Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MOVIE: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” starring Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton

Critics say the decade of 1970s was a golden age of movies. Newcomers were given a chance to do the stories they wanted, and commercially doubtful films found their way to the screen because the filmmakers believed in them.

But, having read Charles Willeford’s novel, Cockfighter, I had to wonder why anyone wanted to turn it into a motion picture? Did they expect audiences to flock to the theaters to see it. (Sorry about the bad pun there.)

“Cockfighter," the 1974 movie, was directed by Monte Hellman, a quirky filmmaker who directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns in the 1960s, and who made the terrific “Two-Lane Blacktop” in 1971. “Cockfighter” was produced by the dean of low-budget movies, Roger Corman. It starred Warren Oates, a very good actor, who proves it again here. Also in the cast were Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Troy Donahue, Ed Begley, Jr., Laurie Bird, and Charles Willeford, the author himself, in a surprisingly big supporting role as the referee of the fights.

All those people made me want to see the movie. But before watching it, I read the book.

I found the novel jaw-dropping in its violence. The movie follows the book very closely. Willeford wrote the script himself and the fights are as they were in his novel. But, without the gory descriptions Willeford detailed in the book. The documentary-style footage of roosters fighting mostly looks like a lot of wings flapping and feathers flying about. Still, it is pretty brutal stuff.

Aside from the fights – which look real – the story of Frank Mansfield doing everything he can to be the top owner and trainer of gamecocks is quite good, better than the book, which is due to Oates, a likeable actor. His scenes with the other trainers, his brother and a woman who wants to marry him are well done, if very slow by today’s standards. Movies back then took their time and allowed an audience to observe the characters, unlike today when too many movies feel rushed and choppy.

Oates, Stanton and the other actors were very good in their low-key, naturalistic performances, which fit the style of the film. Hellman seems to have used a lot of non-actors and it all blends together very well. But be warned, this movie is pretty tough to take, even for a fan of Hellman, Corman, Oates and company.

(For movie posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog)

Friday, October 14, 2016

FFB: Cockfighter by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford’s brutal 1972 novel, Cockfighter, can be read as an indictment of the sport in which two roosters are pitted against each other in a fight to the death with razor-sharp metal spurs attached to their feet.

Frank Mansfield is a Florida-based bird trainer, handler and gambler who, when we meet him, is fixing a cock fight by handicapping his chicken. I will not say how he is doing this and only note that those first few pages will give any reader a horrifying heads up of what to expect in the rest of the book.

During the tournament season, Frank travels around the southern U.S., entering his birds into matches and betting on the outcomes. While cockfighting is now illegal in all 50 states, when Willeford wrote the novel, it existed in a shadow world, technically illegal, but still a popular sport.

Willeford tells his story in a blunt, matter-of-fact style using Frank as his first-person narrator. But, too much of the book reads like a how-to manual on the care and feeding of gamecocks, peppered with flashes of shocking violence.

The novel also meanders off into Frank’s affair with a wealthy woman and his returning to his hometown to have a quick roll in the hay with a country girl who always hoped to marry him. Those sections are not surprising after reading Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, about two dislikable characters. Frank is a pretty dislikable guy, but I will grudgingly say this for him, he is very good at his job.

The blow-by-blow descriptions of the many fights also make Cockfighter a difficult book to get through. But it is the author’s skill, and Willeford (1919-1988) was a very skillful writer, that kept me hanging in there to find out what happened to Frank and his champion rooster in the big, final match.

(To read about other forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Serial-killer film: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Part mystery, part western, part slasher film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a good little picture from 1976.

Based on a true story, the movie is about a killer targeting young couples around Texarkana, a city on the border of Texas and Arkansas.

In 1946, a man described as big and “strong as hell,” assaulted and in some cases killed young couples parked at night on dark, deserted roads.

The movie opens in a semi-documentary style with an authoritative-sounding narrator setting the time and place. It then moves into horror film territory, when a man wearing a sack with eyeholes cut out stalks and attacks the couples. It then crosses over into a detective story when the local police, baffled by the case, call in a noted Texas lawman, played by Ben Johnson, to lead the investigation. Despite his efforts to protect the town and close in on the killer, the murders and attempted murders continue.

One of the intended victims is played by Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island” fame. She is listed on the channel guide as co-starring with Johnson, but her part, unfortunately, is very small.

Johnson lends an air of authority and class to the low-budget film. In 1971, he appeared in “The Last Picture Show,” in a part that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Others in the cast include Andrew Prine and Charles B. Pierce who also directed the picture. In 1972, Pierce’s first film, “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” was a low-budget hit.

