Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE BRIBE


THE BRIBE, produced at MGM in 1949, is a minor noir that takes place on the small Central America island of Carlota. Government agent Rigby (Robert Taylor, who would have made a good Ham in a '40s Doc Savage film), is dispatched by his boss, Gibbs (John Hoyt) to investigate a criminal ring that is selling World War II surplus airplane engines on the black market.

The gang is composed of sloppy drunk and ex-pilot Tug Hintten (John Hodiak), fat and greasy grifter J.J. Bealer (Charles Laughton) and the mastermind, the smooth and suave Carwood (Vincent Price, oozing menace from every pore). Standing between this unholy trio and Rigby is Hintten's night-club singer wife, Elizabeth (the gorgeous Ava Gardner). The gang tries to bribe Rigby to drop his investigation (hence the title), but Rigby stands firm, even though he's sorely tempted by the ravishing Elizabeth. Things come to a murderous head, climaxing in a well-staged shootout that takes place during a fireworks display.

There's nothing exceptional about THE BRIBE. The screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts from a short story by Frederick Nebel, there's a nice score by Miklos Rozsa and director Robert Z. Leonard, while no genre auteur, is competent. The real pleasure is watching a group of solid professionals do their stuff in front of the camera. Everything is given the slick polish and glossy shine (courtesy of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg) that MGM was famous for, even if it's all staged on a back lot. THE BRIBE is worth a look if you're a fan of noir or of any of the featured players.



Monday, August 14, 2017

WARRIORS OF MARS


As part of my ongoing summer reading quest to read as many mass market genre fiction paperbacks as possible before Labor Day, I ripped through WARRIORS OF MARS over the last couple of days.

Behind a great Gray Morrow cover, is a weak pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs' far better novel, A PRINCESS OF MARS (1912). And don't let that "Edward P. Bradbury" byline fool you. WARRIORS is the first of the "Kane of Old Mars" trilogy written by British science fiction writer Michael Moorcock under the Bradbury pseudonym. The other two books in the series are BLADES OF MARS and BARBARIANS OF MARS and all three novels were written in 1965.

Moorcock sets up his "Bradbury" persona as a real person at the beginning of the book, a person to whom Michael Kane tells his fantastic story of interplanetary adventure and romance. Kane, a 20th century physicist and Vietnam veteran, is the victim of a matter transmitter device experiment gone horribly wrong. Think THE FLY ( 1958), except Kane doesn't end up with a giant fly head. Instead, he's somehow transported through space and time to Mars as it was thousands of years ago. He finds civilizations there, along with various races, a beautiful princess, palace intrigue, war with the giant Blue Men, swordplay aplenty (Kane's prowess with swords is explained in the early part of the book when he relates to Bradbury that he underwent fencing training as a youth by a master French swordsman), flying ships, immense underground cities, mammoth snakes, betrayal, capture, rescue, capture, rescue.....yawn.

WARRIORS OF MARS crams a lot of plot and story into a fast paced 159 pages but it's nowhere near as detailed and rich as Burroughs' novel. Call it the "Cliff's Notes" version. It's not a bad yarn taken on its' own merits but it falls far short of the source material to which it must inevitably be compared.

I have a copy of the third book, BARBARIANS on my shelf. Don't know that I'll bother reading it any time soon. And I don't think I'll make the effort to track down a copy of BLADES. One of these is surely enough when there are a dozen better John Carter books out there. I suspect that even the weakest Carter book is better than this one. 

WHEN STRANGERS MARRY


WHEN STRANGERS MARRY (1944) (re-released as BETRAYED), is a low budget, routine thriller produced at Monogram Studios. With a running time of 67 minutes, it's an efficient little mystery movie with a solid cast.

Kim Hunter stars as Millie Baxter, a naive young small-town woman who marries the mysterious Paul Baxter (Dean Jagger), after only knowing him for a very short time. After their wedding, Paul leaves on a sales trip to New York City and then wires Millie to meet him there. Once in the big city, Millie runs into old flame Fred Graham (Robert Mitchum), who befriends her while waiting for Paul to arrive.

In the meantime, a murder has been committed and the evidence points towards Paul. Detective Lieutenant Blake (Neil (BATMAN) Hamilton), heads up the investigation and as the clues mount up, it seems more and more likely that Millie has married a killer. There's a third act plot twist and a very brief scene at the end of the film with future star Rhonda Fleming. All and all an utterly average little movie, made watchable by the talent in front of the camera.

But it's the talent behind the camera that's the most interesting thing about WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Before he became known as the master of "gimmick" horror films with MACABRE (1958), William Castle had already directed 41 films between 1943 and 1958, one of which was WHEN STRANGERS MARRY.  That's an impressive body of work, even if the majority of those films were low budget quickies like STRANGERS. But it was on films like this that Castle learned his craft and while he would never be considered a great director, he always delivered films that were watchable and entertaining.

There's a nice little scene in the film where Millie and Paul enter a rented, furnished apartment. There's a framed photograph of Castle on the mantle.

"Who's that?" asks Millie.

"I don't know," replies Paul. "It was here when I rented the place."

Nice touch Mr. Castle.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME


Like millions of other public school students of the last fifty years or so, I had to read Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game," at some point during my school days. In fact, this one is probably still on the required reading lists in some schools. If memory serves, I read it sometime while I was in junior high. Unlike most of the crap that we had to read, I loved this one. The story, in case you've missed it, concerns a man shipwrecked on a mysterious island where he is hunted as game by the madman who lives there. I loved it! It was a terrific adventure story, a page-turner of the highest order and a story that I re-read on my own several times over the years.

The film version, which I watched again yesterday for the first time in over ten years, is one of the greatest pulp adventure movies ever made. With a running time of 62 minutes, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932),  is a textbook example of economical storytelling, wasting no time in setting up the basic situation (there's not an ounce of fat or flab anywhere)  and then executing it with brilliant style and a headlong pace. The narrative moves like a bullet from start to finish taking both the characters in the film and the viewer on a wild, unforgettable ride of danger and excitement.

Joel McCrea stars as big game hunter and writer Bob Rainsford who is world-renowned for his hunting skills and abilities. The story opens with Rainsford and some of his hunting buddies aboard a ship that is lured into a dangerous channel by two buoy lights, lights that have been deliberately misplaced in order to wreck ships. The ship sinks, killing everyone except Bob who swims to a nearby island. There he discovers the castle of the mysterious Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Russian aristocrat with a couple of Cossack henchman, Ivan (Noble Johnson) and Tartar (Steve Clemente), to do his bidding.

Zaroff is also playing host to brother and sister Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray) Trowbridge. Martin is a loud-mouthed, good-hearted drunk, content to remain on the island and be wined and dined by Zaroff. But the fetching Eve knows that something is not right. Rainsford and Zaroff exchange dialogue about their respective philosophies of hunting and it becomes obvious that Zaroff has something sinister in mind for Rainsford.

Zaroff has decided that having hunted and killed almost every wild animal on the face of the earth, the only prey left that can give him a real challenge is man. He plans to set Rainsford and Eve loose into the jungle with a several hours head start and armed only with a knife, before he begins stalking them with a bow and arrow at first, and later, a rifle.

The hunt takes place on a series of magnificent sets, enhanced by several glass paintings. It's clearly not a real jungle or island but that's what makes this film work as marvelously as it does. It's a jungle that could exist only in the imagination, in a dream, in the pages of a cheap pulp magazine. Everything is brought to wonderful, vivid and thrilling life during the hunting sequence which climaxes with a fight to the death back at Zaroff's castle.

McCrea, with his torn shirts, is a ringer for Doc Savage and would have made a perfectly respectable Man of Bronze if a film version of that pulp hero had been made in the 1930s. In fact, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME served as inspiration to Savage scribe Lester Dent for the super-saga entitled THE FANTASTIC ISLAND (December 1935). Fay Wary is simply ravishing and Armstrong is full of bluff bravado. But it's Banks who steals the show as Zaroff. He seems to be channelling Bela Lugosi at times with his mad stares and posh evening dress. He constantly fingers a nasty scar on his forehead and eyes McCrea with a look of outright lust, passion and desire. Next to Ernest Thesiger's portrayal of Dr. Pretorious in James Whale's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), Zaroff ranks as one of the great gay villains of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Credit for the brilliance of MOST DANGEROUS GAME goes to two men: Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. If those names sound familiar, they're also the geniuses (along with Willis O'Brien), who produced KING KONG (1933) at RKO studios at the same time. While KONG was in production during the daytime, GAME was filmed at night on the standing KONG jungle sets. That's getting the most for your money. Armstrong and Wray of course, also co-starred in KONG and the immortal Max Steiner provided scores for both films.

