Friday, December 1, 2017
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
I've got a stack of notes for films I've watched over the last few months, all of which I fully intended to write individual reviews for. But it's become increasingly apparent that that's not going to happen, especially now that I'm headed into an extremely busy time of the year, a period in which my writing time will most likely be severely curtailed. So in the interest of playing catch-up and clearing some of this material off of my desk, I'm going to try to provide short, capsule reviews of these films. We'll see how successful this is. I'll take the films in chronological order beginning with:
BARBARY COAST (1935), an early Howard Hawks film set in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. Miriam Hopkins is a gold-digging woman come west to marry a rich miner only to find out he's dead. With no prospective husband and in need of a means of support, she takes a job as a roulette wheel operator in the Bella Donna casino, a shady business run by crime boss Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson). Hopkins doesn't mind fleecing the customers until she meets straight-arrow prospector Joel McCrea. She falls in love with the too-good-to-be-true miner and the two decide to leave San Francisco. Trouble ensues. With Walter Brennan as a toothless coot named "Old Atrocity" and Brian Donlevy as Chamalis's main enforcer, BARBARY COAST is good, old-fashioned fun. Thumbs up.
CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY (1969), is a lackluster British science fiction/fantasy film. The best thing about this film is the design of Nemo's submarine, The Nautilus. Robert Ryan looks pained and strained in the role of Nemo (he's no James Mason), while Chuck Connors has little to do other than play a square jawed hero. Nemo's no villain, he only wants to be left alone in his city beneath the sea and he wants Connors and the other members of his party to remain with him rather than return to the surface and tell the world about Nemo and his city. Connors, a U.S. Senator is determined to return to the surface world. That's what passes for conflict in this slow moving sunken adventure. The film has the look and feel of an Irwin Allen production but without the bombast and giant undersea monsters. Connors was considered to play the part of Doc Savage in a proposed 1960s film, a project that never saw the light of day. His lovely co-star in CITY, Luciana Paluzzi, would have made a good Pat Savage. Or, better yet, some smart producer should have signed Connors and Paluzzi to play Aquaman and Mera in either a television series or movie. This proves how bad and boring CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY is because while I was watching it with part of my brain, another part was busy playing casting director for an imaginary project. Thumbs down.
More to come.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
At the beginning of John Cromwell's hard-hitting film noir THE RACKET (1951), we see a state-wide crime commission meeting with the governor of an unnamed state. The investigators on the commission are out to clean up a corrupt city (again, unnamed) and need subpoena power to do the job. The governor agrees and it's the last we'll see of two of the commission investigators, Les (SHAZAM!) Tremayne and Milburn (GUNSMOKE) Stone until the end of the film.
Cut to the city where tough but fair police captain Tom McQuigg (Robert Mitchum) has just been put in charge of one of the worst precincts in the city. McQuigg has two objectives: to run a tight, clean and by-the-book operation and to bring down psychotic gang boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). Scanlon has had the run of the town for years but now he has to answer to higher-ups for the first time in his career as "the syndicate" has moved into town, fronted by suave but vicious R.G. Connolly (Don Porter). There's also an alleged "Mr. Big" (who is never seen or heard), behind the scenes but it's left up to the viewer to determine if he really exists or if it's just an alias of the cold-blooded Connolly.
In order to solidify the mob's control of the town, they're backing a crooked candidate for judge, District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch (Ray (PERRY MASON) Collins). There's also a bent state cop, Detective Sergeant Turk (William (CANNON) Conrad), on the take.
McQuigg enlists the aid of straight-arrow beat cop Officer Bob Johnson (William (PERRY MASON) Talman), in his quest to destroy Scanlon. Caught in the crossfire are nightclub singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott) and young newspaper reporter Dave Ames (Robert Hutton). Things come to an explosive climax at the precinct station after which Tremayne and Stone show up with subpoenas for Collins and Conrad.
Based on a play (with Edward G. Robinson as Scanlon) and filmed previously in 1928, Cromwell's version of the material hews close to the original narrative while opening the action up for more dramatic impact, The screenplay by William Wister Haines and W. R. Burnett, tosses in a house bombing, a rooftop fight to the death between McQuigg and a trigger-man, a chase between a locomotive and a car and other bits of mayhem and violence to liven things up. There's still a lot of scenes of characters just standing around and talking but with a cast and material like this, you're never bored.
Tough, two-fisted and unflinching, THE RACKET is a first rate film noir. Recommended.
Friday, November 17, 2017
Knowing my fondness for pulp fiction, my buddy Dennis gave me this copy of Fredric Brown's THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT recently. I'm familiar with Brown as both a science fiction and mystery writer and I have several of his books on my shelves but CLIPJOINT is the first of his books that I've read. And it's a good one.
Published in 1947, THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT won the Edgar Award for Outstanding First Mystery Novel. The story centers on young Ed Hunter, a teenager in Chicago. When his father is killed in a dark alleyway late one night, young Ed sets out to catch the killer. He's aided by his Uncle Ambrose, "Am" as he's called, his father's brother who is currently a carney worker. Ed and Am make a good pair of amateur detectives as they explore the seedy underbelly of the city. They discover secrets about Wally Hunter that neither knew, cross paths with murderous gangsters, solve the mystery and hop a train together at the end of the novel for parts unknown.
Ed is the narrator of the story and CLIPJOINT often reads like a crime story told by Holden Caulfield. It's part coming-of-age novel, part mystery thriller. Ed and Am meet boozers, bartenders, a crooked cop, a nympho step-sister, a cougarish femme fatale, and other assorted and colorful characters along the way to solving the mystery.
THE FABULOUS CLIPJOINT moves at (you'll pardon the expression) a good clip and Brown knew how to make a reader keep turning the pages. He wrote other Ed and Am mysteries over the course of his career and if they're all as good as CLIPJOINT, I've got some book hunting to do.
Friday, November 10, 2017
It's not every night that you get to watch a movie starring Zorro, Superman, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Batman villain Dr. Daka. What the hell kind of movie is that, you ask? It's Rouben Mamoulian's lush Technicolor bullfighting melodrama BLOOD AND SAND (1941).
Okay, so none of those characters actually appear in the film but the actors who played them do. Dark, handsome and dashing Tyrone Power starred as Zorro (with BLOOD co-star Linda Darnell) in Mamoulian's THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940). Supporting player George Reeves went on to play Superman on television's THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (1952-1958). John Carradine was Dracula in two Universal Studios monster mashes: THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and THE HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), while Laird Cregar was Jack the Ripper in THE LODGER (1944). Anthony Quinn went on to play Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1956) while J. Carroll Naish was Dr. Daka, Batman's first on-screen foe in the 1943 serial BATMAN. In addition to those great actors, BLOOD AND SAND features not one, but two drop-dead gorgeous leading ladies, the dark haired Linda Darnell and the ravishing red head Rita Hayworth.
That's an impressive cast for this compelling drama which charts the rise and fall of a brash young Spanish bullfighter. Juan Gallardo (Power), dreams of becoming a bull fighter like his dead father. He faces many obstacles but eventually achieves his goal, becoming the greatest bullfighter in all of Spain. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Carmen (Darnell) and all seems well. But Gallardo's fame carries a heavy price as he's soon seduced by the rapacious Dona Sol des Muire (Hayworth). Before you know it, Gallardo's lost everything but Carmen who still loves him, no matter what. Gallardo is determined to fight one last bull and then retire to live the rest of his life with Carmen. But things do not go well for Gallardo. After all, the title is BLOOD AND SAND.
