O'Donnell shows how sex, violence, and style are supposed to be done.
First of all, we recognize that Peter O'Donnell set down his comic strip character Modesty Blaise in book form almost a decade after the Ficklings created Honey West, but we don't think O'Donnell had any advantages. We don't think his way was paved by earlier sexy heroines, or that he was working under fewer constraints because the permissive ’60s were underway. He simply had a better feel for how to titillate readers. But while his 1965 Blaise debut, entitled simply Modesty Blaise, was erotic, it was also carefully plotted, scenically enthralling, and technically convincing. For example, Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin discuss calibres of weapons, preferred approaches to combat, and the logistics of dealing with adversaries in a way that not only feels natural, but lends credibility to what is at its core a preposterous premise.
The premise: Modesty Blaise is an orphan who, abandoned somewhere in the near east, rises from the life of a street urchin to become the biggest crime kingpin in the Mediterranean. She has help along the way, learning how to fight, shoot, organize, roleplay, meditate, dominate men, and generally survive in a brutal world. There's an edge of harsh realism to this fantasy. Her backstory contains two rapes, a gunshot wound, and beatings, but she perseveres to become a feared, almost mythical figure of the criminal underworld, known by name to many but personally only to Garvin, her partner, protector, sounding board, and trainer, who like her is a former street crook.
Modesty Blaise picks up after Blaise and Garvin have retired with a pile of money but are bored. The British government comes calling with a proposal: work for them under minimal management and return to the life that thrilled them, this time on the side of law and order. The government wants Blaise to stop the theft of a pile of diamonds andprevent a potential international incident. They know a man named Gabriel plans to steal them but they don't know how, where, or when. Blaise and Garvin first work preventatively at a distance, but soon realize the only chance they have is to infiltrate Gabriel's deadly organization and be on hand when the theft is carried out.
In the tradition of James Bond, each Blaise villain tends to employ a particularly unusual henchman, and in this case it's a woman, speculated to be hermaphroditic, definitely sadistic, named Mrs. Fothergill, a martial arts expert and slavering loon. The eventual showdown between Blaise, with her analytical mentality, and Fothergill, who's dense but animalistically clever, doesn't disappoint thanks to O'Donnell's descriptive skills, which allow him paint the action in a step by step way that makes it cinematically easy to picture. He may have picked up this ability from visualizing and writing the Modesty Blaise comic strip, or he may have had it all along. In any case, more writers need the gift.
O'Donnell would write twelve more Blaise books, several of which are—within the constraints of the erotic adventure genre—excellent. When we say erotic we don't mean sex defines the narratives. Blaise is merely a red-blooded beauty in the bloom of youth who happens to be free of inhibitions and possessed of strong appetites. Some of the eroticism is wrapped in action. In The Silver Mistress there's a great climax set beside an underground lake where she evens the odds against a physically superior opponent by stripping and coating herself in slippery cave mud. O'Donnell describes her as he might a creature made of mercury, in constant, fluid motion and silvery in color.
And speaking of visuals, the art on this 1966 Fawcett paperback was painted by Robert McGinnis and was a tie-in to a Twentieth Century Fox film adaptation starring Monica Vitti, whose stylized likeness McGinnis placed on the cover. There's also extra Vitti on the rear. As always, this is great work from McGinnis, a master of his craft. As for O'Donnell's craft, now that we've revisited Blaise and Garvin's debut we'll probably take another look at a few of their other adventurous forays. But this one we can strongly recommend, both on its own and as a superior alternative to Honey West.
When the Belle rings it's time for everyone to get it up.
Above is a Japanese poster and a pamphlet front for the French sexploitation flick Laure, aka Forever Emmanuelle, which premiered in Japan today in 1976 after opening in Italy nine months earlier. We watched it, and first of all the movie looks great. It's crisp, bright, and colorful—three things you really want when Annie Belle is the star. We gather that the palpably high budget was due to an infusion of big studio money from Twentieth Century Fox via Cinecittà Studios, as they tried to cash in on the 1970s sexploitation phenomenon. None of this means the movie is good.
