Louisiana territory proves extremely inhospitable in 1957 manhunt thriller.
We bought The Tight Corner by Sam Ross because it was cheap. We knew nothing about Ross, and the uncredited cover art is decent but not special. But price sometimes wins, so we found ourselves reading a five dollar paperback about an ex-boxer named Tommy Berk who gets tangled up in a gambling scam gone wrong, is hunted by police for a murder he didn't commit, and after being shot and falling off a ferry in the Mississippi River Delta near New Orleans, is rescued by a Cajun fisherman and his sister as they take their shrimp boat out to sea.
Meanwhile, back on land, Berk's partners in the scam are looking for him to kill him. They're a diverse trio. Steve is a cold, calculating sociopath, but one with a secret weakness; Willy is an addle-brained killer, a trained attack dog; and Vi is a femme fatale who serves as the plot's honeytrap but is looking for a way to get out of the criminal life. It doesn't take long for them to realize Berk is somewhere at sea and has no choice but to come back sooner or later. When he does, they'll be waiting.
The Tight Corner is why we love buying vintage books. It's well written. Its bayou and ocean setting, simple but believable plot, and hard luck main character you end up liking all work in its favor. In addition, the prose has a lyrical style that's pleasing to read:
It was all mixed up in him and he saw himself swirling in her sea-green eyes. All at once, in the way she gazed at him, he seemed to plunge into them. He found himself close to her. And when he kissed her, he felt the sun she had been under all her life melt through him.
There are page-long passages written in that style and they're mostly interesting, though the book's dialogue suffers from name overusage. You know what we mean:
“It takes a lot of living to grow up, Jo.”
“Why'd he leave us, Adam?”
“Animals in a trap do strange things, Jo.”
“But I don't understand, Adam.”
People don't talk like that, so we generally take it as a sign of a bad ear for dialogue, but Ross does well with Cajun vernacular. He doesn't try to write their accents. Instead he uses careful word choices to lightly infuse their speech with the correct flavor. It works, and in the end, that and other positives outweigh the negatives, making The Tight Corner a saga that entertained us greatly. If you see it somewhere at a reasonable price, we think it's worth a read.
No time to wallow in the mire.
Above is a poster for the Roger Corman produced b-movie Swamp Women, which starred Marie Windsor, Carole Matthews, Beverly Garland, and Mike Connors, the latter acting under the name Touch Connors. Connors was Armenian-American and thought—correctly, we suspect—that his real name Krekor Ohanian wasn't going to help his show business career. He accumulated at least twenty credits as Touch Connors before he jettisoned it and eventually became the guy everyone remembers from the cop show Mannix.
In Swamp Women Connors plays an oil prospector boating around the Louisiana bayou who stumbles across a group of escaped female convicts searching for a stash of diamonds. Among their number is an undercover police woman charged with finding the stones and apprehending the group. It's fully as ridiculous as it sounds, and with Corman at the helm you know it's cheap, too. Plus this was only his fourth full directing gig. But we give him credit—he really made his cast slog through the Louisiana mire, which means you get realism to offset the use of stock footage.
The thing about Corman is that he always did more with less. But despite his particular set of skills, the script here hamstrings any attempt at making a decent flick. As an example of what we mean, Mike Connors doesn't go into the swamp alone. He takes his girlfriend with him, and she's eaten by an alligator. Hours later he's smooching the undercover policewoman. Not as part of a ruse or escape attempt. Just because he digs her. His girlfriend was a gold digging pain in the ass, but still, you'd think seeing her ripped to pieces would cool his ardor. But they don't call him Touch Connors for nothing. Plenty more fish in the bayou.
If you look on Wikipedia Swamp Women is classified as a film noir. That's purely comical. It's a proto-exploitation flick along the lines of what American International Pictures would routinely do fifteen years later with more skin and better efx. By the time the swamp women finally reach the site of the hidden diamonds and dig up a box, you'll be hoping they open it and find a new script and more investment money. But no such luck. Corman would do better later. Windsor, Matthews, and Garland had done better in the past. That's show business—one day you're at the top, the next you're sinking in the bog. Swamp Women premiered in the U.S. today in 1956.
She's here to drain the swamp and it's a promise she'll actually keep.
