Maybe I should have listened to my parents and stayed in community college.
Above, a nice James Avati cover for Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, copyright 1949. The hardback of this came out in 1946, and it was adapted to the big screen in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead role, so this art reflects the movie, which is why the cover femme looks like and is dressed like co-star Colleen Gray. This is one of many mid-century novels set in and around carnivals, and it's one of the better ones, we think. The film version adheres reasonably close to Gresham's original vision. We talked about it several years ago, so check here if you're interested. We've also talked about several other carnival books over the years and now we have an idea to put together a cover collection along those lines. We'll have to see if there are any examples left to find. But in the meantime you can see what we've already collected here, here, here, and here.
The Florida heat cooks up trouble in Lawrence Kasdan's masterful neo-noir.
Kill your husband for you? Sure, I can make that happen, I guess. Spousal murder is a film noir and pulp fiction plot tentpole, and the motivation for trying something so risky generally revolves around sex. But during the time the film noir and pulp fiction genres were extant their makers could only imply it. The neo-noir thriller Body Heat, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1981, fixed that problem, as not-so-bright lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, is seduced into a murder plot by whip smart bombshell Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner in her cinematic debut.
Body Heat is an apt title. The setting is South Florida during a heat wave, with most of the action set in the mythical towns of Pinehaven and Miranda Beach. Every frame of the movie seems to vent steam. There's copious slippery sex and nudity, all of it important to the plot. When the pair have their electric first encounter Hurt pulls off Turner's panties with an expression of pure awe on his face and intones, “So wet.” For just that moment he wonders if it's really him turning on a woman that much. And he's right to wonder, because it isn't him. What's turning her on is money.
Directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film is a reworking of Double Indemnity, but it improves on the original in the sense that we fully understand the visceral reasons why murder has occurred. That moisture between Turner's legs causes an electrical short in Hurt's brain. After subsequent sexual encounters, including an anal session that's implied but clear as day thanks to some clever visuals, he's hooked like a bluegill. For a guy just smart enough to get a law degree, but not bright enough to avoid being known as his town's worst lawyer, bedding Turner makes him feel godlike. Surely he can pull off murder and make it look like an accident.
Body Heat made Turner, Hurt, and Kasdan superstars, and did the same for a few of its below-the-line players. Turner went on to become one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation; Hurt, who had starred in the brilliant but under appreciated Altered States, became one of Hollywood's top leading men; and Kasdan directed Silverado, The Big Chill, and other hits. Co-star Ted Danson also blew up, and Mickey Rourke parlayed a blazing supporting bit into a career as Hollywood's go-to rebel creep. You know any film that ignites five such careers is top notch, but as a post-noir entry Body Heat is also cinematically important. Not only did it finally lay bare the motivation behind all those noir murders and obsessions, but it did so with a reverent visual style and pitch perfect mood. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with!
The Hong Kong actioner Shao Lin da peng da shi, aka Return to the 36th Chamber, is part of a trilogy of films that inspired the legendary U.S rappers Wu Tang Clan, and as such is as famous for its musical influence as its place in cinematic history. Wu Tang must be the only hip hop group—probably the only music group of any genre—whose entire schtick revolves around Hong Kong chopsocky. But forget the music. We're about cinema today, though to reiterate—Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with!
In Return to the 36th Chamber a group of fabric workers scam their evil bosses into backtracking on a pay cut by having a Shaolin monk with invincible kung fu take up their cause. Problem is the monk is just a regular Joe named Chao Jen-Cheh and he knows no martial arts. When the ruse is exposed, Chao is humiliated and roughed up. But at that point he goes to the shaolin temple where he learns real kung fu. Well, sort of. He learns how to build bamboo scaffolding, but in true zen form he realizes the skills are transferrable. He returns to the place of his humiliation armed with his bamboo-fu, and this time he aims to make the bad guys pay.
Basically, the movie follows the predictable Hong Kong martial arts formula of early defeat of the good guy, followed by rigorous training with a tough-but-inscrutable master, capped by redemptive kicking of evil guy asses. But even with its standard plot—not to mention bad make-up, silly wigs, rough prosthetics, and cookie cutter plot—the movie is still fun. The fight scenes are of course amazing and the comedic elements are lowbrow but effective. Too bad guys like Chao Jen-Cheh don't exist in real life. There are a lot of workers that could use an ass kicker like him these days. Shao Lin da peng da shi premiered in Hong Kong today in 1980.
Truth, justice, and the Nikkatsu way.
This is a pretty cheerful poster, isn't it? But it belies the true nature of Sûpâ gun redei Wani Bunsho, aka Super Gun Lady: Police Branch 82. Emi Yokoyama plays Mika, an unconventional cop who can't play by the rules and is always in trouble with her boss. After her latest screw-up she's assigned a partner in the person of Kaoru Janbo, and the two are soon up to their necks in an interconnected series of problems involving blackmail, heroin, and a degenerate band of bank robbers. As in many buddy movies, the partners dislike each other at first, but as women on the police force they soon find common ground. Which is good because when Mika is kidnapped only her partner can possibly save her.
So about that kidnapping. Up to that point Sûpâ gun plays like a standard cop drama, but this is a Nikkatsu Studios production, and as we've discussed before the company's plotlines were, during this time at least, mere wrappers for bondage and sadism. Thus the kidnapping doesn't go so well for Mika. Not that any kidnapping goes well for its victims, but this one goes worse. Nikkatsu actually had a pretty good police thriller on its hands here but we guess you can't expect the company to deny its own nature, nor the expectations of its audience. You've been duly warned. Sûpâ gun redei Wani Bunsho premiered in Japan today in 1979
Altman and company get gangsta in the heartland.
