George Raft does the heavy lifting in 1935 crime thriller.
Is there any vintage movie star as overlooked these days as George Raft? The man was one of the top box office draws of the 1930s and had a string of hits through the 1940s and into the 1950s, including the 1959 smash Some Like It Hot. He was an ace stage dancer at the beginning of his career, but onscreen this natural athlete strikes many modern viewers as too dumpy for the tough guy roles he pioneered. Which makes it ironic that he was associated in real life with several gangsters, which led to him appearing in court, and in turn led to the public believing he was really living the thug life. Rather than hurting his popularity, the whiff of criminality made him more popular—something to keep in mind whenever some self-appointed sociologist slams kids for liking rappers.
Above you see a poster for one of Raft's biggest successes, the 1935 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Glass Key. A 1942 version would also be a big hit for Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and the fact that it was rebooted just seven years after the original would seem to tell you plenty. But Raft's version isn't bad. We think it's simply a case of technical advances in the process of shooting films and the continuing popularity of Hammett making the property an attractive one to redo. Watching both movies back to back is a clinic in how quickly filmmaking advanced as the ’40s rolled around, particularly ideas around staging and editing action.
Even so, Raft made this earlier version of The Glass Key a hit by virtue of his star power, despite the fact that critics were not overly impressed with the film. No less a figure than Graham Greene said it was “unimaginatively gangster,” which is a curiously millennial turn-of-phrase. But Raft, playing the capable right hand man of a top underworld figure who's on the verge of open warfare with his enemies, doesn't deserve any of the blame. His hard boiled persona is the only reason this otherwise static film is worth watching. The Glass Key premiered in the U.S. today in 1935.
In the Ministry of Fear they bake better than they spy.
Fritz Lang was one of the most important directors of his era, both in his native Germany and in the U.S., and was a pioneer of the film noir form. Movies like Scarlet Street and especially The Big Heat are essential noir viewing. Ministry of Fear dates from a bit earlier and finds Lang saddled with what we consider to be a substandard script that through sheer artistry he makes into a watchable film. Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, and Dan Duryea headline in a spy tale that revolves around Lang's favorite villains—the Nazis. Jewish and German, he left his homeland for Paris and beyond during the ascent of the Nazis during the 1930s, so the subject was personal for him, and was one he'd dealt with in previous films such as Cloak and Dagger and Hangmen Also Die.
In Ministry of Fear Milland plays a man who spends two years in a British asylum and is released at a time when World War II is raging and London is being bombed. He goes to charity carnival and is enticed into guessing a cake's weight for a chance to win it, and after being given the correct answer by a fortuneteller, is victorious. But it's soon clear that the correct weight wasn't supposed to be given to him, and he isn't supposed to have the cake. But he really wants it and resists attempts by the carny folks to take it back. He loses it during a train ride when a passenger beats the snot out of him for it, and at that point finally realizes the obvious—sweet though this confection may have been, it wasn't sought by various and sundry for its flavor, but because inside was something important. He wants answers, and he'll have to risk his neck to get them.
Generally with movies it's best to simply accept the premise, but there are limits. We were never clear on why it was necessary to put this important item in a cake. We understand subterfuge is involved in the spy game, but why not just hand the item over in an alley, or a pub bathroom, or a parked car? And if food must be involved, why a cake? Why not a haggis, or something else very few people want to just gobble up on the spot? A dried cod maybe. A blood sausage would have done. Plus they're easy to transport. You can just stick them in your pockets. And in a tight spot a whack across the nose with a blood sausage is far more effective than shoving cake in someone's mug. The cake gimmick was probably—strike that—certainly better explained in Graham Greene's source novel. We haven't read it but we're confident about that. It could have been Lang who screwed the pooch, but it was more likely Seton I. Miller. He was screenwriter as well as executive producer.
In any case Milland bumbles his way through a train trip, across a moor, in and out of a crazy séance, and into a maze of misdirection to the eventual revelation of what's inside the cake, but the whole time we kept thinking the movie should be called Ministry of Cut-Rate Spies. We don't mean to say it's a total loss. It isn't like the Eddie Izzard comedy routine, “Cake or Death.” You won't choose death over cake. But it's a pretty uninspiring flick. The old dramas that have survived have done so for a simple reason. Most of them are good. Ministry of Fear isn't bad. It's just meh. It's like a cake that fell—it's flat and dense, but teases you with how yummy it could have been. It premiered in England today in 1944.
