The Nickel Ride

Thenickelride-RobertMulligan1974_zpscfd16d4c

Amid the well-deserved hype around the film version of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was this interesting list of early seventies crime films set in California and its surrounds. One of these was a little known 1974 movie, which I re-visited recently after first seeing it years ago, The Nickel Ride.

Jason Miller (best known for his role in 1973 film, The Exorcist) is Cooper, a mid-level operative in the LA crime scene, who managers several downtown warehouses where the mob stash their stolen merchandise. This job has earned the nickname of ‘Key Man’ due to all the keys to various storage facilities he has to carry around. He is also involved in various other legal and illegal activities, including fixing fights, bail bonds and acting as a dispute solver of sorts for the members of downtown LA’s working class criminal milieu.

Cooper and his employers face a major problem. They are running out of space to store their pilfered goods and Cooper is under major pressure to finalise negotiations on large track of old commercial warehouse space that would be perfect for their needs. But there seems to be some sort of complication preventing him from closing the deal.

Cooper’s immediate boss, Carl (John Hillerman, instantly recognisable as Higgins in Magnum PI), is getting skittish and assigns Turner (Bo Hopkins), a cocky cowboy enforcer, to shadow him. Carl insists Turner is only hanging around to learn the basics of the business, but Cooper, already unsettled by his inability to close the deal of new storage space, gets paranoid and starts to think Turner may have been sent to kill him.

The similarities between The Nickel Ride and Inherent Vice are twofold. The first is the look, the monochromatic photography, by turns murky and washed out, which places it squarely as a product of the early seventies. The second is the slow, at times dream like pacing and discursive story telling style, another key signature feature of early seventies US crime cinema. Robert Mulligan, whose directorial credits included To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and the undervalued Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), and his screenwriter Eric Roth, keep the interactions low key and don’t reveal a lot of context about the characters and what is going on.

The film The Nickel Ride is most often compared to is the 1973 classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (which I reviewed on this site in detail here). Both films are about ageing, low level mob figures who have lost their taste for the criminal world and, as a result, find themselves having to fight for survival against younger, hungrier, up and comers.

Like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Nickel Ride is also a great film about the mechanics of crime, endless meetings in bars and greasy spoon cafes, putting together deals which work or don’t, smoothing rumpled egos and solving disputes. Cooper is like any other mid-level employee working for a big company. His anonymous bosses are only concerned with squeezing everything they can from him and if he’s not prepared to put in more, they’ll replace him without a second thought.

Miller is terrific as Cooper, increasingly disillusioned and retreating back into memories of his younger years pulling cons on the carnival circuit (hence the film’s title). The one joy in his life is Sarah, his ex-dancer girlfriend, a strong performance by Linda Haynes, who starred in a number of US exploitation films in the seventies and eighties, most prominent of which was the post-Vietnam revenge film, Rolling Thunder. Hillerman is also good as Cooper’s middle manager, Carl, who is conflicted between protecting his own future and looking after his employee, with whom he has had a long association. The conversations in which Cooper and Carl try and decipher the shifting dynamics of what their mob bosses want are priceless.

Pulp Friday: The Name of the Game is Death

The Name of the Game is Death

Today’s Pulp Friday offering will be familiar to fans of hardboiled crime fiction, the 1972 edition of The Name of the Game Is Death, by Dan J Marlowe, published by Fawcett Gold Medal.

Although Marlowe is not well known today, aficionados acknowledge he had a major impact on the genre. His books are often compared to Jim Thompson and he influenced writers such as Steven King, and no doubt many others.

I first heard of The Name of the Game is Death during an interview I conducted last year with New Jersey-based Wallace Stroby for issue 17 of Crime Factory (that interview is available in full here). I asked Stroby about some of the lesser-known sixties pulp paperback crime writers who had influenced him, and he nominated Marlowe and, in particular, this book.

Originally published in 1962, The Name of the Game Is Death begins with three criminals pulling a bank heist in Phoenix, Arizona. One of the team is killed in the attempted getaway, another flees to Florida with the money, while the third, the narrator, plans to meet up with him later when police attention has died down. When the accomplice breaks contact, the narrator suspects something is up and travels to the small town from which the accomplice last contacted him, to see for himself what has happened.

The book is well written and very, very hard-boiled. The narrator is a cold-blooded sociopath who expresses very little remorse in killing. The story also contains a fair amount of sex, much of it quite kinky, which I have to say was a pleasant surprise as a lot of the white guys writing pulp for Fawcett in the sixties were pretty vanilla.

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Gold Lion version, UK

Unlike The Hunter, the first Parker book written by Donald Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark, it appears Marlowe intended The Name of the Game Is Death to be a series. The main character who is only known by a series of false names in the first book, returned as Earl Drake in One Endless Hour (1962).

Under the influence of Marlowe’s editors, Drake then become an international spy in a series of ‘Operation’ novels (the point at which, according to Stroby, the quality of the books declined markedly), with Drake was billed as ‘The Man With Nobody’s Face’, because his face had been horribly damaged by fire at the end of The Name of the Game Is Death and was reconstructed by plastic surgery in One Endless Hour.

Marlowe himself was an interesting and somewhat mysterious character. He was a Rotarian, gambler, a heavy drinker and, despite not being particularly attractive, a womaniser. He also had a long association with a real life criminal, a bank robber called Al Nussbaum, who Marlowe befriending in prison and who helped the author achieve a certain criminal authenticity in his work.

UK crime publisher Allen Guthrie’s site has a good article on Marlowe. The author of this, Charles Kelly has also written a book on Marlowe’s life, Gunshots in Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan G Marlowe, available on line, which is supposed to be very good.

Toshiro Mifune, Lee Marvin & Hell In the Pacific

MifuneIf he was still alive, Legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune would have been 95 years old this week. He was born on April 1, 1920. I was idly looking on the Internet for images of the imposing Mifune, when I found the fantastic picture above. I don’t know exactly when and where it was taken, but in all likelihood, it was London, sometime in 1967.

Mifune and Lee Marvin worked once together, on John Boorman’s 1968 strange, hallucinogenic war film, Hell In the Pacific. The film was a pet project of Marvin’s and he was reportedly devastated by the fact it did not do well critically or at the box office.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, Mifune and Marvin played a Japanese navy captain and a US air force pilot, respectively, who are marooned on a remote island in the Pacific and continue to engage in version of the larger war raging around them. In some respects, the film mirrored the real lives of both men. Marvin had served in the war and been wounded in action during the battle for Saipan, while Mifune had served in the Japanese imperial army.

Mifune had approached Marvin with an eye to working with US actor. Despite being somewhat hostile towards Mifune, Marvin agreed to meet. They got together in London and, despite their history on different sides of the war and the fact Marvin could not speak Japanese and Mifune very little English, they hit it off very well. They spent a night on the town in London and later on, in the process of developing Hell In the Pacific, Marvin travelled to Japan where the two had another lengthy drinking session.

In all likelihood, the image above may have been taken during their time in London. It reminded me of the story behind the making of Hell In the Pacific and how Mifune and Marvin became friends. This tale was basis for my short story ‘Gone Fishing’, which appeared in an anthology I helped edit called LEE, published by Crime Factory Publications in 2013. ‘Gone Fishing’ is set on a marlin fishing boat off the coast of the Cairns after the release of Hell In the Pacific, and features a despondent Marvin recalling the making of the film, his friendship with Mifune and his time in the war.

LEE contains 17 stories from crime writers around the world, including Adrian McKinty, Jake Hinkson, Scott Phillips, Heath Lowrance, Jenna Bass, Eric Beetner, Johnny Shaw, Roger Smith and a host of others. They are all based on the life of the iconic US actor. The stories veer in tone and style from literary noir to the wickedly gonzo. The one thing they all have in common is a respect for Marvin, his life and his work.

I have a real soft spot for LEE. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell very well, but of all the books Crime Factory Publications has released, it is my favourite. If you are a fan of Marvin’s work and looking for something to read over the Easter break, I’d encourage you to purchase the Kindle version or, for a little more, you can get the paperback version from Crime Factory Publications website here.

In the meantime, happy birthday Toshiro Mifune.

Beat Girls, Love Tribes, Real Cool Cats draft cover & pre-order information

test pulp cover layout-3b (1)

I’m incredibly proud to be able to show you the draft cover to the upcoming book I’ve co-edited with Iain McIntyre, Beat Girls, Love Tribes & Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction & Youth Culture from the 1950s to 1980s.

Iain and I were both keen to do an examination of pulp fiction that went beyond simply focusing on paperback covers, as most pulp fiction related books do and I am sure we and the twenty plus writers who contributed to this tome, have delivered.

Beat Girls is first comprehensive account of the rise of youth culture and mass-market paperback fiction in the postwar period in the US, UK and Australia. It is not just a comprehensive selection of covers, but an in-depth look at the authors, how they worked and what influenced them. It is a must-read for anyone interested in retro and subcultural style and popular fiction.

As the young created new styles in music, fashion and culture, pulp fiction followed their every step, hyping and exploiting their behavior and language for mass consumption. From the juvenile delinquent gangs of the early fifties, through the beats and hippies, on to bikers, skinheads and punks, pulp fiction left no trend untouched. Boasting wild covers and action-packed plots, these books reveal as much about society’s desires and fears as they do about the subcultures themselves.

Featuring over 300 pulp covers, many never before reprinted, as well 70 in-depth author interviews and biographies, articles and reviews, Beat Girls offers the most extensive survey of the era’s mass market pulp fiction. Novels by well-known authors like Harlan Ellison, Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and by filmmakers Samuel Fuller and Ed Wood Jr, are discussed alongside neglected obscurities and contemporary bestsellers ripe for rediscovery.

Beat Girls will be out in the US, UK and Australia later this year, via Verse Chorus Press, but you can pre-order now on Amazon here.

Pulp Friday: Pulp Confidential: Quick & dirty publishing from the 40s & 50s

Dope Island

When I first started researching the history of Australian pulp paperback publishing I thought libraries would be crammed with old papers from the various publishers who churned the books out in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I have since realised that paper takes up a lot of space to store and space is something that is at a premium at most libraries, be they public or university.

That is assuming individuals even had the presence of mind to realise that the records relating to pulp publishing were something worth keeping for future generations.

This is why Pulp Confidential: Quick and dirty publishing from the 40s to 50s, an exhibition currently showing at the State Library of NSW, is so interesting and unusual. The exhibition showcases papers, manuscripts, correspondence and artwork relating to Frank Johnson Publications, a small pulp-publishing operation active in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s.

Johnson was member of the Sydney bohemian set in the twenties. He had high literary pretensions but moved into pulp publishing in response to the gap in local reading material resulting from the tariff placed on foreign imported printed matter in 1938.

Johnson died in 1960, after which the State Library wrote to his family, asking whether they had kept his papers. His daughter responded five years later, saying there was a considerable amount of paperwork relating to Johnson’s work in a shed at the back of her house.

The Library, hoping to unearth documents relating to Sydney’s early bohemian scene, dispatched several field librarians to the house. Much of the paperwork had been destroyed. What was left related to Johnson’s pulp publishing activities. Luckily, for us, the Library had the foresight to realise the material was still of value and purchased what they found. It sat in the archives for years, unknown to researchers, until this exhibition.

Frank Johnson Publications published Westerns, horse racing stories (arguably, the only Australian only pulp genre), war stories, crime and true crime.

The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence, much of it concerning money (authors wanting it, Johnson withholding it) and a lot of original artwork, including material from the comics Johnson published and early work by Phil Belbin, who would go onto be one of the Australia’s most prolific pulp paperback illustrators,

It is a must see exhibition for lovers of the history of Australian publishing in general and pulp paperback publishing, in particular.

More details about the exhibition are available here. It runs until May 10.

All the images below are courtesy of the collection of the State Library NSW.

Pardon my intrusion

The taste of death

1947, watercolour by Woolett

ear for Murder

Mystery in the Cactus (1)

Artwork by Phil Belbin

Son of Bidgee Bob 1947, cover art Peter Chapman,

1947, artwork by Peter Chapman

The Sheep and the Wolves, 1947

1947, artwork by Woolett