Italian shockumentary about Africa is all voyeurism and no reflection.
Lately we've been highlighting Italian illustrator Sandro Symeoni's brilliant paperback covers, but today we've decided to bring him back as a poster artist, which is how he first found acclaim, and why we first noticed him. He painted this for the schockmentary Africa ama, which would translate as “Africa loves,” but is known in English as Africa Uncensored. 1970s shockumentaries have an educational veneer, but are mostly about cultural titillation and making viewers in modern countries lose their lunches, as practices such as male and female circumcision, animal killing, and scarification are filmed unflinchingly and up close.
This genre of movies, particularly popular in Italy, showed all this and did it with zero self awareness, considering modern powers didn't just engage in torture and killing during their empire building, but industrialized it. It takes efficiency to slaughter millions. Of course, pointing out that indisputable fact makes people angry in this anti-truth age, so we'll move on and note that Africa ama was mostly the brainchild of brothers Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, a couple of guys we've run across before for their archaeology work. See what we mean here. Africa ama premiered in Italy today in 1971, and if you dare you can watch it here while the link lasts.
Beauty is easy to love. Ugly takes unresolved psychological issues.
Spouses who cheat usually don't do so because their fling is more attractive than their partner. We learned this years ago from a widely noted survey of cheaters. What attracts them is that the person they desire is more exciting. Theodora Keogh's 1954 novel The Fascinator encapsulates this idea. It's about a woman's attraction to a man who's more exciting than her husband. The other man, Zanic, is ugly due to a congenital condition that made his brows and ears grow so he looks like an ape, and he's also overweight. But no matter—he's a sculptor and an elegant speaker and all the rest, so the story, as it develops, follows whether the main character Ellen will actually cheat with this persistent and somewhat creepy ogre of a man who she finds more exciting than her handsome but normal husband. It's not the type of book we usually read, but blame the cover art for that. It drew us because we thought it might be another Sandro Symeoni effort for Ace Books. It's uncredited, but we suspect Sandro's brush. Why? Look here. In any case The Fascinator is well written and thoughtful.
Anything could happen there and it usually did.
We're drawn to books about places we know, so Camilo José Cela's The Hive was a natural. Originally published in 1950 and titled La colmena, the tale is largely set in a Madrid bar known as Doña Rosa's Café. There are also scenes set in apartments, streets, and other cafés, as Cela explores the lives of more than three-hundred characters in brief sketches, slowly weaving these warp and weft strands into a tapestry that ultimately represents a single character—Madrid circa 1943. Maybe that doesn't sound thrilling, but we liked it. Cela was economical yet vivid, like here, at closing time for the café:
Within half an hour the café will be empty. It will be like a man who has suddenly lost his memory.
And here, about a boy who survives by singing on the street:
He is too young in years for cynicism—or resignation—to have slashed its mark across his face, and therefore it has a beautiful, candid stupidity, the expression of one who understands nothing of anything that happens. For [him] everything that happens is a miracle: he was born by a miracle, he eats by a miracle, has lived by a miracle, and has the strength to sing by pure miracle.
Cela was a fascist, a supporter of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. His beliefs came with contradictions, for example he worked as a censor for the government, was himself banned so that The Hive had to be published first in Argentina, yet remained loyal to the regime that had financially and reputationally harmed him. He even became an informer. In Cela's writing there's humor, but also coldness, a sense of observing small and pathetic people. For someone born into material comfort in a Spain where many families retain unearned wealth for hundreds of years, his subtle judgements came across to us as cruel, the product of a person who looked closely at everyone but himself. The book isn't overtly political, though, which makes it easier to focus on the skill that eventually won him a Nobel Prize.
The edition you see here is from Ace Books in 1959 with an uncredited cover. We went back and forth on this artist. We want to say it's Sandro Symeoni, but we don't have enough cred to make that call definitively. It looks like some of the items he painted, but publishing companies sometimes sought art of similar styles, or directed illustrators to produce something similar to what another artist had provided. During the late 1950s and early ’60s Ace Books had many covers in this general style. That said, compare the close-ups below. The first is from the above cover, and the rest are from confirmed Symeonis. If The Hive wasn't painted by the same person, then whoever did paint it went beyond merely working in a similar style—he was a thief.
Chandler's Los Angeles is dark day and night.
