Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"The Cat Girl" (1957)

The Cat Girl (1957) is the lesser-known but still notorious remake of Jacques Tourneur's 1942 classic, Cat People. I say "lesser-known" because it has never been on DVD (though you an stream it here at AMC), and "notorious" because those who have hunted down a copy seem to all have a negative opinion of it. I beg to differ.

I liked The Cat Girl. Sure, it's no Cat People (what is?), but there is still much to enjoy about the remake.

Barbara Shelley, star of Village of the Damned and Hammer classics like The Gorgon, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, plays Lenora, a young woman summoned to her family's creepy estate to learn about her inheritance. Unfortunately, she's not getting any money, just a family curse that turns her into a cat with the urge to kill. Surrounded by a cheating husband and an old-flame who married someone else, Lenora has a lot of rage she's looking to unleash.

Like its predecessor, The Cat Girl leaves much to the imagination and relies on the shadow of implied violence. And despite its low budget, the film works well within its limitations of small, interior sets.

Another thing I like about The Cat Girl is that it combines two of my favorite psychological thriller concepts. First is the, "Look, you're crazy, even though you don't yet realize it" scenario when the family is trying to convince her the curse is real. Second is the, "Look, I'm crazy, even though you don't believe me" scenario after Lenora is convinced of her duplicity and she can't convince the law or the doctors that she is guilty of murder. There's something utterly terrifying about having your friends and family tell you you're crazy or illogical, when everything appears normal to you. It makes you feel so vulnerable and alone. And then, to make matters worse, once she accepts the truth about the curse, she can't convince anyone else about it. The rest of the world thinks she's even crazier than ever. The effect of such psychological alienation is a fascinating cinematic subject, and I'm drawn to plots that explore that area.

Barbara Shelley gives a marvelous performance as someone whose mental state is constantly shifting, from skepticism and disbelief to shock, denial, guilt, remorse, and ultimately vengeance, all the while unsecured by a sense of sadness and rage that she was never able to express or even admit to herself. The public and private perception of her psychosis is something The Cat Girl goes into more depth than the original. When Lenora is locked in a cell for observation by doctors, the film follows in the tradition of Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper, and other narratives about misunderstood "madwomen" locked away behind closed doors. Seeing her as neither a simplistic villain or victim, The Cat Girl sympathizes with Lenora's vulnerability against a system and society that represses both her mental and physical desires and changes.

I also like the whole "creepy family mansion" and "family curse" pretexts. What happened to those? Did families downsize to smaller, suburban homes or city condos? And did curses go away with the internet? It seems like butlers (or uncles, as is the case in The Cat Girl) must be depressed, without un-notarized wills to read to younger family members who they haven't seen since they were children.

With its creepy gothic atmosphere, feline violence, unsupportive family and friends, and a mentally unstable protagonist, I gotta admit, The Cat Girl is a pretty good remake that brings new things to the table.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"After the First Death" by Lawrence Block (1969)

Upon waking in a strange hotel room with a hellish hangover and a dead prostitute not the floor, with the door bolted from the inside, Alex Penn had a discomforting realization:

"I've done it again."

The second time he's woken up from a bender with next to a beautiful corpse, Alex doesn't think the law will be very lenient with him this time around, he goes on the run, hiding out in sleazy midtown hotels, determined to figure out who has framed him--twice--for murder. That is, unless he is really is guilty of murder.

Block is one of my favorite New York City writers, with impeccable  depictions of Manhattan's scummy streets and scummier inhabitants, and After the First Death is one of my favorite books of his. Originally published in 1969, its firsthand intimacy of the island's geography and cultural climate is invaluable. Block gives us a vivid impression of the bygone days of the dirty Forty Deuce, of Times Square hustlers and their desperate bustle, of Village nights spent ripping off sailors and setting them up with a couple of imaginary girls that won't give them a happy ending, of fleabag motels and dirty sheets, and endless wanderings and nights that go on forever.

