Thursday, 22 July 2021

Weird Tales:
Holy Disorders
by Edmund Crispin

(Four Square, 1965 / first published 1946)



Though on the face of it this paperback looks to be yet another enticing, horror-adjacent offering from ‘60s New English Library imprint Four Square, readers familiar with Bruce Montgomery aka Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen novels will realise that the publishers have actually been pretty disingenuous in presenting this reprint as a straight Satanic thriller.

As the aforementioned readers will be well aware, the Fen novels are in fact broadly comedic, foregrounding an idiosyncratic campus humour pitched somewhere between P.G. Wodehouse and Bruce Robinson’s ‘Withnail & I’, leavened with cheeky, fourth wall-breaking asides and enough literary/classical in-jokes to make anyone who has not committed Palgrave’s ‘Golden Treasury’ and Bullfinch’s ‘Age of Fable’ to memory feel slightly inadequate as a human being.

Not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but personally I’m happy to indulge Montgomery/Crispin’s whims, and find his books fairly amusing. More-so, I suspect, than the hypothetical 1965 reader who came into this one expecting some serious, Dennis Wheatley type affair, only to find our protagonist, retiring church music composer Geoffrey Vinter, blundering around causing havoc in the sporting goods section of a London department store during the first chapter, as he struggles to obtain the butterfly net which his friend, Oxford literary professor and amateur detective Gervase Fen, has ordered him to bring forthwith the the fictional Devonshire cathedral city of Tolnbridge.

Vinter, it transpires, has been summoned to Tolnbridge to stand in for the cathedral organist, who has been hospitalised after being bashed about the head by unknown assailants. Before he gets there however, we get to share at some length Geoffrey’s dismay at navigating Paddington Station during rush hour, his attempts to buy and imbibe several glasses of beer as he awaits his train, his developing friendship with the hapless shop clerk who has followed him from the department store in search of adventure, and his lengthy and tormented interactions with the other occupants of his train carriage, only a small handful of whom will go on to play any role in the unfolding mystery.

Amidst all this, the fact that several shambolic attempts are made on Geoffrey’s life during his journey thickens the plot, but otherwise scarcely seems worthy of note.

By chapter three (page 31), our man has finally arrived in Tolnbridge, which I take to be modelled to some extent on Montgomery’s adopted home of Totnes, although it differs from that fine town in a number of important details, not least the dominant presence of a cathedral, around which most of the book’s subsequent “action” (if such it may be termed) accumulates.

Significantly, Tolnbridge is also notrorious for “..a frenetic outburst of witch trials in the early seventeenth century, and the equally frenetic outburst of witchcraft and devil-worship which provoked them, and in which several clergy of the diocese were disgracefully involved”;

“‘This was the last part of the country,’ said Fen, “in which the trial and burning of witches went on. Elsewhere it had ceased fifty or sixty years earlier - and then hanging, not burning, had been the normal method of execution. The doings in Tolnbridge stank so that a Royal Commission was sent down to investigate. But when the Bishop Thurston died, the business more of less ceased. One of the last celebrated witch-trials in these islands was the Weir business in Edinburgh; that was in 1670. Tolnbrige continued for forty years after that, into the eighteenth century - the century of Johnson, and Pitt, and the French Revolution. Only a step away from our own times. A depressingly fragile barrier - and human nature doesn’t change much.’”

After arriving at the wrought-iron gates of the clergy-house, Vinter and newfound pal Fielding are introduced to the assortment of ecclesiastical hangers-on who will go on to comprise the story’s pool of suspects (if you don't know difference between a Precentor and a Canon, you’ll be pretty much at sea here). With Fen - effectively the Holmes to Geoffrey’s Watson - stubbornly failing to make an appearance however, there’s little for the pair to do but retreat to the nearest pub - which in this case is the ‘Whale & Compass’ (perhaps based on Totnes’s late lamented Kingsbridge Inn, or so I’d like to imagine).

To cut a long story  short, Gervase Fen eventually makes his appearance a few pints later, on page 58. Each of Crispin’s books seems to feature the detective adopting a new, loud and disruptive hobby, and in ‘Holy Disorders’ he is inexplicably fixated with capturing, and apparently performing unspecified experiments upon, various insects - hence both his demand for a butterfly net and his extended absence during daylight hours. The reason why Fen is residing in Tolnbridge, apparently at the expense of the church, is never sufficiently explained insofar as I recall, but be that as it may - with our sleuth finally accounted for, we can finally get on with the murder mystery component of the novel.

In addition to the fate of the aforementioned organist (who has been poisoned in his hospital bed, following the earlier assault), this comprises a ghoulish and somewhat surreal variation of the Locked Room mystery, in which the widely disliked Precentor, a Dr Butler, is inexplicably crushed beneath the colossal tombstone of ill-regarded medieval luminary St Ephraim - a tragedy which seemingly occurred when all doors to the building were locked, and no one else was inside.

Eccentric though his writing may be in most other respects, Montgomery/Crispin remained staunchly dedicated to the conventions of the old fashioned whodunnit, and as such, much of the text from hereon in is taken up with the gathering and consideration of alibis, methods and motives, all of which is unpacked at a length liable to prove excruciating to readers who are not fans of classic drawing room mysteries, including the provision of both a map of the crime scene and a lengthy suspect-by-suspect recap to help logically-minded readers reach their conclusion prior to what passes for ‘the big reveal’.

Although published in 1946, ‘Holy Disorders’ was evidently written during the war years, which lends an interesting backdrop to proceedings, reminding me somewhat of Powell & Pressburger’s bucolic wartime fantasias (particularly ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944)). 

There are frequent references to the war effort, to idle soldiers hanging about hither and yon awaiting orders, and to the latest news from overseas, and it is little surprise therefore that a further quirk is added to the already over-stuffed plot when it is revealed that the powers-that-be have detected illicit radio transmissions emanating from the vicinity of the cathedral, leading the discovery of a radio set hidden in an inaccessible part of the building, and the subsequent assumption that a cabal of Nazi spies must be abroad in sleepy Tolnbridge.

Amidst all this incident meanwhile, there is even room, surprisingly, for a little romance, as Geoffrey Vinter finds himself smitten with the daughter of the ill-fated Precentor - a graceful and demure young lady who, much in the manner of female characters in novels like this one, uncomplainingly acts as den mother and cook to the assorted oddballs hanging around the clergy-house. Like any good ‘Brief Encounter’ era Englishman, Geoffrey delivers his proposal of marriage whilst staring fixedly ahead at a row of radishes. (“Brutish roots,” he reflects, “what do they know of the agonies of a middle-aged bachelor proposing marriage?”)

This whole business is actually surprisingly affecting, forcing us to reflect on the fact that, whilst Edmund Crispin may have adopted the voice of a gout-addled college rector for his writing, Bruce Montgomery was actually only twenty-five years old when he completed this novel, and presumably subject to the same passions as other young men making their way in the world, and what have you.

With the novel’s rambling plotting already so loaded with under-developed tangents, it’s no surprise meanwhile to discover that the Black Mass / devil worship angle - though assuredly present - never amounts to much more than fairly half-hearted diversion. The irony here however is that the brief passages in which Crispin’s writing shifts away from comedy to explore more macabre subject matter are actually extremely effective, evoking an atmosphere worthy of the era’s horror/weird fiction greats;

“They paused by the hollow where the witches had burned. It was overgrown, neglected. Weeds and brambles straggled over it. The iron post stood gaunt against the fading light. They found rings through which the ropes and chains had passed. The air of the place was almost unbearably desolate, but in imagination Geoffrey saw the hillside thronged, above and below, with men and women whose eyes glowed with lust and fright and appalling pleasure at the spectacle to be offered them. […] A woman they had known - a next-door neighbour perhaps - a familiar face now become a mask of fear in whose presence they crossed fingers and muttered the Confiteor. Who next? And in the breast of that woman, what ecstasy of terror or vain repentance or affirmation? What crying to Apollyon and the God of Flies…? It needed little fancifulness to catch the echo of such scenes, even now. And here, they had accumulated - week after week, month after month, year after year, until even the crowds were sick and satiated with the screaming and the smell of burned flesh and hair, and only the necessary officers were present at the ending of these wretches, and the people stayed in their houses, wondering if it would not have been better to face the malignant, tangible living rather than the piled sepulchres of the malignant, intangible dead.”

I mean, you certainly don’t get that sort of thing in the middle of a Jeeves & Wooster.

Thereafter, this sense of a lurking evil underlying the city is given an atavistic twist via an extremely sinister (though underdeveloped) sub-plot which sees Fen interviewing a teenage girl who has been brain-washed through the use of drugs into participating in the Black Mass and carrying out the diabolical whims of her masters.

