Month: June 2021

The Film that knocked Hitchcock Off His Perch

If you ask anyone who is the master of suspense, you’ll likely get the same answer from most people: Alfred Hitchcock. Most people know that.

What most people don’t know, is that, for a few years in the 1950s, he was taken off that pedestal by a French director who is mostly forgotten today: Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man whose work we’ve already admired here, but who achieved international recognition with Les Diaboliques.

This is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, particularly because it’s unpredictable until a few minutes from the end. It doesn’t torture you with the knowledge that bad things are coming in a precisely organized procession. After a while, you know the bad stuff is on its way, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess what form it takes.

And the end is greatly satisfying.

The only weak link here is the main actress, Clouzot’s wife Vera, who was not great, but the film is so strong it really didn’t matter all that much. The awkwardness in her acting actually fits into the personality of the character and you wonder if she was bad on purpose (apparently she wasn’t, but I only learned that when doing a bit of reading for this piece).

For those of you who read and enjoy my car stuff here, it’s fun to note that the characters crisscross France in an eminently unsuitable Citroen 2CV van.

I give this one a solid “recommended”. Hitchcock was only re-crowned with Psycho… and Clouzot has been mostly forgotten, at least by non-students of the seventh art outside of France.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novlist and short story writer whose own thriller is more of an action-driven exponent of the genre as opposed to an ambience-driven one. It’s called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

For Your Eyes Only – A James Bond Short Story Collection

I love reading James Bond books for several reasons. The first is that they are so different from the movies that share the names with the books. For example, For Your Eyes only is the name of a short story which gives its title to a collection of James Bond shorts (two of the other tales are entitled “From a View to a Kill” and “Quantum of Solace”). And it’s this book that is the subject of today’s post.

This book doesn’t contain another of Ian Fleming’s delights, namely the penchant for wonderful, outrageous character names but it does keep alive his well-known tendency to write for heterosexual male audiences from the late fifties and early sixties. While some might find this kind of writing offensive, I find it delightfully unaffected and fresh. A great palate cleanser after an issue of The New Yorker which suffered from the modern day disease of overcompensating via political correctness.

Be warned, though… Fleming isn’t for everyone, just for people who can allow for context and understands that the world is a constantly-changing place without blowing a fuse if something isn’t up to today’s standards.

Obligatory caveats expressed, let’s move on to the stories themselves.

Four of the five are just what you’d expect from a Bond book (if you’re familiar with Bond books, that is. If you’re expecting them to be like the movies, this isn’t that). Spy adventure with a slightly more brooding and human–and less funny and superhuman–main character. Great entertainment, and harmless fun.

But the final tale, “Quantum of Solace” isn’t a traditional Bond story, but a tale in which our favorite secret agent gets to hear about someone else’s life, a life without any international intrigue, but nothing more than a sordid story of a marriage gone wrong. It’s well-written, of course, but also has a bit of a surprise value, and is wonderful to find here.

For those familiar with Bond novels, this one is a fun change of pace. Good stuff.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own international thriller is entitled Timeless. Hs heroine is most definitely not a male chauvinist superspy, but she has just as much sex as Bond does–and on her terms, too–you can check out Marianne Caruso’s adventures in Timeless, here.

The Car that Killed the Original Can Am

I’v mentioned here before that I like to do a little drawing when not busy with other things… and here’s my latest. It’s entitled Captain Nice Clips the Red Dirt, and it pictures the Porsche 917/30 Mark Donohue drove to a dominant championship in 1973.

Down and Out in 1950s America

For some reason, I find books about extreme poverty in the past compelling. Not because I enjoy them, exactly, but because they give insight into a world that is very different from that of everyday life for most people. I wouldn’t read a book about modern-day poverty because it would depress me, but if a few decades have passed, I like them a lot.

Now, Sara Harris isn’t Orwell, not by a long stretch of the imagination, so her book can’t be the literary masterpiece that is Down and Out in Paris and London, but she does have a journalist’s eye (ear?) for the human angle that will bring a point across to the reader, and she uses that gift very effectively in Skid Row USA.