BLOOD AND SAND is a handsomely mounted production, overseen by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. The studio spared no expense to bring the story (previously filmed in the silent era in 1922 with Rudolph Valentino in the lead) to lush and vivid life. The story takes time to develop, starting with Gallardo as a young boy with a "posse" of friends, one of whom grows up to be John Carradine while another later becomes Anthony Quinn. There are several well staged bullfight sequences (coached by Budd Boetticher, who would later go on to direct several outstanding Westerns with Randolph Scott). Rotund character actor Laird Cregar practically steals the show as the flamboyant newspaper critic Natalio Curro. But ultimately, BLOOD AND SAND belongs to the love triangle of Power, Darnell and Hayworth, which simmers with real erotic tension.
BLOOD AND SAND is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, the kind of picture you can get lost in for 125 minutes. I'd never seen it before watching the other night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Fuel injected with lurid pulp thrills and sensationalism, Anthony Mann's hard-boiled masterpiece RAW DEAL (1948), may be one of the most perfect examples of film noir ever made. Sure there are slicker, more polished works but for sheer, bravura film making and a powerful narrative that pulls no punches, RAW DEAL can't be beat.
All of the elements are here. An escaped convict, Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe), goes on the run from the law with the help of his faithful, constant companion, Pat (Claire Trevor). Once out of the big house, Joe has one objective, to recover $50,000 in cash from a previous crime, money that is in the possession of sadistic mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). While on the lam, Joe takes the attorney who defended him, Ann (the lovely Marsha Hunt), hostage. The three stay one step ahead of the law with a doomed love triangle developing between the good girl, the not-so-good girl and the bad-man-with-a-good-guy-inside.
While on the run, the trio crosses paths with a killer on the run, a frightened wife-murderer played by the great Whit Bissell. And to illustrate just how sadistic Rick is, he tosses a dish full of flambe into a woman's face (the flames head straight into the camera while the horrible burning takes place off-screen, accompanied by anguished screams). There's a knock down, drag out brutal fight in a fishing shack and Joe finally confronts Rick in a fiery, fight to the death.
Beautifully shot by genre master John Alton, RAW DEAL looks great from beginning to end. It's drenched in atmosphere, whether on the fog shrouded streets of the big city or the wide open rural countryside. Mann and Alton filmed the big set pieces of the screenplay by Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins, first, then took their time with the quieter, character bits and it's here that the film really sings.
The geometry of the love triangle is what gives RAW DEAL it's beating heart. Pat desperately loves Joe and will do anything to help him escape, even lying to him about Ann's endangerment. Ann thinks Joe is a savage brute at first but comes to see the broken, wounded soul within and eventually wields a gun in his defense. Joe wants both of the women for different reasons. He knows that Pat has been loyal and faithful and right beside him every step of the way while Ann touches a part of him that's been buried deep for a long time. But no matter the situation, one of these three will be dead by the end of the film.
RAW DEAL is one of the touchstones of the film noir genre. If you love film noir and haven't already seen RAW DEAL, you should check it out immediately. If you're on the fence about noir, give it a try and you'll see what all of the fuss is about.
Tuesday, November 7, 2017
On paper, it sounds good. Big John Wayne and even bigger James Arness as two-fisted government agents smashing a ring of Communist spies in Hawaii. Sure, I'll go for that. Sign me up.
But the execution of this seemingly can't-miss proposition leaves much to be desired as BIG JIM McLAIN (1952), is a DRAGNET style pseudo-documentary boiling over with hyperbolic anti-Communism rhetoric and flag-waving patriotism mixed with a filmed travelogue of our fiftieth state. See John Wayne and lovely co-star Nancy (SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)) Olson visit scenic vistas and beach front restaurants and bars. You'll get a lump in your throat when Wayne and Arness pay their respects at the Battleship Arizona (before the covered memorial structure was erected).
The story, such as it is, is pretty routine but the trouble is, it took three (count 'em!) three, writers (Richard English, James Edward Grant and Eric Taylor) to concoct this mess. It's never a good sign when there's a screenplay by committee and this one plays like it was financed by the United States government to showcase both Hawaii and the vital work being done by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). But instead of turning Wayne and Arness loose to bust some Red heads, the script meanders with no direction and lots of filler.
The scene between Wayne, Olson and Hans Conried is a good example. Conried just shows up at Wayne's door, delivers a lengthy monolog about his skills and prowess, all the while demonstrating that he's a nut. It's supposed to be funny (it's not) and it's a truly WTF? moment in the film which has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the movie.
The Communist spy ring is headed by Alan (BATMAN) Napier and he's evil through and through. In fact, all of the Communists depicted in the film are seen as absolutely vile human beings. It's a completely black and white world view in which no consideration is given for people who may have joined the Communist Party for political reasons. Here, every Commie is a subversive and dangerous agent set on doing harm to the United States.
Arness doesn't get a girl to swoon over like Wayne does and he's knocked over the head in one scene only to turn up dead later in the film. Wayne looks uncomfortable in a coat and tie and he doesn't carry a gun. He finally gets to cut loose in the finale, a fist fight between Wayne, the Honolulu police and the Commie spies. Trouble is, after arresting the bad guys, they all plead the fifth at their hearing and get off. But that's okay because the final scene of the film has Wayne and Olson looking lovingly at a bunch of Marines as they board a ship in Pearl Harbor.
Produced by Robert M. Fellows and Wayne, BIG JIM looks like a tax-write off to me, a way to pay for a trip to Hawaii for Wayne and his family. See some sights, enjoy the nightlife and make a hodge-podge of a movie in between. Director Edward Ludwig had worked with Wayne on two previous occasions: THE FIGHTING SEABEES (1944) and THE WAKE OF THE RED WITCH (1948) and would later helm THE BLACK SCORPION (1957, with stop-motion animation by Willis O'Brien). His direction here is nothing spectacular. He gets a boom shadow into one tracking shot multiple times but overall makes good use of the Hawaiian locations.
BIG JIM McLAIN could have been a good little action thriller. Instead, it's a boring movie with as much filler as a can of cheap dog food. Thumbs down.
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes, I can recall events from my past with crystal clarity. At other times, I have at best a fragmentary recollection of people, places and events. Case in point, exactly when and where I first saw FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967), an outstanding British science fiction film from Hammer Studios. My memory is that I saw it on television, specifically a broadcast on the ABC-TV Sunday night movie. Moreover, I recall watching it at my buddy Blake Brown's house. I was a frequent guest at his house where we regularly stayed up until the wee small hours of the morning watching horror and science fiction films on television. If the movie did indeed air on a Sunday night, then it must have been during the summer because there's no way I would have been hanging out at his house on a Sunday evening during the school year. This is what I remember. This is what I'm sticking with.
