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.