Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Dirty and Desperate Cop

Barney Nolan (Edmond O'Brien) has been a cop for 16 years and this has left him a cynical and sometimes brutal man. He hasn't always been living that far down the dark streets--his current partner--Mark Brewster (John Agar) is someone he took under his wing when Brewster was a kid and kept from a life of crime.

But now he's starting to jump over to the dark side on a big time level. When the 1954 film noir Shield for Murder begins, he's learned that a bookie is carrying $25 grand in cash. He gets the bookie into an alley, shoots him, takes the cash, then claims the guy made a break for it while being arrested.

His fellow cops, including Brewster, believe him at first. But a couple of sleezy private eyes working for a local crime boss show up looking for the money. Other holes appear in Nolan's story, not the least of which is in the form of a deaf-mute man who saw the murder from his window.

It's too bad for the deaf-mute guy that the detective he encounters when he comes to the station is Nolan. He only saw the killer from behind, so doesn't realize he's handing a note explaining that he's a witness to that very killer. That leads to yet another tragedy.

Nolan's life begins to unravel and his less-than-perfect crime drives him to acts of greater and greater desperation. And his partner--the young cop who sees Nolan as his mentor and perhaps his father figure--find himself in pursuit of the older cop. 

Shield for Murder, co-directed by O'Brien and Howard V. Koch, is a great-looking film. It doesn't break any new ground in its noir-ish look, but it does a fine job of giving us that look and wrapping a strong story around it. Barney Nolan is a great character, with the script and O'Brien's performance giving us a vivid portrait of someone who was once one of a good man, but is now gradually crossing one moral event horizon after another.

The rest of the cast is largely first-rate as well. Claude Akins is one of the sleazy private eyes and his shootout against Nolan around a crowded public pool is superb. John Agar as Brewster plays his part well. Agar was nearly always stiff when he had a lead role in a film, but he was generally pretty good in supporting roles such as this one. Marla English, who had a short but respectable career appearing mostly in B-movies, brings a nice sense of tragedy to her role as Nolan's girl, while Carolyn Jones is wonderful in a small role as a bar-fly.

 Here's the movie on YouTube, though if you have Amazon Prime, that print is the better one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Two Men and a Lion

cover art by Morris Gollub
 Dell Comics' Tarzan #11 (Sept-Oct 1949) lifts ideas from one of the original Tarzan novels and from the legend of Robin Hood, then uses this to tell an original story.

Written by Gaylord Du Bois and drawn by Jesse Marsh, "Tarzan and the Sable Lion" begins with the Ape Man encountering, unsurprisingly, a sable lion.

Tarzan encounters a lot of lions throughout his career, but he's particularly impressed with this feline's size and ferocity. So, after leading it on a merry chase for a time and saving a native warrior from ending up in the lion's belly, Tarzan sets to work establishing his dominance. Soon, the lion is his not-quite-tame pet.

This can't help but remind any self-respecting Tarzan fan of the 1922 novel Tarzan and the Golden Lion, in which the Ape Man trains a lion and makes it his not-quite-tame pet. The parallel is far from exact. The lion from the novel was found as an orphaned cub and the training process was much longer. But the parallel is there, nonetheless.

The Tarzan comics at the time existed in their own continuity--for instance, Tarzan and Jane have a young son they call Boy, much like in the movies but not at all like the books. But it is obvious from the common use of supporting characters taken from the books and a few other elements that Du Bois was familiar with the original novels and often drew on them for ideas. It's just a guess, of course, but I'd bet 25 cents that Du Bois was deliberately lifting an idea from the novels in this instance.

Then, he lifts an idea that must have been consciously taken from the Robin Hood stories. The parallel here is too exact to be anything but deliberate. Tarzan encounters a large warrior named Buto, who is an expert in throwing his knob stick and demands that Tarzan fight him before he'll allow the Ape Man to cross a river. They fight on a log bridge.

Gee whiz, it's only the lack of quarterstaves that keep this scene from mirroring the Robin Hood vs. Little John fight from legend.

I don't intend any criticism, by the way. Du Bois isn't plagiarizing. Rather, he's mixing familiar elements together in a new way to tell an entertaining and original story.

