Monday, May 22, 2017

TRIPLE CROSS


TRIPLE CROSS (1966) was one of many films I recall seeing advertised when I was a kid. I identified it as something I wanted to see (WWII! Spies! Beautiful women!) but never did. I had an opportunity to view it yesterday afternoon thanks to TCM and frankly, it wasn't worth waiting fifty years for.

On paper, TRIPLE CROSS has a great pedigree. It was directed by Terence Young, the man who helmed three of the first four James Bond films: DR. NO (1962), FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) and THUNDERBALL (1965). Claudine Auger, a Bond girl from THUNDERBALL, appears in a small part as a member of the French resistance, while Bond villain Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER, 1964), plays a German colonel. There's even a Bond-style song over the end credits. And then there's Yul Brynner, as another German colonel. With his bald head and glass monocle, all he needs is sizable facial scar to be a dead ringer for Nick Fury's long time nemesis Baron Strucker.

Based on a true story, TRIPLE CROSS is the tale of Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer), a professional safe cracker and jewel thief operating in Great Britain at the outset of WWII. When he is captured and imprisoned on the German occupied island of Jersey, Chapman bargains with the German brass for his release by offering to work for them using his safe cracking skills and expertise with explosives. The Germans agree but remain suspicious. Chapman is put through rigorous training before being sent on his first mission. He's supposed to be parachuted into England but instead, lands in Germany as a test of his loyalty. He passes and is finally sent on his actual mission.

Once in England, he goes immediately to the authorities and meets with an unnamed British spy master (Trevor Howard). Chapman gives up all of his information on the Germans to the British and tells them he'll work as a double agent in return for a full pardon and cash. They agree and he's sent back to Germany.

Chapman is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the German army thanks to his successful completion of his first mission but things have changed. His main ally, Colonel Baron von Grunen (Brynner) has been sent to the Russian front and several SS officers are beginning to have serious doubts about Chapman's loyalty. He's prepped for another mission back to England but once the allies invade Normandy, the top brass know it's only a matter of time before Germany loses the war.
Chapman returns to England and sends phony info back to the Germans about where their V2 rockets are striking which helps hasten the end of the war. And the movie.

TRIPLE CROSS has all of the ingredients of a first rate spy thriller. Plummer makes a likeable rogue, the villains are colorful and the women (Auger and Romy Schneider as a German countess) are beautiful. But the screenplay by Rene Hardy and William Marchant is weak and episodic. The production seems slightly cheap and cut rate and the third act is rushed, with the movie coming to an abrupt end. There's no real action and very little genuine suspense. Of course, the filmmakers were dealing with real life, not fiction but I can't help but believe that with a little bit more time, effort and money, TRIPLE CROSS could have been an effective wartime thriller. As is, it's a mediocre relic of '60s WWII cinema.

There were far better WWII films produced in that decade and far worse. TRIPLE CROSS falls somewhere in the middle.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE BOSTON STRANGLER


In 1968, when I was twelve-years old, I developed an interest in the Boston Strangler serial killer murders of the early 1960s. Don't really know what it was about this case that sparked my interest but I do recall purchasing and reading the Signet paperback edition of Gerold Frank's bestselling book. It was the first true-crime book I can recall reading and, to be honest, the majority of the material was way above my head. I was way too young to fully process what I read and I was certainly too young to be allowed to see the 1968 film of the same name. But I did.

The film was released on October 16th, 1968 with the label "suggested for mature audiences." Had the film's release been delayed by less than a month, it would have most certainly earned an "R" rating under the newly minted Motion Picture Rating System which went into effect on November 1st of that year with the initial ratings composed of "G", "M", "R" and "X". In fact, the DVD edition of the film that I have now bears the "R" rating. Had the film been rated "R" at the time, my buddy Steve Cook and I would not been allowed admission without a parent or adult guardian. But we were on our own and our money was green at the box office of Austin's Paramount Theatre.

I watched the film yesterday for the first time since that long ago 1968 viewing. It's an extremely compelling film, told in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward approach by screenwriter Edward Anhalt (working from Frank's book) and director Richard Fleischer (who also helmed  THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973), among many others). Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline use split/screen and multiple small images all in the same frame to great effect throughout the film. The exteriors were shot on location in Boston and surrounding areas while interiors were filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios.

Tony Curtis, playing against type, stars as Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler. It was a brave move for Curtis, who by this point in his career was relegated to romantic comedies, to portray one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.  To make things even more daring, Curtis doesn't even appear onscreen until halfway through the film's 116 minute running time.