U.S. actress Jan Mackenzie outdoes our usual gun toting femmes fatales by being lethally armed with a gun and a snake. Bet you didn't even notice the snake, what with her outfit and incredible nimbus of sun limned hair, but it's there in her left hand. Mackenzie is famous mainly for starring in a historically terrible sexploitation sequel called Gatorbait II: Cajun Justice, about a woman pushed to murder by a bunch of Louisiana swamp lowlifes. From her point of view only two good things came out of that movie: she acted with her future husband Ben Sebastian; and she took his last name, thus distancing herself from a career damaging disaster. But from our point of view any movie that produced the above photo can't be all bad. It's from 1988.
Tough time on the front, and unwelcome back at home.
You'd never guess from the art, but The Big Kiss-Off deals with an Air Force pilot named Cade Cain who, after twelve years in Korea, returns to a life of boating around the Louisiana bayou and comes across the bodies of six Chinese men on an isolated mud flat. And on his first day back, too, which is pretty bad luck, even for a guy who got shot down and spent two years in a prison camp. He wants nothing to do with the bodies or whoever was responsible for putting them there, but somehow his old local nemesis learns of the find and before he knows it he's beaten, threatened, and told to leave town again—this time for good. Two fisted loners in mid-century fiction rarely take that sort of treatment laying down. When Cain learns that his wife has sold off his family's land, divorced him in absentia, and found comfort in his enemy's bed, something simply has to be done.
Before he gets his vengeful ducks in a row, a near-naked fugitive swims aboard his boat and the mystery deepens. Her name is Mimi Moran, because the alliteration is strong with this book. She's looking for her husband, who it happens is a pilot who flies illegal aliens into the U.S. for the bad guys. Cade Cain decides to help Mimi Moran and that's when the real trouble starts. The Big Kiss-Off is a solid yarn from Day Keene. It has the usual issues common to fiction of the 1950s, for example the hero having to constantly resist forcing himself on his beautiful passenger because he's “only human, after all.” Fortunately, even though “her flesh constantly attracted his hands like a magnet,” he contains himself—mostly. Not someone you'd want near your sister. Or any woman, really. But as a fictional hero he serves his purpose just fine.
With a setting in the endlessly fertile (for genre fiction) Louisiana bayou, and a narrative that wastes no time putting Cain in hot water, The Big Kiss-Off keeps the pages turning. It originally appeared in 1954 but the above edition was published in 1972 by Triphammer Books in Britain, with nice art by Ron Lesser borrowed from Robert Dietrich's (E. Howard Hunt's) 1962 Lancer Books thriller Curtains for a Lover. Notice how Triphammer erased part of Lesser's distinctive signature. That was obviously to keep the figure on their cropped art from looking crowded by the lettering, but we imagine it still annoyed Lesser. You can see a U.S. cover for The Big Kiss-Off in this collection of Day Keene novels we put together back in 2009.
New girl in town gets local Cajuns ragin’ in 1959 shlockfest.
In Louisiana Hussy Nan Peterson washes up in a backwater bayou town and within seconds every male resident loses his gumbo over her. She’s shady as hell but all it takes is a glimpse of cleavage and a coy smile and the guys forget all that. Ah, for the good old days when men bore no responsibility for their sexual behavior. Here’s a dialogue exchange that takes place between two bumpkins named Pierre and Jacques:
“I should have told Lilly the very first night what she was.”
“Telling your wife that you tried to make love to another woman on your wedding night? It wouldn’t be nice, would it, Pierre?”
“Is that what she told you?”
“She didn’t have to tell me. I saw you myself.”
“She forced her love on me! Jacques, she’s a tramp! A nymphomaniac!”
Yup, we men just go where these things between our legs tell us. You don’t blame a compass for pointing north, do you? Of course not. But you will deserve blame if you watch this movie. It isn’t even a film noir, like some websites claim. It’s just a low rent drama—a tacky one. The poster, on the other hand, is one of the all-time greats.
And speaking of men following their dicks, we recently asked a couple of friends which post on Pulp Intl. was their favorite. Did they pick our informative exposés of mid-century celebs, or erudite true crime articles, or innumerable pieces of rare art? Nope. They picked this one.
Whatever happened to baby Jayne?
Above are two photos of the Buick Electra 225 actress Jayne Mansfield was riding in when it slammed into the back of a semi on a stretch of road between Biloxi and New Orleans. Visibility was low that night due to a combination of ocean mist and insecticide from a mosquito fogging truck. Mansfield’s driver Ronnie Harrison probably never had a chance to avoid the collision, especially while speeding on a dark, curving road. He and lawyer Sam Brody were killed along with Mansfield. Her children in the back seat survived, but two of her cherished chihuahuas famously didn’t.
