Every legend has a beginning. For Grand Master mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, THE CUTIE (1960) was his first novel published under his own name. However, the book was originally published under two different titles, THE MERCENARIES and THE SMASHERS. It wasn't until Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher), reissued the novel in 2009 that Westlake's preferred original title, THE CUTIE, was restored. I finished reading this one yesterday evening and it certainly doesn't read like it was written by someone at the beginning of his career. Westlake was that good right out of the gate.
Billy Billy Cantell, a two bit junkie with mob connections, gets framed for the murder of gold digger Mavis St. Paul. He turns to Clay, a soldier/hitman in the employ of mob kingpin Ed Ganolese, for help. But before Clay can help the little weasel, the cops come calling and Billy Billy disappears.
Clay must play detective to find Billy Billy and clear him of the murder which is bringing heat on the organization. But before Clay can find him, another woman is murdered, Billy Billy is found dead and someone tries to kill Clay more than once. There are a few more twists and turns in the story before Clay finally deduces the identity of the real killer (I figured it out before he did) and dishes out mob justice (a shot to the head) to the guilty party. But the ending of the book finds Clay in a trap from which there may be no escape.
THE CUTIE is a good, tough crime/mystery novel. Westlake takes a chance by having a mob button man as a protagonist. Clay operates in a New York City full of vice and crime, a world populated by gangsters, drug users, crooked cops and beautiful women. It's the kind of "quick and dirty" crime novel I really enjoy. The more I read of Westlake's extraordinary body of work, the more I like the guy. He's quickly becoming one of my favorites. Recommended.
I watched CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) for the first time this afternoon and really enjoyed it.The film recently ran on TCM and I recorded it for a rainy day viewing, which turned out to be today. I've seen and enjoyed the previous film, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) several times before. But CHILDREN, despite some thematic similarities, is not so much a sequel as a completely different take on the concept of hyper intelligent mutant children (shades of X-MEN!)
Six children, all from different countries, exhibit both extraordinary, off -the-charts IQs, along with telepathic powers and a shared, hive mind. The children are from the UK, the US, Nigeria, India, China and the USSR. Science, of course, in the form of psychologist Tom Lewellin (Ian Hendry) and geneticist David Neville (Alan Badel) want to study the youngsters while British intelligence officer Colin Webster (Alfred Burke) wants to take them all into protected custody and eventually destroy them. The children are clearly seen as a threat to the worldwide balance of power, a weapon which no country should be allowed to possess.
But the children have, you'll pardon the expression, a mind of their own. They take up residence in a ruined church where they set up their own little community. They turn violent only when violence is used against them. Government agents and other men are killed by the children when they attack the church and one of the children is killed. Goaded into action and in an effort to protect themselves from further assaults, the children all visit their respective embassies and cause ambassadors and other officials to kill each other.
Things finally come to a head when the British government decides enough is enough and order a heavily armed assault on the church. The children display a surprise trump card which puts them in an entirely new light but it's too late as disaster befalls them in the climax of the film.
CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is a thoughtful, compelling little science fiction film that plays more like a Cold War thriller than hard SF. The stark black and white cinematography by David Boulton gives the film a noir atmosphere while the direction by Anton Leader and the screenplay by John Briley are both solid.
Once curious note. Much of the exterior action in the film takes place on the inexplicably deserted streets of London. It doesn't matter if it's day or night, there are no other vehicles or people to be seen in any of the exterior shots. It's as if the apocalypse as already happened and no one, the scientists and military brass or the children, are aware of it.
CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is a good little science fiction film that stands on it's own merits. Recommended.
This past summer, my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched and enjoyed THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), a first rate film noir directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. I reviewed the film here on my blog and remarked at the time that there was a 1990 remake of the film that I had not seen.
Well, I've seen it now and I'm here to tell you that director Peter Hyams is no Richard Fleischer and Anne Archer, although attractive, is no Marie Windsor. And Gene Hackman, who is one of my favorite actors, can't match the square-jawed, blunt toughness of Charles McGraw. In short, the 1990 version is a pale reflection of the original 1952 masterpiece.
The new version has Carol Hunnicut (Archer), witnessing a murder at the beginning of the film. Instead of going to the police, she flees Los Angeles for a remote cabin in Canada. Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Hackman), learns that Carol is a witness to the crime and journeys to Canada, along with police detective Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh), to find her and bring her back to testify.
