Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dir by Francois Truffaut

The French New Wave may seem like the very Frenchiest of Frenchness, stories of people trapped in existential angst, smoking cigarettes, and shrugging their shoulders. This is odd because to a large degree those French directors were importing American culture, and the shoulders aren’t shrugging, so much as spasming in agony after catching a bullet or knife-blade.

Tirez sur le Pianiste is Truffaut’s adaptation of a David Goodis novel, Shoot the Piano Player, which is what the American release is appropriately titled. The tale concerns Edward (Charles Aznavour), a concert pianist hiding out from his former life. Edward’s story is told in an extended flashback that relates his poor but happy life of wedded bliss (he’s studying piano, she’s a waitress), his rise to stardom, and the cruel collapse of it all. Without putting in too many plot spoilers, a man with great talent AND a beautiful wife might find that both play a part in his rise.

After losing it all to the cruel blows of fate, Edward hides out as a piano player in a shabby tavern. He provides for his younger brother Fido (yeah, they named him after the dog) and gets childcare from the neighborhood prostitute. Edward also has a couple of older brothers. They happen to be hillbilly criminals (I haven’t read Goodis’ novel, but somehow I picture the originals with a still) who have swindled a pair of hold-up men of their end of a bank robbery. The robbers decide to take Fido as an incentive to return their loot.

If that isn’t bad enough, Edward has found a new love with the waitress (he should know they are poison by now) at the tavern. In film noir this is never good. In particular Edward’s boss is senselessly envious and a violent explosion ensues. Edward, having clawed his way from the abyss to the brink of happiness, is drawn back to the pit.

Truffaut was a master filmmaker and he handles the material deftly. The problem is, there is too much of it, and some critical elements are slighted. Just what is Edward’s relationship with Fido? The hillbilly brothers pop into Edward’s life with a little too much ease, as if they never existed when he was famous. For all its flaws, Shoot the Piano Player is a fine film.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dir. by Jules Dassin

Rififi (aka Du Rififi Chez les Hommes) is a classic French heist film. While many French gangster movies paid hommage to the American genre, this is one that actually had an American director. Jules Dassin found himself blacklisted in Hollywood and emigrated to France. After a period where various projects came to naught due to American pressure, he was offered a job directing an adaptation of Auguste le Breton’s novel, Du Rififi Chez les Hommes. Dassin hated the book, but rather than starve, he took the job.

The tale is about Tony (Jean Servais), a hood just released from jail, and his young pal Jo, a regular family man and minor gangster. Tony’s only real concern is Mado (Marie Sabouret), his old girlfriend, who is now hooked up with Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) a slimy gang boss and dope dealer. After he closes any hope of reconciliation with some brutal humiliation, Tony is ready to get back to theiving. He has a plan to knock over Paris’ biggest jewelry store, if only they can get past the alarm.

The break-in is meticulously detailed in a half-hour set piece with no dialog and few sounds. Cesar, the safe-cracker (played by Dassin himself under the name Perlo Vita) wears ballet slippers so as not to make the slightest noise of a footfall. An accidental note from a piano is like a pistol shot as the thieves carry out their arduous and lucrative task.

The heist is only the beginning. Revenge and greed prove the gang’s undoing in the last third of the film. Tony’s old-fashioned code of honor is small comfort when he is confronted by Grutter’s ruthlessness.

Rififi is good, old-fashioned film noir that does the things film noir should. It delights the eye and makes the heart hunger for nobility in a corrupt and decadent world.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dir. by Julien Duvivier

Pepe le Moko is one of the prototypes of the gangster movie. Where Scarface and Little Caesar and Public Enemy lurked in the grim slums of America’s metropolises, Julien Duvivier went looking for his gangsters in the sun-drenched exoticism of the Kasbah. Pepe straddles the world of Public Enemy and Casablanca.

Pepe (Jean Gabin) is the most wanted man in Algeria (a French colony at the time). A detective from Paris has come to arrest him for his multitudinous crimes. Easier said than done. Pepe is vigilantly alert to the wiles of informers and the people of the Kasbah protect him. If the police come in force, Pepe is forewarned, he can shoot it out with les flics and then high tail it through the myriad hidden passages of the Kasbah. The one exception to Pepe’s no-cops rule is Slimane (Lucas Gridoux), a local detective who Pepe tolerates because he is either ineffective or paid off.

This would be a perfect set up until Pepe meets his one true kryptonite, a high-class Parisienne out slumming. Her name is Gaby (Mireille Balin) and she and Pepe are drawn like moths to each other’s flames. As his gang gets picked off, Pepe becomes increasingly vulnerable, and increasingly violent.

Pepe le Moko is a compelling film. In truth it is a film noir before there was a film noir. Pepe is a film perhaps most often viewed as an artifact, a stage in the development of film noir. I can say you should watch it, just because it is so very good to watch.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dir. by Jacques Deray

I think when they need to liquify nitrogen at a super-low temperature in France they just put it next to Alain Delon. He has the ability to switch from un chic type to un grand thug with great ease. The magnetism that Delon exerts is matched by that of Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays a paranoid sociopath with savage style.

In Flic Story Delon plays the titular flic (French slang for a cop), Roger Borniche. He has been tasked with taking down Buisson (Trintignant), a homicidal lunatic on a violent crime spree. Borniche methodically stalks Buisson through a France still reeling in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation. The only drawback is that Buisson is a paranoid killer whose sudden shifts of plan and frequent executions of informers (real and suspected) make him unpredictable prey. Political pressures from France’s left-wing press and inter-departmental rivalries complicate Borniche’s job further.

Flic Story is gritty. It is nearly as violent as Bonnie and Clyde. The settings are as likely to be swanky nightclubs as seedy apartments. Sometimes the cops are hard to tell from the hoods. In Paris the favored method of interrogating a suspect is repeated punches to the face. Borniche struggles to retain his integrity while doing all in his power to stop Buisson’s rampage. He is less likely to break a man’s face, but can still break his spirit. The ultimate irony is that when all is said and done, the hunter and the hunted find themselves sharing a bond, albeit a forced one.

The film is based on the true story written by Borniche. It is reasonably faithful to the facts. I do recall Borniche was forthright about the queasy facts of serving in the police in the waning days of WWII, something the film cleans up a bit. Look for excellent work by the supporting cast as well, in particular Claudine Auger as Mrs. Borniche.

I recommend Flic Story for fans of police procedurals and hard-boiled crime drama generally.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville

Buddha drew a circle with red chalk and said, “When men are destined to meet, no matter what paths they must take, they will meet here, in the red circle.”

So runs the quote at the opening of Le Circle Rouge, Jean Pierre Melville’s next-to-last film. Melville wasn’t always Melville, he was originally Grumbach, and picked Melville as a nom de guerre while he was in the Resistance and later the Free French army. Melville, something of an odd case, a European Jew who survived the Nazis’ mechanized genocide and remained in Europe, became odder still, an Americanophile French filmmaker.

Le Cercle Rouge follows the fortunes of Corey (Alain Delon), a parolee who has been recruited to carry out a heist by a prison warder, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), an escapee from police custody, Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), who Vogel escaped from, and Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-police sharpshooter. By torturous paths they come together, despite, or perhaps because of such distractions as gangland revenge and delirium tremens. There is indeed a heist to be pulled, in stylish silence. And there is a final reckoning.

Le Cercle Rouge is a stylish and even stylized film. Melville’s heroes are crooks who hew to a code of loyalty and, yes, honesty. In this world, Vogel, a “suspect” (of what we never learn, though he may be a terrorist of some kind) is far more unpredictable and violent than Corey, the professional thief. Even Mattei, though a dedicated cop, seems sleazy in comparison to Santi, the Corsican “nightclub owner” he wants to force into becoming an informer. Melville doesn’t give us back-stories to say why these men are the way they are, they just are themselves.

For fans used to John Woo or Quentin Tarantino’s style of hyper-kinetic violence, Le Cercle Rouge may seem slow. Melville was a master of creating style and tone. He builds tension with the chess moves of a police investigation and a meticulous robbery, rather than with shootouts (though a few apaches get sent to la colline des bottes). The DVD is re-mastered into beautiful pastel colors that still convey the gritty reality of criminals on the run.

While some might criticize Le Cercle Rouge for its slow pace and the minimalist interpretation of the characters, Melville had a distinctive vision. He created a world of honest thieves and hard-shell cops on an inevitable collision course. He lets us see just enough of what is under the cold exteriors of his outlaw heroes and durs flics to let us sympathize with their self-destruction. When Alain Delon swaggers across the screen in his trench coat and gets the pistol and the money just ahead of the gang boss, you’ll understand what makes this film a classic.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville

Before the nouvelle vague, there was Jean Pierre Melville. Heck, that was before Tarantino! Melville didn’t set out to be a guerilla filmmaker, he just wanted to make movies, but he had to build his own studio first. The result is perhaps slow and old fashioned to our eyes, but it laid the groundwork for what was to come in gangster films.

