Saturday, December 31, 2016

CRISIS OF INFINITE SWIPES


This the splash page to MARVEL: THE LOST GENERATION #6 published in September 2000. The lettering, as you can see by the credits, is by Jack Morelli. Note the font used for the word "crisis". Where have we seen that before?


Coincidence? I don't think so.



MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE: THE BOND GIRLS


Carey Lowell (born February 11, 1961), played CIA agent Pam Bouvier in the second Timothy Dalton James Bond thriller, LICENSE TO KILL (1989). The lovely Ms. Lowell has appeared in several films and television series, most notably on LAW AND ORDER from 1996 to 2001.


AND THEN THERE WERE NONE


I must confess that I'm not much of a fan of Agatha Christie. To be honest, I've read exactly one of her books in my life. It was for a class I took in college on detective fiction and for the life of me, I don't remember which book it was other than that it featured Hercule Poirot. I've seen some of the films based on her books but by and large, the type of drawing room murder mysteries that she perfected, along with Dorothy L. Sayers and others, are just not my cup of tea. I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next reader but for feats of pure detection and ratiocination I much prefer a Sherlock Holmes story. And for crime stories in general, give me something hardboiled, down and dirty every time. Regular readers of this blog can look and see the types of crime stories that float my boat.

That said, I enjoyed watching AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) yesterday afternoon. I'd seen it years ago but had long since forgotten the identity of the killer. It's a simple enough story. Ten people are brought to a remote island by an unknown host. Once assembled, it's revealed that each person is guilty of a heinous crime and they are all to be killed, one by one, until there's only one person left.

The victims are dispatched with aplomb until there are only two people left alive but neither is the killer. That means that someone faked his or her death and is still alive and plotting on the island.

Full of atmosphere, NONE is a claustrophobic exercise in suspense, with most of the action taking place entirely within the confines of a massive house. It's stagy and talky in places but director Rene Clair keeps things moving at a good pace. One curious note: several times throughout the film, characters will look and speak directly into the camera as if addressing the audience.

Veteran character actors Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston steal the show with their broad performances while Louis Hayward (looking like the love child of Orson Welles and Raymond Massey), is the stalwart hero of the piece with a secret of his own.

Released in the UK as TEN LITTLE INDIANS, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE follows the stage version of Christie's novel more closely than the novel itself. It's all great, murderous fun and games, a pleasant diversion on a bleak winter's afternoon.


Friday, December 30, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE: THE BOND GIRLS


Eunice Gayson, born March 17, 1931 and still with us at the time of this post, appeared as Sylvia Trench in the first two James Bond films, DR. NO (1962) and FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), which makes her the first official "Bond Girl". The lovely lady also starred in Hammer Films THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and on episodes of the British television series DANGER MAN, THE SAINT and THE AVENGERS.


DETOUR


Film noir is a house of cards built on a very shaky foundation. It's a foundation made of sand, that sand comprised of numerous genre tropes and signature elements, among them the deadly femme fatale and protagonists who consistently make bad choices. Bad? Make that lethal.

DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 minimalist masterpiece, contains both of those elements in spades. Piano player Al (Tom Neal), yearns to break free of the two bit New York night club where he performs nightly, accompanying his girlfriend singer Sue (Claudia Drake). When Sue leaves for greener pastures in California, without asking Al to accompany her, he becomes determined to make his way to the promised land and find Sue by any means necessary.

That means hitchhiking cross country. Along the way, Al is picked up by Charlie Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a glad-handing, big-talker with a questionable past. The two become traveling companions and things are going well until Haskell suddenly collapses dead in the front seat of the car. Al decides to ditch the body, dress himself in the dead man's clothes and continue on to the next big city where he plans to ditch the car. But when he stops for gas, he picks up Vera (Ann Savage), a hitchhiker who had previously ridden with Haskell.

Vera is not your typical film noir femme fatale. She's a fury, a harpy, an uncapped volcano of rage and hatred and all of it is directed at Al. The two become trapped by circumstances, the shrewish Vera screaming at Al and dictating their every move. Al yearns to escape from her clutches and find some way out of the mess he's gotten himself  into. He just wants to go to California, re-connect with Sue and find some modicum of happiness and normalcy.

But that's not to be as things take a wicked, deadly twist for Al and Vera, a twist that sends Al spiraling even deeper into a whirlpool of doom.

Bleak doesn't begin to describe this exercise in existential despair. Shot on a shoestring budget in a matter of days, DETOUR ranks as Ulmer's best film, an undisputed film noir masterpiece. Ulmer, a European emigre, made more than thirty films in the United States from 1933 to 1964 but fame always eluded him. He was stuck doing mostly grade B and lower genre fare, most of which is forgettable, disposable cinematic junk. But he did film THE BLACK CAT (1934), at Universal with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first on-screen pairing. It's a bizarre, outre film, one that ranks second among my favorite Universal horror films after BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Ulmer also directed the low-budget science fiction classic, THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951) in which he got the most out of a minuscule budget and a handful of sets.

DETOUR is one of the touchstones of film noir. If you're just starting to discover the pleasures of noir, this is a great film to start with. Genre veterans and aficionados already know what a terrific film it is. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

GOOD-BYE TO ALL THAT


The daily, physical print and ink version of The Austin American-Statesman has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can recall when there were two daily editions, a morning, the American, and an afternoon, the Statesman (or was it the other way around?). And I can recall going downtown on Saturday nights and buying the Sunday paper from an honest to gosh "newsboy" on the corner of Sixth and Congress.

My family always had a subscription and at some point, I took over the cost and became the subscriber. No matter where I've lived over the years, the newspaper was always there, at the foot of the driveway, sometimes wrapped in plastic, sometimes not (and sometimes soaked in water, no matter what) waiting for me. Getting up and going out and getting the paper was an ingrained part of my daily routine. I would read the headlines while I ate my breakfast and then retire to my bedroom (now, upstairs to the man cave) with a cup of coffee to read more, almost always the sports and lifestyle/entertainment (wherever the funnies were) sections. On Sundays, I always read the Books and Insight section, now sadly reduced to just Insight.

As a subscriber, I've also received in my email box every day for the last couple of years, a link to the online version of the Statesman, the e-paper edition. I would never click on this, I always deleted it because I wanted to read my paper the old-fashioned way. As long as the Statesman was offering a print and ink edition, by god, I was going to read it that way, digital be damned. I want a PAPER, dammit. That's the way I've always read it and that's the way I'll continue to read it as along as it's still available.

But times change. When Judy told me a few weeks back how much our annual subscription to the Statesman cost (over $500), I couldn't believe it. That was way too much money to be spending in my opinion and so, it finally came down to a matter of economics. I decided, on my own, to pull the plug on the physical delivery part of the subscription and finally submit to reading the paper online.

This was a major, life-shifting event for me as old habits die hard around here. But like Clint Eastwood said in HEARTBREAK RIDGE, "adapt, overcome, improvise!"

I've been reading the Statesman every morning on my computer for almost a month now. It took me awhile to get used to it and figure out the navigation tools but I'm comfortable with it now. As part of this radical new way to consume the news, I've made a pledge to myself regarding my newspaper reading. In an effort to combat the rampant ignorance in this country, the rise of "fake news", the belief that "facts don't matter", the election of a self confessed and proud of it non-reader to the highest office in the land and a host of other societal ills, I've changed the way I read the paper. I now read the A section almost entirely and if I have time to get deeper into the paper, I do. But I want to be informed about the major, top stories in Austin, Texas, the USA and the world. The only way to fight stupid people is to become smarter yourself.

Granted, there are other bigger daily newspapers out there that offer more content and better reportage. But I claim the Statesman as my own. After all, I've not only been a constant reader I was also a contributor for a time back in the 1990s when I freelanced for them on a regular basis.

So, I've finally entered the 21st century when it comes to reading the newspaper. Who knows what other momentous, life changing events are in store for 2017? Stick with me and let's find out together.


MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE: THE GOLDEN AGE


Ann Miller (April 12, 1923-January 22, 2004), was born in Chireno, Texas. She made over forty films in her career, which ran from 1934 to 2001. She appeared mostly in musicals and romantic comedies where she had a chance to dance. And boy, could she dance! I first became aware of her when I was just a kid, seeing her in television commercials. I really had no idea who this woman was other than that she was always smiling and vivacious. It was only later, when I saw some of her films, that I came to really like her. I always found her sexy as hell. I think she would have been great as a femme fatale in a film noir. Does anyone out there know if she ever made such a film? I'd love to see it.


