Friday, October 28, 2011

Forgotten Books: Dead Dolls Don't Talk, Hunt the Killer and Too Hot to Hold by Day Keene

To me, Day Keene was always just a name I’d see (A LOT) between Hammett and Latimer on second-hand paperback shelves. No more. Thanks to a new triple-threat reissue from Stark House Press, Day Keene is now a name I respect, and will be on the lookout for.

In the book’s introduction, David Laurence Wilson links Keene to Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington. Though Keene was older, the three men were friends and drinking buddies, and explored similar dark themes in their novels. I have a lot of books by those guys, along with other hardboiled non-detective writers like Jim Thompson and David Goodis, but just never got around to reading them. Now, thanks to Keene, I’ll be digging into them too.

These three novels comprise a great sampler of Keene’s talents. The first novel is in third person, almost exclusively from one point of view. The second is narrated in first person by the (perceived) bad guy. And the last is in third person, with POV alternating between several characters. The narration is smooth and tight, the dialogue sharp, and the suspense always mounting. These are stories that charge you up and keep you buzzing all the way to the end.

Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, a Crest Books original from 1959, opens with a guy awakening to find his bedmate missing and the room splattered with blood. I expected to see him on the lam for the rest of the book, trying to clear himself. Instead, Keene takes an unexpected turn. We cut to the murder trail, where one of the jurors, a respected Hollywood drug store owner, helps get the guy convicted. Then, before the druggist makes it home from the courtroom, he finds himself framed for the murder of the convicted guy’s wife. So the rest of the book finds him on the lam trying to clear himself - and, in the process, the guy he helped convict.

Hunt the Killer appeared in 1951 as both a Phantom Books digest (shown) and an Avon paperback. In this one we meet Charlie White, a fishing boat captain just being released from the joint after serving time (justly) for smuggling. Charlie’s conflicted. He wants to reconnect with wife if she’ll have him. But he has a yen for his mistress, a hot little number from Habana, and craves revenge on the guy he blames for his stretch in prison - a mysterious gent known only as Senor Peso. And he just can’t get a break. The hot little number is brutally murdered, and before he can clear his wits Charlie is being hunted by every lawman in the South, including his former best friend.

Much as I enjoyed the first two novels, may favorite was Too Hot to Hold, a Gold Medal entry from 1959. What’s “too hot to hold” is a package containing $200,000 of mob money. A nineteen year old wanna-be actress lost it, an unhappily-married professional translator finds it, and Chicago’s top mobster - a holdover from the Capone era - will stop at nothing to get it back.

Near as I can tell, this is Stark House’s second Keene collection. Now I’ll have to track down the first, containing Framed in Guilt, My Flesh is Sweet and an intro by Ed Gorman.

Cullen Gallagher reviewed Dead Dolls Don’t Talk/Hunt the Killer/Too Hot to Hold a couple three weeks ago over at Pulp Serenade. You’ll find his take on it HERE.

For info on this and other fine books, visit the STARK HOUSE PRESS site.

And watch for a complete Day Keene pulp story, coming soon to the Almanack!

Forgotten Books is a PATTI ABBOTT production. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Overlooked Films: The Thin Man TV series (1958-59)

While digging through boxes in my storage unit the other day, I came across tapes of a few old episodes of The Thin Man TV series. I remember recording these ten or so years ago, when TNT occasionally showed one in the middle of the night. Well, being in a Hammett frame of mind, I naturally hauled them home for another look-see.

After watching three episodes, all from early in the first season, I was ready to write them off as terrible. As Nick, Peter Lawford displayed all the humor and charm of a clothes dummy. He seemed to be sleep-walking through the part, delivering his lines in a dull monotone and never cracking a smile. Phyllis Kirk (whom I remember best as TV's first Lois Lane - Oops, my mistake. See comments.) seemed to be at least trying to display a personality, but she too fell flat. The only comic relief came from the antics of Asta, by far the best actor of the three.

But I had several more episodes, so I tried one more. And struck gold. (Well, maybe not gold, but at least silver.) The episode is called “The Cat Kicker,” and came from late in the second - and final - season, in 1959.

