Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 29, 1939

Theodore Roscoe was one of the most versatile and divisive writers in the pages of the Argosy. In 1939 he had two vastly different series running in the weekly: his folksy-gothic chronicles of the upstate New York town of Four Corners and the tall-tale adventures of the old Foreign Legionnaire Thibaut Corday, the latest of which is this week's cover story. Roscoe was also a pioneer of the zombie genre of horror fiction, with the 1934-35 serial A Grave Must Be Deep and the 1937 serial Z is for Zombie. I say he was a divisive author because, in my reading of "Argonotes" letters pages, his name comes in most often for criticism, or is mentioned as a reader's least-favorite author. Argosy readers were opinionated and the editors weren't afraid of criticism -- in this very issue one reader writes that Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had published The Synthetic Men of Mars as a serial at the start of the year, "ought to be in a psychopathic ward" for writing "pure tripe," -- but any individual opinion was most likely a minority point of view. You can tell the Argosy writers who were really unpopular because they only appeared once or twice in its pages. Nevertheless, Roscoe rubbed many readers the wrong way, perhaps because of subject matter -- not everyone welcomed "fantastics" or horror stories, or maybe because of something in his style I don't detect.

Roscoe is really a solid writer who can stage action well and create mood with care. I've read a 1933 story of his set during the Crusades with fight scenes that have almost a Howard-like intensity. The Corday stories are more humorous, though the real humor of them is usually saved for the final-chapter punch line. Corday in his old age is the narrator of his own tales, though he's usually introduced by an omniscient narrator in a framing device before he starts his story. Typically, Corday sets out to tell an utterly fantastic if not preposterous story about his exploits, then manages to back everything up with quite matter-of-fact explanations. In "The Wonderful Lamp of Thibaut Corday," for instance, he bets a bottle of Dubonnet that he can convince his English interlocutors that he had found a lamp with a genie inside during an African tour of duty and was subsequently transported to English soil. He tells of being enticed by an emerald-eyed beauty into breaking into a shiek's palace to steal the lamp of "Allah Deen." The deed done, an epic chase ensues, building up to the moment when Corday realizes that the girl isn't telling him redundantly to "rob" the stolen lamp but to rub it. Her accent kept him from realizing until then that she sought the lamp of Aladdin. Roscoe builds up nicely to the moment when Corday rubs the lamp and sees the genie, and the eventual explanation of what he actually saw is as nearly preposterous as the fantastic version. I won't spoil it since the story, and this entire issue, are available for your perusal at Unz.org, but I will say that that was one big lamp.

On the serial front this week, Norbert Davis concludes "Sand in the Snow" with a revelation I anticipated all the way back in the opening chapter when we were introduced to a millionaire who'd been disfigured in a car crash. I wasn't sure how that was going to fit into the story's two murder mysteries, however, but Davis puts everything together adroitly enough. Bennett Foster ratchets up the tension in the third chapter of "Rider of the Rifle Rock," as our hero gets pinned down on his own property by a sniper, and later meets an injured mystery man whom he saves from freezing just outside his place. Will the man be an ally or prove an enemy? While this is the best Argosy serial I've read so far (for this blog series at least), William Grey Beyer's "Minions of the Moon" (see illo above) remains the worst. It really lost me at chapter one and I confess to having only skimmed over this week's installment of insufferable whimsy.


The standout stand-alone story this time is Robert W. Cochran's "Sheep Dog," a survival story about a veteran sheriff whose pursuit of a fugitive through wintry wilderness nearly proves fatal long before he catches up to the killer. Cochran's laconic style reflects the hero's stoic urgency as he rescues himself, slowly, from a collapsing ice pond. The finish, after the near-frozen sheriff finally meets his enemy, is a little too convenient but Cochran's writing redeems it. Leslie T. White's "Semper Paratus" is a fish-out-of-water story of a Kentucky woodsman who joins the Coast Guard to forget, but chafes at the monotony of maritime chores. It's your typical pulp tale of a young man proving himself against doubters and learning the value of discipline, but there's enough novelty in the specific situation to keep it interesting. William Byron Mowery's "Angel Sharks" aspires to be a gritty story of traffic in illegal aliens in Florida, -- an "angel shark" is equivalent to a "coyote" on the Mexican border -- but while Mowery does a good job delineating his working-class hero he messes up by introducing a cartoonish villain, an angel shark who talks like a Shakespearean ham actor and kills the mood of the piece. Finally, Robert Ormond Case's "Make Hay in the Moonlight" belongs in a romance pulp, a lifeless farce concerning mistaken identity and the fate of a ranch. Here's an example of how tastes in pop fiction have changed in 75 years. At the end of this story one character reveals to another that she's not the person he thought she was -- and that's great because she's the one who really owns the ranch! From the current TV I watch, if that happened today the hero would go into an epic sulk over being lied to and would walk out on her, at least for an episode or two. We've gone from one extreme to another while missing the happy medium. The advantage is often with the old stories, but not this time. Still, Roscoe, Foster and Cochran, at least, make this an issue of Argosy worth reading, or at least worth sampling.

