Monday, March 30, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Third Man: "Turnabout is Foul Play" 3/7/52

In order to run a con on a dishonest businessman, Harry must play a role far from his real personality. He must pretend to be a truthful and incorruptible man. But could the presence of someone who actually IS honest and incorruptible throw a monkey wrench into the plan?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"...the avenger of an outraged Law!"

It was 1935 and the editor-in-chief of the Thrilling Publications was about to start a new pulp magazine. For a likely theme, one only had to look to the movies--where the James Cagney film G-Men was raking in big bucks--and to real life, where the FBI was locked in often mortal combat with gangsters such as Dillinger, Nelson and Machine-Gun Kelly.

(It is Kelly, by the way, who is said to have coined the term "G-Men" when he shouted "Don't shoot, G-Men" as he was arrested.)

So the new magazine would be called G-Men. The featured hero would be a dedicated agent named Dan Fowler, who would use both Tommy guns and brains to bring the worst public enemies to justice. Or to the morgue. Fowler was pretty okay with either result.

Actually, that makes Fowler seem a little bloodthirsty, doesn't it? And there are moments when he's in the middle of a fire fight with villains in which he does revel in the idea that the men he's mowing down are getting their just desserts. But he does take them alive when he can and he does follow the rule of law. 

Fowler had a good 20-year run in the pulps, becoming one of the mainstay heroes of the industry. Reading the first story--titled "Snatch" and published in the October 1935 issue of G-Men--it's easy to see why. It's a slam-bang and entertaining action tale.

It was written by George Fielding Eliot, though the pen name for all the Fowler stories would be C.K.M. Scanlon. Eliot was a pulp veteran who knew how to keep a story moving fast without sacrificing good plot construction. 

The plot of "Snatch" is inspired by the real-life Purple Gang. Here, it's the Grey Gang, led by the brutal Ray Norshire, who are on a crime spree in the Mid-West. They've robbed a bunch of banks, killing a number of people along the way, and have now moved on to kidnapping.

Dan Fowler is assigned to head up the effort to stop the Grey Gang. He grew up in the area and his dad is the sheriff of one of the small towns within the sphere of the gang's operations, so he seems the best man for the job. 

And he is. He manages to trap and catch several gang members, save a kidnapped baby and then catch most of the rest of the gang, though the wily Norshire keeps getting away. Dan is building up a suspicion that there's a mastermind working behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this mastermind might be one of several local law enforcement figures, which would explain why Norshire managed to be in just the right position at the right time to kill a weak-willed gang member who was about to talk.

Fowler suspects Norshire will try to bust one or more of his gang out of jail. So he comes up with a plan that the Feds will use again 14 years later in the Cagney film White Heat. He goes undercover as a prisoner to follow along during the escape.

This doesn't work out well, as the bad guys tumble to him not long after the jail break. He manages to get away, only to be arrested by local cops who don't believe he 's a Federal agent. This gives Norshire and his gang time to get away.

So it's time for yet another plan--one that will both trap the Grey Gang and get the secret mastermind to give himself away.

It's a fun story. There's a number of good action scenes, the best one involving Fowler trying to get away from the Grey Gang after they realize he's a Fed. The story itself is very well-told--Fowler follows up clues logically and pursues intelligent hunches based on the evidence. He definitely exists in a pulp universe rather than the real world, but good storytelling makes him believable all the same.

Kind of like Cagney in the movie G-Men. Gee whiz, now I gotta watch that again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Swamp Thing

 Swamp Thing--or at least an early version of him/it--first appeared in 1970 in a one-shot story in House of Secrets #92. The story, anchored on Bernie Wrightson's creepy art, was a hit and the higher-ups at DC wanted more.

Wrightson and writer Len Wein both felt the original story was complete in of itself, but Wein eventually hit on the idea of creating another Swamp Thing, with an almost identical visual design linked to a different origin. So was born Alec Holland, whose laboratory in the swamp was destroyed by saboteurs, dosing the poor scientist with chemicals, setting him on fire and sending him running screaming in agony into the swamps.

To the surprise of not a single reader, he is transformed into a swamp thing. (As I understand it, this was later retconned into Holland actually being dead with his memories overlaid onto Swamp Thing. I haven't read those stories, so can't pass judgement on them. In my mind, Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland.)

Anyway, in his efforts to find those responsible for destroying his lab (and soon after murdering his wife), Swamp Thing had a serious of adventures that took him out of the swamp to various locations (including Gotham City and a team-up with Batman). Eventually, though, he returns to the swamp that "birthed" him. This story, titled "The Man Who Would Not Die," is told in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974).

Swamp Thing encounters an extremely old black woman being threatened by an escaped prisoner. The friendly monster saves her, Unperturbed by his appearance, she tells him a story.

