Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Barquero" (1970)

Amidst a genre built on familiar archetypes and recycled tropes, Barquero is all the more striking for its originality and unfamiliarity. With its Mexican border setting and lead actors Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates, Barquero would seem to follow in the footsteps of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, however director Gordon Douglas takes us on a very different journey with this film. Van Cleef plays a ferryman along the Rio Grande. When he gets wind that a gang of bandits lead by Oates are on their way, Van Cleef rounds up the townsfolk and heads across the river to prevent the bandits from transporting their guns.

Unlike the journey plots of so many westerns that take advantage of the epic expanses of the landscape, Barquero is structured around the absence of movement. Inaction, rather than action, is the catalytic thrust of the plot. The film is like an extended showdown at high noon, with Van Cleef and Oates facing off against each other across the river, exchanging curses and bullets. They each have hostages, they each have guns, and they each have what the other wants: Oates has the town, and Van Cleef has the barge, and neither man is willing to concede.

Co-written by George Schenck and William Marks, Barquero boasts a clever script that explores one of the most crucial but overlooked aspects of the west: transportation. What do you do when fording the river is not an option, and when there isn't a ferry to get you and your belongings across? It's a simple concept, but Schenck and Marks make the most of it, constructing a steadily intensifying situation that makes for high energy and action, despite the inherently static nature of the plot. Director Gordon Douglas earlier made the underrated Stagecoach remake that infused Ford's classic with updated '60s countercultural spirit, and here he again offers a fresh take on the western genre.

The recently released Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu Ray boasts a mostly strong image and bold colors. The only weak areas are the day-for-night sequences which can sometimes be quite grainy. Overall, Barquero is great, an innovative, intelligent, and high-action western. It's great to finally have this in a beautiful, anamorphic widescreen edition. This deserves to be on the list of essential 70s American western films.


Available on Blu Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"The Revengers" (1972)

The 60s and 70s was a zeitgeist for ensemble action movies. The Guns of Navarone, The Professionals, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and many others. Group-oriented stories like these had precursors in films like Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but the 60s and 70s saw a reassurance for these sort of multiple character-driven action narratives, each featuring a seemingly insurmountable task carried out by an all-star cast. The Revengers (1972), just released in a gorgeous Blu Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, seems to follow in this tradition, and for the first half hour it certainly does, however the film has several twists that take the story in unexpected and unusual directions.

The film begins on the secluded farm of William Holden, retired military officer and Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War. West Point officials arrive to recruit his son. Before the boy leaves, however, marauders arrive and massacre Holden's entire family. The sole survivor, Holden swears to track down the murderers and get revenge. Instead of assembling an army of upstanding men like The Magnificent Seven, Holden goes to a nearby prison and hires six of the nastiest, meanest, and vilest criminals for cheap labor (including Woody Strode and Ernest Borgnine). Neither the criminals nor the warden have any clue what the real purpose is. Once Holden arms his men and tells them the plan, however, the criminals show their true colors by turning their guns on him and abandoning the mission before it has even started.

That's only the first twist, and many of others ensue, with plenty of impressively orchestrated action sequences and collaborative destruction, as befits the teamwork narrative. What is most impressive to me, however, are the unexpected and unusual tonal shifts, such as a lengthy passage when a wounded Holden recovers at the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward, in her final big-screen role). Coming after nearly an hour of straight action, with the widescreen frame filled with seven (or more) characters and long-shots and close-ups that highlight the micro- and macro-majestic destruction, director Daniel Mann slows things down for a lovely, subdued sequence between Holden and Hayward. The muted tones, interior settings, and intimate frame shared by only two bodies offer a refreshing contrast to the bright and explosive images from earlier in the movie, and they also allow both Holden and the audience to question the necessity of such a violent plot. The title of the movie gives you Holden's motivation, but how valid is it, and what will it change?

Overall, The Revengers is a terrific and under-appreciated western that mixes post-Spaghetti brutality with sympathetic characters and a strong, moral conscience reminiscent of Hollywood's classical westerns.

Available on Blu Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"A Town Called Hell" (1971)

Kino Lorber's Studio Classics has a lot of westerns on their current release slate, but none has been more tantalizing to me than Robert Parrish's A Town Called Hell (aka A Town Called Bastard) (1971). Here's a movie that, unless you saw it in its first release or some mega rare repertory screening, you just couldn't see. That is, you couldn't see properly. Disgustingly butchered public domain dvds and streaming links abound, and they're responsible for killing the reputation of this movie. Most of the reviews up until now are dreadful, and I can't blame the critics, because the prints were unwatchable. My old DVD of A Town Called Hell was not only cropped from widescreen to the square-ish 1:33, but then re-cropped, with the tops and bottoms being cut off to make the already cropped 1:33 look like widescreen. The result was to render the already dull and fuzzy images totally incoherent. I watched the movie like that, but even with the aide of several online synopses, I couldn't make out the story.

Don't judge the movie before you've seen Kino Lorber's beautiful new Blu Ray or DVD, and don't even think about cutting corners for one of the cheapo versions, unless you want to compare to see just how bad the old copies were. And if you were unfortunate enough to watch one of those public domain discs, do yourself a favor and give this film another chance. If you've seen it on any other disc, then you've never seen it before.

