To a hammerer every problem looks like a nail.
In Dorothy Salisbury Davis's A Gentle Murderer a man visits a confessional and reveals murdering someone with a hammer and flees into the night before the priest knows what to do. The dismayed padre decides to search for the mysterious man who burdened him with this terrible knowledge, thus taking on the role of detective in the story, though the police are on hand to conduct a parallel investigation. Naturally, another murder will soon occur if the killer isn't caught. The plot is similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock's 1953 film I Confess, but appeared in hardback two years earlier. However, the Hitchcock movie was actually based on Paul Anthelme Bourde's 1902 play Nos deux consciences, so perhaps Davis was inspired by either the play or Hitchcock's adaptation. Whatever the genesis, the result was a highly regarded mystery, considered by some to be among the best of the era. The cover art on this Bantam paperback edition is by Charles Binger, and dates from 1953.
Hitchcock's epic thriller shows his directorial gifts but misses the mark.
This Italian poster for Io ti salverò, aka Spellbound is wonderful. The movie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, isn't. The central plot device involves a man who may have blacked out committing a murder. That's a good place for a thriller to start, but the actual psychiatric science is approached clumsily, the love story is overwrought, and the orchestral musical score is omnipresent and overbearing. You have to wonder if composer Miklós Rozsa actually watched the film, because while Spellbound is big, his music is positively galactic. A re-edit with 60% of his output removed would make this one a much smoother ride. It's always a danger to criticize a classic film, we know, but not all classics are created equal. This one lives on Hitchcock's reputation, the overall technical execution, and a groundbreaking dream sequence designed by renowned artist Salvador Dalí. At the end of the dream a faceless man drops a wheel. Maybe it was a steering wheel, because despite all the money and star power poured into Spellbound, somehow it went down a middling road. It premiered in 1945 and reached Italy as Io ti salverò today in 1947.
1960 thriller combined voyeurism, repression, child abuse, and sexual crime long before the public was ready.
Hollywood lore is sprinkled with tales of maligned cinematic masterpieces. British director Michael Powell’s 1960 voyeuristic thriller Peeping Tom is one of them—a film so savagely reviewed that it irreparably damaged what had been an acclaimed directorial career. While Powell should not have suffered so brutal a fate, his film’s rebranding as a work of incandescent genius is also not fully deserved. In the end Peeping Tom is a perfectly decent piece of filmmaking, amazingly forward-looking but also flawed. It deals with a man-child obsessed with filming women at the moment the fear of death appears in their eyes, and our villain does this of course by murdering them, and he manages to kill, film, and keep his subjects in frame at all times by using a spear-like contraption attached to his camera tripod. As you can probably guess, his carefully balanced existence is upset by the arrival of a prospective love interest, and we know from the moment she appears that she’ll be in front of his lens at some point.
In the U.S., Peeping Tom came after Alfred Hitchcock’s similar Psycho, but it Britain it arrived first. Censorship was slipping in British cinema, but to get a sense of how prudish authorities still were, consider the fact that Hitchcock’s movie caused controversy not only for its showermurder and for showing Janet Leigh in her bra and in bed with a man, but for being the first film to show a flushing toilet—an affront to bluenoses though the contents were merely a torn up note. Peeping Tom pushed the envelope farther and did it first, showing the killer Mark Lewis preying on sex workers and nude models, showing nudie reel star Pamela Green sprawled topless on a bed just before her murder, and drawing out the killings to agonizing length as Lewis coaxes the perfect expression of terror from his victims. Powell develops his killer to the extent that the audience must understand him as a human, and uses point-of-view to make the character’s films-within-the-film the equivalent of snuff movies.
The list of technical achievements goes on—Powell deftly manages to make Peeping Tom brutal without spilling a drop of blood, and his visual approach is engrossing. So why isn’t the movie a 10? Well, there are a few glaring script incongruities, some of the acting is below professional level, the killer seems careless for someone that has been at it for a while, and the idea of so obviously disturbed a man—stuttering, mumbling, visibly shying from any form of human contact—being able to attractevan a woman as kind and credulous as Anna Massey just doesn’t ring true. There are men who are projects, and there are men who are lost causes—are we right, girls? That’s what the Pulp Intl. girlfriends say anyway. But Peeping Tom is a film every cinephile should see. The moral objections of contemporary critics seem quaint now—many hated being forced to experience the murders from the killer’s perspective, but the viewer’s loss of choice echoes the killer’s helplessness to control himself, and that may very well be Powell’s best trick.
