The Shadow #229 – Gems of Jeopardy

shadow_magazine_vol_1_229So, as the well-informed know, there are around three hundred and eighty-odd Shadow stories, written over a period of eighteen years. The vast majority were written by The Shadow’s original creator, Walter B. Gibson, under the penname Maxwell Grant, but there were several other authors who were pinch-hitters as well. Lester Dent (the Doc Savage guy) wrote a handful, and some hack named Bruce Elliott wrote the last twentyish novels after Gibson was fired. I haven’t reached those yet, but I’m assured they’re dreadful. Anyhow, after Gibson, the best of The Shadow’s authors was Theodore Tinsley, a pulp novelist.

I use the term deliberately. Gibson wrote his stories with ceaseless crossings between genres–sometimes straight-up mystery, sometimes proto-superheroic, sometimes gothic melodrama, sometimes hardboiled gangster noir–to the point where The Shadow is almost its own genre in itself. Tinsley, on the other hand, wrote pulp fiction and was proud of it. Although he approximates Gibson’s handling of the characters remarkably well, Tinsley is cruder than Gibson–in plot, in execution…and in taste. Stay tuned, we’ll get there when we get there.

A little more discussion before we get into the plot. The Shadow had been around over ten years (and two hundred twenty-eight previous volumes) at this point, and had run a huge gamut of foes, from corrupt board members to evil aviators, corrupt politicians in distant cities, backwoods intrigues, underwater mad scientists, desert mad scientists, swamp mad scientists, isolated ancestral castle mad scientists, evil psychologists, more evil-overlord-wannabes complete with secret societies than you can shake a stick at, several would-be world emperors, and…thugs trying to hijack armored cars. The audience has seen quite a lot, to the point where it would be difficult to top–and futile to try. It’s hard to take the narrator’s breathless assertion that this car chase through Manhattan, or this jewel robbery, or this attempt to hostilely take over a company is the most daring, dangerous, and brilliant of The Shadow’s career when…it’s really not, come on. We’ve seen him take on Doctor Moquino, Zemba, and Zanigew…some dude wearing a mask of his own face really kind of doesn’t compare.

But, if that sounds like “The Shadow is now boring,” please continue reading, because that is definitely not the case. Gibson and his editorial cohort seemed to recognize this, and, I think deliberately, made them simple again. Throughout the later part of 1941 (or at least, the last handful of books I’ve read, which I’m plugging through in numerical order), the high-concept dramatics have been backed down a notch in favor of simpler, lower-key–but no less interesting, and no less intense–stakes. 

Okay, so that being said, what’s the plot?

Well, first there are a couple of murders, a burned-down house, and a map which has had the Atlantic coastline ripped away. That’s for starters. Then there’s Jerome Linton, a business acquaintance of Lamont Cranston’s, whom he and Margo Lane witness dumping an already-dead body to fake a hit-and-run accident…

Twelve boxes of jewels have been smuggled into America by the brutal, treacherous ex-Balkan Colonel and his beautiful, but absolutely no less brutal and treacherous wife, Princess Zena. They have no sooner disposed of anyone else who could identify them, when they are confronted by the sinister Mr. X, who, somehow forewarned of their (money’s) arrival, has laid an ambush. Zena sacrifices her husband and escapes, but with a burning hatred of Mr. X and a no less burning desire to get her jewels back. So she murders a woman and steals her clothes and car and drives off…

Meanwhile, The Shadow is looking into Jerome Linton and the links between him and the previous murders. He’s aided (surprisingly competently) by a roster of his agents: Harry Vincent, Hawkeye, Moe Shrevnitz, Clyde Burke, and Margo Lane. And when I say “surprisingly competently,” I mean Harry Vincent doesn’t even get captured and tortured through any fault of his own! I mean, yes, that is him on the cover, sure, but it wasn’t actually his fault! Margo Lane and Moe Shrevnitz make an actual competent team in following their suspects! They do need rescuing, uh, twice…but they’re under cover and shooting back gamely when The Shadow arrives! Clyde Burke…actually doesn’t do anything himself, but he supposedly lends his face for The Shadow to press an interrogation. (I have a dubious here, because Clyde has been described as small and wiry; The Shadow, master of disguise that he is, is very tall. And it isn’t a phone interview. Anyhow.) Soon enough, a $50,000.00 satchel of jewels and a notorious fence make their appearance.

And so it goes.

So, yes, Margo Lane has finally turned up in-novels, and her presence is not a negative. Mostly because having an actual damsel on the team makes Harry Vincent automatically 83% less likely to end up in the “distressed damsel” role of the novel. But, barring a few false starts, she’s shaping up to be a competent agent in her own right, cool under pressure, good with a gun, and surprisingly resourceful.

The other standout character from this novel is its principal antagonist, Princess Zena. She’s a brunette with shapely (we are often reminded) legs….on one of which, tucked into her garter in a flat leather sheath, is a razor-sharp knife that she has great expertise and zero hesitation in using. She’s managed to survive the war-torn disruption of her native (carefully unnamed) country; she’s survived the exile from it (by shoving her husband into an assassin’s bullet and then faking her own death in quicksand); and she’s utterly determined to find revenge and her twelve boxes of stolen crown jewels. She’s utterly ruthless, but she’s also intelligent, charismatic, and enormously proactive throughout the story….by which I mean she has a body count almost as high as Mr. X’s by the time they finally meet, and there’s an actual villain-versus-villain duel which is kind of just awesome.

