Show me what's under yours and I'll show you what's under mine.
This beautiful cover for Neil McNeil's 1960 thriller Hot Dam featuring a redhead topped by a tam and wearing a kilt-like skirt is uncredited, if you can believe that. We checked around the usual spots and nobody has a clue, so into the unknown bin it goes. As for the fiction, Hot Dam is the fourth of seven novels starring McNiel's detectives Tony Costaine and Bert McCall, two toughs who don't hesitate to shoot their way into and out of trouble. This one tells the story of a valley about to be flooded after the construction of a dam, and the townspeople reluctant to move. Based on that description you'd think the good guys are the townspeople, but this is the golden age of consequence-free industry, which means it's the dam builders who are the protagonists. And of course those standing in the way of progress aren't doing it for environmental or sentimental reasons, but rather—as the cover notes—to protect a fortune in bootleg whisky hidden somewhere in the valley. The booze is owned by a clan of kilt clad Scots who have violent tendencies and a connection to old world druidism, but other villains want it too. And when McCall discovers he's related to the crazy Scots things get really interesting. Pretty good book all in all. It delivers action, an interesting setting, and both leads get laid multiple times. What more is there?
The best laid plans of singers and musicians often go awry.
This is an unusually nice promo poster we think. It was made for the Susan Hayward vehicle Smash-Up, sometimes referred to as Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman. It premiered this month in 1947 and involves nightclub chanteuse Hayward and her crooner husband, played by Lee Bowman. Hayward has talent but values love over career; her husband has less talent but endless ambition. When their careers go in different directions the strain begins to tear the marriage apart. Whose career goes which direction? We won't tell you that, though the audience learns in the first scene, a framing device featuring the downfallen character bandaged and delirious in a hospital bed. Even though the story's ending is sacrificed for an intro Smash-Up is a pretty good if melodramatic movie, with some strong film noir elements, Hayward in an Oscar nominated performance, and solid support from Eddie Albert as Bowman's composer partner. Worth a look—as long as you can deal with all the crooning.
There's no city where time runs out faster.
Donald E. Westlake wanted to call his mystery The Smashers by a different title. He preferred the name The Cutie—as in a hustler or crook who thinks he's cute, or clever. That would have suited the novel well, because the term is used probably two dozen times over the course of a story about a New York City mob fixer told by his boss to find the cutie who murdered a well-connected showgirl and made an improbable patsy of a hapless heroin addict.
With very little time and even less sleep the main character deals with cops, hoods, druggies, and politically plugged in one percenters, narrowing down a list of suspects to find the troublesome villain. The book reads a bit like a police procedural, but written from the opposite side of the fence. The killer, when finally revealed, comes as little surprise, but the book's mystery elements are not its most important anyway. What works here is the NYC atmosphere and the sense of sand running through the hourglass.
The cover you see above is from the rarer-than-rare edition put out in 1963 by the British publishers Four Square. If you want one it'll cost you about $100, which we think is overpriced. But we usually think that. Paperbacks to us are utilitarian. They're things you carry in a rear pocket. Also, you should never pay more than ten bucks for anything you're tempted to grab to smash a moth. But fret not—the Hard Case Crime version published in 2009 under Westlake's preferred title The Cutie is cheap, and, to many eyes, is probably the prettiest version.
This is the wickedest sorority prank in the history of— Hey, whoever's finger that is stop it right now!
Greenleaf Classics had the most ridiculous covers of any mid-century publishing company. There's no contest. This one for Clyde Allison's The Sex Spree is both absurd and, thanks to its colors, beautiful. Unfortunately the art is uncredited. The book appeared in 1962 from Greenleaf's imprint Midnight Reader, with author William Knoles the man operating behind the Allison pseudonym. Many Greenleaf pen names were shared, but as far as we can tell Allison belonged to Knoles alone, and he used it to write Greenleaf's spy-themed Agent 0008 entries, which are among the company's most collectible books. We're going to get to those in a bit.
Big trouble in little China.
After running across a poster this pretty we simply had to watch The Terror of the Tongs. Of course, the quality of an old Hollywood movie set in Asia is inversely proportional to the number of times you hear a gong. In The Terror of the Tongs you hear quite a few. You know the drill. Someone says the bad guys' headquarters is in the old part of town—GONG!—cut to the villains in their lair. Usually such movies feature white cast members Asianized with make-up and putty eyelids, and this is also an inverse indicator of quality.
