Wednesday, April 26, 2017

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB


Okay, let's get this out of the way right at the top. This is one deplorably racist pulp magazine. THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG, published by Popular Publications in 1935, lasted only seven issues. Dr. Wu Fang was a stereotypical "Yellow Peril" master villain, in the tradition of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. The series reflects the racist attitudes held by many Americans towards anyone of Asian descent in the years prior to World War II. But you have to put that into context, and recognize that stuff like this is a product of its' time. It's politically incorrect now, but it wasn't then, at least, not to the majority of readers who plunked down a dime and got swept up into a whirlwind of pulp adventure.

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB was published in December 1935. It was written by veteran pulp scribe Robert J. Hogan who was also turning out material for such pulps as THE SECRET SIX, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES , DARE-DEVIL ACES and DIME WESTERN MAGAZINE, among others. A series character pulp novel required an average of 80,000 words per month so you can see that Hogan was one busy man.

SUICIDE TOMB finds Dr. Wu Fang in pursuit of a ancient plague, long buried in a lost tomb in the American southwest. The tomb contains hundreds of purple tinged skeletons, all of which have their skulls smashed and a horde of white bats. Wu Fang hopes to unleash the plague into the modern world, wreaking widespread death and destruction and offering an antidote to the highest bidder.

Wu Fang is opposed by a trio of stalwart heroes. Archaeologist Rod Carson, newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard and federal agent Val Kildare. They in turn are aided by Cappy, a scrappy newsboy, and two exotic beauties Mohra and Tanya. The action is fast and furious, starting in New York City's Chinatown and ending in the Arizona desert. Along the way, Wu Fang unleashes an army of weird menaces to forestall the heroes including hybrid beasts that are part lizard, part rat and a gorilla. Wait, a gorilla? Yes, a gorilla who turns out to be an Aryan thug in a gorilla costume. You can't make this stuff up.

The version of CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB that I read is a nifty replica edition that includes black and white interior illos, two columns of text layout, a bonus short story, SHANGHAI MURDER by Steve Fisher and the original cover art by the great Jerome Rozen. It's all lovingly packaged by John Gunnison and his superlative Adventure House publishing company. This is actually issue number 42 of the ongoing HIGH ADVENTURE series of pulp reprints, with each issue dedicated to a complete reprint of a vintage pulp magazine.

The story is a pell mell affair with plot holes galore but the pace is furious and you can't stop reading. I can't help but think that if Hogan was paid more money and had more time to re-work his manuscripts, he could have given this the polish and shine that a good re-write could have provided. Hogan was up against multiple deadlines and probably turned this one in as a first draft with few if any edits and corrections.

But to wish for something more sophisticated would be to diminish what it is that makes vintage pulp fiction so much fun to read. You don't read one of these books looking for perfection. You read it looking for adventure, action, danger and thrills galore. On that score, THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB delivers the goods in spades.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

ABOUT FACE


ABOUT FACE (1947) was the first Johnny Liddell mystery novel by Frank Kane. Liddell was a tough talking private detective who worked for the Acme Detective Agency in New York City. He later left the agency and operated independently. He starred in a series of books that ran through the 1950s. I was completely unaware of this character and author until the other day when I stumbled across this book while web surfing. It looked like something I'd enjoy so I took a chance on it.

I'm glad I did. While ABOUT FACE is far from a masterpiece, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable, well crafted slice of hard boiled detective fiction. Liddell is sent to Hollywood to work for movie producer Julian Goodman. Goodman's biggest box office draw has disappeared and Liddell is tasked with finding the missing matinee idol. Before you know it, the star is found dead in an automobile accident. End of case, right? Wrong. The body count has only started as soon Goodman and several others are murdered. Liddell, along with coroner Doc Morrissey,  sympathetic police detective Devlin and spunky girl reporter Toni Belden, investigate a twisted puzzle of a case that ultimately involves grave robbing, gun battles, mobsters and a femme fatale. During the course of the story, Liddell consumes more booze than Nick and Nora Charles combined and is almost always smoking either a cigarette or a cigar. I don't know if Frank Kane ever wrote the last case of Johnny Liddell but it's a safe bet to assume that if a bullet didn't kill him, the smoking and drinking did.

ABOUT FACE is a nice introduction to the Johnny Liddell series and I will definitely be seeking out more of his adventures. Thumbs up.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL


On paper, BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965) has a terrific pedigree. Screenwriter (and native Texan ) Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan had previously collaborated on the American classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). For BABY,  Foote adapted his play The Traveling Lady and with stars Steve McQueen and Lee Remick (both box office draws at the time), I'm sure the top brass at Columbia Pictures were hoping that lightning would strike twice with all of these various talents combining into some kind of alchemical magic to make BABY as successful as TKAM .

But TKAM had great source material in the form of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and while Foote's play may work well on the stage, when it's opened up and brought to the big screen, the result is a rather lackluster drama that never quite gels.  As much as I like Steve McQueen (he's one of my all time favorite actors), he's never convincing here in the role of Henry Thomas, a wanna-be rockabilly singer and guitar player in the small town of Columbus, Texas, who has recently been paroled from prison. Henry is a troubled young man with a hair-trigger, violent temper and he's one outburst away from becoming a guest of the state of Texas again.  He suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his adoptive mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons), events which have left him with a multitude of scars. But he's getting by and dreaming of making it big.

All of that changes when his wife, Georgette (Remick) and young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), arrive in town by bus from east Texas. Turns out no one in Columbus knew that Henry was a husband and a father and young Margaret Rose, has never seen her father. The newly  reunited family set up a makeshift homestead and try to make a go of things. Georgette gets a job in a drive-in restaurant while Henry continues to play and sing. Things come to a head when Kate dies and leaves nothing to Henry, which causes him to go on a destructive rampage. Henry is arrested and sent back to prison leaving Georgette and Margaret Rose on their own again. They leave town with sympathetic Deputy Sheriff Slim (Don Murray) at the end of the film.

McQueen is good in every scene in which he's not playing the guitar or singing. Those scenes are obviously dubbed and shot and edited to disguise the fact that he's not really playing. Remick (who I always found incredibly sexy), is good but neither actor has a convincing Texas accent. The on-location cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is very good and it's fun to see the real small town Texas of fifty years ago.

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL is an earnest film that's well made and acted but it just never rises to the level of a memorable, powerhouse drama. Worth seeing once if you're a fan of any of the people involved in the production.



Saturday, April 15, 2017

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE


Director Raoul Walsh's ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951), is a gritty, two-fisted black and white Warner Brothers Western which I watched for the first time last night (thanks to TCM!).

 Kirk Douglas stars as federal marshal Len Merrick, who interrupts a hanging party at the beginning of the film. Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), stands accused of stealing cattle and killing the son of powerful rancher Ned Roden (Morris Ankrum). But Merrick will not let Pop be the victim of frontier justice. He and his deputies Lou Gray (Ray Teal) and Billy Shear (John Agar), are determined to take Pop to the nearest town to stand trial.

Along the way, they're joined by Pop's daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) and the dead man's brother Dan (James Anderson). The small band braves the trackless wastes of the desert while being pursued by Roden's posse. Lives are lost and head games are played against Merrick in various attempts to free Pop before reaching Santa Loma. Once there, a trial is held and Pop is found guilty and sentenced to hang. But a last minute discovery changes everything, leading to a final shootout.

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE mixes robust action with more psychological material to produce an extremely satisfying film. Douglas, all deep dimpled chin and gritted, flashing white teeth, is solid in the lead and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Ray Teal appeared in dozens of films before playing Sheriff Roy Coffee on television's BONANZA. You've got to love any movie that stars future sf genre icons John Agar and Morris Ankrum and there's a brief appearance by Kenneth McDonald, who was a bad guy in various Three Stooges shorts. The screenplay by Walter Doniger and Lewis Meltzer fits into the cycle of more adult, psychological westerns that emerged in the 1950s while the cinematography by Sidney Hickox is sharp, using location landscapes to great advantage.

While not a classic, ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE is nonetheless a durable, well made and very entertaining film that's well worth seeing. Recommended.


