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...

Sunday 30 June 2013

Someone Is Bleeding by Richard Matheson (Lion Books 137) (1953)

One day, writer David Newton meets Peggy Lister on a deserted Los Angeles beach and is instantly smitten. However, Peggy seems somewhat remote and troubled - as well as being a self-confessed man-hater - and also appears to have something to hide. She reveals little to David about her past, except for snippets about her seemingly dysfunctional home life, but David is still keen enough to start dating her. When she invites him to a party, David is surprised to discover that the host is a former college acquaintance called Jim, who is now a successful lawyer and less than happy to see David as he too has designs on Peggy, even though he is still married.

After David and Peggy are attacked by an unseen assailant during one of their dates at an amusement park and her landlord - whom Peggy suspects of the seemingly sexually motivated assault on her - is found dead at her rooming house after being stabbed through the brain with an icepick, David finds himself embroiled in an ever-deepening mystery. It is a mystery that seemingly has its roots in Peggy's past, but who is the killer, is he or she also responsible for a further slaying, and will David become another victim?

Richard Matheson's debut novel, published when he was twenty-six years old, is a fast-paced noirish mystery, with strong elements of both the whodunit mystery novel and psychological drama. This novel is not perfect by any means as some of the characters, particularly the protagonist, present more as types than flesh and blood characters.

However, the narrative whips along at speed (possibly, a welcome legacy of the author's pulp magazine origins), particularly towards the end, which means that the flaws are more forgivable and less noticeable than they would be in a novel that features excessive narrative digressions or pace-killing exposition that impede the narrative flow. Some scenes, particularly a thrilling extended night-time chase towards the end, really stir the blood and the novel's final page wrap-up and chilling last line leave the reader enveloped by darkness rather than a sense of emerging into the light (just like the best 50s paperback originals).

Overall, this is an impressive first effort, and one whose implausibilities of plot and situation (for example, David seems to sober up remarkably quickly after an extended drinking binge that would put most people in an alcohol-induced coma) are less important than its swift storytelling and atmospheric evocations of a threatening world where nothing and no one are quite as they seem. Therefore, this is a recommended introduction to an author who improved with each novel and whose influence continues to be felt in genre literature to this day.

AFTERWORD: Your best bet to find a reasonably priced edition of this title would be to search for the 2005 Forge omnibus edition which includes the author's later novels Fury On Sunday and Ride The Nightmare. The reason for this steer is that the paperback original is a difficult book to find, and even more difficult to find in nice shape as it appears that many of what were already fragile copies were read and possibly passed around until they fell apart (and don't even think about trying to find the UK Banner edition as I've only seen one in the last twenty-five years and it was snatched from under my nose at a UK book fair as soon as my eyes lit upon it).

My edition cost me more than I would usually spend on a worn paperback, but its pedigree meant I had to have it when I saw it at one of Gary Lovisi's New York Paperback Expos several years ago. The back cover text is also interesting, as it is clear that Lion Books knew they had a special telent on their hands; so I am reproducing it here as it proved to be remarkably prescient. It reads "You are looking at a first novel. Never published before, Someone Is Bleeding represents the first full-length achievement of a brilliant new master of the macabre. We think this is an exciting book. We think Richard Matheson is an exciting discovery. We hope you agree.".

How right they were - and millions of readers down the years concurred!

So, if you haven't sampled the late Richard Matheson's wonderful work - much of it in the fantasy genre and which includes the better known (and, if truth be told, better novels) I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, A Stir Of Echoes and Bid Time Return (aka Somewhere In Time) as well as many others and some equally good SF, Horror and Western short stories - then get reading. I am sure you won't be disappointed once you crack open the covers of any books written by one of the most influential, gifted and often chilling genre authors of all time.

Sunday 23 June 2013

The Fiend Who Walked The West (Le Tueur Au Visage D'Ange) (Sidonis Calysta) 96 mins. 42 secs.

