Wednesday, October 7, 2015


I remember seeing DEATH WISH (1974) when it was first released during the summer after I graduated from high school. Charles Bronson was, and still is, one of my favorite actors, and over the course of his film career, I made an effort to see as many of his films as possible. Next to Clint Eastwood, he was my favorite action star of the 1970s. I watched DEATH WISH, one of Bronson's biggest commercial hits and also, one of his most controversial films, again the other day for the first time in over forty years. In fact, I turned off one death wish (UT vs. TCU) to watch another one.

New York City architect Paul Kersey (Bronson), is a peaceful, law abiding citizen. But one day his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked in their apartment by a trio of vicious thugs (one of whom is a very young Jeff Goldblum). Joanna dies, while Carol survives her assault only to gradually withdraw into a comatose, vegetative state.

Kersey is frustrated that the police offer little if any hope of ever finding and prosecuting the men who committed the attack. When Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) a commercial real estate developer partner, gives Kersey a vintage six-shooter as a gift, Kersey gets the idea to walk the mean streets of mid '70s New York City and start meting out his own justice, vigilante style.

Kersey is shocked and horrified after his first killing but when he gets away with it, he continues on his crusade because, after all, the city is full to bursting with criminal lowlifes who, of course, in Kersey's mind, deserve killing. The irony is that Kersey never does find and kill the actual men responsible for the attack on his family. He targets random thugs and muggers, killing them all quickly and surely.

NYPD takes a dim view of these vigilante killings. Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation and eventually discovers that Kersey is the killer. However, Ochoa is handcuffed by the police commissioner and district attorney in his attempt to bring Kersey to justice. The fact is that the crime rate in New York has dropped due to Kersey's actions and the powers that be fear that arresting and prosecuting Kersey will make him a martyr. They instruct Ochoa to pressure Kersey into leaving New York. He does and journeys to Chicago (another major American city with an urban crime problem) where it is presumed that Kersey will continue on his crusade of vigilante justice.

DEATH WISH, directed by Michael Winner with a script by Wendell Mayes (based on Brian Garfield's novel), is a classic '70s urban crime film. It has the gritty look and feel of the city in that era and the film did much to reinforce the image of New York City as a crime ridden metropolis. Bronson is solid as always as a peaceful man slowly discovering and channeling his inner rage into learning how to kill with quick dispatch and a modicum of remorse. DEATH WISH isn't an action packed thriller, especially by today's standards. Instead, it's a troubling, thought provoking work that finds us rooting for a cold blooded killer because, after all, he's only killing other criminals.

DEATH WISH spawned five sequels: DEATH WISH II (1982), DEATH WISH 3 (1985), DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (1987), DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH (1994) and DEATH SENTENCE (2007). These films continued to up the ante with Kersey facing even more vile and vicious killers with a variety of higher caliber weapons and bigger and bolder action set pieces.

But none of the subsequent films in the franchise hit the hot button of '70s paranoia and fear as well as the original did. Thumbs up.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


"Somebody owes me money" - George C. Scott in THE HUSTLER (1962)

Yeah, Scott may have said it first but that didn't stop the late, great Donald E. Westlake from using that phrase as the title for his 1969 comic crime novel. I finished reading this fast paced, breezy romp of a mystery this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. The edition I read was reprinted by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) in June, 2008.

Chet Conway is a New York City taxi driver with a slight gambling problem. One day, a fare doesn't give him a monetary tip. Instead, the passenger gives him a tip on a horse, a tip which pays off big to the tune of nine hundred and thirty dollars. When Chet goes to collect his winnings from his bookie, he finds the bookie shot dead and Chet fingered as the most likely suspect in the killing.

Before you know it, Chet is on the run from not one but two rival gangs of mobsters, the police and Abbie, the dead bookie's blackjack dealer sister from Las Vegas who has hit town aiming to avenger her brother's murder by killing Chet.

Chet and Abbie quickly make peace but they're still in a jam. They need to find out who killed the bookie and who tried to kill Chet in order to get the mob and the cops off of their backs. There's oodles of comic dialogue and a well executed chase sequence before the action climaxes in a poker game in which one of the players is guilty of the crime.

Westlake was a master of this type of light hearted, fast paced, and utterly beguiling comic mystery. It's not as hard boiled and tough as the Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. But if you're looking for a fast, fun read, check out SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY. You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, October 3, 2015


VICKI (1953) is the second movie my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the other day as part of our film noir double feature afternoon. Like most of our double feature screenings, one of the movies is usually really good, while the other is only so so. In this case, TENSION (1949) was the better of the two.