BACKGROUND TO DANGER


I watched BACKGROUND TO DANGER, a 1943 Warner Brothers WWII spy thriller, for the first time the other night and loved every minute of it. I was not familiar with this one going in but watching it reminded me of the good old days when local television stations would run old movies late at night. Of course, there was always the monster/horror/science fiction stuff that I loved but sometimes, I 'd take a chance on an old film I hadn't heard of and of a different genre and experience the joy of discovery. That's how I first saw CASABLANCA (1941) and several other vintage Warner Brothers films.

BACKGROUND TO DANGER has many similarities to CASABLANCA. It's set in an exotic locale, Turkey, in the midst of WWII and features two of the stars of that film, Peter Lorre and Sydney cGreenstreet. I love these guys and I'll watch anything they appear in together. Lorre excelled at playing weasels while Greenstreet exuded rotund menace (he was often filmed from below, his bulk filling the frame) in every scene. Add in tough guy George Raft (filling in for Bogie, and replete with trench coat) and you've got one checkuva fun little film.

Raft stars as American Joe Barton, a salesman of oil field equipment in the middle east. In fact, he's introduced in a early scene that takes place in, of all places, Aleppo, Syria. Barton soon becomes caught in the middle of a Nazi scheme (engineered by Greenstreet), to flood Turkish newspapers with plans for a Russian invasion into the neutral country. The threat of war would allow the Germans to enter Turkey on the premise of defending them from the non-existent Russian advance and conquer the country. Lorre and Brenda Marshall are two Russian spies who are treated somewhat sympathetically (remember, at this point in the war, the United States and Soviet Russia were allies). But all is not what it seems. SPOILER: Barton is really an American agent and he ultimately teams up with Lorre and Marshall to defeat Greenstreet.

There's plenty of gun fights, car chases, narrow escapes and reversals of fortune to keep the plot moving at a good clip, making the eighty minutes of running time fly by. The screenplay, by W.R. Burnett (with contributions by William Faulkner and Daniel Fuchs) is based on Eric Ambler's 1937 novel UNCOMMON DANGER. Director Raoul Walsh makes good use of the Warner back lot, stock footage (one scene is lifted directly from CASABLANCA) and miniature work to create a Turkey that could only exist in a Hollywood film. Future director Don Siegel edited the many montage sequences that appear in the film, a task he also performed on CASABLANCA.

BACKGROUND TO DANGER isn't a classic, masterpiece by any means. But it is one helluva good little movie, one which I thoroughly enjoyed. One thing I really liked was the title card of the film:





A font style that was later used here:




Friday, December 16, 2016

2010


Imagine someone like notorious bad movie maker Ed Woods mounting a sequel to Orson Welles's CITIZEN KANE (1941). The film does not need a sequel but if one was to be made, the last person you would want to be in charge of the production would be the hapless, clueless and untalented Wood.

While not on quite the same level of ineptitude involved in the above scenario, that's kind of what happened when hack director Peter Hyams helmed 2010 (1984), a sequel to Stanley Kubrick's immortal masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Hyams, who began his directorial career in 1972, had previously directed only two science fiction films, the cult favorite CAPRICORN ONE (1978) and the Sean Connery starring outer space murder mystery OUTLAND (1981). Neither film was very good but Hyams was working steadily and producing slightly upscale B movies. But he was no George Lucas or Steven Spielberg and he was certainly no Stanley Kubrick. 

2001 was a landmark achievement in both film in general and the cinema of the fantastic in particular. It was ambitious, ambiguous, puzzling, mysterious and full to bursting with awe and wonder. It left many moviegoers scratching their heads and wondering what it was that they had just seen.

The screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick was turned into a novel by Clarke and reading that book answered some of the questions raised by the film but 2001 was, in many ways, a Rorschach test for each individual viewer. In short, it could mean almost whatever you wanted it to mean. It didn't need a sequel to explain away dangling plot threads and tie up loose ends. It was complete and total unto itself, a remarkable cinematic experience that was like nothing ever seen before.

But Clarke himself penned the sequel novel 2010: ODYSSEY TWO in 1982 and when the book was purchased and went into production by MGM Studios, Peter Hyams was put in charge. He did quadruple duty as director, producer, screenwriter and cinematographer (there's a rumor that he also drove the craft services truck). Kubrick didn't offer any objections and consented to let Hyams make the film as long as he would "just go do your own movie."

Set nine years after the failure of the Discovery One mission in the first film, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), has retired from the National Council for Astronautics, feeling guilty over the deaths of the Discovery crew members. He's a university chancellor now but at the beginning of the film he's approached by a Russian scientist who tells him that the Russians are launching their own mission to Jupiter in an attempt to recover the Discovery and find out what went wrong. They need help from Floyd and two other American scientists (Bob Balaban and John Lithgow) and since the Russians mission is already planned and can get to deep space before an American crew can launch, Floyd signs on.

The Russian ship is  commanded by Tanya Kirbuk (get it?) (Helen Mirren). They find the Discovery spinning in orbit around Jupiter. The vessel is secured and breached and HAL 9000 is reactivated. But before you know it, another mysterious monolith appears in space, this one bigger than the ones seen before. A Russian astronaut dies attempting to explore the monolith, a tragedy which sets in motion a chain of events that will radically transform that sector of the solar system.

2010 answers some questions posed by Kubrick's film while creating more mysteries of it own. It's not the dazzling adventure through time and space that was a highlight of 2001 but it is, believe it or not, actually a fairly solid piece of outer space exploration and adventure. Hyams does a decent job in all of his various tasks and the film received five Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design and Best Sound. 

Arthur C. Clarke has a cameo appearance early in the film. He's seen sitting on a park bench, feeding pigeons, outside of the White House while Floyd has a meeting on an adjacent bench. And a dummy copy of TIME magazine is seen in one shot with the headline "WAR" above head shots of Clarke and Kubrick.

2010 is not a bad movie. However, it is an entirely unnecessary one and I can't help but wish that all of that money, time and talent was put towards making an original science fiction film instead of a footnote to a masterpiece. 



Sunday, December 11, 2016

DAMON AND PYTHIAS


I halfway watched DAMON AND PYTHIAS (1962) this afternoon. When I wasn't watching the film, I was enjoying several unscheduled short naps on the couch. But even dozing off a few times didn't hurt my movie viewing. I had no trouble picking up on what was going on in this lackluster, routine "sword and sandal" adventure film. Based on the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias and set in Syracuse during the reign of Dionysius (432-367 BC), is pretty standard stuff. There are no muscle men in the cast, no fantasy elements at all, a couple of attractive Italian actresses (Ilaria Occhini and Liana Orfei)  and a rather meager budget with which to bring the screenplay, by Samuel Marx, Franco Riganti, Paola Ojetti and Bridget Boland, to life under the yeoman direction of Curtis Bernhardt. An epic it ain't.

What's most interesting about this film is the presence of American actor Guy Williams in the role of Damon. Williams rocketed to fame and fortune by riding a midnight black stallion and playing the part of Zorro in the ABC-TV series from 1957-1959. During the course of two seasons, 78 thirty minute episodes were produced by Walt Disney Studios for airing in prime time. Four additional hour long episodes were later broadcast in 1960 and 1961. ZORRO was a smash hit for all concerned. The network got high ratings while Disney cashed in with tons of tie-in merchandise and two theatrically released films that were comprised of various episodes edited together.

And of course, Williams became a bonafide star and household name. And why not? He was tall, dark and handsome with dashing good looks and he played Zorro to perfection. For many baby-boomers, his interpretation of this masked swashbuckling righter-of-wrongs is the definitive one.

So, given all of that, you would naturally assume that big things were awaiting Williams when production of ZORRO ceased. He ended up going to Europe (as many American actors did in those days), where he made DAMON AND PYTHIAS in Italy in 1962, followed by CAPTAIN SINDBAD in Germany the same year. By the way, CAPTAIN SINDBAD has no relation to Ray Harryhausen's SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958). There was a Gold Key movie comic adaptation of the film, a comic I happen to own, along with a copy of the film on DVD. I have yet to watch it but maybe one of these days....

