Saturday, July 4, 2020

THE STALKING MOON


I have only the vaguest memory of seeing THE STALKING MOON when it was released in 1968. I know I saw it at either the Paramount or State Theatre in downtown Austin and I recall that 12-year-old Frank liked it for the suspense/thriller aspects of the story, Gregory Peck going one-on-one against a murderous Apache. 

Peck stars as Sam Varner, an Army scout about to retire after 15 years of service. He's persuaded to accompany white woman Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) and her half-breed son to a safe place. But as the unlikely trio hit the trail, they soon discover that they are being stalked by Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), a much feared hunter who is also the father of Sarah's son. Salvaje kills several people while pursuing Varner and his charges before Varner reaches his ranch in New Mexico. 

There, aided by an old man, Ned (Russell Thorson) and Varner's half breed tracker protégé Nick (Robert Forster), the valiant band stages a last stand against Salvaje. 

Varner takes a beating at the hands of his opponent. He's shot in the shoulder and stabbed in the thigh but he keeps going, fighting the good fight after his other male companions have been killed. 

The last act of the film is tense and suspenseful and extremely well staged by director Robert Mulligan (who previously directed Peck in the American classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)). The setting, Charles Lang's  expert camera work, and Fred Karlin's effective score contribute to the success of the cat and mouse sequences. 

Based on a novel by T.V. Olsen, THE STALKING MOON marked the last time the team of producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan worked together. The two went their separate ways with Pakula launching an extremely successful career as a director. 

THE STALKING MOON is an offbeat western that trades heavily on the suspense/thriller tropes for its' narrative engine. Not a great film by any means but a very enjoyable one with first rate talent both in front of and behind the camera. 

Thumbs up.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

I'LL BURY MY DEAD


I'LL BURY MY DEAD (1953) is the first book by James Hadley Chase that I've read. It won't be the last. 

Chase (1906-1985), was a prolific author, with 90 novels to his credit. 50 of them have been made into films, most of them in foreign countries. Writing under a variety of pen names, Chase's novels were published in the United States and Europe and while never achieving universal critical acclaim, his books sold extremely well. 

BURY is the story of Nick English, a powerful, rich and influential entrepreneur with a number of ongoing business interests. When his estranged brother, a two-bit private detective is found dead, apparently by his own hand, English deices to investigate because even if the two siblings didn't get along, the dead man was family. 

English uncovers a blackmail ring headed by a cold-blooded murderer who kills anyone who gets in his way. The killer frames English for two murders and before things come to a smashing climax aboard a blazing yacht, seven corpses litter the landscape. 

BURY isn't a mystery novel because the killer is revealed midway through the narrative. But it's a solid piece of crime/suspense fiction, as English and his aides (his loyal secretary, his lawyer, another private detective and his chauffeur ) race against time to bring the killer to justice and clear English's name. 

Nice way to pass a hot summer afternoon. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

THE BEST OF MANHUNT


I finished reading THE BEST OF MANHUNT (Stark House Press, July 2019), yesterday and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

The first and greatest crime fiction pulp magazine was the legendary BLACK MASK which ran from 1920 to 1951. It was in the pages of that magazine that American crime fiction masters Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler cut their teeth. When BLACK MASK folded, a new publication emerged in 1952, MANHUNT. The magazine ran until 1967 but the '50s were the best period in terms of stories and authors. 

BEST OF MANHUNT collects 39 stories from this era and the list of featured authors reads like a who's who of mid-century American crime writers. Among the authors included in this handsome trade paperback are Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, Gil Brewer, Helen Nielsen, David Goodis, Lawrence Block, John D. MacDonald, Fredric Brown, Donald Westlake, Harlan Ellison and Harry Whittington. 

Many of the stories are short, swift punches to the gut with didn't-see-it-coming twist endings that would have been right at home in the pages of EC Comics' CRIME SUSPENSTORIES and SHOCK SUSPENSE STORIES (both of which were also published in the 1950s). 

While there's not a bad story in the bunch, my favorite by far was HIT AND RUN by Richard Deming, an author I was completely unfamiliar with. It's one of the longer pieces in the book and the extra length gives Deming plenty of room in which to spin this truly diabolical yarn. 

A second volume of BEST OF MANHUNT is slated for publication later this year and you can bet I'll buy it, read it and enjoy it. 

If you're a fan of hardboiled, vintage crime fiction by some of the masters of the genre, you absolutely must read this book. 

Highest recommendation. 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY


THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945), which I watched for the first time yesterday, is a monster movie. How do I know?

Forry Ackerman told me so.

Oh sure, on the surface PICTURE is a costume drama with elements of the supernatural barely hinted at. It's a lush and lavish production from MGM, a studio not generally known for producing horror/monster movies, especially not in 1945. At that time, horror films were almost strictly the product churned out by smaller, lesser studios. MGM was a prestigious studio, the crown jewel in the Hollywood firmament. Surely they wouldn't stoop so low as to produce a common horror film?

Secondly, it's based on a classic novel by Oscar Wilde, a name that is rarely mentioned when talking about the major authors of the fantastic such as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Nevertheless, Wilde is an important figure in Western literature even if PICTURE is his only work with supernatural overtones. 