Emmanuelle flicks are chaste and atmospheric, more romance than raunch, and Laure is no exception. Belle plays a highly sexed minister's daughter running wild in the Philippines, from Manila to the jungly outer reaches. There's a plot having to do with searching for the isolated Mara tribe, but the movie is more a series of swinger lifestyle lectures and sexualized vignettes, such as when Belle drops her skirt so she can walk around in public wearing nothing but a shirt that flashes her muff, and when she gets laid in a bamboo hut that's being dragged through the woods by a dozen Filipino workers. She's wanted by everyone whose path she crosses, but it's Al Cliver who piques her interest, thanks to his unwillingness to attempt caging her or cooling her hot blood. At one point he announces, “Jealousy is an obscenity.” It takes quite a man to watch the woman he loves have explosive orgasms with every stranger who happens along.
Of special note is a co-starring turn from Thai/French personality Emmanuelle Arsan, who in 1959 anonymously published the book Emmanuelle, source of the film franchise. Or at least she was thought for years to have been responsible for the book. Her husband Louis-Jacques Rollet-Andriane is now considered the author. Arsan was also credited with directing Laure, or at least co-directing it, but that was Rollet-Andriane again, whose name isn't on the film for reasons too involved to go into here. Well, it's definitely Arsan playing the role of Myrte, adding to the film's visual allure by looking great naked at age forty-four. She can't act, but she's good at giving wise looks and secretive smiles. She's easy to buy as the source—or at least inspiration—for Emmanuelle, because she's a very sexy woman. Despite all the film's beauty, we aren't going so far as to recommend it generally, but for lovers of globetrotting softcore or fans of Annie Belle it's mandatory.
Documentary charts Marilyn Monroe's climb to the top of Tinseltown.
Completing the third of a triptych of poster for the documentary Marilyn, above we have a U.S. poster made for the movie's premiere there today in 1963. We already shared the Yugoslavian and Japanese posters. They're all similar—the dress and the backgrounds change color but they all have the same image of Monroe in the hands raised pose you see here. And we love the shot. The movie, as we mentioned before, was put together by Twentieth Century Fox to celebrate Monroe, and mission accomplished. It's a must for fans.
Michael Shayne stabs Phillip Marlowe in the back.
Above you see a promo poster for the detective yarn The Time To Kill, a movie that premiered in the U.S. today in 1943 and has a mildly convoluted provenance that will be interesting to pulp fans. Mystery authors Brett Halliday and Raymond Chandler were both popular writers, but Twentieth Century Fox had already made six movies based on Halliday's novels. So they bought Chandler's The High Window and changed the main character from Phillip Marlowe to Halliday's franchise detective Michael Shayne. We don't know if Chandler and Halliday had any sort of rivalry to that point, but we wouldn't be surprised if one started.
Fox had made the previous Shayne flicks in just two years, and they're light in tone, which is one reason we think websites that label The Time To Kill a film noir are stretching. The lead character is not a driven loner, the general sense of corruption is nowhere to be found, and most of the usual noir iconography, such as rain or water, neon, newspapers, sidewalks, etc., is absent. No flashbacks. No voiceover. Nothing. Co-star Doris Merrick is a femme fatale perhaps, but virtually any woman in a crime thriller can fit that cubbyhole. Then surprise—four fifths of the way through its running time the movie shifts gears—Shayne walks into a nighttime murder scene that's draped with shadows and ill portent, but even this is played for laughs when he pratfalls down a staircase. And the ultimate fate of the villain is basically a bad barroom joke.
Director Herbert Leeds had worked on a variety of low budget westerns, comedies, and serials, and was a technician, not a stylist. His spliced in noir sequence is a nice nod to an emerging trend, but we don't think it pushes what is mainly a goofball detective film into noir territory. In general, his were a safe pair of hands tasked with churning out movies at high speed. The Time To Kill is a typically perfunctory Leeds effort—one hour and one minute long, meant to be consumed like penny candy. So we don't think it's a film noir, but hey—we just run a silly website. What do we know? And does it even matter? The Time To Kill is a decent enough distraction, however you categorize it.