Williams returned to the United States to appear on the hugely popular western TV series BONANZA, which dominated it's time period Sunday nights on NBC for years. Williams was cast as Ben Cartwright's (Lorne Greene) nephew but he only appeared in five episodes before the part was dropped due to fears of co-star Pernell Roberts, who played Adam Cartwright, that Williams would usurp his screen time.

But Williams landed on his feet in a big way. He starred as Professor John Robinson on Irwin Allen's LOST IN SPACE, which ran on CBS from 1965-1968.

Getting back to DAMON AND PYTHIAS. It isn't a bad movie. I've certainly seen worse "sword and sandal" movies. It's earnest and straightforward with fairly decent performances from most of the cast, especially Williams. It just wasn't compelling enough for me to stave off several short naps. Your mileage may vary.


Friday, December 9, 2016

THE WEALTH SEEKER


Take a long, hard look at the cover art of THE SHADOW: THE WEALTH SEEKER, pictured above. The art is by the legendary comic book artist Jim Steranko. It's a fabulous, evocative image, redolent with the heady perfume of pulp fiction. A beautiful, buxom, raven ctressed damsel in distress. A masked villain in formal clothes (dig that top hat!) with a tommy gun (my favorite old-time firearm) pointed at our hero, the masked avenger of the night, The Shadow. I love it! The shame is that no scene remotely like this one occurs anywhere within the actual pulp novel reprinted behind this cover. And that's a real shame because THE WEALTH SEEKER sure could have used the vitality that this artwork radiates.

THE WEALTH SEEKER by Walter Gibson, was the 46th Shadow pulp adventure published. It came out in January 1934, the very heart of the Great Depression. The paperback reprint pictured above (and that I finished reading the other night), was published in February 1978. With it's narrative roots in a time of immense economic hard times, it's only fitting that the plot of WEALTH SEEKER should deal primarily with money.

Folsom Satruff (love these names!) is a very wealthy individual who gives large sums of money away to folks in need. He does so under the mysterious name of "Dorand". Only a small circle of friends and confidants are aware of Satruff's secret identity but it's not long before gangdom discovers the secret and plots to rob the millionaire's home, where he keeps his treasures in a fortified vault. Two separate assaults result in the deaths of several mobsters but during the robbery attempts, it becomes clear that there's someone inside the "Dorand" operation who is leaking information to the underworld, vital secrets about the whereabouts of the treasure and how best to capture it.

The identity of the inside man is finally revealed at novel's end but frankly, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If this person is acquiring all of these ill-gotten gains, why is he so quick to give some of it away? Is it a money laundering scheme? This plot point is never really made clear.

On balance, THE WEALTH SEEKER is a pretty routine mystery novel. The Shadow doesn't have a whole lot to do in this one except engage in several gun battles in which his immense automatics spit flame and leaden death. The hard truth about the pulp jungle is that authors like Gibson were cranking these books out under an incredible deadline and they didn't always have the luxury of a second draft or careful edit and rewrite. It was get this one written and submitted to the editors and immediately start work on the next one. Under such circumstances no reader or Shadow fan can possibly expect every novel to be a great one. Sometimes you just have to settle for "okay".

But even a merely "okay" original Shadow pulp thriller is worth reading and enjoying.


Friday, December 2, 2016

MORIARTY


Anthony Horowitz's MORIARTY (2015), is a Sherlock Holmes story in which the Great Detective does not appear. That's because the action in the book takes place after the "deaths" of both Moriarty and Holmes at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, an event that Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle engineered to get rid of the characters. The death of Holmes was, of course, temporary, as Doyle eventually was forced to resurrect the sleuth due to reader demand.

Here, both Holmes and Moriarty have met their deaths in the treacherous falls. Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones, a Holmes protege, is on the scene to investigate, tie up loose ends and confirm the deaths, While in Switzerland, he meets Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase, an American detective who has come to Europe with a specific task. American master criminal Clarence Devereux and his henchmen, have come to London to fill the void left by the death of Moriarty. Devereux intends to be the new king of crime in the London underworld and it's up to Jones and Chase to put a stop to his nefarious plans.

All that sounds pretty simple and straightforward but it's not. That's because MORIARTY is one gigantic magic trick, a feat of literary prestidigitation that Horowitz executes with remarkable skill and aplomb. For three quarters of the book he has us looking over here, when what's really happening is going on over here. It's a remarkable "gotcha" narrative moment that I did not see coming and one which I guarantee will take you by surprise.

Fun and fast paced, MORIARTY is the second Horowitz Holmes novel. Both his previous book, THE HOUSE OF SILK and this one are fully authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. and that's a genuine seal of approval for Holmes fans. MORIARTY would make one heck of a good movie if anyone is paying attention. It's far better material than either of the lame Robert Downey Jr. Holmes films.

Read MORIARTY and prepare to be amazed by a literary sleight of hand that will leave you in awe of master magician  Anthony Horowitz. Highly recommended.



Thursday, November 24, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 8


Legendary 1950s pinup/bondage icon Bettie Page was a mix of sweetness and sin. Her wholesome beauty projected the innocence of the girl next door (as seen in this photo), while some of her other photos depicted her in decidedly more naughty poses and situations. But even in her more outre photo sessions, Bettie always maintained a spark of fun and joy. It's clear she didn't take any of the bizarro stuff seriously. For her, posing in front of the camera (clothed or not), was always fun.

Bettie disappeared off of the pop culture radar after her heyday in the 1950s. She was re-discovered by several fans in the early 1980s, among them comic book artist Dave Stevens who used Bettie as a model for a character in his ROCKETEER series. Suddenly, Bettie Page was once again everywhere in the pop culture of the early '80s which is where and when I discovered her.

Bettie died in 2008 but her images will live forever. 

A THUNDER OF DRUMS


Contrary to the title, there is no thunder, of drums or otherwise, to be seen or heard in director Joseph Newman's routine 1961 western A THUNDER OF DRUMS. So, points off for false advertising. However, any western, no matter how generic, that has both Slim Pickens and Charles Bronson in the cast, automatically gets points on. Call it a draw.  Bronson gets more screen time than Pickens but it's always a treat to see these guys, two of my all time favorites.

Richard Boone stars as Captain Stephen Maddocks, the commander of Fort Canby, located deep in Indian territory. Boone is another one of my favorites. He was capable of playing both good guys and bad with equal skill. Here, he bears the weight of command heavily as four of his men and two white women have just been killed by a marauding band of Apaches.

Before he can address the current crisis, Lt. Curtis McQuade (George Hamilton) shows up at the fort, ready for duty. He's a brash young officer, full of spit and polish, with no military experience. Captain Maddocks served under McQuade's father and there was bad blood between them. Maddocks takes an instant disliking to McQuade and vows to make him learn how things are done at Fort Canby.

To add further spice to the mix, Lt. Tom Gresham (James Douglas) is engaged to be married to Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten). As it turns out, McQuade and Tracey were former lovers, a relationship that is rekindled at the fort.

Maddocks sends Gresham out on patrol with a small group of soldiers. When they don't return, McQuade is the only one left to command a patrol. He sets out to find Gresham and the Apaches. A battle ensues in which he proves himself a capable soldier, winning the respect of Maddocks.

James Warner Bellah's screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers. Although produced by MGM, it's definitely not one of their "A" pictures. The fort is clearly the studio back lot, the interiors were shot on a sound stage and there's little location work until the third act. Joseph Newman was a journeyman director who knew where to put the camera but he brings nothing special to the material. The supporting cast features Arthur O'Connell as a crusty old sergeant, a young Richard Chamberlain (who was probably under contract) and rock star Duane Eddy, who strums the guitar in several scenes.

Routine and predictable but enjoyable for the presence of Boone, Bronson and Pickens, A THUNDER OF DRUMS made for a pleasant enough time killer on Thanksgiving Eve.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

DEAD OF NIGHT


I've read and heard about DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) for years but had never seen it until the other day (thanks to a recent airing on TCM). This classic British horror film has a reputation as being a must-see film and, while I certainly agree that it's worth seeing, it's an uneven movie that doesn't entirely hang together.

