Pulp Consumption: Chinatown

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Arguably one of the greatest noir films in existence, CHINATOWN exemplifies the best of the genre. Jake Gittes isn’t what anyone would consider to be a typical hero. He’s ex-police turned private eye, more interested in making a buck than seeing justice done. He’s hired by someone claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of the city’s water commissioner. Only a simple job turns out to be not so simple when Mrs. Mulwray turns out not to be Mrs. Mulwray and the water commissioner ends up dead.

What follows is an excellent example of crafting plot and counter plot, of showing the not only the big picture plot elements (the water shortage and its cause), but the personal elements as well. Jake, while not what anyone would call a knight-in-shining-armor does come to care for the real Evelyn, which makes the ending even more of a gut punch at the end. It’s the idea that the hero is so low on the totem pole, so powerless in the face of evil, that the villain doesn’t even bother to have him killed because there is literally nothing Jake can do to get to him.Image result for chinatown movie

The character of Noah Cross, played by John Huston, is quite possibly one of the evilest villains to grace the screen. He’s not driven by a need for money, or even greed, but simply because he has so much money that he can get away with whatever he wants. Unshackled by any sort of morality, he is able to take what he wants without repercussion[1]. That includes raping his daughter, forcing her to have his child, and possibly raping the granddaughter as well. If anything, his motivation is to be able to shape the future, simply because he has enough money to make it happen.

In many ways, this film goes in the opposite direction of many of its hardboiled predecessors. Jake Gittes isn’t able to get the real villain in the end. Evelyn Mulwray isn’t a femme fatale but ends up the victim. Cross doesn’t face justice of one kind or another but disappears with his granddaughter. Even the concept of the hard-boiled detective being on some side of good is undermined, when it is shown that his client Curly beats his wife as a direct result of Gittes showing Curly the pictures proving his wife’s infidelity. Perhaps most telling, is that if Jake had done as little as possible, had steered clear of the case completely then it is possible Evelyn and her daughter could have escaped LA and her father’s clutches. Unfortunately for all involved, Jake didn’t, quite simply making everything worse for everyone but Cross.Image result for chinatown movie

The movie is also an excellent example of how noir doesn’t have to be all rain slicked streets and night time rendezvous. Much of the film makes use of California’s sunny climes, making a contrast between the sun-drenched setting and the darkness of the characters and acts taking place.

So if you haven’t watched it in a while, now might be good time to revisit what is easily one of the best film noir movies in existence, and one that rewards rewatching.

[1] There is a lesser known and regarded sequel THE TWO JAKES that Nicholson directed in 1990 that gives a better sense of closure for the characters, but if you only watch CHINATOWN,

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Pulp Consumption: Fletch

Fletch DVD Cover

This is the cover on my DVD. The original movie poster is much better.

We talk a lot about movies and tv shows here, and you might think we don’t read much pulp, but we do and are. Both Matt and I recently picked up a collection of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories and I bought a new collection of Hap and Leonard by Joe R. Lansdale (RIP the tv series after three seasons), so we’ll get back to written pulp in a week or two. However, I wanted to explain why so many of the Pulp Appeals and Consumptions seem focused on visual media.[1]

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This is a very young Geena Davis in only her second movie role.

In between the fall of the pulp greats and the rise of new pulp magazines in the last ten years, much of what we would consider to be pulp fiction was in fact being produced on film. This is still true to a large extent. Pulp magazines were first established as the entertainment for the masses in the age when televisions were new and expensive and radio ruled the night for entertainment. As television slowly took over, and as a moral majority began to censor pulp fiction in the name of protecting children and advancing moral correctness, pulp as a medium made two major shifts–to film, in the guise of noirs, and to television, in the guise of procedural drama, particularly police procedurals. What was left in print were the comic books and a few hangers-on. The fiction landscape for magazines was firmly entrenched in the New Wave. There are still some written gems from the 70s through the 90s, but the pulp of old was pretty much left only in film. Although born at the end of the 70s, I identify as an 80s kid, with Transformers, GI Joe, Ghostbusters, and Friday the 13th (and a healthy dose of 70s era Scooby-Doo), and that era had a lot of great pulp in the form of television and movies.

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One of Fletch’s many costumes throughout the movie.

And that brings me to the 1985 pulp neo-noir, Fletch, starring Chevy Chase as Irwin Fletcher, an LA Times reporter who is brought into the dark world of millionaires with sordid pasts, police corruption, drug-smuggling, and murder-for-hire. At the start of the film, Fletch is working on an expose of the drug trade along the beach, when he is approached by an aviation executive. The executive tells Fletch a story about terminal cancer and wanting to go out on his own terms, so he hires Fletch to kill him and then run away with the money. Of course there’s a lot more to the story, as alluded to above.

Although Chevy Chase is better known for his madcap antics in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, here he is more restrained, and, I believe, better capable of demonstrating his range as an actor. In that, he shares a lot with Robin Williams and Steve Martin. When left to the antics and wild stream-of-consciousness, they can go off the rails enough that the story gets lost. When reined in a bit and directed more closely, they manage to transcend the work. That’s not to say the wacky behavior doesn’t work occasionally, because it does, but when they slow down just a touch, the rest of the film can shine through, creating something stronger.

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I just like the look on Fletch’s face in this scene (near the end of the movie)

In any case, if you haven’t seen Fletch in awhile (or at all, but who are you people?), think about it again in terms of pulp serials, with intrepid undercover reporters caught up in a world of greed, sex, and murder. The movie has some fantastically funny parts, as when Fletch impersonates a rich tennis bro and puts thousands of dollars on the jerk’s tab, but what makes it work for me is when it embraces its pulp roots.


[1] The revival of pulp magazines is relatively new. As such Matt and I have been attempting to keep up with other publications doing what we do, so you should check out our Twitter, where Matt does a great job of highlighting other places you can get your pulp fix.

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Pulp Consumption: The Adventure of the Incognita Countess

Title: The Adventure of the Incognita Countess

Author: Cynthia Ward

Publisher: Aqueduct Press

What do you get when you take a mixture of sources from the turn of the 20th century and sling them into a blender? Well, you might get something very much like the “The Adventure of the Incognita Countess.” Cynthia Ward takes from a variety of different sources, including CARMILLA, DRACULA, SHERLOCK HOLMES, and TARZAN to tell a tale of Titanic, German and English spies, vampires, and Martian super science after their failed attempt at an invasion. Suffice to say, having a grounding in the references Ward makes adds an element of enjoyment to the story, but if you are a relative neophyte, she still crafts an engaging story sure to delight fans of pulp. The twist in that the main character is anything but a lantern-jawed hero. Instead, we are treated to a young woman who happens to come from a rare parentage and exquisite schooling. She also happens to be an agent of the British Empire.

One of the standouts is that, while it has plenty of action, there is an undercurrent to it as well of how people judge others. One of the key plot points to the story is whether vampires (and by extension, other monsters) possess souls, and whether they in fact are still, in essence, human. It is this plot point that drives the majority of the conflict in a way that more classic pulp would miss for its nuance.

The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (Conversation Pieces Book 53) by [Ward, Cynthia, Ward, Cynthia]

One of the few places that the story faltered was that, as a result of it being a first-person narrative, there are times when the action comes second hand, a secondary character relating to the narrator action that happened. While understandable, it does put further distance between the text and the reader, and, as a result, the action doesn’t come across as nearly as immediate as some of the other scenes.

Overall, however, if you enjoy pulp, and like your heroes to come with an edge, then this is a novel for you.

Cynthia Ward will have a story in Issue 8 of Broadswords and Blasters (January 2019).

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Pulp Consumption: Sneaky Pete

817ul4O3GoL._RI_If you’re a con man who has been recently paroled but people you conned are out to get you, what do you do? Maybe you assume a new identity and ply your conjob skills on other people. That’s exactly what Marius Josipović (Giovanni Ribisi) does in the pilot episode of Sneaky Pete.

sneaky-pete-giovanni-ribisi-bryan-cranstonMarius has shared a cell with Pete Murphy (Ethan Embry) for the last three years, where Pete has regaled Marius with stories of his family ad nauseum. So when Marius is paroled and finds out the gangster (Bryan Cranston, still cashing in on the bad guy persona he developed on Breaking Bad) he stole $100,000 from is still after him, Marius simply takes on Pete’s identity and goes to hang out with the extended family, his “grandparents” Otto and Audry Bernhardt and his “cousins” Julia, Taylor, and Carly Bowman. Pete was estranged from his family as his mother had run away with him as a young boy, and Marius is able to take advantage of this because they simply don’t know what Pete would look like as a grown adult.

margo-martindale-sneaky-pete-season-2-featured

Otto and Audry run a bail bonds business, which gives Marius some cover as they have money in a safe as collateral just in case one of their clients skips bail and they’re forced to cover the rest of the bond. They ask Marius to stay on as a skiptracer. He agrees to because he has hatched a plan to get at their money to hopefully repay the gangster. As they invariably do, things start going sideways right from the start, and Marius’ actual brother’s life is on the line while other family drama threatens to derail everything.

Watching as Marius works his cons, both long and short, on friend and foe alike is unsettling because he seems so good at it. We learn along the way that he has a whole crew of various niche skills, as all conmen seem to in tv shows (*cough* Leverage, one of my guilty pleasures) and movies, which he can put together to pull off elaborate schemes. This is reminiscent of Ocean’s Eleven,[1] but in the Ocean’s movies the viewer never really sympathizes with the victims. Where Sneaky Pete hits the mark for me is where it doesn’t shy away from demonstrating exactly how deceitful Marius can be. And although the family he is crashing with has their own baggage and gets in trouble on their own, you can’t help but feel sorry for the way Marius plays them for his own ends.

I won’t spoil anything more as the show only recently released its second season on Amazon Prime earlier this year. What I will say is the performances from Giovanni Ribisi and Margo Martindale[2] are the highlights for me. All the acting is in the show top notch, as should be expected, but these two stand out.

If you have Amazon Prime and you like pulp driven crime drama, you’d be remiss if you didn’t watch this show.


[1] Releasing this weekend is an all-woman reboot Ocean’s Eight, but so far it’s been getting mixed reviews, including from a personal friend and professional film critic.

[2] Martindale was also in Justified, about which we’ve already written, playing the matriarch of the Bennett clan, the main antagonists of Justified‘s second season, and Ribisi is (or should be) a household name who acted in everything from My Two Dads, The Wonder Years, and Friends to Gone in 60 Seconds, Ted, and James Cameron’s Avatar.

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So You Got Rejected by Broadswords and Blasters

I know, there’s probably ten or so of you that are absolutely devastated that this isn’t a pulp appeal article where Cameron or I talk about some pulp (or pulp adjacent property). Instead, this is going to be about our last submission period, and some of what we saw. So this is for the writers in the audience, which, going by our Twitter and Facebook feeds is, well, most of you[1].

The Guidelines Are There For a Reason (Part I)

We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:

  • sword and sorcery;
  • westerns (Weird or otherwise);
  • horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
  • detective tales;
  • two-fisted action;
  • retro science fiction

If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great[2]. Here’s what we see too much of:

  1. Epic or high fantasy.
  2. Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
  3. Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench[3].
  4. Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
  5. Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
  6. Urban fantasy.
  7. Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.

Continue reading

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Pulp Appeal: The Green Hornet

greenhornet01

“The Green Hornet – He hunts the biggest of all game, the public officials that even the G-men cannot reach!” Thus starts the half-hour-long radio serial about a millionaire playboy with a crime-and-corruption fighting secret identity, The Green Hornet. The radio drama was created by George Trendle and Fran Striker, the same people behind The Lone Ranger, the Texas Ranger who was left for dead in the Wild West before striking it rich and turning that fortune into fighting crime. This connection explains why the main character, Britt Reid, claims The Lone Ranger as a relative, and why they also share similarities in backgrounds, ethos, and sidekicks. They are both rich, white do-gooders with minority bodyguards/sidekicks.

The Green Hornet (ABC) 1966-1967 Shown from left: Van Williams, Bruce LeeIn the fictional context of the character, Britt Reid is a newspaper publisher and former reporter[1] with tons of money from his inheritance–a silver mine. Chronically bored, he takes a trip to Asia where he saves the life of a Japanese man about his age, Kato. As repayment, Kato agrees to go back to the United States and act as a bodyguard for Reid. Kato is actually a genius engineer, and between Reid’s fortune and Kato’s ingenuity, they turn Reid’s car into a supercar. Together they infiltrate the underworld, masquerading as criminals to gain the confidence of mobsters and corrupt politicians, where they then find evidence, engage in the obligatory martial arts/gunfight, and then wrap the criminals up, escaping just before the police arrive.

downloadThe radio drama lasted for hundreds of episodes from 1936 to 1952.[2] It was later featured in movie serials in the 1940s back before regular television series were popular.[3] But perhaps the most famous version is the 1960s television show, even though it only lasted one season and wasn’t a critical or commercial success. Much of its popularity in the years after it aired is due solely to having starred a young then-unknown Bruce Lee as Kato. This version crossed over in an episode with the successful Adam West Batman show, but The Green Hornet wasn’t the campy tongue-in-cheek satire of superheroics the way Batman was.

rogen_green_hornetPeople of a certain demographic are likely only familiar with the 2011 movie (a critical failure) starring Seth Rogen. In interviews, especially on Marc Maron’s podcast, Rogen excoriated producer oversight which he blames for being too intrusive. All I’m going to say about this version is I honestly don’t remember much about it, and that is perhaps its worst fault.

In my article about The Shadow, I waxed eloquent about the benefits of radio in terms of visualization and storytelling, and how film versions don’t seem to live up to radio plays. The same holds true here. People who know me know I almost always prefer original versions of characters to remakes, but I think it’s especially true of the Green Hornet. While Kato is definitely better on film (kick-ass martial arts battles call out specifically for visual media), much of Green Hornet falls directly into camp when filmed, but not by design as in the 1960s Batman. I know I’ve mentioned before my initial distaste for West’s series, and how it’s only as an adult that I’ve managed to appreciate it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Green Hornet manages to capture the same acceptance. Like The Shadow, it should have stayed on the radio. There are rumors of a reboot in the works, but I’ve also seen words like “grim” and “gritty” which aren’t much better than “campy” for this property.

Image of The Green Lancer, Cameron's City of Heroes character.

My City of Heroes main character, The Green Lancer. He was a Katana/Regen Scrapper, if that means anything to you.

It’s a shame the tv series is locked up in a contract dispute, because seeing young Bruce Lee kicking ass would be fun. I guess I’ll just have to go back and watch Enter the Dragon or The Chinese Connection. The fight scenes are probably better anyway.

I don’t remember having watched or listened to much Green Hornet. I do distinctly remember some TV channel or another, maybe TCM, broadcasting the series and perhaps the movie serials, and it left a subconscious impact on me in the same way The Shadow did. The green outfit–fedora, coat, mask–even crept up in my own world back when the City of Heroes MMORPG was the hottest property in computer gaming. My first character, back in the pre-release beta, was The Green Lancer, not terribly original in name nor concept, but I sure had a lot of fun roleplaying a Green Hornet knock-off.

Poster of The Green Hornet movie serial.

The Green Hornet movie serial – 13 episodes, about 4 hours long in total. Originally shown in movie theaters.

Although The Green Hornet was popular for his time, he didn’t have the same kind of cultural cache of The Shadow. His biggest claim to influence I can see is in his gadgetry prowess, which Batman, who came three years later, takes upon himself. Certainly the souped-up supercar Black Beauty is a direct precursor to the Batmobile.

Like Batman, Green Hornet made it into comic strips, graphic novels, and long-form fiction. However, he didn’t experience nearly the success of his more widely-known successor. There was a revival first published ten years ago by Dynamite Entertainment[4] written by celebrity director/comic book writer Kevin Smith. Dynamite also published a reboot series of The Lone Ranger. I have the first couple books of both, but I was underwhelmed by the writing. However, the artwork is fantastic.


[1] Newspaper employees must have a lot of free time because so many of them moonlight as vigilantes.

[2] There are a bunch of the radio serials here you can listen to at ZootRadio.com.

[3] Someone on YouTube has strung them all together in one long four-hour film.

[4] In research for this article I did come across a mash-up superhero series starring other period heroes like The Spider, The Shadow, and a modern ancestor of Zorro’s. It’s called Masks and was written by Chris Roberson. I may have to seek it out because that sounds pretty damn cool to me. I’m a fan of some of Roberson’s other work, especially his novels Set the Seas on Fire and Paragaea and his anthology Adventure, about which I’ve already written.

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Pulp Appeal: Black Christmas

Black Christmas

Bob Clark’s[1] Black Christmas is a 1974 slasher flick widely considered to be one of the inspirations for John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween. While it is not the first of the slasher flicks, it is early enough to have had a profound impact on the slasher films that came after it.

Olivia Hussey

Black Christmas’ Final Girl Olivia Hussey as Jess

The movie stars Olivia Hussey,[2] who was already famous from her role as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s great interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, which I consider to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays (with the exception of the character Mercutio, who I love). Notable supporting actors include Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, and John Saxon, all of whom reached their biggest mainstream successes in genre films. Kidder was, of course, Lois Lane in Richard Donner’s Superman. Dullea’s most famous role is David Bowman (Dave) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Saxon has acted in a ton of films and tv projects, but the ones with perhaps the widest reach are Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Keir Dullea

Keir Dullea as Peter

Margot Kidder

Margot Kidder as Barb

Black Christmas is based on the old urban legend of The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs in which a babysitter gets a series of prank calls only to be informed by the police the calls are coming from inside the house. Since the movie came out 44 years ago, I’m not going to avoid spoilers. The film starts with a third-person shot of a sorority house and the beginnings of a Christmas party before shifting to a first-person camera shot that follows as a man secretly enters the sorority house and sets up shop in the attic. The girls of the sorority house are all murdered during the course of the film until the moment when police trace the call to inside the house. They call the main character Jess (Hussey) and tell her to get out, but Jess stays to go get her friends because she doesn’t yet know she’s the final girl. Because of some of the things the killer says in his prank calls, Jess thinks the killer is her boyfriend Peter (Dullea). After being chased around the house, she takes refuge in the basement. Peter shows up because he heard her screaming, but she lashes out and beats him to death. The police find Jess and Peter, but not the bodies of her friends or the real killer. The cops pin the murders on Peter, and as far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of the story. The real killer is still holed up in the sorority house attic with his trophy corpses. The film credits roll as a phone rings.

People who want closure will no doubt find this ending maddening. The killer is still loose, we don’t know what his motivations are, and, worst of all, we don’t even know who he is! There’s no neat bow tying everything up a nicely and removing the disquiet from viewers’ hearts. It’s this aspect of the film that elevates it above many other slasher films. Even though I’ll defend to the death Friday the 13th as my favorite slasher of all time (in no small part because I grew up in the town where it was shot, albeit I moved there 10 years after it was made), Black Christmas is the better film. Black Christmas’ deliberately open ending may certainly have its detractors, but they’re probably the same people bothered by the sudden cut to black at the end of The Sopranos, angry at the wobbling (or not?) spinning top at the end of Inception, or obsessing over whether Deckard is a Replicant in the original Blade Runner.[3] If art reflects life, then ambiguity at the end is the only real answer. That’s unsettling, maybe, but nothing about our lives is definitive. Not even what we hear when internet memes make us listen to words on repeat and share them with the world.[4]

John Saxon

One of the funnier scenes starring John Saxon. The idiot desk sergeant took down a phone number for the sorority house, and this is where he explains to Saxon that it’s a new exchange – Fellatio 20880.

Some of the tropes explored in this film are the injection of humor juxtaposed directly with serious horror, the first-person camera from the killer’s POV, location based serial killing, and holiday/seasonal settings, all of which John Carpenter borrowed for Halloween.[5] The slasher genre in general has borrowed many of these techniques. It’s not like Black Christmas was particularly original in using these or other film techniques (like oblique angles, zooms/pans/cut and discordant music) but the way in which they are combined was relatively new for American cinema. Italian giallo films by directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento had either developed or expanded most of these in imitation of American mystery/noir directors like Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, giallo as an art genre is the Italian version of pulp, down to translating and interpreting great works by people like Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and Ed McBain, mainstays of mystery pulp.

Slasher movies are definitely pulp. Some may have arthouse aspirations, but even the best of them have grindhouse cores.


[1]Bob Clark is maybe more famous for his lighter-hearted Christmas movie A Christmas Story. You know, the one with the Red Ryder BB Gun, the Italian leg lamp, and “You’ll shoot your eye out.” However, Clark also wrote and directed the teen sex comedy Porky’s.

[2] She was also in Stephen King’s It, the 1990 tv miniseries starring as Audra, Bill Denbrough’s wife, the one who is caught by It and sent into catatonia after seeing the deadlights. True fans need no more information. The rest of you should read the book. I suppose you could watch the miniseries, but if you’ve seen the more recent movie adaptation, I don’t expect you to enjoy the made-for-tv version.

[3] I love the ambiguity, but I’m also 100% convinced Tony and his family are murdered, Cobb’s reality isn’t the actual one but he has chosen to stay in this version, and Deckard is a Replicant who could be (and likely has been) replaced by an exact duplicate many times over.

[4] After a quick consultation with Matt, I can confirm we here at Broadswords and Blasters are in the “Laurel” camp–because that’s what’s being said.

[5] Arguably Halloween is the better film, what with Hussey’s screen-chewing over-acting bordering on unwatchable, which makes Kidder’s attempts at scenery mastication seem pale by comparison.

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