Monday, November 13, 2017

LE JUMEAU (THE TWIN) ON BLU-RAY

by Nathaniel Poggiali

Last May, the Museum of the Moving Image hosted “Crime Scenes,” a series focusing on the film adaptations and screenplays of legendary novelist Donald E. Westlake. The weekend of screenings was organized by Levi Stahl, editor of the terrific Westlake collection The Getaway Car, and included John Boorman’s POINT BLANK, the Robert Redford caper comedy THE HOT ROCK and, of course, THE GRIFTERS, for which Westlake earned an Oscar nomination. We attended the opening night of the festival (POINT BLANK) and found the post-screening discussion featuring Stahl, Abby Westlake, Lawrence Block and Luc Sante, to be informative and entertaining.

Although the discussion focused partly on European translations of Westlake’s stories, the film series included only one European adaptation: MADE IN U.S.A., a bizarre Marxist re-imagining of The Jugger directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Later French-language Westlake films -- MISE À SAC, LE JUMEAU, ORDO, and Costa-Gavras’s critically praised LE COUPERET -- were not screened, but they are strong efforts and mostly successful at capturing the author's style. Sadly, those films have eluded American viewers thanks to spotty or non-existent distribution.


In 1984, director Yves Robert re-teamed with Pierre Richard, the star of his hit comedies THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE and its sequel, for LE JUMEAU (THE TWIN), based on Westlake’s 1976 novel Two Much! Never officially released to the U.S., LE JUMEAU only recently became available with English subtitles in a beautiful-looking transfer available on region-free Blu-Ray through Amazon France.

Richard plays Matthias Duval, the womanizing, debt-ridden owner of an adult greeting card business, who invents a brother to woo identical twin heiresses (played by English twins Carey and Camilla More, the same year as their appearance in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER). After Matthias seduces Liz Kerner, he slicks his hair back and dons a pair of glasses to become Matthieu Duval, Matthias’s identical twin brother and suitor of Liz’s sister Betty.

When Matthias finds himself engaged to Liz and Betty as part of an inheritance scheme, he’s soon running back and forth between offices and bedrooms, juggling identities in farcical fashion while the Kerners’ cadaverous attorney Ernest Volpinex (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) launches an investigation into the Duval siblings.

The film is remarkably faithful to Westlake’s novel and even uses a few of the tasteless (and often hilarious) greeting card messages. Richard, a deft comic actor, skillfully manages physical humor and projects the sleaziness and dishonesty of his character with surprising charm. Although the final, tonally jarring plot twists of the novel have been omitted -- Westlake purists may object -- director Robert finds an appropriately noir-ish atmosphere and builds tension, particularly in a dazzling sequence in which Matthias flees from a burning house.

Two Much! was adapted again in 1996 as a mostly forgettable comedy (starring Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah) that barely resembles the source material.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

NOVELIZED: A LOOK BACK AT EXTREME PREJUDICE

By Nathaniel Poggiali

SPOILER WARNING!

Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year is EXTREME PREJUDICE, a fast-paced and violent modern western in director Walter Hill’s inimitable style. The film’s convoluted script alternates an archetypical conflict between two childhood friends, one a straight arrow Texas Ranger and the other a drug lord and rogue DEA informer, and a special-ops unit, officially classified as dead, who have been ordered by the CIA (they think) to stage a bank robbery. When the two sets of characters finally lock horns in a Mexican village, Hill cuts loose for a brilliantly staged homage to the bullet-ridden finale of THE WILD BUNCH.

EXTREME PREJUDICE approaches its shopworn material with a much-needed sense of humor. As Hill told Irish Times journalist Michael Dwyer in 1989, “I don't think it was understood how much genre parodying was involved in that picture. It rather mystified a lot of American critics….” The tongue-in-cheek tone can be felt in the performances (particularly from the late Powers Boothe, who is surprisingly disarming and funny as the villain) and Hill’s tendency to poke fun at genre conventions -- for example, in the repeated interruptions of a pistol duel near the film's climax.