Friday, April 14, 2017

1969


For the record, I was thirteen years old in 1969, the subject of Rob Kirkpatrick's 2011 book. The sub-title of Kirkpatrick's book declares that it was "the year everything changed." I would argue that every year is a year in which things change, some recording more seismic changes than others. But I must agree that the year in which man walked on the moon for the first time is definitely a game changer.

The story of the Apollo 11 mission is only part of the colorful tapestry of events that Kirkpatrick recalls here. In chronological order he covers a variety of topics, most of which are printed on the book's cover. Every one of these people, places and things get a mention, some more detailed than others and every chapter contains the seeds for a multitude of other books about the topics covered therein. It's breezy and readable and the " I remember that" and "I don't remember that" moments were equally divided for me.

The beginning of 1969 found me halfway through the seventh grade and the end of the year put me at the midpoint of eighth grade. While I didn't read the newspaper every day or watch the nightly news every evening, I couldn't help but be aware of much of what Kirkpatrick covers. Besides the Apollo 11 moon landing, I vividly recall Super Bowl III in which the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, the Manson murders, Woodstock (wasn't there of course but I saw the film and had the double LP soundtrack album), and much of the other music of that year as well as the important films he discusses. Again, I didn't see or hear all of this material first hand (some of the films were off limits due to their "R" and, in some cases, "X", ratings) but I had a pretty good general knowledge about these things. Two aspects of pop culture that Kirkpatrick doesn't cover are television in general and comic books. I know, I know, he couldn't cover everything and this is a work of popular history for a general audience. But one of the things I remember most about 1969 did involve comic books.

That was the year the cover price went from 12 cents to 15 cents. When comics cost 12 cents (with the occasional exception of those wonderful 80 page giants for 25 cents, a bargain that I always went for because, hey, those babies were the comic book equivalents of an all day sucker with one of those behemoths taking the better part of a day to read and savor), I could get 8 comics for a dollar. When they went to 15 cents, I could only buy 6 comics for one dollar. This was my first lesson in inflation and economics. I had to get the most of the few dollars I had to spend on comics every month which meant I had to make some critical choices about what I bought. I had to stick with characters and/or artists and writers that I really liked until I had enough cash flow from summer jobs to expand my buying horizons. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way I buy comics now, just characters, writers and artists I like and not the entire output of every comic book company in business today.

1969 is a good time capsule of an important year in American history. If you were around back then, there are memories aplenty to be found here. If you weren't around back then, read it and get a glimpse of what all of the shouting was about.

Recommended.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

BRAINQUAKE


Sporting a dynamic painting by the late Glen Orbik and a cover font that looks like it was ripped from the cover of a 1960s issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS, Samuel Fuller's BRAINQUAKE (Hard Case Crime, 2014), is a swift-kick-in-the-teeth, fist-to-the-gut, full-tilt-boogie assault of adrenaline fueled pulp fiction. Oh, yeah, you read it right. It's written by that Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) was an idiosyncratic film writer and director that left his unique, personal stamp on the post war American cinema, especially during the 1950s. Fuller's films pulled no punches in their depictions of crime, war, the American west and modern madness. Fuller, a WWII combat veteran, saw enough horrors in war to last a lifetime. His war experiences, combined with his pre-war employment as a newspaper reporter, gave Fuller a front row seat to the evil that men do. When Fuller began writing screenplays and then, eventually directing low budget genre films, Fuller drew on his own experiences for material, which gave his films an unmistakable jolt of reality and truth.

His filmography includes such classics as PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), THE NAKED KISS (1964), SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). Fuller, always and ever his own man, fell out of favor during the 1960s but his body of work, filled with virtuoso visuals and uncompromising storytelling, inspired a generation of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. To watch a Fuller film is to be totally immersed in his overpowering world view of darkness, insanity and redemption. While not every film with his name on it is a classic, every film he made is well worth your time to seek out and watch. You won't be disappointed.

In addition to screenplays, Fuller wrote novels including BURN, BABY, BURN (1936), TEST TUBE BABY (1936) and THE DARK PAGE (1944).  He wrote BRAINQUAKE in the early 1990s, but it was only published in France and Japan at the time. Hard Case Crime (bless 'em), brought this long lost last novel to mass market publication in 2014 and while it's not quite a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and vital work by a one-of-a-kind American artist of the 20th century.

BRAINQUAKE is the story of one Paul Pope, a bagman for a major New York City crime organization. Pope's job, along with dozens of other anonymous men, is to deliver bags of money throughout the city. Some of the money is to be used in payoffs and bribes, some is to be laundered. The bagmen live by a strict code of honor, a code which is punishable by death if broken. Guess what Paul does?

But he has good reason because Paul, you see, was a mute as a young man and while he can speak, he rarely does so. He lives a solitary life with few friends and only books and poetry to keep him company. He drives a cab as a front for his job as a bagman and he does his job well. He also suffers from "brainquakes", severe migraine like episodes in which Paul hears the music of a flute and sees the world in a shade of vivid pink. He also sees things that aren't there during these mental seizures. But Paul still manages to get by until he meets a lovely young mother in Central Park.

Paul does what he shouldn't do, fall in love with Michelle, a mob widow with an infant son. When she shoots and kills a low level mobster, she and the baby are forced to go on the run. Paul helps them flee using a bag full of millions of dollars to grease the skids for their escape.

The two travel to France but they are trailed by another low level mobster, a determined New York City homicide detective and a professional killer named "Father Flanagan", a psycho who dresses like a priest and kills his victims by crucifixion (that's right, a hammer and three very large nails). Everything comes to a fevered third act in Paris, culminating in a furious gun battle aboard a house barge on the Seine.

The characters in BRAINQUAKE are numerous, colorful and well drawn but Paul is the real focus of attention here and Fuller does a good job of depicting a decent but deeply broken man struggling to find some modicum of peace and happiness in an insane world of crime, corruption and betrayal. The plot moves at a good clip but relies on some outlandish coincidences a couple of times in order to advance the narrative. Nonetheless, BRAINQUAKE is a first rate page turner by a world class storyteller.

Highly recommended.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

"DID YOU SEE THE NAVAL BASE?"



Don Rickles was one of my all time favorite comedians.

 Few comics made me laugh as hard and as consistently over the yeas as he did. Rickles wasn't the first insult comic and he's certainly not the last but one thing's for sure.

 He was the best.

Rickles started his career with hopes of becoming a serious, dramatic actor. He was very good co-starring with Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Robert Wise's submarine drama RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) and he held his own alongside Ray Milland in Roger Corman's truly outre film, X THE MAN WITH THE X RAY EYES (1963). But as he began to develop his stand up act, the parts grew more comedic. Rickles was in several "Beach" movies beginning with MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (1964). He also made a memorable appearance on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW in the fifth season episode, "The Luck of Newton Monroe", in which he played a hapless bumbler (who got on Barney's last nerve), before discovering that he was not inept but was really "ept".

By the time Rickles went to Eastern Europe to co-star in KELLY'S HEROES (1970), he was a certified comic star. He was brilliant as "Crap Game", part of the fantastic foursome that included Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland and Telly Savalas in this comic WWII caper film. Years later, he was terrific as a casino manager in Martin Scorsese's CASINO (1995) and for a new, younger generation, he will always be known as the voice of Mister Potato Head in the TOY STORY films.

And for a truly bizarre footnote in his career, Don Rickles was the subject of a two-issue storyline in, of all places, a comic book. And not just any comic book. Rickles appeared in DC Comics' SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN #139 (7/71) and #141 (9/71), in a dual role as both himself and his "good" twin, Goody Rickles. The issues were written and drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby, my all time favorite comic book creator and they rank among the strangest comic books ever produced. As the cover banner proclaimed, "Don't ask! Just buy it!"

But Rickles was at his best in front of an audience, whether it was in a lounge in Las Vegas, in the guest seat on THE TONIGHT SHOW or on one of the countless DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS. Rickles needed a live audience to play off of, to feast on, to use as raw source material that could be mined for instant comedy gold. He was relentless in his attacks on Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon on THE TONIGHT SHOW and his appearances on that show over the years rank as some of the funniest things I've ever seen on television. I watched some clips on YouTube yesterday and they still made me laugh uproariously. And if you've ever heard me laugh, you know what that sounds like.

