Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: ANN CARVER'S PROFESSION (1933)

Fay Wray was the first and remains the greatest of Hollywood's scream queens. History has typed her as a damsel in distress, but this Columbia release proves that Wray's mighty vocal instrument could also be used as a weapon in a portrayal of a woman of power. Her Ann Carver works her way through law school as a short-order cook, while her boyfriend Lightning Bill Graham (Gene Raymond) is the campus football hero. She earns her law degree and passes the bar exam but appears satisfied with the life of a housewife while hubby struggles to bring home the bacon as an architect. His prospects for advancement are limited, and Bill limits them further by refusing an offer from his pal, now a niteclub owner -- to make more money as a singer. Perhaps clinging to an old code of amateurism -- he's a man of old codes -- Bill refuses to exploit his athletic celebrity to earn a living. Meanwhile, at a dinner party, Ann eavesdrops on a conversation about a high-profile legal case. It becomes clear that she's been following the story and her opinions are surprisingly expert and critical of the defendant's legal team, the leader of which is present at the party. Rather than offended, the old attorney is impressed, hiring Ann to take his place when illness keeps him out of court.

This case is dynamite. A young man of good family is being sued for breach of promise by a light-skinned "colored" woman (Diane Bori in her second and apparently last film performance, despite living until 2004, the same year Fay Wray died). He dropped her when he realized she was colored, but it's her contention that he knew she was colored all along, and it's the contention of her lawyer (Robert Barrat, straying off the Warner Bros. reservation) that "only a blithering idiot" would not have realized from the start that the plaintiff was colored -- he has her bare her shoulder in the witness box to illustrate the point. Unquestioned here is the implicit assumption that it would be OK for the defendant to dump the plaintiff if she had, in fact, deceived him about her race.

Ann declines to cross-examine the plaintiff, and asks for a recess when Barrat closes the case for his client. She returns to call Barrat as her only witness. Her first question to him is, "Are you a blithering idiot?" It's a highly irregular question, but Ann wants to prove a point. She does this by bringing six women into the courtroom. All have a similar complexion, but Ann announces that three of them are white, while three are black. Can Barrat tell white from black? His contention was that the average man should be able to tell, but while the judge spares him from answering, it's clear that he's flummoxed. All this testimony, and the six women, now stripped to their bathing suits, are thrown out, but Ann has introduced the necessary degree of doubt in jurors' minds to win the case for the defendant. We the audience are left to understand that the defendant honestly mistook the plaintiff for a white girl and was justified in dumping her once he realized his error. Does that make the film racist? Only insofar as it reflects the legal precedents prevailing in a more racist society than our own, and in any event the race angle is quickly eclipsed by the movie's sexual politics.

The newspapers report that a legal star is born, and Ann quickly becomes a full partner in the firm. She proves superhumanly versatile, masterful both in the "circus" tactics of the criminal courtroom and the subtleties of corporate law. Meanwhile, Bill continues to grind away at his architect job, increasingly self-conscious of who actually brings in the big bucks in the family. The last straw for him is when he lacks the cash on hand to pay the household servants, Ann having forgotten to write a check before heading to Washington to negotiate some big business deal. He can still make more money at his pal's niteclub -- the pal has an annoyingly "humorous" habit of cutting words off at the final syllab -- and now he decides to do so. If Ann's success has humiliated (not to mention emasculated) Bill, his plunge into show business humiliates her. She travels in elite company now, and having her husband sing for his supper on the strength of his athletic fame -- it sure isn't on the strength of Gene Raymond's singing; he stinks -- undermines her social standing. Ann Carver's Profession is often condemned as a sexist film, and it definitely is that, but Ann's classism arguably counterbalances Bill's sexism. Her contempt for his crooning is compounded by gossip linking him to the niteclub's female star, Carole Rodgers (Claire Dodd). Carole's "the hottest white girl in town," according to the niteclub's black ladies' room attendant, "She takes them there and brings 'em back alive." It doesn't help that Carole is aggressively pursuing Bill. Dragged to the niteclub by her new social set, Ann seethes as Carole plants one on Bill just offstage, but doesn't hear Bill tell Carole, "Never do that again!" While he sings his lousy number, Ann contemptuously throws coins at his feet and storms out.

