Monday, May 22, 2017

TRIPLE CROSS


TRIPLE CROSS (1966) was one of many films I recall seeing advertised when I was a kid. I identified it as something I wanted to see (WWII! Spies! Beautiful women!) but never did. I had an opportunity to view it yesterday afternoon thanks to TCM and frankly, it wasn't worth waiting fifty years for.

On paper, TRIPLE CROSS has a great pedigree. It was directed by Terence Young, the man who helmed three of the first four James Bond films: DR. NO (1962), FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) and THUNDERBALL (1965). Claudine Auger, a Bond girl from THUNDERBALL, appears in a small part as a member of the French resistance, while Bond villain Gert Frobe (GOLDFINGER, 1964), plays a German colonel. There's even a Bond-style song over the end credits. And then there's Yul Brynner, as another German colonel. With his bald head and glass monocle, all he needs is sizable facial scar to be a dead ringer for Nick Fury's long time nemesis Baron Strucker.

Based on a true story, TRIPLE CROSS is the tale of Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer), a professional safe cracker and jewel thief operating in Great Britain at the outset of WWII. When he is captured and imprisoned on the German occupied island of Jersey, Chapman bargains with the German brass for his release by offering to work for them using his safe cracking skills and expertise with explosives. The Germans agree but remain suspicious. Chapman is put through rigorous training before being sent on his first mission. He's supposed to be parachuted into England but instead, lands in Germany as a test of his loyalty. He passes and is finally sent on his actual mission.

Once in England, he goes immediately to the authorities and meets with an unnamed British spy master (Trevor Howard). Chapman gives up all of his information on the Germans to the British and tells them he'll work as a double agent in return for a full pardon and cash. They agree and he's sent back to Germany.

Chapman is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the German army thanks to his successful completion of his first mission but things have changed. His main ally, Colonel Baron von Grunen (Brynner) has been sent to the Russian front and several SS officers are beginning to have serious doubts about Chapman's loyalty. He's prepped for another mission back to England but once the allies invade Normandy, the top brass know it's only a matter of time before Germany loses the war.
Chapman returns to England and sends phony info back to the Germans about where their V2 rockets are striking which helps hasten the end of the war. And the movie.

TRIPLE CROSS has all of the ingredients of a first rate spy thriller. Plummer makes a likeable rogue, the villains are colorful and the women (Auger and Romy Schneider as a German countess) are beautiful. But the screenplay by Rene Hardy and William Marchant is weak and episodic. The production seems slightly cheap and cut rate and the third act is rushed, with the movie coming to an abrupt end. There's no real action and very little genuine suspense. Of course, the filmmakers were dealing with real life, not fiction but I can't help but believe that with a little bit more time, effort and money, TRIPLE CROSS could have been an effective wartime thriller. As is, it's a mediocre relic of '60s WWII cinema.

There were far better WWII films produced in that decade and far worse. TRIPLE CROSS falls somewhere in the middle.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE BOSTON STRANGLER


In 1968, when I was twelve-years old, I developed an interest in the Boston Strangler serial killer murders of the early 1960s. Don't really know what it was about this case that sparked my interest but I do recall purchasing and reading the Signet paperback edition of Gerold Frank's bestselling book. It was the first true-crime book I can recall reading and, to be honest, the majority of the material was way above my head. I was way too young to fully process what I read and I was certainly too young to be allowed to see the 1968 film of the same name. But I did.

The film was released on October 16th, 1968 with the label "suggested for mature audiences." Had the film's release been delayed by less than a month, it would have most certainly earned an "R" rating under the newly minted Motion Picture Rating System which went into effect on November 1st of that year with the initial ratings composed of "G", "M", "R" and "X". In fact, the DVD edition of the film that I have now bears the "R" rating. Had the film been rated "R" at the time, my buddy Steve Cook and I would not been allowed admission without a parent or adult guardian. But we were on our own and our money was green at the box office of Austin's Paramount Theatre.

