LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. Universal Pictures, 1962. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Director: David Miller
Although the film languished in relative obscurity for decades, the 2009 DVD release of Lonely are the Brave likely introduced a new generation to this remarkably effective modern Western.
With a screenplay adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) and penned by Dalton Trumbo, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, a cowboy trying to make his way in modern industrial society. Burns is a charming anachronism, a rugged individualist who eschews automobiles for his horse and hates barbed wire fences and artificial borders.
The crux of the story is two-fold. When Burns learns that his friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) has been detained for helping illegal immigrants cross the border into New Mexico, he decides to ride – literally – to the rescue.
Complicating matters slightly are his feelings for Bondi’s wife, Jerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role). But what really gets the story moving is when Burns hatches a plan to break into jail so as to meet up with his friend Paul and help him escape. Needless to say, the plan falls apart and Jack ends up alone with his horse, a fugitive from the law.
Hot on Jack’s trail is cynical world-weary Sheriff Johnson, portrayed by future Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. It’s a near perfect role for him, one accentuated by little personality quirks and tics that simultaneously give his character both an everyman and a larger-than-life persona. Johnson has the modern world at his disposal: a plane, a helicopter, and police radio. But as it turns out, they are simply of no real use when they clash with Jack’s stubborn nineteenth-century values of individualism and self-sufficiency.
At times surprisingly humorous, Lonely are the Brave is also achingly sad. Douglas was exceptionally well cast; indeed, after watching the movie, it’s very difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part of Jack Burns. In many ways, it’s a very untraditional role for Douglas, an actor who has specialized in playing angry and intense men. His character in this film is surprisingly laid back, even more so in the face of nearly insurmountable challenges.
There is, however, one pivotal scene in which Douglas’s intensity shines through; namely, a well choreographed bar fight in which Jack Burns fights with a one-armed man. (As recounted in one of the extras on the DVD: apparently, the scene made a vivid impression one a young Steven Spielberg!)
While Lonely are the Brave will never likely achieve the same sort of canonical status as the work of auteur directors such as Budd Boetticher, John Ford, and Anthony Mann, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of such high aesthetic consideration. Indeed, the film holds up exceedingly well over fifty years after its initial cinematic release. Some may find the theme of the anachronistic cowboy to be overdone and trite, but in my estimation this generally unheralded film is able to both utilize, and build upon, this theme without falling into either pathos or cliché.
While browsing through the folk LPs offered for sale in a retro music shop in Magnolia Park yesterday, I came across quite a few names from the past that I hadn’t thought of in years, such as Fred Neil, Judy Henske, Phil Ochs, and Carolyn Hester, but also several that I’d don’t remember at all. Such a one is Kay Huntington, who seems to have released one LP, that in 1970, before she seems to have disappeared from the music business forever.
The LP is entitled What’s Happening to Over World? It was released in 1970, and it has never been reissued on CD. But most of the songs on it are on YouTube. Here’s the title track:
And as a bonus, one other song on it, “Right to Poverty,” that has caught my ear:
LINWOOD BARCLAY – A Tap on the Window. New American Library, hardcover, 2013. Signet, paperback, July 2014.
Here’s how the book begins. For lovers of PI and/or noir fiction, it’s a beginning that’s hard to resist, nor should they:
A middle-aged guy wold have to be a total fool to pick up a teenaged girl standing outside a bar with her thumb sticking out. Not that bright on her part, either, when you think about it. But right now, we’re talking about my stupidity, not hers.
She standing there at the curb, her stringy blond rain-soaked hair hanging in her face, the neon glow from the Coors sign in the window of Patchett’s Bar bathing her in an eerie light. Her shoulders were hunched up against the drizzle, as if that would keep her warm and dry.
It was hard to tell her age, exactly. Old enough to drive legally, and maybe even vote, but not likely old enough to drink.
The girl taps on the automobile window, and PI Cal Weaver lets her in, a good deed that does hardly anyone any favors, once the remaining 450 pages are done. It’s a quick read, though. Lincoln Barclay tells a fast-paced story, intricately woven but but laid out in clear, crisp prose.