Regardless of the provenance of that first viewing, FIVE MILLION is one of the great science fiction films of the 1960s, a film beloved by genre fans but not as widely known to general audiences as such other '60s sf touchstones as PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Based on the popular BBC Television serial QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, FIVE was the third Quatermass adventure to be filmed. The first two were THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (THE CREEPING UNKNOWN in the U.S.) (1955) and QUATERMASS 2 (ENEMY FROM SPACE in the U.S.) (1957). Both of those films starred American actor Brian Donlevy who, frankly, played Quatermass as a bit of a dick.
In FIVE, Quatermass is played by British actor Andrew Keir, who does a great job. His Quatermass is a man of science who gets sucked into an incredible mystery that has staggering and profound implications. The remains of prehistoric ape-men are unearthed in an under-construction London subway tube. As the digging continues, an alien space ship is uncovered. The military is in charge of the investigation, with Quatermass happening to be in the right place at the right time to take part, accompanied by his lovely assistant Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley). Quatermass demonstrates his extraordinary mental acumen by making astounding leaps in deductive reasoning, all with a solid foundation of scientific knowledge. He's Reed Richards without the stretching ability.
The corpse of an insectoid, grasshopper like alien is found in the ship (the creature reminds me of the Selenites in Ray Harryhausen's FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)). But the real kicker is that the ship itself appears to have a strange power of its' own. Before the spectacular climax, Quatermass and company explore the origin of the Devil himself and mankind's racial memory of evil. Things get pretty wild and woolly in the third act but FIVE is nevertheless an extraordinarily ambitious, pure science fiction film, dealing with ideas, theories and concepts that are fresh and wildly imaginative.
The screenplay is by Nigel Kneale, who created Quatermass and wrote his original adventures for television. The direction by Roy Ward Baker is assured, the cast uniformly solid, the sets and special effects impressive.
FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH is one of the great science fiction films of the 1960s. Check it out and see if you don't agree. Highly recommended.
Friday, November 3, 2017
DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) was the third Hammer Dracula film following upon HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960). However, it was only the second Hammer Dracula film to star Christopher Lee as the immortal count.
It's also the film in which Lee speaks no dialogue as Count Dracula. There are two reasons given for this. One is that when presented the screenplay by Jimmy Sangster, Christopher Lee reportedly said, "I'm not going to say these lines!" and that was that. Sangster's version is that he never wrote any dialogue for Dracula, figuring that such a fearsome presence could get his points across through growls, snarls and hisses.
Regardless of which of these tales is true, the result is an extremely satisfying Hammer horror film with Lee at the top of his game. The only thing that could make PRINCE a better film would be the inclusion of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing but Andrew Keir, as the fearless vampire hunter Father Sandor, does an admirable job.
The story is a routine one. Four travelers (two couples), are abandoned by their coach driver on the way to the haunted European village of Karlsbad. Left stranded at a crossroads, a driverless coach suddenly appears. The four load up and the coach takes them to Castle Dracula (a location they've been sternly warned against).
Once there, they're waited on by Dracula's household staff. Mysteriously absent is their host but since he's dead at this point in the film, that can be excused. Alan Kent (Charles Tingwell), is the first of the visitors to be put to death in the crypt of the castle. Kent's blood is necessary to revive the undead Count Dracula. Once the ritual is completed and Dracula is revived, the count sinks his fangs into the lovely neck of Helen Kent (Hammer icon Barbara Shelley). She's transformed into a shrieking, hissing, spitting vampire harpy. Next, Dracula goes after the even lovelier Diana Kent (Suzan Farmer), but not before Father Sandor intervenes and takes the battle to the Count.
There's an off camera staking through the heart in the third act and the narrative climaxes upon the ice sheet formed on the moat around Castle Dracula. This time it's running water that spells doom for the Count but don't worry, he won't stay dead long.
Directed by Hammer horror auteur Terence Fisher with a stirring score by James Bernard and crisp cinematography by Michael Reed, DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS is a handsome production from start to finish. There's nothing radical or revolutionary about the story but it's well told and once Dracula is reborn, things really pick up and gather momentum towards the furious climax.
Jeez, that sounds like a porno movie.
Thursday, November 2, 2017
"Are we not men?"
Like millions of other "monster kids" of the '60s, I first became aware of the 1932 film ISLAND OF LOST SOULS in (where else?) the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine. Number 28 to be exact, from May 1964. That's my copy pictured above. When I first saw this issue, with it's yellow candy-stripe background, I have to admit to being a bit confused. You have to read the fine print at bottom right to know that this image is of Bela Lugosi, an actor I was only familiar with from DRACULA. Novice monster movie fan that I was at the time, I thought the image was of Lon Chaney because one of the cover blurbs trumpeted "Chaneys Phantom Face Unmasked" and since this hairy-faced horror was the only face on the cover, I naturally assumed it belonged to the Man of a Thousand Faces. But once I paged through the magazine and found the featured "filmbook'" (didn't you just love those?) covering the classic horror film ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, it all fell into place.
Bela Lugosi, fresh off of his blockbuster success with DRACULA (1931) at Universal Studios, must have been thrilled when he was offered a part in this Paramount Pictures production. A chance to co-star with up and coming actor Charles Laughton in a project based on a classic science fiction novel by none other than H.G. Wells himself, Lugosi must have thought he'd hit the jackpot. I wonder what he thought when he found out he'd be in "beast man" make-up for the entirety of the film, his exotic Eastern European features covered in hair, with only his burning eyes recognizable. On top of that, Lugosi, as the "Sayer of the Law", was given very little dialogue, but what he does have is crucial to the film.
While Lugosi adds solid support to the narrative, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS belongs entirely to Laughton. His portrayal of mad scientist Dr. Moreau is laced with prurient, blatant sadism and only-slightly-repressed, perverted sexuality. His mannerisms, body language and delivery of lines ("They are restless tonight"), suggest an undercurrent of homosexuality, a character element found in other great villains from the Golden Age of horror films including Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) and Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius in James Whale's masterpiece, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).
The screenplay, adapted from the 1896 H.G. Wells novel by science fiction writer Philip Wylie, is more pulp horror than science fiction. And that's not a bad thing. While Moreau does have a laboratory equipped with Strickfaddenesque machinery, the vivisection and torture of his hapless "manimals" is horrific in the extreme. Remember, LOST SOULS is a Pre-Code horror film and it pushes the boundaries of good taste at every opportunity.
The set design is spectacular, locating Moreau's modernistic house and lab in the middle of a jungle that, like the one in KING KONG (1933), is more a landscape of the imagination than any real tropical island could possibly be. It's all wonderfully and atmospherically shot by cinematographer Karl Struss while director Erle C. Kenton keeps things moving at a brisk clip through the film's 71 minutes running-time.
The deservedly celebrated make-up effects are truly impressive, displaying a vast array of unique, man-animal hybrids including the lovely panther girl Lota (Kathleen Burke). It's Lota, a poor, pathetic almost-woman, who is the helpless pawn in Moreau's mad scheme as he thrusts her upon shipwrecked traveler Edward Parker (Richard Arlen), in a blatant attempt to get the two to mate. You have to wonder why Moreau didn't previously take Lota for himself. Perhaps he did, but being the sadistic son-of-a-bitch that he is, Moreau gets his jollies out of watching others perform and obey his commands and dishing out punishment with a wicked bullwhip when his demands are not met.