But on that score Tongs defies the rule. Most major cast members are white, but the movie, though inherently racist, is not a bad piece of entertainment. A paradox? Indeed, young one. But we mean to say that once you get over the minstrel aspects—if you ever do, and we don't suggest that you should—what you get here is a fun little tale of a white ship captain in the mysterious Orient dealing with forces he can barely comprehend. When he accidentally comes into possession of a valuable item it results in the murder of his airhead daughter and sends him on a mission to make the responsible tong—i.e. Hong Kong mafia—pay.
Geoffrey Toone plays the noble and aggrieved captain, while veteran Brit actor Christopher Lee stars as the evil tong honcho Chung King. The film is beautifully made, with big sets and florid colors that dazzle the eye, and it's less predictable than you'd expect. It's clear the filmmakers were deadly serious, which makes it funny that the final product is considered pure cheese today. If you can look past the yellow makeup and prosthetic eyelids you'll find some entertainment here. And if not, at the very least you'll be thankful how far we've all come. The Terror of the Tongs premiered today in 1961.
The ultimate hunt is one where the prey can shoot back.
The cover copy perhaps gives the impression Wade Miller's The Killer is about a hunter who goes after human prey for sport, but it's actually about a man who hires a professional big game hunter to track down and kill his son's murderer. While the hero uses his unique skill set to lay a trap or two and make some interesting deductions, the story is a standard thriller. But a pretty good one, set in different locales in the U.S., with a few decent twists and a nice—if somewhat overwrought—love story. Both covers from Gold Medal were compelling, with art by C.C. Beall and an unknown, 1951 and 1958.
*sigh* Maybe I should have left this outfit back home and packed a raincoat instead.
We talked about the 1953 Rita Hayworth film Miss Sadie Thompson back in December. The source material, written by W. Somerset Maugham, first appeared in the literary magazine The Smart Set in 1921 as “Miss Thompson,” and was published by Dell as Rain in 1951. This edition has beautiful cover art from Victor Kalin, belying the dark story Maugham weaves inside. The movie sticks reasonably close to the book, so if you want to know more about the plot you can check here.
Better killing through chemistry.
Above is a 1958 Avon edition of The Death Dealers, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's first foray into the mystery genre. When a chemistry professor's best student dies of an apparent lab accident the professor ponders taking over the protege's cutting edge research as a way to impress peers—and perhaps earn a long denied tenure. But he's deduced there's a murderer loose and is worried the police might deduce it too, and consider the valuable research a perfect motive. While Asimov lays out the killing and resulting dilemma in a methodical way, and the world of chemists on a college campus is one he knew well as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, the linear nature of the plot and emotional coolness of the characters don't allow the mystery to truly grip the reader. Yet the book is very readable—the details of life on campus, the politics, the maneuvering for that elusive tenure, are all interesting. And the backdrop of advanced chemistry, the detailed but not overwrought descriptions of experiments and processes, the fact that most of the characters are geniuses in their field, all work well. But there are so many mystery masterpieces out there we can only feel good recommending The Death Dealers to voracious readers in the genre. Or to Asimov fans. Neither group will be disappointed. All others, no guarantees.
That's a hell of a knee you got there, baby. If the rest of you's anything like that knee the sky's the limit.
The Promoter, which appeared in 1957 from Beacon Books, is about the dirty picture racket, which is ironic considering how often author Orrie Hitt skirted obscenity laws. When the lead character Bill Morgan, normally a writer for an auto magazine, is recruited by a minister to investigate the big city under-the-counter porn racket he finds himself at first thwarted, then in over his head. He's also supposed to find the minister's missing daughter. Hmm... wonder where she'll turn up? You really get the feeling Hitt is speaking from experience when he describes how the porn industry worked during the mid-1950s, but the book isn't well written. Hitt churned out a novel every couple of weeks, and the haste shows. The best thing we can say is that the scenario is interesting. We know—we aren't exactly promoting sales of the book, but what can we do? At least the cover art is great. It's by the excellent Walter Popp, and had been previously used in 1953 for Harry Whittington's Wild Oats. Click Popp's keywords below for more visual treats.
