Friday, September 22, 2017

WILD TOWN


Jim Thompson throws a wicked plot curve in WILD TOWN, his 1957 West Texas noir featuring Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, who stars in Thompson's deeply disturbing portrait of a psycho, THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952).

Thompson sets everything in WILD TOWN up like a classic noir and you think you have everything figured out, you know where this one's going because, hey, you've read other books like this and seen dozens of films noir. The main character here is Bugs McKenna, an ex-con with a checkered past when it comes to steady employment. Bugs isn't the sharpest tool in the shed but he wants to get a decent job, settle down and try to put the mistakes of his past behind him. When he hits the West Texas oil boom town affectionately know as "Ragtown", he's confronted by Lou Ford who, rather than run the ex con out of town, sets Bugs up with a job as a house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

The hotel, like almost everything else in Ragtown, is owned by Mike Hanlon, a crippled older man who lives on the top floor of the hotel with a much younger hot-to-trot wife. You get the picture pretty quick. Ford is setting up Bugs to kill Hanlon so the corrupt lawman can run away with Mrs. Hanlon. But Thompson starts peppering the plot with unexpected curve balls.

Ford offers up his girlfriend, Amy, to Bugs, a proposition that Bugs readily accepts. Bugs also beds both Mrs. Hanlon and Rosalie Vara, a hotel maid who, although black, is passing for white. The hotel manager discovers a discrepancy in the books. There's $5,000 in cash missing and suspicion falls upon the outside auditor hired for the job. The auditor dies while in the presence of Bugs, but Bugs is innocent of the crime.

 Money, money, who's got the money? You can forget that narrative thread. It's a pure McGuffin that Thompson brushes off rather off-handedly in one short chapter. Okay, so now Bugs must proceed with the plan to kill Hanlon, right?

To say anything else will spoil the surprises in store in the final chapters of the book. Suffice it to say that some characters' motives aren't as clear as they appeared to be at first and what started out as a set-up-a-patsy-for-a-kill thriller unexpectedly turns into something else entirely. It's as if Thompson started out to write one kind of story and changed his mind half way through, taking things in a completely different direction.

Authors are entitled to do that and despite the twists, WILD TOWN is still a first rate noir thriller. I do have one problem though. Lou Ford, who was absolutely reprehensible in THE KILLER INSIDE ME, is a bit more sympathetic here. He's still a shit heel but he comes through in a surprising way in the end. It's a niggling little bit of inconsistent characterization but I suspect that when Thompson wrote WILD TOWN in 1957, he didn't imagine that many readers of pulp paperback crime novels would recall a character from a book written five years previously.

Highly recommended.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

NICK CARTER


Picked this beauty up at half price at the Austin Books Side Kick store back in August. 144 pages of glorious pulp adventure fun for only $7.50. How could I go wrong? Like they say on AMERICAN PICKERS, they made me buy it.

Earlier this year I read a couple of Nick Carter paperback novels. One, SAIGON, was from the 1960s, the other, SAMURAI KILL, was from the 1980s. Carter was not only the eponymous hero of these books, he was also the "author". Nick Carter, a venerable pulp hero who dates back to the 19th century, was updated and modernized as a super spy for the late twentieth century, a sort of American James Bond whose adventures were written by a variety of pulpsters all working under the house name "Nick Carter."

The pulp facsimile featured above (which I finished reading the other evening), contains Carter stories from two different eras of his long and checkered career. The first three stories comprise one long Nick Carter adventure but are written so that each installment can also stand alone. They are DR. QUARTZ RETURNS from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 11th, 1926, NICK CARTER CORNERS DR. QUARTZ from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 25th, 1926 and NICK CARTER'S DANGER TRAIL from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE January 22nd, 1927. Carter and his arch foe, Dr. Quartz, recall the relationship between another super-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But Carter and Quartz first meeting was published in 1891, which pre-dates Holmes and Moriarty's first battle, published in 1893. It's an interesting comparison but an unfair one to be frank because even when handled by the best writers, Nick Carter and Dr. Quartz aren't as mythic, legendary and iconic as Holmes and the Napoleon of Crime.