I have a copy of the novel on my shelf but I'm sad to say, I've never read it. Maybe one of these days. The material has been filmed twice more as THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977) with Michael York, Burt Lancaster and Barbara Carrera and again under the same name in 1996 by John Frankenheimer. This is the notorious version starring Val Kilmer and an obese Marlon Brando as "the island". Marvel Comics produced a movie comic of the 1977 film (which I used to have), while the late British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss wrote an update of the material in his novel, AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU (1981), which I read a few years ago and blogged about.
My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched ISLAND OF LOST SOULS the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had seen it only once before and had forgotten just how good it is. The version we watched was the Criterion Collection edition and the transfer and supplemental material are all of highest quality. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS is essential viewing for fans of Golden Age horror films.
Saturday, October 21, 2017
Back in the 1980s, I spent a great deal of money to purchase my first VCR. It was manufactured by JVC and it was a large block of a machine, a top loader with those oh-so-handy large colored buttons on the front. The player makes an appearance in the opening titles of ABC-TV's currently running sitcom THE GOLDBERGS (which Judy and I have watched since the first episode). Here's what it looked like.
Raise your hand if you remember it. After shelling out around $500 for the player, I immediately started acquiring classic movies on VHS. These too were not cheap as the market for actually owning movies in a permanent (ha!) format was just beginning to gain traction. Among the movies I bought on tape were several early Alfred Hitchcock films such as THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, SECRET AGENT, THE LADY VANISHES and THE 39 STEPS. These were all films he made in Great Britain prior to coming to the United States in 1940. At the time, it was the only way a film fanatic like myself could acquire and view these early classics but truth be told, the prints and transfers weren't the best with the resulting product being full of pops and hisses and a sub-standard picture quality. The films were most likely in the public domain at the time and not much care was given to making quality recordings. It wasn't great but it was all we had and besides, this was a technological achievement far beyond my wildest dreams. Imagine being able to own copies of classic movies forever and ever without having to stay up way past midnight to catch a heavily edited and commercial filled broadcast of the same material. This was nirvana. Sheer bliss, bad transfer and all.
Until the other day I had only ever seen THE 39 STEPS in this primitive format and that was some thirty-odd years ago. My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the film in the Blu-Ray format on the Criterion label this week and I was absolutely blown away. Not only did this film look and sound fantastic, I had forgotten what a marvelously entertaining film it is, a visually sophisticated adventure that adroitly combines laughs and thrills with touches of many of Hitchcock's major thematic concerns, themes and motifs that would inform the vast body of his work for years to come.
By the time Hitchcock made THE 39 STEPS in 1935, he had already directed twenty silent and sound films in Great Britain, beginning with THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925). This makes STEPS the work of a veteran filmmaker who was already incredibly skilled and gifted and who, astonishingly enough, only got better over the course of his career. THE 39 STEPS plays heavily on the idea of an innocent man suddenly thrust into a mysterious world of danger and intrigue. The hero here is one Richard Hannay (the dashing Robert Donat), who is given a scrap of information from a dead female secret agent. With only a map and the words "the 39 steps" to go on, Hannay sets out to solve the mystery in a race against time to prevent something dreadful from happening. He is, of course, suspected of murdering the female spy and must first elude the police. As Hannay gets closer to the truth (even though he doesn't know it), he's also menaced by enemy agents.
Hannay eventually winds up in the company of the lovely Pamela Shaneakwa (Madeleine Carroll), a Hitchcock blonde whom Hannay first meets on a train early in the film. The two find themselves handcuffed together and running for their lives before finally discovering the truth about the 39 steps and foiling the plot.
The action in the film begins and ends in a theater (the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) also takes place in a theater). Hannay meets a variety of couples throughout his journey, some of them help him in his flight, while others stand in his way. It's only when the two singles, Hannay and Pamela become a trusting couple themselves that the day is saved. The 39 steps are a bit of a McGuffin, a plot device that drives the narrative without being the real truth of the matter. Hannay and Pamela's handcuffed escapades have an air of screwball comedy about them and the scene where Hannay gives a political speech full of double talk is genuinely funny.
But make no mistake about it, THE 39 STEPS is a flat out thriller from beginning to end. It's clearly a template for NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and while that film is, in my opinion, Hitchcock's most entertaining film, THE 39 STEPS is not far behind. If you're going to watch this one, it's worth the effort to track down the Blu Ray edition on the Criterion label. You won't be disappointed.
Friday, October 20, 2017
There's only one reason to watch MONTANA BELLE (1952), an utterly routine RKO western. And if you think the reason is either George Brent, Scott Brady or Forrest Tucker, you're really not paying attention.
The lovely Jane Russell, who is one of my all-time favorite Golden Age movie stars, headlines as notorious lady outlaw Belle Starr. She crosses paths with the infamous Dalton Gang, led by Bob Dalton (Brady), before forming her own outlaw band with Mac (Tucker) and Ringo (Jack Lambert). Belle gets in good with Tom Bradfield (Brent), the owner of the Birdcage saloon and casino. Belle becomes part owner with an eye towards eventually cleaning out the joint. But true love interferes and complicates Belle's plans.
There are a couple of unintentionally hilarious musical numbers in which Belle sings and struts through songs like she's in a 1950s nightclub rather than an Old West saloon. Her dresses are slit up to here, showing an awful lot of Miss Russell's lovely legs, her hand gestures are odd, the orchestration too full to be supplied by the bar room band and the lyrics distinctly modern. These two scenes are the highlights of the film.
MONTANA BELLE was shot in "Trucolor", RKO's color photography process. It's a faded, washed out color process which gives everything a pastel tint rather than the rich, super saturated color of Technicolor. The process reminds me of those ghastly colorized black and white films of the 1980s. I would have rather seen this film in black and white than this tepid color photography.
The supporting cast is full of players who appeared in dozens of films and television shows. Among them are Andy Devine as a peddler playing both ends against the middle, Ray (BONANZA) Teal as Emmett Dalton and Dick (Mayor Pike on the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) Elliott as Jeptha Rideout.
MONTANA BELLE was directed by veteran director Allan Dwan, whose career began in the silent era. The screenplay by Horace McCoy and Norman S. Hall, pays absolutely no attention to the history of the real Belle Starr. As a western, MONTANA BELLE is strictly average. But for Russell fans like myself, it's a gold mine.
Thursday, October 19, 2017
Filmed in five days , BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966) is a thoroughly craptastic waste of time. This western/horror hybrid has the production values of GUNSMOKE (actually, GUNSMOKE looked better) combined with all of the sheer, naked horror of an episode of SCOOBY-DOO.
This cheap exploitation quickie was helmed by legendary director William "One Shot" Beaudine. Billy Beaudine got his start in the silent era and he was well known for knocking out films quickly, shooting the majority of scenes in one take. BILLY shows this admittedly efficient method of film making with all of the exterior shots taking place in the same location (the Corriganville Movie Ranch in California) and a handful of sets at Paramount Studios. Shoot the exteriors one day, all of the saloon scenes the next, all of the cave scenes on Wednesday, etc. Oh, that action sequence where a stagecoach is pursued by Indians on horseback? That's lifted from another movie.