And that’s about all I have to say, because that really should be enough. This book is kind of just awesome: it’s correctly paced, and the stakes are just high enough; it’s well-characterized, with almost all The Shadow’s agents getting a chance to shine (or bleed) (….sigh); the action scenes, while definitely gorier than the norm, could still pass muster by the Hayes’ Code and are fast and satisfying. There’s a number of good villains, an underground lair (this one includes bonus waterfall), and The Shadow scaring the crap out of some henchmen when, in that hidden and secure base, eerie laughter begins to echo

Rated: I forgot to to mention, while in that lair he uses their phone to call Burbank, too. Awesome.

Iron and Magic – Ilona Andrews – repost review

ironmagic-900TLDR: ….here’s the thing: books rate differently depending on what genre they are—and I can’t decide what genre this book is.

If it’s a romance, it’s a solid 5/5: it has a romance in the A-plot, but it also has an actual A-plot that doesn’t completely fall apart once the main pair start sleeping together.

If it’s a standard pseudo-medieval fantasy, it’s a 3/5: it has warlords who seem genuinely dangerous and leaders who lay plans and think ahead, act like leaders rather than 20th-century office workers.

If it’s a post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller, it’s a 2/5…because, damnit, that’s the setting, and therefore that’s the genre by default, right? But it kept slipping into stupid romance-novel cliches, or dumb fantasy cliches, or dumb Hollywood cliches, and insulting its own intelligence in the process.

Pros/Cons: My likes and problems with this book are the same as with the Kate Daniels series: it’s at its best when it focuses on the worldbuilding and characterization….and yet it resolutely doesn’t play to its strengths and eventually just gives up and coasts on a smooth lane of cliche.

Plot: Hugh d’Ambray, after failing once too many times at doing whatever he was supposed to do to Kate in the previous series (still not sure about that, and, it seems, so is Hugh), was placed on administrative leave by his ex-boss Roland (an evil demigod.) Hugh proceeds to get very drunk. Ex-boss has also decided to thin out those among his men who might be more personally loyal to Hugh than to him. These eventually get back with Hugh and demand he do something about it. So: Hugh has a small army, but no home base, no supplies, allies, or resources. Elara, leader of The Departed (no, they don’t explain it either), has a castle, farmlands, and four thousand people to protect….but somehow doesn’t have anyone to do the protecting. She and Hugh contract a marriage alliance. They also immediately fall in hate with each other (rather strangely, because there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it….other than The Romance Plot Requires It), and spend the rest of the book bickering until they finally fall into bed.

Why does The Bailey of The Departed need protecting? Because Roland’s new warlord, Landon Nez, is expanding his territory throughout the Midwest, and small magical communities like Elara’s are his direct targets. So Hugh must fortify Bailey (his battle for use of the bulldozers is one of the most relatable…*wince*…parts) and prepare for the coming fight. Meanwhile, there’s also supernatural weirdos in strange armor systematically attacking and slaughtering the nearby settlements…who also happen to be anti-magic bigots who won’t accept the help of Them Thar Dad-gum Magical Folk, You Can’t Trust ‘Em None (Throw Some Rocks, That’ll Learn ‘Em To Stay Away.) I’m being entierly serious.

So, worldbuilding: I really liked these bits. Like, how do you dig a seventy-five by ten foot moat and make it waterfast? Well, bulldozers, and then line it with concrete. But where are you going to get the volcanic ash for the Roman concrete? And who’s paying for the fuel? And your precious moat is lower priority than our sewer system, and the concrete isn’t setting right so did you waste our money? And what, oh, you want generators now? You’re pulling people off the maintenance crew now? Where are we going to get the fuel for the generators and what if we need those men for the gardens? Yep. YYYYYUP. (I recounted this part to one of the maintenance leads at my first job. He wanted to know what the book was and why the author was mocking him.)

But then for the main conflict they use the laziest device ever: the keystone army that dissolves when you kill the queen. The authors needed a Danger to provide exciting action sequences, but needed it not to be too difficult, since the heroes have limited options and resources. Instead of spending some brainpower to come up with a suitable threat–say, roving band of warlocks from Canada; or a nearby settlement that decides Bailey is now a threat and wants to cripple them preemptively; or The Pack, or the IRS, or something–we get mind-controlled Neanderthals, from nowhere, without context, any kind of buildup or backstory, nothing. BORING. BOOOOOORING. Oh, and can you guess that once you take down the queen the rest of the threat stops in its tracks? SUUUUUPER BORING. Ugh.

Characters: I have better things to say about the characters. All two and a half of them.

Hugh has to play a double role of warlord and romantic hero; but here’s the thing. A warlord isn’t going to be a hard bastard all the time; he has to have charisma, he has to demonstrate intelligence, and he has to be able to sweet-talk or reassure the people he can’t intimidate. I’d actually say that they hit the mark with this: Hugh’s code-switching is done perfectly, and you get a man whom men will trust immediately. Also dogs and kids. (Although the little girl was a bit of an overkill). And, given his powerset–he’s an immensely strong healer, as well as a master swordsman–he’s fun to watch in a fight…theoretically. There aren’t really as many good fight scenes as there ought to be. (Post apocalypse? Fights. Thriller? Fights. Romance novel? No fights.) As far as his character arc, it’s nothing new; we know he’s going to snap out of his drunken funk just as surely as we know he’s going to shape up into the man our heroine can sleep with; and we know he’s going to protect the Bailey and not back down. This isn’t a problem. Tropes are tools, and as long as they are used right–as they are here–it’s satisfying to read.

