Mud, Blood and Torture

When American President Ronald Reagan mentioned that he had watched Rambo: First Blood Pt II prior to a press conference in 1985, it catapulted the character of John Rambo into popular culture. He became an icon of the 1980s. Even today, most people know who the character is – their memories being refreshed by a sequel in 2008, and even The Expendables evokes Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic past.

Rambo captured the imagination of the public by being an old-fashioned hero who lived off his wits and the land. As the world became more and more high-tech, the Rambo films went to pains to prove that sometimes the old ways were the best. This is highlighted at the beginning of First Blood: Part II, when he is about to parachute into Vietnam armed with an arsenal of high-tech equipment. As he jumps, he gets tangled and is being dragged along behind the plane. The solution is to cut away (and discard) all the modern devices, and go in with little more than a bow and arrow, and a knife.

John Rambo echoes another hero – the un-named hero of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, who finds that despite being an English aristocrat, with high-powered friends, the city; the modern world are unable to help him. Instead he chooses to fight his battle on his own terms, in the countryside; and environment he is familiar with – the old fashioned way.

Rambo vs Rogue Male

PLEASE NOTE: I have not read the book First Blood by David Morrell (an oversight on my behalf). Therefore the Rambo references below are taken from the original Ted Kotcheff film (and its sequels).

Obviously Vietnam veteran John Rambo and the un-named hero from Rogue Male, who I’ll call Robert Hunter – lifted from the 1976 film for simplicity sake – are two very different characters. But there are a few very striking similarities that are worth investigating.

Firstly both stories are ‘manhunts’, although the reasons for the hunts are very different. Robert Hunter is being sort after a failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Rambo is being pursued for breaking out of jail, after being arrested for vagrancy. The difference is quite apparent. Hunter was the instigator of the events which lead to his pursuit, however Rambo was the innocent (?) victim due to the over-zealous action of a small town police Sheriff. But when Rambo is pushed, he chooses to push back, making him temporarily the aggressor. It’s this action that makes him the object of his particular manhunt.

Both men fear incarceration from their pursuers, due to having been tortured. Hunter was severely tortured by the Gestapo or SS (it is never really made clear) after being captured. Upon capture, if he is extradited back to Germany, he can be assured much worse will happen. Rambo was captured by the Viet-cong during the war and tortured. And while the Viet-cong are not pursuing him in First Blood, Rambo has been psychologically scarred – possibly unhinged – due to the experience. When the police rough-house him at the station, he flashes back to Vietnam. Unreasonably, for him, the police become the same as the Viet-cong.

Next, both characters feel the best place to allude their pursuers is not the crowded city, but the isolated natural forest (and countryside) environs in which they feel comfortable. Both men are more than capable of living off the land. It could be said that both men are ‘hunters’. Hunter (the choice of name probably gives that away!) of big game, and Rambo, of men. They can blend into natural landscapes, and in some ways, due to their hunting experience, anticipate how their pursuers will react within the environment.

Hunter and Rambo both seek refuge in a cave. And they also both trapped in their caves by their pursuers, but are able to find ways out of their individual confined predicaments.

Where the characters and stories diverge is at the resolution and what each of the characters want to achieve from the conflict. Hunter simply wants to be left alone, hopefully so he can escape to Latin America or Africa, where he can start a new life. Rambo, however, has had some kind of switch flicked in his head. He is in ‘war’ mode. There is no sense of purpose or objectives in his actions beyond ‘fight’ and ‘survive’. An interesting comparison may be drawn between Rambo and Hunter at the beginning of Rogue Male, where Hunter was in ‘survival mode’ but he certainly didn’t have the skills or the strength to fight.

It could be argued that were it not for the intervention of Colonel Trautman, Rambo would have kept on fighting and possibly killing. It must be pointed out though, that in First Blood, only one man is killed (compared to First Blood: Part II where Rambo kills fifty-six people). Even then, in First Blood, the killing is an accident, when Rambo throws a stone at the helicopter pursuing him.

Sir Robert Hunter, may seem like a more sedate character than Rambo, but he in fact kills two people in Rogue Male, first the assassin at Aldwych train station, and finally Major Quive-Smith at the very denouement.

You may think I am being a little bit extreme in trying to link the character of John Rambo and the nameless character in Geoffrey Household’s novel, but even David Morrell has freely acknowledged that Rogue Male was a big influence on his story First Blood, – you can read an interview with Morrell at Book Reporter.com – The March 23, 2007 Interview is of the most interest – it’s about half way down the page.

Tomorrow I will look at another author whose work has been heavily influenced by Rogue Male. But until then, here’s some footage from the opening of the 1976 BBC adaptation of Rogue Male, starring Peter O’Toole. Uploaded to Youtube by prsurr1066

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Mud, Blood and Torture

Rogue Male (1976)

Country: United Kingdom
Director: Clive Donner
Starring: Peter O’Toole, John Standing, Alastair Sim, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne, Mark McManus, Ray Smith
Music: Chris Gunning
Based on the novel by Geoffrey Household

This version of Rogue Male is allegedly a birthday present from Peter O’Toole, to his wife, Sian, based on her favourite novel. I must say it is a strange birthday gift, as this version doesn’t shy away from the brutality at the beginning of Household’s novel. It would seem strange to present a wife with images of her husband bloodied and being beaten to a pulp as a gift. But I guess it is only a film – all make believe, and if it indeed was her favourite book, I am sure she  knew what she was in for.

In this version, the un-named hero, is once again given a name, and this time it is Sir Robert Hunter, which I guess is pretty unsubtle – the hunter happens to be named Hunter.

The story starts in a way that should be becoming familiar to those you have being following the posts over the last couple of days. Hunter, is in Germany, and preparing to shoot Adolph Hitler. He is caught at the last moment, and brutally interrogated by the Nazis.

There is a nice little nod to Geoffrey Household, as Hunter is being interrogated. The Nazi Interrogator, played by Michael Byrne describes Hunter, not only as a professional hunter, but the author of a book on hunting called ‘Rough Shooting’. Household himself, wrote a book called A Rough Shoot which was released in 1951. While A Rough Shoot is not as good as Rogue Male, it is still a very entertaining story, with many similar elements to Rogue Male (stay tuned later in the week for a brief review).

Hunter is pushed off a cliff in the attempt to make his death look like an accident. The fall should hide the tell-tale signs of the brutal interrogation – even the ripped out fingernails, can be explained away, by his clawing for a grip as he falls. But Hunter does not die, and although unable to walk, manages to slither to a place of sanctuary, where he can regain his strength.

Hunter then manages to find passage, hidden on a steamer, back to England, where he assumes that his status as an aristocrat, and high-powered friends will protect him. His assumptions are incorrect, and teams of Nazi spies scour the city for him. Among them is a gentleman named Major Quive-Smith.

In this version, Hunter’s reason for the assassination attempt is brought to the fore from the very outset, with sporadic flashbacks, showing the love of Hunter’s life, a radical named Rebecca (Cyd Hayman), being tied to a stake and shot by her Nazi captors. Presenting the reason for Hunter’s actions from the outset slightly diminishes the ‘why’ or ‘how could he’ factor, that both Household’s book, and Fritz Lang’s film version, Man Hunt, both possess. But then I guess, in 1939 (Rogue Male) and 1941 (Man Hunt) Hitler was alive and a world leader. The ‘why’ factor was more important. However in 1976 Hitler was history – and rather unpleasant history. I guess ‘why’ didn’t matter anymore, it was more ‘why not’! Bad luck he didn’t succeed.

The truncating of certain events in the middle of the story make certain scenes redundant, or at the least, make little sense – such as the letter that Hunter receives at the post-office addressed to Professor Farnsborough. It is essential that the character receives the letter, as Hunter’s confrontation with the post-mistress is essential to the next portion of the story. But here, the whole buildup has been removed. Why did Hunter break cover to go to the post-office? Why was he addressed as Professor Farnsborough? As the story stands now, it is a clumsy adjunct that only serves to move the plot along – that is, unless you’re very familiar with Household’s novel and are then able to fill in the blanks for yourself.

I guess that’s the problem that all writers face when they are charged with adapting any written piece (but more so, if it is as well read and highly regarded as Rogue Male). The question is, what do you leave in, and what do you sacrifice? The truth is however, that the screenplay by Frederick Raphael (and edited by Richard Brooke) is pretty good. It covers the beginning and the climax exceptionally well. It is only in the middle, where the story veers into the psychological game of cat and mouse that the script falls flat.

The ending is very well played out, with John Standing as Major Quive-Smith being an excellent foil for O’Toole as Hunter. Overall this is quite an accurate adaptation, but it doesn’t really have the same sense of pursuit, or ‘the hunt’ that it should have. Hunter is rarely seen watching and waiting; being patient, and then knowing how a given beast will react under certain circumstances. In this case, the beast happens to be man. But then again, cinematically speaking, these type of scenes, ‘watching’ and ‘waiting’ don’t make for the most engaging viewing. But despite my misgivings, this is actually a good film – the beginning and the end, nail Household’s Rogue Male.

Rogue Male (1976)

Man Hunt (1941)

Country: United States
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, George Sanders, Joan Bennett, John Carradine, Roddy McDowall, Ludwig Stössel, Heather Thatcher, Frederick Worlock, Holmes Herbert
Music: Alfred Newman
Based on the novel ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s book, Rogue Male, caused a sensation upon release. The sheer simple idea that a man could go out and hunt down a world leader was somewhat shocking – even if that leader was Adolph Hitler. Remember that England and the United States had not entered the war when the book was written. Hitler wasn’t portrayed as quite the villain that history has proven him to be.

It is not so surprising then that Hollywood should snap up the film rights to Rogue Male. Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights, and although the book was a sensational talking point, it was a film that would be very hard to make due to the ‘Neutrality Act’, which forbade movie productions taking a side in the war. Of course, by this time, England was at war with Germany, and any overt pro-England message within the film had to be muted quite substantially.

Let’s face it, if you were intending to abide by the Neutrality Act, then Rogue Male is not the best material for an adaptation – essentially the story of an English aristocrat who attempts to assassinate the Fuhrer, who then alludes and outwits the best of Germany’s spies and agents.

Many of Hollywood’s higher profile directors, such as John Ford were approached to direct the film, but eventually the film fell in to the lap of Fritz Lang. Lang had just fled from Nazi Germany to the United States and still had not re-established himself as a major director.

The story about Lang is a quite complicated one, and many scholars seem to debate the veracity of the story, but it seems Lang, whose Grandmother was Jewish was approached by Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebels to be Germany’s head of film-making. Lang, although he didn’t want the job as he was anti-Nazi, accepted the position, and over the next six months formulated his plan to escape to the United States (there are versions of the story which suggest he left the very next day).

Now in America, Manhunt was to be Lang’s opportunity to prove that he was not a Nazi, which he did rather effectively if not so subtly. The film did not escape the view of the moral and political guardians at the time, and the film-makers were requested to appear at a hearing to defend their apparent defiance of the Neutrality Act. However, the attack on Pearl Harbour, and America’s entry into the war, led to the hearing being cancelled.

Lang would go onto to direct the similarly themed Ministry of Fear (1944) based on Graham Greene’s novel. In fact if you look back over the whole body of Lang’s work, there is a definite theme of espionage, political intrigue and corruption. Whether it be the shady world of Dr. Mabuse, the organised vigilantism of M, or even to the mechanised Maria in Metropolis, who evokes comparison with Mata Hari in an erotic cabaret act that she performs. Lang seemed to have a thing for the ‘hidden’ and ‘secret’ elements of society.

In Manhunt, Household’s un-named protagonist is given a name and it’s Alan Thorndike, played by Walter Pidgeon. The film opens pretty much the same as the book, with Thorndike stalking Adolph Hitler, and at the last second before he could have pulled the trigger – we never no for a fact if he would – he is pounced upon by a German guard doing his rounds.

Captured, Thorndike is brought before German officer, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) for interrogation. Quive-Smith has Thorndike worked over until his identity can be verified. However, when it is revealed that Thorndike is exactly who he claims to be – and that just happens to be an aristocrat with connections in the British government – this presents another problem for the Nazis.

Due to Thorndike’s status – and the fact that they are not at war with England – they cannot very well kill him. It would cause an outrage. However, they cannot allow him to go free. If the story of an assassination attempt on the Fuhrer, and an almost successful attempt at that, was to reach the press and the people, then it would be a major embarrassment for the Nazi regime. The solution is to fake an accident. Throndike is pushed over the edge of a cliff. But of course, somehow he manages to survive and eventually, after stowing away on board a ship, with the help of the cabin boy, Vaner (an incredibly young Roddy McDowell), he makes it back home to England.

Thorndike’s troubles don’t end there. His story, if it were to leak out, still presents a danger to the Nazis, so they engage all their agents in England to track him down. Along the way, Thorndike enlists the aid of a young girl, Jerri (Joan Bennett) who hides him. Jerri, as a romantic subplot, almost seems shoehorned into the story – and at times comes close of pushing the story into ‘screwball farce’ territory – but thankfully it doesn’t quite cross that line. Allegedly, in the script, Jerri was to be a prostitute, which sort of rings true, with the way the other characters interact with her. However, in the film, she claims to be a seamstress.

The key difference between Manhunt the film, and Rogue Male the novel, is in the handling of the love interest in the story. In Rogue Male, it’s almost half way through the story before there is even a mention of the woman – and then it is not until almost the end of the story that we find find out who she is and what she meant to the protagonist. In fact we find out that she was the reason for the hero’s attempt on Hitler’s life. In Manhunt, however, it has been changed quite significantly. Thorndike did not go to Germany to avenge a loved one, but as the conceit of the original story suggests, to simply see if it is possible to hunt and stalk Hitler – a ‘sporting stalk’. Later in the movie, Thorndike confesses that he did actually intend to shoot and kill Hitler – although the film in its opening sequence is quite playful in the notion, and suggest that the stalk is indeed just for fun.

But back to the girl. In Manhunt, the love interest is Jerry Stokes (Joan Bennett). In London, as Thorndike attempt to elude the spies on his trail, seeking refuge, he unwittingly draws Jerry into the web of danger. As the scenario plays out, a relationship develops between the two. It isn’t a sexual relationship. Thorndike is more like a father figure or an older brother – and during the film, director Fritz Lang, never allows the relationship to develop into being a piece of sentimental schmaltz. None-the-less, once the relationship is established, and despite the fact that they don’t even share a kiss, it is very clear that the couple have feelings for each other.

The only real attempt to soften the story (apart from showing the brutalities of Thorndike’s torture at the hands of the Nasis) is the casting of George Sanders as Major Quive-Smith. Sanders is so quintessentially English and charming, that despite being a thoroughly despicable and reprehensible character, that he falls just a fraction short of being likable.

Sanders, time and time again, has proved that he is adept at playing suave and sophisticated characters, such as The Saint and The Falcon. In Manhunt, he retains his veneer of sophistication, but stills lays down quite a cool line in menace – admittedly aided by some stunning cinematography and lighting.

Manhunt, for the sake of simplicity, chooses to roll of Thorndike’s torturer and the hunter on his tail, into one character, that being Quive-Smith. The earlier scenes, allow Quive-Smith to be a much more rounded character in the film, than in the book. In the book, he comes off little more than a mercenary called in at the end to tie up the loose ends. By placing Quive-Smith at the forefront of the story, the similarity between the men – both big game hunters – can be played out further. And also, Quive-Smith’s stake in the story is fleshed out. He wants to capture Thorndike because he escaped from right under his nose. The political ramifications could and would be his undoing.

Towards the end, as Major Quive-Smith has Thorndike trapped in his cave, the Major reveals that he has killed Jerry – or at least had her killed on his orders. This has happened off screen of course, but it is enough to turn Thorndike into a defiant warrior. He is no longer a man, who simply wishes to fade into the shadows, with the possibility of later, beginning a new life. Instead he becomes proactive in MacGuyvering an escape option. And then once he has escaped and ensured his vengeance against Quive-Smith, Thorndike feels compelled to join the war effort. By this time, in the film, England has gone to war with Germany.

So in the last few frames, the film becomes a propaganda piece. And generally, while this does not detract from the story at all, it changes the basic premise. While Rogue Male may be considered a warning about the potential for horror that a Nazi regime could bring to Europe, Manhunt is a call to arms.

Don’t get me wrong, Manhunt is still a very good film, and it is a fine adaptation of Household’s novel, but it is sort of like comparing a Big Mac to a Whopper – they both have a lot of meat, but they taste very different!

For a second opinion, read Tanner’s review at the Double-O-Section.

Man Hunt (1941)

Rogue Male

Author: Geoffrey Household
Publisher:
Chatto & Windus
First published:
1939
Pictured: Penguin Books paperback edition 1979

As someone who loves to read spy thrillers, I often find myself reading books that – to put it simply – are ‘old’. And I’ll admit, that while I enjoy reading these historical pieces, that due to the advancement of civilisation and  the presentation of literature as entertainment, that these books can be hard going. Then along comes a book like Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. It was written in 1939, just prior to England entering WWII. Despite being written in peace time (well, you know what I mean – this is not a war story), and the story being over seventy years old, the first twenty-five pages of this book are some of the most heart-pounding and visceral story-telling ever recorded.  I’d put Rogue Male alongside any modern thriller for pure and simple brutal thrills. I know I am over-doing the gilt-edged hyperbole, but damn this book is good.

The thing that separates it from so many other stories from the era is Household’s voice as a writer. Rogue Male is written in the first person and the character’s word and thoughts really drag you into the story despite the central conceit of the story – which is pretty screwy. But I’ll talk more about that in a moment.

The plot is about an un-named British aristocrat, who is a legendary sporting shooter. So much so that his reputation has spread throughout Europe (and one suspects India, as he mentions Tigers at one point). As a hunter he has very few peers. But our hero, while seeking diversion and thrills, decides to embark on the greatest hunt of his life – the hunt for a man – the most closely guarded and well protected man in the world.

In the book, the target of the hunt is never mentioned, or even the country in which the hunt occurs, but there is more than enough clues to suggest the target is Adolph Hitler – and the story begins in Germany. And of course, the book cover above – from the Penguin edition – with an image of Hitler confirms that indeed Hitler is the target.

The conceit of the story is that out hero claims to have never intended to shoot and kill Hitler. The stalk was a self-imposed test of his manhood and hunting skills. To get Hitler in his sights; to prove that he could do it, was simply enough. But as the character is caught with a rifle in his hands, drawing a bead on the Fuhrer, it’s a story that very few people are likely to believe. And even if it is true, the tale of such a monumental security breach, cannot be allowed to become public knowledge.

The story is not told in a linear fashion. It is more like the fractured ramblings of the participant after the fact, and as he remembers the individual episodes. As the story opens, after being brutally tortured, our hero is pushed off the side of a cliff to fall to his death. As England is not at war with Germany (at this stage), and so our hero is not the enemy, his death is to be staged to look like an accident. The trouble is that our un-named protagonist isn’t killed by the fall. He lives. Battered and bruised, racked with pain, he crawls to freedom, continually, and most importantly ‘instinctively’ outwitting and eluding his pursuers.

As our hero hits the shores of Britain, he believes that his position in society and his friends in the Government will protect him, but this is quickly revealed not to be the case. Assassin’s and spies are on his trail. Whether their intention is to kill him, or bring him back to Germany isn’t defined by this stage.

When a team of spies follow him to Underground Metro Station, he manages to allude most of them, but one man sees through his chicanery as he hops on and off the trains. Near Aldwych Station, the spy follows our hero into a train tunnel, and after a scuffle, the spy is electrocuted when he touches the third rail.

Now our hero is also suspected of murder, so not only are a cadre of Nazi spies on his trail, but also the local police are hunting him as well. He has become Great Britain’s ‘Most Wanted’. With his notoriety, he has even become an embarrassment to his friends, and he decides that it is best if he leaves London, so he buys a few items for a camping expedition and sets off to the wilds of Dorset – to lie low for a while. And then, if possible, once the dust has settled, catch a steamer to South America or Africa and start life afresh.

The key to lying low is to not be seen – by anybody, and he decides to live off the land. But he also has the presence of mind, to know that people will come looking for him, and attempting to flee, will only draw attention to himself. Instead, he ingeniously constructs a home for himself, burrowed underground. He camouflages the door, with weeds and other undergrowth and if anyone should come to the area hunting him, he can crawl into his ‘hole’, close the door and wait until the pursuers give up or move on.

His scheme works, and for months on end he lives in the wild. As winter closes in, he begins to spend more time indoors and over time he befriends a black wild cat, who he names Asmodeus (after a king of demons), who also makes his home in the burrow.

After all this time, you’d think he’d be in the clear. But not so. Our hero hasn’t been quite as careful as he would like, and soon his trail has been picked up by an expert hunter, named Major Quive-Smith. Quive-Smith is a patient man, and knows that his prey is hiding and living in the area somewhere. He waits…and waits, until our hero makes a mistake and Quive-Smith is able to track him to his lair.

My brief synopsis does not truly do justice to the why and wherefores of the story, and doesn’t even begin to relay the tension in the cat and mouse game that plays out as the hero is chased from Germany into the wilds of Dorset. Rogue Male is a compellingly told tale, and it is Household’s voice as a writer – the teller of the tale – that keeps the story riveting. It’s the type of story that could possibly be told from another angle, and without Household’s voice the main character could come of brutish user of people, who doesn’t have the guts to stand by his own actions. In fact, if you tune back to Permission to Kill on Friday, I’ll be looking at a recent book that features many similar plot elements to Rogue Male, but tells the tale in a very different way.

Household humanises the story, and this is despite the key piece of information – the piece that explains why our hero wanted to kill Hitler – not being revealed late into the story. The bulk of the story is told without our knowing why he did what he did. History now tells us, that Hitler was an evil man, and as such reading the story today, ‘a reason’ is not as important – we just take that as a given. But back in the day, when this story was written, England was not at war with Germany. Sure the threat of war was looming, but not everybody believed that Hitler was a maniac. I am sure he even had his supporters in Britain. So the hero’s motivation was quite significant when the book was originally published, and yet Household was confident enough to hide this nugget away till the end.

I think Rogue Male is an amazing book, and one, which if you are a fan of spy fiction you should obtain and read. You may not end up as enthusiastic about it as me, but I think you’ll agree, it has set the style for a certain type of thriller – a style that is still be used to this day.

Tomorrow on P2K – ‘Rogue Male goes to the movies’.

Rogue Male

Liquid Gold

Author: James Phelan
Publisher: Hatchette Australia
Release Year: 2009

Liquid Gold is the first Lachlan Fox book that I have picked up. Remiss of me (hangs head in shame), I know – local author writing spy fiction, I should have been all over it. This is the fourth book in the series after Fox Hunt, Patriot Act and Blood Oil (and preceeds the recently released Red Ice). The strange thing is that I feel that I have walked into the series at an odd juncture. Readers who have followed the series will know exactly who Lachlan Fox is, and what he is capable of. Myself, however, as a ‘newbie’ wasn’t so sure. The story (and the character for that matter) aren’t served up with a cracking beginning. It is almost fifty pages into the story before any action takes place (and this concerns another character). Prior to this initial burst of action, there are a steady interchange of chapters outlining various disparate characters and their movements. Of course, this buildup is setting the scene for what is to come – but it does make for an awfully slow start. However, by the time the story hits Spain, the bullets are flying and the action (and blood) is flowing thick and fast.

Lachlan Fox is a retired Australian soldier, but despite his hard-ass military skills, he now works as a journalist for the respected GSR network. His current story is an investigation into a water project in Pakistan, being built by an organisation called UMBRA Corp. The head of UMBRA is a Russian businessman named Roman Babich. It would appear the both Babich and UMBRA were featured in the previous Lachlan Fox novel, Blood Oil.

Babich’s diabolical scheme, which on the surface doesn’t seem so diabolical, is to build a hydro engineering plant in Northern Pakistan. The problem is that it will draw water from the underground water table that crosses into India, a country that is already experiencing severe drought. Furthermore, Babich’s project is not about creating a better Pakistan either; it is purely for profit. Fox intends to expose Babich’s and UMBRA’s project for what it is – a humanitarian nightmare – and as a result, Babich decides to strike back. Firstly he begins to silence the people who have worked on the project who may have been in contact with Fox. One of these people, is Omar Hasif, a vital cog in the project, who finds his family threatened after a bomb is planted in his car. Babich doesn’t leave it at that. He also arranges for his two devoted, but psychotic henchmen, Vladimir Kolesnik and Petro Sirko to assassinate Fox.

With the backing of the FBI and the assistance of a operative named Hutchinson, Fox decides to go in after Babich, and bring him down, well aware that Babich’s killers are after him. In fact, Fox is allowing himself to be used as bait to draw Babich out – and hopefully make some mistake, so he can finally be held accountable for his clandestine activities. First stop for Fox is Spain and from the moment he arrives, the story kicks into high gear, and the action that the story had hinted at for so long, finally comes into play.

In the end, once it got cracking I did enjoy this story. But I have one gripe. When reading the story, the thing that annoyed me the most was the large amount of product placement. I realise Ian Fleming, the father of modern thriller writing (and many other authors before and since), revelled in name dropping and conspicuous product placement. But Fleming’s novels were written in an age before the rampant consumerism of today.

Ian Fleming
Ian Fleming

The difference between Fleming’s product placement and Phelan’s boils down to the difference in their fictional characters. As you know, Bond was a tool, sent out by M to carry out the British Government’s missions. Right or wrong didn’t really come into it – although Bond wouldn’t be quite the hero he has become if his missions weren’t portrayed as being just. But generally it wasn’t Bond’s job to decide who was good or bad (or question his superiors). Also his missions were dangerous, and as such he could be killed at anytime. And generally that is where Fleming’s product placement comes into his stories. It is Bond indulging in the high-life – enjoying a few luxuries that the average man could not afford – because who knows when he die in the line of duty.

James Phelan
James Phelan

Lachlan Fox, however is a different kettle of fish. He is very much his own man. As a journalist, he chooses the stories he goes after and the men (and companies) that he brings down. If Fox wanted, he could choose rather mundane stories and live a rather uneventful life. Fox does not have that same sense of ‘sacrificial duty’ that Bond possesses. If Fox puts himself in harms way (even if it is for the greater good of the global community), it is entirely of his own volition. To this end, the products that Fox surrounds himself with aren’t luxuries, but are lifestyle. And they aren’t particularly exclusive. The reality is, as a reader of a fast paced thriller, I do not need to know what brand of coffee maker Fox owns, nor the brand of hoodie he wears when he goes jogging.

For example, here’s a description of the GSR’s Chief of Staff, Faith Williams – from pages 69-70:

She was dressed in her usual fashion-runway-meets-corporate wear, stunning and perfectly put together: crisp white Donna Karan shirt, navy pinstripe Ralph Lauren pencil skirt, and Jimmy Choos in a red that rivalled her flame coloured hair…’

I actually had a quick word to Markus Wolff from the Stasi website about the consumerism in Liquid Gold, and he suggested that Phelan was trying make Fox hip and identifiable with younger readers.

‘The thing is that he is aiming at the teen market and saying this guy is cool by the brands he wears and thus you can identify with him. It is simply connecting in a FHM way.’

The ‘younger reader’ theory may be true – Phelan has just began a series called Alone which is aimed at younger readers. But then Liquid Gold is also littered with movie quotes, such as ‘...teardrops in rain‘, and ‘...the cornerstone of every nutritious breakfast‘. The first is from Blade Runner, released in 1982, and the second quote is from Pulp Fiction, released in 1994 (Mmmm Big Kahuna Burger!). These quotes would mean very little to anyone under the age of thirty. So I am not sure if there is a muddled ageist duality to this book, or if I am a curmudgeonly old geezer who just doesn’t get it.

That aside, this Lachlan Fox adventure is a passable time killer with enough action and brains to satisfy most spy-fi fans. From the blurb:

WATER PROMISES TO BE TO THE 21st CENTURY WHAT OIL WAS TO THE TWENTIETH…

LIQUID GOLD is a high-octane thriller featuring Lachlan Fox. Lachlan Fox has made a career out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a shore assault specialist in an Australian Navy Clearance Diver Team, he often came up against bad guys and even worse odds. Now working as an investigative journalist for an independent news organisation he doesn t back away from uncovering the big stories…global conspiracies, rogue secret agents, terrorist cells…

With his best friend Alister Gammaldi, Fox is caught up in the corrupt world of international politics and arms races and, it seems, as the earth feels the impact of global warming that the commodity everyone is after is water. Lachlan discovers some people will do anything to control it. When he exposes their secrets he finds himself back in the front line and facing his strongest enemy yet.

Liquid Gold

I, The Jury (1982)

Country: United States
Director:
Richard T. Heffron
Starring: Armand Assante, Barbara Carrera, Paul Sorvino, Alan King, Geoffrey Lewis, Laurene Landon, Justin Earney Scott
Music:
Bill Conti
Based on a story by Mickey Spillane

In the 80’s when this film first came out I thought it was one of the classic detective movies. I was going through a Philip Marlowe and Mike Hammer phase, and this film had everything a hormonal teenage boy could want: sex, violence, tough dialogue, and dead fish.

But time has moved on, and I have grown up (well, a bit anyway). Now I see I, The Jury for what it truly is – a B-grade action film that is so sleazy that it encroaches on being an exploitation picture. Not that that’s a bad thing, I just remember it as being slightly more classy. After all, this is the film, that in it’s trailer, promised Mike Hammer making love to a ‘gorgeous set of twins’. With advertising like that, how could I stay away?

For those who have never heard of I, The Jury, it features a hard-boiled detective named Mike Hammer, and is based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. Above I mentioned Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe who is different to Hammer. Sure they are both hard asses, but Marlowe works in the candy coloured world of Los Angeles, and particularly Hollywood. His down-to-earth nature is always juxtaposed against the phoney façade of tinsel town. Hammer, on the other hand deals more with ‘underworld’ types. He’s a ‘crush your kidney with a crowbar’ kind of guy. Today, Spillane’s writing is often accused of being extremely right wing, bordering on fascism.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Mike Hammer has appeared on the screen. In fact I, The Jury was filmed once before in 1953, with Biff Elliot playing Hammer. Other popular Hammer films are the classic Kiss Me Deadly with Ralph Meeker, and The Girl Hunters which featured Spillane himself as Mike Hammer. The Girl Hunters also featured Shirley Eaton, the woman who’s image is indelibly etched into the minds of any boy who watched Goldfinger as a kid. Hammer has also turned up on television, first in the 50’s portrayed by Darren McGavin, and then later in the 80’s with Stacey Keach taking on the role.

But that’s enough background information about Hammer.

The film open with one of Hammer’s friends, Jack Williams (Frederic Downs), who happens to be a detective, being shot and killed. Williams was a Vietnam vet who lost an arm during the Tet Offensive. Hammer is called to the murder scene by Pat Chambers (Paul Sorvino). Chambers, who is a police detective, is also a friend of Hammer’s. In a very strange, creepy scene, Hammer is visibly upset at his friends death. Because he is so tough he isn’t about to cry, but he does pick up Williams prosthetic arm and cradle it. I think it is supposed to be an emotional moment, but like I said it is just plain creepy.

Naturally, Hammer wont leave it to the police to find his friends killer, and he starts poking around. It appears that Williams had been having sexual problems, and going to a private clinic to sort it out.

Hammer turns up at the clinic to see what goes on. The clinic is run by Dr. Charlotte Bennett (Barbara Carrera – who you may remember as the villainous Fatima Blush in Sean Connery’s Bond comeback movie Never Say Never Again). Carrera is the one thing this movie has going for it. She is beautiful. Her acting isn’t too convincing, but that doesn’t really matter.

It seems that this sex clinic has some thing to do with the dirty dealings of the CIA. And as Hammer continues to investigate, and gets closer to the truth, the story gets more convoluted and people start to die a bit more frequently. The CIA is an organisation that doesn’t like it’s secrets revealed to the greater community. To stop Hammer, and to tidy up the loose ends, the CIA have a hitman, Mr. Kendricks (Judson Scott). Kendricks is an absolute nutter, whose specialty is killing women. He dresses them up in red wigs and makes them tell him that they love him. The CIA send this nut job after Velda (Laurene Landon), Hammer’s secretary.

From the brief synopsis above you’ve probably gathered that I, The Jury is a pretty violent film. It also features quite a bit of nudity (in some prints anyway – The German print that I watched recently appears to be cut – much to my disappointment). I don’t mind the odd bit of nudity in a motion picture, but here it is presented in such a voyeuristic fashion, that some viewers may feel the need to take a bath after watching this film.

Armand Assante isn’t really a good choice for Mike Hammer. Sure, he can be a good actor (maybe not this film), but he doesn’t seem world weary. And he scrubs up too well in a suit. Everybody knows that Hammer can’t afford a decent suit.

The music by Bill Conti has dated badly. I am sure in 1982, when the film came out, that combining brassy jazz sounds with a contemporary beat didn’t sound too bad. The jazz elements almost work today, but the 80’s contemporary sound is cheesy and sleazy (much like the movie). Conti is a good composer; he did the theme from Rocky, but he does have a tendency to compose scores that only work around the vintage that the film was made. Another example is his score for the Bond film For Your Eyes Only which is very difficult to listen to today.

All in all, if you’re a fan of Mike Hammer or just have a perverse fascination with Barbara Carrera, then you’ll have to watch this film. If not and your after a good detective movie this isn’t the place to start. There are better, and I feel more faithful adaptations of Spillane’s source material.

I, The Jury (1982)

Song Bird (2003)

Mike HammerCountry: United States
Director:
Jonathan Winfrey
Starring:
Stacy Keach, Moira Walley, Shannon Whirry, Frank Stallone, Peter Jason, Kent Williams, Jack Sheldon
Music:

Based on characters created by Mickey Spillane

Song Bird is one of Stacy Keach’s later efforts as Mike Hammer. It was made after he’d got out of the Big House, after doing a six month stretch for cocaine possession. But by this time some of the magic had gone. Gone too is the gritty, hard boiled world of Hammer. In it’s place is a nice coat of polish. Somehow I feel that Mike Hammer shouldn’t be well lit and polished. It should be dark and dirty.

Although released as a DVD movie in 2003, this was actually a two part episode of the Mike Hammer: Private Eye series (1997-1998) – not to be confused with Keach’s other series, entitled Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984-1987). Keach also did a few Hammer tele-movies, but I’ll ignore them for now – they’ll only confuse things.

The show starts of with a musical montage a Jazz Greats, like Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Frank (Sinatra – not Stallone), floating through saxophones and neon treble clefs. Over the top, we get the voice over by Mike Hammer (Keach) who reminisces about the old days on 52nd Street – the clubs, the singers, and the scene. He is sitting in a smoky nightclub. Des Long and his Allstars are performing the old standard, ‘You Made Me Love You’. Out front, singing is Lila B (Moira Walley). The crowd loves her performance. After the number she leaves the club by the back entrance and meets her boyfriend Johnny Dive (Frank Stallone). Dive is a mobster and is wanted by the police. When he arrives, he hands Lila a gun and tells her to hide it for him. At that moment, three police cars, with lights-a-flashin’, and sirens-a-wailin’ race around the corner. Johnny pushes Lila into his car and she takes off. The police do not pursue her, as they are after Johnny. They stop and arrest him for possession of narcotics.

Back at the station, Johnny is being interrogated by Captain Skip Gleason (Peter Jason) and the D.A., Barry Lawrence (Kent Williams). For those who never caught any of this series when it was aired, Skip is the replacement for Pat Chambers (the cop who’s a friend to Hammer), and Lawrence is the over officious official who is always trying to revoke Hammer’s P.I. Licence. But here, they’re giving Johnny a hard time. They have a tape of one of Johnny’s deals. He is going down. But they give him an option – he can either go to prison for a long, long time, or he can rat on the local mob boss, Don Vito. Johnny reluctantly decides to turn.

Johnny gets a police ‘wire’ taped to his chest, and goes to the Napoli Restaurant for a meeting with Don Vito. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. The ‘wire’ is discovered and the police have to rush in to the restaurant to rescue Johnny. This doesn’t work out so well either. The mobsters produce guns and a large scale shootout takes place. Despite all the bullets and the high body count, Don Vito manages to escape through on exit, and Johnny out of another. Johnny steals a car from the carpark and disappears.

So now the cops and the mob are after Johnny Dive. The mob think that the best way to get to him, is through Lila, but she cannot be found either. So the next link in the chain is Des Long (Jack Sheldon), the leader of the Jazz ensemble that Lila sings with.

The mob send a hitman to Long’s apartment. Long doesn’t know where Lila is and this doesn’t please the assassin. He is about to shoot Long, when there’s a knock on the door. It’s Mike Hammer, coming to collect Long for his performance later that night. Long yells out that Hammer should come back later with Betsy. Betsy is the name of Hammer’s gun. Hammer realises that something is wrong, and kicks open the door with his gun drawn. Then in slow motion he shoots the Mafia hitman, who flies back and falls out the window. Without knowing why or how, Hammer is now involved and has a case of sorts.

After the shooting, Hammer takes Long to the nightclub to perform. Long and his troupe play a few numbers. Later that evening Lila shows up to join them on stage. She sings one number, and then leaves the nightclub with the piano player. From outside, we hear two shots. Hammer and Long rush outside. A car takes off, and the piano player is lying dead on the ground. And of course, Lila is nowhere to be found. From here on the plot convolution spirals out of control.

Although extended to 80 minutes, Song Bird, while entertaining is not much different to your standard 40/45 minute episode. The padding comes courtesy of the Jazz sequences. As such, the success or failure of the show hangs on these scenes. When Jack Sheldon as Des Long is playing his trumpet, the mood is almost right – the club seems a little too bright, and there isn’t enough cigarette smoke – but hey that’s television. But what almost kills the show for me is Moira Walley as the titular Song Bird. She can hold a note, but not for a second do I believe that she is a goddess-like jazz chanteuse.

Song Bird is only for Mike Hammer completists. If you’re one, then step right up and enjoy this middling Hammer tale. For all others, for a jazz fix try Young Man With A Horn, and those in need of a detective fix should load up L.A. Confidential one more time.

Song Bird (2003)