Monday, April 26, 2021

Kirk Douglas, The Indian Fighter – Blu-ray


I had the pleasure of meeting Kirk Douglas twice at book signings and he was generous, intelligent and down-to-earth. I rate him high on my list of celebrities I’ve met. Of his Westerns, my all-time favorite is Last Train from Gun Hill (1959). Not all of his Westerns are available on Blu-ray, so I was quite happy to pick-up The Indian Fighter (1955). Filmed on location in Bend, Oregon, the color cinematography is something I never get tired of watching. The visuals alone make the film worth screening, and the story works perfectly. For those that claim that Hollywood films always denigrated the Native American experience, this film proves otherwise with its sympathetic and dignified portrayal of the Sioux. Yes, there are some elements that are considered inappropriate by today’s ultra-sensitive standards (such as the character of Johnny Hawks being lauded as ‘The Indian Fighter’) but the overall depiction is respectful. Supporting players Walter Matthau and Lon Chaney embody their sleazy roles, and the script by Frank Davis and Ben Hecht gives everyone nice, terse syllables to chew on. The action often seemed perfunctory to me, but Kirk Douglas is at his masculine best here, and few actors in Hollywood, then or now, can convincingly play such a vigorous Westerner. In fact, Douglas has the best lines in the film when he describes to a photographer played by Elisha Cook, Jr., on why he doesn’t want to see the frontier crowded with people: “To me, the West is like a beautiful woman – my woman. I like her the way she is. I don’t want to see her changed. I don’t want to share her with anybody…”  Italian actress Elsa Martinelli is effective as the Indian maiden that Johnny Hawks falls in love with. She has little to do, but her nude scene early in the film caused quite a stir when the film was released. It’s tame but still alluring by comparison to modern nude scenes. It’s cliché to say “They don’t make them like this anymore” but I sure wish they did. I think most of the Westerns Kirk Douglas made are pretty good, not to mention The Big Sky (1951), Man Without A Star (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) The Last Sunset (1961) Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and The War Wagon (1967). There are others, but these are my favorites.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Riders of Death Valley – Blu-ray – Restoration


The VCI Entertainment restoration of the 1941 15-chapter “super serial” is an absolute delight to view. This is one of several restorations that caught my eye recently and shouldn’t be missed by fans or historians of classic Western cinema. The stellar cast is incredible – Dick Foran, Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Noah Beery, Jr., and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are the headliners supported by Charles Bickford, Lon Chaney, Jr., Jean Brooks, James Blaine, Monte Blue, Glenn Strange and others. At over 4 hours, all that’s missing is Technicolor. Still, the black and white photography looks great restored to its former glory. Only chapter 6 was lacking a full restoration, although the restoration crew did locate a 16 mm print of chapter 6 which is slightly less pristine than the 35 mm source material used for everything else. The blue-ray package includes two discs for all 15 chapters. Budgeted by Universal at a million dollars, an incredible amount for a long-running serial, and with some location footage completed at Mohave Valley, Arizona, and California locations including the famous Iverson Ranch, Red Rock Canyon State Park, and Death Valley itself, Riders of Death Valley is a solid Western and packed with galloping horses, gunplay, nefarious villains and lots of personality. 


The script is better than one might expect from a serial, and the cast are all clearly having fun. The amiable Dick Foran leads the way, sings the title song and generally conducts himself well as he did in every film I’ve seen him in. But it’s the great Buck Jones who held my attention. Riders of Death Valley was released on July 1, 1941and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was only months away. Buck Jones would make nine films after this, all in the span of a year, the last, Dawn on the Great Divide being released on December 18, 1942, just days after his death on November 30th.  Jones was a victim of the Coconut Grove fire in Boston, and his premature death left a void in Western films that has never been filled. Interestingly enough, Buck Jones has never gone out of style. Several of his films have been restored and released on Blu-ray, and he remains a favorite of Western film fans, including myself. 


The banter between Dick Foran and Buck Jones is rather enjoyable, and Leo Carrillo checks in with some great one-liners. Charles Bickford and Lon Chaney, Jr. handle the menacing bad guy roles with their practiced professionalism. Noah Beery, Jr., and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams have less to do than the others, but their mere presence adds yet another layer of useful characterization. 


Dick Foran and Buck Jones are the charming headliners here and I was left wishing they had done more together. The plot is meaningless in light of the constant action scenes. No Western film fan will ever get tired of Dick Foran and Buck Jones galloping across the dusty western landscape with a blazing six-shooter in hand. 


I’m an advocate for the ongoing restoration of our Western film heritage, and Riders of Death Valley is a welcome addition to my home library.


For more esoteric and hard-to-find classic films and cliffhangers, Click Here!