That's mainly because of it's format. It's an anthology/omnibus (or portmanteau, if you want to get fancy) type of film comprised of several short segments stitched onto an framing narrative. An architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), is invited to the country estate of Elliot Foley (Ronald Culver) for a weekend of consultation on some upcoming renovations. When Craig arrives and meets the people already assembled at the estate, he has an unshakable feeling that he's been there before, in that very room with those very people. And he knows exactly what's going to happen next. All of this is, of course, impossible and is chalked up to either deja vu or a particularly vivid dream that Craig had the night before. Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a man of science and medicine, especially discounts any supernatural or paranormal explanation for Craig's behavior.

The guests set about recounting their own personal weird tales and it's here where the short segments begin. The Hearse Driver and Christmas Party sequences are short, "gotcha" type stories with twist endings that are seen from miles away. They're relatively tame and offer no real scares whatsoever. They're the types of stories that later appeared in the DC's mystery comics. Heck, they're mild enough to have run in any Gold Key mystery anthology title.

The Haunted Mirror sequence, with a longer running time, is a good one that anticipates and prefigures the type of stories that would find a home on the Boris Karloff hosted THRILLER television series of the early 1960s. The Golfing Story sequence (from a story by H.G Wells) is the weakest of all. It's more of a "Topperesque" fantasy, light-hearted and whimsical and frankly, a waste of time. It just doesn't fit into the overall tone of the film and the other stories. It could be cut entirely and the film wouldn't suffer in the least.

The final sequence is the best. It's the legendary Ventriloquist's Dummy story in which ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) is dominated by his evil dummy Hugo. It's material that would later be revisited in both the classic 1962 TWILIGHT ZONE episode "THE DUMMY" and in William Goldman's novel and film MAGIC (1978). But this segment did it first and arguably best in a story that is truly terrifying and makes up for the weaker stories leading up to it.

After the stories have all been told, Craig plays out what he saw in his dream only to find himself in an unusual situation. To say more would be to spoil the surprise narrative twist at the end of the film but suffice it to say that it's a good one.

DEAD OF NIGHT is definitely worth seeing, especially if you're a horror film fan. It's uneven but earnest and while not every story works, the one's that do, do so exceedingly well.


MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 7


There are a multitude of reasons why Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, is one of the greatest films ever made. Claudia Cardinale, who stars as Jill, is just one of them.


Friday, November 18, 2016

THE WORST HARD TIME


I read the introduction, entitled "Live Through This", to Timothy Egan's THE WORST HARD TIME (2006) and uttered one word:

"Wow."

I knew, from those ten pages that I was in the hands of a master. When I finished reading all 312 pages of the book the other night, my first impression had been solidly confirmed. THE WORST HARD TIME is, quite simply, one of the best history books I've read in the last 15 plus years. It won the National Book Award and deservedly so. Egan brings a novelists' eye and ear for people and places and a historian's attention to detail in this gripping recounting of the Great American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

When the first settlers came to "No Man's Land" around the turn of the 20th Century, they found an immense grassland covering an area encompassing the Texas panhandle, western Oklahoma, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, and much of western Kansas. The high prairie had remained unchanged for years, providing fertile grazing grounds for bison and subsequently, hunting grounds for various Indian tribes including the Kiowa and Comanche. In less than forty years, it was all gone.

Homesteaders came eager to stake their claim on this land and grow crops, mostly wheat, and for a few years things were going well. Very well. Boom towns were springing up all over the place, record crops were produced, crops which fetched high prices on the open market, especially during the WWI years when European food production was stopped and American farmers stepped in to fill the need both at home and abroad.

But by plowing up the grasslands, the "nesters" planted the seeds of their own destruction if you'll forgive the pun. When wheat prices fell, tons of grain sat unsold and rotting. When a years-long, record setting drought and heat wave struck, what little crops remained withered and died, leaving the topsoil exposed and ready to be lifted up and carried by the wind to places far and wide. Dust storms became a part of life for people in "No Man's Land" and then, to add insult to injury, the Great Depression hit, plunging the nation into an economic tailspin that left the remaining "nesters" between a rock and a hard place. Many migrated elsewhere, especially California, but the Golden State offered no jobs or respite from the hard times. Many people were forced to stay on their land and hope for the best. Many, especially children and the elderly, suffered and died from the "dust pneumonia", a very real condition in which their lungs literally filled up with dust. They had no place to go, banks were foreclosing on their lands, they were forced to sell almost everything they had and yet, they held out hope that help would come in the form of rain and/or the federal government.

President Roosevelt responded to the needs of the people in "No Man's Land" by sending top soil expert Hugh Bennett to the High Plains to begin a series of soil conservation districts that would eventually return native grasses to the area, grasses which could hold down the dirt and keep it from becoming airborne. But he faced a tough challenge in getting everyone to buy in to his plan.

Egan recounts all of this in a gripping, compelling narrative that reads like a Biblical apocalypse. Many of the people who lived through those impossibly hard times must have thought that they were surely facing the end of the world. That fear was confirmed on "Black Sunday", Sunday, April 14th, 1935, when the largest dust storm in American history hit "No Man's Land".  A beautiful, clear spring day was suddenly turned from noon time to midnight, the immense wall of dust and dirt blocking out all sunlight, making it impossible to see your hand in front of your face. Anyone caught out in this massive, miles-wide swath of dust was in true, mortal danger. It was the worst dust storm ever during a period when dust storms were a part of daily life. Good God, it was bad. What could be worse?

How about a swarm of grasshoppers, coming in the form of another gigantic black cloud, this one abuzz with the sound of millions of whirring wings. The 'hoppers landed and immediately consumed crops, grass, trees, even wooden shovel handles. It must have seemed like the plagues of ancient Egypt were upon the land. Dust, locusts, deaths of first born children. What's next? Frogs? Boils?

Much of THE WORST HARD TIME is told in the words of the people who survived the experience. Indeed, that's the subtitle of the book "The Untold Story of Those Who Survived The Great American Dust Bowl." It's a grim, depressing story about the collision of capricious nature and human hubris. There are many victims in this story but there are also heroes. Ultimately, it's a hard lesson learned for everyone involved in what stands as the greatest long-term ecological disaster in American history. Those lessons are still vital today in this era of global warming and climate change. There's much to be learned and taken to heart in these pages.

I've read a lot of very good popular history books over the years by a number of first rate authors. Those authors include Stephen Ambrose, H.W. Brands, James Hornfischer, Nathaniel Philbrick, Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson. I can add Timothy Egan's name to that list.

Highest recommendation.


Thursday, November 17, 2016

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE 6


While watching CONSPIRATOR (1949) the other night I was struck once again by just how incredibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor was. In the film, a routine spy thriller in which she co-stars with a much older Robert Taylor, Liz plays a 16-year-old American girl in London. She was actually 18 at the time. She's a bit older than that in the photo above.

Monday, November 14, 2016

ADVISE & CONSENT


From the Saul Bass designed opening credits to the final shot of the United States Senate chamber, Otto Preminger's ADVISE & CONSENT (1962), is a riveting, compelling piece of American film making. Part civics lesson, part political thriller, ADVISE takes us behind the scenes of the U.S, Senate during the course of  a confirmation hearing for the next Secretary of State. There's plenty of intrigue, arm-twisting, deal-making, back-stabbing and flat out blackmail put in to play over the course of the film's 139 minutes but, much to Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (who adapted the novel by Allen Drury) credit, the narrative never sags or stalls.

Dying U.S. President (Franchot Tone), has nominated Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) as his next Secretary of State. Note: although Fonda gets top billing in the cast, he's only in the film for a relatively small amount of time. The nomination must be approved by the Senate and a sub-committee, chaired by Senator Brigham Anderson of Utah (Don Murray) is appointed. Riding shotgun on the committee is Senator Seabright Cooley of South Carolina (Charles Laughton, full of plummy menace), who doesn't want Leffingwell to be approved. Leffingwell, a decent, right and honorable man as their ever was (after all, he's played by Henry Fonda), harbors a secret from his past. He had Communist sympathies and connections while he was in college and this being the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, it simply will not do to have a Secretary of State who will sue for peace and understanding with the Soviet Union.

