Skip to content

A James Ellroy Playlist: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But He Likes It)

March 1, 2021

For my latest instalment examining James Ellroy’s musical influences, I’m going to take a look at a genre of music Ellroy just loves to hate – Rock! The aim of this series was to establish that Ellroy’s musical knowledge extends far beyond his love of classical and jazz, so hopefully I can prove the Demon Dog has a sneaking admiration for Rock and its place in popular culture despite Ellroy once telling me that ‘I devoutly dislike rock ‘n roll and the mindset of rock ‘n roll, and the fact that there’s sixty-five and seventy-year old rock ‘n rollers out there in a state of perpetual reaction and perpetual rebelliousness.’

I guess I’ve always liked a challenge. Here goes:

Helter Skelter

Martin Plunkett is a unique character in Ellroy’s body-strewn literary works. He is a serial killer, the lead protagonist and narrator of Silent Terror. Ellroy’s preferred title for the novel was Killer on the Road and in subsequent reprints the novel was published under this title. The Doors song ‘Riders on the Storm’ features the lyrics ‘There’s a killer on the road, His brain is squirmin’ like a toad’. The song is a masterpiece in slow-burn menace and was reputedly based on the spree killer Billy Cook. However, Plunkett’s ability to evade the law is rooted in his anonymity. So perhaps a popular culture reference is better suited to a more visible, fame-hungry killer.

Early in his criminal career, Plunkett is somewhat in thrall to the reputation of the Manson Family. He meets two hippy Manson ‘recruiters’, Flower and Season. They give him their spiel about ‘Helter Skelter’, the supposed prophecy in The Beatles album of a coming apocalyptic race war. Later on, while serving time in the LA County Jail, Plunkett meets Manson. When he asks the self-styled prophet to explain ‘Helter Skelter’, Manson’s gives a rambling and incoherent response which includes an impromptu Beatles medley, “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, let Helter Skelter make it be-et-ter. Remember, make the pigs get out of your mind-‘ Disgusted by what he sees, Plunkett proceeds to verbally humiliate Manson to the delight of some nearby deputies who cheer him on.

Bono once introduced a cover of ‘Helter Skelter’ with the words, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles, well we’re stealin’ it back.” Footage of The Beatles performing the song is rare, but in recent years it’s become a staple of Paul McCartney’s concerts. Here’s a barnstorming rendition of the song by Macca at Glastonbury in 2004. The quickfire editing of the video footage behind the musicians evokes a suitably eve of destruction theme.

Blueberry Hill

Manson’s tenuous connections to the Sixties music scene have been well-documented. Broadly Speaking, Ellroy’s more powerful characters are the criminals who are less extreme in their thoughts or deeds than either Manson or Plunkett. Ellroy is particularly good at creating dreamers with more ambition than talent who are following some half-cocked scheme to get into showbiz.

In Suicide Hill, there are two criminal brothers – Bobby and Joe Garcia. ‘Boogaloo’ Bobby is the more malicious sibling, a sexually predator who likes to hum the Jaws tune. Joe is more sensitive and too weak-willed for the criminal underworld. For years he has been trying to write a song called ‘Suicide Hill’, set to the tune of ‘Blueberry Hill’. He makes some half-baked attempts at adapting the lyrics ‘and death was a thrill on Suicide Hill’ but he is never able to finish the song. The lead antagonist of the novel, Duane Rice, is using his criminal schemes to try and fund a music career for his girlfriend Vandy. But Vandy doesn’t love him and she has no drive to succeed, so the huge risks Duane takes are for nothing. This gives Suicide Hill its melancholy tone. Dreams go unfulfilled and talent is not utilised. In ‘Blueberry Hill’ the singer laments that time cannot stand still and he is unable to hold on to that moment before his true love abandoned him.

The ephemeral nature of time in ‘Blueberry Hill’ has made it well-suited to works with an apocalyptic theme. The song is used extensively in Twelve Monkeys, in which a virus released in 1996 wipes out nearly all of humanity. ‘Blueberry Hill’ was written in 1940, but the most famous and best version was by Fats Domino in 1956. The worst cover version was by Vladimir Putin.

(I’ll Love You) Till The End of the World

By the late 1980s Ellroy’s work was beginning to have an influence on the Rock genre. Sonic Youth were big fans of the Demon Dog, dedicating performances of their songs to him during concerts. Their song ‘The Wonder’ is loosely inspired by the concept of the Wonder that Ellroy explored in Clandestine. In the novel, Freddy Underhill describes the Wonder as ‘the wonderful elliptical, mysterious stuff that we’re never going to know completely’. The song is a little too Heavy for my tastes, but by reading the lyrics without the music you can see how Sonic Youth display an Ellrovian flair.

Nick Cave declared himself a big Ellroy fan in the mid-90s. In a newsletter to his fans Cave describes how his study contains photos, lined up side by side, of three seminal figures in his life – Jesus Christ, James Ellroy and John Lee Hooker. Unfortunately, when Cave met Ellroy in London in March 1995 it was not a happy affair. Cave described Ellroy as ‘Jet-lagged and clearly deranged, he ranted on about rock ‘n roll being nothing more than “institutionalized rebellion”‘. In turn, Ellroy was dismissive of Cave when asked about the meeting some time later.

At least one good thing came out of the meeting. Cave recalls that Ellroy ‘was charitable enough to reiterate his admiration for my song, “Till The End Of The World”.’ This makes me think that Ellroy was perhaps a bigger fan of Cave than he was prepared to let on. Tucked away on the soundtrack of the film Until the End of the World (1991) the song is hardly Cave’s or the Bad Seeds’ best known work. Until the End of the World is an apocalyptic sci-fi road movie that begins by aping Blade Runner before transforming into a wonderfully eccentric series of vignettes. The year is 1999 and an out of control satellite orbiting the earth causes mass panic in the big cities. It’s an interesting film that sadly died at the box-office and is barely remembered today. But check it out. The soundtrack is particularly good, and Nick Cave’s song of romanticism and despair should linger with you long afterwards, as it did with James Ellroy.

 

 

 

 

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazette: Red Darktown

February 15, 2021

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the ninth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six, Seven, and Eight.

The Great Depression’s crushing combination of high unemployment, no new housing construction, and more than half of all mortgages in default eventually led to a severe national housing shortage. The U.S. federal government responded with a policy based deliberately on segregation-fueled expansion.