Here, have your cake. And eat it too. Heh. I prefer blood sausage for train trips, but I guess it's better for you I'm not shoving one of those in your face, eh? Wow, you sort of... crush the shit out of your cake before eating it. Have I been eating cake wrong the whole time I've been in England?
Time keeps on ticking ticking ticking into the future.
Above is a poster for the film noir The Big Clock, based on Kenneth Fearing's 1946 novel, with Ray Milland playing a journalist at fictional Crimeways magazine who finds himself entangled with the boss's girlfriend, then in murder when she turns up dead. He had nothing to do with it, but had been seen all over Manhattan with her the night of her death, and is presumed to be the killer though nobody has identified him yet. In classic film noir fashion, Milland's boss sets him to solving the case. But how can he, when he's actually looking for himself? And how can he throw his numerous staffers off the scent while appearing to conduct a legit investigation, yet somehow find the real killer? It's quite a mess.
For casual movie fans, distinguishing film noir from vintage drama can be difficult, but of its many defining characteristics, flag this one: the man who finds himself in a vise that slowly tightens due to what had seemed at first to be inconsequential or random acts. The panting Milland bought in an art shop becomes a potential piece of evidence against him. The cheap sundial he acquired in a bar does the same. The random man he exchanged a few words with becomes a potential witness. And so on. He's the subject of a puzzle that has his face in the center. Other characters are slowly assembling pieces from the edges inward. If Milland doesn't outwit them before they find the piece with his face on it, he's screwed.
In addition to an involving plot, nice technical values, Ray Milland, and a large clock, The Big Clock brings the legendary Charles Laughton to the party, along with Maureen O'Sullivan, a decade removed from her ingenue period playing Jane in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies, all grown up here as the smart, loyal, beautiful wife willing to come to Milland's aid when the chips are down. The film is unique, as well, for its interwoven comedy, unusual in films from this genre. These moments come often, and may seem obtrusive to some, but we thought they fit fine. And that's a good way to sum up The Big Clock. If you're a film noir fan, it'll fit you just fine. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1948.
Ray Milland and Rosie Grier put their heads together.
Is it fair to describe The Thing with Two Heads as a legendary movie? We think so. It's The Wild Ones taken to its shark jumping extreme thanks to the blaxploitation maestros at American International Pictures. Instead of a white convict and a black convict handcuffed together after a prison escape, this flick features a racist white doctor whose head is grafted onto a black patient's body. These two really hate each other, which is a serious problem considering they spend 24/7 at kissing distance, but they're stuck.
Ray Milland, who once won a Best Actor Oscar, is trying to prolong his own life. Grier is a convict on death row who donates his body to science. He has no idea what the science he's donated himself to entails, just that he'll avoid execution for thirty more days and buy time for his relatives and lawyer to prove his innocence. Sounds fun, right? Once Grier wakes up after surgery and realizes what's happened he flees with Milland's noggin riding helplessly along and decides to prove his innocence himself. But Milland is slowly gaining control of their body. You get the feeling this isn't going to end well.
The Thing with Two Heads is low budget, cheeseball, light on genuine humor, and perfunctory in its ending. And yet... how can one resist? Is it an ingenious parable about the historical theft of black bodies by white men? Or is it just a chunk of opportunistic schlock? Only the screenwriters know. We'll say this, though—considering how low this movie could have sunk (picture Milland looking down at Grier's dick and exclaiming, "Whoa! That's bigger than my Oscar!") it's actually pretty restrained. Put it in the better-with-alcohol category and don't watch it alone. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1972.
Their issues have gone way past the point of counseling.
Dial M for Murder, which starred Grace Kelly and Ray Milland as spouses whose problems make other bad marriages look like a Sunday picnic, is a very entertaining movie. For its Italian release today in 1954 it was called Delitto perfetto. This violent but brilliant promo poster was painted by the genius illustrator Angelo Cesselon, who we've featured before. And Hitchcock, nothing less than an international phenomenon in his day, gets his profile into the mix. See Cesselon at his best here.
Hello, is this the murder helpline? I'd like help killing my cheating ass wife.
