Sunday, August 27, 2017


Yesterday, while Hurricane Harvey, a natural disaster, was dumping endless rounds of high winds and torrential rainfall outside of my home in Manor, I curled up inside to watch a different kind of disaster, this one man-made.

If you're looking for a script that makes any sense whatsoever, a coherent plot, the barest semblance of continuity, smooth editing and scene transitions, fully developed characters, and well crafted dialogue, well, move along kids, there's nothing to see here.

But if you want an absolutely bat-shit crazy sf/fantasy CGI fest of dragons and destruction, you've come to the right place. Check all (and I do mean ALL) of your critical facilities at the door before you start watching DRAGON WARS (2007), an over the top spectacle of storytelling insanity that, with one viewing, has just become my number one guilty pleasure for the year so far.

The most expensive movie ever made in South Korea, DRAGON WARS is the brainchild of writer/director Shim Hyung-rae. I have no knowledge of the Korean film industry so I don't know if Shim is a respected genre auteur or if this is an insanely ambitious freshman effort. Whatever the circumstances, he's earned my respect for having the balls to try something this crazy.

The plot really doesn't yield itself to a synopsis because, frankly, it doesn't make any sense. Using flashbacks within flashbacks at the beginning of the film, we learn about two ancient dragon entities that date back to 1507. One is a bad dragon, of course, while the other is a good one. The good dragon resides in the soul of a young woman with a dragon tattoo (yes, she's LITERALLY the girl with a dragon tattoo). When said woman turns 20, she will die and the dragon will be released. Or something like that. The young woman is guarded by a prince and they are both reincarnated through the ages until they end up in present day Los Angeles where they are both embodied by beautiful young Caucasian actors Ethan (Jason Behr) and Sarah (Amanda Brooks). It's never explained why the characters aren't played by Asian actors but again, don't think about it. All of this back story is explained to Ethan by Jack (Robert Forster, another Caucasian actor), who is the embodiment of an ancient wizard.

The evil wizard in charge of the bad dragon  appears in L.A.  He brings an army of flying dragons, dinosaur-riding shock troops, immense prehistoric beasts with cannons mounted on their backs and an army of silver and black armored warriors. Oh, and he sends the bad dragon (a really, really big snake) to look for Sarah. It's a race against time as Ethan must first find Sarah himself and then protect her (as is his destiny) from the bad guys.

The shit hits the fan in a spectacularly imagined battle sequence that is the set piece of the film. Ground troops march along the streets of downtown Los Angles while in the skies above, military helicopters stage breathtaking dog fights with flying dragons. Cars are tossed around like toys, buildings sustain heavy damage, people run and scream through the streets and the bad dragon wraps itself around a skyscraper. It's insane, over-the-top and wildly entertaining. The CGI effects range from dodgy to really pretty good and the whole sequence plays like a mash-up of the best Godzilla movie you've ever seen meets THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

The climax of the film appears to take place in another dimension (again, it's never explained) that looks like a cross between H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. There, the two dragons do battle for the last time and the film comes to a predictable conclusion.

Made over the course of several years and with an enormous budget, DRAGON WARS is nevertheless a B-movie from start to finish. It's a perfect Saturday afternoon matinee movie. Don't think about any of the plot holes and forget the fact that the entire script is about as solid as a loaf of bread. Sit back, relax and enjoy the bat shit craziness that is DRAGON WARS.

It's craptastic but I loved every minute of it.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Gotta confess, watching a good Godzilla movie on a late summer Saturday afternoon is one of my guilty pleasures. Too bad ALL MONSTERS ATTACK (1969), isn't a good Godzilla movie.

I've had this one on my shelf for awhile. I decided to give it a shot last week and while I was sorry I'd wasted time on this nonsense, I did score a good unscheduled nap out of it. Released in the U.S. as GODZILLA'S REVENGE, AMM sets up a premise, based on the title and the one sheet, that the screenplay doesn't deliver. Instead of Godzilla and various kaiju attacking Tokyo or some other Japanese city, the big guy and his friends and foes all live on the mythical "Monster Island", a location reached only in the dreams of the kid protagonist Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki). The youngster is a latch key kid who is bullied by some of his fellow school mates. When he visits Monster Island in his fantasies, he learns how to stand up to bullies, skills which he puts to good use back in reality when he confronts two bumbling bank robbers.

The absurdity factor in the Godzilla and other kaiju films produced by Toho Studios in the 1960s was already fairly high but I've always been willing to engage in a willful suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the films. But ALL MONSTERS ATTACK represents the point at which the entire genre jumped the shark. It's unabashedly a kids;' film, with a child protagonist and a child like monster, Minilla, as his companion. Al of the monster fights look like just what they are: wrestling matches between men in not-at-all convincing rubber monster suits.

 I suppose a 61 year old man really has no business even watching something like ALL MONSTERS ATTACK, much less criticizing it but it's amazing to see how much the Godzilla film franchise had changed since the release of the original masterpiece GOJIRO in 1954. In fifteen years, Godzilla went from a terrifying metaphor for nuclear war to a big, friendly, green giant. It would be several years before the monster regained his original city stomping, atomic fire breathing cred.