This one is a paperback that I picked up somewhere (probably at a flea market in the church around the corner) with another few old paperbacks, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Garish, and aimed at thrill readers, it is both an interesting look at a past era and a psychological analysis of the dynamics of extreme poverty that sound like they’d still be relevant today.

I read this more as a history book, akin to this one, than as what it was meant to be, which is a sociologically-driven admonishment to the society of the fifties that extreme poverty is not a crime but a psychological and, when combined with alcoholism, medical problem.

It’s much more interesting as an insight into a different world. Hell, we’ve all seen the fifties. Huge tailfins, drive-ins with waitresses on roller skates, early rock and roll, the birth of the suburban ideal and the culmination of the American Dream. This book takes us out of the suburbs and small towns and into the lives and circumstances of the urban poor to whom suburbia is a legendary place outside their scope.

Of course, as a writer, this is all grist for the mill. Not all my stories take place in space, and not all of my characters are dashingly handsome aristocrats. Having this book both in my head and on my shelves means that a character from Skid Row will be a lot more believable.

But even non-writers should find this one an interesting, quick read. There’s even some hope at the end (although I have no clue if the programs described in this 1950’s book ever came to fruition).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most socially-conscious work is probably the science fiction novel Outside, which addresses the current problems of technology addiction and the incapacity of humans on one side of an issue to behave in a civilized manner to those on the other. You can buy a copy here.

Kidnapping as a Way to Land a Bride… Plus Catwoman

Before I watched it, all I knew about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was that it was a musical (in fact, I thought it was originally a Broadway play). In my mind, the action took place in a Jewish New York neighborhood, for some reason. Imagine my surprise when it opened… it’s a Western!

As a 1950s musical, it’s pretty much innocuous all the way through. Bright colors and songs about love, combined with a few comic misunderstandings. It’s a film that, as it entertains you, also lulls you into a false sense that you’re not going to witness anything more than some virtuoso acrobatic dancing and perfectly normal musical comedy.

And then the six unmarried brothers decide to kidnap six unmarried girls and marry them. Now, this is softened by the fact that the girls actually ARE interested the brothers.

What, one might ask, is the rationale behind this insane bit of caveman-like behavior? Well, apparently, the book the film is based on was inspired by the rape of the Sabine women.

Who the hell writes a COMEDY based on the rape of the Sabine women (well, other than the Romans, of course…)?

Modern audiences will likely be either offended or amused by the whole thing. For my own part, I’m never offended by stuff that happened before I was born, but I still found it jaw-dropping. Sure, the fifties were a different time, but I never thought they were THAT different. Weirdly, no reviewers found anything unusual about a bunch of lumbering redheaded farmers abducting a huge number of women.

Of course, abduction is as far as things go, and the film ends on a happy note with a half-dozen shotgun marriages in which everyone is delighted to get hitched.

One of the hight notes for me is that Julie Newmar, the best Catwoman ever, by a huge margin, is one of the brides. To be honest, I didn’t recognize her… but then again, the bride characters are a lot less memorable than Catwoman.

Starting with Newmar who is still with us, this film featured quite a long-lived cast. Russ Tamblyn, Ruta Lee and Jane Powell are also up and about, and we take this moment to thank them for an enjoyable (if strange) film on the extremely slim chance they might be reading.

I still think Johnny Guitar is weirder… but it’s a close-run thing. I guess, like the noir formula before it, by 1954 Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas for Westerns and were really stretching it to stay surprising. And if surprise was the idea, they succeeded here…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own work is A) almost never set in the old west and B) absolutely never set to music. However, it is often unusual, sometimes downright weird, and collected in a book entitled Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.

Mazda Takes Over

In the early 70s, Mazda was a bit of a curiosity because they were the company that bet earliest and most profoundly on the Wankel engine in the US.

Unfortunately for Mazda, the fuel crisis and the rotary’s reputation for thirst put a serious dent in Mazda’s mid-seventies plans, and the potential dried up for some time as Mazda regrouped and licked its wounds.

But by the end of the decade, the brains back in Japan had crafted a wonderful new strategy: use regular piston engines for the family-oriented cars like the 626 featured on the cover of Road & Track’s March ’79 issue, and use the rotary in the RX-7.