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME has served as the basis for countless other films and television shows and it will continue to serve as inspiration for filmmakers and storytellers to come. But no one has ever done it nor will ever do it better than this original version.

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is quite simply a masterpiece.



Saturday, August 12, 2017

FIRE


Before Brian Michael Bendis started writing almost every title published by Marvel Comics, he turned out a two issue mini-series entitled FIRE. The material was revised and updated by Bendis for publication by ICON (a Marvel imprint) as a hardcover graphic novel in 2014.

FIRE deals with a disaffected college student, Ben, who is recruited by the C.I.A. for their clandestine operation Project: Fire. The goal is to create disposable agents, men and women with no family or friends, for the spy organization. These agents are trained and put into the field where they execute various assignments until they're no longer useful. When that happens, they are killed.

Ben is seduced by an attractive fellow agent and at first envisions himself as a junior grade James Bond in training. But he soon discovers the sheer boredom of spy work, the tedious waiting, the long periods of inactivity punctuated by sudden moments of extreme danger. When he decides he's had enough and decides to leave, he discovers that the agency is not about to let that happen. They own him body and soul.

Set in the 1980s with the Reagan administration and various international crises as background, FIRE is full to bursting with Bendis's endless dialogue. He's the Quentin Tarrantino of comic books with characters spouting page after page of dialogue with little or no action. It's not altogether bad as Bendis has a good ear but it does tend to get tiresome. Bendis also illustrated the story and his art is weak, with far too much black in some scenes making it impossible to tell exactly what's going on. In the end notes, Bendis states that he went back and tweaked and polished the art for publication in this hardcover volume. If this art is "improved", I'd sure hate to see the original. Oh, and who knew that Candice Bergen was a C.I.A. agent? Bendis relies heavily on the actresses' likeness for the main villain of the piece. None of the other characters appear to be based on real people so seeing Bergen among anonymous faces is a bit distracting and distancing.

As an early effort by a creator just beginning to stretch his narrative muscles, FIRE is not entirely bad, nor entirely good. There are more rough spots than smooth but Bendis demonstrates his unique style of story-telling that led him to be top dog at Marvel for a number of years.


Friday, August 11, 2017

THE DARKEST HOUR


"I told you sometimes there's a price to vengeance that no man can pay."

THE DARKEST HOUR (1955) is the third William P. McGivern crime novel I've read this summer after SHIELD FOR MURDER and THE BIG HEAT, both of which were first rate.

 This guy was good.

Damn good.

THE DARKEST HOUR is the story of Steve Retnick, a former big city detective who served five years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He was framed by Nick Amato, the corrupt union boss who's out to control as much of the city's docks as possible. When Retnick is released from prison, he can only focus on one thing: revenge.

Retnick is a soulless, single minded automaton, reminiscent of Parker in Donald Westlake's THE HUNTER. He only wants one thing and he'll stop at nothing to get it. Retnick is estranged from his beautiful nightclub singer wife, who remained steadfast and faithful while he was in prison and the relationships between Retnick and his fellow detectives are strained and fraught with tension. His only companion and source of comfort is a stray cat he takes in.

But the police can't touch Amato without evidence and Retnick, determined to see Amato burn, begins to use his older former partner to leak false information knowing it will get back to Amato. When it does, it sets off a chain of murders that Retnick is powerless to stop. When he went to prison, he was clean, having killed no one. Now, even though he didn't pull the triggers, there is an ocean of blood on Retnick's hands.

THE DARKEST HOUR is a brilliant slice of urban noir. McGivern populates his narrative with vivid characters, including worn out cops, desperate B girls, vicious hoods, and dead-eyed killers. There's a strong sense of a big city in the depths of winter, with snow, ice and biting cold rushing through the canyons of concrete and steel. Retnick, a huge, two-fisted engine of vengeance, wants desperately not to travel the path he's on. But there's no one else he can count on to see justice done and so, he must push on to the bitter, tragic end.

THE DARKEST HOUR would have made a great 1950s film noir. Hell, someone should buy the rights to this novel and film it in black and white today. But that's not likely to happen any time soon so let's enjoy what we have, a terrific hard boiled crime novel.

Highly recommended.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

THE SHADOW: CRIME, INSURED & THE GOLDEN VULTURE


In 2006, Anthony Tollin began an ambitious series of reprints of classic pulp hero magazines under the Nostalgia Ventures imprint. The series continues to this day, now published under the Sanctum Books label. These handsome trade paperbacks feature two vintage novels published in the dimensions of a pulp magazine and include both original covers, interior art and the old two-columns of type layout of the pulps. In addition to a painstakingly correct reproduction of the pulps (everything but the feel and smell of the paper), each volume contains well researched and well written background material by Tollin and Will Murray (and others) about the stories and their authors. All in all a superlative package of terrific pulp action.

I finished reading the first volume in The Shadow series last night. The book contains two classic, vintage Shadow adventures: CRIME, INSURED from July, 1937 and THE GOLDEN VULTURE, from July, 1938. writers. In CRIME, INSURED, a crooked insurance man begins selling "crime" insurance to various criminal gangs. The gangs pay a hefty premium and, should their criminal endeavor fail, the insurance company has to cover the claim and pay off big bucks. When several schemes are disrupted by The Shadow, forcing the insurance company to pay huge amounts to the crooks, the insurance man and his henchmen declare all-out war on The Shadow and his agents.

The bad guys succeed in capturing and holding half-a-dozen of The Shadow's best agents. The crooks also discover the location of The Shadow's secret sanctum and his true identity (at least, they think it's Lamont Cranston). The sanctum is blown up and it's up to The Shadow alone, without his agents or his headquarters, to go after the crooks and mete out his deadly vengeance.

CRIME, INSURED was written entirely by Walter B. Gibson and it's a solid Shadow adventure. THE GOLDEN VULTURE has a different pedigree. It was written by none other than Lester Dent, of DOC SAVAGE fame. Street and Smith asked Dent to write a Shadow novel as a try out of sorts. The editors had conceived of the idea of Doc Savage and they needed to find someone who could handle an original hero pulp novel a month before they launched the new character. Dent wrote GOLDEN VULTURE in 1932. The editor's liked what they read and assigned Dent to DOC SAVAGE. The manuscript for VULTURE sat unpublished for several years until Gibson gave it a polish in 1938, when it was finally published.

THE GOLDEN VULTURE finds The Shadow in Miami, investigating a series of suicides of wealthy men. The suicides look like murders orchestrated by the master villain The Golden Vulture. The Vulture communicates to his army of henchmen by means of small golden vulture statuettes (think Maltese Falcon), that contain both radio and television senders and receivers as well as explosives. There are also a couple of much larger Vulture statues, one underneath a ruined mansion in the Florida swamps, the other secreted aboard the gambling ship The Buccaneer.

Dent's fingerprints are all over this one as THE GOLDEN VULTURE features head long action and a furious pace throughout. The Shadow, Harry Vincent and Inspector Joe Cardona, face death by alligators, explosions, gun battles, death traps and more in a non-stop narrative of capture, escape, capture, escape, capture, escape,and final showdown. The identity of the Vulture is easy to guess but getting to the finale is one helluva lot of fun. The speaking vulture statues reminded me of the way the Black Tiger communicated to his men through a mechanical tiger head in THE SHADOW serial of 1940 starring Victor Jory.

Two classic Shadow novels in a beautifully produced and designed trade paperback is a winner winner chicken dinner in my book.

 Check these babies out at http://www.pulpcomingattractions.com/SanctumBooks/SanctumBooks.html!


Sunday, July 30, 2017

DOC SAVAGE: THE SPIDER'S WEB


Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge Doc Savage fan. So, when I ran across a copy of the trade paperback pictured above at Half Price Books yesterday for nine bucks, I popped on it.

THE SPIDER'S WEB by Chris Roberson and Cezar Razek is a solid enough super-saga that falls short of the best comic book version of Doc and way ahead of the worst Doc comics. The best, in my humble opinion, remains the black and white DOC SAVAGE magazine published by Marvel Comics back in the 1970s. The original, extra-long stories by Doug Moench, John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga, were all first rate adventures which perfectly captured the look and feel of the best Doc stories of the 1930s. The worst? Anyone remember that godawful FIRST WAVE atrocity that DC published a few years back? You know, the shared universe that was populated by Doc, Batman, the Spirit, Rima the Jungle Girl, Blackhawk and I forget who else. Boy, was that one a stinker.

