Friday, June 27, 2014

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN

My Journalism 101 professor at the University of Texas (and forgive me, I can't recall his name) was a huge fan of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's bestselling book, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. In fact, the book was on our course syllabus and was required reading for all students.

I had already read an excerpt from the book in PLAYBOY magazine (yes, I did read PLAYBOY for the articles, among other things). I read the book and enjoyed it immensely. The film version of the book was released that spring (1976), and our professor insisted that we all see the film in addition to reading the book. He also asked us to read the issue of PLAYBOY that contained the famous Jimmy Carter interview in which the then presidential candidate admitted to having "lust in his heart". That professor was pretty progressive and I think he saw Woodward and Bernstein as the new patron saints of investigative journalism (he wasn't wrong in this assessment). I also think he wanted each and every one of us in the class to become the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. I don't think any of us ever achieved that status. I know I sure as hell didn't.

I saw the film on first release at the old Capitol Plaza Cinema. I watched it again yesterday for the first time in years and I was amazed at how well it has stood up over the years. Even if you didn't live through the Watergate era and the fall of President Richard Nixon (as I did), anyone going into this film for the first time has to know the final outcome. Yet, director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman, manage to generate a fair amount of suspense in the film, which is both a  fairly accurate account of American history and a perfect example of the cinema of paranoia that existed in the 1970s. A paranoia, ironically enough, created in large part by the criminal activities of President Richard Nixon and his men.

Several things stood out while watching the film. When Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are interviewing people for their stories, Pakula almost never has them all in the same frame. He cuts from shots of Woodward solo, Bernstein solo or W&B together, to their interview subject. It's a nice visual way of showing how the reporters try to remain detached and apart from their sources in their pursuit of the facts. Also, there's one terrific shot of Woodward sitting at his desk talking to sources on the phone. It's a long, single take in which Pakula starts fairly wide with a medium shot and then slowly, ever so slowly pushes the camera in on Woodward's face, eclipsing all of the background newsroom action. It's just a guy talking on a phone but the way it's filmed and acted, it generates a slow build up of suspense.

There's the cloak and dagger stuff of Woodward's midnight meetings in a parking garage with his unnamed source, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). In 2005, the identity of Deep Throat was revealed as F.B.I. Associate Director Mark Felt. Pakula  and Goldman get the details of the daily workings of a newspaper right. The supporting cast is outstanding with Jack Warden, Martin Balsam and Jason Robards all turning in fine work. The actual narrative ends with the second inauguration of Richard Nixon in 1973 playing out on a newsroom television set while Woodward and Bernstein continue to write stories in the background. Then, a series of tight closeups of wire service headlines and datelines are hammered out like gun shots reporting the arrests and convictions of various Watergate players, ending with the final one announcing the resignation of Nixon on August 9th, 1974. I remember it well.

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN received 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. It won for Best Art Direction (the Washington Post newsroom set is incredible), Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor (Robards). It's a fascinating look at the way newspaper reporting used to be conducted using electric typewriters, rotary phones, telephone directories, lots of phone calls and shoe leather, countless face to face interviews and even a little bit of clever subterfuge to get to a source. Woodward and Bernstein did good, important work and the film honors what those men did. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

OPERATION PAPERCLIP

I finished reading OPERATION PAPERCLIP: THE SECRET INTELLIGENCE PROGRAM THAT BROUGHT NAZI SCIENTISTS TO AMERICA by Annie Jacobsen last night. It took me awhile to get through because this was one of those books that I read aloud in its' entirety to my lovely wife Judy. We can both enjoy a book that way. I had previously read Jacobsen's AREA 51 a few years back (also aloud) and liked her work. This new book doesn't disappoint.

The first part of the book, which takes place as WWII is coming to an end, is full of the kind of stuff you would find in a 1940s pulp science fiction novel, except it's all true. The amazing arsenal of wonder weapons that Nazi Germany had developed (or were developing) was incredible. If Germany could have somehow put all of this advanced (and deadly) technology to work against the Allies, history might have taken a different turn. V-2 rockets, "buzz" bombs, biological weapons, nerve gas, weaponized plagues and diseases, the list goes on. The Third Reich employed a small army of scientists to develop these weapons and used countless slaves (taken from various concentration camps) to construct them.

But when Germany surrendered, the Allies, especially the United States, were still conducting war with Imperial Japan. In the spring of 1945, no one knew how long that conflict might possibly last and it was deemed imperative that the U.S. military take possession of as much of the Nazi weapons program as possible in the event the weapons were necessary to defeat Japan. This involved taking possession of not only the hardware itself but the plans and designs and the brains who conceived these things. A mad dash to capture as many German scientists as possible was under way.

Of course, the war with Japan ended in August, 1945 when the U.S. deployed two of our own wonder weapons. But even with the threat of Imperial Japan neutralized, there was still the danger posed by the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin, our once ally now become a deadly foe. The Soviets were also grabbing as many Nazi scientists as they could and the U.S. was forced to play keep up in this new arms race.

Many (if not all) of the captured German scientists had ties to the Nazi party. Many of them had the blood of innocents on their hands. Many were tried as war criminals at Nuremberg and some were sentenced to death. But many of the ones who weren't executed were given special visas to come to the United States where they were put to work on various projects including rockets, guided missiles, nerve gas, biological weapons, mind control drugs (including LSD) and other top secret endeavors. In short, the United States government, our armed forces and various intelligence agencies, made a deal with the devil to bring these men and their families to America, house them, feed and clothe them and put them to work under various government contracts.

