Sunday, August 30, 2015


I have a vague memory of seeing BIG JAKE (1971) in the theater when it was first released. Hell, starting with THE ALAMO (1960), I saw almost every movie John Wayne made up until his death in 1979. I watched it again this afternoon (thanks to a recent airing on TCM, which I recorded). It's an utterly routine western but who cares when you've got the lovely Maureen O'Hara (with little screen time, alas), Richard Boone as the bad guy and the Duke himself riding tall in the saddle.

The year is 1909. John Fain (Boone) and his men attack the McCandles ranch at the beginning of the film. They kill many and take Little Jake, the young McCandles boy, hostage. They demand a million dollars in ransom to be delivered to them in Mexico. McCandles matriarch Martha (O'Hara), realizes that "a harsh and unpleasant kind of business will require an extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of person to see it through." She sends for her estranged husband, Big Jake McCandles (Wayne), a man who has been gone from his family for so long that most people think he's dead. Oh, and he doesn't know that he has a grandson, the kidnapped Little Jake.

Jake sets out to deliver the money along with his two sons James (real-life son Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum), his faithful Indian companion Sam Sharpnose (Bruce (KING KONG) Cabot!) and his dog, Dog. They have some troubles along the way before the final deadly gun battle in which Little Jake is rescued, the bad guys dispatched and the McCandles men head for home. Remember kids, in a western, when the main villain is dead, the movie is over.

BIG JAKE was the last of five films that John Wayne made with Maureen O'Hara. The others are RIO GRANDE (1950), THE QUIET MAN (1952), THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957) and McLINTOCK! (1963).

Directed by George Sherman, with a screenplay by Harry Julian and Rita M. Fink (who also wrote DIRTY HARRY), BIG JAKE is a solid piece of genre work. The cinematography by William H. Clothier is nice (the film was shot in Durango, Mexico) and Elmer Bernstein's score is well done. Director Sherman was an old friend of Wayne's and he was 63 years old at the time the film was made. While in Mexico, Sherman's health prevented him from going to some of the more remote locations so Wayne filled in behind the camera.

There are no surprises here. It's a typical John Wayne western which looks old fashioned compared to the groundbreaking films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969). But at this stage in his career, with a Best Actor Oscar on his shelf, Wayne had nothing to prove and he wasn't about to upset the apple cart that made him an icon. You want a routine John Wayne western? BIG JAKE fills the bill nicely.

 I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


For our movie night last night, Judy and I watched THE CANDIDATE (1972), a film that neither of us had ever seen. It's a very good movie but I cannot discuss the film without posting this SPOILER ALERT.

Robert Redford stars as Bill McKay, the son of former California governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas). Bill is a lawyer working on social justice causes and has no real ambition to enter politics. But opportunistic political operative Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), convinces him to run as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator against Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). Lucas tells McKay he can't win so he can remain true to his core values and not sell out. He can say and do whatever he wants.

But as the campaign goes on, media specialist Howard Klein (Allen Garfield), starts crafting an image of McKay that finds widespread appeal. McKay wins the primary and becomes the candidate for the general election. As election day draws closer and closer, the polls show McKay gaining ground just as he starts to question the whole enterprise. He starts to sell out, make compromises and before you know it, he wins the election.

On election night, McKay's father tells him "son, you're a politician", which is just what he didn't want to hear. The film ends with McKay asking Lucas "what do we do now?" Since no one had ever actually believed that McKay could actually win the election, he's thrust into office totally unprepared to assume the title of United States Senator.

THE CANDIDATE is as fresh, topical and relevant today as it was 43 years ago. The media depicted in the film may be a thing of the past but the politics, campaigns and manufacturing of candidates are not. Redford is terrific as McKay, with solid support from Boyle and Douglas. Don Porter's Crocker Jarmon sounds just like any one of the eleventy-seven Republican presidential candidates who are currently in the race.

The film is capably directed by Michael Ritchie with an Oscar winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner,  One minor quibble: an extra-marital affair between McKay and an unnamed young woman (who is seen several times throughout the film) is implied but never actually shown. It's a potential source of drama and conflict that's never developed and has no bearing on the narrative so why bother to drop those hints?

THE CANDIDATE is a top notch film that is well worth seeing, especially as we head into an election year. Highly recommended.


Pictured above is page 12 of THE SHADOW #18, published by Dynamite Comics in 2013. This is one of many comics I purchased last week when Judy and I took a day trip to San Antonio. We stopped at the Alien Worlds comic book shop and I spent way too much money of back issues of THE SHADOW, THE SPIDER, DOC SAVAGE and JUSTICE, INC. (all published by Dynamite) as well as the first CAPTAIN AMERICA EPIC COLLECTION, a hefty trade paperback that reprints (in color), early 1960s Captain America stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and a few others).

THE SHADOW comic is set in the 1930s. You can tell that by the vehicles pictured in the top two panels. But somehow, inexplicably, when Margo Lane gets into the rear of Shrevvy's taxi cab, she is suddenly transported to the year 2015. How do I know this? Look at that interior. Bucket seats? Head rests? I'm sorry, but taxi cabs in the 1930s didn't look like that.

Artist Giovanni Timpano must have used photo references for the exteriors of the vintage automobiles and I assumed he used photo reference for the panel depicting the cab's interior. He somehow mixed the two eras up. Honestly, I don't blame him for this mistake.

I blame the editor. Oh, wait, that's right. Modern comic books don't have editors, a truism I've long posited. There's no editor listed on the inside front cover of this issue. The writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and cover artists are listed as is Shadow creator Walter B. Gibson. But there's no editor's name.

I know this book didn't magically put itself together but whoever the editor of record was, he or she did an extremely lousy job. A mistake like this jarred me out of what was otherwise an enjoyable Shadow adventure. Did it totally ruin the book for me? No, but it's inexcusable nonetheless.