The legend is that when the production would stop for lunch, star John Carradine would take his break at a bar down the street from the studio. He'd go in in full Dracula costume and make-up, belt down a few stiff drinks and return to the set for an afternoon's work. I suspect Beaudine tried to get the majority of Carradines' scenes shot before lunch.
BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA was shot at the same time and on the same sets and location as its' companion western/horror film JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER The shoot for both films lasted eight days. The two were released on a double bill. I haven't seen JESSE but after sitting through BILLY once, I'll pass.
You know a movie is bad when the only other recognizable name actor in the cast besides Carradine is Virgina (Mrs. Olsen!) Christine. Billy is played the incredibly stiff Chuck Courtney, while the object of Dracula's desire is Melinda Plowman, a cute blonde with girl-next-door appeal whose hair styles belong more to the 1960s than the 1860s. The script plays fast and loose (really, could it play any other way?) with established cinematic vampire lore with Dracula often appearing in broad daylight in several scenes.
The scariest thing about BILLY is this. John Carradine, who was pushing sixty at the time this film was made, lusts after a young woman who is stated to be all of eighteen-years-old in the script. Of course, actress Plowman is older than that but the sight of Carradine literally slobbering with lust and desire over a girl young enough to be his granddaughter is sad and repellent. I know, I know, he's supposed to be a vampire but let's face it, he's really just a creepy old man with a drinking problem.
Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Following upon the heels of the critical and commercial success of THE TIME MACHINE (1960), the powers-that-be at MGM desperately wanted producer/director George Pal to do another film as quickly as possible. Given enough time, a large enough budget and, most importantly, a decent script to work with, Pal could have produced a film comparable to THE TIME MACHINE. But Pal didn't have those three key ingredients at his disposal, which resulted in ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT, which is considered by many to be Pal's worst film as a director. Remember, he was only the producer of DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE.
ATLANTIS plays like any one of dozens of other low-budget sword and sandal films filling early '60s movie screens. It's colorful enough with some occasional flashes of imagination but it's also deadly dull with a cast of no-name actors (some of which are obviously dubbed despite this being an American production). There's decent miniature, model and matte work but the film relies heavily on lots of footage from bigger and better historical epic films (I'm looking at you QUO VADIS (1951)).
Sal Ponti (aka Anthony Hall but a stiff by any name) stars as Demetrius, a Greek fisherman who rescues Atlantean princess Antillia (the lovely Joyce Taylor) from a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. They soon set sail for her home continent of Atlantis where Demetrius becomes a slave. He eventually leads a revolt of the imprisoned men from many other lands and destroys the entire continent in a spectacular climax. There's a sub-plot about turning men into animal-headed beasts (a steal from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)) that goes nowhere. The villains of the piece, Zaren (John Dall) and a mad surgeon (Berry Kroeger) are more than slightly effeminate and pose no real threat. You know a film's in trouble when Edward (GET SMART) Platt is the sole voice of reason in the story. Platt plays Azar, the High Priest, who has come to believe in the existence of one, true God rather than the many gods worshiped by the Atlanteans.
If you look quickly, you'll spot control panels from FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) in the background of a laboratory. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees does triple duty as the film's narrator and the speaking voices for Demetrius's father and King Cronus (Edgar Stehli). The giant crystalline death ray projector is a well-designed prop as is the fish-shaped submarine used by the Atlanteans.
A note about that submarine. In January, 1994, I had the honor of visiting the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman at the fabled "Ackermansion" in Los Angeles. Along for the ride were my buddies Kelly Greene and Walter Hausner, along with "Kookie" Kent Deluga and a couple of other "monster kids" whose names I don't recall. Forry met us at the front gate of his house and led us down a narrow walkway along the side that ended on a small patio. There on the patio was the submarine pictured above, a full size prop about six feet in length if I recall correctly. Forry asked us if anyone could identify the film it was from and only one of us knew (sadly, it wasn't me). The submarine from ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT was the first piece of fantasy film memorabilia I saw (other than Forry himself) on that memorable day. I'll relate the full story of our visit to Forry's at a future date. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, ATLANTIS THE LOST CONTINENT is worth seeing by only the most devoted genre enthusiasts. Pal could and did make much better films than this one.
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Let's get this out of the way right now. When CRACK IN THE WORLD was first released in February, 1965, I guarantee you that every boy in my third grade class at Bryker Woods Elementary School referred to this disaster epic as "Crack In My Ass". What do you want? We were nine-years-old.
How to solve the world's energy problems? How to tap into a near limitless source of free energy? Hey, how about all that magma floating around in the middle of the earth? Tap into that and we'd have free energy for years. Problem is, there's an immense barrier of rock between us and the magma which can't be penetrated by anything short of a nuclear bomb.
That's just what crack-pot scientist Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews), proposes to do. He wants to fire a missile with a nuclear warhead on the tip of it down a bore hole. The resulting explosion will bring magma to the surface and voila, free energy!
Sorenson is opposed in his mad scheme by his second-in-command at Project Inner Space, Ted Rampion (the square jawed Kieron Moore). Rampion warns of dire consequences if Sorenson's plan is put into motion but Sorenson sells an international scientific commission on the idea and proceeds with his plan. To make matters more interesting, Sorenson's lovely young wife Maggie (Janette Scott), used to be involved with Rampion and still harbors some feelings for him .
And if all of that wasn't enough to make the plot messy, Sorenson is suffering from a terminal disease. What disease? We don't know but it's pretty bad because Sorenson is forced to hold his hands between two plates that emit X-rays for minutes on end. Eventually he is forced to wear white gloves on both hands, truss one arm with a sling and wear dark glasses indoors and out. Yeah, that kind of disease. Truthfully, I suspect that Dana Andrews must have injured himself on the set while on a drinking binge and the screen writers (Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet), wrote his infirmities into the script.
Sorenson's experiment succeeds at first but quickly goes wrong when a crack is discovered in the crust of the earth. It's up to Rampion to drop a bomb down an active volcano in order to stop the spread of the crack. He succeeds and the world is saved. But wait, there's more. The crack is still growing, threatening to split the earth apart.
It's in the third act of the film that production designer Eugene Lourie gets a chance to show his stuff. Earlier scenes in the film used a lot of stock footage and a few matte paintings and miniature sets but it's in the big cataclysm at the end that we see some fairly decent effects work. Rampion and Maggie return to the Project Inner Space headquarters to rescue Sorenson. He refuses their help but before they can escape, they're trapped underground and forced to climb their way back to the surface through a ruined elevator shaft. The two emerge on the surface in time to witness a huge chunk of earth explode into space where it settles into orbit as Earth's second moon.
Set in Africa but filmed in Spain in seven weeks, CRACK IN THE WORLD is a modest disaster film that does the best it can with limited resources. The science is wonky but everything is played straight. The underground headquarters set is impressive, Lourie's effects work are adequate and the leads are solid. It's an entertaining B movie that pales in comparison to the slicker, bigger budgeted disaster films that came later in the decade and beyond.
Monday, October 16, 2017
I first discovered 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine, which is where I found out about a lot of 1960s era horror, fantasy and science fiction films. FACES looked incredibly weird, mysterious and appealing. I desperately wanted to see it but even though it played at the Austin Theater on South Congress (a venue that later, sadly, became a porno house), somehow I never got to see it. For years I had to make due with stills and various clips from the film until TCM ran the film a few years back. I watched it then and once again a couple of days ago.
