Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Another Look: STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (1941)

Ever have a relatively obscure movie from way, way back—or maybe just a certain scene from said movie—stick in your head so that every once in a while, over the years, it would pop to mind and make you pause and wonder why? And then wonder what had ever happened to that movie, why you never seemed to see or hear anything about any more?

Such a movie, for me, was Steel Against The Sky—a 1941 black-and-white Warner Bros. release starring Lloyd Nolan, Craig Stevens (yes, a very young "Peter Gunn" himself), and Alexis Smith. The title alone was pretty darn exciting to an impressionable 9-year old (approximately). This was back in simpler times when boys often dreamed of being (if not cowboys) something basic like a cop, fireman, or maybe a bulldozer operator when they grew up. I guess that might be why the exciting title and the story backdrop about men building a vast bridge over a nameless river stuck in my mind. I had no recollection at all about the storyline itself, except for the big climactic scene where two men were struggling high up on ice-caked girders during a raging sleet storm to bring under control a giant derrick that had come loose and was wildly swinging a huge iron ball with a hook attached, threatening to destroy critical sections of the partially completed bridge.
Those two things—the title and that sleet-storm scene—are the parts that kept rolling around in my head for over fifty years. I probably saw this movie on WGN out of Chicago back in the late fifties. As best I can recall, I only saw it once.

Flash forward fifty-odd years to yesterday afternoon when I was flipping through the channel listing and there it was, upcoming on TCM—Steel Against The Sky! I immediately hit the DVR button (sacrificing, without hesitation, both the O'Reilly Factor and the opening segments of Monday Night Raw) and sat back to see why or what it was about this flick that had stayed with me for so long.

Happy to say, I wasn't disappointed. Steel is typical Warner Bros. late '30s/early '40s fare—snappy dialogue, generous doses of danger, sentimentality, and humor, a beautiful dame, and conflict between its two leading men (generally, as in this case, over the dame). The dame here is a never-more-sultry Alexis Smith, who actually had top billing over Nolan and Stevens. Looking at it from a (arguably) more mature perspective, I have to wonder if the sultriness of Ms. Smith, who gets at least a dozen lingering soft-focus close-ups in the movie, might have had some subconscious impact on me even at my then-tender age and was at least part of the reason the overall flick stuck in my head.
At any rate, the big sleet storm scene held up fairly well (although not quite as impressive as when I first saw it) and the rest of the movie more than measured up. Nice, tight, enjoyable film. I don't know if it truly rates as a "classic", but there are a hell of a lot worse ways to kill ninety minutes.

Trivia bits: 1.) There are brief appearances by character actor standby Frank Faylen and a very, very young Jackie Gleason; 2.) A couple years after this film, Stevens and Smith would be married and remain so (practically unheard of in Hollywood) for fifty years, until her death; 3.) Steel Against The Sky follows a storyline almost identical to an earlier (1935) Warner Bros. movie titled The Irish In Us, starring Pat O'Brien and James Cagney in the Nolan – Stevens roles and with a Police Force background as opposed as bridge-building.

Unfortunately, I can't find any listing for Steel Against The Sky being available on either video or DVD. If you Google it, you'll find a couple places where it is downloadable. Otherwise, if any of my rambling has stirred either your memory or interest, you can keep an eye out on TCM. It's in their vault now, so sooner or later they're sure to be showing it again.

Persevere — WD

Friday, April 13, 2012

Now Available: NIGHT SPOOR

Okay, boys and girls, now for something completely (well, almost) different from yours truly ... In a nutshell, this is the tale of a cynical, methodical hit man hired to kill a vampire. In the beginning he scoffs at the whole vampire thing but, for the right price, he'll do a hit on anybody and if the person paying him wants to pretend it's a vampire he could care less ... until, that is, he is forced to face the fact there ARE such things as vampires! Then it becomes a matter of who is the deadliest killer stalking the night ...
I started writing this book about ten years ago. It was a pretty low time in (what I laughingly call) my writing career. I had a Joe Hannibal novel in the hopper that nobody seemed interested in, and wasn't feeling particularly motivated to put effort into much else.
Then, for whatever reason, I got the notion to try something totally different. Although I never got caught up in the subsequent TV series and so forth, I was always a big fan of the original NIGHT STALKER made-for-TV movie and the novel it was based on. I liked the hardboiled crime novel approach (through the eyes of Kolchak, a world-weary newspaper reporter) to the vampire-horror legend and thought it might be something I'd like to try. I give full credit to being inspired by NIGHT STALKER.
At first, I planned to use a hardboiled PI (something I felt comfortable with) as the protagonist going up against a vampire. Somewhere along the way, I forget exactly why, I switched to a tough, cynical hit man (named Pitcairn) getting hired to dispatch the bloodsucker. It picked up momentum from there. I wrote six or seven chapters that felt pretty good, but then lost interest and just left it hanging fire.
Jump ahead to late 2010, after I'd gone into retirement from my full-time job in the real world and thereby found my writing output and enthusiasm ramped up considerably. I dusted off the NIGHT SPOOR manuscript, read through what I'd written so far, and decided I liked it well enough to go ahead and complete it. The result is the Kindle (soon also to be in print) novel just released from Rebecca J. Vickery Publishing.
It has grittiness, action, suspense, a healthy dose of sex, and also a thread of enduring love and genuine romance at its core.
It's a change-of-pace for me, one I hope you'll give a try. If you do, I think you'll like it.
Persevere --- WD
P.S. NIGHT SPOOR also has one of the coolest covers of any of my books. As I was writing it, I envisioned a thirtyish Elizabeth Taylor (at her most beautiful and sensual) as Lenore, the vampire who is the main focus of the whole book. Laura Shinn, cover editor at RVB, did a great job of capturing my vision. Just to give you a better appreciation than the limited Amazon capture can convey, here is this:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Audie Murphy

