Medical malpractice reaches epidemic proportions in wartime murder mystery.
This poster for the thriller Green for Danger, which was made in England and premiered there today in 1946, asks about its central syringe image, “Murder weapon or clue?” Psst! It's both. That's not a spoiler. We call attention to it because it's strange that the question even made it onto the poster. It's not as if one answer precludes the other. In any case, there's more than one murder weapon. But the weapon used in the central murder is not a word that rolls off the tongue, so we guess the filmmakers opted to focus on the syringe used in a later murder because it was simple. That isn't a spoiler either.
Green for Danger, which is based on a 1944 novel by Christianna Brand, is set in World War II era London, when the city is being besieged by German V-1 buzz bombs. These bombs, actually more akin to missiles, couldn't be aimed, so instead were designed to run out of fuel over a general area and fall wherever. The point was terror. In the film, when people hear the devices flying somewhere overhead they don't panic, but if the sound of the engine stops, everyone knows death is coming down and runs for cover.
When a victim of one of these bombings dies in surgery in a London hospital, a staff member comes to think it was murder. She voices her suspicions, foolishly as it turns out, and is the next to be dispatched. At that point in comes the shambling detective to solve the crime. He's played by Alistair Sim with considerable humor, which may seem inappropriate in a thriller, but this the movie is also a bit like a wartime soap opera, young doctors in love, that sort of thing, so Sim's wry personality sort of fits.
But it's still mainly a whodunnit, and such movies usually end either with the dick explaining to the assembled suspects who committed the crime, or with him concocting some baroque scheme to cause the killer to unmask himself. This one ends with Sim doing both, which leads to a preposterous set-up for the finale, but we won't spoil that either. In the end Green for Danger—equal parts thriller, melodrama, whodunnit send-up, and comedy—was good fun.
A future literary star puts audiences on notice with a downbeat debut.
Mario Puzo published The Dark Arena in 1955. He would be world famous fifteen years later thanks to his blockbuster novel The Godfather, but here readers find him exploring post-World War II Bremen, Germany, which is bombed out and partitioned between American and Russian troops. His main character Walter Mosca tries to find purpose in this blasted landscape, but his own nature and the chaos around him prevent him finding the humanity he lost in the war. Even the love of his girlfriend Hella can't seem to fill the hole inside him. The book is overwhelmingly tragic in mood from the very first pages, and it becomes obvious which character is going to bear the brunt of the inevitable sad ending, but those aren't criticisms. Puzo's talent in this, his debut novel produced at age twenty-five, shines in the darkness. Like a lot of first books it could be pared down, but on the other hand it's interesting when Puzo stretches his literary wings in lengthy descriptive passages obviously derived from personal observation. He was clearly a star in the making. That may sound like 20/20 hindsight, but it isn't. If The Dark Arena had been the only book Puzo ever published it would be an underground classic today and people would wonder why he never built on his promise. Luckily for world literature, he did.
The deeper you go the tighter it gets.
We've all seen movies about the long con, the elaborate, drawn-out, multi-participant scam. The Crooked Web, aka The Big Shock, starring Frank Lovejoy, Richard Denning, and Mari Blanchard, is an early example of the sub-genre. The plan is for a group of crooks to sell a cache of gold one of them found in Germany during World War II, but the con takes an unexpected twist early, and we learn that the trap being set is deeper than it first seemed. We can't share more details, but we can tell you the film strives greatly to rise above its b-movie constraints with plenty of exterior shooting and a script with international scope. The plot even takes the principals to post-war Germany—which looks a lot like Southern California even with matte work designed to put the foreign illusion across. But you have to forgive budget woes. The flaw that's difficult to overlook is the unbelievable carelessness of the central scam artists, who are posing as brother and sister, but are really lovers and can't keep their hands off each other even when their mark is just around the corner. They're almost busted while in the clinch multiple times, which is a laughable lack of restraint when there's so much at stake. But the shortest route to dramatic tension is to make characters behave like morons. We've talked about it before. It's lazy screenwriting, but that's okay—The Crooked Web is still a fun movie. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1955
If at first you don't succeed, fly back to Malaysia and try again.
In the movies good girls always seem to fall for bad boys. In the World War II drama Singapore Ava Gardner is the former and Fred MacMurray is the latter, a smuggler of jewels. The two hook up in the titular locale, and when Gardner learns her new love is a crook, she accepts it with a rhetorical shrug. She asks merely if Fred is what the authorities suspect him to be, receives an affirmative answer, then asks if he can't sell jewels legally, receives the answer, “Yes, but at a quarter the price,” and that's it. She doesn't trouble her mind beyond that point, which we consider a major failing of Seton I. Miller's script.