Tarzan defeats Buto, which turns out to be the best way to make friends with the big guy. (once again mirroring Robin and Little John). Buto leads Tarzan and the lion back to his village, only to find that it had been raided by slavers and the people captured. Tarzan, examining the tracks, realizes that Jane and Boy had been in the village and must also be prisoners.

The two humans and the lion track the slavers to their city. The ensuing adventure is entertaining, but flawed. The main problem is Tarzan and his friends effect the ensuing rescue too easily. With Buto knocking out guards and the lion threatening to eat anyone Tarzan will let him eat, the good guys free the slaves almost effortlessly.

Making their way to the sheik's home, they capture him, making him cough up gold as reparations for the village he destroyed.

They make a getaway with a large part of the sheik's wealth and everyone is saved.

It really does wrap up too easily and with an absence of tension. Du Bois was an great writer, but was off his usually excellent game this time. During the rescue, something should have gone wrong to make the adventure more challenging for Tarzan.

But, despite this, I like the story. Marsh will never be my favorite Tarzan artist, but he knew how to tell a story well and some of his panels are downright beautiful. But even more than that, the Tarzan/Buto/lion team was awesome--the inherent coolness of the three is such that it brings us into the story and allows us to enjoy it despite its flaws.

That's it for this time. Next week, Ben Grimm hops back a few decades to once again fight in World War II.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Richard Diamond: "House of Mystery Case" 12/10/49

Rick is hired to watch over a woman who must spend one more night in a large mansion in order to inherent her dead husband's fortune. It seems her husband is planning on returning from the dead.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Second Cyborg novel

Martin Caidin published the novel Cyborg in 1972. This was the beginning of the character better known now as the Six Million Dollar Man. Steve Austin is a former combat pilot and astronaut who suffers catastrophic injuries while working as a test pilot. He survives, with three limbs and one eye replaced with bionics. An intelligence organization called the O.S.O. begins using him as an agent, sending him on Cold War-style missions.

The book version of Steve was grounded a little more firmly in reality than the subsequent TV series. His limbs give him increased strength, speed and endurance, but he can't hit the 60 mph he was capable of on TV. Perhaps most significantly, his bionic eye does not give him sight, much less telescopic vision. Instead, it acts as a camera when this is needed on specific missions.

The first sequel, Operation Nuke, was published in 1973. I don't know the story behind this. I don't know if Caidin wrote it to cash off the popularity of the original novel or to cash in on the increased popularity of the character that the TV show would bring. In either case, he was a good storyteller and both the book Steve Austin and the TV Steve Austin have a lot of story potential in them.

Operation Nuke, though, is flawed, which is why I think its possible that Caidin turned it out quickly to cash in on the TV series. It's still good and the climax is great, but it does have a few pacing and plot problems.

The bad guys are an evil organization hiding their operation with the confines of a large, well-known corporation. And, boy, these guys are evil. They've gotten their hands on some nukes and, as the story opens, have been paid eighteen million dollars to nuke an African city.

Steve and a fellow agent are tasked with infiltrating the organization, though initially they have no idea who the bad guys are. This is where the novel is weakest. First, it takes over a third of the book before Steve's mission begins. Up to then, we've been following along with some of the bad guys and having the investigations of various intelligence organizations described to us. This is all good stuff, but we're here for the bionic guy.

Also, the plan for getting Steve and his partner into the evil organization depends on far too much dumb luck. Steve starts a fight while appearing on a talk show, making sure that his new status as a criminal is publically known right away. Then the two agents steal a 707 from Kennedy airport and fly across the Atlantic. They pretty much hope that the bad guys will hear about all this, realize Steve is a potential asset and move quickly to contact him.

This is indeed what happens, but its definitely a stretch.

Once Steve gets recruited, though, the novel picks up speed and gets really good. Another potential complaint here is that Steve doesn't have much reason to use his bionics through most of the novel, especially since he needs to keep his increased physical power a secret from his new "co-workers." But he slowly uncovers information about the organization and staves off several assassination attempts. The identity of a Russian spy inside the organization provides a really nifty plot twist.