Elara Harper is also a pretty good heroine: a thoughtful, cunning leader who values life despite the rumor that her people engage in human sacrifice and that she’s the host of some kind of eldritch abomination from the elder days that not even Roland wants to cross…and even with this, she’s hampered by, again, the romance-genre tropes. Instant dislike to her new husband? Check. (I even re-read the scene again. There really is no reason for them both to start breaking out the insults while in the middle of negotiating for their people’s lives). “Fiery” personality that engages in charged bickering with her significant other? Check. Goes to extra lengths to keep him off because she’s really attracted? Check. Actually very soft-hearted and caring underneath? Check. Is any of this a problem? No; tropes are tools. These are just a little more obvious than they should be, and I noticed them a little easier.

Minor characters, such as boisterous, blunt berserker-bro Bale (I wonder if that is exactly what the author’s notes say about him) and the deaf-mute advisor girl who communicates in sign language (because she’s a banshee), remain minor but shouldn’t have. This is where the romance-genre tropes work against the book, by focusing things too much on the main duo rather than letting others get time in the limelight.

Action: is OK. My current gold standard for action writing is Larry Correia’s stuff. Hugh being someone who can heal himself or even his opponent as he fights is something that might come in handy for writing a really brutal fight scene….yeah, no. Well, again; if we call this a romance novel and not a post-apocalyptic thriller, then this isn’t a problem. (WHAT GENRE IS THIS BOOK?! It’s so good when it’s not a romance!)

The other problem is the use of that the really stupid Hollywood cliche “only the hero can do anything heroic on-camera.” It’s a cliche that shouldn’t be here, just by the book’s own logic.–there’s quite a bit of setup of how Hugh’s Iron Dogs work, are disciplined and competent…and should be able to do things like send out patrols and investigate suspicious happenings and report back to their boss, who is having dinner with some bigwigs and should have no reason whatsoever to be wandering around outside, getting in a fight with random monster scouts.

I will favorably mention one scene I thought particularly good: it’s simple, no frills, no magic, nothing fancy…just a child, a monster, a woman, and a shotgun, in a room.

Humor: is used deftly. “You’re handsome, a big, imposing figure of a man, and um…” Lamar scrounged for some words. “And they’re desperate.” Even the slap-slap-kiss romantic bickering is more amusing than annoying. Oh, and the post-apocalyptic wedding having an official DJ, photographer, and videographer? Pretty good. Preparing to host a self-proclaimed Viking with “one of those big barrels filled with beer, trust me, it works every time?” Hilarious. Like I said, the worldbuilding is one of the strengths of this book, and that includes throwing in funny, as well as verisimilitudinous, details whenever you can. If only the authors had done it more.

In conclusion: I liked this book enough to read it in one sitting, write 1500-odd words about it, and, four years later, have not read the next one and never will unless someone pays me.

Rated: What genre is it?! Really!

ReReview: Female on the Beach (1955)

025192118982OH MY GOSH LADY CALL THE COPS. (throw him out first). (and before that, make him give you back his key.) (and then, buy a gun.) OH MY GOSH. This isn’t going to end well.
EFF OFF, YOU CREEPY LITTLE F*CKER!

Although it’s no wonder he’s got an inflated opinion of himself, if he knows he’s able to drive women to attempted murder-suicide and this isn’t even a chick he slept with….this really isn’t going to end well.

Ladies, when you are talking to a creepy little f*cker, even if he’s managing to be less creepy and explain himself, DO NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BEING QUOTE RUDE UNQUOTE. Especially when he’s explaining to you that he’s a gigolo who is chasing you for your money and oh yes he was involved with the previous tenant, who, BY THE WAY, fell to her death mysteriously FROM YOUR BALCONY. Two days ago. I mean, seriously, they haven’t even fixed the railing yet, good grief!

(This isn’t going to end well.)

Zing! I like this detective. He’s going to be the guy who picks up all the pieces afterwards, isn’t he? (Unless he’s the AKTUAL MURDERER, but I doubt that.)

EFF OFF YOU CREEPY LITTLE F*CKER! AND TAKE YOUR PUSHERS WITH YOU…oh good, she sent them packing. BUT NOT HIM, SHEESH LADY. Oh, this isn’t going to end well….Oh. Kay. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.

Getting zinged by the cleaning lady: you ain’t doing well.

Lady, that’s just embarassing. All that? At your age?

OKAY, the detective is definitely smelling fishy, and it isn’t because of the shark hook.

Okay, we have now progressed to a) romantic bridal carrying, b) the detectives now have binoculars. What the heck is up with this movie?

You pimps are annoying.

I’m on Team Detective….

This scene in its native tongue:
– Meow grr hiss.
– Meow?
– Hissss
– Meow, mew, mew, licks paw.
– HISS! HISSSS YOWL GRRRR! YOWL!
– licks paw, cleans ear, licks paw again: mew?
Hissssss, flicks tail, leaves, tail still flicking.
As entertaining as that was, in hindsight, it’s kind of obvious that the writers didn’t actually know how to end this script and were fishing around for an actual villain.

AGGH GROSS IT’S A KISSING SCENE FAST FORWARD IT ewww!

Ugh you pimps are really annoying. Ahaha. Gosh. That guy’s even more of an obvious loser than Drummond is.

Okay, explain to me how you managed to knock him all the way to the floor with one slap? He’s a foot taller than you and made of stacked muscle. Seriously? You also gave him a concussion??

Gah, I really hate you catty lady. Oh no! She switched them! She set them up it was her doing OH MY GOSH!

Oh, and the detective is watching.

(Oh whew she’s okay. ((How did she make it out the water without even getting her hair wet?)))

