Tom Neal takes an alternate route directly to trouble.
Years ago we shared a poster for the low budget Tom Neal/Ann Savage film noir Detour, which premiered today in 1945. That promo is a photo-illustration and one of our favorite film noir posters. Above is an alternate poster for the movie, and it's also nice, but not in the same class as the previous piece. We touched on the movie only briefly back then, making a few comments from our memories of seeing it years earlier, but we gave it a close watch yesterday for the first time in a long while.
Tom Neal stars as a nightclub musician who hitchhikes from New York City to Los Angeles to reunite with his girlfriend, who'd gone there earlier to try her luck in show business. He takes a ride from a “Miama” bookie, ends up accidentally killing him, and flees with the car. The next day and a ways down the road he picks up another hitchhiker—Ann Savage—who happened to have accepted a ride from the bookie earlier. Neal has picked up the only person in the world who can turn his bad luck into a one-way trip to the gas chamber. She figures out right away that the bookie must be dead, and uses her knowledge to cruel advantage:
“Just remember who's boss around here. If you shut up and don't give me any arguments, you'll have nothing to worry about. But if you act wise, well, mister, you'll pop into jail so fast it'll give you the bends. [snip] As crooked as you look, I'd hate to see a fella as young as you wind up sniffin' that perfume that Arizona hands out free to murderers.”
You get plenty of film noir attributes here: tough dialogue, voiceover, flashback, nightmare, silhouette, rear projection, rain, fog, bad luck, terrible decisions, lonely highway, and a dangerous femme fatale. Thinking beyond the confines of the screenplay, there's an interesting discussion to be had about why Savage is so mean. There's a suggestion that men have made her that way, and an equal amount of suggestion that she's bad by nature. In either case, she's one of the worst passengers any snakebitten cinematic sap ever picked up on the road. She makes Detour about as good as cheapie film noir gets.
I'll tell you one thing. After today we won't complain so much when someone steals a couple of our towels.
The two photos above show an LAPD detective and two witnesses re-enacting a robbery (notice the detective is aiming a gun in the top photo) that occurred today in 1951 at the Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Two gunmen had gotten away earlier in the day with a bundle of cash. Newspaper accounts differ about how much. The San Bernadino County Sun, in its evening edition published later, pegged the amount at $1,073 ($12,275 today), but the Los Angeles Times morning edition printed the next day claimed it was $500 ($5,731). The Times is probably a more reliable source, and with more time to get the amount right we'd tend to think its report is correct, but $500 is a conveniently round number, whereas the $1,073 reported by the Sun is very specific. Either way, we imagine the terrified hotel employees surrended every dollar on hand.
The reason the story caught our eye, though, is because the Garden of Allah was one of the most famous hotels in Los Angeles at the time. The Spanish revival complex consisting of a main building, villas, restaurant, bar, pool, and landscaped grounds, opened in 1927 and quickly became a favorite stopover for Tinseltown glitterati. Everyone from Lauren Bacall to Orson Welles spent time or stayed there, and the place was described by one resident as in “continual tumult” because of all the intrigues, disturbances, and minor scandals. But all of its celebrity history and architectural significance amounted to nothing among the ranks of those who sought so-called progress, because like so many other Hollywood landmarks, this iconic property fell to the wrecking ball when it was demolished in 1959 to make way for a bank.
You can love her but you can never trust her.
A while back we said we'd skip the 1954 Orrie Hitt novel Cabin Fever because we had several other Hitt books awaiting our attention. But the cover art for 1959's Tawny enticed us, so we bought it and—turns out we didn't pass on Cabin Fever after all, because Tawny is Cabin Fever published under a new name. It was also published yet again in 1974 as Lovers at Night. Lesson: watch out for re-titles in vintage literature. But it's okay. Hitt is interesting if erratic, and since this is an early effort from him—possibly only his third, though we can't be sure because he published four books in 1954—we were curious to have a look.
Tawny follows the travails of Danny O'Conner, who takes a job managing a sprawling lakeside roadhouse/casino/cabin complex called the Flying Red Rooster and quickly becomes romatically entangled with the boss's omnivorous wife, the eponymous Tawny Stone. She hates her husband but divorcing him would mean losing her stake in the business she originally financed. You'd think this would lead to the usual murder-the-husband scheme, but Hitt twists the plot the other direction when the husband approaches Danny and says that he wants Tawny to die or disappear.
