Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Man in the Shadow (1957)

This noir western is the work of director Jack Arnold, best known for genre classics like Creature From the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space. He was also a prolific TV director and producer with credits for scores of series ranging from “Mr. Lucky” to “Gilligan’s Island.”

His bio reveals another side of him, including internship with pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, the Peter Sellers satiric comedy The Mouse That Roared, and this film of murder and bigotry set in the modern-day West (a wall calendar sets it specifically in August of 1956).

It’s a black-and-white Cinemascope production (though netflix is sadly running only a pan-and-scan version). According to imdb.com, it was shot in large part on location in the Conejo Valley, west of Los Angeles. In many ways, it resembles Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), as one man stands up alone against a community turning a blind eye to the killing of a young “bracero.”

Jeff Chandler plays Sheriff Ben Sadler, the man of conscience and a fearless advocate of the rule of law. With his good looks and deep voice, Chandler was one of the few actors who could credibly play both a town sheriff and an Indian chief (Broken Arrow). (And while we’re at it, we may as well throw in his comic role as Philip Boynton, the heartthrob of  “Our Miss Brooks” on radio.)

Conejo Valley. Photo by King of Hearts
Not altogether sure of himself, as we can tell from his body language, Sadler confronts the toughest customer in the community, a rancher named Renchler. That role is played wonderfully by Orson Welles, with all the assurance of a man long accustomed to ruling his giant spread by something like divine right. Meanwhile, the ranch foreman (John Larch) is up to his own dirty deeds, while putting the pressure on Renchler’s daughter (Colleen Miller) with some heavy-duty amorous advances.

The town fathers, the coroner, Sadler’s deputy (Ben Alexander), even his wife attempt to dissuade him from pressing his investigation. Renchler is too rich and powerful. Besides, the victims (two now and counting) are just “drifters” who may not even be legal immigrants.

Angered by the town’s unwillingness to pursue justice, no matter what, Sandler turns in his badge and goes after Renchler himself. The final confrontation at the ranch is played out at night in scenes that are straight from the dark heart of urban film noir.

At 80 minutes, the film wastes no time telling its story of crime and punishment, while making its points about how wealth and power corrupt ideals of social justice. Chandler is just fine. And Welles, of course, effortlessly commands every scene he’s in. I had not known of this film and was nicely surprised.

Man in the Shadow is currently available at amazon and streamable at netflix.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Everett Dick, The Sod-House Frontier

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Naked Spur (1953)

Filmed, as it says, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, this James Stewart western fills the screen with plenty of scenery. Held in high regard from the time of its release, the film continues to show up on people’s best-western lists. Usually credited is the team of Stewart and director Anthony Mann, who made five westerns together in the early 1950s. The first of these, Winchester ’73 (1950), has also been a critical favorite.

The color and the setting are actually an interesting contrast to the darker story of men driven by naked self-interest. Thrown together on a cross-country journey, they are the classic mix of poorly matched travel companions that has been a staple of westerns. In this case, the complicating factor is a $5,000 reward for the return of one of them to Kansas.

Robert Ryan, always good to play a brazenly grinning killer, is the man with a price on his head. A very blonde, short-haired Janet Leigh, dressed at first in men’s clothes, is his girlfriend. A second smirker among them is Ralph Meeker, a dishonorably discharged cavalry soldier without two principles to rub together. Completing the group is a grizzled, out-of-luck prospector, a frontier stereotype played with unexpected depth by veteran Millard Mitchell (one of his last films). And, of course, there’s Stewart.

Ryan, as in other roles, is a walking pack of lies and makes no secret of it. His captors can trust each other only up to the point where their share of the $5,000 is compromised. The girl is a question mark, drawn as she is between faithless Ryan and the achingly lonely Stewart. And so it goes until, one by one, lives are lost and only two are left standing.

James Stewart
The film is marred by an early scene meant to reveal Meeker’s reckless duplicity. He gets all of them into a firefight with a group of Indians who have been following on horseback. Their grievance is with Meeker, who apparently has taken liberties with an Indian maiden. Stewart is wounded in the exchange of gunfire, for which Meeker is unapologetic. He’s just glad the Indians aren’t on his trail anymore.

For modern audiences, the problem with the scene is that, of the 20 or so Indians, not a single one survives. That Meeker would pull such a stunt is fully within his character. But the total wipeout of the band of Indians is too much a convention of earlier western movies. Their dead bodies littering the ground as the dust clears, it stretches credibility.

The final scene, however, is a remarkable achievement. Played out along, across, and in a swollen, raging river, it involves some thrilling stunt work. Nifty editing creates a seamless action sequence that keeps the drama breathtaking. The “naked spur” of the title also figures in here as a plot device and a weapon.

Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan
Stewart graduated as he grew older to playing more conflicted characters, often with complex motivations and dark sides like this one. For me, it works when the men he plays are still basically sincere. I’m thinking of his roles in Hitchcock films, like Vertigo. But I have trouble believing him when he has to be less than honorable, as he does in this film. With his guileless face, he’s too obviously a decent man.

Altogether, it’s an interesting film for its time, with only a five-person cast (plus Indians). And there are no “good guys” among the characters, only degrees of self-interest to distinguish them. Except for the gorgeous sun-lit scenery, it’s arguably a “noir western,” much in keeping with the dark mood of Hollywood during the “happy days” of the post-war Red Scare.

