Friday, April 28, 2017

SHADOWS AND FOG


Once upon a time, I made it a point to go to the theater every year to see the latest Woody Allen film. Allen, love him or hate him, is one of the most prolific American filmmakers of all time. He's still cranking out one feature film a year and he's been doing so since the early 1970s. Some have been brilliant, some middling, others, meh. But he's in there pitching each and every year. Gotta give the guy credit for the sheer longevity of his career.

But somewhere along the way I stopped going to the theaters to see the latest Allen film. And it's not because I don't like Woody. He's one of my all time favorite directors. It's just that I quit going to see movies at the theater, period. So, there are several of his more recent films that I have yet to see.

I did, however, go to the theater back in 1991 to see SHADOWS AND FOG. I didn't remember much about it except that it was in black and white and somewhat disappointing. I watched it again the other day for the first time in 26 years and my initial impression was re-confirmed. It's a half-baked mess of a movie, bursting with terrific art direction, sets, costumes and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Carlo Di Palma. It has the usual terrific cast of stellar actors and actresses, some in virtually cameo appearances. It looks great, it just doesn't hold together. SHADOWS AND FOG is a film of so many different influences and homages that nothing ever really gels.

Allen stars as Kleinman, a nebbish who gets swept up into a vigilante committee out to find and stop a mysterious strangler that has been terrorizing the city. Kleinman has no idea what part he's supposed to play in all of this and wants no part of whatever is going on but he's caught up in the fever of mob justice. Then there's Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower at the traveling circus.She catches her clown husband, Paul (John Malkovich), with another woman (Madonna), which leads her to leave the circus and find refuge in a whore house populated by Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster. Kleinman and Irmy's paths eventually cross and they try to help each other out but there's that niggling problem of the strangler and various vigilante mobs that are still roaming the night streets. The situation is resolved by the intervention of circus magician Armstead (Kenneth Mars), who acts as a deus ex machina.

SHADOWS AND FOG is equal parts Franz Kafka, Fritz Lang's M (1931), classic Universal horror films (Donald Pleasence as a doctor would be right at home in a Frankenstein movie), swipes from the German Expressionism cinema of G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau and music (and more) from the works of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. In short, it's a mess of a film that tries to walk a balance between humor and horror, belly laughs and existential dread. While there are several very funny scenes in the film the overall effect is off-putting and frustrating.

Allen's reliance on magic, real magic, not stage magic, echoes material in some of his other films such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (1982), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990) and SCOOP (2006) all of which are better films than SHADOWS. Still, I give Allen credit for trying something different. SHADOWS AND FOG will go down as his German Expressionism film, just as INTERIORS (1978) was his Bergman film and STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was his Fellini movie.

A digression: I wish more contemporary filmmakers would make films in black and white. I love the look and feel of a classic black and white horror film and what would film noir be without b&w? Two of my dream projects would be to see a black and white BATMAN feature film set in the 1940s. Ditto a vintage SHADOW adventure set in the 1930s. The medium could really capture the spirit and vibe of these characters in the eras in which they originally flourished. It will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?

SHADOWS AND FOG is recommended only for those who are already Woody Allen fans. It would be really bothersome to anyone who is neutral or slightly negative about his work.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB


Okay, let's get this out of the way right at the top. This is one deplorably racist pulp magazine. THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG, published by Popular Publications in 1935, lasted only seven issues. Dr. Wu Fang was a stereotypical "Yellow Peril" master villain, in the tradition of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. The series reflects the racist attitudes held by many Americans towards anyone of Asian descent in the years prior to World War II. But you have to put that into context, and recognize that stuff like this is a product of its' time. It's politically incorrect now, but it wasn't then, at least, not to the majority of readers who plunked down a dime and got swept up into a whirlwind of pulp adventure.

THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB was published in December 1935. It was written by veteran pulp scribe Robert J. Hogan who was also turning out material for such pulps as THE SECRET SIX, G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES , DARE-DEVIL ACES and DIME WESTERN MAGAZINE, among others. A series character pulp novel required an average of 80,000 words per month so you can see that Hogan was one busy man.

SUICIDE TOMB finds Dr. Wu Fang in pursuit of a ancient plague, long buried in a lost tomb in the American southwest. The tomb contains hundreds of purple tinged skeletons, all of which have their skulls smashed and a horde of white bats. Wu Fang hopes to unleash the plague into the modern world, wreaking widespread death and destruction and offering an antidote to the highest bidder.