But Nick's duel to the death with the master villain, as told by ZORRO creator Johnston McCulley, is nonetheless great fun to read as Carter matches wits with the fiend, encountering a series of death traps and narrow escapes over the course of the three episodes.

In the 1930s, after both The Shadow and Doc Savage took off and began receiving astonishing sales and popular acclaim,  the race was on to create other pulp magazines starring larger than life heroes and villains. Street & Smith, the publishers of the earlier DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE title, decided to dust off Nick Carter and launch a new magazine carrying his name. This iteration of Nick Carter was a two-fisted, hard-boiled detective who fights crime with the aide of his adopted son, Chick Carter and his friend, Patsy Garvan (who, despite the name, is a man).

 In THE WAR MAKERS, originally published in April, 1936, an international spy ring steals a death ray from its' inventor, Dr. Fraile. Fraile and his comely young daughter are also taken captive by the gang which plans to sell the death ray to the insurgent nation of Emporia, which will then use the weapon in an attack on the United States. Nick Carter, aided by newspaper reporter Jack Duane, are hot on the trail of the espionage gang, whose mastermind is the mysterious, masked "Mr. B". The action is fast and furious with plenty of gun battles to spice things up. THE WAR MAKERS reads more like a Doc Savage novel than your typical detective thriller but Carter lacks the extraordinary physical and mental abilities of Doc and he does not have any of Doc's remarkable gadgets. But he has two blazing hand guns, a sharp mind and an indomitable will, all of which is more than enough to save the day.

I loved reading these Nick Carter yarns. They're all fast paced and fun with colorful villains and a tough, square-jawed hero who always wins. Thumbs up.



Saturday, September 16, 2017

SAVAGE NIGHT


"Yes, there is a hell, my boy, and you do not have to dig for it..."

I watched THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) the other night. It's a terrific little film noir based on the novel of the same name by Jim Thompson. I'll try and post a review of the film at a later date but suffice it to say that after watching the movie, I was in the mood to read some more of Thompson's work.

I have previously read and enjoyed THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952), AFTER DARK, MY SWEET (1955), THE GETAWAY (1958) and THE GRIFTERS (1963). I had copies of WILD TOWN (1957) and SAVAGE NIGHT (1953) on my shelves and I've now read both. Again, I'll write about WILD TOWN in a separate post, but here, I want to address SAVAGE NIGHT.

SPOILER WARNING: It's going to be tough to write about this book without giving some major plot points away so don't say I didn't warn you.

SAVAGE NIGHT is told in first person narration but one Carl Bigelow, which is not his real name. He's a short in stature (five foot tall) young man whose diminutive size and boyish good looks, make him appear much younger than he really is. Bigelow is, in reality, "Little" Charlie Bigger, a cold blooded, psychopathic murderer who has been sent to the small town of Peardale, New York to kill someone. Bigelow has been given his orders by the mysterious New York City crime lord known only as "The Man". Bigelow's target is Jake Winroy, a broken down alcoholic with ties to organized crime who is set to testify in an upcoming trial.

Bigelow's cover story for being in the town is his enrollment as a student at a small teacher's college. He rents a room in the Winroy house where he meets Fay Winroy, Jake's hot-to-trot wife, Mr. Kendall, a kindly older man who takes a keen interest in helping Bigelow and Ruthie, an attractive young woman with one leg who works as the Winroy's maid.

Before you know it, Bigelow beds both Ruthie and Fay. He has real feelings for the crippled young woman while Fay becomes his accomplice in his plan to murder her husband. Kendall gets Bigelow a job at a bakery and shows him the ropes at the college.

It all seems like a simple enough set-up. All Bigelow has to do is bide his time and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike but this being a Jim Thompson novel, there's nothing simple going on here at all. Bigelow is suffering from tuberculosis and it's only a matter of time until the consumptive disease claims him. The local sheriff has his suspicions about Bigelow while Bigelow is convinced that someone in the Winroy household is also under the control of The Man.