The material was not always treated with humor, originating in a cynical and downbeat 1976 spec script by John Milius. Milius’s work, a post-Vietnam conspiracy thriller, focused on a Special Forces team subverting a Texas city to divert attention from their real mission, the extermination of North Korean-trained Mexican terrorists just over the border. (Milius would use a few of the ideas from that script for RED DAWN.) By the time the film went into production in 1986, the story had gone through at least four other writers, including Hollywood veterans Harry Kleiner (BULLITT) and an uncredited Lukas Heller (THE DIRTY DOZEN). Though updated to reflect the U.S. government’s War on Drugs, the script was tailored to Hill’s more visceral and less political filmmaking sensibilities.

Carolco Pictures, still hot off the success of the Rambo films, produced EXTREME PREJUDICE for distribution by TriStar. The studio hired fledgling screenwriters Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson to develop the novelization. According to the book’s acknowledgments, Dobbins and Slawson were present on location and had access to the filmmakers and most of the actors, who provided “research and insight” into their characters to the two authors. At 271 pages, the book is unusually long for the novelization of a 96-minute movie, but it is a well-crafted translation of the shooting script with additional material clarifying character motivations and smoothing out the rougher edges of the story.

Dobbins and Slawson patterned their work on the final drafts by Deric Washburn (THE DEER HUNTER) but made some interesting structural changes. Although the script and film begin with the Dead List commandos meeting at an airport before getting their orders from corrupt Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside), that scene occurs roughly a third of the way through the novel as a flashback. Instead, the opening chapter focuses on Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) and Sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn) as they bust into a crowded bar in the border town of Benrey to apprehend drug runner T.C. Luke, a fatal encounter that sets off the script’s many complications. By doing this, the authors correctly position Jack as the focal character while creating more of a mystery around the soldiers.


Although Nick Nolte portrayed Jack Benteen as a terse, stoic, and incorruptible western hero, in the book he is more self-aware and psychologically complex. His father and grandfather both having been Texas Rangers, Jack followed in their footsteps out of tradition but suffers enormous stress from his pursuit of criminals and the endless problem of the narcotics trade, as well as the knowledge that he’ll have to confront and probably kill his friend, drug lord Cash Bailey (Boothe). The weight of “unwanted family ties” appears as a recurring dream in which Jack slowly dies from a hanging noose. Compounding the stress is his relationship with nightclub singer Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonso) and Sarita’s romantic history with his friend. The novelization does a better job of explaining Jack and Sarita’s tumultuous relationship, including their cultural differences, and why Sarita leaves Jack for Cash.


Milius’s original screenplay presented a nightmare scenario in which the military rolls into a small Texas city and takes away the rights of its citizens, imprisoning anyone who fails to comply. Although the film never follows that story thread, in the novelization Jack expresses concern about the federal government employing the military for drug enforcement, fearing uncontrollable violence and the loss of civil liberties -- both of which occur as a result of military intervention in Milius’s script. In a sequence that does not originate in the shooting script or film, Jack attends Hank’s funeral (Hank is killed in a shootout with Cash’s drug runners) and, at the reception, he argues with the sheriff's relatives about the national ID card as a method of curbing illegal immigration, believing the private information would be abused by the government.

The authors provide back story on Cash and his short-lived deal with the DEA, his move into drugs and weapons trafficking, and the slow moral rot of his psyche, but they also suggest disturbing similarities between the villain and hero. During their first meeting in the film, Cash reminds Jack of a mutual sexual encounter with a girl on prom night. In the novelization, it is revealed that the girl submitted to them after ingesting spiked punch and a Quaalude and could not even tell the two boys apart during sex. As Jack carelessly recalls, “It wasn’t [his] style these days, but that was his first time and he was eager to take advantage wherever that advantage lay.”

As we learn in the film, the Dead List soldiers tasked with pulling off the bank heist in Benrey have been manipulated by their Special Forces superior, Hackett. Unbeknownst to his men, Hackett has been selling munitions to Cash, and he wants to get his hands on $10 million of Cash’s money and documents from a safety deposit box that link him to the drug lord. In the novel, Dobbins and Slawson detail Hackett’s recruitment of his men by visiting a military command center and dispatching orders under the guise of a classified mission for the CIA.


Surprisingly, the novelization excludes the character of Duncan Stark, first described in Deric Washburn’s script as a “model conservative Washington bureaucrat” and actually a corrupt DEA agent in cahoots with Hackett to steal Cash’s money. In the shooting script, Stark appears in only two scenes: at the airport meeting between Hackett and the soldiers, where he is introduced to the men as a CIA agent, and in a scene following the bank robbery, in which he and Hackett meet at a deserted adobe church and destroy the incriminating documents -- predictably, Hackett kills Stark to get his share of the money. Michael Ironside told Will Harris of The AV Club that these scenes were filmed with Andrew Robinson (DIRTY HARRY, HELLRAISER) as Stark, but Hill discarded the footage during post-production.

