Month: November 2019

The Hays Code Ruined this One

The Lady From Shanghai Film Poster

Almost from the first scene of The Lady from Shanghai, you know it isn’t going to end well for at least a few of the protagonists.  Why? Because one thing that the damnable Hays Code insisted on was that no one involved in crime or amorality was allowed a happy ending.

It is a classic, apparently, but it could have been so much better.

Directed by Orson Welles (who also played the lead role) and starring Rita Hayworth, it should have been better.

But it wasn’t.  It’s a disjointed noir story about unfaithful wives after money, as in so many other noir films (Double Indemnity springs to mind immediately), except here, the narrative is full of either plot holes or intentional ambiguity.  No one acts the way they probably should, although the debauched atmosphere does go a way to explaining it all.

In its day, the fault for the movie being a flop was laid at Welles’ feet, and I suppose he does shoulder a good part of it, but as I said, I was immediately certain that the thing would end badly for most of the cast because I knew the rules you had to play by in the Hays Code era.

If you wanted to have a happy ending for an ambiguous hero, you essentially had to move to France and film there.  Likewise if your heroine crossed a few too many lines.

So this one is a mixed bag, likely only of real interest to Orson Welles’ completists and to people who really, really love the shootout in the mirror maze (admittedly, that part was pretty cool).

Maybe put this one on the back burner until you’ve watched more pressing films.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book, Love and Death is a series of intertwined stories that delve deeply into what it means to be alive and what love means in different scenarios.  You can buy it here.

A Perfect Example of a Seventies Paperback

The next book in my reading of that pile of paperbacks from the (mostly) seventies is Morris West’s The Concubine.  And I can’t think of a better example of the breed.

Morris West - The Concubine

To start with, the naked woman on the cover just shouts 70s to me (even though, to be fair, this edition was released in 1969, although my own copy was of the 1973 printing).  Naked lady, huge yellow flower.  Yep, the seventies.

And then you get to the book.  I went into it thinking I was heading into another super-sexy adventure like the Rosemary Rogers book, but I was wrong.  This one was a thriller about an Irish oilman who falls for another man’s woman while on a criminal job in the islands of southern Asia.  And it takes up the torch for fun reading again–reminding us of the days when books were fun and very much not politically correct.

This one has the added interest of having been written in 1958, at a time when the far east still had a frontier-like quality to it, replacing the Wild West at a time when the actual Wild West was being lotted out into suburbs.

The ending to this particular book was so outrageous that you’ll have to read it to believe it.  Not what I was expecting, even though the writer foreshadowed it correctly… More fitting to a lost world fantasy tale from the thirties.

Interesting side note is that the novel was originally published as McReary Moves In, under the pseudonym Micheal East, only to be republished under the author’s real name when he became a bestseller…  You can’t make stuff like that up.

Anyway, a great way to spend a few hours.  Nostalgic and entertaining… as most of this pile of junk books was.

Of course, the last one in the pile won its author a Nobel prize, but that is the subject f a different post.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author who will likely never win a Nobel Prize.  When people ask him why he thinks he won’t win, he points at his most recent novel, Ice Station: Death and says: “That book will disqualify me for life.”  If you’d like to see why, you can check it out here.

 

Revisiting McCarthyism – Seventy Years on

The Red Scares of the immediate postwar era are notorious as twentieth-century witch hunts, and rightfully so.  There were many reasons they ended up reviled, but mainly it was because they mimicked the methods of the very people they were out to get.  When democracy looks like communism and attempts to pit neighbor against neighbor and rumor against rumor in the time-honored socialist way, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

Worse for McCarthy and his band, we now have hindsight to aid us.  We know that, even dominating half the world as they did until 1990, communism just isn’t sustainable and eventually collapses under the weight of its own grey hopelessness.  McCarthy didn’t have that advantage, or he would just have stayed home with a smug look on his face.  Or maybe that kind of personality would have annoyed a different group.

For a modern audience, it’s hard to understand what the general public would have felt at the time, or to be objective.  The weight of history (and of often left-leaning historians) has given its verdict and McCarthy has joined the ranks of the vilified.

But he had real support, from intelligent, thinking people.  And if you read into the times, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion: that McCarthy was doing a necessary job, and his true crime was ignoring due process.

A good way to analyze this kind of thing is to read the popular fiction of the day (don’t waste your time with modern revisionist stuff as they have the same preconceptions you do).

neither-five-nor-three-helen-macinnes.jpg

My demolished paperback copy of Neither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes was in the same batch of 1970s’ paperbacks I’ve been reading through lately.  Nevertheless, it was written in 1951 (also, the paperback is from 1985).  This means that we can have a taste of the 1950s with the unmistakable  experience of the crumbling acidic paper of the eighties.

But it’s the 1950s insight that matters, and MacInnes is supremely qualified to give a more accurate picture than the one that has reached us.  She was both an academic and an intelligence officer, and therefore very much attuned to the question of communism in both academic and other circles.

So even if her book offends our modern preconceptions, the smart money is on her being right and our preconceptions being wrong.  That’s especially true if you feel very strongly about the subject one way or the other.

Basically MacInnes’ book postulates that the communist party in America was going to try to gain ascendancy by taking over editorial positions in American written media and, from those jobs, select the writers and viewpoints that would be printed therein.  Our heroes, as befits a novel of the era, are out to stop them.