I watched the film yesterday for the first time since that long ago 1968 viewing. It's an extremely compelling film, told in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward approach by screenwriter Edward Anhalt (working from Frank's book) and director Richard Fleischer (who also helmed  THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and SOYLENT GREEN (1973), among many others). Fleischer and cinematographer Richard H. Kline use split/screen and multiple small images all in the same frame to great effect throughout the film. The exteriors were shot on location in Boston and surrounding areas while interiors were filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios.

Tony Curtis, playing against type, stars as Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler. It was a brave move for Curtis, who by this point in his career was relegated to romantic comedies, to portray one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.  To make things even more daring, Curtis doesn't even appear onscreen until halfway through the film's 116 minute running time.

John S. Bottomly (Henry Fonda) is the head of the "Strangler Bureau", a combined strike force of various law enforcement agencies tasked with finding the killer. He's aided by Detective Phil DiNatale (George Kennedy) and Sgt. Frank McAfee (Murray Hamilton), among others. The investigation leads them into various blind alleys which uncover the seamy and seedy underbelly of Boston. Caught in the dragnet are peeping toms, obscene phone callers, foot fetishists, bottom pinchers, wife beaters and other kooks and weirdos. Boston's underground gay scene is included, in a scene I'm sure went entirely over my head in 1968.

DeSalvo is ultimately caught and his split personality eventually revealed in a series of interrogations by Bottomly. De Salvo was never indicted or convicted for the murders but was incarcerated on rape charges. He died in prison in 1973.

THE BOSTON STRANGLER is a daring piece of film making, using cutting edge visuals and a bold act of counter casting with Curtis in the lead. It's grim, frank and disturbing but never exploitative nor sensationalistic and is definitely worth seeing.


THE BOTTOMS


Joe R. Lansdale is a born and bred Texas writer (from Nagadoches), who's been around for quite some time. He's written horror, dark fantasy, crime, mystery, westerns, pulp adventures and comic books. I read a couple of his books years ago but he's always been one of those guys that I was aware of and wanted to check out but somehow just never got around to. I saw him at a recent one day book festival and, having just purchased a used copy of THE BOTTOMS, decided that now was as good a time as any to sample some of his more recent work.

Boy, can this guy write. THE BOTTOMS, his 2001 Edgar Award winning novel is one hell of a ride. Comparisons to Harper Lee's immortal masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are inevitable but let's call THE BOTTOMS, MOCKINGBIRD noir. Set in a small town in East Texas during the Depression of the 1930s, the story is narrated by a young boy, Harry. His father is both the local barber and constable and he has plenty on his hands when Harry and his little sister Tom (Thomasina), discover the mutilated body of a black prostitute in the woods. The crime is the handiwork of a serial killer who is stalking the bottom lands and it's ultimately up to Harry and Tom to solve the mystery of the killer's identity and bring an end to the killings.

Dark and complex, THE BOTTOMS spins a tale of race relations, hidden secrets, twisted desires, a loss of innocence and unbreakable ties of familial love. Harry and his family, along with other characters in the book, go through plenty of dark patches before the end and the book is definitely not for children or the faint hearted. But Lansdale brings this lost time and place to vivid life, peoples it with well drawn, sympathetic characters and ratchets up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.

I must confessed that I figured out the identity of the killer about halfway through the book but that didn't keep me from racing through the pages, praying desperately that Harry and Tom would survive the ordeal of both the killer and the mysterious, shadowy figure known as The Goat Man who haunts the woods. THE BOTTOMS is a crackerjack piece of storytelling and is one of the best books I've read this year.

I've already started my next Lansdale book, SAVAGE SEASON, the first in his long running Hap and Leonard series.

Highly recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2017

IDIOCRACY


"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Writer/Director Mike Judge swings at and hits a lot of low hanging fruit in his 2006 science-fiction comedy IDIOCRACY. The premise is a rift on the old Rip Van Winkle plot device (see also Woody Allen's brilliant SLEEPER (1973)), in which a person from the present day is put into hibernation only to awaken years later into a brave new world.

The sleepers here are Army Corporal Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and hooker Rita (Maya Rudolph) who are subjects of a military experiment designed to put the two to sleep for only one year. But things, of course, go wrong and the pair are revived 500 years later in an America dominated by dumb asses.