Sadly, the contemporary Satanic ceremony which Fen and Vinter subsequently manage to infiltrate proves both boring and rather farcical - it seems that the novel’s villains are merely using diabolism as a front for their more legitimately nefarious goals, again for reasons which remain somewhat unclear - but those ‘Witchfinder General’ / ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ vibes are really nailed down again during a section of the book in which (for reasons which appear entirely superfluous to the central narrative) our heroes are invited to read the long supressed secret diary of seventeenth century witch hunter Bishop Thurston. A section of this diary is reproduced in full, effectively comprising a short-story-within-a-novel, and once again, it is excellent stuff - a nasty little tale with a supernatural twist which could easily have found a home in any given ‘70s horror/ghost story anthology.

More representative of overall tone of the novel however are incidents such as that in which Fen and Vinter encounter a ‘Royal Professor of Mathematics’ who seems intent on reciting the entirety of Lewis Carroll’s ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ from memory, only to lose him again a few pages later following yet another visit to the pub, or the chapter which finds the investigators extracting much merriment from a visit to a potential suspect whose home boasts a pet raven resting upon a bust of Pallas above a chamber door, and a wife named Lenore, yet who pleads complete ignorance of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (“I haven’t much time for verse - he’s good, is he?”)

In conclusion, you might say that, if Montgomery/Crispin had taken a slightly more serious approach to is storytelling there and had engaged more thoroughly with the more macabre elements of his tale, he could have written an absolutely splendid horror novel here. But, I suspect that’s rather like saying that if Noel Coward had ditched all that camp stuff and got a bit more into the rugged outdoors, he could have written a cracking western. 

At the end of the day, the Crispin/Fen novels are what they are. They are entirely reflective of the peculiarities and obsessions of their unconventional creator, but if you can angle your antenna somewhere in the vicinity of his preferred wavelength, they remain thoroughly entertaining, and certainly a little different from anything else you’re liable to find knocking about in your local Oxfam. 


 

Monday, 12 July 2021

Noir Diary # 15:
The Lineup
(Don Siegel, 1958)


Following the lead of the film itself, let’s start off here by getting the boring bit out of the way: Don Siegel’s ‘The Lineup’ is, technically speaking, a TV spin-off.

Also known as ‘San Francisco Beat’, ‘The Lineup’ began as a radio drama in 1950 before moving to TV via the auspices of CBS in 1953. Generally viewed as a close competitor to Jack Webb’s more successful ‘Dragnet’, the show followed basically the same formula, following the day-to-day crime-fighting travails of straight-laced SFPD detective Lieutenant Ben Guthrie (played by Warner Anderson, who here resembles a somewhat older, less physically intimidating Lee Marvin), with Tom Tully (mysteriously absent from the movie version) as his partner, Sergeant Matt Grebb.

Over a decade since Jules Dassin initially kick-started the trend for cross-breeding Film Noir tropes with shot-on-location / faux-documentary police procedural stuff in 1947’s ‘The Naked City’, it’s safe to assume that movie-goers knew the drill pretty well by this point, and one can only imagine that yet another based-on-the-hit-TV-series trudge through the same good-solid-detective-work, ‘crime doesn’t play’ type palaver didn’t exactly sound too thrilling.

Assigned director Don Siegel and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant apparently agreed. After Silliphant knocked out a script which the pair both saw as the basis for an exciting, unconventional crime movie, Siegel claims that he pleaded with producers Frank Cooper and Jaime Del Valle for the opportunity to extract the movie from the ‘Lineup’ brand and let it stand alone as its own thing - but no dice. Although Cooper & Del Valle apparently didn’t give much of a damn how the film actually turned out, a ‘Lineup’ movie had been promised, and a ‘Lineup’ movie was going to be delivered.

Needless to say, Siegel and Silliphant responded to this decision by essentially pulling the same audacious bait and switch on their audience that Robert Aldrich and A.I. Bezzerides had laid on fans of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels a few years earlier with their extraordinary and iconoclastic ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1956).

Doing little to hide their disdain for the franchise they were ostensibly working within, the director and screenwriter proceeded to entirely side-line the familiar certainties that viewers of the TV show might have been expecting, largely confining the obligatory police procedural segments to the opening twenty minutes, and pointedly relegating the show’s star Warner Anderson to the bottom of the on-screen cast list.

Meanwhile, they proceeded to kick up a veritable sandstorm of darker, more challenging and just plain weirder material, resulting in a movie which, a few decades after the dust had settled, began to gain recognition as one of the most startling and forward-thinking American crime films of its era.

Right out of the gate, Siegel’s take on ‘The Lineup’ plunges us into chaos. Out of control automobiles screech around the Embarcdaero in San Francisco’s port district, as suitcases are flung around, incomprehensible yells are exchanged and a police officer is callously mown down by a speeding taxi before the driver takes a bullet in the back and careers into the side of a jack-knifed truck. When Guthrie and his surrogate partner Quine (played by frankly terrifying tough guy actor Emile Meyer) dutifully arrive on the scene to assess the damage, all they can do is despairingly ask, “why?!” (1)

Twenty minutes or so of briskly-paced but uninspiring A-to-B police-work - sticking broadly within the TV show’s remit, albeit with a somewhat harder edge and more attractive locations - help them answer this question to a certain extent, as they uncover the bare bones of an elaborate conspiracy to smuggle heroin into the city, using pre-loaded ‘oriental’ souvenirs carried through customs by unsuspecting tourists.

There are some fun moments during this opening slog - both Anderson and Mayer do solid work, there is some exquisite San Francisco location shooting and I particularly enjoyed the bit where the police’s ‘lab man’ opens up a suspect package with a flick-knife, licks a big dollop of powder off his finger and declares, “yep, it’s heroin alright” - but it is only once the focus shifts elsewhere that the movie really begins.

Indeed, Siegel had literally wanted the film to begin here, as we board a flight into the city and meet the two contractors hired by an unseen cartel to reclaim the hidden dope from its unwitting carriers -- and boy, what a pair they are.

The uncertain relationship between psycho triggerman Dancer (Eli Wallach - blank stare, twisted grimace, porkpie hat) and his older, somewhat effeminate ‘handler’ Julian (brilliantly played by Robert Keith - beady eyes, skull-like grin, pencil moustache) was reportedly intended by Silliphant to mimic that of an aspiring Hollywood star and his agent (“if he continues to listen to me, he’ll be the best,” Julian declares at one point, in the process of talking up his boy’s unparalleled talents in the field of crime). A sly, in-jokey conceit, this approach which works superbly, creating an unforgettably amoral, inscrutable odd couple whose interplay pretty much dominates the film from this moment onward. (2)

Once Julian and Dancer (god, that name) are on the scene, Guthrie and Quine fall almost entirely into the background, turning up merely to shake their heads over the latest corpses and radio in for roadblocks and ambulances. We’re 100% with the bad guys on this one, and that’s just as well, because we just can’t keep our eyes off these two creeps - They’re just fascinatingly perverse in every respect.

As Sergio Angelini thus observes in his essay on the film for the Indicator label’s Columbia Noir Vol. 1 box set, “chaos is given a face and a psychological profile while order is merely represented by men in hats”. In truth though, what keeps us so glued to the travails of these goons is that Silliphant and Siegel never allow us to get an angle on - as the guy who gives Dancer the low-down at the port puts it - “what makes [them] tick”. They are nightmare figures from a world we will never understand.

Where did they come from? (The script tells us Miami, implausibly citing their alleged tans, but if so they must have been living underground like moles.) How did they meet? Has Julian spent his entire life recruiting young psychopaths and sponging off their ill-gotten gains like some kind of sociopathic boxing promoter? What exactly is the nature of their relationship? (Let’s not even go there.)

Throughout the film, the characters Dancer and Julian encounter seem as unsure what to make us them as we are. Pushed by their port-side contact, Dancer makes some blunt statement about not having had a father, but that doesn’t really take us very far in terms of armchair psychology. Later in the film, when tearful hostage Dorothy Bradshaw (Mary LaRoche) demands to know “what kind of men” the pair are, the string of gnomic non-sequiturs the lizard-like Julian spits out in response (“women have no place in society”, “crying is aggressive and so is the law”, “people of your class don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence”) raise more questions than they answer.

All we know at the outset however is that, like all good agents, Julian has his boy learning proper English grammar (“how many characters on a street corner know how to say, ‘if I were you?’”), tempering Dancer’s sullen, animalistic incomprehension with his own twisted sense of refinement. Meanwhile, he gleefully obsesses over the poetic implications of the last words of the Dancer’s victims, which - in another wonderfully tweisted detail of Silliphant’s script - he scrupulously records in a notebook.

Add a young Richard Jaeckel to the equation as the duo’s feckless ‘wheelman’ - fish-faced, bowtied and alcoholic, he’s been drafted in at short notice after the phony taxi driver we saw in the opening got snuffed - and it’s clear the deck is stacked for some pretty hair-raising mayhem over the next sixty minutes or so.

As Angelini further notes, our ostensible ‘heroes’, the quotidian cops, don’t even get to share any screen-time with these outlandish villains. Mirroring the movie’s opening, Guthrie and Quine only make it to the final showdown in time to despairingly survey the carnage. Seemingly left speechless before the final fanfare crashes in, they are denied even their obligatory “well that just about wraps things up” sign off, closing the movie on a note of nihilistic self-destruction which an empty dedication to hard working SFPD does little to dissipate.

