Being that two later Ladd & Lake team-ups, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia, are among my favorite mystery films, I'm amazed it took me so long to get around to this one. The main attraction of the others, of course, were the Hammett and Chandler connections, but I enjoyed the performances - and interaction - of these two, too.
So now I've seen it. I can't call This Gun for Hire (1942) a great film, because the plot relies on some credulity-stretching coincidences. But I don't really care, because I can call it great entertainment. It was just plain fun to watch.
On the poster above, Veronica got top billing, while Ladd came in fourth. The film's opening credits say "Introducing Alan Ladd," implying he just fell off the turnip truck and found himself in Hollywood. Actually, he'd already spent ten years in the business and appeared in over forty films. But many of those earlier roles were uncredited, and others of little consequence. This Gun for Hire was his big break, and he took advantage of it in a big way.
Ladd's performance as the cold-blooded contract killer "Raven" is both chilling and convincing. And surprisingly, as Lake gets under his skin and puts him on a path toward redemption, that's convincing too. Unlike earlier movie sociopaths, Raven has no grudge against society, he's simply a child who got older and taller without anyone giving a damn about him.
Another great thing about this film is that it showed me a new side of Veronica Lake. Sure, she was slinky and alluring in The Blue Dahlia and The Glass Key, but in this one she also gets to lip-sync a song and have a little fun. Check her out as a singing magician in the video clip above.
The two lobby cards below (both staged scenes, not in the film) provide a fair idea of the story's driving forces. In the first, Ladd wants to kill Laird Cregar, a suspected traitor who hired him for a killing, then framed him for a robbery. Lake wants to restrain him, because she's an amateur federal agent who wants evidence against Cregar's boss.
The next card represents the other side of the plot. Lake and police detective Robert Preston are hot to get married, and Ladd makes things difficult by taking Lake as a temporary hostage.
When the film was rereleased three years later, Ladd had become a star, and was billed even above Veronica Lake. Posters and lobby cards like those below hint at a romance between the two, but moviegoers seeking heat were likely disappointed.
The smooch above is strictly sisterly, and relationship that builds between the two is simply friendship. What makes it so powerful is that Lake is the first friend Ladd-Raven has ever had.
In the story "Branham’s Due" (reviewed HERE), Richard Prosch introduced us to Deputy Sheriff Whit Branham and several other citizens, good and bad, of Holt County, Nebraska. Well, the plot thickens and the characterizations deepen in his new novella, Holt County Law.
The trouble begins when Whit's friend the sheriff is gunned down in a saloon by a young psychopath named Billy Slade. Whit tracks Slade down, and resists killing him only at the insistence of other close friends.
A year later, Whit has cause to regret that resistance, when Slade returns to Holt Country - and to his murderous ways. And Slade’s not the only bad man on the scene. With the new sheriff mysteriously absent, Whit finds himself up against a well-organized gang of horse thieves.
This time we meet a much wider cast of characters, all of them nicely drawn, but it’s wise to get to attached to them. There’s just no telling who’s going to make it out of the story alive. And as you can expect in a Richard Prosch tale, the prose is tough and laconic. Here are a couple of passages I especially liked:
This dialogue is between Whit Branham and his friends Ezrie and Indian chief Yellow Horse.
“Leave it to Indians to kill each other over a woman,” said Whit. “White men don’t kill each other for women?” said the chief. “Heck, no, Chief. We don’t need reasons to kill each other,” said Whit. “Not that I can’t think up a few,” said Ezrie. “Me, too,” said Whit.
And this, after Whit and Ezrie have nailed a couple of Slade’s accomplices:
“Do you figure Slade for the ringleader?” said Ezrie. Whit shook his head. “Not really. He doesn’t seem the type.” “Yeah, from what I seen of him, admitted that’s precious little, he doesn’t seem much brighter than these other two ass biscuits,” Ezrie said.