The Naked Spur is currently available at amazon.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Man in the Shadow (1957)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Axel Brand, The Dead Genius

Someone finds a dead body slumped over a desk. No sign of foul play. The examining physician says heart failure. Police detective Lt. Joe Sonntag is inclined to agree.

But his cheap-cigar-smoking captain Ackerman thinks otherwise. There’s a crime here somewhere, he keeps saying. Find it. And thus a skeptical Sonntag finds himself on another hunt for a murderer.

What I like about Axel Brand mysteries is the retro world of police work circa 1949 that it conjures. And the naked city his police call home is not the mean streets of New York, Chicago or LA. It’s the mainly placid Milwaukee, the beer capital of the Midwest.

I also like Joe Sonntag. He’s a hard-working, decent man, who wears inexpensive suits and rides a streetcar to work. At night he returns, often late, to his wife Lizbeth, a drink, and meatloaf. It’s an empty nest, one son grown and gone. The other son only a memory of a boy who thrived and then died of polio.

His marriage is a mostly comfortable one, though not without signs of strain. For lack of a job of her own, Joe’s wife takes more than passing interest in his work. You get the idea she wouldn’t make a bad cop herself. She settles for packing his lunch every morning and the occasional night out on his meager salary. On Sunday she goes to church alone.

1949 Buick Super
The crime is a nicely complex one, with just enough discoveries along the way to keep it intriguing. We meet three of Joe’s colleagues, who are assigned by Ackerman to the case. One is Frank Silva, who reads pulp westerns and is a young socialist with a vocal dislike for rich capitalists.

The dead genius of the title is a questioned document examiner. Often called upon as an expert witness, he could tell if a document was what it claimed to be. He could testify whether or not a will was forged. He could spot a phony contract, or a bogus signature. A walking encyclopedia of typewriter fonts, he could identify the year and make of the machine used to type a letter.

For all who knew him, he was also a man of mystery, claiming a past too far-fetched to be true and dying without heirs. The pieces won’t fit together, and there are those who might have had reason to do the man in. There's a disgruntled protégé with a desire to take over the business, and a doctor and lawyer in an unseemly hurry to cremate the remains.

Milwaukee County Courthouse, built 1931.  Photo by Sulfur.
Richard Wheeler (writing as Axel Brand) has said in an interview that he enjoys the police detective tradition as it was portrayed in Dragnet. This realistic police procedural started out as a radio series in 1948 and quickly transferred to television in the 1950s. (Read more here.)

Sonntag is not Joe Friday. The tone isn’t deadpan, but more like my favorite TV cop show, Barney Miller, which ran 1975-1982. (Read more here.) There’s humor and quirks among the men on the force, and Joe has a hidden side that haunts him each time he rides the streetcar between home and work.

Far from hard-boiled, maybe soft-boiled is what you call this kind of crime fiction. It’s love of its characters and the pitch-perfect evocation of the period make it thoroughly enjoyable. I hope Richard Wheeler has a whole lot more Joe Sonntag stories up his sleeve.

The Dead Genius will be released in August and is now available for pre-order at amazon.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: The Naked Spur (1953)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Tree trimming

On a walk in the neighborhood one morning this week, the dog and I found this fellow up a palm tree and giving it a trim. A palm tree expert would probably call this a bad example of pruning, since the guy has climbed up like it's a utility pole, and the shoe spikes cause permanent damage. Ideally you want this done with a crane. He's also removing too many of the healthy fronds.

If I can believe my limited research on this topic, the number of healthy fronds on a tree is supposed to be the optimal number needed for that tree's growth. Dead fronds are dead because they are no longer needed by the tree for photosynthesis. You trim those because they can harbor pests like rats and pigeons. They're also a hazard for folks on the ground when they fall.

The practice here, probably for economic reasons, is to trim palms back to just a few fronds at the top, referred to as a "rooster tail." This may save the cost of more frequent trims, but it can apparently jeopardize the health and viability of the tree. I'm wondering if my neighbor, who was standing in his front yard watching, had done his research before hiring someone to do the job.

Week in review. Been a week of bacheloring, while my wife and partner paid a visit to family and friends back East. The bad weather in the Midwest delayed her return by 24 hours, but she got home safe and sound (and very tired) yesterday evening.

Eva (aka Evita)
I was pretty much housebound, with an aging and ailing miniature pinscher who has developed a severe case of separation anxiety. So I read, blogged, and watched westerns, plus starting into the complete Deadwood series. Watching those episodes and then rewatching them with the commentaries has been an unexpected pleasure.

A colleague at work has been talking up this series ever since it was new, and I was too much into the cowboy West to get excited about the carry-on in a mining town. I'd also seen a sample of the series and found the profanity off-putting because it seemed too modern and anachronistic. As others have said, after an episode or two, you stop noticing that.

Having now read early-early western fiction set in mining towns or about miners, I see mining as part of the frontier experience. And I have to thank Walker Martin for encouraging me to expand my vision of the Old West and to give this material a try. Deadwood will now rank with Lonesome Dove for me as the best of the made-for-TV westerns.

Online fiction this week:
Len Kuntz, "Cousins"
Richard Prosch, "Eli's Cannon"

Coming up. Those of us who joined David Cranmer reading King Solomon's Mines will finish up this week, and I plan to post a review on Thursday. I invite everyone else to chip in here then. A few issues have come up already, and I'm really curious to find out folks' final opinions.

When Blogger started acting up, I found that it helps to check over at downrightnow. You can see how it's been up and down over the past 24 hours, and there are links to blogs, facebook, and twitter for current info.