Gee, do you think I could get a No Prize for catching this mistake?


Congratulations to my buddy Kelly Greene who provided the correct answer to the recent trivia question posted here.

Cliff Robertson played the guest-villain Shame on the BATMAN television series. He made two appearances, the first in 1966, the second in 1968. That same year, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in CHARLY. In 2002, he played Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN. He also appeared as Uncle Ben (in flashbacks) in SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) and SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007).

Thanks for playing Kelly and congratulations on winning. Your No Prize is on the way!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Here's a head scratcher for you. Name the Academy Award winning actor who first appeared on screen in a DC comics superhero series and later, appeared as a supporting character in a movie based on a Marvel comics super-hero.

Answer tomorrow!


Last night, Judy and I watched an excellent documentary about the making of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). The film, originally produced in 1988, ran on TCM the other day when their star of the day was Vivien Leigh. We learned quite a bit about the film and a lot of the material that was used was from the Harry Ransom Center here in Austin, where the David O. Selznick collection resides. In fact, there was a terrific GWTW exhibit at the Ransom last year which we saw and loved.

While watching the doc, I couldn't help but think that if some industrious producer, say, David O. Selznick, or some major studio like MGM, had wanted to mount a film in 1939 based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, this guy would have been a perfect choice for the lead:

British actor Leslie Howard, who played Ashley Wilkes in GWTW, looks more like Lawrence than Peter O'Toole did, in my opinion. Who knows, maybe somebody had the same idea way back when and the project just never got off the ground. Personally, I'm glad it didn't because when the story of Lawrence of Arabia finally made it to the screen, it was perfect and ranks in my book as the greatest film ever made.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT the other day. It was the first time for both of us to see this 1946 film noir.

John Hodiak stars as George Taylor, an amnesiac WWII soldier who returns home to Los Angeles in search of his true identity and a mysterious man named "Larry Cravat".  He's aided in his search by Christy Smith (the lovely Nancy Guild), nightclub owner Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) and police detective Donald Kendall (Lloyd Nolan). Taylor soon runs afoul of a small gang of crooks taken right out of the MALTESE FALCON playback. It seems there's two million dollars in cash missing, cash that the elusive "Cravat" knows the location of and thus, everyone is searching for him.

It's not too hard to figure out what the twist is here. I saw it coming from a mile away and you probably will too. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz from a screenplay by Howard Dimsdale and Mankiewicz (from a story by Marvin Borowsky), SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT begins promisingly enough but it stalls out in the second act and never quite regains its' momentum. Taylor follows a lot of false leads, there's lot of talk and the pace slows to a crawl. There's not much tension generated by the story which seems to take forever to get to the payoff. The running time is 110 minutes but I could swear it seemed much, much longer than that.

A big part of the problem is that John Hodiak has little to none screen presence. He's just not a good enough actor to carry a film like this. The fetching Nancy Guild is okay but it's the supporting cast that really shines here. Genre icon Conte is solid as usual while character actors Whit Bissell and Harry Morgan have small, but effective scenes.

SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT is worth seeing at least once, especially if you're a noir fan. If this film is your first exposure to film noir, you may wonder what all the fuss is about.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE NARROW MARGIN (1952) yesterday. I've seen this film several times and I never get tired of it. It's one of my all-time favorite film noirs.

Detective Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) of the LA. police department must escort the widow of a deceased mob boss Chicago to Los Angeles via train. The woman, Mrs. Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor), is supposed to testify before a grand jury. She also has in her possession a "payoff list" that both the police and the mob want.

Mobsters board the train in Chicago, along with Brown and Mrs. Neall and thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse aboard the speeding train. Brown encounters an attractive young woman, Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White) who is traveling with your young son and an older woman. The hoods mistake her for Mrs Neall, and Brown is forced to try and protect both women from jeopardy. To say any more would spoil a terrific third act plot twist.

The Oscar nominated screenplay by Earl Felton( from a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard), is loaded with terse, hard-boiled dialogue like this:

Brown: "You make me want to throw up"
Mrs. Neall: "Well do it in your own sink!"

 Director Richard Fleischer was no stranger to film noir. His previous noirs include BODYGUARD (1948), THE CLAY PIGEON (1949), FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949), ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950). He does a terrific job here, skillfully handling the action and characters. Many scenes on the train are shot from an extreme low angle which serves to accentuate the sense of claustrophobia and entrapment the characters feel. Things move at a good clip and there's absolutely no fat in this 71 minutes long thriller. Every scene, every line of dialogue, is in service to the story and it's an incredibly tight, suspenseful film.

Gravel voiced genre icon Charles McGraw is at his absolute tough guy best here. With his trench coat, fedora, chiseled features, snub nosed .38 and two-pack-a-day voice, McGraw is the living embodiment of legendary comic strip detective Dick Tracy. He would have been perfect in that part. Dark haired beauty Marie Windsor is also terrific as the mobster's widow. She's full of piss and vinegar and she gives as good as she gets in the running verbal sparring match with McGraw.

THE NARROW MARGIN was remade in 1990 by director Peter Hyams with Gene Hackman and Anne Archer. I've never seen that version but I can 't imagine that it could possibly be any better than the original. Gene Hackman is a good actor, one whose work I admire and enjoy but he's no Charles McGraw.