According to Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book The Color of Law, the government deliberately excluded African Americans from newly-built suburban communities, relegating them instead to dilapidated urban housing projects, a move that Rothstein condemns as nothing less than “state-sponsored […] segregation.”

Rothstein details that the then relatively new Federal Housing Administration augmented the push for segregation with their refusal to insure mortgages in or in proximity to African American neighborhoods.

At the same time, the FHA also subsidized the mass production of whites-only subdivisions built under the binding stipulation that none of the homes ever be sold to African Americans.

According to Rothstein, the FHA’s justification for such discrimination, known as “redlining”, was the fear that if African Americans purchased homes in or near these suburbs, the property values of the surrounding white homes would plummet.

A Redlined 1930s lending map of metro Milwaukee from the Home Owners Loan Corporation. The shaded areas indicate where it was safe (or not) to insure mortgages. The red-shaded areas denote predominantly African American neighborhoods, which highly biased and racist appraisers unfortunately deemed unfit for insurance.

The term “redlining” originates from New Deal government maps of every metropolitan area in the country. The maps were then assigned colors by the FHA and the Home Owners Loan Corporation. These color codes were intended to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages. As expected, anywhere African Americans lived was shaded in red as a warning that these neighborhoods were too risky for mortgage insurance. The maps themselves were created from appraisal categories that considered the race and ethnicity of the neighborhood as a primary factor. Consistent with the systemic racism of the era, the maps were a despicable reflection of their creators’ many prejudices.

Fans and students of James Ellroy should be reminded here of the theory of containment, a recurring motif in the Demon Dog’s canon, espoused primarily by Dudley Smith in the L.A. Quartet, and also Brown’s Requiem’s Haywood Cathcart.

In Ellroy’s world, containment is a way of controlling crime by limiting its more ugly expressions (like homicide and rape) to minority neighborhoods, while allowing its more nuanced counterparts (white collar and organized crime) to flourish in the service of wealthy white people.

From 1910 to 1970, Milwaukee would experience a residential influx known as “the Great Migration,” though it could also be termed “the Great Exodus”: Countless African American families fleeing the racial carnage of the south put down roots in several middle class Cream City communities like Bronzeville in North Central Milwaukee.

As the historian Mark Pearcy details, these families would unfortunately encounter a system designed deliberately to corral the public prevalence of African Americans. While the south achieved this by passing laws which forbade racial integration, northern cities like Milwaukee pursued the same end through brutal housing legislation and enforcement.

A ‘residential security’ map of metro Milwaukee in the 1930s. Created from appraisal categories that considered the ethnicity of a neighborhood as a primary factor, these Redlining maps viewed African Americans as an eyesore and a liability, and sought to isolate them from the wealthier white neighborhoods.

According to a 2016 Wisconsin University—Madison report on Milwaukee’s long history of segregation, the authors assert that the best evidence for redlining is found in the wording of the Realtor Code of Ethics. As just one example, Article 34 of the code—as originally written—states, “a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood […] members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood.”

While such incendiary language was trimmed down considerably after a 1950 Supreme Court decision, white lawyers could still argue to white judges that a newly-arrived African American family was an unwelcome “character of property” (a phrase retained from the Code’s original wording), and hazardous to the health of the neighborhood.

As police historian and Milwaukee native George Kelling has noted, redlining is just one of a host of ugly challenges shaping the contentious relationship between African Americans and law enforcement:

The relationship between police and minorities has been shaped by slavery, enforced segregation, police abuse, and/or neglect, and African American crime and victimization […] police and minorities have a history that has generated mutual distrust and animosity that is inherent in virtually every police/minority interaction, regardless of the intent of either the minority member or the police officer… Milwaukee clearly falls within this pattern.

According to Kelling, redlining and enforced segregation overall were outgrowths of state laws known as “Black Codes”. Established nationwide after the Civil War, and disregarding the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Black Codes amounted to essentially a softer slavery, as they mandated the kinds of work African Americans could perform, while also limiting where they could live and restricting their access to property. In fact, Kelling also suggests that the enforcement of American slavery, and the constant fear of a slave uprising may have birthed a precursor of the modern American police department: Known as “slave patrols”, these groups would monitor blacks in public spaces, apprehend and punish runaways, disrupt any black gatherings, and raid black homes across the southern U.S. during the early to mid-1740s.

Milwaukee Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky

Following the August, 1936 in-harness death of Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer, his successor Joseph Kluchesky would initiate a bold and moral counteraction to the rigid stasis and willful disregard of redlining. However, this would not be the socialist Kluchesky’s only achievement.

In response to Idzi Rutkowski’s hellacious 1935 bombing spree that gutted two Milwaukee police stations, Chief Kluchesky designed and built the nation’s first ever bomb disposal wagon. As Marilyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, the vehicle was intended to transport bombs to a location where they could be detonated without endangering lives. Chief Kluchesky also formed an auxillary police force to assist in emergencies. Prior to his appointment as chief, Kluchesky had also served as a traffic patrolman, mayoral bodyguard, and also superintendent of the Bureau of Identification.

The spark point for Joseph Kluchesky’s greatest and most memorable contribution to policing would be a wave of racial violence that swept the nation in 1943.

It began with a Detroit race riot on June 20th of that year. The riot metastasized from a fist fight between two men, one black, one white, at the Belle Isle Amusement Park in the Detroit River. As other whites and blacks joined in the fracas in one of the Motor City’s oldest and poorest neighborhoods, stores were picked clean, buildings were incinerated, and 34 Americans ultimately lost their lives…25 blacks and nine whites. Of the 25 African American casualties, 17 were killed by the police, who staunchly defended their actions as justifiable force to quell the looting. The tumult would end only when President Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jefferies, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city.

At nearly the same time in Los Angeles, a group of American sailors attacked a group of mostly Mexican Americans in East L.A. It was the opening salvo of a conflagration that would scar the City of Angels irrevocably. Readers of James Ellroy know this brutal conflict as the Zoot Suit Riots, and for anyone who’s read The Black Dahlia, it’s hard to forget the chaotic opening depiction of police, soldiers, sailors and pachucos tangled indistinguishably.