Anselmo Ballester helped set the artistic standard in the competitive world of Italian movie illustrators.
Anselmo Ballester is yet another virtuoso poster artist from Italy, where cinema promos were taken perhaps more seriously as art pieces than anyplace in the world. We've documented many of these Italian geniuses, including Mafé, Luigi Martinati, Sandro Symeoni, Mario de Berardinis, and others. Ballester, born in 1897, predated nearly all of his colleagues (only Martinati was born earlier) and enjoyed a fifty year career working for studios such as Cosmopolis, Titanus, Twentieth Century Fox, and RKO Radio Pictures. He also worked in commercial and political advertising. For the titles of the above works just check the keywords below. They're in top-to-bottom order in Italian and English.
Reaching the top isn’t easy. Staying on top is even harder.
Above is a Spanish poster by Josep Soligó Tena for La casa de la colina, which was originally released in the U.S. as The House on Telegraph Hill. The movie tells the story of a Polish concentration camp survivor—played by Valentina Cortese—who upon release takes the identity of her dead friend, and later insinuates herself into the lives of the dead woman’s San Francisco relatives. This identity swap is the classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin, which is to say it initially seems to be the plot driver, but later isn’t important at all. While Cortese’s labyrinthine lie is always a worrisome background element, the movie is really about how she finds herself embroiled in an inheritance mess and a love triangle. We thought this movie was quite good, but you do have to ignore bits like the improbable placement of a child’s playhouse above a sheer drop (in a sense, another MacGuffin, as the threat of falling has no bearing at all on later developments). Highly recommended movie, and it has nice San Fran exteriors as a bonus. The House on Telegraph Hill premiered in the U.S. in 1951, and as La casa de la colina in Spain today in 1952. See more work from Tena here.
Classic style for classic movies.
Catalan painter Josep Soligó Tena spent thirty years under contract to Hispano Foxfilms, the Spanish subsidiary of Twentieth Century Fox, and during that time created many beautiful promo posters. Today for your enjoyment we have a collection of some of his best. Yes, we are aware he uglified Grace Kelly (panel four), but he’s had that difficulty before with beautiful women. He’s still excellent, though. Eleven scans below.
Were they selling the movie or only its star?
Do they still run ads in newspapers for motion picture releases? The one above ran in dozens of U.S. papers during the run-up to the release of One Million Years B.C., the Raquel Welch lost world flick that cemented her status as a leading sex symbol. The ad (which seems to promote mainly Welch, since we don’t learn the name of the film until we read the fine print at bottom), appeared today in 1966, and One Million Years B.C. followed in February. Bikinis haven’t been the same since.
Have you ever had a terrible dream and couldn’t wake up?
This West German poster for Der Scharlatan, aka Nightmare Alley shows Twentieth Century Fox pretty boy Tyrone Power in his role as The Great Stanton, a conniving psychic. Power felt constricted by the romance and adventure parts he’d played up to that point, so he bought the rights to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel and dirtied himself up. He plays a lowly carnival barker who realizes that an ingenious verbal code is the key to reaching the heights of fame.
This code allows a seer to work in tandem with an assistant to correctly answer the questions of spectators. “I’m sensing that there’s a Mr. Abernathy here and he’s... wait… it’s coming… Sir, you’re concerned about your wife’s health. Isn’t that right? Well let me tell you, you’ll get good news from the doctor tomorrow!” Though the code’s owners aren’t using it, they plan to sell it to fund their retirement, and that looks to be some years off. This forces Power to either to steal it or sweet talk his way into it. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to do either, but once he has the code and has built an act around it, the fame and riches it brings fail to quench his greed.
