Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ALL THESE CONDEMNED

I finished reading ALL THESE CONDEMNED by John D. MacDonald this afternoon. I know I first read this novel (originally published in 1954 and reprinted this year in a handsome trade paperback edition by Random House) some thirty plus years ago but I didn't remember anything about it.

In ALL THESE CONDEMNED, MacDonald tries his hand at the traditional, formal murder mystery. Eight people are spending the weekend at the lakeside home of cosmetics magnate Wilma Ferris. All of the people, three women and five men, are employed in some capacity by Ferris. She has mistreated and abused every one of them and is about to fire some of them. Every one of them has a reason and a motive for wanting to see her dead.

MacDonald opens the story with the recovery of Wilma's dead body from the lake. It appears she drowned but a closer inspection of the body reveals evidence of foul play. What was at first believed to be a tragic accident is now under investigation as a murder. Who did it? Was it the television comedienne whose show was sponsored by Ferris's company? The crafty PR man? The stuffed shirt from the advertising agency? The business manager who knows how over exposed the company really is? The muscle bound "artist"?  Or the mousy wife of one Ferris's managers, a woman who worships Wilma when everyone else hates her guts?

MacDonald turns the traditional mystery novel on it's head by having each character narrate two chapters apiece during the course of the novel. One chapter each is told from the point of view of the character before the murder occurred with the other chapters relating the action after the murder. A couple of characters are fairly quickly eliminated as suspects but there are plenty of possibilities to consider before the penultimate chapter in which the killer is revealed.

ALL THESE CONDEMNED combines the jigsaw puzzle aspect of the traditional drawing room mystery (without the presence of a detective to solve the crime) with liberal doses of MacDonald's world view and cynical, mid-century philosophies. The characters are all strongly developed and there's a bit of a surprise at the end. If you're a MacDonald fan, you need to read this book. If you're not a fan of this terrific writer, read ALL THESE CONDEMNED and become one. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE VENOM BUSINESS


There's a little more than four months left in the year 2014 but it's safe to say that as of today, August 19th, my nomination for the worst book I've read this year goes to THE VENOM BUSINESS by Michael Crichton. It's one of his earliest books, first published in 1970 when Crichton was just learning the business and publishing under the name "John Lange". All of the Crichton/Lange books have been reissued in handsome trade paperback editions by Hard Case Crime but despite the provocative cover art pictured above, this is a stinker through and through.

It's an over plotted, over written mess of a "thriller" that ironically enough, starts out fairly promisingly but very soon takes a turn for the worse. Crichton spins this yarn over the course of 384 pages, which is easily one hundred pages too many. One is left to wonder if this is Crichton's first draft or if any editor (then or now) ever touched this manuscript. It's clumsy, the characters are cliched, the women are all beautiful and interchangeable, the plot takes forever to take shape, the hero is competent at first but then suddenly turns stupid, everyone in the book drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks (I think they all attended the Nick and Nora Charles School for Advanced Alcoholics), every main character is secretly plotting against every other main character and the whole thing is just one great, huge, crashing, epic bore.

To be fair, Crichton was young and just starting out and was still learning the craft of writing. The trouble was, he never got that much better in my opinion. Oh, he was a great story teller, full of terrific high concept ideas that seemed ready made to make the leap from page to screen. Crichton became an enormously popular, successful and wealthy author but dammit, he just never was that good of a writer. He could keep me turning pages, no doubt, but all the time, a voice in my head was constantly reminding me that this stuff isn't very well written.

Which begs the question, does popular, escapist fiction have to be high art and great literature? Of course not and I'm certainly guilty of enjoying other books by other writers who were on a par (or less) with the later works of Michael Crichton. But there are so many guys out there who bring something more to the page other than plot, guys like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, that make me wish every thriller writer would learn from them.