With the expansion of this material in prose form, the commandos gain personality and back story. Sgt. Declan Coker (Matt Mulhern) has mixed feelings about his anonymity but prefers it to the rigidly “familial atmosphere” of his upbringing; Sgt. Charles Biddle (Larry B. Scott) is deeply skeptical of authority based on the country’s history of racially discriminatory legislation; gluttonous Sgt. Buck Atwater (William Forsythe) was inspired to join the military after seeing Audie Murphy in the film TO HELL AND BACK; and Sgt. Luther Fry (Dan Tullis, Jr.) signed up to be "zombie personnel" so his children would receive his death benefits. Another detail not included in the film: Fry and Atwater first met in the Phoenix Program, a Vietnam counterinsurgency operation that included among its military Fred Rexer, Jr., who is given story credit in the film along with Milius.


Meanwhile, Sgt. Larry McRose (Clancy Brown) misses the freedom to have a drink in a bar because of his Dead List status, and runs out of a coffee shop after mistaking one of the customers for a former girlfriend. McRose’s panicked flight seems to be a variation on a scene from Milius’s script, in which the Biddle character is recognized in a bar by a girlfriend who believed he had died in Vietnam; Biddle has to be dismissed from the mission when the woman notifies the police.

The two authors demonstrate skill not only with character moments but also action scenes. Although the final shootout –- in which the “zombie” unit turns on the traitorous Hackett and both the commandos and Jack have to contend with Cash’s private army -- devolves into mayhem, Dobbins and Slawson are able to create tension and coherence while also making the action beats distinctive from the relevant passages in Washburn's shooting script.

Considering their excellent work on EXTREME PREJUDICE, it was disappointing to learn that Dobbins and Slawson never wrote another novelization. Furthermore, their screenwriting career may have ended prematurely because of a legal battle with Carolco. The following appeared in a December 1990 issue of Spy magazine:

Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson v. Carolco Pictures, Sylvester Stallone, et al. – The plaintiffs say that in 1985, “with the consent, permission and request by defendants,” they wrote a treatment, Rambo: The Holy War, with Rambo at the heart of the Soviet-Afghan conflict. The treatment was well received by the producers and went through several rewrites, but the plaintiffs say they were eventually cut off without compensation or credit. They claim the final screenplay [for the film RAMBO III], credited to Stallone and Sheldon Lettich, looks a lot like their treatment. The case is in litigation.

Friday, May 26, 2017

James Bond in Find Your Fate

The James Bond Find Your Fate books were published in the U.S. and Canada in 1985. Marketed to young readers, the books were inspired by the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series, essentially game books with multiple story threads and possible endings.


Parachute Press, a Manhattan-based book packaging company established by Jane Stine and Joan Waricha, created the Find Your Fate series for the Random House imprint Ballantine Books. The first ten books focused on Indiana Jones, but for #11-14 Danjaq commissioned Random House to feature Bond as a tie-in to A VIEW TO A KILL.

The books were outlined and edited by Stine and Waricha and authored by R.L. Stine (Jane’s husband, who penned the first book, Win, Place, or Die), Barbara & Scott Siegel (Strike It Deadly), Jean M. Favors (Programmed for Danger), and Steven Otfinoski (Barracuda Run). Random House hired Cliff Spohn to design the covers and interior illustrations. Spohn got the job after his painting of Roger Moore, eventually used as the cover of Strike It Deadly, met the late actor’s approval.


The Projector’s Philip Poggiali interviewed Spohn, Otfinoski, and Jane Stine for an article on the books that appeared in MI6 Confidential #36. To order a copy of the issue, go here.

Cliff Spohn's artwork, including the Bond cover paintings, can be purchased here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“THEY STILL HAVE PRISONERS”: A REVIEW OF INVASION

by Nathaniel Poggiali

SPOILER WARNING!