Next week a new serial begins, Donald Barr Chidsey returns, and a country doctor changes the course of the Civil War by outwitting Robert E. Lee.


Sunday, April 27, 2014


Jimmy Wang Yu is probably the most underrated master of martial arts cinema in proportion to his contributions to the genre. Personal problems and business conflicts have kept him from being recognized as a peer to Bruce Lee, though at age 70 Wang Yu appears to be enjoying a late-career renaissance, having received Best Actor nominations for his latest film, Soul. He beat Lee to the punch, so to speak, in several respects. The Chinese Boxer, for instance, was Wang Yu's debut as writer-director as well as star, setting him on a course that led to the epic Beach of the War Gods and the cult milestone Master of the Flying Guillotine. More importantly, Chinese Boxer is credited with establishing the kung fu film -- though the magic words are never used in the English dub shown on the El Rey channel -- as something distinct from the weapons-oriented wuxia pictures Wang Yu had starred in since his breakthrough in One-Armed Swordsman. A sense of novelty pervades the project, as for the benefit of a Chinese audience the auteur has a doomed teacher explain what Chinese boxing is -- and, for that matter, what karate is. Wang Yu was thus self-consciously blazing a new trail, but the funny thing is, while he's credited with practically inventing a new style of movie, he may have thought he was making a western.

There's no doubt that he was influenced by westerns. He stages one fight, his own character with throwing knives in his shirt pocket against a shuriken-tossing Japanese, exactly in the manner of a gunfight in the middle of a street, down to his "holstering" of his knives as a challenge to his enemy's "fast draw" with the throwing stars. Chinese Boxer is also thematically reminiscent of westerns. Wang Yu's character becomes a sort of town tamer, driving evil gamblers from his home. The initial villain is a crooked Chinese fighter (Chao Hsiung) who wants to destroy the local martial-arts school so he can make the town wide-open for gambling. The linkage between martial arts and gambling -- it isn't entirely clear whether our hero's master forbids gambling in town or controls it himself -- puts me in mind of Wyatt Earp, though who exactly the Earp figure is in Chinese Boxer depends on what you think of Earp. In any event, the master deals with Diao Erh fairly easily, but makes the mistake of letting him limp away to fight another day. Instead, he calls in a contingent of Japanese fighters -- Diao Erh is a karate enthusiast himself -- led by the glowering Kitashima (Lo Lieh). Establishing a Wang Yu motif we'll see again in Master of the Flying Guillotine, Kitashima demonstrates his ferocity by launching himself through the roof of a building, though in this early case he only goes partway through. He wants to stay inside to watch his minions kill one of the master's students who was spying on Diao Erh. Kitashima has a habit of demonstrating his ferocity and then ordering a minion to fight for him. But when it counts, Kitashima is a beast, killing the old master in a mid-air collision, kicking him through a wall. That climaxes a massacre of the old school, during which Wang Yu himself is clobbered and taken out early. We know he's not dead, however, because we don't see him cough up blood; our auteur presumably gets credit for establishing this method to sell death by punch.

Writer-director Wang Yu does more to embed his fight story in a social setting than many subsequent kung fu filmmakers. Before the action begins, he treats us to slices of life in his little town to illustrate its traditional normalcy. After the master's school is destroyed, he shows how Diao Erh and Kitashima have turned it into a Pottersville of vice. While our hero recuperates, we get a tragic tale of a man whose lucky night turns sour when the casino management accuses him of cheating. The man's wife pleads for his life and gets raped for her trouble. In his sickbed, our hero learns that husband and wife have killed themselves from shame. Gamblers as the serpents in Eden are a familiar motif in U.S. westerns, but I suppose Wang Yu is also protesting against perceived Japanese economic and cultural hegemony over Asia, their revenge for losing the war. That this film is Nippophobic goes without saying, from the master's condemnation of karate as inherently aggressive and destructive to the identification of Japanese with social or cultural corruption.

