Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Kiss Me Deadly" the 1955 Film

This is a review of the film Kiss Me Deadly, and not the Mickey Spillane novel.

Mike Hammer picks up Christina Baily, a lady hitchhiker who is dressed in nothing but a coat. She claims to have escaped from the looney bin. The lady asks to be dropped off at the nearest bus stop, makes some comments about a poet, criticizes Hammer for his obvious lifestyle and cryptically tells him, “If we don’t make it, remember me.” Turns out they “don’t make it”. Hammer is forced off the road and, we assume, knocked out.

In an absolutely brutal scene Hammer is shown tied down to a bed, while the girl is tortured in the background. The film moves from there to Hammer recovering in the hospital, followed by the police raking him over the coals. Needless to say, after that Hammer is off the races trying to find out who the girl was, who was after her and, most importantly, why she was worthy of so much attention. As he tells Velda, “This could be big.”

I recently caught Kiss Me Deadly on Tuner Classic Movies. Having seen it before, I focused less on following the plot and more on observing the stylization, characterization and the nuances of the dialogue. Two things struck me: First, Kiss Me Deadly has some of the best 1950s chic stylization put on film. Second, it is very hard boiled, especially considering other films of the era.

Many other reviewers and commentators have expounded upon the “hard boiled” nature of the film, so I won’t say too much about it. The story is that the film makers didn’t care for Mickey Spillane’s novel or the Mike Hammer character. Accordingly, they twisted Hammer into a super-sleazy and self-interested slime ball. Next, they morphed Spillane’s story into some kind of a paranoid, cold war, sci-fi scare story. Although not in keeping with Spillane tradition, the changes were not without their merits. There are tough and violent scenes that were very explicit for 1955, including the torture scene previously mentioned. The police, including Hammer’s friend in the novels Pat, regard Hammer with nothing but utter contempt. The seedy neighborhoods and characters that populate Hammer’s world are starkly shown. One of my favorite scenes is when Hammer tracks down Christina’s roommate in a grungy hotel. The whole scene just makes you feel dirty.

I like the Mike Hammer of Spillane’s novels, yet Mike Hammer as a violent and sleazy operator willing to do most anything to turn a buck also is interesting. In the film Hammer lives high on the hog with a sweet pad, sweet car, sweet clothes and, of course, draped with dames. The film makers did a great job capturing where a well-to-do bachelor playboy in 1955 might live, what he might wear and what he might drive. Hammer’s apartment in the film, for example, features what has to be one of the first telephone answering machines. Hammer remains as tough as he is the novels, he just has shadier motives.

Although the nature of the macguffin and the ending of the film seem very strange today, they probably weren’t so far fetched in 1955.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"No House Limit" by Steve Fisher

"My apologies Mr. Bello. Yes, I know who you are. And the limit is off to you, of course. You can play it your way."

Joe Martin owns the Rainbow’s End, the biggest and best casino on the Las Vegas strip. In fact, the Rainbow’s End is the last independent casino the strip, the only joint not controlled by the syndicate. Of course, the syndicate has its eye on the Rainbow’s End. The fact that Joe recently treated an unruly mobster to a one way trip out into the desert has not helped the situation.

No House Limit begins with Joe and his top security man, Sprig, on high alert watching for the syndicate’s inevitable attack on the Rainbow’s End. Rumors have been flying through town that something big was going down. Joe and Sprig quickly discover the syndicate’s first salvo in the form of some fake chips being passed in the pit. They know that the fake chips are only a diversion for what surely will come.

Sure enough, that night the biggest gambler in the world, Bello, checks into the Rainbows End. Bello heads for the craps table. In a fantastic passage Bello calls for Joe and asks him to take all betting limits off the table. Although Joe knows that Bello represents the main thrust of the syndicate’s attack, the unspoken rules of the gambling world obligate him to remove the limits from the table and give Bello a chance to gamble for the Rainbow’s End itself.

Although the principle storyline in No House Limit revolves around Bello and Joe’s mano a mano duel at the craps table, it is by no means the only thing happening. Steve Fisher loved Las Vegas and No House Limit is his ode to the casinos, the lifestyle and the cast of characters that defined Vegas in the 50s. They are all here, high rollers, glamorous dames, entertainers, showgirls, hard luck cases and weirdos. Of course, there are a couple of leading ladies as well. Sunny Guido, a schoolteacher that is unusual enough in Vegas to catch Joe Martin’s attention, and Bello’s girl Dee who catches the eye of the casino’s piano player, Mal Davis.

No House Limit is a very entertaining read. Not only does Fisher paint a loving picture of 1950s Vegas, he keeps you guessing about the characters’ motives and wondering if Joe or the syndicate will come out on top. Moreover, Fisher’s characters are fleshed out very well making the novel spring to life. In the Afterward to the Hard Case Crime edition, Steve Fisher’s son, Michael, notes that many of the characters are based upon real-life friends of his father. There are shades of Humphrey Bogart in Joe Martin and Bello resembles real-life gambler Nick the Greek.

Steve Fisher was a prolific writer of novels, short stories and screenplays. Hard Case Crime has done him proud by selecting No House Limit for republication in its excellent line of crime and noir novels. This was my first exposure to Fisher’s work and very much left me with a taste for more.

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Hell's Our Destination" by Gil Brewer

Hell’s Our Destination was originally published in 1953 by Gold Medal Books, and was the fifth Gil Brewer novel published by Gold Medal. The story is set in a steamy swamp town. Simon Lewt lives in a shack on the edge of the swamp. Other than occasionally guiding people into the swamp, he doesn’t have much direction in life. Years ago he guided a man deep into the swamp so that the man could accomplish a mysterious task that Simon was not allowed to witness. Simon eventually learns that the mysterious man hid a large amount of stolen cash in the swamp that day. Simon becomes obsessed with retrieving the cash. Although he knows the money’s general location, he knows that finding the specific hiding spot in the tangle of the swamp would be impossible.

Enter Verna, the local girlfriend that is wise beyond her years and pleads with Simon to forget about the money; the escaped convict Bliss who has a map to the hiding spot; the femme fatal Cora who begs Simon to take her into the swamp for unbelievable reasons; and insurance investigator Steggins who seems to know everything and be everywhere. From there Brewer masterfully follows Simon as he is unavoidable drawn toward the money and the inevitable death and destruction that awaits.

I picked Hell’s Our Destination for my first blog review because it is a wonderful example of the classic noir theme of a protagonist that is imprisoned by mad desire and greed. Many, if not most, of Brewer’s novels are riffs on the theme of imprisonment. Brewer’s protagonists are often imprisoned by either physical force or by self-imposed psychological means that become every bit as real as physical force. Of course this is a key theme of many great crime/noir stories.

Hell’s Our Destination is such a novel of imprisonment. Simon is completely imprisoned by his mad desire to get the money. He realizes that he is mad and that the path to the money is the path to hell. He also realizes that he has an escape - all he needs to do is forget the money, turn his knowledge over to Steggins and live happily ever after with Verna. To Simon, in his madness, that path simply is not an option. Simon seeks to justify his madness by telling himself that he needs the money so that he can make a life with Verna. His desire for escape and redemption takes the form of obsessive and fevered study of the Bible. Eventually, of course, he becomes so consumed that he chooses the phantom money and the false love of the femme fatal Cora over Verna. At that point, Brewer provides us with some wonderful symbolism as Simon picks up his bible, considers it one final time and then throws it across the room.

What makes Brewer’s work so great is his ability to vividly invoke the desperation of his characters as they come to realize that they are imprisoned and as they seek escape. He is a master of describing his characters’ actions and their environment in ways that provide a symbolic backdrop for their hellish journeys. In Hell’s Our Destination, Brewer serves up some of his best symbolism. There is the tangled and sweltering swamp (a veritable heart of darkness into which one must travel to get the money), the all-knowing all-seeing eyes of the law (Steggins), the obsessive clutching of guns (the only source of cold comfort in the swamp) and the women (one an angel and one a devil).

Other Brewer stories of psychological imprisonment include 13 French Street and The Vengeful Virgin. Charles Ardai very wisely selected The Vengeful Virgin for re-publication in his excellent Hard Case Crime series. In the Vengeful Virgin, television installer/salesman Jack Ruxton finds himself enticed and eventually enthralled by the lure of money and the wiles of the young and beautiful Shirley Angela. In 13 French Street, the protagonist finds himself functionally imprisoned in the home of his war buddy, whose wife gradually ensnares him in a deadly web.

Brewer also goes for more straightforward takes on the theme of imprisonment. In novels such as A Killer is Loose, The Hungry One and 77 Rue Paradise, the protagonists find themselves physically confined and threatened into a course of action from which they desperately seek to escape. For example, in A Killer is Loose the protagonist sells his gun to an insane war veteran only to be immediately taken hostage at the point of the same gun. He is then forced to witness his captor’s murderous crime spree while desperately trying to stop the killing, save the gunman’s other captor (a helpless woman), and get to the hospital where his wife is giving birth. In 77 Rue Paradise, the protagonist is taken off the street by force and told that his kidnaped daughter will be killed unless he assists in stealing military secrets.

Although I have enjoyed all of the Brewer novels I have read, I have a strong preference for those such as Hell’s Our Destination, The Vengeful Virgin and 13 French Street that explore psychological imprisonment. In these stories the protagonists have a seemingly easy escape - forget about the money, forget about the dame - just leave. They realize they can escape, but as desperate as they become, they simply cannot make that seemingly easy choice.

Gil Brewer (1922-1983) authored dozens of crime/noir novels and short stories from the early 50s and well into the 60s. His early works were published by Fawcett Publications under its Gold Medal and Crest banners. His later pulp works were published by Avon, Monarch and others. Beginning in the late 60s, after the demise of the pulp craze, Brewer continued to make a living writing various types of novels under pen-names.

Brewer’s novels seem to be highly sought after by the paperback collecting crowd. I have noticed that his novels command a premium price on ebay and elsewhere, as compared with most other pulps of similar vintage. Some of them are nearly impossible to find and command hefty price-tags. Hard Case Crime’s publication of The Vengeful Virgin undoubtedly has directed well deserved attention to Gil Brewer. Indeed, any fan of pulp/crime/noir fiction would be remiss not to spend some time with a Brewer novel or two.

Please share your comments and thoughts about Brewer or any other pulp novels/authors you enjoy.