Monday, July 21, 2014

THE BRASS CUPCAKE

I know I've read THE BRASS CUPCAKE before. It's John D. MacDonald's first novel, originally published in 1950 and recently reissued by Random House in a handsome trade paperback edition. I'm sure I read it sometime back in the 1980s when I read for the first time almost everything MacDonald ever wrote. But I until I re-read it the other day, I couldn't have told you for the life of me what the book was about.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE is a hard-boiled crime novel that would have made a perfect early '50s film noir. The action takes place in Florence City, Florida, a town steeped in corruption. Our hero is one Cliff Bartells, an ex-cop who got booted off of the force for being too straight and narrow (he refused to take a bribe). Cliff works as an insurance investigator and he's got a doozy of a case on his hands.

An old woman is the victim of a jewel robbery gone bad. The women ends up dead and a small fortune in jewels are missing. Cliff's company (who carries the policy on the jewels), wants to pay off the thieves and buy back the jewels for a fraction of their real value. Then there's the dead woman's niece, the luscious Melody Chance, the sole beneficiary of the dead woman's estate, who stands to inherit a great deal of money. Melody has a would-be suitor, Furness Trumbull, who's named in a codicil to the will, who could also benefit, should he and Melody become husband and wife.

Melody wants nothing to do with Furness but sparks fly between her and Cliff (naturally). Meanwhile, Cliff has to deal with the mob boss who runs the town, the husband and wife servants of the dead woman, several crooked and vicious cops and his old partner on the force (the only honest cop in Florence City). Cliff comes up with a daring plan to retrieve the jewels and expose the corruption at police headquarters and city hall . I won't give the details of how things play out except to say that Cliff's plan involves the 1950s science fiction tropes of radioactivity and a Geiger counter.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE isn't the best novel that John D. MacDonald ever wrote but it's an extremely entertaining read that moves at a fast pace. There's plenty of action, some tastefully recounted sex scenes, a believable plot, a good sense of place, and colorfully drawn supporting players (good and bad). I can see Charles McGraw as Cliff in the movie version with maybe Gloria Grahame as Melody. Recommended for fans of MacDonald and hard-boiled, mid-century crime novels.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE PERFECT PAT

Judy and I and our out-of-town guest Holly watched THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST the other night. It's a 1968 Don Knotts comedy in which the always nervous Knotts co-stars with the ever so lovely Barbara Rhoades. While watching the film, it struck me that this actress might have been the perfect Pat Savage.

Long time readers of this blog will recall the series of posts I ran last year in which I played casting director for an imaginary, 1960s  Doc Savage movie. At one point, such a production was actually under consideration with Chuck (THE RIFLEMAN) Connors set to play the Man of Bronze. That tidbit of information led me to offer various casting choices for Doc's supporting cast of characters Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, Johnny and Doc's cousin, Patricia Savage. I listed several actresses that might have made a good Pat but when I saw Barbara Rhoades in SHAKIEST GUN, I thought, "wow, that's Pat!"

Miss Rhoades stood five foot, ten inches tall, which certainly gave her the height to play against Chuck Connors. She had the requisite reddish/bronze colored hair and she was certainly easy on the eyes. I think she would have been great in a movie that can only exist in our collective imaginations.

What do you think fellow Doc aficionados?

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

I recently bought the bluray edition of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), the first film with stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen to be filmed in color. It's second only to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) as my favorite Harryhausen film. I haven't gotten around to watching the bluray yet but when I do, I'll post an in depth review here.

But buying the bluray of 7TH VOYAGE sent me digging through my long boxes in search of a buried treasure. I have a copy of the comic book version of 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (pictured above). I dug it out and read it this afternoon. It was published in 1958 by Dell Comics and it's number 944 in their long running Four Color series. The comic, as did almost all of the movie and TV comic book adaptations
of the day, features a color photo from the film. It's not a bad picture but it raises the first of several questions I have about this comic book.

First, why choose such a generic shot from the film instead of a still that featured the cyclops, the roc, the dragon or the sword fighting skeleton? I don't know how well this issue sold but I can't help but believe that sales would have been higher with a full color photo of Sinbad and that skeleton on the cover. That would have really grabbed some young eyeballs! Not mine, unfortunately, as I was only two-years-old at the time.

The inside front cover features five black-and-white stills from the film, but again, not one of the photos features any of Harryhausen's creations. You look at those stills and you get the impression that 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is just a generic adventure film set in an exotic land in days gone by.