This news about the suicidal couple is the last straw for our hero, who finally rises from his sickbed to train for revenge. For the first time, presumably, we get the training montage characteristic of kung fu cinema, as our man toughens his fists and forearms in a cauldron of iron filings and jogs and jumps with iron weights on his legs. Ready at last, he adopts a costume, going into battle wearing a surgical mask and oven mitts. Japanese are the disease, and he's the cure.

As a director, Wang Yu falls somewhere between the visual poetry of King Hu and the kinetic efficiency of Chang Cheh. He indulges in self-consciously artistic compositions that have nothing to do with fight choreography. He shoots from the ceiling as the master lectures his seated students about comparative martial arts, because it's a nice-looking shot. He establishes the moral delirium of gambling by opening the casino scene with the action as seen and distorted in a high mirror. Wang Yu was an ambitious director who readily acknowledges stylistic and genre influences while striving to film fighting in exciting new ways. He's fond of long horizontal tracking shots with extended group choreography. He uses physical destruction as punctuation, whether the Japanese are punching holes in the school walls or Wang Yu and Lo Lieh are breaking trees in the final fight in a wintry forest. And there's the coughing up of blood, of course. He also has the advantage of a charismatic hero in himself and a classic villain in Lo Lieh -- that man's face was a national cultural treasure. As an overall auteur, circumstances kept Wang Yu from being as prolific as Chang Cheh or as popular as Bruce Lee. But there's something persistently unorthodox in his direction that keeps his work fresh, based on the few films of his I've seen. Despite his reputed innovations he was eclipsed by many other figures, but when all is said and done, given his multiple skills, Jimmy Wang Yu may well go down as the greatest creative talent in kung fu cinema.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: CARNIVAL BOAT (1932)

Naturally, a film called Carnival Boat is about lumberjacks. Albert Rogell's film is an energetic he-man adventure filmed largely on location in timber country. It benefits from the scale of its surroundings but also moves with a thrilling speed for which Rogell has to share credit with film editor John Link. The film's plot is trite melodrama, but Rogell and Link join forces to create severalset-piece action scenes that surge with energy rarely seen in this era. For Rogell Carnival Boat was a follow-up to his RKO hit of the previous year, Suicide Fleet. He reunited that film's romantic leads, William Boyd and Ginger Rogers. Despite Suicide Fleet's success, Boyd's career was on the line, for the stupidest of reasons. The future Hopalong Cassidy happened to share a name with another actor, the latter distinguishing himself with the nickname "Stage." In 1931 William "Stage" Boyd was arrested (along with Pat O'Brien and other actors) when a raid on his pad uncovered prohibited booze, gambling parahernalia and pornographic films. The story goes that some newspapers illustrated coverage of the Boyd raid with photos of our William Boyd, the star of Suicide Fleet. His career suffered, despite the attempted remedy of redubbing him Bill Boyd -- or, in some advertising, Big Bill Boyd. However Carnival Boat fared at the box office, Big Bill was on his way out of RKO. He had a rough few years before landing his Hoppy gig at Paramount in 1935; then he was set for life, eventually getting ownership of the popular western character and making a fortune off licensing as he became an early TV phenom. Still, as with Johnny Mack Brown, Bill Boyd's is arguably a story of failure; given a chance at A picture stardom, he ended up a king of the Bs. Carnival Boat suggests what might have been.

And to be honest, there's little promise in the beefy Boyd as a romantic lead. At age 37 he's almost old enough to be Ginger Rogers's father, and he looks older. Yet Carnival Boat is a kind of coming-of-age story for the Boyd character, who emerges belatedly from his father's long shadow. His father (Hobart Bosworth) faces compulsory retirement from his job as boss of the lumber camp, but seeks vindication of a sort by seeing his boy Buck take over for him, despite the greater ambition of an unscrupulous rival (Fred Kohler). Buck's a more easygoing type than his puritanical if not misogynist pop, and looks forward to the arrival of the title show boat with its cargo of show girls. He has eyes on one in particular, Honey (Rogers) whom he wants to marry. But the old man doesn't want anything to interfere with his vision of Buck's future. Meanwhile, the rival acts like Buck's great pal and stands up for his right to marry Honey, especially if it means Buck leaving the lumber camp. Buck's torn between his need to rebel against his dad and his sense of responsibility to the company. For her part, Honey is no gold-digger -- this isn't a Warner Bros. picture -- but will she stand by her man during his crisis? Finally, if the rival can't get rid of Buck by playing his wingman, he may do so more forcefully, and permanently....