The book's climax involves Steve tied to a chair with a ticking nuke in the room with him. This is where he finally gets to use some bionics, though this presents a problem. How does he use his bionic arm to snap his bonds without tearing out his real arm in the process? Having super strength on just one side can be a problem.

The villains in the novel are another strength--intelligent, cold-blooded and dangerous. They don't nuke people out of fanaticism or for political reasons, but simply to make money. It makes them interesting and leaves you really looking forward to their getting their cumuppance.

So Operation Nuke is worth reading. It's not as good as the excellent Cyborg, but its strengths out-weigh its weaknesses.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Kicking an Old Woman Off a Cliff

Jonah Hex is, without question, a brutal guy. But he is one of the good guys. Despite his casual attitude towards gunning down outlaws, he does usually shoot in self-defense after giving his opponents a chance to surrender. And, though he would probably never admit this to himself, he is a protector of the weak and innocent, especially women and children.

So, as violent as Jonah often is, we can trust that he would never do something especially cruel. Such as... oh, I don't know... kick a crippled old woman off a cliff.

Wait a minute. He actually did that once, didn't he?

Weird Western Tales #17 (April-May 1973) begins with a gang of outlaws robbing a bank, then blowing up that bank with dynamite, then killing the sheriff while making their getaway. Jonah is in town, but does not at first pursue the outlaws. When called to task for not interfering, he rudely but fairly wonders why the townspeople didn't take action themselves. After all, its their town.

A possibly violent confrontation is defused by the arrival of Judge Hatchet, a cigar smoking, wheelchair-bound old woman who runs the territory with an iron hand. She owned the bank and hires Jonah to pursue the outlaws.

With his usual combination of fast draw and clever tactics, he soon has the gang leader prisoner while killing remaining two outlaws. He takes his prisoner to Judge Hatchet, who has the villain strung up on a nearby tree within moments.
 Well, the Wild West was a brutal place and the outlaw leader was indeed a mass murderer. So far, so good. But Jonah soon learns that Judge Hatchet runs her territory in a rather dictatorial fashion. This includes having her three sons burn out and kill anyone who refuses to sell their crops or cattle to her at a very low price.

Jonah happens by a burning home and rescues a little girl from the flames. But he's too late to help the girl's father.

 When he learns the dead man's son has gone after Judge Hatchet, he immediately sets out to save the boy.

Take note that Jonah is a bounty hunter and didn't chase down the bank robbers until he was paid to do so. But now, despite his reputation as a cold-blooded and mercenary-minded killer, he is now acting on his own. He risked his life to save the little girl. He tried--however awkwardly--to give her some comfort when she asked about her dead pa. And now, he's rushing to save a boy he had met for only a few minutes.

Jonah Hex is one of the good guys. It would annoy him to no end if you told him this, but he clearly is.

He finds Judge Hatcher about to hang the boy, who had managed to shoot one of her three sons. Jonah objects to this by killing the remaining two sons. And when Judge Hatchet attempts to shoot him, he gives her wheelchair a nice, firm kick.

It's clear from Jonah's reaction that he didn't expect what happens next. When the the wheelchair starts to role back towards the edge of a cliff, he runs after it, trying to save the Judge. She is a totally evil woman and clearly deserves what is about to happen to her.

Heck, if the Judge had been a healthy man, Jonah would have let him fall without a qualm. He does not always object to vigilante justice.

But however evil Judge Hatchet may be, she's an old lady in a wheelchair. Jonah tries to save her, but can't quite get to her in time. Her clothing catches on a branch, snapping her neck.

Written by John Albano and beautifully drawn by Tony DeZuniga, "The Hangin' Woman" is an excellent Jonah Hex tale, full of both the violence and the reluctant compassion that defines that character.

Next week, it's back to Africa as Tarzan teams up with an African Little John and a barely tame lion to rescue his wife and son.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Edgar Rice Burroughs mini-podcast

Since Jess Terrell, Scott Stewart and I are only able to produce an Edgar Rice Burroughs podcast every two or three months, we've decided to occasional put out mini-podcasts talking about different aspects of ERB's universe. Here's the first one, about the awesome pets that ERB's heroes tend to acquire:

The audio only version can be found HERE

You can find all our podcasts HERE.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

Escape: "A Study in Wax" 2/1/53

This engrossing tale of two men working in an isolated location contains perhaps the best performance of William Conrad's remarkable career on radio.