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a hood, but not a nasty one. He did time for a bank robbery, but he also saved a cop’s life (and saved himself a date with Mme. Guillotine). Bob is also a gambling addict (flambeur is French for “high roller”) who loses a lot more than he wins. Bob also has a protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eerie mini-Bob, who mimics the older man’s mannerisms. While Bob likes him some games ‘o chance, he purely hates a pimp. When he sees scumbag mack Marc (Gerard Buhr) chatting up the ingenue/sex kitten Anne (Isabel Corey, who really was 15 at the time, so look out pervs!), Bob does himself… that is Anne a favor and takes her in.

Of course picking up a gorgeous young girl doesn’t usually solve a man’s money problems (unless he really is a pimp). When Bob drops a bundle at the Deauville casino, he picks up a hot tip on how many millions of francs are in the safe (yes, a million francs was a lot of money, albeit oddly colored). The best cure for a gambling problem is more money, so Bob and his crew swing into action as they plan to clean out the house for a change.

Naturally it doesn’t go all that well. Dames and heists don’t mix (not in Melville’s world, though Bonnie Parker might disagree). And that whole gambling addiction thing turns out to be a bigger stumbling block than one might expect.

Melville did create a minor masterpiece in Bob le Flambeur. It is neither a bloody shoot-‘em-up like The Asphalt Jungle nor an overly sophisticated comedy like Ocean’s Eleven, though the former certainly influenced Melville as surely as Bob influenced the latter. There is a gritty feel to the milieu that Bob inhabits, underage prostitutes and greasy pimps rub shoulders with violent hoods. But Melville also infuses his world with a suave urbanity, beginning with Roger Duchesne’s silver-haired good looks (Duchesne had been a movie star in the ‘30s, but had fallen in with real gangsters later). Bob is Melville’s conception of the old French Underworld, where there was honor among thieves, before WWII turned gangland into a murderous extension of the brutality and betrayal of the straight world. In the background of Bob are the streets of Montmartre, nightclubs sit beside cathedrals, under the glitzy lights hookers ply their trade and grim little tenements aren’t that far from posh pieds a terre. Bob is in its own way what Melville called it, a comedy of manners, a love letter to Montmarte and a nostalgic elegy for lost honor.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, December 03, 2007

Dir. by Jean Luc Godard

Au Bout de Souffle, better known as Breathless, is where classic film noir and le nouvelle vague part company. Jean-Luc Godard established a trend that endures to this day. His minimalist approach to film and unique sense of style, or perhaps anti-style defined a generation of filmmaking.

The story is simple, Michel (Jena-Paul Belmondo) is a car thief. He sponges off various women when he’s not stealing cars. But one theft goes badly wrong, and Michel shoots a gendarme. He knows that time is running out on him, but he needs money. He wants an American expat named Patricia (Jean Seberg) to accompany him to Italy, perhaps as much for her monetary support as for the consuming lust he has for her. All Michel has to do is get enough cash together to make his run before les flics close in.

What makes this film so compelling is less the mechanics of the plot, than the amazing performances of Belmondo and Seberg. Belmondo plays Michel with an aggressive vulnerability that occasionally descends into pleading, but with a core of ruthlessness. Michel is not so much a conscienceless sociopath, as a self-centered jerk. True, he wastes little time regretting the policeman he shot in cold blood, and he is a brutal and efficient mugger. He just doesn’t seem to think too much about what he does, he’s too dumb to understand consequences. Michel is a beautiful animal who wants to sate his desire with Patricia. But underneath his pushy lust, there is a core of love (albeit a bit warped) for Patricia, that almost, but not quite redeems him. It’s this willingness to make Michel so unappealing, neither gloriously awful or truly redeemed, that shows just how daring Godard and Belmondo were.

Seberg’s portrayal of Patricia is scintillating. She is a wide-eyed innocent with a streak of selfishness. She is a young woman who isn’t entirely sure who or what she is. Just as we never really know why Michel shoots the cop, we can’t be quite sure why Patricia makes her final, fateful choice about Michel. But her last gesture on screen leaves us in no doubt that she is paying the price for her choices.

Godard’s guerilla approach to film uses the streets of Paris as his sets giving the movie a feel of a newsreel at times (did Pres. Eisenhower really visit Paris during the filming?). Godard also makes more “conventional” set-pieces (if satirizing Romanian playwrights is conventional), in one scene Jean-Pierre Melville plays a celebrity who pontificates on the nature of women.

Au Bout de Souffle may seems like an odd-ball on Fire & Sword, it is a long way from the hard-boiled heist films like Asphalt Jungle or Le Cercle Rouge. What Godard did was to pick up the noir style of James Cain and Cornell Woolrich and give it a new lease on life. Au Bout de Souffle is a classic crime movie, a minimalist grandfather of masterpieces like Straight Time and True Romance. But don’t watch it for film history, watch it to enjoy some of the finest acting ever seen.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, November 30, 2007

By Barrington J. Bayley

The Rod of Light is Bayley’s sequel to his SF classic, Soul of the Robot. It picks up with Jasperodus, the robot who wanted to have consciousness, visiting the last Zoroastrian temple. There the priest expounds on the nature of the cosmic struggle between light and dark, spirit and matter. He makes it pretty clear that for followers of Ahura Mazda’s light, robots are from the dark.

The dialectic of dark and light permeates the action-filled story that follows. Jasperodus and other free robots are marked for destruction (can artificial minds die? are they even alive?) by the Bogor Empire. Meanwhile a group of super-intelligent robot scientists are developing their own technique for instilling robots with a true sense of self-awareness, a sentience beyond mechanical mimesis, a soul. Jasperodus is caught between his own desire for self-preservation, the Bogors’ hatred of robots, and his revulsion at the soulless methods of the robot scientists. Souls are granted freely to humans, but robots acquire them at a steep price.

Along the way there are interludes of truly bizarre wonders: an eternal soccer game, a recapitulation of Plato’s analogy of the cave played out in a coal mine, battles, airplane crashes, and startling revelations. Bayley’s dry humor and pointed observations on society are in abundance. As always Bayley’s work has something of the chameleon about it. Only a master can make lines like, “This vessel holds my soul. For technical reasons it cannot be united with my brain,” both funny and poignant.

Rod of Light is a refutation of all the pretentious goofs who think SF needs to avoid quality storytelling, wild scientific fantasy, and suspenseful thrills in order to be serious literature. Bayley achieves the high distinction of writing adventures thrilling to the soul and stimulating to the mind.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, November 29, 2007

By Barrington J. Bayley

Barrington Bayley is perhaps the truest science fiction writer I have ever come across. His stories are filled with all the swashbuckling action and adventure SF is supposed to have while taking the ideas raised by imagined science very seriously indeed. Bayely does this by blending history, philosophy, and classic fiction with a dash of mysticism.

In The Soul of the Robot we get the story of Pinocchio with Steerpike from Gormenghast in the starring role, a spicy blend indeed. The story begins with Jasperodus, a highly developed artificial intelligence coming into being. He departs his creator with nary a backward glance in search of adventure and himself in the wide world. Jasperodus is vexed by the question of consciousness, is he a sentient being or simply a clever imitation? But first he gets in the middle of a Wild West train robbery. His reactions to the violence he encounters leave one wondering, is Jasperodus fatally flawed by a lack of empathy or is he simply to young to understand the consequences of actions.

Jasperodus isn’t exactly a naif, after a period of slavery he rises to become a general and eventually a king through a series of Machiavellian intrigues. Is Jasperodus a true anti-hero or just a kid who wants his way, NOW. Bayley’s plot is a sardonic commentary on the nature of power, aimed less at those who wield it, than those who follow it.

Jasperodus’ tale takes surprising twists as the robot follows his quest, ever seeking to understand the nature of consciousness. Japserodus also follows some other, lesser quests to whip the bejeezus out of various personal foes. Bayley doesn’t mind stopping the action to have a debate on ontological metaphysics, usually framed by a duel to the death with a hostile space cruiser or a revolution. Bayley drops in deadpan humor as well, describing just how a robot deals with a comrade on a psychedelic trip, and why it’s unwise to make an enemy of an automated plumbing system.

The Soul of the Robot is taut, engaging SF that manages to thrill the senses while exercising the mind.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 26, 2007

By Paul Cain

Paul Cain is one of the least known hard-boiled writers of the ‘30s. While Hammett, Chandler, and Burnett achieved great success in the pulps and Hollywood, Cain remained obscure though he produced memorable work in both fields.

The classic hard-boiled hero is a PI, someone who stands partway between the law and the Underworld (to use a phrase coined by Race Williams, the original hard-boiled hero). But a PI is nonetheless a product of the legit world, essentially a free-lance policeman. Cain liked to bring his protagonists from the other side of the equation, he focussed on gangsters who acted like detectives. While the utter corruption of Poisonville in Red Harvest was an exception in Hammett’s writing, corruption is the basic norm of Cain’s stories. The cops and politicians are on the take from the crooks.

In “Black” the setting is a small town ruled by an alliance of bootleggers that is breaking apart. In one night the protagonist must get to the bottom of that disintegration for his own purposes. “Black” is a gangland thriller of double and triple crosses that reads a bit like a miniature of Fast One. A hallmark of Cain’s stories is a complex and shifting set of hidden, or half-hidden, alliances and enmities that confront his protagonists. By sifting each person’s true motivation, the truth emerges.