Ugh gross it’s another kissing scene.

Well, that was underwhelming. I expected someone was going to die.

Rated: it’s a romance, we’ll be generous. 3/5 stars.

Gunsmoke (1953) – Movie reReview

gunsmoke-movie-poster-1953-1020199995Audie Murphy and Susan Cabot, who collaborated at least two other times, in Duel at Silver Creek and Ride Clear of Diablo, are the leads in this lightweight but thoroughly well-made and entertaining movie. Also in it is Charles Drake, the white knight to Audie’s black knight in No Name on the Bullet. All of those are extremely good movies. Just about all of Audie’s works are on the + side of B or at least the – side of A.

This one is an easy A if you ask me.

So, this one is about a young gun, Reb Kittridge, drifting into Billings after having made a quick and escape from Johnson County. He’s got a job lined up in Billings, but the situation grows rapidly murky when someone takes a potshot at him before he even gets into town, he meets the daughter of his presumptive target, Rita Saxon (Cabot), and then declines a gunfight with Old Man Saxon (since he hasn’t actually been formally hired yet.) This sort of behavior endears him greatly to Old Man Saxon–who used to be a hellraiser himself, and remembers what it was like to be a young gun who wants out and just needs a leg up…

Anyhow, the bad guy wants the Saxon ranch; Saxon doesn’t want to sell; Kittridge kind of wants to be done with this whole gunslinging business, blah blah blah…so Saxon “loses” his ranch to Reb in a game of cards (“complete with morgage,” heh.)

So now, the burden of the plot is on Audie to get his cattle to market by hook or by crook, with Telford (the bad guy) breathing down his neck and Rita’s bushwacking fiance also causing trouble. Also, Reb’s erstwhile friends have now become business rivals and are now trying to murder him. Better yet, the Saxon ranch genuinely is in a peck of trouble, mortgaged, facing a tight deadline, and low on men and beef both (“That’s your problem, son.” Hehhh.) Oh yeah, and there isn’t even enough money to make payroll for all the men who are about to quit, HAH.

And even better still, Miss Saxon is not at all pleased with the change of management in her home.

And so the fun begins…

– It’s actually kind of a bad look to be picking a fight with a man six inches shorter than you, Curly…
– That being said, Audie (briefly) going berserk on some stuntmen is a definite highlight.
– Rita in some really 50s’ underwear and an incredibly pointy bustier, is also, as Kittridge points out, also worth looking at. I mean…corsets, man. Just…corsets.
– Old Man Saxon has a pretty good role, fatherly, calm, and stalwart…but also slyly running the whole show from the back seat the whole damn time.

There really isn’t all that much more to say about this movie, other than it’s well-written, is acted with distinction and great prowess, moves quickly, is fun and occasionally, genuinely clever. It’s a credit to its genre and you ought to give it a watch.

Rated: See ya round, Johnny.

Primarily, Avatar

Dracula (1979) – Frank Langella as Count Dracula, Donald Pleasance as Dr. Seward, Lawrence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing. I actually watched this a couple weeks ago and was favorably impressed. I might add that I had a fever at the time, but as adaptations that senselessly change things go, this was still fairly….dignified. Olivier and Langella both do very well. Jonathan Harker also has a prominent role that would have been even better if he had been framed as, y’know, the hero.

– My Cousin Rachel (1952) – Eh.

– Shadow of the Vampire  (?) – I watched a bit of this and then wandered back off, it missed the mark.  The vampire actor asking for more makeup was amusing, though.

– I’ll stick this one here because otherwise it might get missed: Tower of Silence – Larry Correia – the 4th book in his Saga of the Forgotten Warrior – has been released in eARC form. This is an un-copyedited, un-modified draft as directly turned by by Correia to his publisher, so there were some noticeable spelling glitches, etc; the official release is in April of this year. Without getting into spoilers: this book is excellent, mostly because it is the beginning of the end. Answers are beginning to show up; the plot is starting to coalesce; Crown, Mask, and Demons are assembling; Voice and Priest are in position, and the General is on his way. Now, if there wasn’t that small problem of Thera’s not quite-ex-enough-husband showing up….

– Avatar: the Way of Water (2022) – I watched about 1.5~2 hours of this and got bored and left. It’s extremely pretty, yes. If you ever wanted to watch a nature documentary set on a hostile world, this is the movie for you. Watch it in theatres. Oh, also, I liked Quarich (the rough, tough, super-macho military bad guy) way, way, wayyyyy better than any other character in the entire movie…first movie, and second. Neytiri actually also wasn’t bad? Surprisingly. Also-also, the military-Na’vi avatars wearing Oakleys cracked me up. Anyhow, I didn’t like the movie because:

  • It’s extremely dumb. (Y no bulletproof glass in your helicopters? NO, SERIOUSLY, WHY DO YOU NOT HAVE BULLETPROOF GLASS IN ANY OF YOUR VEHICLES? I CANNOT EMPHASIZE ENOUGH THAT THEY DO NOT HAVE BULLETPROOF GLASS IN THEIR MECHAS, HELICOPTERS, MAGLEV TRAINS, OR SUPERGIANT BULLDOZERS. ON AN ALIEN PLANET WITH AN ACTIVE INSURRECTION…..WHY?!?! Why send small guerilla force unfamiliar with local hostile terrain to combat large guerilla force familiar with terrain and extremely hostile? Y not have anti-flying hostile bird guns mounted on important stuff, like trains? Why are your trains transporting weapons that the guerillas can take and use against you, excuse me, WHAT. The brain, it melts trying to comprehend the stupidity of the scriptwriters, who think that this is logical behavior for functional human beings.)
  • The story, such as it is, is also extremely poorly thought out. The leader–the warleader , without whose tactical knowledge any resistance against the more high-tech opponent will fail–runs away with his tail literally between his legs when his family is threatened. Not: he sends his family away to safety and stays himself. Not: he whups the snot out of his dumbass teenagers who walked themselves and the younger kids directly into a trap. No, he abandons his post, his people who rely on him (and wasn’t he the one who started the all-out war in the first movie, anyway?), and he runs away to go swim with the fishes. Meanwhile, humans–who have functional FTL travel, and cryosleep–have decided that a marginally habitable planet WITH AN UNBREATHABLE ATMOSPHERE AND ALSO INTELLIGENT ALIENS PERFORMING AN ACTIVE, VIOLENT INSURRECTION  is going to be the new home of humanity. Guys. Guys. Find another planet and move the fuck on.
  • It appears that unobtanium is no longer a thing.
  • It’s anti-human propaganda. I could rant about this for a while, but: it’s anti-human propaganda. There is no greater condemnation. Do not consume.
  • Unless you really, really, want to watch the pretty. Traitor.

How to catch up on your chinese dramas

maxresdefault“So the heroine is in a spot where she has to die in about three days so she can be reincarnated as her immortal self, but there’s this one guy who is in love with her as a mortal and he’s like, ‘No way, nuh-uh, no one’s taking you.’ But if she doesn’t die, she’s going to be screwed because they’re going to take away the thing that’s keeping her original self alive and give it back to the hero because he gave up his heart for the other thingy and he’s going to die if he doesn’t get it back soon.”
“So we want her to die.”

“Yeah, she has to die, but she’s worried because she doesn’t actually know that and she’s thinking the hero only liked her for her past self. But the guy who likes the heroine as a mortal is up to his eyeballs in this other plot. He wants to get revenge on this other guy who is down in the spirit world right next door to hell–but not quite there, he’s not actually fully dead–and they hate him so much they’re going to bring him back from there just so they can kill him properly this time. And if they do that, there’s a chance that the demon king will be able to come back from hell, too, which is why they sent the heroine to Earth in the first place, so she’ll die and the demon king won’t be able to come back. Also, the guy everyone hates is her grandfather and her mother just jumped into the spirit world abyss to get away from the people who had her and bumped into him down there.”

“…”

“And the reason the mother had to jump into the abyss is because she was rescued by the guy who is in love with her adopted daughter, who is kind of a psycho–but she’s very cute–and, uh, she wasn’t rescued well enough.”

“You lost me again.”

“Yeah, I love hearing about this show from Riders because I can follow it in bits and then she says something else and it stops making sense again.”

“Well, they were going to use the mother to open the gate of hell, but now they’re probably going to have to use the heroine. Except that the person who is trying to open the gate is the guy who likes her and doesn’t want her to die. And then there’s the bit with the heroine’s older sister and the hero’s younger brother. They’re having a romance and it’s very funny and cute, but it’s on hold because the brother got turned to stone for a thousand years.”

“…Oh, okay then!”

“Oh yeah, and then there’s this evil girl who is in love with the hero and she’s making aaall the wrong decisions. She’s awful.”

“See, now I’m completely caught up. I can jump in at episode forty-nine and be just watchin’ right along with you.”

(Start here)

Movie (re)Review – Best of the Badmen (1951)

Best of the Badmen was released in 1951, is a Western, and stars Robert Ryan, Claire Trevor, and Walter Brennan, in case you needed to know any of that.

11104

This movie was indecisive.

It’s got good filming/staging/cinematography. (Look, I am easy to please. If the colors are pretty and there are lots of them, I am happy.) It’s got good fight choreography (Robert Ryan was a collegiate boxer and knew how to throw a punch). It’s got some pretty top-notch actors–Walter Brennan in particular underplays his usual humorous old-timer role with an almost villainous edge, to interesting effect. On the other hand, there are times when the actors–especially Robert Ryan–nail their parts effortlessly, and then there are times when they don’t. If they’d all gone full-throttle, all the time, it might have smoothed over the deficiencies of the script and made it better overall.

Anyhow, it’s also got an intriguing concept for a plot: post the Civil War, the man (Jeff Clanton, Robert Ryan) who brings in Quantrill’s Raiders (you know–Jesse James and the like) peacefully, is double-crossed or outfoxed or whatever, by the evil carpetbagger-slash-Pinkerton, Fowler. Fowler wants the rewards on the Jameses and Youngers; when Clanton refuses to hand them over, has him found guilty of murder in a kangaroo court and sentenced to hang. However, after Mrs. Fowler (Claire Trevor) breaks him out of jail and he hooks up with the outlaws, the once peaceable Clanton is hell-bent for revenge on Fowler. (Only Fowler–he doesn’t care about the money.) Also, Mrs. Fowler has also taken refuge in the outlaw town–incognito–and hooks up with Clanton. Dum-de-dum, something something outlaw raid, oh, and maintain your humanity and let’s escape to Mexico but not until I. Get. Fowler.

So you can see there is much that could be of interest there. However, it’s got a script that doesn’t quite pull together as well as it should, and can’t decide whether it is going to be dumb but competent and occasionally witty, or dumb but moralizing and dramatic. It settles on dramatic….and dumb.

