Friday, November 14, 2014

Noir's Goon Squad: Percy Helton

From my new piece on Percy Helton over at Criminal Element: 

For a guy who was only about five foot two, Percy Helton was the biggest creep in film noir. He has one of those indispensible faces that is as essential to the genre as cigarette smoke and low key lighting. He’s in a million noirs, almost always playing the same guy: the creep. Sometimes he’s the creepy bartender, sometimes the creepy boxing promoter. When people say “They don’t make movies like they used to” what they mean, in effect, is that they don’t make movies with weird character actors like Percy Helton anymore. Short, perpetually old, with a body shaped like a garbage bag and a voice that was the mixture of a fifteen year-old girl and a petulant child molester, Helton somehow added authenticity and eccentricity to every movie he appeared in.

Read the rest at Criminal Element.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bad Preacher

About ten years ago, I became fascinated by the frightening figure of J. Frank Norris. He was America's first mega-church preacher--with thousands of followers, two separate churches (one in Houston and one in Detroit), a radio show, and a newspaper. In the 1920s, Norris was a pioneer in the Fundamentalist movement that would eventually take over much of American Protestantism. In short, J. Frank Norris was one of the most important religious figures of the 20th century.

He was also ruthless, fanatical, and more than a little shady. He spent almost as much time on the witness stand as he did in the pulpit. He was tried for perjury. He was tried for burning down his own church and for setting fire to his own house. He killed an unarmed man in his church--shot him dead--and was put on trial for murder.

There's more to this story. At one time, I thought I might write a book about Norris. It never came together, but I have new essay about him over at Criminal Element. It's called Fire, Brimstone, and a Loaded .38. Comment on it and you can enter a sweepstakes to win a copy of my new book THE BIG UGLY. That book, by the way, features a preacher who would have made J. Frank Norris very proud...  

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

LA JETEE (1963)

From my new piece on LA JETEE: 

Few short films have had as long a life as the 1963 French sci-fi classic La Jetée. Simply surviving and accruing a cult following over the years is a large accomplishment for a 28-minute film, but what makes this accomplishment all the more impressive is that the film itself would seem—at least on paper—to be a challenge to most viewers. It is a film told almost entirely in still photographs. It has no stars. It has no dialog. It has no action, of course, because it has no movement. Oh, and it has a bleak, hopeless ending.
And yet, La Jetée is one of those movies that pulls in viewers from the start...

To read the rest, check out my essay over at Tor.com

Friday, October 31, 2014

CRIMES BY WOMEN: The Comic Book

From my new piece on CRIMES BY WOMEN: 
Crimes By Women was a ten cent comic book published by the Fox Features Syndicate from June of 1948 to August of 1951. It was an anthology series that showcased a series of femme fatales, gun molls and full-tilt psychopaths engaged in all manner of sexual seduction and wanton violence. It was, in a word, trash.
Trash has its appeal, though, and—more importantly—it can tell us something about the shifting currents of a culture...
To read the rest of the piece, head on over to Criminal Element.

Monday, October 27, 2014

THE SHOOTIST (1976)

The latest entry in The Cowboy Rides Away, my series on the final Western roles of the great cowboy actors, is up at Criminal Element. 

This time around I look at the John Wayne and THE SHOOTIST.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some Initial Thoughts On GUN STREET (1961)

I'm in the middle of working on the next entry in my Poverty Row Professionals series for Noir City magazine. I'm going to be profiling the director Edward L. Cahn. As such, I've been watching a lot of his work, and not just the noir stuff either.

I just watched his 1961 western GUN STREET. This is a modest little film with a small cast, limited sets, and little in the way of a budget.

The film isn't claimed by anyone (least of all me) as some kind of hidden masterpiece, but within the context of when and how it was made, it's quite an interesting movie.

It's something of a knockoff of HIGH NOON, though like RIO BRAVO, it is critical of that film's subversive message. HIGH NOON is essentially an extended meditation on the fickleness of society and the fragility of the institutions that are meant to keep it together. GUN STREET, like RIO BRAVO before it, is not.

GUN STREET has a heroic lawman (played in an effective turn by Cahn's frequent leading man, James Brown) waiting for the imminent arrival of a deadly outlaw. The town panics as the outlaw nears. The lawman stands strong.

That's the basic plot, but in more ways than one GUN STREET fails to deliver what the usual oater would promise from this scenario. We never see the outlaw. Never. Some critics of the film have argued that this dissipates the tension, but I would argue otherwise. Most normal westerns would hop back and forth between the hero and the villain, would give us someone to hate. Instead, here, the approaching trouble feels more like a storm than a man. The townspeople bicker over why the outlaw wasn't executed to begin with. (The movie could be read as a 67 minute argument in favor of the death penalty.) But at the end the outlaw is found dead, having bled to death from a gunshot wound he suffered while escaping. Thus, the villain we never see is killed by some guard we never even hear about. Everything in the film has led up to a climactic gun fight that we never get. It's as if Frank Miller had missed the train in HIGH NOON.

Again, many critics of the film see this as a simple oversight, but I somehow doubt that. Edward Cahn made roughly a million westerns. He knew all too well that the audience was expecting to see the hero kill the villain at the end, and I find it hard to believe that either he or his writer Sam Freedle (who had been a script clerk on HIGH NOON) simply forgot the gunfight at the end. I doubt they ran out of time or money either. The final scenes of the film, involving the discovery of the body of the outlaw and the retirement of the lawman (he rides away through a posse scattered over the side of a mountain) would have been as complicated as a simple two-man gun fight. 

I think Cahn just wanted to do something different.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poverty Row Professionals: William Castle

I'm doing a series on the professionals of classic Hollywood's Poverty Row for the e-mag Noir City. My first installment was on the career of the underrated John Reinhardt (THE GUILTY, OPEN SECRET). 

My latest piece is on William Castle. He's best known today for the flamboyant gimmicks he used to sell his schlock horror movies in the fifties and sixties, but in the forties he'd down a lot of work on Poverty Row and in the B-units of some larger studios. He gave us one of the first film noirs in the class of 1944 (WHEN STRANGERS MARRY), apprenticed under Orson Welles on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, and produced several other good examples of noir before moving on to fame and fortune as a self-crown master of the macabre.

You can check out my article on Castle by getting Noir City.