SPIDER'S WEB covers a large chunk of Doc's crime fighting career with each of the five chapters focusing on a case set in a different decade up to present day. Each episode, while appearing to stand alone, ultimately ties together in the final chapter when the villain behind the years long plot is finally revealed. Yep, Doc's nemesis in this one is Stephen Hawking, or at least a character who looks remarkably like that famous genius.

Chris Roberson's story is good with the narrative being entirely told through dialogue. Whatever happened to caption boxes? I miss 'em. The art by Cezar Razek is, like so much art in so many other Dynamite comics, merely average. It's better than some I've seen in some Dynamite titles but it's not quite slick and polished enough to suit me. However, the storytelling is clear and easy to follow, which is a plus these days.

I'm keeping THE SPIDER'S WEB and putting it on the shelf alongside my other Doc material. It's not great but it is a serious treatment of the character giving Doc, Pat and his other aides the respect that they deserve.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON


Back in the late '70s, a tiny twin screen movie theater opened in Dobie Mall here in Austin. It was called, appropriately enough, the Dobie Theater. One theater was a long, narrow rectangle, the other a weird wedge-of-pie shaped room with a huge column in the middle of the seats. The Dobie ran art, foreign and independent films and, every now and then, older, classic films. It was at the Dobie that I first saw KING KONG (1933) on the big screen, EASY RIDER (1969) and MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). It was also where I saw THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) for the first and, until the other day, only time. I revisited this classic film while on vacation this week and found it to be the rousing, stirring adventure that I remembered but also a horrible example of American history Hollywood style.

Having recently read THE LAST STAND (2010) by Nathaniel Philbrick, the real story of George Armstrong Custer is fairly fresh in my mind. Anyone looking for historical accuracy in THEY DIED, needs to just move on along. There's nothing to see here kids. If you're truly interested in a very complex individual and a complicated series of battles that involved Custer and other American forces before the final battle at Little Big Horn, check out Philbrick's book. He's a terrific historian as well as a skilled wordsmith and I highly recommend not only THE LAST STAND but all of his other books as well.

However, if you're looking for an epic (140 minute running time) exercise in American myth-making, you should check out THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON. Errol Flynn (one of my favorite actors), brings the swashbuckling Custer to vivid life. His Custer swaggers across the screen and into the pages of history from his first days at West Point until his legendary "last stand". Along the way he falls in love with and marries the luminous Olivia de Havilland (THEY DIED was the eighth film Flynn and de Havilland made together). As Libbie Custer, de Havilland provides Custer with the steadfast support he needs throughout his military career. And you've got to love any film that features Warner Brothers stalwart Sidney Greenstreet as Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott.

Custer encounters Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) at West Point and the two become instant enemies. Sharp and his father (Walter Hampden), are the real villains of the piece, crossing paths with Custer throughout his career. The Sharps engineer a phony gold rush in the Black Hills, causing thousands of treasure hunters to flood into sacred Indian territory, land that Custer had promised to Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). It is this scheme which precipitates the final confrontation as Custer goes to his death a martyred, noble figure.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON is handsomely produced with several well staged action set pieces including the final battle (filmed in California, not in the Dakotas). Director Raoul Walsh keeps things moving at a crisp pace while Max Steiner provides a rousing score (you'll have "Garryowen" in your head for days after seeing the film). THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON was one of the top grossing films of 1941, grossing over $2 million dollars, making it the second biggest Warner Brothers film of that year.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON is a very entertaining film taken on its' own merits. Just don't come to it expecting to learn any real, accurate American history. You'll have to go to books for that.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT


It's hard to believe that THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) was director Nicholas Ray's first film. It's so assured and accomplished you'd think it was the work of a veteran filmmaker. Ray's masterful film noir took a twisted path to the screen and this masterpiece almost never saw the light of day.

Edward Anderson's novel, THIEVES LIKE US, was purchased by RKO in 1941 from an independent producer (who had bought the rights for $500) for $10,000. But no one knew what to do with it or how to develop the material about two young lovers on the run in Depression era rural America, until producer John Houseman found it. He thought it would be a perfect project for Nicholas Ray whom he had worked with in the theater. Houseman and Ray went to work on the material with several treatments being written but the top brass at RKO were reluctant to let a novice director handle the film. It wasn't until June, 1947 that production finally began. Production wrapped in October 1947 but RKO (specifically new studio owner Howard Hughes)  didn't know how to promote the film so, instead of releasing it domestically, it was sent overseas where it played in a single theater in the UK to enthusiastic reviews. The film underwent several title changes from THIEVES LIKE US to THE TWISTED ROAD, I'M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF and YOUR RED WAGON before finally being released in the United States in November 1949 as THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. It was a long and twisted journey but it was worth the wait.

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is the story of two young lovers Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell) who are forced to become fugitives because of Bowie's criminal career. The story starts when Bowie, imprisoned for killing a man, escapes from jail with two hardened convicts, the one-eyed and malevolent Chicamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen). The trio seeks refuge with Mobley (Will Wright) and his daughter, Keechie. While they hole up, they plot a bank robbery and Bowie and Keechie begin a tenuous relationship. The trio rob the bank and go their separate ways, each with a sizable amount of money. Bowie and Keechie set out on their own, eventually marrying but never able to permanently settle down. Bowie crosses paths again with Chicamaw and T-Dub with both men ending up dead. Bowie becomes a most wanted man and he and Keechie must keep constantly moving, living in fear of the next knock on the door. But while they're on the run, they develop a tender, albeit doomed relationship, taking some small measure of joy and warmth from each other in the short time they have together.

Ray masterfully orchestrates the action using several impressive helicopter shots (rare for the time). The bank robbery is shot with a hand held camera from within a moving vehicle which adds tension and excitement to the sequence. Bowie is regularly placed behind barriers that resemble prison bars (bed posts, lattice work on a billboard, broken windows, etc). Granger and O'Donnell (who were friends in real life), have a genuine chemistry with O'Donnell's understated beauty a nice contrast to Granger's traditional good looks. Da Silva and Flippen are excellent, both oozing hard boiled menace and the supporting cast is full of familiar faces including Will Wright (Ben Weaver on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and Ian Wolfe (from the STAR TREK episode ALL OUR YESTERDAYS).

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT's thematic concerns would be explored in several similar films over the years including GUN CRAZY (1950), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), BADLANDS (1973) and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). The film was remade by Robert Altman under it's original title, THIEVES LIKE US in 1974. While I haven't seen that one, I have seen the others and recommend all of them except for BADLANDS.

Nicholas Ray would go on to make such other film noir classics as IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), THE RACKET (1951), and ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952). His biggest film by far was REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), the film that made James Dean an icon. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is a first rate piece of film making by an important American director. Highest recommendation.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

DOCTOR TO THE STARS


DOCTOR TO THE STARS (1964) by Murray Leinster (pen name for Will F. Jenkins) is a collection of three novellas originally published in various science fiction magazines. The stories and original sources are THE GRANDFATHERS' WAR (from ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, October 1957), MED SHIP MAN (from GALAXY MAGAZINE October 1963) and TALLIEN THREE (under the title THE HATE DISEASE from ANALOG SCIENCE FACT/SCIENCE FICTION, August 1963). All three feature space doctor Calhoun and his alien companion, the lemur-like Murgatroyd. In each of these stories, Calhoun is sent to various planets on what are ostensibly routine medical visits. However, he encounters problems, mysteries and crises which Calhoun solves using his medical knowledge.

In THE GRANDFATHERS' WAR, a sun is determined to be nearing nova stage, prompting the people of the planet Phaedra to send their children to the planet Canis, which is far enough away to escape destruction from the soon to explode star. Trouble is, the sun has yet to explode and Phaedra keeps sending younger and younger children to Canis, where the youth have set up their own society and are refusing to allow the adults access to the planet. Calhoun must intervene to prevent an interplanetary war between the generations as well as save the malnourished youngest members of the Canis population.

MED SHIP MAN finds Calhoun on a planet curiously devoid of all human life. Cities still stand but there are no people and what's up with that weird pulsating sensation? When a space ship passenger arrives on the planet carrying a suitcase full of money, Calhoun discovers a land swindle scheme on a planetary scale, solves the mystery of the missing people and puts an end to the "cattle rustling" techniques of a crooked consortium.

