You Better Knot Die

Deviled Eggs

Sew Deadly

Threaded for Trouble

Splendor in the Glass

Fleece Navidad

Dyer Consequences

Books Can Be Deceiving

Immaculate Reception

The  Wurst Is Yet to Come

Hiss of Death

I have not read any of these mysteries. They may be better than their titles, but I don't intend to find out. Why do I dislike these titles so?

It may have a lot to do with the fact that there are so many of them. I also avoid novels with titles like "So-and-so's Daughter,"  simply because they are so numerous. These titles may at first appear to be clever and original, but after awhile they all sound alike. One gets the impression that some of these writers start by trying to come up with a good pun, then build their story around it. Just as people who pun all the time can quickly become tiresome, so puns in book titles can quickly become a bore.

I have no objection to comic mysteries, but a pun in the title just seems a little too flippant to me. These are stories about murder, after all. Somebody dies. If the detective is a bumbler or if the investigation leads to some funny situations, I'm all for it. But a pun in the title reflects on the whole situation, including death itself.

The best, most respected mystery authors rarely, if ever, resort to puns. I'm talking about people like Donna Leon, Laura Lippman, Arnald Indridason, Loren D. Estelman, Joan Hess and Edna Buchanan. Intelligent people can up with some good puns, but intelligent people should also know when to avoid them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Restaurant reading

"We do not live by bread alone. We must be reading, too." -- Tom Raabe, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction

There are two kinds of people: those who hate to dine alone and those who can see its bright side. The latter group must be composed primarily of readers. I share most meals with my wife, but I still manage to read several books a year in restaurants. I always keep a book in the car for this purpose (as well as for waiting rooms and, here in the Tampa Bay area, drawbridges).

"Indeed, there is something about reading in a restaurant that is borderline romantic." -- Tom Raabe

I don't know about romantic, but it probably does leave an impression. Restaurant personnel are probably thinking: "Oh-oh, here's somebody who's probably going to be sitting at that table for awhile." Other diners may be thinking: "Isn't that too bad? He must be lonely."

"We can't kill half a day dominating a booth and drinking coffee or whatever else. We actually have to eat something." -- Tom Raabe

There's the rub. Sometimes all I want is a quiet place to read, not a meal. I sometimes stop into a tea room in the afternoon for this purpose, although my favorite such place is too far away from home to make this practical. Bars are too dark and usually too noisy.

"How do we place our book in an accessible location on the table and make it stay open while wielding our cutlery? That the real problem." -- Tom Raabe

I have two main criteria for the books I choose for restaurant reading. First, they must be books that I'm not going to mind too much if, or rather when, they get splattered with soup, sauce or whatever. Second, they must be books that will stay open by themselves. I don't like to eat one-handed. I want a book I don't have to touch except to turn the page. There are surprisingly few books that fit both of these criteria.

"A good motto to operate under in these conditions is 'A book for the wait, a mag for the plate.'" -- Tom Raabe

With messy food or a pristine book, this is a good strategy. I sometimes read a book while waiting for the meal, then work a sudoku puzzle during the meal. This, however, requires the same hand I need for my fork.

"Reading in bars is fraught with innumerable dangers." -- Tom Raabe

Actually, reading in restaurants, even nice restaurants, can be dangerous, too. Once I made the mistake of finishing my meal, paying the check, putting down a tip and leaving my book on the table while I went to the restroom. When I returned, the book was gone. I tracked down my server, who said she thought I had just forgotten my book. She returned it to me, and all was well. I was not so lucky recently at a Steak 'n Shake in Largo, Fla. The check was still on the table and I hadn't yet left a tip when I put my magazine down and went to the restroom. When I got back, the table was cleared. When I quizzed the server, she said she thought I had left. She checked, but the magazine by this time was in the trash, covered with mayonnaise. The check, unfortunately, was still in perfect condition.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Amateur heroes

The year is 1890 and in Paris there is a womanizing bookseller named Victor Legris who solves murder mysteries on the side. At about the same time in London, a gentleman named Charles Lenox makes elaborate plans for international travel, but he, too, finds himself distracted by murder. The two men, very different yet with much in common, are the heroes of two popular series of mysteries written respectively by Claude Izner and Charles Finch. I have just finished reading the second Victor Legris novel, The Disappearance at Pere Lachaise (2003), and the first Charles Lenox novel, A Beautiful Blue Death (2007).

The disappearance in Disappearance is that of a recent widow named Odette de Valois, who vanishes in a cemetery. Her maid comes to Victor for help because she knows he was Odette's former lover and because she has heard of his success solving another mystery. Victor doesn't take the missing Odette very seriously until both the maid and a cemetery worker are found dead. It finally dawns on him that something sinister is afoot. The solution has to do with jewelry, art and the Panama Canal.