There’s sure to be more great action coming from Richard Prosch and Holt County. I suggest you jump on the wagon now, so you’ll be ready for it. Right now, both Branham's Due and Holt County Law are only 99 cents. And while you're at, check out Mr. P's earlier works, Devil's Nest and Meadows Ford Blues.
This one brings back a lot of memories. At the time it was published in 1981, I had known Lance Casebeer, the "King of Paperbacks," for two or three years, become a regular attendee of the backyard paperbackalooza called LanceCon, and - because I lived nearby, dropped in at many another time to marvel at his basement-to-second story collection of every paperback book published in American between 1939 and 1959 (and beyond).
In short, I didn't need this book. I was practically living it. That magic died in 2003 - along with Lance - but the book lives on, and it's still packed cover-to-cover with some truly amazing information.
Paperbacks, U.S.A. (the U.S. title) was also published - at almost the same time - in Britain as The Book of Paperbacks. I have both editions, and everything inside the covers (including the endpapers) is identical.
It begins with a history of the paperback, paying special attention to the major vintage houses of Pocket Books, Avon, Penguin, Popular Library, Dell, Bantam and Signet.There's a lengthy section on cover art, including details on how it was produced and interviews with the artists. There's a year-by-year chronology listing milestones in the industry, and putting them in context with the "real" world.
And there's more: An overview of every U.S. publisher and imprint of the period, lists of the first hundred books issued by each major publisher, and a thirty-page encyclopedia detailing who was who in producing cover art.
If you're at all intrigued with vintage paperbacks, or the history of book publishing in America, you can't go wrong with this one. Bill Crider collectors take note! You'll want this, too, because his name appears twice - in the Index and in the Bibliography.
This week's links to Forgotten Books appear at SWEET FREEDOM. Next week you'll find them right here on the Almanack.
After seeing (and enjoying) the Orson Welles flick The Stranger recently (review HERE), this one snagged my attention when it turned up on cable.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed Touch of Evil quite a bit less, but all the weird trivia associated with the film almost made up for it. I should note that the version I saw was the 1998 re-editing of the film, intended to hew closer to Welles' original vision than the version released in 1958.
The hero of the picture, Charlton Heston, is supposed to be a Mexican narcotics officer honeymooning on the border with his American bride Janet Leigh. Having incurred the wrath of a Mexican crime family (by sending the head of the family to far-off Mexico City to stand trial) he incurs the wrath of a corrupt American police captain played by Orson Welles. For the rest of the film, the crime family and Welles do their best to put the touch of evil on Mr. and Mrs. Heston, and give them some pretty hairy moments.
On the plus side, the film opens with an impressive street scene involving multiple tracking shots, and conveys an almost 3-D effect. Welles makes his usual great use of light and shadow - made more effective because the film was shot in black and white. Music is used to great effect: I've never seen a film where rock and roll made scenes so menacing, or jazz made them seems so bizarre. Marlene Dietrich adds class to several scenes. And Dennis Weaver pops up as a somewhat demented motel clerk.
On the negative side, Heston is thoroughly unconvincing as a Mexican (he probably wasn't even convinced himself, because the original story - the 1956 novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson - called for him to play an American, and his bride to be Mexican). Welles, though he chews up and spits out every scene he's in, is gross, disgusting and contemptible. When he's not drunk he's just plain weird. Janet Leigh, while nice to look at, is on hand simply to be menaced (though she does get the hell menaced out of her). And Dennis Weaver's demented charm quickly wears off, making him simply annoying.
There's much more to the story, of course, but it's much less interesting than what was going on behind the scenes.
First off, Heston signed on believed Welles was going to direct. Welles, who didn't want to do the movie at all, but was forced by contract obligations, had been signed merely to act, but agreed to direct to keep Heston happy. It was Welles who turned Heston's character from American to Mexican and Janet Leigh's from Mexican to American, and moved the setting from a small California town to the Mexican border.
