Thursday, August 20, 2009

10 "forgotten" films

Three Cases of Murder (1955): There are a lot of horror films, and only a few of them don't have a number of exponents...they'd have to be pretty damned obscure not to have some sort of coterie, and actual quality usually doesn't have much to do with that. But this one is rather little-known among even those reasonably well-versed in horror film, an apparent crime-drama anthology of three stories, only the second of which, "You Killed Elizabeth" based on a "Brett Halliday" story, is traditional crime's also the weakest. "You're in the Picture," the lead segment, is what lifts this well into the realm of the memorable...a genuinely creepy and allusive horror drama, involving haunted paintings (of all things). "Lord Montdrago," based on a Somerset Maugham story and featuring a fine jocund performance by Orson Welles, wraps up things well with what falls over on the horror side of a borderline this case, a Conservative MP is haunted by the ghost of a Labourite he mocked and hassled in life. While such other modest or clangorous classics as The Haunting or Carnival of SoulsSpider Baby or The Masque of the Red DeathDead of Night or Black Sabbath are pretty consistently in print in various media (we could use the dvds, at least, of Ingmar Bergman's The Devil's Eye, or of The Night of the Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn!)...I'm definitely waiting to snap up a more durable form of this one than my VHS cassette. Runner up among the more obscure anthology films: Torture Garden, another poorly-titled British film (with nothing to do with Mirbeau's novel), this one the first and only good Amicus film of Robert Bloch's fine scripts for that inconsistent studio.

(1986): Lucy Irvine wrote a memoir of her year on an otherwise deserted island, some distance from the Australian mainland, with a fellow Briton, a lunkish middle-aged man who advertised for a younger female companion to take on this challenge with him. In the film, these roles were taken by Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed, fairly brilliant casting that meshes well with director Nicholas Roeg's eye for gorgeous composition...all of which, given the utter beauty of the surroundings and Donohoe within them, almost completely trumps Roeg's inability to tell a story (see also, Walkabout and Don't Look Now, for further examples). For whatever reason, this film has been all but eclipsed in the public mind by those other Roegs and by the other film with the same title starring a volleyball and Tom Hanks.

12:01 (1993): A television film made from Richard Lupoff's novelet "12:01 AM"...and as deft an adaptation of a recurring-day sf story as I've seen. Runner-up in this instance: Of Time and Timbuktu, a melange of Kurt Vonnegut's works in tv-movie form, unavailable for decades in part for being made for PBS by the folks who would later do the fine Ursula Le Guin adaptation The Lathe of Heaven and the absolutely miserable adaptation of John Varley's "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" with a lost and bewildered Raul Julia.

It's in the Bag (1945): What happens when a movie is made of the Fred Allen Show version of The Twelve Chairs? Something as shambolic as a W. C. Fields movie, and about as much fun...with strong support not only from Allen's radio cast, in part, but also from Robert Benchley and Jack Benny (who, in a sense, was a part of Allen's radio cast and vice verse). Even the overdone bits, such as the adventures in a mega-theater showing Zombies of the Stratosphere, are worth seeing at least once. (Runners-up: basically any episode of the PBS sitcom anthology series Trying Times.)

City News (1983): Another PBS offering, one of the items commissioned for American Playhouse, but one which didn't get much circulation in a romance between an "alternate" weekly paper cartoonist and the slightly mysterious woman he meets, it was refreshingly low-key and witty, and I wish I could see it again (as the only person who has described it even on IMDb, I compare it favorably to Slamdance). Most people seem to remember it, when they do, for the makeout scene to the Normal's "Warm Leatherette." Runner-up: Edward Herrmann's one-man videotaped play for AP, "The End of a Sentence."

City Lovers (1982): A short film based on Nadine Gordimer's story, and presented on public stations in the 1980s as part of the Nadine Gordimer Stories package, this was the most affecting of the group among those I saw, offering a charming yet telling liaison between a young "colored" ("mixed-race") South African woman and an older "white" German visitor to SA, back in the last years of apartheid, and how his foolhardiness and the insanity of the national institutional racism messes them over.

