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