In spite of his legendary status amongst crime/noir aficionados, in truth I’ve always felt that Don Siegel’s work as a director can be a bit hit and miss (it’s difficult to imagine his cult gaining much traction on the basis of pictures like Private Hell 36, for example). Looking across his wider career however, he always seems to come alive when dealing with tales of morally ambiguous anti-heroes or outright maniacs of one kind or another - so of course it figures that he was absolutely at the top of his game for this one. Basically we’ve got the man who brought us ‘Riot in Cell Block 11’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ firing on all cylinders here, and the results are nothing short of spectacular. 

In fact, ‘The Lineup’ feels very much like the Ur-text of all past and future Siegel movies, revelling in the pulp-crime aesthetics of his earlier black & white pictures whilst prefiguring elements of the most memorable films he would go on to make over the next few decades (not only the high voltage action and San Fran location work of ‘Dirty Harry’, but the psychotic criminal protagonists of ‘The Killers’ (1964), the elliptical visual storytelling of ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973), and many more besides, I'm sure).

As Siegel wrangles raw, livewire energy, technical precision and unsettling, off-beat artistry here, it’s easy to understand why a young Michael Reeves made a pilgrimage to the director’s doorstep early in the ‘60s to prostrate himself before the master; as a concise summation of the director’s formal strengths and auteurist tics, ‘The Lineup’ is pretty hard to beat.

As with so many of these ‘50s Columbia flicks, the claustrophobic framing and expressionistic shadows of ‘traditional’ noir style have been thoroughly swept away in ‘The Lineup’ (aside from anything else, the entire movie takes place in daylight). Rather than merely falling back on a kind of bland quasi-realism however, Siegel and his DP Hal Mohr offer an alternative visual sensibility which proves just as compelling as the old-time good stuff.

It has often been said that, in a Siegel movie, the camera is always in the right place, and ‘The Lineup’ consistently bears this out, as he and Mohr make inspired use of the by-now-standard widescreen aspect ratio, framing the film’s locations in such a way as to highlight jagged, horizontal lines bisecting bright, white spaces, creating an anxious collage of portside cranes, highway overpasses, art deco tower blocks and advertising hoardings.

Throughout proceedings, the placid serenity of the San Francisco skyline is cut through with a jittery, urban energy, as examples of every means of mechanised transportation known to man (ships, planes, motorcycles - even a blimp at one point) roar hither and yon behind the action, emphasising the relentless velocity of the movie’s plotting whilst casually pre-empting the starkly modernist take on the crime genre inaugurated by John Boorman’s ‘Point Blank’ a decade later.

All of which of course is merely a high-falutin’ way of leading up to the fact that the extended car chase sequence which forms ‘The Lineup’s finale is totally out of control, incorporating a level of stunt-work, action direction and cranked up, adrenalin rush cutting which feels startlingly ahead of its time, pretty much single-handedly inaugurating the “beat THAT” lineage of attention-grabbing car action which would eventually go on to bring us the successive thrills of ‘Bullitt’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ and so on.

Certainly, I’m not aware of anything else from ‘50s that even comes close to this level of visceral excitement. Even though Siegel falls back on using back projection for most of the interior car shots, it’s at least the best back projection you’ll ever see, with the actors’ reactions and the movement of the ‘foreground’ car perfectly timed to match the hair-raising swerves and near misses of the pre-shot footage, lending it a sense of realism which rarely wavers.

In fact, the sweaty, maniacal claustrophobia of these ‘in-car’ shots - which see the crooks collapse into violent, recriminatory mania as their hostages cower and shriek and the car screeches crazily to avoid on-coming traffic - anticipate yet another trope which would become a staple of hardboiled filmmaking a few decades later, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic, where similar in-car chaos was utilised to great effect in films like Mario Bava’s ‘Rabid Dogs’ (1976) and Pasquale Festa Campanile’s Hitch-Hike (1977), amongst others.

And, when we move outside for the wider exterior shots, well, the stunt-work is just honest-to-god breath-taking, climaxing in a heart-stopping emergency stop / handbrake turn on the edge of an unfinished highway overpass which would have given Jackie Chan the jitters thirty years later. (3) 

Once we stop to think about it for a few minutes of course, much of Silliphant’s script for ‘The Lineup’ is outrageously implausible. Right from the outset, the idea that an international criminal cartel would go to the trouble of planting shipments of dope on unsuspecting tourists, only to then hire a pair of highly conspicuous out-of-town psychos to collect the goods, leaving a trail of murder victims and drug traces in their wake, is totally absurd.

And, that’s before we even get on to the practicalities of smuggling junk in the handles of ivory tableware, or - my personal favourite - the notion that a reclusive, wheelchair-bound mob boss would undertake a dope pick-up himself, in-person and apparently alone… and in a location which can only be reached by navigating multiple flights of stairs, no less!

But, when a movie’s writing is this consistently inventive and attention-grabbing, when the on-screen action is so fast-moving, so packed with wild beauty and delicious craziness, the viewer is forced to engage a mind-set usually reserved for watching giallo and euro-horror movies and simply ask, who cares?

As James Ellroy points out in his characteristically scabrous contributions to the commentary track for the film recorded alongside noir expert Eddie Muller, when it comes down to it, crime fiction is essentially bullshit. Nothing as sensational or destructive as the events portrayed in this film has ever gone down in the annals of real life crime in America - so as long as you’re making shit up, why not go wild?

As in a Fulci or Argento film, each one of the aforementioned scripting absurdities allows for the creation of cinematic moments - most of them heretofore unmentioned in this review - so audacious and unexpected that only the most joyless, movie-hating pedant would really have cause to complain.

From Vaughn Taylor’s ice-cold turn as ‘The Man’, to the assassination Dancer carries out in the steam bath of ‘The Seaman’s Club’, so loaded with unspoken sexual tension it’s a wonder it didn’t jam the projector, to the horribly suggestive sight of Julian tearing apart the innards of child’s Japanese doll as its owner looks on aghast and uncomprehending - almost every scene in ‘The Lineup’ offers something unforgettable. Like some golden treasury of pulp crime excess, it all serves to build a picture of a precarious, morally bankrupt world in which our bourgeois certainties might explode into bloody violence might explode at any moment.

For a ‘50s studio film, ‘The Lineup’ ultimately presents a remarkably frightening conception of the world, and, anchored by exceptional performances for Wallach and Keith, it remains entirely believable on an emotional level, even as the plotting skirts the fringes of outright insanity, helping cementing its place in the pantheon alongside ‘The Big Combo’, ‘Touch of Evil’ and ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ as one of the very best American crime films of the ‘50s. Hard-boiled cinema at its finest.

 -----

(1) You’ll recall Emile Meyer for his role as the crooked cop in ‘The Sweet Smell oSuccess’ (1957), or perhaps as the priest in Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (also ‘57), or as Rufus Ryker in ‘Shane’ (1953). Once you’ve seen him in anything however, his face’ll stick with you, that’s for sure.

(2) Outside of this film, I mainly know Robert (father of Brian) Keith for his role as the unconventional, sympathetic cop character in another excellent San Francisco noir, ‘Woman on the Run’ (1950), but as a solidly reliable character actor he played smaller roles in a raft of quote-unquote ‘classics’ over the years, including ‘The Wild One’ (’53), ‘Guys and Dolls’ (’55) and ‘Written on the Wind’ (’56).

(3) Legend has it that stuntman Guy Way performed this stunt with his own girlfriend in the back seat of the car, doubling the movie’s female hostage. She needed to be helped out of the vehicle, having entered a state of extreme shock, and Siegel later implied in an interview that the couple’s relationship never recovered.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Franco Files:
Gemidos de Placer /
‘Cries of Pleasure’

(1982)

OBLIGITORY DISCLAIMER: Readers should be aware that the screengrabs above are NOT sourced from Severin’s 2019 blu-ray edition of ‘Gemidos de Placer’, which I can confirm looks splendid. They originate instead from an older, seemingly VHS or TV-sourced, scan of this film which I happened to have knocking about.

One of the pleasures of life as a Jess Franco fan is that, just when you think you’ve finally got the drop on where the great man was coming from at any given point in his sprawling and tempestuous career, he can still turn around and surprise you.

Never was this more true than during the early 1980s, a period which saw Franco cranking out a frankly bewildering quantity and variety of celluloid, most of it delivered directly to the door of his sometime paymasters at Barcelona-based Golden Film International - a firm whose naive husband and wife proprietors can easily be pictured weeping uncontrollably as yet more couriers arrive at their office door bearing new film cans to add to the ever-growing mountain of unreleased / unreleasable product piling up around them… all courtesy of the tireless Senor Franco.