The adaptation itself is beautiful to look at thanks to the superlative artwork of John Buscema who is one of my all time favorite comic book artists. Buscema does a masterful job of illustrating the adventure but it's not exactly a complete and accurate version of the film. I understand that changes have to be made, primarily due to page counts and the comic does hit the high points of the film fairly faithfully. There is a giant cyclops, although Buscema gives him regular legs rather than the goat-like limbs of Harryhausen's creature. There's a fire-breathing dragon but it doesn't look quite like the monster in the film. There's a giant roc but again, it's not quite the same.

Most egregious of all, there's no sword-fighting skeleton! One of the most spectacular cinematic set-pieces ever filmed doesn't make the transition from screen to comic book page. That's a real shame. I can't help but wonder what the reasons were behind these changes. I'd love to know and if any reader of this blog has some insight into this matter, please share that information with us. I'd also like to hear from any readers out there who had the experience of seeing the film on first run and buying and reading this comic. What did you think? What about folks who bought and read the comic but never saw the film? Let us know.

The most important thing about this comic book is that it's one of the few (if not the only) tie-in product made for the film. To the best of my knowledge, there was no paperback novelization of the film and there were certainly no toys or action figures produced as that merchandising trend was still years in the future. If you saw 7TH VOYAGE as a kid and wanted to have something to remember the film by until it was re-released or shown on television, this comic book was the only thing available.

It might not be a letter perfect adaptation of the film but it's a John Buscema drawn comic book of a Ray Harryhausen movie.

And that's pretty damn good.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LET THAT BE YOUR LAST COMPASS

I recently watched LET THAT BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD,  a third season episode of the original STAR TREK series.

 The show was circling the drain by this point in its' run. In this episode, you've got two magnificent hams chewing up every available inch of the scenery. Shatner, as in almost every other third season episode, seems virtually out of control. He's not so much playing the part of Captain Kirk as he's doing William Shatner's catalog of acting tics and gestures.

And guest star Frank Gorshin gives as good as he gets. His part as the half black-skinned, half white-skinned Commissioner Bele is part Gorshin, part The Riddler with a little bit of Kirk Douglas thrown in. I guess the director of the episode was so desperate to get usable footage in the can that he just said, "cut, print, that's fine, let's go to the next shot" after each over-the-top line reading from Shatner and Gorshin.

Of course, the biggest  problem here lies in the script, which strains mightily to be relevant in this "torn-from-the-headlines" tale of racial relations set in the 23rd century. But the worst moment in the entire episode comes when Kirk refers to a planet as being "in the southern quadrant of the galaxy."

Um, no, Captain, I don't think so. I never attended Starfleet Academy. I never beat the Kobyashi Maru (by cheating). I've never been in command of a Federation starship.

 But I'm pretty damn sure that there's no north, south, east or west in outer space.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

WELCOME TO MARS

I finished reading WELCOME TO MARS: POLITICS, POP CULTURE, AND WEIRD SCIENCE IN 1950S AMERICA by Ken Hollings (North Atlantic Books, 2014) yesterday. It's a Whitman Sampler box of 1950s pop culture and I've got mixed feelings about what I read.

The book covers the years 1947 to 1959 and it is Hollings' thesis that it was during these years that the "future" arrived. Hollings devotes a chapter to each year and he writes in a breezy, informative (but strangely present tense) style.

Each year is chock full of important events that shaped both America and the world. Subjects covered throughout the book include the ongoing UFO/Flying Saucer phenomenon that began in 1947, science fiction pulp magazines, science fiction films, the rise of the suburbs, the CIA's experiments in mind control and psychotropic drugs (including LSD), the nascent space program, Sputnik, Disneyland, the dawn of television, the streamlining of American made automobiles, the proliferation of new household appliances, psychotherapy, crack-pot cults, comic book censorship and on and on.

Hollings covers a lot of ground but because of his year-by-year format, he only hits the high points of each year. There's no formal narrative arc to tie all of these things together. He makes the case that all of these things were important to the development of the "future" but each chapter only left me wanting more information. Indeed, almost everything Hollings writes about in WELCOME TO MARS is a worthy subject of a well-researched, more in depth and rigorously focused book. Many such books have already been written and more are sure to be forthcoming. Every chapter contains some nugget of information that made me think, "Hey, I'd like to read an entire book about that!" Unfortunately, WELCOME TO MARS isn't that book.

But let's not fault Hollings' work for what it isn't and clearly wasn't intended to be. The book is certainly worth reading. It will make you realize what a truly remarkable era the post war years were and if you're a member of the Baby Boomer generation (like me), you'll enjoy this walk down memory lane. WELCOME TO MARS is a nice appetizer that should make you hungry for a more satisfying main course of your choice. Dig in. There's plenty to choose from.