During the coming week, god willing and the crick don't rise, I'll be posting reviews of westerns and one or two early-early western novels. Richard Wheeler's new Axel Brand mystery is up at amazon now to pre-order. I was able to read an advance copy of that and will have a review here tomorrow. And so life goes on. . .

Thursday, May 26, 2011

BITS is one year old

From the trailer for The Searchers
A year ago today it was John Wayne’s birthday, and it was also the first day of BITS. I’d found Laurie Powers’ blog about pulp westerns, and on impulse I decided to try out blogging for myself. It all began with a birthday wish for the Duke.

I’d acquired a stack of westerns on DVD and thought I’d use the blog to collect my thoughts as I viewed them. I’d also begun reading early westerns out of curiosity about that period of history (1900-1915). Writing reviews of those novels came as an easy way to record what I was learning.

My TBR list of early westerns grew and grew as I found more and more early western writers. After going through the dozen or so that were available to borrow from the LA Public Library, I bought a nook and began downloading them – mostly free because they’re all public domain. The list, by the way, has grown to 35.

Photo by R Scheer
A realization. After a few months, it came to me that I was accumulating material for a book on the subject. And so my posts began to be abbreviated versions of chapters I was writing. That’s a plan that’s slowly coming to fruition, and I’m hoping by the end of this summer to have made enough progress to see it through. A friend who's a fine graphic designer already wants to do the cover.

During the past year, I have also come to know some fine people who are bloggers and dedicated writers. They’ve introduced me to a world of pulp and popular fiction I knew little about a year ago. As readers, they’ve also pointed me to books and writers I would have taken a lot longer to discover on my own – if ever.

Also, as an old English major, I’ve become alienated from what has happened to the study of literature in the universities. I can understand some of the theory-based criticism that fills the journals and classrooms now, but for me it doesn’t deepen the pleasure of reading. How much more gratifying it is to be among the readers here, who read for fun and an appreciation of the craft of storytelling. I’m grateful for that.

Another curious thing. At some point when it began to look like book publishing was suddenly going digital, I began buying hardback books, like I hadn't for years. A stipend from my employer went to acquiring a six-foot stack of them, mostly used, library discards, and remaindered, like artifacts rescued from oblivion. Again, most are books that a year ago I didn’t know of and wouldn’t have guessed I’d be reading, let alone buying.

But here are most of them, and I’m tickled to call them mine (Beat to a Pulp and some others missed the photo shoot, and I couldn't figure out how to include those ebooks):

Little of this would have happened without the interest and encouragement of those who follow this blog and take a moment now and then to comment and to acknowledge the comments I’ve made on their blogs. I’d like to name those reading this who have meant the most to me, but if I did, I know I’d leave someone out. I’m just hoping you know who you are.

Tomorrow begins year number two, and it feels like I'm still the new kid on the block. I’ll count myself lucky if the coming months unfold with continued discoveries and happy surprises like the year that has just passed.

Photo credits:
John Wayne, Wikimedia Commons
Other photos, Ron Scheer

Coming up: The Naked Spur (1953)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Loren D. Estelman, Roy & Lillie

Staggeringly prolific Loren D. Estleman has written a well-researched and thoroughly entertaining life of two Victorian-era luminaries, Judge Roy Bean and Lillie Langtry. As a luminary, Lillie was famous for being famous. Her story is a corrective for anyone who thinks media-driven global celebrity is a recent development.

Remembered as an actress of the London stage, she was more talented as the performer of her own life story. She rose from humble beginnings as a minister’s daughter on one of the Channel Islands to become a favorite of the Prince of Wales, long before stepping before the footlights.

Ripples of her sudden ascendance among the rich and titled as well as the general public reached thousands of miles to West Texas, where she captivated the heart of one Roy Bean. As a luminary, Bean’s fame radiated from a saloon in the middle of nowhere, where he presided as a self-styled judge for many years as “the law west of the Pecos.” A man with a checkered past, he thrived out there on the frontier because he’d been unable to thrive anywhere else. For one thing, wherever he had lived, the law was usually after him.

Familiar with the wrong side of the law, he was probably best suited for the place and times to administer justice. Remembered for his quirky decisions, based on skewed readings of his Book of Statutes (for which he had no training whatsoever), Roy Bean was no Solomon. But he brought a wisdom of his own to the profession. If a man were hanged for a crime he didn’t commit, there was probably a crime somewhere he deserved hanging for. It was that kind of justice Bean had a talent for.

Lillie, 1899
The full title of Estleman’s book is Roy & Lillie: A Love Story. It’s true that Roy was apparently infatuated with Lillie Langtry, while to her he could have been only one of a multitude who sent admiring letters. No correspondence between them exists today, but something there was in the man’s devotion to her that rang a chord for her.

When after many years she agreed on a cross-country tour to make a brief stopover to meet him, it was not simply as a courtesy call. Though she knew royalty and was a friend of Oscar Wilde among many others, he’d come to mean something to her. That he died only months before her arrival lifts their whimsical “love affair” to the level of high romance.

Estleman’s rendering of their stories is brilliant. The underlying subtext of the book is a melancholy awareness that life is never more than a veil of uncertainty. Yet from beginning to end, he writes with a light touch. On page after page he reveals that the love in this “love story” is first of all the love each of the two feels for himself. Yet his picture of both of them is so indulgent and forgiving, you don’t begin to like them any the less.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders (1901)

What we have here is a collection of stories by an emerging western writer Henry Wallace Phillips (1869-1930). Phillips was born in New York City but in later years was said to have “spent many years in the West and in Canada as a miner, cowboy, and school teacher.”