If you're a film noir fan, you've most likely seen THE NARROW MARGIN. If you're new to noir, or just want to see a really good little movie, check it out. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 21, 2015


I finished reading KILL NOW, PAY LATER (1960) by Robert Terrall yesterday and it's a good one. New York City private detective Ben Gates is hired to guard the expensive gifts at a wedding at a plush Long Island estate. Someone slips him a mickey (don't you just love that phrase?) in his coffee and he passes out. When he comes to, two people are dead, a jewel thief and the owner of the jewels, the wife of a wealthy pharmaceutical tycoon. Gates has no idea who drugged him but he's determined to find out who did it because the state police don't buy his story and have fingered him as a possible suspect. Gates stands to lose his license (and worse, his life), if he doesn't solve this mystery quick. The suspects include the comely young maid who served him the coffee, a free-spirited party girl who was in the gift room with Gates and the tycoon's oh-so-efficient private secretary.

 Gates manages to stay one step ahead of everyone in a plot that takes several twists and turns. Dark family secrets are revealed and there's a literally fiery climax after which all of the loose ends are neatly tied up.

PAY NOW, KILL LATER is a classic example of a certain type of mid-century American detective novel. The plot moves along at a good clip, the detective throws out some good one liners, there's a surfeit of drinking and smoking, several beautiful women, a fair amount of action and danger and a legitimate mystery to be solved. It's not a masterpiece but it's a hell of a fun way to kill a couple of hours.

KILL NOW, PAY LATER was reprinted by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) in September, 2007 with a terrific cover painting by the great Robert McGinnis. Terrall wrote a total of five Ben Gates mysteries including BLACKMAIL INC. (1958), MODEL FOR MURDER (1959), SOME LIKE IT COOL (1962) and BEN GATES IS HOT (1964). I'd love to read all of these and if Hard Case doesn't have plans to reprint them, I'll try and track them down on eBay. Terrall also wrote under the pen names Robert Kyle, John Gonzales and as Brett Halliday, he wrote over two dozen Mike Shayne mysteries.

Thumbs up.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


I remember reading about TROG (1970) in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS when I was in junior high school. The article was accompanied by b&w stills and the film looked intriguing. But for reasons unknown, I never got around to seeing the film until a couple of days ago when I recorded it off of TCM.

Three British spelunkers find an undiscovered cave while exploring and decide to check it out. One of the cavers is attacked and killed by a strange half-human, half-ape creature. A second explorer only gets a glimpse of the monster but it's enough to drive him mad. The third man is unscathed but he believes his friend's story.

The two survivors end up at a clinic run by Dr. Brockton (Joan Crawford). She also believes the story and urges Malcolm (David Griffin), the sane survivor, to take her into the cave. While exploring, Brockton snaps a photograph of the creature they dub "Trog" (short for troglodyte). A media circus is soon in full swing outside of the cave and when Trog emerges, he goes on a rampage. Everyone runs off but Brockton stands her ground and shoots several tranquilizer darts in to the beast.

She takes Trog to her clinic and begins to study him, convinced she can communicate with him and teach him. Sam Murdock (genre vet Michael Gough), wants none of this. He argues for the destruction of Trog, fearing that he can't be controlled and is threatening the economic welfare of the town.

Brockton makes progress with Trog but Murdock breaks into the lab, wrecks it and lets Trog loose. Trog grabs a young girl and heads back to his cave. Brockton goes into the cave and rescues the girl. The British army then goes into the cave and shoots and kills Trog. And remember kids, when the monster is dead, the movie is over.

TROG is not a very good film. In fact, it's pretty bad. The screenplay by Peter Bryan, John Gilling and Aben Kandel plays heavily on the classic trope found in so many 1950s science fiction films of science wanting to study a monster of some kind while the military wants to destroy it. The Trog make-up is good and director Freddie Francis tries hard with what he's given but the end result is a failure. TROG isn't a strict horror film, nor is it a strict science-fiction film. It's a half baked mess that generates more interest because of the leading lady and the producers' curriculum vitae.

Joan Crawford was quite attractive when she was very young but her looks quickly hardened. She was a terrific actress but by the early 1960s, the only parts available to her were in low budget horror films. Crawford, along with Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Joan Fontaine and Tallulah Bankhead, became not affectionately known as "horror hags" for the films they made. Consider Crawford's filmography here: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), STRAIT-JACKET (1964), I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965), THE KARATE KILLERS (1967) (two episodes of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. edited together for theatrical release), BERSERK! (1968) and TROG (1970), which sadly, was her last film appearance.

The producer of TROG was Herman Cohen who made his mark with such low budget horror films as I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957), I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN (1957), BLOOD OF DRACULA (1957), HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER (1958), HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959), THE HEADLESS GHOST (1959), KONGA (1961), THE BLACK ZOO (1963), A STUDY IN TERROR (1965) and BERSERK! (1968).

For both Cohen and Crawford, their better days were behind them by the time they made TROG. I can't recommend this film unless you're a die hard fan of either Crawford or of the films produced by Cohen. Everyone else should avoid it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


I don't know about you, but I find it impossible to resist a movie with such an evocative title as THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS, a 1968 caper film. And the movie poster, pictured above, only adds to the appeal of this film.

I watched this one for the first time yesterday (recorded off of TCM). About halfway through the film, I realized that the title was incorrect and somewhat misleading. A more accurate and truthful title would be THEY CAME TO ROB AN ARMORED CAR IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT BETWEEN LAS VEGAS AND LOS ANGELES, but I guess that wouldn't fit on the theater marquee.

Gary (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) Lockwood, stars as Tony Ferris, a thief who works as a blackjack dealer at the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas. He and his gang hatch a plan to rob a heavily armored van, outfitted with all of the then state-of-the-art technology, that makes regular runs between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The van is owned by the Skorsky Company, which is headed by Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb). The vehicle is supposed to be impregnable but Tony and his men have devised an ingenious plan to hijack the truck and get the goods.

Trouble is, there's more than just money on board because Skorsky is in bed with "the organization" (aka The Mob) and he uses his super van to transport more than just money. There are bars of gold on board on this run and when the van goes missing, the organization desperately wants its' money back.