7 FACES is a whimsical western-fantasy film that I suspect is much lighter than the original source material, the novel THE CIRCUS OF DR. LAO by Charles G. Finney. I have not read the novel (I have a copy on my shelf) but the screenplay by noted mid-century American fantasist Charles Beaumont walks the fine line between the truly outre and something that's a bit more palatable and family friendly since, after all, FACES is a George Pal film.
Pal had a long and illustrious film career beginning as a special effects technician before moving into producing and directing live action feature films. Pal's work includes such genre touchstones as DESTINATION MOON (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1955), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962), THE POWER (1968) and DOC SAVAGE: THE MAN OF BRONZE (1975). WAR OF THE WORLDS and TIME MACHINE are arguably his best films but anything with Pal's name on it is worth seeing. Pal, along with Ray Harryhausen and, to a lesser extent, Irwin Allen, were all genre auteurs who could be counted on to deliver entertaining and imaginative films with good production values and special effects. In short, Pal's name on a film became a dependable "brand" for the cinema of the fantastic.
FACES takes place in Abalone, Arizona in the early years of the 20th century. Rich land baron Clinton Stark (Arthur O'Connell), makes a bid to buy up all of the property in the town. He's opposed by crusading newspaper publisher Edward Cunningham (John Ericson) and his assistant Sam (Noah Beery, Jr.). Into this small town turmoil rides the mysterious Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, who insists on pronouncing his name as "Lo"). Lao is an ancient Chinese wizard whose accent comes and goes. He advertises a mysterious circus on the outskirts of town, an attraction that draws the entire populace including attractive young widow Angela Benedict (Barbara Eden, who also appeared other genre films including VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961), THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962) and FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)).
Once inside the strange looking circus tent (which appears to be larger on the inside than from out), various townspeople confront different characters (all played by Randall), who reveal deep secrets and hidden truths about the men and women of Abalone. Among the characters in the circus are Merlin, the Great Magician, Pan, the God of Love, the Serpent, Medusa, Apollonius of Tyana, the blind fortune teller and the Abominable Snowman (who resembles a Morlock from Pal's TIME MACHINE). All of these characters are wonderfully depicted by Randall and makeup wizard William Tuttle (who received a special Academy Award for his work).
Stark's motivation for his attempted land grab is eventually revealed and thwarted in a climax that involves the Loch Ness Monster (a stop motion animation creature brought to life by Jim Danforth and Wah Chang). The town is saved, relationships are restored and renewed and Lao rides off into the sunset with young Mike (Kevin Tate), doing his best Brandon De Wilde imitation from SHANE (1953): "Dr. Lao, Dr. Lao, come back Dr. Lao!"
7 FACES OF DR. LAO belongs entirely to Tony Randall as he demonstrates his considerable acting chops portraying fantastic characters with humor and pathos. The role of Lao was originally going to go to British actor Peter Sellers before the powers-that-be at MGM stepped in and insisted upon Randall. The supporting cast is good, the production values solid and the special effects serviceable. FACES is a gentle, wistful fantasy film about finding the wonder in everyday life and is well worth seeing by both genre aficionados and those looking for a film that has something for viewers of all ages.
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Pity poor Ross Martin. As one of the stars of Eugene Lourie's noir-tinged 1958 science fiction film, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, Martin has only about five minutes of screen time at the beginning of the film. For the rest of the picture, only his voice is heard. It's no wonder that he received fifth billing, even though his character, scientist Jeremy Spenser, is the focus of the narrative.
Jeremy, a brilliant young scientist and humanitarian, receives the "International Peace Prize" for his work at the beginning of the film. Returning to New York, he's tragically struck and killed by a truck while trying to retrieve his son Billy's (Charles Herbert), toy airplane. Jeremy's father, William (Otto Kruger), a skilled scientist himself, is determined to keep Jeremy's brain alive in order to benefit humanity. Jeremy was simply too great a genius to be lost to the world. William coerces his other son, Henry (John Baragrey) and Jeremy's friend, scientist Robert Carrington (Robert Hutton), to aid him in his quest to build a gigantic, robotic body in which to house Jeremy's brain.
The experiment works and everything looks good for awhile but you just know that things must go wrong eventually. Henry falls in love with Jeremy's widow, Anne (the very lovely Mala Powers) leading Jeremy to murder his brother in cold blood using heretofore unknown and unmentioned death rays from his eyes. Jeremy, now completely insane, decides to destroy humanity rather than work to save it and attacks a meeting at the United Nations where he slaughters several innocent people with his optical death rays. It's up to young Billy to throw the torso-mounted switch on the robot's body that will shut him off forever. And when the monster is dead, the movie is over. William, Anne and Robert somberly exit the United Nations with not a word said about the massacre which just took place and for which William and Robert share some degree of culpability.
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK isn't a great science fiction film. The screenplay by Willis Goldbeck and Thelma Schnee, depends too heavily on other genre touchstones such as THE GOLEM (1920), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1953) to bring anything original or innovative to the formulaic proceedings. The cinematography is moody and atmospheric, lending a film noir atmosphere to some of the scenes, the design of Spenser's laboratory is unusual, the look of the robot, while visually striking, is enormously impractical (no attempt is made to hide the "screens" under the illuminated eyes which allowed stunt man Ed Wolff to see out of ) and the score, a solo piano arrangement by Van Cleave seems grossly out of place. It's far too jazzy and avant garde for such a pedestrian effort as this one.
The cast ranges from good to adequate. Martin is probably the best player here, despite his limited screen time. Otto Kruger is an actor that I've always found interesting and a pleasure to watch. Could be because he reminds me of our family physician from my childhood. Baragrey and Hutton are cliches, Mala Powers is fetching and young Charles Herbert is annoying. Director Eugene Lourie had a long career as both a production designer and director. As a genre director, he made the same film three times over beginning with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) and GORGO (1961). As a production designer, he worked on such varied fare as CRACK IN THE WORLD (1965), KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA (1969) (for he which he won an Oscar for Best Special Effects) and Clint Eastwood's BRONCO BILLY (1980).
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was shot in two weeks under the auspices of producer William Alland who served in the same capacity on THE SPACE CHILDREN the same year. Both films were released by Paramount on a double bill. If you're a fan of 1950s science ficiton films, you should see COLOSSUS once but there's nothing here to recommend to non-genre fans.
Friday, September 29, 2017
Edmond O'Brien became a film noir icon thanks in large part to the work he did in a number of films over a span of ten years. Consider this noir filmography: THE KILLERS (1946), THE WEB (1947), AN ACT OF MURDER (1948), WHITE HEAT (1949), D.O.A. (1950), BACKFIRE (1950), BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950), TURNING POINT (1952), THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), SHIELD FOR MURDER (1954) and A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956). It's generally acknowledged that the best of these films are WHITE HEAT and D.O.A. and I recently posted a very enthusiastic review of THE HITCH-HIKER here on the blog.
711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950) puts O'Brien front and center in this story of the rise and fall of a telephone company technician to mob boss. Mal Granger (O'Brien), is approached by local Los Angeles gangster Vince Walters (Barry Kelley) about using his technical expertise to get track results on a delayed basis. The operation runs smoothly and the money starts rolling in. But when Walters is killed by a desperate bookie, Granger steps in to fill the power vacuum, becoming an even bigger gangster than his late predecessor.
