The Devil went down to Southeast Asia looking for fortunes to steal.
1969's I, Lucifer is Peter O'Donnell's third Modesty Blaise novel, and it's a series we're going through mainly to highlight the great cover art by Robert McGinnis. He didn't illustrate all the books. In fact, this might be the last, which means we'll probably move on to other authors. But that won't be because the Blaise books aren't good. In fact, for the sexy spy genre they're top notch—exotically located, compellingly plotted, and peopled by wacky Bond-style supervillains. Case in point: the titular character in I, Lucifer is a a man suffering from a psychotic delusion that's he's Satan. The funny part is he isn't even bad. The real bad guy is Seff, the opportunist who launches a global extortion scheme that hinges on faux-Lucifer's participation even though his delusion prevents him having a clue what he's really doing. He might be the only villain in the Blaise novels who's a victim.
When Seff's murderous extortion hits too close to home for Modesty, she and sidekick Willie Garvin gear up and eventually end up in the Philippines, where they right some wrongs, explosively. As usual Modesty uses sex to get over on the bad guys, and it's a major part of what readers enjoyed about the series. At one point she ponders whether a colleague thinks she's promiscuous. Well, no, she isn't by 1969 standards. But the joy of literature is she can be unpromiscuous, yet we can be there in the room for every encounter. This book is particularly amusing along those lines, as it brings two of Modesty's lovers together to be uncomfortable and/or jealous as they're displaced by a third. But sleaze fans will need to look elsewhere. O'Donnell is subtle—if not poetic—with his sex scenes.
Though the sexual aspects of Modesty Blaise were a major attraction of the novels, we enjoy even more the tactical nature of O'Donnell's action, which is probably an influence from his military service in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece and other places. It's also probably why so much of the Blaise series is connected to that region. While the tales are always exotic, this entry is even wilder than usual. How wild? It involves precognition, trained dolphins, Moro mercenaries, and body implants that kill remotely, yet it all works. That's because as always, in the center of the chaos, you have Blaise and Garvin, perfect friends, platonic soulmates, and two armed and extremely deadly halves of a razor sharp fighting machine. Abandon all hope ye who cross them.
It's not an N95 mask but it's all I've got.
Visual references change. This is obviously a veil, but when we saw it the first thing that came to mind was mask. It's an elegant, somewhat erotic shot, which is no wonder, as veils are generally seen as sexy. Masks, meanwhile, are not, but might that change? There's already mask porn. Doesn't do anything for us, but maybe we're just not cutting edge enough. Anyway, this rare photo was made to promote the 1947 Groucho Marx comedy Copacabana, and the face behind the veil is that of legendary Portuguese-born Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda. We know what you're thinking. This can't be Carmen Miranda. But it is. In the film she's trying to hide her identity, which is why she's made-up so pale and is wearing a blonde wig. Her ruse worked, and not just in Copacabana—websites have misidentified this shot as everyone from Chili Williams to Lili St. Cyr.
Nations to betray, people to murder. *yawn* Let me nap for about twelve hours before I spring into action.
We move from yesterday's canines to today's felines. Pure pinup style art by Willard Downes adorns this Gold Medal paperback of John Flagg's, aka John Gearon's, novel The Persian Cat. Looking at this, we were pretty sure Downes painted it long before Gold Medal came knocking at his studio door, simply because this piece, while wonderful, is also generic enough to front probably a quarter of mid-century thrillers. A read through the tale seems to confirm our suspicion. The main character is ex-OSS agent Gil Denby, who money lures back into the spy game for a high stakes mission in Teheran, where he's supposed to bring to justice a femme fatale who was a Vichy traitor during World War II. The femme does plenty, but she never quite gets around to lounging abed in her undies.
This was published in 1950, a crucial period in Iranian history. Though the narrative doesn't reveal an exact time frame, it's a given that the tale and publication date are closely aligned. That means the story takes place when Iran was ruled by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, aka the Shah, with some power also apportioned to a series of prime ministers. In fact, there were seventeen prime ministers from 1940 to 1950, which hints at the political volatility of the country. Iranians would eventually elect the reformist Mohammed Mossadegh as PM in 1951, and the U.S. and Britain would promptly overthrow him in 1953, leading to the Shah gaining unchallenged power.
You will learn none of this reading The Persian Cat. It isn't even there as deep background. Also missing is any affinity for language, culture, geography, architecture, or life in the streets. Nor does Flagg mention that the predominant language in Iran is Farsi, not Arabic, and he only hints that the predominant ethnic group is Persian, not Arab. In short, the book lacks a sense of place. When reading about the exotic and distant city of Teheran, this is a letdown. Flagg traveled the Middle East but could have written this novel without ever leaving the U.S. We can't say why the Iranian flavor is so weak, but lack of interest and/or lack of willingness to have learned usable details of the country are leading possibilities. See: David Dodge for how to write exotic locales successfully.
That said, The Persian Cat is a reasonably fun, well-written adventure. Yes, we know that assessment seems contradictory. We'd have liked a more atmospheric and informative tale, but Flagg has talent. His hero Denby deals with betrayal, murder, hairsbreadth escapes, and serious doubts about whether he wants to send that languorously stretching femme fatale to her death. The book's biggest flaw—besides the usual behavior toward women that might easily earn Denby a restraining order or prison time today—is a climax built on revelatory dialogue, pages of it, that will leave you screaming in your head, “Enough talk! Just shoot the fucker!” Still, Flagg overcomes these issues to craft nine tenths of a good book. We'll probably try him again down the line.