The program was code named Operation Paperclip and for years, many of the documents and files pertaining to this program were classified. It's only been in recent years that the scope of the program has become known as various material has been declassified. There are still files that remain sealed and many that simply do not exist anymore.

Jacobsen does a great job tracing the careers of many of these scientists and doctors. Men like Werner Von Braun (the father of the American space program and a childhood hero of mine) are among the various characters covered in the book. Some men worked in the United States for the rest of their lives while a few of the more heinous ones were eventually deported.

The book raises the age old question: when does the end justify the means? Was the development of the U.S. space program, advances in aerospace medicine, the development of drugs and vaccines and other accomplishments, worth the price of paying some very bad men to do it while we collectively looked the other way? Jacobsen, and most of the sources quoted and interviewed in the book, say no. But the genie is long out of the bottle. The postwar landscape of the Cold War dictated a new kind of combat and the men involved in Operation Paperclip (both Americans and Germans) played a vital part in fighting that war.

Recommended.

Monday, June 23, 2014

NIGHTMARE IN PINK

"Her heart was as cold as a stone at the bottom of a mountain lake."

I finished reading NIGHTMARE IN PINK (1964) yesterday. This was the second time I've read this one. It's the second Travis McGee novel by the one and only John D. MacDonald and it's a good one. But then, MacDonald never wrote a bad book.

NIGHTMARE finds McGee in New York City, totally out of his more familiar Florida environs. He's there to help Nina, the kid sister of his military buddy Mike who is now a blind invalid in a VA hospital. It seems that Nina's fiance was mugged and killed on the streets of New York. He was also in possession of ten thousand dollars cash, which the muggers didn't take. Was he skimming from the real estate investment company he worked for? Or was something far more sinister going on?

McGee investigates and the trail leads to a financial swindle of enormous scope. Certain crooked parties are cooking the books at the investment company and they will let no one stand in their way. When McGee starts getting too close, he's drugged by a high priced call girl and sent to a private mental hospital where a frontal lobotomy is on the menu for our favorite beach bum/knight errant. He escapes (of course) and turns the tables on his captors but suffers some wicked side effects from the hallucinogenic drugs that have been injected into him.

In addition to busting the conspiracy, McGee beds Nina and the two develop a fairly deep relationship before parting ways at the end of the book. No permanent mate for McGee you know.

NIGHTMARE IN PINK is an excellent Travis McGee adventure full of the elements that make the series so addicting: great characters, wonderful dialogue, wicked villains, beautiful women, believable criminal schemes and lots of trenchant observations about modern society. Recommended.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

I watched THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944) for the first time the other night. I enjoyed it immensely except for one thing: the ending.

WOMAN was directed by Fritz Lang and stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea. Lang and those three actors worked together the following year on SCARLET STREET  (which I've written about on this blog). I have to say, I liked SCARLET STREET better but that's only because of the ending of WOMAN IN THE WINDOW.

The narratives of the two films have some similarities. Robinson plays a mild-mannered college professor whose wife and children are out-of-town for a brief time. He goes to his private club for dinner and drinks with two friends, one of whom is district attorney Raymond Massey. Outside of the club, Robinson is transfixed by a portrait of a beautiful young woman on display in the window. The object of the painting is, of course, the breathtaking Joan Bennett.

After dinner and drinks, Robinson chooses to remain at the club to read for awhile. He selects a book and settles in his chair with his brandy and cigar and he asks a waiter to awaken him at 10:30 p.m.

The waiter does so and Robinson leaves the club. He stops to once again admire the portrait of Bennett when she unexpectedly appears next to him. They strike up a conversation, go for a drink and eventually wind up back at her apartment. There's nothing sexual going on, just conversation but you can tell Robinson is attracted to Bennett (and who wouldn't be?). Suddenly, a man shows up at the apartment and flies into a murderous rage against Robinson. Robinson kills the man in self defense by stabbing him in the back numerous times with a pair of scissors provided by Bennett. And here's where, as in all classic film noir, things start to go off of the tracks.

Rather than call the police, they decide to cover up the killing and dispose of the body along with almost all of the evidence. Robinson takes the body to a remote area and dumps it but he leaves a long, telltale string of clues. Before you know it, Robinson is accompanying D.A. Massey on his investigation (as an interested observer) and it becomes obvious to Robinson that the police are beginning to suspect him of the crime.

But they're not. They're looking for the dead man's bodyguard who has gone missing. Said bodyguard, played by the supremely unctuous Duryea, shows up at Bennett's apartment and tells her he knows all about her affair with his wealthy boss. He puts the squeeze on Bennett and Robinson for $5,000. They give it to him but he wants more.

Robinson, convinced there's no way out of the predicament he's put himself into, decides to commit suicide. He takes an overdose and begins to drift off. At the same time, the police corner Duryea, a shootout ensues and Duryea is killed. Incriminating evidence is found on his body and the police decide they have their killer. Bennett runs back to her  apartment to phone Robinson to let him know the good news but it's too late. Robinson is already dead.

That's a helluva ending to one helluva film. Trouble is, it's not the ending. As the phone rings, a hand appears from off camera and shakes Robinson awake. He's in his chair at the club where he has been dreaming all of this time. The waiter tells him it's 10:30 p.m. Robinson leaves the club, passing the hat check man and doorman. The hat check man is the man he killed in his dream, while Duryea is the doorman. It's like the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ when Dorothy says, "and you, and you, and you were all there!" Robinson ends up looking at Bennett's portrait in the window. When a floozy comes up and asks for a light, Robinson runs down the street and into the night.