Block's early work is edgy, his characters dangerous, and their intentions disreputable. They're not likable people, their vices aren't charming, and their violent habits aren't heroic. In the case of Alex Penn, he's a scumbag. A history teacher who cheated on his spouse, ruined his career, alienated friends and colleagues, and contributed to the death of two women (whether by his hand or whoever framed him). What's interesting about the plot of After the First Death is that Alex is pursuing a truth that could very well confirm his guilt instead of absolve him. Even at best, recreating the alcoholic nights lost to his memory is only going to show just how reckless and despicable he is.

So many mystery novels use booze as a crutch, but Block's books show the destructive effects of alcohol on the self and on others. He doesn't make alcoholism and debauchery attractive. The opening chapter is one of the most vivid and nauseating renderings of a hangover. There's nothing cool or romantic about it. Alex Penn is miserable, and he has only himself to blame. And that emerges as one of the biggest themes of the book--regardless of whether or not someone is framing him, Alex has already screwed himself and others over in the past, and here he is repeating the past, "again" as he so bluntly puts it.

Told in the first-person, much of After the First Death is stuck in Alex's head as he tries and fails to make sense of what happened. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is that he is well aware that things might be as they seem--he might have killed the woman. Even if he didn't, he knows he was capable of it, which is almost just as bad. He is in a perpetual state of guilt--every drink he takes is a crime waiting to be committed, and therefore every desire to drink represents potential violence. It's a steadily downward trajectory that reminds of David Goodis, an introspective narrative of relentless self-doubt and self-loathing.

Lest I make this book sound like a total downer, Block's characteristic wry humor is peppered throughout the book. Above all else, Block is an incredibly story-teller with an addictive, inimitable voice that brings you back time and again to his work. The timing, the structure, the scenes, the rhythm of the dialog, everything you love about Block is here.

Visit Lawrence Block's website for links to purchase the book.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Monster and the Girl (1941)

Call it gorilla noir.

After a gangster sullies his sister's reputation, Scot Webster goes gunning for revenge and winds up framed for another murder before he can kill the guy he wants! After his execution, scientists remove his brain and put it in the head of a gorilla. Once the experiment is complete, the gorilla escapes and goes hunting for revenge.

In case you were wondering, this movie rules.

The Monster and the Girl is just over an hour's worth of classic Hollywood guy-in-a-gorilla-suit goodness. It's also directed by Stuart Heisler, who in just a few years would direct the great Veronica Lake-Alan Ladd adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key. You can tell this isn't some hack job by just how seriously Heisler treats the material. Strong, compelling performances from the actors, and richly stylized camera compositions and direction. The last third of the movie, when the gorilla goes on his murder spree, is stunning to watch unfold. Much of it occurs without any dialog, just silent stalking and vicious, sudden attacking. Remarkably photographed and dynamically edited, it evokes the same shadowy anxiety and dread as some of the great film noir endings--only with a gorilla thrown into the mix.

"The Monster" is played by Charles Gemora, one of the legendary Hollywood gorilla guys. Gemora also had a long career behind the scenes, working on sets for silent classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Thief of Bagdad, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Black Pirate, and later he spent decades working as a makeup artist. "The Girl" is Ellen Drew, a terrific actress who also appeared alongside Dick Powell in Preston Sturges' wonderful comedy, Christmas in July, as well opposite Vincent Price in Samuel Fuller's western, The Baron of Arizona, and with John Payne in Robert Florey's great B-noir, The Crooked Way. Also in the cast are Phillip Terry as the brother, and Paul Lukas (Academy Award-winner for Watch on the Rhine) as the wicked gangster.

And the scientist who makes all the magic happen? None other than the great George Zucco!

I've seen it a couple times, and will be watching it many times more. I'm glad I have this one on DVD for future reference.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Thrill Killers (1964)

The credo of exploitation cinema is to have the most shamelessly provocative, alluring, and tantalizing title possible, even if the film doesn't live up to it.

Thankfully, The Thrill Killers more than lives up to its name.