During the course of the hearings, Leffingwell commits perjury but only a handful of people are aware of his transgression. One of them is the President who urges Senator Anderson to ignore it and proceed with the approval. Anderson cannot in good conscience betray his duty to the Senate and refuses to move forward. This triggers a blackmail/smear campaign from an unknown source which threatens to reveal a homosexual relationship in Anderson's past.

Leffingwell is eventually approved and the vote put to the Senate. But while the votes are being cast, a final, last second twist lands on the podium where Vice President Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres) holds the, if necessary, tie-breaking vote.

ADVISE & CONSENT starts slowly. There are many characters to be introduced and their motivations established. There's a also a bit of an info dump as Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney), gives the wife of the British Ambassador a tour of the Capitol and explains to her how our American government works. But once the sub-committee hearings begin, the plot moves forward at a deliberate, measured pace.

The large cast is uniformly excellent. Walter Pidgeon plays the Senate Majority Leader, the real power behind the hearings. He's aided by other Senators played by Paul Ford, Peter Lawford, Edward Andrews, Will Geer , Malcolm Atterbury and George Grizzard. Burgess Meredith has a small but memorable scene as a witness against Leffingwell. The U.S. Senate depicted in ADVISE is comprised almost entirely of white men, although there is one woman Senator (played by Betty White).

Otto Preminger's career can be roughly divided into two parts. Early on, Preminger excelled at film noir delivering such classics as LAURA (1944), FALLEN ANGEL (1945), DAISY KENYON (1947), WHIRLPOOL (1949), WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950) and ANGEL FACE (1953). From the mid-'50s on, Preminger turned to hard-hitting, serious, adult dramas, many of which were based on bestselling novels. These films include THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1956), ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959), EXODUS (1960), THE CARDINAL (1963) and IN HARM'S WAY (1965). ADVISE reminds me most of ANATOMY in that both films go into granular detail regarding their respective narrative arenas, a courtroom in ANATOMY and the Senate in ADVISE.

And let's not forget Preminger's career as an actor. He had a marvelous turn in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953) and later in his career, ended up playing, make that over-playing ("Wild!") Mister Freeze on the BATMAN television series.

ADVISE & CONSENT, in addition to being a compelling drama, offers a time capsule of our nation's politics circa the early '60s. It shows how much things have and have not changed in the more than fifty years since the film was released. Highly recommended.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

AWAIT YOUR REPLY


Just finished reading AWAIT YOUR REPLY (2009) by Dan Chaon this morning and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It's pitched as a literary thriller but it ultimately comes down far heavier on the literary side of things than the thriller. It's more a character study and meditation on the question of identity than a page turning pulp thriller but nonetheless, Chaon did keep me reading by weaving an intricate puzzle of a narrative.

The book focuses on three separate story lines that, at first glance, appear to have nothing in common. There's twin brothers Hayden and Miles. Miles, a brilliant but deeply disturbed young man, has been missing for years and Hayden sets out to piece together the clues left behind and find his long lost twin. Then there's Lucy and George, George is a charismatic high school teacher who seduces one of his students, Lucy, into running away with him. They eventually come to rest in a bizarre abandoned motel with a lighthouse motif in the middle of Nebraska. Imagine The Bates Motel with a lighthouse and a dried up lake. And finally, there's Ryan and Jay. Ryan is a young man who fakes his own death and disappears to take up with his birth father, Jay, a recluse who lives in a cabin in the remote Michigan wilderness. There the two set up a multitude of Internet scams, schemes and frauds involving various false identities and large sums of money.

How all of these threads ultimately tie together (and they do), is what propels the story. Chaon leavens his tale with some extremely well drawn scenes and characters. He's great at getting into their heads and revealing what makes them tick but he's careful not to give us too much information too soon.

While the story lines play out in what appears to be three simultaneous, parallel series of events, that's not what's really going on here. There's a specific order to things that becomes clear near the end but even then, Chaon doesn't completely fill in all of the blanks and details, leaving only the vaguest of hints for the reader to use to fill in the missing pieces.

The material is here for a terrific pulp thriller but that's not what Chaon's all about. It's a more serious, contemplative work. I was expecting something else and was, frankly, slightly disappointed by the ending. But Chaon has real talent. He's a wonderful writer and he really brings his characters to life as they search for meaning, truth and identity.

AWAIT YOUR REPLY is definitely worth reading and would make a great book club selection, especially since the trade paperback edition contains an interview with Chaon, a deleted chapter and book club questions for discussion.

Monday, November 7, 2016

BLOOD AND BLACK LACE


BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), is the second Mario Bava directed horror film I've revisited in the last few days (thanks to TCM) and it's a good one. In fact, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was one of the earliest and most influential of all of the Italian giallo films that proliferated in the '60s and '70s. Those films also served as templates for the American slasher films of the '70s and '80s. But Bava got there first and if he wasn't the greatest giallo filmmaker (I give the nod to Dario Argento), he wasn't far behind.

Known in Europe as SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER, the title was changed to the appropriately lurid and titillating BLOOD AND BLACK LACE for release in the United States. The action takes place at a high fashion dress design salon which is curiously isolated and removed from any major urban area. The salon is owned by Christina (the lovely Eva Bartok), who has inherited it from her recently deceased husband. The business is managed by Max Marian (American actor Cameron Mitchell). The salon employs a number of fetching young models and an assortment of bizarre men. One of the models, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) is brutally murdered early in the film, a slaying that sets in motion a string of gruesome murder scenes as more women meet grisly ends at the hands of a masked assailant. The killer, whose costume echoes that of the Steve Ditko created comic book character The Question, is forced to commit the murders in an attempt to regain Isabella's stolen diary, a diary full of secrets that could blow the lid off of the salon with the scandalous secrets contained within.

The murder sequences are well staged for maximum impact, combining suspense with brutal, sadistic violence. Several women are slain before the identity of the masked killer is revealed and although it won't come as a surprise to most horror film fans, there is a nice little twist that goes along with the unmasking.

Bava, as usual, drenches the screen with a palette of ultra vivid colors. A stalk and kill sequence in an antiques store is punctuated by a pulsing green neon sign from outside, along with a rainbow of other colors. The film looks rich and lush which shows just how good Bava was even when working with a relatively small budget ($150,000). BLOOD AND BLACK LACE wasn't the first film to combine sex and horror but it did so in an unforgettable, visually stylish way that influenced a generation of both European and American filmmakers. The film's influence is seen in a story entitled BLOOD AND BLACK STOCKINGS that I recall reading in an old issue of Warren's CREEPY magazine. The story had art by Mike Royer, if I recall correctly, but sadly, I don't recall the author of the piece.

Recommended.


Friday, November 4, 2016

BLACK SABBATH


It's been several years since I last saw Mario Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963). I watched it again this afternoon, thanks to TCM's recent Halloween season airing of a slew of classic horror films, many of which I recorded.

SABBATH is comprised of a trilogy of short horror films, all of which are introduced by the late, great Boris Karloff. Karloff even appears in the last and best segment. The format and structure recalls Karloff's hosting of THRILLER on NBC TV but this film is in color and has a slightly more adult approach to horror.

The first entry, THE DROP OF WATER, is adapted from a story by Chekov. It's an atmospheric little ghost story in which a nurse (Jacqueline Peirreux) is called to a large house to prepare a recently deceased woman for burial. The woman dabbled in things unknown and she makes for one helluva creepy corpse while on her death bed. The nurse steals a ring from the dead woman's hand and immediately, things get weird. A fly buzzes on the dead woman's hand and the nurse knocks over a glass of water in fright. When she returns to her flat, he begins to hear strange noises, dripping water from a number of sources and open shutters banging. She's finally confronted by the grotesque dead woman and the nurse chokes herself to death. When the nurse's body is reported to the police by the landlady, the body is missing the ring and the landlady has a worried look on her face. She's guilty and knows that whatever came after the nurse will now come for her. What makes WATER stand out is the cinematography by Ubaldo Terzano and Bava himself. The apartment set is drenched in sickly greens and lurid purples (among other hues), all of which create a weird, unsettling atmosphere. The story is routine but it's handsomely mounted.

