Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 22, 1939

It's a stereotype that pulp fiction is politically incorrect. As products of a less enlightened, less egalitarian, less inclusive era, the stories in magazines like Argosy reflect the prejudices and sometimes the outright bigotries of their time. We really haven't had much cause to discuss this aspect of pulps so far, but this week brings us two stories in which Muslims figure prominently. They don't loom as large in pulp as Asians do -- later this year we'll see that Yellow Peril fantasies still sell well -- but Muslims in pulp share general characteristics of the non-Anglo-American world as Anglo-American readers imagined it. Above all, whether the foreigner is decadent (e.g. Chinese, some Europeans) or savage (Native Americans and aboriginal people in general), he is presumed to have a proclivity to torture, or a greater capacity or desire for cruelty than the chivalrous westerner. When the evil foreigner is a Muslim, his villainy hardly amounts to a critique of Islam, about which pulp authors are quite likely to be quite ignorant. These stories aren't about Islam in the way we might imagine an Islamophobic film or comic book today to be. There's little desire to blame Islam for specific Islamic offenses against the western world, if only because there hadn't been any worth noting for a long time back in 1939.

A story called "Crusader" was far less provocative 75 years ago than it would be today. The author is Robert Carse, a hard-boiled action-adventure writer who specialized in stories of survival and conflict in extreme conditions. He wrote a lot of Foreign Legion stories, Devil's Island stories, and the like, and he dependably delivers the appropriate level of intensity. In this story the Legionnaires are supporting players. The hero is a Scots soldier of the Black Watch stationed in Palestine, then ruled by Britain under a League of Nations mandate. It opens on an alarmingly modern note as the hero witnesses the terrorist bombing of a bus. His unit pursues the perpetrators but he blunders into an ambush and is captured. It turns out that the Arab terrorists have an Italian adviser; before the outbreak of World War II Italy rather than Germany was the primary threat to peace in Africa, having footholds in Libya and Ethiopia. The Italian wants to destabilize Palestine by having arms smuggled in through French-ruled Syria. He lets the Arabs torture our hero to learn about British troop strength in strategic regions.

Donald Leith had locked his teeth against the racking agony of the torture. Razek was working with two firebrands now, in clever, darting kisses that knew how to rip the pain right up out of Leith's innermost senses. He shuddered. 
He must not speak, he knew. He must not say a word. But the agony was so great that it transported him into a weird state of dreaming, and the dreams filled all his thought.

Leith has a delirious and idealistic vision of the original Crusades. "But the ideal they had fought for still endured. There were men yet who believed Arab, Christian and Jew should live here in peace, be able to worship freely at the Temple. They were beyond the hatreds of sects and nations, were willing to die to keep alive the words of Christ." Carse invites comparison not with Arabs, but with Fascists who "believed in nothing except greed....When they won, the meaning of freedom, liberty and love would no longer exist...."

Finally Leith goes mad under the torture, at which point the Arabs stop despite the Italian's urging. I don't know if it's true that "It is against Mohammedan law to harm anyone insane," but pulp writers believed it. So Leith is released to wander into Syria, and into a Legion outpost. He slowly regains his memory and his sense of mission, but has a hard time convincing the Legion commander to take action against the Druse arms smugglers. "Cut out the foolish talk," the commander tells him, "The Crusades are all done."

"You're not man enough [Leith answers] to talk about the Crusades. The Crusaders were really tough. They came out here to fight for more pay than any of you will ever see. But at the end they fought for nothing except their pride as men. They figured that the women and children, the poor and the weak, should have a chance to live. So they stayed and defended town after town, and every man of the last outfit got killed. And now you --"

Finally the rank-and-file Legionnaires overrule their commander and join Leith in intercepting the arms shipment in the shadow of a ruined crusader castle. The good guys take refuge in the castle and Leith dreams once more of the Crusaders. The Arabs and smugglers are routed and the Italian is tossed into the castle's oubliette in "a good old Crusader custom." This isn't one of Carse's best stories; he usually isn't so idealistic, but people everywhere were getting caught up in a kind of crusading fervor as the menace of Fascism grew more ominous, and pulp fiction circa 1939 reflects that heightened earnestness and urgency.

Roy S. DeHorn's "Heathen Cargo" lacks that relevance; it probably could have been written twenty years earlier. It's about a ship transporting Moro Muslims from the Philippines to Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Moros were the Muslims Americans were most likely to have encountered in the early 20th century, our country having fought them (and subjected them to waterboarding) during the Philippine Insurrection immediately after the Spanish-American War. DeHorn portrays them as savages, while making fun of the white crew's ignorance of Islam.

