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.
You liar! Your website promised high speed internet!
You ever stay in a place and the internet sucks? It happens to us all the time. The amenities are also sorely lacking at Guido d’Arpino's San Francisco rooming house, but at least his daughter Emma is sexually available to most of the guests that roll through, including touring saxophonist Harry Purcell. Their involvement produces an unexpected customer bonus: pregnancy! The impending arrival of the little d’Arpino sets into a motion a series of events that leads to murder. Since the story is told in flashback at Harry's trial, none of this is a surprise, but the details of how he ended up in the dock are interesting, and in the end the lesson of this Prohibition era tale is clear—never get involved with a musician. And we say that as musicians. We're the worst. Pretty good book, though. In the same way San Fran exteriors are used in some of the best mid-century noir movies, author Fred Malloy (a pseudonym too involved to work out on a perfect beach day, sorry), uses San Fran specificity to spice this one up. For people interested in the city, that alone probably is worth the price of the book. 1954 copyright on this edition, and cover art by Saul Levine.
If dance is the hidden language of the soul—dance on.
The above images are a bit more frank than usual for us, but they're also uniquely artful and we had to share them. They show two slighty different shots of Eugenia Leezbinski, who was an obscure dancer of the Jazz Age, ahead of her time in terms of grooming, and a personification of the Martha Graham adage that the body says what words cannot. The photos survive because they were two of many made by famed lensman Arnold Genthe, a German photographer best known for his exposures of San Francisco's Chinatown, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and his portraits of famous people. His exposures of the lovely Leezbinski are dated on the rear—today, 1928.
Delon and company play cops and robbers in the City by the Bay.
Once a Thief opens with a San Francisco nightclub drummer playing a cracking solo, cymbal crashes synched to quick edits, and we immediately think we're in for some sort of revolutionary beat generation noir, with the edgy rhythms and nervous energy that idea entails. But the movie quickly subsides to conventional pacing, telling the story of a former thief gone straight suspected of a recent murder, and the cop determined to put him away—guilty or innocent. Alain Delon plays crook-turned-family man Eddie, and Ann-Margret is his wife Kristine. Even if the movie doesn't live up to its jazzy opening, getting Sweden's hottest actress and France's hottest actor together should be a can't-miss proposition.
Though Eddie is innocent of the murder, police harassment costs him his job. But when you're broke you can always count on family—to make things worse, that is. Eddie's criminal brother shows up and wants help with a bank robbery. After a few fraternal preliminaries, Eddie decides to partner up with his erratic bro, which is when his troubles really start, because his darker nature emerges and it isn't a pretty sight. Ann-Margret, working from the hysteria-as-acting playbook, is not pleased with these developments and over-emotes her displeasure at every opportunity. Even if criminal conspiracy doesn't do Eddie in, marital strife might.
Once a Thief oozes cool, but in the end it's a middling heist drama that asks a bit too much of its principals. It didn't do well in 1965, and we suspect it'll be the least liked offering at Noir City. Audiences may respond to a few aspects, though: there are some nice San Fran exteriors, Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack is top notch, and character actor John Davis Chandler knocks his role of the druggy hepcat villain Jimmy Sargatanas out of the park, over the promenade, and into McCovey Cove. His line, “I don't dig women,” paired with a sneer and a fatal gunshot, will probably bring the house down. As for Delon and Ann-Margret, well, at least they look good.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
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.
1940—Trotsky Iced in Mexico
In Mexico City exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is fatally wounded with an ice axe
(not an ice pick) by Soviet agent Ramon Mercader. Trotsky dies the next day.
1968—Prague Spring Ends
200,000 Warsaw Pact troops backed by 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring political liberalization movement.
1986—Sherrill Goes Postal
In Edmond, Oklahoma, United States postal employee Patrick Sherrill shoots and kills fourteen of his co-workers and then commits suicide.
1953—Mohammed Mossadegh Overthrown in Iran
At the instigation of the CIA, Prime Minster of Iran Mohammed Mossadegh is overthrown and the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is installed as leader of the country.
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