Friday, July 11, 2014

SCARECROW

SCARECROW (1973), which I watched the other day with my buddy Kelly Greene, is one of a series of small budget, almost independent pictures that were produced in the late '60s and early '70s. It's a road picture about two mismatched drifters pursuing an impossible dream. It's a naturalistic film, shot entirely on location but it's a character study with no real plot to speak of and it ends on an abrupt, depressing note.

Clearly the people involved in this project had other such similar films in mind when they made SCARECROW. It's influences and antecedents include OF MICE AND MEN, EASY RIDER, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, FIVE EASY PIECES, TWO LANE BLACKTOP, THE LAST DETAIL and other similar films of the era. Almost all of those films featured strong actors in meaty character roles in films that were shot on location (keeping production costs down). The leads in these films (SCARECROW included), are almost all losers, disenfranchised and dispossessed anti-heroes at odds with modern life and society. And almost all of these films (SCARECROW included) are incredibly depressing.

There's a helluva lot of great talent involved in SCARECROW. For starters, you've got Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in the leads. Both actors were red hot at this point in their respective careers. Consider this: Hackman had already received two Best Supporting Actor nominations (one for BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), the other for I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER (1970) ) and had won a Best Actor Oscar for THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Al Pacino had a Best Supporting Actor nomination in his pocket for his work in THE GODFATHER (1973). Both men go to town with their characters but I found Hackman's performance as Max, an ex con with anger management issues who dreams of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh, to be the better of the two. I thought Pacino, as Lion, an ex-sailor who wants to see his child for the first time, over-acted and mugged in too many scenes.

Director Jerry Schatzberg had previously directed Pacino in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971) (there's another depressing '70s film for you). His direction here consists of incredibly long takes in which he's afraid to cut from either of the stars. These long, wordy scenes tend to become a drag on what little forward momentum the narrative has. Some judicial cuts here and there to tighten things up would have helped but I suspect both Hackman and Pacino wanted all of their scenes kept intact. The film is beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond who scored a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) and won a Best Cinematography Oscar for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). His other films of the period include DELIVERANCE (1972), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1973).

So with that kind of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you'd expect SCARECROW to be better than it is. It's not a bad film if you enjoy watching wonderfully photographed character studies of two of life's losers.But if you're looking for a film with a plot and a real story to tell, you won't find it here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

SIDE STREET

Film Noir rule #17: if you're an otherwise innocent man who suddenly decides to steal a large sum of money, make sure you don't steal the money from blackmailers and murderers.

That's a lesson that Farley Granger learns the hard way in SIDE STREET (1950),  a terrific little film noir that I watched this afternoon with my buddy Kelly Greene. Granger plays a part-time mail carrier with a pregnant wife. He yearns to give her and his about-to-be-born child a better life. When he delivers mail to a law office, he discovers that $200 in cash is kept in a filing cabinet. On his next delivery to the office, he finds the place empty and decides to steal the money. But unknown to Granger, he's not making off with just $200. No, he's now in possession of $30,000, money that was gained through a blackmail scheme which ended up with the lovely bait in the trap floating face down in the East River.

Granger is forced to go on the run through the streets of New York to try and recover the cash which is appropriated by the bartender he gave the money to for safekeeping. The bartender ends up dead and poor Granger is wanted for murder. He desperately tries to clear his name but the bad guys are on his tail and they'll kill anyone who gets in their way.

A great deal of SIDE STREET was shot in New York City and the location work adds a great deal of atmosphere to the film. The film's climax features a terrific early Sunday morning car chase through the deserted streets of lower Manhattan that is brilliantly staged.

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell (who plays his sympathetic wife) had previously starred together in the 1948 film noir THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. SIDE STREET features a great supporting cast that includes sultry Jean Hagen as a doomed nightclub singer, Whit Bissell as a bank teller and noir icon Charles McGraw as a police detective. Director Anthony Mann shoots many of his interior scenes from an extreme low angle which serves to visually emphasize how trapped Granger is.  Mann's previous film was BORDER INCIDENT (1949), another great noir and he followed up SIDE STREET with WINCHESTER '73 (1950), the first of his noir westerns with James Stewart.

SIDE STREET shows what happens when an innocent man yields to temptation and finds his life turned into a living nightmare. It's a classic film noir trope that is executed with consummate skill. Highly recommended.