THE TELEPHONE finds a beautiful young woman, Rosy (Michele Mercier), terrorized by a series of phone calls. She's in her apartment alone at night when the phone keeps ringing and ringing. When she answers, the male voice on the other end reveals intimate knowledge of her every move and eventually identifies himself as Frank, her recently deceased lover. He's coming to get her and nothing can stop him. Rosy calls Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) to come over for help. Mary gives Rosy a tranquilizer to calm her nerves and while Rosy sleeps, Mary makes plans to take her to a psychiatrist. But a man enters the apartment, strangles Mary and attacks Rosy, who stabs him with a hidden butcher knife. She kills Frank, who has somehow come back from the dead (nicely dressed too) but then the phone rings again (with the received off of the hook) and the voice of Frank speaks, telling Rosy that she can never kill him.

THE WURDULAK, based on a story by Tolstoy, is the best of the three films. In 19th century Russia, Vladimir Durfe (Mark Damon), encounters a strange family haunted by the curse of the Wurdulak, a form of vampirism in which the bloodsuckers only prey on their immediate family and loved ones. He's caught up in a spiral of doom when the father, Gorca (Karloff) returns and proceeds to kill his family one by one. The count and Gorca's lovely daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen), try to escape by hiding in a cave but Gorca tracks them down and kills Sdenka who in turn, kills the count. THE WURDULAK mixes nice sets with some impressive location work. Karloff is at his sinister best and the segment provides a nice twist on the standard vampire mythos.

An Italian film, BLACK SABBATH underwent several changes besides the standard dubbing job when it was released in the United States by American International Pictures. The Karloff intros were filmed in Los Angeles for one, the running order of the segments was changed, and cuts were made in all three stories. Most importantly, THE TELEPHONE was entirely changed in order to eliminate the fact that Rosy and Mary are both prostitutes who have a lesbian relationship while Frank is their pimp. The Italian version is, of course, the superior and definitive one but the version TCM ran is the American one and thus, it's the one I watched and enjoyed.

 Recommended.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

DECOY




We open on a filthy bathroom sink. A pair of blood stained hands enter the frame and begin to wash off the blood. Whose blood? As the blood washes off, the camera pans up and shows a broken, slightly askew mirror reflecting a man's face. The man stares into his reflection with haunted eyes, what combat veterans call "the thousand yard stare". The shattered mirror surface is a direct reflection of the man's psychological state. Although he's washed the blood off of his hands, he can never wash the blood off of his soul.

The man staggers out of the dingy bathroom. We see now that the washroom is in a roadside garage. The man walks like a zombie to the side of the road where he mechanically thumbs a ride to the city. He says nothing to the driver that eventually picks him up, just stares ahead with a blank gaze. The driver lets him off at an apartment building in the city. The man goes to an apartment and when the door is opened, draws a gun and shoots a woman. Right behind him, and too late to save either man or woman, is a police detective. He picks up the wounded woman, places her on a sofa and she begins to tell the story of how all of this horror came about.

That's the beginning of DECOY (1946), a low-budget, "poverty row" film noir made at Monogram Pictures by director Jack Bernhard from a screenplay by Nedrick Young. The budget was microscopic and the shooting schedule maybe a week, ten days at best. A bigger studio could have given the material a glossier treatment. Bigger name actors could have been cast and the script could have been expanded, the plot holes patched up and smoothed over.

But then, it wouldn't be the same film and given what the cast and crew had to work with, they turned out a minor masterpiece, a tight (76 minutes running time), taut, effective little thriller that is drenched in doom. There's even a horror/science fiction element thrown in for good measure but you buy it because the film is such a feverish nightmare of horror and evil.

The lovely Jean Gillie stars as Margot Shelby, a black widow who embodies the femme fatale concept. She's consumed with greed and nothing will stop her from getting her hands on $400,000 worth of buried, stolen money. Her lover, Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong, looking so dissipated that I didn't recognize him until half way through the film), robbed a bank and hid the money. He's about to go to the gas chamber and his corrupt lawyer, Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), can't get him an appeal. Margot hits on a scheme to inject Frankie with a drug that will counteract the effects of cyanide after he's killed. But she needs a doctor to provide and administer the drug.

She sets her sights on Dr. Craig (Herbert Rudley), a decent man with a small practice in a rundown part of the city. She seduces him quite easily and ensnares him in the wild resurrection gambit. It works and the gassed Frankie is revived in a scene that echoes any number of 1940s mad doctor thrillers. Frankie draws a map to the buried loot and then he's killed again, this time for good. Margot, Vincent and Craig head out to recover the money. Along the way, they have a flat tire. After Vincent replaces the tire, Margot runs him over. That's one less person to share the money with. Margot and Craig find the money box and Margot shoots Craig, leaving him for dead. She takes the chest back to her apartment and this is where we came in because it's Craig (who has somehow survived multiple gunshot wounds), that we saw at the beginning of the film.

The detective, Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard, playing a good guy rather than the hoods he specialized in), hears Margot's confession. She laughs in his face and dies, thinking she at least got the money, no matter how many men she had to kill to get it. But when Portugal opens the box, there's one final surprise.

DECOY is one helluva film noir. The plot doesn't always make sense but it's so damn compelling you don't care. The score, by Edward J. Kay, is a bit overbearing at times but it provides a relentless drive to the narrative. The leads are all solid, with the lovely Gillie a stand out as Margot. This is one hard boiled film, full of violence, cruelty, sadism and a wicked femme fatale.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

THE DARK CORNER


"I'm easier to frame than Whistler's Mother."

Here's a sure sign I'm either getting old or have way too many DVDs in my collection. Back in August, TCM ran THE DARK CORNER, a 1946 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway. It sounded like a good one from the listing description and I hadn't seen it so I recorded it and finally got around to watching it the other day After watching it, I went to the film noir section of my DVD collection (yes, I have a film noir section) and found a brand new, never opened copy of the film sitting on my shelf. I guess that should teach me to double check my collection before hitting that record button on the remote.

THE DARK CORNER is a good film noir, drenched in atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Joseph MacDonald with a pretzel plot by screenwriters Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Jay Dratler (from a story by Leo Rosten). Mark Stevens stars as private detective Bradford Galt. He's aided by plucky secretary Kathleen (Lucille Ball, who gets top billing). A mysterious man named Foss (William Bendix) is following the pair around New York City. When Galt confronts Foss, he reveals that he's working for Tony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger). Jardine, a blackmailing attorney, is Galt's former partner. Thinking Jardine is out to kill him, Galt goes after Jardine.

SPOILER WARNING: It turns out that Foss is really working for art dealer Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb). Jardine is sleeping with Cathcart's wife, Mari (the lovely Cathy Downs). Cathcart hopes to goad Galt into murdering Jardine. If that doesn't work, there's always Plan B, which is have Foss kill Jardine and frame Galt. Got all that?

The plot has plenty of twists and turns, the dialogue is both hard-boiled and witty, and the leads are all solid. While watching the film, I kept thinking that if someone had made a Doc Savage film in 1946, the cast could have included Bendix as Monk and Webb as Ham. Kathleen's devotion, concern and love for Galt ultimately saves him from his inner darkness and the film ends on a happy note despite the fact that three people are brutally murdered in the course of events. Not a great film noir but a solid effort that is well worth seeing. Recommended.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SPADE & ARCHER

Ever wonder what legendary private detective Sam Spade was up to in San Francisco before he got involved in the Maltese Falcon caper? Well, veteran mystery/crime writer Joe Gores brings us up to date quite nicely in SPADE & ARCHER (2009), the prequel to Dashiell Hammett's famous novel THE MALTESE FALCON (1929), which, of course, was later filmed in 1941 by John Huston (his feature film directorial debut) with a cast featuring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. 

SPADE & ARCHER begins in 1921 with Spade working as an operator (or "op") for the Continental Detective Agency in Seattle. He leaves the agency and heads for San Francisco where he opens an office as a private detective. He hires a secretary, Effie Perine and starts solving mysteries. The book is divided into three parts, spread over a period of seven years (1921-1928). Each part deals with a separate case but all three crimes are linked by a mysterious master criminal that Spade doesn't bring to justice until the end of the book. 