The apparent end of Bill's marriage emboldens Carole, who attempts a drunken seduction of her co-star. Getting the cold shoulder, Carole manages to pass out on Bill's bed, crack her head on the metal bedpost, and strangle herself when her necklace gets caught on the post while she slides off the bed. It's hard to believe on screen, and in the movie itself Bill gets arrested for murdering Carole. Guess who represents him in court, whether Bill likes it or not? At this point, Ann Carver becomes a distaff Free Soul with Fay Wray in the Lionel Barrymore role as the defense attorney with a dysfunctional family. In A Free Soul, Barrymore defends his daughter's boyfriend by denouncing himself for having brought his girl up wrong so that she got in trouble with a gangster, which led to the boyfriend killing the gangster. Likewise, Ann Carver defends her husband by blaming herself -- referring to herself in the third person throughout and having first argued very persuasively that the prosecution has failed to prove either deed or motive -- for ruining poor hubby's life by having a career of her own. Barrymore's aria climaxes with the old man dropping dead in the courtroom; it's enough for Wray to have her character commit career suicide. "I have tried my last case," Ann declares, as Raymond beams with adoration.

The film's ending insults the intelligence not just because it accepts the necessity of Ann's retirement, but because somehow -- somehow in the way exposure to nuclear radiation somehow gives people super powers -- Bill now becomes a successful architect so they can live on his earnings after all. You hope against hope that we'll learn that Ann is acting as his legal counsel, since that seems like the only way he could get ahead -- but forget it; her destiny is to bear Bill's brats. She admires his design for their new home because it lets in sun and air; he answers that he's thinking of just that: a son and heir. Ha ha ha. The worst part of it all is that Wray's superwoman must surrender her career, and the world must do without a powerful legal mind, all for the sake of an utter loser. Gene Raymond is the blonde booby of Pre-Code cinema; the man makes George Brent come across like Gable. He does next to nothing in the picture besides pity himself and sing poorly. I can't help but think -- I guess I'd like to think, that even in 1933 audiences recognized that Bill was unworthy and undeserving of Ann, especially when Fay Wray is giving what probably is her greatest acting performance. Not most iconic, obviously, but greatest. She's as persuasive as an omnicompetent legal whiz as Ann is in the courtroom and boardroom. Weaponizing her verbal pyrotechnics, she blasts formidable character actors like Barrat off the screen and makes Raymond look even more like nothing than he normally does. The film itself concedes the point, given the evidence of Raymond, that men are the weaker sex, but it also argues, against all reason given the evidence of Wray, that women must sacrifice their ambitions and talents to take care of these big babies. It all makes you want to scream....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pre-Code Parade and After: the domestication of Aline MacMahon