Carnival Boat's virtues have little to do with Bill Boyd. He's far too old for the role and has little chemistry with Rogers. Fortunately, he handles the action well, but Rogell and Link handle it even better. The film's highlight is a furiously-paced chase scene in which Buck has to stop a speeding train whose air brakes have failed on a dangerous slope. Alerted to the danger to his father, Buck boards a high-speed aerial cable-car that seems to fly through the air, delivering him to a point where he can leap onto the out-of-control train. Link cuts rapidly between process shots of Boyd hopping from car to car and long shots of a stuntman running over the top of a real speeding train, until the hero gets to where he can repair the air brake. It's one of the most exhilirating action sequences of the Pre-Code era. Less successful, because more reliant on process shots, is a sequence in which Buck must blow up a logjam, them swim the obstacle-ridden river to rescue the rival who'd finally tried to kill him moments earlier, But Rogell and Link make up for that part's shortcomings with a ferocious climactic fistfight once the rivals have caught their breath. Working with cinematographer Ted McCord, they get as many dynamic angles on the action as possible, selling Boyd and Kohler as epic brutes.

As a bonus, Carnival Boat has effective comic relief in the forms of Edgar Kennedy and Harry Sweet as abusive buddies in the lumber camp. They work a big saw together, more or less -- Sweet takes advantage of a broken handle on his end to let Kennedy do all the work. Sweet also has a knack for getting Kennedy's pipe and other personal items smashed. There's no slow-burn act to Kennedy here; he's quite plausible as a roughneck and his comic timing is still good, punctuating his bits with Sweet by punching his pal in the face. Theirs is more a Fred-and-Barney than Laurel-and-Hardy chemistry -- Sweet's square, squat frame and demeanor are quite Rubble-like -- and their bits never outlast their welcome. I found myself looking forward to their scenes more than those with Boyd and Rogers. There's nothing wrong with Rogers, by the way, and there's nothing wrong with Boyd that Carnival Boat's rousing action can't cure. The whole picture may be less than the sum of its parts, but either way there's still something worth seeing for people who enjoy moving pictures, because this film sure does move.

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 TCM.com

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 TCM.com

Thursday, April 10, 2014

MONEY MONEY MONEY (L'aventure c'est l'aventure, 1972)

Claude Lelouch's L'aventure c'est l'aventure is France's answer to Otto Preminger's Skidoo: a heavyhanded comedy about oldschool gangsters adjusting to a radically new world. In less obscure terms, Lelouch's film is a send-up of radical chic. A bunch of dimwitted crooks -- Lino Ventura, playing an art forger, is the most high-functioning of them while singer-songwriter Jacques Brel is the other big name in the cast -- emerge from prison to learn that bank robbery, art forgery and other old standbys aren't where the action is anymore. The real action is political; all the old stuff is finished. Even the prostitutes are planning a general strike. Lino's son tells him that even cars are finished. Finding the lad's Molotov cocktail in his car, Lino accepts the premise and blows it up.

Lino's gang takes a crash course in radical politics, hearing talks from such extremes as uniformed Maoists to Salvation Army officers. The thing to do, they learn, is kidnap people in the name of some revolution or other. They start by pulling pop star (and eventually a movie tough-guy in his own right) Johnny Hallyday off the stage at one of his concerts after he sings the title song; Hallyday proves a most cooperative hostage. The gang then gets involved in an archetypal Latin American revolution, turning on revolutionary commandante Ernesto (Juan-Luis Bunuel, the director's son and a director in his own right) when he doesn't pay promptly. They kidnap a diplomat and impulsively play Russian Roulette with him while waiting for the ransom. They stage a successful hijacking, complicated only by their inept reading of an English ransom note. Finally they're living the high life until they're lured into a trap -- the bait's a boatload of topless girls -- set by the vengeful Ernesto, who wants his money back from them.

Eventually we return to the framing device of the gang's trial in Paris, but it's only a brief pause before the big finish as the boys make their break and flee to Africa, where they're feted as radical heroes. Each man takes a turn making nonsensical speeches as the masses cheer indiscriminately, living up to one character's early announcement that they were Groucho Marxists -- Skidoo covered this base by casting Groucho himself as a mob leader. Finally, there's no rest for revolutionaries, and our heroes are last seen sedan chair-napping the Pope, carrying their captive through the jungle and on to further adventures.

