Do you know which movie was the first film noir ever made? Read my review up on Cinema Retro today.

You’ll be able to impress your friends at your next cocktail party.

Peter Lorre stars in “Stranger on the Third Floor.”

 

My latest book, THE BIG SHUTDOWN, is a science fiction novel with a definite retro flavor to it. It’s been called a combination of Flash Gordon and Once Upon a time in the West. So I guess that means it’s what they call a Space Western.

The main character, Jack Brand, is a former U.S. Army ranger who lives in the late 23rd Century. He left Earth to take a job as a security officer on the oil-rich planet of Tulon, and was followed there later by his kid-sister Terry. She became a member of his tactical squad but was captured by the Wilkersons, a gang of Tulon Nomads. The story begins after her capture, and follows Brand as he searches for her.

His search takes him to several different locations on the planet, including a domed city in the desert run by alien gangsters, a savage jungle where one of the former members of his squad has crash-landed, the broken down religious community run by a minister who’s lost his faith, an underwater city threatened by a giant Octopod, and others. Along the way he meets up with Christy Jones, an unforgettable woman who runs a casino in Tulon Central. The story of their relationship is an important part of the story of The Big Shutdown, as they meet, and are separated by circumstances.

Brand’s search for Terry is running out of time. The conglomerates back on Earth have found another energy source, and Tulon’s oil deposits are no longer of any value. The planet is being phased out. The energy companies are packing up and the last ships are leaving for Earth. Can Brand find Terry, and reunite with Christy before Tulon faces THE BIG SHUTDOWN? 

Click on the title above to order your copy.

Amazing how far we’ve gone since then from even caring if we have individual identities or are just numbers in a system. How far we’ve drifted into mindless conformity.

The political parties trot out their figureheads, who tell us how they will change the nation. And the news channels explain it all to us, over and over and over until we’ve got it straight.

They tell us what to think. because we no longer know how to think.

And when Election Day comes our fingers, run by remote control from our conditioned brains, press a button and the new leader is elected. There’s no difference who it is. The system is in gridlock and nothing will change. Because that’s the way No. 1 wants it.

Who is No. 1?

Yesterday I did something I always wanted to do, but never had the chance to before. The chance came unexpectedly and I took it. I satisfied a lifelong wish and at the same time carved out my place in posterity.

That’s what it’s all about, after all, isn’t it. That’s why we write books, or paint, or sculpt. That’s why men build cathedrals and churches. You may build a bridge, or a sky scraper. In ancient Egypt they built pyramids  and Sphinxes to serve as reminders that the pharaohs once walked the Earth. We all want to be remembered. We all want to leave something behind that says we were here.

Here in Virginia, the county officials have been tearing up the sidewalks and laying down new concrete. I have a house that sits on a corner property, and the road crews are currently working on replacing all the corner sidewalks. They did a good job on my corner. It only took them a day. They chopped up the concrete pretty quick with a tractor-like thing that had a jackhammer on the end of it. Another bunch of guys came later and loaded the concrete onto a dump truck with a steam shovel. After that, they laid gravel, and finally by the late afternoon they poured the concrete. They started around 7 a.m. and were done by 5 p.m.

I talked to one of the guys, who had sat down under one of the trees on the front lawn, catching a break. He said they’d have the neighborhood done in a couple of days. I told him it looked good, and I was glad to see the county was helping keep the neighborhood up. I said another good thing about it was that projects like that help create jobs. He said that was for sure. He was glad to get the work.

After the guys had all gone home for the day, leaving some of their tractors and other equipment behind for the corner across the street the next day, I went back out and took a closer look at the new sidewalk. It was a definite improvement over the old one. It looked so clean and fresh. I ducked under the yellow barrier tape and stooped down to get a closer look. It looked like it had already set. I reached a finger out and touched it. It was still wet. I pulled my finger away and it left a dark smudge there on the sidewalk. And a sudden urge came over me. Must be the same urge those guys building the pyramids and the cathedrals had. I looked up and down the street. There was nobody around. I reached down and put my finger on the dark spot I’d left behind and then traced the letter J and next to it W.