Things come to a quick and violent end in the last chapters of the book. Winroy is killed (but not by Bigelow). His killer is the last person you would expect and Bigelow and the killer escape into the country where they hole up in the deserted cabin of a writer that Bigelow once met. And it's here that things get really, really weird.

Not that things haven't already been slightly off kilter from the git-go. After all, this perverse, hard boiled thriller of broken people, murder and betrayal is already weird enough. All of Thompson's novels take place in a universe of existential dread and suffocating doom. But this ending, much like the final chapter of THE GETAWAY, is truly bizarre. You'll have to read it for yourself to find out what goes on but I'll give you this much:

It has something to do with goats.

SAVAGE NIGHT is a penetrating look into the psyche of a killer who is teetering on the brink of oblivion. It's raw, tough stuff, told by a writer who brought a singular vision, narrative style and twisted thematic concerns to everything he wrote.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

CAPTAIN SINDBAD


Guy Williams, bless him, was a great Zorro and a very good Dr. John Robinson but he was no Kerwin Mathews when it comes to portraying the legendary Arabian swashbuckling adventurer Sinbad the Sailor. Still actors have to eat and one can only hope that he was well paid and that he enjoyed his time in West Germany making CAPTAIN SINDBAD in 1962 (released in 1963).

Williams found tremendous success playing Zorro on the Walt Disney produced television series which ran from 1957 to 1959 and again in 1960-1961. Following Zorro, Williams went to Europe where he made CAPTAIN SINDBAD and DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962). He returned to the states to appear in five episodes of BONANZA in 1964 before striking gold once again with LOST IN SPACE (1965-1968).

And, just as Williams wasn't as good a Sinbad as Mathews was in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), nothing about CAPTAIN SINDBAD, earnest as it may be, can compare to Ray Harryhausen's fantasy masterpiece. The special effects are poorly mounted string puppets (with strings visible in several shots) rather than Harryhausen's breathtaking stop motion animation. A miniature set of rocky islands reveals that the "rocks" are an unpainted white below the water line and blurry matte lines are visible in several shots.

The score, by Michel Michelet, pales in comparison to Bernard Herrmann's magnificent work. The music is punctuated occasionally by sound effects that appear to be lifted straight from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Director Byron Haskin did much better work with producer George Pal on such genre touchstones as WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), THE NAKED JUNGLE (1954), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), and THE POWER (1968). Haskin also directed FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), and the much loved ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) , in addition to six episodes of the classic science fiction television series THE OUTER LIMITS (1963-1965).

Despite being set in the middle eastern kingdom of Baristan, there are no Arab actors in the film. The men of Sindbad's crew are all white guys except for one African American character, Quinius (Bernie Hamilton), who for some inexplicable reason, cannot speak. El Kerim, the villain of the piece, is capably played by Pedro Armendariz, who was born in Mexico and who appeared as Kerim Bey in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).

So, is there anything good to be said about this film? Yes there is. Heidi Bruhl is lovely as Princess Jana, the cinematography by Gunter Senftleben and Eugen Schufftan is colorful, lush and vivid. By the way, Schufftan had a long career as a cinematographer. He shot Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS in 1927, EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)  and won an Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography for THE HUSTLER (1961). According to the movie poster, CAPTAIN SINDBAD was shot in "Wondra-Scope" but I have no idea what the hell that means. The film was edited by, believe it or not, future Oscar winning director Hal Ashby (working as an assistant editor under the name Wm. Hal Ashby). The costumes are lavish, the sets well designed and the film really isn't a bad way to kill 85 minutes.

There was a Gold Key movie comic of the film featuring color photos on the cover and interior art by the great Russ Manning. I have a copy of it in my collection.


The problem is that the film can't help but suffer in comparison to Harryhausen's far superior cinematic Sindbad adventure. If I had seen CAPTAIN SINDBAD as a kid when it was first released in 1963, I'm sure I would have loved it but it failed to ignite a spark of wonder in me in 2017.

For hard core genre fans only.



Saturday, September 9, 2017

THE HITCH-HIKER


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE HITCH-HIKER (1953) years ago and loved it. I watched it again yesterday and my admiration for this film went up a notch. It's a classic little film noir with a simple, straightforward story.

