A city with no exit.
Milano Calibro 9, for which you see a promo poster painted by Renato Casaro, is a fun entry in the ranks of Italian crime cinema. Derived from a book of twenty-two short stories by Giorgio Scerbanenco, the plot follows a career thief played by a deadpan Gastone Moschin who's suspected by a crime kingpin of stealing $300,000 of his money. When Moschin is released from prison he's dogged by the kingpin and the local cops, who both want him to produce the cash. But he says he doesn't have it. The fact that the money is missing is what's keeping him alive for the moment, but if he doesn't come up with it the kingpin will kill him.
This trapped ex-con scenario runs along classic lines familiar to fans of vintage noirs, which works to the movie's benefit and disadvantage simultaneously. On the negative side, the plot offers little new in the gangster genre, and contemporary reviews pointed that out, but on the positive the movie has gritty Milan exteriors (shot when air pollution was still a major problem throughout the industrialized West), a cold-as-ice mood, a set of great character actors as various brutal criminals, and the presence of Barbara Bouchet as the world's least rhythmic but most beautiful go-go dancer.
What really sets Milano Calibro 9 apart, though, is its political undertones. The police investigation is hampered by a bitter division between classic rightwing commissioner Frank Wolff and far left head inspector Luigi Pistilli. Their ideological conflict and its implicaition of widespread class struggle in Italy gives the movie's fight over loose money a significance that still resonates today. In our era characterized by (among other serious problems) a yawning financial inequality gap, Milano Calibro 9 is a reminder that cinematic thrillers weren't always politically mindless. We recommend it. It premiered in Italy today in 1972.
He's watching your every move.
Above is an Italian poster for the U.S. drama I, Mobster, a 1959 crime drama starring Steve Cochran that we discussed earlier this year. This promo is different from the U.S. version but still features lettering across Cochrane's eye—though the visual pun of having the actual letter “I” cross his eye is not achievable in Italian. But we still like this for its successful conveyance of mood, and we liked the movie enough to want to circle back to it. It's obscure, but pretty good. Plus it introduced us to Lita Milan.
She has all the qualities you look for.
U.S. actress Lita Milan, born in Brooklyn as Iris Maria Lia Menshell, had a short Hollywood career She started in 1954, and her last motion picture—I, Mobster—came in 1959. But she remained in the public eye. In 1960 she married Ramfis Trujillo, who happened to be the son of Rafael Trujillo, longtime dictator of the Dominican Republic. We assume she fell for the ole, “I don't want to be like my father,” routine, but when pops was assassinated in 1961, Ramfis sought out and killed some of the plotters himself. He became leader of the country, and Milan, presumably, became first lady of sorts. It didn't last long—less than a year later they left the D.R. for exile. The above photo predates all those adventures, circa 1957.
Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.
Above you see a U.S. promo poster for the crime drama I, Mobster, starring Steve Cochran in a rags-to-riches, innocence-to-corruption tale of a neighborhood kid who becomes a top man in the mob. The film was based on a 1951 novel of the same name published anonymously, but later identified as coming from the typewriter of Joseph Hilton Smyth, who also wrote Angels in the Gutter. The early plot driver is the mob's attempt to extort cash payments out of a powerful trade union. The plan is to offer services as “outside labor relations experts.” Cochran, as an ambitious footsoldier, expands the mob's vision, its areas of interest, and its profits. Pretty soon he's riding high, high, high. But it can't last. Of course not.
The film has the usual elements from this sub-genre: the round-the-way girl who offers redemption, the wailing mom who implores her son to go straight, the unimpressed father who eventually disowns him, the mob boss who's worried about his brash number two, and the ticking bomb—i.e. the seeds of destruction planted earlier. Here it's a little boy who knows Cochran killed a man. He grows up and becomes enfolded in the mob too, which places him in perfect position to blackmail Cochran. But Cochran is a tough cookie. It may take more than an ambitious twenty-something to bring him down, and it may be that the true seeds of destruction were planted earlier and elsewhere.
While the plot elements may be typical, the cast isn't. Cochran is a good, intense, underrated screen presence. Robert Strauss is perfect as Cochran's right hand man and steadying influence. The radiant Lili St. Cyr spices up the proceedings midway through with a burlesque routine. And the stunning Lita Milan is excellent as the good girl-turned-mob moll. In addition, the film is solidly directed. You often see I, Mobster, described as an early Roger Corman movie. Does a director's twentieth movie count as early? Corman knows what he's doing here. His road forked into the dark woods of schlock, but helming this production, with a low budget, he managed to squeeze out a solid b-mobster flick. There's nothing fresh in it, but with this cast freshness isn't needed. I, Mobster premiered today in 1959.
Don't play coy, baby. Would you rather be with a gangsta like me or some accountant from fuckin' donkeyville?
