Everything that can possibly go wrong will.
Nora Prentiss, which stars Ann Sheridan and Kent Smith, has an innocuous title, but it's close to the most ingenious film noir ever made. It's about a mild-mannered doctor who falls for a beautiful nightclub singer and decides he's willing to leave his wife. Exactly how far he's willing to go to accomplish this split is one aspect of what makes the film interesting, but the aftermath of his decision, and how it leads to an ending that is simultaneously literal and metaphorical, is what makes it a top entry in the genre. Reviews of the day complained that the film was not believable, but are any of the pickles leading men get into in film noir believable? The fact that the filmmakers, writers, and actors pull off the plot at all is worthy of praise. We can say nothing more about Nora Prentiss, not even a hint, and we strongly suggest you don't get anywhere near a review before watching it. Just trust us that it's a film noir worth seeing. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1947.
By any Reckoning this poster is a top quality piece.
This promo poster for Dead Reckoning is deliberately garish and highly effective at drawing the eye. They don't make 'em like this anymore, nor movies like this either. It had a special premiere today in 1947 in San Francisco, and went into wide release across the U.S. a month later. We shared a piece of Japanese promo art years ago and talked about the film, so if you want to know more, check here.
Scientist takes 7,000 pound elephant on a one way trip.
We don't just read fiction around here. We're deep into Tom O'Neill's Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. We may talk about the book later. It's full of anecdotes from the ’60s, and last night we came across the story of Tusko and his acid trip, which occurred in August 1962. Tusko was an eleven year-old Indian elephant that had the misfortune of finding himself at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City at the same time a crackpot scientist named Louis Jolyon West was at the University of Oklahoma studying the effects of LSD. Why West wanted to dose an elephant is too complicated to go into here, but let's just say he anticipated the resultant data having human applications.
In order to perform the experiment West had to calculate how much acid to give Tusko, and he decisively fucked up. He administered via syringe more than 1,400 times the human dosage (other accounts vary in this regard, but O'Neill relayed the story directly from West's notes). After the injection West stood back to observe the result. Said result, according to West's notes, was “Tusko trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated,” seized, and died.
Other versions of the story contain more detail. Apparently Tusko ran around his pen trumpeting (presumably the elephant equivalent of “I am tripping balls, dude!), before falling over. West, his keen scientific senses detecting trouble, decided to calm Tusko by injecting him with either Thorazine or promazine-hydrochloride (accounts vary) and phenobarbital. These doses were also massive, because once you've wildly overestimated the amount of LSD to give to an elephant, it's best to also wildly overestimate the amount of tranqs he might need. These second injections, running into the thousands of milligrams, may have been the actual cause of Tusko's death. We have profound sympathy for all the animals stuck on Earth with us casually murderous, ravenously omnivorous humans, but even in the endless annals of animal cruelty there are episodes so bizarre you can only marvel. Committing elephanticide using LSD is one of them.
After the Tusko fiasco West eventually made his way to a research position in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, and was there at the same time as Charles Manson, which is why his story appears in O'Neill's book. You'd think he'd been run out out of Oklahoma City on a rail, but you'd be wrong. He had CIA connections, and cruelty is an asset in those quarters. He had already dosed humans without their permission during his days at the CIA's MKUltra program, so it actually represented an improvement in his ethics to do the same to an elephant. They say LSD can bring you into contact with the divine. That must be true, because the story of Louis West and Tusko is a work of divine comedy. And just to give it a tinge of pathos, below is a photo of Tusko on his first birthday, when he had no inkling his life would be cut short in the service of pseudo-science.
Some guys just can't see the warning signs.
The cover art on this Planetmonk Books digital re-issue of Charles Willeford's 1956 novel Wild Wives enticed us with its faux-vintage look, plus the fact that this particular publisher has resurrected a few amazing old novels. This story was surprisingly one-note. You get a San Francisco gumshoe who crosses paths with an unhappily married femme fatale who's trouble with a capital T, and to that volatile mix is added a murder and 10,000 hidden bucks. The result is perfunctorily executed by Willeford. It's more frank than you'd expect, both in terms of violence and sex, and it's unusual for the hero's accepting attitude toward a gay character, but overall this isn't one of Willeford's, aka W. Franklin Sanders', top efforts. He's done well in the past, though, so we're confident about returning to him later.
Basically, the way this job works is my customers phone for drugs and I have people like you deliver them. I call it Instagram.
David Dodge is one of our favorite authors. He's as solid as they get. In 1946 he jumped on the drug hysteria wagon with It Ain't Hay, and which the British imprint Corgi Books re-issued in 1953 as A Drug on the Market. The book features Dodge's tax accountant hero Walt Whitney, star of three previous books, who learns that a prospective client has made his money by sailing marijuana from Mexico to Half Moon Bay, California. This tale is notable for Dodge in that he moves away from his semi-comic comfort zone and into darker territory in which Whitney breaks all kinds of personal codes while trying to bring the kingpin to justice. Dodge comes from the generation that hated drugs but loved to get loaded on booze, so it all reads a bit ironically today, but we don't judge—maybe one day people will say what reactionaries our generation was about uncut black tar heroin. Dodge's storytelling skill is unscathed, and that's all that matters. With Dodge, you can't miss.