Nightmare Alley was not warmly reviewed upon release, but many of those reviews simply found the movie too gritty. Such criticisms tend to make their authors look out of touch. For example, Bosley Crowther was demoted from his position as the New York Times’ main critic in large part for slamming Bonnie and Clyde in three separate articles, despite the film’s obvious quality. Nightmare Alley had similar detractors—it was just too downbeat for some, even for a film noir. But within its fictional milieu it's highly successful. Our world has every kind of depravityand cruelty, and movies that depict them must be judged on their own terms. So ignore the haters—Nightmare Alley is excellent. Power puts on an award-worthy performance, and Joan Blondell and Colleen Gray are great in support. There’s a pivotal moment in the film when it seems possible Power’s character has some actual psychic ability. Too bad he can’t see his own future. Nightmare Alley premiered in 1947, and finally made its way to West Germany today in 1954.
Hush-Hush says they didn’t want her even in the nude, but is that true?
The story probably fueled ten million fantasies. Marilyn Monroe had stripped naked on the set of her last movie Something’s Got To Give. Monroe was eventually fired, the production was scrapped, and the footage was archived, but if it had been released, she would have been the first Hollywood actress to appear unclothed onscreen since the 1920s. It’s interesting, isn’t it, to reflect upon the effect a minority of prudes had on Hollywood? Because of them, Monroe’s unreleased scene, and Jayne Mansfield’s later nude scene in 1963’s Promises, Promises, merely brought American cinema back to where it had already been four decades earlier.
In the movie Monroe’s character is in a pool and calls up to a window where Dean Martin resides. Martin is married and Monroe is disrupting his life, so when he sees her, he tells her to get out of the water. She complies and Martin realizes she’s nude. It's a standard sex comedy oops moment. Monroe began the filming of the scene in a body stocking, then removed that and wore a flesh-colored bikini bottom. After the scene she posed for some publicity shots for several surprised photographers, and during that period removed even the bottoms. Some sources say she also shot the scene nude, but most say the bottoms came off afterward.
Hush-Hush was not the first magazine to break the story of Monroe’s peel down. Life had done that in June 1962, and included a couple of titillating photos. By the time Hush-Hush told the tale Monroe was two months dead. The blurb MM—Even In The Nude They Didn’t Want Her wasn’t strictly true. The production company Twentieth Century Fox most certainly did want her. A hospital stint prior to production had caused her to shed twenty-five pounds, bringing her to a weight she had never reached in her adult life, despite exercise and dieting. The newly svelte Monroe looked good and Fox was getting her cheap—$100,000.
By most accounts, Monroe knew her career was in trouble. She was making one tenth one what Elizabeth Taylor was making at the time, and was determined to remind people they were still dealing with possibly the biggest sex symbol who had ever lived. She knew that if she stripped she might be falling into the same old trap of making it easy for people to not take her seriously, but if her career really was finished she was determined to go down swinging. In the end her stunt was irrelevant. Her health problems had made her thin, but they lingered and caused numerous costly production delays, causing Fox to finally give up and pull the plug. That was June 1962. Two months later she was gone.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1934—Bonnie and Clyde Are Shot To Death
Outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who traveled the central United States during the Great Depression robbing banks, stores and gas stations, are ambushed and shot to death in Louisiana by a posse of six law officers. Officially, the autopsy report lists seventeen separate entrance wounds on Barrow and twenty-six on Parker, including several head shots on each. So numerous are the bullet holes that an undertaker claims to have difficulty embalming the bodies because they won't hold the embalming fluid.
1942—Ted Williams Enlists
Baseball player Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox enlists in the United States Marine Corps, where he undergoes flight training and eventually serves as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida. The years he lost to World War II (and later another year to the Korean War) considerably diminished his career baseball statistics, but even so, he is indisputably one of greatest players in the history of the sport.
1924—Leopold and Loeb Murder Bobby Franks
Two wealthy University of Chicago students named Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold, Jr. murder 14-year-old Bobby Franks, motivated by no other reason than to prove their intellectual superiority by committing a perfect crime. But the duo are caught and sentenced to life in prison. Their crime becomes known as a "thrill killing", and their story later inspires various works of art, including the 1929 play Rope by Patrick Hamilton, and Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of the same name.
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