Sunday, March 19, 2017

SCARFACE

"The World Is Yours"

Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Howard Hawks, SCARFACE (1932), is ground zero for the American gangster film. Loosely based on real life "Scarface" Al Capone, the film deals with the rise to power of scar faced thug Tony Camonte (Paul Muni). Tony starts off as a lieutenant to Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins). Tony kills rival gang leader Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) at the beginning of the film, a move which places Lovo in charge of all of the illegal activity in Chicago's south side. Tony is ordered to leave the north side gangs, led by Gaffney (a cadaverous Boris Karloff) alone but he's wildly ambitious and drunk on power and he soon brings a gang war to the north side. After wiping out all of his enemies and becoming top dog, there's no where for Tony to go but down. But he's not going out without a fight and fight he does in a well mounted final act shootout with the police.

Muni owns this film from start to finish. He plays Tony with a strange mix of likeable rube and vicious killer. He's loyal to his best friend, the endlessly coin-flipping Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). He woos the lovely Poppy (Karen Morely) away from Lovo and he has an overly protective attitude towards his beautiful younger sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Muni's looks are a combination of two future tough guys: Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones, while Boris Karloff's visage prefigures Abe Vigoda and Jeremy Irons.

SCARFACE is visually sophisticated, with smoothly executed long tracking shots by cinematographers Lee Garmes and L.W O'Connell. There's the repeated motif of an "X" in the background of the frame whenever Tony kills someone. Director Howard Hawks brings vigor to the multiple gun fights with sedans speeding along dark streets, tommy guns typing out a letter of leaden death.

One nod to reality (among several) in the screenplay by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin and Seton I. Miller (from a story by the legendary Ben Hecht), is an enactment of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, a sequence shot in silhouette. The film has a strong social message, indeed, the opening title cards practically preach at the audience that crime is a poison and that something must be done about it. It's no coincidence that the film's original subtitle was THE SHAME OF THE NATION.

Filmed before the restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code were put in place, SCARFACE is full of tough talking gangsters, beautiful women and brutal violence. It was later famously remade in 1983 by Brian De Palma with Al Pacino in an over-the-top performance

The original SCARFACE is a vital piece of  film history and should be seen by anyone interested in the evolution of both the crime film and the American cinema. Highly recommended.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

MINDHUNTERS





I don't know this for a fact, but I'm betting that the production of MINDHUNTERS (2004) went something like this.

The producers had a limited amount of money to spend on this film. They needed a "big" name or two or three to sell it. The "big" names that they got were Val Kilmer, Christian Slater and LL Cool J. Trouble is, they didn't have a lot of money to spend on these actors so the screenplay does away with both Kilmer and Slater in the first act, leaving LL to carry the rest of the film, supported by a cast of no-names. Raise your hand and keep it up if you've ever heard of any of these people: Kathryn Morris, Jonny Lee Miller, Clifton Collins, Jr., Patricia Velasquez, Eion Bailey and Will Kemp.

I didn't think so.

Doesn't matter if they're known or not because they only exist as cardboard characters to be killed in this cliched and predictable thriller from genre hack director Renny Harlin. Kilmer is the FBI agent in charge of training a group of profilers. He takes them to a deserted island off of the coast of North Carolina. The island is named Omega. How's that for foreshadowing? The team, led by Slater, is left on the island to solve a string of staged serial killings. It's all an elaborate test to challenge their various skills in the art of profiling.

But that's not what's really going on. Turns out the profilers are the intended victims of a real serial killer who starts knocking them off one by one in a series of elaborately staged death traps. Surprise, the killer is one of them. Double surprise: the killer fakes his/her death. If you've seen AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945) (among many others), you've seen this basic plot set up.

The screenplay by Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin, doesn't just strain credulity, it shatters it. The death traps are ridiculously elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions with extraordinarily gruesome results. They're more like something you'd see in a DR. PHIBES horror film than something concocted by a real person in the 21st century.

The climax involves two characters fighting underwater for a very, very long time. Their battle even includes a gunfight! Just how long can two people hold their respective breaths underwater while engaged in a fight to the death? The answer is several minutes, if we're to believe what happens here. Every cliche and trope of the genre is placed on a list to be checked off as the plot progresses. Everything is predictable, right down to the final twist, double twist and triple twist ending. There are no surprises here, just an utterly routine generic thriller that will seem fresh and new to anyone who's never seen any of the dozens of other films exactly like this one.

 You have to wonder, if the producers had had just a little bit more money, could they have gotten some bigger stars and paid them enough to have them stick around longer?

