If he's German we're a couple of Midwestern turkey farmers.
Erhard von Sprecher, author of 1954's Les mains rouges, or “red hands,” is a pseudonym. Has to be, right? French mid-century policier and espionage authors loved pen names, so much so that few of the authors wrote under their real names. We're not sure why, but we suspect that they felt it gave their books credibility if they adopted American sounding names like Patrick Rock (Louis Valgrand), Jerry Lewray (Louis de la Hattais), Slim Harrisson (Jacques Dubessy), et al. In this case, the name von Sprecher was used to give this tale about an S.S. agent who refuses to admit the Third Reich lost World War II a sense of firsthand German reality, but he was almost certainly a French writer—though one so obscure there's no information out there. Maybe something will turn up later. In any case, we decided to feature this book not because of von Sprecher's name, interesting as that is, but because of the striking red hand art. And guess what? We can't find out who did that either. C'est comme cela que ça se passe.
Anyone can be calm until the cops start poking around.
Tension, for which you see an excellent promo poster above and two more below, is an unlikely but interesting film noir about a mild mannered pharmacist played by Richard Basehart, who's married to hot-to-trot Audrey Totter and discovers she's cheating on him. When she finally leaves him for an apelike creature played by Lloyd Gough, and the ape issues Basehart a solid beating, he decides he's been pushed too far. You'd think that pharmacists would be among that select group of people you really don't want to anger, but this particular pharmacist has a much more elaborate scheme in mind than just a dose of chemicals, and his determination to commit an untraceable murder leads to him building a very traceable double life. In that second life things get complicated when he meets lovely Cyd Charisse, who he wants to make a permanent addition to his future.
Basehart's plot will not go as intended, of course, but the way in which it fails is a surprise, and the complications keep piling up. Tension has flaws, to be sure. The detective played by Barry Sullivan does things that, as far as we know, would get any murder case tossed out of court, but you have to go with it, since he tells you from the jump he'll do anything to solve a case. The plusses of the movie outweigh any weird bits, and with Totter on board, it's probably a must-see. The sinuous clarinet melody she gets every time she appears onscreen is over-the-top, but she's a major scenery chewer anyway, so it actually fits. We didn't like her in Lady in the Lake, but she's delivered in everything else we've seen—this flick, particularly. And Charisse, by the way, gets one of the better entrances we've seen in vintage cinema, straddling two high railings with a camera in hand. She's as hot as a human being can get. Tension premiered today in 1949.
It's the year 11,959 and everything is screwed worse than ever.
We thought we'd hit the sci-fi genre, since it's been a while, and chose Edmond Hamilton's Star of Life. It's one of the books visible in the photo of a 1959 airport paperback rack we showed you in August. The story concerns an astronaut named Kirk Hammond whose lunar capsule goes off course toward the far reaches of the solar system. Hammond decides to end his life rather than starve in the void, and when he vents the capsule the absolute cold of space freezes him. He awakens in the hot spacecraft hurtling back toward Earth. Turns out he was frozen so rapidly that his cells sustained no damage, and re-entry has thawed and revived him.
He's thrilled to be alive, but when he lands he's stunned to learn he's made a long elliptical orbit through the solar system and returned to Earth 10,000 years after he left. He's immediately caught in the middle of a millennia-old conflict between two races—the Vramen, immortal humanoids who control all galactic space, and the Hoomen, descended from ancient humans, and imprisoned on Earth. At least that's how it all sets up at first. Revelations are in the offing. Hammond is rescued by the Hoomen, but the Vramen have seen the capsule arrive, and their search for this strange object sends Hoomen-Vramen tensions into overdrive, while Hammond himself, as a being 10,000 years old, has the potential to permanently alter the balance of power.
Star of Life has some big concepts and it's spread over a galactic backdrop, but like a lot of science fiction, it's written at basically a junior high level. We had to laugh when one of the characters dropped the nugget: “We made an hypothetical reconstruction.” Here's an helpful hint for Hamilton and his editors. Don't teach your impressionable young readers to talk like knobs. It's not good for them. Still, the book is entertaining—utterly weightless, mind you, but fun in an awkward, haven't-gotten-laid yet sort of way. This Crest edition is from 1959 and the psychedelic cover art is by Richard Powers. Now back to our regularly scheduled grown people fiction.
Her story is more dream than nightmare, but that's why it's fiction.