An appearance by Rickles on THE TONIGHT SHOW was a special event, a one time thing that had to be seen live because there was no way to capture it and enjoy it over and over again. In the 1970s, when Rickles was at his zenith, video tape recorders (to say nothing of DVR technology) didn't exist, which meant staying up late to watch the whole show (work or school the next morning be damned), because one of my comedy heroes was on, tearing the joint apart. I had to tune in, I had to see it and I did. As did millions of other Americans.

For years I figured that I would be content with seeing Rickles on television and movie screens only. Seeing him live was not a possibility that I ever considered. Imagine my surprise when, years ago, before we were married, Judy surprised me for my birthday with tickets to see Don Rickles at the Stardust hotel in Las Vegas.

 It was a trip and a night that I'll never forget. We had great seats and when Rickles made his appearance, he circled the room throwing jabs at various audience members. He walked right behind our booth and I prayed that he'd lob something choice at me. What could have been better than to have been insulted by the master? He didn't insult me but I laughed my ass off so hard and loud for the next 90 minutes that I think I genuinely scared the people sharing the booth with us. The show was great. Rickles did the usual insults, some song and dance and patter about his life and career. He terrorized every member of the onstage band but he left us knowing that this was all an act, a put on, a means to make us laugh. He revealed, as if we didn't already know, that he was really a nice guy who pretended to be a bully and that he genuinely loved people. Making fun of them was just a way to not only get laughs but to expose our own fears and prejudices. Don Rickles was an equal opportunity insult artist. He spared no one, no man, no woman, gay, straight, fat, thin, black, brown or Asian, was safe from his barbed tongue.

Sadly enough, almost everything from that trip to Vegas is gone now. Rickles is dead, as is the Stardust along with the Sahara hotel where we stayed. Nonetheless, I had seen my hero, Don Rickles, in his native environment: in a Las Vegas lounge where he performed who knows how many times over the course of his career.

Years later, Don Rickles came to Austin for a show at the Paramount Theatre. I wanted to see him again along with an appearance about a month later by Woody Allen and his Dixieland Jazz Band. I told Judy that all I wanted for Christmas that year were tickets to Rickles and Woody (another one of my heroes). She was sweet enough to come through with tickets to both. We had good seats for Rickles and, to no surprise, he did roughly the same act in Austin that we had seen in Vegas. Didn't matter. It was still Don Rickles live and bringing down the house.

He's gone now. I was lucky enough to see him perform live twice. His movies and television appearances will always be with us to enjoy. I can think of nothing better than watching a clip of Don Rickles demolish Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, among other targets. People say his act wouldn't fly today, that he couldn't get away with saying all of those mean and terrible things about people, that times have changed, that he was politically incorrect, etc, etc. I'm sure there were a few people out there who were offended by what Rickles said and did but the rest of us got the joke and loved every minute of it.

Rest in peace good man. You did your job and did it exceptionally well.

 You made me laugh.

 I can ask no more.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

THE MIND BENDERS


Raise your hand high and keep it up if, like me, you first encountered the concept of a sensory deprivation tank on the 1968 pilot episode of HAWAII FIVE-O. You remember, Asian super villain Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh, who also played a sinister foreign agent in John Frankenheimer's 1962 masterpiece THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), captured McGarrett (Jack Lord) and placed him in one of those tanks in order to torture him. McGarrett, floating in a completely dark tank full of water, had his eyes covered and his ears stuffed so that he could see and hear nothing. The isolation, the sense of being completely cut off from the world, was designed to slowly drive him mad. What a fiendish plan from Wo Fat, the modern day version of Fu Manchu.

The next time I ran across a sensory deprivation tank in pop culture was in Ken Russell's visionary science fiction/horror film ALTERED STATES (1980). Scientist William Hurt spends large amounts of time in a tank and when he combines the isolation with some really powerful psychotropic drugs, he regresses to a savage, primitive state, a feral cave man like creature. Part 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, part MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, ALTERED STATES featured spectacular make-up and visual effects and Russell's over-the-top style to create a fine, thought provoking film.

But imagine my surprise when I ran across a film on TCM the other night that predates both FIVE-O and STATES in its' use of a sensory deprivation tank as a plot device. THE MIND BENDERS (1963), is a British film that doesn't quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. It starts out like a spy thriller, with a scientist who had spent time in a tank, being brainwashed by foreign agents (Russians?), into committing some act of espionage before committing suicide. This leads government agent Major Hall (John Clements, winner of the Lyndon B. Johnson look-alike contest) to investigate the goings on at Oxford University where Doctor Henry Longman (Dirk Bogarde, looking like the love child of Desi Arnaz and John Forsythe), is still fiddling around with the tank. Okay, so it's not going to be a spy movie, it's going to be more of a science fiction film.

Except it's not. The film takes yet another turn into the realm of domestic drama. Hall and Doctor Tate (Michael Bryant), implant suggestions into Longman's mind following an extended period in the tank. Longman becomes a misogynistic misanthrope towards his wife, Oonagh (Mary Ure), which raises the question, is Longman reacting to the suggestions planted in his psyche or did the time in the tank bring his real nature to the surface?

THE MIND BENDERS is a sober, straightforward film, directed by Basil Dearden from a novel by James Kennaway. The cast is good and they are all earnest in their handling of the material. Trouble is, no one seems to know what this film is supposed to be. There's enough grist for the plot mill to make several different films here. The producers try to cover all of their bases, providing a movie that will appeal to both genre fans and more mainstream audiences but which ultimately disappoints both.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

QUARRY'S CHOICE


"You pick up a lot reading paperback novels."

Here's some things I've picked up from reading paperback novels.

You can judge a book by its' cover, especially when the cover art is by the legendary Robert McGinnis, an artist who always delivers superlative work. You ask me, there's something seriously wrong with anyone who could look at this cover and not want to read this book.

Check the publisher logo. Hard Case Crime is always a sign of quality. As I've written elsewhere on this blog, HCC is my favorite contemporary publisher.

Ditto the byline. I have yet to read a bad book by Max Allan Collins (and I've read a bunch of 'em) and his novels about professional hit man Quarry are some of his best.

The book is set in April 1972 for that vintage '70s crime novel vibe. Plus, I was in high school in 1972 so I get all of the references for once.

The action takes place in Biloxi, Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast strip of hotels, casinos and titty bars controlled by the southern fried crime cartel known as the Dixie Mafia.

A high body count. By the end of the book, twelve people are dead, nine killed by Quarry.

A teenage stripper/hooker that goes by the stage name of "Lolita". Her real name is Luann. Insert your own "Luann Platter" joke here.

QUARRY'S CHOICE is a pedal-to-the medal crime novel that puts Quarry into a deadly predicament which he handles with his usual aplomb. There are plenty of zingy one-liners, a strong sense of place and time and a surfeit of explicit sex and brutal violence. A small light bulb to the eye of a Junior Sample look-alike killer is only one of the gruesome acts of mayhem and carnage that Quarry inflicts on people.

Quarry is not a nice guy but he's paid to kill people who need killing and he does so with a great deal of efficiency. The villains he goes up against are so vile, you can't help but cheer and pull for a guy with untold amounts of blood on his hands.

This is not a book for kids but it is one helluva fun ride for adults who prefer their crime fiction down and dirty. QUARRY'S CHOICE delivers the goods. In spades. Highly recommended.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

THE UNDERWORLD STORY


Looking like a dark, demented Dagwood Bumstead, actor Dan Duryea was second only to Fred MacMurray when it came to playing total shit heels in various films noir of the '40s and '50s. Case in point, THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950), in which he plays a conniving newspaper reporter who is only out for himself, willing to sell a sensationalistic murder story to the highest bidder to further his own career and reputation. As callous and callow Mike Reese, Duryea gives a performance that prefigures and anticipates a similar turn by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's brilliant ACE IN THE HOLE (1951).

At the start of the film, a story written by Reese results in the death of a mobster and the wounding of district attorney Ralph Munsey (Michael O'Shea). Reese loses his job and no other newspaper in the city will have him. He finally finds a chance with the small-town Lakewood Sentinel, run by Catherine Harris (Gale Storm) and George "Parky" Parker (Harry Shannon). Using $5,000 from gangster Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva), Reese buys into the newspaper just as a major murder case breaks.

