Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (RKO 1950)

Looking for a tough, no-frills ‘B’ crime drama? Look no further than ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, which is just what it says it is, the planning, execution, and aftermath of said dirty deed, with a cast of rugged mugs and hard-hearted dames directed by Richard Fleischer during his salad days at RKO. The movie echoes Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS in its heist scene, and I’m sure Stanley Kubrick watched and remembered it when he made his film noir  masterpiece THE KILLING .

Make no mistake, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY isn’t on a par with those two films. It is, however, an enjoyable little 67 minutes of cops vs crooks. Criminal mastermind Dave Purvis assembles a gang of low-lives to pull the caper off, killing a cop in the process. The cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell, is now determined to hunt the crooks down and avenge him. One of the participants, Benny McBride, is mortally wounded during the heist, which is fine by Purvis, who’s been banging his wife, Burlesque star Yvonne LeDoux, on the side. Purvis ends up putting McBride out of his misery, but Cordell and his men, including new rookie partner Danny Ryan, are hot on their trail. One crook dies trying to escape, but Al Mapes gets away in a boat, leaving Purvis and Yvonne with all that loot. Mapes is picked up and rats, leading to Danny going undercover, getting ambushed by Purvis, and a climax at the airport that spells the end of Purvis’s criminal career.

Charles McGraw , complete with trench coat and fedora, stars as the dogged Lt. Cordell, and the gravel-voiced actor is tough as leather. William Talman plays Purvis, one of his many bad guy roles before turning to the side of the law as DA Hamilton Berger on TV’s PERRY MASON. Douglas Fowley is the unfortunate McBride, Steve Brodie the rat Mapes, and Gene Evans crook Ace Foster. Don McGuire is young Danny Ryan; best known for playing CONGO BILL in the 1948 serial, McGuire later turned to writing, responsible for the story and/or screenplays for 3 RING CIRCUS, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, JOHNNY CONCHO (which he also directed), THE DELICATE DELINQUENT (ditto), and TOOTSIE ( for which he received an Oscar nomination).

Sexy B-Movie Queen Adele Jergens plays sexy stripper Yvonne LeDoux, and when she’s on stage you can hear the wolf whistles! Adele’s just as tough as the guys in this one, a statuesque blonde who’s sure no cream puff. The leggy former Rockette graced the screen in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE CORPSE CAME C.O.D., LADIES OF THE CHORUS (as Marilyn Monroe’s mom!), THE MUTINEERS, and GIRLS IN PRISON, and made a perfect foil for comedy teams Abbott and Costello (A&C MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN) and The Bowery Boys (BLONDE DYNAMITE, FIGHTING TROUBLE). She met husband Glenn Langan (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) while filming THE TREASURE OF MONTE CHRISTO, and retired from the movies in 1956. Adele Jergens was never a big star, but her presence was more than welcome whenever she came onscreen.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY makes no pretense about what it is, a low-budget picture designed for the bottom half of double features. But thanks to Fleischer and that hard-as-nails cast, it’s worth rediscovering for B-Movie fans… like Yours Truly! In this case, ‘B’ stands for Better!

Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)

Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become known as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism and madness, torturing Blanche and keeping her a literal prisoner. Delusional Jane thinks she can revive her old act, going so far as to hire a down-on-his-heels piano player to accompany her. Things quickly degenerate when Jane murders Blanche’s loyal housekeeper Elvira and sinks deeper and deeper into insanity….

Bette Davis goes gloriously over-the-top as Baby Jane, chewing every piece of scenery with gusto. She’s rude, crude, and vulgar, yet still managers to convey  pathos with her Oscar-nominated performance. Joan is a bit more subdued as the victimized Blanche, seemingly angelic and rational, but has her moments of dramatic flourishes. The scene where Jane serves Blanche’s pet canary for lunch is just the first of many shocks to follow (“You know we got rats in the cellar”, cracks Jane, cackling like a madwoman at Blanche’s horror). The two old pros offset each other perfectly, though Bette really steals the show here; her croaking rendition of the song “I’ve Written a Letter To Daddy”, dressed in her “Baby Jane” outfit, is an off-key highlight.