These stories feature a larger than life cowboy from the North Dakota plains, William “Red” Saunders. Seems like every outfit in early western fiction has a red-haired cowpuncher. He’s bound to be colorful, and Red Saunders is no exception. His hair, someone notes, is a yard and a half long, and he has a noteworthy mustache. He is physically large, six-foot-three and 250 pounds of broad-shouldered, brute strength.

In appearance, he seems one of a type, dating as he does from the very turn of the century. The long-haired Bill Hickock comes to mind, as does Cherokee Hall from Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville (1897) as drawn by Frederic Remington.

Cherokee Hall, Wolfville
The comic tone and rambling structure of the stories are also similar to Lewis. So is the frontier social network peopled with colorful characters, with names like Wind-River Smith, Agamemnon G. Jones,  Cock-Eyed Peterson, Bronc Thompson, and an Indian named Frosthead.

The stories. Only one woman, Loys, ventures into this company, a college girl from back East who falls in love with cowboy Kyle Lambert over the course of a summer. Red and the boys play Cupid as they help arrange a wedding and a getaway before her rancher uncle gets wind of the romance.

Loys is, in fact, a spirited invention. The cowboys have the usual prejudices against women. Before he meets her, Red says, “I had visions of a thin, yaller, sour little piece, with mouse-coloured hair plastered down on her head, and an unkind word for everybody." She turns out to be a looker, and Red says he’d make a play for her himself if he was ten years younger.

Then, as they’re on their way from the train station to the ranch, she surprises him by happily taking the reins of the team of horses. And while she does this, she expertly holds his hat against the wind, so he can light a cigarette. She was, he discovers, “like a boy.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 12

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from early western writing. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from turn of the century novels and stories I’ve been reading. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “swatty, “thumb hand side,” “miggles,” “storm-shed,” or “light pole buggy,” leave a comment.

ace-high = excellent, superior (from poker). “I've mined for twenty year, and from Old Mexico to Alaska, but I never saw anything that was ace-high to that before.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

bone = a dollar. “‘What wages are you fellows drawing down?’ he asked, bluntly. ‘Three bones,’ the Lark told him.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

boneset = Eupatorium, a perennial daisy used historically to treat a viral infection known as “break bone fever.” “Look at you! That will be as bitter as boneset!” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

bust a tug = collapse from the effort to accomplish something. “He's goin' to make a town down in that sand-pile or bust a tug; I ain't sayin' which right now.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

cushion carroms = in billiards, bouncing the cue ball off one or more sides of the table (cushions) before striking another ball. “Now, Sonny, you keep your temper, and watch me play cushion carroms with our friend there." Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

cut the pigeon wing = a brisk, fancy dance step executed by jumping and striking the legs together. “When the figure ‘balance to your partners’ was reached many a fellow would ‘cut the pigeon-wing,’ and his partner, not to be outdone, would indulge in some fantastic steps.” The Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1882.

gallinipper = a stinging or biting insect. “That what I'm payin' you for, you blame gallinipper!” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

huckleberry = the right person for a job. “If you want to go wild-catting over the hills and far away, I’m your huckleberry.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

jick = one of the Jacks in a game of cards. “‘Couldn't find ’em nohow,’ says he; ‘hunted high and low, jick, Jack, and the game.’” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

jimjams = delirium tremens. “Rattlesnake Valley, over yonder, ain't never been good for much exceptin' the finest breed of serpents an' horn-toads a man ever see outside a circus or the jimjams.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882
John Chinaman = a stock caricature of a Chinese laborer seen in cartoons of the 19th century; typically depicted with a long queue and wearing a coolie hat. “‘Maybe you find my home a fit dwelling place for John Chinaman,’ she pouted.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars.

Old Dog Tray = sentimental Stephen Foster song about an old man and his dog. “He put the mill between his knees, and converted the beans to powder, to the tune of ‘Old dog Tray’ through his nose, which Miss Mattie found very amusing.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

make the riffle
= to succeed at something. “‘Boys,’ says I, under my breath, ‘they've made the riffle’.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

More international crime films

One more set of nonHollywood films for the crime fans out there. Three of these go back to 1997, and one is more recent. They come from Russia, Norway, Spain, and England.

Brother (1997). Intense film by director Aleksey Balabanov set in post-Soviet Russia. At the center of the story is a young man, Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.). Discharged -- or maybe AWOL from the army, he arrives in St. Petersburg. There he discovers that the older brother he worships has been doing well for himself as a mob contract killer. Danila decides to follow in his idol's footsteps and very quickly adapts.

Crime and chaos are the new normal, and with a sang froid learned as a fighting soldier, he thrives in an atmosphere of violence. Whether in a kill-or-be-killed struggle against guerrillas in Chechnya or the gang-style world of life on the home front, it’s all the same. Bodrov is a brooding and intense presence on screen. The son of director Sergei Bodrov, he was working in a film by his father in 2002, when he was killed in a rock slide.

Insomnia (1997). If you weren’t crazy about the Hollywood remake of this Norwegian film, you’ll find the original nicely gripping and ironic. Sent to a town in the northern hinterlands of Norway, an ethically compromised police detective lends a hand with a homicide investigation.  Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and his partner trail the suspect onto fog-shrouded terrain where a shooting has unintended results.

Engström covers up a fatal error, which leads to even further complications, since the suspect has been a witness. Unable to sleep, he falls victim to the endless days of a far-north summer, where there is no relief in darkness for a guilty conscience. Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg.