I stood up, made sure I hadn’t been spotted, and with a silly smirk on my face, went back in the house. The sun went down an hour later, and I went to sleep that night, with the realization that someday I may not be around, my books and articles, and movie reviews may disappear from the face of the earth. But those initials in the sidewalk will be there for some time. Jean Shepherd once said,”Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it friends. It’s not just a possibility. It is a certainty.”

Well that sidewalk on the corner may not last 4,00o years. But it’ll be there a while anyway.

jw

 

tombstoneI just caught the episode that famed director Sam Peckinpah wrote for the classic western TV series, Tombstone Territory. Aired in 1958, the episode, “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride” is the only one he wrote for the old ABC TV series. It tells a unique version of how the famous outlaw Johnny Ringo came to an end. It’s one of the earliest scripts Peckinpah crafted for TV and it’s interesting how, even back then, the main themes he always focused on in his later films are right there at the beginning.

Peckinpah is most noted for his films “The Wild Bunch”, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” and “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.” Although “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride,” is based on historical fact, the story line is mostly fiction. The true facts are that Ringo was found dead near Chiricahua Peak outside Tombstone. His body was found resting in the fork of a tree, and there was a bullet hole in his head. The coroner ruled his death a suicide, but for years there have been different theories about what really happened to him. Some people say they think Wyatt Earp killed him, other say Doc Holliday. Others point to a gambler named  Michael O’Rourke as the culprit.

In the Tombstone Territory version, Peckinpah, who scripted from a story by series producer Andy White, makes a crooked politician the villain.Bloody Sam seems to have been fond of that idea. In “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” the Santa Fe Ring was responsible for pushing Garret to hunt down his old friend Billy. In “The Wild Bunch” it was the railroad that forced former gang member Deke Thornton to track down his old friends. The conflict between loyalty to a friend and the necessity of saving your own skin was always a major Peckinpah theme.

And so in “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride,” Clay Hollister (Pat Conway) is pushed by a crooked Judge to hunt down his old friend Johnny (Myron Healey). Judge Reese wants to get rid of both Johnny and Hollister for his own reasons. Hollister shows a bit more intestinal fortitude than either Garrett or Thornton, in that he stands up against the judge. Hollister, who is probably modeled on either Wyatt or Virgil Earp resists phony warrants issued by Judge Reese. But partly through the Judge’s Machiavellian machinations and partly through cruel fate, Johnny still ends up being killed in the desert in Turkey Creek Canyon. Hollister tries to save him but fails. But at least unlike the later Peckinpah heroes he wasn’t forced to kill his own friend, and has the authority to bring the man responsible to justice.

Tombstone Territory is being shown currently on getTV. Conway as Hollister portrays a tough as nails sheriff with nerve and steely eyes. Never could figure why he didn’t go on to bigger and better things. This series and the half-hour Gunsmokes (half a dozen of which Peckinpah also wrote) on Encore Westerns are well worth watching for their realistic stories of the old west.

 

 

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[This blog appeared three years ago, but it bears repeating.]

The 1960s were an interesting time in America. There were giants walking on the land, as rocker Neil Young testfies in his latest CD, Psychedelic Pill. American culture hadn’t yet started to slide into the dumbed-down, tone-deaf, myopic mess it is now. In films Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa and Goddard were creating masterpieces, on radio Jean Shepherd talked his nightly installments of the Great American novel, in literature, J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams, John Updike and many more wrote deep, meaningful explorations of the human heart. And even on television, although the golden age of live drama had ended, a giant still practiced his art.

Stirling Silliphant, the poet laureate of the open road and the free soul, co-created a one of a kind television series called route 66, a show about two young guys in a Corvette searching the American highways for a place, a feeling, a sense of belonging somewhere. Silliphant wrote 73 stories, full one-hour scripts for the show during its four year run. And in most of those tales he expressed ideas, thoughts, and feelings about what it is to be human on planet earth—the fight to keep your humanity, enduring cruelty and intolerance, fighting indifference, and searching for love—all expressed in some of the most poetic dialog ever written for TV.