A Town Called Hell is a dark, dreamlike western set in Mexico during the revolution. In the opening scenes, an army of rebels overtake a town, killing not only the Republican troops, but also everyone in a church, including the priest. Leading the barrage are two nameless warriors (recognizable as Robert Shaw and Martin Landau). Ten years later, the town is still in rebel hands, ruled by Don Carlos (Telly Savalas). The widow Alvira (Stella Stevens) arrives in town riding in a coffin, from which she rises to announce that she will pay a reward for the man who killed her husband. The culprit is a mysterious revolutionary named Aguila, and the only people who know his true identity are the town priest (Shaw), who has given up his guns for good, and a blind man (Fernando Rey) who once sheltered the outlaw. Meanwhile, The Colonel (Landau, having switched allegiances) arrives in town with more Republican troops, who are also looking for the notorious bandit.

Spectral dread hangs over A Town Called Hell, a spooky and morbid atmosphere reminiscent of High Plains Drifter and Django Kill ... If You Live, Shoot!. Rampant death and torture abound, and it's no wonder where the town got it's name from. The landscape is more like a graveyard than a habitable community, and everyone seems to be waiting around either to kill or die. Adding to the gothic mood is Stevens' wraith-like appearance. Cloaked all in black, she is like the reaper from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal: she has come to collect a body, and she will not leave until the dead man is in her possession.

In contrast to all the gunfire, much of the dialog is delivered in barely audible whispers, so the soundtrack alternates between deafening violence and eerily silence. And unlike the guitar-driven scores popularized by Ennio Morricone, composer Waldo de los Rios (who scored Euro cult horror classics The House That Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child?) has written a more eerie soundtrack with a sustained sense of unease and horror.

While the names in the cast are renowned, its director is someone who deserves to be better known. Robert Parrish is an important, if overlooked, figure in film history. As a child actor, he had bit parts in Murnau's Sunrise, Allan Dwan's The Iron Mask, Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Frank Capra's Forbidden, and several John Ford films. His association with Ford developed into Parrish becoming an apprentice editor on some of Ford's most acclaimed films, including Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Long Voyage Home. Parrish who also served along Ford in WWII in the Navy's Field Photographic Branch, editing The Battle of Midway and December 7th. He also won an Oscar for cutting Body and Soul, and went on to direct the noir Cry Danger with Dick Powell, Fire Down Below and The Wonderful Country with Robert Mitchum, Saddle the Wind with Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes, and The Purple Plain with Gregory Peck, among many others.

A Town Called Hell is a weird western, that's for sure, but it's a one-of-a-kind movie with a great cast. I'll be re-watching this one.


Available on DVD and Blu Ray.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Roughneck" by Jim Thompson (1954)

One can't read Bad Boy, part one of Jim Thompson's personal odyssey, without reading its companion, Roughneck (Lion, 1954). Picking up the exact moment where the previous book ends, page one finds Thompson and his family fleeing from Capone's mob when their car breaks down. Now, they're stuck in Oklahoma City in a rundown Model T, en route to Nebraska, the closest thing to a Holy Land that they know, while being pursed by ripped-off racketeers who want their money. Thompson hits up an old family friend, someone who Thompson's father helped clear through Ellis Island and helped set up for business here in Oklahoma City. Of course the man remembers Mr. Thompson and would be happy to repay the gratitude. How happy? $5. Once again, they're screwed, and once again, Thompson and his family manage to scrape by and survive until the next problem arises.

Whereas Bad Boy was largely a collection of family anecdotes and early misadventures of young Jim, Roughneck is more of a solo-Thompson adventure. We see more of the locales and landscapes that will populate his novels (the sleazy hotel of A Swell-Looking Babe, the oilfields of South of Heaven), but we also see the evolution of journeyman Thompson to journalist Thompson as he gets his first jobs at newspapers and then goes to college (even these turn into farcical, slapstick escapades). He goes from factotum to philosopher, and from a lost soul drifting with the wind to one of the great chroniclers of the squalid side of the American dream. In a way, Thompson is a great complement to someone like Steinbeck. Both writers are revealing of the American landscape, its characters, and the jobs and lives they lead in order to survive.

But what's amazing is how this change in Thompson was so natural. It wasn't like he woke up one morning and decided to turn his life around and become a writer. On the contrary, somehow running booze and working on pipelines and writing the occasional story turned into going to college for agriculture (instead of writing) and even though he didn't have any money he had to work crazy night shifts to pay the bills and, well, you see where I'm going. It was all just part of this extraordinary life. Reading Roughneck, you see how the fabric of Thompson's fictional world comes straight out of his life.

Hell, it's amazing that Thompson even survived to tell the tale. But I'm sure glad he did. Roughneck (along with Bad Boy) is essential Thompson. His own life is one of his best stories.


Available from Mulholland Books.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Bad Boy" by Jim Thompson (1953)

Originally published by Lion in 1953, Bad Boy is an act of self-mythology, a brazen, breathtaking, and bonkers Bildungsroman that recounts Jim Thompson's formative years, from a misshapen baby who was pinched too often to a whiskey runner for Al Capone's mob. In between those two touchstones are twenty some-odd years of adventures and misadventures in the American mid-west during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Written with the wondrous and lyrical wanderlust of an oral history, it is only somewhat chronologically structured, and Thompson will interrupt himself for tangents and asides, imbuing the narrative with this magnificent spontaneity. These are the types of stories one might hear sitting around a family table, recalling the good, the bad, and the ridiculous times of yesteryear. Of teenage Thompson being left in the care of his grandfather while the rest of the family is away, which turned into drinking hot toddies, catching movies, and spending the afternoons in burlesque clubs eating sandwiches. While this anecdote shows the seedy setting that might appear in any of his fictional novels, there's also a great deal of warmth and communion to the way Thompson talks about family, and it not only shows another side to his writing, but also illuminates more subtle shades of his novels. The psychosis and violence of his novels was shocking then and continues to be today, but there is so much more to his writing than that. His ability to render character sketches in such dynamic, colorful tones and with such economy is remarkable, and makes me think of O. Henry.

