Widmark/Peters noir looks great and packs a punch.
It wouldn't be a film noir festival without at least one anti-commie thriller and Pickup on South Street is it. The movie stars Richard Widmark as a two-bit pickpocket who lifts a wallet during an NYC subway ride and unexpectedly ends up with a priceless government secret meant to be given to commie spies by a cabal of sweaty traitors. Widmark sneers his way into a position where he thinks he can sell the stolen info for fifty grand. He's got another think coming.
Best line: If you refuse to cooperate you'll be as guilty as the traitors that gave Stalin the A bomb!
Well, Stalin had help from spies but we don't think any gave him the bomb like a borscht recipe. He had help on other fronts as well, including from captured German scientists and homegrown Russian knowhow, but this is film noir, so go with it. The good team vs. bad team dynamic continues throughout, and numerous people try to convince Widmark to put his own interests aside and play for the home squad. They're wasting their breath.
The movie co-stars Jean Peters, a good actress and amazing knockout who's been a bit forgotten, even though she was in a few other good films and went on to marry nutball billionaire Howard Hughes. Her opening scene on a humid subway will stick with you. Sadly, she harbors yet another inexplicable film noir infatuation with a male lead who's about as nice as a sack of cold dick tips, but this is film noir so go with it. Ditto for the pushing and slapping Peters endures. She's even knocked cold by Widmark in their initial encounter. Deliberately.
His apology: You okay or did I bust something?
These sly flirtations increase Peters' ardor. The female heart wants what it wants, at least in the minds of wannabe-tough-guy Hollywood screenwriters. That screenwriter would be Samuel Fuller, who actually was acquainted with the underworld from his days as a crime reporter. So it could be that he knew more about gutter love than we do, but we doubt it. Here's what really matters—Peters absolutely kills her role, and does her own stunts too. Thelma Ritter, later of Rear Window, also gets a pivotal turn and nails her part as a tired older lady just trying to get by.
In the end Pickup on South Street comes full circle. While it's about patriotism, and trying to survive in New York City with zero means, and a weird kind of masochistic 1953 infatuation we'll never really understand, it starts with pickpocketing and eventually returns, in a symmetry that feels very modern in screenwriting terms, to that idea for the excellent climax. With Fuller directing and Joe MacDonald handling the cinematography, the final result is a knockout in both senses of the word—looks great, packs a punch.
I go out walkin'... after midnight... out in the moonlight...
Crime writers all face the same task of dumping their heroes into hot water in new and interesting ways. In Night Walker Donald Hamilton shoves his protagonist into a bizarre situation and it all begins with him merely hitchhiking after dark. The next thing he knows he's hurt, housebound, and forced to assume a dead man's identity. If he doesn't continue the charade serious consequences could result, with prison being the least of them. But of course, as in any decent thriller, there's always the promise of great rewards, in this case the dead man's beautiful wife Elizabeth, or possibly the dead man's young mistress Bonita. There's a funny line of dialogue in this one when a character refuses a cigarette:
“Don't take it out on Philip Morris. He hasn't done anything to you.”
Ah, the 1950s, when men were men and cigarettes weren't coffin nails. And another staple of 1950s genre fiction is commie hysteria, also a major component of this book. But that's fine—every literary era has its archetypal villains. The book's fatal flaw is that the latter portion contains long monologues of the bad guy explaining his evil plot, due to the fact that Hamilton hasn't constructed the narrative for the hero to suss it out for himself. Tedious doesn't even begin to describe this sort of writing. Overall Night Walker is middling work from Hamilton, passable in the first half, but a bit taxing in the second. Good thing this 1964 edition from Fawcett's Gold Medal was cheap. And the cover art is nice. It's by Harry Bennett.
I'm getting pretty fed up with your attitude, mister. You should try being as friendly as your wife.
