Film 2019: The Big Sleep


Last of the Bogart box-set, The Big Sleep is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, the first to feature private Detective Philip Marlowe. It’s a dark, intriguing film noir, full of betrayals and conspiracies, intricate and clever, whose bittersweet suggestive ending is perhaps the only false note the film suggests.
It’s also very interesting to compare and contrast Bogart’s performance as Marlowe, one of the most iconic figures of Twentieth Century crime fiction, with his portrayal of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Bogart is Bogart in both, but where Spade is blunt and aggressive, Marlowe is witty and cynical. Both are men who refuse to be imposed on, but it is Marlowe whose wit cuts and riles. Bogart is not quite the Marlowe of the series, in the way that the film, though using the title, never explains why. The Big Sleep is death and Marlowe is the man who is himself not mean.
The detective is hired by the elderly General Sternwood (a vivid cameo by Charles Waldron), a dissolute man who has outlived his ability to indulge in his capacity for wildness, but is only too aware that he has passed this capacity on to both of his beautiful daughters. We’ve already met the younger, Carmen, played by the astonishingly beautiful Martha Vickers, who prompts Marlowe into one of the most archetypal Chandler lines of all time when he says, “She tried to sit in my lap, whilst I was standing up.” The line comes from the film not the book: Chandler didn’t write it!
The General’s other daughter, Vivien Ruttledge, is played by Lauren Bacall. She’d already played opposite Bogey in To Have and Have Not, though this was before they’d married, and the film was much changed from its original 1945 cut to extend the relationship between the pair, to cash in on the public’s fascination with Bacall, and to de-emphasise Carmen, who was threatening to overshadow Bacall.
Ostensibly, Bogart has been hired to rid the General of a blackmail threat, based on the mentally deficient Carmen’s seedy activities (the sexual element of the book is heavily suppressed, mostly by omission, thank to the strictures of the Hays Office, the Board of Control, the Censors). Most people, starting with the lovely, cool, defiant Vivien, assume Marlowe’s been hired to find the missing Sean Regan. Regan, ex bootlegger, ex IRA, was the General’s employee, hired to sit and talk and drink, in short, to be a friend, and almost a son. Regan disappeared a month ago, rumoured to have run off with the wife of Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), a gambling mobster.
Marlowe wraps the case around him. The Sternwoods prize privacy, and Marlowe has to dig deep to keep them from becoming associated with the dirt that runs through this matter like poison. Pornography, murder, murder and murder again. There is something poisonous behind everything, acutely foreshadowed by the General’s early remark about orchids being poisoned by the sweetness of corruption. It’s meant as a metaphor for his family blood as passed on to Vivien and Carmen, but it stands for the whole film.
Marlowe isn’t trying to find Sean Regan, but nobody believes him, especially as he keeps his cards close to his chest at every moment. But everybody’s insistence about Regan indicates to him that the Irishman’s fate lies behind everything.
So he pushes on, through warnings from the DA to lay off, through attempts from Vivien to pay him off, through a beatdown from Eddie Mars’ men that leaves him bruised and sore but still digging. Marlowe is relentless, observing and judging, with a fine ear for lies and what lies behind them. And there’s a dirty moment when a quiet man, another shamus, Harry Jones (a wonderful cameo from Elisha Cook Jr., refuses to give up an address to a killer, and dies of poison whilst Marlowe can do nothing but listen.
But this is the level the film operates on. It has its principals, but it refuses to let the little players let it down. Charles D. Brown as Norriss, the Sternwood butler, refusing to allow Marlowe to get a rise out of him with sheer dryness. Dorothy Malone as the bookshop proprietress, teasing the cliché of the girl who becomes beautiful by removing her spectacles and unclipping her hair by already being beautiful with both, and bold with it. The cigarette girls at Eddie’s gambling hell, giving Martha Vickers a run for her money when it comes to great legs.
In the end, as it must, after a whole film’s worth of dirtiness that gets exposed and, to some extent, resolved by Marlowe’s refusal to be deflected from his pursuit of the truth – down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean – the truth comes out. Carmen, who doesn’t like the word no, shot and killed Sean when he refused her advances. Eddie Mars helped Vivien dispose of the body and even sent his wife away to fuel the rumour, although he then started some blackmail of his own. Marlowe forces him into a situation that sees him killed by his own men, a death that ends the corrupt web. He also forces Vivien to have Carmen committed to a psychiatric hospital, and the picture ends with the intimation that he and Vivien will go on to marry. Given the moral strictures imposed by the Hays Office, how the absent Mr Ruttledge will be accounted for, and indeed why he’s absent in the first place, are left to our imagination, and in the case of at least one member of the audience who loves the books, to a complete lack of interest. In the book, Vivien is married to Rusty Regan, giving her much more of a reason to be concerned about an attempt to find him.
My DVD doesn’t advertise itself as re-mastered, but the imagery is sharp and clear and the various shades of light and dark and all the greys between are subtle and varied. So is the film, which is a gem.

Lou Grant: s03 e04 – Charlatan


Cast out by the Church

When your episode title is ‘Charlatan’ and you open with a church service in opulent surroundings, with a well-dressed Minister declaiming above a congregation, it’s not hard to tell where the story is going to go. Nevertheless, the show made its course more complex, and more equivocal than it need do, the result being a thought-provoking episode.

We began with three separate strands, two of which became swiftly intertwined, and a third which seemed irrelevant but which became an important counterpoint to the major story.

The Church was the United Pilgrim’s Crusade, founded and led by Dr Thomas Chamberlain. The Trib’s Religious Affairs writer, Marcus Prescott, was there to conduct a standard profile. Joe Rossi was there because he’d spotted a naked man climbing the Church Tower to display a banner reading ‘God Sees All’. What was it God saw? From the Church’s enthusiasm about their disturbed brother’s privacy, it was clearly something needing investigating, as Rossi automatically assumed. Prescott, the son of a Southern Hellfire preacher, did not see it that way.

Our third strand was a sneaky phonecall to Lou from an Arnold Zinner, soliciting Lou’s support against Prior Restraint, that is, the Law’s intervention to prevent a newspaper publishing something, the very thing the First Amendment prohibits. Of course, from the shifty way he didn’t identify any specifics, we knew what sort of publication Zinnah ran – Grabber magazine, a cross between a pre-National Enquirer cheapie and a low-rent porn monthly, but which happened to have all the names and addresses of all the undercover Narcotics agents in LA (how and why were never explored).

There was a lot of stick over supporting a disgusting rag like that, but Lou held to the principle. Because we all know that it’s the difficult to defend cases that are prosecuted first, because it only takes one case to set a precedent.

This would tie back into the min story in two ways. First, however, a succession of minor matters drew attention to the possibility – to some an evidence-unsupported certainty – that something fishy was going on, that Chamberlain was not as he painted himself, that the United Pilgrim’s Crusade was not a legitimate Church with a genuine doctrine.  Rossi’s convinced this is so. So’s Billie, when she gets brought in on this. Marcus, on the other hand, is far less convinced, considers the evidence too shaky, is blocking the story to the point where Lou takes him off it.

Is he just too (self-)indoctrinated to accept an anti-Church story? Or is he someone who demands a high level of proof because he’s aware of how susceptible people are to anything that appears to tear a minister down? Or is he just not enough of a bastard? Donovan, who sympathises with Prescott, thinks the latter, and it is his encouraging reaction that spurs Marcus back to the story.

There were multiple levels to this. Prescott interviews Agnes Carson (Ruth Silveira), a believer who’d found salvation in Dr Chamberlain, a volunteer who was giving far far too much money to the Church. Lou, Charlie and Mrs Pynchon discuss things with ‘orthodox’ Minister, Dr Bunning. who confesses his suspicions of and distaste for Chamberlain’s church but who implcably opposes stories against them: hurt one religion and you hurt all.

In the end, it’s Prescott who gets the real deal, persuading Smithfield, the naked man, already identified as a fanatic, to give up the print-outs that expose the frauds. Even then, Chamberlain and his business manager Crossley admitted the truth of the facts but not their meaning, heedless  of the figures having gone to the Attorney-General.

No, all of this was Stan’s doing, an attack upon God, by a heathen newspaper, the state, an editor who openly advocated for a pornographer out to destroy their children… Even Agnes Carson told Marcus Prescott he was mistaken, but she was the true Christian amongst them.

And fittingly, the story was left with that ending, no neat little bows of pink ribbon to sign it off, even though all of us, and not merely the cynical, understood where truth lay and that there was no God in God’s Temple. An excellent episode.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Aurelia


When Aurelia was published in 1983, in an edition illustrated by Larry Todd, from Starblaze Books, six years had passed since the publication of a Lafferty novel in mass-market form. By then, it had become abundantly clear to publishers that there was no mass market for R.A. Lafferty. Aurelia was immediately recognisable as one of that tantalising plethora of unpublished novels from Archipelago‘s list, where it had appeared as To Aurelia With Horns.
I’ve got to say that whilst the book itself looks like a handsome presentation, with its bright, quasi-cartoon cover showing the titular character blowing a horn in a meadow, and Todd’s clean, rounded black and white illustrations within, it’s badly in need of a proofreader. There are dozens of mistakes, most often misinterpretations of the text, causing a constant disruption as the reader is momentarily dragged out of the story, to mentally search-and-replace the right word.
Aurelia builds itself off a one-line joke in an early and much respected Lafferty short story. This is ‘Primary Education among the Camiroi’, collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers (a superb collection). The story is basically about a group of Educators from Earth visiting the Camiroi to examine their education system, which is insanely and impossibly comprehensive and turns out comprehensively competent people. It’s a great goof, with a classic sting at the end, but one of the items on the Camiroi curriculum is World Government. This sounds like a class the American children have. The joke is that the Camiroi mean it literally: their students go off to another world and govern it for one year!
Thus Aurelia. She is a skinny fourteen year old, and one of seven Camiroi children of similar age, who are about to set off to govern worlds. Being Camiroi they have all designed and built their own space ships, full of all the machines and devices that will ensure a safe flight to their chosen planet, avoidance of danger and good landing. Not so Aurelia. She is the most awkward of the bunch. The list of things she has forgotten to incorporate in her ship grows ever longer.
As a result, Aurelia takes off badly, has a rotten flight and crashes on her planet. It is not the planet of her choice (Aurelia has forgotten to build the necessary guidance). In fact, she doesn’t even know what planet it is she has landed upon: is it Skokumchuck? is it Thieving Bear Planet? is it Gaea or Hellpepper World (we sure hope it’s not Hellpepper World). Aurelia continually asks and the people of this planet always deflect her questions.
Though the course advice is to land in secret and study the world a bit before starting to govern it, Aurelia crash lands, all horns blowing (to try to get the planet to move out of the way first). The discordancy of her horns sees her immediately taken up by the young, who have rejected music and only worship discordant notes (do I detect a little prejudice here?).
But Aurelia is taken up by many people, not least the tycoon Rex Golightly, who provides for her and loves her as if she is one of his daughters, who provides her with the world’s best bodyguard, Marshall Straightstreet, or is he Julio Cordovan,the man of a thousand faces (or are there two of them and both the same man?)
She encounters the Press in the forms of Jimmy Candor and Susan Pishcala. She meets international criminals such as Blaise Genet, Julio Cordovan, Helen Staircase and Karl Talion. She becomes the object of a cult that adores her, and another that wants to kill her. At the same time, she is denying any kinship with her Dark Companion, Cousin Clootie, who is the Anti-Aurelia.
The book builds massive walls of confusion around itself. Aurelia is everything she should not be, and during the course of the story, which covers about a week from Aurelia’s startling arrival and her improbable but unanimously foretold death at the hands of the worm with the pistol, she doesn’t actually govern anything. She becomes surrounded with factions, in her favour and against her, and she grows in stature from her ultra-klutzy beginning to her three day wanderings, issuing sermons four times a day about what the world should be and what people should be.
I get the impressions that these pronouncements, coming from an odd but not unattractive philosophical basis, are the main purpose of the book for Lafferty, as if Aurelia and her misadventures are just a context for expressing these, but the book is still full of interest and improbability. Lafferty makes the odd satirical jab at what he dislikes about modern society (we know the book must have been written by 1979 at the latest, and remember, he was 65 that year), but these often come with quite hilarious humour.
There’s a scene where a man, on the basis of sexual freedom, tries to force himself on Aurelia, which causes her to tie the Impossible Knot in it, which to undo involves pulling the entire Universe through a loop, but there’s also a lovely scene in the latter half of the book when a boy her own age is touchingly enamoured of her and shyly asks if he could ever get to kiss her: Aurelia points him to the ‘Kiss a Girl of your Choice’ booth and tells him to buy a ticket. The lad buys one hundred, and by the end of the afternoon has used fifty of them!
Even this sweet little romance has its joke as the lad ventures to wonder if they might, ever, you know. Aurelia, a little put upon at this moment, points out that they’re from different planets (and which World is this one anyway?) and shoots questions at him about their physical differences. How many chromosomes does he have? Well, go and count them!
Like every Lafferty book, these are only a fraction of the things it contains. There is always more. Every corner contains things and there are more corners than any normal geometry allows. It’s not one of the major Lafferty novels, and like all of them it leaves you shaking your head and wondering, just what was that I just read? Think about it. You can spend a lifetime asking yourself, just what was that anyway?

Person of Interest: s03 e05 – PA3ᴦOBOP (Razgovor)


Smart Kid

Now this: this is what I have been waiting for since season 3 started.

It is a Number of the Week, but in the series’ greatest fashion, it’s woven inextricably into the wider arcs, and even allowed to permeate the explosive finale, which must lead inexorably into deeper waters.

But first a brief word about the title. Please excuse the imbalanced cyrillic version that’s the official title, I haven’t got a larger size version of that upside-down L on this laptop. As for Razgovor, I have it on reliable authority that it means Conversation or Dialogue, of which there was much in this episode.

We began with one of those increasingly brilliant mini-scenes saving an unrelated Number, a driver delivering a liver required for a transplant, about to see it hi-jacked for a mobster until Shaw, rising with him, shoots down the crook and walks off, brushing off his grateful thanks. Finch gently suggests that her bedside manner could do with brushing up.

Straightway, we’re put on notice that Shaw’s emotionless is going to be put to the test by our real Number, Genrika Zhirova, or Gen, played to perfection by ten-year old Danielle Kotch as a smart-arse kid, a legal immigrant Russian girl planning a career as an international spy, who has been bugging her apartment building for evidence to get the drugs dealers busted, and who has caught something a hell of a lot bigger than that.

It’s a new drug, a synthetic based heavily on the heavily toxic potassium permanganate, and it’s being distributed by the Yogarov gang and our old friened Peter, but it’s patriotically synthesized in this country on a fuck-the-Columbians basis by H.R.

That’s H.R., meaning we get Simmons, and Terney and young Laskey in the story, and we get Joss Carter trailing everyone because this time, when H.R. comes down, all of it goes down, right to the top. Finch and Reese are aware of her ‘side-project’, and willing to help, but Joss is keeping her cards very close to her impressive chest. She’s going to take full revenge for the death of Cal Beecher.

So Joss and John get to work together on this case, coming at it from both ends, but the fun part is Shaw, who is charged with saving Gen and who, despite having no facilities whatsoever for dealing with kids and indeed saying she hates them, winds up the one who has to protect her, and who, despite a serious wound, sticks determinedly to her role, even if it means trading Gen’s incriminating tapes to H.R. to get her back.

Shaw’s running alone, she’s running wild, so she doesn’t know that even Carter has agreed the trade. We have, for the first time this season, a return to flashbacks, and these are of Shaw, in 1993, when she like Gen was ten years old. There’s been a car crash, Shaw’s Dad is dead, she’s trapped and freed and has to be told about her loss, but though she processes it, she doesn’t feel it. One of the paramedics will say there’s something wrong with that little girl, but that’s too simplistic. Shaw will herself tell Gen, with patient resignation, that she doesn’t feel things – except anger, of course – but this automaton that Gen has prodded to check if she’s a robot is nothing like so simple as this episode is trying to tease us into believing, and there will be another summation near the end.

In the meantime, H.R. set up to trap Reese, which keads only to a knock-down drag-out fight between the Man in the Suit and H.R.’s second-in-command. It’s smart, tough, spare, but it’s also a test of strength. Reese could bring Simmons down: after all, he wins the fight. But he lets him go. John Reese understands need, the need to atone, and he respects avenging angels. Joss Carter didn’t believe in Cal Beecher until too late. She has to do this herself, for herself, to repay the debt that no-one but herself feels on her shoulders.

And she’s ahead of the game. Rookie Laskey pulls the bonds of their partnership on her to get her to join him in a bar, to talk about his problems with someone on the force: Joss Carter. It’s a set-up, but Joss is miles ahead. She’s known Laskey was H.R. from the moment her first got in her car. She used him to feed false information back to Simmons. And she’s too canny and too prepared to fall for the trap Laskey’s set up. She kills the ‘bar owner’, a Vice Lieutenant from the Bronx, another H.R. goon. She’ll shoot Laskey too, if he makes her, but Carter has an ace he doesn’t expect, in the H.R.-born rrogance that makes him call Carter ‘an arrogant bitch who doesn’t know her place’ (tsk, tsk, haven’t you ever heard of feminism?)

Because Carter shot the Lieutenant with Laskey’s gun. He’s working for her now, not H.R. We await developments with eagerness, now they have startted to develop.

But we have Shaw, delivering the once-neglected Gen to a super-school, the sort of place you go when you’re the ward of a very reclusive billionaire. And Gen is still smarter than the average ten-year old, just as we now beieve the ten-year old Sameen to have been. She presents Shaw with her grandfather’s Order of Lenin tht cannot mean anything like as much to her, but it means something to Gen to know that Shaw has it. And she tells Shaw that she does have all those emotions but they’re like voices on old tapes (superb analogy): you have to listen harder to hear them.

Which gets her a rather too vigorous hug from Shaw that Gen understands, just like she has understood Shaw so well (it’s a shame she never returns), and which gets Shaw a reassurance from Finch. Yes, she broke every order he gve her and she doesn’t soun epentant about it though she’s clearly concerned about losing this ‘job’ (she’ll miss Bear too much). But as far as Finch is concerned, she has finally got it. The job, that is, but we know what he means.

So Shaw goes home to sleep, the Order of Lenin hung closely by, content. Until Root appears by her bedside, asking if she’s missed her, and applying her taser.

We are off, and running.

 

Film 2019: Black Narcissus


As brilliant as last week’s They’re a Weird Mob was awful, Black Narcissus, adapted pretty faithfully from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, was inexplicaably omitted from the original Powell and Pressburger box-set when this was first released as a nine-disc set. I bought that first, and willingly bought up when this was re-issued as an eleven-disc set, just to have this film.

Black Narcissus is a landmark film, justly celebrated for its amazing cinematography, which won Jack Cardiff an Oscar. It’s also a marvel of filming and use of effects, given that the film is set in India, high in the mountains, with multiple outside scenes, yet not a minute of footage was shot outside England. Split screen shots of a technical standard astonishing for the present day, let alone 1948, and matte shots using highly detailed, massively convincing paintings on glass complete the illusion that the film has been shot on location.

But the film is more than just a miracle of technique. Right from the beginning, the story establishes a knot of tension that only grows tauter as the film progresses. It’s a shifting psychological drama composed of many elements within its simple plot – a small group of nuns are sent to establish a convent at Mopu: as predicted, they fail – as each of the central characters find themselves undergoing unexpected tests.

The film stars Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, a firm, somewhat authoritarian Nun who, despite her young age, is sent to take charge at the Convent of Sister Faith. Four others go with her: Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) to take charge of the gardens, Sister Briony (Judith Furse) the dispensary, Sister Blanche, known as Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), the school, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) as…well, it’s not entirely clear what part Sister Ruth is going to play, except as the most highly-strung and unstable amongst the Nuns: she is included by Mother Dorothea for, outwardly, her own good, although one cannot but suspect a certain buck-passing in the decision, as well as a test for Sister Clodagh’s leadership abilities.

These are the Nuns, but they are not the only characters in the story. Esmond Knight, an Archers stock-player, browns up to play the Old General, the ruler of the province, gifter of the Convent, a former seraglio. David Farrar, tall, lean, mostly seen in shorts that emphasise his hairy legs, rude, practical, unbelieving, plays the General’s Agent, Mr Dean, responsible for everything the Nun’s need, and deeply offensive to Sister Clodagh just by showing the merest scepticism. Jean Simmons plays the 17 year old Kanchi, a native girl taken in by the Nuns: Simmons, also browned up, has no words to speak, she just exudes sexuality in every smouldering fibre of her body without once being explicit, a sexuality that is at once knowing and naive. And Sabu, the only native actor in the film, plays the Young General, heir to the Province, young, noble, proud and thunderously naive about everything around him: Kanchi sets her cap and everything else at him and you just know he’s not going to be able to resist.

And there’s May Hallatt as Angu Ayah, former housemaid to the seraglio, a chattering, skipping bundle of shrieking contempt for the Nuns, playing wonderfully OTT.

Throw these characters in and a story will come out of it, but both  Godden and the Archers are set upon a developing inevitability. From the first, the Nuns find things hard, the isolation, the thin air, the clear and distant views that exaggerate the world in which they are alone with only their own resources – and God – to rely upon. Dean gives them until the rains break.

Each loses their way. We see it quickly when Sister Clodagh starts to call Sister Blanche by her nick-name. Clodagh has joined the Order, in which vows have to be renewed annually, to escape a failed love-affair in a small Irish community. She has gone through bitterness and pain from her abandonment: for the first time in years she remembers the handsome, but ultimately faithless, Con.

Sister Phillipa remembers things she thought she had forgotten, things unnamed: she has planted an English garden of flowers rather than the vegetables that were to sustain the community. Sister Honey becomes so overwhelmed by the children. Only Sister Briony remains stable.

As for Sister Ruth, who was made intense and unstable by the mere casting of Kathleen Byron, it is quickly easy to see that here is a woman eaten up by sexual frustration. The lean Mr Dean sets her hormones buzzing from the moment he is gentle to her, recognising her desire to do well, immmediately after Sister Clodagh has reprimanded her for trying herself to save a woman bleeding to death instead of fetching Sister Briony.

Like Kanchi, Sister Ruth exudes sexuality, but Kanchi even as a ten year old could never be as naive as Ruth, who’s got it but doesn’t know what to do with it.

As the crisis develops, Ruth chooses not to renew her vows. She orders a smouldering maroon dress from Darjeeling, changes, makes up. She goes to Dean, throws herself at him, is repelled. She accuses Dean of being in love with Sister Clodagh. Angrily, he denies being in love with anyone. In saying this, he’s probably being truthful to his own understanding, but at the ennd we will see that something is within him: he has not escaped being changed.

Dean’s refusal sends Ruth over the edge. Denied expression in love, her emotions find their only other outlet, in jealousy, a pathological jealousy of Sister Clodagh. When the latter goes to ring the Morning Bell, situated on the edge of a precipice, a wild-eyed, pale-faced Ruth tries to push her off but falls herself into the Abyss.

This, then, is the end. The Nuns arrange to depart. At the last, Dean approaches Sister Clodagh. Despite his denial, he is going to very much miss her. But though their relationship has become decidedly more amicable, Sister Clodagh – who will go to another Convent where she will not be in charge, is nowhere near ro any thought of giving up her vows. She asks him to tend to the grave, and teases him that the rains have not yet come.

But as both ride away, in opposite directions, the rains begin, soft and then fierce. Dean mops his slightly-too-long hair and looks back, until the increasng rain dissolves any last sight of the Nuns.

Originally, the Archers had planned to end tthe movie with a scene back in Calcutta, Sister Clodagh confessing her failure to Mother Dorothea and bursting into tears. The scene was filmed, though it sems it was never printed, as Powell, seeing the rain scene, chose that as a better ending. Rightly so.

This is a magnificent film, full of subtleties that, if I were to describe them all, would take all day to discuss. Remember that Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron spend most of the film in their habits, full habits, head-dresses, ankle length white robes. Only their faces are visible, made pale by the lack of (visible) make-up and the billowing white habits. Deprived even of body-language, they perform with only their faces. And there are subtleties of word and thought in nearly every line.

In the end, the film may be seen as one about defeat. Indeed, filmed only a few months before India’s Independence, it has been compared symbollically to the end of the Raj. Whether this was intentional, or merely a subconscious reflection of the Zeitgeist, I can’t say, but in a film with these layers, I wouldn’t dount anything.

And then there was three:  three box-sets, one outstanding fiilm in each.

The Infinite Jukebox: Magazine’s ‘Shot by Both Sides’


Had you asked me, towards the end of the year or at any time since, what was the best single of 1978, I would rave at you cheerfully in favour of ‘Teenage Kicks’. I still will if you don’t run away fast enough.
But had you asked me that question at any time between, say, the spring of that year and the very end of Autumn, I would have had a different answer. I would have said Magazine, and ‘Shot By Both Sides’.
It is still, to me, a massively brilliant song, the single version a giant, dark, compelling sound, it’s failure to spend months at Number One a mystery set to rank with that of the Sphinx. That ‘Teenage Kicks’ was actually better was Howard Devoto and Co’s bleeding hard luck. So it goes, as Nick Lowe and Tony Wilson both used to say.
‘Shot by Both Sides’ was Magazine’s first release. Howard Devoto had left The Buzzcocks because he wanted to do more than the pure punk sound, and in John McGeogh he found a musical partner more than capable of realising his ambitions to incorporate elements of progressive and avant garde music. Devoto envisaged a keyboard player, and between the single and the album versions of the track, he found one in Dave Formula, but in this moment the band were a four-piece, with McGeogh the dominant player, and ‘Shot by Both Sides’ was both introduction and farewell, looking Janus-like to future and past. It wraps itself in the punk sound of angry guitar, but its immediately a fuller, deeper sound, built upon a charging riff full of menace, and an ascending lick, a rising string of notes, written by Pete Shelley and generously allowed to form the keynote of this song.
(The Buzzcocks would record the original song, ‘Lipstick’, late in the year as the b-side to ‘Promises’, and bloody odd it sounds in that context.)
‘Shot by Both Sides’ has muscle and energy, but it’s a focussed, targeted energy, as dark and paranoid as Devoto’s lyrics. Barry Adamson and Martin Gorski lay down a solid rhythm over which McGeogh doubles up on riff and lick. Devoto’s voices twists away from the sound, arch and affected, reminiscent of Steve Harley in its refusal to settle on a straight tone.
He works his way into the heart of the crowd, shocked to find what is allowed, losing himself in the heart of the crowd whilst the song hurtles towards him. The song’s confidence momentarily disintegrates, mimicking the sense of Devoto cracking, the rhythm chopping up, its momentum dispersing before Devoto goes full-on batshit paranoid. There is no safety in the heart of the crowd, no anonymity, no invisibility: Devoto is shot by both sides, his enemies, real or otherwise, must have come to a secret understanding, for how else could they be on him from all directions? Devoto sings to the lick and the chorus pounds that message of shock, horror and fear.
The middle of the song sees McGeogh go off into a high-speed solo, slashing at the notes in piercing fashion, before retreating to allow Devoto to give full reign to his drama: Shot by Both Sides, I don’t ask who’s doing the shooting.
The single couldn’t be what it is without the punk background from which it arises, could not be both single-minded and yet hinting at wider soundscapes to come. It’s a culmination, a threshold before change. Devoto’s ideas were grandiose, but they held a retrogressive element to them. Once Formula was added to provide the scope Devoto foresaw, Magazine would not, could not sound like this again.
And I’m afraid I think that the band was the lesser for it. In time, McGeogh, who was one of the most influential guitarists of his time, would come to the same conclusion, his departure from the band stemming in equal parts from frustration at Magazine’s lack of commercial success and the decreasing amount of space allowed for him and his guitars: he would be both ornament and architecture to Siouxsie and The Banshees’ lush middle period.
With the possible exception of Magazine’s flambuoyant cover of ‘Goldfinger’ on the b-side of their second single, nothing the band did sounded remotely like as good as this. ‘Shot By Both Sides’ was pure, driving, musical ecstasy, power and energy in beautiful balance, taking over your ears until the only thing you wanted to do was to play it again, immediately, and louder! And forty-one years later, like ‘Teenage Kicks’, it hasn’t aged a second. Let the riff pound out and immediately we are trapped, in the middle of the crowd, overwhelmed by fear, shot by both sides.
And still the only response is to play it again.

A Spot of Adventure: The In-Between Age


Most people agree upon the periods of the Golden Age and the Silver Age of Comics, though there’s room for argument as to the Ages that have followed. The Golden Age, from Action 1 to All-Star 57, covers the years 1938 to 1950, whilst the Silver Age starts with Showcase 4 in 1956. That leaves a gap that has never been tagged onto any Age, metallic or otherwise.
For the second instalment of my review of Adventure Comics, I’m calling the period in question the In-Between Age, and I plan to go up to 1958, for two reasons. One is that, although the Barry Allen Flash debuted in 1956, he only made four appearances in three years before finally being unleashed on his own series, in 1959. I’d call that the true beginning of the Silver Age, but before that, in 1958, National would introduce a new idea in the pages of Adventure that was as Silver Age as you could wish. This essay covers the years leading up to then.
We begin with issue 167. The Shining Knight was fallen casualty to the times, leaving Adventure with a line-up, front to back, of Superboy, Aquaman, Johnny Quick and The Green Arrow (still with the definite article). Superboy has the perky, red-headed teenage beauty Lana Lang trying to uncover his secret identity, just as his adult contemporary has Lois Lane, and Lana gets the idea into her pretty head that an ancient helmet brought home by her archaeologist parents gives her Superboy-esque powers. Instead of just taking her for a long, slow ride at the next hayride and enjoying some enthusiastic smooching, Superboy has to pretend the helmet works to keep her from getting the right idea about why a robber’s bullet just bounced off him. Silly boy.
Lana was a seeming fixture for a few issues but then dropped out, which was a shame because she brought an element of personality to Superboy’s strip. It was still a mostly domestic strip, calling for no great effort on the kid’s powers but without the pretty redhead it was empty.
Indeed, going into 1952, the comic as a whole was dull. Aquaman, who was clearly the favourite of the DVD maker who manages to come up with the Sea King’s story even when nothing else of an issue is available, tends to fight pirates, Green Arrow and Speedy can’t even come up with new trick arrows anymore, and only Johnny Quick comes up with an interesting read, mainly because it still hearkens to its Golden Age look instead of the bloodless DC art of the era.
I’ll mention the story in issue 181, which featured Joannie Swift, Queen of Speed. Joannie is a typist who accidentally gains the same powers as Johnnie when a list of equations she reads out duplicates his Magic Formula. Joannie turns out to be brave, resourceful, athletic, intelligent, in short bloody good at being a super-speedster. Johnnie only wants her to go away, at first to save her from injury because, being a girl, she’s bound to be a weakling, but, as soon as he realises she knows her stuff, a rather too revelatory reason comes out: Johnnie doesn’t want to turn out second best to her.
Of course, that fate will never happen because, inevitably, Joannie’s afraid of mice, which causes her to forget the Formula. So, instead of a skilful, brave, worthy foe of crime, using her potential to the fill, Ms Swift is condemned to go back to the steno pool, because she’s a girl. Sometimes this stuff can make you want to barf.

Johnny Quick

Meanwhile, a whole year of the DVD goes by with only two complete issues but with every Aquaman story. These are formulaic, uninspired affairs, six pages of nothing: no wonder DC struggled in the early Fifties. Piracy still turned up, but also silly ideas like Aquaman running an undersea hospital or an undersea fire service.
When full service resumes, for a while, in issue 201, there’s another delightful Lana Lang story, with Superboy thinking he’s blown his secret identity to her Dad, and so relieved to find he’s wrong, he welcomes Lana’s determined pursuit of his secret: just kiss her, you chump, she’d be a great girlfriend.
The American comic book package started off at 64 pages. Thanks to paper restrictions during the Second World war, it was reduced to 56 pages, and then to 48, all at 10c, irrespective of size. But with issue 205, Adventure Comics was reduced to the 32 page size that’s been standard ever since. Johnny Quick missed out, though he returned the following issue at the expense of Green Arrow. But his final appearance was in issue 207, sadly not on the DVD. Henceforth, Adventure had only three features, and if I say that Superboy is the pick of them, you’ll appreciate how dull it is.
There was a landmark story in issue 210, with the initially temporary appearance of Krypto, the Superdog, nearly giving Clark Kent’s other identity away again to guess who? This was the only story for that issue, whereas next time we only had the Aquaman so I can’t say whether it was that or its absent predecessor where Aquaman switched from yellow gauntlets to the green ones we know so well. Either way, he was back to yellow for issue 212, that is, when he was coloured at all in a bizarre approach that saw him monocoloured pale blue in the majority of panels. Nobody seemed to be able to make up their mind as green and yellow alternated. Meanwhile, Krypto returned in issue 214 to prove that stories of the Superdog were likely to be pretty stupid.

A typical Aquaman plot

The Superboy story in issue 216 had the Lad of Steel meeting Superman without time travel, but its twist was that the adult version was really archaeologist Professor Olsen. Rescuing him endeared Superboy to Olsen’s young son, Jimmy… And speaking of costume changes, Green Arrow started wearing a red cap as opposed to his usual green one in the occasional story.
Frustratingly, Superboy’s real parents, Jor-El and Lara turned up in issue 217, having escaped Krypton after all, preparing to take their son to their new off-world home. It’s a trick alright, from Superboy’s callous ignoring of the Kents to the con on death row who pieces together his identity as Clark Kent, even down to how the Els are only seen flying when Superboy is holding their arms, but this was a very rare two-part story and we only have Aquaman for issue 218.
One of the interesting aspects of reading Adventure during this period (it’s more fun than the two back-ups) are the in-house ads for DC titles of the In-Between Age. Lists and covers of all manner of titles unwanted and forgotten, a publishing era lost permanently. But the cusp of change is approaching. Issue 22 carries an ad for yet another new title, starring Fireman Farrell. He never set the world alight, and we know that the ad is full of lies when it describes the new comic as a response to all those reader letters requesting different subjects, requiring a new kind of comic to fit them all in. We know that the real reason was to try to control the losses, both in money and reputation, from the way nothing new was catching on. Fireman Farrell was the first subject, the star of Showcase 1. In six months time…
In fact, the Showcase ads are fascinating. No-one ever cares about the first three, overshadowed utterly by no 4. The second issue featured Kings of the Wild, three outdoor adventures. These adverts are a history lesson in themselves.
So they stop printing inhouse ads at all, and I don’t get to see 3, or 4, come to that. Has nobody any sense of responsibility to future generations?
Meanwhile, the Aquaman and Green Arrow strips are growing dumber. Aquaman no longer has to pursue pirates, not when his time can be taken up with nonsensical ‘stories’ about how he schools his finny friends to obey his instructions or how he apparently turns into an egomaniac except it’s all a secret scheme, whilst the Battling Bowmen go trading places with other archers or else emulate their own trading cards. Truly this was an age of inanity.
Superboy’s own series continued to be both silly and sententious, but the occasional nice moment came along. Taking advantage of the fact that a leaking special gas would give everybody amnesia for an hour, the Boy of Steel decided to reveal he was really Clark Kent to test if a secret identity was more of a burden than a benefit which, this being DC Comics in 1957 it self-evidently was a benefit. But there was a touching moment when Lana, the teenage pest so set on proving Clark and Superboy were one and the same, began to cry at the proof – because Clark was a dear friend and she would never see him again.
I had a surprise in issue 239, which saw Krypto’s return, for I had read this story before, a very long time ago. Not in Adventure but in a British Superboy hardback annual, reprinting this in black and white. The first in well over a hundred Superboy stories that I had previously seen.
And harking back to Lana’s genuine distress at the thought of losing her dear friend Clark, how does the Boy of Steel repay her in issue 240? By becoming as big a Superdick as his adult self and humiliating her in front of all of Smallville to conceal his secret identity. What did I say about this stuff making you want to barf?
Obviously Lana got over it by the next issue, in which Green Arrow and Speedy were joined by Queen Arrow, aka Diana Dare (any relation to Dan?), who temporarily hypnotised herself into acting out her deepest desire, namely to be told by her heroes that what they do is too dangerous for a girl. Once he joined the Justice League, did Ollie ever try that line on Wonder Woman?

Some superheroes, huh?

Issue 243 is the last complete comic for this section, the next three issues represented by one story only, two of them the simultaneously tedious and ridiculous Aquaman. The last of these is cover-dated March 1958, making its actual publication most likely January of that year. Two issues of Showcase thus far have featured The new Flash. Two more would appear this year. The Silver Age was cranking up for the off. The next issue of Adventure would see a change that I’ll explore in the third essay in this series.