We're still marveling over Sandro Symeoni's cover work for Ace Books. Each is better than the next. The one above isn't signed, but it's him for sure—well, we think so. It's a beautiful street scene for Raymond Chandler's Pick-Up on Noon Street, not a novel but an anthology of medium length stories originally published in pulp magazines during the 1930s. The collection, comprising four tales set in Los Angeles, first came out in 1950, with this Ace edition appearing in 1960.
The title story was originally published in 1936 as “Noon Street Nemesis” and deals with an undercover narc named Pete Anglish, who accidentally becomes involved in kidnapping and human trafficking. The story is unique because it's set partly in L.A's African American community and it doesn't traffic in the disparaging terminology you usually find under such circumstances. There are good guys and bad guys of all types, with no particular weight given to their backgrounds. It's also a good tale.
In 1935's “Nevada Gas” the title refers to cyanide gas, which comes into play in a specially modified limousine two killers use to execute an unfortunate in the back seat. A Los Angeles tough guy with the excellent name Johnny De Ruse learns that the car was an exact duplicate of the murdered man's actual limousine, which he then entered with no clue the ride would be his last. That's a lot of effort to kill a man, and it intrigues De Ruse greatly, but his curiosity draws the attention of several lethal characters.
In 1934's “Smart-Aleck Kill” a tough Tinseltown detective named Johnny Dalmas tries to solve a murder the cops think was a suicide. The victim was a director of smut movies, but the reasons for his death have to do with something else entirely, and Dalmas has to dodge bullets and overcome duplicity to solve the case.
In 1936's “Guns at Cyrano's” a detective-turned-hotelier named Ted Carmady finds a beautiful blonde who's been knocked out in one of his rooms, and lets his protectiveness lead him into the world of gangsters and fixed prizefights. Cyrano's is a nightclub where the blonde works as a dancer, and where Carmady gets neck deep in murder.
Of the four stories, we liked “Nevada Gas” the best because the character of De Ruse was the most interesting and resourceful, but the leads are all similar—all are basically cousins of Philip Marlowe, kicking ass and taking names in an L.A. rife with hustlers, thugs, wise-ass cops, and corrupt one percenters. If you think of Pick-Up on Noon Street as a sort of Marlowe sampler plate, it should certainly do the job of making you hungry for the main course.
A nocturnal perpetrator is revealed thanks to key evidence.
Above you see a beautiful paperback cover, both front and back, for Gerald Kersh's classic drama Night and the City, basis for the famed 1950 film noir. We have a copy of the book, so we may get back to it later. We're sharing the cover because it was painted by Sandro Symeoni. Back when we first stumbled upon this genius more than a decade ago there was little online about him. Now he has a Twitter page, a dedicated website currently in mid-build, plus a recent Facebook group. All of this means his profile is growing, which in turn means more attributed pieces appearing.
But attribution can be tricky. Symeoni was a chameleonic artist, with a style that evolved so much that even with the presence of his signature removing all doubt as to the provenance of the work, it's still hard to imagination that he painted with such range. And of course, some of his pieces don't have signatures, often because it was covered or cropped, and in those cases a little detective work is needed. The above cover is a good example. It's not signed, and has not been attributed to Symeoni anywhere, but it's him.
Note the background perspective on the left side, the chain of streetlights that draws the eye beyond the female figure. For a while this was Symeoni's thing, and it appeared in much of his work. For example, check this section at right (or above if you're using a mobile device) of his cover for the Peter Cheyney novel He Walked in Her Sleep (full cover here).
And directly below that example you see another, more subtle version of it in a crop we've made of his poster for La strada della vergogna (full poster here). Again you see a pretty chain of light receding from the viewer, plus a few impressionistic dots of nocturnal illumination. We have a few more examples below, but what you've already seen is probably convincing enough. These are all unmistakably by the same hand. Simultaneously, Symeoni used another stylistic trademark on the Kersh cover—flourescent yellow. You see that in the first two posters of this group. Sorry to ask you click over there, but if we added those examples here the post would become a real mess. In any case, you see what we mean about the light. With both the perspective and dayglow yellow characteristics noted, plus the general similarity of style, there's little doubt this is Symeoni's work. The final piece of evidence is simply that he's known to have produced pieces for Ace Books between 1958 and 1960, if not even a year or two later. This is an Ace cover, thus the case becomes open and shut. Well, maybe it wouldn't hold up in court, but it's good enough for here. Verdict reached: Symeoni. Below we've uploaded a few movie posters, confirmed as Symeoni's, in which he uses the perspective technique noted above. They'll help to reinforce our conclusion. Again, stylistically he was wide ranging. In addition to what you see here he painted portraits, delved deeply into color blocking, painted with abstract and blank backgrounds, drew in ink, painted humorous pieces, and created scores of unique fonts. But of all his styles we like these nighttime masterpieces best. More from this virtuoso later.