TALLIEN THREE sends Calhoun to a planet where most of the population has been infected with a madness causing disease, leaving only a handful of unaffected people to fight off their "possessed" friends, families and neighbors. The disease is man-made, cooked up by a mad scientist determined to rule the planet. Calhoun, of course, puts a stop to the evil scheme.

All of these stories are fast paced and well presented. Not much background or character development is given to Calhoun other than the fact that he's an extremely capable physician. While I was reading the book, I couldn't help but think that these stories would have worked well in the pages of DC Comics' venerable science fiction comic books STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE (both edited by the legendary Julius Schwartz). I envisioned scripts by Gardner Fox and John Broome and artwork by Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, Sid Greene and Mike Sekowsky. DC could have turned this material into a "Space Doctor" series. Heck, why not? After all, they did have a "Space Cabby" series.

DOCTOR TO THE STARS is good, old-fashioned, problem solving sf. A nice way to pass the time on a hot summer afternoon.



Sunday, July 9, 2017

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS


The case can be made that WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956) has one of the best pedigrees of any film noir of the era. Calling the shots is veteran noir director Fritz Lang. The screenplay, by Casey Robinson (adapted from the book THE BLOODY SPUR by Charles Einstein), is loaded with cynicism and venom. But it's the cast that skyrockets this one into the stratosphere.

Dana Andrews. Rhonda Fleming. George Sanders. Howard Duff. Thomas Mitchell. Vincent Price. Ida Lupino. All of those performers are solid on their own. Put them in a standard drama and you've got a very good movie. Put them in a Fritz Lang film noir and you've got a masterpiece.

Imagine if Charles Foster Kane had lived until the mid-50s, built a multi-media empire and then died, leaving everything to a son. That's the situation here when Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of Kyne, Incorporated, a company consisting of a daily newspaper, a wire service, a photo service and a broadcast television network, all marked by a circle with the letter "K" within (props left over at RKO studios from CITIZEN KANE (1941)), dies early in the film. He leaves his company in the hands of his spoiled son, Walter (Vincent Price), a man who knows absolutely nothing about running the business. The elder Kyne also wanted his various companies to give full coverage to the so-called "Lipstick Killer", a serial killer terrorizing New York City, leaving a trail of dead women behind.

Walter realizes he needs help so he creates a contest of sorts, a competition between three different men and their respective departments. The winner, the one to crack the Lipstick Killer case, will be named executive assistant director of Kyne, Inc. This sets in motion a cutthroat race for scoops and extras, with nothing standing in the competitors way.

The players include newspaper editor Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), an old-fashioned newspaperman. Wire service boss Mark Loving (George Sanders) and his secretary Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) are the second faction. Loving recruits gossip columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) in his quest to win the job. Photo service boss Mark Kritzer (James Craig), is sleeping with Kyne's wife, Dorothy (the luscious Rhonda Fleming). Meanwhile, television commentator and former crime reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), sides with Griffith, while wooing Nancy and working with police detective Lt. Kaufman (Howard Duff) for inside information.

Got all that? Good, because those tangled relationships form the backdrop of a hard nosed, cynical story about how the media will stop at nothing to get a story. How far will the players go? Mobley is willing to use fiance Nancy as bait in a trap for the killer, a plan that almost results in the deaths of two women. And Mobley, a hard drinker (Dana Andrews playing a drunk, imagine that) and philanderer (he cheats on Nancy with Mildred), is the closest thing to a hero that this story has. At least he gains a measure of redemption at the end of the film but so what? He's far from a noble, honorable man.

But he's a prince in comparison to his avaricious co-workers. While the killer (John Drew Barrymore), who is shown reading corrupting crime comic books, is intriguing, the real dark core of WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS lies within the newsrooms of Kyne, Inc. Men and women who will do anything to get ahead, to curry favor, to climb the corporate ladder, are the real "killers" here.

Looking at WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS from a 2017 perspective, the film seems remarkably prescient in it's depiction of a multi-media conglomerate and the need to be first with a story, the personal cost be damned.

Highly recommended.



SAIGON


Nick Carter was first brought to life as a pulp era private detective, smashing crime in the pages of his own pulp magazine. In 1964, in response to the then burgeoning spy craze in popular culture, Nick returned, courtesy of Award Books, in a series of original paperback adventures that lasted (under various publishers) until 1990.

 Nick Carter was now code named Killmaster, a super spy in the James Bond tradition. Carter traveled the world fighting evil and bedding beautiful women. None of the books feature an author byline but a variety of pulp wordsmiths contributed to the series. Although I am a huge fan of sixties spy material, I'd never read a Nick Carter book until just the other day when I tore through SAIGON.

The sixth entry in the newly revived series, SAIGON (1964), was written by veteran genre writer Michael Avallone. No plot recap is necessary here except to list the standard elements and genre tropes that are found within the books' 157 pages: Cold War intrigue, evil Communists, French Intelligence agents, Chinese spies, a coded message hidden in plain sight, an exotic locale, a beautiful woman held prisoner in her late husband's plantation home, drugs, sexy French-Vietnamese women, a trek through the jungle, a wild helicopter ride, gun battles and hand-to-hand combat to the death.

What's most interesting about SAIGON is Nick Carter himself. As written by Avallone, Carter is an amalgamation of other pulp heroes. He's an agent of a super secret spy organization named AXE. His boss is a man code named "Hawk". Carter is described as tall and bronzed with piercing grey eyes. Tall and bronze? Hmmm. He also practices fifteen minutes of yoga on a daily basis. What, no two hour mental and physical workout? Wimp.

Carter uses a variety of weapons and gadgets including his trusty Luger, named "Wilhelmina" and a knife named "Hugo". This directly recalls Richard Benson, the pulp hero known as The Avenger and his weapons "Mike" (gun) and "Ike" (knife). Nick also has a small, fingertip mounted poison dart named "Fang" that is remarkably similar to a device used by Doc Savage. Carter gets his orders from "Hawk" via a self-destructing cassette tape player. Shades of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE!

If you're looking for well developed characters and a tightly plotted thriller, keep moving. There's nothing to see here. If you're in the mood for a slice of 1960s spy melodrama that's long on action and sex (although not graphic or explicit), SAIGON fits the bill.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

THE WINDOW


Based on a short story ("The Boy Cried Murder") by noir master Cornell Woolrich, THE WINDOW (1949) is a first rate little thriller that gives a gritty, urban spin to the classic "boy who cried wolf" narrative. Produced at RKO on a budget of $210,000, THE WINDOW is a tightly constructed, extremely efficient minor film noir.

Young Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is an only child living in a run down apartment house in New York's Lower East Side. He's given to wild flights of fancy, a storytelling habit that gets him into trouble with his harried and weary parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). One hot night, Bobby sleeps on the fire escape outside of his bedroom window. Seeking cooler air, he moves up a flight and beds down outside the window of the apartment belonging to the Kellersons (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman). Through a barely open window, Tommy sees the couple murder an unknown man. He tells his parents the next morning and they, of course, don't believe him.Neither do the police even though they dispatch a detective to check out the Kellersons. Eventually, Tommy's parents make him apologize to the Kellersons, which places him in dire jeopardy. When Tommy's left alone in the apartment one night, the Kellersons make their move against him, plotting to kill Tommy and make it look like an accident.

Tommy, as plaedy by Driscoll (borrowed from the Walt Disney studio where he was under contract), is a plucky, resourceful kid who, although scared, never completely gives in to his fear. Paul Stewart (looking like the love child of Boris Karloff and a young Jack Kirby), makes a good villain.  He later played a gangster in Robert Aldrich's film noir masterpiece KISS ME DEADLY (1955). The screenplay, by Mel Dinelli, never fully explains who the Kellerson's victim is or why they killed him (was this a one time thing or have they killed before?). The on location cinematography by Robert De Grasse and William O.Steiner, adds wonderful atmosphere and a strong sense of place. Director Ted Tetzlaff, who shot Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946), orchestrates the action smoothly and effectively.

THE WINDOW was remade three times: THE BOY CRIED MURDER (1966), EYEWITNESS (1970) and CLOAK & DAGGER (1984) and prefigures the science fiction classic INVADERS FROM MARS (1953), in which no one believes a boy's story about alien invaders.

THE WINDOW is a gripping, well orchestrated exercise in suspense. Recommended.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

WITNESS TO MURDER


WITNESS TO MURDER, was released in 1954, just a couple of months prior to the release of Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW. The films share a similar theme, an innocent person who accidentally witnesses a murder, but it's the Hitchcock version that stands as a masterpiece while WITNESS is merely a so-so suspense film.