The roots of the melee can be traced to the Bracero Program, the 1942 deal between the U.S. government and Mexico, which allowed Mexican citizens to immigrate to the U.S. as temporary workers to fill the war-driven national labor shortage. Los Angeles already supported a large Mexican American population, and the influx of new arrivals provoked a simmering racial animosity. With the rabble-rousing L.A. media fanning the flames, L.A.’s conservative white population blamed Mexican American adolescents for the city’s crime, and particularly fingered the teens’ wool-heavy zoot suits as an insult to patriotism. (Wool, like many staples, was strictly rationed during war time).

The riots would continue for the next several days, with mobs of sailors attacking Latinos and blacks indiscriminately. The riots finally ended when military police were brought in, and all other military personnel were forbidden from leaving their barracks. While amazingly no one was killed, California Governor Earl Warren’s attempted post-riot whitewash failed when the independent citizens commission he appointed found racism as the riots’ primary cause.

In August, 1943 on the east coast, a white police officer shot a black soldier in Harlem when he tried to intervene in the officer’s arrest of a black woman for disorderly conduct. In the riot that followed, 6 people died, nearly 500 were injured, and the police made more than 500 arrests. Following the Detroit riots, New York City was one of countless U.S. cities struggling to contain their racial hostility, which the tense wartime economy, food shortages and constantly rising cost of living all contributed to.

Back in Milwaukee, Police Chief Joseph Kluchesky led a select group of police drawn from across the country in developing protocol for a host of community relations programs. According to George Kelling, the programs stemmed from the belief that antagonism between police and African Americans had precipitated both the riots themselves, and police misconduct during the riots.

Chief Kluchesky’s community relations police initiative wasn’t very popular at the outset. Most of Kluchesky’s fellow chiefs and even the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wasted no time in ignoring it. However, as Kelling relates, these community relations programs were an early acknowledgement of the serious challenge that racial tension would present to law enforcement for the next several decades.

The community relations program was comprised of race relations training for police recruits, networking between police and African American leaders, the recruitment of black officers, and establishing behavior protocol for handling disorders.

Milwaukee’s police department would have ample opportunity to test the effectiveness of these community relations programs in the turbulent and racially charged decades to come.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

A James Ellroy Playlist: Night-Tripping

February 5, 2021

For my latest instalment examining the musical influences in James Ellroy’s work, I’ve decided to focus on a single novel. Because the Night is Ellroy’s second novel in his Lloyd Hopkins trilogy and often regarded as the weakest. It is not as compulsively entertaining as Blood on the Moon, nor is it as accomplished or profound as Suicide Hill. Still, even Ellroy below par is still pretty damn good and the epic battle of wits between Hopkins and the murderous psychiatrist Dr John Havilland makes for a compelling narrative.

Because the Night also features an abundance of groovy music references. In honour of Havilland, the sinister shrink, some of these songs have a psychedelic, drug-infused theme. So roll yourself a spliff, don those colour-tinted retro round sunglasses and crank up the strobe lighting as we dive into the musical maze of Because the Night

Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya

In the novel, Havilland is given the sobriquet ‘Dr John the Night Tripper’ while working as an abortionist and dope-peddler during his college days. The name soon becomes a full-blown villainous alter-ego for Havilland and is inspired by ‘a Creole who shrieked odes to dope and sex, backed up by two saxes, drums, and an electric organ. At the party, a heavily stoned anthropology professor shoved an album cover in John Havilland’s face and yelled, “That’s you, man! Your name is John and you’re in med school! Dig it!”‘

Havilland’s nickname is taken from the legendary musician Malcolm Rebennack Jr, who used the persona ‘Dr John, the Night Tripper’ from 1968-71.

Rebennack produced a huge amount of material during his Night Tripper years and below is the song that introduced the character:

Green Door

Because the Night begins with a triple homicide during a liquor store holdup. The perpetrator has been manipulated by Dr Havilland to do his bidding. Havilland encourages his patients to embrace an extreme form of Nietzschean philosophy, discarding conventional morality, and to go ‘Beyond the beyond’. As he walks away from the crime scene the gunman mutters “Green door, green door”.

Havilland uses the image of the green door to push his patients towards violent acts. From his childhood, he remembers Jim Lowe’s hit song ‘The Green Door’ about the allure of a private club and the mysterious goings-on behind a green door, “Midnight, one more night without sleeping. Watching, ’till the morning comes creeping. Green door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?”

Ellroy liked the song so much that he references it again in The Cold Six Thousand. Mormon kingpin Wayne Tedrow Sr is keeping a voyeur’s eye on his wife’s infidelity by having cameras installed in the hotel where she meets her lovers for trysts. His son, Wayne Jr, spots the room where the audiovisual equipment is set up through one distinctive feature, ‘Eleven brown doors. One green door as standout. One pervert-pup joke.’

Music historians are divided over what the green door in the song is supposed to symbolise. Could it be marijuana, a speakeasy or even London’s first lesbian nightclub? Well it did inspire the title of a famous adult movie!

Because the Night

Let’s not forget the title of the novel itself. ‘Because the Night’ was a hit song for the Patti Smith group in 1978. It’s raunchy lyrics by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen prove that sex is the most intoxicating drug of them all, a sentiment that Ellroy surely agrees with. He uses the title to explore the innermost thoughts of his two leading characters, thus leading to some of the most purple prose in Ellroy’s oeuvre. When Havilland muses on his dark schemes we get, ‘Because the night was there to be plundered; and only someone above its laws could exact its bounty and survive.’ And when Hopkins is thinking back on his childhood, ‘Because the night was there to provide comfort and the nourishing of brave dreams, and only someone willing to fight for its sanctity deserved to claim it as his citadel.’

It’s ironic that both Havilland and Hopkins both employ the expression taken from a powerful love song. Havilland is sexually repressed and tries to compensate through dominance and humiliation, whereas Hopkins is sexually confident and comfortable with his identity.

I love this song. Great lyrics by The Boss and Patti Smith and her voice is passion itself:

 

A James Ellroy Playlist: Teenage Kicks

January 27, 2021

High School has never been a subject James Ellroy has dwelt on in his writing. His education was erratic and limited. Shuffled from school to school due to his parent’s divorce and his mother’s murder, Ellroy was eventually expelled from Fairfax High and, despite a brief unhappy stint at a Christian Academy, never returned to formal education.

Following on from my last post about Ellroy’s musical influences, I’ve decided to continue that theme. Our High School years include some of our most formative experiences, and this includes taste in music. A few notes from a fondly remembered tune can vividly evoke our younger self. Ellroy first heard Beethoven in a Music class at school, but I’m not going to focus on the classical composers the author regularly namechecks as influences. Instead, I’m going to discuss the songs which have influenced Ellroy and have a high school theme.