Joe, or Not Sure, as the idiots name him, is, despite his strictly average intelligence, a genius to the stunted mouth-breathers he finds himself surrounded by. Through a series of trial and errors, Joe eventually saves the morons from their own stupidity and becomes President of the United States.

The gags are rapid fire and plentiful. Advertising covers every available surface. Water has been replaced by "Brawndo", a Gatorade-like sports drink that has "electrolytes". The most popular film is ASS, a 90 minute shot of a person's butt. The favorite television program is OH, MY BALLS! a JACKASS like laugh riot in which a hapless stooge's balls are continuously under attack.

To add to the insanity, the president is former wrestling star Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), who presides over a cabinet of knuckle-walkers. Gee who would have ever thought we'd have a stupid celebrity president and a bunch of idiots (Ben Carson, Rick Perry) as cabinet members?

The special effects range from acceptable to dodgy and there are a couple of scenes filmed in Austin at the convention center and the Seaholm power plant. IDIOCRACY was barely released theatrically by 20th Century Fox, making less than $500K at the box office. It has since gone on to achieve cult status and deservedly so. It is a genuinely funny film that hits a target that we don't have to wait 500 years to see come true. The stupid people are already here and their numbers are legion.

Thanks to our friend Holly Hepp Galvan for the recommendation. Thumbs up.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

FRANKENSTEIN 1970


FRANKENSTEIN 1970 (1958) was, like so many other mid-century science fiction/horror films, a movie I first encountered in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS.A Frankenstein movie starring Boris Karloff and set in the far distant year of 1970 sounded way cool. I never got around to seeing it when I was a kid but I watched it the other day and was profoundly disappointed.

For starters, the title is somewhat misleading because there's nothing in the film that even remotely tries to depict the then 12-years into the future world of 1970. It's a marketing gimmick, pure and simple. And although Karloff gives it his best, he's hampered by a sub par script by Richard H. Landau and George Worthington Yates (from a story by Aubrey Schenck and Charles A. Moses) and an extraordinarily weak cast of supporting players whose acting abilities range from passable to non-existent.

The story concerns a television film crew and cast who are shooting a "documentary" about the Frankenstein family and its' horrific legacy in Castle Frankenstein itself. Baron Victor Von Frankenstein (Karloff), is their gracious host but he's up to something in his hidden, underground laboratory. The scar-faced and limping Baron appears to have suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and he seeks to make a living creature with his own pre-war perfect features. This costs money of course (he desperately needs an atomic reactor) and he's willing to host the film crew in exchange for a fee. By the way, just where does one go to purchase an off-the-shelf atomic reactor?

Of course, things go wrong as various members of the Baron's staff and the film crew stumble across a giant, swathed-in bandages body in the basement and meet their untimely ends. It ends with the "monster" killing the Baron (didn't see that coming!) and the face of the monster revealed as Karloff''s own.

Shot in CinemaScope by Carl E. Guthrie, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 is nonetheless visually unimaginative with director Howard W. Koch either afraid of or unwilling to use edits. He lets long scenes play out in single takes that seem to go on and on, the camera tracking across a borrowed set while actors spout their lines. It's all stagy and static. There's little to no atmosphere or suspense save in the "gotcha" opening scene where a woman is pursued through the nighttime forest by a monstrous beast.

Karloff is the only reason to watch this turkey, a lackluster piece of genre clap trap that trades heavily on the names of both Karloff and Frankenstein to garner an audience.  It's strictly low-budget, barely competent junk. Thumbs down.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS


HIGH ADVENTURE #47 reprints another classic issue of the vintage pulp magazine THE MYSTERIOUS WU FANG. This time, the issue is from February, 1936. The story, THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS is by veteran pulp wordsmith Robert J. Hogan and the vivid cover painting is by Jerome Rozen.