Another favorite anecdote is about a writer that Thompson's uncle said was his favorite.
"Scoopchisel, the greatest writer of all time. … I was so impressed with the works of Scoopchisel that even after Pop and the rest of us had reassembled and I was well advanced in grammar school, I quoted him. Which inevitably led, of course, to my inditing a pained and accusing letter to my Uncle Bob. He replied promptly. He would not advise me - he wrote - to accuse my teachers of ignorance, nor would he confess that Scoopchisel had never existed. He would only say that every man had to believe in something and that he liked to believe in Scoopchisel, and even though the latter had never lived he damned well should have." 
There are more great stories in this book than I can recount here (and to do so would be to spoil so many pleasures), but when you take a step back, several predominant themes become apparent. Family, migration, and money (or, frequently, the lack thereof), all of which lead to, what else, crime. The ups-and-downs of Thompson's father's career go from poor to rich and back again many times over, and include him being a lawman and then being run out of the state to him becoming a lawyer and a string of other jobs that had him running the gamut of success and failure. These stories are insightful illustrations of the successes and struggles of the American middle class in the first decades of the 1900s, from the latter days of westward expansion through the early days of the Great Depression. The careers of Thompson's father, and later himself, take the family all across the mid-west and through so many different occupations and social conditions. In this light, Bad Boy is more than just the personal story of Thompson, but a personalized story of a country undergoing drastic change.

And speaking of crime, many of the best passages of Bad Boy (and of its sequel, Roughneck) have to do with Thompson's time as a bellboy in a vice-ridden hotel. I could go into those, but then again, you could just read the book, and try to imagine yourself as a guest in a small, Midwestern hotel during prohibition, and seeing a teenage boy red-eyed from lack of sleeping, reeking slightly of whiskey, and slipping him a twenty and asking him if he could bring up a bottle of the good stuff. Yup, it's probably better that you do the reading and imagining for yourself. It's a hell of a lot more enjoyable that way.


Bad Boy is available from Mulholland Books.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Blood and Lace" (1971)

Anthology Film Archives is hosting a several month-long retrospective of the great independent movie company American International Pictures. AIP is virtually synonymous with drive-in fodder, exploitation escapism, and guerrilla film-making tactics that re-wrote the book and produced some incredible talent, ranging from Roger Corman to Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Harrington, and many, many others.

To kick off the festival, Anthology asked cult cinema maestro William Lustig (director of Maniac, Vigilante, and the Maniac Cop series, and founder of the Blue Underground video label) to pick and introduce a film. His choice? A rarity from the AIP catalog: Blood and Lace (1971), directed by first-and-only-time filmmaker Phillip Gilbert.

The story is about a teenager, Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) whose mother was a prostitute who was murdered by a hammer. The killer is still on the loose. While the police are investigating, Ellie is placed in an orphanage run by the sadistic Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame), who has the tendency to kill any of her children who try to run away and hides their bodies in the freezer along with her deceased husband, who she is keeping on ice until science can revive him. Meanwhile, Ellie has the hots for a young stud who does yard work bare-chested, but her roommate, Bunch, is the jealous and spiteful type who will do anything to keep the boy all to herself. Then there is the lecherous janitor who lures girls into the basement. And then there is that hammer-wielding killer who is still on the loose.

All in all? Hell yeah! Vintage sleazy, low-budget thrills.

But there are also some specific things I like about this movie.

First and foremost, Gloria Grahame. B-movies have long been the place where stars go when their career begins to fade, and that was certainly true in the 60s and 70s when a number of classic Hollywood talent started turning up in horror movies, thanks to the run of "psycho-biddy" films in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. Blood and Lace falls into this boom, and as was often the case, even though the picture might have been beneath the talent of the star, the star still shined. And in Blood and Lace, Gloria is amazing. An original femme fatale, Gloria was never just the sexy bad girl waiting to lure a man to his doom. In movies like In a Lonely Place and Human Desire, there was a real vulnerability to her character, a palpable and desperate need for human connection. But when the time came, as in The Big Heat when she slugged Lee Marvin with the coffee pot, she could be a violent spitfire. In Blood and Lace, she gives a nuanced and subtle performance of an aging widow who is struggling to hold on to her home and business, and will do anything to maintain her sense of control and authority. She obviously has some sexual hangups as she's willing to torture and kill those libidinous teens when their hormones take control. And yet, she's devoted to her husband and the thought that one day medical science will bring him back to her. Gloria is pathetic, pathological, perverse, and psychotic, but it's the combination of all those things that makes her both the film's villain but also its most sympathetic character.

Another thing I like? The opening first-person murder sequence that predates Halloween. The film begins with the camera stalking a suburban house at night, it sneaks inside, pulls a hammer from a drawer, and murders the sleeping victims. It's a shocking opening that grabs and pulls you into the story.

