Nov 222014
 
Joe R. Lansdale's The Thicket (2013) is a bit like Cormac McCarthy wrote a novel from a treatment by Robert E. Howard: it's a weird, brutal and merciless story that moves on with the speed of a bullet, set in the desolate wasteland of the early 20th century Texas.

The Thicket is a western that pulls no punches. Everything is dirty and violent, but Lansdale makes the people he writes about come alive. The reader cares for them and really wishes no harm would come to them - and then Lansdale makes the worst happen. The bad guys are really scary. The Thicket is truly a gripping read.

The book loses some of its momentum after the first half, and some of the characters lose their spark a bit (especially prostitute Jimmie Sue, who seems very vibrant at first), but the first half and the climax just before the end is some of the best stuff I've read all year. Can't wait for the movie to come out.

Nov 222014
 

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2012

DVD Spotlight: David Janssen as "Harry O"

One of the most distinctive private eyes of the 1970s has finally made his DVD debut with Warner Archive's release of season 1 of Harry O. The series, which originally aired on ABC in 1974-76, starred David Janssen as Harry Orwell, a medically-retired police detective who moonlights as a private investigator. Filmed in San Diego and later Santa Monica, Harry O set itself apart from rivals with its world-weary protagonist, voice-over narration, and on-location photography. For Janssen, it marked a TV comeback after appearing in Jack Webb's glum flop O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971-72).

Harry spends each morning on the beach.
The DVD set includes the first of two pilot films, Such Dust as Dreams Are Made Of, which was broadcast in 1973. Martin Sheen co-stars as a former criminal who wants to hire Harry to find his ex-girlfriend and a former accomplice (Sal Mineo). Orwell has a personal interest in the case because, four years earlier, Sheen and Mineo were the culprits in a drugstore robbery that left Harry's partner dead and a bullet in Harry's spine. Forced to retire from the police department, Harry lives on his disability pension aboard his boat The Answer. Will Geer appears in a supporting role as a medical examiner who provides an in-depth explanation on how to make heroin. It's unlikely Geer would have been a regular had a TV series resulted--he was still playing Grandpa on The Waltons.

A second pilot movie (not included in the DVD set), Smile Jenny, You're Dead (with Jodie Foster) appeared the following year. Its ratings success convinced ABC to pick up the series. Harry O premiered in September 1974 on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. The show's only other regular was Henry Darrow (The High Chapparal), who played Detective Lieutenant Manny Quinlan. Harry now lived in a beachfront cottage, working occasionally on his boat (still called The Answer). As he explained in one of his trademark voiceovers: "A lot of cases I won't take. I don't have to."

Harry with San Diego in the background.
With his car frequently being repaired, Harry takes a lot of buses--which has its advantages when being followed ("It's hard to tail someone on a bus"). The first half of season 1 makes excellent use of its San Diego locale, highlighting both the flavor of the inner city and the stunning beaches. Even Harry emphasizes the importance of his surroundings: "You see, baseball teams win more games in their own ballpark. Now, San Diego is my ballpark. And if you name a street, I can close my eyes and tell you where the traffic lights are...that also applies to bus stops."

Linda Evans pre-Dynasty.
The guest stars included a bevy of newcomers and familiar faces to classic TV fans: Kurt Russell; Linda Evans (between The Big Valley and Dynasty); Leif Erickson (also from The High Chapparal); Stefanie Powers; Broderick Crawford; Anne Archer; Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn); Carol Rossen (a frequent guest star with Janssen on The Fugitive); and even Cab Calloway.

Farrah a year before
Charlie's Angels.
Despite modest success in its time slot, Harry O underwent signficant midseason changes. The location sadly switched from San Diego to Santa Monica and Farrah Fawcett had a recurring role as Harry's neighbor and sometime girlfriend Sue (whose Great Dane Grover wasn't a fan of Harry's). Anthony Zerbe replaced Henry Darrow as another police detective, although Darrow returned to give his character closure in "Elegy for a Cop," the next-to-last episode of the first season. The opening credits were tweaked, too, and even the theme music transitioned from a bluesy arrangement to a more uptempo one.