Pros: The characters are well-sketched. Walter Brennan, playing an antiheroic twist on his usual role, is quite good. Even the outlaws, who usually would be consigned to a surly bunch in the background, are fairly distinctive and have a certain amount of personality. Claire Trevor (rather zaftig and looking glam in period costume) does fine in an ambiguous but also slightly underwritten role. Jack Beutel, as the sidekick, is good at being A Good Kid.–which, if that name sounds vaguely familiar, yes indeed he was Billy the Kid in the 1943 horrorshow The Outlaw. He’s wayyyyy better in this movie. [This is not difficult.]

Cons: The script is a lot stupider than it needs to be and there is the distinct impression at points that the actors knew it, too. Oh, and the ending is abrupt, moralistic, and pretty darned unsatisfying. Other than that, it’s a good little movie.

Rated: Oh, and Robert Ryan has a shirtless scene.

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

9780141439846So, there are several things that jump out about reading the OG Dracula novel.

One is that it would be really, really cool to see a movie adaptation of this book that is actually an adaptation of this book. It’s somewhat famously been stated that most adaptations are of the stage play, and now most are just straight-up based on previous movie adaptations, what’s a stage play?

Jonathan, Seward, and especially Mina are the main narrators of this novel, and they’re quite interesting protagonists in their own right: Jonathan is intelligent but naive, and develops into a man of absolute will and iron nerve, fired by the need to protect his beloved wife and avenge his own hurts. Seward is cool and analytical, but not nearly as much as he wants to be or thinks he is, and struggles with things outside of the settled science that he understands. And Mina is very much the unsung heroine who glues the plot together…and provides much-needed brainpower at times.

It would also be cool for said faithful adaptation to focus on the horror of vampirism, rather than the OMG DID YOU KNOW VAMPIRISM IS A CODE FOR THE SEX? TEE HEE angle that every. single. movie. and the thrice-damned urban fantasy genre in general ever has gone in necks-deep for. Yes, there is a definite aspect of addictive pleasure to vampirism: Jonathan has a moment of temptation with the Brides, Lucy has a personality shift post-death. But it’s played for more of the addiction angle: it’s something that subjugates the real personality to another’s thoughts and will, something that enthralls rather than bewitches, something that’s not titillating at all when its soulless eyes are leering into yours and offering you a fix. The Count’s predation on Lucy slowly destroys her physically, kills her mother, turns her into a monster that preys on children, and forces her to tempt the man she loves into a similar fate, even though she’s absolutely horrified by this in her lucid moments. The Count is not portrayed as a mysterious, tormented lover: he’s a stalkery thug who picks random women who catch his eye and physically injures them just because he can and wants to.

Being a vampire is nothing desirable. It’s terrifying to the victim, who can feel their will being overridden and the pain of their body being physically attacked and weakened, drained of blood. It’s horrifying from the outside, to the people who may not even know why their friend or child–or lover–is in such pain. And then it’s horrifying because now the person you loved is going to do the same thing to someone else, and is going to laugh about it.

Back to that hypothetical very cool movie adaptation: there’s a lot of scary, atmospheric, horror-type scenes, too, that never make it into the movies. The apocalyptic voyage of the Demeter, with crew disappearing one by one and the captain finally lashing himself to the wheel for the final trip through shoal and storm could be it’s own movie all by itself (has there been?) Then, there’s the Count’s final attack on Lucy–beginning with a howling wild wolf smashing through the window while she is too weak to call for help, her mother dying in her arms, leaving her trapped in the same bed as the corpse. Or the invasion of Carfax Abbey, when the hunters are suddenly swarmed by a horde of rats (to be rescued by a reserve team of terriers….) Those scenes are scary! And cool! They deserve to be seen on film!

[Complete sidenote: there is a very low-budgeted indie horror-Western movie called Shroud….which, well, we’ll discuss it some  other time, but it’s almost worth watching the negative-budget stunt fights for the twist at the end. The twist at the end makes you just want to pat this movie on the head and tell it nice things because, awwww, it has ambitions, lookat d’cute li’l dumb thing.]

There’s also some pretty darned thrilling action scenes that I don’t think have ever been adapted, either: the hunters confronting the Count in his London lair–Jonathan lunging at him with a kukri and then following him through a broken window–or even or Quincy Morris shooting at an eavesdropping bat. There’s the tension of the race to Europe after the Czarina Catherine and then, afterwards, tracing the Count’s river journey back towards his castle.

In fact, most of what I consider the strongest part of the novel–the point-by-point investigative work, tracing the Count to Carfax Abbey and then back again outwards from it, finding where he’s hidden his other spare coffins and systematically destroying them–just seems to get completely left out. Which leads to my second point:

The second point about this book is that there is a really taut, thrilling, action horror pulp novel in there. Problem is, it’s covered up with generous. nay, heaping dollops of melodrama that really don’t play as well to the modern eye as perhaps it did to the pre-modern. There’s a lot of weeping, hugging, emotionally swearing brotherhood, eternal trust, holy vengeance, more weeping, eternal brotherhood, emotional hugging, weeping, promising of trust….et cetera. The problem isn’t that any of this stuff is there, because some of it is a vital part of character progression and development. The problem is that there’s oodles too much of it and it gets in the way of the interesting stuff that happens.

There’s also the fact that roughly half of the characters aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on in the rest of the book, and as such, are prone to making the stupid and repeated mistakes of deliberately excluding Mina from the war council after Mina has provided crucial intelligence for the cause, ignoring Mina when she’s obviously suddenly anemic, ignoring random bats outside the war-council-room window, ignoring your canary in the coal mine when he warns you that Mina is in danger RIGHT NOW, and then, after finding out that (GASP) Mina has been preyed upon and vampirized by the Count….then and only then deciding that you are going to trust her utterly and include her in all councils hereafter. (Mina herself has to be the one to tell them not to do this.) Van Helsing has the paper-thin excuse that he thinks Mina might be pregnant and needs to stay out of it, but Seward knows how vital, useful, and well-informed Mina is, and Jonathan has zero excuses to make.