And another thing? Crazy guy with burned face running around with the hammer. Is it all part of Ellie's dreams, or is he really stalking her? Great make-up effects, as the guy looks really freaky.

Structurally, I also like the way the film builds itself around several separate plot impulses. There's the mystery of the initial murder, then there's Ellie's desire to escape from the orphanage and find her real father, then there's Gloria's struggle to hold onto her home, and then all those bodies in the basement, and of course the love triangle with the roommate and the yard boy. With so many different elements at play, it often feels like the film could go off in another direction at any given moment. And when the film finally does conclude, and all the plot strings finally tie up, everything suddenly makes sense. A sick, perverse, and darkly funny sense.


Now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 6

I feel like I'm in a Cornell Woolrich vinyl nightmare. When I last confessed, this shelf was completely empty. Where did all these records come from? Am I suffering from some sort of LP amnesia? Did I rob a record store and conveniently forget it? Or did I actually buy all of these?

In true noir fashion, the truth is the worst possibility of all.

I'm guilty as charged.

But since I still haven't regained my memory, I'll have to go through all of these another day to see what is on the shelf. In the mean time, here is another batch of new acquisitions.

Stiff Little Fingers - Nobody's Heroes
Kitty Wells - The Kitty Wells Story
Count Basie - Basie Jam
Porter Wagoner - The Carroll County Accident
Graham PArker and the Rumour - Stick to Me
Tangerine Dream - Sorcerer Soundtrack

The Beatles - Beatles '65
The Beatles - Introducing The Beatles
Magazine - After the Fact
George Benson - Beyond the Blue Horizon
The Impressions - Greatest Hits
Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Al Hibbler - A Meeting of the Times

Friday, July 31, 2015

"The Golden Gizmo" by Jim Thompson (1954)

I absolutely loved The Golden Gizmo. It might be the most batshit crazy Jim Thompson book I've read (16, so far) and for Thompson, that's saying something. The Killer Inside Me may be nutso, but does it have a talking dog? No. But The Golden Gizmo does. The dog also sings. And it kills. And that's just for starters. It reads like slapstick anarchy: full of pratfalls, perversion, and psychosis, like some long-lost Marx Brothers noir made by Roger Corman.

The main character is Toddy Kent, a door-to-door gold buyer. When he accidentally pockets a 24-karat gold watch from Mr. Alvarado, his life turns upside down. His room is tossed, the watch stolen, and his dipso wife, Elaine, strangled with her stocking. Toddy thinks Alvarado is guilty of the theft and murder, and Alvarado thinks it was Toddy. But before Toddy can figure out what really happened, however, he finds himself working an illegal gold running scan across the Mexican border for Alvarado, and everywhere he turns there seems to be someone waiting to sap him over the head or chase him into an alley.

Originally published by Lion in 1954, this is certainly Thompson's most bonkers plot yet, and it reads like one giant slapstick chase scene after another. In one gloriously zany escapade, Alvarado's partner, Dolores, and the talking dog chase Toddy into a cabaret, where he joins the performance on stage, then a chorus girl swings at him with a wine bottle, he escapes into an alley, and then into a brothel where he must engage the services of a girl, but before he can use them he is on the run again, through a hidden door in a wall, he interrupts another man's liaison and beats the guy up, climbs up a fire escape while hands emerge from windows grabbing at his ankles, on the roof he knocks over a chimney, falls through a skylight into a flophouse where he is shuttled into a church service where, wouldn't you know it, the dog is waiting for him, singing with the choir. The dog's singing, however, is so bad it gets the both of them kicked out onto the street where is he picked up and taken to Alvarado.

Yeah. And you thought I was kidding about how weird this book is …

But just when you thought Thompson has gone off the deep end, he throws in a paragraph like this, a perfectly crafted story in just a few lines so packed with a lifetime of hurt and despair. Slightly pathetic, but at the same time sympathetic.

Toddy hadn't cried since the night he ran away from home. He'd half-killed his stepfather with a two-by-four, bashed him over the head as he came into the barn. He'd tried to make it look like an accident, like one of the rafters had broken. But he was shaking with fear, with that and the bitter coldness of the night. He'd huddled down in a corner of the boxcar, and sometime during the night a tramp had crawled into the car also. Observing the proprieties of the road, the tramp had gone into a corner, that corner, to relieve himself. And Toddy had been soaked, along with his thin parcel of sandwiches. The stuff had frozen on him. He'd cried then, for the last time. 

And, in a nutshell, that's Thompson for you. A bit of a maniac, yet somehow strangely human.


Available in print/ebook from Mulholland Books.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The Cat Girl" (1957)

The Cat Girl (1957) is the lesser-known but still notorious remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 classic, Cat People. I say "lesser-known" because it has never been on DVD (though you an stream it here at AMC), and "notorious" because those who have hunted down a copy seem to all have a negative opinion of it. I beg to differ.

I liked The Cat Girl. Sure, it's no Cat People (what is?), but there is still much to enjoy about the remake.

Barbara Shelley, star of Village of the Damned and Hammer classics like The Gorgon, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, plays Lenora, a young woman summoned to her family's creepy estate to learn about her inheritance. Unfortunately, she's not getting any money, just a family curse that turns her into a cat with the urge to kill. Surrounded by a cheating husband and an old-flame who married someone else, Lenora has a lot of rage she's looking to unleash.

Like its predecessor, The Cat Girl leaves much to the imagination and relies on the shadow of implied violence. And despite its low budget, the film works well within its limitations of small, interior sets.

