Thursday, July 21, 2016

UNDERWATER!


Good underwater photography and the presence of the beautiful Jane Russell can't save UNDERWATER! (1955), an utterly routine RKO adventure film produced by Howard Hughes. The story concerns two couples, Jane Russell and Richard Egan are one, Gilbert Roland and Lori Nelson are the other, trying to recover sunken treasure from a shipwreck in the Caribbean. They are kinda-sorta menaced by some Mexican shark hunters but there's almost no tension or conflict throughout the proceedings. Roland gets the bends while diving. This will surely become a plot point. Nope, he's diving again before you know it. Roland gets trapped when part of the ship collapses upon him. A tense rescue sequence should follow. Nah, Egan and Russell dig him out in about five seconds.

UNDERWATER! combines underwater sequences shot on location and in a huge tank constructed at the RKO studios. These scenes are fairly well done. However, when the action shifts back to the surface, the sail boat that the team is working from is clearly also a set in a studio with a painted backdrop of sky and clouds. The juxtaposition is jarring and only serves to reinforce the fact that this is just a movie (and not a very good one at that).

Director John Sturges went on to direct much better films but here he's learning the ropes and paying his dues. Russell gets top billing  and she's clearly the star of the film. I'm sure Howard Hughes had much to do with that. She does the best she can with the material (Robert B. Bailey and Hugh King wrote the screenplay) but what's there is pretty dull, standard stuff. Lori Nelson has very little to do here other than look good. She followed up UNDERWATER! with a more impressive genre film, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955). Oddly enough, Ricard Egan (who, for some bizarre reason, reminds me of Mickey Mantle), was at one point attached to play none other than Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, in a proposed live action television series. That would have been something to see!

There's really nothing here to see kids (except Jane Russell). Unless you're a die hard fan of hers, move along.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

ZEMBA


First published in December, 1935, ZEMBA was the ninety-first adventure of The Shadow. It was reprinted in November, 1977 by HBJ in a handsome mass-market paperback with a great cover by Jim Steranko. This is the edition I finished reading yesterday evening.

ZEMBA is a departure from the usual Shadow pulp thriller. This one takes place overseas in England and France and is a tale of international intrigue and spies with a corkscrew plot that will leave you scratching your head if you're not paying close attention. The action begins on a train bound from London to the English Channel. A murder takes place and important documents, containing vital state secrets, are stolen. The culprit is a killer in the employ of master international criminal Gaspard Zemba. But intrepid Scotland Yard inspector Delka is on board and he gives chase to the killer. The killer boards a ferry across the channel, where he is killed by yet another Zemba assassin. Delka gives chase. In France, the second killer boards a train for Paris with Delka in pursuit. That killer is the next to die and when the train reaches Paris, the trail goes cold. Three people are dead, important papers are missing and Zemba is somewhere in Paris where he commands an army of thugs. Oh, and Zemba's one identifying characteristic is a missing finger on his left hand.

Enter master detective Etienne Robeq who comes to the aid of the French police in the hunt for Zemba. The Shadow soon appears along with trusted agents Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland. A chase and gun battle soon ensue and from there, nothing is quite what it seems to be. The three main players, The Shadow, Robeq and Zemba are all present and accounted for during the rest of the adventure. Or are they?

The story ends with an amazing reveal that warrants a close, perhaps even second reading, in order to keep everything straight. It's a masterstroke of misdirection by author Walter Gibson, who knew a thing or two about magic tricks. My lovely wife Judy didn't care for the ending as she found it entirely too confusing. I thought it was a bit hard to follow but I commend Gibson for having the courage to try something different. After all, he (and other writers), were cranking out these things on a monthly basis and it wasn't always easy to come up with a totally original idea every time.

I give ZEMBA a thumbs up. Or is that a  missing finger?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

EIGHTY MILLION EYES


EIGHTY MILLION EYES (1966)  by Ed McBain, is the twenty-first entry in his long running 87th Precinct series. It's the second 87th Precinct novel I've read this year, following AX (1964) back in the late spring. This series is set in a nameless big city and follows the detectives of the 87th Precinct as they solve murders and other crimes the old fashioned way: through painstaking time and effort, involving collecting physical evidence and interviewing suspects. There's nothing glamorous about what they do but through professionalism, dedication and skills honed by years on the job, they always solve their cases.

EIGHTY MILLION EYES is actually two cases in one book. In the main narrative, TV comic Stan Gifford dies on camera during a live broadcast of his weekly variety show. Forty million people (eighty million eyes) see him die of apparent poisoning right before their astonished eyes. Detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer investigate. The second case concerns a cold-blooded stalker who has set his sights on a young woman. He brutally assaults a police officer first and follows that with an attack on the woman. Both the cop and the victim end up in the hospital where Detective Bert Kling sets a trap for the creep. The two stories do not intersect but they're both compelling and well told.

If you like your mystery novels to feature realistic police procedures, smart dialogue and clever solutions, I recommend this series. If you're a hard core mystery fan you've probably already read them. I'm coming to them late but I've enjoyed what I've read so far and look forward to reading more books by McBain. Thumbs up.