It worked brilliantly. The RX-7 sold like there was no tomorrow, and the 626 was very well received. Better still, the sports car was so good that, in the comparison test that headlined the April 1979 issue, the editorial choice (if not the numerical one) went overwhelmingly to Mazda – despite the presence of Porsche and Corvette, and the fact that the Mazda was considerably cheaper than all the other cars included.

The other notable feature of these two magazines is a huge profile of Mario Andretti right after he became World Champion (and a timely feature it was, too. I’d just been watching Mario holding court at the 2021 Indy 500 and looking incredibly fit and younger than his age).

Anyhow, as the 70s wind down and give way to the 80s, I suppose the cultural aspect of these magazines will gradually give way to purely automotive interest and maybe some memory jogging–I actually remember the 80s!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a creature feature entitled Test Site Horror. If you like fast-paced adventure in which special forces soldiers fight a running battle withe genetically engineered dinosaurs (and who doesn’t) then this one might be for you. You can check it out here.

I coulda been somebody, I coulda been a contender

I’m probably in a tiny minority (and ignorant, to boot), but I had no clue that the famous line in the title was from On the Waterfront. If pressed, I’d probably have ascribed it to Stallone in one of the Rocky films. As always when I stumble on the origin of something popularly well-known that I was clueless about, I wonder how many of my readers will be shaking their head and wondering how the heck I manage to survive.

Don’t feel bad. I do the same thing.

As for the film itself, it’s a masterpiece, something that, apparently, everyone knew except for me. It’s weird. Normally, if a major film is coming up on the list, I’ll likely have heard of it, even if I don’t exactly know what it’s about or who was in it.

But not this time. It was a complete blank, and I didn’t actually realize it was deeply embedded in the popular consciousness until I heard the phrase that titles this article. Only then did I realize what I’d been watching (apart from an enjoyable film with Marlon Brando in it.

This is the second Brando film on this list and, despite sharing star and director, it feels extremely different from A Streetcar named Desire. This one looks like a typical Hollywood film, while the earlier one felt like a play adapted to the screen… darkly. Aesthetically, Streetcar runs rings around this one, but the plot was much more interesting in Waterfront.

I would have loved to have seen how the five families reacted to this one in the day… but I suppose that information will forever remain off the record.

A cool thing about On the Waterfront is that I can give a shout out to two of its stars, still alive. The extremely alluring Eva Marie Saint and centenarian Nehemiah Persoff. If you’re reading this, hello, and thanks for the wonderful film!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres from literary to science fiction. His crime thriller Timeless is a look at international smuggling in Eastern Europe from the eyes of a young American journalist who gets dragged into the darkest depths of the underworld. You can check it out here.

It’s good to see that even The New Yorker can suck

I’m not one for complaining about stuff you should expect. If you watch an old Western, you shouldn’t complain about a the fact that indians are pictured as the bad guys. That’s just how things were, and if you don’t want to see that, then don’t watch old westerns. Likewise, if you watch a Reifenstahl documentary, complaining that it’s full of Nazi imagery is just a bit stupid.

In much the same vein, if you don’t like a highly liberal (and progressive) viewpoint, don’t read The New Yorker.

So now I’m going to contradict myself and complain about The New Yorker from November 4, 2019 for being… you guessed it, excessively progressive.

Now, a bad New Yorker isn’t something I can just shrug off, mainly because I only get the magazine occasionally, as it doesn’t get delivered to Argentina (due to a combination of imbecilic protectionism, dishonest post office employees and mafia-like action by the newsstand owners union, getting foreign magazines here has become impossible). So I need to enjoy each one.

And I don’t mind the US-style progressive lean. I agree with some of it, disagree with other bits and don’t have a position on the rest. It isn’t like the editors are raving extremists with an axe to grind.

At least not normally. The first half of this issue made it seem like a reevaluation of my opinion might be needed. If you let yourself be guided by this issue, there are precisely two critical human questions in the world: gender and race.

While I agree that these are important questions -and they define some people’s lives – they are by no means exclusive, nor are they universally the most important. Other people might find other questions more significant, and that is as it should be. But this issue, explicitly (by speaking about the subjects) or implicitly (by focusing on diversity in the arts to the exclusion of anything non-diverse) ignores all the other important subjects.