"...But that's what comes o' monkeyin' wi' reeleegion. If you call this rag-head stuff a reeleegion."
"Sure it's a religion," snapped Captain Blair, "There's only about four hundred million Mohammedans in the world. You Presbyterians wouldn't be a drop in the bucket compared to them."
"Then it's a crazy reeleegion, this Mohammedanism," retorted Mac, "Beatin' there heads five times a day on them little carpets, chanting Allah-il-Allah, an' takin' a five thousan' mile trr-rip just to be going to church. Now I asky ye, what sort o' reeleegion is that?"

You'll notice that DeHorn writes in dialect, trying to render every ethnicity's (e.g. Scots) accent in writing. That's one of the most off-putting features of pulp writing for modern readers because it appears to stigmatize anyone who doesn't speak standard English as inferior. I have mixed feelings about it. I appreciate the attempt to represent the actual diversity of speech, and there's a kind of music to it when it's done well. But it's rarely done well because pulp writers too often depend on conventional comic-strip or vaudeville dialects rather than writing what they might have actually heard.

The voyage is complicated by the conflict between two Moro tribes. The conflict that divides the Muslim world divides the Philippines as well.

"If you think they're touchy with Christians," said Rankin carelessly, "you ought to see 'em fight among themselves. I've seen 'em stage a pitched battle in Marrakech that left a hundred dead and dying in the streets. The two big sects -- Sunnites and Shi'ites, you know."
"No, I don't know," said Captain Blair peevishly, "What are they fighting over?"
"Over some religious quarrel that goes a long way back, a thousand years or more. The Shi'ites claim the Sunnites murdered Husayn -- he and his brother Hosayn were grandsons of the prophet Mohammed or something -- and they've been fighting ever since."
The real plot of the story is the capture of the ship by a band of white pirates who covet the pilgrims' prayer rugs -- however well-worn they may be, they're collectors' items worth a fortune from the right customers. The captain must join forces with one of the tribal leaders, a former bandit in his homeland, to capture the pirates and reclaim the rugs. In addition to Scots, you get French and Swedish accents, plus an American Negro cook who nearly starts a riot by serving ham to one of the pilgrims in ignorance of Muslim dietary rules, and disappears for the rest of the tale. The dialogue virtually kills the drama, making it read very much like a comic strip, and not a good one, but the story retains a certain exotic appeal, if only on a camp level now.

Elsewhere this issue, Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock" continues its patient build-up to a range war in skillful style, while Jim Daniels goes into Perry Mason defense-attorney mode in the penultimate chapter of Norbert Davis's "Sand in the Snow." The new serial debuting this week, and getting the cover, is billed on the contents page as the "Greatest since Jules Verne!" William Gray Beyer, author of "Minions of the Moon," is billed as "a new and distinguished author." However, he's written a variation on the Buck Rogers theme, as a 1939 patient undergoing an experimental anaesthesia falls into suspended animation only to wake up thousands of years later. He meets up with Omega, a whimsical omnipotent alien, one of the last survivors of the indigenous civilization of the moon. There's a lot of wisecracking but no dragon and little real sense of the fantastic in this dud of an opening chapter, and there are two more installments -- thankfully minimal for a serial -- to go. This issue's short stories are Robert Griffith's "The Pearls of Fistiana," a would-be boxing comedy about a fixed fight gone awry, and Arden X. Pangborn's "The Wile of Wong Sun," in which the returning Chinese jeweler with the proverb compulsion helps a Chinatown youth get married while foiling a human-trafficking ring and again making the white beat cop look like an idiot.

Next week brings another Foreign Legion story as another of Argosy's star writers makes his debut on this blog, as well as the hopefully dramatic conclusion of "Sand in the Snow." Stay tuned for all that and more in the April 29 Argosy.


Monday, April 21, 2014


Despite winning an award for best screenplay at last year's Cannes Film Festival, writer-director Jia Zhangke's latest picture has not yet gone into general release in the People's Republic of China, where it was made. Like Iran, China is okay with its world-class filmmakers reaping praise and possibly profits abroad, yet remains very careful about which of its world-class films its own people can see. Jia is one of China's most highly-regarded directors, and Touch of Sin is his first film to have serious censor trouble in some time. This was probably inevitable for at least two reasons. Jia's subject is corruption, inequality and exploitation in modern Chinese society. These subjects are not entirely ignored in Chinese media -- the PRC is no longer the utopian la-la-land of Maoist propaganda -- but the government still strives to control the conversation. To put it in terms familiar to readers of this blog, Code Enforcement still prevails in China, even if it's not as restrictive as in the past. But if Jia's subject is controversial, his presentation is a further provocation. A Touch of Sin is an extremely violent film, perhaps unprecedentedly so for Jia. Chinese censors are squeamish about violence, and in going for the gore Jia may have thought he was giving both himself and the censors an out if problems arose. Everyone might say that the film's been held back because it's simply too violent, so the government isn't censoring critical discourse and Jia isn't as politically damaged as he might be otherwise. Presumably Jia goes on to film another day. Meanwhile, the rest of us get a grim portrait of idealism gone sour -- an opposite extreme from the murderous fanaticism of a half-century ago -- whose critical elements are nearly overshadowed by its visceral sensationalism.

