Showing posts with label 1950s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1950s. Show all posts

13 May 2020

The Tingler


Bringing in the wet dog, my pal Carole made a joke about Odorama – the provenance here being that she's a Baltimore girl, and Baltimore native son John Waters used a gimmick in his more-or-less mainstream debut, Polyester, that was a scratch'n'sniff card, smells keyed to scenes in the movie.



Lest you think this utterly without precedent, think again. John Waters, like Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, is very much a movie nut, and knows his history. Tarantino might champion Sergio Corbucci and a picture like The Great Silence, Scorsese is of course hugely influential in the preservation of significant landmark pictures, many of them marginalized or forgotten. It's no less serious of John Waters to find inspiration in the movies of a Russ Meyer or William Castle.



Russ Meyer was, famously, a schlockmeister. You could argue that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is at least on some level a masterwork, but it's still trash. Terrific trash, maybe. On the other hand, Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss it ain't. Meyer doesn't even come close. Sam Fuller made his share of exploitive B's, but he always had thorough discipline. Russ Meyer, let's be honest, was only in thrall to the great state of mammary.




William Castle is a different story. His career begins in the late 1930's, and lasts into the 1970's. A lot of it is pretty lame; some of it is eye-popping. He was on Welles' Lady from Shanghai. Twenty years later, he bought the rights to Rosemary's Baby, but Paramount wouldn't let him direct - they thought his track record with quick-and-dirty horror would hurt the word of mouth on an A-picture.



So, those horror movies. This is where Castle hit his stride. (He's actually contemporaneous with the glory days of Hammer gothic, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.) The first was Macabre, in 1958, and it was the first where Castle used medicine-show marketing. Along with your ticket, you got an insurance policy from Lloyd's of London: IF IT FRIGHTENS YOU TO DEATH - YOU'LL BE BURIED FREE OF CHARGE. The House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price, where the theater went completely dark and the spooky soundtrack started before the picture did. And a plastic skeleton dangled over the audience (Castle pitched this as Emerge-O).  Then his second picture with Price, The Tingler. The Tingler had an even better device: a few of the seats in the theater were wired for a slight tingling effect, which signaled that the parasitic creature was creeping up your spine - and at which point the ushers were supposed to scream. You see the pattern, here. Even as late as Strait-Jacket, his Joan Crawford ax-murderer picture, he passed out party favor tie-ins, cardboard axes smeared with stage blood.



My personal favorite of Castle's movies is Let's Kill Uncle, which came out in 1966, and is apparently not really considered part of the canon. Maybe because Castle often used name Hollywood actors whose fires were no longer burning bright, like Crawford and Vincent Price, those pictures have a certain camp acidity, and they're not to be taken entirely seriously. Let's Kill Uncle, however, has the great Nigel Green, deliriously over-the-top, as the retired SAS commando major out to  murder his nephew for the kid's inheritance. And the shark in the swimming pool.



Castle himself never tried Smell-O-Vision (used but once, Scent of Mystery, 1959) or AromaRama (Behind the Great Wall, same year), so the mischievous sniff test of Odorama John Waters releases in Polyester is more of an homage, Castle-esque rather than a direct application of the Castle merchandising touch. It's satisfyingly retrograde.



Clearly, there are advances which work. Sound, and color. Widescreen, or Dolby digital. 3D is back, not a novelty this time, but here to stay. Smell is of course evocative. They say the most of all our senses. It's probably genetically hard-wired. Who argues? Maybe there's a way to do this. Easy enough to make a theater seat vibrate, after all, to rumble underneath you, or even tip left and right with the G-forces, so you're in the cockpit with Maverick. On the other hand, we'd probably need warning labels, like a product containing peanuts. You get to choose, 3D or flat, subtitles or dubbed, earthbound or zero gravity, scented or fragrance-free.

[In a cute piece of stunt casting John Waters actually got to play Castle in the miniseries Feud, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford surrounding Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In an Oklahoma publicity appearance for Strait-Jacket, Crawford "decapitates" Castle.]

06 February 2020

Favorite Places


I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

25 May 2017

The Paths of Glory...


Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPG
Arlington Cemetery,
Wikipedia
  • "Fear prophets and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them." -Umberto Eco 
  • “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war's appeal.” Chris Hedges, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
Memorial Day is the United States' official holiday to remember all the people who have died serving in our armed forces.  It's also a good day to remember all who have died in war, period.  And not just in the United States.

Now, this may sound strange to you, but one thing I would like to see is happen is the United States reinstate the draft. Personally, I believe EVERYONE should have to serve in the military, men and women alike.  My reasons are many:

(1) When only 1% of the citizenry serve in the military, and all are "volunteer", then the citizenry as a whole seems to be remarkably unconcerned about what wars, "unofficial" wars, etc., we're in.  The Middle East conflicts have seen military personnel - often "part-time" National Guard - serving 3, 4, 5+  tours of duty, and nobody seems to care.  It's someone else's child, someone else's family, and they volunteered.  Let them go where they're told.  Especially since it's somewhere "over there".  I find this unhealthy.

(2) If everyone serves in the military, then maybe certain politicians won't talk patriotism out of one side of their mouth and then yank promised veterans' benefits away with both hands.  And other things...

(3)  If we're going to police the world, then by God I think we should draft everyone, and let everyone in on what it's like to serve.  Training, education, and a greater knowledge of the world around them.  Mark Twain:  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

(4) Recurring statements from recurring politicians (who do not/ have not/ will not ever serve) that seem to openly want / long for/ plan for war.  Again, going back to #1 - we have to stop taking our military for granted.  We have to recognize that it's real blood that is shed, real lives that are lost, real minds / bodies that are damaged, sometimes irreparably.

(5) The other side of it is that we appear to be developing a certain (small?) percentage of the military that seems to be increasing in disdain, distrust, and dislike for the non-military majority. I've been told that American civilians in general are unfit, immoral, and slothful.  (From the Walrus and the Carpenter: "I deeply sympathize." Sometimes.) As one said to a judge once, "We throw these people over the fence."  The judge replied, "Welcome to the other side of the fence." And this important:  the military is there to defend the BOTH SIDES OF THE FENCE.

Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (cropped).jpg
Bill O'Reilly - Wikipedia
I do believe that we take war too casually in this country, mainly because (post 1812) our wars have always (with the exception of the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11) been on someone else's soil.  (This includes the "American Indian Wars" which were all fought on what was, at the time, Native American land.)  There is an American tendency to downplay European distaste for war, European steady pursuit for diplomacy, as "liberal", if not downright cowardly. During the buildup to the Iraqi invasion, Richard Perle stated that European nations "do not have the most courageous of instincts," implying that America must intervene in inter-national affairs because Europeans are afraid to.  (Citation on NBC)  Back in December of 2005, Bill O'Reilly said "I understand Europe. They're cowards." He went on to add,
"...by and large, the European population is soft and afraid. ... They won't confront evil on any level. It is anything goes, just leave me alone. Give me my check from the government and leave me alone." (Citation on MMFA)  It's a fairly constant theme on Breitbart as they quote Neil Farage, Geert Wilders, and others among the alt-right.  

But as one response put it, "Europeans are not cowards - It's that we know war."  And they do.  The following is a list of European wars over the last 200 years:

1789-1795 - The French Revolution (the real beginning of the 19th century)
1802-1815 - The Napoleonic Wars (fought both in every country in Europe and around the world - the War of 1812 was a subset of these)
1819 - August 16 - Great Britain - "The Peterloo Massacre"
1820 - Revolts in Spain and Naples.  Crushed.
1825 - Decembrist Revolt in Moscow.  Crushed
1824-1830 - The Greek Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1830 - Serbian Revolt v. Ottoman Empire.  Won (because the Congress of Vienna backed it)
1848:  Europe went NUTS in 1848.  Some of the major armed conflicts were:
  • Revolt in France; king flees; Louis Napoleon Bonaparte is elected, then becomes Napoleon III in 1852, & launches a series of imperial wars on the continent...
  • Berlin revolt.  Crushed.
  • Viennese workers & students revolt in Austria.  Crushed.
  • Czechs revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • Milan & Venice revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed.
  • France invades & occupies Rome at the request of the Pope (they stay until 1870)
1849 - Magyars of Hungary revolt vs. Austrian Empire.  Crushed
1853-1856 - Crimean War.  Russia v. Ottoman Empire, France & Britain.
1854 - Spanish Revolution
1859 - Piedmont (Italy) v. Austrian Empire.  France joins Italy and beats Austria.
WWImontage.jpg
WW1 Montage - Wikipedia
1864 - Danish War (Prussia v. Denmark).  Prussia wins.
1866 - Austro-Prussian War (Austrian Empire v. Prussia).  Prussia wins.
1868 - Spanish Revolution (Italian king put on Spanish throne)
1870 - Franco-Prussian War (French lost; Napoleon III deposed)
1871 - Communard revolt in France.  Crushed.
1876-1878 - series of Serbian-Ottoman (Turkish) wars
1899-1902 - Boer War (Great Britain v. South African Boers).  Britain wins.
1905 - Bloody Sunday Massacre in Russia.
1912-1913 - Balkan Wars.  (sort of a preview of WW1)
1914-1918 - World War I ("The war to end all wars"...  but it wasn't).
1936-1939 - Spanish Civil War (a definite preview of WW2)
1939-1945 - World War II

