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Now the art thief can steal himself


The Art Thief by Michael Finkel (Simon and Schuster) reads like a rip-roaring thriller. It tells the remarkable true story of Stephane Breitweiser who, with his girlfriend as lookout, toured smalltown museums in France, Switzerland and Germany. Instead of leaving with an overpriced giftshop fridge magnet he took away with him choice exhibits – from coins and medals to ivory figurines and even paintings. With the aid of a Swiss Army Knife, he undid the screws of cabinets and security devices right under the noses of oblivious museum staff and walked out with the loot under his Hugo Boss raincoat.

Breitwieser didn’t plan to sell the items but to keep them in his attic lair to enjoy them. Exactly how and why he did what he did beggars’ belief. Finkel tells the story with page turning assurance.

Lovers of books and book festivals will love the broad satire of Dan Rhodes’s novel Sour Grapes (Lightning Books). It lightly kebabs an assortment of literary types – from the smug, money-hungry publishers to the pretentious publicity-hungry authors. Our hero is the overly verbose writer Wilberforce Selfram (not to be confused with overly verbose writer Will Self) whose trip to a rural book festival is a series of mini-catastrophes.

Debut novel The Old Haunts (Fairlight Books) by Allan Radcliffe tells of Jamie and his new boyfriend holidaying in rural Scotland. Jamie is plagued with the poignant memories of his recently deceased parents. The beautifully written, hugely readable and moving tale encompasses Jamie’s rites of passage growing up gay in working class Edinburgh to finding himself in alternative London. The touching and well-observed domestic details are captured with spare elegance.

Film director Peter Bogdanovich, who died last year, is having a reputation revival with the release of his most famous film on Blu-ray from Criterion. The Last Picture Show (1971) stars Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Chloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd. It’s an evocative tale of small-town life in fly-blown 1950s Texas (memorably, it was filmed in black-and-white). The kids find and lose love while the adults wrestle with the wrong turns of their lives. Meantime the old fleapit cinema at the heart of the town is threatened with closure. One American critic compared The Last Picture Show to Citizen Kane.

Bogdanovich shows innocence lost in a time when America was about to be engulfed by the violent maelstrom of the 1960s. And this is the theme of his first movie, the startling Targets (1968) whose long-awaited release on Blu-ray comes thanks to the British Film Institute. The film features the plummy-voiced Boris Karloff (born Bill Pratt in 1887), hence the British connection.

It’s a disturbingly original film that pits the old-fashioned terror of Karloff’s 1930s roles (here he’s virtually playing himself) like Frankenstein’s monster with the random, real-life modern horror of the psychokiller taking potshots at passersby, as horrifyingly relevant today as ever. Targets was removed from cinemas almost straight after it was released. No one wanted to see a movie about random killing in the year of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations.

Another movie that was met with censorship was Tod Browning’s cult classic from 1932 Freaks; it was banned in the UK for 30 years. It’s been released on a crisp new Blu-ray with two other Browning films by Criterion. Set in a flimsy travelling carnival it features conjoined twins, people of restricted growth, a ‘bearded lady’ and others commonly labelled at the time ‘nature’s mistakes’.

On release the film scandalised audiences but became an underground cult classic. It was revived in 1962 to a more appreciative crowd. As with Frankenstein’s monster it’s the ‘freaks’ for whom modern viewers have most sympathy not the ‘normal’ people who turn out to be their evil exploiters.

There’s a new biography of film director Otto Preminger The World and Its Double (Faber) by a former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival Chris Fujiwara. Preminger’s career began in 1931 and he made some 40 movies from film noir to musical, thriller to melodrama. His western River of No Return (1954) starred Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. And the detective story The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) had as one of its themes drug addiction while Anatomy of a Murder (1955) was about a rape trial, strong stuff for the conventional America of the 50s.

Preminger was the stereotype of the autocratic and temperamental Hollywood director, strutting about, shouting at the actors in his strong Viennese accent. But he was a multi-faceted man who could be charming, generous and kind and a nasty bully in almost the same moment. He took a daring stand against the communist witch hunts and was boldly at odds with the increasingly outmoded self-censorship of the big studios. The book is as much about the man’s life as the films – full of lore about casting and camera angles and is catnip for film buffs.

The mystery of the real Hollywood will never be answered. But fans of property porn can venture close with Beyond the Canyon (Phaidon/Monacelli) by Roger Davies. It’s access-all-areas to gorgeous homes of the La La Land elite in Malibu, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Laurel Canyon and on to Rancho Mirage where no matter the temperature of the desert winds it’s always California Cool. With their private night clubs, glass curtain walls, indoor fish ponds and views of the Pacific these are the homes of the truly rich.

If nothing else the book proves that no matter how much money these movers and shakers may have they don’t always have good taste. One picture of a downstairs loo with alarmingly mirrored walls shows that users can view themselves from all angles while they take care of business. It gives access all areas a new meaning. ■

Twitter: @KenWilson84

Top: Stephane Breitweiser by Jean-Paul Matifat; Frank Sinatra on drugs!


Our hero is the overly verbose writer Wilberforce Selfram (not to be confused with overly verbose writer Will Self)


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