Monday, July 31, 2017

In The Matter Of The Centennial Of The Birth Of Film Actor, Noir Film Actor, Robert Mitchum (2017)

By Associate Film Critic Alden Riley

[Due to the “controversy” between current film critic Sandy Salmon and his old-time friend and film critic emeritus I have been designated to write up this article based on notes that Sandy gave me and a perusal of Sam’s film review of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer’s Out of the Past, the film that sparked the controversySite moderator Pete Markin agreed with that decision if for no other reason than to put an end to the bickering, his term. Here it is-Alden Riley]    

Film Editor Emeritus Sam Lowell is like something out of a film noir which he has always been fascinated by ever since he was a kid down in cranberry bog Carver south of Boston and would catch the Saturday matinee double-headers at the Bijou Theater (now long gone and replaced by a cinematic mega-plex out on Route 28 in one of the long line of strip malls which dot that road now). That fascination had a name, The Maltese Falcon, starring rugged chain-smoking tough guy Humphrey Bogart as a no nonsense, well almost no nonsense, private detective, who almost got skirt-crazy, almost got catch off guard by some vagrant jasmine scent from a femme over the matter of an extremely valuable bejeweled bird which the theater owner, Sean Riley, would occasionally play in a retrospective series that he ran to keep expenses down some weeks rather than take in the latest films from the studios.     

The reason that I, Sandy Salmon, current film critic at the American Left History blog and also at the on-line American Film Gazette can call the old curmudgeon Sam Lowell “something out of a film noir” is because once he decided to retire from the day to day hassle of reviewing a wide range of current and past films he contrived to get me to take his place on the blog along with my other by-line. That based on our years together as rivals and friends at the Gazette.  He did this “putting himself out to pasture” as he called it to the blog’s moderator, Peter Paul Markin, when he mentioned the subject of retirement with the proviso that he could contribute occasional “think” pieces as films or other events came up and curdled his interest. I had no particular objection to that arrangement since it is fairly standard in the media industry and is an arrangement that I would likewise want to take up in my soon to come retirement from the day to day grind. (To that end I am grooming an associate film critic Alden Riley for that eventuality.)

This business with Sam and his guest commentaries all came tumbling down on my head recently after he had read somewhere, maybe the Boston Globe, yes, I think it was that newspaper  that the centennial of the birth great actor, great film noir actor,  Robert Mitchum, was at hand. Without giving me a heads up he, Sam, decided that he wanted to do a “think” piece on this key noir figure and someone whose performances in things like Out Of The Past, Cape Fear, and Night Of The Hunter were the stuff of cinematic legend. But you see I wanted, once I became aware of the centennial, to write something to honor Mitchum although I have the modesty not to call it a “think” piece. My idea, as was Sam’s in the end, had been to write about that incredible role Mitchum played as a low key private eye in Out Of The Past against the dangers of a gun-addled femme. We resolved the dispute if you want to call it resolved by having “dueling” appreciations of that classic film. Sam’s potluck article has already been published and now I get my say. Enough said.          
I will say one thing for Sam although I would have noted it myself in any case that both our headlines speaks of a film noir actor although Micthum did many more types of films from goof stuff like the Grass Is Greener where he played some kind of rich oil man adrift in England and infatuated by some nobleman’s wife and Heaven Help Mr. Allison where he got all flirty with a fellow marooned nun to truly scary can’t go to sleep at night without a revolver under the pillow stuff like Cape Fear to the world weary, world wary former standup guy  pasty/fall guy in the film adaptation of  George V. Higgin’s The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. (That film a true Boston Irish Mafia classic complete with men only barroom scenes and a view of dank City Hall Plaza was the best novel Higgins wrote, wrote with a passion that his later work fell a little short on.) That said to my mind, as to Sam’s as well, his classic statement of his acting persona came in the great performance he did in Out Of The Past where between being in the gun sights of an angry gangster played by Kirk Douglas and the gun sights of a gun crazy femme played by Jane Greer he had more than enough to handle.

Yeah, if you think about it, think about other later non-goof, do it for the don’t go back to the “from hunger” days paycheck vehicles Mitchum starred in (he did something like one hundred plus films in his time plus some television work) that film kind of said it all about a big brawny barrel-chested guy who had been around the block awhile, had smoked a few thousand cigarettes while trying to figure out all the angles and still in the end got waylaid right between the eyes by that damn femme. All she had to do was call his name and he wilted like some silly schoolboy. I like a guy who likes to play with fire, likes to live on the edge a little but our boy got caught up badly by whatever that scent, maybe jasmine, maybe spring lilac but poison that he could never get out of his nostrils once she went into over-drive.

Sam in his review went out of his way to make Mitchum’s character, Jeff, let’s just call him Jeff since for safety reasons he had other aliases seemed like, well, seem like the typical “from hunger” guy who got wrapped up in a blanket with a dizzy dame and that his whole freaking life led to that fatal shot from that fatal gun from that femme fatale. She had a name, Kathie, nice and fresh and wholesome name but nothing but fire and fiery although Sam insisted that it could have been any one of a thousand dames as long as she had long legs, ruby red lips and was willing to mess up the sheets a bit. Yeah, Jeff as just another from nowhere guy who got caught between a rock and a hard place.      

No, a thousand time no. Robert Mitchum, ah, Jeff in those scenes has those big eyes wide open from the minute he hit Mexico, no, the minute he got the particulars from Whit, from his new employer of the moment, he was no fall guy but a guy playing out his hand, maybe well, maybe badly but playing the thing out just as he always had done since he was a kid. (Sam, maybe reflecting his own “from hunger” up-bringing in working class cranberry bog Carver if you look at his reviews of those luscious black and white films from the 1940s and 1950s that he feasted on always overplayed that fateful “from hunger” aspect of a male character’s persona, a failing to see beyond his own youth in many cases being his fatal error here)

As Sam would say here is the play, the right way to see Mitchum’s cool as ice character. Whit, a shady businessman, hell, call him by his right name, a gangster, a hood, played by cleft-chinned Kirk Douglas, a young Kirk just as Mitchum was young then too although he always seemed older whatever the role, wanted to hire Jeff (and by indirection his partner Fisher who will undercut him reminding me of that friction between Sam Spade and Miles Archer although Sam wound up doing right by his old partner. Fisher just bought the farm trying to move in on Jeff’s business) to find his girlfriend who left him high and dry minus a cool forty thousand and plus a little bullet hole as a reminder that not all women are on the level. The minute Jeff heard the particulars he was in, not for the dough, although dough is a good reason to take on a job in any profession including his, private detection, but to see what kind of dish ran away from a good-looking, rich guy with plenty of sex appeal and a place to keep her stuck in the good life. Sam missed the whole idea that Jeff already had a head of steam for this elusive Kathie before he went out the door of Whit’s mansion (Kathie or whatever her name really was played by sultry sexy, long-legged, ruby red-lipped ready for a few satin sheet tumbles Jane Greer).   

For a professional detective like Jeff Kathie was not hard to find, maybe intentionally if she had Whit figured out which I think she did, and you could palpably feel the tension as Jeff waited to meet his quarry. If you followed the way he was thinking, if you in this case followed the scent then you would have known that Jeff was no more a victim of some bad childhood that I was. Everything follows from that first prescient presence in that run-down wreak of a cantina down in sunny desperate Mexico and those first drinks between them. The sheets followed as night follows day as did the plans they had to flee from whatever dastardly deeds Whit would do once he knew that a real man had taken his pet away from him-without flinching. The key was the dodge Jeff, remember it was Jeff who led the misdirection when Whit showed up in sunny Mexico wondering what the fuck was going on. Jeff had them in Frisco town before you say goodbye. Nice work.          

Hey Jeff knew, knew as any man knew who had been wide awake after the age of thirteen knew, that his grip on Kathie unlike the later tryst with good girl Anne once he had to go into exile when Kathie flipped her wig, would only last as long as he could keep her interested. I will grant Sam this that maybe Jeff should have been a little more leery of what crazy moves Kathie could make when she was cornered, maybe should have thought through a little better why she put a slug in Whit just for the hell of it. But in his defense Jeff was playing his hand out and it was just too much bad luck that his old partner Fisher got on his trail as Whit’s new hound dog. Got on his trail, and hers, which she stopped cold when she put the rooty-toot-toot to Fisher. Then blew town leaving Jeff to pick up her mess.

Did Jeff call copper, did he go crying on his knees to Whit. No he went into exile waiting for the next move, waiting to see what Kathie would come up with next. He may have built him a nice little gas station business in Podunk, have gotten a dewy fresh maiden in Anne but anybody could see once he was exposed by one of Whit’s operatives passing through that little town he played his hand out to the very end. Went to see what was what including learning of Kathie’s opportunistic return to Whit’s embrace. And subsequently her return to his embrace. Of course such a course was bound to not turn out very well for anybody. Whit wasted by Kathie for the hell of it and then Jeff wasted by her as well once he knew the game was up. Don’t make though too much of that play at the very end when Anne asks Jeff’s deaf gas station employee whether he was really ready to leave everything Jeff and she had together for Kathie and the kid said yes. Yes with the implication that Jeff did the whole play to spare Anne. No, that is too pat. Jeff wanted to go with Kathie, wanted to play with fire, knew that the game was up and just didn’t care any longer as long as he was with Kathie. Couldn’t Sam see in Jeff, in Robert Mitchum’s, eyes that he didn’t care what she did, or what she didn’t do, that was the way it was between them. No fall guy there.

I don’t know about Sam but I am ready to move on to speak out about other major Mitchum films. I agree with Sam those payday check films in a career where he played in over one hundred are not worth blowing any smoke about but there are still plenty worthy of attention. More later. 

When Lady Day Chased The Blues Away, Again And Again-“Billie Holiday: The First Verve Sessions ”-A CD Review 

CD Review

By Music Critic Seth Garth

Billie Holiday: The First Verve (Record) Sessions, Billie Holiday, Verve Records, Polygram, 1975   

Everybody, at least the every bodies who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, had at least heard the sad life story and junkie death of the legendary blue singer Billie Holiday. Knew that information either from having read her biography, the liner notes on her records (vinyl for those younger readers who have not become hip to the beauties of that old-fashion way to produce recordings in the current retro revival of that method), newspaper obituaries, or from the 1970s film starring Diana Ross (lead singer of Motown’s The Supremes). So everybody knew that Lady Day had come up the hard way, had had a hard time with men in her life and had plenty of trouble with junk, with heroin. Had turned her into some hustling gal with dark lights out of a Nelson Algren story about her “daddy” making her blues go away, had the “fixer” man making the pain going away for a moment. (I believe that the Prez, the great saxophonist Lester Young who himself blew many a high white note out to the China seas as the phrase went on the West Coast when he was “on” gave her that name. Put lady and day together and it stuck. He backed her up on many recordings, including here, and in many a venue, including New York café society before they pulled her ticket. The name fit her as did that eternal flower arrangement, sweet gardenia or some such flower speaking of sexual adventures and promise, in her hair)     

Yeah, that is the sad part, the life and times part. But if you listen to this CD under review like the other compilations that I am reviewing at this time while I am in a “from hunger” wanting habits mood about Lady Day’s work like I get into every once in a while about music that moved, moves, me, spoke, speaks, to me. If you listen through this CD or her classic tunes for Verve Records you will also know why in the first part of the 21st century guys like me are still reviewing her work, still haunted by that voice, by that meaningful pause between notes that carried you to a different place, by that slight hush as she enveloped a song which kept your own blues at bay. I repeat kept your blues away whatever she suffered to bring that sentiment forward.

That last statement, those last two sentences are really what I want to hone in on here as I have previously done since Billie Holiday is an acquired taste, and a taste which grows on you as you settle in to listen to whole albums rather than a single selection spending half the night turning over vinyl, flipping tapes, changing CDs if you don’t have multiple CD recorder, or grabbing the dial on an MP3 player. Here is my god’s honest truth though. Many a blue night when I was young, hell, now too, I would play Billie for hours, tune that vinyl over in the beginning in my case, and my own silly blues would kind of evaporate. Nice right.

Here is the not nice part, maybe better the not respectful part for a sanctified woman’s voice and spirit.  Once a few years ago I was talking to some young people about Billie and, maybe under the influence of the Diana Ross film or from their disapproving parents, kind of wrote her off as just another junkie gone to seed. When I was a kid, long before I acquired the Billie habit I had some similar ideas about junk and junkies maybe under the influence of Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra) in the film adaptation of the voice of the small people Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm. (The “golden arm” the amount of money spent with the “fixer man” which singer/songwriter John Prine later mentioned in a lyric about “all the money going into a hole in daddy’s arm” in the song Sam Sloan about the fate of a returning Vietnam veteran who couldn’t face the “real” world after that experience.) The film seen and not totally understood then with my parents in the early 1950s who warned me against the dangers of hanging with junkies and getting hooked on dope. A real and present danger in the neighborhood we were forced to live in where dope was around if a lot more discreetly and on the low than now. It would take actually knowing guys, soldiers, friends, coming back from Vietnam where via the Golden Triangle heroin, opium and such were cheap and plentiful to have a more tolerant attitude toward that guys with a “habit”. A couple of overdoses only added to the sense of loss. I shocked them, I think, and maybe myself a little when I said if I had had the opportunity I would have given Billie all the dope she wanted just for taking my own blues   away. 

That is why we still listen to that sultry, slinky, sexy voice today. 

Is everything in this CD or in her overall work the cat’s meow. No, toward the end in the 1950s you can tell her voice was hanging by a thread under the strain of all her troubles, legal and medical. But in the 1930sand 1940s, the time of her time, the time of her Verve recordings covering Cole Porter, Gershwin and Jerome Kern songs with a little Johnny Mercer thrown in, the time of Tin Pan Alley songs which seem to have almost been written just for her she had that certain “it” which cannot be defined but only accepted, accepted gratefully. Some of the versions of the songs here may be a little more indicative of her high water mark than her later work where she teamed up with serious jazz and blues players like the aforementioned Lester Young blowing out high white notes to the China seas while she basked in the glow of the lyrics. But just check out Blue Moon, Autumn In New York, Love For Sale and Solitude and you will get an idea of what I am talking about. And as I have stated repeatedly maybe get your own blues chased away    

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Memories Of Victor Lazlo-With The 75th Anniversary Of Ingrid Bergman And Humphrey Bogart’s “Casablanca” In Mind

By Bradley Davis

[For those in America who do not know, or have forgotten, the name Victor Lazlo who died on January 20, 1989 he was a living legend during World War II as the key leader of the armed civilian resistance to the Nazi juggernaut that tried to permanently roll over Europe. First in his native Czechoslovakia where he stood in the main square attempting to rally Czech resistance as the Germans crossed the border to “claim” what they saw as their historic hinterlands. Hardly the first crew to run that argument to the ground before the wrath of the risen people put paid to that notion. Later after the Germans had captured Lazlo and put him in concentration camps he became one of the last hopes in those dark days for the average occupied European when he repeatedly escaped from the Nazi barbed wire enclaves to fight another day. That despite repeated German High Command announcements complete with photographs that the brave man was dead. Only to appear again and again until even the Germans saw it was useless to make an example of Lazlo once he made his way to Casablanca along with a very much younger woman companion, Ilsa, to forge a working resistance underground network to jam up the Germans as best they could.   

Strangely Lazlo came from a very well-to- do family who had done well in the munitions business (which the Nazis took over with every hand once they crushed benighted Czechoslovakia) and could have easily gotten out of Prague and into London or Paris before all hell broke loose. But the times demanded “no heads in the sand” and so some layers of society whom one would not expect to dirty their hands with the work usually left to the plebian masses found a calling. For a short time after World War II there were several statues dedicated to Lazlo’s service in Prague and other Czech towns, a few in other grateful liberated countries too, which were taken down during the Soviet period. They were eventually restored well after 1989 too late for Lazlo to bask in his well-deserved accolades.

Lazlo’s death prompted some of those of his comrades still alive, a dwindling number as the actuarial tables grind away, to write about their heroic leader. One whose article I had seen in the New York Gazette I contacted at the time through a friend who worked at the paper. His name Christian Berger, Danish by birth and subsequently a naturalized American citizen. He had been part of Lazlo’s underground operation and had actually helped get Lazlo and Ilsa out of Casablanca to continue his work without having to look over his shoulder every minute for some dastardly pro-Nazi assassin looking to get a name for himself.

This Casablanca period in Lazlo’s exploits has been the subject of some differences among those who have written extensively about the armed civilian resistance during the war. About those who fought the Nazis and their various national indigenous allies as best they could. The main bone of contention in the matter is who actually set the wheels in motion to get Lazlo out of Casablanca. During the war it was always, correctly it seems, assumed that the local branch of Lazlo’s operation-the Knights Templar- got him out. 

Immediately after the war though an American ex-patriate, Rick Blaine, who during the war and for many years after ran a gin joint in the Casbah, Rick’s Café Americian, claimed that as a gesture of love for Ilsa, who was actually Lazlo’s wife which they were keeping quiet for security reasons and to protect Ilsa if the Germans found out their real relationship, gave the couple a pair of “letters of transit” to get on the nightly midnight plane to neutral Lisbon. No such documents were ever found in any archive or file. The failure to not find the missing documents would not have been conclusive since in wartime all kinds of regular business are churned up and lost in movements and withdrawals but would have helped Blaine’s case immensely. For years after the war Lazlo, long after Ilsa had left him for an English nobleman and a country estate and not having seen Rick since 1941, insisted that there were no letters of transit and while not calling Rick Blaine a liar he always claimed the local Knight Templars were the agents through which he escaped.              

Since Lazlo’s death the Rick allegations have resurfaced and have had some champions, romantic fools mostly, who have bought into that long ago gesture of love business. The following is Christian Berger’s take on the matter from his perspective as the leader of the local ex-pat resistance which found itself stranded in Casablanca during those troubled times. Bradley Davis] 


Sure I knew Victor Lazlo, the great Czech World War II anti-fascist liberation leader, who passed away the other day at 91, the day George H.W. Bush was sworn in as President of the United States here in America. I first met him in Casablanca, down in Morocco, the part that the French, the Vichy French, had control of not the Spanish part. In those days, the days when one scourge Adolph Hitler, his minions, and his tanks were making mincemeat of Europe I, Christian Berger, having barely escaped with my life from my native Denmark got to Casablanca through the underground network that Victor Lazlo was the key man setting up once the night of the long knives set in over the benighted continent.

I have been a life-long working man, a dock-worker, a union man with the ILA in Copenhagen and Newark, New Jersey here in America who had been then a part of a small socialist resistance unit who had as the Nazis came waltzing into Denmark blown up as many tunnels and other impediments as possible to slow down their inevitable march. My, our, escape was a close thing since I, we, had to get through France, the southern part that was controlled by Vichy, by those damned French collaborators with the Nazi Germany regime which had set itself up in fallen Paris with papers that were not too good. Papers that claimed I was from the Ukraine since Russia was in some kind of devil’s pact with Hitler at the time. The customs officers at Marseilles had a hard time believing I was a Slav what with me looking like the map of Copenhagen and talking like some Nordic skier seen in the movies in one of those sports films in the mountains which dealt mainly with love interests back in the 1930s. I got through okay, took a derelict freighter across the Mediterranean through Algiers (again with papers problems but since I had been stamped by French officials in Marseilles less so) and down to Casablanca where I was to await orders to either head to America via the midnight plane to Lisbon, the only safe neutral spot at that point,  and then across the Atlantic to raise funds from among the Scandinavians sprouted throughout the Midwest or head back to Vichy France with some others stranded in Casablanca and join the French resistance which was beginning to be organized (mainly then by loosely affiliated individuals and later by the Communists after Hitler turned the tables on “Uncle Joe” Stalin and did a massive invasion of Russia).   

My cover strange as it seemed given my real background in Casablanca was as a jeweler since we needed to be able to move money without having the fucking French, fucking Louie the corrupt Captain of the [A1] [A2] [A3] [A4] [A5] coppers looking over our shoulders every minute. An out of the suitcase seller was my cover but mostly I was a buyer of high-priced gems at a fraction of the price since anybody who made it to that sullen town needed plenty of dough to not be condemned to die in the damn place. I was looked at as either a bastard for robbing the unfortunates who wound up there or a savior for giving that last bit of money they needed to make arrangements to get out of that hellhole. That made me look like the real thing as people either enjoyed my company or avoided me like some dreaded medieval plague.

I was in those days just hanging out in Casablanca awaiting orders about which way I was heading, hanging out mostly at Rick’s Café Americian where every transient exile went to do any kind of transaction, legal or illegal, or just to get the sand out of their mouths with some of Rick’s high-end liquor which he obtained on the international black market which had its heyday then for quality goods. I did a little work in that market as well to strengthen my cover and met some strange guys, a guy like Santo Diaz who would have stolen the shirt off your back and sold it back to you for twice what you paid for if the weather was too hot or too cold to go bare-chested but who had so many connections that I would have paid the price if he had taken my shirt. Some of the more bewildered and younger transients came just to dance and listen to a guy, a black guy everybody called Sam but whose real name was Dooley something, sorry I forgot his last name, play all the current Tin Pan Alley tunes on his piano (accompanied by a pretty good back-up band). Everybody went crazy over his rendition of If I Didn’t Care although Rick would make sure he played I’ll Get By every set although he once told me he hated the damn song thought it was pretty corny and not well-written ne but Rick was the boss and so the damn thing got played every set (the customers apparently once they got a load on didn’t know he played the song three times a night. As least I never heard anybody complain on the matter).

I will mention this Rick, Rick Blaine, originally from New York City in America I believe he said when I asked one time when he offered to buy me a drink after buying some jewels from one of his lady friends, Rita, a luscious redhead, whom he had picked up in Senor Ferrara’s whorehouse in the Casbah where he stocked plenty of loose European women for the local wealthy trade who seemed to have tired of their own kind and  whom he wished to get rid of on the next flight to Lisbon. (The  jewels which he had bought from me in the first place when his love was in fresh bloom as he expressed it to me upon purchase and which I had gotten on the black market and given him a good price on to help establish myself as a regular at Ricks’. Tiring of redhead and blondes, brunettes too was a luxury that Rick could afford with the proceeds from his gambling racket and letting his place be used by a guy named Frenchie for his pimping transactions. Yeah, Rick was that kind of guy even then.) 

Right now though I want to mention the first news I had heard that made me think we might win against that bastard Hitler and his henchmen like General Petain who was running Vichy France. Like I said I belonged to the same resistance organization that Victor Lazlo had set up after the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia-The Knight Templars was our code name and an old time Celtic cross our means of identifying each other. Mine I had placed in a ring that I would take out occasionally and look at as my own possession, so people, so the local Vichy cops, the swine, would not think to look there. Lazlo was so much the public face of the organization that when the Germans captured him the morale of the organization sank like a stone. Then we would hear that he had escaped, usually with the help of local Knights Templars. 

A few times the Germans claimed they had killed him and then he would be sighted again. A real old-time romantic revolutionary, old school no question even though he had been brought up in a very upper middle class bourgeois family. The last time we heard he was killed we thought that really was the end. Then one day out of the blue we got news that Lazlo was not only not dead but had escaped again and was heading to Casablanca. Elated we prepared for his arrival. That meant that the local organization that I had put together would have to insure that Victor Lazlo was able to get out of Casablanca and get to Lisbon and head to London or New York depending on what we could do for him.          

One night bold as we figured him to be Lazlo walked into Rick’s, walked in with the Nordic goddess, a Swede from her looks, a woman who I would later find out whose name was Ilsa, Ilsa Lund, whom he was either married to (privately) or was shacked up with. In any case a good looking dame although quite a bit younger that Lazlo. Lazlo by the way was a tall, kind of thin good-looking guy who always dressed like he had just come out of a men’s magazine. Everything about him spoke of coolness under pressure and strong nerves. I would not say that he was a lady’s man, more of a man’s man but not a few femmes in Casablanca threw glances his way so he must have appealed to a certain kind of woman. Frankly this Ilsa didn’t seem his type but she must have had her charms and some kind of unknown back story to be attached to his arm coming half way across Europe hunted in every quarter.

Now Rick’s was not only the favorite of the transients looking for something but also the favorite watering hole of the Germans assigned to watch over the local Vichy government and the Vichy cops and bureaucrats, especially Louie, everybody called him Louie except his men, the Captain of the cops. Cool as a cucumber Lazlo walked in, sat at a ringside table ordered a couple of drinks, martinis I think, for himself and his lady friend and checked things out. I knew at once he was looking for me. Although we had never met I knew he would have known that the local organization existed and that somebody would contact him once he was safely in Casablanca. Once I spotted him I went over and showed him my ring. We were in business, the business of getting him to Lisbon and whatever future work would come his way. Our relationship for the short time we were together then was cordial and he displayed no class superiority like some of the unattached intellectual French resistance fighters did. (Lazlo and I met a few times after the war when he came to America after Ilsa had left him from that British title and estate and after the fall of Czechoslovakia to pro-Soviet elements who had given him the options-exile or jail.)

I have read different stories over time about how some so-called letters of transit were what got Lazlo and his Ilsa out of Casablanca in a nick of time. I have heard that Rick, Rick Blaine, a guy who stuck his neck out for nobody somehow was holding them for a little two-bit con man named Peter Lorre who got caught and Rick was going to use them himself but gave them to Lazlo for him and Ilsa to get out of town as a gesture to love. Bullshit, excuse my Danish-etched English. Never happened, somebody must have been at the hashish pipe too long. But the story, stories, have persisted to this day and even the New York Times in its obituary for Lazlo mentioned that hoary tale as if it was the real deal. So it is worth going into before I tell what really got Lazlo and Ilsa out of Casablanca and allowed him to lead the freedom fighters of Europe against the night-takers.

According to the stories, I will use the story the Times used since in its particulars it gives most of the current view that has been going around forever. Rick, who passed away in the mid-1970s still stuck in Casablanca selling hashish to the locals in collaboration with a couple of unsavory characters in the Casbah when Rick’s Café went to seed after the war, knew this Ilsa, this Ilsa Lund who was travelling with Lazlo, in Paris before the war started. The stories mainly agree that they had some kind of torrent affair, some serious time under the sheets after Rick had escaped from Spain once Madrid fell in 1939.

Supposedly Rick had been at one time in the International Brigades helping the Loyalists defend the Republic against the military machine of General Franco who was aided in no small way by the Germans. Later when the Brigades were withdrawn he stayed on as a free agent until Madrid fell.  I had a chance later after the war to check out what Rick had done exactly in Spain, or if he had even been there with some guys I met from the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of the 15th Brigade, the American section. I could never get anything to prove he was, or was not, there but since everybody used aliases anyway I let it ride. I will say that Rick never let anybody believe otherwise than that he had been with the good guys but he didn’t talk about it much one way or the other. Ran his saloon business he called it and never let on about this torrid affair with Ilsa as the cause of his brooding many nights from what his head waiter, Charles, told me. Drank by himself stupid alone or with some whore or princess who needed dough to flee to Lisbon. Always discarded them or shipped them off to Louie when he was done with them.          

Everything changed when Ilsa came walking in hand and hand with Lazlo. You could feel the tension in the air when Rick spotted her after being told Lazlo was in the café. Even sitting at the bar later waiting for Lazlo to come and get the low-down on the local situation from me I could see that Ilsa and Rick had had a big thing in Paris. Could see too that it was not Rick who walked away from her. But I could also see, knowing Scandinavian women a little that Ilsa would not be found wanting for company, would always find a safe haven even hanging around with a guy like Victor Lazlo. I won’t say she was a whore, although in a tight spot she might have been a high class call girl to make ends meet. But that look, that pasted innocent look which certain jaded women can put on or take off like their daily make-up told of a few dark secrets that somebody less worldly than Lazlo (or Rick for that matter) would have gone screaming into the night over. But all of that is sheer speculation on my part about her past and it may have all come to being nothing like that. She didn’t need that, need to play the virgin whore since guys would be more than happy to give her whatever she wanted for a little attention, maybe a little loyalty too. But I insist to this day her rose-petal pure and simple young woman was a façade, was a game she played to insure her own future. Whatever had broken up her and Rick in Paris didn’t seem to have touched her at all. Just another affair and move on. That’s the best way that I can explain it.

You would have had to have been there to see her effect on men, tough men like Rick and Lazlo to get a real feel for what was driving everybody crazy. (I will admit that one time when she was waiting at the bar for Lazlo to show after a meeting and I was sitting a few seats down that her wayward smile my way and that scent she wore, gardenia, something like that had me going too since I had left my Danja back in Denmark and had not been with a woman for a while.) All I know for sure was that she was not leaving Casablanca alone and without resources.   

That part was real enough. What was not real and nobody ever to my knowledge ever produced any documents which would pass muster, would not fool even a gullible U.S. customs inspector were those so-called letters of transit. Of course if they had existed then many things would have made sense, or more sense. You have to understand how desperate people were who were able to get to Casablanca in those days and who either by lack of resources or no luck looked like they were never going to get out of there, were going to as Rick once said to Charles as I overheard a conversation between them “die” there. (There is a certain irony in the fact that he did die there pretty wealthy from what I heard about his take on the drug trade and a little off-hand pimping of the local Casbah girls). To hear about “no hassle” just sign your name documents fired many an imagination. Made people believe in what was nothing but thin air.

The whole thing was a concoction made up by this Peter Lorre, a two-bit con man, a German ex-pat of some sort, probably saw no benefit to himself to stay in Germany after 1933 since while Hitler had an assortment of hangers-on, flaks, devotees, and bone-crushers two-bit non-ideological con men were being run out of town and fast.  Hell he could hardly pay his bar tab never mind his rent. Borrowed money off of me (with interest which I never got as it turned out nor payment one on the loan) to get some stuff out of hock. He took advantage of the news, the real news, that two German officers had been killed on their way to Casablanca and figured that he could make a “killing” maybe several, by getting money upfront from those desperate people stranded and running out of hope by saying he had some fool-proof documents which real letters of transit would be no question about that. Of course this idea fizzled when Louie to impress the German officers watching the henhouse decided that Lorre was the perfect guy to take the fall for the killing of the two Germans. He staged a big raid at Rick’s one night for just that purpose, just to impress this bigwig Major Strasser nothing but a strutting fool if you asked me. They found Lorre out in the sand about twenty kilometers from the Casbah a few weeks later with two slugs to the head.

Funny Lorre just before the end in the café had passed a couple of crude documents that he called the letters of transit to Rick from what I heard for safekeeping. Those documents were of the crudest sort that even a half-wit would have been able to see that they were nothing but forgeries and bad ones at that. Would make the possessor who tried to use them prime bait for the concentration camps the Germans were setting up all over occupied Europe.                        

Rick was slick though, or maybe better love sick since he never let on at the time that Lorre had conveyed the “documents” to him or that he knew that they were crudely forged documents. So as far as anybody in Casablanca knew, or wanted to know, like I said they were still around town. Somehow Lazlo found out that Rick had these documents, or some documents and tried to bargain Ilsa, or rather Ilsa’s safe passage out of Casablanca for some sum of dough to be forwarded later. No sale even though while they were discussing the matter Rick let on about the torrid affair in Paris and Lazlo, eternally a European sophisticate, brushed it off as so much collateral damage of war. Lazlo probably knew better than anybody the slightly sluttish side of Ilsa when she wanted something so he probably went to Rick first before she made her charge at the love sick guy.

Which came the next night while Victor and seemingly half the foreigners in town, including me were at a meeting to plan his escape and our tasks after he left. (I was to go to Europe to join the resistance and did not get to America until a few years after the war when I married an American citizen whom I met in Paris right after Liberation day. I never saw Danja again after I fled Denmark and so do not know what happened to her after the fall).    

Ilsa must have really given Rick the business, the whole pitch since when she left his room all disheveled she had made a promise to go away with Rick and forget about Lazlo. Yes, I think I was right that she knew all the arts, probably gave him a blow job to seal the deal since most guys will buckle under if they have some gal “play the flute” for them. Since he had nothing to get out of Casablanca with Rick stalled her as long as he could until the Germans, using Louie as a front man, were ready to grab Lazlo. It was a close thing. When Rick came up empty he would wind up spending many lonely nights thinking about Paris and that last night up in his room with her because Ilsa was back in Victor’s fold when things were getting dicey. So much for the Rick legend which he pursued mercilessly I understand after the war when he claimed that that without him and those so-called letters of transit Lazlo would have been a goner, and by implication that Europe would still be under the Nazi boot heel.     

The real story which I can tell now that Victor Lazlo is in his honored grave, Rick is long gone to his rather shabby grave and Ilsa ever since a couple of years after the war is the Countess of Kent and not bothered by anything these days since she suffers from a series of mysterious diseases. The long and short of it was when that bastard Major Strasser ordered Louie to round up Lazlo with or without Ilsa we, the local branch of the Knights Templar, kidnapped the Major and executed him out in the desert not far from where Lorre had been found earlier. We then held Louie at gunpoint while we ordered him to clear the airport and allow Lazlo and Ilsa to board the late night plane to Lisbon. No big mystery just what freedom-fighters did when they had to face the facts of life at any given moment. The rest is some much thin air. RIP, Victor Lazlo, RIP.     

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Murder, Murder Most Foul-Maybe-Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy Of A Murder” (1959)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

[Will the “finds” never end?  As I noted in an introduction to a film review of It Happened One Night, the 1930s Gable-Colbert vehicle, which the now retired, somewhat retired it appears, film critic in this space Sam Lowell (and in the American Film Gazette) had “found” when he was cleaning out his desk that perhaps he was playing me the fool. In any case I posted the review and was happy to do so. Then a couple of days ago another “desk” draft review of All The Pretty Horse appeared on my desk under his name. I posted that one as well including a mention that for the past decade or so of our relationship I have been happy to post most of his material here. Now comes another “desk” draft which he found in what must be an abyss of a drawer. I post this review as well. My question is whether Sam has “accidently” found enough reviews to keep his name in lights until he goes to the great beyond. Just asking, Sam. Peter Markin, site moderator]      

Anatomy of a Murder, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, directed by Otto Preminger, 1959

Having been in a few court rooms in my time (I won’t say in what capacity although not as a defendant) where the main motion is “hurry up and wait” it was rather refreshing to see a drama based on a real live case that despite knowing who had committed the crime, murder murder one, murder most foul, held me in its grip for most of the long film, although the non-courtroom scenes were mainly filler. That was the effect that the 1959 black and white film under review Anatomy of a Murder had on me and I am sure as well the audiences at the time.

Here’s why. So-called good old boy country lawyer Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, had been approached by the wife, Laura played by Lee Remick, of the alleged murderer Army Officer Fred Manion played by Ben Gazzara, to defend him in a UP Michigan court on the charge of murder. After some preliminaries Biegler decided to take the case figuring that there might be a basis of temporary insanity to get the soldier off. The reason for that possibility is that Fred had reacted in a frenzy when Laura had come home to their trailer late one night claiming that she had been raped by the owner of an inn in town, Bernard Quill, where she had gone alone after Fred had fallen asleep after supper. Fred, something of a known hothead and jealous of his wife’s good looks and flirty ways reacted to that charge by going to the inn and shooting Quill and asking questions later.

The legal play in this one was a rather unusual one-temporary insanity based on an “irresistible impulse,” a defense recognized under Michigan law but not used in a long time as a defense. Of course the prosecution in the inevitable “battle of shrinks” claimed that Fred was a cold calculated murderer whatever he might have felt about his wife’s rape charges. The long film goes back and forth between the clever Biegler and the equally clever Assistant AG Dancer played by George C. Scott, brought in from Lansing to bolster the county DA’s case. Frankly, and I can give a wide leeway for cinematic dramatic license since even the proceedings of a real life murder trial are rather pedestrian, the conduct of the prosecution would seem to warrant an appealable issue of prosecutorial misconduct and if Fred had been convicted he could have justly charged that Biegler had provided  ineffective assistance of counsel. Not to worry though our Paul got the soldier off although by all measures, except legal ones, Fred was not one of nature’s noblemen-no way but that “irresistible impulse” defense worked. Worked too when Fred with Laura in tow took off when it came time to pay the lawyers. Although it is long and slow in places watch this one.                 

Friday, July 28, 2017

How The West Was Won-Again-The Film Adaptation Of Cormac McCarthy’s “All The Pretty Horses” (2000)-A Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sam Lowell

[I noted in a recent comment introducing a review of It Happened One Night by now film critic emeritus Sam Lowell that he had done that review and then put it in one of his desk drawers and only in the process of cleaning out that desk did he find a draft copy of that review. Apparently the old curmudgeon is either playing me the fool or he really should be placed out to pasture as he is fond of saying these days because a draft copy of the review below was also found among the debris of that lifetime accumulation. I will only say for now that this is the last one to be posted. Of course if Sam finds anything else I will be glad to publish it as I have for the past decade or so. Peter Markin, site moderator]  

All The Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon, Henry Thomas, Penelope Cruz, directed by Billy Bob Thornton, based on the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy   

Unlike another tale, a coming of age tale if you like, of the modern American West, of the Texas west,  The Last Picture Show, where I read the novel by Larry McMurtry first then the film I have seen the film under review the adaptation of Cormac Mc Carthy’s All The Pretty Horses without having read the novel. But after watching the film I will make it my business to read the novel which deals with a different aspect of the West, the cowboy West when ranch life goes south on its main characters and they are left to fend for themselves. A task which in true Western fashion has them groping to stay alive, although that was a close thing.   

John Grady Cole (hey that is the way he introduced himself to one and all), played by Matt Damon, was career-less, cowboy career-less after his grandfather died and his mother decided to sell the ranch leaving this young cowboy with horses in his blood with no place to go. No place but to go looking for work south of the Rio Grande, south of the border down  Mexico way with his longtime fellow cowboy Lacey played by Henry Thomas.     

Whatever adventure, whatever expectations they had about making a living as ranch hands down in Mexico were disturbed along the way when they met a vagabond Blevens who was strange to say the least.  Along the way Blevens lost his horse and then found it again at a ranch. This brings in the factor of horse-stealing which will drive a lot of the action in the film, and which is as heinous a crime in modern day Mexico (and Texas too) as in the old days when horse thieves were strung up in an age when to take a man’s horse was to take away his livelihood, his means of travel and his manhood. Along the way because John Grady and Lacey are tarred with the same brush as Blevens they will see just what that meant. They were able to get work at a huge ranchero where John Grady got special recognition by the owner for his keen eye for horse flesh. Along the way as well they wind up because of Bleven’s actions in custody and eventually in the “you don’t want to go there” penitentiary after a corrupt Mexican cop wasted the unfortunate Blevens while John Grady and Lacey watched helplessly. They survived the prison ordeal somehow and Lacey decided to head home. John Grady decided he had some unfinished business and was staying to pursue that.       

That unfinished business was as to be expected getting his girlfriend to go back to Texas with him. This girlfriend Alejandra, played by fetching Penelope Cruz, a firebrand and well worth taking some grief for was unfortunately for John Grady the daughter of the ranchero owner and so they were fated to part, fated in part because the price of getting John Grady and Lacey out of that “you don’t want to go there” prison was that she would not see him again, certainly would not go away with him. That was that.

On his way back home across the border with his horse, Lacey’s and the late Bleven’s in tow as some sort of symbol of the experiences he had down south of the border he is stopped in Texas and essentially accused of that same horse-stealing charge. He got out of trouble once he told his story to a judge and then meandered back to Lacey’s place with those three damn horses. Yeah, the modern West is a tough dollar for a cowboy loving man just like in the Old West. See this one for the pretty horses, pretty scenery and pretty Cruz.        

Thursday, July 27, 2017

It Happened One Night-Indeed-Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934)- A Film Review   

DVD Review

By Sam Lowell

[As most readers of this blog (and the American Film Gazette) know former chief film reviewer Sam Lowell has given up the day to day chores of the job to do occasional pieces. This review was one that he had left in a drawer when he retired and only recently found it when he was cleaning out his desk. Pete Markin]

It Happened One Night, starring Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, directed by Frank Capra, 1934  

There is no question in my mind that the 1930s and 1940s were the Golden Age of screwball comedies with the likes of the director of the film under review the Oscar-heavy It Happened One Night  Frank Capra, Preston Sturgis, hell, even Howard Hawks taking a run at it, leading the way. Maybe it was the Great Depression and people needed a little welcome relief from their pressing daily troubles putting one foot in front of the other, and putting food on the table (one later screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels made basically that same point). Maybe it was just the shear acting talent, direction, and script-writing coming together to form a perfect storm during the period. Whatever it was It Happened One Night was the benchmark for later efforts.

Here’s Oscar why. Ellen, played by Claudette Colbert, is a spoiled socialite who for kicks, or just to tweak her father elopes with a gold-digger from her circle and runs away, or tries to, when her stern father wants the whole affair annulled. The “run away” part is to reunite with that gold-digging husband in New York while she is stuck in Miami. Since her father, once Ellen flew the coop, had put an all-points bulletin for her return with a reward attached she surreptitiously sneaked passage on a plebian travel bus (figuring rightly that somebody born with a silver spoon in their mouth would rather die than have to rub shoulders with heavy people or heavy snorers in the next sear-smart girl). That bus trip with accompanying antics is where Ellen meets the wandering ex-newsman Peter, played by Clark Gable, who will provide plenty of action in trying to have her come off her high horse and get down in the mud with regular folk.

Of course the hi-jinx also include plenty of tensions between the pair as they do their dance around each other for a while getting in and out of scrapes which showed Ellen at least that he was a real man, a man to challenge her in plenty of ways including her virtue. I wonder what really went on that night they spent in the cabin with the skimpy clothesline and a ratty blanket the only thing separately them. Might that be the “it happened one night?” See this film and make your judgment.     
In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)-An Encore Presentation-The Big Sur Café

In Honor Of Jean Bon Kerouac On The 60th Anniversary Of “On The Road” (1957)

By Book Critic Zack James

To be honest I know about On The Road Jack Kerouac’s epic tale of his generation’s search for something, maybe the truth, maybe just kicks, stuff, important stuff has happened or some such happening strictly second-hand. His generation’s search looking for a name, found what he, or someone associated with him, maybe the bandit poet Gregory Corso, king of the mean New York streets, mean, very mean indeed in a junkie-hang-out world around Times Square when that place was up to its neck in flea-bit hotels, all night Joe and Nemo’s and the trail of the “fixer” man on every corner, con men coming out your ass too, called the “beat” generation.  Beat, beat of the jazzed up drum line backing some sax player searching for the high white note, what somebody told me, maybe my older brother Alex thy called “blowing to the China seas” out in West Coast jazz and blues circles, dead beat, run out on money, women, life, leaving, and this is important no forwarding address for the desolate repo man to hang onto, dread beat, nine to five, 24/7/365 that you will get caught back up in the spire wind up like your freaking staid, stay at home parents, beaten down, ground down like dust puffed away just for being, hell, let’s just call it being, beatified beat like saintly and all high holy Catholic incense and a story goes with it about a young man caught up in a dream, like there were not ten thousand other religions in the world to feast on- you can take your pick of the meanings, beat time meanings. Hell, join the club they all did, the guys, and it was mostly guys who hung out on the mean streets of New York, Chi town, North Beach in Frisco town cadging twenty-five cents a night flea-bag sleeps, half stirred left on corner coffees and cigarette stubs when the Bull Durham ran out).

I was too young to have had anything but a vague passing reference to the thing, to that “beat” thing since I was probably just pulling out of diapers then, maybe a shade bit older but not much. I got my fill, my brim fill later through my oldest brother Alex. Alex, and his crowd, more about that in a minute, but even he was only washed clean by the “beat” experiment at a very low level, mostly through reading the book (need I say the book was On The Road) and having his mandatory two years of living on the road around the time of the Summer of Love, 1967 an event whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year as well. So even Alex and his crowd were really too young to have been washed by the beat wave that crashed the continent toward the end of the 1950s on the wings of Allan Ginsburg’s Howl and Jack’s travel book of a different kind. The kind that moves generations, or I like to think the best parts of those cohorts. These were the creation documents the latter which would drive Alex west before he finally settled down to his career life (and to my sorrow and anger never looked back).             

Of course anytime you talk about books and poetry and then add my brother Alex’s name into the mix that automatically brings up memories of another name, the name of the late Peter Paul Markin. Markin, for whom Alex and the rest of the North Adamsville corner boys, Jack, Jimmy, Si, Josh, and a few others still alive recently had me put together a tribute book for in connection with that Summer of Love, 1967 just mentioned.  Markin was the vanguard guy, the volunteer odd-ball unkempt mad monk seeker who got several of them off their asses and out to the West Coast to see what there was to see. To see some stuff that Markin had been speaking of for a number of years before (and which nobody in the crowd paid attention to, or dismissed out of hand what they called “could give a rat’s ass” about in the local jargon which I also inherited in those cold, hungry bleak 1950s cultural days in America) and which can be indirectly attributed to the activities of Jack, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, that aforementioned bandit poet who ran wild on the mean streets among the hustlers, conmen and whores of the major towns of the continent, William Burroughs, the Harvard-trained junkie  and a bunch of other guys who took a very different route for our parents who were of the same generation as them but of a very different world.

But it was above all Jack’s book, Jack’s book which had caused a big splash in 1957, and had ripple effects into the early 1960s (and even now certain “hip” kids acknowledge the power of attraction that book had for their own developments, especially that living simple, fast and hard part). Made the young, some of them anyway have to spend some time thinking through the path of life ahead by hitting the vagrant dusty sweaty road. Maybe not hitchhiking, maybe not going high speed high through the ocean, plains, mountain desert night but staying unsettled for a while anyway.    

Like I said above Alex was out two years and other guys, other corner boys for whatever else you wanted to call them that was their niche back in those days and were recognized as such in the town not always to their benefit, from a few months to a few years. Markin started first back in the spring of 1967 but was interrupted by his fateful induction into the Army and service, if you can call it that, in Vietnam and then several more years upon his return before his untimely end. With maybe this difference from today’s young who are seeking alternative roads away from what is frankly bourgeois society and was when Jack wrote although nobody except commies and pinkos called it that. Alex, Frankie Riley the acknowledged leader, Jack Callahan and the rest, Markin included, were strictly from hunger working class kids who when they hung around Tonio Pizza Parlor were as likely to be thinking up ways to grab money fast any way they could or of getting into some   hot chick’s pants as anything else. Down at the base of society when you don’t have enough of life’s goods or have to struggle too much to get even that little “from hunger” takes a big toll on your life. I can testify to that part because Alex was not the only one in the James family to go toe to toe with the law, it was a close thing for all us boys as it had been with Jack when all is said and done. But back then dough and sex after all was what was what for corner boys, maybe now too although you don’t see many guys hanging on forlorn Friday night corners anymore.

What made this tribe different, the Tonio Pizza Parlor corner boys, was mad monk Markin. Markin called by Frankie Riley the “Scribe” from the time he came to North Adamsville from across town in junior high school and that stuck all through high school. The name stuck because although Markin was as larcenous and lovesick as the rest of them he was also crazy for books and poetry. Christ according to Alex, Markin was the guy who planned most of the “midnight creeps” they called then. Although nobody in their right minds would have the inept Markin actually execute the plan that was for smooth as silk Frankie to lead. That operational sense was why Frankie was the leader then (and maybe why he was a locally famous lawyer later who you definitely did not want to be on the other side against him). Markin was also the guy who all the girls for some strange reason would confide in and thus was the source of intelligence about who was who in the social pecking order, in other words, who was available, sexually or otherwise. That sexually much more important than otherwise. See Markin always had about ten billion facts running around his head in case anybody, boy or girl, asked him about anything so he was ready to do battle, for or against take your pick.

The books and the poetry is where Jack Kerouac and On The Road come into the corner boy life of the Tonio’s Pizza Parlor life. Markin was something like an antennae for anything that seemed like it might help create a jailbreak, help them get out from under. Later he would be the guy who introduced some of the guys to folk music when that was a big thing. (Alex never bought into that genre, still doesn’t, despite Markin’s desperate pleas for him to check it out. Hated whinny Dylan above all else) Others too like Kerouac’s friend Allen Ginsburg and his wooly homo poem Howl from 1956 which Markin would read sections out loud from on lowdown dough-less, girl-less Friday nights. And drive the strictly hetero guys crazy when he insisted that they read the poem, read what he called a new breeze was coming down the road. They could, using that term from the times again, have given a rat’s ass about some fucking homo faggot poem from some whacko Jewish guy who belonged in a mental hospital. (That is a direct quote from Frankie Riley at the time via my brother Alex’s memory bank.)

Markin flipped out when he found out that Kerouac had grown up in Lowell, a working class town very much like North Adamsville, and that he had broken out of the mold that had been set for him and gave the world some grand literature and something to spark the imagination of guys down at the base of society like his crowd with little chance of grabbing the brass ring. So Markin force-marched the crowd to read the book, especially putting pressure on my brother who was his closest friend then. Alex read it, read it several times and left the dog- eared copy around which I picked up one day when I was having one of my high school summertime blues. Read it through without stopping almost like he wrote the final version of the thing on a damn newspaper scroll. So it was through Markin via Alex that I got the Kerouac bug. And now on the 60th anniversary I am passing on the bug to you.           


From The Pen Of Zack James

Josh Breslin, as he drove in the pitch black night up California Highway 156 to connect with U.S. 101 and the San Francisco Airport back to Boston was thinking furious thought, fugitive thoughts about what had happened on this his umpteenth trip to California. Thoughts that would carry him to the  airport road and car rental return on arrival there and then after the swift airbus to his terminal the flight home to Logan and then up to his old hometown of Olde Saco to which he had recently returned. Returned after long years of what he called “shaking the dust of the old town” off his shoes like many a guy before him, and after too. But now along the road to the airport he had thought that it had been a long time since he had gotten up this early to head, well, to head anywhere.

He had in an excess of caution decided to leave at three o’clock in the morning from the hotel he had been staying at in downtown Monterrey near famous Cannery Row (romantically and literarily famous as a scene in some of John Steinbeck’s novels from the 1920s and 1930s, as a site of some of the stop-off 1950s “beat” stuff if for no other reason than the bus stopped there before you took a taxi to Big Sur or thumbed depending on your finances and as famed 1960s Pops musical locale where the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin rose to the cream on top although now just another tourist magnet complete with Steinbeck this and that for sullen shoppers and diners who found their way east of Eden) and head up to the airport in order to avoid the traffic jams that he had inevitably encountered on previous trips around farm country Gilroy (the garlic or onion capital of the world, maybe both, but you got that strong smell in any case), and high tech Silicon Valley where the workers are as wedded to their automobiles as any other place in America which he too would pass on the way up.

This excess of caution not a mere expression of an old man who is mired in a whole cycle of cautions from doctors to lawyers to ex-wives to current flame (Lana Malloy by name) since his flight was not to leave to fly Boston until about noon and even giving the most unusual hold-ups and delays in processings at the airport he would not need to arrive there to return his rented car until about ten. So getting up some seven hours plus early on a trip of about one hundred miles or so and normally without traffic snarls about a two hour drive did seem an excess of caution.

But something else was going on in Josh’s mind that pitch black night (complete with a period of dense fog about thirty miles up as he hit a seashore belt and the fog just rolled in without warnings) for he had had the opportunity to have avoided both getting up early and getting snarled in hideous California highway traffic by the expedient of heading to the airport the previous day and taken refuge in a motel that was within a short distance of the airport, maybe five miles when he checked on his loyalty program hotel site. Josh though had gone down to Monterey after a writers’ conference in San Francisco which had ended a couple of days before in order travel to Big Sur and some ancient memories there had stirred something in him that he did not want to leave the area until the last possible moment so he had decided to stay in Monterrey and leave early in the morning for the airport.

That scheduled departure plan set Josh then got an idea in his head, an idea that had driven him many times before when he had first gone out to California in the summer of love, 1967 version, that he would dash to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun came up and then head to the airport. He had to laugh, as he threw an aspirin down his throat and then some water to wash the tablet down in order to ward off a coming migraine headache that the trip, that this little trip to Big Sur that he had finished the day before, the first time in maybe forty years he had been there had him acting like a young wild kid again.        

Funny as well that only a few days before he had been tired, very tired a condition that came on him more often of late as one of the six billion “growing old sucks” symptoms of that process, after the conference. Now he was blazing trails again, at least in his mind. The conference on the fate of post-modern writing in the age of the Internet with the usual crowd of literary critics and other hangers-on in tow to drink the free liquor and eat the free food had been sponsored by a major publishing company, The Globe Group. He had written articles for The Blazing Sun when the original operation had started out as a shoestring alternative magazine in the Village in about 1968, had started out as an alternative to Time, Life, Newsweek, Look, an alternative to all the safe subscription magazines delivered to leafy suburban homes and available at urban newsstands for the nine to fivers of the old world for those who, by choice, had no home, leafy or otherwise, and no serious work history.

Or rather the audience pitched to had no fixed abode, since the brethren were living some vicarious existences out of a knapsack just like Josh and his friends whom he collected along the way had been doing when he joined Captain Crunch’s merry pranksters (small case to distinguish them from the more famous Ken Kesey mad monk Merry Pranksters written about in their time by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson) the first time he came out and found himself on Russian Hill in Frisco town looking for dope and finding this giant old time yellow brick road converted school bus parked in a small park there and made himself at home, after they made him welcome (including providing some sweet baby James dope that he had been searching for since the minute he hit town).

Still the iterant, the travelling nation hippie itinerants of the time to draw a big distinction from the winos, drunks, hoboes, bums and tramps who populated the “jungle” camps along railroad tracks, arroyos, river beds and under bridges who had no use for magazines or newspapers except as pillows against a hard night’s sleep along a river or on those unfriendly chairs at the Greyhound bus station needed, wanted to know what was going on in other parts of “youth nation,” wanted to know what new madness was up, wanted to know where to get decent dope, and who was performing and where in the acid-rock etched night (groups like the Dead, the Doors, the Airplane leading the pack then).

That magazine had long ago turned the corner back to Time/Life/Look/Newsweek land but the publisher Mac McDowell who still sported mutton chop whiskers as he had in the old days although these days he has them trimmed by his stylist, Marcus, at a very steep price at his mansion up in Marin County always invited him out, and paid his expenses, whenever there was a conference about some facet of the 1960s that the younger “post-modernist”  writers in his stable (guys like Kenny Johnson the author of the best-seller Thrill  were asking about as material for future books about the heady times they had been too young, in some cases way to young to know about personally or even second-hand). So Mac would bring out wiry, wily old veterans like Josh to spice up what after all would be just another academic conference and to make Mac look like some kind of hipster rather than the balding “sell-out" that he had become (which Josh had mentioned in his conference presentation but which Mac just laughed at, laughed at just as long as he can keep that Marin mansion. Still Josh felt he provided some useful background stuff now that you can find lots of information about that 1960s “golden age” (Mac’s term not his) to whet your appetite on Wikipedia or more fruitfully by going on YouTube where almost all the music of the time and other ephemera can be watched with some benefit.

Despite Josh’s tiredness, and a bit of crankiness as well when the young kid writers wanted to neglect the political side, the Vietnam War side, the rebellion against parents side of what the 1960s had been about for the lowdown on the rock festival, summer of love, Golden Gate Park at sunset loaded with dope and lack of hubris side, he decided to take a few days to go down to see Big Sur once again. He figured who knew when he would get another chance and at the age of seventy-two the actuarial tables were calling his number, or wanted to. He would have preferred to have taken the trip down with Lana, a hometown woman, whom he had finally settled in with up in Olde Saco after three, count them, failed marriages, a parcel of kids most of whom turned out okay, plenty of college tuitions and child support after living in Watertown just outside of Boston for many years.

Lana a bit younger than he and not having been “washed clean” as Josh liked to express the matter in the hectic 1960s and not wanting to wait around a hotel room reading a book or walking around Frisco alone while he attended the conference had begged off on the trip, probably wisely although once he determined to go to Big Sur and told her where he was heading she got sort of wistful. She had just recently read with extreme interest about Big Sur through her reading of Jack Kerouac’s 1960s book of the same name and had asked Josh several times before that if they went to California on a vacation other than San Diego they would go there. The long and short of that conversation was a promise by Josh to take her the next time, if there was a next time (although he did not put the proposition in exactly those terms).            

Immediately after the conference Josh headed south along U.S. 101 toward Monterrey where he would stay and which would be his final destination that day since he would by then be tired and it would be nighttime coming early as the November days got shorter. He did not want to traverse the Pacific Coast Highway (California 1 for the natives) at night since he had forgotten his distance glasses, another one of those six billion reasons why getting old sucks. Had moreover not liked to do that trip along those hairpin turns which the section heading toward Big Sur entailed riding the guardrails even back in his youth since one time having been completely stoned on some high-grade Panama Red he had almost sent a Volkswagen bus over the top when he missed a second hairpin turn after traversing the first one successfully. So he would head to Monterrey and make the obligatory walk to Cannery Row for dinner and in order to channel John Steinbeck and the later “beats” who would stop there before heading to fallout Big Sur.

The next morning Josh left on the early side not being very hungry after an excellent fish dinner at Morley’s a place that had been nothing but a hash house diner in the old days where you could get serviceable food cheap because the place catered to the shore workers and sardine factory workers who made Cannery Row famous, or infamous, when it was a working Row. He had first gone there after reading about the place in something Jack Kerouac wrote and was surprised that the place actually existed, had liked the food and the prices and so had gone there a number of times when his merry pranksters and other road companions were making the obligatory Frisco-L.A. runs up and down the coast. These days Morley’s still had excellent food but perhaps you should bring a credit card with you to insure you can handle the payment and avoid “diving for pearls” as a dish-washer to pay off your debts.      

As Josh started up the engine of his rented Acura, starting up on some of the newer cars these days being a matter of stepping on the brake and then pushing a button where the key used to go in this keyless age, keyless maybe a metaphor of the age as well, he had had to ask the attendant at the airport how to start the thing since his own car was a keyed-up Toyota of ancient age, he began to think back to the old days when he would make this upcoming run almost blind-folded. That term maybe a metaphor for that age. He headed south to catch the Pacific Coast Highway north of Carmel and thought he would stop at Point Lobos, the place he had first encountered the serious beauty of the Pacific Coast rocks and ocean wave splash reminding him of back East in Olde Saco, although more spectacular. Also the place when he had first met Moonbeam Sadie.

He had had to laugh when he thought about that name and that woman since a lot of what the old days, the 1960s had been about were tied up with his relationship to that woman, the first absolutely chemically pure version of a “hippie chick” that he had encountered. At that time Josh had been on the Captain Crunch merry prankster yellow brick road bus for a month or so and a couple of days before they had started heading south from Frisco to Los Angeles to meet up with a couple of other yellow brick road buses where Captain Crunch knew some kindred. As they meandered down the Pacific Coast Highway they would stop at various places to take in the beauty of the ocean since several of the “passengers” had never seen the ocean or like Josh had never seen the Pacific in all its splendor.

In those days, unlike now when the park closes at dusk as Josh found out, you could park your vehicle overnight and take in the sunset and endlessly listen to the surf splashing up to rocky shorelines until you fell asleep. So when their bus pulled into the lot reserved for larger vehicles there were a couple of other clearly “freak” buses already there. One of them had Moonbeam as a “passenger” whom he would meet later that evening when all of “youth nation” in the park decided to have a dope- strewn party. Half of the reason for joining up on bus was for a way to travel, for a place to hang your hat but it was also the easiest way to get on the dope trail since somebody, usually more than one somebody was “holding.” And so that night they partied, partied hard. 

About ten o’clock Josh high as a kite from some primo hash saw a young woman, tall, sort of skinny (he would find out later she had not been so slim previously except the vagaries of the road food and a steady diet of “speed” had taken their toll), long, long brown hair, a straw hat on her head, a long “granny” dress and barefooted the very picture of what Time/Life/Look would have used as their female “hippie” poster child to titillate their middle-class audiences coming out of one of the buses. She had apparently just awoken, although that seemed impossible given the noise level from the collective sound systems and the surf, and was looking for some dope to level her off and headed straight to Josh.

Josh had at that time long hair tied in a ponytail, at least that night, a full beard, wearing a cowboy hat on his head, a leather jacket against the night’s cold, denim blue jeans and a pair of moccasins not far from what Time/Life/Look would have used as their male “hippie” poster child to titillate their middle-class audiences so Moonbeam’s heading Josh’s way was not so strange. Moreover Josh was holding a nice stash of hashish. Without saying a word Josh passed the hash pipe to Moonbeam and by that mere action started a “hippie” romance that would last for the next several months until Moonbeam decided she was not cut out for the road, couldn’t take the life, and headed back to Lima, Ohio to sort out her life.

But while they were on their “fling” Moonbeam taught “Cowboy Jim,” her new name for him, many things. Josh thought it was funny thinking back how wedded to the idea of changing their lives they were back then including taking new names, monikers, as if doing so would create the new world by osmosis or something. He would have several other monikers like the “Prince of Love,” the Be-Bop Kid (for his love of jazz and blues), and Sidewalk Slim (for always writing something in chalk wherever he had sidewalk space to do so) before he left the road a few years later and stayed steady with his journalism after that high, wide, wild life lost it allure as the high tide of the 1960s ebbed and people drifted back to their old ways. But Cowboy Jim was what she called Josh and he never minded her saying that.

See Moonbeam really was trying to seek the newer age, trying to find herself as they all were more or less, but also let her better nature come forth. And she did in almost every way from her serious study of Buddhism, her yoga (well before that was fashionable among the young), and her poetry writing. But most of all in the kind, gentle almost Quaker way that she dealt with people, on or off drugs, the way she treated her Cowboy. Josh had never had such a gentle lover, never had such a woman who not only tried to understand herself but to understand him. More than once after she left the bus (she had joined the Captain Crunch when the bus left Point Lobos a few days later now that she was Cowboy’s sweetheart) he had thought about heading to Lima and try to work something out but he was still seeking something out on the Coast that held him back until her memory faded a bit and he lost the thread of her).          

Yeah, Point Lobos held some ancient memories and that day the surf was up and Mother Nature was showing one and all who cared to watch just how relentless she could be against the defenseless rocks and shoreline. If he was to get to Big Sur though he could not dally since he did not want to be taking that hairpin stretch at night. So off he went. Nothing untoward happened on the road to Big Sur, naturally he had to stop at the Bixby Bridge to marvel at the vista but also at the man-made marvel of traversing that canyon below with this bridge in 1932. Josh though later that it was not exactly correct that nothing untoward happened on the road to Big Sur but that was not exactly true for he was white-knuckled driving for that several mile stretch where the road goes up mostly and there are many hairpin turns with no guardrail and the ocean is a long way down. He thought he really was becoming an old man in his driving so cautiously that he had veer off to the side of the road to let faster cars pass by. In the old days he would drive the freaking big ass yellow brick road school bus along that same path and think nothing of it except for a time after that Volkswagen almost mishap. Maybe he was dope-brave then but it was disconcerting to think how timid he had become.

Finally in Big Sur territory though nothing really untoward happen as he traversed those hairpin roads until they finally began to straighten out near Molera State Park and thereafter Pfeiffer Beach. Funny in the old days there had been no creek to ford at Molera but the river had done its work over forty years through drought and downpour so in order to get to the ocean about a mile’s walk away Josh had to take off his running shoes and socks to get across the thirty or forty feet of rocks and pebbles to the other side (and of course the same coming back a pain in the ass which he would have taken in stride back then when he shoe of the day was the sandal easily slipped off and on) but well worth the effort even if annoying since the majestic beauty of that rock-strewn beach was breath-taking a much used word and mostly inappropriate but not this day. Maybe global warming or maybe just the relentless crush of the seas on a timid waiting shoreline but most of the beach was un-walkable across the mountain of stones piled up and so he took the cliff trail part of the way before heading back the mile to his car in the parking lot to get to Pfeiffer Beach before too much longer. 

Pfeiffer Beach is another one of those natural beauties that you have to do some work to get, almost as much work as getting to Todo El Mundo further up the road when he and his corner boys from Olde Saco had stayed for a month after they had come out to join him on the bus once he informed them that they needed to get to the West fast because all the world was changing out there. This work entailed not walking to the beach but by navigating a big car down the narrow one lane rutted dirt road two miles to the bottom of the canyon and the parking lot since now the place had been turned into a park site as well. The road was a white-knuckles experience although not as bad as the hairpins on the Pacific Coast Highway but as with Molera worth the effort, maybe more so since Josh could walk that wind-swept beach although some of the cross-currents were fierce when the ocean tide slammed the defenseless beach and rock formation. A couple of the rocks had been ground down so by the relentless oceans that donut holes had been carved in them.                          

Here Josh put down a blanket on a rock so that he could think back to the days when he had stayed here, really at Todo el Mundo but there was no beach there just some ancient eroded cliff dwellings where they had camped out and not be bothered  so everybody would climb on the bus which they would park by the side of the road on Big Sur Highway and walk down to Pfeiffer Beach those easy then two miles bringing the day’s rations of food, alcohol and drugs (not necessarily in that order) in rucksacks and think thing nothing of the walk and if they were too “wasted” (meaning drunk or high) they would find a cave and sleep there. That was the way the times were, nothing unusual then although the sign at the park entrance like at Point Lobos (and Molera) said overnight parking and camping were prohibited. But that is the way these times are.

Josh had his full share of ancient dreams come back to him that afternoon. The life on the bus, the parties, the literary lights who came by who had known Jack Kerouac , Allan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the remnant of beats who had put the place on the map as a cool stopping point close enough to Frisco to get to in a day but ten thousand miles from city cares and woes, the women whom he had loved and who maybe loved him back although he/they never stayed together long enough to form any close relationship except for Butterfly Swirl and that was a strange scene. Strange because Butterfly was a surfer girl who was “slumming” on the hippie scene for a while and they had connected on the bus except she finally decided that the road was not for her just like Moonbeam, as almost everybody including Josh figured out in the end, and went back to her perfect wave surfer boy down in La Jolla after a few months.

After an afternoon of such memories Josh was ready to head back having done what he had set out to which was to come and dream about the old days when he thought about the reasons for why he had gone to Big Sur later that evening back at the hotel. He was feeling a little hungry and after again traversing that narrow rutted dirt road going back up the canyon he decided if he didn’t stop here the nearest place would be around Carmel about twenty-five miles away. So he stopped at Henry’s Café. The café next to the Chevron gas station and the Big Sur library heading back toward Carmel (he had to laugh given all the literary figures who had passed through this town that the library was no bigger than the one he would read at on hot summer days in elementary school with maybe fewer books in stock). Of course the place no longer was named Henry’s since he had died long ago but except for a few coats of paint on the walls and a few paintings of the cabins out back that were still being rented out the place was the same. Henry’s had prided itself on the best hamburgers in Big Sur and that was still true as Josh found out.

But good hamburgers (and excellent potato soup not too watery) are not what Josh would remember about the café or about Big Sur that day. It would be the person, the young woman about thirty who was serving them off the arm, was the wait person at the joint. As he entered she was talking on a mile a minute in a slang he recognized, the language of his 1960s, you know, “right on,” “cool,” “no hassle,” “wasted,” the language of the laid-back hippie life. When she came to take his order he was curious, what was her name and how did she pick up that lingo which outside of Big Sur and except among the, well, now elderly, in places like Soho, Frisco, Harvard Square, is like a dead language, like Latin or Greek.

She replied with a wicked smile that her name was Morning Blossom, didn’t he like that name. [Yes.] She had been born and raised in Big Sur and planned to stay there because she couldn’t stand the hassles (her term) of the cities, places like San Francisco where she had gone to school for a while at San Francisco State. Josh thought to himself that he knew what was coming next although he let Morning Blossom have her say. Her parents had moved to Big Sur in 1969 and had started home-steading up in the hills. They have been part of a commune before she was born but that was all over with by the time she was born and so her parents struggled on the land alone. They never left, and never wanted to leave. Seldom left Big Sur and still did not.

Josh said to himself, after saying wow, he had finally found one of the lost tribes that wandered out into the wilderness back in the 1960s and were never heard from again. And here they were still plugging away at whatever dream drove them back then. He and others who had chronicled in some way the 1960s had finally found a clue to what had happened to the brethren. But as he got up from the counter, paid his bill, and left a hefty tip, he though he still had that trip out here next time with Lana to get through. He was looking forward to that adventure now though.