As more of Franco’s Golden-era films become readily available to viewers who were denied the opportunity to obsessively haunt back-street Spanish sex cinemas in the early 1980s (largely thanks to the noble efforts of Severin Films, Stephen Thrower and Francophile underworld of the fan-sub/trading circuit), his work during this creatively fertile era is increasingly revealed as a series of sharp left-hand turns, with his output during 1982 alone ranging from lackadaisical sex comedies to sado-erotic treasure hunts, neo-noir / new wave youth movies, gothic horrors and inexplicable, family-oriented kung-fu fantasies. In the midst of which, we find the little number we’re looking at today - one of the most sombre, disturbing and formally experimental works of his entire career.

Sketchily distributed around porno theatres for a few months in 1983, with promotional material consisting solely of a generic photo-collage poster featuring a man who doesn’t even appear in the movie thrusting his Y-fronts in the direction of Lina Romay’s face, ‘Gemidos de Placer’ [‘Cries of Pleasure’] is, like many of Franco’s best erotic films, a work that only a stone-cold psychopath could emerge from feeling frisky.

Yet another descent into the soul-withering, sex-horror netherworld previously explored in the likes of Lorna the Exorcist and Doriana Grey, ‘Gemidos..’ takes place, perversely, in just about the most beautiful location imaginable – a luxurious villa situated high on the cliffs above the director’s spiritual home, the Valencian coastal town of Calpe. (1)

Bright, elevated and open to the elements (not to mention publically visible for miles around), this villa seems a frankly absurd place for this tale of insular, amoral depravity and dead-eyed introspection to play out, but… would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that Franco is deliberately playing on some Antonioni-esque notion of spiritual disconnection between human beings and their environment here? I wouldn’t put it past him.

Beginning with a stunning vista of the Calpe’s unmistakable Peñón de Ifach, the film’s opening shot slowly pans across the bay to reveal the figure of Franco’s regular camera tech/right hand man during this period, Juan Solar, here playing the mute, guitar-strumming servant who will go on to act as mute witness to the assorted atrocities committed within the villa.

After zooming in for a close-up on Solar’s fingers picking out a cyclical guitar melody as he leans precariously on the balcony’s guard-rail, the camera then pulls back as a heart-rending Daniel White piece for solo cello abruptly cuts in on the soundtrack, revealing the shimmering surface of a swimming pool. In what appears to be the director’s tribute to ‘Sunset Boulevard’, a naked male corpse (recognisable to fans as Franco’s ubiquitous ‘80s leading man Antonio Mayans) floats face down in the water.

Sadly we don’t get a narrating voiceover from Mayans’ corpse in this case, but Solar’s character instead does the honours (dubbed with Franco’s own voice, weirdly), and it is within his warped, potentially unreliable, memories we will presumably be spending the next eighty-something minutes.

Already in this this extended opening shot, we have a Leone-esque sense of grandeur and clammy, melancholy feel which immediately sets ‘Gemidos..’ apart from the fly-by-night sex comedies and exploitation flicks which surround it in Franco’s ’82 filmography, but as we slide back, noir-style, into the past, the minimalist plot which begins to unfold nonetheless feels very much like a mish-mash of familiar bits and pieces, reheated from the director’s numerous earlier tales of Sadean libertines getting up to no good in Mediterranean beauty spots.

Antonio (Mayans), apparently an idle playboy of some kind, arrives home at his villa, bringing his latest squeeze Julia (Romay) to “meet his servants,” numbering both Fenul (Solar’s character) and Marta (Elisa Vella), who soon reveals to Julia that she is actually both Antonio’s long-term lover and kind-of adopted daughter.

(This bit of plotting is patently ridiculous, by the way - Marta claims that Antonio and his wife plucked her out of poverty on the Barbary Coast when she was a young girl, and that she has lived with them ever since… despite the fact that Vella’s features are closer to being East Asian than African, and that she is clearly around the same age as the other cast members! Franco’s full spectrum disdain for realism will be further discussed below.) (2)

“He raped me when I was twelve, and I’ve loved him ever since,” Marta casually states, a troubling assertion which very much sets the tone for much of what is to follow. And yes, in addition to his new girlfriend and his live-in slave girl, turns out that that insatiable rascal Antonio also has a wife to deal with - Martina, played by Rocío Freixas. And as it happens, she is being released from the clinic today, so she’ll be home in time for dinner. Great! (3)

As you’d reasonably expect of an ‘80s Franco joint, casual nudity, languid seductions and fevered tongue-waggling are soon the order of the day, but right from the outset, the sex here is dark, with Antonio reaching his first climax with Julia as he whispers of his plan to murder Martina and steal her (apparently considerable) fortune.

Of course, Antonio is also simultaneously conspiring with Marta to do away with Julia, but… needless to say, it all becomes a bit of a blur before long, especially once Marta brings out another round of her “special cocktails” (“it’s an old recipe, from my ancestors”). They seem to have quite an effect. And, at the end of the day, does it really matter who’s doing what to whom anyway, so long as everybody cums and somebody dies?

“Twenty minutes of plot, sixty minutes of sex” may be a common complaint whenever quote-unquote ‘mainstream’ film criticism tries to get to grips with with erotica/porn, but here Franco proves that in the right hands (so to speak), the sex itself can be both aesthetically and narratively compelling, even as it progresses at the strung out, tidal pace at which he prefers to weave his weird spell. After the initial set up, the narrative progresses (in both linear and emotional terms) almost entirely through the compulsive, obsessional sexual (and occasionally homicidal) behaviour of the characters within the villa.

And, we haven’t yet mentioned the film’s primary technical innovation - namely, the fact that, uniquely within his filmography, Franco chose to shoot much of ‘Gemidos de Placer’ as a series of extended, real time single takes, in the manner of Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.

Zooming and refocusing mid-shot in order to save time and minimise camera set-ups had of course been Franco’s standard MO for many years at this point, but even so, the amount of rehearsal and pre-planning needed to keep his cast engaged and on-point, and his compositions varied and imaginative, across ten or twelve minutes of uncut screen time must have been considerable.

Belying the semi-improvisational, “shoot first, ask questions later” methodology with which Franco is generally assumed to have assembled his films, ‘Gemidos..’ in fact stands as a testament to the kind of hard graft he was prepared to put into even the most marginal, sparsely distributed projects, when inspiration struck.

Restricted to a fixed camera position, acting as his won operator as per usual, the director’s trusty zoom lens is of course running hot throughout, as he delves once more into his hypnotic, all-consuming pursuit of sexual abstraction. Though perhaps not as psychedelic as some other Franco projects, ‘Gemidos..’ certainly has its moments.

Ranging far and wide from his voyeur’s vantage point in the centre of the room, the director/camera man shoots the languorous depravity being enacted at his behest through distorting glass screens, swinging bead curtains and even the gauze of a Japanese print screen, at times transforming the villa’s gaudily prosaic holiday home furnishings into his patented brand disorientating avant garde freakery. By and large however, this particular outing feels more narcotic than psychotropic; more an addict’s exhausted reverie than a cosmic trip into the depths of the upholstery.

Nonetheless, anyone who’d still write Franco off as a lazy or slap-dash filmmaker should consider the effort which must have gone into planning the single, extended shot which comprises Marta’s violation, murder and the disposal of her body. From his fixed position at the top of the villa’s staircase, Franco covers all of the necessary action, scanning up and down to the stairs with perfect timing to catch characters as they move from room to room, zeroing in on faces and details as required - essentially using a technique first adopted as a cost-cutting exercise to mount a remarkable display of cinematic virtuosity.

It is one of the inherent ironies of the director’s eccentric approach to cinema however that appreciation of his technical achievement here will likely be lost on many first time viewers, as they instead try to deal with the unconvincing-bordering-on-non-existent ‘special effects’ through which Marta’s death is conveyed. Franco always of course favoured, shall we say, ‘emblematic’ make-up effects over any attempt at realism, but the practical difficulties of applying stage-blood to Elisa Vella’s body whilst a shot was actually in progress seems to have pretty much flummoxed him here.

The results prove so half-hearted that they fail to really serve their intended narrative purpose, leaving us temporarily uncertain what has actually occurred. Have they just cut her a bit? Is this part of some kinky game? Has she passed out or gone to sleep? Oh, no, wait -- here comes poor old Fenul to drag the body away. That’s… pretty dark.

In a sense though, perhaps it’s just as well that the presentation of this murder is so botched - the sheer callous cruelty of seeing a remorseless couple casually kill their devoted daughter/slave in a drugged up haze midway through a sex act would be so horrible as to be almost unwatchable, were it presented in a more realistic manner. Even by the twisted standards of a Jess Franco sex-drama, the extent to which Marta is treated as human garbage by the people she claims to love her feels truly vile. (The Marquis de Sade, who is generously assigned a story credit here, would no doubt have approved.)

Nymphomania may be a ubiquitous concept in erotica, but Franco is one of few filmmakers I’m aware of who manages to portray this much ballyhooed affliction, not as a mere fantasy of female promiscuity, but as something closer to what it would presumably boil down to in reality; as a kind of all-consuming sickness, an unscratchable itch, prompting an agony of ever more remote, unsatisfactory physical debasement and mental dysfunction.