So, this book is a deeply uneven read. When I first read (listened via librivox, which is a great resource if you didn’t know about it) this book, I loved it for what was actually quite a small portion of the book: the investigation parts, where Jonathan, and Arthur Holmwood are at their very best, tracing the Count’s movements and and lairs (with some baksheesh), and then using social engineering to outright freaking burglarize a vampire’s legally-purchased house and destroy his earth box coffin lairs in broad daylight plain sight. I also loved the three-part chase: the Count fleeing by boat up-river, and the hunter’s company trailing him by river, horseback, and by carriage, each group armed with rifles of the same caliber so the ammunition is interchangeable, and the horseback group including a saddle with a removable horn that can be adapted for Mina. I mean, logistics! What more can you ask for?

But these verisimiltudinous touches keep getting interrupted, and worse, spread out by the aforementioned oozing emotional melodrama, taking up way too much page time, telling and not showing, removing the focus from the laconically thrilling medical mystery-slash-detective vampire hunter story, and padding the wordcount (probably.) Oh, and speaking of verisimilitude, the epistolary format allows for the inclusion (via Mina collecting and pasting them into her journal, dont’cha know) random POV snippets such as the random reporter who interviews the zookeeper about a missing wolf, or the invoice receipts from shipping companies. It’s all about logistics, I’m telling you. 

Well, logistics….and ignoring Mina. However! I have an elegant and simple solution for this particular problem, and it is thus: have Mina not be there. When the action moves to Carfax and the asylum, have Mina remain in London–and move into Lucy’s former home, to help administrate the estate while the trustee (Arthur Holmwood) is out of town. Thus, Mina is living in the house that the Count has the ability to enter; it keeps her at a remove from the men who should recognize instantly that anemia, pallor, and lethargy  = vampire; and it could allow the timeline to be tightened up a bit.

Honestly, though, my only other main criticism is that the main characters’ voices are all fairly similar, with Jonathan’s being the most distinct only inasmuch that he tends to downplay his emotions (while Seward denies that he’s actually wallowing in them…whilst in the midst of wallowing in them, and Mina just straight-up either cries or makes everyone else in the room cry.)

All that being said, this is a good book and it’s a shame no one ever made a movie of it.

Rated: I stand with him. To close you out.

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The Shadow # 35 – The Black Hush

shadow_magazine_vol_1_35So this one was published in August of 1933, written by Walter B. Gibson alias Maxwell Grant, cover art by George Rozen.

This is just a really superior Shadow story. It’s just really good and perfectly pleasing, and it made me feel happy.

It’s kind of hard to say more than that, so instead, I’ll talk about how Maxwell Grant (nee Walter B. Gibson) made his hero effective by focusing on the villains.

Think about standard plot structure: the hero wins, the villain loses. Most authors begin with this premise and work outwards from there. They craft from the top down to create situations where the villains lose. This is why the Death Star had a conveniently-placed ventilation shaft, why the hive swarm goes immobile instead of berserk when the queen is deactivated, why Sauron poured so much of his own being and power into the One Ring that destroying it destroys him utterly. At the more tactical level, it’s why the gangsters playing poker in the front room keep their backs strategically to the window, or a sentry decides not to investigate the rustling and muffled cursing noises from that bramble patch–but does go chase a pebble down the dark hallway. Most authors position their villains for failure. Then they allow the hero to win (sometimes after a stiff struggle getting through the trench run, sure, but still.)

However, Gibson reversed this. He planned how his villains should win, and then engineered a way to prevent them. For instance: mobsters under command of a ruthless mob leader and supported with a dark ray that will suppress alarms and opposition (so no witnesses, no police, no watchmen), and equipped with explosives, guns, and getaway cars are at one point preparing to take on the New City Bank. They’re a tough, picked crew and they know their stuff. Fifteen minutes are all they need. What can The Shadow possibly do to stop them? Well, he could get there first, so they don’t ever even get their fifteen minutes, and then he could have backup arrive to provide cross-fire.

So, he’d need to know where they’re going and when. He needs to have access to Goldy Tancred’s inner circle, and Goldy isn’t accepting visitors. So: Clyde Burke and Burbank bug Goldy’s apartment, and, this not even being enough once Goldy develops an entirely new, healthy respect for operational security measures, The Shadow drops in and goes through the waste-paper basket. So Harry Vincent befriends the unlucky young engineer-inventor who seems to have gotten mixed up in this whole mess and tries to find out what he knows about the Black Hush. So The Shadow knows the target, the time, and their general plan. So, when the (remaining) gangsters flee to their countryside lair to lick their wounds and plot subsequent days’ revenge, The Shadow knows where they are and also (sigh) that Harry Vincent needs rescuing.

Villains are never stupid, although the monomaniacal supervillain-types do tend to be somewhat dense, admittedly. As a whole, they are adaptive, clever, and increasingly well-prepared for the physical threat that The Shadow represents (multiple cars with machine guns, and plenty of hand grenades: standard anti-Shadow ordnance.) Goldy Tancred, for instance, discovers the wiretap almost immediately and begins using it for counter-surveillance, flushing out Clyde Burke as a spy, and from then on putting all orders in writing and then burning the notes.