New York Eye and Ear Control (1964): Another item I first saw, as a very young child, on PBS (as a very young network) impressionistic tour of NYC, conducted in part by silhouette puppets, to a soundtrack made up entirely of an extended free jazz improvisation by a band assembled around saxophonist Albert Ayler. I've had the ESP-Disk reissue of the soundtrack for more than a decade, but haven't sought out the dvd, if one has been offered, for this curio. Perhaps the best example on my list here of a film that might be more Interesting than Fun for many viewers and auditors...

Born in Flames (1983) ...unless this one is. Lizzie Borden, no less, put together this no-budget bit of agit-prop before she went on to more conventional work such as Working Girls (somewhat famous as a film in large part about the banality of prostitution). BIF is a not-quite-dystopia about the kind of non-utopia that "socialists" of the Bernie Sanders stripe might bring about had they somehow managed to take full control of the US government, and just how disenfranchised leftists, feminists, anarchists and similar folk find themselves still. Not terribly convincing as dramatic art, featuring a fairly amateur cast and a bit too much time showing us underground radio broadcasters before their microphones, it's still an exuberant and rather amusing demonstration (in at least two senses) and not the typical sf film, even at the boho margins. (Such as might be exemplified by Liquid Sky.)

The Magic Box (1952): Like most people who remember this story of the pioneering British tinkerer and developer of the moving picture process, the sequence that sticks most in memory is Robert Donat's exhausted, Eureka-moment William Friese-Greene pulling in off the street a stoic, somewhat skeptical cop, played by Laurence Olivier, to demonstrate the breakthrough he's just runner up, which I like even better but which I suspect is of interest to a narrower audience, is the brilliant horror film Hotel, in which Mike Figgis shows us a film troupe making the mistake of trying to do a version of The Duchess of Malfi in a haunted Italian hotel...

Conversations with Other Women (2005): A fine, fun, funny, and reasonably mature indie involving exes who meet again, years after their breakup, at the wedding of a mutual friend. An example of the kind of film that the voracious maw of our cable-film channels can raise from utter obscurity, even if they don't make them hits...I have to wonder if the elegant use of split-screen here didn't scare cinematic distributors. I'll nominate A Few Days in September, a fine humanistic spy drama, as my runner-up here.

And, really, this just sticks with some of the (essentially) Anglophone films that come to mind.

For the last time the Forgotten Films challenge came up, see this older post, and also see Patti Abbott's blog for the rest of the Friday Forgotten Films special entries...

Friday, August 14, 2009


Sonia Johnson was the best Presidential candidate we've had so far (at least in my enfranchised years)...and, in 1984, she couldn't vote for herself. As a fellow Virginia resident, I couldn't vote for her, either, as she was the candidate of the Citizen's Party (and, in Pennsylvania, the Consumer Party)...Virginians in 1984 faced the dispiriting choice of Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon LaRouche. I voted, grudgingly, for Mondale, but had been genuinely enthusiastic about Johnson, whose platform was at least as good as any of her Green successors...and this book, subtitled "The Metaphysics of Liberation," is largely though obviously not exclusively the account of her campaign, as well as the followup to her earlier political memoir, From Housewife to Heretic. Her intellectual and emotional journey would take her to even more controversial conclusions (such as suggesting that any sort of permanent romantic relation, even one between Enlightened lesbians, requires a sort of self-suppression at best, which Emma Goldman's generation of free love advocates had known and could describe articulately a century before). But at the time of publication of this book, she hadn't yet withdrawn from most of society, nor was she quite done with men (when I met her, after the publication of her next book, she suggested she couldn't understand why a man would like any of her work).

Joanna Russ has had a somewhat more nuanced vision of relations between people, even if at first some have had difficulty picking up on that nuance. This slim, very funny and very deft volume includes her coming-out memoir, an early essay on Kirk/Spock (or "slash") porn--that subgenre of fan fiction mostly written for (mostly straight) women by women, yet involves (in the early form, at least) homosexual encounters between the Star Trek characters. And there are Russ's clear-eyed assessments of the feminist movement around her...this is as good as any of her other usually excellent books.