Wu Fang is opposed by a trio of stalwart heroes. Archaeologist Rod Carson, newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard and federal agent Val Kildare. They in turn are aided by Cappy, a scrappy newsboy, and two exotic beauties Mohra and Tanya. The action is fast and furious, starting in New York City's Chinatown and ending in the Arizona desert. Along the way, Wu Fang unleashes an army of weird menaces to forestall the heroes including hybrid beasts that are part lizard, part rat and a gorilla. Wait, a gorilla? Yes, a gorilla who turns out to be an Aryan thug in a gorilla costume. You can't make this stuff up.

The version of CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB that I read is a nifty replica edition that includes black and white interior illos, two columns of text layout, a bonus short story, SHANGHAI MURDER by Steve Fisher and the original cover art by the great Jerome Rozen. It's all lovingly packaged by John Gunnison and his superlative Adventure House publishing company. This is actually issue number 42 of the ongoing HIGH ADVENTURE series of pulp reprints, with each issue dedicated to a complete reprint of a vintage pulp magazine.

The story is a pell mell affair with plot holes galore but the pace is furious and you can't stop reading. I can't help but think that if Hogan was paid more money and had more time to re-work his manuscripts, he could have given this the polish and shine that a good re-write could have provided. Hogan was up against multiple deadlines and probably turned this one in as a first draft with few if any edits and corrections.

But to wish for something more sophisticated would be to diminish what it is that makes vintage pulp fiction so much fun to read. You don't read one of these books looking for perfection. You read it looking for adventure, action, danger and thrills galore. On that score, THE CASE OF THE SUICIDE TOMB delivers the goods in spades.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

ABOUT FACE


ABOUT FACE (1947) was the first Johnny Liddell mystery novel by Frank Kane. Liddell was a tough talking private detective who worked for the Acme Detective Agency in New York City. He later left the agency and operated independently. He starred in a series of books that ran through the 1950s. I was completely unaware of this character and author until the other day when I stumbled across this book while web surfing. It looked like something I'd enjoy so I took a chance on it.

I'm glad I did. While ABOUT FACE is far from a masterpiece, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable, well crafted slice of hard boiled detective fiction. Liddell is sent to Hollywood to work for movie producer Julian Goodman. Goodman's biggest box office draw has disappeared and Liddell is tasked with finding the missing matinee idol. Before you know it, the star is found dead in an automobile accident. End of case, right? Wrong. The body count has only started as soon Goodman and several others are murdered. Liddell, along with coroner Doc Morrissey,  sympathetic police detective Devlin and spunky girl reporter Toni Belden, investigate a twisted puzzle of a case that ultimately involves grave robbing, gun battles, mobsters and a femme fatale. During the course of the story, Liddell consumes more booze than Nick and Nora Charles combined and is almost always smoking either a cigarette or a cigar. I don't know if Frank Kane ever wrote the last case of Johnny Liddell but it's a safe bet to assume that if a bullet didn't kill him, the smoking and drinking did.

ABOUT FACE is a nice introduction to the Johnny Liddell series and I will definitely be seeking out more of his adventures. Thumbs up.



Saturday, April 22, 2017

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL


On paper, BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965) has a terrific pedigree. Screenwriter (and native Texan ) Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan had previously collaborated on the American classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). For BABY,  Foote adapted his play The Traveling Lady and with stars Steve McQueen and Lee Remick (both box office draws at the time), I'm sure the top brass at Columbia Pictures were hoping that lightning would strike twice with all of these various talents combining into some kind of alchemical magic to make BABY as successful as TKAM .

But TKAM had great source material in the form of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel and while Foote's play may work well on the stage, when it's opened up and brought to the big screen, the result is a rather lackluster drama that never quite gels.  As much as I like Steve McQueen (he's one of my all time favorite actors), he's never convincing here in the role of Henry Thomas, a wanna-be rockabilly singer and guitar player in the small town of Columbus, Texas, who has recently been paroled from prison. Henry is a troubled young man with a hair-trigger, violent temper and he's one outburst away from becoming a guest of the state of Texas again.  He suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his adoptive mother, Kate Dawson (Georgia Simmons), events which have left him with a multitude of scars. But he's getting by and dreaming of making it big.

