Friday, April 29, 2016

A SINGLE SHOT


I finished reading Matthew F. Jones's brilliant backwoods noir, A SINGLE SHOT (1996), the other day and I knew two things after reading just the first chapter. One, I absolutely had to keep reading because the narrative had its' hands around my throat and two, things were definitely not going to turn out well for our protagonist, one John Moon, a good, lonely man in what appears to be upstate New York, a man whose life goes to hell in a horse drawn wagon all because of a single shot.

The story opens with Moon venturing alone into a protected wilderness area on a deer hunt. Yes, he's poaching, but he hopes to kill a deer and give most of the venison to his estranged wife and infant son. He's a poor, proud, not-very-bright man just trying to provide for his family. He shoots a deer but doesn't kill it and he's forced to track the wounded animal deeper into the wilderness where the bloody trail eventually leads him to an abandoned granite quarry. Moon hears a sound in the brush, sees movement out of the corner of his eye and shoots, thinking it's the deer.

Instead, he's shot and killed a fourteen-year-old runaway girl. Then he finds a large stash of cash along with the girls' belongings. He puts the girls' body in a cave and takes the money and runs. End of first chapter and the beginning of Moon's nightmare.

Of course the money belongs to bad guys, very bad guys, who come after Moon in a variety of ways. Moon slowly becomes unhinged from reality during the course of his ordeal, worshipping the dead girl and kinda/sorta falling in love with her (there's a slight whiff of necrophilia here). Moon isn't very smart, but he has survival skills and backwoods know-how that allows him to stay slightly ahead of the doom upon his trail but only for a few days as the noose tightens with inexorable dread. The bodies mount, the violence becomes graphic and extreme (the finger cutting scene will make you squirm, guaranteed) and Moon fights a desperate race to stay alive. No more details here, except to say that the ending is definitely unsettling and a shocker.

A SINGLE SHOT is written entirely in the present tense which gives the action an urgent sense of immediacy. The prose is spare, beautiful, haunting and yes (look out, 'cuz here comes the dreaded "P" word), poetic. But it's a close kin to James Dickey's masterpiece DELIVERANCE in depicting the too-easy, almost casual danger that lurks in America's woodlands. There's also a strong sense of Scott Smith's brilliant debut novel, A SMPLE PLAN (1993), which was filmed by Sam Raimi in 1998.

Originally written in 1996, A SINGLE SHOT was re-released in nice trade paperback editions by Mulholland Books in 2011 and again in 2013 (to tie in with the film version of the novel, which I have not yet seen). Mulholland, an imprint of Little, Brown, is a great little label dedicated to publishing quality, contemporary crime fiction.

A SINGLE SHOT is a can't put it down book, a whirlwind ride into darkness and despair that is masterfully and skillfully executed. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A HANDFUL OF HELL


For about the last year and a half, I've been seriously and steadily collecting vintage men's adventure magazines. There were dozens of titles in this genre, most published over a span of 20-25 years from the early '50s to the early '70s. By the mid '70s, most of the titles had either ceased publication or converted to a T&A format in order to survive. But in their heyday, the MAMs offered a glimpse into a testosterone fueled universe in which action and adventure were the orders of the day. Aimed at a male audience comprised mostly of veterans, these magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper with slick covers.

And what covers they were! Lurid, vivid, and over-the-top can only begin to describe the visual intoxication these painted masterpieces provided. Depicting men, women, bad guys and killer animals (among other perils), the covers were certainly designed to sell magazines. It's one of the primary reasons why I collect these magazines. The cover art is just so unlike anything being published today that it's impossible to resist their allure. Plus, when I was a kid, if I had even thought about buying one of these magazines, I'm sure I would have been firmly set upon the straight path to hell. Thus, even though I saw these on the magazine stands of my youth, I never had the gumption to purchase one. My money went for issues of MAD, FAMOUS MONSTERS, CREEPY, EERIE and other black and white delights.