If you're a die-hard Michael Crichton fan and are determined to read everything he ever wrote, go ahead and give THE VENOM BUSINESS a try. Just be warned, you might not like what you read. Everyone else, cross against the light to avoid this one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, a 1965 British adventure film, was one of those movies I always wanted to see when I was a kid but somehow never did. Just look at that poster art! It looks like the cover of one of the greatest "men's sweat" adventure magazines ever published. I can see this story being hyped as "Baboons Bit My Butt!" (in the tradition of the legendary "Weasels Ripped My Flesh!"). Alas, it's yet another example of selling the sizzle and not the steak as I found out when I sat down and finally watched this film for the first time yesterday afternoon.

The film begins in a way that is remarkably similar to the opening of Robert Aldrich's masterpiece, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965). A chartered twin engine aircraft is carrying passengers across the African desert when the plane encounters an immense swarm of locusts. The plane crashes and the survivors (Stuart Whitman, Stanley Baker, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Theodore Bikel and Nigel Davenport) are left stranded in the desert, hundreds of miles from civilization. But instead of rebuilding their plane and flying out of the desert (which they can't do because the craft explodes after landing), they are left to survive by any means necessary.

They soon find food, water and shelter in a cave but a nearby tribe of baboons gives big-game hunter Whitman cause for concern. He's determined to survive at all costs and that means eliminating any and all competition for food and water, be it baboon or fellow human. Davenport sets off to find help, Whitman forces Bikel at gunpoint to do the same and he kills Andrews when he refuses to leave the camp. That leaves just Whitman, Baker and York in a tense struggle to the death for survival and superiority.

Shot on location in Africa by director Cy Enfield (who made the marvelous African adventure film ZULU (1963)) SANDS is a good looking film with a fairly compelling storyline that still somehow misses the mark. The showdown with the baboons (one of the major selling points of the film), doesn't occur until the very end of the film, which is a bit of a letdown. The cast is good but Whitman, who is the real threat, is not a strong enough actor to carry as much of the narrative load as is required by the screenplay. Apparently, the producers of the film originally wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for the leads but Burton demanded too much money. George Peppard was cast in the Whitman role but left to make THE BLUE MAX before production began. Whitman, a serviceable action hero type in other films and television shows, was hired as his replacement. It's fun to see future SUPERMAN co-stars Susannah York and Harry Andrews together. I wonder if they compared notes about that "baboon movie" when they were on the Krypton set at Pinewood Studios?

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI is not a bad little movie. But it suffers in comparison to FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and ZULU, both of which are better films. It's worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of "men's sweat" material.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

EMPIRE STRIKES OUT (OR DOES IT?)


EMPIRE, a British film magazine, ran a list of the 301 greatest movies of all time in their July, 2014 issue. 301? Keep in mind that this behemoth of a list is the result of a reader's poll. It does not represent the viewpoints of professional film critics, reviewers and scholars. The poll is an expression of their readership's tastes in film and is not necessarily endorsed, approved or sanctioned by the editorial staff of the magazine. Every movie that made this massive list is someone's favorite film and that's all well and good but I still think 301 films is 201 films too many.

However, the poll tells us much more about said readership than it does about the 301 films listed. Judging from the films selected (especially the film occupying the number one slot), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the readers who responded to this poll were almost entirely male. And I'll go a step further and suggest that those men are almost all entirely under the age of fifty with the average age of the typical poll respondent clocking in at forty-six years of age (give or take or year).

How do I know this? It's purely conjecture on my part but I don't believe I'm too far off on this hypothesis. Consider: the number one film in this poll is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which was released in 1980. Let's assume that the majority of EMPIRE readers probably saw this film on first release at their local cinemas. They were most likely between the ages of 10-12. As such, it instantly imprinted itself onto their pre-adolescent psyches as the greatest film they had ever seen, better even than STAR WARS, which came out three years earlier in 1977. The readers would have been 7-9 years old then. While few people are sophisticated film watchers at the age of twelve, their tastes and likes in film are pretty well formed. In other words, they know what they've seen and they know what they've liked and disliked.

