Wednesday, August 16, 2017

THE BRIBE


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

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

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



Monday, August 14, 2017

WARRIORS OF MARS


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

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

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

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

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

WHEN STRANGERS MARRY


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

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

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

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

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

"Who's that?" asks Millie.

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

Nice touch Mr. Castle.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is quite simply a masterpiece.



Saturday, August 12, 2017

FIRE


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

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

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

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

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


Friday, August 11, 2017

THE DARKEST HOUR


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

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

 This guy was good.

Damn good.

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

THE SHADOW: CRIME, INSURED & THE GOLDEN VULTURE


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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