Victor Buono, in his first credited film role, was also Oscar-nominated as Edwin Flagg, the failed musician and mama’s boy who answers Jane’s ad for an accompanist. The part made him an instant in-demand character actor in films like FOUR FOR TEXAS HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (both directed by Aldrich), and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, not to mention his villainous King Tut on TV’s BATMAN! Veteran Marjorie Bennett plays his overbearing mother, Maidie Norman shines as housekeeper Elvira (who receives a hammer to the head for her troubles), and Anna Lee plays snoopy neighbor Mrs. Bates. Wesley Addy, Murray Alper, Robert Cornthwaite , Bert Freed, B.D. Merrill (Bette’s daughter), Bobs Watson, and Dave Willock lend their Familiar Faces to various smaller roles.


Director Aldrich, known up til then for more macho fare like KISS ME DEADLY and THE BIG KNIFE, took a chance with BABY JANE, and scored not only a huge hit, but created an entirely new genre in the process. Soon the market was flooded with “Older Women Doing Horror”: there was LADY IN A CAGE (Olivia de Havilland, Ann Southern), THE NIGHT WALKER (Barbara Stanwyck), DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Tallulah Bankhead), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon), SAVAGE INTRUDER (Miriam Hopkins), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters), and a slew of other psycho-biddies. But WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE was the first, and stands severed head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Book Review: THE LAST STAND by Mickey Spillane (Hard Case Crime 2018)

2018 is the centennial anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth! Spillane got his start in comic books, then caused a sensation with his 1947 novel I, THE JURY, introducing the world to that hardest of hardboiled PI’s, Mike Hammer. Hard Case Crime, an imprint every pulp fiction fan should know about, celebrates Spillane’s birth by releasing THE LAST STAND, The Mick’s last completed novel, with a bonus unpublished novella from the early 1950’s.

Spillane with friend/literary executor Max Allan Collins

Mickey’s literary executor and friend Max Allan Collins writes the introduction. Collins is no stranger to the hardboiled genre himself, having been Chester Gould’s replacement on the long-running comic strip Dick Tracy from 1977-92, author of the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, and the Quarry series of books (made into a Showtime series in 2016). Since Spillane’s death in 2006, Collins has been editing and completing the writer’s (“I’m not an author, I’m a writer”, he once said in an interview) unfinished works.

The unpublished 50’s novella “A Bullet for Satisfaction” is up first, and fans of Spillane will rejoice – it’s truly Vintage Spillane, a brutal tale of corruption, gangsters, violence, and femme fatales! Ex-cop Rod Dexter (how’s that for a macho name!) wades through this sordid tale filled to the brim with murder, sadism, and plenty of sex. You can tell where Collins did some editing and rewriting here, because good as he is, nobody captures Spillane’s voice quite like Spillane; multitudes have tried, but The Mick is unique! Take this example from Page 42:

“Three days ago I was a cop. Now the cop was gone. What was left? Nothing but a thirst for booze, quenched by a bender, and vengeance, which I’d quench a whole other way. And when you’re playing a game like this, there’s only one way to play it, and that’s a hell of a lot rougher than they do.

They were going to die. Every last one of them would feel pain and I would receive satisfaction by watching their expressions as I pulled the trigger“.

Or this gem found on Page 116:

“A blast from the open door took her head off and splattered it against the far wall, where dripping blood and chunks of bone and gobs of gore and one lonely eyeball stuck there like the work of some cut-rate Picasso. Then a body getting no signals from an obliterated brain toppled on its back with a rattling thud, and the headless body lay limply on the floor”.

See what I mean? Vintage Mickey Spillane!

