Monday, August 27, 2012

Paperback Fanatic

I recently finished the latest issue of THE PAPERBACK FANATIC, which publisher Justin Marriott graciously sent for review. I was particularly intrigued by issue #23 because of the extended article by Joe Kenney, proprietor of the essential men's adventure novel blog Glorious Trash, about two paperback series I've covered here many times: the Marksman and the Sharpshooter.

It's pretty clear from reading these often-sloppy books that some of the Sharpshooters were intended to be part of the Marksman series, usually because poor proofreading would result in the wrong character name being printed. Joe does his best to get to the bottom of the surprisingly complicated and interesting history of the two men's action series, as well as some of the real names behind the authors' pseudonyms.

Also covered is author Len Levinson, who wrote about five dozen quickies, usually under other names (I really must read the tantalizing SHARK FIGHTER), and contributes an autobiographical article. Other pieces spotlight the late Ray Bradbury, the LADY OF L.U.S.T. series, literary werewolves, and Edgar Wallace. The digest-sized magazine is 86 pages (including covers) and features a lot of full-color photos of deliciously gnarly paperback covers.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Minute By Minute...Mile By Mile

30-year-old David Janssen, already a familiar face to audiences from 77 episodes of RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, stars as a rural police officer in MGM's RING OF FIRE (1961), a thrilling B-picture shot on location in Oregon and Washington.

Verisimilitude was the order of the day for director Andrew L. Stone (CRY TERROR), who filmed in tiny Vernonia, Oregon (population 2000) and used the townspeople as extras. The miniature and optical effects are good (Stone incorporates footage of a real forest fire), and it sure looks as though the stars are very close to real flames. Even the (real) barn where the police interrogate a suspect is perfect.

Sgt. Steve Walsh (Janssen) and his colleague Joe Pringle (Joel Marston) pick up a trio of juvenile delinquents in the downtown cafĂ© on a charge of robbing a filling station the night before. On the way to the police station, Frank (Frank Gorshin, later the Riddler on BATMAN), Roy (James Johnson), and Bobbie (Joyce Taylor) overpower the cops using a pistol stashed in Bobbie’s shapely waistband and force them to drive out to the Olympic Mountains. Leaving Pringle cuffed to a tree, the teens ditch their four-wheeled transportation and head into the forest on foot, taking Walsh as a guide and hostage.

Shooting completely on location was probably hell on Stone’s production schedule, but the effort was worth it. William H. Clothier’s (THE ALAMO) color photography is wonderful, and Stone’s insistence on realism hikes up the suspense. RING OF FIRE’s biggest action sequence finds Janssen and Taylor trying to save the town from a roaring fire by herding the citizens onto an abandoned train and across a blazing bridge, and it’s a real corker of a climax.

Janssen hits the right notes as a lawman used to dealing with drunks and speeders, rather than armed psychos. In one sequence, sexy jailbait Bobbie (though actress Taylor was in reality just a year younger than Janssen) tries to vamp Walsh into letting her go free. Instead of playing Walsh as a man tempted, Janssen goes for confused—during training, nobody taught me how to react to a young girl who ignores my gun and tries to kiss me! It’s an interesting choice that says a lot about Steve Walsh and how far over his head he may be on his own with three fugitives.

MGM also had ATLANTIS, THE LOST CONTINENT, which co-starred Taylor, and one wonders whether it ever played a twinbill with RING OF FIRE. To sell the thrilling climax, Stone destroyed a real train and trestle, and the remains of the locomotive and two passenger cars still lay at the bottom of that gorge more than fifty years later. RING OF FIRE eschews a musical score to enhance the realism, though Duane Eddy (“Rebel Rouser”) composed and performed the title song, which was released as a 45 on MGM Records with “Bobbie” on the flip side.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Forced Vengeance

The busy pre-WALKER Chuck Norris played his seventh lead role in five years in MGM’s FORCED VENGEANCE, which was shot in Hong Kong by the director of two Clint Eastwood movies. It was his second film of 1982, just behind SILENT RAGE.

He’s Josh Randall (any relation to Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE?), a Vietnam vet and butt-kicking troubleshooter for the Lucky Dragon casino. He isn’t just an employee, but also an unofficial member of the owners: elderly Sam Paschal (David Opatoshu) and Sam’s half-Jewish/half-Chinese son David (Frank Michael Liu). If your boss was gunned down at home by a local mobster named Stan Rahmandi (Michael Cavanaugh, previously in director James Fargo’s THE ENFORCER), it might not bother you, but when Rahmandi mows down the Paschals for not selling him their casino, Randall gets steamed.