Imperial battleship—suddenly give me godlike powers to win this war!
Whenever the subject of the worst movie ever made comes up you can count on everyone to have an opinion. When that discussion happens Starcrash is the film we mention. Generally people are skeptical. Everyone has their beloved favorites. Sometimes we'd have to prove our point, we'd end up renting this puppy to show to friends, and by the third reel any doubters were staring agape at the colossal implosion this movie is. It was a Star Wars knock-off, obviously, filmed in Italy and Switzerland with Marjoe Gortner and Caroline Munro in the leads, and written and directed by Luigi Cozzi working under the pseudonym Lewis Coates.
Whenever we watch this with friends the question always arises: did they mean it to be a good film? Yes. They did. But no. It isn't. Not even remotely close. And that's what makes Starcrash such a treasure. Not merely that it's terrible, but that the filmmakers wrapped the production feeling good about what they'd done. They thought they'd made an exciting, visually stunning, somewhat humorous smash hit. It's the sincerity of ambition that makes Starcrash, in our opinion, the best bad movie of all time. Worse (better) than Roadhouse, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and all the usual contenders. While Cozzi does an okay job directing, his script and budget sabotage him at the outset.
We'll give you an example (yes, it's a spoiler, but in a movie like this it doesn't matter). Near the finale, with no previous indication that such a power existed, Christopher Plummer, the emperor of the galaxy, bellows this command: “Imperial battleship—halt the flow of time!” You can't just suddenly go deus ex machina like that. It would make as much sense if Plummer shouted: “Imperial battleship—make my enemies' dicks fall off!” He explains in a smirky aside, "You know, my son, I wouldn't be Emperor of the Galaxy if I didn't have some powers at my disposal." That's amazing. And don't even get us started about how Cozzi forgot that space is a vacuum.
Get some friends over, get some booze flowing, get Starcrash rolling, and see if watching Gortner and Munro ham it up across a Christmas lighted galaxy isn't one of the best movie nights you've ever had. One thing that isn't terrible about it, at least, is the U.S. promo art by John Solie you see above and below. The Italian art, also by him, is different, and we'll show you that later. In meantime you can see another beautiful Solie effort here. Since Starcrash was Italian made it premiered in Italy and West Germany before reaching the U.S. today in 1979.
This is not a light saber.
This is not like Princess Leia's hologram.
He in no way resembles Darth Vader.
But to be fair, motifs in sci-fi repeat. In a universe of ideas, writers for some reason tend to think of the same stuff. Below are aspects of Starcrash that—suspiciously?—recurred in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.
Han Solo's deep freeze in carbonite in no way resembles this.
Princess Leia's slave costume is not similar to this at all.
The ice planet Hoth is near here, but is a totally different planet.
And below are more production photos from the film. If these don't make you want to watch it, well, you probably don't have a pulse. Or possibly you just have good taste and think life's too short to watch terrible films. Either way.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1963—Profumo Denies Affair
In England, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, denies any impropriety with showgirl Christine Keeler and threatens to sue anyone repeating the allegations. The accusations involve not just infidelity, but the possibility acquaintances of Keeler might be trying to ply Profumo for nuclear secrets. In June, Profumo finally resigns from the government after confessing his sexual involvement with Keeler
and admitting he lied to parliament.
1978—Karl Wallenda Falls to His Death
World famous German daredevil and high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, founder of the acrobatic troupe The Flying Wallendas, falls to his death attempting to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda is seventy-three years old at the time, but it is a 30 mph wind, rather than age, that is generally blamed for sending him from the wire.
2006—Swedish Spy Stig Wennerstrom Dies
Swedish air force colonel Stig Wennerström, who had been convicted in the 1970s of passing Swedish, U.S. and NATO secrets to the Soviet Union over the course of fifteen years, dies in an old age home at the age of ninety-nine. The Wennerström affair, as some called it, was at the time one of the biggest scandals
of the Cold War.
The federal penitentiary located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay closes. The island had been home to a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison over the years. In 1972, it would become a national recreation area open to tourists, and it would receive national landmark designations in 1976 and 1986.
1916—Einstein Publishes General Relativity
German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity. Among the effects of the theory are phenomena such as the curvature of space-time, the bending of rays of light in gravitational fields, faster than light universe expansion, and the warping of space time around a rotating body.
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