The writer (don’t call him author!) in his twilight years

Next is “The Last Stand”, Mickey’s final novel published for the first time anywhere. This one finds a – dare I say it? – much more mellow Spillane, now 88 years old but still writing in his signature voice. The sex and violence are toned down, but that terse style is still there, only with a touch more humor that comes with reflective old age. More of an adventure than hardboiled crime, it follows ex-serviceman Joe Gillian (named after Mickey’s friend, longtime Charlton Comics writer Joe Gill) as he’s forced to land his vintage plane in a Southwestern desert. There he encounters Sequoia Pete, a young Indian whose horse has thrown him, and the unlikely pair banter their way through a desert trek, where Joe discovers the joys of eating rattlesnake, and an ancient arrowhead loaded with radioactivity.

Returning to Pete’s village on the rez, Joe will meet his new friend’s gorgeous sister Running Fox, whose jealous would-be beau Big Arms sets out to kill his white rival. The plot involves hidden treasure, gangsters, FBI agents, and a threat to national security. With “The Last Stand”, Spillane shows us he’s still a master storyteller, older and knocking on Jehovah’s door but still managing to entertain his audience. Fans of Mickey Spillane will definitely love THE LAST STAND, and for the uninitiated the book gives you a chance to read him in both his early, hardboiled phase and his last, more seasoned work. I’m a huge fan, so don’t just take my word for it: go out and buy a copy, and prepare to be thrilled!

Pre-Code Confidential #21: Wheeler & Woosley in DIPLOMANIACS (RKO 1933)

Political satire in film ran rampant during the Pre-Code Era. Somewhere between W.C. Fields’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP  sits DIPLOMANIACS, Wheeler & Woolsey’s madcap take on war and peace, 1930’s style. It’s purely preposterous, unadulterated farce, and is guaranteed to offend someone, if not everyone.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: DIPLOMANIACS is not politically correct in any way, shape, or form. It’s loaded with racist stereotypes, casting Hugh Herbert as a not-so-wise Chinaman (“It is written that it is written that it is written that it is written”), lambastes Jews, Native Americans, and homosexuals, and portrays women as sex objects (spy Marjorie White is delivered in plastic wrap). A bomb tossed into the peace talks causes everyone to turn blackface, leading to a prolonged minstrel number! If you’re already offended, stop reading… but if you can take the heat, by all means let’s continue!

W&W play barbers on an Indian reservation (!) offered a million dollars each from the Native chief (who’s Oxford educated and speaks perfect English) to represent the tribe at the Geneva Peace Conference. Winklereid, General Manager of the High Explosive Bullet Company, is charged with stopping them by his four co-conspirators (Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen, and Puppenpuppen). With his Oriental sidekick Chow Chow, Winklereid enlists the aid of vamp Dolores to seduce Bert and steal their dough and peace documents (“I’ve got what it takes to take what they’ve got!”). When she fails, the bad guys turn to Paris underworld boss Fifi, with her kiss of death and gang of cutthroats (and don’t ask how they got to Paris instead of Geneva!). Finally making their way to Switzerland, W&W land in the middle of a violent peace conference chaired by the ill-tempered Edgar Kennedy , until that bomb hits and plunges the world into war!

Interspersed in all this nonsense are musical numbers (including some Busby Berkeley-style choreography and the aforementioned blackface number), zany sight gags and one-liners, and Bert Wheeler’s classic vaudeville “crying” skit. The script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (yes, that Joe Mankiewicz) and Henry Myers gets away with all sorts of innuendoes (Winklereid: “This is no time for sex” Fifi: “That’s what you say”), and skewers just about everything in sight – no one is safe in this film! Louis Calhern, Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, plays Winklereid, cute little Marjorie White (who starred in The Three Stooges first solo short WOMAN HATERS) is Dolores, and Phyllis Barry, who also played with the Stooges in THREE LITTLE SEW AND SEWS (as well as Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in WHAT! NO BEER?) is Fifi.