He’s also being framed for the killings by a corrupt cop (Jimmy Shaw), so Randall grabs gorgeous girlfriend Claire (ANIMAL HOUSE’s Mary Louise Weller) and surviving Paschal daughter Joy (Camila Griggs) and hides them at the dumpy apartment of his old ‘Nam buddy Leroy (stunt legend Bob Minor). Screenwriter Franklin Thompson wisely notes in Norris’ narration the futility of hiding two beautiful women in Hong Kong without somebody noticing. They aren’t even safe at the local cathouse!

Once Joy and Claire are safely ensconced at Leroy’s (so he thinks), Randall bounces around Hong Kong with a big price on his head ($100,000), dodging bullets, nunchakus, knives, and flying feet from every two-bit street hood and hitman in the city. Eventually, he makes his way to Rahmandi’s yacht to settle a score and learn the identity of the Mr. Big bankrolling Rahmandi’s power play.

FORCED VENGEANCE zips right by at a nice clip, despite Norris’ obvious liabilities as a performer. Rexford Metz’s camera captures the crowded Hong Kong very well, and William Goldstein’s imaginative score provides local color without lapsing into “Asian” music. For a Norris film, especially considering the family-friendly rep he established in the 1990s, the subject matter is surprisingly rough, presenting a pair of rapes, some grisly deaths, and a horrible broken back resulting in paralysis.

To compensate, Thompson sprinkles amusing one-liners into the script, which Norris doesn’t exactly recite with comic timing that will remind you of Rodney Dangerfield, but they do lighten the load. Unintentional laughs may come from the spotty narration, which lets us “read” Chuck’s thoughts (“Asshole.” “Damn. My best hat.”). Norris had done this previously in THE OCTAGON (“My brother…brother…brother…”), so maybe he thought this was his “thing.”

Norris was just about to hit his peak as a major movie star. He moved to Orion to make his two best films—LONE WOLF MCQUADE and CODE OF SILENCE—but he then signed an exclusive deal with Cannon to star in what may be his mostly fondly remembered pictures, including the MISSING IN ACTION trilogy and THE DELTA FORCE. I have a soft spot for the early Norris works though: three for American Cinema found him battling sinister CIA operatives (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK), a super-karate serial killer (A FORCE OF ONE, which also boasts Clu Gulager), and a ninja army running a terrorist training camp (THE OCTAGON). Chuck fought druglord Christopher Lee’s army in AN EYE FOR AN EYE’s Bondian climax and an indestructible Frankenstein monster/zombie in SILENT RAGE, an interesting hybrid of martial arts and mad-scientist horror that hit theaters just three months before FORCED VENGEANCE.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Nobody Leans On Sharky's Machine

Burt Reynolds stars in 1981's SHARKY'S MACHINE as Sharky, a tough narcotics cop in Atlanta who gets hosed by the department after a drug bust goes bad. He is transferred to the black hole of Vice, which is headquartered in the precinct basement and plays host to the city’s worst pimps, hookers, dopers, and lowlifes.

Sharky’s new boss, Lieutenant Friscoe (Charles Durning), and his new partners were once among the best cops in the city, but years of being humiliated, frustrated, and burned out have turned them into jelly. So when they get a chance to do some real police work on a case with an opportunity for them to make a difference, Sharky and his “machine” leap at it.

Slimy pimp Victor Scorelli (Vittorio Gassman) and gubernatorial candidate Thomas Hotchkins (Earl Holliman) are in cahoots, but there’s no evidence against them. Sharky puts an illegal round-the-clock surveillance on one of Scorelli’s girls, a classy thousand-buck-a-night hooker named Dominoe (Rachel Ward). Sharky’s initial discomfort in watching her night and day turns into love, and the case becomes a personal one after Scorelli’s crazed cokehead brother Carlo (Henry Silva) blasts her face off with a shotgun.

Reynolds’ most mature work as a director, SHARKY’S MACHINE stays pretty faithful to William Diehl’s source novel (BORN INNOCENT’s Gerald DiPego wrote the screenplay), though much of Diehl’s rich plot was lost in whittling it down to a two-hour running time. Some of the pieces, such as the exact nature of Scorelli and Hotchkins’ relationship, don’t fit together. It seems as though Reynolds was more interested in the characters and action setpieces anyway. He may have fallen too much in love with his cast, allowing the story to get away from him in favor of extemporaneous character-building moments among colleagues. It’s a violent movie, but Reynolds nicely leavens the brutality with humor.

While it’s a good thing that these scenes work, they do tend to drag down the pace during Act Two. Brian Keith (FAMILY AFFAIR), Bernie Casey (REVENGE OF THE NERDS), and Richard Libertini (THE IN-LAWS) deliver fantastic banter with Reynolds and Durning that plays more Wambaugh than Diehl. Casey and Reynolds in particular share two wonderful scenes, one in which Casey describes how he used Zen to face down death and a later one that pays it off. John Fiedler (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) and James O’Connell (DEATH HUNT) play the rest of Sharky’s machine. Action highlights include a shootout on a city bus, two expertly choreographed fights between Sharky and ninjas (!) in tight quarters, and a suspenseful stalking on the top floors of the Peachtree Plaza Hotel.