Films like this were once hard to find, but “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” not only ran recently on Turner Classic Movies, but also is here on YouTube.

(For more overlooked films, see Todd Mason's blog.) 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

FFB: Old Hellcat by T.T. Flynn

Until this summer, T.T. Flynn was unknown to me. But after reading James Reasoner’s review of The Man from Nowhere, Flynn went to the top of my list of authors to read.

In 2002, Leisure Books published a paperback collection of three short western novels by Flynn – Gallows Breed, Old Hellcat, The Devil’s Lode – and called the book The Devil’s Lode. By chance, I found a used copy of it and dug in. The character of Shack Anderson in Old Hellcat grabbed me from the first paragraph and that is where I started.

Shack is an irascible, funny old cuss at the opening of the story. He does not like being old and he does not like being retired, although retirement was his own doing when he decided to give the cattle ranch he built up over decades to his daughter and her mild-mannered husband to run. The introduction to Shack, sizing himself up and talking to himself in a hotel room in town, comes to an end quickly when a woman he has known since his days as a hell-raising young cowboy and her days as a young dance-hall girl arrives with news. She tells Shack that trouble is brewing for his daughter and son-in-law.

A no-good, land-grabbing, cattle-rustling neighbor of Shack’s is trying to muscle his family off their land. On hearing this, Shack, the grumpy old goat, straps on his guns and, feeling young again, heads out to handle things himself.

The plot of Old Hellcat sounds pretty standard when summarized, but what makes this novel go is Flynn’s skill as a storyteller. The man was a master at launching a story quickly, painting brief but vivid word pictures of characters and situations, and handling action.

Flynn (1902–1979) wrote short stories and short novels for the western magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Old Hellcat, which today would be considered a novella, was first published in the March 7, 1936 edition of Argosy.

Since buying this book, I found a copy of Flynn's 1954 novel, The Man from Laramie, so I will be reading more Flynn stories soon.

Anyone interested in reading or writing action stories should get to know the work of T.T. Flynn.

(For more forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Friday, September 30, 2016

FFB: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is hardly a forgotten book. This famous collection of a dozen Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been so popular that it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1892.

The forgotten part, for me, was the edition of this book that I read as a kid.

A few days ago, Patti Abbott, on her blog, asked the question: “Who were the first adult crime fiction writers you read?”

Right off the bat, I knew the first was Conan Doyle, and the book was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was hooked on Holmes after reading the first story, “The Red-Headed League.”

But “The Red-Headed League” is not the first story in the collection. So how did I come to read it first?

Traditionally, the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are:

“A Scandal in Bohemia”

“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League”

“A Case of Identity”

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”

“The Five Orange Pips”

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

“The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb”

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

Still, I was sure “The Red-Headed League” was my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. I could not check the book because I have not seen it in years. One of my siblings might have it, and I’ll bet I know which one – the one who saved all the board games we had as kids.

A quicker way to find it than rummaging around in an attic, is rummaging around on the Internet. And that is what I did. There, I found the book, identified by the cover art of Cheslie D’Andrea (pictured here).

This version of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, put out by Whitman Publishing, was an abbreviated collection in that it contained only eight of the Holmes stories:

"The Red-Headed League"

"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"

"The Five Orange Pips"

"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"

"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"

"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"

"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"

"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

Whitman, I learned, was part of Western Publishing of Racine, Wisconsin, a company that also published Golden Books for young children.

How this particular book first came into my hands, I do not know, but it made me a lifelong Holmes fan.

And, by the way, "The Red-Headed League," which I reread for this post, is even better than I remembered it.

(For more forgotten books, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

MOVIE: Noirish crime film Shield for Murder

Old Hollywood could not produce a film with a lead character like Barney Nolan, at least not the Barney Nolan of William P. McGivern’s 1951 novel Shield for Murder.

In the book, Philadelphia police detective Barney Nolan is a bad cop who hits rock bottom. In the 1954 movie, “Shield for Murder," Barney Nolan, as played by star and co-director Edmond O’Brien, is a complex man, not particularly good or bad, just human, who makes a series of bad – really bad – decisions and goes down the moral drain.

Both book and movie start with Nolan killing a bookie in order to rob the man and then claiming it was an accident, a warning shot gone wild. Nolan, in both versions wants the money to win a girl.

In the book, Nolan needs the money to lavish expensive jewelry on a nightclub singer who has no romantic feelings for him. In the movie, he wants the money to marry a nightclub cigaret girl, buy a small house in the suburbs, move there and live his own vision of the American dream.

Characters like Nolan who make criminal choices for women are a staple of film noir. In the hands of a director like Fritz Lang or Anthony Mann, this movie could have been a great addition to that genre. But as it is, “Shield for Murder” does not reach that level. Still, it is not a bad little crime picture.