Welles wore pounds of make-up and prosthetics to turn him into the quivering mass of flesh he portrayed. Welles hired Dennis Weaver because he admired his work on Gunsmoke, but told Weaver he wanted his character to be sort of the opposite of Chester. Janet Leigh accepted a low salary merely for the opportunity to work with Welles. She broke her arm before filming started, and wore a disguised cast throughout the picture. Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as favors to Welles, without the studio's knowledge, and did not expect to receive screen credit. Among those making genuinely uncredited appearances were Joseph Cotton, Mercedes Cambridge and Keenan Wynne.
Welles was fired as director before post-production work was finished, and the studio brought in other directors to film new scenes, diverging from Welles' vision for the film. He wrote them a memo requesting changes - which they ignored - but that memo was the basis for this 1998 re-editing of the film.
I'll be updating this post as more reviews appear. If I miss yours, please let me know here - or at email@example.com.
AND HERE'S MINE:
CLUES: Focus on Pulp Detective Fiction
OK, this is technically a magazine, not a book. But it looks like a book, feels like a book and reads like a book, and I'm sort of prejudiced because I have an article in it, so I'm cutting it some slack.
This Fall/Winter 1981 issue of CLUES leads off with four scholarly articles with titles like "The Detective as Therapist" and "A Dream of Reason" by folks I've no doubt were (or still are) respected scholars in the field. But I have to admit I never paid any attention to that stuff. For me, the mag began on page 38 and ran all the way to page 153. This was the special "Indepth Section on Pulp Detective Fiction" edited by E.R. Hagemann. I read and enjoyed every word of that section, and have referred back to it several times over the years.
At the time, Prof. Hagemann was working on his book A Comprehensive Index to Black Mask, 1920-1951, and had made a lot of contacts in the world of detective pulps. He gathered many of those contacts together here, to produce what I believe is STILL one of the best single volumes on the subject.
Here's the line-up:
A Walk in the Pulpwoods: Random Recollections by William F. Nolan (this being a memoir about growing up reading pulps and beginning his career at the tail end of the era)
Ante-Bellem Days or "My Roscoe Sneezed Ka-Chee" by Bill Pronzini (a study of Robert Leslie Bellem's Dan Turner, including a selection of some of his most outrageous language)
Break It Up! by Robert Leslie Bellem (a brief article on how to write for the pulps, reprinted from a 1944 issue of Writer's Digest)
More Mystery for a Dime: Street & Smith and the First Pulp Detective Magazine by J. Randolph Cox (an introduction to and history of Street & Smith's Detective Story)
Life as a Series of Abstract Analyses by Robert Sampson (an indepth study of T.S. Stribling's Dr. Poggioli series)
The Barbless Arrow by Herman Peterson (a complete story reprinted in facsimile from Action Stories)
Ho-Hoh to Satan: Detective Fiction Weekly's Nutty Series Heroes of the 1930s by Bernard A. Drew (and yes, this group included Richard Sale's Daffy Dill and Carroll John Daly's Satan Hall)
"There's No Sex in Crime": The Two-Fisted Homilies of Race Williams by Michael S. Baron
The Ambulating Lady by Carroll John Daly (a how to write for the pulps piece from Writer's Digest, 1947)
The Backbone of Black Mask by Dave Lewis (me in a former life) (a short bio and study of Frederick Nebel's detective fiction)
Lester Dent, the Last of Joe Shaw's Black Mask Boys by Will Murray
Including Murder: An Unpublished Hammett Collection by Robert S. Powell (the rundown on a story collection Hammett considered assembling back in 1925)
Cap Shaw and his "Great Regular Fellows": The Making of The Hard-Boiled Omnibus, 1945-1946 by E.R. Hagemann.
Some of these are Overlooked Films, some Films I've Overlooked, some Films That Deserve to Be Overlooked, and a few are Films That Continue to be Overlooked, because I still haven't seen them. As you might expect, you'll find detectives, cowboys, pirates, gangsters, pulp heroes, comic book heroes, comic strip heroes, cartoon characters and monsters. There's even a dog and a war criminal. Something for almost every peculiar taste.
Each date is a link to the post. Let your mouse be your guide.