There was once a rich plantation here. But the owner was a vicious man who treated his slaves with sadistic cruelty. At one point, he has a one-armed slave named Black Jubal burned at the stake. The owner had threatened to take Jubal's attractive woman for himself. Jubal had strenuously objected.

By the way, this is the 1970s, when it was apparently still required by law to put the word "Black" in front of the name of pretty much every black character. Otherwise, how would we know?

Soon after Jubal was killed, he apparently returned from the dead to take final vengeance on the plantation owner.

Well, that's a nicely spooky story, but its just a story, right? Swamp Thing soon finds his hands full with a more realistic problem. An old enemy named Arcane--whose brain was transplanted into a hideous artificial body after his supposed recent death--wants to capture Swamp Thing and trade bodies once again. With his brain in Swamp Thing's powerful body, he can easily enslave the world. Unlike that silly ghost story, this is the sort of thing that happens to people all the time.

Unfortunately for Arcane, he uses the world "slave" in a sentence at least one too many times. Just when it seems that Swamp Thing is going to be captured, Jubal and a bunch of other ghosts of former slaves show up to smack down Arcane and his artificial "Un-Men."

Len Wein is an excellent writer, but in one way this is not one of his best works--the ending is far too predictable. But the story holds up despite this. It is otherwise well-structured and Bernie Wrightson's art work is perfect. Gee whiz, Wrightson knows how to be creepy when he wants to be. So despite telegraphing the ending far too obviously, the story definitely succeeds in being creepy. "The Man Who Would Not Die" literally drips with atmosphere, with every detail in it enhancing the sense of horror inherent in the story. It's a case in which a writer produces a pretty good story and then can watch it be elevated into something better by the right artist.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Cover Cavalcade

It's a see-through vault, so for all we know for sure, this could have already happened in real life!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Six Shooter: "Double Seven" 5/13/54

Britt more or less gets drafted into acting as mediator between a large rancher and some small farmers. The rancher thinks the farmers are rustling his stock. The farmers think the rancher is trying to run them off their land and take it for himself. Britt needs to find out what's really going on. He also needs to make sure someone doesn't put a bullet in his back.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

From Radio to TV to the Movies

Nowadays, it's not that unusual for a TV show to be reincarnated on the movie screen, though the level of aesthetic and/or commercial success varies wildly with each effort. Also, nowadays, bringing a former TV show to the big screen involves tens of millions of dollars--it's quite an investment.

But in the 1950s, when low-budget B-movies were still an important part of the movie industry, you could adapt a TV show into a movie with relatively small budget. In 1954, while Dragnet was still in the middle of its original run on TV, Jack Webb and Ben Alexander starred in a movie adaptation, with Webb directing and bringing a lot of his favorite actors (such as Vic Perrin and Virginia Gregg) along for the ride. 

But that's not the only TV cop show that got a big screen treatment while it was still on the air. Another TV show that began on radio, jumped to TV and then to the movie screen was The Lineup

The Lineup ran on CBS radio from 1950 to 1953, with former Shadow Bill Johnston playing San Francisco police lieutenant Ben Guthrie. It was a solid police procedural--a show that followed in the footsteps of Dragnet but had its own personality. 

The show came to television in 1954 for a six-year run, with Warner Anderson playing Guthrie. Like Dragnet, it was popular enough to warrant a big-screen version, with Anderson still in the role of Guthrie.

Don Siegel, who had directed the pilot and several episodes of the TV series, directed the film. It was a story that centered around two villains, with a script that made the villains interesting and gave them some really sharp dialogue. In fact, the bad guys are so interesting that Siegel wanted to center the film on them. It was only at the studio's insistence that he made the characters from the TV show an important part of the story. Heck, Warner Anderson still ended up with third billing.

The villains are Dancer (Eli Wallach), a psychopath who is one step away from losing it completely, and Julian (Robert Keith), a sociopath who can keep Dancer under control--or at least thinks he can keep Dancer under control. Julian believes Dancer can be the Best Crook Ever under his tutelage, constantly correcting Dancer's grammar and demeanor to give him more style. Julian also enjoys making a note of the last words spoken by anyone Dancer kills. 

They've been hired to do what should be a simple job. Some tourists returning from Asia are being unwittingly used to smuggle drugs back into the country, with the drugs being hidden inside souvenirs they've bought. But Dancer is forced to kill a couple of people as he picks up the first two shipments. This puts the cops on their tails.

Things really go wrong when it turns out the last shipment is lost. The mother and daughter who were unknowingly carrying it can't be killed--they are needed to alibi Dancer and Julian; to provide proof
that the two criminals aren't pocketing the drugs on their own. But events still head downhill and they are soon in a desperate flight to escape the cops. 