There are some funny ideas here and some decent moments of visual humor -- Ventura's facial expressions are priceless as he listens painfully to his cohort's labored rehearsals of his English for the ransom note -- but I suspect that a lot of L'aventure's humor is lost in translation. The whole point is the culture clash of gangsters and political radicals so the way the different sets of characters talk has to be a big part of the comedy that the DVD's subtitles don't really convey. The main point of the crooks' stupidity is made effectively enough with their compulsive gambling -- they take bets on which of them will crack as Ernesto tortures them one at a time -- and their idiotic attempt to seduce girls on the beach with their silly macho walks. But the comedy is silly rather than satiric and the film is fun but forgettable -- David Thomson didn't even list it on Lelouch's filmography for The Biographical Dictionary of Film. L'Aventure doesn't really deserve that sort of neglect, but it isn't exactly a vital document of its time, either. The impulse to satirize radicalism sometimes results in instant camp; if that intrigues you, this film will, too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 8, 1939

Reading a general-interest pulp magazine is often like watching TV. Series characters seem to predominate, so that with any given issue, especially of a weekly like Argosy you'd see several familiar faces. Authors strove to establish popular characters, hoping that they'd mean guaranteed sales. Some characters had whole magazines built around them; those were the "hero pulps" like Doc Savage and The Shadow. But series characters were prevalent everywhere, and this week's Argosy has three recurring characters along with Dr. Kildare wrapping up his second serial. Karl W. Detzer's Michael Costello may have been designed as a fireman counterpart to Kildare. This week's cover story, "Costello Learns to Take It," is Detzer's fourth story about the rookie firefighter. The title is self-explanatory. Costello sees his first major action, and his first corpse.

The smell -- the awful smell -- again caught Michael by the throat, pressed like iron fingers. The beam of the flashlight wavered briefly, steadied, wavered again. But Michael saw. He knew without seeing. 

There wasn't much left of the bed. Only a black mass of sodden ashes, wet down by the hand-pump and the spray from the engine-stream, a piece of wet blanked, and there in the center....

In short, Costello cracks under the early pressure, is reassigned to a quieter neighborhood, gets into trouble out of frustration, but redeems himself predictably enough with conspicuous heroism just as it looks like he's hit bottom. Like many pulp stories it's a rite-of-passage/test-of-courage scenario addressing the unspoken anxieties of young adult readers, and Detzer, who specialized in fire stories, has enough skill to keep it freshly readable.

One of my favorite series characters since I discovered the pulps two years ago is Frank Richardson Pierce's No-Shirt McGee. Introduced in 1937, McGee is a "sourdough," an old timer from Klondike days, still tough but more often a wise counselor to younger characters, and also the hero of tales from his own past. No-Shirt was popular enough to get a cover in 1938, and Pierce kept him going well into the 1940s, taking him to Short Stories after Argosy went slick. McGee is a first-person narrator who tells rather than writes his tales. That means that Pierce writes in a vernacular style with loose grammar. If you've read Robert E. Howard's boxing stories about Sailor Steve Costigan, No-Shirt McGee is written in a similar style, -- down to the present-tense narration -- while the character is a good deal smarter than Costigan. "The Bells of St. Mary's" is a dramatic tale of No-Shirt's youth, when he nearly freezes to death racing a claim jumper back to Portage Pass to help his injured partner. The title refers to the sound you allegedly hear as you're freezing, though No-Shirt has to decide whether he's actually hearing a real bell signaling his salvation. Here's a sample of Pierce's style:

Well, I'm on my feet again. I don't remember gettin' there, but I'm there and the bell is ringin'. It's off to the left now. It's makin' a sucker out of me. First it rings to the right, then to the left and I use up a lot of strength zig-zaggin' back and forth.

The wind is like something alive -- slapping at me and pushing -- but it is like knives, too -- a hundred buzz-saw blades cut through my clothes, slicing to the very bones. And it carries the sound of that bell in it so strong that the ringing seems to be a part of it. And I keep falling down and getting to my feet to stagger on again, walking to the endless pealing of that persistent bell.

The No-Shirt series is consistently entertaining and Pierce's style definitely elevates them. You can read some of these in the trove of Argosy issues scanned onto Unz.org. Here's one from earlier in 1939, for starters.