You're going to see two newspaper ads here, one giving Ann Dvorak top billing in Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning, the other featuring Guy Kibbee as the title character of William Keighley's Big Hearted Herbert. The actual star of both pictures is Aline MacMahon, who during 1934, the year of Code Enforcement, underwent a kind of metamorphosis. Heat Lightning appeared in March and is still a Pre-Code picture ... boy, is it Pre-Code. In it, MacMahon is a woman disappointed in love who has set up a motor park and garage in the middle of the desert to get away from men, and has dragged her kid sister (Dvorak) with her. As Olga, MacMahon parades around in mechanic's overalls and is all business while Dvorak as Myra years to have a good time with a boy in the city, despite Olga's warnings. All sorts of interesting people pass through: a henpecked Edgar Kennedy with Jane Darwell for a wife; an elderly sugar daddy with two of Warner Bros.' most blatantly predatory gold diggers hovering over him, but not really caring to get too close; successful gold diggers Ruth Donnelly and Glenda Farrell returning from Reno with Frank McHugh as their chauffeur and, apparently, Farrell's lover; Preston Foster and Lyle Talbot as fugitive bank robbers. Turns out that Foster's character is Olga's old flame, and despite all of Olga's disdain for men and romance, and all her unheeded warnings to Myra, the flame rekindles, or so it seems. Just as Myra returns from her first tryst, just as disappointed and heartbroken as Olga predicted, Olga overhears Foster telling Talbot that he'd seduced her just to give Talbot time to crack the safe where Farrell and Donnelly have kept their jewels overnight, with their car in the shop. So of course she kills him, and then life goes on. The story, based on a play, seems like a draft version of Petrified Forest in some respects, and LeRoy's film is an ambitious production. He seems to have built a detailed set on location in the desert, then reproduced it on a soundstage so he could do the heat-lightning effects in night scenes. The sets allow him to do fairly lengthy tracking shots as characters walk around the grounds, as well as interesting point-of-view shots, e.g. from MacMahon's grease-monkey pit underneath a car. Heat Lightning is one of the climactic Pre-Code films and one of the sleaziest without being salacious like the Warners' gold-digger comedies. MacMahon grounds it with her understated performance as a frustrated, repressive, mature woman (aged 35) whose last chance for love has lethal consequences.

Big Hearted Herbert was released on the other side of the historic dividing line, in October 1934. In another adaptation of a play, MacMahon is the wife of Guy Kibbee (aged 52). The actors first met on-screen in Gold Diggers of 1933, but were teamed formally beginning with May 1934's The Merry Frinks, a dysfunctional-family comedy. After Herbert, they teamed up three more times over the next year, including an adaptation of Sinclar Lewis's Babbitt in which Kibbee played the archetypal bourgeois "boob" of the 1920s. For comparison's sake, Preston Foster was one year MacMahon's junior. As for Kibbee, Herbert arguably marks his domestication as well as MacMahon's. He could be a satyr in Pre-Code comedies, all the more transgressive for his age and sometimes-repulsive manner. But in Herbert both actors are thoroughly desexualized, and the film plays more like a TV sitcom. MacMahon does have top billing on-screen but Kibbee understandably dominates the film as the sort of reactionary who might be more recognizable today than his and Lewis's Babbitt is. Herbert Kalniss is a self-made man who rose from humble plumber to self-consciously humble bath and sink manufacturer, the sort who boasts incessantly and ad nauseum of being a "plain man" while spewing contempt for alleged elitists of all sorts: collegians, lawyers and other professional men. In short, the title is ironic if not sarcastic. MacMahon is the long-suffering wife, a more intelligent Edith Bunker who turns the tables on her husband after he humiliates his potential in-laws -- his daughter has returned from college with a fiance as a fait accompli -- with his tirades and arrogant crudities. For revenge, or simply to teach a lesson, she embarrasses Herbert in front of his business cronies by dressing down (with her kids) and behaving like a complete rube. That's the payoff -- well, she does threaten to leave him before he finally repents in characteristically grudging fashion -- and it just seems childish, sitcom-ish. Of course, you can't say a film like this wouldn't exist in the Pre-Code era, but Big Hearted Herbert seems like what the powers behind Code Enforcement wanted movies to be. It's a mildly entertaining movie entirely on the strength of Kibbee's stormcloud of a performance, but I'd understand if people find Herbert hateful rather than funny. The sad thing about it, especially if you happened to watch Heat Lightning first, as I did, is how diminished, desexualized and domesticated Aline MacMahon is, as if the actress of Herbert is the MacMahon Code Enforcement wanted, for reasons lost to time. What a waste.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

DVR Diary: FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949)