Live Flesh (1997). Based on a novel by British crime writer Ruth Rendell, this is Pedro Almodovar's steamy spin on film noir. It’s a darkly original psychological study with Almodovar’s stamp all over it - that unmistakable mix of melodrama, steamy scenes of passion, and quirky comedy. Beefy Javier Bardem comes on strong here as the Russell Crowe of Spanish cinema, graduating from smoothly suited cop to sweaty, muscular disabled basketball player in a wheelchair.

Meanwhile, his apparent nemesis is a young man who has served time for the shooting that crippled him and is now out of prison and settling old scores, which involves romancing two strategically selected married women. It's sexual melodrama in the style of James M. Cain.

See No Evil: The Story of the Moors Murders (2006). Fact-based film about Ian Brady and Myra Hinkley. Both were responsible for the rape, torture, and murder of five children aged 10-16 in northern England, the bodies of their victims buried on the moors.

Sean Harris and Maxine Peake play the psychopathic killers, and the story of the film focuses on the efforts over two years during the 1960s to identify and track them down. Living testament to the banality of evil, they were eventually turned in by Hindley’s brother-in-law. The film leaves depictions of their atrocities to the imagination, but it’s still bloody chilling. Director, Christopher Menaul.

All are available at netflix. 

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 12

Friday, May 20, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: goodbye, hello

Here's my reading chair. I've moved it where I can look out at the yard and open one of the doors to the outside on a pleasant day. (Not many of them recently, though, with the cold desert winds of spring.) I like to sit here in the afternoons, with nook or book. There's more of that now that the school year is over for the summer.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap (1914)

Conniston finds Argyl in the desert.
Let’s start with the curious title for this novel. There are two men with handicaps in the story, one literal, one figurative. There’s a literally disabled character, Tommy Garton, who has lost both legs. We never learn how, but his role is to win our sympathy as a bright young man making something of himself – unlike the novel’s hero when we first meet him.

“Greek” Conniston is the 25-year-old main character whose handicap is that he’s the son of a multi-millionaire. He lacks for nothing. He’s a Yale graduate, class of ’06, has plenty of pocket money, and swans around New York with the offspring of other wealthy men. Conscious of his superior class standing, he is more than a bit of a snob.

The plot. In a nutshell, Conniston gets stranded without a penny on a remote ranch somewhere in the desert Southwest. For the first time in his life, he has to work for a living, and the job so happens to be cowboying for an ambitious and well-to-do cattleman, Crawford.

Black Canyon, future site of Hoover Dam
He’s taken an engineering course at Yale to satisfy his father, and before long he finds himself on a land development project for Crawford. Canals and dams are being built to bring water to a dry but fertile valley. The project is a make-or-break gamble, as the investors will pull out if it’s not completed by an agreed deadline.

Overcoming many obstacles, Conniston is able to beat the deadline and wins both Crawford’s gratitude and the hand of his daughter, Argyl. (Yes, Argyl.) He has found and put to good use the fighting spirit within him. He has overcome his handicap.

Character. So, like many another early western novel, Under Handicap is about the building of a man’s character. To make it interesting, Gregory actually risks losing the reader's sympathy by giving Conniston not a few unpleasant traits to overcome. In the words of his disapproving father, he is “a dawdler and a trifler and a do-nothing” (p. 23).

Put to work with a friendly, red-headed young cowboy Lonesome Pete, he feels something close to contempt for the young man because he (a) works with his hands and (b) is illiterate. Pete has bought some second-hand books, and in an attempt to teach himself to read, he is slowly digesting a copy of Macbeth. Conniston finds all this pretty amusing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

This movie was made in that quirky window of time in Hollywood between Easy Rider (1969) and Jaws (1975). It wants to trade on the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) by putting Paul Newman in the starring role and looking for humor in the escapades of an actual historical figure from the Old West.

The humor is actually broad satire, and a post-Vietnam cynicism creeps into its revisionist portrayal of frontier justice. It has the feel of something that might have worked well on the stage, but there’s not enough of what might have made it work on film.

I ordered this up from netflix because I’m currently reading Loren Estleman’s historical novel Roy and Lillie. Estelman likewise uses humor to tell the story of Judge Roy Bean’s infatuation with the English actress Lillie Langtry. And it works a whole lot better, partly because it is as much about her as it is about him.

Roy Bean
The main problem with the film is that it doesn’t tell a story. Newman reprises his portrayal of Butch Cassidy, now grumpier and more quixotic, but the film has no plot. It’s mostly a series of barely connected episodes, each with a different cameo performance by one of the many folks who were part of this project.

Anthony Perkins plays a strange (well, didn’t his Norman Bates already define the term?) sort of frontier prophet, quoting the Bible. Tab Hunter gets a brief scene in which he’s hanged for shooting a Chinaman, arguing in his own defense that it’s not against the law in Texas. (According to one source, this is the opposite of what really happened. It was apparently Roy who set the prisoner free – on the same grounds.)

Stacy Keach nearly walks off with the whole movie in a wildly farcical scene as Bad Bob, a longhaired, albino outlaw. John Huston (who directed, and should have known better) is barely recognizable in a walk-on as Grizzly Adams. Roddy McDowell is a tight-assed lawyer in a stiff collar. There are more.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Kate and Virgil Boyles, Langford of the Three Bars (1907)

Here’s a first for BITS, an early western novel written by a sister-brother team. Their story is set in western South Dakota on the lawless frontier, and each is apparently writing of the West from personal experience. According to one source, Kate Boyles (1876-1959) was born in South Dakota and went to college in Yankton. Her older brother Virgil (1872-1965) was a court reporter, lawyer, and judge, probably in that order. She seems to have provided the sentiment in the novel; he the courtroom drama.