Infobox collage for WWII.PNG
WW2 Montage - Wikipedia
There are reasons to pursue diplomacy when you have seen war on your home soil at least every decade for over 150 years.  There are reasons to want peace and unification when entire generations of young men have been wiped out time and again (see the list above). When cities have been bombed to rubble, and refugees have numbered in the tens of millions (WW2).  There are reasons to try to figure out what acceptable risks are when you have seen an entire continent explode, and 38 million people killed (civilian and military), over the shooting of one man in Sarajevo (WW1).  And to pursue civil accord, liberties, and responsibility when you've seen an entire continent almost drown in darkness, and almost get destroyed by war, after racist fanatics took over a government and then decided it was time to take over the earth (WW2).

Warsaw, post WW2
Wikipedia
And wars don't just end with everyone going home to a wonderful family reunion.  The scars last a long, long, long time. (Trust me on this: I lived in the South for years, and my mother was Southern.  The Civil War has not yet been forgotten and forgiven, on either side, and that was over 150 years ago. And don't even get me going on the Greeks and the Turks:  my grandfather was still furious at the Turkish invasion of Constantinople... Which happened in 1453...)

WW2 left 20 million military dead and 40 million civilian dead, and God only knows how many wounded.  There were also 60 million refugees.  Of those refugees, at least a million still hadn't found homes by 1951. And millions more weren't refugees, but were simply homeless, as whole cities were bombed into rubble, and much of the European industrial infrastructure destroyed.  And this brings up another unpleasant truth:

World War 2 is the reason why the United States became the leader of the free world and sailed into the 1950s on the biggest wave of prosperity we ever saw:  we hadn't been bombed into rubble, we hadn't lost our infrastructure, we didn't have a huge refugee population to resettle.  Our factories were at top production, when there were barely any left running anywhere else on the planet.  For years, we were the sole supplier of almost everything, and we grew very very rich.  That specific kind of economic boom will never happen again, no matter what any politician tells you, and thank God for it:   it was based on the absolute misery of most of the rest of the world.

Sadly, these lessons may have to be relearned, especially if certain parties in Europe and elsewhere have their way.  But maybe they will continue to remember, even if we do not.  They know how bad it can get.  We can only imagine.  Thank God. May it always stay that way.







17 October 2016

The Big Shift


by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

16 February 2015

Me and Elvis Presley


Jan Grape
While searching my brain for something to write about I read a note posted on FB about a couple of comics doing Elvis Impersonations. I watched first Jim Carey, then Andy Kaufman and both were good and funny. Andy's even more so because his normal talking voice was so high-pitched and strange, but when he sang and spoke "Elvis," he somehow got down into that low register that was more along the lines of the voice of Elvis.

That plus an incident which happened a couple weeks back, while listening to live music, someone requested one of the singers to sing an Elvis song. These musicians don't often sing cover songs but if requested and someone can do a version and the tip is reasonable then someone will try. The song was "Blue Suede Shoes." I immediately was reminded of my first and only time I saw Elvis in person.

It was in 1955, in Lubbock Texas and Elvis was traveling with The Louisiana Hayride. I was sixteen years old, a senior in high school and was not especially a big Elvis fan. I had heard of him, everyone in my part of TX had heard of the Rockabilly Kid. You all realize, of course, this was a few months before the "Ed Sullivan Show," and a few months before this young singer from Tupelo, MS and Memphis, TN became 'THE KING."

