Wednesday, August 24, 2016

5 CARD STUD


Poker played a part in four major Hollywood films in the 1960s. Beginning in 1965 with THE CINCINNATI KID, each year brought a film that featured the game of poker as either a major plot point or as a memorable scene. Consider A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966), a terrific western "sting" film, COOL HAND LUKE (1967) with the classic line, "sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand" and 5 CARD STUD (1968) which starts with a deadly poker game.

Dean Martin stars as professional gambler and card player Van Morgan. A man is caught cheating at a poker game and all of the other players, including ringleader Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), want to lynch the cheater. Morgan tries to stop the hanging but he's knocked out by Evers. Disgusted with the town of Rincon, Morgan leaves for Denver. In his absence, gold is found outside of Rincon which leads to a boom. Among the new residents of the town are Reverend Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) and barber shop/whore house proprietor Lily Langford (Inger Stevens).

The men involved in the lynching are murdered one by one which brings Morgan back to town to investigate. Spoiler warning: Rudd is the killer, the brother of the hanged man. He's out for revenge and the victims are identified to him by Evers. Morgan is the last man standing which leads to a shootout between him and the deadly pastor.

Martin barely takes things seriously here. While not on the level of his performances in the Matt Helm films, Martin swaggers through the film with a shit-eating grin on his face most of the time. He delivers a few one-liners with a smile and a twinkle in his eye and let's us know that everything is going to turn out right because, hey, he's Dean Martin. Mitchum's character and performance plays heavily on his classic film noir, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). All he needs is the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles. For eye candy, there's the always gorgeous Inger Stevens (who ends up with Martin at the end) and the very lovely Katherine Justice as Roddy McDowall's sister. Add in supporting players Yaphet Kotto, Denver Pyle, John Anderson and Whit Bissell and you've got a fun, entertaining western

Director Henry Hathaway had a long career making a name for himself in both film noir and westerns. His noirs include THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), THE DARK CORNER (1946), KISS OF DEATH (1947), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1947), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), FOURTEEN HOURS (1951) and NIAGARA (1953). Hathaway westerns include RAWHIDE (1951), FROM HELL TO TEXAS (1958), NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965), NEVADA SMITH (1966), TRUE GRIT (1969) and SHOOT OUT (1971). Hathaway never achieved the rarefied air of contemporaries Howard Hawks and John Ford but he made solid, durable films that still stand up today.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

DEAD WAKE


The first popular history book by Erik Larson that I read was THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (2003). This page-turner real life thriller combined the story of the 1893 Chicago's World Fair with the crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. It was an absolutely riveting, can't-put-it-down read and to this day remains both my favorite Larson book and one of my all time favorite books of any kind. After DEVIL, I was hooked and I quickly sought out Larson's previous book, ISAAC'S STORM (2000), which told the incredible story of the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, which is still to this day, the greatest natural disaster in American history. 

When THUNDERSTRUCK was released in 2006, I quickly purchased it and read it. It's a fascinating tale, another story in which Larson weaves two parallel narratives together (as he did in DEVIL). This time it's Marconi's invention of the wireless and it's use in tracking and catching a murderer fleeing from London to New York by means of a trans-Atlantic steamer. He followed this thriller of invention and manhunt with IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS (2011), a compelling account of the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the 1930s. He's a veritable sheep among the wolves as Chancellor Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party come to power and begin their reign of terror. All four of these books are highly recommended. You think you don't like reading history? You've just never read someone like Larson who expertly locates the story in history and brings the past to vivid, detailed and thrilling life. 

He's done it again with DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA (2015) which I finished reading the other day. By the way, I've read all five of Larson's books aloud to my beautiful wife Judy and she's enjoyed them as much as I have. As the title indicates, DEAD WAKE recounts the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in May, 1915 by a German U boat. Larson takes his time setting the stage for this epic maritime tragedy. He tells the story of the ship itself and the Cunard line and paints portraits of its' captain, William Turner, key crew members and various passengers rich and poor (some survive, some don't). We learn much about the German navy during World War I and it's campaign of submarine warfare. Larson takes us aboard U-20, sharing sweaty, suffocating space with commander Schwieger and his men. We go into the mysterious Room 40, the nerve center of British naval intelligence where German messages are decoded and where young Winston Churchill must decide how to use this vital information. Finally, we get a look into the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, recently widowed and struggling mightily to keep the United States neutral and out of the ongoing global conflict. He's smitten and lovestruck by a young woman and we watch as this budding romance and relationship takes shape. All of these elements are painstakingly recounted and drawn. They are all pieces on an immense oceanic chessboard in which moves of life and death are played out. 