Another thing I like about The Cat Girl is that it combines two of my favorite psychological thriller concepts. First is the, "Look, you're crazy, even though you don't yet realize it" scenario when the family is trying to convince her the curse is real. Second is the, "Look, I'm crazy, even though you don't believe me" scenario after Lenora is convinced of her duplicity and she can't convince the law or the doctors that she is guilty of murder. There's something utterly terrifying about having your friends and family tell you you're crazy or illogical, when everything appears normal to you. It makes you feel so vulnerable and alone. And then, to make matters worse, once she accepts the truth about the curse, she can't convince anyone else about it. The rest of the world thinks she's even crazier than ever. The effect of such psychological alienation is a fascinating cinematic subject, and I'm drawn to plots that explore that area.

Barbara Shelley gives a marvelous performance as someone whose mental state is constantly shifting, from skepticism and disbelief to shock, denial, guilt, remorse, and ultimately vengeance, all the while unsecured by a sense of sadness and rage that she was never able to express or even admit to herself. The public and private perception of her psychosis is something The Cat Girl goes into more depth than the original. When Lenora is locked in a cell for observation by doctors, the film follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper, and other narratives about misunderstood "madwomen" locked away behind closed doors. Seeing her as neither a simplistic villain or victim, The Cat Girl sympathizes with Lenora's vulnerability against a system and society that represses both her mental and physical desires and changes.

I also like the whole "creepy family mansion" and "family curse" pretexts. What happened to those? Did families downsize to smaller, suburban homes or city condos? And did curses go away with the internet? It seems like butlers (or uncles, as is the case in The Cat Girl) must be depressed, without un-notarized wills to read to younger family members who they haven't seen since they were children.

With its creepy gothic atmosphere, feline violence, unsupportive family and friends, and a mentally unstable protagonist, I gotta admit, The Cat Girl is a pretty good remake that brings new things to the table.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"After the First Death" by Lawrence Block (1969)

Upon waking in a strange hotel room with a hellish hangover and a dead prostitute not the floor, with the door bolted from the inside, Alex Penn had a discomforting realization:

"I've done it again."

The second time he's woken up from a bender with next to a beautiful corpse, Alex doesn't think the law will be very lenient with him this time around, he goes on the run, hiding out in sleazy midtown hotels, determined to figure out who has framed him--twice--for murder. That is, unless he is really is guilty of murder.

Block is one of my favorite New York City writers, with impeccable  depictions of Manhattan's scummy streets and scummier inhabitants, and After the First Death is one of my favorite books of his. Originally published in 1969, its firsthand intimacy of the island's geography and cultural climate is invaluable. Block gives us a vivid impression of the bygone days of the dirty Forty Deuce, of Times Square hustlers and their desperate bustle, of Village nights spent ripping off sailors and setting them up with a couple of imaginary girls that won't give them a happy ending, of fleabag motels and dirty sheets, and endless wanderings and nights that go on forever.

Block's early work is edgy, his characters dangerous, and their intentions disreputable. They're not likable people, their vices aren't charming, and their violent habits aren't heroic. In the case of Alex Penn, he's a scumbag. A history teacher who cheated on his spouse, ruined his career, alienated friends and colleagues, and contributed to the death of two women (whether by his hand or whoever framed him). What's interesting about the plot of After the First Death is that Alex is pursuing a truth that could very well confirm his guilt instead of absolve him. Even at best, recreating the alcoholic nights lost to his memory is only going to show just how reckless and despicable he is.

So many mystery novels use booze as a crutch, but Block's books show the destructive effects of alcohol on the self and on others. He doesn't make alcoholism and debauchery attractive. The opening chapter is one of the most vivid and nauseating renderings of a hangover. There's nothing cool or romantic about it. Alex Penn is miserable, and he has only himself to blame. And that emerges as one of the biggest themes of the book--regardless of whether or not someone is framing him, Alex has already screwed himself and others over in the past, and here he is repeating the past, "again" as he so bluntly puts it.

Told in the first-person, much of After the First Death is stuck in Alex's head as he tries and fails to make sense of what happened. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is that he is well aware that things might be as they seem--he might have killed the woman. Even if he didn't, he knows he was capable of it, which is almost just as bad. He is in a perpetual state of guilt--every drink he takes is a crime waiting to be committed, and therefore every desire to drink represents potential violence. It's a steadily downward trajectory that reminds of David Goodis, an introspective narrative of relentless self-doubt and self-loathing.

Lest I make this book sound like a total downer, Block's characteristic wry humor is peppered throughout the book. Above all else, Block is an incredibly story-teller with an addictive, inimitable voice that brings you back time and again to his work. The timing, the structure, the scenes, the rhythm of the dialog, everything you love about Block is here.

Visit Lawrence Block's website for links to purchase the book.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"The Monster and the Girl" (1941)

Call it gorilla noir.

After a gangster sullies his sister's reputation, Scot Webster goes gunning for revenge and winds up framed for another murder before he can kill the guy he wants! After his execution, scientists remove his brain and put it in the head of a gorilla. Once the experiment is complete, the gorilla escapes and goes hunting for revenge.

In case you were wondering, this movie rules.

