Sunday, November 15, 2020

"The Eagle and the Hawk" (1933)

The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) is a Pre-Code anti-war film from Paramount that focuses on the rivalry between two RAF soldiers stationed in France during World War I, Jerry Young (Fredric March) and Henry Crocker (Cary Grant). Crocker is acknowledged as the best gunner in the squad, but he aspires to be a pilot. Young, however, advises the captain the Crocker isn't good enough to be a pilot. Their conflict escalates when Crocker tries to gun down German observers that parachuting out of a burning plane, which Young sees as savage and immoral and which Crocker views as justified by the nature of war. Young's humanist philosophy increases as the death toll rises and he questions the very nature of valor, bravery, and heroism. An unsung classic, The Eagle and the Hawk deserves to be mentioned alongside other anti-war films of the time like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Kino Lorber Studio Classics have recently resurrected the film with a pristine and beautiful Blu-ray presentation.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

"The Sign of the Cross" (1932)

If you can't see The Sign of the Cross (1932) on the big screen, the next best thing is the new Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, in which every lavish detail of Cecil B. DeMille's super-production is shimming in high-def detail. High visual quality is especially important for a director like DeMille who poured every dollar into his shots. If the audience couldn't see it, then it wasn't big enough for DeMille, a director who never did anything small. Born from and for the big screen, he sought to make his movies bigger than anything ever done before. Never one for subtlety, he envisioned spectacles and protagonists larger than the lives and worlds of the spectators in the theater. The Sign of the Cross is perfectly emblematic of DeMille's vision: the drama might be overwrought to the point of corn, but the production design and depictions of Roman debauchery and decadence are unarguably incredible.

Friday, November 13, 2020

"Picture Mommy Dead" (1966)

Kino Lorber Studio Classics's new Blu-ray of Picture Mommy Dead (1966) is a wonderful tribute to its producer and director, the legendary independent filmmaker Bert I. Gordon, who recently celebrated his 98th birthday on September 24th, and whose career spanned over six decades. Dubbed "Mr. B.I.G." by Forrest J. Ackerman both for his initials and his frequent use of XL-sized monsters, Gordon made his mark with a series of low-budget sci-fi pictures including The Cyclops (1957), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958). Gordon's career continued into the 70s including Food of the Gods (1976), and his most recent film was Secrets of a Psychopath (2015).  Picture Mommy Dead features no larger-than-life monsters (though it does take place in a large mansion), however the film displays the director's flair for economical thrills and a cheap but effective sense of style.

Friday, November 6, 2020

"If the Coffin Fits" by Day Keene (1952) - FFB

If the Coffin Fits (1952) was Keene's eighth novel since his debut, Framed in Guilt, was published three years earlier in 1949. The title is borrowed from a pulp story he wrote for Dime Mystery (March 1945), but the stories have nothing in common (the original yarn is about a writer who debunks occult phenomena). The protagonist of this novel is another throwback to his pulp days, private eye Tom Doyle, who appeared in numerous yarns in the 1940s; this is Doyle's only outing in a novel. Here, Doyle gets caught up in a war for political control of a corrupt Nevada gambling town.

Keene's choice of reviving Doyle during his paperback period is really interesting, as Keene's novels tended to focus on average joes who, through extraordinary circumstances, have to prove that they or their spouse is innocent of murder. Considering the popularity of private eyes in paperback fiction at the time, perhaps Keene was hoping a publisher would latch onto the character for a series. Doyle's description as a World War II vet with premature white hair and blue eyes, in fact, reminds of another popular series private eye of the time: Richard Prather's Shell Scott. Scott's white hair and blue eyes graced the cover of scores of Gold Medal paperbacks in the 1950s (and beyond). The similarities stop there, however, as Keene's prose is decidedly less animated than Prather's.

The plot of If the Coffin Fits is certainly more routine than Keene's typical work from this period, hitting all the expected beats and twists one would expect from a 50s detective novel; however, it still exhibits Keene's commitment to action-oriented puzzle plots and pedal-to-the-metal pacing.