Things go wrong, of course. Benti is killed and Caulfield and Carol are forced to go on the run from a pair of killers. Their only way out is by train. They board a westbound liner (as do the hit men) and thus begins an on board game of cat and mouse while the train speeds through the Canadian wilderness.
Unlike the original version, there's no major plot twist involving a woman on the train, although there is a secondary plot twist involving another woman on the train. I don't want to say anything more for those who haven't seen either version but suffice it to say, the plot twist is a major narrative development in the original, while in the remake it just seems to be a cheap, third act "gotcha."
The big, climatic action set piece finds Caulfield and Carol battling bad guys on the roof of the train. It's well staged but you can spot the stunt doubles in the long shots. Speaking of action, earlier in the film, Caulfield and Carol try to escape the killers by driving a jeep off road and through the forest. Look closely for the "now it's broken, now it's not" windshield which comes and goes throughout the sequence.
If you've never seen the original, the 1990 version is a serviceable, minor thriller. The leads are good, the scenery is breathtaking and the action scenes are well staged. But it can't hold a candle to the original in terms of hard boiled dialogue, gritty, tough characters, a claustrophobic atmosphere and a "didn't see it coming" plot twist.
If you must watch a movie entitled NARROW MARGIN, stick with the 1952 version.
I finished reading WORLD WITHOUT STARS (1966) by Poul Anderson the other day. This slim (125 pages) little Ace paperback is the kind of stuff I used to read all of the time when I was a kid. Books like this were everywhere back in the '60s and '70s.
Behind a nice Kelly Freas cover painting, WORLD WITHOUT STARS (first serialized in ANALOG as THE ANCIENT GODS), is pretty standard, interplanetary action/adventure fare. The crew of the star ship Meteor crash lands on a planet that exists in the space between galaxies so that, instead of a sun and moon in the planet's sky, there is only one huge galaxy. The astronauts quickly set about to make repairs on their ship but they soon encounter two different species of intelligent alien life who are at war with each other. The men try to negotiate their way out of their predicament at first but when that fails, they resort to weapons. The conflict is resolved, repairs are made and the ship returns to Earth for a lovely coda that contains this verse:
"Sleep well once again if you woke in your darkness, sleep knowin' you are my delight
As long as the stars wheel the years down the heavens, as long as the lilies bloom white,
My darlin', I kiss you goodnight."
WORLD WITHOUT STARS is a good, fast read. It's no masterpiece or classic work of science fiction but it's a durable, tightly crafted novel with a story that, if written for today's marketplace, would be expanded and padded out to encompass three or more thousand-plus page volumes. They don't write 'em like this anymore.
I watched CORRUPTION (1968) for the first time last night (thanks to a recent showing on TCM which I recorded). I was not familiar with this British horror film even though it stars genre icon Peter Cushing. The film didn't come from either Hammer or Amicus, the two major horror film producing British studios of the time.
Produced by Peter Newbrook and directed by Robert Hartford-Davis (from a screenplay by Derek Ford and Donald Ford), CORRUPTION borrows heavily from Georges Franju's horror masterpiece EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960). However, it's nowhere near as good as that classic shocker.
Peter Cushing stars a plastic surgeon Sir John Rowan. He's engaged to Lynn (the incredibly lovely Sue Lloyd), a young fashion model in the swinging London of the late '60s. And here's the first disconnect in the film. Cushing is a fine actor but at this stage in his career, he's simply not credible as the fiance of this much younger woman.
Lynn's face is horribly disfigured in an accident at a party. Sir John becomes obsessed with restoring her beauty. He steals the pituitary gland from the body of a young woman in the hospital morgue, creates a serum from the gland and injects the concoction into Lynn's scars. The treatment works but it's only temporary. Sir John realizes that the glands must come from a freshly dead woman and he sets out to acquire the needed organs by murdering (and beheading) a prostitute. Again, the results don't last and Sir John and Lynn retire to their cottage on the coast of Dover where they plot to murder a young runaway (Wendy Varnals). When that scheme fails, Sir John is forced to kill an unknown woman on a train and bring her head home for storage in the refrigerator. Things take a turn for the worse when the runaway girl's criminal gang shows up at the cottage and start to terrorize Sir John and Lynn. The climax involves an out of control laser beam in a makeshift operating room in which all of the players meet their violent, brutal ends.
Cushing, as always, is very good as the obsessed surgeon driven to commit heinous crimes for the woman he loves. Lloyd is also good as a vain, prideful woman who will stop at nothing to acquire her lost beauty. But that's about all that CORRUPTION has going for it. The cinematography by Peter Newbrook is flat and unimaginative while the music score, by Bill McGuffie, is a discordant and totally inappropriate mess of jazz and light rock that comes and goes at odd times during the film.