I think Sid Melton was still available in 2004.

Friday, March 17, 2017

13 WEST STREET


Routine. Mediocre. Lackluster. Those are just some of the words that come to mind when describing 13 WEST STREET (1962). This low budget, B movie starred Alan Ladd in his last leading film role. He died at age 50 in 1964. His production company, Ladd Enterprises, produced this film so Ladd had no to blame but himself for the film's failure.

The premise is a good one. Aerospace engineer Walt Sherill (Ladd), is attacked by a group of young thugs one night. But they're not your ordinary gang of toughs. These boys are all clean cut and well dressed, rich kids out for kicks and violent thrills.

Sherill and his wife Tracey (Dolores Dorn), co-operate with police detective Sergeant Koleski (Rod Steiger) but the investigation proceeds at a snail's pace while the punks continue to terrorize and harass the Sherills. Walt hires a private detective, Finney (Stanley Adams) to keep tabs on the gang and in the last act, Sherill decides to take justice into his own hands by attacking the gang leader, Chuck (Michael Callan).

Although the film pre-figures other average-guys-turned-vigilante-killers films such as STRAW DOGS (1971) and DEATH WISH (1974), 13 WEST STREET never really achieves any real level of tension or suspense. Director Philip Leacock, who had a long career in episodic television, shows little imagination in his storytelling. Everything is shot in a flat cinematic style in a series of not-quite-convincing studio sets. It looks and feels like a stand-alone episode of an early '60s anthology television series than it does a feature film.

Ladd has one expression throughout the entire film: he looks severely constipated. Rod Steiger, while not as over-the-top as he could sometimes be, nonetheless steals every scene with some little bit of business either with his hands, his voice or his eyes. He's this close to mugging. The actors playing the thugs, especially Callan, are far too old to be convincing as high school students. But bonus points for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance of veteran character actor Olan Soule as a fellow engineer and a small scene with Ted Knight as a high school principal.

What's most interesting about 13 WEST STREET is that the screenplay was adapted from the novel THE TIGER AMONG US by science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett. Brackett worked on THE BIG SLEEP (1946), RIO BRAVO (1959), EL DORADO (1967) and others, with her final screenwriting credit on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). They should have kept her original title because THE TIGER AMONG US is certainly more evocative than the tepid 13 WEST STREET.

13 WEST STREET was pitched as a hard hitting adult drama. Maybe for it's day it was strong stuff but it has not held up well over the years. It's a dull, lifeless film that, with very little effort, could have been turned into something better. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

THE PAPERBOY


For the record, yeah, this is the movie in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron. But it's not in a Trump-Russian hottie golden shower way. It's to alleviate the pain from the vicious jelly fish stings on Efron's body. It may be weird, sick and twisted and it's certainly a memorable scene but it's far from the most salacious thing that occurs in Lee Daniels' Southern gothic noir THE PAPERBOY (2012).

Set in Florida in 1969 THE PAPERBOY is narrated years after the fact by Anita Chester (Macy Gray), a black woman who serves as domestic help for the family of small town newspaper publisher W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn). The focus of the story is young Jack Jansen (Efron), a restless, listless and uber horny twenty-something young man with nothing to do and plenty of time on his hands in which to do it. His older brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) have come to town to investigate the murder of the county sheriff. They're reporters for the The Miami Times and they're convinced that the man convicted of the murder, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent. They hire young Jack to serve as their gofer during the investigation.

But a wrench is thrown into the works in the form of Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a sexed up, hot-to-trot cougar who has fallen in love with Hillary through prison correspondence. She's convinced he's innocent also but what she really wants is to gain his freedom so that they might consummate their relationship.

Of course Jack falls for Charlotte. Hard. Funny thing, Ward and Yardley don't seem to pay much attention to the incendiary Charlotte. And there's a reason for that, one that is revealed later in the film. Based on the reporters efforts, Hillary is released from prison and he and Charlotte take up residence in his shack in the swamp. But Hillary has played everyone for a sucker and now poses a very deadly threat.

THE PAPERBOY is long on visual style and creative editing. Director Daniels, cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and editor Joe Klotz bring pizazz to the proceedings. The period details are spot on and the performances are all good. Kidman is the standout here, delivering a go-for-broke performance as a white trash horn dog. The story by Daniels and Pete Dexter (who wrote the novel which the screenplay is adapted from), starts slow and never completely gels into a real thriller. There's not a lot of suspense but there is brutal violence and even rougher sex. Because make no mistake about it, THE PAPERBOY is all about sex. Every character is driven by sexual desires and needs, some of which spell doom.

