Brainquake: The Lost Novel by Samuel Fuller

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“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.

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Columbia Crime: The Whistler

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The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).

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Shanghaid

"Before and after" frame reconstruction of typical damage.

Last January while attending the Arthouse Convergence in Midway, Utah, I was privy to a digital 4K restoration of The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948). It was introduced by Leonard Maltin, and the screening preceded the official Blu-ray release by a couple weeks. It comes to mind now because I see it coming up on TCM and also because next month anyone lucky enough to be attending the TCM Classic Film Festival can watch another one by Welles with the “world premiere restoration reconstructed from the original camera negative” of Touch of Evil (1958). Restorations are a tricky business; hard work and, if all goes well, all that work should be invisible to the viewer. [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: Night Must Fall

nighopeningIt is easy to assume that serial killers as a subject for crime movies is a relatively recent phenomenon, particularly those that delve into the unique psychology of the killer. After all, the term serial killer does not pop up in common usage until after Ted Bundy was incarcerated in prison, though it was coined earlier. Credit for the term is often given to FBI Agent Robert Ressler, who adopted “serial killer” and “serial homicide” in the 1970s. However, the phrase “serial murderer” goes as far back as the 1930s when director of police Ernst Gennat used it to describe Peter Kurten. I once read a passage by author James Ellroy in which he lauded Thomas Harris and his 1981 novel The Red Dragon as a watershed moment in crime fiction because of Harris’s detailed understanding of the psychology of the serial killer.

So, I am always surprised when I come across early pop culture depictions of serial killers that seem to accurately capture the demons that drive them. This Friday, February 7, at 6:30am, TCM will air Night Must Fall, a 1937 drama starring Robert Montgomery as a likable killer named Danny. The film is based on the 1935 play penned by Emlyn Williams, who originally starred as Danny on stage.  A working class Irish lad, Danny charms his way into the good graces of wealthy, cantankerous Mrs. Bramson, who exploits her age and presumed ill health to dominate the people in her household. The conniving killer discovers Mrs. Bramsom’s weakness for attention and quickly becomes the old lady’s primary caretaker. Mrs. Bramson’s niece, Olivia, is immediately suspicious of Danny. However, Olivia and her aunt are on such poor terms that Mrs. Bramson refuses to listen to her about anything. The killer’s identity is obvious from the beginning, which might frustrate those viewers who prefer a plot-twisting whodunit. Night Must Fall is not that kind of crime story. The tension derives from the interplay of the characters. It is disturbing to watch Danny worm his way into Mrs. Bramson’s heart, while the cat-and-mouse game between Danny and Olivia hints at her dark thoughts and desires.  I chose Night Must Fall as a forgotten film to be remembered for two reasons—the performance by Robert Montgomery as Danny and the insight into the sociopathic character by writer Emlyn Williams.

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The Devil Inside: The Films of Kim Jee-woon

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For the past decade Korea has produced the most innovative genre films in the world, with directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon reinvigorating revenge thrillers, police procedurals and westerns. This year Hollywood is playing catch-up, commissioning remakes of recent Korean hits and importing that influential trio to make their English language debuts. Spike Lee is shooting his version of Park’s seminal Oldboy, and Allen Hughes has signed on to redo Kim’s A Bittersweet Life (2005, and whose Tale of Two Sisters was Americanized in 2009 as The Uninvited). Bong is finishing up production on his dystopic sci-fi film Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, while Park’s psychological horror film Stoker, featuring Nicole Kidman, will be released on March 1st. The first out of the gate will be Kim’s action movie The Last Stand, opening this Friday, which marks the post-gubernatorial screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kim is a restless genre tweaker, using traditional templates and then pushing them to extremes. His style varies from the antic energy of his “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird to the elegant control of his criminal revenge saga A Bittersweet Life, but his films insistently return to the theme of self-destructive violence that pulses just below the surface of the human psyche.

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