The Noir City Film Festival ends tonight with a pairing of Peeping Tom with the Michelangelo Antonioni classic Blow-Up, which means here at Pulp Intl. we’ll close the book on the fest and move back into the more diverse subject matter that usually makes up our website. We wanted to use Noir City as an excuse to delve into the film noir catalog and we managed to watch sixteen of the twenty-five films on the schedule—some for the second or third time—and write about twelve of them.
This all made for a quite enjoyable week, with much wine drunk and popcorn noshed (we have a Whirley popcorn maker we had sent over from the States that does a bang-up job), but it was also a bit of work. At this point we doubt we’ll go through all the considerable effort of screening next year’s Noir City slate, but you never know. Next January is a long, long way off—or at least, it should seem that way if you’re living life the way you should. We'll marinate on it and see.
When Hollywood fleshed out source material it often changed the flesh tones too.
Just a bit more on Rear Window today. The movie was based on Cornell Woolrich's story "It Had To Be Murder," which appeared in Dime Detective Magazine of February 1942. As might be expected story and film are substantially different. Lisa Fremont doesn't exist at all and neither does the insurance company nurse Stella. They were both derived from one character—a valet named Sam who does all the hard work while Jeffries watches from his wheelchair. The relationship between these two is warm, but with strong overtones of status and race, with Jeffries at one point showing his pleasure with Sam by saying, "Go and build yourself a great big two-story whisky punch; you’re as close to white as you’ll ever be."
Screenplay choices are always interesting, and we can see the addition of Grace Kelly's Fremont character making sense (though this being Hitchcock, he'd have put a blonde in the movie no matter what, since they represented a fantasy woman for him), but we wish Stella had been left out and Sam kept intact. We understand that changing Jeffries into a rogue photographer from a rich Manhattanite meant taking away his valet, but Sam could have been transformed into the insurance company employee. But that's just our opinion. You can decide for yourself by reading or downloading "It Had To Be Murder" yourself at this link. It's well worth the time.
Stewart violates the norms of neighborliness and ends up with a mystery on his hands.
Above are two iconic posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954. This is a great movie, but definitively not a film noir—instead it’s a big Technicolor drama, bright and vibrant in a way movies aren’t today. It’s also only nominally a mystery, as the question is never who is the murder suspect, nor who is the murder victim, but whether there was actually a murder at all. This is one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements, with James Stewart at his likeable best even as a voyeur, and Grace Kelly fueling the fantasies of male cinemagoers as the perfect girlfriend Lisa Fremont. Is the movie perfect? No. It fumbles its attempt to underline Stewart’s reckless nature, putting him in a wheelchair for the unbelievable act of running onto the middle of a Formula 1 track to get a photo. It also requires the audience to believe he can see all from his apartment, but his neighbors never notice him. Yet Rear Window overcomes those annoyances and is deservedly considered an all-time classic. Seeing it on the big screen as patrons of the Noir City Film Festival will tonight would be a treat, but see it in any case.
Even visionary filmmakers sometimes don't see clearly.
Vera Miles is most famous as the actress who gets to survive Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. She worked with Hitchcock on many films, but had other worthy roles, including in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wrong Man, and just about every television detective series of the 1970s. She claims she was never able to never please Hitchcock because she wasn’t sexy enough. This shot proves Alfred needed glasses. It’s circa 1955.
Ralph, this wasn’t what I meant when I said I needed a little pick-me-up.
Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles joke around on the Hollywood set of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode they starred in was the series debut “Revenge,” and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the show’s seven-year run. Meeker would appear in three more episodes of the series and many movies, while Miles would co-star memorably in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The photo dates from 1955.
The mission statement was simple—take potshots at every star in the firmament.
Top Secret is in fine form in this issue from October 1962 as it goes after all the biggest celebrities in Hollywood and Europe. Treading the line between journalism and slander is no easy feat, but take notice—Top Secret’s editors and hacks manage to pull off a high wire act. And of course this was key to the tabloids' modus operandi—they had to present information in a seemingly fearless or even iconoclastic way, yet never actually cross the line that would land them in court.