This RKO quickie -- it's done in 60 minutes -- has a formidable pedigree. Richard Fleischer is the credited director, while Anthony Mann shares a story credit and reportedly did some directing, too. That and the police procedural elements in the story will remind some of He Walked By Night, another film for which Mann was a silent partner behind-the-camera, but it doesn't help Follow Me Quietly to suggest that comparison. He Walked is a minor masterpiece while Follow Me is merely minor. This time the cops are hunting a strangler who leaves notes identifying him as The Judge, if not jury and executioner as well. Our old friend the pesky female reporter is on hand, too, and as is often the case in such stories the conflict between journalist and gendarme is metaphoric foreplay. Cop (William Lundigan) resents Reporter (Dorothy Patrick) because he thinks her paper's an exploitation rag. She takes his insults personally, but her dogged efforts to get his cooperation for a story about the Judge investigation becomes a kind of mating dance. Fleischer, Mann et al make this as blatant as the Production Code permitted; Reporter follows Cop home and badgers him to sign an authorization form while he's taking a shower. The negotiations continue as he prepares for bed, and as he gets into bed. Finally, he asks: "What are you waiting for?" Just as you wonder what he means, she realizes he wants her to get out and start her story. Believe it or not, this is better done than the main mystery story. As a procedural, Follow Me Quietly wants to show off the latest police methods and focuses on one in particular to its utter ruin.

Virtually a co-star of the picture is the law's secret weapon against the Judge: a dummy. I had better call it a mannequin, but they call it a dummy. Built life-size, based on incomplete descriptions of the killer, the idea is to give potential witnesses a kind of 3-D point of reference to jog their memories. The cops show it off to themselves like it's some awesome thing. Lundigan sets it up on the lineup, back to the audience, and interviews it, another voice providing the sort of answers that might be expected from a serial killer. The demonstration climaxes as the recorded voice declares, "I like to kill!" At which point Lundigan turns the dummy around and the soundtrack provides a shock cue for the revelation of its blank face! So the Question is running around killing people; I knew there was something fishy about that guy. After this debacle, and without a trace of flop sweat, the filmmakers press on, convinced of the ... I still don't know what quality of the dummy. We even get a scene in which Lundigan lectures the seated dummy, gets a fake scare when his partner (Jeff Corey) walks in and starts talking, and both leave -- only for us to see that this was not the dummy but the Judge himself, who for reasons known only to the writers has decided to sneak into headquarters, take the dummy's place, and spy on the cops, confident as only the writers could make him that no one would notice a living man in the chair. That's the magic of the movies for you.

Yet the dummy does contribute somewhat to the resolution of the mystery. The Judge himself contributes more by finally leaving a colossal clue at the latest murder scene. Our killer, maybe following a model he'd recently read of, brought a true crime magazine to the victim's home and left it on her floor. It's an issue from the previous year, yet in near-mint condition. From this our intrepid girl reporter finally makes herself useful by deducing that the Judge must have bought it from a second-hand book store. Once they find a store that sells such stuff, the cops figure their man must live in the neighborhood. The dummy gives one more performance as a seated diner at a diner, poring over a magazine, to impress a waitress who identifies it as "Charlie" until the incredible reveal, complete with shock cue, of the dummy's blank face! This sets up a stakeout and a climactic pursuit that no doubt owes inspiration to He Walked By Night, though the setting slightly anticipates White Heat, which would come out later in 1949. Ironically, at the supreme moment the defeated Judge literally becomes a dummy as he takes the big fall. You, too, may feel a little like a dummy for having sat through the picture. With Fleischer and Mann at work it can't be without a few worthwhile moments. The moment when the Judge, at the threshold of his home, realizes that things are too quiet, is a good one, and I always enjoy an appearance by Frank (Mr. McDougal) Ferguson, who here plays a fighting newspaper editor who manages to fight off a Judge attack, only to stumble backwards out a window and die dictating his first-person account of the incident. Follow Me Quietly could have been a good film if its creators didn't get collectively obsesses with an idea that renders the whole thing slightly absurd, if not a singular piece of noir surrealism.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPT. 9, 1939