Anthony Zerbe.
Although Zerbe won a supporting actor Emmy for his performance in 1976, the changes had little impact on the series' popularity. Viewers watched Harry O to see Janssen, who remained a fan favorite from his days as man-on-the-run Richard Kimble in the TV classicThe Fugitive (1963-67). As HarryJanssen replaces Kimble's subtle intensity with a laid-back, cynical persona (though he still occasionally flashes his trademark quick smile, with one side of the mouth turned up). One senses that Harry's casual style and humorous quips hide a darker past.

Still, some of the best episodes were the more lighthearted ones, such as "Gertrude" with guest-star Julie Sommars as a young woman whose only clue to her brother's disappearance is a single shoe. The first season also introduced the character of Lester Hodges (Les Lannom), a young man who aspires to be a criminologist after meeting Harry. Lester appears in four episodes over the two seasons, with the last one--"Lester Hodges and Dr. Fong"--serving as a pilot for a spin-off series co-starring Keye Luke that never materialized.

Harry O faced an uphill challenge finding a regular audience amid a landscape cluttered with popular TV detectives  (e.g., The Rockford FilesCannonStarsky and HutchHawaii Five-OKojak, and Baretta). ABC cancelled Harry O after just two seasons. Though its demise came far too early, at least it didn't suffer the fate of overstaying its welcome. We're left with a quirky, entertaining detective series with a character perfectly matched to its star. We can only hope that Warner Archive releases season 2 of Harry O. It'd also be nice if someone would release the only season of television's other seldom-seen, quirky private eye series: The Outsider (1968-69) starring Darrin McGavin.

A review copy of this DVD was provided to the Cafe.
Nov 222014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


STRANGER ON HORSEBACK. United Artists, 1955. Joel McCrea, Miroslava, Kevin McCarthy, John McIntire, John Carradine, Nancy Gates, Emile Meyer. Based on a story written for the film by Louis L’Amour. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

   Stranger on Horseback is perhaps one of director Jacques Tourneur’s least known films, one that was commercially unavailable for decades. Filmed on location in Arizona with a budget under $400,000, the film stars Western icon Joel McCrea as a federal circuit judge tasked with bringing an accused murderer to trial.

   Although the movie benefits from punchy dialogue and has some very fun, downright quirky moments (look for the cat in the sheriff’s office!), it is altogether a somewhat disappointing entry in the large corpus of slightly gritty postwar Westerns.

   The film’s plot, based on Louis L’Amour story, follows Judge Richard Thorne (McCrea) as he enters a small Western town, which he soon learns is basically run from top-to-bottom by land baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). It also comes to his attention that Bannerman’s son, Tom (Kevin McCarthy), may have murdered a man.

   Despite entreaties from a charmingly serpentine federal lawyer (John Carradine), Thorne decides he is going to see that justice is done. He even convinces the local feline loving sheriff (Emile Meyer in a standout role) to join forces with him. Along the way, the upright judge gets into a little push and pull with the Bannerman’s ferociously exotic niece, Amy (portrayed by Czechoslovakian-born Mexican actress Miroslava). It’s one of the stranger romances I’ve yet seen depicted in a McCrea Western.

   Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t gel. In some ways, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. There seem to be a lot of minor flaws that add up to weaken what could have otherwise been a quite strong picture. These include the fact that Stranger on Horseback was filmed in Ansco Color and that it ends way too abruptly, to put it mildly.

   Also, the final action scene is filmed in such a manner that it’s difficult to tell who is shooting at whom. It’s a much weaker film than Tourneur’s superbly crafted Wichita, also starring McCrea, which I reviewed here. Still, if you’re a McCrea fan, you might appreciate viewing this relatively short Western where, despite the film’s numerous flaws, he has a comparatively strong presence.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm

GIDEON SMITH & THE BRASS DRAGON

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Nov 222014
 


 
GIDEON SMITH & THE BRASS DRAGON
By David Barnett
Tor Books
352 pgs.