“Red 71” and “Parlor Trick” both employ underworld protagonists involved in murder. The need to reveal who committed murder may be just as strong as the need to conceal who else had a part in it in these twilight stories.

“Murder in Blue” and “One, Two, Three” feature somewhat more traditional PI protagonists. But the detective in “Murder in Blue” is a half-baked one, freelancing not so much because he believes in justice, but because he expects to make a name for himself.

The last two tales angle away from the world-weary cynicism of the other tales toward a world where white-knights might really ride to the rescue of the falsely accused. “Pigeon Blood” is perhaps the weakest of the set, with a decent hard-boiled whodunnit, but few big surprises. It’s a tale of scheming blue-bloods mixed up with degenerate hoods. The hero, known only as Druse, is less of a working PI, than a crime-fighting vigilante in a fedora. “Pineapple” takes up the notion of yellow-journalism and its role in demonizing outsiders. Again the hero is less a working PI than a vigilante who is determined to seek justice. It seems as if Cain was angling to create a justice-seeking PI who lived to bring in baddies, preferably in a popular series that would be highly salable to editors. If the editors didn’t bite, it’s a pity because success might have kept Cain writing his highly entertaining crime fiction.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

By Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich was the poet-laureate of noir. His career as a pulp writer spanned the ‘30s and ‘40s. His output was large and distinguished by many successful screen adaptations. Yet, Woolrich is little known outside of crime novel aficionados. Perhaps it is because of the intense darkness he found beneath the sunlit world.

Nightwebs brings together both the dark and the light with a dozen tales groups under the headings of “The Claws of the Night”, “Death and the City”, and “The Butchers and the Trapped”. They are a nightmare ride through the doomed roller coaster of Woolrich’s imagination. They are also representative of the classic themes of Woolrich’s work: guilt, loss, suspicion, cruelty, and a kind of cosmic fear of a world filled with a malignant will to crush one’s soul.

“Grave for the Living” is about an abominable cult that practices burial alive, which is pretty mild compared to torturing someone with sulfuric acid as the police do in this ghastly tale. “The Corpse Next Door” is a Depression-era nightmare of life in a decaying tenement and the decay bred by a guilty conscience. “You’ll Never See Me Again” is about the loss of a loved one, but Woolrich’s characters are apt to physically lose a loved one. Retrieving them is compounded by the difficulty of demonstrating they are really missing.

“Dusk to Dawn” is another Depression story, but instead of dwelling on the horrors of guilt this tale describes the thrill of shedding one’s decency for savagery. “The Screaming Laugh” is an off kilter “whodunnit” where Woolrich’s verve for the absurd is matched by his relentless pacing. “Dead on her Feet” visits that most characteristic of ‘30s entertainments, the dance marathon. It also features one of Woolrich’s most sadistic detectives.

Woolrich wrote noir tales that mixed depravity with love, bleak doom with hope, and sadism with tenderness. His tales can have a wild improbability or a realism rendered with painful clarity. What they all have is an ability to compel a reader’s attention.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

By Dashiell Hammett

This collection pulls together a variety of Hammett stories, few of which have ever been anthologized and none recently. Consequently the collection focuses on early, minor work. That’s not to say it’s bad, it is surprising to see what a good craftsman Hammett was right from the start. However, by and large this is not his top-drawer work.

The collection includes some non-crime stories such as “Holiday”, a piece of naturalism that is very much in the vein popularized by Hemingway. The story concerns a tuberculosis sufferer on a spree in Tijuana. Tuberculosis was a subject very close to Hammett’s heart: he suffered from TB and lived hand-to-mouth for years on small disability checks.

Some of Hammett’s sense of humor and irony shines in tales of low-life crooks in “Itchy” and “The Green Elephant”. Both concern crooks who try to be something different, still crooks, but different kinds of crooks, and find that change brings a terrible price.

“The Road Home” and “Ber-Bulu” show a rarely seen side of Hammett’s fiction: stories with exotic settings and adventure motifs. Hammett later reversed the adventure story trappings in “The Ruffian’s Wife” and “The Maltese Falcon”, bringing the exotic into hard-boiled crime stories set in American cities.

One recurring theme is comic deflation. Stories such as “The Crusader”, “The Barber and his Wife”, and “Ber-Bulu” depict men with a greatly inflated senses of self-worth and physical power, suddenly brought down to earth.

While many of the stories are short, in fact some qualify as micro-fiction, editor Vince Emery includes a great deal of biographical material and critical analysis. The criticism is insightful and written in a bullet format intended for casual readers rather than scholars. The biographical data is likewise valuable, but would benefit from more focus. Maybe some folks need to be reminded that Hitler came to power in the 1930s, but is it really relevant here? Matters that lie much closer to an understanding of Hammett’s life and times need a little more detail. Emery’s assertion that Communist infiltration of Hollywood was directed from Moscow really needs to have footnotes to support it. While Hammett’s shifts in viewpoint to support the party line are unpleasant to read about, more detail on his Communist associations might help a reader sort out what Hammett truly believed.

Lost Stories has some fine Hammett fiction in it. However, this is a collection for a completist or someone trying to build a deeper picture the greatest crime-fiction writer of the 20th century. Beginners should start with The Big Knockover, The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, or Red Harvest. Read any of them, you’ll read the rest and a yearning for Lost Stories won’t be far behind.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 19, 2007

By Donald Goines

Most crime writers approach their topic from the far side as it were. They read about crime. Donald Goines lived it, it gives his pot-boiler crime novels an urgency not exactly found in other, more polished work.

Eldorado Red is a successful numbers racketeer. His son Buddy is a junkie. Red lives a life of luxury while Buddy seethes over the deprived childhood he had with his mother (Red’s estranged wife). But Buddy is an ambitious young man, he knows the routine at the houses where Red’s runners deposit their take. In dizzying round of larceny, he and his addict pals rob them all. Meanwhile Red’s henchmen are busy tracking down the heist gang while Red takes on a number of beautiful ladies.

It sounds a bit like a Quentin Tarantino film. I daresay it would make excellent material for QT. Goines knew his subject well, having robbed several numbers houses to support his heroin addiction.

Not that Eldorado Red is exactly flawless. Red’s easy-come-easy-go relationship business seems out of place on this action packed 24-hour robbery and murder spree. Goines’ dialog sometimes sounds a bit stilted, though that may have been an editorial retreat from the smooth street dialect his characters use.

The best way to approach this book is to imagine the speech in your mind, letting the real voices you may have heard bring the story to life. Goines characters are ruthless but at the same time a bit purposeless. For all the blood they shed in the name of money, few will end up rich. None can be said to be better off. There is a street-wise cynicism that pervades this tale, making it among the hardest of hard-boiled yarns.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, November 16, 2007

By Edward Bunker

Eddie Bunker was a crime writer who knew crime: he grew up in the California criminal system and was a professional thief. That experience, plus twenty years of labor as a professional writer, gives Dog Eat Dog a brutal realism that is seldom found in fiction.

The novel is about three jailhouse buddies. Deisel is a tough hoodlum who works for a low-level mobster while keeping a middle-class lifestyle with his wife and kid. Mad Dog is a violent, paranoid nutcase with a cocaine habit. Troy is the product of a prosperous, upper-class family where madness and brutality was the norm. Newly released from prison he plans to rally his buddies and cut a swath through the underworld.

Dog Eat Dog follows these hoodlums through their lives of crime: drug-binges and violent rages, family life and crime for hire, high-priced hookers and the LA night-life. Troy’s gang progresses from robbing drug-dealers to acting as hired guns for a Mexican drug-lord. The uncontrolled nature of a life of crime propels the story to a brutal and bloody climax.

California’s new “three-strikes” law hangs over the heads of these men. They are acutely aware that any crime: from check fraud to armed robbery, means a life sentence. The life of these criminals forms a backdrop for their constant self-justification and commentary on prison. They all are products of broken homes and jail. Each proclaims that they learned their toughness as a survival mechanism in reform schools and prison. Troy’s sudden arrival in 1990s America lets him see a society in free-fall that seems normal to the rest of us. They also uniformly blame society’s anger on what they see as the real problem: out-of-control African-Americans. In the eyes of Troy, Deisel, and Mad Dog black teenagers with AK-47s are ruining life for decent, hard-working crooks.

While Bunker makes pointed commentary on society through he eyes of Troy, he is too aware of how criminals build a wall of BS around their selfish and destructive lives. While loudly proclaiming their disdain for the senseless harshness of the three-strikes law, Troy and his pals have no intention of being anything but violent criminals. They praise the open, money driven world of Mexican prison as better for a prisoner’s rehabilitation, all the while they are planning a ruthlessly violent crime in a drug-lord’s cell. Troy’s self-pitying litany of “what-did-I-do-wrong” is a brutal impeachment of a violent man.