The death of a different maid causes Lady Jane to enlist the services of her lifelong friend, Charles Lenox, to find out what happened to her. Finch's title, A Beautiful Blue Death, refers to the rare and expensive poison used to kill the maid, who since leaving Lady Jane has gone to work for the man who heads the Royal Mint and who has somehow decided that his own home is a safer place for the Mint's treasure than the Mint itself. So there seems to be a motive for murder, but is it the true motive? And why kill the maid if the killer is after the money?

As is typical of murder mysteries featuring amateur sleuths, especially historical murder mysteries, the police in both Paris and London are incompetent, as well as hostile to amateur interference, so Legris and Lenox must do battle against officialdom as well as killers. Neither of these books is a first-rate mystery, although both are enjoyable, and I expect to return to both series in the future.

Of the two, I found A Beautiful Blue Death more to me liking. Secondary characters are important in both novels, but while Finch uses these characters in resolving the plot, in Disappearance they are more often distractions. Izner (actually two sisters who are themselves booksellers, as well as experts on 19th century Paris) sometimes seems more concerned with showing us what Paris was like in 1890 than in telling a good story.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Watching writers at work

What most impressed me while watching the 2007 movie Becoming Jane the other night were those scenes showing Jane Austen, as played by Anne Hathaway, writing. I think that is what I will remember most about the picture.

To be sure, watching writers write is not most people's idea of entertainment. Writing can be enjoyable, even exciting work -- I write this blog for fun, after all -- but watching somebody write is nothing special. During my career in newspapers, I felt a little sorry for those teenagers who, on Career Day, would come in to watch reporters and copy editors at work. Observing reporters on a beat might have been interesting, but watching them actually write their stories must have been torture. It would have been more exciting, and probably more educational, for students to observe somebody paint a house, pick up garbage or even make french fries at a local fast-food restaurant.

Yet those scenes showing Jane Austen writing were, I thought, both important to the story and, in a way, captivating. The movie is about Austen's brief romance that ends unhappily, leaving her to devote her life to her stories. When we watch her write, sometimes staying up most of the night to write page after page, we witness more passion and commitment than we see in her scenes with her lover. We get an understanding of how Jane became Jane.

I contrast Becoming Jane with a couple of other movies about writers I've seen in recent months, Shadowlands and Midnight in Paris. The former is about C.S. Lewis, the latter about a writer, played by Owen Wilson, transported magically to Paris between the wars, where he encounters Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and others. Were you to watch these two movies without benefit of sound or subtitles, you might never guess they were about writers. We see Wilson carrying a manuscript around, but there isn't much actual writing shown on the screen. It is like watching a movie about Babe Ruth without any scenes showing him swinging a bat.

I think Shadowlands and Midnight in Paris are better movies. I have watched each of them more than once and hope to enjoy them both many more times in the future. Becoming Jane, on the other hand, is more of a once-is-enough kind of film. In one respect, however, this is the superior movie. It actually shows us a great writer writing.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It had to be you?

Most stories are told either in first or third person, and for good reason. Storytellers are either talking about themselves or somebody else. In two novels I've read recently, Michael Frayn's Spies and Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, the narrators alternate between first and third persons, although each narrator is talking about himself the whole time. In The Kingdom of Ohio, it comes as something of a surprise that the "I" and the "he" are the same person, while in Frayn's book, "I" usually refers to the adult telling the story, while "he" refers to himself as the little boy the story is about.

When writers use second person, it generally refers to "you the reader." It is seldom used. Korean author Kyung-sook Shin, however, tells the story in her international bestseller Please Look After Mom mostly in second person. The tale is about an elderly woman who goes missing in a Seoul subway station. Her husband boards the train assuming his wife is right behind him. When he finally looks back, the train is underway and she is not there.

Several members of the family narrate their versions of the story, and usually they relate it in second person. The "you" may refer either to themselves or to someone else. Often it gets confusing as to who "you" actually is.

The story is compelling. The family members tell about their part in the long search for Mom, but mostly they look back on their life with her, recalling incidents that take on new meaning to them now that she is missing. As the story unfolds, both you (the reader) and the other family members begin to see that this woman is much more complex than she appears. She has devoted her life to her family, yet she has had dreams and fears and pains and secrets that she has kept buried her entire life.

Please Look After Mom has been a popular novel, and deservedly so. I have to believe, however, that it is more in spite of than because of the author's decision to use second person to tell her story.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Thanks to the bogeyman

The bogeyman may not be real, but his contributions to the English language are. I was surprised in reading Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon at just how much we owe to the bogeyman, that mythical creature feared by generations of children who believe he comes out from under their beds after the lights go out.