Pity they're both out of print, and have been for years.

For more books, pleas see Patti Abbott's blog. Always worth a look.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE BEST DETECTIVE STORIES OF THE YEAR, 16th Annual Collection, edited by Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser), Dutton 1961

This book had been scanned in and can be read or downloaded, though I'm not sure if the copyright clearances have been made properly. I've contacted the literary agency for at least a few of the writers collected here, just to make sure they're aware of this.

Table of Contents:

TALMAGE POWELL Murder Method * 1
From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine

HENRY SLESAR Welcome to our Bank * 29
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

BABS H. DEAL Make My Death Bed * 38
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

JAY FOLB AND HENRY SLESAR Victim, Dear Victim * 53
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

C. B. GILFORD Murder, 1990 * 61
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

C. L. SWEENEY, JR. A Question of Values * 79
From Manhunt Magazine

ARTHUR FORGES No Killer Has Wings * 86
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

MATT TAYLOR McGarry and the Box-Office Bandits * 104
From This Week Magazine

PAUL W. FAIRMAN The Dark Road Home * 112
From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine

BRYCE WALTON Suit of Armor: Size 36 * 151
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

ROG PHILLIPS Good Sound Therapy * 172
From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine

BORDEN DEAL The Secret Box * 181
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

KENNETH C. MCCAFFREY The Resignation * 196
From Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine

DEFORBES A Mind Burns Slowly * 203
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

THOMAS WALSH Dangerous Bluff  * 219
From The Saturday Evening Post

KENNETH MOORE The Safe Kill * 239
From Manhunt Magazine

STEWART PIERCE BROWN Just for Kicks * 246
From Bestseller Mystery Magazine

RICHARD M. GORDON Apres Moi, La Bombe * 259
From The Dude

JACK RITCHIE Shatter Proof * 265
From Manhunt Magazine

JAMES HOLDING A Question of Ethics * 273
From Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

And, the Foreword:

FOLLOWING in the footsteps of David C. Cooke's 15-year tenure
as editor of this series presents a stimulating challenge. This, the
oldest annual collection of detective-mystery fiction, carries the
unmistakable imprint of Mr. Cooke's good taste and excellent
critical judgment, and I can only hope this volume will meet
the high standards he has set over the years.

My sole criterion in selecting these 20 stories is my own
personal judgment. I "like" every story I have chosen. Any
story that I could not read with enthusiasm and enjoyment from
the first page to the last was automatically discarded. I think it
is unrealistic and dishonest for an editor to claim he has used
any other yardstick in his selections.

My qualifications for the job are as follows: I have earned my
living writing mystery fiction for the past twenty-five years. I
have edited five similar collections in the past. For several years
I was co-author of a weekly review column specializing in mys-
teries. For five years I was head of a literary agency in New
York. I am currently owner and editor of a small publishing
house. And finally...I like to read mystery fiction.

I don't know what my own standards are for judging a story.
Above all else, I think, I demand that the writer have a story to
tell. Then, he must tell it well. Catching my interest with the
opening paragraph, and keeping me reading eagerly to the final
word. Each of these stories does exactly that.

Nine of these stories come from the pages of Alfred Hitch-
cock's Mystery Magazine
. Four appeared in the Mike Shayne
Mystery Magazine
, and three in Manhunt. The Saturday Evening Post, This Week Magazine, Dude and Bestseller Mystery Magazine are each represented by one story.

Thus, only three out of twenty stories come from the "slick"
or mass-circulation magazines. There are two reasons for this.
First: With the disappearance of so many such magazines in the
past few years and die continual constriction of fiction in those
that remain, there is very little mystery fiction being printed in
the slicks today. Second: Much of what there is is not my kind
of story.

So far as I know, only two of the authors here are women. I
am sorry about this because these two stories are a couple of the
hardest-hitting and most memorable in the book. I would like to
have had more from the softer sex, but I simply could not find

I think there are stories here that will appeal to every taste.
This is not because I have consciously catered to different tastes,
but because I, personally, enjoy every sort of fine mystery
writing whether it is done with gentle humor or with uncom-
promising realism.