Click HERE to listen or download.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Those Pesky Asteroid Pirates!

In 1951, Isaac Asimov was asked to write a juvenile science fiction novel that would also be the basis of television show. Asimov wrote the novel, but was concerned with the questionable quality of science fiction on TV of the time. So he used the pen name "Paul French."

The TV show fell through, but Asimov ended up turning out six Juveniles, all starring David "Lucky" Starr, a member of the Council of Science who saves the Solar System on a regular basis. The novels were eventually re-published under Asimov's name.

Much like Doc Savage and Captain Future, Lucky was an orphan raised by scientists who turned out to be brave, smart and able to kick butt when necessary. In the second novel of the series, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953), he needs to kick some pirate butt.

Lucky's parents had been killed by Asteroid Pirates 25 years earlier. Now there is a resurgence of this and Earth doesn't necessarily have the resources to deal with this, especially with the alien Sirians acting aggressively.

This leads into a great story in which Lucky at first tries to infiltrate the pirates. This doesn't work out as he hoped and he ends up in a duel with a particularly brutal bad guy. He eventually manages to get to an Earth base on Ceres, bringing with him a hermit who had been living on a small asteroid but had been forced to work with the pirates.

A pirate raid on Ceres ends with the hermit getting captured by the pirates, though there is no obvious reason that the pirates should consider him worth that much bother.

Lucky, though, is beginning to put facts together, figuring out various things including:

a. the identity of the leader of the pirates,
b. the existence of an asteroid base equipped with atomic motors with which to change orbits,
c. the economics of space piracy,
d. the identity of his parents' murderer,
e. and the existance of a plot by the Sirians to work with the pirates in an attack on the Solar System.

In the end, Lucky needs to catch a particular pirate ship to prevent a war. That ship, though, has a long head-start. To cut it off, Lucky has to take a short cut that brings him suicidely close to the Sun. But he has a trick up his sleeve that might help him survive this.

Like most Asimov protagonists, Lucky is very intelligent and able to think through problems in a logical manner, whether that involves deducing where an apparently disappearing asteroid has gone or figure out how to survive when tossed into space with a limited supply of oxygen in his space suit. His sidekick Bigman is a fun secondary protagonist and the action sequences are legitimately exciting. Asimov took care to present the Solar System realistically (according to what was known and theorized in the 1950s).

It's interesting to think about how often pirates end up infesting our Asteroid Belt. Buck Rogers (in a 1936 comic strip story line) and Captain Future (in a 1942 novel) both had problems with them and now here they are making Lucky Starr's life difficult. If humanity ever gets out to the asteroids in real life and we don't end up fighting pirates, I'm going to be very disappointed.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Yet ANOTHER Tragic Turok Story

cover art by George Wilson

Last time we looked at a Turok story, we witnessed some poor guy who befriended and helped Turok and Andar get tragically killed. I didn't plan it this way, but we are going to be visiting Lost Valley again and watch yet another one-shot character suffer a violent and tragic death. Lost Valley could be a depressing place.

Turok, Son of Stone #71 (October 1970) begins with Turok and Andar finding moccasin prints. As far as they know, they are the only two people in Lost Valley who use that particular footware (or any footware at all, for that matter). So perhaps there's another visiter from the outside world nearby?

This story, by the way, was written by the ubiquitous Paul Newman and drawn by the great Alberto Giolitti. Those two might have been the best combination in comic book history: Newman's expert story construction was always brought to life by Giolitti's wonderful visuals.

The two friends track the moccosin tracks. This involves an encounter with a stampeding herd of triceratops, but they persist and that night, contact the visitor via fire signals.

Andar, eager to find the mystery guy, runs towards the other fire in the dark and nearly gets chomped by a T-Rex. After that, he agrees with Turok to wait until morning, when it's relatively safe to travel. Andar usually acquits himself well, but there are times that he comes close to justifying the perception that he is a millstone around Turok's neck. This is one of those. When your older, smarter friend tells you that you'll get eaten if you run off into the darkness, Andar, just take his word for it!