This art is both a Sym-ulation and the real deal.
Italian illustrator Sandro Symeoni signed this 1959 Ace Books cover for Peter Cheyney's He Walked in her Sleep just “Sym,” but however he marks his work, we'd know it at first glance. For years we thought he was a movie poster and record sleeve artist only, then we suddenly started finding his paperback covers. All are brilliant. Oh, and speaking of brilliant, this is an awesome title for a thriller. It was originally published in 1946 as part of the Cheyney collection He Walked in Her Sleep and Other Stories, but Ace got hold of it and typeset it to novel length. More from Cheyney and Syemoni soon.
James M. Cain spins a tale about an unusual love and an unusual life.
Vintage Ace paperbacks are considered highly collectible for a few reasons, including the fact that the company popularized the double novel. But we like Ace because it often did well with art. This front for James M. Cain's The Moth is about as striking as cover illustration gets. It's uncredited, but we know exactly who it is. It's Sandro Symeoni. How do we know? Because the cover at this link is confirmed to be Symeoni, and there's no doubt the artist is the same as above. Not only is the style a match, but so is the time period. This came in 1958, and Ace used Symeoni's art several times between ’58 and ’60. That makes this paperback a super discovery, because Symeoni, a brilliant Italian artist who specialized in movie posters, rarely painted book covers. It's possible that, as with Arthur Miller's Focus (you clicked the link above, right?) the art was borrowed from one of Symeoni's posters, but if so we don't know which one. Doesn't matter. Sandro kills again.
Moving on to the novel, Cain, one of the towering figures of pulp literature, stretches himself here to tell the life story of a man through his first thirty-five years, spanning the Great Depression, Prohibition, and World War II; his various jobs, schemes, and hustles; and his ups, downs, ups, downs, ups, downs, ups... We're not putting an end on that sentence in order to avoid giving a hint whether he ultimately triumphs or fails. For a time Cain's protagonist works in the oil business. For years he's a hobo riding the rails. For part of his life he's a renowned soprano. But no matter where he goes or what he does, there's a past destined to come full circle to stare him in the face. This is Cain's longest book, but it's pretty involving. Its only flaw—if it can be called that—is that it doesn't surprise. You know which untrustworthy friend will come back to haunt him, and which unlikely love will reappear to offer a chance at redemption. Still, a good read. We recommend it.
When you're rich you're never insane. You're just a little eccentric.
La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba, aka The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, premiered in Italy today in 1971, and is an Italian made, set-in-England, gothic giallo flick for which we shared an unusual Greek poster some years ago. The art on that was retasked from the original poster, which was painted by Sandro Symeoni, a genius we've featured often. If you don't know his work, click his keywords below and have a look. He's worth your time.
In the movie a British lord violently obsessed with his deceased redheaded wife goes nuts and is committed to a mental institution. When he gets out he immediately brings disrepute to the entire psychiatric profession's notion of “cured” by going on a redhead killing spree. While he's busy reducing rural England's carrottop population one pale person at a time, his headshrinker, who knows nothing of the murders, is encouraging him to remarry in order to get over his dead wife.
That doesn't strike us as responsible psychiatric advice, but as we mentioned, there are lousy doctors in this film, so the Lord indeed picks out a suitable spouse, who's blonde, importantly. Things go fine until Mrs. Lord notices a redheaded maid in the manor. This is impossible, you see, because the Lord hates (and kills) redheads. So it goes without saying he'd never hire one. Who was this woman, and why was she there? Soon we're treated to the reliable giallo staples of imposters, unknown people creeping through the woods at night, disappearing corpses, and the question of whether what's happening is real, or is an attempt to induce insanity.
What might induce insanity for you is the screenwriting of the female characters in this flick. They're pure murder magnets. For example, whenever the Lord meets a redhead he yanks painfully on her hair to see if it's real. “Ouch! That hurt!” “Sorry, I thought it might be a wig.” “Oh.” Here's some advice: kick him in the gonads and run like Flo-Jo. Yet the women instead decide painful hair-pulling is just a cute quirk, and later meet their bloody ends.