Joe Saxon is a down-on-his-luck, out-of-work actor, and his wife Liz is sick of it. She leaves him and goes to visit friends at a nearby diner, and Joe goes looking for her. Little do they know that they are both walking into not one, but two unfortunate situations. Not only have three lunatic murderers escaped from a mental institution and taken over the diner, but a fourth, unrelated psycho is hitchhiking around around the outskirts of Hollywood and killing everyone in his path.

Oh, hell yes!

This movie has it all. Decapitation. Axe attacks. Hollywood pool party debauchery. Groovy dancing. Diner invasion kidnappings. A horse and motorcycle chase. A trip down the Hollywood Walk of Fame (including Buster Crabbe's star). People are thrown off mountains. There are fist fights. Gun fights. Spousal fights. Cowboy campers.

I loved this movie. It has a hard pulp edge and an unhinged aesthetic sensibility. It's a spit in the face to slick, mainstream, and morally grounded movies. The whole plot unfurls like some nightmare: one minute you're at home with your lame ass husband, the next you're meeting a friend for a burger at the diner, and the next three ax-wielding maniacs have you hostage, and then just when you think you're home free there's that other maniac roaming around. The story is over-the-top, but it is supposed to be, and this film manages to balance being both exciting and frightening at the same time.

The movie was directed by Ray Dennis Steckler (who also stars as the hitchhiker under his pseudonym, Cash Flagg). In an interview on the DVD, Steckler explained, "I just wanted to make a crazy movie … and then I got carried away at the end with the horse chase … I'm playing Federico Fellini, now, I can do what I want!"

As if the movie didn't have enough psycho cred already, apparently the horse chase stunt double lived on a nearby ranch with the Manson family.

69 minutes of pure pulp psychosis.

I think I need to see more of Mr. Steckler's movies.

Available on DVD.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 5

The first step to overcoming addiction is to admit you have a problem.

While I'm not ready to admit that I'm a vinyl addict, there certainly was a problem.

A big problem.

A big stack of records on my floor. That grew to two piles. And then three. [Note: This is not the monstrous stack, but a smaller counterpart.]

After facing my demons face-to-face, I decided the only solution was not to buy less records, but to buy shelves.

Now I not only have shelves, but all my records are alphabetized, and I have one free shelf, so I can totally buy more records, right?

Well, I already had three bags of LPs I hadn't gone through, so I decided to open one up and take a look.

Here's the loot:

Ray Charles - "Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul"; Glenn Ohrlin - "Cowboy Songs"; MFSB - "Love is the Message"; Sarah Vaughn with Oscar PEterson, Joe Pass, Louie Bellson, and Ray Brown (HOLY SHIT) - "How Long Has This Been Going On?"; Buddy Holly - "A Rock & Roll Collection" (2 lps); Charles Lloyd - "Soundtrack"

Three Art Tatum Albums - "Solo Piano" (Capitol), "Piano Starts Here", and "Masterpieces" (2 lps); Chick Corea and Gary Burton - "Crystal Silence"; Annette Funicello - "Annette's Beach Party"; Ralph Sutton and Jay McShann - "The Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players"

Leroy Holmes - "Once Upon a Time in the West"; Duane Eddy - "The Twangs The Thang"; Earl Hines and Jaki Byard - "Duet!"; Roy Clark - "Guitar Spectacular!"; Hank Snow - "Spanish Fireball"; Len Chandler - "To Be a Man"

Friday, July 17, 2015

James Cagney Birthday Tribute + 20 Favorite Roles

July 17th is a blessed day, for it was on this day, 116 years ago, in 1899, that James Cagney was born.

I'm a huge Cagney fan. There's a vitality to his performances that is totally unique. A skip to his step, a grace to his movement, a spark behind his eyes, and a strange urban melody to his voice that is at once staccato but oh-so-smooth. These qualities were evident from his earliest movies when his animated style immediately set him apart from the rest of the crowd in Hollywood who were struggling to adapt silent and theatrical stage manners to the new and still cumbersome talkies.