For example, there’s this dig at Frank Sinatra: “Mr. Snarl, Mr. Nasty, Mr. Do-You-Want-A-Belt-In-The-Mouth was as gentle as a lamb. Gone was the usual sneer, the wise-guy leer. Was this the same surly singer whose idea of a good morning’s exercise had been to watch his bodyguards work over a photographer?”
Grace Kelly takes a few arrows: “It’s a pretty good bet that the immediate bust-up of the marriage won’t come in the next few months, but it sure as shooting looks like her six-year reign as the glamorous princess of that silly little kingdom on the Mediterranean is going to blow up in her prim face.”
Christina Paolozzi gets roughed up thusly: “If anything, Christina in the buff is proof that clothes are an underdeveloped girl’s best friends. Therethe Countess stands with a pleased expression that seems to say, ‘Aren’t I something, Mister?’ But all it takes is one quick look to see that there isn’t really anything to get excited about—unless [you love] barbecued spareribs.”
Anita Ekberg receives this treatment: “[La Dolce Vita] was something like a peek into the boudoir antics of its star—the gal with the fantastic superstructure that looks like nothing less than two tugboats pulling a luxury liner into port.”
And what tabloid would be complete without Marilyn Monroe? Top Secret says she’s dating writer José Bolaños (who the magazine calls a Mexican jumping bean). Editors opt to unveil the news this way: “It seems that this bold bundle of blonde has suddenly gone on a strange Mexican hayride!!! Si, amigo, MEXICAN!”
And then there’s cover star Elizabeth Taylor: “And she acted wilder than ever, satisfying all her most urgent urges for Dickie in the most wide open ways. [She] had jumped from tragedy right into disgrace by having a wild fling with Eddie Fisher a mere six months after hubby Mike Todd had been planted six feet under. ‘Mike is dead, and I’m alive,’ she said cynically after running off for a riotous romp in the fall of 1958 with the guy who just then happened to be married to Debbie Reynolds. 'I’m not taking anything away from Debbie, because she never really had it,' luscious Liz sneered."
This issue of Top Secret is, succinctly put, a clinic in mid-century tabloid writing—alliterative and spicy, insinuative and sleazy, but never quite legally actionable. How could Ekberg argue that the tugboat similie wasn’t interpretable as a compliment? Could Christina Paolozzi deny that her ribs show? Could Sinatra claim that his bodyguards neverslugged a photographer? The magazine skirts the edge a bit with Taylor—did you catch how the editors paired “urges for Dick(ie)” with “wide open ways”?—but was she misquoted or truly slandered? Highly doubtful. Top Secret is pure, trashy genius. Magazines don’t have such writing anymore, and that’s probably a good thing—but it sure is fun to look back at how things were. More scans below.
When Joan Fontaine decided to try her luck in Hollywood her mother reportedly refused to let her use the family’s name—de Havilland, which was being used by her actress sister Olivia—so she chose Fontaine as her last name. After a slow start earning good roles she scored the coveted part of Mrs. De Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Daphne du Maurier adaptation Rebecca and was nominated for an Academy Award. She didn’t win that one, but the next year took home the statuette for her role in Suspicion, becoming the only performer to win an Oscar for acting in a Hitchcock film. From there her career took off, and she worked steadily through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Ironically, when her mother—a former actress—decided to rekindle her own career she did so under the stage name Lillian Fontaine. Of her famous sister, Joan Fontaine once said, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.” The third part of that quip came true when Fontaine—née Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland—died of natural causes Sunday in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The truth of a man is always revealed by the shape of the shadow he casts.
Above, a Swedish poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Skuggan av ett tvivel, staring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, and originally released in the U.S. as Shadow of a Doubt. The Swedish premiere of the movie was today in 1943, which might be a surprising fact for some, considering the ongoing calamity that was World War II, but Sweden was neutral during the conflict—or perhaps a better way to phrase it is to say it was occasionally helpful to both the Axis and Allies. Anyway, this is an excellent poster that tells the entire story of the film—an outwardly normal man is really a monster, and in the art casts a misshapen shadow that only one young, intuitive woman can see. The line across the top says, “One of Hitchcock’s best!” Of course, he would rise to even greater heights during the 1950s and 1960s, but some still regard this as top five Hitchcock. Us? Not so much, but see it and judge for yourself.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
1911—Mona Lisa Disappears
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda, is stolen from the Louvre. After many wild theories and false leads, it turns out the painting was snatched by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia.
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