The Monster and the Girl is just over an hour's worth of classic Hollywood guy-in-a-gorilla-suit goodness. It's also directed by Stuart Heisler, who in just a few years would direct the great Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. You can tell this isn't some hack job by just how seriously Heisler treats the material. Strong, compelling performances from the actors, and richly stylized camera compositions and direction. The last third of the movie, when the gorilla goes on his murder spree, is stunning to watch unfold. Much of it occurs without any dialog, just silent stalking and vicious, sudden attacking. Remarkably photographed and dynamically edited, it evokes the same shadowy anxiety and dread as some of the great film noir endings--only with a gorilla thrown into the mix.

"The Monster" is played by Charles Gemora, one of the legendary Hollywood gorilla guys. Gemora also had a long career behind the scenes, working on sets for silent classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Thief of Bagdad, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Black Pirate, and later he spent decades working as a makeup artist. "The Girl" is Ellen Drew, a terrific actress who also appeared alongside Dick Powell in Preston Sturges' wonderful comedy, Christmas in July, as well opposite Vincent Price in Samuel Fuller's western, The Baron of Arizona, and with John Payne in Robert Florey's great B-noir, The Crooked Way. Also in the cast are Phillip Terry as the brother, and Paul Lukas (Academy Award-winner for Watch on the Rhine) as the wicked gangster.

And the scientist who makes all the magic happen? None other than the great George Zucco!

I've seen it a couple times, and will be watching it many times more. I'm glad I have this one on DVD for future reference.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"The Thrill Killers" (1964)

The credo of exploitation cinema is to have the most shamelessly provocative, alluring, and tantalizing title possible, even if the film doesn't live up to it.

Thankfully, The Thrill Killers more than lives up to its name.

Joe Saxon is a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work actor, and his wife Liz is sick of it. She leaves him and goes to visit friends at a nearby diner, and Joe goes looking for her. Little do they know that they are both walking into not one, but two unfortunate situations. Not only have three lunatic murderers escaped from a mental institution and taken over the diner, but a fourth, unrelated psycho is hitchhiking around around the outskirts of Hollywood and killing everyone in his path.

Oh, hell yes!

This movie has it all. Decapitation. Axe attacks. Hollywood pool party debauchery. Groovy dancing. Diner invasion kidnappings. A horse and motorcycle chase. A trip down the Hollywood Walk of Fame (including Buster Crabbe's star). People are thrown off mountains. There are fist fights. Gun fights. Spousal fights. Cowboy campers.

I loved this movie. It has a hard pulp edge and an unhinged aesthetic sensibility. It's a spit in the face to slick, mainstream, and morally grounded movies. The whole plot unfurls like some nightmare: one minute you're at home with your lame ass husband, the next you're meeting a friend for a burger at the diner, and the next three ax-wielding maniacs have you hostage, and then just when you think you're home free there's that other maniac roaming around. The story is over-the-top, but it is supposed to be, and this film manages to balance being both exciting and frightening at the same time.

The movie was directed by Ray Dennis Steckler (who also stars as the hitchhiker under his pseudonym, Cash Flagg). In an interview on the DVD, Steckler explained, "I just wanted to make a crazy movie … and then I got carried away at the end with the horse chase … I'm playing Federico Fellini, now, I can do what I want!"

As if the movie didn't have enough psycho cred already, apparently the horse chase stunt double lived on a nearby ranch with the Manson family.

69 minutes of pure pulp psychosis.

I think I need to see more of Mr. Steckler's movies.

Available on DVD.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 5

The first step to overcoming addiction is to admit you have a problem.

While I'm not ready to admit that I'm a vinyl addict, there certainly was a problem.

A big problem.

A big stack of records on my floor. That grew to two piles. And then three. [Note: This is not the monstrous stack, but a smaller counterpart.]

After facing my demons face-to-face, I decided the only solution was not to buy less records, but to buy shelves.

Now I not only have shelves, but all my records are alphabetized, and I have one free shelf, so I can totally buy more records, right?

Well, I already had three bags of LPs I hadn't gone through, so I decided to open one up and take a look.

Here's the loot:

Ray Charles - "Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul"; Glenn Ohrlin - "Cowboy Songs"; MFSB - "Love is the Message"; Sarah Vaughn with Oscar PEterson, Joe Pass, Louie Bellson, and Ray Brown (HOLY SHIT) - "How Long Has This Been Going On?"; Buddy Holly - "A Rock & Roll Collection" (2 lps); Charles Lloyd - "Soundtrack"

Three Art Tatum Albums - "Solo Piano" (Capitol), "Piano Starts Here", and "Masterpieces" (2 lps); Chick Corea and Gary Burton - "Crystal Silence"; Annette Funicello - "Annette's Beach Party"; Ralph Sutton and Jay McShann - "The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players"

Leroy Holmes - "Once Upon a Time in the West"; Duane Eddy - "The Twangs The Thang"; Earl Hines and Jaki Byard - "Duet!"; Roy Clark - "Guitar Spectacular!"; Hank Snow - "Spanish Fireball"; Len Chandler - "To Be a Man"

Friday, July 17, 2015

James Cagney Birthday Tribute + 20 Favorite Roles

July 17th is a blessed day, for it was on this day, 116 years ago, in 1899, that James Cagney was born.

I'm a huge Cagney fan. There's a vitality to his performances that is totally unique. A skip to his step, a grace to his movement, a spark behind his eyes, and a strange urban melody to his voice that is at once staccato but oh-so-smooth. These qualities were evident from his earliest movies when his animated style immediately set him apart from the rest of the crowd in Hollywood who were struggling to adapt silent and theatrical stage manners to the new and still cumbersome talkies.