I don't remember the other girls I went with to Lubbock. Been too many years. I do remember we had seats rather far back in the auditorium. I think the premise back then was first in line got to rush down to the front rows. And if I'm not mistaken the tickets cost something like $2.50 There were other entertainers on the show but we came to see Elvis.

The bad thing for me, I broke my glasses that day. One of the lenses popped out and I only had that one pair of glasses. I remember looking through and being able to see really well with my right eye and everything kinda blurry with my left eye. And part of the time I covered my left eye and just looked with my right eye so I didn't have that blurry spot. I remember being upset over breaking my glasses. Such a bum deal to go to a concert and you can't see very well.

The news had gone around the country that when this Elvis guy sang that girls screamed and some swooned. My mother told me that it was like that when Frank Sinatra first started singing. Girls screamed to the top of their lungs, "Ohhhh Frankie," and some girls fainted. I thought the whole idea was one of the silliest things I'd ever heard. Screaming over some guy up on stage singing a song and I swore that I was not going to scream. And I didn't.

You believe that don't you? Honestly, I didn't scream at first, but after a little while, I discovered myself screaming, too. A whole coliseum full of mostly young teenage girls yelling and screaming is contagious. At first, I thought I was crazy, but then I realized it was mob hysteria. You know when the crowd outside the jail want the sheriff to send the prisoner out so the crowd can string him up. The whole town is yelling and shouting and carrying on and getting bolder and louder. Then when the good guy sheriff stands up to the crowd and fires his gun in the air that shuts up the menfolk and he tells them to get on back home. The crown quietens down, looks at each other sheepishly and leaves. That's mob hysteria. But we didn't look at each other sheepishly, we just looked at each other and screamed some more.

When Elvis came out on stage and the initial screaming quieted down to a dull roar, he said, something along these lines, "I'm going to sing a song written by a really good friend of mine. A good friend for many years." Then he turned to his lead guitar player and asked "What was that fellow's name?" "Carl Perkins," said the guitar man. "Oh yeah, Carl Perkins," said Elvis and he started singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

I'm not totally sure what else he sang, seems like he said That's All Right, Mama and Jailhouse Rock but I wouldn't swear to it. It was fun and I had a good time but I never became a huge, big Elvis fan. Not exactly sure why. I liked most of his songs, but I liked Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Hank Williams Sr better. Maybe because they seemed real to me and Elvis didn't.

Years later, we moved to Memphis, TN. It was 1972 and Elvis was living in Memphis at Graceland. My late husband, Elmer built Germantown Mall while we lived there. One of the stores in the mall was a wonderful jewelry store, owned by two brothers. One brother, Lowell, ran a store in downtown Memphis and the other brother, Les, ran the store in the mall. Elvis was friendly with Lowell but Les was the artist jeweler.

taking care of business

tender loving care
So Elvis came out to the Germantown store, after the mall was closed, fairly often to buy jewelry for his playmate of the month. However, Les could never tell anyone when he was going to come out because if he told and fans came out, the store would lose his business. Les couldn't even tell his wife. By then I would have enjoyed meeting Elvis because he was a big star and I just thought it would be cool to meet him and shake his hand and tell him I had seen him back in Lubbock all those years ago. But it never happened. Never got to meet him.

Les did tell us that he could always tell how serious he was about a woman by the jewelry he bought. The $10,000 to $30,000 was just an okay lady and the $40,000 and up range was a special woman. Les designed the TCB pins that Elvis gave to his band and male pals meaning ‘Taking Care of Business’ and the TLC pins given to female pals that meant ‘Tender Loving Care’. Les designed most of the jewelry Elvis wore.

One of those rumors that went around our high school was that Elvis had played at a dance hall in Lubbock called the Cotton Club. And the story went that a young lady with cantaloupe sized bazooms came up next to the stage, wearing her little tank top and asked Elvis to autograph her body. Supposedly he wrote Elvis on the right one and Presley on the left one, but I wouldn't ask Polifacts to check it because that most likely was one of those urban legends.

