Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Suspense: "Log of the Marne" 10/22/51

Set during the civil war in China, this is an excellent and exciting story of a British gunboat trapped in a river and under siege by the Communists.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Never Help a Drunk

If you're an amateur detective, you usually depend on just happening to be nearby when a murder is committed. For people like Jessica Fletcher, this works fine. It doesn't work for me--no matter what, everyone I know absolutely refuses to get murdered so that I can use brilliant deductive reasoning to solve the crime.

If you're a pro, though, you shouldn't have to depend on chance. A private eye such as Frederick Nebel's "Tough Dick" Donovan can reasonably expect clients to come to him.

But coincidence still rears its head from time to time. In the short story "Red Pavement," (published in the December 1932 issue of Black Mask) Donovan stops to help a drunk. They share a cab and when the drunk finds out Donovan is a P.I., he hires him to meet a girl at Penn Station while he (the drunk) sobers up. Then someone drives past the cab and shoots the drunk dead.

Donovan still feels he should meet the girl and break the news to her. But that leads to the girl coming into possession of a bag containing $14,000. Then the girl (and the money) disappears and the police are looking askance at Donovan because the dead guy was involved in a robbery a few years before and the money was never recovered.

So Donovan has to find the girl and the money--hopefully while the girl is still alive. Otherwise, he might end up in the slammer simply because he stopped to help a drunk. This all leads to a nice twist at the end.

I really enjoy Nebel's Donovan stories. Hard-boiled to the extreme, but (like Hammett and Chandler) always rooted in humanity, these fast-moving yarns among the best in the genre. "Red Pavement" drops Donovan into a case in an unexpected manner then forces him to play a dangerous long shot find the girl and drag himself out of the frying pan he's put himself in. And it provides a valuable lesson: don't help a drunk unless you're prepared to also solve a murder.

Hey, maybe that's what I'm doing wrong. I'm not helping enough drunks! By golly, I'll get to solve a murder yet!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Dirty Dozen for Children

The Dirty Dozen (1967) is one of my favorite action movies--with a great cast, a strong plot and a wonderfully choreographed action sequence at its climax. But its not a movie for kids. The psychotic actions of one character and the brutality of the violence means this is not a kid flick. The brutality is there for a reason--though the movie is largely an escapist action film, it is supposed to make you think about how nasty war is and how morally uncertain the decisions of even the good guys can often become. So it's all good--you just don't want to let your kids watch it.

Which is why it was an odd choice for Dell to produce a comic book adaptation at a time when comic books were still largely read by kids. Though, admittedly, Marvel Comics had been building up an older fan base for the medium during the 1960s. And Dell didn't necessarily shy away from violence in their stories.

All the same, remember that this is a film about 12 men who are guilty of violent crimes--including murder and rape. One of them (Maggot- played by Telly Savalas) is a fanatic who kills women because women are inherently evil temptresses. He also considers the rest of the Dozen to be sinners who deserve to be killed. 

The mission the men are assigned is essentially a mass assassination of high-ranking Wehrmacht generals. As it turns out, in order to accomplish this mission, the Americans have to blow up a bunch of women along with the generals. 

Gee whiz, that's hardly kiddie fare. So its interesting to examine how the uncredited writer and artist Jack Sparling went about it.

By the way, this post will obviously contain spoilers regarding the movie. But, if you are a grown-up and you haven't seen The Dirty Dozen, then its your own fault anyways and I simply don't have time to bother with you.

Interestingly, the violence is left largely intact. When the team is on their mission, they are casually taking out Germans with silenced pistols and knives while getting into position for the main attack. When the German officers hide out in a bomb shelter, the Americans still use grenades and gasoline dumped down air vents to turn the whole chateau into a fire bomb; and the ongoing fight with German soldiers still has an element of brutality to it. Jack Sparling, by the way, does an excellent job with the art.

What is changed (other than changes made to fit the story into 32 pages) is dropping the elements involving brutality towards women. This involves making Maggot more generically insane, rather
than giving him a definable (though psychotic) motivation for betraying the team. Interestingly, when the German generals run for the bomb shelter, we see their women going with them, so the Dozen still implicitly blow up innocents in the comic. We simply get no panels showing us the Germans inside the shelter, so this isn't emphasized.

Obviously, a scene in which prostitutes are brought to the Dozen before they go on the mission is simply skipped over.