CORRUPTION isn't a bad little horror film but it's certainly not the genre classic that EYES WITHOUT A FACE is. It's a third tier piece of '60s British horror, behind Hammer and Amicus, but worth a look if you're a genre fan or an admirer of the great Peter Cushing.
I finished reading GRAY FIST the other evening. Originally published in THE SHADOW Magazine for February 15th, 1934, it was the forty-eighth adventure of The Shadow. The edition I read, pictured above, was published by Pyramid books in the mid 1970s. Love that Jim Steranko cover!
This one finds the Shadow in a duel to the death with the mysterious super fiend Gray Fist, a master criminal who wears attire that is similar to the Shadow's crime fighting togs, except the Fist favors an all gray color scheme. Gray Fist holds sway over a group of successful New York City businessmen along with a small army of thugs and hoods. There's a higher than usual body count in this one as The Shadow guns down hordes of mobsters several times during the course of the story. The climax takes place in a hidden lair in Chinatown where the Shadow and Grey Fist face off for the first and final time.
There's a heavier emphasis on narration than usual in this story. Many previous Shadow pulps have featured a lot of dialogue to advance the plot but not so here. The focus is on action, action, action and Walter Gibson keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
We also get two villains in this story. In the last part of the book, The Shadow takes refuge in Chinatown in the lair of Yat Soon, the leader of the tongs. In any other Shadow adventure, the Shadow and Yat Soon would be adversaries but here they form an uneasy alliance in order to defeat their common foe, Gray Fist.
With tons of gun play, lots of action and two bad guys, GRAY FIST ranks as one of the best Shadow adventures. However, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. The body of murdered importer Worth Varden is found, knife in heart, inside the Shadow's sanctum sanctorum with no explanation ever given as to how Gray Fist discovered the Shadow's secret hideout and, by extension, what else the fiend knows about the Shadow. Also, we never learn just what exactly Gray Fist is up to. We are constantly told that he's a "super fiend" and he certainly exerts a great deal of power and influence over both businessmen and mobsters but the exact details of his nefarious plan are never revealed.
Still, those are minor beefs for what is otherwise a top notch Shadow thriller.
I didn't expect much from THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991). Just look at the people involved. With stars Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, a screenplay by Shane (LETHAL WEAPON) Black and direction by Tony (TOP GUN) Scott, the film practically screams generic, formulaic early '90s action/buddy film. But the movie goes completely off of the rails in the opening sequence and continues to spin wildly out of control for the rest of it's 105 minutes running time.
Consider this. The opening sequence takes place during a professional football game played at night. While Bill Medley sings "Friday Night's A Great Night For Football", a running back for the L.A. Stallions is carrying the ball and headed for the end zone. But he suddenly and inexplicably stops, draws an automatic pistol from somewhere within his uniform, shoots and kills an opposing would-be tackler and then puts the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. Huh?
Cut to down on his luck Los Angeles private detective (and former Secret Service agent) Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis). Joe takes a job as bodyguard for a stripper named Cory (the lovely Halle Berry). While at the club, he meets James "Jimmy" Alexander Dix (Damon Wayans), a former professional football quarterback who was banned from the league on gambling charges and allegations of drug abuse. Joe and Jimmy form an uneasy alliance but they fail to prevent Cory from being killed in a gun battle that takes place outside of the strip club. It's a nicely staged action set piece except for one thing. In one scene it's raining. Hard. In the next scene, it's bone dry. Then it's pouring again. Then it's dry again.
Joe and Jimmy try to find out why Cory was killed and their investigation leads them to Sheldon Marcone (Noble Willingham), a corrupt football team owner who is trying to buy off members of a Senate committee investigating gambling in professional sports. Marcone has some very bad guys working for him and Jimmy and Joe cross paths with them several times in gun battles and car chases that are liberally laced with one-liners.
The action climaxes at another night football game where a sniper is set to shoot corrupt Senator Calvin Baynard (Chelcie Ross). It's a race against the clock for Jimmy and Joe to get to the stadium and prevent the killing. And here's another way in which the film drops the ball (no pun intended). Daytime aerial establishing shots clearly show the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But when Jimmy and Joe emerge into the stadium, it's suddenly night and worse, they're not in the L.A. Coliseum. They're in a completely different football stadium, one which has luxury boxes, a feature not found at the Coliseum.