Even though we lived in Memphis when Elvis died and for a few years afterwards, I never visited Graceland. However, our Grape Family Reunion will be in Memphis this summer and I've joined in the family group to visit the home of the King. May he RIP.

11 December 2014

The 8th of November, 1951


    Sometimes when I settle down in the evening in front of the television I think back to the origins of this strange little device that we have welcomed into our homes over the past 65 or more years.

    Television actually got its start even earlier, in the 1920’s, and for several years what was the first television station sending out commercial broadcasts, WGY – broadcasting out of a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York -- contented itself with showing Felix the Cat riding around on a turntable for two hours a day.  But regular commercial broadcasting likely dates from 1948, the year that Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle became the first “must see” TV.

    The early years of television saw an avalanche of new programming hit the airwaves, some original series and some transplanted from the about-to-be-supplanted radio airwaves.  Mysteries were a staple of radio and many moved readily to this new medium as well.  Included in this rush to offer televised entertainment were three different series featuring my personal favorite, Ellery Queen, making the jump from radio.  Ellery Queen series variously aired on the old Dumont network, as well as on ABC and NBC.  These early television attempts at conquering the whodunit were a far cry from NBC’s 1975 Ellery Queen series that graced the Thursday and then Sunday night schedule for one short year.  The 1975 series is now available in a great DVD collection, but most of these early Queen televised adventures are now lost to us – they were either performed live, or on lost kinescope tapes.  You can read about them, and their radio predecessors, either in Francis Nevins magnum opus Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection, or on Kurt Sercu's website Ellery Queen:  A Website on Deduction.  But watching those early shows, that's another matter.  Well, maybe . . . .  There are always exceptions, bits of the past lurking out there ready to be discovered (or re-discovered) by the intrepid detective.

    So step with me, now, into Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine, as we set the dial for November 8, 1951.  When we get there, get comfy on the couch, or on the floor with a pillow.  Pull the popcorn bowl up close.  All eyes on that magnificent 9 inch black and white screen as we eagerly await tonight’s Ellery Queen adventure -- “Murder to Music.”




Note that Dale Andrews returns to SleuthSayers the last Sunday of the month, commencing 25 January 2015.

02 February 2014

Two Anniversaries


by Leigh Lundin

Fact: Less that 0.002% of American males will be reading this article instead of watching the Superbowl. Nevertheless, we press ever forward with our own take on entertainment including a part of Superbowl history.

In the past few days, a couple of entertainment anniversaries came to my attention, one a film and the other an advertisement.

An ad?

Yes, an advert that appeared only once, but oh, what a work of art by none other than that master filmmaker known for Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Hannibal: Ridley Scott. It was an ad run just one time thirty years ago during the Superbowl.

By now, you know I’m referring to Apple’s 1984 introduction of the Macintosh. Go on, watch it again; you know you want to.



I surmise the author of the article that reminded me of the Mac’s anniversary is quite young, not realizing the cycles of history. Without irony, she writes “The ad follows a popular theme of that era; that ‘Big Brother’ is watching you.”

Julia, Big Brother IS watching us like never before. Here in the US, we’re debating the rĂ´le of the NSA and exactly how many of our civil liberties we’re willing to forego in the pursuit of, er, liberty.

The UK has grown more heavy handed. After misusing an anti-terrorism law to jail at least one reporter, David Cameron’s government ordered its spooks over to The Guardian to oversee the destruction of hard drives and computers (including *gasp* a beautiful MacBook Air!) containing Snowden files. So much for freedom of the press.

Visiting this theme of governments and misleading their citizens brings us to another landmark film by another superb filmmaker, a man who brought us such classics as 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick.

Of course, I’m talking about Dr. Strangelove, which came to the screen fifty years ago. You’ve noticed I possess a dark sense of humor and awareness, but for personal reasons, that’s a film I can’t watch.

Baby Boomer

Events that happen in early childhood can effect a person forever after. When I was quite little, my parents attended a talk about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ve never witnessed anything as frightening as that presentation with its graphic slides and descriptions of atomized citizens flashed into the sides of buildings. That was the first time I learned that people not only killed other people, they could do it on a mass scale.

After the talk, audience could meet the speaker and look at his exhibits. One was shiny metallic pellets from a Japanese bomb site in, of all things, a baby food jar. When I looked closer, the presenter joked, “Don’t drop it or it’ll explode!”