So the question is who tries to kill who? Or maybe they both take a whack at homicide. We ain't saying. In the end, though, you still have juicy adultery and a sinister murder plot. We've read a lot of books along those lines, often by better writers, but we've read them by worse writers too. In the hands of a top stylist Tawny might have been a real barnburner. As it is, we can call it readable but not special. The art on this Beacon Signal edition (it was also published by Softcover Library in 1969) is by an unknown, which is too bad because it's one of the better covers on a Hitt novel. The far less tawny original painting appears below.
For every job there's a perfect tool.
In Ed Lacy's 1961 boxing drama The Big Fix, the fix is defnitely in, and in the worst way possible. Tommy Cork, a thirty-something middleweight boxer who in his prime battled Sugar Ray Robinson, becomes the pet project of a dilletante boxing manager who promises that with the best training, diet, and promotion Cork can reach the top again. Sounds good, but Tommy has unwittingly become the focus of a deadly scam, a plan to find some desperate boxer with a reputation for ugly losses, make a show of training him for high profile bouts, all the while taking out a life insurance policy on him, then having a hammerfisted accomplice kill him in the ring. Since the murder will happen before a crowd, there will be no suspicion of foul play, particularly for a pug known for fighting stubbornly and hitting the canvas hard.
But nothing is straightforward in Lacy's hands. Tommy's wife May, hopeful for a better life, gets into trouble with violent numbers runners, an aspiring writer sees the couple as the perfect pathetic characters to be the focus of a novel, an ex-boxer cop starts to get wise to the murder scheme, and other twists come from nowhere to infinitely complicate the tale. Despite the subplots, as readers you know the only fitting climax is one that takes place in the ring, and Lacy pushes the story inexorably toward that showdown, hapless Tommy facing off against a man who plans to kill him with a relentless assault, or if possible a single blow. If he's going to have help, he'll need to provide it himself. As usual, Lacy tells a good story. He's reliably full of excellent ideas. That also goes for Ernest Chiriacka, who painted the eye-catching cover.
If only you could see the world the way I see it.
Above: an amazing shot of Austrian actress Marisa Mell made while she was filming the Italian drama Una sull’atra, aka Perversion Story in 1969.
Seventy-five minutes of movie time never went so slowly.
Above you see a poster for Hold Back Tomorrow, a movie written and directed by Hugo Haas, the man behind numerous low budget noirs, usually with Cleo Moore in a leading role. This effort is more of a melodrama than a film noir, but Haas and Moore dutifully collaborate once again, with Moore introduced to the audience when despondency over her descent into prostitution prompts her to jump off a bridge. Her suicide attempt is thwarted by a passerby and she returns to her lowly room, pretty much beaten by life.
Next the audience meets the world's most annoying death row inmate John Agar, who, when promised a last wish by the warden, asks for several ridiculous things, most importantly a woman to keep him company. Just like that two prison officials go to the local dance hall, catch wind of Moore, ask her to keep Agar company, and conduct her, bedraggled and knackered from her near-death experience, to the penitentiary.
Most of the remainder of the film consists of Moore-the-suicidal and Agar-the-soon-to-be-executed getting to know each other in the cozy confines of his cell. Agar sums up the tedium of this with his hilarious line: “Shut up! I didn't ask for a psychiatrist. I asked for a girl!” Nevertheless, Moore keeps digging into that restive brain of his, and the two trade insights, debate finer existential points, talk of their pasts, fall in love, and get married by the prison priest before Agar is marched off to the death chamber for his just desserts. Oops—spoiler alert.
The movie is exactly as cheesy as it sounds, and isn't a mandatory watch when there are scores of better period films from which to choose. Seriously—state authorities lock a suicidal woman in a cell with a convicted strangler? Come on. But don't take our word for it. Try it yourself and see if you feel like tomorrow can't come fast enough. Hold Back Tomorrow opened this month in 1955.
I wore my best dress. I hope this isn't too festive for death row.
So I hear you're a strangler and dead man walking. That's fascinating. I'm a dancer and part-time hooker.
My time in prison has taught me that strangling was always just a cry for help and a substitute for snuggling.
Do you think we're in command of our own destinies, or do you think we were always meant to be in such a bad movie?
Screw destiny! I believe in free will and I'm outta here!
Okay, my dear. Let's get you back indoors. You've provided Italy more than enough spank bank material for one day.
We recently showed you Abbe Lane on one of her album covers, but we've brought her back today because of this fun photo and the ones below. Lane was once deemed by Italian television authorities to be too sexy for broadcast. That's right—in Italy. So you can imagine the excitement when she donned this striped bikini for a photo shoot on the Lido in Venice, Italy during the summer of 1956. The proprietary arm belongs to her husband, Spanish bandleader Xavier Gugat. We think of the couple as the Beyoncé and Jay Z of their era, which is to say, Lane is waaaay too pretty for Cugat. She was also thirty-one years younger than him, which just goes to show what talent can do for a man:
Xavier: You have inspired me, baby. I will write a song about you.