There's also an incredible scene where the Lord slaps his wife around until she's bloody-mouthed, only to finally be stopped by the appearance of a friend, who asks, “Why were you fighting?” Why were you fighting? A more appropriate line might be, “Why were you beating the fuck out of your beloved?” But with this latter incident there may actually be a plotworthy reason the Lord is forgiven. We could reveal it, but that would be a spoiler. Of course, saying it would be a spoiler is a spoiler too. Oh no! Everything is spoiled! We have to murder a redhead now. Is that a non-sequitur? No, it's just giallo.
Two bunglers cook up a kidnapping scheme that goes disastrously awry.
It's been a couple of years, so today we're getting back to one of Italy's greatest poster artists—the prolific and eclectic Sandro Symeoni. He painted movie posters, book covers, album sleeves, and ads, and was excellent at all of them. He painted the above poster for the comedy Noi gangster, which was originally made and released in France as Le grand chef, but based on the U.S. writer O. Henry's short story “The Ransom of Red Chief.” We took a look at the film and it's a screwball comedy starring Fernandel and Gino Servi as two bumbling gas station workers who concoct a kidnapping plot in hopes of escaping their poverty. Kidnapping schemes never work. Too many variables. They aren't clued in to this fact but quickly learn when they snatch a millionaire's young son and are dismayed to find that the little terror is too much for them to handle. He climbs onto a high rooftop, goes renegade on a hospital trolley, and generally drives them insane with his unpredictable behavior. Think Martin and Lewis in French with one of the Little Rascals on the side and you'll know what to expect.
This was Fernandel's and Cervi's second team-up after 1955's Don Camillo e l'on. Peppone, and this go-round is inferior to the previous film in every way, but even the dumbest screwball comedies have good moments. An extended gag involving a slippery block of ice works—or maybe we liked it because we too live in a building with a spiral staircase and no elevator, and the scene reminded us of the time we dropped a bottle of wine and it bobsledded all the way to the ground floor. The neighbors don't take kindly to that at 1 a.m., but that's the problem with wooden stairs—most anything you drop survives the entire downward journey. Consider Noi gangster a spiral stair—it sort of goes monotonously in a circle but once it ends you'll have a nice sense of accomplishment. It premiered in Italy today in 1959. Incidentally, are you wondering why there's a smiling woman on the poster? We suppose because Symeoni wanted her there. She sure isn't in the movie. You can see plenty more art from him by clicking here.
Focus on both the writing and the art.
Focus was Arthur Miller's first novel, written in 1945, with this Ace Books edition appearing in 1960. If you haven't read it, basically it tells the story of a man who buys a new pair of glasses that alter his appearance to the extent that he is constantly mistaken for being Jewish. From harboring the same prejudices as others, he is suddenly cast as an enemy, as the hatreds around him are revealed. It's a very good, very earnest book. We've actually shared this, though, because the cover was painted by the Italian artist Sandro Symeoni, and it's the first time we've found his work on a paperback. It was originally used on his poster for the 1957 Michelangelo Antonioni film Il Grido, and appears here slightly cropped but pretty much identical in all other respects. It's a very nice piece.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1935—Downtown Athletic Club Awards First Trophy
The Downtown Athletic Club in New York City awards its first trophy for athletic achievement to University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger. The prize is later renamed the Heisman Trophy, and becomes the most prestigious award in college athletics.
1968—Japan's Biggest Heist Occurs
300 million yen is stolen from four employees of the Nihon Shintaku Ginko bank in Tokyo when a man dressed as a police officer blocks traffic due to a bomb threat, makes them exit their bank car while he checks it for a bomb, and then drives away in it. Under Japanese statute of limitations laws, the thief could come forward today with no repercussions, but nobody has ever taken credit for the crime.
1965—UFO Reported by Thousands of Witnesses
A large, brilliant fireball is seen by thousands in at least six U.S. states and Ontario, Canada as it streaks across the sky, reportedly dropping hot metal debris, starting grass fires, and causing sonic booms. It is generally assumed and reported by the press to be a meteor, however some witnesses claim to have approached the fallen object and seen an alien craft.
1980—John Lennon Killed
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot four times in the back and killed by Mark David Chapman in front of The Dakota apartment building in New York City. Chapman had been stalking Lennon since October, and earlier that evening Lennon had autographed a copy of his album Double Fantasy for him.
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