I realize that aficionados are going to raise their eyebrows and
exclaim loudly at the non-appearance of any stories from Ellery
Queen's Mystery Magazine
. The explanation is very simple.

Ellery Queen is now publishing two collections each year
from his own magazine. These two volumes pretty well take up
the bulk of the original fiction published by EQMM, and they
certainly call for the best that appeared in those pages.

My sincere thanks go not only to all the authors who con-
tributed stories, but also to all the other writers whose published
work over the past year has given me so much reading pleasure
. . .and has made my task of selecting the twenty "Best" such a
difficult one.


--So, this is one volume of the series (which would continue until 1985, latterly as The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories), as I note in earlier posts, to not contain stories from EQMM , presumably more out of a snit on Frederic Dannay's part than anything else (he was not above carpricious decision-making...which the editors of less-well-paying cf magazines often benefited from). It was the only volume of the series edited by Dresser/Halliday, perhaps because of the embargo, or the desire to avoid any other charges of favorites-playing (one notes that Halliday nowhere acknowledges that he could be seen as having a bias in favor of publicizing Mike Shayne MM as at least a source of small money for him...certainly, Gardner Dozois for years heard grumbles about his more recent sf annual coming out concurrently with the issues of Asimov's Science Fiction he edited). Dresser/Halliday was succeeded by Anthony Boucher, Allen J. Hubin, and Edward Hoch (Hoch got some minor flack for including his own stories in his volumes of the annual).

And, despite the absence of EQMM fiction, it's still a decent book, and probably rather representative of its year. It helped that Manhunt, while not nearly the potent force it had been in the early/mid 1950s upon its beginnigs, was still a source of decent fiction, as was Bestseller Mystery, like Mercury Mystery formerly a stablemate of EQMM and moving toward their last issues as continuing stablemates of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (the strength of both was in the novellas and short novels they still featured, as the continuation of the early paperback-in-digest-form series they had been in the '40s and '50s).

The Dude was a Playboy imitator, This Week was a newspaper supplement of the sort most obviously succeeded today by Parade, and The Saturday Evening Post, having been a nostalgia quarterly for some decades, is now trying to reinvent itself.

Story reviews to come.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Crime fiction best-of-the-years

In the course of the same conversation, I asked Ed about the annual BOTY crime fiction volumes that were published by Carroll & Graf (rip) under a slightly shifting set of titles from volume to volume, with the last one in the series being the 1999 Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories: Seventh Annual Edition, which preceded the first (2000) St. Martin's/Forge volume, The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories (with the great Thomas Canty sinister watercolor cover painting).

The oddest thing about the Carroll and Graf series (and after St. Martin's dumped the ongoing series that World's Finest essentially began, C&G published two more along with companion novella anthologies before C&G was collapsed by the Publishers Group West failure) was that they were attributed, at least sometimes, to the "Editors of Mystery Scene," which meant, as Ed notes, himself, Martin Harry Greenberg, for at least one volume Joan Hess and at least one volume Robert Randisi, and Larry Segriff...while John Helfers and lately Sarah Weinman have augmented Gorman and Greenberg on their latter-day anthos. And that one (1) of the C&G annuals was published (in abridged form!) in mass-market paperback, out of the multiyear run...which seems strange, given how many sf & fantasy BOTY volumes have appeared over the years in mm pb, and even the Best American Short Stories volumes would do so into the 1970s, at least...but for some reason, as far as I can tell so far, only the Brett Halliday volume, #17, of the Dutton Best Detective Stories of the Year series, which ran from David Cooke's 1940s volumes up through to 1985 and Edward Hoch's volumes for Walker & Co. as The Year's Best Mystery and Suspense Stories, has ever been released as a mass market edition (because Halliday was more of a celebrity Name than Anthony Boucher or Allen Hubin or the other editors of that series, I guess), and with only the other, sadly shortlived, iBooks series, Jon Breen's Mystery: The Best of 2001 (and 2002), seem to be the only BOTYs in crime fiction to have been offered on the "regular" (as opposed to "Quality Paperback") racks...certainly, the Best American Mystery Stories series never has. (The Breen series was shuttered at least in part by the collapse of iBooks, after the death of its founder, Byron Priess; also notable how Ed Hoch and Jon Breen brought their nonfictional contributions to the Gorman/Greenberg projects after their series were finished...Breen's beforehand, as well.)