Although the film itself is routine, there are two things that stand out about WITNESS TO MURDER. The first is the brilliant black and white cinematography by John Alton. Alton was a master of light and dark, of shadows and atmosphere and his work here is a pleasure to watch. The second thing that's great about WITNESS is the performance by George Sanders as a murderous ex-Nazi. Sanders, one of my favorite actors, is always a treat to watch and he's at his silkiest, most urbanely evil best here.

Interior designer Cheryl Draper (Barbara Stanwyck) witnesses a murder in an apartment house across from hers one night. She sees Albert Richter  (Sanders), kill a young woman. Cheryl immediately calls the police, who send two detectives, Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill) and Sgt. Eddie Vincent (Jesse (Maytag repairman) White) to investigate. Of course, Richter has covered up all evidence of a crime and the cops tell Cheryl she dreamt the whole thing.

Cheryl know otherwise and continues to investigate on her own. Richter counter attacks through a series of clever moves, all of which are designed to "gaslight" Cheryl and cause her to doubt her own sanity.

She's eventually placed into a mental ward by the police which raises a big red flag in the narrative. Without the presence of an attorney or a medical expert of any kind, Richter, Lt. Mathews and police Captain Donnelly (Harry Shannon), just up and commit Cheryl to a psych ward. What about due process? A hearing of some kind before a judge? The men think this woman is crazy so off she goes to the loony bin? I know it's all part of the plot of a routine thriller but the whole sequence struck me as odd and outlandish.

Cheryl is eventually released but her sanity is now firmly in doubt. Richter confesses his crime to her because he knows that now that she's "crazy", no one will believe her. He plots to kill her and make it look like a suicide which leads to the thrilling climax which involves a race to the top of an under construction skyscraper (although the chase takes place at night, all exterior shots of the building are in daylight), a race which prefigures a similar climax in Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958). A furious fight ensues, Richter falls to his death and Cheryl and Lt. Mathews embrace. Yeah, sure, like she can be in love with the guy who sent her to the nut house.

WITNESS TO MURDER was written by Chester Erskine and Nunnally Johnson and directed by Roy Rowland. The direction is solid but it's that pesky script that I have problems with. On a fun note, a young Claude Akins appears in a brief scene as a uniformed police officer while Dick Elliott (who played Mayor Pike on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW), has a small part as an apartment building manager.

WITNESS TO MURDER recalls SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948), another Stanwyck film involving a woman stumbling into a murder and while WITNESS is a nice little time killer, it suffers in comparison REAR WINDOW. It's a case of two remarkably similar films being released too close to one another.

SHIELD FOR MURDER


For my reading project this summer, I've been reading various genre fiction mass market paperbacks that I've had on my shelves for years. Mysteries, crime novels, spy thrillers, science fiction anthologies and novels, etc. I'm trying to make a little bit of space (which will just get taken up by more books!) as well as read some authors that I'm not familiar with.

One of those authors is William P. McGivern, who wrote both hard boiled crime fiction and science fiction novels. He later turned to television, writing for such shows as BEN CASEY, ADAM-12 and KOJAK. McGivern's most famous book, THE BIG HEAT (1953) was made into the film noir masterpiece that same year. Directed by Fritz Lang, this hard boiled classic stars Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin. McGivern wrote other crime novels that were made into films including ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (filmed in 1959) and ROGUE COP (filmed in 1954).

SHIELD FOR MURDER was written in 1951. The edition I read (pictured above) was published in 1988. It's got everything you need for a gritty hard boiled crime novel: a crooked cop, a gutsy reporter, a beautiful night club singer, a mob boss who employees two murderous goons, a fair amount of bloodshed and violence and a satisfying ending.

Barny Nolan is a bent Philadelphia detective, a crooked cop with anger issues. At the start of the novel, he ruthlessly guns down Dave Fiest, a two-bit punk gambler who just happens to be carrying a huge sum of cash, money that is owed to crime kingpin Mike Espizito. Nolan claims he shot Fiest when he resisted arrest and that story stands. For awhile.

Nolan needs the money to pay for the good life he wants to provide to night club singer Linda Wade. Barny and Linda share a tenuous relationship with Barny feeling much more for the lovely young lady than she feels for him. Reporter Mark Brewster smells something fishy in the Fiest shooting and starts nosing around. He meets and falls for Linda and starts to put together the pieces of Nolan's strange behavior. Meanwhile, Espitizo sends out his enforcers, Hymie Solstein and Laddy O'Neil to recover his stolen money, a witness to the Fiest shooting surfaces and all hell breaks loose.

SHIELD FOR MURDER was filmed in 1954 with Edmond O'Brien starring as Barny Nolan. I have not seen the film but it's on my list. It will be interesting to see how the film version stacks up against the book because SHIELD FOR MURDER is a first rate crime novel. I can't wait to read more McGivern books. I have THE DARKEST HOUR on my shelf and a copy of THE BIG HEAT on its' way.

Recommended.


Monday, July 3, 2017

THE LOST CONTINENT


I have a vague memory of watching THE LOST CONTINENT (1968) on the CBS Late Movie one night when I was in high school back in the early '70s.  It wasn't the greatest Hammer movie I'd ever seen but it was definitely different. I enjoyed it at the time and hadn't seen it since until I watched it again yesterday.

THE LOST CONTINENT, based on the novel UNCHARTED SEAS by Dennis Wheatley, is one weird movie. It takes place in the Sargasso Sea area of the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Sargasso Sea has been used in popular fiction a few times that I'm aware of.

First in THE SARGASSO OGRE, a Doc Savage super-saga originally published in October 1933 and reprinted with a terrific James Bama cover by Bantam in July 1967.



And again in SUB-MARINER #16 published by Marvel Comics in August, 1969.


And who can forget the very first episode of the classic animated adventure series JONNY QUEST? THE MYSTERY OF THE LIZARD MEN, which aired September 18th, 1964, found Jonny, Hadji, Race Bannon, Dr. Quest and Bandit tackling a mystery set in the Sargasso Sea. 



THE LOST CONTINENT centers around a voyage from Africa to Venezuela by the tramp steamer Corita. Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) is a disgraced seaman carrying an illegal cargo of highly explosive phosphorous (don't get it wet!) along with a small group of passengers, all of whom are hiding some kind of secret. To add even more danger to the mix, they're sailing straight into the path of a hurricane.

In order to avoid the storm, the Captain orders the passengers and what's left of his mutinous crew to get into a lifeboat and abandon ship. This part of the story really serves no purpose other than to kill two characters because the lifeboat eventually circles back to the now becalmed Corita, which has become stuck in a vast area of man-eating seaweed.

That's right, killer seaweed. Oh, and there's a cyclopean, multi-tentacled beastie that attacks the ship, killing another character and badly injuring one of the female passengers, Unity Webster (the fetching Suzanna Leigh). The ship is pulled along by the seaweed to a graveyard of ancient ships in various states of decay. A young woman, Sarah (the incredibly busty Dana Gillespie), approaches the ship by walking across the seaweed using a combination of inflated shoes and balloons attached to her shoulders. Told you this was a weird movie.

Sarah is trying to escape the rulers of the lost continent, a small group of Spanish soldiers (descended from their original Inquisition era ancestors) who are ruled by a boy king, who is really a puppet of a hooded figure named The Sea Lawyer (Michael Ripper). Sarah and members of the crew are eventually captured by the Spanish and are about to be put to death when Captain Lansen and his men attack the Spanish galleon, free the prisoners and use canisters of phosphorus to blow everything up.

THE LOST CONTINENT has the raw materials for a rip-snorting pulp adventure film. In addition to the killer seaweed, there's one giant crab monster and one giant scorpion monster, both of which are fairly well realized given the limitations of the budget. But the production feels cramped (everything was shot in a studio), sluggishly paced and frankly, butt ugly to look at. The cinematography by Paul Beeson is faded and washed out throughout the entire film leaving me to wonder if this was a conscious artistic choice by the producers or if they just happened to have some old film stock in storage that was cheaper to use than buying new film. 

The so-called "lost continent" of the title is indeed lost in the sense that the main characters don't arrive there until the third act, but it's hardly a "continent". More like a rocky outcropping than a land mass but "The Lost Rocky Outcropping" on a marquee probably wouldn't sell many tickets. No explanation is ever given concerning the origin of the seaweed and the various monsters and the motivations of the mad Spanish folk aren't fully fleshed out. They don't appear to be a threat to the outside world at all. They only menace the people who have intruded into their bizarre little world.