PICTURE also boasts a first rate cast including George Sanders (one of my all time favorite actors), newcomer Hurd Hatfield in the title role, two luminous beauties, Angela Lansbury and Donna Reed, in supporting roles along with a young Peter Lawford. 

And horror films, as a rule, don't receive Academy Award nominations, of which, PICTURE earned three including Best Supporting Actress (Lansbury), Best Black and White Art Direction and Best Black and White Cinematography (Harry Stradling, winner). 

And would MGM go to the trouble of shooting four color inserts (in three strip Technicolor) of the titular portrait, two showing the young Gray in his innocent prime, the other two, showing Gray riddled with rot and moral corruption. By the way, black and white photos of this horrific portrait regularly graced the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine when I was a kid. And since the magazine was printed in black and white, I naturally figured that the film must be in black and white also. Imagine my surprise to view these rich, vivid color inserts for the first time. Wow!

For those who came in late, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is the story of a young man who wishes to remain forever young while his portrait ages and shows the effects of a life spent in sin and debauchery. While Gray's sinful exploits are never explicitly delineated, it's inferred that he spends time with prostitutes and denizens of the London underworld. Several people that get close to Gray end up dead, including the man who painted the picture, Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), who meets his end at the hands of Gray. 

And although Gray professes his love for both Sibyl Vane (Lansbury) and years later, Gladys Hallward (Reed), it's just possible that some of Gray's descents into depravity might have involved homosexual encounters, acts which, in the London of 1886 would have been unspeakable crimes. Given the fact that author Wilde was himself gay, it's possible that he intended this to be a subtext to the work. NOTE: I have not read the novel, I'm merely using the film as my text. 

As the years go by, Gray remains eternally young but emotionally distant while the portrait, which he keeps behind a locked door, becomes more and more horrific. After the death of Sibyl's brother, Gray has had enough. He plunges a knife into the heart of the figure in the portrait, causing the picture to resort to it's original state while Gray's body, especially his face and hands, become ridden with pustules and blood. 

Yep, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY is a monster/horror movie, no doubt. If it wasn't, would Forry have featured the title character on the cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS #60, December 1969? It's a painting by the legendary Basil Gogos showing Gray in all his horrific magnificence. 

If Forry says so, that's good enough for me. 




Thursday, June 25, 2020

WESTERN HERITAGE


WESTERN HERITAGE (1948), is the kind of B Western that RKO and other studios cranked out by the hundreds in the '30s, '40s and '50s. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about this formulaic story of good guys vs. bad guys. The good guys in this one are Ross Daggert (Tim Holt) and his Hispanic sidekick Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin). The bad guys are led by Joe Powell (Harry Woods). The plot concerns a fake Spanish land grant which will give the bad guys total control over an Arizona valley. It's up to Daggert and Rafferty to stop them. 

What is interesting about this film is star Tim Holt. Holt made dozens of these types of westerns over his long career. They're all pretty much the same but Holt and his pictures (cheaply and quickly made though they were) proved to be enormously successful and popular. Popular enough to earn Holt his own comic book, entitled TIM HOLT,  from Magazine Enterprises that ran from 1948-1954 and lasted over 40 issues. 

While Holt is best known for his B pictures, he did appear in several A features over the course of his career including John Ford's immortal STAGECOACH (1939), Orson Welles' s sophomore effort THE MAGNIFCENT AMEBERSONS (1942), another classic Ford film, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), John Huston's masterpiece THE TREASUE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948) and the offbeat noir HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951) with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. Fans of '50s science fiction films will recall Holt's appearance in THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957). 

If you're looking for character development, thematic concerns and any trace of an interesting visual style, keep on moving down the trail because those things are not to be found in WESTERN HERITAGE. The more adult, psychological westerns of the '50s were still on the horizon at this point in American film history. But if you're a fan of Holt or B Westerns in general, you can't go wrong with this one. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

TIGER BAY


TIGER BAY (1959) straddles two distinct movements in the history of the cinema. On the one hand, it's a first rate film noir, coming at the tail end of that cycle of films in both the United States and other countries. And on the other hand, it anticipates the rise of the British New Wave which launched a couple of years later with A TASTE OF HONEY (1961). 

Polish sailor home from the sea Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz), expects to find his girlfriend Anya (Yvonne Mitchell), in his old rented flat. Instead, he finds a strange young woman. Bronek eventually finds the building where Anya lives but when he confronts her, she says she wants nothing to do with him. There is clear evidence in her flat that she has a new lover. The two quarrel, a gun is drawn and Bronek shoots Anya dead. 

Unknown to the panic stricken sailor, his crime was witnessed by Gillie (Hayley Mills), an orphaned tomboy who lives with her aunt in the same building. She desperately wants Bronek's gun because it would allow her to join in the games of "Cowboys and Indians" that the cap-gun toting neighbor boys engage in. 

