Tuesday, July 7, 2015

THE BLACK ANGEL


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE BLACK ANGEL (1946) this afternoon. It's a terrific little film noir that neither one of us had ever seen before.

Dan Duryea stars as Martin Blair, a drunken songwriter who tries to see his estranged wife Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) in her penthouse apartment one night. He wrote the song that made her a recording star but she'll have nothing to do with him. He can't gain access to the apartment house but he sees sinister nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) go in. Later, an unknown man (Hobart Cavanaugh) who was having an affair with Mavis enters the only to find her dead, strangled with her monogrammed scarf. He of course leaves a trail of evidence, is eventually arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

The trouble is, he's innocent and his beloved wife, Catherine (June Vincent) believes him and wants to save him from the gas chamber even though he was cheating on her. The police offer no help but she eventually hooks up with Blair who also wants to solve the murder of his ex-wife. They team up and follow a trail that leads to Lorre's nightclub where the two get a job as a piano player and lounge singer in order to find evidence in Lorre's possession. Duryea sobers up and begins to fall for Vincent. There's a suspenseful scene in the nightclub in which Vincent dares all to gain access to Lorre's inner sanctum but they soon discover they have the wrong man.

With her husband only hours away from execution, Vincent goes to visit him one last time in prison. While she's away, Duryea falls off of the wagon, having been spurned by Vincent when he declared his love for her. He eventually discovers the true identity of the murderer in a shocking, didn't-see-it-coming final twist.

THE BLACK ANGEL was originally a novel by the legendary Cornell Woolrich. Screenwriter Roy Chanslor does a good job of adapting the material while director Roy William Neill (who also produced the film), does a fine job of putting the solid cast through a never ending series of twists, turns and reversals of fortune. THE BLACK ANGEL was the last film Neill directed. He had previously helmed several of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce SHERLOCK HOLMES films at Universal as well as the first monster team-up film FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943).

THE BLACK ANGEL is a first rate film noir that you will enjoy whether you're an aficionado of the genre or just a lover of good movies. Highly recommended.

INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE PRESIDENCY


I finished reading INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE PRESIDENCY (2012) by Mark K. Updegrove last night. It took me a while to work through this one for two reasons. One, I started reading it prior to my recent surgery and my recovery from that took much longer than expected, thus limiting my reading time for this book The other reason is that this is one of those books that I read aloud in it's entirety to my lovely wife Judy. Our tradition is that I read aloud to her while she cooks our dinner, then we eat and I clean up the kitchen upwards. It's a nice division of labor and it allows us to enjoy many great books together.

INDOMITABLE WILL, as the title indicates, covers President Johnson's years in the White House, from the moment he was thrust into the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, through his election to the office in 1964 to his final decision not to run again in 1968 and the final passing of power to President Richard Nixon in 1969.

Updegrove tells the story primarily through the voices of the people closest to Johnson in his administration as well as Lady Bird and LBJ himself. There are several transcriptions of recorded phone conversations between LBJ and cabinet members, congressmen, staff members and others. It all makes for some fascinating insight into this incredibly complex man whom many consider to be the consummate politician of the 20th century.

LBJ introduced dozens of major pieces of legislation that were eventually passed by Congress and signed into law. His domestic accomplishments are staggering in their depth and breadth. The laws that he helped bring into being rung profound and permanent changes in American society. His Great Society program included many pieces of legislation that affected millions of Americans in largely positive ways.

But LBJ's downfall was the war in Vietnam. As much as he accomplished domestically, he was mired in a "no-way-out" situation in Southeast Asia that carried a tremendous cost of blood and treasure. If he had somehow managed to find the oh-so-elusive "peace with honor" and end the conflict in Vietnam, maybe he would have run for a second term in office. But the truth is that his health was already failing him and he most likely wouldn't have survived a second term.

Love him or hate him, Lyndon Johnson is a fascinating, complex figure in America history. His legacy divides clearly into two arenas: the great things he accomplished domestically and the costly tragedy of the war in Vietnam. It's been said more than once by other historians that Johnson, both the man and his administration, carry an air of Shakespearean tragedy. I agree with that assessment. Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to reading more about LBJ in the future. INDOMITABLE WILL is highly recommended.

As Paul Harvey used to say, this next is partly personal. One of my mother's best friends was Liz Carpenter who was Lady Bird's press secretary. My mom and Liz grew up together and remained fast friends through out their lives despite the fact that Liz was a yellow dog Democrat and my mother was a rock-ribbed Republican. When our family took a trip to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1964, Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the White House which included a visit to the Oval Office. I got to sit in the presidents' desk chair. Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, President Johnson met us and posed for a photograph with the Campbell family. My mother and father were no fans of LBJ. They supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Still, you have to put personal politics aside when you're standing outside the White House with the President of the United States. The office demands respect regardless of what you think of the man occupying it.