This isn’t a blog about route 66, though. That’s a topic I’ve never fully discussed here—what that show meant to a college boy hearing for the first time about existentialism, Pirandello, Zen, and jazz musicians named Sticky Mack and Gabe Johnson. Someday I’ll tackle route 66 but not yet.

The thing is, though, even though the show aired fifty years ago, its influence is still being felt, and in some surprising places. One of the latest and best, is a new CD entitled appropriately Go Where the Road Leads. The album features saxophonist Kenny Blake and vocalist Maria Shaheen, both from Pittsburgh. The CD was produced and arranged by a fellow by the name of Peter Morley, who also wrote the title tune and several others on the disc, and played some percussion and keyboards as well.

Route66bnov

I happen to know that Pete is a route 66 fan. He has expressed his admiration for the show and for Silliphant many times on a Yahoo forum dedicated to the program, which is where I made his acquaintance. His love for the series and its influence on his song writing are well evident in this wonderful new disc. But while the CD captures the feeling that the route 66 program inspired (that sense that there is something worth searching for on the open road), to say that Go Where the Road Leads is a tribute to the past would be inaccurate. It’s more accurate to say the music here shows there are still people out there who dig what Tod and Buz, the two guys in the ’Vette, were trying to do. There are those who still get Buz’s message.  Buz said: ” Go, just go, man.” And this album goes.

Kenny Blake is a saxophonist in the tradition of Cannonball Adderly, and on this CD he’s playing in a full-toned lyrical style reminiscent of Art Pepper. But these comparisons don’t really do him justice, because Blake has a distinctive sound of his own, whether he’s on soprano, alto or tenor.

Maria Shaheen’s voice has a haunting quality to it that grabs you from the first note she sings on the opening tune, “Tu Sais L’amour,” one that she wrote the melody for. Blake accompanies her with a very warm sound on tenor. The middle section of the song has Shaheen improvising melodic variations on the three French words in the title, while Blake weaves a hip, and beautiful tapestry around the main line. Very nice.

Next up is the title song, and here Morley’s lyrics express the essence of route 66— that  when life gets stagnant there’s always the possibility of getting in your car and “doing something totally insane.” The song is fast-paced with Blake playing a boppish alto solo, and Shaheen inviting us to bypass our usual exit on the freeway, to ‘spin the compass, point me into the sun and let’s run where the road leads.”

No sooner do the last notes of the open road fade away when electric keyboard chords set the hard-to-define mood of the next song, “The Waters of March.” This Antonio Carlos Jobim tune is a killer. It never fails to raise goosebumps, and the arrangement that Morley has provided here is so good you can hardly listen without wanting to laugh and cry at the same time.  “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road .. .”

“Begin the Beguine” is next with a very relaxed mood and an exquisite piano solo by Jeff Lashway, as well as Blake’s inventive improvisations on soprano sax.

“To William” begins with an actual quote from one of Silliphant’s route 66 scripts. “He’s the wind from a place I’ve never been before,” a line spoken by Diane Baker, playing one of the many crazy mixed up girls that the route 66 guys kept running into. Here Shaheen’s vocal asks, “when I wake in the morning will I find all that’s left are these line to William?”

“Soul Serenade” provides a gritty workout for Blake on alto while Shaheen provides a background chorus through multi-tracking, while drummer Brian Edwards keeps hip, grooving time.

“Tangerine Wine” and “Private Devils” are both Morley originals. Wine is about the choice between being a nine-to-fiver “wasting my youth on time-clock time,” or finding “a kind of truth in the thunder wine, the tangerine wine”—a  metaphor for those who prefer a more bohemian lifestyle. This cut features a solo by bassist Mike Houlis that tells a truth all its own.

“Devils” tells about a hipster’s struggle to keep “a private code,” while trying to juggle “all these many levels of meaning.” Lyrics to think about.