Monday, July 18, 2016

CANADIAN PACIFIC


I've been watching some vintage westerns lately thanks to both TCM (July is Westerns month) and the StarzEncore Westerns cable channel. I've always liked westerns and while I've seen most of the major, key works of the genre, there are a lot of 'em out there that I haven't seen.

CANADIAN PACIFIC (1949) is one of them. This Randolph Scott vehicle was shot on location in the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park, Morley Indian Reserve in Alberta and Yoho National Park in British Columbia. The on location cinematography is stunning. The film was shot in Cinecolor, a color process that gives everything a slightly pastel look, rather than the vivid, robust and super-saturated palette of vintage Technicolor. The film has recently been fully restored (except for one shot near the end that remains in black and white) and it's a real treat for the eyes. However, the interior scenes shot on studio sets resemble episodes of BONANZA. They all have a fake look that is slightly jarring when juxtaposed with the magnificent outdoor vistas on display in the rest of the film.

Still, that's a minor quibble about what is a very entertaining film. Scott stars as Tom Andrews, a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He's tasked with finding a pass through the Rockies for the railroad to reach the Pacific Coast. He does so and announces his retirement from the railroad at the beginning of the film. He wants to marry his true love, Cecille Gautier (the lovely Nancy Olson) and settle down. But Cecille's father is part of a group of trappers, led by the sinister Dirk Rourke (Victor (THE SHADOW) Jory), who oppose the railroad because it will open up their territory to competition. The rift between Tom and Cecille's father causes them to break up. Rourke and his men begin a campaign of sabotage against the railroad which leads Tom back to work  on the railroad to oversee security.

During one sabotage attempt, Tom is injured in a dynamite blast. Dr. Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), gives him a transfusion of her own blood and nurses him back to health. They fall in love and Edith demands that Tom hang up his guns and live a peaceful, non-violent life. He does so for a time but when the railroad is threatened by both Rourke's men and the local Indian tribe, he must take up his guns. There's a well staged attack on the single remaining rail car in which Tom and the defenders win the day. Cecille returns to help repulse the attackers and she and Tom reconcile their differences.

In addition to the gorgeous cinematography by Fred Jackman, Jr., CANADIAN PACIFIC has a rousing score by Dimitri Tiomkin and a good supporting cast including J. Carrol Naish as Dynamite Dawson. John (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) Hamilton looks out of place as French-Canadian priest Pere Lacombe. Director Edwin L. Marin keeps things moving at a good clip while the screenplay by Jack DeWitt and Kenneth Gamet has an interesting sub-text regarding the use of violence. Tom can only bring civilization to the wilderness by the use of force, yet once the territory becomes civilized, men like him will no longer be needed. He allows himself to be emasculated by Edith (who represents civilization) but he ultimately has to resort to dealing death to save lives.

CANADIAN PACIFIC is a good old-fashioned western adventure, made even more enjoyable by the magnificent scenery and the rugged heroics of Randolph Scott. Thumbs up.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"I NEED A FIX 'CUZ I'M GOING DOWN..."


SO NUDE, SO DEAD by Ed McBain has an interesting publication history. It was originally published as THE EVIL SLEEP! under McBain's real name, Evan Hunter in 1953. It was reprinted in 1956 as SO NUDE, SO DEAD under the pen name Richard Marsten. Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher), reprinted the book in July, 2015, as SO NUDE, SO DEAD by Ed McBain. The trade paperback sports a terrific cover painting by Greg Manchess.

The story is a classic noir set-up. A piano player junkie, Ray Stone, awakens from a night of shooting heroin, to find a dead woman in bed next to him. The beautiful blond, also an addict, has two bullet holes in her stomach. Ray remembers nothing except that there was sixteen ounces of pure, uncut heroin somewhere in the dead woman's apartment. Heroin that is now missing.

Desperate both to clear his name and find the missing heroin (Ray needs a fix in a very bad way), he sets out to play detective. Another dead body turns up during his investigation, the cops are on his tail and he gets roughed up by a couple of gorillas who are also hunting the missing drugs. There's a roof-top shoot-out and escape from the cops to liven things up as Ray encounters shady jazz musicians, a luscious femme fatale and drug pushers all while battling his addiction and his burning desire for another fix. The identity of the killer isn't hard to figure out and the end has echoes of Mickey Spillane's I, THE JURY (1947) (minus the .45 slug into a woman's belly).