It turns out that the girl was a schoolmate of Weaver’s son, and there is a story behind the story there. Scott is dead, having jumped off a four-story building to his death until the influence of pharmaceuticals, and Weaver has been harassing any would-be drug dealers to find out which one of them sold Scott the deadly dose. But because of his obsession and his wife’s own misery, their marriage is teetering on the rocks.
But getting back to the girl, as we should, her story leads Weaver into another direction altogether. He becomes part of her plan to throw someone off her trail, but the girl she makes a switch with ends up dead. Complicating matters is a feud between the police chief, Weaver’s brother-in-law, and the mayor, who has secrets of his own, but who is also the father of the girl Weaver picked up and who has now disappeared.
There are also some cops on the small town police department in the upstate New York area who are more inclined to use force than they should be in keeping undesirables out; the proximity of Niagara Falls as a good way of disposing of bodies; and in the interspersed sections in italics, separate from Weaver’s own narrative, a family crime and subsequent conspiracy of some sort is obviously the key that connects all of the above together.
There is plenty of gritty behind-the-scenes small town atmosphere in this novel. Not everything is cheery and bright in non-urban America. The book does not end well, by which I mean for the characters, but it does appear that Cal Weaver escapes well enough that he may have other adventures. It’s a gripping story for the reader, except for the sections in italics, which personally I could done without, with no harm done, and perhaps even to the betterment of the book.
Bibliographic Update: Cal Weaver has subsequently appeared in book two and three of Barclay’s “Promised Land” trilogy:Broken Promise (2015) and Far from True (2016). I may hunt them down, eventually, but I think I will wait for the fallout left behind this novel to die down first.
BRUNO FISCHER – So Wicked My Love. Gold Medal #437, paperback original; 1st printing, 1954. Reprinted twice. A shorter version appeared in Manhunt, November 1953, under the title “Coney Island Incident.”
Ray Whitehead, the narrator of So Wicked My Love, rejected by his fiancée, gives her ring to a redhead he picks up in Coney Island. He goes to the redhead’s hotel room with her, discovers that she has been involved in an armored car-robbery, and watches her stab a man to death.
All of this happens in the first twenty pages of the story, and the redhead continues to make life miserable for Ray Whitehead.
She is one of those wonderfully amoral sexpots of paperback-original fiction that are more easily acquired than gotten rid of. Ray does manage to get rid of the $80,000 that he is stuck with (the loot from the robbery), but the girl keeps turning up at the most inopportune times.
For example, when Ray’s fiancée realizes that she loves him after all, who should turn up but the redhead, of course –wearing the ring. In fact, the girl becomes something of a millstone to Whitehead, involving him in all sorts of difficulties with her past and present criminal associates.
Though not as tightly plotted as some of Fischer’s other works (it was expanded from a magazine story), So Wicked My Love is typically fast-paced. The main characters, especially Whitehead, in the role of the innocent man drawn into criminal events, are particularly well done.
Other Fischer paperbacks of interest are Knee-Deep in Death (1956), Murder in the Raw (1957), and Second-Hand Nude (1961).
BRUNO FISCHER – The Silent Dust. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1950. Signet #892,paperback, 1951.
Bruno Fischer had a great deal of success in both the hardcover and pulp fields; and when the pulps gradually died out, he went on to sell millions of copies of paperback novels. In Paperback Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 4) Fischer described his “usual manner” of writing as containing “movement and suspense with very little violence,” and as being about “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
The Silent Dust (one of his hardcover mysteries) is narrated by Fischer’s strongest series character, private detective Ben Helm, one of the few successfully characterized married private eyes in fiction. Helm is not cast in the typical mold of the early Fifties private eyes in other ways, either. He is more intellectual than physical, and the major clues in The Silent Dust are literary ones. The book’s title is an allusion to Gray’s “Elegy,” and in the course of the story, other British poets are prominent.