Forsyth reports that a man named Dr. Thomas Brown couldn't get a song called The Bogey Man out of his head while he played a round of golf. He played poorly that day and so, in jest, blamed the bogeyman. This was in 1890. By the 1940s, a bogey had become a popular term meaning one over par.

The use of the word bug to refer to insects is believed to be a shortened form of bogeyman. Some people who woke in the morning covered with insect bites called them bedbugs in reference to the bogeyman. Later other kinds of insects also became known as bugs, Forsyth says.

Before bugs, there were bugaboos, a popular term for bogeymen. A bugaboo was first a criminal slang term for a policeman. Later it came to refer to problems of any sort.

Thomas Edison is credited with first calling a mechanical problem a bug. Nobody knows if there was actually an insect that was the source of Edison's problem or if he just used the term bug in a figurative sense. In any case, we continue to refer to bugs in faulty machinery to this day.

When we're sick, we say we have caught a bug. A wiretap is commonly called a bug. We used to tell our little brothers and sisters to stop bugging us. In short, when something annoying happens, we blame the bogeyman.

Forsyth doesn't say whether Bugs Bunny is related to the bogeyman, but I'll bet Elmer Fudd thinks so.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Pure evil

Comedies are supposed to have happy endings, right? So perhaps Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop isn't actually the comic novel it appears to be for most of its 123 pages.

Her wonderful 1979 novel, set in 1959, tells of Florence Green, a widow who invests her inheritance in a small bookstore in Hardborough, an English seaside town that doesn't have one. Her enterprise is opposed almost immediately by Mrs. Gamart, one of Hardborough's leading citizens, who claims she has long intended to open an arts center in the old building Florence purchases for her bookshop.

Florence knows little about running a business, and her only assistant is a 10-year-old girl named Christine, yet the new store prospers, at least at first. Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita has just been published, and Florence takes a chance by acquiring a large number of copies for display in her store, and it sells well among the curious citizens of Hardborough.

Yet Mrs. Gamart persists in her efforts to close the bookshop. These efforts, such as persuading an artist to try to get Florence to display his work in her little store and getting her lawyer to send Florence strange threatening letters, provide much of novel's comedy. There is also a poltergeist that knocks around the building periodically.

Yet, in time, Mrs. Gamart comes to represent pure evil. Most villains at least have some reason for their villainy. Criminals robs banks because that is where the money is. Most murderers are greedy or jealous or afraid or just crazy. Mrs. Gamart seems to have no reason for opposing Florence's bookshop, however. She could have purchased the building long before Florence did. There are other vacant buildings available. The structure may be too small for a decent arts center anyway. In the end, she would rather see the building demolished than have it house a bookshop. Sadly, such purposeless evil, sometimes even seeming at first to be comic, is more common in our world than one might think. Many of us ordinary folks may even be guilty of it from time to time.

Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, had an amazing gift for writing relatively small sentences that make a reader sit up and take notice. Here are a few that caught my attention in The Bookshop:

"Culture is for amateurs. ... Shakespeare was a professional."

"Gentleness is not kindness."

"Understanding makes the mind lazy."

"Old age is not the same thing as historical interest. Otherwise we should both of us be more interesting than we are."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The meaning of vegetables

My wife and I stopped at  Trip's Diner in St. Petersburg last night on our way to the movie theater to see Lincoln. (Did you know Lincoln is still playing in theaters?) Trip's Diner, I learned is so named because the owner has triplets. A side order of mixed vegetables came with my dinner, and this consisted of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. This may not seem significant to you, but I was delighted. My main beef with Florida restaurants is that mixed vegetables usually means squash. When there are both yellow and green squash present, apparently, it can be termed mixed vegetables.

Like many kids, I grew up not caring much for vegetables, except for carrots and peas. With maturity I developed a taste for others, especially green beans, cauliflower and broccoli. To this day, however, I still consider squash a decorative vegetable, not one suitable for human consumption. The best thing I can say for squash is that it is not mushrooms.

A week ago my wife and I were invited for lunch at one of Largo's most exclusive restaurants, a place we could never afford on our own dime. My steak came with a serving of mixed vegetables that, except for the occasional sliver of carrot or onion, consisted entirely of squash. It was the best squash I've ever eaten, but it was still squash.

So I was happy to discover Trip's Diner, which just happens to be just across the street from my favorite used bookstore in the area. Here at last is a Florida restaurant that shares my understanding of the meaning of vegetables.