Let’s Twist Again

Not all of Ellroy’s memories of school were unhappy. He enjoyed his time at John Burroughs Junior High School. After the publication of his memoir My Dark Places, Ellroy was contacted by a former classmate of JB and they eventually arranged a school reunion which took place over three consecutive nights at Ellroy’s favourite restaurant, the Pacific Dining Car in LA. Ellroy wrote an article about the reunion for GQ titled ‘Let’s Twist Again’, after the Chubby Checker hit and Twist dance craze that was at its height when he was at JB. Much of the article deconstructs the sham nature of nostalgia and reminiscence, but then the reunion is so successful that Ellroy, and by extension the reader, can’t help but be seduced by it.

‘Let’s Twist Again’ was reprinted in the Ellroy anthology Crime Wave. On the subject of nostalgia, perhaps when this pandemic is over, we’ll all twist again:

High School Confidential

Ellroy introduced High School Confidential! (1958) as part of his Denver film series. You can see why he loves this film. Russ Tamblyn is the koolest kat at high school. He speaks almost entirely in jive and lives with the sex mad Mamie Van Doren, who is posing as his aunt but attempts to seduce him in private. Much hijinks ensue, and when you watch John Drew Barrymore’s beatnik history lesson on Christopher Columbus, or Phillippa Fallon’s beat poetess recite ‘High School Drag’ you will see a lot of inspiration for Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona.

High School Confidential! has been cited as one of the most enjoyably bad movies ever made. And while I was never quite sure whether I was laughing with it or at it, the film is far too involving and entertaining to be labelled as bad. Turns out, Tamblyn is an undercover police officer on a mission to root out the mysterious drug dealer known only as ‘Mr A’ who is getting all the high school kids hooked on weed and heroin. The story is handled quite well although the anti-marijuana propaganda is hilarious, and somewhat at odds with the hedonistic tone of the film. Speaking of which, it’s nice to know that the Class of 58′ are still turning their nose at authority more than sixty years on. Tamblyn’s role as Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks seems like an aging hipster version of his character in High School Confidential!, and at the age of 89 Mamie Van Doren is still posting raunchy pictures of herself on social media.

Here’s Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title track which opens the film.

(Thanks to Jason Carter for sharing with me his memories of Ellroy’s intro to High School Confidential!)

Cathy’s Clown

In Blood on the Moon, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Verplanck is the Kathy’s Klown to Kathy’s Kourt. He’s the sensitive schoolboy poet, and generally laughable figure, who the girl group Kathy’s Kourt continually mock and reject. After being beaten and raped by two schoolyard bullies, a traumatised Verplanck will embark on a murder spree and ultimate confrontation with the cop determined to stop him – Detective Lloyd Hopkins.

Ellroy took the idea of Kathy’s Klown from The Everly Brother’s song that was a huge hit in 1960. It might not, strictly speaking, be a high school song, but it was in the charts when Ellroy was at school and its themes of female rejection and unwanted male attention will certainly remind some listeners of their high school days. The song is playing on the radio when Verplanck is assaulted at school. Blood on the Moon is one of the few Ellroy novels to feature, however briefly, a high school setting. ‘Cathy’s Clown’ is also one of the few popular songs which are used as a plot device in Ellroy’s writing.

The song has always given me the creeps (in the best possible way), and I can’t listen to it these days without thinking of poor old Teddy Verplanck:

A James Ellroy Playlist: Torch Songs

January 14, 2021

Whether you’re a casual fan of James Ellroy’s writing or a die-hard fanatic, you’ve probably got a good grasp of the importance of music in his life and work. His love of classical music composers, from Beethoven to Havergal Brian, is well-documented and was a huge influence on his debut novel Brown’s Requiem. Ellroy’s feelings about jazz are more ambiguous. He’s not in love with the form, but he ‘understands it as the means to express confusion and disorientation’ as in the case of Dave Klein’s giddying first-person narration of White Jazz.

In the following post, I’d like to focus on a form of music that permeates Ellroy’s writing and has so far received less attention. Imagine if you were compiling a soundtrack for a film adaptation of The Hilliker Curse. Yes I know, this may be your least favourite Ellroy book and it doesn’t have one-tenth of the impact of Ellroy’s earlier memoir My Dark Places. But still, which tracks would you pick based on your reading of the text and your knowledge of Ellroy’s choice in music? Here are a few songs which are either directly tied to The Hilliker Curse, or relate to its themes of lost love and haunting memories. Love songs change with each generation and all my three choices have a period torch song feel that reflect Ellroy’s cultural upbringing.

The Big Hurt

Ellroy’s original title for The Hilliker Curse was ‘The Big Hurt’ after the song by Wayne Franklin which was a hit for Toni Fisher in 1959, and has been covered many times. It’s the age-old tale of how loving and missing someone will affect you physically ‘needles and pins’, as well as dominate your thoughts. Fisher’s recording is said to be one of the first songs to use phasing and flanging effects. I am, by no means, an expert on musical effects but once you’ve listened to this song a few times the combination of a simple melody and sophisticated effects really starts to grow on you.

 

Diamonds and Rust

Joan Baez wrote this song about her relationship with Bob Dylan. In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes listening to it ‘while I waited in the dark. The song described a romantic fall from fate and old lovers as saviours and destroyers.’ You can see why Ellroy would relate to it as an author with the references to the ‘original vagabond’ and ‘unwashed pretender’. It has the most sophisticated lyrical composition of all my song choices in this post, and Baez’s voice will haunt you for long after.

Perfidia

Perfidia takes its name from the song by Alberto Dominguez which was a big band hit in the 1940s and has been covered by other artists countlessly ever since. Perfidia might be a very different book from The Hilliker Curse, but it was also the first novel Ellroy wrote after the publication of his love-tinged, sex-crazed memoir and there’s something about the novel’s heady brew of romance and danger that reminds me of The Hilliker Curse, hence the song’s inclusion here. In The Black Dahlia, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake dance to Perfidia played by Stan Kenton’s band. In Perfidia, an opium-smoking Dudley Smith visualises Bette Davis dancing with a ‘fey young man’ to Glenn Miller’s arrangement of the song. Here’s a clip of Ellroy singing a line or two. Miller’s version is below.