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Cariboo Trail – Blu-Ray Edition – Randolph Scott

I finally picked up the Blu-Ray restored version of Randolph Scott’s 1950 Cinecolor feature, The Cariboo Trail which co-stars Gabby Hayes and Dale Robertson. Originally released by Twentieth Century Fox, the simple plot is about two prospectors, Jim Redfern (Scott) and Mike Evans (Bill Williams) with Victor Jory, Karen Booth and Douglas Kennedy providing support. The filming locations included the Corrigan Ranch and Simi Valley with second unit footage of some magnificent north country locations. Paul Sawtell provides a lush and sweeping orchestrated score. The Kino Lorbo company distributing this restored version included a preliminary on-screen text detailing the difficulty in restoring the film. Locating a quality copy had proved troublesome. The effort pays off, and the film looks good on a flat-screen television. Scott was already indelibly associated with Westerns when he made The Cariboo Trail, and he was about to embark on an amazing ten year and final decade in films which would include some of the greatest Westerns in film history. The Cariboo Trail falls into that middle-ground of being “pretty good” but missing the “classic” designation. The scenery is incredible, which is always an attraction in a well-made Western. I’m a Randolph Scott fan, especially his Westerns, and I’m happy to watch anything he’s in. The Blu-Ray The Cariboo Trail is recommended for fans of Westerns from that era when they knew how to make them! Saddle up!

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Face Beyond the Veil by Rog Philips and Rest in Agony by Paul W. Fairman


The Face Beyond the Veil was published under the pseudonym Frederick Bahl in Fantastic Adventures in April 1950, and Rest in Agony was published under the pseudonym Ivar Jorgeson, and somewhere in a box in storage I think I still have the early 1960s paperback from Monarch. Armchair Fiction has reprinted both under the author’s real names. Somewhere in another box I have the Fantastic Adventures issue where Rest In Agony first appeared. This is a part of Armchair Fiction’s ongoing reprint series and I can’t resist stories by either Rog Phillips or Paul W. Fairman. This is fun science fiction and fun horror. Short and tight, the stories slam across the pages. You don’t have to overthink this material, so don’t. Of the two, Paul W. Fairman was the better writer – tighter plots, believable characters, etc. – although Rog Phillips certainly had a flair for schmaltz. I’ve always favored Paul W. Fairman so it will come as no surprise that Rest In Agony is the best of the two. Fairman is underrated in pulp literary history, so as a fan it’s nice to see Armchair Fiction reprinting so many of his stories. This is a tight, exciting entry in Armchair Fiction’s reprints and should make a nice addition to the retro-pulp collector looking for some hard-to-find titles.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A Century of the History of Shotgun Cartridges by Guy N. Smith

I received this book just a few months ago, and I had been meaning to post a review. I’m posting it now as a continuation of my tribute to Guy’s memory. I know this project meant a great deal to Guy. We talked briefly about his love for collecting shotgun shells, and of his hunting activities. A worthy addition to the sportsman’s library.

This book will be of great interest to both firearm enthusiasts and cultural historians. As an avid collector of shotgun cartridges, Guy N. Smith’s book is a treasure-trove of little known and forgotten facts and history. His passion for his collection is evident on every page. The book is invaluable as a repository of cultural history. Many of the facts and details presented here would be lost in time if not for Guy Smith’s meticulous cataloguing and passion for his subject. The many brands of cartridges described herein are exclusive to the United Kingdom, and as such, this book then obviously makes a nice companion volume to history books related to American firearms. Profusely illustrated with photographs, GNS sprinkles some personal anecdotal history into the text. A Century of the History of Shotgun Cartridges is one of several non-fiction countryside lifestyle books that GNS has penned in his illustrious career. Others of recent vintage that make nice companion pieces are Guy’s Managing & Shooting Under 10 Acres and Midland Gun Company: A Short History. These books are still easily found on Amazon and most are available on Guy’s website. This is another fine book to add to my growing collection.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Remembering Guy N. Smith


I awakened on Christmas Eve morning to the announcement that Guy N. Smith had passed away. I felt as if I’d been knocked off a ladder and was falling into a deep abyss. I admired Guy’s incredible creative talent, and when I finally met him on September 1st 2019 at his home in England, I learned what so many others have said – Guy N. Smith was a real gentleman. I have been fortunate to meet many celebrities, authors and actors alike, but Guy was the embodiment of courtesy, empathy and sincerity. I cannot think of many popular American authors who comes close to Guy’s generosity and friendliness.

I had written Guy a fan letter once, and this was his reply: “What a magnificent fan letter!  I have received many over the last 40 years but yours is my Number One!  It has been filed in the GNS Collection for posterity.  I cannot thank you enough… Yes, it would certainly be marvelous if we could meet sometime.”


