Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some Initial Thoughts On GUN STREET (1961)

I'm in the middle of working on the next entry in my Poverty Row Professionals series for Noir City magazine. I'm going to be profiling the director Edward L. Cahn. As such, I've been watching a lot of his work, and not just the noir stuff either.

I just watched his 1961 western GUN STREET. This is a modest little film with a small cast, limited sets, and little in the way of a budget.

The film isn't claimed by anyone (least of all me) as some kind of hidden masterpiece, but within the context of when and how it was made, it's quite an interesting movie.

It's something of a knockoff of HIGH NOON, though like RIO BRAVO, it is critical of that film's subversive message. HIGH NOON is essentially an extended meditation on the fickleness of society and the fragility of the institutions that are meant to keep it together. GUN STREET, like RIO BRAVO before it, is not.

GUN STREET has a heroic lawman (played in an effective turn by Cahn's frequent leading man, James Brown) waiting for the imminent arrival of a deadly outlaw. The town panics as the outlaw nears. The lawman stands strong.

That's the basic plot, but in more ways than one GUN STREET fails to deliver what the usual oater would promise from this scenario. We never see the outlaw. Never. Some critics of the film have argued that this dissipates the tension, but I would argue otherwise. Most normal westerns would hop back and forth between the hero and the villain, would give us someone to hate. Instead, here, the approaching trouble feels more like a storm than a man. The townspeople bicker over why the outlaw wasn't executed to begin with. (The movie could be read as a 67 minute argument in favor of the death penalty.) But at the end the outlaw is found dead, having bled to death from a gunshot wound he suffered while escaping. Thus, the villain we never see is killed by some guard we never even hear about. Everything in the film has led up to a climactic gun fight that we never get.

Again, many critics of the film see this as a simple oversight, but I somehow doubt that. Edward Cahn made roughly a million westerns. He knew all to well that the audience was expecting to see the hero kill the villain at the end, and I find it hard to believe that either he or his writer Sam Freedle (who had been a script clerk on HIGH NOON) simply forgot the gunfight at the end. I doubt they ran out of time or money either. The final scenes of the film, involving the discovery of the body of the outlaw and the retirement of the lawman (he rides away through a posse scattered over the side of a mountain) would have been as complicated as a simple two-man gun fight. 

I think Cahn just wanted to do something different.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poverty Row Professionals: William Castle

I'm doing a series on the professionals of classic Hollywood's Poverty Row for the e-mag Noir City. My first installment was on the career of the underrated John Reinhardt (THE GUILTY, OPEN SECRET). 

My latest piece is on William Castle. He's best known today for the flamboyant gimmicks he used to sell his schlock horror movies in the fifties and sixties, but in the forties he'd down a lot of work on Poverty Row and in the B-units of some larger studios. He gave us one of the first film noirs in the class of 1944 (WHEN STRANGERS MARRY), apprenticed under Orson Welles on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and produced several other good examples of noir before moving on to fame and fortune as a self-crown master of the macabre.

You can check out my article on Castle by getting Noir City.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

God And The Gangster: The Ballad of Billy Graham and Mickey Cohen

Given my love for preachers and crime lords--and given my love for any overlap between the two--it was only a matter of time before I wrote something about the brief but remarkable relationship between the Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham and the Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen in the 1950s. 

Here are two outsized figures. 

Graham was arguably the most successful Christian preacher of all time (growing up Southern Baptist, I kind of thought of him as our Pope). To put that in perspective, Billy Graham proselytized to more people than anyone else in history, and perhaps more than any other single individual, he shaped the public perception of Protestantism in the later part of the 20th century and moved fundamentalism into the American mainstream.

Mickey Cohen, on the other hand, was the most feared crime boss on the West Coast in the 1950s. In the years since his death, his infamy has only grown. The subject of books and documentaries and feature films, Cohen is an almost mythical figure today.