Wallach and Keith are superb in the movie's key roles. They are never even remotely charismatic or likable, but they are fascinating to watch even while we are rooting against them. The rest of the cast is excellent as well--most notably Vaughn Taylor as the head of the drug ring. Taylor's only in the film for a minute or two, spends most of that time silent and emotionless and only has a few lines of dialogue. But he manages to be great in the role anyways.

Richard Jaeckel also leaves a mark as an alcoholic thug hired to drive Dancer and Julian around San Francisco. 

There's a few weak points in the overall plot--the efforts to recover the knick-knacks that contain the drugs seem far more complicated than they need to be and it seems unlikely that the head of a big drug ring would be picking up deliveries himself rather than sending a mook to do so. But these are minor points, as the story otherwise unfolds in a logical manner, with the cops following up clues intelligently. It works the way a police procedural should.

It also works the way a Film Noir should. Seigel's direction is sharp and briskly paced. The movie was filmed on location in San Francisco and Seigel uses this to give it a real visual flair. We don't have the shades of grey that many Noirs give us--Dancer and Julian are pretty clear-cut bad guys. But the script and the actors infuse them with real personality. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Superman and Spider-Man Once Again.

When I wrote about the first DC/Marvel superhero crossover a few months back, I got a few comments about how enjoyable the follow-up Supes/Spidey team-up was. I had to take their word for it--it's one I never got around to reading.

Fortunately, the library at which I work has a copy of the out-of-print Crossover Classics trade paperback, which includes the various cross-company team-ups from the 1970s & 1980s. So, once reminded of the horrible gap in my reading experience, I was able to get caught up.

Superman and Spider Man was published in 1981. Like the first, it doesn't attempt to explain how the characters from two separate universes now coexist, but implicitly postulates a universe in which they simply do so. They just don't happen to run into each other very often--this is actually lampshaded in the story when Spider Man meets Wonder Woman and wonders why they've never met when both of them have been based in New York.

This universe eventually got an official designation, by the way. In Marvel's nomenclature, it's Earth-7642. DC has rather unimaginatively designated it "Earth-Crossover." Gee whiz, there wasn't a spare number or letter to toss that way?

This time, the story is written by Jim Shooter and features superb art work by John Buscema. The two heroes meet again when Peter heads to Metropolis. He's not able to sell his latest Spidey pictures to Jameson at the Bugle, because such pictures don't sell papers any longer. Pictures of Superman, though... they might bring in some readers.

This is the set-up for a complex story involving a plot by Dr. Doom, who plans on manipulating Superman, the Parasite, the Hulk and Wonder Woman to carry out his latest scheme for world domination. This would involve releasing a radiation that would destroy all fossil and atomic fuels, forcing the world to bow to Doom to get access to his newly-invented super-reactor. But that reactor is unstable and Doom can only use it if he eventually tricks the Parasite into sacrificing himself to solve this problem.

The plot is a little complex, but its well-told and we are always able to keep track of what's going on. It's also a plot that allows for some really fun
action set pieces. Superman fights the Hulk at one point, answering the question about who is stronger (though if I wanted to quibble, I would say that this was a question best left unanswered). Superman later avoids an attempt by Dr. Doom to capture him. Spider Man and Wonder Woman meet, with the Amazon initially trying to bash the webslinger to bits because she's tricked into thinking he's a villain.

The scenes with Spider Man and Superman together are really done well, with both heroes forced to use their brains as well as their powers to get out of dangerous situations, while creating believable reasons to show that they need each other. I especially enjoy Spidey's improvised method of stripping a layer of kryponite dust off a captured Superman.

There's a fun sub-plot as well. Peter Parker decides to try living in Metropolis for awhile, since Perry White pays better for photographs than J.J.J. But he's homesick and uncomfortable with the new city, especially since he now lives pretty much in the shadow of the much more powerful Man of Steel. This gives Peter a crisis of confidence that threatens to undermine his effectiveness as Spider Man.

Clark Kent, in the meantime, temporarily moves to New York when he realizes that he's been targeted by Doom--he's worried Doom might try to get to him through his friends. (Superman is so well-known as being a friend of the Daily Planet staff that sometimes his secret identity seems to be useless.) So we get to see the mild-mannered reporter interact with the grumpy and acerbic J. Jonah Jameson.

If I compared the two Superman/Spider Man team-ups, I would probably still pick the first one as the best of the two. But that very well might be nostalgia talking--the first one is the one I read as a kid, so I have fond memories of it. But it would be a close call regardless. This second team-up has a great plot, great art work and a keen understanding of the characters. It is superhero storytelling at its best.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "The Devil's Saint" 1/19/43

Peter Lorre is typically excellent in this wonderfully suspenseful tale of murder and insanity. The twist at the end is fantastic.

Click HERE to listen or download.

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