Most people who haven't seen the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Dial M for Murder jokingly ask, “How could anyone want to kill Grace Kelly?” Well, because she's cheating with another man. Not that infidelity justifies murder, but it certainly can be expected to provoke some sort of serious reaction. Probably Ray Milland, her husband, should have confronted her with the usual questions: “When did it start?” “Do you love him?” “Is his dick bigger than mine?” “Does he make you orgasm and if so how?”
But instead of being reasonable Milland decides his wife needs to be gone from the Earth, so he devises a foolproof murder plot. It goes wrong anyway and that's the fun of the movie—seeing how he cleverly improvises over and over only to have his scheme unravel anyway because of one tiny thing he neglects to consider. Dial M for Murder is another winner from Hitchcock, one you should see if you haven't. It went into general release in the U.S. today in 1954.
The famed poster for the movie was painted by Bill Gold, whose credits include everything from Casablanca to Unforgiven. Gold was active from 1941 to 2011, accumulating numerous awards along the way, and is now retired at age ninety-seven. If you want to learn more about him there's a website that discusses and showcases his seven decades of movie work which you can access at this link. It's well worth a visit.
Could he really be trying to kill me?
I guess it's possible, considering I cucked and humiliated him.
Maybe I shouldn't have told him I'm multi-orgasmic now.
For the crime of murdering the male ego I sentence you to hang by the neck until dead, dead, dead.
What? Seriously? But I've only gotten a third of the way through 101 Sex Positions.
They always say to aim high in life but I’ve found aiming low gets good results too.
Isa Miranda was born in Italy in 1909 as Ines Isabella Sampietro and by 1933 was acting in films. The next year she earned widespread acclaim in Max Ophüls’ La Signora di tutti, a role that paved the way for her to leap to Hollywood where she was billed as an Italian Marlene Dietrich. The above promo shows Miranda in character as Anna from 1939’s Hotel Imperial, a movie in which she shot nobody in the crotch, despite her low aim here.
Only the good go to sleep at night.
The French coined the term film noir, so it seems only fitting to feature a collection of French posters celebrating the genre. Above and below are fifteen examples promoting films noir from France, Britain, and the U.S., representing some of the best ever produced within the art form, as well as some less celebrated examples that we happen to love. Of those, we highly recommend seeing Le salaire de la peur, for which you see the poster above, and Ride the Pink Horse, below, which played as Et tournent les chevaux de bois in France. Just a word about those films (and feel free to skip ahead to the art, because really, who has time these days to listen to a couple of anonymous internet scribes ramble on about old movies?).
1953’s Le salaire de la peur is about a group of men stranded in an oil company town in the mountains of South America. In order to earn the wages to get out, four of them agree to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerine over many miles of dangerous terrain. The idea is to use the chemicals to put out a raging oil well fire that is consuming company profits by the second, but of course the film is really about whether the men can even get there alive. Le salaire de la peur was critically praised when released in Europe, but in the U.S., political factions raised their ugly heads and got censors to crudely re-edit the prints so as to reduce the movie’s anti-capitalist (and by extension anti-American) subtext. The movie was later remade by Hollywood twice—once in 1958 as Hell’s Highway, and again in 1977 as Sorcerer. The original is by far the best.
1947’s Ride the Pink Horse is an obscure noir, but a quintessential one, in our opinion. If many noirs feature embittered World War II vets as their anti-heroes, Robert Montgomery’s Lucky Gagin is the bitterest of them all. He arrives in a New Mexico border town on a quest to avenge the death of a friend. The plot is thin—or perhaps stripped down would be a better description—but Montgomery’s atmospheric direction makes up for that. Like a lot of mid-century films featuring ethnic characters, the most important one is played by a white actor (Wanda Hendrix, in a coating of what looks like brown shoe polish). It's racist, for sure, but within the universe of the film Lucky Gagin sees everyone around him only as obstacles or allies—i.e., equals within his own distinct worldview. So that makes up for it. Or maybe not. In any case, we think Ride the Pink Horse is worth a look. Thirteen more posters below.
I didn’t mean to make you die, I’m just a jealous guy.