When Cagney appeared in Sinners' Holiday in 1930, his first film, the screen forever changed. It didn't appear like he was acting, or even that he was trying. He was so damn natural, as though he were meant for the movies, and the movies were meant for him. In 1930, he made two films. In 1931, five. And he stayed busy through 1961. After appearing in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, he only made a handful of appearances. His last feature was Ragtime in 1981, followed by a television movie, Terrible Joe Moran, in 1984. Cagney passed away on March 30, 1986, at the age of 86.

Among Cagney's most memorable performances include The Public Enemy (1931), where he shoves the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), two of his most iconic gangster roles; Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), where he got to show off his musical abilities as the dancing George M. Cohan; and White Heat (1949), where he plays the epileptic, psychopathic criminal Cody "Top of the world, Ma!" Jarrett.

Those movies are famous, but they are only a fraction of the great films that Cagney made. Below are 20 of my other favorite James Cagney movies, in chronological order.

Blonde Crazy (1931)
Cagney plays a chiseling bell-boy, and his partner-in-crime is Joan Blondell. Directed by one of my favorites, Roy Del Ruth.

Taxi! (1932)
Cagney plays a cabbie who stands up against corruption. Co-starring Loretta Young, also directed by Del Ruth.

The Crowd Roars (1932)
Cagney plays a race car driver whose career and personal life hit a rough patch. Co-starring Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and directed by Howard Hawks.

Winner Take All (1932)
This time, Cagney is a boxer who lets fame, dough, and dames go to his head. Also directed by Del Ruth.

Picture Snatcher (1933)
Here, he's an ex-con-turned-tabloid photojournalist.

The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Cagney runs a reform school!

Footlight Parade (1933)
After his stage career fails, he turns to producing musical prologues for movies. Co-starring Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, and Hobart Cavanaugh--if you're into 30s Hollywood, those names are like a dream cast of top-tier character actors. Directed by Busby Berkeley, featuring some of his craziest choreography.

Lady Killer (1933)
A life of crime leads to big-screen stardom! Cagney re-teams with grapefruit recipient Mae Clarke, and director Del Ruth.

Jimmy the Gent (1934)
Cagney chisels estates by providing phony inheritors!

He Was Her Man (1934)
Cagney's on the lam from the mob with Blondell, and they hole up in a small fishing village.

City for Conquest (1940)
In order to aid his brother's career as a composer, truck driver Cagney heads to the boxing ring.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Love triangle with Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland set in 1890s New York City. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
Back to crime! Cagney busts out of jail with his partner, who he shoots during the getaway, and then tries to shack up with his sister, played by Barbara Payton. Based on a Horace McCoy novel.

A Lion is in the Streets (1953)
Itinerant salesman Cagney decides to enter politics! Directed by the great Raoul Walsh.

Run for Cover (1955)
Originally mistaken for a criminal, Cagney becomes sheriff of a town and tries to rebuild his life. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Cagney plays a gangster who bankrolls Doris Day's musical career, but she won't believe that his love is true.

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
Cagney plays a vicious ranch foreman in this western directed by Robert Wise and adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer.

The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
A biopic of the great silent actor, Lon Chaney.

Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)
Cagney gets caught up with the IRA!

One, Two, Three (1961)
Cagney runs the West Berlin-branch of the Coca Cola Company in Billy Wilder's Cold War farce. Dig that Saul Bass poster!


Even at twenty, I'm leaving out movies like John Ford's What Price Glory? and -- ok, I'm stopping. I'll leave you to explore the rest of Cagney's career on your own.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 4

When last I confessed, I mentioned a twenty-five cent record fair at Human Head Records. I posted the first half of that haul. I've finally finished going through and cleaning the rest of the loot. Cleaning and bagging the records was like reliving the thrill of the day all over again. Even now, just looking at these pictures, my pulse races and a thirst for vinyl drives through my veins. I need more! When is the next record fair? I need to know.  Also, somehow, in the ecstasy of the moment, I wound up getting two copies of Glen Campbell's "Try a Little Kindness," but that's ok -- it was only a quarter.

Also, for the sake of being 100% honest (this is a confession, after all), that Duane Eddy album I did not pay a quarter for. I paid full price, minus the record fair discount, so it came to something like $3.60.  Or maybe a little less.

There, I've cleansed my soul of my vinyl sins …

… ok, I'm lying, I still have three bags of records by my desk that I haven't gone through. Looks like my conscience isn't clean yet. A vinyl sinner at heart, I doubt I'll ever be pure and wholesome again.

Wes Montgomery - "Road Song"; The Temptations - "Greatest Hits"; Glen Campbell - "Try a Little Kindness"; Duane Eddy - "$1,000,000 Worth of Twang"; Grover Washington, Jr. - "Soul Box"; Jimmy Smith - "Hoochie Coochie Man"; Ray Price - "I Won't Mention It Again"; George Benson - "Bad Benson"; Aretha Franklin - "Runnin' Out of Fools"

Dickson Hall - "Outlaws of the Old West"; Frank Sinatra - "Only The Lonely"; Merle Haggard and Sonny James - "Music Hall"; Charlie Rich - "Lonely Weekends"; Marty Robbins - "Marty's Greatest Hits"; Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs - "Songs to Cherish"; Dionne Warwick - "Soulful"; Dionne Warwick - "Here Where There Is Love"; The Temptations - "Psychedelic Shack"; B.B. King - "Live & Well"

Marty Robbins - "This Much a Man"; Hank Williams, Jr. - "Sings the Songs of Hank Williams"; Charlie Rich - "Sings Country & Western"; Charlie Rich - "Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High)"; Jimmy Dean - "Is Here!"; Hank Williams - "The Unforgettable Hank Williams"; Isaac Stern - "Penderecki Violin Concerto"; Charley Pride - "Songs of Pride"; Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins - "The Survivors"; The Temptations - "Getting' Ready"

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"So Nude, So Dead" by Ed McBain (Hard Case Crime)

Under normal circumstances, waking up in a hotel room next to a beautiful blonde would be a good thing.