Bronek eventually discovers Gillie and rather than kill her to keep her quiet, the two develop an oddly mutual relationship. She sees the troubled young man as a potential father figure while he relishes the unconditional love the mixed up pre-teen offers him. Gillie longs to go with Bronek when he returns to the sea but Bronek wants only to hire on to a ship and sail past the three mile limit where he can't be arrested by British authorities. 

Those authorities are embodied in Police Superintendent Graham (John Mills, real-life father of Hayley). He's doggedly investigating the murder of Anya, a case in which all fingers point to Barclay (Anthony Dawson), the married lover of the dead woman. It was Barclay's gun that was in Anya's flat and Gillie circles the noose a notch tighter when she identities Barclay in a police lineup and gives a blow by blow description of what she saw when she peeked through the mail slot. 

  But a slip up on Gillie's part causes Graham to pivot and go after Bronek, who is already on a Venezuelan freighter headed for international waters. There's a tense climactic showdown at sea before all is resolved. 

Many of the exteriors in TIGER BAY were filmed on location by cinematographer Eric Cross in the actual Tiger Bay district of Cardiff on the English coast. The scenes of street life, the workings of the docks and real pubs, give the film a vibrant and unusual locale.

The entire cast of TIGER BAY is first rate and director J. Lee Thompson does a terrific job in telling a tense crime drama melded with the offbeat but touching relationship between the sailor and the misfit young girl. 

What's equally interesting about TIGER BAY is what happened next to many of the people involved in the production. Young Hayley Mills was spotted by the Walt Disney Studios and cast in POLLYANNA (1960), the first of many films she made for the studio. Mills became a huge star in the '60s thanks to her Disney films.  

Composer Laurie Johnson continued to write music for British films and television series but is perhaps best remembered for the theme to THE AVENGERS, the popular British spy show of the '60s. 

Horst Buchholz went on to play one of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). He, along with Brad Dexter, are the two team members that everyone consistently forgets. 

Anthony Dawson played a henchman to the title villain in DR. NO (1962), the first James Bond film. 

And director J. Lee Thompson went on to make two great films in the early '60s, THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE (1961) and CAPE FEAR (1962). In addition, Thompson directed the epic Western MCKENNA'S GOLD (1969), two of the original Planet of the Apes films, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) and several film starring action icon Charles Bronson including ST. IVES (1976), THE WHITE BUFFALO (1977), 10 TO MIDNIGHT (1983) and THE EVIL THAT MEN DO (1984). 

TIGER BAY is a first rate, compelling little British crime drama that I was unaware of until it ran on TCM recently. I'm glad I took the time to check it out. 

Thumbs up. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

UNDERWORLD U.S.A.


UNDERWORLD U.S.A (1961) is a classic example of genre auteur Samuel Fuller's punch-'em-inna-face style of filmmaking. Although UNDERWORLD falls a couple of years past the end of the first classic cycle of American films noir, it's a hardboiled, two-fisted crime story that is noir to the core. 

Cliff Robertson, playing strongly against type, stars as scar faced Tolly Devlin, who was witness as a youth to his father's beating death at the hands of four mobsters. Vowing revenge, Tolly is struck by a truck carrying radioactive materials. The accident blinds the boy but heightens his other senses...….wait, wrong origin story.

Tolly does indeed swear revenge, no matter how long it takes. He's taken in by Sandy (Beatrice Kay), an older woman who runs a bar and serves as a substitute mother figure for young Devlin. 

Devlin wants revenge so badly he commits a series of petty crimes in order to be arrested and sent to prison where he can get close to one of his father's killers. The killer dies in Tolly's arms, begging for mercy and forgiveness but not before giving up the identities of the other three mobsters. 

 When Tolly is released from prison, he joins the gang in which the remaining killers all serve as heads of different arenas of crime. Devlin is too smart to kill the men outright so he enlists Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), a prostitute who was an eyewitness to a killing executed by the head of the vice racket. Her testimony will put the hood behind bars, so that's two killers down. 

Devlin goes to a crime commission investigating the mob and offers to help investigator John Driscoll (Larry Gates) by setting up the remaining two mob lieutenants. 

After all four men have either been killed or brought to justice, Devlin's vendetta is over. He tells Cuddles that he will marry her and as soon as those words leave his lips, you know he's a doomed man. 

Driscoll pleads with Devlin to help him take down Earl Connors (Robert Emhardt), the kingpin of the destroyed mob. Devlin cares nothing about Connors. He's claimed his pound of flesh. But when he realizes that Connors poses a threat to his future happiness with Cuddles he goes after the man, a move that leads to a brilliantly orchestrated climactic sequence. 

Fuller wrote, produced and directed UNDERWORLD U.S.A. and his go-for-broke maverick style of filmmaking DNA is imprinted on every frame of film. Aided tremendously by cinematographer Hal Mohr (who does great closeups and well staged action scenes), Fuller and Robertson paint a portrait of a man consumed by revenge, who becomes bitter and increasingly sadistic and detached from the two women who desperately want to have peaceful, loving relationships with him. 
 
Fuller's hardboiled saga reverberates with echoes of Nietzsche: sometimes when you stare into the abyss too long, the abyss stares back. 

Highest recommendation.