Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Thursday 19 July 2012

Games (1967) (Universal Vault Series) 100 mins.

Paul and Jennifer Montgomery (James Caan and Katharine Ross) are wealthy socialites who live on New York's East Side in a house decorated with pop art paintings and sculptures and Victorian paraphernalia. The keep themselves amused by staging quirky soirees and playing games, and soon involve an enigmatic older woman Lisa Schindler (Simone Signoret) in the latter when she is taken ill in their house and invited to stay. However, the games escalate from practical jokes and take an apparently deadly turn. But who is playing for keeps?...

Finally released on DVD in the US, albeit as a movie-on-demand DVD-R, this twisty 1967 thriller is an enjoyable, effective and suspenseful thriller. Much of the film takes place in the Paul and Jennifer's house, which lends the film a claustrophobic air but also occasionally feels studio-bound and rather stagey. That said, there are some effective twists (well, they worked for me, anyway) and although the presence of Simone Signoret as the mysterious Lisa intentionally evokes her ambiguous role in the earlier superior Les Diaboliques (The Fiends) and she is given less to do than her top billing suggests, a youthful James Caan and Katharine Ross effectively convey the sense of louche moneyed boredom that underpins the couple's desire for excitement and adventure.

Director Curtis Harrington handles the suspense effectively, with a body that won't stop bleeding as it rises and then gets stuck in an elevator being a notable Hitchcockian highlight. There's little here beyond an oddball opening party, the occasional modish pop art trappings and some playing around with mirrors and the notion of reflections to remind one of his avant-garde underground origins as this is by and large a slick studio thriller; albeit one with an ending that foreshadows cynical 70s film-making rather than seeming of a piece with 60s genre filmmaking. Nevertheless, it's a reminder that Harrington was one of the more underused talents of the times and one whose other cult films (e.g. Night Tide, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, What's The Matter With Helen?, The Killing Kind and Ruby) are well-worth seeking out.

VERDICT: Worth playing.

AFTERWORD: $20 or thereabouts for this movie-on-demand DVD-R is a high price which is just about worth paying for this bare bones catalogue title that would probably otherwise not be seen as worth releasing (although an off-air recording from, say, TCM would yield a similar product for far less outlay). There's also a seemingly common movie tie-in paperback by acclaimed 50s juvenile delinquency specialist Hal Ellson (see cover scan above) - although I have yet to read the book.

Monday 9 July 2012

Shoot It Again by Ed Lacy (Paperback Library 63-134) (1969) Formerly Titled: The Sex Castle

Clayton Biner is a would-be artist in his late 30s slumming it on the Mediterranean Riviera until one day he attempts to cash a cheque (or check as they say in the US) and discovers that the passport he presents to confirm his identity is not his own. This draws him into the first of his adventures in this book, and one that ends violently when he manages to rescue a heroin addict and extricate himself from a nightmarish scenario. As if this is not enough (we are only fifty pages in when this storyline is apparently resolved), the almost penniless Biner is subsequently persuaded to traffic a large quantity of heroin into the US. When his attempt to sell the heroin to his contact ends simialrly violently, Biner finds himself on the run from the Syndicate and has to forge a risky alliance with a female junkie as he attempts to make a score that will set him up for life.

Biner is an often amoral and generally dislikable anti-hero who narrates the tale in flashback with a jaundiced and cynical air. His contempt for humanity is, of course, a shield to attempt to protect himself from his own self-loathing, so that what emerges occasionally echoes Jim Thompson in its 'plague on all your houses' pitilessness and fatalistic narrative arc. The action is swift and the tale barrels along in clipped sentences, occasionally segueing into a stream of consciousness as we gradually discover what has transpired. The occasional burst of violence are also often graphic, seemingly foreshadowing the levels of realism that were soon to enter the cinematic mainstream (the book was written in 1963). And there's also atmosphere aplenty, from the seamier side of the Riviera settings in the opening section when various lost and jaded characters wash up to the seedy and sweaty desperate urban mileu of drinking dens and apartments inhabited by similar lost souls often hooked on narcotics that accelerate their spiral into despair.

Ed Lacy was a prolific author who had around thirty novels of mostly crime fiction published over a period of eighteen years before dying from a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1968. Born Leonard S. Zinberg, he is most often noted as the white creator of what is probably the first realistic and believable African-American private detective series character in Room To Swing (1957). As I own a copy of every novel he wrote, I really should have read more of them and aim to put that right very soon. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended to fans of pacy hardboiled crime fiction.

VERDICT: A real shot in the arm!

AFTERWORD: This retitled reprint must have one of the blandest and most misleading covers of all time. More closely resembling a James Bond cover with its smartly suited and booted executive type taking aim at the reader as a scantily-clad blonde clutching a fur coat drapes herself over his shoulder, the artwork could not be further away from the reality of the tale within if it tried (although I suppose a cover sporting a dissipated failure with a heroin addict woman in tow may not have shifted many copies in the eyes of its publisher). The original 1963 publication as The Sex Castle is not much better as the shapely redhead with the strategically-placed towel taking a phone call on a rather old-fashioned looking device on the cover - and who does not resemble any of the book's female characters - and a back cover that inaccurately sells the would-be reader a world of 'swimming pools in California, haciendas in Mexico' indicates the same publisher was similarly uncertain of what they were selling or who they intended to sell it to. six years earlier.