Pity he didn’t try re-sweeping the whole apartment for bugs after nullifying the first one….

Gibson’s Shadow stories have an enduring fascination, because, instead of making the villains weaker than the hero, he made the hero stronger than them. He lets the struggle play out on a level just slightly higher, and slightly better thought out, than the zero ground most heroes (i.e., BATMAN) operate at.

All that being said, what’s this one about, and is it just another pulp action story, told at breakneck speed so the incongruities of plot don’t register until later?

So we start off in a swanky hotel, where two groups are gathered. One is a group of mobsters, prominently starring one Goldy Tancred–who has requested police presence, just to keep things peaceable–and the other a conference of electrical engineers. The hotel is suddenly hit by a strange, complete, darkness that deactivates electrical and mechanical devices and can only be barely pierced by acetylene torches–such as are being carried by a small hit-squad that brutally assassinates…a random engineer at the banquet. The obvious conclusion is that Goldy Tancred and his ilk, in the west ballroom, were the targets, and the engineer in the east room was killed by mistake. Goldy certainly seems to believe this, as he promptly goes into seclusion, but although New York’s finest ace detective considers the motive clear, The Shadow thinks differently, and moves to investigate.

What is Goldy’s real game? Where is the source of the Black Hush? How is Harry Vincent going to screw up this time?

Read it and find out…

Rated: There’s also a thrilling death-from-above entry via autogiro, it’s kind of awesome.

The Shadow Magazine #22 – The Creeping Death

creeping-death-600x1008-1 So, The Creeping Death is the twenty-second The Shadow story, and was published in 1933. And it’s a bit strange to come back to after the more settled formula of the later Shadow books.

The Lamont Cranston persona is a colder, more impressive figure–less of the languid man-about-town and more of a) a financier chiefly interested in money and new inventions (Cranston would probably have quite a lot of SpaceX stock, one surmises), b) very obviously a disguise used by a dangerous and indomitable figure. But, then to remind us that we are in fact dealing with a master of disguise, there’s also the not-nearly-as-transparent Phineas Twambly, a doddering and nearly-deaf old man who couldn’t possibly be less of a threat to the men staking out the lobby of the Westbrook Falls Inn and eyeing each other like the predators they are.

Then there’s the plot, which–in good form for the earlier books–is carried primarily through the actions of the villains, and seen primarily through either their eyes or the eyes of the proxy hero, in this case Vic Marquette of the Secret Service. The Shadow himself lurks, listens in, silhouettes, menaces, and only just intervenes to tip the scales here and there, mostly just letting the bad guys play out their mummery amongst themselves with hilarious and deadly results. Until–well, you’d have to read the book to see. Heroes react; great heroes act; smart heroes decide when to act and when to stand back and utter a soft, grim, mocking laugh at the follies of others.

The titular creeping death is introduced in the first chapter, when a Mr. Jerry Fitzroy collapses and dies in his hotel room, only barely able to gasp out a few words–words seemingly overheard only by the hotel physician and detective. Some part of the mystery is cleared promptly, when Fitzroy is revealed to be a Secret Service agent, recently returned from a trip to the small town of Westbrook Falls. The gold coin in Fitzroy’s pocket is one of a strange kind that has been recently flooding the market: a strange alloy with the appearance and physical qualities of gold that still is not gold. The partridge feather in his pocket is a little more mysterious….but not to The Shadow.

And not, for very long, to the audience either, with the introduction of elderly inventor/chemist Lucien Partridge and his hidden laboratory in Westbrook Falls. Partridge has a business arrangement with several other American businessmen, who believe they are exploiting him for the synthetic gold which they receive and distribute. The reverse turns out to be the case…and, what’s more, Partridge’s network is worldwide: he has multiple contacts in multiple countries through which he is exchanging fake gold for real, which he has stored on the grounds and with which–and the creeping death–he intends to launch a reign of terror which will ultimately end with him becoming world emperor.

But in the meanwhile and somewhat more pressingly, he going to have to deal with some internal personnel and management problems first. You see, it has occurred to multiple branches of his organization that “fake gold out -> real gold in = somewhere, massive stockpile of real gold.” And the Americans, the French, and the Spaniards, all want a much bigger cut than what they’re getting.–and therein lies the meat of the story, watching them variously blunder, plot, counterplot, form alliances, sneak, backstab, and bluster as they jockey for position and information–all under the glittering eye and grotesque shadow of…The Shadow!

The villain himself, Lucien Partridge, is an interesting mix of megalomania and practicality. Yes, he wants to be the emperor of the world and believes he will be welcomed with open arms at the end of, well, a rain of terror–but he has a fairly chilling plan for enacting said terrorism, and a very practical one for bankrolling it. He’s resourceful and cunning enough to have agents in many countries and be collecting revenue from each of them. And he controls the Creeping Death, an insidious and almost undetectable method of murder which leaves its victims unmarked, able to travel far away from the cause of their death while leaving their murderer unsuspected. (Although he did have to knife Li Tan Chang to get its secrets. What happens in Shanghai stays in Shanghai.)

The Shadow’s usual agents are scarce this time. Harry Vincent gets about half a page of screentime, which might have contributed to why this mission had such smooth sailing. So the primary proxy hero is Vic Marquette, and he’s…okay. For a Fed.

And…the cover art is fantastic.

And that’s about all I have to say. This is a top-notch early Shadow story, and if you know the genre, know the author and his style, you know that means a rippin’ good yarn. You really can’t ask for better than that.

Rated: This your final warning, Jose! Those that disobey my word–die!