When Cagney appeared in Sinners' Holiday in 1930, his first film, the screen forever changed. It didn't appear like he was acting, or even that he was trying. He was so damn natural, as though he were meant for the movies, and the movies were meant for him. In 1930, he made two films. In 1931, five. And he stayed busy through 1961. After appearing in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three, he only made a handful of appearances. His last feature was Ragtime in 1981, followed by a television movie, Terrible Joe Moran, in 1984. Cagney passed away on March 30, 1986, at the age of 86.

Among Cagney's most memorable performances include The Public Enemy (1931), where he shoves the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face; Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), two of his most iconic gangster roles; Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), where he got to show off his musical abilities as the dancing George M. Cohan; and White Heat (1949), where he plays the epileptic, psychopathic criminal Cody "Top of the world, Ma!" Jarrett.

Those movies are famous, but they are only a fraction of the great films that Cagney made. Below are 20 of my other favorite James Cagney movies, in chronological order.

Blonde Crazy (1931)
Cagney plays a chiseling bell-boy, and his partner-in-crime is Joan Blondell. Directed by one of my favorites, Roy Del Ruth.

Taxi! (1932)
Cagney plays a cabbie who stands up against corruption. Co-starring Loretta Young, also directed by Del Ruth.

The Crowd Roars (1932)
Cagney plays a race car driver whose career and personal life hit a rough patch. Co-starring Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and directed by Howard Hawks.

Winner Take All (1932)
This time, Cagney is a boxer who lets fame, dough, and dames go to his head. Also directed by Del Ruth.

Picture Snatcher (1933)
Here, he's an ex-con-turned-tabloid photojournalist.

The Mayor of Hell (1933)
Cagney runs a reform school!

Footlight Parade (1933)
After his stage career fails, he turns to producing musical prologues for movies. Co-starring Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, and Hobart Cavanaugh--if you're into 30s Hollywood, those names are like a dream cast of top-tier character actors. Directed by Busby Berkeley, featuring some of his craziest choreography.

Lady Killer (1933)
A life of crime leads to big-screen stardom! Cagney re-teams with grapefruit recipient Mae Clarke, and director Del Ruth.

Jimmy the Gent (1934)
Cagney chisels estates by providing phony inheritors!

He Was Her Man (1934)
Cagney's on the lam from the mob with Blondell, and they hole up in a small fishing village.

City for Conquest (1940)
In order to aid his brother's career as a composer, truck driver Cagney heads to the boxing ring.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Love triangle with Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland set in 1890s New York City. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
Back to crime! Cagney busts out of jail with his partner, who he shoots during the getaway, and then tries to shack up with his sister, played by Barbara Payton. Based on a Horace McCoy novel.

A Lion is in the Streets (1953)
Itinerant salesman Cagney decides to enter politics! Directed by the great Raoul Walsh.

Run for Cover (1955)
Originally mistaken for a criminal, Cagney becomes sheriff of a town and tries to rebuild his life. Directed by Nicholas Ray.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Cagney plays a gangster who bankrolls Doris Day's musical career, but she won't believe that his love is true.

Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
Cagney plays a vicious ranch foreman in this western directed by Robert Wise and adapted from a story by Jack Schaefer.

The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)
A biopic of the great silent actor, Lon Chaney.

Shake Hands With the Devil (1959)
Cagney gets caught up with the IRA!

One, Two, Three (1961)
Cagney runs the West Berlin-branch of the Coca Cola Company in Billy Wilder's Cold War farce. Dig that Saul Bass poster!


Even at twenty, I'm leaving out movies like John Ford's What Price Glory? and -- ok, I'm stopping. I'll leave you to explore the rest of Cagney's career on your own.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 4

When last I confessed, I mentioned a twenty-five cent record fair at Human Head Records. I posted the first half of that haul. I've finally finished going through and cleaning the rest of the loot. Cleaning and bagging the records was like reliving the thrill of the day all over again. Even now, just looking at these pictures, my pulse races and a thirst for vinyl drives through my veins. I need more! When is the next record fair? I need to know.  Also, somehow, in the ecstasy of the moment, I wound up getting two copies of Glen Campbell's "Try a Little Kindness," but that's ok -- it was only a quarter.