At least one Argonotes letter writer has criticized Arthur Leo Zagat for the racism of his "Tomorrow" series of postapocalyptic adventures, which probably means that more feel the same way, but "The Bright Flag of Tomorrow," the third novella of the series, finds Zagat unrepentant. In this episode he's starting to fill in some details of geography and future history. The enemy that has conquered the United States is the "Asiatic-African Confederation," or "Asafrics" for short. It remains unclear whether the black soldiers against whom our hero Dikar fights are invaders from Africa or African-Americans who've gone over to the invader. As far as we know, however, our heroes are all white. We learn this issue that Dikar and his Bunch were evacuated as children to a mountain in Palisades Park in downstate New York. This surprised me because I'd assumed that these hardy specimens were out in the Midwest or further west. Dikar -- you may recall that the Bunch have all merged their old names into a single title, Dikar having been born Dick Carr, for example -- must decide once and for all whether to keep the Bunch secure on their mountain or to join the Secret Net, the American resistance he discovered in the last story. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue a resistance leader from a prison convoy taking him to New York City, where he will be executed and hung from the spire of the Empire State Building. No one's going to see him up there, I presume, but it's the thought that counts. Dikar feels responsible for his Bunch above all, but his mate Marilee urges him to take a larger view.

'Sure,' she assured him, 'Sure it will be the end of safety for us. But if we ever do anythin except make beautiful pledges to the Flag an talk about what we're going to do for the Flag and the Country for which it stands, there will be no more safety for us. Today or tomorrow or a year from now, the choice will always be the same, hide here on the Mountain in safety, or go down off the Mountain an say goodbye to safety. You've got to choose sometime, Dikar, an it might as well be now.'

Again, Zagat throws in an occasional "an" in place of "and" to remind us that the Bunch suffer, to some extent, from arrested development. That comes across most quaintly as the gang recites the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and in the significance attributed to one girl's doing so with her fingers crossed! That's Bessalton, who had been the mate of Dikar's traitorous rival, who was killed in the previous story. Marilee fears that she may prove a traitor, too, but Dikar sways Bessalton by making her remember the childhood trauma of bombing raids and narrow escapes, while the old-timers Dikar rescued last time turn her for good by teaching what I guess is Zagat's moral for his 1939 readers. America fell, they explain, because we did not bother helping other countries when they were attacked. Bessalton is a spokesperson for isolationism, urging the Bunch to stay on their mountain, but she learns that "when we decided to leave the stranger peoples to fight alone, we decided that we, too, would have to fight alone, and doomed ourselves to certain defeat." This persuades Bessalton that "The Mountain is not our home. America is our home. All America." And so the Bunch comes down from the mountain to kill a bunch of black and yellow men and rescue the captive patriot. Along the way they encounter some "Beast-Folk" -- hillbillies, basically, who've survived on their own without joining the resistance yet come around also to the mission of restoring America. Needless to say, "Anothier Stirring Adventure of Dikar and the Bunch Will Appear in the Argosy Soon."

 

Well, you can't top that, but this issue has some good serials and good stories. Luke Short's Hurricane Range is reliably good while the conclusion of Roy S. DeHorn's two-parter Men With No Master manages to make a protracted effort to knock down a heavy door with a primitive cannon surprisingly suspenseful and entertaining. Fred MacIsaac and C. W. Harkins' River Rogues is a bit harder to take, being written in a sort of hillbilly dialect and reading perhaps more racist, in its portrayal of black Americans, than Zagat. The best of the stand-alone stories is Samuel W. Taylor's "Don't Laugh Now," despite a plot that must have been old already. An eccentric scientist and public gadfly with a reputation as a practical joker brazens his way through an authentically perilous situation because he assumes it's all being staged as a practical joke on him. Old the idea may be -- how old I can't say -- but Taylor makes it work by making the main character sufficiently likeable and simply by writing well. Robert W. Cochran contributes "Hero, Remember," which involves a disgraced plastic surgeon, a fugitive, and a pretty female, not to mention romance, renunciation and redemption. Kind of corny but not offensively so. Finally, western writer Bob Obets makes his Argosy debut with "Red Stallion," a tolerably brief piece about a young cowboy falsely accused of abusing horses.