THE PAPERBOY is an adults-only portrait of broken men and women consumed by carnality of the basest kind. There's plenty of sex on display but very little love. Worth seeing.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

CAGED


Given it's lurid, sensationalistic title and subject matter, if CAGED (1950) had been made later in the decade it would have certainly been played as an exploitation film, redolent with camp elements. As is, CAGED is a tough, sober look into a modern women's prison. It's hard-hitting, frank and adult in its' approach to the subject matter.

Eleanor Parker stars as 19-year-old Marie Allen, who is sentenced to 1-15 years in prison as an accomplice to a botched armed robbery that left her husband, Tom, dead. Young Marie is all wide-eyed innocence, a lamb among the wolves. Oh, and she's pregnant.

She soon finds an ally in Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), who ran a shoplifter ring on the outside and now has some amount of influence within the cell block. The warden, Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorehead), is also sympathetic to Marie, as she is to all of the inmates. She believes in reformation rather than punishment and tells Marie she will eligible for an early release within nine months if she keeps her nose clean.

But that's easier said than done because Marie soon becomes the target of the wrath of sadistic matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a tank-like woman who delights in tormenting the prisoners. One young woman, June (Olive Deering), commits suicide when she's denied release and Marie is sent to isolation with a brutally shaved head for inciting a near-riot, a melee sparked by Marie's illegal possession of a kitten. By the way, the kitten dies in the ruckus. Hows' that for hardboiled?

SPOILER: Harper is eventually killed by one of the prisoners and Marie strikes a deal with the devil, vice queen Elvira Powell (Lee Patrick), who pulls strings and arranges Marie's release into the hands of her waiting mobsters outside of the prison gates. Marie's file is kept open by Warden Benton because she knows Marie will be back.

CAGED earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Actress (Parker), Best Supporting Actress (Emerson) and Best Writing (Story & Screenplay): Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfeld.

Director John Cromwell and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie drench the film in noir shadows and claustrophobic framing, along with smooth tracking shots among the double bunks of the cell block where sixty women are incarcerated, punctuated by heartbreaking close-ups of shattered, broken women.

CAGED tracks the trajectory of an innocent young woman into a hard bitten, bitter and cynical criminal in waiting. Parker and Emerson are both magnificent and the supporting cast is uniformly fine. Recommended.


SINNER MAN


"I was hell in a short-brimmed hat."

I got home from working at SXSW the other day with plenty of time to do things that needed to be done before dinner.  Go to the gym. Take out the trash and recycling. Empty the dishwasher. I did none of those. Why? Because this guy Lawrence Block had me by the throat.

I had about fifty pages left to read in SINNER MAN (2016), and I decided that all those other things could wait. I was going to finish this book in one sitting. Finish I did and wow, what a ride! SINNER MAN, published last year by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary book publisher), is Grand Master mystery writer Lawrence Block's long lost first crime novel.
 Block wrote the novel in 1959-60. The manuscript bounced around various paperback houses before finally being published as SAVAGE LOVER by "Sheldon Lord" in 1968. This is the first time in almost fifty years that the novel has been released under it's original title and with Block's name on it.

SINNER MAN is the story of Connecticut insurance salesman Donald Barshter who kills his wife by accident one night while more than slightly inebriated. Rather than go to the cops (a common first mistake in noir and one that will always lead to certain doom), Barshter stuffs his wife's corpse in a closet, cashes out his savings and takes a train to Buffalo. Once there, he adopts the identity of Nathaniel Crowley and tries to pass himself off as a small time hood.

The ruse works and before long, Crowley finds himself mobbed-up with a local crime family. But things take a turn for the worse when Crowley is asked to become a hit man. He does so and becomes involved in a bloody mob coup that leaves him with a high rank in the new organization that takes over.

Crowley also has a love-hate relationship with Anne Bishop. Their sex is more like rape and Anne grows to despise Crowley and plots to do him in. She digs deep and uncovers the truth about him and when she confronts Crowley with what she's discovered, something must be done. Hey, that liquor bottle makes a nice bludgeon.

SINNER MAN is fast, tough, hard boiled and stripped to the bone. The narrative is swift and sure, the sex and violence brutal. It's a portrait of a man discovering his true, inner self through a vicious masquerade. Barshter/Crowley has more blood on his hands than he can ever wash off and the novel ends with him on the run again. But for how long?