Last year we discovered a truly marvelous steampunk title, “Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl,” by David Barnett.  It was so audacious in its alternate-steam world presentation mixing original characters with figures from various literary classics.  It was such a joy to read, we nominated it for Best Pulp Novel of that year and, as with all fun reads, we fervently hoped that Barnett would grace us with a sequel.  That he has is a cause of much celebration and proving himself a genuine fantasy adventure master, he delivers a follow-up tale twice as grand as its predecessor.

It is months since the events chronicled in the first book a young Gideon Smith, the native of a small fishing village, has been named the Hero of the Empire by the Queen and has become an agent of the Foreign Service.  Accompanying him on his adventures is the corpulent journalist, Aloysius Bent, and the lovely airship captain, Ms Rowena Fanshawe.  After returning from an assignment in the South Pacific, they are ordered to British America to retrieve Apep; the mechanical dragon stolen by the Texas outlaw Louis Cockayne along with Maria, the clockwork girl.  This is a personal mission to Smith as he has fallen in love with Maria and is determined to rescue her from Cockayne.

But this America is primarily an untamed land with only its coastlines having been settled; the British in the east, the Japanese in the west and the Spanish to the south.  Upon their arrival in New York, they learn that Cockayne is hiding in the free Texas town of San Antonio now called Steamtown and run by Thaddeus Pinch; a cyborg gunfirghter named more machine than man.  Pinch is a sadistic fiend who operates the coal mines of Steamtown through the pain and suffering of hundreds of kidnapped slaves.

To save Maria and retrieve the Brass Dragon, Gideon and his friends have to battle a private army of cutthroat mercenaries and battle a prehistoric monster.  But as in their first adventure, they manage to recruit new allies among which are a genius Japanese inventor, an immortal freedom fighter known as Nameless and a beautiful Zorro-like senorita whose prowess with a rapier is deadly.  The action is non-stop, the locales both familiar and strange and all of it populated by some of the most colorful characters ever put down on paper.  “Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon” is a rollicking adventure and for David Barnett’s second winner in a row.  We can only wonder what he has up his imaginary sleeve for book number three.



Nov 222014
 
A big thanks to Donald “Dr. Rock” Schnell, who wrote me out of the blue last week, telling me that he knew Joseph Rosenberger back in the early ‘80s. Dr. Rock, who can be found at the Young For Life site and has published the book Fitonics For Life, has kindly offered to share his memories of Rosenberger with the rest of us. The interesting details provided below go a long way toward
Nov 222014
 
A Modern Master



Robert E. McGinnis began his career in 1947 as a cartoonist, and produced his first cover illustrations for 1956 issues of the magazines True Detective and Master Detective. Then in 1958, he painted his first paperback book cover, and from that day forward his work was in demand.

The emergence of the “McGinnis Woman”, long-legged, intelligent, alluring, and enigmatic, established him as the go-to artist for detective novels. His work appeared on Mike Shayne titles and the Perry Mason series, and he produced 100 paintings for the Carter Brown Mystery Series. Yet McGinnis became famous for his work in other genres as well: espionage, romance, historicals, gothics, and Westerns.

McGinnis’s first major magazine assignments were for The Saturday Evening Post, and his work has graced the pages of Cosmopolitan, National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, Guideposts, and others. McGinnis women frequently cropped up in the men’s magazines of the ’60s and ’70s.

His first movie poster was for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with an iconic rendering of Audrey Hepburn. Almost instantly, his poster artwork could be seen everywhere, in theaters, on billboards, in newspapers, and even on soundtrack albums. His work for Hollywood became a who’s-who, with posters for James Bond, The Odd Couple, Woody Allen, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and many more.

Some of his most ambitious works have been his gallery paintings, often depicting stunning American landscapes, vast Western vistas, and of course, beautiful women. The Art of Robert E. McGinnis collection reveals the full scope and beauty of the work of a true American master—one whose legacy continues today.

Printing History
 Robert McGinnis (1926- )
Art Scott

Titan Books
 1st Edition
November , 2014
 Posted by at 4:25 am
Nov 212014
 


First off, so sorry to hear about the passing of Mike Nichols.  I never met him personally and don't know what I could add to all the other heartfelt tributes, but he was a giant.  There damn well better be a special salute at the Oscars next year.   Anyway, I'm back from Atlanta with some Friday Questions.   

Marianne gets us started. 

I was watching Madam Secretary last night and I noticed that Bebe Neuwirth plays quite a similar character to that of Lilith. How difficult is it for actors to avoid falling victim to typecasting? 

Actors can certainly get pigeonholed. It’s up to them to not accept those similar roles (if they can), or break out and play something different.

One of the reasons Ted Danson took the role of BECKER was that he would play such a different character from Sam Malone.

This is why you see a lot of known actors doing independent films. They don’t get paid much but they get to show off other sides of themselves.

On the other hand, there are actors who don’t mind playing essentially the same part over and over. They’re working.

When I was showrunning and an agent said a certain actor I was inquiring about didn’t do episodic television I always asked, “Who else is paying him $5,000 this week?” You’d be surprised how often that worked.

On a similar note, Michael wants to know: 

Some supporting actors from TV shows disappear after their show ends while others continue to pop up in new shows in varying degrees. In your opinion, which factor is most important in determining this - talent, a good agent, simple luck? 

All of the above. How identified they were with their character is also a factor. How versatile they can be comes into play (again, Ted Danson).

An actor’s TV-Q becomes a factor. That’s research that determines how well-known an actor is and more importantly, how popular they are. Yes, it is pretty heartless and cutthroat. Welcome to Glitter City.

But there are some TV actors that the public just loves. Dylan McDermott is one of those guys. You’ll notice he gets a series every year. Chris Noth is another. Julia Louis-Dreyfus also tops that list.

And then there are actors from hit shows that just cash in their winnings and walk away from the table. They do theatre, they paint, the move away and live happy lives. David Schramm from WINGS would be an example of that. He’s quite content not guesting on television shows. Yes, there is life after sitcoms.

Lou H. asks:

When a multi-camera sitcom episode needs to use multiple sets, is it still shot in sequence, with everybody moving from set to set, or are things optimized a bit so that, say, all the scenes on one set are shot in a single batch, even if that makes the story a bit harder for the studio audience to follow? 

It’s shot in sequence so the audience can follow it. Yes, this causes delays due to costume changes, but if the audience can’t follow the story there’s really no point. And the time it takes for the cameras to roll from one set to another is maybe three minutes.

Single camera shows (shot like movies) will shoot out of sequence. They’ll film all the scenes in one location then move to the next. Not being an actor myself I’ve always felt that had to be difficult on actors – having to adjust their attitudes based on what the scene requires. “Okay, in this one you’re distraught.” “Now you’re hopeful.” I don’t know how they can just turn on and off emotions that quickly and still keep the whole piece in their heads. But that’s why they get the big bucks and their sex tapes go viral.

And finally, from Jim S: 

How do you know if an actor has "it" that x factor that makes actor A better than actor B?

There is no formula.  It's just a sense you have.  If two actors are auditioning and you can't take your eyes off of one of them, that's a good sign.

In some cases you just "know."  They have an ease, a charisma, a presence.  Almost instantly you can tell.

On the other hand, some X-factor actors can go unnoticed.   George Clooney knocked around for years.  NBC once passed on Tom Cruise for a pilot.  Madonna also got turned down.   I helped out on a short-lived series in the '80s (doing punch up one day a week).  The actress who starred in the show was God awful.  I later learned she was chosen over Annette Bening.

So the answer is:  you never know, but you do.

What’s your Friday Question? You know you have one.