For instance, I was twelve years old in 1968. If I had somehow managed to be polled by a film magazine that year, I would have listed my favorite films as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, GOLDFINGER, THE GREAT ESCAPE, IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE DIRTY DOZEN, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, PLANET OF THE APES, COOL HAND LUKE, BULLITT and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Last year, at the age of 57, I compiled my own list of top 100 films and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY came in at number nine. Obviously, my tastes have changed since I was twelve years old but not to a very large extent. I still love all of the other films listed above and many of them made my list of top 100 films.

Making a list of 100 films is hard work. I know. I did it. And I set some guidelines for my list including no musicals (I don't care for them) and no films made in the 21st century (it's far too early to tell which films will stand the test of time). My top ten films: CITIZEN KANE, THE GODFATHER, CASABLANCA, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, VERTIGO, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, SEVEN SAMURAI, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUNSET BLVD.

Lists of "best" and "greatest" films by their very existence are arbitrary things. Your list is different from mine and my list is different than the list of EMPIRE readers. But different doesn't always mean wrong. I do believe that 301 is a ridiculous number to list because after one hundred films things start to get pretty desperate in my opinion. At that point, it's not so much a determination of quality film making as it is popularity and "oh-yeah-that-was-a-pretty-good-one" criteria. I also think there are entirely too many 21st century films on the EMPIRE list (including several films that were released last year).

But I don't begrudge the forty-something (and younger) men who took the time to respond to the poll their choice of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as the greatest film of all time. As I said, that selection says far more about them than it does about the respective merits of the film itself (it's a great film but I don't believe it's better than STAR WARS).

After all, when I was twelve, I thought JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was the greatest movie ever made. In some ways, I still do.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A FEAST UNKNOWN

Today I finished reading (for the second time in more than thirty years), A FEAST UNKNOWN, a 1969 science fiction novel by Philip Jose Farmer. The book was reprinted along with several other Farmer titles in 2012 by Titan Books in handsome trade paperback editions.

A FEAST UNKNOWN is a pulp fan's wildest dream come true. It's the story of a fight between Tarzan and Doc Savage, two of the greatest pulp adventure heroes of all time. Except, since this is an unauthorized pastiche, in Farmer's novel the characters go by the names of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban. A rose by any other name....

Farmer spins an exciting, fast paced adventure yarn which starts with an attack on Grandrith's Kenyan plantation and quickly escalates from there. There's a chase across Africa, a visit to the fabled city (what's left of it) of Opar (here called Ophir), and an ancient secret ceremony in the hidden mountain stronghold of The Nine, a mysterious organization of immortal beings that includes (among others), Odin. Both Grandrith and Caliban are in service to The Nine which has given both men a mysterious elixir that has prolonged their lifespans indefinitely. And that's just for starters.

Grandrith and Trish Wilde (aka Pat Savage) soon find themselves headed from Africa to England to rescue Clio (Jane) from the clutches of a mad Albanian and a final showdown to the death between Grandrith and Caliban. Oh, and along the way, Grandrith discovers that he and Caliban are brothers and that their father was none other than Jack the Ripper.

Farmer complicates this headlong narrative by having both Grandrith and Caliban stricken with a strange mental/physical aberration (a side effect of the elixir which grants them both near eternal life). Both men become sexually aroused at the thought of killing an enemy in battle and both men achieve orgasms when they take the life of another.

That's right folks, this is a pulp novel with plenty of blood and thunder, just like the good old days but with a new element added: sex. The sex in A FEAST UNKNOWN is not of the casual nature either. It's turned up to 11. We're talking erections, orgasms, sodomy, rape, the eating of testes and clitorises, bestiality, incest, coprophagia and more. There's as much (or more) ejaculate spilled as blood. And the scene in which Grandrith and Caliban duel each other with saber like crossed erections at full mast, is something I'll never forget.