Daniel Hardy (Hugh O'Brian) is desperate to secure a financial future for his growing family, so he joins a group of bank robbers. However, the robbery fails to run to plan when Daniel is locked in the safe and arrested, and Daniel's life plans go further awry when he is jailed for ten years rather than the expected shorter prison term he expected as a first-time offender.

Things go from bad to worse when his fellow gang members - whom he has refused to name - fail to provide his family with his expected share of the loot and as he gradually discovers that his young cellmate Felix Griffin (Robert Evans) is an unstable psychopath who exacts a fearful revenge on those who lay their hands on him. However, Felix has plans of his own and, after he discovers the identity of Daniel's gang leader, he decides to secure the loot for himself following his release from jail; which he proceeds to do in murderous fashion. With Daniel on the inside and Felix raising hell on the outside, a plan is hatched by the authorities to ensure that Felix pays for his crime. It's a plan that involves Daniel and his family in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

It's Kiss of Death out West as this first remake of the 1947 film noir classic rides the range (there is also a 1995 version starring Nicolas Cage in a scenery-chewing performance as the psychopath whilst David Caruso portrays the similarly slightly tarnished hero). And it's a far more interesting film than it's lowly reputation leads one to believe (a reputation probably due in no small part to a highly misleading advertising campaign from title through poster and trailer that predominantly sell the film as a Western / Horror film hybrid, and which is also cued up by the film's opening titles theme that segues from traditional Western to seemingly supernatural).

Often broodingly shot by experienced DOP Joseph MacDonald, who had previously worked on both Westerns and noirs like My Darling Clementine, Call Northside 777 and Panic In The Streets, and solidly directed by experienced director Gordon (Them!) Douglas from a Harry Brown / Philip Yordan script derived in part from Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's 1947 script for Kiss of Death (which was itself based on a novel by Eleazar Lipsky), the film is actually a surprisingly successful blending of the style of more adult 1950s psychological Westerns like 3:10 To Yuma and Jubal and the noirish crime cycle that began in the previous decade as the forces of law and order deploy unconventional methods to stop a dangerous criminal in his tracks.

For those aware of the film's derivation, there's a neat and intentional misdirected Kiss Of Death homage in a scene where Griffin encounters the criminal gang-leader's larcenously-inclined wheelchair-bound mother, although the pay-off here reflects the different genre, and, particularly, in Evans' performance in which he occasionally seems to be channelling Richard Widmark's performance in what are often some of the film's least successful moments. It's worth noting that Evans' performance - which the man himself has negatively commented on in his entertaining, if rather self-serving, memoir The Kid Stays In The Picture (both the book and the film adaptation) - is nowhere near as bad as either he, the trailer (in which he gibbers and snarls like a hopped-up 50s juvenile delinquent in scenes that do not feature in the film) or the film's reputation might lead one to believe.

True, the occasional eye-rolling and snarling close-ups contain far less credible menace than Widmark's seminal Tommy Udo. But, in the film's quieter moments and also where his psychotic behaviour is implied rather than played out on screen (the fate of a chain-gang convict who has foolishly previously crossed his path as well as that of a docile and seemingly traumatised female companion who has undoubtedly been subjected to unseen brutality are chilling for what is suggested rather than shown) and where he toys with O'Brian's square-jawed and more instinctive traditional Western hero show that he was a far more accomplished actor than either he or critics within and outside the industry (many of whom resented his seemingly smooth accession to lead actor ranks over others who had toiled for longer and with less success) have been prepared to admit.

The film also balances Evans' more showy moments with solid supporting performances from O'Brian (who was better known at the time for playing Wyatt Earp in the long-running TV series The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp), Stephen McNally, Dolores Michaels (who subsequently starred in the unusual and little-seen Alan Ladd revenge Western One Foot In Hell), Linda Cristal (as O'Brian's wife and who achieved more notable success in a similar role in TV Western series The High Chaparral), snarling stalwart Emile Meyer ('fat cop' Harry Kello from Sweet Smell Of Success) and future TV Tarzan Ron Ely as a Deputy with a hair-trigger temper.