But not for Ray Stone.

This time, the blonde is dead, and 16 oz. of heroin are missing.

So, he calls his dad for help, only his dad calls the cops.

Now, the cops want him for murder, the dealers want their drugs, and all Ray Stone wants is a fix. And he needs it bad.

Criss-crossing Manhattan, Stone can run and hide from his pursuers, but the one thing he can't hide from is his addiction. At some point he is going to have to come out and look for more stuff. And if he doesn't find the missing drugs, the dealers will eventually kill him. And if he doesn't find the real killer, the cops will eventually arrests him.

It's a start to a bad day for Ray Stone--but it's also the start to a great career. The second book and first crime novel by the writer most famously known as Ed McBain, it was originally published in 1952 as The Evil Sleep! (as Evan Hunter) and again in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead (as Richard Marsten). And now it is back in print after half a century by Hard Case Crime.

Some writers take a few novels to perfect their craft or develop their own voice. McBain was not one of those writers. He was one of those rare, absurdly and enviably talented few who had "it" from the get-go. Merging a wrong-man-on-the-run mystery with the then-burgeoning junkie-sploitation trend, McBain created a dynamite noir thriller with a fast-burning fuse. Set against an authentically grimy New York City backdrop, McBain takes his character from sleazy dives to swank apartments, jazz clubs to bathhouses, Gun Hill Road up in the Bronx to a rural Connecticut farmhouse. One can't ask for a better NYC tour guide than Ed McBain.

There is much to admire in this book, and I could ramble on singing its praises, so I'll end with this:

So Nude, So Dead is just so damn awesome.

To whet your appetite, here's the opening two paragraphs:

"There was the jangling, of course. It wouldn't be morning without the jangling. It was as if someone deliberately gathered up every nerve end in his body and tied them together every night. And in the morning--this morning, every morning--he'd sit up in bed with the ache in his body. It was almost delicious, especially when he knew he had the stuff waiting for him. It was painful too, but painful in a sweet way, almost as if the wanting were too exquisite to bear.
God, he needed a shot."

Monday, July 13, 2015

In Memoriam: Randy Johnson and Tom Piccirilli

I went away for the weekend, and when I came back my world had changed, and not for the better. I was deeply saddened to hear that Randy Johnson and Tom Piccirilli both passed away.

Randy I knew through his wonderful blog, Not the Baseball Pitcher, and through Facebook. When I first started Pulp Serenade, he was an early supporter, and it was always a pleasure to see his comments. We had similar taste in movies and books, and I could always count on him for a good recommendation. His reviews were refreshingly unpretentious and straight-forward. I liked his style, and I trusted his instincts. He had a wonderful spirit and a sincere love for books and movies, they meant a lot to him and it came across in his writing. His was a warm and positive presence in the online community, it won't be the same without him, certainly not for me.

Tom was one of my favorite writers, and his books moved me in very personal ways, reading them always revealed things to me about myself. His work had a remarkably intimate quality. I remember walking into Partners and Crime in the West Village, and I asked Kiz (one of the owners) what I should be reading. She grabbed The Cold Spot off the shelf and said, simply, "This." Kiz knew my taste, and she was rarely wrong. I trusted her, bought it, and took it home to read. She was right. Two of my favorite books of Tom's are Grave Men and The Last Kind Words. Both have to deal with family and genealogy, and the question of what makes you who you are. Is it in your blood, is it in the way you were brought up, is it your own choice? Is there something inside of you that you can't control. So much of noir has to do with this dilemma of whether we're doomed beyond our control or whether we bring it upon our selves. I loved the way Tom personalized and internalized it, made it about the family, something we can all relate to. Tom brought heart to noir, and with that heart came much aching.

I only ever knew these two men through their words. In emails, blog posts, comments, stories, reviews. Always words. For personal reasons I had to take time away from Pulp Serenade, and in that interim I found myself missing people like Randy and Tom. And now that I'm back, I'll be missing them even more.

My sincerest condolences to all of you who knew Randy and Tom.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"Ruthless" by John Rector

Over at The Life Sentence, I had the pleasure of reviewing John Rector's latest novel, Ruthless. It's about a guy who walks into a bar and pretends to be someone else when a hot blonde approaches him. Unfortunately, she thinks he is a hit man, and he unknowingly accepts $20,000 to kill someone he's never met before. Before he can give the money back, the woman disappears, and the real hit man sees what went down and who has his money. That's just chapter 1 and 2, and things only go downhill from there. 

I'm a big fan of Rector's stripped down prose and his mixture of high tension plotting and noir doom and gloom. This is his fifth novel, and he's batting five for five so far, all great stuff.

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