To complicate matters even more, Treasury Agent Douglas (Jack Palance, in a rare good guy role), is on the hunt to bust Skorsky and his connections and needs the van and the contraband as evidence to arrest him.

Tony doesn't know about the gold until he finally breaks into the van. But with the mob, the feds and a couple of turncoat members of his outfit on his trail, he's in a race against time to try and get away with the loot and just stay alive. He's aided by Ann Bennett (the lovely Elke Sommer), who works for Skorsky (she's his mistress) and provides Tony with inside information about the van's scheduled routes and security measures.

THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS was filmed on location in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Spain. Director Antonio Isasi does a good job but the running time of 129 minutes is just a bit too long. The film could benefit from some cuts here and there but that's a minor quibble. Only Lockwood, Sommer, Cobb and Palance speak in their own voices as every other character is either a Spanish or Italian actor speaking in badly dubbed English. It's a essentially a foreign film, even though much of it was shot in the United States.

Aside from the caper plot, THEY CAME is worth watching to see what Vegas looked like in 1968. There are a lot of scenes of downtown's Fremont Street but it's the shots of the strip that are fascinating. In one scene, Lockwood exits the Flamingo at dawn and walks to his vintage Ford Mustang in the parking lot in front of the casino. Across the street is the brand new Caesar's Palace. Now, the Flamingo has grown and morphed it's way right up to the street while Caesar's has undergone multiple expansions adding more towers of rooms, a gigantic casino, a shopping mall and a huge theater.

THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS is a good little B-movie caper film that's worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of this sub-genre of crime films. Check it out

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Back in July, I attended Armadillocon 37, the annual literary science fiction convention held each summer in Austin. I went as a dealer, selling books by some of the featured authors and an assortment of graphic novels. Sales were okay and if I do it again next year, I'll  have more table space and bring more actual science fiction books.

While I was there, I  was reminded of the love/hate relationship I have with science fiction as a literary genre. Let me explain. I read a lot of science fiction books when I was young. All through grade school and college (and for a few years after), I read science fiction. But then, in the 1980s, my tastes started changing and I moved on to other genres. I've always had an appreciation for a really good science fiction story and for awhile, I had a pretty good working knowledge of the field. I knew who the major (and some of the minor) players were and the titles of their books, the award winners (Hugo and Nebula) and so on.

But the trouble was, I wasn't actually reading any sf of any kind. Oh, sure, there was the occasional novel here and there but a regular, steady, reading diet of science fiction? Not me. I have dozens and dozens of mostly vintage science fiction paperbacks on my bookshelves and whenever I'd finish a book of any kind, I'd always briefly consider reading a science fiction novel next, just as a change of pace. I would inevitably decide to go with something else, usually a crime/mystery thriller, a pulp oriented adventure or a work of non-fiction. But after being around a bunch of hard core science fiction fans and readers at the con, I decided that it was once again time to stick my toe into the sf waters.

I chose THE NAKED SUN by Isaac Asimov. It's a classic science fiction/detective novel, first published in 1957. The edition I read is the one pictured above, published by Lancer Books in 1966. A locked room, "impossible"  murder has occurred on the planet Solaria, one of the Outer Worlds in which robots vastly outnumber humans. Because it's a world without crime, a detective from Earth, Elijah Baley, is sent to investigate. He's partnered with R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a human appearance.

On Solaria, Baley and Olivaw track clues and interview various possible suspects, any one of which could have murdered the slain scientist. At the novel's climax, Baley confronts all of the suspects, in classic murder mystery form, and explains exactly who did it. A guilty party is revealed but the real identity of the killer is not revealed until the very end of the book.

What makes this story work is the fact that Baley comes from a future Earth in which all of mankind lives in gigantic underground cities. To go up to the surface of Earth and be exposed to the "naked sun", is anathema to Baley and he suffers a very real phobia of the outdoors. However, on Solaria, he's forced to go outside a number of times in the course of his investigation and he gradually comes to terms with his fear.

There are only 20,000 humans on Solaria and people live in huge estates (equipped with numerous robots) on vast acreage. They are so spread out and isolated that actual, face-to-face contact with other humans, is abhorrent to them. The Solarians prefer instead to "view" others via a remote viewing technology (shades of Skype!) rather than "see" another human in person. Asimov neatly plays these two psychological aberrations against each other as Baley acclimates himself to the outer world while the Solarians begin to tolerate each other's physical presence.

Asimov wasn't a great writer in terms of style but he's certainly readable even if his prose isn't dazzling. Where he excelled was in ideas and concepts, such as the Three Laws of Robotics, rules which play a key part in NAKED SUN. This is at once a science fiction novel and a formal, whodunit mystery and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Of course, after I finished reading it, I immediately picked up a crime/mystery novel, KILL NOW, PAY LATER by Robert Terrall. But it's not a very long book and when I finish it, I might just pick up another science fiction novel. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


I watched THE CINCINNATI KID (1965) again yesterday. It was one of the films that TCM ran the other day during their Ann-Margret marathon.

Steve McQueen, the avatar of sixties cool, stars as "The Kid", a stud poker player on the make in depression era New Orleans. When legendary player Lancey "The Man" Howard (Edward G. Robinson), comes to town, the Kid is determined to take him on and beat him. He's aided by Shooter (Karl Malden), a former player who lost big to Lancey and now serves as a go-between, arranging high stakes games and acting as the dealer. Shooter is married to Melba (Ann-Margret), a totally amoral woman who cheats at everything including solitaire and jigsaw puzzles. She's a classic bad girl and Ann-Margret is terrific in the role. The Kid has a steady girlfriend, Christian (the lovely Tuesday Weld), who leaves town right before the big game, leaving the Kid to temporarily succumb to Melba's wiles.