Gores does a good job of capturing Hammett's terse, stripped-to-the-bone prose style. There's not an ounce of fat on this narrative. Gores brings 1920s San Francisco to life with a colorful cast of characters that includes sympathetic cop Tom Polhaus and ball-buster supreme, Dundy.  Miles Archer doesn't join the firm until the third act. He helps Spade on a case but also demonstrates that he's a crooked, lazy detective. But Spade's no saint. He's screwing Ava, Archer's wife, every chance he gets. 

History doesn't record how Sam Spade met his death but I'm willing to bet it wasn't from old age. If a crook didn't get him with a bullet or a knife, Spade must have surely died from either the copious amounts of bootleg booze he imbibes or the countless filterless hand-rolled cigarettes he relentlessly makes and smokes throughout the book. 

SPADE & ARCHER is a good, fast paced detective novel that does what it's supposed to do, which is fill us on Spade's back story while setting the stage for THE MALTESE FALCON. In fact, the last paragraph of the book, is a paraphrase of the first paragraph of Hammett's novel. 

Recommended.



Thursday, October 6, 2016

THE SHADOW: CHARG, MONSTER


Over the last few years I've read twenty-five SHADOW pulp novels. I've not only read them, I've read them aloud to my beautiful wife, Judy. CHARG, MONSTER (the Jove/HBJ reprint from December 1977 is pictured above), is the twenty-sixth Shadow I've read and it's the first one that has a comic book super-hero feel to it (although originally published in July, 1934, several years before the comic book debuts of Superman and Batman).

Before I started reading The Shadow books, I assumed that he went up against a super-villain of some sort on a regular basis. While The Shadow has certainly clashed with "super crooks" in some of the stories I've read, most of them have him tangling with gangsters and assorted underworld figures. Also, in many of these stories, there's little or no elements of the fantastic despite the colorful covers and evocative titles. The Shadow adventures that I've read are basically mystery novels with liberal does of gun play and violence (and the occasional death trap) thrown in for good measure. In the universe that The Shadow and his agents operate in, the mere presence of a mysterious, cloaked avenger of the night is fantastic enough.

In CHARG, MONSTER, The Shadow goes up against a super-villain who uses robots to commit murder. For once, the cover art by Jim Steranko is a fair representation of what's actually inside (albeit the absence of a shapely, blonde damsel in distress). The technology used by the villain and his metallic murderers is quite sophisticated for the mid-1930s. Also, this adventure is more tightly written than other Shadow thrillers. The plot is more streamlined and the pace is quicker than usual. There's little or no padding and The Shadow (and Lamont Cranston), appear on almost every page. With a murderous mastermind like Charg and his killer robots, The Shadow is up against a genuinely fantastic, super foe. The result is a superlative pulp thriller.

Thumbs up!



Saturday, October 1, 2016

28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER


Zombies weren't as well represented in the classic horror cinema of the twentieth-century as their higher profile monster kin such as Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, among others. Prior to 1968, there were only a handful of zombie oriented horror films produced including the Bela Lugosi film, WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Val Lewton's moody and poetic I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), the low-budget comedy programmer ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945), exploitation quickie ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957) and Hammer films' PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES (1966). Three of those films, WHITE, WALKED and PLAGUE, are actually quite good and well worth seeing. But still, zombies just never had the street cred that other movie monsters did. Zombies were just re-animated corpses who moved kinda slow and obeyed their masters commands. They couldn't run very fast and hey, it's not like they were going to eat you or anything.

All of that changed with George Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), the first modern horror film to explicitly posit the newly resurrected  dead as ghouls and cannibals. These lumbering, shambling, mindless monstrosities did indeed want to eat you. This new iteration of zombie monsters was a game changer for the sub-genre. Almost every zombie oriented horror film or television series in the last forty years has featured fast moving, strong and hungry-for-human flesh hordes of the living dead.

Cast in point, Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and it's 2007 sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER. I recently had the opportunity to watch both of these films, albeit in reverse order, but they are both interesting, well made films that are worth seeing if you're a horror film fan in general and a zombie junkie in particular.

That said, I would make the case that the flesh-eating human monsters depicted in both of these films are not, in the technical, strictest sense of the word, actually zombies per se. They're not dead people brought back to life. They're merely infected with a not-quite-specified but extremely fast acting virus which turns them into rage filled, gut-munchers in less than a minute. They're still a threat but they're zombies for the 21st century in which fears of a terror attack using weaponized biological agents is a very real possibility to say nothing of worldwide epidemics of contagious, infectious diseases.

28 DAYS opens with some scientists experimenting on apes with the virus. Animal rights activists invade the laboratory to free the animals and unknowingly unleash the "Rage" virus into the world at large. Specifically, the United Kingdom, where the action resumes 28 days later with a young man, Jim (Cilian Murphy), awakening in a London hospital to find he's the only person left alive in the city. He wanders about London in scenes that recall John Wyndham's science fiction novel, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951), and two of the three film adaptations of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I AM LEGEND: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) and OMEGA MAN (1971). and pre-figure Will Smith's I AM LEGEND (2007).

Of course, he's not entirely alone. Jim is saved by a couple of survivors, Selena (Naomie Harris)  and Mark (Noah Huntley). But Mark is soon killed by the zombies and Jim and Selena eventually take refuge with Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). The four of them pick up a radio signal from a military base outside of the city and decide to make the journey in the hopes of finding safety and sanctuary. The military outpost, commanded by Major Henry West (Christopher Eccleston), is welcoming at first but the real agenda of the soldiers is soon revealed.

28 DAYS LATER ends on a note of hope but not before putting the characters and the audience through the wringer. This is a grim, grisly horror film, an almost unrelentingly  downbeat and depressing story of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. The effects and make-up are first rate and totally convincing, the action scenes taut and suspenseful and the performances are solid across the board.

The film did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, 28 WEEKS LATER, in 2007. Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, the film takes place after the infection has been largely contained within the United Kingdom, thanks to the efforts of a NATO peacekeeping force. A small area of London has been opened for re-population by returning refugees. The zone is heavily militarized and is supposed to be air-tight and totally secure.

Of course, something goes wrong. There's another outbreak of the virus which leads to a complete disaster as both infected and non-infected citizens are gunned down by the military. Two kids, brother and sister Tammy and Andy, are naturally immune to the virus and it's up to U.S. Army Sgt. Doyle (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army medical officer Scarlet (Rose Byrne), to get the kids out of the city safely and escort them to France where an antidote can possibly be concocted from their blood.

WEEKS is more of an action horror film than DAYS. There's plenty of automatic weapons' fire and if you've ever wanted to see a military helicopter use its' rotor blades to mow down a horde of advancing zombies, this is the movie for you. Well made, exciting and suspenseful, 28 WEEKS LATER is a fine continuation of the story that began in 28 DAYS LATER. If you're a horror film fan, check 'em out. They're definitely worth seeing.


Thursday, September 29, 2016

JACK KIRBY'S 2001


Regular readers of this blog know that Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. At last weekend's Austin Wizard World Comic Con, the only thing I bought (besides a cup of coffee and a $4.25 bottle of Dr. Pepper!) was the book pictured above. I recall buying this one when it was originally published in 1976 but somehow, over the years, it disappeared from my collection. Sold or traded away most likely. It's one of the few Kirby comics from his second stint at Marvel during the mid '70s that included work on CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE BLACK PANTHER, THE ETERNALS and DEVIL DINOSAUR, that I don't currently own. I found a dealer who had a very nice condition copy for twenty-bucks. He let me have it for fifteen. Sold.

How do I begin to explain this one? If you thought Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was a head scratcher the first time you saw it, this over-sized all-Kirby extravaganza offers some answers but raises an equal number of new questions. First, the film was released in 1968. This Treasury Edition behemoth was published in 1976, eight years after the film had come and gone. That's far too late to be accurately identified as a bonafide tie-in and, coming in '76, was a year before STAR WARS hit and changed everything, especially in regards to merchandising for blockbuster films. Apparently, Kirby wanted to do this book as part of his deal to return to Marvel in the mid '70s. Someone must have agreed to it because rights and permissions had to be secured from MGM and Stanley Kubrick and any one else who had a claim to the property. That's also probably why this material has never been reprinted in any form. Rights must have reverted to MGM and the Stanley Kubrick estate, not Marvel and/or Jack Kirby. While there's interest in seeing this reprinted as a Kirby work, I doubt there's much commercial potential in a reprint of a forty-year old adaptation of a forty-eight-year-old film.