The "it-was-all-a-dream" ending was forced onto Lang by the studio. According to the motion picture code that was in effect at the time, it was forbidden to show someone getting away with murder in a film. Murderers must always be punished in some way and since Robinson got away with murder (although the case can be made that he was well and truly punished by the taking of his own life), the code insisted that the ending be amended to show that everything was only a dream.

This ending only slightly mars what is otherwise a terrific, tight and taut exercise in suspense. If you watch THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, turn it off  (or walk out) as soon as Robinson takes the overdose. You won't miss anything after that. Recommended.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

PRIME CUT

Somehow, I missed seeing PRIME CUT (1972) in the theater when it was first released. I know I wanted to see it. My buddy Ray Kohler saw it and said it was great. I finally sat down and watched it the other day. I was disappointed.

PRIME CUT has a great pedigree. Three Academy Award winning stars: Lee Marvin (one of my favorites), Gene Hackman (whom I always enjoy) and Sissy Spacek (in her film debut). But despite the presence of those three stars (all of whom do admirable work in their roles), the film is thin and unsatisfying. If this is a prime cut of film, all of the fat (and flavor) has been trimmed off.

Gene Hackman is a corrupt meat packer named, of all things, Mary Ann. He operates a meat packing plant in Kansas City but it's a front for his vice operations, mainly drugs and prostitution. Mary Ann has been getting fat off of the profits of his enterprise but he refuses to share the wealth with the Irish mob back in Chicago that set him up in his illegal operations. The mob sends some enforcers to collect the take, all of whom meet their unfortunate ends in the slaughterhouse run by Mary Ann's brother, Weenie (the great Gregory Walcott, who was brilliant as Pope in THE EIGER SANCTION).

The Chicago mob has had enough. They send their top muscle man, Nick (Lee Marvin) to the Midwest to get the money that Mary Ann owes the mob. He's aided by a trio of young Irish thugs including Shaughnessy (Howard Platt, who was Hoppy on the TV series SANFORD AND SON). Nick finds Mary Ann holding an auction of naked, drugged young women in his show barn and rescues Poppy (Spacek) from Mary Ann's clutches. Then Nick goes after Mary Ann, letting nothing stand in his way, not even Nick's old flame, Clarabelle (the astonishingly beautiful Angel Tompkins). The most memorable sequence in the film takes place in a wheat field where Nick and Poppy are pursued by a threshing machine.

There's plenty of action but the plot is wafer thin. PRIME CUT seems made to revel in the sex and gore elements that marked many early '70s crime films. Director Michael Ritchie has trouble reigning in his satirical tendencies during a long sequence that takes place at a county fair. His camera focuses on the Midwestern men, women and children as both inherently evil and utterly banal. To emphasize this point, Mary Ann's enforcers are all corn fed, big blond meat heads who wear nothing but denim overalls.

I wanted to like PRIME CUT much more than I did. I waited 42 years to see it but I'm not sure the wait was worth it. I'm sure that had I seen this one when it first came out, back when I was in high school, I would have liked it much more. Worth seeing once if only for the presences of Marvin, Hackman and Spacek.

Monday, June 16, 2014

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE WILL OF THE DEAD

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE WILL OF THE DEAD (which I finished reading yesterday evening) by British science fiction author George Mann is a brand new Holmes novel published in 2013. It's about as close as you can get to a traditional, classic Holmes adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except it isn't. Let me explain.

THE WILL OF THE DEAD is comprised of two separate narrative threads. In one, Holmes, Watson and Inspector Charles Bainbridge of Scotland Yard (a character from Mann's other steam punk sf novels) combine forces to solve the mystery of a murdered man and his missing will. It's a straightforward, good old-fashioned detective story without a trace of the supernatural or paranormal to be found. It's a definite throwback to the works of Doyle.

But the other narrative thread concerns a serious of burglaries committed by a gang of "iron men", steam driven automatons that have glowing red eyes. Here's where the bizarre, steam punk element gets added to the book. Except, it's not blended with the first narrative concerning the missing will. In fact, Holmes refuses to aid Bainbridge in his investigation of the "iron men" until after he has solved the mystery of the missing will. Then and only then, in the last few pages of the book, does Holmes solve the riddle of the iron clad marauders. And of course, it's a Scooby Doo.

It looks to me like author George Mann had notes on two separate Holmes adventures and the editors at Titan Books perhaps asked him to combine the two in order to make a book-length adventure. Except, it's not a book-length adventure. The story, WILL OF THE DEAD, clocks in at 217 pages. Not quite enough to fill the 251 pages between the two covers. Those remaining 34 pages are given to a short story, THE HAMBLETON AFFAIR,  starring Mann's steam punk protagonist Sir Maurice Newbury.

So, we have a Sherlock Holmes novel that's really two, completely unrelated stories slapped together into one narrative and a short story starring a hero other than Holmes. To make matters worse, in WILL OF THE DEAD, Mann uses the long held traditional method of having Watson relate the story (as is done in all Sherlock Holmes stories) but he injects chapters told from the viewpoints of other characters in the story, including Inspector Bainbridge. This is simply not done, despite the foreword by "Dr. Watson" that offers an excuse and an explanation for this violation of the classic narrative structure of a Holmes story.