The bulk of the film centers around the marathon poker game which takes place in a smoke filled hotel room with lots of spectators and plenty of booze and food on hand. One by one, players exit the game: Pig (Jack Weston), Sokal (Milton Selzer), Yeller (Cab Calloway) until only Lancey and the Kid are left. Shooter and Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell), take turns dealing while Slade (Rip Torn), tries desperately to fix the game in the Kid's favor in an effort to revenge himself for his previous loss to Lancey.

The Kid will have none of that. He wants to beat the man by himself, fair and square and he knows he can do it. It all comes down to a final hand. The Man has a possible Queen high straight flush (diamonds) while the Kid has a possible full house (aces and tens). Somebody wins. Somebody loses.

THE CINCINNATI KID started production with Sam Peckinpah as director but he quickly clashed with producer Martin Ransohoff who fired him and hired Norman Jewison as a replacement. Spencer Tracy was originally cast as Lancey but had to bow out due to health problems. Peckinpah had wanted to shoot the film in black-and-white to give it more of a period feel but Jewsion shot it in color using muted colors throughout to make the reds and blacks of the cards pop when they appear on screen.

Filmed on location in New Orleans and at the MGM studios, THE CINCINNATI KID has a great cast, a tight script (by Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern from the novel by Richard Jessup)  and top notch direction. It's a pretty simple, straightforward story but it's well mounted and compelling. If you're a fan of Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret and poker like I am, you'll love this film.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


"I've got saddles older than you."

The other day, TCM ran an Ann-Margret movie marathon. Good thing I had plenty of space on my DVR as I recorded quite a few of these films because, you know, you just can't ever have enough of Ann-Margret.

One of the films I recorded and watched was THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973), which I recall seeing on first release with my buddy Terry Porter at the old Fox Theater on Airport Boulevard. Hadn't seen it since and it was fun to revisit this western adventure.

Ann-Margret is Mrs. Lowe, a widow woman whose late husband stole half a million dollars in gold from a train years earlier. On his deathbed, he tells Mrs. Lowe the location of the buried treasure. She's the only one who knows where the gold is and she hires Lane (John Wayne) and his men to help her recover the treasure. She aims to clear her husband's name by returning the gold to the railroad while Lane and his men stand to share a $50,000 reward.

Lane's men include Grady (Rod Taylor), Jesse (Ben Johnson) and Calhoun (Christopher George). Lane, Grady and Jesse are all Civil War veterans (the Union, of course), who have been together since the war. They set out from Liberty, Texas (a flyspeck of a town on a rail line) and journey into Mexico to find the gold. They are pursued by a band of riders led by a mysterious man (Ricardo Montalban), whose true identity is not revealed until the end of the film.

The scenery is spectacular and the action scenes, including a nighttime gun battle involving a train and lots of dynamite, are well staged. Director Burt Kennedy pays homage to the title sequence of Sergio Leone's masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969) in his opening scenes with Ben Johnson alone at a deserted train station waiting for a train. The action is underscored by a nice, rousing score by Dominic Frontiere.

The twist at the end redeems THE TRAIN ROBBERS from being just a routine western but even a routine western with John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Rod Taylor and, or course, Ann-Margret, is well worth my time. Thumbs up.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Since I mentioned it yesterday here on my blog, I thought I'd take a moment and tell my L. Sprague de Camp story. First of all, let me preface this by saying there are some details regarding this encounter that I frankly do not remember. I ask your forgiveness for these gaps in my memory.

In the 1990s, my buddy Bob Parker lived in Brownwood, Texas. I would often go up there for a visit and the two of us had several adventures in that city (and in Cross Plains), involving our much loved literary hero Robert E. Howard. For instance, we visited (more than once), the family plot in the Brownwood cemetery where Howard, his mother and father are all buried and, again, more than once, we visited Cross Plains, where Howard lived and died. I have some more detailed stories about those visits but those are for a future blog post.

On one of my visits to Brownwood, sometime in the 1990s, Bob and I decided to go over to Howard Payne University and check out their collection of Howard material. By the way, my niece, Elizabeth, is going to be attending HPU this fall as a freshman but I digress...

We found the right building and the right room and while we were looking around, a nice lady came up to us and asked, "are you going to be here this evening for the de Camps?"

We looked at her and admitted that we had no idea that the de Camps were going to be there that evening but that we would certainly plan to attend. L. Sprague de Camp had a long and illustrious career as a writer of science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction and some non-fiction, including a biography of Robert E. Howard. de Camp and his wife, Catherine Crook de Camp, lived in Plano at the time so it was fairly easy for them to make the trip to Brownwood to give a talk.

The trouble was, since we didn't know in advance about the de Camp's appearance, I had none of his books with me to get signed. Still, this was a chance to see and hear a man who, for better or worse, had contributed material to the Conan saga and signed books or not, we weren't going to miss this one.

de Camp, looking much like the photo above, was everything I expected from such an august man of letters that evening. Tall, thin, bearded and erudite, the man knew his stuff. He had a slightly regal, imperious air about him but he spoke with authority and conviction about Conan, REH and other topics. It was a very enjoyable evening, even if I have no signed books to show that I was there.

de Camp and his wife's book, DARK VALLEY DESTINY: THE LIFE OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, was published in 1983. I have a copy on my shelf. The book caused quite a bit of controversy in Howard fan circles as de Camp attempted to force his Freudian psychology on Howard, calling him "neurotic" and "Oedipal", among other things. I must shamefully confess that I haven't read the book so I can't comment on the validity of these criticisms. I do know that the book pissed a lot of people off.

Another Howard biography is THE LAST CELT: A BIO-BIBLIOGRAPHY OF ROBERT ERVIN HOWARD by Glenn Lord. It was published by Donald Grant in 1976 in a limited edition of 2,600 copies. Sadly, I do not have a copy of this book.