While I'm always happy to see Kirby's work in any format, I have to admit that I don't believe he was the best artist for this material. Sure, his artwork is solid but it's not his best work. Frank Giacoia was not Kirby's strongest inker but he does a serviceable job here. Joe Sinnott would, of course, have been perfect. Mike Royer would have been a good choice also. Thank goodness the inking was not assigned to Vince Colletta.  Kirby's dynamic, powerful layouts, compositions, figures, landscapes and machinery are all well done but his style just never seems to mesh with the cold, sterile look and pace of Kubrick's visuals and storytelling. If any then contemporary artist could have more closely captured the look and feel of the film, I submit that Jim Steranko would have been a better choice. Of course if Steranko, never the fastest artist, had started work on the book in 1976, it might just now be ready for publication.

So, let's take what we have and be glad that we have it. It's Kirby. What can I say? Jack also provides the captions and dialogue which explain everything we're seeing on the pages, leaving little or nothing to our imaginations. He over explains as much as Kubrick under explained events in the film. Where the film relied almost totally on visuals and sparse dialogue, deliberately evoking an ambiguous atmosphere full of mystery and wonder, Kirby spells it all out for us.

Plus, he adds material that was not in the film. This material appears to have come from two sources. One, Arthur C. Clarke's novel, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and an earlier draft of the screenplay co-written by Clarke and Kubrick . The added material expands the narrative but doesn't change the storyline in any major way.

As good a penciler as Kirby was, his attempts to replicate the film's notorious "cosmic light show" finale, fall short here. His pages are full of star scapes, "Kirby Krackle" and, photo collages. It's good but it's not the awesome visuals seen in the film.

Apparently, the Treasury Edition sold well enough to warrant a continuing comic book series of the same name. In the monthly comic book, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kirby repeated the same two part structure of the film for several issues. Open with a primitive man or woman, introduce the monolith, cut to the future where an astronaut encounters the monolith and is transformed into a "Star Baby." That's the gist of the first few issues until Kirby introduced a robot character who eventually became Machine Man, a hero who ended up taking over the book and causing a title change.

I'm glad I have this comic. It's not great but it is Kirby and even lesser Kirby work is better than many artists' best stuff. It's an adaptation of one of my all-time favorite films. It's a giant-size, tabloid format hunk of Bronze Age magic that's worth reading if you can track down a copy.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

TWO DOWN, TWO TO GO

When I was a kid, my four favorite actors were all leading men on popular network television shows. They were Adam West (Bruce Wayne/Batman) on ABC-TV's BATMAN, William Shatner (Captain Kirk) on NBC-TV's STAR TREK, Robert Conrad (James West) on CBS-TV's THE WILD, WILD WEST and Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo) on NBC-TV's THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Great actors? No but they all had dynamic personalities whose performances in those roles came to largely define the men for the rest of their respective careers.

I've now had the pleasure and honor to meet two of those men. The first occurred as part of a June, 2010 screening of BATMAN (1966) at Austin's Paramount Theatre. The film had it's world premiere at the Paramount in August, 1966 as part of Aqua Fest. The reason the film premiered in Austin? The Batboat vehicle used in the film was built at Glastron Boats and Motors right here in River City. There were two screenings of the film, a matinee and one later that evening. The matinee featured several of the cast members in their character costumes while the stars sported formal wear for the evening screening. My uncle took me and my two cousins to see the premiere. We stood in the hot, baking August heat and steaming humidity along with hundreds of other fans on Congress Avenue to watch the stars arrive. Then we went into the wonderful, cool darkness of the Paramount to see the movie. It was one of the most memorable events of my young life (I was ten-years-old at the time). For the rest of my life, I could say with pride "I was there."

In June, 2010, as part of Austin's Bat Fest, a screening of the 1966 film was scheduled  with Adam West in attendance. I was writing film notes for the theater at the time and as soon as I learned about this event, I immediately asked if I could be involved in some way. In addition to writing the notes for the film, I was granted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce Adam West and do a brief question and answer session with him on stage before the film.


 Judy and I arrived at the Stateside Theater about an hour early. Mr. West was going to be there for photos and autographs prior to the screening. I was allowed to be placed at the front of the line to wait for his arrival.  I had brought my DVD of the 1966 film to get signed and while waiting in line, I struck up a conversation with a very nice gentleman behind me. He had a couple of nifty commemorative posters for the event and when he found out my involvement, he gave me one of the posters for Mr. West to sign. That was incredibly generous and gracious and I owe that unknown fan a huge thanks. When Mr. West arrived, I stepped forward to his table, posed for the photograph above (I was sixty pounds heavier then!) and asked him to sign my DVD and poster. He did and we briefly chatted about the format of his appearance next door. I shook hands, told him I'd see him backstage when he was finished and left. I was on cloud nine.

When Judy and I got to the Paramount, she grabbed us two choice seats while I went backstage to wait for Mr. West. I chatted with a couple of Paramount employees while clips from the local television coverage of the 1966 premiere were projected on the huge movie screen. Finally Mr. West arrived and we once again went over the details. I had a written, prepared script to read first and then we'd open it up to questions from the audience (which was close to 1,200 people, full capacity of the Paramount). Mr. West told me about a recent injury he had incurred while driving a dune buggy. Throughout our brief time together he was charming, gracious and friendly. It was truly like visiting with an old friend.

Finally my cue came and I strolled onto the stage. Before reading my prepared introduction, I asked if anyone there had attended the 1966 world premiere. There was a smattering of applause. I confessed that I had been there too. I read my notes and brought out Adam West to thunderous applause. We took a few questions and bantered back and forth for a few minutes. I remember him asking me which episode was my favorite and I replied, "the first one with the Riddler and Jill St. John." He ended by saying that in contrast to the "Dark Knight", his interpretation of Batman was more the "Bright Knight". With that he exited the stage, I called "give it up for Adam West!" and the place went nuts. I shook hands with him once again backstage and thanked him again then went out into the auditorium to find Judy and enjoy the movie.

It was a day I'll never forget. Truly one of the great moments of my life.






This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet William Shatner. It was a vastly different experience than my meeting with Adam West.

About a month ago, we were approached about selling copies of LEONARD, William Shatner's memoir about the late Leonard Nimoy at his appearance at Austin Wizard World Comic Con. We quickly accepted the offer and made our plans. I asked my contact person if it was possible that we could get a photo with Mr. Shatner and he told me that could be arranged. I also asked if Mr. Shatner would sign any unsold copies for us to sell at the store. I was informed that he would do so, for fifty-dollars a signature. I politely declined.

We (Jon Levesque, Jeannine Hasse and I) were set up at a table on Saturday at the con directly in front of where Mr. Shatner was signing autographs. We were next to the table where one of his agents/managers/handlers was selling autograph tickets at eighty bucks a pop. If you wanted to buy a color 8 x 10 for him to sign, that was an extra five dollars. If you wanted to buy a book from us, that came to twenty-eight dollars. Plus another eighty bucks for the signature.

After the initial signing line died down, I went over to the table and spoke to a gentleman named Gary who had introduced himself to me earlier as "Bill's agent". I asked him if we could arrange a photo op and he said, "let's do it right now."

I motioned to Jon and Jeannine and we went over to Mr. Shatner.

 "Bill," said Gary, "these people are selling your book and they'd like a picture."

"When," asked Shatner.

"Right now," said  Gary.

"Okay," said Shatner. "Come on around behind."

We did so, a volunteer took one quick, somewhat blurry picture with Jon's phone, we thanked Mr. Shatner and went back to our table. Wham, bam, thank you, mam. That was it. It was over. No hand shakes, no small talk, no engagement whatsoever. Mr. Shatner wasn't mean or rude but he wasn't ebullient, charming and outgoing either. There's no telling how many photos with fans he's had taken over the years and for him, we were just three more people. But for us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with the one and only Captain Kirk.

Make no mistake. I'm glad we did it. While I wish it could have been more, I knew it was the only opportunity we were going to get and it was better than no photo at all. Plus, we didn't have to pony up eighty bucks.

Two down. Two to go. Will I ever meet Robert Conrad and Robert Vaughn before either man passes away? Who knows? But then again, not long ago, I had no idea that I'd ever meet Adam West and William Shatner either.