Thrillmeister & Societal Fortune Teller: Revisiting Ira Levin

Rosemary's BabyI recently read Ira Levin’s 1967 newborn-Devil, Satanic horror classic Rosemary’s Baby for the first time; I barely put it down for two days straight. It led me to watch the Criterion Collection 1968 film version, starring Mia Farrow and Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon, and later to the book’s 1997 sequel Son of Rosemary. Thus began my official search for All Things Ira Levin, and for good reason.

Levin (1929-2007) was one of the premier best-selling “suspense” writers of his day, and several of his titles became popular movies. We’re not talking Nobel Prize literature here, but simply characters, settings, and gripping situations to which the reading public could relate, plus a few significant sneak peeks at what quirks and trends future society might hold for us. The prolific Levin could be counted on for quick and engrossing, yet oftentimes thought-provoking reads. Here’s an admittedly cursory look at a few of them…

Levin’s debut novel, and arguably his finest, was 1953′s A KiA Kiss Before Dyingss Before Dying. It won the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery, and it’s easy to see why. An amoral young college man schemes his way through relationships with three rich sisters, showing brilliance and ruthlessness in equal measures. Levin’s attention to detail and his elegant prose are totally impressive for a rookie author. Its two film adaptations are from 1956, starring Robert Wagner, and from 1991, with Matt Dillon and Sean Young.  While Levin’s later bestsellers weren’t written with A Kiss Before Dying’s languid pace and riveting narration, they kept his name clearly in the public eye for decades to come.

The Stepford Wives (1972), not only introduced, via its title, a new catch phrase into American jargon, but delivered a chilling vision of a placid-on-the-surface patriarchal society run wild, where “wives” literally become robots, and women with brains and moxie don’t last very long. This novel has had at least two film incarnations, starring Katharine Ross in 1975 and Nicole Kidman in 2004.

In 1976, Levin brought us The Boys From Brazil, a historically chilling fantasy in which Dr. Josef Mengele plots to create a new race of Adolf Hitlers, using the process of “mononuclear reproduction”- or, in today’s nomenclature, cloning. A heroic Nazi hunter (based on the real-life Simon Wiesenthal) travels the world to foil the doctor’s scheme. Levin’s scientific clairvoyance regarding this topic is notable. The 1978 film version stars Laurence Olivier and, as Mengele, Gregory Peck, in a remarkable turnabout from his earlier Oscar-winning “Atticus Finch”.

SliverSliver, from 1991, takes us into urban highrise hell, as a single career woman becomes entangled with a landlord-voyeur who has hidden cameras and listening equipment in all his building’s apartments. Our heroine eventually learns that her new lover spends hours watching his tenants’ real-life, mundane, yet often riveting antics – and she becomes a “watcher” herself. Levin offers this scenario as something inconceivable, but isn’t it just reality TV in a nutshell? Decades ahead of his time, he was eerily prescient about American society’s technology obsession at the expense of personal privacy. (Sliver’s 1993 film version starred Sharon Stone.)

 

No Time For SergeantsIra Levin produced more than just best-selling potboilers. His output for the stage was significant as well, including the 1956 comedy classic No Time For Sergeants and, most famously, the 1978 “thriller in two acts” Deathtrap, which became one of Broadway’s longest-running plays and a popular 1982 film starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve.

So, RIP, Ira Levin, and thanks for keeping us both tense and thoughtful.

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