The movie might get a better grade from me if I had not read the McGivern novel right before seeing it. (A post about McGivern’s book is here.)

Aside from Nolan’s motivation to commit murder, there is another interesting difference between the book and the movie. In the book, the man who starts suspecting Nolan is a murderer is Mark Brewster, a young newspaper reporter. In the movie, Mark Brewster is Nolan’s police partner. The change may have been dictated by the old Hollywood production code.

O’Brien, who co-directed with producer Howard W. Koch, may have miscast himself in the movie. Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum could play hard guys on the edge and capable of going over to the dark side. In McGivern’s book, Nolan is a big, violent thug who scares the hell out of everyone. The movie’s Barney Nolan is a softer, almost sympathetic guy, thanks to O’Brien’s personality and skill as an actor. (O’Brien deserves a post about his career.)

As Nolan's partner, actor John Agar is wooden and not nearly as good as he was in his first film - John Ford’s “Fort Apache.” Also in the cast is the great, gruff Emile Meyer as a captain of detectives who also suspects Nolan. The cigaret girl is played by Marla English, who did a handful of films in the 1950s. Carolyn Jones has a nice supporting role as a woman in a bar trying to pick up Barney Nolan. Others in the cast who became regulars on TV are Claude Akins, William Schallert and Richard Deacon.

Overall, “Shield for Murder” is an OK picture, but the book is a lot better.

(For more posts on movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

FFB: Shield for Murder by William P. McGivern

The first sentence of Shield for Murder is a grabber:

“The man Nolan planned to kill came out of an all-night taproom about one o’clock in the morning.”

William P. McGivern really knew how to get a crime novel up and running.

In this 1951 book, Barny Nolan is a Philadelphia police detective who got on the force and rose through the ranks by luck and political connections. In his youth, he was the muscle behind a district boss. Now pushing 40, Nolan is still violent with a built-up resentment for anyone with money, anyone with power, and anyone in his way. He kills the man who comes out of the taproom, a bookie, so he can steal his bankroll. Nolan needs money to impress a nightclub singer, but is unaware that she has no interest in him. In the bookie’s pocket is a huge wad of cash belonging to a local racketeer. Taking it does not worry Nolan. He figures that as a cop he can derail any investigation and get away with it.

But nothing ever goes smoothly for Barny Nolan.

Not only does the gangster find out he took the money, but also a young newspaper reporter, Mark Brewster, suspects Nolan of murdering the bookie.

Brewster starts putting a case together against Nolan, but runs into resistance from the cops when he tries to tell them that one of their own is a bad guy. He also makes a target of himself when Nolan learns Brewster is investigating him.

McGivern paints a dark, seedy picture of the City of Brotherly Love. How accurate a picture, I cannot say having only visited Philadelphia a couple of times as a tourist, eating cheesesteak sandwiches, visiting the Liberty Bell, and, yes, running up the steps of the art museum with a couple of my young nephews. (No, I did not raise my hands like Rocky. But they did). McGivern’s Philadelphia felt genuine through his descriptions of the neighborhoods, the police precincts, and the taprooms. (By the way, can anyone from Philly tell me what a taproom is, or was? Was it a small pub? Was it a bar that only served beer?)

For a while, William P. McGivern was a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia and several of his crime novels were set there. Shield for Murder and other McGivern books like Odds Against Tomorrow, The Big Heat, and Rogue Cop were made into Hollywood movies. McGivern died in 1982 at age 63.

(An earlier post on McGivern’s novel The Crooked Frame is here.)

(For more forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

MOVIE: Bank heist film The Lookout

Last weekend, I caught up with a nicely done little heist movie from 2007 called “The Lookout”

In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a former high school athlete, who suffers a serious brain injury in a car crash. Employed as a night janitor for a local bank in his small, Midwestern town, he hopes his condition improves enough to get a teller’s job with the bank. But his injury makes that goal nearly impossible since his short-term memory is damaged.

Some local dirtbags get the bright idea of befriending Chris and recruiting him to help them rob the bank.

This deliberately paced movie is quite involving as we get to know more about Chris’s guilt at causing the car crash which killed and injured his buddies and girlfriend, and his frustrations with his current condition.

There are two outstanding supporting characters in the picture. One is the blind man, played by Jeff Daniels, who shares his apartment with Chris and who helps Chris with his recovery. The other is the head bad guy played by Matthew Goode, who makes the initial contact with Chris and becomes his new best friend.

The cast also includes Isla Fisher as a former stripper who gets involved with Chris, and Sergio Di Zio as a goodhearted deputy sheriff.