John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is the head of the "Strangler Bureau", a combined strike force of various law enforcement agencies tasked with finding the killer. He's aided by Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) and Sgt. Frank McAfee (Murray Hamilton), among others. The investigation leads them into various blind alleys which uncover the seamy and seedy underbelly of Boston. Caught in the dragnet are peeping toms, obscene phone callers, foot fetishists, bottom pinchers, wife beaters and other kooks and weirdos. Boston's underground gay scene is included, in a scene I'm sure went entirely over my head in 1968.

DeSalvo is ultimately caught and his split personality eventually revealed in a series of interrogations by Bottomly. De Salvo was never indicted or convicted for the murders but was incarcerated on rape charges. He died in prison in 1973.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER is a daring piece of film making, using cutting edge visuals and a bold act of counter casting with Curtis in the lead. It's grim, frank and disturbing but never exploitative nor sensationalistic and is definitely worth seeing.


THE BOTTOMS


Joe R. Lansdale is a born and bred Texas writer (from Nagadoches), who's been around for quite some time. He's written horror, dark fantasy, crime, mystery, westerns, pulp adventures and comic books. I read a couple of his books years ago but he's always been one of those guys that I was aware of and wanted to check out but somehow just never got around to. I saw him at a recent one day book festival and, having just purchased a used copy of THE BOTTOMS, decided that now was as good a time as any to sample some of his more recent work.

Boy, can this guy write. THE BOTTOMS, his 2001 Edgar Award winning novel is one hell of a ride. Comparisons to Harper Lee's immortal masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are inevitable but let's call THE BOTTOMS, MOCKINGBIRD noir. Set in a small town in East Texas during the Depression of the 1930s, the story is narrated by a young boy, Harry. His father is both the local barber and constable and he has plenty on his hands when Harry and his little sister Tom (Thomasina), discover the mutilated body of a black prostitute in the woods. The crime is the handiwork of a serial killer who is stalking the bottom lands and it's ultimately up to Harry and Tom to solve the mystery of the killer's identity and bring an end to the killings.

Dark and complex, THE BOTTOMS spins a tale of race relations, hidden secrets, twisted desires, a loss of innocence and unbreakable ties of familial love. Harry and his family, along with other characters in the book, go through plenty of dark patches before the end and the book is definitely not for children or the faint hearted. But Lansdale brings this lost time and place to vivid life, peoples it with well drawn, sympathetic characters and ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.

I must confessed that I figured out the identity of the killer about halfway through the book but that didn't keep me from racing through the pages, praying desperately that Harry and Tom would survive the ordeal of both the killer and the mysterious, shadowy figure known as The Goat Man who haunts the woods. THE BOTTOMS is a crackerjack piece of storytelling and is one of the best books I've read this year.

I've already started my next Lansdale book, SAVAGE SEASON, the first in his long running Hap and Leonard series.

Highly recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

IDIOCRACY


"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Writer/Director Mike Judge swings at and hits a lot of low hanging fruit in his 2006 science-fiction comedy IDIOCRACY. The premise is a rift on the old Rip Van Winkle plot device (see also Woody Allen's brilliant SLEEPER (1973)), in which a person from the present day is put into hibernation only to awaken years later into a brave new world.

The sleepers here are Army Corporal Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and hooker Rita (Maya Rudolph) who are subjects of a military experiment designed to put the two to sleep for only one year. But things, of course, go wrong and the pair are revived 500 years later in an America dominated by dumb asses.

Joe, or Not Sure, as the idiots name him, is, despite his strictly average intelligence, a genius to the stunted mouth-breathers he finds himself surrounded by. Through a series of trial and errors, Joe eventually saves the morons from their own stupidity and becomes President of the United States.

The gags are rapid fire and plentiful. Advertising covers every available surface. Water has been replaced by "Brawndo", a Gatorade-like sports drink that has "electrolytes". The most popular film is ASS, a 90 minute shot of a person's butt. The favorite television program is OH, MY BALLS! a JACKASS like laugh riot in which a hapless stooge's balls are continuously under attack.

To add to the insanity, the president is former wrestling star Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), who presides over a cabinet of knuckle-walkers. Gee who would have ever thought we'd have a stupid celebrity president and a bunch of idiots (Ben Carson, Rick Perry) as cabinet members?

The special effects range from acceptable to dodgy and there are a couple of scenes filmed in Austin at the convention center and the Seaholm power plant. IDIOCRACY was barely released theatrically by 20th Century Fox, making less than $500K at the box office. It has since gone on to achieve cult status and deservedly so. It is a genuinely funny film that hits a target that we don't have to wait 500 years to see come true. The stupid people are already here and their numbers are legion.

Thanks to our friend Holly Hepp Galvan for the recommendation. Thumbs up.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

FRANKENSTEIN 1970


FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958) was, like so many other mid-century science fiction/horror films, a movie I first encountered in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS.A Frankenstein movie starring Boris Karloff and set in the far distant year of 1970 sounded way cool. I never got around to seeing it when I was a kid but I watched it the other day and was profoundly disappointed.