The World of Suzie Wong was the definition of a polarizing film, generally liked by audiences, but often reviled by social observers. For the former group it was just entertainment, a risqué Cinderella fantasy. For the latter group, it was an exercise in cinematic irresponsibility. Few filmmakers have been interested in exploring the human trafficking, physical and psychological abuse, drugs, and destroyed futures that predominate prostitution, but that's no surprise—filmmaking is about moneymaking, and who'd normally go see a movie that was such a downer? While it's true that 2015's Tangerine was acclaimed, it was also shot on three iPhones. Its director has moved on to bigger budgets because he wants to make money too. So let's first of all accept Suzie Wong for what it is: a mainstream film exploring the idea of a rare type of prostitute—the one clearly destined for a better life.
The idea isn't actually so outlandish. Our personal experience has taught us that there are all kinds of hookers. In Brazil, some do it for two weeks bracketing Carnival and make more money than they do working their regular jobs the rest of the year. They don't consider themselves to be prostitutes. They consider themselves to be modern-minded and smart. When PSGP worked at Playboy he was aware of models (anecdotally) and porn actresses (definitely) who did it when they had money troubles. There are plenty of men who'll pay to sleep with his favorite centerfold or porn star, and the money she earns is all hers—none goes to an agent or grifter boyfriend. Models were occasionally invited to certain Middle Eastern oil states and were paid many thousands of dollars per week just to attend swank social occasions and be friendly. The friendliest—interpret that how you wish—would be welcome to stay for months and earn gifts, while the less friendly ones quickly would be shipped out. The point is there are all types.
So while people who hate Suzie Wong are correct that a depiction of prostitution that doesn't explore the typical reality reinforces a false narrative about what is a dirty and dangerous job, the movie is simply a piece of entertainment—and has the right to be. It's no more about real prostitution than Raiders of the Lost Ark is about real archaeology. You'll have to gloss over its imperialist ethnic snobbery too. But if you choose to cross the disbelief suspension bridge, it's a pretty entertaining flick, a drama about an American artist in Hong Kong played by William Holden who meets a local prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, asks her to model for him, and over the course of their increasingly fruitful artistic collaboration finds himself drawn to her. Kwan makes no secret of the fact that she immediately has feelings for Holden, but he resists—not forever, obviously. At that point the difficult question of whether they can actually make a life together—or should even try—is what the plot explores.
Suzie Wong's gimmick of a hooker's love completing a man who's lonely or adrift has been used in films such as Irma la Douce, Night Shift, and Pretty Woman, and audiences responded favorably because, at their core, all those films are romances. But there's more to Suzie Wong than just its sooty Cinderella aspects. At a time of still-rigid ideas about female purity, it asked male viewers to consider the possibility that the number of men a woman sleeps with is immaterial. So in that sense it's a forward thinking film—something usually forgotten by its critics. The source novel by Richard Mason is probably more nuanced, but we haven't read it. We do know, however, that he wrote it after staying at the Luk Kwok Hotel in Hong Kong, which was a brothel. So maybe he learned a little something that gave his book—and the film—a bit more verité than people generally suspect. When you include its great exteriors and sets, and Kwan herself in a starmaking role, the result is exotic, emotional, and at times uplifting. The World of Suzie Wong premiered in the U.S. today in 1960. See more promo images here and here.
Small town jealousy leads to big time problems in Lupino noir classic.
Duh DUH duh duh DUH. He has a degree is philosophy...
Duh DUH duh duh DUH. He's broken over thirty bones...
Wait—wrong movie. That's the 1989 Road House, Patrick Swayze's unimprovable existential pugilistic epic. The movie we mean to discuss is the 1948 Road House, which premiered today and starred Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm, and Richard Widmark. Nobody destroys an automobile showroom by driving a monster truck through it. Instead Ida Lupino drives her monster truck through a couple of male egos and teaches them lessons about a woman's right to choose her own life—and her own man. This gimmick-free proto-feminist drama is an excellent example from the film noir genre, and it's exhibit A why Lupino is a legend. She's mighty good in this. Mighty mighty good.
Duh DUH duh duh DUH. She has a degree from the school of hard knocks...
Duh DUH duh duh DUH. She's broken over thirty hearts...
They say you can't buy love, but you just have to know where to shop.
Above: a striking if weathered cover for Gilbert Miller's novelization of the 1957 movie The Flesh Is Weak, which is about how a ring of sex traffickers trick naive women into street prostitution. It stars Milly Vitale, and the painting here by John Richards is a very good likeness of her, despite its cartoonish style. We also like the fur. She must have borrowed it from her pimp. To see our other material on this film just click its keywords below and scroll.