John Deering meets a sexpot in a bar who offers him employment with her rich aunt. The aunt—this is a sleaze book, so she's a total cougar—is mysterious about the job, but when you send your daughter to find a man in a bar what do you suppose the job will be? The aunt lounges about in bed half naked and tells John she'll pay him just to hang around her mansion, allegedly so she can study him and see if he's the right man for the still unspecified job. It's about at this point that he realizes she has no feet. Which makes this passage rather interesting:
“He could not help noticing that her nightgown was high on her hips. She was exposed to his view. He tried not to look at her cunt, but found it next to impossible not to do so. She has a beautiful body, he thought. She must have been ravishing once, before her accident. She still is, he thought further—no mistake about it. There is nothing about her that repels me, as she feared there might be. I find her damned pleasant to look at—feet or no feet.”
John is finally told about the job. The cougar and her husband can't inherit unless they give the patriarch of the clan a grandchild. Why can't the hubby get the job done? Does it matter? This is sleaze. The only job that truly matters is giving readers boners. John is sexually attracted to the aunt, but also likes her daughter, who's more age appropriate for him. Complications arise, including—gasp!—murder. And that's all we'll say. Except that we really enjoy these silly books. The copyright on this one is 1967 and the art is by Ed Smith.
In mid-century action magazines trouble always has a woman at its center.
Adventure for Men is new magazine for us, part of a group a friend couriered over from the U.S. last year. The art in this April 1968 issue is uncredited in the masthead, but two spreads are signed by Howell Dodd. The stories range from tales of wild 1890s San Francisco to uncharted Madagascar to your nearby nudist camp. And of course, par for the course for such publications, all the adventures seem to revolve around women, which makes them miss-adventures, so to speak. But we'll admit we haven't read all of the magazine yet. The piece “Sex Mistakes Most People Make!” for example. We figured we're better off not knowing.
But we did read the story on the sex camps of the Red Chinese. In times of stress people will believe anything, and there was no greater time of stress than the Cold War, a period during which most people feared they were seconds away from nuclear incineration. We're all still potentially seconds away from nuclear incineration, but back then those fears were openly exploited for political gain and monetary profit by con artists as diverse as the U.S. government and the New York City tabloid industry. Adventure for Men joins in the fun with its China sex camps tale.
During the 1960s, when Chinese were already suffering from both famine and widespread state violence, many were sent to prison camps to work and be re-educated. Conditions were generally awful, and often life threatening. Inmates were cold, underfed, besieged by vermin, and physically abused. As terrible as all that is, it still isn't enough for Adventure for Men, as journalist Alexander Ford takes the harrowing story of Chinese dissident Kuo Chung-hsaio and his wife and inflates it into sleaze fiction. Oh yeah. Political imprisonment can be erotic. All Reds are perverts. But the “sex camps” trumpeted on Adventure for Men's cover refers not to any state sanctioned sexual abuse. That accusation is never made. No—it refers to a specific voyeuristic prison official.
This official would not let Chung-hsaio see his wife unless the couple had sex while he was in the room watching. Chung-hsaio describes through Ford how humiliating and horrible the experience was, though he neglects to explain how he and his wife were even able to sexually function with their tormentor staring from the corner. Naturally, in the end it's the official's deviancy that creates the opportunity for the couple's daring escape. Do we buy this titillating tale of how a jailer got his rocks off, let his guard down, and ended up permanently cooled by Chung-hsaio's righteous hand? Not even a little bit. It's right from Hollywood's b-movie playbook—smash cut and they're out. But we'll admit that for short form sleaze it's actually pretty good. Scans below.
Nope. Dead asleep as usual. Looks like I'll be polishing the jewelry again tonight, if you know what I mean.
This book has nothing to do with polishing jewelry—i.e. masturbation—though the cover could be interpreted that way. Or maybe that's just our dirty minds. Anyway, the story deals not with female needs, but with the dawn of the communist witch hunt era in the U.S., and how one man is targeted, with negative effects upon his wife, ex-wife, son, et al. The cover is supposed to depict the dawning of suspicion and distrust in the main character's once stable marriage. The novel originally appeared in hardback in 1949, this Popular Library abridged paperback hit bookstores in 1950, and as is often the case with this publisher, the art is uncredited.