A comparison between the movie and the comic book can actually form an interesting discussion about what is appropriate for a child to watch or read and what isn't. I personally think that a level of violence in children's stories is perfectly fine--violence can be a legitimate part of drama in stories for all ages. But that in turn can lead to discussions involving how much violence can be desensitizing or otherwise make violence appear fun or harmless. These are both legitimate concerns that are often readily dismissed today without sufficient consideration. If you're interested, I do talk about this a little more in my ebook 99 films Your Children Must See Before Growing Up; or They'll Turn Out to Be Axe Murderers. In the end, of course, parents are best qualified to each make these decisions for their own kids. Parents simply need to be aware that they should be giving thought to the issue. (The Dirty Dozen, by the way, is NOT included as an essential film in my 99 Films ebook. Your kid can skip it and he won't turn out to be an ax murderer. Oh, and yes, I do realize this was a pretty shameless plug for one of my books.)

In terms of storytelling, a fan of the movie can be a little annoyed that so many cool bits have been
left out and condensing the story does leave it feeling a little choppy. The comic book picks up with the Dozen already in their training camp, with the officious Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan's role in the film) working to get the project shut down. The Dozen are still shown cheating in a war game maneuver to prove they can be an effective commando unit, then its off to the real mission. The need to condense means the action isn't anywhere near as well-choreographed as in the movie, but the writer and Jack Sparling do a fine job in the space they have.

It's probably the lack of time to show characterizations that hurt the comic book the most. We never really get to know any of the Dozen (other than realizing Maggot is just plain nuts), so the deaths of guys like Jefferson, Pinkley and Franco don't come with the same emotional impact.

There's also a few things that remind us the comic book guys were using the script rather than the final film to create the adaptation. In the movie, one of the Dozen dies off screen in a parachute accident at the start of the mission. This is because the actor was having differences with the filmmakers, who just tossed up their hands when it was time to film the battle and said "Let's just kill him off." In the comic book, this character sticks around for the actual fighting.

Also, there's a scene in which Sgt. Bowren (the M.P. in charge of the guards at the training camp) is found on the plane flying them to France--he stowed away to come on the mission himself. This is a scene edited out of the final film (or not filmed at all--I actually have no idea), so that Bowren is simply there on the mission without explanation.  So I suppose in this one point, the comic book improves a little on the story.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Inner Sanctum: "The Judas Clock" 5/17/45

A particular clock will only run properly if its pendulums are weighted with the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot. Gee, there's no way that particular time piece could bring ill luck to any one, is there?

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sea Monsters on Pluto

Read/Watch 'em In Order #49

The nefarious Doctor Zarro has an unusual scheme for taking over the Solar System--convince the populace that a "Dark Star" approaching the system will destroy everyone and that only he--Doctor Zarro--knows how to save us all. This will create a panic reaction and mass protests that will sweep him into power.

And something is approaching the Solar System, though scientists cannot detect any significant mass to it despite its large visible size. But then scientists begin vanishing. Doctor Zarro announces that they are fleeing the Solar System because they know it is doomed. Only Zarro can save us!

This is the set up for "Calling Captain Future," the story that appeared in the second issue (Spring 1940) of his magazine. It's another fun entry in the series--like other Space Opera stories I've talked about in recent weeks it creates a fictional version of our Solar System that's so cool, it leaves you perpetually disappointed with real life space.

Captain Future, along with his odd companions (a disembodied brain; a shape-changing android; and a robot) investigate, hoping to find the truth before the frightened human race makes Zarro a dictator.

Of course, Zarro is kidnapping the scientists. Future manages to rescue one of them, along with Planetary Police agent Joan Randall. He then sets a trap, but this backfires and he is himself captured by Zarro's Legion of Doom.

From here, there's a mini-adventure in space when Future, Joan and the rescued scientist end up stranded in a Sargasso Sea of wrecked space ships, battling blood-sucking and multi-tentacled aliens. I find that interesting, because it recycles an idea Hamilton had used in the story "The Sargasso of Space," published in Astounding Stories in 1931.  (Though that story had space pirates rather than aliens as the antagonists.) Apparently, Hamilton like the general idea of a Sargasso Sea in space. And why not? An area in space where wrecked or stranded ships from centuries of space travel eventually drift together? That's a cool enough idea to use over again.

Eventually, various clues bring the Futuremen to Pluto. They need to find Zarro's base, which seems to be on one of Pluto's three moons. This leads to another series of action set pieces--escaping rapidly moving glaciers and fighting a sea monster on Pluto; escaping a prison riot on one of the moons; fighting a six-legged grizzly bear-like monster on another moon. While all this is going on, Simon Wright--the brain-in-the-box--is kidnapped. Eventually, Captain Future finds Zarro's base, but he and his men are all paralyzed by a gas that freezes your metabolism but leaves you fully aware of your surrounding environment. Well, except for Simon Wright, who doesn't breath. Zarro then simply sets him in a corner and unplugs his speech device. Oh, and Grag the robot doesn't breath either, does he? So his control circuit is severed.  The point is that the villain incapacitates all the good guys in such a way that there is no hope of escape. Doctor Zarro is not a nice person.