Before the story has run its course, everything is turned upside down. Make no mistake, each of these men believe that they have some moral limit: Troy doesn’t see himself as a killer, Deisel only wants to provide for his family, Mad Dog is, well…, Mad Dog is loyal. But Bunker doesn’t shy away from showing that it isn’t just broken families or prison that corrode a man’s soul, but also his choice to commit himself to the treacherous world of crime.

Bunker’s story may be too raw for some, but it is a fascinating insight into the underworld from a man who had seen it from both sides. Dog Eat Dog is also a compelling thriller with edge-of-your-seat twists and turns. After the action is done, it will leave you wondering just how we’re supposed to deal with the criminals our society produces.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dir. by Larry Cohen

So if a white guy writes and directs a movie about a black gangster who is super-cool, but also a super-scum bag, is it exploitation or iconography? Does anybody care? Is the soundtrack by James Brown the coolest thing since Isaac Hayes sang the theme song for Shaft?

Tommy Gibbs (Fred Washington) is a go-getter street hood and a crack shot with a broom-handle Mauser. He has tons of ambition and balls to match. Black Caesar chronicles his rise from shoeshine boy and mob runner to Lord of the Ghetto. He survives a vicious beating from McKinney (Art Lund), a crooked cop. Tommy becomes first an underling then a partner and finally the overlord of the alliance of Mafioso and crooked cops that run Harlem. Tommy hires a smart white lawyer (William Wellman Jr.) and even buys off McKinney.

Some lessons to take away: don’t stand around on the street getting a shoe shine when there’s a contract out on you, do build up a loyal cadre of devoted gunmen, don’t ever, ever bring a crooked cop less than the pay off he was expecting, most critical, don’t keep a ledger of every bribe paid to the crooked cops and judges, it’s just plain a bad idea.

Black Caesar suffers from iffy acting, dialog that is sometimes incomprehensible (speaking to a Mafia capo, “I spent years in your private institutions.” Does la Cosa Nostra run youth camps?), and sound that appears to have been recorded on a Mr. Microphone hanging on a mop-handle. I was glued to my seat. Because all that aside, the film is deliriously over the top in its treatment of racial power fantasies. Tommy’s mom is a maid and his dad abandoned him. Tommy’s two best friends are Joe, the nerdy kid, and Rufus, a hood turned into a sleazy preacher. Of course they plan to use crime profits to improve the ghetto (Cohen is honest enough to show that plan never comes to pass). Tommy is brutal and direct in his dealings with his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry).

The real jewels in the crown are Tommy’s revenge on the white crime establishment that scorns him. Some people buy respectability, Tommy buys his lawyer’s up-town apartment, furniture and clothes included. He celebrates by throwing the lawyer’s wife’s fur coats over the balcony. In a twisted climax, Tommy humiliates a white enemy by smearing shoe polish on his face and making him sing “Mammy”!

What stands out here is Fred Williamson’s take as a super-cool, ghetto Alain Delon. While not exactly in the same league as Richard Roundtree, he is a bit above the “You kilted my bruth-ah!” skewered by Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle. Black Caesar is a true low budget gem. Is it offensive, racist trash or a Black insurrection on screen? I guess that depends on your point of view. There’s a reason they call the genre “Blaxploitation”.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Dir. by Howard Hawks

The film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective story is marvelously done. This is the silver-screen vehicle that put the Bogart and Bacall chemistry on the map. The screenplay is a memorable collaboration between William Faulkner, the darling of literary critics in the ‘40s, and Leigh Brackett, one of the great SF-action storytellers of all time, as well as Jules Furhtman.

Hard-boiled PI, Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) has been hired to help General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). The general is an elderly millionaire with two daughters who are about 46-flavors of trouble. Carmen (Martha Vickers) is being blackmailed. Vivian’s (Lauren Bacall) husband Rusty Reagan (a man the general respects) has disappeared and may be responsible.

What Marlowe finds is a sordid mess where secrets need to be buried as fast as they are unearthed. Navigating from swanky Hollywood nightclubs to scuzzy porno stores (back then they were illegal!) and all manner of high-society lowlifes, Marlowe follows this exceptionally twisted skein to its end.

The Big Sleep is a true classic, entertaining and stylish to see.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Dir. by John Farrow

The Big Clock is a film adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel of the same name. For anyone who finds critics’ ramblings about “the love-wrack”, the sense of a moral void, and the general doom-laden bleakness of neo-noir to be a bit pretentious would do well to watch this old-time Hollywood film and recall that you can tell a hard-boiled story with a bit of humor.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is editor of Crimeways Magazine. Stroud has a reputation for tracking down criminals and getting scoops by interviewing them before the boys in blue. You’d think that would get a guy some respect from his boss, but Stroud works for Earl Janoth (Charles Laughlin), the slimiest creep in publishing. Stroud has promised his wife (Maureen O’Sullivan) he’ll take a vacation and Janoth has promised to fire him if he does. Torn between letting more leave time accumulate or being fired and blacklisted, Stroud’s in a pickle. While drowning his sorrows, he just happens to meet the lovely Miss Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who just happens to be Janoth’s ex. Pretty soon Stroud finds he’s spent way too much time with Pauline and is in deep with his wife. Pauline has a confrontation with Janoth and ends up deep in death.

Janoth knows he’ll be in deep with the electric chair unless he can pin the rap on someone else. So he sets his ace crime-stopping editor to finding the guy Pauline was partying with. Stroud must simultaneously track down the clues that will frame him for murder, while finding a way to prove he’s innocent. Not wrecking his marriage is his side dish.

This is a good, fast-paced suspense tale. Milland, Laughlin, and Johnson were all superb. The story builds tension, but provides relief with quirky humor. If The Big Clock sounds familiar, it should. It was re-made as No Way Out, starring Kevin Costner in 1987. While this was one of Costner’s best movies (yes, I know that bar is rather low), I still recommend The Big Clock on its own merits.

-Dave Hardy

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dir. by John Huston

This 1950 film tells the story of the perfect heist that had a few flaws. The script is by W.R. Burnett (High Sierra, Little Caesar, &c), the master of hard-boiled crime movies, and the direction is by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) making Jungle a playground of titans.

The story may seem a trifle complex: Doc (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and wants to make a one big score and get out of the country. He contacts Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a big shot crooked lawyer who agrees to bankroll a massive jewel heist. While these gentry provide the mcguffin, Dix Hayden (Sterling Hayden) is the heart of the movie. He’s a down on his luck hoodlum who just wants to make enough dough to go back to the farm in Kentucky.

The trip back to Kaintuck ain’t an easy one. Everyone is on the make, and the merely dishonest are prey for the utterly corrupt. As Doc’s plan begins to fall apart from unforeseen consequences and treachery from within, the true character of the gangsters is revealed. Burnett’s hoods move from sleazy to decent or to something worse than sleazy. But Burnett finds something worthy in even the worst of them. Pretty soon blood is flowing and the people who appeared indispensable become disposable and underdogs get their moment in the sun.

Marc Lawrence and gives a marvelous performance as Cobby, the low-life bookie. James Whitmore is a hunchbacked diner operator who moonlights as a getaway driver. His food may not be much, but he’ll hide your gat if the cops are about to frisk you. The supporting cast is rounded out by Barry Kelly as a crooked cop and Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich’s girlfriend.

While never as over-the-top bloody as modern crime movies, The Asphalt Jungle is suspenseful. It is also a movie that makes you care about what happens to its cast of hoodlums, criminal masterminds, and three-time losers.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, November 02, 2007

By W.E. Johns

In the early 1930s Captain W.E. Johns of the Royal Flying Corps crafted one of the enduring heroes of aviation stories: Biggles. Generations of British boys have thrilled to the adventures of Captain Bigglesworth and his pal Algy. Whether in the skies over France, flying East, West, North, or South, on vacation, or flying to work, Biggles upholds British pluck and fair play.

Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter chronicles some of those early adventures. The volume brings together sixteen short stories set in the later stages of the Great War (the one that ended all war, you know?). The stories are in fact culled from the first and third Biggles books: The Camels are Coming and Biggles of the Camel Squadron. There is also and introduction by Johns about air warfare and a note about how Biggles and air warfare began.

The stories themselves tend to be brief and pointed little anecdotes about surprising events in war or tricky tactical problems that Biggles and his squadron mates must work out. There are also side trips to the trenches and the home front. The world of spies gets a look in as well. Biggles may have to figure out how to down a heavily armed scout plane or to rescue a Tommy with a leg wound. A trip home finds him getting a white feather from supercilious civvies and a DSO on the same day.

What makes these stories compelling is the very serious matter Johns interjects in what are boys stories. Formally the Biggles tales read at a grade school level. But the content is much more adult. Johns recalls comrades who fought their first and last battle on the same day, men flung from aircraft spiraling down, a pilot whose sole air kill was a friendly pilot.

The stories have light banter and a fast pace that obscures the darkness below. Biggles best friend dies in a flaming mid-air collision. Pilots leap from burning planes rather than die in the flames. Military intelligence coldly arranges for a spy to arrange her own demise. Biggles begins to drink heavily and crack up under the strain.