WILL OF THE DEAD isn't a bad little mystery yarn and I've read enough Holmes stories to have figured it out before the reveal  but I would have much preferred to read either that story entirely by itself or the "ADVENTURE OF THE IRON MEN" as a separate tale. And both tales should be told completely by Dr. Watson and only Dr. Watson. Oh, and save the Maurice Newbury story for a volume of Newbury stories. When I buy a Sherlock Holmes book, I want 100% Holmes.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN

I first saw THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) on a double-bill with Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) in the early '60s at the old Austin Theater on South Congress. If memory serves me correctly, they were the first two Hammer horror films I saw. I loved them both. I watched THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN for the first time in years the other night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was a groundbreaking film in many ways. It was the first full-color film based on the Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley and it was the first time the Frankenstein monster had been seen on the big screen since ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). It was the first of the wildly successful cycle of Gothic horror films produced by Britain's legendary Hammer Studios. In addition to featuring a fresh, new interpretation of the classic story and a new look for the creature, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN also offered four key elements that came to define mid-century Hammer horror films. Blood, bosoms, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing is first rate as the mad Victor Frankenstein who will stop at nothing in his single minded quest to create life from dead bodies. He's reluctantly aided by Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart) who continually begs Victor to cease his experiments. Victor will have none of that. Victor and Paul keep working until an unexpected wrench is thrown into the mix: the arrival of Victor's cousin Elizabeth (the oh-so-lovely Hazel Court). She wants desperately to be a part of Victor's life and that includes finding out just what exactly is going on upstairs at the castle behind that always locked door.

What's behind the door is, of course, the monster (Christopher Lee). Lee is magnificent in the part of the horribly scarred creature. He has no dialogue but Lee's physical presence is enough to carry the role. Things come to a fiery climax, the monster is destroyed (or is he?) and Victor  faces the blade of the guillotine, as he has been found guilty of murder. He blames the crime on his creation but alas, cannot produce the monster as evidence. The film ends with Victor going to his death but THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN proved so financially successful (much like the 1931 Universal FRANKENSTEIN) that a sequel starring Cushing was planned for the following year. THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) was the first of six more Hammer Frankenstein films with Cushing playing Dr. Frankenstein in all but one film (THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970)).

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is capably directed by genre legend Terence Fisher who would go on to be one of the chief architects of the Hammer horror phenomenon. Fisher gets the most out of his limited budget, a handful of sets and a solid cast. Cushing is the stand out here and I love the way he's constantly wiping his hands on his blood stained frock coat.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN holds up remarkably well for a film that's almost as old as I am. I loved watching it again the other night. It brought back lots of very fond childhood memories.

Warren Publications issued a magazine in the mid-'60s that featured fumetti versions of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA. The stories of both films are re-told using black and white stills with comic book style word balloons and captions. As I kid, it was the only way I could own a version of these films since video tape did not exist at the time. I still have a copy of this magazine (seen below) and it's one of my most prized monster magazines.

 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

THE GARMENT JUNGLE

In every movie I've ever seen that featured labor unions as a plot element, the unions were almost always portrayed as the bad guys. Unions were corrupt, full of mobsters and not above using strong arm tactics to achieve their goals. In short, the unions were almost always synonymous with organized crime. That is, almost always.

THE GARMENT JUNGLE (1957), which I watched the other day, is the only movie I've ever seen that reverses this long-held cinematic paradigm. In JUNGLE, organized crime is employed by a dress manufacturing company to keep the union out of its shop. Lee J. Cobb is the owner of the business and he wants no part of the union because allowing his shop to unionize will mean an increase in his operating expenses and cut into his profits. He built this company with his bare hands and he's not about to turn it over to the union. In order to prevent this, he pays mob muscle man Richard (HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL) Boone to serve as his enforcer. Boone and his boys (including Wesley (KISS ME DEADLY) Addy), put the screws to anyone who tries to organize a union in the shop.

The leader of the union movement is Robert (T.H.E. CAT) Loggia, a passionate man with a beautiful young wife (Gia Scala) and a new baby. He believes wholeheartedly in the union and he's willing to fight for it, alongside other pro-union workers such as Joseph (DR. NO) Wiseman.

Thrown into the middle of this conflict is Kerwin (7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) Mathews. He's Cobb's prodigal son, fresh from a stint in Europe and he's returned home to work beside his dad and learn the garment business from the inside out. Trouble is, Mathews is a union sympathizer, which doesn't sit well with dad Cobb. Things to come to a boil and people are killed before everything turns out okay in the end.

THE GARMENT JUNGLE is an interesting minor noir. It's gritty and has several nice New York City location shots. Director Robert Aldrich began shooting the film but eventually left the project. He was replaced by Vincent Sherman, who does a workman like job of orchestrating the action. Everyone in the cast is good (with one exception). You've got to love a movie that has Celia (STAR TREK: AMOK TIME) Lovsky and Sid (GREEN ACRES) Melton in it. Boone is a great bad guy, Loggia is intense, Cobb is stubborn and Scala is very attractive.

The biggest problem with this film is Kerwin Mathews. He was serviceable as Sindbad in a role that didn't require him to bring much depth to the part. But here, he's terrible. Unbelievably wooden and stiffer than one of the many dress dummies used in the film. I'm sure Mathews was cast because he was under contract to Columbia Pictures and they had to put him in something. He's a nice looking guy: tall, broad shoulders, square jaw, dark hair. But boy, is he a bad actor! And his badness stands out like a sore thumb against a cast of uniformly better performers.

Still, THE GARMENT JUNGLE is an interesting little film. It's worth seeing once if only for the novelty of a dress making factory using thugs against the union. Recommended.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

SCARLET STREET

2014 is almost half over. I've seen a lot of movies so far this year and I'm sure I'll see many more before this year is over. But as of today, June 12th, my vote for the best movie I've seen this year goes to SCARLET STREET (1945), which I watched for the first time last night.