Somehow, Lawford and Kirk have grown personalities. They smile, they tell jokes, they make faces at each other, and Lawford ever does some William Powell-like physical gags. It’s as if the director forced them to watch one of the Powell-Loy Thin Man movies and said, “Now, do that!”

Lawford and Kirk are nowhere near as good as Powell and Loy, of course, but in this episode they’re trying hard, and for the first time I could actually think of them as Nick and Nora. It didn’t hurt that Don Rickles was one of the guest stars, playing a cabbie, but there was enough comedy without him. And I don’t remember Asta appearing at all.

As for the story, no cats are kicked. Rickles the cabbie delivers a babe wearing nothing but a nightgown and fur coat to the Charles’ apartment because she’s lost her memory, and he thinks Nick can help her (or at least pay the cab fee). She, naturally, gets flirty with Nick, and Nora gets jealous. A sub-plot, which of course dovetails with the amnesiac plot, involves Nick and Nora auctioning off a day of their services for charity.

So. I now know the entire series didn’t suck, and I’ll be watching the rest of my episodes hoping for another gem. What I want to know now is - why isn’t this series available on DVD? It ran for 72 episodes, and even at it’s worst, it’s good as some of the dreck now being reissued.

More Overlooked Films at SWEET FREEDOM.

A fan visits the Thin Man set.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Forgotten Books: High Priest of California by Charles Willeford

This was my first Charles Willeford book. And by no coincidence, it was also Charles Willeford’s first book. I’ve always identified more with authors than with their characters, so whenever possible I like to start at the beginning.

I had no idea what to expect. But I knew it was set in San Francisco, I knew I’d be meeting Willeford biographer Don Herron while visiting that burg, and knew I’d be spending a fair amount of time resting my feet and legs in the hotel room. And since I’d reread most of Hammett’s SF stuff in the weeks leading up to the trip, High Priest of California seemed the natural choice to take along.

Natural is a good word for it. The book is narrated in breezy, unaffected fashion by a sleazy car salesman named Russell Haxby. The title comes from a line of dialogue delivered by a supporting character.

     “I know all about guys like you, Russell. You’re the High-Priest of California. That isn’t original with me. It was a caption in Life about the used car salesmen of California. Did you see it?” 
     I shook my head. “I’m afraid not, but it makes a good caption.” 
     “And it fits.”

Russell’s one and only goal is a bed a reasonably good-looking babe who’s playing hard to get. The reason for the act, we soon discover, is that she’s hiding a mentally unbalance husband in her apartment. She wants to cheat on him, but struggling with guilt.

At that point, I thought I had the story figured. It was a James M. Cain thing, where the sleazy guy and sleazy gal conspire to murder the hubby and end up getting their just deserts. But nope, that wasn’t it at all.

I’m not going to tell you what happens, but I will say that Willeford fooled me. As a story, the novel wasn’t particularly satisfying, but I think was the point. It wasn’t meant to be satisfying, it was meant as a slice of sleazy life in California, circa 1953.

If that’s what Mr. W was really aiming for, he hit the bullseye.

If you’d like to see for yourself, the novel is available for free download, in a variety of electronic formats, at the Munsey’s site, Check it out. You’ll also find six other early Willeford works (Cockfighter, Honey Gal, Wild Wives, The Woman-Chaser, Pick-Up and Whip Hand) and a lot of other cool stuff. I am indebted to Ye Olde Cap’n Bob Napier for the tip.

More Forgotten Books, as usual, at pattinase.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Overlooked Films: Satan Met a Lady (The Maltese Falcon?) (1936)

While in San Francisco last week (more on that anon) my wife and I watched the classic version of The Maltese Falcon (1941), followed the next night by Satan Met a Lady (1936). Yikes! I’d seen this turkey before, but forgotten how flat out silly it is.