All of that changes when his wife, Georgette (Remick) and young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), arrive in town by bus from east Texas. Turns out no one in Columbus knew that Henry was a husband and a father and young Margaret Rose, has never seen her father. The newly  reunited family set up a makeshift homestead and try to make a go of things. Georgette gets a job in a drive-in restaurant while Henry continues to play and sing. Things come to a head when Kate dies and leaves nothing to Henry, which causes him to go on a destructive rampage. Henry is arrested and sent back to prison leaving Georgette and Margaret Rose on their own again. They leave town with sympathetic Deputy Sheriff Slim (Don Murray) at the end of the film.

McQueen is good in every scene in which he's not playing the guitar or singing. Those scenes are obviously dubbed and shot and edited to disguise the fact that he's not really playing. Remick (who I always found incredibly sexy), is good but neither actor has a convincing Texas accent. The on-location cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is very good and it's fun to see the real small town Texas of fifty years ago.

BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL is an earnest film that's well made and acted but it just never rises to the level of a memorable, powerhouse drama. Worth seeing once if you're a fan of any of the people involved in the production.



Saturday, April 15, 2017

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE


Director Raoul Walsh's ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951), is a gritty, two-fisted black and white Warner Brothers Western which I watched for the first time last night (thanks to TCM!).

 Kirk Douglas stars as federal marshal Len Merrick, who interrupts a hanging party at the beginning of the film. Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), stands accused of stealing cattle and killing the son of powerful rancher Ned Roden (Morris Ankrum). But Merrick will not let Pop be the victim of frontier justice. He and his deputies Lou Gray (Ray Teal) and Billy Shear (John Agar), are determined to take Pop to the nearest town to stand trial.

Along the way, they're joined by Pop's daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) and the dead man's brother Dan (James Anderson). The small band braves the trackless wastes of the desert while being pursued by Roden's posse. Lives are lost and head games are played against Merrick in various attempts to free Pop before reaching Santa Loma. Once there, a trial is held and Pop is found guilty and sentenced to hang. But a last minute discovery changes everything, leading to a final shootout.

ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE mixes robust action with more psychological material to produce an extremely satisfying film. Douglas, all deep dimpled chin and gritted, flashing white teeth, is solid in the lead and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Ray Teal appeared in dozens of films before playing Sheriff Roy Coffee on television's BONANZA. You've got to love any movie that stars future sf genre icons John Agar and Morris Ankrum and there's a brief appearance by Kenneth McDonald, who was a bad guy in various Three Stooges shorts. The screenplay by Walter Doniger and Lewis Meltzer fits into the cycle of more adult, psychological westerns that emerged in the 1950s while the cinematography by Sidney Hickox is sharp, using location landscapes to great advantage.

While not a classic, ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE is nonetheless a durable, well made and very entertaining film that's well worth seeing. Recommended.


Friday, April 14, 2017

1969


For the record, I was thirteen years old in 1969, the subject of Rob Kirkpatrick's 2011 book. The sub-title of Kirkpatrick's book declares that it was "the year everything changed." I would argue that every year is a year in which things change, some recording more seismic changes than others. But I must agree that the year in which man walked on the moon for the first time is definitely a game changer.

The story of the Apollo 11 mission is only part of the colorful tapestry of events that Kirkpatrick recalls here. In chronological order he covers a variety of topics, most of which are printed on the book's cover. Every one of these people, places and things get a mention, some more detailed than others and every chapter contains the seeds for a multitude of other books about the topics covered therein. It's breezy and readable and the " I remember that" and "I don't remember that" moments were equally divided for me.

The beginning of 1969 found me halfway through the seventh grade and the end of the year put me at the midpoint of eighth grade. While I didn't read the newspaper every day or watch the nightly news every evening, I couldn't help but be aware of much of what Kirkpatrick covers. Besides the Apollo 11 moon landing, I vividly recall Super Bowl III in which the New York Jets beat the Baltimore Colts, the Manson murders, Woodstock (wasn't there of course but I saw the film and had the double LP soundtrack album), and much of the other music of that year as well as the important films he discusses. Again, I didn't see or hear all of this material first hand (some of the films were off limits due to their "R" and, in some cases, "X", ratings) but I had a pretty good general knowledge about these things. Two aspects of pop culture that Kirkpatrick doesn't cover are television in general and comic books. I know, I know, he couldn't cover everything and this is a work of popular history for a general audience. But one of the things I remember most about 1969 did involve comic books.