“The Lookout” was written and directed by Scott Frank.

This 99-minute film is well worth a look.

(For more film and television posts, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Monday, September 12, 2016

MOVIE: Noir prison-break picture Canon City

Released in 1948, “Canon City” is a modestly-budgeted prison picture with several things going for it.

First, this docu-noir film is based on a true story from 1927 in which a gang of convicts broke out of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility at Canon City, Colorado. Part of the movie was filmed at the prison and around Canon City (which should be called Canyon City according to the Spanish spellings used there). Built in 1871, in the harsh landscape of rocky, treeless hills, the CTCF is still there and is the oldest prison in the state. Photos Googled up show a stone structure with guard towers that looks more like a movie set than a real place.

Next, the star of the picture is a young Scott Brady. Brady in real life was the tall, tough brother of tall tough actor Lawrence Tierney who was the tough old gang leader in “Reservoir Dogs.” Brady’s character is forced to participate in the prison break. Once on the outside, he does all he can to keep the others from killing anyone or harming local residents.

Next, there are a couple of sequences that make “Canon City” a thriller. One scene would have done Alfred Hitchcock proud. The men who bust out of prison, split up and because it is winter, and because they need a sure way out of the area, the men barge into several homes looking to steal guns, cars and food. In one sequence, a group of cons holds a family hostage and demands food. The old granny goes into the kitchen to fix them something to eat and while there and out of sight of the baddies, she must decide whether to feed them or to bash in the ringleader’s head with a hammer. It’s a great scene.

And last, the film was photographed by John Alton, the great cinematographer of so many moody black and white noir films like "The Scar" from the same year.

“Canon City” was written and directed by Crane Wilber and produced by Bryan Foy. Also in the cast were Jeff Corey, Whit Bissell, and DeForest Kelly, 18 years before he played Doc McCoy on “Star Trek.”

(For more posts on film and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, September 1, 2016

FFB: The Mystery of the Stolen Hats

The 1939 novel, The Mystery of the Stolen Hats, is a humorous story that starts with a missing American, leads to a murder, then to a suspicious death, and all the while weaving in a story about a hat thief.

Superintendent William “Big Bill” Stevens of Scotland Yard, is asked as a favor by a high ranking official to get a line on an American businessman who was scheduled to arrive in England but never showed up. Stevens tracks the man’s movements to France.

Arriving in Paris, Stevens is met by his old friend, Inspector Pierre Allain of the Sûreté Nationale. The robust French detective says he will help his stoic British counterpart look for the American and assures him they will find the man in no time. But first, they must dine together. Pierre Allain is fond of fine food. He also claims to be the best detective as well as the greatest lover in all of France.

Author Bruce Graeme takes a bit of pleasure in poking fun at the volatile French inspector. He also shows Allain is an excellent detective.

Before Stevens and Allain can get started on the manhunt, two things happen. An older woman is murdered and her servants, her beautiful adult daughter, and the daughter’s mysterious friend are all suspects. Equally troubling for Allain, someone steals his favorite hat. Men’s hats are being stolen all around Paris and Pierre Allain is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Into this crazy mix of storylines come two more detectives. There is Floquet, Pierre Allain’s arch rival from the Préfecture of Police. It seems the national Sûreté and the Paris based Préfecture have overlapping jurisdiction. The fourth is B.Y. Heck, from Pinkerton’s in the United States, who was hired by the American’s wife to find her husband.

Much of the fun of The Mystery of the Stolen Hats is watching the four detectives deal with each other while trying to find the murderer, search for the missing American and locate Pierre Allain’s hat.

Graeme wrote a leisurely yet well-paced story which judging by the ancient library copy that was located and shipped to my public branch must have been very popular in its day. Almost every page was dog-eared, many of them bent two and three times, some folded so often that librarians of the past had to apply clear tape to hold the corners together. One page had tape over a cigaret burn that made a small hole and a brown spot on the following three pages.

The Mystery of the Stolen Hats was mentioned recently by John Norris on his blog Pretty Sinister Books and that spurred me to find the book. Now, I look forward to tracking down some of the other seven or eight Stevens-Allain novels Graeme wrote between 1931 and about 1940. I suspect the seriousness of World War 2 made writing more lighthearted books impossible.

Bruce Graeme was one of the pen names of the English writer, Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), who turned out more than 60 novels. The figure might be closer to 80. Information on-line about Graeme is sketchy, brief and hard to find.

His books are also hard to find. Hopefully, a publisher will look into reprinting the entire Stevens-Allain series, and I hope the others are as much fun to read as The Mystery of the Stolen Hats.

(For more forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.)