Vintage Pulp Jun 23 2020
THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK
It's mostly for his protection, but it's also for everyone else's.


We read the novel The Mask of Dimitrios a couple of years ago, so it was a given we'd eventually talk about the movie. Starring Petter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, it deals with a legendary malefactor named Dimitrios Makropoulos who washes up dead on a Turkish beach and draws the interest of a novelist, who decides to research the dead man's life with an eye toward writing a thriller about it. That's a great set-up for a movie right there, and it's even cooler because everything happens in Europe. Lorre, who plays the author, traces the movements of Dimitrios the bogeyman from Istanbul, to Athens, to Sofia, and finally to Paris, seeking to illuminate the man's life and criminal career.

Flashbacks tell us how evil Dimitrios was. Nothing was beyond him—theft, blackmail, political crimes, murder. We're talking irredeemable badness, a virus, a plague. Lorre and Greenstreet cross paths and decide to unravel the Dimitrios mystery together. Its solution offers the possibility of financial reward—one million francs. Lorre is less interested in those than a story he can turn into a great novel, but money up front never hurts. Unless it gets you killed. But while the flashbacks offer crucial exposition, they also shift focus from the film's two unique leads, and in so doing sap the narrative of momentum. They could have been shorter. More screen time for Lorre and Greenstreet would have been the benefit.

The Mask of Dimitrios is classified as a film noir on many websites, but as a drama on AFI.com, which is where we go for genre clarity because crowd sourced sites like Wikipedia and IMDB cast an excessively wide net with their categorizations. Some readers may disagree about whether this particular film is a noir, but what's true is it doesn't have a large number of the usual noir gimmicks, save for those interminable flashbacks, and occasional clever work with shadows. It almost entirely lacks other forms of noir iconography, and particularly lacks the key element of a disaffected central character or character that's screwed and gets more screwed as the plot progresses. On the other hand most of the players are shady and/or amoral.

We know what you're thinking. We aren't a pure pulp site, so how can we be purists about film noir? We're not. We tell you right in the “About Us” section that we're expanding the idea of pulp just for our personal pleasure, not trying to convince readers to redefine it in defiance of what is understood to be pure pulp. Going into The Mask of Dimitrios expecting film noir might lead to disappointment for noir fans, so we're just letting you know where the movie stands. It has its charms, regardless, but overall it's decent, not good, and certainly falls short of being excellent. Even so, watching old crime movies is incredibly satisfying, even when they aren't top notch. The Mask of Dimitrios premiered in today in 1944.
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Vintage Pulp Jun 15 2019
HAUNTED SPOUSE
Divorce probably would have been the easier option.


Conflict was Humphrey Bogart's follow-up to the crowd pleasing To Have and Have Not, and he takes a dark turn as a man whose bad marriage is complicated by the fact that he's fallen in love with his sister-in-law. He's willing to kill to be free, but his plan goes sideways, as they always do. We won't go into detail except to note that, interestingly, Bogart begins to see the same jumbled pyramidal shape everywhere—in a pile of fallen logs, in an architectural drawing, in the kindling set up to start a bonfire, etc. It's a Hitchcockian touch designed to symbolize the inner conflict of the title, but why exactly is he seeing these things? Is it because he killed his wife? Or because he botched his opportunity and now she's trying to drive him insane? We won't tell you. We'll only say that the winding road toward a resolution is reasonably entertaining, and Bogart can pull even a flawed film to the positive side of the ledger. Conflict, which co-starred Alexis Smith and Sydney Greenstreet, premiered in the U.S. today in 1945.

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Vintage Pulp Oct 15 2018
DEATH MASK
A stranger in strange lands comes to know pure evil.


Because Eric Ambler's 1939 thriller The Mask of Dimitrios is the source of the 1944 film noir of the same name starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, we should have read it long ago, but better late than never. The book tells the story of a writer in Istanbul who becomes interested in a killer, smuggler, slaver, and political agitator known as Dimitrios Makropoulos. In hopes of finding inspiration the writer begins to piece together the life of this mystery man.

The investigation carries him from Istanbul to Sofia to Geneva and beyond. That sounds exotic, but the story is almost entirely driven by external and internal dialogues, with little effort spent bringing alive its far flung locales. While we see that as a missed opportunity, and the book could be shorter considering so much of the aforementioned dialogue fails to further illuminate matters, it's fascinating how Dimitrios is slowly pieced together. Here's a line to remember, as the main character Latimer reflects upon the modern age and what the world is becoming:

“The logic of Michelangelo's David and Beethoven's quartets and Einstein's physics had been replaced by that of The Stock Exchange Yearbook and Hitler's Mein Kampf.”

That isn't one you'd soon forget. Ambler sees casino capitalism and Nazism as twin signposts on a road to perdition built by people like Dimitrios. We can't even imagine that being written by a popular author today without controversy, but Ambler, writing in England during the late 1930s, had zero trouble identifying exactly what he was looking at. This Great Pan edition of The Mask of Dimitrios appeared many years later in 1961, and it has unusual but effective cover art from S. R. Boldero. 

 
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Vintage Pulp Oct 18 2016
HIGH FLYING FALCON
This bird is more impressive every time you see it.

The Maltese Falcon is considered by most scholars to be the first major film noir. It was also one of the best, with legendary talents John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre coming together to make magic. Mary Astor was excellent too. This must-see film premiered in the U.S. today in 1941, but the poster above—one you don't see often—was made for its run in Australia. Put this film in the queue if you haven't seen it. And if you have, well, watch it again. 

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Vintage Pulp Nov 13 2013
LESS MARSEILLAIS
Passage to Marseille has plenty of message but not enough movie.

We’ve seen nearly every Humphrey Bogart movie but had been warned away from Passage to Marseille. We finally watched it last night and the haters were right—it’s substantially below standard. You have Casablanca director Michael Curtiz at the helm and Casablanca alumni Bogart, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet in front of the camera, along with the lovely Michèle Morgan in the female lead, but all their combined efforts cannot elevate this clumsily written propaganda piece. Curtiz is not to blame—his direction is functional and James Wong Howe photographs everything beautifully. Likewise, Bogart manages his role adequately, Lorre and his emotive brow are put to ample use, and Rains dons an eyepatch and permafrown to bring some gravity to matters.

But Passage to Marseille is just a badly written film. Where Casablanca used patriotic sentiments adroitly (who can forget the way the singing of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” both roused the audience and advanced the plot?), Passage to Marseille flounders under the weight of cheap nationalism and sticky sentiment. It enjoys a decent rating on many review websites but we daresay that’s mainly due to Bogart bias (wherein even his bad flicks like Chain Lightning and Battle Circus have good ratings). We love the guy too, but no actor in history has batted 1.000, and this movie was a clean whiff. As propaganda it doubtless got the job done, but as a film we suggest consigning it to a dusty, unreachable shelf. Passage to Marseille premiered in Sweden as På väg mot Marseille today in 1944. 

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Vintage Pulp Jul 31 2010
FINE FEATHERED FRIEND
Black bird singing in the dead of night.

Above are two French posters for one of our favorite movies, The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett’s novel was originally adapted in 1931 by Roy Del Ruth with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez in the leads. Though that version was good, John Huston and Warner Brothers Studios chose to remake the film in 1941 and hit the jackpot pairing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor as Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessey. With Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. in supporting roles, the film was loaded with top talent and is considered the first film noir. If you haven’t seen it, rent it. And if you like it, rent the 1931 version too—the contrast is striking. Le faucon Maltais opened in Paris today in 1946. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
October 24
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
October 23
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
October 22
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
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