A Touch of Sin is a sort of anthology film made up of four episodes (plus a prologue) loosely based on actual events. Each episode builds to an outburst of violence. The prologue has a motorcyclist confronted by three highwaymen, only he's the guy with the gun. The first actual episode sets a high bar for the rest of the picture. A local Party leader has privatized some collective property and a disgruntled local (Jiang Wu) thinks the rest of the community hasn't gotten their fair share of the proceeds. He grows monomaniacal and paranoid about it. He confronts the leader at an airport and is beaten down. He wants to inform the central leadership in Beijing about this apparent corruption but can't get his letter mailed because he doesn't know the address of the leadership compound. Naturally he assumes that the poor postal clerk is part of a conspiracy against him. Finally he goes on an amoklauf through his town, blowing away the bureaucrats and toadies who've oppressed him, but also blasting a man who seems to have nothing better to do than flog the horse that draws his wagon. It's startling to see Jiang stroll through the streets unimpeded, his rifle hardly concealed by a blanket; it's as if the Chinese, some of whom watch him march past them, simply can't imagine someone going on an American-style rampage with a gun, though everyone in the country is painfully aware of a spate of knife rampages that make the recent episode in a Pennsylvania high school look literally like child's play. Jiang Wu is a powerful presence and his lethal walkabout is a showstopper in the first act that Jia is hard pressed to top.

Perhaps to give us a breather, the second episode is the slightest, with a young man going to the big city to kill and rob. Jia's back at full strength for the third episode, which gives us the poster-art moment above. A woman gets dumped by her boyfriend and gets an unwelcome proposition at a sauna-hotel. Jia builds up to her explosion in Scorsesean style as her would-be john lashes her face repeatedly with a wad of yuan bills, boasting of his wealth and figuratively threatening to rape her with it. She finds a knife and guts him, then makes her way out of the place as people recoil in terror as she unconsciously or self-consciously strikes menacing poses with the knife. For all the film's violence, the money scene is literally the film's money shot, the one I'll remember for the way it goes on forever, to the point when the victim may be the last person to snap. It puts across as well as any moment in the movie Jia's apparent point that something's got to give if things keep going the way they are.

The final episode is anticlimactic only in the sense that it lacks the cathartic violence of the first and third stories. In this one a textile worker quits a job after his small talk is blamed for a colleague's accident and he's forced to pay the colleague's wages while the latter recuperates. He finds work as a waiter in a swanky hotel catering to the Chinese elite. This episode may have been the most offensive to the government since it suggests a wholesale betrayal of revolutionary ideals. A gaggle of showgirls -- or are they hookers -- parades through one suite in sexed-up Red Army (or are they Young Pioneers?) costumes as a military march plays. One elite customer demands that a hooker dress up as a train conductor rather than a nurse before giving him a blowjob. Our hero, meanwhile, suffers from hopelessness rather than outright victimization. No fantasy of revenge for him: instead, he jumps off a balcony, and Jia's camera follows him, from across the street, all the way down. An epilogue bookends the film as the latest of several exotic religious or quasi-religious figures drifting through the film asks a crowd if they know what sins they've done. Jia closes with a shot of the crowd and the implication that everyone shares the blame for what's become of China.

Throughout, there's an uneasy tension between social realism, with a satiric sting, and generic violence. Jia might have done without so much blood, but he may have thought it necessary to convey the reality of violence. Instead, it makes Touch of Sin look like an action or crime movie and imposes an unwanted, superfluous level of unreality, depending on how you see movies. Worse, the unreal perspective that allows us to follow the suicide all the way down until he plops on the pavement will make the scene look unintentionally funny to some viewers. Regular readers should know that I don't have any problem with extreme violence or gore in movies, but some movies don't need it, and I think Touch of Sin is one of those. I get that Jia is warning his country that people are going to keep snapping and that more violence is coming. But the way he presents the violence makes it look like an end unto itself rather than the consequence of the corruption that's his actual subject. Is it a film about a corrupt society or a film about crazy people who kill? Some viewers might be hard pressed to answer. Jia may have meant the violence as exclamation points, but they end up blunting somewhat what remains a forceful portrait of a society in crisis. The Chinese government may feel antsy about it, but I suspect that when foreigners watch it, wherever they watch,they'll be thinking less about China than about how familiar these injustices seem.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