For starters, the title is somewhat misleading because there's nothing in the film that even remotely tries to depict the then 12-years into the future world of 1970. It's a marketing gimmick, pure and simple. And although Karloff gives it his best, he's hampered by a sub par script by Richard H. Landau and George Worthington Yates (from a story by Aubrey Schenck and Charles A. Moses) and an extraordinarily weak cast of supporting players whose acting abilities range from passable to non-existent.

The story concerns a television film crew and cast who are shooting a "documentary" about the Frankenstein family and its' horrific legacy in Castle Frankenstein itself. Baron Victor Von Frankenstein (Karloff), is their gracious host but he's up to something in his hidden, underground laboratory. The scar-faced and limping Baron appears to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and he seeks to make a living creature with his own pre-war perfect features. This costs money of course (he desperately needs an atomic reactor) and he's willing to host the film crew in exchange for a fee. By the way, just where does one go to purchase an off-the-shelf atomic reactor?

Of course, things go wrong as various members of the Baron's staff and the film crew stumble across a giant, swathed-in bandages body in the basement and meet their untimely ends. It ends with the "monster" killing the Baron (didn't see that coming!) and the face of the monster revealed as Karloff''s own.

Shot in CinemaScope by Carl E. Guthrie, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is nonetheless visually unimaginative with director Howard W. Koch either afraid of or unwilling to use edits. He lets long scenes play out in single takes that seem to go on and on, the camera tracking across a borrowed set while actors spout their lines. It's all stagy and static. There's little to no atmosphere or suspense save in the "gotcha" opening scene where a woman is pursued through the nighttime forest by a monstrous beast.

Karloff is the only reason to watch this turkey, a lackluster piece of genre clap trap that trades heavily on the names of both Karloff and Frankenstein to garner an audience.  It's strictly low-budget, barely competent junk. Thumbs down.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS


HIGH ADVENTURE #47 reprints another classic issue of the vintage pulp magazine THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG. This time, the issue is from February, 1936. The story, THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS is by veteran pulp wordsmith Robert J. Hogan and the vivid cover painting is by Jerome Rozen.

In this page-turner of a thriller, the action takes place entirely in New York City and the twisted streets, alleys and underground passageways of Chinatown. Wu Fang is up to his old tricks again, killing prominent citizens left and right and leaving their poisoned corpses clutching a rare and exotic Black Lotus flower. It's up to the intrepid trio of G-Man Val Kildare, archeologist Rod Carson and newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard to solve the riddle and stop the murders before they escalate to an even larger scale of death and destruction.

The action, as usual is fast and furious with the climax taking place in Wu Fang's torture chamber where Hazard faces certain death when he is placed upon the stretching rack. But help is on the way and things come to an abrupt end with Wu Fang escaping to menace the world again on another day.

Part of the problem with building a pulp character series around a master villain is that he (or she), can't completely succeed in their wild schemes in each issue. If they did, they'd be rulers of the world. Instead, they must enjoy limited success in their plans before being foiled by the heroes which allows them return in the next issue for more murder, madness and mayhem. In BLACK LOTUS, Wu Fang doesn't even appear "on camera" until the final couple of chapters of the story, even though his presence is felt throughout the yarn. Kildare, Carson and Hazard are cardboard, one dimensional characters, interchangeable to a large degree and identified only by their respective job titles: government agent, archaeologist and newspaperman.  The abrupt ending may have been a result of author Hogan being on a strict deadline and word count. It's like he hit a certain number of pages and time's up! Please step away from the typewriter.

A rewrite could have cleaned up some dangling plot threads and made things hang together a bit better but, as I've said before, a polished manuscript would rob such stories as THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS of their vitality and headlong pace. You don't read something like this looking for shine, spit and polish. You read it to escape, to enter a world threatened by an evil genius where death and danger lie in wait around every corner.

Mission accomplished.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE DEATH GIVER


There were a total of 30 SHADOW pulp novels reprinted in paperback in the late '60s/early '70s. Following upon the success that Bantam books was enjoying with their ambitious reprints of the entire DOC SAVAGE series, The Shadow found a home at Bantam also at first, before moving to Pyramid which then morphed into Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, or Jove for short.

I have now read all 29 of those SHADOW paperbacks. Wait, weren't there 30? Yes but the first Shadow novel, THE LIVING SHADOW, was published by both Bantam and Pyramid. I have the Bantam edition and read that one first and didn't need to read it again when it was reissued later. But reading 29 SHADOW novels is just a drop in the bucket when you consider that there were a total of 325 Shadow adventures published. Needless to say, I have a very long way to go before I'm finished with The Shadow.