Thereafter when I was supposed to be sleeping and heard a large aeroplane overhead, I worried it might drop bombs. I’m convinced Strangelove is a great film, but for me, it was the wrong movie at the wrong time, the reason I’ve not been able to bring myself to view Dr. Strangelove.— yet.



Now, fifty years later, we learn that Dr. Strangelove portrayed the truth much more accurately than our government, which pooh-poohed the notion of an out-of-control military officer starting a war on his own but secretly knew it was all too true. The actual situation was far more volatile and dangerous than anyone imagined, not just on our side, but also the Soviets.

Do I hear Clydesdales?

Back to Superbowl Sunday. I’ve read that modern sports are bloodless (usually) reenactments of war. That might make non-sports fans look more kindly on football.

Now about those cheerleaders…

26 November 2013

My Hit List Strikes Again


Last June I posted My Hit List, a list of thirty of my favorite mystery/crime films, many of them obscure and forgotten.  (Okay, most of them obscure and forgotten.)  Just to show that I can do this all day long, here are another thirty films for which I'm thankful on this Thanksgiving week.  
I'm once again purposely avoiding mystery series, about which I've also posted and may post again when you least expect it.  And again, I've passed over some better known and undeniably great films, like The Big Sleep and Chinatown, because they don't need a plug from me.  Even without the former title, the films of the 1940s are overrepresented here, as they were in my original list.  What can I say?  The forties were to mysteries what the fifties were to westerns and the sixties to Annette Funicello pictures.  A golden age.

I hope you've had a chance to sample a couple of films from the original list and that you'll also try a few of the following guaranteed gems.


1930s

The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)
A real curiosity.  A movie based on a radio serial with an ending voted on by listeners (or so the producers claimed).  The solid cast is headed up by Ricardo Cortez, the movies' first Sam Spade.

Star of Midnight (1935)
William Powell of The Thin Man fame in a Thin Man knockoff, with Ginger Rodgers. 

The Princess Comes Across (1936)
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in a comic mystery set aboard an ocean liner.  (What did you think the title meant?)  MacMurray even sings.

Night Must Fall (1937)
Robert Montgomery established his acting chops in this film version of the famous Emlyn Williams play about a brutal killer in rural England.


1940s

The Glass Key (1942)
An underappreciated Dashiell Hammett novel becomes the best of the Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake teamings.  William Bendix is a truly scary bad guy.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Former musical star Dick Powell is a believable Philip Marlowe, at least until he takes off his shirt.  The great Claire Trevor is in support in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Many people would pick this as the best of the Ladd/Lake pictures.  I think it's only a close second, in part because the original script, by Raymond Chandler, was watered down during filming.  Another solid supporting turn by William Bendix.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
What long-ago crime binds Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas?  Noir regular Lizabeth Scott would like to know.
  
Riffraff (1947)
Graying but game Pat O'Brien versus oil field hijackers in Panama with the aid of Anne

Jeffreys.

The Unsuspected (1947)
Actually, you will suspect the solution before it's revealed, but the cast, which includes Claude Rains and three striking blondes (Constance Bennett, Audrey Totter, and Joan Caufield), makes this worthwhile. 

Force of Evil (1948)
Very short, very intense noir film features John Garfield as a glib mob lawyer.  The always good Thomas Gomez is especially so here.

The Big Clock (1948)
Ray Milland is a magazine editor assigned to head up a murder investigation.  Every clue his staff turns up points to. . . Ray Milland.  Charles Laughton plays his oily boss.

Criss Cross (1949)
More noir with Burt Lancaster running afoul of Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.

 

1950s

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and director Otto Preminger, all Laura veterans, reunite for a much tougher and darker film.

Man With a Cloak (1951)
Barbara Stanwyck again and Joseph Cotton, as a mystery man out to save Leslie Caron in 19th Century New York.  This time Stanwyck sings.

Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas as the grandfather of all burned out cops.  The film's stage roots show, but a great cast brings it to life.  William Bendix (who is to this list what Herbert Marshall was to my first one) is again outstanding in a serious supporting role.  (This movie was nominated by Herschel Cozine after my original list was posted.) 

