Thursday, November 24, 2016


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. 


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


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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 (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.


Friday, November 4, 2016


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.