Overall, it's a film undeserving of its consignment to date to a critical backwater and, hopefully, this sharp French DVD 2:35:1 transfer that maintains the original Cinemascope ratio (and which is English language with forced French subtitles) may herald a US or UK release, possibly with a subtitled version of the two add-ons, one of which features French director Bertrand Tavernier who - based on my limited understanding  of the French language - appears to be providing some long-deserved critical rebalancing. It's certainly no masterpiece, but there's much to recommend it, and far more than the laughably conceived trailer that also features on the disc.

AFTERWORD: Now that you've seen what is probably one of the reasons why the film is generally held in such low regard, please check out the film. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Saturday 22 June 2013

End Play (1975) (Umbrella Entertainment) (108 mins.)

Someone is killing female hitchhikers on a lonely stretch of road outside a small Australian town. Although the victims are all neatly stabbed below the breast bone, the murder weapon is unknown and the victims have so far been dumped on the police station tempts to taunt the local force. However, the latest victim (Delvene Delaney) is not left in the usual place and is instead dumped in a local cinema during an afternoon screening. Suspicion soon falls on two brothers, paraplegic Robert Gifford (George Mallaby) and his able-bodied brother Mark (John Waters, who is NOT the well-known film director) who has recently returned home from one of his frequent stints in the merchant navy. The brothers have a close relationship but, as suspicious Superintendent Cheadle (Ken Goodlet) begins his investigations, cracks start to appear as the persistent and diligent officer seemingly gets closer to the truth at the heart of the serial slayings...

Director Tim Burstall's 1975 Australian serial killer thriller, released in its native country on 1st January 1976, adapted from a novel by Russell Braddon (The Naked Island and The Year Of The Angry Rabbit, which was filmed as Night Of The Lepus) and which relocates the action from an English country house to an Antipodean setting, is a taut if rather overlong thriller that plays out mostly in broad daylight and predominantly in the Gifford's home; which lends the film a claustrophobic two-hander chamber piece feel for much of its running time.

Opening with a tense and atmospheric killing on a lonely road, Burstall winds the tension tight, aided by some fine performances from the two leads whose relationship remains the beating heart of the movie even as the plot bends over backwards to maintain the uncertainty as to the killer's identity (which, if truth be told, is not really that much of a mystery). And it's the brothers' often unlikely bond throughout the film that makes the film memorable as blood really is thicker than water in what is admittedly rather protracted, if tense, fare. The film even manages to excuse itself one or two plot contrivances or unresolved aspects (most notably, a bit of business with a letter that is only written to provide a necessary flashback and whose existence is never followed through in the narrative).

Overall, this is a worthwhile watch and a generally fine re-release package in a clean print and in its original aspect ratio (although the soundtrack is a bit iffy at times, particularly during the mournful and plaintive love theme sung over the opening credits). The film, which was seemingly Australian cinema's first foray into serial killer whodunit territory and a box-office hit in its native country, deserves to be better known and is highly recommended.

AFTERWORD: This standalone Australian DVD release is a more affordable and accessible release than its original inclusion as part of a long-deleted and almost impossible to find boxed set. I first saw the film several decades ago as part of a UK BBC2 TV season on Australian cinema back in the 1970s (Those were the days!) and was surprised how much of the film stuck in my mind over the years. Although British-born director Tim Burstall was better known as one of the pioneers of Australian cinema's 1970s breakout to global success through some often rough and ready sex comedies (e.g. Stork, Alvin Purple and Petersen), this films shows that he was no slouch in the thriller stakes and it's something of a pity that he never made much of a name for himself in this genre.

The special features on the disc include interviews with star John Waters, cinematographer Dan Copping and Burstall's son Dan, who was the camera operator (and whose inclusion is not mentioned on the DVD sleeve), as well as an effective and rather extended trailer and stills gallery backed by the theme song, with both of the latter elements revealing rather too much of the film's plot to be recommended viewing prior to watching the film itself.