Johns notes in his introduction that most of the adventures that happened to Biggles were based on real events. Given the mix of defiant jauntiness and soul-crushing horror, that is easy to believe.

Long relegated to the land of corny boys stories, the adventures of Biggles are worth a fresh look for aficionados of hard-edged action stories.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dir. by Stuart Walker

The WWI flying ace genre has recently returned to the big screen with Flyboys, a special effects blockbuster that did not bust any blocks. It’s worth dipping into the era of the classics to see what made young men in their flying machines into Hollywood icons.

Exhibit number one is The Eagle and the Hawk. It was directed by Stuart Walker and based on a story by John Monk Saunders, the eminence grise of biplane flicks. Saunders either scripted or wrote stories that were the basis for Wings (the first ever winner of the Oscar for Best Picture), Dawn Patrol, Ace of Aces, and Legion of the Condemned. He was also married to Fay Wray, who with the help of a 40-foot ape named Kong, gave biplane pilots something worth doing on screen.

Eagle and the Hawk is the grimmest of the flying ace films. Wings was about daring Yanks giving the Kaiser a sock on the beezer and Dawn Patrol made jaunty fatalism a badge of honor. Eagle and the Hawk is neither, it shatters the conventions of the genre in just about every way conceivable.

Frederic March plays Jerry Young, a pilot in a two-seater scout. These were not nimble dog-fighters, but slow-and-steady reconnaissance planes used to track enemy movements. But they bristled with guns and could throw sheets of lead. Younghas a problem, he is a talented pilot who blasts any German that crosses his sights, but at a terrible cost. His observers keep getting killed. As Young’s chest fills up with medals, his soul begins to crack under the bloody strain of losing comrades. Finally he gets a new partner, Crocker (Cary Grant), who despises Young for having given a negative report that washed him out of pilot school.

The enemy barely registers, death is mostly from anonymous bombs and bullets. The most harrowing thing is to actually see an enemy in death. In spots The Eagle and the Hawk approaches film noir in its use of symbolism and light to show the deterioration of Young. Not until The Blue Max, would any WWI ace film come close to the darkness of Eagle and the Hawk.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today. The climax is one of Cary Grant’s finest parts in its stark simplicity and wrenching imagery. Modern movie-makers would benefit from the less-is-more lesson of the 1930s.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, October 18, 2007

By C.L. Moore

Northwest Smith is Jirel of Joiry’s outer-space companion. Both were created by C.L. Moore in the ‘30s and made regularly appeared in Weird Tales alongside Conan the Cimmerian, Cthulhu, and many other notable creations of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Moore definitely should be mentioned in that context because here work explores similar ground as the three greats, but with some rather different results.

Northwest Smith is a regulation space-opera hero, a smuggler and outlaw who shuttles from the lawless drylands of Mars to the reeking jungles of Venus. His best friend is Yarol, a handsome and deadly Venusian adventurer. In his spaceman’s leathers and with the fastest ray-gun this side of the asteroid belt, Smith might seem to be a precursor of Han Solo or Mal Reynolds. Smith doesn’t really encounter the same kind of situations they do though. Moore turned the space-opera adventure formula on its head even before it had really begun to harden into cliché.

One can reduce Moore’s formula to a simply equation: an action hero is transplanted into a horror story. That is not to say the stories are simplistic. Moore eschewed the straight-ahead violence and fast paced action of REH or Doc Smith. She gave her hero a hard-edged attitude and a man-of-action simplicity that contrasts with the often passive qualities of horror-story protagonists.

What Smith encounters are dreamworlds of great beauty and even greater terror. In “Shambleau” an act of selflessness on Smith’s part plunges him into a nightmare embrace that threatens to destroy his soul. Vampirism, whether for blood, or the soul, or beauty, or the spirit is a recurring motif in Moore’s stories. Everything that lives does so by taking, irrevocably, from the essence of others. “Shambleau”, “Black Thirst”, “The Tree of Life”, “Scarlet Dream”, and “Julhi”.

Moore’s other great motif is that of gods that have been forgotten or lost. “Dust of Gods” and “The Cold Gray God” both feature deities who have been forgotten by man but may forcefully return to this universe. “Lost Paradise” and “Yvala” put Smith and Yarol into head on confrontation with mythic powers.

While Moore’s plots may be simple, her imagery is vivid and filled with moments of great beauty and a rich language of symbolism that would keep a more psychoanalytically minded critic scribbling for months. Suffice to say that Moore’s unique blend of space-opera and horror will be of interest to fans of both genres.
-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

By Frank Bonham

This nifty little anthology (edited by Martin Greenberg and Bill Pronzini, who edit anthologies on an industrial scale) brings together some of the best Westerns of Frank Bonham. The stories mostly date to the late ‘40s and appeared in such magazines as Dime Western, Argosy, Blue Book, and Liberty.

All too often the Western suffered from a lack of place and time. That may sound odd, after all don’t we know when Westerns take place and where? They happen in the old days, in the West. I can’t begin to say how many of those stories I’ve read that take place somewhere between the Mississippi and the Pacific and sometime after Colt developed the revolver. Instead of delving into the rich, varied, and lively worlds (emphasis on the plural) that the hugely divergent settlers encountered on the ever-changing American frontier, too many writers served up routine never-never lands stocked with cookie-cutter characters.

Not this collection. While Bonham sometimes shirks his duty on setting a specific place, his characterization is lively. Bonham brings to life some interesting customs and social conflicts that take these stories out of the routine. Some aren’t even exactly Westerns: “River Magic” and “Plague Boat” take place on the Mississippi and involve clashes between the riverboat men and the little-known subculture of the shanty-boat folk (they’re real, I looked ‘em up). “Trouble at Temescal” takes on the clash between Anglo squatters and the wealthy, but beleaguered Californio land-owners in the aftermath of the Mexican War. “Dusty Wheels-Bloody Trail” recounts the tribulations of a wagon train going from El Paso to Mexico City at a time when both the United States and Mexico were torn by civil war. Though burdened by some overly complex plot business, it’s still an effective tale.

There are tales that don’t rely on shooting, “Chivaree” looks at old time customs and how a man was expected to prove himself before he could be fully accepted. “One Ride to Many” is about modern day rodeo competitions and “I’ll Take the High Road” tells of the clash of cultures encountered by a young couple setting up in the dude-ranch business. There’s also a reminiscence by Bonham about his early apprenticeship to a rather shady pulp-fiction mentor.

If you like old-time pulp Westerns, but prefer to read something that’s a bit more than routine horse opera, One Ride too Many is recommended.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, October 04, 2007


The lovely and talented Mrs. Dave has begun a new blog: Joy Girl Commando, a compendium of politics, economics, personal enlightenment, and kultur. It’s the sort of place where Murray Rothbard can hang out with Norman Saunders. The all-TRUE details of hitherto secret libertarian missions behind statist lines will be revealed (Hamsters Ripped My Flesh! Soft Flesh for the DMV’s House of Agony! Pagan Cult Worships my Impounded 1978 El Camino! Sin-Crazed Coeds are Ruining the Adirondacks!).

Feel free to wander on by and drop a comment or two. The boys over at Total Information Awareness want to know how you’re feeling today. They’d love to have you in for a chat, but all the water-boarding stations are booked through next Thursday. Joy Girl Commandos do advocate the use of torture, but only for recreational purposes (the safe word is “Quraysh”, Mr. al-Hajj). Meanwhile peruse the magazines in the lobby (Soldier of Fortune, Woman’s World, Pravda, Highlights), the Joy Girl will be with you shortly.

Vote early and often kiddies!
Dir. by Kaizo Hayashi

The Most Terrible Time in my Life is an offbeat homage to film noir, half send-up, half love letter. The protagonist is Maiku Hama (Masatoshi Nagase), and yup, he’s a PI. He drives a vintage two-tone convertible and has a dreary office with a bottle of whiskey in the desk. Sure the convertible has a bad habit of over-heating and the office is over a movie theater that charges his clients admission before they can see him.

Mike, er Maiku, helps out a Taiwanese waiter in a confrontation with some hoods. The waiter, Yang in turn asks Maiku to find his brother. Despite advice from Lt. Nakayama, his kid sister, and Jo Shishida (A well-known Japanese tough-guy actor from such films as Branded to Kill &c., played by himself in a gloriously over the top performance), Hama forges ahead. Fingers get severed and beezers are slugged, and Hama nearly ends up sleeping with the sushi.

The humorous tone evaporates in the increasingly violent second half of the film, this is not entirely a light-hearted romp. Shot in black and white, Most Terrible Time goes for a look that echoes classic noir. Just as boundaries are increasingly blurred in modern Asia, Hayashi brings a Japanese sensibility to this eccentric and entertaining mix of French noir and American hard-boiled.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dir. by Seijun Suzuki

According to the DVD cover, Seijun Suzuki took a routine yakuza eiga script and made Branded to Kill from it. Nikkatsu studios took one look at the product and fired him. Well, I can see that. But don’t think that means Branded to Kill isn’t good! It’s just… different. And here at Fire & Sword we’re about support and love for those who are different. We’re also about really high body counts!