We finally did meet, and in trying to do Guy justice, I think the best I can offer during this emotional time, is a look back at what turned out to be the final Guy N. Smith convention which he held annually at his home. I have adapted here some sections from my forthcoming book, and I sincerely hope it properly conveys the magic and excitement of that wonderful day when I shook the hand of a creative genius:


I arranged a taxi in Ludlow to drive us to Clun and Craven Arms where author Guy N. Smith would sponsor an annual meeting of his fans at his countryside home. Accompanied by my wife and sister-in-law, our driver, Alex, gave us a tour of the Shropshire countryside that afforded great views of the Long Mynd, and a winding stretch of road the locals refer to as the “Fiddler’s Elbow.” The Long Mynd is rich, green farmland; steep and rising 1,700 feet above sea level, its trails have become popular with hikers. This area between and surrounding Clun and Craven Arms is idyllic, apparently often treacherous in the winter, but nonetheless breathtaking with its rugged beauty. 

The historic Wain House in the Shropshire countryside.

We arrived at the Wain House a bit early and Guy met us outside. “Are you from the States?” he asked, poking his head over the car to get a look at us. I introduced myself and my traveling companions, and GNS ushered us into his home. Here at long last I was shaking the hand of a literary master; a man responsible for creating an astonishing collection of supernatural tales, suspense thrillers, countryside lifestyle books, and a classic Western. He had published over 120 novels, 400 short stories and articles on various topics, and each year at his home he released new books first to the fans. This year he released The Charnel Caves and the 6th Sabat novel, The Return. I would buy ten books that day as I plundered his backstock. In those first moments when we chatted, Guy shared with me his love of the old Buck Jones magazines which he had subscribed to for many years. One of the original cover paintings hangs on his wall; one of his treasured possessions. The artist was Bosch Panlava and the cover was for Cowboy Picture Library # 278 from September, 1958, a digest sized comic book featuring Buck Jones. Guy was unpretentious, and a true gentleman. He made us feel immediately at home. His wife Jean was equally as kind, as were all of his friends and fans who began arriving in groups. It wasn’t long before the Wain House was brimming with excitement. GNS provided a catered lunch to all attendees, and this was a veritable feast. There were sandwiches and cakes and various tasty desserts.

Behind us is the original painting by Bosch Panlava, one of Guy's favorite possessions.

Many of Guy’s fans are regular attendees; this includes Shane Agnew, author of the Guy N. Smith Illustrated Bibliography, the best bibliographic work on a single author I’ve ever seen. Shane’s book is a must-have for the literati. Chris Hall provided the cover, another fine gentleman who offers a great book blog called “Dlsreviews.”  Writer David Owain Hughes, whose collection Brain Damaged would set me on the edge of my seat; and Richard Ayre whose novel Minstrel’s Bargain is the first in a series of excellent supernatural thrillers. 


Guy told me they’d lived at the Wain House over forty years, and I could see why. The isolated location and surrounding countryside is magnificent. Guy had landscaped a portion of his property to include a pond, and he had at times leased the property for hunting. He also mentioned that his late mother haunted the place. He told me a story about burying his late brother’s ashes on his property, which had been misunderstood by a neighbor as having been the body itself. Guy had to explain he had buried the ashes, not the body, and so it is that the spirit of Guy’s brother is a presence at the Wain House.


While GNS is best known as a “horror writer,” his oeuvre includes much more; stories for young readers, thrillers and police procedurals, and several years writing for The Countryman’s Weekly. In fact, his output of countryside living articles and books is exemplary. Of this work I include Gamekeeping and Shooting for Amateurs (1976), Midland Gun Company: A Short History (2016), and Managing and Shooting Under Ten Acres (2017) as ideal representations. Guy Smith is much more than a horror writer, and yet the spooky tales have made him famous. Guy’s solitary Western, The Pony Riders, published in 1997 by Pinnacle, is widely considered a Western classic and among Guy’s best novels. 

GNS is to my way of thinking the embodiment of what a writer should be. His various interests, devotion to the countryside lifestyle, dedication to his craft, friendliness and generosity with his fans have distinguished him from all others. Of his novels, I offer five as the scariest books written, and I list them for readers to examine at their own risk: The Slime Beast (1975), The Sucking Pit (1975), Doomflight (1981) The Wood (1985) and The Island (1988). 


We congregated on the patio, basking in the warm sunlight and chatting about books. Outside the fence-line the swelling hills near the Welsh border shone with a rich texture. An easy, warm breeze nudged us along and the afternoon was peaceful; I had arrived at last, I thought, at a moment where I have met great men, and I took it all in with an unquenchable thirst perhaps only the literati will understand. 