There are two offstage murders, one of an author and one of her husband, both motivated by a desire to stop publication of the author’s book, entitled A Handful of Ashes. The author, it seems has a nasty habit of portraying her friends and acquaintances in her works, revealing things about them that they wouId rather not have publicized. The suspects include a former gangster, his wife, a fifteen-year-old genius, a chauffeur with a criminal record, and a matinee idol.
The writing is literate; Helm is compassionate; the story is tight and well told. And no doubt Fischer had writing the excerpts from the dead author’s book.
Another good Ben Helm book is More Deaths Than One (1947) in which Fischer does a fine job with the difficult multiple first-person-point-of-view technique.
AARON ELKINS – Make No Bones. Gideon Oliver #7. Mysterious Press, hardcover, 1991; paperback, 1994.
The seven books about forensic anthropologist Dr. Gideon Oliver make up one of the more agreeable of the wave of “specialist” mystery series that have proliferated over th elast several years. While I — and I’m sure Elkins — regret the disfigurement that television visited upon his creation, the books themselves have retained their charms and readability.
Here Oliver, his wife Julie, and FBI friend John Lau are attending a forensic anthropologists’ conference in Bed Oregon, at the Museum of Natural History there. The bones of a famous anthropologist — as well-hated personally as was respected professionally, and who was killed in an accident at a conference there ten years earlier — are to be installed in a permanent display in the museum.
First the bones are stolen,. then a ten year.old body is discovered in a shallow grave, and then another `murder occurs. Are all these things. connected? Can the “bone doctor” help piece together the puzzle using his forensic skills? Of course, you silly thing.
Elkins’ books make no pretense to being great literature, or anything else other than well-crafted light entertainment. If you 1onging for brooding atmosphere, seat-gripping suspense, or intricate psychological portraits of tortured souls, you’re on the wrong pew; often, the books have almost a “cozy” feel. The neighborhood you’re in features good unadorned writing, reasonable plots, characters you cab enjoy, and more often than not a very good sense of place. Oliver’s base is in the Pacific Northwest. Elkins lives there, loves it, and does well by it in his stories.
Unless your taste in mysteries is limited to the dark and grim, I think you’ll like these. Recommended.
— Reprinted from Fireman, Fireman, Save My Books #4, November 1992.
Bibliographic Notes:Make No Bones was an Agatha Award Best Novel nominee for 1991. There are now 18 books in this series, with the most recent, Switcheroo, having a 2016 publication date. A complete list can be found here, along with all of Elkins’ other books, including three other series and three standalones.
WAGON MASTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell. Director: John Ford.
It suffices it to say, I’m not going to be breaking any new ground here with my thoughts upon recently viewing John Ford’s Wagon Master. Considered an excellent film by many, and one of Ford’s personal favorites, the black and white film features Ben Johnson as Travis Blue, a horse trader tasked with leading a Mormon wagon train across perilous terrain and toward the San Juan River in Utah.
Riding alongside Blue is his friend, Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.). Leading the Mormons is the gruff, but lovable patriarch, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Along the way, the group runs into whimsical fun with a medicine show group; danger in the face of a family outlaw gang; and cross-cultural understanding (and misunderstanding) with Navajos.
Filmed on location in the American Southwest, Ford’s elegiac tribute to westward pioneers is both a compelling narrative and visual work of genius. The movie isn’t so much filmed as it is photographed, with perfectly framed portraits of the characters making an indelible imprint on the viewer. Add to that the music and the songs, performed by Sons of the Pioneers and you have yourself a classic.
There are, however, some minor flaws in an otherwise extraordinarily solid work. For instance, the outlaws first appear at the very beginning of the film, only to reappear more than thirty minutes or so later. And there’s a marshal, tasked with hunting the aforementioned criminals, whose role in the film remains somewhat uncertain. But, as I said, minor flaws in an otherwise great Western, one that I suppose many readers of this review have themselves watched time and again.
BRUNO FISCHER – Knee-Deep in Death. Gold Medal #591; paperback original; 1st printing, July 1956. Cover art by Lu Kimmel.