Friday, August 25, 2017


What a way to end a career. THE WITCHES (1966), a hot mess of a Hammer horror film, was the last film role for Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine. But the film wasn't her first foray into the realm of the cinefantastique. Fontaine co-starred in Irwin Allen's feature film VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA in 1961. But only genre fans like me (and my buddy Kelly Greene, with whom I recently watched THE WITCHES), remember her for these efforts. All other film fans will recall her appearances in two superb Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, REBECCA (1940), which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination and SUSPICION (1941), for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

THE WITCHES (released in the U.K. as THE DEVIL'S OWN), is a muddled horror film from the get go. Fontaine stars as English school teacher Gwen Mayfield who is involved in a violent native upraising at a mission school in colonial Africa at the beginning of the film. The uprising carries a strong whiff of voodoo and black magic and Gwen suffers a nervous breakdown as a result of the events.

When she recovers, she's hired as a teacher in the small British village of Heddaby, where strange things begin happening almost immediately. At about the half way point of the film's 90 minute running time, she's "Scooby-Dooed" by a fake voodoo attack which causes her to experience a relapse which lands her in a nursing home, sans memory. Her memory slowly returns, she escapes and returns to Heddaby where she discovers the truth about what's really going on.

What's really going on is a coven of witches led by Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), who wants to sacrifice young virgin Linda Rigg (Ingrid Brett) to Satan himself. Bax lets Gwen in on the mad scheme, which Gwen, of course, eventually upsets, destroying the cult and saving Linda.

The sceenplay by Peter Curtis (based on the book THE DEVIL'S OWN), makes no sense whatsoever. A teacher suffers a nervous breakdown due to exposure to witch craft. She's hired in a village where witchcraft is practiced. The practitioners of witchcraft fake a voodoo attack, causing a relapse and confinement for the teacher. The teacher recovers, escapes, returns to the village where the main villain tells her everything that's going on and gives the teacher the information needed to thwart the scheme. The end.

There's no suspense, no tension, no horror to speak of at all. Cyril Frankel's direction is slow and plodding and it takes forever for what passes as a story to develop. Fontaine looks lost amidst all of the hugger-mugger taking place around her. You can almost see her thinking, "if this is the best part I can get now, maybe it's time to quit the acting game."

All in all, THE WITCHES is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved. With a better script and direction, it could have been an effective little shocker ala THE WICKER MAN (1973) and Fontaine certainly deserved better than this as a swan song.

I can't recommend THE WITCHES to any but the most devoted Hammer horror enthusiasts and even those fine folks will find this one a disappointment. Thumbs down.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Director John Frankenheimer had an incredible run of bravura filmmaking in the early 1960s. Consider his output over a four year span from 1962 to 1966: BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962, his masterpiece), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), THE TRAIN (1964), SECONDS (1966) and GRAND PRIX (1966). Great films all and every one of them well worth seeing, as is most of the Frankheimer filmography, although if I were you, I'd take a pass on THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996) in which a bloated and incoherent Marlon Brando starred as "the island".

What's under review here today is SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, a brilliant political thriller that remains as fresh, bracing and, through a lens of more than fifty years, remarkably prescient with regards to the need to remove a sitting U.S. president from office. The original novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II was written in 1961 and 1962, the beginning of the Kennedy administration and the very height of the Cold War. Screenwriter Rod (TWILIGHT ZONE) Serling, does a terrific job of adapting the material for the screen, compressing the action into a breathless race against time to uncover and stop a planned military coup against the president.

President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March), has signed a joint nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, an agreement in which both super powers agree to mutually dispose of their arsenals of nuclear weapons. This accord draws the ire and contempt of General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who sees it as a sign of weakness. Scott fears the Russians cannot be trusted to uphold their end of the bargain and that the United States must remain strong and eternally vigilant. That means that the military must be in charge of the government and not the weak and conciliatory President Lyman.

Scott launches a plot, code named ECOMCON, which will culminate in a military coup d'etat in seven days time. Scott's aide, Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), is left out of the loop concerning the plot which he eventually stumbles across by accident. With little hard evidence, he presents his case to Lyman, who ultimately believes him and the race is on to find out just what exactly ECOMCON is and put a stop to it.

Lyman and Casey are aided by Senator Ray Clark (Edmond O'Brien), Presidential aide Paul Girard (Martin Balsam), and cabinet member Chris Todd (George Macready). Scott's band of plotters include Colonel Mutt Henderson (Andrew Duggan), venomous television commentator Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe), traitorous Senator Fred Prentice (Whit Bissell) and sinister Colonel Ben Murdock (Richard Anderson).

Caught in the middle between these two groups of men, is one woman, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner), a former girlfriend of Scott's who holds letters from him that may help Casey expose the plot. Jiggs romances and seduces Eleanor in order to acquire the letters but he doesn't have to use them in the end.