That was the year the cover price went from 12 cents to 15 cents. When comics cost 12 cents (with the occasional exception of those wonderful 80 page giants for 25 cents, a bargain that I always went for because, hey, those babies were the comic book equivalents of an all day sucker with one of those behemoths taking the better part of a day to read and savor), I could get 8 comics for a dollar. When they went to 15 cents, I could only buy 6 comics for one dollar. This was my first lesson in inflation and economics. I had to get the most of the few dollars I had to spend on comics every month which meant I had to make some critical choices about what I bought. I had to stick with characters and/or artists and writers that I really liked until I had enough cash flow from summer jobs to expand my buying horizons. Come to think of it, that's pretty much the way I buy comics now, just characters, writers and artists I like and not the entire output of every comic book company in business today.

1969 is a good time capsule of an important year in American history. If you were around back then, there are memories aplenty to be found here. If you weren't around back then, read it and get a glimpse of what all of the shouting was about.

Recommended.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

BRAINQUAKE


Sporting a dynamic painting by the late Glen Orbik and a cover font that looks like it was ripped from the cover of a 1960s issue of FAMOUS MONSTERS, Samuel Fuller's BRAINQUAKE (Hard Case Crime, 2014), is a swift-kick-in-the-teeth, fist-to-the-gut, full-tilt-boogie assault of adrenaline fueled pulp fiction. Oh, yeah, you read it right. It's written by that Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) was an idiosyncratic film writer and director that left his unique, personal stamp on the post war American cinema, especially during the 1950s. Fuller's films pulled no punches in their depictions of crime, war, the American west and modern madness. Fuller, a WWII combat veteran, saw enough horrors in war to last a lifetime. His war experiences, combined with his pre-war employment as a newspaper reporter, gave Fuller a front row seat to the evil that men do. When Fuller began writing screenplays and then, eventually directing low budget genre films, Fuller drew on his own experiences for material, which gave his films an unmistakable jolt of reality and truth.

His filmography includes such classics as PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953), THE NAKED KISS (1964), SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and THE BIG RED ONE (1980). Fuller, always and ever his own man, fell out of favor during the 1960s but his body of work, filled with virtuoso visuals and uncompromising storytelling, inspired a generation of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. To watch a Fuller film is to be totally immersed in his overpowering world view of darkness, insanity and redemption. While not every film with his name on it is a classic, every film he made is well worth your time to seek out and watch. You won't be disappointed.

In addition to screenplays, Fuller wrote novels including BURN, BABY, BURN (1936), TEST TUBE BABY (1936) and THE DARK PAGE (1944).  He wrote BRAINQUAKE in the early 1990s, but it was only published in France and Japan at the time. Hard Case Crime (bless 'em), brought this long lost last novel to mass market publication in 2014 and while it's not quite a masterpiece, it is nonetheless an important and vital work by a one-of-a-kind American artist of the 20th century.

BRAINQUAKE is the story of one Paul Pope, a bagman for a major New York City crime organization. Pope's job, along with dozens of other anonymous men, is to deliver bags of money throughout the city. Some of the money is to be used in payoffs and bribes, some is to be laundered. The bagmen live by a strict code of honor, a code which is punishable by death if broken. Guess what Paul does?

But he has good reason because Paul, you see, was a mute as a young man and while he can speak, he rarely does so. He lives a solitary life with few friends and only books and poetry to keep him company. He drives a cab as a front for his job as a bagman and he does his job well. He also suffers from "brainquakes", severe migraine like episodes in which Paul hears the music of a flute and sees the world in a shade of vivid pink. He also sees things that aren't there during these mental seizures. But Paul still manages to get by until he meets a lovely young mother in Central Park.

Paul does what he shouldn't do, fall in love with Michelle, a mob widow with an infant son. When she shoots and kills a low level mobster, she and the baby are forced to go on the run. Paul helps them flee using a bag full of millions of dollars to grease the skids for their escape.

The two travel to France but they are trailed by another low level mobster, a determined New York City homicide detective and a professional killer named "Father Flanagan", a psycho who dresses like a priest and kills his victims by crucifixion (that's right, a hammer and three very large nails). Everything comes to a fevered third act in Paris, culminating in a furious gun battle aboard a house barge on the Seine.

The characters in BRAINQUAKE are numerous, colorful and well drawn but Paul is the real focus of attention here and Fuller does a good job of depicting a decent but deeply broken man struggling to find some modicum of peace and happiness in an insane world of crime, corruption and betrayal. The plot moves at a good clip but relies on some outlandish coincidences a couple of times in order to advance the narrative. Nonetheless, BRAINQUAKE is a first rate page turner by a world class storyteller.

Highly recommended.