On the Big Screen: UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

Jonathan Glazer's film is one that shows but doesn't tell. That'll make it a take it-or-leave it picture for many viewers, and I'm not sure if there's much to take from it. It's yet another film dedicated to the premise that Scarlett Johansson is a higher life form -- see also Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the forthcoming Lucy. This time, She Who Must Not Be Called ScarJo is an alien who arrives on Earth -- willingly or not remains unclear. She has a handler or minder who rides a motorcycle, provides her with a dead body to mimic and its clothes to wear, and cleans up her messes. She finds herself in Scotland, where the natives' accent is nearly as impenetrable to American ears as the alien gibberish the star utters in the opening sequence. She cruises the streets looking for single men; if they mention that they have family or a girlfriend, she lets them go their way. Otherwise, she entices them into her vehicle and takes them to her crash pad, where she further seduces them with a walking striptease. As if they can't resist, the men follow her, but as she keeps on walking they sink into the black floor. We learn that they remain alive and more or less conscious for a time, but that a terrible fate awaits them. The purpose of it all remains elusive, and the alien herself seems to question it after a time. When you look for single men you run into some sad cases. One such is a fellow with what looks like a mild case of John Merrick's disease, who admits to never having a girlfriend and rarely even touching a woman. The alien can't bring herself to trap this poor wretch, but her mercy proves futile as the motorcycle dude hunts the man down. That mercy proves futile may be the nearest this film gets to a moral.

The alien seems determined to quit her work and experiment more with her assumed humanity. An attempt to eat cake goes badly -- are those unfortunate men her normal food supply? -- as does an attempt at sex. It turns out that she's a more fragile creature than we might have thought and no super man-eater out of Species. Worse yet, once she stops being the predator, she almost inevitably becomes prey. Maybe she has it coming but you can't help feeling sad over the outcome, unless you can't feel anything at all given Glazer's unempathetic approach to his material. While he takes many stylistic chances to make things strange, a cosmic impassivity is the basis of the film's horror. The best bit of filmmaking in the picture actually leaves Johansson as little more than a spectator. The alien tries to hook up with a vacationing swimmer who breaks away to attempt a rescue of a hapless family. The wife has gone into the pounding surf to rescue their dog; the husband goes in after her. The swimmer can only reach the husband, but as he collapses in exhaustion bringing the man to shore, the man promptly goes back to the water after his wife. Meanwhile, the alien strolls over and brains the swimmer with a carefully-chosen stone. And at this point we realize that husband and wife have left their baby behind, bawling on the beach. While there's something chillingly uncanny about the victims sinking into the floor at the alien's house as she strides on all godlike, this sequence on the water is more primally terrifying. It gets hard to peg the alien as evil when nature as a whole, and humanity in its turn, proves so merciless. The effect by the end is a good deal more horrifying than many more blatant horror films, because here the horror goes deeper than the spook-show gimmickry that prevails elsewhere, and does so without the reassurance of explanation most horror movies offer. Under the Skin is really no more profound than that, but to be that effectively chilling is no small achievement.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE JOHNSON (1933)

As one of Warner Bros.' top gold diggers, Joan Blondell was already a gangster of love. It was a natural leap for screenwriter Earl Baldwin and director Ray Enright to make her a plain and simple gangster, a distaff counterpart to Cagney, Robinson et al. Inevitably, however, Virginia "Blondie" Johnson remains a more sympathetic figure than the studio's male gangsters. She is explained, as they are not, by a grudge against society, introduced begging for an immediate relief payment after her family is evicted from their latest home. Her mom's dying of pneumonia in the back room of a pharmacy offered to the Johnsons as shelter, but the fact that they have a roof over their heads makes them better off than many families in the eyes of the relief agency, and in any event they can't pay out on the spot. Blondie returns home to find Mom dead. She rejects the consolation of faith, realizing now that there are two ways to get ahead: the hard way and the easy way.

For Blondie the easy way is to turn grifter -- and you thought she meant something else! She runs a con with a taxi driver, standing at street corners crying that she won't get to work on time and will lose her job, hoping that some mark will spring for cab fare when her partner (Sterling Holloway) drives past. This works for a while, but Blondie learns that you can't con a con when one of her marks reveals himself as Danny Jones (Chester Morris), the right-hand man of Max Wagner. Max and Danny are in the "insurance" business; they insure shopkeepers against getting their property wrecked and so forth, if you get my drift. Danny gets his money back, but he admires Blondie's spunk. She helps his buddy Louie (Allen Jenkins) beat a murder rap by playing his pregnant lover before a gullible, soft-hearted jury, and runs a number of cons on the side with the help of her fellow molls. She also detects a lack of ambition in Danny and goads him to challenge Max for dominance. When that gets Danny run over and hospitalized, Louie takes out Max. He may seem simple, being Allen Jenkins and all, but he lives like a serial villain. His apartment is furnished with a fireplace that turns into a bar at the flip of a switch -- and the space behind the wall makes an excellent machine-gun nest. Louis invites Max and his loyalists over for a parlay, steps out for a moment, and in the next moment Max & Co. are dead.