Let’s start with the title character, Paul Langford. He has his own ranch and, for a young man, is apparently doing very well. Full of youthful energy and idealism, he’s a man of principle and vision, a born leader. Like the Virginian, he’s also a handsome cowboy and a thoroughly eligible bachelor. He’s described as “a godlike type, with his sunny hair and his great strength . . . big, ruddy, self-confident” (pp. 28-29).

As is often the case in early westerns, there’s trouble with cattle rustlers. A gang of them, led by a blackguard named Jesse Black, has been thieving freely. They rule the open ranges of western South Dakota by intimidation, and no effort to put them behind bars has met with success.

A young lawyer, Dick Gordon, has tried for years to bring justice to the county of Kemah, but jury after jury has failed to convict. He is despondent from repeated failure. His only support comes from his friend Langford and a small rancher, Williston, who is struggling to make a go of it on the prairie with his daughter Mary.

To complete the picture is the heroine Louise Dale who arrives by train from back East to work for a while as a court reporter (which makes a welcome change from the stereotypical schoolmarm). She has bravely ventured beyond the comforts of civilization, even if they are only those to be found in Yankton. But there’s more out here than she bargained for.

The plot. Like The Virginian, the novel is a blending of two storylines. One involves bringing the rustler Jesse Black to justice. The other is a romance that eventually brings together two couples: Gordon and Louise and Langford and Mary.

The title of the novel is misleading, since Langford’s heroism is not the central thread that holds it all together. What finally connects all its parts is a broader theme, the civilizing of the frontier. In the novel, the coming of the law brings order, and order makes conditions safe for marriage and family.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1882, cont.

Saloon, Charleston, Arizona, 1885
Cowboys were “trending” in 1882 as reports of their frontier mayhem flooded the news. The Chicago Tribune printed a brief story from Omaha on January 19. The town of Long Pine in north-central Nebraska had been taken over by a gang of cowboys who kept the town up all night with their partying.

According to the reporter, “They shot out the lamps in the saloons, riddled the windows, fixtures, and walls,” and were said to have fired an estimated 1,000 rounds. Some of them departed on a train still firing away from the back platform. There were no reported casualties.

Writing from Wichita in the aftermath of the Talbot Raid in Caldwell, Kansas, a correspondent for the Tribune on February 18 had this to say about the general state of affairs on the frontier:

After a new town has got a good fair start and begins to boom, it only needs a cowboy raid to open out a first-class and well-stocked graveyard. The cowboy has no hopes of heaven or fear of hell.

The writer recounts the exploits of Wild Bill, who brought order to Abilene, Kansas, by once killing six cowboys in one night. Alas, the item goes on to say, “Wild Bill was at last murdered by a cowboy, who got the drop on him.”

Tip Top, Arizona, 1888
Down in Tombstone, an “indignation meeting” was held to protest official efforts to permit the U.S. Army to help clean up the territory. A resolution denouncing recent public statements by President Arthur and the territorial governor was introduced. While nay votes were outnumbered six to one, the resolution was declared carried. So reports The Chicago Tribune on May 12.

Shortly thereafter, the Tribune carried an item from the Philadelphia Times, describing the Arizona cowboy as “habitually vicious.” And not only that but

lazy, foul-mouthed, desperate, intemperate, full of swagger and bravado, and careless as well of his own life and property as those of others.

Cowboys, the writer informs us, range in age from 18-30. If a genuine cowboy is still alive after 30, he “generally abandons the trade and takes to train and stage robbing as a profession.”

The item concludes with an account of recent incidents involving Arizona cowboys. One of this breed had bought a can of corned beef and was sitting on a keg in the road, when he forcibly invited a reluctant passerby to share his meal. Another cowboy terrorized a customer in a hotel dining room, calling him a tenderfoot and throwing dishes onto the floor. When the customer objected, the cowboy shot him. Such events, says the writer, “are of daily occurrence in Arizona.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1899)

[Originally posted last Thursday but lost in the meltdown.]

Ralph Connor was the pen name of Charles William Gordon (1860-1937), a Presbyterian minister of some prominence in Canada. The story goes that he’d wanted the name Cannor, with reference to his early pastoral experience in the Canadian Northwest Territories. But a typographical slip-up left him with the name he made famous, Connor.

And The Sky Pilot was the novel that made him famous. It sold over a million copies, as did two of his later novels. It is set in a frontier community, Swan Creek, in the foothills of the Rockies, west of Calgary. Its characters are early settlers, ranchers, and cowboys, and at the center of them is a church missionary, Arthur Wellington Moore, who is quickly dubbed “the Sky Pilot,” a nickname that sticks with him.

Supporting characters. The story is told by the local schoolmaster, another newcomer, who has no role to play except as an observer. The preface sets the tone as well as the story’s moral universe:

The measure of a man’s power to help his brother is the measure of the love in the heart of him and of the faith he has that at last the good will win. (p. 7)

The story concerns the winning of the hearts and minds of the men who have retreated to the lonely valleys beyond this frontier outpost to “forget and be forgotten.” Free of social constraints, they live “fierce and hard” lives. Among them are a host of working cowboys, long denied “the gentler influences of home and the sweet uplift of a good woman’s face.”