2020: Year of the Book

December 29, 2020

Well that was an interesting twelve months. I’ll spare you my personal experiences of it. We have all suffered, to varying degrees, through COVID-19 and the lockdowns, bereavements and the economic devastation it has entailed. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, we will continue to toil through this nightmare for some time to come.

However, it has not been an unremittingly grim year. There have been moments of great happiness, usually found in the quiet and simple joys of life that often passed us by in the frenetic pre-2020 world. Some of the most peaceful and satisfying moments I can remember were spent blissfully losing myself in a great novel. I have decided to write about just one of the those novels. It was recommended to me by a esteemed novelist who I’ll reveal at the end of this post.

From Here to Eternity

With From Here to Eternity James Jones, a hardbitten World War Two veteran, turned his experiences stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii into fiction and entered the pantheon of great twentieth-century novelists. Most of the novel takes place in the run-up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the reader follows the fortunes and misfortunes of bugler and boxer Private Robert ‘Prew’ Prewitt. Turned into an Oscar-winning film, with two television adaptations and even a musical version, From Here to Eternity is an epic tale of military life in peace and wartime. I’m guessing, like me, many of you have seen the film and its famous love-making on the beach scene with Burt Lancaster (as Sergeant Milt Warden) and Deborah Kerr as Karen Holmes (wife of the Captain that Sergeant Warden reports to). In the book, the more powerful and erotically-charged scene is when Warden visits Karen at her home with the intention of seducing her. Their bedroom shenanigans get comedic when Karen’s son comes home early from school and Warden has to hide in the closet. Its scenes such as this that make From Here to Eternity one of the classic American melodramas, but when the ‘date which will live in infamy’ finally arrives Jones doesn’t disappoint with the battle scenes.

The island setting is beautifully evoked with Jones’s military experience adding realism to the portrayal of army life. Joan Didion wrote:

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image, and not only Schofield Barracks but a great deal of Honolulu itself has always belonged for me to James Jones.

I first heard this quoted by James Ellroy in relation to the Los Angeles of his fiction, and whose love of From Here to Eternity (a strong influence on Perfidia and This Storm) drew me to this book. In the new year, I’m planning to review a number of other books which have inspired Ellroy’s writing over the years.

Thank you for reading this blog and see you in a happier and healthier 2021.

James Ellroy: A Life in Documentary

December 1, 2020

Few living writers have inspired as many documentaries as James Ellroy. For fans and researchers of the Demon Dog of Crime Fiction these films are invaluable source, offering both a good summation of his life and work, as well as morsels of information that you won’t find elsewhere. In the following post I’m going to provide an overview of the Ellroy documentaries. I won’t include segments and TV specials as they are so numerous it would be an exhausting exercise. Instead I will focus on the definitive documentaries and, while I have my preferences, I heartily recommend them all.

James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction (1993)

It’s rather appropriate that all of the great Ellroy documentaries have been European productions, given that Ellroy’s popularity and critical reputation has always been slightly higher in France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, than it has been in his home country. This excellent documentary was made by the Austrian filmmakers Reinhard Judd and Wolfgang Lehner. Shot in the early 1990s, the film follows Ellroy while on a book tour for White Jazz. It captures LA’s film noir heritage and its sleazy contemporary identity. There’s also some great footage of Ellroy in his Eastchester office with his beloved Barko. Some sources state this film was released in 1998. That was a re-release. The film premiered at film festivals in 1993. Therefore, it is the first full-length Ellroy documentary.

White Jazz (1995)

Nicola Black’s compelling portrait of Ellroy was filmed while the author was investigating his mother’s murder with retired detective Bill Stoner. It features re-enactments by Ellroy and Stoner of the first time Ellroy read his mother’s homicide file. There is also a scene in which actors portray Ellroy’s mother and the Swarthy Man. It imagines Jean’s final moments and, while the scene could have easily backfired, it is handled sensitively and well. This British documentary is Ellroy’s favourite of the films made about him. The only drawback is it’s difficult to find a copy, but well worth the effort in tracking down.

James Ellroy’s Feast of Death (2001)

Vikram Jayanti made possibly the most ambitious film about Ellroy. There are scenes with Ellroy in his home in Mission Hills, talking to cousins in Wisconsin, discussing the Kennedy assassination with Rick Jackson at Dealey Plaza, and of course there is plenty of footage of Ellroy in LA. There are long scenes with Ellroy dining with LAPD and LASD detectives at the Pacific Dining Car. True Crime buffs should especially enjoy the restaurant scene where Larry Harnisch describes his research on the Black Dahlia case to a roomful of sceptical detectives.

James Ellroy: American Dog (2005)

The father and daughter filmmaking team of Robert and Clara Kuperberg captured Ellroy living back in LA in the mid-Noughties. It was the height of Ellroy’s career as a Hollywood screenwriter and, as you might expect from a French production, this documentary has an effortlessly beautiful film noir tone. There are revealing scenes of Ellroy lunching at the Pacific Dining Car with his Hollywood friends. The DVD special features includes more scenes of these legendary feasts at Ellroy’s favourite restaurant which has recently folded. Another business which has sadly fallen prey to the pandemic.

The four films listed above are, to me, the seminal works on Ellroy. But there are certainly other films that warrant discussion, such as the episode of Unsolved Mysteries which examines Jean Ellroy’s murder. Over to you dear readers. Which of these documentaries is your favourite, or is there other footage out there of Ellroy that is particularly important to you?

James Ellroy at the Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester 2014

The Man in Black: Wales’ Worst Serial Killer by Dylan Rhys Jones

November 8, 2020

The first thing I should say about this terrific memoir is that it is not a book about a serial killer, and that’s one of its strongest features. Murderers get books written about them, their victims seldom do. Psychopaths are superficially charming, but they are never deep or interesting. The Man in Black is the fascinating story of the lawyer who had the dubious role of defending Peter Moore, a seemingly mild-mannered cinema chain owner accused of murdering four men and carrying out a string of violent sex attacks.