Danny takes over and starts living large, devoting much of his time to another woman as Blondie grows jealous and ambitious in her own right. She thinks Danny's spending too much of the gang's money on the other woman and convinces Louis and the rest of their cronies to back her in a bloodless coup. Now it's her name on the door of their impressive front office while Danny loses his money and his new girl. When Louie suddenly gets arrested for Max's murder and gossip indicates that the D.A. has a witness against him, everyone assumes it's the disgruntled Danny. This is the supreme moment for Blondie; as the gang leader she knows what she has to do though it makes her sick at heart. "What are you waiting for?" she tells her men, condemning Danny to death. But bare minutes later her spy in the D.A.'s office tells her that the witness is the janitor of Louie's apartment building, whom we saw chatting with Louie moments before Max's death. Now she has to rush to the rescue -- hailing a cab with her old partner in crime driving -- to save Danny from a fate he doesn't deserve....

Joan Blondell may not wield a machine gun or beat anyone up, but it's fun to watch her ruthless rise to power. Blondie really belongs to another Warners rogues gallery, this one consisting of dangerously empowered women, the more troubling counterparts to Blondell's more typical gold-digger, of whom Barbara Stanwyck's Baby Face, who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder,  is the most notorious example. Pre-Code buffs may be reminded of Stanwyck's bedroom Nietzscheanism by Blondie's rise to the top of her profession, but gangland seems more meritocratic, and Blondie's success in it more truly earned, than the corporate world of Baby Face. If anything, Blondie's rapid rise begs the question: why is she so seemingly helpless and woebegone in the first part of the picture? Anger energizes her, it seems, as it does the Stanwyck character. That motivating anger separates these two pictures from the gold-digger comedies, and from the male gangster films. Blondie Johnson has little in the way of social consciousness, but it's more obviously a story of rebellion than other Warner films. At the same time, and perhaps for chivalrous reasons, Blondie doesn't pay the same price the male gangsters pay. She never actually kills anyone -- though you wonder why, when she gets the real dope from her spy, she doesn't have the janitor killed -- and the film is marred by going soft at the end. Blondie's goons end up only wounding Danny, and after he recovers everyone comes clean and everyone goes to jail. Blondie gets six years, but it's a happy ending because she and Danny will reunite after they finish their respective terms. I assume Louie gets the chair but they never say it for certain. Whatever the filmmakers intended, this finish turns the film into a comedy after all.

*   *   *

Blondie Johnson gets extra Pre-Code points for a singular piece of casting. One of the guys in the gang has a moll named Lulu. She's played by Toshia Mori, who made movie history earlier in 1933 by becoming the first non-Caucasian named as a "WAMPAS Baby Star" by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers. For a decade by then the annual annointing of Baby Stars was a big publicity event that got the actresses' pictures in newspapers across the country. Mori's class included such imminent luminaries as Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart. Mori was under contract to Columbia and was nominated by the studio as a Baby Star -- a star of tomorrow, that is -- after their initial choice quit on them. For Columbia it was a good way to promote their current release The Bitter Tea of General Yen, in which Mori had a prominent supporting role. Needless to say, Mori was stuck in stock Asian roles and was out of the movie business by 1937. Only Warner Bros., for one picture, accepted the premise that Mori was actually the peer of her sister Babies. In Blondie Johnson a white actor and a Japanese-American actress play lovers -- this would be taboo under Code Enforcement -- and Lulu's obvious Asian ethnicity passes completely without comment by anyone in the picture. The only hint of ethnic subservience is Lulu's portrayal of a maid in one of Blondie's cons. It's very likely that Lulu's part, admittedly relatively small, was written without ethnicity in mind, and that the Warner casting director, seeing the publicity pictures of Mori with the other Baby Stars, simply said "Why not?" For that alone you'd have to admire Blondie Johnson -- but there's plenty to like besides that.

Meanwhile, the original trailer plays on Blondell's gold-digger image while billing Blondie as "The Commander of Men." As usual, it's from

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 15, 1939

Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time" wraps up this week while Norbert Davis's mystery "Sand in the Snow" plods along. As if you couldn't guess, Zagat's time-lost heroes manage to save the Earth, albeit with a little help from one of their doctil oppressors. Turns out that he'd succeeded in his mission to learn the meaning of love, and out of love for the lady in the group he sacrifices himself so she can return to her own time. The rest of his kind are annihilated by hostile life forms, but they had it coming. In the Davis that woman Jim Daniels's wife was fighting last week turns out to be an aviatrix who'd flown Euro-gigolo Dak Hassan into the resort community where the story plays out. The flier is chasing Hassan while he chases Mrs. Daniels, which certainly complicates the character comedy but does little for the murder plot.