Monday, March 11, 2013

At the antiquarian book fair

Last Saturday morning I made my annual visit to the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg. The fair, which attracts dealers from as far away as Missouri, Ohio, California, Michigan and even Ontario, was more crowded than I can remember it ever being before. When you managed to squeeze into one of the dealers' booths, you took a chance on not being able to get out again for some minutes.

For someone who avoids crowds, this was the unpleasant part of the morning. The pleasant part, of course, was being surrounded by so many rare and valuable books. I noticed a first edition of John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle priced at $4,500, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick ($32,500), Bleak House by Charles Dickens ($1,500), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce ($7,500), a signed copy of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ($9,500), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ($22,500) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ($5,000) and an early Dick and Jane primer, more a pamphlet than a book ($95).

Some books caught my eye less for their appraised value than for other reasons. I noticed the first American edition of The Good  Soldier by Ford Madox Hueffer. I hadn't realized Ford Madox Ford had been born Hueffer. He didn't change his name until after The Good Soldier was published in 1915. The book was priced at $2,500.

Having just finished reading a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, I was interested in a signed copy of his book Crusade in Europe for $6,500.

Some books caught my eye because I own similar copies of them. A first edition of Elmore Leonard's Bandits was priced at just $15 and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer just $25. But I saw two copies of the first edition of Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, one priced at $1,250 and the other at $2,000. I saw copies of John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra ($6,500) and Graham Greene's The Comedians ($45) that look just like mine, but I don't think mine are first editions. I guess I'll have to check.

There was more at the book fair than just books. I spied a signed photograph of actor Leslie Howard valued at $750.

I came away from the book fair with nothing in my hands but a program, bookmarks, business cards and a catalog. I did, however, stop at a used bookstore on the way home and bought three old books I could actually afford.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Ike and Grant

Before writing Ike: An American Hero, biographer Michael Korda wrote a book about Ulysses S. Grant, and he still had Grant on his mind when writing about David D. Eisenhower. I count at least 17 references to Grant in the Eisenhower biography, most of them comparisons between the Civil War general and the World War II general. He describes Ike as "the toughest, most experienced, most formidable, and most realistic American commander" since Grant.

In a reference to another Civil War general, Korda compares British General Bernard Montgomery to George McClellan, whom Lincoln described as having "a case of the slows." Like McClellan, Monty liked to have his troops fully prepared and at full strength before going into battle, which meant the enemy had time to get fully prepared, too. Despite being brilliant at strategy, Monty tended to take his time achieving his objectives. Like Grant, Eisenhower preferred to attack before the enemy was ready, even if his own forces were less than fully prepared.

Among the many comparisons to Grant, Korda says the two retired generals both "aimed for simplicity and simple fact" in their war memoirs. "As a result," he writes, "Crusade in Europe was, and remains, one of the clearest and least opinionated books to come out of World War II, and by far the least self-exculpatory and least judgmental." Korda says Eisenhower reread Grant's memoirs before beginning to write his own.

In his commentary about the two memoirs, Korda makes an interesting claim. He calls Grant's memoirs "perhaps the greatest nonfiction book in American literature." I have never read Grant's literary work, but I wonder, could Korda be right? Certainly I have read many favorable references to Grant's memoirs. I recall that Grant died soon after he completed writing them.

Lists of great American novels are often compiled, with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often ranked at the top. I don't recall ever seeing a list of the greatest American nonfiction books, however. In college literature classes I can remember reading Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, but nothing else in nonfiction. If you were compiling a list of the best, surely Twain would be represented there, too, with works like Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi. Books such as Silent Spring and Up From Slavery might also be on it. Grant's Personal Memoirs may belong there, too.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ike and the press

Just before the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called a press conference and told reporters all about it. This unprecedented openness about a secret invasion surprised everyone, including both the reporters themselves and Ike's commanders. But Eisenhower, both as an Army officer and later as president of the United States, disliked censorship, according to Michael Korda's biography Ike: An American Hero. Besides, the preparations for the invasion were obvious to reporters in North Africa. Eisenhower figured the press would be less likely to report information that might be helpful to the Germans if they knew the whole truth than if they were left guessing. He proved to be correct in this assumption, and the attack on Sicily proved successful.

Eisenhower did not repeat this frankness with the press prior to D-Day. That invasion was just too secret and too important to tell anybody about who didn't absolutely need to know. But throughout his career, Korda says, Ike tended to give reporters a free hand. He refused, for example, to block the publication of stories about racial difficulties among Allied soldiers during the war. He declined to censor stories after Gen. George Patton stuck an enlisted man. It was his idea to send newspaper editors to Germany as soon as the atrocities in Nazi death camps were discovered.