There's a nice scene early in the film where a character is seen reading a paperback copy of the Wheatley novel upon which the screenplay (by director/producer Michael Carreras) is based. The women in the cast, Leigh, Gillespie and Hildegard Knef are all easy on the eyes and Porter does a good job as the veteran sea dog captain. 

But much of the dialogue sounds dubbed and the musical score, by Gerard Schurmann, with a title song by The Peddlers, is nothing short of godawful. Kudos to the production design and an "A" for effort to Hammer studios for trying something different. 

Call THE LOST CONTINENT a noble failure. 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

AREA 10


AREA 10 (2010), by Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee, is a black and white, original graphic novel published under the Vertigo Crime imprint. A serial killer is terrorizing New York City. His victims are found beheaded, leading the killer to be dubbed "Henry the Eighth". Investigating detective Adam Kamen has no leads in the killings until he's injured in an attack in which he's stabbed in the forehead with a screwdriver. He recovers from his injury but finds that his long dormant "third eye" has been activated, granting him the ability to "see" the future. Or at least possible futures.

The killings continue and Kamen, unable to sleep, finds himself haunted every waking hour by the case and the things he sees. The investigation takes him down some truly twisted paths involving the art of trepanation, the practice of drilling small holes in a person's skull in an effort to expand their consciousness.

The trail leads Kamen to a mad doctor conducting such experiments. The doctor is killed in a battle with Kamen and enough evidence is found to indicate that he was indeed Henry the Eighth. Case closed, right? But the killings continue and it looks more and more like Kamen himself may be a killer.

AREA 10 is a fast paced, gritty thriller that mixes the police procedural novel with a whiff of sf/horror. A final act between two people, one wielding a scalpel, the other a power drill, is appropriately gory and loaded with tension and suspense. Author Gage does a good job of  playing fair, showing us all of the clues we need to figure out what's really going on and Samnee's artwork is clean and expressive, moody where it needs to be and always delivering clear, straightforward storytelling.

You'll have to read the book to discover the meaning of the title but trust me, AREA 10 is a winner. Thumbs up.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

UP PERISCOPE


A wide screen format and sharp Technicolor cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie add immensely to UP PERISCOPE (1959). It's a fairly routine WWII film but it's handsomely mounted and a pleasure to look at. Some of the scenes during the third act of the film, which take place at night on a Japanese occupied island, could serve as cover art for the men's adventure magazines of that time. The colors are lush and vivid and the movie definitely looks better than it has to.

Edmond O'Brien is Commander Paul Stevenson, the skipper of the U.S. Submarine Barracuda. He's a strictly-by-the-book officer whose adherence to Navy regulations on a previous mission cost him the life of one sailor and the overall disenchantment of his crew. And what a crew it is! Alan (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND)  Hale Jr. is Lt. Pat Malone, Warren (THE WILD BUNCH) Oates is Seaman Kovacs, Edd (77 SUNSET STRIP) Byrnes is Pharmacist Mate Ash and Frank (MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL) Gifford is Ensign Cy Mount. Who wouldn't want to go to sea with these guys?

Commander Stevenson receives a new crewman, Lt. (JG) Kenneth M. Braden (James Garner). Braden is a Navy frogman/commando on a top secret mission. His job is to gain access to a Japanese held island where a communications base has been set up. He has to photograph a code book and get out quick. The book will be used by the Navy to break the Japanese code and send the enemy false information about upcoming attacks. It's a dangerous mission complicated by the fact that it's Braden's first and that Stevenson remains determined to go by the book, which means Braden could end up left behind if he doesn't complete his mission on time.

Capably mounted by veteran director Gordon (THEM! (1954)) Douglas, UP PERISCOPE is a good little WWII actioner. Nothing spectacular but solidly crafted and presented. Nice way to pass a summer afternoon.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

THE DON IS DEAD


Mario Puzo's THE GODFATHER, the bloody saga about the Corleone crime family, became an instant bestseller in 1969.  I bought it, read it and tired to imagine what the announced movie version of the film would look like. I figured it would have to be an "X" -rated film if it was to include all of the graphic sex and violence contained in the book. The film version, released in 1972, was a blockbuster, garnering ten Academy Award nominations (it won three). It was the largest grossing film of the year and has gone on to be recognized as an American classic, one of the finest films ever made.

Following upon the one-two knockout punch success of THE GODFATHER as both novel and film, publishers and movie studios were quick to scramble upon the organized crime bandwagon, churning out thinly disguised knockoffs of both Mario Puzo's pulp novel and Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic masterpiece. Dozens of books and films were released in a relatively short period of time along with several true crime books about the Mob.

THE DON IS DEAD (1972) by Nick Quarry, is one such book. I've had this one on my bookshelf for years and finally got around to reading it the other day. It's a GODFATHER clone/knock-off published by Fawcett Gold Medal. Fawcett also published THE GODFATHER, a fact that's blurbed on the cover which features a nice piece of art (artist unknown) and the same "Godfather" lettering font.

The death of Mafia boss Don Paolo Regalbuto creates a power vacuum in a city controlled by three crime families. The Don's son, Frank, isn't ready to take over the operation. Louis "The Accountant" Orlando is running Jimmy Bruno's outfit while his boss serves time in prison. Don Angelo DiMorra, an aging boss, wants to expand his empire but knows he has to move carefully. Finally, there's the Fargo gang, led by vicious brothers Vince and Tony. They're the wild card element in the escalating struggle for power. An uneasy truce is brokered by the Commission, a coalition of other Mafia families from around the country. But the peace is a tenuous one and before long a full scale gang war erupts in an orgy of violence which leaves only one man standing when all of the smoke clears.

THE DON IS DEAD lacks the character development, history and detail found in Puzo's novel, but it's a page turner that focuses on gun battles and other forms of murder and mayhem. Author Nick Quarry is a pseudonym for Marvin Albert, a prolific author who wrote dozens of novels including westerns, the Tony Rome series, the Stone Angel series (of which THE DON IS DEAD is the first), stand-alone crime thriller and movie novelizations. In addition to the Quarry byline, Albert wrote under the names Albert Conroy, Ian McAlister and Anthony Rome. By any name, Albert knows how to grab a reader from the start and keep you turning the pages.

It's no masterpiece but THE DON IS DEAD is a good, pulpy organized crime thriller. It's a great way to pass a long, hot summer vacation day. Thumbs up.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

THE FACE OF FU MANCHU


Dr. Fu Manchu, the original incarnation of the dreaded "yellow peril" was the creation of British author Sax Rohmer. Beginning in 1913 with the publication of THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU, Rohmer introduced the Oriental criminal mastermind  to the world in a series of thirteen novels that ended in 1959 with EMPEROR FU MANCHU. These books have all been reprinted and I have all but the first one in my collection. Other Fu Manchu novels have been written by various authors since then. In all of the Fu Manchu adventures, he is opposed by two stalwart heroes, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and Dr. Petrie. They are the Holmes and Watson to Manchu's Moriarty.

The novels proved extremely popular in both the United Kingdom and the United States and it wasn't long before Fu Manchu found his way to the big screen. The first cinematic version was in the 1923 British silent serial THE MYSTERY OF FU MANCHU. American studios jumped on to the Manchu bandwagon with THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU (1929), THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU (1930) and DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931), all of which featured non-Asian actor Warner Oland (who would go on to gain fame as Charlie Chan) as Fu Manchu.

The best Fu Manchu movie remains THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932). Produced by MGM, the film stars horror icon Boris Karloff as the evil doctor in a wonderful performance. He's aided by the lovely Fah Lo See (the incredibly sexy Myrna Loy), in his villainous schemes. The film is handsomely produced and it perfectly captures the visceral, giddy thrills of the best pulp fiction.

In 1956,Republic Pictures produced a thirteen episode syndicated television series, THE ADVENTURES OF FU MANCHU, starring Glen Gordon. I've seen a few of these. They're terrible.

One of the best uses of the character can be found in the pages of Marvel Comics MASTER OF KUNG FU, The comic book series ran from 1974 to 1983 and starred martial artist Shang Chi, who was also the son of Fu Manchu. The series started off slowly and rather unevenly but when writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy took over, the series soared. They played everything as if it was a James Bond film and produced some truly exciting and beautiful to look at, comics.

A series of Fu Manchu films were co-produced by Hallam Productions (UK) and Constantin Film (West Germany), beginning in 1965 with THE FACE OF FU MANCHU. I watched this one for the first time yesterday and I was profoundly disappointed.