Oh.
My.
God.

What an amazing film! This is textbook film noir, drenched in despair and doom. From the beginning of the film, you just know that things aren't going to turn out well for poor Chris Cross (brilliantly played by Edward G. Robinson) as he falls head-over-heels in love with Kitty March (the incendiary Joan Bennett). In the noir universe created by director Fritz Lang,  the road to hell is paved with women who look like Bennett does here and Robinson, the poor sap, buys a first class, one-way express ticket to eternal damnation.

Robinson falls victim to both Bennett and her oleaginous boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea). Duryea comes on like Eddie Haskell on steroids. He's oh-so-obsequious, oozing fake charm and insincere bonhomie. Everything about the guy, from his slightly high-pitched, squeaky voice, to his bow ties, to that damn corny straw boater hat, screams phony and fake. But Johnny has his hooks in Kitty and she has hers in poor Chris and that's when the descent into ruin begins as the two plot to use Chris for everything he's worth. Trouble is, they think he's worth more than he really is.

There are several plot twists and turns in the narrative. A character who was believed dead earlier in the film, shows up in the third act to serve as both a hindrance and liberator for the hen-pecked Chris. Freed of his nagging, oppressive wife, Chris goes to Kitty and proclaims his love for her. She laughs at him and calls him names. SPOILER ALERT! Enraged, he murders her with an ice pick. Boyfriend Johnny is accused of the crime, tried, convicted (on purely circumstantial evidence) and executed. Only Chris survives and, consumed by guilt, he tries to end his own life. He's unsuccessful and spends the rest of his days wandering the streets of New York, a homeless, broken man carrying an impossible burden of guilt and regret.

Director Fritz Lang orchestrates the action with a master's touch. He repeatedly shoots the characters through doorways, windows and other square, geometric spaces which serve to visually emphasize how utterly trapped by fate they all are. The three leads are all magnificent. It's interesting that Robinson plays a painter in this film because in his later life he was quite an art expert and connoisseur.

SCARLET STREET rightfully deserves to be placed in the first rank of classic noirs. If there's any one out there who doesn't know what a film noir is and wants to see for themselves what all of the hubbub is about, I submit that all they need to do is watch SCARLET STREET. This film says it all.

Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

THE STREET WITH NO NAME

My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948) the other day. It's a tight and terrific little film noir that is better than it has to be.

A crime wave in Center City has turned vicious. A woman is shot down in a nightclub robbery while a guard is gunned down following a bank heist. Something must be done to stop these robbers turned killers. FBI agent Lloyd Nolan recruits new agent Mark Stevens to go undercover and infiltrate the gang led by Richard Widmark at his evil best. The gang is using "scientific" methods to plan and commit their crimes and it's up to the F.B.I. to combat them with state-of-the-art technology of its' own.

Stevens slowly but surely wins the trust of Widmark and the gang but a major heist gets called off at the last second due to a tip off from inside the police force. It seems there's also a corrupt police officer to be dealt with in addition to the gang. The suspense ratchets into high gear in the third act when Steven's true identity is discovered, which leads to a tense showdown in an abandoned factory.

On-location photography adds greatly to the mood and atmosphere of this semi-documentary style crime film. It is a direct follow up to another 20th Century Fox film noir, THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945) (which I have yet to watch) and STREET has plot elements that echo HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) and WHITE HEAT (1949). One big plus is the absence of a musical score throughout the film. Alfred Newman contributes music during the opening credits and at the end of the film but the rest of the movie is scoreless. There are several wonderfully staged scenes with no dialogue in which only the natural sounds of the big city at night are heard. Everything feels real and the film offers a great snapshot of postwar urban life.

Director William Keighley keeps the focus on the story at all times. There's no romantic subplot to get in the way and slow things down and there's no comic relief. This is serious business. The supporting cast includes Barbara Lawrence, John McIntire and Ed Begley. THE STREET WITH NO NAME is a winner in my book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD

I started watching AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (1952) yesterday afternoon and just a few minutes into the film it struck me that I had already seen it. Don't remember when or where and I certainly didn't remember the particulars of the plot. Should I keep watching or turn it off? Hey, it's got Rita Hayworth in it. Of course I kept watching.

As the title states, the action is set in Trinidad where Hayworth is a dancer in a nightclub. And what a dancer! Her estranged husband is found dead at the beginning of the film. The officials, including the great Torin Thatcher as the police chief, list the official cause of death as suicide. But he suspects murder and thinks wealthy businessman Max Fabian (Alexander Scourby) may be involved. Fabian was a friend and patron of Hayworth's late husband so Thatcher asks Hayworth to get close to Fabian and see what she can dig up in the way of evidence against him.

But along comes brother-in-law Glenn Ford to mess things up. Turns out his now dead brother wrote to Ford shortly before his death, requesting him to come to Trinidad with the hint that there was work to be had. Before you know it, Ford is in love with Hayworth (who can blame him?) but he's miffed when she gives him the brush off and takes up with Fabian.

Turns out Fabian and some sinister foreigners with strange accents are up to no good. The exact details of their nefarious plot are never quite fully explained but it has something to do with launching American missiles from the Caribbean against key target cities in the United States. Fabian is selling this information to the highest bidder, an unnamed foreign government. Given that this film was made in 1952, it's easy to guess who the real bad guys are.