The daughter-in-law of newspaper tycoon E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered and an investigation is launched. Turns out her weasel of a husband, Clark (Gar Moore), is the killer, a fact that he immediately confesses to his father. But there's no way the scion of a newspaper empire is going to be executed for the crime, so the two conspire to frame Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), the woman's maid, for the killing.

Reese, smelling a hot story, starts selling exclusive story rights to various newspapers and wire services. He even arranges to surrender the innocent Molly to D.A. Munsey in order to collect the reward money. She's arrested but no reward is forthcoming, leading Reese to try another approach to generate headlines and sell stories. He hits upon a defense committee for the young black woman and begins to play on the sympathies of the community. Money is pouring in and soon, the story of innocent young Molly becomes a cause celebre across the country.

But regardless of her innocence, she's going to be found guilty and sentenced to die unless something drastic happens. Reese eventually realizes his actions are going to send an innocent woman to her death and he begins to try and get the D.A. to listen to the truth. Meanwhile, the Stantons, father and guilty son, have gone to mobster Durham for help in getting rid of Reese once and for all. Everything comes to a brutal climax in the third act with Reese ultimately doing the right thing and finding a measure of redemption for his selfish behavior.

THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a nicely mounted little B-movie courtesy of screenwriter Henry Blankfort and director Cy Endfield. The lush black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez, adds tremendous amounts of mood and atmosphere. Duryea owns the picture from start to finish, with Reese going through a character arc from heel to hero while Da Silva makes an excellent bad guy. While not a major noir, THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a good, tight, well constructed film that fans of the genre will enjoy. Recommended.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

SUDDENLY


Frank Sinatra had a thing about presidential assassination films. Consider John Frankenheimer's cold war masterpiece, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), in which he tries to stop an attempt on a presidential candidate's life and SUDDENLY (1954), where he's the one set to pull the trigger on an American president.

SUDDENLY is a taut, economical little film noir that plays out in one afternoon in the small town of Suddenly, California. It seems the president of the United States (unnamed but presumed to be Eisenhower), is scheduled to arrive by train and make a brief stopover in the quiet little town. Secret Service agents and state troopers arrive to secure the town, enlisting the aid of Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden). Hayden's girlfriend, the widow Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates), her son Pidge (Kim Charney) and her father-in-law, Pop Benson (James Gleason), live in a house overlooking the train depot, a house that would make a perfect sniper's nest.

And that's just what a gang of hit men, led by John Baron (Sinatra), Benny Conklin (Paul Frees) and Bart Wheeler (Christopher Dark), intend to use it for. They take the Bensons hostage, wound Sheriff Shaw, and kill Secret Service Agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey). Thus begins a tense game of psychological cat and mouse as the psychotic Baron counts the minutes until the train arrives in town, all the while threatening his prisoners and bragging about his multiple kills. Ultimately, it's up to the hostages to make a bold play to stop Baron in the third act and they do, utilizing all of the plot devices that were introduced and set up in the first act.

Sinatra delivers a stand out performance as the vicious hired killer. He's full of braggadocio and coiled menace but when the tables are turned, he's revealed as a gutless coward. Hayden is also good as the smart thinking lawman. Hayden was a big guy and he looks even bigger in scenes with the short, scrawny Sinatra.  SUDDENLY mixes scenes shot on location with a handful of studio sets. It's crisply shot by cinematographer Charles G. Clarke and director Lewis Allen keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The film has a running time of 77 minutes and not a second is wasted. The screenplay, by Richard Sale, is based on his own story, ACTIVE DUTY, that appeared in BLUE BOOK MAGAZINE in 1943.

SUDDENLY is an off-beat little noir thriller that's definitely worth seeing. Recommended.



THE X FROM OUTER SPACE


Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for a good ol' Japanese giant monster movie, or kaiju as they're known in Japan. TCM ran THE X FROM OUTER SPACE (1967) recently. I watched it for the first time last night and enjoyed it.

For a kaiju film, X sure takes it's time in getting there. It starts out as an outer space adventure movie with a crew of four (three men, one beautiful blonde woman, shades of FANTASTIC FOUR!) venturing into space aboard the "space boat" AAB Gamma, a spacecraft that is literally designed like a hydrofoil yacht. They encounter a UFO, land at the Japanese moon base, and dodge asteroids before finally encountering a mysterious, barnacle like substance on their engine cowling. They take a sample of this material back to Earth where it grows into a giant monster. The monster, dubbed Guilala by the scientists, goes on a rampage, absorbing energy and growing larger by the minute. The only way to defeat the monster is by spraying it with a substance called "Guilalalium" which looks a lot like shaving cream. The substance shrinks the monster back to it's original egg like state which is then placed in a rocket and shot into outer space.

Guilala is one of the stranger kaiju creatures in Japanese cinema. Elements of the rubber suit look like they were borrowed from Godzilla (he spews energy blasts from his mouth)  but the triangular head and wobbly antennae are completely original.

The miniature/model work ranges from not bad to WTF?! The actors play everything with straight faces, no matter how ridiculous the dialogue and situations. The music varies from standard melodramatic action with pounding drums to inexplicable pop/rock  instrumentals that are totally at odds with the onscreen action. There's even an outer space themed love song at the beginning and end of the film.

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE was released in Japan in March, 1967 but was never theatrically released in the United States. It was sold directly to American television in 1968. The Criterion Collection (bless 'em!) released the film in a box set entitled WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU in 2012. The print that TCM ran was from this collection. It's a nice transfer in Japanese with English subtitles.

THE X FROM OUTER SPACE is the perfect Saturday night popcorn movie. Absurd, goofy and downright bizarre, it's a ton of fun. Recommended.



Saturday, March 25, 2017

SEPARATED AT BIRTH?


I recently watched CONVICTS 4 (1962), starring the late, great Ben Gazzarra. While watching the film, I was struck by the idea that if they had ever made a live action version of the old SUPERCAR TV series (which I loved as a little kid), Gazzarra would have been perfect in the role of a living, breathing, no-strings-attached Mike Mercury.






PIMP


"Since when has a Hard Case Crime cover ever had anything to do with what's inside the book?"

PIMP (2016) is the fourth entry in the "Max and Angela" series of comic crime novels, written by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr and published by Hard Case Crime. The other novels in the series are BUST (2006), SLIDE (2007) and THE MAX (2008). I've read all of the previous books and enjoyed them but I can't honestly say the same thing about PIMP.

It's not a bad book, it's just that far too much time has elapsed since I'd read the previous books and I had a more than a little bit of trouble remembering the circumstances that put would be drug kingpin Max Fisher and his hot-to-trot Greek girlfriend Angela Petakis into their current predicaments. And for anyone who hasn't read the other three books, faggidaboutit. You'll be hopelessly lost if you start the series with PIMP.

But even with a cursory knowledge of the characters and situations, PIMP is just too damn cute for it's own good. It's all wink-wink, nudge-nudge, look-how-clever-we-are writing by Bruen and Starr. There's not much of a plot to speak of in this wildly self-referential, meta-textual novel full of inside jokes about crime novels, the publishing and book selling businesses, television and film production and a celebrity name drop on almost every page.
The more you know about these subjects and industries, the more jokes you'll get. Some of the jokes are funny, some aren't but the constant jibes and japery gets old quickly.

The book opens with Max Fisher, believed to be dead at the end of THE MAX, alive and well (at least, as well as Max can be). He's had meatball plastic surgery and put on weight but he's back in the drug kingpin game with a new product called PIMP (Peyote, Insulin, Mescaline and a sprinkle of Psychosis). You think the story is going to be about Max and drugs but that's just the first chapter as Bruen and Starr have a fairly large cast of characters to introduce and numerous plots and sub-plots to set up and spin out, all of which eventually dovetail into a semi-coherent plot. Along the way, there's a surfeit of drugs, hardcore sex, profanity and obscenity laced dialogue and casual violence and murders (the body count really mounts up).