Rocky Mountains and Foothills, west of Calgary, Alberta. Photo by Qyd.

There is a small fraternity of these men known as the Noble Seven. At its center are young men of high born families in England. One of them is a remittance man known only as “the Duke.” They drink, gamble, hunt, and have all the skills of western horsemen. Among them is a top-hand cowboy, Bronco Bill. He’s foreman for a local rancher, who’s been there so long he’s known only as the Old Timer. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: hello, goodbye

 As the weeks dwindle down to the last few here in West LA, I’m saying goodbye to another “neighbor.” This is the Crest Theater on Westwood Boulevard. It dates from 1941 and was founded by Frances Seymour Fonda, wife of Henry Fonda. It’s a city landmark, with a bright, glowing façade at night.

Inside, the walls of the auditorium are decorated with beautiful back-lit murals showing a nighttime cityscape of Los Angeles circa 1940. The ceiling, with many tiny lights, does a good job of looking like a sky full of stars – something you never see in LA.

The Crest changed hands last fall for a reported $4 million (not a lot when you consider what celebrities pay for homes in Malibu) and is now owned by Bigfoot Entertainment. The movie currently up on the marquee is one of their features.

I don’t get out to the movies often, but this theater has been a favorite. As a single-screen venue, it’s a real retro experience, and the interior décor evokes nostalgia for a long-gone era of movie-going. Their online photo gallery is definitely worth a visit.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Max Brand, Best Western Stories, 3

Going from early western fiction to this collection of Max Brand stories was something of a jolt. Emotions run high and wide in them, and the sheer intensity of the storytelling knocks your boots off.

Editor William F. Nolan selected seven stories for this slim volume, published in 1987. They originally appeared over a span of only a dozen years, 1927-1939. Three appeared in Western Story Magazine, and one each in Collier’s, Argosy, Blue Book, and American Magazine. So they range in style from pulp to slick.

Just from this sampling, you can sense Brand’s ability to strike different attitudes with the material and play in different keys. If there’s any consistency, it’s the tendency to toggle back and forth between stereotype and the unexpected in the same story. Or to simply switch keys.

While a story races along, the intent seems to be to get you to let down your guard. Then you are surprised by shifts in the plot and character that you didn’t see coming. It’s hard to tell whether Brand does this carelessly or deliberately.

The collection kicks off with “Reata’s Peril Trek,” which first saw the light of day in Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine in 1934. Like noir fiction, the story takes place in a godless universe, where risking death for a friend is the highest (and maybe only) virtue and cowardice is the deadliest sin.

March 31, 1934
While the early western novel makes an effort to seem realistic, Brand rejects the historical West for an imagined one. The story has a dream logic that makes sense only in the world of its own contrivance. It is a perilous world, where bad men abound and evil lurks everywhere.

In this story, a criminal mastermind, Dickerman, controls a network of henchmen who do his bidding over a vast area of western terrain. Like a plot device from a Batman episode, they communicate with each other using reflected sunlight from high elevations. In an attempt to rub out the hero, Reata, they trigger a rockslide from which he barely escapes. All of this happens in the opening pages.

But Dickerman is not as evil as they get. A more mysterious figure, known as LaFarge, is even more fearsome. He has a plot afoot to get his hands on a fortune by luring its rightful heir to an isolated house and doing away with him. In the climax of the story, Reata and two compatriots make a daring rescue.

While writing what’s already an exciting page-turner, Brand laces it all with imaginative twists. Reata isn’t just a generic hero. He rides a sturdy but ugly horse named Sue and travels with a small dog, who is a fearless tracker. Instead of a six-shooter, Reata carries a pencil-thin leather lariat in his pocket and uses it with lightning speed and accuracy.

And Dickerman isn’t your generic villain. He is a junk collector and lives in a junk-filled barn. Not so predictably, he’s also a cook of no small skill. Meanwhile, there are sudden strokes of realism, as when Reata rides for two days on a nonstop relay of horses provided by Dickerman. Like any normal person after such physical punishment, Reata is near to collapsing from pain and exhaustion.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1882

Cowboys of Arizona, W. W. Rogers, 1882
According to the newspapers, cowboy-related trouble in Arizona and New Mexico got so bad, no less than an American president saw fit to speak out against it. Shortly after taking office in 1881, Chester Arthur had this to say:

A band of desperadoes known as “cowboys” from ninety to 100 men, have been engaged for months in committing acts of lawlessness and brutality, which the local authorities have been unable to suppress.

A correspondent’s write-up for the Cleveland Herald, later published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, January 5, 1882, clarifies for readers that there are two kinds of “cowboy.” One is a cattle herder, and there are “several thousand” of them.

The ideal cowboy has long hair, big boots, leather pants, buckskin shirt, and the broad white hat, with spurs as big as saucers.

These cowboys pose no problem until they get paid, when they head for town where “there is no limit to their outrageous conduct.”

They get drunk, gamble, fight, and shoot recklessly at friend or foe. A long plug of black tobacco, a couple of revolvers, and a heavy knife are sure accompaniments of a cowboy.

Killing another man is a badge of honor, “so that friendship or kindred ties are no barriers to the cowardly bullet.” If they don’t like a man, they may shoot a cigar out of his mouth. A stovepipe hat is sure to attract gunfire. Shooting up a town, they are said to have “murdered old men, babies, and women.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

More international crime films

Here's another batch of films made outside Hollywood for folks who like stories about crime and criminals. Two are from France, one from England, and one from Belgium.