One of the blessings of my life was that, thanks to my mother, I got to know Liz Carpenter quite well over the years. I visited her at her Westlake Hills home quite often, interviewed her for a story when I was freelancing for a local magazine, escorted her to several book related events and always enjoyed being with her and listening to all of the great stories she had to share. She was witness to an incredible amount of American history and she was always kind, gracious, warm and friendly whenever we spent time together. When my mother passed away in 2003, Liz came to the funeral service and we spoke together for several minutes. That may have been the last time we spoke.  I truly treasure those memories and give thanks to my mother for having the good sense to make Liz Carpenter a lifelong friend for both of us.

 

Monday, July 6, 2015

THE TIME MACHINE


My earliest memory (and it's only a partial, fragmented one at best) of seeing THE TIME MACHINE (1960) was on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES. I don't know the year of the broadcast but I do remember that I was at my grandparents' house that night. The television was on and tuned to the channel showing the movie. The only thing I remember seeing was the atomic attack on London in the year 1966. I don't recall anything else about the film before or after. It's entirely possible we had tuned in late and missed the beginning of the film and it's also possible that with a bedtime looming, the television was turned off before the film was over and I was taken home by my parents.

I do strongly remember seeing stills from the film in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND in the 1960s. Every so often, Forry would run a still of Rod Taylor duking it out with the Moorlocks in their underground cavern. I was totally mesmerized by those images. This film looked so cool and held such great promise. I had to see it.

I also recall checking out a paperback copy of H.G. Wells' THE TIME MACHINE from our elementary school library. This wasn't an abridged, kid friendly version. This was the real McCoy, complete with, if memory serves, a cover painting by Richard Powers. I didn't read the book in the two weeks that I had it. I returned it to the school library and never tried to read it again while in public schools. I did read the novel for a class I took in college and I've since re-read it as an adult.

But the film remained an elusive goal for me. I honestly don't recall where and when I finally saw the film in it's entirety for the first time. Television? Home video? I'm sorry but I just can't recall. I do know that I saw the film at the Paramount Theater several years ago because I wrote the notes for the George Pal/H.G. Wells double feature of WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE. Seeing both of those films on the big screen was a real treat.

I recently acquired a Blu-ray copy of the film and Judy and I sat down and watched it this past Saturday night (an appropriate night, given my history with the film). Judy had never seen it but she really got into it and enjoyed it. I loved it too.

Rod Taylor stars as George (it's never stated that he's H.G. Wells but the nameplate on the time machine is a strong clue to his identity), inventor of a time machine that is capable of traveling forward and backwards in time. His friends, Alan (MISTER ED) Young, Whit (TIME TUNNEL) Bissell, Sebastian (FAMILY AFFAIR)  Cabot and Tom (VERTIGO) Helmore doubt his theory even after he demonstrates his accomplishment by sending a small model of the machine into the fourth dimension. He asks the men to return for dinner in a week and after they've all left, he gets into the full scale machine and begins his voyage into the future.

There are stops along the way in 1917, 1940 and 1966 and in each year he finds the world at war. He finally rockets to the year 802,701 where he finds civilization divided into the passive, cattle like surface dwelling Eloi and the savage, underground cannibals the Morlocks. He saves Weena (Yvette Mimieux) from drowning and she in turn helps him understand the status quo of this strange new society.

When the time machine is stolen and locked away by the Morlocks, George must venture into the underground caverns to reclaim it. He battles Morlocks and the Eloi eventually join in the fight. He finally gets to the machine and returns to the year 1900 where he tells his amazing story to his skeptical friends. After they leave, George gets back in his machine and returns to the future to help Weena and the Eloi rebuild their civilization.

Director George Pal takes his time setting up the narrative with an opening sequence that sets everything up very nicely. There's an earnestness and sincerity at play here in both the screenplay by David Duncan, the performances of the actors and in Pal's direction. Time travel is visualized through a variety of special effects techniques including stop motion animation, time lapse photography, miniatures and matte painting. The film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and one can only wonder how much more sophisticated the effects could have been if Pal had had a larger budget to work with (the film was budgeted at $750,000). Look quickly during the 1966 scene and you'll see a re-cycled uniform from FORBIDDEN PLANET, while another prop from that film, the giant clear star globe/map, appears later in the film in the chamber of the "talking rings."