Another familiar series character in this issue takes Argosy in an even more comic direction. Dale Clark's J. Edwin Bell is a bottom-feeding Hollywood agent; the standard epithet for him is "the flesh peddler." Bell is constantly trying to jump on board a gravy train, whether by ripping off naive newcomers, studio executives or, preferably, both. In "The Liar and the Mouse" he learns from "Hardboiled Hannah," a never-was actress turned party-girl spy that a top studio special-effects man is taking credit for the work of an underpaid underling. Hannah's idea is to blackmail the studio man into giving the underling a big contract from which she and Bell then take a big cut. Bell's idea is to cut Hannah out of the equation by making his deal with the studio man, getting his percentage from the big guy by intimidating the meek underling into accepting his old contract. The Bell stories are when Argosy most reads like a sitcom, with the conniving Bell usually losing and often ending up on the run. The stories are amusing in their own right, and they're made more fun now by often-obsolete cultural references, e.g. "Hardboiled Hannah didn't know it yet but that signed agreement wasn't worth anything more than a Republican vote in the state of Texas!" It was a different world back then.

On the serial front, Max Brand's "Calling Dr. Kildare" closes with that gunshot victim cleared of a murder charge and his sister, a good bad girl, selflessly renouncing Jimmy Kildare's love at the urging of Dr. Gillespie, the dying man convincing Rosalie that he needs the young doctor more than she does. Soap opera stuff from a king of the westerns, complete with the pathos of renunciation, but movie audiences would eat it up when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the movie version at the end of the month. Dr. Kildare would return for two more serials in the next two years. In chapter two of Norbert Davis's "Sand in the Snow" Jim Daniels must begin to solve a murder at the estate where he and his wife are vacationing while keeping his hapless new friend, on the run from another dubious murder conviction, from being framed for it, and keeping the suspicious gigolo Dak Hassan, who sees Daniels as a fellow practitioner, from making moves on his wife. This is the sort of mystery story where there's a surplus of eccentric if not suspicious personalities, including the literal comedy relief of a husband-wife team of alcoholic Hollywood gag writers. To clarify:

A joke is something you say -- a gag is something you do. Gags are lots funnier. Like when you sock a guy in the mug with a pie, or hit him with a baseball bat, or give him a cigar that explodes. Those are gags.

And so's the close of this chapter, when Jim's surprised to find his wife getting into a catfight with a complete stranger in a public street. I'm not a big mystery fan, but Davis's story is diverting enough to keep me turning the pages.

In the penultimate chapter of Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time," our team of time-lost humans captures one of the future-earth doctils and whips up a plan to destroy the doctils' colony on a distant planet in order to thwart their plan to take over Earth 1939, sacrificing themselves if necessary. The twofold plan involves destroying a barrier protecting the doctils from the planet's hostile indigenous life and killing the doctils' matra, the last true female preserved for breeding purposes.

She was far greater in size than any woman we had seen, but she was formed like the women we knew, and not like the grotesque beings who guarded her. Her skin was white as the fabric on which she was stretched, and lustrous. Great-bosomed she was, and huge-limbed, and tremendously wide of hip. Her eyes were closed in a deep slumber that somehow I knew was something other than sleep. The contours of her face had an almost unearthly beauty, yet she wore, like a mask, an expression of bovine placidity, of mindless calm, that made her somewhat less than human.

Why didn't they put that on the cover?

Rounding out this week are two stand-alone stories. Nat Shachner, who specialized in sci-fi for the pulps and historical sketches for The American Mercury, contributes "Test for a Tatar," which comes as close as anything in Argosy to the blood and thunder people associate with real pulp fiction. It's a gruesome tale of the rise of Temujin the Mongol to power and his taking of the name Genghis Khan. It's told from the viewpoint of Subotai, the Khan's loyal vassal, who sees his lord manipulated and set up for assassination by Targoutai the Taidjut, though who the real manipulator is proves open to question. A seemingly drunken Temujin tests the loyalty of his own tribesmen by ordering them to kill their favorite horses, and then their favorite wives. Luckily, Subotai is a bachelor, and the other men have wives to spare. Targoutai finally goads Temujin into killing his own father, but Subotai thwarts the Taidjut's plan to slay Temujin at his moment of triumph. Argosy is no kiddie pulp and its stories can take an amoral turn, but there really seems to be no point here other than mayhem -- but I suppose there was an audience for that, too. Finally, the editor predicts that A. M. Burrage's "Out to Rest" is "certain to become one of the most memorable short stories of the year." It's really a trifle, and I can't imagine its premise was much less familiar then than it is now. A soldier (or is it a former soldier) can't tell whether he's dreaming in wartime of his death in bed two decades later or dreaming in the present of his dead comrades from the war. Can you guess which it is?