A phone call on December 21, 1995 changed Dylan Rhys Jones life forever. He was running a successful legal firm and was asked to report to Llandudno police station. The police had arrested Jones’ client Peter Moore, a well-known local entrepreneur, on suspicion of murder. Jones had always found Moore to be affable and polite. At the police station Moore was keeping up this pretence and seemed completely unfazed by the seriousness of the charge against him. At first Jones thinks he has a good case in defending Moore, but then the evidence starts to mount. The police can put Moore’s van at the crime scene. They are testing his knives for blood and find Nazi paraphernalia in his home. Soon Moore makes a confession which he quickly retracts, claiming the real murderer is a man named ‘Jason’ who he was trying to protect through a bogus admission of guilt. Moore’s case will go to trial and Jones has the impossible task of defending a suspect who has already confessed to the murders. As a lawyer, Jones displays a firm grasp of the legal procedures when telling the story. This might be too much for readers looking for gory details, but personally I found it to be exactly the right approach. The reader is left in no doubt that Moore received a fair trial, if anything his love of the limelight is over-indulged as he is gurning for the photographers every morning he is brought to court from jail. The verdict in the case will not come as a surprise, even if the reader has never heard of Peter Moore before this book. But although justice is done efficiently, the wounds do not heal so easily. Jones fulfilled his duty and did the best he could for his client, but he was left mentally scarred by the experience. Depression dogged him for several years resulting in a nervous breakdown for which he was hospitalised. Jones is brave and candid in writing about his struggles and its impossible not to be moved by these passages, wherever the reader happens to be on their mental health journey.

My father hailed from Mold and I remember visiting many of the north Wales locations described in this book a lot as a child. They can be peaceful and charming, but not a lot happens, and I guess they’re not well-suited to a restless child’s temperament. But after reading The Man in Black, I can understand the terror the local communities must have felt when the full horror of Moore’s crimes was revealed. Perhaps with DNA evidence the era of the serial killer is over, and that society may never sees the like of Peter Moore again. Then hopefully the peaceful, charming and slightly dull north Wales I remember can be protected from the monsters of the past.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police Gazzette: The Long Halloween

October 24, 2020

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter… This article is the eighth instalment in Jason’s epic series exploring the connections between Ellroy and the true crime history of Wisconsin. Here are the links to Parts OneTwoThreeFourFive, Six and Seven.

Milwaukee Police Chief Jacob Laubenheimer’s greatest achievement was his innovative establishment of a police training school that would later become the model for police schools nationwide.

According to police historian George Kelling, Captain Cloyd McGuire was appointed principal of the school, and he remained there until Hubert Dax was put in command in February, 1935.  Dax had been assigned as a pistol instructor while still a sergeant. Later, as lieutenant, Dax was appointed assistant in charge of the school, and put in full command as captain of police. Under Dax’s leadership, the police training school attracted worldwide acclaim.

While some of the more senior MPD members viewed the school with sneering distrust, the curriculum was professional and practical. As Maralyn Wellauer-Lewis details in her brief history of the Milwaukee Police Department, classes included criminal law, city ordinance, department rules and regulations, department discipline, evidence and its proper presentation, and target practice.

For their first 30 days on the job, all new recruits were required to attend three hours of school each morning for theoretical training, and then shadow a senior officer for five hours in the evening for practical experience.  After the initial 30 days, all members were required to attend the school one day each week.

The training school was housed in the newly-built safety building, a vast improvement from the old police station on Broadway and Wells street. The school’s basement housed a shooting gallery where regular target practice was mandatory. Ear protection was non-existent at the time, and many officers—particularly the range masters, suffered permanent hearing loss.

The effectiveness of Jacob Laubenheimer’s police training school, and even the resolve of his own police department, would be severely tested when the Cream City fell victim to a horrendous nine-day bombing campaign in late October, 1935.

The bombers were Hugh “Idzy” Rutkowski and Paul “Shrimp” Chovanec, two shitbird lowlifes who each harbored a systemic distrust of the law. As Matthew Prigge recounts in a 2014 piece for the Wisconsin Magazine of History, Rutkowski was a talented but troubled young man.  Despite plans for a career in auto mechanics, Rutkowski instead racked up a string of arrests for a range of petty crimes (It’s hard not to be reminded of a young Lee Earle Ellroy here).

Unable to find work, Rutkowski quickly developed a reputation as a local thug, and soon dubbed himself leader of a small clan of auto thieves that Prigge refers to as “the Rutkowski Gang.” Idzi Rutkowski’s numerous run-ins with the Milwaukee Police naturally engendered an outright hatred for authority figures. As Rutkowski would tell his older sister Elaine, during one of his arrests, the arresting officer smashed Rutkowski’s head with a night stick simply because Rutkowski answered the officer’s questions too slowly.

According to Prigge, Rutkowski’s accomplice, Paul Chovanec, earned the moniker “Shrimp” because of his exceptionally small frame. In 1934, Chovanec was arrested for stealing cigarettes, and sentenced to six months in Milwaukee’s St. Charles Detention Home for Boys. While Chovanec completed his sentence, Rutkowski sought work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who coldly rejected him.

Idzi Rutkwoski

Paul ‘Shrimp’ Chovanec

At some time during the evening of October 2nd, 1935, three 50-pound crates of explosives, two-hundred feet of fuse, and 300 blasting caps were stolen from a CCC camp in northeast Milwaukee’s Estabrook Park. As Prigge details it, police theorized that the thief clearly had extensive knowledge of how the typically well-patrolled park operated.

Rutkowski and Chovanec stored their stolen dynamite at the Mitchell Street garage where “The Rutkowski Gang” convened. Over the next three weeks, Rutkowski and Chovanec began stocking stolen cars with dynamite and weapons and storing the vehicles in several garages across Milwaukee’s south side.

In easily their most daring catch, Rutkowski and Chovanec even stole an unattended west Milwaukee police squad car, stripped it of its lights, sirens, and police radio, and then abandoned the vehicle on a deserted city street. On October 26, Milwaukee police opened an investigation of Rutkowski, suspecting him of a hit-and-run accident that left a 70-year-old man gravely injured.

Rutkowski’s suspicious neighbors quickly ratted him out, giving police at least two separate leads that exposed Rutkowski’s secret arsenal.  Although two Milwaukee police officers visited the building, they carried no search warrant, and Rutkowski wasn’t even there.

It was Saturday, October 26, 1935, and as Milwaukee Historian Carl Swanson put it, this was the last normal day the Cream City would experience for quite some time…

This Storm         

The Shorewood Village Hall on Murray Avenue was the first target.  Five sticks of dynamite wrapped in newspaper smashed a two-foot hole through the concrete veneer, and buckled the foundation. As Swanson tells it, the blast also shattered all the windows on two sides of the building, uprooted the landscaping around the foundation, and destroyed an antique chandelier.