All of the west coast action attracts the attention of the LAPD "Gangster Squad", who begin an investigation and crack down of the operation. In addition, the east coast mob wants their piece of the action and two high ranking hoods are sent out west to put the squeeze on Granger. These two aren't the usual mob thugs. Larry Mason (Don Porter) and Carl Stephens (Otto Kruger) appear to be smooth, dapper and urbane businessmen. But they project an air of unctuous menace and when Granger gets involved with Mason's wife Gail (the lovely Joanne Dru), sparks are sure to fly.
Granger pushes back, resulting in an attempt on his life by a hit man. Granger survives, kills the trigger man, establishes an alibi and goes on the run. With both cops and crooks on his tail, Granger and Gail head for Boulder Dam for the well-staged climax.
I can't tell you why this film is entitled 711 OCEAN DRIVE. That address is never given in the film. A big part of the promotional pitch for 711 was the claim that many scenes were shot on location and required extensive protection from the LAPD for fear that the real local mob would protest and possibly retaliate. I think that's pretty much total hokum but it's a good sales gimmick nonetheless.
O'Brien is the star here and he does a great job as a man who climbs the ladder of crime one vicious rung at a time. He's aided by a top notch supporting cast, a killer wardrobe, a sturdy screenplay by Richard English and Francis Swann, sharp cinematography by Franz Planer and assured direction by Joseph M. Newman, who would go on to direct the science fiction classic THIS ISLAND EARTH in 1955.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
DEAD MEN WALK looks like it was shot before lunch on a random Tuesday in early 1943. This PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) bargain basement quickie was actually shot in six days, not that the extra time spent on the project made any difference in the final product.
This is what is euphemistically known as a Poverty Row horror film and it serves a vital function for horror film aficionados like myself. While enduring all 64 minutes of its' running time, I was reminded that this film (and others like it), make even the worst Universal horror film of the period look like a masterpiece. As it just so happened, Universal released FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN that same year and while FMWM is a lower tier effort, it has far more going for it than this picture.
The producer, Sam Neufeld, was working on a budget so small that he was forced to use the same actor, horror icon George Zucco, in two roles as brothers, one of whom is a vampire. But he's a cheap vampire with no fangs and is-that-a-cape-or-a-bad-suit attire. Zucco, who made an astonishing 96 films between 1931 and 1951, many of them horror pictures, does his best with the tepid material provided by screenwriter Fred Myton but there's not much here. All of the murders take place off screen, there's no blood, and the crypt set leaves much to be desired. Like imagination.
The cinematography by Jack Greenhalgh is murky and fuzzy throughout. It's as if Greehalgh didn't understand the difference between lighting for mood and atmosphere and just plain bad lighting which keeps characters faces in near total darkness in several scenes. The sound is awful too. Some of the dialogue is impossible to hear and the volume fluctuates throughout the film.
I'm not entirely sure that "editor" Holbrook Todd really deserves any credit on this film. He repeatedly lets scenes play out in long medium shots, rarely cutting to close ups. It's like they only had so many feet of film to shoot and couldn't afford to waste any celluloid by shooting coverage or additional takes. And the music by Leo Erdody, is horrible. It doesn't match the action or the mood of the scenes, sounding like generic "horror" movie music that may have indeed been lifted from a music library of stock cues.
The best thing about this film is the appearance of Dwight Frye as Vampire Zucco's hunchbacked assistant Zolarr. Frye was a busy man in 1943. He made five films that year before passing away on November 7th. Frye, who became a horror film immortal with his back-to-back appearances in DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931), was always fun to watch. He always gave a hundred percent and got the most out of even the smallest role. No actor of his generation could wring such desperation out of the delivery of the single word "master".
DEAD MEN WALK is like one of those cheap-jack black and white horror comic magazines I used to see on the stands of my youth. The artwork and stories were always far beneath the material found in the first rate Warren magazines CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA. You can watch DEAD MEN WALK and buy a gonzo horror mag or you can buy an issue of CREEPY and curl up with a Universal classic. The choice is yours.
Guess what I'm gonna do.
Monday, September 25, 2017
Originally published in 1938, 42 DAYS FOR MURDER was the only novel prolific pulp wordsmith Roger Torrey wrote during his long career. He was a regular contributor to the venerable BLACK MASK magazine, as well as other detective/crime/mystery oriented pulps. The edition pictured above, which I finished reading over the weekend, was published in 2012 by Pulpville Press.
42 DAYS is an utterly routine detective novel. The hero is Shean Connell, a generic tough talking, two-fisted private detective on a case in Reno, Nevada. His client's wife wants a divorce but refuses to see or speak to her soon to be ex husband. Connell, along with his junior G-Man partner Lester (who owns a piece of the detective agency), travel to the wicked city to investigate. There they find floozies and b-girls, crooked cops, good cops, low-level gangsters, a powerful lawyer who runs the town, white slavery, dope and murder. The plot doesn't hold up on close inspection but Torrey keeps things moving at such a fast clip that you barely have time to notice.
One thing that stands out (and in a bad way), is the way some words are spelled. I've never seen "Sean" spelled "Shean" and Torrey consistently uses "okey" for "okay". There are other typos and misspellings. I suspect the original text contained some of these errors while Pulpville Press may have contributed some new boo-boos when the company typeset what is clearly a public domain story.
If 42 DAYS had been made into a film in 1938, it would have been produced by Monogram (or another poverty row studio), a cheap programmer shot on a minuscule budget and schedule with a running time of just barely an hour, designed to be released on the lower half of a double bill. That should give you some idea of what to expect with this one.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Jim Thompson throws a wicked plot curve in WILD TOWN, his 1957 West Texas noir featuring Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford, who stars in Thompson's deeply disturbing portrait of a psycho, THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952).
Thompson sets everything in WILD TOWN up like a classic noir and you think you have everything figured out, you know where this one's going because, hey, you've read other books like this and seen dozens of films noir. The main character here is Bugs McKenna, an ex-con with a checkered past when it comes to steady employment. Bugs isn't the sharpest tool in the shed but he wants to get a decent job, settle down and try to put the mistakes of his past behind him. When he hits the West Texas oil boom town affectionately know as "Ragtown", he's confronted by Lou Ford who, rather than run the ex con out of town, sets Bugs up with a job as a house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.
The hotel, like almost everything else in Ragtown, is owned by Mike Hanlon, a crippled older man who lives on the top floor of the hotel with a much younger hot-to-trot wife. You get the picture pretty quick. Ford is setting up Bugs to kill Hanlon so the corrupt lawman can run away with Mrs. Hanlon. But Thompson starts peppering the plot with unexpected curve balls.
Ford offers up his girlfriend, Amy, to Bugs, a proposition that Bugs readily accepts. Bugs also beds both Mrs. Hanlon and Rosalie Vara, a hotel maid who, although black, is passing for white. The hotel manager discovers a discrepancy in the books. There's $5,000 in cash missing and suspicion falls upon the outside auditor hired for the job. The auditor dies while in the presence of Bugs, but Bugs is innocent of the crime.