In this page-turner of a thriller, the action takes place entirely in New York City and the twisted streets, alleys and underground passageways of Chinatown. Wu Fang is up to his old tricks again, killing prominent citizens left and right and leaving their poisoned corpses clutching a rare and exotic Black Lotus flower. It's up to the intrepid trio of G-Man Val Kildare, archeologist Rod Carson and newspaper reporter Jerry Hazard to solve the riddle and stop the murders before they escalate to an even larger scale of death and destruction.

The action, as usual is fast and furious with the climax taking place in Wu Fang's torture chamber where Hazard faces certain death when he is placed upon the stretching rack. But help is on the way and things come to an abrupt end with Wu Fang escaping to menace the world again on another day.

Part of the problem with building a pulp character series around a master villain is that he (or she), can't completely succeed in their wild schemes in each issue. If they did, they'd be rulers of the world. Instead, they must enjoy limited success in their plans before being foiled by the heroes which allows them return in the next issue for more murder, madness and mayhem. In BLACK LOTUS, Wu Fang doesn't even appear "on camera" until the final couple of chapters of the story, even though his presence is felt throughout the yarn. Kildare, Carson and Hazard are cardboard, one dimensional characters, interchangeable to a large degree and identified only by their respective job titles: government agent, archaeologist and newspaperman.  The abrupt ending may have been a result of author Hogan being on a strict deadline and word count. It's like he hit a certain number of pages and time's up! Please step away from the typewriter.

A rewrite could have cleaned up some dangling plot threads and made things hang together a bit better but, as I've said before, a polished manuscript would rob such stories as THE CASE OF THE BLACK LOTUS of their vitality and headlong pace. You don't read something like this looking for shine, spit and polish. You read it to escape, to enter a world threatened by an evil genius where death and danger lie in wait around every corner.

Mission accomplished.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE DEATH GIVER


There were a total of 30 SHADOW pulp novels reprinted in paperback in the late '60s/early '70s. Following upon the success that Bantam books was enjoying with their ambitious reprints of the entire DOC SAVAGE series, The Shadow found a home at Bantam also at first, before moving to Pyramid which then morphed into Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, or Jove for short.

I have now read all 29 of those SHADOW paperbacks. Wait, weren't there 30? Yes but the first Shadow novel, THE LIVING SHADOW, was published by both Bantam and Pyramid. I have the Bantam edition and read that one first and didn't need to read it again when it was reissued later. But reading 29 SHADOW novels is just a drop in the bucket when you consider that there were a total of 325 Shadow adventures published. Needless to say, I have a very long way to go before I'm finished with The Shadow.

The book pictured above, THE DEATH GIVER, was the 30th Shadow thriller, first published in May 1933. It was the last reprint published by Jove in April 1978. The cover by Jim Steranko is, of course, magnificent but suffice it say, no scene even remotely like this appears in the story. As much as I love Steranko's work and his interpretation of this classic pulp hero, I think he kinda missed the boat on this one.

That's because there was stuff in THE DEATH GIVER that would have made a much more powerful cover, albeit, without the fetching redhead in the pink slip. Thade, the Death Giver, the title character, is a bonafide super villain. He's a disgraced weapons maker who, when the U.S. military declines to buy his wares, turns his devices upon the people of New York City in a reign of terror and death. Thade (real name Julius Olney), is a wizened little man who dresses in green robes emblazoned with a black skull and crossbones. He has a secret hideout somewhere in Manhattan, where he's guarded by two immense Nubian servants. From here he plots his schemes of murder and extortion.

Thade starts on a small scale, targeting random victims to disguise his real objectives, wealthy businessmen and their money. After several seemingly unrelated deaths in the first part of the book, crimes which baffle the police but not The Shadow, Thade and his thralls up the ante by unleashing a rain of poison gas on a ticker tape parade in lower Manhattan. The attack is thwarted by The Shadow which leads to a final showdown in Thade's den of evil.

THE DEATH GIVER is a first rate pulp thriller featuring a genuine costumed super villain with a secret identity, a hideout, henchmen, deadly devices and insane schemes of mass destruction. I would have loved to see Steranko's rendering of this madman on the cover of this book but alas, we'll have to make do with what we have which is still first rate.

Highly recommended for pulp fans and for those who are wondering what all of the fuss over these old stories is about. This one's a winner.