Calcutta is heavy on looks but light on substance.
We'll tell you right out that Calcutta came very close to being an excellent movie, but doesn't quite get over the hump. It deals with a trio of pilots flying cargo between India and China on fictional China International Airways. The trio, Alan Ladd, William Bendix, and John Whitney, stumble upon a highly profitable international smuggling ring and quickly find that the villains play for keeps. Along with the fliers, the film has Gail Russell as Whitney's girlfriend, and June Duprez as a slinky nightclub singer. While the exotic setting marks the film as an adventure, it also fits the brief as a film noir, particularly in Ladd's cynical and icy protagonist.
As we said, the movie isn't as good as it should be, but there are some positives. Foremost among them is Edith King as a wealthy jewel merchant. She smokes a fat cigar, the masculine affectation an unspoken but clear hint of her possible lesbianism, and with a sort of jocular grandiosity simply nails her part. Another big plus is the fact that the miniature work (used in airport scenes), elaborate sets and props, and costumed extras all make for a convincing Indian illusion—definitely needed when a movie is filmed entirely in California and Arizona (Yuma City and Tucson sometimes served as stand-ins for exotic Asian cities, for example Damascus in Humphrey Bogart's Sirocco).
On the negative side, Calcutta has two narrative problems: the head villain is immediately guessable; and Russell is asked to take on more than she can handle as an actress, particularly as the movie nears its climax. Another problem for some viewers, but not all, is that the movie has the usual issues of white-centered stories set in Asia (or Africa). However, within the fictional milieu the characters themselves seem pretty much color and culture blind, which isn't always the case with old films. Even so, the phalanxes of loyal Indian servants, and the dismissiveness with which they're treated—though that treatment is historically accurate—probably won't sit well with a portion of viewers.
Here's what to focus on: Alan Ladd. He's a great screen presence, a solid actor in the tight-lipped way you often see in period crime films, and the filmmakers were even smart enough to keep him shirtless and oiled for one scene. We swear we heard eight-decade-old sighs on the wind, or maybe that was the Pulp Intl. girlfriends. They'd never seen Ladd before, but immediately became interested in his other films. We were forced to tell them he was a shrimpy 5' 6” and they were a bit bummed. But he had it—and that's what counted. His it makes all his films watchable, but doesn't quite make this one a high ranker. Calcutta had its official world premiere in London today in 1946.
This is where being deputy in a one-horse town really sucks.
Elmore's Leonard's second novel The Law at Randado was published in 1954, and it debuted in paperback as this Dell edition with evocative George Gross cover art. Leonard wrote scores of fascinating characters during his long career. The villain here is yet another. Arizona cattleman Phil Sundeen inherited his wealth but pretends he earned it. Though he doesn't truly have a head for business the sheer size of his fortune prevents his numerous failures from ruining him. He commits transgressions that range from the rude to the unethical to the outright illegal. Men work for him knowing they'll eventually be humiliated or cheated, but they tell themselves that maybe there's a way to benefit from the relationship before it implodes.
When Sundeen's stupidity and vanity catalyze a deadly mob, deputy sheriff Kirby Frye wants to hold him to account. Though Sundeen encouraged the chaos, rather than physically taking part, there's no doubt he's responsible for the deaths. But most of the people in the town of Randado defend Sundeen. They all harbor fantasies that by staying on his good side fortune will one day smile upon them. His inner circle protect him, but they know he's wrong. They've gained considerable prestige clinging to him, but they try to make him face the reality of his situation anyway, only to learn that their enablement of him—and the enablement of all the sycophants who came before them—have warped Sundeen's sense of reality:
Sundeen looked up now, faintly grinning. “R.D., you old son of a bitch, you telling me [I'm] wrong?
“I'm facing the facts!”
“Facts don't mean a thing.”
“They do when you're faced with them!”
“I don't see 'em facing me. George, you see any facts facing [me]?”
And presented with this, Sundeen's enablers toss what remains of their integrity into a ditch. In public they claim his obvious crimes are not crimes at all, but they know they're lying, and in private they realize he will only get worse. So does Deputy Frye, which is one reason he's determined to apply the law to Sundeen, same as anyone else. His legal authority comes straight from the county seat in Tucson, but that authority means little to a group willing to see their meal ticket as oppressed by an illegitimate government. Frye has no inkling of where his ideals of evenhanded justice will lead, or what they will cost.
