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All Things Thriller

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

Thieves Like Us, A Novel by Edward Anderson; Depression Era; Based on the Exploits of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

Part Three

“And then damn Bonnie and Clyde ran through there. Weren’t safe for no one. Bunch of mad dogs…” Pretty Boy Floyd

Clyde could barely walk. Bonnie couldn’t at all. They’d been ambushed and shot through the legs while rendezvousing with family members on the side of a back road. Blood gushed from the bullet holes. Big bullet holes. This time the cops had given them a dose of their own medicine. This time they’d been shot with a BAR–short for Browning Automatic Rifle.

The irony here was considerable; perhaps–more than anything else–Clyde and Bonnie owed staying alive as long as they did to the BAR and their proficiency with it. The BAR M1918 was developed during World War I. Fully automatic it was a long, heavy, brutally  powerful killing machine; especially if you used armor-piercing ammo–Clyde did. He looted National Guard Armories in order to stockpile them.

Clyde taught Bonnie to shoot even though she reportedly didn’t like guns. Wielding BARs they shot their way out of battles with the cops in: an over the garage apartment in Joplin, Missouri; a motor court in Platte City, Missouri where authorities utilized an armored car against them; and, most famously, an abandoned amusement park in Dexter, Iowa.

In these and other skirmishes they were badly outnumbered and, more often than not, seriously wounded. But the BAR evened the odds, and then some. Plus they were gritty and desperate, to boot. They dug bullets out of each other (Clyde once stole a medical bag out of a doctor’s car and injected Bonnie with pain medicine he found in it), slept in dried up creek beds and ate pork and beans out of cans. They hardly ever asked for help. But after getting shot with a BAR they reached out–to fellow outlaw, Pretty Boy Floyd.

Charles Arthur Floyd was a professional criminal who was regarded as a hero in the  isolated hills of his Oklahoma hometown, Salisaw. He staged carefully orchestrated bank robberies and shared the proceeds with the hill folk.

Floyd tried to keep violence to a minimum so naturally he loathed Clyde and had no tolerance for Bonnie. He hated it when the couple crossed the border into Oklahoma, even though he was rarely there when they did. He warned his family to avoid them like the plague.

So when Clyde showed up at Pretty Boy’s sister-in-law’s house, she was aghast at his gall and more than a little afraid; but she just couldn’t flat-out turn him away. From her front porch, Bessie Floyd could see Bonnie slumping in the front seat of the car. She felt sorry for her. Nonetheless Bessie told Clyde they’d have to find someplace else to lick their wounds. She did come up with some medical supplies, sheets and canned goods for them though.

Clyde got it–sort of. They were as hot as a fire cracker. Every cop in the entire Mid West was looking for them. Still, he expected better from a fellow thief (and, by extension, a fellow thief’s family); especially one who’d been in prison, and Pretty Boy had. Any self-respecting ex-con would understand why Clyde would do anything–yes, shoot, even kill, anybody–if it meant he’d never have to go back to that hell hole. And though almost nothing was  certain in his piss-poor life, this one thing was: he was never going back.

Chicamaw’s swinging a hoe when the car pulls up. He can’t believe his eyes. There’s no way. And yet, here he is in a sheriff’s get-up with the high captain, no less. It’s Bowie.

The guard tells him to toss the hoe and so he does. Then Bowie calls him over to the car. He gets in, up front with Bowie. The captain’s in the back. They take off down the road toward the entrance gate.

There’s small talk, something about a bench warrant. Bowie’s playing the part alright. He nudges Chicamaw, all discreet, and motions toward the glove box. Chicamaw whips it open and pulls out a pistol. He shoves it in the captain’s face.

Still he can’t believe it. Bowie’s nothing but a hayseed. He can barely pull his head out of his hind end. And yet here he is, doing the impossible, breaking him out of this prison farm. Nobody escapes from these farms. Maybe in someplaces, up North probably. But not down here in Texas they don’t. No sir.

At first it appeared Edward Anderson’s second novel Thieves Like Us was going to be his ticket out of obscurity and into the big time. Raymond Chandler, author of the Philip Marlowe detective series, was talking it up, name dropping it in all the right places, and the influential Saturday Review proclaimed Anderson the best American author since Hemingway and Faulkner. A couple of  big league agents even came calling and, yet again, Anderson uprooted his family, striking out for Tinseltown.

Once there he was scooped up by Paramount studios where he went to work writing screenplays, but it was hardly glamorous. Instead he ran into the dreary grind to which he was all too accustomed–all production and deadlines. It was no better than writing for the papers, or even the tabloids. He churned out scripts for one B movie after another. The low point came when he became the designated writer for the Nancy Drew serials.

Still Anderson had hopes that one of the studios would commission his novel. It got passed around and there was some talk but no action. He grew more despondent and climbed deeper into the bottle. His marriage collapsed. He left Hollywood, this time for good and, once again, went to work for one newspaper after another, hopscotching around the Southwest until he ended up back in Texas, broke. He finally sold the rights to Thieves Like Us for five hundred dollars. Despite two movies that were eventually adapted from it–They Live By Night (1949) and Thieves Like Us (1974)–Anderson would never see another dime from his novel.

 

 

Thieves Like Us, A Novel by Edward Anderson; Depression Era; Inspired By The Exploits Of Bonnie Parker And Clyde Barrow

Conclusion

My babysitter, Betty, God rest her soul, hardly ever got to eat chocolate when she was a child. There were several reasons for this, namely: (1) it was the Depression; (2) she was poor; and (3) she was Black. It was such a rare occurrence, in fact, that she’d tasted chocolate only once before–when she was about three or four–and that was because it was her parents anniversary. The second time was when she was eight. And that was because Bonnie Parker gave her some.

Betty’s parents were God fearing, church on every Sunday, kind of people. They didn’t smoke or dip, rarely danced, and they never touched a drop of alcohol. They would, from time to time, feed escaped convicts that showed up on their property that laid just beyond a massive cotton field separating them from the prison farm.

The family felt sorry for these desperate, ragged men with eyes as big as saucers. “Don’t let ’em catch you with none of this,” her father would tell them when he handed over  knapsacks of whatever food could be thrown together on the fly. And they almost always got caught, usually within a few hours, when the family would see them trussed up on the back of a flatbed truck, headed back to the farm.

One afternoon Betty, her brother and father were on their way home from church services when they had a flat. Her dad was wrestling with the jack when they heard the rumble of a wound up engine headed their way. “That’s a V-8,” her dad said. A moment later a sleek black Ford came hurtling around the bend. It barely slowed when a wheel slipped into a rain gorged rut and splattered the side of their broken down jalopy–then it just kept on going. Or so the family thought.

Just down the road a bit, the Ford suddenly stopped and then turned around. “Oh Lordy,” her father murmured, “what’s goin’ on here?…”

The Ford pulled up on the opposite side of the road and, bam, just like that, no warning what so ever, a man jumped out of the drivers side; a jaunty sawed-off fella, wearing a nice shirt and pants and a cocky, lopsided grin. He left the motor running.

“Don’t trouble yourself mister,” her father said nervously. “Just a flat. No need to mess up those nice shoes. No sirree.” But the man was undeterred. He limped around to the back of the Ford. “You’ll be here all day with that slipshod jack of your’s,” he said.

From the corner of her eye, Betty saw her little brother disappear behind the blindside of the Ford. She tugged on her father’s sleeve. He stooped to her level, his hands gripping  her shoulders. “Go get your brother,” he whispered urgently.  “But papa…” she stammered, suddenly shy at the prospect of encountering a stranger. “Get girl,” he hissed and she was caught off guard by the hardness in his eyes.

Reluctantly she trudged across the muddy road, approaching the car from the front end trying to avoid the stranger. She glanced at the windshield as she rounded the bumper. Intense beams of light bounced off water droplets and glass. Still she caught sight of a wispy silhouette in a beret. A woman.

She stopped in her tracks when she saw her brother at the passenger side door. Not tall enough to reach the handle he was on his tip toes, a scrawny arm extended from the window. “Darnell!” she called.

High pitched laughter came from the open window. “He’s okay. Let him be,” a friendly voice chided. “Darnell!” she yelled, disregarding the voice. “Leave the nice lady alone. Papa said so.” More laughter. “Darnell’s not goin’ anywhere child. He’s eatin’ chocolate candy.” And then the scrawny arm beckoned to her. “You want some?”

Betty told me this story when I was a seven years old, searching for female role models to identify with. I had seen the film Bonnie and Clyde with my mother and my aunt Ida on one of their epic days of cigarettes, gossip and movies. Those were good times, special days, when my mom didn’t have to work long hours in the beauty shop, before alcohol stole my aunt’s sense of humor and charm.

Back then I was thrilled by the character Bonnie, portrayed by Faye Dunaway. She was tall and glamorous. Beautiful. She called her own shots, defending not only herself but her handsome boyfriend too. They were equals. Co conspirators. She was brave and her name came before his. I thought this extraordinary. It was the nexus of my fascination with them. And Betty’s story affirmed them–particularly her–worthy.

Only, they weren’t. It simply just wasn’t true; not the story Betty told me (I still believe every word), but my perception of it and of them–especially her.

Bonnie Parker wasn’t tall. Or glamorous. Or beautiful. And while she was cute and feisty, (and most likely the smartest of the two) she didn’t call her own shots–Clyde did. Her name came before his because it sounded better in the school-girly, grandiose poems she wrote and because the press got a hold of those poems and published them in sensation seeking newspapers. And though she was fanatically protective of Clyde, willing to kill or be killed for him, she was, for the most part, just the girlfriend along for the ride, not much different than a Hell’s Angels old lady.

When they pulled over to help Betty and her family, they weren’t doing it to be neighborly. Nor were they making a before-their-time civil rights statement. They were looking for attention. More than money, more than the respect of their peers, more even than fast cars or fancy clothes, it was what they craved the most and the aforementioned press was happy to oblige, sexing up the scruffy little couple to the hilt.

As a journalist and reluctant contributor to the tabloids, Edward Anderson was up close and personal with the press’ duplicitous complicity in the clash of reality versus image. He resented it even as he consented to it.

On top of that, he sympathized with Bonnie and Clyde. They were outsiders; so was he. They were disrespected and misunderstood; so was he. They got pushed around and Clyde, in particular, pushed back. Bonnie stood by her man. Anderson admired that.

Bonnie and Clyde were killed only a few weeks before Anderson began his writing stint in the Texas hill-country. The title of his novel, Thieves Like Us, comes from the character T-Dub’s explanation of his ideology that most every politician, police officer, preacher, lawyer etc., is a thief, no better or worse than he is. Like the novel’s main character Bowie, T-Dub is a bank robber.

With regard to psychology and morality, Bowie and his girlfriend Keechie are worlds apart from the real couple who inspired them. For instance Bowie is pliant and gullible despite his hard upbringing and desperate criminality. And though he has spent several years in prison for a murder he did commit, he is kind. His murders (two of them, close range shootings) are the result of frenzied hand to hand fighting gone from bad to worse.

In some ways Keechie is the harder of the two, most definitely she is the smartest. Having grown up with a criminal, alcoholic father, she is not as trusting. Still, she too possesses a child like innocence. She and Bowie are inexperienced lovers. This draws them closer, making them fiercely protective of one another.

Bowie and Keechie’s demise stems from their involvement in the jailbreak of an undeserving, unappreciative cohort. Here reality and fiction converge.

Ralph Fults met Clyde Barrow on an imposing, albeit, rickety prisoner transport vehicle called the One Way Wagon. On his way to Eastham prison farm, wearing a steel collar and lead attached to Fults in front and and another prisoner in back, Clyde was understandably wary of where he was and, even more so, of where he was going. Fults filled him in. It was going to be rough, a little slice of hell, to be honest, but he could make it out alive–as long as he didn’t try to run. Run once, they would beat you black and blue; run twice and it’s a bullet to the back of the head–if you got caught, of course.

The way Fults remembered it, Clyde was “just a schoolboy going in (prison) and a rattlesnake coming out.” Though this analysis is overly generous (Clyde had been accused of murder previous to his incarceration, most probably unjustly) never-the-less, he was assuredly worse when he was granted an early release. At Eastham there is little doubt he committed murder, bludgeoning his repeated rapist to death with a pipe.

After lights out Clyde and Fults and some other convicts would huddle up, conspiring (fantasizing, Fults thought) about a massive prison break and forming a gang from the escapees. Clyde’s greatest aspiration was to be a gang leader. Some three years later, he put his plan into motion when he and Bonnie orchestrated the breakout of his sometime partner in crime, Raymond Hamilton and three other convicts, from Eastham. Though well thought out and executed, it didn’t go off without a hitch. One of the escapees, Joe Palmer, shot and killed a guard.

Despite being responsible for the murders of at least eight lawmen and four civilians, Bonnie and Clyde’s primary pursuers had been two Dallas deputies and a Texas highway patrolman. One of the deputies, Ted Hinton, knew Bonnie personally. He had been a regular of a cafe she had waitressed in.

The Eastham breakout put Bonnie and Clyde on the map. For the first time they had the  respect of some of their criminal contemporaries. Fort Worth underworld kingpin O.D. Stevens hired Clyde to break him and two of his lieutenants out of Tarrant County jail. Facing a probable death sentence, he funneled the outlaw $18,000 to pull off the break. Clyde never got the chance to set it up.

The tide turned against the bandit couple when Clyde and an associate murdered a young, newly married police officer. The press ran exposes on the wife in mourning and the previously tolerant public soured against Bonnie and Clyde.

All over the tristate area of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana newspapers had a field day making fun of “inept, cowed law enforcement” unable and unwilling to reign in the “jailbreak mastermind and his bloodthirsty gun moll.” Tired of the tirade and anxious to appear tough on crime, Texas governor Ma Furguson commissioned legendary Texas Ranger and bounty hunter Frank Hamer to bring in the outlaw couple dead or alive. Hamer, in turn, assembled a six man posse that included Hinton, furnishing them with an arsenal of powerful Remington Model 8’s, a Monitor Machine rifle and Browning Automatic Rifles, the same firearm Bonnie and Clyde favored.

One of the Eastham escapees was a throat cut named Henry Methvin. In exchange for a pardon, he turned snitch on Bonnie and Clyde. With Methvin’s help, Hamer tracked the couple to Bienville Parish in Louisiana. There the posse set up a roadside ambush. Due to the couples desperate brutality and prowess with firearms, Hamer’s plan from the get-go was to blindside them. He didn’t want to risk them getting off a single shot. They didn’t.

The photograph is of six men four standing left to right and two squatting in front of those standing. The men–all solemn–are looking directly at the camera except for the second man standing to the the right, Ted Hinton, and the first man up front, Frank Hamer. Hinton is grimacing, staring off to the left. Hamer appears drained, a cigarette dangles from his lips; he looks to the right.

Probably the men’s ears were still ringing from all the gun fire. Certainly they were coping with the after effects of no sleep, too much sun and coffee, the drip, drip of waiting and, finally, the sudden explosion of adrenaline.

There is a saying among the Rangers: “Rangers lead the way.” On that sticky spring morning, Frank Hamer was true to the motto, though he didn’t fire the first barrage of shots. Those  were squeezed off by deputy Prentiss Oakly, who aimed his powerful Remington Rifle with a modified clip at the drivers side window of the fancy grey ’34 Ford Deluxe. One of the bullets whizzed through the open window and hit Clyde Barrow in the temple blowing a chunk of his brain out the right side of his head. He was killed instantly.

As the car slowed and veered off the road, the rest of the posse opened up on it and its occupants. The Ford came to a stop in a ditch. Hamer raced down the incline where he and the others had been camouflaged. He blew out the rear window with his machine rifle, firing directly into a slumping Bonnie Parker. Then he moved to the front end and fired through the windshield at her again.

A few minutes later, while wisps of gunsmoke still lingered, Dallas police officer Ted Hinton began filming the aftermath of the carnage with his 16 mm camera. He would later admit to having a crush on Bonnie back in the days before Clyde, when she served him breakfast at Marco’s Cafe.

“What did they look like?” I asked Betty.

She couldn’t tell me much about Clyde since she didn’t get a good look at him. “He was short. Had black hair,” she recalled. “My dad said he had big ears.”

But Bonnie she remembered vividly. “She was a tiny little thing. Everything was thin. Her nose. Her lips. Her fingers. She was wrapped in a patchwork quilt.”

“Are you cold?” she remembered her little brother asking. “I’m always cold,” Bonnie said.

“She looked sickly. Old with out being old. But she seemed happy. Except for her eyes. Her eyes darted all around. All the time. Back and forth.”

Bonnie and Clyde were killed not too long after their encounter with Betty and her family. Betty’s father drove to Arcadia Louisiana to see their bodies. He didn’t get there in time but did get to see the death car.

“When we told people about meeting them, nobody believed us,” she said. “Those were hard times. Lots of folks told stories about meeting Bonnie and Clyde in those days.”

Cold In July, 2014; a film directed by Jim Mickle; Neo-noir; Independent

Oh man, do I love a good indie. Especially one that I know nothing about, because only then can film become the vehicle for artists to communicate a story to me without expectation and reputation mucking it up.

Such was the case with Cold in July when I happened upon it late one night while channel surfing. My husband and I had been fighting and I need a distraction. Wow, did I ever get one.

Now let me make myself clear–this is no indie masterpiece like, say, One False Move. Hardly. The plot has more holes than one of Kurt Cobain’s sweaters. While the theme is convoluted, it is also about as subtle as a Motley Crue guitar solo. And boy, oh boy, is it derivative. And it’s good, in an entertaining sort of way.

Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall of Dexter) is a sullen family man with a really bad haircut and a matching lime green, wood paneled station wagon that’s about as long as a trailer home.  It’s small town East Texas, 1989, so there’s that. He’s no redneck though and that’s part of the problem–the townsfolk, heck, even his own wife, think he’s a bit of a wuss. So when a terrified Richard blows a burglar’s guts all over the wall and divan of his middle class home people are impressed, until they find out the guy was unarmed. Then it’s par for the course.

Case closed, the sheriff tells Richard, and good riddance to bad rubbish. The burglar’s name was Freddie Russell and he had a record a mile long. Plus a man’s home is his castle; he has every right to defend it–and his family, of course.

But none of this matters to Freddie’s father Ben (the ever reliable Sam Shepard). He is a grizzled, bitter man in the last quarter of his life. Recently released from prison, he has nothing and no one. He has spent a lifetime thinking about the son he hasn’t seen since the boy was six years old. Now he will never see him again. It’s vendetta time.

Ben threatens the Dane family; he is especially interested in the little boy. He stalks and menaces, even breaks into their home and hides in the crawl space; then prowls around the house and spies on them while they sleep. The sheriff is powerless when it comes to defending the family. They are sitting ducks. We all know where this is going because we’ve seen it before (think Robert De Niro in Cape Fear). Then Ben gets thrown on some railroad tracks (literally) and the train switches lines (metaphorically…Ahem.)

Even so, we recognize landmarks when Richard and Ben become uneasy allies (think 48 hrs; Lethal Weapon). Here Ben’s old Army buddy, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) shows up to help sort things out. In addition to having a three first name moniker and a collection of satin cowboy shirts, Jim Bob also happens to be a private detective. That comes in handy when the threesome encounter some especially vile actors in–and producers of–snuff films. (Seriously, are there any other kind?)

Cold In July has a distinct story arc. So distinct that it’s beginning, middle and end denote three movies in one–all of them representing different styles–each one mimicking classic, even landmark cinema. This is hardly accidental. If Mickle seems heavy handed, it’s because he’s lifting weights for fun. Under this burden his film buckles and then careens. But it doesn’t derail.

The plot revolves around Richard, and Michael C. Hall does an admirable job of stabilizing the story line and fleshing out an unremarkable, henpecked man with a decent streak a mile wide. Initially it’s what is lacking in Richard’s life that motivates him toward adventure. In the end it’s what he has that compels him to do what he simply must. When Hall clinches his jaw and steels himself we believe he can do it.

If Michael C. Hall’s performance is the glue that holds Cold In July together, it is Sam Shepard who provides the heart. His Ben is a man of few words and a quiet voice. Even his accent is plausibly restrained which I especially appreciate. He resonates as a grieving absentee father, wrestling with the ghosts of what could have been and the guilt over what is. This character doesn’t shed tears easily so when he weeps we feel it, even if we can barely see it.

Don Johnson is passable as Jim Bob Luke. To be fair he’d have to be a great actor to over come all of Jim Bob’s cliches. He’s not. He’s, um…passable. He is hot, so there’s that.

The last act is all blood and gore. I won’t reference the most obvious influence; that would give too much away.  But I will share this: as the credits roll, 80s hair metal group White Lion’s pop/rock anthem Wait blasts away. It’s corny, cheesy excess. And, ahem…it’s good.

 

 

 

The Vanishing 1988; a film directed by George Sluizer; Dutch

God forbid that it ever happens to one of us: a loved one leaves, never to return. There is no dreaded call from the hospital or the police. There is nothing. He just doesn’t come home for dinner. She never shows up for work. They seemingly vanish; into thin air as it were.

How could we survive such a thing? The uncertainty? The unanswered questions? And what about closure?

So it is with married couple Saskia and Rex. He is pumping gas as she pops into the convenience store for some snacks. They are traveling and–as often is the case in cramped quarters–have argued and made up. He absentmindedly watches her enter the store. It is the last time he ever sees her.

What happened to her? Where did she go?

Rex knows she didn’t leave of her own volition even if the police do not (they were arguing after all and it’s pre surveillance era.) So then, who took her? And why?

As Rex is left to grapple with the suffocating horror of panic, we have become acquainted with an ostensibly idyllic family. Two teenage girls are clearly enamored with their affably uncool, super smart father–he is a professor, after all, and a hero to boot having saved a child from drowning. They, along with their enthralled mother, roll their eyes good-naturedly at his edict to beware of heroes like himself, for they have a penchant for the dark side.

When he asks his daughters to demonstrate how loudly they can scream–goading them into a virtual screaming contest–it raises nary any eyebrow; it’s just dad being his quirky self. But we know better. We know because we’ve seen him–Raymond is his name–methodically experimenting with chloroform; and we’ve watched him clumsily drag a mattress into an unoccupied house. Yes, we have even seen him parked in his car, trying on a cast and arm sling, a la Ted Bundy.

There is little suspense here. Raymond is the obvious answer to the question of who took her. We also have insight as to why he has taken her–he is most likely a sexual sadist and she is most likely dead. Even so we are intrigued. There are still questions to be answered. And closure to run after.

Somehow Rex has survived Saskia’s disappearance. Three years later, he has even begun a new relationship, but he is hardly whole. He is haunted. He just has to know what happened…And how it happened. To this end he continues searching for her and appears on the news as the subject of a human interest story.

Rex makes an appeal to the abductor:  “I hope the gentleman is watching…I want to meet him. I want to know what happened to my friend…I want him to know that I am prepared to do anything…”

And of course Raymond is watching. He is only too happy to make Rex’s acquaintance.

Director George Sluzier does a masterful job of stoking this psychodrama to inferno ever so subtely. There is no frantic running and chasing. No blood splatter. No time ticking.

Stars Gene Bervoets (Rex) and Johanna ter Steege (Saskia ) are wonderfully natural and nondescript–a testament to their skill. We don’t know them enough to be emotionally involved and, of course, this is by design. We care because we see our work-a-day selves in them and therein lies the horror.

Likewise, Bernard-Pierne Donnadieu (Raymond) is terrifyingly blase. He epitomizes an academic’s resolve–if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. We even chuckle–albeit uncomfortably–at his trial and error. The only thing remarkable about him is his out of the box cruelty.

For those not acquainted, I urge you to see the original, Dutch film. It is adapted from the book ‘The Golden Egg’ by Tim Krabbe. The title of the book is the key that unlocks the psychological horror of the film’s premise and provides us all with the closure we are seeking. The Sluzier version is–I will be economical with my words–a masterpiece; the American version is trash, and here I am being charitable.

 

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