The main through line of PIMP lies in the conceit that BUST, the book, is about to become a cable television series. Turns out than in this universe, BUST wasn't a novel by Bruen and Starr, but a true crime book about the early career of Max Fisher. There's a mad scramble to line up producers, money men, movie studios, script writers and performers to play the characters. Every one is out for her/himself with crosses and double crosses aplenty.

Bruen and Starr strain mightily to give the dialogue an Elmore Leonardesque vibe but even when  Leonard was being funny, he was never this over-the-top. As a result of the non-stop jokes and snarkiness, no real suspense or tension is ever built or sustained. You know everything is a put-on, a loony lark through a La La Land landscape littered with corpses. It's a letdown after the first three books, all of which had their share of wild humor and laughs but were better crafted than this one.

I can't say I hated it but I can only recommend PIMP to hardcore Hard Case Crime fans. Casual readers need not bother.

CONVICTS 4


At first glance, a prison picture with Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford and Vincent Price in the cast has the potential to be the CITIZEN KANE of prison pics. Although, truth be told, BRUTE FORCE (1947) is, in my opinion, already the KANE of prison films. So, okay, make CONVICTS 4 (1962), the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS of prison pictures. With a cast like that, how could it not be?

Cool those jets solitary confinement breath. Steiger, Crawford and Price are merely guest stars (the credits even say so) in this film. Steiger appears first in a single scene that was obviously filmed separately on location in a real prison. There's no one else in the frame in his shot-from-below address to the prisoners. And after his speech, which portends a set up as a real nemesis for star Ben Gazzara, Steiger disappears from the picture. Crawford has one scene, which also appears to have been filmed in a real lock-up. He at least interacts with Gazzara and Stuart Whitman, but again, it's now you see him, now you don't. Price appears in the third act as an art expert, a role he was certainly prepared to play since Price was well known as a collector of fine art. He delivers a few lines and then he's gone. I suspect the producers had only enough time and money to get these three for a day or two at best and shot their scenes quickly and separately. What a pity. It would have been a real treat to see these three notorious hams go head-to-head and over-the-top. No prison (or movie screen) could hold them!

Instead, CONVICTS 4 is an earnest, dramatized story of real life con John Resko (Gazzarra), who is sentenced to death in 1931 after killing a shop keeper on Christmas Eve. Mere moments before he's doomed to die in the electric chair, Resko's sentence is commuted to life in prison. He's transferred to Dannemora Prison where he falls in with other lifers Iggy (Ray Walston) and Wino (Sammy Davis, Jr.). Sympathetic and progressive guard Stuart Whitman (who eventually becomes warden), institutes an art program for the convicts as a means of therapy and rehabilitation. Resko reluctantly joins the program (after a couple of foiled escape attempts) and discovers that he has a real gift for art. Resko gains a measure of fame as an artist and his story captures the public imagination. He is eventually released from prison in 1949 to find his now grown daughter and grand daughter waiting for him.

CONVICTS 4 is a straight forward, compelling film with a solid cast. Written and directed by Millard Kaufman (adapted from the book REPRIEVE: THE TESTAMENT OF JOHN RESKO by John Resko), it traces the arc of one man's life from a crime of desperation to redemption. The supporting players are good with Walston a stand out as the loony Iggy. It's a good little film, one worth seeing but it could have been a truly great one if Steiger, Crawford and Price were given more screen time and allowed to do what they did best.



Sunday, March 19, 2017

SCARFACE

"The World Is Yours"

Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks, SCARFACE (1932), is ground zero for the American gangster film. Loosely based on real life "Scarface" Al Capone, the film deals with the rise to power of scar faced thug Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Tony starts off as a lieutenant to Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Tony kills rival gang leader Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) at the beginning of the film, a move which places Lovo in charge of all of the illegal activity in Chicago's south side. Tony is ordered to leave the north side gangs, led by Gaffney (a cadaverous Boris Karloff) alone but he's wildly ambitious and drunk on power and he soon brings a gang war to the north side. After wiping out all of his enemies and becoming top dog, there's no where for Tony to go but down. But he's not going out without a fight and fight he does in a well mounted final act shootout with the police.

Muni owns this film from start to finish. He plays Tony with a strange mix of likeable rube and vicious killer. He's loyal to his best friend, the endlessly coin-flipping Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). He woos the lovely Poppy (Karen Morely) away from Lovo and he has an overly protective attitude towards his beautiful younger sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Muni's looks are a combination of two future tough guys: Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones, while Boris Karloff's visage prefigures Abe Vigoda and Jeremy Irons.

SCARFACE is visually sophisticated, with smoothly executed long tracking shots by cinematographers Lee Garmes and L.W O'Connell. There's the repeated motif of an "X" in the background of the frame whenever Tony kills someone. Director Howard Hawks brings vigor to the multiple gun fights with sedans speeding along dark streets, tommy guns typing out a letter of leaden death.

One nod to reality (among several) in the screenplay by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin and Seton I. Miller (from a story by the legendary Ben Hecht), is an enactment of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a sequence shot in silhouette. The film has a strong social message, indeed, the opening title cards practically preach at the audience that crime is a poison and that something must be done about it. It's no coincidence that the film's original subtitle was THE SHAME OF THE NATION.

Filmed before the restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code were put in place, SCARFACE is full of tough talking gangsters, beautiful women and brutal violence. It was later famously remade in 1983 by Brian De Palma with Al Pacino in an over-the-top performance

The original SCARFACE is a vital piece of  film history and should be seen by anyone interested in the evolution of both the crime film and the American cinema. Highly recommended.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

MINDHUNTERS





I don't know this for a fact, but I'm betting that the production of MINDHUNTERS (2004) went something like this.

The producers had a limited amount of money to spend on this film. They needed a "big" name or two or three to sell it. The "big" names that they got were Val Kilmer, Christian Slater and LL Cool J. Trouble is, they didn't have a lot of money to spend on these actors so the screenplay does away with both Kilmer and Slater in the first act, leaving LL to carry the rest of the film, supported by a cast of no-names. Raise your hand and keep it up if you've ever heard of any of these people: Kathryn Morris, Jonny Lee Miller, Clifton Collins, Jr., Patricia Velasquez, Eion Bailey and Will Kemp.

I didn't think so.

Doesn't matter if they're known or not because they only exist as cardboard characters to be killed in this cliched and predictable thriller from genre hack director Renny Harlin. Kilmer is the FBI agent in charge of training a group of profilers. He takes them to a deserted island off of the coast of North Carolina. The island is named Omega. How's that for foreshadowing? The team, led by Slater, is left on the island to solve a string of staged serial killings. It's all an elaborate test to challenge their various skills in the art of profiling.

But that's not what's really going on. Turns out the profilers are the intended victims of a real serial killer who starts knocking them off one by one in a series of elaborately staged death traps. Surprise, the killer is one of them. Double surprise: the killer fakes his/her death. If you've seen AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) (among many others), you've seen this basic plot set up.

The screenplay by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin, doesn't just strain credulity, it shatters it. The death traps are ridiculously elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions with extraordinarily gruesome results. They're more like something you'd see in a DR. PHIBES horror film than something concocted by a real person in the 21st century.

The climax involves two characters fighting underwater for a very, very long time. Their battle even includes a gunfight! Just how long can two people hold their respective breaths underwater while engaged in a fight to the death? The answer is several minutes, if we're to believe what happens here. Every cliche and trope of the genre is placed on a list to be checked off as the plot progresses. Everything is predictable, right down to the final twist, double twist and triple twist ending. There are no surprises here, just an utterly routine generic thriller that will seem fresh and new to anyone who's never seen any of the dozens of other films exactly like this one.

 You have to wonder, if the producers had had just a little bit more money, could they have gotten some bigger stars and paid them enough to have them stick around longer?

I think Sid Melton was still available in 2004.

Friday, March 17, 2017

13 WEST STREET


Routine. Mediocre. Lackluster. Those are just some of the words that come to mind when describing 13 WEST STREET (1962). This low budget, B movie starred Alan Ladd in his last leading film role. He died at age 50 in 1964. His production company, Ladd Enterprises, produced this film so Ladd had no to blame but himself for the film's failure.

The premise is a good one. Aerospace engineer Walt Sherill (Ladd), is attacked by a group of young thugs one night. But they're not your ordinary gang of toughs. These boys are all clean cut and well dressed, rich kids out for kicks and violent thrills.