The Western Channel has recently been running a number of Audie Murphy westerns. One of them, Six Black Horses, I recalled with particular fondness from seeing it back in 1962 or '63, when I was in my early teens. So I DVR-ed it late one night and sat down to watch it the following day with the intent of making it one of my "Another Look" entries on this site, perhaps with some added background on Mr. Murphy himself.

But I ran into a slight problem … to my dismay, I found that Six Black Horses did not—for me, at least—stand the test of time. Oh, it's not terrible by any means. Let's face it, any Western with a screenplay by Burt Kennedy is bound to have some interesting scenes and some passages of terrific dialogue. And Dan Duryea always makes for a snide, memorable villain (or, in this case, a sort of quasi-villain). Toss in the lovely Joan O'Brien (underrated and underused in a handful of movies co-starring a diverse cast of leading men that included John Wayne, Cary Grant, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lewis) as a lady of dubious motives, and all the ingredients—including, lest I forget, Audie playing a soft-spoken drifter with blazing guns—should have been there. Yet somehow it never quite gelled in a fully satisfying way.
But enough of that. This isn't a trash piece on Six Black Horses. That's not something I do, and the movie isn't trash-worthy in the first place … But neither is it praise-worthy on the level I was anticipating when I sat down to re-watch it after some forty years.

So, course-correcting, it occurred to me to expand my focus beyond a single Audie Murphy movie and take a look at the man himself. And if ever there was an individual who rated having his life examined and publicly trumpeted, it is Audie Leon Murphy. His story has been told many times—better, often, than I can do here in a few paragraphs on this blog. But I'm going to go ahead and give it a shot, anyway.

Audie Murphy played a hero in the movies—mostly a cowboy hero, mostly in what were considered "B Westerns". But far beyond that, he was a hero in real life. A military hero (the most decorated soldier of WWII), a hero to his family at home, and a hero to thousands of suffering, misunderstood veterans when he began to publicly speak out on the then-controversial subject of what was called "battle fatigue" or "shell shock" … what we now know and widely accept as "PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder".

The sixth of twelve children born to dirt-poor sharecroppers in Hunt County, Texas, Audie dropped out of school in the fifth grade in order to work in the cotton fields to help support his family. He was also supportive in other ways, becoming a crack shot with a .22 rifle and using it to bag squirrels and rabbits for the family dinner table. When a young friend who was hunting with him complimented his accuracy, Audie tersely replied: "If I miss what I'm shooting at – my family goes hungry."

After his father ran off and his mother died, Audie became the singular head of the family. For a brief time, he and his three youngest siblings tried living with his married sister, Corinne, and her family. But it didn't work out and Audie was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to place the three younger children in an orphanage, promising he would get them back out as soon as he could earn enough money and get better settled.
When World War II broke out, Audie felt compelled to join the Service. He was turned down by every branch, until the Army finally accepted him after he lied about his age and backed it up with a hand-written letter from his sister Corinne. When he went off to boot camp, he was a few months under 18, stood 5.5 inches tall, and weighed less than 120 pounds.
The rest, as they say, is history. The diminutive Audie spent 27 months fighting in the European Theater of the war. By the time he was done, he'd received 33 medals, ribbons, citations, etc. —including the Medal of Honor as well as five awards from France and one from Belgium.
He struggled with malaria and was wounded three times, always returning to the front as soon as he was able.