The film stars yet another non-Asian actor as the title character. This time, it's the magnificent Christopher Lee who brings real menace to the screen and is far and away the best thing about the film. He's aided by the lovely Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) and a small army of rather ineffective dacoits (most of whom appear to be European rather than Chinese). The film starts on a promising note with the beheading of Fu Manchu in a Chinese prison. The execution is witnessed by Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green) but as soon as he returns home to London it becomes evident that the man under the executioner's sword was a look-alike and that the real Fu Manchu is alive and well and hatching another nefarious plot.

Green, a veteran British actor (he was Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963), among other roles) is a good choice to play Smith. He's full of brusque bravado and brings a real physical presence to the role.  But he's hampered by a script by Harry Alan Towers that is full of holes and stiff direction by Don Sharp.

The plot revolves around an attempt by Fu Manchu to gain a formula for a deadly toxin that can be produced from the seeds of a rare Tibetan flower. It has the makings of an entertaining, pulpy romp, but instead it plods along from one capture, escape and capture again until the final showdown in a Tibetan castle.

The script is a mess and there a couple of things that must be pointed out to demonstrate how sloppy this film is. Early on, Maria Muller (Karin Dor), the daughter of Professor Muller (Walter Rilla), the man who has the formula for the toxin, is menaced in her home. Someone tries to force their way into a room, an attempt that is rebuffed by Maria. While she struggles to hold the door against the unseen attacker, said attacker reaches in and places a piece of paper on a side table. The hand withdraws and returns with a large knife. The struggle intensifies until Carl Jannsen (Joachim Fuchsberger) arrives. They hear something in the laboratory and Carl goes to investigate. A fight between Smith and Jannsen ensues in which there's no attempt made to disguise the two stunt doubles. When the lights go on and explanations are made, the three leave the house. No mention is ever made of that piece of paper or the knife wielding attacker.

Later in the film, the heroes narrowly escape from Fu Manchu's lair under the river Thames. In one scene, they're in a dungeon like room. Next, they're on a boat on the Thames. They deduce that Fu Manchu must be headed to Tibet and presto chango, in the very next scene, they're sneaking into a Tibetan castle disguised as monks. Smith and Jannsen have brought gunpowder with them rather than flower seeds and they use the explosive material to blow up the castle (and presumably Fu Manchu and Lin Tang) at the end of the film.

But of course, Fu Manchu cheated death some how and returned in four more films from the same production companies, all of which starred Lee in the title role: THE BRIDES OF FU MANCHU (1966), THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU (1967), THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU (1968) and THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1969). Lee has gone on record stating that the series shouldn't have been made because none of the subsequent films were as good as the first one. The first one is terrible so I can only imagine how bad the others must be.

The film exposes the inherent problem in all of the Fu Manchu narratives. The equilibrium of good vs. evil must always be in balance. Smith and Petrie must always defeat whatever Fu Manchu's current plot is (after suffering numerous setbacks and obstacles) but they can never truly destroy the evil fiend once and for all. After all, Fu Manchu is, if not the hero, the title character of these stories and when you have a villain as a protagonist, he cannot ever fully succeed in his mad schemes. He's stopped time after time but he always keeps coming back with bigger and badder plots to rule the world. It's a repetitious formula than can go stale very quickly. But in the hands of a writer and director that truly understands what makes pulp fiction work, there's material there for a satisfying Saturday afternoon adventure film.

Sadly, THE FACE OF FU MANCHU isn't that film.


Monday, June 5, 2017

CLEOPATRA JONES



Beginning with SHAFT (1971), the 1970s gave rise to a cycle of unique sub-genre of films dubbed "blaxploitation". These films were generally low budget action/crime movies that featured mostly black actors and actresses as both heroes and villains. Marketed mostly to young, black urban audiences, the films also enjoyed success on the then still existent drive-in circuit.

Blaxploitation elements were a heavy influence in the first Roger Moore James Bond film, LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). There were even blaxploitation horror films such as BLACULA (1972) and BLACKENSTEIN (1973).  Some of the films, such as COFFY (1973) and FOXY BROWN (1974) featured female protagonists, as did CLEOPATRA JONES (1973).

The statuesque (6 feet 2 inches) Tamara Dobson stars as Cleopatra Jones, a federal agent who is depicted as a female James Bond. She's an expert martial artist who drives a souped up Corvette (with a personalized "CLEO" license plate) that comes with a small arsenal of hand guns hidden inside a door panel. What, no ejector seat? Cleopatra is focused on wiping out the international drug trade as shown in the opening sequence which finds her overseeing the destruction of a poppy crop in Turkey.

The action then moves to Los Angeles where we're introduced to the bizarre master criminal "Mommy" (Shelley Winters), the kingpin (queenpin?) of the LA drug cartel. Winters plays Mommy with an over-the-top flourish that recalls her turn as Ma Parker on the BATMAN TV show in 1966. She appears in a different wig and outfit in every scene, she's surrounded by feckless male thugs and a variety of comely young lasses, all of which are groped by Mommy.

Mommy orders a police raid on a drug recovery house run by Cleopatra's boyfriend, Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey). One of the cops in the raid is the legendary Bill McKinney, who played the hillbilly cornholer in DELIVERANCE (1972) and appeared in six Clint Eastwood films including THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976). Heroin is planted on an innocent young man and the pressure is on to shut down the facility once and for all. At the same time,a subordinate of Mommy's, Doodlebug Simpkins (Antonio Fargas, who played Huggy Bear on TV's STARSKY AND HUTCH), wants to set up his own criminal empire. He's aided by two goons and a white, effeminate man-servant.

Various attempts are made on Cleopatra's life, including a sniper attack and an ambush that leads to a well-staged car chase through the water drainage ditches of Los Angeles. There are gun battles, martial arts fights, and a nice musical number emceed by the one and only Don Cornelius (host of TV's SOUL TRAIN) before the big showdown in an automobile junk yard.

The script by Max Julien and Sheldon Keller is about as solid as a loaf of bread. There are long stretches of the film in which nothing that really advances the plot is happening. It's cinematic filler, shot on location around Los Angeles with crowds of curious on-lookers glimpsed in the backgrounds of several scenes.

But a coherent plot isn't the point of CLEOPATRA JONES. The focus here is Cleo herself, an empowered black woman who is far from a damsel in distress. She doesn't need a man to rescue her from danger. She's extremely competent and assured, a strong, independent woman who commands respect from the white police officers as well as the black youths undergoing treatment at the rehab house. This was a radical message to embed in a low-budget action movie aimed at inner city black audiences. Cleopatra Jones is a true hero in every sense of the word.

Cleo returned in CLEOPATRA JONES IN THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975). The blaxploitation cycle eventually ran it's course, eventually dying out in 1979. But while they were in their prime, blaxploitation films provided work to an entire generation of black actors and actresses, produced dozens of entertaining films and created some enduring cinematic icons.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK


I love Hammer horror films. I love Christopher Lee. He's one of my favorite actors. Therefore, I should love a Hammer horror film starring Christopher Lee, especially when it's one I've never seen. A new treasure to be explored and savored! Right?

Not so fast. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK (1966) is, by any one's standards, a rather lackluster Hammer film. Shot on a low budget, the film recycles sets from previous Hammer productions and although ostensibly set in pre-revolutionary Russia, makes no attempt whatsoever to accurately depict the time and place. Outside of character's names and some period costumes, everyone speaks with a British accent, the scale of the film is intimate and the one shot of a grand ball in the Tsar's palace is clearly recycled footage from some other film.

In addition, the screenplay by Anthony Hinds takes quite a while to really get going and when it does, the storyline is routine with Rasputin's powers and plans never quite fully explained while Don Sharp's direction is flat and dull.

With all of that working against the film, it's up to Christopher Lee to carry the weight and he does so admirably. Lee plays Rasputin as a cross between Dracula and Charles Manson, a "holy man" possessing the power to heal and to mesmerize people into doing his bidding. His healing power is demonstrated in the opening sequence of the film. He cures a woman ravaged by fever and then launches into a wild orgy of drink, dance and attempted rape. He's attacked by concerned citizens, slices off one man's hand and flees back to the monastery to repent of his sins. His credo is, if you're going to ask God for forgiveness, give him something really wicked to forgive.