Emmett Myers (William Talman), is a hitch-hiking serial killer, a droop-eyed demon thumbing a ride to hell across the American Southwest. He kills three people during the opening credit sequences, cleverly staged scenes in which we see only the killers' legs from the knees down. Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two buddies on their way to a fishing trip in the town of San Felipe on the Gulf of California. But they change their minds, go to Mexicali and then into Mexico where they encounter Myers, an innocent appearing motorist in need of gas. They pick him up and the terror begins.

Myers needs the two men, their car, gear and supplies to make it to Santa Rosalia on the gulf coast. From there, he can catch a ferry across the gulf and escape into the heart of Mexico. The three men play an increasingly dangerous series of mind games as they travel through the desolate desert. Collins and Bowen are constantly trying to devise a way to escape but Myers is always one step ahead of them. The Mexican police, working with U.S. agents, broadcast false information on the radio, making Myers think he's not being pursued. Eventually their car breaks down, leaving the three men to walk to Santa Rosalia where freedom waits for Myers and death for Collins and Bowen.

THE HITCH-HIKER is told with remarkable efficiency and economy by director Ida Lupino who doesn't waste a single moment of the films' 71 minutes of running time. It's a textbook example of how to get the most out of a low budget and short shooting schedule with every shot and set-up in service to the story. It's a bravura job of film making, the only American film noir of the classic period to be directed by a woman.

Lupino, while primarily known as an actress, had a long career behind the camera as well. She directed six feature films beginning with NEVER FEAR (1949) and ending with THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966). Lupino also worked in television directing episodes of such classic series as ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THRILLER, HONEY WEST, THE RIFLEMAN, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and THE FUGITIVE, among others.

In addition to Lupino's masterful direction, THE HITCH-HIKER benefits from a taut screenplay by Lupino and Collier Young, terrific on-location cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca and solid performances by the three main stars. Talman, who would go on to play long suffering District Attorney Hamilton Burger on television's PERRY MASON, is a stand out. He conveys an air of palpable menace, a stone-cold psycho killer who will casually murder anyone who gets in his way.

THE HITCH-HIKER is a first rate film noir that every fan of the genre should see. Even if you're not a noir-head, you'll like this one. Highly recommended.


Friday, September 8, 2017

3 DAY TERROR


Everything about the way 3 DAY TERROR (1957) is packaged sets up certain expectations in the minds of potential readers. For one thing, there's the vertical "CRIME" logo at the top of the cover, adjacent to the "Prologue Books Presents" banner. The cover blurb sets up a mysterious stranger in a small town where something bad is destined to take place. The back cover, which prints a portion of the text, describes an encounter between a young woman and a man that is fraught with tension and peril. Hell, even the title itself, 3 DAY TERROR, is appropriately lurid and suggestive, promising danger over a short span of time. You'd have every right to expect some kind of standard mystery thriller in which a stranger, possibly a killer, comes to a small town and wreaks havoc over a weekend.

And you'd be wrong. Dead wrong.

3 DAY TERROR isn't a crime novel by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a mystery. It is an exercise in suspense however along with a weird mash-ups of genres. It's PEYTON PLACE meets MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a Douglas Sirk film with a screenplay by Sam Fuller. It's gripping, compelling and powerful.

Bastrop, Alabama, is a small town whose one public school is about to be integrated by rule of law on a Monday morning. The narrative begins on a Friday evening and runs through that fateful Monday. Some of the townspeople support the integration, some with grudging respect for the law, while others are steadfastly against it and will do anything to stop it. The racist townspeople are stirred up by Richard Buddy, a Northerner seething with racial hatred who has come to Bastrop on his own to rally the townsfolk against integration. Buddy's thoughts, words and deeds (including a vile, racist pamphlet that he distributes), are full of raw, naked hate.