With Burt wearing his shorter “serious” toupee, one can infer SHARKY’S MACHINE meant a lot to him. To Warner Brothers (which produced it) and Orion (which released it) too. As a big Christmas release, it did okay business, but not as big as expected. This may have affected Reynolds a few years later when he adapted Elmore Leonard’s STICK, but veered away from it in favor of lowbrow humor and action beats that more closely adhered to his movie star persona.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Snow Queen

In his Black Samurai series and his Narc series (which he penned under the name Robert Hawkes), author Marc Olden demonstrated a terrific talent for creating intimidating over-the-top villains. It has been said that an adventure or an action piece is only as strong as its bad guy, which is perhaps why the Black Samurai and Narc series are among the top echelon of men's adventure novels.

In THE DELGADO KILLINGS, the fourth of Olden/Hawkes' Narc books (published by Signet in October 1974), the villain even gets his name in the title. He's Raul Delgado, "a fifty-two-year-old Cuban cocaine dealer grossing fifty million dollars a year" who is also facing a high-profile trial that could put him away for a long time. His strategy to beat the rap is to ensure no one is alive to testify against him. Possessing a list of the government's witnesses against him, Delgado hires Victor Poland, an ex-cop turned hitman to murder them. Oh, and also to kill John Bolt, the D-3 agent (Department of Dangerous Drugs!) who arrested him.

It's a testament to Olden's skills that Delgado is not the most interesting character in THE DELGADO KILLINGS. Poland is smarter and more ruthless, and as an ex-cop, he has access to inside information to use against his targets that not even his millionaire boss can get. Olden seems to have more fun writing the bad guys than he does his hero Bolt. Bolt is a fairly standard action hero--single, handsome, dedicated to crimefighting with no hobbies, family members, friends, or outside interests to get in his way. Bolt is tough and intelligent and is certainly written as the man to root for, but we learn more about Delgado and Poland in this book than we do about Bolt in all four Narc novels to date.

Olden wraps up THE DELGADO KILLINGS with an exciting chase and shootout within the New York City subway tunnels. I think it's safe to say that Olden liked Victor Poland so much that he left open the question of the assassin's death at the end. Does that mean Poland will return in subsequent Narc novels? THE DELGADO KILLINGS leaves us with that impression. I look forward to finding out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

You're Shit Outta Luck

Clint Eastwood is Dirty Harry for the fifth and last time in a routine crime drama with a touch of the bizarre. After helming SUDDEN IMPACT himself, Eastwood left the direction of THE DEAD POOL in the hands of stuntman Buddy Van Horn, who also directed him in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (although it’s likely Clint was always the man in charge on the set).

The screenplay by Steve Sharon by a story by Sharon, Sandy Shaw, and Durk Pearson is a bit ahead of its time with its take on media and celebrity. It also offers one of the series’ wittiest setpieces: a parody of BULLITT’s car chase involving Dirty Harry being pursued by a radio control racecar containing a bomb. The Dirty Harrys have always contained wry humor—usually Eastwood wisecracks—but THE DEAD POOL’s jokes are broader, such as a mean takeoff on Clint-hating film critic Pauline Kael and Harry’s use of a gigantic harpoon to nail a suspect.

The murder of rock star Johnny Squares (future superstar Jim Carrey) kicks off a strange series of killings in San Francisco. It appears to be centered around the set of a cheap horror movie being directed by pretentious Brit Peter Swan (played by Liam Neeson, another future superstar) and a sick game called “Dead Pool,” in which participants predict the deaths of celebrities in hazardous occupations. San Francisco police inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) discovers his own name is on Swan’s list. When others on the filmmaker’s Dead Pool are also murdered, Harry, whose enemies are legion in San Francisco, has to look over his shoulder more often than he already did.

The least of the five Dirty Harry films, THE DEAD POOL suffers from a weak villain and its simplistic view of horror movies, illustrated by out-of-context clips from THE PACK, IT’S ALIVE III, and TIME AFTER TIME, three good movies (the latter isn’t even horror, but all were owned by Warner Brothers, THE DEAD POOL’s studio).

A box office flop in the summer of 1988, the film holds up as a solid police actioner with excellent photography by Jack Green (UNFORGIVEN). Green and Van Horn stage the murders like high-end slashers, including a tasteful throat-slashing that looks almost beautiful. Lalo Schifrin scores his fourth Dirty Harry (Jerry Fielding did THE ENFORCER), but it’s his weakest of the series.