Abbe: You've already written me dozens, Xavier. All that cha-cha stuff is getting a little old.
Xavier: Music is just one of my abilities, cariño. Did I ever make you my authentic paella Valenciana with garrofó and rabbit? I almost became a chef, you know, but music beckoned.
Abbe: Men have cooked for me before. Yves Montand once made me a chocolate and pear soufflé. It was an exquisite grace note in a magnificently composed dinner, and that wasn't even really the dessert.
Xavier: Yes, that Yves. How urbane of him. How about I give you a purifying seaweed mask and a pedicure? I am a bit of an amateur aesthetician, and I love your feet.
Abbe: My skin—in case you haven't noticed—is perfect. Several men told me that today, and a cabana boy named Guido gave me a foot rub. You were snorkeling at the time.
Xavier: Grrr... I see. Well, I could paint your portrait. I am quite a good artist. I spent some time studying egg tempera at the Reial Acadèmia Catalana.
Abbe: I could never sit still that long again. Marcello Mastroianni painting me nude last year was quite enough. Day after day, hour after hour in that... well, frankly provocative pose he wanted. You were on tour, but I knew you wouldn't mind.
Xavier: Is that so? Well, fine, but I was at his house just a month ago. Why did he not show me this painting?
Abbe: I don't know. It's hanging right in his bedroom. So he tells me.
Xavier: *sigh* No meal, no skin care, no song. I guess I am just an old man unable to impress you any longer. When we get back to the villa I will simply take out the garbage, then finish reading that book I was—
Abbe: Take out the garbage? Oh, sweetheart. Tell you what—you do that and I'll put on the g-string and thigh-high boots you like and meet you in the bedroom.
The lesson from that day in Venice is that, for a wife, the ultimate turn-on is a husband who's willing to do chores. Cugat spent eleven years with Lane before they finally divorced in June 1964. She was married again before the year was over, which was a pretty fast rebound and remarriage even for Hollywood. Meanwhile, a few years later Cugat married Spanish singer and dancer Charo, who was his junior by fifty-one or forty-one years, depending on who you believe. Either way, music, cooking, and even chores are all fine, but maybe Cugat's real talent was bedazzling younger women.
At this point she has no idea which way to turn.
Above is an alternate promo poster for Tension, with cool upside down imagery of a figure representing star Audrey Totter. We say “representing” because it doesn't really look like Totter, but it's her alright. It was modeled after a promo photo. The movie also starred Richard Basehart and the incandescent Cyd Charisse. We talked about this last year, so if you want to know more, click here. And if you want to see more of Totter click here, or Charisse (a must), click here and here. Tension premiered today in 1949.
Southwest Florida gets obliterated but most of the wreckage is human in MacDonald disaster drama.
The three weather based thrillers we've discussed—A Town Is Drowning, Tropical Disturbance, and Death at Flood Tide—represent a minor fraction of the total in mid-century fiction. It's no surprise, then, that an author as prolific as John D. MacDonald also tested the waters. Murder in the Wind, also known as Hurricane, came in 1956 during the more fertile, less censorious period for MacDonald, and presents readers with a disparate selection of people who all hole up in an abandoned house during a hurricane named Hilda. Eventually the house is swept away entirely, but the story is never less than solidly grounded and engrossing. If your time is limited you might skip this one in favor of The Damned, which is a close cousin, conceptually speaking, but otherwise Murder in the Wind is a necessary read. You get all the fulfillment you'd want from a disaster drama.
New and improved Picchioni dance tights! They'll never tear a seam, even if your body does!
Italian illustrator Franco Picchioni conceived a balletic cover pose for John J. Everett's Assi allo sbaraglio. If we tried this position everything we have would split down the middle, up to and including our pride. The title of the book translates to “aces in disarray,” so we'd be suffering from asses in disarray. But speaking of stretched to the limit, let's stop with this strain of thought before it wears out completely. John J. Everett was a pseudonym, of course, but we don't know for whom, and his novel is part of Edizioni MA-GA's Il Cerchio Rosso collection, though we can't pinpoint the year. Nothing is working for us today, but we'll bend over backwards trying to find more info.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
1963—Warren Commission Formed
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However the long report that is finally issued does little to settle questions
about the assassination, and today surveys show that only a small minority of Americans agree with the Commission's conclusions.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
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