THE TIME MACHINE is a wonderful film. It's full of the sense of wonder that one finds in the best science fiction material. Taylor makes a great square-jawed hero, Mimieux (who was only 17 at the time and making her film debut) is fetching, and the Morlocks menacing. But the real star of this film is the incredible Time Machine itself. It's one of the most iconic devices/vehicles ever designed in the science fiction cinema. When the full scale device appeared for the first time on screen, Judy remarked "it's steam punk!" Indeed, it is.

Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed watching THE TIME MACHINE, which looks spectacular in the Blu-ray format.  Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES


In 1976, Marvel Comics published the oversized comic book pictured above. It's the MARVEL TREASURY SPECIAL CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES. As the cover blurb proclaims, it's "A Jack Kirby King-Size Spectacular". And indeed it was. Jack Kirby wrote and drew the entire story, an epic in which Captain America is sent throughout time, both past and future by the mysterious Mr. Buda in a journey to discover the real meaning of America.

I remember buying and reading this one when it came out. Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the original, treasury size comic. Those things are extremely difficult to store! But I do have the next best thing, a 2005 trade paperback that reprints the story in its entirety along with some other classic 1970s Captain America comics by Jack Kirby. To celebrate the Fourth of July, I sat down and read the Bicentennial Battles story this morning and loved every page of it.

Regular readers of this blog know that Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. He's in rare form here. Some people think Kirby's mid '70s work at Marvel (to which he returned after a brilliant stint at DC earlier in the decade) is not as strong as his earlier stuff. The fact that Kirby was writing and drawing all of his comics was viewed by some as a detriment. Kirby, they argued, just wasn't a good wordsmith. He was better, in some people's opinion, when someone like Stan Lee was doing the actual writing, leaving Kirby to focus on the drawing and storytelling.

While Kirby's writing isn't the greatest, his voice is sincere, unique and distinctive. It has a ring of honesty to it, a yearning desire to communicate to and connect with the reader. There's some pretty nice turns of phrase in this story including this one:

"That's America! A place of stubborn confidence-where both young and old can hope and dream, and wade through disappointment, despair and the crunch of events-with the chance of making life meaningful."

Preachy? Maybe? Patriotic? You betcha. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

Kirby is aided in his artwork by a trio of ink slingers: Herb Trimpe, John Romita and Barry Windsor Smith. I spotted Romita's work in the sequence set during the great Chicago fire of 1871. But it's Windsor Smith's work that beautifully complements Kirby's pencils in the opening sequence which takes place during WWII. It's short (and the color of Bucky's leggings change from panel to panel from red to blue and back to red), but it's gorgeous work. I would have loved to have seen a full length WWII Cap and Bucky adventure written and drawn by the team of Kirby and Smith.

In short, CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES was a fun trip down memory lane and a great way to celebrate the Fourth. Check it out if you get a chance. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

99 RIVER STREET


I watched 99 RIVER STREET (1953) the other night (recorded from TCM). I'd never seen this minor noir before. It's a good little crime thriller that, in my opinion, is only partially a film noir due to a happy ending. It's still worth seeing if you're a film noir aficionado (like me).

John Payne stars as an ex-boxer who now works as a cab driver. His shrewish wife (Peggie Castle) constantly nags him for bigger and better things. Turns out she's two-timing Payne with a professional thief played by Brad (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) Dexter. Dexter's just pulled a diamond heist but he can't unload the gems due to complications. He decides to murder Castle and frame Payne for her death.

Payne finds himself on the run from both the cops and the crooks. He's aided in his quest by would-be Broadway actress Evelyn Keyes. Together, they win the day, but not before they find themselves in some tense and potentially deadly situations.

99 RIVER STREET was directed by Phil Karlson who also helmed such film noir/crime thriller standouts as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), and THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955). Later in his career he made two of the Dean Martin Matt Helm films, THE SILENCERS (1966) and THE WRECKING CREW (1969) and the original cult classic WALKING TALL (1973).

99 RIVER STREET is a tight little B film. The direction is solid and the screenplay, by Robert Smith, is good. The cast, although comprised of lesser known performers, give it their best. It's no masterpiece but it's certainly worth seeing at least once.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST


I've always been a sucker for Captain America stories that are set in WWII. That's why CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is my favorite of all of the Marvel films produced so far. One of my all time favorite comic books series is Marvel's THE INVADERS from the 1970s which featured Timely Comics Big Three (and a few others) Captain America, the Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner in action against the Axis powers. I dream of the day in which Marvel Studios produces an INVADERS film for theaters. It probably won't happen but hey, who ever thought we'd be seeing movies about The Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man for crying out loud? And I can hope because there's an Easter Egg in FIRST AVENGER of the Human Torch at the World's Fair. I can dream can't I?