You might think that Arthur Leo Zagat owns the word "Tomorrow" as far the Argosy is concerned, but Thedore Roscoe will prove you wrong next week as he begins a serial about undead soldiers from those European battlefields which, as this issue goes to press, are reawakening with a vengeance. Robert Carse also returns with a tale of Puritans and pirates while Philip Ketchum writes a western as part of another diverse lineup of periods and genres.

TO BE CONTINUED

Sunday, September 7, 2014

DVR Diary: GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING (1959)

Given all the sociopolitical subtext seething through it, I'm surprised that this film isn't talked about more in histories of westerns or Fifties films in general. But Good Day For a Hanging is blessed with neither a genre-master director nor a genre icon star. Instead, the director is Ray Harryhausen's occasional collaborator Nathan Juran (the producer is Harryhausen's sponsor Charles H. Schneer) and the star is Fred MacMurray. This is a Columbia B western, which actually puts it in the good company of Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher compared to the studio's actual C westerns. The script is adapted from John H. Reese's 1954 Saturday Evening Post story, though I don't know, having never read it, whether Reese or adapters Daniel B. Ullmann and Maurice Zimm deserve credit for the film's historic resonance. This western is a mirror of Greatest-Generation anxieties over whether they've done or are doing the right thing, or whether they'll get the credit or respect they deserve for doing it.

Ben Cutler (MacMurray) inherits a marshal's star after the lawman, his old friend, is killed while leading a posse in pursuit of bank robbers. Ben captures one of the gang, the youthful Eddie Campbell (Robert Vaughn), who killed the marshal. When Ben brings Eddie back into town some of the townsfolk want to lynch the bandit, but Ben stands up for the rule of law, determined to give Eddie a fair trial. Complicating his position is the crush Ben's daughter Laurie (Joan Blackman) has on the handsome outlaw, her childhood friend. In the audience's eyes, Ben has done the right thing, and since we saw objectively that Eddie had shot the marshal we expect no controversy, unless we recall that the movie still has something like an hour to go.

Somehow the town's ardor to hang Eddie cools over time, especially as the trial gets underway. A defense attorney, presumably hired by Eddie's at-large cohorts, casts doubt on the surviving posse members' ability to identify Eddie as the shooter in the confusion of the gun battle, but is unable to shake Ben Cutler from his (true) version of events. The lawyer's arrival introduces a discordant note of violence in Ben's stance. Claiming that Ben is eager to have Eddie hanged to keep the outlaw away from his daughter, the lawyer suffers a beatdown at Ben's hands before the trial even starts. Does Ben resent a lie or does the charge strike too close to home? The libel (?) hangs over him and spreads like a dark cloud as the jury convicts Eddie on Ben's testimony and the judge, despite Eddie's tearful plea for mercy, sentences the outlaw to hang. Now the worm has turned: having blocked the town's vindictiveness earlier, Ben now seems vindictive to almost everyone in town, including his new wife-to-be and his own daughter. The tension snaps when Ben discovers that Laurie had tried to smuggle a pistol (albeit empty) to Eddie in a meal she'd prepared for him. When she repeats the libel, he smacks her in the face.