Federal agents arrived on the scene and told reporters the explosion was an amateur job. The investigation into the Shorewood bombing wasn’t even complete before two more blasts at two branch offices of the First Wisconsin National Bank the very next night, October 27th, sent Milwaukee into panic.

The first bomb blasted a 20-square-foot hole through the branch at 3602 North Villard Ave and shattered the windows.  Thirty minutes later, a second blast on Milwaukee’s east side blew a massive hole in the ground and damaged at least eight cars parked along the street.  According to a 2012 blog by the Milwaukee Polonia Project, most of the explosion’s force shot outward, because the dynamite was planted near the ground.

As Prigge tells it, Rutkowski and Chovanec bolted from one scene to another in a stolen Sedan outfitted with the gear the pair lifted from the west Milwaukee squad car. The pair then stashed the gear in their hideout garage on south thirteenth street, donned masks and sawed-off shotguns, and rejoined the chaos they created on the city’s east side, robbing two pharmacies along the way.

By Monday morning, the Milwaukee police had connected the blasts to the stolen dynamite from Estabrook Park, and warned citizens to brace for more attacks. Rutkowski and Chovanec’s targeting a bank naturally drew some federal attention. The newspapers called them “G-men”, and they were ready to slap the still-unknown perps with federal charges.

That afternoon, according to Prigge, Rutkowski assembled yet another explosive device, and dropped the package at a fire alarm box at the corner of Farwell and Park. The package bore a handwritten note, demanding $100,000, and promising a spectacular explosion for Sunday night.

Later that night, Rutkowski broke into the Center Street School in the Riverwest neighborhood and wrote another note to police on the school principal’s typewriter. This second note, later read on-air by WTMJ Radio, now demanded $125,000 and threatened to “Bom up the Sity” (Rutkowski’s mis-spellings were apparently deliberate) if police, whom the note mocked as “fat pigs” and “sissy boys” refused.  Rutkowski’s deadline was Friday at 8 p.m.

For the next 48 hours, nothing happened. Extra patrols were dispatched to city banks. The police, who initially kept the contents of both notes secret, focused their investigation on established local radicals, shitbird lunatics, and those recently released from Wisconsin’s Central Hospital for the Insane at Waupun.

 

Widespread Panic

Halloween night arrived in the Cream City beneath a portentous, ochre sunset… it was an unheeded harbinger of hysteria the next morning’s paper would call “mass chaos”.

A single stick of dynamite tore a massive gash in the fifth precinct police station at Third and Locust, shattering  all the windows and the Cream City’s nervous quiet. As Prigge tells it, the third precinct station at 12th and Vine was similarly crippled just eleven minutes later. While three police cruisers and a roomful of expensive radio equipment were lost, the only reported human injury was an officer smashed headlong into a heavy door.

Rutkowski and Chovanec certainly knew how to run interference during such a melee. According to Prigge, the pair tripped several fire alarms surrounding the two targeted stations, creating a chaotic and panicked confusion for the responding officers on Milwaukee’s north and west sides.

November dawned with all active Milwaukee police officers summoned to duty, and small camps of armed citizens surrounding downtown buildings and theaters.

Several witnesses reported seeing a police vehicle near the blasts that did not match the department’s patrol records.  Such evidence fueled the suspicion that the bombers may be using gear stolen from the west Milwaukee squad car. Accordingly, traumatized Milwaukeeans regarded every passing squad car with suspicion and distrust.

That evening, Milwaukee police launched raids on taverns and pubs. As Prigge tells it, any man who failed to provide a “satisfactory account” of himself was arrested as a suspected accomplice of the bombers.  While the raids apprehended at least 50 men, most were released the next day, and/or charged with far lesser offences. Once again, Milwaukee’s finest were left empty handed, though the Milwaukee Sentinel advised citizens to expect even more raids in the future.

 

Police State

The raids were just the first wave of what became a makeshift marshall law: Men stood sentry outside municipal powerhouses and substations, while floodlights canvassed the grounds of public buildings and armed officers nearly out-numbered pedestrians.

By Saturday, November 2nd, an army of private security agents joined police officers to guard Milwaukee’s public buildings. Police issued special rules for accessing City Hall, and hundreds of plainclothes officers patrolled the streets, searching for something—anything—to restore tranquility.

Police headquarters was inundated with dozens of reported sightings of the stolen squad car. None of these leads proved credible. Anxiety and paranoia dominated Milwaukee as citizens and police alike all waited helplessly for the next explosion.

 

Hushabye

James Ellroy has often spoken of crime scenes exhibiting an essence that is both horrific and pathetic. The most unintended denouement of Rutkowski and Chovanec’s nine-day Milwaukee crime wave would certainly fit the Demon Dog’s assessment.

According to Prigge, a careless mistake would ensure that the next bomb’s only casualties were Rutkowski and Chovanec themselves. The bombers had assembled their most ambitious device to date, a gargantuan dynamite load detonated with a gunpowder charge and ignited with an electric timing device.  It was quite a sophisticated upgrade from their typical and amateur fuse-lit explosives.

Though Rutkowski and Chovanec had intended to detonate the bomb in the city, while wiring an alarm clock to the device, the electrical circuit connected to the gunpowder blasting caps somehow ignited. The ensuing explosion, encompassing both nitroglycerin and at least 40 pounds of dynamite, vaporized Rutkowski and Chovanec, who both stood just inches from the device.

A nearby pharmacy and several surrounding homes were decimated, and a young girl was killed when a falling wooden beam crushed her skull. The blast also catapulted the garage’s roof high into the air, and dropped it in the middle of Mitchell Street, hundreds of feet away. The noise of the explosion was heard for at least seven miles.

Two Milwaukee detectives interviewing area residents in the hit-and-run investigation against Rutkowski were the first on the scene. They were forced to traverse an apocalyptic wasteland of broken glass, twisted metal, smoke, dust, agonized sobs, and more than a few mutilated body parts from Rutkowski or Chovanec.

The unnerving calm of the immediate aftermath was quickly replaced with a shrieking symphony of sirens. An army of squad cars and ambulances descended on the scene, as police haphazardly collected the human remains and a torrential downpour began.