Everything that matters happens while the city sleeps.
This poster for The Sleeping City says it's the exciting successor to The Naked City. That's a mighty bold claim, considering The Naked City was directed by the legendary Jules Dassin and was selected for permanent preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress's National Film Registry, while The Sleeping City was directed by the not-quite-legendary George Sherman, who mostly helmed westerns and received a Golden Boot Award for his contributions to the Western film genre. Both were skilled at their craft, no doubt. But there's a big difference between the National Film Registry and the Golden Boot.
The Sleeping City is a New York City based crime thriller, and it starts with a cheeseball introduction in which lead Richard Conte pays tribute to Bellevue Hospital and its doctors and nurses. It was tacked onto the finished picture after city officials learned that the public already viewed the hospital negatively, and a crime thriller set there might make those perceptions worse. But it was still a silly thing to do—Bellevue was a public hospital. It wasn't like it was going to lose ad revenue from bad publicity. In any case, we're glad these sorts of “the story you're about to see” preambles didn't last long in Hollywood.
Once the movie gets started, Conte plays a cop sent undercover to solve a murder at the hospital. He's posing as a doctor and has some medical experience, but is by all means to avoid being roped into a situation where he actually has to do any doctoring. If he gets in a jam of that sort he's supposed to sacrifice his cover, and as reliably as the turn of a script page, he gets trapped into treating a case of diabetic shock. He decides to forge ahead rather than step aside. One could ponder his ethics, but luckily he gets through by the skin of his teeth. Whew.
Conte sticks his long nose in various nooks and crannies around Bellevue, makes goo-goo eyes with ward nurse Coleen Gray, and finds himself roomed with a hothead doctor named Steve. The murder mystery eventually lands right in his lap when his roommate turns up dead—lucky break that—and an important clue is provided by a nurse played by Peggy “Wow*” Dow. We won't tell you how the plot unspools from that point. We'll just say The Sleeping City is a functional thriller worth a watch. With Conte and Gray on board, it's pretty hard to fail. The film premiered today in 1950.
*Not her official nickname. That's just how we think of her.
They fought the law and the law won.
Indeed guns don't argue. Rarely have truer words screamed from a movie poster, and we've come across few titles more fitting for a crime film. What you get here is a narrated docudrama about how U.S. federal agents began to carry guns, and use them. In the past they hadn't been authorized to do so, but faring poorly against machine gun-toting gangsters like Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde changed that. Pretty soon we see g-men picking off criminals like tin ducks in a shooting gallery, and the narrator drones lines such as, “Like flies to a sticky bun the curious clustered at the sound of the excitement.” Mmm... sticky buns.
The movie was edited together from three episodes of the moralizing 1952 television series Gangbusters and released on the national b-circuit in September 1957. It's as slapdash as it sounds, cheap as single-ply toilet paper, clumsily scripted, and hilariously acted by the likes of Jeanne Carmen, Myron Healey, and Lash La Rue. We recommend giving it a pass unless you want to subject it to the Mystery Science Theatre treatment—i.e. watch it with booze and smart-ass friends. But even if the movie purely sucks, we had to show you this poster. It's quite a nice item. We have a zoom on selling point Jeanne Carmen below. Guns Don't Argue premiered in the U.S. this month in 1957.
Blaxploitation flick goes slapstick and the result is bold but bad.
This poster for the blaxploitation flick Darktown Strutters, aka Get Down and Boogie, is a high quality piece of art. The movie it promotes, conversely, is a low quality piece of art, one of those efforts any rational assessment concludes is an utter disaster, but which has advocates, among them Quentin Tarantino. The advocates are wrong. Tarantino—and it pains us to say this—is wrong. This musical-alleged-comedy about a female motorcycle gang in L.A. battling the owner of a fried chicken franchise is about as entertaining as watching a circus clown punch himself repeatedly in the nose. If you watch it with your Vaudevillian cortex activated you might get a few bemused laughs. And if you dig into it with a pickaxe and mining helmet you might find commentary upon cultural appropriation, feminism, capitalism, and law enforcement. But if you examine it from a technical point of view you'll simply cringe, even factoring in its highly limiting three-day shooting schedule. Since when does lofty intent stand in for basic execution? We missed that memo. But we do love the poster (by an artist we were not able to identify), and we like the promo images below. They show Edna Richardson, Bettye Sweet, Shirley Washington and, front and center, Trina Parks, who thankfully had other opportunities to show her actual talent. Darktown Strutters premiered in the U.S. today in 1975.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
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