Over the course of the next few pages, Turok and Andar find out what's going on. Another member of their tribe--named Crow Plume--had been dragged by a river current into the valley. By the time morning arrives, he's been captured by a cave tribe, who are intrigued by the idea of a land with easy-to-kill prey and no dinosaurs. But they've beaten poor Crow Plume so badly he's having trouble remembering where he washed up after being brought to the valley.

Turok and Andar capture a tribeman with plans to engineer a hostage exchange. In the end, the three Indians and the tribesmen all set out together to find the way out of the valley.

But poor Crow Plume is still a bit dazed and confused. He's having trouble finding the right spot and in fact...

...inadvertently leads everyone to a pterodactyl nest. The annoyed monsters quickly attack. In the meelee, Crow Plume is killed.

The tribesmen, though, don't want to give up their dream of a dinosaur-free lifestyle. They force Turok and Andar to search a nearby river for the exit. This leads to an encounter with a hungry plesiosaur and, soon after that, an attempt by the tribe to simply drown the two Indians. The right panel below is one of the creepiest images that family-friendly Gold Key ever gave us.

Turok generally thinks his way out of dangerous situations, but this time he and Andar are saved through simple dumb luck. Turok had killed the plesiosaur by stabbing it with a poison arrow. When the corpse of the monster comes to the surface, the tribesmen think they are about to be attacked and run off. Turok and Andar live to continue their search for a way home.

Gee whiz, there are some brutal moments in this one. I don't mean that as a criticism--everything that happens carries the story along in a logical manner. But it is indeed brutal. Crow Plume is a walking tragedy (lost in a monster-strewn valley, beaten into a daze, threatened with death and then pecked to death by pterodactyls) while the image of Turok being forced under the water by a caveman is pure Nightmare Fuel.

But, once again, all this fits this extremely well-told and visually beautiful story. The tale is exciting and dramatically satisfying, as well as teaching us an important lesson that is also emphasized in the last Turok story we reviewed: DON'T EVERY MAKE FRIENDS WITH TUROK AND ANDAR!

Next week, we'll visit with DC's Western hero Jonah Hex as he... pushes a wheelchair-bound old lady off a cliff?

Friday, August 2, 2019

Friday's Favorite OTR

The Lone Ranger: "A Conference with General Lee" 2/9/53

The Civil War on Old-Time Radio (Part 17 of 17)

The Ranger recruits the help of a rather well-known former Confederate general to help convince a group of Texans to halt their plans to re-ignite the Civil War.

Click HERE to listen or download.

This is the last of 17 episodes from various series that has taken us through the Civil War and its immediate post-war legacy.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Pusadian Tales, Part 1

cover art by Robert Gibson Jones

Read/Watch 'em In Order #104

Last year, I reviewed an L. Sprague de Camp novel titled The Tritonian Ring: a story set in a mythical, magic-drenched Bronze Age on the continent of Pusad--what we would call Atlantis. It was a fun novel, but is only one part of the Pusadian Cycle. There were eight short stories, most of them written in the 1950s and one in 1973, set a few generations after the events of the novel. These enormously entertaining stories--or at least the five or six I can get access to--will be the subject of our next Read/Watch 'em In Order series.

"The Eye of Tandyla" appeared in the May 1951 issue of Fantastic Adventures. In this tale, we meet Derezong Taash, a sorcerer who works for King Vuar the Capricious, who rules the kingdom of Lorsk.

All the names are like that, by the way. de Camp's stories remind me of Clark Ashton Smith's Weird Fiction, set in a misty past before recorded history began, with names that twist the tongue, obscure word choices (why say the king is bald when you can say he's "glabrous"?) that make sentences sound cool and a dry and often laugh-out-loud sense of humor. This last is present in only some of Smith's stories, but it is there.

But when I posted a question about this on a Facebook group about L. Sprague de Camp, a guy who knew him was kind enough to answer. de Camp liked Smith's work and, in fact, wrote an essay about him. He did not, though, ever cite him as an influence.