Branded to Kill follows the fortunes of Hanaba (Joe Shishido), the No. 3 killer in Japan. He is an ice-cold killer and a tactical genius, his one weakness is the smell of steamed rice. He and the missus (Mariko Ogawa) live a life of domestic bliss. He is hired to carry out an assassination, but fails. The price of failure is death. Meanwhile, Hanaba has fallen for Mariko (Annu Mari), a gang-girl with a flat affect and a fetish for dead birds. Then things get really bizarre.

The film borders on the surreal. When not is combat (or sniffing rice) Hanaba is often on the verge of delirium, as if he’d just received all the saps to the head and drugged drinks that afflicted Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer combined. Suzuki doesn’t shy away from the odd bit of visual effects to suggest Hanaba’s trip through nutso-Nippon. Hanaba veers from self-destruction to a ferocious will to conquer with lunatic intensity (reminiscent of Beat Takeshi’s suicidal yakuza in Sonatine)

Suzuki’s vision is stylized beyond all connection to reality. Killers have official rankings (based on numbers or style, one wonders). Messages are delivered via 16mm film reels. Suzuki crafts a stand-off scene that would make John Woo’s head spin. And Hanaba has an awesomely cool broom-handle Mauser with a shoulder stock and automatic fire.

While Branded to Kill is probably too long (a little bit of Suzuki’s madness goes a long way), it is a film of distinctive qualities. Suzuki made forty-two films for Nikkatsu, perhaps it was the sheer volume that drove him to the extravagance of Branded to Kill. It is truly a unique film, funny, deranged, and memorable.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dir. by Akiro Kurasawa

Perhaps more than any other Kurosawa film, it is Rashomon that is considered his masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Yojimbo and Sanjuro, but this is a film even for people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a samurai film.

It’s a beguilingly simple idea (I first saw it on All in the Family), various people tell a story, and each is compared. It begins when a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) finds a dead man near a forest road. The dead man is a samurai (Masahiko Mori), travelling with his wife (Machiko Kyo). The notorious bandit Tajumaru (a very young Toshiro Mifune) had attacked them, raping the woman. He proudly confesses to killing the man. Or did he? Tajumaru proudly tells of how the woman could not resist his virility and brought about a bloody duel between the samurai and the outlaw. But the woman tells a different story, it just isn’t the one you expect. A spirit medium channels the dead husband and he tells yet a third version. Each one blackens someone’s character, while sparing another’s. Which one is true? Is it possible to find truth at all? How do we find redemption is a world of self-serving lies?

Though certainly not a tough-guy action film in the conventional sense (though there is a surprising amount of swordplay), this is a historical drama of top quality. It is also the sort of film that denies us easy answers while establishing the questions we need to ask.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 28, 2007

Dir. by Kenji Misumi

Comic book fans the world over are familiar with Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, one of the best action comics ever, and a magnificent evocation of the dark side of Tokugawa Japan. Perhaps fewer people are aware that they were made into a series of movies. Even fewer realize how deeply committed the protagonist is to attachment parenting and taking children seriously, Ogami Itto isn’t known as “the baby-cart assassin” for nothing.

Sword of Vengeance is the first in a series of six films about Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayma) and his particular Highway to Hell. The time is the 17th century and the Tokugawa shogunate has imposed a police state on Japan. Ogami is the shogun’s executioner, when the orders a noble to commit seppuku (hara-kiri to us vulgar gaijin), Ogami stands by with his very sharp sword to make sure the deed is completed swiftly. But rivals from the Yagyu clan frame Ogami and arrange for his family to be slaughtered, only Ogami’s son Daigoro (Akihiro Tokayama, the cutest little shaver ever to go a killing spree) survives the massacre. Ogami is ordered to commit seppuku. But Ogami goes off the rails and declines that honor. In a touching scene he asks an uncomprehending Daigoro to chose: a life of murder with dad or instant death by his sword. In short order Ogami takes on the entire Yagyu clan with nothing but a stroller and a bad attitude (it’s quite a stroller though). Having done the unthinkable by refusing to commit seppuku when ordered, he has no choice but to become a hired killer. With Daigoro in tow, every day is Take Your Kid to Work day for Ogami.

All of Ogami’s back-story is inter-cut with an account of one of his jobs. It’s a brutal demonstration of just how far out of, not just social norms, but even normal affect Ogami has taken himself in order to be an assassin. The problem is that while the assassination story is good, it can’t bear the weight of Ogami’s fall from grace and the film is rather unbalanced. The one story culminates with a dramatic change in the protagonist while the other ends up with, well, an awful lot of dead guys. In true chanbara fashion, Ogami slices samurai like an automated salami processor. Finally, this may seem a very petty quibble, but I found Tomisaburo Wakayma’s face too fleshy to match the austere visage of Ogami that Koike’s art had burned into my brain.

If you are in love with Lone Wolf and Cub or just like chanbara, you can expect some pretty good stuff here. If you are new to samurai film in general, then consider starting with Yojimbo, or better yet, check out Koike’s comic books first hand.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dir. by Kihachi Okamoto

The received wisdom is that the Western (Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach) begat the Samurai film (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai) which begat the Spaghetti Western (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Of course it was never so easy, Kill! shows Okamoto’s ability to incorporate all those influences and feed them back with a generous dose of comic comment.

The scene is set in classic fashion: a sandstorm in a burnt-out ruin of a town. A ragged wanderer enters, instead of confidently taking stock of the situation he brashly announces he is a REAL SAMURAI and just as soon as he gets a meal he’s going to get a samurai job. His meal plans devolve to scrabbling in the dust for a chicken even more scrawny and ragged than himself. The “samurai” is Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) a strong but not-too-bright type who’s looking to move up in the world. Sharing his quest for the chicken is Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), who claims to be no more than a yakuza (a term for gangster derived from a losing hand at cards, the very name encodes the Japanese sense that to be an outlaw is to be a loser). Their quest for chicken tempura is interrupted by an assassination. A group of idealistic young samurai have decided to murder a corrupt official. Seven of the young men survive, only to find out they’ve been betrayed, the lord who connived at their act of political murder wants them dead. The Seven will take the blame and the lord will reap the reward. The only thing that stands in the way of the evil plan is Genta’s ability to sabotage it with a Bugs Bunny-like defiance and wit that is more in the nature of a trickster hero than a sword-swinging killer.

This is of course a re-take of Kurosawa’s classics: Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, and even The 47 Ronin. The joke is that the idealists are something closer to suckers, the peasant who wants to be a real samurai is disillusioned, and the loner who holds the balance is less a determined avenger than a man trying to live down his own past. Nakadai plays Genta as a marvelously diffident vagrant whose very cynicism allows him to penetrate the follies of the idealists, crooks, and hired swords around him. Takahashi plays off him giving a Hanjiro a wide-eyed acceptance and enthusiasm that literally has him bouncing off the walls. Takahashi conjures it deftly in a scene where the crooked lord is laying out his scheme for the hired thugs, while everybody is listening respectfully Hanjiro is fidgeting like a kindergartner who just had a Pepsi and half a box of Twinkies. Hanjiro is revealed as a true Son of the Earth, he likes his women “earthy” too.

Kill! plays with a comic deflation of samurai ethics in much the same way the Spaghetti Westerns turned the traditional Western on its head. If Tuco Ramirez wandered into the middle of Kill! he’d be right at home. Masaru Sato’s (he also scored Yojimbo, Sanjuro and about over a hundred other films) score is a Japanese echo of Ennio Morricone.

Okamoto was a director of consummate skill. Though never so widely known as Kurosawa, Okamoto’s many masterpieces (Sword of Doom, Red Lion, Human Bullet) have seeped into the consciousness of film fans. Okamoto’s satiric vision deserves to be better known.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dir. by Kenji Misumi

The story of the wandering swordsman is as deeply ingrained in Japanese cinema as the tale of the Western gunslinger is in American pop-culture. But don’t expect a chanbara (a sword-and-samurai action film) to be just a Western with a samurai for sheriff and swords for six-shooters. Zatoichi, a tremendously popular film that inspired a couple dozen sequels and a long-running TV show, features a uniquely Japanese style of hero, whose anti-hero status paradoxically confirms his idealism.

The tale is set in feudal Japan. Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind man and a masseur (a rather low-status occupation in a class-conscious society). He calls upon a yakuza boss and proceeds to engage in not-so-friendly game of dice with the boss’s loutish gangsters. After schooling the hoodlums in hygiene and honesty Ichi gets a warm welcome from Boss Sukegoro Iioka. Sukegoro has an ulterior motive for his hospitality: even though he’s blind, Ichi is the deadliest swordsman around. A gang war is brewing with the rival Sasagawa clan. Sasagawa happens to have his own sword-slinger: a samurai who has sunk to being a hired killer for gamblers.