While I swoon over each and every new MAM I acquire on eBay these days, I've never actually sat down and read any of the contents that are so boldly emblazoned on the covers of these treasures. The more sensational, the more salacious, the wilder the cover copy, the better. After all, even though the covers were the primary selling point for the MAMs, they weren't just selling the sizzle over the steak. There had to be content in those pulp pages, stories and articles that delivered the goods to the men who plunked down their hard earned thirty-five or fifty cents for a few hours of reading pleasure and pure escape.

One of the finest craftsmen to contribute to the MAMs was Robert F. Dorr. The best of his many war and adventure stories has recently been collected in A HANDFUL OF HELL, published by, what else, The Men's Adventure Library. Editors Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle have assembled a superlative package of art and prose that  brilliantly showcases the storytelling prowess of Robert Dorr.

It's all here: bomber crews, fighter pilots, headhunters, damsels in distress, rampaging elephants, commies ,courageous Marines, brave padres, and more. Oh, and action, action, action. Dorr starts almost every piece in the middle of a deadly and dangerous situation, grabbing us by the throat in a tension filled narrative before providing the background details to let us know how our hero got into this predicament. With limited space and word count, Dorr can't afford to waste a single word and he doesn't. He gets you in immediately and then dares you to stop reading while he spins his yarns of high adventure and heroism. Told with bracing, cinematic style and verve, Dorr puts us into the bellies of B-29s, cockpits of fighter planes, the jungles of Southeast Asia and other places where danger and death are just a heartbeat away.

The stories are all first rate and adding to the collection is the inclusion of a fascinating introduction by Dorr and full color reproductions of the covers of the magazines where these stories first appeared along with other art. It's a terrific book that belongs on the shelf of MAM aficionados everywhere. My beautiful wife Judy bought a copy of HANDFUL for my birthday in March. I started reading it as soon as it arrived and I couldn't put it down. Editor Deis says there's a possibility of another volume of Dorr stories in the future. I certainly hope so.

A HANDFUL OF HELL gets my highest recommendation. Ya gotta' read this one! 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

THE HAUNT OF HORROR


The 1970s were a period of great experimentation and expansion for Marvel Comics. Not content to just publish monthly comic books starring an ever growing roster of super-heroes, Marvel began publishing horror comics (TOMB OF DRACULA, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, THE FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER, etc.), licensed properties (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DOC SAVAGE) and adaptations of existing science fiction, horror and fantasy stories in various titles, especially the short lived WORLDS UNKNOWN. The company also branched out into the burgeoning black and white comics magazine field giving established market leader Warren publishing a run for their money with a line of horror mags that included DRACULA LIVES, MONSTERS UNLEASHED, TALES OF THE ZOMBIE and VAMPIRE TALES. More magazine titles would follow, some in black and white while others made the bold jump to full color.

One of Marvel's most interesting experiments was the publication in June, 1973 of the first issue of THE HAUNT OF HORROR, a digest format magazine featuring all prose science fiction, horror and fantasy stories with spot illustrations by current Marvel bullpen artists. Under a terrific Gray Morrow cover there were stories by such names as Harlan Ellison, Ramsey Campbell, R.A Laferty, Robert E. Howard, Dennis O'Neil and Fritz Leiber (among others). There are several things about this line-up that's worth mentioning.

First, the Leiber story is part one of a two-part serialization of his classic horror novel CONJURE WIFE (filmed in Great Britain as BURN, WITCH, BURN! in 1962 and well worth seeing). I have a copy of the novel on my shelf and I really need to get around to reading it one of these days. Dennis O'Neil is an unusual choice to appear in a Marvel publication as he was, at that time, one of DC's best writers. The REH story is one of his minor efforts, USURP THE NIGHT, but hey, any Howard is a good Howard as far as I'm concerned.

