Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Private Hell 36

Don Siegel was once one of the Hollywood's best paid directors, but his star seems to be fading. Does anyone anymore remember any other film by him than Dirty Harry? Yet he directed some thirty films, some very good (Charley Varrick, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, Flaming Star, The Beguiled, The Shootist and others), some quite good, all quite capable. 

Private Hell 36 (1954) is one of his lesser-known films, yet it's a very capable, at times a very good film noir with cynical characters and a downbeat ending. It was produced by Ida Lupino's and Collier Young's indie outfit called Filmakers (no Filmmakers!) and Siegel was brought in at a late date. Collier Young scripted the film originally for his wife, Lupino, but Lupino had already divorced Young and married Howard Duff, who plays the other lead in the film. The other lead is Steve Cochran, who's very good at playing a sleazy cop who wants to get some extra money and start all over with Lupino with whom he's fallen in love. 

Some of the scenes last too long (something that mars also Siegel's The Killers), but all in all this is a pretty effective low-key drama. I'd hope there was more action, as Siegel really knows how to edit fight and chase scenes. I'm not complaining, though. There's also some naivety in the outcome, especially Howard Duff gets out a bit too nicely. 

Comes highly recommended by me, even though this is no means perfect. 

I saw the film at the Finnish Film Archive's screening. Before the film, the film critic Tapani Maskula offered a half-hour lecture on how he met Siegel in Finland in the late seventies (you know, Telefon was filmed partly in Finland) and discussed Siegel's fifties' films. Siegel told for example that while filming Private Hell 36 the lead actors were often suffering from hangover. There's a scene with Ida Lupino in which she's sitting on a bumper of a truck. Lupino had said to Siegel that he'd better shoot the scene quick, since she's about to throw up. And you can see it in the scene. It works miracles. Lupino has never looked so vulnerable, tired, bored and broken. 

More Overlooked Films here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bibliographic puzzle: Ronald Wills/Hans Vogel: What Comes Next?

I've dealt in my research with some bibliographic problems before, but this one is a real puzzle. I don't even know where to start.

Okay, there's a paperback published in Finnish in 1955 called Hän ei tullut kotiin. It translates back as "He Never Came Home" or some such. It's a private eye novel about kidnapping of rich kids. Now, there's no book under this title (or actually there almost is, but it's not this one). The Finnish translation is credited as by Ronald Wills. There really was a writer called Ronald Wills. His real name was Ronald Wills Thomas. He lived from 1910 to 1969 (or possibly 1955) and wrote crime novels starting from 1950, ending in the early sixties. He used pseudonyms, such as Jeff Bogar (a house name) and James Cadell.

As Ronald Wills he published four crime novels in the early fifties, but they all seem to have something to do with fishes and fishing, and this here novel doesn't, so it's not any of them. What is it then?

The Finnish translation - at least my copy doesn't - doesn't give away the original title, but the bibliography of crime fiction published in Finnish and the Finnish National Library database both say it's What Comes Next? Now, that is a real novel, published in 1953 by the paperback house Scion. It was published under the house pseudonym Hans Vogel. And sure enough, the Finnish book has Hans Vogel as the hero. (Can you think of a more un-American name for a private eye?) But this isn't over yet. The British pulp and paperback scholar Steve Holland says in his blog that What Comes Next? features one Scud Keddell as the hero. And "He Never Came Home" doesn't have anyone called Scud Keddell. (And furthermore What Comes Next? isn't supposed to be written by Ronald Wills. Actually Ronald Wills doesn't seem to have written anything under the Hans Vogel house name.)