This level of tunnel vision might be fine for certain types of publication with a specific political and propaganda focus (I’d never read that, even if the politics were precisely my own), but for The New Yorker, it’s utterly unforgivable. It’s supposed to be a journal catering to intelligent people with wide-ranging cultural interests, which means that this kind of narrow-mindedness is precisely what the readers would hate.

Fortunately, a little neutrality creeps in in the second half of the magazine (one specific article on cyber-security is very professional), and the article about Ukraine’s leader is pretty decent (even though, for marketing reasons, the title is a Trump bashing one).

But that’s not enough to save an issue that, in the future, will likely be pointed to as an example of what The New Yorker shouldn’t represent. We get it, Americans are obsessed about the culture wars. But TNY should be above that adolescent squabble and able to focus on everything truly important, not just what the college professors are getting their panties in a bunch about.

We expect more from them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in a book of linked short stories entitled Love and Death (now THOSE are important subjects!). It follows the intertwined lives of several individuals across generations in the most important moments of their lives. You can check it out here.

The Weirdest Western: Johnny Guitar

When watching the 1001 movies list, it becomes obvious that some films are chosen specifically for their weirdness factor. Johnny Guitar is at the forefront of these… a western in which a couple of female gunslingers hate each other to the point of death while the men act like thinking adults in a reversal of the usual Hollywood trope. It’s memorable, but not necessarily successful as a film.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Though by no means a great film from any but a “diversity-first”, it’s still entertaining and tense, good enough to watch once without suffering through it. The action is well-paced, the villainess hateful (and believable) and the good guy utterly unremarkable. His laconic competence would have put even Shane to shame.

The thing that makes this movie watchable is that, despite the role reversal in which women play the part normally occupied by men in westerns, the movie isn’t about the role reversal per se, but about the utter hatred between two women. Unlike in Adam’s Rib, which was ruined by making the story about the role reversal, this one actually works as entertainment as opposed to eye-rolling political propaganda.

Audiences of the day apparently didn’t warm to this one, and it took a critical reevaluation for it to come into public notice, and I’m not surprised. More than the role reversal, I think it might be because the only truly likable character, Johnny Guitar himself, is not at the center of the conflict.

A final word about the reevaluation: like a lot of stuff being rescued from the trash heap of history lately, this one probably got reevaluated for the wrong reasons. Specifically, it is the only Western of the golden era in which the conflict is specifically between women. Does that make it worthy of canonization? Not in the least, but the reevaluators don’t care about that. Females in male roles are more important than ultimate quality when reevaluating for political reasons, and that is true in any genre… including film.

But don’t blame this one for the political excesses of modern fanatics. As a film, it’s decently entertaining and honest about what it wants to do. Both my wife and I enjoyed it, and we’re kind of reticent when it comes to westerns. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch (maybe just to say you’ve seen it), but don’t expect it to be Earth-shaking or significant. It isn’t.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a nice walk in the Russian wilderness. Except is isn’t very nice because some nutball released genetically modified dinosaurs into the woods, making it necessary to be surrounded by special forces soldiers if you want to survive. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.

A Nicely Balanced Collection of Horror

I expected the anthology entitled Revisiting the Undead to be exactly what it said on the cover: a collection of previously-published zombie/vampire/undead stories. But the very first story laid those suspicions to rest, as there was not one undead baddie in sight. Instead, we had a straight, creative horror story that seemed straight from the 1980’s canon (though it wasn’t).

That story served as a declaration of intent. Though undead beasties are in this book (my own story, “Bridge Over the Cunene” is one example), they most certainly haven’t pushed out other, equally rich, veins of horror.

The result is a book that is well-balanced and which continually refreshes itself with each new story. The reader ends up wondering what the next author is going to come up with, which is a very good thing to achieve in an antho.

My favorite was Bob Moore’s “They Restared the Mill at Killington”, which is a creepy sort of horror that doesn’t need monsters to be scary. A wonderful tale.

Even though its a reprint antho, I hadn’t read any of the stories previously, so these aren’t old horses half beaten to death. A good one for those who enjoy pretty much any brand of horror.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His most recent collection of horror and dark fantasy is entitled Pale Reflection, and you can check it out here.