Into this potent, simmering boil, a situation ripe for exploitation, comes Delia Benjamin, a local woman who unexpectedly left the town and her jilted beau, local newspaper editor/publisher Jack Chadwick, several years prior for a husband in New York City.  Delia hits town at the same time as Richard Buddy and it's inevitable that their paths will cross several time during the course of the story. Delia's return to Bastrop opens up a number of old wounds in relationships, some of which can be repaired, while others can't.

Everything comes to a head on that Monday morning and while the school does peacefully integrate, two people end up dead by the end of the book.

3 DAY TERROR was written by Vin Packer, a pen name for author Marijane Meaker. As Packer, Meaker wrote 20 crime/mystery novels between 1952 and 1969. Originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal as a paperback original in 1957, 3 DAY TERROR paints a vivid portrait of small town America undergoing a seismic upheaval and the fallout that such an event causes in various lives.

 The characters are all well drawn and surprisingly sympathetic. Even the worst of the racist characters are given grounding and motivation for their thoughts and beliefs. There are no real heroes or villains here, just real people struggling with enormous problems, trying to keep their lives on an even keel. The language is extremely harsh and Packer pulls no punches in her depictions of the small minded vermin who consider the African American citizens of Bastrop as sub-human "apes." It's raw stuff but it's extremely well written and Packer knows how to keep a reader turning pages.

3 DAY TERROR masterfully subverts your expectations by setting you up for one thing and then delivering something entirely different. Thumbs up.



Monday, September 4, 2017

WESTWORLD


TCM ran this one the other day. I hadn't seen it in several years so I recorded it and watched it yesterday evening. I well remember when this film was released in 1973. It played at the grand old Americana Theater (now a public library) in Austin and I couldn't wait to see it. In 1973, any science fiction film was cause for celebration and anticipation. Some of the films actually lived up to expectations. Many did not. But as a die hard genre fan, I tried to see as many science fiction/fantasy/horror films as came my way in the early '70s.

WESTWORLD was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton. He'd already had two of his books adapted for the screen: THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), and THE CAREY TREATMENT (1972, based on the book A CASE OF NEED). WESTWORLD was entirely Crichton's baby and for a rookie writer/director, it's an admirable effort.

You know the story. Two men, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), come to Delos, a futuristic adult-oriented amusement park, for a vacation. Delos is divided into three "worlds": Westworld, Romanworld and Medievalworld. Each "world" is populated by incredibly life-like robots that interact with the vacationers in extremely realistic ways. Peter and John opt for Westworld and, dressed like movie cowboys, they enjoy life in the old west, which includes a saloon brawl and sex with robot prostitutes. Oh, and gunfights with a black-clad gunfighter (Yul Brynner, channeling his character from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)), who bleeds real blood when shot. After each gun down, the gunslinger is repaired and sent back into action.

Of course, as you can tell by looking at the poster, something goes "worng". The robots malfunction on a widespread basis and begin killing the guests. John is gunned down by the gunslinger who then begins chasing Peter. The robot has a bit of the Terminator in him as he survives an acid bath and being set ablaze and he just keeps coming and coming and coming....

WESTWORLD shows Crichton flexing his creative muscles and riffing on the thematic concern of a high tech wonderland going horribly wrong, an idea that would eventually result in JURASSIC PARK. Crichton does a decent job with a story is basically all high concept with little in the way of character development or back story. Here's Crichton's elevator pitch: There is an amusement park populated by life-like robots that break down and start killing people.

The film, produced by MGM, has very good production values and Crichton keeps things moving at a good clip. There's a couple of expository, set-up scenes at the beginning of the film and then the action starts. The score by Fred Karlin, utilizes a recurring mechanical "stuttering" motif which sounds remarkably like a 1970s era computer breaking down.

WESTWORLD was cover featured in FAMOUS MONSTERS #107, which was published in May 1974. FUTUREWORLD, a sequel which Crichton had nothing to do with, followed in 1976, along with a very short lived television series BEYOND WESTWORLD in 1980. The HBO series debuted in 2016 but, since I don't have HBO, I have not seen it and cannot comment on it.

WESTWORLD is an enjoyable little exercise in "what if?" It holds up reasonably well and I enjoyed the trip down memory lane. Thumbs up.