I still see a similarity here, but I guess its more of a coincidence than a direct influence. But wherever the seeds for the Pusadian tales sprang from, they are wonderful stories.

Derezong Taash likes his job. He has a set of beautiful concubines, access to rare books and... well, no real job security. He has to worry about political infighting, which in this context means an assassin's knife or poison in his cup.

And he has to worry about King Vuar, who really is capricious. When the king's #1 concubine wants a particular jewel, reputed to have significant magical powers, Vuar sends his minister of commerce to buy it from the temple at which its kept. When the minister fails, Vuar beheads him. So when Darazong is ordered to simply steal the jewel, he realizes its a job at which he dare not fail.

Darazong and his perpetually grouchy apprentice Zhamel Seh set out to get the jewel, which leads them into a series of dangerous and rather annoying adventures. They come up with a plan that lets them steal the jewel, then realize they were allowed to steal it because it is somehow going to be used against King Vuar.

So they come up with a plan to put it back where they found it, though this means they would go home empty-handed. Knowing Vuar might violently object to this, they come up with yet another plan to steal a near-identical jewel and then just lie to the king about what it it. This, in turn, leads to a situation involving the summoning of a powerful demon and a wild sword fight. Darazong, pudgy and an indifferent swordsman, is out of his element here, but still manages to pull off a clever ploy and--perhaps--save the day.

The story is fast-paced, full of great characters and carried along by clever prose and dialogue. The next story will introduce a regular protagonists to the Pusadian tales, so we don't get to meet Darazong again. That's too bad. He might not have been the most competent sorcerer on Pusad, but I kinda liked him nonetheless.

You can read the story online HERE.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dead Man's Diary

Gold Key's comic book version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never hit the same tongue-in-cheek vibe that the original TV series always had, but it featured the same sort of strong plots and action that were also a trademark of the early seasons of the show.

The 12th issue (May 1967--writer unknown; art by Mike Sekowski) is a good example of this. It's a great yarn, typical of the skillfully told stories that Gold Key regularly gave us.

"The Dead Man's Diary Affair" starts with a THRUSH agent faking his death. Alex Devoe is a master of disguise used by THRUSH to deliver cash payments to its agents around the world. But Devoe decides to go into business for himself, faking his death in a plane crash and disappearing with a half-million dollars of THRUSH cash.

At first, the heads of THRUSH assume Devoe was killed in the crash and that the money burned. But Devoe knows that it won't be long before they figure out he's alive. For Devoe to live long enough to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, he needs to destroy THRUSH before they destroy him.

And what better way to do this than to enter UNCLE headquarters in disguise, replace Mr. Waverly (UNCLE's leader) with himself and then use UNCLE's best agents and his own diary--full of information on THRUSH activities--to destroy the evil organization.

It's a strong plot concept and even includes an explanation for why Devoe doesn't just send UNCLE the diary and let them do the work of dismantling THRUSH on their own. He wants to be personally sure the bad guys are destroyed and also wants the personal satisfaction of overseeing the process himself.

Solo and Kuryakin check out a lead from the diary, which leads to the capture of a race car driver who was smuggling gold. With this confirmation that the diary's information is accurate, the two agents take off on a multi-nation montage, dismantling several THRUSH operations.

 Finally, "Mr. Waverly" joins his top agents when they prepare to raid a conclave of THRUSH leaders. But here his plan starts to unravel. Though his disguise skills have made him Waverly's physical double, he doesn't have Waverly's speech patterns and personality down exactly. Soon, Kuryakin begins to have doubts and sends a request back to New York to thoroughly search the headquarters.

In the meantime, THRUSH has spotted the UNCLE agents and arranged an ambush. Solo survives, but "Waverly" is killed. Much to Solo and Kuryakin's relief, the real Mr. Waverly is found tied up in a closet back at HQ.

There are a few minor quibbles with the story. It's a little too dialogue-heavy and it seems unlikely that Waverly could be tied up in a room at UNCLE headquarters for what must have been days without someone stumbling over him. But these are indeed quibbles. Overall, the story has a strong, internally logical plot, exciting action and an effective villain in Alex Devoe.

Next week, we return to Lost Valley for yet another visit with Turok and Andar.
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