We know from the very beginning that the Lusitania is doomed but Larson expertly manages to generate a fair amount of suspense by introducing us to various people, making us care about them and then wondering if they will survive the sinking or not. The cat and mouse game between the immense liner and the sub has all of the elements of a thriller. When the deadly torpedo finds it's target, Larson begins an almost minute-by-minute account of the sinking (it took 18 minutes to sink) by placing us on board along with the increasingly terrified passengers and untrained crew. It's riveting and heart stopping. 

Larson does a great job of recounting the aftermath of the sinking and its effect on America, Great Britain and WWI. There is some evidence to support the theory that the Lusitania was deliberately allowed to be targeted and sunk by the Germans in the hope that it would spur the US into joining the war on the side of the Allied powers. Like most people, I mistakenly believed that that's what happened. The Lusitania sank,, the United States declared war and immediately starting sending troops to Europe. The United States did finally join the war but it was two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. 

DEAD WAKE combines the elements of a wartime spy thriller, a horrifying maritime disaster and loss of life, a rich and complex cast of characters and a rock solid sense of you-are-there details and immediacy. If you have never read any of Larson's books, you're really missing out on something. He's one of the best writers of popular history currently working. All of his books are highly recommended and I cannot wait to see what his next book will be. 



Sunday, August 14, 2016

BEND OF THE RIVER


The five western films director Anthony Mann made with James Stewart in the 1950s rank among some of the best of the genre. The combination of Mann and Stewart was right up there with the teams of John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott when it came to making superlative western films during that decade.

Mann and Stewart began their collaborations with WINCHESTER '73 (1950), followed by BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), THE NAKED SPUR (1953), THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). Mann, who helmed several classic films noir including T-MEN (1947), RAILROADED! (1947), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), RAW DEAL (1948) and SIDE STREET (1950), brought some of that noir sensibility to his westerns. Even though they take place in the great outdoors instead of urban jungles, Mann's protagonists, as portrayed by Stewart in these films, are flawed, desperate men with dark secrets, haunted pasts and violent streaks that lurk just under the surface.

Such is the case in BEND OF THE RIVER which I watched for the second time yesterday afternoon. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a former border raider during the Civil War who is in charge of a small wagon train headed for Oregon. The members of the party are unaware of his past and he's seeking a measure of redemption by helping them out. He saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging and Cole later saves McLyntock from an Indian attack. Trouble is Cole was also a Missouri raider and knows the truth about McLyntock.

They party encounters many hardships and trials along the way but Stewart is always on the side of the angels, no matter how tempting it is to give in to his old ways. The supporting cast is superb and includes veteran character actor Jay C. Flippen as the leader of the wagon train, the gorgeous Julie (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) Adams as his daughter, Lori (REVENGE OF THE CREATURE) Nelson as her sister, Frances (Aunt Bee!) Bauvier, Harry (DRAGNET, M*A*S*H) Morgan and Rock Hudson as a riverboat gambler.

Filmed on location in Oregon in Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline, BEND OF THE RIVER features beautiful Technicolor cinematography by Irving Glassberg. The screenplay by Borden Chase (from a novel by Bill Gulick), is solid as is the score by Universal Studios maestro Hans J Salter. Everything is expertly orchestrated by director Mann. He keeps things moving at a brisk clip with well mounted action scenes and quieter dialogue scenes that thrum with buried tension.

I highly recommend BEND OF THE RIVER along with all of the other Mann-Stewart westerns. They're some of the best the genre has to offer.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES


"Murder was easy. The tricky part was getting away with it."

Just finished reading THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES by Lawrence Block. This original crime novel was first published last year by the ever reliable Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) and it sports a nifty cover by the late Glen Orbik.

Ex NYPD detective Doak Miller now works as a private detective in a small town in Florida. Now and then he does odd jobs for the local county sheriff. The sheriff, Bill Radburn, hires Miller to pose as a hit man in order to find out more information about a woman who has hinted that she wants to hire someone to kill her husband. The woman, Lisa Yarrow, is the titular girl with the deep blue eyes and when Miller meets her, he falls for her. Hard.

He quickly clears her of any suspicion and the two begin a torrid affair. Lisa's not the only woman that Doak is fooling around with. There's Barb, a real estate agent with a nice ass whom Miller introduces to the pleasures of anal sex. There's a pregnant milf that Miller enjoys an afternoon tryst with. But it's Lisa who has his heart. She's his fantasy girl. She's the woman he'll commit murder for. Because, why not, he's already killed one man.

While Miller plots his perfect crime, he watches several classic film noirs on TCM: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, IN A LONELY PLACE. In all of these films, people who commit murder and think they've plotted the "perfect crime" are doomed. And Block sets us up to expect the inevitable twist in the final chapters. Lisa will of course be a femme fatale, a treacherous woman who has set up a sap to take the fall for the gruesome murder of her husband. Of course Miller will be caught. Of course he won't get away with.