I do, however, have a copy of ONE WHO WALKED ALONE: ROBERT E. HOWARD: THE FINAL YEARS by Novalyne Price Ellis. WALKED ALONE, first published in 1986,  is the only Howard biography written by someone who actually knew him and it was the basis for the film, THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1996), which starred Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. The film was shot in and around the Austin and Bastrop areas and when it opened in Austin in 1996, I wrote a sidebar about Robert E. Howard that ran in the American Statesman along with a review of the film.

Finally, there is BLOOD & THUNDER: THE LIFE & ART OF ROBERT E. HOWARD by Mark Finn, published in 2006. I don't have a copy of this one but I understand it's a good one.

If you're interested in reading more about Robert E. Howard, see if you can find a copy of one of these four books.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


There's a story that the late Forrest J. Ackerman told often and with great relish. Heck, he told it to me both times I had the honor to be in his presence (and remind me to tell my Forry stories some day). It goes something like this:

"When I was a boy, magazines could talk. I saw the cover of the first issue of  AMAZING STORIES (April, 1926) when I was a young lad and the magazine spoke to me. It said, take me home little boy, you will love me!" Of course, Forry took it home (after paying for it) and love it he did. It became one of the touchstones of his long and celebrated life as a science fiction fan (among many other appellations).

I had a similar experience when I was twelve-years-old. It was 1968. I was in the seventh-grade at O.Henry Junior High School. My buddy Steve Cook and I had gone to see a movie downtown at either the Paramount or the State Theater. I don't remember which theater and I don't recall the film but I do know that afterwards, we went into a bookstore (Garner and Smith?) across Congress Avenue from the theaters to poke around for awhile before we caught the bus for our ride home.

I was looking around at the science fiction and fantasy books and there I saw it. A paperback, published by Lancer, called CONAN THE AVENGER. I had no idea who this Conan dude was but I sure knew the cover artist. It was none other than Frank Frazetta, whose work I had admired on various covers of Warren Publishing's CREEPY and EERIE black-and-white horror comics magazines. Frazetta was an incredible artist and this was one terrific image. This one scene with Conan charging in, bat-winged demons in the background, a semi-naked female on a slab, a mad wizard with a wicked knife held above his head and a gator and an octopus climbing up the steps of the altar from the primordial depths, blew my mind. You bet this baby spoke to me and you know what it said.

I bought the book and devoured it over the course of the weekend. I was immediately hooked on Conan the Barbarian as a character and sword and sorcery as a genre. I made a note to look for more of these cool books with the barbarian pulp hero and cover art by Frazetta. The irony is that the story in the book, THE RETURN OF CONAN, wasn't written by the great Robert E. Howard. It was penned by Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp (and remind me to tell my story about meeting him one of these days). In fact, the only pure Howard material in the book was THE HYBORIAN AGE, PART 2, which, honestly, kinda bored me. I became a Conan fan without having read an actual REH Conan story.

Of course, that soon changed when I purchased my next Lancer Conan paperback and discovered the storytelling magic of Howard. He quickly became one of my all time favorite writers (a position he still holds to this day). I've got quite a few stories to tell about REH involving Brownwood and Cross Plains, Texas and one of these days, I 'll get around to telling them here.

But for now, I just want to confirm that Forrest Ackerman was right. And was there ever any doubt? When I was twelve-years-old, a paperback book spoke to me in a voice I've never forgotten.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


"Him, I don't know."

Back before we were married, many years ago, Judy and I used to enjoy a once a week movie night. I'd stop at the local Blockbuster (remember them?) and rent a fairly recent comedy for us to watch. On VHS. Judy hadn't yet made the transition to a DVD and there were still VHS tapes available for rent. I'd then proceed to her home in Elgin where we'd enjoy popcorn and a soda while we watched the movie. I usually picked a winner, but there were a few films that we didn't enjoy.

One of the movies I picked back then and one which we did like was ANALYZE THIS (1999). I recall getting some real belly laughs out of it. When I found a DVD of the film for two bucks at the thrift store, I knew I had to get it so we could enjoy it again. Judy and I have recently started a Friday night comedy movie night. We watched (and enjoyed) THE IN-LAWS (1979)  a couple of weeks back and last Friday evening, we laughed all the way through ANALYZE THIS. Again.

Robert De Niro is a gangster in need of therapy. Billy Crystal is the psychiatrist who, through a crazy series of events, finds himself counseling the anxiety ridden mobster. That's all the set up you really need because these two pros take the movie from there and run with it. Crystal is fine but the real treat here is De Niro, as the type of character you'd usually find him playing in a Martin Scorsese film. He's both a great gangster and a very funny man. There's also a great dream sequence that is copied shot for shot from Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece THE GODFATHER (1972).

Directed by Harold Ramis from a screenplay by Kenneth Lonergan, Peter Tolan and Ramis, ANALYZE THIS proved successful enough to warrant a sequel, ANALYZE THAT in 2002. I recall that Judy and I watched that one as well but I don't remember it being as funny as the first one.

ANALYZE THIS is a very funny movie and I highly recommend it. We enjoyed watching it again and I can't wait for our next movie night. I'm thinking we may have to revisit a certain Navin R. Johnson. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


I have a rather checkered history regarding Stanislaw Lem's science fiction work SOLARIS as both a book and a film. I tried to read a paperback edition of the novel when I was in college. I had brought the book along on a church sponsored ski trip and I tried to read it on the plane and during all too infrequent down times. I would always get a few pages in and then stall for various reasons. The story just wasn't working for me. It wasn't grabbing me and making me want to continue reading. I had purchased the book because of all of the tremendous praise that was printed on the book covers. Was it all just hype? Is this novel really as good as its' reputation would have me believe? Was it poorly translated into English from the original Polish language version? I don't know. I couldn't get through the book then and I have no desire to pick it up and try it again.