Perhaps I shouldn't quibble over such glaring continuity errors in what is essentially a mindless, popcorn action flick. It certainly doesn't take itself seriously so why should I? THE LAST BOY SCOUT isn't an entirely bad film but it's far from being an action film classic. I will admit to being moderately entertained, but it's nothing I would ever want to see again.
|"Boy, you got a panty on your head."|
For whatever reasons, I missed seeing RAISING ARIZONA when it was released in 1987. I remember that the film had great buzz at the time and I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the Coen brothers' debut film, the masterful, shot-in-Austin neo noir, BLOOD SIMPLE (1984). But I just never got around to seeing RAISING.
The first time I saw the film was several years ago, when Judy and I were dating. We used to have a regular movie night at her house and one of the films I rented at Blockbuster (remember them?) for us to watch one evening was RAISING ARIZONA. We enjoyed it then and we enjoyed it again the other night when we watched it again for our Friday Night Thrift Store Theater movie.
This cockeyed, whiz bang comedy starts strong and never lets up. It's the story of hard luck, minor criminal Hi McDunnough (played with hang dog sincerity by Nicolas Cage) and the love of his life, police officer, "Ed" (Holly Hunter). After consistently being arrested by Ed and subsequently sent to prison several times, Hi and Ed finally tie the knot and settle down in a trailer somewhere in the desert. Ed desperately wants to start a family but she's incapable of bearing a child. Thus, the pair hatch a scheme to kidnap one of the five Arizona Quints, figuring the family of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), won't miss one. They snatch the child, dub him Nathan Junior and start their new life together as a loving, family unit.
But things quickly accelerate into crazy town. Hi and Ed are visited by a pair of escaped inmates Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), whom Hi knew in prison. The brothers' take up residence with Hi and Ed. When the cons find out the true identity of Nathan Junior, they abscond with the infant and take him with them on their way to rob a bank.
Meanwhile, Nathan Arizona has hired a bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), to track down and retrieve his missing child. Smalls is a scowling, growling, heavily armed man mountain on a motorcycle who embarks on his quest with a vengeance.
All of these narrative elements collide in a dizzy third act that brilliantly combines the visual style of Sergio Leone with the madcap pacing, rhythm, sight gags and physical humor found in the Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Tex Avery. The Coen brothers direction and screenplay are both assured and confident in depicting these lovable losers and the over-the-top, crazy-quilt universe in which they reside. A great deal of credit must be given to the camera work of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who gives many interior spaces a slightly larger-than-life look and feel. RAISING ARIZONA is a bonafide comedy classic, a very funny film which has stood up quite well since 1987. It ranks number 31 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs list.
I haven't seen every film the Coen brothers have made but here's a list of what I have seen, broken down by the good, the bad and the incomplete.
The good: BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), MILLER'S CROSSING (1990), FARGO (1996), O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).
The bad: BARTON FINK (1991) and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). I hate LEBOWSKI. This fresh-out-of-the-box cult classic is one of the most overrated films of the last twenty years. I found it a confused mess of a movie with characters that I couldn't stand. If you like it (as many do), that's fine. It's just not my cup of tea.
The incomplete: THE LADYKILLERS (2004). A bizarre remake of a classic British comedy is uneven at best. Tom Hanks delivers a totally bizarre performance but he's offset by some truly funny moments courtesy of J.K. Simmons.
If you've never seen RAISING ARIZONA, I highly recommend that you do so. If you've seen it before, it's well worth a repeat viewing. This one's a comic gem.
|I remember seeing DEATH WISH (1974) when it was first released during the summer after I graduated from high school. Charles Bronson was, and still is, one of my favorite actors, and over the course of his film career, I made an effort to see as many of his films as possible. Next to Clint Eastwood, he was my favorite action star of the 1970s. I watched DEATH WISH, one of Bronson's biggest commercial hits and also, one of his most controversial films, again the other day for the first time in over forty years. In fact, I turned off one death wish (UT vs. TCU) to watch another one. |
New York City architect Paul Kersey (Bronson), is a peaceful, law abiding citizen. But one day his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked in their apartment by a trio of vicious thugs (one of whom is a very young Jeff Goldblum). Joanna dies, while Carol survives her assault only to gradually withdraw into a comatose, vegetative state.
Kersey is frustrated that the police offer little if any hope of ever finding and prosecuting the men who committed the attack. When Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) a commercial real estate developer partner, gives Kersey a vintage six-shooter as a gift, Kersey gets the idea to walk the mean streets of mid '70s New York City and start meting out his own justice, vigilante style.