All seems doomed. But perhaps there is hope in the form of Grag the Robot's frightened metal-eating
pet. Eek the Moon-Pup might be the key to saving the Solar System.

The first Captain Future story was set primarily on Jupiter and was a lot of fun. This time, the action is set mostly on or near Pluto and its moons and the result is, I think, even more fun. The story is fast-paced, constructed around a series of action set-pieces, but also logically laying out the clues that the heroes must follow to find Doctor Zarro and deduce his real identity. Few writers did Space Opera better than Edmond Hamilton.

I mentioned Eek the Moon-Pup. This is the new addition to the cast and its easy to see where the idea comes from. Grag the Robot and Otho the Android are modeled after Doc Savage's companions Monk and Ham, who were always bickering with each other. Eventually, the two each got an unusual pet (a pig and an ape respectively), which they constantly used to further annoy each other.

Eek is Grag's pet and its metal-eating habits constantly annoy Otho, so the additional parallel to Doc is obvious. But there is a difference. As much as I love the Doc Savage stories, I will admit I always hoped those stupid useless pets would just eat each other and be done with it. But Eek is unusual enough to be interesting and Hamilton actually uses him a a key plot device. That's definitely a step up.

And, gee whiz, I love the idea of Pluto and its moons being habitable and populated by furry natives, sea monsters and six-legged grizzlies. Why isn't the real Solar System more like that? Stupid physics!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A-Whale Huntin' We Will Go!

Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy was the first adventure-themed comic strip. Written and drawn by Roy Crane, it actually began life in 1924 as a humor strip. But Crane was soon bored with coming up with gags every day and he gradually morphed his creation into an adventure story, albeit one that never lost its initial sense of humor. The main character--Washington Tubbs III--was soon joined by rough-and-tumble soldier-of-fortune Captain Easy. Together, the two bummed around the world, getting into one scrap after another.

In fact, even when they weren't looking for trouble, trouble would find them. In a 1933 story arc, the two are drugged and shanghaied aboard a whaling ship. Easy raises an objection to this, but the brutal first mate Mr. Slugg forces him to sign the articles.

So Wash and Easy become sailors. Their ship is not a happy one, though. The elderly captain is sick, allowing the sadistic mate Slugg to run things his way. His way isn't very nice.

Eventually, the ship does encounter whales, allowing our heroes to learn just how dangerous their new profession can be.

Things continue to get worse. Slugg eventually murders the captain. Wash is a witness to this, so Slugg takes the little guy ashore on a remote island and tosses him in a well. Easy rescues Wash and the two of them decide it's a good time for a mutiny.

By now there's a pretty girl involved in the adventure--because in the world of Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy it is quite impossible to go ashore on a remote island without practically tripping over a pretty girl. So after a pitched battle or two and some captures, escapes and recaptures, Wash, Easy and the girl find themselves tied up in a cabin while the ship burns around them. Fortunately Easy has good teeth, allowing him to engineer their escape and have a final showdown with Mr. Slugg.

Wash Tubbs was  a fantastic strip on so many levels. Crane was a great artist--his style on Wash Tubbs never lost an element of cartoony-ness left over from its humor-oriented beginnings, but that proved to be a strength once he began to tell adventure stories. Crane's tales were violent and often full of death and brutality. But the art style, though it was realistic enough to
generate a real sense of danger, also kept it from becoming unpleasantly graphic. No matter what, the yarns Crane spun were always full of pure fun.

And then there's his skill at composition--designing each individual panel so that every detail looked just right. He was a pioneer in the use of onomatopoeia sound effects. He used blacks and gray tones effectively to heighten drama. He choreographed action scenes as skillfully as did later artists such as Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko.

The whale hunting story arc is one of my favorites, not just because it's a typically well-told adventure story, but because it shows off Crane's skill as a visual storyteller. The whale hunting sequences, for instance, are particularly awesome. Watch the video below--one of a 5-part series I made for the library at which I work--for a better sense of just how skilled an artist Roy Crane was.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cover Cavalcade

I'd also back away from Zorro in this situation, so I don't feel critical of the soldier at all.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday's Favorite OTR

Voyage of the Scarlet Queen: "Fang Rubies and the Black Siamese"  1/14/48

While loading cargo in an Australian port, Captain Carney witnesses a murder. Solving that crime turns out to involve a black Siamese cat.

Click HERE to listen or download.

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