Late at night a rural English hospital receives an unusual patient who has been struck down by an automobile. The patient is rubber-suited, has an unidentifiable blood type, and claims to have crash-landed on Earth while pursuing an escaped prisoner from the planet Lystria. An oppressive heat settles over the grounds, the phone lines are cut off, and a physician, Dr. Mike Vernon (Edward Judd), theorizes that the high temperature has been caused by a force field surrounding the hospital, created to keep the patient’s unseen convict trapped. Vernon and a hospital administrator bicker over whether to leave, and when the administrator attempts to do so he crashes his car into an invisible barrier and is killed instantly.

INVASION, a 1965 British production directed by Alan Bridges, is a sci-fi thriller about confinement, literally and figuratively. Even before the hospital has been besieged by extraterrestrials, the humans seem trapped, whether in disabled or deteriorating physical conditions (the film opens with the image of a child in an iron lung), or in occupations and relationships that leave them unsatisfied – from the cynical, overworked doctors to the bored army soldiers to the philandering husband who delivers the injured alien to the hospital. An invisible force field becomes a metaphor for the frustrations of its central characters.

To emphasize this sense of confinement, Bridges draws attention to the cinematic frame. In one unusually lengthy shot, he foregrounds a minor military character so that the actor seems to become part of the audience, both character and viewer observing two other people as they inspect the Lystrian crash site.


The film’s self-consciousness extends to frequent shots of actors looking or staring into the camera.






Later, after the hospital administrator smashes into the force field and is ejected through his car windshield, Vernon, colleague Dr. Claire Harland (Valerie Gearon), and Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) examine the wreckage. We see the smoking remains of the car and its driver lying dead on the hood, but there are no special effects or mimed movements from the actors to illustrate a physical barrier. Instead, the actors look up, down, to the side and directly at the camera, as if indicating the edges of the frame.


The filmmakers were presumably limited in how they might visualize a force field from a budgetary standpoint, but the result is more interesting than any special effect: It is as if the cinema screen has acted as the imprisoning structure.

Veteran television writer Robert Holmes receives credit for INVASION's story. As recounted in Robert Holmes: A Life in Words by Richard Molesworth, Holmes concocted the idea for INVASION with Dr. Phyllis Spreadbury (later Phyllis Mortimer, and misidentified in Molesworth’s book as Phyllis Gibbons), a medical advisor on the series Emergency Ward 10, a popular hospital-based soap opera for which Holmes regularly contributed teleplays. Holmes brought the idea to producer Jack Greenwood of struggling Merton Park Studios but, not wanting a television writer involved, Greenwood hired Roger Marshall, a friend of Holmes, to expand the treatment into a screenplay. At his friend’s insistence, Marshall wrote the script in collaboration with Spreadbury, who went uncredited.

Although Holmes had a successful career over the next few decades, particularly as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who, he never worked on another feature film and remained in the confines of television. He later recycled story elements and dialogue from INVASION for Spearhead from Space, the only Doctor Who serial to be shot entirely on (16mm) film and the first produced in color.


Ironically, INVASION had only a brief theatrical run overseas and was sold to AIP-TV in the States, where it aired late at night with its beautiful widescreen visuals cropped.

In a surprise reveal, the Lystrian patient turns out to be the escaped prisoner; he stabs Muncaster, takes Dr. Harland hostage, and attempts to flee Earth. The Lystrian Leader (Yoko Tani) has arrived at the hospital to re-capture the criminal and leave with her two female guards. The Leader is ultimately benevolent and expresses remorse over whatever calamities have befallen the humans because of the Lystrians’ arrival: “You wonder why a civilization like ours can still produce destructive people. We are ashamed.”

Intriguingly, the extraterrestrial characters are played by East Asian actors, including “guest star” Tani and, in the role of the Lystrian patient, Eric Young (later Ric Young of THE LAST EMPEROR and THE TRANSPORTER). Although Chinese and Japanese actors are used interchangeably in roles intended to reflect western fears of communist subversion (a sci-fi cliche), this film has a more sophisticated treatment of race than initially presented.

As it turns out, any trepidations from the characters regarding the “other” are mostly unwarranted: The Lystrians are a peaceful species and have no plans of conquering Earth. Moreover, there are indications of social progression beyond even the humans’ capabilities. For one thing, Lystrian females seem to be holding most leadership positions, and the patient finds it unusual that nurses take orders from a male doctor.