The fact that the whole town turns against Ben suggests that Good Day For a Hanging has something more than the generation gap on its mind. For what it's worth, I don't think the film actually takes a stand for or against the death penalty. If Ben resents late attempts to spare Eddie's life, it's really only because he takes them personally as a reproach to himself. He never states explicitly that Eddie deserves death, and instead dutifully delivers a petition for clemency to the governor, who approves it. By that time, however, Eddie's cohorts have sprung him from prison, setting up a clarifying climax in which Eddie slaps Laurie down, disrespecting her devotion, before finally dying on the scaffold, though of lead rather than rope. Eddie's escape vindicates Ben, who is asked by contrite townsfolk to rethink his resignation. There's no High Noon finish here; Ben reclaims his star after reclaiming his authority in the eyes of the people. That gesture may make Good Day one of that small sub-genre of westerns that answer High Noon in one way or another. What it says on its own terms is interesting enough, however. It may not be too much of a stretch to see a Cold War metaphor at work, with Ben, like the U.S. as a whole, seeing himself as an embodiment of enlightened if not liberal values when he discourages lynching, yet seeing himself in the eyes of intimate critics as an oppressor if not a bully when he enforces order with force. Ben may embody that willingness to wage war, or simply kill, in defense of civilization that seems to belie civilization in the eyes of both idealists and cynics. Good Day makes more sense as a defense of that necessary resort to force than as a narrow defense of capital punishment, and if it strikes viewers as right-wing by taking the "authoritarian" or "patriarchal" side it's still worthwhile for evoking and addressing the anxieties of those who find their commitments increasingly thankless. As a plain old western it's a solid B movie from a studio that specialized in solid B westerns, as Quentin Tarantino acknowledged by claiming the vintage Columbia logo for Django Unchained. Juran is effective without being flashy and MacMurray is a good fit for the role, especially in retrospect after a generation playing the patriarch on TV. Vaughn is less successful in an early prominent role, mainly because the film stacks the deck against his character, denying the audience the townsfolks' prerogative to second-guess their attitude toward the outlaw. We never doubt that Eddie is a creep to the core, but if that costs the film some ambiguity we should remember that this is MacMurray's film, intended for audiences who'll identify with him. Good Day For a Hanging depends on your empathy with the star and main character, and MacMurray is good enough to earn that empathy and make this movie a modest success.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, SEPT. 2, 1939

This will be brief because I didn't give myself much time to read this particular issue of the venerable pulp weekly, though all of you can catch up with the whole thing at Unz.org. Sometimes you just have other things on your mind. I did read what are probably the two main stories of the Sept. 2 issue.

While the cover announces a new serial, which is actually only a two-parter, the illustration gives a scene from the lead novelet, E. Hoffman Price's "Guns For Ethiopia." You'll be happy to know that despite Mussolini's invasion in 1935 there was still resistance in that country to Italian occupation. Our hero is an American gunrunner who has to negotiate with a French colonial government and Arab traders to get those guns to Ethiopia. Also at stake, to some extent, is white prestige in the entire continent. At one point, when a French governor is trying to have our hero deported, he explains some of the legal manipulation in play by stating: "It would lower white prestige, you understand, if we had you deported on the testimony of natives."


As it happens, this story set in Africa is less gruesomely racist than one might fear, no doubt because Price sympathizes with the Ethiopians as against both the Italians and the French. He makes some effort to individualize some of the hero's black crew members, who as a group are portrayed as loyal, brave and competent. Most readers should be able to enjoy this exotic adventure story with a clear conscience.

 
 

The serial is Roy S. De Horn's, "Men With No Master," announced as the first of a series starring Robin the medieval bombardier. He's a young scholar-adventurer in 14th century England who falls in with outlaws in the "New Forest" while seeking Wat the Armorer, a famed crafter of weapons. The illustrations make the Masterless Men of the forest look very much like the Merry Men of another Robin from a century or so earlier, but the story is closer to steampunk in its embrace of technology. Among the characters crossing paths in the forest is a Jewish merchant who happens to be carrying a bombard, a device that makes Robin and Wat's fascination with high-powered crossbows look obsolete. That bombard will come in handy in the next (and final) chapter, when Robin and the Masterless Men will have to save Edward the Black Prince from the sort of kidnapping by a fictional villain that seems to be the destiny of historical personages in pulp fiction. The medieval setting suggests that De Horn may have been inspired by Philip Ketchum's ongoing series about the fated axe Bretwalda, which has lingered in medieval times for several stories now. There's even a Wilton in this story, that being the name of Ketchum's dynasty of axe-wielders, though we don't know yet what weapon De Horn's character favors.