A few years ago, my buddy Kelly Greene and I attended a screening of the Russian film version of SOLARIS (1972). We had both heard good things about the film and as both movie and science fiction buffs, we decided that it was something we should see at least once in our lives.

 Once was enough. I found the film, with a running time of 165 minutes, incredibly slow and boring. There's an unbelievably long tracking shot from inside an automobile as it drives along a freeway in Japan that may still be going on somewhere for all I know. The story seemed to take forever to get going and when it did, it still moved at a glacial pace. I know I nodded off a couple of times. It was a cerebral, psychological, ambiguous and yes, lyrical and poetic, piece of film making that just wasn't to my taste. I can say I've seen the Russian SOLARIS but I can't say I'd ever want to watch it again.

But I took a chance the other day on the American version of SOLARIS from 2002. The film had a great pedigree. It was produced by James Cameron, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh and starred George Clooney. And, with a running time of only 99 minutes, it was definitely shorter than the original version. What did I have to lose?

How about those 99 minutes? To it's credit, the 2002 version gets our hero, Chris Kelvin (Clooney), to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris a lot faster than it took in the original. But once there, things grind to a halt as Chris finds only two people still alive, a whacked out young man, Snow (Jeremy Davies in an incredibly annoying performance, full of tics and stutters) and Dr. Gordon (Viola Davis). Oh yes and Chris's dead wife, Rheya (the gorgeous Natascha McElhone) somehow mysteriously appears in Chris's room while he's sleeping.

She's not a ghost however. She's a physical manifestation of Rheya taken from Chris's thoughts, dreams and memories of her and made manifest and whole, living, breathing flesh and blood, by Solaris itself, which is not only a planet, it's a sentient alien being.

Chris and Gordon want to get the hell out of the vicinity of Solaris and return to earth. But Chris has a change of heart at the last minute, stays behind on the space station and eventually ends up reunited with Rheya on what appears to be earth. But of course, it's merely yet another manifestation created by Solaris. Is Solaris a god? Or is it God himself? Is the life and environment that Chris and Rheya inhabit at the end of the film truly heaven? Your guess is as good as mine because the film, like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) (a far better film, by the way), doesn't spoon feed viewers with information and explanations. Everything is ambiguous and slowly paced, with many long fade outs to black that last and last and last. The sets are claustrophobic and the musical score by Cliff Martinez is exceptionally annoying.

Cameron and Soderbergh are on record as envisioning this film not so much a remake of the Russian version but a new interpretation of the original Stanislaw Lem novel. It's certainly well made and Clooney and McElhone  are two extraordinarily good looking people. SOLARIS was pitched as a love story, a chance for two people to try and rebuild their relationship, one which ended tragically the first time. Okay, I get that and it's not a bad idea for a science fiction story. But the telling takes far too long for me to be fully engaged and invested in the outcome.

If you have to watch a film called SOLARIS, this is the one to see. It's not great but it's shorter and more accessible than the Russian version.

 But not by much.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015


As a rule, I hate remakes. If the film being remade was a good one to begin with, why bother? Other than putting some fresh new faces into the cast, giving it the spit and polish of CGI and maybe changing the basic story up a bit, what's the point of redoing a film that's already been done? Some would argue that there's an entirely new, young audience that has never seen the original film and that the remake is for that generation, not the previous one. That used to be somewhat true but it's not any more. Almost every movie ever made is literally just a click and a download away for many people these days, so that theory isn't as sound as it used to be. I've always thought, why spend all of that money, time, talent and energy to do something that's already been done? Why not put all of that creative capital (and blood, sweat and tears) into something new, fresh and original?

Case in point. The original ROLLERBALL (1975) was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It was an interesting film however, certainly worth watching if for no other reason than to see how remarkably prescient the movie was about the partnership between major league sports and corporate media, especially television. Set in a future in which corporations rule the world, Rollerball, the game, is bread and circuses for the masses, a televised opiate of extreme violence and brutality. Jonathan (James Caan), is the game's best player but when he becomes larger than the game itself, he threatens his rich masters who plot to have him killed during a game. The game of Rollerball is an amalgamation of roller derby, football and motor cross as players skate and ride motorcycles around an oval track in an effort to place the spherical, metallic "rollerball" into the scoring receptacle.

That's about all there was to the first film. It was a good, but not great film. However, when compared to the 2002 remake, the original film looks like a bonafide masterpiece. Director John McTiernan's hot mess of a movie is full to bursting with gratuitous nudity, extreme violence, stunts, stunts and still more stunts, a downhill skateboard/luge race in San Francisco, an extremely loud and extremely annoying score by Eric Serra and enough lens flares to get J.J. Abrams through the next half dozen STAR WARS films.

Our hero is, once again, Jonathan (Chris Klein, who has absolutely no screen presence whatsoever), a young daredevil with no back story and no real motivation (other than money) to compete in this new version of Rollerball. The story takes place in 2005 where the game is played throughout Central Asia, Russia, China, Mongolia and Turkey. The action takes place on a figure 8 track which includes ramps and a clear Plexiglas tunnel suspended above the action. There are motorcycles, of course, but the old fashioned roller skates of the original film have been replaced by in line skates. Oh, and the teams are all both co-ed and internationally mixed. A comic book reference digression: the women team members sport costumes that look like they were stolen from the wardrobe of Jack Kirby's Female Furies.

Jonathan's best friend is Marcus Ridley (LL Cool J), a former professional athlete who recruits Jonathan with the promise of big money. Aurora (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) is their teammate and Jonathan's main squeeze. Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno) is the inventor/league commissioner of Rollerball and he has many shady, wealthy backers. Oh, and betting on Rollerball is not only allowed, it's encouraged.