Kansas City Confidential (1952)
John Payne out to clear his name.  A interesting mix of fading stars, like Payne and Preston Foster, and up and comers, like Lee Van Cleef and Jack Elam, a characteristic of most B pictures.



The Narrow Margin (1952)
Low-budget cult film of cop Charles McGraw trying to keep star witness Marie Windsor alive during a train trip from Chicago to LA.  McGraw is tougher than Intermediate German.
 
The Blue Gardenia (1953)
Why should dahlias have all the fun?  When Anne Baxter is accused of murdering Raymond Burr, columnist Richard Conte comes to her aid.



The Big Heat (1953)
Glenn Ford as a cop who loses everything in his pursuit of a crime ring.  Lee Marvin is a particularly slimy mobster. 


1960s

A Shot in the Dark (1964)
Comic whodunit was the second Inspector Clouseau film and the only one without any Pink Panther business.  For that reason, and the participation of Elke Sommer, it's also the best.

Mirage (1965)
A Hitchcock thriller made without Hitchcock.  Gregory Peck has lost his memory (as he did in Hitchcock's Spellbound) and he's on the run (and he was in Hitchcock's Spellbound).  P.I. Walter Matthau tries to help.

Point Blank (1967)
A film that's more iconic than obscure.  Lee Marvin wants the mob to pay him his money and shoots his way through the organizational chart to get it.  Why don't they just pay the guy?  Angie Dickinson heads up the supporting cast.

 Cogan's Bluff (1968)
How obscure can it be with Clint Eastwood as its star?  Contemporary Arizona lawman comes to New York to butt heads with Lee J. Cobb and meet Susan Clark.  Betty Fields, a bright young face of the 1940s, makes her sad last film appearance here. 

P.J. (1968)
A 1960s take on film noir, starring George Peppard as a P.I. hired to bodyguard Gale Hunnicut by her millionaire husband Raymond Burr, a veteran of forties noir.



1970s

They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
James Garner is a small-town policeman trying to solve a complex murder.  Katharine Ross is the romantic interest, but the supporting cast is largely made up of names from the forties brought on to give this a forties feel.  They include June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Edmond O'Brien, and Anne Rutherford.  

Charley Varrick (1973)
Thriller detailing the plight of Walter Matthau, a small-time bank robber who accidently knocks over a mob bank.  Joe Don Baker almost steals the film as the hit man sent after him.

Night Moves (1975)
California P.I. Gene Hackman is in over his head in the Florida Keys.  Directed by Arthur Penn. 

The Late Show (1977)
Aging P.I. Art Carney sets out to solve the murder of his old partner Howard Duff. (Duff was old-time radio's Sam Spade, making this an evocative bit of casting).  Lily Tomlin in support.

Murder by Degree (1979)
Peter Finch as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr. Watson face off against Jack the Ripper, one of whose victims is Susan Clark.  John Gielgud, who once played Holmes on the radio, does a cameo.  


Once again, I didn't make it to the eighties, but last time I didn't get past 1974, so I did break new old ground.  Maybe next time, when My Hit List Strikes Back, I can "finish off" the century.


25 June 2013

My Hit List


On May 25, John Floyd posted a list of his thirty favorite crime/mystery/suspense films, in no particular order.  John's theory was such a list reveals as much about the compiler as the subject being addressed, which I think is true.  My somewhat impromptu list, given below, reflects my love of forgotten and obscure titles and actors.  For the most part, I've left out comic mysteries, and I've also intentionally excluded most series films, which leaves out a lot of great ones.  I may address mystery film series in a future post.  So here are my thirty.  I hope you'll give one or two of them a try.
1920s


Bulldog Drummond (1929)

Ronald Colman's first talkie shows that not all early sound films were deer in the headlights of the new technology.  (Yes, he made a second Drummond, but are two a series?)

1930s


Murder! (1930)

Herbert Marshall in an early (and creaky) Alfred Hitchcock talkie.  Marshall lost a leg in World War I, but still had a long film career, as this list will show.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

A pre-code version of the Hammett classic.  The Bogart version implies that Spade was a hound.  Ricardo Cortez demonstrates it, with the aid of Bebe Daniels and Thelma Todd.