Elmore Leonard was a clever conceptualist—one of the best. The Law at Randado is at its core a tale of order versus chaos, central government over local law, and of whether people believe in the oft-cited principles of what America claims to be. When push comes to shove, those who support Sundeen want those principles binned. Even Frye's girlfriend wants Sundeen to be given a pass, and not just because her father is one of Sundeen's clan. She believes what other townspeople believe: that politicians in Tucson have no right to tell people in Randado what to do. Frye's stubborn insistence on law and order is at first an irritant to Sundeen, then an affront, then a legitimate threat that must be destroyed.
One magical aspect of fiction is that, in skilled hands, what seems murky in real life can be made utterly clear on the written page. Elmore Leonard died nearly a decade ago, so The Law at Randado isn't about events of recent years, but it's relevant because it's about the willingness of some to view the enforcement of the law as transactional. To such people the law is sacrosanct, but only as long as it's applied to others. Leonard explores a foundational civic paradox—that people accumulate power thanks to the stability and protection of the law, then suddenly believe the law exists only as a tool for their ambitions and desires. The Law at Randado explores that idea and does it exceedingly well.
Hi, I'm lost and alone and if I disappeared off the face of the Earth nobody would question it or care.
Above, very nice Mitchell Hooks art for Gil Meynier's Stranger at the Door, originally 1948, with this Crest Books edition coming in 1955. We gave it a read and you should think of it as an early Psycho. The main character Joe runs a Tucson boarding house, and we learn via his vivid internal dialogues that he hates all people, particularly those who possess authority through education or social position. His disorder soon focuses on Dorry, an attractive new boarder who has no idea how disturbed Joe really is. He schemes, sneaks around, spies, and steals, and his first attempt at serious harm involves running someone over with his car. That person isn't the last. An unusual book for the time period, which we enjoyed because it's so different.
So that's where your arm went. The damsel in distress thing was just an act, wasn't it?
Dead As a Dummy is a thriller set in the unlikely locale of Tucson, Arizona, where a premiere for a horror movie called The Invisible Zombie goes completely awry when it becomes the backdrop for three murders. The main character is Ben Logan. His job is kind of hard to describe. Basically, he works for a cinema chain, and he handles whatever needs to be handled. Think of him as a troubleshooter. He puts together a lobby display for The Invisible Zombie featuring a coffin with a mannequin corpse inside, only to find the set-up put to use by a clever killer. The main attraction here besides the plot is good southwestern flavor, something author Geoffrey Homes was adept at after previous forays in the same milieu. The cover art on this is generally credited to George Fullington, but that's one of those cases of the internet replicating an error. It happens. We've done it ourselves. The art is by Ray Johnson—says so right on the second page—and the copyright is 1949.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1958—Workers Assemble First Corvette
Workers at a Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan, assemble the first Corvette, a two-seater sports car that would become an American icon. The first completed production car rolls off the assembly line two days later, one of just 300 Corvettes made that year.
1950—U.S. Decides To Fight in Korea
After years of border tensions on the partitioned Korean peninsula, U.S. President Harry Truman orders U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean regime repel an invasion by the North. Soon the U.S. is embroiled in a war that lasts until 1953 and results in a million combat dead and at least two million civilian deaths, with no measurable gains for either side.
1936—First Helicopter Flight
In Berlin, Germany, in a sports stadium, Ewald Rohlfs takes the Focke-Wulf Fw 61 on its first flight. It is the first fully-controllable helicopter, featuring two counter rotating rotors mounted on the chassis of a training aircraft. Only two are ever produced, and neither survive today.
1963—John F. Kennedy Visits Berlin
22 months after East Germany erects the Berlin Wall as a barrier to prevent movement between East and West Berlin, John F. Kennedy visits West Berlin and speaks the famous words "Ich bin ein Berliner." Suggestions that Kennedy misspoke and in reality called himself a jelly donut are untrue.
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