Communism

Pickup on South Street… Doing Message Right

When I reviewed Adam’s Rib, I pointed out how a film–even one with a glorious cast–can be utterly ruined when the message gets in the way of the story. Now let’s have a look at one that sends a message but is still amazing.

Pickup on South Street is a film I’d never heard of until I got my copy of the 1001 films book. And if I tell you the way it works out, you’ll think it was a McCarthy-era, commie-scare piece of political propaganda with zero redeeming traits. So here goes: it’s basically about a pickpocket who redeems himself by breaking up a communist spy ring in New York.

Pure cold-war jingoism, right?

Wrong. It’s a fun spy flick in an unforgettable 1950s New York setting, where the communists are, while watching, incidental in the plot. The plot needed some spies, and the spies in the post-Nazi era were communists.

Yes, I agree that the impact of the message might have been blunted by the fact that communists, like Nazis, make for excellent bad guys. Totalitarian regimes which hate any sort of individuality are always nice to make fun of. But the film rises above that, not breaking stride to moralize about the evils of the reds… it tells the story in much the same way a crime movie would, without stopping to preach.

And that’s what makes this movie. Its message is powerfully delivered precisely because it doesn’t beat you over the head with it… and it makes you wonder: how the hell did the people making The Last Jedi and other modern preach-fests forget this lesson? I suspect the arrogance of the modern political elites makes them think that they can preach at the audience without having their films lambasted as imbecilic. They are wrong, and at least part of Hollywood knew it in the 50s.

And just how huge is the message they managed to hide in this one?

It’s enormous, but you need to know a little about Hollywood back then to grasp it. In the 50s, the Hays Code was still going strong, which meant that you couldn’t have a happy ending for a criminal. Well, in this one, the protagonist robs a purse, beats a woman, lies to the cops and tries to extort a bunch of money from the communist gang… and in the end, walks free (and gets the girl–the same one he spent half the film slapping around).

So WHY does he get a happy ending? Because all of his crimes are offset by the glory of having destroyed a communist spy ring. It’s really that simple.

But despite the utter lack of subtlety of the political message it never, not once, gets in the way of the storytelling and the art of this film.

And that, my friends, is how it’s done. Highly recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni in a novelist and short story writer own version of an edgy, modern thriller is entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.

Apparently, Aristocracy is Inevitable

Time for a digression, not something even remotely academic, but something I have often thought about, and something I’m pretty certain is true: aristocracy is inevitable.

So, yeah, in 1917 and the years immediately after, the Russian people rose against their rulers, killed the Czars, inspired the Anastasia conspiracy theories and installed a communist government.

Aristocracy, they told us, was dead.

Russsian Revolution

A handful of years later, the party elite had their Black Sea dachas and were driven around in chauffeured cars while everyone else watched the carriages with undisguised resentment.

Exactly the same as in the pre-1917 era.  The only thing the communist revolution managed was to industrialize the country and create a new royal family.  (in their defense, they also defeated Hitler, but I’m not trying to make a different point here, not criticize communism per se).

China, another communist country, currently has 373 billionaires while a good billion people live the agrarian life of a Russian serf.

Another notable revolution that was supposed to get rid of the aristocracy was the French.  France currently has 40 billionaires…

So, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, society naturally seems to stratify into classes.  An upper class defined by either wealth (or in the case of communist Russia, by access), education or refinement springs up in every system.

Even the failed nations, the African warlord republics or Venezuela have a clear definition of haves and have-nots.  In Venezuela, the dictator’s corrupt cronies live like kings, for example.

Why?

I think I know: people with talent and drive don’t want to be counted among the masses. They work hard to achieve status so that either they or–failing that, their descendants–can have an easy life and enjoy themselves.  After all, enjoying yourself is much better than any of the alternatives.

Elon Musk worked to make his billions and now works just as hard at doing stuff he loves.  His definition of enjoying himself might put mankind on Mars.  Which means that, annoying as his electric cars might be, we’re all rooting for him.

And that’s the wonder of the modern world. You don’t need to be born a von-Anything to gain access to the world of the aristos.  All you need to have is drive, brains and a modicum of luck and you will get there, eventually.   Or be a really good soccer player.  Or a brilliant neurosurgeon.  Or guitar virtuoso.  There are infinite roads, but all require talent and hard work.

Unless you live in a communist country.  In that case, you will need political ability to enjoy the spoils.  But the same principle applies: if you’re GOOD at it, you’ll make it.

So I generally oppose systems which pretend to make the world an equitable place.  Evidence shows that the only way to enforce this is to give more and more power to the government, which just means a different subset of people fill the role of the aristocracy.

Since I generally respect talent and hard work more than I do political ability, I’ll probably always want the free-market people to win.

But whoever ends up in the drivers seat, know this: a talented group willing to put in the hours are going to have stuff the rest of the people don’t.  All the current political divide is doing is trying to define which group that will be.

Me?  I will stay on the sidelines wondering why it’s important for some politician on the left to have everything versus some dude who started a company.  I don’t actually care who it is, but you’ll generally find me in free-market countries because my talent does NOT lie in political acumen.

Anyway, just some random thoughts to break up the reviews for once.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose published work spans every genre from literary fiction to comic fantasy.  His dark fantasy is collected in Pale Reflection.  You can have a look 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.