Pulp Appeal: Drunken Angel

800px-Yoidore_tenshi_posterDrunken Angel is one of[1] my favorite films by acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who is mainly known in the west for his samurai films, particularly Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Drunken Angel is an earlier film, the first collaboration between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, probably one of the most widely known Japanese actors outside his home country. He went on to star in 15 other Kurosawa films, including both the classic Seven Samurai and Rashomon, the latter frequently cited as one of the greatest films ever made.[2]

drunken_angel_04Drunken Angel is the story of the broken-down, curmudgeonly Doctor Sanada, played by perennial Kurosawa compatriot Takashi Shimura,[3] and his ministrations to the poor in the slums of post-WWII Tokyo. The film’s plot begins with Toshiro Mifune, a low-ranking yakuza gangster named Matsunaga, seeking out the doctor to treat a gunshot wound. In the process, Sanada diagnoses Matsunaga with tuberculosis. There’s a physical confrontation as the hot-blooded gangster doesn’t want to hear about his problems, but it’s clear to the viewer that it’s mostly bluster.

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The Tokyo portrayed in this film is a noir city through and through. The movie is set in a slum swimming with filth. In fact, the opening shot is of a literal toxic cesspool at the center of the neighborhood. This pool of filth is returned to several times throughout the film, which is anything but an understated metaphor. Around this cesspool shopkeepers and residents live their lives while preyed upon by the petty gangsters who exist on the margins of the slum. Doctor Sanada spends significant amounts of time chasing kids away from the edges of the cesspool, desperately trying to save them despite knowing they’ll just keep coming back.[4]

Through the course of the movie, Sanada attempts to steer Matsunaga onto the straight and narrow, away from cigarettes, womanizing, and booze, and for a time Matsunaga complies, mostly because the doctor seems to be as angry and belligerent as the gangster himself. There’s one iconic moment where the two of them are drinking, and the doctor says, “I’m not afraid of you. I’ve killed more people than you have.”

I won’t spoil any more of the details,[5] but, as in all good noir, the plot thickens with betrayals and backslides, stolen loves and stolen time. It’s not ultra-heavy on the action (though it is listed as PG-13, mostly because of a particularly memorable knife battle at the climax), but it’s definitely pulp noir of the stripe read in Detective Fiction Weekly or Black Mask.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be streaming on any of the major services, but it was repackaged in the Criterion Collection. The film was followed up the next year by Stray Dog, another noir film exploring the decadence of post-war Tokyo from the point of view of a rookie police officer, but that’s a “Pulp Appeal” for another day.

[1] I’d be hard-pressed to pick one favorite, but I’d probably go with Ikiru. I couldn’t swear to that under oath as I love almost every movie he made. The only exception I can think of is Kagemusha, and even that just drops from “love” to “really like.”

[2] I agree. As much as I like Drunken Angel, from a critical standpoint Rashomon is probably Kurosawa’s best film.

[3] Shimura is also one of the main stars of Gojira (Godzilla), and was a mainstay of Japanese film for decades. IMDb has 263 listings for him over a 50 year career.

[4] I would call this maybe a bit heavy-handed by modern standards, but then I think about crapfests like James Cameron’s Avatar and its “unobtanium” and I realize Drunken Angel is positively subtle by comparison.

[5] If you are interested in just reading the plot and having it spoiled, then here is one of the best summaries and examinations of the film I’ve come across: Kurosawa, In Order #7 – Drunken Angel.

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Pulp Consumption: L.A. Confidential

Image result for la confidentialL.A. Confidential is a 1997 film based on a novel by James Ellroy, set in the 1950s but filmed in a very ’90s style. It is a master class in adaptation, taking what many people thought was an unfilmable book and boil it down to its essential elements. In many ways it also acts as a spiritual successor to that other great Los Angles noir film, Chinatown.

At first blush, the story is that of two competing story lines. Gangsters are being killed or run out of town in the wake of Mickey Cohen’s imprisonment, as evidently someone is consolidating power in his absence. There’s also been a massacre at a local diner, evidently an armed robbery gone wrong. Three very different types of policeman get wrapped up in the investigations, eventually learning that they are more interconnected than you would think. There’s Bud White, played by Russel Crowe, a policeman more valued for his propensity toward violence than his detective work. There’s Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, an ambitious up-and-comer who seems willing to play at politics to get ahead. And there’s the charmer, Jack Vincennes, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey, a burned-out detective more interested in making his way into entertainment and feeding tidbits to a sleazy tabloid run by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) than in actual police work.

The plot is intricate and demands that attention be paid to it, otherwise it is easy to lose track of what characters are tied to what threads, but the payoff at the end is immensely satisfying and a credit to the writing and directing to put it all together. This is a movie to take notes on if you want to see how a simple plot (a murder) can snowball into a full blow conspiracy.

The intricacy of the plot aside, one of the best things about this movie for me is how none of the characters are as two-dimensional as they might appear at first blush. Bud White, while violent, is capable of first rate investigative work. Ed, while ambitious, possesses a moral center that sees him through to the end, as well as a clarity of vision and a hidden capability of violence. Jack, while full of self-loathing at what he’s become, remembers why he joined the police in the first place and seeks his redemption by picking up a case no one else cares about.

On top of the leads, Kim Basinger turns in a terrific performance as Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who passes herself off as a Veronica Lake look-alike, and James Cromwell is perfect as Chief Dudley Smith, complete with over the top brogue.

So if you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, this is definitely a movie to give a viewing to.

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Pulp Consumption: True Detective (Season 1)

true-detectiveTrue Detective was[1] a short-lived HBO anthology series, with each season covering a different plot, sort of like American Horror Story on FX. That’s where the comparisons with the longer-lived show end. True Detective combines multiple sub-genres within pulp, including noir, saucy sex, and supernatural horror, and uses a framing device of police interviews to weave together a complex non-linear narrative into a coherent whole, in much the same way that Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have done with Pulp Fiction and Memento, respectively. This sort of device shows up frequently in literature and film, including pulp, though it becomes far more widespread after Citizen Kane and Rashomon.

TrueDetectiveDVDCoverThe two main characters are Louisiana detectives investigating the possible resurgence of a dormant serial killer. The show is set against the backdrop of a dilapidated and decaying urban infrastructure filled with corruption, decadence, and possible devil worship, all of which were worsened by the one-two combo of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Toss in equal parts crazy Matthew McConaughey and relatively sane Woody Harrelson as the beaten-down police officers and you get the sleeper hit that was the first season of True Detective.[2] McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a detective who slips into nihilism after his early experience tracking down the killer. It is Cohle’s obsession with the case that drives most of the plot. Harrelson’s Marty Hart is a flawed philandering husband whose dedication to his job is apparently unmatched by any officer other than Cohle. The interpersonal conflict between the two, besides Cohle’s reputation as a nutty maverick, is almost entirely because of Hart’s belief in Christianity and Cohle’s utter contempt for organized religion. You could look at the mismatched detective partners as cliché since it really has been so codified that alternatives are hard to conjure up, but it isn’t played for laughs here as it is in, say, 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon or even HBO’s own The Wire.

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That covers the noir and sidesteps the saucy sex, but what about the supernatural horror? If you are familiar with Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, then you’ll be pleased to find direct references to the work sprinkled about the series. The collection itself is pretty good read if you haven’t had the chance, and is a direct influence on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories. I won’t go much more into that as that could reach into spoiler territory, and unlike Pulp Appeal articles that tend to reference works from almost 100 years ago, this one’s still fresh enough to warrant some spoiler protection.


[1]As I was getting ready to publish this, I found out that it may be coming back for a third season, starring Mahershala Ali, fresh off some very successful work including the Academy Award winning Moonlight and the hit Netflix show Luke Cage.

[2]It’s a shame they went and completely botched the second season, abandoning almost everything that made season 1 great. It’s like Halloween III: Season of the Witch, or Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. We’ll see if Season 3 manages to recover from the misstep.

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Pulp Appeal: Indiana Jones

The Indiana Jones series is what happens when two powerhouses of the ‘70s and ‘80s decide to craft a love letter to the adventure serials of the 1930s and ‘40s. Indiana Jones is an adventurer first and an academic second, completing his archaeology in the field with little more than a whip, a revolver, and his hat.

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What is striking for me, is the way that you can use the Indiana Jones movies as a template for developing your own stories. There is the MacGuffin (the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail, the Crystal Skull). There are the outright villains (Nazis in the first and third film, evil cultists in the second, and communists in the fourth). There is the requisite love interest. Each follows the same basic formula. Indiana is after the MacGuffin. The bad guys want it too. In some cases (TEMPLE OF DOOM), they already have it. The question is whether Indiana can overcome the necessary obstacles to get, and keep, the object. That’s all well and good, and ultimately as complicated as you want to make it.

Writing it down like that, it also comes across as rather dry. What makes the movies stand out and remain relevant in pop culture, is the way that it’s executed. Harrison Ford as Indiana is a compelling and charismatic character that draws the audience in. What also helps are the more than memorable villains, from the amoral rival Belloq to the outright evil Mola Ram of TEMPLE OF DOOM (and yes even Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko in the otherwise unremarkable THE KINGDOM ON THE CRYSTAL SKULL).

Also, the series makes excellent use of exotic locales. From South America to the Middle East and from China to India, there is no telling where his adventures are going to take Doctor Jones next, and shows how a setting can lend a sense of immediate adventure to a story.

But what INDIANA JONES always got right was the sense of excitement and danger, especially when it came to its fight scenes. Whether it was a blazing bar in Nepal or a fist fight against a Nazi on top of a runaway tank, the scenes are stages so the environment is as much of a danger as any human opponent. Jones does get the better of his opponents, but it is always made into a legitimate struggle, making the emotional payoff when he overcomes the odds even better.

So if you find yourself browsing what we are looking for submissions and finding yourself scratching your head by what we mean by two-fisted action, Indiana Jones is an excellent place to start.

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Issue 2 Now Available!

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That’s right folks, the second issue of Broadswords and Blasters is now live and ready for purchase.

Grab your hard copy here, or if you’d rather get your pulp dead tree free, well, that’s available too.

And while we are talking about issue releases, if you didn’t pick up Issue 1 yet, it’s currently on sale for less than a dollar. Come on, you can’t beat that, now can you?

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Submissions Are… OPEN!

With Issue 2 being released, BROADSWORDS AND BLASTERS is officially back open for submissions! So send us your sword & sorcery, your horror, and your retro sci-fi stories. Dazzle us with your prose, but most importantly make sure that you entertain!

Official guidelines can be found here!

Want a sense of what we are/aren’t looking for? Take a look at what co-editor Matthew Gomez is looking for when he reviews submissions (hint: it’s the same kind of thing that Cameron is looking for as well).

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Issue 2 Run Down!

Instead of your usual dose of PULP APPEAL, this week we’d thought we’d do something a little different and preview what you’ll find in Issue 2 of Broadswords and Blasters.Cover2

First up is KAUAHOA VS THE MU by Patrick Baker, an action packed Polynesian tale where the outcast warrior Kauahoa battles fiendish sea creatures. Will Kauahoa prevail over the sea devils, or will they prove too much for him and his magic club?

Calvin Demmer takes us to a different kind of tale in A WESTERN PROMISE where Charles “Quick Draw” Payne has made a name for himself as a reluctant sheriff in a frontier town. Not everything is as it seems and even Calvin’s skill with a gun might not be enough to prevail against his latest challenger.

Steve Cook’s FEATHERED DEATH provides the cover image for this issue, and it’s a story we were eager to grab and share with you. What happens when two veterans decide to have one last confrontation? Will the blood spilled between them come rising back to the fore? Guaranteed someone’s going to go home bloodied.

THE SOUL PLANTATION by Sara Codair might be one of the darkest pieces of science-fiction we’ve read in a long time, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get to the heart of what’s human. More importantly, do you always think about what goes on with how your food is grown and cared for? And don’t aliens have a right to eat as well?

This issue will also see the conclusion to Matt Spencer’s ISLAND OF SKULLS, a high-octane finish to a rip roaring tale in the best of the pulp tradition. Tia and Ketz, troublesome brother sister pair that they are, might have bit off way more than they can chew investigating the island, but it’s too late to turn back now and the only way is forward… and you know it’s going to end on blood.

Michael T. Best brings us a tale of what happens when an artificial assistant starts getting too personal. KANE AND GRABLE is a near future tale that could happen tomorrow… and maybe a cautionary tale of basing an AI off your ex. But Kane’s assistant could be all that’s standing between him and a bullet, so maybe it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.

Grey Harlowe’s tale THE OATH BREAKER gets to the heart of a fundamental question: How much are you willing to sacrifice of yourself in pursuit of your deepest ambition? What line wouldn’t you cross? When a master mason is asked to move against the people she was raised by, where will she find herself standing at the end of the day… especially when her order threatens mutilation and worse.

C.R. Langille’s THE DEEP WELL finds a pair of conquistadors in the heart of South America in thrall to God, Glory, and Gold. But there are worse things than the natives lurking in the dark jungles, and some secrets are better off left unearthed.

Finally, DJ Tryer brings us the tale of Nyssa, a mercenary and an assassin, who infiltrates an armed camp in pursuit of her quarry. She hears tale of a mystic gem, but can a woman in a stolen dress and a couple of buckets on a staff snatch it out from under the watchful eyes of an army? Find out in THE EYE OF THE SUN!

Watch this space for more PULP APPEAL in the future, as well as the release date for Issue 2!

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