The album ends with an instrumental bossa that features Blake with a quartet and gives him a chance to stretch out.

It’s hard to sum up an album that has “so many levels of meaning” in it. Morley’s lyrics reach for something difficult to express. Sometimes they’re oblique and mysterious. It’s the sounds that accompany them that get the real meaning across. It’s more something you feel than hear. There was a route 66 story in which the heroes try to explain a very complicated situation to a little boy, and when they ask if he understands, he says: “Not all the words. But the sound of it.”

All you truth seekers out there, you travelers on the endless highway, pick up this CD. It’s background music you need for The Journey.

Available at Amazon.com.

pikeEveryone’s calling Ted Cruise a dirty, double crossing rat, because he gave his word that he would support the Republican nominee, and then refused to endorse Trump at the convention. Is Lyin’ Ted really a double crosser? Or is he a hero from a Sam Peckinpah movie, who went into the enemy’s nest on a suicidal mission, and did what his conscience told him to do regardless of the consequences?

His family’s honor had been smeared by the Trumpster, and he wanted revenge. But, you say, “He gave his word.”

Well, there’s a scene in The Wild Bunch, where Pike Bishop and Dutch Engstrom are discussing the betrayal of one of their former gang members, Deke Thornton, who’s helping the railroad posse track them down.

Pike Bishop: What would you do in his place? He gave his word.

Dutch Engstrom: He gave his word to a railroad.

Pike Bishop: It’s his word.

Dutch Engstrom: That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!

Golden ArrowYou know what gets me? Whenever there’s a movie with some guy lost in the desert, invariably you’ll have that scene where the guy pulls out his canteen and finds it empty. He looks at it in surprise then with a snarl on his kisser, he tosses it away.

I was watching “The Golden Arrow,” a film that Tab Hunter made in 1962. It was an Italian Arabian Nights thing, directed by Antonio Margheriti no less. And sure enough old Tab is trying to cross a desert to find the Golden Arrow so he can marry the princess and he pulls his horse up, pulls out the canteen and … EMPTY. With that same snarl of disgust they always have, he tosses it away.

Whenever I see that scene, I always want to shout: “Hey, dummy. Why’d you throw the canteen away? What are you gonna do if you find some water up ahead? What are you going to carry it in? Don’t throw that canteen away! It’s not like they grow on trees out there in the Sahara!”

Old Tab Hunter with a very deep dubbed-in voice in The Golden Arrow. I hate to say I thought he was dead. But he isn’t. Still alive and kicking at age 85.

night ofHBO’s series “The Night of” got off to a pretty good start. Riveting drama as a young student makes mistake after mistake (all believable) and ends up charged with murder. Realistic film noir that reminded me of some of Cornell Woolrich’s stories. James Gandolfini was going to play the part of the lawyer who defends him but passed away after doing the pilot. They reshot it with John Turturro in the part. Remains to be seen how this develops. But the first episode of this eight part series was well done.

Wednesday July 13, all you Gene Autry, Roy Rogers fans be on the                      alert. TCM is showing roy.jpgtwo of their films each, including “In Old Santa Fe,” the Ken Maynard film that introduced Autry to the movies. and “Springtime in the Sierras,” one of Roy’s Trucolor westerns. “Love those shirts.”

It’s that time of year again. Every Fourth of July I bring back this blog I wrote back in 2012, which extols the virtues of Mr. Jean Shepherd and his famous story of Ludlow Kissell and the Dago Bomb that struck back. This year in the last few days I found there were a lot of searches for this particular blog entry, which is really great. More people should know about Jean Shepherd and what he wrote and talked about. As a special Independence Day treat, I’m including an audio recording of Shepherd on WOR Radio reading the story. You can download it here. So without further ado, have a great Fourth and enjoy this classic, and very funny story.

Hey, Gang, How’s it hanging? The Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our Independence in the U.S., is here once again.  Amidst the continuing threat of terrorism, and a contentious race for the White House, floods, and wildfires, and a society fragmented by political differences, we’re still hanging in there.