One of the techniques used by the pulp writers of the 30s and 40s — and earlier and later, for that matter — is to start the story moving by tossing in as many strange and unexplained events as you could and let the main protagonist(s) muddle their way through the rest of the book trying to piece together what happened and put the finger on the guilty party.
It is a technique that works only when the explanation fits exactly what happened, and if the author can lead the way into that explanation without cramming it all in in one great infodump in the last three or four pages.
This is what Bruno Fischer, a long-time and very prolific pulp writer himself, does in Knee-Deep in Death, and by golly, he succeeds on both counts. Where he falls down and leaves the reader (me) not completely satisfied is by using a hero-protagonist who’s not very interesting (boring) and while certainly wronged by his wife (rich) who has left him (he insisted that they live on his money, not hers), he comes off as needing to explain things too much (not exactly whiney, but close).
Coming back to the small town where Manhattan-based TV producer Gabe Bishop’s wife Lucy has returned to live with her mother, he finds her chatting up a fellow in a bar and obviously not very happy to see him (Gabe, that is). Gabe socks him, and it turns out that the guy has a gun. Next thing Gabe knows is that he’s on the scene of a killing, that of an old man in field fleeing an unknown assailant with a (another?) gun, Lucy is nearby — could she be involved? — and so is a good-looking redhead whom Gabe knows is female by grasping into her in the dark.
Then Lucy’s car in trapped in the mud, and Gabe has to rescue her — see the cover — and do you know what? I don’t think I’m making this very interesting at all. But it is. Something is going on, and besides trying to make up with his wife. Gabe is determined to find out what.
You will not be surprised to know that he manages to do both. The result is solidly written, not in any sort of prizewinning fashion, and while as often happens the ending is a bit of a letdown, I think (hope) I’ve told you enough to tell you whether you’d enjoy it, too.
SEVEN SINNERS. Gainsborough, UK, 1936. Released in the US as Doomed Cargo. Edmund Lowe, Constance Cummings, Thomy Bourdelle and Felix Aylmer. Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Directed by Albert de Courvile.
There’s a venerable tradition in British thrillers of this period; the hero finds a dead man in his room, notifies the authorities, and either:
A: He’s accused of murder and on the run from the police and the real killers
B: The body disappears and everyone assumes he’s drunk or crazy… except the real killers.
In this case it’s “B” and the hero is hard-drinking detective Edmund Lowe, on vacation in Nice (the Pinkertons must pay quite well, it seems) at carnival, compete with sinister masks, dizzying fireworks and a pretty Insurance agent (Miss Cummings) trying to drag him off to Scotland to recover some missing jewels.
She at length gets our hero on board a Scotland-bound Express but they never do get there because someone wrecks the train and amid the carnage, Lowe sees the body of the man who was murdered in his room (“Where better to hide a leaf than in a forest.”) and the process begins of finding out why he was killed and who might have done it.
With the aid of a helpful French Police Inspector (Bourdelle) Lowe begins tracking down a killer who is quickly becoming a mass murderer, following up on old photographs, last year’s invitations, bridge tournaments (!) and an obscure death certificate, eventually uncovering a sinister international conspiracy (another tradition of Brit thrillers in those days) headed by a mysterious mastermind with a funny hand (yet another tradition…) who turns out to be a respectable etc. etc.
Writers Launder and Gilliat handle it all with the energy and wit they brought to thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, Green Man, Night Train to Munich, and director de Courville keeps the pace brisk, emphasizing the repartee between Lowe and Cummings as much as the chases and spectacle. There are three jarring and visceral train wrecks in this movie, and oddly enough the least effective is an actual train wreck lifted from a silent film. The others are achieved with montage and inventive special effects and they contain some splendid visuals.
Edmund Lowe and Constance Cummings play off each other very well in the leads, mastering an anglicized version of the Nick-and-Nora thing quite agreeably, but the writers and director do just as well with the minor characters and bit players with the result that Seven Sinners comes alive with the feel of a dizzying thriller set among very real people.