Director William A. Seiter was no stranger to comedy, having got his start with Mack Sennett. Seiter then moved to Universal for a series of silent comedies starring Reginald Denny. If he’d only directed the Laurel & Hardy classic SONS OF THE DESERT , Seiter’s name would be immortalized, but his career encompassed much more than that gem. He guided W&W through three other films (CAUGHT PLASTERED, PEACH O’RENO, GIRL CRAZY), Wheeler’s solo outing TOO MANY COOKS, a pair of Shirley Temple films (DIMPLES, STOWAWAY), PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, ROBERTA, ROOM SERVICE (with the Marx Bros). NICE GIRL?,  LITTLE GIANT (starring Abbott & Costello), ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and DEAR BRAT, ending his career with television’s THE GALE STORM SHOW.

Like I said earlier, if you’re easily offended, you can skip DIPLOMANIACS. But if, like me, you view older films in the context of their times, you’ll discover an outrageously funny movie that’s about as wild as Pre-Code movies get. Plus, you get a chance to see two funny men, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, at the top of their game. Any takers?

 

Forever Young: Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (20th Century Fox/Hammer 1971)

Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s.  The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory

Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650! Bathory was a sadistic woman who delighted in torturing young women, through beatings, burning, freezing, and cannibalism. She was found guilty of her atrocities and imprisoned until her death. Local gossips claimed she delighted in bathing in her victim’s blood, but there is no proof. The film uses that part of the legend as it’s starting point, and Bathory’s story  becomes just another Hammer Gothic horror tale.

Elderly Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Bathory’s real married name), shortly after her husband’s death, accidentally discovers bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth and beauty. With the aid of her long-time lover Captain Dobi and nurse Julie, she procures young women to kill and keep her young, going so far as to have daughter Ilona kidnapped so she can impersonate her. The Countess has designs on young Lt. Imre Toth, and must maintain her bloody ritual in order to have him fall in lover with her. Castle historian Fabio becomes suspicious, and discovers the truth, but is hanged by Dobi before he can alert Toth. Ilona escapes, and Elizabeth is willing to kill her to obtain that precious virginal blood and stay young… .

The movie was a bit disappointing to me. The horror quotient is low, with more bare boobs than bloody murders (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Pitt is good as always (though her heavily accented voice was dubbed) in a part where she’s more a Jekyll & Hyde character than vampiric countess. Her old age makeup hides her beauty, which is revealed whenever she takes her blood baths (with a giant loofa!). Other cast members include Nigel Green as Captain Dobi, Lesley-Anne Down as Ilona, Sandor Eles (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as Lt. Toth, and Peter Jeffrey as the local inspector.


Director Peter Sasdy came from the ranks of British TV, and among his horror credits are TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER , DOOMWATCH, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. His COUNTESS DRACULA isn’t one of his better efforts, it moves too slow and doesn’t have enough horror to keep an enthusiast like me interested. The only thing that truly held my interest was Ingrid Pitt’s performance, and if you’re a Pitt person, you’ll want to watch this one. Otherwise, go find a copy of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

Rockin’ in the Film World #17: Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (United Artists 1971)

Frank Zappa is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired as a young kid listening to albums like “Absolutely Free”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”,  and “Apostrophe”, which goes a long way in helping to explain my warped world view. Zappa’s avant garde rock’n’roll, a mélange of jazz, classical, doo-wop, psychedelica, and anything else he could think of, combined with his nonsensical, sexual, and scatological lyrics, skewered convention, the plastic world of suburban America, and hippie culture as well (Zappa was an equal opportunity offender). 200 MOTELS was his first attempt at making a movie, co-directing and co-writing with British documentarian Tony Palmer, and to call it bizarre would be a gross understatement.

Visually, the film is as close to Zappa’s avant garde compositions as you can get. 200 MOTELS was shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film, using techniques like double and triple exposure, color filters, flash-cut editing, and animation, and is more hallucinatory than Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (though Zappa himself was staunchly anti-drug use). It’s about life on the road, a common theme in rock films, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with random segments, skits, and performances by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing FZ’s score live on film.