In If the Coffin Fits, Chicago private eye Tom Doyle is visited by an old army buddy, Tiny Anderson, who now runs a successful casino in Central City, Nevada. Anderson offers Doyle $5000 to fly to Central City, wait in front of a public monument at midnight, and get into a car to hear a proposal. If he doesn't like what he hears, he can walk away. For that kind of money, and a trusted friend, Doyle takes the case. But from the moment he lands in Central City, he knows there is more to the case than he was told. Local goons are waiting at the airport to persuade him—with their fists—to turn around. Doyle seems to have found himself caught in a grab for political control of the town, between one party who wants to reform and clean it up and another that wants to keep it wide open and corrupt. And everything seems to be related to James Burton, a young aspiring lawyer, who has been accused of murdering his high-school aged babysitter, who was pregnant with his alleged child, and is set to be executed in a couple days. And it's up to Doyle to save Burton, avoid the cops, outrun the goons, and help a stray college student (Fay Adams) who is unknowingly caught up in all of this.

Bill Crider was right when he said, "The story is a lot more complicated than I can describe here, but it's a lot of fun. If you like the old-fashioned pulp-styled p.i. stories, you'd find a lot to like here. I know I did."

Even by Keene's standards, there's a lot of plot here—almost more than can fit in the book. Perhaps because the main character is outside of the conflict and not directly involved, the story feels more rote and detached than Keene's other books. There's something very pedestrian about the trail of evidence and the pile-up of obstacles in Doyle's way in If the Coffin Fits, as though Keene is amassing incident-after-incident in order to prolong the conclusion until a word-count is hit. The story does, however, display's Keene's classical sense of deduction, preferring to have his character use his intellect rather than his fists to piece the puzzle together. Not that there's any lack of action—If the Coffin Fits is slam-bang all the way—but Keene separates the violence from the logic of the story. Keene doesn't offer any easy outs for his protagonist: he makes Doyle work for the clues and think about what they mean.

One facet of Keene's writing that has become more apparent and fascinating the more I read him is the sense of restraint in his prose. He's hardboiled through-and-through, but he doesn't indulge in graphic depictions of violence or lurid passage of sex and lust. Often, as in If the Coffin Fits, his protagonists are  too busy running around to sleep with anybody—they rarely get any sleep themselves, unless they are knocked unconscious. Violence is also exhibited only in self-defense, and even then Keene's writing is economical and to-the-point, using as few words as possible to paint a mental image before getting on with the plot. Which is really what Keene is about—the plot. His pacing is unmatched, and for all of the intricate plotting he keeps things crystal clear and manages to tie everything up in the end, often in a whirlwind final few paragraphs.

If the Coffin Fits isn't one of Keene's greatest books, but it's damned entertaining, nonetheless. And that's something for which he can always be counted on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

"The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4" (2013) - Short Story Wednesday

Ramble House's The Case of the Bearded Bride: Day Keene in the Detective Pulps, Vol. #4 was edited and introduced by scholar David Laurence Wilson. The selection reflects the depth and comprehensiveness of his research, comprising Keene's earliest stories under his real name, Gunard Hjertstedt, as well as several from the 1940s under the pen name "John Corbett." None of these tales were the sorts of novelettes that would get their titles printed in large, sweeping, bold red text on the front covers of magazines. Instead, these stories represent two different stages of Keene's career as a writer. The Hjertstedt stories are when he was still developing a voice, written in the 1930s while he was still mainly producing radio dramas for broadcast. The Corbett stories, on the other hand, were pseudonymous works meant to fill out the pages of issues where a story under his real name was given more prominence. It's a fascinating combination that focuses on the more obscured and less visible aspects of Keene's output, but that sort of attention to detail is what I value and appreciate from Wilson.

Monday, November 2, 2020

"Kings of Midnight" by Wallace Stroby (2012)

Kings of Midnight (2012) kicks off with a heist destined for the Hall of Fame. The setup may be simple—knocking over an ATM with a tractor, followed by a fast getaway into the woods—but the scene's power lies in Wallace Stroby's uncannily exact imagery, precise language, and narrative credibility. Stroby's depiction of heists is so believable you almost wonder if writing is just a sideline for him. The scene recalls those meticulously choreographed centerpieces from films like Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) and Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road (1957), in which minute details of movement are amplified to anxiety-inducing extremes. So much tension, but so little happening. Economy of language has been a key element of crime fiction since the days of Dashiell Hammett, but Stroby makes it feels fresh and vital again. He doesn't rely on hardboiled clichés or tough guy lingo. Kings of Midnight is, in large part, a quiet book when it comes to dialogue. The attitude is all in the action—and here, actions speaks louder than words.
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