Overall, counting the stories I skipped, this looks like a good, diverse issue, including more of Luke Short's western serial Hurricane Range and the second chapter of Fred MacIsaac and C. W. Harkins's River Rogues, a presumably rollicking tale narrated in dialect about swamp boaters. Richard Sale contributes the Navy story "Mosquito" while James A Kirch gives us the baseball tale "Ghost Ball." There's more besides, but obviously I have nothing to say about the rest. Fear not, since I've already read the September 9 issue from cover to cover and will have plenty to say about that, especially considering the cover feature: the next chapter of Arthur Leo Zagat's race-war "Tomorrow" series. That's an attraction all by itself.

TO BE CONTINUED

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

COP HATER (1958)

William Berke produced and directed the first two feature-length adaptations of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels before dying in February 1958. Cop Hater and The Mugger were released posthumously. McBain (aka Evan "Blackboard Jungle" Hunter) is credited with popularizing if not perfecting the police procedural genre in American literature. Movies had beaten him to the punch, a procedural genre being well defined by the release of He Walked By Night in 1949, seven years before McBain published Cop Hater. McBain's accomplishment was to sustain readers' interest in a precinct of police and their adventures over half a century, publishing new 87th Precinct novels until his death in 2005. I've read those first two books; they're page turners with the flavor of their era. The Cop Hater novel has more energy than Berke's movie, which was scripted by another popular crime novelist, Henry Kane. There are the usual arbitrary tweaks of adaptation: Steve Carella, the primus inter pares of McBain's ensemble, is renamed Carelli in the film; Carella's friend Hank Bush, one of the cop killer's victims, becomes Mike Maguire in the movie. Who knows why? The plot remains more or less intact, and on film comes across more like a noir than a procedural.



As you might have guessed, someone hates cops and is killing them. Three die in the course of the picture, including a token black officer. The 87th is challenged to find clues or figure out a pattern linking the murders. Meanwhile, Carelli (Robert Loggia) and Maguire (Gerald O'Laughlin) are on opposite personal trajectories. Maguire, something of a slob, seems to be losing his grip on his beautiful but bored wife Alice (Shirley Ballard) while Carelli is engaged to the magazine writer Teddy Franklin (Ellen Parker). Teddy seems like a sexist's dream woman: beautiful and intelligent in a way that doesn't impose upon you, since she happens to be deaf and mute -- a "dummy," as they said back then. We have to take the intelligence for granted since we don't see her at work and she communicates with her boyfriend not with American Sign Language but with pantomime signals the actress acquired, so the publicity tells us, through study with the deaf. See for yourself:

 

I can't help seeing a faint authoritarian streak in McBain ever since I read that he started a cop series because he decided private eyes shouldn't deal with murder cases. You might see that streak in the book and film's negative portrait of an irresponsible journalist who endangers Teddy by publicizing her relationship with Carelli after plying him with drinks to get a story about the murders. Cop Hater suffers as a procedural from this plot device, which resolves the mystery literally by bringing the killer to Carelli's, or rather Teddy's door. The procedural elements are most prominent in a scene where a forensics expert explains how one of the cop victims was able to get crucial clues about the killer simply by scratching him before dying. The final twist to the plot isn't exactly alien to the procedural, since the genre depends on a random assemblage of scattered puzzle pieces rather than a domino theory of ingenious deduction, but it also reinforces the noir feeling of the movie, which Berke conveys not in spite of but to some extent because of a certain poverty of style that effectively expresses a certain poverty of existence for low-income cops and frustrated wives in those primitive times before air conditioning was common. There's something authentically abject about the sight of O'Laughlin lounging in his underwear and swilling beer on a hot summer night. There's also an adequate amount of location work to establish the 87th's seedy milieu.

 

Along with the young Loggia, who makes a plausible Carell(i) and really deserved another crack at the role, you'll see a relatively young Vince Gardenia as a stoolie and a very young Jerry Orbach in his first credited role as a spokesman for the local youth gang. Ballard and Parker are attractive in their respectively forbidding and innocent fashions. But the film as a whole doesn't quite do McBain justice, and it's understandable that this first attempt at a film series didn't outlive William Berke, while the novels kept on coming, inspiring Akira Kurosawa (High and Low) and others to give them different degrees of cinematic life.