Oh, there's a twist all right.

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES is fast paced thriller that I devoured in the course of a couple of days. Be warned, it is definitely for adult readers. There is graphic sex and lots of it. But we're in the hands of a true master here. Block executes a perfect magic act of misdirection. He sets you up to expect one thing and then pulls the rug out from under you and gives you something else entirely.

Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

"IT'S THE FOURTH BOOK IN A TRIOLOGY AND I'VE READ ALL FIVE"





You think covers don't sell books? Show me a book with a futuristic, swastika bedecked Nazi helicopter on the cover and you're making me buy it. I'm a sucker for WWII stuff. I'm also a sucker for alternate history stuff. You want to sell me a book that combines both of these genres? Let me get my wallet.

I stumbled across FINAL IMPACT (2008) by John Birmingham on the shelf of the Georgetown Public Library's Second-Hand Prose used bookstore. They wanted a buck for it. Sold. Trouble was, it was the third and final book in a trilogy and I couldn't read it without having first read the first and second books in the Axis of Time series. In this day and age of eBay, acquiring those books, WEAPONS OF CHOICE



 and DESIGNATED TARGETS


was no problem. I found used copies of both, bought 'em and have spent most of this summer plowing through this massive WWII alternate history epic. I finished FINAL IMPACT yesterday and I thoroughly loved the series.

As a rule, I don't read series like this. I don't like to be locked into reading something that, if it's successful, may never end. As an example, DUNE by Frank Herbert, was originally published in 1965. That's more than 50 years ago. They're still publishing DUNE novels. I think the latest was NOSE PICKERS OF DUNE. I like to read books that allow me to get in and get out relatively quickly. Oh sure, I do read series but things like the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child or John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee adventures, don't require you to read every one of them in a strict order. A trilogy, like Axis of Time, is designed to be told over the course of three books (even though the ending sets things up nicely for a yet to be written sequel). Three books I can commit to, especially if the story is well told. This one is.

The concept is simple. In the year 2021, a multinational naval task force is operating in the South Pacific. It's a fleet of ships from many nations, the majority from the U.S., all sporting state-of-the-art technology and weapons systems. A research ship conducting top secret experiments accidentally opens a wormhole in time which transports the modern ships back in time to 1942 at the beginning of the battle for Midway. A huge naval battle ensues before the contemporary navy realizes the men, women and ships from the future are on their side. Of course, the presence of futuristic weapons and technology changes the course of the battle. Oh, and not all of the transported ships land in the same place. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Russia all retrieve 21st century ships. Thus, the balance of power is radically shifted and World War II as we know it never happens.

What's different? The rescue of Allied prisoners of war from the Japanese camp at Cabanatuan takes place in 1942, rather than 1945. The Japanese invade Australia where they are eventually defeated. The Japanese also launch another assault on Hawaii, briefly occupying the islands before being repulsed. Nazi Germany launches an attack on Great Britain across the English Channel. They are defeated. Russia, meanwhile has sued for a temporary cease fire against Germany and sits out much of the war, only to reenter the fray in a major way in the third book. The Russians have atomic weapons and they're not afraid to use them. The U.S. also uses A-bombs, while Nazi Germany unleashes nerve gas and chemical weapons. At the end, the world is a vastly different place than it was in the real war. Although hostilities have ceased, the threat of another war looms on the horizon.

The books do a great job of mixing real people with well drawn fictional characters. All of the major players from history are here: FDR, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, MacArthur, Patton, Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Beria, Churchill, Yamamoto, Spruance, J. Edgar Hoover and others all appear in the books. In a clever twist, Great Britain's Prince Harry is part of the displaced 21st century troops. He quickly goes to battle for his country in WWII. There is initial resistance to the people from the future. After all, there are men and women in positions of command (the one submarine that made it through is skippered by a woman) as well as various nationalities represented. This comes as a shock to the largely sexist, racist and xenophobic people of 1942. Two 21c people, a black woman and a Japanese man, are murdered in the first book but the killer isn't revealed until the end of the third book. There's a gutsy female reporter from the future who embeds with various forces to cover battles in various theaters. A research and development area known as The Zone is set up outside of Los Angeles to incorporate future technology into weapons systems, armaments, vehicles and other military, as well as civilian, purposes.

Birmingham does a great job juggling a very large cast of characters and moving the action literally around the world. There are battles in the South Pacific, Europe and Russia. There are also quieter moments in which the 21st century warriors contemplate the world they've lost and the world they're building. One interesting touch: one of the vessels sent back in time is a gigantic aircraft carrier named The Hillary Clinton. It was named for President Clinton. Prophetic? Time will tell.

The Axis of Time series reminds me of the 1980 film, THE FINAL COUNTDOWN.





In that film, only one modern day carrier was sent back in time to just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Axis of Time operates on a much wider scale and it's a page turner from beginning to end. If you like WWII, if you like alternate history, you'll like this series. Thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

ALL THE WAY



Judy and I watched ALL THE WAY (2016) the other night and it is hands down, one of the best films I've seen so far this year. Produced by HBO films and adapted from the play by Robert Schenkkan, , ALL THE WAY was first broadcast on May 21st of this year. The film covers President Lyndon Johnson's first year in office, beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963, through election day 1964. Bryan Cranston (who reprises his role from the play's 2014 Broadway production) delivers the performance of a lifetime as LBJ. He looks, sounds and moves like Johnson and he fully brings to life this incredible, remarkable man who was, perhaps, the greatest pure politician to ever occupy the Oval Office.  

Cranston dominates the film but he gets a lot of great support from a sterling cast. Melissa Leo is terrific as Lady Bird, Bradley Whitford nails Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Anthony Mackie is solid as Dr. Martin Luther King, Stephen Root is good as J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Langella almost steals the show as Senator Richard Russell, Jr.

The narrative focuses on the political battles that LBJ fought during his first year in getting the Civil Rights Act passed. It's a game of cajoling, arm twisting, intimidation, and sheer force of will. Johnson lectures Humphrey while seated on the toilet in one scene. Compromises are made, power is lost by the Dixiecrats and no sooner does the bill become law than Johnson must face Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Most of the action takes place within the White House, the Capitol and other Washington locales, but Schenkkan and director Jay Roach do a great job of opening up the action and depicting scenes in Mississippi and Johnson's Texas ranch. You never feel like you're watching merely a filmed stage play.

ALL THE WAY draws heavily on archival material to correctly reproduce conversations, meetings, photographs, clothing, cars, etc. It's accurate in all details and this attention to accuracy adds greatly to the film. Last year Judy and I read INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Mark Updegrove (director of the LBJ Library here in Austin). Much of what's in the ALL THE  WAY script was in that book.

Part history lesson, part character study of a very complex man, ALL THE WAY is first rate from beginning to end. It's enormously engrossing, gripping, and, at times, funny. It has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Television Movie as well as acting nominations for Cranston and Leo. It deserves to win them all in my book.

You may be sick and tired of politics in this contentious election year but if you're at all interested in both American history and well crafted drama, you owe it to yourself to watch ALL THE WAY. Highest recommendation.

Now, a personal note. One of my mother's best friends while growing up in Austin was Liz Carpenter. Carpenter, who begin her career as a journalist, eventually went to work for Lyndon Johnson when he was in Congress and finally wound up as Lady Bird's press secretary durng the White House years. My family took a trip to Washington in the summer of 1964 and Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the Oval Office and a photo op with President Johnson. That's me front left. Note the short pants legs. I think I was expecting a flood that day.




The irony of this photograph is that both of my parents were rock solid Republicans. They did not like LBJ. My father had a huge Goldwater campaign sign attached to the roof of his car. It looked like a green and yellow shark fin. My mother, to her dying day, believed that Johnson engineered the death of JFK in order to achieve the presidency. But still, my mother and Liz Carpenter remained friends until the end. I got to know Liz over the years and had the honor of interviewing her for a profile story I did for DISCOVER AUSTIN magazine back in the 1990s. Liz attended my mother's funeral service and if I recall correctly, that was the last time I visited with her before her death. 



Monday, August 8, 2016

CARIBOO TRAIL


I watched THE CARIBOO TRAIL (1950) the other day. It's not a great film by any stretch but it was a good way to pass the time on a blistering hot summer afternoon. CARIBOO is similar to CANADIAN PACIFIC (1949), which I previously reviewed here. Both films star Randolph Scott, both were filmed on location in Canada, both were helmed by journeyman director Edwin L. Marin and both were shot in Cinecolor.

Scott stars as Jim Redfern, a man determined to start a cattle ranch in Canada. He encounters a series of obstacles including hostile Indians and villainous Frank Walsh (Victor Jory), who owns most of the territory. Redfern is aided by crusty and grizzled gold prospector Oscar Winters (the inimitable Gabby Hayes in his last film appearance) and beautiful, independent saloon owner Frances Harrison (Karin Booth). Redfern's former partner, Mike Evans (Bill Williams), loses an arm in the first act. He blames Redfern and sides with Walsh before having a change of heart in the third act in which he redeems himself.

The locations are gorgeous but once again, there's an abrupt and unsettling visual disconnect when the action shifts from the great outdoors to faux outdoor sets on a sound stage. With a running time of 81 minutes and a script by Western veteran Frank Gruber, CARIBOO TRAIL is a routine, formula Western. It's not a classic but it's fun to watch.