Kersey is shocked and horrified after his first killing but when he gets away with it, he continues on his crusade because, after all, the city is full to bursting with criminal lowlifes who, of course, in Kersey's mind, deserve killing. The irony is that Kersey never does find and kill the actual men responsible for the attack on his family. He targets random thugs and muggers, killing them all quickly and surely.
NYPD takes a dim view of these vigilante killings. Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation and eventually discovers that Kersey is the killer. However, Ochoa is handcuffed by the police commissioner and district attorney in his attempt to bring Kersey to justice. The fact is that the crime rate in New York has dropped due to Kersey's actions and the powers that be fear that arresting and prosecuting Kersey will make him a martyr. They instruct Ochoa to pressure Kersey into leaving New York. He does and journeys to Chicago (another major American city with an urban crime problem) where it is presumed that Kersey will continue on his crusade of vigilante justice.
DEATH WISH, directed by Michael Winner with a script by Wendell Mayes (based on Brian Garfield's novel), is a classic '70s urban crime film. It has the gritty look and feel of the city in that era and the film did much to reinforce the image of New York City as a crime ridden metropolis. Bronson is solid as always as a peaceful man slowly discovering and channeling his inner rage into learning how to kill with quick dispatch and a modicum of remorse. DEATH WISH isn't an action packed thriller, especially by today's standards. Instead, it's a troubling, thought provoking work that finds us rooting for a cold blooded killer because, after all, he's only killing other criminals.
DEATH WISH spawned five sequels: DEATH WISH II (1982), DEATH WISH 3 (1985), DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (1987), DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH (1994) and DEATH SENTENCE (2007). These films continued to up the ante with Kersey facing even more vile and vicious killers with a variety of higher caliber weapons and bigger and bolder action set pieces.
But none of the subsequent films in the franchise hit the hot button of '70s paranoia and fear as well as the original did. Thumbs up.
"Somebody owes me money" - George C. Scott in THE HUSTLER (1962)
Yeah, Scott may have said it first but that didn't stop the late, great Donald E. Westlake from using that phrase as the title for his 1969 comic crime novel. I finished reading this fast paced, breezy romp of a mystery this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. The edition I read was reprinted by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) in June, 2008.
Chet Conway is a New York City taxi driver with a slight gambling problem. One day, a fare doesn't give him a monetary tip. Instead, the passenger gives him a tip on a horse, a tip which pays off big to the tune of nine hundred and thirty dollars. When Chet goes to collect his winnings from his bookie, he finds the bookie shot dead and Chet fingered as the most likely suspect in the killing.
Before you know it, Chet is on the run from not one but two rival gangs of mobsters, the police and Abbie, the dead bookie's blackjack dealer sister from Las Vegas who has hit town aiming to avenger her brother's murder by killing Chet.
Chet and Abbie quickly make peace but they're still in a jam. They need to find out who killed the bookie and who tried to kill Chet in order to get the mob and the cops off of their backs. There's oodles of comic dialogue and a well executed chase sequence before the action climaxes in a poker game in which one of the players is guilty of the crime.
Westlake was a master of this type of light hearted, fast paced, and utterly beguiling comic mystery. It's not as hard boiled and tough as the Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. But if you're looking for a fast, fun read, check out SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY. You'll be glad you did.
VICKI (1953) is the second movie my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the other day as part of our film noir double feature afternoon. Like most of our double feature screenings, one of the movies is usually really good, while the other is only so so. In this case, TENSION (1949) was the better of the two.
VICKI plays like a warmed over, wannabe version of Otto Preminger's film noir masterpiece LAURA (1944) but it's actually based on the Steve Fisher novel, I WAKE UP SCREAMING, which was made as a film under that same title in 1941. The story revolves around the murder of "it" girl, Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters) and the attempt by obsessed police detective Lt. Ed Cornell (Richard Boone) to solve the crime.
Cornell, like Dana Andrews in LAURA, was in love with the murdered woman but here he knew her when she was still alive whereas Andrews falls in love with Laura after she was murdered. Cornell is determined to prove that Vicki's publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) committed the murder and the evidence, though circumstantial, certainly points in his direction. But Cornell is so hell bent on nailing Christopher that you start to believe that perhaps he is the real killer.
VICKI is not a bad film noir at all. It just suffers from a "seen it before" familiarity. Richard Boone is very good as the crazy cop while Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters are both lovely to look at. VICKI is far from being a first rate film noir but it's certainly worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of the genre.