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25 July 2014 @ 01:05 pm
1 myst

What nefarious scheme do they have underway with that seemingly harmless bowl of cereal...?
25 July 2014 @ 01:04 pm
"Ha ha, made ya look!" *SMACK!*

the wrecking crew 001

Nancy Kwan and Sharon Tate in THE WRECKING CREW.
1 hg wells oct 1931

From October 1931. Ask him about his son Orson, just to rile him up.
25 July 2014 @ 12:51 pm

You have to love a moment like this. Our tough private eye has stolen the murder weapon from a homicide scene (not the last time he will do this). It's a big old butcher knife, and he cleans the blood off it and tosses it casually in his kitchen's silverware drawer. Later on in the case, with his client vanished and two police chiefs glaring at him, just aching to arrest him, the detective insolently starts to make himself a sandwich. ("The wooden-handled butcher knife came first to his hand, and his whistling lips twisted into an ironic grin as he began slicing bread with it under Painter's gaze... The detective continued to slice bread with his back to them, cutting each slice uniform and thin, pleased with the razorlike edge on the knife.")

This dark humour is one of the things I like best about the early Michael Shayne books. There's a perfectly fine plot about murders in the ritzy upper class, a young heiress going insane (or is she?), some hurried sex with a nurse and a large serving of violence (Shayne takes enough punishment to kill a mule in this one), most of the ingredients for a classic crime thriller. But it's the little bursts of whacky deadpan comedy that make these books stick in my mind. Not many of us are composed enough to rinse blood from a nightgown while making breakfast (the trick is to use very cold water while the stains are fresh).

DIVIDEND ON DEATH is from 1939, and was the first in the series. (There would be over seventy novels before the last one appeared in 1976, as well as hundreds of short stories in the magazine bearing Shayne's name.) Davis Dresser was the first (and best) to toil under the "Brett Halliday" byline, and I have come to regard him as greatly underrated. His early entries in this series are a great mixture of hardboiled action and complicated whodunit plotting, with just a bit of slapstick.

Right from the start, Dresser had Michael Shayne fully realized. By the second chapter, the big redheaded detective is happily at his Martell five-star cognac, "alternately sipping from the wineglass and the waterglass, lighting one cigarette from another." A few pages later, he is tampering with a crime scene, removing the murder weapon and his client's blood-soaked nightgown before anyone else is aware of the killing, and sauntering casually off with them. As soon as he meets the new Miami Beach chief of detectives, Peter Painter, Shayne is badgering and taunting the man as he will continue to do for decades to come ("I've been in worse jails than yours"), as Miami police chief Will Gentry tries to intercede. All that's missing from the formula is reporter Tim Rourke.

This also introduces Phyllis Brighton, the girl who will become Shayne's wife (only to unfortunately be killed off between books, a big mistake in my opinion). She enters as a very pretty, slim young brunette of nineteen who is on the edge of a major psychotic episode. Believing she has an Electra complex and is likely to either murder her mother or her new stepfather, Phyllis comes to Shayne's apartment-office all trembling and hysterical. One minute she is rushing to leap out the window, the next she is throwing off her clothes and diving into Shayne's bed (because if he's attracted to her, that means she's not a suppressed Lesbian, you see... my word, this kid has a lot to learn!).

As soon as they meet, there is that certain spark of chemistry between these two. At thirty-five, the big lug thinks he's way too old for a college girl, but it's fine with her. He also doesn't believe her predicament is her fault, either. As a pulp detective, he's been in too many stories solved too many cases) where the young heiress is driven insane to get at her fortune. Phyllis is acting pretty whacky all right, but that family doctor sure seems suspicious, and he's the one pushing this Electra business.

Right after Shayne agrees to accept a pearl necklace as a retainer (it's an actual pearl necklace, let's keep it decent here), he is approached by her family's doctor to keep an eye on Phyllis, a neat twist that amuses the detective. ("Now, if the old lady would come around and hire me as her bodyguard, the set-up would be perfect.")