The real treasure here is NEON by Harlan Ellison. I was aware of Ellison prior to reading this story as he had written several comics for DC, Marvel and Warren (an AVENGERS-HULK crossover, a Batman Halloween story and ROCK GOD in an issue of CREEPY, illustrated by Neal Adams with a cover by Frank Frazetta). But this was the first time I had actually read a bonafide Harlan Ellison short story and I was blown away. I have a longer tale to tell about the man and his work and its' influence on me but I'll save that for some other time.

I bought this book when it first came out and read it from cover to cover. Ditto the second (and final) issue of the title. I have no idea what happened to my copies except that they are long gone from my collection. While prowling around the eBay store of a dealer I buy men's adventure magazines from the other day, I noticed he was offering both issues of HAUNT (which, by the way, later became a black and white horror comics magazine) for sale. I popped for the first issue without a moment's hesitation and, if luck holds out, I'll purchase number two soon.

This mag is a real blast from the past. It brought back a ton of memories and reminded me of how great comics could be in the 1970s.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

UM, SHE'S NOT EXACTLY STANDING, WARLOCK OL'BOY!


Somebody out there want to explain how in the hell this panel ever got past the Comics Code Authority? From WARLOCK #8, October 1973 Marvel Comics. Script: Mike Friedrich. Art: Bob Brown and Tom Sutton.

RESCUE DAWN

"The jungle is the prison."

Werner Herzog, one of the most influential filmmakers to emerge from the "New German Cinema", started making movies in 1968. He's still at it. But until the other day, when I watched RESCUE DAWN (2006), I had never seen a Herzog film. I was suitably impressed by what I saw and will certainly seek out some of his other films.

Based on true story and set in 1966, RESCUE DAWN details the odyssey of Lt. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot who goes down into the green hell of Laos on his first bombing mission. Trouble is, the United States isn't supposed to be flying missions into Laotian airspace. Remarkably, Dengler survives the plane crash and sets out through the impenetrable jungle in an attempt to find his way back to Vietnam or be discovered by a Navy search and rescue mission, whichever comes first.

But it's not long before Dengler is capture by the Pathet Lao who proceed to mercilessly torture and degrade Dengler on a constant basis. They eventually take him a prisoner of war camp deep in the jungle. There's only a handful of guards overseeing the five prisoners being held there, two Americans and three Laotians. The Americans, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), have resigned themselves to their captivity, going along to get along and patiently waiting their eventual release. All of the men have suffered both physically and mentally. Dengler refuses to acquiesce to imprisonment and begins to plot and plan an escape from the camp. The other prisoners are at first reluctant to go along with him, favoring the devil they know (their ruthless captors) over the unknown perils and near certain death awaiting them in the jungle.

But everyone eventually agrees to participate in the succeed or die escape attempt. The men do gain their freedom and go their separate ways once outside of the camp. Only Dengler and Martin stay together and their ordeal is unbelievably hellish. SPOILER: Martin is eventually slain by native tribesmen while Dengler is finally rescued by American forces.

Shot on location in Thailand, RESCUE DAWN features stunning cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. His camera puts us right there in the jungle beside Dengler and the others as they struggle to escape and survive. The score, by Klaus Badelt and Ernst Reijseger is sparse but beautifully haunting. Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, does a terrific job of making us feel the physical and mental anguish of the men. Most importantly are the performances by the three American actors. Zahn and Davies are both very good but it's Bale's show the entire way and he suffered for his art, losing weight before production began in order to shoot his emaciated final scenes first, then shooting the rest of the story as he gradually gained his weight back.

RESCUE DAWN is a grueling, at times tough to watch, tribute to one man's refusal to surrender against impossible odds. Recommended.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP


"Worry about me."

Now this my friends, this is what I'm talking about when it comes to down and dirty crime films. I'll get to the details in a moment but first, as Paul Harvey used to say, over my shoulder a backwards glance.