SO NUDE, SO DEAD is a fast paced, down and dirty little crime novel.  It's similar to another one of McBain's early novels, CUT ME IN, in that his detective hero isn't the standard private eye or cop. In CUT, the main character was a literary agent, here it's a drug addict. SO NUDE isn't the greatest crime novel I've read but it's serviceable and shows a future master at the beginning of his career, just learning the tricks of the trade. Worth reading if you're a fan of film noir and hard boiled crime novels.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

BADMAN'S TERRITORY


One of the pleasures of watching old movies like BADMAN'S TERRITORY (1946), is spotting character actors in the supporting cast. You know, familiar faces who you know because of other signature roles they later played. For instance, in this RKO western, Ben Johnson appears uncredited as a sheriff's deputy. He has one line and I recognized his voice before I saw his face. John Hamilton, who went on to star as Perry White on television's ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, has one scene. And Ray Collins, who was in CITIZEN KANE (1941) and later achieved immortality as Lt. Tragg on TV's PERRY MASON, has a somewhat larger role. As I said, spotting these veteran, hard working actors in the background is always a pleasure.

The film itself is a good one. Iconic movie cowboy Randolph Scott (one of my favorite Western actors), stars as Mark Rowley, a Texas lawman on the trail of the notorious James gang (led by Lawrence Tierney as Jesse). The James gang takes refuge in the so-called "Badman's Territory", a rectangle of land north of the Texas panhandle and west of Oklahoma (it's actually the Oklahoma panhandle), that has not yet been annexed by the United States and is thus, without any formal law enforcement. To pursue the gang (who have his brother hostage), Rowley must remove his badge and enter the lawless town of Qunito. There he finds a crusading newspaper publisher, Henryetta Alcott (Ann Richards), who is lobbying for the territory to be annexed in order to bring law and order.

The territory is a virtual who's who of western badmen. In addition to the James Gang, there's the Dalton Boys, Belle Starr (Isabel Jewell) and notorious Texas gunfighter Sam Bass (Nestor (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON)) Paiva). Rowley is eventually made the territory's "regulator" but with annexation looming, he stands to be arrested on false charges brought by crooked U.S. Marshall William Hampton (Morgan Conway). Rowley, aided by Coyote (veteran "coot" George "Gabby" Hayes) eventually wins the day but not before several reversals of fortune along the way.

With it's narrative thread of a crusading newspaper advocating statehood for a lawless territory, BADMAN'S TERRITORY anticipates John Ford's magnificent THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). But the screenplay, by Jack Natteford, Luci Ward, Upson Young and Bess Taffel, doesn't dwell on the theme. Instead, it concentrates on action and conflict, all of which is capably handled by director Tim Whelan.

BADMAN'S TERRITORY is a good, old-fashioned western movie with appealing leads and a strong, colorful supporting cast. It's not the best Randolph Scott western ever made but it's certainly well worth your time.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

THE LAS VEGAS STORY

"If I kissed you, Bill, it wouldn't be fair"-Jane Russell, THE LAS VEGAS STORY

There may be better ways to spend a brutally hot summer afternoon than watching a vintage Jane Russell film but damned if I can think of any right this minute. Jane Russell is one of my all time favorite beauties of the silver screen and I'll watch her in anything, like, for instance, THE LAS VEGAS STORY (1952), a Russell vehicle produced by the legendary Howard Hughes at RKO. Russell was only one of many young actresses that the tycoon was involved with but it was Russell that became a star under his patronage.

The screenplay (by a committee of Paul Jarrico, Earl Felton and Harry (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE) Essex, from a story by Jay Dratler), is pretty routine stuff. Some experts may classify this as film noir, but I see it as more a straight crime film. After all, it has songs and piano playing by the great Hoagy Carmichael and a happy ending, elements which are not commonly found in bonafide noir. Linda Rollins (Russell) and husband Lloyd (Vincent Price)  (one of my all time favorite actors, here in the pre-horror film phase of his career), stop off in Las Vegas on their way to Los Angeles. Lloyd needs to try to win money at the casinos to cover up his embezzling while Linda revisits her old haunts, particularly the Last Chance casino where she was previously employed as a singer accompanying piano playing Happy (Carmichael). She's tailed by Tom Hubler (Brad (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) Dexter), an insurance company investigator sent to keep an eye on Linda's fabulous diamond necklace. Linda runs into old flame Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), who is now a detective with the Clark County Sheriff's Department. Before long a casino boss is dead, the necklace is stolen, and Lloyd is arrested as a suspect.

But the real killer kidnaps Linda at gunpoint and makes a mad dash across the desert. Dave gives chase in a helicopter in a nifty set piece orchestrated by director Robert Stevenson. The chase climaxes at a deserted military base where the chopper flies through two hangars during the pursuit. This may have been the first time such a stunt was used in a film. It's all very well staged for the period and the on location setting adds a gritty element to the final showdown between Dave and the bad guy.

In addition to the chase sequence, THE LAS VEGAS STORY features impressive production design. The interior sets of the The Fabulous, a fictional Las Vegas have a mid-century atomic ranch vibe to them while there's lots of exterior footage of the Las Vegas strip and the Fremont Street areas as they were in the early 1950s.

The supporting cast is good. The durable Jay C. Flippen is the sheriff, while Will Wright (Ben Weaver on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) plays the owner of The Last Chance. Veteran cartoon voice actor Paul Frees plays a district attorney in one scene. Mature and Dexter are solid but Price is more fun to watch than either of them.

But nothing in this film is as much fun to watch as Jane Russell.