The Noir City Film Festival comes to spread darkness over the Bay.
Well, it's that time again. We've done numerous write-ups on the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, and we're going to look at some of its offerings yet again as the festival gets underway tonight. All this really is for us is a way to focus our efforts and adhere to a film watching schedule. It also makes us screen someone else's picks rather than ours, which means we end up watching films we never would have otherwise.
Why this particular fest, as opposed to one of the many others, for example in Chicago or Seattle? This was the first one we ran across promo art for, so it's really just tradition at this point. We will add though, that living in the Bay convinced us that San Fran is the most noir city in the world, more than L.A., more than New York City, more than Chicago or London.
Of course, scores of film noirs were shot in L.A., and one of us lived there too, for four years, but San Fran feels like film noir. The recurrent fog alone makes it that way. Add in the hilly geography, the cable cars, the surrounding water, the iconic locations, and that lingering Barbary Coast notion that anything can happen at any moment, and you have a modern day film noir theme park. It was better before all the suits and beards moved in, but what can you do? Anyway, for the next week we'll be looking some of the movies playing at Noir City, and we're starting right now. See below.
There's nothing harder than facing your worst fear.
The poster for Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller Vertigo, designed by Saul Bass, is one of the most famous and influential promos ever made. Bass actually can't take full credit for it—he oversaw its creation, but the unique spiral pattern was made by John Whitney and the figures were drawn by Art Goodman. Bass and Co. made a couple of similar versions of the poster for the film's U.S. run. We showed you one a while back, and now the above version completes the pair. If you haven't seen Vertigo, we can't tell you much that hasn't already been written. Four years after starring in Rear Window Jimmy Stewart plays another damaged man for Hitchcock, a San Francisco detective who has of fear of heights, the result of a rooftop chase gone wrong. He later gets involved in a mystery that puts his acrophobia to the ultimate test. Many say this is Hitchcock's best movie. We don't think so, but it's definitely a landmark, particularly as it relates to co-star Kim Novak's role, its opening action sequence, and its reliance upon San Francisco locations to help tell its story. In fact, the latter aspect was why the film's world premiere took place in San Francisco today in 1958. Below you see some screen grabs, along with a beautiful promo poster that was made for the movie's run in India. Put Vertigo in your queue.
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.
The Noir City Film Festival arrives in the Bay for its 16th year.
We wanted to show you the latest Noir City Film Festival promo posters, like we traditionally do, because it's a nostalgia trip for us from our time living in the San Fran Bay area. This year we aren't going to try to watch all the movies. Well, we may watch the movies, but we won't write about them. Or maybe we'll write about one or two. Anyway, Noir City, Bay area, audience members in period costumes—go. There's nothing like an old movie on a big screen.
Five iconic paintings depict the Ruelhs of aviation.
During the 1930s Wisconsin born artist Ruehl Heckman executed five aviation themed paintings for the Thomas D. Murphy Calendar Company illustrating the reach and romance of aerial machinery by juxtaposing it against far flung natural and urban U.S. vistas. There were five total, all collectible, and you see them above: “Dawn of a New Age,” featuring lower Manhattan and New York Harbor, “Racing the Sun,” featuring an unspecified area of the west, probably Arizona, “The Spirit of Progress,” showing San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge, “Flying over Avalon,” featuring Santa Catalina Island at twilight, and “Where Progress and Romance Meet,” showing pre-statehood Hawaii. These paintings are all iconic yet Heckman himself remains barely known. This could be because his career was cut short—he was killed in a car accident in 1942. As of right now he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. But we think these pieces are quite nice. Like the early Pan Am posters we shared a while back, they capture a romance in aerial transport that is deader than a doornail today.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1948—Paige Takes Mound in the Majors
Satchel Paige, considered at the time the greatest of Negro League pitchers, makes his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians at the age of 42. His career in the majors is short because of his age, but even so, as time passes, he is recognized by baseball experts as one of the great pitchers of all time.
1965—Biggs Escapes the Big House
Ronald Biggs, a member of the gang that carried out the Great Train Robbery in 1963, escapes from Wandsworth Prison by scaling a 30-foot wall with three other prisoners, using a ladder thrown in from the outside. Biggs remains at large for nearly forty years.
NBC radio broadcasts the cop drama Dragnet for the first time. It was created by, produced by, and starred Jack Webb as Joe Friday. The show would later go on to become a successful television program, also starring Webb.
1973—Lake Dies Destitute
Veronica Lake, beautiful blonde icon of 1940s Hollywood and one of film noir's most beloved fatales
, dies in Burlington, Vermont of hepatitis and renal failure due to long term alcoholism. After Hollywood, she had drifted between cheap hotels in Brooklyn and New York City and was arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. A New York Post
article briefly revived interest in her, but at the time of her death she was broke and forgotten.
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