I saw the original theatrical release of PAYBACK (1999) on February 22 of that year at the Marble Theater in Marble Falls, Texas. How can I remember such a specific date and time? Easy. I spent that day in the hill country combining business with pleasure. I met my writer buddy Ray Bronk for lunch at the legendary Bluebonnet Cafe in Marble Falls. After lunch, I went to Ray's lake house on Lake Buchanan for a glass of smooth scotch and good conversation. Then I went back into Marble Falls where I met the then owners of the Marble Theater (forgive me, I don't recall their names) for a short interview.

In early 1999, I had already sold and had published an article on historic Texas movie theaters to TEXAS HIGHWAYS magazine. I had in mind to eventually write a book on the subject and was still doing first hand research whenever I could. The Marble, which opened in 1942, was still in operation in 1999 as a first run movie theater, which was the focus of my article and proposed book. After the interview, I went for a brief dinner in town and then returned to the theater to see the film that was playing that night. It was PAYBACK. Oh, and how do I know the date? Because film critic Gene Siskel had passed away two days earlier on February 20th and the marquee at the Marble read "So Long Gene. Thanks for the Memories."

PAYBACK was based on THE HUNTER, the first novel about professional thief Parker by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake). The novel was first filmed as POINT BLANK (1967) by John Boorman with Lee Marvin as "Walker". It's a neo-noir masterpiece but it's not exactly the novel. THE HUNTER was also adapted into a brilliant graphic novel by the incredible Darwyn Cooke in 2009. Cooke has done a couple of other Parker graphic novels and they are all highly recommended, as is everything the man does.

The version of PAYBACK I saw at the Marble Theater that night was radically different than the version I watched the other day. That's because after the film was finished by writer/director Brian Helgeland, the studio insisted on some changes, changes which Helgeland refused to perform. The studio made the changes anyway resulting in a longer running time and a less than satisfying narrative. There was an opening scene that showed "Porter" (Mel Gibson) being operated on for two bullet wounds. Thee was a voice over narration through out the film and everything had a washed out bluish tint to it.

Still, with nothing to compare it to, the original PAYBACK was a serviceable enough little crime film. Nothing spectacular but nothing terrible either. In 2006, Helgeland regained the rights to the film and decided to re cut it into a preferred "director's cut" so his original cinematic vision could be seen.

The results are amazing. The film has a shorter running time. Gone is the meatball surgery opening scene. The voice over narration is jettisoned. And most importantly, the superb cinematography by Ericson Core, stripped of a blue filter, is finally given a chance to shine.

Porter is a professional thief who pulls a heist with Val Resnick (Gregg Henry who looks for all the world like the love child of James Caan and Clu Gulager). Resnick and Porter's wife Lynn (Deborah Unger), double cross him, shoot him in the back and leave him for dead. He gets better and comes back with a vengeance. All Porter wants is his money back, a tidy sum of $70,000 and he'll kill anyone who gets in his way.

Parker runs a gauntlet of bent cops, the Chinese mob (from whom the money was originally stolen) and the local "outfit" which is run by Carter (William Devane), Fairfax (James Coburn) and Bronson (Sally Kellerman as a voice heard only on the phone). Porter is aided by high class hooker Rosie (Maria Bello) and the body counts ratchets up until Porter achieves his objective.

The brilliance of this version of PAYBACK is that Helgeland has opted to set the action in an unnamed large American city. Is it New York? Chicago? The location is never identified (although much of the exteriors were shot in Chicago). And it's never clear exactly when this is taking place as vintage '70s cars are front and center in many scenes while '90s models are glimpsed in the backgrounds. Plus, there are rotary dial phones, among other anachronisms. The result is a timeless crime story taking place in a nameless city, all of which infuses the film with a real '70s crime film vibe.

PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP is a first rate little crime film. It has all of the elements of crime fiction that I dig. Read the original novel, check out the graphic novel and see this film for a full dose of the Stark/Parker magic. If you love this stuff like I do there's more of this material to enjoy. Highly recommended.


Friday, April 8, 2016

IT'S DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN


Howard Hawks and John Wayne made some great movies together.