That's what I thought.
Don't worry. Lava's slow. I'm fast. I'll undress, we'll screw, then we'll run for our lives.
When we lived in Central America there were three volcanoes that loomed over our town. One's slope commenced just a few miles away and its peak dominated the sky to the south, but that one was extinct. The other two were not. One was dormant, but the other was active and smoked nonstop, with the prevailing wind carrying the ash away from town. This mountain occasionally shot out fountains of lava hundreds of feet high, which is a sight that will make you realize how insignificant you are the same way seeing a tornado or massive wave will. These mountains stood sentinel over many of our adventures, and were even involved in a few, including the time we visited a village on the extinct volcano and a mob of about thirty people beat a suspected thief to death.
Another time the top of that volcano started glowing red one night when we were hanging out at one of the local bars. We stood in the street with our drinks watching this spectacle, and pretty soon we could see flames around the mountain's peak. We thought we were seriously screwed. It was always understood that if that dead volcano ever came back to life there was nothing to do but kiss your ass goodbye. We decided to redouble our drinking. It turned out the flames were caused by a forest fire way up by the rim, but we gotta tell you, in those moments when we thought we might be toast, we got very efficiently hammered. It's a great memory, standing in that cobbled colonial lane, guzzling booze and waiting for the mountain to blow us all to hell.
Needless to say, for that reason the cover of 1952's The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes sold us. The art is by Mitchell Hooks and it's close to his best work, we think. We didn't need to know anything about the book. We just wanted to see how the author used a volcano—specifically Vesuvius—in his tale, since they're a subject personal to us. The cover scene does occur in the narrative, though the couple involved aren't actually trying to have sex. Innes describes this lava lit encounter well. In fact we'd say it's described beyond the ability of even an artist as good as Hooks to capture, but that doesn't mean the book is top notch. Innes simply manages to make the most of his central gimmick.
The narrative deals with a man named Farrell who was tortured during World War II, losing his leg to a fascist doctor who amputated without anesthesia. A handful of years later Farrell is in Europe again, getting around on a prosthetic leg, when a series of events leads to him believing the doctor who tortured him is alive and living under a false identity. In trying to unravel this mystery he travels from Czechoslovakia, to Milan, to Naples, and finally to a villa at the foot of Vesuvius, along the way being pursued but having no idea why. He soon comes to understand that he's thought to be hiding or carrying something. But what? Why? And where? Where could he be carrying something valuable without his knowledge? Well, there's that hollow leg of his he let get out of his sight one night when he got blackout drunk...
That was a spoiler but since you probably don't have a volcano fetish you aren't going to seek out this novel, right? The main flaw with The Angry Mountain is that, ironically, there's not much heat. Farrell is an alcoholic and has PTSD, so he's not an easy protagonist to get behind. And his confusion about what's happening gives the first-person narrative the feel of going around in circles much of the time. And because this is a 1950s thriller, there's the mandatory love interest—or actually two—and that feels unrealistic when you're talking about a one-legged boozehound who has nightmares, cold sweats, and general stability problems. So the book, while evocative, is only partly successful. But those volcano scenes. We sure loved those.
Oh, I plan to go for his body, alright. Particularly below the belt. I hope he plans the same for mine.
Ed Lacy is a fascinating writer, a fearless conceptualizer who sought unique angles for his vivid, often racially charged tales. His 1954 novel Go for the Body is a story of amazing imagination dealing with an ex-boxer and would-be promotor named Ken Francine who runs across a black American boxer in Paris. Francine already knows this other boxer, Bud Stewart, from Stateside. In fact, Stewart was the reason Francine retired, a decision brought on by a brutal ass-whipping that exposed his deficiencies in the ring. Now, years later in Paris, Francine sees an opportunity for profit, and begins pushing Stewart up the ladder in the European fight racket. The text on the cover art is deceptive. The book isn't really about the love story, “DIFFERENT” or otherwise, between Stewart and his beautiful wife. It's about Francine, local politics, the dirty work of promoting boxers, and murder.
In the hands of a brilliant writer this could have been an all-time classic. Don't get us wrong—it's still enjoyable. Lacy evokes the atmosphere of Paris effortlessly by sharing minute details. He never crosses the line into travelogue. A quip about the trendiness and expense of Perrier followed by a local's aside that the pipes in European cities weren't always great is enough to plant the idea in the reader's head that fizzy bottled water became popular because it was known to be clean. Another example is how Lacy doesn't bother to describe any of the geography or people of Champs-Élysées, but simply notes that you see big American cars there. He makes clever choices like these throughout Go for the Body, never taking the obvious route, instead relying on readers' ingrained knowledge of Paris from popular culture to fill in the blanks.