So, what gives here? Is this written by someone else entirely than Ronald Wills? Is this something entirely else written under a pseudonym by Ronald Wills, but published in Finland for some reason under his real name? Anything written as by Jeff Bogar doesn't even remotely sound like the book at hand. Or is this something that's been published only in Finland? As you might remember, while doing my first book, Pulpografia (on American crime paperbackers), I found out there were some dozen American books that were never published in the US, but published in Finland and/or Scandinavia.

different book published as by Hans Vogel
What's the book about? Oh, that's a different issue altogether. The book is a sorry mess, but somehow intriguing. Hans Vogel is a private eye working for the FBI (which, by the way, is spelled as FIB in the Finnish book), he handles very special cases. Now, there's a gang kidnapping small children of rich families and Vogel is hired to investigate the matter. He uses some strange methods that don't seem very professional. We never believe that this is a real private eye. Also we never believe this really takes place in the US, which is quite common for the early British crime paperbacks.

There are some truly odd moments throughout the book. Hans Vogel is for example tortured by boiling his feet in hot water. His skin peels off, but somehow he manages to still walk and drive a car. Okay, he admits he feels pain. There's also an odd perversion for talking about Nathaniel Hawthorne all the time - or actually "Nat", as Hans Vogel calls him. In the end Hans Vogel gets the kidnappers with the help of some 13-year old kids who are out playing Wild West with real-looking guns. The book is filled with erotic scenes, but nothing happens in them, they are just Vogel's descriptions of good-looking ladies in erotic costumes, such as silky night gowns. And this is what drove writers and publishers to jail?!

This is in no way a good crime novel, let alone a good novel, but there's something fascinating about the badness and weirdness of it. But the main thing here is the bibliographic puzzle. Can anyone help? I'd really love to solve this, but I don't know where else to look.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Basil Copper's Mike Faraday

In my on-going research into British pulp and paperback crime writing, I read the two novels by Basil Copper translated in Finnish. Both have Copper's private eye Mike Faraday as the hero, and both are pretty basic old-fashioned hardboiled private eye stuff.

Flip Side (1980, translated as Kuoleman kääntöpuoli/"The Flip-Side of Death") puts Faraday delve into the international jewel trade. Snow Job (1986, Älä huoli huomisesta/"Don't Worry About Tomorrow", meaningless title if there ever was one) has Faraday look into the drug trade, even though he doesn't know that from the start. Copper knows his business: in the end Faraday is investigating another case than he's originally hired to investigate. He runs into corpses and beautiful, but deceitful ladies, heavies with guns in their hands, all that stuff that's been known since Black Mask and Dime Detective made the cliches popular. The books were entertaining enough and Copper keeps the story moving, but there's still one problem: I've almost forgotten what happened in them.

Basil Copper also wrote some high-regarded horror stuff which I haven't read. He also wrote the Solar Pons stories after August Derleth died. I think I've read some of Derleth's Solar Pons stories, but none of the Copper ones.

The books in the picture above. The right one has the cover illo by Kari T. Leppänen, who's best known for his work in the Phantom magazine for the Swedish publisher. It's quite nicely done, but it's also pretty static for a hardboiled private eye novel.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Väinö Linna: The Unknown Soldier (1954)

Due to a book project I've been working on, I started to read Väinö Linna's classic war novel Tuntematon sotilas/The Unknown Soldier for the first time in my life. I'd earlier avoided the novel, mainly because I've always been a bit irritated at the notion of books one has to read for reasons larger than life (i.e. patriotism or the Fatherland or some such nonsense), but I was very glad to note I liked the book, was even thrilled by it.

The Unknown Soldier tells about the so called Continuation War in which Finland and the Soviet Union fought against each other. The war started in 1941 and ended in 1944. One of the biggest questions in Finnish history is whether Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany or whether it had its own war with the Soviets. The book is one of those realistic war novels, with the eye sight fixed on the everyday of the battling soldiers, their camaraderie, their fears, frustrations, hopes and anger. There are no heroes in this novel. The war is ugly, chaotic and violent. No one knows why they're fighting - only the higher officers have some idea and even that is filled with stupid notions of Greater Finland.