The movie is not all bloody sword-fights. In fact, there aren’t very many at all. A great deal of attention is paid to the sordid lives of the gangsters and Ichi’s growing disgust with the kind of life he finds himself in. Therein lies the distinctive quality of Zatoichi, it is almost sentimental in its appreciation of courtesy, natural beauty, and respect for an honorable foe. Ichi’s uniquely Japanese character is that he is deeply ashamed of what he does and how he lives, even though he continues to live that way. There is none of the cynical posturing of the far more hard-boiled ronin Sanjuro played by Toshiro Mifune. Ichi is not an anti-hero in the sense that he defies society’s norms, but in that he doesn’t even consider himself to be heroic.

Zatoichi is a film that will best engage a viewer who wants a distinctively Japanese story with excellent characterization and just a bit of ferocious action.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 21, 2007

By Emilio Salgari

I first came across Sandokan and the Tigers of Mompracem in “Prowl Unceasing” by Chris Roberson in the masterful anthology of swashbuckling SpecFic he published, Adventure Vol 1. Well, is it any wonder that a guy who has published Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias of pulp heroes & penny dreadfuls would know about Italy’s most famous dime novels? Is it any wonder that when I heard about a series of novels about dashing Malay pirates doing battle with James Brooke, one of Victorian Britain’s actual swashbucklers, I had to get a hold of them?

Nope and nope. But, be warned there is only one translation of Salgari’s multi-volume oeuvre. Back in the 1880s Salgari became a tremendous hit with Italian readers. His works have been extensively translated into Spanish and have been the basis for movies, TV series, action figures, and other product tie-ins. How is it that such a popular writer is apparently unknown in the English-speaking world except for some eccentric fans in Texas?

To be certain, Sandokan is a dime novel. Sandokan is a Terribly Romantic Pirate of a kind that would have appealed to readers in Rafael Sabatini’s day, but seems a bit over-the-top in our more cynical era. Sandokan is an exiled Malay prince who commands a band of pirates from his island headquarters of Mompracem. He is the enemy of all colonialists, Dutch, Spanish, and especially British. He and his pal Yanez, a Portuguese adventurer, defy the world. But, alas for Sandokan, he has seen Marianna the Pearl of Labuan, and is obsessed with her beauty. This would be no big problem, except her British uncle (she’s Eurasian), Lord Guillonk (I’m not making that up) is the blood-enemy of pirates. Even worse, she has been betrothed to Baron Rosenthal. All Sandokan has to do is kidnap her from the middle of an armed villa and hold off the entire Royal Navy. Love will do the rest.

It’s fun stuff, with an interesting setting and unusual characters. But Salgari is rather limited when it comes to creating characters that are even remotely credible. I like my characters a bit broad, but these guys are stretched. Sandokan throws his men’s lives away just to get a look at Marianna. Indeed, he falls in love with Marianna more or less on a whim. Although Yanez and Sandokan talk about how his obsession with Marianna means the end for the Tigers, nothing much comes of it, except lots of predictable slaughter. And just how many British peers have Jewish names? I was half expecting Earl Shlomo Mankowitz to show up and help Baron Rosenthal.

Salgari does not let the action slow for more than a nanosecond before there’s a battle with British ships, soldiers, sharks, or orangutans. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even for me, and I do love a high body count.

This may sound like excessive negativity from a crabby old man who’s read too many pirate novels. I really wanted to like Sandokan, and I found the book grew on me in a corny, clunky sort of way. So you might enjoy Sandokan if you are a historian of genre writing, or you might enjoy it if you are willing to commit to the utterly improbable and terribly romantic.

-Dave Hardy

By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements weaves a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Zheng clan. This is several histories in one: that of a Chinese family, the rise and fall of empires, the colonization of Taiwan, the rise of Western colonialism, missionaries in China, and the economic history of the Pacific Rim.

While the title promises a biography of Coxinga, the “Pirate King”, it is just as much a biography of his father, Nicholas Iquan. Clements describes Iquan’s rise from disgraceful scamp to disgraceful scamp ruling a massive confederation of smugglers and pirates. Iquan was the sort of lad to seduce his stepmother (Chinese families wer polygamous in those days) and was exiled to be a trader in Macao. He came under the tutelage of “Captain China”, and was instrumental in running elaborate swindles on the Dutch and English traders based in Japan. Clements describes Iquan’s hustles with frank admiration and gleeful comic timing. Iquan battled his way into succeeding as Captain China’s successor and grew powerful enough that the imperial authorities bought him off with high titles in return for his political and military support.

Clements also lays out the decline of the Ming dynasty. In 1644 a horde of bandits actually captured the capital precipitating an invasion by the Manchu hordes. Compared to the bandits, the Manchu were civilized. They swept south smashing the poorly led Ming armies. A crafty old sea-dog like Iquan knew which way the wind blew and he surrendered to the Manchu.

But he hadn’t counted on his idealistic son, Coxinga (a latinization of Koksen'yua, one of his titles). Coxinga refused to surrender and fought a sixteen year rearguard battle against the Manchu, holding out on his remote coastal lairs. Though the Ming claimant was little more than a fugitive, Coxinga led a formidable rebel fleet whose smugglers were a major economic power and whose marines came within a hair’s breadth of seizing the capital.

Pirate King examines the role of the Dutch. Iquan and later Coxinga prospered as the intermediaries who smuggled goods back and forth to the Dutch. The Dutch in turn sought a trade port in China, but were blocked by the desire of both the authorities and the smugglers to maintain their respective economic strangleholds. The irony is that Coxinga made the break with the Dutch. As the Manchu grew more powerful, he needed a safe base offshore. The Dutch colony on Taiwan would be perfect. Thus Coxinga inaugurated the strategy of using Taiwan as a place of refuge for representatives of defeated Chinese regimes.

Pirate King is filled with fascinating characters such as Wu Sangui, the general who gave up his loyalty for love of a woman. There is Adam Schall, the Jesuit who became the chief astronomer of the Manchu emperor and handled a cannon to defeat the Dutch. Clements tells the story of Reverend Hambroek, who gave his life to carry a message of defiance to Coxinga. Pirate King is a gripping, fast paced, and often funny story of a real-life pirate warlord and the world he lived in.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 20, 2007

By Louise Levathes

When China Ruled the Seas is an account of a little-known chapter in history, the high era of Chinese sea-going voyages of trade and exploration. Many people are familiar with the drive to reach the ports of the Indies that drove European voyages of exploration in the late 1400s and 1500s. A similar impulse drove Chinese mariners onto the Indian Ocean decades early, leaving us with a fascinating might-have-been scenario: what if China had not left the field to the Europeans?

In the late 1300s the Mongol rulers of China were overthrown and a new dynasty came to rule the Middle Kingdom: the Ming. During the mop-up campaigns a lad from a Muslim Chinese family was captured and castrated. His name was Zheng He. The eunuch lad was a prisoner of the Ming prince Zhu Di, who found Zheng He to be an able servant. Lest anyone picture Zheng as a mincing ninny, the eunuch was a strapping six-footer with a booming voice who followed Zhu Di into battle. When Zhu Di came to power as emperor of China, he did not forget faithful Zheng He. Zhu Di wanted to expand Chinese influence overseas, his method was to send a massive Chinese fleet comprised of some of the biggest ocean-going vessels built to that date on a trans-Indian Ocean trading/diplomatic mission. Zheng He was to be in command.

Levathes gives the reader a swift background on Chinese ships and sailing techniques, just enough for a layman, but not so much that it overwhelms. She also describes the nature of building the fleet. Like any other government programs, it was plagued with cost overruns, contract padding, and some outright corruption. The treasure ships were something like the famous Spanish galleons: massive enough to carry plenty of goods and supplies on an extended voyage, but lean enough to go into battle in the distant waters where they were the only Chinese presence.

The mission was not one of war and it was not exactly trade. It was more like an armed diplomatic mission that carried out elaborate gift exchanges. Zheng He’s fleet had no problem smashing pirates when they found them or intervening militarily to back an ally. However, the Chinese weren’t interested in conquest. Zheng He focussed on establishing relations with local rulers who would pay “tribute” to the Chinese emperor. In exchange the Chinese plied the locals with valuable gifts. The relative value of the gifts may have depended more on diplomatic status than market value.

That seems to have been part of why the voyages were eventually discontinued. The Chinese bureaucracy were superb bean counters and they found the trips were not cost effective. After massive spending on the fleet, they never gathered enough tribute to make it pay. Infighting between the Confucian civil servants and the eunuchs of the emperor’s household doomed the project.

Here’s where I find a fault with When China Ruled the Seas. Where was the Chinese merchant class? How did they react to the expeditions and what did they do when they ended? Did private traders take up where Zheng He left off? Why were the Confucians so hostile to private trade? I felt that some of these areas needed to be better explored.

On the other hand, Levathes is a veteran National Geographic writer and she knows how to lay on the colorful detail. We learn a lot about court intrigues, the founding of Beijing, and Chinese beliefs about sex (Korean women were considered just right). When China Ruled the Seas is a colorful telling of a tale that has been overlooked in the West.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Avast ye swabs! Today is, yes you guessed it, National Talk Like a Pirate Day. Shiver me timbers!