The inclusion of such explicit sexual content in a science fiction novel raised quite a few eyebrows when A FEAST UNKNOWN was first published in the late 1960s. It still does. It's over the top. It's shocking. And, in places, it's pretty damned funny. Is it obscene? Pornographic? You bet it is, so, a warning to potential readers, this is definitely X-rated, adults only material.

But the sexual content sheds new psychological insight into these revered and venerable pulp heroes. Farmer writes Grandrith as a human being raised by wild animals would really behave. None of this noble savage crap. And he allows Caliban to come to terms with the enormous stress and strain of his repressed sexuality in ways that Doc Savage would never have approved of.

If you're a fan of the pulps who has ever wanted to see these characters in a new, adult way, A FEAST UNKNOWN comes highly recommended. It's certainly not going to appeal to everyone but open minded pulp aficionados should find it enjoyable. I thought it was one helluva read.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE

I finished reading ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE yesterday afternoon. Originally published in 1966 and recently reprinted by Random House in a handsome trade paperback edition, it's the eighth Travis McGee adventure written by the late, great John D. MacDonald. It's the fourth McGee novel I've re-read this year (after THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY, NIGHTMARE IN PINK and A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING). Like those books (and many other MacDonald titles), I read YELLOW EYE for the first time about thirty years ago. I remember having read it but I didn't recall the particulars of the story.

In this one, McGee gets called to Chicago (a city he doesn't much care for) to aid his old friend Gloria Geis. It seems her late husband, the successful and wealthy Dr. Fortner Geis, converted almost all of his assets to cash before he died of a terminal disease. The trouble is, that cash, in the amount of six hundred thousand dollars, can't be found. It appears that someone put the squeeze on the good doctor. But who, for what reason and where is the money now?

McGee's investigation uncovers some dark family secrets before he finally stumbles upon the truth of what really happened. Oh and he manages to defrost a frigid, sexually repressed young woman with a few waves of his patented "magic dick". After tying up loose ends in Chicago, McGee returns to Florida with the young lady in tow but there's yet one last twist of the narrative knot to come.

ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE features a couple of very bad characters as the villains behind the scheme but there's not much action to speak of until the very end of the book and when it comes, it's worth the wait. But before that, MacDonald gives us another cast of well drawn characters, makes McGee and us look one way when what's really going on is right over here and tons of McGee's unique perspective on the modern world. Thumbs up.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

GRAND CENTRAL MURDER

The one-sheet (above) for GRAND CENTRAL MURDER (1942) (which I watched yesterday with my buddy Kelly Greene) makes the claim that the film is "screamingly funny" and "screamingly thrilling." That's a lie. It's neither.

What this MGM B-movie (it was made in 22 days) is, is a comedy murder mystery that simply doesn't work. It's not funny at all. The "comedy" bits consist of overacting and mugging by Sam Levene who plays a soda-pop addicted and incompetent police detective. He's gathered a cast of suspects to investigate the murder of gorgeous Broadway diva/gold digger  Patricia Dane. Included in this assemblage is Van Heflin, a young, smarter-than-the-police (you know he's bright, he smokes a pipe) private detective and his lovely wife Virginia Grey. Next to the very young and overly animated Van Heflin, Patricia Dane and Virginia Grey are the best things about this dreary film. They were both very attractive ladies.

The questioning continues, interspersed with flashbacks. At one point, director S. Sylvan Simon seems to have suddenly decided that all of this talk was pretty damn boring and a fist fight between Heflin and suspect Tom Conway was called for in order to liven things up. It doesn't work. All of the suspects are finally gathered in the private rail car where the murder occurred and Heflin reveals the killer. Yawn.

There are many other films out there that meld mystery and comedy much more successfully than is done in GRAND CENTRAL MURDER. If you're a die-hard MGM devotee or a fan of any of the players, you might enjoy this one. Otherwise, GRAND CENTRAL MURDER gets a thumbs down.