Also, for the sake of being 100% honest (this is a confession, after all), that Duane Eddy album I did not pay a quarter for. I paid full price, minus the record fair discount, so it came to something like $3.60.  Or maybe a little less.

There, I've cleansed my soul of my vinyl sins …

… ok, I'm lying, I still have three bags of records by my desk that I haven't gone through. Looks like my conscience isn't clean yet. A vinyl sinner at heart, I doubt I'll ever be pure and wholesome again.

Wes Montgomery - "Road Song"; The Temptations - "Greatest Hits"; Glen Campbell - "Try a Little Kindness"; Duane Eddy - "$1,000,000 Worth of Twang"; Grover Washington, Jr. - "Soul Box"; Jimmy Smith - "Hoochie Coochie Man"; Ray Price - "I Won't Mention It Again"; George Benson - "Bad Benson"; Aretha Franklin - "Runnin' Out of Fools"

Dickson Hall - "Outlaws of the Old West"; Frank Sinatra - "Only The Lonely"; Merle Haggard and Sonny James - "Music Hall"; Charlie Rich - "Lonely Weekends"; Marty Robbins - "Marty's Greatest Hits"; Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs - "Songs to Cherish"; Dionne Warwick - "Soulful"; Dionne Warwick - "Here Where There Is Love"; The Temptations - "Psychedelic Shack"; B.B. King - "Live & Well"

Marty Robbins - "This Much a Man"; Hank Williams, Jr. - "Sings the Songs of Hank Williams"; Charlie Rich - "Sings Country & Western"; Charlie Rich - "Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High)"; Jimmy Dean - "Is Here!"; Hank Williams - "The Unforgettable Hank Williams"; Isaac Stern - "Penderecki Violin Concerto"; Charley Pride - "Songs of Pride"; Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins - "The Survivors"; The Temptations - "Getting' Ready"

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"So Nude, So Dead" by Ed McBain (Hard Case Crime)

Under normal circumstances, waking up in a hotel room next to a beautiful blonde would be a good thing.

But not for Ray Stone.

This time, the blonde is dead, and 16 oz. of heroin are missing.

So, he calls his dad for help, only his dad calls the cops.

Now, the cops want him for murder, the dealers want their drugs, and all Ray Stone wants is a fix. And he needs it bad.

Criss-crossing Manhattan, Stone can run and hide from his pursuers, but the one thing he can't hide from is his addiction. At some point he is going to have to come out and look for more stuff. And if he doesn't find the missing drugs, the dealers will eventually kill him. And if he doesn't find the real killer, the cops will eventually arrests him.

It's a start to a bad day for Ray Stone--but it's also the start to a great career. The second book and first crime novel by the writer most famously known as Ed McBain, it was originally published in 1952 as The Evil Sleep! (as Evan Hunter) and again in 1956 as So Nude, So Dead (as Richard Marsten). And now it is back in print after half a century by Hard Case Crime.

Some writers take a few novels to perfect their craft or develop their own voice. McBain was not one of those writers. He was one of those rare, absurdly and enviably talented few who had "it" from the get-go. Merging a wrong-man-on-the-run mystery with the then-burgeoning junkie-sploitation trend, McBain created a dynamite noir thriller with a fast-burning fuse. Set against an authentically grimy New York City backdrop, McBain takes his character from sleazy dives to swank apartments, jazz clubs to bathhouses, Gun Hill Road up in the Bronx to a rural Connecticut farmhouse. One can't ask for a better NYC tour guide than Ed McBain.

There is much to admire in this book, and I could ramble on singing its praises, so I'll end with this:

So Nude, So Dead is just so damn awesome.

To whet your appetite, here's the opening two paragraphs:

"There was the jangling, of course. It wouldn't be morning without the jangling. It was as if someone deliberately gathered up every nerve end in his body and tied them together every night. And in the morning--this morning, every morning--he'd sit up in bed with the ache in his body. It was almost delicious, especially when he knew he had the stuff waiting for him. It was painful too, but painful in a sweet way, almost as if the wanting were too exquisite to bear.
God, he needed a shot."
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