*   *   *

There was at least one kind of story rarely or never seen in Argosy. As letter writer Mrs. Clay Clark of Camden ME writes in this week's Argonotes column: "ARGOSY has always printed a different type of story for each and every issue, a miracle, yet there is one type I cannot recall ever seeing ... the Negro stories." By which she means comical stories about those funny colored people who talk in Amos 'n Andy dialect. The editor answers: "We don't know why people don't write Negro stories for ARGOSY, but we are rather relieved, because unless a Negro-dialect yarn is very, very good, it is apt to be simply terrible."

I've found a few racist stories in Argosy, and a few -- fewer, sadly -- that actually count as anti-racist. I hope to share some of the latter with you sometime, but as for all my American readers, the April 15 deadline looms -- and I have more reading to do.


Sunday, April 6, 2014


Spoilers everywhere. Trust no one.
You can excuse Steve Rogers getting a little paranoid. His next door neighbor turns out to be an Agent of SHIELD. The only living person he knows from his own time -- as far as he knows -- was a founder of SHIELD. And some people will tell you that the two women are related. Even the guy he banters with while jogging in the morning turns out to be a sort of super-soldier in his own right. And when a buddy from Steve's past turns up unexpectedly, he turns out to be tied up in some secret government program. Our boy's got to wonder whether he ever has dealings with normal people. But that's the life he chose when he volunteered for Project Rebirth back in 1942, and the life he's been stuck in when SHIELD thawed him back to life in 2011. Still, taking all this into account, should Captain America have had the knee-jerk reaction of distrust and disgust we see when Nick Fury shows him SHIELD's latest experiment in surveillance and pre-emption? In story terms it's right for him to have it, but if Steve's a throwback to the Greatest Generation and all that, shouldn't he be more likely to trust government, at least at first, than people who've actually lived through all the events that make 21st century people less trusting? The Winter Soldier would have had an extra level of moral complexity had Steve initially trusted SHIELD on this and gradually had to learn better. But Steve Rogers is our audience-identification figure and he needs to tell us right away, as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves, that This Is Wrong. Because it is. I'm not saying this is a mistake by the filmmakers, but it struck me as slightly wrong -- too neat, just as it is to blame SHIELD's excesses ultimately on our old friends at Hydra. That scapegoating undercuts The Winter Soldier's claims, or the claims made for it by many reviewers, of contemporary critical relevance. Hydra, the enemy of SHIELD going back to the 1960s in comics, has become a convenient source of context-free evil. More evil even than Nazis, Hydra is the perfect fictional foil: an evil that no one on earth can claim is a reflection on them. Blame what happens in Winter Soldier on Hydra and you're really blaming nobody. This story's excesses in the name of surveillance and preemption -- a superweapon capable of simultaneously eliminating up to 20,000,000 potential enemies around the world -- are blamed on Hyrda's obsession with an "order" that is antithetical to freedom. But the excesses of surveillance and preemption on which Winter Soldier is supposedly meant to reflect weren't born of an obsession with "order," were they? Quite the opposite, some would say. If a Marvel movie dared to say that such a mad scheme resulted with an obsession with "freedom," than the reviewers would have something to write about. As things stand, I can't wait to see what Slavoj Zizek has to say about this movie, but while most of you ask "who?" let's move on.

On the terms it chooses for itself, Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies yet. It brings the Marvel movies about up to speed with modern superhero comics, where you learn that "everything you thought you knew is wrong" just about once a month. It seems to prove that writing makes these films, while good writing makes them just about director-proof. The Russo brothers have a questionable resume for directing an action movie, but the writers of Captain America: The First Avenger are back, and Christopher Markus and Sean McFeely really deserve most of the credit for this film's success, my philosophical quibbles above notwithstanding. There's a meta-quality to the Captain America film series, the first film really evoking the Golden Age of Comics while the new one makes ample use of concepts from Ed Brubaker's 21st century revitalization of the character. Brubaker is an as-yet unsung pop culture hero of our time. He took over writing Captain America after a run on Catwoman at DC that definitively turned that character into an antihero if not an outright hero. The Selina Kyle we saw in The Dark Knight Rises arguably owes a lot to Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke's vision, but Brubaker's influence on Winter Soldier is more direct. Comics are a writer's market these days, with the star scribes expecting carte blanche to unprecedented degrees. On Captain America Brubaker broke one of Marvel's great taboos. The folk wisdom had been that at Marvel only three characters never came back from the dead: Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, Peter's girlfriend Gwen Stacey (I hope I'm not spoiling any future films!) and Captain America's wartime sidekick Bucky Barnes. In comics Bucky died somewhere in the North Atlantic while diverting a German rocket from its target, in the same incident that got Cap himself frozen in ice for many years. Bucky's reappearance was often teased, and other characters sometimes wore Bucky's superhero costume, but Barnes himself was dead, dead, dead -- until Brubaker said he wasn't.