Sherill and his wife Tracey (Dolores Dorn), co-operate with police detective Sergeant Koleski (Rod Steiger) but the investigation proceeds at a snail's pace while the punks continue to terrorize and harass the Sherills. Walt hires a private detective, Finney (Stanley Adams) to keep tabs on the gang and in the last act, Sherill decides to take justice into his own hands by attacking the gang leader, Chuck (Michael Callan).

Although the film pre-figures other average-guys-turned-vigilante-killers films such as STRAW DOGS (1971) and DEATH WISH (1974), 13 WEST STREET never really achieves any real level of tension or suspense. Director Philip Leacock, who had a long career in episodic television, shows little imagination in his storytelling. Everything is shot in a flat cinematic style in a series of not-quite-convincing studio sets. It looks and feels like a stand-alone episode of an early '60s anthology television series than it does a feature film.

Ladd has one expression throughout the entire film: he looks severely constipated. Rod Steiger, while not as over-the-top as he could sometimes be, nonetheless steals every scene with some little bit of business either with his hands, his voice or his eyes. He's this close to mugging. The actors playing the thugs, especially Callan, are far too old to be convincing as high school students. But bonus points for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance of veteran character actor Olan Soule as a fellow engineer and a small scene with Ted Knight as a high school principal.

What's most interesting about 13 WEST STREET is that the screenplay was adapted from the novel THE TIGER AMONG US by science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. Brackett worked on THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RIO BRAVO (1959), EL DORADO (1967) and others, with her final screenwriting credit on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). They should have kept her original title because THE TIGER AMONG US is certainly more evocative than the tepid 13 WEST STREET.

13 WEST STREET was pitched as a hard hitting adult drama. Maybe for it's day it was strong stuff but it has not held up well over the years. It's a dull, lifeless film that, with very little effort, could have been turned into something better. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

THE PAPERBOY


For the record, yeah, this is the movie in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron. But it's not in a Trump-Russian hottie golden shower way. It's to alleviate the pain from the vicious jelly fish stings on Efron's body. It may be weird, sick and twisted and it's certainly a memorable scene but it's far from the most salacious thing that occurs in Lee Daniels' Southern gothic noir THE PAPERBOY (2012).

Set in Florida in 1969 THE PAPERBOY is narrated years after the fact by Anita Chester (Macy Gray), a black woman who serves as domestic help for the family of small town newspaper publisher W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn). The focus of the story is young Jack Jansen (Efron), a restless, listless and uber horny twenty-something young man with nothing to do and plenty of time on his hands in which to do it. His older brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) have come to town to investigate the murder of the county sheriff. They're reporters for the The Miami Times and they're convinced that the man convicted of the murder, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent. They hire young Jack to serve as their gofer during the investigation.

But a wrench is thrown into the works in the form of Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a sexed up, hot-to-trot cougar who has fallen in love with Hillary through prison correspondence. She's convinced he's innocent also but what she really wants is to gain his freedom so that they might consummate their relationship.

Of course Jack falls for Charlotte. Hard. Funny thing, Ward and Yardley don't seem to pay much attention to the incendiary Charlotte. And there's a reason for that, one that is revealed later in the film. Based on the reporters efforts, Hillary is released from prison and he and Charlotte take up residence in his shack in the swamp. But Hillary has played everyone for a sucker and now poses a very deadly threat.

THE PAPERBOY is long on visual style and creative editing. Director Daniels, cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and editor Joe Klotz bring pizazz to the proceedings. The period details are spot on and the performances are all good. Kidman is the standout here, delivering a go-for-broke performance as a white trash horn dog. The story by Daniels and Pete Dexter (who wrote the novel which the screenplay is adapted from), starts slow and never completely gels into a real thriller. There's not a lot of suspense but there is brutal violence and even rougher sex. Because make no mistake about it, THE PAPERBOY is all about sex. Every character is driven by sexual desires and needs, some of which spell doom.

THE PAPERBOY is an adults-only portrait of broken men and women consumed by carnality of the basest kind. There's plenty of sex on display but very little love. Worth seeing.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

CAGED


Given it's lurid, sensationalistic title and subject matter, if CAGED (1950) had been made later in the decade it would have certainly been played as an exploitation film, redolent with camp elements. As is, CAGED is a tough, sober look into a modern women's prison. It's hard-hitting, frank and adult in its' approach to the subject matter.

Eleanor Parker stars as 19-year-old Marie Allen, who is sentenced to 1-15 years in prison as an accomplice to a botched armed robbery that left her husband, Tom, dead. Young Marie is all wide-eyed innocence, a lamb among the wolves. Oh, and she's pregnant.

She soon finds an ally in Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who ran a shoplifter ring on the outside and now has some amount of influence within the cell block. The warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), is also sympathetic to Marie, as she is to all of the inmates. She believes in reformation rather than punishment and tells Marie she will eligible for an early release within nine months if she keeps her nose clean.

But that's easier said than done because Marie soon becomes the target of the wrath of sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a tank-like woman who delights in tormenting the prisoners. One young woman, June (Olive Deering), commits suicide when she's denied release and Marie is sent to isolation with a brutally shaved head for inciting a near-riot, a melee sparked by Marie's illegal possession of a kitten. By the way, the kitten dies in the ruckus. Hows' that for hardboiled?

SPOILER: Harper is eventually killed by one of the prisoners and Marie strikes a deal with the devil, vice queen Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who pulls strings and arranges Marie's release into the hands of her waiting mobsters outside of the prison gates. Marie's file is kept open by Warden Benton because she knows Marie will be back.

CAGED earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Parker), Best Supporting Actress (Emerson) and Best Writing (Story & Screenplay): Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld.

Director John Cromwell and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie drench the film in noir shadows and claustrophobic framing, along with smooth tracking shots among the double bunks of the cell block where sixty women are incarcerated, punctuated by heartbreaking close-ups of shattered, broken women.

CAGED tracks the trajectory of an innocent young woman into a hard bitten, bitter and cynical criminal in waiting. Parker and Emerson are both magnificent and the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Recommended.


SINNER MAN


"I was hell in a short-brimmed hat."

I got home from working at SXSW the other day with plenty of time to do things that needed to be done before dinner.  Go to the gym. Take out the trash and recycling. Empty the dishwasher. I did none of those. Why? Because this guy Lawrence Block had me by the throat.

I had about fifty pages left to read in SINNER MAN (2016), and I decided that all those other things could wait. I was going to finish this book in one sitting. Finish I did and wow, what a ride! SINNER MAN, published last year by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary book publisher), is Grand Master mystery writer Lawrence Block's long lost first crime novel.
 Block wrote the novel in 1959-60. The manuscript bounced around various paperback houses before finally being published as SAVAGE LOVER by "Sheldon Lord" in 1968. This is the first time in almost fifty years that the novel has been released under it's original title and with Block's name on it.

SINNER MAN is the story of Connecticut insurance salesman Donald Barshter who kills his wife by accident one night while more than slightly inebriated. Rather than go to the cops (a common first mistake in noir and one that will always lead to certain doom), Barshter stuffs his wife's corpse in a closet, cashes out his savings and takes a train to Buffalo. Once there, he adopts the identity of Nathaniel Crowley and tries to pass himself off as a small time hood.

The ruse works and before long, Crowley finds himself mobbed-up with a local crime family. But things take a turn for the worse when Crowley is asked to become a hit man. He does so and becomes involved in a bloody mob coup that leaves him with a high rank in the new organization that takes over.

Crowley also has a love-hate relationship with Anne Bishop. Their sex is more like rape and Anne grows to despise Crowley and plots to do him in. She digs deep and uncovers the truth about him and when she confronts Crowley with what she's discovered, something must be done. Hey, that liquor bottle makes a nice bludgeon.

SINNER MAN is fast, tough, hard boiled and stripped to the bone. The narrative is swift and sure, the sex and violence brutal. It's a portrait of a man discovering his true, inner self through a vicious masquerade. Barshter/Crowley has more blood on his hands than he can ever wash off and the novel ends with him on the run again. But for how long?