Which leads me to this review of the book pictured above. I got this 2010 hardcover book in a recent trade with my comic book buddy Blake Long (hi Blake!) The volume reprints three stand alone Captain America stories, all of which are set in the past (two in WWII, one in the '50s).

The first story, OPERATION: ZERO POINT finds Cap battling Nazi flying saucers (among other threats) in a story written by Daniel & Charles Knauf and illustrated by Mitch Breitweiser. Both art and story are good. 

Next, it's PRISONERS OF DUTY, a tale in which Steve Rogers is captured and imprisoned with other American soldiers in a Nazi held castle from which escape is impossible. Of course, Rogers leads a daring escape in a story written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel and illustrated by Agustin Padilla. The story is a good one but Padilla's artwork is poor and amateurish. Better artwork would have really made this story sing.

The final story is the best of the bunch. AMERICA FIRST!, written and illustrated by the legendary Howard Chaykin (one of my favorite contemporary comic book artists) is set in the 1950s and deals with a replacement Captain America who fights Communists both at home and abroad. The usual Chaykin tropes are here: period dress and cars, slinky femme fatales, radical politics and lots of action.

I can recommend CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST. The stories are all well written and the art is good on two of  the three tales. Thumbs up.

 

Monday, June 29, 2015

WAIT...WHAT?


I'm damn glad I didn't pay for this turkey. If I had, I think I'd have asked for my money back. I acquired the book pictured above in a recent trade with my comic book collector buddy Blake Long (hi Blake!). It's not his fault that this is a bad book. I'll try and sell it on eBay eventually (which I planned to do all along). But I thought I'd at least sit down and read it and see what it was about. There's thirty minutes of my life I'll never get back.

I like the Hulk. I like the Silver Surfer. I like Galactus. All three of those characters appear in this book. But I didn't like this book. Skaar, for those of you who came in late (like me), is the son of the Hulk. He's a barbarian warrior king on the planet Sakaar. Think Conan on steroids with green skin.

The story is really not worth repeating here. That's because there's not much of one. Oh, there's page after page of rock 'em sock 'em fight scenes between the major (and minor) players. There's lots of over-the-top action with wild, exaggerated sound effects (SHAKOOM!) everywhere. It's punch him in the face stupidity with little or no plot or character development. If you like this kind of stuff, fine. I get tired of it very quickly.

But here's where this thing goes completely off of the rails. At one point, the Hulk (wearing battle armor) appears to join the constant fighting on Sakaar. It's never explained where he came from. Was he already on the planet? Did he come from earth? Just how the hell did he get involved in this story? And then, just as quickly as he appears, he's forgotten. In the next chapter of the story, there's no mention of him and he's not shown in any of the panels. Where did he go?

Skaar eventually gets sucked into a wormhole and transported to earth and guess who's waiting for him there? Yep, old Jade Jaws himself. Is this the same Hulk Skaar fought on Sakaar? How did he get back to earth? I'm confused.

It took four people to create this hot mess. Writer Greg Pak and artists Butch Guice, Ron Lim and Dan Panosian. Guice only drew the first chapter and I like his work here. I'd have liked to have seen more of it. Ron Lim is a competent draftsman. His art is okay, nothing great, nothing horrible. Frankly, I didn't care for Dan Panosian's artwork on the chapter he illustrated and Greg Pak doesn't impress me as a writer.

For the record, Mark Paniccia is listed as the editor of record for this book along with assistant editor Jordan D. White. Neither of these gentlemen did a very good job here. A good editor would have addressed that continuity glitch involving the Hulk first on Sakaar and then on earth with a footnote or an explanatory caption of some kind. It wouldn't have hurt the story, it would have clarified a point of confusion for the readers.

But a good editor seems to be something that doesn't exist in today's Marvel and DC comics. Time and time again I've read a comic book in which the hot, flavor-of-the-month writer has been given carte blanche to do whatever the hell he/she wants, good storytelling be damned. Or, it's the other way around. All of the editors collaborate on the general plot line of a given epic cross-over event (that will change everything until the next change everything crossover event comes along) and then they dictate to the writers what must happen in their books for the duration of the crossover event.

Sure, mistakes happened all of the time back when Stan Lee served as both writer and editor for almost danged near every Marvel comic published. But Lee owned up to his errors, acknowledged readers when they spotted a goof and awarded loyal Marvelites with the much treasured No Prize.

That's a pretty good summary of HULK: PLANET SKAAR. It won't get any prizes, certainly not from this reader.