Hayworth gets to strut her spectacular stuff in another dance number at Fabian's house before the suspense ratchets into higher gear in the third act. Ford discovers the error of his ways and comes to the rescue just in the nick of time and Hayworth and Ford return to the U.S. at the end of the film

AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD was Hayworth's comeback film for Columbia after being away from the studio for four years. Hayworth and Ford had co-starred in the film noir classic GILDA in 1946 and the studio was obviously hoping to recapture some of that box-office magic. The plan worked. AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD made one million dollars more than GILDA.

In addition to echoing GILDA, AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD as elements similar to Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946). AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD is fast paced, pulpy fun. The supporting cast is solid and Ford makes a good leading man. But the real appeal here is the magnificent Rita Hayworth. What a comeback! Thumbs up.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

ANGEL FACE

Director Otto Preminger was one of the chief architects of the post war cycle of American films that have come to be known as film noir. LAURA (1944) ranks as a bonafide masterpiece while such films as FALLEN ANGEL (1945), DAISY KENYON (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1949) and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) are all solid noirs and his hard-hitting, adult courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) has noir undertones. His big, epic films include EXODUS (1960), ADVISE AND CONSENT (1962), THE CARDINAL (1963) and IN HARM'S WAY (1965).

Like many filmmakers, not everything Otto Preminger made was a great, or even a good film. His SKIDOO (1968) is a genuine wtf? movie that, while I haven't seen it, is widely regarded as his worst film. I submit that another contender for worst Preminger film is ANGEL FACE (1953), a noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched this one the other day and we were both left scratching our heads when it was over.

Produced at RKO studios by Howard Hughes, ANGEL FACE has pedigreed talent in front of and behind the camera. It's competently shot and acted but there's just nothing here, no surprises, no narrative twists, no "wow-that's-a-great-shot" moments, no suspense and no sense of urgency. It's leaden, almost glacial in it's pacing and the story is strictly by-the-numbers. If you're a film noir fan, you've seen all of this before and in better films.

Mitchum is an ambulance driver (along with partner Kenneth Tobey) who is called to a palatial Beverly Hills mansion one night. A woman (Mona Freeman) has been overcome by gas but was it a failed suicide attempt or something sinister? Herbert Marshall is Freeman's husband, a blocked novelist, whose beautiful daughter Simmons doesn't get along with her step-mother.

Before you know it Simmons basically throws herself at Mitchum (even though he has a girlfriend). She starts spinning a web in which Mitchum is caught. Simmons engineers the automobile accident deaths of her father and step-mother and she and Mitchum stand trial for the crime. They're acquitted, Mitchum says he's leaving and Simmons kills them both by plunging their car over the same cliff that was the scene of her parent's deaths.

ANGEL FACE has echoes of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE but without the sexual energy that fueled that James M. Cain classic. It's routine, slow and boring. It's noir but it's not good noir and it's not a film that I would ever want to sit through again.

Here's the amazing thing about ANGEL FACE. In 1963, Jean-Luc Godard named it the 8th best American Sound film, while critic Robin Wood placed it in his top 10 films shortly before his death. Did they see the same film that Kelly and I did?

And how about this from film critic Paul Brenner: "Preminger transforms a second rate James M. Cain murder plot, re-orchestrating this textbook tale of passion and murder into a haunting and haunted refrain. The by then cliched storyline is pared away and brought down to an elemental level--there is not a wasted scene in the film-and the story's familiarity breeds an aftertaste of inevitability and doom. The hallucinogenic nature of the proceedings is accented with Preminger's  direction and camerawork, having actors drift from foreground to background or having the camera track to fluid and suffocating close-ups. Preminger, ever the mesmerizer, weaves his style into a half-dream haze of nightmare."

And this from Dave Kehr: "This intense melodrama by Otto Preminger is one of the forgotten masterworks of film noir...The film is a disturbingly cool, rational investigation of the terrors of sexuality...The sets, characters, and actions are extremely stylized, yet Preminger's moving camera gives them a frightening unity and fluidity, tracing a straight, clean line to a cliff top for one of the most audacious endings in film history."

With all due respect to both Brenner and Kehr, I must disagree with their assessments of this film. They both see things here that neither Kelly nor I saw. ANGEL FACE just isn't as good as these gentlemen make it out to be. In fact, it's not good at all. Thumbs down.

 

Friday, June 6, 2014

BORDERLINE

I finished reading BORDERLINE by Lawrence Block this afternoon. The story was first published in 1962 and just re-issued in trade paperback last month by Hard Case Crime. But in both 1962 and 2014 the verdict is the same. BORDERLINE is one of the sleaziest books I've ever read. And that's not a bad thing.

Set in El Paso and Juarez, BORDERLINE tracks five people on a collision course with fate. There's Marty, the professional gambler who rolls the dice on a night with Meg, the bored divorcee who seeks excitement and finds Lilly, the beautiful hitchhiker lured into a live sex show by Cassie, the redhead with her own private agenda and Weaver, the madman, the killer with a straight razor in his pocket, on the fun from the police and determined to go down swinging. That's taken verbatim from the back cover of the book by the way but it doesn't begin to describe what these pages hold.

Sex is on the menu and lots of it, both straight and gay. Three of the five main characters engage in several lesbian sex acts. There's alcohol. There's marijuana. There's gambling. And there's violence, very explicit violence.

What BORDERLINE doesn't have is a real hero, a central character upon which we can pin our hopes for escape from this lurid, sordid hell of an environment. Oh, sure, Marty manages to defeat the mad killer Weaver but it's at literally the last minute, after his razor blade has tasted the blood of several female victims. Instead, Block weaves his narrative among the five characters, slowly and steadily constructing a path upon which they will all eventually collide.