The action moves swiftly from Washington D.C., to a secret military installation outside of El Paso, to Gibraltar, before coming to a head in the Oval Office. President Kennedy, a fan of the original novel, allowed Frankenheimer and his production crew access to the White House to photograph the Oval Office and other rooms and hallways which allowed the set builders to faithfully recreate them on a sound stage. The Pentagon did not allow the filmmakers access, so all scenes set there take place on sets drawn entirely from imagination.

Frankenheimer orchestrates everything effectively and efficiently. He's got a great script, a powerhouse cast and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, which uses snare drums set to a military cadence for maximum impact and tension.

It's tempting to say that given the current political situation, one that is fraught with danger given the fact that a completely unhinged man is serving as President, that maybe, just maybe, we need someone like a General Scott to step up and initiate a 21st century ECOMCON. Clearly, I do not, in any way, advocate for a removal of any president from office by force of arms, but don't think this movie didn't give me some ideas.

Regardless of who is in the White House at any given moment, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY has stood the test of time and holds up remarkably well. It's a first rate piece of filmmaking, one that earns my highest recommendation.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched this one the other day and it's a good one.

HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) is the story of Gino Monetti (Edward G. Robinson), a rags-to-riches Italian -American banker in New York City. He's a self made man and he runs his bank according to his rules, which means he loans lots of money to people without bothering about secured collateral. This is a business practice which will ultimately cause his downfall.

Monetti's four sons all work at the bank. There's Joe (Luther Adler), Pietro (Paul Valentine) and Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). All three toil thanklessly in the shadow of their larger-than-life father and yearn for the day when the bank will belong to them. Fourth son Max (Richard Conte), is the only independent one in the family, an attorney who keeps a small office in the bank.

When bank examiners threaten to shut Gino down, Max tries to fix the jury in his father's favor. He fails but is convicted and sent to prison for seven years. When Max gets out, his father has died and his brothers now control the newly reorganized bank. They try to buy Max out and when he refuses to be bought, attempt to murder him. What a swell bunch of guys! Max ultimately triumphs and leaves town with his true love, Irene (the ravishing Susan Hayward).

Although billed as a film noir, HOUSE OF STRANGERS, despite it's suitably noirish title, is really more of an adult drama about family relationships, loyalty, honor, betrayal and trust. The cast is uniformly excellent, the cinematography by Milton R. Krasner is sharp and the screenplay by Philip Yordan (from the novel I'LL NEVER GO THERE ANY MORE by Jerome Weidman), is solid. Joseph L. Mankiewicz does an admirable job of directing in what can be seen as a warm up for his masterpiece ALL ABOUT EVE which he made the following year in 1950.

Even if the noir elements are extremely slight, HOUSE OF STRANGERS is nonetheless a compelling, engrossing drama that's consistently entertaining. Thumbs up.

Monday, August 21, 2017


I paid four bucks for this beauty at the Rhino Bookstore in Nashville. Judy and I visited Music City last month and had a great time. This is only one of the many treasures I scored while there.

Gotta admit, I was totally unfamiliar with the title of this book and the author, Sam Ross. But that cover did a great job of selling the book in 2017 much as I'm sure it did sixty years ago back in August of 1957 when it was published in paperback.

Down and out former boxer Tommy Berks is the set-up man for a high stakes poker game designed to fleece the pigeons. When one of the pigeons decides to quit while he's ahead, the leader of the con, Steve Merrick, orders psycho flunky Willy Clay to kill the man and frame Tommy for the murder. Tommy flees New Orleans and heads into the Louisiana bayou country with Steve, Willy, and Vi, Steve's floozy companion, and police detective Lt. Lucas all hot on his trail. When Tommy is shot by Willy crossing the Mississippi on a ferry boat, Tommy dives into the river where he's rescued by a beautiful young Cajun woman named Jo. She pulls the wounded fugitive onto the boat captained by her brother Adam and the two provide a refuge for Tommy.

Tommy quickly falls in love with Jo and while he desperately wants to stay with her he knows he can have no peace until he confronts the demons, both real and psychological, that are dogging him. Things come to an explosive head in an ending that seems somewhat abrupt.

Ross knows how to keep a reader turning the pages. All of the characters are well developed, the villains are complex and suitably ruthless and there's a strong sense of place in his descriptions of the bayou country and life on a Gulf Coast shrimp boat. While I was tearing through the 144 pages of this thriller, I couldn't help but think that it would have made a great late '50s b&w film noir. Try this cast on for size:  Robert Ryan as Tommy, Anthony Quinn as Adam, Dan Duryea as Steve, Neville Brand as Willy, Hugh Marlowe as Lt. Lucas, Ida Lupino as Vi and the one and only Yvette Vickers as Jo.

THE TIGHT CORNER was definitely worth every penny of the four bucks I bought it for. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Who's that?" asks Millie.

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

Nice touch Mr. Castle.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is quite simply a masterpiece.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2017


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

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

 This guy was good.

Damn good.

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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