To lay the groundwork . . . Warner Brothers had purchased the screen rights to the Hammett novel and released the first (relatively faithful) film version back in 1931, with Ricardo Cortez as Spade. The film bombed. But by 1936, following the film version of The Thin Man, Hammett’s star was flying high, and they decided to exploit it. Trailers for Satain Met a Lady touted it as being from “Dashiell Hammett, author of The Thin Man.”

Because only five years had passed, they must have figured it was too soon for a remake of the Falcon, so they turned the story inside out and upside down and tried to disguise it as something different. And in that they succeeded. It’s different as hell.

First, as you already know, the title was changed. Then the falcon became the Horn of Roland. And the characters got new names, and - in some cases - new genders and sexual preferences.

Sam Spade morphed into a goofus named Ted Shane, portrayed like a maniac off his meds by Warren William. Bette Davis, who got top billing, is actually only a bug-eyed bit player in the ersatz Bridget O’Shaughnessy role. Arthur Treacher, as “the tall Englishman,” fills in for Joel Cairo. Instead of Wilmer the gunsel we get a pudgy dork in a beret. And the Casper Gutman substitute is a woman.

Warren William, who behaved like a reasonably sane human being in the first Perry Mason movies, seems to have completely lost it here, launching into giggling fits or roaring like King Kong with no provocation. Many scenes are so goofy they leave you wondering What the hell was that?, but the worst was the all-important history lesson laying out the origin and importance of the Horn of Roland. The tale is tossed off between gags as Shane and the Englishman cavort around his apartment playing ring-toss with a lampshade.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Actually, the film does have its moments, like whenever the Effie character (here known as Miss Murgatroyd and played by Marie Wilson) is on stage. Yeah, she’s goofy too - in a Lucille Ball sort of way - but I like better her in the role than the real Effie in the Bogart version. And the dialogue, while almost entirely Hammett-free, is sometimes snappy.

So. What possessed Warner Brothers to turn the Falcon into a slapstick farce? I have a theory. In 1936, Hammett’s fame among movie-goers was based mostly on the movie version of The Thin Man that had hit it big two years earlier. To them, Hammett meant Nick and Nora characters who were always clowning around. So that’s what the studio tried to give them, twisting The Maltese Falcon into their version of The Thin Man. To me, that’s the only way this movie makes sense. What do you think?

Tune into SWEET FREEDOM for your weekly fix of Overlooked Films & Stuff.

Warren William as Ted Shane

Shane and the bug-eyed Lady

Marie Wilson as Miss Murgatroyd (Effie)

Arthur Treacher as Travers (Joel Cairo)

Maynard Holmes as Kenneth (Wilmer)

Alison Skipworth (left) as Madame Barabbas (The Fat Lady)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Forgotten Books: Wildcat O'Shea covers by STERANKO

In the tradition of last week's collection of K'ing Kung-Fu covers by Barry Smith, here's another series I picked up solely for the cover art. Never read one, but I should. They all say © Jack Bickham. They were published in 1970 and 71.

The back of the first book (above) says this:
     It started when Wildcat O'Shea joined an amateur rebel army of four - a storekeeper, a minister, a former lawman, and a schoolteacher - in a surprise assault on the jail and its crooked sheriff.
     They captured them, for a wonder, and proclaimed that Blanco was now free of the lawless domination of Frost, the big rancher and landowner who ran the town and everyone in it.
     But Frost wasn't finished, and his men outnumbered them ten to one. By afternoon, there was a regular war on in Blanco.
     It was Wildcat who thought of getting hold of the Civil War cannon in the park - and things got really interesting!

Forgotten Books is a weekly presentation of pattinase

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Overlooked Films: The Falcon Takes Over (Farewell, My Lovely?) (1942)

Sadly, here's another film I haven't seen. This 1942 entry in the Falcon series was the first attempt to bring Farewell, My Lovely to the screen. Moose and Velma appear to have survived the trip, but Philip Marlowe has morphed into the character of "Gay Lawrence," played by George Sanders. He's assisted by a lady reporter who wasn't in the book. Hm.

The first faithful film treatment of the book, Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell, appeared two years later.

More Overlooked Films, Etc. at SWEET FREEDOM.