Money, money, who's got the money? You can forget that narrative thread. It's a pure McGuffin that Thompson brushes off rather off-handedly in one short chapter. Okay, so now Bugs must proceed with the plan to kill Hanlon, right?
To say anything else will spoil the surprises in store in the final chapters of the book. Suffice it to say that some characters' motives aren't as clear as they appeared to be at first and what started out as a set-up-a-patsy-for-a-kill thriller unexpectedly turns into something else entirely. It's as if Thompson started out to write one kind of story and changed his mind half way through, taking things in a completely different direction.
Authors are entitled to do that and despite the twists, WILD TOWN is still a first rate noir thriller. I do have one problem though. Lou Ford, who was absolutely reprehensible in THE KILLER INSIDE ME, is a bit more sympathetic here. He's still a shit heel but he comes through in a surprising way in the end. It's a niggling little bit of inconsistent characterization but I suspect that when Thompson wrote WILD TOWN in 1957, he didn't imagine that many readers of pulp paperback crime novels would recall a character from a book written five years previously.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Picked this beauty up at half price at the Austin Books Side Kick store back in August. 144 pages of glorious pulp adventure fun for only $7.50. How could I go wrong? Like they say on AMERICAN PICKERS, they made me buy it.
Earlier this year I read a couple of Nick Carter paperback novels. One, SAIGON, was from the 1960s, the other, SAMURAI KILL, was from the 1980s. Carter was not only the eponymous hero of these books, he was also the "author". Nick Carter, a venerable pulp hero who dates back to the 19th century, was updated and modernized as a super spy for the late twentieth century, a sort of American James Bond whose adventures were written by a variety of pulpsters all working under the house name "Nick Carter."
The pulp facsimile featured above (which I finished reading the other evening), contains Carter stories from two different eras of his long and checkered career. The first three stories comprise one long Nick Carter adventure but are written so that each installment can also stand alone. They are DR. QUARTZ RETURNS from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 11th, 1926, NICK CARTER CORNERS DR. QUARTZ from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE December 25th, 1926 and NICK CARTER'S DANGER TRAIL from DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE January 22nd, 1927. Carter and his arch foe, Dr. Quartz, recall the relationship between another super-sleuth, Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. But Carter and Quartz first meeting was published in 1891, which pre-dates Holmes and Moriarty's first battle, published in 1893. It's an interesting comparison but an unfair one to be frank because even when handled by the best writers, Nick Carter and Dr. Quartz aren't as mythic, legendary and iconic as Holmes and the Napoleon of Crime.
But Nick's duel to the death with the master villain, as told by ZORRO creator Johnston McCulley, is nonetheless great fun to read as Carter matches wits with the fiend, encountering a series of death traps and narrow escapes over the course of the three episodes.
In the 1930s, after both The Shadow and Doc Savage took off and began receiving astonishing sales and popular acclaim, the race was on to create other pulp magazines starring larger than life heroes and villains. Street & Smith, the publishers of the earlier DETECTIVE STORY MAGAZINE title, decided to dust off Nick Carter and launch a new magazine carrying his name. This iteration of Nick Carter was a two-fisted, hard-boiled detective who fights crime with the aide of his adopted son, Chick Carter and his friend, Patsy Garvan (who, despite the name, is a man).
In THE WAR MAKERS, originally published in April, 1936, an international spy ring steals a death ray from its' inventor, Dr. Fraile. Fraile and his comely young daughter are also taken captive by the gang which plans to sell the death ray to the insurgent nation of Emporia, which will then use the weapon in an attack on the United States. Nick Carter, aided by newspaper reporter Jack Duane, are hot on the trail of the espionage gang, whose mastermind is the mysterious, masked "Mr. B". The action is fast and furious with plenty of gun battles to spice things up. THE WAR MAKERS reads more like a Doc Savage novel than your typical detective thriller but Carter lacks the extraordinary physical and mental abilities of Doc and he does not have any of Doc's remarkable gadgets. But he has two blazing hand guns, a sharp mind and an indomitable will, all of which is more than enough to save the day.
I loved reading these Nick Carter yarns. They're all fast paced and fun with colorful villains and a tough, square-jawed hero who always wins. Thumbs up.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
"Yes, there is a hell, my boy, and you do not have to dig for it..."
I watched THE KILLER INSIDE ME (2010) the other night. It's a terrific little film noir based on the novel of the same name by Jim Thompson. I'll try and post a review of the film at a later date but suffice it to say that after watching the movie, I was in the mood to read some more of Thompson's work.
I have previously read and enjoyed THE KILLER INSIDE ME (1952), AFTER DARK, MY SWEET (1955), THE GETAWAY (1958) and THE GRIFTERS (1963). I had copies of WILD TOWN (1957) and SAVAGE NIGHT (1953) on my shelves and I've now read both. Again, I'll write about WILD TOWN in a separate post, but here, I want to address SAVAGE NIGHT.
SPOILER WARNING: It's going to be tough to write about this book without giving some major plot points away so don't say I didn't warn you.
SAVAGE NIGHT is told in first person narration but one Carl Bigelow, which is not his real name. He's a short in stature (five foot tall) young man whose diminutive size and boyish good looks, make him appear much younger than he really is. Bigelow is, in reality, "Little" Charlie Bigger, a cold blooded, psychopathic murderer who has been sent to the small town of Peardale, New York to kill someone. Bigelow has been given his orders by the mysterious New York City crime lord known only as "The Man". Bigelow's target is Jake Winroy, a broken down alcoholic with ties to organized crime who is set to testify in an upcoming trial.
Bigelow's cover story for being in the town is his enrollment as a student at a small teacher's college. He rents a room in the Winroy house where he meets Fay Winroy, Jake's hot-to-trot wife, Mr. Kendall, a kindly older man who takes a keen interest in helping Bigelow and Ruthie, an attractive young woman with one leg who works as the Winroy's maid.
Before you know it, Bigelow beds both Ruthie and Fay. He has real feelings for the crippled young woman while Fay becomes his accomplice in his plan to murder her husband. Kendall gets Bigelow a job at a bakery and shows him the ropes at the college.
It all seems like a simple enough set-up. All Bigelow has to do is bide his time and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike but this being a Jim Thompson novel, there's nothing simple going on here at all. Bigelow is suffering from tuberculosis and it's only a matter of time until the consumptive disease claims him. The local sheriff has his suspicions about Bigelow while Bigelow is convinced that someone in the Winroy household is also under the control of The Man.
Things come to a quick and violent end in the last chapters of the book. Winroy is killed (but not by Bigelow). His killer is the last person you would expect and Bigelow and the killer escape into the country where they hole up in the deserted cabin of a writer that Bigelow once met. And it's here that things get really, really weird.
Not that things haven't already been slightly off kilter from the git-go. After all, this perverse, hard boiled thriller of broken people, murder and betrayal is already weird enough. All of Thompson's novels take place in a universe of existential dread and suffocating doom. But this ending, much like the final chapter of THE GETAWAY, is truly bizarre. You'll have to read it for yourself to find out what goes on but I'll give you this much:
It has something to do with goats.
SAVAGE NIGHT is a penetrating look into the psyche of a killer who is teetering on the brink of oblivion. It's raw, tough stuff, told by a writer who brought a singular vision, narrative style and twisted thematic concerns to everything he wrote.