It isn't the only failing. When it comes to areas of love and desire, the dripping melodrama of the dialogue puts MacMurray and Gardner in tough spots, and neither comes out unscathed. The good news is that in other areas Singapore fares better. The film weaves the tale of how MacMurray's plan to smuggle priceless pearls is cut short when the Japanese unexpectedly bomb the city. The love story, the smuggling plot, and the bombing are all told in reminiscence, bracketed front and rear by MacMurray's return five years after the tragedies and errors of his previous stint there. Now, with the city recovering from conflict, MacMurray tries to put together the puzzle pieces of the past.
We love old Hollywood's foreign fetish, its eagerness to set films in exotic locales. When it works well, as in Casablanca and its deft usage of Morocco, the result is magic; when it doesn't, as in, say, Miss Sadie Thompson and its setting of Pago Pago, the bells and whistles are a glaring reminder of missed opportunities. Singapore falls somewhere in the middle. We get to see a bit of Singapore when it was still part of Malaysia, which is interesting, but the most exotic sight to be seen is still Ava Gardner. For us, she was reason enough to take the trip. But just barely. Singapore premiered in the U.S. today in 1947.
Don't worry. Lava's slow. I'm fast. I'll undress, we'll screw, then we'll run for our lives.
When we lived in Central America there were three volcanoes that loomed over our town. One's slope commenced just a few miles away and its peak dominated the sky to the south, but that one was extinct. The other two were not. One was dormant, but the other was active and smoked nonstop, with the prevailing wind carrying the ash away from town. This mountain occasionally shot out fountains of lava hundreds of feet high, which is a sight that will make you realize how insignificant you are the same way seeing a tornado or massive wave will. These mountains stood sentinel over many of our adventures, and were even involved in a few, including the time we visited a village on the extinct volcano and a mob of about thirty people beat a suspected thief to death.
Another time the top of that volcano started glowing red one night when we were hanging out at one of the local bars. We stood in the street with our drinks watching this spectacle, and pretty soon we could see flames around the mountain's peak. We thought we were seriously screwed. It was always understood that if that dead volcano ever came back to life there was nothing to do but kiss your ass goodbye. We decided to redouble our drinking. It turned out the flames were caused by a forest fire way up by the rim, but we gotta tell you, in those moments when we thought we might be toast, we got very efficiently hammered. It's a great memory, standing in that cobbled colonial lane, guzzling booze and waiting for the mountain to blow us all to hell.
Needless to say, for that reason the cover of 1952's The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes sold us. The art is by Mitchell Hooks and it's close to his best work, we think. We didn't need to know anything about the book. We just wanted to see how the author used a volcano—specifically Vesuvius—in his tale, since they're a subject personal to us. The cover scene does occur in the narrative, though the couple involved aren't actually trying to have sex. Innes describes this lava lit encounter well. In fact we'd say it's described beyond the ability of even an artist as good as Hooks to capture, but that doesn't mean the book is top notch. Innes simply manages to make the most of his central gimmick.
The narrative deals with a man named Farrell who was tortured during World War II, losing his leg to a fascist doctor who amputated without anesthesia. A handful of years later Farrell is in Europe again, getting around on a prosthetic leg, when a series of events leads to him believing the doctor who tortured him is alive and living under a false identity. In trying to unravel this mystery he travels from Czechoslovakia, to Milan, to Naples, and finally to a villa at the foot of Vesuvius, along the way being pursued but having no idea why. He soon comes to understand that he's thought to be hiding or carrying something. But what? Why? And where? Where could he be carrying something valuable without his knowledge? Well, there's that hollow leg of his he let get out of his sight one night when he got blackout drunk...
That was a spoiler but since you probably don't have a volcano fetish you aren't going to seek out this novel, right? The main flaw with The Angry Mountain is that, ironically, there's not much heat. Farrell is an alcoholic and has PTSD, so he's not an easy protagonist to get behind. And his confusion about what's happening gives the first-person narrative the feel of going around in circles much of the time. And because this is a 1950s thriller, there's the mandatory love interest—or actually two—and that feels unrealistic when you're talking about a one-legged boozehound who has nightmares, cold sweats, and general stability problems. So the book, while evocative, is only partly successful. But those volcano scenes. We sure loved those.
Gestapo goes to extraordinary lengths to cancel a Czech.
This striking poster for Hangmen Also Die might make you think you're dealing with a death row film noir, but it's actually a war drama about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. When a Czech assassin played by Brian Donlevy shoots the country's cruel German administrator Reinhard Heydrich and escapes into Prague's urban maze, the Nazis start executing people to force the population to turn over the shooter. As people die Donlevy struggles over whether to turn himself in. This was made in 1943 and qualifies as war propaganda, complete with flourishes such as discordant brass when Hitler's portrait appears onscreen, and a cheeseball closing song with a chorus of, “No surrender!” And to just bang the war drum even more, the movie premiered in, of all places, Prague, Oklahoma today in 1943, and the showing featured hanged effigies of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini, while regional politicians made a point of attending. That must have been some night.