Dr. Harland isn’t so convinced of Lystrian superiority: “They still have prisoners,” she notes cynically as a door swings back at her. Curiously, Bridges repeats the image of a door swinging back at actress Tsai Chin, who portrays Nurse Lin.


Does INVASION offer something of a commentary on racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry? Chin toiled in many thankless roles in British film and television, and is probably best known to genre fans as Fu Manchu’s daughter and one of James Bond’s sexual conquests in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (“Darling, I give you very best duck”). She is the only Asian actor in the film who is not one of the aliens, but frequently seen alongside supervising doctor and Caucasian hero Dr. Vernon.

As Chin recalls in her autobiography Daughter of Shanghai:

For Asian or black actors, there are particular disadvantages, now as then. […] Stereotypes … are one-dimensional characters, demanding little creative energy or artistic truth from those who play them. […] As actors, the danger for us is that we begin to perform according to the stereotype. […] Reality becomes divorced from truth and we lose our collective and individual identity, and with it our self-respect. (143-144)


Although not stereotypical, Nurse Lin is, on the page, merely a functional character and, at times, representative of the superficial roles available to Asian actors in the 1960s. But were Bridges and Chin hinting at something more? In the early scenes, Lin's lack of individuality could be seen as a reflection of Eric Young’s Lystrian, who is at first perceived to have no distinguishing characteristics beyond his racial features (“His condition is more important than his identity,” Vernon says.) In one scene Lin is asked her opinion on the origin of the patient, as if she would automatically know simply because of her race:

VERNON: He’s not Chinese.
SISTER EVANS: How do you know?
VERNON: Well …
SISTER EVANS: Is he, nurse?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think so.
SISTER EVANS: Japanese?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think –
VERNON: It doesn’t matter. We’ll worry about his nationality later.

Although played in a subtle way, Nurse Lin is visibly uncomfortable, as if reacting to the insensitivity of the questions.


When the Lystrian Leader arrives to locate her prisoner, she hypnotizes Lin into an unconscious state and then assumes the nurse’s role. The hospital employees, seeing only a female with East Asian features, cannot tell the difference and are taken in by the ruse. In this scene Bridges (later known for his indictments of the British class system in THE HIRELING and THE SHOOTING PARTY) expands on the theme of confinement, as Lin is seemingly “trapped” and unable to be recognized as an individual beyond her racial characteristics.

A thoughtful and often challenging piece of science fiction, INVASION is one of the more underrated genre films of the 1960s. It is currently available as a Region 2 DVD from Network.

Robert Holmes: A Life in Words was published by Telos in 2013.

Daughter of Shanghai was originally published by St. Martin’s Press in 1989 and is out of print.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture?



The Adulteress
by William Maidment
Apollo Books, 1971

In the late 1960s, American International Pictures attempted to produce a film adaptation of Philip Roth's novel Letting Go. That didn't end happily, so they tried again with a few more literary purchases, including Public Parts and Private Places by Robin Cook, Venus Examined by Robert Kyle, and Implosion by D.F. Jones. Two of the novels they acquired -- Peter Saxon's The Disoriented Man and Angus Hall's The Late Boy Wonder -- became the films SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN and UP IN THE CELLAR, respectively. The others were never produced, though screenplays were commissioned for all of them (Richard Matheson wrote the adaptation of Implosion). AIP must have purchased William Maidment's The Adulteress in galley form, because I've found no indication that it was published prior to this movie tie-in paperback from 1971.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

ADAPT OR DIE: MALZBERG'S PHASE IV

by Nathaniel Poggiali


The sci-fi thriller PHASE IV, graphic designer Saul Bass’s only feature film as director, had a chilly reception from audiences in 1974 and fell into obscurity for many years. Thanks to home video, an appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and recent screenings that restored Bass’s original ending, the film has gained something of a cult following.

Award-winning sci-fi author Barry N. Malzberg penned a novelization of PHASE IV for Pocket Books. Malzberg called the Mayo Simon screenplay “wretched” (The Business of Science Fiction 62) and claims to have written the book in four or five days (60), yet his adaptation seems unhurried and is a strong example of developing thinly drawn characters and motivations for another medium. It differs significantly from the film in the way it presents the evolutionary climax and its build-up almost exclusively from the humans’ perspective, detailing the events as a psychological suspense tale quite unlike the clinical approach of the film.