According to Carl Swanson, Rutkowski’s motives remained elusive and unknown. Some speculated that Rutkowski’s resentment over his chronic unemployment amid the Great Depression’s sixth excruciating year was a factor, while others saw him merely as a thuggish bully.

The Milwaukee Journal later reported that Rutkowski and Chovanec’s mutilated remains were so horribly indistinguishable, the terrible twosome were eventually buried in the same coffin.

James Ellroy’s Wisconsin Police will return…

 

The Monorail Trilogy: When the James Bond Franchise Ruled the (Movie) World

October 11, 2020

I should have seen it coming. Our campuses are empty. The high street is a ghost town. Only the pubs are doing good business, when the pubs are allowed to stay open. So I guess it was inevitable that the latest Bond film, No Time to Die, has had its release date delayed again, this time until April 2021. Who knows what the world will look like then, and how relevant Bond 25 will seem but, rather than drown my sorrows in Vodka Martini’s, I decided to revisit some of the films.

The three Bond films directed by Lewis Gilbert, You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979) were dubbed by MI6 Confidential magazine as ‘the Monorail Trilogy’. Each film features a megalomaniac villain who, in addition to his plans to take over the world, appears to be a fan of installing one-way railway systems in his evil lair. The plots of the three films are remarkably similar and the epic, bombastic tone of the trilogy captures much of the best and worst of the Bond series. If you have never seen a Bond film (and there must be a few of you out there), then these three would be a good place to start to see where so many spy cliches originated and why the series is so often imitated and lampooned.

You Only Live Twice

Gilbert was a prolific director whose output veered more towards war films and comedy dramas. In that sense, he might have seemed an odd choice to helm You Only Live Twice but he embraced the spectacle of the Bond films and did much to increase it. A NASA spacecraft is swallowed whole by a larger, unidentified craft. Bond is sent to Japan to follow a lead that the hijacked vessel may have landed there. When the same fate befalls a Russian spacecraft, the world is pushed to the brink of World War Three, with both superpowers blaming each other. Bond discovers his old adversary SPECTRE is behind the plot. SPECTRE’s follicly challenged leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld dreams of world domination once the US and Soviet Union have annihilated each other.

Bond finally came face to face with Blofeld in You Only Live Twice

YOLT’s absurd plot caused Sean Connery to finally lose patience with the series. An uncharacteristically dull performance by Connery, exacerbated by his feud with the producers and the stress of filming in Japan where Bond was wildly popular, hampered the film. Yet, there is still much to admire here. John Barry’s lush score beautifully evokes the Asian setting. Gilbert brings an art house sensibility to some of the action scenes. The rooftop chase across the Kobe Docks is beautifully shot, as the camera pans back and captures the full scope of the scene. Gilbert, and screenwriter Roald Dahl, aren’t afraid to make Bond look small on this cinematic canvas. Ken Adam created a remarkable movie set for them to shoot on, with Blofeld’s volcano lair, complete with rocket launchpad, piranha pool and, of course, a monorail.

The Spy Who Loved Me

Four Bond films had been produced before Lewis Gilbert was invited back to do another film in the series. After the excesses of YOLT Bond had shifted into more of a detective character and the films had stronger plots. But The Man With The Golden Gun had suffered at the box office due to a lack of strong action sequences, and Gilbert was keen to reintroduce the fantasy elements. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Roger Moore has settled into the character of Bond and the spectacular pre-credits sequence, in which Bond skis off a clifftop only to be saved by his Union Jack parachute, signals to the audience that we are in for something special. The plot is very similar to YOLT, only this time it is a submarine which is swallowed by a larger ship. Arch-Villain Stromberg is trying to provoke nuclear war as an excuse to build a new underwater civilisation. Silliness abounds, but Moore is totally comfortable with it, as is the beautiful Barbara Bach who plays his love interest, Russian spy Anya Amasova. Gilbert can still create sequences which are arty and beguiling. The scene where Jaws is stalking Fekkesh through the Pyramids against the backdrop of a tourist show is one of the most suspenseful and chilling moments in the entire series. Once again, Ken Adam’s production design does not disappoint. The Liparus supertanker set was one of the largest sets ever constructed at the time and is said to have inspired Norman Foster’s design of Canary Wharf Station. Naturally, Stromberg has a monorail and it seems to run more smoothly than most Tube services.

Stromberg’s Liparus Supertanker

Moonraker

Gilbert’s final film in the series was Moonraker. Often considered his weakest, the film is a fairly blatant attempt to cash in on the Star Wars sci-fi craze. The plot is still very Bondian and similar to Gilbert’s previous films. A space shuttle is stolen and the trail leads Bond to Hugo Drax, the billionaire head of the manufacturing company that produces the shuttle. Drax’s dastardly plan is to poison all of humanity from space, and then repopulate the earth with his Aryan employees. For years, this was my least favourite Bond film and certainly there’s a lot wrong with it. The Amazon speedboat chase is a lifeless affair, with Bond just pushing buttons on gadgets to dispose of the bad guys. The slapstick humour in the first half is especially grating. However, upon rewatching the film recently, I found the second half to be much stronger. Ironically, the film gets more serious and convincing once Bond travels to space. An operatic score by John Barry coupled with the biblical parallels of the story, Drax’s ‘Noah’s Ark’ operation, make this one of the most unique Bond films. To be fair to the producers, the series had dabbled in science fiction before, and Bond was only moments away from being shot into space in YOLT, so it feels right that with Gilbert’s farewell to the series he finally managed to complete Bond’s journey. Moonraker also has one my favourite scenes of any movie. Bond being lured by a beautiful woman to an Edenic Amazonian pyramid, only to find a serpent is waiting for him. Gilbert excelled at imagery such as this.

Once Gilbert walked away from the series, he returned to the comedy dramas for which he was known best. The Bond films got serious again with For Your Eyes Only, and would go through several more changes in tone in the ensuing decades. The Monorail trilogy achieved several stylistic tropes for better or worse. They discarded much of Ian Fleming’s writing and forged original Bond stories. They pushed the Cold War setting into the background to tell fantastical stories of villains bent on global domination. And they made sure the action and settings were spectacular and breathtaking enough to help the audience forgive their flaws. In this, they were successful. Goldfinger and Casino Royale, for example, might be better Bond films, but the Monorail Trilogy stands out as what the audience expects from a Bond film.

Just don’t expect the next Bond film to be released any time soon…

%d bloggers like this: