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All Things Thriller

A celebration of thrillers, noire and black comedy in film and literature by Pamela Lowe Saldana

The Midnight Assassin, by Skip Hollandsworth, 2015, Henry Holt and Company; Creative Nonfiction/Historical True Crime

The butchery began out of the blue and, fittingly, in a freezing rain storm called a Blue Norther, that swept across the Texas hill country on New Years Eve, 1884. That evening an African American laborer by the name of Walter Spencer staggered across the yard from his servant’s shack and pounded on the door of the main house. Seriously injured, bleeding profusely from deep gashes to the head, he pleaded to be let in. The occupant of the house reluctantly complied.

Once inside, Spencer frantically spilled out a nightmarish series of events: he and his girlfriend, the cook and maid of the main house, Mollie Smith, had been attacked while sleeping in their bed.  When Spencer came to, Mollie was nowhere to be found. He had searched the yard and street to no avail.

The man of the house listened but was unmoved. He told Spencer he’d better bandage his head before he bled to death. Then he unceremoniously showed him the door.

Despite a compelling premise, The Midnight Assassin is an underwhelming investigation into a little known nineteenth century serial murder case and it’s marginalized victims.  Texas Monthly executive editor, Skip Hollandsworth pushes the BS meter into the red right off the bat with the assertion that his subject is America’s first serial killer. Not true. Before the Midnight Assassin–or the Servant Girl Annihilator as he was also called–there were many other U.S. serial killers. A cluster of them, curiously, were from Massachusetts, e.g., Cambridge serial poisoner, Sarah Jane Robinson (1881); Boston child murderer and rapist, Thomas W. Piper (1871) and Chelsea child murderer, Jesse Pomeroy (1874). But American serial killers go back even further than that, yes, all the way back to infamous cousins, Micajah and Wiley Harpe (1798-1799) who killed at least twenty-five people in Kentucky and Tennessee.

None the less, The Midnight Assassin offers some compelling details of serial murder before the term was coined, just twenty years after the Civil War, when people commuted by horse and carriage, before DNA, criminal data bases and geographical profiling existed. Even then there were telephones, incandescent light bulbs and the precursor of the criminal profiler, called alienists. Hollandsworth introduces them to us and educates us sufficiently about the era.

The murders, spanning a year, are particularly gruesome and Hollandsworth is restrained with his account of the horrific facts. The killer used an ax or a hatchet, for the most part, cleaving heads in two. Even more chilling, he rammed sharpened steel rods through several of his victims ears. Those victims, with the exception of the last two–seven women and one man–were African American. Though there were blood trails and foot prints left behind, as well as eye witnesses (the killer brazenly attacked women while they slept with their boyfriends or children) the Midnight Assassin was never caught.

The locale of the crimes is Austin Texas of the late 1800s. Hollansworth describes it as a rambunctious boom town, stretching its cattle and cotton confines with mass construction, specifically that of the University of Texas and the huge, ornate Texas State Capital. The main streets bustle with opulent restaurants and a opera house. Even more cosmopolitan is the integration of Whites, Blacks and Latinos so soon after Reconstruction. But there is virulent racism that hinders the investigation and as Hollansworth points out, the killings become a tragic catalyst to the regression of race relations. He doesn’t probe these issues enough though. Nor does he make nineteenth century Austin–this burgeoning, ambitious little metropolis–a bonafide character in the saga. It’s an opportunity that is sorely missed.

The Midnight Assassin flirts with some intriguing ideas and themes but fails to flesh them out. I would have liked more exploration into the psychology of the killer per alienists and modern criminal profilers. Likewise it would have been interesting to have a more focused rundown of viable suspects, because there were some and a few are particularly intriguing, but Hollansworth brushes them off and goes in the direction of connecting the murders to Jack the Ripper. And though he ends up, wisely, discarding that theory, it is not soon enough for me.

Those who are looking to be captivated by a story–albeit a true one–are prone to be disappointed. The Midnight Assassin reads like a text book on Prozac which is especially perplexing since Hollandsworth co-wrote the terrific script to the deservedly highly acclaimed 2011 motion picture Bernie. My advice–skip The Midnight Assassin and watch Bernie instead. It’s true too. And it happened in Texas.

 

 

 

Angel Baby, A Novel by Richard Lange, 2013; Neo-Noir/Thriller; Little, Brown/Mulholland

There’s a lot of running in Richard Lange’s brash thriller, Angel Baby. A vengeful husband chases his liberated wife. A dead end drunk flees from his past. A stone cold killer tries to outrun his worst fear. And a crooked cop ducks out on his gambling debts.

Then there’s Luz. She’s running the hardest. That’s because she’s a mother who left her little girl behind. Now she’s got her head on straight; now she’s determined to backtrack and make up for lost time despite the miles of greed, perversion and murder–not to mention her own guilt–that lies between the two of them.

Rolando, a.k.a. El Principe (The Prince), is a narco who traffics for the Tijuana cartel. A fiendish control freak, he keeps his beautiful wife, Luz, under his thumb by keeping her sweet, i.e., under the influence. Or so he thinks. Luz executes a daring escape from the mansion that is her prison, absconding with bundles of The Prince’s cash, his custom silver-plated .45 and, more ominously, gobs of his pride. On her way out, she has no choice but to shoot and kill two of his most trusted compatriots. She will do what ever it takes to make it across the border to Los Angeles where her four year-old daughter, Isabel, awaits.

To get there she hires Malone, a driver with the DT’s, a death wish and a simmering conscience. In Luz, Malone sees glimpses of redemption but a ruthless hit man with his own seething vendetta is hot on their heels. Even worse a corrupt, perverted boarder patrol agent has gotten wind of the pretty “chica” with a backpack full of money trying to cross.

And then there’s The Prince. He doesn’t want Luz dead just yet; he has visions of torture running through his head. He will do anything to make her suffer.

Angel Baby is Richard Lange’s second novel and it is an unashamedly old fashioned page turner. The characters are believably fleshed out, the dialogue is bracingly genuine and while the plot stretches the bounds of credibility at times–especially toward the end–it has enough grit and realism to keep aficionados on the line. Coming in at around three hundred pages it’s a great rainy day read. But make no mistake, this is dark, under belly stuff. There’s so much evil and desperation, so much running, that some thriller enthusiasts–especially those who favor the more “sophisticated” psychological variety–may find this outing too exhausting. Those who enjoy the hardcore classic noir of Jim Thompson or the contemporary noir of Nik Pizzolatto should be sufficiently conditioned for the journey.

Lange’s most recent offering, 2017’s The Smack, is available on line but I’d rather not wait. I’m running down to Books A Million now.

Ten Killer Thriller Needle Drops and Soundtracks (5-1)

Once upon a time movies were silent and a pianist or organist would play popular songs of the day or improvise as an accompaniment to the film. In major metropolitan areas an entire orchestra would sometimes play.

Then in 1927 The Jazz Singer became the first feature length, commercially viable film to break the sound barrier by using a synchronized recorded musical score that also contained segments of speech and singing to which the actors lip-synced. Hence the “soundtrack” was born. Some ten years later, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first soundtrack to be marketed and sold.

There have been many groundbreaking soundtracks since with original scores that are engraved into our popular culture. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Godfather, Star Wars, Jaws, Psycho and Blade Runner are just a few such examples off the top of my head. These are the caviar of soundtracks. (Don’t worry, this is my one and only culinary metaphor per this post.)

The following examples are hardly that fru fru. (Not that fru fru is a bad thing. That’s what I named my Pomeranian/Blue Heeler mix.) In fact, the following are not scores at all (original music composed for a specific movie) but what are called “needle drops”–pop tunes used in the soundtrack to enhance a dramatic sequence.

And yes, Easy Rider should definitely be here–it is the father of the modern area pop/rock infused soundtrack–but I have a personal bias against the film, i.e., I just don’t like it. Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction should represent as well, for these films contain needle drops that are truly the best of the best and, consequently, are on everybody’s list. That’s precisely the reason I’ve omitted them (but mad props, just the same.) So now, with much ado and hubris, my top five needle drops from thriller complimentary genres:

5. Jackie Brown – 1997

My favorite Tarantino film. Intimate, engaging, at times even lush,  it is chock full of killer needle drops like when Melanie (Bridget Fonda should have won an Oscar for this) is riding Louis (Robert De Niro) hard about being a little on the slow side. They pull into a parking lot and Louis turns off the key and with it the great golden oldie from The Grass Roots, Midnight Confessions. They go about their business and return to the parking lot. Melanie’s still goin’ at it. The way she hisses his name–Lou-issss–mocking his manhood and his criminal bonafides, ratcheting up the tension until he can’t stand it anymore; until he pulls out a handgun and drops her like a hot brick. Then he gets back in the VW bus and fires it up. Midnight Confessions kicks back in picking up where he and Melanie left off mid jam, only without Melanie of course.

4.Blackboard Jungle – 1955

An earthshaking feature film with aftershocks that reverberated around the world, Blackboard Jungle was the first film to use a rock song in it’s soundtrack. The song–Bill Haley and the Comets Rock around the Clock with exclusive sound score drum soloplayed during the opening credits, graphics flashing  upon a blackboard–drew in hordes of teenagers who’d never heard anything like it. And what a song. The count off–one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock rock—the jaw dropping guitar hammer-on solo and the raucous, rockabilly beat soaked in rhythm and blues, inspired dancing in the isles and rioting in theaters where Blackboard Jungle played across the U.S. and Europe. The birth of rock and roll rebellion. The actual movie’s pretty good too.

3. Apocalypse Now – 1979

There are several iconic needle drops in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, most notably the helicopter fleet assault on a Vietcong village to Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner. But for me the seminal sequence is the USO stage show. Once again there is a helicopter. It hovers over a grandiose floating stage while hundreds of  inebriated soldiers cheer uproariously. The helicopter lands and a slick promoter hops out onto the stage.  He grabs a mic and starts working the crowd. A band lays down a woozy, heavy on the reverb cover version of Dale Hawkins’ Susie Q as scantily clad playmates disembark from the helicopter. The playmates  bump and grind wantonly, clumsily to the thudding bass. They straddle and hump M16 rifles in an uninspired display of sensuality. They leer and dangle their wares as far downstage as they can get without falling off. The starving, indiscriminate troops teeter on the brink mobocracy while desensitized villagers stare at the spectacle through a chain linked fence. And then a soldier jumps on stage.

2. Mean Streets – 1973

In terms of landmark significance and the elevation of the needle drop to an art form, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets should rank number one; here (yes I’m going there and I’m not asking for permission) or on any such list. The opening scene is unquestionably brilliant. In roughly two and half minutes, the length of The Ronettes Be My Baby which thunders as the buoyant theme to a grainy, self aggrandizing home movie, the story of Charlie–a young, aspiring wiseguy–is told as the opening credits roll. In this scene we see him (Harvey Kitel) nattily dressed with perfectly coiffed hair, making his neighborhood rounds, glad-handing men of questionable means and character, kissing babies and elderly women and posing on the church steps with his priest. All is as happy and perfect as the Ronettes lyrical song. And as fleeting.

1. Boogie Nights – 1997

With music from artist such as ELO, The Emotions, Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and War, the Boogie Nights soundtrack represents a curious window of time, late 70s through early 80s, when everybody was doing it in every conceivable way; when cocaine was thought to be relatively harmless despite enormous evidence to the contrary and, yet, there was still a pervasive, wide-eyed innocence that could be exploited to the max. These are the times of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), a well endowed porn star straight out of high school who, through a series of mishaps, winds up on the couch of a coke crazed millionaire in bikini briefs and a wide open silk robe. Now this guy loves (and I do mean loves) mix tapes. While he hits the freebase pipe, his mix tape blares–dun dun dun–Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. As the crescendo builds he air drums manically, passionatelyNormally this would just be lame, but here it is unsettling because Dirk and a couple of his buddies have conspired to sell the dude a large plastic bag of baking powder despite his–Rahad’s his name (Alfred Molina)–bandying about a huge revolver, albeit playfully. Even more disturbing, a weird teenage boy unceremoniously lights firecrackers and then throws them onto the carpeted floor, over and over again. Those of us who partied hearty in the 80s pretty much agree–no good can come of this.

 

 

 

Ten Killer Thriller Needle Drops and Soundtracks (10 – 6)

We all have our favorite cinematic moments where the music swells and our feelings soar with joy, sorrow, terror or humor. When (and where) the film director uses pre-recorded  music to inspire emotion it’s called a needle drop. Case in point, the scene depicted in the above image from Reservoir Dogs, a scene so iconic that I need not describe the circumstances–it is grafted into our cinematic bone marrow. But I will recall the reaction the scene evoked: unease, humor, shock, terror and repulsion.

Yes, chances are, we were all on the same roller-coaster when Mr. Blonde did his weird little cha cha to the fantastic early 70s pop/rock ditty from Stealers Wheel, Stuck In The Middle With You. And if you’re like me, the experience has altered the way you hear the song even now.

The following are some of my favorite needle drops. I’ve limited them to thriller complementary genres and though not all are necessarily the best of the best representations, (you won’t find Derek and the Dominos Layla from Goodfellas here, it’s just too obvious) most will spark a memory and an emotion or two. Hope so anyway.

 

10. Layer Cake – 2005 

An understated and underrated British gangster movie with a lean, not so mean and very hot Daniel Craig, before he blew up into a superstar. The soundtrack is on the reserved side as well–in a good way–with music from The Cult, The Source, Duran Duran and the like. The selections capture a time and a place and a certain hip coldness that makes us feel a tad bit removed but still worried. Joe Cocker’s mournful, haunting cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood during closing credits resonates longing and regret. It’s a shot through the heart.

9. Natural Born Killers – 1994

A very polarizing film–you either love it or hate it. There’s no denying the soundtrack though. As music director, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sutures a music montage that is close to perfect. Patti Smith, Daune Eddy, L7 and Patsy Cline are some of the artists that narrate a rainbow nightmare love story. The scene where the Cowboy Junkies’ Sweet Jane plays softly while Juliette Lewis gets carried away in sentiment and philosophy may bring a tear to your eye–or not.

8. Sid & Nancy – 1986

This is one of my favorite movies. It’s bleak and nihilistic. Chloe Webb and Gary Oldman  wolf down scenery like, ahem, wolves and there’s so much whining, drinking and drugging I had a panic attack the first time I saw it. And the soundtrack? It’s awesome though it contains no Sex Pistols songs. Worth having just for Gary Oldman’s absurd and totally punk cover of My Way. Drop the needle moment: Sid has just made bail and he’s walking through a Escape from New York cityscape where he encounters some kids with a boom box. He jams with them to–drum roll— KC & the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight. Charming. And I’m not kidding.

7. The Big Lebowski – 1998

There are so many great pop infused moments here that it’s really hard to narrow them down for the sake of one relatively tight paragraph. So:

(a.) The the opening credits scroll to Western singing group The Sons of the Pioneers gently crooning Tumbling Tumbleweeds in a salute to The Dude’s laid-back id as well as the film’s groovy So-Cal locale.

(b.) Dude gets down to Creedence’s Lookin’ Out My Backdoor when his mellow gets harshed by a roach drop and he wrecks his Torino–again.

(c.) The Dude’s White Russian gets roofied and he slips into an eye-popping  bowling pins/scissors/phallic symbol surrealistic sequence to The First Editions Just Dropped In (to see what condition my condition was in.) Um…it’s critical.

6. Repo Man – 1984

Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Iggy Pop and Emilio Estevez sporting an 80s flattop and a dangling cross earring; what’s not to like? The part where a bummed out Otto (Estevez) sings Black Flag’s TV Party after being orally rejected brings about a smile or a frown, depending on one’s perspective.

 

 

The Asphalt Jungle,1950; a film directed by John Houston; Classic Cinema

A big man in an ill fitting suit lumbers down a decayed, litter strewn sidewalk. He looks over his shoulder. There are are telephone poles and wires. Nondescript, white washed buildings loom. It is broad daylight and shadows splay. All of this in glorious black and white.

A cop car passes and slows. The man ducks behind a viaduct post. He belongs to this place. His name is Dix. And though we don’t know him, we’ve seen him around enough to know who he is. He’s the muscle.

A short time later we see Doc (Sam Jaffe) whose on the scrawny side and likes everything just so. Doc rides in taxis, smokes expensive cigars and is comfortable in his own skin but he belongs here just like Dix. We recognize him too. He’s the brains.

Doc is also a jewel thief and he’s been thinking about this particular score for a long time. Normally he would put his own caper crew together, but he’s fresh out of prison and low on cash. That’s where the “Big Fix” comes in. And, sure enough, we know him too. His name is Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern).

Lon’s a crooked attorney and political insider– a smoothie with a Cartier watch and silk socks. (He holds his cigarette like he’s mimicking Carey Grant.) There’s just one problem though. Yeah, you guessed it. He’s flat out broke.

As fate would have it, all that Chateau Petrus and escargot–not to mention a much younger mistress living in the guest house (Marylin Monroe in her first significant role)–has depleted Lon’s fortune. Desperate for a windfall, Lon agrees to finance the job so he can double cross Doc and get his hands on the jewels.

That’s not going to be as easy as Lon thinks because Doc’s an old pro and he thinks he smells a rat. But Doc doesn’t let on because he still wants to pull the job. He needs what he calls a “hooligan” to watch his back. That’s where Dix comes in.

As Dix, Sterling Hayden, gives the performance of his career. Hayden has never been one of my favorite classic cinema leading men. To me, he always came across a little blah, but as Dix, this trait adds a convincing layer to a personality mired in depression.

A strong armed robber and monosyllabic slouch, Dix is not the most sympathetic guy in the room and, consequently, I didn’t like him–at first. But honest oblivion to his own good looks and a clumsy, hesitant vulnerability endured him to me. When Doll, a down and out ex stripper/girlfriend (a terrific Jean Hagen) shows up at his front door he doesn’t turn her away. More impressively he doesn’t hit her up for sex even though she’s susceptible and obviously attracted to him. He sleeps on the couch–at first.

Dix has a fondness for the ponies. He meets Doc at a neighborhood racketeer’s office where he’s paying off a gambling debt. The two hit it off and Dix helps Doc put together a B&E–that’s “breaking and entering”–crew for one last heist. Then Dix plans to hightail it out of the jungle and head for the blue grass of Kentucky where he’s from. And of course we’re rooting for him to take Doll along too.

The jewel heist goes off,  but not without a few hitches. An alarm gets set off when the safe is blown. Doc can hear sirens nearing, but he keeps the crew in place until the last diamond is swiped. Then a crew member gets shot. And that’s just the beginning. If they get away they still have Lon and a crooked police detective to deal with–and a jungle to escape from.

The Asphalt Jungle is an iconic example of film noir, though director John Huston is relatively economical with the signature low key and extreme angle lighting identifiers associated with the genre. The result is a more gritty, less stylized film that enhances the underbelly of a generic metropolis as not only the setting but as a viable character.

Though sometimes described as a heist film, The Asphalt Jungle is a essentially a morality tale with greed and corruption serving as theme. And while the heist sequence is both enthralling and brilliant, it is just that–a sequence, whereas the film rests on a long shot’s broad and weary shoulders and our willingness to bet against the odds.

 

 

 

 

 

Bone Tomahawk, 2015; A film directed by S. Craig Zahler, Independent

A few years ago KFC graced us with the “Famous Bowl”, a concoction of mashed potatoes topped with corn, chicken nuggets, brown gravy and cheese. It was weird. And it sucked.

Director S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk is kind of like that. It’s a concoction of genres and sub-genres–Western, Horror, Black Comedy, Splatter Film and Road-Trail Journey. It, too, is weird. But unlike the “Famous Bowl” it’s pretty damn good.

The plot is nothing new; in fact it harkens back to classic cinema, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers.  Here Mr. O’Dwyer’s (Patrick Wilson) wife (Lili Simmons) has been abducted by savages —not Native Americans, the script is quick to point out, but troglodytes, a.k.a cave dwellers–inbred, cannibalistic ones, at that.

Now as bad as that is (it get’s worse, way worse) Mr. O’Dwyer is an invalid, recuperating from a gruesome compound fracture to either the tibia or fibula. He is an earnest, reverent man who loves his wife dearly (she’s a doctor, no less) and no bone protruding through the flesh is going to stop him from rescuing her. To that end a search party is formed. The leader of the party is the honest and just sheriff (Kurt Russel), his dutiful deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a dandified, taciturn gunfighter named Brooder (Matthew Fox).

At it’s core Bone Tomahawk is grindhouse exploitation, although there are plenty of sophisticated flourishes most readily apparent in the superb ensemble cast. Though each character represents a dyed-in-the-wool type, the actors play sincerely and naturally off each other and, consequently, I grew to care about each of them, especially “back up” Deputy Kory. Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins gives a bravo performance as the kind-hearted, ageing lawman, who at first glance seems a dullard, but I later realized is really a child-like poet instead.

Zahler allows time for character development and, though this is the strength of the piece, he’s been criticized for it. Personally, I loved the dialogue driven first three quarters of the film. The Zahler penned script is funny, clever and nuanced. The men talk about women, food and politics.  I never once checked my watch.

Although the film opens with bloodshed and there is violence through out, it is largely implied. The third act is where the gore and body count–and excellent special effects– finally kick in.

The troglodytes are something to behold. They’re huge, mostly naked and are clearly fascinated with bone body jewelry. They communicate with each other in Neanderthalian grunts (not so unordinary) and battle cry wails emitted through a whistle device, constructed of bones, embedded in their larynx (quite extraordinary).

Oh, and did I mention the troglodytes are cannibals? Yeah, are they ever. They scalp this one guy (once again, not so unordinary considering the subject matter) and then–keep in mind he’s still alive–they turn him upside down and literally pull him asunder by wrenching his legs down (absolutely, freaking, horrifying). The poor guy’s guts gush out in a hemorrhaging heap.

By this time I was invested in the decent and capable, but manfully blundering searchers and the way smarter, but still damsel in distress, lady doctor. I hated to see any of them go–especially the way of the wishboned guy–but despite it’s mashup sophistication and superior ingredients, Bone Tomahawk is still a horror movie. And a horror movie demands what a horror movie demands–sacrifice.

Hounds of Love, 2016; A film directed by Ben Young; Australian

In Greek mythology Cerberus is a three-headed monster hound that guards the gates of hell, hence the phrase “hounds of hell”. In director Ben Young’s horror film Hounds of Love three characters are grafted together for the sake of–I hesitate to even go there–love.

The film opens in a mundane, slightly gritty neighborhood. The camera swoops down over a barely distinguishable couple in a parked car and into a school yard where teenage girls are exercising. It lingers on midriffs and lithe limbs in slow motion and intermittent stills are thrown in giving the scene a herky-jerky unease. Tracers emanate from nubile bodies.

A bell rings and the girls disperse to their own cars or to those of parents and friends. One girl walks down the street alone. A nondescript car follows at a respectful distance and gradually catches up as she strays further from the school. We catch unceremonious glimpses of the driver and his passenger. A friendly woman’s voice calls from the passenger window, offering a ride. It is hot.

Hounds of Love is not your typical horror film. There are no bells and whistles here. Based on the crimes of Australian serial killer couple David and Catherine Birnie, it is  economical to the extreme. And boy is it brutal–but not with the traditional horror signatures of blood and guts. The violence is largely psychological, though we see disconcerting evidence of the physical kind too, e.g., split lips, torture devices, bloody wadded tissues strewn about–and then there are the screams, muffled by low flying airplanes.

Stephen Curry is appallingly evil and scary good as psychopathic sadist John White. He has the fetid look and id of a weirdo hanging out at a drugstore magazine stand. Interacting with boorish neighborhood thugs he bears his underbelly submissively, but with his wife–and partner in rape and murder–he is, predictably, all alpha male. We are repelled by him but understand him nonetheless. He gets his jollies from dominating, humiliating and killing young women.

His wife Evelyn (Emma Booth in a tour de force performance) is more complex. As a woman, I found her particularly deplorable. I didn’t want to understand her, let alone empathize with her, and yet I did, which makes her performance all the more remarkable–and horrifying. There is a mantra among thespians: “acting is listening; acting is reacting”. Booth is a masterful listener. Her lines are sparse and she never anticipates them. It is her expressions and her granite hard eyes, softening here and there, just a bit, that tell her story.

Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is the couple’s victim. I say this unapologetically. She is a teenager, after all, and not nearly as worldly as the semi bad ass she tries to project. That is not to say that she is stupid. Hardly. Cummings is convincing as the resourceful, insightful Vicki. And she is brave. She tries to physically fight off her captors but, of course, it’s two against one. Gagged and chained to a bed, she could just check out and resign herself to a hopeless fate. She doesn’t. Instead she summons her considerable wile, will and intuition in a valiant effort to manipulate the twisted relationship.

This is a stunning debut film for director Ben Young and he is no stranger to the subject matter. Yes he is Australian and keenly aware of the Birnie murders, but perhaps more importantly, his mother is a true crime writer. From an early age he has been schooled in deviant psychology. Young made Hounds of Love on the cheap and the budget constraints magnify its stark, hyper-realistic affect. There are a few sly stylistic flourishes though, such as the slo-mo opening sequence.

If all of this has a familiar ring, don’t be too complacent. If you’ve seen Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer then you’re hip to program. Otherwise, prepare to be overwhelmed.

 

Thieves Like Us, A Novel by Edward Anderson; Depression Era; Inspired by the exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Part One

Bowie is really just a kid, maybe twenty-one, twenty-two at the most. Even though he’s been in prison–for murder no less–and has recently escaped, he’s not streetwise. He’s actually pretty naive.

Don’t get the wrong impression–he’s a murderer, straight up. And he’s dangerous. But not because he wants to be; because he has to be. It’s ’cause he’s grown up hard and poor. The Great Depression. Lot’s of folks did stuff then that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Bowie escaped with two prison buddies. T-Dub and Chicamaw. Now those two are a different story.

Take T-Dub for instance. He’s not exactly as mean as he is schooled in the ways of crime. He’s an ole pro. And when I say ole I mean he’s old–about seventy.

Chicamaw’s not that old. He’s the mean one, but if not for him Bowie would have never met Keechie. She watches over the filling station where they’ve been hiding out. Keechie is Chicamaw’s second cousin. She doesn’t like him though.

Keechie’s not pretty and she knows it. But she is smart. Her life’s been hard too, but she’s no criminal. Even so she falls in love with Bowie. They split up from the other two and run off together.

While Chicamaw and T-Dub are womanizing and liquoring it up, Bowie and Keechie are holed up in a little cottage living very ordinary lives except when the money runs low. Then Bowie teams up with Chicamaw and T-Dub and they rob banks.

Edward Anderson was in every sense a journeyman writer. The son of a printer’s apprentice, he wrote pulp fiction and lurid true crime stories for tabloids; and like so many other writers of his time, he–a native Texan–made a pilgrimage to Europe for inspiration. He didn’t stay long.

Back in the states, he traveled to Hollywood and, for awhile, became screenwriter. But success proved to be a big tease and he habitually found himself back in Texas where he wrote for droves of newspapers. And like many other young men of his generation, he hopped freight trains and ate in soup kitchens. He was hungry. It was the Great Depression.

From his experiences as a hobo he found inspiration and wrote Hungry Men, a novel about hard times and the desperation of those subjected to them. Generally well-received, it was blunt and potent, but not without sentiment. Anderson was a skilled boxer. He knew how to pull his punches in the ring and on paper.

As for news writing, Anderson found it to be a mundane, dehumanizing slog–no better than writing for the tabloids. He became distrustful and embittered toward the press. Lots of folks felt like that–resentful and at their wits end. This was during the same time that Bonnie and Clyde were running the back roads of Texas, holding up filling stations and grocery stores for a pittance and, on a rare occasion, robbing banks for good chunk of change.

Except for three things, Clyde Barrow was just your garden variety low-life: (1) he was extremely resourceful; (2) he was an incredibly elusive, highly skilled driver; and (3) his main partner in crime was his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker. In fact, there is little doubt that if it hadn’t been for Bonnie, very few of us would have heard of Clyde and, if we did, none of us would have cared.

Nonetheless, despite the tabloids insistence otherwise, Clyde was the leader of the gang when there was one and the dominate partner when it was just him and Bonnie–which was most of the time. (Clyde had the tendency to be a dictatorial asshole and Bonnie was about the only person that would/could put up with him.)

They both came up hard–their small stature (he was 5’4”; she was 4’11”) was probably due to malnutrition–especially Clyde who lived with his family under a wagon when they first migrated to Dallas from cotton fields of Telico. From the front porch of his family’s shack in a squatters slum, Clyde could see the shimmering skyline of Dallas proper. Unwilling to resign himself to a life of backbreaking work just to barely get by, he turned to crime young. He stole about anything he could get his hands on, mainly so he could dress nice and impress the girls.

About the only girls a guy like Clyde–one that came from the muddy, rat infested dirt roads of then unincorporated west Dallas–could impress, nice clothes or not, were fellow and equitably desperate camp girls. But maybe–just maybe–if he had the right swagger and can do spirit, he might be able to snag one from Cement City, the bleak as hell corporate commune down the road. As fate would have it, Bonnie Parker lived there.

Thieves Like Us, A Novel by Edward Anderson; Depression Era; Inspired by the exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Part Two

The thing about Bowie, Keechie knows, is that he’s loyal–too loyal to T-Dub and Chickamaw. T-Dub’s an old lech. He throws money at bimbos. And he likes to drink. Chickamaw’s a flat out alcoholic and he’s a hot head deluxe. Plus–and this is the worst thing–he’s jealous.

All of this attracts too much attention, and if Bowie keeps doing business with them he’s going to get caught. She tries to tell him, but he won’t listen. They even argue about it and they hardly ever do that.

Of course Keechie has every reason to be worried; Bowie has already killed a police officer. He had to, she reasons, if he didn’t the cop would have killed him.

Sure enough ole’ T-Dub gets himself killed in a shoot out with the cops and Chicamaw gets thrown into jail. It’s the electric chair for him for sure, unless Bowie can break him out.

In today’s parlance Bonnie Parker would be described as drama queen. In her day people called her a pistol. Just how apt the later description is depends on the historian. Most contend, that despite having a predilection for being photographed brandishing them, she probably never fired a gun in the commission of a robbery.

Bonnie’s father died when she was four and that proved cataclysmic for her family. Up to then the Parker’s were comfortably middle class. Emma, Bonnie’s mother, liked to project herself as affluent. While Charles Parker’s death didn’t dampen her attitude, it devastated her pocket book. Unable to provide for the family in their hometown of Rowena, she had no other choice but to move them to her parents home in Cement City.

Whereas Emma was an unqualified snob, Bonnie was a product of her environment. Cement City was rough. She palled around with bad boys and even had a couple of tattoos (scandalous at the time). Nonetheless her mother had taught her that she was special and she believed it–when she wasn’t bored or depressed. Whenever a camera turned up within her personal space, she jumped in front of it.

Bonnie was twenty-one and estranged from her husband–a two-bit thief–when she met Clyde Barrow. She was babysitting a friend with a broken arm when he dropped by to visit. Fresh out of prison he was skinny as a rail and not much to look at, but you couldn’t tell him that. He oozed bravado. It was love at first sight.

There was a lot riding on Edward Anderson’s second novel. Important things like providing for his wife and children. The matter of his pride; and, perhaps the most important thing, having the ability to feel good, hopeful even, about the future and his place in it.

If things didn’t work out he could always get another job writing for a paper. Or the tabloids.

He bought a car and drove his family into the Texas hill country where they rented a cabin around the outskirts of Kerrville. There Anderson felt more at ease than in Los Angeles where he was regarded as talented–he was one of Raymond Chandler’s (the father of the detective novel) favorite authors–but difficult to work with. Perhaps this was due to his tendency to drink too much and because he preferred his own company. Or maybe too many people had got wind of his hard right politics–he had been seen at a Nazi rally and was heard making anti-Semitic remarks.

Hollywood is a fickle place. That was just one of the many things he hated about it. You could be in and out in a matter of mere moments. Or vice versa. He needed a hit.

When he was in New Orleans writing for True Detective and Murder Stories, his wife, Anne, would spend hours at the police station talking to the top cops, collecting stories for him, about the Dillinger gang, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and the like. The country was in a crime wave–that’s what J. Edgar Hoover called it and Anne had a big in with the guys at the precinct. She had worked for the feds and her dad and her uncle were FBI big wigs.

Anderson had a satchel full of this material with him when he headed to Kerrville. John Dillinger would have been the most obvious choice as subject, he was the criminal superstar of the time and had recently got his comeuppance in an alley–no less–by Hoover’s muse “little” Melvin Purvis and the boys. But Anderson had a soft spot for the underdog, as well as a romantic streak.

Over the last two years he had been keeping up with a runty, white-trash hoodlum and his girlfriend, both fellow Texans, wrecking absolute havoc on the cops–killing at least nine of them–in spectacular shootouts where they hoisted guns as big as they were and escaped in jaw-dropping feats of driving. Dillinger had called them “grocery store bandits” and “gun crazy amateurs.” The end had finally come for them too.

 

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