EL DORADO (1966) is not one of them.

Howard Hawks ranks as one of the great directors of the 20th century American cinema. He began making films in the silent era (1926) and ended his long and illustrious career in 1970. Hawks proved himself a master of many genres including film noir (THE BIG SLEEP (1946)), screwball comedy (BRINGING UP BABY (1938), HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), BALL OF FIRE (1941)), crime (SCARFACE (1932)), war (SERGEANT YORK (1941), AIR FORCE (1943), science fiction (THE THING (1951)), musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953))  and westerns (RED RIVER (1948) and RIO BRAVO (1959)). Those last two starred genre icon John Wayne and both are great films.

The films listed above are merely the cream of the crop of the Hawks filmography. His films were always consistently well made and worth watching no matter the subject matter. A Howard Hawks film was almost always a good film.

But the argument can be made that after RIO BRAVO, Hawks ran out of creative gas. He kept working but his output was less than stellar and frankly disappointing. HATARI! (1962), another John Wayne adventure movie, is bloated and pokey with no real story or conflict and it only comes to life during the animal trapping sequences (which are very well done). MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? (1964) was a failed rom-com with Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss. RED LINE 7000 (1965) is a racing picture starring a young James Caan that seems better suited to the exploitation/drive-in circuit given the setting, characters and plot. Next came EL DORADO (we'll get to that in a minute) followed by RIO LOBO (1970), another John Wayne western which proved to be Hawks's last film. Not a great way to finish out a long and illustrious career but certainly not a weak enough fade away to tarnish the man's reputation as an important filmmaker.

EL DORADO, which I watched for the first time the other day is not a bad film in and of itself. It's just that I've seen it before. And so has anyone reading this who has ever seen RIO BRAVO. DORADO is a virtual remake of that earlier film as was RIO LOBO. That's going to the same well three times with diminishing results each time.

DORADO has a screenplay by noted science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. Hawks liked Brackett's work as she wrote or contributed to the screenplays of THE BIG SLEEP, RIO BRAVO, HATARI!, MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT? and RIO LOBO. She also wrote THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) (another Raymond Chandler adaptation) and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). So both Hawks and Brackett share some of the blame for recycling material from BRAVO into DORADO, although DORADO is credited to being based on the novel The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown.

The evidence speaks for itself. John Wayne stars as Cole Thornton, a gun for hire in the post Civil War west. Robert Mitchum is Sheriff J.P. Harrah, a man with both a badge and a drinking problem. James Caan is Mississipi, a reckless young man out for revenge. Arthur Hunnicutt is Deputy Sheriff Bull, a cantankerous old coot who fancies himself a veteran Indian fighter. There are not one but two beautiful women as love interests for these men: Charlene Holt as Maudie and Michele Carey as Joey.

The four male leads are tasked with keeping a prisoner, land baron Bart Jason (Ed Asner) in jail. They're up against an army of hired guns led by Nelson McLeod (Christopher George). There are a couple of well staged action sequences but there's also a helluva lot of talk and expository info dumps in the 126 minutes of running time.

Everything matches up perfectly with RIO BRAVO. Wayne is Wayne. Mitchum is the drunk lawman played by Dean Martin. Caan is a substitute for Ricky Nelson. Hunnicutt is channeling Walter Brennan and it takes two hotties to fill the tights of smoking hot Angie Dickinson. Hell, even the town and jail set look the same and I'd swear that are scenes in the jail that are framed, shot and written almost exactly as they were in BRAVO.

Still the film was a box-office smash when it was released in 1967. Wayne's name on a movie marquee still sold tickets as did Hawks's name on the credits. Mitchum was no slouch either as far as movie stars go and old fashioned westerns were still popular, the genre having yet to fully experience the paddles to the chest shock of the cinema of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.

EL DORADO is an entertaining film and it's not a bad way to pass an afternoon. But I honestly wish there was something fresher, something more original going on. I've seen RIO BRAVO and it's far and away the better film.