At a research outpost in the Arizona desert, senior scientist Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and cryptology specialist Lesko (Michael Murphy) investigate the death of livestock and various insect species at a nearby, and abandoned, housing development. Hubbs traces the deaths to an aggressive strain of ants that are being controlled by an extraterrestrial intelligence emanating from a cluster of dirt monoliths. Lesko attempts to understand the ants by breaking down their actions and communication patterns but Hubbs, impatient for a reaction from the insects, destroys the dirt towers.

Mr. and Mrs. Eldridge and granddaughter Kendra (Lynne Frederick) live nearby and have stubbornly refused to leave despite a government order. One night the ants attack Kendra's horse and eat it alive, and the Eldridges flee their home, seeking shelter at Hubbs's outpost. When Hubbs sprays pesticide as a defense against the insects, the Eldridges are killed and Kendra ends up with the two scientists. Meanwhile, the ants adapt to Hubbs’s insecticide and lay siege to the outpost, cutting off power and leaving the humans helpless. Eventually, only Lesko remains to locate the ant queen and exterminate her. He must descend into the earth and confront Kendra, who may be the queen in human form.


The release version sees Kendra, presumably under the influence of the ants, leading Lesko to his fate in an abrupt, bizarre, and downbeat conclusion. Bass and Simon’s original climax was a montage of hallucinatory visuals that depicted “Phase IV” as a melding of humanity and insect into the next stage of existence. This ending was shortened before the film's release, but the full version has been screened recently and the finale can be seen on YouTube. Because of the uplifting music score and Bass’s poetic, visionary images, the original ending seems optimistic about the human race: It’s implied that “Phase IV” is a natural adaptation of humans and insects to ensure survival.

Bass and Simon develop their theme by allotting more-or-less equal screen time for humans and ants, this shared dramatic perspective acting as a metaphor for the climactic fusion of species. The scenes between Hubbs, Lesko and Kendra alternate with footage of real insects photographed by Ken Middleham. The two perspectives complement each other, so that we see both Hubbs’s attempt to eradicate the ants and the insects' calculated defense, which involves a worker ant carrying a morsel of pesticide to its queen to absorb and adapt to the poison and hatch new eggs. Bass and Middleham also capture a suspenseful confrontation between two ants and a praying mantis that leads to the destruction of the air conditioners and the humans’ increasing madness.


In the novelization, this structure is largely ignored. Although Malzberg focuses on the ants mostly in opening and concluding sections, the bulk of his text alternates third-person narrative favoring Lesko -- and, in a few brief scenes, Kendra -- with Lesko's first-person diary entries. Malzberg explains that he designed the adaptation as such to keep from “running out of story [by] page 23," (62) but the effect is one of heightened tension, so that even in the absence of an immediate threat the novel’s tone becomes unnerving. Unlike the film, it’s not always clear if the ants are attacking the outpost and, as Lesko’s psychological state slowly deteriorates, a reader may wonder if the diary entries are meant to be a delusion (Malzberg has used an unreliable narrator several times, most notably in his 1972 novel Beyond Apollo). The author’s contempt for the source material can be glimpsed at times, such as Lesko comparing his situation to “one of those idiotic obligatory scenes at the end of a dramatic second act when characters talk to one another ponderously” (Malzberg 93), but even then humor and self-consciousness bring a certain plausibility.

Not surprisingly, considering how much of the plot is told from his perspective, Lesko emerges a more fully developed character. In the novel he comes off as lonely, depressed and sexually frustrated, with concerns that in two decades’ time he will be a clinical neurotic like Hubbs. It’s difficult not to sympathize with Lesko when Hubbs is initially characterized as “demoniac,” “possessed,” and “psychopathic,” the unpleasant next phase of Lesko’s personality if the younger scientist continues down a path of antisocial behavior.


As the novel progresses, Lesko’s reactions to his superior range from admiration to disgust, an interesting contradiction that the film never approaches. Hubbs is more likely to act impulsively, and when he suddenly destroys the towers to spur the insects to action, Lesko vocally objects but secretly admires Hubbs for having a “certain force and courage that had led him to perform precisely that act that I would have if I had had the authority … and the imagination” (47). In the film and novel Lesko is clearly upset when Hubbs's pesticide kills the Eldridges and the family's employee, Clete, but his anger at Hubbs weakens as both men struggle to stay alive against the insect siege.