His final and most memorable military action (the one that won him the Medal of Honor) occurred on January 26, 1945 – one day after being named company commander and receiving minor wounds from a mortar round which killed two other soldiers standing near him. In bloody combat just outside Holtzwihr, France, Murphy's unit had been reduced to only 19 able men out of 128. Ordering his remaining men to the rear, Audie held off the advancing Germans (including six tanks and a full squad of infantry) with his M-1 rifle until he ran out of ammunition. He then climbed aboard an abandoned, burning M10 tank destroyer and used its .50 caliber machine gun to continue fighting. With a land-line telephone he began calling in air strikes on the enemy. When asked at one point how close the enemy was to him, Murphy famously replied: "Hold the phone – I'll let you talk to 'em!" For nearly an hour, he maintained this fight, sustaining a serious leg wound. Finally, the rest of his unit rallied and what was left of the German force was driven off, freeing Holtzwihr.

After the war, Audie was immensely popular and widely heralded back home in the states. He returned to Texas for a brief time, bought his sister Corinne a house and got his younger siblings out of the orphanage as promised.
And then Hollywood called.
After struggling initially, Audie got his first big break in John Huston's critically acclaimed film version of Stephen Crane's classic Red Badge of Courage. For the next two decades, Audie would go on to star in over forty movies, most of them "B Westerns" for Universal Pictures. All were entertaining, all were modestly successful. Several—Red Badge of Courage, The Unforgiven (co-starring Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn and also directed by John Huston), Night Passage (co-starring James Stewart), No Name on the Bullet, The Quiet American, Ride Clear of Diablo—were especially good.
In 1955, after at first strongly resisting, Audie agreed to play himself in To Hell And Back, a movie based on his wartime autobiography. The film was a huge success and for two decades held the record as the highest-grossing film in the history of Universal studios (until a little flick called Jaws came along in 1975).
Audie also did some TV work, including 26 episodes of the Whispering Smith series.
In addition to acting, Audie was a poet and became a well known as a country music songwriter. His two biggest hits were Shutters and Boards and When The Wind Blows in Chicago, both of which have been recorded numerous times by such well-known singing artists as Dean Martin, Eddy Arnold, Charley Pride, Roy Clark, and Harry Nilsson.
Audie has a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Later in his life, he became a successful businessman and rancher, owning ranches in Texas, Arizona, and California where he bred and raised primarily Quarter Horses.

Throughout his adult life, Audie struggled with insomnia, bouts of depression, and nightmares stemming from his battlefield experiences. In the mid-1960s he recognized that he had become addicted to sleeping pills. In typical heroic Audie Murphy fashion, he went to war with his addiction, locking himself in a motel room for nearly a week and not coming back out until he'd fought through the withdrawal and won the battle.
It was also in the '60s when Audie began speaking out on the largely taboo subject of war-related mental conditions still being suffered by WWII and Korea veterans and now showing up in a fresh round of returning Vietnam vets. He spoke candidly of his own problems with PTSD and urged Congress to focus increased attention on this problem and to provide extended health care for those affected.

On May 28, 1971, at the age of only 46, Audie Murphy died in the crash of a private plane on Brush Mountain in Virginia.
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and his grave is the second most-visited marker there, after only that of President John F. Kennedy.
The headstones of Medal of Honor recipients are normally decorated in gold leaf. But, as requested by Audie prior to his death, his stone is plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier. At his funeral, a friend allegedly commented, "Like the man, the stone is too small."

Ordinary? … Too small? … Not hardly, it seems to me. Not by a long shot.
By physical measurement, he may have only been 5.5 inches in height … But by every other way you measure a man, Audie Murphy stood among the tallest.

Persevere — WD

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Noteworthy Reads: THE LIMPING DOG by J.R. Lindermuth

THE LIMPING DOG is a good, old-fashioned murder mystery—and I mean that in the most flattering way. To emphasize, it is a DAMN GOOD murder mystery. If it were a movie, it is the kind of thing you could easily imagine Alfred Hitchcock doing back in the 40s or 50s, before he turned to more horror-oriented storylines.

Atmospheric, suspenseful, cleverly plotted (with all sorts of twists and red herrings), and peopled with colorful, multi-layered characters the reader quickly grows to care about and will want to see more of (the good guys, that is). In other words, all the right ingredients—including a blossoming romance amidst the mayhem and murder—are here. And in the skilled hands of Lindermuth they are prepared and served up as a very satisfying dish indeed.

Lindermuth is the author of the popular Sticks Hetrick mysteries and has also begun a second series featuring 19th century sheriff Sylvester Tilghman. Both of these are set in Lindermuth's native Pennsylvania—the Hetrick books in current times, the Tilghman series in the 1890s—and both have new titles due out in the coming months.

DOG is set in coastal New England (captured very convincingly by the author) and I, for one, surely would not mind it being the beginning of a third series from John. In the meantime, though, enjoy THE LIMPING DOG as it is, and don't waste any more time about it. It's a terrific read, one you are sure to enjoy.
Highly recommended.

Persevere --- WD