Though we're just getting around to featuring Inside Story here on Pulp for the first time, it was one of the better-known tabloids on American newsstands. We aren’t sure when it began publishing, but we’ve seen issues dating from 1955. And looking the other direction, we can make an educated guess that it folded in the early seventies, because we’ve seen no issues past 1971. In this March 1956 issue, quite a few celebrities get the smear treatment. Lena Horne’s interracial marriage is discussed, along with Greta Garbo’s suspicious lack of a spouse, and Roy Rogers' goodie-goodie image, and we learn about the dietary tricks of the day as well as a supposed "sex drink" favored by movie stars.
The magazine also examines the June 1906 murder of Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, a killing committed out of jealousy. The reason Inside Story brings it up fifty years after the fact is because a film exploring the circumstances of the killing had been released the previous October. Entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, the movie starred Ray Milland, Farley Granger, and—as Thaw's wife Evelyn Nesbit—British-born actress Joan Collins. Inside Story informs readers that Collins was chosenfor the role because her beauty merely rivals that of Nesbit. That's quite a claim when talking about a woman as stunning as Joan Collins, but in this case the tabloid may be right. We've included a second photo of Nesbit at left so you can judge for yourself. Inside Story is also correct when it says the facts around the White killing were sanitized for the movie. There's little doubt the truth was too sordid.
Evelyn Nesbit had been Stanford White’s lover before marrying Harry Thaw. Thaw was so tormented by this fact that he would tie Evelyn to a bed and beat her until she confessed in detail every sexual act she had ever engaged in with White. She later testified that she sometimes made things up, because he would beat her more if she had nothing to divulge. Eventually, she claimed that White had a red velvet swing installed in one of his apartments, and he would push her while looking up her skirts, and on one occasion made her ride the swing nude. She also told tales of threesomes and other activities. Thaw, trapped in a classic avoidance-avoidance dilemma, was tortured both by knowing and not knowing about his wife’s past. Since he couldn’t abide either, he lashed out at what he perceived as the source of the problem by shooting White in the head in front of hundreds of witnesses during a play at Madison Square Garden. Problem solved—except for the murder trial. But Thaw and his lawyer contrived a perfect defense, considering the sexual climate of the times. They convinced Evelyn to testify that White sexually abused her when they were together. How this justified a public execution we can't know without reading the trial transcripts, but it worked. Thaw was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. In 1906 it was, apparently, just fine to be so wracked by jealousy over your spouse's sexual past that you could execute her previous lover.
As if that sordid tale isn’t enough, Inside Story gives readers two love triangles for the price of one. In the Roy Rogers article, what readers discover that “they don’t tell the kiddies” is that the clean-cut singing cowboy may have had an affair with Ella Mae Cooley, wife of bandleader Spade Cooley. At least that was the rumor at the time. But you know how rumors are. Rogers’ image was so antiseptically spotless that the tabloidsmay have taken a certain pleasure in trying to tarnish it with a bit of infidelity. But the mud never stuck, probably because the affair almost certainly never happened.
But nobody could tell that to Spade Cooley. His career failing because of the rise of rock ’n’ roll, and filled with paranoia partly because of his own numerous extramarital shenanigans, he tormented his wife with suspicions for years. When she finally asked him for a divorce in 1962, he said no—by stomping her to death. You see the unhappy couple below, on their wedding day, when neither of them could have imagined how it was all going to end. Cooley went to prison after a sensational trial. Roy Rogers emerged from it all unscathed, and continued his career as America’s most clean-cut singing cowboy. If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that jealousy doesn’t pay. Unless of course, you happen to publish a muckraking tabloid like Inside Story—then it pays mighty fine indeed.
Waiting for the Weekend to come.
Above, a vintage French poster for Le poison, aka Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland, Jane Wyman and Doris Dowling. Lost Weekend premiered in the U.S. in 1945, but due to World War II Europeans had to wait two years for its release. It finally opened in France today in 1947.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1967—Muhammad Ali Sentenced for Draft Evasion
Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay before his conversion to Islam, is sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. In elucidating his opposition to serving, he uttered the now-famous phrase, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
1953—The Rosenbergs Are Executed
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet spies, are executed at Sing Sing prison, in New York.
1928—Earhart Crosses Atlantic Ocean
American aviator Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly in an aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, riding as a passenger in a plane piloted by Wilmer Stutz and maintained by Lou Gordon. Earhart would four years later go on to complete a trans-Atlantic flight as a pilot, leaving from Newfoundland and landing in Ireland, accomplishing the feat solo without a co-pilot or mechanic.
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