And now, just because we came across them (and about two-hundred others), here are fifteen terms for female masturbation, ranging from the absurd to the sublime:
15: Muffin buffin'
14: Manual override
13: Clicking the mouse
12: Reading braille
11: Playing with Mrs. Palmer's daughters
10: Backslappin' the beaver
9: Driving Miss Daisy
8: Visiting the magic kingdom
7: Making soup
5: Searching for Spock
4: Beating around the bush
3: Soloing on the clitar
2: Tip-toeing through the two lips
1: Fingering the accused*
*also useful for communist witch hunts
Hey ho! Hey ho! Huston and Ferrer must go!
Today in 1952 protestors comprising members of the 17th District American Legion Un-American Activities Committee demonstrate outside the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles against director John Huston and actor José Ferrer, whose new film Moulin Rouge was premiering that night. Why was the American Legion pissed? Basically because in 1947 Huston helped form the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (HUAC), and because Ferrer was a liberal. The anti-communist hysteria was in full swing at this point, and more than five-hundred names had been added to anti-communist blacklists.
Today there are numerous HUAC apologists, and their arguments boil down to nothing more than: “But there were communists in Hollywood!” Certainly that was true, but U.S. government incompetence and opportunism destroyed many more innocent people than communist spies were ever caught. A moral effort in crime fighting never hurts more innocent people than criminals. When it does, history laterlabels such periods tyranny. HUAC has been labeled exactly thus, an assessment that is extremely unlikely to change. And of course, it’s worth pointing out that being a communist was not equivalent to being a spy, nor was it a criminal offense. At least not yet—two years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower made communism illegal in the U.S. with the Communist Control Act.
Who were the people behind this magazine? They don't offer many clues.
Top Secret fashioned itself a top tier tabloid, but one thing we’ve never liked about it is an inferior printing process that makes its interior images look like cheap dot matrix. We can’t tell you who to blame for that, though, because Top Secret was so secret it didn’t bother with masthead credits. At least not in the issues we’ve bought. Writers get by-lines, but editors and publishers do not so much as give a hint of their identities. Hell, our issues don’t even have publication dates, but we've discerned this one is from November 1964. Well, the backers might have been incognito but the methods were nothing unusual. One writer digs up dirt on Xavier Cugat and Abbe Lane, another tells the story of mass killer Jose Rosario Ramirez Camacho, another contributor delves into Tuesday Weld’s personal life, and a U.S. “heroin epidemic” is pinned on Chinese plotting to undermine democracy.
Of special note, there’s a photo of Pamela Green (panel 18), whose weird transformation into Princess Sonmar-Harriks we shared a while back. Also, the photo of French actress Astrid Caron (in the bikini) looks familiar. That’s because we saw it in a different tabloid—this issue of Inside Story—unattributed and used for a piece about suntan lotions. It shows how these magazines used handout photos for whatever purposes they saw fit. Also, Top Secret publishes an open letter to America entitled A Homosexual Pleads—Why Don’t You Leave Us Alone! You’d be forgiven for expecting something ridiculous from a mid-century tabloid, but this piece credited to an anonymous writer is smart and serious. It enumerates the injustices gay men face, from housing discrimination to military disenfranchisement, and feels like it could have been written yesterday. Scans below.
Protecting democracy by killing democracy.
Above you see photos of various people involved with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the government body that sought to ferret out communism in the U.S. beginning in 1938. The images were made today in 1951, and the men pictured are A.L. Wirin, Robert Shayne, William Wheeler, Arnold Krieger, and Morton Krieger. Wirin was a defense lawyer who later became prominent in the ACLU, Wheeler was a lead investigator for HUAC, and the others were witnesses called to testify. Some of the latter group offered varying levels of cooperation, with Morton Krieger giving up at least one name, that of Dr. Murray Abowitz, who interrogators described as “a member of one of the professional cells of the Communist Party in the field of medicine.” Abowitz was later fired from his position at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.
His destruction was indicative of the fact that the communist witch hunts which had begun in Washington, D.C. had by 1951 spread into every sector of society—the entertainment industry, the professional ranks, labor unions, and black communities such as Watts, Harlem, and Oakland. It was a disgraceful period in U.S. history. Consider—many other countries, particularly those in Europe, lived up to their democratic ideals by allowing communist parties to have a voice in the political discourse. But given free reign to disseminate their solutions, communists didn’t then and haven’t since had great success convincing significant numbers of voters to follow their path. In the U.S., by contrast, top political powers decided that Americans could not be allowed to hear such ideas at all. Thus the anti-democratic red squads were conceived and over the next two decades ruined thousands of careers and lives.