Auteur and maverick Robert Altman directed several films centered around crime, but perhaps only his 1930s gangster flick Kansas City truly fits the bill as a pulp style effort. The plot tells the tale of Blondie O'Hara, whose petty crook husband Johnny is captured by gangster Seldom Seen and held at a nightclub, prompting Blondie to kidnap the wife of a local politician in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to free Johnny. Sounds straightforward, but Altman's approach to this is leisurely and episodic.
Kansas City is generally considered to be a lesser effort from the legendary director, but even if it's not in the class of Short Cuts or M*A*S*H*, it has some points of interest—a slithery jazz score, lots of smoky nightclub scenery, Steve Buscemi warming up for another gangster role in the brilliant Miller's Crossing, Harry Belafonte playing it cool, and Jennifer Jason Leigh giving her actorly all as the drawling, flapperesque Blondie.
Another plus is this killer promo poster. When we saw it we had to watch the movie. But what's the most important reason to watch it? Altman, of course. It's always fun to see what a director does with the 1930s. What's the main drawback? Aside from its narrative quirkiness, we suspect its racial content may be a bit much for those with millennial sensibilities. But don't fault art for holding a mirror to history. When we can't reflect the past in cinema we'll have fallen pretty far. Kansas City premiered in the U.S. today in 1996.
Ahoy there, miss! Do you mind if we pull abreast?
At top, a poster for the Hitomi Kozue roman porno flick Nikutai hanzai kaigan: Piranha no mure, aka Sex-Crime Coast: School of Piranha. In this one Kozue rises out of the sea like Aphrodite, which is how we always suspected she came to be. Well, okay, she isn't actually a deity. Instead she plays an all-too-mortal gangster girl who falls for a gangster boy in the seaside region of Shōnan, along Sagami Bay. But romance is never easy in these films, and a love triangle soon brings jealousy and violence to the idyllic sands of central Japan. It's Nikkatsu Studios, and it's roman porno, so you know exactly what you'll get here. It premiered in Japan today in 1973.
Enough! We'll tell you anything you want to hear! Just please make it stop!
Matchless premiered in Italy in 1967, but it was originally released under the title Sin rival. When and why it also played in Italy as Matchless—as indicated by this Italian and English promo poster—is a mystery. It later played in the U.S. as Matchless but with different poster art. Of all the promos, this one is the nicest, we think. The movie is a bizarre spy flick spoof about a journalist (Patrick O'Neal) who escapes a Chinese military prison with the help of a ring that makes him invisible. He's given this gadget by another prisoner for reasons that are unclear. After he reaches home turf in NYC the U.S. government takes advantage of his disappearing act by turning him into a spy. They send him to take down a criminal mastermind played by Donald Pleasance, who riffs on his own Blofeld character from You Only Live Twice. Chases, crashes, quips, and snafus soon follow.
Here's the thing. Serious films that turn out bad are often unintentionally enjoyable; comedies that turn out bad can be slow torture. Matchless isn't as bad as extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation in a CIA black site, but isn't much of a step up from there either. It's mostly tedious, witless, and punch drunk stupid, but it's redeemed slightly by Nicoletta Machiavelli and Ira von Fürstenberg, and we imagine it can be fun if you watch it with a gaggle of friends and gallons of intoxicants. But then again, almost anything is.
I love my new anti saber-toothed tiger cage. It's a must for the summer, plus it also works on cavemen.
Valeria Fabrizi, aka Valeria Fabrizzi, enjoys her safe space in this photo that appeared in the magazine Il Borghese. She probably fits the category of an obscure actress, yet she's worked steadily since 1955 and was last in 2017's Non c'è campo. Her films run the gamut from comedies to adventures, and even sexploitation, such as Women in Cellblock 7. She probably wants to forget that one. But we don't. The above image is from 1972.
I see dead people. Not next week's lottery numbers. Not future stock fluctuations. Just useless, creepy dead people.
Richard Matheson was a well known writer who published many novels and short stories, penned teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and wrote the novel Psycho—which later became Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller—but his 1962 supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes is a bit obscure. It's probably better known as a 1999 movie starring the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon. The story here deals with a man whose talent as a medium is accidentally unleashed when he's hypnotized at a party. The book isn't elegantly written. A typical sentence: He walked weavingly toward the door. But you don't have to be a master stylist to tell a good story and that's what Matheson did over the course of his long career, churning out great concept after great concept, here unspooling the tale of a man who can't control his unbidden psychic talent. With the power to see the future, the protagonist gains unwanted knowledge of kidnapping, adultery, a shooting, and other violent and nightmarish occurrences. It defies belief that all this happens in a week or two on a formerly quiet suburban street, but A Stir of Echoes is an entertaining story with a nice twist ending. We haven't seen the movie but we're curious now.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1952—Chaplin Returns to England
Silent movie star Charlie Chaplin returns to his native England for the first time in twenty-one years. At the time it is said to be for a Royal Society benefit, but in reality Chaplin knows he is about to be banned from the States because of his political views. He would not return to the U.S. for twenty years.
1910—Duke of York's Cinema Opens
The Duke of York's Cinema opens in Brighton, England, on the site of an old brewery. It is still operating today, mainly as a venue for art films, and is the oldest continually operating cinema in Britain.
1975—Gerald Ford Assassination Attempt
Sara Jane Moore, an FBI informant who had been evaluated and deemed harmless by the U.S. Secret Service, tries to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. Moore fires one shot at Ford that misses, then is wrestled to the ground by a bystander named Oliver Sipple.
1937—The Hobbit is Published
J. R. R. Tolkien publishes his seminal fantasy novel The Hobbit, aka The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Marketed as a children's book, it is a hit with adults as well, and sells millions of copies, is translated into multiple languages, and spawns the sequel trilogy The Lord of Rings.
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