Things get complicated after that, and there seems to be three or four plots going on at the same time. The stepmother is promptly killed, with her throat sliced open, and Phyllis is right there in a bloodstained nightgown and holding a butcher knife (whoops!).Shayne hides her at his place, then she disappears and is not seen for the rest of the story until the very end. What's all this business about a Raphael with someone's else signature? Why does this shady gangster Ray Gordon hire Shayne to find out the minute someone named Henderson enters Miami? And what about the body buried on the beach in a box? (Shayne reflects the sea water when the tide is in must have a pickling effect in the corpse.) What is the chauffeur hiding, and what about that enigmatic cablegram Shayne quickly confiscates?

Just what the heck is going on here? Worry not, all will be revealed as Shayne puzzles things out. By the final chapter, he has deftly maneuvered everyone together to resolve everything to his satisfaction. He even manipulates some bad guys into shooting each other in a way that the Avenger would have grudgingly approved.

One thing about Mike Shayne, he has a terrific healing ability. (He must take DHEA.) Right in this first recorded case, he takes four bullets, one of which breaks his collarbone so that he handles most of the story in a cast. If this isn't enough, he is brutally kicked and beaten into unconsciousness, left for dead but quietly getting up again to keep going. (It's a good thing his evening of sleazy sex with a nurse* from the Brighton household takes place before the shooting, when he has only been kicked senseless by a thuglike chauffeur.)

But this is all part of the business for him, and he makes sure everyone who abuses him gets paid back in full. And he comes out at the end with $24,000 profit, which in today's money would be, oh I don't know, a whole heck of a lot more. Still, you have to wonder why he doesn't end up looking like Quasimodo on a bad day after a few cases like this.

One note for the chronicles, this book has one of the very rare hints about Shayne's past ("... he was a freckled Irish lad kneeling by his mother's side in a Catholic chapel..."), as Davis Dresser in forty years never gave his hero a backstory.
*Shayne doesn't seem to enjoy this much, and I figured his mind was already on Phyllis. ("His face was morose as he went back to the table and poured himself another drink. Something new had come into his life - and gone out of it.")
1 kuniyoshi utagawa 19th cent.

Not long ago, I posted art for THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH showing Vincent Price's face as composed of human bodies in various poses. But of course this trick has been done before. We see Uncle Sam made up of immigrants (not the most flattering caricatures), as done by Frank Hamilton for an 1888 issue of JUDGE, and also a 19th Century woodcut by Kuniyoshi Utagawa.
24 July 2014 @ 01:47 pm
1 mystery

Ummm... the world's least effective wrecking ball?
24 July 2014 @ 01:01 pm

Sheesh. When I think about discussing the level of quality of this movie's script, acting or directing, it would inevitably sound as if I wanted to stick it beneath the barrel, never mind at the bottom. Add hefty amounts of stock footage and scientific rationales that are as believable as Pippi Longstocking to the mess. You'd think there is no way anyway could watch this flick with equanimity, let alone enjoyment.

Yet I liked it. It's goofy, dumb fun. It's a giant Monster On the Loose movie with all the trappings of the genre, as predictable as the ingredients of a Thanksgiving dinner, and if you like that sort of silliness, this is a good sample. No one is making you sit in front of the TV or computer with a gun to your head controlling your choice (yet) and if you want to watch Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu fighting or Mexican masked wrestlers, by all means go for it.

Okay, so there are some whacky aspects about this movie that struck me as worth mentioning. The very title is THE DEADLY MANTIS and we see a humongous mantis frozen in ice in the first few scenes. After it inevitably thaws out, yawns and stretches and has some coffee, the critter starts its rampage by eating some northern natives (still called Eskimos back then), including members of an Arctic radar station as it heads south. So folks in the audience immediately are hip to what's going on. It's only the characters within the film who must gradually piece together clues to finally reckon that the latest threat to humanity is a praying mantis roughly a hundred feet long. (In THEM!, the template for this sort of movie, the nature of the big varmints was kept secret until a revelation scene; not so here.)

This quasi-mystery allows the heroic paleontologist can puzzle over a spur that broke off from the monster's foreleg and to debate (rather heatedly, as if taking personally) with his assistant and another scientist over what the unknown creature could be. So we get the movie's best line, as someone opens a reference book to an illustration and the paleontologist dramatically swears, "In all the kingdom of the living, there is no creature more deadly or voracious than the praying mantis." (Actually a lot more dialogue here is just as clunky and pretentious in its own way. You don't appreciate how smooth most screenwriting is until your ears catch a few thuds like these.)

It may sound funny coming from a Drive-In freak like myself, but the Mantis is really too big for its own good. Dinosaurs in movies are normally scaled up quite a bit from their real sizes for effect, as are things like shrews and leeches, and that's fine. Giant insects never seemed to work as well for me because I learned about that inconvenient cube-square bottleneck at an early age. One of the characters has a prehistoric dragonfly mounted in his office to lend some attempt of making the Mantis more credible but it's still a real jump from two feet to a hundred feet.

I feel the filmmakers missed a great opportunity to turn out a genuinely scary movie by not showing the monster bug as being roughly human sized. Think about it. The unnerving thing about mantises is that they hold absolutely still and then blur out to snatch their prey quicker than you can see. There's film of a mantis grabbing a hummingbird out of the air, which is impressive enough. The Mantis in this picture is so huge that it moves rather sluggishly, waving its forelegs around in a rather vague and indecisive manner before attacking. It also roars, a pretty neat trick for something with no vocal chords... maybe this ancient species had a voice to make up for the antennae it is conspicuously lacking. I would think a six foot long Mantis lunging around corners or from behind trees to yank unsuspecting people away would be much more frightening. (EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS did a lot of this approach.)

But it's the 50s, where gigantism was all the craze. Gila monsters, grasshoppers, goony birds, tarantulas, people... all stomping down city streets. The Deadly Mantis makes his way as far as the nation's capitol to spend a few minutes on the Washington Monument (everyone's a tourist) before being hassled back north by those persistent fighter jets. Here it makes its last stand (or crawl) in the Manhattan Tunnel as troops decide to fumigate the area. The stock footage is getting close to taking over by this point, what with all the Air Force footage of radar installations and jets scrambling and views of the Pentagon, but I don't mind that. It's all so long ago that it's interesting just as Cold War history.

The acting is hardly noticeable. It's like pulp era science fiction, with two-dimensional characters mostly explaining things to each other. Craig Stevens (wasn't he PETER GUNN? What a great theme song!) as the military commander and William Hopper (from TWENTY MILLIONS MILES TO EARTH) are so bland they're almost fuzzy spots on the screen. Alix Talton makes even less of an impression as a photojournalist who tags along for no discernible reason. The film's most amusing moment is when she turns up at an Arctic radar station where the staff have not seen a woman for months. They turn into complete animals and demand that she dance with them all in the rec hall. How tawdry.

Despite all these drawbacks, this snoozer does have a no-fooling giant monster in it. Since it's often shown in fog or gloom (to hide the puppet strings, ahem), there are some really atmospheric shots of the beastie looming up menacingly. The Mantis has no real personality, not even being particularly vicious and it certainly does not produce any of the pathos and sympathy a really first-rate monster should create. And I do enjoy seeing a hundred-foot-tall bug peering intently through a window at a human woman. What, is he supposed to be hoping she'll undress or take a shower or something? It's a bug...!

Dir: Nathan Juran

All the hopeful guys trying to get backstage with candy and flowers... I bet security would let Max Headroom in.
24 July 2014 @ 12:42 pm
gold dust twins

More to these little rapscallions than I thought.

I do remember finding a reference once or twice to "Gold Dust Twins" in old pulps. Like Stan Lee's use of "Laughing Boy" and "Sunny Jim," I had no idea what meaning those tags could have until the Internet bloomed.