Pulp Friday: Outback Heiress

Outback Heiress Horwitz 1963

“Her past was a secret but she couldn’t hide her feelings for this daredevil cropduster!”

It wasn’t just men who wrote for Australia’s burgeoning pulp publishing industry in the fifties, sixties and seventies, many women did, too.

One of these was Irena Dickman AKA Rena Cross, the author of today’s Pulp Friday contribution, Outback Heiress, published by Sydney company Horwitz in 1963.

Biographical details for Dickman, like many local pulp authors, are thin on the ground. She was born in England and arrived in Australia in 1950. She appears to have been one of the stable of local writers put together by Horwitz in the early sixties.

The Austlit site credits her with twenty books. Her subjects included nurse and doctor yarns and torrid tales set in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The latter include Model School (publishing in 1963 under the pseudonym Christine James) and Flat 4 Kings Cross (three editions of which were published, in 1963, 1965 and 1966, under the name Geoffrey Tolhurst).

The Keys of Corruption another of her books (written as Rena Crane), was an Australian take on one of pulp’s favourite obsessions in the sixties – wife swapping.

If this post has piqued your interest about Australian pulp, join me on August 30 at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square, for an illustrated talk about the hidden history of Australian pulp publishing in the fifties, sixties and seventies, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I’ll be talking about some of the authors, how they worked, what they wrote and why the era of pulp ended. Accompanying the talk will be a selection of covers from my personal collection. The lurid, the profane, the weird, I’ll be showcasing them all in glorious colour.

Tickets are $22/$19 and can be purchased from the MWF website here.

I look forward to seeing you there.

Mud, madness and masculinity: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer

scheiderPerfect films usually only ever appear so in retrospect. A case in point is Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s 1977 reimagining of the Henri-Georges Clouzot 1953 classic, The Wages of Fear.

The gloriously remastered print of Sorcerer, showing as part of the Melbourne International Film Festivals ‘Masters and Restorations’ program, is an incredible tale of failed masculinity, predatory capitalism and madness.

It was a commercial flop upon release, only recouping nine million of its original twenty one million dollar budget, largely due to appearing at almost the exact same time as the first instalment of Star Wars. Friedkin viewed it as the toughest job of his career. Shooting was littered with accidents and problems, including the film’s riveting central scene, where trucks must cross a rickety rope and timber bridge over a raging river in the middle of a fierce tropical storm. The sequence, due to weather and other reasons, occurred over two countries and took three months to shoot.

Three men, on the run from past mistakes, have ended end up in a run down, impoverished town in an unspecified Latin American banana republic (the real location being the Dominican Republic, which at the time was under an actual military dictatorship).

Jackie (Roy Scheider) was part of a heist on a Catholic Church that ended in a car crash in which all the other members of the gang are killed. The mob-controlled target of the robbery put a contract on his life and he barely gets out of New Jersey alive. Serrano (Bruno Cremer) is a French businessman who has fled his adoring wife and a prison sentence after he was discovered embezzling money and his partner committed suicide. An Arab named Kassem (Amidou) is hiding from Israeli authorities after he helped carry out a bombing in Jerusalem.

The three eke out a precarious living working for the town’s main employer, an exploitative US oil company that is in bed with the authorities. They all need money, whether it is to get a forged passport or a plane fare out of the country.

There is an explosion at one of the oil company’s wells in the middle of remote jungle two hundred miles away. The only way to stop the fire is to blow up the well. The only materials at the company’s disposal on such short notice are crates of highly unstable explosives, due to leaking nitro-glycerine, stored near the town. The dynamite is too unstable to take by air so the company has no choice but to transport it by road. Out of financial desperation, Jackie, Serrano and Kassem all volunteer for the almost certain suicide mission as drivers. Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a mysterious professional assassin who is on the lam, murders the fourth driver at the last minute and takes his slot.

What follows is a masterfully shot and paced sequence as the men, in teams of two, drive their trucks through dense jungle and along treacherous narrow winding mountain roads to deliver the dynamite to the burning well. The highlight is the aforementioned bridge sequence, although they also have to deal with rebel fighters, blocked roads and each other. The tension is unrelenting. Every bump and swerve could set the dynamite off. That’s if the unstable, paranoid nature of the four men doesn’t explode first.