VICKI plays like a warmed over, wannabe version of Otto Preminger's film noir masterpiece LAURA (1944) but it's actually based on the Steve Fisher novel, I WAKE UP SCREAMING, which was made as a film under that same title in 1941. The story revolves around the murder of "it" girl, Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters)  and the attempt by obsessed police detective Lt. Ed Cornell (Richard Boone) to solve the crime.

Cornell, like Dana Andrews in LAURA, was in love with the murdered woman but here he knew her when she was still alive whereas Andrews falls in love with Laura after she was murdered. Cornell is determined to prove that Vicki's publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) committed the murder and the evidence, though circumstantial, certainly points in his direction. But Cornell is so hell bent on nailing Christopher that you start to believe that perhaps he is the real killer.

VICKI is not a bad film noir at all. It just suffers from a "seen it before" familiarity. Richard Boone is very good as the crazy cop while Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters are both lovely to look at. VICKI is far from being a first rate film noir but it's certainly worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of the genre.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


I finished reading Alfred Bester's debut science fiction novel THE DEMOLISHED MAN (1953) the other day. I raced through this one at a wicked pace. Of the three vintage science fiction novels I've recently read, including THE NAKED SUN by Isaac Asimov and TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson, this one is far and away the best. Bester was, in my opinion, the best writer of the three and his groundbreaking first novel is both an award winner and a certifiable genre classic.

Originally published in three parts beginning in the January 1952 issue of GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, Bester published the novel in 1953. Bester wanted to title the novel DEMOLITION! but GALAXY editor H.L. Gold talked him out of it. THE DEMOLISHED MAN was the first winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year in 1953.

Like Asimov's NAKED SUN, THE DEMOLISHED MAN is a science fiction/detective novel. In the 24th century, Ben Reich, a wealthy businessman and owner of the immense Monarch Company fears a take-over of his interests by rival businessman Craye D'Courtney. To forestall the take over, Reich plots to murder D'Courtney. But how do you commit a murder in a world in which a percentage of the population are "Espers", that is, mind readers, or "peepers" as they're called in the language of the day. Peepers are classed according to their abilities on a scale from 1 to 3 with Class 1 being the highest.

Reich enlists a Class 1 peeper, Augustus Tate, to run interference for him and to protect him from Police Prefect Lincoln Powell, who is also a Class 1 peeper. Reich commits the audacious crime and soon finds himself on the run with Powell dogging his every move. Reich and Powell engage in an intricate and breathlessly plotted game of cat and mouse, with action occurring in both the physical world as well as the mental. Should Powell finally gather the evidence to convict Reich, Reich faces the horrifying fate of demolition, the details of which are vividly displayed in the books' final chapters.

It's an intriguing concept and Bester executes it beautifully. He plays with language and, in some sections, the way words are laid out on the page to approximate what it's like inside peepers' minds. He creates a fully realized future world populated by a variety of colorful characters, some good, some bad. But he never forgets that he's telling a thrilling, suspenseful detective story.  I won't say much more about this terrific book except to say that I loved it. If you're a science fiction fan, THE DEMOLISHED MAN is a must read. If you're a genre novice, this is an excellent place to start.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched TENSION (1949) yesterday. It was the first time for both of us to experience this wire taut film noir.

Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) is a milquetoast pharmacist with a very bad wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). She's the classic film noir femme fatale, a woman who openly and flagrantly cheats on her husband. Claire takes up with wealthy businessman Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).  The cuckolded Quimby decides to murder Deager but in order to do so, he creates a false identity, "Paul Southern". His plan is to kill Deager as Southern and then have the non-existent Southern disappear forever.

To pull off the deceit, Quimby gets contact lenses to replace his wire rim glasses (shades of Clark Kent!). He rents an apartment under the Southern name, explaining that he's a traveling salesman and will only use the apartment on the weekends. But he meets an attractive neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) and they start to fall in love.

Quimby goes to Daeger's beach house at night to kill him but finds he cannot do it. He decides that living with the rotten and corrupt Claire is punishment enough for the man. Relieved of his anger, and free of his cheating wife, Quimby is ready to start a new life with Mary.

But someone does kill Daeger and all of the evidence points towards "Paul Southern". Enter a pair of police detectives, Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and Lt. Edgar Gonsales (William Conrad). They can't find Southern or the murder weapon but an unexpected turn of events points the finger of suspicion at Quimby. Bonnabel starts romancing Claire in order to try and get the goods on her husband. The cops aren't totally crooked but they do use some questionable tactics to solve the case.

TENSION is a first rate film noir. It's a classic exercise in suspense where a man finds himself hopelessly trapped in a spiraling series of circumstances, many of which are of his own creation. Basehart is good as the mild mannered Quimby while Totter drips venom in every scene. She's a very, very bad girl. Charisse is solid as is Sullivan but I got the biggest kick out of watching Conrad. He was always one of my favorite actors, whether playing good guys or bad.

Directed by John Berry from a screenplay by Allen Rivkin (based on a story by John D. Klorer), TENSION moves along at a good clip. The cinematography by Harry Stradling is appropriately moody and atmospheric and there are several scenes shot on location in Los Angles that really add to the realism of the film.

If you're a film noir fan, check out TENSION. I guarantee you'l enjoy it. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I finished reading Poul Anderson's science fiction novel TAU ZERO (1970), the other day. It was the first time I'd read this one and I enjoyed it. Originally published as a short story "To Outlive Eternity" in GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION in 1967, Anderson expanded his story into novel form in 1970. The book received a Hugo Award Nomination for Best Novel in 1971.

The story concerns the star ship Leonora Christine, a massive vessel designed to carry a crew of fifty people (twenty-five men and twenty-five women), to a planet in a distant star system. The plan is for the ship to steadily accelerate it's rate of speed during the first part of the voyage and then begin to gradually decelerate for the second part. But when the ship passes through a nebulina (a cloud of dust and gas)  before reaching the halfway point, the crew discovers that they cannot repair the decelerator, nor can they turn off the accelerator.

The result is that the ship becomes a "Flying Dutchman" of space and time as it journeys deeper into the universe at an ever increasing rate of speed. The ship eventually move out into a starless void where the crew discovers that the universe has reached it's limit and is now beginning to collapse back into an immense block of proto matter which is set to explode in another "big bang" event, effectively creating a new universe. Will the ship and crew survive this journey beyond space and time?

Anderson focuses the story on a few members of the crew but his main protagonist is Charles Reymont, the Ship's Constable. He's cold, distant, unemotional and runs the ship with a firm but fair hand. He eventually becomes the de-facto leader of the crew when the ship's captain, Lars Telander, proves incapable of leading. Reymont is in love with Ingrid Lindgren, the Ship's First Officer but during the voyage, she rejects Reymont and takes up Boris Federoff, the Ship's Chief Engineer. Reymont then begins a relationship with Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, a planetologist.

All of this partner switching could easily devolve into soap opera but Anderson deftly balances the immense psychological stresses and strains the crew undergoes with the hard science of the star ship's propulsion system and the sheer wonder, awe and mystery of the universe as it lives, dies and lives again.

TAU ZERO is a good, solid novel. It's regarded by many as a quintessential example of hard science ficiton with the plot driven by technology as much as characters. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading other Poul Anderson science fiction novels. Thumbs up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


After watching THE SPLIT (1968) a while back, I decided to read the novel the film was based on. THE SEVENTH, by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) is, appropriately, the seventh novel in Stark's series of novels about master thief Parker. The book was originally published in 1966. The edition I read, pictured above, was published in March, 1985. I bought it when it came out and it's been sitting on my shelves, unread, ever since. Until now.

As always, the book is better than the film, although, to be fair the film was good, just vastly different from the book. The book opens with the murder of  Ellie, a girl Parker has shacked up with after the big football stadium heist. Parker finds her dead and all of the money from the robbery missing, along with several guns used in the crime. The actual heist itself is told in a one-chapter flashback. The real story concerns Parkers' efforts to find the mysterious killer who ran a sword through Ellie, stole the money and guns and has attempted to kill Parker several times.

Parker's crew numbers seven as opposed to the five men in the film. The killer isn't a landlord (he's an ex-boyfriend). Parker and police detective Dougherty share information but Dougherty isn't corrupt and doesn't end up with the money as happened in the film.

Instead, Stark tells a taut, tight, bullet swift tale of crooks falling out, with an ever increasing body count. Parker just wants his money back and nothing will stop him from recovering it. He's an implacable force of doom for any and all who stand in his way. There's a terrific climax in an under construction office building and a nice little stinger at the end.

If you've yet to experience the pure, adrenaline fueled rush of a Parker novel, you're missing something. These books are terrific. Parker is an unforgettable character and Stark never fails to come up with ingenious plots that pit Parker against multiple obstacles that must be overcome. Two big thumbs up.