The Mothers play themselves: Anysley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood, and ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, collectively known as Flo & Eddie (My Brush With Greatness Story: I once partied backstage with Flo & Eddie at a nightclub in Boston after one of their performances – until one of my drunk, belligerent friends kept calling the overweight Volman a “fat fuck”, getting us thrown out of the room. Later, I encountered Kaylan wandering the streets with a pretty young groupie, who laughed and said, “It’s a jungle out there, man”). Ringo Starr is on hand as Larry the Dwarf, impersonating Zappa, and The Who’s Keith Moon is “The Hot Nun”. Folk singer/actor Theodore Bikel appears as a TV host and as Rance Muhammitz, who may or may not be The Devil. Real life groupies Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall play groupies, and former GTO and Supergroupie Pamela Des Barres is a rock writer. Original Mother Jimmy Carl Black sings “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, one of the more traditional scenes in this anything but traditional film:

Cal Schenkel, the graphic artist who did many of Zappa’s album covers, is credited as production designer, giving the film it’s outlandish look. 200 MOTELS won’t be for everybody; if you like Zappa’s music, you’ll like this film. Those with a taste for surrealism will want to watch this experiment in abstract expression, others will find it tedious and self-indulgent. As for me, I love Frank Zappa’s out-there stylings, and I recommend it to all you similar mutants in the tribe of Zappa.

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS BEACH PARTY WILD IN THE STREETS JAILHOUSE ROCK IT’S A BIKINI WORLD A HARD DAY’S NIGHT BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH  – THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT – HAVING A WILD WEEKEND – HEAD – KID GALAHAD – SKI PARTY – THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – HOLD ON!

One Hit Wonders #18: “Lies” by The Knickerbockers (Challenge Records 1965)

“Hey, did you hear the new Beatles song?”, screamed virtually every teenybopper in 1965, only it wasn’t The Beatles , but New Jersey’s own The Knickerbockers singing the Top Twenty smash “Lies”:

The Knickerbockers consisted of brothers Beau (vocals, guitars) and John Charles (vocals, bass), Jimmy Walker (vocals, drums), and ex-Royal Teen Bobby Randell (vocals, sax), who scored a hit in 1958 with “Short Shorts” (also featuring future Four Season Bob Gaudio and future Blues Project/Blood, Sweat, & Tears/solo artist Al Kooper):

The tight-knit harmonies and John Lennon-sounding lead vocals had many people fooled into thinking The Beatles had recorded “Lies” under an alias, but the world soon found out it was just a bunch of Jersey kids doing an incredible facsimile. The Knickerbockers became featured regulars on Dick Clark’s five-days-a-week ABC-TV teen dance show WHERE THE ACTION IS (1965-67), along with Paul Revere & The Raiders, Keith Allison, and Linda Scott, but their small record label failed to produce another hit. By the late Sixties, The Beatles had moved on to a more mature sound, and The Knickerbockers faded into obscurity, save for that one brief, shining moment when everybody listening to their AM radios thought four kids from New Jersey were THE Fab Four.

Enjoy other “One Hit Wonders”:

The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace)  – One Tin Soldier – Theme from BILLY JACK (Coven) – Long, Lonesome Highway (Michael Parks) – Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye (Steam) – DOA (Bloodrock) – Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? (The Barbarians) – Why Can’t We Live Together (Timmy Thomas) – They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Napoleon XIV) – In the Year 2525 (Zager & Evans) – Summertime Blues (Blue Cheer) – Little Girl (Syndicate of Sound) – I Had Too Much To Dream (The Electric Prunes) – The Ballad of The Green Berets (SSgt. Barry Sadler) – Smell of Incense (Southwest FOB) – In The Summertime (Mungo Jerry) – The Safety Dance (Men Without Hats)