Seeing Lina Romay writhing alone on a sofa in a darkened room, contorting her body in a truly alarming (even by her standards) auto-erotic fit, whilst a plaintive guitar melody is accompanied by Franco’s own eerie, wordless vocals on the soundtrack, is a weird and dissonant experience indeed. Rivalling the aforementioned ‘Lorna..’ and ‘Doriana..’ as one of Lina’s most extreme performances, her body language in ‘Gemidos..’ becomes increasingly monstrous and unnatural as the film progresses, further complicating its ostensible function as common-or-garden erotica.

Likewise, whilst it is obligatory for any remotely kinky erotic movie to have somebody banging on about the intertwined nature of pleasure and pain at some point, Franco here dares here to remind us that this relationship is a two-way street. Pain may become pleasurable, sure, whatever, but physical pleasure can also blur all too easily into pain, and by the final stretch of this film’s debauchery, the two states have become effectively indistinguishable, as the characters’ ever-more desperate coupling begins to seem less like personal gratification and more like some kind of compulsive self-mutilation.

For a while there in fact, it seems as if poor old Antonio is actually going to be fucked to death, as, exhausted after innumerable bouts of sexual congress, he painstakingly tries to rouse himself for one more go-round, as Lina, equally pale and far-gone, dutifully mounts him. Essentially presenting sex as self-destruction, it’s an expression of mania worthy of a Zulawski movie.

Though ‘Gemidos de Placer’ lacks the pulpy / fantastical accoutrements of Franco’s earlier tales of Sadean evil-doers – no red-tinted black masses, basements full of frozen lovers or cannibal feasts for these libertines – a more prosaic, more unsettling evil is revealed in Fenul’s mumbled voiceovers, which serve to drag the film firmly into the realm of horror.

Introducing a terrible flipside to Antonio and Martina’s strutting, elitist exhibitionism, he implies that one of his main roles within the villa is to dispose of the bodies, recalling an occasion on which his master and mistress apparently killed a young boy and pleasured themselves whilst smearing their with his blood (“..he was so little - they sliced his throat like a pig”).

“I don't like it when they become soggy and begin to dissolve… covered in flies..,” he muses at the film’s conclusion, implying a recurring pattern of sexually-motivated murder which these characters have been indulging in for…. who knows how long?

In view of this knowledge of course, Martina’s closing declaration that “unlimited debauchery awaits” following Antonio’s death sounds none too promising, either for the two surviving women, or for anyone else for that matter. How long will either of them last, and who else will suffer at their hands in the process, we’re forced to ask as they painfully maneuverer themselves once again into sixty-nine position for a desultory, exhausting final sex scene which - like so much in this uniquely grim inversion of softcore smut - feels more funereal than erotic.

------------------------ 

SCORECARD: 
 
Kink: 4/5 
Creepitude: 4/5 
Pulp Thrills: 2/5 
Altered States: 3/5 
Sight Seeing: 4/5 

-------------------------

(1) If you missed it the first time around, please do check out the first (and thus far only, sadly) instalment of my Great Jess Franco Location Tour - primarily covering Calpe - here.

(2) Elisa Vella’s only other credits on IMDB comprise three other Franco films from the early/mid ‘80s, the best known being ‘Mansion of the Living Dead’ (also 1982).

(3) In addition to appearing in a number of Franco projects during 1982-3, Rocío Freixas appears to have been a regular fixture in lower tier Spanish exploitation and sex cinema between ’76 and the early ‘80s, capping off her career with an appearance in Jose A. Rodriguez’s no doubt uproarious El Erótico y Loco Túnel del Tiempo [‘The Wacky and Erotic Tunnel of Time’] in 1983.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Pulp Non-Fiction:
The Satan Trap:
Dangers of the Occult

edited by Martin Ebon
(Doubleday, 1976)








A companion piece of sorts to last week’s post on The Satan Seller, I don’t have much to say about this odd hardback - recently liberated from a box of books on its way to the charity shop - which can’t be easily gleaned from perusing the scans above.

As you will note from the list of his other works, Martin Ebon (1917-2006) seems to have been knocking out paranormal tomes of one kind or another at a prolific rate through the ‘70s (having apparently moved on from his previous specialist subject of communism). As such, ‘The Satan Trap’ has a “clips show” kind of feel to it, consisting almost entirely of brief extracts from articles first published in journals edited by… Martin Ebon.

Giving it a skim, it’s all much as one might expect, complete with a hang-wringing introduction citing campus unrest, “rootless frustration”, horror movies and LSD a factors encouraging young Americans to blunder blindly into meddling with forces they cannot understand.

Though I can claim no knowledge of Mr Ebon’s wider oeuvre or personal beliefs, his war-time service in the U.S. State Department and Office of War Information tends to suggest he was no greater fan of the communist regimes he spent much of the ‘50s and ‘60s writing about, causing me to reflect on the unhappy possibility that the poor fellow actually spent his entire career studying things he didn’t like. (There’s a beautiful symmetry to the fact that he published ‘World Communism Today’ in 1948, followed by ‘Witchcraft Today’ in 1971.)

Be that as it may, I do love the photograph of him holding court at the American Society of Psychical Research on the back cover here. I really hope that he kept a human skull on his desk in his wood-panelled study, and had the decency to smoke a pipe whenever naïve young people came to consult him on matters pertaining to the dark arts. I mean, you’d have to really, wouldn’t you?

The interesting cover painting for ‘The Satan Trap’ is by Kurt Vargo, a veteran New York-based artist who appears to still be working today.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Pulp Non-Fiction:
The Satan Seller
by Mike Warnke

(Logos Books, 1972)

Naturally the ‘Pulp Non-Fiction’ header on this post should be read with heavy inverted commas, as I suspect that this particular volume rarely ventures within spitting distance of the truth…. but then, this series of posts has already veered pretty thoroughly into the realm of outright bullshit in the past, so what the hell, right?

Anyway - I’m sure that many collectors of weird/fantastical paperbacks will be able to relate to the experience of scanning across dusty shelves, alighting upon some black spines featuring exciting words like SATAN or DEVIL, and boom, before we know it, we’re heading home with a bunch of proto-Satanic Panic Evangelical Christian literature warning readers of the nebulous perils of dabbling with the occult.

Indeed, this particular sub-genre of quasi-theological blather seems to be have been so widespread during the 1970s that such volumes are sometimes difficult to avoid, even on this relatively godless side of the Atlantic.

Of course, the back cover copy here provides us with a few dead giveaways right out of the gate (“anti-occult counselling work”, “Melodyland Christian Center”), and even the cover artwork feels a bit ‘off’, with the hooded priest bearing a curious resemblance to those impressionistic “arms raised in praise” figures commonly seen on Xtian publications. (I’d like to think that this piece provided an unusually off-colour assignment for the guy who usually spent his days doing artwork for the Good News Bible or whatever.)

But, the publication date (1972) seems ripe for a bit of that post-Manson ‘Satanic hippie paranoia’ vibe I find so irresistible, and the prospect of a purportedly factual, first-hand account of some young fellow’s descent into the black arts proved too enticing for me to resist picking it up and at least giving it a quick skim-read.

A work of limited literary merit, ‘The Satan Seller’ is written largely in the perfunctory, “this thing happened, which made me feel bad, then this thing happened, which made me feel good” style common to ‘60s / ‘70s sleaze paperbacks - but with a near complete absence of sleaze. True, there are off-hand references to ‘sexual openness’ and ‘carnal favours’ to get the believers’ forbidden juices flowing, whilst the many women Mike Warnke encounters on his journey through human misery are routinely referred to as ‘chicks’ and ‘nymphos’ - but, mindful of their target audience no doubt, that’s about as far as the authors choose to go in this regard.

What is abundantly clear from the outset however is the implicit social conservatism and cultural insularity underpinning this whole racket.

After a hard luck childhood in rural Tennessee, young Mike finds himself packed off to Southern California to live with Roman Catholic relatives - so those would be his first two mistakes, presumably. Thereafter, he is soon frequenting - heaven help us - coffee shops, where, somewhat ironically, he is able to source “hard liquor” (really, this book is as such a substance abuse memoir as anything else), and also finds himself interacting for the first time with real life black people. (In fairness, this is not overtly criticised in the text, but y’know… they still make the point of mentioning it.)

Things go from bad to worse for Mike once he makes the fateful decision to enrol in - saints preserve us! - a liberal arts college, where, before you know it, he’s attempting to fit in with his groovy peers by “blowing weed” and experimenting with the wild world of LSD.

From there of course, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump until he’s mainlining speed and boosting his income by pushing the dreaded “H” around campus;

“I finally missed so many classes I was officially classified a drop-out. This put me into a different category now, a campus hanger-on. There were several of us, and we just hung around the student union building all ‘zacked’ up and looking as weird as possible.”

Deathless cliché though it may seem these days, it’s worth noting that the transition from ‘nice’ to ‘nasty’ drugs was admittedly a central narrative of the early ‘70s counterculture. Far less believable to me however is the idea that all of this campus hard drug use is supposed to be taking place prior to 1965 - a year which Warnke and his co-authors retrospectively diagnose as “a downward turning point for the entire world - for mankind”.