In honor of same, I present a bit of shameless self-promotion. You can still get a copy of Black Sails, a collection of pirate yarns from 1018 Press for a mere $11.99 (dollars, not doubloons). The stories range from the comedic to the horrific, from Davy Jones Locker to the skies, and all points in between. Your humble subscriber, Scurvy Dave Hardy, has a salty yarn of piracy, curses and cruelty on the high seas titled “Black Curse of the Noose” in said collection.

-Dave Hardy

I see that the school where I earned my degree, the University of Florida, has made international headlines. During a Q&A with Senator John Kerry a student rambled on at length with his question. The student’s microphone was cut off and then university police moved in. The student was arrested and tasered.

Now as I recall when I was an undergrad, it was unsafe for a young woman to be pretty much anywhere on the streets after dark. It was unsafe for a young woman to be in fraternity house during parties for that matter (except ATO, they at least kept their hands off the girls). Occasionally it was unsafe for a young woman to be in her home. Gainesville was just about a rapist’s dream.

But times move forward and UPD has at least declared war on long-winded bores. Had that been the case in my day, about 9 out of 10 classes would have ended up with the prof being tasered. As for undergrads with stupid questions, well, it would not have been pretty.

I look forward to the day when UPD can end every visiting speaker’s lecture with tear gas and a baton charge. Why stop there? I’m sure Kerry was twice as boring as the presumptuous fool who dared think that questions at UF didn’t involve electric shocks. Let’s just have the police command all “Free Speech Zones”. “Free” as in savage, “speech” as in beating.

So for all you folks palnning to send your kids to UF, look forward to your daughters being raped by thugs and your sons being tortured by the police.

Go Gators!

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dir. by Zhang Yimou

Perhaps it is natural the Chinese filmmaking is a bit of a grab-bag. Asians were forced to adapt to deal with the inrush of Western culture. In more recent times they have been able to pick and choose, blending foreign elements with home-grown style. The wu xia genre is typically Chinese, with its emphasis on history and traditional social structure. Nonetheless, while watching House of Flying Daggers I found myself thinking how much it reminded me of a Jean Pierre Melville film. Hard-boiled cops and outlaws with a code of honor meet in a world of tarnished honor. And yet, I couldn’t help but remember that Chinese detective stories date back to a time even earlier than the one Flying Daggers inhabits!

The story is set in the 800s. The Tang dynasty is crumbling and China is in the throes of a revolution. The gendarmes are battling a subversive movement known as the House of Flying Daggers. Leo (Andy Lau) a police captain sends his lieutenant, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to infiltrate the Peony Pavilion where the new showgirl is rumored to be linked to the Flying Daggers. The girl is Mei (Ziyi Zhang), not only is she supposed to be the daughter of a recently deceased Flying Dagger leader, she is also blind. Mei can also play a mean game of “echo”, which involves beans, drums on posts, a Chinese orchestra, and evidently, swords on the end of ladies’ sleeves. Leo raids the Pavilion and before you can say “Minsky’s!” Mei is in the calaboose with a front row seat at the torture chamber. Mei is clearly limber, but having your arms pulled out of their sockets is a bit much.

Before Mei can get a Rolfing session from the Chinese fuzz, Jin busts her out of the can and they head for the hills. In true noir style, the viewer finds himself asking who is for real in this situation. Is Jin just an undercover cop doing his job? What are his feelings for Mei and what are her feelings for him? Before it is all over the view finds the veil of deception covers just about everything and everybody.

There’s a curious side note to all this. Zhan Yimou doesn’t exactly romanticize either the cops or the insurgents. Both view their agents as expendable. They are soldiers in war where personal happiness is irrelevant, they are just eggs to make an omelet. That’s a significant subtext in these times.

Flying Dagger is set in a land of lush landscapes, not as stark as the Central Asian wilds served up by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, but suffused with color that can be gentle or harsh. There is of course, action galore. The wire-fu is offset by some intense ground battles and Ziyi Zhang has a real dancer’s grace. Zhang Yimou doesn’t neglect the more extravagant traditions of wu xia. There are battles fought in the tops of bamboo stalks and arrows that bank and ricochet like billiard balls. It makes for some spectacular eye candy. If I have one complaint, it is that at two hours the film might have benefited from a bit of trimming. After the midpoint of the story (plot-wise not time-wise), a little less in the way of beautifully composed reaction shots might have been more.

Still it’s hard to deny that House of Flying Daggers is a marvelous blend of action and romance.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dir. by Ronnie Yu

Sword & Sorcery may seem like it is mired in endless pastiches of Conan coated in a rancid syrup of Tolkein, a fur-clad barbarian finds the magic bowling trophy and slays the evil wizard, thus fulfilling his destiny, at least until the advance is spent. Well, I’m here to tell you that Sword & Sorcery thrives on Chinese movie screens only over there they disguise it by calling it historical. But when you hear a movie called wu xia it’s really a fantasy set in a historical frame.

The Bride with White Hair is set in the last days of the Ming Dynasty in China. Cho Yi Hang (Leslie Cheung) is an orphan adopted by the Chief of the Wu Tang Clan (the Chinese martial arts society, not the NY rappers, though some Dirty Ol’ Bastards are in the mix). Cho is the handsomest guy, the best swordsman, and the most popular fellow, so naturally he’s going to be the next leader. His girlfriend is the beautiful and ambitious Lu (Kit Yang Lam). For Cho the future is bright.

Alas, he lives in interesting times. The foreign tribes are on the move. The Ming are tottering, and worst of all the Evil Clan has awoken. The Evil’s are lead by the Chis (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, in a hysterically over-the-top performance)a brother and sister pair of twins who do everything (I mean everything) together. Then Cho meets the Wolf Girl, a feral child raised to be a kung-fu killing machine. She might chop a guy into nine parts, but she’s nowhere near the ball-busting shrew Lu is. Though Cho is poised for greatness, he finds it comes at a cost. The people around him start showing a brutal and bloodthirsty streak. Cho just wants peace, but of course he’s not gonna get it.

Bride has a lot going for it. Delirious musical scenes with dancing devil worshippers follow brutal mediations on the nature of power. The sets tend to the minimal, and practically all action takes place at night, as if to emphasize the night that is descending on Chinese culture. Black humor pervades this Chinese Gothic tale of love and betrayal. While some people are put off by the camera tricks and “wire-fu” choreography, this is a movie about people. Sure they can run straight up trees or stop 1,000 falling flower petals with a sword, but they are people. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set the gold standard for wu xia film, The Bride With White Hair deserves a very honorable mention.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dir. by Walter Hill

Southern Comfort is one of the best works from Walter Hill, a director with a distinguished resume (48 Hours, The Warriors, Trespass, etc.). It is also the best Not-Vietnam film.

In 1981 the Vietnam War was still relatively raw for Americans. One can only imagine what studios said when approached with the idea of filming battle scenes in the jungle. It would be expensive and controversial, two things that are pretty much anathema in Hollywood. Not being Francis Ford Coppola, Hill took a different tack. He made a movie about a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen on weekend maneuvers.

Hardin (Powers Boothe) is a Texan who has just moved to Baton Rouge and transferred to the Louisiana Guard. He finds his new comrades to mostly be ignorant, gun-toting rednecks (“Just the ones I been around all my life,” he says). In this passel of misfits, he gravitates to the only other misfit whose IQ is more than room temperature, Spencer (Keith Carradine).

While the squad is on maneuvers, they steal some pirogues from the swamp-Cajuns. They also indulge in firing blanks at anything that moves. Unfortunately the Cajuns aren’t in on the joke and reply with real guns. Lost and under fire, the Guardsmens’ jaunt across the swamp turns into a bloody nightmare.

By now you may have guessed that this story has bugger-all to do with Cajuns. They are hill-billy stand-ins for the VC. Much of what transpires to Bravo squad is the stuff of Vietnam movie-cliché, except of course it wasn’t cliché at all in 1981. The enemy is mostly invisible, they attack with unpredictable and highly effective means that demoralize the troops. The Guardsmen are book soldiers, they are prey to ferocious conflicts among themselves, and use drugs in the field. The civilians (yes, there are civilians) speak an incomprehensible patois and the troops must either brutally treat them as or enemies trust them with their lives.

The most compelling element of Southern Comfort is the cast and characters. The relationship between Hardin and Spencer is at the core of the film. It’s classic Walter Hill fare: two men bond under the stress of a survival situation. The supporting cast is no less compelling. They are a scruffy, unmilitary lot, alternately oafish and vulnerable. Fred Ward plays Reese, a man who thinks of himself as a hardened killer. Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown) plays Bowden, an emotionally unstable high school football coach. The underrated standout is Les Lanom as Sgt. Casper, who plays a desperately unimaginative and naïve squad leader whose doomed efforts to lead the squad are almost painful watch in their folly. Fine performances by Peter Coyote, Lewis Smith, Franklyn Seales, and T.K. Carter, and Brion James (as a Cajun trapper) round out the cast.

The film builds a tour de force of intercut music, image, and action that makes an ending that is of exceptional emotional impact. As in real war, men may survive, but Hill makes it clear that his protagonists will be marked by the struggle. Do the survivors run toward rescue or away from it?

-Dave Hardy