In addition to the title novel, BORDERLINE contains three short stories by Block which were originally published in men's adventure and pulp magazines. The stories are THE BURNING FURY (originally published in OFF BEAT DETECTIVE STORES, Feb. 1959), A FIRE AT NIGHT (originally published in MANHUNT, June 1958) and STAG PARTY GIRL (originally published in MAN'S MAGAZINE, Feb. 1963).

Lawrence Block is one of my all-time favorite writers and the work on display in this volume shows a writer at the beginning of his career, learning the ropes, earning his chops and paying his dues. None of this material is great literature but it's all competently done and it certainly delivered the goods of sex and violence to the largely male readership of the publications where this stuff originally appeared. But be warned. BORDERLINE is pretty raw stuff. It's an in-your-face, no-holds barred walk on the wild side of two cities. It's not for the faint at heart or the prudish. This is one lean, mean, down and dirty piece of pulp fiction.

I loved every minute of it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

WAS THIS INVASION REALLY NECESSARY?

For you folks keeping score at home, THE INVASION (2007) (which I watched yesterday), is the fourth cinematic iteration of this classic science fiction story. First came the 1955 novel by Jack Finney (which I've read and enjoyed), then the original (and best) film version in 1956 directed by the great Don Siegel. There was a 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman and Abel Ferrara directed BODY SNATCHERS in 1993. Now comes THE INVASION, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (who him?). This works out to a new film version of the material about every thirteen years or so. So round about 2020 we can expect to see a new film entitled either BODY, SNATCHERS or, quite simply, SNATCH. Take your pick.

THE INVASION starts with a U.S. space shuttle making a fiery and disastrous entrance into earth's atmosphere. The craft explodes on re-entry and spews alien spore infected debris from Dallas, Texas to Washington, D.C. The alien spores also somehow manages to spread worldwide in a very short period of time but how this rapid dissemination is accomplished is never explained. However, the screenplay does show us how the spores travel from one infected human to another: through puke. Yes, there are several scenes of infected people spewing spore laden projectile vomit upon unsuspecting victims.

Things move rapidly in the first act of the film and before you know it, Nicole Kidman, a D.C. psychiatrist, is on the run for her life from her spore infected ex-husband, who is a director with the Center for Disease Control. She's aided by her doctor friend and kinda-sorta boyfriend Daniel Craig. It turns out that Kidman's son has an immunity to the spores and if they can stay alive and awake long enough to be rescued, an antidote may be developed from his blood.

As noted, Kidman spends a great deal of time literally running through the streets of Washington D.C. I've not been to our nation's capital since I was a young boy but I know it's a very large, urban metropolitan area and on a good day, it would take a person (man or woman), a great deal of time to cover any amount of ground in the area on foot. Yet Kidman moves rapidly all over the city in a matter of minutes.

There are two main differences to this version of the material., One, the infected humans around the world act as one and end all wars, disease, crime, hunger, suffering, etc. World peace is achieved at the cost of what makes us human. And two, all of this is wiped out because a cure is found for the alien "disease" that restores things back to the chaotic way they were before the "invasion". How about that? A BODY SNATCHERS story with a somewhat happy ending.

No. An INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS film should end on a note of pure, sheer terror. The aliens are here, they look just like you and me and there's nothing we can do to stop them. Period. See the original with Kevin McCarthy screaming at passing cars on the California highway "they're here! they're here!" As always, the first movie version is the best movie version. You can't improve upon it so why do filmmakers continue to try?

THE INVASION was an expensive film to make. On location shooting and the salaries of Kidman and Craig don't come cheap, to say nothing of the director and screenwriters' pay, along with everyone else connected with the film. Why not take those talents and that budget and create something new, fresh and original? I'd pay money to see Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in a smart, clever new science fiction thriller rather than a warmed over fourth serving of something that was really best fresh from the oven.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A FLASH OF GREEN

"It had the remembered flavor of childhood, when Saturday was always a vast glad surprise, and Monday was a generation away."

Thirty some-odd years ago, I read A FLASH OF GREEN by John D. MacDonald for the first time. When I finished reading it I thought that it was both the best of the many John D. MacDonald novels I've read and one of the best novels of any kind that I'd ever read up to that point in my life. I finished re-reading the book a few days ago and my opinion hasn't changed. If anything, my admiration for this book has grown. It's still one of the very best books I've ever read.

The great thing about re-reading a book after a span of more than thirty years is that I had forgotten so many of the details of the story. I remembered the very basic plot of the story but I had completely forgotten all of the many richly drawn characters, dialogue and incidents that populate this fine work.

Originally published in 1962, A FLASH OF GREEN was one of the first novels to address the issue of widespread commercial developments along the Florida gulf coast. In the novel, Grassy Bay, a natural, pristine shallow bay situated in Palm County, has been targeted by a consortium of local businessmen for development into residential and commercial properties. A previous attempt to fill in the bay two years earlier was defeated by a local environmental group. But this time, things are different.

The group of men, lead by corrupt county commissioner Elmo Bliss, have all of their ducks in a row and to insure that their plan wins approval, they engineer a smear campaign against the members of Save Our Bay. Their chief weapon in the campaign is one Jimmy Wing, a disaffected reporter for the local newspaper.

Wing goes along with the plan, digging up dirt on various members of the organization while protecting one very important person from harm. Kat Hubble is the widow of Wing's best friend, the late Van Hubble. Wing is consumed by an almost overwhelming lust for the young red head while she considers Wing merely a very good friend. She and Van effectively defeated the first threat to Grassy Bay (with Wing's help) and now she and a handful of others stand alone against the developers.