The new serial gets this week's cover, and if George Rozen's art doesn't exactly make Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock" look action-packed, at least it's accurate. I'd say it looks like a Ranch Romances cover, but Ranch Romances usually at least has someone, and often the woman, carrying a gun. Actually, though, it's a fairly well-written set up of a redemption story for an injured cowboy who lost his girl to a rival during his recuperation. No one wants to hire him because he may be a permanent cripple, and he doesn't help matters by going on a bender to drown his frustrations. Finally a rancher gives him a chance, but as a homesteader so that the rancher can retain his right to the land against the encroachment of the dreaded "nesters" -- farmers to the rest of us. Foster's more impressive writing at novel length, albeit in serial form, than he was in "Two Tall Men" from two weeks ago, and with a slow burn to a range war starting this should get more interesting as it goes along. I think anyone who likes westerns would like this one.

Our name-above-the-title authors this week are Donald Barr Chidsey and Phillip Ketchum. Chidsey was prolific, versatile, and entertaining. He could do exotic adventure, period pieces, and urban crime, with "All Good Embezzlers" a sample of the latter. It's a stand-alone story (no series characters) in which a con man who rents out a recently shuttered bank for a grift eventually crosses paths with a teller who'd been framed for the embezzlement that led to the bank's failure, but escapes in order to clear his name. It's all pretty improbable but Chidsey has the pulp knack for keeping things moving, though I did wonder why this ran in Argosy rather than its companion mag, Detective Fiction Weekly. Phillip Ketchum may be known as a western specialist, but "A Sword for Leif the Lucky" is obviously something else. Pulp authors could sometimes put over a thematic series of stories without relying on a continuing character; H. Bedford-Jones specialized in this sort of gimmick. Ketchum's series focuses on a continuing weapon. This is the third in a series he started earlier in the year about the "magic axe" Bretwalda, which conveys great power on its wielders but also promises both great joy and great sorrow. In this one the latest wielder aids Leif Ericson in thwarting a plot to kill the king of Norway, not realizing until late in the story that his father had been killed by Leif's father, Eric the Red. If Robert E. Howard defines pulp action for you, Ketchum's Bretwalda stories should satisfy. They're not quite so grim but they deliver the blood and thunder quite nicely.

The best of this week's short stories is Maurice Beam's "The Wind Won't Tell," a nice piece of unreliable narrating about a gold theft and subsequent murders in the modern west. Creighton Peet's "Just a Dreamer" is a comical fantastic about a man who has prophetic dreams and ends up getting exploited by the media. The twist ending is that he makes up a fake prophecy about a terrorist attack on himself in order to get people to leave him alone, but returns to the prophecy business after running out of money only to have the fake prophecy come true. Robert E. Pinkerton's "A Pretty Country" is like something for the slicks. A demoralized pioneer wife nearly drives her husband from her after a tough winter of hard luck until she discovers the beauties of the great outdoors in springtime. Richard Sale, usually a cover-featured writer when he has a novelette or serial going, contributes "Down At Sea -- No Position," a print-the-legend tale of a wealthy and vainglorious celebrity flier and his working-class co-pilot, who have to survive on a raft and reach an island after crashing at sea. The playboy cracks but ends up dying a hero as the co-pilot's eventual rescuers assume he was trying to get help for his friend when his raft sank, while the co-pilot, laid up with a broken leg, suspects that the so-called hero had really left him to die -- but he can't really know for sure.

Next week brings a new fantastic serial, a comedy this time, as well as a story by one of my favorite pulp writers, Robert Carse, and the return of Arden X. Pangborn's Wong Sun. And the cover has a dude fighting a dragon. That, at least, is an improvement.


Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: REAR WINDOW (1954)

The old tricks still work. Sixty years after its original release, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is playing this week at my town's repertory house, the Madison Theater. I've seen it many times on TV but wanted to see that amazing multi-story set on a big screen at long last. You might assume that everyone's seen this picture by now, but there are fresh gasps and shouts as Raymond Burr lumbers back to his apartment door while Grace Kelly rifles through his bedroom for evidence of murder, her warning system across the yard having failed as Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter were distracted by the imminent suicide attempt of "Miss Lonelyhearts" a floor below. Hitchcock's ability to manipulate an audience is undiminished by time, it seems. But while Rear Window works as a pop thriller it's also an art film in many ways and an astute commentary on spectatorship, if not on voyeurism as many say.