Kendra, too, becomes a stronger character. In the film she is little more than beautiful and naive, and never seems to care that Hubbs and Lesko were responsible for her grandparents' deaths. Malzberg, however, writes Kendra as perceptive and intelligent. Shortly after arriving at the outpost, she assumes that both Hubbs and Lesko are "insane" and humors them in order to stay alive. Her innocence is basically an act, and yet, she finds herself drawn to Lesko and sees some integrity in him. In one scene she correctly deduces the relationship between the scientists and challenges Lesko:



She held that curious, intense look on me. 


“You’re afraid of him, aren’t you?” she said.

“Not exactly. But I am his assistant.”

“All right,” she said. “You’re not afraid of him.”

There was nothing else to say. She still looked at me levelly; she would have held that position indefinitely (87).

Malzberg's finale is even more grotesque and disturbing than the film's revised ending. The author was obviously limited in how he could depict “Phase IV” without benefit of film images and music, but as various characters are mutated into human/ant hybrids the descriptions are potent and horrifying. Characters are “running desperately” and screaming before their agonizing transformation into “crawling thing[s]” identified using names combined into a Frankenstein patchwork (HUBBSELDRIDGEMILDREDCLETE; LESKOKENDRA).

Strangely enough, sections from the Phase IV novelization found their way into Bass's film. As Malzberg recalls in The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing, post-production dragged on for so long that the author turned in his manuscript about ten months before the film premiered. When Malzberg and his editor finally viewed Bass’s work, they noticed that a passage from the novelization had been used in Lesko’s voiceover narration (63). Although the author receives no credit (and, according to him, no additional compensation), the narration provided as Lesko travels to the ant queen’s lair is an edited version of the protagonist's final diary entry from pages 151-153.

[EDIT: Sean Savage, who wrote an article on PHASE IV and studied the various drafts of Simon's screenplay, debunks Malzberg's claim. See Sean's post in the comments section.]


I would still like to believe that, given time, we could have come to an understanding. Some rational accommodation of interests. Some agreement. But that's not the way it's going to be. I've made some calculations about their rate of expansion using their intelligence, their powers of organization, their network of communications, the poisons, their ability to adapt genetically. I believe that after this test run they'll move rather quickly into desert areas, taking over the countryside first, then laying siege to towns and cities. I believe that they will learn as they advance, anticipating our moves and continue to stay a move ahead. We have only one chance: The counterattack suggested by Dr. Hubbs. A direct assault on their queen. Jesus, I wish it wasn't me.

Works Cited

Malzberg, Barry N. Phase IV. New York: Pocket Books, 1973. Print.

Resnick, Mike, and Barry N. Malzberg. The Business of Science Fiction: Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publishing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010. Print.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

THE CAT O' NINE TAILS (Award Books, 1971) by Paul J. Gillette



Reviewed by Nathaniel Poggiali

An American publication based on a European co-production, The Cat O’ Nine Tails is the only novelization of a Dario Argento film. It’s also one of the few penned by two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee (for the novel Carmela and the stage play Red River Rats) Paul J. Gillette.

The film’s screenplay, from a story co-authored by Argento, Luigi Collo and Dardano Sacchetti, follows the investigation by newspaper journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) and blind crossword designer Franco Arno (Karl Malden) into a series of murders tied to the break-in of the Terzi Institute for Genetic Research in Rome. They discover the murders are connected to research subjects possessing an XYY chromosome aberration, which is thought to make a person more inclined to violence, and that two of the victims -- one of them a doctor who is pushed in front of a train -- were blackmailing the killer. Giordani falls for beautiful Anna Terzi (Catherine Spaak, in a stunningly wooden performance), adopted daughter of the Institute director and a suspect. After several attempts on the amateur detectives’ lives, Arno’s granddaughter Lori is kidnapped, and, in a gripping finale, Arno and Giordani trace the killer to the rooftops of the Institute.


Argento’s often subjective camerawork, jarring edits and a tendency to withhold information reinforces what Maitland McDonagh identifies in the film as the “impossibility of seeing ... anything in a world in which all perception is by its nature fragmentary or distorted” (67). The novelization runs counter to the film’s approach: it lets us see nearly everything. For example, Argento’s impulse is to drop us into the action, as Arno and Lori, during an evening stroll, overhear the conversation that sets off a deadly chain of events. Gillette, however, opens with a lengthy description of the Terzi Institute and the street on which it is located, the Via Pax Augusta -- including the street’s residents, architecture, and commercial properties -- before seguing into Arno’s childhood memories of the neighborhood, the details of the accident that left Arno sightless and, finally, his relationship to Lori. All before the two characters overhear that crucial conversation.


Also interesting is a scene that never appears in the film, in which Arno reveals the identity of the killer and his whereabouts to Giordani and the police. Arno believes the killer’s homicidal impulses are triggered when his XYY aberration is in danger of being exposed. In his summation, he questions the killer’s irrational behavior -- and, by extension, the film’s plot -- calling the killer “rather stupid,” “genuinely stupid,” and a “stupid man,” and marveling at the “limited intelligence” that drove him to murder people that posed no discernible threat to his security, since the records of his aberration, according to Arno, would have hurt him “only slightly if at all.” Arno’s lecture exposes the film’s wobbly foundation, as if Gillette were working out his own frustrations with Argento’s story.

The finale is almost a parody of the haunting, ambigious ending of the film. In the final scene Arno, thinking his granddaughter has been killed, causes the death of the murderer, leaving Lori (and Giordani’s) fate unknown. The novelization’s wrap-up, however, is silly: Arno and Lori are reunited after the killer accidentally falls to his death (Arno's involvement is played down), an injured Giordani jokes with Anna about his ability to perform in bed, and food-obsessed Deputy Inspector Morsella suggests to a colleague that they go out for a celebratory dinner of scungilli!


Argento, a reader of American crime novels who used Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi as the basis for his debut effort, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, may have been aware of The Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee using their Ellery Queen pseudonym (The Italian translation appeared in 1954 as Il gatto dalle molte code, #33 in the Serie gialla series published by Garzanti). The novel focuses on a hunt for a serial killer, named The Cat by the newspapers, who has strangled eight young women using a collection of multi-colored silk cords. A plot twist in both The Screaming Mimi and THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE has strong similarities to Dannay and Lee's revelation that the assumed murderer is actually a guilt-ridden husband protecting his psychotic wife, the real killer, from authorities.

Though the number nine does not figure into the title, it is significant: Ellery Queen, the heroic detective, tries to stop a ninth murder by using another woman as bait. Argento's film references its title when Giordani identifies “nine leads to follow,” though how he and Arno arrive at that number is never explained; in his critical study of Argento's cinema, L. Andrew Cooper counts the initial break-in at the Institute, the theft of incriminating photographs, and a combination of victims and suspects as a total of nine. Cooper explains that since a cat o’ nine tails is also an instrument used in fetish clubs, in such a context the title seems apt: most of the film’s nine threads involve some kind of sexual aberration (39).

Gillette forces the undercurrent of sexuality, aberrant or otherwise. He finds (lame) humor in the Institute’s research with unfertilized sperm (“Hi Spimi,” grinned Giordani, extending his hand as the inspector approached. “Who stole all the jism?”) and writes several minor characters as comically horny. Even investigating authorities are driven to distraction: “Inspector Spimi ... slid down in his seat, and fixed his eyes to her gorgeously golden thighs which were visible right up to her pink bikini panties.” When Giordani arrives at the Terzi mansion to question Anna, she greets him with her legs spread, sans panties. Gillette also graphically expands on a sex scene that, in the film, was depicted in a series of coy, PG-rated images.


Award Books may have requested Gillette spice up the material. It’s curious, then, that one of the more perverse aspects of the film didn’t make it to the book. In the film Giordani breaks into Terzi’s office and discovers from a series of journal entries that Anna may be having an affair with her adoptive father. When Giordani accuses her of committing the murders under threat of blackmail, Anna says "You petty, narrow-minded little reporter. You figured it all out, didn't you? A neat equation, Italian-style: whore equals liar equals murderer." Cooper points to this scene and its incestuous implication as one of the film's aberrations. This material does not appear in Gillette’s novelization; Anna never even seems to be a suspect.

Works Cited

Cooper, L. Andrew. Dario Argento. Champaign, IL: UI Press, 2012. Print.

McDonagh, Maitland. Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. New York, NY: Carol Publishing, 1994. Print.