Inevitably, Markus and McFeely have Hydra-ized the Winter Soldier's origin, Brubaker having made him a product of Soviet experimentation, and thus more closely associated with the Black Widow than in the movie. I don't really have an issue with the change, but a weakness of the Bucky angle for the movie is that its big revelation can't have the impact Brubaker's had in the comics, the latter coming as it did after forty years of modern Captain America stories with our hero missing his friend, and in defiance of a recognized if informal taboo. The movie writers tried to compensate by making Barnes a more important figure in Steve's early life than he ever was in comics -- in Simon & Kirby's original stories Bucky is a much younger camp mascot whom Steve meets only after his super-soldier transformation. But one movie couldn't substitute for years of Captain American & Bucky comics, and so the movie Barnes really can't be as important a figure for the audience as the filmmakers want him to be and can make him be for Steve Rogers. Superhero movies want to encapsulate up to 70 years of experience in a handful of movies, and they may get away with it with movie viewers who don't know comics, but for a Brubaker fan like me there was something lacking in the movie's homage. There was at least one moment when the writers tripped over the ever-evolving, ever-rebooting Marvel comics mythos. The Black Widow is repeatedly identified as a former KGB agent, but when her date of birth is given in one scene it turns out that the KGB ceased to exist when Natasha Romanova was seven years old. Marvel Comics wants the KGB to remain part of the character's past, so they've reimagined her as another kind of super-soldier who, like Steve, is much older than she looks, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to turn people off by having Scarlett Johansson play a woman in her eighties. Film adaptions of comics will never be perfect, and I'd actually rather not have them go too far in the Sin City direction. But the Widow's age as given here seems to be a mistake that may raise more questions than were intended.

Once I step away from both my comics-reader biases and my philosophical differences with the story I can recommend Winter Soldier as both an effective action movie and a showcase for character development. After a James Bond style opening pitting Cap against an old comics enemy, the film goes into slow-burn mode, illustrating both Steve's alienation and his guileless good nature. He may mourn all he's lost -- his encounter with the physically and mentally frail nonagenarian Peggy Carter is genuinely sad -- but happily doesn't put himself in an emotional box. He has an innate ability to win friends and their trust that pays off as his fellow jogger Sam Wilson unrolls his own formidable skillset. Winter Soldier may be more of an actors' film than any other Marvel movie, and Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson make the most of that. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury gets more screen time than ever and manages not to wear out his welcome (look for the Pulp Fiction homage toward the end, by the way), while Robert Redford's late-life effortless mastery is mostly reaffirmed here. Marvel's getting quite good at building up mid-level villains (see also Iron Man 3) and in that category Frank Grillo takes the honors this time as a questionable SHIELD agent. The action scenes are all you could ask for, though I still wonder how much credit the credited directors deserve for them -- or are they glorified dialogue directors like you had in early talkies? I enjoyed the hand-to-hand combat and the car chases more than the inevitably overblown three-helicarrier climax, but the climax itself wasn't bad, either. I'm not ready to join those calling Winter Soldier the best Marvel movie to date -- it's not necessarily even the best Captain America movie -- but as a big improvement on Thor: The Dark World it's a reassurance that Marvel is probably far from exhausted either creatively or technically.

Epilogue: Winter Soldier follows a new pattern set by Avengers and Dark World of embedding the important extra scene in the middle of the end credits, while the actual post-credits bit is a comparatively anticlimactic coda to the film proper. This time the middle bit introduces some characters we'll be seeing in the next Avengers movie, while the coda is an encore for Sebastian Stan, whose reported multipicture deal with Marvel means not only the Winter Soldier's return, but possibly a promotion down the line if the films follow Brubaker's example. If you really need to go, you can leave after you see the twins.