His plot does the same. There are few obvious turns. Guessing which direction the narrative will go will likely prove fruitless. Of course, certain aspects are required, such as the Parisian flavor, the post-war malaise, and the nostalgia for a lost love. And naturally, boxing novels nearly always lead up to a big fight, and this one does too, in Milan, Italy. But there's far more on the line in that final bout than any reader could possibly suspect when the book begins. That's the main reason we give Go for the Body a thumbs up—its scope. Lacy is no Faulkner or Malamud, and his main character Ken Francine is confoundingly slow-witted at times (as an ex-fighter who was literally beaten into retirement it's possible he's not supposed to be very bright), but the tale delivers a solid punch. It may not knock you for a loop, but in the end the decision goes in its favor.
Rare perennial blooms on crime book cover.
Not long ago we shared some covers from the Milanese publishers Longanesi & Co., and the lure of those for us was the presence of U.S. model Virginia Gordon on two of them. Here's another Longanesi offering—James Kieran's translated novel Come Murder Me—with burlesque legend Lilly Christine reclining on an ottoman. Longanesi published this in 1957.
Garzanti cover for Bond collection is absolutely favoloso.
Here's a little something to add to the Ian Fleming bin. This is Il favoloso 007 di Fleming, published in Italy in 1973 by the Milan based company Garzanti. It's a compendium of the four James Bond novels Casinò Royal, Vivi e lascia morire, Il grande slam della morte, and Una cascata di diamanti, better known as Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, and Diamonds Are Forever. The cover for this is great, we think, and as a bonus the interior also contains some black and white photos.
But really, we were drawn to this because of the model and her fishnet bodysuit. Or is that lace? Doesn't matter. She's none other than Claudine Auger, aka Domino from 1965's Thunderball. Sean Connery gets a corner of the cover as well, and the rear is interesting too, with its shark and cards from To Live and Let Die. Technically, those cards should be tarots, but whatever, nice art anyway. And speaking of nice, we also located the photo used to make the cover, and you see that below too. Really cool collector's item, which we'd buy if we read Italian. But alas, that isn't one of our languages, so this one still languishes at auction.
Cats always get in the way at the worst moments.
The above cover from the Milan based publishers Longanesi & Co. features U.S. glamour model Virginia Gordon fronting a 1959 translation of Ed McBain's The Pusher. McBain is basically a legend, but is it a stretch to call Gordon legendary too? We don't think so. She was Playboy magazine's January 1959 Playmate of the Month, and because of that her photos are highly collectible and expensive. You'd see two important reasons why if not for a mischievous cat, but you can outmaneuver him by clicking here or here.
Below we have a few more fronts from Longanesi, including Jonathan Craig's Case of the Village Tramp, which also has Gordon on the cover, and John Jakes' detective novel Johnny Havoc, featuring Carol Baker giving a nice over-the-shoulder glance. Like Australia's Horwitz Publications and several other non-U.S. companies, Longanesi used (probably) unlicensed images of Hollywood starlets and glamor models as a matter of habit. We'll show you more examples of those a bit later.
The future's so bleak he has to wear shades.
Above, a poster for the game changing science fiction adventure The Terminator painted for the Czech (then Czechoslovakian) market by Milan Pecak. The fading effect at the bottom of the art is the way Pecak painted it, rather than the result of a bad scan or photo. This movie may look a bit clunky to modern viewers, but so will Avengers: Infinity War in twenty years. Along with stunners like Alien, Blade Runner, and others, The Terminator changed the idea of what cinematic science fiction could be. It premiered in the U.S. in 1984 and eventually arrived in Czechoslovakia as Terminátor today in 1990.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1968—Andy Warhol Is Shot
Valerie Solanas, feminist author of an anti-male tract she called the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), attempts to assassinate artist Andy Warhol by shooting him with a handgun. Warhol survives but suffers health problems for the rest of his life. Solanas serves three years in prison and eventually dies of emphysema at San Francisco's Bristol Hotel in 1988.
1941—Lou Gehrig Dies
New York Yankees baseball player Henry Louis Gehrig, aka The Iron Horse, who set a record for playing in 2,130 consecutive games over the course of fourteen seasons, dies of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, two years after the onset of the illness ended his consecutive games streak.
1946—Antonescu Is Executed
Ion Antonescu, who was ruler of Romania during World War II, and whose policies were independently responsible for the deaths of as many as 400,000 Bessarabian, Ukrainian and Romanian Jews, as well as countless Romani Romanians, is executed by means of firing squad at Fort Jilava prison just outside Bucharest.
1959—Sax Rohmer Dies
Prolific British pulp writer Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, aka Sax Rohmer, who created the popular character Fu Manchu and became one of the most highly paid authors of his time writing fundamentally racist fiction about the "yellow peril" and what he blithely called "rampant criminality among the Chinese", dies of avian flu in White Plains, New York.
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