Adapting a story by noir author Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock casts Stewart as a news photographer laid up with a broken leg. Casts! Broken Leg! Get it?  Sorry, couldn't help myself there. Anyway, despite plenty of TLC from an insurance-company nurse (Ritter) and his high-society girlfriend (Kelly), our hero's going stir-crazy and that's hurting his romance. He obsesses over the activities in the building across the courtyard, from the miseries of "Miss Lonelyhearts" to the daily dance practice of "Miss Torso." Somewhere in between live a salesman (Burr) and his invalid wife, who disappears one morning after a rainy night spent by her husband taking repeated trips outside with his sample case. Stewart deduces murder and wins an initially skeptical Kelly to his theory. He has a harder time convincing his old war buddy, now a police detective (Wendell Corey) that something is rotten across the way. A now gung-ho Kelly invades Burr's space as described, and while she escapes the big man's wrath the salesman now knows he's being watched, and by whom.

Until that moment Lars Thorwald has been an abstraction, as much a construct of Stewart's bloody imagination as a real man and, indeed, a real murderer. Raymond Burr certainly would have gone down in history as one of cinema's greatest villain specialists had he not been lured to TV heroics soon after this picture. Here, however, Burr gives probably his most naturalist performance. Audiences were already familiar enough with Burr to identify him as a menace, and Hitchcock adds a level of strangeness by dyeing the actor's hair gray and putting glasses on him. Otherwise, denied audible dialogue until the final act, Thorwald is more object than character. Hitchcock has it both ways with, filming Burr's movements through the apartment and on the street (as seen only through an alley in an Ozu-like bit of framing) in documentary style with the actor doing nothing like conventional emoting, but also reducing him at times to no more than a red dot -- the light of his cigarette -- in the black rectangle of his unlit room framed by his window. When Burr finally makes eye contact with Stewart, who watches the scene with Kelly and the police through a telephoto lens, and with the audience, it's like a fourth wall breaking, or the abyss looking back at you. It's almost like Sadako coming out of the TV set in Ring when Burr crosses the yard to confront Stewart at the climax, the observed turning on the observer in a way that shouldn't be. Yet Burr really shines as he conveys that Thorwald is as much confused and even scared himself -- Stewart had earlier sent him a message hinting at blackmail to come -- as he is the aggressor in the scene. There's an almost rightfulness if not righteousness to his indignation at Stewart's violation of his privacy and presumed exploitation of his weaknesses.

The identification of Rear Window with voyeurism is only indirectly valid.  While Stewart is probably turned on by the daily sight of Miss Torso and salaciously amused by a young couple initiating their new home, the really erotic element of the story is the way Stewart and Kelly strengthen their bond by jointly constructing a story of spouse murder that just happens to be true. While Grace Kelly is an arousing sight normally, her own arousal is channeled into daredevil detective exploits like her invasion of Burr's locked apartment by climbing in through his second-floor window. She's acting less as an extension of Stewart than to reconnect with him -- make what you will of Ritter's nearly-equal enthusiasm for solving the mystery. Kelly's hostility toward Corey's professional skepticism is also on some level the girlfriend's jealousy of her boyfriend's buddies. Strangely, the film ends by suggesting that victory for Kelly means Stewart becoming more crippled -- he breaks the other leg when Burr dumps him out the window. I suppose you have to read something into how violent and damaging the hero's belated departure from his cocoon is, but I hadn't really thought about that aspect of the picture before I started writing this review. Speculate away if you haven't already.

Is it weird if I think that the Rear Window set looks like a Norman Rockwell cover come to life? Well, it does -- check out his Saturday Evening Post work from the period and slightly before to get what I mean and how the set design and Robert Burks's cinematography reflect it. Yet at the same time it's an abstract grid that carries out its illusion of reality by denying the audience details it usually gets from movies. Stewart can see Burr in his apartment only when Thowald passes by open windows, and from his distance he can't hear normal spoken dialogue. Stewart is surrounded by music from the other apartments but the Thorwald apartment is a silent movie. Likewise, when Kelly and Ritter go on their errands in the courtyard and street, they can only communicate with Stewart by pantomime. I think of all this as spectatorship rather than voyeurism because there's no sense of omniscience except what Stewart fills in with his imagination. The audience, of course, is doing the same thing. Most of them won't think much about the deeper issues raised by the film, but Rear Window's special virtue is its ability to satisfy viewers on several different intellectual or psychological levels -- like floors of an apartment building, maybe. Psycho probably remains Hitchcock's most beloved film, and Vertigo has recently been crowned the greatest film of all time, at least for the next ten years, but Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock, and in my opinion his best.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HE WAS HER MAN (1934)

In 1938 James Cagney returned to Warner Bros. after a two-year exile and made Angels With Dirty Faces. That film has one of cinema's most famously ambiguous endings. Cagney's con is going to the chair and is determined to put a brave face on. Pat O'Brien as his old pal the priest urges him to put on a different act: no matter how he really feels, he should pretend to die a coward so the Dead End Kids won't make a role model of him. Cagney refuses -- but in the actual death chamber he does exactly what O'Brien wanted. The question remains: did he have a change of mind or heart, or did he actually crack at the sight of the chair. However you interpret it, what seems beyond dispute is that playing the coward is the right thing for a gangster to do under the circumstances. Angels is a product of the Code Enforcement era; we need to go back to Pre-Code to understand better the significance of Cagney's performance.

Lloyd Bacon's He Was Her Man is one of Cagney's most obscure films. It shouldn't really be obscure given that it's a Warner Bros. gangster film teaming Cagney with frequent co-star and arguable female counterpart Joan Blondell. But it doesn't seem to be discussed much compared to the other Cagney films of the period. Is it so much worse? Having seen it finally, I don't think so, but it is different in mood from Cagney's contemporary pictures, in some ways looking ahead to noir and in some ways looking back to the melodrama of renunciation. Yet at the time of its release in June 1934 some critics saw this picture as one of the straws that broke the camel's back. For such a low-key movie as it actually is, the reaction seems excessive.

In one of the rare appearances of Cagney's moustache, the star plays Flicker Hayes, an ex-con safecracker who takes up his old profession only to set up his partners, who had set him up years before. Having done that, Flicker has to lay low to avoid mob vengeance. He makes his way to San Francisco and from there to a small California fishing village. On the way he picks up Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell) after first mistaking her for a finger woman in his Frisco hotel room. Turns out she was the previous occupant and had returned to retrieve a wedding dress she'd secreted between matresses. Rose is a fallen woman who has a future in the fishing village, where a simple "Portugee" fisherman (Victor Jory) loves her. She's falling hard for Flicker, however, while an innocent-seeming tourist fisher (Frank Craven) is actually keeping an eye on Flicker after making him in Frisco until the gunmen can reach town. Flicker feels bad about betraying the friendly Portugee and worse about possibly embroiling Rose in his life of perpetual danger. The inevitable arrives, and the most Flicker can do is figure out a way to spare Rose from sharing his fate.

There's something noirish to the doom hanging over Flicker and the impossibility of escaping it, and in the overall subdued, rueful mood of the movie, not to mention the extensive location work anticipating the more naturalistic noirs. The mood extends to Blondell, who gives as morose a performance as I've ever seen from her. By comparison, as Flicker Cagney strives to keep up a cool front, and what keeps him a hero at the end is his renunciation of Rose to save her life and his ability to maintain his cool in the face of death. The gangsters are about to take Flicker for a ride when Jory's family and others of the wedding party arrive. Jory's mother is horrified because they all forgot the ice cream for the reception, but Cagney and his just-arrived "business partners" agree to pick some up for them. At the end of the ride and the start of a last walk into the wilderness, Flicker reminds his nemeses to pick up that ice cream. They'll have to do it, he tells them, because he's going in the other direction.

In many ways, then, He Was Her Man (an earlier title was Without Honor) hardly feels like a Pre-Code movie, and yet critics of the crisis year 1934 treated it like Exhibit A proving the need of Code Enforcement. For syndicated columnist Dan Thomas, the implicit fornication of Flicker and Rose, while she was betrothed to another man, no less, was but the latest reprise of a theme "that has aroused critics to a feeling that continual recurrence of unmarried love on the screen cannot fail to have a relaxing effect on the morals of the young men and women, giving them a warped view of life and the way it is lived today."

Meanwhile, Cagney's cool in the face of doom infuriated Pittsburgh Press columnist Kaspar Monahan, who saw in it a "glorification of evil." Movie historians are familiar with the critique of Pre-Code crime films for their "glorification" of criminals, however incredible that critique seems when movie gangsters so often end up dead or defeated. Monahan clarifies things a little; for him, "glorification" isn't a matter of rewarding crime but an attitude that romanticizes it and makes it appealing despite defeat in the end. "We witness it in James Cagney's 'He Was Her Man,'" he writes, "for at the end, although the gangster he is playing is put on the spot, he is depicted as going to his death jauntily and steel-nerved. Bunk again -- gangster rats facing certain death squeal, bawl and grovel."

While we might wonder about Monahan's firsthand evidence for his claim, it's clear that he represented a viewpoint that had an obvious influence in years to come. While we shouldn't overestimate institutional memory in the pre-video era, Angels With Dirty Faces now looks a little like a correction of or apology for He Was Her Man on the part of Warner Bros. Whether or not you believe that criminals are essentially "rats," are cowards without their guns, etc., you can't help but feel as if a party line, and not just the Production Code, was being enforced by 1938. That's why some of us regret Code Enforcement even if its sophisticated sublimation had artistic benefits of its own. It's especially regrettable if it meant damning an admirably modest picture like He Was Her Man as propaganda for evil. That makes you wonder whose values were most messed up in 1934.

Here's the original trailer from