In the second photo a sheet-covered Mansfield lies in the foreground after being removed from the wreckage by emergency workers. Virtually any website you visit will debunk the myth of Mansfield’s decapitation. They will tell you her blonde wig flew off and either fooled reporters on the scene or inspired them to create malicious urban folklore. Well, we don’t think so. The debunkers should look up the word “avulsion” in a dictionary. It’s when one part of the body is torn away from another. Mansfield’s death certificate attributes her demise to a “crushed skull and avulsion of the cranium and brain.” So she lost the top of her head, including brain matter. Does that count as decapitation? Perhaps not. Whatever you call it, it happened today in 1967.
Going out in a Blaze of glory.
This colorful January 1960 Hush-Hush features Gina Lollobrigida, Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and others, but of special note is an exposé on burlesque queen Blaze Starr and Louisiana governor Earl Long. Sometime in the late 1950s the elderly Long got involved with the buxom young Starr, and it was a scandal for the ages. Starr had a routine in which she wriggled around on a sofa so sensually that it began smoldering (thanks to a hidden smoke machine). The routine had been a hit everywhere she worked, and by the time she appeared at New Orleans’ Sho-Bar she had it down to a science. Governor Long had wandered into the place with several friends and staffers, and when he saw the smoldering sofa routine he was smitten. He made his way backstage and asked Starr out to dinner. She responded by asking if she could trust him. His response: “Hell no.”
The two hit it off and, after a few false starts, embarked on an affair. Long was deliriously happy, but others were not, and they used the relationship as grounds to commit him to Southeast Louisiana Hospital—a mental institution. Long couldn’t get out of the bin on his own, but due to a loophole in the law retained his powers as Governor. For a time he ran Louisiana from his hospital room, and eventually devised an escape plan, which involved having the head of the state hospital system fired and replaced with someone who would pressure Long’s doctors to declare him mentally competent. Upon release, Long resumed his relationship with Starr and made plans to run for Congress in the fall. In August 1960 he won a Democratic primary, but just a month later died of a heart attack.
The relationship between Long and Starr has been much dissected since then, and some revisionists have denied that it was at all meaningful to Earl Long. Perhaps not, but it meant something to Blaze Starr. Years later she said in an interview with People magazine: “I still dream about stripping sometimes. When I do, Earl is in the audience watching me do my thing. Then I wake up and feel sad. I miss Earl and I miss being on that stage.” You can catch Blaze’s act here.
It's sink or swim on the blue bayou.
Dark Waters, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1944, is an interesting movie that hinges on PTSD. They didn't call it that back when the film was made, but what would you call it when someone can't put a traumatic experience behind them, is nervous, prone to panic attacks, and is socially debilitated? The sufferer is Merle Oberon and her trauma is the terrifying experience of being on a boat that was torpedoed by a German submarine. She lost her mother and father in the attack, and barely survived a subsequent ordeal on the water. Take this understandably jittery person with an untreated disorder, stick her in a mansion on the creepy-ass Louisiana bayou, then have someone or someones try to drive her insane. Who's doing the scaring? Well, that's the entire plot, and you'll have to find out for yourself.
We don't think this is a top flick, but it has a pretty cool south Louisiana feel, which is worth something. There's even a fais do-do—a Cajun dance party. It also has Elisha Cook, Jr. as a hopeless suitor and Nina Mae McKinney as a maid, which is way too minimal a role for her, but that's the way it went for women of color in 1944. Dark Waters is fine for fans of gothic creepshows, but film noir fans should temper expectations. The movie is labeled a film noir on some crowdsourced websites like IMDB and Wikipedia, but it isn't really. It has a nice a nighttime swamp climax, but one set piece does not a film noir make. It's more of a gothic thriller on the order of Rebecca. Noir fans take note. Everyone else, enjoy. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
1910—First Seaplane Takes Flight
Frenchman Henri Fabre, who had studied airplane and propeller designs and had also patented a system of flotation devices, accomplishes the first take-off from water at Martinque, France, in a plane he called Le Canard, or "the duck."
1953—Jim Thorpe Dies
American athlete Jim Thorpe, who was one of the most prolific sportsmen ever and won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football at the collegiate and professional levels, and also played professional baseball and basketball, dies of a heart attack.
1958—Khrushchev Becomes Premier
Nikita Khrushchev becomes premier of the Soviet Union. During his time in power he is responsible for the partial de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union, and presides over the rise of the early Soviet space program, but his many policy failures lead to him being deposed in October 1964. After his removal he is pensioned off and lives quietly the rest of his life, eventually dying of heart disease in 1971.
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