This is the part where the cries of McCarthyism come in, but again, I assume MacInnes was right and we are wrong.  It certainly does seem plausible.

But more than plausible, it’s prescient.  In our current world, political parties on both sides of the spectrum do exactly this.  Impartial news is nearly impossible to find, and news outlets are no longer serious because… well, because exactly the scenario MacInnes was warning us about seventy years ago has come to pass.  Try selling a story about the successful application of free market thinking to The New York Times.  Or a heartwarming story about a commune giving out free milk to Fox News.

Of course, the left is much more likely to do this kind of thing (one of the tenets of communism was that everything was done for the state and for socialism, while democracy tends to focus on self-realization first), but everyone has learned the lessons.

I recommend this book as a must-read to anyone who wants to understand the current world.  MacInnes’ heroes might have won in the book, but when you see that some people mistake The Huffington Post (or Fox News or… insert your own pet peeve here) for actual information, you realize that, in real life, the good guys lost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own take on how the world can go to hell in a digital hand basket… and of what happens after that, is called Outside.  You can check it out here.

Did I Say Trashy? I Meant it…

On Wednesday, I informed my readers that my TBR pile had reached a section of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  The first book was a spy book–definitely trashy, but also fun–and I’m happy to say that, today, I can add sleazy to the list.

Rosemary Rogers - The Insiders - 1979 Paperback

I’d never read a Rosemary Rogers book, so I thought I was in for another thriller. The girl on the cover could easily be 1970s code for the bikini-clad jet-setting model that my international man of mystery falls into bed with, couldn’t it?

Apparently not.  Rosemary Rogers is described by Wikipedia as having been the writer who brought romance into the bedroom… and boy does she ever.

The Insiders was my Rogers debut, and it didn’t disappoint.  It was a seventies book in all its overdone glory.

Now, I’m not an expert on the romance genre by any means.  I’ve written some stuff that appears in romance anthos, and I’ll also read classic erotic books to compare them to other classic erotic books, but I don’t go out of my way to court the genre, so when I do read one, I find it extremely interesting.

In the first place, romance is much more similar to the spy genre than its readers like to admit.  At the risk of generalizing, women read romance while men read spy thrillers (I’m pretty sure the numbers back me up on this, but if anyone has evidence to the contrary, please drop me a line).  What no one tells you is that they read them for precisely the same reasons–at least if you’re talking about 1970s examples of each breed.

What do I mean by this?  Simple.  Just as both heroes and villains are utterly overdone in the spy genre, making everyone a caricature of himself, the same thing happens in The Insiders.

Every single character in this book is a sexual paladin.  From the heroine to the hero (who, at one point, actually leads a gang-rape of the heroine… imagine that today) to the secondary figures, sex is just something the characters do all the time, and which is worth little more than a passing thought. They have no hangups and don’t really think about sex as anything other than a cool way to spend some time… especially if their partner is skilled (and they all seem to be).

For those not used to the genres rules, it all seems a bit farfetched (anyone who has ever gone on a date with more than one person will know that, while scattered individuals may act the way the people in this book do, they are few and far between)… but the same can be said for a spy thriller from the same era.

Anyhow, this was a fun read.  In our politically correct world, I think if this one sold the millions of copies it did in the seventies, it would be denounced from every social media pulpit on the planet (we live in the era of the new Hays Code – a character who is involved in rape can no longer turn out to be the sympathetic hero, no matter what he does to redeem himself afterwards), so it was doubly interesting as a cultural artifact.

This one did nothing to dispel my conviction that literature was just more fun in the seventies.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a novel that contemplates what it means to be human.  You can check it out here.

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.

The Dean of Motor Racing Magazines

I’m pretty sure that a deep love of literature and art is not often corresponded by an equally deep passion for all things automotive, and that whenever I write about cars, some of my readers just skip that bit.

But I wanted to take a moment to talk about Motor Sport magazine, which, like Road & Track (which I’ve talked about here before quite often) is a classic publication that has been around for a certain amount of time.

But Road & Track, born in 1947 started out borrowing articles from established journalists that had made their names in the British motoring press, in Autocar, The Motor and, yes, Motor Sport.

Founded in 1924, and with a green cover that acknowledged its British heritage (green is the racing color for Britain), Motor Sport is one of my favorite magazines, and one of the few automotive publications I read regularly despite having gone through several different editorial directions within the past couple of decades.  It even had a red cover at one point (gasp!).

Why?

Well, for one thing, it focuses on race cars, which are the most exciting part of the automobile kingdom.  For another, it keeps the modern stuff to a minimum and concentrates on the history of racing, which is where the romance and heroics live.  I assume that today’s action will become more interesting as the hidden stories come to light, but right now, all we have are results.

Motor Sport February 2018

A good case in point is the issue I recently finished reading (and which prompted this post), the February 2018 magazine.  This one combines a huge tribute to the late Colin McRae with current (well, from 2018) Formula One news, an interview with Adrian Newey and another with Gordon Murray–probably the two most groundbreaking designers in the past 40 years of F1–plus reports on classic car racing and a feature on Group C.

For anyone with a love for the history of racing, this is paradise.  I won’t recommend that you go out and buy an issue, because I assume that anyone with an interest in motorsport will already be familiar with it.  But on the off chance that you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine decades, go get an issue.

You can thank me later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose Military SF novels Siege and Incursion have been well received.  You can check them out here and here.