I tore through this one and it was worth giving up "gotta do" chores for this "gotta finish reading" page turner. Block was very good very early in his career and he's only gotten better over the decades. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

BATMAN: DETECTIVE NO.27


BATMAN: DETECTIVE NO. 27 is a 2003 Elseworlds graphic novel published by DC Comics. Written by Michael Uslan and illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg (whose work I really like), this is not about DETECTIVE NO. 27, the seminal 1939 comic book that introduced Batman to the world. It's about DETECTIVE NO. 27. Oh, and Batman never appears in this story.  Confused?

The story begins on the night of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 . The president's murder spurs Allan Pinkerton (he of the legendary Pinkerton Agency), to form a secret society of detectives to battle the Knights of the Golden Circle, a crime cabal led by a Jokeresque madman named Professor Carr. The Knights engineered Lincoln's death which has set in motion a plan to destroy an American city, a plan that will take 74 years to come to fruition.

Pinkerton names himself Detective No. 1, with each subsequent member of the society having a number rather than a name. Over the years, the ranks of the secret society include such stalwarts as Teddy Roosevelt, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, The Hardy Boys, Sam Spade and The Shadow.

The murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne in 1929 set young Bruce Wayne on a ten-year sojourn around the world where he studies and trains (under "Lamont Cranston" among others) to be a master detective. When he returns to Gotham City, he finds Doctor Hugo Strange and Professor Jonathan Crane involved in the Knights scheme to unleash a fear toxin in a major city. Bruce is recruited by the society to be "Detective No. 27" and he's aided by Alfred (Detective No. 25), The Boy Commandos, Catwoman, The Crimson Avenger (Detective No. 26), and others. Wayne never becomes The Batman (although Uslan continually sets us up to expect otherwise) but he proves himself a capable crime fighter nonetheless.

The secret mastermind behind the plot is revealed in a shocking third act (I never saw it coming) but the story ends with Bruce embracing the ethos of "Carpe Nox" (seize the night), which hints that he may yet become The Batman. Studded with real life personages such as Sigmund Freud, FDR, Babe Ruth, Charles Darwin, and Gregor Mendel and with a brief appearance from Superman himself, DETECTIVE NO. 27 is the RAGTIME of comic book super-hero stories. Uslan knows both his American history and comic book lore and he deftly weaves this material into a gripping story that's full of action, humor and surprises. The art by Peter Snejbjerg is outstanding. It has a Will Eisneresque quality in some of the character's body language and facial expressions and it's clean, uncluttered storytelling at its' finest.

I don't know if DETECTIVE NO. 27 is still in print or not. I found my copy at Half Price Books. It's well worth the effort to track down and read. Recommended.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

GHOSTS OF KARNAK


GHOSTS OF KARNAK (2016) is the third novel in British sf author George Mann's GHOST series. The series began with GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN in 2010, followed by GHOSTS OF WAR in 2011. I've read them both and they're highly recommended.

The Ghost, for those of you who might have come in late, is a crime fighter operating in an alternate universe steam punk version of 1920s New York City. By day he's WWI veteran and wealthy socialite Gabriel Cross. By night, he prowls the rooftops of New York as The Ghost, armed with a wicked flechette shooter on his wrist, rockets on his legs, night vision goggles, a hat and a cloak. He's part Shadow, part Rocketeer and 100% pure pulp.

In KARNAK, The Ghost encounters a threat from the tombs of ancient Egypt. A series of brutal murders have the police baffled. They appear to be ritual slayings of some kind, centered around a cult of Thoth worshippers. Gabriel's girlfriend, Ginny, has gone missing since her trip to Egypt. The Reaper, a local crime lord and his small army of cyborg assassins, The Enforcers, are terrorizing the city. All of these narrative strands are of course, connected, but it's up to the Ghost and his allies to figure it all out in time to save the city from total destruction.

The Ghosts' teammates include police inspector Felix Donovan, detective Mullins, museum curator Arthur Wolfe, and modern day witch Astrid. And at the end of the story, there's a new super-powered player in town.

The action is swift and sure. The Ghost battles Enforcers, living statues, resurrected gods and sword-wielding cultists in set pieces that pulse with cinematic vigor. The Ghost would make a perfect comic book series, television show or film. There's a fourth adventure, THE GHOSTS OF EMPIRE, due later this year and you can bet I'll buy it.

GHOSTS OF KARNAK is an adrenaline fueled blast of giddy, pulp bliss. Highly recommended.

Oh, and don't get this KARNAK confused with this guy:









Wednesday, February 22, 2017

CARRIE


A woman bleeds while taking a shower. Butcher knives are plunged violently into female flesh to the accompaniment of shrieking violins. There's a crazy "mother" and a building with the name "Bates" on it. One of the characters is named "Norma".  Yep, this is Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) sure enough.

Except it isn't.

When I first saw Brian De Palma's CARRIE on first release in 1976 (at the old Americana Theater), I wasn't yet well versed enough in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock to recognize all of the many homages to the Master of Suspense that the film contains. Homages? Some might call them swipes or out-right thefts, a cinematic act of grave robbing in which a young tyro appropriated several tricks from the bag of a genius in order to add some style and substance to what was otherwise a fairly routine teen exploitation flick.

CARRIE wasn't De Palma's first film but it was certainly the one that put him on the map. De Palma's first film was MURDER A LA MOD in 1968. He had been working steadily since then but it wasn't until his first Hitchcock inspired thriller, SISTERS (1973), that critics and audiences began to take notice. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974),  a rock and roll version of The Phantom of the Opera never quite achieved the rarefied cult status of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), while OBSESSION (1976) was a vaguely disguised riff on Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1968). Following CARRIE, De Palma produced two other Hitchcock infused thrillers, DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984).

CARRIE was, however, the first film to be based on the works of horror writer Stephen King. CARRIE was King's first novel and while it had sold reasonably well, in 1976 King was certainly not the household name that he would later become. Combine two, young, up-and-coming and extremely talented artists and the result is a minor horror classic, one of the best of the 1970s.

CARRIE is the story of outsider Carrie White (Sissy Spacek in an Oscar nominated performance), who is constantly tormented by the worst bullies at Bates High School: the other girls in her gym class. The tormentors include Chris (Nancy Allen) and Norma (P.J. Stoles), while Sue (Amy Irving), is sympathetic towards Carrie's plight. When Carrie first menstruates in the shower in the title sequence of the film, it triggers horror and revulsion within the naive, innocent girl and something else. Her latent telekinetic powers come to the fore, powers that will ultimately spell doom for most of the faculty and students of Bates High.

Carrie is dominated at home by her overbearing mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie, in another Oscar nominated performance). Margaret, full to bursting with that old time religion, hates men and is determined to beat (literally) into Carrie's head the notion that sexuality of any kind equals the blackest sin imaginable.

At school, Sue and her boyfriend Tommy (Robert Redford look-alike William Katt), try to help Carrie out by having Tommy invite Carrie to the prom, a date which she eventually, reluctantly accepts. But Chris and her doofus boyfriend Billy (John Travolta), plot a plan to humiliate Carrie at the prom by fixing the voting for prom king and queen, insuring that Carrie and Tommy win and will stand underneath a precariously balanced bucket of fresh hog's blood, just waiting to drop upon poor Carrie. Drop it does, an event which triggers the maelstrom of terror that comprises the film's third act.

De Palma orchestrates the action with style to spare. His camera is constantly moving, prowling around library stacks and high school locker rooms, spinning around Tommy and Carrie as they dance at the prom. Several tracking shots start high and then slowly move into the desired objec of attention (similar to the magnificent crane shot in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946)). Cinematographer Mario Tosi shoots everything in a slightly hazy, gauzy, soft focus and Pino Donaggio's score is rife with references to the great Bernard Herrmann.

It's tempting to draw a parallel between Carrie and Jean Grey, the long-suffering super heroine Marvel Girl (at least, in her first iteration) in Marvel Comics' THE X-MEN. Both are red-headed teenagers with telekinetic powers. Both are feared by the "real" world. But Jean was fortunate enough to have the guidance and mentor ship provided by Professor Charles Xavier, allowing her to find a home among other misunderstood teen-age mutants. Carrie, on the other hand, had no guidance. Her mother was a monster consumed with hatred and fear, emotions that lead to the ultimate destruction of both women.