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.
Loneliness isn't always as bad as it sounds.
Soledad Miranda has one of the more interesting cinematic names you'll run across. Her first name is Spanish for “loneliness,” and her last is Latin for “worthy of admiration.” Because she was so worthy of admiration we doubt she was ever lonely for long. Her real name was Soledad Bueno, and that's rather nice too, if even more unlikely sounding. As Miranda, and sometimes as Susan Korda or Susan Korday, she appeared in more than thirty movies but became one of filmdom's tragic young figures when she was killed in an auto accident in 1970 at the age of twenty-seven. The above image is from that year.
Hah hah, I'm free! Drinks for everyone! My ex-husband's paying!
Why is this woman laughing? Because she's just been granted a divorce. She's actress Francesca de Scaffa and she was married to actor Bruce Cabot until today in 1951, when the photo memorialized her cheerful unfettering. Why is the man laughing? He's Hollywood super lawyer Jerry Giesler, and he's probably thinking about the fees he collected. Strangely, Wikipedia lists de Scaffa and Cabot as divorcing in 1957, but we found wire photos stating unambiguously that they split in 1951. However, we also found references to the 1957 divorce. We can only guess the two remarried at some point, a supposition that makes sense considering we also found a photo of the two dining in December 1951 captioned in part, “Last night, guess who took [de Scaffa] night-clubbing? Right! Bruce Cabot.” The point of the caption being that divorced couples are not often seen out having a night on the town together. It lends credence to the idea that they married twice, but don't quote us on it. We will find out, though, because we'll probably revisit de Scaffa a bit later—she's true pulp material. Among her many exploits were acting as an informant for Confidential magazine, a liaison with the Shah of Iran, marrying a Spanish bullfighter, running afoul of Mexican officials who tried to deport her, two suicide attempts, and more. As far as her marriage(s) with Cabot go(es), we'll put it(them) in the mystery file for now.
Getting what you want is all in how you ask.
It seems as if no genre of literature features more characters in complete submission to others than mid-century sleaze. And how do these hapless supplicants express their desperation? They break out the kneepads. Above and below are assorted paperback covers of characters making pleas, seeking sympathy, and professing undying devotion. Though some of these folks are likely making the desired impression on their betters, most are being ignored, denied, or generally dumptrucked. You know, psychologists and serial daters say a clean break is best for all involved, so next time you need to go Lili St. Cyr on someone try this line: “I've decided I hate your face now.” That should get the job done. Art is by Harry Barton, Barye Philips, Paul Rader, et al.
Virginity wasn’t against the law, but topless dancing was—until she came along.
Burlesque dancer Yvonne D’Angers graces the cover of this Midnight published today in 1967. She was born in Teheran, Iran and reached the height of her fame after a 1965 obscenity trial, a government threat to deport her, a publicity stunt where she chained herself to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and a 1966 appearance in Playboy. There’s surprisingly little about her online—not even a measly Wikipedia page. But she was important within her milieu—she was one of four defendants in the aforementioned obscenity trial, along with Carol Doda, Kay Star, and Euraine Heimberg, and the acquittal legalized topless dancing and waitressing in San Francisco. That decision made San Fran the first city in the U.S. where this was the case.
D’Angers’ main haunt was the Off Broadway on Kearney Street, but she also danced at Gigi’s, which was located on Broadway, and she worked in Las Vegas, in addition to touring the U.S. She was married to Off Broadway owner Voss Boreta, and he was her manager, making her part of a client list that included Doda and the topless girl-band The Ladybirds. She was also—though this is not often noted—a college graduate anda painter. She billed herself as being naturally endowed, but both she and Doda were said by people who knew them early in their careers to have been worked on by cosmetic surgeons. The above shots of D’Angers, pre-fame, pre-blonde, versus post-fame, 44D, hanging out with Trini Lopez, seem to confirm those stories. We'll have more on D’Angers (and Doda) later.
It’s exotic, erotic, and psychotic—but is it good?
When Radley Metzger’s softcore movie The Lickerish Quartet was released overseas, its Italian distributors rightly decided that was a stupidish title for a movie and changed it to Esotika Erotika Psicotika. Unfortunately, Esotika Erotika Psicotika sounds glossier and more sophisticated than what you ultimately receive here. What you get is a rich, jaded couple and their surly son who watch 16-millimeter porno loops in their castle for thrills. One night they go out and encounter a motorcycle stunt rider who resembles a woman in one of the loops. They invite her back for what they hope will be a night of debauchery, but which turns out to be less conventional fuck than extended mindfuck. It quickly becomes apparent why the movie opened with a Luigi Pirandello quote pondering the nature of reality, as time and space soon become malleable, leading toward an ending that questions the truth of everything that came before.
The movie received good reviews when released, but we suspect much of that owes to its novelty and Metzger’s previous successes with Camille 2000 and The Dirty Girls. In other words, it hasn’t aged well. It’s like that summer you wore an orange shirt and your friends lauded you for experimenting with your wardrobe, but later you saw a photo of that night and realized you looked like a traffic cone with shoes. Like that shirt, this movie was a bold experiment that made sense at the time but seems a bit silly now. On the plus side, it’s shot on location at Balsorano Castle in L’Aquila, Italy, so at least the audience was able to indulge its fantasies of running away to Abruzzo. Esotika Erotika Psicotika, with Silvana Venturelli, Erika Remberg, and others, premiered in Italy today in 1972.
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