For me part of the Fourth of July tradition includes family gatherings, classic movies on Turner Classic Movies, a barbecue, some time at the local swimming pool, fireworks of course, and a reading from Jean Shepherd’s classic book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Some of you may know who Jean Shepherd is, others may not. Most people familiar with the name know him from the classic holiday film, A Christmas Story, which is based on Shepherd’s book. This is the movie about Ralphie (who is really Shepherd as a kid), growing up in Indiana, and wanting more than anything in the world a Red Ryder BB gun. The movie is shown in a 24-hour marathon every Christmas on one of the Turner Cable Channels. It’s Shepherd’s voice you hear narrating the story.

The real insiders know Shepherd from the nightly radio show he had from the late fifties to the mid-seventies on WOR radio in New York. Every night he would come on the air, alone and unscripted and talk. It wasn’t like talk radio today, though. He didn’t take phone calls. And he didn’t have a political ax to grind. He just sat alone and told stories. When he wasn’t telling stories, he did social commentary, or read haiku to “cheap guitar music.” Some of the stories he told ended up later as short stories in Playboy magazine and became the basis for the novel and two films: A Christmas Story, and My Summer Story. 

Among the many tales Shepherd told of growing up in the Midwest, one about an historic incident that took place in his neighborhood on the Fourth of July is one of my favorites. Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back, describes one hot Independence Day when the town drunk (the term alcoholic wasn’t widely used back in the 1930s) showed up in the middle of his street carrying a lethal looking firecracker that in those days was known as the Dago Bomb. This was not an anti-Italian appellation, Shepherd explains, but was actually pro-Italian, the ne plus ultra of fireworks. In more effete circles is was known as an aerial bomb. It was big and looked like one of those non-existent firecrackers that show up in cartoons. It had a warnings on it, that indicated it should only be used by professionals.

So this one Fourth of July Ludlow Kissel appeared on the heat-shimmering horizon, “weaving spectacularly, and carrying a large paper bag as carefully as a totally committed drunk can. He was about to celebrate the founding of our nation, the nation which had provided such a bounteous life for him and his.” No one paid much attention as he inched his way from lamppost to lamppost and fire plug to fire plug and went into his house. He came out minutes later with the largest Dago Bomb anyone had ever seen. It was the first all-black Dago Heister anyone had ever laid eyes on and was suspected of actually being made in China!  Later some witnesses would argue that it wasn’t a firecracker at all, but was some sort of mortar shell.

Kissel staggered out to the middle of the street, set the firecracker on the ground and tried to light it. Neighbors peered nervously through windows, others came out on their front lawns. Several attempt to light the fuse with a match failed and a kid came up to Kissel with a lit punk and handed it to him. A crowd gathered. He lit the fuse, the crowd drew back. The fuse sputtered out and Ludlow lit it again but being too soused to know what he’s doing, he just stood there. “Hey Kissel, for god’s sake! It’s lit,” somebody yelled. “What’s lit?” Kissel said. He staggered around and knocked the Dago Bomb over and it went off.

Do I have to tell you what happened next? The expelled cartridge shot through the crowd, which ran for cover, and landed under Kissel’s front porch. It blew the porch off, then skittered next door, took down a neighbor’s rose trellis and ended up finally exploding under another neighbor’s car. Total devastation!

When it was over Kissel was still there in the middle of the street, on his knees and made his statement, which is even today part of the great legend. “My God! What a doozy!”

That was Jean Shepherd’s America. A different America in many ways from ours to be sure, but in some ways maybe not that different. We still watch fireworks, have barbecues, eat too much, and drink too much on the Fourth. We still have that urge to light that fuse and see the ultimate firework display of all time. Shepherd died in 1999 and I often wonder what he would say about our world today if he was still sitting behind the mic in a radio studio. He always knew that life was insane and that civilizations come and go, and most of us will be unremembered after we pass on. Probably he’d advise us to keep our sense of humor about it, and remind us,  as he always did to: “Keep your knees loose, and your duff close to the ground!”

I hope your Fourth is a doozy.

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