Ike wasn't perfect, however. Nor was he stupid. The original photograph showing him and his staff celebrating victory in Europe in 1945 included, right in the middle, Kay Summersby, the young and beautiful British woman who had been his driver and secretary throughout the war and who had long been a source of irritation to his jealous wife, Mamie. In the photo released to American newspapers, Summersby was omitted. As for whether the relationship with Summersby ever became a romance, Korda says it's impossible to know. He does say, however, that as soon as the war was over, Ike asked for permission to have Mamie join him in Germany. President Truman refused.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Michael Korda likes Ike

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was made supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe in 1943, it was not an inflated title. He was handed, in fact, "supreme command." When it came to questions about the D-Day invasion and countless other military and even political matters until the end of World War II, he alone made the decisions. Neither Presidents Roosevelt and later Truman nor George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, could tell him what to do. The same went for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and those generals who had more stars on their shoulders than he did.

They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but as Michael Korda tells the story in Ike: An American Hero, Eisenhower not only remained uncorrupted, but in most instances made the correct choices. That was why the American people later elected him to two terms as president, an office that arguably had less power than what was thrust on him during the war. And here, too, according to Korda, Ike mostly made the right calls. Had John F. Kennedy followed Eisenhower's advice, America would have avoided both the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Vietnam War, Korda says.

As a career Army officer -- he attended West Point only because it offered a free college education -- Ike seemed to handle every assignment with skill and dedication. During World War I, although he wished to be sent to the front, he was so successful at training recruits that the Army kept him where he was. Between wars he served under Douglas MacArthur and others, getting an education in how to command when the opportunity presented itself, as it did when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. went to war again.

Korda writes that the choice of Eisenhower as supreme commander over other generals who outranked him "was perhaps the Allies' most singular piece of good fortune in World War II."  Not just a skilled commander, Ike had the ability to get along with just about everybody (including Josef Stalin). British Gen. Bernard Montgomery gave him endless problems, thinking himself the better general, but somehow Eisenhower was able to manage him and, when necessary, prod him into action.

Although this biography is full of praise for Ike, Korda stops short of giving him credit for actually planning the D-Day invasion, as other biographers have done. Montgomery claimed the credit for  himself. In fact, says Korda, both Eisenhower and Montgomery just made a few changes to the plan drawn up by Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, who had worked on an invasion plan since 1941 and deserves more credit than history has given him.

Korda, who was born and raised in England, focuses mostly on Eisenhower's military career. Just two of 20 chapters are devoted to the White House Years. He covers a lot of ground in those two chapters, however.

Korda seems to throw the word hero around a lot. He has also written Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlike Hero and Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Yet most of the rest of us tend to restrict the word to fictional creations, especially the larger-than-life variety who wear capes. This Eisenhower biography reminds us that sometimes, however rarely, real people live lives deserving of the word.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A little bit crazy

Actor Burt Lancaster always seemed to be at his best when playing characters who were a little off-kilter, not actually insane but not quite rational either. I noticed this again recently while watching The Cassandra Crossing, a 1976 medical thriller with an all-star cast. Lancaster, in a supporting role, plays a military officer determined to stick to the plan and follow orders regardless of changing circumstances, the lives of many innocent people and reason.

He plays a similar, if more likable, officer in the 1969 movie Castle Keep. Major Falconer moves his soldiers into a European castle filled with priceless art during the Battle of the Bulge. The castle may, in fact, offer his men their best chance of survival against the German army, but Falconer always seems like he has a screw loose somewhere.

One of Lancaster's best roles came later in his career in Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980). I make it a point to watch this film every few years. Lou, Lancaster's character, is an aging small-time crook who likes to pretend, especially around women, he was once a major player in the criminal underworld. Then circumstances give him a chance to actually pull off a big score. It is fun watching Lou as he repeatedly loses and then regains his grasp on reality.

Another great performance came in the rarely-seen 1968 movie The Swimmer. My bride and I watched this film during our honeymoon in New England, and I haven't seen it since, but I do remember it well. Lancaster plays the entire movie in swimming trunks. His character decides to swim home, one swimming pool at a time. At first, he seems on top of the world, but at each stop at homes of friends, acquaintances and lovers, a little of his facade washes away until he is revealed, to himself as well as to viewers, as a broken man with neither job nor family.

I justify writing about Burt Lancaster, the movie star, in a blog supposedly devoted to language and literature because good movies begin with the good stories, which are produced by good writers. The Swimmer was based on a John Cheever short story. Castle Keep was first a William Eastlake novel. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, did the screenplay for Atlantic City. But good movies also need good actors, and when a part called for an actor who could play a little bit crazy, Burt Lancaster was one of the best.