Rasputin heads to St. Petersburg where he crosses paths with Sonia (Barbara Shelley), who is a lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina (Renee Asherson). He seduces Sonia and mesmerizes her into doing his bidding. Rasputin's goal is to get in good with the royal family and he succeeds. He's given a palatial home in which he sets up shop, ministering to the needs of various women. As his power and ambition grows, he hypnotizes Sonia into committing suicide and moves closer to the royal family. Sonia's brother, Peter (Dinsdale Landen) and Ivan (Francis Matthews), realize the threat Rasputin poses and plot to kill him.

But Rasputin proves hard to dispatch. Poison doesn't do the trick, but getting thrown out of a window does. The monster's dead. The movie's over.

It's never made clear if Rasputin possesses any supernatural powers or if he's just an incredibly powerful con-man and trickster. Since the film is loosely based on a real historical figure, it would be wrong to categorically state that Rasputin was indeed imbued with Satanic abilities. He was nevertheless, a ruthless schemer and plotter which Lee capably portrays.

The story of Rasputin provides material for a great film. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK, sadly, isn't that film. It's second tier Hammer fare redeemed by Lee's performance.


Saturday, June 3, 2017

IMPACT


I've had this one sitting on my bookshelf for who know how long. Finally decided to give it a read the other day. IMPACT, by Harry Olesker, was written in 1961. This edition was published by Dell in January 1965.

Stanley Gilborn, a New York City accountant, is a middle-aged man married to a much younger woman. Kitti, a former model, is Gilborn's "trophy wife" but the two seem to genuinely love each other. Gilborn returns to his apartment from work one day to find Kitti brutally murdered. Her death devastates him and suspicion (and circumstantial evidence) begins to point towards Lionel Black, an insurance salesman and Gilborn's much younger best friend.

But there are other suspects as well. Could Gilborn himself committed the crime? Black's needy wife Pat? Blanche, Gilborn's secretary who has been secretly in love with her boss for years? It's up to detective Joseph Conrad (I kid you not!) and his younger partner Johnny Rourke to sift through the evidence and statements and discover the truth.

Nothing spectacular here whatsoever but IMPACT is still a tightly written, efficiently constructed little murder mystery. Thumbs up.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE WASP WOMAN


"When the monster's dead, the movie's over."

Shot in five to six days with a budget of only $50,000, Roger Corman's 1959 monster movie, THE WASP WOMAN, is a classic example of what made the legendary genre auteur the king of the "B"'s. It's got an alliterative, attention grabbing title (working titles included THE BEE GIRL and INSECT WOMAN), and a bait-and-switch poster that promises far more than the film can possibly deliver. For one thing, the monster is not a gigantic wasp with a woman's head, it's a woman with a wasp's head (ala THE FLY (1958)).

The opening credits play against stock footage of a bee hive, not a wasps' nest. In fact, there's no depiction of a real wasp anywhere in the film's sixty-one minute running time (when WASP WOMAN was sold to television in the 1960s, a prologue featuring Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark) was shot by Jack Hill to pad out the running time to seventy-three minutes and allow for more commercials in a ninety minute block of programming).  Zinthrop has been conducting experiments with the jelly produced by queen wasps as a way to reverse the aging process in animals. He's ready to try out the serum on a human subject but he needs someone to act as an investor and a willing guinea pig.

He finds such a person in the form of Janice Starlin (Susan  Cabot), owner of a large cosmetics company. Sales of her products have taken a nose dive especially since cover-girl and spokesperson Janice has begun to show horrible signs of age (she's only forty!). Desperate to regain her lost beauty and rescue her company from financial ruin, Janice agrees to fund Zinthrop and let him inject her with his serum. After all, it worked on a guinea pig and a cat, what could possibly go wrong by shooting the juice into a human?

At first, nothing goes wrong. Janice is restored to her former stunning good looks (loose the glasses, re-arrange her hair and remove the "age" lines and voila!). But Zinthrop discovers that there are some serious side effects and, devastated by this knowledge, steps off a curb into the path of a truck, an accident which renders him temporarily comatose. With Zinthrop out of service, Janice breaks into the lab and shoots herself up with more of the serum. This is where things take a turn for the worse.

The junk causes her to grow a wasp-like head and black, fuzzy waspish hands (actually, furry mittens) and to develop a taste for human blood. That's right, she's a vampire wasp woman (hey, that would have made a great title!). Zinthrop recovers, and warns Janice to stop using the serum but it's too late, she's gone insane. Zinthrop and PR man Bill Lane (Fred Eisley), confront the monster in the lab where she's doused with acid and shoved out of a window. The end.

Despite it's non-scientific plot, WASP WOMAN is an effective little thriller competently staged and efficiently shot by Corman and cinematographer Harry Neumann. The jazzy score by Fred Katz works and the Corman stock company of actors hit their marks and say their lines with practiced aplomb. The sets are minimal but they're nicely dressed with mid-century goodies courtesy of art director Daniel Haller. There's not much room in Leo Gordon's script for a sub-plot but a budding relationship between Lane and Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris), provides some romance. Two secretaries, Carolyn Hughes and Lynn Cartwright, talk about seeing DR. CYCLOPS (1940) on the late show, while Corman himself appears in one scene as a doctor.

WASP WOMAN was the first movie Corman made under the auspices of his own production company, Filmgroup, and, not having someone else's money to play with, it's obvious that he makes every shot count. Released on a double bill with BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE, WASP WOMAN is exactly what you think it is: cheap, quick and entertaining.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SING ME A MURDER


Before there was Hard Case Crime, there was Black Lizard Books. Black Lizard was an imprint that specialized in reprinting out-of-print works of noir fiction by a variety of writers in mass market paperback format. Founded and overseen by writer/editor Barry Gifford in 1984, Black Lizard published more than ninety books between 1984 and 1990. In June 1990, the imprint was sold to Random House where it was merged with the preexisting Vintage Crime imprint to form Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. The reprints of vintage crime material continue, along with some contemporary works but this time the format is trade paperback.

Black Lizard featured novels by such genre stalwarts as Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Peter Rabe, Harry Whittington, Dan J. Marlowe, Charles Williams, Lionel White and Jim Thompson, among many others. I remember stumbling across a slew of Black Lizard paperbacks in a Half Price Books store sometime in the mid-'80s. I went nuts looking for every book I could find that had the Black Lizard logo on it. I bought as many of them as I could and in the years since, have managed to read many of them. I currently have 22 Black Lizard paperbacks on my bookshelves. I've been in the mood lately to sample some vintage crime fiction but rather than spend money for used copies or reprints on eBay or other websites, I decided I'd read some of the stuff I already had.

Which brings me to SING ME A MURDER, a 1961 murder mystery by Helen Nielsen. Nielsen also wrote DETOUR (not to be confused with the Edgar G. Ulmer film of the same name) as well as scripts for such television shows as PERRY MASON, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, ALCOA THEATRE and 87TH PRECINCT. She was one of the few women writers to sell stories to such male dominated crime magazines as MANHUNT, ACCUSED, HUNTED, PURSUIT and JUSTICE (among others), where she shared pages with Evan Hunter, Harry Whittington, John Jakes, and Gil Brewer. Nielsen was a whiz at plotting, a skill that is on clear display in SING.

Playwright Ty Leander is devastated by the death of his wife, the beautiful singer Julie San Martin. She met her end in a wildfire that consumed half of their Malibu Canyon home. When he learns about the death of Mary Brownlee, a look-a-like for Julie, he decides to attempt suicide in the same boarding house room where Brownlee was murdered by her jealous boyfriend. He doesn't really intend to kill himself but he feels he must atone in some way for the death of his wife. He declares to his attorney friend Cole Tyler that he intends to be charged with Brownlee's murder and take the place of the accused Mike Flanders (whom Tyler is defending). Got it?

Leander's bizarre actions at the beginning of the book are merely a ruse to get him involved in investigating the deaths of the women. He finds evidence that his wife may have been murdered at the same time it becomes clearer that Flanders is innocent. Who killed the two beauties? Among the suspects are lawyer Tyler, theatrical producer Marcus Anatole, set designer Alex Draeger (a woman) and moody young artist Dana Quist. Police detective Janus is also on the case which takes several surprising twists and turns before the killer is finally revealed.

SING ME A MURDER isn't noir or hard-boiled. It's a straightforward murder mystery with well drawn characters and a look into the goings-on in a mid-century artists' salon in Southern California. You have to pay close attention because Nielsen provides a lot of red herrings along with legitimate clues before the big reveal. Not the greatest murder mystery I've ever read but a perfectly fine way to spend a Memorial Day afternoon. Thumbs up to this one and any and all Black Lizard paperbacks you can find.