It’s easy to view this film as a lay down misere for Friedkin, given the source material, the 1953 classic film, in turn based on a novel of the same name by Georges Arnaud. But while Friedkin borrows much from the original, he infuses it with an uncompromising, quintessentially seventies sensibility and style. His hardboiled vision is impressive because it is so unrelenting.

The town is a hellhole, complete with corrupt cops and a grimy bar owned by a former Nazi. The atmosphere of a poor country in the grip of dictatorship is vividly depicted, including a scene in which the town’s people stage a bloody (and futile) riot after the truck arrives carrying the gruesome charred remains of the workers, killed in the oil well explosion, wrapped in sheets of plastic.

The company are far more interested in profits than any human welfare. One of the reasons they need to cap the oil well fire so quickly is because, if they don’t they will have to start paying extra money to the government. The drivers are expendable. The company doesn’t even have any new trucks and the drivers have to put them together using parts scavenged from a warehouse of derelict vehicles. Finally, Friedkin takes the psychological pressure on the drivers and tightens it a few screws, depicting them as literally driven mad by the ordeal. The by turns dreamy and malevolent score by German electronic group, Tangerine Dream, is the perfect accompaniment to their increasingly fevered state.

Schieder wasn’t first choice for the lead. That was Steve McQueen, who eventually said no to the role after the director refused to cast his then spouse Ali MacGraw. Other names mentioned, a virtual who-is-who of US seventies cinema machismo, included Gene Hackman (who passed on the script because it was too violent) Kris Kristofferson (who chose Peckinpah’s 1978 trucker movie, Convoy, instead), Warren Oates, and, if various accounts are correct, even Robert Mitchum (who thought he was too old for the part). But Schieder, who helped put the meat on the bones of such seventies classics as French Connection (1971), the underrated The Seven Ups (1973) and Marathon Man (1976) feels perfect for the role with his nuanced tough guy feel and his slightly identikit face.

Sorcerer is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday, August 10. Details are available on the MIFF site.

The lost world of Australian pulp paperback fiction at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Kings Cross Black Magic Horwitz Publications 1965

Part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, join me on August 30 at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square, for a walk down the dimly lit back alleys of the lost world of Australian pulp paperback publishing.

For a few decades in the second half of last century, Australia’s pulp scene burned brightly with tales of jaded gumshoes, valiant servicemen and women, sexually bored housewives, jazzed up beatniks, daring spies, and violent youth gangs.

It was disposable fiction, designed for a coat pocket or bag, to be read quickly, and discarded. But it also offers a fascinating keyhole glimpse into Australian society’s subconscious and not so subconscious desires, obsessions and fears in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

I’ll be talking about some of the authors, how they worked, what they wrote and why the era of pulp ended. Accompanying the talk will be a selection of covers from my personal collection. The lurid, the profane, the weird, I’ll be showcasing them all in glorious colour.

Tickets are $22/$19 and can be purchased from the MWF website here.

I hope to see you there.

In conversation with Michael Robotham

Life Or deathA heads up that I’ll be in conversation with Australian crime writer Michael Robotham at Reader’s Feast Bookstore this coming Tuesday, August 12, from 6.30pm.

Michael is an ex-journalist, ghost-writer. We’ll be discussing his tenth novel, Life or Death, which is out now.

Robotham says he has been nurturing the story of life and death for more than twenty years, and the result is a great book. The first of Robtham’s books to be set in the United States, the plot centres on a prison inmate called Audie Palmer, who has served a lengthy sentence for his alleged part in a violent heist gone wrong that left a number of people dead and seven million dollars in unmarked bill not accounted for.

Due to be released from prison after a decade behind bars, he escapes on the eve of his freedom?


A number of people are very keen to find Palmer, including a trigger happy sheriff, a corrupt Texas politician, a determined FBI agent and Palmer’s former cell mate, Moss, who has been promised a reprieve from a life sentence in prison if he can track Palmer down.

Life or Death is a well-written, satisfying, high concept thriller from a writer who is clearly at the top of his game.

Tickets to Tuesday’s event are $6 per person and are available at the door or you can book on 9662 4699 or readers@readersfeast.com.au

My 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival top ten

sorcerer-truck-on-bridgeThe Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) kicks off in few days. As usual, there’s a packed program full of cinematic goodness. If you’re wanting to check some films out but are stumped as to what to see, here’s my ten picks.

Sorcerer, 1977

The newly remastered print of Sorcerer, William Freidkin’s 1977 homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic, The Wages of Fear, is up there as one of my top MIFF picks for the festival. The story is about a group of four men, each of them on the run from various sins committed in their past life, who are hired to transport a truck load of volatile dynamite across an incredibly hostile stretch of Central American jungle. Freidkin may be better known as the director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) but this hard boiled slice of pure cinematic noir is, in my opinion, his best film.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films - 2014

I really enjoyed Mark Hartley’s documentaries, Not Quite Hollywood (2008), about Australia’s Ozsploitation film scene, and Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010), his look at American film making in the Philippines in the seventies and eighties, so expectations are high for this one. Electric Boogaloo is the story of Cannon Films, the Hollywood B-studio responsible for such cinema gems as Lifeforce (1985) and the pre-Rambo, Rambo film, Missing In Action (1984).

A Hard Day - 2014

As regular readers of this site will know, I’m a major fan of South Korean crime cinema. A Hard Day redefines the motion of a tough day at the office when a police detective has to deal with a divorce notice from his wife, his mother passing away and an internal police investigation into allegations he is corrupt in the space of 24 hours. As if that wasn’t enough, he accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian. He tries to cover the death up, but someone has witnessed the act.

Black Coal, Thin Ice - 2014

I have been hearing good things about Black Coal, Thin Ice for months. The third film by director Yi’nan Dao, this gritty noir is the tale of a former cop, now a alcoholic security guard, who is haunted by a failed murder investigation he was involved in five years earlier. When bodies start appearing again, murdered in similar circumstances, the ex-cop sees the possibility of making up for past mistakes.

The Legend Maker - 2014

Despite not knowing anything about the Ian Pringle, the writer and director of The Legend Maker, this independent Australian crime film looks great. It concerns an ageing forger who wants to get out of the game and is under threat of death from a thug known as the Croat.

Whitey: The United States of America v. James Buglar – 2014

Another film I’ve heard a lot about, this documentary centres on the trial of legendary Boston criminal, James Whitey Buglar. Buglar terrorised the city in a criminal career spanning thirty years, including murdering over a dozen people. Despite this he was given an almost free reign by the FBI and local police, who never charged him with so much as a misdemeanour. This documentary examines why.

Phase IV – 1974

Phase IV is the only film ever directed by Saul Bass, the man behind the opening credits of such classic films as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). It revolves around desert ants that suddenly develop collective intelligence and begin to attack humans. It is up to two scientists and a stray girl they rescue from the ants to save human kind. Phase IV is a cult favourite and is showing at MIFF with the recently discovered original ending (removed by studio executives) restored in all its glory.

Jodorowsky’s Dream

The story of possibly the greatest film ever not made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make a movie of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science fiction novel, Dune. It’s also a wonderful meditation on the joy of unrestrained creativity.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten - 2014

A look at Cambodia’s marvellous and vibrant pre-1975 rock music scene, almost completely eradicated during the short by bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge. I’ve previously written about this music and the people who made it. The director, John Pirozzi, also did the cinematography for City of Ghosts, a 2002 crime film shot in Phnom Penh, so I’m expecting a terrific documentary and some wonderful imagery.

Concerning Violence – 2014

Swedish director Goran Olsson’s documentary is an homage to and examination of African liberation struggles of the sixties and seventies, based on Franz Fanon’s influential The Wretched of the Earth. Again, advance buzz on this documentary has been good. Perhaps not the most obvious film to see at MIFF, but I can’t help feeling current events in Africa make this film a must see.