But while Hangmen Also Die may qualify as propaganda, it certainly isn't untrue in any major sense. The film's two architects, German director Fritz Lang and German writer Bertolt Brecht, both left their homeland to avoid the Nazis, and we can only imagine that their personal experiences made this project deeply important to them. But even people working from personal experience need help, and they get a major boost from co-star Walter Brennan. You'll sometimes read about him being a great character actor and this movie proves it. Watch him in this, then as the drunkard Eddie in To Have and Have Not, and you'll find him physically unrecognizable. Only his distinctive voice identifies him as the same person. Meanwhile it's Donlevy who's asked to personify the classic moral dilemma of sacrifice for the greater good, and he's mostly successful at portraying it as a heavy burden. While we wouldn't call Hangmen Also Die a great movie, there's no doubt it occupies its niche comfortably.
Pram, girl, that thing is the bomb!
Once upon a time in England, some industrious genius came up with the idea of poison gas resistant baby prams. This photo was shot in Kent in 1938, when the threat of war with Germany loomed large and the fear of bombs—gas bearing and otherwise—was in everyone's minds. This pram is not just a historical oddity—it's a sociological statement. Think about it. How many parents could afford one of these things? Certainly not the countless coal miners and haddock fishermen who made up so much of the British workforce, we'd wager. So it's also a symbol of capitalism at its finest—that part where the rich always have better survival odds.
Some websites caption this photo things like, “Mother in gas mask with infant in gas proof carriage.” Are they kidding? It would be the nanny who gets sent out to risk a poison gas attack. Upper crust mommy stays home for tea and scones in the drawing room, and maybe tops that off with a little medicinal scotch for her nerves. If the baby never makes it back she'll just make dirty spoons with the lord of the manor and give motherhood another go in nine months. As for the pram, it would probably be reusable after a gas attack. In fact, it's more than just durable—it's versatile too. Assuming it survives a long, ugly war of keeping German gas out, it can be used during peace time to keep baby gas in.
Oh, I plan to go for his body, alright. Particularly below the belt. I hope he plans the same for mine.
Ed Lacy is a fascinating writer, a fearless craftsman who sought unique angles for his vivid, often racially charged tales. His 1954 novel Go for the Body is a story of amazing imagination dealing with an ex-boxer and would-be promotor named Ken Francine who runs across a black American boxer in Paris. Francine already knows this other boxer, Bud Stewart, from Stateside. In fact, Stewart was the reason Francine retired, a decision brought on by a brutal ass-whipping that exposed his deficiencies in the ring. Now, years later in Paris, Francine sees an opportunity for profit, and begins pushing Stewart up the ladder in the European fight racket. The text on the cover art is deceptive. The book isn't really about the love story, “DIFFERENT” or otherwise, between Stewart and his beautiful wife. It's about Francine, local politics, the dirty work of promoting boxers, and murder.
In the hands of a brilliant writer this could have been an all-time classic. Don't get us wrong—it's still enjoyable. Lacy evokes the atmosphere of Paris effortlessly by sharing minute details. He never crosses the line into travelogue. A quip about the trendiness and expense of Perrier followed by a local's aside that the pipes in European cities weren't always great is enough to plant the idea in the reader's head that fizzy bottled water became popular because it was known to be clean. Another example is how Lacy doesn't bother to describe any of the geography or people of Champs-Élysées, but simply notes that you see big American cars there. He makes clever choices like these throughout Go for the Body, never taking the obvious route, instead relying on readers' ingrained knowledge of Paris from popular culture to fill in the blanks.
His plot does the same. There are few obvious turns. Guessing which direction the narrative will go will likely prove fruitless. Of course, certain aspects are required, such as the Parisian flavor, the post-war malaise, and the nostalgia for a lost love. And naturally, boxing novels nearly always lead up to a big fight, and this one does too, in Milan, Italy. But there's far more on the line in that final bout than any reader could possibly suspect when the book begins. That's the main reason we give Go for the Body a thumbs up—its scope. Lacy is no Faulkner or Malamud, and his main character Ken Francine is confoundingly slow-witted at times (as an ex-fighter who was literally beaten into retirement it's possible he's not supposed to be very bright), but the tale delivers a solid punch. It may not knock you for a loop, but in the end the decision goes in its favor.
Some say recycling doesn't make a difference. The Luftwaffe may feel differently about that.
If you search online, World War II posters are typically grouped under the umbrella of "propaganda." Many pieces, such as this one with its Luftwaffe aircraft in flames, also offered public information. It was commissioned by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1942, and was painted by Canadian artist Steve Broder. There were many posters made at the time that are now collectible classics. We wouldn't go so far as to call this one a classic, but it's a nice painting. We've seen no data on how much of an effect recycling had on the U.S. war effort, and would be surprised if it's even quantifiable. But we imagine at the very least it helped reduce costs for munitions manufacturers. We have quite a bit of World War II memorabilia in the website, much of it pure propaganda, some of it rather unusual. If that sounds interesting, check here, here, here, and here, for starters. |
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