CARRIE was one of the few American horror films to receive Academy Award nominations for acting. Neither Spacek nor Laurie won but they both do superlative work here. A sequel THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 was released in 1999 while a television version of CARRIE was produced in 2002. In 2013, another cinematic version of CARRIE was released while CARRIE, the play, debuted Off-Broadway in 2006.

Forget 'em all and stick with the original, the first and best version of the material. The shock ending still packs a jolt and the rest of the film is skillfully and earnestly produced. Recommended.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN


ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948) is a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Produced at Warner Brothers, the studio where Flynn made so many great films, DON JUAN is a rollicking, slightly tongue-in-cheek costumer which finds Flynn playing the legendary Spanish lover, a rake who pursues lovely young women all across Europe. He's aided in his escapades by stalwart companion Leporello (long time Flynn co-star and real life friend Alan Hale).

The action begins in England where Don Juan is mistaken as the Spanish suitor to a British princess. He and Leporello escape (using recycled footage from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)) and, armed with a letter of recommendation from Count de Polan (Robert Warwick), they return to Spain to serve in the court of Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors).

Don Juan finds his true love in the form of the lovely queen but there's intrigue and menace afoot as Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas, in a Loki-esque look and performance), plots against the queen and her ineffectual husband, King Phillip III (Romney Brent). The Duke is aided by several henchmen, among them a young Raymond Burr as Captain Alvarez.

Don Juan faces many obstacles in exposing and overcoming the Duke's nefarious schemes and the narrative climaxes with a rousing sword fight between Don Juan and the Duke on an enormous staircase set.

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN doesn't reach the heights of Flynn's greatest film, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, but it's a marvelously entertaining film nonetheless. The Technicolor cinematography by Elwood Bredell, drenches the screen in vivid hues, toned down only slightly from the first eye-popping three-strip Technicolor of earlier years. Legendary composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who scored ROBIN HOOD), was originally set to provide the music here but he retired from film scoring by the time the film went into production and was replaced by Max Steiner, who delivers a terrific score. The costumes and sets are gorgeous and the performances are all good. Director Vincent Sherman keeps things moving at a good clip and Flynn hadn't yet started his long, slow slide into dissolution and debauchery that ultimately sank his career. He's not at the top of his form but he still delivers the goods.

If you're looking for accurate history, go read a book. If you want an exciting, funny and beautiful to look at, old fashioned swashbuckler starring one of the greatest action heroes of the cinema, check out ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Recommended.


NOCHE ROJA


Vertigo, DC Comics' edgier, "alt/indie" imprint, launched an ambitious albeit short-lived publishing experiment in 2009 with the debut of Vertigo Crime, a series of original black and white noir crime graphic novels, pitched at an adult readership. There were 13 books published from 2009 to 2011. I read my first one the other day.

NOCHE ROJA (RED NIGHT) by Simon Oliver and Jason Latour is a tale of crime and corruption along the United States/Mexico border. Young girls are being raped and murdered and Jack Cohen, an ex-cop (with a dark past) turned private detective, starts an investigation at the behest of a social worker. The victims are all workers at local maquiladoras but what's the real connection?

With plenty of plot twists and turns, a surfeit of sex and violence NOCHE ROJA is definitely not for kids. I give Oliver's story three stars but my biggest problem with this work is the artwork by Jason Latour. Latour's style is heavily influenced by manga (have I mentioned lately how much I hate manga?). It's cartoony, loose and sketchy. As if that wasn't bad enough, the pages are drenched in black ink. It's like Latour channeled the ghost of Vince Colletta's ink pot and spilled every drop on his drawing board. Yes, noir means black but come on guys, don't take it quite so literally. There are panels and pages in which it's impossible to tell what you're looking at because it's so damn black. A little light wouldn't have ruined the story because it's plenty dark to begin with. I'm not advocating complete sweetness and light, just a little more clarity please. Because of the constant murkiness, I have to give the artwork one and a half stars.

I don't know what the other entries in the Vertigo Crime series are like but as a big fan of noir crime fiction, I'm willing to give them a chance. After all, they can't all be this black, can they?



Monday, February 13, 2017

THE RANGER


THE RANGER (2011), is the second novel I've read in the last year by mystery/crime writer Ace Atkins. The first, WHITE SHADOW, was a historical crime novel set in Tampa, Florida in the 1950s and in it, Atkins did for Tampa what James Ellroy has done for Los Angeles in his own series of historical noirs. WHITE SHADOW is a first rate novel as is THE RANGER.

An Edgar Award Nominee, THE RANGER is the first book in the Quinn Colson series. Colson is an Army Ranger back home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Home is Tibbehah County, Mississippi. What brings Colson back is the death of his uncle, the county sheriff, who apparently took his own life. But things don't quite add up. There's evidence pointing to foul play and as Colson starts digging further into his family's past, he uncovers secrets that were better left hidden.

He's aided in his search by Deputy Sheriff Lillie Virgil. She's just about the only honest person in the whole damn county, one of the few people, along with the one-armed vet Boom, that Colson can count on as his quest uncovers a nest of corruption and vice that seems to have touched almost everyone in the county. There's a shady real estate deal, meth heads, white supremacists, crooked politicians, a twisted preacher, a lecherous old man, strippers, prostitutes ("lot lizards") at the local truck stop, the Memphis Mob, an old girl friend, and an innocent, pregnant teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd.

There's beau coup bloodshed and violence and Colson kicks some major ass before all is said and done. Some of the carnage is the result of firearms, some courtesy of a bow and arrow. The book ends on a perfect set up with Colson being asked to run for the suddenly vacant position of sheriff. Swiftly paced, with nary a wasted word, Atkins gets everything right: the landscape, the people, the dialect. There's a strong, vivid sense of place and all of the characters are well drawn, especially the bad guys, of which there are many. The action, when it comes, is brutal and nasty and Atkins doesn't pull any punches. The book reminded me strongly of Phil Karlson's classic '70s exploitation action film, WALKING TALL.

Quinn Colson is a tough as nails action hero out to clean up the New South. I'm definitely going along for the ride.


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING


When I was a kid, anytime I saw a reference to the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), I was confused. What crime could someone commit that would get them that many years in prison? No one could possibly live that long. And there was no way Sing Sing prison (in upstate New York) had been around that long. What gives?

What gives is cleverly explained during the title sequence of this crackerjack prison drama that I watched for the first time the other evening. The film opens with a montage of prisoners walking through the halls and yards of Sing Sing. Each man has a number super imposed upon his chest, a number signifying how long his sentence is. There are hundreds of men, each with a number, which if added up, would amount to 20,000 years.

Spencer Tracy stars as tough guy Tommy Connors who gets 30 years in prison for robbery and assault. He has a chance to escape but doesn't take it. When Tommy's girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis), is injured in an automobile accident, the liberal/progressive warden Paul Long (Arthur Byron), grants Tommy 24 hours to leave the prison to see Fay on the condition that he must return when his time is up.

Fay has been injured by one of Tommy's associates, a mobster named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern). Finn tries to finish Fay off but Tommy intervenes and the two fight. Fay shoots and kills Finn but Tommy takes the rap for her. He returns to prison where he's tried and convicted and sentenced to death. He goes to the electric chair knowing that he was ultimately a stand-up guy who kept his word to the warden who always treated him fairly.

20,000 YEARS is a rock solid template for almost every prison picture that followed. All of the genre tropes are here including a bravura escape attempt set piece that's well staged. At this stage in their respective careers, Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis had both yet to become SPENCER TRACY and BETTE DAVIS. They were not yet stars with well developed screen personas but they were both extremely capable actors able to play any role they were assigned. Tracy is very good as is Davis, who appears here during the fifteen minutes of her career when she was actually pretty. Joan Crawford had the same amount of time for onscreen beauty.

Kudos must go to screenwriters Courtney Terrett and Robert Lord who adapted the book by real-life prison warden Lewis E. Lawes. The script is tight and compact and moves swiftly during the 78 minutes of running time. The real standout here is director Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. His filmography is loaded with good to great films including such varied classics as DOCTOR X (1932), THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), CASABLANCA (1942), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954).

Highly recommended.