David Owain Hughes was telling me about a fascinating character he created, a detective who believes he’s living in another era; and Richard Ayre and I talked about another writer we admired, the late James Herbert, whose books such as The Magic Cottage (1986) and The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006) were favorites. 


At mid-afternoon, Guy stood at the doorway on the porch and talked about his new book, Sabat 6: The Return which is dedicated to his friend Karen Anderson. The first Sabat novel, The Graveyard Vultures, appeared in 1982 and introduced Mark Sabat, an investigator at war with the forces of evil. This series was immensely successful and GNS followed up with The Blood Merchants (1982), Cannibal Cult (1982), The Druid Connection (1983), and Wistman’s Wood (2018). This sixth entry is a sequel to The Reaper (2018), a stand-alone about a detective. I wasn’t surprised that Guy had fused the two narratives. The Reaper was clearly intended to be followed by a sequel, and in true form, Guy left open the possibility for yet another sequel. 

Guy and his friend Karen Anderson.

Guy’s second release that day was The Charnel Caves, the ninth of his famous Crabs series, and without question a series of tales that evoke the wild pulp fiction of yesteryear and the B-movie drive-in horror films of our recent past. With the release of two eagerly anticipated sequels, GNS had given his fans exactly what they wanted, and there was not one among us who didn’t savor the thought of sitting down at midnight with the windows shuttered against the approaching autumn to read a classic creepy tale by GNS.

Guy with Shane Agnew (left) and  other fans.

Guy told me about his love for the tales of Sherlock Holmes, and in fact just a few weeks before his passing his stories about his Holmes inspired character, Raymond Odell, was published by the Sinister Horror Company. 


With Karen Anderson at his side, Guy told a story about a pendulum which was passed around so that we could all examine it. Guy and Karen shared a chilling experience some years back, and the pendulum, which had been given to GNS by a “white witch,” and as Guy explained “...there was nothing magical about it, it worked on your own body, or not, as the case may be. A simple enough operation, dangle it over something, hold it still and ask it a question. If it revolves in a clockwise direction then the answer is positive, anti-clockwise it rejects whatever with a positive ‘no.’ If it doesn’t move, then either it is not responding, or else your own body electrics do not accept it...”


Guy began using the pendulum for various purposes, but his first encounter with the supernatural occurred while using the pendulum in the nearby village of Knighton. Karen, then eighteen, had reported that something scary was occupying her bedroom. “Some friends in Knighton were somewhat concerned as they believed that “something” was occupying Karen’s bedroom. At times the room went icy cold and the light flickered and threatened to extinguish. Nothing materialized, though.”

Guy spent a great deal of time signing books for his fans.

Guy agreed to investigate, and he immediately reported the room was “creepy cold.” He dangled the pendulum and it began to move. He experienced a tingling in his fingers as he held the pendulum. The lights flickered and the air became colder. Karen fled the room in terror. The lights began flickering, an event which was compounded by a decreasing temperature before the things settled down. Whatever spirit or supernatural presence that had been there had suddenly departed. Guy could not explain the event, but concluded by saying, “I cannot explain the events of that evening except that I had clearly made contact with something.” Although it was a warm, bright afternoon in Shropshire, the tale as told by Guy sent a shiver down my spine. 


Later, upstairs while perusing the titles he had for sale, I noted Guy’s love for Western fiction. I spied titles by Clarence Mulford, Joe Millard, Nelson Nye, G. J. Morgan, Zane Grey, Jonas Ward and William Colt MacDonald. He is also a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Guy’s home, his lifestyle, and his career remain an inspiration.

Treasures beyond compare!

I was loath to depart, but we had arranged a taxi for our return, and at the appointed time I spoke with Guy who said, “Tom, now that we’ve met, you’re always welcome. I do hope to see you again.” We shook hands and I said goodbye to the other attendees. Off we went in our taxi, wheeling across the Fiddler’s Elbow, the sun bright on the fields. How I wish now that I had lingered at the Wain House just a bit longer…

Dinner that evening was at the Unicorn Pub at 66 Corve Street, a favored location in Ludlow. It was a short walk from the Whitfield House, and as we had been warned, the pub was crowded. I drank two pints of Butty Batch and lifted my glass in salute to Guy N. Smith….

…and so it went a little more than a year ago, and now Guy is gone. Grief is the more difficult of life’s challenges. With Guy’s passing I had lost three friends this year. Rather than focus on what I’ve lost, however, I prefer to salute my good fortune in having known Guy N. Smith. I will on this Christmas Day, raise my glass in salute to a remarkable gentleman. May your kind soul and erstwhile spirit be at peace, Guy, and cheers!

Adapted and revised from the forthcoming memoir:

The Idle Hills of Summer: Traveling Through England, Scotland and Wales, 

text and photographs copyright © 2020 by Thomas McNulty


Tuesday, November 17, 2020