Without further elaboration, Civil Rights marches in Alabama, the Watts riots and Pope Paul VI’s visit to New York(!) are all cited as events signifying “..a quickening of the conflict between good and evil, God and Satan” during 1965. Furthermore;

“It was about then that the sale of narcotics suddenly accelerated, the flower children blossomed from out of nowhere, restlessness manifested itself in thousands of senseless acts all over the planet, rock music hypnotized, blanked-out thinking, and stirred confused youth to defiance of old values and traditions. Evil seemed to be afoot on Planet Earth.”

I think we get the picture. The “zacked up” Mike Warnke of 1965 however proves somewhat more susceptible to the zeitgeist, and when an acquaintance introduces him to a cabal of mystically-minded, well-to-do hipsters, he’s in like Flynn;

“We sat around in a circle and talked and smoked pot. It was not even a ritual. Just hip talk with genuine uninhibited interest in one another. No case histories, no sir! We did not even exchange last names. Dean had cautioned me about that.

As we got higher, the conversation ranged farther out into the twilight zone. Soon the fellows were snuggling up with the girls. And then they split off into couples. It was great, because there was a guy for every guy, not like most places I had been where there was a chronic chick shortage.

Cool-looking, sexy girls too. And every one was liberal. I mean, liberal! These chicks were free-lovers.”

Be warned readers - I’m a bit of a liberal myself, so who knows what might be going on around here after dark.

Suitably impressed, the young Warnke is soon a regular at these parties, finding himself on “a sex bender that was greater than any bag I had ever tried before”.

Expanding his gig as a dealer for his sinister friend Dean into more of a higher level bagman/fixer role on behalf of various shady and vague criminal enterprises, our hero gradually groks to the fact that he’s now knee-deep in “..the witchcraft kick”;

“The witches were mostly eighteen to thirty years of age, men and women from all walks of life, and I mean all: salesmen, carpenters, teachers, students, college professors, housewives, clerks, businessmen, truck drivers, and even a few preachers and priests. We were mostly white and educated, but it was open to all comers, and we had an integrated, ecumenical base that any institution would be proud of.

You could even specialize, like picking a major at college.

There were students of Satanism (utilizing the power of the devil through worship); demonology (summoning different demons - the devil’s helpers); necromancy (communication with the dead through the summoning up of spirits); vampirism (belief in vampires, blood-sucking ghosts); lycanthropy (the assumption of the form and traits of a wolf through witchcraft).

But as I said, I was getting impatient with these secondary matters, especially as I spoke to those in the know who hinted about evil spells, solemn rites, hard-core Satan worship and really deep stuff.”

Great! Let’s get to it then, shall we?

“In the centre of the circle was the altar - a granite slab supported on two sawhorses. On the slab, a girl lay on her back, nude and waiting, her skin glowing red in the light given off by the candles and the balefire glowing in a crucible nearby. An inverted cross and an image of a goat’s head stood at each end of the altar.

[…] 

The service was a Black Mass. All the traditional rituals were reversed and deliberately profaned. The sacraments were desecrated. Blasphemies took the place of prayers. Words attributed to Satan were read from the book, The Great Mother, which Dean, now standing, held open, resting the back of the book on the girl’s stomach.  

[…]

I had been high on a massive intravenous jack of speed, excited by the sudden chance to be “in,” and in addition, something in the air was going to my head. From having read and talked about rituals, I suddenly realized that the smoke curling up from the crucible on the altar was fumes of deadly nightshade - belladonna. When properly vaporized, it gave off fumes which put you in the right state of mindlessness. Under all these influences, my mind drifted off.

[…]

Later, after Dean had changed back to his street clothes - his pin-striped suit and well-pressed trousers - metamorphosed again to just an ordinary, everyday guy, I said, ‘This is for me, man. When can I get initiated?’ 

We got into the car. ‘At the next full moon,’ he said thoughtfully.”

Well, not exactly the most imaginative literary Black Mass I’ve ever encountered, but it’ll do.

Notes: 

1. What’s a ‘balefire’, exactly? Wiktionary definition. Filed away for future usage. Thanks, ‘The Satan Seller’.

2. Searching for a Satanic grimoire entitled ‘The Great Mother’, the closest match I can come up with is The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, published in 1955 by Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann. Although it’s easy to believe Dr Neumann may have claimed some space on college-educated hippie bookshelves, I very much doubt he had much to say therein on the subject of Satanism, so your guess is as good as mine here really.

Anyway, as the book goes on, Mike is properly initiated in to The Brotherhood, subsequently enjoying a memorable lesson in potion-making with a suburban witch, and seeing his drug-dealer gig expanded into that of a full-time Satanic evangelist, praying upon hip, turned on youngsters, with a steady stream of neophytes demanded by his masters. (“Screen out the squares. Soften out the marks. Provide the readiness,” he is urged.)

These particular Satanists, it soon becomes clear, live in mortal fear of actual, physical demons popping up out of the ether to molest them, should they snigger during rituals or place their toes outside the magickal circle, whilst a further note of paranoia is added by the mysterious presence of the tall, slim, taciturn ‘adepts’ who sometimes attend The Brotherhood’s rituals and are treated for all due fear and reverence. (Distant shadows of UFO/conspiracy mythology already creeping in here perhaps?)

In this vein, one thing ‘The Satan Seller’ seems at pains to make clear is that the organisation Mike has joined is a big-time proposition, its tentacles expanding into all corners of conventional society. Many of its adherents are wealthy and sophisticated, and it boasts week-long training courses, a strict line management structure and assigned offices dealing with “coven business” - filing invoices, answering correspondence and so forth. (“The chicks did a good job of keeping the place neat and tidy,” Mike notes when his newly refurbished apartment becomes one such establishment.)

Delightfully, there’s also a lot of detail about the down-to-earth practicalities of operating a covert Satanic sect;

“‘Say, Mike,’ Paul said, ‘will you give me a hand with this altar?’

‘Sure, Paul, be right there.’ I went over. ‘For the love of the devil, what did they make this slab out of, and where did you get it? It weighs a ton.’ We heaved the slab of black granite marble into the back of Paul’s pickup, then the heavy box of robes and ritual items.”

Various shenanigans which need not detain us here ensue as Mike swiftly makes his way through the ranks of the brotherhood. Enthralling as all this may seem however, things are dulled by the flat, pointedly non-salacious and comprehensively square fashion in which events are conveyed, leavened, inevitably, with achingly dull passages of soul-searching self-reflection. (For a Satan-worshipping drug-fiend, Warnke seems terribly concerned with getting to bed early.)

I did however enjoy the following bit, in which Mike, having obtained mastery over his own small coven, discusses livening up their dusty old rituals with a similarly ascended “chick”, whose forthright views he finds a little challenging;

“‘I think you need to get rid of all that archaic stuff, put a more mod appeal into the rituals. Use some acid-rock music to set the mood. Then you can shut off the music before you start the actual ceremony. Get a little hand clapping into the meetings, and, sure, go heavier into the blood and the bread.’

‘We’ve got some people who still go to Catholic Mass, then come down to the second stage,’ she continued. They go to Mass for the status and because it’s a front for the benefit of their parents, and so on, but they’re hip with us and eager to do little jobs, like stealing communion bread laid out by the priests -’

[…]

For a split second, her eyes narrowed. She wet her lips with her tongue and continued, ‘And holy water. You know the procedure with the holy bread. After the Catholic priest has consecrated it to Jesus, the guy pockets as much as he can without being noticed. Then we step on it to desecrate it and pass it around whilst we’re drinking the blood or whatever.’”

Desecrated communion wafers! Boy, I bet nobody ever thought of that one before. What kind of so-called Satanists are these guys, anyway?

Further hi-jinks ensue later in the same chapter, when\ the aforementioned “chick” instructs Mike to attend a nearby “rock concert” in order to undertake some missionary work;

“I had planned on using acid-rock to keep our young crowd tuned in. Now we had a chance to renew our acquaintance of what was ‘in’ with the hard-core hippie cult when we made the scene in Victorville.

[…]

Paul knew where we were headed and had Hank turn off on an ungraded road that went along a riverbed which had only a thin stream of water in it. Where level land fanned out in a broad valley dotted with scanty shrub, we found them, the flower children, blank eyes staring out through veils of hair.

[…]

Some had moved wrecked, engineless cars to the riverbank to use as dormitories. Some were moving aimlessly down the road, tripped out. Others were awake enough to beat noise out of tinny guitars, and a few were animate enough to sway to the discordant rhythms.”

I love how palpable the post-Manson mightmare of feral, junkyard-dwelling, braindead hippies is here. Feel the fear!

Half a century down the line, we might also be apt to wonder at the fact that the young Mr Warnke - a college drop-out who takes massive quantities of drugs, practices free love, wears bell bottoms and polka dots and ministers to a mystic, underground cult - considers himself to be entirely outside of the hippie movement. But, well… there are hippies and then there are hippies, I suppose. Who knows.