I tore through this one and it was worth giving up "gotta do" chores for this "gotta finish reading" page turner. Block was very good very early in his career and he's only gotten better over the decades. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

BATMAN: DETECTIVE NO.27


BATMAN: DETECTIVE NO. 27 is a 2003 Elseworlds graphic novel published by DC Comics. Written by Michael Uslan and illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg (whose work I really like), this is not about DETECTIVE NO. 27, the seminal 1939 comic book that introduced Batman to the world. It's about DETECTIVE NO. 27. Oh, and Batman never appears in this story.  Confused?

The story begins on the night of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 . The president's murder spurs Allan Pinkerton (he of the legendary Pinkerton Agency), to form a secret society of detectives to battle the Knights of the Golden Circle, a crime cabal led by a Jokeresque madman named Professor Carr. The Knights engineered Lincoln's death which has set in motion a plan to destroy an American city, a plan that will take 74 years to come to fruition.

Pinkerton names himself Detective No. 1, with each subsequent member of the society having a number rather than a name. Over the years, the ranks of the secret society include such stalwarts as Teddy Roosevelt, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, The Hardy Boys, Sam Spade and The Shadow.

The murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne in 1929 set young Bruce Wayne on a ten-year sojourn around the world where he studies and trains (under "Lamont Cranston" among others) to be a master detective. When he returns to Gotham City, he finds Doctor Hugo Strange and Professor Jonathan Crane involved in the Knights scheme to unleash a fear toxin in a major city. Bruce is recruited by the society to be "Detective No. 27" and he's aided by Alfred (Detective No. 25), The Boy Commandos, Catwoman, The Crimson Avenger (Detective No. 26), and others. Wayne never becomes The Batman (although Uslan continually sets us up to expect otherwise) but he proves himself a capable crime fighter nonetheless.

The secret mastermind behind the plot is revealed in a shocking third act (I never saw it coming) but the story ends with Bruce embracing the ethos of "Carpe Nox" (seize the night), which hints that he may yet become The Batman. Studded with real life personages such as Sigmund Freud, FDR, Babe Ruth, Charles Darwin, and Gregor Mendel and with a brief appearance from Superman himself, DETECTIVE NO. 27 is the RAGTIME of comic book super-hero stories. Uslan knows both his American history and comic book lore and he deftly weaves this material into a gripping story that's full of action, humor and surprises. The art by Peter Snejbjerg is outstanding. It has a Will Eisneresque quality in some of the character's body language and facial expressions and it's clean, uncluttered storytelling at its' finest.

I don't know if DETECTIVE NO. 27 is still in print or not. I found my copy at Half Price Books. It's well worth the effort to track down and read. Recommended.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

GHOSTS OF KARNAK


GHOSTS OF KARNAK (2016) is the third novel in British sf author George Mann's GHOST series. The series began with GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN in 2010, followed by GHOSTS OF WAR in 2011. I've read them both and they're highly recommended.

The Ghost, for those of you who might have come in late, is a crime fighter operating in an alternate universe steam punk version of 1920s New York City. By day he's WWI veteran and wealthy socialite Gabriel Cross. By night, he prowls the rooftops of New York as The Ghost, armed with a wicked flechette shooter on his wrist, rockets on his legs, night vision goggles, a hat and a cloak. He's part Shadow, part Rocketeer and 100% pure pulp.

In KARNAK, The Ghost encounters a threat from the tombs of ancient Egypt. A series of brutal murders have the police baffled. They appear to be ritual slayings of some kind, centered around a cult of Thoth worshippers. Gabriel's girlfriend, Ginny, has gone missing since her trip to Egypt. The Reaper, a local crime lord and his small army of cyborg assassins, The Enforcers, are terrorizing the city. All of these narrative strands are of course, connected, but it's up to the Ghost and his allies to figure it all out in time to save the city from total destruction.

The Ghosts' teammates include police inspector Felix Donovan, detective Mullins, museum curator Arthur Wolfe, and modern day witch Astrid. And at the end of the story, there's a new super-powered player in town.

The action is swift and sure. The Ghost battles Enforcers, living statues, resurrected gods and sword-wielding cultists in set pieces that pulse with cinematic vigor. The Ghost would make a perfect comic book series, television show or film. There's a fourth adventure, THE GHOSTS OF EMPIRE, due later this year and you can bet I'll buy it.

GHOSTS OF KARNAK is an adrenaline fueled blast of giddy, pulp bliss. Highly recommended.

Oh, and don't get this KARNAK confused with this guy: