Saturday, January 2, 2021

RIP: John le Carre' 1931-2020

David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, died yesterday at the age of 89. He started in British intelligence, became a part-time novelist, was exposed to the Soviets by the arch-traitor Kim Philby, had to resign and then went on to become one of the great English novelists of the 20th century. 

   Of his twenty-five novels, I've only read seven- though six of them three times or more. I haven't read any of his post-Cold War books (except the belated and okayish late Smiley book, A Legacy of Spies. He seemed to have become so reflexively anti-American - which I always suspected as having sprung from a chauvinistic belief that we didn't do empire, as well as England, had, more than any real distaste for our overseas adventurism - that I gave up on him. As I've gotten older I've become more able to separate an artist from his politics, or at least enough to give his work the chance to stand on its own. I've also become more appreciative of many artist's later works. There can be a richness of character and depth that's only achievable after a lifetime of writing. So, I've been planning to rectify the situation. I've seen some great films have been made from several later works - The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Most Wanted Man - and I can only imagine how good the books are. (In fact, just last night I bought Our Kind of Traitor and I'm already well into it. It is very good.) PS: I just finished it and it is beautifully written, insightful into what might inspire somewhat to take great risks, and more cynical and brutal than any of his other works I've read)

I first read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1986 in a class on Post-1945 European history. The professor, Myrna Chase, handed out a sheet the first day with a historical topic and a pertinent novel from that era. For the former, I chose De Gaulle opposing the UK's joining the Common Market. It was interesting but dry. For the novel, I chose The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré. I had seen the two mini-series with Alec Guiness, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), both based on le Carré books when they aired, but I really didn't follow them. I just knew le Carré wrote spy stories. What I didn't know was exactly what kind of spy stories. 

I was raised watching the James Bond movies, and while I knew real espionage was nothing like it, I still imagined there were romantic aspects to it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré's third novel and first major success, disabused me of any of that. By then it was known le Carré had been some sort of spy - to this day it's unclear what he actually did - and brought a personal knowledge of what went on on the secret battlefields of the Cold War. Spy is about a mission to discredit an East German intelligence officer by convincing his superiors he's a double agent for the British. What arises from that scheme is a series of betrayals and brutal double-crosses. There's little action, idealists are lambs for the slaughter, and no one is trustworthy. It was the most cynical book I'd read up until that time and it gave me a new perspective on the Cold War, or at least an added one. Had unconscionable things been done over the course of the Cold War by the West? If so, had they had any true value in the conflict? It's also a great thriller and the protagonist, Alec Leamas, is one of the great tragic heroes of 20th-century literature. Noted spy aficionado Graham Greene called it the best spy novel he'd ever read and six decades later it remains a powerful indictment of spying and people who direct and carry it out. When le Carré wrote one last book about his most well-known character, George Smiley, he was also drawn back to Alec Leamas and his mission to East Germany. That return to the beginning, A Legacy of Spies, adds great depth to Leamas, Smiley, and Peter Guillam, even if it ends with a paean to the European Union. 

Almost as soon as I had finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I picked up the Karla Trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1979). Together, they tell the complex and complicated story of George Smiley's uncovering of a mole in the British intelligence - colloquially called the Circus - and his efforts to thwart the head of Soviet intelligence, a brilliant operator is known by the code name Karla. It's as a great a sustained work of worldbuilding as the Lord of the Rings. At some point, words le Carre' created to describe elements of spycraft, such as a mole to describe a double agent or scalphunters, the field agents who do the real dirty work,  were actually taken up by the real espionage business. It's a dense, believable maze of bureaucratese and double-dealing peopled with con-artists, various species of ladder-climbers, and a few honest players.

These books are also where le Carre's best-known character really comes to the fore: George Smiley. He was conceived of as the anti-Bond - intellectual and definitely not given to feats of action and derring-do. He was short and dumpy and forever cuckolded, not an amoral killer and cocksman. Here he is described in Tinker, Tailor:

Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet. His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms were too short, for, as with Roach, when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed the fingers.

He isn't dashing, but he is brilliant at digging out people's motives and making the connections between various events and actors. He possesses a highly honed talent for manipulation, though only in his work. Commenting on Smiley's wayward wife, someone tells him if he'd run her as an agent things might have gone better for the couple. His first two appearances, in Call for the Dead (1961) and then A Murder of Quality (1962), see Smiley operating like a classic English detective. It is in his role as right-hand man of Control, head of the Circus, running Alec Leamas in Spy that we get to see Smiley as operator and manipulator of men. He performs a similar function in The Looking Glass War (1965) (which I haven't read).  In the Karla Trilogy, he is the spy as hunter and plotter extraordinaire. 

What makes the trilogy important is how it plumbs the depths of disguise and betrayal as ways of life and the costs of taking up the same tools as the Soviets in order to fight them. Along the way, there's a thorough examination of England's place as a worn-out, long-past-its-day empire struggling to maintain a place at the great nations' table by selling out to America. As one character in Tinker, Tailor puts it:

 “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world. You’re the last, George, you and Bill. And filthy Percy a bit.”

The generation le Carre' was writing about, born during or just after WWI thought they'd be the masters of the world's greatest empire but instead had to navigate its decline and fall. As I noted above, I haven't read his more recent novels, but it seems that what he saw as the obsequious sidling up to America by the Tony Blair government during the Iraq War and the loss of any remaining British moral authority is a major focus in much of his later work. In those books in the absence of Soviet spies, there are international arms dealers, pharmaceutical companies, and, ultimately spies again with the rise of Islamic terrorism and the endless wars in Asia. 

I thought I had more to write at this time, but I don't. The world has lost a great writer  - not just as a chronicler of the duplicitous times we've lived in since WWII - but as someone who has delved deeply into how we lie to ourselves and others, as well as the costs of abandoning our ideals. Using the form of the espionage story, le Carre' wrote some of the best and most important novels about the corrupting power of ideology, power, and wealth. If uncertain of where to start, do so where I did, with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Note: Spy was also turned into a movie starring Richard Burton and directed by Martin Ritt. It is bleak and savage and one of the best movies of the Cold War.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020



Django (1966)

]directed by Sergio Corbucci
script by Sergio Corbucci
lifted uncredited from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo

"What did you say?

   It doesn't matter. What matters is that you're about to die."

                                                                    Django responding to a Red Shirt

Django has one of the coolest openings ever:  

This is not a great movie (unlike Corbucci's 1968 masterpiece, The Great Silence {which I wrote about here}), but it is packed with some brilliant, lunatic scenes that make it worthwhile viewing. 

According to Wikipedia, Sergio Corbucci was filming another movie and was approached by a novice producer in need of a quick hit. Corbucci jumped at the offer and decided to do a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1961 samurai movie, Yojimbo. Sergio Leone had already done that with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and set Clint Eastwood on the path to superstardom. Corbucci, a more overtly political director had something else in mind.

Where there was no obvious racial animosity between the Mexican and American gangs in Leone's movie, outright racism was going to be at the heart of Corbucci's. Again, in the earlier film, politics are nonexistent. In Django, while superficial at best, they are there and serve to justify the Mexican gangs actions, at least a little.

Franco Nero

The movie opens with Django (Franco Nero) appearing out of nowhere and coming across a group of Mexican bandits preparing to whip a woman for the crime of running away from their boss, Hugo (José Bódalo). As the punishment begins, shots ring out and all the Mexicans are killed. A band of Americans, all wearing bright red scarves have suddenly appeared. While they untie the woman, they don't free her, instead they immediately prepare to burn her alive for the crime of miscegenation. That proves too much for Django and he up toward the Americans. Soon, they too lie dead in the mud, and this time, the woman, whom we've learned is named Maria (Loredana Nusciak), is freed.

Eventually the viewer learns that under the command of Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), a band of inveterate racist Confederates have made their way into Mexico where they've been helping the Mexican government against revolutionaries led by Hugo. Jackson is an old enemy of Django and Hugo is an old friend. Soon, Django is killing and plotting, which in turn leads to more killing and more plotting. What's inside that coffin he's been dragging around turns out to be so cool it's probably the one thing everyone who has ever seen the movie remembers.

The movie suffers from a weak, slapdash script. Again, according to Wikipedia, the script was being written and rewritten constantly. In a 2001 article in The Guardian, Nero said, when shooting started, Corbucci had little more than a "scaletta," a synopsis. It tells with slack dialogue and hackneyed motivations. The terrible dubbing doesn't help matters whatsoever. The whole movie has a feeling of having been done on the fly at times. None of these things, though, make it unwatchable, only disappointing considering how much better it might have been.

Eduardo Fajardo
Despite its flaws, Django still provides a good kick or two to the gut in the best possible ways. I think Corbucci making Major Jackson and his Red Shirts the real villains is similar to what was done with South Africans in Lethal Weapon II (dir. Richard Donner, 1989): blood and murder are made more virtuous by the presence of dastardly racists. Still, racist Americans in a Western in 1966 are pretty-in-your face and on target. By then, the rest of the world was getting a good look at American racist and their fight against black civil rights. I have to believe the despicable Jackson and company captured foreign reaction to that pretty well. I may not normally care what an Italian communist has to say about America, but if the proverbial broken clock can be right twice a day, he can at least once in his career. 

Then there's the violence. There's some pretty brutal killings in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More (dir. Leone, 1965), but nothing that quite compares to those in Django. The killing of Jackson's men and the attack on the Mexican Army detachment are industrialized murder on a scale not seen in a many Westerns before. There may not be the gallons of blood Peckinpah would unleash a few years later in The Wild Bunch (1969) (see here), but it's nearly as intense, and done with such vigor and sure handed playing to the audience it's easy to get swept up in it and cheer it on.

Django also looks good. Considered the first part of Corbucci's "Mud and Blood Trilogy" (which also includes The Great Silence and The Specialists (1969)), it's got an exhausted, filthy look that as much as the plot demythologizes - hell, anti-mythologizes - the West. Too many American Westerns look too clean. That was rarely the case with Spaghetti Westerns and Corbucci brings on the muck and mire by the truck loads. 

Nero and Nusciak
The same ugliness applies to the cast. The whores aren't pretty, most of the men are unshaven and dirty and most are ugly. Major Jackson looks normal, but at least we see how misshapen his soul is right away. Even the youthful and handsome Nero's face is obscured by makeup to age him and whiskers.  Whether only the ugly inhabit the West or the West deforms its inhabitants, it's not a pretty place. Only Maria starts and remains beautiful through the whole movie. 

Corbucci's West isn't John Ford's land of mesas and strong-hearted men with noble codes. It's not Boetticher's stripped down and hardboiled West, either. It's a vile place filled with Gothic flourishes and it's full of pulpish goodness and badness. It's an intense place and Django, maybe more than its better made Leone predecessors the herald of the increasing bizarreness of Spaghetti Westerns to come.

Django, censored in the UK, without an official US release until 1972, still became an international hit and made Franco Nero a star. There are more than thirty sequels, only one of which, Django Strikes Again (dir. Ted Archer, aka Nello Rossati, 1987) is official and stars Franco Nero. The name Django was even added to Italian mobster movies because it had been such a hit. Of course, most recently, Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained (2012), an homage to the original and featuring Nero in a cameo role. 

Rating  - B: When I first saw this about twenty-five years ago, I totally loved it. That opening, the big reveal on what's in the coffin, it just hit me as totally cool. Now, I'm more "eh," and I shrug my shoulders. I've seen so many more Spaghetti Westerns that I know just how good they can be (and, again, with The Great Silence, just how good Corbucci could be), that I know it isn't wrong to want more than some shiny-shiny things from them. Nonetheless, those shiny-shiny bits are a lot of fun, and it's always exciting seeing a young star on the make. Franco Nero - even badly dubbed - just looks right and swaggers with the best of them. If you haven't seen Django, watch it, if only to find out what's in Django's coffin. 

Django's Historical Location: somewhere along the  US-Mexico border after the Civil War

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear and like most Italian Westerns it wasn't filmed anywhere remotely near the real West. Instead, it was filmed in the Tor Caldara nature reserve near Anzio and in a run down Western town on the Elios film set near Rome. If you look up the latter on IMDB you'll see over a dozen different Westerns were shot there.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

More Tolkien Covers

Last time I posted Barbara Remington's Lord of the Rings covers for Ballantine. Those were the first versions of Tolkien's books I read. They were my dad's and they eventually fell apart. When I bought a new set, they had covers featuring paintings by Tolkien. As much as I love Remington's on-the-nose sixties art, I prefer Tokien's. I love his art nouveau-influenced style and the rare chance to see an author's actual vision put to paper. I'm still looking for good shots of more of his art to post, but these four covers will do in the meantime.

depicted: Bilbo and the dwarves escaping the Elf King's hall

depicted: Hobbiton

depicted: Fangorn Forest

depicted: Barad-dûr

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Beautiful Ballantine Covers

Many of the books I'm hoping to read for my new Black Gate column were published by Ballantine books, some as precursors to and others as part of the famous Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. That's got me looking at my shelf-full of them and their beautiful covers. Several times over the years I've written about the quality of old book covers compared to modern ones. It should come as no surprise I think the old ones come out on top most of the time.

While Gervasio Gallardo is probably the single artist most recognized from the Ballantine AF books Lin Carter edited, there were other artists of note, especially for the pre-Carter books. Here are some of my favorites, all by the recently deceased Barbara Remington.

These hippy trippy covers were my first vision of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien couldn't understand them, but that's because Remington wasn't able to read them before doing the covers. She said she would have done something very different if she had, but I'm glad she didn't. I love these ludicrous artifacts from stranger days. 

I particularly love that together they form one lunatic vision of Tolkien's world

The first three of these are by Barbara Remington, while the fourth, possibly by a different artist, is uncredited. I hope to tackle Worm sooner rather than later, but I make no guarantees. These covers are remarkable. I love the ouroboros motif and the high middle ages depictions of the knights and castles. The dogs and lions on Mistress have a heraldic quality reflects perfectly echoes Eddison's medieval stylings. 

I look and look at both these sets of covers and I wonder why must we continue to suffer God awful photoshopped covers. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Back in the Saddle Again: A New Monthly Column

After nearly two years of retirement from Black Gate, I'm coming back. I'm brushing the cobwebs out of my brain, flexing my writing muscles, and gearing up for a return to the electronic pages of the best fantasy (and horror, and sci-fi, and crime fiction) magazine around. The luminous Mrs. V. has already signed back on to edit my work so it'll be coherent. 

There'll be two significant changes. The first is I'll be posting monthly, not weekly. Each new article will post on the first Friday of the month, starting in December. I figure a lighter schedule is the way to go. Five years of reading and reviewing three books and a half dozen or more short stories every month burned me out.

The other is I'll be reading classic works I haven't read before (or only once a long time ago - I've always got to give myself some sort of wiggle room - which specifically mean Gormenghast). The first book, which I've already started, is Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. The Last Unicorn, and The Ship of Ishtar, as well as some Gothic romances, including Melmoth the Wanderer and Frankenstein, are some others I think I'll give a go. I can imagine reading things not as old, but I definitely want to focus on some of the books most important to the evolution of fantasy literature. 

I want to dig into fantasy from before genrefication took hold. That's what I call the point when fantasy got locked down. It was as if clear limitations were staked out marking out what is and isn't fantasy. Fantasy was reduced to no more than a commodity and tropes have come to supplant the unique and strange. Much contemporary fantasy seems to be written by authors for whom only other fantasy exists and those are their only influences. It's a copy of a copy, not something inspired and drawn up from the deeper wells of our shared cultures and myths. It often reads like a gaming campaign, complete with detailed magic systems and character classes. There's also the whole grimdark business which seems intent on eliminating the fantastic from fantasy much of the time. 

I think it was the explosion of epic fantasy series in the eighties and nineties and the commercial success of the genre that much of the strangeness went out of it. When Lester Del Rey deliberately set out to find a Xerox copy of the Lord of the Rings and discovered The Sword of Shannara (reviewed here) can be seen as the actual start of all this. For over a decade we were blessed with an endless slew of often hard to differentiate epic series. Now, with grittiness all the rage, everyone is aping George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie. The tropes have changed a bit, but we're still getting lots of not very dissimilar epic series - just "grittier."

I know well-received books like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that don't limit themselves to the tired and true (hey, I haven't read that, so I might add it to the list) still appear from time to time, but they are anomalies. A few writers are still inspired by pulp and older fantasy (James Enge, Howard Andrew Jones, and Raphael Ordoñez  among them), but there's little room for the dreamlike imagination of many early fantasies or the magpie mixtures of sci-fi, horror, and anything else that suited the fancies of writers like William Hope Hodgson or Clark Ashton Smith. If you're not new here you know this is one of the hobby horses I ride the hardest. I'll make every effort to not be a bore.

I'm also hoping to get some Western movie reviews up again. It's not like I haven't watched a ton of them since the last time I posted a review (here).

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood by P.J. Thorndyke

 It's been nearly two years since I wrote anything for Black Gate. Save a few posts here, I've not done much writing at all. Every now and then, John O'Neill, captain of the good ship Black Gate, sent me an inquiry to try to entice me back into the fold. Until last month none of them proved tempting enough. Then I got P.J. Thorndyke's Barbarians at the Gates of Hollywood.

The book is absolute gold, albeit on a subject that rarely shines: sword & sorcery movies. They're mostly tripe, but, the story around them and about their creation is fascinating. I recommend Thorndyke's book to anyone with the slightest interest in low-budget movies as well as any S&S reader looking for a great resource on, no matter what the films' quality, an important part of the genre's history.

For the full review go HERE.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A Horror Favorite: Session 9

Every October, the luminous Mrs. V. and I sit down to watch spooky (but not too spooky) movies together. I've long thought one of my favorites might be too much for her, but rewatching it last year, I realized it isn't. Unfortunately, while she indeed didn't find it too creepy, she also didn't really dig it. Oh, well, it's still one of my favorite horror movies. 

Session 9 (2001), directed by Brad Anderson

When it all comes together - story, atmosphere, acting - you get something that will you haunt you a long time after the screen goes dark and the house lights come up. Played by Peter Mullan, Gordon Fleming runs a faltering asbestos removal business. In hope of saving it, he takes on a seemingly impossible contract to clean up a massive old asylum in one week instead of the anticipated three.
Session 9 was filmed on the grounds of Danvers State Hospital, a closed facility outside of Boston. Built in 1878 and designed for 500 to 1000 patients at best, by the 1940s over 2000 people were housed there. Like most such facilities across the country, budget cuts, changing approaches to mental health treatment, and horrible conditions, it was closed. Since the movie was made in 2000 most of the complex has been demolished despite efforts to preserve it. 

The men on his crew, including a terrific David Caruso, balk, but the chance to make a big bonus is enough to get them all on board. When they discover a cache of interview tapes with a notorious resident of the hospital things start to get strange. Then they get terrible.

Session 9 builds much of its atmosphere out of relics, real as well as props, from the brick corpse of the asylum. Real photos from long-dead patients decorate the walls of one room, and the place really was plagued by ancient, crumbling plaster and asbestos. The graveyard is actually fake, but it was modeled on the real one nearby. 

When I saw this the first time (at the Angelika), I had no idea what I'd be getting. I knew it was a horror flick, but I only knew Brad Anderson from his excellent comic Next Stop Wonderland. Every time I've watched it since, it still manages to raise a chill. Like The Haunting, it puts to the viewer the question of whether events are supernatural or not.

Peter Mullan
The titular session tapes from an infamous killer once held in the hospital are fake. Nonetheless, they sound real enough. Each tape brings the cast (and the viewer) closer to a shadow prowling the ruins' hallways. Whether their final revelations are real or not is a question that persists until the film's final frames.

I have my own opinion on that, but the movie as it stands (there are deleted scenes that can be seen as strengthening one of the two sides) leaves the question unanswered, a black ambiguity that leaves Fleming's actions mysteries to the very end. This, plus the atmosphere of a place that was a real-life house of horrors and the cast, make this a movie that holds up under repeated viewings.