Tell No One (2006). A suspense thriller from France that draws on several classics of film noir while immersing the viewer in a creepily entertaining mystery that involves, among many things, a wife who may or may not be dead.

Eight years after the unsolved murder of a man's wife, he begins to receive mysterious email messages that lead him to believe she is still alive. When more long-dead bodies show up, the case is reopened and he suddenly becomes a suspect. Despite his innocence, he has reason to flee, with the cops in hot pursuit.

This tightly plotted crime film from director Guillaume Canet has great performances by François Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas. Unfolding breathlessly, it takes one unexpected turn after another, and the surprises don't stop until the end. Based on a bestseller by American writer Harlan Coben. 

London to Brighton (2000). This 85-minute thriller from director Paul Andrew Williams ramps up the tension from the first frame and doesn't take off the pressure for a second. Lorraine Stanley is terrific as a London prostitute who gets involved in some nasty business involving a runaway girl and a wealthy client. The following day, on the run to Brighton, with her pimp in hot pursuit, she tries to scrape up the cash to put the girl on a train to Devon.

Events, crammed into a single day, move much too fast finally for everybody, and two graves dug in the night are eventually occupied by the fated victims. Photography and editing are as fine as the performances of the cast, and the music track is especially haunting. Rarely has the Moonlight Sonata been used in a film to underscore such a darkly grim sense of foreboding. A real nail-biter. 

Read My Lips (2001). This one from French director Jacques Audiard is a head trip for any movie fan familiar with the conventions of office dramas and heist thrillers. It's full of surprising turns of plot and quirky details in the performances.

The two leads are the opposite of glamorous, and the chemistry between them is more about clever calculation and quick thinking than romantic attraction. Vincent Cassel plays an ex-con. Emmanuelle Devos is his hard-of-hearing accomplice.

While there are a couple of pretty nasty, brutish types capable of bloody punch-ups and clearly a willingness to kill, the violence in the film is muted. Instead, the film generates an old-fashioned kind of suspense that is more like Hitchcock -- almost elegant. I was continually being taken by surprise, then realizing that every unexpected turn of plot was also completely plausible, until I was so far sucked into the movie that plausibility didn't matter any more. 

The Memory of a Killer (2003). I'm not a huge fan of movies about hit men, but this one really grabbed and held me for its full two hours of nonstop action. A mix of thriller and police procedural, the film by Flemish director Erik Van Looy is clever, intelligent, and compelling as any Helen Mirren Prime Suspect.

There is wit and some broad humor, and it's also reminiscent of Hitchcock. The suspense sequences manage to keep our sympathies with both the young police investigators and the aging hit man they are pursuing - quite a trick. An added twist is that the hit man in question is suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer's, which alters his perception of what is going on around him as well as his memory.

The performances in the film are excellent, especially the amazing Jan Decleir as the killer. The cinematography and editing craftily reflect the complexity of the intertwining threads of plot. The soundtrack is drivingly strident (sounds like beating on trash cans) and creepy by turns. And BMW owners may wish that the film didn't make so much of a malicious practical joke directed as unerringly at them as the laser beam that shines from the hit man's gun.

All are available at netflix.

Coming up: Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1899)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: hello, goodbye

Here's a scene I expect to rarely see again. It's the homeward bound view of the western sky over the Santa Monica Freeway as I drive home from work. The spring semester is over and I'm off for the summer. In the fall, I expect to be living within walking distance of my job.

This pic was taken during the winter months when sundown came early. One good thing about it, I had the luck to have a reverse commute every day - the heaviest traffic usually going in the opposite direction. Either way, I don't expect to miss this part of the day's ritual.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck (1912)

At 448 pages, this novel is as rambling as its full title: Friar Tuck, being the Chronicles of the Reverend John Carmichael, of Wyoming U.S.A., as set forth and embellished by his friend and admirer Happy Hawkins and here recorded by Robert Alexander Wason.

Happy Hawkins, the novel's first-person narrator, had already appeared as the title character of a previous novel, Happy Hawkins (1909). Like Wister’s Virginian, Happy doesn’t do much actual cowboying. Riding for the Diamond Dot, he and his pardner Spider Kelly may get sent out to round up cattle and ponies. But their efforts are typically sidetracked by more compelling distractions.

Religion on the range. The title character, Friar Tuck, is an itinerant preacher who wanders in and out of the action. Preachers in western novels are usually sanctimonious hypocrites or up to no good. Friar Tuck is neither. Committed to nonviolence and believing there’s goodness somewhere in even the meanest bastard, he has an amiable homegrown philosophy.

Not surprisingly, he’s out of place on the frontier, where religion of any kind finds few followers. He’s a voice crying in the wilderness, but he’s undaunted. One by one he manages to get sinners to give him a hearing, if not to repent.

He’s an advocate of what today would be called the social gospel. Life’s ills, he says, come from poverty and are the result of selfishness and greed. Despite the bruising conditions of life on the frontier, he won’t give up in his fight there for kindliness and decency.

Competing moralities. The novel is really about differing ideas of morality, one of them based on the Bible and advocating the universal brotherhood of men. The other is espoused by a lapsed church goer, Horace, who bases his values on the ancient Greek ideals of beauty, love, and harmony.

Both points of view merge into a Utopian vision by the novel’s end. In a long siege of the ranch belonging to a villainous cattleman, there are numerous casualties and a knife fight by candlelight in a dark tunnel. Then in an extended epilogue, the place is transformed into a kind of commune where bad men are redeemed and peace and industry prevail.