The book pictured above, THE DEATH GIVER, was the 30th Shadow thriller, first published in May 1933. It was the last reprint published by Jove in April 1978. The cover by Jim Steranko is, of course, magnificent but suffice it say, no scene even remotely like this appears in the story. As much as I love Steranko's work and his interpretation of this classic pulp hero, I think he kinda missed the boat on this one.

That's because there was stuff in THE DEATH GIVER that would have made a much more powerful cover, albeit, without the fetching redhead in the pink slip. Thade, the Death Giver, the title character, is a bonafide super villain. He's a disgraced weapons maker who, when the U.S. military declines to buy his wares, turns his devices upon the people of New York City in a reign of terror and death. Thade (real name Julius Olney), is a wizened little man who dresses in green robes emblazoned with a black skull and crossbones. He has a secret hideout somewhere in Manhattan, where he's guarded by two immense Nubian servants. From here he plots his schemes of murder and extortion.

Thade starts on a small scale, targeting random victims to disguise his real objectives, wealthy businessmen and their money. After several seemingly unrelated deaths in the first part of the book, crimes which baffle the police but not The Shadow, Thade and his thralls up the ante by unleashing a rain of poison gas on a ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan. The attack is thwarted by The Shadow which leads to a final showdown in Thade's den of evil.

THE DEATH GIVER is a first rate pulp thriller featuring a genuine costumed super villain with a secret identity, a hideout, henchmen, deadly devices and insane schemes of mass destruction. I would have loved to see Steranko's rendering of this madman on the cover of this book but alas, we'll have to make do with what we have which is still first rate.

Highly recommended for pulp fans and for those who are wondering what all of the fuss over these old stories is about. This one's a winner.


Friday, April 28, 2017

SHADOWS AND FOG


Once upon a time, I made it a point to go to the theater every year to see the latest Woody Allen film. Allen, love him or hate him, is one of the most prolific American filmmakers of all time. He's still cranking out one feature film a year and he's been doing so since the early 1970s. Some have been brilliant, some middling, others, meh. But he's in there pitching each and every year. Gotta give the guy credit for the sheer longevity of his career.

But somewhere along the way I stopped going to the theaters to see the latest Allen film. And it's not because I don't like Woody. He's one of my all time favorite directors. It's just that I quit going to see movies at the theater, period. So, there are several of his more recent films that I have yet to see.

I did, however, go to the theater back in 1991 to see SHADOWS AND FOG. I didn't remember much about it except that it was in black and white and somewhat disappointing. I watched it again the other day for the first time in 26 years and my initial impression was re-confirmed. It's a half-baked mess of a movie, bursting with terrific art direction, sets, costumes and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Carlo Di Palma. It has the usual terrific cast of stellar actors and actresses, some in virtually cameo appearances. It looks great, it just doesn't hold together. SHADOWS AND FOG is a film of so many different influences and homages that nothing ever really gels.

Allen stars as Kleinman, a nebbish who gets swept up into a vigilante committee out to find and stop a mysterious strangler that has been terrorizing the city. Kleinman has no idea what part he's supposed to play in all of this and wants no part of whatever is going on but he's caught up in the fever of mob justice. Then there's Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower at the traveling circus.She catches her clown husband, Paul (John Malkovich), with another woman (Madonna), which leads her to leave the circus and find refuge in a whore house populated by Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster. Kleinman and Irmy's paths eventually cross and they try to help each other out but there's that niggling problem of the strangler and various vigilante mobs that are still roaming the night streets. The situation is resolved by the intervention of circus magician Armstead (Kenneth Mars), who acts as a deus ex machina.

SHADOWS AND FOG is equal parts Franz Kafka, Fritz Lang's M (1931), classic Universal horror films (Donald Pleasence as a doctor would be right at home in a Frankenstein movie), swipes from the German Expressionism cinema of G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau and music (and more) from the works of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. In short, it's a mess of a film that tries to walk a balance between humor and horror, belly laughs and existential dread. While there are several very funny scenes in the film the overall effect is off-putting and frustrating.

Allen's reliance on magic, real magic, not stage magic, echoes material in some of his other films such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (1982), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990) and SCOOP (2006) all of which are better films than SHADOWS. Still, I give Allen credit for trying something different. SHADOWS AND FOG will go down as his German Expressionism film, just as INTERIORS (1978) was his Bergman film and STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was his Fellini movie.

A digression: I wish more contemporary filmmakers would make films in black and white. I love the look and feel of a classic black and white horror film and what would film noir be without b&w? Two of my dream projects would be to see a black and white BATMAN feature film set in the 1940s. Ditto a vintage SHADOW adventure set in the 1930s. The medium could really capture the spirit and vibe of these characters in the eras in which they originally flourished. It will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?

SHADOWS AND FOG is recommended only for those who are already Woody Allen fans. It would be really bothersome to anyone who is neutral or slightly negative about his work.


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.