The games are televised with a real-time audience ratings meter. The more violent the game, the higher the ratings. You can see where this is going, right? When players are brutally assaulted, crippled and left for dead, the ratings go up. Jonathan and Marcus decide they've had enough and engineer an escape across the Mongolian desert to the Russian border, an escape attempt that is shot entirely in green tinted "night vision" for no apparent reason. Marcus is killed and Jonathan is forced to play one more game (in which he's supposed to die). But Jonathan, Aurora, the players on both Rollerball teams and the fans all revolt against the ruling elite at the end of the film with Jonathan killing both Alexi and his right-hand man. There's no more Rollerball and there's no more movie. Remember kids, when the monster's dead, the movie's over.

Director John McTiernan shows little of the action film auteur credibility he established in the trifecta of  PREDATOR (1987), DIE HARD (1988) and THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), all of which are better than ROLLERBALL. McTiernan's career hit the skids with the disastrous LAST ACTION HERO (1993) and none of his films since (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995), THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999) and the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1999)) made much of an impression.

If you've got to watch a film called ROLLERBALL, make sure it's the original. It's not great but it's certainly better than this piece of cinematic junk.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


The other night, while Judy was preparing our dinner, she made some crazy, funny little move in the kitchen and called out "Serpentine! Serpentine!"

We both laughed and then she said, "what movie was that from?"

"The IN-LAWS, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin," I replied.

"That was a funny movie," she said. "If you ever get a chance to get a copy of that, do it. I'd love to see it again.

Duly noted and filed. A couple of days later, I was in one of the thrift stores that I frequent looking for bargain DVDs. Imagine my surprise to find a used copy of THE IN-LAWS on the shelf! For two bucks, I couldn't go wrong. I bought the DVD and when I got home that evening, I told Judy that we were going to have a movie night on Friday but that the film we would be viewing was going to be a surprise.

Sure enough, I genuinely surprised her when I produced the IN-LAWS DVD on Friday evening. She popped some popcorn in the microwave and we sat down to enjoy the film.

For the life of me, I can't remember where I saw this film for the first time. I don't recall going to the theater to see it in 1979. I might have. But I also think I may have seen it on either HBO or Cinemax, back when those two cable channels ran movies and pretty much only movies. Either way, I had seen it way back when (as had Judy) and we both enjoyed it. We enjoyed it again the other night.

The film stars Peter Falk and Alan Arkin as about to be in-laws. Falk's son is set to wed Arkin's daughter but not before Falk, a crazed "is-he-or-isn't-he?" CIA agent embroils button-down, conservative (and well-to-do) dentist Arkin in a madcap scheme involving currency engraving plates stolen from the U.S. Treasury and a visit to a third world banana republic led by a corrupt and bat shit crazy dictator.

Director Arthur Hiller does a good job with Andrew Bergman's screenplay and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There are occasional lapses in continuity, especially at the beginning of the film where an armored car is hijacked in what is clearly Los Angeles, only to have one of the bandits subsequently enter a building and emerge upon a rooftop in Washington, D.C. (!).

That's a minor quibble because the real joy here is watching the performances by Arkin and Falk, especially Falk, who steals the show as the unhinged, make-it-up-as-you-go-along CIA operative. There are several truly funny set pieces with the duo, including the famous "serpentine, serpentine" scene and Senor Pepe is an absolutely inspired bit of lunacy. 

THE IN-LAWS isn't the funniest movie I've ever seen but Judy and I both got a lot of laughs out of watching it again. The film was remade in 2003 with Michael Douglas, Albert Brooks and Candice Bergen. I've not seen that version but I can't imagine it's an improvement on the sheer madness that is the original. Worth seeing. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015


I finished reading THE CREEPING DEATH last night. Originally published on January 15th, 1933, it's the 22nd Shadow pulp adventure. The paperback edition I read, which is pictured above, was published by Pyramid Books in May, 1977. The terrific cover is by the legendary comic book artist Jim Steranko.

I've read quite a few Shadow novels over the last few years and each and every one of them I've read aloud to my lovely wife Judy. I read while she cooks our suppers and then I clean up the kitchen after we eat. When we take any long car trips, she drives and I read aloud. We've been able to enjoy dozens of books this way. It may take a little longer to read something aloud but the pleasure we both get from the experience is well worth the effort. Besides, when I read a Shadow yarn, I get to practice my sinister Shadow voice and laugh.

THE CREEPING DEATH finds The Shadow up against an insane inventor who means to rule the world by flooding various countries economies with fake gold, a substance that he can create in his laboratory. He means to eventually own all of the real gold in the world, and replace it with the fake stuff. Sounds like a certain Bond villain, doesn't it? Lucien Partridge is the gents' name and he has operatives working in various countries to pass the counterfeit bullion. But dead men tell no tales and Partridge has begun doing away with his associates by using the Creeping Death. It's a deadly, slow acting toxin that Partridge wears on his lab gloves. When he shakes hands with someone, they are doomed to die an agonizing death  in a matter of hours.

Of course, The Shadow investigates the murders and finds the trail leading to Partridge's heavily guarded upstate mansion. He's aided by secret service agent Vic Marquette, whom the Shadow must rescue from certain death more than once. Things come to an explosive climax when Partridge's hideout is bombed and a small army of gunmen invade the grounds where a deadly gunfight erupts with the Shadow and Marquette caught in the middle. There's a struggle to the death above a sheer cliff between the Shadow and Partridge and only one survives. Guess who?

THE CREEPING DEATH is a fast paced, action packed Shadow adventure that features a unique method of murder, a mad genius and plenty of gun play. That's pretty much what you expect from a pulp thriller and this one definitely delivers the goods. Judy and I both enjoyed it and if you're a pulp fan, you will too.