Or have I missed some? And does this indicate an slighting attittude toward short crime fiction on publishers' parts, going back decades?

Something Ed Gorman asked me...

Ed flattered me by asking how it was that some of my middling years seems to be aware of what was going down in fantastic fiction in the 1950s. I responded, inadequately:

I read the nonfiction that was coming out ca. 1978 (the golden age of 13 for me), the year I started reading the various fiction magazines I could find and obtain (cf and contemporary mimetic/eclectic as well as sf/fantasy/horror), religiously…and my high school libraries (Londonderry, New Hampshire for 8th grade and frosh year, Honolulu’s private school Punahou where I missed overlapping with Obama for Soph on) were obliging enough: the former to stock the likes of James Gunn’s ALTERNATE WORLDS and Franz Rottensteiner’s bad but colorful THE SF BOOK and Peter Nicholls’s SF AT LARGE essay collection (and the Londonderry public library had Damon Knight’s THE FUTURIANS, which I checked out half a dozen times...and developed a mild crush on Doris Baumgardt aka Leslie Perri); the latter had Knight’s IN SEARCH OF WONDER and Blish’s ISSUE AT HAND and its first sequel (the second wouldn’t be published till my adulthood). I bought the paperbacks of Pohl’s THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS and the Nicholls SF ENCYCLOPEDIA (I still remember the day I stumbled across the table of remaindered books in Liberty House, Honolulu’s upscalish department store chain--renamed during WWI, natch, along with the liberty pups and the liberty slaw--and saw copies of the fat Nicholls encyclopedia, which I hadn’t seen in the pulp before though I’d read reviews, on sale for $4 a pop), and dug around for Kyle’s coffee-table books and HELL’S CARTOGRAPHERS…as well as all the historical retrospective anthologies (and vintage best-ofs) I could find, as well as attending to the autobiographical material in the collections and anthologies offered by Ellison, Asimov, and whomever else chose to do…and, of course, read the columnists in the fiction magazines, including “R. E. Porter” in EQMM, and branched into the bigger fanzines/semiprozines I saw advertised in the digests, such as ALGOL/STARSHIP and SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW, where the increasingly impressive (to me) book critic and apparently major fiction writer Algis Budrys was interviewed by some guy named Gorman.

Though I’d gleaned some things even a few years earlier, reading, among my father’s other pbs and book club editions, Baen at Award’s THE BEST FROM IF, V. 3 volume that included Geis and Del Rey’s farewells to the magazine, and buying Harrison’s NOVA 4 as a gift for my father (from a spinner rack of mostly Manor Books, at the same drugstore with the comics spinner racks and the small newsstand with F&SF and others on it), with a version of Bester’s HELL’S CARTOGRAPHERS essay in it.

And I collected older digests, and read them. Couldn’t get TOO far with, notably, OTHER WORLDS’s more run of the mill stuff, but was slightly croggled to see that 1970s BATMAN comics scenarist David V. Reed/Dave Vern (whose work I read new as a younger kid) not only was mentioned by Bester in that NOVA 4/HELL’S CARTO essay, but also was in Ray Palmer’s stable. People got around! How bout that! Even if they weren’t well-known except in certain circles…thus my awareness began of the "hidden" history that laid there in plain sight, if one took a look...

Les Daniels’s history of horror in mostly pop culture, LIVING IN FEAR, probably was the hook that got me going with the literary-history/crit habit, as I was a horror-seeking machine, though eclectic, as a younger kid (read that about ten and living in Connecticut, finding Daniels’s similar book on comics not long after).