The Unknown Soldier has dated somewhat and we've had more realistic war novels since, but what keeps the book fresh is that it's polyphonic. There's not a single truth in the novel, there are only multiple narrators (or, actually, narratees) that present their variations of the situation. Linna writes warmly and empathetically of each and everyone of them, even the most obnoxious officers. And his battle scenes are quite good. He really captures the chaotic essence of war - well, as well he should, since he was himself at the war.

The book is available in English. The English translation came out from Putnam in the US and Collins in the UK in 1957, and I believe it was the same translation. For some reason or another, the translator's name isn't mentioned anywhere in the book. The translation is abridged (the reports on how heavily differ), and it's also clumsy with the Finnish idioms (which the book is full of). It's a miracle the translation should be so bad, since it's reported to be the work of one Alex Matson, a Finnish literary essayist, who spent many years in the 1920s living abroad and travelling the world seas. (Thanks for this tip to Ossi Kokko!)

However, it's the only English translation, and it's been used repeatedly even by Väinö Linna's Finnish publisher, WSOY (see the photo above for their edition). They've published several editions of the English translation - still with no translator's name attached. Seems like you could manage to buy the book via Amazon.

There's also the Ace edition from 1958, which is seemingly scarce (see above). The cover illustration is made by someone famous, but I forget who. The illustration was used in Finland in some entirely other paperback, but I forget even that one!

Edit: there's a small news item from 2012 saying that Penguin has bought the rights for Linna's novel and they are putting the new translation out in the near future. Liesl Yamaguchi is the translator.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Ravenous

I remember Ravenous being shown in Finland at some film festival in 1999 or 2000, but it was deemed X-rated and the distributor backed down. The film was never shown commercially in Finnish theaters, it was only released in VHS with five minutes of gore cut away, and then in 2005 in television. I don't know whether the TV version was intact. I watched the old VHS I'd bought at some point, but failed to watch until now. It was released as Erämaa syö miestä ("The Desert Eats Up the Man" or some such nonsense).

Ravenous follows the story of Alferd Packer (I believe it's supposed to be written that way) and the pack he was leading into the wild that gets lost and has to resort to cannibalism. Ravenous takes the storyline a step further developing it into a serial killer story, with lots of satiric overtones and black humour.

And at times it works very well. The first half of the story is intriguing, but then it gets bogged down by some implausible plot twists. They keep the story moving, however. The ending is a bit over-the-top, but there's still some funny stuff in there. The feel for human flesh never goes away.

I realize I haven't seen the film in its full gory, but it still comes recommended by me. There's one interesting point still: the film was directed by Antonia Bird. There aren't that many female directors out there making westerns, let alone gory horror westerns. Bird was however only appointed director of Ravenous after the original director took off. Her earlier film Priest was excellent, however. I see she died last year. Did Ravenous destroy her career? She never made another feature film. (Then again she did films for TV, and I was told she herself said she preferred working for television.)

Also of merit is also the soundtrack by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (of the Blur fame). It's often contradictory to the image we see on the screen, but that makes an interesting effect.

And oh, here's my review (amongst others) of an earlier film based on the same Alferd Packer incident. Ravenous is 1,000,000 times better.

More Overlooked Movies here (whenever Todd gets the chance).

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Malcolm MacKay: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

It's always very welcome when a new noir author gets translated in Finnish. Malcolm MacKay's short novel The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter came pretty quickly out in here: it was published originally in 2013 and the translation came out just in the beginning of this year (under the title Lewis Winterin on kuoltava).

MacKay's book is about a hired killer, Calum McLean, who's almost autistically meticulous in his methods. The book is also about his target, a small-time drug dealer whose name is given out in the title. He leads a boring life with a younger woman who still wants to party and drink all night. There's lots of intriguing melancholy here. 

The first half of the book is quite good. MacKay writes short, somewhat repetitive sentences, and their rhythm grabs you. But then after the target's been hit, the novel bogs down for some reason or another, even though there's a surprise twist and an open ending that comes as a bit of a shock. I can recommend the book, though it wasn't totally satisfactory.