Collier’s goes looking for the commies but finds something else entirely.
Collier’s isn’t the most visually striking of magazines, but this issue that hit newsstands today in 1954 caught our eye because it contains several nice photos of Marilyn Monroe. There’s also a bit of interesting graphic art, specifically a colorful baseball illustration by Willard Mullin. The other item that attracted us was a story called “What Price Security?” about U.S. government overreach in its search for communists. No art to speak of, but the content gives a window onto the Red Scare period of American life. Author Charlotte Knight tells readers that government efforts against communism have been “so irresponsibly administered that it may have done more harm to the United States than to its enemies.” Sound familiar?
Knight slams witch hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and characterizes the fervor around alleged subversives in Washington, D.C. as creating a ripe environment for paranoiacs and liars to ruin innocent people. But of course, as well written as Knight’s article is, she should not have been surprised by anything she discovered. Witch hunts always become vehicles for revenge, personal advancement, and profiteering, because society and politics become warped in such a way as to clear a path for these pursuits. History invariably judges such periods as human tragedies and political failures, though sadly, too late for the ruined and the dead. Scans below.
The case of the missing voodoo sex fiends.
Above and below, the mix of fiction, fact, hysteria, photos, and art that is NYC-based Volitant Publishing’s Sir! This February 1954 issue has a great portrait of Gina Lollobrigida, along with articles on the danger of Peeping Toms, “Hungarian” dancer Yvonne Davis, and how to spot frigid women. The promised story on sex in the Caribbean, which the cover art is supposed to illustrate, does not appear in the magazine. We’ve never seen that happen with a tabloid. Maybe the writer had a Eureka! moment during his field research: Wait—I'm having sex in the Caribbean. Why would I ever go back to New York? In any case, the story is MIA.
Sir! had a few different looks over the years, but the 1953 and 1954 issues, with covers painted by Mark Schneider, were particularly interesting. After 1954 Sir! mixed in photographed covers, which it had already done during earlier years. The post-1954 paintings were mostly by other artists, though Schneider’s work appeared on at least three post-1954 Sir! annuals. The quality of his covers varies, but all had a uniquely lurid mood that many supposedly better artists couldn’t touch. He sure had us looking forward to that Caribbean voodoo sex story. Anyway, we’ll put up a collection of Schneider’s work later so you can see what we mean.
In other news, we recently bought a stack of fifty mid-century tabloids from the U.S., and assuming the international mails work as they should, we will have those in hand soonish. We got the lot for fifty bucks, which was really exciting, since we’ve seen some individual issues from the stack being auctioned elsewhere for as much as $100.00. There’s no thrill quite like finding a great bargain. Wait—did we really just say that? God, we’re starting to sound like our girlfriends.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1927—Mae West Sentenced to Jail
American actress and playwright Mae West is sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity for the content of her play Sex. The trial occurred even though the play had run for a year and had been seen by 325,000 people. However West's considerable popularity, already based on her risque image, only increased due to the controversy.
1971—Manson Sentenced to Death
In the U.S, cult leader Charles Manson is sentenced to death for inciting the murders of Sharon Tate and several other people. Three accomplices, who had actually done the killing, were also sentenced to death, but the state of California abolished capital punishment in 1972 and neither they nor Manson were ever actually executed.
1923—Yankee Stadium Opens
In New York City, Yankee Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, opens with the Yankees beating their eternal rivals the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1. The stadium, which is nicknamed The House that Ruth Built, sees the Yankees become the most successful franchise in baseball history. It is eventually replaced by a new Yankee Stadium and closes in September 2008.
1961—Bay of Pigs Invasion Is Launched
A group of CIA financed and trained Cuban refugees lands at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba with the aim of ousting Fidel Castro. However, the invasion fails badly and the result is embarrassment for U.S. president John F. Kennedy and a major boost in popularity for Fidel Castro, and also has the effect of pushing him toward the Soviet Union for protection.
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