I have a new piece that looks the strange moment in time when Graham and Cohen were on such friendly terms that Graham was telling the press than Mickey should be a preacher and Cohen was telling the press that he and Billy were going to vacation together at a dude ranch.

Go to Criminal Element to check out God And The Gangster

Sunday, October 12, 2014

THE BIG UGLY

I'm thrilled to announce the release of my new novel, THE BIG UGLY.

Ellie Bennett is an ex-corrections officer who has just served a year inside Eastgate Penitentiary for assaulting a prisoner. She’s only been out for a day when she accepts a strange job offer from the head of a Christian political advocacy group. He wants her to track down a missing ex-con named Alexis. Although no one knows where Alexis has gone, it seems like everyone in Arkansas is looking for her—from a rich televangelist running for Congress to the governor’s dirty tricks man. When Bennett finds the troubled young woman, she has to decide whether to hand her over to the highest bidder or help her escape from the most powerful men in the state.

You can get it in paperback.

You can get it as an e-book.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

I have a new piece up at Tor.com looking at the classic sci-fi/monster flick (and Howard Hawks production) THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. You can read that here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MOROCCO (1930)

If you want to understand the mystery of the movies, then you should take a long look at Josef von Sternberg's MOROCCO.

I use the term "take a long look" deliberately here because looking is, after all, the primary act of moviegoing. MOROCCO tells the story of a romance between a saloon singer played by Marlene Dietrich and a Legionnaire played by Gary Cooper. You don't really need to know more about the plot because the film isn't about the plot. It's about looking at these two people, particularly Dietrich.

There was a period there in the twenties and thirties where American moviegoers had a collective crush on exotic foreign beauties like Garbo and Dietrich. I hesitate to call it a fad--because Garbo and Dietrich were great stars--but it's fair to say that American audiences soon moved on to more wholesome American girls. (Ingrid Bergman was a great foreign beauty, of course, but she wasn't exotic. She was the girl next door by way of Stockholm. That explains why Americans turned on her after her sex scandal in the fifties. No one would have been scandalized to find out that Dietrich had gotten pregnant from an affair.) Dietrich fell out of fashion around about the time Americans as a whole became exhausted by events in Europe, especially from her native Germany.

But look at MOROCCO and you can see the cultural moment that made Dietrich a sensation. The movie itself watches her, lingers on her. 1930 was early into the era of talkies, and it's important to keep that in mind as you watch the film. Von Sternberg paces things slowly, deliberately. He expects you to look at pictures he gives you, almost as if you were staring a photograph or a painting. There are many moments where the primary thing happening onscreen is the play of light and shadow, or a wisp of smoke, or a face.

The most famous scene in the movie is the musical number that Marlene sings while dressed in a tux and top hat. This is pure 1930 sexual androgyny, before the Production Code came in and sanitized everything. Marlene struts around and takes a flower from a pretty girl and gives her a kiss. And not a peck on the lips either. A kiss. The crowd roars its approval. Steamy stuff.

What's interesting, though, is that the strutting confident performer of the musical number is a contrast to the touchingly vulnerable woman Dietrich gives us in the rest of the movie. In her best roles, Dietrich always combined that hard, sexy exterior with a sense of the wounded soul underneath.

Gary Cooper gets less attention from his director than his costar does, but the camera loves him, nevertheless. Not yet thirty when he made this film, Cooper was in the glory of his youth and beauty. The older he got, he would take on outsized importance as an American symbol--and, of course, his best remembered role would come in HIGH NOON when he was 51--but as a young man Cooper cut a dashing, transcontinental figure. Always distinctly American, he was nevertheless a man of the world. His lithe body and fine-boned face were a perfect fit for the delicate mood play that is MOROCCO. He's already got that jittery aversion to words which would only deepen as he got older, but he's beautiful enough and inaccessible enough to be a perfect fit for Dietrich.

The mystery of the movies is the looking. Looking at human beings who don't look back, who let themselves be observed, who are projected tall and wide on a wall in the dark in shimmering silver light. The more I see MOROCCO the more I see this mystery at play.