Murder on a Honeymoon (1935)

The one true series mystery I let slip in, from the Hildegarde Withers series starring Edna May Oliver and one of the great comedy-relief policemen, James Gleason.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

One of the best Thin Man imitations, because it has William Powell himself, plus Jean Arthur.

It's a Wonderful World (1939)

Really a screwball comedy, but it has a murder and James Stewart as a private detective.  Plus Claudette Colbert and the dumbest cop in the movies, Nat Pendleton.

1940s


Grand Central Murder (1942)

A nice little B picture by MGM, a studio whose B's look like A's.   Van Heflin leads a solid cast that includes another great comedy cop, Sam Levene.

Keeper of the Flame (1943)

The first and least typical of the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn teamings has Citizen Kane pretentions but is really a murder mystery, with great early '40s atmosphere.

The Phantom Lady (1944)

Ella Raines sets out to clear her boss of murder.  Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel.

The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)

Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet in a story by Eric Ambler.  Enough said.

Laura (1944)

Okay, they can't all be obscure.  Cop Dana Andrews falls in love with Gene Tierney's picture.  And who can blame him?

Green for Danger (1946)

English murder mystery set in a rural hospital during the V-1 barrage.  Alastair Sim (of Christmas Carol fame) plays a policeman who is both comic and clever.

The Killers (1946)

A Hemmingway short story as the launch pad for a noir mystery starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner.  The investigators are Edmond O'Brien and Sam Levene, this time playing it straight.

Crack-Up (1946)

An almost Hitchcock-grade mystery of a man, Pat O'Brien, who claims to have been in a train wreck no one else remembers.  Supporting cast includes film noir veteran Claire Trevor and Herbert Marshall, still soldiering on, but now in featured roles.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

Great year, 1946.  This one's a little talky, but the talk is by Clifford Odets, so it's okay.  Susan Hayward stars.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947)

A nice little film noir directed by and starring Robert Montgomery.  The solid supporting cast includes another noir stalwart, Thomas Gomez.

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

Right in the middle of the Philip Marlowe craze, Paramount came out with this burlesque of Chandleresque PI films staring Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, and Peter Lorre.

Out of the Past (1947)

Robert Mitchum in the film noir, with Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.   If only Mitchum had played Philip Marlowe at this age.  More cult film than obscure film, but it had to make the list.

The Naked City (1948)

Maybe the first real police procedural, with Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, and the real New York City.

1950s

Mystery Street (1950)

I thought we'd never get out of the '40s.  This little film is an early (but not the earliest) celebration of crime scene forensics.  It stars another Ricardo, Ricardo Montalban.

D.O.A. (1950)

Another cult film.  Good location work in LA and San Franciso and a great performance by Edmond O'Brien as a man trying to solve his own murder.  Gets me every time.

Cry Danger (1951)

Dick Powell as a parolee out to prove his innocence (or profit from his time in jail).  Nice location work in backstreet LA.  Rhonda Fleming and William Conrad in support.

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

Tough cop Robert Ryan meets blind Ida Lupino.  Great Bernard Hermann score.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

Van Johnson, also blind, tries to solve a crime in London.  Vera Miles, one of Hitchcock's crushes, stands by him.

1960s

The List of Adrian Messenger (1963)

John Huston directed this murder mystery starring George C. Scott.  One of Herbert Marshall's last films, released an amazing thirty-three years after Murder!

Harper (1966)

Not exactly obscure, since it stars Paul Newman, but a solid PI film with a great cast, including Lauren Bacall.  Based on The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald.

Marlowe (1969)

For my money, a successful transportation of Philip Marlowe to the Summer of Love, starring James Garner.  Based on Chandler's The Little Sister.

1970s

The Carey Treatment (1972)

If you need a 1970s fix, this is the film.  Blake Edwards directed James Colburn and Jennifer O'Neill.  Based on Michael Crichton's A Case of Need.

Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

As I wrote in a recent post, this authentic little mob picture is the anti-Godfather.  It stars Robert Mitchum, a veteran of 1940s noir, and Peter Boyle. 

The Midnight Man (1974)

Another aging noir star, Burt Lancaster, starred in, co-wrote, and co-directed this mystery set on a college campus.  It also stars Susan Clark and Cameron Mitchell.

Did they make movies after 1974?  I'll look into it and get back to you.