Besides which, we probably also have to take account of the fact that, despite being neck deep in counter-cultural hoo-hah, Mike still somehow manages to come on like the grand duke of squaresville. I suppose evangelical xtian rebirth will do that to you. This can be observed all too clearly a few paragraphs later, when he observes;

“When it came time for the blast, some pros in rock entertainment showed up.”

Befriending the leader of these “pros” (Lydia, “wrapped in a slinky silver sari”), Mike is allowed on-stage, interrupting their “music” (as he disdainfully refers to it, with inverted commas) for an impromptu rap on the joys of Satanism;

“‘You do for him,’ I pointed out, ‘and he does for you. When you get on a bummer, he’s there to ease you. Have hassles? No sweat. He takes care of your cares. He gives you an easy coasting and gives you a nice, soft crash pad when you need it. Heard of the magic dragon? That’s Lucifer, man! Ever hear of Pan? He’s love, man. Free and easy love. Satan’s cloven hooves are from Pan, and Pan was the natural god of love and fertility. Satan’s the pusher of all your heart’s desires and pushes up the flowers of the earth. Well, all I can say, man, is: get with it. You know.’”

You forgot ‘far out’ and ‘dig it’, Mike.

Evidently a full-blown addict by this point, Mike begins mistreating his cult-assigned slave girls (off-page, of course) and, becoming ever more frenzied in his dedication to the cause, starts sacrificing cats during his coven’s rituals, before encouraging his followers to dedicate their pinkie fingers to Satan, cutting them off and eating them(!), which I think officially makes them more bad-ass than the Yakuza, though I’d have to double-check.

Further echoes from the nexus of shady rumours which accumulated in the wake of the Manson trial [see my post on Ed Sanders’ ‘The Family’ here] can meanwhile be detected In the following digression;

“At one of the secondary meetings I got to talk with my old friend the police officer, who was present with a young lady.

‘Are you the guys who are killing all those dogs and draining their blood?’ he asked me. ‘Reports of this have increased by 500 percent over the past three months.’ He shook his head. ‘Would you talk to your people? The whole thing is causing quite a litter problem.’ I remembered reading reports in the San Francisco paper about an increase in the number of dead animals found along the highways, so I guess it was not exactly confined to our area. In some cases, the incision was made as expertly as any surgeon’s - a ‘tribute’ to our movement’s students in this art.”

Mike’s higher ups in the Satanic organisation are apparently so impressed by his evangelical fervour that, before he can even get his head together, he finds himself hustled on-board a private jet bound for (where else?) Salem, MS, there to be inducted into the company of what seem to be the next in a never-ending series of layers of well-to-do Devil-worshipping big-shots.

From hereon-in, ‘The Satan Seller’s authors go very heavy on the overtly fantastical paranoia / conspiracy stuff, portraying the Satanic overlords as the high level source of every evil on the face of the earth;

“The word Illuminati was whispered around here, too, though it was still the wispiest of references. […] A worldwide, super-secret control group with perhaps as few as a dozen at the very top… with key men controlling governments, economies, armies, food supplies… pulling the strings on every major international event… and not just now, but for generations, centuries, since the beginning of civilisation… manipulating men by their egos and their appetites, rewarding and depriving, enraging and pacifying, raising up first one side and then the other, maintaining a balance of frustration, bitterness and despair…?”

Poor old Anton LaVey and his Wurlitzer organ don’t get much of a look-in, in other words.

(Actually, LaVey makes a brief cameo in the following chapter, when big-shot Mike Warnke runs into him at some boring occult conference, summarily dismissing him, accurately though with no small degree of hypocrisy in this context, as a jive-ass phony.)

And… that just about concludes the ‘fun’ part of the book, sadly, as shortly thereafter, Mike is double-crossed by one of his underlings, forcibly ODed and thrown out on the street as part of an internal cult power struggle - at which point he finally comes to the realisation that leading a sect of blood-thirsty devil-worshippers can be a pretty cut-throat business, and that self-proclaimed devotees of evil do not necessarily make for the most reliable friends.

The narrative subsequently segues back into what I’m going to assume is something slightly closer to Mike Warnke’s actual life story, as, strung out and destitute on the mean streets of San Diego, he pulls a full 180 on his earlier life choices and, uh…. joins the navy.

Safely back within the nurturing bosom of the military-industrial complex, he in short order finds Jesus, gets shipped out to Vietnam, wonders how he can ever reconcile his new Christian faith with the horrors he finds there, heads back home shell-shocked but serene, begins his ministry, and decides that hitting the road on an “I was a teenage devil worshipper” ticket will be a good way to make a quick bu - I mean, uh, expose the evils of the international Satanist conspiracy which blights all of our lives and prevents the Lord’s earthly paradise from becoming a reality.

And speaking of making a quick buck, if there was one thing Warnke learned from his days as a Satan Seller, it’s how to milk it for all it’s worth. In addition to t-shirts, baseball caps and the book I currently hold in my hand, 1972 found Mike Warnke & Associates of Danville, Kentucky offering no less than six record albums for sale to the faithful - seven bucks a piece, postage paid.

Did these albums contain “music” I wonder? And does it lose the inverted commas when offered in praise of the correct deity? Or are they just testifyin’ and such like? I’m sure a brief google search would tell all, but I really don’t want to go down that particular wormhole just at the moment.

For now, I’ll merely conclude by noting that, for all its shameless hucksterism and bland / unimaginative prose, the central, Satanism-related segments of ‘The Satan Seller’ at least provides a fascinating (and frequently uproarious) insight into the curious confluence of mixed up ideas which initially emerged from conservative/right wing reaction to the counter-culture of the late 1960s, latching directly onto the psychic blowback from Manson, Altamont, Patty Hearst and the era’s sundry other hippie horror stories.

Often recalling the furtive, barely disguised sexual fantasies first propagated by the original witch-hunters of the late middle ages, the kind of ideas and imagery wantonly thrown about in books like this one would gradually mutate over the next few years, acquiring a degree of spurious mainstream legitimacy as they migrated into the realm of pop psychology, precipitating the more genuinely dangerous delusions of the 1980s ‘Satanic Panic’ movement. But that, thankfully, is a story for another dark night of the soul.




Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Book & Film:
The Yakuza
by Leonard Schrader

(Futura Books, 1975)

A uniquely ambitious U.S./Japanese co-production, heavily promoted by Warner Bros in the apparent belief that the notion of Japanese gangsters could provide them with some kind of post-‘Enter the Dragon’ East-meets-West cultural sensation, Sydney Pollack’s 1974 film ‘The Yakuza’ was, I think it’s safe to say, not an entirely successful venture.

The movie certainly has some strong plus points - a compelling, Casablanca-ish star-crossed romance played out between Robert Mitchum and Kishi Keiko (the casting of an capable actress who was at least vaguely within Mitchum’s own age range is to be commended); excellent production design, photography and fight choreography (most of this can probably be attributed to personnel provided by production partners Toei); and perhaps best of all, a powerful, characteristically stoic performance from ninkyo yakuza icon Takakura Ken, who could easily have transitioned into a crossover Hollywood career on the strength of his work here, had the film proved a hit.

For the most part though, ‘The Yakuza’ proves a let-down - distant, uninvolving and terminally unexciting, it never really manages to crack the surface of the sinister criminal underworld it purports to be laying bare for American viewers. Whereas we really want to camera to plunge us into the alleyways and dive bars of old Tokyo, blades and bullets flying as our heroes find themselves up to their eyeballs in international intrigue and tangled bushido melodrama, instead we get bland, master-shot heavy scenes set in ex-pat apartments or ornamental gardens, in which aspects of Japanese culture are painstakingly explained to the viewer, as if cribbed from a guidebook somebody skimmed on the flight over.

Emotionally speaking, little in the filmed version of the story really lands the way it should, and for viewers with even the slightest familiarity with actual yakuza eiga (which would admittedly have included practically no one in the film’s original U.S. audience), the movie’s crime and action content proves very weak tea indeed.

Discussing what went wrong with the production in subsequent interviews, co-writer Paul Schrader has diagnosed the problem pretty concisely. He and and his brother Leonard had conceived the project as a violent action movie. Eventual director / producer Sydney Pollack however evinced a strong dislike for / disinterest in filming action, instead expressing a wish to make a more cerebral drama about cross-cultural tensions in post-war Japan.

To the chagrin of genre movie fans the world over, Pollack does not seem to have understood that cultural differences could be effectively explored through action, and the fact that the director had no direct experience of life in Japan before jumping on a plane to begin production does not seem to have helped matters. Hence, we end up with hastily roped in Asian-American actors holding forth about honour and giri whilst gazing into ornamental fish ponds, and a film which comprehensively failed to launch a new golden age of trans-Pacific commercial movie-making. Ah well.

For an insight into how great ‘The Yakuza’ could have been under more favourable circumstances however, I highly recommend tracking down Leonard Schrader’s tie-in novelisation, published by Warner Bros’ paperback imprint in the U.S. and Futura Books in the U.K. Presumably offering a purer vision of the Schrader brothers’ initial intentions for the project, it is, to put it plainly, an absolutely fantastic read. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the best popular/genre novels I’ve read in recent years.