But things start to turn very ugly and people are seriously injured, both mentally and physically. Wing's vegetative wife dies and her death, along with his guilt and culpability in the whole affair, cause him to suffer a breakdown. Finally, with literally nothing left to lose, Wing tries his best to stop the development from going through but he pays a very high price for his efforts.

A FLASH OF GREEN paints a vivid picture of the forces of rah-rah chamber of commerce capitalism arrayed against the desire to protect the natural areas of our country at all costs. Once Grassy Bay is dredged and filled, it's gone for good. There's no question which side of this issue MacDonald was on but he never comes across as preachy.

Wing is an interesting, intensely flawed hero. He spends the majority of the novel behaving like a shit and his grab at redemption is only partially successful. The development is approved by the county commissioners but Wing manages to expose the corpulent and malignant Bliss for what he really is, a revelation that impinges mightily upon the man's greater political ambitions. And while Jimmy does eventually make love to Kat, the experience is far from what he expected and truly desired. In the end, the hero doesn't get the girl, the bad guys have won (but have suffered some damage) and Wing is left to try and put the pieces of his life back together.

MacDonald has a large cast of characters in A FLASH OF GREEN but he makes each one unique and gives each man and woman their own voice, personality and back story. It's not a mystery at all and the thriller/crime elements don't come into play until late in the book. However, even at 449 pages, A FLASH OF GREEN is a page-turner of the highest order and I could have easily read another four hundred or so pages of these characters and their stories.

A film version of A FLASH OF GREEN was produced in 1984 with Ed Harris and Blair Brown starring as Jimmy Wing and Kat Hubble. I have a vague memory of seeing it once and it seemed fairly faithful to the novel as I recall but with a two-hour running time, not all of the material from the novel made it to the screen.

A FLASH OF GREEN pits big money capitalism and a lust for political power against environmentalists with a co-opted newspaperman in the middle. It's a struggle that still has resonance today, fifty-two years later. I loved every page of this novel. If you've never read a John D. MacDonald novel, you need to read this one. I consider it his masterpiece among a very impressive and substantial body of work. Highest recommendation.

 

THE MAYBERRY SYNDROME

I watched THE PARADISE SYNDROME today at lunchtime. It was a third season episode of STAR TREK. While watching the show, I kept expecting to see Andy and Opie Taylor come strolling down that oh-so-familiar dirt path on their way to the fishing hole (seen behind McCoy and Spock in the photo above). 

NARC

I was unfamiliar with NARC (2002), a gritty, urban crime film that I watched the other day. It's a small, independent film but it's very well done.

Jason Patric stars as an undercover narcotics cop with the Detroit Police Department. The film opens with an adrenaline fueled drug bust that goes horribly wrong. Innocent people are killed and Patric finds himself off of the force. A year and a half later, he's given a chance at redemption when he's asked to investigate the shooting death of another undercover narcotics cop. He's teamed with bulldog detective Ray Liotta, who may know details about the crime that he won't reveal.

The investigation takes them through the seedy underbelly of a decaying city. It's not a pretty sight. They eventually develop leads that bring them closer to the truth of the murder which sets up a tense and suspenseful third act and an ending that I did not see coming. I won't spoil the surprises in store but suffice it to say that all is not what it seems in this perplexing case.

Patric is good as the troubled narcotics cop but Liotta steals the show with his unbridled, righteous anger and fury. He is a cop you do not want to cross. Writer-director John Carnahan's debut effort is a solid piece of work. The screenplay is an expansion of a short film he wrote several years earlier. The two leads carry much of the narrative weight and the location filming (Detroit and Quebec) and the washed out visual palette of wintry blues and grays does much to establish character and mood. The language is explicit and the violence is graphic but it's in service to this tough, tragic crime story. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

THINGS BETTER LEFT "UNKNOWN"

I read the first volume of THE UNKNOWN by Mark Waid and Minck Oosterveer yesterday. Originally published in 2009 by Boom! Studios, I came to this one late. The title was, you'll pardon the expression, unknown to me but the comic book writing of Mark Waid was not. He's one of my favorite contemporary comic book writers. I was also unfamiliar with the artwork of Minck Oosterveer but I know it now and it's very good. I acquired this volume in a recent trade with a fellow comic book collector and I figured, what the hell, I'll read it before I put it up for sale on eBay. I'm glad I did.

Private detective Catherine Allingham may be the smartest person alive. She's a female Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century. She can solve any mystery in a matter of seconds and always insists on the facts, logic and the cold, hard light of reason. She's aided in her cases by James Doyle, a gargantuan former night-club bouncer who's very adept at "reading" people. But there's one mystery Cat has never solved: what happens to us after we die? And she's determined to get an answer to that question soon because she has only six months to live.

THE UNKNOWN is a cracker-jack page-turner. Part detective novel, part horror story, part action movie, part science fiction thriller, Waid deftly mixes all of those genres (and a few more) into a terrific first story arc that introduces us to Cat and Doyle and leaves us on the threshold of more adventures.

Waid's storytelling is first rate but it's his character development that really shines here. Cat is very likable and we're pulling for her to not only solve the eternal riddle but somehow cheat death in the process. The artwork by Oosterveer is also first-rate and is always, always, always in service to the story. I thoroughly enjoyed this first volume of THE UNKNOWN and will definitely keep an eye out for the other volumes in this highly entertaining series. Thumbs up.