Somewhat at the gnarlier end of ‘70s airport paperback prose, Leonard’s writing here is raw, pulpy and direct, but it gets the job done. In stark contrast to the movie, he draws us in close to the characters, effectively short-circuiting this reader’s jaded critical faculties to ensure that even the more generic of the thriller plot-twists encountered by retired L.A. private eye and former Tokyo resident Harry Kilmer when he returns to a now-much-changed Japan in search of an old friend’s kidnapped daughter, feel urgent and fraught with personal significance.

Presumably Mitchum had already been cast when Schrader banged out this prose extrapolation of his original story, and Kilmer’s retirement, reluctant tee-totalism and habit of crunching down indigestion tablets all signal that we’re dealing here with a protagonist of a certain age, who is perhaps not in the best of physical shape for undertaking such a gruelling adventure. By contrast, his sidekick/companion on the mission, young punk Dusty Newman - a boring and forgettable character when played by Richard Jordan in the film - really comes alive here, fronting like an escapee from an Elmore Leonard book:

“Twenty-six, husky and brash, Dusty was dressed like a citrus salad: lime-green bellbottoms, lemon-lime shirt and burnt orange army jacket. He was unkempt, grubby and septic, and he didn’t care who knew it. He was everything the well-dressed detective shouldn’t be. He was chasing a turd-brown Buick.”

The function of the relationship between the two Americans is clear. The melancholic Kilmer, an old-hand at Japan having stayed on there after his war-time service, was forced to abandon his true love and return to the U.S. after the return of her hardline traditionalist ‘brother’ (Tanaka Ken - the Takakura character, of course) made their marriage impossible. The taciturn Kilmer has no reason to open up about all this, or indeed to explain the philosophical underpinnings or behavioural peculiarities of Japanese society in general, but the presence of Dusty - the brash, dumb Ugly American and presumed surrogate for the U.S. reader - gives both him and his thinnly sketched, exposition-spouting ex-pat buddies reason to spill their guts and fill in the blanks, educating us in turn.

As readers familiar with their New Hollywood history will be well aware, Leonard Schrader was uniquely placed to pull off the careful, cross-cultural balancing act required for a project like this, having spent much of his adult life in Japan, enthusiastically embracing the nation’s culture after initially arriving there and mastering the language in order to carry out missionary work (an obligation arising from the Schraders’ strict religious upbringing) - or perhaps just to escape the draft, depending on which source you choose to believe.

Captivated by the ninkyo yakuza films he found playing at local cinemas, and particularly by the intractable moral conflicts underpinning their melodramatic plotlines, Leonard appears to have communicated his enthusiasm to his brother Paul - at the time a budding film critic and protégé of Pauline Kael - who, having apparently managed to watch “around fifty” yakuza flicks at Toei’s Japanese language theatre in L.A., soon became one of the first writers to discuss the genre in the English language, penning an influential essay, ‘Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer’, published in Film Comment magazine in January 1974. [You can read it here.]

According to Wikipedia (so take this as you will), Leonard’s involvement with the yakuza meanwhile wasn’t merely limited to the movies, with the years 1969-73 reportedly finding him teaching American Literature at Kyoto University by day whilst “..slipping by night into the subculture of the Yamaguchi-gumi,” whatever that might imply. At around the same time, he met his future wife (Chieko Schrader), so we can perhaps see more than a touch of autobiography creeping into his work here, irrespective of the book’s hard-boiled pulp/genre approach.

Needless to say, this background allows Schrader to engage with this book’s Japanese setting and characters with far greater authenticity and depth than that achieved by Pollack’s film, in spite of his, shall we say, ‘rough-hewn’ prose style and unapologetically macho authorial voice.

The Dusty character in particular gains a compelling character arc here which never quite comes across in the film. Initially dismissive of what he sees as the absurd, masochistic rituals which govern the conduct of tough guy business in Japan, he eventually gets the point (in more ways than one) once shit gets real and he finds himself forced to defend his friend’s extended family from attack.

His fate, as an uncomprehending, Hawaiian shirt-wearing yahoo who meets his end thousands of miles from home, dying in a manner which the solemn Japanese hard cases around him find to be entirely in keeping with their ideals of nobility and self-sacrifice, proves strangely moving, contributing to the impressive head of emotional steam which Schrader manages to generate through the second half of his novel.

Again, it’s difficult for me to really express the extent to which this novel knocked me sideways. What more can I say - I was captivated, to the extent that, when we reach a passage in which an innocent victim is senselessly gunned down, lending Kilmer and Tanaka the impetus they need to put their differences aside and embark on a combined pursuit of bloody vengeance, I found it difficult to even read.

A singularly grim incident, relayed by Schrader with an unusually explicit, unflinching realism which feels entirely necessary to the occasion, this proved a real “close yr eyes and take ten deep breaths before turning the page” kind of moment, the like of which I’ve only very rarely encountered as an adult reader.

Revenge, Schrader is keen to communicate to us here, may be a rather sordid and unedifying concept in the west, but under the precepts of bushido which (in terms of old school / romantic genre convention at least) govern Japan’s underworld, the stakes are rather higher, extending beyond mere personal satisfaction to encompass an almost spiritual sense of blood-drenched cosmic balance. It is a forced immersion into this uncompromising mind-set which sets us up for the novel’s finale - which proves a real show-stopper, let’s put it that way. (As a side note, it is also remarkably similar in tone to the conclusion of John Flynn’s stone-cold revenge classic ‘Rolling Thunder’ (1977), scripted by… Paul Schrader.)

“Kilmer methodically re-checked the ammunition load in each firearm: the .45 had seven big slugs, the .38 six good slugs, the .32 five weak slugs and the shotgun five huge blasts. Total: Twenty-three shots without reloading, but the .32 wasn’t dependable. True total: eighteen good shots. Not enough. The Tono Clan had a fifty-four blade minimum, plus an unknown number of handguns. Stop thinking about it. Rule: expect the best.

[…]

Ken silently raised his powerfully muscled right arm and pointed straight ahead through the dark maple branches. Kilmer saw that he was pointing at the open doorway and foyer. Then Ken moved his rigid arm to the right until it pointed at the northern veranda, the small five-fingered maple leaves brushing against his hand. He glanced at the small leaves - frail and limp like the hands of dead children - and lowered his arm. He spoke in a low voice, his words terse and clipped.

‘I go in the front door. You stand over there.’

Kilmer glanced at the open northside veranda.

‘You wait for me to reach Tono and look for those who have the guns. Shoot them first.’

‘All right.’”

Whilst Pollack’s film gives us an exciting and well-executed action sequence to round things off, Schrader’s book considerably ups the ante, delivering a frenzied outburst of grand guignol excess which would be nigh on impossible to convey on film… at least without employing several rotating teams of highly skilled special effects artists over a period of several weeks and sending your entire audience running for the nearest bathroom in the process.

Imagine if you will, a scrupulously detailed, anatomically accurate account of what might actually occur were several dozen men to begin slicing each other apart with katana blades (plus a stream of bullets and the occasional shotgun blast from our gaijin protagonist) in a confined space, and… that’s what we’ve got here, pretty much. And it goes on for pages; the essential, tension-releasing ‘money shot’ of the chanbara genre extended to an absurd - though essentially realistic - extreme. Literary gorehounds take note.

Of course, we couldn’t have expected Pollack (or indeed, any filmmaker) to really bring much of that to the table in a mainstream movie, but, after the bloodshed is over and Kilmer has repaid his (considerable) debts to Tanaka in, shall we say, the traditional yakuza manner, I was disappointed to discover that the filmed version of ‘The Yakuza’ also nixes the nigh-on perfect final scene kiss-off which Schrader’s book gifts us with. This bit is more-or-less spoiler-free, so in conclusion I’ll quote it in full for you, because it’s great. Just imagine this up on screen before the credits roll;

“Amid a flurry of sayonara nods, Kilmer entered the ‘Hijack Inspection’ booth. Ten minutes later, having passed through ‘Customs Clearance,’ he stopped at the ‘Immigration’ counter and handed the official his passport.

The middle-aged official was extremely serious and stern. He glanced at Kilmer rather smugly, confident that Kilmer was a tourist before he checked the visa. Opening the passport, he said, ‘Are you the American tourist?’

‘Yeah,’ Kilmer nodded, ‘I’m the American tourist.’

The stern-faced official checked the passport photo and flipped back to the visa page. ‘Do you have the good time in Japan?’

Kilmer said nothing.

‘Everything ok,’ the official said solemnly, returning the passport and nodding for Kilmer to move along.

Domo,’ Kilmer nodded, tucking the passport in his pocket.

The official, glancing at Kilmer’s lapel, suddenly spotted the bandaged finger-stump and his eyes popped wide open. Unable to contain his curiosity, he blurted out the word: ‘..yakuza?’

Saying nothing, Kilmer turned and stepped through the plate-glass doors into the bright sunshine. Without limping he strode across the runway toward the waiting JAL jumbo jet.”

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